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wilt be guided by me, thou wilt keep thy chamber; and take what rest thou canst before morning. Be not wakeful to watch for me. It may be late ere I lie down to sleep; there is much to order within doors and without."
So Ralph departed; leaving his wife in a bewilderment of wonder, self-reproach, and fear-in which were mingled, as was aforesaid, some throbs of guilty joy-which at last relieved itself in a passionate burst of weeping.
By this time Lanyon had returned; and was presently summoned to his lord's presence. As the eyes of the two men met, Ralph knew that it would be vain to dissemble here. Without any preamble, he told the other the contents of the Constable's letter.
"What thinkest I answered-ha?"
"Not words of peace, I wot!"-the esquire replied bluntly. "Marry! had the Frenchman come yester-even, your lordship might have pondered longer over the matter; but men indite not courtly periods-bearing such a brow as was thine when we parted. Perchance it is as well."
"It is best"-Ralph said, setting his lips. "If thou canst guess at what chafed my humour to-day, breathe it not even to thyself, I charge thee. Now hearken diligently. This is what thou must do."
Lanyon received with mute attention, all the directions concerning the escort, whereof he was to have the chief charge. When all was ended, he advanced; and, with his wonted slow deliberation, kneeled down, resting both hands on Brakespeare's knee.
"My lord Sir Ralph "-he said-"I have followed you faithfully, and performed your bidding-whether for good or evil-for hard on thirty years; receiving my wages duly, but never having once craved favour at your hands; albeit, if I mistake not, it hath been my luck more than once to stand betwixt you and death. Lo! now I cravenot as a right, but humbly, on bended knee-that you will suffer me to bide here with you, and take my chance with yourself under shield; rather than send me forth on duty for which any minion page might suffice-ay, even such a gay dameret, as yon Gualtier de Marsan."
Ralph gripped his squire's shoulder hard. If his words were rough, his eyes were kind even to tenderness.
66 Rise up, fool"-he said. "Art not grown wiser since-near a score of years agone,—thou didst cumber me with scruples in this very chamber? Thou hast spoken sooth: through thy long true service thou hast had little guerdon, beyond thy full share of hard blows.
God wot, I begrudge not this now. I swear by mine honour, that I have no mind thou should'st be absent when work is a doing here. When thou hast bestowed thy lady safe at Bordeaux, and delivered a certain letter, thou mayest return as quickly as thou wilt, and spare not for the spoiling of horseflesh. Even if the Constable be the hawk men bespeak him, he needs must circle ere he swoop. Should we be beset cre thy return, their lines will surely be drawn on the hither side of the secret issue. 'Twill be easy to worm thy way through the brushwood; and one within shall listen night and day for thy knock. Art thou content?
Lanyon almost laughed aloud, as he sprang lightsomely to his feet. "Yea: more than content. I thank your lordship heartily; dolt indeed was I, to have mistrusted your good will. Now will I about the ordering of this gear instantly, an ye will give me the roll of such as are to ride forth to-morrow."
"That is soon done "-Brakespeare replied. And he proceeded to check off from the roll of the garrison near a score of names-including nearly all the special retainers, young and old, who had been bred in the actual house-service of Hacquemont. ""Twill not weaken us much to lose these "-Ralph muttered, as he finished his task-" and, be we ever so well victualled, we need feed no useless mouths."
The esquire nodded his head, assentingly, with a surly smile.
"I am glad to see your lordship hath not set down my gossip Gilles; 'twere hard measure indeed to rack his creaking joints in saddle. Though he hath few teeth left, I will warrant him to show sport yet, if he fight from his kennel."
All that afternoon Ralph spent in directing necessary preparations, within and without the walls; including the repairs for all warlike engines, and laying down lines for new. He had scant appetite at supper; yet he forced himself to take some food and drink. Then, after a brief visit to Odille's apartment, and seeing that she had betaken herself to rest, he shut himself up alone in the presencechamber. He had another hard task to perform, before he thought of sleep.
Hard-in more ways than one. Ralph Brakespeare, even in early youth, had possessed but poor clerkly skill; and this, through long disuse, had grown rusty; till it became a toil to scrawl the hieroglyphic that stood for his signature. Yet now he had to write certain lines, that he dared indite to none; and which yet must be made plain enough to be read some day.
In all great sorrows and agonies-even in the tortures of the damned, if Dante saw aright-something of the grotesque mingles. If one's heart were in the work, there would be no fitter subject for caricature, than a face blurred and deformed by weeping. Many would scarce have refrained a smile, had they watched the painful effort that it cost the Free Companion to form character after character, with his stiff, unpractised fingers. His brows ached and throbbed from very weariness, long before the work was complete: but it was done at last; and the letter, rendered from the Norman-French, ran thus :—
Dear Lady and Wile,
When first thine honourable father, now at rest, unfolded to me his designs concerning us twain, E did earnestly object mine own unwor. thiness-saying that one of my nurture and training, to say nought of my years, was no fitting mate for so delicate a dame. When my lord wared urgent, and would in no wise be gainsaid, E required of him a promise, that on thine inclinations should be put no force; binding myself to accept denial in all patience and humility. So E departed on my journey, hoping no more for favourable answer at my return, than for any other bounteous miracle. When I came hither, my good lord straightly affirmed, that, having not at all strained his authority or unduly swayed thy will, he had found thee nothing loath, but rather well-disposed towards such espousal. On this relying, E spake, a::d was answered. The error was grievous doubtless, yet sure E am it was not wrought wittingly. Wherefore E pray thee lay not heavy blame either on thy father's memory or mine, for when thou shalt peruse these words, E shall be even as he. Much has been made clear to me since this forenoon, when I chanced to overhear converse betwirt thee and the Sieur de Marsan. Not of aforethought, as thou wilt well believe, did X play the spy. E sat a musing in the tourelle by which ye two halted, and the first words so struck my spirits, that for awhile E was like one in a trance, who with eyes and ears open cannot stir finger. Some bitter truths E heard, yet E heard also that Messire Gualtier under sore temptation, how sare, dear, none know better than E, hath borne himself in chaste and loyal fashion, neither failing in reverence due to thee, rar contriving against mine honour. Wherefore E hold him blameless, and E here aver that, if at fitting season thou shouldst deign to grace him with thine hand, ye need never be kept apart for conscience-sake or mine. En proof whereof X commit thee to that esquire his escort to-morrow without doubt or fear.
