It was past three o'clock on this same day when Eve had drunk the milk and some hours after she began to dream, that Hugh de Cressi and his men, safe and sound but weary, halted their tired horses at the door of the Preceptory of the Templars in Dunwich.
"Best go on to his worship the Mayor and serve the King's writ upon him, master," grumbled Grey Dick as they rode up Middlegate Street. "You wasted good time in a shooting bout at Windsor against my will, and now you'll waste more time in a talking match at Dunwich. And the sun grows low, and the Frenchmen may have heard and be on the wing, and who can see to lay a shaft at night?"
"Nay, man," answered Hugh testily, "first I must know how she fares."
"The lady Eve will fare neither better nor worse for your knowing about her, but one with whom you should talk may fare further, for doubtless his spies are out. But have your way and leave me to thank God that no woman ever found a chance to clog my leg, perhaps because I was not born an ass."
It is doubtful if Hugh heard these pungent and practical remarks, for ere Dick had finished speaking them, he was off his horse, and hammering at the Preceptory door. Some while passed before any answer came, for Sir Andrew was walking in the garden beyond the church, in no happy mind because of certain rumours that had reached him, and the old nun Agnes, spying armed men and not knowing who they were, was afraid to open. So it came about that fifteen minutes or more went by before at length Hugh and his godsire stood face to face.
"How is Eve and where? Why is she not with you, Father?" he burst out.
"One question at a time, son, for whose safe return I thank God. I know not how she is, and she is not with me because she is not here. She has returned to her father at Blythburgh."
"Why?" gasped Hugh. "You swore to keep her safe."
"Peace, and you shall learn," and as shortly as he could he told him.
"Is that all?" asked Hugh doubtfully, for he saw trouble in Sir Andrew's face.
"Not quite, son. Only to-day I have learned that Acour and his folk never went to London, and are back again at Blythburgh Manor."
"So much the better, Father, for now I have the King's warrant addressed to the Mayor and all his Grace's subject in Dunwich, to take these Frenchmen, living or dead."
"Ah! But I have learned also that her father holds Eve a prisoner, suffering her to speak with none, and—one lamb among those wolves—Oh! God! why didst Thou suffer my wisdom to fail me? Doubtless for some good purpose—where is my faith? Yet we must act. Hie, you there," he called to one of the men-at-arms, "go to Master de Cressi's house and bid him meet us by the market-cross mounted and armed, with all his sons and people. And, you, get out my horse. Mother Agnes, bring my armour, since I have no other squire! We'll go to the Mayor. Now, while I don my harness, tell me all that's passed, wasting no words."
Another half-hour almost had gone by before Hugh met his father, two of his brothers and some men riding into the market-place. They greeted in haste but thankfulness, and something of the tale was told while they passed on to the house of the Mayor, who, as they thought, had already been warned of their coming by messengers. But here disappointment awaited them, for this officer, a man of wealth and honour, was, as it chanced, absent on a visit to Norwich, whence it was said that he would not return for three full days.
"Now what shall we do?" asked Sir Andrew, his face falling. "It is certain that the burgesses of Dunwich will not draw sword in an unknown quarrel, except upon the direct order of their chief, for there is no time to collect them and publish the King's warrant. It would seem that we must wait till to-morrow and prepare to-night."
"Not I," answered Hugh. "The warrant is to me as well as to the Mayor. I'll leave it with his clerk, which is good delivery, and away to Blythburgh Manor on the instant with any who will follow me, or without them. Come, Dick, for night draws on and we've lost much time."
Now his father tried to dissuade him, but he would not listen, for the fear in his heart urged him forward. So the end of it was that the whole party of them—thirteen men in all, counting those that Master de Cressi brought, rode away across the heath to Blythburgh, though the horses of Hugh's party being very weary, not so fast as he could have wished.
Just as the sun sank they mounted the slope of the farther hill on the crest of which stood the manor-house backed by winds.
"The drawbridge is down, thanks be to God!" said Sir Andrew, "which shows that no attack is feared. I doubt me, son, we shall find Acour flown."
"That we shall know presently," answered Hugh.
"Now, dismount all and follow me."
They obeyed, though some of them who knew old Sir John's temper seemed not to like the business. Leaving two of their people with the horses, they crossed the bridge, thinking to themselves that the great house seemed strangely silent and deserted. Now they were in the outer court, on one side of which stood the chapel, and still there was no one to be seen. Dick tapped Hugh upon the shoulder, pointing to a window of this chapel that lay in the shadow, through which came a faint glimmering of light, as though tapers burned upon the altar.
"I think there's a burying yonder," he whispered, "at which all men gather."
Hugh blanched, for might it not be Eve whom they buried? But Sir Andrew, noting it, said:
"Nay, nay, Sir John was sick. Come, let us look."
The door of the chapel was open and they walked through it as quietly as they could, to find the place, which was not very large, filled with people. Of these they took no heed, for the last rays of the sunlight flowing through the western window, showed them a scene that held their eyes.
A priest stood before the lighted altar holding his hands in benediction over a pair who kneeled at its rail. One of these wore a red cloak down which her dark hair streamed. She leaned heavily against the rail, as a person might who is faint with sleep or with the ardour of her orisons. It was Red Eve, no other!
At her side, clad in gleaming mail, kneeled a knight. Close by Eve stood her father, looking at her with a troubled air, and behind the knight were other knights and men-at-arms. In the little nave were all the people of the manor and with them those that dwelt around, every one of them intently watching the pair before the altar.
The priest perceived them at first just as the last word of the blessing passed his lips.
"Why do armed strangers disturb God's house?" he asked in a warning voice.
The knight at the altar rails sprang up and turned round. Hugh saw that it was Acour, but even then he noted that the woman at his side, she who wore Eve's garment, never stirred from her knees.
Sir John Clavering glared down the chapel, and all the other people turned to look at them. Now Hugh and his company halted in the open space where the nave joined the chancel, and said, answering the priest:
"I come hither with my companions bearing the warrant of the King to seize Edmund Acour, Count de Noyon, and convey him to London, there to stand his trial on a charge of high treason toward his liege lord, Edward of England. Yield you, Sir Edmund Acour."
At these bold words the French knights and squires drew their swords and ringed themselves round their captain, whereon Hugh and his party also drew their swords.
"Stay," cried old Sir Andrew in his ringing voice. "Let no blood be shed in the holy house of God. You men of Suffolk, know that you harbour a foul traitor in your bosoms, one who plots to deliver you to the French. Lift no hand on his behalf, lest on you also should fall the vengeance of the King, who has issued his commands to all his officers and people, to seize Acour living or dead."
Now a silence fell upon the place, for none liked this talk of the King's warrant, and in the midst of it Hugh asked:
"Do you yield, Sir Edmund Acour, or must we and the burgesses of Dunwich who gather without seize you and your people?"
Acour turned and began to talk rapidly with the priest Nicholas, while the congregation stared at each other. Then Sir John Clavering, who all this while had been listening like a man in a dream, suddenly stepped forward.
"Hugh de Cressi," he said, "tell me, does the King's writ run against John Clavering?"
"Nay," answered Hugh, "I told his Grace that you were an honest man deceived by a knave."
"Then what do you, slayer of my son, in my house? Know that I have just married my daughter to this knight whom you name traitor, and that I here defend him to the last who is now my kin. Begone and seek elsewhere, or stay and die."
"How have you married her?" asked Hugh in a hollow voice. "Not of her own will, surely? Rise, Eve, and tell us the truth."
Eve stirred. Resting her hands upon the altar rails, slowly she raised herself to her feet and turned her white face toward him.
"Who spoke?" she said. "Was it Hugh that Acour swore is dead? Oh! where am I? Hugh, Hugh, what passes?"
"Your honour, it seems, Eve. They say you are married to this traitor."
"I married, and in this red robe! Why, that betokens blood, as blood there must be if I am wed to any man save you," and she laughed, a dreadful laugh.
"In the name of Christ," thundered old Sir Andrew, "tell me, John Clavering, what means this play? Yonder woman is no willing wife. She's drugged or mad. Man, have you doctored your own daughter?"
"Doctored my daughter? I! I! Were you not a priest I'd tear out your tongue for those words. She's married and of her own will. Else would she have stood silent at this altar?"
"It shall be inquired of later," Hugh answered coldly. "Now yield you, Sir Edmund Acour, the King's business comes first."
"Nay," shouted Clavering, springing forward and drawing his sword; "in my house my business comes first. Acour is my daughter's husband and so shall stay till death or Pope part them. Out of this, Hugh de Cressi, with all your accursed chapman tribe."
Hugh walked toward Acour, taking no heed. Then suddenly Sir John lifted his sword and smote with all his strength. The blow caught Hugh on the skull and down he fell, his mail clattering on the stones, and lay still. With a whine of rage, Grey Dick leapt at Clavering, drawing from his side the archer's axe he always wore. But old Sir Andrew caught and held him in his arms.
"Vengeance is God's, not ours," he said. "Look!"
As he spoke Sir John began to sway to and fro. He let fall his murdering sword, he pressed his hands upon his heart, he threw them high. Then suddenly his knees gave beneath him; he sank to the floor a huddled heap and sat there, resting against the altar rail over which his head hung backward, open mouthed and eyed.
The last light of the sky went out, only that of the tapers remained. Eve, awake at last, sent up shriek after shriek; Sir Andrew bending over the two fallen men, the murderer and the murdered, began to shrive them swiftly ere the last beat of life should have left their pulses. His father, brothers, and Grey Dick clustered round Hugh and lifted him. The fox-faced priest, Nicholas, whispered quick words into the ears of Acour and his knights. Acour nodded and took a step toward Eve, who just then fell swooning and was grasped by Grey Dick with his left hand, for in his right he still held the axe.
"No, no," hissed Nicholas, dragging Sir Edmund back, "life is more than any woman." Then some one overset the tapers, so that the place was plunged in gloom, and through it none saw Acour and his train creep out by the chancel door and hurry to their horses, which waited saddled in the inner yard.
