Peter Sanghurst, confident that the game was now entirely in his own hands, could even afford to be indulgent and patient. In days to come he would be amply avenged for all the slights now inflicted upon him. He often pictured the moment when he should tell to Joan the true story of his possession of the love token she had bestowed upon Raymond. He thought that she would suffer even more in the hearing of it than he had done upon the rack; and his wife could not escape him as his other victim had. He could wring her heartstrings as he had hoped to wring the nerves of Raymond's sensitive frame, and none could deliver her out of his hand.
But now he was still playing the farce of the suppliant lover, guessing all the while that she knew as well as he what a farce the part was. He strove to make her surrender, but was met by an invincible firmness.
"Do what you will, Peter Sanghurst," she said: "summon my father, call the priest, do what you will, your wife I will never be. I have told you so before; I tell it you again."
He smiled a smile more terrible than his frown.
"We shall see about that," was his reply, as he turned on his heel and strode from the room.
When he was gone Joan turned suddenly towards the old man, who was all this while standing with folded arms in a distant window, listening in perfect silence to the dialogue. She made a few swift paces towards him and looked into his troubled face.
"Nat," she said, in a low voice, "thou hast not forgotten thy promise made to me?"
"My mistress, I have not forgotten."
"And thou wilt keep thy word?"
"I will keep it."
He spoke with manifest effort; but Joan heaved a sigh of relief. She came one step nearer, and laid her soft hand upon the old servant's shoulder, looking into his face with affectionate solicitude.
"I know not if I should ask it of thee; it may cost thee thy life."
"My life is naught, if I can but save thee from that monster, sweet mistress; but oh, if it might be by another way!"
"Nay, say not so; methinks now this is the best, the sweetest way. I shall the sooner find him, who will surely be waiting for me upon the farther shore. One blow, and I shall be free for ever. O Nat, this world is a sore place for helpless women to dwell in. Since he has gone, what is there for me to live for? I almost long for the hour which shall set my spirit free. They will let me see the Holy Father, who comes to wed us. I shall receive the Absolution and the Blessing; and methinks I am not unprepared. Death has no terrors for me: I have seen him come so oft in the guise of a friend. Nay, weep not, good Nat; the day will come when we all must die. Thou wouldst rather see me lying dead at thy feet than the helpless captive of the Sanghurst, as else I must surely be?"
"Ay, lady," answered the old man, between his shut teeth, "ten thousand times rather, else would not this fond hand strike the blow that will lay thy fair young head in the dust. But sooner than know thee the wife of yon vile miscreant, I would slay thee ten times over. Death is soon past — death comes but once; but a life of helpless misery and agony, that I could not bear for thee. Let them do what they will to me, I will set thee free first."
Joan raised the strong, wrinkled hand to her lips and kissed it, before the old retainer well knew what she was doing. He withdrew it in some confusion.
"Good Nat, I know not how to thank thee; but what I can do to save thee I will. I do not think my father will suffer thee to be harmed if when I am dead thou wilt give him this packet I now give to thee. In it I have told him many things he would not listen to whilst I lived, but he will read the words that have been penned by a hand that is cold and stiff in death. To his old love for me I have appealed to stand thy friend, telling him how and why the deed has been done, and thy hand raised against me. I think he will protect and pardon thee — I think it truly.
"How now, Nat? What seest thou? What hearest thou? Thy thoughts are not with me and with my words. What is it? Why gazest thou thus from the casement? What is there to see?"
"Armed men, my mistress — armed men riding towards Basildene!" answered the old man, in visible excitement. "I have seen the sunlight glinting on their headpieces. I am certain sure there be soldiers riding to this very door. What is their business? How have they come? Ah, lady, my sweet mistress, pray Heaven they have come to set thee free! Pray Heaven they have come as our deliverers!"
Joan started and ran to the casement. She was just in time to see the flash of the November sunlight upon the steel caps of the last of the band of horsemen whose approach had been observed by Nat. Only a very small portion of the avenue leading to Basildene could be seen from these upper casements, and the riders must have been close to the house before their approach was marked by the old man.
Now Joan flung open the casement in great excitement, and leaned far out.
"Hark!" she exclaimed, in great excitement, "I hear the sound of heavy blows, and of voices raised in stern command."
"Open in the King's name; open to the Prince of Wales!"
These words were distinctly borne to Joan's listening ears as she stood with her head thrust through the lattice, every faculty absorbed in the strain of eager desire to hear.
"The King! the Prince!" she cried, her breath coming thick and fast, whilst her heart beat almost to suffocation. "O Nat, good Nat! what can it mean? The Prince! what can have brought him hither?"
"Doubtless he comes to save thee, sweet lady," cried the old retainer, to whom it seemed but natural that the heir of England should come forth to save his fair young mistress from her fate.
But Joan shook her head, perplexed beyond measure, yet not able to restrain the wildest hopes.
The Prince — that noble youth so devoted to chivalry, so generous and fearless, and the friend of the twin brothers, one of whom was her lost Raymond! Oh, could it be that some rumour had reached his ears? Could it be that he had come to set her free? It seemed scarce possible, and yet what besides could have brought him hither? And at least with help so near she could surely make her woeful case known to him!
For the first time for many days hope shot up in Joan's heart — hope of release from her hated lover by some other means than that of death; and with that hope came surging up the love of life so deeply implanted in human nature, the wild hope that her lover might yet live, that she had been tricked and deceived by the false Sanghurst —all manner of vague and unformed hopes, to which there was no time to give definite form even in her thoughts. She was only conscious that a ray of golden sunshine had fallen athwart her path, and that the darkness in which she had been enwrapped was changing — changing to what?
There were strange sounds in the house — a tumult of men's voices, the clash of arms, cries and shouts, and the tread of many feet upon the stairs.
Joan's colour came and went as she listened. Yes, surely she heard a voice — a voice that sent thrills all through her — and yet it was not Raymond's voice; it was deeper, louder, more authoritative. But the footsteps were approaching, were mounting the turret stair, and Joan, with a hasty movement, flung over her shoulders a sweeping supertunic lined with fur, which Peter Sanghurst had placed in the room for her use, but which she had not hitherto deigned to wear. She had but just secured the buckle and girdle, and concealed her boy's garb by the means of these rich folds of velvet, before a hand was upon the latch of the door, and the same thrilling voice was speaking through the panels in urgent accents.
"Lady — Mistress Joan — art thou there?"
"I am within this turret — I am here, fair sir," answered Joan, as calmly as her beating heart would allow. "But I cannot open to thee, for I am but a captive here — the captive of Peter Sanghurst."
"Now a prisoner bound, and answering for his sins before the Prince and some of the highest nobles of the land. Lady, I and my men have come to set thee free. I come to thee the bearer of a message from my brother — from Raymond de Brocas. Give my stout fellows but a moment's grace to batter down this strong door, and we will set thee free, and take thee to the Prince, to bear witness against the false traitor, who stands in craven terror before him below!"
But these last words were quite lost upon Joan. She had sunk, trembling and white, upon a couch, overcome by the excess of joy with which she had heard her lover's name pronounced. She heard heavy blows dealt upon the oaken panels of the door. She knew that her deliverance was at hand; but a mist was before her eyes, and she could think of nothing but those wonderful words just spoken, until the woodwork fell inwards with a loud crash, and Gaston, springing across the threshold, knelt at her feet.
"Lady, it is many years since we met, and then we met but seldom; but I come from him whom thou lovest and therefore I know myself welcome. Fair mistress, my brother has been sorely sick — sick unto death — or he would be here himself to claim this fair hand. He has been sick in body and sick in mind — sick with fear lest that traitor and villain who robbed him of your token should make foul use of it by deceiving thee with tales of his death or falsity.
"Lady, he was robbed by Peter Sanghurst of that token. Sanghurst and our ancient foe of Navailles leagued themselves together and carried off my brother by treachery. He was their prisoner in the gloomy Tower of Saut. They would have done him to death in cruel fashion had not we found a way to save and rescue him from their hands. They had done him some hurt even then, and they had robbed him of what had become almost dearer to him than life itself; but he was saved from their malice. It was long ere he could tell us of his loss, tell us of thee; for he lay sick of a wasting fever for many a long month, and we knew not what the trouble was that lay so sore upon him. But no sooner had he recovered so as to speak more plainly than we learned all, and I have been seeking news of thee ever since. I should have been here long ago but for the contrary winds which kept us weeks at sea, unable to make the haven we sought. But I trow I have not come too late. I find thee here at Basildene; but sure thou art not the wife of him who calls himself its lord?"
