Part 5 out of 8
of astonishment was echoed by the man when once he had made sure that
his senses were not deceiving him, but that it was really little Roger,
whom he had long believed to be dead; and both he and his companion were
eagerly welcomed in and set down to a plentiful meal of bread and
venison pasty, whilst the boy told his long and adventurous story as
briefly as he could, Stephen listening with parted lips and staring
eyes, as if to the recital of some miraculous narrative.
And in truth the tale was strange enough, told in its main aspects: the
escape from Basildene, which to himself always partook of the nature of
a miracle, the conflict with the powers of darkness in the Monastery,
his adventures in France, and now his marvellous escape in the midst of
the plague-stricken people whom he had tended and helped. The ranger,
who had lost his own wife and children in the distemper, and had himself
escaped, had lost all fear of the contagion --indeed he cared little
whether he lived or died; and when he heard upon what errand the youths
were bent, he declared he would gladly come with them, for the solitude
of his cottage was so oppressive to him that he would have welcomed even
a plague-stricken guest sooner than be left much longer with only his
hounds and his own thoughts for company.
"If I cannot tend the sick, I can at least bury the dead," he said,
drawing his horny hand across his eyes, remembering for whom he had but
lately performed that last sad office. And Raymond, to whom this offer
was addressed, accepted his company gladly, for he knew by recent
experience how great was the need for helpers where the sick and the
dead so far outnumbered the whole and sound.
He had gone off into a reverie as he sat by the peat fire, whilst Roger
and the ranger continued talking together eagerly of many matters, and
he heard little of what passed until roused by the name of Basildene
spoken more than once, and he commanded his drowsy and wearied faculties
to listen to what the ranger was saying.
"Yes, the Black Death has found its way in behind those walls, men say.
The old sorcerer tried all his black arts to keep it out; but there came
by one this morning who told me that the old man had been seized, and
was lying without a soul to go near him. They have but two servants that
have ever stayed with them in that vile place, and these both thought
the old man's dealings with the devil would at least suffice to keep the
scourge away, and felt themselves safer there than elsewhere. But the
moment he was seized they both ran away and left him, and there they say
he is lying still, untended and unwatched -- if he be not dead by now.
For as for the son, he had long since made his own preparations. He has
shut himself up in a turret, with a plentiful supply of food; and he
burns a great fire of scented wood and spices at the foot of the
stairway, and another in the place he lives in, and never means to stir
forth until the distemper has passed. One of the servants, before he
fled, went to the stair foot and called to him to tell him that his
father lay a-dying of the plague below; but he only laughed, and said it
was time he went to the devil, who had been waiting so long for him; and
the man rushed out of the house in affright at the sound of such
terrible blasphemy and unnatural wickedness at a time like this."
Raymond's face took a new expression as he heard these words. The
lassitude and weariness passed out of it, and a curious light crept into
his eyes. Roger and the ranger continued to talk together of many
things, but their silent companion still sat motionless beside the
hearth. Over his face was stealing a look of purpose -- such purpose as
follows a struggle of the spirit over natural distaste and disgust.
When the ranger presently left them, to see what simple preparations he
could make for their comfort during the night, he motioned to Roger to
come nearer, and looking steadily at him, he said:
"Roger, I am going to Basildene tonight, to see what human skill may do
for the old Sanghurst. He is our enemy -- thine and mine -- therefore
doubly is it our duty to minister to him in the hour of his extremity. I
go forth this night to seek him. Wilt thou go with me? or dost thou fear
to fall again under the sway of his evil mind, or his son's, if thou
puttest foot within the halls of Basildene again?"
For a moment a look of strong repulsion crossed Roger's face. He shrank
back a little, and looked as though he would have implored his young
master to reconsider his resolution. But something in the luminous
glance of those clear bright eyes restrained him, and presently some of
their lofty purpose seemed to be infused into his own soul.
"If thou goest, I too will go," he said. "At thy side no harm from the
Evil One can come nigh me. Have I not proved that a hundred times ere
now? And the spell has long been broken off my neck and off my spirit. I
fear neither the sorcerer nor his son. If it be for us -- if it be a
call -- to go even to him in the hour of his need, I will go without a
thought of fear. I go in the name of the Holy Virgin and her Son. I need
not fear what man can do against me."
Great was the astonishment of the worthy ranger when he returned to hear
the purpose upon which his guests were bent; but he had already imbibed
some of that strange reverential admiration for Raymond which he so
frequently inspired in those about him, and it did not for a moment
occur to him to attempt to dissuade him from an object upon which his
mind was bent.
The October night, though dark and moonless, was clear, and the stars
were shining in the sky as the little procession started forth. The
ranger insisted on being one of the number. Partly from curiosity,
partly from sheer hatred of solitude, and a good deal from interest in
his companions and their errand of mercy, he had decided to come with
them, not merely to show them the way to Basildene, which he could find
equally well by night as by day, but to see the result of their journey
there, and take on with him to Guildford the description of the old
sorcerer's home and his seizure there.
As they moved along through the whispering wood, the man, in low and
awe-stricken tones, asked Roger of his old life there, and what it was
that made him of such value to the Sanghursts. Raymond had never talked
to the lad of that chapter in his past life, always abiding by Father
Paul's advice to let him forget it as far as possible.
Now, however, Roger seemed able to speak of it calmly, and without the
terror and emotion that any recollection of that episode used to cause
him in past years. He could talk now of the strange trances into which
he was thrown, and how he was made to see things at a distance and tell
all he saw. Generally it was travellers upon the road he was instructed
to watch, and forced to describe the contents of the mails they carried
with them. Some instinct made the boy many times struggle hard against
revealing the nature of the valuables he saw that these people had about
them, knowing well how they would be plundered by his rapacious masters,
after they had tempted them upon the treacherous swamp not far from
Basildene, where, if they escaped with their lives, it would be as much
as they could hope to do. But the truth was always wrung from him by
suffering at last -- not that his body was in any way injured by them,
save by the prolonged fasts inflicted upon him to intensify his gift of
clairvoyance; but whilst in these trances they could make him believe
that any sort of pain was being inflicted, and he suffered it exactly as
though it had been actually done upon his bodily frame. Thus they forced
from his reluctant lips every item of information they desired; and he
knew when plunder was brought into the house, and stored in the deep
underground cellars, how and whence it had come -- knew, too, that many
and many a wretched traveller had been overwhelmed in the swamp who
might have escaped with life and goods but for him.
It was the horror of this conviction, and the firm belief that he had
been bound over body and soul to Satan, that was killing him by inches
when the twin brothers effected his rescue. He did not always remember
clearly in his waking moments what had passed in his hours of trance,
but the horror of great darkness always remained with him; and at some
moments everything would come upon him with a fearful rush, and he would
remain stupefied and overwhelmed with anguish.
To all of this Raymond listened with great interest. He and John had
read of some such phenomena in their books relating to the history of
magic; and little as the hypnotic state was understood in those days,
the young student had gained some slight insight into the matter, and
was able to speak of his convictions to Roger with some assurance. He
told him that though he verily believed such power over the wills of
others to be in some sort the work of the devil, it might yet be
successfully withstood by a resolute will, bound over to the
determination to yield nothing to the strong and evil wills of others.
And Roger, who had long since fought his fight and gained strength and
confidence, was not afraid of venturing into the stronghold of
wickedness -- less so than ever now that he might go at Raymond's side.
It was midnight before the lonely house was reached, and Raymond's heart
beat high as he saw the outline of the old walls looming up against the
gloomy sky. Not a light was to be seen burning in any of the windows,
save a single gleam from out the turret at the corner away to the left;
and though owls hooted round the place, and bats winged their uncertain
flight, no other living thing was to be seen, and the silence of death
seemed to brood over the house.
"This is the way to the door that is the only one used," said Stephen,
"and we shall find it unlocked for certain, seeing that the servants
have run away, and the young master will not go nigh his father, not
though he were ten times dying. My lantern will guide us surely enough
through the dark passages, and maybe young Roger will know where the old
man is like to be found."
"Below stairs, I doubt not, amongst his bottles and books of magic,"
answered Roger, with a light shiver, as he passed through the doorway
and found himself once again within the evil house. "He would think that
in yon place no contagion could touch him. He spent his days and nights
alike there. He scarce left it save to go abroad, or perchance to have a
few hours' sleep in his bed. But the treasure is buried somewhere nigh
at hand down in those cellars, though the spot I know not. And he fears
to leave it night or day, lest some stealthy hand filch away the
ill-gotten gain. Men thought he had the secret whereby all might be
changed to gold, and indeed he would ofttimes bring pure gold out from
the crucibles over his fire; but he had cast in first, unknown to those
who so greedily watched him, the precious baubles he had stolen from
travellers upon the road. He was a very juggler with his hands. I have
watched him a thousand times at tricks which would have made the fortune
of a travelling mountebank. But soft! here is the door at the head of
the stairs. Take heed how that is opened, lest the hound fly at thy
throat. Give me the lantern, and have thou thy huntsman's knife to
plunge into his throat, else he may not let us pass down alive."
But when the door was opened, the hound, instead of growling or
springing, welcomed them with whines of eager welcome. The poor beast
was almost starved, and had been tamed by hunger to unwonted gentleness.
Raymond, who had food in his wallet, fed him with small pieces as they
cautiously descended the stairs, for Basildene would furnish them with
more if need be; the larder and cellar there were famous in their way,
though few cared to accept of their owner's hospitality.
Roger almost expected to find the great door of that subterranean room
bolted and locked, so jealous was its owner of entrance being made
there; but it yielded readily to the touch, and the three, with the
hound, passed in together.
In a moment Raymond knew by the peculiar atmosphere, which even in so
large a place was sickly and fetid, that they were in the presence of
one afflicted with the true distemper. The place was in total darkness
save for the light of the lantern the ranger carried; but there were
lamps in sconces all along the wall, and these Roger quickly lighted,
being familiar enough with this underground place, which it had been
part of his duty to see to. The light from these lamps was pure and
white and very bright, and lit up the weird vaulted chamber from end to
end. It shone upon a stiffened figure lying prone upon the floor not far
from the vaulted fireplace, upon whose hearth the embers lay black and
cold; and Raymond, springing suddenly forward as his glance rested upon
this figure, feared that he had come too late, and that the foe of his
house had passed beyond the power of human aid.
"Help me to lift him," he said to Stephen; "and, Roger, kindle thou a
fire upon the hearth. There may be life in him yet. We will try what we
know. Yes, methinks his heart beats faintly; and the tokens of the
distemper are plainly out upon him. Perchance he may yet live. Of late I
have seen men rise up from their beds whom we have given up for lost."
Raymond was beginning to realize that the black boils, so often looked
upon as the death tokens, were by no means in reality anything of the
kind. As a matter of fact, of the cases that recovered, most, if not
all, had the plague spots upon them. These boils were, in fact, nature's
own effort at expelling the virulent poison from the system, and if
properly treated by mild methods and poultices, in some cases really
brought relief, so that the patient eventually recovered.
But the intensity of the poison, and its rapid action upon the human
organs, made cases of recovery rare indeed at the outset, when the
outbreak always came in its most virulent form; and truly the appearance
of old Peter Sanghurst was such as almost to preclude hope of
restoration. Tough as he was in constitution, the glaze of death seemed
already in his eyes. He was all but pulseless and as cold as death,
whilst the spasmodic twitchings of his limbs when he was lifted spoke of
death rather than life.
