When Cedric the Saxon saw his son drop down senseless in the great tournament at Ashby, his first impulse was to order him into the care of his own attendants, but the words choked in his throat. He could not bring himself to acknowledge, in the presence of such an assembly, the son whom he had renounced and disinherited for his allegiance to the Norman king of England, Richard of the Lion Heart. However, he ordered one of the officers of his household, his cupbearer, to convey Ivanhoe to Ashby as soon as the crowd had dispersed. But the man was anticipated in this good office. The crowd dispersed, indeed, but the wounded knight was nowhere to be seen.
It seemed as if the fairies had conveyed Ivanhoe from the spot; and Cedric’s officer might have adopted some such theory to account for his disappearance, had he not suddenly cast his eyes on a person attired like a squire, in whom he recognized the features of his fellow-servant Gurth, who had run away from his master. Anxious about Ivanhoe’s fate, Gurth was searching for him everywhere and, in so doing, he neglected the concealment on which his own safety depended. The cupbearer deemed it his duty to secure Gurth as a fugitive of whose fate his master was to judge. Renewing his inquiries concerning the fate of Ivanhoe, all that the cupbearer could learn was that the knight had been raised by certain well-attired grooms, under the direction of a veiled woman, and placed in a litter, which had immediately transported him out of the press. The officer, on receiving this intelligence, resolved to return to his master, carrying along with him Gurth, the swineherd, as a deserter from Cedric’s service.
The Saxon had been under intense vapprehensions concerning his son; but no sooner was he informed that Ivanhoe was in careful hands than paternal anxiety gave way anew to the feeling of injured pride and resentment at what he termed Wilfred’s vfilial disobedience.
“Let him wander his way,” said Cedric; “let those leech his wounds for whose sake he encountered them. He is fitter to do the juggling tricks of the Norman chivalry than to maintain the fame and honor of his English ancestry with the vglaive and vbrown-bill, the good old weapons of the country.”
The old Saxon now prepared for his return to Rotherwood, with his ward, the Lady Rowena, and his following. It was during the bustle preceding his departure that Cedric, for the first time, cast his eyes upon the deserter Gurth. He was in no very placid humor and wanted but a pretext for wreaking his anger upon some one.
“The vgyves!” he cried. “Dogs and villains, why leave ye this knave unfettered?”
Without daring to remonstrate, the companions of Gurth bound him with a halter, as the readiest cord which occurred. He submitted to the operation without any protest, except that he darted a reproachful look at his master.
“To horse, and forward!” ordered Cedric.
“It is indeed full time,” said the Saxon prince Athelstane, who accompanied Cedric, “for if we ride not faster, the preparations for our supper will be altogether spoiled.”
The travelers, however, used such speed as to reach the convent of Saint Withold’s before the apprehended evil took place. The abbot, himself of ancient Saxon descent, received the noble Saxons with the profuse hospitality of their nation, wherein they indulged to a late hour. They took leave of their reverend host the next morning after they had shared with him a vsumptuous breakfast, which Athelstane particularly appreciated.
The superstitious Saxons, as they left the convent, were inspired with a feeling of coming evil by the behavior of a large, lean black dog, which, sitting upright, howled most piteously when the foremost riders left the gate, and presently afterward, barking wildly and jumping to and fro, seemed bent on attaching itself to the party.
“In my mind,” said Athelstane, “we had better turn back and abide with the abbot until the afternoon. It is unlucky to travel where your path is crossed by a monk, a hare, or a howling dog, until you have eaten your next meal.”
“Away!” said Cedric impatiently; “the day is already too short for our journey. For the dog, I know it to be the cur of the runaway slave Gurth, a useless fugitive like its master.”
So saying and rising at the same time in his stirrups, impatient at the interruption of his journey, he launched his vjavelin at poor Fangs, who, having lost his master, was now rejoicing at his reappearance. The javelin inflicted a wound upon the animal’s shoulder and narrowly missed pinning him to the earth; Fangs fled howling from the presence of the enraged vthane. Gurth’s heart swelled within him, for he felt this attempted slaughter of his faithful beast in a degree much deeper than the harsh treatment he had himself received. Having in vain raised his hand to his eyes, he said to Wamba, the jester, who, seeing his master’s ill humor, had prudently retreated to the rear, “I pray thee, do me the kindness to wipe my eyes with the skirt of thy mantle; the dust offends me, and these bonds will not let me help myself one way or another.”
Wamba did him the service he required, and they rode side by side for some time, during which Gurth maintained a moody silence. At length he could repress his feelings no longer.
“Friend Wamba,” said he, “of all those who are fools enough to serve Cedric, thou alone hast sufficient dexterity to make thy folly acceptable to him. Go to him, therefore, and tell him that neither for love nor fear will Gurth serve him longer. He may strike the head from me—he may scourge me—he may load me with irons—but henceforth he shall never compel me either to love or obey him. Go to him and tell him that Gurth renounces his service.”
“Assuredly,” replied Wamba, “fool as I am, I will not do your fool’s errand. Cedric hath another javelin stuck into his girdle, and thou knowest he doth not always miss his mark.”
“I care not,” returned Gurth, “how soon he makes a mark of me. Yesterday he left Wilfred, my young master, in his blood. To-day he has striven to kill the only other living creature that ever showed me kindness. By Saint Edward, Saint Dunstan, Saint Withold, and every other saint, I will never forgive him!”
At noon, upon the motion of Athelstane, the travelers paused in a woodland shade by a fountain to repose their horses and partake of some provisions with which the hospitable abbot had loaded a vsumpter mule. Their repast was a pretty long one; and the interruption made it impossible for them to hope to reach Rotherwood without traveling all night, a conviction which induced them to proceed on their way at a more hasty pace than they had hitherto used.
The travelers had now reached the verge of the wooded country and were about to plunge into its recesses, held dangerous at that time from the number of outlaws whom oppression and poverty had driven to despair and who occupied the forests in such large bands as could easily bid defiance to the feeble police of the period. From these rovers, however, Cedric and Athelstane accounted themselves secure, as they had in attendance ten servants, besides Wamba and Gurth, whose aid could not be counted upon, the one being a jester and the other a captive. It may be added that in traveling thus late through the forest, Cedric and Athelstane relied on their descent and character as well as their courage. The outlaws were chiefly peasants and vyeomen of Saxon descent, and were generally supposed to respect the persons and property of their countrymen.
Before long, as the travelers journeyed on their way, they were alarmed by repeated cries for assistance; and when they rode up to the place whence the cries came, they were surprised to find a horse-litter placed on the ground. Beside it sat a very beautiful young woman richly dressed in the Jewish fashion, while an old man, whose yellow cap proclaimed him to belong to the same nation, walked up and down with gestures of the deepest despair and wrung his hands.
When he began to come to himself out of his agony of terror, the old man, named Isaac of York, explained that he had hired a bodyguard of six men at Ashby, together with mules for carrying the litter of a sick friend. This party had undertaken to escort him to Doncaster. They had come thus far in safety; but having received information from a wood-cutter that a strong band of outlaws was lying in wait in the woods before them, Isaac’s vmercenaries had not only taken to flight, but had carried off the horses which bore the litter and left the Jew and his daughter without the means either of defense or of retreat. Isaac ended by imploring the Saxons to let him travel with them. Cedric and Athelstane were somewhat in doubt as to what to do, but the matter was settled by Rowena’s intervention.
“The man is old and feeble,” she said to Cedric, “the maiden young and beautiful, their friend sick and in peril of his life. We cannot leave them in this extremity. Let the men unload two of the sumpter-mules and put the baggage behind two of the vserfs. The mules may transport the litter, and we have led-horses for the old man and his daughter.”
Cedric readily assented to what was proposed, and the change of baggage was hastily achieved; for the single word “outlaws” rendered every one sufficiently alert, and the approach of twilight made the sound yet more impressive. Amid the bustle, Gurth was taken from horseback, in the course of which removal he prevailed upon the jester to slack the cord with which his arms were bound. It was so negligently refastened, perhaps intentionally, on the part of Wamba, that Gurth found no difficulty in freeing his arms altogether, and then, gliding into the thicket, he made his escape from the party.
His departure was hardly noticed in the apprehension of the moment. The path upon which the party traveled was now so narrow as not to admit, with any sort of convenience, above two riders abreast, and began to descend into a dingle, traversed by a brook, the banks of which were broken, swampy, and overgrown with dwarf willows. Cedric and Athelstane, who were at the head of their vretinue, saw the risk of being attacked in this pass, but neither knew anything else to do than hasten through the defile as fast as possible. Advancing, therefore, without much order, they had just crossed the brook with a part of their followers, when they were assailed, in front, flank, and rear at once, by a band of armed men. The shout of a “White dragon! Saint George for merry England!” the war cry of the Saxons, was heard on every side, and on every side enemies appeared with a rapidity of advance and attack which seemed to multiply their numbers.
Both the Saxon chiefs were made prisoners at the same moment. Cedric, the instant an enemy appeared, launched at him his javelin, which, taking better effect than that which he had hurled at Fangs, nailed the man against an oak-tree that happened to be close behind him. Thus far successful, Cedric spurred his horse against a second, drawing his sword and striking with such inconsiderate fury that his weapon encountered a thick branch which hung over him, and he was disarmed by the violence of his own blow. He was instantly made prisoner and pulled from his horse by two or three of the vbanditti who crowded around him. Athelstane shared his captivity, his bridle having been seized and he himself forcibly dismounted long before he could draw his sword.
The attendants, embarrassed with baggage and surprised and terrified at the fate of their master, fell an easy prey to the assailants; while the Lady Rowena and the Jew and his daughter experienced the same misfortune.
Of all the train none escaped but Wamba, who showed upon the occasion much more courage than those who pretended to greater sense. He possessed himself of a sword belonging to one of the domestics, who was just drawing it, laid it about him like a lion, drove back several who approached him, and made a brave though ineffectual effort to succor his master. Finding himself overpowered, the jester threw himself from his horse, plunged into a thicket, and, favored by the general confusion, escaped from the scene of action.