"Wife! no — ten thousand times no!" answered Joan, springing to her feet, and looking superb in her stately beauty, the light of love and happiness in her eyes, the flush of glad triumph on her cheek. "Sir Knight, thou art Raymond's brother, thou art my saviour, and I will tell thee all. I was fleeing from Sanghurst — fleeing to France, to learn for myself if the tale he told of Raymond's death were true; for sorely did I misdoubt me if those false lips could speak truth. He guessed my purpose, followed and brought me back hither a captive. To force me to wed him has long been his resolve, and he has won my father to take his side. He was about to summon my father and a priest and make me his wife, here in this very place, and never let me stir thence till the chain was bound about me. But I had a way of escape. Yon faithful servant, who shared my perils and my wanderings, had given me his word to strike me dead ere he would see me wedded to Sanghurst. No false vow should ever have passed my lips; no mockery of marriage should ever have been consummated. I have no fear of death. I only longed to die that I might go to my Raymond, and be with him for ever."
"But now thou needest not die to be with him!" cried Gaston, enchanted at once by her beauty, her fearless spirit, and her loyalty and devotion to Raymond. "My brother lives! He lives for thee alone! I have come to lead thee to him, if thou wilt go. But first, sweet mistress, let me take thee to our Prince. It is our noble Prince who has come to see into this matter his own royal self. I had scarce hoped for so much honour, and yet I ever knew him for the soul of generosity and chivalry. Let me lead thee to him. Tell him all thy tale. We have the craven foe in our hands now, and this time he shall not escape us!"
Gaston ground his teeth, and his eyes flashed fire, as he thought of all the wickedness of Peter Sanghurst. He was within the walls of Basildene, his brother's rightful inheritance; the memory of the cruelty and the treachery of this man was fresh in his mind. The Prince was hearing all the tale; the Prince would judge and condemn. Gaston knew well what the fate of the tyrant would be, and there was no room for aught in his heart beside a great exultant triumph.
Giving his arm to Joan, who was looking absolutely radiant in her stately beauty, he led her down into the hall below, where the Prince was seated with some knights and nobles round him — Master Bernard de Brocas occupying a seat upon his right hand — examining witnesses and looking at the papers respecting the ownership of Basildene which were now laid before him. At the lower end of the hall, his hands bound behind him, and his person guarded by two strong troopers, stood Peter Sanghurst, his face a chalky-white colour, his eyes almost starting from his head with terror, all his old ease and assumption gone, the innate cowardice of his nature showing itself in every look and every gesture.
A thoroughly cruel man is always at heart a coward, and Peter Sanghurst, who had taken the liveliest delight in inflicting pain of every kind upon those in his power, now stood shivering and almost fainting with apprehension at the fate in store for himself. As plentiful evidence had been given of his many acts of barbarity and tyranny, there had been fierce threats passed from mouth to mouth that hanging was too good for him — that he ought to taste what he had inflicted on others; and the wretched man stood there in an agony of apprehension, every particle of his swaggering boldness gone, and without a vestige of real courage to uphold him in the hour of his humiliation.
As the Prince saw the approach of Joan, he sprang to his feet, and all the assembled nobles did the same. With that chivalrous courtesy for which he became famous in history, the Prince bent the knee before the lady, and taking her by the hand, led her to a seat of honour beside himself, asking her of herself and her story, and listening with respectful attention to every word she spoke.
Gaston then stood forward and told again his tale of Raymond's capture, and deep murmurs of indignation ran through the hall as he did so. The veins swelled upon the Prince's forehead as he heard the tale, and his eyes emitted sparks of fierce light as they flashed from time to time upon the trembling prisoner.
"Methinks we have heard enough, gentlemen," said he at length, as Gaston's narrative drew to a close.
"Marshal, bring hither your prisoner.
"This man, gentlemen, is the hero of these brave deeds of valour of which we have been hearing. This is the man who dares to waylay and torture English subjects to wring from them treasure and gold; the man who dares to bring this vilely-won wealth to purchase with it the favour of England's King; the man who wages war on foreign soil with the friends of England, and treacherously sells them into the hand of England's foe; who deals with them as we have heard he dealt and would have dealt with Raymond de Brocas had not Providence worked almost a miracle in his defence. This is the man who, together with his father, drove from this very house the lawful owner, because that she was a gentle, tender woman, and was at that moment alone and unable to defend herself from them. This is the man who is not ashamed to call himself the master of Basildene, and who has striven to compass by the foulest ends the death of the true owner of the property — though Raymond de Brocas braved the terrors of the Black Death to tend and soothe the last dying agonies of that man's father. This is the man who would wed by force this fair maiden, and strove to deceive her by the foulest tricks and jugglery. Say, gentlemen, what is the desert of this miscreant? What doom shall we award him as the recompense of his past life?"
A score of hideous suggestions were raised at once, and the miserable Peter Sanghurst shook in his shoes as he saw the fierce, relentless faces of the soldiers making a ring round him. Those were cruel days, despite the softening influence of their vaunted chivalry, and the face of the Prince was stern and black. It was plain that he had been deeply roused by the story he had heard.
But Joan was there, and she was a woman; and vile as had been this man's life, and deeply as he had injured her and him she loved tenfold more than her own life, he was still a human creature, and a creature without a hope either in this world or the world to come. She could not but pity him as he stood there cowering and shuddering, and she turned swiftly towards the Prince and spoke to him in a rapid undertone.
Young Edward listened, and the dark cloud passed from his brow. He was keenly susceptible to the nobler emotions, and an appeal to his generosity was not unheeded. Raising his hand in token that he demanded silence, he turned towards the quaking criminal, and thus addressed him:
"Peter Sanghurst, you stand convicted of many and hideous crimes — witchcraft, sorcery, treachery to your King, vile cruelty to his subjects — crimes for which death alone is scarce punishment enough. You well merit a worse fate than the gallows. You well merit some of those lingering agonies that you have inflicted upon your wretched victims, and have rejoiced to witness. But we in England do not torture our prisoners, and it is England's pride that this is so. This fair lady, who owes you naught but grievous wrong, has spoken for you; she says that were Raymond de Brocas here, he would join with her in praying that your fate might be swift and merciful. Therefore I decree that you are led forth without the gates of Basildene, and hanged upon the first tree out of sight of its walls.
"See to it, marshal. Let there be no delay. It is not fit that such a wretch should longer cumber the earth. Away with him, I say!"
The soldiers closed around the condemned man and bore him forth, one of the marshals following to see the deed done. Joan had for a moment covered her face with her hand, for even so it was rather terrible to see this tyrant and oppressor led forth from his own house to an ignominious death, and she was unused to such stern scenes. But those around the table were already turning their attention to other matters, and the Prince was addressing himself to certain men who had come into the hall covered with cobweb and green mould.
"Has the treasure been found?" he asked.
"Yes, Sire," answered the leader of this strange-looking band. "It was cleverly hidden, in all truth, in the cellars of the house, and we should scarce have lighted on it but for the help of some of the people here, who, so soon as they heard that their master was doomed to certain death, were as eager to help us as they had been fearful before. It has all been brought up for you to see; and a monstrous hoard it is. It must almost be true, I trow, that the old man had the golden secret. So much gold I have never seen in one place."
"It is ill-gotten gold," said the Prince, sternly, as he rose, and, followed by the nobles and Master Bernard de Brocas, went to look at the coffers containing the treasure hoarded up and amassed by the Sanghursts during a long period of years. "But I trow since the Black Death has so ravaged these parts, it would be idle to strive to seek out the owners, and it would but raise a host of false claims that no man might sift.
"Master Bernard de Brocas, I award this treasure to Raymond de Brocas, the true lord of Basildene, to whom and to whose heirs shall be secured this house and all that belongs to it. Into your hands I now intrust the gold and the lands, to be kept by you until the rightful owner appears to lay claim to them. Let a part of this gold be spent upon making fit this house for the reception of its master and this fair maiden, who will one day be the mistress here with him. Let it be thy part, good Master Bernard, to remove from these walls the curse which has been brought upon them by the vile sorceries and cruelties of this wicked father and more wicked son. Let Holy Church do her part to cleanse and purify the place, and then let it be made meet for the reception of its lord and lady when they shall return hither to receive their own."
The good Bernard's face glowed with satisfaction at this charge. It was just such a one as pleased him best, and such as he was well able to fulfil. Nobody more capable could well have been found for the guardianship and restoration of Basildene; and with this hoard to draw upon, the old house might well grow to a beauty and grandeur it had never known before.
"Gracious Prince, I give you thanks on behalf of my nephew, and I will gladly do all that I may to carry out your behest. The day will come when Raymond de Brocas shall come in person to thank you for your princely liberality and generosity."
"Tush, man, the gold is not mine; and some of it may have been come by honestly, and belong fairly enough to the Sanghurst family. You say the mother of these bold Gascon youths was a Sanghurst: it follows, then, that Basildene and all pertaining to it should be theirs. Raymond de Brocas has suffered much from the Sanghursts. By every law of right and justice, it is he who should reap the reward, and find Basildene restored to its former beauty before he comes to dwell within it."
