It was all like a puppetshow of real life, each acting unconsciously a part in the play. The cool wind came in through the rustling leaves and fanned their cheeks, hot with the climb up the winding stair-way.
"We will call it our Eyry," said Gascoyne "and we will be the hawks that live here." And that was how it got its name.
The next day Myles had the armorer make him a score of large spikes, which he and Gascoyne drove between the ivy branches and into the cement of the wall, and so made a safe passageway by which to reach the window niche in the wall.
THE TWO friends kept the secret of the Eyry to themselves for a little while, now and then visiting the old tower to rummage among the lumber stored in the lower room, or to loiter away the afternoon in the windy solitudes of the upper heights. And in that little time, when the ancient keep was to them a small world unknown to any but themselves—a world far away above all the dull matters of every-day life—they talked of many things that might else never have been known to one another. Mostly they spoke the crude romantic thoughts and desires of boyhood's time—chaff thrown to the wind, in which, however, lay a few stray seeds, fated to fall to good earth, and to ripen to fruition in manhood's day.
In the intimate talks of that time Myles imparted something of his honest solidity to Gascoyne's somewhat weathercock nature, and to Myles's ruder and more uncouth character Gascoyne lent a tone of his gentler manners, learned in his pagehood service as attendant upon the Countess and her ladies.
In other things, also, the character and experience of the one lad helped to supply what was lacking in the other. Myles was replete with old Latin gestes, fables, and sermons picked up during his school life, in those intervals of his more serious studies when Prior Edward had permitted him to browse in the greener pastures of the Gesta Romanorum and the Disciplina Clericalis of the monastery library, and Gascoyne was never weary of hearing him tell those marvellous stories culled from the crabbed Latin of the old manuscript volumes.
Upon his part Gascoyne was full of the lore of the waiting-room and the antechamber, and Myles, who in all his life had never known a lady, young or old, excepting his mother, was never tired of lying silently listening to Gascoyne's chatter of the gay doings of the castle gentle-life, in which he had taken part so often in the merry days of his pagehood.
"I do wonder," said Myles, quaintly, "that thou couldst ever find the courage to bespeak a young maid, Francis. Never did I do so, nor ever could. Rather would I face three strong men than one young damsel."
Whereupon Gascoyne burst out laughing. "Marry!" quoth he, "they be no such terrible things, but gentle and pleasant spoken, and soft and smooth as any cat."
"No matter for that," said Myles; "I would not face one such for worlds."
It was during the short time when, so to speak, the two owned the solitude of the Brutus Tower, that Myles told his friend of his father's outlawry and of the peril in which the family stood. And thus it was.
"I do marvel," said Gascoyne one day, as the two lay stretched in the Eyry, looking down into the castle court-yard below—"I do marvel, now that thou art 'stablished here this month and more, that my Lord doth never have thee called to service upon household duty. Canst thou riddle me why it is so, Myles?"
The subject was a very sore one with Myles. Until Sir James had told him of the matter in his office that day he had never known that his father was attainted and outlawed. He had accepted the change from their earlier state and the bald poverty of their life at Crosbey-Holt with the easy carelessness of boyhood, and Sir James's words were the first to awaken him to a realization of the misfortunes of the house of Falworth. His was a brooding nature, and in the three or four weeks that passed he had meditated so much over what had been told him, that by-and-by it almost seemed as if a shadow of shame rested upon his father's fair fame, even though the attaint set upon him was unrighteous and unjust, as Myles knew it must be. He had felt angry and resentful at the Earl's neglect, and as days passed and he was not noticed in any way, his heart was at times very bitter.
So now Gascoyne's innocent question touched a sore spot, and Myles spoke with a sharp, angry pain in his voice that made the other look quickly up. "Sooner would my Lord have yonder swineherd serve him in the household than me," said he.
"Why may that be, Myles?" said Gascoyne.
"Because," answered Myles, with the same angry bitterness in his voice, "either the Earl is a coward that feareth to befriend me, or else he is a caitiff, ashamed of his own flesh and blood, and of me, the son of his one-time comrade."
Gascoyne raised himself upon his elbow, and opened his eyes wide in wonder. "Afeard of thee, Myles!" quoth he. "Why should he be afeared to befriend thee? Who art thou that the Earl should fear thee?"
Myles hesitated for a moment or two; wisdom bade him remain silent upon the dangerous topic, but his heart yearned for sympathy and companionship in his trouble. "I will tell thee," said he, suddenly, and therewith poured out all of the story, so far as he knew it, to his listening, wondering friend, and his heart felt lighter to be thus eased of its burden. "And now," said he, as he concluded, "is not this Earl a mean-hearted caitiff to leave me, the son of his one-time friend and kinsman, thus to stand or to fall alone among strangers and in a strange place without once stretching me a helping hand?" He waited, and Gascoyne knew that he expected an answer.
"I know not that he is a mean-hearted caitiff, Myles," said he at last, hesitatingly. "The Earl hath many enemies, and I have heard that he hath stood more than once in peril, having been accused of dealings with the King's foes. He was cousin to the Earl of Kent, and I do remember hearing that he had a narrow escape at that time from ruin. There be more reasons than thou wottest of why he should not have dealings with thy father."
"I had not thought," said Myles, bitterly, after a little pause, "that thou wouldst stand up for him and against me in this quarrel, Gascoyne. Him will I never forgive so long as I may live, and I had thought that thou wouldst have stood by me."
"So I do," said Gascoyne, hastily, "and do love thee more than any one in all the world, Myles; but I had thought that it would make thee feel more easy, to think that the Earl was not against thee. And, indeed, from all thou has told me, I do soothly think that he and Sir James mean to befriend thee and hold thee privily in kind regard."
"Then why doth he not stand forth like a man and befriend me and my father openly, even if it be to his own peril?" said Myles, reverting stubbornly to what he had first spoken.
Gascoyne did not answer, but lay for a long while in silence. "Knowest thou," he suddenly asked, after a while, "who is this great enemy of whom Sir James speaketh, and who seeketh so to drive thy father to ruin?"
"Nay," said Myles, "I know not, for my father hath never spoken of these things, and Sir James would not tell me. But this I know," said he, suddenly, grinding his teeth together, "an I do not hunt him out some day and slay him like a dog—" He stopped abruptly, and Gascoyne, looking askance at him, saw that his eyes were full of tears, whereupon he turned his looks away again quickly, and fell to shooting pebbles out through the open window with his finger and thumb.
"Thou wilt tell no one of these things that I have said?" said Myles, after a while.
"Not I," said Gascoyne. "Thinkest thou I could do such a thing?"
"Nay," said Myles, briefly.
Perhaps this talk more than anything else that had ever passed between them knit the two friends the closer together, for, as I have said, Myles felt easier now that he had poured out his bitter thoughts and words; and as for Gascoyne, I think that there is nothing so flattering to one's soul as to be made the confidant of a stronger nature.
But the old tower served another purpose than that of a spot in which to pass away a few idle hours, or in which to indulge the confidences of friendship, for it was there that Myles gathered a backing of strength for resistance against the tyranny of the bachelors, and it is for that more than for any other reason that it has been told how they found the place and of what they did there, feeling secure against interruption.
Myles Falworth was not of a kind that forgets or neglects a thing upon which the mind has once been set. Perhaps his chief objective since the talk with Sir James following his fight in the dormitory had been successful resistance to the exactions of the head of the body of squires. He was now (more than a month had passed) looked upon by nearly if not all of the younger lads as an acknowledged leader in his own class. So one day he broached a matter to Gascoyne that had for some time been digesting in his mind. It was the formation of a secret order, calling themselves the "Knights of the Rose," their meeting-place to be the chapel of the Brutus Tower, and their object to be the righting of wrongs, "as they," said Myles, "of Arthur his Round-table did right wrongs."
"But, prithee, what wrongs are there to right in this place?" quoth Gascoyne, after listening intently to the plan which Myles set forth.
"Why, first of all, this," said Myles, clinching his fists, as he had a habit of doing when anything stirred him deeply, "that we set those vile bachelors to their right place; and that is, that they be no longer our masters, but our fellows."
Gascoyne shook his head. He hated clashing and conflict above all things, and was for peace. Why should they thus rush to thrust themselves into trouble? Let matters abide as they were a little longer; surely life was pleasant enough without turning it all topsy-turvy. Then, with a sort of indignation, why should Myles, who had only come among them a month, take such service more to heart than they who had endured it for years? And, finally, with the hopefulness of so many of the rest of us, he advised Myles to let matters alone, and they would right themselves in time.
But Myles's mind was determined; his active spirit could not brook resting passively under a wrong; he would endure no longer, and now or never they must make their stand.
"But look thee, Myles Falworth," said Gascoyne, "all this is not to be done withouten fighting shrewdly. Wilt thou take that fighting upon thine own self? As for me, I tell thee I love it not."