Suddenly a voice very near him called out in a low and cautious tone, “Wamba!” and, at the same time, a dog which he recognized as Fangs jumped up and fawned upon him. “Gurth!” answered Wamba with the same caution, and the swineherd immediately stood before him.
“What is the matter?” he asked. “What mean these cries and that clashing of swords?”
“Only a trick of the times,” answered Wamba. “They are all prisoners.”
“Who are prisoners?”
“My lord, and my lady, and Athelstane, and the others.”
“In the name of God,” demanded Gurth, “how came they prisoners? and to whom?”
“They are prisoners to green vcassocks and black vvizors,” answered Wamba. “They all lie tumbled about on the green, like the crab-apples that you shake down to your swine. And I would laugh at it,” added the honest jester, “if I could for weeping.”
He shed tears of unfeigned sorrow.
Gurth’s countenance kindled. “Wamba,” he said, “thou hast a weapon and thy heart was ever stronger than thy brain. We are only two, but a sudden attack from men of resolution might do much. Follow me!”
“Whither, and for what purpose?” asked the jester.
“To rescue Cedric.”
“But you renounced his service just now.”
“That,” said Gurth, “was while he was fortunate. Follow me.”
As the jester was about to obey, a third person suddenly made his appearance and commanded them both to halt. From his dress and arms Wamba would have conjectured him to be one of the outlaws who had just assailed his master; but, besides that he wore no mask, the glittering baldric across his shoulders, with the rich bugle horn which it supported, as well as the calm and commanding expression of his voice and manner, made the jester recognize the archer who had won the prize at the tournament and who was known as Locksley.
“What is the meaning of all this?” the man demanded. “Who are they that rifle and ransom and make prisoners in these forests?”
“You may look at their cassocks close by,” replied Wamba, “and see whether they be thy children’s coats or no, for they are as like thine own as one green pea-pod is like another.”
“I will learn that presently,” returned Locksley: “and I charge ye, on peril of your lives, not to stir from this place where ye stand until I have returned. Obey me, and it shall be the better for you and your masters. Yet stay; I must render myself as like these men as possible.”
So saying, he drew a vvizard from his pouch, and, repeating his charges to them to stand fast, went to reconnoitre.
“Shall we stay, Gurth?” asked Wamba; “or shall we give him vleg-bail? In my foolish mind, he had all the equipage of a thief too much in readiness to be himself a true man.”
“Let him be the devil,” said Gurth, “an he will. We can be no worse for waiting his return. If he belongs to that party, he must already have given them the alarm, and it will avail us nothing either to fight or fly.”
The yeoman returned in the course of a few minutes.
“Friend Gurth,” he said, “I have mingled among yon men and have learned to whom they belong, and whither they are bound. There is, I think, no chance that they will proceed to any actual violence against their prisoners. For three men to attack them at this moment were little else than madness; for they are good men of war and have, as such, placed sentinels to give the alarm when any one approaches. But I trust soon to gather such a force as may act in defiance of all their precautions. You are both servants, and, as I think, faithful servants of Cedric the Saxon, the friend of the rights of Englishmen. He shall not want English hands to help him in this extremity. Come then with me, until I gather more aid.”
So saying, he walked through the wood at a great pace, followed by the jester and the swineherd. The three men proceeded with occasional converse but, for the most part, in silence for about three hours. Finally they arrived at a small opening in the forest, in the center of which grew an oak-tree of enormous magnitude, throwing its twisted branches in every direction. Beneath this tree four or five yeomen lay stretched on the ground, while another, as sentinel, walked to and fro in the moonlight.
Upon hearing the sound of feet approaching, the watch instantly gave the alarm, and the sleepers as suddenly started up and bent their bows. Six arrows placed on the string were pointed toward the quarter from which the travelers approached, when their guide, being recognized, was welcomed with every token of respect and attachment.
“Where is the miller?” was Locksley’s first question.
“On the road toward Rotherham.”
“With how many?” demanded the leader, for such he seemed to be.
“With six men, and good hope of booty, if it please Saint Nicholas.”
“Devoutly spoken,” said Locksley. “And where is Allan-a-Dale?”
“Walked up toward the vWatling Street, to watch for the Prior of Jorvaulx.”
“That is well thought on also,” replied the captain. “And where is the friar?”
“In his cell.”
“Thither will I go,” said Locksley. “Disperse and seek your companions. Collect what force you can, for there’s game afoot that must be hunted hard and will turn to bay. Meet me here at daybreak. And stay,” he added; “I have forgotten what is most necessary of the whole. Two of you take the road quickly toward Torquilstone, the castle of vFront-de-Boeuf. A set of gallants, who have been vmasquerading in such guise as our own, are carrying a band of prisoners thither. Watch them closely, for, even if they reach the castle before we collect our force, our honor is concerned to punish them, and we will find means to do so. Keep a good watch on them, therefore, and despatch one of your comrades to bring the news of the yeomen thereabouts.”
The men promised obedience and departed on their several errands. Meanwhile, their leader and his two companions, who now looked upon him with great respect as well as some fear, pursued their way to the chapel where dwelt the friar mentioned by Locksley. Presently they reached a little moonlit glade, in front of which stood an ancient and ruinous chapel and beside it a rude hermitage of stone half-covered with ivy vines.
The sounds which proceeded at that moment from the latter place were anything but churchly. In fact, the hermit and another voice were performing at the full extent of very powerful lungs an old drinking-song, of which this was the burden:
Come, trowl the brown bowl to me, Bully boy, bully boy; Come trowl the brown bowl to me: Ho! jolly Jenkin, I spy a knave drinking; Come trowl the brown bowl to me.
“Now, that is not ill sung,” said Wamba, who had thrown in a few of his own flourishes to help out the chorus. “But who, in the saint’s name, ever expected to have heard such a jolly chant come from a hermit’s cell at midnight?”
“Marry, that should I,” said Gurth, “for the jolly Clerk of Copmanhurst is a known man and kills half the deer that are stolen in this walk. Men say that the deer-keeper has complained of him and that he will be stripped of his vcowl and vcope altogether if he keep not better order.”
While they were thus speaking, Locksley’s loud and repeated knocks had at length disturbed the vanchorite and his guest, who was a knight of singularly powerful build and open, handsome face, and in black armor.
“By my beads,” said the hermit, “here come other guests. I would not for my cowl that they found us in this goodly exercise. All men have enemies, sir knight; and there be those malignant enough to construe the hospitable refreshment I have been offering to you, a weary traveler, into drinking and gluttony, vices alike alien to my profession and my disposition.”
“Base vcalumniators!” replied the knight. “I would I had the chastising of them. Nevertheless, holy clerk, it is true that all have their enemies; and there be those in this very land whom I would rather speak to through the bars of my helmet than bare-faced.”
“Get thine iron pot on thy head, then, sir knight,” said the hermit, “while I remove these pewter flagons.”
He struck up a thundering vDe profundis clamavi, under cover of which he removed the apparatus of their banquet, while the knight, laughing heartily and arming himself all the while, assisted his host with his voice from time to time as his mirth permitted.
“What devil’s vmatins are you after at this hour?” demanded a voice from outside.
“Heaven forgive you, sir traveler!” said the hermit, whose own noise prevented him from recognizing accents which were tolerably familiar to him. “Wend on your way, in the name of God and Saint Dunstan, and disturb not the devotions of me and my holy brother.”
“Mad priest,” answered the voice from without; “open to Locksley!”
“All’s safe—all’s right,” said the hermit to his companion.
“But who is he?” asked the Black Knight. “It imports me much to know.”
“Who is he?” answered the hermit. “I tell thee he is a friend.”
“But what friend?” persisted the knight; “for he may be a friend to thee and none of mine.”
“What friend?” replied the hermit; “that now is one of the questions that is more easily asked than answered.”
“Well, open the door,” ordered the knight, “before he beat it from its hinges.”
The hermit speedily unbolted his portal and admitted Locksley, with his two companions.
“Why, hermit,” was the yeoman’s first question as soon as he beheld the knight, “what boon companion hast thou here?”
“A brother of our order,” replied the friar, shaking his head; “we have been at our devotions all night.”
“He is a monk of the church militant,” answered Locksley; “and there be more of them abroad. I tell thee, friar, thou must lay down the vrosary and take up the vquarter-staff; we shall need every one of our merry men, whether clerk or layman. But,” he added, taking a step aside, “art thou mad—to give admittance to a knight thou dost not know? Hast thou forgotten our agreement?”
“Good yeoman,” said the knight, coming forward, “be not wroth with my merry host. He did but afford me the hospitality which I would have compelled from him if he had refused it.”
“Thou compel!” cried the friar. “Wait but till I have changed this gray gown for a green cassock, and if I make not a quarter-staff ring twelve upon thy pate, I am neither true clerk nor good woodsman.”
While he spoke thus he stript off his gown and appeared in a close buckram doublet and lower garment, over which he speedily did on a cassock of green and hose of the same color.
“I pray thee vtruss my points,” he said to Wamba, “and thou shalt have a cup of sack for thy labor.”
“vGramercy for thy sack,” returned Wamba; “but thinkest thou that it is lawful for me to aid you to transmew thyself from a holy hermit into a sinful forester?”
So saying, he accommodated the friar with his assistance in tying the endless number of points, as the laces which attached the hose to the doublet were then termed.
While they were thus employed, Locksley led the knight a little apart and addressed him thus: “Deny it not, sir knight, you are he who played so glorious a part at the tournament at Ashby.”
“And what follows, if you guess truly, good yeoman?”
“For my purpose,” said the yeoman, “thou shouldst be as well a good Englishman as a good knight; for that which I have to speak of concerns, indeed, the duty of every honest man, but is more especially that of a true-born native of England.”
“You can speak to no one,” replied the knight, “to whom England, and the life of every Englishman, can be dearer than to me.”
“I would willingly believe so,” said the woodsman; “and never had this country such need to be supported by those who love her. A band of villains, in the disguise of better men than themselves, have become masters of the persons of a noble Englishman named Cedric the Saxon, together with his ward and his friend, Athelstane of Coningsburgh, and have transported them to a castle in this forest called Torquilstone. I ask of thee, as a good knight and a good Englishman, wilt thou aid in their rescue?”
