At last he beheld the Cathedral of Burgos rising in the midst of the Moorish fortifications of the town, and, halting his men under the shade of a few trees, he rode on in search of the marshals of the camp, and as soon as the open space for his tents had been assigned, he returned to see them raised. Gaston, who had of late become more silent, was lifted from his mule, and assisted into the tent, where he was laid on his couch, and soon after, Eustace was relieved from his anxiety on Leonard Ashton's account, by his appearance. He came stumbling in without one word of apology, only declaring himself as weary as a dog, and, throwing himself down on a deer-skin on his own side of the tent, was fast asleep in another minute.
Leonard Ashton was awakened the next morning by the light of the rising sun streaming in where the curtain of the tent had been raised to admit the fresh dewy morning air. The sunbeams fell on the hair and face of Eustace as he leant over Gaston, who lay stretched on the couch, and faintly spoke: "I tell you it is more. Such fever as this would not be caused by this trifling cut. There is sickness abroad in the camp, and why should it not be my turn as well as another man's. Take care of yourself, Sir Eustace."
No sooner did Leonard understand the sense of these words, than he sprang up, rushed out of the tent, and never rested till he thought himself at a safe distance, when he shouted to Eustace to come to him.
"Has he got this fever on him?" exclaimed he, as Eustace approached.
"He is very ill at ease," replied Eustace, "but to my mind it is caused by yesterday's fatigue and heat, added to the wine which he would drink."
"It is the fever, I say," replied Ashton; "I am sure it is. Come away, Eustace, or we shall all be infected."
"I cannot leave him," said Eustace.
"What? You do not mean to peril yourself by going near him?" said Ashton.
"I think not that there is peril in so doing," answered Eustace; "and even if there were, I could not leave him in sickness, after all his kindness to me and patience with my inexperience."
"He is no brother nor cousin to us," said Leonard. "I see not why we should endanger our lives for a stranger. I will not, for my own part; and, as your old friend and comrade, I would entreat you not."
These were kinder words than Eustace had heard from Ashton since the beginning of his jealousy, and he answered, as he thought they were meant, in a friendly tone, "Thanks, Leonard, but I cannot look on Gaston d'Aubricour as a stranger; and had I fewer causes for attachment to him, I could not leave my post."
"Only you do not expect me to do the same," said Leonard; "my father sent me here to gain honour and wealth, not to be poisoned with the breath of a man in a fever."
"Assuredly not," said Eustace. "I will arrange matters so that you shall no longer sleep in our tent. But let me ask of you, Leonard, what was the meaning of your conduct of yesterday?"
"You may ask yourself," said Leonard, sullenly; "it is plain enough, methinks."
"Have a care, Leonard. Remember that my brother's authority is given to me."
"Much good may it do you," said Leonard; "but that is nothing to me. I am no vassal of yours, to come at your call. I have my own friends, and am not going to stay in this infected part of the camp with men who keep a fever among them. Give me but my sword and mantle from the tent, and I will trouble you no more."
"Wait, Leonard, I will take all measures for your safety; but remember that I am answerable to the Prince for my brother's followers."
"Answer for your own serfs," retorted Leonard, who had nearly succeeded in working himself into a passion. "My father might be willing to grace Sir Reginald by letting me follow him, but by his death I am my own man, and not to move at your beck and call, because the Prince laid his sword on your shoulder. Knave Jasper," he called to one of the men-at-arms, "bring my sword and cloak from the tent; I enter it no more."
"I know not how far you may be bound to me," said Eustace, "and must inquire from some elder Knight, but I fear that your breaking from me may be attended with evil effects to your name and fame."
Leonard had put on his dogged expression, and would not listen. He had already set his mind on joining le Borgne Basque, and leaving the service which his own envious service rendered galling; and the panic excited in his mind by Gaston's illness determined him to depart without loss of time, or listening to the representations which he could not answer. He turned his back on Eustace, and busied himself with the fastenings of his sword, which had by this time been brought to him. Even yet Eustace was not rebuffed. "One more hint, Leonard. From what I am told, there is more peril to thy health in revelry than in the neighbourhood of poor Gaston. If you will quit one who wishes you well, take heed to your ways."
Still the discourteous Squire made no reply, and walked off in all the dignity of ill-humour. The young Knight, who really had a warm feeling of affection for him, stood looking after him with a sigh, and then returned to his patient, whom he found in an uneasy sleep. After a few moments' consideration, he summoned old Guy to take the part of nurse, and walked to the tent of Sir Richard Ferrars, to ask his counsel.
The old Knight, who was standing at the door of his tent, examining into some hurt which his steed had received the day before, kindly and cordially greeted Eustace on his approach. "I am glad you are not above taking advice," he said, "as many a youth might be after such fresh honours."
"I feel but too glad to find some one who will bestow advice on me," said Eustace; and he proceeded to explain his difficulties with regard to Leonard Ashton.
"Let him go! and a good riddance," said Sir Richard; "half your cares go with him."
"Yet I am unwilling not to attempt to hinder my old comrade from running to ruin."
"You have quite enough on your own hands already," said the old Knight; "he would do far more harm in your troop than out of it, and try your patience every hour."
"He is my old playfellow," said Eustace, still dissatisfied.
"More shame for him," said Sir Richard; "waste not another thought on so cross-grained a slip, who, as I have already feared, might prove a stumbling-block to you, so young in command as you are. Let him get sick of his chosen associates, and no better hap can befall him. And for yourself, what shall you do with this sick Squire?"
"What can I do, save to give the best attendance I may?"
"Nay, I am not the man to gainsay it. 'Tis no more than you ought. And yet—" He surveyed the young Knight's slender form and slightly moulded limbs, his cheeks pale with watching and the oppressive heat of the night, and the heavy appearance of the eyelids that shaded his dark blue thoughtful eyes. "Is your health good, young man?"
"As good as that of other men," said Eustace.
"Men!" said Sir Richard; "boys, you mean! But be a man, since you will, only take as good care of yourself as consists with duty. I had rather have you safe than a dozen of these black-visaged Gascons."
Eustace further waited to mention to Sir Richard his untoward encounter with Sir John Chandos, and to beg him to explain it to the old Baron.
"I will," said Sir Richard; "and don't take old Chandos's uncourtliness too much to heart, young Eustace. He means you no ill. Do your duty, and he will own it in time."
Eustace thanked the old Knight, and with spirits somewhat cheered, returned to his tent, there to devote himself to the service of his sick Squire. The report that the fever was in his tent made most persons willing to avoid him, and he met little interruption in his cares. Of Leonard, all that he heard was from a man-at-arms, who made his appearance in his tent to demand Master Ashton's arms, horse, and other property, he having entered the service of Sir William Felton; and Eustace was too much engaged with his own cares to make further inquiry after him.
For a day or two Gaston d'Aubricour's fever ran very high, and just when its violence was beginning to diminish, a fresh access was occasioned by the journey from Burgos to Valladolid, whither he was carried in a litter, when the army, by Pedro's desire, marched thither to await his promised subsidy. The unwholesome climate was of most pernicious effect to the whole of the English army, and in especial to the Black Prince, who there laid the foundation of the disorder which destroyed his health. Week after week passed on, each adding heat to the summer, and increasing the long roll of sick and dying in the camp, while Gaston still lay, languid and feeble by day, and fevered by night; there were other patients among the men-at-arms, requiring scarcely less care; and the young Knight himself, though, owing to his temperate habits, he had escaped the prevailing sickness, was looking thin and careworn with the numerous troubles and anxieties that were pressing on him.
Still he had actually lost not one of his men, and after the first week or two, began to have more confidence in himself, and to feel his place as their commander more than he would have done had Gaston been able to assist him. At last his trusty Squire began slowly to recover, though nightly returns of fever still kept him very weak.
"The Pyrenean breezes would make me another man," said he, one evening, when Eustace had helped him to the front of the tent, where he might enjoy the coolness which began to succeed the sultry heat of the day.
"I hear," said Eustace, "that we are to return as soon as the Prince can be moved. He is weary of waiting till this dog of a Spaniard will perform his contract."
"By my faith," said d'Aubricour, "I believe the butcherly rogue means to cancel his debts by the death of all his creditors. I would give my share of the pay, were it twenty times more, for one gust of the mountain air of my own hills."
"Which way lies your home, Gaston?" asked Eustace. "Near the pass by which we crossed?"
"No; more to the west. My home, call you it? You would marvel to see what it is now. A shattered, fire-scathed keep; the wolf's den in earnest, it may be. It is all that is left of the Castle d'Albricorte."
"How?" exclaimed Eustace. "What brought this desolation?"
