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lacked not courage; but it suited them not to show it in a tavern brawl, even in graver cause than the defence of a tymbestere. Suddenly a clear quiet voice spoke
"De par Dieu, that will I.”
And, shaking from his arm the armourer's warning grasp, Ralph Brakespeare strode out of the shadow into the firelight.
The Italian sprang to his feet, griping the girl's wrist still hard with his left hand, while his right fell, as it were naturally, on his dagger hilt. But he thrust the blade back before it was half drawn, and broke again into that low, mocking laugh, so intensely insolent.
"So the bona-roba hath found a champion. By the body of Venus, a likely youth! And with what arms wouldst thou do battle for thy lady—with estoc of lath, or a fool's bauble for mace? "Twere a good deed to let out some of the blood that boils in thee too hotly; but it suits me not now to play the chirurgeon. Wilt thou try a wrestle before this reverend company? Here is space enow for a fair fall, and no rushes to break it; it may be that thy bones will carry away to-night some memory of our meeting. As for thee, thou peevish piece of harlotry! sit thou there behind me: I will deal with thee anon.”
Taunt or threat Ralph Brakespeare noticed not, any more than he did the imploring glances of Will Lanyon, who was broad awake now, and manifestly eager to take the burden of the quarrel on his own shoulders he thrust his follower hastily, though not unkindly, aside; and, advancing yet a few steps, stood face to face with his adversary. He was by some two inches the taller of the twain, but far lighter of frame; of all the bystanders Lanyon alone, perchance, doubted that the result would be other than they wished; for a mere youth was pitted against one in the very flower of his strength, and from the way in which the Italian took up his position, the judges of such matters saw in him a practised wrestler.
Without another word spoken on either side, they grappled. At first, as they swayed to and fro, the foreigner's superior weight did tell, and it seemed as though his opponent must needs be borne down, or uprooted from the floor. But not for naught had Philip Kemeys' pupil studied under a master, whose name had been for a quartercentury the boast and terror of the countryside: at the very moment when Ralph seemed to bend and yield under the other's gripe, with a quick side-twist he brought his own hip under the other's groin ; then, before any could guess how it was done, the Italian's feet, struck clean from under him, flew high in air, and he came to the ground. with a dull, ominous crash, flung fairly over Brakespeare's shoulder.
No wonder that for some seconds' space he should have lain there half stunned and motionless; not twice in a lifetime will a heavy man rise from such a fall on hardened ground without scathe to life or limb; but, before the murmur of applause called forth by the unexpected feat had died away, the Italian gathered himself up slowly, and stood upon his feet.
His handsome face, deformed as it was by pain and malice, had not wholly lost its beauty; but it was so fearfully.transfigured that a painter, limning some old saintly legend, might have no apter semblance for tortured or baffled Belial. The brutal lust that lately gleamed in his eyes was supplanted by a keener desire-the acrid thirst for blood: he plucked from its sheath a long, keen poignard, on whose dark-veined blade there were stains not a few, and drew himself together half-crouching, like a savage panther about to spring.
And in Ralph Brakespeare's eyes there was the evil light spoken of before; and his face was set as a flint stone, dark and pitiless, as he bared his own hunting-knife, and, without giving a hair's breadth of ground, waited warily for the onset. All present there wist that none could come betwixt those two without sore risk to his own life; yet Lanyon started forward with some such intent, whilst the armourer shouted lustily for the watch, and the host wrung his hands helplessly, and the tymbestere shrieked in her terror, and many called on the combatants in God's name to forbear. Intercession or interference must have been equally vain, and the watch could only have come in time to carry a corpse away, had it not been for an incident on which none had reckoned.
A side door leading into a small inner chamber opened, and, through all the bustle and uproar, a single voice made itself heard. "What! brawling again, Gian Malatesta? Will those hands of thine never be quiet till they are in the gyves ?"
A very calm, quiet voice-not raised a whit above its wonted toneyet marked with an indescribable accent like that of one fated some day to hold authority over his fellows, even if his turn for command hath not come yet. The first syllables acted on the Italian's wrath, like a necromancer's spell on a rebellious familiar: he thrust back his dagger into its sheath; and, as he turned towards the speaker, the ferocity on his face changed to the sullen confusion, which, with natures like his, replaces shame.
The new comer deserves to be somewhat carefully portrayed, for that age, rife though it was with names of mark, bred few more notable worthies.
HOW RALPH TOOK SERVICE UNDER SIR JOHN HAWKWOOD.
THERE stood on the threshold of the open doorway this manner of
Something over the middle height; of a complexion rather florid than pale; with hair and beard of rich dark chesnut; and features cast in keen aquiline mould; the face was too calm and resolute to be ignoble, and marked by too decisive a character to be vulgar; yet certainly it wanted the stamp of birth and breeding that gives a charm to many more common-place visages. His attire was plain even to meanness; consisting of a close jerkin, or cassock, of coarse dark russet cloth, with nether garments and hose of the same colour, all frayed and stained with pressure of hauberk, cuissard, and steel boot.
Such an one at the age of thirty, or thereabouts, was John Hawkwood-son of the tanner of Sible Hedingham, and whilom prentice to the tailor in Chepe-then, a simple man-at-arms; till, within this very year, for wight service at Creçy, he took from King Edward's own hand the knightly accolade. He held in his right hand, sheathed, one of the short swords, called coutels; and with the other beckoned the Italian towards him. The other obeyed without a word, though, as it seemed, rather sullenly and reluctantly; and in another second, the door of the inner chamber was closed behind them.
Then there broke forth again a stir and murmur in the guestchamber, but now of merriment rather than of fear; for there was not one present whose heart was not gladdened by the sight of the foreigner's handsome head laid low. Several gathered round the conqueror, pressing on him their simple gratulations, whilst loudest amongst them rose the voice of the honest armourer. Lanyon, when he saw that help was no longer needed, had cast himself down again on his settle, and had already relapsed into stolid placidity. In the midst of the hubbub, none noticed the disappearance of the glee-maiden and her grandsire. Hastily, though not uncourteously, Ralph broke through his admirers; and, plucking him by the sleeve as he bustled past, drew the host aside.
"I fain would learn the name and degree of him who entered but now"-he said, "if thou knowest them, and there be no special reason for thy silence."
"There is none such, fair sir"-the other answered readily. "Men call him Sir John Hawkwood now; though but a year agone, as I have