« ZurückWeiter »
chapel-altar yonder; but it had never sounded so strangely sweet
"It is you who are cruel, Gualtier; not I. Life here is dreary— sometimes almost too dreary to bear-but how thinkest thou will it fare with me when I am alone-quite alone? Ah me! I trust the masses said for his soul have assoilzied my dead father for having tempted me to mortal sin, and given hand without heart: my penance, at least endures; and will endure, so long as my husband and I shall live. Wife's duty I have ever rendered; but wife's love, I never can. And he is so good, and brave, and generous-so true, and so sure of my truth-I grow half wild sometimes with remorse and shame. I shall madden quite, if I be left alone with my thoughts. Mon doux ami; tell me, at least, what hath prompted this sudden resolve of yours ?"
The round music had died out of De Marsan's tones; they sounded hard and hoarse now, as those of a man wrestling with sharp bodily pain.
"It is because my heart waxeth weaker, as my body waxeth stronger. 'Tis but lately, since the fever left me, that my pulse hath begun to beat; and now I may not endure to look on things, that erstwhile I saw like one in a dream. Ah! gracious lady-you and the holy saints know that never, till this day, hath word or salute passed betwixt us, but such as may become our several stations-nay, such as my lord your husband, himself, might approve. And, in my very conscience, I believe that I have spoken no more than is needful now. But when the blood boils, the brain whirls; neither may I answer for what might ensue. If no worse befal, I might undergo your displeasure, and be fain to depart in bitterness. Thus far, under sharp trial, I have held fast to my duty and mine honour; ere I lose such cold comfort, it is best I go forth. My kinsman of Montauban, waits for me even now; there will be sharp work a-doing ere long in Guienne; and, even if death come not quickly, there is no medicine for the wrung heart like the shivering of lances."
"Death "-Odille said very wearily-"Death cometh not at our times and seasons. Better perchance had it been for us all, hadst thou never risen from that sick bed yonder. But, Gualtier, I hinder thee no more. We will part, as thou sayest, whilst neither conscience carries aught that need shame us at confession. If God will that we suffer long, He will perchance give strength to endure. We will speak of these things anon. Help me to my chamber now. I am so faint that I fear to swoon."
Slowly, without a glance withinside, the two passed the entry of the turret; and Ralph was left alone.
Alone-yes-alone for ever more now-more lonely than when, a while back, he found the heritage of his fathers in the hands of a stranger, and no welcome in the eyes of the woman who nursed him. Alone-without hope that the curse of loneliness would be lifted this side the grave! for the wife to whom he had given his large, honest, love, if she had not proved unworthy of the trust, felt it, at the best, an irksome burden-to be borne in patience till Heaven, in its mercy, should see fit to lighten her thereof. Only then did he realize what had been the happiness of these months past; a deep, quiet, happiness —no more resembling the fierce fever fit that had possessed him at La Roche Dagon, than does the red gleam piercing through the rift of storm-clouds a bright, calm, summer's day. There was no taint at least, on Odille's honour, or his own; and she had called him "good, generous, and true.” There was some comfort in that; nevertheless, the strong soldier shivered from head to heel as he rose-blinking dizzily as he passed out into the light, like one lately smitten with sunstroke.
It so chanced that Ralph encountered none of his household on his way to the barbican, without which Lanyon waited for him with their horses. One glance at his lord's countenance turned the esquire more sick with fear, than when, far out in the deep sea, he heard that the other's strength was failing; but he asked never a question either then or thereafter.
Ralph flung himself into the saddle without a word; and rode furiously down the steep descent, and half a league further into the wood, before he drew rein. Then he fell into a walk and wandered on through a by-road-seemingly without aim or purpose, and not knowing that he was followed; for, when wheeling about suddenly, as from some fresh impulse, he came face to face with Lanyon, he started in a sort of surprise.
"Art thou there?"-he said. "Mayhap thou canst tell me what business we came forth: it hath slipped my brain."
It was a second or two before the esquire could get rid of a choking lump in his throat.
"Nay, I wot not "—he said gruffly-" unless it had somewhat to do with the repairing of the defences up yonder."
At the word, there came over Ralph of Hacquemont's ghastly face a light, something akin to the old light of battle.
"Defences"-he muttered. "By God's body! it was even so. They may be proved ere long. Do thou ride down, and bid the knave masons get to work betimes to-morrow; as for me I will hie back straight to the castle. I am strangely ill at ease to-day; but the chapellan is leech enow to cure me with bloodletting."
Then, turning bridle, the knight rode off at speed; leaving Lanyon utterly aghast.
'His eyes are open then-whether for the better or the worse, God knoweth. I would avouch our lady free from sin; yet mayhap, that will not save yonder springald's white neck from the twisting."
Thus muttering, the esquire went his way to do his lord's bidding. On that day, one of those rare conjunctions of time and circumstance that mere chance can hardly bring about, befel at Hacquemont. As Ralph turned the last corner of the ascent, he caught the glimmer of steel through the trees; and found the plateau under the barbican occupied by a clump of spears, sitting in saddle before the raised drawbridge. The leader of the party rode out; and with all reverence delivered a sealed parchment.