"Heard you never my story?" said Gaston. "Mayhap not. You are fresh in the camp, and it is no recent news, nor do men question much whence their comrades come. Well, Albricorte was always a noted house for courage, and my father, Baron Beranger, not a whit behind his ancestors. He called himself a liegeman of England, because England was farthest off, and least likely to give him any trouble, and made war with all his neighbours in his own fashion. Rare was the prey that the old Black Wolf of the Pyrenees was wont to bring up to his lair, and right merry were the feastings there. Well I do remember how my father and brothers used to sound their horns as a token that they did not come empty-handed, and then, panting up the steep path, would come a rich merchant, whose ransom filled our purses half a year after, or a Knight, whose glittering armour made him a double prize, or—"
"What! you were actually—"
"Freebooters, after the fashion of our own Quatre fils Aymon," answered Gaston, composedly. "Yes, Beranger d'Albricorte was the terror of all around, and little was the chance that aught would pursue him to his den. So there I grew up, as well beseemed the cub of such a wolf, racing through the old halls at my will."
"Your mother?" asked Eustace.
"Ah! poor lady! I remember her not. She died when I was a babe, and all I know of her was from an old hag, the only woman in the Castle, to whom the charge of me was left. My mother was a noble Navarrese damsel whom my father saw at a tourney, seized, and bore away as she was returning from the festival. Poor lady! our grim Castle must have been a sad exchange from her green valleys—and the more, that they say she was soon to have wedded the Lord of Montagudo, the victor of that tourney. The Montagudos had us in bitter feud ever after, and my father always looked like a thunderstorm if their name was spoken. They say she used to wander on the old battlements like a ghost, ever growing thinner and whiter, and scarce seemed to joy even in her babes, but would only weep over them. That angered the Black Wolf, and there were chidings which made matters little better, till at last the poor lady pined away, and died while I was still an infant."
"A sad tale," said Eustace.
"Ay! I used to weep at it, when the old crone who nursed me would tell it over as I sat by her side in the evening. See, here is holy relic that my mother wore round her neck, and my nurse hung round mine. It has never been parted from me. So I grew up to the years of pagehood, which came early with me, and forth I went on my first foray with the rest of them. But as we rode joyously home with our prey before us, a band of full a hundred and fifty men-at-arms set on us in the forest. Our brave thirty—down they went on all side. I remember the tumult, the heavy mace uplifted, and my father's shield thrust over me. I can well-nigh hear his voice saying, 'Flinch not, Gaston, my brave wolf-cub!' But then came a fall, man and horse together, and I went down stunned, and knew no more till a voice over me said, 'That whelp is stirring—another sword-thrust!' But another replied, 'He bears the features of Alienor, I cannot slay him.'"
"It was your mother's lover?"
"Montagudo? Even so; and I was about to beg for mercy, but, at my first movement, the other fellow's sword struck me back senseless once more, and when I recovered my wits, all was still, and the moonlight showed me where I was. And a fair scene to waken to! A score of dark shapes hung on the trees—our trusty men-at-arms—and my own head was resting on my dead father's breast. Us they had spared from hanging—our gentle blood did us that service; but my father and my three brethren all were stone dead. The Count de Bearn had sworn to put an end to the ravages of the Black Wolf, and, joining with the Montagudos, had done the work, like traitor villains as they were."
"And yourself, Gaston?"
"I was not so badly wounded but that I could soon rise to my feet—but where should I go? I turned towards the Castle, but the Bearnese had been there before me, and I saw flames bursting from every window. I was weak and wounded, and sank down, bleeding and bewailing, till my senses left me; and I should have died, but for two Benedictines journeying for the service of their Convent. The good brethren were in fear for their bags in going through the Black Wolf's country, but they had pity on me; they brought me to myself, and when they had heard my tale, they turned aside to give Christian burial to my father and brothers. They were holy men, those monks, and, for their sakes, I have spared the cowl ever since. They tended me nearly as well as you have done, and brought me to their Convent, where they would fain have made a monk of me, but the wolf was too strong in me, and, ere a month was passed, I had been so refractory a pupil, that they were right glad to open the Convent gates. I walked forth to seek my fortune, without a denier, with nothing but the sword I had taken from my father's hand, and borne with me, much against the good men's will. I meant to seek service with any one who would avenge me on the Count de Bearn. One night I slept on the hill-side, one day I fasted, the next I fell in with Sir Perduccas d'Albret's troop. I had seen him in my father's company. He heard my tale, saw me a strong, spirited lad, and knew a d'Aubricour would be no discredit to his free lances. So he took me as his page, and thence—but the tale would be long—I became what you see me."
"And you have never seen your own Castle again?"
"But once. D'Albret laughed when I called on him to revenge me on the Count de Bearn, and bade me bide my time till I met him in battle. As to my heritage, there was no hope for that. Once, when I had just broken with Sir Nele Loring, and left his troop, and times were hard with me, I took my horse and rode to Albricorte, but there was nought but the bare mountain, and the walls black with fire. There was, indeed, a wretched shepherd and his wife, who trembled and looked dismayed when they found that one of the Albricortes still lived; but I could get nothing from them, unless I had taken a sheep before me on the saddle; so I rode off again to seek some fresh service, and, by good hap, lit on Sir Reginald just as old Harwood was dead. All I have from my father is my name, my shield, and an arm that I trust has disgraced neither."
"No, indeed. Yours is a strange history, Gaston; such as we dream not of in our peaceful land. Homeless, friendless, I know not how you can be thus gay spirited?"
"A light heart finds its way through the world the easiest," said Gaston, smiling. "I have nothing to lose, and no sorrows to waste time on. But are you not going forth this cool evening, Sir Eustace? you spoke of seeking fresh tidings of the Prince."
Eustace accordingly walked forth, attended by his yeoman, John Ingram; but all he could learn was, that Edward had sent a remonstrance to the King of Castile on the delay of the subsidy.
As Eustace was returning, his attention was caught by repeated groans, which proceeded from a wretched little hovel almost level with the earth. "Hark!" said he to Ingram, a tall stout man-at-arms from the Lynwood estate. "Didst thou not hear a groaning?"
"Some of the Castilians, Sir. To think that the brutes should be content to live in holes not fit for swine!"
"But methought it was an English tongue. Listen, John!"
And in truth English ejaculations mingled with the moans: "To St. Joseph of Glastonbury, a shrine of silver! Blessed Lady of Taunton, a silver candlestick! Oh! St. Dunstan!"
Eustace doubted no longer; and stooping down and entering the hut, he beheld, as well as the darkness would allow him, Leonard Ashton himself, stretched on some mouldy rushes, and so much altered, that he could scarcely have been recognized as the sturdy, ruddy youth who had quitted the Lances of Lynwood but five weeks before.
"Eustace! Eustace!" he exclaimed, as the face of his late companion appeared. "Can it be you? Have the saints sent you to my succour?"
"It is I, myself, Leonard," replied Eustace; "and I hope to aid you. How is it—"
"Let me feel your hand, that I may be sure you are flesh and blood," cried Ashton, raising himself and grasping Eustace's hand between his own, which burnt like fire; then, lowering his voice to a whisper of horror, "She is a witch!"
"Who?" asked Eustace, making the sign of the cross.
Leonard pointed to a kind of partition which crossed the hut, beyond which Eustace could perceive an old hag-like woman, bending over a cauldron which was placed on the fire. Having made this effort, he sank back, hiding his face with his cloak, and trembling in every limb. A thrill of dismay passed over the Knight, and the giant, John Ingram, stood shaking like an aspen, pale as death, and crossing himself perpetually. "Oh, take me from this place, Eustace," repeated Leonard, "or I am a dead man, both body and soul!"
"But how came you here, Leonard?"
"I fell sick some three days since, and—and, fearing infection, Sir William Felton bade me be carried from his lodgings; the robbers, his men-at-arms, stripped me of all I possessed, and brought me to this dog-hole, to the care of this old hag. Oh, Eustace, I have heard her mutter prayers backwards; and last night—oh! last night! at the dead hour, there came in a procession—of that I would take my oath—seven black cats, each holding a torch with a blue flame, and danced around me, till one laid his paw upon my breast, and grew and grew, with its flaming eyes fixed on me, till it was as big as an ox, and the weight was intolerable, the while her spells were over me, and I could not open my lips to say so much as an Ave Mary. At last, the cold dew broke out on my brow, and I should have been dead in another instant, when I contrived to make the sign of the Cross, whereat they all whirled wildly round, and I fell—oh! I fell miles and miles downwards, till at last I found myself, at morning's light, with the hateful old witch casting water in my face. Oh, Eustace, take me away!"
Such were the times, that Eustace Lynwood, with all his cool sense and mental cultivation, believed implicitly poor Leonard's delirious fancy—black cats and all; and the glances he cast at the poor old Spaniard were scarcely less full of terror and abhorrence, as he promised Leonard, whom he now regarded only in the light of his old comrade, that he should, without loss of time, be conveyed to his own tent.
