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Page 419. THEN FROM UNDER THE DARK ROBE CAME A BRIGHT FLASH; AND, WITH ONE SMOTHERED S!!RIEK, THE GIRL SANK SIDEWAYS TO THE GROUND.
had pushed his charger forward, till he got unobserved within a lance's length of the road. As those two passed, he could hear the prisoner's plaintive voice answering, what seemed to have been a threat from her guardian
"Ah, holy father! Be not so merciless. Much would I do to win your favour, yet I cannot do all. The love, even of such as I, is not to be enforced, especially by such rough wooing as yours."
There was, perchance, the slightest shade of mocking coquetry in the last syllables: at any rate, so the Benedictine interpreted them; for he purpled with passion as he griped her wrist, so violently as to wring from her a moan of pain.
"Darest thou yet again to deride me? Before the menace was complete, the
Hast not learned
signal rang out through
And Ralph's terrible mace had stricken from the saddle one of the rearmost horsemen; and, with Lanyon at his shoulder, he had engaged the others hand to hand, leaving his followers to deal with the main body of the escort.
Taken at sore disadvantage-for there was scarce time for spearman to couch lance, or archer to bend arbalest-the Benedictine soldiers stood for awhile stoutly to their arms. But though they fought doggedly, they fought not with the thorough goodwill of their adversaries. Moreover, the Free Companions, specially those on the English side, had already laid the foundation of their evil renown, and their tender mercies were known to be cruel. So, first one, then another, dropped his point, till there rose a general cry for quarter, and the struggle in front and centre was quickly over. At the first onset the monks huddled together like frightened sheep; but the Sub-prior soon bethought himself that no harm could befal his own sacred person, and was thus cool enough to watch the issue narrowly. When he saw that this was no longer doubtful, something strangely like a blasphemy sped through his clenched teeth; and he drew closer to the prisoner, sliding his right hand into the breast of his robe.
"Spawn of Sathanas!" the Benedictine said. "Thinkest thou, thou shalt 'scape, to make mock at Ignace once more among thy paramours?"
Then from under the dark robe came a bright flash; and, with one smothered shriek, the girl sank sideways to the ground, with a dagger buried to the hilt in her right side.
Now all this while sharp work was going on to the rearward; for, though Ralph and his esquire soon disposed each of another opponent, there still were left three to deal with; and, with one of these Brakespeare found no child's play. In the very heat of the conflict, his ear caught the death-cry; and, glancing over his shoulder, he barely missed seeing the murder done. A groan of wrath burst from the Free Companion, as his mace descended full on his adversary's head, crushing bascinet and brainpan together; then, wheeling his charger in a demivolte, and letting his weapon swing by its wristchain, he swept the Sub-prior clean from the saddle with a buffet. That act of sacrilege would assuredly have arrested the conflict, had it not been already ended; for the two who still made stand against Lanyon instantly cast down their arms, unwilling to further provoke one who could so entreat God's anointed minister.
The other monks were well-nigh distraught with terror; and sat wringing their hands, and gazing appealingly in the faces of the group of prisoners and captors mingled pell-mell, that gathered round the spot near the senseless body of the Sub-prior-where Ralph sat, his vizor up, with La Mauricaulde's head on his knees. That she was dying fast was plain; for the ripe pomegranate lips were blue already, and the blossom of her cheek was faded; but her eyes, as the silky lashes were lifted slowly, retained their wonderful witchery; and her voice was not less caressing than her gesture, as she stroked Ralph's hand, with her soft white fingers.
“Ah! beau seigneur, was it chance that brought you to poor Zulma's rescue? For never, to my knowledge, did we meet before. You have been kinder and braver than all who swore they loved me. Dearly would I have liked to pay you in mine own fashion; but 'tis too late. I know not whither I go, only I have good hope 'twill be amongst mine own kind, where priests have no dominion. Tell Father Ignace, when he wakes, that I liked his stab better than his embrace, after all. I pray you grace me with one kiss on my cheek: 'tis not cold yet, and it hath been called soft, ere now. I am proud that the last lips I taste—and I have tasted many-should be noble as yours, mon gentil chevalier."
All his manhood sorely shaken, he stooped to bestow the caress; the girl sighed twice or thrice wearily; then there came a shiver, rather than a struggle, and the knight laid the fair, frail corpse very gently on the forest grass.
By this time the Sub-prior's senses had returned; and the first
blank bewilderment of his face was succeeded by the distortion of mingled rage and fear. Yet less of the first than of the last was there expressed the priestly garb was a safe conduct, seldom, if ever, violated; the Benedictine could scarce believe the rude buffet to have been other than an unlucky accident; so his tone was scarce less arrogant than if he had been dealing with an offender in his own chapter-house.
"Whose hand was laid on me but now? If 'twas by misadventure, only by sharp penance can it be purified; if otherwise, better had it been stricken with the palsy. Let me hear the truth, lest on the innocent as well as the guilty should fall the Church's anathema."
The dullest-witted of the lookers-on guessed, that a storm of passion on Ralph Brakespeare's face, would have been less dangerous than its black resolve; as he, too, arose, and stood betwixt the murdered girl and her slayer.
"'Twas I dealt thee that buffet. Cans't guess why I smote thee with gauntlet instead of mace? 'Twas because I would not thou should'st die in honest soldier-fashion, when there were hempen cords to the fore. If there be virtue in thine office, call on heaven to work a present miracle: for naught else shall save thee from a dog's death."
The Benedictine recoiled, speechless with terror; but his brethren smote upon their breasts with loud outcry; and in the murmur of surprise and disapproval that ran through the circle, joined the voice of more than one Free Companion. Brakespeare turned sharply
towards the malcontents :
"I will not argue this matter. If any man be minded to take the monk's part, let him step forth, and I-waiving the privileges of command-will meet him blade to blade. If I be worsted, deal with yonder shaveling as ye will. Perchance, ye may overbear me and mine with odds; but not otherwise shall the hound 'scape halter."
A significant silence ensued. The speaker was, as aforesaid, both liked and admired by his followers; besides this, a terrible prestige still hung round his name, and none cared singly to feel the weight of the arm that kept the stair at Hacquemont. Ralph smiled, somewhat scornfully.
"Meseems me, the monk will lack champions. Stand thou forth, Diedrich Schwartz; thou art more of heathen than of Christian, I have heard; let us see now whether thy talk over thy wine-cup be drunkard's vaunt, or whether thou wilt earn double wage by doing,