"Why, aye," said Myles; "I ask no man to do what I will not do myself."
Gascoyne shrugged his shoulders. "So be it," said he. "An thou hast appetite to run thy head against hard knocks, do it i' mercy's name! I for one will stand thee back while thou art taking thy raps."
There was a spirit of drollery in Gascoyne's speech that rubbed against Myles's earnestness.
"Out upon it!" cried he, his patience giving way. "Seest not that I am in serious earnest? Why then dost thou still jest like Mad Noll, my Lord's fool? An thou wilt not lend me thine aid in this matter, say so and ha' done with it, and I will bethink me of somewhere else to turn."
Then Gascoyne yielded at once, as he always did when his friend lost his temper, and having once assented to it, entered into the scheme heart and soul. Three other lads—one of them that tall thin squire Edmund Wilkes, before spoken of—were sounded upon the subject. They also entered into the plan of the secret organization with an enthusiasm which might perhaps not have been quite so glowing had they realized how very soon Myles designed embarking upon active practical operations. One day Myles and Gascoyne showed them the strange things that they had discovered in the old tower—the inner staircases, the winding passage-ways, the queer niches and cupboard, and the black shaft of a well that pierced down into the solid wall, and whence, perhaps, the old castle folk had one time drawn their supply of water in time of siege, and with every new wonder of the marvellous place the enthusiasm of the three recruits rose higher and higher. They rummaged through the lumber pile in the great circular room as Myles and Gascoyne had done, and at last, tired out, they ascended to the airy chapel, and there sat cooling themselves in the rustling freshness of the breeze that came blowing briskly in through the arched windows.
It was then and there that the five discussed and finally determined upon the detailed plans of their organization, canvassing the names of the squirehood, and selecting from it a sufficient number of bold and daring spirits to make up a roll of twenty names in all.
Gascoyne had, as I said, entered into the matter with spirit, and perhaps it was owing more to him than to any other that the project caught its delightful flavor of romance.
"Perchance," said he, as the five lads lay in the rustling stillness through which sounded the monotonous and ceaseless cooing of the pigeons—"perchance there may be dwarfs and giants and dragons and enchanters and evil knights and what not even nowadays. And who knows but that if we Knights of the Rose hold together we may go forth into the world, and do battle with them, and save beautiful ladies, and have tales and gestes written about us as they are writ about the Seven Champions and Arthur his Round-table."
Perhaps Myles, who lay silently listening to all that was said, was the only one who looked upon the scheme at all in the light of real utility, but I think that even with him the fun of the matter outweighed the serious part of the business.
So it was that the Sacred Order of the Twenty Knights of the Rose came to be initiated. They appointed a code of secret passwords and countersigns which were very difficult to remember, and which were only used when they might excite the curiosity of the other and uninitiated boys by their mysterious sound. They elected Myles as their Grand High Commander, and held secret meetings in the ancient tower, where many mysteries were soberly enacted.
Of course in a day or two all the body of squires knew nearly everything concerning the Knights of the Rose, and of their secret meetings in the old tower. The lucky twenty were the objects of envy of all not so fortunate as to be included in this number, and there was a marked air of secrecy about everything they did that appealed to every romantic notion of the youngsters looking on. What was the stormy outcome of it all is now presently to be told.
Thus it was that Myles, with an eye to open war with the bachelors, gathered a following to his support. It was some little while before matters were brought to a crisis—a week or ten days. Perhaps even Myles had no great desire to hasten matters. He knew that whenever war was declared, he himself would have to bear the brunt of the battle, and even the bravest man hesitates before deliberately thrusting himself into a fight.
One morning Myles and Gascoyne and Wilkes sat under the shade of two trees, between which was a board nailed to the trunks, making a rude bench—always a favorite lounging-place for the lads in idle moments. Myles was polishing his bascinet with lard and wood-ashes, rubbing the metal with a piece of leather, and wiping it clean with a fustian rag. The other two, who had just been relieved from household duty, lay at length idly looking on.
Just then one of the smaller pages, a boy of twelve or thirteen, by name Robin Ingoldsby, crossed the court. He had been crying; his face was red and blubbered, and his body was still shaken with convulsive sniffs.
Myles looked up. "Come hither, Robin," he called from where he sat. "What is to do?"
The little fellow came slowly up to where the three rested in the shade. "Mowbray beat me with a strap," said he, rubbing his sleeve across his eyes, and catching his breath at the recollection.
"Beat thee, didst say?" said Myles, drawing his brows together. "Why did he beat thee?"
"Because," said Robin, "I tarried overlong in fetching a pot of beer from the buttery for him and Wyatt." Then, with a boy's sudden and easy quickness in forgetting past troubles, "Tell me, Falworth," said he, "when wilt thou give me that knife thou promised me—the one thou break the blade of yesterday?"
"I know not," said Myles, bluntly, vexed that the boy did not take the disgrace of his beating more to heart. "Some time soon, mayhap. Me thinks thou shouldst think more of thy beating than of a broken knife. Now get thee gone to thy business."
The youngster lingered for a moment or two watching Myles at his work. "What is that on the leather scrap, Falworth?" said he, curiously.
"Lard and ashes," said Myles, testily. "Get thee gone, I say, or I will crack thy head for thee;" and he picked up a block of wood, with a threatening gesture.
The youngster made a hideous grimace, and then scurried away, ducking his head, lest in spite of Myles's well-known good-nature the block should come whizzing after him.
"Hear ye that now!" cried Myles, flinging down the block again and turning to his two friends. "Beaten with straps because, forsooth, he would not fetch and carry quickly enough to please the haste of these bachelors. Oh, this passeth patience, and I for one will bear it no longer."
"Nay, Myles," said Gascoyne, soothingly, "the little imp is as lazy as a dormouse and as mischievous as a monkey. I'll warrant the hiding was his due, and that more of the like would do him good."
"Why, how dost thou talk, Francis!" said Myles, turning upon him indignantly. "Thou knowest that thou likest to see the boy beaten no more than I." Then, after a meditative pause, "How many, think ye, we muster of our company of the Rose today?"
Wilkes looked doubtfully at Gascoyne. "There be only seventeen of us here now," said he at last. "Brinton and Lambourne are away to Roby Castle in Lord George's train, and will not be back till Saturday next. And Watt Newton is in the infirmary.
"Seventeen be'st enou," said Myles, grimly. "Let us get together this afternoon, such as may, in the Brutus Tower, for I, as I did say, will no longer suffer these vile bachelors."
Gascoyne and Wilkes exchanged looks, and then the former blew a long whistle.
So that afternoon a gloomy set of young faces were gathered together in the Eyry—fifteen of the Knights of the Rose—and all knew why they were assembled. The talk which followed was conducted mostly by Myles. He addressed the others with a straightforward vim and earnestness, but the response was only half-hearted, and when at last, having heated himself up with his own fire, he sat down, puffing out his red cheeks and glaring round, a space of silence followed, the lads looked doubtfully at one another. Myles felt the chill of their silence strike coldly on his enthusiasm, and it vexed him.
"What wouldst thou do, Falworth?" said one of the knights, at last. "Wouldst have us open a quarrel with the bachelors?"
"Nay," said Myles, gruffly. "I had thought that ye would all lend me a hand in a pitched battle but now I see that ye ha' no stomach for that. Ne'theless, I tell ye plainly I will not submit longer to the bachelors. So now I will ask ye not to take any venture upon yourselves, but only this: that ye will stand by me when I do my fighting, and not let five or seven of them fall upon me at once.
"There is Walter Blunt; he is parlous strong," said one of the others, after a time of silence. "Methinks he could conquer any two of us."
"Nay," said Myles; "ye do fear him too greatly. I tell ye I fear not to stand up to try battle with him and will do so, too, if the need arise. Only say ye that ye will stand by my back."
"Marry," said Gascoyne, quaintly, "an thou wilt dare take the heavy end upon thee, I for one am willing to stand by and see that thou have thy fill of fighting."
"I too will stand thee by, Myles," said Edmund Wilkes.
"And I, and I, and I," said others, chiming in.
Those who would still have held back were carried along by the stream, and so it was settled that if the need should arise for Myles to do a bit of fighting, the others should stand by to see that he had fair play.
"When thinkest thou that thou wilt take thy stand against them, Myles?" asked Wilkes.
Myles hesitated a moment. "To-morrow," said he, grimly.
Several of the lads whistled softly.
Gascoyne was prepared for an early opening of the war, but perhaps not for such an early opening as this. "By 'r Lady, Myles, thou art hungry for brawling," said he.