"But go not—leave me not," implored Leonard, clinging fast to him, almost like a child to its nurse, with a hand which was now cold as marble.
"No; I will remain," said Eustace; "and you, Ingram, hasten to bring four of the men with the litter in which Master d'Aubricour came from Burgos. Hasten I tell you."
Ingram, with his eyes dilated with horror, appeared but too anxious to quit this den, yet lingered. "I leave you not here, Sir Knight."
"Thanks, thanks, John," replied the youth; "but remain I must, and will. As a Christian man, I defy the foul fiend and all his followers!"
John departed. Never was Leonard so inclined to rejoice in his friend's clerkly education, or in his knighthood, which was then so much regarded as a holy thing, that the presence of one whose entrance into the order was so recent was deemed a protection. The old woman, a kind-hearted creature in the main, though, certainly forbidding-looking in her poverty and ugliness, was rejoiced to see her patient visited by a friend. She came towards them, addressing Eustace with what he took for a spell, though, had he understood Spanish he would have found it a fine flowing compliment. Leonard shrank closer to him, pressed his hand faster, and he, again crossing himself, gave utterance to a charm. Spanish, especially old Castilian, had likeness enough to Latin for the poor old woman to recognize its purport; she poured out a voluble vindication, which the two young men believed to be an attempt at further bewitching them. Eustace, finding his Latin rather the worse for wear, had recourse to all the strange rhymes, or exorcisms, English, French, or Latin, with which his memory supplied him. Thanks to these, the sorceress was kept at bay, and the spirits of his terrified companion were sustained till the arrival of all the Lances of Lynwood, headed by Gaston himself, upon his mule, in the utmost anxiety for his Knight, looking as gaunt and spectral as the phantoms they dreaded. He blessed the saints when Eustace came forth safe and sound, and smiled and shook his head with an arch look when Leonard was carried out; but his never-failing good-nature prevented him from saying a word which might savour of reproach when he saw to what a condition the poor youth was reduced. As four stout men-at-arms took up the litter, the old woman, coming forth to her threshold, uttered something which his knowledge of the Romanesque tongues of Southern France enabled him to interpret into a vindication of her character, and a request for a reward for her care of the sick Englishman.
"Throw her a gold piece, Sir Eustace, or she may cast at you an evil eye. There, you old hag," he added in the Provencal patois, "take that, and thank your stars that 'tis not with a fire that your tender care, as you call it, is requited."
The men-at-arms meditated ducking the witch after their own English fashion, but it was growing late and dark, and the Knight gave strict orders that they should keep together in their progress to their own tents. Here Leonard was deposited on the couch which Gaston insisted on giving up to him; but his change of residence appeared to be of little advantage, for the camp was scarce quiet for the night, before he shrieked out that the black cats were there. Neither Eustace nor Gaston could see them, but that was only a proof that they were not under the power of the enchantment, and John Ingram was quite sure that he had not only seen the sparkle of their fiery eyes, but felt the scratch of their talons, which struck him to the ground, with his foot caught in the rope of the tent, while he was walking about with his eyes shut.
The scratch was actually on his face the next morning, and he set out at the head of half the Lances of Lynwood to find the poor old woman, and visit her with condign punishment; but she was not forthcoming, and they were obliged to content themselves with burning her house, assisted by a host of idlers. In the meantime, Sir Eustace had called in the aid of the clergy: the chaplains of the camp came in procession, sprinkled the patient's bed with holy water, and uttered an exorcism, but without availing to prevent a third visit from the enemy. After this, however, Leonard's fever began to abate, and he ceased to be haunted.
He had been very ill; and, thoroughly alarmed, he thought himself dying, and bitterly did he repent of the headstrong insubordination and jealously which had lead him to quit his best and only friend. He had not, indeed, the refinement of feeling which would have made Eustace's generosity his greatest reproach; he clung to him as his support, and received his attentions almost as a right; but still he was sensible that he had acted like a fool, and that such friendship was not to be thrown away; and when he began to recover he showed himself subdued, to a certain degree grateful, and decidedly less sullen and more amenable to authority.
In the meantime, the Prince of Wales found himself sufficiently recovered to undertake to return to Aquitaine, and, weary of the treacherous delays and flagrant crimes of his ally, he resolved to quit this fatal land of Castile.
There was a general cry of joy throughout the camp when orders were given that the tents should be struck and the army begin its march in the early coolness of the next morning; and, without further adventure, the Black Prince led his weakened and reduced forces over the Pyrenees back into France. Here they were again dispersed, as the war was at an end; and the young Sir Eustace Lynwood received high commendation from the Prince, and even from Chandos himself, for being able to show his brother's band as complete in numbers and discipline as on the day when it was given into his charge.
"This," as Chandos said, "was a service which really showed him worthy of his spurs, if he would but continue the good course."
The peace with France, however, prevented the Prince from being desirous of keeping up the Lances of Lynwood, and he therefore offered to take their young leader into his own troop of Knights, who were maintained at his own table, and formed a part of his state; and so distinguished was this body, that no higher favour could have been offered. Edward likewise paid to Sir Eustace a considerable sum as the purchase of his illustrious captive, and this, together with the ransoms of the two other prisoners, enabled him to reward the faithful men-at-arms, some of whom took service with other Knights, and others returned to England. Leonard Ashton having no pleasant reminiscences of his first campaign, and having been stripped of all his property by his chosen associates, was desirous of returning to his father; and Eustace, after restoring his equipments to something befitting an Esquire of property, and liberally supplying him with the expenses of his journey, bade him an affectionate farewell, and saw him depart, not without satisfaction at no longer feeling himself accountable for his conduct.
"There he goes," said Gaston, "and I should like to hear the tales he will amaze the good Somersetshire folk with. I trow he will make them believe that he took Du Guesclin himself, and that the Prince knighted you by mistake."
"His tale of the witches will be something monstrous," said Eustace; "but still, methinks he is much the better for his expedition: far less crabbed in temper, and less clownish in manners."
"Ay," said Gaston, "if he were never to be under any other guidance than yours, I think the tough ash-bough might be moulded into something less unshapely. You have a calmness and a temper such as he cannot withstand, nor I understand. 'Tis not want of spirit, but it is that you never seem to take or see what is meant for affront. I should think it tameness in any other."
"Well, poor fellow, I wish he may prosper," said Eustace. "But now, Gaston, to our own affairs. Let us see what remains of the gold."
"Ah! your bounty to our friend there has drawn deeply on our purse," said Gaston.
"It shall not be the worse for you, Gaston, for I had set aside these thirty golden crowns for you before I broke upon my own store. It is not such a recompense as Reginald or I myself would have wished after such loving and faithful service; but gold may never recompense truth."
"As for recompense," said Gaston, "I should be by a long score the debtor if we came to that. If it had not been for Sir Reginald, I should be by this time a reckless freebooter, without a hope in this world or the next; if it had not been for you, these bones of mine would long since have been picked by my cousins, the Spanish wolves. But let the gold tarry in your keeping: it were better King Edward's good crowns should not be, after all else that has been, in my hands."
"But, Gaston, you will need fitting out for the service of Sir William Beauchamp."
"What! What mean you, Sir Eustace?" cried Gaston. "What have I done that you should dismiss me from your followers?"
"Nay, kind Gaston, it were shame that so finished a Squire should be bound down by my poverty to be the sole follower of a banner which will never again be displayed at the head of such a band as the Lances of Lynwood."
"No, Sir Eustace, I leave you not. Recall your brother's words, 'Go not back to old ways and comrades,' quoth he; and if you cast me off, what else is left for me? for having once served a banneret, no other shall have my service. Where else should I find one who would care a feather whether I am dead or alive? So there it ends—put up your pieces, or rather, give me one wherewith to purvey a new bridle for Brigliador, for the present is far from worthy of his name."
Accordingly, the Gascon Squire still remained attached to Eustace's service, while the trusty Englishman, John Ingram, performed the more menial offices. Time sped away at the court of Bordeaux; the gallant Du Guesclin was restored to liberty, after twice paying away his ransom for the deliverance of his less renowned brethren in captivity, and Enrique of Trastamare, returning to Castile, was once more crowned by the inhabitants. His brother Pedro, attempting to assassinate him, fell by his hand, and all the consequences of the English expedition were undone—all, save the wasting disease that preyed on England's heir, and the desolation at the orphaned hearth of Lynwood Keep.
Two years had passed since the fight of Navaretta, when Sir Eustace Lynwood received, by the hands of a Knight newly arrived from England, a letter from Father Cyril, praying him to return home as soon as possible, since his sister-in-law, Dame Eleanor, was very sick, and desired to see him upon matters on which more could not be disclosed by letter.
