THE TAVERN KNIGHT by Rafael Sabatini
I. ON THE MARCH
II. ARCADES AMBO
III. THE LETTER
IV. AT THE SIGN OF THE MITRE
V. AFTER WORCESTER FIELD
VI. COMPANIONS IN MISFORTUNE
VII. THE TAVERN KNIGHT’S STORY
VIII. THE TWISTED BAR
IX. THE BARGAIN
X. THE ESCAPE
XI. THE ASHBURNS
XII. THE HOUSE THAT WAS ROLAND MARLEIGH’S
XIII. THE METAMORPHOSIS OF KENNETH
XIV. THE HEART OF CYNTHIA ASHBURN
XV. JOSEPH’S RETURN
XVI. THE RECKONING
XVII. JOSEPH DRIVES A BARGAIN
XIX. THE INTERRUPTED JOURNEY
XX. THE CONVERTED HOGAN
XXI. THE MESSAGE KENNETH BORE
XXII. SIR CRISPIN’S UNDERTAKING
XXIII. GREGORY’S ATTRITION
XXIV. THE WOOING OF CYNTHIA
XXV. CYNTHIA’S FLIGHT
XXVI. TO FRANCE
XXVII. THE AUBERGINE DU SOLEIL
THE TAVERN KNIGHT By Rafael Sabatini
ON THE MARCH
He whom they called the Tavern Knight laughed an evil laugh – such a laugh as might fall from the lips of Satan in a sardonic moment.
He sat within the halo of yellow light shed by two tallow candles, whose sconces were two empty bottles, and contemptuously he eyed the youth in black, standing with white face and quivering lip in a corner of the mean chamber. Then he laughed again, and in a hoarse voice, sorely suggestive of the bottle, he broke into song. He lay back in his chair, his long, spare legs outstretched, his spurs jingling to the lilt of his ditty whose burden ran:
On the lip so red of the wench that’s sped His passionate kiss burns, still-O! For ’tis April time, and of love and wine Youth’s way is to take its fill-O!
Down, down, derry-do!
So his cup he drains and he shakes his reins, And rides his rake-helly way-O!
She was sweet to woo and most comely, too, But that was all yesterday-O!
Down, down, derry-do!
The lad started forward with something akin to a shiver.
“Have done,” he cried, in a voice of loathing, “or, if croak you must, choose a ditty less foul!”
“Eh?” The ruffler shook back the matted hair from his lean, harsh face, and a pair of eyes that of a sudden seemed ablaze glared at his companion; then the lids drooped until those eyes became two narrow slits – catlike and cunning – and again he laughed.
“Gad’s life, Master Stewart, you have a temerity that should save you from grey hairs! What is’t to you what ditty my fancy seizes on? ‘Swounds, man, for three weary months have I curbed my moods, and worn my throat dry in praising the Lord; for three months have I been a living monument of Covenanting zeal and godliness; and now that at last I have shaken the dust of your beggarly Scotland from my heels, you – the veriest milksop that ever ran tottering from its mother’s lap would chide me because, yon bottle being done, I sing to keep me from waxing sad in the contemplation of its emptiness!”
There was scorn unutterable on the lad’s face as he turned aside.
“When I joined Middleton’s horse and accepted service under you, I held you to be at least a gentleman,” was his daring rejoinder.
For an instant that dangerous light gleamed again from his companion’s eye. Then, as before, the lids drooped, and, as before, he laughed.
“Gentleman!” he mocked. “On my soul, that’s good! And what may you know of gentlemen, Sir Scot? Think you a gentleman is a Jack Presbyter, or a droning member of your kirk committee, strutting it like a crow in the gutter? Gadswounds, boy, when I was your age, and George Villiers lived – “
“Oh, have done!” broke in the youth impetuously. “Suffer me to leave you, Sir Crispin, to your bottle, your croaking, and your memories.”
“Aye, go your ways, sir; you’d be sorry company for a dead man – the sorriest ever my evil star led me into. The door is yonder, and should you chance to break your saintly neck on the stairs, it is like to be well for both of us.”
And with that Sir Crispin Galliard lay back in his chair once more, and took up the thread of his interrupted song
But, heigh-o! she cried, at the Christmas-tide, That dead she would rather be-O!
Pale and wan she crept out of sight, and wept
‘Tis a sorry –
A loud knock that echoed ominously through the mean chamber, fell in that instant upon the door. And with it came a panting cry of –
“Open, Cris! Open, for the love of God!”
Sir Crispin’s ballad broke off short, whilst the lad paused in the act of quitting the room, and turned to look to him for direction.
“Well, my master,” quoth Galliard, “for what do you wait?”
“To learn your wishes, sir,” was the answer sullenly delivered.
“My wishes! Rat me, there’s one without whose wishes brook less waiting! Open, fool!”
Thus rudely enjoined, the lad lifted the latch and set wide the door, which opened immediately upon the street. Into the apartment stumbled a roughly clad man of huge frame. He was breathing hard, and fear was writ large upon his rugged face. An instant he paused to close the door after him, then turning to Galliard, who had risen and who stood eyeing him in astonishment –
“Hide me somewhere, Cris,” he panted – his accent proclaiming his Irish origin. “My God, hide me, or I’m a dead man this night!”
“‘Slife, Hogan! What is toward? Has Cromwell overtaken us?”
“Cromwell, quotha? Would to Heaven ’twere no worse! I’ve killed a man!”
“If he’s dead, why run?”
The Irishman made an impatient gesture.
“A party of Montgomery’s foot is on my heels. They’ve raised the whole of Penrith over the affair, and if I’m taken, soul of my body, ’twill be a short shrift they’ll give me. The King will serve me as poor Wrycraft was served two days ago at Kendal. Mother of Mercy!” he broke off, as his ear caught the clatter of feet and the murmur of voices from without. “Have you a hole I can creep into?”
“Up those stairs and into my room with you!” said Crispin shortly. “I will try to head them off. Come, man, stir yourself; they are here.”
Then, as with nimble alacrity Hogan obeyed him and slipped from the room, he turned to the lad, who had been a silent spectator of what had passed. From the pocket of his threadbare doublet he drew a pack of greasy playing cards.
“To table,” he said laconically.
But the boy, comprehending what was required of him, drew back at sight of those cards as one might shrink from a thing unclean.
“Never!” he began. “I’ll not defile – “
“To table, fool!” thundered Crispin, with a vehemence few men could have withstood. “Is this a time for Presbyterian scruples? To table, and help a me play this game, or, by the living God, I’ll – ” Without completing his threat he leaned forward until Kenneth felt his hot, wine-laden breath upon his cheek. Cowed by his words, his gesture, and above all, his glance, the lad drew up a chair, mumbling in explanation – intended as an excuse to himself for his weakness – that he submitted since a man’s life was at stake.
Opposite him Galliard resumed his seat with a mocking smile that made him wince. Taking up the cards, he flung a portion of them to the boy, whilst those he retained he spread fanwise in his hand as if about to play. Silently Kenneth copied his actions.
Nearer and louder grew the sounds of the approach, lights flashed before the window, and the two men, feigning to play, sat on and waited.
“Have a care, Master Stewart,” growled Crispin sourly, then in a louder voice – for his quick eye had caught a glimpse of a face that watched them from the window – “I play the King of Spades!” he cried, with meaning look.
A blow was struck upon the door, and with it came the command to “Open in the King’s name!” Softly Sir Crispin rapped out an oath. Then he rose, and with a last look of warning to Kenneth, he went to open. And as he had greeted Hogan he now greeted the crowd mainly of soldiers – that surged about the threshold.
“Sirs, why this ado? Hath the Sultan Oliver descended upon us?”
In one hand he still held his cards, the other he rested upon the edge of the open door. It was a young ensign who stood forward to answer him.
“One of Lord Middleton’s officers hath done a man to death not half an hour agone; he is an Irishman Captain Hogan by name.”
“Hogan – Hogan?” repeated Crispin, after the manner of one who fumbles in his memory. “Ah, yes – an Irishman with a grey head and a hot temper. And he is dead, you say?”
“Nay, he has done the killing.”
“That I can better understand. ‘Tis not the first time, I’ll be sworn.”
“But it will be the last, Sir Crispin.”
“Like enough. The King is severe since we crossed the Border.” Then in a brisker tone: “I thank you for bringing me this news,” said he, “and I regret that in my poor house there be naught I can offer you wherein to drink His Majesty’s health ere you proceed upon your search. Give you good night, sir.” And by drawing back a pace he signified his wish to close the door and be quit of them.
“We thought,” faltered the young officer, “that – that perchance you would assist us by – “
“Assist you!” roared Crispin, with a fine assumption of anger. “Assist you take a man? Sink me, sir, I would have you know I am a soldier, not a tipstaff!”
The ensign’s cheeks grew crimson under the sting of that veiled insult.
“There are some, Sir Crispin, that have yet another name for you.”
“Like enough – when I am not by,” sneered Crispin. “The world is full of foul tongues in craven heads. But, sirs, the night air is chill and you are come inopportunely, for, as you’ll perceive, I was at play. Haply you’ll suffer me to close the door.”
