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for once in thy life, a righteous deed. Wilt thou fill the hangman's office? If it mislike thee, and none other can be found, I will set mine own hand to the rope."
The man whom he addressed—a huge red-bearded Bohemian-came forward, eagerly.
"I thank your worship"-he growled: "the task is entirely to my humour. When black cattle wax vicious, 'tis full time they were haltered. Let me deal with him; I warrant you, I cure him of goring."
The preparations for execution were soon made; but, whilst Lanyon and another were binding the Benedictine's arms, he broke suddenly from their hold, and grovelled in the grass at Ralph's knees, screaming for mercy, and crying that the other could not mean thus to punish a priest, for having laid hands on one possessed with a devil.
Ralph spurned the unhappy wretch with his mailed foot, as he glanced at the corpse lying near.
"Possessed with a devil?' Marry, thou wilt have better acquaintance with devils soon, though thou wilt scarce meet them in such fair guise."
Then they dragged the Benedictine away, to where the Bohemian waited under a stout oak limb. But the hoarse voice ceased not to shriek out a ghastly medley of prayers and curses, till the halter choked it. When all was over, Brakespeare approached the other two Benedictines, who crouched by their mules, with their faces buried in their robes.
“We make not prisoners and take no ransom of such as ye and your following"-he said. "Ye are free to return to your moustiers when ye will; and, if ye care to save yon carrion from the crows, ye may send and fetch it home after sundown: only, let none presume to pass this way again before."
Soldiers and monks were but too glad to escape so easily from such sacrilegious company; and, within brief space, the glade was clear to all but the Free Companions.
Before they set forward, Ralph bade Lanyon and another lift the girl's corpse and carry it deep into the woodland, far out of sight of the road. There in the light soil, with their swords for mattocks, they soon dug a rude grave pit, deep enough to be safe from ravages of bird or beast; and there, under canopy of greenery rest La Mauricaulde's bones-not less quietly, perchance, than many who sleep under cathedral aisles.
Very silent and thoughtful were the Free Companions, as they rode on through the forest-land; and their leader spoke to none till they rejoined the main body under Hawkwood, at the village where they halted for the night. Sir John's brow grew overcast when he heard what had been done, and he cared not to disguise his displeasureIndeed, betwixt the two knights there rose a coolness, not soon abated, and which never thoroughly wore away.
THOUGH Ralph Brakespeare never so long as he lived repented having taken God's vengeance into his own hands, it follows not that he was insensible to the consequences of the act. It had been better for him, so far as his credit was concerned, to have sacked and burned a dozen castles than to have set at naught the sanctity of that one cowl. He soon found out that in the eyes of many, neither fanatical nor over-righteous, he was held guilty of the sin for which there is no forgiveness, and, therefore, marked with a heavier brand than others whose lives were stained by all imaginable cruelty and rapine. He could scarce chafe or complain now, if knights of blameless repute— whose hands were clear of aught worse than honourable bloodshedding-should shrink from his fellowship in peace, and choose that even on a stricken field some space should divide their pennons. At certain times he felt a gloomy satisfaction in the thought, that each day widened the gulf dividing him from the class in which place must needs bave been found for him, had he not been cheated of his birthright: but at others, a dreary sense of isolation oppressed him—the more so, as Hawkwood's manner continued reserved and cold.
The knight was not, in reality, especially shocked by Ralph's summary justice; but he was shrewd enough to be aware that there was peril in the close companionship of one who lay under the Church's ban, and probably thought that he would one day or another have scandals enough of his own to answer for without having art or part in overt sacrilege. Nevertheless, he took care to avoid anything like a rupture; and as it suited neither of their purposes to return to Bordeaux, the two held on amicably together; having established themselves for the nonce at the castle called La Perrache—a detached fortress on the left bank of the
Lotte, to the north of Aiguillon, which was too scantily garrisoned to offer even a show of resistance.
If Brakespeare had fallen into the disfavour of his brother-in-arms, it was far otherwise with the greater part of those who followed their several pennons. Those desperate Ishmaelites regarded with admiring awe the man who had trampled under his heel the superstitions from which they themselves were not wholly exempt; and felt a sort of pride in being associated with the terror attaching to his name; for they rejoiced rather than otherwise in evil repute, so long as it made them more formidable to their foes; even as the Schwarz-Reiters in later times were wont to blacken their persons, horses, and harness, before going into battle. Had any expedition been on foot, promising much profit at the cost of much peril, when their forces must needs be divided, not a few would have deserted Hawkwood to take their chance under the other
Soon after the events lately recorded ensued the peace of Bretigni. Thenceforward the disorders; especially in the southern and eastern provinces of the French realm, became more and more outrageous. Nor is this wonder, when it is considered what numbers of mercenaries, used for ten years past to the license of free quarters in a half-conquered country, were now disbanded to find service, or support themselves as best they might; with scanty means too, for their booty or wage was wasted as soon as won. Some, indeed, absolutely refused to surrender to the French deputies the fortresses which they held; asserting they were soldiers of Navarre, not of King Edward, whose orders they now chose to set at naught. Neither did these at first lack excuse, from the conduct of many of the other party; since the Barons of Languedoc-headed by De la Marche, D'Armagnac, Comminges, and Chatillon-were more than loath to transfer their allegiance; whilst Poitou, La Rochellois, and Saintonge clung no less obstinately to their ancient fealty. So that it was more than a year before the remonstrances of John the Good-enforced by his cousin, James of Bourbon, in person-took effect, or that Chandos was able to establish himself in peace at Niort, as lieutenant-general of all the fair domains ceded to England at Bretigni.