“I am bound by my vow to do so,” replied the knight; “but I would willingly know who you are who request my assistance in their behalf?”
“I am,” said the forester, “a nameless man; but I am a friend of my country and my country’s friends. Believe, however, that my word, when pledged, is as vinviolate as if I wore golden spurs.”
“I willingly believe it,” returned the knight. “I have been accustomed to study men’s countenances, and I can read in thine honesty and resolution. I will, therefore, ask thee no farther questions but aid thee in setting at freedom these oppressed captives, which done, I trust we shall part better acquainted and well satisfied with each other.”
When the friar was at length ready, Locksley turned to his companions.
“Come on, my masters,” he said; “tarry not to talk. I say, come on: we must collect all our forces, and few enough shall we have if we are to storm the castle of Reginald Front-de-Boeuf.”
While these measures were taking in behalf of Cedric and his companions, the armed men by whom the latter had been seized hurried their captives along toward the place of security, where they intended to imprison them. But darkness came on fast, and the paths of the wood seemed but imperfectly known to the vmarauders. They were compelled to make several long halts and once or twice to return on their road to resume the direction which they wished to pursue. It was, therefore, not until the light of the summer morn had dawned upon them that they could travel in full assurance that they held the right path.
In vain Cedric vexpostulated with his guards, who refused to break their silence for his wrath or his protests. They continued to hurry him along, traveling at a very rapid rate, until, at the end of an avenue of huge trees, arose Torquilstone, the hoary and ancient castle of Reginald Front-de-Boeuf. It was a fortress of no great size, consisting of a donjon, or large and high square tower, surrounded by buildings of inferior height. Around the exterior wall was a deep moat, supplied with water from a neighboring rivulet. Front-de-Boeuf, whose character placed him often at feud with his neighbors, had made considerable additions to the strength of his castle by building towers upon the outward wall, so as to flank it at every angle. The access, as usual in castles of the period, lay through an arched vbarbican or outwork, which was defended by a small turret.
Cedric no sooner saw the turrets of Front-de-Boeuf’s castle raise their gray and moss-grown battlements, glimmering in the morning sun, above the woods by which they were surrounded than he instantly augured more truly concerning the cause of his misfortune.
“I did injustice,” he said, “to the thieves and outlaws of these woods, when I supposed such banditti to belong to their bands. I might as justly have confounded the foxes of these brakes with the ravening wolves of France!”
Arrived before the castle, the prisoners were compelled by their guards to alight and were hastened across the drawbridge into the castle. They were immediately conducted to an apartment where a hasty repast was offered them, of which none but Athelstane felt any inclination to partake. Neither did he have much time to do justice to the good cheer placed before him, for the guards gave him and Cedric to understand that they were to be imprisoned in a chamber apart from Rowena. Resistance was vain; and they were compelled to follow to a large room, which, rising on clumsy Saxon pillars, resembled the vrefectories and chapter-houses which may still be seen in the most ancient parts of our most ancient monasteries.
The Lady Rowena was next separated from her train and conducted with courtesy, indeed, but still without consulting her inclination, to a distant apartment. The same alarming distinction was conferred on the young Jewess, Rebecca, in spite of the entreaties of her father, who offered money in the extremity of his distress that she might be permitted to abide with him.
“Base unbeliever,” answered one of his guards, “when thou hast seen thy lair, thou wilt not wish thy daughter to partake it.”
Without further discussion, the old Jew was dragged off in a different direction from the other prisoners. The domestics, after being searched and disarmed, were confined in another part of the castle.
The three leaders of the banditti and the men who had planned and carried out the outrage, Norman knights,—Front-de-Boeuf, the brutal owner of the castle; Maurice de Bracy, a free-lance, who sought to wed the Lady Rowena by force and so had arranged the attack, and Brian de vBois-Guilbert, a distinguished member of the famous order of vKnights Templar,—had a short discussion together and then separated. Front-de-Boeuf immediately sought the apartment where Isaac of York tremblingly awaited his fate.
The Jew had been hastily thrown into a dungeon-vault of the castle, the floor of which was deep beneath the level of the earth, and very damp, being lower than the moat itself. The only light was received through one or two loop-holes far above the reach of the captive’s hand. These vapertures admitted, even at midday, only a dim and uncertain light, which was changed for utter darkness long before the rest of the castle had lost the blessing of day. Chains and shackles, which had been the portion of former captives, hung rusted and empty on the walls of the prison, and in the rings of one of these sets of fetters there remained two moldering bones which seemed those of the human leg.
At one end of this ghastly apartment was a large fire-grate, over the top of which were stretched some transverse iron bars, half devoured with rust.
The whole appearance of the dungeon might have appalled a stouter heart than that of Isaac, who, nevertheless, was more composed under the imminent pressure of danger than he had seemed to be while affected by terrors of which the cause was as yet remote and vcontingent. It was not the first time that Isaac had been placed in circumstances so dangerous. He had, therefore, experience to guide him, as well as a hope that he might again be delivered from the peril.
The Jew remained without altering his position for nearly three hours, at the end of which time steps were heard on the dungeon stair. The bolts screamed as they were withdrawn, the hinges creaked as the wicket opened, and Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, followed by two Saracen slaves of the Templar, entered the prison.
Front-de-Boeuf, a tall and strong man, whose life had been spent in public war or in private feuds and broils and who had hesitated at no means of extending his vfeudal power, had features corresponding to his character, and which strongly expressed the fiercer and more evil passions of the mind. The scars with which his visage was seamed would, on features of a different cast, have excited the sympathy due to the marks of honorable valor; but in the peculiar case of Front-de-Boeuf they only added to the ferocity of his countenance and to the dread which his presence inspired. The formidable baron was clad in a leathern doublet, fitted close to his body, which was frayed and soiled with the stains of his armor. He had no weapon, except a vponiard at his belt, which served to counter-balance the weight of the bunch of rusty keys that hung at his right side.
The black slaves who attended Front-de-Boeuf were attired in jerkins and trousers of coarse linen, their sleeves being tucked up above the elbow, like those of butchers when about to exercise their functions in the slaughter-house. Each had in his hand a small vpannier; and when they entered the dungeon, they paused at the door until Front-de-Boeuf himself carefully locked and double-locked it. Having taken this precaution, he advanced slowly up the apartment toward the Jew, upon whom he kept his eye fixed as if he wished to paralyze him with his glance, as some animals are said to fascinate their prey.
The Jew sat with his mouth agape and his eyes fixed on the savage baron with such earnestness of terror that his frame seemed literally to shrink together and diminish in size while encountering the fierce Norman’s fixed and baleful gaze. The unhappy Isaac was deprived not only of the power of rising to make the vobeisance which his fear had dictated, but he could not even doff his cap or utter any word of supplication, so strongly was he agitated by the conviction that tortures and death were impending over him.
On the other hand, the stately form of the Norman appeared to dilate in magnitude, like that of the eagle, which ruffles up its plumage when about to pounce on its defenseless prey. He paused within three steps of the corner in which the unfortunate Hebrew had now, as it were, coiled himself up into the smallest possible space, and made a sign for one of the slaves to approach. The black vsatellite came forward accordingly, and producing from his basket a large pair of scales and several weights, he laid them at the feet of Front-de-Boeuf and retired to the respectful distance at which his companion had already taken his station.
The motions of these men were slow and solemn, as if there impended over their souls some vpreconception of horror and cruelty. Front-de-Boeuf himself opened the scene by addressing his ill-fated captive.
“Most accursed dog,” he said, awakening with his deep and sullen voice the echoes of the dungeon vault, “seest thou these scales?”
The unhappy Jew returned a feeble affirmative.
“In these very scales shalt thou weigh me out,” said the relentless baron, “a thousand silver pounds, after the just measure and weight of the Tower of London.”
“Holy Abraham!” returned the Jew, finding voice through the very extremity of his danger; “heard man ever such a demand? Who ever heard, even in a minstrel’s tale, of such a sum as a thousand pounds of silver? What human eyes were ever blessed with the sight of so great a mass of treasure? Not within the walls of York, ransack my house and that of all my tribe, wilt thou find the vtithe of that huge sum of silver that thou speakest of.”
“I am reasonable,” answered Front-de-Boeuf, “and if silver be scant, I refuse not gold. At the rate of a mark of gold for each six pounds of silver, thou shalt free thy unbelieving carcass from such punishment as thy heart has never even conceived in thy wildest imaginings.”
“Have mercy on me, noble knight!” pleaded Isaac. “I am old, and poor, and helpless. It were unworthy to triumph over me. It is a poor deed to crush a worm.”
“Old thou mayst be,” replied the knight, “and feeble thou mayst be; but rich it is known thou art.”
“I swear to you, noble knight,” said Isaac, “by all which I believe and all which we believe in common—”
“Perjure not thyself,” interrupted the Norman, “and let not thy obstinacy seal thy doom, until thou hast seen and well considered the fate that awaits thee. This prison is no place for trifling. Prisoners ten thousand times more distinguished than thou have died within these walls, and their fate has never been known. But for thee is reserved a long and lingering death, to which theirs was luxury.”
He again made a signal for the slaves to approach and spoke to them apart in their own language; for he had been a crusader in Palestine, where, perhaps, he had learned his lesson of cruelty. The Saracens produced from their baskets a quantity of charcoal, a pair of bellows, and a flask of oil. While the one struck a light with a flint and steel, the other disposed the charcoal in the large rusty grate which we have already mentioned and exercised the bellows until the fuel came to a red glow.
“Seest thou, Isaac,” said Front-de-Boeuf, “the range of iron bars above that glowing charcoal? On that warm couch thou shalt lie, stripped of thy clothes as if thou wert to rest on a bed of down. One of these slaves shall maintain the fire beneath thee, while the other shall anoint thy wretched limbs with oil, lest the roast should burn. Now choose betwixt such a scorching bed and the payment of a thousand pounds of silver; for, by the head of my father, thou hast no other voption.”