“A moment, Sir Crispin. We must search this house. He is believed to have come this way.”
Crispin yawned. “I will spare you the trouble. You may take it from me that he could not be here without my knowledge. I have been in this room these two hours past.”
“Twill not suffice,” returned the officer doggedly. “We must satisfy ourselves.”
“Satisfy yourselves?” echoed the other, in tones of deep amazement. “What better satisfaction can I afford you than my word? ‘Swounds, sir jackanapes,” he added, in a roar that sent the lieutenant back a pace as though he had been struck, “am I to take it that your errand is a trumped-up business to affront me? First you invite me to turn tipstaff, then you add your cursed innuendoes of what people say of me, and now you end by doubting me! You must satisfy yourself!” he thundered, waxing fiercer at every word. “Linger another moment on that threshold, and d -n me, sir, I’ll give you satisfaction of another flavour! Be off!”
Before that hurricane of passion the ensign recoiled, despite himself.
“I will appeal to General Montgomery,” he threatened.
“Appeal to the devil! Had you come hither with your errand in a seemly fashion you had found my door thrown wide in welcome, and I had received you courteously. As it is, sir, the cause for complaint is on my side, and complain I will. We shall see whether the King permits an old soldier who has followed the fortunes of his family these eighteen years to be flouted by a malapert bantam of yesterday’s brood!”
The subaltern paused in dismay. Some demur there was in the gathered crowd. Then the officer fell back a pace, and consulted an elderly trooper at his elbow. The trooper was of opinion that the fugitive must have gone farther. Moreover, he could not think, from what Sir Crispin had said, that it would have been possible for Hogan to have entered the house. With this, and realizing that much trouble and possible loss of time must result from Sir Crispin’s obstinacy, did they attempt to force a way into the house, and bethinking himself, also, maybe, how well this rascally ruffler stood with Lord Middleton, the ensign determined to withdraw, and to seek elsewhere.
And so he took his leave with a venomous glance, and a parting threat to bring the matter to the King’s ears, upon which Galliard slammed the door before he had finished.
There was a curious smile on Crispin’s face as he walked slowly to the table, and resumed his seat.
“Master Stewart,” he whispered, as he spread his cards anew, “the comedy is not yet played out. There is a face glued to the window at this moment, and I make little doubt that for the next hour or so we shall be spied upon. That pretty fellow was born to be a thief-taker.”
The boy turned a glance of sour reproof upon his companion. He had not stirred from his chair while Crispin had been at the door.
“You lied to them,” he said at last.
“Sh! Not so loud, sweet youth,” was the answer that lost nothing of menace by being subdued. “Tomorrow, if you please, I will account to you for offending your delicate soul by suggesting a falsehood in your presence. To-night we have a man’s life to save, and that, I think, is work enough. Come, Master Stewart, we are being watched. Let us resume our game.”
His eye, fixed in cold command upon the boy, compelled obedience. And the lad, more out of awe of that glance than out of any desire to contribute to the saving of Hogan, mutely consented to keep up this pretence. But in his soul he rebelled. He had been reared in an atmosphere of honourable and religious bigotry. Hogan was to him a coarse ruffler; an evil man of the sword; such a man as he abhorred and accounted a disgrace to any army – particularly to an army launched upon England under the auspices of the Solemn League and Covenant.
Hogan had been guilty of an act of brutality; he had killed a man; and Kenneth deemed himself little better, since he assisted in harbouring instead of discovering him, as he held to be his duty. But ‘neath the suasion of Galliard’s inexorable eye he sat limp and docile, vowing to himself that on the morrow he would lay the matter before Lord Middleton, and thus not only endeavour to make amends for his present guilty silence, but rid himself also of the companionship of this ruffianly Sir Crispin, to whom no doubt a hempen justice would be meted.
Meanwhile, he sat on and left his companion’s occasional sallies unanswered. In the street men stirred and lanthorns gleamed fitfully, whilst ever and anon a face surmounted by a morion would be pressed against the leaded panes of the window.
Thus an hour wore itself out during which poor Hogan sat above, alone with his anxiety and unsavoury thoughts.
Towards midnight at last Sir Crispin flung down his cards and rose. It was close upon an hour and a half since Hogan’s advent. In the streets the sounds had gradually died down, and peace seemed to reign again in Penrith. Yet was Sir Crispin cautious – for to be cautious and mistrustful of appearances was the lesson life had taught him.
“Master Stewart,” said he, “it grows late, and I doubt me you would be abed. Give you good night!”
The lad rose. A moment he paused, hesitating, then –
“To-morrow, Sir Crispin – ” he began. But Crispin cut him short.
“Leave to-morrow till it dawn, my friend. Give you good night. Take one of those noisome tapers with you, and go.”
In sullen silence the boy took up one of the candle-bearing bottles and passed out through the door leading to the stairs.
For a moment Crispin remained standing by the table, and in that moment the expression of his face was softened. A momentary regret of his treatment of the boy stirred in him. Master Stewart might be a milksop, but Crispin accounted him leastways honest, and had a kindness for him in spite of all. He crossed to the window, and throwing it wide he leaned out, as if to breathe the cool night air, what time he hummed the refrain of `Rub-a-dub-dub’ for the edification of any chance listeners.
For a half-hour he lingered there, and for all that he used the occasion to let his mind stray over many a theme, his eyes were alert for the least movement among the shadows of the street. Reassured at last that the house was no longer being watched, he drew back, and closed the lattice.
Upstairs he found the Irishman seated in dejection upon his bed, awaiting him.
“Soul of my body!” cried Hogan ruefully, “I was never nearer being afraid in my life.”
Crispin laughed softly for answer, and besought of him the tale of what had passed.
“Tis simple enough, faith,” said Hogan coolly. “The landlord of The Angel hath a daughter maybe ’twas after her he named his inn – who owns a pair of the most seductive eyes that ever a man saw perdition in. She hath, moreover, a taste for dalliance, and my brave looks and martial trappings did for her what her bold eyes had done for me. We were becoming the sweetest friends, when, like an incarnate fiend, that loutish clown, her lover, sweeps down upon us, and, with more jealousy than wit, struck me – struck me, Harry Hogan! Soul of my body, think of it, Cris!” And he grew red with anger at the recollection. “I took him by the collar of his mean smock and flung him into the kennel – the fittest bed he ever lay in. Had he remained there it had been well for him; but the fool, accounting himself affronted, came up to demand satisfaction. I gave it him, and plague on it – he’s dead!”
“An ugly tale,” was Crispin’s sour comment.
“Ugly, maybe,” returned Hogan, spreading out his palms, “but what choice had I? The fool came at me, bilbo in hand, and I was forced to draw.’
“But not to slay, Hogan!”
“Twas an accident. Sink me, it was! I sought his sword-arm; but the light was bad, and my point went through his chest instead.”
For a moment Crispin stood frowning, then his brow cleared, as though he had put the matter from him.
“Well, well – since he’s dead, there’s an end to it.”
“Heaven rest his soul!” muttered the Irishman, crossing himself piously. And with that he dismissed the subject of the great wrong that through folly he had wrought – the wanton destruction of a man’s life, and the poisoning of a woman’s with a remorse that might be everlasting.
“It will tax our wits to get you out of Penrith,” said Crispin. Then, turning and looking into the Irishman’s great, good-humoured face – “I am sorry you leave us, Hogan,” he added.
“Not so am I,” quoth Hogan with a shrug. “Such a march as this is little to my taste. Bah! Charles Stuart or Oliver Cromwell, ’tis all one to me. What care I whether King or Commonwealth prevail? Shall Harry Hogan be the better or the richer under one than under the other? Oddslife, Cris, I have trailed a pike or handled a sword in well-nigh every army in Europe. I know more of the great art of war than all the King’s generals rolled into one. Think you, then, I can rest content with a miserable company of horse when plunder is forbidden, and even our beggarly pay doubtful? Whilst, should things go ill – as well they may, faith, with an army ruled by parsons – the wage will be a swift death on field or gallows, or a lingering one in the plantations, as fell to the lot of those poor wretches Noll drove into England after Dunbar. Soul of my body, it is not thus that I had looked to fare when I took service at Perth. I had looked for plunder, rich and plentiful plunder, according to the usages of warfare, as a fitting reward for a toilsome march and the perils gone through.
“Thus I know war, and for this have I followed the trade these twenty years. Instead, we have thirty thousand men, marching to battle as prim and orderly as a parcel of acolytes in a Corpus-Christi procession. ‘Twas not so bad in Scotland haply because the country holds naught a man may profitably plunder – but since we have crossed the Border, ‘slife, they’ll hang you if you steal so much as a kiss from a wench in passing.”
