In the Days of Chivalry
A Tale of the Times of the Black Prince
by Evelyn Everett-Green.
CHAPTER I. THE TWIN EAGLETS.
Autumn was upon the world — the warm and gorgeous autumn of the south — autumn that turned the leaves upon the trees to every hue of russet, scarlet, and gold, that transformed the dark solemn aisles of the trackless forests of Gascony into what might well have been palaces of fairy beauty, and covered the ground with a thick and soundless carpet of almost every hue of the rainbow.
The sun still retained much of its heat and power, and came slanting in between the huge trunks of the forest trees in broad shafts of quivering light. Overhead the soft wind from the west made a ceaseless, dreamy music and here and there the solemn silence of the forest was broken by the sweet note of some singing bird or the harsh croak of the raven. At night the savage cry of the wolf too often disturbed the rest of the scattered dwellers in that vast forest, and made a belated traveller look well to the sharpness of his weapons and the temper of his bowstring; but by day and in the sunlight the forest was beautiful and quiet enough — something too quiet, perhaps, for the taste of the two handsome lads who were pacing the dim aisles together, their arms entwined and their curly heads in close proximity as they walked and talked.
The two lads were of exactly the same height, and bore a strong likeness one to the other. Their features were almost identical, but the colouring was different, so that no one who saw them in a good light would be likely to mistake or confuse them. Both had the oval face and delicate regular features which we English sometimes call "foreign-looking;" but then again they both possessed the broad shoulders, the noble height, the erect carriage, and frank, fearless bearing which has in it something distinctively English, and which had distinguished these lads from their infancy from the children of the country of their adoption. Then, though Raymond had the dark, liquid eyes of the south, Gaston's were as blue as the summer skies; and again, whilst Gaston's cheek was of a swarthy hue, Raymond's was as fair as that of an English maiden; and both had some golden gleams in their curly brown hair —- hair that clustered round their heads in a thick, waving mass, and gave a leonine look to the bold, eager faces. "The lion cubs" had been one of the many nicknames given to the brothers by the people round, who loved them, yet felt that they would not always keep them in their quiet forest. "The twin eaglets" was another such name; and truly there was something of the keen wildness of the eagle's eye in the flashing blue eyes of Gaston. The eager, delicate features and the slightly aquiline noses of the pair added, perhaps, to this resemblance; and there had been many whispers of late to the effect that the eaglets would not remain long in the nest now, but would spread their wings for a wider flight.
Born and bred though they had been at the mill in the great forest that covered almost the whole of the district of Sauveterre, they were no true children of the mill. What had scions of the great house of the De Brocas to do with a humble miller of Gascony? The boys were true sons of their house — grafts of the parent stock. The Gascon peasants looked at them with pride, and murmured that the day would come when they would show the world the mettle of which they were made. Those were stirring times for Gascony — when Gascony was a fief of the English Crown, sorely coveted by the French monarch, but tenaciously held on to by the "Roy Outremer," as the great Edward was called; the King who, as was rumoured, was claiming as his own the whole realm of France. And Gascony, it must be remembered, did not in those days hold herself to be a part of France nor a part of the French monarchy. She held a much more important place than she would have done had she been a mere fief of the French Crown. She had a certain independence of her own — her own language, her own laws, her own customs and she saw no humiliation in owning the sovereignty of England's King, since she bad passed under English rule through no act of conquest or aggression on England's part, but by the peaceful fashion of marriage, when nearly two centuries ago Eleanor of Aquitaine had brought to her lord, King Henry the Second, the fair lands of which Gascony formed a part. Gascony had grown and flourished apace since then, and was rich, prosperous, and content. Her lords knew how important she might be in days to come, when the inevitable struggle between the rival Kings of France and England should commence; and like an accomplished coquette, she made the most of her knowledge, and played her part well, watching her opportunity for demanding an increase of those rights and privileges of which she had not a few already.
