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THE FORTUNES OF A FREE LANCE.
BY THE AUTHOR OF GUY LIVINGSTONE," ETC., ETC.
AMONG the lances who rode into La Rochelle behind the Captal de Buch, Sir Ralph Brakespeare encountered many old acquaintances, and a few ancient comrades. In those days men were not so eager as heretofore to take service under the Red Cross; and the most famous captains of the English party were fain not to be over-nice in the choice of their recruits, so long as these last could do a day's work worthy their large hire. He himself was tempted, by more than one fair proffer, to join at once the squadron that rode northwards from La Rochelle into Brittany-leaving in the castle garrison sufficient to overawe the lukewarm and rebellious burghers. But, having resisted the persuasions of Sir Walter Breckenridge, for whom he had a real liking, the Free Companion was little likely to listen to those of strangers. So, after three days' tarriance in the town, the knight and squire turned their faces southwards; and made their way to Bordeaux as speedily as two sorry haquenées could carry them.
There they found both horses and harness, in full as good case as they had left them; and good cheer to boot, in the house of the merchant who had these in charge. The worthy Bordelais held himself highly honoured by receiving under his roof so renowned a soldier; and was sore grieved that his guest could in no wise be prevailed upon to abide there over one night.
Ralph Brakespeare had been sensible for some time past of a strange hankering to find himself once more with his friends at Hacquemont; and, as the distance lessened betwixt them, this grew stronger. He
slept brokenly, though it was long since his head had rested on so soft a pillow, and was afoot at an hour that even his host-himself no sluggard-thought untimeous. He hurried over leavetaking, too, as fast as courtesy permitted; and vaulted on his destrere as springily as when he first backed the roan-whose bones were dust these many years-under the sign of "The Spur;" shaking, himself as he lighted on the war-saddle, till corslet and cuissard rattled again.
In very deed, Ralph was gladder to don harness that morning than ever he had been to doff it. His sober civilian's attire had grown hateful to him of late; and had all along seemed to him, as it were, a disguise. Even the mail-shirt that, since the morning of the sea-fight, he had continued to wear under his doublet, was but a sorry substitute for the familiar armour, under which his shoulders seemed to move more naturally than under silk or serge. Somewhat of this same feeling stirred in Lanyon's more stolid temperament. Long rest and bounteous provender, too, had made their cattle full of lustihood. So, more jocundly than they had ridden of late, the two traced back their road along the banks of the Dordogne; the knight turning his head ever and anon, to cast a pleasant word to his squire; who kept his distance to the rear as regularly as if they had been on the line of march. Nothing of moment befel them, either on the road or at the two hostelries in which they were fain to abide; and the third evening had barely closed in, when a faint red gleam on the left-a little lower than the lowest of the rising stars-told them they were within ken of the watch-tower of Hacquemont.
Quoth the knight, as he drew bridle and halted, whilst the squire, without waiting further sign, ranged up alongside
"How thinkest thou, Will? Shall we find all well up yonder? "Tis a shrewd chance, but that something hath miscarried. The good baron, as thou knowest, was but weakling when we set forth; and, unless by God's special grace, was scarce likely to mend. Yet I wot not why-I am too light of heart greatly to fear."
""Twould ill become me to be wiser than your worship"-the other answered, with his hoarse chuckle. "I would warrant them all as thriving as when we parted-unless, perchance, my gossip Gilles, through very weariness of drinking alone, hath been too liberal with the wine-pot for his health. He and I grumbled on well enough together; but none other cared for the company of the cross-grained old knave."
The knight nodded his head, like one well pleased at finding an
echo to his own feelings; and, giving his destrere the spur, rode sharply up the steep winding ascent before them. Once again they drew bridle on the plateau before the barbican of Hacquemont; and once again, obeying his lord's sign, the squire sounded a long, shrill blast on his bugle; dwelling in a peculiar fashion on the last
After brief delay, the faint light streaming through a window-slit above, was darkened by a man's head and shoulders; and a voice, like the grating of a handsaw, croaked out into the night air—
"Mine eyes are no better than a newt's by starlight; yet surely they are but two. The marauding rascaille are full of schemes and counterfeits: otherwise would I swear that no other living man than my compère Guillaume wound that blast."
"And for once thou wouldst swear truth, my gossip Gilles"-the squire made answer from without; "though I have heard thee swear as stoutly to tales that none of us could swallow. Be deliverly with the keys, I pray thee: our cattle are somewhat heated with travel, and the night air waxes chill."
"At thy japes again, so soon ?"-the other grumbled, "Pardi, it is well, thou returnest not alone. There hath been waiting and watching within for the coming of the knight thou servest. My good lord Sir Ralph, you are heartily welcome."
Within a few minutes, the Free Companion, using less ceremony than aforetime, had made his way to the apartment above which served Philippe de Hacquemont both as bed and presence-chamber.