"I will pray your seigneurie-for I guess that I speak to none other than the lord of Hacquemont-to peruse this at your leisure; and then to give me mine answer; which I am bidden to bear back at speed to my good lord, the High Constable."
From mere force of habit, Ralph's self-command returned when need was urgent. His manner was quite calm and courteous, as he prayed the French knight to enter and refresh himself and his following, whilst the letter was a-reading.
"I must trust to my chapellan to interpret it"-he said, with a half smile; "I am so poor a scholar."
But the other declined, with duteous thanks; saying, that he was straitly charged to bear back the answer without breaking bread at Hacquemont, or even quitting saddle.
The missive was very brief. It required Ralph, self-styled lord of Hacquemont, to present himself forthwith at Poitiers, with sufficient following, ready to serve under Bertrand du Guesclin's banner wheresoever he should direct. It further set forth that, in case of such submission, and considering Sir Ralph Brakespeare's high renown in arms, King Charles would be pleased to accept his homage, and confirm him in his fief and honours; but, failing this, he was bidden to make ready to defend himself à outrance-expecting no better terms than are dealt to obstinate traitors.
Ralph took the parchment from the chapellan, when the other had finished reading; and, holding it in his hand, paced to and fro through the presence-chamber, as was his wont when deep in thought. The first stunning effect of the blow that had stricken him that morning had passed away; and he was now able to weigh matters without passion, if not without bitterness.
Lo! the time had come whereof he and Philippe de Hacquemont had spoken together. What had he promised then, when both had agreed that to hold a solitary castle for King Edward would be no better than madness? This was the season at which he had prayed the saint to guide his judgment aright; he had promised too, at whatsoever constraint to himself, to provide for Odille's welfare. Why should not that promise be kept to the letter, even if wise saws and proverbs of expediency were cast to the winds? Would it not be indeed for her good, if she were set free once more,-free to bestow her love where she would, without sin or shame? The strong man's heart waxed for an instant very weak and faint, as it answered-Yea.
For himself, there would be left another brave bout at sword-play like those of old times; and then-a long sleep. He had had enow of French alliances-enow of their fair faces and fair words. He couched his first lance under the old Red Cross, and he would die under it after all.
His mind was soon made up; leaning over the chapellan's shoulder, he bade the other indite as follows:
My Lord Constable.
E thank, as is most due, for your gracious proffers both yourself, and the puissant king whom you serve; nevertheless, E may not accept them, neither render myself to your bidding. En England I was born and bred; for many a year X took King Edward's pay, and from the hand of the Prince his son, received E the accolade: wherefore it comporteth not with mine honour to bear arms against him now. So E purpose to maintain myself here to the uttermost of my poor power, and, when that is spent, to betake myself to God's mercy, expecting none from man.
Given at our castle at Hacquemont
this Martinmas Eve.
This missive Ralph himself placed in the hands of the French knight; who, with all formal courtesy, presently took his leave.
By this time, as may be imagined, all in the castle were astir; and, as he paced back through the courtyard, not a few peered anxiously in their lord's face, striving to discern therein some sign from which they might draw augury as to the nature of the message brought thither, and the answer thereto. But that face told no tales, and, as none dared to question the chapellan-who, indeed, was bound to secrecythe household were fain to devour their curiosity as best they might.
As for Ralph himself-he was possessed now with the sense of rest, of one who, having been tossed about hither and thither on a sea of doubts, anchors at last on a firm resolve. His brow bore no trace either of anger or pain, when he joined Odille in her chamber; and his voice was quite steady whilst he said his say.
It was brief enough. He told her that he had been summoned to Poitiers, there to render homage and accept service under the Constable, with promise of renewal of his fief; but certain conditions were attached thereto, with which he could not in honour comply without some debate, unless compelled thereto by force of arms. It was possible Hacquemont might be beleaguered ere long. He doubted not to obtain fair terms of surrender, in such siege, with small danger to life or limb of any therein; but, for many reasons, Odille and her maidens were best elsewhere for the present. So he had determined they should leave early on the morrow for Bordeaux, under sufficient escort, headed by De Marsan and Lanyon.
Now the lady Odille, though perchance too weak to be quite sincere, was a pure, pious woman; and, after her own light, did her duty. But she had hard work to repress a thrill of guilty pleasure as she listened; and could not keep back the treacherous flush that mounted even to her smooth, white forehead. Nevertheless, she did contrive, in duteous phrase, to set forth her willingness to bide with her husband, and share his perils to the last; nay, she even prayed, with some urgency, that she might not be driven from his side. Years and years after, she remembered how sadly Ralph smiled, as he answered -stroking the braids of her dark, smooth hair with his broad palm
'Nay, nay, sweetheart; think not to change my resolve. It is best so, trust me. 'Tis a long journey for thee, specially since thou hast been of late seldom in saddle; but I think thou art stronger than thou fanciest; and in Bordeaux thou wilt be tenderly cared for. In these troublous times, with so many routiers abroad, even convents are scarce safe quarters; else would I house thee with the Abbess thy kinswoman. Bid thy tiring-women make ready their mails. An' thou