Still Raymond would not give up hope. He had the fire kindled, and it
soon blazed up hot and fierce, whilst the old man was wrapped in a rich
furred cloak which Roger produced from a cupboard, and some hot cordial
forced between his lips. After one or two spasmodic efforts which might
have been purely muscular, he appeared to make an attempt to swallow,
and in a few more minutes it became plain that he was really doing so,
and with increasing ease each time. The blood began to run through his
veins again, the chest heaved, and the breath was drawn in long,
labouring gasps. At last the old man's eyes opened, and fixed themselves
upon Raymond's face with a long, bewildered stare.
They asked him no questions. They had no desire that he should speak.
His state was critical in the extreme. They had but come to minister to
his stricken body. To cope with a mind such as his was a task that
Raymond felt must be far beyond his own powers. He would have given much
to have had Father Paul at this bedside for one brief hour, the more so
as he saw the shrinking and terror creeping over the drawn, ashen face.
Did his guilty soul know itself to be standing on the verge of eternity?
and did the wretched man feel the horror of great darkness infolding him
All at once he spoke, and his words were like a cry of terror.
"Alicia! Alicia! how comest thou here?"
Raymond, to whom the words were plainly addressed, knew not how to
answer them, or what they could mean; but the wild eyes were still fixed
upon his face, and again the old man's excited words broke forth --
"Comest thou in this dread hour to claim thine own again? Alicia,
Alicia! I do repent of my robbery. I would fain restore all. It has been
a curse, and not a blessing; all has been against me -- all. I was a
happy man before I unlawfully wrested Basildene from thee. Since I have
done that deed naught has prospered with me; and here I am left to die
alone, neglected by all, and thou alone -- thy spirit from the dead --
comes to taunt me in my last hour with my robbery and my sin. O forgive,
forgive! Thou art dead. Spirits cannot inherit this world's goods, else
would I restore all to thee. Tell me what I may do to make amends ere I
die? But look not at me with those great eyes of thine, lightened with
the fire of the Lord. I cannot bear it -- I cannot bear it! Tell me only
how I may make restoration ere I am taken hence to meet my doom!"
Raymond understood then. The old man mistook him for his mother, who
must have been about his own age when her wicked kinsman had ousted her
from her possessions. Had they not told him in the old home how wondrous
like to her he was growing? The clouded vision of the old man could see
nothing but the face of the youth bending over him, and to him it was
the face of an avenging angel. He clasped his hands together in an agony
of supplication, and would have cast himself at the boy's feet had he
not been restrained. The terrible remorse which so often falls upon a
guilty conscience at the last hour had the miserable man in its
clutches. His mind was too far weakened to think of his many crimes even
blacker than this one. The sight of Raymond had awakened within him the
memory of the defrauded woman, and he could think of nothing else. She
had come back from the dead to put him in mind of his sin. If he could
but make one act of restitution, he felt that he could almost die in
peace. He gripped Raymond's hand hard, and looked with agonizing
intensity into his face.
"I am not Alicia," he answered gently. "Her spirit is at rest and free,
and no thought of malice or hatred could come from her now. I am her
son. I know all -- how you drove her forth from Basildene, and made
yourself an enemy; but you are an enemy no longer now, for the hand of
God is upon you, and I am here in His name to strive to soothe your last
hours, and point the way upwards whither she has gone."
"Alicia's son! Alicia's son!" almost screamed the old man. "Now Heaven
be praised, for I can make restitution of all!"
Raymond raised his eyes suddenly at an exclamation from Roger, to see a
tall dark figure standing motionless in the doorway, whilst Peter
Sanghurst's fiery eyes were fixed upon his face with a gaze of the most
deadly malevolence in them.
CHAPTER XX. MINISTERING SPIRITS.
"The sickness in the town! Alackaday! Woe betide us all! It will be next
within our very walls. Holy St. Catherine protect us! May all the Saints
have mercy upon us! In Guildford! why, that is scarce five short miles
away! And all the men and the wenches are flying as for dear life,
though if what men say be true there be few enough places left to fly
to! Why, Joan, why answerest thou not? I might as well speak to a block
as to thee. Dost understand, girl, that the Black Death is at our very
doors -- that all our people are flying from us? And yet thou sittest
there with thy book, as though this were a time for idle fooling. I am
fair distraught -- thy father and brother away and all! Canst thou not
say something? Hast thou no feeling for thy mother? Here am I nigh
distracted by fear and woe, and thou carriest about a face as calm as if
this deadly scourge were but idle rumour."
Joan laid down her book, came across to her mother, and put her strong
hand caressingly upon her shoulder. Poor, weak, timid Lady Vavasour had
never been famed for strength of mind in any of the circumstances of
life, and it was perhaps not wonderful that this scare, reaching her
ears in her husband's absence, should drive her nearly frantic with terror.
For many days reports of a most disquieting nature had been pouring in.
Persons who came to Woodcrych on business or pleasure spoke of nothing
but the approach of the Black Death. Some affected to make light of it,
protested that far too much was being made of the statements of ignorant
and terrified people, and asserted boldly that it would not attack the
well-fed and prosperous classes; whilst others declared that the whole
country would speedily be depopulated, and whispered gruesome tales of
those scenes of death and horror which were shortly to become so common.
Then the inhabitants of isolated houses like Woodcrych received visits
from travelling peddlers and mountebanks of all sorts, many disguised in
Oriental garb, who brought with them terrible stories of the spread of
the distemper, at the same time offering for sale certain herbs and
simples which they declared to be never-failing remedies in case any
person were attacked by the disease; or else they besought the credulous
to purchase amulets or charms, or in some cases alleged relics blessed
by the Pope, which if always worn upon the person would effectually
prevent the onset of the malady. After listening greedily (as the
servants in those houses always loved to do) to any story of ghastly
horror which these impostors chose to tell them, they were thankful to
buy at almost any price some antidote against the fell disease; and even
Lady Vavasour had made many purchases for herself and her daughter of
quack medicines and talismans or relics.
But hitherto no one had dared to whisper how fast the distemper was
encroaching in this very district. Men still spoke of it as though it
were far off, and might likely enough die out without spreading, so that
now it was with terror akin to distraction that the poor lady heard
through her servants that it had well-nigh reached their own doors. One
of the lackeys had had occasion to ride over to the town that very day,
and had come back with the news that people there were actually dying in
the streets. He had seen two men fall down, either dead or stricken for
death, before he could turn his beast away and gallop off, and the shops
were shut and the church bell was tolling, whilst all men looked in each
other's faces as if afraid of what they might see there.
Sir Hugh and his son were far away from Woodcrych at one of their newer
possessions some forty miles distant, and in their absence Lady Vavasour
felt doubly helpless. She shook off Joan's hand, and recommenced her
agitated pacing. Her daughter's calmness was incomprehensible apathy to
her. It fretted her even to see it.
"Thou hast no feeling, Joan; thou hast a heart of stone," she cried,
bursting into weak weeping. "Why canst thou not give me help or counsel
of some sort? What are we to do? What is to become of us? Wouldst have
us all stay shut up in this miserable place to die together?"
Joan did not smile at the feeble petulance of the half-distracted woman.
Indeed it was no time for smiles of any sort. The peril around and about
was a thing too real and too fearful in its character to admit of any
lightness of speech; and the girl did not even twit her mother with the
many sovereign remedies purchased as antidotes against infection, though
her own disbelief in these had brought down many laments from Lady
Vavasour but a few days previously.
Brought face to face with the reality of the peril, these wonderful
medicines did not inspire the confidence the sanguine purchasers had
hoped when they spent their money upon them. Lady Vavasour's hope seemed
now to lie in flight and flight alone. She was one of those persons
whose instinct is always for flight, whatever the danger to be avoided;
and now she was eagerly urging upon Joan the necessity for immediate
departure, regardless of the warning of her calmer-minded daughter that
probably the roads would be far more full of peril than their own house
could ever be, if they strictly shut it up, lived upon the produce of
their own park and dairy, and suffered none to go backwards and forwards
to bring the contagion with them.
Whether Joan's common-sense counsel would have ever prevailed over the
agitated panic of her mother is open to doubt, but all chance of getting
Lady Vavasour to see reason was quickly dissipated by a piece of news
brought to the mother and daughter by a white-faced, shivering servant.
The message was that the lackey who had but lately returned from
Guildford, whilst sitting over the kitchen fire with his cup of mead,
had complained of sudden and violent pains, had vomited and fallen down
upon the floor in a fit; whereat every person present had fled in wild
dismay, perfectly certain that he had brought home the distemper with
him, and that every creature in the house was in deadly peril.
Lady Vavasour's terror and agitation were pitiful to see. In vain Joan
strove to soothe and quiet her. She would listen to no words of comfort.
Not another hour would she remain in that house. The servants, some of
whom had already fled, were beginning to take the alarm in good earnest,
and were packing up their worldly goods, only anxious to be gone. Horses
and pack horses were being already prepared, for Lady Vavasour had given
half-a-dozen orders for departure before she had made up her mind what
to do or where to go.
Now she was resolved to ride straight to her husband, without drawing
rein, or exchanging a word with any person upon the road. Such of the
servants as wished to accompany her might do so; the rest might do as
they pleased. Her one idea was to be gone, and that as quickly as possible.
She hurried away to change her dress for her long ride, urging Joan to
lose not a moment in doing the same; but what was her dismay on her
return to find her daughter still in her indoor dress, though she was
forwarding her mother's departure by filling the saddlebags with
provisions for the way, and laying strict injunctions upon the trusty
old servants who were about to travel with her to give every care to
their mistress, and avoid so far as was possible any place where there
was likelihood of catching the contagion. They were to bait the horses
in the open, and not to take them under any roof, and all were to carry
their own victuals and drink with them. But that she herself was not to
make one of the party was plainly to be learned by these many and
This fact became patent to the mother directly she came downstairs, and
at once she broke into the most incoherent expression of dismay and
terror; but Joan, after letting her talk for a few minutes to relieve
her feelings, spoke her answer in brief, decisive sentences.
"Mother, it is impossible for me to go. Old Bridget, as you know, is
ill. It is not the distemper, it is one of the attacks of illness to
which she has been all her life subject; but not one of these foolish
wenches will now go near her. She has nursed and tended me faithfully
from childhood. To leave her here alone in this great house, to live or
die as she might, is impossible. Here I remain till she is better. Think
not of me and fear not for me. I have no fears for myself. Go to our
father; he will doubtless be anxious for news of us. Linger not here.
Men say that those who fear the distemper are ever the first victims.
Farewell, and may health and safety be with you. My place is here, and
here I will remain till I see my way before me."
Lady Vavasour wept and lamented, but did not delay her own departure on
account of her obstinate daughter. She gave Joan up for lost, but she
would not stay to share her fate. She had already seen something of the
quiet firmness of the girl, which her father sometimes cursed as
stubbornness, and she felt that words would only be thrown away upon
her. Lamenting to the last, she mounted her palfrey, and set her train
of servants in motion; whilst Joan stood upon the top step of the flight
to the great door, and waved her hand to her mother till the cortege
disappeared down the drive. A brave and steadfast look was upon her
face, and the sigh she heaved as she turned at last away seemed one of
relief rather than of sorrow.
Lonely as might be her situation in this deserted house, it could not
but be a relief to her to feel that her timid mother would shortly be
under the protection of her husband, and more at rest than she could
ever hope to be away from his side. He could not keep the distemper at
bay, but he could often quiet the restless plaints and causeless terrors
of his weak-minded spouse.
