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"Then naught hinders the hangman to do his office. Maître Humbert. cleave off his spurs."
A shudder, almost like a convulsion, ran through the prisoners frame, as the cleaver crashed down close to his heel. And, as the dishonour was complete, he glared round-not defiantly now-to see what was the next torture in store: he had not long to wait.
Out of a narrow street, immediately behind the scaffold, there came a clatter of hoofs; and four huge Normandy stallions-two strong ropes trailing behind each-were led forth, plunging and screaming, as if loathing the work before them.
All the Lombard's hardihood vanished then; his white lips quivered painfully, and one word escaped them in a hissing whisper :
Will Lanyon felt a heavy qualmishness stealing over him he had reckoned on no such sight as this. And other hearts around St. Omer market-place, besides the stout archer's, waxed faint while the bourreaux completed their office as quickly as might be, and bound the prisoner's four limbs securely-each to a rope harness-with the leathern thongs. The Kentishman saw the rearing stallions led out into the middle of the square, bearing in the midst of them what seemed a senseless body he saw no more; for a deadly sickness made him close his eyes, and grasp his saddle-bow, to save himself from falling. But his ears he could not close. He heard the crack and slash of the whips as they goaded the brute executioners to their gruesome task: then a yell went up-thrice repeated, long drawn, and piercing-such as, for poor humanity's sake, let us hope, has seldom been heard on the hither side of eternal torment: then came silence, broken at last by a great shuddering groan, in which the oppression of five thousand breasts found vent. Opening his eyes once more, Lanyon saw the stones of the square besprinkled with foul red splashes; whilst in the centre, in a broad crimson pool, lay a formless, nameless horror; and, at the four corners, the savage stallions-madder yet with scent of bloodstruggled in their halters; each dragging in his harness something from contact of which the hardiest recoiled.
While the archer still felt dizzy and faint, a hand was laid on his shoulder; and the voice of one of De Chargny's esquires said in his
"Thou art free now, brave Englishman. Make all speed to Calais, and tell to such as list to hear it how my lord deals with double traitors."
Lanyon needed no second bidding. He never drew free breath till the walls of St. Omer were fairly behind him; and he had ridden leagues, before his senses were clear enough to take in common-place sights and scents and sounds; his bluff, brown face had not recovered its natural colour when he stood in presence of the Lord Beauchamp to tell his tale.
The good knight's cheek, too, paled as he listened-crossing himself often-murmuring ejaculations of pity and horror. And in Calais was there never a church or chapel, wherein masses were not sung that night, for the weal of the guilty soul that had gone to its accompt through passage of such awful agony.
FOR near two years, Ralph Brakespeare went through the weary round of garrison duty with much cheerfulness and alacrity. Yet was he not the less rejoiced, when one day Hawkwood bade him see all prepared for departure on the morrow; inasmuch as he had gotten leave from the Lord Beauchamp to march in command of a reinforcement, destined to join the English armament in Poitou. The route was long; but the esquire would not have had it shortened by a single eague. Throughout the country, deserted tenements, and fields left fallow, bore token of the fell pestilence, which had spared France no more than the rest of Europe in its progress from east to west-though in Calais, and other coast towns, through which the keen sea-breezes swept freely, it had scarcely been felt. But since the pest had abated of its fury, the pale, panic-stricken survivors had crept back to their daily labour or trade; and all along the road there was no lack of entertainment.
Right pleasant it was, after being cooped up so many months betwixt grey walls-the duresse broken only by rare exercise amongst bleak dunes, or along dreary causeways-to ride on through the fresh summer mornings and the breezy afternoons, with constant change of scenery, faces, and objects to vary each day's halt. Crossing the Somme at Abbeville, they were soon clear of the marshy flats of Picardy; and, leaving Arques on their right, wound their way through
the green coteaux that swell betwixt Rouen and the sea. Albeit a truce prevailed, Hawkwood deemed it prudent to halt in hamlets and small towns than in such cities where the French lay in force; choosing not to risk, with his small company, being embroiled in such chance quarrels as will arise when ancient foes-newly-made friends-meet over the wine-cup. So he turned not aside to Rouen; but bearing still coastwards, forded the Seine at Caudebec; and so-by Lisieux, Falaise, Pontorson, and Montfort-came safe, towards the end of July, to Aurai, then garrisoned by Sir Thomas Dagworth, the King's Lieutenant in Bretagne.