“Why, true,” laughed Crispin, “the Second Charles hath an over-tender stomach. He will not allow that we are marching through an enemy’s country; he insists that England is his kingdom, forgetting that he has yet to conquer it, and – “
“Was it not also his father’s kingdom?” broke in the impetuous Hogan. “Yet times are sorely changed since we followed the fortunes of the Martyr. In those days you might help yourself to a capon, a horse, a wench, or any other trifle of the enemy’s, without ever a word of censure or a question asked. Why, man, it is but two days since His Majesty had a poor devil hanged at Kendal for laying violent hands upon a pullet. Pox on it, Cris, my gorge rises at the thought! When I saw that wretch strung up, I swore to fall behind at the earliest opportunity, and to-night’s affair makes this imperative.”
“And what may your plans be?” asked Crispin.
“War is my trade, not a diversion, as it is with Wilmot and Buckingham and the other pretty gentlemen of our train. And since the King’s army is like to yield me no profit, faith, I’ll turn me to the Parliament’s. If I get out of Penrith with my life, I’ll shave my beard and cut my hair to a comely and godly length; don a cuckoldy steeple hat and a black coat, and carry my sword to Cromwell with a line of text.”
Sir Crispin fell to pondering. Noting this, and imagining that he guessed aright the reason:
“I take it, Cris,” he put in, keenly glancing at the other, “that you are much of my mind?”
“Maybe I am,” replied Crispin carelessly.
“Why, then,” cried Hogan, “need we part company?”
There was a sudden eagerness in his tone, born of the admiration in which this rough soldier of fortune held one whom he accounted his better in that same harsh trade. But Galliard answered coldly:
“You forget, Harry.”
“Not so! Surely on Cromwell’s side your object – “
“T’sh! I have well considered. My fortunes are bound up with the King’s. In his victory alone lies profit for me; not the profit of pillage, Hogan, but the profit of those broad lands that for nigh upon twenty years have been in usurping hands. The profit I look for, Hogan, is my restoration to Castle Marleigh, and of this my only hope lies in the restoration of King Charles. If the King doth not prevail – which God forfend! – why, then, I can but die. I shall have naught left to hope for from life. So you see, good Hogan,” he ended with a regretful smile, “my going with you is not to be dreamed of.”
Still the Irishman urged him, and a good half-hour did he devote to it, but in vain. Realizing at last the futility of his endeavours, he sighed and moved uneasily in his chair, whilst the broad, tanned face was clouded with regret. Crispin saw this, and approaching him, he laid a hand upon his shoulder.
“I had counted upon your help to clear the Ashburns from Castle Marleigh and to aid me in my grim work when the time is ripe. But if you go – “
“Faith, I may aid you yet. Who shall say?” Then of a sudden there crept into the voice of this hardened pike-trader a note of soft concern. “Think you there be danger to yourself in remaining?” he inquired.
“Danger? To me?” echoed Crispin.
“Aye – for having harboured me. That whelp of Montgomery’s Foot suspects you.”
“Suspects? Am I a man of straw to be overset by a breath of suspicion?”
“There is your lieutenant, Kenneth Stewart.”
“Who has been a party to your escape, and whose only course is therefore silence, lest he set a noose about his own neck. Come, Harry,” he added, briskly, changing his manner, “the night wears on, and we have your safety to think of.”
Hogan rose with a sigh.
“Give me a horse,” said he, “and by God’s grace tomorrow shall find me in Cromwell’s camp. Heaven prosper and reward you, Cris.”
“We must find you clothes more fitting than these – a coat more staid and better attuned to the Puritan part you are to play.”
“Where have you such a coat?”
“My lieutenant has. He affects the godly black, from a habit taken in that Presbyterian Scotland of his.”
“But I am twice his bulk!”
“Better a tight coat to your back than a tight rope to your neck, Harry. Wait.”
Taking a taper, he left the room, to return a moment later with the coat that Kenneth had worn that day, and which he had abstracted from the sleeping lad’s chamber.
“Off with your doublet,” he commanded, and as he spoke he set himself to empty the pocket of Kenneth’s garment; a handkerchief and a few papers he found in them, and these he tossed carelessly on the bed. Next he assisted the Irishman to struggle into the stolen coat.
“May the Lord forgive my sins,” groaned Hogan, as he felt the cloth straining upon his back and cramping his limbs. “May He forgive me, and see me safely out of Penrith and into Cromwell’s camp, and never again will I resent the resentment of a clown whose sweetheart I have made too free with.”
“Pluck that feather from your hat,” said Crispin.
Hogan obeyed him with a sigh.
“Truly it is written in Scripture that man in his time plays many parts. Who would have thought to see Harry Hogan playing the Puritan?”
“Unless you improve your acquaintance with Scripture you are not like to play it long,” laughed Crispin, as he surveyed him. “There, man, you’ll do well enough. Your coat is somewhat tight in the back, somewhat short in the skirt; but neither so tight nor so short but that it may be preferred to a winding-sheet, and that is the alternative, Harry.”
Hogan replied by roundly cursing the coat and his own lucklessness. That done – and in no measured terms – he pronounced himself ready to set out, whereupon Crispin led the way below once more, and out into a hut that did service as a stable.
By the light of a lanthorn he saddled one of the two nags that stood there, and led it into the yard. Opening the door that abutted on to a field beyond, he bade Hogan mount. He held his stirrup for him, and cutting short the Irishman’s voluble expressions of gratitude, he gave him “God speed,” and urged him to use all dispatch in setting as great a distance as possible betwixt himself and Penrith before the dawn.
It was with a countenance sadly dejected that Crispin returned to his chamber and sate himself wearily upon the bed. With elbows on his knees and chin in his palms he stared straight before him, the usual steely brightness of his grey eyes dulled by the despondency that sat upon his face and drew deep furrows down his fine brow.
With a sigh he rose at last and idly fingered the papers he had taken from the pocket of Kenneth’s coat. As he did so his glance was arrested by the signature at the foot of one. “Gregory Ashburn” was the name he read.
Ashen grew his cheeks as his eyes fastened upon that name, whilst the hand, to which no peril ever brought a tremor, shook now like an aspen. Feverishly he spread the letter on his knee, and with a glance, from dull that it had been, grown of a sudden fierce and cruel, he read the contents.
Again I write in the hope that I may prevail upon you to quit Scotland and your attachment to a king, whose fortunes prosper not, nor can prosper. Cynthia is pining, and if you tarry longer from Castle Marleigh she must perforce think you but a laggard lover. Than this I have no more powerful argument wherewith to draw you from Perth to Sheringham, but this I think should prevail where others have failed me. We await you then, and whilst we wait we daily drink your health. Cynthia commends herself to your memory as doth my brother, and soon we hope to welcome you at Castle Marleigh. Believe, my dear Kenneth, that whilst I am, I am yours in affection.
Twice Crispin read the letter through. Then with set teeth and straining eyes he sat lost in thought.
Here indeed was a strange chance! This boy whom he had met at Perth, and enrolled in his company, was a friend of Ashburn’s – the lover of Cynthia. Who might this Cynthia be?
Long and deep were his ponderings upon the unfathomable ways of Fate – for Fate he now believed was here at work to help him, revealing herself by means of this sign even at the very moment when he decried his luck. In memory he reviewed his meeting with the lad in the yard of Perth Castle a fortnight ago. Something in the boy’s bearing, in his air, had caught Crispin’s eye. He had looked him over, then approached, and bluntly asked his name and on what business he was come there. The youth had answered him civilly enough that he was Kenneth Stewart of Bailienochy, and that he was come to offer his sword to the King. Thereupon he had interested himself in the lad’s behalf and had gained him a lieutenancy in his own company. Why he was attracted to a youth on whom never before had he set eyes was a matter that puzzled him not a little. Now he held, he thought, the explanation of it. It was the way of Fate.
This boy was sent into his life by a Heaven that at last showed compassion for the deep wrongs he had suffered; sent him as a key wherewith, should the need occur, to open him the gates of Castle Marleigh.
In long strides he paced the chamber, turning the matter over in his mind. Aye, he would use the lad should the need arise. Why scruple? Had he ever received aught but disdain and scorn at the hands of Kenneth.
Day was breaking ere he sought his bed, and already the sun was up when at length he fell into a troubled sleep, vowing that he would mend his wild ways and seek to gain the boy’s favour against the time when he might have need of him.
When later he restored the papers to Kenneth, explaining to what use he had put the coat, he refrained from questioning him concerning Gregory Ashburn. The docility of his mood on that occasion came as a surprise to Kenneth, who set it down to Sir Crispin’s desire to conciliate him into silence touching the harbouring of Hogan. In that same connexion Crispin showed him calmly and clearly that he could not now inform without involving himself to an equally dangerous extent. And partly through the fear of this, partly won over by Crispin’s persuasions, the lad determined to hold his peace.
Nor had he cause to regret it thereafter, for throughout that tedious march he found his roystering companion singularly meek and kindly. Indeed he seemed a different man. His old swagger and roaring bluster disappeared; he drank less, diced less, blasphemed less, and stormed less than in the old days before the halt at Penrith; but rode, a silent, thoughtful figure, so self-contained and of so godly a mien as would have rejoiced the heart of the sourest Puritan. The wild tantivy boy had vanished, and the sobriquet of “Tavern Knight” was fast becoming a misnomer.
Kenneth felt drawn more towards him, deeming him a penitent that had seen at last the error of his ways. And thus things prevailed until the almost triumphal entry into the city of Worcester on the twenty-third of August.