The frightened congregation fled from the nave with white faces, each seeking his own place, or any other that was far from Blythburgh Manor. For did not their dead master's guilt cling to them, and would they not also be held guilty of the murder of the King's officer, and swing for it from the gallows? So it came about that when at last lights were brought Hugh's people found themselves alone.
"The Frenchmen have fled!" cried Grey Dick. "Follow me, men," and with most of them he ran out and began to search the manor, till at length they found a woman who told them that thirty minutes gone Acour and all his following had ridden through the back gates and vanished at full gallop into the darkness of the woods.
With these tidings, Dick returned to the chapel.
"Master de Cressi," said Sir Andrew when he had heard it, "back with some of your people to Dunwich and raise the burgesses, warning them that the King's wrath will be great if these traitors escape the land. Send swift messengers to all the ports; discover where Acour rides and follow him in force and if you come up with him, take him dead or living. Stop not to talk, man, begone! Nay, bide here, Richard, and those who rode with you to London, for Acour may return again and some must be left to guard the lady Eve and your master, quick or dead."
De Cressi, his two sons and servants went, and presently were riding for Dunwich faster than ever they rode before. But, as it proved, Acour was too swift for them. When at length a messenger galloped into Lynn, whither they learned that he had fled, it was to find that his ship, which awaited him with sails hoisted, had cleared the port three hours before, with a wind behind her which blew straight for Flanders.
"Ah!" said Grey Dick when he heard the news, "this is what comes of wasting arrows upon targets which should have been saved for traitors' hearts! With those three hours of daylight in hand we'd have ringed the rogues in or run them down. Well, the devil's will be done; he does but spare his own till a better day."
But when the King heard the news he was very wroth, not with Hugh de Cressi, but with the burgesses of Dunwich, whose Mayor, although he was blameless, lost his office over the matter. Nor was there any other chosen afterward in his place, as those who read the records of that ancient port may discover for themselves.
When Master de Cressi and his people were gone, having first searched the great manor-house and found none in it save a few serving-men and women, whom he swore to put to death if they disobeyed him, Grey Dick raised the drawbridge. Then, all being made safe, he set a watch upon the walls and saw that there was wood in the iron cradle on the topmost tower in case it should be needful to light the beacon and bring aid. But it was not, since the sun rose before any dared to draw near those walls, and then those that came proved to be friendly folk from Dunwich bearing the ill news that the Frenchmen were clean away.
About midnight the door of the chamber in which Sir Andrew knelt by a bed whereon lay Hugh de Cressi opened and the tall Eve entered, bearing a taper in her hand. For now her mind had returned to her and she knew all.
"Is he dead, Father?" she asked in a small, strange voice; then, still as any statue, awaited the answer that was more to her than life.
"Nay, daughter. Down on your knees and give thanks. God, by the skill I gained in Eastern lands, has stayed the flow of his life's blood, and I say that he will live."
Then he showed her how her father's sword had glanced from the short hood of chain-mail which he had given Hugh, stunning him, but leaving the skull unbroken. Biting into the neck below, it had severed the outer vein only. This he had tied with a thread of silk and burned with a hot iron, leaving a scar that Hugh bore to his death, but staunching the flow of blood.
"How know you that he will live?" asked Eve again, "seeing that he lies like one that is sped."
"I know it, daughter. Question me no more. As for his stillness, it is that which follows a heavy blow. Perhaps it may hold him fast many days, since certainly he will be sick for long. Yet fear nothing; he will live."
Now Eve uttered a great sigh. Her breast heaved and colour returned to her lips. She knelt down and gave thanks as the old priest-knight had bidden her. Then she rose, took his hand and kissed it.
"Yet one more question, Father," she said. "It is of myself. That knave drugged me. I drank milk, and, save some dreams, remember no more till I heard Hugh's voice calling. Now they tell me that I have stood at the altar with de Noyon, and that his priest read the mass of marriage over us, and—look! Oh! I never noted it till now—there is a ring upon my hand," and she cast it on the floor. "Tell me, Father, according to the Church's law is that man my—my husband?"
Sir Andrew's eloquent dark eyes, that ever shadowed forth the thoughts which passed within him, grew very troubled.
"I cannot tell you," he answered awkwardly after thinking a while. "This priest, Nicholas, though I hold him a foul villain, is doubtless still a priest, clothed with all the authority of our Lord Himself, since the unworthiness of the minister does not invalidate the sacrament. Were it otherwise, indeed, few would be well baptized or wed or shriven. Moreover, although I suspect that himself he mixed the draught, yet he may not have known that you were drugged, and you stood silent, and, it would appear, consenting. The ceremony, alas! was completed; I myself heard him give the benediction. Your father assisted thereat and gave you to the groom in the presence of a congregation. The drugging is a matter of surmise and evidence which may not be forthcoming, since you are the only witness, and where is the proof? I fear me, daughter, that according to the Church's law you are de Noyon's lawful wife——"
"The Church's law," she broke in; "how about God's law? There lies the only man to whom I owe a bond, and I'll die a hundred deaths before any other shall even touch my hand. Ay, if need be, I'll kill myself and reason out the case with St. Peter in the Gates."
"Hush! hush! speak not so madly. The knot that the Church ties it can unloose. This matter must to his Holiness the Pope; it shall be my business to lay it before him; yea, letters shall go to Avignon by the first safe hand. Moreover, it well may happen that God Himself will free you, by the sword of His servant Death. This lord of yours, if indeed he be your lord, is a foul traitor. The King of England seeks his life, and there is another who will seek it also ere very long," and he glanced at the senseless form of Hugh. "Fret not yourself overmuch, daughter. Be grateful rather that matters are no worse, and that you remain as you always were. Another hour and you might have been snatched away beyond our finding. What is not ended can still be mended. Now go, seek the rest you need, for I would not have two sick folk on my hands. Oh, seek it with a thankful heart, and forget not to pray for the soul of your erring father, for, after all he loved you and strove for your welfare according to his lights."
"It may be so," answered Eve, "and I'll pray for him, as is my duty. I'll pray also that I may never find such another friend as my father showed himself to me."
Then she bent for a moment over Hugh, stretching out her hands above him as though in blessing, and departed as silently as she had come.
Three days went by before Hugh found his mind again, and after that for two weeks he was so feeble that he must lie quite still and scarcely talk at all. Sir Andrew, who nursed him continually with the help of Grey Dick, who brought his master possets, bow on back and axe at side but never opened his grim mouth, told his patient that Eve was safe and sound, but that he must not see her until he grew strong again.
So Hugh strove to grow strong, and, nature helping him, not in vain. At length there came a day when he might rise from his bed, and sit on a bench in the pleasant spring sunshine by the open window. Walk he could not, however, not only on account of his weakness, but because of another hurt, now discovered for the first time, which in the end gave him more trouble than did the dreadful and dangerous blow of Clavering's sword. It seemed that when he had fallen suddenly beneath that murderous stroke all his muscles relaxed as though he were dead, and his left ankle bent up under him, wrenching its sinews in such a fashion that for the rest of his life he walked a little lame. Especially was this so in the spring season, though whether because he had received his hurt at that time or owing to the quality of the air none could ever tell him.
Yet on that happy day he thought little of these harms, who felt the life-blood running once more strongly through his veins and who awaited Eve's long-promised advent. At length she came, stately, kind and beautiful, for now her grief and terror had passed by, leaving her as she was before her woes fell upon her. She came, and in Sir Andrew's presence, for he would not leave them, the tale was told.
Hugh learned for the first time all the truth of her imprisonment and of her shameful drugging. He learned of the burying of Sir John Clavering and of her naming as sole heiress to his great estates. To these, however, Acour had not been ashamed to submit some shadowy claim, made "in right of his lawful wife, Dame Eve Acour, Countess de Noyon," which claim had been sent by him from France addressed to "all whom it might concern." He learned of the King's wrath at the escape of this same Acour, and of his Grace's seizure of that false knight's lands in Suffolk, which, however, proved to be so heavily mortgaged that no one would grow rich upon them.
Lastly he learned that King Edward, in a letter written by one of his secretaries to Sir Andrew Arnold and received only that morning, said that he held him, Hugh de Cressi, not to blame for Acour's escape. It commanded also that if he recovered from his wound, for the giving of which Sir John Clavering should have paid sharply if he had lived, he and the archer, his servant, should join him either in England or in France, whither he purposed shortly to proceed with all his host. But the Mayor and men of Dunwich he did not hold free of blame.
The letter added, moreover, that the King was advised that Edmund Acour on reaching Normandy had openly thrown off his allegiance to the crown of England and there was engaged in raising forces to make war upon him. Further, that this Acour alleged himself to be the lawfully married husband of Eve Clavering, the heiress of Sir John Clavering, a point upon which his Grace demanded information, since if this were true he purposed to escheat the Clavering lands. With this brief and stern announcement the letter ended.
"By God's mercy, Eve, tell me, are you this fellow's wife?" exclaimed Hugh.
"Not so," she answered. "Can a woman who is Dunwich born be wed without consent? And can a woman whose will is foully drugged out of her give consent to that which she hates? Why, if so there is no justice in the world."
"'Tis a rare jewel in these evil days, daughter," said Sir Andrew with a sigh. "Still fret not yourself son Hugh. A full statement of the case, drawn by skilled clerks and testified to by many witnesses, has gone forward already to his Holiness the Pope, of which statement true copies have been sent to the King and to the Bishops of Norwich and of Canterbury. Yet be warned that in such matters the law ecclesiastic moves but slowly, and then only when its wheels are greased with gold."
"Well," answered Hugh with a fierce laugh, "there remains another law which moves more swiftly and its wheels are greased with vengeance; the law of the sword. If you are married, Eve, I swear that before very long you shall be widowed or I dead. I'll not let de Noyon slip a second time even if he stands before the holiest altar in Christendom."
"I'd have killed him in the chapel yonder," muttered Grey Dick, who had entered with his master's food and not been sent away. "Only," he added looking reproachfully at Sir Andrew, "my hand was stayed by a certain holy priest's command to which, alack, I listened."
"And did well to listen, man, since otherwise by now you would be excommunicate."
