The King's Way (Bailey)
THE KING'S WAY.
By H. C. BAILEY,
Author of "My Lady of Orange"
"NOW this was the way of the King: whom he trusted he trusted wholly, whereby he made for himself much danger—also of friends not a few. So with his whole heart he trusted Sir Charles of Godstow; and Sir Charles, who had better cause, was ever confident in the faith of the King. For Sir Charles knew by proof that King Edward would risk life for his sake, since on a day when the English sought vainly to storm a fastness held by the heathen Sultan Bibars, Sir Charles lay stricken beneath the very wall, and none dared come through the vain of bolts to bear him away save only the Lord Edward his master, who was afterwards his King. In memory of that day, the King trusted Sir Charles and loved him till the day he died. It is his death that makes the story.
Godstow Castle and Wytham Hall are fallen to dust long since, but in the days when Godstow battlements frowned across the river, the fat fields of Wytham lay like Naboth's vineyard before the covetous eyes of Sir Charles. The miserly blood of his Savoyard mother burnt in his veins, and her spirit bade him snatch the lands of Harold of Wytham when Harold's grave was dug in the little churchyard. Till that day it seemed to him wiser to wait, for Harold of Wytham was like to fight well for his own; but his sole heir was a maid. And now you will see how it came to pass that ere a big grave by Wytham Church was green, three men-at-arms who came riding abreast over the hills from Cumnor heard a scream and a shout and arms clash at Wytham Hall. They were John Bowlegs and Denis the Gascon, and one Bertram, who had no other name then. Then John Bowlegs clapped his mailed hand on his mailed thigh and chuckled; and Denis the Gascon laughed aloud and praised God, who sends fighting; but Bertram said only—
"That was a maid who cried," and he looked at his comrades as hs spurred his horse and went on ahead.
"They all do," growled John Bowlegs, and spurred after him.
And Denis the Gascon kissed his hand to the air and took the lead, for he was the lightest man, though a very desperate fighter. Then Bertram cried: "There is one of us should tell the King." And John Bowlegs echoed him: "One of us should tell the King." And Denis the Gascon answered from the van: "Certes, one of as should tell the King."
But they galloped on. Just then they heard the maid's cry again, and true it is that Bertram, for all his weight of muscle and bone, drove his horse past the Gascon, and so came first to the courtyard of Wytham Hail, and found a little maid struggling and crying in two men's arms. She heard his thunderous gallop, for she turned her head as they dragged her away, and he saw there was blood on her face.
"Aid! aid!" she cried.
Then as he reined up hard, Bertram struck from the saddle at one of them with his clenched mailed hand, and he hit the man on the jaw, and that man did no ill afterwards. Close on his heels the Gascon came, and he, for fear of hurting the maid, struck lightly with his sword at the other man's temple, and this man reeled some paces ere he fell, so that Bertram had time to snatch the maid. Denis the Gascon bowed to him as he fell, and he looked at the maid in Bertram's arms and curled his moustache.
"Afterwards we will tell the King," said he.
In that courtyard was a sight that gladdened the heart of Denis. Ill-armed, two young men fought with six. The maid's brown hair lay on Bertram's dusty mail, his big arm compassed her; and still the two strove to reach the maid, knowing naught of Bertram nor Denis, nor whence nor why they had come. So the fight was set in the courtyard when John Bowlegs came up; and he glanced once round and said: "Two to six!" and dropped his vizor and drew his sword.
Ere he came the maid had sobbed in Bertram's ear: "My cousins are they! Aid them, for the Virgin's sake!"
So as John Bowlegs came heavily to the ground, Bertram let go the girl and bowed to her, and he turned to Denis, who was cheering the strokes.
"Gentlemen of the King's House!" he cried; and Denis and John saluted him and each other, and he them and the maid. Then down on that unfair came a little phalanx of men who knew how fights should be fought. The point of that phalanx was Bertram, and the wings of it were Denis and John. But at the cry of "The King's House!" the gallant six fell back a little, for they knew how that cry had won starker lights than this. From the hillside came an answering cry. But the two lads, her cousins, on the instant that they were freed from the brunt of the fight, turned together to the maid. And between them and the brave six came Denis and Bertram and John, and the six fell back hastily out of sword reach, stumbling together like pigs to the trough.
"Bah!" said John Bowlegs. "Ye swine!" said John Bowlegs; for he loved a fight. And Denis the Gascon broke from his place and ran at them, and they scattered and fled all ways, and Bertram stood still and laughed at them and the Gascon's wasted blows. Then John Bowlegs slammed his sword clashing home to its scabbard.