AT THE SIGN OF THE MITRE
For a week after the coming of the King to Worcester, Crispin’s relations with Kenneth steadily improved. By an evil chance, however, there befell on the eve of the battle that which renewed with heightened intensity the enmity which the lad had fostered for him, but which lately he had almost overcome.
The scene of this happening – leastways of that which led to it – was The Mitre Inn, in the High Street of Worcester.
In the common-room one day sat as merry a company of carousers as ever gladdened the soul of an old tantivy boy. Youthful ensigns of Lesley’s Scottish horse – caring never a fig for the Solemn League and Covenant – rubbed shoulders with beribboned Cavaliers of Lord Talbot’s company; gay young lairds of Pitscottie’s Highlanders, unmindful of the Kirk’s harsh commandments of sobriety, sat cheek by jowl with rakehelly officers of Dalzell’s Brigade, and pledged the King in many a stoup of canary and many a can of stout March ale.
On every hand spirits ran high and laughter filled the chamber, the mirth of some having its source in a neighbour’s quip, that of others having no source at all save in the wine they had taken.
At one table sat a gentleman of the name of Faversham, who had ridden on the previous night in that ill-fated camisado that should have resulted in the capture of Cromwell at Spetchley, but which, owing to a betrayal – when was a Stuart not betrayed and sold? – miscarried. He was relating to the group about him the details of that disaster.
“Oddslife, gentlemen,” he was exclaiming, “I tell you that, but for that roaring dog, Sir Crispin Galliard, the whole of Middleton’s regiment had been cut to pieces. There we stood on Red Hill, trapped as ever fish in a net, with the whole of Lilburne’s men rising out of the ground to enclose and destroy us. A living wall of steel it was, and on every hand the call to surrender. There was dismay in my heart, as I’ll swear there was dismay in the heart of every man of us, and I make little doubt, gentlemen, that with but scant pressing we had thrown down our arms, so disheartened were we by that ambush. Then of a sudden there arose above the clatter of steel and Puritan cries, a loud, clear, defiant shout of “Hey for Cavaliers!”
“I turned, and there in his stirrups stood that madman Galliard, waving his sword and holding his company together with the power of his will, his courage, and his voice. The sight of him was like wine to our blood. “Into them, gentlemen; follow me!” he roared. And then, with a hurricane of oaths, he hurled his company against the pike-men. The blow was irresistible, and above the din of it came that voice of his again: “Up, Cavaliers! Slash the cuckolds to ribbons, gentlemen!” The cropears gave way, and like a river that has burst its dam, we poured through the opening in their ranks and headed back for Worcester.”
There was a roar of voices as Faversham ended, and around that table “The Tavern Knight” was for some minutes the only toast.
Meanwhile half a dozen merry-makers at a table hard by, having drunk themselves out of all sense of fitness, were occupied in baiting a pale-faced lad, sombrely attired, who seemed sadly out of place in that wild company – indeed, he had been better advised to have avoided it.
The matter had been set afoot by a pleasantry of Ensign Tyler’s, of Massey’s dragoons, with a playful allusion to a letter in a feminine hand which Kenneth had let fall, and which Tyler had restored to him. Quip had followed quip until in their jests they transcended all bounds. Livid with passion and unable to endure more, Kenneth had sprung up.
“Damnation!” he blazed, bringing his clenched hand down upon the table. “One more of your foul jests and he that utters it shall answer to me!”
The suddenness of his action and the fierceness of his tone and gesture – a fierceness so grotesquely ill-attuned to his slender frame and clerkly attire left the company for a moment speechless with amazement. Then a mighty burst of laughter greeted him, above which sounded the shrill voice of Tyler, who held his sides, and down whose crimson cheeks two tears of mirth were trickling.
“Oh, fie, fie, good Master Stewart!” he gasped. “What think you would the reverend elders say to this bellicose attitude and this profane tongue of yours?”
“And what think you would the King say to this drunken poltroonery of yours?” was the hot unguarded answer. “Poltroonery, I say,” he repeated, embracing the whole company in his glance.
The laughter died down as Kenneth’s insult penetrated their befuddled minds. An instant’s lull there was, like the lull in nature that precedes a clap of thunder. Then, as with one accord, a dozen of them bore down upon him.
It was a vile thing they did, perhaps; but then they had drunk deep, and Kenneth Stewart counted no friend amongst them. In an instant they had him, kicking and biting, on the floor; his doublet was torn rudely open, and from his breast Tyler plucked the letter whose existence had led to this shameless scene.
But ere he could so much as unfold it, a voice rang harsh and imperative:
Pausing, they turned to confront a tall, gaunt man in a leather jerkin and a broad hat decked by goose-quill, who came slowly forward.
“The Tavern Knight,” cried one, and the shout of “A rouse for the hero of Red Hill!” was taken up on every hand. For despite his sour visage and ungracious ways there was not a roysterer in the Royal army to whom he was not dear.
But as he now advanced, the coldness of his bearing and the forbidding set of his face froze them into silence.
“Give me that letter,” he demanded sternly of Tyler.
Taken aback, Tyler hesitated for a second, whilst Crispin waited with hand outstretched. Vainly did he look round for sign or word of help or counsel. None was afforded him by his fellow-revellers, who one and all hung back in silence.
Seeing himself thus unsupported, and far from wishing to try conclusions with Galliard, Tyler with an ill grace surrendered the paper; and, with a pleasant bow and a word of thanks, delivered with never so slight a saturnine smile, Crispin turned on his heel and left the tavern as abruptly as he had entered it.
The din it was that had attracted him as he passed by on his way to the Episcopal Palace where a part of his company was on guard duty. Thither he now pursued his way, bearing with him the letter which so opportunely he had become possessed of, and which he hoped might throw further light upon Kenneth’s relations with the Ashburns.
But as he reached the palace there was a quick step behind him. and a hand fell upon his arm. He turned.
“Ah, ’tis you, Kenneth,” he muttered, and would have passed on, but the boy’s hand took him by the sleeve.
“Sir Crispin,” said he, “I came to thank you.”
“I have done nothing to deserve your thanks. Give you good evening.” And he made shift to mount the steps when again Kenneth detained him.
“You are forgetting the letter, Sir Crispin,” he ventured, and he held out his hand to receive it.
Galliard saw the gesture, and for a moment it crossed his mind in self-reproach that the part he chose to play was that of a bully. A second he hesitated. Should he surrender the letter unread, and fight on without the aid of the information it might bring him? Then the thought of Ashburn and of his own deep wrongs that cried out for vengeance, overcame and stifled the generous impulse. His manner grew yet more frozen as he made answer:
“There has been too much ado about this letter to warrant my so lightly parting with it. First I will satisfy myself that I have been no unconscious abettor of treason. You shall have your letter tomorrow, Master Stewart.”
“Treason!” echoed Kenneth. And before that cold rebuff of Crispin’s his mood changed from conciliatory to resentful – resentful towards the fates that made him this man’s debtor.
“I assure you, on my honour,” said he, mastering his feelings, “that this is but a letter from the lady I hope to make my wife. Assuredly, sir, you will not now insist upon reading it.”
“Assuredly I shall.”
“But, sir – “
“Master Stewart, I am resolved, and were you to talk from now till doomsday, you would not turn me from my purpose. So good night to you.”
“Sir Crispin,” cried the boy, his voice quavering with passion, “while I live you shall not read that letter!”
“Hoity-toity, sir! What words! What heroics! And yet you would have me believe this paper innocent?”
“As innocent as the hand that penned it, and if I so oppose your reading it, it is because thus much I owe her. Believe me, sir,” he added, his accents returning to a beseeching key, “when again I swear that it is no more than such a letter any maid may write her lover. I thought that you had understood all this when you rescued me from those bullies at The Mitre. I thought that what you did was a noble and generous deed. Instead – ” The lad paused.
“Continue, sir,” Galliard requested coldly. “Instead?”
“There can be no instead, Sir Crispin. You will not mar so good an action now. You will give me my letter, will you not?”
Callous though he was, Crispin winced. The breeding of earlier days – so sadly warped, alas! – cried out within him against the lie that he was acting by pretending to suspect treason in that woman’s pothooks. Instincts of gentility and generosity long dead took life again, resuscitated by that call of conscience. He was conquered.
“There, take your letter, boy, and plague me no more,” he growled, as he held it out to Kenneth. And without waiting for reply or acknowledgment, he turned on his heel, and entered the palace. But he had yielded overlate to leave a good impression and, as Kenneth turned away, it was with a curse upon Galliard, for whom his detestation seemed to increase at every step.
AFTER WORCESTER FIELD
The morn of the third of September – that date so propitious to Cromwell, so disastrous to Charles – found Crispin the centre of a company of gentlemen in battle-harness, assembled at The Mitre Inn. For a toast he gave them “The damnation of all crop-ears.”
“Sirs,” quoth he, “a fair beginning to a fair day. God send the evening find us as merry.”