"I could mock at that," said Dick sullenly, "who make confession in my own way, and do not wish to be married, and care not the worth of a horseshoe nail how and where I am buried, provided those I hate are buried first."
"Richard Archer, graceless wight that you are," said Sir Andrew, "I say you stand in danger of your soul."
"Ay, Father, and so the Frenchman, Acour, stood in danger of his body. But you saved it, so perhaps if there is need at the last, you will do as much for my soul. If not it must take its chance," and snatching at the dish-cover angrily, he turned and left the chamber.
"Well," commented Sir Andrew, shaking his head sadly, "if the fellow's heart is hard it is honest, so may he be forgiven who has something to forgive like the rest of us. Now hearken to me, son and daughter. Wrong, grievous and dreadful, has been done to you both. Yet, until death or the Church levels it, a wall that you may not climb stands between you, and when you meet it must be as friends—no more."
"Now I begin to wish that I had learned in Grey Dick's school," said Hugh. But whatever she thought, Eve set her lips and said nothing.
It was Saturday, the 26th of August, in the year 1346. The harassed English host—but a little host, after all, retreating for its life from Paris—had forced the passage of the Somme by the ford which a forgotten traitor, Gobin Agache by name, revealed to them. Now it stood at bay upon the plain of Crecy, there to conquer or to die.
"Will the French fight to-day, what think you?" asked Hugh of Grey Dick, who had just descended from an apple-tree which grew in the garden of a burnt-out cottage. Here he had been engaged on the twofold business of surveying the disposition of the English army and in gathering a pocketful of fruit which remained upon the tree's topmost boughs.
"I think that these are very good apples," answered Dick, speaking with his mouth full. "Eat while you get the chance, master, for, who knows, the next you set your teeth in may be of the kind that grew upon the Tree of Life in a very old garden," and he handed him two of the best. Then he turned to certain archers, who clustered round with outstretched hands, saying: "Why should I give you my apples, fellows, seeing that you were too lazy to climb and get them for yourselves? None of you ever gave me anything when I was hungry, after the sack of Caen, in which my master, being squeamish, would take no part. Therefore I went to bed supperless, because, as I remember you said, I had not earned it. Still, as I don't want to fight the French with a bellyache, go scramble for them."
Then, with a quick motion, he flung the apples to a distance, all save one, which he presented to a tall man who stood near, adding:
"Take this, Jack Green, in token of fellowship, since I have nothing else to offer you. I beat you at Windsor, didn't I, when we shot a match before the King? Now show your skill and beat me and I'll say 'thank you.' Keep count of your arrows shot, Jack, and I'll keep count of mine, and when the battle is over, he who has grassed most Frenchmen shall be called the better man."
"Then I'm that already, lad," answered the great yeoman with a grin as he set his teeth in the apple. "For, look you, having served at Court I've learned how to lie, and shall swear I never wasted shaft, whereas you, being country born, may own to a miss or two for shame's sake. Or, likelier still, those French will have one or both of us in their bag. If all tales are true, there is such a countless host of them that we few English shall not see the sky for arrows."
Dick shrugged his shoulders and was about to answer when suddenly a sound of shouting deep and glad rose from the serried companies upon their left. Then the voice of an officer was heard calling:
"Line! Line! The King comes!"
Another minute and over the crest of a little rise appeared Edward of England clad in full armour. He wore a surtout embroidered with the arms of England and France, but his helm hung at his saddle-bow that all might see his face. He was mounted, not on his war steed, but on a small, white, ambling palfrey, and in his hand he bore a short baton. With him came two marshalls, gaily dressed, and a slim young man clad from head to foot in plain black armour, and wearing a great ruby in his helm, whom all knew for Edward, Prince of Wales.
On he rode, acknowledging the cheering of his soldiers with smiles and courtly bows, till at length he pulled rein just in front of the triple line of archers, among whom were mingled some knights and men-at-arms, for the order of battle was not yet fully set. Just then, on the plain beneath, riding from out the shelter of some trees and, as they thought, beyond the reach of arrows, appeared four splendid French knights, and with them a few squires. There they halted, taking stock, it would seem, of the disposition of the English army.
"Who are those that wear such fine feathers?" asked the King.
"One is the Lord of Bazeilles," answered a marshall. "I can see the monk upon his crest, but the blazons of the others I cannot read. They spy upon us, Sire; may we sally out and take them?"
"Nay," answered Edward, "their horses are fresher than ours; let them go, for pray God we shall see them closer soon."
So the French knights, having stared their full, turned and rode away slowly. But one of their squires did otherwise. Dismounting from his horse, which he left with another squire to hold, he ran forward a few paces to the crest of a little knoll. Thence he made gestures of contempt and scorn toward the English army, as he did so shouting foul words, of which a few floated to them in the stillness.
"Now," said Edward, "if I had an archer who could reach that varlet, I'll swear that his name should not be forgotten in England. But alas! it may not be, for none cam make an arrow fly true so far."
Instantly Grey Dick stepped forward.
"Sire, may I try?" he asked, stringing his great black bow as he spoke.
"Who are you?" said the King, "who seem to have been rolled in ashes and wear my own gold arrow in your cap? Ah! I remember, the Suffolk man who showed us all how to shoot at Windsor, he who is called Grey Dick. Yes, try, Grey Dick, try, if you think that you can reach so far. Yet for the honour of St. George, man, do not miss, for all the host will see Fate riding on your shaft."
For one moment Dick hesitated. Such awful words seemed to shake even his iron nerve.
"I've seen you do as much, Dick," said the quiet voice of Hugh de Cressi behind him. "Still, judge you."
Then Dick ground his heels into the turf and laid his weight against the bow. While all men watched breathless, he drew it to an arc, he drew it till the string was level with his ear. He loosed, then, slewing round, straightened himself and stared down at the earth. As he said afterward, he feared to watch that arrow.
Away it sped while all men gazed. High, high it flew, the sunlight glinting on its polished barb. Down it came at length, and the King muttered "Short!" But while the word passed his lips that shaft seemed to recover itself, as though by magic, and again rushed on. He of the foul words and gestures saw it coming, and turned to fly. As he leapt forward the war arrow struck him full in the small of the back, just where the spine ends, severing it, so that he fell all of a heap like an ox beneath the axe, and lay a still and huddled shape.
From all the English right who saw this wondrous deed there went up such a shout that their comrades to the left and rear thought for a moment that battle had been joined. The King and the Prince stared amazed. Hugh flung his arms about Dick's neck, and kissed him. Jack Green cried:
"No archer, but a wizard! Mere man could not have sent a true shaft so far."
"Then would to heaven I had more such wizards," said the King. "God be with you, Grey Dick, for you have put new heart into my and all our company. Mark, each of you, that he smote him in the back, smote him running! What reward would you have, man?"
"None," answered Dick in a surly voice. "My reward is that, whatever happens, yon filthy French knave will never mock honest English folk again. Or so I think, though the arrow barely reached him. Yet, Sire," he added after a pause, "you might knight my master, Hugh de Cressi, if you will, since but for him I should have feared to risk that shot."
Then turning aside, Dick unstrung his bow, and, pulling the remains of the apple out of his pouch, began to munch it unconcernedly.
"Hugh de Cressi!" said the King. "Ah! yes, I mind me of him and of the rogue, Acour, and the maid, Red Eve. Well, Hugh, I am told you fought gallantly at Blanche-Tague two days gone and were among the last to cross the Somme. Also, we have other debts to pay you. Come hither, sir, and give me your sword."
"Your pardon, my liege," said Hugh, colouring, "but I'll not be knighted for my henchman's feats, or at all until I have done some of my own."
"Ah, well, Master Hugh," said the King, "that's a right spirit. After the battle, perhaps, if it should please God that we live to meet again in honour. De Cressi," he added musingly, "why this place is called Crecy, and here, I think, is another good omen. At Crecy shall de Cressi gain great honour for himself and for St. George of England. You are luck bringers, you two. Let them not be separated in the battle, lest the luck should leave them. See to it, if it please you, my lord of Warwick. Young de Cressi can draw a bow; let him fight amongst the archers and have liberty to join the men-at-arms when the time comes. Or stay; set them near my son the Prince, for there surely the fight will be hottest.
"And now, you men of England, whatever your degree, my brothers of England, gentle and simple, Philip rolls down upon us with all the might of France, our heritage which he has stolen, our heritage and yours. Well, well, show him to-day, or to-morrow, or whenever it may be, that Englishmen put not their faith in numbers, but in justice and their own great hearts. Oh, my brothers and my friends, let not Edward, whom you are pleased to serve as your lawful King, be whipped off the field of Crecy and out of France! Stand to your banners, stand to your King, stand to St. George and God! Die where you are if need be, as I will. Never threaten and then show your backs like that knave the archer shot but now. Look, I give my son into your keeping," and he pointed to the young Prince, who all this while sat upon his horse upright and silent. "The Hope of England shall be your leader, but if he flies, why then, cut him down, and fight without him. But he'll not fly and you'll not fly; no, you and he together will this day earn a name that shall be told of when the world is grey with age. Great is the chance that life has given you; pluck it, pluck it from the land of opportunity and, dead or living, become a song forever in the mouths of men unborn. Think not of prisoners; think not of ransoms and of wealth. Think not of me or of yourselves, but think of England's honour, and for that strike home, for England watches you to-day."
"We will, we will! Fear not, King, we will," shouted the host in answer.
With a glad smile, Edward took his young son's hand and shook it; then rode away followed by his marshals.
"De Cressi," he said, as he passed Hugh, "the knave Acour, your foe and mine, is with Philip of France. He has done me much damage, de Cressi, more than I can stop to tell. Avenge it if you can. Your luck is great, you may find the chance. God be with you and all. My lords, farewell. You have your orders. Son Edward, fare you well, also. Meet me again with honour, or never more."
It was not yet noon when King Edward spoke these words, and long hours were to go by before the battle joined. Indeed, most thought that no blow would be struck that day, since it was known that Philip had slept at Abbeville, whence for a great army the march was somewhat long. Still, when all was made ready, the English sat them down in their ranks, bows and helmets at side, ate their mid-day meal with appetite, and waited whatever fate might send them.