As she turned back into the silent house she was aware of two figures in
the great hall that were strange there, albeit she knew both well as
belonging to two of the oldest retainers of the place, an old man and
his wife, who had lived the best part of their lives in Sir Hugh's
service at Woodcrych.
"Why, Betty -- and you also, Andrew -- what do ye here?" asked Joan,
with a grave, kindly smile at the aged couple.
With many humble salutations and apologies the old folks explained that
they had heard of the hasty and promiscuous flight of the whole
household, headed by the mistress, and also that the "sweet young lady"
was left all alone because she refused to leave old Bridget; and that
they had therefore ventured to come up to the great house to offer their
poor services, to wait upon her and to do for her all that lay in their
power, and this not for her only, but for the two sick persons already
in the house.
"For, as I do say to my wife there," said old Andrew, though he spoke in
a strange rustic fashion that would scarce be intelligible to our modern
ears, "a body can but die once; and for aught I see, one might as easy
die of the Black Death as of the rheumatics that sets one's bones afire,
and cripples one as bad as being in one's coffin at once. So I be
a-going to look to poor Willum, as they say is lying groaning still upon
the kitchen floor, none having dared to go anigh him since he fell down
in a fit. And if I be took tending on him, I know that you will take
care of my old woman, and see that she does not want for bread so long
as she lives."
Joan put out her soft, strong hand and laid it upon the hard, wrinkled
fist of the old servant. There was a suspicious sparkle in her dark eyes.
"I will not disappoint that expectation, good Andrew," she said. "Go if
you will, whilst we think what may best be done for Bridget. Later on I
will come myself to look at William. I have no fear of the distemper;
and of one thing I am very sure -- that it is never kept away by being
fled from and avoided. I have known travellers who have seen it, and
have been with the sick, and have never caught the contagion, whilst
many fled from it in terror only to be overtaken and struck down as they
so ran. We are in God's hands -- forsaken of all but Him. Let us trust
in His mercy, do our duty calmly and firmly, and leave the rest to Him."
Later in the day, upheld by this same lofty sense of calmness and trust,
Joan, after doing all in her power to make comfortable the old nurse,
who was terribly distressed at hearing how her dear young lady had been
deserted, left her to the charge of Betty, and went down again through
the dark and silent house to the great kitchen, where William was still
to be found, reclining now upon a settle beside the glowing hearth, and
looking not so very much the worse for the seizure of the afternoon.
"I do tell he it were but the colic," old Andrew declared, rubbing his
crumpled hands together in the glow of the fire. "He were in a rare
fright when I found he -- groaning out that the Black Death had hold of
he, and that he were a dead man; but I told he that he was the liveliest
corpse as I'd set eyes on this seventy years; and so after a bit he
heartened up, and found as he could get upon his feet after all. It were
naught but the colic in his inside; and he needn't be afraid of nothing
Old Andrew proved right. William's sudden indisposition had been but the
result of fright and hard riding, followed by copious draughts of hot
beer taken with a view to keeping away the contagion. Very soon he was
convinced of this himself; and when he understood how the whole
household had fled from him, and that the only ones who had stayed to
see that he did not die alone and untended were these old souls and
their adored young lady, his heart was filled with loving gratitude and
devotion, and he lost no opportunity of doing her service whenever it
lay in his power.
Strange and lonely indeed was the life led by those five persons shut up
in that large house, right away from all sights and sounds from the
world without. The silence and the solitude at last became well-nigh
intolerable, and when Bridget had recovered from her attack of illness
and was going about briskly again, Joan took the opportunity of speaking
her mind to her fully and freely.
"Why do we remain shut up within these walls, when there is so much work
to be done in the world? Bridget, thou knowest that I love not my life
as some love it. Often it seems to me as though by death alone I may
escape a frightful doom. All around us our fellow creatures are dying --
too often alone and untended, like dogs in a ditch. Good Bridget, I have
money in the house, and we have health and strength and courage; and
thou art an excellent good nurse in all cases of sickness. Thou hast
taught me some of thy skill, and I long to show it on behalf of these
poor stricken souls, so often deserted by their nearest and dearest in
the hour of their deadliest peril. If I go, wilt thou go with me? I trow
that thou art a brave woman --"
"And if I were not thou wouldst shame me into bravery, Sweetheart,"
answered the old woman fondly, as she looked into the earnest face of
her young mistress. "I too have been thinking of the poor stricken
souls. I would gladly risk the peril in such a labour of love. As old
Andrew says, we can but die once. The Holy Saints will surely look
kindly upon those who die at their post, striving to do as they would
have done had they been here with us upon earth."
And when William heard what his young mistress was about to do, he
declared that he too would go with her, and assist with the offices to
the sick or the dead. He still had a vivid recollection of the moments
when he had believed himself left alone to die of the distemper; and
fellow feeling and generosity getting the better of his first
unreasoning terror, he was as eager as Joan herself to enter upon this
labour of love. Bridget, who was a great botanist, in the practical
fashion of many old persons in those days, knew more about the
properties of herbs than anybody in the country round, and she made a
great selection from her stores, and brewed many pungent concoctions
which she gave to her young mistress and William to drink, to ward off
any danger from infection. She also gave them, to hang about their
necks, bags containing aromatic herbs, whose strong and penetrating
odour dominated all others, and was likely enough to do good in
purifying the atmosphere about the wearer.
There was no foolish superstition in Bridget's belief in her simples.
She did not regard them as charms; but she had studied their properties
and had learned their value, and knew them to possess valuable
properties for keeping the blood pure, and so rendering much smaller any
chance of imbibing the poison.
At dusk that same evening, William, who had been out all day, returned,
and requested speech of his young mistress. He was ushered into the
parlour where she sat, with her old nurse for her companion; and
standing just within the threshold he told his tale.
"I went across to the town today. I thought I would see if there was any
lodging to be had where you, fair Mistress, might conveniently abide
whilst working in that place. Your worshipful uncle's house I found shut
up and empty, not a soul within the doors -- all fled, as most of the
better sort of the people are fled, and every window and door fastened
up. Half the houses, too, are marked with black or red crosses, to show
that those within are afflicted with the distemper. There are watchmen
in the streets, striving to keep within their doors all such as have the
Black Death upon them; but these be too few for the task, and the
maddened wretches are continually breaking out, and running about the
streets crying and shouting, till they drop down in a fit, and lie
there, none caring for them. By day there be dead and dying in every
street; but at night a cart comes and carries the corpses off to the
great grave outside the town."
"And is there no person to care for the sick in all the town?" asked
Joan, with dilating eyes.
"There were many monks at first; but the distemper seized upon them
worse than upon the townfolks, and now there is scarce one left. Soon
after the distemper broke out, Master John de Brocas threw open his
house to receive all stricken persons who would come thither to be
tended, and it has been full to overflowing night and day ever since. I
passed by the house as I came out, and around the door there were scores
of wretched creatures, all stricken with the distemper, praying to be
taken in. And I saw Master John come out to them and welcome them in,
lifting a little child from the arms of an almost dying woman, and
leading her in by the hand. When I saw that, I longed to go in myself
and offer myself to help in the work; but I thought my first duty was to
you, sweet Mistress, and I knew if once I had told my tale you would not
hold me back."
"Nay; and I will go thither myself, and Bridget with me," answered Joan,
with kindling eyes. "We will start with the first light of the new-born
day. They will want the help of women as well as of men within those walls.
"Good Bridget, look well to thy store of herbs, and take ample provision
of all such as will allay fever and destroy the poison that works in the
blood. For methinks there will be great work to be done by thee and me
ere another sun has set; and every aid that nature can give us we will
thankfully make use of."
"Your palfrey is yet in the stable, fair Mistress," said William, "and
there be likewise the strong sorrel from the farm, whereupon Bridget can
ride pillion behind me. Shall I have them ready at break of day
tomorrow? We shall then gain the town before the day's work has well begun."
"Do so," answered Joan, with decision. "I would fain have started by
night; but it will be wiser to tarry for the light of day. Good William,
I thank thee for thy true and faithful service. We are going forth to
danger and perchance to death; but we go in a good cause, and we have no
need to fear."
And when William had retired, she turned to Bridget with shining eyes,
"Ah, did I not always say that John was the truest knight of them all?
The others have won their spurs; they have won the applause of men. They
have all their lives looked down on John as one unable to wield a sword,
one well-nigh unworthy of the ancient name he bears. But which of yon
gay knights would have done what he is doing now? Who of all of them
would stand forth fearless and brave in the teeth of this far deadlier
peril than men ever face upon the battlefield? I trow not one of them
would have so stood before a peril like this. They have left that for
the true Knight of the Cross!"
At dawn next day Joan said adieu to her old home, and set her face
steadily forward towards Guildford. The chill freshness of the November
air was pleasant after the long period of oppressive warmth and
closeness which had gone before, and now that the leaves had really
fallen from the trees, there was less of the heavy humidity in the air
that seemed to hold the germs of distemper and transmit them alike to
man and beast.
The sun was not quite up as they started; but as they entered the silent
streets of Guildford it was shining with a golden glory in strange
contrast to the scenes upon which it would shortly have to look. Early
morning was certainly the best time for Joan to enter the town, for the
cart had been its round, the dead had been removed from the streets, and
the houses were quieter than they often were later in the day. Once in a
way a wild shriek or a burst of demoniacal laughter broke from some
window; and once a girl, with hair flying wildly down her back, flew out
of one of the houses sobbing and shrieking in a frenzy of terror, and
was lost to sight down a side alley before Joan could reach her side.
Pursuing their way through the streets, they turned down the familiar
road leading to John's house, and dismounting at the gate, Joan gave up
her palfrey to William to seek stabling for it behind, and walked up
with Bridget to the open door of the house.
That door was kept wide open night and day, and none who came were ever
turned away. Joan entered the hall, to find great fires burning there,
and round these fires were crowded shivering and moaning beings, some of
the latest victims of the distemper, who had been brought within the
hospitable shelter of that house of mercy, but who had not yet been
provided with beds; for the numbers coming in day by day were even
greater than the vacancies made by deaths constantly occurring in the
wards (as they would now be called). Helpers were few, and of these one
or another would be stricken down, and carried away to burial after a
few hours' illness.
Of the wretched beings grouped about the fires several were little
children, and Joan's heart went out in compassion to the suffering
morsels of humanity. Taking a little moaning infant upon her knee, and
letting two more pillow their weary beads against her dress, she signed
to Bridget to remove her riding cloak, which she gently wrapped about
the scantily-clothed form of a woman extended along the ground at her
feet, to whom the children apparently belonged. The woman was dying
fast, as her glazing eyes plainly showed.
Probably her case was altogether hopeless; but Joan was not yet seasoned
to such scenes, and it seemed too terrible to sit by idle whilst a
fellow creature actually died not two yards away. Surely somewhere
within that house aid could be found. The girl rose gently from her
seat, and still clasping the stricken infant in her arms, she moved
towards one of the closed doors of the lower rooms.
Opening this softly, she looked in, and saw a row of narrow pallet beds
down each side of the room, and every bed was tenanted. Sounds of
moaning, the babble of delirious talk, and thickly-uttered cries for
help or mercy now reached her ears, and the terrible breath of the
plague for the first time smote upon her senses in all its full
malignity. She recoiled for an instant, and clutched at the bag around
her neck, which she was glad enough to press to her face.
