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der me? Know, that if I have graced thee above thy merit, thou art none the less my sworn servitor. Howbeit, I were loath to see thee harmed. Be not so rash as to measure thyself against him; he would crush thee, like a gadfly in his gauntlet. Now, away with thee: I have weightier matters on hand than the appeasing of thy peevish humours."
The page threw back his handsome head: at first it seemed as if the mere pride of manhood asserted itself against the cruel cynicism; but he either lacked the nerve, or feared to trust himself to speak. After one long, appealing look, under which the lady's face neither quailed nor softened, he turned and left the room hurriedly.
The Free Companions, when outward bound, were not wont to be burdened with much baggage. Nevertheless, they carried always some few sumpter beasts in their train; and Sir Ralph Brakespeare was not so ill-provided but that he was able to exchange the coarse jerkin and hose usually worn under harness, for more suitable garments before he again appeared in the châtelaine's presence.
Whilst this was a-doing, said the knight to the esquire
"How likest thou our lodging, Will; and what thinkest thou of the dame who rendered herself so graciously ?"
"The lodging is fair enough after a fashion,"—the other answered, doggedly; "yet, under your worship's pleasure, I should care to abide long here. Cortes, the dame is fair enough after a fashion too ; yet-Ralph turned sharp round on his follower.
"Thy trick of grumbling is past the healing, else should I be wroth with thee. Thou hast haunted taverns, and followed ribaudes, till thou art unfit to judge of aught more delicate. Where, I prithee, hast thou ever looked on beauty that could compare with the Countess Bertha's ?"
""Tis somewhat hard, messire"-Lanyon muttered, "that your worship first requires my opinion, and then should quarrel with it. 'Tis a rare face, I own, and I know not that I have seen it matched in flesh of blood; but ye must needs remember that picture hanging in the Abbey church of Hautvaux-brought from Italy, I have heardwherein the temptation of the blessed Saint Anthony is set forth. Marry, over the holy man's shoulder there hangs a thing that--even to the colour of the hair or eyes-might stand for the portrait of this brave dame."
"Tush!" Brakespeare broke in, in undisguised anger now-"I was fool to question thee. Keep thy murmurs of ill-omen to thyself, I charge thee; and spread not discontent in our band. Be not too liberal of the wine-cup to-night: I would not that any of our men
over-stepped decent bounds; and I think thy brains are wool-gathering already. I bade Gilbert Fleming have the drawbridge repaired. That gear must be all in order ere 'tis fully night-fall: see to it presently. Likewise have the keys in safe keeping. I have no further need. of thee here."
The sturdy soldier shook his ears like a great hound that has been sharply chidden or chastised.
"I am no breeder of mutinies"-he answered-" and no drunkard or brawler. Had I guessed your knighthood would have chafed thereat, I had kept my unsavoury comparison betwixt my teeth; or, for the matter of that, I would have likened the lady to one of heaven's angels. I will about that smith's work now. It will be supper-time soon, and the storm will scarce hold off another hour."
If the Castle of La Roche Dagon had harboured honoured and welcome guests, the tables could scarce have been more richly or carefully set forth than they were for that evening meal. The Countess Bertha was either too proud, or too politic, to make pretence of poverty which might scarce have been believed. The eyes of many a freebooter glistened greedily, as they roved over massive tankards, salvers, and ewers of rich plate scattered over the board with seeming carelessness-almost hiding the napery of the cross-table on the dais at which the châtelaine sate, with a vacant chair on either side. Close behind her stood two female attendants, and Réné D'Andelot, the page. Only six covers in all, were laid at that table; three of these were designed for the knight who had held parley at the battlements, and two others of like degree-also somewhat advanced in years-whose pennons were ranged under the banner of La Rocke Dagon.
Brakespeare came in somewhat late. Albeit he had full trust in Lanyon, he chose to go the rounds himself, and see that the guards— all of his own men-were duly set. The Countess Bertha's glances had wandered more than once impatiently towards the door by which he needs must enter; and, as the English knight advanced up the body of the ball, they rested on him-first critically, then approvingly. In very truth, it would have been hard to light on a finer ensample of mature manhood than Ralph presented at this time. His plain, closefitting dress displayed-perhaps to more advantage than gorgeous or quaintly-fashioned apparel would have done-his deep square chest and long sinewy limbs; he bore himself erect and lightsomely, like one trained by unceasing exercise; and his step was quick and springylike that of one used to the weight of harness, and rejoicing in unwonted
freedom-as in obedience to the châtelaine's gesture, he approached, and seated himself in the chair on her left hand.
She saw his glance turn inquiringly to the still vacant chair on her right, and answered it.
"It hath been so, these two years: yea, ever since the good lord, my husband, was stricken with the palsy. For we cease not to hope that he will one day be enabled to sit in his old place and rule his own household again; though 'tis weary work waiting on him, and he seems past mediciner's skill."