For me, my time must needs be shart. Bu Guesclin, the Constable, underlieth my cartel, and he will answer it ere long perchance in his proper person. E purpose to hold this place a outrance, and when it shall be forced to take no quarter, so E am not like to trouble thee more. The good merchant, who will deliver thee this letter, in whom also my lord thy father greatly trusted, hath monies enow to provide for thine honour.
able maintenance til, either as widow or wife—thou art brought back hither.
Ma douce amie, for thy duteous kindness, which hath made my life of late blessed beyond my deserts, may God requite thec, and keep thee ever in his holy guard. And so E bid thee heartily farewell.
Thy loving husband and true servitor till death,
The letter was duly addressed and sealed, and then wrapped in an outer square of parchment; in the within side of which the knight, made shift to trace a few more lines with his cramped fingers. After adding the superscription, he closed the packet, carefully thrusting it into the breast of his doublet.
This was so long a doing, that it was past midnight when he sought his sleeping chamber. Despite his great weight and size, the Free Companion could tread lightly as a girl when he chose; and he entered so softly that Odille's slumbers were not broken. She looked exceeding fair-fairer, Ralph thought, than he had ever seen her; with her head nestling on her arm, whilst the rich dark hair half shaded one flushed cheek. There was a half smile on her lips; though a tear or two, clinging to her long eye-lashes, showed that her dreams had not been joyous. Setting down the lamp he carried, and still treading very softly, Ralph drew nearer and nearer till he knelt down by the couch; and so remained-resting his chin on his clasped hand, and gazing on his wife's face with a terrible earnestness in his eyes. Under such a steadfast gaze sleepers are said often to wake; but Odille never even stirred uneasily. For any sign of life he showed beyond the gleaming of his haggard eyes, her husband might have been one of the figures that kneel under the canopies of tombs.
In that strange fashion, was passed the very last night that those two would ever spend together. At length grey light stole in through the ill-closed window curtains. As Ralph arose shaking himself, with something like a groan, Odille awoke. Even as she did so, her husband's lips were laid lightly on her brow.
"It is full time to rise, belle amie. Thou seest I am afoot already. Loath though I be to part with thee, even for a brief season, I would fain see thee in saddle. Thou hast a long journey before thee, and the days shorten fast."
Just then, by one of those vague impulses in which surely some prescience mingles, Odille's heart was drawn nearer to her husband than
it had ever been, with remorseful tenderness. Her arm stole round his neck, as she whispered :
"Blessed Saint Ursula! How pale thou art! If this parting irks thee so, why dost thou send me forth? Trust me, I too am loath to go; though of a surety we shall meet soon."
"It is but the dawn-light"—he said-" that maketh me look wan; and a little weariness beside. Seek not to turn me from my purpose, sweetheart. All is ordered wisely. And fear not: we shall meet-in God's good time."
The cheery tones waxed very solemn, in the utterance of those last words: in after years, Odille knew right well why.
By this time all the household was astir; and during the bustle of departure, those two were not alone again together. The pack-horses stood loaded; and most of the escort were already mustered in the courtyard as Sir Ralph drew Lanyon aside, and gave into his charge the sealed packet with directions as to its safe delivery.
"Thou mayest tell Sir John Felton how it stands with us here ”— he went on carelessly. "We fought side by side at Poitiers! and I did him a shrewd turn, when I dragged him from under his destrere in the mellay. 'Tis a chance if he remembers this; moreover, his own hands are too full to send help so far afield, even for a stake better worth saving than an old freebooter's bones. Be watchful and wary, after thy fashion; and trust me, I will keep faith with thee."
As the knight turned away, he came face to face with De Marsan. The esquire's countenance was more downcast than usual; and very pale-save for a scarlet spot on either cheek-bone. In all his movements there was a nervous feverish haste; and under the other's steady eyes his own sank, if they did not quail.
"Fare thou well for the nonce, Messire Gualtier"-Brakespeare said "many things may happen ere thou and I foregather again. Lo! I deliver to thy keeping the most precious thing I own; feeling well assured that thou wilt quit thyself of the trust, worthily as thou hast done heretofore-at cost of how much soever of thine own peril or pain."
And he held out his hand, which the other took, and-answering never a word-saluted reverently, with lips that struck cold like a corpse's.
Just then the Lady Odille came down with her maidens, busked for the journey. The courtyard was full to overflowing; for not only the escort, but all the garrison not on actual duty, were gathered there; but