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insuperable obstacle would be removed from his path.

And Raymond saw the purpose in a moment. His quick and sharpened intelligence showed all to him in a flash. Not to save himself from any fate would he so disgrace his manhood — prove unworthy in the hour of trial, deny his love, and by so doing deny himself the right to bear all for her dear sake.

Flinging the pen to the ground and turning upon Sanghurst with a great light in his eyes, he told him how he read his base purpose, his black treachery, and dared him to do his worst.

“My worst, mad boy, my worst!” cried the furious man, absolutely foaming at the mouth as he drew back, looking almost like a venomous snake couched for a spring. “Is that, then, thy answer — thy unchangeable answer to the only loophole I offer thee of escaping the full vengeance awaiting thee from thy two most relentless foes? Bethink thee well how thou repeatest such words. Yet once again I bid thee pause. Take but that pen and do as I bid thee –“

“I will not!” answered Raymond, throwing back his head in a gesture of noble, fearless defiance; “I will not do thy vile bidding. Joan is my true love, my faithful and loving lady. Her heart is mine and mine is hers, and her faithful knight I will live and die. Do your worst. I defy you to your face. There is a God above who can yet deliver me out of your hand if He will. If not — if it be His will that I suffer in a righteous cause — I will do it with a soul unseared by coward falsehood. There is my answer; you will get none other. Now do with me what you will. I fear you not.”

Peter Sanghurst’s aspect changed. The fury died out, to be replaced by a perfectly cold and calm malignity a hundred times more terrible. He stooped and picked up the pen, replacing it with the parchment and inkhorn in a pouch at his girdle. Then throwing off entirely the long monk’s habit which he had worn on his entrance, he advanced step by step upon Raymond, the glitter in his eye being terrible to see.

Raymond did not move. He was already standing against the wall at the farthest limit of the cell. His foe slowly advanced upon him, and suddenly put out two long, powerful arms, and gripped him round the body in a clasp against which it was vain to struggle. Lifting him from his feet, he carried him into the middle of the chamber, and setting him down, but still encircling him with that bear-like embrace, he stamped thrice upon the stone floor, which gave out a hollow sound beneath his feet.

The next moment there was a sound of strange creaking and groaning, as though some ponderous machinery were being set in motion. There was a sickening sensation, as though the very ground beneath his feet were giving way, and the next instant Raymond became aware that this indeed was the case. The great flagstone upon which he and his captor were standing was sinking, sinking, sinking into the very heart of the earth, as it seemed; and as they vanished together into the pitchy darkness, to the accompaniment of that same strange groaning and creaking, Raymond heard a hideous laugh in his ear.

“This is how his victims are carried to the Lord of Navailles’s torture chamber. Ha-ha! ha-ha! This is how they go down thither. Whether they ever come forth again is quite another matter!”

CHAPTER XXIV. GASTON’S QUEST.

When Gaston missed his brother from his side in the triumphant turning of the tables upon the French, he felt no uneasiness. The battle was going so entirely in favour of the English arms, and the discomfited French were making so small a stand, that the thought of peril to Raymond never so much as entered his head. In the waning light it was difficult to distinguish one from another, and for aught he knew his brother might be quite close at hand. They were engaged in taking prisoners such of their enemies as were worthy to be carried off; and when they had completely routed the band and made captive their leaders, it was quite dark, and steps were taken to encamp for the night.

Then it was that Gaston began to wonder why he still saw nothing either of Raymond or of the faithful Roger, who was almost like his shadow. He asked all whom he met if anything had been seen of his brother, but the answer was always the same — nobody knew anything about him. Nobody appeared to have seen him since the brothers rode into battle side by side; and the young knight began to feel thoroughly uneasy.

Of course there had been some killed and wounded in the battle upon both sides, though the English loss was very trifling. Still it might have been Raymond’s fate to be borne down in the struggle, and Gaston, calling some of his own personal attendants about him, and bidding them take lanterns in their hands, went forth to look for his brother upon the field where the encounter had taken place.

The field was a straggling one, as the combat had taken the character of a rout at the end, and the dead and wounded lay at long intervals apart. Gaston searched and searched, his heart growing heavier as he did so, for his brother was very dear to him, and he felt a pang of bitter self-reproach at having left him, however inadvertently, to bear the brunt of the battle alone. But search as he would he found nothing either of Raymond or Roger, and a new fear entered into his mind.

“Can he have been taken prisoner?”

This did not seem highly probable. The French, bold enough at the outset when they had believed themselves secure of an easy victory, had changed their front mightily when they had discovered the trap set for them by their foes, and in the end had thought of little save how to save their own lives. They would scarce have burdened themselves with prisoners, least of all with one who did not even hold the rank of knight. This disappearance of his brother was perplexing Gaston not a little. He looked across the moonlit plain, now almost as light as day, a cloud of pain and bewilderment upon his face.

“By Holy St. Anthony, where can the boy be?” he cried.

Then one of his men-at-arms came up and spoke.

“When we were pursuing the French here to the left, back towards their own lines, I saw a second struggle going on away to the right. The knight with the black visor seemed to be leading that pursuit, and though I could not watch it, as I had my own work to do here, I know that some of our men took a different line, there along by yon ridge to the right.”

“Let us go thither and search there,” said Gaston, with prompt decision, “for plainly my brother is not here. It may be he has been following another flying troop. We will up and after him. Look well as you ride if there be any prostrate figures lying in the path. I fear me he may have been wounded in the rout, else surely he would not have stayed away so long.”

Turning his horse round, and closely followed by his men, Gaston rode off in the direction pointed out by his servant. It became plain that there had been fighting of some sort along this line, for a few dead and wounded soldiers, all Frenchmen, lay upon the ground at intervals. Nothing, however, could be seen of Raymond, and for a while nothing of Roger either; but just as Gaston was beginning to despair of finding trace of either, he beheld in the bright moonlight a figure staggering along in a blind and helpless fashion towards them, and spurring rapidly forward to meet it, he saw that it was Roger.

Roger truly, but Roger in pitiable plight. His armour was gone. His doublet had been half stripped from off his back. He was bleeding from more than one wound, and in his eyes was a fixed and glassy stare, like that of one walking in sleep. His face was ghastly pale, and his breath came in quick sobs and gasps.

“Roger, is it thou?” cried Gaston, in accents of quick alarm. “I have been seeking thee everywhere. Where is thy master? Where is my brother?”

“Gone! gone! gone!” cried Roger, in a strange and despairing voice. “Carried off by his bitterest foes! Gone where we shall never see him more!”

There was something in the aspect of the youth and in his lamentable words that sent an unwonted shiver through Gaston’s frame; but he was quick to recover himself, and answered hastily:

“Boy, thou art distraught! Tell me where my brother has gone. I will after him and rescue him. He cannot be very far away. Quick — tell me what has befallen him!”

“He has been carried off — more I know not. He has been carried off by foulest treachery.”

“Treachery! Whose treachery? Who has carried him off?”

“The knight of the Black Visor.”

“The Black Visor! Nay; thou must be deceived thyself! The Black Visor is one of our own company.”

“Ay verily, and that is why he succeeded where an open foe had failed. None guessed with what purpose he came when he and his men pushed their way in a compact wedge, and sundered my young master from your side, sir, driving him farther and farther from all beside, till he and I (who had managed to keep close beside him) were far away from all the world beside, galloping as if for dear life in a different direction. Then it was that they threw off the pretence of being friends — that they set upon him and overpowered him, that they beat off even me from holding myself near at hand, and carried me bound in another direction. I was given in charge to four stalwart troopers, all wearing the black badge of their master. They bound my bands and my feet, and bore me along I knew not whither. I lost sight of my master. Him they took at headlong speed in another direction. I had been wounded in the battle. I was wounded by these men, struggling to follow your brother. I swooned in my saddle, and knew no more till a short hour ago, when I woke to find myself lying, still bound, upon a heap of straw in some outhouse of a farm. I heard the voices of my captors singing snatches of songs not far away; but they were paying no heed to their captive, and I made shift to slacken my bonds and slip out into the darkness of the wood.

“I knew not where I was; but the moon told me how to bend my steps to find the English camp again. I, in truth, have escaped — have come to bring you word of his peril; but ah, I fear, I fear that we shall never see him more! They will kill him — they will kill him! He is in the hands of his deadliest foes!”

“If we know where he is, we can rescue him without delay!” cried Gaston, who was not a little perplexed at the peculiar nature of the adventure which had befallen his brother.

To be taken captive and carried off by one of the English knights (if indeed the Black Visor were a knight) was a most extraordinary thing to have happened. Gaston, who knew little enough of his brother’s past history in detail, and had no idea that he had called down upon himself any particular enmity, was utterly at a loss to understand the story, nor was Roger in a condition to give any farther explanation. He tottered as he stood, and Gaston ordered his servants to mount him upon one of their horses and bring him quietly along, whilst he himself turned and galloped back to the camp to prosecute inquiries there.

“Who is the Black Visor?” — that was the burden of his inquiries, and it was long before he could obtain an answer to this question. The leaders of the expedition were full of their own plans and had little attention to bestow upon Gaston or his strange story. The loss of a single private gentleman from amongst their muster was nothing to excite them, and their own position was giving them much more concern. They had taken many prisoners. They believed that they had done amply enough to raise the siege of St. Jean d’Angely (though in this they proved themselves mistaken), and they were anxious to get safely back to Bordeaux with their spoil before any misadventure befell them.

Gaston cared nothing now for the expedition; his heart was with his brother, his mind was full of anxious questioning. Roger’s story plainly showed that Raymond was in hostile hands. But the perplexity of the matter was that Gaston had no idea of the name or rank of his brother’s enemy and captor.

At last he came upon a good-natured knight who had been courteous to the brothers in old days. He listened with interest to Gaston’s tale, and bid him wait a few minutes whilst he went to try to discover the name and rank of the Black Visor. He was certain that he had heard it, though he could not recollect at a moment’s notice what he had heard. He did not keep Gaston waiting long, but returned quickly to him.

“The Black Visor is one Peter Sanghurst of Basildene, a gentleman in favour with the King, and one likely to rise to high honour. Men whisper that he has some golden secret which, if it be so, will make of him a great man one of these days. It is he who has been in our company, always wearing his black visor. Men say he is under some vow, and until the vow is accomplished no man may look upon his face.”

Gaston drew his breath hard, and a strange gleam came into his eyes.

“Peter Sanghurst of Basildene!” he exclaimed, and then fell into a deep reverie.

What did it all mean? What had Raymond told him from time to time about the enmity of this man? Did not Gaston himself well remember the adventure of long ago, when he and his brother had entered Basildene by stealth and carried thence the wretched victim of the sorcerer’s art? Was not that the beginning of an enmity which had never been altogether laid to sleep? Had he not heard whispers from time to time all pointing to the conclusion that Sanghurst had neither forgotten nor forgiven, and that he felt his possession of Basildene threatened by the existence of the brothers whose right it was? Had not Raymond placed himself almost under vow to win back his mother’s lost inheritance? And might it not be possible that this knowledge had come to the ears of the present owner?