“It is impossible,” exclaimed the miserable Isaac; “it is impossible that your purpose can be real! The good God of nature never made a heart capable of exercising such cruelty!”
“Trust not to that, Isaac,” said Front-de-Boeuf; “it were a fatal error. Dost thou think that I who have seen a town sacked, in which thousands perished by sword, by flood, and by fire, will blench from my purpose for the outcries of a single wretch? Be wise, old man; discharge thyself of a portion of thy superfluous wealth; repay to the hands of a Christian a part of what thou hast acquired by vusury. Thy cunning may soon swell out once more thy shriveled purse, but neither leech nor medicine can restore thy scorched hide and flesh wert thou once stretched on these bars. Tell down thy vransom, I say, and rejoice that at such a rate thou canst redeem thyself from a dungeon, the secrets of which few have returned to tell. I waste no more words with thee. Choose between thy vdross and thy flesh and blood, and as thou choosest so shall it be.”
“So may Abraham and all the fathers of our people assist me!” said Isaac; “I cannot make the choice because I have not the means of satisfying your vexorbitant demand!”
“Seize him and strip him, slaves,” said the knight.
The assistants, taking their directions more from the baron’s eye and hand than his tongue, once more stepped forward, laid hands on the unfortunate Isaac, plucked him up from the ground, and holding him between them, waited the hard-hearted baron’s further signal. The unhappy man eyed their countenances and that of Front-de-Boeuf in the hope of discovering some symptoms of softening; but that of the baron showed the same cold, half-sullen, half-sarcastic smile, which had been the prelude to his cruelty; and the savage eyes of the Saracens, rolling gloomily under their dark brows, evinced rather the secret pleasure which they expected from the approaching scene than any reluctance to be its agents. The Jew then looked at the glowing furnace, over which he was presently to be stretched, and, seeing no chance of his tormentor’s relenting, his resolution gave way.
“I will pay,” he said, “the thousand pounds of silver—that is, I will pay it with the help of my brethren, for I must beg as a mendicant at the door of our synagogue ere I make up so unheard-of a sum. When and where must it be delivered?” he inquired with a sigh.
“Here,” replied Front-de-Boeuf. “Weighed it must be—weighed and told down on this very dungeon floor. Thinkest thou I will part with thee until thy ransom is secure?”
“Then let my daughter Rebecca go forth to York,” said Isaac, “with your safe conduct, noble knight, and so soon as man and horse can return, the treasure—” Here he groaned deeply, but added, after the pause of a few seconds,—“the treasure shall be told down on this floor.”
“Thy daughter!” said Front-de-Boeuf, as if surprised. “By Heavens, Isaac, I would I had known of this! I gave yonder black-browed girl to Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, to be his prisoner. She is not in my power.”
The yell which Isaac raised at this unfeeling communication made the very vault to ring, and astounded the two Saracens so much that they let go their hold of the victim. He availed himself of his freedom to throw himself on the pavement and clasp the knees of Front-de-Boeuf.
“Take all that you have asked,” said he—“take ten times more—reduce me to ruin and to beggary, if thou wilt—nay, pierce me with thy poniard, broil me on that furnace, but spare my daughter! Will you deprive me of my sole remaining comfort in life?”
“I would,” said the Norman, somewhat relenting, “that I had known of this before. I thought you loved nothing but your money-bags.”
“Think not so vilely of me,” returned Isaac, eager to improve the moment of apparent sympathy. “I love mine own, even as the hunted fox, the tortured wildcat loves its young.”
“Be it so,” said Front-de-Boeuf; “but it aids us not now. I cannot help what has happened or what is to follow. My word is passed to my comrade in arms that he shall have the maiden as his share of the spoil, and I would not break it for ten Jews and Jewesses to boot. Take thought instead to pay me the ransom thou hast promised, or woe betide thee!”
“Robber and villain!” cried the Jew, “I will pay thee nothing—not one silver penny will I pay thee unless my daughter is delivered to me in safety!”
“Art thou in thy senses, Israelite?” asked the Norman sternly. “Hast thy flesh and blood a charm against heated iron and scalding oil?”
“I care not!” replied the Jew, rendered desperate by paternal affection; “my daughter is my flesh and blood, dearer to me a thousand times than those limbs thy cruelty threatens. No silver will I give thee unless I were to pour it molten down thy vavaricious throat—no, not a silver penny will I give thee, vNazarene, were it to save thee from the deep damnation thy whole life has merited. Take my life, if thou wilt, and say that the Jew, amidst his tortures, knew how to disappoint the Christian.”
“We shall see that,” said Front-de-Boeuf; “for by the blessed vrood thou shalt feel the extremities of fire and steel! Strip him, slaves, and chain him down upon the bars.”
In spite of the feeble struggles of the old man, the Saracens had already torn from him his upper garment and were proceeding totally to disrobe him, when the sound of a bugle, twice winded without the castle, penetrated even to the recesses of the dungeon. Immediately after voices were heard calling for Sir Reginald Front-de-Boeuf. Unwilling to be found engaged in his hellish occupation, the savage baron gave the slaves a signal to restore Isaac’s garment; and, quitting the dungeon with his attendants, he left the Jew to thank God for his own deliverance or to lament over his daughter’s captivity, as his personal or parental feelings might prove the stronger.
When the bugle sounded, De Bracy was engaged in pressing his suit with the Saxon heiress Rowena, whom he had carried off under the impression that she would speedily surrender to his rough wooing. But he found her vobdurate as well as tearful and in no humor to listen to his professions of devotion. It was, therefore, with some relief that the free-lance heard the summons at the barbican. Going into the hall of the castle, De Bracy was presently joined by Bois-Guilbert.
“Where is Front-de-Boeuf!” the latter asked.
“He is vnegotiating with the Jew, I suppose,” replied De Bracy, coolly; “probably the howls of Isaac have drowned the blast of the bugle. But we will make the vvassals call him.”
They were soon after joined by Front-de-Boeuf, who had only tarried to give some necessary directions.
“Let us see the cause of this cursed clamor,” he said. “Here is a letter which has just been brought in, and, if I mistake not, it is in Saxon.”
He looked at it, turning it round and round as if he had some hopes of coming at the meaning by inverting the position of the paper, and then handed it to De Bracy.
“It may be magic spells for aught I know,” said De Bracy, who possessed his full proportion of the ignorance which characterized the chivalry of the period.
“Give it to me,” said the Templar. “We have that of the priestly character that we have some knowledge to enlighten our valor.”
“Let us profit by your most reverend knowledge, then,” returned De Bracy. “What says the scroll?”
“It is a formal letter of defiance,” answered Bois-Guilbert; “but, by our Lady of Bethlehem, if it be not a foolish jest, it is the most extraordinary vcartel that ever went across the drawbridge of a baronial castle.”
“Jest!” exclaimed Front-de-Boeuf. “I would gladly know who dares jest with me in such a matter! Read it, Sir Brian.”
The Templar accordingly read as follows:
“I, Wamba, the son of Witless, jester to a noble and free-born man, Cedric of Rotherwood, called the Saxon: and I, Gurth, the son of Beowulph, the swineherd—”
“Thou art mad!” cried Front-de-Boeuf, interrupting the reader.
“By Saint Luke, it is so set down,” answered the Templar. Then, resuming his task, he went on: “I, Gurth, the son of Beowulph, swineherd unto the said Cedric, with the assistance of our allies and confederates, who make common cause with us in this our feud, namely, the good knight, called for the present the Black Knight, and the stout yeoman, Robert Locksley, called Cleve-the-wand: Do you, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, and your allies and accomplices whomsoever, to wit, that whereas you have, without cause given or feud declared, wrongfully and by mastery, seized upon the person of our lord and master, the said Cedric; also upon the person of a noble and free-born damsel, the Lady Rowena; also upon the person of a noble and free-born man, Athelstane of Coningsburgh; also upon the persons of certain free-born men, their vassals; also upon certain serfs, their born bondsmen; also upon a certain Jew, named Isaac of York, together with his daughter, and certain horses and mules: therefore, we require and demand that the said persons be within an hour after the delivery hereof delivered to us, untouched and unharmed in body and goods. Failing of which, we do pronounce to you that we hold ye as robbers and traitors and will wager our bodies against ye in battle and do our utmost to your destruction. Signed by us upon the eve of Saint Withold’s day, under the great oak in the Hart-hill Walk, the above being written by a holy man, clerk to God and Saint Dunstan in the chapel of Copmanhurst.”
The knights heard this uncommon document read from end to end and then gazed upon each other in silent amazement, as being utterly at a loss to know what it could portend. De Bracy was the first to break silence by an uncontrollable fit of laughter, wherein he was joined, though with more moderation, by the Templar. Front-de-Boeuf, on the contrary, seemed impatient of their ill-timed vjocularity.
“I give you plain warning,” he said, “fair sirs, that you had better consult how to bear yourselves under these circumstances than to give way to such misplaced merriment.”
“Front-de-Boeuf has not recovered his temper since his overthrow in the tournament,” said De Bracy to the Templar. “He is cowed at the very idea of a cartel, though it be from a fool and a swineherd.”
“I would thou couldst stand the whole brunt of this adventure thyself, De Bracy,” answered Front-de-Boeuf. “These fellows dared not to have acted with such inconceivable impudence had they not been supported by some strong bands. There are enough outlaws in this forest to resent my protecting the deer. I did but tie one fellow, who was taken red-handed and in the fact, to the horns of a wild stag, which gored him to death in five minutes, and I had as many arrows shot at me as were launched in the tournament. Here, fellow,” he added to one of his attendants, “hast thou sent out to see by what force this precious challenge is to be supported?”
“There are at least two hundred men assembled in the woods,” answered a squire who was in attendance.
“Here is a proper matter!” said Front-de-Boeuf. “This comes of lending you the use of my castle. You cannot manage your undertaking quietly, but you must bring this nest of hornets about my ears!”
“Of hornets?” echoed De Bracy. “Of stingless drones rather—a band of lazy knaves who take to the wood and destroy the venison rather than labor for their maintenance.”