"And he shall so find it if I have means to compass it," answered the uncle, with glad pride.
His eye was then drawn to another part of the hall; for Sir Hugh Vavasour had just come galloping up to the door in hot haste, having heard all manner of strange rumours: the first being that his daughter had been found, and was in hiding at Basildene; the second, which had only just reached his ears, that Peter Sanghurst was dead — hanged by order of the Prince, and that Basildene had been formally granted as the perpetual right of Raymond de Brocas and his heirs.
"And Raymond de Brocas is the plighted husband of thy daughter, good Sir Hugh," said Master Bernard, coming up to help his old friend out of his bewilderment — "plighted, that is, by themselves, by the right of a true and loyal love. Thy daughter will still be the Lady of Basildene, and I think that thou wilt rather welcome my nephew as her lord than yon miscreant, whose body is swinging on some tree not far away. Thou wert something too willing, my friend, to sell thy daughter for wealth; but fortune has been kind to her as well as to thee, and thou hast gained for her the wealth, and yet hast not sacrificed her brave young heart. Go to her now, and give her thy blessing, and tell her she may wed young Raymond de Brocas so soon as he comes to claim her hand."
CHAPTER XXX. WITH THE PRINCE.[i]
"Sanghurst dead! Joan free! her father's consent won! I the Lord of Basildene! Gaston, thou takest away my breath! Art sure thou art not mocking me?"
"Art sure that thou art indeed thyself, my lord of Basildene?" was Gaston's merry response, as he looked his brother over from head to foot with beaming face; "for, in sooth, I scarce should know thee for the brother I left behind — that wan and wasted creature, more like a corpse than a man. The good Brothers have indeed done well by thee, Raymond. Save that thou hast not lost thine old saintly look, which stamps thee as something different from the rest of us, I should scarce have thought it could be thee. This year spent in thine own native clime has made a new man of thee!"
"In truth I think it has," answered Raymond, who was indeed wonderfully changed from the time when Gaston had left him, rather more than ten months before. "We had no snow and no cold in the winter gone by, and I was able to take the air daily, and I grew strong wondrous fast. Thou hadst told me to be patient, to believe that all was well if I heard nothing from thee; and I strove to follow thy maxim, and that with good success. I knew that thou wouldst not let me go on hoping if hope meant but a bitterer awaking. I knew that silence must mean there was work which thou wert doing. Many a time, as a white-winged vessel spread her sails for England's shores, have I longed to step on board and follow thee across the blue water to see how thou wast faring; but then came always the thought that thou mightest be on thy way hither, and that thou wouldst chide me for having left these sheltering walls. And so I stayed on day after day, and week after week, until months had rolled by; and I began to say within myself that, if thou camest not before the autumn storms, I must e'en take ship and follow thee, for I could wait no longer for news of thee — and her."
"And here I am with news of her, and news that to me is almost better. Raymond, I have not come hither alone. The Prince and the flower of our English chivalry are here at Bordeaux this day. The hollow truce is at an end. Insult upon insult has been heaped upon England's King by the King of France, the King of Navarre (who called himself our ally till he deserted us to join the French King, who will yet avenge upon him his foul murder of Charles of Spain), and the Count of Blois in Brittany. England has been patient. Edward has listened long to the pleadings of the Pope, and has not rushed into war; but he cannot wait patiently for ever. They have roused the lion at last, and he will not slumber again till he has laid his foes in the dust.
"Listen, Raymond: the Prince is here in Bordeaux. The faithful Gascon nobles — the Lord of Pommiers, the Lord of Rosen, the Lord of Mucident, and the Lord de l'Esparre — have sent to England to say that if the Prince will but come to lead them, they will make gallant war upon the French King. John has long been striving to undermine England's power in his kingdom, to rid himself of an enemy's presence in his country, to be absolute lord over his vassals without their intermediate allegiance to another master. It does not suffice that our great King does homage for his lands in France (though he by rights is King of France himself). He knows that here, in these sunny lands of the south, the Roy Outremer is beloved as he has never been. He would fain rob our King of all his lands; he is planning and plotting to do it."
"But the Roy Outremer is not to be caught asleep," cried Raymond, with a kindling glance, "and John of France is to learn what it is to have aroused the wrath of the royal Edward and of his brave people of England."
"Ay, verily; and our good Gascons are as forward in Edward's cause as his English subjects," answered Gaston quickly. "They love our English rule, they love our English ways; they will not tamely be transformed into a mere fief of the French crown. They will fight for their feudal lord, and stand stanchly by his banner. It is their express request that brings the Prince hither today. The King is to land farther north — at Cherbourg methinks it was to be; whilst my Lord of Lancaster has set sail for Brittany, to defend the Countess of Montford from the Count of Blois, who has now paid his ransom and is free once more. His Majesty of France will have enough to do to meet three such gallant foes in the field.
"And listen still farther, Raymond, for the Prince has promised this thing to me — that as he marches through the land, warring against the French King, he will pause before the Castle of Saut and smoke out the old fox, who has long been a traitor at heart to the English cause. And the lands so long held by the Navailles are to be mine, Raymond — mine. And a De Brocas will reign once more at Saut, as of old! What dost thou think of that?"
"Brother, I am glad at heart. It seemeth almost like a dream. Thou the lord of Saut and I of Basildene! Would that she were living yet to see the fulfilment of her dream!"
"Ay, truly I would she were. But, Raymond, thou wilt join the Prince's standard; thou wilt march with us to strike a blow for England's honour and glory? Basildene and fair Mistress Joan are safe. No harm will come to them by thine absence. And thou owest all to the Prince. Surely thou wilt not leave him in the hour of peril; thou wilt march beneath his banner and take thy share of the peril and the glory?"
Gaston spoke with eager energy, looking affectionately into his brother's face; and as he saw that look, Raymond felt that he could not refuse his brother's request. For just a few moments he hesitated, for the longing to see Joan once again and to clasp her in his arms was very strong within him; but his brother's next words decided him.
"Thy brother and the Prince have won Basildene for thee; surely thou wilt not leave us till Saut has yielded to me!"
Raymond held out his hand and grasped that of Gaston in a warm clasp.
"We will go forth together once again as brothers in arms," he said, with brightening eyes. "It may be that our paths in life may henceforth be divided; wherefore it behoves us in the time that remains to us to cling the more closely together. I will go with thee, brother, as thy faithful esquire and comrade, and we will win back for thee the right to call the old lands thine. How often we have dreamed together in our childhood of some such day! How far away it then appeared! and yet the day has come."
"And thou wilt then see my Constanza," said Gaston, in low, exultant tones — "my lovely and gentle mistress, to whom thou, my brother, owest thy life. It is meet that thou shouldst be one to help to set her free from the tyranny of her rude uncle and the isolation of her dreary life in yon grim castle walls. Thou hast seen her, hast thou not? Tell me, was she not the fairest, the loveliest object thine eyes had ever looked upon, saving of course (to thee) thine own beauteous lady?"
"Methought it was some angel visitor from the unseen world," answered Raymond, "flitting into yon dark prison house, where it seemed that no such radiant creature could dwell. There was fever in my blood, and all I saw was through a misty veil, I scarce believed it more than a sweet vision; but I will thank her now for the whispered word of hope breathed in mine ear in the hour of my sorest need."
"Ay, that thou shalt do!" cried Gaston, with all a lover's delight in the thought of the near meeting with the lady of his heart. "And when, in days to come, thou and I shall bring our brides to Edward's Court, men will all agree that two nobler, lovelier women never stepped this earth before — my fairy Constanza, a creature of fire and snow; thy Joan, a veritable queen amongst women, stately, serene, full of dignity and courage, and beautiful as she is noble."
"And thou art sure that she is safe?" questioned Raymond, his heart still longing for the moment of reunion after the long separation, albeit those were days when the separation of years was no infrequent thing, even betwixt those most closely drawn by bonds of love. "There is none else to come betwixt her and me? Her father will not strive to sunder us more?"