Gaston ground his teeth in rage as he realized what might be the meaning of this cowardly attack. Treachery and cowardice were the two vices most hateful in his eyes, and this vile attack upon an unsuspecting comrade filled him with the bitterest rage as well as with the greatest anxiety.

Plain indeed was it that Raymond had been carried off; but whither? To England? that scarce seemed possible. It would be a daring thing indeed to bring an English subject back to his native land a prisoner. Yet where else could Peter Sanghurst carry a captive? He might have friends amongst the French; but who would be sufficiently interested in his affairs to give shelter to him and his prisoner, when it might lead to trouble perhaps with the English King?

One thought of relief there was in the matter. Plainly it was not Raymond’s death that was to be compassed. If they had wished to kill him, they would have done so upon the battlefield and have left him there, where his death would have excited no surprise or question. No; it was something more than this that was wanted, and Gaston felt small difficulty in guessing what that aim and object was.

“He is to be held for ransom, and his ransom will be our claim upon Basildene. We both shall be called upon to renounce that, and then Raymond will go free. Well, if that be the only way, Basildene must go. But perchance it may be given to me to save the inheritance and rescue Raymond yet. Would that I knew whither they had carried him! But surely he may be traced and followed. Some there must be who will be able to give me news of them.”

Of one thing Gaston was perfectly assured, and that was that he must now act altogether independently, gain permission to quit the expedition, and pursue his own investigations with his own followers. He had no difficulty in arranging this matter. The leaders had already resolved upon returning to Bordeaux immediately, and taking ship with their spoil and prisoners for England. Had Gaston not had other matters of his own to think of, he would most likely have urged a farther advance upon the beleaguered town, to make sure that it was sufficiently relieved. As it was, he had no thoughts but for his brother’s peril; and his anxieties were by no means relieved by the babble of words falling from Roger’s lips when he returned to see how it fared with him.

Roger appeared to the kindly soldiers, who had made a rude couch for him and were tending him with such skill as they possessed, to be talking in the random of delirium, and they paid little heed to his words. But as Gaston stood by he was struck by the strange fixity of the youth’s eyes, by the rigidity of his muscles, and by the coherence and significance of his words.

It was not a disconnected babble that passed his lips; it was the description of some scene upon which he appeared to be looking. He spoke of horsemen galloping through the night, of the Black Visor in the midst and his gigantic companion by his side. He spoke of the unconscious captive they carried in their midst — the captive the youth struggled frantically to join, that they might share together whatever fate was to be his.

The soldiers naturally believed he was wandering, and speaking of his own ride with his captors; but Gaston listened with different feelings. He remembered well what he had once heard about this boy and the strange gift he possessed, or was said to possess, of seeing what went on at a distance when he had been in the power of the sorcerer. Might it not be that this gift was not only exercised at the will of another, but might be brought into play by the tension of anxiety evoked by a great strain upon the boy’s own nervous system? Gaston did not phrase the question thus, but he well knew the devotion with which Roger regarded Raymond, and it seemed quite possible to him that in this crisis of his life, his body weakened by wounds and fatigue, his mind strained by grief and anxiety as to the fate of him he loved more than life, his spirit had suddenly taken that ascendency over his body which of old it had possessed, and that he was really and truly following in that strange trance-like condition every movement of the party of which Raymond was the centre.

At any rate, whether he were right or not in this surmise, Gaston resolved that he would not lose a word of these almost ceaseless utterings, and dismissing his men to get what rest they could, he sat beside Roger, and listened with attention to every word he spoke.

Roger lay with his eyes wide open in the same fixed and glassy stare. He spoke of a halt made at a wayside inn, of the rousing up with the earliest stroke of dawn of the keeper of this place, of the inside of the bare room, and the hasty refreshment set before the impatient travellers.

“He sits down, they both sit down, and then he laughs — ah, where have I heard that laugh before?” and a look of strange terror sweeps over the youth’s face. “‘I may now remove my visor — my vow is fulfilled! My enemy is in my hands. My Lord of Navailles, I drink this cup to your good health and the success of our enterprise. We have the victim in our own hands. We can wring from him every concession we desire before we offer him for ransom.'”

Gaston gave a great start. What did this mean? Well indeed he remembered the Sieur de Navailles, the hereditary foe of the De Brocas. Was it, could it be possible, that he was concerned in this capture? Had their two foes joined together to strive to win all at one blow? He must strive to find this out. Could it be possible that Roger really saw and heard all these things? or was it but the fantasy of delirium? Raymond might have spoken to him of the Lord of Navailles as a foe, and in his dreams he might be mixing one thought with the other.

Suddenly Roger uttered a sharp cry and pressed his hands before his eyes. “It is he! it is he!” he cried, with a gasping utterance. “He has removed the mask from his face. It is he — Peter Sanghurst — and he is smiling — that smile. Oh, I know what it means! He has cruel, evil thoughts in his mind. O my master, my master!”

Gaston started to his feet. Here was corroboration indeed. Roger no more knew who the Black Visor was than he had done himself an hour back. Yet he now saw the face of Peter Sanghurst, the very man he himself had discovered the Black Visor to be. This indeed showed that Roger was truly looking upon some distant scene, and a strange thrill ran through Gaston as he realized this mysterious fact.

“And the other, Peter Sanghurst’s companion — what of him? what likeness does he bear?” asked Gaston quickly.

“He is a very giant in stature,” was the answer, “with a swarthy skin, black eyes that burn in their sockets, and a coal-black beard that falls below his waist. He has a sear upon his left cheek, and he has lost two fingers upon the left hand. He speaks in a voice like rolling waves, and in a language that is half English and half the Gascon tongue.”

“In very truth the Sieur de Navailles!” whispered Gaston to himself.

With every faculty on the alert, he sat beside Roger’s bed, listening to every word of his strange babble of talk. He described how they took to horse, fresh horses being provided for the whole company, as though all had been planned beforehand, and how they galloped at headlong pace away — away — away, ever faster, ever more furiously, as though resolved to gain their destination at all cost.

The day dawned, but Roger lay still in this trance, and Gaston would not have him disturbed. Until he could know whither his brother had been carried, it was useless to strive to seek and overtake him. If in very truth Roger was in some mysterious fashion watching over him, he would, doubtless, be able to tell whither at length the captive was taken. Then they would to horse and pursue. But they must learn all they could first.

The hours passed by. Roger still talked at intervals. If questioned he answered readily — always of the same hard riding, the changes of horses, the captive carried passive in the midst of the troop.

Then he began to speak words that arrested Gaston’s attention. He spoke of natural features well known to him: he described a grim fortress, so placed as to be impregnable to foes from without. There were the wide moat, the huge natural mound, the solid wall, the small loopholes. Gaston held his breath to hear: he knew every feature of the place so described. Was it not the ancient Castle of Saut — his own inheritance, as he had been brought up to call it? Roger had never seen it; he was almost assured of that. What he was describing was something seen with that mysterious second sight of his, nothing that had ever impressed itself upon his waking senses.

It was all true, then. Raymond had indeed been taken captive by the two bitter enemies of the house of De Brocas. Peter Sanghurst had doubtless heard of the feud between the two houses, and of the claim set up by Gaston for the establishment of his own rights upon the lands of the foe, and had resolved to make common cause with the Navailles against the brothers. It was possible that they would have liked to get both into their clutches, but that they feared to attack so stalwart a foe as Gaston; or else they might have believed that the possession of the person of Raymond would be sufficient for their purpose. The tie between the twin brothers was known to be strong. It was likely enough that were Raymond’s ransom fixed at even an exorbitant sum, the price would be paid by the brother, who well knew that the Tower of Saut was strong enough to defy all attacks from without, and that any person incarcerated in its dungeons would be absolutely at the mercy of its cruel and rapacious lord.

The King of England had his hands full enough as it was without taking up the quarrel of every wronged subject. What was done would have to be done by himself and his own followers; and Gaston set his teeth hard as he realized this, and went forth to give his own orders for the morrow.

At the first glimpse of coming day they were to start forth for the south, and by hard riding might hope to reach Saut by the evening of the second day. Gaston could muster some score of armed men, and they would be like enough to pick up many stragglers on the way, who would be ready enough to join any expedition promising excitement and adventure. To take the Castle of Saut by assault would, as Gaston well knew, be impossible; but he cherished a hope that it might fall into his hands through strategy if he were patient, and if Roger still retained that marvellous faculty of second-sight which revealed to his eyes things hidden from the vision of others.

He slept all that night without moving or speaking, and when he awoke in the morning it was in a natural state, and at first he appeared to have no recollection of what had occurred either to himself or to Raymond. But as sense and memory returned to him, so did also the shadow of some terrible doom hanging over his beloved young master; and though he was still weak and ill, and very unfit for the long journey on horseback through the heat of a summer’s day, he would not hear of being left behind, and was the one to urge upon the others all the haste possible as they rode along southward after the foes who had captured Raymond.

On, on, on! there were no halts save for the needful rest and refreshment, or to try to get fresh horses to carry them forward. A fire seemed to burn in Gaston’s veins as well as in those of Roger; and the knowledge that they were on the track of the fugitives gave fresh ardour to the pursuit at every halting place.

Only a few hours were allowed for rest and sleep during the darkest hour of the short night, and then on — on — ever on, urged by an overmastering desire to know what was happening to the prisoner behind those gloomy walls.

Roger’s sleep that night had been disturbed by hideous visions. He did not appear to know or see anything that was passing; but a deep gloom hung upon his spirit, and he many times woke shivering and crying out with horror at he knew not what; whilst Gaston lay broad awake, a strange sense of darkness and depression upon his own senses. He could scarce restrain himself from springing up and summoning his weary followers to get to horse and ride forth at all risks to the very doors of Saut, and only with the early dawn of day did any rest or refreshment fall upon his spirit.

Roger looked more himself as they rode forth in the dawn.

“Methinks we are near him now,” he kept saying; “my heart is lighter than it was. We will save him yet — I am assured of it! He is not dead; I should surely know it if he were. We are drawing nearer every step. We may be with him ere nightfall.”

“The walls of Saut lie betwixt us,” said Gaston, rather grimly, but he looked sternly resolute, as though it would take strong walls indeed to keep him from his brother when they were so near.

The country was beginning to grow familiar to him. He picked up followers in many places as he passed through. The name of De Brocas was loved here; that of De Navailles was loathed, and hated, and feared.

Evening was drawing on. The woods were looking their loveliest in all the delicate beauty of their fresh young green. Gaston, riding some fifty yards ahead with Roger beside him, looked keenly about him, with vivid remembrance of every winding of the woodland path. Soon, as he knew, the grim Castle of Saut would break upon his vision — away there in front and slightly to the right, where the ground fell away to the river and rose on the opposite bank, crowned with those frowning walls.

He was riding so carelessly that when his horse suddenly swerved and shied violently, he was for a moment almost unseated; but quickly recovering himself, he looked round to see what had frightened the animal, and himself gave almost as violent a start as the beast had done.

And yet what he saw was nothing very startling: only the light figure of a young girl — a girl fair of face and light of foot as a veritable forest nymph — such as indeed she looked springing out from the overhanging shade of that dim place.

