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Sir Nigel by Arthur Conan Doyle

Part 8 out of 8

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The King looked slowly round. "There was a devil of a yellow
horse," said he. "My poor palfrey went over like a skittle-pin
before a ball. Of the rider I know nothing save that he bore red
roses on a silver shield. Ah! by Saint Denis, there is the man
himself, and there his thrice-accursed horse!"

His head swimming, and moving as if in a dream, Nigel found
himself the center of the circle of armed and angry men.

The Prince laid his hand upon his shoulder. "It is the little
cock of Tilford Bridge," said he. "On my father's soul, I have
ever said that you would win your way. Did you receive the King's

"Nay, fair lord, I did not receive it."

"Did you hear him give it?"

"I heard, sir, but I did not know that it was the King. My master
Lord Chandos had gone on, and I followed after."

"And left him lying. Then the surrender was not complete, and by
the laws of war the ransom goes to Denis de Morbecque, if his
story be true."

"It is true," said the King. "He was the second."

"Then the ransom is yours; Denis. But for my part I swear by my
father's soul that I had rather have the honor this Squire has
gathered than all the richest ransoms of France."

At these words spoken before that circle of noble warriors Nigel's
heart gave one great throb, and he dropped upon his knee before
the Prince. "Fair lord, how can I thank you?" he murmured.
"These words at least are more than any ransom."

"Rise up!" said the smiling Prince, and he smote with his sword
upon his shoulder. "England has lost a brave Squire, and has
gained a gallant knight. Nay, linger not, I pray! Rise up, Sir


Two months have passed, and the long slopes of Hindhead are russet
with the faded ferns - the fuzzy brown pelt which wraps the
chilling earth. With whoop and scream the wild November wind
sweeps over the great rolling downs, tossing the branches of the
Cosford beeches, and rattling at the rude latticed windows. The
stout old knight of Duplin, grown even a little stouter, with
whiter beard to fringe an ever redder face, sits as of yore at the
head of his own board. A well-heaped platter flanked by a foaming
tankard stands before him. At his right sits the Lady Mary, her
dark, plain, queenly face marked deep with those years of weary
waiting, but bearing the gentle grace and dignity which only
sorrow and restraint can give. On his left is Matthew, the old
priest. Long ago the golden-haired beauty had passed from Cosford
to Fernhurst, where the young and beautiful Lady Edith Brocas is
the belle of all Sussex, a sunbeam of smiles and merriment, save
perhaps when her thoughts for an instant fly back to that dread
night when she was plucked from under the very talons of the foul
hawk of Shalford.

The old knight looked up as a fresh gust of wind with a dash of
rain beat against the window behind him. "By Saint Hubert, it is
a wild night!" said he. "I had hoped to-morrow to have a flight
at a heron of the pool or a mallard in the brook. How fares it
with little Katherine the peregrine, Mary?"

"I have joined the wing, father, and I have imped the feathers;
but I fear it will be Christmas ere she can fly again."

"This is a hard saying," said Sir John; "for indeed I have seen no
bolder better bird. Her wing was broken by a heron's beak last
Sabbath sennight, holy father, and Mary has the mending of it."

"I trust, my son, that you had heard mass ere you turned to
worldly pleasure upon God's holy day," Father Matthew answered.

"Tut, tut!" said the old knight, laughing. "Shall I make
confession at the head of my own table? I can worship the good
God amongst his own works, the woods and the fields, better than
in yon pile of stone and wood. But I call to mind a charm for a
wounded hawk which was taught me by the fowler of Gaston de Foix.
How did it run? `The lion of the Tribe of Judah, the root of
David, has conquered.' Yes, those were the words to be said three
times as you walk round the perch where the bird is mewed."

The old priest shook his head. "Nay, these charms are tricks of
the Devil," said he. "Holy Church lends them no countenance, for
they are neither good nor fair. But how is it now with your
tapestry, Lady Mary? When last I was beneath this roof you had
half done in five fair colors the story of Theseus and Ariadne."

"It is half done still, holy father."

"How is this, my daughter? Have you then so many calls?"

"Nay, holy father, her thoughts are otherwhere," Sir John
answered. "She will sit an hour at a time, the needle in her hand
and her soul a hundred leagues from Cosford House. Ever since the
Prince's battle - "

"Good father, I beg you - "

"Nay, Mary, none can hear me, save your own confessor, Father
Matthew. Ever since the Prince's battle, I say, when we heard
that young Nigel had won such honor she is brain-wode, and sits
ever - well, even as you see her now."

An intent look had come into Mary's eyes; her gaze was fixed upon
the dark rain-splashed window. It was a face carved from ivory,
white-lipped and rigid, on which the old priest looked.

"What is it, my daughter? What do you see?"

"I see nothing, father."

"What is it then that disturbs you?"

"I hear, father."

"What do you hear?"

"There are horsemen on the road."

The old knight laughed. "So it goes on, father. What day is
there that a hundred horsemen do not pass our gate, and yet every
clink of hoofs sets her poor heart a-trembling. So strong and
steadfast she has ever been, my Mary, and now no sound too slight
to shake her to the soul! Nay, daughter, nay, I pray you!"