After the first excitement of meeting, discussing, and deciding had passed, Myles began to feel the weight of the load he had so boldly taken upon himself. He began to reckon what a serious thing it was for him to stand as a single champion against the tyranny that had grown so strong through years of custom. Had he let himself do so, he might almost have repented, but it was too late now for repentance. He had laid his hand to the plough, and he must drive the furrow.
Somehow the news of impending battle had leaked out among the rest of the body of squires, and a buzz of suppressed excitement hummed through the dormitory that evening. The bachelors, to whom, no doubt, vague rumors had been blown, looked lowering, and talked together in low voices, standing apart in a group. Some of them made a rather marked show of secreting knives in the straw of their beds, and no doubt it had its effect upon more than one young heart that secretly thrilled at the sight of the shining blades. However, all was undisturbed that evening. The lights were put out, and the lads retired with more than usual quietness, only for the murmur of whispering.
All night Myles's sleep was more or less disturbed by dreams in which he was now conquering, now being conquered, and before the day had fairly broken he was awake. He lay upon his cot, keying himself up for the encounter which he had set upon himself to face, and it would not be the truth to say that the sight of those knives hidden in the straw the night before had made no impression upon him. By-and-by he knew the others were beginning to awake, for he heard them softly stirring, and as the light grew broad and strong, saw them arise, one by one, and begin dressing in the gray morning. Then he himself arose and put on his doublet and hose, strapping his belt tightly about his waist; then he sat down on the side of his cot.
Presently that happened for which he was waiting; two of the younger squires started to bring the bachelors' morning supply of water. As they crossed the room Myles called to them in a loud voice—a little uneven, perhaps: "Stop! We draw no more water for any one in this house, saving only for ourselves. Set ye down those buckets, and go back to your places!"
The two lads stopped, half turned, and then stood still, holding the three buckets undecidedly.
In a moment all was uproar and confusion, for by this time every one of the lads had arisen, some sitting on the edge of their beds, some nearly, others quite dressed. A half-dozen of the Knights of the Rose came over to where Myles stood, gathering in a body behind him and the others followed, one after another.
The bachelors were hardly prepared for such prompt and vigorous action.
"What is to do?" cried one of them, who stood near the two lads with the buckets. "Why fetch ye not the water?"
"Falworth says we shall not fetch it," answered one of the lads, a boy by the name of Gosse.
"What mean ye by that, Falworth?" the young man called to Myles.
Myles's heart was beating thickly and heavily within him, but nevertheless he spoke up boldly enough. "I mean," said he, "that from henceforth ye shall fetch and carry for yourselves."
"Look'ee, Blunt," called the bachelor; "here is Falworth says they squires will fetch no more water for us."
The head bachelor had heard all that had passed, and was even then hastily slipping on his doublet and hose. "Now, then, Falworth," said he at last, striding forward, "what is to do? Ye will fetch no more water, eh? By 'r Lady, I will know the reason why."
He was still advancing towards Myles, with two or three of the older bachelors at his heels, when Gascoyne spoke.
"Thou hadst best stand back, Blunt," said he, "else thou mayst be hurt. We will not have ye bang Falworth again as ye once did, so stand thou back!"
Blunt stopped short and looked upon the lads standing behind Myles, some of them with faces a trifle pale perhaps, but all grim and determined looking enough. Then he turned upon his heel suddenly, and walked back to the far end of the dormitory, where the bachelors were presently clustered together. A few words passed between them, and then the thirteen began at once arming themselves, some with wooden clogs, and some with the knives which they had so openly concealed the night before. At the sign of imminent battle, all those not actively interested scuttled away to right and left, climbing up on the benches and cots, and leaving a free field to the combatants. The next moment would have brought bloodshed.
Now Myles, thanks to the training of the Crosbey-Dale smith, felt tolerably sure that in a wrestling bout he was a match—perhaps more than a match—for any one of the body of squires, and he had determined, if possible, to bring the battle to a single-handed encounter upon that footing. Accordingly he suddenly stepped forward before the others.
"Look'ee, fellow," he called to Blunt, "thou art he who struck me whilst I was down some while since. Wilt thou let this quarrel stand between thee and me, and meet me man to man without weapon? See, I throw me down mine own, and will meet thee with bare hands." And as he spoke, he tossed the clog he held in his hand back upon the cot.
"So be it," said Blunt, with great readiness, tossing down a similar weapon which he himself held.
"Do not go, Myles," cried Gascoyne, "he is a villain and a traitor, and would betray thee to thy death. I saw him when he first gat from bed hide a knife in his doublet."
"Thou liest!" said Blunt. "I swear, by my faith, I be barehanded as ye see me! Thy friend accuses me, Myles Falworth, because he knoweth thou art afraid of me."
"There thou liest most vilely!" exclaimed Myles. "Swear that thou hast no knife, and I will meet thee."
"Hast thou not heard me say that I have no knife?" said Blunt. "What more wouldst thou have?"
"Then I will meet thee halfway," said Myles.
Gascoyne caught him by the sleeve, and would have withheld him, assuring him that he had seen the bachelor conceal a knife. But Myles, hot for the fight, broke away from his friend without listening to him.
As the two advanced steadily towards one another a breathless silence fell upon the dormitory in sharp contrast to the uproar and confusion that had filled it a moment before. The lads, standing some upon benches, some upon beds, all watched with breathless interest the meeting of the two champions.
As they approached one another they stopped and stood for a moment a little apart, glaring the one upon the other. They seemed ill enough matched; Blunt was fully half a head taller than Myles, and was thick-set and close-knit in young manhood. Nothing but Myles's undaunted pluck could have led him to dare to face an enemy so much older and stouter than himself.
The pause was only for a moment. They who looked saw Blunt slide his hand furtively towards his bosom. Myles saw too, and in the flash of an instant knew what the gesture meant, and sprang upon the other before the hand could grasp what it sought. As he clutched his enemy he felt what he had in that instant expected to feel—the handle of a dagger. The next moment he cried, in a loud voice: "Oh, thou villain! Help, Gascoyne! He hath a knife under his doublet!"
In answer to his cry for help, Myles's friends started to his aid. But the bachelors shouted, "Stand back and let them fight it out alone, else we will knife ye too." And as they spoke, some of them leaped from the benches whereon they stood, drawing their knives and flourishing them.
For just a few seconds Myles's friends stood cowed, and in those few seconds the fight came to an end with a suddenness unexpected to all.
A struggle fierce and silent followed between the two; Blunt striving to draw his knife, and Myles, with the energy of despair, holding him tightly by the wrist. It was in vain the elder lad writhed and twisted; he was strong enough to overbear Myles, but still was not able to clutch the haft of his knife.
"Thou shalt not draw it!" gasped Myles at last. "Thou shalt not stab me!"
Then again some of his friends started forward to his aid, but they were not needed, for before they came, the fight was over.
Blunt, finding that he was not able to draw the weapon, suddenly ceased his endeavors, and flung his arms around Myles, trying to bear him down upon the ground, and in that moment his battle was lost.
In an instant—so quick, so sudden, so unexpected that no one could see how it happened—his feet were whirled away from under him, he spun with flying arms across Myles's loins, and pitched with a thud upon the stone pavement, where he lay still, motionless, while Myles, his face white with passion and his eyes gleaming, stood glaring around like a young wild-boar beset by the dogs.
The next moment the silence was broken, and the uproar broke forth with redoubled violence. The bachelors, leaping from the benches, came hurrying forward on one side, and Myles's friends from the other.
"Thou shalt smart for this, Falworth," said one of the older lads. "Belike thou hast slain him!"
Myles turned upon the speaker like a flash, and with such a passion of fury in his face that the other, a fellow nearly a head taller than he, shrank back, cowed in spite of himself. Then Gascoyne came and laid his hand on his friend's shoulder.
"Who touches me?" cried Myles, hoarsely, turning sharply upon him; and then, seeing who it was, "Oh, Francis, they would ha' killed me!"
"Come away, Myles," said Gascoyne; "thou knowest not what thou doest; thou art mad; come away. What if thou hadst killed him?"
The words called Myles somewhat to himself. "I care not!" said he, but sullenly and not passionately, and then he suffered Gascoyne and Wilkes to lead him away.
Meantime Blunt's friends had turned him over, and, after feeling his temples, his wrist, and his heart, bore him away to a bench at the far end of the room. There they fell to chafing his hands and sprinkling water in his face, a crowd of the others gathering about. Blunt was hidden from Myles by those who stood around, and the lad listened to the broken talk that filled the room with its confusion, his anxiety growing keener as he became cooler. But at last, with a heartfelt joy, he gathered from the confused buzz of words that the other lad had opened his eyes and, after a while, he saw him sit up, leaning his head upon the shoulder of one of his fellow-bachelors, white and faint and sick as death.
"Thank Heaven that thou didst not kill him!" said Edmund Wilkes, who had been standing with the crowd looking on at the efforts of Blunt's friends to revive him, and who had now come and sat down upon the bed not far from Myles.