For one instant they looked into each other’s faces with a glance of quick recognition, and then clasping her hands together, the girl exclaimed in the Gascon tongue:

“The Holy Saints be praised! You have come, you have come! Ah, how I have prayed that help might come! And my prayers have been heard!”

CHAPTER XXV. THE FAIRY OF THE FOREST

Gaston sat motionless in his saddle, gazing at the apparition as though fascinated. He had seen this woodland nymph before. He had spoken with her, had sat awhile beside her, and her presence had inspired feelings within him to which he had hitherto been a complete stranger. As he gazed now into that lovely face, anxious, glad, fearful, all in one, and yet beaming with joy at the encounter, he felt as if indeed the denizens of another sphere had interposed to save his brother, and from that moment he felt a full assurance that Raymond would be rescued.

Recovering himself as by an effort, he sprang from his saddle and stood beside the girl.

“Lady,” he said, in gentle accents, that trembled slightly through the intensity of his emotion — “fairest lady, who thou art I know not, but this I know, that thou comest ever as a messenger of mercy. Once it was to warn me of peril to come; now it is to tell us of one who lies in sore peril. Lady, tell me that I am not wrong in this — that thou comest to give me news of my brother!”

Her liquid eyes were full of light. She did not shrink from him, or play with his feelings as on a former occasion. Her face expressed a serious gravity and earnestness of purpose which added tenfold to her charms. Gaston, deeply as his feelings were stirred with anxious care for his brother’s fate, could not help his heart going out to this exquisite young thing standing before him with trustful upturned face.

Who she was he knew not and cared not. She was the one woman in the world for him. He had thought so when he had found her in the forest in wayward tricksy mood; he knew it without doubt now that he saw her at his side, her sweet face full of deep and womanly feeling, her arch shyness all forgotten in the depth and resolution of her resolve.

“I do!” she answered, in quick, short sentences that sounded like the tones of a silver bell. “You are Gaston de Brocas, and he, the prisoner, is your twin brother Raymond. I know all. I have heard them talk in their cups, when they forget that I am growing from a child to a woman. I have long ceased to be a child. I think that I have grown old in that terrible place. I have heard words — oh, that make my blood run cold! that make me wish I had never been born into a world where such things are possible! In my heart I have registered a vow. I have vowed that if ever the time should come when I might save one wretched victim from my savage uncle’s power — even at the risk of mine own life — I would do it. I have warned men away from here. I have done a little, times and again, to save them from a snare laid for them. But never once have I had power to rescue from his relentless clutch the victim he had once enclosed in his net, for never have I had help from without. But when I heard them speak of Raymond de Brocas — when I knew that it was he, thy brother, of whom some such things were spoken — then I felt that I should indeed go mad could I not save him from such fate.”

“What fate?” asked Gaston breathlessly; but she went on as though she had not heard.

“I thought of thee as I had seen thee in the wood. I said in my heart, ‘He is noble, he is brave. He will rest not night nor day whilst his brother lies a captive in these cruel hands. I have but to watch and to wait. He will surely come. And when he comes, I will show him the black hole in the wall — the dark passage to the moat — and he will dare to enter where never man has entered before. He will save his brother, and my vow will be fulfilled!'”

Gaston drew his breath hard, and a light leaped into his eyes.

“Thou knowest a secret way by which the Tower of Saut may be entered — is that so, Lady?”

“I know a way by which many a wretched victim has left it,” answered the girl, whose dark violet eyes were dilated by the depth of her emotion. “I know not if any man ever entered by that way. But my heart told me that there was one who would not shrink from the task, be the peril never so great. I will see that the men-at-arms have drink enough to turn their heads. I have a concoction of herbs which if mingled with strong drink will cause such sleep to fall upon men that a thunderbolt falling at their feet would scarce awaken them. I will see that thou hast the chance thou needest. The rest wilt thou do without a thought of fear.”

“Fear to go where Raymond is — to share his fate if I may not rescue him!” cried Gaston. “Nay, sweet lady, that would be indeed a craven fear, unworthy of any true knight. But tell me more. I have many times wandered round the Tower of Saut in my boyhood, when its lord and master was away. Methinks I know every loophole and gate by heart. But the gates are so closely guarded, and the windows are so narrow and high up in the walls, that I know not how they may be entered from without.”

“True: yet there is one way of which doubtless thou knowest naught, for, as I have said, men go forth that way, but enter not by it; and the trick is known only to a few chosen souls, for the victims who pass out seek not to come again. They drop with sullen plash into the black waters of the moat, and the river, which mingles its clearer water with the sluggish stream encircling the Tower, bears thence towards the hungry sea the burden thus entrusted to its care.”

Gaston shivered slightly.

“Thou speakest of the victims done to death within yon gloomy walls. I have heard dark tales of such ere now.”

“Thou hast heard nothing darker than the truth,” said the girl, her slight frame quivering with repressed emotion and a deep and terrible sense of helpless indignation and pity. “I have heard stories that have made my blood run cold in my veins. Men have been done to death in a fashion I dare not speak of. There is a terrible room scarce raised above the level of the moat, into which I was once taken, and the memory of which has haunted me ever since. It is within the great mound upon which the Tower is built; and above it is the dungeon in which the victim is confined. There is some strange and wondrous device by which he may be carried down and raised again to his own prison house when his captor has worked his hideous will upon him. And if he dies, as many do, upon the fearful engines men have made to inflict torture upon each other, then there is this narrow stairway, and this still narrower passage down to the sullen waters of the moat.

“The opening is just at the level of the water. It looks so small from the opposite side, that one would think it but the size to admit the passage of a dog; you would think it was caused by the loosening of some stone in the wall — no more. But yet it is large enough to admit the passage of a human body; and where a body has passed out, sure a body may pass in. There is no lock upon the door from the underground passage to the moat; for what man would be so bold as find his way into the Castle by the grim dungeons which hold such terrible secrets? If thou hast the courage to enter thus, none will bar thy passage –“

“If!” echoed Gaston, whose hand was clenched and his whole face quivering with emotion as he realized the fearful peril which menaced his brother. “There is no such thing as a doubt. Raymond is there. I come to save him.”

The girl’s eyes flashed with answering fire. She clasped her hands together, and cried, with something like a sob in her voice:

“I knew it! I knew it! I knew that thou wert a true knight that thou wouldst brave all to save him.”

“I am his brother,” said Gaston simply, “his twin brother. Who should save him but I? Tell me, have I come in time? Have they dared to lay a finger upon him yet?”

“Dared!” repeated the girl, with a curious inflection in her voice. “Of what should they be afraid here in this tower, which has ever withstood the attacks of foes, which no man may enter without first storming the walls and forcing the gates? Thinkest thou that they fear God or man? Nay, they know not what such fear is; and therein lies our best hope.”

“How so?” asked Gaston quickly.

“Marry, for two reasons: one being that they keep but small guard over the place, knowing its strength and remoteness; the other, that being thus secure, they are in no haste to carry out their devil’s work. They will first let their prisoner recover of his hurts, that he slip not too soon from their power, as weaklier victims ofttimes do.”

“Then they have done naught to him as yet?” asked Gaston, in feverish haste. “What hurts speakest thou of? Was he wounded in the fight, or when they surrounded him and carried him off captive?”

“Not wounded, as I have heard, but sorely battered and bruised; and he was brought hither unconscious, and lay long as one dead. When he refused to do the bidding of Peter Sanghurst, they took him down to yon fearsome chamber; but, as I heard when I sat at the hoard with mine uncle and that wicked man, they had scarce laid hands upon him, to bend his spirit to their will through their hellish devices, before he fell into a deep swoon from which they could not rouse him; and afraid that he would escape their malice by a merciful death, and that they would lose the very vengeance they had taken such pains to win, they took him back to his cell; and there he lies, tended not unskilfully by my old nurse, who is ever brought to the side of the sick in this place. Once I made shift to slip in behind her when the warder was off his guard, and to whisper in his ear a word of hope. But we are too close watched to do aught but by stealth, and Annette is never suffered to approach the prison alone. She is conducted thither by a grim warder, who waits beside her till she has done her office, and then takes her away. They do not know how we loathe and hate their wicked, cruel deeds; but they know that women have ere this been known to pity helpless victims, and they have an eye to us ever.”

Gaston drew his breath more freely. Raymond, then, was for the moment safe. No grievous bodily hurt had been done him as yet; and here outside his prison was his brother, and one as devoted as though the tie of blood bound them together, ready to dare all to save him from the hands of his cruel foes.

“They are in no great haste,” said the maiden; “they feel themselves so strong. They say that no man can so much as discover where thy brother has been spirited, still less snatch him from their clasp. They know the French King will not stir to help a subject of the Roy Outremer, They know that Edward of England is far away, and that he still avoids an open breach of the truce. They are secure in the undisturbed possession of their captive. I have heard them say that had he a hundred brothers all working without to obtain his release, the walls of the Tower of Saut would defy their utmost efforts.”

“That we shall see,” answered Gaston, with a fierce gleam in his eye; and then his face softened as he said, “Now that we have for our ally the enchanted princess of the Castle, many things may be done that else would be hard of achievement.”

His ardent look sent a flush of colour through the girl’s transparent skin, but her eyes did not waver as she looked frankly back at him.

“Nay; I am no princess, and I have no enchantments — would that I had, if they could be used in offices of pity and mercy! I am but a portionless maiden, an orphan, an alien. Ofttimes I weep to think that I too did not die when my parents did, in that terrible scourge which has devastated the world, which I hear that you of England call the Black Death.”

“Who art thou then, fair maid?” questioned Gaston, who was all this time cautiously approaching the Tower of Saut by a winding and unfrequented path well known to his companion. Roger had been told to wait till the other riders came up, and conduct them with great secrecy and caution along the same path.

Their worst fears for Raymond partially set at rest, and the hope of a speedy rescue acting upon their minds like a charm, Gaston was able to think of other things, and was eager to know more of the lovely girl who had twice shown herself to him in such unexpected fashion.

It was a simple little story that she told, but it sounded strangely entrancing from her lips. Her name, she said, was Constanza, and her father had been one of a noble Spanish house, weakened and finally ruined by the ceaseless internal strife carried on between the proud nobles of the fiery south. Her mother was the sister of the Sieur do Navailles, and he had from time to time given aid to her father in his troubles with his enemies. The pestilence which had of late devastated almost the whole of Europe, had visited the southern countries some time before it had invaded more northerly latitudes; and about a year before Gaston’s first encounter with the nymph of the wood, it had laid waste the districts round and about her home, and had carried off both her parents and her two brothers in the space of a few short days.

Left alone in that terrible time of trouble, surrounded by enemies eager to pounce upon the little that remained of the wide domain which had once owned her father’s sway, Constanza, in her desperation, naturally turned to her uncle as the one protector that she knew. He had always showed himself friendly towards her father. He had from time to time lent him substantial assistance in his difficulties; and when he had visited at her home, he had shown himself kindly disposed in a rough fashion to the little maiden who flitted like a fairy about the wide marble halls. Annette, her nurse, who had come with her mother from France when she had left that country on her nuptials, was a Gascon woman, and had taught the language of the country to her young mistress. It was natural that the woman should be disposed to return to her native land at this crisis; and for Constanza to attempt to hold her own — a timid maiden against a score of rapacious foes — was obviously out of the question. Together they had fled, taking with them such family jewels as could easily be carried upon their persons, and disguised as peasants they had reached and crossed the frontier, and found their way to Saut, where the Lord of Navailles generally spent such of his time as was not occupied in forays against his neighbours, or in following the fortunes either of the French or English King, as best suited the fancy of the moment.

