The Lone Hand
THE LONE HAND.
By H. C. Bailey.
IT befell in the mêlée of the joust at Dent that a certain knight—and the name of him I conceal, for charity—foully stabbed Sir Bertram's steed. You will guess that Sir Bertram fell. Since he was ever a man of resource, he contrived to fall upon that treacherous knight, whereby he broke no more than his left arm and the knight's base neck. Now all that—you will find it engrossed over many pages in the Chronicle of D'Aylesford—has no more to do with the story than this: it explains why Sir Bertram, riding southward through the marches of Wales a six hundred years ago, bore his left arm in a sling.
See him, then, as the autumn sun swings to the west, clad in glistening grey steel, on his war-horse, Pepin. His helm clangs at his saddlebow. Black curls and brown bull-neck are bare. Behind him, hanging from those mighty shoulders, a shield argent bears three roses gules. But do not heed the red roses nor dream of heraldry. Mark the frown on his brow and the broadening nostrils as he turns to gaze on either side.
For the land is black as the plains of Sodom after God's fire fell. The biting reek of smouldering wood and leaf is heavy in the air. Nor hut nor hovel shows above the dismal earth, nor live man nor beast. In the copse the trunks are blackened and the leaves shrivelled and brown. Through the dark ashes, scant as hair on a dotard's head, sickly weeds are sprouting. The very brooks run grey and stink. All is desert—ghastly, man-made desert, wherein the relics of life are still over-plain. Beasts killed for wantonness and with torture—aye, and men and women lying—well! it matters not how: they were dead a six hundred years ago, when Llywellyn ab Grutfydd was prince in Gwynedd.
Sudden Sir Bertram looked westward into the sun's eye—westward and long. For he saw the glint of steel, a knight who was riding into Wales, a knight who bore no device.
"Holà!" cried Sir Bertram, "Holà, Sir Knight!" But the other looked backward a moment, then set spurs in his steed; and while Sir Bertram shouted, faster he rode, full westward into Wales. "Feu noir denfer!" Bertram muttered, "a churl!" Then, being charitable, he repented. "Haply he makes a lone raid—for greater glory, St. John speed him!" and followed a malison on the rogue robliers of Wales.
Then the sun sank golden in a primrose sea. Grey cloud-banks massed across the sky. Pepin was spurred to a trot, while Sir Bertram prayed to St. John o' Beverley for the grace of supper, being little like to find one. He rode a mile more or twain, and the colour was gone from the sky before he came to a hill and saw towers frown at him from on high.
Up the hill went Sir Bertram by a path that made Pepin snort and Sir Bertram swear—up till, sooner than they had counted on, they hit on a wall in the gloom, and Pepin slipping, struck sparks from the rock, and hoof and mail clanged loud. But no one gave challenge from the walls.
"Good watch, pardi!" growled Sir Bertram, and Pepin and he felt their way along till they came to a gateway. Sir Bertram came down clanging, and found the horn and blew a mighty blast. Wall echoed rattling to wall, and again and fainter the blare was borne till all was still. Pepin shivered. "The Castle of Death!" Sir Bertram muttered, and blew again and louder.
A loophole opened in the gate: a beam of light shot out.
"Who calls?" said an old man's voice.
"A knight of the King's House prays bed and board." The bolts rattled and the chains. Sir Bertram, and difficultly Pepin, came through a wicket-gate to a great courtyard and the lanthorn. Then was a cry checked suddenly. The seneschal's jaws were shaking. At something he was much amazed.
Sir Bertram was set in the hall: "Now, by good St. John," quoth he, "I am come to the strangest of castles," for the place was vast as Cheater and bare of men as a villain's hut. Master Seneschal was infinite zealous a while, then left him in a hurry. On beef and ham Sir Bertram did execution, spite of one hand idle, and he poured great draughts of strong ale into him, and his spirit was uplifted. The seneschal gone, still he ate mightily and drank. There was much room in him.
"The fact is, one can hold but what one can," said Sir Bertram at last, and emptied the horn of ale. His doublet was undone, and he leant back in his chair and sighed. "But pardi! liquor may go where victual may not," said he, and he filled the horn again. Down he poured a half of it, and then desire came upon him to sing. Full-voiced he roared—
"To the shield and the helm and the white o' the brand,
Down derry, derry derry down!
