Sir Albert's Fall
SIR ALBERTS FALL.
By H. C. BAILEY.
Author of "My Lady of Orange."
GAY in crimson velvet, down the mossgrown woodland path came a boy with a serious face. Through his girdle a dagger was thrust, and the silver hilt of it flashed sometimes, when the oak-boughs swayed to let in the sun. None other weapon he bore; he stalked on carelessly, a very peacock amid the sober hues of the wood. But his face belied his gay garments; for his face was thin, with deep-set, black eyes; its broad, low forehead overhung high cheek-bones, and below a huge, square chin jutted far beyond his straight, thin lips. There met him a brawny, big-boned lad in leather jerkin and dull iron helm.
"Hey! Sir Page of my lady!" he cried, with a laugh.
"Ho! Sir Lout of my lord!" said the page.
"Fair words, Harry. I called you nought but your name."
"Nor I you, most worshipful," said the page. At once, with a laugh, he of the jerkin sprang at the page and clipped him in his arms. They swung hither and thither for a little, till the heel of the heavier man stole behind the page's. Too quick for voidance, his heavier bulk shot forward, and, tearing the sinewy, velvet arms away, he flung the page on his back in the springing bracken, then stood with his arms akimbo, laughing. The page laughed, too.
"Call quits, Bertram," he cried, as he rose on his elbow. He rubbed his ribs. "Heaven save the man you wrestle with in three years' time!"
Bertram scratched his head.
"Now, Harry, there was a message I had," he said thoughtfully. "Oh, aye! The Lady Rosamund would have you come quickly. Sir Albert of Shere, our friend the Weasel, has come a-visiting."
Harry's heavy brow wrinkled. "The fiend take Albert of Shere!" he muttered.
"Why, so he will—at his own time. But why call him?"
Harry walked on frowning, and at last he said—
"Because my lady fears him—and, fiend seize him! so do I."
"So do not I—him nor any man," said Bertram the man-at-arms, and flung back his head and laughed.
"I have walked with my lady five times in her garden, Bertram, when Albert of Shere was with her, and I know he spoke to her each time of love."
Bertram burst out with a laugh.
"And what does a boy know of love?" he cried.
"Enough— oh! laugh, you fool!—I know enough," said the page sharply, with the majesty of sixteen years afire. "I tell you, Bertram, she bade him go, and she flushed, and again she bade him go—till at last he went. But he came on the next day. I hate Albert of Shere!"
Bertram scratched his head.
"Doth she love him?" he asked.
At that, whate'er the cause may have been, Harry blushed dark.
"How could she?" he cried sharply.
Bertram shook his head.
"The saints may know," said Bertram. "What do women love?"
Then Harry blushed a second time.
"My lady is true to her lord," said he.
"I do not understand women," said Bertram.
"But I do," said Harry the page, and they went on together to the Castle.
The Lady Rosamund sat in her bower, and a maiden stood beside her. Close to her chair, leaning forward to bring his lips close to her ear as he talked, sat Albert of Shere. Harry the page came in upon them. Sir Albert gave a sneering smile.
"So here is Master Popinjay," he said.
"Sir Albert's servant in all things—saving my lady's honour," said the page quickly, and Sir Albert's black eyes gave him a sharp glance. Then Sir Albert leant back carelessly in his chair.
"So Lord Charles comes back on the morrow?" he asked.
"Aye," said Lady Rosamund, bending over her embroidery, and then for a little while they talked lightly of things indifferent, while the colour passed to and fro in the lady's lovely face, Sir Albert's Albert's eyes were fixed on her; but the page as he watched them closely saw that she looked at him never once. At last Sir Albert rose.
"Will you walk in the garden a little, my lady?"
She rose at once, as if it had been an order, and signed with her hand to Harry.
"Nay, let the popinjay stay!" cried Sir Albert. And then in a lower voice, "I have something to say—something I must say, Rosamund." Quickly she looked up at him and quickly her eyes fell before his. She went out slowly without a word, and the page saw that her steps faltered.