"Aye," said Myles, gruffly, "I do thank Heaven for that."
If Myles fancied that one single victory over his enemy would cure the evil against which he fought, he was grievously mistaken; wrongs are not righted so easily as that. It was only the beginning. Other and far more bitter battles lay before him ere he could look around him and say, "I have won the victory."
For a day—for two days—the bachelors were demoralized at the fall of their leader, and the Knights of the Rose were proportionately uplifted.
The day that Blunt met his fall, the wooden tank in which the water had been poured every morning was found to have been taken away. The bachelors made a great show of indignation and inquiry. Who was it stole their tank? If they did but know, he should smart for it.
"Ho! ho!" roared Edmund Wilkes, so that the whole dormitory heard him, "smoke ye not their tricks, lads? See ye not that they have stolen their own water-tank, so that they might have no need for another fight over the carrying of the water?"
The bachelors made an obvious show of not having heard what he said, and a general laugh went around. No one doubted that Wilkes had spoken the truth in his taunt, and that the bachelors had indeed stolen their own tank. So no more water was ever carried for the head squires, but it was plain to see that the war for the upperhand was not yet over.
Even if Myles had entertained comforting thoughts to the contrary, he was speedily undeceived. One morning, about a week after the fight, as he and Gascoyne were crossing the armory court, they were hailed by a group of the bachelors standing at the stone steps of the great building.
"Holloa, Falworth!" they cried. "Knowest thou that Blunt is nigh well again?"
"Nay," said Myles, "I knew it not. But I am right glad to hear it."
"Thou wilt sing a different song anon," said one of the bachelors. "I tell thee he is hot against thee, and swears when he cometh again he will carve thee soothly."
"Aye, marry!" said another. "I would not be in thy skin a week hence for a ducat! Only this morning he told Philip Mowbray that he would have thy blood for the fall thou gavest him. Look to thyself, Falworth; he cometh again Wednesday or Thursday next; thou standest in a parlous state."
"Myles," said Gascoyne, as they entered the great quadrangle, "I do indeed fear me that he meaneth to do thee evil."
"I know not," said Myles, boldly; "but I fear him not." Nevertheless his heart was heavy with the weight of impending ill.
One evening the bachelors were more than usually noisy in their end of the dormitory, laughing and talking and shouting to one another.
"Holloa, you sirrah, Falworth!" called one of them along the length of the room. "Blunt cometh again to-morrow day."
Myles saw Gascoyne direct a sharp glance at him; but he answered nothing either to his enemy's words or his friend's look.
As the bachelor had said, Blunt came the next morning. It was just after chapel, and the whole body of squires was gathered in the armory waiting for the orders of the day and the calling of the roll of those chosen for household duty. Myles was sitting on a bench along the wall, talking and jesting with some who stood by, when of a sudden his heart gave a great leap within him.
It was Walter Blunt. He came walking in at the door as if nothing had passed, and at his unexpected coming the hubbub of talk and laughter was suddenly checked. Even Myles stopped in his speech for a moment, and then continued with a beating heart and a carelessness of manner that was altogether assumed. In his hand Blunt carried the house orders for the day, and without seeming to notice Myles, he opened it and read the list of those called upon for household service.
Myles had risen, and was now standing listening with the others. When Blunt had ended reading the list of names, he rolled up the parchment, and thrust it into his belt; then swinging suddenly on his heel, he strode straight up to Myles, facing him front to front. A moment or two of deep silence followed; not a sound broke the stillness. When Blunt spoke every one in the armory heard his words.
"Sirrah!" said he, "thou didst put foul shame upon me some time sin. Never will I forget or forgive that offence, and will have a reckoning with thee right soon that thou wilt not forget to the last day of thy life."
When Myles had seen his enemy turn upon him, he did not know at first what to expect; he would not have been surprised had they come to blows there and then, and he held himself prepared for any event. He faced the other pluckily enough and without flinching, and spoke up boldly in answer. "So be it, Walter Blunt; I fear thee not in whatever way thou mayst encounter me."
"Dost thou not?" said Blunt. "By'r Lady, thou'lt have cause to fear me ere I am through with thee." He smiled a baleful, lingering smile, and then turned slowly and walked away.
"What thinkest thou, Myles?" said Gascoyne, as the two left the armory together.
"I think naught," said Myles gruffly. "He will not dare to touch me to harm me. I fear him not." Nevertheless, he did not speak the full feelings of his heart.
"I know not, Myles," said Gascoyne, shaking his head doubtfully. "Walter Blunt is a parlous evil-minded knave, and methinks will do whatever evil he promiseth."
"I fear him not," said Myles again; but his heart foreboded trouble.
The coming of the head squire made a very great change in the condition of affairs. Even before that coming the bachelors had somewhat recovered from their demoralization, and now again they began to pluck up their confidence and to order the younger squires and pages upon this personal service or upon that.
"See ye not," said Myles one day, when the Knights of the Rose were gathered in the Brutus Tower—"see ye not that they grow as bad as ever? An we put not a stop to this overmastery now, it will never stop."
"Best let it be, Myles," said Wilkes. "They will kill thee an thou cease not troubling them. Thou hast bred mischief enow for thyself already."
"No matter for that," said Myles; "it is not to be borne that they order others of us about as they do. I mean to speak to them to-night, and tell them it shall not be."
He was as good as his word. That night, as the youngsters were shouting and romping and skylarking, as they always did before turning in, he stood upon his cot and shouted: "Silence! List to me a little!" And then, in the hush that followed—"I want those bachelors to hear this: that we squires serve them no longer, and if they would ha' some to wait upon them, they must get them otherwheres than here. There be twenty of us to stand against them and haply more, and we mean that they shall ha' service of us no more."
Then he jumped down again from his elevated stand, and an uproar of confusion instantly filled the place. What was the effect of his words upon the bachelors he could not see. What was the result he was not slow in discovering.
The next day Myles and Gascoyne were throwing their daggers for a wager at a wooden target against the wall back of the armorer's smithy. Wilkes, Gosse, and one or two others of the squires were sitting on a bench looking on, and now and then applauding a more than usually well-aimed cast of the knife. Suddenly that impish little page spoken of before, Robin Ingoldsby, thrust his shock head around the corner of the smithy, and said: "Ho, Falworth! Blunt is going to serve thee out to-day, and I myself heard him say so. He says he is going to slit thine ears." And then he was gone as suddenly as he had appeared.
Myles darted after him, caught him midway in the quadrangle, and brought him back by the scuff of the neck, squalling and struggling.
"There!" said he, still panting from the chase and seating the boy by no means gently upon the bench beside Wilkes. "Sit thou there, thou imp of evil! And now tell me what thou didst mean by thy words anon—an thou stop not thine outcry, I will cut thy throat for thee," and he made a ferocious gesture with his dagger.
It was by no means easy to worm the story from the mischievous little monkey; he knew Myles too well to be in the least afraid of his threats. But at last, by dint of bribing and coaxing, Myles and his friends managed to get at the facts. The youngster had been sent to clean the riding-boots of one of the bachelors, instead of which he had lolled idly on a cot in the dormitory, until he had at last fallen asleep. He had been awakened by the opening of the dormitory door and by the sound of voices—among them was that of his taskmaster. Fearing punishment for his neglected duty, he had slipped out of the cot, and hidden himself beneath it.
Those who had entered were Walter Blunt and three of the older bachelors. Blunt's companions were trying to persuade him against something, but without avail. It was—Myles's heart thrilled and his blood boiled—to lie in wait for him, to overpower him by numbers, and to mutilate him by slitting his ears—a disgraceful punishment administered, as a rule, only for thieving and poaching.
"He would not dare to do such a thing!" cried Myles, with heaving breast and flashing eyes.
"Aye, but he would," said Gascoyne. "His father, Lord Reginald Blunt, is a great man over Nottingham way, and my Lord would not dare to punish him even for such a matter as that. But tell me, Robin Ingoldsby, dost know aught more of this matter? Prithee tell it me, Robin. Where do they propose to lie in wait for Falworth?"
"In the gate-way of the Buttery Court, so as to catch him when he passes by to the armory," answered the boy.
"Are they there now?" said Wilkes.
"Aye, nine of them," said Robin. "I heard Blunt tell Mowbray to go and gather the others. He heard thee tell Gosse, Falworth, that thou wert going thither for thy arbalist this morn to shoot at the rooks withal."
"That will do, Robin," said Myles. "Thou mayst go."
And therewith the little imp scurried off, pulling the lobes of his ears suggestively as he darted around the corner.
The others looked at one another for a while in silence.
"So, comrades," said Myles at last, "what shall we do now?"
"Go, and tell Sir James," said Gascoyne, promptly.