To the steel o' the lance and the might o' the hand,
Down derry, derry derry down!
There is a great deal of that catch, and Sir Bertram chanted it to the rafters till he was tired. Then he drank off the ale, sighed, and began to look about him. There was little to see, and little light to see by. So he heaved himself out of his chair and stalked across the hall. Straightway he came upon something—something that smote his shins, over which he stumbled and swore It was the steel handle of a curtal axe. Sir Bertram grunt«d and took hold of it and heaved. There happened nothing. Even after supper he was a man of method, so he took one torch from its socket, and by its aid considered that axe. The helve of it was buried in a block of black hog oak.
"So!" said Sir Bertram, and put back his torch. "Now, Master Axe," and be took it half way up the handle with his one hand and set his foot on the wood. The great back began to work; slowly, slowly it rose, with hard breathing and groaning of the wood, till a jerk of the arm made an end, and Sir Bertram stood erect and puffed out his chest. His grip on the axe he shifted a little way, then made it sing about his head, and he laughed aloud.
"Cœur de Lion! Master Smith knew his trade," said he, for, despite the massy helve, it was balanced so that it swung easily as a stave. He took it to the light. The steel staff of it was chased and inlaid with gold in strange, curling patterns. Graven, too, was the helve, and there, all dull with the stain of the wood, were letters—
Five handis two for bow of pewe.
Handis two for shielde and brande.
But Burnstane neede ane lustye deede.
Seeke ayde of knight's lone hande.
"Now by'r Lady, a goodly rhyme," said Sir Bertram, and began to play tricks with that axe. He lunged, and his mailed foot clashed on the stones, and the axe came whistling down on the ham—to be stopped, to be lightly turned, to cut a delicate slice. this way and that way he sprang, his greaves clashing, and the axe sang shrill.
"Aoi!" he roared. "Aoi!" for the Norse blood ran in his veins, and the passion of battle was on him. "Aoi!" Then sudden he heard a shrill cry.
"The axe, my lady! the axe!" The axe was checked in a whistling curve. Sir Bertram turned on his heel. There was more light in the hail. Down the midst of it came a lady, a lady all in white; beside her two maidens held each a lamp. The old seneschal led the way. But he was turned towards her—and his wrinkled face in the light was wild, distorted with joy.
Sir Bertram was much ashamed; bethought him of his undone doublet, his dusty greaves, his dishevelled hair—of many things untoward, and found nothing better to do than bow. The lady was of a tall and stately beauty, framed in golden hair, her face was white and thin.
"Welcome to Burniston Castle, sir."
"Great thanks for little boon, sir. It grieves me that Burniston can give no better cheer. What we have is gladly yours."
"Lady, I ask none better. No cheer more hearty," and again he heard the old man mutter tremulous in her ear—
"The axe, my lady! the axe!" But she stayed him with a gesture.
"And all is yours while you need it, sir."
Bertram bowed, "Not soon shall I forget Burniston's good cheer. Happy are you to be its lady—happier I deem its knight." Whiter yet the pale face grew; the thin lips lost their blood. She turned from him trembling. Her handmaids stayed her from falling.
"A good-night," she stammered, and was gone.
Sir Bertram sat down heavily. "Art a fool, a fat fool, Bertram," said he aloud; then from another door saw a little child in her white nightdress run in.
"Maman!" she cried; "oh, maman!"
"She is gone," said Bertram in his deep voice. The child started; then put a finger in her mouth and looked at him.
"Hast pulled out our axe," said she. "Give to Alys!" she ordered, and held out her little hand. He let her feel a trifle of the weight. "Oo! heavy!"
"And are you Alys, lady?"
"Of course I is Alys. Like my maman. My bon-père 'ould not let me have uvver name. Dost know I has just seen my bon-père?"
And why should you not, lady?"
"My bon-père was lost." Bertram laid down the axe and drew her to him, and she came with good will. He was strong, and his arm was warm and his eyes were steady.
"Little lady, stupid I am; but your knight. Will you tell me?"