A great fire was burning in the hearth, and all that could be done to
lessen the evil had been accomplished. There was one attendant in this
room, which was set apart for men, and he was just now bending over a
delirious youth, striving to restrain his wild ravings and to induce him
to remain in his bed. This attendant had his back to Joan, but she saw
by his actions and his calm self possession that he was no novice to his
task; and she walked softly through the pestilential place, feeling that
she should not appeal to him for help in vain.
As the sound of the light, firm tread sounded upon the bare boards of
the floor, the attendant suddenly lifted himself and turned round. Joan
uttered a quick exclamation of surprise, which was echoed by the person
"Raymond!" she exclaimed breathlessly.
"Joan! Thou here, and at such a time as this!"
And then they both stood motionless for a few long moments, feeling that
despite the terrible scenes around and about them, the very gates of
Paradise had opened before them, turning everything around them to gold.
CHAPTER XXI. THE OLD, OLD STORY
The scourge had passed. It had swept over the length and breadth of the
region of which Guildford formed the centre, and had done its terrible
work of destruction there, leaving homes desolated and villages almost
depopulated. It was still raging in London, and was hurrying northward
and eastward with all its relentless energy and deadliness; but in most
of the places thus left behind its work seemed to be fully accomplished,
and there were no fresh cases.
People began to go about their business as of old. Those who had fled
returned to their homes, and strove to take up the scattered threads of
life as best they might. In many cases whole families had been swept out
of existence; in others (more truly melancholy cases), one member had
escaped when all the rest had perished. The religious houses were
crowded with the helpless orphans of the sufferers in the epidemic, and
the summer crops lay rotting in the fields for want of labourers to get
John's house in Guildford had by this time reassumed its normal aspect.
The last of the sick who had not been carried to the grave, but had
recovered to return home, had now departed, with many a blessing upon
the master, whose act of piety and charity had doubtless saved so many
lives at this crisis. The work the young man had set himself to do had
been nobly accomplished; but the task had been one beyond his feeble
strength, and he now lay upon a couch of sickness, knowing well, if
others did not, that his days were numbered.
He had fallen down in a faint upon the very day that the last patient
had been able to leave his doors. For a moment it was feared that the
poison of the distemper had fastened upon him; but it was not so. The
attack was but due to the failure of the heart's action -- nature, tried
beyond her powers of endurance, asserting herself at last -- and they
laid him down in his old favourite haunt, with his books around him,
having made the place look like it did before the house had been turned
into a veritable hospital and mortuary.
When John opened his eyes at last it was to find Joan bending over him;
and looking into her face with his sweet, tired smile, he said:
"You will not leave me, Joan?"
"No," she answered gently; "I will not leave you yet. Bridget and I will
nurse you. All our other helpers are themselves worn out; but we have
worked only a little while. We have not borne the burden and heat of
that terrible day."
"You came in a good hour -- like angels of mercy that you were," said
John, feeling, now that the long strain and struggle was over, a
wonderful sense of rest and peace. "I thought it was a dream when first
I saw your face, Joan -- when I saw you moving about amongst the sick,
always with a child in your arms. I have never been able to ask how you
came hither. In those days we could never stay to talk. There are many
things I would fain ask now. How come you here alone, save for your old
nurse? Are your parents dead likewise?"
"I know not that myself," answered Joan, with the calmness that comes
from constantly standing face to face with death. "I have heard naught
of them these many weeks. William goes ofttimes to Woodcrych to seek for
news of them there. But they have not returned, and he can learn nothing."
And then whilst John lay with closed eyes, his face so white and still
that it looked scarce the face of a living man, Joan told him all her
tale; and he understood then how it was that she had suddenly appeared
amongst them like a veritable angel of mercy.
When her story was done, he opened his eyes and said:
"Where is Raymond?"
"They told me he was sleeping an hour since," answered Joan. "He has
sore need of sleep, for he has been watching and working night and day
for longer than I may tell. He looks little more than a shadow himself;
and he has had Roger to care for of late, since he fell ill."
"But Roger is recovering?"
"Yes. It was the distemper, but in its least deadly form, and he is
already fast regaining his strength.
"Has Raymond been the whole time with you? I have never had the chance
to speak to him of himself."
And a faint soft flush awoke in Joan's cheek, whilst a smile hovered
round the corners of her lips.
"Nor I; yet there be many things I would fain ask of him. He went forth
to be with Father Paul when first the Black Death made its fatal entry
into the country; and from that day forth I heard naught of him until he
came hither to me. We will ask him of himself when he comes to join us.
It will be like old times come back again when thou, Joan, and he and I
gather about the Yule log, and talk together of ourselves and others."
A common and deadly peril binds very closely together those who have
faced it and fought it hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder; and in
those days of divided houses, broken lives, and general disruption of
all ordinary routine in domestic existence, things that in other times
would appear strange and unnatural were now taken as a matter of course.
It did not occur to Joan as in any way remarkable that she should remain
in John's house, nursing him with the help of Bridget, and playing a
sister's part until some of his own kith or kin returned. He had been
deserted by all of his own name. She herself knew not whether she had
any relatives living. Circumstances had thrown her upon his hospitality,
and she had looked upon him almost as a brother ever since the days of
She knew that he was dying; there was that in his face which told as
much all too well to those who had long been looking upon death. To have
left him at such a moment would have seemed far more strange and
unnatural than to remain. In those times of terror stranger things were
done daily, no man thinking aught of it.
So she smiled as she heard John's last words, trying to recall the day
when she had first seen Raymond at Master Bernard's house, when he had
seemed to her little more than a boy, albeit a very knightly and
chivalrous one. Now her feelings towards him were far different: not
that she thought less of his knightliness and chivalry, but that she was
half afraid to let her mind dwell too much upon him and her thoughts of
him; for of late, since they had been toiling together in the
hand-to-hand struggle against disease and death, she was conscious of a
feeling toward him altogether new in her experience, and his face was
seldom out of her mental vision. The sound of his voice was ever in her
ears; and she always knew, by some strange intuition, when he was near,
whether she could see him or not.
She knew even as John spoke that he was approaching; and as the latch of
the door clicked a soft wave of colour rose in her pale cheek, and she
turned her head with a gesture that spoke a mute welcome.
"They tell me that thou art sick, good John," said Raymond, coming
forward into the bright circle of the firelight.
The dancing flames lit up that pale young face, worn and hollow with
long watching and stress of work, and showed that Raymond had changed
somewhat during those weeks of strange experience. Some of the
dreaminess had gone out of the eyes, to be replaced by a luminous
steadfastness of expression which had always been there, but was now
greatly intensified. Pure, strong, and noble, the face was that of a man
rather than a boy, and yet the bright, almost boyish, alertness and
eagerness were still quickly apparent when he entered into conversation,
and turned from one companion to another. It was the same Raymond -- yet
with a difference; and both of his companions scanned him with some
curiosity as he took his seat beside John's couch and asked of his
"Nay, trouble not thyself over me; thou knowest that my life's sands are
well-nigh run out. I have been spared for this work, that thou, my
Raymond, gavest me to do. I am well satisfied, and thou must be the
same, my kind cousin. Only let me have thee with me to the end -- and
sweet Mistress Joan, if kind fortune will so favour us. And tell us now
of thyself, Raymond, and how it fared with thee before thou camest
hither. Hast thou been with Father Paul? And if so, why didst thou leave
him? Is he, too, dead?"
"He was not when we parted; he went forward to London when he bid me
come to see how it fared with thee, good John, and bring thee his
blessing. I should have been with thee one day earlier, save that I
turned aside to Basildene, where I heard that the old man lay dying alone."
"Basildene!" echoed both his hearers quickly. "Has the Black Death been
"Ay, and the old man who is called a sorcerer is dead. To me it was
given to soothe his dying moments, and give him such Christian burial as
men may have when there be no priest at hand to help them to their last
rest. I was in time for that."
"Peter Sanghurst dead!" mused John thoughtfully; and looking up at
Raymond, he said quickly, "Did he know who and what thou wert?"
"He did; for in his delirium he took me for my mother, and his terror
was great, knowing her to be dead. When I told him who I was, he was
right glad; and he would fain have made over to me the deeds by which he
holds Basildene -- the deeds my mother left behind her in her flight,
and which he seized upon. He would fain have made full reparation for
that one evil deed of his life; but his son, who had held aloof
hitherto, and would have left his father to die untended and alone --"
Joan had uttered a little exclamation of horror and disgust; now she
asked, quickly and almost nervously:
"The son -- Peter Sanghurst? O Raymond, was that bad man there?"
"Yes; and he knows now who and what I am, whereby his old hatred to me
is bitterly increased. He holds that I have hindered and thwarted him
before in other matters. Now that he knows I have a just and lawful
claim on Basildene, which one day I will make good, he hates me with a
tenfold deadlier hatred."
"Hates you -- when you came to his father in his last extremity? How can
he dare to hate you now?"
Raymond smiled a shadowy smile as he looked into the fire.
"Methinks he knows little of filial love. He knew that his father had
been stricken with the distemper, but he left him to die alone. He would
not have come nigh him at all, save that he heard sounds in the house,
and feared that robbers had entered, and that his secret treasure hoards
might fall into their hands. He had come down armed to the teeth to
resist such marauders, being willing rather to stand in peril of the
distemper than to lose his ill-gotten gold. But he found none such as he
thought; yet having come, and having learned who and what manner of man
I was, he feared to leave me alone with his father, lest I should be
told the secret of the hidden hoard, which the old man longed to tell me
but dared not. Doubtless the parchment he wished to place in my hands is
there; but his son hovered ever within earshot, and the old man dared
not speak. Yet with his last breath he called me lord of Basildene, and
charged me to remove from it the curse which in his own evil days had
fallen upon the place."
"Peter Sanghurst will not love you the more for that," said John.
"Verily no; yet methinks he can scarce hate me more than he does and has
done for long."
"He is no insignificant foe," was the thoughtful rejoinder. "His hate
may be no light thing."
"He has threatened me oft and savagely," answered Raymond, "and yet no
harm has befallen me therefrom."
"Why has he threatened thee?" asked Joan breathlessly; "what hast thou
done to raise his ire?"
"We assisted Roger, the woodman's son, to escape from that vile slavery
at Basildene, of which doubtless thou hast heard, sweet lady. That was
the first cause of offence."
"And the second?"
Raymond's clear gaze sought her face for a moment, and Joan's dark eyes
kindled and then slowly dropped.
"The second was on thy account, sweet Joan," said Raymond, with a
curious vibration in his voice. "He saw us once together -- it is long
ago now -- and he warned me how I meddled to thwart him again. I scarce
understood him then, though I knew that he would fain have won this fair
hand, but that thou didst resolutely withhold it. Now that I have
reached man's estate I understand him better. Joan, he is still bent
upon having this hand. In my hearing he swore a great oath that by fair
means or foul it should be his one day. He is a man of resolute
determination, and, now that his father no longer lives, of great wealth
too, and wealth is power. Thou hast thwarted him till he is resolved to
humble thee at all cost. I verily believe to be avenged for all thou
hast cost him would be motive enough to make him compass heaven and
earth to win thee. What sayest thou? To withstand him may be perilous --"
"To wed him would be worse than death," said Joan, in a very low tone.
"I will never yield, if I die to save myself from him."