"Her father is but too joyous to be free from the power of the Sanghurst; and the Prince spoke words that brought the flush of shame tingling to his face. An age of chivalry, and a man selling his daughter for filthy lucre to one renowned for his evil deeds and remorseless cruelties! A lady forced to flee her father's house and brave the perils of the road to escape a terrible doom! I would thou hadst heard him, Raymond our noble young Prince, with scorn in his voice and the light of indignation in his eyes. And thy Joan stood beside him; he held her hand the while, as though he would show to all men that the heir of England was the natural protector of outraged womanhood, that the upholder of chivalry would stand to his colours, and be the champion of every distressed damsel throughout the length and the breadth of the land. And the lady looked so proud and beautiful that I trow she might have had suitors and to spare in that hour; but the Prince, still holding her hand, told her father all the story of her plighted troth to thee — that truest troth plight of changeless love. And he told him how that Basildene and all its treasure had been secured to thee, and asked him was he willing to give his daughter to the Lord of Basildene? And Sir Hugh was but too glad that no more than this was asked of him, and in presence of the Prince and of us all he pledged his daughter's hand to thee, I standing as thy proxy, as I have told thee. And now thy Joan is well-nigh as fully thine as though ye had joined your hands in holy wedlock. Thou hast naught to fear from her father's act. He is but too much rejoiced with the fashion in which all has turned out. His word is pledged before the Prince; and moreover thou art the lord of Basildene and its treasure, and what more did he ever desire? It was a share in that gold for which he would have sold his daughter."
Raymond's face took a new look, one of shrinking and pain.
"I like not that treasure, Gaston," he said. "It is like the price of blood. I would that the King had taken it for his own. It seemeth as though it could never bring a blessing with it."
"Methinks it could in thy hands and Joan's," answered Gaston, with a fond, proud glance at his brother's beautiful face; "and as the Prince truly said, since this scourge has swept through the land, claiming a full half of its inhabitants, it would be a hopeless task to try to discover the real owners; and moreover a part may be the Sanghurst store, which men have always said is no small thing, and which in very truth is now thine. But thou canst speak to Father Paul of all that. The Church will give thee holy counsel. Methinks that gold in thy hands would ever be used so as to bring with it a blessing and not a curse.
"But come now with me to the Prince. He greatly desires to see thee again. He has not forgot thee, brother mine, nor that exploit of thine at the surrender of Calais."
Father Paul was not at that time within the Monastery walls, his duties calling him hither and thither, sometimes in one land and sometimes in another. Raymond had enjoyed a peaceful time of rest and mental refreshment with the good monks, but he was more than ready to go forth into the world again. Quiet and study were congenial to him, but the life of a monk was not to his taste. He saw clearly the evils to which such a calling was exposed, and how easy it was to forget the high ideal, and fall into self indulgence, idleness, and sloth.
Not that the abuses which in the end caused the monastic system to fall into such contempt were at that time greatly developed; but the germs of the evil were there, and it needed a nature such as that of Father Paul and men of his stamp to show how noble the life of devotion could be made. Ordinary men fell into a routine existence, and were in danger of letting their duties and even their devotions become purely mechanical.
Raymond said adieu to his hospitable entertainers with some natural regrets, yet with a sense that there was a wider work for him to do in the world than any he should ever find between Monastery walls. Even apart from all thoughts of love and marriage, there was attraction for him in the world of chivalry and warfare. His ambition took a different form from that of the average youth of the day, but none the less for that did it act upon him like a spur, driving him forth where strife and conflict were being waged, and where hard blows were to be struck.
Gaston's brother was warmly welcomed in the camp of the Prince. Many there were who remembered the dreamy-faced lad, who had seemed like a young Saint Michael amongst them, and still bore about with him something of that air of remoteness which was never without its effect even upon the rudest of his companions. Indeed the ordeal through which he had passed had left an indelible stamp upon him. If the face looked older than of yore, it was not that the depth and spirituality of the expression had in any wise diminished.
The two brothers standing together formed a perfect picture in contrasted types — the bronzed, stalwart soldier in his coat of mail, looking every inch the brave knight he was; and the slim, pale-faced Raymond, with the haunting eyes and wonderful smile, which irradiated his face like a gleam of light from another world, bearing about with him that which seemed to stamp him as somewhat different from his fellows, and yet which always commanded from them not only admiration, but affection and respect.
The Prince's greeting was warm and hearty. He felt towards Raymond all that goodwill which naturally follows an act of generous interference on behalf of an injured person. He made him sit beside him in his tent at supper time, and tell him all his history; and the promise made to Gaston with reference to the tyrant Lord of Saut was ratified anew as the wine circulated at table. The chosen comrades of the Prince, who had most of them known the twin brothers for many years, vowed themselves to the enterprise with hearty goodwill; and had the Lord of Navailles been there to hear, he might well have trembled for his safety, despite the strong walls and deep moat that environed Saut.
"Let his walls be never so strong, I trow we can starve or smoke the old fox out!" quoth young Edward, laughing. "There be many strong citadels, many a fortified town, that will ere long open their gates at the summons of England's Prince. How say ye, my gallant comrades? Shall the old Tower of Saut defy English arms? Shall we own ourselves beaten by any Sieur de Navailles?"
The shout with which these words were answered was answer sufficient. The English and Gascon lords, assembled together under the banner of the Prince, were bent on a career of glory and plunder. The inaction of the long truce, with its perpetual sources of irritation and friction, had been exasperating in the extreme. It was an immense relief to them to feel that war had at last been declared, and that they could unfurl their banners and march forth against their old enemy, and enrich themselves for life at his expense.
With the march of the Prince through south France we have little concern in this history. It was one long triumphal progress, not over and above glorious from a military standpoint; for there were no real battles, and the accumulation of plunder and the infliction of grievous damage upon the French King's possessions seemed the chief object of the expedition. Had there been any concerted resistance to the Prince's march, doubtless he might have shown something of his great military talents in directing his forces in battle; but as it was, the country appeared paralyzed at his approach: place after place fell before him, or bought him off by a heavy price; and though there were several citadels in the vanquished towns which held out for France, the Prince seldom stayed to subdue them, but contented himself with plundering and burning the town. Not a very glorious style of warfare for those days of vaunted chivalry, yet one, nevertheless, characteristic enough of the times. Every undertaking, however small, gave scope for deeds of individual gallantry and the exercise of individual acts of courtliness and chivalry; and even the battles were often little more than a countless number of hand-to-hand conflicts carried on by the individual members of the opposing armies. The Prince and his chosen comrades, always on the watch for opportunities of showing their prowess and of exercising their knightly chivalry towards any miserable person falling in their own way, were doubtless somewhat blinded to the ignoble side of such a campaign.
However that may be, Raymond often felt a sinking at heart as he saw their path marked out by blazing villages and wasted fields; and almost all his own energies were concentrated in striving to do what one man could achieve to mitigate the horrors of war for some of its helpless victims.
Narbonne, on the Gulf of Lions, was the last place attacked and taken by the Prince, who then decided to return with his spoil to Bordeaux, and pass the remainder of the winter in the capture of certain places that would be useful to the English.
Nothing had all this time been spoken as to Saut, which lay out of the line of their march in the heart of friendly Gascony. But the project had by no means been abandoned, and the Prince was but waiting a favourable opportunity to carry it into effect.
The Sieur de Navailles had not attempted to join the Prince's standard, as so many of the Gascon nobles had done, but had held sullenly aloof, probably watching and waiting to see the result of this expedition, but by no means prepared to adventure his person into the hands of a feudal lord against whom his own sword had more than once been drawn. He was well aware, no doubt, that there were pages in his past history with regard to his relations with France that would not bear inspection by English eyes, and perhaps he trusted to the remoteness and obscurity of his two castles to save him from the notice of the Prince.
The terror inspired by the English arms in France is a thing that must always excite the wonder and curiosity of the readers of history. It was displayed on and after the Battle of Crecy, when Edward's army, if numbers counted for anything, ought to have been simply annihilated by the vast musters of the French, who were in their own land surrounded by friends, whilst the English were a small band in the midst of a hostile and infuriated population. This same thing was seen again in the march of the Prince of Wales, soon to be called the Black Prince, when city after city bought him off, hopeless of resisting his progress; and when the army mustered by the Count of Armagnac to oppose the retreat of the English to Bordeaux with their spoil was seized with a panic after the merest skirmish, and fled, leaving the Prince to pursue his way unmolested.
If the conduct of the English army was somewhat inglorious, certainly the behaviour of their foes was still more so. The English were always ready to fight if they could find an enemy to meet them. Possibly the doubtful character of the Prince's first campaign was less his fault than that of his pusillanimous enemies.
Bordeaux reached, however, and the Gascon soldiers dismissed to their homes for the winter months, the Prince promising to lead them next year upon a more glorious campaign, in which fresh spoil was to be won and more victories achieved, there was time for the consideration of objects of minor importance, and a breathing space wherein private interests could be considered.
Gaston had repressed all impatience during the march of the Prince. He had not looked that his own affairs should take the foremost place in the Prince's scheme. Moreover, he saw well that it would give a false colour to the expedition if the first march of the Prince had been into Gascony; nor was the capture of so obscure a fortress as the Castle of Saut a matter to engross the energies of the whole of the allied army.
