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more than twice or thrice in a career rife with adventure and feats of arms, had Ralph Brakespeare indulged in the luxury of self-praise. He almost laughed in scorn of his own weakness as he turned again to follow his torch-bearers who had already half mounted the third stair; but his face was grave enough as he stood at the curtained doorway of the chamber, whence issued broad gleams of light and the low murmur of voices-a chamber that he remembered right well; for he had lain long therein, when the chances for him were even of life and death.
Such a group as this, Ralph Brakespeare looked upon, as, leaving the attendants without, he passed inwards alone.
In a huge arm-chair, facing the door, and drawn close to the hearth whereon logs were burning, sat the Baron of Hacquemont. The dark green hanging, sweeping to the floor on either side, threw out in relief his hair and beard of an intense dead-white. His wan face was pinched and drawn with pain; and his pale, fleshless hands were working nervously as they rested on his furred robe. Over the back of the chair, holding an essence-phial, leaned a dark, handsome lady, wearing widow's weeds: a little withdrawn in the background were two other figures; one, a tall man on the hither side of middle age, with features delicately chiselled, but wearing rather a sad and pensive expression; the other, the page that had been sent forward to announce Brakespeare.
Treading heedfully, so as to deaden the rattle of his harness, and speaking never a word, the knight moved forward, and knelt at the castellan's feet-even as he had knelt on that night when those two interchanged farewell in the presence-chamber. Very slowly, with an effort painful to witness, Philippe de Hacquemont lifted one trembling hand till it rested on the other's bowed head. His voice, scarcely raised above a whisper, first broke the silence.
"I render thanks to our gentle Lord Jesus, and I vow a chalice to the blessed St. Ursula, my son, for this our meeting. Thou comest late
yet not too late-for we have not grown weary of waiting. Lift up thy face, I pray thee, that I may look upon it again. Changed-ah me!— sorely, sorely changed. Time hath dealt more roughly with thee than with me. What hast thou, at thy years, to do with grey hairs and a
furrowed brow ?"
Ralph strove to answer lightly, but his voice was hoarse and husky.
"Ay, my good lord; flesh and blood wear faster than Milan steel, even if it have no chance to rust. Such as I have no cause to grumble,
so long as we can carry harness and couch lance. I would I had found yourself in better case. I had hoped to have lighted on you where you love to sit-in the oriel you wot of."
The baron shook his head, and there flitted across his lip his old melancholy smile.
"Nay, nay, my son; such hope was overweening. chamber I never shall
chanting the Miserere.
stir, till they bear me out to the chapel below,
Others, too, have changed, it seems, besides
me and thee. Thou hast forgotten one old friend at least not one glance hast thou vouchsafed to Odille, who waits thy greeting."
Rising hastily to his feet, Brakespeare stood face to face with the dark lady in widow's weeds. Fifteen years had matured sparkling loveliness into stately beauty, and the features were to him as the features of a stranger; but he knew the frank, kind, bright eyes instantly again. Her voice, as she welcomed him, had not lost its ring; and the hand she held forth to meet Ralph's lips was soft as ever.
“I, too, return thanks for your coming, Sir Knight—ah, we heard long ago, how and where you won your golden spurs-I think 'twill put new life into my father's veins; he hath not spoken or looked so like himself these months past. You are never long out of his thoughts; but chiefly at this season-you wot why-he wearies for your presence, or, at the least, to learn how you are faring. Never a pilgrim, or minstrel, or wayfarer, coming from afar, housels here, but is questioned concerning Sir Ralph Brakespeare; and not a few have spoken of your doings; though since you crossed the Alps, tidings reached us more rarely."
A dark red flush rose on the knight's brow. Though oftentimes during the wild condottiere life, he had felt sharp twinges of shame, he had never loathed it so bitterly as now-standing, perhaps for the first time these many years, in the presence of a pure gentlewoman, born of a race whose escutcheon was clear from any stain of felonrie.
"Perchance 'tis best so, noble lady "-he answered, curtly. "No good report, even if they magnified not the evil, could have been spoken concerning me of late. We, who followed Hawkwood, can claim no better credit than earning our hire honestly. I am heartsick of such warfare, where none knoweth under what banner he will fight on the morrow; and I have done therewith for ever and aye. I crave your pardon if I touch a green wound rudely: but it irks me, to look on you first in widow's weeds."
"I have worn them these four years"—she said, bowing her head
on her breast" since, in a skirmish before Villefranche, my dear lord and husband, Amaury de Champrécourt, was slain. It pleased God our marriage should be childless; so I came straightway hither to be my father's nurse. Out of my sorrow came this much of good; for my presence hath been sorely needed here since our poor Marguerite died."
Ralph had expected this. From the first moment that he rose up and looked on Odille standing alone behind the baron's chair, he felt sure that one place was vacant in that family, and another filled in the household of Heaven. He knew that the pale, patient mourner's days of waiting were ended; and that the great brown eyes, once dim with tears, had brightened once again with the light that should never be quenched, as they rested on the face of Loys de Chastelnaye. Nevertheless, he drew back, blenching a little, like one stricken by a sharp disappointment. It was almost a mockery to express sorrow upon such a change; yet some such words would his lips have tried to frame, had not Odille spoken first, as if she read his thoughts.