Unconsciously these two had lowered their voices. John had dropped
asleep beside the fire with the ease of one exhausted by weakness and
long watching. Joan and Raymond were practically alone together. There
was a strange light upon the face of the youth, and into his pale face
there crept a flush of faint red.
"Joan," he said, in low, firm tones that shook a little with the
intensity of his earnestness, "when I saw thee first, and knew thee for
a very queen amongst women, my boyish love and homage was given all to
thee. I dreamed of going forth to win glory and renown, that I might
come and lay my laurels at thy feet, and win one sweet answering smile,
one kindly word of praise from thee. Yet here am I, almost at man's
estate, and I have yet no laurels to bring to thee. I have but one thing
to offer -- the deep true love of a heart that beats alone for thee.
Joan, I am no knightly suitor, I have neither gold nor lands -- though
one day it may be I may have both, and thy father would doubtless drive
me forth from his doors did I present myself to him as a suitor for this
fair hand. But, Joan, I love thee -- I would lay down my life to serve
thee -- and I know that thou mayest one day be in peril from him who is
also mine own bitter foe. Wilt thou then give me the right to fight for
thee, to hold this hand before all the world and do battle for its
owner, as only he may hope to do who holds it, as I do this moment, by
that owner's free will? Give me but leave to call it mine, and I will
dare all and do all to win it. Sweet Mistress Joan, my words are few and
poor; but could my heart speak for me, it would plead eloquent music.
Thou art the sun and star of my life. Tell me, may I hope some day to
win thy love?"
Joan had readily surrendered her hand to his clasp, and doubtless this
had encouraged Raymond to proceed in his tale of love.
He certainly had not intended thus to commit himself, poor and unknown
and portionless as he was, with everything still to win; but a power
stronger than he could resist drew him on from word to word and phrase
to phrase, and a lovely colour mantled in Joan's cheek as he proceeded,
till at last she put forth her other hand and laid it in his, saying:
"Raymond, I love thee now. My heart is thine and thine alone. Go forth,
if thou wilt, and win honour and renown -- but thou wilt never win a
higher honour and glory than I have seen thee winning day by day and
hour by hour here in this very house -- and come back when and as thou
wilt. Thou wilt find me waiting for thee --ever ready, ever the same. I
am thine for life or death. When thou callest me I will come."
It was a bold pledge for a maiden to give in those days of harsh
parental rule; yet Joan gave it without shrinking or fear. That this
informal betrothal might be long before it could hope to be consummated,
both the lovers well knew; that there might be many dangers lying before
them, they did not attempt to deny. It was no light matter to have thus
plighted their troth, when Raymond was still poor and nameless, and
Joan, in her father's estimation, plighted to the Sanghurst. But both
possessed brave and resolute spirits, that did not shrink or falter; and
joyfully happy in the security of their great love, they could afford
for a time to forget the world.
Raymond drew from within his doublet the half ring he had always carried
about with him, and placed it upon the finger of his love. Joan, on her
side, drew from her neck a black agate heart she had always worn there,
and gave it to Raymond, who put it upon the silver cord which had
formerly supported his circlet of the double ring.
"So long as I live that heart shall hang there," he said. "Never believe
that I am dead until thou seest the heart brought thee by another. While
I live I part not with it."
"Nor I with thy ring," answered Joan, proudly turning her hand about
till the firelight flashed upon it.
And then they drew closer together, and whispered together, as lovers
love to do, of the golden future lying before them; and Raymond told of
his mother and her dying words, and his love, in spite of all that had
passed there, for the old house of Basildene, and asked Joan if they two
together would be strong enough to remove the curse which had been cast
over the place by the evil deeds of its present owners.
"Methinks thou couldst well do that thyself, my faithful knight,"
answered Joan, with a great light in her eyes; "for methinks all evil
must fly thy presence, as night flies from the beams of day. Art thou
not pledged to a high and holy service? and hast thou not proved ere now
how nobly thou canst keep that pledge?"
At that moment John stirred in his sleep and opened his eyes. There was
in them that slightly bewildered look that comes when the mind has been
very far away in some distant dreamland, and where the weakened
faculties have hardly the strength to reassert themselves.
"Joan," he said -- "Joan, art thou there? art thou safe?"
She rose and bent over him smilingly.
"Here by thy side, good John, and perfectly safe. Where should I be?"
"And Raymond too?"
"Raymond too. What ails thee, John, that thou art so troubled?"
He smiled slightly as he looked round more himself.
"It must have been a dream, but it was a strangely vivid one. Belike it
was our talk of a short while back; for I thought thou wast fleeing from
the malice of the Sanghurst, and that Raymond was in his power, awaiting
his malignant rage and vengeance. I know not how it would have ended --
I was glad to wake. I fear me, sweet Joan, that thou wilt yet have a
hard battle ere thou canst cast loose from the toil spread for thee by
yon bad man."
Joan threw back her head with a queenly gesture.
"Fear not for me, kind John, for now I am no longer alone to fight my
battle. I have Raymond for my faithful knight and champion. Raymond and
I have plighted our troth this very day. Let Peter Sanghurst do his
worst; it will take a stronger hand than his to sunder love like ours!"
John's pale face kindled with sympathy and satisfaction. He looked from
one to the other and held out his thin hands.
"My heart's wishes and blessings be with you both," he said. "I have so
many times thought of some such thing, and longed to see it
accomplished. There may be clouds athwart your path, but there will be
sunshine behind the cloud. Joan, thou hast chosen thy knight worthily
and well. It may be that men will never call him knight. It may be that
he will not have trophies rich and rare to lay at thy feet. But thou and
I know well that there is a knighthood not of this world, and in that
order of chivalry his spurs have already been won, and he will not, with
thee at his side, ever be tempted to forget his high and holy calling.
For thou wilt be the guiding star of his life; and thou too art
dedicated to serve."
There was silence for a few moments in the quiet room. John lay back on
his pillows panting somewhat, and with that strange unearthly light they
had seen there before deepening in his eyes. They had observed that look
often of late -- as though he saw right through them and beyond to a
glory unspeakable, shut out for the time from their view. Joan put out
her hand and took that of Raymond, as if there was assurance in the warm
human clasp. But their eyes were still fixed upon John's face, which was
changing every moment.
He had done much to form both their minds, this weakly scion of the De
Brocas house, whose life was held by those who bore his name to be
nothing but a failure. It was from him they had both imbibed those
thoughts and aspirations which had been the first link drawing them
together, and which had culminated in an act of the highest
self-sacrifice and devotion. And now it seemed to him, as he lay there
looking at them, the two beings upon earth that he loved the best (for
Raymond was more to him than a brother, and Joan the one woman whom, had
things gone otherwise with him, he would fain have made his wife), that
he might well leave his work in their hands -- that they would carry on
to completion the nameless labour of love which he had learned to look
upon as the highest form of chivalry.
"Raymond," he said faintly.
Raymond came and bent down over him.
"I am close beside thee, John."
"I know it. I feel it. I am very happy. Raymond, thou wilt not forget me?"
"Never, John, never."
"I have been very happy in thy brotherly love and friendship. It has
been very sweet to me. Raymond, thou wilt not forget thy vow? Thou wilt
ever be true to that higher life that we have spoken of so oft together?"
Raymond's face was full of deep and steadfast purpose.
"I will be faithful, I will be true," he answered. "God helping me, I
will be true to the vow we have made together. Joan shall be my witness
now, as I make it anew to thee here."
"Not for fame or glory or praise of man alone," murmured John, his voice
growing fainter and fainter, "but first for the glory of God and His
honour, and then for the poor, the feeble, the helpless, the needy. To
be a champion to such as have none to help them, to succour the
distressed, to comfort the mourner, to free those who are wrongfully
oppressed, even though kings be the oppressors -- that is the true
courage, the true chivalry; that is the service to which thou, my
brother, art pledged."
Raymond bent his head, whilst Joan's clasp tightened on his hand. They
both knew that John was dying, but they had looked too often upon death
to fear it now. They did not summon any one to his side. No priest was
to be found at that time, and John had not long since received the
Sacrament with one who had lately died in the house. There was no
restlessness or pain in his face, only a great peace and rest. His voice
died away, but he still looked at Raymond, as though to the last he
would fain see before his eyes the face he had grown to love best upon
His breath grew shorter and shorter. Raymond thought he made a sign to
him to bend his head nearer. Stooping over him, he caught the
"Tell my father not to grieve that I did not die a knight. He has his
other sons; and I have been very happy. Tell him that -- happier, I
trow, than any of them --"
There were a brief silence and a slight struggle for breath, then one
"I will arise and go to my Father --"
Those were the last words spoken by John de Brocas.
CHAPTER XXII. THE BLACK VISOR.
"Brother, this is like old times," said Gaston, his hand upon Raymond's
shoulder as they stood side by side in the extreme prow of the vessel
that was conveying them once again towards the sunny south of France.
The salt spray dashed in their faces, the hum of the cordage overhead
was in their ears, and their thoughts had gone back to that day, now
nigh upon eight years back, when they, as unknown and untried boys, had
started forth to see the world together.
Gaston's words broke the spell of silence, and Raymond turned his head
to scan the stalwart form beside him with a look of fond admiration and
"Nay, scarce like those old days, Sir Gaston de Brocas," he answered,
speaking the name with significant emphasis; and Gaston laughed and
tossed back his leonine head with a gesture of mingled pride and
impatience as he said:
"Tush, Brother! I scarce know how to prize my knighthood now that thou
dost not share it with me -- thou so far more truly knightly and worthy.
I had ever planned that we had been together in that as in all else. Why
wert thou not with me that day when we vanquished the navy of proud
Spain? The laurels are scarce worth the wearing that thou wearest not
For Gaston was now indeed a knight. He had fought beside the Prince in
the recent engagement at sea, when a splendid naval victory had been
obtained over the Spanish fleet. He had performed prodigies of valour on
that occasion, and had been instrumental in the taking of many rich
prizes. And when the royal party had returned to Windsor, Gaston had
been named, with several more youthful gentlemen, to receive knighthood
at the hands of the Prince of Wales. Whereupon Master Bernard de Brocas
had stood forward and told the story of the parentage of the twin
brothers, claiming kinship with them, and speaking in high praise of
Raymond, who, since the death of John, had been employed by his uncle in
a variety of small matters that used to be John's province to see to. In
every point the Gascon youth had shown aptitude and ability beyond the
average, and had won high praise from his clerical kinsman, who was more
the statesman than the parish priest.
Very warmly had the de Brocas brothers been welcomed by their kinsmen;
and as they laid no claim to any lands or revenues in the possession of
other members of the family, not the least jealousy or ill-will was
excited by their rise in social status. All that Gaston asked of the
King was liberty some day, when the hollow truce with France should be
broken, and when the King's matters were sufficiently settled to permit
of private enterprise amongst his own servants, to gather about him a
company of bold kindred spirits, and strive to wrest back from the
treacherous and rapacious Sieur de Navailles the ancient castle of Saut,
which by every law of right should belong to his own family.
The King listened graciously to this petition, and gave Gaston full
encouragement to hope to regain his fathers' lost inheritance. But of
Basildene no word was spoken then; for the shrewd Master Bernard had
warned Raymond that the time had not yet come to prosecute that claim --
and indeed the neglected old house, crumbling to the dust and environed
by an evil reputation which effectually kept all men away from it,
seemed scarce worth the struggle it would cost to wrest it from the
keeping of Peter Sanghurst.
