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"I feared that such would be your answer, noble lady. Yet I would your own lips had not spoken it. I care not to bandy challenges with dames. I knew not your castle had so fair a commander; nevertheless, I may not, without shame, be turned back. I pray you withdraw, and bid your followers within do their devoir, whilst I and mine will essay what simple men may do without aid of miracle."
Her slender hand waved a gay defiance, and the next instant -instead of the proud beautiful face-the grim visage of an arbalestrier peered out, and Ralph stepped back from the platform into the shadow of the barbican arch.
"Who hath charge of the grappling-iron-Gilbert Fleming? That is well. See there is no fray in the rope, and that it be fast to the ring. Thou hast, too, the short curtal-axe I bade thee have sharpened at Anse? Lanyon; do thou make haste and rid me of jambarde and brassard. I needs must have my limbs free for this gear." As he spoke, the knight unbuckled his sword-belt and cast down his gauntlet. From mere force of habitual obedience, the squire knelt down and busied himself with stud and buckle; but he looked up imploringly in his master's face.
"I beseech your worship, be not over rash. Consider that here is no case of fall into ditch or moat, whence ye might 'scape with bruise or drenching: bones would be like cracked eggshells, once they touched the rocks at the bottom yonder. In God's name suffer me to try this adventure. I am the lighter of the twain, and will scarce be missed, God wot, if aught miscarry."
Ralph's palm fell roughly, but not unkindly, on his follower's shoulder.
"Of what pratest thou, blockhead? Lighter than I—with all that mass of brawn? And how would those stiff bow-legs of thine twine round the rope? By what right lead I these spears, if I care not to be foremost in peril? No more words: but see the rope be fast, so that it yield not with my weight; and lay hands on me, so that I roll not sidelong when the drawbridge comes down. Gilbert Fleming, thou art quick of eye and steady of hand: do thou cast the hook."
Grumbling and muttering in his beard, Lanyon completed his task; but the others murmured applause, as their leader followed out on to the platform the trooper who carried the grappling-rope. At the first throw the iron held fast round one of the lowering chains. Six or seven of the Free Companions kept the rope tight with all their weight and strength; and, before the garrison were aware of his
intent, Brakespeare had swung himself up hand over hand, and was crouched at the top of the steep sloping planks, with his left arm twined round the supporting posts of the hand-rail. His face was turned towards the barbican, so that his back was towards the danger-the sorest trial of nerve, all soldiers say-below him the ghastly naked rocks, twenty fathom down, peered out through the rank her bageand roots of pines: yet he plied his axe as coolly and skilfully as if he had been felling an oak, till the staple flew from the woodwork, and one of the supporting chains dangled loose. Then he crept cautiously to the other side of the pont-levis, and, twining his arm yet more firmly, began the same work there. But long ere this the garrison had recovered from their amazement, and more than one quarrel had glanced off Ralph's bascinet and breastplate; an arbalestrier, wiser than his fellows, was just taking aim at one of the assailant's unprotected limbs, when a voice issued from the bartizan at the angle of the gate-tower
"Hold! let none shoot another bolt without my command."
It was the Countess Bertha who spoke; she had chosen to retreat no further than where she could watch all that passed, in safety.
Over the rattle of iron and the splintering of beams, the clear imperious tones smote on Ralph Brakespeare's ear, and a thrill of proud pleasure tingled through his veins: he felt, for the moment, less like a freebooter setting his life on a desperate hazard for the chance of booty, than a knight displaying his prowess under the eyes of the queen of the tournament, whose glove was to be the victor's guerdon: the corded muscles of his fore-arm tightened, as he threw double strength into three more blows that finished his work. Then the pont-levis came crashing down, with a shock that made the solid masonry of its supports to tremble. It was well for Ralph that he had given warning beforehand, so that strong and nimble hands were ready there; for the shock was so stunning that his grasp loosened, and he was rolling sideways towards the chasm, when Lanyon and Fleming caught his shoulders, and drew him back under the barbican.
In a few seconds the effect of the fall passed off; the esquire had begun to buckle on his master's armour with much more alacrity than he had shown in doffing it; and the Free Companions were crowding forward emulously for the assault, whose result no man doubted now. They had dealt with such matters too often not to know how little chance oak and iron stood against axe and lever, wielded as they knew how to wield them. But, as they tarried till their leader was fully
armed, a white kerchief fluttered from the loop-hole of the bartizan ; and the next moment the beautiful châtelaine looked from the same centre crenelle: Ralph came forth in time to hear her first words.
"I cry you mercy, beau chevalier. Had I known what a Paladin stood before our gates, I had never dreamed of barring them, and had thought our poor roof honoured by his tarrying here. I think there lives never another, betwixt Rhone and Garonne, who would have dared such a feat as hath just dazzled mine eyes. You are right welcome to La Roche Dagon, though 'tis somewhat late to say so. Enter, I pray you, and deal with us as you list; remembering only that we have rendered ourselves without bloodshedding, and that our garrison is mainly made up of pages and tiring-maids, commanded by a weak woman in the place of a palsied old man."
There was something of mockery still in her tone; but only enough to be pleasantly provocative-no trace of the cold disdain that had marked her first speech-once more Brakespeare's heart leaped up under his corslet, as he bowed low in acknowledgment. But when, before setting foot on the drawbridge, he faced round on his followers, his speech was curt and stern as usual.