"For sure I will tell. Hast good eyes. The Welshmen, bad Welshmen, took bon-père. Red Iorwerth. He was with Sir Eustace, and Sir Eustace came back alone. I does hate Sir Eustace. And we has tried to get back bon-père—but never, no, never; and maman has been so ill—why dost frown so, sir?"
"It is in my mind that I have played the boor," Bertram muttered.
"Those eyes is good," said little Alys. "But I saw bon-père now, you know, by my bed, and I came to tell maman. And dreams is true."
"Mary grant it!" said Sir Bertram.
"I guess thou art very strong?" said Alys. "Art not so strong as bon-père, dost know; and art not as pretty as my own maman." Bertram laughed.
"Little lady Alys, I am but a poor fool with one arm."
"It is a very big arm," said Alys, trying to span it in vain with her two hands.
"And so hard." Then came a maiden much distraught, hunting for Alys, who, ere she was taken, must needs kiss Sir Bertram, whereat that large knight was much ashamed, and the nurse giggled.
Now, it is upon record that when the seneschal came to that hall in the morning, he found no more of Sir Bertram than all his outer mail and his sword, and a scrap of parchment whereon was written—
"Sir Bertram prays pardon of Dame Alys of Burniston for mal-courtesy and outre-cuidance, and doth most humbly entreat that she forgive him who doth not forgive himself."
The axe was gone.
If you seek aright, you may still find among the bracken scattered stones of Llanbedrog Tower. When Iorwerth ab Dafydd dwelt there, it stood square and grim and grey on the top of its hill, a very safe house for robbers. It is set in a land of blue crags; to come at it you must needs cross or evade a pair of deep ravines, so that when the hilltop glowers close above you, you find you have yet to go round a mile. But our good Iorwerth and his swarthy tribe were men of resource, and they had spanned their ravines with two rough bridges, slung from crag to crag by ropes of raw hide—most awful to dizzy heads. When the Lords Marchers came forth to chasten Iorwerth—when Sir Eustace of Quattford led a band to rescue Roger of Burniston—the bridges were drawn betimes. The Lords Marchers must needs sit down before Llanbedrog and wait for Iorwerth to starve. He was very long a-starving. Sir Eustace, burning to save his friend, had tried an assault up the bare hillside, and very ill-hap met his men.
Over the blue crags in the autumn twilight came a knight in armour of proof. No device he bare on shield or harness. He appeared happy. For he turned back to Red Iorwerth, watching him from the tower gate, and waved his sword in the sunlight. Then, quickly as the evil path would suffer, he rode eastward to England.
Now, the torches were flaring smoky in Llanbedrog hall, and Iorwerth's men were gathering at the tables. Swine's flesh, salted and fresh, steamed in great wooden platters, and one of Iorwerth's tribe—his name was Gruffydd—took a slice on his dagger and poked it in the face of a man who was chained to the wall by his hands and his ankles. This wretch's hair and beard were matted; very foul he was, and his clothes were falling off him. About his neck hung a pair of golden spurs. So Gruffydd mocked him, wrenched open his mouth, and stuffed in the meat, then after it one of the spurs, and laughed at the wretch spluttering with bleeding lips. They all laughed, and loudest from the doorway rang the mirth of Red Iorwerth, a sturdy dwarf of flaming hair. About his neck and his wrists golden chains were bound. Loudest he laughed, and the sound of it echoed strangely, while without a crag went crashing down to the ravine.
"Aye, give a meal," said Red Iorwerth in Welsh. " 'Tis his last!"
At that the laugh rang out again, and at once the rabble fell on the captive again, and stuffed his mouth with foul food and buffeted him till he gulped it down. Iorwerth must laugh at that. Then thrusting his knaves aside, he walked up to the chained knight and plucked him by the beard.
"Ah, Roger! fool Roger!" he says in French. "Hast had a year of bliss. Comes an end, Roger. In the morn is thy lady widow and the girl-child orphan."
Sir Roger answers him no word.
"Never grieve, Roger. Faith! 'tis for her good you die; she begs your death—nay, Roger, by the bones of Arthur! buys it. Fool! White Alys is light of love as the rest! Fool and double fool! Ha! that irks! Aye, fool! she gives red gold for your blood, that she may lie with honour in Eustace's trusty arms."