But now that the army was partially disbanded, whilst the English contingent was either in winter quarters in Bordeaux or engaged here and there in the capture of such cities and fortresses as the Prince decided worth the taking, the moment appeared to be favourable for that long-wished-for capture of Saut; and Gaston, taking his brother aside one day, eagerly opened to him his mind.
"Raymond, I have spoken to the Prince. He is ready and willing to give me men at any time I ask him. Perchance he will even come himself, if duty calls him not elsewhere. The thing is now in mine own hands. Brother, when shall the attempt be made?"
Raymond smiled at the eager question.
"Sir Knight, thou art more the warrior than I. Thou best knowest the day and the hour for such a matter."
Gaston passed his hand through his hair, and a softer light shone in his eyes. His brother knew of whom he was thinking, and he was not surprised at the next words.
"Raymond, methinks before I do aught else I must see her once more. My heart is hungry for her. I think of her by day and dream of her by night. Perchance there might be some more peaceful way of winning entrance to Saut than by battering down the walls, and doing by hap some hurt to the precious treasure within. Brother, wilt thou wander forth with me once again — thou and I, and a few picked men, in case of peril by the way, to visit Saut by stealth? We would go by the way of Father Anselm's and our old home. I have a fancy to see the dear old faces once again. Thou hast, doubtless, seen them all this year that has passed by, but I not for many an one."
"I saw Father Anselm in Bordeaux," answered Raymond; "and good Jean, when he heard I was there, came all the way to visit me. But I adventured not myself so near the den of Navailles. The Brothers would not permit it. They feared lest I might fall again into his power. Gladly, indeed, would I come and see them once again. I have pictured many times how, when thou art Lord of Saut, I will bring my Joan to visit thee, and show her to good Jean and Margot and saintly Father Anselm. I would fain talk to them of that day. They ever feel towards us as though we were their children in very truth."
There was no difficulty in obtaining the Prince's sanction to this absence from Bordeaux. He gave the brothers free leave to carry out their plan by any means they chose, promising if they sent him word at any time that they were ready for the assault, he would either come himself or send a picked band of veterans to their aid; and saying that Gaston was to look upon himself as Lord of Saut, by mandate from the English King, who would enforce his right by his royal power if any usurping noble dared to dispute it with him.
Thus fortified by royal warrant, and with a heart beating high with hope and love, Gaston set out with some two score soldiers as a bodyguard to reconnoitre the land; and upon the evening of the second day, the brothers saw, in the fast-fading light of the winter's day, the red roofs of the old mill lying peacefully in the gathering shadows of the early night.
Their men had been dismissed to find quarters in the village for themselves, and Roger was their only attendant, as they drew rein before the door of the mill, and saw the miller coming quickly round the angle of the house to inquire what these strangers wanted there at such an hour.
"Jean!" cried Gaston, in his loud and hearty tones, the language of his home springing easily to his lips, though the English tongue was now the one in which his thoughts framed themselves. "Good Jean, dost thou not know us?"
The beaming welcome on the miller's face was answer enough in itself; and, indeed, he had time to give no other, for scarce had the words passed Gaston's lips before there darted out from the open door of the house a light and fairy-like form, and a silvery cry of rapture broke from the lips of the winsome maiden, whilst Gaston leaped from his horse with a smothered exclamation, and in another moment the light fairy form seemed actually swallowed up in the embrace of those strong arms.
"Constanza my life — my love!"
"O Gaston, Gaston! can it in very truth be thou?"
Raymond looked on in mute amaze, turning his eyes from the lovers towards the miller, who was watching the encounter with a beaming face.
"What means it all?" asked the youth breathlessly.
"Marry, it means that the maiden has found her true knight," answered Jean, all aglow with delight; but then, understanding better the drift of Raymond's question, he turned his eyes upon him again, and said:
"You would ask how she came hither? Well, that is soon told. It was one night nigh upon six months agone, and we had long been abed, when we heard a wailing sound beneath our windows, and Margot declared there was a maiden sobbing in the garden below. She went down to see, and then the maid told her a strange, wild tale. She was of the kindred of the Sieur de Navailles, she said, and was the betrothed wife of Gaston de Brocas; and as we knew somewhat of her tale through Father Anselm, who had heard of your captivity and rescue, we knew that she spoke the truth. She said that since the escape, which had so perplexed the wicked lord, he had become more fierce and cruel than before, and that he seemed in some sort to suspect her, though of what she scarce knew. She told us that his mind seemed to be deserting him, that she feared he was growing lunatic. He was so fierce and wild at times that she feared for her own life. She bore it as long as her maid, the faithful Annette, lived; but in the summer she fell sick of a fever, and died — the lady knew not if it were not poison that had carried her off — and a great terror seized her. Not two days later, she fled from her gloomy home, and not knowing where else to hide her head, she fled hither, trusting that her lover would shortly come to free her from her uncle's tyranny, as he had sworn, and believing that the home which had sheltered the infancy of the De Brocas brothers would give her shelter till that day came."
"And you took her in and guarded her, and kept her safe from harm," cried Raymond, grasping the hand of the honest peasant and wringing it hard. "It was like you to do it, kind, good souls! My brother will thank you, in his own fashion, for such service. But I must thank you, too. And where is Margot? for I trow she has been as a mother to the maid. I would see her and thank her, for Gaston has no eyes nor ears for any one but his fair lady."
Gaston, indeed, was like one in a dream. He could scarce believe the evidence of his senses; and it was a pretty sight to see how the winsome Constanza clung to him, and how it seemed as though she could not bear to let her eyes wander for a moment from his face.
Only at night, when the brothers stood together in the room they had occupied of yore, and clasped each other by the hand in warm congratulation, did Raymond really know how this meeting affected the object of their journey; then Gaston, looking grave and thoughtful, spoke a few words of his purpose.
"The Sieur de Navailles is a raging madman. That I can well divine from what Constanza says. Tomorrow we will to Saut, to see what we may discover there on the spot. It may be we may have no bloody warfare to wage; it may be that Saut may be won without the struggle we have thought. His own people are terrified before him. Constanza thinks that I have but to declare myself and show the King's warrant to be proclaimed by all as Lord and Master of Saut."
CHAPTER XXXI. THE SURRENDER OF SAUT.
"In the King's name!"
The old seneschal at the drawbridge eyed with glances of awed suspicion the gallant young knight who had ridden so boldly up to the walls of Saut and had bidden him lower the bridge. A few paces behind the leader was a compact little body of horsemen, all well mounted and well armed, though it was little their bright weapons could do against the solid walls of the grim old fortress, girdled as it was with its wide and deep moat. The pale sunshine of a winter's day shone upon the trappings of the little band, and lighted up the stone walls with something of unwonted brightness. It revealed to those upon the farther side of the moat the perplexed countenance of the old seneschal, who did not meet Gaston's bold demand for admittance with defiance or refusal, but stood staring at the apparition, as if not knowing what to make of it; and when the demand had been repeated somewhat more peremptorily, he still stood doubtful and hesitating, saying over and over to himself the same words:
"In the King's name! in the King's name!"
"Ay, fellow, in the King's name," repeated Gaston sternly. "Wilt thou see his warrant? I have it here. Thou hadst best have a care how thou settest at defiance the King's seal and signet. Knowest thou not that his royal son is within a few leagues of this very spot?"
The old man only shook his head, as if scarce comprehending the drift of these words, and presently he looked up to ask:
"Of which King speak you, good Sir Knight?"
"Of the English King, fellow, the only King I acknowledge! Whose servant doth thy master call himself? Thou hadst better go and tell him that King Edward of England has sent a message to him."
"Tell my master!" repeated the seneschal, with a strange gesture, as he lifted his hand and touched his head. "To what good would that be? My master understands no word that is said to him. He raves up and down the hall day by day, taking note of naught about him. Thou hadst best have a care how thou beardest him, Sir Knight. We go in terror of our very lives through him."
"Ye need go no longer in that fear," cried Gaston, with a kindling of the eyes, as he bared his noble head and looked forth at the old man with his fearless glance, "for in me ye will find a master whom none need fear who do their duty by him and by the King. Seneschal, I stand here the lawful Lord of Saut — lord by hereditary right, and by the mandate of England's King, the Roy Outremer, as you call him. I am Gaston de Brocas, of the old race who owned these lands long before the false Navailles had set foot therein. I have come back armed with the King's warrant to claim mine own.
"Say, men, will ye have me for your lord? or will ye continue to serve yon raging madman till England's King sends an army to raze Saut to the ground, and slay the rebellious horde within these ancient walls?"
Gaston had raised his voice as he had gone on speaking, for he saw that the dialogue with the old seneschal had attracted the attention of a number of men-at-arms, who had gradually mustered about the gate to hear what was passing.