“Stingless!” replied Front-de-Boeuf. “Fork-headed shafts of a cloth-yard in length, and these shot within the breadth of a French crown, are sting enough.”
“For shame, sir knight!” said the Templar. “Let us summon our people and sally forth upon them. One knight—ay, one man-at-arms—were enough for twenty such peasants.”
“Enough, and too much,” agreed De Bracy. “I should be ashamed to couch lance against them.”
“True,” answered Front-de-Boeuf, drily, “were they black Turks or Moors, Sir Templar, or the craven peasants of France, most valiant De Bracy; but these are English yeomen, over whom we shall have no advantage save what we may derive from our arms and horses, which will avail us little in the glades of the forest. Sally, saidst thou? We have scarce men enough to defend the castle. The best of mine are at York; so is your band, De Bracy; and we have scarce twenty, besides the handful that were engaged in this mad business.”
“Thou dost not fear,” said the Templar, “that they can assemble in force sufficient to attempt the castle?”
“Not so, Sir Brian,” answered Front-de-Boeuf. “These outlaws have indeed a daring captain; but without machines, scaling ladders, and experienced leaders my castle may defy them.”
“Send to thy neighbors,” suggested the Templar. “Let them assemble their people and come to the rescue of three knights, besieged by a jester and swineherd in the baronial castle of Reginald Front-de-Boeuf!”
“You jest, sir knight,” answered the baron; “but to whom shall I send? My allies are at York, where I should have also been but for this infernal enterprise.”
“Then send to York and recall our people,” said De Bracy. “If these vchurls abide the shaking of my standard, I will give them credit for the boldest outlaws that ever bent bow in greenwood.”
“And who shall bear such a message?” said Front-de-Boeuf. “The knaves will beset every path and rip the errand out of the man’s bosom. I have it,” he added, after pausing for a moment. “Sir Templar, thou canst write as well as read, and if we can but find writing materials, thou shalt return an answer to this bold challenge.”
Paper and pen were presently brought, and Bois-Guilbert sat down and wrote, in the French language, an epistle of the following tenor:
“Sir Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, with his noble and knightly allies and confederates, receives no defiances at the hands of slaves, bondsmen, or fugitives. If the person calling himself the Black Knight hath indeed a claim to the honors of chivalry, he ought to know that he stands degraded by his present association and has no right to ask reckoning at the hands of good men of noble blood. Touching the prisoners we have made, we do in Christian charity require you to send a man of religion to receive their confession and reconcile them with God; since it is our fixed intention to execute them this morning before noon, so that their heads, being placed on the battlements, shall show to all men how lightly we esteem those who have bestirred themselves in their rescue. Wherefore, as above, we require you to send a priest to reconcile them with God, in doing which you shall render them the last earthly service.”
This letter, being folded, was delivered to the squire, and by him to the messenger who waited without, as the answer to that which he had brought.
About one hour afterward a man arrayed in the cowl and frock of a hermit, and having his knotted cord twisted around his middle, stood before the portal of the castle of Front-de-Boeuf. The warder demanded of him his name and errand.
“Pax obiscum,” answered the priest, “I am a poor brother of the Order of St. Francis who come hither to do my office to certain unhappy prisoners now secured within this castle.”
“Thou art a bold friar,” said the warder, “to come hither, where, saving our own drunken confessor, a rooster of thy feather hath not crowed these twenty years.”
With these words, he carried to the hall of the castle his unwonted intelligence that a friar stood before the gate and desired admission. With no small wonder he received his master’s command to admit the holy man immediately; and, having previously manned the entrance to guard against surprise, he obeyed, without farther scruple, the order given him.
“Who and whence art thou, priest?” demanded Front-de-Boeuf.
“Pax vobiscum,” reiterated the priest, with trembling voice. “I am a poor servant of Saint Francis, who, traveling through this wilderness, have fallen among thieves, which thieves have sent me unto this castle in order to do my ghostly office on two persons condemned by your honorable justice.”
“Ay, right,” answered Front-de-Boeuf; “and canst thou tell me, the number of those banditti?”
“Gallant sir,” said the priest, “vnomen illis legio, their name is legion.”
“Tell me in plain terms what numbers there are, or, priest, thy cloak and cord will ill protect thee from my wrath.”
“Alas!” said the friar, “vcor meum eructavit, that is to say, I was like to burst with fear! But I conceive they may be—what of yeomen, what of commons—at least five hundred men.”
“What!” said the Templar, who came into the hall that moment, “muster the wasps so thick here? It is time to stifle such a mischievous brood.” Then taking Front-de-Boeuf aside, “Knowest thou the priest?”
“He is a stranger from a distant convent,” replied Front-de-Boeuf; “I know him not.”
“Then trust him not with our purpose in words,” urged the Templar. “Let him carry a written order to De Bracy’s company of Free Companions, to repair instantly to their master’s aid. In the meantime, and that the shaveling may suspect nothing, permit him to go freely about his task of preparing the Saxon hogs for the slaughter-house.”
“It shall be so,” said Front-de-Boeuf. And he forthwith appointed a domestic to conduct the friar to the apartment where Cedric and Athelstane were confined.
The natural impatience of Cedric had been rather enhanced than diminished by his confinement. He walked from one end of the hall to the other, with the attitude of a man who advances to charge an enemy or storm the breach of a beleaguered place, sometimes ejaculating to himself and sometimes addressing Athelstane. The latter stoutly and vstoically awaited the issue of the adventure, digesting in the meantime, with great composure, the liberal meal which he had made at noon and not greatly troubling himself about the duration of the captivity.
“Pax vobiscum!” pronounced the priest, entering the apartment. “The blessing of Saint Dunstan, Saint Dennis, Saint Duthoc, and all other saints whatsoever, be upon ye and about ye.”
“Enter freely,” said Cedric to the friar; “with what intent art thou come hither?”
“To bid you prepare yourselves for death,” was the reply.
“It is impossible!” said Cedric, starting. “Fearless and wicked as they are, they dare not attempt such open and vgratuitous cruelty!”
“Alas!” returned the priest, “to restrain them by their sense of humanity is the same as to stop a runaway horse with a bridle of silk thread. Bethink thee, therefore, Cedric, and you also, Athelstane, what crimes you have committed in the flesh, for this very day will ye be called to answer at a higher vtribunal.”
“Hearest thou this, Athelstane?” said Cedric. “We must rouse up our hearts to this last action, since better it is we should die like men than live like slaves.”
“I am ready,” answered Athelstane, “to stand the worst of their malice, and shall walk to my death with as much composure as ever I did to my dinner.”
“Let us, then, unto our holy vgear, father,” said Cedric.
“Wait yet a moment, good vuncle,” said the priest in a voice very different from his solemn tones of a moment before; “better look before you leap in the dark.”
“By my faith!” cried Cedric; “I should know that voice.”
“It is that of your trusty slave and jester,” answered the priest, throwing back his cowl and revealing the face of Wamba. “Take a fool’s advice, and you will not be here long.”
“How meanest thou, knave?” demanded the Saxon.
“Even thus,” replied Wamba; “take thou this frock and cord and march quietly out of the castle, leaving me your cloak and girdle to take the long leap in thy stead.”
“Leave thee in my stead!” exclaimed Cedric, astonished at the proposal; “why, they would hang thee, my poor knave.”
“E’en let them do as they are permitted,” answered Wamba. “I trust—no disparagement to your birth—that the son of Witless may hang in a chain with as much gravity as the chain hung upon his ancestor the valderman.”
“Well, Wamba,” said Cedric, “for one thing will I grant thy request. And that is, if thou wilt make the exchange of garments with Lord Athelstane instead of me.”
“No,” answered Wamba; “there were little reason in that. Good right there is that the son of Witless should suffer to save the son of Hereward; but little wisdom there were in his dying for the benefit of one whose fathers were strangers to his.”
“Villain,” cried Cedric, “the fathers of Athelstane were monarchs of England!”
“They might be whomsoever they pleased,” replied Wamba; “but my neck stands too straight on my shoulders to have it twisted for their sake. Wherefore, good my master, either take my proffer yourself, or suffer me to leave this dungeon as free as I entered.”
“Let the old tree wither,” persisted Cedric, “so the stately hope of the forest be preserved. Save the noble Athelstane, my trusty Wamba! It is the duty of each who has Saxon blood in his veins. Thou and I will abide together the utmost rage of our oppressors, while he, free and safe, shall arouse the awakened spirits of our countrymen to avenge us.”
“Not so, father Cedric,” said Athelstane, grasping his hand—for, when roused to think or act, his deeds and sentiments were not unbecoming his high race—“not so. I would rather remain in this hall a week without food save the prisoner’s stinted loaf, or drink save the prisoner’s measure of water, than embrace the opportunity to escape which the slave’s untaught kindness has vpurveyed for his master. Go, noble Cedric. Your presence without may encourage friends to our rescue; your remaining here would ruin us all.”
“And is there any prospect, then, of rescue from without?” asked Cedric, looking at the jester.
“Prospect indeed!” echoed Wamba. “Let me tell you that when you fill my cloak you are wrapped in a general’s cassock. Five hundred men are there without, and I was this morning one of their chief leaders. My fool’s cap was a vcasque, and my vbauble a truncheon. Well, we shall see what good they will make by exchanging a fool for a wise man. Truly, I fear they will lose in valor what they may gain in discretion. And so farewell, master, and be kind to poor Gurth and his dog Fangs; and let my vcoxcomb hang in the hall at Rotherwood in memory that I flung away my life for my master—like a faithful fool!”
The last word came out with a sort of double expression, betwixt jest and earnest. The tears stood in Cedric’s eyes.
“Thy memory shall be preserved,” he said, “while fidelity and affection have honor upon earth. But that I trust I shall find the means of saving Rowena and thee, Athelstane, and thee also, my poor Wamba, thou shouldst not overbear me in this matter.”
The exchange of dress was now accomplished, when a sudden doubt struck Cedric.
“I know no language but my own and a few words of their mincing Norman. How shall I bear myself like a reverend brother?”