"Truly they be swine," said John Bowlegs; for he had not struck one blow.
Down the hillside came the King's array, riding straight for the noise of the fight. That was the way of the King. Back came the Gascon, panting and swearing in foreign tongues. Suddenly the courtyard rang with the scream of the maid; and Bertram turned and saw that one of her cousins was fallen to the ground at her feet. A cough racked him, and there was blood on his lips; the sunlight fell on dark blood that oozed from under his corselet. When Bertram came to him, bis brother knelt by one side and the maid on the other, and she lifted his head and wiped the blood from his mouth.
"Harold!" she sobbed; and Harold looked up at her tears, and he smiled and feebly laid his hand on hers. Bertram loosed his corselet, and John Bowlegs came waddling and thrust him aside, for John had much skill in wounds. And John saw bubbles in the blood, and he said gruffly: "He is sped."
Then the maid cried out, and Bertram put out an arm to steady her as she swayed.
But a harsh voice sounded through her cry—
"Who are ye, my masters?"
It was a man, swarthy, and tall, and thin. He held in his hand a parchment. As he looked at the dying man he grinned. "Eh! vixen, art happy now?" said he. Then Arthur, the other cousin, sprang to his feet. But Bertram's hand fell on the stranger's shoulder, and the stranger walked backwards a little way. Bertram's eyes blazed at his. Bertram's face was very close, as he said—
"Pray speak to me as you spoke to the lady."
Denis the Gascon tapped the stranger's arm.
"Or to me," he said, and he smiled. The stranger laughed.
"Ye fools! I am Sir Charles of Godstow," and he looked at his golden spurs and grinned in Bertram's face. "I fight with my peers, ye knaves!"
"Show him the sty, Bertram," said Denis the Gascon.
And now the King's array was marching in. The King rode at the head of all, with Robert Burnell, the Chancellor, and Henry Lacy, the Earl of Lincoln, a little behind him. The King reined up his horse and glanced round. He saw a man lying in his own blood, gasping out his life in a girl's arms. He saw two other men stretched stark; and then his angry eye lit on Bertram.
"Bertram!" he cried fiercely, "what knave's deed is this?"
Bertram bowed low.
"The maid was affrighted. She cried for aid, my lord."
Then Sir Charles came quickly to the King, and he fell on his knee.
"My dear lord," he said sweetly, "these brawling knaves set on my men—would have smitten me had they dared. I fear three men's lives must pay for their knavery. Here was peace till they came, my lord." And he took the King's hand and kissed it. But Bertram cried sharply—
"Such peace as that tells, my lord," and he pointed to the dying man.
Denis the Gascon laid his hand on the maid's torn dress.
"Such peace as this tells, my lord," said he.
John Bowlegs waddled forward.
"Six upon two, my lord," said he.
Then there was silence, for Sir Charles found nought to say at once, and all men heard Harold mutter faintly—
Then, as Arthur bent over to hear, Sir Charles began to speak.
"My lord, she is ward of mine——" But the King was leaning forward in his saddle to hear and see, and he held up his hand for silence.
"You loved her, Arthur," Harold whispered; "you—loved her. I—I—did not—did not—did not," and he smiled and looked up into Joan's wet eyes. Then suddenly a great sob broke from him and he fell back. For a moment he lay still in her arms, and then she caught him to her breast and cried to him, hut he answered no more. She sobbed over him, and no man spoke for awhile. At last the King turned in the saddle and signed to his men.
"Bear him in," he said in a low voice; and be walked his horse slowly forward and tripped Arthur on the shoulder. "See you to your lady, sir," he said. So Joan of Wytham came back to her home. When they were all gone in, the King said—
"Now I will hear you, Charles; and if wrong hath been done——" He stopped, and his eye fell on Bertram. He trusted Sir Charles.
"Three days ago, my lord, Harold of Wytham died, and he left no child but this maid Joan. Now, Wytham is in my lordship, and this maid Joan is ward of mine. This morning I rode with my men to bring her honourably to Godstow. Fairly and peaceably she was going when these knaves came riding by, swore she was too pretty a maid to waste, set on my men; and these hotheads her cousins, who coveted lands and lady, struck in, hoping the brawl might end well. In good time, my lord, you have come. Would that you had come sooner!"
He looked up at the King and sighed. "Two good men of mine lie dead, and this hothead cousin hath fared ill."
The King's eyes were blazing; his face was flushed with anger.
