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Ralph had certainly intended no slight to his subalterns when he quitted them thus abruptly; but perchance there was more truth in Stackpole's remark than the esquire would have cared to own. The instincts of his birth and breeding-repressed by circumstances and association-would assert themselves at times, with or without reason. Just now the strident voices, the coarse mirth, and loud blasphemies of the brutal routiers, were unutterably distasteful, and the pure, keen air refreshed him more than the wine he had drank. So he paced to and fro, thinking—if the truth must be told-always of Marguerite de Hacquemont. Yet he thought of her, neither with desire of her beauty, nor with the slightest hope of winning her favour; but only with a longing to cast himself at her feet, till he should obtain forgiveness for the great sorrow he had brought upon her-even as he would have craved absolution of a priest for some grave, unshriven sin. It was the very first touch of pure romance in Ralph Brakespeare's life, and the last that marked it for many a day.
He pursued his solitary walk till the sun was getting low: then he turned into the keep again—hearing, but not heeding, voices within the closed doors of the hall-and mounted into the presence-chamber, where he found Lanyon busily engaged in polishing such heavier pieces of armour as the esquire had chosen to lay aside.
After the interchange of a very few words, Ralph sat down in the embrasure of a window looking over the valley of the Dordogne, and fell a-musing once more. His reverie was broken by a voice speaking close to his shoulder.
"A fair prospect, sir esquire"-the Lord of Hacquemont said. "I, at least, have never wearied thereof, though I have looked on it nigh threescore years; and Alix, my dame, loved it well, and sat often there till her last sickness waxed sore. That parting was our first real sorrow; and since then, nought has gone aright here. Better had it been for me to have died with younger men at Creçy, than in a chance mellay to have come by such a hurt, as hath turned me into a heavy burden, instead of a prop and defence to mine house. And better had it been for Marguerite, my firstborn, to have offered her virginity to God at St. Ursula's altar, than have plighted her faith to the Vicompte de Chastelnaye; albeit my heart was proud enough the day I blessed their betrothal. For knight more perfect never rode out of Limousin; and many notable exploits he wrought before he came to mischance. From a mere youth and ordinary man-at-arms—so his esquire averred-gat he his death-wound; but this have I never
wholly credited; no common lance, I warrant it, would have held his own against poor Lois in fair career. But I know not why I trouble you with such matters: rather should I inquire if ye have found sufficient for your needs below? There is no lack of wine in the cellars, and old Réné tells me the larder is indifferently well stored."
Brakespeare had doffed his barret-cap on rising, and stood before the speaker as he would have stood in presence of his King. Only with an effort he constrained himself to answer calmly for the castellan's last words chimed in unhappily with his own musings.
"I thank your good lordship; there is abundance of all things, and to spare. Rather doth it befit me to ask, if you and those noble demoiselles lack aught that, within the bounds of my duty, may be supplied? Well I trust that your confinement will be brief; and that on the fourth day, at latest, ye will be lightened of our burdensome presence. 'Twill go hard, but Sir Walter Breckenridge will find some fortalice easier to hold than Hacquemont--fair castle though it be."
The castellan smiled gravely.
"We are right well ministered to by Réné, mine ancient esquire, and Gilles, my servitor, who, though scarce less infirm than mine own self, am apt enough at such duty. Nay, gentle sir, I must not have you underrate my poor dwelling. There are stronger fortresses, pardie: yet, duly victualled and garrisoned, it might withstand a tough siege, even of these new-fangled bombards. 'Tis a quaint old house, too, full of quips and cranks in builders' work. See, now, I will show you one device: it was contrived, doubtless, by some austere ancestor of mine, wishful to check his retainers' mirth if it waxed too wild below."
Speaking thus, the baron pressed the point of his staff on the corner of a large square stone in the centre of the presence-chamber, till half its breadth stood up above the floor; revealing an aperture wide enough to admit a broad pair of shoulders.
"Stoop down"--the castellan said, lowering his tone. "Tis somewhat dark now in the hall below, so you will see but dimly. But, if any be talking there, you will hear each whisper, not less distinctly than if you stood by the speaker's shoulder."
More out of courtesy than curiosity, the esq. ire did as he was bidden. But, before his face had been bent down three seconds, it grew rigid and stern; with a backward gesture of his hand to enforce silence, he began to listen eagerly. This is what he heard.
"Thy counsel savours of the laggard, if not of the craven, Martin Stackpole; nay, pluck not at thy dagger-hilt-I am not so easily frighted as the fat vintner of Bordeaux-but listen. Wherefore should we delay till midnight what may as well be done four hours sooner; and when we can work our pleasure with the strong hand, what cause is there to dally? If thou fearest to trust thy carcase within sword's length of Ralph Brakespeare awake, knowest thou when to find him sleeping on this, his first night of command? And to satisfy thy prudence, shall we sit with our hands folded through the long night-watch, with such plunder and liesse near ?"
The soft, musical accents contrasted strangely with the voice that broke in, deep and hoarse as the distant bellow of a chafed bull.
"By the beards of the Three Kings, thou hast right, Johann. 'Sweetest bread is quickest baked,' saith our proverb: I am for setting about this gear instantly. Hagel, I am waxing meek as a novice for want of a real wild bout. And wine and woman's lips have never so keen a relish, as when men taste them after blood."