Easily obtaining permission to leave Bordeaux, he travelled safely through France, and crossing from Brittany, at length found himself once more in Somersetshire. It was late, and fast growing dark, when he rode through Bruton; but, eager to arrive, he pushed on, though twilight had fast faded into night, and heavy clouds, laden with brief but violent showers, were drifting across the face of the moon. On they rode, in silence, save for Gaston's execrations of the English climate, and the plashing of the horses' feet in the miry tracks, along which, in many places, the water was rushing in torrents.
At length they were descending the long low hill, or rather undulation, leading to the wooded vale of Lynwood, and the bright lights of the Keep began to gleam like stars in the darkness—stars indeed to the eager eyes of the young Knight, who gazed upon them long and affectionately, as he felt himself once more at home. "I wonder," said he, "to see the light strongest towards the east end of the Castle! I knew not that the altar lights in the chapel could be seen so far!" Then riding on more quickly, and approaching more nearly, he soon lost sight of them behind the walls, and descending the last little rising ground, the lofty mass of building rose huge and black before him.
He wound his bugle and rode towards the gate, but at the moment he expected to cross the drawbridge, Ferragus suddenly backed, and he perceived that it was raised. "This is some strange chance!" said he, renewing the summons, but in vain, for the echoes of the surrounding woods were the only reply. "Ralph must indeed be deaf!" said he.
"Let him be stone deaf," said Gaston; "he is not the sole inhabitant of the Castle. Try them again, Sir Eustace."
"Hark!—methought I heard the opening of the hall door!" said Eustace. "No! What can have befallen them?"
"My teeth are chattering with cold," said Gaston, "and the horses will be ruined with standing still in the driving rain. Cannot we betake ourselves to the village hostel, and in the morning reproach them with their churlishness?"
"I must be certified that there is nothing amiss," said Sir Eustace, springing from his saddle; "I can cross the moat on one of the supports of the bridge."
"Have with you then, Sir Knight," said Gaston, also leaping to the ground, while Eustace cautiously advanced along the narrow frame of wood on which the drawbridge had rested, slippery with the wet, and rendered still more perilous by the darkness. Gaston followed, balancing himself with some difficulty, and at last they safely reached the other side. Eustace tried the heavy gates, but found them fastened on the inside with a ponderous wooden bar. "Most strange!" muttered he; "yet come on, Gaston, I can find an entrance, unless old Ralph be more on the alert than I expect."
Creeping along between the walls and the moat, till they had reached the opposite side of the Keep, Eustace stopped at a low doorway; a slight click was heard, as of a latch yielding to his hand, the door opened, and he led the way up a stone staircase in the thickness of the wall, warning his follower now and then of a broken step. After a long steep ascent, Gaston heard another door open, and though still in total darkness, perceived that they had gained a wider space. "The passage from the hall to the chapel," whispered the Knight, and feeling by the wall, they crept along, until a buzz of voices reached their ears, and light gleamed beneath a heavy dark curtain which closed the passage. Pausing for an instant, they heard a voice tremulous with fear and eagerness: "It was himself! tall plume, bright armour! the very crosslet on his breast could be seen in the moonlight! Oh! it was Sir Reginald himself, and the wild young French Squire that fell with him in Spain!"
There was a suppressed exclamation of horror, and a sound of crowding together, and at that moment, Eustace, drawing aside the curtain, advanced into the light, and was greeted by a frightful shriek, which made him at first repent of having alarmed his sister, but the next glance showed him that her place was empty, and a thrill of dismay made him stand speechless and motionless, as he perceived that the curtain he grasped was black, and the hall completely hung with the same colour.
The servants remained huddled in terror round the hearth, and the pause was first broken by a fair-faced boy, who, breaking from the trembling circle, came forward, and in a quivering tone said, "Sir, are you my father's spirit?"
Gaston's laugh came strangely on the scene, but Eustace, bending down, and holding out his hand, said, "I am your uncle Eustace, Arthur. Where is your mother?"
Arthur, with a wild cry of joy, sprung to his neck, and hid his face on his shoulder; and at the same moment old Ralph, with uplifted hands, cried, "Blessing on the Saints that my young Lord is safe, and that mine eyes have seen you once again."
"But where, oh! where is my sister?" again demanded Eustace, as his eye met that of Father Cyril, who, summoned by the screams of the servants, had just entered the hall.
"My son," replied the good Father, solemnly, "your sister is where the wicked may trouble her no more. It is three days now since she departed from this world of sorrow."
"Oh, had she but lived to see this day," said Ralph Penrose, "her cares would have been over!"
"Her prayers are answered," said Father Cyril. "Come with me, my son Eustace, if you would take a last look of her who loved and trusted you so well."
Eustace followed him to the chamber where the Lady Eleanor Lynwood lay extended on her bed. Her features were pinched and sharpened, and bore traces of her long, wasting sufferings, but they still looked lovely, though awful in their perfect calmness. Eustace knelt and recited the accustomed prayers, and then stood gazing on the serene face, with a full heart, and gathering tears in his eyes, for he had loved the gentle Eleanor with the trusting affection of a younger brother. He thought of that joyous time, the first brilliant day of his lonely childhood, when the gay bridal cavalcade came sweeping down the hill, and he, half in pleasure, half in shyness, was led forth by his mother to greet the fair young bride of his brother. How had she brightened the dull old Keep, and given, as it were, a new existence to himself, a dreamy, solitary boy—how patiently and affectionately had she tended his mother, and how pleasant were the long evenings when she had unwearily listened to his beloved romances, and his visions of surpassing achievements of his own! No wonder that he wept for her as a brother would weep for an elder sister.
Father Cyril, well pleased to perceive that the kindly tenderness of his heart was still untouched by his intercourse with the world, let him gaze on for some time in silence, then laying his hand on his arm said, "She is in peace. Mourn not that her sorrows are at an end, her tears wiped away, but prepare to fulfil her last wishes, those prayers in answer to which, as I fully believe, the Saints have sent you at the very moment of greatest need."
"Her last wishes?" said Eustace. "They shall be fulfilled to the utmost as long as I have life or breath! Oh! had I but come in time to hear them from herself, and give her my own pledge."
"Grieve not that her trust was not brought down to aught of earth," said Father Cyril. "She trusted in Heaven, and died in the sure belief that her child would be guarded; and lo, his protector is come, if, as I well believe, my son Eustace, you are not changed from the boy who bade us farewell three years ago."
"If I am changed, it is not in my love for home, and for all who dwell there," said Eustace, "or rather, I love them better than before. Little did I dream what a meeting awaited me!" Again there was a long pause, which Eustace at length broke by saying, "What is the need you spoke of? What danger do you fear?"
"This is no scene for dwelling on the evil deeds of wicked men otherwise than to pray for them," said the Priest; "but return with me to the hall, and you shall hear."
Eustace lingered a few moments longer, before, heaving a deep sigh he returned to the hall, where he found Gaston and Ingram, just come in from attending to the horses, and Ralph hurrying the servants in setting out an ample meal for the travellers.
"My good old friend," said Eustace, holding out his hand as he entered, "I have not greeted you aright. You must throw the blame on the tidings that took from me all other thought, Ralph; for never was there face which I was more rejoiced to see.
"It was the blame of our own reception of you, Sir Eustace," said old Penrose. "I could tear my hair to think that you should have met with no better welcome than barred gates and owlet shrieks; but did you but know how wildly your bugle-blast rose upon our ear, while we sat over the fire well-nigh distraught with sorrow, you would not marvel that we deemed that the spirit of our good Knight might be borne upon the moaning wind."
"Yet," said Arthur, "I knew the note, and would have gone to the turret window, but that Mistress Cicely held me fast; and when they sent Jocelyn to look, the cowardly knave brought back the tale which you broke short."
"Boast not, Master Arthur," said Gaston; "you believed in our ghostship as fully as any of them."
"But met us manfully," said Eustace. "But why all these precautions? Why the drawbridge raised? That could scarce be against a ghost."
"Alas! Sir Eustace, there are bodily foes abroad!" said Ralph. "By your leave, Master d'Aubricour," as Gaston was about to assist his Knight in unfastening his armour, "none shall lay a hand near Sir Eustace but myself on this first night of his return; thanks be to St. Dunstan that he has come!" Eustace stood patiently for several minutes while the old man fumbled with his armour, and presently came the exclamation, "A plague on these new-fangled clasps which a man cannot undo for his life! 'Twas this low corselet that was the death of good Sir Reginald. I always said that no good would come of these fashions!"
In process of time, Eustace was disencumbered of his heavy armour; but when he stood before him in his plain dress of chamois leather, old Ralph shook his head, disappointed that he had not attained the height or the breadth of the stalwart figures of his father and brother, but was still slight and delicate looking. The golden spurs and the sword of Du Guesclin, however, rejoiced the old man's heart, and touching them almost reverentially, he placed the large arm-chair at the head of the table, and began eagerly to invite him to eat.