He had received his niece not unkindly, but with complete indifference, and had soon ceased to think about her in any way. She had a home beneath his roof. She had her own apartments, and she was welcome to occupy herself as she chose. Sometimes, when he was in a better humour than usual, he would give her a rough caress. More frequently he swore at her for being a useless girl, when she might, as a boy, have been of some good in the world. He had no intention of providing her with any marriage portion, so that it was superfluous to attempt to seek out a husband for her. She and Annette were occasionally of use when there was sickness within the walls of the Castle, or when he or his followers came in weary and wounded from some hard fighting. On the whole he did not object to her presence at Saut, and her own little bower was not devoid of comfort, and even of luxury.

But for all that, the girl was often sick at heart with all that she saw and heard around her, and was unconsciously pining for some life, she scarce knew what, but a life that should be different from the one she was doomed to now.

“Sometimes I think that I will retire to a Convent and shut myself up there,” she said to Gaston, her eyes looking far away over the wooded plain before them; “and yet I love my liberty. I love to roam the forest glades — to hear the songs of the bird, and to feel the fresh winds of heaven about me. Methinks I should pine and die shut up within high walls, without the liberty to rove as I will. And then I am not /devote/. I love not to spend long hours upon my knees. I feel nearest to the Blessed Saints and the Holy Mother of God out here in these woods, where no ribald shouts of mirth or blasphemous oaths can reach me. But the Sisters live shut behind high walls, and they love best to tell their beads beside the shrine of some Saint within their dim chapels. They were good to us upon our journey. I love and reverence the holy Sisters, and yet I do not know how I could be one of them. I fear me they would soon send me forth, saying that I was not fit for their life.”

“Nay, truly such a life is not for thee!” cried Gaston, with unwonted heat. “Sweet maiden, thou wert never made to pine away behind walls that shelter such as cannot stand against the trials and troubles of life. For it is not so with thee. Thou hast courage; thou hast a noble heart and a strong will. There is other work for thee to do. Lady, thou hast this day made me thy humble slave for ever. My brother once free, as by thy aid I trust he will be ere another day has dawned, and I will repay thy service by claiming as my reward the right to call myself thine own true knight. Sweet Constanza, I will live and, if need be, die for thee. Thou wilt henceforth be the light of my path, the star of my life. Lady, thy face hath haunted me ever since that day, so long gone by, when I saw thee first, scarce knowing if thou wert a creature of flesh and blood or a sprite of the woodland and water. Fair women have I looked upon ere now, but none so fair as thee. Let me but call myself thy true and faithful knight, and the day will come when I will stand boldly forth and make thee mine before all the world!”

Gaston had never meant to speak thus when he and his companion first began this walk through the winding woodland path. Then his thoughts had been filled with his brother and him alone, and there had been no space for other matters to intrude upon him. But with a mind more at rest as to Raymond’s immediate fate, he could not but be aware of the intense fascination exercised upon him by his companion; and before he well knew what he was saying, he was pouring into her ears these ardent protestations of devotion.

Her fair face flushed, and the liquid eyes, so full of softness and fire, fell before his ardent gaze. The little hand he had taken in his own quivered in his strong clasp, and Gaston felt with a thrill of ecstatic joy that it faintly returned the pressure of his fingers.

“Lady, sweetest Lady!” he repeated, his words growing more and more rapid as his emotion deepened, “let me hear thee say that thou wilt grant me leave to call myself thy true knight! Let me hear from those sweet lips that there is none before me who has won the love of this generous heart!”

The maid was quivering from head to foot. Such words were like a new language to her, and yet her heart gave a ready and sweet response. Had she not sung of knightly wooers in the soft songs of her childhood, and had she not dreamed her own innocent dreams of him who would one day come to seek her? And had not that dream lover always worn the knightly mien, the proud and handsome face, of him she had seen but once, and that for one brief hour alone? Was it hard to give to him the answer he asked? And yet how could she frame her lips aright to tell him she had loved him ere he had asked her love?

“Fair Sir, how should a lonely maid dwelling in these wild woods know aught of that knightly love of which our troubadours so sweetly sing? I have scarce seen the face of any since I have come to these solitudes; only the rough and terrible faces of those wild soldiers and savages who follow mine uncle when he rideth forth on his forays.”

Gaston’s heart gave a throb of joy; but it was scarce the moment to press his suit farther. Who could tell what the next few hours might bring forth? He might himself fall a victim, ere another day had passed, to the ancient foe of his house. It was enough for the present to know that the fair girl’s heart was free.

He raised the hand he held and pressed his lips upon it, saying in tenderest tones:

“From henceforth — my brother once standing free without these walls — I am thy true knight and champion, Lady. Give me, I pray thee, that knot of ribbon at thy neck. Let me place it in my head piece, and feel that I am thine indeed for life or death.”

With a hand that trembled, but not from hesitation, Constanza unfastened the simple little knot she wore as her sole ornament, and gave it to Gaston. They exchanged one speaking glance, but no word passed their lips.

By this time they had approached very near to the Tower, although the thick growth of the trees hindered them from seeing it, as it also concealed them from the eyes of any persons who might be upon the walls. The evening light was now fast waning. Upon the tops of the heights the sun still shone, but here in the wooded hollow, beside the sullen waters of the moat, twilight had already fallen, and soon it would be dark as night itself. The moon rose late, and for a space there would be no light save that of the stars.

Constanza laid her finger upon her lips, and made a sign demanding caution. Gaston understood that he was warned not to speak, and to tread cautiously, which he did, stealing along after his fairy-like companion, and striving to emulate her dainty, bird-like motions. He could see by the glint of water that they were skirting along beside the moat, but he had never approached so near to it before, and he knew not where they were going.

Some men might have feared treachery, but such an idea never entered Gaston’s head. Little as he knew of his companion, he knew that she was true and loyal, that she was beloved by him, and that her heart was already almost won.

Presently the girl stopped and laid her hand upon his arm.

“This is the place,” she whispered. “Come very softly to the water’s edge, and I will show you the dark hole opposite, just above the waterline, where entrance can be made. There be no loopholes upon this side of the Tower, and no watchman is needed where there be no foothold for man to scale the wall beneath.

“Look well across the moat. Seest thou yon black mark, that looks no larger than my hand? That is the entrance to a tunnel which slopes upward until it reaches a narrow doorway in the thickness of the solid wall whereby the underground chamber may be reached. Once there, thou wilt see let into the wall a great wheel with iron spokes projecting from it. Set that wheel in motion, and a portion of the flooring of the chamber above will descend. When it has reached the ground, thou canst ascend by reversing the wheel, leaving always some one in the chamber below to work the wheel, which will enable thee to bring thy brother down again. That accomplished, all that remains will be to creep again through the narrow passage to the moat and swim across once more. Thou canst swim?”

“Ay, truly. Raymond and I have been called fishes from our childhood. We swam in the great mill pool almost ere we could well run alone. Many of my stout fellows behind are veritable water rats. If my brother be not able to save himself, there will be a dozen stout arms ready to support him across the moat.

“And what will be the hour when this attempt must be made? What if the very moment I reached my brother his jailer should come to him, and the alarm be given through the Castle ere we could get him thence?”

“That it must be my office to prevent,” answered the girl, with quiet resolution. “I have thought many times of some such thing as this, hoping as it seemed where no hope was, and Annette and I have taken counsel together. Leave it to me to see that all the Castle is filled with feasting and revelry. I will see that the mead which circulates tonight be so mingled with Annette’s potion that it will work in the brains of the men till they forget all but rioting and sleep. For mine uncle and his saturnine guest, I have other means of keeping them in the great banqueting hall, far away from the lonely Tower where their prisoner lies languishing. They shall be so well served at the board this night, that no thought of aught beside the pleasure of the table shall enter to trouble their heads. And at ten of the clock, if I come not again to warn thee, cross fearlessly the great moat, and do as I have bid thee. But if thou hearest from the Castle wall the hooting of an owl thrice repeated like this” — and the girl put her hands to her mouth, and gave forth so exact an mutation of an owl’s note that Gaston started to hear it — “thrice times thrice, so that there can be no mistake, then tarry here on this side; stir not till I come again. It will be a danger signal to tell that all is not well. But if at the hour of ten thou hast heard naught, then go forward, and fear not. Thy brother will be alone, and all men far away from the Tower. Take him, and go forth; and the Blessed Saints bless and protect you all.”

She stretched forth her hand and placed it in his. There was a sudden sadness in her face. Gaston caught her hand and pressed it to his lips, but he had more to say than a simple word of parting.

“But I shall see thee again, sweet Constanza? Am I not thy true knight? Shall I not owe to thee a debt I know not how to pay? Thou wilt not send me forth without a word of promise of another meeting? When can I see thee again to tell thee how we have fared?”

“Thou must not dream of loitering here once thy object is secured,” answered the girl, speaking very firmly and almost sternly, though there was a deep sadness in her eyes. “It will not be many hours ere they find their captive has escaped them, and they will rouse the whole country after you. Nay, to linger is certain death; it must not be thought of. In Bordeaux, and there alone, wilt thou be safe. It is thither that thou must fly, for thither alone will the Sieur de Navailles fear to follow you. For me, I must remain here, as I have done these many years. It will not be worse than it hath ever been.”

“And thinkest thou that I will leave thee thus to languish after thou hast restored to me my brother?” asked Gaston hotly. “Nay, lady, think not that of thine own true knight! I will come again. I vow it! First will I to the English King, and tell in his ears a tale which shall arouse all his royal wrath. And then will I come again. It may not be this year, but it shall be ere long. I will come to claim mine own; and all that is mine shall be thine. Sweet Lady, wouldst thou look coldly upon me did I come with banners unfurled and men in arms against him thou callest thine uncle? For the lands he holds were ours once, and the English King has promised that they shall one day be restored, as they should have been long ago had not this usurper kept his iron clutch upon them in defiance of his feudal lord. Lady, sweet Constanza, tell me that thou wilt not call me thy foe if I come as a foe to the Lord of Navailles!”

“Methinks thou couldst never be my foe,” answered Constanza in a low voice, pressing her hands closely together; “and though he be mine uncle, and though he has given me a home beneath his roof, he has made it to me an abode of terror, and I know that he is feared and hated far and wide, and that his evil deeds are such that none may trust or love him. I would not show ingratitude for what he hath done for me; but he has been paid many times over. He has had all my jewels, and of these many were all but priceless; and he gives me but the food I eat and the raiment I wear. I should bless the day that set me free from this life beneath his roof. There be moments when I say in mine heart that I cannot live longer in such an evil place — when I have no heart left and no hope.”