It struck him at once how wonderfully unchanged was everything since he passed under that same doorway, a full year agone. There was the same wan, white-haired figure reclining-perhaps a little more listlessly—in the great arm-chair hung with green; the same stately lady bending anxiously over her father's shoulder; the same dark, handsome face looking wistfully out of the dusky background; and for the welcome-that surely was not changed, or if so, was even warmer than heretofore.
Those hawk's-eyes of Ralph Brakespeare-as hath been already told-were strangely dull at discerning certain signs and tokens, that others, less keen of sight, would have read easily enow. He never noted the bright colour sink in Odille's cheek; nor how her cold hand trembled as he lifted it to his lips; nor how, during that salute-though it savoured of nought warmer than such courtesy as is usual betwixt knight and dame de Marsan's eyes flashed through the dusk; whilst
his fingers were twined and twisted, like those of one who has hard work to keep some mad impulse down. Yet Gualtier had so far recovered his self-command, when his turn for greeting came, as to bear himself in all respects as befitted his station. However cordial might be the kindness betwixt them, in those days there was little familiar intercourse betwixt knight and esquire.
That evening was scarce long enough for the telling of all that had befallen the travellers since they rode out of Hacquemont. It was good to see how the poor old Baron's eyes sparkled, and his bowed, broken figure straightened itself as he heard of the great sea-battle. Before the story was half ended, the colour had come back to the Lady of Champrécourt's cheek, and she listened scarce less eagerly than her father; and Gualtier de Marsan drew nearer in involuntary eagerness and attention; biting his lip, though savagely, whilst the narrator spoke, with the careless simplicity that formed part and parcel of his nature, of what would have furnished most men with a theme for their
Once, when the tale was nearly done, the Baron's glance turned toward his daughter, and he muttered, half aloud—
"Mark that! Markest thou that, Odille ?"
And the Lady of Champrécourt's dark eye-lashes went down ; and the colour died out of her cheek-this time not to return again so soon. This befel, when Ralph told how-when the deadly numbness grew on him as he swam-he had committed to Lanyon the message for Hacquemont, concerning the tryst he had bound himself to keep there.
That night nothing was said, beyond the questions and replies that needs must pass when friends have been long parted, betwixt those that have gone forth and those who have tarried behind; and, somewhat before the usual hour, each and all betook themselves to their chambers, to rest or wake as seemed to them good. But early on the morrow the Baron sent for Brakespeare to his chamber; and, without long preamble, broke into the subject nearest his heart.
"The Saints have listened to my prayers and my vows to boot"he said "in so far that I have lived to see thee return once again, my son. Yet well I know that the respite is but short, and groweth shorter, not daily, but hourly. Sin and shame it were, if I dallied longer; when there is no hindrance that I wot of, but thou shouldest presently become my son in very deed, no less than in name. I have spoken to Odille; and I dare aver thou wilt find no coyness."
The Free Companion arose from his seat; and strode twice or thrice through the chamber before he made answer, in a voice much less steady than usual.
"My good lord, you cannot doubt my gratitude: the Lady of Champrécourt's hand were a royal gift to one of thrice my merit and degree. Yet, under your favour, I crave you to remember that 'twas agreed betwixt us that her own free will should, in no wise, unduly be swayed. She loves you from the bottom of her pure heart, I know; and, to do your pleasure, it may be, would imperil her life's happiness, or aught short of her soul's welfare. Wherefore I fain would hear now of your own lips if this part of our pact hath been kept to the letter."
The castellan frowned as he made answer vexed perchance, rather at his own thoughts and misgivings than at the other's frank speaking.
"Thou art something over-nice, my son. Nevertheless, to quiet thy scruples, I do solemnly affirm that I have in no wise used, much less strained, fatherly authority in this matter. If thou winnest Odille's hand, 'twill be given, I do verily believe, with a good and free will. Her liking and esteem for thee date not from yesterday. Time and sorrow have somewhat tamed her; and, perchance, she will be more chary of her blushes and her smiles than if this had been her first wooing; but, if she saith 'yea,' there will come to thee a wife, as leal and tender as heart of man could desire."
Since his childhood Philippe de Hacquemont had never wittingly lied to any living creature: it is most certain he believed himself to be speaking simple truth now. He forgot-perhaps he had schooled himself to forget the piteous pleading glances, eager hand-clasps, heavy sighs, and many other mute eloquences-more persuasive than such rude instruments of parental tyranny, as threats, upbraiding curses, or even bolts and bars.
Such as it was, the answer fully satisfied Ralph; and that same day before noon, in his own frank, straightforward fashion, he required an answer to his suit from the Lady of Champrécourt.
Sitting white and still as a statue-with a dull, mechanical smile flickering about her lips-Odille listened to her suitor's brief pleading; and made answer instantly, as if afraid to trust herself to pause.
"Good friend, I will not palter with you. I had never thought again to doff my widow's weeds: but if your thought is as my father's -that my hand will make you happier-it is freely yours. That poor