She had half-risen from her chair, her hands clenched and her
dark, startled eyes still fixed upon the window. "I hear them,
father! I hear them amid the wind and the rain! Yes, yes, they
are turning - they have turned! My God, they are at our very

"By Saint Hubert, the girl is right!" cried old Sir John, beating
his fist upon the board. "Ho, varlets, out with you to the yard!
Set the mulled wine on the blaze once more! There are travelers
at the gate, and it is no night to keep a dog waiting at our door.
Hurry, Hannkiin! Hurry, I say, or I will haste you with my

Plainly to the ears of all men could be heard the stamping of the
horses. Mary had stood up, quivering in every limb. An eager
step at the threshold, the door was flung wide, and there in the
opening stood Nigel, the rain gleaming upon his smiling face, his
cheeks flushed with the beating of the wind, his blue eyes shining
with tenderness and love. Something held her by the throat, the
light of the torches danced up and down; but her strong spirit
rose at the thought that others should see that inner holy of
holies of her soul. There is a heroism of women to which no valor
of man can attain. Her eyes only carried him her message as she
held out her hand.

"Welcome, Nigel!" said she.

He stooped and kissed it.

"Saint Catharine has brought me home," said he.

A merry supper it was at Cosford Manor that night, with Nigel at
the head betwixt the jovial old knight and the Lady Mary, whilst
at the farther end Samkin Aylward, wedged between two servant
maids, kept his neighbors in alternate laughter and terror as he
told his tales of the French Wars. Nigel had to turn his doeskin
heels and show his little golden spurs. As he spoke of what was
passed Sir John clapped him on the shoulder, while Mary took his
strong right hand in hers, and the good old priest smiling blessed
them both. Nigel had drawn a little golden ring from his pocket,
and it twinkled in the torchlight.

"Did you say that you must go on your way to-morrow, father?" he
asked the priest.

"Indeed, fair son, the matter presses."

"But you may bide the morning?"

"It will suffice if I start at noon."

"Much may be done in a morning." He looked at Mary, who blushed
and smiled. "By Saint Paul! I have waited long enough."

"Good, good!" chuckled the old knight, with wheezy laughter.
"Even so I wooed your mother, Mary. Wooers were brisk in the
olden time. To-morrow is Tuesday, and Tuesday is ever a lucky
day. Alas! that the good Dame Ermyntrude is no longer with us to
see it done! The old hound must run us down, Nigel, and I hear
its bay upon my own heels; but my heart will rejoice that before
the end I may call you son. Give me your hand, Mary, and yours,
Nigel. Now, take an old man's blessing, and may God keep and
guard you both, and give you your desert, for I believe on my soul
that in all this broad land there dwells no nobler man nor any
woman more fitted to be his mate!"

There let us leave them, their hearts full of gentle joy, the
golden future of hope and promise stretching out before their
youthful eyes. Alas for those green spring dreaming! How often
do they fade and wither until they fall and rot, a dreary sight,
by the wayside of life! But here, by God's blessing, it was not
so, for they burgeoned and they grew, ever fairer and more noble,
until the whole wide world might marvel at the beauty of it.

It has been told elsewhere how as the years passed Nigel's name
rose higher in honor; but still Mary's would keep pace with it,
each helping and sustaining the other upon an ever higher path.
In many lands did Nigel carve his fame, and ever as he returned
spent and weary from his work he drank fresh strength and fire and
craving for honor from her who glorified his home. At Twynham
Castle they dwelled for many years, beloved and honored by all.
Then in the fullness of time they came back to the Tilford Manor-
house and spent their happy, healthy age amid those heather downs
where Nigel had passed his first lusty youth, ere ever he turned
his face to the wars. Thither also came Aylward when he had left
the "Pied Merlin" where for many a year he sold ale to the men of
the forest.

But the years pass; the old wheel turns and ever the thread runs
out. The wise and the good, the noble and the brave, they come
from the darkness, and into the darkness they go, whence, whither
and why, who may say? Here is the slope of Hindhead. The fern
still glows russet in November, the heather still burns red in
July; but where now is the Manor of Cosford? Where is the old
house of Tilford? Where, but for a few scattered gray stones, is
the mighty pile of Waverley? And yet even gnawing Time has not
eaten all things away. Walk with me toward Guildford, reader,
upon the busy highway. Here, where the high green mound rises
before us, mark yonder roofless shrine which still stands
foursquare to the winds. It is St. Catharine's, where Nigel and
Mary plighted their faith. Below lies the winding river, and over
yonder you still see the dark Chantry woods which mount up to the
bare summit, on which, roofed and whole, stands that Chapel of the
Martyr where the comrades beat off the archers of the crooked Lord
of Shalford. Down yonder on the flanks of the long chalk hills
one traces the road by which they made their journey to the wars.
And now turn hither to the north, down this sunken winding path!
It is all unchanged since Nigel's day. Here is the Church of
Compton. Pass under the aged and crumbling arch. Before the
steps of that ancient altar, unrecorded and unbrassed, lies the
dust of Nigel and of Mary. Near them is that of Maude their
daughter, and of Alleyne Edricson, whose spouse she was; their
children and children's children are lying by their side. Here
too, near the old yew in the churchyard, is the little mound which
marks where Samkin Aylward went back to that good soil from which
he sprang.

So lie the dead leaves; but they and such as they nourish forever
that great old trunk of England, which still sheds forth another
crop and another, each as strong and as fair as the last. The
body may lie in moldering chancel, or in crumbling vault, but the
rumor of noble lives, the record of valor and truth, can never
die, but lives on in the soul of the people. Our own work lies
ready to our hands; and yet our strength may be the greater and
our faith the firmer if we spare an hour from present toils to
look back upon the women who were gentle and strong, or the men
who loved honor more than life, on this green stage of England
where for a few short years we play our little part.

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