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to no other enterprise till he had made priest and burgher pay for their treachery; and, mustering at Cognac his vassals from Poitou, Saintonge, and Gascony, together with the Free Lances from Hainault, compassed the city in close leaguer.
There were bold spirits within the walls; and Villemur, Beaufort, and De La Roche did their devoirs as knights and captains with hearty good will; but neither skill nor courage availed gainst the steady advance of the English miners, who, for one long month, pushed forward their sap, till they came to tell the Prince that he had but to give the word, and the way should be made plain over ditch and rampart into the heart of the town. All night long the props smouldered in the mines; just after dawn a great flake of the wall crushed down outwards, and the English trumpets sounded assault. Right in front of the stormers, when gate and barrier were down, a litter was borne: thereon was laid one who never would mount war-horse more; who, with death in his own face, and eyes heavy with pain, gloated over the carnage, and checked it not till three thousand innocents had atoned for the treason of their master. This was the man who, when the sun was setting over the field of Poictiers, ere he would sup, served his royal captive on bended knee; and spake such gentle and generous words that some were moved to tears who held such weakness in scorn. The old chivalry flashed forth for an instant, once, before all was done, when the litter drew near the spot where John de Villemur and Hugh De La Roche had set their backs to the wall, and with four score more held their ground against thrice that number, led on by Lancaster, Cambridge, and Pembroke. To those valiant men-at-arms the Black Prince listened, when at last they proffered to surrender, and gave them fair quarter; though the shrieks of women and children, ringing in his ears since daybreak, had found them deaf as an adder's. Then leaving a heap of ghastly ruins behind him, in place of a goodly city, Edward marched back on Bordeaux. There he escaped not long God's visitation; for he lost. suddenly his eldest son, and the fatal dropsy grew upon him till he was fain to listen to the advice of his leeches, and to sail from Aquitaine for the last time.
A striking picture, albeit a sombre, might have been made of that last assembly in the audience-hall of Bordeaux; when all the Gascon and Poitevin barons paid their last act of fealty, and bade their suzerain farewell, kissing him on the mouth. We need not follow the Black Prince on the dreary homeward voyage; graver histo
rians indeed, have found nothing worthy of record concerning his
Before the spring of 1371, all these things had been performed; and men were still speaking with knit brows and bated breath of the sack of Limoges, as Sir Ralph Brakespeare rode down the westward slopes of Mont Genevre.
HOW SIR RALPH BRAKESPEARE WAS MADE WELCOME IN FRANCE.
THOUGH Charles the Wise in the last seven years had wrought infinite good to his realm, both within and without its borders, there were certain evils that his patient tact could not abate, much less, root out utterly. In the more distant provinces-not to speak of the debateable ground over which the Lilies of France and the Red Cross of England floated by turns-not a little of oppression and misrule still prevailed; and the voice of the poor and needy in their distress, though it went up shrill and often, waxed faint before it reached the throne.
Heaviest amongst the burdens of the land-now, as heretofore-were the terrible Free Companies. There was brief respite from the plague of the canker-worm whilst the wars were waging in Spain; for large bodies of the Freebooters fought there under the Black Prince's banner, and Bertrand du Guesclin exacted from his mercenaries the full value of their hire, setting them ever in front of the battle. So thousands of those marauders left their bones to whiten beyond the Pyrences; yet thousands found their way back, by twos, and threes, and scores, and began to draw together in bands; greedy, reckless, and merciless as ever. Amongst those who sat down before the doomed city of Limoges, were found Perducas d'Albret, Lanuit, the Bastards of L'Esparre and Breteuil, and many other names of evil omen and repute. And be sure they bore their full part in the devil's carnival, that ensued when the siege was over, and the sack begun. As Sir Ralph Brakespeare rode westward from the Lower Alps, through Dauphigne, Viverais, and Auvergne, he passed along a track whence few could have emerged without paying toll in purse or person; for divers of the castles perched on the platforms of basalt cliffs and limestone hills, were garrisoned now by captains of Free Companies. But albeit
those wolves would have battened on one of their fellows, crippled or helpless, not less ravenously than on strange flesh, they lost not their cunning instinct when most an-hungered. From their posts of espial, looking down on mountain pass or forest gorge, their scouts saw the little company of seven wending warily along: they scented gold in the valise strapped on Lanyon's croupe, and licked their chaps as they snarled to each other that the prey was too tough and strong to mell with; neither did they guess that the stalwart figure towering on his mighty destrier a span above the tallest of his following, might once have been familiar to the eyes of some of them. So Ralph Brakespeare passed through the midst of his ancient comrades, unwelcomed and unharmed.
On a certain afternoon in April, their journey was well nigh done; for the peaks of the hill-range, trending eastward of Mount Cantal, loomed now in their rear misty-blue, and the Dordogne flowed on their left through a broadening valley. Lanyon had that tenacious memory for external objects, not uncommon with men of slow reasoning power and stolid temperament. At a certain spot he checked his horse, and let the others pass him; while he peered curiously around, till his face began to lighten with a pleased look of recognition, like that of one who, after long absence, finds himself again on familiar ground. Glancing backward over his shoulder often, as was his constant habit when on the march, Sir Ralph Brakespeare saw his follower's halt, and marvelled a little thereat.