"Mort de ma vie!" he swore. "I hope you are scathless, Charles."
"Of all save insults," said Sir Charles smoothly. "I thank you, my dear lord. I am too big a bird for these hawks to strike."
Now it happened that the Earl of Lincoln knew Bertram well, and he whispered in the Chancellor's ear: "My lord, it is in my mind that I do not trust Sir Charles."
But Robert Burnell the Chancellor was frowning heavily, and he stared at Sir Charles and said nothing.
"Where is the marshal?" cried the King. "Mort de ma vie! Why do you tarry? Stand out, ye scoundrelly knaves! Would you shame my arms so?"
Bertram and Denis and John Bowlegs took stand in a line before the King, and they looked the King in the eye.
"We, too, have a tale to tell, my lord," said Bertram. "Ours is true."
The King broke out upon him: "By the Rood! shall he give my friend the lie before my face? Take their arms and bind them, marshal!" He trusted Sir Charles.
Then Robert Burnell the Chancellor, who trusted nought save God and the King and himself, muttered softly so that only the King should hear: "Aye, bind them quick and hang them unheard."
The King flushed darker.
"My lord!" he cried angrily; but he saw the Chancellor's grey eyes steady and cold. "Art right, Robert," said he, and he waved his hand for Robert Burnell to speak. Then the Chancellor, who never did that which men counted on, turned sharply to the three.
"Ye knaves! how dare ye gainsay what Sir Charles hath seen?" he cried. His head was turned towards Bertram, but his eyes were looking askance: he watched Sir Charles. Now Sir Charles had held one hand behind him from the first. "Shall the King's men do wanton wrong on his friend's ward?"
"What Sir Charles saw, my lord, we do not gainsay," said Bertram; and Sir Charles broke in quickly—
"I said not that I had seen, my lord. I was within the house, else there had been no brawling here." And before them all, the King and his lords, John Bowlegs laughed aloud. The King thundered—
The Chancellor spoke very quietly and slowly, so that each word sounded alone: "You did say she was your ward," and now the cold eyes were turned full upon Sir Charles. Sir Charles bowed, and still he kept one hand behind him. Then suddenly, in another tone, sharp and quick as a thrust, came a question—
"Art as sure of that as of what you did not see?"
Sir Charles's jaw quivered. The Chancellor stretched out his arm, his long forefinger pointed straight.
"That parchment," said he.
Sir Charles started forward and fell on his knee by the King's side, for he knew that the King trusted him; thereat Robert Burnell said something in the ear of the Earl of Lincoln, and the Earl dismounted and walked up to the two men that Bertram and Denis had slain, and he bent over them. Sir Charles looked pitifully at the King.
"My dear lord, am I to be treated so?" he said. "Am I to be questioned like a thief on his trial?"
"A thief!" cried Robert Burnell. "Who uses that word?"
"There shall be nought but justice, Charles," said the King. Sir Charles sprang to his foot, and his eyes flashed at the King, and he glanced round him quickly, and his lips moved.
"That parchment," said Robert Burnell.
"’Tis a deed of mine own," Sir Charles muttered.
"Therefore 'twas kept at Wytham Hall; therefore you went in to seek it while the maid went fairly and peaceably with your men; therefore I may not see it! That parchment!" said Robert Burnell.
He held out his hand for it; but Sir Charles stood still and looked from him to the King, and his face was dark with hate, and he muttered to himself.
The Earl of Lincoln came back, and his spurs clanged in the silence. "Sir, and my Lord Chancellor, they two have died of no sharp stroke in a fight. In the hand of one is a piece of the maid's dress, in the hand of the other a golden bracelet."
"Fairly and peaceably she was going," said the Chancellor. "That parchment!"
Sir Charles drew back as if he would flee. The Earl of Lincoln stopped him, and half by force he took the parchment from behind Sir Charles and gave it to Robert Burnell. The Chancellor unfolded it, but ere he read it he looked at Bertram.
"Speak," said he.
Bertram stepped forward and saluted.
"Sir, we heard a maid cry this morning; and because it is the way of the King's House, we rode to her aid. We found this maid whom you have seen, dragged by two men. They lie there. Also we found six men set upon the two cousins whom you have seen. When we joined the fight, the six ran. Then came this knight and jeered at the maid, and we bade him hold his peace. Sir, that is all," said Bertram, and saluted and fell back. Denis, saluting, took his place.
"Sir, a maid misused," said Denis, and fell back in like manner. In like manner came John Bowlegs.
"Sir, six upon two," said he.