Gaston spoke his native dialect like one of themselves. The name of De Brocas was known far and wide in that land, and was everywhere spoken with affection and respect. The fierce rapacity of the Navailles was equally feared and hated. Even the stout soldiers who had followed his fortunes so long regarded him with fear and distrust. No man in those days felt certain of his life. If he chanced to offend the madman, a savage blow from that strong arm might fell him to the earth; whilst some amongst their companions had from time to time mysteriously disappeared, and their fate had never been disclosed.
A sense of fearfulness and uncertainty had long reigned at Saut. The mad master had his own myrmidons in the Tower, who would do his bidding whatever that bidding might be; and that there were dark secrets hidden away in those underground dungeons and secret chambers everybody in the Castle well knew. Hardly one of the men now gathered on the opposite side of the moat but had awakened at some time or other from a horrid dream, believing himself to have been spirited down into those gloomy subterranean places, there to expiate some trifling offence, according as their savage lord should give order. Many of these men had assisted at scenes which seemed frightful to them when they pictured themselves the victims of the cruelty of the fierce man they had long served, but whom now they had grown to fear and distrust.
A sense of horror had long been hanging over Saut, and since the disappearance of the maiden who once had brightened the grim place by her presence, this horror had perceptibly deepened. Not one of all the men-at-arms dared even to his fellow to propose the remedy. Each feared that if he breathed what was in his own mind, the very walls would whisper it in the ears of their lord, and that the offender would be doomed to some horrible death, to act as a warning to others like-minded with himself. Since the loss of his niece, almost as mysterious to him as the escape of Raymond de Brocas from the prison, the clouds of doubt and suspicion had closed more and more darkly round the miserable man, who had let himself become the slave of his passions until these had increased to absolute madness. His unbridled fury and fits of maniac rage had estranged from him even the most attached of his old retainers, and in proportion as he felt this with the instinct of cunning and madness, the more did he exact from those about him protestations of zeal and faithfulness, the more did he watch the words and actions of his servants, and mark the smallest attempt on their part to restrain or thwart him.
Small wonder was it, then, when Gaston de Brocas stood forth in the sunshine, the King's warrant in his hand, words of good augury upon his lips, and a compact little body of armed men at his back, proclaiming himself the Lord of Saut, and inviting to his service the men who were now trembling before the caprices and cruel cunning of a madman, that they exchanged wondering glances, and spoke in eager whispers together, fearful lest the Navailles should approach from behind ere they were aware of it, and feeling that there was here such a chance of escape from miserable bondage as might never occur again.
And whilst they still hesitated — for the fear of treachery was never absent from the minds of those bred up in habits and thoughts of treachery — another wonder happened. Out from the little knot a few paces behind the young knight two more figures pressed forward, and the men-at-arms rubbed their eyes and looked on in silent wonder: for one of the pair was none other than the fairy maiden who had lived so long amongst them, and had endeared herself even to these rude spirits by her grace and sweetness and undefinable charm; the other, that youth with the wonderful eyes and saint-like face who had been captured and borne away to Saut after the battle before St. Jean d'Angely, and whose body they all believed had long ago been lying beneath the sullen waters of the moat, where so many victims of their lord's hatred had found their last resting place.
And as they stared and looked at one another and stared again, a silvery voice was uplifted, and they all held their breath to listen.
"My friends," said the lady, urging her palfrey till she reached Gaston's side, and could feel his hand upon hers, "I have come hither with this noble knight, Sir Gaston de Brocas, because he is my betrothed husband and liege lord, and I have the right to be at his side even in the hour of peril, but also because you all know me; and when I tell you that every word he has spoken is true, I trow ye will believe it. There he stands, the lawful Lord of Saut, and if ye will but own him as your lord, you will find in him a wise, just, and merciful master, who will protect you from the mad fury of yon miserable man whom now ye serve, and will lead you to more glorious feats of arms than any ye have dreamed of before. Hitherto ye have been little better than robbers and outlaws. Have ye no wish for better things than ye have won under the banner of Navailles?"
The men exchanged glances, and visibly wavered. They compared their coarse and stained garments, their rusty arms and battered accoutrements, with the brilliant appearance of the little band of soldiers standing on the opposite side of the moat, their armour shining in the sunlight, their steeds well fed and well groomed, arching their necks and pawing the ground, every man and every horse showing plainly that they came from a region of abundance of good things; whilst the military precision of their aspect showed equally well that they would be antagonists of no insignificant calibre, if the moment should come when they were transformed from friends to foes.
Constanza saw the wavering and hesitation amongst her uncle's men. She well knew their discontent at their own lot, their fearful distrust of their lord. She knew, too, that it was probably some fear of treachery alone that withheld them from making cause at once with the De Brocas — treachery having been only too much practised amongst them by their own fierce master — and again her voice rang out clear and sweet.
"Men, listen again to me. I speak to counsel you for your good; for fierce and cruel as ye have been to your foes, ye have ever been kind and gentle to me when I was with you in these walls. What think ye to gain by defying the great King of England? Think ye that he will spare you if ye arouse him to anger by impotent resistance? What more could King have done for you than send to be your lord a noble Gascon knight; one of your own race and language; one who, as ye all must know, has a far better right to hold these lands than any of the race of Navailles? Here before you stands Sir Gaston de Brocas, offering you place in his service if ye will but swear to him that allegiance he has the right to claim. The offer is made in clemency and mercy, because he would not that any should perish in futile resistance. Men, ye know that he comes to this place with the King's mandate that Saut be given up to him. If it be not peaceably surrendered, what think ye will happen next?
"I will tell you. Ye have heard of the Prince of Wales, son of the Roy Outremer; doubtless even to these walls has come the news of that triumphal march of his, where cities have surrendered or ransomed themselves to him, and nothing has been able to stay the might of his conquering arm. That noble Prince and valiant soldier is now not far away. We have come from his presence, and are here with his knowledge and sanction. If we win you over, and gain peaceable possession of these walls, good; no harm will befall any living creature within them. But if ye prove obdurate; if ye will not listen to the voice of reason; if ye still hold with rebellious defiance to the lord ye have served, and who has shown himself so little worthy of your service, then will the Prince and his warriors come with all their wrath and might to inflict chastisement upon you, and take vengeance upon you, as enemies of the King.
"Say, men, how can ye hope to resist the might of the Prince's arm? Say, which will ye do — be the free servants of Gaston de Brocas, or die like rats in a hole for the sake of yon wicked madman, whose slaves ye have long been? Which shall it be — a De Brocas or a Navailles?"
Something in this last appeal stirred the hearts of the men. It seemed as though a veil were torn from their eyes. They seemed to see all in a moment the hopelessness of their position as vassals of Navailles, and the folly of attempting resistance to one so infinitely more worthy to be called their lord. It was no stranger coming amongst them — it was one of the ancient lords of the soil; and the sight of the youthful knight, sitting there on his fine horse, with his fair lady beside him, was enough to stir the pulses and awaken the enthusiasm of an ardent race, even though the nobler instincts had been long sleeping in the breasts of these men. They hated and distrusted their old lord with a hatred he had well merited; and degraded as they had become in his service, they had not yet sunk so low but that they could feel with the keenness of instinct, rather than by any reasoning powers they possessed, that this young knight was a man to be trusted and be loved — that if they became his vassals they would receive vastly different treatment from any they had received from the Sieur de Navailles.
There was one long minute's pause, whilst looks and whispered words were exchanged, and then a shout arose:
"De Brocas! De Brocas! We will live and die the servants of De Brocas!" whilst at the same moment the drawbridge slowly descended, and Gaston, at the head of his gallant little band, with Raymond and Constanza at his side, rode proudly over the sounding planks, and found himself, for the first time in his life, in the courtyard of the Castle of Saut.
"De Brocas! De Brocas!" shouted the men, all doubt and hesitation done away with in a moment at sight of the gallant show thus made, enthusiasm kindling in every breast as the sweet lady rained smiles and gracious words upon the rough men, who had always had a soft spot in their heart for her; whilst Raymond's earnest eyes and Gaston's courtly and chivalrous bearing were not without effect upon the ruder natures of these lonely residents of Saut. It seemed to them as though they had been invaded by some denizens from another world, and murmurs of wonder and reverent admiration mingled with the cheering with which Gaston de Brocas was received as Lord of Saut.
But there was still one more person to be faced. The men had accepted the sovereignty of a new lord, and were already rejoicing in the escape from the dreaded tyranny they had not had the resolution to shake off unprompted; but there was still the Sieur de Navailles to be dealt with, and impotent as he might be in the desertion of his old followers, it was necessary to see and speak with him, and decide what must be done with the man who was believed by those about him to be little better than a raging maniac.
"Where is your master?" asked Gaston of the old seneschal, who stood at his bridle rein, his eyes wandering from his face to that of Raymond and Constanza and back again; "I marvel that this tumult has not brought him forth."