Sir Roger was all trembling, like one stricken of palsy. Loud laughed Red Iorwerth, pulled from his bosom a leather bag, and let Sir Roger see jewels gleam in his hands.
"The wife of thy bosom, thy trusted friend! Think, Roger; taste it!"
And Sir Roger's face was working wildly, for he saw among those jewels a spray of sapphire and pearl—his first love-gift to Alys. Tears welled in his eyes. Iorwerth snatched a torch to see them.
"He weeps! he weeps! By Llywellyn's heart, we have touched him at last! The brute can feel! Eh, Roger, does it rankle? Bah! see how tender she is of thy honour and her own!—she must buy thy blood ere she will yield herself to——"
Sudden came a shriek in Welsh.
"The face—the face at the window!" So cried Gruffydd, pointing; and Iorwerth swung about, and all ran crowding to the window. There was nothing; all was dark, and the cool night wind met their faces.
"Drunken fools!" cried Iorwerth, smiting right and left.
"But I saw. Black beard——"
The door burst open, inward crashing. Adown the hall charged a giant, black-bearded; over his head an axe was swinging. Full at Sir Roger he ran. Or any could stay him, the great axe had crashed down twice on the chains, and Sir Roger was free.
"Run for thy life!" he muttered, and sprang at the Welshmen and smashed home a sweeping blow that sent the front rank reeling. Then with the back swing of his arm came another, and "Maison du Roy!" he thundered—"the King's House!" and sprang back two yards, while Sir Roger stumbled to the door. The Welshmen hung back chattering. That cry was ominous. Sir Bertram gained the door ere they ran at him. There he stood an instant, dealing blows all around him, and blocked the threshold with their bodies. Then on a sudden he turned and ran like a hare in the darkness. Sir Bertram had no shame for seasonable flight. In an instant he was by Sir Roger's side, had thrust a dagger in his hand.
"The bridge!" he mutters, breathless; but scarce had they gained the farther side of the first when Iorwerth was hot upon them, and Sir Bertram turned to bay.
Iorwerth had a thrust home in his side, but the sword-point slipped on the chain-mail beneath the doublet, and Bertram, turning craftily, let the Welshman stagger forward, and had a fair down cut at his neck, and the red, grinning head rolled down the crags, and the body fell, spurting blood. Back sprang Sir Bertram a yard for room, and drave sweeping strokes that cleared the bridge-head. Short dagger and sword were of no avail against the long arm and the longer axe. They could not come at him, and still right and left, swift as a swallow, the dripping blade whistled.
"De par Dame Alys!" he roared; "de par Dame Alys!" and then to Sir Roger, crouching by him, waiting with ready dagger for who should come within the sweep of the axe: "Tranche les courroies!—vite! vite! Cut the thongs!—quick! quick!" he muttered.
The Welshmen were crowded, pushing and snarling, on the bridge. While the good axe and the lone hand held the path, Sir Roger in the darkness hacked at the leather thongs, till sudden there was a creak and a snap, and wild yells as the Welshmen felt the planks fall beneath them, and the horde fell screaming into the dark abyss. Bertram let a shout out of him—
"The King's House, Welshmen! the King's House!" and turned and ran from the gulf that vomited shrieks. Over the second bridge they sped, and with two blows of his axe Bertram broke it behind them. Then through the sling of his left arm he thrust the dripping axe and slipped his right arm about Sir Roger, whose limbs, unused for many a month, were stumbling amid the crags. Awhile they ran on, till Bertram whistled low and checked his pace. Pepin came.
"Now mount, Sir Roger, and hey for Burniston!"
Sir Roger wrung his hand. "You, Sir——"
"To wit, one Bertram, of the King's House, knight."
"—Sir Bertram, God knows, all thanks are——"
"Needless, pardi! What, sir I was I loth to come? Not I!"
Again Sir Roger tried to thank him.
"Oh, grammercy. Sir Roger! but what need of words? We be knights both. So in need had you come to me."
And Sir Roger mounted and moved on a little way; then in a low, quavering voice; "Sir, you cried 'De par Dame Alys!' he said.