But it was not of their country's position that the twin brothers were so eagerly talking as they wandered together along the woodland paths. It was little indeed that they knew of what was passing in the wide world that lay beyond their peaceful home, little that they heard of the strife of party or the suspicious jealousy of two powerful monarchs — jealousy which must, as all long-sighted men well knew, break into open warfare before long. It was of matters nearer to their own hearts that the brothers spoke as they sauntered through the woodland paths together; and Gaston's blue eyes flashed fire as he paused and tossed back the tangled curls from his broad brow.
"It is our birthright — our land, our castle. Do they not all say that in old days it was a De Brocas, not a Navailles, that ruled there? Father Anselm hath told us a thousand times how the English King issued mandate after mandate bidding him give up his ill-gotten gains, and restore the lands of his rival; and yet he failed to do it. I trow had I been in the place of our grandsire, I would not so tamely have sat down beneath so great an affront. I would have fought to the last drop of my blood to enforce my rights, and win back my lost inheritance Brother, why should not thou and I do that one day? Canst thou be content for ever with this tame life with honest Jean and Margot at the mill? Are we the sons of peasants? Does their blood run in our veins? Raymond, thou art as old as I — thou hast lived as long. Canst thou remember our dead mother? Canst thou remember her last charge to us?"
Raymond had nodded his head at the first question; he nodded it again now, a glance of strange eagerness stealing into his dark eyes. Although the two youths wore the dress of peasant boys — suits of undyed homespun only very slightly finer in make than was common in those parts — they spoke the English tongue, and spoke it with purity and ease. It needed no trained eye to see that it was something more than peasant blood that ran in their veins, albeit the peasant race of Gascony in those days was perhaps the freest, the finest, the most independent in the whole civilized world.
"I remember well," answered Raymond quickly; "nay, what then?"
"What then? Spoke she not of a lost heritage which it behoved us to recover? Spoke she not of rights which the sons of the De Brocas had power to claim — rights which the great Roy Outremer had given to them, and which it was for them to win back when the time should come? Dost thou remember? dost thou heed? And now that we are approaching to man's estate, shall we not think of these things? Shall we not be ready when the time comes?"
Raymond gave a quick look at his brother. His own eyes were full of eager light, but he hesitated a moment before asking:
"And thinkest thou, Gaston, that in speaking thus our mother would fain have had us strive to recover the castle and domain of Saut?"
"In good sooth yea," answered Gaston quickly. "Was it not reft from our grandsire by force? Has it not been kept from him ever since by that hostile brood of Navailles, whom all men hate for their cruelty and oppression? Brother, have we not heard of dark and hideous deeds done in that same castle — deeds that shame the very manhood of those that commit them, and make all honest folk curse them in their hearts? Raymond, thou and I have longed this many a day to sally forth to fight for the Holy Sepulchre against the Saracens; yet have we not a crusade here at home that calls us yet more nearly? Hast thou not thought of it, too, by day, and dreamed of it by night? To plant the De Brocas ensign above the walls of Saut — that would indeed be a thing to live for. Methinks I see the banner already waving over the proud battlements."
Gaston's eyes flashed and glowed, and Raymond's caught an answering gleam, but still he hesitated awhile, and then said:
"I fain would think that some day such a thing might be; but, Brother, he is a powerful and wily noble, and they say that he is high in favour with the Roy Outremer. What chance have two striplings like ourselves against so strong a foe? To take a castle, men must be found, and money likewise, and we have neither; and all men stand in deadly terror of the wrath of the Sieur de Navailles. Do they not keep even our name a secret from him, lest he should swoop down upon the mill with his armed retainers and carry us off thence — so hates he the whole family that bears the name of De Brocas? What could we do against power such as his? I trow nothing. We should be but as pygmies before a giant."
Gaston's face had darkened. He could not gainsay his brother's reluctant words, but he chafed beneath them as a restive horse beneath the curb rein tightly drawn.