A little sigh rounded off the speech; but there was no sign of rooted sorrow on the lady's face. Perchance time had worn off the keen edge of her domestic troubles; or she had found distraction, if not consolation-for nothing could be gayer than her humour thenceforward. It was wonderful to see, with what tact she smoothed away the difficulties of her position; contriving to reconcile the courtesy of the hostess with the humility of the captive. All the while the byeplay of eloquent glances, and of lithe white hands, so graceful in their restlessness, went on; till Ralph's blood waxed hotter than could be accounted for by the rich wine which he drank not sparingly; and he could scarce forbear a start and a shiver, when her sleeve-by chance, so it seemed -brushed his; and Réné D'Andelot's handsome face waxed wan and grey, and prematurely aged, in its look of pain.
There was deep carouse in the body of the hall: but the Free Companions-partly from fear of their leader, partly in deference to the presence in which they sat-indulged in no rude license or loudness of talk, and pledged the Burgundians of La Roche Dagon as cordially as if they had fed and feasted side by side for years.
Supper was nearly over, when Lanyon-who had been absent for some short space-returned. His beard was dank, his garments splashed with rain, and his whole bearing seemed more bluff and uncouth than usual; as, advancing to the dais with rather scant ceremony, he laid a huge bunch of keys on the table before his leader. The knight bit his lip, frowning:
"I beseech you, pardon my follower's rudeness, noble lady. 'Tis a clumsy knave, though an honest. When I bade him have the keys in charge, I wist not that he would clash them down here thus unmannerly as if this, your castle, were a prison, and I your chief gaoler!"
The Countess laid her little hand on his wrist, very lightlyyet not so lightly, but that it set his strong pulses bound
ing--and bent over, till her heavy red-gold braids brushed his cheek.
"And if it were so ?" she murmured- "I have heard of prisons so pleasant, and gaolers so gentle, that the captive cared not to go forth when the gates were unbarred. Perchance I may pine hereafter; but 'tis long since I have felt so light of heart as I do this night. Ah! if you knew how dull and dreary La Roche Dagon has been, this many a day——"
For several seconds Ralph was silent. When he answered, it was in the same undertone, and thenceforward the converse of the twain became more confidential. This was noted by others beside Réné D'Andelot; Mathilde and Jeanne exchanged smiles and meaning glances; and freebooter nudged Burgundian in the body of the hall, muttering rude jests and coarse surmises; but of these signs of intelligence neither the knight nor the lady took heed: nor, had the Countess Bertha been aware thereof, would they have troubled her a whit. When the game was fairly afoot, that daring huntress of Man would press it through the heart of a crowd, no less than through a solitude; and shrank no more from the display of her caprice than did Cleopatra or Faustina, when-in presence of a thousand courtly sycophants-they leaned on a fresh favourite's breast. She could not even spare a glance for the unhappy boy whose caresses were scarcely cold on her cheek; though his face might have moved a devil's pity, as he stood there, behind her shoulder, driving his nails into his palms, as if he would abate agony of mind by the body's pain.
It was more the habit of courtly training, than because she cared for excuse or disguise, that caused her to say aloud as she rose to withdraw
"I leave you to the wine-cup now, beau chevalier. If you weary, thereof, and care to listen to the lute, Jeanne here strikes it right deftly, and Mathilde's voice is sweeter at least than the brawling of the wind without. You will be right welcome in my bower-chamber."
As Ralph rose and drew back to give the lady passage, their hands met. If the contact was accidental, not so was the pressure of the slender fingers that tingled through his arms to the shoulder-blade.
Legends speak of magical palaces and gardens, where the actual presence of the enchanter was needed to make the jewels sparkle and the flowers bloom: and where-this wanting-everything became again scentless, colourless, tasteless. Of just such a dreary change the Free Companion was sensible, as the door closed behind dame and
demoiselles. A dull grey mist seemed to fall suddenly over the banqueting-hall, and he was sorely tempted to rise and follow instantly. But a vague shame, and sense of ridicule withheld him: so he enforced himself to remain and carry on some formal talk with the Burgundian knights-who, on their part, were little disposed to be either convivial or communicative. They were not only discontented at the rendering of the castle without a blow, but very anxious concerning their own ransom; for they knew enough of their wilful Countess, to be sure that, in making terms for herself, she would not be over careful of the interests of her retainers.
Ralph further appeased his conscience, by going round the guards with Lanyon when he rose from supper. The storm had come on in carnest, and a thick mantle was hardly proof against the fierce, driving rain; so that the esquire could not wonder that the rounds were hurriedly made. Neither did he marvel, though he was very ill pleased, when he was told that his services would be needed no more that night. He gazed after his master, as the other strode away with the haste of one who cares not to be questioned; and crossing himself devoutly, exclaimed:
"Now, may Heaven stand this night betwixt him and harm! Unless there be special grace to help, he will scarce come out of it like good Saint Anthony."
THE bower-chamber at La Roche Dagon was both large and lofty; yet there was nothing there of ponderous grandeur. The walls, to half their height, were covered with soft arras hangings, of bright colours, skilfully blended; and the rich furniture was designed rather for ease and idlesse than for pomp and parade. Indeed, about the whole apartment there was an air of Saracenic luxury; and this was increased by the subdued light of waxen tapers, and by the perfumed vapours ascending in light-blue cloudlets from two quaintly-carved silver thuribles. The chamber was sufficiently lighted in the daytime by a single window not of stiff lancet shape, but with broad casements between the mullions, and with flowing tracery above of arch and quatrefoil-looking over the deepest part of the ravine.