It was not to be his good fortune, however, to be in the earlier work of the day. Until afternoon he was kept within the walls of Worcester, chafing to be where hard knocks were being dealt – with Montgomery at Powick Bridge, or with Pittscottie on Bunn’s Hill. But he was forced to hold his mood in curb, and wait until Charles and his advisers should elect to make the general attack.
It came at last, and with it came the disastrous news that Montgomery was routed, and Pittscottie in full retreat, whilst Dalzell had surrendered, and Keith was taken. Then was it that the main body of the Royal army formed up at the Sidbury Gate, and Crispin found himself in the centre, which was commanded by the King in person. In the brilliant charge that followed there was no more conspicuous figure, no voice rang louder in encouragement to the men. For the first time that day Cromwell’s Ironsides gave back before the Royalists, who in that fierce, irresistible charge, swept all before them until they had reached the battery on Perry Wood, and driven the Roundheads from it hell-to-leather.
It was a glorious moment, a moment in which the fortunes of the day hung in the balance; the turn of the tide it seemed to them at last.
Crispin was among the first to reach the guns, and with a great shout of “Hurrah for Cavaliers!” he had cut down two gunners that yet lingered. His cry lacked not an echo, and a deafening cheer broke upon the clamorous air as the Royalists found themselves masters of the position. Up the hill on either side pressed the Duke of Hamilton and the Earl of Derby to support the King. It but remained for Lesley’s Scottish horse to follow and complete the rout of the Parliamentarian forces. Had they moved at that supreme moment who shall say what had been the issue of Worcester field? But they never stirred, and the Royalists waiting on Perry Wood cursed Lesley for a foul traitor who had sold his King.
With bitterness did they then realize that their great effort was to be barren, their gallant charge in vain. Unsupported, their position grew fast untenable.
And presently, when Cromwell had gathered his scattered Ironsides, that gallant host was driven fighting, down the hill and back to the shelter of Worcester. With the Roundheads pressing hotly upon them they gained at last the Sidbury Gate, but only to find that an overset ammunition wagon blocked the entrance. In this plight, and without attempting to move it, they faced about to make a last stand against the Puritan onslaught.
Charles had flung himself from his charger and climbed the obstruction, and in this he was presently followed by others, amongst whom was Crispin.
In the High Street Galliard came upon the King, mounted on a fresh horse, addressing a Scottish regiment of foot. The soldiers had thrown down their arms and stood sullenly before him, refusing to obey his command to take them up again and help him attempt, even at that late hour, to retrieve the fortunes of the day. Crispin looked on in scorn and loathing. His passions awakened at the sight of Lesley’s inaction needed but this last breath to fan it into a very blaze of wrath. And what he said to them touching themselves, their country, and the Kirk Committee that had made sheep of them, was so bitter and contemptuous that none but men in the most parlous and pitiable of conditions could have suffered it.
He was still hurling vituperations at them when Colonel Pride with a troop of Parliamentarian horse – having completely overcome the resistance at the Sidbury Gate – rode into the town. At the news of this, Crispin made a last appeal to the infantry.
“Afoot, you Scottish curs!” he thundered. “Would you rather be cut to pieces as you stand? Up, you dogs, and since you know not how to live, die at least without shame!”
But in vain did he rail. In sullen quiet they remained, their weapons on the ground before them. And then, as Crispin was turning away to see to his own safety, the King rode up again, and again he sought to revive the courage that was dead in those Scottish hearts. If they would not stand by him, he cried at last, let them slay him there, sooner than that he should be taken captive to perish on the scaffold.
While he was still urging them, Crispin unceremoniously seized his bridle.
“Will you stand here until you are taken, sire?” he cried. “Leave them, and look to your safety.”
Charles turned a wondering eye upon the resolute, battle-grimed face of the man that thus addressed him. A faint, sad smile parted his lips.
“You are right, sir,” he made answer. “Attend me.” And turning about he rode down a side street with Galliard following closely in his wake.
With the intention of doffing his armour and changing his apparel, he made for the house in New Street where he had been residing. As they drew up before the door, Crispin, chancing to look over his shoulder, rapped out an oath.
“Hasten, sire,” he exclaimed, “here is a portion of Colonel’s Pride’s troop.”
The King looked round, and at sight of the Parliamentarians, “It is ended,” he muttered despairingly. But already Crispin had sprung from his horse.
“Dismount, sire,” he roared, and he assisted him so vigorously as to appear to drag him out of the saddle.
“Which way?” demanded Charles, looking helplessly from left to right. “Which way?”
But Crispin’s quick mind had already shaped a plan. Seizing the royal arm – for who in such straits would deal ceremoniously? – he thrust the King across the threshold, and, following, closed the door and shot its only bolt. But the shout set up by the Puritans announced to them that their movement had been detected.
The King turned upon Sir Crispin, and in the half-light of the passage wherein they stood Galliard made out the frown that bent the royal brows.
“And now?” demanded Charles, a note almost of reproach in his voice.
“And now begone, sire,” returned the knight. “Begone ere they come.”
“Begone?” echoed Charles, in amazement. “But whither, sir? Whither and how?”
His last words were almost drowned in the din without, as the Roundheads pulled up before the house.
“By the back, sire,” was the impatient answer. “Through door or window – as best you can. The back must overlook the Corn-Market; that is your way. But hasten – in God’s name hasten! – ere they bethink them of it and cut off your retreat.”
As he spoke a violent blow shook the door.
“Quick, Your Majesty,” he implored, in a frenzy.
Charles moved to depart, then paused. “But you, sir? Do you not come with me?”
Crispin stamped his foot, and turned a face livid with impatience upon his King. In that moment all distinction of rank lay forgotten.
“I must remain,” he answered, speaking quickly. “That crazy door will not hold for a second once a stout man sets his shoulder to it. After the door they will find me, and for your sake I trust I may prove of stouter stuff. Fare you well, sire,” he ended in a softer tone. “God guard Your Majesty and send you happier days.”
And, bending his knee, Crispin brushed the royal hand with his hot lips.
A shower of blows clattered upon the timbers of the door, and one of its panels was splintered by a musket-shot. Charles saw it, and with a muttered word that was not caught by Crispin, he obeyed the knight, and fled.
Scarce had he disappeared down that narrow passage, when the door gave way completely and with a mighty crash fell in. Over the ruins of it sprang a young Puritan-scarce more than a boy – shouting: “The Lord of Hosts!”
But ere he had taken three strides the point of Crispin’s tuck-sword gave him pause.
“Halt! You cannot pass this way.”
“Back, son of Moab!” was the Roundhead’s retort. “Hinder me not, at your peril.”
Behind him, in the doorway, pressed others, who cried out to him to cut down the Amalekite that stood between them and the young man Charles Stuart. But Crispin laughed grimly for answer, and kept the officer in check with his point.
“Back, or I cut you down,” threatened the Roundhead. “I am seeking the malignant Stuart.”
“If by those blasphemous words you mean his sacred Majesty, learn that he is where you will never be – in God’s keeping.”
“Presumptuous hound,” stormed the lad, “giveway!”
Their swords met, and for a moment they ground one against the other; then Crispin’s blade darted out, swift as a lightning flash, and took his opponent in the throat.
“You would have it so, rash fool,” he deprecated.
The boy hurtled back into the arms of those behind, and as he fell he dropped his rapier, which rolled almost to Crispin’s feet. The knight stooped, and when again he stood erect, confronting the rebels in that narrow passage, he held a sword in either hand.
There was a momentary pause in the onslaught, then to his dismay Crispin saw the barrel of a musket pointed at him over the shoulder of one of his foremost assailants. He set his teeth for what was to come, and braced himself with the hope that the King might already have made good his escape.
The end was at hand, he thought, and a fitting end, since his last hope of redress was gone-destroyed by that fatal day’s defeat.
But of a sudden a cry rang out in a voice wherein rage and anguish were blended fearfully, and simultaneously the musket barrel was dashed aside.
“Take him alive!” was the cry of that voice. “Take him alive!” It was Colonel Pride himself, who having pushed his way forward, now beheld the bleeding body of the youth Crispin had slain. “Take him alive!” roared the old man. Then his voice changing to one of exquisite agony – “My son, my boy,” he moaned.
At a glance Crispin caught the situation; but the old Puritan’s grief left him unmoved.
“You must have me alive?” he laughed grimly. “Gadslife, but the honour is like to cost you dear. Well, sirs? Who will be next to court the distinction of dying by the sword of a gentleman?” he mocked them. “Come on, you sons of dogs!”
His answer was an angry growl, and straightway two men sprang forward. More than two could not attack him at once by virtue of the narrowness of the passage. Again steel clashed on steel. Crispin – lithe as a panther crouched low, and took one of their swords on each of his.
A disengage and a double he foiled with ease, then by a turn of the wrist he held for a second one opponent’s blade; and before the fellow could disengage again, he had brought his right-hand sword across, and stabbed him in the neck. Simultaneously his other opponent had rushed in and thrust. It was a risk Crispin was forced to take, trusting to his armour to protect him. It did him the service he hoped from it; the trooper’s sword glanced harmlessly aside, whilst the fellow himself, overbalanced by the fury of his onslaught, staggered helplessly forward. Ere he could recover, Crispin had spitted him from side to side betwixt the straps that held his back and breast together.