“The spell lies in two words,” replied Wamba: “Pax vobiscum will answer all queries. If you go or come, eat or drink, bless or ban, Pax vobiscum carries you through it all. It is as useful to a friar as a broomstick to a witch or a wand to a conjurer. Speak it but thus, in a deep, grave tone,—Pax vobiscum!—it is irresistible. Watch and ward, knight and squire, foot and horse, it acts as a charm upon them all. I think, if they bring me out to be hanged to-morrow, as is much to be doubted they may, I will try its weight.”
“If such prove the case,” said his master, “my religious orders are soon taken. Pax vobiscum! I trust I shall remember the password. Noble Athelstane, farewell; and farewell, my poor boy, whose heart might make amends for a weaker head. I will save you, or return and die with you. Farewell.”
“Farewell, noble Cedric,” said Athelstane; “remember it is the true part of a friar to accept refreshment, if you are offered any.”
Thus exhorted, Cedric sallied forth upon his expedition and presently found himself in the presence of Front-de-Boeuf. The Saxon, with some difficulty, compelled himself to make obeisance to the haughty baron, who returned his courtesy with a slight inclination of the head.
“Thy penitents, father,” said the latter, “have made a long vshrift. It is the better for them, since it is the last they shall ever make. Hast thou prepared them for death?”
“I found them,” said Cedric, in such French as he could command, “expecting the worst, from the moment they knew into whose power they had fallen.”
“How now, sir friar,” replied Front-de-Boeuf, “thy speech, me thinks, smacks of the rude Saxon tongue?”
“I was bred in the convent of Saint Withold of Burton,” answered Cedric.
“Ay,” said the baron; “it had been better for thee to have been a Norman, and better for my purpose, too; but need has no choice of messengers. That Saint Withold’s of Burton is a howlet’s nest worth the harrying. The day will soon come that the frock shall protect the Saxon as little as the mail-coat.”
“God’s will be done!” returned Cedric, in a voice tremulous with passion, which Front-de-Boeuf imputed to fear.
“I see,” he said, “thou dreamest already that our men-at-arms are in thy refectory and thy ale-vaults. But do me one cast of thy holy office and thou shalt sleep as safe in thy cell as a snail within his shell of proof.”
“Speak your commands,” replied Cedric, with suppressed emotion.
“Follow me through this passage, then, that I may dismiss thee by the postern.”
As he strode on his way before the supposed friar, Front-de-Boeuf thus schooled him in the part which he desired he should act.
“Thou seest, sir friar, yon herd of Saxon swine who have dared to environ this castle of Torquilstone. Tell them whatever thou hast a mind of the weakness of this vfortalice, or aught else that can detain them before it for twenty-four hours. Meantime bear this scroll—but soft—canst thou read, sir priest?”
“Not a jot I,” answered Cedric, “save on my vbreviary; and then I know the characters because I have the holy service by heart, praised be Saint Withold!”
“The fitter messenger for my purpose. Carry thou this scroll to the castle of Philip de vMalvoisin; say it cometh from me and is written by the Templar, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, and that I pray him to send it to York with all speed man and horse can make. Meanwhile, tell him to doubt nothing he shall find us whole and sound behind our battlement. Shame on it, that we should be compelled to hide thus by a pack of runagates who are wont to fly even at the flash of our pennons and the tramp of our horses! I say to thee, priest, contrive some cast of thine art to keep the knaves where they are until our friends bring up their lances.”
With these words, Front-de-Boeuf led the way to a postern where, passing the moat on a single plank, they reached a small barbican, or exterior defense, which communicated with the open field by a well-fortified sally-port.
“Begone, then; and if thou wilt do mine errand, and return hither when it is done, thou shalt see Saxon flesh cheap as ever was hog’s in the shambles of Sheffield. And, hark thee! thou seemest to be a jolly confessor—come hither after the onslaught and thou shalt have as much good wine as would drench thy whole convent.”
“Assuredly we shall meet again,” answered Cedric.
“Something in the hand the whilst,” continued the Norman; and, as they parted at the postern door, he thrust in Cedric’s reluctant hand a gold vbyzant, adding, “Remember, I will flay off both cowl and skin if thou failest in thy purpose.”
The supposed priest passed out of the door without further words.
Front-de-Boeuf turned back within the castle.
“Ho! Giles jailer,” he called, “let them bring Cedric of Rotherwood before me, and the other churl, his companion—him I mean of Coningsburgh—Athelstane there, or what call they him? Their very names are an encumbrance to a Norman knight’s mouth, and have, as it were, a flavor of bacon. Give me a stoop of wine, as jolly Prince John would say, that I may wash away the relish. Place it in the armory, and thither lead the prisoners.”
His commands were obeyed; and upon entering that Gothic apartment, hung with many spoils won by his own valor and that of his father, he found a flagon of wine on a massive oaken table, and the two Saxon captives under the guard of four of his dependants. Front-de-Boeuf took a long draught of wine and then addressed his prisoners, for the imperfect light prevented his perceiving that the more important of them had escaped.
“Gallants of England,” said Front-de-Boeuf, “how relish ye your entertainment at Torquilstone? Faith and Saint Dennis, an ye pay not a rich ransom, I will hang ye up by the feet from the iron bars of these windows till the kites and hooded crows have made skeletons of you! Speak out, ye Saxon dogs, what bid ye for your worthless lives? What say you, you of Rotherwood?”
“Not a vdoit I,” answered poor Wamba, “and for hanging up by the feet, my brain has been topsy-turvy ever since the vbiggin was bound first around my head; so turning me upside down may peradventure restore it again.”
“Hah!” cried Front-de-Boeuf, “what have we here?”
And with the back of his hand he struck Cedric’s cap from the head of the jester, and throwing open his collar, discovered the fatal badge of servitude, the silver collar round his neck.
“Giles—Clement—dogs and varlets!” called the furious Norman, “what villain have you brought me here?”
“I think I can tell you,” said De Bracy, who just entered the apartment. “This is Cedric’s clown.”
“Go,” ordered Front-de-Boeuf; “fetch me the right Cedric hither, and I pardon your error for once—the rather that you but mistook a fool for a Saxon vfranklin.”
“Ay, but,” said Wamba, “your chivalrous excellency will find there are more fools than franklins among us.”
“What means this knave?” said Front-de-Boeuf, looking toward his followers, who, lingering and loath, faltered forth their belief that if this were not Cedric who was there in presence, they knew not what was become of him.
“Heavens!” exclaimed De Bracy. “He must have escaped in the monk’s garments!”
“Fiends!” echoed Front-de-Boeuf. “It was then the boar of Rotherwood whom I ushered to the postern and dismissed with my own hands! And thou,” he said to Wamba, “whose folly could over-reach the wisdom of idiots yet more gross than thyself. I will give thee holy orders, I will shave thy crown for thee! Here, let them tear the scalp from his head and pitch him headlong from the battlements. Thy trade is to jest: canst thou jest now?”
“You deal with me better than your word, noble knight,” whimpered forth poor Wamba, whose habits of vbuffoonery were not to be overcome even by the immediate prospect of death; “if you give me the red cap you propose, out of a simple monk you will make a vcardinal.”
“The poor wretch,” said De Bracy, “is resolved to die in his vocation.” The next moment would have been Wamba’s last but for an unexpected interruption. A hoarse shout, raised by many voices, bore to the inmates of the hall the tidings that the besiegers were advancing to the attack. There was a moment’s silence in the hall, which was broken by De Bracy. “To the battlements,” he said; “let us see what these knaves do without.”
So saying, he opened a latticed window which led to a sort of projecting balcony, and immediately called to those in the apartment, “Saint Dennis, it is time to stir! They bring forward vmantelets and vpavisses, and the archers muster on the skirts of the wood like a dark cloud before a hail-storm.”
Front-de-Boeuf also looked out upon the field and immediately snatched his bugle. After winding a long and loud blast, he commanded his men to their posts on the walls.
“De Bracy, look to the eastern side, where the walls are lowest. Noble Bois-Guilbert, thy trade hath well taught thee how to attack and defend, so look thou to the western side. I myself will take post at the barbican. Our numbers are few, but activity and courage may supply that defect, since we have only to do with rascal clowns.”
The Templar had in the meantime been looking out on the proceedings of the besiegers with deeper attention than Front-de-Boeuf or his giddy companion.
“By the faith of mine order,” he said, “these men approach with more touch of discipline than could have been judged, however they come by it. See ye how dexterously they avail themselves of every cover which a tree or bush affords and avoid exposing themselves to the shot of our cross-bows? I spy neither banner nor pennon, and yet I will gage my golden chain that they are led by some noble knight or gentleman skillful in the practice of wars.”
“I espy him,” said De Bracy; “I see the waving of a knight’s crest and the gleam of his armor. See yon tall man in the black mail who is busied marshaling the farther troop of the rascally yeomen. By Saint Dennis, I hold him to be the knight who did so well in the tournament at Ashby.”
The demonstrations of the enemy’s approach cut off all farther discourse. The Templar and De Bracy repaired to their posts and, at the head of the few followers they were able to muster, awaited with calm determination the threatened assault, while Front-de-Boeuf went to see that all was secure in the besieged fortress.
In the meantime, the wounded Wilfred of Ivanhoe had been gradually recovering his strength. Taken into her litter by Rebecca when his own father hesitated to succor him, the young knight had lain in a stupor through all the experiences of the journey and the capture of Cedric’s party by the Normans. De Bracy, who, bad as he was, was not without some compunction, on finding the occupant of the litter to be Ivanhoe, had placed the invalid under the charge of two of his squires, who were directed to state to any inquirers that he was a wounded comrade. This explanation was now accordingly returned by these men to Front-de-Boeuf, when, in going the round of the castle, he questioned them why they did not make for the battlements upon the alarm of the attack.
“A wounded comrade!” he exclaimed in great wrath and astonishment. “No wonder that churls and yeomen wax so presumptuous as even to lay leaguer before castles, and that clowns and swineherds send defiances to nobles, since men-at-arms have turned sick men’s nurses. To the battlements, ye loitering villains!” he cried, raising his vstentorian voice till the arches rang again; “to the battlements, or I will splinter your bones with this truncheon.”