“But thou wilt have hope now!” cried Gaston ardently. “Thou wilt know that I am coming to claim mine own, and with it this little hand, more precious to me than all else besides. Sweetest Constanza, tell me that I shall still find thee as thou art when I come to claim thee! I shall not come to find thee the bride of another?”

He could not see her face in the dimness, but he felt her hand flutter in his clasp like a bird in the hand of one who has tamed it, and whom it trusts and loves. The next moment his arm was about her slight figure, and her head drooped for a moment upon his shoulder.

“I shall be waiting,” she whispered, scarce audibly. “How could I love another, when thou hast called thyself my knight?”

He pressed a passionate kiss upon her brow.

“If this is indeed farewell for the present hour, it is a sweet one, my beloved. I little thought, as I journeyed hither today, what I was to find. Farewell, farewell, my lady love, my princess, my bride. Farewell, but not for ever. I will come again anon, and then we will be no more parted, for thou shalt reign in these grim walls, and no more dark tales of horror shall be breathed of them. I will come again; I will surely come. Trust me, and fear not!”

She stood beside him in the gathering darkness, and he could almost hear the fluttering of her heart. It was a moment full of sweetness for both, even though the shadow of parting was hanging over them.

A slight rustle amongst the underwood near to them caused them to spring apart; and the girl fled from him, speeding away with the grace and silent fleetness of a deer. Gaston made a stride towards the place whence the sound had proceeded, and found himself face to face with Roger.

“The men are all at hand,” he whispered. “I would not have them approach too close till I knew your pleasure. They are all within the wood, all upon the alert lest any foe be nigh; but all seems silent as the grave, and not a light gleams from the Tower upon this side. Shall I bid them remain where they are? or shall I bring them hither to you beside the water?”

“Let them remain where they are for a while and see that the horses be well fed and cared for. At ten o’clock, if all be well, the attempt to enter the Tower is to be made; and once the prisoner is safe and in our keeping, we must to Bordeaux as fast as horse will take us. The Sieur de Navailles will raise the whole country after us. We must be beyond the reach of his clutches ere we draw rein again.”

CHAPTER XXVI. THE RESCUE OF RAYMOND.

The appointed hour had arrived. No signal had fallen upon Gaston’s listening ears; no note of warning had rung through the still night air.

From the direction of the Castle sounds of distant revelry arose at intervals — sounds which seemed to show that nothing in the shape of watch or ward was being thought of by its inmates; and also that Constanza’s promise had been kept, and potations of unwonted strength had been served out to the men.

Now the appointed hour had come and gone, and Gaston commenced his preparations for the rescue of his brother. That he might be going to certain death if he failed, or if he had been betrayed, did not weigh with him for a moment. If Constanza were false to him, better death than the destruction of his hopes and his trust. In any case he would share his brother’s fate sooner than leave him in the relentless hands of these cruel foes.

He had selected six of his stoutest followers, all of them excellent swimmers, to accompany him across the moat; and Roger, as a matter of course, claimed to be one of the party. To Roger’s mysterious power of vision they owed their rapid tracing of Raymond to this lonely spot. It was indeed his right to make one of the rescue party if he desired to be allowed to do so.

The rest of their number were to remain upon this farther side of the moat, and the horses were all in readiness, rested and refreshed, about half-a-mile off under the care of several stout fellows, all stanch to their master’s interests. The story they had heard from Gaston of what had been devised against his brother filled the honest soldiers with wrath and indignation. Rough and savage as they might show themselves in open warfare, deliberate and diabolical cruelty was altogether foreign to their nature. And they all felt towards Raymond a sense of protecting and reverent tenderness, such as all may feel towards a being of finer mould and loftier nature.

Raymond had the faculty of inspiring in those about him this reverential tenderness; and not one of those stalwart fellows who were silently laying aside their heavy mail, and such of their garments as would be likely to hinder them in their swim across the moat, but felt a deep loathing and hatred towards the lord of this grim Tower, and an overmastering resolve to snatch his helpless victim from his cruel hands, or perish in the attempt.

All their plans had been very carefully made. Lanterns and the wherewithal for kindling them were bound upon the heads of some of the swimmers; and though they laid aside most of their defensive armour and their heavy riding boots, they wore their stout leather jerkins, that were almost as serviceable against foeman’s steel, and their weapons, save the most cumbersome, were carried either in their belts or fastened across their shoulders.

Dark though it had become, Gaston had not lost cognizance of the spot whither they were to direct their course; and one by one the strong swimmers plunged into the sullen waters without causing so much as a ripple or plash, which might betray their movements to suspicious ears upon the battlements (if indeed any sort of watch were kept, which appeared doubtful). They swam with that perfect silence possible only to those who are thoroughly at home in the water, till they had crossed the dark moat and had reached the perpendicular wall of the Tower, which rose sheer upon the farther side — so sheer that not even the foot of mountain goat could have scaled its rough-hewn side.

But Gaston knew what he had to search for, and with outstretched hand he swam silently along the solid masonry, feeling for that aperture just above watermark which he had seen before the daylight faded. It took him some little time to find it, but at last it was discovered, and with a muttered word of command to the men who silently followed in his wake, he drew himself slowly out of the water, to find himself in a very narrow rounded aperture like a miniature tunnel, which trended slightly upwards, and would only admit the passage of one human being at a time, and then only upon hands and knees.

It was pitchy dark in this tunnel, and there was no space in which to attempt to kindle a light. Once the thought came into Gaston’s head that if he were falling into a treacherous pitfall laid for him with diabolic ingenuity by his foes, nothing could well be better than to entrap him into such a place as this, where it would be almost impossible to go forward or back, and quite out of his power to strike a single blow for liberty or life.

But he shook off the chill sense of fear as unworthy and unknightly. His Constanza was true; of that he was assured. The only possible doubt was whether she herself were being used as an unconscious tool in the hands of subtle and perfectly unscrupulous men.

But even so Gaston had no choice but to advance. He had come to rescue his brother or to die with him. If the latter, he would try at least to sell his life dearly. But he was fully persuaded that his efforts would be crowned with success.

He had time to think many such things as he slowly crept along the low passage in the black darkness. It seemed long before his hand came in contact with the door he had been told he should presently reach, and this door, as Constanza had said, yielded to his touch, and he felt rather than saw that he had emerged into a wider space beyond.

This place, whatever it was, was not wholly dark, though so very dim that it was impossible to make out anything save the dull red glow of what might be some embers on a distant hearth. Gaston did not speak a word, but waited till all his companions had reached this more open space, and had risen to their feet and grasped their weapons. Then all held their breath, and listened for any sound that might by chance reveal the presence of hidden foes, till they started at the sound of Roger’s voice speaking softly but with complete assurance.

“There is no one here,” he said. “We are quite alone. Let me kindle a torch and show you.”

Roger, as Gaston had before observed, possessed a cat-like faculty of seeing in the dark. Whether it was natural to him, or had been acquired during those days spent almost entirely underground in the sorcerer’s vaulted chamber at Basildene, the youth himself scarcely knew. But he was able to distinguish objects clearly in gloom which no ordinary eye could penetrate; and now he walked fearlessly forward and stirred up the smouldering embers, whose dull red glow all could see, into a quick, bright, palpitating flame which illumined every corner of the strange place into which they had penetrated.

Gaston and his men looked wonderingly around them, as they lighted their lanterns at the fire and flashed them here and there into all the dark corners, as though to assure themselves that there were no ambushed foes lurking in the grim recesses of that circular room. But Roger had been quite right. There was nothing living in that silent place. Not so much as a loophole in the wall admitted any air or light from the outer world, or could do so even in broad noon. The chamber was plainly hollowed out in the mass of earth and masonry of which the foundations of the Tower were composed, and if any air were admitted (as there must have been, else men could not breathe down there), it was by some device not easily discovered at a first glance.

It was in truth a strange and terrible place — the dank walls, down which the damp moisture slowly trickled, hung round with instruments of various forms, all designed with a terrible purpose, and from their look but too often used.

Gaston’s face assumed a look of dark wrath and indignation as his quick eyes roved round this evil place, and he set his teeth hard together as he muttered to himself:

“Heaven send that the Prince himself may one day look upon the vile secrets of this charnel house! I would that he and his royal father might know what deeds of darkness are even now committed in lands that own their sway! Would that I had that wicked wretch here in my power at this moment! Well does he deserve to be torn in pieces by his own hideous engines. And in this very place does he design to do to death my brother! May God pardon me if I sin in the thought, but death by the sword is too good for such a miscreant!”

Words very similar to these were being bandied about in fierce undertones by the men who had accompanied Gaston, and who had never seen such a chamber as this before. Great would have been their satisfaction to let its owner taste something of the agony he had too often inflicted upon helpless victims thrown into his power. But this being out of the question, the next matter was the rescue of the captive they had come to save; and they looked eagerly at their young leader to know what was the next step to be taken.

Gaston was searching for the wheel by which the mechanism could be set in motion which would enable him to reach his brother’s prison house. It was easily found from the description given him by Constanza. He set his men to work to turn the wheel, and at once became aware of the groaning and grating sound that attends the motion of clumsy machinery. Gazing eagerly up into the dun roof above him, he saw slowly descending a portion of the stonework of which it was formed. It was a clever enough contrivance for those unskilled days, and showed a considerable ingenuity on the part of some owner of the Castle of Saut.

When the great slab had descended to the floor below, Gaston stepped upon it, Roger placing himself at his side, and with a brief word to his men to reverse the action of the wheel, and to lower the slab again a few minutes later, he prepared for his strange passage upwards to his brother’s lonely cell.

Roger held a lantern in his hand, and the faces of the pair were full of anxious expectation. Suppose Raymond had been removed from that upper prison? Suppose he had succumbed either to the cruelty of his foes or to the fever resulting from his injuries received on the day of the battle?

A hundred fears possessed Gaston’s soul as the strange transit through the air was being accomplished — a transit so strange that he felt as though he must surely be dreaming. But there was only one thing to be done — to persevere in the quest, and trust to the Holy Saints and the loving mercy of Blessed Mary’s Son to grant him success in this his endeavour.

Up, up into the darkness of the vaulted roof he passed, and then a yawning hole above their heads, which looked too small to admit the passage of the slab upon which they stood, swallowed them up, and they found themselves passing upwards through a shaft which only just admitted the block upon which they stood. Up and up they went, and now the creaking sound grew louder, and the motion grew perceptibly slower. They were no longer in a narrow shaft; a black space opened before their eyes. The motion ceased altogether with a grinding sensation and a jerk, and out of the darkness of a wider space, pitchy dark to their eyes, came the sound of a familiar voice.

“Gaston — Brother!”

Gaston sprang forward into the darkness, heedless of all but the sound of that voice. The next moment he was clasping his brother in his arms, his own emotion so great that he dared not trust his voice to speak; whilst Raymond, holding him fast in a passionate clasp, whispered in his ear a breathless question.

“Thou too a prisoner in this terrible place, my Gaston? O brother — my brother — I trusted that I might have died for us both!”

“A prisoner? nay, Raymond, no prisoner; but as thy rescuer I come. What, believest thou not? Then shalt thou soon see with thine own eyes.