As the two men went down, one after the other, the watching troopers set up a shout of rage, and pressed forward in a body. But the Tavern Knight stood his ground, and his points danced dangerously before the eyes of the two foremost. Alarmed, they shouted to those behind to give them room to handle their swords; but too late. Crispin had seen the advantage, and taken it. Twice he had thrust, and another two sank bleeding to the ground.
At that there came a pause, and somewhere in the street a knot of them expostulated with Colonel Pride, and begged to be allowed to pick off that murderous malignant with their pistols. But the grief-stricken father was obdurate. He would have the Amalekite alive that he might cause him to die a hundred deaths in one.
And so two more were sent in to try conclusions with the indomitable Galliard. They went to work more warily. He on the left parried Crispin’s stroke, then knocking up the knight’s blade, he rushed in and seized his wrist, shouting to those behind to follow up. But even as he did so, Crispin sent back his other antagonist, howling and writhing with the pain of a transfixed sword-arm, and turned his full attention upon the foe that clung to him. Not a second did he waste in thought. To have done so would have been fatal. Instinctively he knew that whilst he shortened his blade, others would rush in; so, turning his wrist, he caught the man a crushing blow full in the face with the pommel of his disengaged sword.
Fulminated by that terrific stroke, the man reeled back into the arms of another who advanced.
Again there fell a pause. Then silently a Roundhead charged Sir Crispin with a pike. He leapt nimbly aside, and the murderous lunge shot past him; as he did so he dropped his left-hand sword and caught at the halberd. Exerting his whole strength in a mighty pull, he brought the fellow that wielded it toppling forward, and received him on his outstretched blade.
Covered with blood – the blood of others –Crispin stood before them now. He was breathing hard and sweating at every pore, but still grim and defiant. His strength, he realized, was ebbing fast. Yet he shook himself, and asked them with a gibing laugh did they not think that they had better shoot him.
The Roundheads paused again. The fight had lasted but a few moments, and already five of them were stretched upon the ground, and a sixth disabled. There was something in the Tavern Knight’s attitude and terrific, blood-bespattered appearance that deterred them. From out of his powder-blackened face his eyes flashed fiercely, and a mocking diabolical smile played round the corners of his mouth. What manner of man, they asked themselves, was this who could laugh in such an extremity? Superstition quickened their alarm as they gazed upon his undaunted front, and told themselves this was no man they fought against, but the foul fiend himself.
“Well, sirs,” he mocked them presently. “How long am I to await your pleasure?”
They snarled for answer, yet hung back until Colonel Pride’s voice shook them into action. In a body they charged him now, so suddenly and violently that he was forced to give way. Cunningly did he ply his sword before them, but ineffectually. They had adopted fresh tactics, and engaging his blade they acted cautiously and defensively, advancing steadily, and compelling him to fall back.
Sir Crispin guessed their scheme at last, and vainly did he try to hold his ground; his retreat slackened perhaps, but it was still a retreat, and their defensive action gave him no opening. Vainly, yet by every trick of fence he was master of, did he seek to lure the two foremost into attacking him; stolidly they pursued the adopted plan, and steadily they impelled him backward.
At last he reached the staircase, and he realized that did he allow himself to go farther he was lost irretrievably. Yet farther was he driven; despite the strenuous efforts he put forth, until on his right there was room for a man to slip on to the stairs and take him in the flank. Twice one of his opponents essayed it, and twice did Galliard’s deadly point repel him. But at the third attempt the man got through, another stepped into his place in front, and thus from two, Crispin’s immediate assailants became increased to three.
He realized that the end was at hand, and wildly did he lay about him, but to no purpose. And presently, he who had gained the stairs leaped suddenly upon him sideways, and clung to his swordarm. Before he could make a move to shake himself free, the two that faced him had caught at his other arm.
Like one possessed he struggled then, for the sheer lust of striving; but they that held him gripped effectively.
Thrice they bore him struggling to the ground, and thrice he rose again and sought to shake them from him as a bull shakes off a pack of dogs. But they held fast, and again they forced him down; others sprang to their aid, and the Tavern Knight could rise no more.
“Disarm the dog!” cried Pride. “Disarm and truss him hand and foot.”
“Sirs, you need not,” he answered, gasping. “I yield me. Take my sword. I’ll do your bidding.”
The fight was fought and lost, but it had been a great Homeric struggle, and he rejoiced almost that upon so worthy a scene of his life was the curtain to fall, and again to hope that, thanks to the stand he had made, the King should have succeeded in effecting his escape.
COMPANIONS IN MISFORTUNE
Through the streets of Worcester the Roundheads dragged Sir Crispin, and for all that he was as hard and callous a man as any that ever buckled on a cuirass, the horrors that in going he beheld caused him more than once to shudder.
The place was become a shambles, and the very kennels ran with blood. The Royalist defeat was by now complete, and Cromwell’s fanatic butchers overran the town, vying to outdo one another in savage cruelty and murder. Houses were being broken into and plundered, and their inmates – resisting or unresisting; armed or unarmed; men, women and children alike were pitilessly being put to the sword. Charged was the air of Worcester with the din of that fierce massacre. The crashing of shivered timbers, as doors were beaten in, mingled with the clatter and grind of sword on sword, the crack of musket and pistol, the clank of armour, and the stamping of men and horses in that troubled hour.
And above all rang out the fierce, raucous blasphemy of the slayers, and the shrieks of agony, the groans, the prayers, and curses of their victims.
All this Sir Crispin saw and heard, and in the misery of it all, he for the while forgot his own sorry condition, and left unheeded the pike-butt wherewith the Puritan at his heels was urging him along.
They paused at length in a quarter unknown to him before a tolerably large house. Its doors hung wide, and across the threshold, in and out, moved two continuous streams of officers and men.
A while Crispin and his captors stood in the spacious hall; then they ushered him roughly into one of the abutting rooms. Here he was brought face to face with a man of middle height, red and coarse of countenance and large of nose, who stood fully armed in the centre of the chamber. His head was uncovered, and on the table at his side stood the morion he had doffed. He looked up as they entered, and for a few seconds rested his glance sourly upon the lank, bold-eyed prisoner, who coldly returned his stare.
“Whom have we here?” he inquired at length, his scrutiny having told him nothing.
“One whose offence is too heinous to have earned him a soldier’s death, my lord,” answered Pride.
“Therein you lie, you damned rebel!” cried Crispin. “If accuse you must, announce the truth. Tell Master Cromwell” – for he had guessed the man’s identity – “that single-handed I held my own against you and a score of you curs, and that not until I had cut down seven of them was I taken. Tell him that, master psalm-singer, and let him judge whether you lied or not. Tell him, too, that you, who – “
“Have done!” cried Cromwell at length, stamping his foot. “Peace, or I’ll have you gagged. Now, Colonel, let us hear your accusation.”
At great length, and with endless interlarding of proverbs did Pride relate how this impious malignant had been the means of the young man, Charles Stuart, making good his escape when otherwise he must have fallen into their hands. He accused him also of the murder of his son and of four other stout, God-fearing troopers, and urged Cromwell to let him deal with the malignant as he deserved.
The Lord General’s answer took expression in a form that was little puritanical. Then, checking himself:
“He is the second they have brought me within ten minutes charged with the same offence,” said he. “The other one is a young fool who gave Charles Stuart his horse at Saint Martin’s Gate. But for him again the young man had been taken.”
“So he has escaped!” cried Crispin. “Now, God be praised!”
Cromwell stared at him blankly for a moment, then:
“You will do well, sir,” he muttered sourly, “to address the Lord on your own behalf. As for that young man of Baal, your master, rejoice not yet in his escape. By the same crowning mercy in which the Lord hath vouchsafed us victory to-day shall He also deliver the malignant youth into my hands. For your share in retarding his capture your life, sir, shall pay forfeit. You shall hang at daybreak together with that other malignant who assisted Charles at the Saint Martin’s Gate.”
“I shall at least hang in good company,” said Crispin pleasantly, “and for that, sir, I give you thanks.”
“You will pass the night with that other fool,” Cromwell continued, without heeding the interruption, “and I pray that you may spend it in such meditation as shall fit you for your end. Take him away.”
“But, my lord,” exclaimed Pride, advancing.
Crispin caught not his answer, but his half-whispered words were earnest and pleading. Cromwell shook his head.
“I cannot sanction it. Let it satisfy you that he dies. I condole with you in your bereavement, but it is the fortune of war. Let the thought that your son died in a godly cause be of comfort to you. Bear in mind, Colonel Pride, that Abraham hesitated not to offer up his child to the Lord. And so, fare you well.”
Colonel Pride’s face worked oddly, and his eyes rested for a second upon the stern, unmoved figure of the Tavern Knight in malice and vindictiveness. Then, shrugging his shoulders in token of unwilling resignation, he withdrew, whilst Crispin was led out.