"You need not be grieved"-she said—"none of us were wicked enough to begrudge her her rest. She spoke of you on the day she died, and bade me deliver to you her kind farewell, if ever we met again." Glancing downwards here, she broke off suddenly. “I might have guessed it. This great joy hath overtaxed my father's strength."
Of a truth, the baron's eyelids were fast closed; and, though his face could scarce wax whiter, a fixed deathly look possessed it now.
"Nay, you need not fear"-Odille went on in a whisper, as she bathed her father's forehead with the essence; "'tis but one of the fainting fits that are common with him of late. Yet 'twill be best that you leave us alone for a while. I will descend when he settles to slumber; he mostly drowses after such swoons. Messire Gualtier here will take heed to the bestowal of your retinue; for yourself, you wot well that all within these walls is at your disposing, not less than when you held us in gage."
The tall, grave man before mentioned came forward out of the background, and bent low before the knight, who followed him from the chamber, without speaking again. An hour later Ralph sate alone at supper, with strangely little appetite for one who had ridden so far and fast; and Gualtier de Marsan ministered to him, sparing no jot of the observance due from squire to knight, and answering all questions with ready courtesy. Nevertheless, if Brakespeare had been
less busy with his own thoughts, or had chanced to glance suddenly over his shoulder, he might have been puzzled by the look-half of inquiry, half of disquietude—that ever and anon broke through the calm of the other's dreamy eyes.
Later in the evening, the Lady of Champrécourt came down; and from her Ralph learned, that Gualtier de Marsan was near of kin to her deceased husband, and had been his body-esquire.
“My dear Amaury loved him as his own right hand "—Odille said; "and it was Gualtier who himself sorely wounded-saved my lord's body from plunderers' hands at Villefranche: since then he hath abode with us here. I had not the heart to bid him go forth, poor as he is, and with few kinsmen to care for him now. Furthermore, he is very gentle and skilful in his tendance of my father, who likes him well."
Another than her listener would perchance have noticed a consciousness in the lady's manner, like that of one who perforce makes excuse, and a treacherous blush on her cheek. But Ralph's eyes, that could catch a glimmer of a spearhead half a league away, saw naught of this; and he changed the subject, so soon as he could do so courteously, for others that touched him more nearly.
Those two sat late in discourse, but Odille's-" fair good-night was a vain form of words. It was long since the Free Companion had rested on so soft a couch, or in such a richly-furnished chamber; but sleep, that had seldom been coy in guard-room or bivouac, stood obstinately aloof; and he rose soon after dawn, more feverish and weary than he had often been after ten hours on outpost.
There was nothing strange in this. Most sea-farers say that their first night on shore is sure to be broken; they miss the sway of the surge, the hiss of the cloven water, the creak of the cordage, the tramp of feet overhead, albeit all those sounds had become an abomination to them of late; it is only after the second or third day, that they begin to enjoy the land comforts they have pined for. There are few keener pleasures in this life, than the slow natural reaction leading to complete repose.
Just so it fared with Ralph Brakespeare. As day followed day, he settled more and more into his place in the household; till at last Hacquemont seemed more like to home than Bever had ever been in his boyhood. The time never hung heavy on his hands. In the morning he would direct the martial exercises of the archers and men-at-arms—the garrison was more numerous and efficient than it
had been formerly; after the nooning, he would ride forth with Odille and two or three attendants a-hawking along the valley of the Corréze, where there was no lack of quarry; for the baron had recovered strength marvellously, and they feared not to leave him for some space alone. All his evenings were spent in that upper chamber, where Philippe de Hacquemont listened, with a keenness like that of childhood, to such stories of wild adventure as the Free-Lance was not ashamed to tell; whilst Odille sat over her broidery-work-glancing up ever and anon with a low exclamation of fear, or pity, or wonder, and the prettiest shiver of her round white shoulders; and Gualtier de Marsan stood in the background-a look of disquietude, that could scarce be termed discontent, darkening more and more on his sad, handsome face.
It was a thoroughly domestic household throughout. Lanyon's rugged visage softened into a sort of stolid beatitude, under the benign influence of the place. His voice could not soften itself; but it was never heard to grumble; his manner towards his juniors and inferiors was almost paternal, after a gruff fashion; and he even struck up a friendship, to the wonder of all, with cross-grained old Gilles, the warder. The routiers who had come with Brakespeare from beyond the Alps-though not one of them, since early boyhood, had probably dwelt three nights, in amity, under a reputable roof-were discreet enough to rule themselves according to the spirit of the time. They had not forgotten how prompt and pitiless their leader had shown himself in punishment of excesses, for which there was some shadow of excuse; and they were not fools enough to fancy that the edge of his sword had grown blunt, or his arm slow to smite, because neither had been lifted of late in any but mimic broil.
All through that summer, too, there was a lull in the war-storm, that for so many years past had been blowing-with change of quarters, it is true, but almost without slack-athwart the realm of France; or, at least, it broke forth only in brief fitful gusts at certain points of the southern frontier. Barons and knights not a few, both in Poitou and Limousin, had fallen away from their English fealty; but the Red Cross still held its own throughout Aquitaine; and John of Lancaster, holding court in Bordeaux, had leisure to think of consoling his widowhood, and sating his ambition, by marriage with Constance of Castile-a fair, gentle princess, if the chroniclers may be believed. Yet it was an ill-advised match after all. Wise men shook their heads as they asked what luck could come with Peter the Cruel's daughter? So, indeed, it befel: not for the first or the last time a