"What is it, Will ?"—he said, reining back a little, so that there might be no need to raise his voice-" See'st thou sign of ambush in the oak copse yonder? Mayhap thine eyes are sharper than mine; yet I thought but now, 'twas hardly cover enough for a clump of spears."
"Nay, my lord," the other replied.-He had fallen into this form of address towards his master from hearing others use it so frequently; but the courtly air of Italy had in no wise softened his manner, and his voice was gruffer than ever.-"Nay, I suspect no ambushment : "Twould be hard measure an 'we were trapped so near our harbouring. But this place brings back old times apace-ay, and the sharpest course that ever I ran in saddle. A long bow-shot in front, where the track turns sharply, the poor beast under me came headlong down; across that broken ground I ran, stumbling from breathlessness at every step, till I broke in among their camp-fires; under the lee of yon oak-wood, Sir John Hawkwood's pennon was pitched. By Saint
Giles! I see the good knight's face now, waxing white and grim as I stammered out my news. Marry! my joints have grown stiffer
since then I doubt if I could match now either the ride or the run."
A quaint expression, something akin to melancholy, softened the speaker's rugged face; and a thoughtful look came into Ralph Brakespeare's eyes, though he answered cheerily,
Thinkest thou that Time Fifteen long years-years not of
"What would'st thou have, grumbler? will stand still for thee and me? idlesse either-have slipped by since then, and they must needs have set their mark on us both; yet we have stomach and strength left for a hard day's work, I trow. Nathless, we have earned some space of rest and refreshment. We shall find both at Hacquemont, and a brave welcome to boot, unless all are dead who said 'God speed' when we set forth. Let us put forward; our cattle are fresh now, and I would fain housel ere dark, lest our coming startle the good folk there."
So the little troop passed on, making good speed wheresoever the ground allowed it. An hour after sundown, they passed up the narrow roadway leading to the barbican gate of Hacquemont; and Lanyon, by his master's orders, woke up the echoes without-and perchance the warder within-by a long shrill bugle-call.
Out of a loophole over the portcullis there peered forth into the twilight an old, sour, withered face, and a cracked voice asked, half querulously, half timorously,
"Who waited without, and what was their pleasure ?"
"I would fain know if the Lord Philippe of Hacquemont yet lives; or, if he be dead, who holds this castle in his place ?"
The ancient warder did not recognize the deep stern tones, that indeed were scarce so steady as their wont; yet he felt it was no open enemy or traitorous marauder that spoke; so he answered almost cheerfully.
"Yea, Messire, our good baron yet lives; albeit, his strength seemeth to diminish daily, and 'tis long since he hath left his chamber. Once more, I pray you to declare to me your names, that I may deliver them to my lord forthwith, if he be waking. He must needs have been startled by your bugle-blast."
"Say, then that Ralph Brakespeare waits to pay to the Lord of Hacquemont his humble duty, and craves, for the sake of old acquaintance, one night's shelter at least, for his following."
There was a rattle of iron as if ponderous keys had fallen, and a of astonishment from above.
"Holy St. Ursula! Will my lord ever forgive me when he knows whom I have kept waiting at his gate? A malison on these dim eyes and dull ears, that looked on and listened to the saviour of us all like a stranger! Lo, I come instantly. None other save your own voice should announce your coming."
As the horsemen filed in under the barbican arch, other servitors ad gathered in the courtyard, bearing torches; and these marvelled greatly to see crusty old Gilles-so chary of courtesy to man, woman, or child-cast himself on his knees, embracing the mailed foot of the foremost rider more devoutly than he had ever saluted relic or crucifix. But first one, then another of the more ancient retainers recognized the face and figure of the stranger; and throughout the group there ran loud murmurs of wonder and welcome, as they knew that once more there stood within the walls of Hacquemont, the champion whose name had never been long off the household's lips since the night of the battle on the stairs.
Whilst Brakespeare unhelmed himself after dismounting, he bade a page standing by go before him to announce his coming; for he feared the effect of sudden surprise on the sick castellan. Two other servitors, bearing torches, marshalled the knight with all reverence into the keep, and through the presence-chamber. Near the top of the second stair he turned and looked back. All that had happened in those long years became for an instant a vague, distant memory; and every incident of that one night stood out clear and sharp, like the features of a landscape when a hill-mist lifts suddenly. It seemed but yester even that he stood waiting the onslaught, with the mortier burning in that niche on the right; he heard again the trample of ironshod feet in the presence-chamber below; he saw again the crowd of visages deformed by greed, and cruelty, and lust, surging up the stair; he saw the whirl of the crowbar swayed by the German giant; plainer than all the dark, beautiful face, and the evil, lustrous eyes on which carrion-birds had battened long ago. He saw all this, with his hand touching the notch in the pillar, where his sword, as it shivered, cleft away a cantle of stone; and his pulse leapt up—as it had never done since, in any one of the battles and forays in which he had borne a forward part-as he muttered, half aloud
"Pardie! 'Twas a royal fray."
There was very little of vanity in that strong, simple nature; not