"Nay," said Myles, "I take no such coward's part as that. I say an they hunger to fight, give them their stomachful."
The others were very reluctant for such extreme measures, but Myles, as usual, carried his way, and so a pitched battle was decided upon. It was Gascoyne who suggested the plan which they afterwards followed.
Then Wilkes started away to gather together those of the Knights of the Rose not upon household duty, and Myles, with the others, went to the armor smith to have him make for them a set of knives with which to meet their enemies—knives with blades a foot long, pointed and double-edged.
The smith, leaning with his hammer upon the anvil, listened to them as they described the weapons.
"Nay, nay, Master Myles," said he, when Myles had ended by telling the use to which he intended putting them. "Thou art going all wrong in this matter. With such blades, ere this battle is ended, some one would be slain, and so murder done. Then the family of him who was killed would haply have ye cited, and mayhap it might e'en come to the hanging, for some of they boys ha' great folkeys behind them. Go ye to Tom Fletcher, Master Myles, and buy of him good yew staves, such as one might break a head withal, and with them, gin ye keep your wits, ye may hold your own against knives or short swords. I tell thee, e'en though my trade be making of blades, rather would I ha' a good stout cudgel in my hand than the best dagger that ever was forged."
Myles stood thoughtfully for a moment or two; then, looking up, "Methinks thou speaketh truly, Robin," said he; "and it were ill done to have blood upon our hands."
From the long, narrow stone-paved Armory Court, and connecting it with the inner Buttery Court, ran a narrow arched passage-way, in which was a picket-gate, closed at night and locked from within. It was in this arched passage-way that, according to little Robert Ingoldsby's report, the bachelors were lying in wait for Myles. Gascoyne's plan was that Myles should enter the court alone, the Knights of the Rose lying ambushed behind the angle of the armory building until the bachelors should show themselves.
It was not without trepidation that Myles walked alone into the court, which happened then to be silent and empty. His heart beat more quickly than it was wont, and he gripped his cudgel behind his back, looking sharply this way and that, so as not to be taken unawares by a flank movement of his enemies. Midway in the court he stopped and hesitated for a moment; then he turned as though to enter the armory. The next moment he saw the bachelors come pouring out from the archway.
Instantly he turned and rushed back towards where his friends lay hidden, shouting: "To the rescue! To the rescue!"
"Stone him!" roared Blunt. "The villain escapes!"
He stopped and picked up a cobble-stone as he spoke, flinging it after his escaping prey. It narrowly missed Myles's head; had it struck him, there might have been no more of this story to tell.
"To the rescue! To the rescue!" shouted Myles's friends in answer, and the next moment he was surrounded by them. Then he turned, and swinging his cudgel, rushed back upon his foes.
The bachelors stopped short at the unexpected sight of the lads with their cudgels. For a moment they rallied and drew their knives; then they turned and fled towards their former place of hiding.
One of them turned for a moment, and flung his knife at Myles with a deadly aim; but Myles, quick as a cat, ducked his body, and the weapon flew clattering across the stony court. Then he who had flung it turned again to fly, but in his attempt he had delayed one instant too long. Myles reached him with a long-arm stroke of his cudgel just as he entered the passage-way, knocking him over like a bottle, stunned and senseless.
The next moment the picket-gate was banged in their faces and the bolt shot in the staples, and the Knights of the Rose were left shouting and battering with their cudgels against the palings.
By this time the uproar of fight had aroused those in the rooms and offices fronting upon the Armory Court; heads were thrust from many of the windows with the eager interest that a fight always evokes.
"Beware!" shouted Myles. "Here they come again!" He bore back towards the entrance of the alley-way as he spoke, those behind him scattering to right and left, for the bachelors had rallied, and were coming again to the attack, shouting.
They were not a moment too soon in this retreat, either, for the next instant the pickets flew open, and a volley of stones flew after the retreating Knights of the Rose. One smote Wilkes upon the head, knocking him down headlong. Another struck Myles upon his left shoulder, benumbing his arm from the finger-tips to the armpit, so that he thought at first the limb was broken.
"Get ye behind the buttresses!" shouted those who looked down upon the fight from the windows—"get ye behind the buttresses!" And in answer the lads, scattering like a newly-flushed covey of partridges, fled to and crouched in the sheltering angles of masonry to escape from the flying stones.
And now followed a lull in the battle, the bachelors fearing to leave the protection of the arched passage-way lest their retreat should be cut off, and the Knights of the Rose not daring to quit the shelter of the buttresses and angles of the wall lest they should be knocked down by the stones.
The bachelor whom Myles had struck down with his cudgel was sitting up rubbing the back of his head, and Wilkes had gathered his wits enough to crawl to the shelter of the nearest buttress. Myles, peeping around the corner behind which he stood, could see that the bachelors were gathered into a little group consulting together. Suddenly it broke asunder, and Blunt turned around.
"Ho, Falworth!" he cried. "Wilt thou hold truce whiles we parley with ye?"
"Aye," answered Myles.
"Wilt thou give me thine honor that ye will hold your hands from harming us whiles we talk together?"
"Yea," said Myles, "I will pledge thee mine honor."
"I accept thy pledge. See! here we throw aside our stones and lay down our knives. Lay ye by your clubs, and meet us in parley at the horse-block yonder."
"So be it," said Myles, and thereupon, standing his cudgel in the angle of the wall, he stepped boldly out into the open court-yard. Those of his party came scatteringly from right and left, gathering about him; and the bachelors advanced in a body, led by the head squire.
"Now what is it thou wouldst have, Walter Blunt?" said Myles, when both parties had met at the horse-block.
"It is to say this to thee, Myles Falworth," said the other. "One time, not long sin, thou didst challenge me to meet thee hand to hand in the dormitory. Then thou didst put a vile affront upon me, for the which I ha' brought on this battle to-day, for I knew not then that thou wert going to try thy peasant tricks of wrestling, and so, without guarding myself, I met thee as thou didst desire."
"But thou hadst thy knife, and would have stabbed him couldst thou ha' done so," said Gascoyne.
"Thou liest!" said Blunt. "I had no knife." And then, without giving time to answer, "Thou canst not deny that I met thee then at thy bidding, canst thou, Falworth?"
"Nay," said Myles, "nor haply canst thou deny it either." And at this covert reminder of his defeat Myles's followers laughed scoffingly and Blunt bit his lip.
"Thou hast said it," said he. "Then sin. I met thee at thy bidding, I dare to thee to meet me now at mine, and to fight this battle out between our two selves, with sword and buckler and bascinet as gentles should, and not in a wrestling match like two country hodges."
"Thou art a coward caitiff, Walter Blunt!" burst out Wilkes, who stood by with a swelling lump upon his head, already as big as a walnut. "Well thou knowest that Falworth is no match for thee at broadsword play. Is he not four years younger than thou, and hast thou not had three times the practice in arms that he hath had? I say thou art a coward to seek to fight with cutting weapons."
Blunt made no answer to Wilkes's speech, but gazed steadfastly at Myles, with a scornful smile curling the corners of his lips. Myles stood looking upon the ground without once lifting his eyes, not knowing what to answer, for he was well aware that he was no match for Blunt with the broadsword.
"Thou art afraid to fight me, Myles Falworth," said Blunt, tauntingly, and the bachelors gave a jeering laugh in echo.
Then Myles looked up, and I cannot say that his face was not a trifle whiter than usual. "Nay," said he, "I am not afraid, and I will fight thee, Blunt."
"So be it," said Blunt. "Then let us go at it straightway in the armory yonder, for they be at dinner in the Great Hall, and just now there be'st no one by to stay us."
"Thou shalt not fight him, Myles!" burst out Gascoyne. "He will murther thee! Thou shalt not fight him, I say!"
Myles turned away without answering him.
"What is to do?" called one of those who were still looking out of the windows as the crowd of boys passed beneath.
"Blunt and Falworth are going to fight it out hand to hand in the armory," answered one of the bachelors, looking up.
The brawling of the squires was a jest to all the adjoining part of the house. So the heads were withdrawn again, some laughing at the "sparring of the cockerels."
But it was no jesting matter to poor Myles.
I have no intention to describe the fight between Myles Falworth and Walter Blunt. Fisticuffs of nowadays are brutal and debasing enough, but a fight with a sharp-edged broadsword was not only brutal and debasing, but cruel and bloody as well.
From the very first of the fight Myles Falworth was palpably and obviously overmatched. After fifteen minutes had passed, Blunt stood hale and sound as at first; but poor Myles had more than one red stain of warm blood upon doublet and hose, and more than one bandage had been wrapped by Gascoyne and Wilkes about sore wounds.