In obedience to the King's command Hugh and Grey Dick had been attached to the immediate person of the Prince of Wales, who had about him, besides his own knights, a small band of chosen archers and another band of men-at-arms picked for their strength and courage. These soldiers were all dismounted, since the order had gone forth that knight and squire must fight afoot, every horse having been sent to the rear, for that day the English expected to receive charges, not to make them. This, indeed, would have been impossible, seeing that all along their front the wild Welsh had laboured for hours digging pits into which horses might plunge and fall.
There then the Prince's battle sat, a small force after all, perhaps twelve hundred knights and men-at-arms, with three or four thousand archers, and to their rear, as many of the savage, knife-armed Welsh who fought that day under the banner of their country, the red Dragon of Merlin. Grey Dick's place was on the extreme left of the archer bodyguard, and Hugh's on the extreme right of that of the men-at-arms, so that they were but a few yards apart and could talk together. From time to time they spoke of sundry things, but mostly of home, for in this hour of danger through which both of them could hardly hope to live, even if one did, their thoughts turned thither, as was but natural.
"I wonder how it fares with the lady Eve," said Hugh, with a sigh, for of her no news had come to him since they had parted some months before, after he recovered from the wound which Clavering gave him.
"Well enough, doubtless. Why not?" replied Dick. "She is strong and healthy, she has many friends and servants to guard her and no enemy there to harm her, for her great foe is yonder," and he nodded towards Abbeville. "Oh, without doubt well enough. It is she who should wonder how it fares with us. Let us hope that, having naught else to do, she remembers us in her prayers, since in such a case even one woman's prayers are worth something, for does not a single feather sometimes turn the scale?"
"I think that Eve would rather fight than pray," answered Hugh, with a smile, "like old Sir Andrew, who would give half his remaining days to sit here with us this afternoon. Well, he is better where he is. Dick, that knave Acour sent only insolent words in answer to my challenge, which I despatched to him by the knight I took and spared at Caen."
"Why should he do more, master? He can find plenty of ways of dying without risking a single combat with one whom he has wronged and who is therefore very dangerous. You remember his crest, master—a silver swan painted on his shield. I knew it, and that is why I shot that poor fowl just before you killed young Clavering on the banks of Blythe, to teach him that swans are not proof against arrows. Watch for the swan crest, master, when the battle joins, and so will I, I promise you."
"Ay, I'll watch," said Hugh grimly. "God help all swans that come my way. Let us pray that this one has not taken wing, for if so I, too, must learn to fly."
Thus they talked of these and other things amongst the hum of the great camp, which was like to that of bees on a lime-tree in summer, and whilst they talked the blue August sky became suddenly overcast. Dense and heavy clouds hid up its face, a cold and fitful wind began to blow, increasing presently to a gale which caused the planted standards, blazoned with lions rampant and with fleurs-de-lis, and the pennons of a hundred knights set here and there among the long battle lines, first to flap and waver and then to stand out straight as though they were cut of iron.
A word of command was called from rank to rank.
"Sheath bows!" it said, and instantly thousands of slender points were lifted and sank again, vanishing into the leathern cases which the archers bore.
Scarcely were these snug when the storm broke. First fell a few heavy drops, to be followed by such a torrent that all who had cloaks were glad to wear them. From the black clouds above leapt lightnings that were succeeded by the deep and solemn roll of thunder. A darkness fell upon the field so great that men wondered what it might portend, for their minds were strained. That which at other times would have passed without remark, now became portentous. Indeed, afterward some declared that through it they had seen angels or demons in the air, and others that they had heard a voice prophesying woe and death, to whom they knew not.
"It is nothing but a harvest tempest," said Dick presently, as he shook the wet from him like a dog and looked to the covering of his quiver. "See, the clouds break."
As he spoke a single red ray from the westering sun shot through a rift in the sky and lay across the English host like a sword of light, whereof the point hung over the eastern plain. Save for this flaming sword all else was dark, and silent also, for the rain and thunder had died away. Only thousands of crows, frightened from the woods, wheeled to and fro above, their black wings turning to the redness of blood as they crossed and recrossed that splendid path of light, and their hoarse cries filling the solemn air with clamour. The sight and sounds were strange, nor did the thickest-headed fellow crouched upon Crecy's fateful plain ever forget them till his dying day.
The sky cleared by slow degrees, the multitudes of crows wheeled off toward the east and vanished, the sun shone out again in quiet glory.
"Pray God the French fight us to-day," said Hugh as he took off his cloak and rolled it up.
"Because, Dick, it is written that the rain falls on the just and the unjust; and the unjust, that is the French, or rather the Italians whom they hire, use these new-fangled cross-bows which as you know cannot be cased like ours, and therefore stretch their strings in wet."
"Master," remarked Dick, "I did not think you had so much wit—that is, since you fell in love, for before then you were sharp enough. Well, you are right, and a little matter like that may turn a battle. Not but what I had thought of it already."
Hugh was about to answer with spirit, when a sound of distant shouting broke upon their ears, a very mighty sound, and next instant some outposts were seen galloping in, calling: "Arm! Arm! The French! The French!"
Suddenly there appeared thousands of cross-bow men, in thick, wavering lines, and behind them the points of thousands of spears, whose bearers as yet were hidden by the living screen of the Italian archers. Yes, before them was the mighty host of France glittering in the splendid light of the westering sun, which shone full into their faces.
The irregular lines halted. Perhaps there was something in the aspect of those bands of Englishmen still seated in silence on the ground, with never a horse among them, that gave them pause. Then, as though at a word of command, the Genoese cross-bow men set up a terrific shout.
"Do they think to make us run at a noise, like hares?" said Hugh contemptuously.
But Grey Dick made no answer, for already his pale eyes were fixed upon the foe with a stare that Hugh thought was terrible, and his long fingers were playing with the button of his bow-case. The Genoese advanced a little way, then again stood and shouted, but still the English sat silent.
A third time they advanced and shouted more loudly than before, then began to wind up their cross-bows.
From somewhere in the English centre rose a heavy, thudding sound which was new to war. It came from the mouths of cannons now for the first time fired on a field of battle, and at the report of them the Genoese, frightened, fell back a little. Seeing that the balls fell short and did but hop toward them slowly, they took courage again and began to loose their bolts.
"You're right, master," exclaimed Grey Dick in a fierce chuckle, "their strings are wet," and he pointed to the quarrels that, like the cannon balls, struck short, some within fifty paces of those who shot them, so that no man was hurt.
Now came a swift command, and the English ranks rose to their feet, uncased their bows and strung them all as though with a single hand. A second command and every bow was bent. A third and with a noise that was half hiss and half moan, thousands of arrows leapt forward. Forward they leapt, and swift and terrible they fell among the ranks of the advancing Genoese. Yes, and ere ever one had found its billet, its quiver-mate was hastening on its path. Then—oh! the sunlight showed it all—the Genoese rolled over by scores, their frail armour bitten through and through by the grey English arrows. By scores that grew to hundreds, that grew till the poor, helpless men who were yet unhurt among them wailed out in their fear, and, after one short, hesitant moment, surged back upon the long lines of men-at-arms behind.
From these arose a great shout: "Trahison! Trahison! Tuez! Tuez!" Next instant the appalling sight was seen of the chivalry of France falling upon their friends, whose only crime was that their bow-strings were wet, and butchering them where they stood. So awful and unexpected was this spectacle that for a little while the English archers, all except Grey Dick and a few others cast in the same iron mould, ceased to ply their bows and watched amazed.
The long shafts began to fly again, raining alike upon the slaughterers and the slaughtered. A few minutes, five perhaps, and this terrible scene was over, for of the seven thousand Genoese but a tithe remained upon their feet, and the interminable French lines, clad in sparkling steel and waving lance and sword, charged down upon the little English band.
"Now for the feast!" screamed Grey Dick. "That was but a snack to sharp the appetite," and as he said the words a gorgeous knight died with his arrow through the heart.
It came, the charge came. Nothing could stop it. Down went man and horse, line upon line of them swept to death by the pitiless English arrows, but still more rushed on. They fell in the pits that had been dug; they died beneath the shafts and the hoofs of those that followed, but still they struggled on, shouting: "Philip and St. Denis!" and waving their golden banner, the Oriflamme of France.
The charge crept up as a reluctant, outworn wave creeps to a resisting rock. It foamed upon the rock. The archers ceased to shoot and drew their axes. The men-at-arms leapt forward. The battle had joined at last! Breast to breast they wrestled now. Hugh's sword was red, and red was Grey Dick's axe. Fight as they would, the English were borne back. The young Prince waved his arm, screaming something, and at that sight the English line checked its retreat, stood still, and next plunged forward with a roar of:
"England and the Prince!"
That assault was over. Backward rolled the ride of men, those who were left living. After them went the dark Welsh. Their commanders ordered them to stand; the Earl of Warwick ordered them to stand. The Prince himself ordered them to stand, running in front of them, only to be swept aside like a straw before a draught of wind. Out they broke, grinning and gnashing their teeth, great knives in their hands.
The red Dragon of Merlin which a giant bore led them on. It sank, it fell, it rose again. The giant was down, but another had it. They scrambled over the mass of dead and dying. They got among the living beyond. With eerie screams they houghed the horses and, when the riders fell, hacked open the lacings of their helms, and, unheeding of any cries for mercy, drove the great knives home. At length all were dead, and they returned again waving those red knives and singing some fierce chant in their unknown tongue.
The battle was not over yet. Fresh horses of Frenchmen gathered out of arrow range, and charged again under the banners of Blois, Alencon, Lorraine, and Flanders. Forward they swept, and with them came one who looked like a king, for he wore a crown upon his helm. The hawk-eyed Dick noted him, and that his bridle was bound to those of the knights who rode upon his either side. On them he rained shafts from his great black bow, for Grey Dick never shot without an aim, and after the battle one of his marked arrows was found fixed in the throat of the blind king of Bohemia.