Eustace was too sorrowful and too anxious to be inclined for food, and long before his followers had finished their meal, he turned from the table, and asked for an account of what had befallen in his absence; for there was at that time no more idea of privacy in conversation than such as was afforded by the comparative seclusion of the party round the hearth, consisting of the Knight, his arm around his little nephew, who was leaning fondly against him; of Father Cyril, of Gaston, and old Ralph, in his wonted nook, his elbow on his knee, and his chin on his hand, feasting his eyes with the features of his beloved pupil. In answer to the query, "Who is the enemy you fear?" there was but one answer, given in different tones, "The Lord de Clarenham!"
"Ha!" cried Eustace, "it was justly then that your father, Arthur, bade me beware of him when he committed you to my charge on the battle-field of Navaretta."
"Did he so?" exclaimed Father Cyril. "Did he commit the boy to your guardianship? Formally and before witnesses?"
"I can testify to it, good Father," said Gaston. "Ay! and you, Ingram, must have been within hearing—to say nothing of Du Guesclin."
"And Leonard Ashton," said Ingram.
"It is well," said Father Cyril; "he will be here to-morrow to be confronted with Clarenham. It is the personal wardship that is of chief importance, and dwelt most on my Lady's mind."
"Clarenham lays claim then to the guardianship?" asked Eustace.
Father Cyril proceeded with a narrative, the substance of which was as follows:—Simon de Clarenham, as has been mentioned, had obtained from King Edward, in the days of the power of Isabel and Mortimer, a grant of the manor of Lynwood, but on the fall of the wicked Queen, the rightful owner had been reinstated, without, however, any formal revocation of the unjust grant. Knowing it would cost but a word of Sir Reginald to obtain its recall, both Simon and Fulk de Clarenham had done their best to make him forget its existence; but no sooner did the news of his death reach England, than Fulk began to take an ungenerous advantage of the weakness of his heir. He sent a summons for the dues paid by vassals to their Lord on a new succession, and on Eleanor's indignant refusal, followed it up by a further claim to the wardship of the person of Arthur himself, both in right of his alleged feudal superiority, and as the next of kin who was of full age. Again was his demand refused, and shortly after Lady Lynwood's alarms were brought to a height by an attempt on his part to waylay her son and carry him off by force, whilst riding in the neighbourhood of the Castle. The plot had failed, by the fidelity of the villagers of Lynwood, but the shock to the lady had increased the progress of the decay of her health, already undermined by grief. She never again trusted her son beyond the Castle walls; she trembled whenever he was out of her sight, and many an hour did she spend kneeling before the altar in the chapel. On her brother-in-law, Sir Eustace, her chief hope was fixed; on him she depended for bringing Arthur's case before the King, and, above all, for protecting him from the attacks of the enemy of his family, rendered so much more dangerous by his relationship. She did not believe that actual violence to Arthur's person was intended, but Fulk's house had of late become such an abode of misrule, that his mother and sister had been obliged to leave it for a Convent, and the tales of the lawlessness which there prevailed were such that she would have dreaded nothing more for her son than a residence there, even if Fulk had no interest in oppressing him.
That Eustace should return to take charge of his nephew before her death was her chief earthly wish, and when she found herself rapidly sinking, and the hope of its fulfilment lessening, she obtained a promise from Father Cyril that he would conduct the boy to the Abbey of Glastonbury, and there obtain from the Abbot protection for him until his uncle should return, or the machinations of Fulk be defeated by an appeal to the King.
This was accordingly Father Cyril's intention. It was unavoidable that Fulk, the near kinsman of the deceased, should be present at the funeral, but Father Cyril had intended to keep Arthur within the sanctuary of the chapel until he could depart under the care of twelve monks of Glastonbury, who were coming in the stead of the Abbot—he being, unfortunately, indisposed. Sir Philip Ashton had likewise been invited, in the hope that his presence might prove a check upon Clarenham.
With the first dawn of morning, the chapel bell began to toll, and was replied to by the deeper sound of the bell of the parish church. Soon the court began to be filled with the neighbouring villagers, with beggars, palmers, mendicant friars of all orders, pressing to the buttery-hatch, where they received the dole of bread, meat, and ale, from the hands of the pantler, under the direction of the almoner of Glastonbury, who requested their prayers for the soul of the noble Sir Reginald Lynwood, and Dame Eleanor of Clarenham, his wife. The peasantry of Lynwood, and the beggars, whose rounds brought them regularly to the Keep of Lynwood, and who had often experienced the bounty of the departed lady, replied with tears and blessings. There were not wanting the usual though incongruous accompaniments of such a scene—the jugglers and mountebanks, who were playing their tricks in one corner.
Within the hall, all was in sad, sober, and solemn array, contrasting with the motley concourse in the court. Little Arthur, dressed in black, stood by the side of his uncle, to receive the greetings of his yeoman vassals, as they came in, one by one, with clownish courtesy, but hearty respect and affection, and great satisfaction at the unexpected appearance of the young Knight.
Next came in long file, mounted on their sleek mules, the twelve monks of Glastonbury, whom the Knight and his nephew reverently received at the door, and conducted across the hall to the chapel, where the parish Priest, Father Cyril, and some of the neighbouring clergy had been chanting psalms since morning light. On the way Sir Eustace held some conference with the chief, Brother Michael, who had come prepared to assist in conveying Arthur, if possible, to Glastonbury, but was very glad to find that the Knight was able to take upon himself the charge of his nephew, without embroiling the Abbey with so formidable an enemy as Lord de Clarenham.
The next arrival was Sir Philip Ashton and his son, who could hardly believe their eyes when Eustace met them. Leonard's manner was at first cordial; but presently, apparently checked by some sudden recollection, he drew back, and stood in sheepish embarrassment, fumbling with his dagger, while Sir Philip was lavishing compliments on Eustace, who was rejoiced when the sound of horses made it necessary to go and meet Lord de Clarenham at the door. Arthur looked up in Sir Fulk's face, with a look in which curiosity and defiance were expressed; while Fulk, on his side, was ready to grind his teeth with vexation at the unexpected sight of the only man who could interfere with his projects. Then he glanced at his own numerous and well-appointed retinue, compared them with the small number of the Lynwood vassals, and with another look at his adversary's youthful and gentle appearance, he became reassured, and returned his salutations with haughty ceremony.
The whole company moved in solemn procession towards the chapel, where the mass and requiem were chanted, and the corpse of the Lady Eleanor, inclosed in a stone coffin, was lowered to its resting-place, in the vault of her husband's ancestors.
It was past noon when the banquet was spread in the hall; a higher table on the dais for the retainers and yeomanry, the latter of whom were armed with dagger, short sword, or quarter-staff.
Sir Philip Ashton and Brother Michael were chiefly at the expense of the conversation, Eustace meanwhile doing the honours with grave courtesy, taking care to keep his nephew by his side. There was no one who did not feel as if on the eve of a storm; but all was grave and decorous; and at length Brother Michael and the monks of Glastonbury, rejoicing that they, at least, had escaped a turmoil, took their leave, mounted their mules, and rode off, in all correctness of civility toward the house of Lynwood, which, as Eustace could not help feeling, they thus left to fight its own battles.
"It waxes late," said Lord de Clarenham, rising; "bring out the horses, Miles; and you, my young kinsman, Arthur, you are to be my guest from henceforth. Come, therefore, prepare for the journey."
Arthur held fast by the hand of his uncle, who replied, "I thank you in my nephew's name for your intended hospitality, but I purpose at once to conduct him to Bordeaux, to be enrolled among the Prince's pages."
"Conduct him to Bordeaux, said the Knight?" answered Sir Fulk with a sneer; "to Bordeaux forsooth! It is well for you, my fair young cousin, that I have other claims to you, since, were you once out of England, I can well guess who would return to claim the lands of Lynwood."
"What claim have you to his wardship, Sir Fulk?" asked Eustace, coldly, disdaining to take notice of the latter part of this speech.
"As his feudal superior, and his nearest relation of full age," replied Clarenham.
"There are many here who can prove that it is twenty-one years past, since I was born on the feast of St. Eustace," replied the young Knight. "The house of Lynwood owns no master beneath the King of England, and the wardship of my nephew was committed to me by both his parents. Here is a witness of the truth of my words. Holy Father, the parchment!"
Father Cyril spread a thick roll, with heavy seals, purporting to be the last will and testament of Dame Eleanor Lynwood, bequeathing the wardship and marriage of her son to her beloved brother, Sir Eustace Lynwood, Knight Banneret, and, in his absence, to the Lord Abbot of Glastonbury, and Cyril Langton, Clerk.
"It is nought," said Clarenham, pushing it from him; "the Lady of Lynwood had no right to make a will in this manner, since she unlawfully detained her son from me, his sole guardian."