This worthy, since his father's death, had entered upon a totally new
course of existence. He had appeared at Court, sumptuously dressed, and
with a fairly large following. He had ingratiated himself with the King
by a timely loan of gold (for the many drains upon Edward's resources
kept him always short of money for his household and family expenses),
and was playing the part of a wealthy and liberal man. It was whispered
of him, as it had been of his father, that he had some secret whereby to
fill his coffers with gold whenever they were empty, and this reputation
gave him a distinct prestige with his comrades and followers. He was not
accused of black magic, like his father. His secret was supposed to have
been inherited by him, not bought with the price of his soul. It
surrounded him with a faint halo of mystery, but it was mystery that did
him good rather than harm. The King himself took favourable notice of
one possessed of such a golden secret, and for the present the Sanghurst
was better left in undisturbed possession of his ill-gotten gains.
Raymond had learned the difficult lesson of patience, and accepted his
uncle's advice. It was the easier to be patient since he knew that Joan
was for the present safe from the persecutions of her hated suitor. Joan
had been summoned to go to her father almost immediately upon the death
of John de Brocas. He had sent for her to Woodcrych, and she had
travelled thither at once with the escort sent to fetch her.
Raymond had heard from her once since that time. In the letter she had
contrived to send him she had told him that her mother was dead, having
fallen a victim to the dreaded distemper she had fled to avoid, but
which had nevertheless seized her almost immediately upon her arrival at
her husband's house. He too had been stricken, but had recovered; and
his mind having been much affected by his illness and trouble, he had
resolved upon a pilgrimage to Rome, in which his daughter was to
accompany him. She did not know how long they would be absent from
England, and save for the separation from her true love, she was glad to
go. Her brother would return to the Court, and only she and her father
would take the journey. She had heard nothing all these weeks of the
dreaded foe, and hoped he might have passed for ever from her life.
And in this state matters stood with the brothers as the vessel bore
them through the tossing blue waves that bright May morning, every
plunge of the well-fitted war sloop bringing them nearer and nearer to
the well-known and well-loved harbour of Bordeaux.
Yet it was on no private errand that they were bound, though Gaston
could not approach the familiar shores of Gascony without thinking of
that long-cherished hope of his now taking so much more solid a shape.
The real object of this small expedition was, however, the relief of the
town of St. Jean d'Angely, belonging to the English King, which had been
blockaded for some time by the French monarch. The distressed
inhabitants had contrived to send word to Edward of their strait, and he
had despatched the Earl of Warwick with a small picked army to its relief.
The Gascon twins had been eager to join this small contingent, and had
volunteered for the service. Gaston was put in command of a band of fine
soldiers, and his brother took service with him.
This was the first time for several years that Raymond had been in arms,
for of late his avocations had been of a more peaceful nature. But he
possessed all the soldier instincts of his race, and by his brother's
side would go joyfully into battle again.
He did not know many of the knights and gentlemen serving in this small
expedition, nor did Gaston either, for that matter. It was too small an
undertaking to attract the flower of Edward's chivalry, and the Black
Death had made many gaps in the ranks of the comrades the boys had first
known when they had fought under the King's banner. But the satisfaction
of being together again made amends for all else. Indeed they scarce had
eyes for any but each other, and had so much to tell and to ask that the
voyage was all too short for them.
Amongst those on board Raymond had frequently noticed the figure of a
tall man always in full armour, and always wearing his visor down, so
that none might see his face. His armour was of fine workmanship, light
and strong, and seemed in no way to incommode him. There was no device
upon it, save some serpents cunningly inlaid upon the breastplate, and
the visor was richly chased and inlaid with black, so that the whole
effect was gloomy and almost sinister. Raymond had once or twice asked
the name of the Black Visor, as men called him, but none had been able
to tell him. It was supposed that he was under some vow -- a not very
uncommon thing in the days of chivalry -- and that he might not remove
his visor until he had performed some gallant feat of arms.
Sometimes it had seemed to the youth as though the dark eyes looking out
through the holes in that black covering were fixed more frequently upon
himself than upon any one else; and if he caught full for a moment the
fiery gleam, he would wonder for the instant it lasted where and when he
had seen those eyes before. But his mind was not in any sense of the
word concerned with the Black Visor, and it was only now and then he
gave him a passing thought.
And now the good vessel was slipping through the still waters of the
magnificent harbour of Bordeaux. The deck was all alive with the bustle
of speedy landing, and the Gascon brothers were scanning the familiar
landmarks and listening with delight to the old familiar tongue.
Familiar faces there were none to be seen, it is true. The boys were too
much of foreigners now to have many old friends in the queenly city. But
the whole place was homelike to them, and would be so to their lives'
ends. Moreover, they hoped ere they took ship again to have time and
opportunity to revisit old haunts and see their foster parents and the
good priest once more; but for the present their steps were turned
northward towards the gallant little beleaguered town which had appealed
to the English King for aid.
A few days were spent at Bordeaux collecting provisions for the town,
and mustering the reinforcements which the loyal city was always ready
and eager to supply in answer to any demand on the part of the Roy Outremer.
The French King had died the previous year, and his son John, formerly
Duke of Normandy, was now upon the throne; but the situation between the
two nations had by no means changed, and indeed the bitter feeling
between them was rather increased than diminished by the many petty
breaches of faith on one side or another, of which this siege of St.
Jean d'Angely was an example.
On the whole the onus of breaking the truce rested more with the French
than the English. But a mere truce, where no real peace is looked for on
either side, is but an unsatisfactory state of affairs at best; and
although both countries were sufficiently exhausted by recent wars and
the ravages of the plague to desire the interlude prolonged, yet
hostilities of one kind or another never really ceased, and the
struggles between the rival lords of Brittany and their heroic wives
always kept the flame of war smouldering.
Gascony as a whole was always loyal to the English cause, and Bordeaux
too well knew what she owed to the English trade ever to be backward
when called upon by the English King. Speedily a fine band of soldiers
was assembled, and at dawn one day the march northward was commenced.
The little army mustered some five thousand men, all well fed and in
capital condition for the march. Raymond rode by his brother's side well
in the van, and he noticed presently, amongst the new recruits who had
joined them, another man of very tall stature, who also wore a black
visor over his face. He was plainly a friend to the unknown knight (if
knight he were) who had sailed in their vessel, for they rode side by
side deep in talk; and behind them, in close and regular array, rode a
number of their immediate followers, all wearing a black tuft in their
steel caps and a black band round their arm.
However, there was nothing very noteworthy in this. Many men had
followers marked by some distinctive badge, and the sombre little
contingent excited small notice. They all looked remarkably fine
soldiers, and appeared to be under excellent discipline. More than that
was not asked of any man, and the Gascons were well known to be amongst
the best soldiers of the day.
The early start and the long daylight enabled the gallant little band to
push on in the one day to the banks of the Charente, and within a few
miles of St. Jean itself. There, however, a halt was called, for the
French were in a remarkably good position, and it was necessary to take
counsel how they might best be attacked.
In the first place there was the river to be crossed, and the one bridge
was in the hands of the enemy, who had fortified it, and would be able
to hold it against great odds. They were superior in numbers to their
assailants, and probably knew their advantage.
Gaston, who well understood the French nature, was the first to make a
"Let us appear to retreat," he said. "They will then see our small
numbers, and believe that we are flying through fear of them. Doubtless
they will at once rush out to pursue and attack us, and after we have
drawn them from their strong position, we can turn again upon them and
slay them, or drive them into the river."
This suggestion was received with great favour, and it was decided to
act upon it that very day. There were still several hours of daylight
before them, and the men, who had had wine and bread distributed to
them, were full of eagerness for the fray.
The French, who were quite aware of the strength of their own position,
and very confident of ultimate victory, were narrowly watching the
movements of the English, whose approach had been for some time expected
by them. They were certain that they could easily withstand the
onslaught of the whole body, if these were bold enough to attack, and
they well knew how terribly thinned would the English ranks become
before they could hope to cross the bridge and march upon the main body
of the French army encamped before the town.
Great, then, was the exultation of the French when they saw how much
terror they had inspired in the heart of the foe. They were eagerly
observing their movements; they saw that a council had been called
amongst the chiefs, and that deliberations had been entered into by
them. But so valiant were the English in fight, and so many were the
victories they had obtained with numbers far inferior to those of the
foe, that there was a natural sense of uncertainty as to the result of a
battle, even when all the chances of the war seemed to be against the
foreign foe. But when the trumpets actually sounded the retreat, and
they saw the whole body moving slowly away, then indeed did they feel
that triumph was near, and a great shout of derision and anger rose up
in the still evening air.
"To horse, men, and after them!" was the word given, and a cry of fierce
joy went up from the whole army. "My Lords of England, you will not get
off in that way. You have come hither by your own will; you shall not
leave until you have paid your scot."
No great order was observed as the Frenchmen sprang to horse and
galloped across the bridge, and so after the retreating foe. Every man
was eager to bear his share in the discomfiture of the English
contingent, and hardly staying to arm themselves fully, the eager,
hot-headed French soldiers, horse and foot, swung along in any sort of
order, only eager to cut to pieces the flower of the English chivalry
(as their leaders had dubbed this little band), and inflict a dark stain
upon the honour of Edward's brilliant arms.
In the ranks of this same English contingent, now in rapid and orderly
retreat, there was to the full as much exultation and lust of battle as
in the hearts of their pursuing foes. Every man grasped his weapon and
set his teeth firmly, the footmen marching steadily onwards at a rapid
and swinging pace, whilst the horsemen, who brought up the rear -- for
they were to be the first to charge when the trumpet sounded the advance
-- kept turning their heads to watch the movement of the foe, and sent
up a brief huzzah as they saw that their ruse had proved successful, and
that their foes were coming fast after them.
"Keep thou by my side in the battle today, Raymond," said Gaston, as he
looked to the temper of his weapons and glanced backwards over his
shoulder. "Thou hast been something more familiar with the pen than the
sword of late -- and thy faithful esquire likewise. Fight, then, by my
side, and together we will meet and overcome the foe. They will fight
like wolves, I doubt not, for they will be bitterly wrathful when they
see the trick we have played upon them. Wherefore quit not my side, be
the fighting never so hot, for I would have thee ever with me."
"I wish for nothing better for myself," answered Raymond, with a fond
proud glance at the stalwart Gaston, who now towered a full head taller
above him, and was a very king amongst men.
He was mounted on a fine black war horse, who had carried his master
victoriously through many charges before today. Raymond's horse was much
lighter in build, a wiry little barb with a distinct Arab strain,
fearless in battle, and fleet as the wind, but without the weight or
solidity of Gaston's noble charger. Indeed, Gaston had found some fault
with the creature's lack of weight for withstanding the onslaught of
cavalry charge; but he suited Raymond so well in other ways that the
latter had declined to make any change, and told his brother smilingly
that his great Lucifer had weight and strength for both.
Scarcely had Gaston given this charge to his brother before the trumpets
sounded a new note, and at once the compact little body of horse and
foot halted, wheeled round, and put themselves in position for the
advance. Another blast from those same trumpets, given with all the
verve and joyousness of coming victory, and the horses of their own
accord sprang forward to the attack. Then the straggling and dismayed
body of Frenchmen who had been pushing on in advance of their fellows to
fall upon the flying English, found themselves opposed to one of those
magnificent cavalry charges which made the glory and the terror of the
English arms throughout the reign of the great Edward.
Vainly trying to rally themselves, and with shouts of "St. Dennis!" "St.