This second charge could not be stayed. Step by step the English knights were beaten back; the line of archers was broken through; his guard formed round the Prince, Hugh among them. Heavy horses swept on to them. Beneath the hoofs of one of these Hugh was felled, but, stabbing it from below, caused the poor beast to leap aside. He gained his feet again. The Prince was down, a splendid knight—it was the Count of Flanders—who had sprung from his horse, stood over him, his sword point at his throat, and called on him to yield. Up ran Robert Fitzsimmon, the standard bearer, shouting:
"To the son of the King! To the son of the King!"
He struck down a knight with the pole of his standard. Hugh sprang like a wild-cat at Louis of Flanders, and drove his sword through his throat. Richard de Beaumont flung the great banner of Wales over the Prince, hiding him till more help came to beat back the foe. Then the Prince struggled from the ground, gasping:
"I thank you, friends," and once more the French retreated. The Welsh banner rose again and that danger was over.
The Earl of Warwick ran up. Hugh noted that his armour was covered with blood.
"John of Norwich," he cried to an aged knight, who stood leaning on his sword, "take one with you, away to the King and pray him for aid. The French gather again; we are outworn with blows; the young Prince is in danger of his life or liberty. Begone!"
Old John's eyes fell on Hugh.
"Come with me, you Suffolk man," he said, and away they went.
"Now what would you give," he gasped as they ran, "to be drinking a stoup of ale with me in my tower of Mettingham as you have done before this red day dawned? What would you give, young Hugh de Cressi?"
"Nothing at all," answered Hugh. "Rather would I die upon this field in glory than drink all the ale in Suffolk for a hundred years."
"Well said, young man," grunted John. "So do I think would I, though I have never longed for a quart of liquor more."
They came to a windmill and climbed its steep stairs. On the top stage, amid the corn sacks stood Edward of England looking through the window-places.
"Your business, Sir John?" he said, scarcely turning his head.
The old knight told it shortly.
"My son is not dead and is not wounded," replied the King, "and I have none to send to his aid. Bid him win his spurs; the day shall yet be his. Look," he added, pointing through the window-place, "our banners have not given back a spear's throw, and in front of them the field is paved with dead. I tell you the French break. Back, de Norwich! Back, de Cressi, and bid the Prince to charge!"
Some one thrust a cup of wine into Hugh's hand. He swallowed it, glancing at the wild scene below, and presently was running with Sir John toward the spot where they saw the Prince's banner flying. They came to Warwick and told him the King's answer.
"My father speaks well," said the Prince. "Let none share our glory this day! My lord, form up the lines, and when my banner is lifted thrice, give the word to charge. Linger not, the dark is near, and either France or England must go down ere night."
Forward rolled the French in their last desperate onset; horse and foot mingled together. Forward they rolled almost in silence, the arrows playing on their dense host, but not as they did at first, for many a quiver was empty. Once, twice, thrice the Prince's banner bowed and lifted, and as it rose for the third time there rang out a shout of:
"Charge for St. George and Edward!"
Then England, that all these long hours had stood still, suddenly hurled herself upon the foe. Hugh, leaping over a heap of dead and dying, saw in front of him a knight who wore a helmet shaped like a wolf's head and had a wolf painted upon his shield. The wolf knight charged at him as though he sought him alone. An arrow from behind—it was Grey Dick's—sank up to the feathers in the horse's neck, and down it came. The rider shook himself clear and began to fight. Hugh was beaten to his knee beneath a heavy blow that his helm turned. He rose unhurt and rushed at the knight, who, in avoiding his onset, caught his spur on the body of a dead man and fell backward.
Hugh leapt on to him, striving to thrust his sword up beneath his gorget and make an end of him.
"Grace!" said the knight in French, "I yield me."
"We take no prisoners," answered Hugh, as he thrust again.
"Pity, then," said the knight. "You are brave, would you butcher a fallen man? If you had tripped I would have spared you. Show mercy, some day your case may be mine and it will be repaid to you."
Hugh hesitated, although now the point of his sword was through the lacing of the gorget.
"For your lady's sake, pity," gasped the knight as he felt its point.
"You know by what name to conjure," said Hugh doubtfully. "Well, get you gone if you can, and pray for one Hugh de Cressi, for he gives you your life."
The knight seemed to start, then struggled to his feet, and, seizing a loose horse by the bridle, swung himself to the saddle and galloped off into the shadows.
"Master," croaked a voice into Hugh's ear, "I've seen the swan! Follow me. My arrows are all gone, or I'd have shot him."
"God's truth! show him to me," gasped Hugh, and away they leapt together.
Soon they had outrun even the slaughtering Welsh, and found themselves mingled with fugitives from the French army. But in the gathering twilight none seemed to take any note of them. Indeed every man was engaged in saving his own life and thought that this was the purpose of these two also. Some three hundred yards away certain French knights, mounted, often two upon one horse, or afoot, were flying from that awful field, striking out to the right in order to clear themselves of the cumbering horde of fugitives. One of these knights lagged behind, evidently because his horse was wounded. He turned to look back, and a last ray from the dying sun lit upon him.
"Look," said Dick; and Hugh saw that on the knight's shield was blazoned a white swan and that he wore upon his helmet a swan for a crest. The knight, who had not seen them, spurred his horse, but it would not or could not move. Then he called to his companions for help, but they took no heed. Finding himself alone, he dismounted, hastily examined the horse's wound, and, having unbuckled a cloak from his saddle, cast down his shield in order that he might run more lightly.
"Thanks to God, he is mine," muttered Hugh. "Touch him not, Dick, unless I fall, and then do you take up the quarrel till you fall."
So speaking he leapt upon the man out of the shadow of some thorns that grew there.
"Lift your shield and fight," said Hugh, advancing on him with raised sword. "I am Hugh de Cressi."
"Then, sir, I yield myself your prisoner," answered the knight, "seeing that you are two and I but one."
"Not so. I take no prisoners, who seek vengeance, not ransom, and least of all from you. My companion shall not touch you unless I fall. Swift now, the light dies, and I would kill you fighting."
The knight picked up his shield.
"I know you," he said. "I am not he you think."
"And I know you," answered Hugh. "Now, no words, of them there have been enough between us," and he smote at him.
For two minutes or more they fought, for the armour of both was good, and one was full of rage and the other of despair. There was little fine sword-play about this desperate duel; the light was too low for it. They struck and warded, that was all, while Grey Dick stood by and watched grimly. Some more fugitives came up, but seeing that blows passed, veered off to the left, for of blows they had known enough that day. The swan knight missed a great stroke, for Hugh leapt aside; then, as the Frenchman staggered forward, struck at him with all his strength. The heavy sword, grasped in both hands, for Hugh had thrown aside his shield, caught his foe where neck joins shoulder and sank through his mail deep into the flesh beneath. Down he went. It was finished.
"Unlace his helm, Dick," grasped Hugh. "I would see his face for the last time, and if he still lives——"
Dick obeyed, cutting the lashings of the helm.
"By the Saints!" he said presently in a startled voice, "if this be Sir Edmund Acour he has strangely changed."
"I am not Acour, lord of Noyon," said the dying man in a hollow voice. "Had you given me time I would have told you so."
"Then, in Christ's name, who are you?" asked Hugh, "that wear de Noyon's cognizance?"
"I am Pierre de la Roche, one of his knights. You have seen me in England. I was with him there, and you made me prisoner on Dunwich heath. He bade me change arms with him before the battle, promising me great reward, because he knew that if he were taken, Edward of England would hang him as a traitor, whereas me they might ransom. Also, he feared your vengeance."
"Well, of a truth, you have the reward," said Dick, looking at his ghastly wound.
"Where then is Acour?" gasped Hugh.
"I know not. He fled from the battle an hour ago with the King of France, but I who was doomed would not fly. Oh, that I could find a priest to shrive me!"
"Whither does he fly?" asked Hugh again.
"I know not. He said that if the battle went against us he would seek his castle in Italy, where Edward cannot reach him."
"What armour did he wear?" asked Dick.
"Mine, mine—a wolf upon his shield, a wolf's head for crest."
Hugh reeled as though an arrow had passed through him.
"The wolf knight, Acour!" he groaned. "And I spared his life."
"A very foolish deed, for which you now pay the price," said Dick, as though to himself.
"We met in the battle and he told me," said de la Roche, speaking very slowly, for he grew weak. "Yes, he told me and laughed. Truly we are Fate's fools, all of us," and he smiled a ghastly smile and died.
Hugh hid his face in his hands and sobbed in his helpless rage.
"The innocent slain," he said, "by me, and the guilty spared—by me. Oh, God! my cup is full. Take his arms, man, that one day I may show them to Acour, and let us be going ere we share this poor knight's fate. Ah! who could have guessed it was thus that I and Sir Pierre should meet and part again."
THE KING'S CHAMPION
Back over that fearful field, whereof the silence was broken only by the groans of the wounded and the dying, walked Hugh and Grey Dick. They came to the great rampart of dead men and horses that surrounded the English line, and climbed it as though it were a wall. On the further side bonfires had been lit to lighten the darkness, and by the flare of them they saw Edward of England embracing and blessing his son, the Black Prince, who, unhelmeted, bowed low before him in his bloodstained mail.
"Who were they besides, Sir Robert Fitzsimmon and Richard de Beaumont who helped you when you were down, my son?" asked the King.
The Prince looked about him.
"I know not, Sire. Many, but here is one of them," and he pointed to Hugh, who just then appeared within the circle of the firelight. "I think that he slew the Count Louis of Flanders."
"Ah!" said the King, "our young merchant of Dunwich—a gallant man. Kneel you down, merchant of Dunwich."
Hugh knelt, and the King, taking the red sword from his hand, struck him with it on the shoulder, saying:
"Rise, Sir Hugh de Cressi, for now I give you that boon which your deathfaced servant asked before the battle. You have served us, or rather England well, both of you. But whose armour is that the archer carries, Sir Hugh?"
"Sir Edmund Acour's, lord de Noyon, Sire, only, alack! another man was within the armour."
"Your meaning?" said the King briefly, and in few words Hugh told the tale.