So they two went out to the garden. But of what Sir Albert of Shere said to her that was the wife of his friend no man knows much to this day. Something you may guess from this. There was a little maid picking gillyflowers behind a great hedge of privet, and she saw and heard and told how Sir Albert caught the Lady Rosamund's hands in his and said—
"Come with me, Rosamund—you must, you shall!" But the lady, straining away from him, cried—
"Never, never! Never while my husband lives!"
For a little Sir Albert held her; then he let go her hands, and she stumbled back and was near to falling. Sir Albert watched her and smiled.
"So it shall be, then," said he, and he turned and was gone.
From the bower window the page saw him mount his horse and gallop away as if the fiend were in him. Afterwards the Lady Rosamund came back, and she sat in her chair and sobbed. The page fell on his knee and asked if he could do aught to help her. She smiled at him through her tears.
"Nay, Harry; I have been true—I have been true," she sobbed. "And to-morrow my lord comes home."
On that morrow, in the early morn, Bertram, the man-at-arms, rode out with half a dozen more to bring back their lord from Guildford town. Harry, out in the courtyard before the sun was up, saw them go, and laughed and ran back to his chamber.
The sun was mounting high over the southward hills, when there came to the Castle of Abinger certain horsemen. From the gate the Lady Rosamund watched; but as they came nearer the light died out of her eyes.
"Albert! Albert!" she muttered, and stared wide-eyed and pale and trembling. Sir Albert of Shere spurred forward, reined up his horse, and sprang to the ground at her feet. His black eyes blazed through his vizor, his armour was dented and bloody. He pushed the iron bars of the vizor up and bared his face; then, as she saw his hot, flushed cheeks, he caught her to him and kissed her.
"Ah, lady! my lady now! My lady and love!" and he laughed jollily. Sir Albert was ever debonair. But the Lady Rosamund struggled in his mailed arms.
"Shame, Sir Albert!" she cried. "For this will my lord have vengeance." Then Sir Albert let her go a little, let her lean back still in his arms; and he laughed in her face. One of the grim swordsmen behind Sir Albert laughed to his fellow.
"Her lord! Hark to her! Her lord!"
At that she guessed something. She fell on her knees, still in Sir Albert's grasp. She lifted her clasped hands to him and she cried in a very pitiful voice—
"Sir Albert, tell me, where is my lord? By the faith of Our Lady, tell me!" The tears welled over and flowed down her pale face. But Sir Albert laughed again; and now his laugh was ill to hear.
"Give her her lord!" he cried. Then two men brought something that was flung across a saddle; and they tore a cloak from about it and flung it down in its broken, bloody armour before the lady's eyes. The helm was beaten in; but she knew her husband's face, and she flung herself wildly down in the dust upon him and kissed the mangled face of the dead.
By this time her waiting-women were coming forth, and her page Harry withal. They stood stricken with wonder in the courtyard. Only the page came on slowly. In a moment Sir Albert raised her and held her dumb with pain. He kissed her lips and pressed her to him.
"Come, love," quoth Sir Albert. "Now will we go in and make merry, for our joy is come at last."
She lay still and silent on his breast. The pain had seized her heart. So he held her while Harry the page came ever slowly forward, hiding the silver hilt of his dagger with his hand. With a shriek she woke from her pain.
"Murderer!" she cried. "Murderer! Ah! foul as the fiend!" and she struck his face with her open hand. A swift scurry of feet was behind her; with his little dagger the page sprang at Sir Albert's neck and struck. But the dagger broke on the mail, and Sir Albert dashed him heavily to the ground. There he lay stunned and still.
"Nay, lady my love," said Sir Albert. "Nay, speak me fair," and he drew her closer. In one wild effort she thrust him from her a little; or ever Sir Albert knew it, she caught from his belt his own dagger and drove it deep as the hilt in her own breast.
"Good Lady in heaven!" cried Sir Albert. "Ye fiends of hell!" he muttered, and in his wonder he let her fall. He stood looking at her, helpless and dumb.
The Lady Rosamund lay by her husband's side, and her blood flowed fast. Of all the men there was none that moved, and her women turned and fled away. So she lay there and so she died. They say that the look in her eyes was glad. Sir Albert gazed at the work of his hands; and he gazed long and he said nought. At last he turned.
"Hang me that whelp of a page!" he growled.
But Harry the page was gone.