The scattered malcontents soon drew together, either cleaving to their old commanders, or choosing new leaders, till they waxed so strong and bold, that they feared not to storm the fair town of Joinville on the Marne, wherein half the riches of Champagne were stored. There the Tards-venus-as they called themselves mockingly, abode
for a while; proving that if they came late, they came in bitter earnest ; for all the fertile region, hitherto innocent of ravage, they made desolate, up to the gates of Langres. When little was left worth the harrying, the Free Companions rode southwards through Burgundy; despoiling after their pleasure (for none dared make head against them) all the neighbourhood of Besançon, Dijon, and Beaune; and putting Guerche to pillage and sack. By the middle of Lent, Seguin de Bastefol, Guy de Pin, the Bastard of Breteuil, and their fellows, grew satiate of vulgar sport, and resolved to fly at higher game. So they pushed forward down the banks of the Sâone, with the avowed purpose of reaching Avignon, and enforcing the Church to contribute liberally to their necessities; and over wine-cup or dice-box already began to count up the ransoms to be wrung from Pope or Cardinal. But thus far they did not penetrate without hindrance. Tidings of these things reached John the Good in Paris, to his sore grief and anger: so, without delay, the king sent letters to his cousin of Bourbon-then tarrying at Montpellier-bidding him march presently with a sufficient force to the chastisement of the freebooters. Nothing loath, that famous captain gathered from Auvergne, Limousin, Provence, and Dauphigny, a goodly armament; and marched from Agen northwards, till, some few leagues from Lyons, he came to where the Frec Companies lay.
A very Babel of tongues might have been heard on the hill of Brignais; for English, Germans, Brabanters, Flemings, Hainaulters, and Gascons mingled there; and their harness was motley as their tongues. But the spirit of nationality was well supplied by the spirit of partisanship, and there was no disunion in the strange encampment; nor was the discipline less rigid than if all had been bred on the same soil, and had fought from boyhood under the same standard. The freebooters, like the buccaneers of later date, observed times and seasons in their devilry, bearing themselves ever most soberly on the eve of battle. Amongst those who had cast in their lot of late with the Tards-venus, were Hawkwood and Brakespeare. La Perrache was no safe abiding place for them, since Jacques of Bourbon had mustered his armament; and there was no choice, but to unite themselves with the main body speedily, for such as wished not to be cut off in detail.
Ralph was no longer an impulsive aspirant, but a tough, hardened adventurer, with whom dreams of chivalric glory were as things of the past; yet some instincts of gentle birth and breeding, after the rough usage and evil communication of a dozen years were still vivid enough to
make him feel uncasy in his present company. And on that April morning-looking forth, whilst they waited for Bourbon's onset-the knight felt that he would have given much to have found himself amongst the assailants rather than the assailed. Something of this he hinted to his brother-in-arms; but met with scant sympathy or encouragement there. "'Tis somewhat late in the day to be over nice"-Hawkwood said, bitterly. "If any scruples Leset thee, choke them, I pray thee, even as thou didst throttle the monk. Bestir thyself with that mace of thine doughtily to-day. By the Mass, thou never hadst better reason. Sccst thou yon banner in the van of their first battalion ? It bears the blazon of Arnaut de Cervole, called the Arch-Priest. There is little of the priest about him, save in his title, they say; nevertheless, I were loath to see thee alive at his mercy. But for that matter, every man here will fight like a penned rat; and our plans were right warily laid yesternight: if I err not, some of those gay pennons will be smirched ere all is done."
Of a truth, the Free Companions, in preparing for battle, had displayed no mean strategy. They had great vantage of ground in their favour, being entrenched on the plateau of a hill-not high, but exceeding steep-the which could only be ascended slantwise.. Moreover, by their method of encampment they had so cunningly dissembled their real force, that the French scouts reported their enemy to muster but some five thousand, instead of thrice as many, which was their actual strength.
It was in vain that Arnaut de Cervole, and other captains of approved wisdom, discredited these tidings; relying rather on the sure intelligence they had before obtained. Jacques de Bourbon was not to be gainsaid; and many knights, smarting under the disgrace and damage endured already from the freebooters, backed him in his rash resolve. So the trumpet sounded the assault-the valiant Arch-Priest leading the vanguard.
Now, in the Free Companies, there were many imperfectly harnessed and rudely weaponed, who could have made a poor stand against the charge of men-at-arms. These were ranged all along the hill-side, with huge piles of flints and other missiles ready to their hands, and plied them with effect scarcely less deadly than that of the English bows at Poitiers. Here, as heretofore, the unwieldy column armed cap-à-pie spent its strength in furious efforts to come to close quarters with enemies safe from their agility and vantage ground; all the while the stones kept hailing down, beating in bascinets and breastplates, maiming