He had received no serious injury as yet, for not only was his body protected by a buckler, or small oblong shield, which he carried upon his left arm, and his head by a bascinet, or light helmet of steel, but perhaps, after all, Blunt was not over-anxious to do him any dangerous harm. Nevertheless, there could be but one opinion as to how the fight tended, and Myles's friends were gloomy and downcast; the bachelors proportionately exultant, shouting with laughter, and taunting Myles at every unsuccessful stroke.
Once, as he drew back panting, leaning upon Gascoyne's shoulder, the faithful friend whispered, with trembling lips: "Oh, dear Myles, carry it no further. Thou hurtest him not, and he will slay thee ere he have done with thee."
Thereupon Blunt, who caught the drift of the speech, put in a word. "Thou art sore hurt, Myles Falworth," said he, "and I would do thee no grievous harm. Yield thee and own thyself beaten, and I will forgive thee. Thou hast fought a good fight, and there is no shame in yielding now."
"Never!" cried Myles, hoarsely—"never will I yield me! Thou mayst slay me, Walter Blunt, and I reck not if thou dost do so, but never else wilt thou conquer me."
There was a tone of desperation in his voice that made all look serious.
"Nay," said Blunt; "I will fight thee no more, Myles Falworth; thou hast had enough."
"By heavens!" cried Myles, grinding his teeth, "thou shalt fight me, thou coward! Thou hast brought this fight upon us, and either thou or I get our quittance here. Let go, Gascoyne!" he cried, shaking loose his friend's hold; "I tell thee he shall fight me!"
From that moment Blunt began to lose his head. No doubt he had not thought of such a serious fight as this when he had given his challenge, and there was a savage bull-dog tenacity about Myles that could not but have had a somewhat demoralizing effect upon him.
A few blows were given and taken, and then Myles's friends gave a shout. Blunt drew back, and placed his hand to his shoulder. When he drew it away again it was stained with red, and another red stain grew and spread rapidly down the sleeve of his jacket. He stared at his hand for a moment with a half-dazed look, and then glanced quickly to right and left.
"I will fight no more," said he, sullenly.
"Then yield thee!" cried Myles, exultantly.
The triumphant shouts of the Knights of the Rose stung Blunt like a lash, and the battle began again. Perhaps some of the older lads were of a mind to interfere at this point, certainly some looked very serious, but before they interposed, the fight was ended.
Blunt, grinding his teeth, struck one undercut at his opponent—the same undercut that Myles had that time struck at Sir James Lee at the knight's bidding when he first practised at the Devlen pels. Myles met the blow as Sir James had met the blow that he had given, and then struck in return as Sir James had struck—full and true. The bascinet that Blunt wore glanced the blow partly, but not entirely. Myles felt his sword bite through the light steel cap, and Blunt dropped his own blade clattering upon the floor. It was all over in an instant, but in that instant what he saw was stamped upon Myles's mind with an indelible imprint. He saw the young man stagger backward; he saw the eyes roll upward; and a red streak shoot out from under the cap and run down across the cheek.
Blunt reeled half around, and then fell prostrate upon his face; and Myles stood staring at him with the delirious turmoil of his battle dissolving rapidly into a dumb fear at that which he had done.
Once again he had won the victory—but what a victory! "Is he dead?" he whispered to Gascoyne.
"I know not," said Gascoyne, with a very pale face. "But come away, Myles." And he led his friend out of the room.
Some little while later one of the bachelors came to the dormitory where Myles, his wounds smarting and aching and throbbing, lay stretched upon his cot, and with a very serious face bade him to go presently to Sir James, who had just come from dinner, and was then in his office.
By this time Myles knew that he had not slain his enemy, and his heart was light in spite of the coming interview. There was no one in the office but Sir James and himself, and Myles, without concealing anything, told, point by point, the whole trouble. Sir James sat looking steadily at him for a while after he had ended.
"Never," said he, presently, "did I know any one of ye squires, in all the time that I have been here, get himself into so many broils as thou, Myles Falworth. Belike thou sought to take this lad's life."
"Nay," said Myles, earnestly; "God forbid!"
"Ne'theless," said Sir James, "thou fetched him a main shrewd blow; and it is by good hap, and no fault of thine, that he will live to do more mischief yet. This is thy second venture at him; the third time, haply, thou wilt end him for good." Then suddenly assuming his grimmest and sternest manner: "Now, sirrah, do I put a stop to this, and no more shall ye fight with edged tools. Get thee to the dormitory, and abide there a full week without coming forth. Michael shall bring thee bread and water twice a day for that time. That is all the food thou shalt have, and we will see if that fare will not cool thy hot humors withal."
Myles had expected a punishment so much more severe than that which was thus meted to him, that in the sudden relief he broke into a convulsive laugh, and then, with a hasty sweep, wiped a brimming moisture from his eyes.
Sir James looked keenly at him for a moment. "Thou art white i' the face," said he. "Art thou wounded very sorely?"
"Nay" said Myles, "it is not much; but I be sick in my stomach."
"Aye, aye," said Sir James; "I know that feeling well. It is thus that one always feeleth in coming out from a sore battle when one hath suffered wounds and lost blood. An thou wouldst keep thyself hale, keep thyself from needless fighting. Now go thou to the dormitory, and, as I said, come thou not forth again for a week. Stay, sirrah!" he added; "I will send Georgebarber to thee to look to thy sores. Green wounds are best drawn and salved ere they grow cold."
I wonder what Myles would have thought had he known that so soon as he had left the office, Sir James had gone straight to the Earl and recounted the whole matter to him, with a deal of dry gusto, and that the Earl listened laughing.
"Aye," said he, when Sir James had done, "the boy hath mettle, sure. Nevertheless, we must transplant this fellow Blunt to the office of gentleman-in-waiting. He must be old enough now, and gin he stayeth in his present place, either he will do the boy a harm, or the boy will do him a harm."
So Blunt never came again to trouble the squires' quarters; and thereafter the youngsters rendered no more service to the elders.
Myles's first great fight in life was won.
The summer passed away, and the bleak fall came. Myles had long since accepted his position as one set apart from the others of his kind, and had resigned himself to the evident fact that he was never to serve in the household in waiting upon the Earl. I cannot say that it never troubled him, but in time there came a compensation of which I shall have presently to speak.
And then he had so much the more time to himself. The other lads were sometimes occupied by their household duties when sports were afoot in which they would liked to have taken part. Myles was always free to enter into any matter of the kind after his daily exercise had been performed at the pels, the butts, or the tilting-court.
But even though he was never called to do service in "my Lord's house," he was not long in gaining a sort of second-hand knowledge of all the family. My Lady, a thin, sallow, faded dame, not yet past middle age, but looking ten years older. The Lady Anne, the daughter of the house; a tall, thin, dark-eyed, dark-haired, handsome young dame of twenty or twenty-one years of age, hawk-nosed like her father, and silent, proud, and haughty, Myles heard the squires say. Lady Alice, the Earl of Mackworth's niece and ward, a great heiress in her own right, a strikingly pretty black-eyed girl of fourteen or fifteen.
These composed the Earl's personal family; but besides them was Lord George Beaumont, his Earl's brother, and him Myles soon came to know better than any of the chief people of the castle excepting Sir James Lee.
For since Myles's great battle in the armory, Lord George had taken a laughing sort of liking to the lad, encouraging him at times to talk of his adventures, and of his hopes and aspirations.
Perhaps the Earl's younger brother—who was himself somewhat a soldier of fortune, having fought in Spain, France, and Germany—felt a certain kinship in spirit with the adventurous youngster who had his unfriended way to make in the world. However that might have been, Lord George was very kind and friendly to the lad, and the willing service that Myles rendered him reconciled him not a little to the Earl's obvious neglect.
Besides these of the more immediate family of the Earl were a number of knights, ladies, and gentlemen, some of them cadets, some of them retainers, of the house of Beaumont, for the princely nobles of those days lived in state little less royal than royalty itself.
Most of the knights and gentlemen Myles soon came to know by sight, meeting them in Lord George's apartments in the south wing of the great house, and some of them, following the lead of Lord George, singled him out for friendly notice, giving him a nod or a word in passing.
Every season has its pleasures for boys, and the constant change that they bring is one of the greatest delights of boyhood's days.
All of us, as we grow older, have in our memory pictures of by-gone times that are somehow more than usually vivid, the colors of some not blurring by time as others do. One of which, in remembering, always filled Myles's heart in after-years with an indefinable pleasure, was the recollection of standing with others of his fellow squires in the crisp brown autumn grass of the paddock, and shooting with the long-bow at wildfowl, which, when the east wind was straining, flew low overhead to pitch to the lake in the forbidden precincts of the deer park beyond the brow of the hill. More than once a brace or two of these wildfowl, shot in their southward flight by the lads and cooked by fat, good-natured Mother Joan, graced the rude mess-table of the squires in the long hall, and even the toughest and fishiest drake, so the fruit of their skill, had a savor that, somehow or other, the daintiest fare lacked in after-years.