Sir Albert swore long, rolling oaths,
"Go catch him, ye fools!" said he, and he stood leaning against the gateway looking at the dead.
Harry was gone in his crimson velvet, and one of Sir Albert's men caught the glint of the colour through the trees. He dashed forward with a shout. Harry ran on, ran through the wood with a long, swinging trot. Hate and rage burned hot in his heart. His ears still sang from the fall, but his grey eyes blazed. His lady was dead, and the boy yearned with a fierce desire for vengeance. He ran craftily, giving the chase many a thicket to force, but the swell of the rising downs tried legs and lungs, and two of the better horses were close behind him. Close behind him, and on him now! He heard the men's oaths; once as he dodged round a tree he felt the swish of a sword. It was a mad and hopeless game he played, and for all his high heart he knew it. At last he caught his foot in a bramble, stumbled, and fell. He heard the man-at-arms laugh above him as he tried to rise. And then through the thicket above burst a huge horse and man. All the weight of both came crashing down on Harry's foe as Harry staggered aside. Another of Albert's men riding up ran himself on a long sword's point before he was aware, and Bertram, wheeling quickly, cried—
"Up with you, Harry!" and dashed in his spurs as Harry sprang up behind.
"Ride!" gasped Harry. "Twenty men on the track!"
Bertram, born and bred in the woodland, swung his horse out on a forest path and urged him on. His head was bare of helm, and round it a great bandage was roughly tied. Albert's men came galloping on and gained on the burdened horse. With one glance behind Bertram turned and broke out on the greensward of the downs. His teeth were set and his face was pale and grim. Clear of the wood, he rode westward along a narrow level path; his keen eyes were fixed on the swell of the downs. Suddenly among the junipers he saw a dark horse, whose rider scanned them closely and fingered something long and thin. Bertram rose in his stirrups.
"Shoot!" he cried. "They murdered our lord!"
The horseman sprang to the ground; close on the instant his bow cried shrill, and the foremost of Albert's men fell headlong from his saddle and rolled away down the hillside. So fared the second and the third. But Bertram checked his horse; as the first of Albert's steeds galloped riderless by, he snatched at the hanging bridle. Soon he was mounted on it, and Harry the page in his own old saddle.
The arrows had stayed the chase. Sir Albert's men fell back to the shelter of the wood. The archer mounted and spurred towards them.
"Who be these knaves?" he cried angrily.
"They slew our lord; they ride with Albert of Shere."
"And he slew our lady!" cried the page.
"Martha, our Saint!" growled the archer.
"How, Harry, how?"
"Albert came—flung our lord dead before her—then spoke to her of love—she slew herself with Albert's dagger," said the page.
"She was a high lady," said the archer at last. Bertram said nothing; but he looked back at the valley where Abinger lies and then at Harry. Both knew that they had the same desire. Then Bertram began to speak.
"Albert set on us in a narrow place. Some ran. I fought there till my lord fell with Albert's sword a hand-breadth in his head. Then I broke through and away. I marked you in the wood, Harry, then saw Dick wood-ward on the hill."
"Those peacock clothes," growled the archer.
Harry looked at Bertram.
"It is in my mind that you saved me, Bertram," said he.
"Humph! Dick saved both. Bah! but for the rats that ran we might have made a fight of it. To be beat by Albert!"
The page looked at him.
"If you had seen our lady——" he said, and paused; but his eyes told the rest. That was no time to speak of honour or wounded pride. His lady lay dead in her blood.
"Saint Martha! she is past pain," said Dick the archer. "Holy Martha! so may we be soon—they come on again!"
"Ride to Silvermere! To my father!" cried the page.
The archer chuckled.
"By'r Lady! To see Albert the Weasel before Black Harry of Silvermere!" he cried.
"God grant I may!" said the page through his teeth.
The chase swept on over the downs towards Horsley, over the close-cut, springing turf, through the bright summer's day. The men who had served the Lord of Abinger took vantage in every turn and twist of the hills. For Dick wood-ward knew every crease of the downs as a child knows his mother's breast. So they rode on, up and over the crest, and down on the westward side, heading ever for Cobham and Silvermere. And Albert's men toiled after them.