"A strange story, Sir Hugh. It would seem that God fought against you in this matter. Also I am wroth; my orders were that none of my men should sally out, though I fear me that you are not the only one who has broken them, and for your great deeds I forgive you."
"Sire," said Hugh, dropping to his knee again, "a boon. This de Noyon, your enemy and mine, has cheated and mocked me. Grant to me and my servant, Richard the archer, permission to follow after him and be avenged upon him."
"What is this you ask, Sir Hugh? That you and your brave henchman should wander off into the depths of France, there to perish in a dungeon or be hanged like felons? Nay, nay, we need good men and have none to spare for private quarrels. As for this traitor, de Noyon, and his plot, that egg is broken ere it was hatched, and we fear him no more. You follow me, Sir Hugh, and your servant with you, whom we make a captain of our archers. Until Calais is taken, leave not our person for any cause, and ask no more such boons lest you lose our favour. Nay, we have no more words for you since many others seek them. Stand back, Sir Hugh! What say you, my lord of Warwick? Ay, it is a gruesome task, but let the Welshmen out, those wounded will be well rid of their pain, and Christ have mercy on their souls. Forget not when it is finished to gather all men that they may give thanks to God for His great mercies."
Well nigh a year had gone, for once again the sun shone in the brazen August heavens. Calais had fallen at last. Only that day six of her noblest citizens had come forth, bearing the keys of the fortress, clad in white shirts, with ropes about their necks, and been rescued from instant death at the hands of the headsman by the prayer of Queen Philippa.
In his tent sat Hugh de Cressi, who, after so much war and hardship, looked older than his years, perhaps because of a red scar across the forehead, which he had come by during the siege. With him was his father, Master de Cressi, who had sailed across from Dunwich with a cargo of provisions, whereof, if the truth were known, he had made no small profit. For they were sold, every pound of them, before they left the ship's hold, though it is true the money remained to be collected.
"You say that Eve is well, my father?"
"Aye, well enough, son. Never saw I woman better or more beautiful, though she wears but a sad face. I asked her if she would not sail with me and visit you. But she answered: 'Nay, how can I who am another man's wife? Sir Hugh, your son, should have killed the wolf and let the poor swan go. When the wolf is dead, then, perchance, I will visit him. But, meanwhile, say to him that Red Eve's heart is where it always was, and that, like all Dunwich, she joys greatly in his fame and is honoured in his honour.' Moreover, to Grey Dick here, she sends many messages, and a present of wines and spiced foods for his stomach and of six score arrows made after his own pattern for his quiver."
"But for me no gift, father?" said Hugh.
"Nothing, son, save her love, which she said was enough. Also, in all this press of business and in my joy at finding you safe I had almost forgotten it, there is a letter from the holy Father, Sir Andrew. I have it somewhere in my pouch amid the bills of exchange," and he began to hunt through the parchments which he carried in a bag within his robe.
At length the letter was found. It ran thus:
To Sir Hugh de Cressi, knight, my beloved godson:
With what rejoicings I and another have heard of your knightly deeds through the letters that you have sent to us and from the mouths of wounded soldiers returned from the war, your honoured father will tell you. I thank God for them, and pray Him that this may find you unhurt and growing ever in glory.
My son, I have no good news for you. The Pope at Avignon, having studied the matter, (if indeed it ever reached his own ears) writes by one of his secretaries to say that he will not dissolve the alleged marriage between the Count of Noyon and the lady Eve of Clavering until the parties have appeared before him and set out their cause to his face. Therefore Eve cannot come to you, nor must you come to her while de Noyon lives, unless the mind of his Holiness can be changed. Should France become more quiet, so that English folk can travel there in safety, perchance Eve and I will journey to Avignon to lay her plaint before the Holy Father. But as yet this seems scarcely possible. Moreover, I trust that the traitor, Acour, may meet his end in this way or in that, and so save us the necessity. For, as you know, such cases take long to try, and the cost of them is great. Moreover, at the Court of Avignon the cause of one of our country must indeed be good just now when the other party to it is of the blood of France.
Soon I hope to write to you again, who at present have no more to say, save that notwithstanding my years I am well and strong, and would that I sat with you before the walls of Calais. God's blessing and mine be on you, and to Richard the archer, greetings. Dunwich has heard how he shot the foul-tongued Frenchman before the great battle closed, and the townsfolk lit a bonfire on the walls and feasted all the archers in his honour.
"I have found another letter," said Master de Cressi, when Hugh had finished reading, "which I remember Sir Andrew charged me to give to you also," and he handed him a paper addressed in a large, childish hand.
Hugh broke its silk eagerly, for he knew that writing.
"Hugh," it began simply, "Clement the Pope will not void my false marriage unless I appear before him, and this as yet I cannot do because of the French wars. Moreover, he sets the curse of the Church upon me and any man with whom I shall dare to re-marry until this be done. For myself I would defy the Church, but not for you or for children that might come to us. Moreover, the holy father, Sir Andrew, forbids it, saying that God will right all in His season and that we must not make Him wroth. Therefore, Hugh, lover you are, but husband you may not be while de Noyon lives or until the Pope gives his dispensation of divorce, which latter may be long in winning, for the knave de Noyon has been whispering in his ear. Hugh, this is my counsel: Get you to the King again and crave his leave to follow de Noyon, for if once you twain can come face to face I know well how the fray will end. Then, when he is dead, return to one who waits for you through this world and the next.
"Hugh, I am proud of your great deeds. No longer can they mock you as 'the merchant's son,' Sir Hugh. God be with you, as are my prayers and love.
"I forgot to tell you that Sir Andrew is disturbed in heart. He looks into a crystal which he says he brought with him from the East, and swears he sees strange sights there, pictures of woe such as have not been since the beginning of the world. Of this woe he preaches to the folk of Dunwich, warning them of judgment to come, and they listen affrighted because they know him to be a holy man who has a gift from God. Yet he says that you and I, Eve, need fear nothing. May it be so, Hugh.—E."
Now when he had thought awhile and hidden up Eve's letter, Hugh turned to his father and asked him what were these sermons that Sir Andrew preached.
"I heard but one of them, son," answered Master de Cressi, "though there have been three. By the Holy Mother! it frightened me so much that I needed no more of that medicine. Nor, to tell truth, when I got home again could I remember all he said, save that it was of some frightful ill which comes upon the world from the East and will leave it desolate."
"And what think folk of such talk, father?"
"Indeed, son, they know not what to think. Most say that he is mad; others say that he is inspired of God. Yet others declare that he is a wizard and that his familiar brings him tidings from Cathay, where once he dwelt, or perchance, from hell itself. These went to the bishop, who summoned Sir Andrew and was closeted with him for three hours. Afterward he called in the complainers and bade them cease their scandal of wizardry, since he was sure that what the holy Father said came from above and not from below. He added that they would do well to mend their lives and prepare to render their account, as for his part he should also, since the air was thick with doom. Then he gave his benediction to the old knight and turned away weeping, and since that hour none talk of wizardry but all of judgment. Men in Dunwich who have quarrelled from boyhood, forgive each other and sing psalms instead of swearing oaths, and I have been paid debts that have been owing to me for years, all because of these sermons."
"An awesome tale, truly," said Hugh. "Yet like this bishop I believe that what Sir Andrew says will come to pass, for I know well that he is not as other men are."
That night, by special leave, Hugh waited on the King, and with him Grey Dick, who was ever his shadow.
"What is it now, Sir Hugh de Cressi?" asked Edward.
"Sire, after the great battle, nigh upon a year ago, you told me that I must serve you till Calais fell. I have served as best I could and Calais has fallen. Now I ask your leave to go seek my enemy—and yours—Sir Edmund Acour, Count de Noyon."
"Then you must go far, Sir Hugh, for I have tidings that this rogue who was not ashamed to wear another man's armour, and so save himself from your sword, is away to Italy this six months gone, where, as the Seigneur de Cattrina, he has estates near Venice. But tell me how things stand. Doubtless that Red Eve of yours—strangely enough I thought of her at Crecy when the sky grew so wondrous at nightfall—is at the bottom of them."
"That is so, Sire," and he told him all the tale.
"A strange case truly, Sir Hugh," said the King when he had heard it out. "I'll write to Clement for you both, but I doubt me whether you and your Eve will get justice from him, being English. England and Englishmen find little favour at Avignon just now, and mayhap Philip has already written on behalf of de Noyon. At the best His Holiness will shear you close and keep you waiting while he weighs the wool. No, Red Eve is right: this is a knot soonest severed by the sword. If you should find him, de Noyon could scarce refuse to meet you, for you shall fight him as the champion of our cause as well as of your own. He's at Venice, for our Envoy there reported it to me, trying to raise a fresh force of archers for the French.
"You have leave to go, Sir Hugh, who deserve much more, having served us well," went on the King. "We'll give you letters to Sir Geoffrey Carleon, who represents us there, and through him to the Doge. Farewell to you, Sir Hugh de Cressi, and to you, Captain Richard the Archer. When all this game is played, return and make report to us of your adventures, and of how de Noyon died. The Queen will love to hear the tale, and your nuptials and Red Eve's shall be celebrated at Westminster in our presence, for you have earned no less. Master Secretary, get your tools, I will dictate the letters. After they are signed to-morrow, see them into the hands of Sir Hugh, with others that I will give him for safe carriage, for alas I have creditors at Venice. Make out an open patent also to show that he and this captain travel as our messengers, charging all that do us service to forward them upon their journey."
Three days later Hugh and Grey Dick, in the character of royal messengers from the King of England to the Doge of Venice, took passage in a great vessel bound for Genoa with a cargo of wool and other goods. On board this ship before he sailed Hugh handed to his father letters for Eve and for Sir Andrew Arnold. Also he received from him money in plenty for his faring, and bills of exchange upon certain merchants of Italy, which would bring him more should it be needed.
Their parting was very sad, since the prophecies of Sir Andrew had taken no small hold upon Master de Cressi's mind.