The King looked at Sir Charles, and his brow was heavy. He waited for Sir Charles to answer; but Sir Charles knew that answer there was none to make, and he would not look at the King. And the King was puzzled, for even yet he trusted the man he had saved. So they waited while the Chancellor read the parchment. At last he folded it and laid it inside his cloak. He looked at Sir Charles.
"Ah!" he said. And then he turned to the King. "Sir, now do I see why Sir Charles spoke of thieves. Now do I see why he was loth to give me this parchment. Wytham Manor is a fief from the Crown. Sir Charles hath lordship here no more than yon men-at-arms. This deed is the Crown's grant to Harold of Wytham and his heirs for ever. Thereto is set your seal, sir, and my name. Now we may know why Sir Charles left his men to fight alone—there was much need to find this parchment." And Robert Burnell paused and he smiled. "So 'tis found, Sir Charles," said he, and he tapped his cloak where the parchment lay.
As he ended, the King gave a sudden sharp sigh, and without a glance at Sir Charles he urged his horse forward to the three.
"Gentlemen, I have done you wrong," he said aloud, and he held out to them his bare hand; and he would not have them kiss it, but gripped hard on each man's fingers, and looked each frankly in the eye. That hour was never forgotten by Edward the King or the three who were then but men-at-arms. When the King turned from them, he saw that Sir Charles had fallen to his knees on the other side, and Sir Charles stretched out his hands.
"My lord the King, I have done wrong," said he. "Yet, oh, my lord! by the Virgin and the Holy Sepulchre, I swear that I knew it not. I deemed the maid was lawful ward of mine. Of the parchment I knew nought. I pray you, by our old friendship, my lord, do me no ill!"
The King looked coldly down. "What do you ask?" he said.
"Do not rob me of the wardship, my lord——" A sulphurous oath broke from the Earl of Lincoln, and Robert Burnell began to smile. The King frowned, and Sir Charles went glibly on, for he loved the fat Wytham lands far better than his honour or his soul.
"In the old days Wytham was under the Godstow lordship, my lord. Rob me not of my old rights because my men who are dead were knaves."
He caught at the King's hand. "My lord, for our friendship's sake and the war with Bibars," he whispered.
"You ask me to break my pledged word," said the King coldly. "Have you not heard the deed?"
"Ah, sir! you do not trust me!" Sir Charles sighed.
"Trust you? Yes!" cried the King. "Else I should not believe that you thought the wardship yours, and very ill had you fared for this day's ill work."
"But you will not grant me the wardship, my lord?"
"Mort de ma vie! No!" the King thundered. "Be glad that you do not suffer for your men's deeds!"
Then Sir Charles sprang to his feet and looked sullenly at the King and said no word of thanks. While the King took order for the guarding of Wytham Hail, he stood still and silent alone, and ever he eyed the King viciously like a dog that fears to spring. But at last, when all was done, he came forward and fell on his knee again.
"Sir, I pray your pardon," he muttered, and the King gave his hand at once, for he loved not to be angry with his friends. "I thank you, my dear lord," said Sir Charles, and kissed it rapturously. "I pray you, my lord, give me a sign of it. Best this night at my house at Godstow."
"Gladly, Charles," said the King.
As they rode on, Sir Charles was placed at the King's left hand, and when they met Queen Eleanor, who tarried with her company on the hillside, the King and the Queen talked to him gaily as to an old friend new found. But Sir Charles was something distraught. So they rode on to the great castle at Godstow, and over the drawbridge and in.
It was on the drawbridge that Denis said to Bertram: "By the black devil! but I think this place would have been ill for the health of the maid," and he looked up at the battlements and down to the moat, and pointed down and made a noise in his throat like a splash. But Bertram said nothing.
The Earl of Lincoln rode by the Chancellor's side, and as they passed the portcullis he looked back at the array.
"We be many, my lord," said he; and then he turned and looked the Chancellor in the face. "Very many, my lord," said he. But Robert Burnell said nothing.
They were feasted royally in Godstow Hal], and Sir Charles would have served the King and Queen on bended knee if they had suffered him. But the Kim; made him sit at the board, and pledged him and joked with him. Robert Burnell watched him, and in the midst of the feast he leant across to the captain of the King's House and said in a low voice: "Who guards the King, Sir Stephen?"
Now Sir Stephen was a man of wit, and so he chuckled as he put his wine-cup down. "Bertram and Denis and John Bowlegs," said he. Whereat the Chancellor laughed aloud.