Then fall passed and winter came, bleak, cold, and dreary—not winter as we know it nowadays, with warm fires and bright lights to make the long nights sweet and cheerful with comfort, but winter with all its grimness and sternness. In the great cold stone-walled castles of those days the only fire and almost the only light were those from the huge blazing logs that roared and crackled in the great open stone fireplace, around which the folks gathered, sheltering their faces as best they could from the scorching heat, and cloaking their shoulders from the biting cold, for at the farther end of the room, where giant shadows swayed and bowed and danced huge and black against the high walls, the white frost glistened in the moonlight on the stone pavements, and the breath went up like smoke.
In those days were no books to read, but at the best only rude stories and jests, recited by some strolling mummer or minstrel to the listening circle, gathered around the blaze and welcoming the coarse, gross jests, and coarser, grosser songs with roars of boisterous laughter.
Yet bleak and dreary as was the winter in those days, and cold and biting as was the frost in the cheerless, windy halls and corridors of the castle, it was not without its joys to the young lads; for then, as now, boys could find pleasure even in slushy weather, when the sodden snow is fit for nothing but to make snowballs of.
Thrice that bitter winter the moat was frozen over, and the lads, making themselves skates of marrow-bones, which they bought from the hall cook at a groat a pair, went skimming over the smooth surface, red-checked and shouting, while the crows and the jackdaws looked down at them from the top of the bleak gray walls.
Then at Yule-tide, which was somewhat of a rude semblance to the Merry Christmas season of our day, a great feast was held in the hall, and all the castle folk were fed in the presence of the Earl and the Countess. Oxen and sheep were roasted whole; huge suet puddings, made of barley meal sweetened with honey and stuffed with plums, were boiled in great caldrons in the open courtyard; whole barrels of ale and malmsey were broached, and all the folk, gentle and simple, were bidden to the feast. Afterwards the minstrels danced and played a rude play, and in the evening a miracle show was performed on a raised platform in the north hall.
For a week afterwards the castle was fed upon the remains of the good things left from that great feast, until everyone grew to loathe fine victuals, and longed for honest beef and mustard again.
Then at last in that constant change the winter was gone, and even the lads who had enjoyed its passing were glad when the winds blew warm once more, and the grass showed green in sunny places, and the leader of the wild-fowl blew his horn, as they who in the fall had flown to the south flew, arrow-like, northward again; when the buds swelled and the leaves burst forth once more, and crocuses and then daffodils gleamed in the green grass, like sparks and flames of gold.
With the spring came the out-door sports of the season; among others that of ball—for boys were boys, and played at ball even in those faraway days—a game called trap-ball. Even yet in some parts of England it is played just as it was in Myles Falworth's day, and enjoyed just as Myles and his friends enjoyed it.
So now that the sun was warm and the weather pleasant the game of trap-ball was in full swing every afternoon, the play-ground being an open space between the wall that surrounded the castle grounds and that of the privy garden—the pleasance in which the ladies of the Earl's family took the air every day, and upon which their apartments opened.
Now one fine breezy afternoon, when the lads were shouting and playing at this, then their favorite game, Myles himself was at the trap barehanded and barearmed. The wind was blowing from behind him, and, aided perhaps by it, he had already struck three of four balls nearly the whole length of the court—an unusual distance—and several of the lads had gone back almost as far as the wall of the privy garden to catch any ball that might chance to fly as far as that. Then once more Myles struck, throwing all his strength into the blow. The ball shot up into the air, and when it fell, it was to drop within the privy garden.
The shouts of the young players were instantly stilled, and Gascoyne, who stood nearest Myles, thrust his hands into his belt, giving a long shrill whistle.
"This time thou hast struck us all out, Myles," said he. "There be no more play for us until we get another ball."
The outfielders came slowly trooping in until they had gathered in a little circle around Myles.
"I could not help it," said Myles, in answer to their grumbling. "How knew I the ball would fly so far? But if I ha' lost the ball, I can get it again. I will climb the wall for it."
"Thou shalt do naught of the kind, Myles," said Gascoyne, hastily. "Thou art as mad as a March hare to think of such a venture! Wouldst get thyself shot with a bolt betwixt the ribs, like poor Diccon Cook?"
Of all places about the castle the privy garden was perhaps the most sacred. It was a small plot of ground, only a few rods long and wide, and was kept absolutely private for the use of the Countess and her family. Only a little while before Myles had first come to Devlen, one of the cook's men had been found climbing the wall, whereupon the soldier who saw him shot him with his cross bow. The poor fellow dropped from the wall into the garden, and when they found him, he still held a bunch of flowers in his hand, which he had perhaps been gathering for his sweetheart.
Had Myles seen him carried on a litter to the infirmary as Gascoyne and some of the others had done, he might have thought twice before venturing to enter the ladies' private garden. As it was, he only shook his stubborn head, and said again, "I will climb the wall and fetch it."
Now at the lower extremity of the court, and about twelve or fifteen feet distant from the garden wall, there grew a pear-tree, some of the branches of which overhung into the garden beyond. So, first making sure that no one was looking that way, and bidding the others keep a sharp lookout, Myles shinned up this tree, and choosing one of the thicker limbs, climbed out upon it for some little distance. Then lowering his body, he hung at arm's-length, the branch bending with his weight, and slowly let himself down hand under hand, until at last he hung directly over the top of the wall, and perhaps a foot above it. Below him he could see the leafy top of an arbor covered with a thick growth of clematis, and even as he hung there he noticed the broad smooth walks, the grassy terrace in front of the Countess's apartments in the distance, the quaint flower-beds, the yew-trees trimmed into odd shapes, and even the deaf old gardener working bare-armed in the sunlight at a flower-bed in the far corner by the tool-house.
The top of the wall was pointed like a house roof, and immediately below him was covered by a thick growth of green moss, and it flashed through his mind as he hung there that maybe it would offer a very slippery foothold for one dropping upon the steep slopes of the top. But it was too late to draw back now.
Bracing himself for a moment, he loosed his hold upon the limb above. The branch flew back with a rush, and he dropped, striving to grasp the sloping angle with his feet. Instantly the treacherous slippery moss slid away from beneath him; he made a vain clutch at the wall, his fingers sliding over the cold stones, then, with a sharp exclamation, down he pitched bodily into the garden beneath! A thousand thoughts flew through his brain like a cloud of flies, and then a leafy greenness seemed to strike up against him. A splintering crash sounded in his ears as the lattice top of the arbor broke under him, and with one final clutch at the empty air he fell heavily upon the ground beneath.
He heard a shrill scream that seemed to find an instant echo; even as he fell he had a vision of faces and bright colors, and when he sat up, dazed and bewildered, he found himself face to face with the Lady Anne, the daughter of the house, and her cousin, the Lady Alice, who clutching one another tightly, stood staring at him with wide scared eyes.
For a little time there was a pause of deep silence, during which the fluttering leaves came drifting down from the broken arbor above.
It was the Lady Anne who first spoke. "Who art thou, and whence comest thou?" said she, tremulously.
Then Myles gathered himself up sheepishly. "My name is Myles Falworth," said he, "and I am one of the squires of the body."
"Oh! aye!" said the Lady Alice, suddenly. "Me thought I knew thy face. Art thou not the young man that I have seen in Lord George's train?"
"Yes, lady," said Myles, wrapping and twining a piece of the broken vine in and out among his fingers. "Lord George hath often had me of late about his person."
"And what dost thou do here, sirrah?" said Lady Anne, angrily. "How darest thou come so into our garden?"
"I meant not to come as I did," said Myles, clumsily, and with a face hot and red. "But I slipped over the top of the wall and fell hastily into the garden. Truly, lady, I meant ye no harm or fright thereby."
He looked so drolly abashed as he stood before them, with his clothes torn and soiled from the fall, his face red, and his eyes downcast, all the while industriously twisting the piece of clematis in and around his fingers, that Lady Anne's half-frightened anger could not last. She and her cousin exchanged glances, and smiled at one another.
"But," said she at last, trying to draw her pretty brows together into a frown, "tell me; why didst thou seek to climb the wall?"
"I came to seek a ball," said Myles, "which I struck over hither from the court beyond."
"And wouldst thou come into our privy garden for no better reason than to find a ball?" said the young lady.
"Nay," said Myles; "it was not so much to find the ball, but, in good sooth, I did truly strike it harder than need be, and so, gin I lost the ball, I could do no less than come and find it again, else our sport is done for the day. So it was I came hither."
The two young ladies had by now recovered from their fright. The Lady Anne slyly nudged her cousin with her elbow, and the younger could not suppress a half-nervous laugh. Myles heard it, and felt his face grow hotter and redder than ever.