"That did I," says Bertram deep in his chest, and looked up, and his eyes shot fire. "Pardi, sir! I said truth. Now, Sir Roger, no spy I am, but something of Iowerth's words I needs must hear. Could you dream a moment they were true?" And after awhile—
"God forgive me! I am shamed," says Sir Roger. . . . "Ah, sir! God requite you, for I can never."
"Faith! you talk too high. I am paid already, Sir Roger. There was a brave little maid sat on my knee in Burniston hall and kissed me 'Good night.' Wages enough. Nay, pardi! and more; for, truth to tell, 'twas a mirthful fight!" and they went on through the darkness.
Dark it was still when they were climbing Burniston crag, and Sir Bertram went first to blow the horn. Came after long waiting the seneschal, saw Bertram, flung wide the gate, and cried aloud—
"Alas, Sir Knight! a——" But he cried no more. For good reason: Bertram's hand was over his mouth. Bertram was whispering in his ear—
"Hush, man, hush! Who has come to-night?"
"Sir Eustace, sir—and with dolorous tidings."
"Humph!" says Bertram. "Alone?"
"All alone." Then Sir Bertram laughed grim, "But he saith Sir Roger is slain. Oh, good my lord! . . . he hath come but now, and my lady . . . for her lord is slain——"
"Now see me raise the dead," says Bertram. He whistled to Pepin. He took the seneschal's lantern and held it aloft. Through the gate came the great war-horse, and the seneschal, peering timorous, saw the rider's worn face and his matted hair, and yet knew his master and fell on his knees sobbing. A moment Bertram left them together while he stalled Pepin, then, hurrying back, found them laughing, chattering wildly.
"Now, sirs, now! Sir Roger would see his lady, and I—— Well, go in!" Into the hall they went, and through it to a smaller room, the while hearing sobs and a smooth voice.
"Nay, Alys, 'tis over late to grieve. The rogue Iorwerth hath slain him. What use in tears? We have done all that might be to save him. Nay, here you yourself are not safe. Come presently to Quattford, and there find nest. Come, dear!" But the lady had buried her face in her hands. "We must be gone betimes, Alys, dear. We——"
"And why? Why now? What more can the Welshman do?" she cried. "They have had all!"
"Aye," says the smooth voice. "All—but one thing. They seek your child. Alys, trust me, then, for I——"
Arose Bertram's voice—
"I seek a certain knight—a knight bearing no crest on his shield—a thin knight, a little knight—a knight that gave certain jewels to one Iorwerth by Llanbedrog brig. Pardi! I find him!" Springing at Sir Eustace, he caught the knave by the neck; but past him broke Sir Roger, and he in his rags and his filth, his lady all in white, were locked in each other's arms. By the neck, speechless in that dolorous grip, Sir Eustace was borne backward. His eyes swelled out of his head.
"De par le Roy, Sir Eustace!" says Bertram very quietly; and "Master seneschal, be there dungeons in Burniston?"
"The King's Justice," says Bertram, and Sir Eustace was left in a damp cell to think on his deeds.
Sir Bertram, coming back to the upper air, was beset by the Lady Alys and Sir Roger, and Dame Alys must needs kiss his hand and cover him with shame. The child saved him. Roused by the noise, she came pattering over the stones in her white nightgown, and was caught and kissed and kissed. After a while she was put in Bertram's arms.
"I 'ants to fank thee," says Alys. "I 'anted my bon-père. My dreams is true, dost see. I like thee. I fink thou art nearly as pretty as my maman. I'll kiss thee, please, please," and she did. "Please is thy bad arm getting well? Dost fink if I was to kiss it?" says Alys anxiously; and because she wished, he let her.
"But the Lone Hand serves," said Sir Roger.
"Aye," said Bertram, and stepped to that block of oak and whirled overhead the axe and crashed it down and buried it deep as of old.
Now when, in the morning, the men of Sir Eustace came seeking their master, it was Bertram who spoke with them in the gate and said that their master (who was detained) had need that a letter should go to Chester, and they took it—a letter to the Earl of Lincoln, Justiciar of the Northern March, which brought that choleric soldier in a tempest of wrath to Burniston. and that was very ill for Eustace of Quattford.