In the hall again they kept him waiting for some moments, until at length an officer came up, and bidding him follow, led the way to the guardroom. Here they stripped him of his back-and-breast, and when that was done the officer again led the way, and Crispin followed between two troopers. They made him mount three flights of stairs, and hurried him along a passage to a door by which a soldier stood mounting guard. At a word from the officer the sentry turned, and unfastening the heavy bolts, he opened the door. Roughly the officer bade Sir Crispin enter, and stood aside that he might pass.
Crispin obeyed him silently, and crossed the threshold to find himself within a mean, gloomy chamber, and to hear the heavy door closed and made fast again behind him. His stout heart sank a little as he realized that that closed door shut out to him the world for ever; but once again would he cross that threshold, and that would be the preface to the crossing of the greater threshold of eternity.
Then something stirred in one of that room’s dark corners, and he started, to see that he was not alone, remembering that Cromwell had said he was to have a companion in his last hours.
“Who are you?” came a dull voice – a voice that was eloquent of misery.
“Master Stewart!” he exclaimed, recognizing his companion. “So it was you gave the King your horse at the Saint Martin’s Gate! May Heaven reward you. Gadswounds,” he added, “I had little thought to meet you again this side the grave.”
“Would to Heaven you had not!” was the doleful answer. “What make you here?”
“By your good leave and with your help I’ll make as merry as a man may whose sands are all but run. The Lord General – whom the devil roast in his time will make a pendulum of me at daybreak, and gives me the night in which to prepare.”
The lad came forward into the light, and eyed Sir Crispin sorrowfully.
“We are companions in misfortune, then.”
“Were we ever companions in aught else? Come, sir, be of better cheer. Since it is to be our last night in this poor world, let us spend it as pleasantly as may be.”
“Twill clearly be difficult,” answered Crispin, with a laugh. “Were we in Christian hands they’d not deny us a black jack over which to relish our last jest, and to warm us against the night air, which must be chill in this garret. But these crop-ears …” He paused to peer into the pitcher on the table. “Water! Pah! A scurvy lot, these psalm-mongers!”
“Merciful Heaven! Have you no thought for your end?”
“Every thought, good youth, every thought, and I would fain prepare me for the morning’s dance in a more jovial and hearty fashion than Old Noll will afford me – damn him!”
Kenneth drew back in horror. His old dislike for Crispin was all aroused by this indecent flippancy at such a time. Just then the thought of spending the night in his company almost effaced the horror of the gallows whereof he had been a prey.
Noting the movement, Crispin laughed disdainfully, and walked towards the window. It was a small opening, by which two iron bars, set crosswise, defied escape. Moreover, as Crispin looked out, he realized that a more effective barrier lay in the height of the window itself. The house overlooked the river on that side; it was built upon an embankment some thirty feet high; around this, at the base of the edifice, and some forty feet below the window, ran a narrow pathway protected by an iron railing. But so narrow was it, that had a man sprung from the casement of Crispin’s prison, it was odds he would have fallen into the river some seventy feet below. Crispin turned away with a sigh. He had approached the window almost in hope; he quitted it in absolute despair.
“Ah, well,” said he, “we will hang, and there’s the end of it.”
Kenneth had resumed his seat in the corner, and, wrapped in his cloak, he sat steeped in meditation, his comely young face seared with lines of pain. As Crispin looked upon him then, his heart softened and went out to the lad – went out as it had done on the night when first he had beheld him in the courtyard of Perth Castle.
He recalled the details of that meeting; he remembered the sympathy that had drawn him to the boy, and how Kenneth had at first appeared to reciprocate that feeling, until he came to know him for the rakehelly, godless ruffler that he was. He thought of the gulf that gradually had opened up between them. The lad was righteous and God-fearing, truthful and sober, filled with stern ideals by which he sought to shape his life. He had taxed Crispin with his dissoluteness, and Crispin, despising him for a milksop, had returned to his disgust with mockery, and had found a fiendish pleasure in arousing that disgust at every turn.
To-night, as Crispin eyed the youth, and remembered that at dawn he was to die in his company, he realized that he had used him ill, that his behaviour towards him had been that of the dissolute ruffler he was become, rather than of the gentleman he had once accounted himself.
“Kenneth,” he said at length, and his voice bore so unusually mild a ring that the lad looked up in surprise. “I have heard tell that it is no uncommon thing for men upon the threshold of eternity to seek to repair some of the evil they may have done in life.”
Kenneth shuddered. Crispin’s words reminded him again of his approaching end. The ruffler paused a moment, as if awaiting a reply or a word of encouragement. Then, as none came, he continued:
“I am not one of your repentant sinners, Kenneth. I have lived my life – God, what a life! – and as I have lived I shall die, unflinching and unchanged. Dare one to presume that a few hours spent in whining prayers shall atone for years of reckless dissoluteness? “Tis a doctrine of cravens, who, having lacked in life the strength to live as conscience bade them, lack in death the courage to stand by that life’s deeds. I am no such traitor to myself. If my life has been vile my temptations have been sore, and the rest is in God’s hands. But in my course I have sinned against many men; many a tall fellow’s life have I wantonly wrecked; some, indeed, I have even taken in wantonness or anger. They are not by, nor, were they, could I now make amends. But you at least are here, and what little reparation may lie in asking pardon I can make. When I first saw you at Perth it was my wish to make you my friend – a feeling I have not had these twenty years towards any man. I failed. How else could it have been? The dove may not nest with the carrion bird.”
“Say no more, sir,” cried Kenneth, genuinely moved, and still more amazed by this curious humility in one whom he had never known other than arrogant and mocking. “I beseech you, say no more. For what trifling wrongs you may have done me I forgive you as freely as I would be forgiven. Is it not written that it shall be so?” And he held out his hand.
“A little more I must say, Kenneth,” answered the other, leaving the outstretched hand unheeded. “The feeling that was born in me towards you at Perth Castle is on me again. I seek not to account for it. Perchance it springs from my recognition of the difference betwixt us; perchance I see in you a reflection of what once I was myself – honourable and true. But let that be. The sun is setting over yonder, and you and I will behold it no more. That to me is a small thing. I am weary. Hope is dead; and when that is dead what does it signify that the body die also? Yet in these last hours that we shall spend together I would at least have your esteem. I would have you forget my past harshness and the wrongs that I may have done you down to that miserable affair of your sweetheart’s letter, yesterday. I would have you realize that if I am vile, I am but such as a vile world hath made me. And tomorrow when we go forth together, I would have you see in me at least a man in whose company you are not ashamed to die.”
Again the lad shuddered.
“Shall I tell you my story, Kenneth? I have a strong desire to go over this poor life of mine again in memory, and by giving my thoughts utterance it may be that they will take more vivid shape. For the rest my tale may wile away a little of the time that’s left, and when you have heard me you shall judge me, Kenneth. What say you?”
Despite the parlous condition whereunto the fear of the morrow had reduced him, this new tone of Galliard’s so wrought upon him then that he was almost eager in his request that Sir Crispin should unfold his story. And this the Tavern Knight then set himself to do.
THE TAVERN KNIGHT’S STORY
Sir Crispin walked from the window by which he had been standing, to the rough bed, and flung himself full length upon it. The only chair that dismal room contained was occupied by Kenneth. Galliard heaved a sigh of physical satisfaction.
“Fore George, I knew not I was so tired,” he murmured. And with that he lapsed for some moments into silence, his brows contracted in the frown of one who collects his thoughts. At length he began, speaking in calm, unemotional tones that held perchance deeper pathos than a more passionate utterance could have endowed them with:
“Long ago – twenty years ago – I was, as I have said, an honourable lad, to whom the world was a fair garden, a place of rosebuds, fragrant with hope. Those, Kenneth, were my illusions. They are the illusions of youth; they are youth itself, for when our illusions are gone we are no longer young no matter what years we count. Keep your illusions, Kenneth; treasure them, hoard them jealously for as long as you may.”
“I dare swear, sir,” answered the lad, with bitter humour, “that such illusions as I have I shall treasure all my life. You forget, Sir Crispin.”
“‘Slife, I had indeed forgotten. For the moment I had gone back twenty years, and to-morrow was none so near.” He laughed softly, as though his lapse of memory amused him. Then he resumed:
“I was the only son, Kenneth, of the noblest gentleman that ever lived – the heir to an ancient, honoured name, and to a castle as proud and lands as fair and broad as any in England.
“They lie who say that from the dawn we may foretell the day. Never was there a brighter dawn than that of my life; never a day so wasted; never an evening so dark. But let that be.
“Our lands were touched upon the northern side by those of a house with which we had been at feud for two hundred years and more. Puritans they were, stern and haughty in their ungodly righteousness. They held us dissolute because we enjoyed the life that God had given us, and there I am told the hatred first began.
“When I was a lad of your years, Kenneth, the hall – ours was the castle, theirs the hall – was occupied by two young sparks who made little shift to keep up the pious reputation of their house. They dwelt there with their mother – a woman too weak to check their ways, and holding, mayhap, herself, views not altogether puritanical. They discarded the sober black their forbears had worn for generations, and donned gay Cavalier garments. They let their love-locks grow; set plumes in their castors and jewels in their ears; they drank deep, ruffled it with the boldest and decked their utterance with great oaths – for to none doth blasphemy come more readily than to lips that in youth have been overmuch shaped in unwilling prayer.
