« ZurückWeiter »
WELL, Alice, where's your valentine ?
Come, show me, for of course you've had one. What! flowers; without a single line,
And roughly painted-what a bad one! Your swain, 'tis evident's in love,
Or something surely he'd have writtenSomething about a turtle-dove,
Or" to your eyebrow," or your mitten.
Here, Alice, take your missive back-
Both sense and humour-more's the pity!
And mostly be composed in fun,
Pathos and bathos there should be-
You think that I am talking treason!
THE FORTUNES OF A FREE LANCE.
BY THE AUTHOR OF GUY LIVINGSTONE," ETC., ETC.
THE country for leagues round Anse soon grew more impoverished and drained, till it could barely victual the powerful garrison lying there; so that the freebooters were forced to go farther afield, till often several days' march would separate them from the town. Brakespeare especially affected these distant expeditions; for, to the old restless impatience of inaction, was added dislike of present associations and circumstances. He always felt as if a weight were lifted from his lungs, when he was fairly out of sight of the banks of the Sâone. some respects Ralph was not more delicate of dealing than his fellows. No scruples withheld him from robbing with the strong hand whatsoever pleased him, or from enriching himself and his followers at the cost of those whom-despite the mock peace of Bretigni-he still chose to esteem enemies. But he would allow no needless violence, much less anything of brutal license; his followers soon got to know, that whilst on active service they must take their pleasure after his fashion, not their own; and sharp examples had taught them to beware of one who never spoke twice without striking, and striking to fell purpose. Nevertheless, Ralph kept his place in the favour, if not in the love, of his adherents; if they growled sometimes in their beards, they would allow none other to speak disparagingly of him in their hearing; and if they had no tales of debauch to tell on their return, none in the garrison had so much coin to spare for revel or ribaude, as those who rode under the two splintered lances, crossed, on a sable field.
On a certain morning, late in the autumn of 1361, Brakespeare crossed the Sâone into Burgundy, intending to visit a region into which neither he nor any of his comrades had yet penetrated—that stretching northwards from the Haute-Rhone towards the border of
Savoy. Distance, difficulty of access, and reputed poverty, had been the causes of this immunity. Of the two former, Ralph had learned to think lightly of late, and of the last he chose now to judge for himself. The first day's march led through country already thoroughly explored and exhausted; neither on the second did anything notable occur. The only dwellings above the degree of a peasant's hovel that they passed, were a few poverty-stricken manoirs and gaunt, lonely towers where no plunder was likely to pay the peril of assault; and those who hunt for profit care not to meddle with a wolf's lair. By noon on the third day they had come down on the river, and were fain to keep the road, such as it was, that followed its windings. The rocky, woody country all around, that succeeded flat sandy plains, was illtravelling for barded chargers. They were nearly abreast of the rapids, now called the Saut du Rhone, when the scouts-who, after Brakespeare's unvarying wont, had been sent in advance-came back with tidings that some short distance in the front they had descried a great and fair castle. Brakespeare halted his party instantly, and rode forward himself to reconnoitre, accompanied only by Lanyon.
The last two years had changed the esquire more than his master. He deemed it his duty to adapt his demeanour in some fashion to their altered fortunes; and had so far succeeded, that the stolid simplicity of his countenance was now replaced by a sort of saturnine gravity, which suited well with his slow brevity of speech. Moreover, his bearing had long ceased to be clownish or awkward; and, whether on foot or in saddle, he looked from head to heel a tried, sturdy soldier.
After some three or four furlongs of steep ascent, the woodland ended abruptly, and some hundred yards or so a level clearing extended beyond, which had to be crossed before arriving at the barbican. Under cover of the trees, the knight made long and careful survey before he spoke.
"A brave outside, by Saint Giles! If the withinside answers thereto, it will be well worth the winning. What thinkest thou? Ha?" Unless directly questioned, Lanyon never dreamt of giving his opinion, and even now there passed his lips only one word: "If
Ralph shook himself somewhat impatiently.
"A plague on thy raven's beak! Is it so long since it was wetted that thou must needs croak? We will prove what thine 'Ifs' are worth ere night. Bring up my spears forthwith. There is a shrewd
storm gathering in the west: if yon walls find us nought better, they shall find us roof-bield, and save harness from rusting."