"Yet our mother bid us watch and be ready. She spoke often of our lost inheritance, and she knew all the peril, the danger."
Raymond's eyes sought his brother's face. He looked like one striving to recall a dim and almost lost memory.
"But thinkest thou, Gaston, that in thus speaking our mother was thinking of the strong fortress of Saut? I can scarce believe that she would call that our birthright. For we are not of the eldest branch of our house. There must be many whose title would prove far better than our own. We might perchance win it back to the house of De Brocas by act of conquest; but even so, I misdoubt me if we should hold it in peace. We have proud kinsfolk in England, they tell us, whose claim, doubtless, would rank before ours. They care not to cross the water to win back the lands themselves, yet I trow they would put their claim before the King did tidings reach them that their strong and wily foe had been ousted therefrom. We win not back lands for others to hold, nor would we willingly war against our own kindred. Methinks, my Brother, that our mother had other thoughts in her mind when she spoke of our rightful inheritance."
"Other thoughts! nay, now, what other thoughts?" asked Gaston, with quick impatience. "I have never dreamed but of Saut. I have called it in my thoughts our birthright ever since we could walk far enow to look upon its frowning battlements perched upon yon wooded crag."
And Gaston stretched out his hand in the direction in which the Castle of Saut lay, not many leagues distant.
"We have heard naught save of Saut ever since we could run alone. What but that could our mother's words have boded? Sure she looked to us to recover yon fortress as our father once meant to do?"
"I know not altogether, and yet I can scarce believe it was so. Would that our father had left some commands we might have followed. But, Brother, canst thou not recall that other name she spoke so many a time and oft as she lay a-dying? Sure it was some such name as Basildon or Basildene — the name of some fair spot, I trow, where she must once have lived. Gaston, canst thou remember the day when she called us to her, and joined our hands together, and spoke of us as 'the twin brothers of Basildene'? I have scarce thought of it from that hour to this, but it comes back now clearly to my mind. In sooth, it might well have been of Basildene she was thinking when she gave us that last charge. What could she have known or cared for Saut and its domain? She had fled hither from England, I know not why. She knew but little of the ways and the thoughts of those amongst whom she had come to dwell. It might well have been of her own land that she was thinking so oft. I verily believe that Basildene is our lost inheritance."
"Basildene!" said Gaston quickly, with a start as of recollection suddenly stirred to life; "sure I remember the name right well now that thy words bring it back to mind. Yet it is years since I have heard it spoke. Raymond, knowest thou where is this Basildene?"
"In England, I well believe," was the answer of the other brother. "Methinks it was the name of our mother's home. I seem to remember how she told us of it — the old house over the sea, where she had lived. Perchance it was once her own in very sooth, and some turbulent baron or jealous kinsman drove her forth from it, even as we of the house of De Brocas have been ousted from the Castle of Saut. Brother, if that be so, Basildene is more our inheritance than yon gloomy fortress can be. We are our mother's only children, and when she joined our hands together she called us the twins of Basildene. I trow that we have an inheritance of our very own, Gaston, away over the blue water yonder."
Gaston's eyes flashed with sudden ardour and purpose.
Often of late had the twins talked together of the future that lay before them, of the doughty deeds they would accomplish; yet so far nothing of definite purpose had entered into their minds. Gaston's dreams had been all of the ancient fortress of Saut, now for long years passed into the hands of the hostile family, the terrible and redoubtable Sieur de Navailles, who was feared throughout the length and breadth of the country round about his house. Raymond had been dimly conscious of other thoughts and purposes, but memory was only gradually recalling to his mind the half-forgotten days of childhood, when the twin eaglets had stood at their mother's knee to talk with her in her own tongue of the land across the water where was her home — the land to which their father had lately passed, upon some mission the children were too young to understand.