“But let me look first upon thy face. I would see what these miscreants have done to thee. Thou feelest more like a creature of skin and bone than one of sturdy English flesh and blood.

“The light, Roger!

“Ay, truly, Roger is here with me. It is to him in part we owe it that we are here this night. Raymond, Raymond, thou art sorely changed! Thou lookest more spirit-like than ever! Thou hast scarce strength to stand alone! What have they done to thee, my brother?”

But Raymond could scarce find strength to answer. The revulsion of feeling was too much for him. When he had heard that terrible sound, and had seen the slab in the floor sink out of sight, he had sprung from his bed of straw, ready to face his cruel foes when they came for him, yet knowing but too well what was in store for him when he was carried down below, as he had been once before. Then when, instead of the cruel mocking countenance of Peter Sanghurst, he had seen the noble, loving face of his brother, and had believed that he, too, had fallen into the power of their deadly foes, it had seemed to him as though a bitterness greater than that of death had fallen upon him, and the rebound of feeling when Gaston had declared himself had been so great, that the whole place swam before his eyes, and the floor seemed to reel beneath his feet.

“We will get him away from this foul place!” cried Gaston, with flaming eyes, as he looked into the white and sharpened face of his brother, and felt how feebly the light frame leaned against the stalwart arm supporting it.

He half led, half carried Raymond the few paces towards the slab in the floor which formed the link with the region beneath, and the next minute Raymond felt himself sinking down as he had done once before; only then it had been in the clasp of his most bitter foe that he had been carried to that infernal spot.

The recollection made him shiver even now in Gaston’s strong embrace, and the young knight felt the quiver and divined the cause.

“Fear nothing now, my brother,” he said. “Though we be on our way to that fearful place, it is for us the way to light and liberty. Our own good fellows are awaiting us there. I trow not all the hireling knaves within this Castle wall should wrest thee from us now.”

“I fear naught now that thou art by my side, Gaston,” answered Raymond, in low tones. “If thou art not in peril thyself, I could wish nothing better than to die with thine arm about mine.”

“Nay, but thou shalt live!” cried Gaston, with energy, scarce understanding that after the long strain of such a captivity as Raymond’s had been it was small wonder that he had grown to think death well-nigh better and sweeter than life. “Thou shalt live to take vengeance upon thy foes, and to recompense them sevenfold for what they have done to thee. I will tell this story in the ears of the King himself. This is not the last time that I shall stand within the walls of Saut!”

By this time the heavy slab had again descended, and around it were gathered the eager fellows, who received their young master’s brother with open arms and subdued shouts of triumph and joy. But he, though he smiled his thanks, looked round him with eyes dilated by the remembrance of some former scene there, and Gaston set his teeth hard, and shook back his head with a gesture that boded little good for the Sieur de Navailles upon a future day.

“Come men; we may not tarry!” he said. “No man knows what fancy may enter into the head of the master of this place. Turn the wheel again; send up the slab to its right place. Let them have no clue to trace the flight of their victim. Leave everything as we found it, and follow me without delay.”

He was all anxiety now to get his brother from the shadow of this hideous place. The whiteness of Raymond’s face, the hollowness of his eyes, the lines of suffering traced upon his brow in a few short days, all told a tale only too easily read.

The rough fellows treated him tenderly as they might have treated a little child. They felt that he had been through some ordeal from which they themselves would have shrunk with a terror they would have been ashamed to admit; and that despite the youth’s fragile frame and ethereal face that looked little like that of a mailed warrior, a hero’s heart beat in his breast, and he had the spirit to do and to dare what they themselves might have quailed from and fled before.

The transit through the narrow tunnel presented no real difficulty, and soon the sullen waters of the moat were troubled by the silent passage of seven instead of six swimmers. The shock of the cold plunge revived Raymond; and the sense of space above him, the star-spangled sky overhead, the free sweet air around him, even the unfettered use of his weakened limbs, as he swam with his brother’s strong supporting arm about him, acted upon him like a tonic. He hardly knew whether or not it was a dream; whether he were in the body or out of the body; whether he should awake to find himself in his gloomy cell, or under the cruel hands of his foes in that dread chamber he had visited once before.

He knew not, and at that moment he cared not. Gaston’s arm was about him, Gaston’s voice was in his ear. Whatever came upon him later could not destroy the bliss of the present moment.

A score of eager hands were outstretched to lift the light frame from Gaston’s arm as the brothers drew to the edge of the moat. It was no time to speak, no time to ask or answer questions. At any moment some unguarded movement or some crashing of the boughs underfoot might awaken the suspicions of those within the walls. It was enough that the secret expedition had been crowned with success — that the captive was now released and in their own hands.

Raymond was almost fainting now with excitement and fatigue, but Gaston’s muscles seemed as if made of iron. Though the past days had been for him days of great anxiety and fatigue, though he had scarce eaten or slept since the rapid march upon the besieging army around St. Jean d’Angely, he seemed to know neither fatigue nor feebleness. The arm upholding Raymond’s drooping frame seemed as the arm of a giant. The young knight felt as though he could have carried that light weight even to Bordeaux, and scarce have felt fatigue.

But there was no need for that. Nigh at hand the horses were waiting, saddled and bridled, well fed and well rested, ready to gallop steadily all through the summer night. The moon had risen now, and filtered in through the young green of the trees with a clear and fitful radiance. The forest was like a fairy scene; and over the minds of both brothers stole the softening remembrance of such woodland wonders in the days gone by, when as little lads, full of curiosity and love of adventure, they had stolen forth at night into the forest together to see if they could discover the fairies at their play, or the dwarfs and gnomes busy beneath the surface of the earth.

To Raymond it seemed indeed as though all besides might well be a dream. He knew not which of the fantastic images impressed upon his brain was the reality, and which the work of imagination. A sense of restful thankfulness — the release from some great and terrible fear — had stolen upon him, he scarce knew how or why. He did not wish to think or puzzle out what had befallen him. He was with Gaston once more; surely that was enough.

But Gaston’s mind was hard at work. From time to time he turned an anxious look upon his brother, and he saw well how ill and weary he was, how he swayed in the saddle, though supported by cleverly-adjusted leather thongs, and how unfit he was for the long ride that lay before them. And yet that ride must be taken. They must be out of reach of their implacable foe as quickly as might be. In the unsettled state of the country no place would afford a safe harbour for them till Bordeaux itself was reached. Fain would he have made for the shelter of the old home in the mill, or of Father Anselm’s hospitable home, but he knew that those would be the first places searched by the emissaries of the Navailles. Even as it was these good people might be in some peril, and they must certainly not be made aware of the proximity of the De Brocas brothers.

But if not there, whither could Raymond be transported? To carry him to England in this exhausted state might be fatal to him; for no man knew when once on board ship how contrary the wind might blow, and the accommodation for a sick man upon shipboard was of the very rudest. No; before the voyage could be attempted Raymond must have rest and care in some safe place of shelter. And where could that shelter be found?

As Gaston thus mused a sudden light came upon him, and turning to Roger he asked of him a question:

“Do not some of these fellows of our company come from Bordeaux; and have they not left it of late to follow the English banner?”

“Ay, verily,” answered Roger quickly. “There be some of them who came forth thence expressly to fight under the young knight of De Brocas. The name of De Brocas is as dear to many of those Gascon soldiers as that of Navailles is hated and cursed.”

“Send then to me one of those fellows who best knows the city,” said Gaston; and in a few more minutes a trooper rode up to his side.

“Good fellow,” said Gaston, “if thou knowest well you city whither we are bound, tell me if thou hast heard aught of one Father Paul, who has been sent to many towns in this and other realms by his Holiness the Pope, to restore amongst the Brethren of his order the forms and habits which have fallen something into disuse of late? I heard a whisper as we passed through the city a week back now that he was there. Knowest thou if this be true?”

“It was true enow, Sir Knight, a few days back,” answered the man, “and I trow you may find him yet at the Cistercian Monastery within the city walls. He had but just arrived thither ere the English ships came, and men say that he had much to do ere he sallied forth again.”

“Good,” answered Gaston, in a tone of satisfaction; and when the trooper had dropped back to his place again, the young knight turned to his brother and said cheerily:

“Courage, good lad; keep but up thy heart, my brother, for I have heard good news for thee. Father Paul is in the city of Bordeaux, and it is in his kindly charge that I will leave thee ere I go to England with my tale to lay before the King.”

Raymond was almost too far spent to rejoice over any intelligence, however welcome; yet a faint smile crossed his face as the sense of Gaston’s words penetrated to his understanding. It was plain that there was no time to lose if they were to get him to some safe shelter before his strength utterly collapsed, and long before Bordeaux was reached he had proved unable to keep his seat in the saddle, and a litter had been contrived for him in which he could lie at length, carried between four of the stoutest horsemen.

They were now in more populous and orderly regions, where the forest was thinner and townships more frequent. The urgent need for haste had slightly diminished, and though still anxious to reach their destination, the party was not in fear of an instant attack from a pursuing foe.

The Navailles would scarce dare to fall upon the party in the neighbourhood of so many of the English King’s fortified cities; and before the sun set they hoped to be within the environs of Bordeaux itself — a hope in which they were not destined to be disappointed.

Nor was Gaston disappointed of his other hope; for scarce had they obtained admission for their unconscious and invalided comrade within the walls of the Cistercian Monastery, and Gaston was still eagerly pouring into the Prior’s ears the story of his brother’s capture and imprisonment, when the door of the small room into which the strangers had been taken was slowly opened to admit a tall, gaunt figure, and Father Paul himself stood before them. He gave Gaston one long, searching look; but he never forgot a face, and greeted him by name as Sir Gaston de Brocas, greatly to the surprise of the youth, who thought he would neither be recognized nor known by the holy Father. Then passing him quickly by, the monk leaned over the couch upon which Raymond had been laid — a hard oaken bench — covered by the cloak of the man who had borne him in.

Raymond’s eyes were closed; his face, with the sunset light lying full upon it, showed very hollow and white and worn. Even in the repose of a profound unconsciousness it wore a look of lofty purpose, together with an expression of purity and devotion impossible to describe. Gaston and the Prior both turned to look as Father Paul bent over the prostrate figure with an inarticulate exclamation such as he seldom uttered, and Gaston felt a sudden thrill of cold fear run through him.

“He is not dead?” he asked, in a passionate whisper; and the Father looked up to answer:

“Nay, Sir Knight, he is not dead. A little rest, a little tendance, a little of our care, and he will be restored to the world again. Better perhaps were it not so – better perchance for him. For his is not the nature to battle with impunity against the evil of the world. Look at him as he lies there: is that face of one that can look upon the deeds of these vile days and not suffer keenest pain? To fight and to vanquish is thy lot, young warrior; but what is his? To tread the thornier path of life and win the hero’s crown, not by deeds of glory and renown, but by that higher and holier path of suffering and renunciation which One chose that we might know He had been there before us. Thou mayest live to be one of this world’s heroes, boy; but in the world to come it will be thy brother who will wear the victor’s crown.”

“I truly believe it,” answered Gaston, drawing a deep breath; “but yet we cannot spare him from this world. I give him into thy hands, my Father, that thou mayest save him for us here.”