"Spoken like Sèr Petronius, of unsaintly memory"-Malatesta answered. "Nevertheless, be not over hasty, my Rhineland Goliath. Bethink thee, that after we have dealt with the esquire, and other one or two English mastiffs, there will be a door-mayhap a strong oneto pass ere we come at the girls and the gold; and oak and iron are not as parchment and glass, even though arms puissant as thine wield lever like a weaver's beam. If those above have time to hang out signal of distress from the keep, and there be daylight for the country folk to see it, rescue may arise from one quarter or another, and each man may be called to the walls ere dawn. Thou would'st not have our first free orgie troubled, I trow. Moreover, all our fellows are not so ripe as thee, and me, and honest Martin here; and they will work the best when their veins are fullest: trust me, they shall not lack the spur, if that same can be found in right Gascon wine; after supper, when they have well drunken, I will expound unto them our plan after my poor fashion, and we will to business instantly. Till then, let each go his own way soberly; it is not needful that we three be seen together."
"He speaks well, Berchtold "—another voice said. "We had best be guided by him; he hath twice our brains."
So the converse was broken off; and in a few seconds more the hall was empty.
Ralph Brakespeare rose to his feet, with a face perfectly calm, but very set and pale, like that of one who has inhaled some noxious vapour. Taking no note of Lanyon, who approached with open mouth and eyes, he drew the castellan somewhat apart; and told him briefly of the plot hatching below.
Philippe de Hacquemont's courage had ever been unquestioned; and in contempt of peril, whilst he was able to encounter it, he was surpassed by none of his peers: yet he shook as in an ague fit as he listened.
"My poor girls”—he groaned at last. "Is there no mercy then in heaven, for creatures as pure as its own saints? I vow to Saint Ursula
"Your pardon, my lord "-Ralph interrupted, plucking him by the sleeve. "We have scant time for counsel, but time enow for prayers. Ye spake anon of the builder's tricks in this castle. Know ye of any whereby man-or better, man and horse-might issue unmarked by any within, till they were fairly beyond the ditch ?"
All the martial instincts of the castellan's nature came back at the direct question; he drew himself together like an ancient war-horse at sound of trumpet.
"Of a surety there is such"-he said. "In the third stall of the great stable-counting from the right-there is a secret panel, behind which lies a souterrain, leading under the castle ditch, and opening at a postern hid in the thickest brushwood, half way down the slope, through which a destrier fully caparisoned may pass. Réné, alone, of all mine household, knows the trick of the spring; and, by God's mercy, he is in attendance here."
"It is, indeed, a blessed chance"-Ralph answered, almost reverently. Then he beckoned Lanyon to his side..
"Hark thee hither, Will; and strive to comprehend what thou hearest, for I may expound naught at length. We are in shrewd strait: yon Italian devil hath tampered with our band till-of all I thought true men the morning-I can surely reckon on none save thee. It is their purpose this night to break in here, to plunder, and ravish, and slay. There is a secret issue from the castle; but the noble demoiselles I dare not send forth, even under darkness, lest some loiterer, espying them pass through the court-yard, should give the alarm, and so we and they be set upon at a vantage below. While the door stands yonder they are safe; and, whilst I live, none shall lay hands thereon: the stair is narrow, so that two mounting abreast, can scarce wield
their weapons; and a strong man, fully armed, might hold the platform for a good while against a score. This have I devised. The guards will soon be changed: thou wilt be posted on the north battlements, to which there is access close to the main stable. After seven of the clock, when the rest are set down to supper, Réné-this good lord's esquire-will come to thee wearing my barret-cap and mantle; he is great of stature, and the masking may pass in the uncertain light he will unlock the stable, and show thee the outlet. I mind not what beast stands in a certain stall-God send he be strong and speedy; for he may not be changed now without suspicion, nor then without noise, which thou must needs avoid. When thou hast gained the eastward road, ride-I say not as for thy life, but as to save thy soul-till thou come to where Sir John Hawkwood is camped: tell him how we are be-stead. The road thou canst not miss; for with such a moon as will be shining then, a boy might track four hundred hoof-prints. Under God's mercy, I have good hope thou wilt bring us aid in time. But if otherwise
He crossed himself, lifting his barret-cap from his brow"Then may He assoilzie us all this night, both innocents and sinners. What ails thee, man ?" he went on, angrily. "Have thy fool's wits gone wool-gathering, that thou starest on me with such lacklustre eyes ?"
The archer's face, indeed, was a picture of sullen bewilderment.
"Fool, indeed"-he said, huskily; clutching his brawny throat as though something choked him. "Ay! and I deserve harder names than that, messire, for following faithfully all these years one who sends me forth with a whole skin, whilst he tarries behind to die. For, naught can save ye but a miracle, I wot: and such are not wrought for landless esquires."
Instead of being touched by his follower's devotion, Ralph's face. darkened menacingly.
"I was wrong, then, it seems, in reckoning on thee? It is well. Then Réné shall bear my message, though he seems scarce able for the saddle. But, hearken-when the fray begins, shift for thyself as thou wilt: by the most Holy Rood, thou standest not with me. I had as lieve have traitor at my back as mutineer."
He stopped suddenly, his whole manner changing.
“Nay, nay, I was over hasty: thine is but a passing humourfit, and now thou art mine own honest comrade and king's true soldier again. Vex thyself no further "the archer had cast