Here they halted certain days for needful refreshment, both for men and horses; and then set forward again towards Bordeaux, where Ralph of Stafford held command in the room of Lancaster, who had returned to England before Whitsunday. Only by a short week did Hawkwood and his company miss sharing in a great disaster-unless, indeed, their presence might altogether have averted it. For, scarcely had they reached Bordeaux, when news came that the gentle knight, who late entertained them so royally, had been treacherously set upon by Raoul, Lord of Cahors, under the walls of Aurai, and done to death with all his following.
Not long after this, other messengers came; telling how Philip of Valois had found rest at last from troubles and calamity in the shadow of St. Denis' altar; and how the fiery Duke of Normandy reigned in his stead. Such as were learned in the politics of the day foresaw that the change would not be greatly for the weal of France. The honour of John the Good was as stainless as his courage; but his hand was better fitted to grasp the sword than the sceptre or leadingstaff: he would imperil an army not less recklessly than he would risk his own person; and was over hot-blooded and inconsiderate, to cope with the wary antagonist that watched him from over the sea. Yet, to all men's wonder, the war smouldered for a while; only now and then giving tokens of fire lurking beneath the thin crust, like the jets and wreaths of smoke that hover over the Terra di Lavoro.
So, for Brakespeare and his comrades, the old, weary garrison life began again. For even in the skirmishes and chance combats that took place not unfrequently, they were destined to take no share. They heard of that tough passage-of-arms, the memory of which is still kept green in Breton ballads; where-despite Merlin's prophecy -De Beaumanoir and his thirty did at the last prevail over the stark champions who followed Bembro; and where Croquart, the
freebooter, setting his back against Ploërmel oak, bore himself so hardily, that to him, above knights and squires of high degree, was assigned that day's palm of valour. They heard, too, how in the country they had so lately left, notable exploits were wrought-how the disaster of the good Lord Beauchamp had been amply avenged by Manny; who brought such plunder into Calais town, that a brave ox fetched but sixteen sols in the market-place-and how Henry of Lancaster had pushed his foray further yet into the French realm; sacking Terouenne, flooding the church with the blood of its townsmen, and carrying fire and sword up to the gates of Arques and St. Omer-and how afterwards, by a wench's treachery and an archer's subtlety, Guisnes was taken, and held in despite of the truce. Later yet, they heard how Sir Walter Bentley-left Lieutenant of Bretagne had gotten great honour by utterly discomfiting Guy de Nesle, King John's marshal, who came forth to provoke him to battle. And, all this while, those who lay at Bordeaux never drew sword in earnest, or lay lance in rest.
Yet this long enforced inaction was, perhaps, better training for Ralph Brakespeare than ceaseless excitement would have been. True, his early luck seemed to have deserted him, and he was fain, so far, to rest on the memory of his first year in arms: before he was six-and-twenty, Ralph had almost learned to laugh at the daydreams of five years agone. By this time, his character, like his frame, was set; to the vehement ambition and ardour of youth had succeeded the cool, matured resolution of manhood-powerful to will, prompt to execute, and patient to endure; he was proof against idle hopes, no less than against groundless fears; and the common chagrins of life took no more hold of his soul, than toil or privation of his body. Yet under all this case-hardness-like a clear water-drop in the depth of crystal-there still abode with him the softness of heart that he inherited from the gentle woman who died in giving him birth. When men, who knew him best, gave Ralph Brakespeare no more credit for such emotion than if he had been an armed effigy, he was just as ready to listen to the cry of a helpless woman, and to avenge her wrongs, as when he rose up in the glee-maiden's defence, under the sign of the "Spur."
With Gian Malatesta he still remained on the same terms of cold, distant civility. As months and years went by, bringing no fitting occasion for the wreaking of his enmity, the Italian seemed to have forgotten it altogether. In Bordeaux town-where they