"Nay," said Lady Anne, "I do believe Master Giles—"
"My name be'st Myles," corrected Myles.
"Very well, then, Master Myles, I say I do believe that thou meanest no harm in coming hither; ne'theless it was ill of thee so to do. An my father should find thee here, he would have thee shrewdly punished for such trespassing. Dost thou not know that no one is permitted to enter this place—no, not even my uncle George? One fellow who came hither to steal apples once had his ears shaven close to his head, and not more than a year ago one of the cook's men who climbed the wall early one morning was shot by the watchman."
"Aye," said Myles, "I knew of him who was shot, and it did go somewhat against my stomach to venture, knowing what had happed to him. Ne'theless, an I gat not the ball, how were we to play more to-day at the trap?"
"Marry, thou art a bold fellow, I do believe me," said the young lady, "and sin thou hast come in the face of such peril to get thy ball, thou shalt not go away empty. Whither didst thou strike it?"
"Over yonder by the cherry-tree," said Myles, jerking his head in that direction. "An I may go get it, I will trouble ye no more." As he spoke he made a motion to leave them.
"Stay!" said the Lady Anne, hastily; "remain where thou art. An thou cross the open, some one may haply see thee from the house, and will give the alarm, and thou wilt be lost. I will go get thy ball."
And so she left Myles and her cousin, crossing the little plots of grass and skirting the rosebushes to the cherry-tree.
When Myles found himself alone with Lady Alice, he knew not where to look or what to do, but twisted the piece of clematis which he still held in and out more industriously than ever.
Lady Alice watched him with dancing eyes for a little while. "Haply thou wilt spoil that poor vine," said she by-and-by, breaking the silence and laughing, then turning suddenly serious again. "Didst thou hurt thyself by thy fall?"
"Nay," said Myles, looking up, "such a fall as that was no great matter. Many and many a time I have had worse."
"Hast thou so?" said the Lady Alice. "Thou didst fright me parlously, and my coz likewise."
Myles hesitated for a moment, and then blurted out, "Thereat I grieve, for thee I would not fright for all the world."
The young lady laughed and blushed. "All the world is a great matter," said she.
"Yea," said he, "it is a great matter; but it is a greater matter to fright thee, and so I would not do it for that, and more."
The young lady laughed again, but she did not say anything further, and a space of silence fell so long that by-and-by she forced herself to say, "My cousin findeth not the ball presently."
"Nay," said Myles, briefly, and then again neither spoke, until by-and-by the Lady Anne came, bringing the ball. Myles felt a great sense of relief at that coming, and yet was somehow sorry. Then he took the ball, and knew enough to bow his acknowledgment in a manner neither ill nor awkward.
"Didst thou hurt thyself?" asked Lady Anne.
"Nay," said Myles, giving himself a shake; "seest thou not I be whole, limb and bone? Nay, I have had shrewdly worse falls than that. Once I fell out of an oak-tree down by the river and upon a root, and bethought me I did break a rib or more. And then one time when I was a boy in Crosbey-Dale—that was where I lived before I came hither—I did catch me hold of the blade of the windmill, thinking it was moving slowly, and that I would have a ride i' th' air, and so was like to have had a fall ten thousand times worse than this."
"Oh, tell us more of that!" said the Lady Anne, eagerly. "I did never hear of such an adventure as that. Come, coz, and sit down here upon the bench, and let us have him tell us all of that happening."
Now the lads upon the other side of the wall had been whistling furtively for some time, not knowing whether Myles had broken his neck or had come off scot-free from his fall. "I would like right well to stay with ye," said he, irresolutely, "and would gladly tell ye that and more an ye would have me to do so; but hear ye not my friends call me from beyond? Mayhap they think I break my back, and are calling to see whether I be alive or no. An I might whistle them answer and toss me this ball to them, all would then be well, and they would know that I was not hurt, and so, haply, would go away."
"Then answer them," said the Lady Anne, "and tell us of that thing thou spokest of anon—how thou tookest a ride upon the windmill. We young ladies do hear little of such matters, not being allowed to talk with lads. All that we hear of perils are of knights and ladies and jousting, and such like. It would pleasure us right well to have thee tell of thy adventures."
So Myles tossed back the ball, and whistled in answer to his friends.
Then he told the two young ladies not only of his adventure upon the windmill, but also of other boyish escapades, and told them well, with a straightforward smack and vigor, for he enjoyed adventure and loved to talk of it. In a little while he had regained his ease; his shyness and awkwardness left him, and nothing remained but the delightful fact that he was really and actually talking to two young ladies, and that with just as much ease and infinitely more pleasure than could be had in discourse with his fellow-squires. But at last it was time for him to go. "Marry," said he, with a half-sigh, "methinks I did never ha' so sweet and pleasant a time in all my life before. Never did I know a real lady to talk with, saving only my mother, and I do tell ye plain methinks I would rather talk with ye than with any he in Christendom—saving, perhaps, only my friend Gascoyne. I would I might come hither again."
The honest frankness of his speech was irresistible; the two girls exchanged glances and then began laughing. "Truly," said Lady Anne, who, as was said before, was some three or four years older than Myles, "thou art a bold lad to ask such a thing. How wouldst thou come hither? Wouldst tumble through our clematis arbor again, as thou didst this day?"
"Nay," said Myles, "I would not do that again, but if ye will bid me do so, I will find the means to come hither."
"Nay," said Lady Anne, "I dare not bid thee do such a foolhardy thing. Nevertheless, if thou hast the courage to come—"
"Yea," said Myles, eagerly, "I have the courage."
"Then, if thou hast so, we will be here in the garden on Saturday next at this hour. I would like right well to hear more of thy adventures. But what didst thou say was thy name? I have forgot it again."
"It is Myles Falworth."
"Then we shall yclep thee Sir Myles, for thou art a soothly errant-knight. And stay! Every knight must have a lady to serve. How wouldst thou like my Cousin Alice here for thy true lady?"
"Aye," said Myles, eagerly, "I would like it right well." And then he blushed fiery red at his boldness.
"I want no errant-knight to serve me," said the Lady Alice, blushing, in answer. "Thou dost ill tease me, coz! An thou art so free in choosing him a lady to serve, thou mayst choose him thyself for thy pains."
"Nay," said the Lady Anne, laughing; "I say thou shalt be his true lady, and he shall be thy true knight. Who knows? Perchance he may serven thee in some wondrous adventure, like as Chaucer telleth of. But now, Sir Errant-Knight, thou must take thy leave of us, and I must e'en let thee privily out by the postern-wicket. And if thou wilt take the risk upon thee and come hither again, prithee be wary in that coming, lest in venturing thou have thine ears clipped in most unknightly fashion."
That evening, as he and Gascoyne sat together on a bench under the trees in the great quadrangle, Myles told of his adventure of the afternoon, and his friend listened with breathless interest.
"But, Myles," cried Gascoyne, "did the Lady Anne never once seem proud and unkind?"
"Nay," said Myles; "only at first, when she chid me for falling through the roof of their arbor. And to think, Francis! Lady Anne herself bade me hold the Lady Alice as my true lady, and to serve her in all knightliness!" Then he told his friend that he was going to the privy garden again on the next Saturday, and that the Lady Anne had given him permission so to do.
Gascoyne gave a long, wondering whistle, and then sat quite still, staring into the sky. By-and-by he turned to his friend and said, "I give thee my pledge, Myles Falworth, that never in all my life did I hear of any one that had such marvellous strange happenings befall him as thou."
Whenever the opportunity occurred for sending a letter to Crosbey-Holt, Myles wrote one to his mother; and one can guess how they were treasured by the good lady, and read over and over again to the blind old Lord as he sat staring into darkness with his sightless eyes.
About the time of this escapade he wrote a letter telling of those doings, wherein, after speaking of his misadventure of falling from the wall, and of his acquaintance with the young ladies, he went on to speak of the matter in which he repeated his visits. The letter was worded in the English of that day—the quaint and crabbed language in which Chaucer wrote. Perhaps few boys could read it nowadays, so, modernizing it somewhat, it ran thus:
"And now to let ye weet that thing that followed that happening that made me acquaint with they two young Damoiselles. I take me to the south wall of that garden one day four and twenty great spikes, which Peter Smith did forge for me and for which I pay him fivepence, and that all the money that I had left of my half-year's wage, and wot not where I may get more at these present, withouten I do betake me to Sir James, who, as I did tell ye, hath consented to hold those moneys that Prior Edward gave me till I need them.
"Now these same spikes, I say, I take me them down behind the corner of the wall, and there drave them betwixt the stones, my very dear comrade and true friend Gascoyne holping me thereto to do. And so come Saturday, I climb me over the wall and to the roof of the tool-house below, seeking a fitting opportunity when I might so do without being in too great jeopardy.