"The force of the will may be decided by the King's justices," said Eustace; "but my rights are not founded on it alone. My brother, Sir Reginald, with his last words, committed his son to my charge."
"What proof do you bring, Sir Eustace?" said Fulk. "I question not your word, but something more is needed in points of law, and you can scarcely expect the world to believe that Sir Reginald would commit his only child to the guardianship of one so young, and the next heir."
"I am here to prove it, my Lord," said Gaston, eagerly. "'To your care I commit him, Eustace,' said Sir Reginald, as he lay with his head on his brother's breast; and methought he also added, 'Beware of Clarenham.' Was it not so, friend Leonard?"
Leonard's reply was not readily forthcoming. His father was whispering in his ear, whilst he knit his brow, shuffled with his feet, and shrugged his shoulder disrespectfully in his father's face.
"Speak, Master Ashton," said Clarenham, in a cold incredulous tone, and bending on father and son glances which were well understood. "To your testimony, respectable and uninterested, credit must be added."
"What mean you by that, Sir Fulk de Clarenham?" cried Gaston; "for what do you take me and my word?"
"Certain tales of you and your companions, Sir Squire," answered Clarenham, "do not dispose me to take a Gascon's word for more than it is worth."
"This passes!" cried Gaston, striking his fist on the table; "you venture it because you are not of my degree! Here, ye craven Squires, will not one of you take up my glove, when I cast back in his teeth your master's foul slander of an honourable Esquire?"
"Touch it not, I command you," said Clarenham, "unless Master d'Aubricour will maintain that he never heard of a certain one-eyed Basque, and never rode on a free-booting foray with the robber Knight, Perduccas d'Albret."
"What of that?" fiercely cried Gaston.
"Quite enough, Sir Squire," said Fulk, coolly.
Gaston was about to break into a tempest of rage, when Eustace's calm voice and gesture checked him.
"Sir Fulk," said Eustace, "were you at Bordeaux, you would know that no man's word can be esteemed more sacred, or his character more high, than that of Gaston d'Aubricour."
"But in the meantime," said Clarenham, "we must be content to take that, as well as much besides, on your own assertion, Sir Eustace. Once more, Master Leonard Ashton, let me hear your testimony, as to the dying words of Sir Reginald Lynwood. I am content to abide by them."
"Come, Leonard," said his father, who had been whispering with him all this time, "speak up; you may be grieved to disappoint a once-friendly companion, but you could not help the defect of your ears."
"Sir Philip, I pray you not to prompt your son," said Eustace. "Stand forth, Leonard, on your honour. Did you or did you not hear the words of my brother, as he lay on the bank of the Zadorra?"
Leonard half rose, as if to come towards him, but his father held him fast; he looked down, and muttered, "Ay, truly, I heard Sir Reginald say somewhat."
"Tell it out, then."
"He thanked the Prince for knighting you—he prayed him to have charge of his wife and child—he bade Gaston not to return to evil courses," said Leonard, bringing out his sentences at intervals.
"And afterwards," said Eustace sternly—"when the Prince was gone? On your honour, Leonard."
Leonard almost writhed himself beneath the eyes that Eustace kept steadily fixed on him. "Somewhat—somewhat he might have said of knightly training for his son—but—but what do I know?" he added, as his father pressed hard on his foot; "it was all in your ear, for as he lay on your breast, his voice grew so faint, that I could hear little through my helmet."
"Nay, Master Ashton," said John Ingram, pressing forward, "if I remember right, you had thrown off your helmet, saying it was as hot as a copper cauldron; and besides, our good Knight, when he said those words touching Master Arthur, raised himself up somewhat, and spoke out louder, as if that we might all hear and bear witness."
"No witness beyond your own train, Sir Eustace?" said Clarenham.
"None," said Eustace, "excepting one whose word even you will scarcely dare to dispute, Sir Bertrand du Guesclin."
"I dispute no man's word, Sir Eustace," said Fulk; "I only say that until the claim which you allege be proved in the King's Court, I am the lawful guardian of the lands and person of the heir of Lynwood. The Lord Chancellor Wykeham may weigh the credit to be attached to the witness of this highly respectable Esquire, or this long-eared man-at-arms, or may send beyond seas for the testimony of Du Guesclin: in the meantime, I assume my office. Come here, boy."
"I will not come to you, Lord Fulk," said Arthur; "or when I do, it shall be sword in hand to ask for an account for the tears you have made my sweet mother shed."
"Bred up in the same folly!" said Fulk. "Once more, Sir Eustace, will you yield him to me, or must I use force?"
"I have vowed before his mother's corpse to shield him from you," returned Eustace.
"Think of the consequences, Sir Eustace," said Sir Philip Ashton, coming up to him. "Remember the unrepealed grant to the Clarenhams. The Lynwood manor may be at any moment resumed, to which, failing your nephew, you are heir. You will ruin him and yourself."
"It is his person, not his lands, that I am bound to guard," said Eustace. "Let him do his worst; my nephew had better be a landless man, than one such as Fulk would make him."
"Think," continued Sir Philip, "of the disadvantages to your cause of provoking a fray at such a time. Hold your hand, and yield the boy, at least till the cause come before the Chancellor."
"Never," said Eustace. "His parents have trusted him to me, and I will fulfil my promise. The scandal of the fray be on him who occasions it."
"Recollect, my Lord," said Ashton, turning to Fulk, "that this may be misrepresented. These young warriors are hot and fiery, and this young Knight, they say, has succeeded to all his brother's favour with the Prince."
"I will not be bearded by a boy," returned Clarenham, thrusting him aside. "Hark you, Sir Eustace. You have been raised to a height which has turned your head, your eyes have been dazzled by the gilding of your spurs, and you have fancied yourself a man; but in your own county and your own family, airs are not to be borne. We rate you at what you are worth, and are not to be imposed on by idle tales which the boastful young men of the Prince's court frame of each other. Give up these pretensions, depart in peace to your fellows at Bordeaux, and we will forget your insolent interference."
"Never, while I live," replied Eustace. "Vassals of Lynwood, guard your young Lord."
"Vassals of Lynwood," said Fulk, "will you see your young Lord carried off to perish in some unknown region, and yourselves left a prey to an adventurer and freebooter?"
"For that matter, my Lord," said an old farmer, "if all tales be true, Master Arthur is like to learn less harm with Sir Eustace than in your jolly household—I for one will stand by our good Lord's brother to the last. What say you, comrades?"
"Hurrah for the Lances of Lynwood!" shouted John Ingram, and the cry was taken up by many a gruff honest voice, till the hall rang again, and the opposing shout of "a Clarenham, a Clarenham!" was raised by the retainers of the Baron. Eustace, at the same moment, raised his nephew in his arms, and lifted him up into the embrasure of one of the high windows. Sir Philip Ashton still hung upon Clarenham, pleading in broken sentences which were lost in the uproar: "Hold! Hold! my Lord. Nay, nay, think but"—(here he was thrust roughly aside by Fulk)—"Sir Eustace, do but hear—it will be a matter for the council—in the name of the King—for the love of Heaven—Leonard, son Leonard! for Heaven's sake what have you to do with the matter? Down with that sword, and follow me! Dost not hear, froward boy? Our names will be called in question! Leonard, on your duty—Ha! have a care! there!"
These last words were broken short, as Gaston, rushing forwards to his master's side, overthrew the table, which carried Sir Philip with it in the fall, and he lay prostrate under the boards, a stumbling-block to a stream of eager combatants, who one after another dashed against him, fell, and either rose again, or remained kicking and struggling with each other.
After several minutes' confused fighting, the tumult cleared away, as it were, leaving the principals on each side opposite to each other, and as the fortune of the day rested on their conflict, all became gradually fixed in attention, resting upon their weapons, in readiness at any moment to renew their own portion of the combat.
Fulk, tall and robust, had far more the appearance of strength than his slenderly-made antagonist, but three years in the school of chivalry had not been wasted by Eustace, and the sword of Du Guesclin was in a hand well accustomed to its use. Old Ralph was uttering under his breath ecstatic exclamations: "Ha! Well struck! A rare foil—a perfect hit—Have a care—Ah! there comes my old blow—That is right—Old Sir Henry's master-stroke— There—one of your new French backstrokes—but it told—Oh! have a care—The Saints guard—Ay—There—Follow it up! Hurrah for Lynwood!" as Fulk tottered, slipped, sank on one knee, and receiving a severe blow on the head with the back of the sword, measured his length on the ground.
"Hurrah for Lynwood!" re-echoed through the hall, but Eustace cut short the clamour at once, by saying, "Peace, my friends, and thanks! Sir Fulk de Clarenham," he added, as his fallen foe moved, and began to raise himself, "you have received a lesson, by which I hope you will profit. Leave the house, whose mourning you have insulted, and thank your relationship that I forbear to bring this outrage to the notice of the King."