"I fear me greatly, dear son," he said, "that we part to meet no more. Well, such is the lot of parents. They breed those children that heaven decrees to them; with toil and thought and fears they rear them up from infancy, learning to love them more than their own souls, for their sakes fighting a hard world. Then the sons go forth, north and south, and the daughters find husbands and joys and sorrows of their own, and both half forget them, as is nature's way. Last of all those parents die, as also is nature's way, and the half forgetfulness becomes whole as surely as the young moon grows to full. Well, well, this is a lesson that each generation must learn in turn, as you will know ere all is done. Although you are my youngest, I'll not shame to say I have loved you best of all, Hugh. Moreover, I've made such provision as I can for you, who have raised up the old name to honour, and who, as I hope, will once more blend the de Cressis and the Claverings, the foes of three generations, into a single House."
"Speak not so, father," answered Hugh, who was moved almost to tears. "Mayhap it is I who shall die, while you live on to a green old age. At least know that I am not forgetful of your love and kindness, seeing that after Eve you are dearer to me than any on the earth."
"Ay, ay, after Eve and Eve's children. Still you'll have a kind thought for me now and then, the old merchant who so often thwarted you when you were a wayward lad—for your own good, as he held. For what more can a father hope? But let us not weep before all these stranger men. Farewell, son Hugh, of whom I am so proud. Farewell, son Hugh," and he embraced him and went across the gangway, for the sailors were already singing their chanty at the anchor.
"I never had a father than I can mind," said Grey Dick aloud to himself, after his fashion, "yet now I wish I had, for I'd like to think on his last words when there was nothing else to do. It's an ugly world as I see it, but there's beauty in such love as this. The man for the maid and the maid for the man—pish! they want each other. But the father and the mother—they give all and take nothing. Oh, there's beauty in such love as this, so perhaps God made it. Only, then, how did He also make Crecy Field, and Calais siege, and my black bow, and me the death who draws it?"
The voyage to Genoa was very long, for at this season of the year the winds were light and for the most part contrary. At length, however, Hugh and Dick came there safe and sound. Having landed and bid farewell to the captain and crew of the ship, they waited on the head of a great trading house with which Master de Cressi had dealings.
This signor, who could speak French, gave them lodging and welcomed them well, both for the sake of Hugh's father and because they came as messengers from the King of England. On the morrow of their arrival he took them to a great lord in authority, who was called a Duke. This Duke, when he learned that one was a knight and the other a captain archer of the English army and that they both had fought at Crecy, where so many of his countrymen—the Genoese bowmen—had been slain, looked on them somewhat sourly.
Had he known all the part they played in that battle, in truth his welcome would have been rough. But Hugh, with the guile of the serpent, told him that the brave Genoese had been slain, not by the English arrows, for which even with their wet strings they were quite a match (here Dick, who was standing to one side grinned faintly and stroked the case of his black bow, as though to bid it keep its memories to itself), but by the cowardly French, their allies. Indeed Hugh's tale of that horrible and treacherous slaughter was so moving that the Duke burst into tears and swore that he would cut the throat of every Frenchman on whom he could lay hands.
After this he began to extol the merits of the cross-bow as against the long arm of the English, and Hugh agreed that there was much in what he said. But Grey Dick, who was no courtier, did not agree. Indeed, of a sudden he broke in, offering in his bad French to fight any cross-bow man in Genoa at six score yards, so that the Duke might learn which was the better weapon. But Hugh trod on his foot and explained that he meant something quite different, being no master of the French tongue. So that cloud passed by.
The end of it was that this Duke, or Doge, whose name they learned was Simon Boccanera, gave them safe conduct through all his dominion, with an order for relays of horses. Also he made use of them to take a letter to the Doge of Venice, between which town and Genoa, although they hated each other bitterly, there was at the moment some kind of hollow truce. So having drunk a cup of wine with him they bade him farewell.
Next morning the horses arrived, and with them two led beasts to carry their baggage, in charge of a Genoese guide. So they departed on their long ride of something over two hundred English miles, which they hoped to cover in about a week. In fact, it took them ten days, for the roads were very rough and the pack-beasts slow. Once, too, after they had entered the territory of Venice, they were set on in a defile by four thieves, and might have met their end had not Grey Dick's eyes been so sharp. As it was he saw them coming, and, having his bow at hand, for he did not like the look of the country or its inhabitants, leaped to earth and shot two of them with as many arrows, whereon the other two ran away. Before they went, however, they shot also and killed a pack-beast, so that the Englishmen were obliged to throw away some of their gear and go on with the one that remained.
At length, on the eleventh afternoon, they saw the lovely city of Venice, sparkling like a cluster of jewels, set upon its many islands amid the blue waters of the Adriatic. Having crossed some two miles of open water by a ferry which plied for the convenience of travellers, they entered the town through the western gate, and inquired as best they could (for now they had no guide, the Genoese having left them long before) for the house of Sir Geoffrey Carleon, the English Envoy. For a long while they could make no one understand. Indeed, the whole place seemed to be asleep, perhaps because of the dreadful heat, which lay over it like a cloud and seemed to burn them to the very bones.
Perplexed and outworn, at last Hugh produced a piece of gold and held it before a number of men who were watching them idly, again explaining in French that he wished to be led to the house of the English ambassador. The sight of the money seemed to wake their wits, for two or three of the fellows ran forward quarrelling with each other, till one of them getting the mastery, seized Hugh's tired horse by the bridle and dragged it down a side street to the banks of a broad canal.
Here he called something aloud, and presently two men appeared rowing a large, flat-bottomed punt from a dock where it was hidden. Into this boat the horses and pack-beast were driven, much against their will. Hugh and Dick having followed them, the three Italians began to punt them along the canal, which was bordered with tall houses. A mile or so farther on it entered another canal, where the houses were much finer and built in a style of which they had never seen the like, with beautiful and fantastic arches supported upon pillars.
At length to their great joy they came opposite to a house over the gateway of which, stirless in the still air, hung a flag whereon were blazoned the leopards of England. Here the boatmen, pulling in their poles, save one to which they made the punt fast in mid-stream, showed by their gestures that they desired to be paid. Hugh handed the piece of gold to the man who had led them to the boat, whereon he was seized with a fit of uncontrollable fury. He swore, he raved, he took the piece of gold and cast it down on the bilge-boards, he spat on it and his two companions did likewise.
"Surely they are mad," said Hugh.
"Mad or no, I like not the looks of them," answered Dick. "Have a care, they are drawing their knives," and as he spoke one of the rogues struck him in the face; while another strove to snatch away the pouch that hung at his side.
Now Grey Dick awoke, as it were. To the man who had tried to take his pouch he dealt such a buffet that he plunged into the canal. But him who had struck him he seized by the arm and twisted it till the knife fell from his hand. Then gripping his neck in an iron grasp he forced him downward and rubbed his nose backward and forward upon the rough edge of the boat, for the Italian was but as a child to him when he put out his strength.
In vain did his victim yell for mercy. He showed him none, till at length wearying of the game, he dealt him such a kick that he also flew over the thwarts to join his fellow-bully in the water.
Then seeing how it had gone with his companions who, sorely damaged, swam to the farther side of the canal and vanished, the third man, he whom they had first met, sheathed his knife. With many bows and cringes he pulled up the pole and pushed the punt to the steps of the house over which the flag hung, where people were gathering, drawn by the clamour.
"Does Sir Geoffrey Carleon dwell here?" asked Hugh in a loud voice, whereon a gentleman with a pale face and a grizzled beard who appeared to be sick, for he was leaning on a staff, hobbled from out the porch, saying:
"Ay, ay, that is my name. Who are you that make this tumult at my gates? Another turbulent Englishman, I'll be bound."
"Ay, sir, an Englishman called Sir Hugh de Cressi, and his companion, Richard the Archer, whom these rogues have tried to rob and murder, messengers from his Grace King Edward."
Now Sir Geoffrey changed his tone.
"Your pardon if I spoke roughly, Sir Hugh, but we poor Envoys have to do with many rufflers from our own land. Enter, I pray you. My servants will see to your gear and horses. But first, what is the trouble between you and these fellows?"
Hugh told him briefly.
"Ah!" he said, "a common trick with foreigners. Well for you that night had not fallen, since otherwise they might have rowed you up some back waterway and there done you to death. The canals of Venice hide the traces of many such foul deeds. Mother of Heaven!" he added, "why, this boatman is none other than Giuseppe, the noted bravo," and he turned and in Italian bade his servants seize the man.
But Giuseppe had heard enough. Springing into the water he swam like a duck for the farther bank of the canal, and, gaining it, ran swiftly for some alley, where he vanished.
"He's gone," said Sir Geoffrey, "and as well hunt with a lantern for a rat in a sewer as for him. Well, we have his boat, which shall be sent to the magistrate with letters of complaint. Only, Sir Hugh, be careful to wear mail when you walk about at night, lest that villain and his mates should come to collect their fare with a stiletto. Now, enter and fear not for your goods. My folk are honest. God's name! how fearful is this heat. None have known its like. Steward, give me your arm."
An hour later and Hugh, clad in fresh garments of sweet linen, bathed and shaved, sat at table in a great, cool room with Sir Geoffrey and his lady, a middle-aged and anxious-faced woman, while Grey Dick ate at a lower board with certain of the Envoy's household.
"I have read the letters which concern the business of his Grace the King," said Sir Geoffrey, who was toying languidly with some Southern fruits, for he would touch no meat. "They have to do with moneys that his Grace owes to great bankers of this city but does not yet find it convenient to discharge. I have seen their like before, and to-morrow must deal with them as best I may—no pleasant business, for these usurers grow urgent," and he sighed. "But," he added, "the King says that you, Sir Hugh de Cressi, whom he names his 'brave, trusty and most well beloved knight and companion in war,'" and he bowed courteously to Hugh, "have another business which he commands me to forward by every means in my power, and that without fail. What is this business, Sir Hugh?"
"It is set out, Sir Geoffrey, in a letter from his Grace to the Doge of Venice, which I am to ask you to deliver. Here it is. Be pleased to read it, it is open."
The Envoy took the letter and read it, lifting his eyebrows as he did so.