Now the faint dim memories had returned clear and strong. The long silence was broken. Eagerly the boys strove to recall the past, and bit by bit things pieced themselves together in their minds till they could not but marvel how they had so long forgotten. Yet it is often so in youth. Days pass by one after the other unnoticed and unmarked. Then all in a moment some new train of thought or purpose is awakened, a new element enters life, making it from that day something different; and by a single bound the child becomes a youth — the youth a man.
Some such change as this was passing over the twin brothers at this time. A deep-seated dissatisfaction with their present surroundings had long been growing up in their hearts. They were happy in a fashion in the humble home at the mill, with good Jean the miller, and Margot his wife who had been their nurse and a second mother to them all their lives; but they knew that a great gulf divided them from the Gascon peasants amongst whom they lived — a gulf recognized by all those with whom they came in contact, and in nowise bridged by the fact that the brothers shared in a measure the simple peasant life, and had known no other.
Their very name of De Brocas spoke of the race of nobles who had long held almost sovereign rights over a large tract of country watered by the Adour and its many tributary streams; and although at this time, the year of grace 1342, the name of De Brocas was no more heard, but that of the proud Sieur de Navailles who now reigned there instead, the old name was loved and revered amongst the people, and the boys were bred up in all the traditions of their race, till the eagle nature at last asserted itself, and they felt that life could no longer go on in its old accustomed groove. Had they not been taught from infancy that a great future lay before them? and what could that future be but the winning back of their old ancestral lands and rights?
Perhaps they would have spoken more of this deeply-seated hope had it not been so very chimerical — so apparently impossible of present fulfilment. To wrest from the proud and haughty Sieur de Navailles the vast territory and strong castle that had been held by him in open defiance of many mandates from a powerful King, was a task that even the sanguine and ambitious boys knew to be a hundred times too hard for them. If they had dreamed of it in their hearts, they had scarce named the hope even to each other. But today the brooding silence had been broken. The twins had taken counsel one with the other; and now burning thoughts of this other fair inheritance were in the minds of both. What golden possibilities did not open out before them? How small a matter it seemed to cross the ocean and claim as their own that unknown Basildene! Both were certain that their mother had held it in her own right. Sure, if there were right or justice in the kingdom of the Roy Outremer, they would but have to show who and what they were, to become in very fact what their mother had loved to call them — the twin brothers of Basildene.
How their young hearts swelled with delighted expectation at the thought of leaving behind the narrow life of the mill, and going forth into the wide world to seek fame and fortune there! And England was no such foreign land to them, albeit they had never been above ten leagues from the mill where they had been born and brought up. Was not their mother an Englishwoman? Had she not taught them the language of her country, and begged them never to forget it? And could they not speak it now as well as they spoke the language of Gascony — better than they spoke the French of the great realm to which Gascony in a fashion belonged?
The thought of travel always brings with it a certain exhilaration, especially to the young and ardent, and thoughts of such a journey on such a quest could not but be tinged with all the rainbow hues of hope.
"We will go; we will go right soon!" cried Gaston. "Would that we could go tomorrow! Why have we lingered here so long, when we might have been up and doing years ago?"
"Nay, Brother, we were but children years ago. We are not yet sixteen. Yet methinks our manhood comes the faster to us for that noble blood runs in our veins. But we will speak to Father Anselm. He has always been our kindest friend. He will best counsel us whether to go forth, or whether to tarry yet longer at home —"
"I will tarry no longer; I pant to burst my bonds," cried the impetuous Gaston; and Raymond was in no whit less eager, albeit he had something more of his mother's prudence and self-restraint.
"Methinks the holy Father will bid us go forth," he said thoughtfully. "He has oft spoken to us of England and the Roy Outremer, and has ever bidden us speak our mother's tongue, and not forget it here in these parts where no man else speaks it. I trow he has foreseen the day when we should go thither to claim our birthright. Our mother told him many things that we were too young to hear. Perchance he could tell us more of Basildene than she ever did, if we go to him and question him thereupon."