While Eustace spoke, Fulk had, by the assistance of two of his retainers, recovered his feet; but though unwounded, he was so dizzied with the blow as to be passive in their hands, and to allow himself to be led into the court, and placed on his horse. Before riding out of the gates, he turned round, and clenching his fist, glanced malignantly at Eustace, and muttered, "You shall aby it."
Another shout of "Down with the false Clarenham! Hurrah for the Lances of Lynwood, and the brave young Knight!" was raised in the court by the peasantry, among whom Fulk was so much hated, that not even regard for their future welfare could prevent them from indulging in this triumph. Probably, too, they expected the satisfaction of drinking the health of the victor, for there were many disappointed countenances when he spoke from the steps of the porch:—"Thanks for your good-will, my friends. Fare ye well, depart in peace, and remember your young Lord." Then turning to the parish Priest, he added, in a low voice, "See that they leave the Castle as soon as possible. The gates must be secured as soon as may be."
He turned back into the hall, and at the door was met by little Arthur, who caught hold of his hand, exclaiming, "So you have won me, and shall keep me forever, Uncle Eustace; but come in, for here is poor old Sir Philip, who was thrown down under the table in the scuffle, bemoaning himself most lamentably."
"Sir Philip hurt?" said Eustace, who, vexed as he was by Sir Philip's behaviour, preserved a certain neighbourly hereditary respect for him; "I trust not seriously," and he advanced towards the arm-chair, where Sir Philip Ashton was sitting, attended by Father Cyril and a man-at-arms, and groaning and complaining of his bruises, while at the same time he ordered the horses to be brought out as speedily as possible.
"Surely," said Eustace, "you should not be in such haste, Sir Philip. I grieve that you should have met with this mishap. But you had better remain here, and try what rest will do for you."
"Remain here!" said Sir Philip, almost shuddering. "Nay, nay, my young Sir, I would not have you to remain here, nor any of us, for longer space than the saddling of a horse. Alas! alas! my young friend, I grieve for you. I loved your father well.—Look from the window, Leonard. Are the horses led forth?"
"But why this haste?" asked Sir Eustace. "You are heavily bruised—best let Father Cyril look to your hurts."
"Thanks, Sir Eustace; but—Ah! my back!—but I would not remain under this roof for more than you could give me. I should but endanger myself without benefiting you. Alas! alas! that I should have fallen upon such a fray! I am sorry for you, my brave youth!"
"I thank you, Sir Philip, but I know not what I have done to deserve your concern."
"Hot blood! wilful blood!" said Sir Philip, shaking his head. "Are the horses come? Here! your hand, Leonard, help me to rise—Ah! ah! not so fast—Oh! I shall never get over it! There—mind you, I did all to prevent this unhappy business—I am clear of it! Fare you well, Sir Eustace—take an old man's advice, give up the boy, and leave the country before worse comes of it."
"What is likely to come of it?" said Eustace; "Clarenham made an uncalled-for, unjust, shameless attempt to seize the person of my ward. I repelled him by force of arms, and I think he would scarce like to call the attention of justice to his own share in the matter."
"Ah! well, you speak boldly, but before you have reached my years, you will have learnt what it is to have for your foe the most mighty man of the county—nay, of the court; for your foe, Lord de Clarenham, is in close friendship with the Earl of Pembroke. Beware, my young friend, beware!"
When the hall was clear of guests, a council was held between the Knight, the Priest, and the two Esquires. Its result was, that Arthur's person, as the most important point, should be secured, by his uncle carrying him at once to the Prince's protection at Bordeaux; but it was only with difficulty that Eustace was prevailed on to fly, as he said, from his accusers. The good Father had to say, with a smile, that after all there was as much need for patience and submission under the helm as under the cowl, before Eustace at length consented. Cyril meanwhile was to lay the case before the Chancellor, William of Wykeham, and Eustace gave him letters to the Duke of Lancaster and to Sir Richard Ferrars, in the hopes of their recommending his suit.
Eustace then received from the hands of the Priest a bag of gold coins, his portion as a younger son, part of which he gave to be distributed in alms, part he still confided to Father Cyril's keeping, and the rest he was to take away for present needs—and they parted for the last night of his brief stay at Lynwood Keep.
In the early morning, Sir Eustace and his few followers were in their saddles, little Arthur riding between his uncle and Gaston. The chief part of the day was spent on the journey. They dined, to Arthur's glee, on provisions they had brought with them, seated on a green bank near a stream, and at evening found themselves at the door of a large hostel, its open porch covered by a vine.
The host and his attendants ran out at first to meet them with alacrity, but, on seeing them, appeared disappointed. And as the Knight, dismounting, ordered supper and bed, the host replied that he could indeed engage to find food, and to accommodate their steeds, but that the whole of the inn had been secured on behalf of two noble ladies and their train, who were each moment expected.
"Be it so," said Eustace; "a truss of hay beside our horses, or a settle by the fire, is all we need. Here is a taste already of a warrior's life for you, Arthur."
The boy was delighted, certain that to sleep beside his pony was far more delightful, as well as more manly, than to rest in his bed, like a lady at home.
As this was arranged, a sound of horses' feet approached, and a band of men-at-arms rode up to the door. Arthur started and seized his uncle's hand as he recognized the Clarenham colours and badge, uttering an exclamation of dismay. "Never fear, Arthur," said Eustace, "they come from the way opposite to ours. It is not pursuit. See, it is an escort—there are ladies among them."
"Four!" said Arthur. "Uncle, that tall dame in black must be the Lady Muriel. And surely the white veil tied with rose-colour belongs to kind Cousin Agnes."
"True! These are no Clarenhams to guard against," said Eustace to his Squire, who looked ready for action. "Lady Muriel, the step-mother of the Baron and his sister, is my godmother, and, by birth, a Lynwood."
Then stepping forward, he assisted the elder lady to dismount; she returned his courtesy by a slight inclination, as to a stranger, but her companion, who had lightly sprung to the ground, no sooner perceived him than she exclaimed, "Eustace!" then laying her hand on Lady Muriel's arm, "Mother, it is Sir Eustace Lynwood."
"Ha! my gallant godson!" said the Baroness, greeting him cordially. "Well met, brave youth! No wonder in that knightly figure I did not know my kinswoman's little page. How does my gentle niece, Eleanor?"
"Alack! then you have not heard the tidings?" said Eustace.
"We heard long since she was sick with grief," said Lady Muriel, much alarmed. "What mean you? Is she worse? You weep—surely she still lives!"
"Ah! honoured dame, we come even now from laying her in her grave. Here is her orphan boy."
Young Agnes could not restrain a cry of grief and horror, and trying to repress her weeping till it should be without so many witnesses, Lady Muriel and her bower-woman led her to their apartments in the inn. Eustace was greatly affected by her grief. She had often accompanied her step-mother on visits to Lynwood Keep in the peaceful days of their childhood; she had loved no sport better than to sit listening to his romantic discourses of chivalry, and had found in the shy, delicate, dreamy boy, something congenial to her own quiet nature; and, in short, when Eustace indulged in a vision, Agnes was ever the lady of it, the pale slight Agnes, with no beauty save her large soft brown eyes, that seemed to follow and take in every fancy or thought of his. Agnes was looked down on,—her father thought she would do him little honour,—her brother cared not for her; save for her step-mother she would have met with little fostering attention, and when Eustace saw her set aside and disregarded, his heart had bounded with the thought that when he should lay his trophies at her feet, Agnes would be honoured for his sake. But Eustace's honours had been barren, and he could only look back with a sad heart to the fancies of his youth, when he had deemed Knight-errantry might win the lady of his love.
Eleanor had been one of the few who had known and loved the damsel of Clarenham, and had encouraged her to lay aside her timidity. Agnes wept for her as a sister, and still could hardly restrain her sobs, when Eustace and his nephew were invited to the presence of the ladies to narrate their melancholy tale.
Many tears were shed, and caresses lavished upon the orphan. The ladies asked his destination, and on hearing that he was to be taken to the Prince's court at Bordeaux, Agnes said, "We, too, are bound to the Prince's court. I am to journey thither with Fulk. Were it not better for Arthur to travel with us? Most carefully would we guard him. It would spare him many a hardship, for which he is scarce old enough; and his company would be a solace, almost a protection to me. My pretty playfellow, will you be my travelling companion?"
"I would go with you, Cousin Agnes, for you are kind and gentle, and I love you well; but a brave Knight's son must learn to rough it; and besides, I would not go with Sir Fulk, your brother, for he is a false and cruel Knight, who persecuted my blessed mother to the very death."
"Can this be? O speak, Eustace!" said Agnes. "What means the boy? Hath Fulk shown himself other than a loving kinsman?"