But Sir Albert stood by the gateway, leaning his head against it, and still he looked at the dead. One of the women who crept near, as women will, to watch, tells that his breath came hard, that he seemed to mutter to himself. He did not stir from his place.
Harry the page and Bertram and Dick came down through the rich meadows of the valley, and still they spurred on westward, till at last, when the sun was falling slowly toward the moors, they came, all riding abreast through the heather, to the track that ran where the great highway runs now betwixt Guildford and Kingston by the Thames. Breaking out on the road, they came full in the midst of a great cavalcade and checked their steeds perforce. From the rearward a great voice cried—
"Who are ye that trouble our array?"
Then Harry the page turned quickly and saw a tall man on a black charger coming towards him through the press; and at once he slipped from his horse and knelt.
"Justice, my lord King, justice!" he cried.
"That we deny to none," said Edward the King. "What is your plea, lad?"
Harry told the story on his knees; told how, for love of his friend's wife, Albert of Shere had slain his friend, and how the lady was dead by her own hand. And as he told it the King's face blanched and his dark eyes shot forth fire. Men say that he thought the while of his own wife, the fair Queen Eleanor, who sucked the poison from his wound away in the Holy Land. Harry ended his tale and Bertram stepped forward quickly.
"I swear that these things are true, my lord," said he.
For a moment the King answered nothing.
"We will seek this knight," he said coldly at last. So the cavalcade turned away towards Abinger.
At Abinger, Sir Albert still stood watching, and no man dared speak to him, so terrible was his face. But at last, when the afternoon was old, came the priest from Wotton, a man who feared nought but God. He walked unfaltering to the gate and stood before Albert and said—
"Sir Knight, you have sinned a deadly sin." Albert lifted his eyes; his face was white as the horse of death, and in his eyes was the pain of hell. And he looked at the priest and said—
"Sir Priest, that have I."
"And I bid you confess and repent."
"Confession is not for me," said Albert of Shere, and his eyes fell again on the dead.
"I charge you in the name of God," said the priest, but Sir Albert did not heed.
Down the winding road through the wood came the King's company, but Sir Albert saw them not nor heard them. Before the gate they halted, and no man spoke to his fellow. They gazed and wondered. The King rode forward before them all, his Chancellor by his side.
"Albert of Shere, what work is this?" he cried in a loud voice. Sir Albert looked up and saw that it was the King; he did not move from his place, but he said, and all the company heard him—
"For lust I have slain my friend; for lust I have slain his wife."
The King's face blanched again, again his eyes shot fire. The Lady Rosamund lay there dead before him.
"Hang him!" he cried; "hang him there on the tree!" Four men came forward at the word. But the Chancellor whispered in the King's ear—
"My lord, my lord, this is not law!"
"I know not whether it be law, Robert Burnell," said the King. "This I know—it is justice," and the Chancellor dared not speak again.
Sir Albert did not move from his place. The provost's men came to lay hands on him, and he watched them come; then as one touched him his eyes fell again on the dead, and on a sudden he tottered and fell forward on his face, with his arms wide-spread, and he lay on the ground like a cross. A silence fell on all. Slowly the provost came forward and bent over him. For a long time he knelt, loosing Sir Albert's armour. The steel clashed faintly as he moved it, and at last he let Sir Albert fall again on his face. His eyes were big with wonder as he rose.
"My lord, my lord," he stammered, "the man is dead!"
The priest crossed himself and fell on his knees. The knights about the King muttered oaths and prayers. Robert Burnell, the Chancellor, drew in his breath.
"God hath judged," said the King very quietly.
"But I would have had him hang," muttered Harry. He looked at Bertram and said through his teeth: "'Fore Heaven, Bertram, I would have had him hang."
Bertram did not answer, and perhaps he did not know his mind, for he had not loved the Lady Rosamund as Harry the page had done.
And so fell Sir Albert of Shere, who was tempted and greatly sinned; and this is the story of it as it is writ in the old book, where at the end of it these words are set: "Ladyes and gentles, you that have grace for Sir Albert in your hearts, I would well that ye pray for his soul. And you that have no grace nor pardon, I pray you think of your sins and leave Sir Albert to God which died for us on a tree."