Dennis!" the Frenchmen rushed upon their foes; and the detachments from
behind coming up quickly, the engagement became general at once, and was
most hotly contested on both sides.
Gaston was one of the foremost to charge into the ranks of the French,
and singling out the tallest and strongest adversary he could see, rode
full upon him, and was quickly engaged in a fierce hand-to-hand
conflict. Raymond was close beside him, and soon found himself engaged
in parrying the thrusts of several foes. But Roger was quickly at his
side, taking his own share of hard blows; and as the foot and horse from
behind pressed on after the impetuous leaders, and more and more
detachments from the French army came up to assist their comrades, the
melee became very thick, and in the crush it was impossible to see what
was happening except just in front, and to avoid the blows levelled at
him was all that Raymond was able to think of for many long minutes --
minutes that seemed more like hours.
When the press became a little less thick about him, Raymond looked
round for his brother, but could not see him. A body of riders, moving
in a compact wedge, had forced themselves in between himself and Gaston.
He saw the white plume in his brother's helmet waving at some distance
away to the left, but when he tried to rein in his horse and reach him,
he still found himself surrounded by the same phalanx of mounted
soldiers, who kept pressing him by sheer weight on and on away to the
right, though the tide of battle was most distinctly rolling to the
left. The French were flying promiscuously back to their lines, and the
English soldiers were in hot pursuit.
Raymond was no longer amid foes. He had long since ceased to have to use
his sword either for attack or defence, but he could not check the
headlong pace of his mettlesome little barb, nor could he by any
exertion of strength turn the creature's head in any other direction. As
he was in the midst of those he looked upon as friends, he had no
uneasiness as to his own position, even though entirely separated from
Gaston and Roger, who generally kept close at his side. He was so little
used of late to the manoeuvres of war, that he fancied this headlong
gallop, in which he was taking an involuntary part, might be the result
of military tactics, and that he should see its use presently.
But as he and his comrades flew over the ground, and the din of the
battle died away in his ears, and the last of the evening sunlight faded
from the sky, a strange sense of coming ill fell upon Raymond's spirit.
Again he made a most resolute and determined effort to check the fiery
little creature he rode, who seemed as if his feet were furnished with
wings, so fast he spurned the ground beneath his hoofs.
Then for the first time the youth found that this mad pace was caused by
regular goading from the silent riders who surrounded him. Turning in
his saddle he saw that these men were one and all engaged in pricking
and spurring on the impetuous little steed; and as he cast a keen and
searching look at these strange riders, he saw that they all wore in
their steel caps the black tuft of the followers of the Black Visor and
his sable-coated companion, and that these two leaders rode themselves a
little distance behind.
Greatly astonished at the strange thing that was befalling him, yet not,
so far, alarmed for his personal safety, Raymond drew his sword and
looked steadily round at the ring of men surrounding him.
"Cease to interfere with my horse, gentlemen," he said, in stern though
courteous accents. "It may be your pleasure thus to ride away from the
battle, but it is not mine; and I will ask of you to let me take my way
whilst you take yours. Why you desire my company I know not, but I do
not longer desire yours; wherefore forbear!"
Not a word or a sign was vouchsafed him in answer; but as he attempted
to rein back his panting horse, now fairly exhausted with the struggle
between the conflicting wills of so many persons, the dark silent riders
continued to urge him forward with open blows and pricks from sword
point, till, as he saw that his words were still unheeded, a dangerous
glitter shone in Raymond's eyes.
"Have a care how you molest me, gentlemen!" he said, in clear, ringing
tones. "Ye are carrying a jest (if jest it be meant for) a little too
far. The next who dares to touch my horse must defend himself from my
And then a sudden change came over the bearing of his companions. A
dozen swords sprang from their scabbards. A score of harsh voices
replied to these words in fierce accents of defiance. One -- two --
three heavy blows fell upon his head; and though he set his teeth and
wheeled about to meet and grapple with his foes, he felt from the first
moment that he had no chance whatever against such numbers, and that the
only thing to do was to sell his life as dearly as he could.
There was no time to ask or even to wonder at the meaning of this
mysterious attack. All he could do was to strive to shield his head from
the blows that rained upon him, and breathe a prayer for succour in the
midst of his urgent need.
And then he heard a voice speaking in accents of authority: where had he
heard that voice before?
"Hold, men! have I not warned you to do him no hurt? Kill him not, but
take him alive."
That was the last thing Raymond remembered. His next sensation was of
falling and strangulation. Then a blackness swam before his eyes, and
sense and memory alike fled.
CHAPTER XXIII. IN THE HANDS OF HIS FOE.
How long that blackness and darkness lasted Raymond never really knew.
It seemed to him that he awoke from it at occasional long intervals,
always to find himself dreaming of rapid motion, as though he were being
transported through the air with considerable speed. But there was no
means of telling in what direction he moved, nor in what company. His
senses were clouded and dull. He did not know what was real and what
part of a dream. He had no recollection of any of the events immediately
preceding this sudden and extraordinary journey, and after a brief
period of bewilderment would sink back into the black abyss of
unconsciousness from which he had been roused for a few moments.
At last, after what seemed to him an enormous interval -- for he knew
not whether hours, days, or even years had gone by whilst he had
remained in this state of unconscious apathy, he slowly opened his eyes,
to find that the black darkness had given place to a faint murky light,
and that he was no longer being carried rapidly onwards, but was lying
still upon a heap of straw in some dim place, the outlines of which only
became gradually visible to him.
Raymond was very weak, and weakness exercises a calming and numbing
effect upon the senses. He felt no alarm at finding himself in this
strange place, but after gazing about him without either recollection or
comprehension, he turned round upon his bed of straw, which was by no
means the worst resting place he had known in his wanderings, and
quickly fell into a sound sleep.
When he awoke some hours later, the place was lighter than it had been,
for a ray of sunlight had penetrated through the loophole high above his
head, and illuminated with tolerable brightness the whole of the dim
retreat in which he found himself. Raymond raised himself upon his elbow
and looked wonderingly around him.
"What in the name of all the Holy Saints has befallen me?" he
questioned, speaking half aloud in the deep stillness, glad to break the
oppressive silence, if it were only by the sound of his own voice. "I
feel as though a leaden weight were pressing down my limbs, and my head
is throbbing as though a hammer were beating inside it. I can scarce
frame my thoughts as I will. What was I doing last, before this strange
thing befell me?"
He put his hand to his head and strove to think; but for a time memory
eluded him, and his bewilderment grew painfully upon him. Then he espied
a pitcher of water and some coarse food set not far away, and he rose
with some little difficulty and dragged his stiffened limbs across the
stone floor till he reached the spot where this provision stood.
"Sure, this be something of the prisoner's fare," he said, as he raised
the pitcher to his lips; "yet I will refresh myself as best I may.
Perchance I shall then regain my scattered senses and better understand
what has befallen me."
He ate and drank slowly, and it was as he hoped. The nourishment he
sorely needed helped to dispel the clouds of weakness and faintness
which had hindered the working of his mind before, and a ray of light
penetrated the mists about him.
"Ha!" he exclaimed, "I have it now! We were in battle together -- Gaston
and I rode side by side. I recollect it all now. We were separated in
the press, and I was carried off by the followers of the Black Visor.
Strange! He was in our ranks. He is a friend, and not a foe. How came
it, then, that his men-at-arms made such an error as to set upon me? Was
it an error? Did I not hear him, or his huge companion, give some order
for my capture to his men before their blades struck me down? It is
passing strange. I comprehend it not. But Gaston will be here anon to
make all right. There must be some strange error. Sure I must have been
mistaken for some other man."
Raymond was not exactly uneasy, though a little bewildered and disturbed
in mind by the strangeness of the adventure. It seemed certain to him
that there must have been some mistake. That he was at present a
prisoner could not be doubted, from the nature of the place in which he
was shut up, and the silence and gloom about him; but unless he had been
abandoned by his first captors, and had fallen into the hands of the
French, he believed that his captivity would speedily come to an end
when the mistake concerning his identity was explained. If indeed he
were in the power of some French lord, there might be a little longer
delay, as a ransom would no doubt have to be found for him ere he could
be released. But then Gaston was at liberty, and Gaston had now powerful
friends and no mean share in some of the prizes which had been taken by
sea and land. He would quickly accomplish his brother's deliverance when
once he heard of his captivity; and there would be no difficulty in
sending him a message, as his captor's great desire would doubtless be
to obtain as large a ransom as he was able to extort.
"They had done better had they tried to seize upon Gaston himself," said
Raymond, with a half smile. "He would have been a prize better worth the
taking. But possibly he would have proved too redoubtable a foe.
Methinks my arm has somewhat lost its strength or cunning, else should I
scarce have fallen so easy a prey. I ought to have striven harder to
have kept by Gaston's side; but I know not now how we came to be
separated. And Roger, too, who has ever been at my side in all times of
strife and danger, how came he to be sundered from me likewise? It must
have been done by the fellows who bore me off -- the followers of the
Black Visor. Strange, very strange! I know not what to think of it. But
when next my jailer comes he will doubtless tell me where I am and what
is desired of me."
The chances of war were so uncertain, and the captive of one day so
often became the victor of the next, that Raymond, who for all his
fragile look possessed a large fund of cool courage, did not feel
greatly disturbed by the ill-chance that had befallen him. Many French
knights were most chivalrous and courteous to their prisoners; some even
permitted them to go out on parole to collect their own ransoms,
trusting to their word of honour to return if they were unable to obtain
the stipulated sum. The English cause had many friends amongst the
French nobility, and friendships as well as enmities had resulted from
the English occupation of such large tracts of France.
So Raymond resolved to make the best of his incarceration whilst it
lasted, trusting that some happy accident would soon set him at large
again. With such a brother as Gaston on the outside of his prison wall,
it would be foolish to give way to despondency.
He looked curiously about at the cave-like place in which he found
himself. It appeared to be a natural chamber formed in the living rock.
It received a certain share of air and light from a long narrow loophole
high up overhead, and the place was tolerably fresh and dry, though its
proportions were by no means large. Still it was lofty, and it was wide
enough to admit of a certain but limited amount of exercise to its occupant.
Raymond found that he could make five paces along one side of it and
four along the other. Except the heap of straw, upon which he had been
laid, there was no plenishing of any kind to the cell. However, as it
was probably only a temporary resting place, this mattered the less.
Raymond had been worse lodged during some of his wanderings before now,
and for the two years that he had lived amongst the Cistercian Brothers,
he had scarcely been more luxuriously treated. His cell there had been
narrower than this place, his fare no less coarse than that he had just
partaken of, and his pallet bed scarce so comfortable as this truss of
"Father Paul often lay for weeks upon the bare stone floor," mused
Raymond, as he sat down again upon his bed. "Sure I need not grumble
that I have such a couch as this."
He was very stiff and bruised, as he found on attempting to move about,
but he had no actual wounds, and no bones were broken. His light strong
armour had protected him, or else his foes had been striving to vanquish
without seriously hurting him. He could feel that his head had been a
good deal battered about, for any consecutive thought tired him; but it
was something to have come off without worse injury, and sleep would
restore him quickly to his wonted strength.
He lay down upon the straw presently, and again he slept soundly and
peacefully. He woke up many hours later greatly refreshed, aroused by
some sound from the outside of his prison. The light had completely
faded from the loophole. The place was in pitchy darkness. There is
something a little terrible in black oppressive darkness -- the darkness
which may almost be felt; and Raymond was not sorry, since he had
awakened, to hear the sound of grating bolts, and then the slow creaking
of a heavy door upon its hinges.