CHAPTER XXVII. PETER SANGHURST’S WOOING.

“Joan — sweetest mistress — at last I find you; at last my eyes behold again those peerless charms for which they have pined and hungered so long! Tell me, have you no sweet word of welcome for him whose heart you hold between those fair hands, to do with it what you will?”

Joan, roused from her reverie by those smoothly-spoken words, uttered in a harsh and grating voice, turned quickly round to find herself face to face with Peter Sanghurst — the man she had fondly hoped had passed out of her life for ever.

Joan and her father, after a considerable period spent in wanderings in foreign lands (during which Sir Hugh had quite overcome the melancholy and sense of panic into which he had been thrown by the scourge of the Black Death and his wife’s sudden demise as one of its victims), had at length returned to Woodcrych. The remembrance of the plague was fast dying out from men’s minds. The land was again under cultivation; and although labour was still scarce and dear, and continued to be so for many, many years, whilst the attempts at legislation on this point only produced riot and confusion (culminating in the next reign in the notable rebellion of Wat Tyler, and leading eventually to the emancipation of the English peasantry), things appeared to be returning to their normal condition, and men began to resume their wonted apathy of mind, and to cease to think of the scourge as the direct visitation of God.

Sir Hugh had been one of those most alarmed by the ravages of the plague. He was full of the blind superstition of a thoroughly irreligious man, and he knew well that he had been dabbling in forbidden arts, and had been doing things that were supposed in those days to make a man peculiarly the prey of the devil after death. Thus when the Black Death had visited the country, and he had heard on all sides that it was the visitation of God for the sins of the nations, he had been seized with a panic which had been some years in cooling, and he had made pilgrimages and had paid a visit to his Holiness the Pope in order to feel that he had made amends for any wrongdoing in his previous life.

He had during this fit of what was rather panic than repentance avoided Woodcrych sedulously, as the place where these particular sins which frightened him now had been committed. He had thus avoided any encounter with Peter Sanghurst, and Joan had hoped that the shadow of that evil man was not destined to cross her path again. But, unluckily for her hopes, a reaction had set in in her father’s feelings. His blind, unreasoning terror had now given place to an equally wild and reckless confidence and assurance. The Black Death had come and gone, and had passed him by (he now said) doing him no harm. He had obtained the blessing of the Pope, and felt in his heart that he could set the Almighty at defiance. His revenues, much impoverished through the effects of the plague, made the question of expenditure the most pressing one of the hour; and the knight had come to Woodcrych with the distinct intention of prosecuting those studies in alchemy and magic which a year or two back he had altogether forsworn.

Old Sanghurst was dead, he knew — the devil had claimed one of his own. But the son was living still, and was to be heard of, doubtless, at Basildene. Peter Sanghurst was posing in the world as a wealthy man, surrounded by a halo of mystery which gave him distinction and commanded respect. Sir Hugh felt that he might be a very valuable ally, and began to regret now that his fears had made him so long an exile from his country and a wanderer from home.

Many things might have happened in that interval. What more likely than that Sanghurst had found a wife, and that his old affection for Joan would by now be a thing of the past? The knight fumed a good deal as he thought of neglected opportunities. But there was just the chance that Sanghurst might be faithful to his old love, whilst surely Joan would have forgotten her girlish caprice, and cease to attempt a foolish resistance to her father’s will. Had he been as much in earnest then as he now was, the marriage would long ago have been consummated. But in old days he had not felt so confident of the wealth of the Sanghursts as he now did, and had been content to let matters drift. Now he could afford to drift no longer. Joan had made no marriage for herself, she was unwed at an age when most girls are wives and mothers, and Sir Hugh was growing weary of her company. He wished to plunge once again into a life of congenial dissipation, and into those researches for magic wealth which had always exercised so strong a fascination over him; and the first step necessary for both these objects appeared to be to marry off his daughter, and that, if possible, to the man who was supposed to be in possession of these golden secrets.

Joan, however, knew nothing of the hopes and wishes filling her father’s mind. She was glad to come back to the home she had always loved the best of her father’s residences, and which was so much associated in her mind with her youthful lover.

She believed that so near to Guildford she would be sure to hear news of Raymond. Master Bernard de Brocas would know where he was; he might even be living beneath his uncle’s roof. The very thought sent quick thrills of happiness through her. Her face was losing its thoughtful gravity of expression, and warming and brightening into new beauty. She had almost forgotten the proximity of Basildene, and Peter Sanghurst’s hateful suit, so long had been the time since she had seen him last, until the sound of his voice, breaking in upon a happy reverie, brought all the old disgust and horror back again, and she turned to face him with eyes that flashed with lambent fire.

Yet as she stood there in the entrance to that leafy bower which was her favourite retreat at Woodcrych, Peter Sanghurst felt as though he had never before seen so queenly a creature, and said in his heart that she had grown tenfold more lovely during the years of her wanderings.

Joan was now no mere strip of a girl. She was three-and-twenty, and had all the grace of womanhood mingling with the free, untrammelled energy of youth. Her step was as light, her movements as unfettered, as in the days of her childhood; yet now she moved with an unconscious stately grace which caused her to be remarked wherever she went; and her face, always beautiful, with its regular features, liquid dark eyes, and full, noble expression, had taken an added depth and sweetness and thoughtfulness which rendered it remarkable and singularly attractive. Joan inspired a considerable amount of awe in the breasts of those youthful admirers who had flitted round her sometimes during the days of her wanderings; but she had never given any of them room to hope to be more to her than the passing acquaintance of an hour. She had received proffers of life-long devotion with a curious gentle courtesy almost like indifference, and had smiled upon none of those who had paid her court.

Her father had let her do as she would. No suitor wealthy enough to excite his cupidity had appeared at Joan’s feet. He intended to make a wealthy match for her before she grew much older; but the right person had not yet appeared, and time slipped by almost unheeded.

Now she found herself once again face to face with Peter Sanghurst, and realized that he was renewing, or about to renew, that hateful suit which she trusted had passed from his mind altogether. The face she turned towards him, with the glowing autumn sunshine full upon it, was scarcely such as could be called encouraging to an ardent lover. But Peter Sanghurst only smiled as she stood there in her proud young beauty, the russet autumn tints framing her noble figure in vivid colours.

“I have taken you by surprise, sweet lady,” he said; “it is long since we met.”

“Long indeed, Master Peter — or should I say Sir Peter? It hath been told to me that you have been in the great world; but whether or not your gallantry has won you your spurs I know not.”

Was there something of covert scorn in the tones of her cold voice? Sanghurst could not tell, but every smallest stab inflicted upon his vanity or pride by this beautiful creature was set down in the account he meant to settle with her when once she was in his power. His feelings towards her were strangely mixed. He loved her passionately in a fierce, wild fashion, coveting the possession of that beauty which maddened whilst it charmed him. She enchained and enthralled him, yet she stung him to the quick by her calm contempt and resolute avoidance of him. He was determined she should be his, come what might; but when once he had won the mastery over her, he would make her suffer for every pang of wounded pride or jealousy she had inflicted upon him. The cruelty of the man’s nature showed itself even in his love, and he hated even whilst he loved her; for he knew that she was infinitely his superior, and that she had read the vileness of his nature, and had learned to shrink from him, as purity always shrinks from contact with what is foul and false.

Even her question stung his vanity, and there was a savage gleam in his eye as he answered:

“Nay, my spurs are still to be won; for what was it to me whether I won them or not unless I might wear them as your true knight? Sweetest mistress, these weary years have been strangely long and dark since the light of your presence has been withdrawn from us. Now that the sun has risen once again upon Woodcrych, let it shine likewise upon Basildene. Mistress Joan, I come to you with your father’s sanction. You doubtless know how many years I have wooed you — how many years I have lived for you and for you alone. I have waited even as the patriarch of old for his wife. The time has now come when I have the right to approach you as a lover. Sweet lady, tell me that you will reward my patience — that I shall not sue in vain.”

Peter Sanghurst bent the knee before her; but she was acute enough to detect the undercurrent of mockery in his tone. He came as a professed suppliant; but he came with her father’s express sanction, and Joan had lived long enough to know how very helpless a daughter was if her father’s mind were once made up to give her hand in marriage. Her safety in past days had been that Sir Hugh was not really resolved upon the point. He had always been divided between the desire to conciliate the old sorcerer and the fear lest his professed gifts should prove but illusive; and when he was in this mood of uncertainty, Joan’s steady and resolute resistance had not been without effect. But she knew that he owed large sums of money to the Sanghursts, who had made frequent advances when he had been in difficulties, and it was likely enough that the day of reckoning had now come, and that her hand was to be the price of the cancelled bonds.

Her father had for some days been dropping hints that had raised uneasiness in her mind. This sudden appearance of Peter Sanghurst, coupled with his confident words, showed to Joan only too well how matters stood.

For a moment she stood silent, battling with her fierce loathing and disgust, her fingers toying with the gold circlet her lover had placed upon her finger. The very thought of Raymond steadied her nerves, and gave her calmness and courage. She knew that she was in a sore strait; but hers was a spirit to rise rather than sink before peril and adversity.

“Master Peter Sanghurst,” she answered, calmly and steadily, “I thought that I had given you answer before, when you honoured me by your suit. My heart is not mine to give, and if it were it could never be yours. I pray you take that answer and be gone. From my lips you can never have any other.”

A fierce gleam was in his eye, but his voice was still smooth and bland.

“Sweet lady,” he said, “it irks me sore to give you pain; but I have yet another message for you. Think you that I should have dared to come with this offer of my heart and hand if I had not known that he to whom thy heart is pledged lies stiff and cold in the grip of death — nay, has long since mouldered to ashes in the grave?”

Joan turned deadly pale. She had not known that her secret had passed beyond her own possession. How came Peter Sanghurst to speak of her as having a lover? Was it all guesswork? True, he had been jealous of Raymond in old days. Was this all part of a preconcerted and diabolical plot against her happiness?

Her profound distrust of this man, and her conviction of his entire unscrupulousness, helped to steady her nerves. If she had so wily a foe to deal with, she had need of all her own native shrewdness and capacity. After a few moments, which seemed hours to her from the concentrated thought pressed into them, she spoke quietly and calmly:

“Of whom speak you, Sir? Who is it that lies dead and cold?”

“Your lover, Raymond de Brocas,” answered Sanghurst, rising to his feet and confronting Joan with a gaze of would-be sympathy, though his eyes were steely bright and full of secret malice — “your lover, who died in my arms after the skirmish of which you may have heard, when the English army routed the besieging force around St. Jean d’Angely; and in dying he gave me a charge for you, sweet lady, which I have been longing ever since to deliver, but until today have lacked the opportunity.”

Joan’s eyes were fixed upon him wide with distrust. She was in absolute ignorance of Raymond’s recent movements. But in those days that was the fate of those who did not live in close contiguity. She had been a rover in the world, and so perchance had he. All that Sanghurst said might be true for aught she could allege to the contrary.

Yet how came it that Raymond should confide his dying message to his sworn and most deadly foe? The story seemed to bear upon it the impress of falsehood. Sanghurst, studying her face intently, appeared to read her thoughts.