The men, who, like most of their description, were fond of enterprise and detested inaction, went joyfully to the scene of danger, and the care of Ivanhoe fell to Rebecca, who occupied a neighboring apartment and who was not kept in close confinement.
The beautiful young Jewess rejoined the knight, whom she had so signally befriended, at the moment of the beginning of the attack on the castle. Ivanhoe, already much better and chafing at his enforced inaction, resembled the war-horse who scenteth the battle afar.
“If I could but drag myself to yonder window,” he said, “that I might see how this brave game is like to go—if I could strike but a single blow for our deliverance! It is in vain; I am alike nerveless and weaponless!”
“Fret not thyself, noble knight,” answered Rebecca, “the sounds have ceased of a sudden. It may be they join not battle.”
“Thou knowest naught of it,” returned Wilfred, impatiently; “this dead pause only shows that the men are at their posts on the walls and expect an instant attack. What we have heard was but the distant muttering of the storm, which will burst anon in all its fury. Could I but reach yonder window!”
“Thou wilt injure thyself by the attempt, noble knight,” replied the attendant. Then she added, “I myself will stand at the lattice and describe to you as I can what passes without.”
“You must not; you shall not!” exclaimed Ivanhoe. “Each lattice will soon be a mark for the archers; some random shaft may strike you. At least cover thy body with yonder ancient buckler and show as little of thyself as may be.”
Availing herself of the protection of the large, ancient shield, which she placed against the lower part of the window, Rebecca, with tolerable security, could witness part of what was passing without the castle and report to Ivanhoe the preparations being made for the storming. From where she stood she had a full view of the outwork likely to be the first object of the assault. It was a fortification of no great height or strength, intended to protect the postern-gate through which Cedric had been recently dismissed by Front-de-Boeuf. The castle moat divided this species of barbican from the rest of the fortress, so that, in case of its being taken, it was easy to cut off the communication with the main building by withdrawing the temporary bridge. In the outwork was a sally-port corresponding to the postern of the castle, and the whole was surrounded by a strong palisade. From the mustering of the assailants in a direction nearly opposite the outwork, it seemed plain that this point had been selected for attack.
Rebecca communicated this to Ivanhoe, and added, “The skirts of the wood seem lined with archers, although only a few are advanced from its dark shadow.”
“Under what banner?” asked Ivanhoe.
“Under no ensign of war which I can observe,” answered Rebecca.
“A singular novelty,” muttered the knight, “to advance to storm such a castle without pennon or banner displayed! Seest thou who they are that act as leaders? Or, are all of them but stout yeomen?”
“A knight clad in sable armor is the most conspicuous,” she replied; “he alone is armed from head to foot, and he seems to assume the direction of all around him.”
“Seem there no other leaders?” demanded the anxious inquirer.
“None of mark and distinction that I can behold from this station,” said Rebecca. “They appear even now preparing to attack. God of Zion protect us! What a dreadful sight! Those who advance first bear huge shields and defenses made of plank; the others follow, bending their bows as they come on. They raise their bows! God of Moses, forgive the creatures thou hast made!”
Her description was suddenly interrupted by the signal for assault, which was the blast of a shrill bugle, at once answered by a flourish of the Norman trumpets from the battlements. The shouts of both parties augmented the fearful din, the assailants crying, “Saint George for merry England!” and the Normans answering them with cries of “vBeauseant! Beauseant!“
It was not, however, by clamor that the contest was to be decided, and the desperate efforts of the assailants were met by an equally vigorous defense on the part of the besieged. The archers, trained by their woodland pastimes to the most effective use of the longbow, shot so rapidly and accurately that no point at which a defender could show the least part of his person escaped their vcloth-yard shafts. By this heavy discharge, which continued as thick and sharp as hail, two or three of the garrison were slain and several others wounded. But, confident in their armor of proof and in the cover which their situation afforded, the followers of Front-de-Boeuf, and his allies, showed an obstinacy in defense proportioned to the fury of the attack, replying with the discharge of their large cross-bows to the close and continued shower of arrows. As the assailants were necessarily but indifferently protected, they received more damage than they did.
“And I must lie here like a bedridden monk,” exclaimed Ivanhoe, “while the game that gives me freedom or death is played out by the hands of others! Look from the window once again, kind maiden, but beware that you are not marked by the archers beneath—look out once more and tell me if they yet advance to the storm.”
With patient courage, Rebecca again took post at the lattice.
“What dost thou see?” demanded the wounded knight.
“Nothing but the cloud of arrows flying so thick as to dazzle mine eyes and hide the bowmen who shoot them.”
“That cannot endure,” remarked Ivanhoe. “If they press not on to carry the castle by pure force of arms, the archery may avail but little against stone walls and bulwarks. Look for the sable knight and see how he bears himself, for as the leader is, so will his followers be.”
“I see him not,” said Rebecca.
“Foul craven!” exclaimed Ivanhoe; “does he blench from the helm when the wind blows highest?”
“He blenches not! he blenches not!” cried Rebecca. “I see him now; he heads a body of men close under the outer barrier of the barbican. They pull down the piles and palisades; they hew down the barriers with axes. His high black plume floats over the throng, like a raven over the field of the slain. They have made a breach in the barriers—they rush in—they are thrust back! Front-de-Boeuf heads the defenders; I see his gigantic form above the press. They throng again to the breach, and the pass is disputed hand to hand, and man to man. Have mercy, God!”
She turned her head from the lattice, as if unable longer to endure a sight so terrible.
“Look forth again, Rebecca,” urged Ivanhoe, mistaking the cause of her retiring; “the archery must in some degree have ceased, since they are now fighting hand to hand. Look again; there is less danger.”
Rebecca again looked forth and almost immediately exclaimed: “Holy prophets of the law! Front-de-Boeuf and the Black Knight fight hand to hand in the breach, amid the roar of their followers, who watch the progress of the strife.” She then uttered a loud shriek, “He is down! he is down!”
“Who is down?” cried Ivanhoe; “tell me which has fallen?”
“The Black Knight,” answered Rebecca, faintly; then shouted with joyful eagerness, “But no—the name of the Lord of Hosts be blessed!—he is on foot again and fights as if there were twenty men’s strength in his single arm. His sword is broken—he snatches an ax from a yeoman—he presses Front-de-Boeuf with blow on blow. The giant stoops and totters like an oak under the steel of a woodsman—he falls—he falls!”
“Front-de-Boeuf?” exclaimed Ivanhoe.
“Front-de-Boeuf!” answered the Jewess. “His men rush to the rescue, headed by the haughty Templar—their united force compels the champion to pause—they drag Front-de-Boeuf within the walls.”
“The assailants have won the barriers, have they not?” Ivanhoe eagerly queried.
“They have! they have!” answered Rebecca; “and they press the besieged hard on the outer wall. Some plant ladders, some swarm like bees and endeavor to ascend upon the shoulders of each other. Down go stones, beams, and trunks of trees on their heads, and as fast as they bear the wounded to the rear, fresh men supply their places. Great God! hast thou given men thine own image, that it should be thus cruelly defaced by the hands of their brethren!”
“Think not of that,” said Ivanhoe. “This is no time for such thoughts. Who yield—who push their way?”
“The ladders are thrown down,” replied Rebecca, shuddering; “the soldiers lie groveling under them like crushed reptiles; the besieged have the better.”
“Saint George strike for us!” exclaimed the knight; “do the false yeomen give way?”
“No,” exclaimed Rebecca, “they bear themselves right yeomanly—the Black Knight approaches the postern with his huge ax—the thundering blows he deals you may hear above all the din of the battle. Stones and beams are hailed down on the bold champion—he regards them no more than if they were thistle-down or feathers!”
“By Saint John of Acre,” cried Ivanhoe, raising himself joyfully on his couch, “methought there was but one man in England that might do such a deed!”
“The postern-gate shakes,” continued Rebecca; “it crashes—it is splintered by his blows—they rush in—the outwork is won! Oh, God! they hurl the defenders from the battlements—they throw them into the moat—men, if ye indeed be men, spare them that can resist no longer!”
“The bridge—the bridge which communicates with the castle—have they won that pass?”
“No,” replied Rebecca. “The Templar has destroyed the plank on which they crossed—few of the defenders escaped with him into the castle—the shrieks and cries you hear tell the fate of the others! Alas! I see it is more difficult to look on victory than on battle.”
“What do they now, maiden?” asked Ivanhoe. “Look forth yet again; this is no time to faint at bloodshed.”
“It is over for the time,” answered Rebecca. “Our friends strengthen themselves within the outwork which they have mastered; it affords them so good a shelter from the foeman’s shot that the garrison only bestow a few bolts on it from interval to interval, as if to disquiet rather than to injure them.”
“Our friends,” said Wilfred, “will surely not abandon an enterprise so gloriously begun and so happily attained. Oh, no! I will put my faith in the good knight whose ax hath rent heart-of-oak and bars of iron.”
During the interval of quiet which followed the first success of the besiegers, the Black Knight was employed in causing to be constructed a sort of floating bridge, or long raft, by means of which he hoped to cross the moat in despite of the resistance of the enemy. This was a work of some time.
When the raft was completed, the Black Knight addressed the besiegers: “It avails not waiting here longer, my friends; the sun is descending in the west, and I may not tarry for another day. Besides, it will be a marvel if the horsemen do not come upon us from York, unless we speedily accomplish our purpose. Wherefore, one of you go to Locksley and bid him commence a discharge of arrows on the opposite side of the castle, and move forward as if about to assault it; while you, true Englishmen, stand by me and be ready to thrust the raft end-long over the moat whenever the postern on our side is thrown open. Follow me boldly across, and aid me to burst yon sally-port in the main wall of the castle. As many of you as like not this service, or are but ill-armed, do you man the top of the outwork, draw your bowstrings to your ears and quell with your shot whoever shall appear upon the rampant. Noble Cedric, wilt thou take the direction of those that remain?”
“Not so,” answered the Saxon. “Lead I cannot, but my posterity curse me in my grave if I follow not with the foremost wherever thou shalt point the way!”