"By St. Mark,—he's the right saint to swear by in Venice"—he exclaimed when he had finished, "this is a strange affair. You have travelled hither to offer single combat to Edmund Acour, Count of Noyon and Seigneur of Cattrina. The Doge is urged by his friendship to the throne of England to bring about this combat to the death, seeing that de Noyon has broken his oath of homage, has plotted to overthrow King Edward, has fought against him and that therefore you are his Grace's champion as well as the avenger of certain private wrongs which you will explain. That's the letter. Well, I think the Doge will listen to it, because he scarce dare do otherwise who wishes no quarrel with our country just now when it is victorious. Also this de Noyon, whom we call Cattrina here, has allied himself with certain great men of the Republic, with whom he is connected by blood, who are secret enemies to the Doge. Through them he strives to stir up trouble between Venice and England, and to raise mercenaries to serve the flag of France, as did the Genoese, to their sorrow. Therefore I think that in the Doge you will find a friend. I think also that the matter, being brought forward with such authority, the Seigneur de Cattrina will scarcely care to refuse your challenge if you can show that you have good cause for quarrel against him, since in such affairs the Venetians are punctilious. But now tell me the tale that I may judge better."
So Hugh told him all.
"A strange story and a good cause," said Sir Geoffrey when he had done. "Only this Cattrina is dangerous. Had he known you came to Venice, mayhap you had never lived to reach my house. Go armed, young knight, especially after the sun sinks. I'll away to write to the Doge, setting out the heads of the matter and asking audience. The messenger shall leave ere I sleep, if sleep I may in this heat. Bide you here and talk with my lady, if it so pleases you, for I would show you my letter ere we bid good-night, and the thing is pressing. We must catch Cattrina before he gets wind of your presence in Venice."
"How long is it since you have seen England, Sir Hugh?" asked Dame Carleon languidly.
"Some eighteen months, lady, although in truth it seems more, for many things have happened to me in that time."
"Eighteen months only! Why, 'tis four long years since I looked upon the downs of Sussex, which are my home, the dear downs of Sussex, that I shall see never again."
"Why say you so, lady, who should have many years of life before you?"
"Because they are done, Sir Hugh. Oh, in my heart I feel that they are done. That should not grieve me, since my only child is buried in this glittering, southern city whereof I hate the sounds and sights that men call so beautiful. Yet I would that I might have been laid at last in the kind earth of Sussex where for generations my forbears have been borne to rest," and suddenly she began to weep.
"What ails you, lady? You are not well?"
"Oh, I know not. I think it is the heat or some presage of woe to come, not to me only, but to all men. Look, nature herself is sick," and she led him to the broad balcony of the chamber and pointed to long lines of curious mist which in the bright moonlight they could see creeping toward Venice from the ocean, although what wind there was appeared to be off land.
"Those fogs are unnatural," she went on. "At this season of the year there should be none, and these come, not from the lagoons, but up from the sea where no such vapours were ever known to rise. The physicians say that they foretell sickness, whereof terrible rumours have for some time past reached us from the East, though none know whether these be true or false."
"The East is a large place, where there is always sickness, lady, or so I have heard."
"Ay, ay, it is the home of Death, and I think that he travels to us thence. And not only I, not only I; half the folk in Venice think the same, though why, they cannot tell. Listen."
As she spoke, the sound of solemn chanting broke upon Hugh's ear. Nearer it grew, and nearer, till presently there emerged from a side street a procession of black monks who bore in front of them a crucifix of white ivory. Along the narrow margin which lay between the houses and the canal they marched, followed by a great multitude of silent people.
"It is a dirge for the dead that they sing," said Dame Carleon, "and yet they bury no man. Oh! months ago I would have escaped from this city, and we had leave to go. But then came orders from the King that we must bide here because of his creditors. So here we bide for good and all. Hush! I hear my husband coming; say nothing of my talk, it angers him. Rest you well, Sir Hugh."
"Truly that lady has a cheerful mind," grumbled Grey Dick, when she had gone, leaving them alone upon the balcony. "Ten minutes more of her and I think I should go hang myself, or squat upon these stones and howl at the moon like a dog or those whimpering friars."
Hugh made no answer, for he was thinking of his father's tale of the prophecies of Sir Andrew Arnold, and how they grew sad in Dunwich also. In truth, like Lady Carleon, he found it in his heart to wish that he too were clear of Venice, which he had reached with so much toil.
"Bah!" he said presently, "this place stinks foully. It puts me in mind of some woman, most beauteous indeed, but three days dead. Let us go in."
On the following morning, while they sat at breakfast, there came a messenger from the Doge of Venice, whose name Hugh learned was Andrea Dandolo, bearing a letter sealed with a great seal. This letter, when opened, was found to be from some high officer. It stated that the Doge would hold a Court at noon, after which it was his pleasure to receive the English knight who came as a messenger from the mighty monarch, King Edward, and to talk with him on matters set out in the letter of Sir Geoffrey Carleon. The writing added that the Seigneur of Cattrina, who in France was known as the Count de Noyon and in England as Sir Edmund Acour, would be present at the Court and doubtless ready to answer all questions that might be put to him.
"Then at last we shall come face to face," said Hugh, with a fierce laugh.
"Yes, master," put in Dick, "but you've done that several times before and always ended back to back. Pray the Saints such may not be the finish of this meeting also."
Then he turned and went to clean his master's armour, for in this martial dress, notwithstanding the great heat, Hugh determined to appear before the Doge. It was good armour, not that, save for the sword, which Sir Arnold had given him, whereat the Court at Windsor had laughed as out of date, but mail of a newer fashion, some of it, from the bodies of knights who fell at Crecy, after which battle such wares had been cheap.
Still, Dick could have wished that it had been better for so fine an occasion, seeing that it was marked with many a battle dint and that right across the Cressi cognizance, which Hugh had painted on his shield after he was knighted—a golden star rising from an argent ocean—was a scar left by the battle-axe of a Calais man-at-arms. Moreover Hugh, or rather Dick, took with him other armour, namely, that of the knight, Sir Pierre de la Roche, whom Hugh had killed at Crecy thinking that he was Edmund Acour, whose mail Pierre wore.
For the rest, Dick clad himself in his uniform of a captain of archers of King Edward's guard, wearing a green tunic over his mail shirt, and a steel-lined cap from which rose a heron's plume, pinned thereto with his Grace's golden arrow.
All being ready they started in a painted barge, accompanied by Sir Geoffrey Carleon, who wore his velvet robe of office, and grumbled at its weight and warmth. A row of some fifteen minutes along the great canal brought them to a splendid portal upon the mole, with marble steps. Hence they were conducted by guards across a courtyard, where stood many gaily dressed people who watched them curiously, especially Grey Dick, whose pale, sinister face caused them to make a certain sign with their fingers, to avert the evil eye, as Sir Geoffrey explained to them. Leaving this courtyard they went up more steps and along great corridors into the finest apartment that they had ever seen. It was a glitter of gold and marble, and rich with paintings.
Here on a kind of throne sat the Doge Dandolo, an imperial-looking man, magnificently attired. Guards stood like statues behind him, while in front, talking together and moving from place to place, were gathered all the great nobles of Venice, with their beauteous ladies. From time to time the Doge summoned one or other of these, who was called to him by a black-robed secretary. Advancing with bows the courtier talked to him a while, then was dismissed by a gracious motion of the hand.
As the Englishmen entered this hall a herald called their names thus from a written slip of paper:
"The Cavalier Geoffrey Carleon, Ambassador of England. The Cavalier Hugh de Cressi, Messenger from the King of England, and the Captain Richard Archer, his companion."
Now all talk was hushed and every eye turned to scan these strangers of whose business, it would seem, something was already known.
"A fine man," said one lady to another of Hugh, "but why does he come here in dinted armour?"
"Oh! he is English and the English are barbarians who like to be ready to cut some one's throat," answered her companion. "But Holy Jesus! look at the long fellow with the death's head who walks behind him, and carries his luggage in a sack. His face makes my back creep."
Fortunately neither Hugh nor Dick understood these and other such sayings which Sir Geoffrey repeated to them afterward and therefore walked on with their host unconcerned. Once, however, Grey Dick nudged his master and whispered in his ear:
"Be glad, our man is here. It is he who mocks us to those popinjays. Nay, turn not to look; you will see plenty of his sweet face presently."
Now they stood before the chair of state, from which the Doge rose, and advanced two steps to greet the Ambassador of England. When these courtesies were over Sir Geoffrey presented Hugh to him, to whom he bowed, and Dick, whose salute he acknowledged with a wave of his jewelled hand. Afterward they talked, all crowding round to listen, Sir Geoffrey himself, who spoke Italian well, acting as the interpreter.
"You come hither, Cavalier de Cressi," said the Doge, "on behalf of his royal Grace, King Edward, who speaks of you in his letter in terms of which any knight may well be proud. We understand that this captain with you is your companion," and he glanced curiously at Dick out of the corners of his dark eyes, adding, "If those are gifts which he bears in that leathern sack and the long case in his hand, let our servants relieve him of them."
"Let his servants leave me alone," growled Grey Dick when this was translated. "Say to this fine lord, Sir Knight, that the gifts in the sack are not for him, and that which the case scatters he would scarcely care to have."
Sir Geoffrey made some explanation in a low voice, and with a smile the Doge waved the matter by, then said:
"Will the noble cavalier be so good as to set out his business, unless it is for our private ear alone?"
Hugh answered that it was for the public ear of all Venice, and especially for that of the lord who was called Sir Edmund Acour in England, the Count de Noyon in France, and the Seigneur of Cattrina in Italy.
"Will you pleased to point out this lord to us," said the Doge, glancing at the gorgeous throng which was gathered behind them.
"I cannot, illustrious Doge," answered Hugh, "that is, with certainty. As it chances I have seen his face but twice—once in a marsh when I had other things to think of who must watch my enemy's sword, and once at eve in the corner of a dark chapel, where he had just gone through the rite of marriage with a lady whom he had drugged, which lady was my affianced wife. Often afterward I sought to see that face, especially in the great fray of Crecy, but failed, in a case which with your leave I will narrate to you."