The castle owed little of its strength to art. Around two sides of the cliff, whose plateau it nearly covered, ran a ravine escarped by nature, and so deep, that one, standing on the brink, looked down on the topmost branches of the pines that found roothold amongst the rocks beneath. The walls, in most places, rose sheer from the further verge, so that nothing without wings could have passed along; and the only access to the gate was across the narrowest part of the gorge, where a platform masonry jutted forth on either side, joined in the midst by a pont-levis that could be raised or lowered at pleasure. It seemed as if those who fortified the place had deemed it so nearly impregnable as to care little for ordinary outworks; for the barbican was built rather for show than defence-being, in truth, little more than an arch surmounted by battlements. But the ponderous gate-tower beyond was a small fortress in itself; and there the garrison was evidently intended to make its first serious stand. As soon as his party came up, Brakespeare dismounted all save such as were needed to take charge of the horses; and, causing the cumbrous lances to be piled, gave his brief orders for the assault, in case the castle should not be rendered peaceably.
Then very warily they crept forward on foot; yet not so warily, but that they were descried from a loop-hole, or tourelle; for on the battlement no watchman showed himself. Three or four quick notes of alarm were sounded on a bugle within; and as the leader of the Free Companions-deeming further precaution useless-set foot on the level clearing, the drawbridge rose with provoking slowness, till it hung in air midway betwixt the two platforms, leaving a chasm some three fathoms across.
Brakespeare seemed no more disconcerted, than if such an incident had entered into his plan of attack. Seeing that the place could not now be carried by surprise, he advanced his company, in regular order and no undue haste, across the open space; and, passing through the gates of the barbican, stood forth alone on the platform, and bade his trumpet sound a parley. After a brief delay, an elderly knight in full armour, save for the vizor, appeared behind the battlements of the gate-tower; and demanded, in set phrase, to be informed wherefore trespass was made on the lands of La Roche Dagon, and a challenge sounded at its gates; further, under what standard the intruders served? "I am here for mine own pleasure," Brakespeare answered; "and
I follow none other standard than King Edward's, when it is flying. But, for the nonce, I hold with the Free Company lying at Anse, under Sir Seguin de Bastefol's command. It is my purpose to lodge within your walls to-night, and it may be for some space after. Now, therefore, say quickly whether ye be minded to give me free admittance, or if I must make entry after mine own fashion."
The Frenchman's countenance fell at the mention of the Free Companies; but it grew dark and angry at Ralph's last words, though he constrained himself to speak with some formality.
"Sir Knight-for I perceive that your spurs are golden, though your manners scarce answer your degree-I may not reply to your demand without conference with the high and puissant dame whom I serve; for the Countess Bertha orders all things here, since it pleased Heaven to afflict our good Lord of La Roche Dagon with palsy."
So, with a stiff obeisance, the Frenchman withdrew; but returned instantly to say that the Countess chose to make answer in person. Lances and arbalests began to bristle all along the battlements of the gate-tower in strange contrast to these was the apparition that soon filled one of the centre crenelles.
A beautiful woman, though her beauty was of an uncommon type. The outline of the haughty aquiline features might have been softer, and the curve of the crimson sensual lips, less decided; the small head, too, would have seemed overloaded by the masses of red-gold hair that grew far down on the broad low brow, if the slender neck had not carried it so imperially: only the upper part of her figure was visible; yet somehow Ralph guessed it to be tall and shapely. She leant forward over the battlements-not eagerly or anxiously, but with a sort of indolent grace; as though she had been looking down on a spectacle prepared for her amusement. Brakespeare, standing bareheaded beneath her, was near enough to the glitter of her great tawny eyes, and her voice was wondrously sweet and clear, even now, when its tones were mocking.
"So, beau chevalier, you purpose, my seneschal tells me, to honour our poor dwelling with your company, whether it likes us or not. It grieves me to seem niggard or churlish; nevertheless, I counsel you to prick forward, ere darkness and rain overtake you, to some other shelter. Unless ye have martlet's wings, and can lodge in their nests, ye will find no shelter to-night at La Roche Dagon.
Brakespeare's cheek reddened, under the deep tan of sun and weather. But he made answer with grave courtesy