"The walls are thick," replied the old man, "and he lives for days together in a world of his own, no sound or sight from without penetrating his understanding. Then again he will awaken from his dream, and show us that he has heard and seen far more than we have thought. And if any man amongst us has dropped words that have incensed him — well, there have been men who have disappeared from amongst us and have never been seen more; and tales are whispered of horrid cries and groans that have issued as from the very bowels of the earth each time following their spiriting away."
Constanza shuddered, and a black frown crossed Gaston's face as he gave one quick glance at his brother, who had so nearly shared that mysterious and terrible doom.
"The man is a veritable fiend. He merits scant mercy at our hands. He has black crimes upon his soul. Seneschal, lead on. Take us to him ye once owned as sovereign lord. I trow ye will none of you lament the day ye transferred your allegiance from yon miscreant to Gaston de Brocas!"
Another cheer, heartier than the last, broke from the lips of all the men. They had been joined now by their comrades within the Castle, and in the sense of freedom from the hateful tyranny of their old master all were rejoicing and filled with enthusiasm.
For once they were free from all fear of treachery. Gaston's own picked band of stalwart veterans was guarantee enough that might as well as right was on the side of the De Brocas. The sight of those well-equipped men-at-arms, all loyal and full of affectionate enthusiasm for their youthful lord, showed these rude retainers how greatly to their advantage would be this change of masters; and before Gaston had dismounted and walked across the courtyard towards the portal of the Castle, he felt, with a swelling of the heart that Raymond well understood, that Saut was indeed his own.
"This is the way to the Sieur de Navailles," said the old seneschal, as they passed beneath the frowning doorway into a vaulted stone hall. "He spends whole days and nights pacing up and down like a wild beast in a cage. He scarce leaves the hall, save when he wanders forth into the forest, and that has not happened since the cold winds have blown hard. You will find him within those doors, good gentlemen. Shall I make known your presence to him?"
It was plain that the old man had no small fear of his master, and would gladly be spared this office. Gaston looked round to see that some of his own followers were close behind and on the alert, and then taking Constanza's hand in his, and laying his right hand upon the hilt of his sword, he signed to the seneschal to throw open the massive oaken doors, and walked fearlessly in with Raymond at his side.
They found themselves in the ancient banqueting hall of the fortress — a long, lofty, rather narrow room, with a heavily-raftered ceiling, two huge fireplaces, one at either end, and a row of very narrow windows cut in the great thickness of the wall occupying almost the whole of one side of the place; whilst a long table was placed against the opposite wall, with benches beside it, and another smaller table was placed upon a small raised dais at the far end of the apartment. On this dais was also set a heavy oaken chair, close beside the glowing hearth; and at this moment it was plain that the occupant of the chair had been disturbed by the commotion from without, and had suddenly risen to his feet, for he stood grasping the oaken arms, his wild gray hair hanging in matted masses about his seamed and wrinkled face, and his hollow eyes, in which a fierce light blazed, turned upon the intruders in a glare of impotent fury.
"Who are ye who thus dare to intrude upon me here? What is all this tumult I hear in mine own halls?
"Seneschal, art thou there? Send hither to me my soldiers; bid them bind these men, and carry them to the dungeons. I will see them there. Ha, ha! I will talk with them there. I will deal with them there. What ho! Send me the jailer and his assistants! Let them light the fires and heat hot the irons. Let them prepare our welcome for guests to Saut. Ha, ha! Ho, ho! These brave gallants shall taste our hospitality. Who brought them in? Where were they found? Methinks they will prove a rich booty. Would that good Peter Sanghurst were here to help me in the task of entertaining these new guests!"
The man was a raving lunatic; that was plain to the most inexperienced eye from the first moment. He knew not his own niece, he knew not the De Brocas brothers, though Raymond's face must have been familiar to him had he been in his right senses. He was still in fancy the undisputed lord of these wide lands, scouring the country for English travellers or prisoners of meaner mould; acting here in Gascony much the same part as the Sanghursts had more cautiously done in England, and as the Barons of both France and England had long done, though their day of irresponsible and autocratic power was well-nigh at an end.
He glared upon the brothers and their attendants with savage fury, still calling out to his men to carry them to the dungeons, still believing them to be a band of travellers taken prisoners by his own orders, raving and raging in his impotent fury till the gust of passion had worn itself out, and in a sullen amaze he sank into his seat, still gazing out from under his shaggy brows at the intruders, but the passion and fury for a moment at an end.
"He will understand better what you say to him now, Sir Knight," whispered the old seneschal, who alone of the men belonging to the Castle dared to enter the hall where their maniac master was. "His mind comes back to him sometimes after he has raved himself quiet. We dread his sullen moods almost more than his wild ones.
"Have a care how you approach him. He is as cunning as a fox, and as crafty as he is cruel. He always has some weapon beneath his robe. Have a care, I say, how you approach him."
Gaston nodded, but he was too fearless by nature to pay much heed to the warning; he felt himself more than a match for that bowed-down old man. Giving Constanza into Raymond's charge, he stepped boldly up to the dais, and doffing his headpiece, addressed himself to his adversary in firm though courteous accents.
"My Lord of Navailles," he said, "I am come to claim mine own. If thou knowest me not, I will tell thee who I am — Gaston de Brocas, the Lord of Saut in mine own right, and by the mandate of the King which I hold in mine hand. Long hast thou held lands to which thou hadst no right, but the day has come when I claim mine own again, and am prepared to do battle for it to the death. But here is no battle needed. Thine own men have called me lord; they have obeyed the mandate of the King, and have opened their gates to me. I stand here the Lord of Saut. Thy power and thy reign are over for ever. Grossly hast thou abused that power when it was thine. Now, like all tyrants, thou art finding that thy servants fall away in the hour of peril, and that thou, who hast been a cruel master, canst command no service from them in the time of need. I, and I alone, am Lord of Saut. Hast thou aught to say ere thou yieldest dominion to me?"
Did he understand? Those standing round and breathlessly watching the curious scene could scarce be sure; but there was a look of comprehension and of intense baffled rage and malice in those cavernous eyes that sent a shiver through Constanza's light frame.
"Have a care, Gaston; have a care!" she cried, with sudden shrillness, as she saw a quick movement of those knotted sinewy hands beneath the coarse robe the old man wore; and in another moment both she and Raymond had sprung forward, for there was a flash of keen steel, and the madman had flung himself upon Gaston with inconceivable rapidity of motion.
For a moment there was a hideous scuffle. Blood was flowing, they knew not whose. Gaston acted solely on the defensive. He would not raise his hand against one who was old and lunatic, and near in blood to her whom he held dear; but he wrestled valiantly in the iron grip of arms stronger than his own, and he felt that some struggle was going on above him, though for the moment his own breath seemed suspended, and his very life pressed out of him.
Then came a sudden sense of release. His enemy had relaxed his bear-like clasp. Gaston sprang to his feet to see his enemy falling backwards in a helpless collapse, the hilt of a dagger clasped between his knotted hands — the sharp blade buried in his own heart.
"He has killed himself!" cried Constanza, with eyes dilated with horror, as she sprang to Gaston's side. It had all been so quick that it was hard to tell what had befallen in those few seconds of life-and-death struggle. Gaston was bleeding from a slight flesh wound in the arm, but that was the only hurt he had received; whilst his foe —
"He strove to plunge the dagger in thy breast, Gaston," said Raymond, who was supporting the head of the dying man; "and failing that, he thought to smother thee in his bear-like clasp, that has crushed the life out of enemies before now, as we have ofttimes heard. When he felt other foes around him unloosing that clasp, and knew himself balked of his purpose, he clutched the weapon thou hadst dashed from his hand and buried it in his own body. As he has lived, so has he died — defiant to the very end. But the madness-cloud may have hung long upon his spirit. Perchance some of the worst of his crimes may not be laid to his charge."
As Raymond spoke, the dying man opened his eyes, and fixed them upon the face bending over him. The light of sullen defiance which had shone there but a few short moments ago changed to something strange and new as he met the calm, compassionate glance of those expressive eyes now fixed upon him. He seemed to give a slight start, and to strive to draw himself away.
"Thou here!" he gasped — "thou! Hast thou indeed come from the spirit world to mock me in my last moments? I know thee now, Raymond de Brocas! I have seen thee before — thou knowest how and where. Methinks the very angels of heaven must have spirited thee away. Why art thou here now?"
"To bid thee ask forgiveness for thy sins with thy dying breath," answered Raymond, gently yet firmly; "to bid thee turn thy thoughts for one last moment towards thy Saviour, and though thou hast scorned and rebelled against Him in life, to ask His pardoning mercy in death. He has pardoned a dying miscreant ere now. Wilt thou not take upon thy lips that dying thief's petition, and cry 'Lord, remember me;' or this prayer, 'Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner'?"