The Baroness, who understood her step-son's character better than did his young sister, and who was informed of the old enmity between the two houses, felt considerable anxiety as to what they were now to hear; when Eustace, beginning, "Ah, Lady, I grieve twice in the day to sadden your heart; yet since so much has been said, it were best to relate the whole truth," proceeded to tell what had passed respecting the wardship of young Arthur. Agnes's eyes filled with burning tears of indignation. "O dear Lady Mother!" cried she, "take me back to our Convent! How can I meet my brother! How conceal my anger and my shame!"
"This is far worse than even I feared," said Lady Muriel. "I knew Fulk to be unscrupulous and grasping, but I did not think him capable of such foul oppression. For you, my sweet Agnes—would that I could prevail on him to leave you in the safe arms of the cloister—but, alas! I have no right to detain you from a brother's guardianship."
"I dreaded this journey much before," said Agnes; "but now, even my trust in Fulk is gone; I shall see round me no one in whom to place confidence. Alas! alas!"
"Nay, fair Agnes," said Eustace, "he will surely be a kind brother to thee—he cannot be otherwise."
"How love and trust when there is no esteem? Oh, Mother, Mother! this is loneliness indeed! In that strange, courtly throng, who will protect and shelter me?"
"There is an Arm—" began the Baroness.
"Yes, noble Lady, there is one arm," eagerly exclaimed Eustace, "that would only deem itself too much honoured if it could be raised in your service."
"I spoke of no arm of flesh," said Lady Muriel, reprovingly—and Eustace hung his head abashed. "I spake of the Guardian who will never be wanting to the orphan."
There was a silence, first broken by Eustace. "One thing there is, that I would fain ask of your goodness," said he: "many a false tale, many a foul slander, will be spoken of me, and many may give heed to them; but let that be as it will, they shall not render my heart heavy while I can still believe that you give no ear to them."
"Sir Eustace," said the Lady of Clarenham, "I have known you from childhood, and it would go hard with me to believe aught dishonourable of the pupil of Sir Reginald and of Eleanor."
"Yes, Sir Eustace," added Agnes, "it would break my heart to distrust you; for then I must needs believe that faith, truth, and honour had left the world."
"And now," said Lady Muriel, who thought the conversation had been sufficiently tender to fulfil all the requirements of the connection of families, and of their old companionship, "now, Agnes, we must take leave of our kind kinsman, since, doubtless, he will desire to renew his journey early to-morrow."
Eustace took the hint, and bent his knee to kiss the hands which were extended to him by the two ladies; then left the room, feeling, among all the clouds which darkened his path, one clear bright ray to warm and gladden his heart. Agnes trusted his truth, Agnes would be at Bordeaux,—he might see her, and she would hear of his deeds.
Agnes, while she wept over her kinswoman's death and her brother's faults, rejoiced in having met her old playfellow, and found him as noble a Knight as her fancy had often pictured him; and in the meanwhile, the good old Lady Muriel sighed to herself, and shook her head at the thought of the sorrows which an attachment would surely cause to these two young creatures.
It was early in the morning that Eustace summoned his nephew from the couch which one of the Clarenham retainers had yielded him, and, mounting their horses, they renewed their journey towards the coast.
Without further adventure, the Lances of Lynwood, as Arthur still chose to call their little party, safely arrived at Rennes, the capital of Brittany, where Jean de Montford held his court. Here they met the tidings that Charles V. had summoned the Prince of Wales to appear at his court, to answer an appeal made against him to the sovereign by the vassals of the Duchy of Aquitaine. Edward's answer was, that he would appear indeed, but that it should be in full armour, with ten thousand Knights and Squires at his back; and the war had already been renewed.
The intelligence added to Eustace's desire to be at Bordeaux, but he could not venture through the enemy's country without exposing himself to death or captivity; and even within the confines of Brittany itself, Duke John, though bound by gratitude and affection to the alliance of the King, who had won for him his ducal coronet, was unable to control the enmity which his subjects bore to the English, and assured the Knight that a safe-conduct from him would only occasion his being robbed and murdered in secret, instead of being taken a prisoner in fair fight and put to ransom.
If Eustace had been alone with his staunch followers, he would have trusted to their good swords and swift steeds; but to place Arthur in such perils would be but to justify Fulk's accusations; and there was no alternative but to accept the offer made to him by Jean de Montford, for the sake of his Duchess, a daughter of Edward III., to remain a guest at his court until the arrival of a sufficient party of English Knights, who were sure to be attracted by the news of the war.
No less than two months was he obliged to wait, during which both he and Gaston chafed grievously under their forced captivity; but at length he learnt that a band of Free Companions had arrived at Rennes, on their way to offer their service to the Prince of Wales; accordingly he set forth, and after some interval found himself once more in the domains of the house of Plantagenet.
It was late in the evening when he rode through the gates of Bordeaux, and sought the abode of the good old Gascon merchant, where he had always lodged. He met with a ready welcome, and inquiring into the most recent news of the town, learnt that the Prince was considered to be slightly improved in health; but that no word was spoken of the army taking the field, and the war was chiefly carried on by the siege of Castles. He asked for Sir John Chandos, and was told that high words had passed between him and the Prince respecting a hearth-tax, and that since he had returned to his government, and seldom or never appeared at the council board. It was the Earl of Pembroke who was all-powerful there. And here the old Gascon wandered into lamentable complaints of the aforesaid hearth-tax, from which Eustace could scarcely recall him to answer whether the English Baron de Clarenham had arrived at Bordeaux. He had come, and with as splendid a train as ever was beheld, and was in high favour at court.
This was no pleasing intelligence, but Eustace determined to go the next day to present his nephew to the Prince immediately after the noontide meal, when it was the wont of the Plantagenet Princes to throw their halls open to their subjects.
Accordingly, leading Arthur by the hand, and attended by Gaston, he made his appearance in the hall just as the banquet was concluded, but ere the Knights had dispersed. Many well-known faces were there, but as he advanced up the space between the two long tables, he was amazed at meeting scarce one friendly glance of recognition; some looked unwilling to seem to know him, and returned his salutation with distant coldness; others gazed at the window, or were intent on their wine, and of these was Leonard Ashton, whom to his surprise he saw seated among the Knights.
Thus he passed on until he had nearly reached the dais where dined the Prince and the personages of the most exalted rank. Here he paused as his anxious gaze fell upon the Prince, and marked his countenance and mien—alas! how changed! He sat in his richly-carved chair, wrapped in a velvet mantle, which, even on that bright day of a southern spring, he drew closer round him with a shuddering chilliness. His elbow rested on the arm of his chair, and his wasted cheek leant on his hand—the long thin fingers of which showed white and transparent as a lady's; his eyes were bent on the ground, and a look of suffering or of moody thought hung over the whole of that face, once full of free and open cheerfulness. Tears filled Eustace's eyes as he beheld that wreck of manhood and thought of that bright day of hope and gladness when his brother had presented him to the Prince.
As he hesitated to advance, the Prince, raising his eyes, encountered that earnest and sorrowful gaze, but only responding by a stern glance of displeasure. Eustace, however, stepped forward, and bending one knee, said, "My Lord, I come to report myself as returned to your service, and at the same time to crave for my nephew the protection you were graciously pleased to promise him."
"It is well, Sir Eustace Lynwood," said Edward, coldly, and with a movement of his head, as if to dismiss him from his presence; "and you, boy, come hither," he added as Arthur, seeing his uncle rise and retreat a few steps, was following his example. "I loved your father well," he said, laying his hand on the boy's bright wavy hair, "and you shall find in me a steady friend as long as you prove yourself not unworthy of the name you bear."
In spite of the awe with which Arthur felt his head pressed by that royal hand, in spite of his reverence for the hero and the Prince, he raised his eyes and looked upon the face of the Prince with an earnest, pleading, almost upbraiding gaze, as if, child as he was, he deprecated the favour, which so evidently marked the slight shown to his uncle. But the Prince did not heed him, and rising from his chair, said, "Thine arm, Clarenham. Let us to the Princess, and present her new page. Follow me, boy."
With a wistful look at his uncle, standing alone on the step of the dais, Arthur reluctantly followed the Prince as, leaning on Clarenham's arm, he left the hall, and, crossing a gallery, entered a large apartment. At one end was a canopy embroidered with the arms and badges of the heir of England, and beneath it were two chairs of state, one of which was occupied by Joan Plantagenet, Princess of Wales, once the Fair Maid of Kent, and though now long past her youth, still showing traces of beauty befitting the lady for whom her royal cousin had displayed such love and constancy.
As her husband entered, she rose, and looking anxiously at him, while she came forward to meet him, inquired whether he felt fatigued. "No, my fair dame," replied the Prince, "I came but to present you your new page; the young cousin, respecting whose safety my Lord de Clarenham hath been so much in anxiety."