“Me they avoided as they would a plague, and when at times we met, our salutations were grave as those of, men on the point of crossing swords. I despised them for their coarse, ruffling apostasy more than ever my father had despised their father for a bigot, and they guessing or knowing by instinct what was in my mind held me in deeper rancour even than their ancestors had done mine. And more galling still and yet a sharper spur to their hatred did those whelps find in the realization that all the countryside held, as it had held for ages, us to be their betters. A hard blow to their pride was that, but their revenge was not long in coming.
“It chanced they had a cousin – a maid as sweet and fair and pure as they were hideous and foul. We met in the meads – she and I. Spring was the time – God! It seems but yesterday! – and each in our bearing towards the other forgot the traditions of the names we bore. And as at first we had met by chance, so did we meet later by contrivance, not once or twice, but many times. God, how sweet she was! How sweet was all the world! How sweet it was to live and to be young! We loved. How else could it have been? What to us were traditions, what to us the hatred that for centuries had held our families asunder? In us it lay to set aside all that.
“And so I sought my father. He cursed me at first for an unnatural son who left unheeded the dictates of our blood. But anon, when on my knees I had urged my cause with all the eloquent fervour that is but of youth – youth that loves – my father cursed no more. His thoughts went back maybe to the days of his own youth, and he bade me rise and go a-wooing as I listed. Nay, more than that he did. The first of our name was he out of ten generations to set foot across the threshold of the hall; he went on my behalf to sue for their cousin’s hand.
“Then was their hour. To them that had been taught the humiliating lesson that we were their betters, one of us came suing. They from whom the countryside looked for silence when one of us spoke, had it in their hands at length to say us nay. And they said it. What answer my father made them, Kenneth, I know not, but very white was his face when I met him on the castle steps on his return. In burning words he told me of the insult they had put upon him, then silently he pointed to the Toledo that two years before he had brought me out of Spain, and left me. But I had understood. Softly I unsheathed that virgin blade and read the Spanish inscription, that through my tears of rage and shame seemed blurred; a proud inscription was it, instinct with the punctilio of proud Spain – “Draw me not without motive, sheathe me not without honour.” Motive there was and to spare; honour I swore there should be; and with that oath, and that brave sword girt to me, I set out to my first combat.”
Sir Crispin paused and a sigh escaped him, followed by a laugh of bitterness.
“I lost that sword years ago,” said he musingly. “The sword and I have been close friends in life, but my companion has been a blade of coarser make, carrying no inscriptions to prick at a man’s conscience and make a craven of him.”
He laughed again, and again he fell a-musing, till Kenneth’s voice aroused him.
“Your story, sir.”
Twilight shadows were gathering in their garret, and as he turned his face towards the youth, he was unable to make out his features; but his tone had been eager, and Crispin noted that he sat with head bent forward and that his eyes shone feverishly.
“It interests you, eh? Ah, well – hot foot I went to the hall, and with burning words I called upon those dogs to render satisfaction for the dishonour they had put upon my house. Will you believe, Kenneth, that they denied me? They sheltered their craven lives behind a shield of mock valour. They would not fight a boy, they said, and bade me get my beard grown when haply they would give ear to my grievance.
“And so, a shame and rage a hundredfold more bitter than that which I had borne thither did I carry thence. My father bade me treasure up the memory of it against the time when my riper years should compel them to attend me, and this, by my every hope of heaven, I swore to do. He bade me further efface for ever from my mind all thought or hope of union with their cousin, and though I made him no answer at the time, yet in my heart I promised to obey him in that, too. But I was young – scarce twenty. A week without sight of my mistress and I grew sick with despair. Then at length I came upon her, pale and tearful, one evening, and in an agony of passion and hopelessness I flung myself at her feet, and implored her to keep true to me and wait, and she, poor maid, to her undoing swore that she would. You are yourself a lover, Kenneth, and you may guess something of the impatience that anon beset me. How could I wait? I asked her this.
“Some fifty miles from the castle there was a little farm, in the very heart of the country, which had been left me by a sister of my mother’s. Thither I now implored her to repair with me. I would find a priest to wed us, and there we should live a while in happiness, in solitude, and in love. An alluring picture did I draw with all a lover’s cunning, and to the charms of it she fell a victim. We fled three days later.
“We were wed in the village that pays allegiance to the castle, and thereafter we travelled swiftly and undisturbed to that little homestead. There in solitude, with but two servants – a man and a maid whom I could trust – we lived and loved, and for a season, brief as all happiness is doomed to be, we were happy. Her cousins had no knowledge of that farm of mine, and though they searched the country for many a mile around, they searched in vain. My father knew – as I learned afterwards – but deeming that what was done might not be undone, he held his peace. In the following spring a babe was born to us, and our bliss made heaven of that cottage.
“Twas a month or so after the birth of our child that the blow descended. I was away, enjoying alone the pleasures of the chase; my man was gone a journey to the nearest town, whence he would not return until the morrow. Oft have I cursed the folly that led me to take my gun and go forth into the woods, leaving no protector for my wife but one weak woman.
“I returned earlier than I had thought to do, led mayhap by some angel that sought to have me back in time. But I came too late. At my gate I found two freshly ridden horses tethered, and it was with a dull foreboding in my heart that I sprang through the open door. Within – O God, the anguish of it! – stretched on the floor I beheld my love, a gaping sword-wound in her side, and the ground all bloody about her. For a moment I stood dumb in the spell of that horror, then a movement beyond, against the wall, aroused me, and I beheld her murderers cowering there, one with a naked sword in his hand.
“In that fell hour, Kenneth, my whole nature changed, and one who had ever been gentle was transformed into the violent, passionate man that you have known. As my eye encountered then her cousins, my blood seemed on the instant curdled in my veins; my teeth were set hard; my nerves and sinews knotted; my hands instinctively shifted to the barrel of my fowling-piece and clutched it with the fierceness that was in me – the fierceness of the beast about to spring upon those that have brought it to bay.
“For a moment I stood swaying there, my eyes upon them, and holding their craven glances fascinated. Then with a roar I leapt forward, the stock of my fowling-piece swung high above my head. And, as God lives, Kenneth, I had sent them straight to hell ere they could have raised a hand or made a cry to stay me. But as I sprang my foot slipped in the blood of my beloved, and in my fall I came close to her where she lay. The fowling-piece had escaped my grasp and crashed against the wall.
“I scarce knew what I did, but as I lay beside her it came to me that I did not wish to rise again – that already I had lived overlong. It came to me that, seeing me fallen, haply those cowards would seize the chance to make an end of me as I lay. I wished it so in that moment’s frenzy, for I made no attempt to rise or to defend myself; instead I set my arms about my poor murdered love, and against her cold cheek I set my face that was well-nigh as cold.
“And thus I lay, nor did they keep me long. A sword was passed through me from back to breast, whilst he who did it cursed me with a foul oath. The room grew dim; methought it swayed and that the walls were tottering; there was a buzz of sound in my ears, then a piercing cry in a baby voice. At the sound of it I vaguely wished for the strength to rise. As in the distance, I heard one of those butchers cry, “Haste, man; slit me that squalling bastard’s throat!” And then I must have swooned.”
“My God, how horrible!” he cried. “But you were avenged, Sir Crispin,” he added eagerly; “you were avenged?”
“When I regained consciousness,” Crispin continued, as if he had not heard Kenneth’s exclamation, “the cottage was in flames, set alight by them to burn the evidence of their foul deed. What I did I know not. I have tried to urge my memory along from the point of my awakening, but in vain. By what miracle I crawled forth, I cannot tell; but in the morning I was found by my man lying prone in the garden, half a dozen paces from the blackened ruins of the cottage, as near death as man may go and live.
“God willed that I should not die, but it was close upon a year before I was restored to any semblance of my former self, and then I was so changed that I was hardly to be recognized as that same joyous, vigorous lad, who had set out, fowling-piece on shoulder, one fine morning a year agone. There was grey in my hair, as much as there is now, though I was but twenty-one; my face was seared and marked as that of a man who had lived twice my years. It was to my faithful servant that I owed my life, though I ask myself to-night whether I have cause for gratitude towards him on that score.
“So soon as I had regained sufficient strength, I went secretly home, wishing that men might continue to believe me dead. My father I found much aged by grief, but he was kind and tender with me beyond all words. From him I had it that our enemies were gone to France; it would seem they had thought it better to remain absent for a while. He had learnt that they were in Paris, and hither I determined forthwith to follow them. Vainly did my father remonstrate with me; vainly did he urge me rather: to bear my story to the King at Whitehall and seek. for justice. I had been well advised had I obeyed this counsel, but I burned to take my vengeance with my own hands, and with this purpose I repaired to France.
“Two nights after my arrival in Paris it was my, ill-fortune to be embroiled in a rough-and-tumble in the streets, and by an ill-chance I killed a man – the first was he of several that I