“Yet, bethink thee, noble Saxon,” said the knight, “thou hast neither hauberk nor corslet, nor aught but that light helmet, vtarget, and sword.”
“The better,” replied Cedric; “I shall be the lighter to climb these walls. And—forgive the boast, sir knight—thou shalt this day see the naked breast of a Saxon as boldly presented to the battle as ever you beheld the steel corslet of a Norman warrior.”
“In the name of God, then,” said the knight, “fling open the door and launch the floating bridge!”
The portal which led from the inner wall of the barbican, now held by the besiegers, to the moat and corresponded with a sally-port in the main wall of the castle was suddenly opened. The temporary bridge was immediately thrust forward and extended its length between the castle and outwork, forming a slippery and precarious passage for two men abreast to cross the moat. Well aware of the importance of taking the foe by surprise, the Black Knight, closely followed by Cedric, threw himself upon the bridge and reached the opposite shore. Here he began to thunder with his ax on the gate of the castle, protected in part from the shot and stones cast by the defenders by the ruins of the former drawbridge, which the Templar had demolished in his retreat from the barbican, leaving the vcounterpoise still attached to the upper part of the portal. The followers of the knight had no such shelter; two were instantly shot with cross-bow bolts, and two more fell into the moat. The others retreated back into the barbican.
The situation of Cedric and the Black Knight was now truly dangerous and would have been still more so but for the constancy of the archers in the barbican, who ceased not to shower their arrows on the battlements, distracting the attention of those by whom they were manned and thus affording a respite to their two chiefs from the storm of missiles, which must otherwise have overwhelmed them. But their situation was eminently perilous, and was becoming more so with every moment.
“Shame on ye all!” cried De Bracy to the soldiers around him; “do ye call yourselves cross-bowmen and let these two dogs keep their station under the walls of the castle? Heave over the coping stones from the battlement, an better may not be. Get pick-ax and levers and down with that huge pinnacle!” pointing to a heavy piece of stone-carved work that projected from the parapet.
At this moment Locksley whipped up the courage of his men.
“Saint George for England!” he cried. “To the charge, bold yeomen! Why leave ye the good knight and noble Cedric to storm the pass alone? Make in, yeomen! The castle is taken. Think of honor; think of spoil. One effort and the place is ours.”
With that he bent his good bow and sent a shaft right through the breast of one of the men-at-arms, who, under De Bracy’s direction, was loosening a fragment from one of the battlements to precipitate on the heads of Cedric and the Black Knight. A second soldier caught from the hands of the dying man the iron crow, with which he had heaved up and loosened the stone pinnacle, when, receiving an arrow through his headpiece, he dropped from the battlement into the moat a dead man. The men-at-arms were daunted, for no armor seemed proof against the shot of this tremendous archer.
“Do you give ground, base knaves?” cried De Bracy. “vMountjoy Saint Dennis! Give me the lever.”
Snatching it up, he again assailed the loosened pinnacle, which was of weight enough, if thrown down, not only to have destroyed the remnant of the drawbridge, which sheltered the two foremost assailants, but also to have sunk the rude float of planks over which they had crossed. All saw the danger, and the boldest, even the stout friar himself, avoided setting a foot on the raft. Thrice did Locksley bend his shaft against De Bracy, and thrice did his arrow bound back from the knight’s armor of proof.
“Curse on thy Spanish steel-coat!” said Locksley; “had English smith forged it, these arrows had gone through it as if it had been silk.” He then began to call out: “Comrades! friends! noble Cedric! bear back and let the ruin fall.”
His warning voice was unheard, for the din which the Black Knight himself occasioned by his strokes upon the postern would have drowned twenty war-trumpets. The faithful Gurth indeed sprang forward on the planked bridge to warn Cedric of his impending fate, or to share it with him. But his warning would have come too late; the massive pinnacle already tottered, and De Bracy, who still heaved at his task, would have accomplished it, had not the voice of the Templar sounded close in his ear.
“All is lost, De Bracy; the castle burns.”
“Thou art mad to say so,” replied the knight.
“It is all in a light flame on the western side,” returned Bois-Guilbert. “I have striven in vain to extinguish it.”
“What is to be done?” cried De Bracy. “I vow to Saint Nicholas of Limoges a candlestick of pure gold—”
“Spare thy vow,” said the Templar, “and mark me. Lead thy men down, as if to a sally; throw the postern-gate open. There are but two men who occupy the float; fling them into the moat and push across to the barbican. I will charge from the main gate and attack the barbican on the outside. If we can regain that post, we shall defend ourselves until we are relieved or, at least, until they grant us fair quarter.”
“It is well thought upon,” replied De Bracy; “I will play my part.”
De Bracy hastily drew his men together and rushed down to the postern-gate, which he caused instantly to be thrown open. Scarce was this done ere the portentous strength of the Black Knight forced his way inward in despite of De Bracy and his followers. Two of the foremost instantly fell, and the rest gave way, notwithstanding all their leader’s efforts to stop them.
“Dogs!” cried De Bracy; “will ye let two men win our only pass for safety?”
“He is the devil!” replied a veteran man-at-arms, bearing back from the blows of their sable antagonist.
“And if he be the devil,” said De Bracy, “would you fly from him into the mouth of hell? The castle burns behind us, villains! Let despair give you courage, or let me forward. I will cope with this champion myself.”
And well and chivalrously did De Bracy that day maintain the fame he had acquired in the civil wars of that dreadful period. The vaulted passages in which the two redoubted champions were now fighting hand to hand rang with the furious blows they dealt each other, De Bracy with his sword, the Black Knight with his ponderous ax. At length the Norman received a blow, which, though its force was partly parried by his shield, descended yet with such violence on his crest that he measured his length on the paved floor.
“Yield thee, De Bracy,” said the Black Knight, stooping over him and holding against the bars of his helmet the fatal poniard with which knights despatched their enemies; “yield thee, Maurice de Bracy, rescue or no rescue, or thou art but a dead man. Speak!”
The gallant Norman, seeing the hopelessness of further resistance, yielded, and was allowed to rise.
“Let me tell thee what it imports thee to know,” he said. “Wilfred of Ivanhoe is wounded and a prisoner, and will perish in the burning castle without present help.”
“Wilfred of Ivanhoe!” exclaimed the Black Knight. “The life of every man in the castle shall answer if a hair of his head be singed. Show me his chamber!”
“Ascend yonder stair,” directed De Bracy. “It leads to his apartment.”
The turret was now in bright flames, which flashed out furiously from window and shot-hole. But, in other parts, the great thickness of the walls and the vaulted roofs of the apartments resisted the progress of the fire, and there the rage of man still triumphed; for the besiegers pursued the defenders of the castle from chamber to chamber. Most of the garrison resisted to the uttermost; few of them asked quarter—none received it. The air was filled with groans and the clashing of arms.
Through this scene of confusion the Black Knight rushed in quest of Ivanhoe, whom he found in Rebecca’s charge. The knight, picking up the wounded man as if he were a child, bore him quickly to safety. In the meantime, Cedric had gone in search of Rowena, followed by the faithful Gurth. The noble Saxon was so fortunate as to reach his ward’s apartment just as she had abandoned all hope of safety and sat in expectation of instant death. He committed her to the charge of Gurth, to be carried without the castle. The loyal Cedric then hastened in quest of his friend Athelstane, determined at every risk to himself to save the prince. But ere Cedric penetrated as far as the old hall in which he himself had been a prisoner, the inventive genius of Wamba had procured liberation for himself and his companion.
When the noise of the conflict announced that it was at the hottest, the jester began to shout with the utmost power of his lungs, “Saint George and the Dragon! Bonny Saint George for merry England! The castle is won!” These sounds he rendered yet more fearful by banging against each other two or three pieces of rusty armor which lay scattered around the hall.
The guards at once ran to tell the Templar that foemen had entered the old hall. Meantime the prisoners found no difficulty in making their escape into the court of the castle, which was now the last scene of the contest. Here sat the fierce Templar, mounted on horseback and surrounded by several of the garrison, who had united their strength in order to secure the last chance of safety and retreat which remained to them. The principal, and now the single remaining drawbridge, had been lowered by his orders, but the passage was beset; for the archers, who had hitherto only annoyed the castle on that side by their missiles, no sooner saw the flames breaking out and the bridge lowered than they thronged to the entrance. On the other hand, a party of the besiegers who had entered by the postern on the opposite side were now issuing into the court-yard and attacking with fury the remnant of the defenders in the rear.
Animated, however, by despair and the example of their gallant leader, the remaining soldiers of the castle fought with the utmost valor; and, being well armed, they succeeded in driving back the assailants.
Crying aloud, “Those who would save themselves, follow me!” Bois-Guilbert pushed across the drawbridge, dispersing the archers who would have stopped them. He was followed by the Saracen slaves and some five or six men-at-arms, who had mounted their horses. The Templar’s retreat was rendered perilous by the number of arrows shot at him and his party; but this did not prevent him from galloping round to the barbican, where he expected to find De Bracy.
“De Bracy!” he shouted, “art thou there?”
“I am here,” answered De Bracy, “but a prisoner.”
“Can I rescue thee?” cried Bois-Guilbert.
“No,” said the other. “I have rendered myself.”
Upon hearing this, the Templar galloped off with his followers, leaving the besiegers in complete possession of the castle.
Fortunately, by this time all the prisoners had been rescued and stood together without the castle, while the yeomen ran through the apartments seeking to save from the devouring flames such valuables as might be found. They were soon driven out by the fiery element. The towering flames surmounted every obstruction and rose to the evening skies one huge and burning beacon, seen far and wide through the adjacent country. Tower after tower crashed down, with blazing roof and rafter.
The victors, assembling in large bands, gazed with wonder not unmixed with fear upon the flames, in which their own ranks and arms glanced dusky red. The voice of Locksley was at length heard, “Shout, yeomen! the den of tyrants is no more! Let each bring his spoil to the tree in Hart-hill Walk, for there we will make just partition among ourselves, together with our worthy allies in this great deed of vengeance.”