A gray shadow was creeping over the rugged face, the lips seemed to move, but no words came forth. There was no priest at hand to listen to a dying confession, or to pronounce a priestly absolution, and yet Raymond had spoken as if there might yet be mercy for an erring, sin-stained soul, if it would but turn in its last agony to the Crucified One — the Saviour crucified for the sins of the whole world.
It must be remembered that there was less of priestcraft — less of what we now call popery — in those earlier days than there came to be later on; and the springs of truth, though somewhat tainted, were not poisoned, as it were, at the very source, as they afterwards became. Something of the purity of primitive times lingered in the minds of men, and here and there were always found pure spirits upon whom the errors of man obtained no hold — spirits that seemed to rise superior to their surroundings, and hold communion direct with heaven itself. Such a nature and such a mind was Raymond's; and his clear, intense faith had been strengthened and quickened by the vicissitudes through which he had passed. He did not hesitate to point the dying soul straight to the Saviour Himself, without mediation from the Blessed Virgin or the Holy Saints. Love and revere these he might and did; but in the presence of that mighty power of death, in that hour when flesh and heart do fail, he felt as he had felt when he believed his own soul was to be called away — when it seemed as though no power could avail to save him from a fearful fate — that to God alone must the cry of the suffering soul be raised; that into the Saviour's hands alone could the departing soul be committed. He did not speak to others of these thoughts — thoughts which in later days came to be branded with the dreaded name of "heresy" — but he held them none the less surely in the depths of his own spirit; and now, when all but he would have stood aside with pitiful helplessness, certain that nothing could be done for the dying man in absence of a priest, Raymond strove to lead his thoughts upwards, that though his life had been black and evil, he might still die with his face turned Godwards, with a cry for mercy on his lips.
Nor was this hope in vain; for at the last the old man raised himself with a strength none believed him to possess, and raising his hand he clasped that of Raymond, and said:
"Raymond de Brocas, I strove to compass thy death, and thou hast come to me in mine hour of need, and spoken words of hope. If thou canst forgive — thou so cruelly treated, so vilely betrayed — it may be that the Saviour, whose servant thou art, can forgive yet greater crimes.
"Christ have mercy upon me! Lord have mercy upon me! Christ have mercy upon me! My worldly possessions are fled: let them go; they are in good hands. May Christ pardon my sins, and receive me at last to Himself!"
He looked earnestly at Raymond, who understood him, and whispered the last prayers of the Church in his ear. A look of calm and peace fell upon that wild and rugged face; and drawing one sigh, and slightly turning himself towards his former foe, the old ruler of Saut fell asleep, and died with the two De Brocas brothers standing beside him.
CHAPTER XXXII. ON THE FIELD OF POITIERS.
The face of the Prince was dark and grave. He had posted his gallant little army in the strongest position the country afforded; but his men were ill-fed, and though brave as lions and eager for the battle, were but a handful of troops compared with the vast French host opposed to them.
Eight thousand against fifty or even sixty thousand! Such an inequality might well make the stoutest heart quail. But there was no fear in young Edward's eyes, only a glance of stern anxiety slightly dashed with regret; for the concessions just made to the Cardinal de Perigord, who was earnestly striving to arrange terms between the rival armies and so avoid the bloodshed of a battle, went sorely against the grain of the warrior prince, and he was almost disposed to repent that he had been induced to make them.
But his position was sufficiently critical, and defeat meant the annihilation of the gallant little army who had followed his fortunes through two campaigns, and who were to a man his devoted servants. He had led them, according to promise, upon another long march of unopposed plunder and victory, right into the very heart of France; whilst another English army in Normandy and Brittany had been harassing the French King, and averting his attention from the movements of his son.
Perhaps young Edward's half-matured plan had been to join the other English forces in the north, for he was too much the general and the soldier to think of marching upon Paris or of attacking the French army with his own small host. Indeed, a few reverses had recently taught him that he had already ventured almost too far into the heart of a hostile country; and he was, in fact, retreating upon Bordeaux, believing the French army to be behind him, when he discovered that it was in front of him, intercepting his farther progress, and he was made aware of this unwelcome fact by seeing the advance guard of his own army literally cut to pieces by the French soldiers before he could come to their assistance.
Realizing at once the immense peril of his position, the Prince had marched on till he reached a spot where he could post his men to some advantage amongst hedges and bushes that gave them shelter, and would serve to embarrass an attacking foe, and in particular any charge of cavalry. The place selected was some six miles from Poitiers, and possessed so many natural advantages that the Prince felt encouraged to hope for a good issue to the day, albeit the odds were fearfully to his disadvantage.
He had looked to be speedily attacked by the French King, who was in person leading his host; but the Saturday passed away without any advance, and on Sunday morning the good Cardinal de Perigord began to strive to bring matters to a peaceable issue.
Brave as the young Prince was, and great as his reliance on his men had always been, his position was perilous in the extreme, and he had been willing to listen to the words of the Cardinal. Indeed, he had made wonderful concessions to the messenger of peace, for he had at last consented to give up all the places he had taken, to set free all prisoners, and to swear not to take up arms against the King of France for seven years; and now he stood looking towards the French host with a frown of anxious perplexity upon his face, for the Cardinal had gone back to the French King with this message, and already the Prince was half repentant at having conceded so much. He had been persuaded rather against his will, and he was wondering what his royal father would say when he should hear.
He had been thinking rather of his brave soldiers' lives than his own military renown, when he had let himself be won over by the good Cardinal. Had he, after all, made a grand mistake?
His knights stood around, well understanding the conflict going on in his breast, and sympathizing deeply with him in this crisis of his life, but not knowing themselves what it were best to do. The sun was creeping to the horizon before the Cardinal was seen returning, and his face was grave and sorrowful as he was ushered into the presence of the Prince.
"My Liege," he said, in accents of regret, "it is but sorry news I have to bring you. My royal master of his own will would have gladly listened to the terms to which your consent has been won, save for the vicious counsel of my lord Bishop of Chalons, Renaud Chauveau, who hates your nation so sorely that he has begged the King, even upon his bended knees, to slay every English soldier in this realm rather than suffer them to escape just when they had fallen into his power, rather than listen to overtures of submission without grasping the victory of blood which God had put into his hands. Wherefore my liege the King has vowed that he will consent to nothing unless you yourself, together with one hundred of your knights, will give yourselves up into his hand without condition."
Young Edward's eyes flashed fire. A look more like triumph than dismay crossed his noble face. Looking at the sorrowful Cardinal, with the light of battle in his eyes, he said in ringing tones:
"My Lord Cardinal, I thank you for your goodwill towards us. You are a good and holy man, an ambassador of peace, and as such you are fulfilling your Master's will. But I can listen no longer to your words. Go back to the King of France, and tell him that I thank him for his last demand, because it leaves me no choice but to fight him to the death; and ten thousand times would I rather fight than yield, albeit persuaded to submit to terms by your eloquent pleading. Return to your lord, and tell him that Edward of England defies him, and will meet him in battle so soon as it pleases him to make the attack. I fear him not. The English have found no such mighty antagonists in the French that they should fear them now.
"Go, my Lord Cardinal, and carry back my message of defiance. Ere another sun has set I hope to meet John of France face to face in the foremost of the fight!"
A shout of joy and triumph rose from a hundred throats as this answer was listened to by the Prince's knights, and the cheer was taken up and echoed by every soldier in the camp. It was the signal, as all knew well, that negotiation had failed; and the good Cardinal went sorrowfully back to the French lines, whilst the English soldiers redoubled their efforts at trenching the ground and strengthening their position — efforts which had been carried on ceaselessly all through this and the preceding day, regardless of the negotiations for peace, which many amongst them hoped would prove abortive.
Then up to the Prince's side stepped bold Sir James Audley, who had been his counsellor and adviser during the whole of the campaign, and by whose advice the coming battle was being arranged.
"Sire," he said, bending the knee before his youthful lord, "I long ago vowed a vow that if ever I should find myself upon the field of battle with the King of England or his son, I would be foremost in the fight for his defence. Sire, that day has now dawned — or will dawn with tomorrow's sun. Grant me, I pray you, leave to be the first to charge into yon host, and so fulfil the vow long registered before God."
"Good Sir James, it shall be even as thou wilt," answered the Prince, extending his hand. "But if thou goest thus into peril, sure thou wilt not go altogether alone?"
"I will choose out four knightly comrades," answered Sir James, "and together we will ride into the battle. I know well that there will be no lack of brave men ready and willing to fight at my side. Gaston de Brocas has claimed already to be one, and his brother ever strives to be at his side. But he has yet his spurs to win, and I may but take with me those who are knights already."