“Lady,” he said, “if you will but listen to my tale, methinks I can convince you of the truth of my words. You think that because we were rivals for your hand we were enemies, too? And so of old it was. But, fair mistress, you may have heard how Raymond de Brocas soothed the dying bed of my father, and tended him when all else, even his son, had fled from his side; and albeit at the moment even that service did not soften my hard heart, in the times that followed, when I was left alone to muse on what had passed, I repented me of my old and bitter enmity, and resolved, if ever we should meet again, to strive to make amends for the past. I knew that he loved you, and that you loved him; and I vowed I would keep away and let his suit prosper if it might. I appeal to you, fair mistress, to say how that vow has been kept.”

“I have certainly seen naught of you these past years,” answered Joan. “But I myself have been a wanderer.”

“Had you not been, my vow would have been as sacredly kept,” was the quick reply. “I had resolved to see you no more, since I might never call you mine. I strove to banish your image from my mind by going forth into the world; and when this chance of fighting for the King arose, I was one who sailed to the relief of the English garrison.”

She made no response, but her clear gaze was slightly disconcerting; he looked away and spoke rapidly.

“Raymond de Brocas was on board the vessel that bore us from England’s shores: ask if it be not so, an you believe me not. We were brothers in arms, and foes no longer. I sought him out and told him all that was in my heart. You know his nature — brave, candid, fearless. He showed his nobility of soul by giving to me the right hand of fellowship. Ere the voyage ended we were friends in truth. When the day of battle came we rode side by side against the foe.”

Joan’s interest was aroused. She knew Raymond well. She knew his nobility of nature — his generous impulse to forgive a past foe, to bury all enmity. If Sanghurst had sought him with professions of contrition, might he not have easily been believed? And yet was such an one as this to be trusted?

“In the melee — for the fighting was hard and desperate — we were separated: he carried one way and I another. When the French were driven back or taken captive I sought for Raymond everywhere, but for long without avail. At last I found him, wounded to the death. I might not even move him to our lines. I could but give him drink and watch beside him as he slowly sank.

“It was then he spoke of thee, Joan.” Sanghurst’s voice took a new tone, and seemed to quiver slightly; he dropped the more formal address hitherto observed, and lapsed into the familiar “thou.” “The sole trouble upon that pure soul was the thought of thee, left alone and unprotected in this harsh world. He spoke of thee and that love he bore thee, and I, who had also loved, but had resigned all my hopes for love of him, could but listen and grieve with him. But he knew my secret — his clear eyes had long ago divined it — and in talking together of thee, Joan, as we had many times done before, he had learned all there was to know of my hopeless love. As he lay dying he seemed to be musing of this; and one short half-hour before he breathed his last, he spoke in these words —

“‘Sanghurst, we have been rivals and foes, but now we are friends, and I know that I did misjudge thee in past days, as methinks she did, too.’ (Joan, this is not so. It was not that ye misjudged me, but that I have since repented of my evil ways in which erst I rejoiced.) ‘But thou wilt go to her now, and tell her what has befallen her lover. Tell her that I died with her name on my lips, with thoughts of her in my heart. And tell her also not to grieve too deeply for me. It may be that to die thus, loving and beloved, is the happiest thing that can befall a man. But tell her, too, that she must not grieve too bitterly — that she must not lead a widowed life because that I am taken from her. Give to her this token, good comrade; she will know it. Tell her that he to whom she gave it now restores it to her again, and restores it by the hand of his best and truest friend, trusting that this trusty friend will some day meet the reward he covets from the hand of her who once gave the token to him upon whom the hand of death is resting. Give it her, and tell her when you give it that her dying lover’s hope is that she will thus reward the patient, generous love of him who shall bring it to her.'”

As he spoke these words, Sanghurst, his eyes immovably fixed upon the changing face of the beautiful girl, drew from his breast a small packet and placed it within her trembling hands.

He knew he was playing a risky game, and that one false move might lose him his one chance. It was all the veriest guesswork; but he believed he had guessed aright. Whilst Raymond had been stretched upon the rack, swooning from extremity of pain, Sanghurst’s eyes, fixed in gloating satisfaction upon the helpless victim, had been caught by the sight of this token about his neck, secured by a strong silver cord. To possess himself of the charm, or whatever it might be, had been but the work of a moment. He had felt convinced that it was a lover’s token, and had been given to Raymond by Joan, and if so it might be turned to good account, even if other means failed to bend the stubborn will of the youth who looked so frail and fragile.

Raymond had escaped from his hands by a species of magic, as it had seemed to the cruel captors, when he had tasted but a tithe of what they had in store for him. Baffled and enraged as Sanghurst was, he had still the precious token in his possession. If it had been given by Joan, she would recognize it at once, and coupled with the supposed dying message of her lover, surely it would not be without effect.

Eagerly then were his eyes fixed upon her face as she undid the packet, and a gleam of triumph came into them as he saw a flash of recognition when the little heart was disclosed to view.

Truly indeed did Joan’s heart sink within her, and every drop of blood ebbed from her cheek; for had not Raymond said that he would never part from her gift whilst he had life? and how could Peter Sanghurst have become possessed of it unless his tale were true? He might be capable of robbing a dead body, but how would he have known that the token was given by her?

A mist seemed to float before the girl’s eyes. At that moment she was unable to think or to reason. The one thought there was room for in her mind was that Raymond was dead. If he were lost to her for ever, it was little matter what became of herself.

Sanghurst’s keen eyes, fixed upon her with an evil gleam, saw that the charm was working. It had worked even beyond his hopes. He was so well satisfied with the result of this day’s work, that he would not even press his suit upon her farther then. Let her have time to digest her lover’s dying words. When she had done so, he would come to her again.

“Sweet lady, I grieve that thou shouldst suffer though any words I have been forced to speak; but it was a promise given to him who is gone to deliver the message and the token. Lady, I take my leave of thee. I will not intrude upon thy sacred sorrow. I, too, sorrow little less for him who is gone. He was one of the brightest ornaments of these days of chivalry and renown.”

He caught her hand for a moment and pressed it to his lips, she scarce seeming to know what he did or what he said; and then he turned away and left her alone with her thoughts, a strangely malicious expression crossing his face as he knew himself hidden from her eyes.

That same evening, when father and daughter were alone together in the room they habitually occupied in the after part of the day, Sir Hugh began to speak with unwonted decision and authority.

“Joan, child, has Peter Sanghurst been with thee today?”

“He has, my father.”

“And has he told thee that he comes with my sanction as a lover, and that thou and he are to wed ere the month is out?”

“He had not said so much as that,” answered Joan, who spoke quietly and dreamily, and with so little of the old ring of opposition in her voice that her father looked at her in surprise.

She was very pale, and there was a look in her eyes he did not understand; but the flush of anger or defiance he had thought to see did not show itself. He began to think Sanghurst had spoken no more than the truth in saying that Mistress Joan appeared to have withdrawn her opposition to him as a husband.

“But so it is to be,” answered her father, quickly and imperiously, trying to seize this favourable moment to get the matter settled. “I have long given way to thy whimsies — far too long — and here art thou a woman grown, older than half the matrons round, yet never a wife as they have long been. I will no more of it. It maketh thee and me alike objects of ridicule. Peter Sanghurst is my very good friend. He has helped me in many difficulties, and is ready to help me again. He has money, and I have none. Listen, girl: this accursed plague has carried off all my people, and labourers are asking treble and quadruple for their work that which they have been wont to do. Sooner would I let the crops rot upon the ground than be so mulcted by them. The King does what he can, but the idle rogues set him at defiance; and there be many beside me who will feel the grip of poverty for long years to come. Peter Sanghurst has his wealth laid up in solid gold, not in fields and woods that bring nothing without hands to till or tend them. Marry but him, and Woodcrych shall be thy dower, and its broad acres and noble manor will make of ye twain, with his gold, as prosperous a knight and dame (for he will soon rise to that rank) as ye can wish to be. Girl, my word is pledged, and I go not back from it. I have been patient with thy fancies, but I will no more of them. Thou art mine own daughter, my own flesh and blood, and thy hand is mine to give to whom I will. Peter Sanghurst shall be thy lord whether thou wilt or no. I have said it; let that be enough. It is thy part to obey.”

Joan sat quite still and answered nothing. Her eyes were fixed upon the dancing flames rushing up the wide chimney. She must have heard her father’s words, yet she gave no sign of having done so. But for that Sir Hugh cared little. He was only too glad to be spared a weary battle of words, or a long struggle with his high-spirited daughter, whose force of character he had come to know. That she had yielded her will to his at last seemed only right and natural, and of course she must have been by this time aware that if her father was really resolved upon the match, she was practically helpless to prevent it.

She was no longer a child; she was a woman who had seen much of the world for the times she lived in. Doubtless she had begun to see that she must now marry ere her beauty waned; and having failed to make a grander match during her years of wandering, was glad enough to return to her former lover, whose fidelity had doubtless touched her heart.

“Thou wilt have a home and a dowry, and a husband who has loved thee long and faithfully,” added Sir Hugh, who felt that he might now adopt a more paternal tone, seeing he had not to combat foolish resistance. “Thou hast been a good daughter, Joan; doubtless thou wilt make a good wife too.”

Still no reply, though a faint smile seemed to curve Joan’s lips. She presently rose to her feet, and making a respectful reverence to her father — for daily embraces were not the order of the day — glided from the room as if to seek her couch.

“That is a thing well done!” breathed the knight, when he found himself once more alone, “and done easier than I had looked for. Well, well, it is a happy thing the wench has found her right senses. Methinks good Peter must have been setting his charms to work, for she never could be brought to listen to him of old. He has tamed her to some purpose now.”

Meantime Joan had glided up the staircase of the hall, along several winding passages, and up and down several irregular flights of narrow steps, till she paused at the door of a room very dim within, but just lighted by the gleam of a dying fire. As she stepped across the threshold a voice out of the darkness accosted her.

“My ladybird, is it thou, and at such an hour? Tell me what has befallen thee.”

“The thing that thou and I have talked of before now, Bridget,” answered Joan, speaking rapidly in a strange low voice — “the thing that thou and I have planned a hundred times if the worst should befall us. It is tenfold more needful now than before. Bridget, I must quit this house at sunset tomorrow, and thou must have my disguise ready. I must to France, to find out there the truth of a tale I have this day heard. Nat will go with me — he has said so a hundred times; and I have long had money laid by for the day I ever knew might come. Thou knowest all. He is a man of the sea; I am his son. We have planned it too oft to be taken unawares by any sudden peril. Thus disguised, we may wander where we will, molested by none. Lose no time. Rise and go to Nat this very night. I myself must not be seen with him or with thee. I must conduct myself as though each day to come were like the one past. But thou knowest what to do. Thou wilt arrange all. God bless thee, my faithful Bridget; and when I come back again, thou shalt not lack thy reward!”

“I want none else but thy love, my heart’s delight,” said the old nurse, gathering the girl into her fond arms; and Joan hid her face for one moment upon that faithful breast and gave way to a short burst of weeping, which did much for her overcharged heart.

Then she silently stole away and went quietly to her own chamber.