A faint glimmer of light stole into the cell, and Raymund marked the
entrance of a tall dark figure habited like a monk, the cowl drawn so
far over the face as entirely to conceal the features. However, the
ecclesiastical habit was something of a comfort to Raymond, who had
spent so much of his time amongst monks, and he rose to his feet with a
respectful salutation in French.
The monk stepped within the cell, and drew the door behind him, turning
the heavy key in the lock. The small lantern he carried with him gave
only a very feeble light; but it was better than nothing, and enabled
Raymond to see the outline of the tall form, which looked almost
gigantic in the full religious habit.
"Welcome, Holy Father," said Raymond, still speaking in French. "Right
glad am I to look upon face of man again. I prithee tell me where I am,
and into whose hands I have fallen; for methinks there is some mistake
in the matter, and that they take me for one whom I am not."
"They take thee for one Raymond de Brocas, who lays claim, in thine own
or thy brother's person, to Basildene in England and Orthez and Saut in
Gascony," answered the monk, who spoke slowly in English and in a
strangely-muffled voice. "If thou be not he, say so, and prove it
without loss of time; for evil is purposed to Raymond de Brocas, and it
were a pity it should fall upon the wrong head."
A sudden shiver ran through Raymond's frame. Was there not something
familiar in the muffled sound of that English voice? was there not
something in the words and tone that sounded like a cruel sneer? Was it
his fancy that beneath the long habit of the monk he caught the glimpse
of some shining weapon? Was this some terrible dream come to his
disordered brain? Was he the victim of an illusion? or did this tall,
shadowy figure stand indeed before him?
For a moment Raymond's head seemed to swim, and then his nerves steadied
themselves, and he wondered if he might not be disquieting himself in
vain. Possibly, after all, this might be a holy man -- one who would
stand his friend in the future.
"Thou art English?" he asked quickly; "and if English, surely a friend
to thy countrymen?"
"I am English truly," was the low-toned answer, "and I am here to advise
thee for thy good."
"I thank thee for that at least. I will follow thy counsel, if I may
It seemed as though a low laugh forced its way from under the heavy
cowl. The monk drew one step nearer.
"Thou hadst better not trouble thy head about honour. What good will thy
honour be to thee if they tear thee piecemeal limb from limb, or roast
thee to death over a slow fire, or rack thee till thy bones start from
their sockets? Let thy honour go to the winds, foolish boy, and think
only how thou mayest save thy skin. There be those around and about thee
who will have no mercy so long as thou provest obdurate. Bethink thee
well how thou strivest against them, for thou knowest little what may
well befall thee in their hands."
The blood seemed to run cold in Raymond's veins as he heard these
terrible words, spoken with a cool deliberation which did nothing
detract from their dread significance. Who was it who once -- nay, many
times in bygone years -- had threatened him with just that cool,
deliberate emphasis, seeming to gloat over the dark threats uttered, as
though they were to him full of a deep and cruel joy?
It seemed to the youth as though he were in the midst of some dark and
horrible dream from which he must speedily awake. He passed his hand
fiercely across his eyes and made a quick step towards the monk.
"Who and what art thou?" he asked, in stifled accents, for it seemed as
though a hideous oppression was upon him, and he scarce knew the sound
of his own voice; and then, with a harsh, grating laugh, the tall figure
recoiled a pace, and flung the cowl from his head, and with an
exclamation of astonishment and dismay Raymond recognized his implacable
foe and rival, Peter Sanghurst, whom last he had beheld within the walls
"Thou here!" he exclaimed, and moved back as far as the narrow limits of
the cell would permit, as though from the presence of some noxious beast.
Peter Sanghurst folded his arms and gazed upon his youthful rival with a
gleam of cool, vindictive triumph in his cruel eyes that might well send
a thrill of chill horror through the lad's slight frame. When he spoke
it was with the satisfaction of one who gloats over a victim utterly and
entirely in his power.
"Ay, truly I am here; and thou art mine, body and soul, to do with what
I will; none caring what befalls thee, none to interpose between thee
and me. I have waited long for this hour, but I have not waited in vain.
I can read the future. I knew that one day thou wouldst be in my hands
-- that I might do my pleasure upon thee, whatsoever that pleasure might
be. Knowing that, I have been content to wait; only every day the debt
has been mounting up. Every time that thou, rash youth, hast dared to
try to thwart me, hast dared to strive to stand between me and the
object of my desires, a new score has been written down in the record I
have long kept against thee. Now the day of reckoning has come, and thou
wilt find the reckoning a heavy one. But thou shalt pay it -- every jot
and tittle shalt thou pay. Thou shalt not escape from my power until
thou hast paid the uttermost farthing."
The man's lips parted in a hideous smile which showed his white teeth,
sharp and pointed like the fangs of a wolf. Raymond felt his courage
rise with the magnitude of his peril. That some unspeakably terrible
doom was designed for him he could not doubt. The malignity and cruelty
of his foe were too well understood; but at least if he must suffer, he
would suffer in silence. His enemy should not have the satisfaction of
wringing from him one cry for mercy. He would die a thousand times
sooner than sue to him. He thought of Joan -- realizing that for her
sake he should be called upon, in some sort, to bear this suffering; and
even the bare thought sent a thrill of ecstasy through him. Any death
that was died for her would be sweet. And might not his be instrumental
in ridding her for ever of her hateful foe? Would not Gaston raise
heaven and earth to discover his brother? Surely he would, sooner or
later, find out what had befallen him; and then might Peter Sanghurst
strive in vain to flee from the vengeance he had courted: he would
assuredly fall by Gaston's hand, tracked down even to the ends of the earth.
Peter Sanghurst, his eyes fixed steadily on the face of his victim,
hoping to enjoy by anticipation his agonies of terror, saw only a gleam
of resolution and even of joy pass across his face, and he gnashed his
teeth in sudden rage at finding himself unable to dominate the spirit of
the youth, as he meant shortly to rack his body.
"Thou thinkest still to defy me, mad boy?" he asked. "Thou thinkest that
thy brother will come to thine aid? Let him try to trace thee if he can!
I defy him ever to learn where thou art. Wouldst know it thyself? Then
thou shalt do so, and thou wilt see thy case lost indeed. Thou art in
that Castle of Saut that thou wouldest fain call thine own -- that
castle which has never yet been taken by foe from without, and never
will be yet, so utterly impregnable is its position. Thou art in the
hands of the Lord of Navailles, who has his own score to settle with
thee, and who will not let thee go till thou hast resigned in thy
brother's name and thine own every one of those bold claims which, as he
has heard, have been made to the Roy Outremer by one or both of you. Now
doth thy spirit quail? now dost thou hope for succour from without? Bid
adieu to all such fond and idle hopes. Thou art here utterly alone, no
man knowing what has befallen thee. Thou art in the hands of thy two
bitterest foes, men who are known and renowned for their cruelty and
their evil deeds -- men who would crush to death a hundred such as thou
who dared to strive to bar their way. Now what sayest thou? how about
that boasted honour of thine? Thou hadst best hear reason ere thou hast
provoked thy foes too far, and make for thyself the best terms that thou
canst. Thou mayest yet save thyself something if thou wilt hear reason."
Raymond's face was set like a flint. He had no power to rid himself of
the presence of his foe, but yield one inch to persuasion or threat he
was resolved not to do. For one thing, his distrust of this man was so
great that he doubted if any concessions made by him would be of the
smallest value in obtaining him his release; for another, his pride rose
up in arms against yielding anything to fear that he would not yield
were he a free man in the midst of his friends. No: at all costs he
would stand firm. He could but die once, and what other men had borne
for their honour or their faith he could surely bear. His lofty young
face kindled and glowed with the enthusiasm of his resolution, and again
the adversary's face darkened with fury.
"Thou thinkest perhaps that I have forgot the art of torture since thou
wrested from me one victim? Thou shalt find that what he suffered at my
hands was but the tithe of what thou shalt endure. Thou hast heard
perchance of that chamber in the heart of the earth where the Lord of
Navailles welcomes his prisoners who have secrets worth the knowing, or
treasures hidden out of his reach? That chamber is not far from where
thou standest now, and there be willing hands to carry thee thither into
the presence of its Lord, who lets not his visitors escape him till he
has wrung from their reluctant lips every secret of which he desires the
key. And what are his clumsy engines to the devices and refinements of
torture that I can inflict when once that light frame is bound
motionless upon the rack, and stretched till not a muscle may quiver
save at my bidding? Rash boy, beware how thou provokest me to do my
worst; for once I have thee thus bound beneath my hands, then the devil
of hatred and cruelty which possesses me at times will come upon me, and
I shall not let thee go until I have done my worst. Bethink thee well
ere thou provokest me too far. Listen and be advised, ere it be too late
for repentance, and thy groans of abject submission fall upon unheeding
ears. None will befriend thee then. Thou mayest now befriend thyself. If
thou wilt not take the moment when it is thine, it may never be offered
Raymond did not speak. He folded his arms and looked steadily across at
his foe. He knew himself perfectly and absolutely helpless. Every weapon
he possessed had been taken from him whilst he lay unconscious. His
armour had been removed. He had nothing upon him save his light summer
dress, and the precious heart hanging about his neck. Even the
satisfaction of making one last battle for his life was denied him. His
limbs were yet stiff and weak. His enemy would grip him as though he
were a child if he so much as attempted to cast himself upon him. All
that was now left for him was the silent dignity of endurance.
Sanghurst made one step forward and seized the arm of the lad in a grip
like that of a vice. So cruel was the grip that it was hard to restrain
a start of pain.
"Renounce Joan!" he hissed in the boy's ear; "renounce her utterly and
for ever! Write at my bidding such words as I shall demand of thee, and
thou shalt save thyself the worst of the agonies I will else inflict
upon thee. Basildene thou shalt never get -- I can defy thee there, do
as thou wilt; besides, if thou departest alive from this prison house,
thou wilt have had enough of striving to thwart the will of Peter
Sanghurst -- but Joan thou shalt renounce of thine own free will, and
shalt so renounce her that her love for thee will be crushed and killed!
Here is the inkhorn, and here the parchment. The ground will serve thee
for a table, and I will tell thee what to write. Take then the pen, and
linger not. Thou wouldst rejoice to write whatever words I bid thee
didst thou know what is even now preparing in yon chamber below thy
prison house. Take the pen and sit down. It is but a short half-hour's
The strong man thrust the quill into the slight fingers of the boy; but
Raymond suddenly wrenched his hand away, and flung the frail weapon to
the other end of the cell. He saw the vile purpose in a moment. Peter
knew something of the nature of the woman he passionately desired to win
for his wife, and he well knew that no lies of his invention respecting
the falsity of her young lover would weigh one instant with her. Even
the death of his rival would help him in no whit, for Joan would cherish
the memory of the dead, and pay no heed to the wooing of the living.
There was but one thing that would give him the faintest hope, and that
was the destruction of her faith in Raymond. Let him be proved faithless
and unworthy, and her love and loyalty must of necessity receive a rude
shock. Sanghurst knew the world, and knew that broken faith was the one
thing a lofty-souled and pure-minded woman finds it hardest to forgive.
Raymond, false to his vows, would no longer be a rival in his way. He
might have a hard struggle to win the lady even then, but the one