While still the company stayed in the hall the three came marching to the King's chamber, for it was an order to the King's House that the three on the night guard should search the chamber. Sir Charles's chamberlain flung open the door, and he held his lamp high.
"Gentlemen, the royal chamber and the royal bed," said he.
"Ah!" said Denis.
"Oh!" said John.
And Denis ran his sword along under the bed, and John swept his sword round behind the tapestry, and they looked at each other and shook their heads. But Bertram was kicking the fire into a blaze.
"Aught in the chimney, Bertram?" said John Bowlegs solemnly. His jokes were of this kind. The logs were burning brightly and the room was light. Carefully the three went round, opening cupboards and sounding the great stone walls behind the tapestry.
The chamberlain waited patiently. "Are ye content, gentlemen?"
Then Denis and John turned to Bertram, for he was senior in the troop, though younger in years.
But Bertram was looking out of the window, and he said without turning: "This wall is thick," and he swung sharp on his heel and stared down at the chamberlain. "This wall is very thick," said he.
"For safety, sir," said the chamberlain. "We have the thickest walls in the shire. The castle was built in King Stephen's day, when there was need of strong walls and strong arms behind them."
Bertram made his sword-hilt ring along the wall, and as he did it he watched the chamberlain; but the wall answered stoutly and the chamberlain only looked amazed.
"I am content," said Bertram.
So the chamberlain went away, and in due season came the Queen, and after her a little the King, and each had a kindly word for the men on guard. Then, as the order was, Denis and John went each one way of the corridor, and Bertram was left in the ante-room alone. But then, as no order ever bade, quickly and silently he did doff his mail and stood barefoot in jerkin and hose, with the great muscles swelling out. By the door he crouched, and he put his ear to the key-hole and waited. At last he heard the steady breath of sleep; and then silently he opened the door and silently he stole in. Like a cat he walked, for all his ten score pounds of weight. On one knee he knelt in the dark shadow by the fire, on one knee ready to spring. He heard the owls hoot in the darkness without; he heard the King murmur his wife's name as he slept. Silently he moved from one knee to the other, and the castle clock chimed eleven, and all was still again. Then on a sudden the wall creaked. On a sudden a faint ray of light came through the wail. The great wall gaped. Through it there came a man with a lamp; he shaded the light with his hand, and in that hand a dagger shone. He paused, listening an instant, then crept to the bedside. His hand was on high to strike.
Up leapt Bertram, and sprang at him and caught that hand, right hand in his left. Crashing, the lamp fell to the ground, and Queen Eleanor woke, crying: "Edward!" Her white arms were flung out in the darkness to save him.
But there was no need of her, for Sir Charles of Godstow lay in the grip of a man; and there was no need of the King, for Sir Charles lay in the grip of a stronger man than he. The King woke at her cry, and sprang up and caught a blazing brand from the fire and held it on high for light.
Sir Charles was borne out backwards by the way he came, struggling silently, for he had no breath to cry, so fierce was the right-hand grip at his throat. Back through the wall they went and out to the secret stair, and the King came after, holding his torch aloft. When he was come to the stairway out of the Queen's sight, Bertram leant his weight forward and caught Sir Charles on his knee, and back he bore the rogue's neck, all his strength at work. As he lay there writhing very nigh to death. Sir Charles looked to the King, and his starting eyes asked for mercy; but the King made no sign. Breathing hard, Bertram drove his head back further, and in the last agony Sir Charles wrenched his dagger free and struck at Bertram's heart and smote his arm. The next instant he fell back gasping as Bertram loosed him and flung him away. His back was broken, and he writhed a moment and died.
Bertram turned panting to the King, and had no breath nor knew what to say. His jerkin was torn from him. The great chest muscles rose and fell; the knotted strength of his back fell quivering to rest. And the King, it may be, knew not what to say either, for he took Bertram by the arm and led him all hot from the fight back to the Queen, who waited, anxious and beautiful in her white gown.
"Lady, will you thank him for your life and mine?"
Bertram crossed his arms on his bare breast and was much ashamed. There in his arm, fixed in the great ball of muscle, was the dagger of Sir Charles. And Bertram said, panting: "Lady—pray your pardon—would have kept him out—if I had known—how he was coming in."
The King and Queen laughed together, as they laugh who are freed on a sudden from a terrible, anxious hour.
"May I bind your wound, Bertram?" said the Queen.
So the King ceased to trust Sir Charles of Godstow; so he came to trust Bertram; so Bertram became the King's squire; and so he got from Queen Eleanor a wonderful shirt of mail.