"Mark me now, sirs: I have not perilled my life here for naught. I know not how long it may suit me to hold this castle; but I purpose not to yield it again without sufficient ransom, in the which ye all will have due share. Howbeit, I give ye fair warning that I will have no brawl or license here, much less rough usage of women or weaklings. I quarrel not with an honest carouse; but if ye break bounds, look to it. He who offends in such wise shall have shorter time to repent himself than had Jean Cabestal, near Trevoux: ye have not forgotten how it fared with him. Now, let half of your number fall back and bring up the destriers, and the rest follow me orderly."
Even while he was speaking, the great gates beyond the drawbridge swung slowly open; and the Free Companions filed into the base-court two abreast.
SIR RALPH BRAKESPEARE stood in the base-court-leaning on his great epée d'armes, which he had girt on again—whilst his men formed into two ranks, much like a modern company taking open order. He was
puzzled by a certain embarrassment and uncertainty as to what step was next to be taken. He did not care to force himself into the presence of the châtelaine in the rough guise of a victorious enemy; yet he felt keenly the absurdity of reversing their real positions; he was not bewitched enough as yet, to forget that with romantic chivalry a Free Companion had naught to do. So he pondered, till his reverie was broken by the voice of the ancient seneschal, praying him to visit the Countess in her presence-chamber.
Bertha de la Roche Dagon was sitting in a chair of state, carved with armorial bearings, at the upper end of the presence-chamber; behind her several of her household-both male and female, were ranged in a half-circle. All of these were more or less richly attired; but one was distinguished from the rest, not only by the gorgeousness of the dress, but by his singular perfection of form and feature-a tall, slim page, who stood close to his mistress' shoulder, with a flush of anger on his clear olive cheeks, and angry fire in his big black eyes. He was gnawing his lips, too, like one who has been sharply chidden, and would fain answer if he dared. As the Englishman entered, the lady rose and advanced to meet him. Even in those few steps the wondrous grace of her gait was visible; though, till she moved, none would have believed that a figure so tall and stately could sway itself so lissomely. The close tunic of dark blue velvet, bordered with gold, over a silken skirt of a paler shade, did justice to her superb bust, and to a waist-girlish still-though the lady was in the prime of womanhood.
"I pray you believe, Sir Knight," she said,-" that I design not to cozen you of your rights. Soft words pass not for coin, I know; and in fair gold pieces shall our ransom be paid, if ye will be patient with us. Entreat us ever so roughly-we can do no more. We are prisoners rendered to your mercy; yet I think we shall find no churlish gaoler. Suffer me for this one night to do the honours of my poor dwelling, as though it were still mine own. You shall not fare the worse, for sitting as guest where you might lord it as master."
The strong soldier whom she addressed coloured like a bashful boy, as he muttered some broken sentences of assurance, to the effect that no violence need be feared from his band; and that all in the castle, even to the lowest, should be gently and honourably dealt with. Furthermore, he prayed the Countess to order the household, for the present, in all things as heretofore. Then, under pretext of looking to the bestowal of his men and their horses, he withdrew; car
rying with him some whispered words of thanks, and followed by a glance and smile which conveyed something more than the thistledown promises of coquetry.
When the door was fairly closed, the Countess Bertha turned towards her household
"All goes fairly thus far," she said. "See that nothing be lacking to keep these English strangers in good humour: and above all, that our supper be rightly set forth. And, Mathilde, see they make ready the white robe bordered with seed pearl: I would be brave to-night. Now, leave me all. Stay-Réné, do thou wait. I have a special errand for thee."
For some moments after they were alone, the Countess gazed at her page with a kind of indolent curiosity and disdain.
"Art thou mad?" she said, at last,-" to give rein to thy malapert humour in other's presence? Also, I fain would know what made thy seigniorie so sullen. How long would the gates have stood, when the drawbridge was down? Wouldst thou have made all here incur the hazard of sack and pillage; and should I bandy words of defiance with this knight, when smooth words are as easy to speak ?"
The page stamped his foot petulantly. In truth, his manner was rather that of a jealous lover than of a spoiled domestic.
66 -As easy to speak-I doubt not that. Also, it was easy enough to bid them forbear shooting, when, in another second, Gilles Montigny would have sent a bolt through the freebooter's thigh. The bridge was not down then, I wot."
She smiled-rather, it seemed, at her own thoughts than at his speech.
""Tis better as it is. I had scarce forgiven myself, if so proper a knight had been maimed under mine eyes. Pardi, I mind not when I looked upon his fellow."
Réné D'Andelot's heart grew sick within him, as he saw her face soften into a languid tenderness; whilst her eyelids drooped, and the scarlet lips parted, like those of one wrapped in a pleasant dream. He knew how to interpret those signs, only too well.
"Let him look to himself"-he said, hoarsely. "If he but look on thee over boldly to-night, I will see if his skin be dagger proof. Let them hang me from the battlements an hour after: I care not." Her eyes opened, wide and scornful.
"Thou foolish malapert. Thinkest thou I cannot guard mine own honour; or that if I chose to take new paramour, thou shouldest hin