Gaston nodded his head several times.
"Thou speakest sooth, Brother," said he. "We will go to him forthwith. We will take counsel with him, albeit —"
Gaston did not finish his sentence, for two reasons. One was that his brother knew so well what words were on his lips that speech was well-nigh needless; the other, that he was at that moment rudely interrupted. And although the brothers had no such thought at the time, it is probable that this interruption and its consequences had a very distinct bearing upon their after lives, and certainly it produced a marked effect upon the counsel they subsequently received from their spiritual father, who, but for that episode, might strongly have dissuaded the youths from going forth so young into the world.
The interruption came in the form of an angry hail from a loud and gruff voice, full of impatience and resentment.
"Out of my path, ye base-born peasants!" shouted a horseman who had just rounded the sharp angle taken by the narrow bridle path, and was brought almost to a standstill by the tall figures of the two stalwart youths, which took up the whole of the open way between the trees and their thick undergrowth. "Stand aside, ye idle loons! Know ye not how to make way for your betters? Then, in sooth, I will teach you a lesson;" and a thick hide lash came whirling through the air and almost lighted upon the shoulders of Gaston, who chanced to be the nearer.
But such an insult as that was not to be borne. Even a Gascon peasant might well have sprung upon a solitary adversary of noble blood had he ventured to assault him thus, without support from his train of followers. As for Gaston, he hesitated not an instant, but with flashing eyes he sprang at the right arm of his powerful adversary, and had wrested the whip from him and tossed it far away before the words were well out of the angry lord's mouth.
With a great oath the man drew his sword; but the youth laughed him to scorn as he stepped back out of reach of the formidable weapon. He well knew his advantage. Light of foot, though all unarmed, he could defy any horseman in this wooded spot. No horse could penetrate to the right or left of the narrow track. Even if the knight dismounted, the twin brothers, who knew every turn and winding of these dim forest paths, could lead him a fine dance, and then break away and let him find his way out as best he could. Fearless and impetuous as Gaston ever was, at this moment his fierce spirit was stirred more deeply within him than it had ever been before, for in this powerful warrior who had dared to insult both him and his brother, ay, and their mother's fair fame too — he recognized the lineaments of the hated Sieur de Navailles.
The more cautious Raymond had done the same, and now he spoke in low though urgent accents.
"Have a care, Brother! Knowest thou who it be?"
"Know? ay, that I do. It is he who now holds by force and tyranny those fair lands which should be ours — lands which our forefathers held from generation to generation, which should be theirs now, were right and justice to be had, as one day it may be, when the Roy Outremer comes in person, as men say he will one day come, and all men may have access to his royal presence. And he, the tyrant, the usurper, dares to call us base born, to call us peasants, we who own a nobler name than he!
"The day will come, proud man, when thou shalt rue the hour when thou spakest thus to me — to me who am thy equal, ay, and more than thy equal, in birth, and who will some day come and prove it to thee at the sword's point!"
Many expressions had flitted over the rider's face as these bold words had been spoken — anger, astonishment, then an unspeakable fury, which made Gaston look well to the hand which held the shining sword; last of all an immense astonishment of a new kind, a perplexity not unmixed with dismay, and tinged with a lively curiosity. As the youth ceased speaking the knight sheathed his sword, and when he replied his voice was pitched in a very different key.
"I pray you pardon, young sirs," he said, glancing quickly from one handsome noble face to the other. "I knew not that I spoke to those of gentle birth. The dress deceived me. Tell me now, good youths, who and whence are ye? You have spoken in parables so far; tell me more plainly, what is your name and kindred?"
Raymond, who had heard somewhat of the enmity of the Sieur de Navailles, and knew that their identity as sons of the house of De Brocas had always been kept from his knowledge, here pressed his brother's arm as though to suggest the necessity for caution; but Gaston's hot blood was up. The talk they had been holding together had strung his nerves to the utmost pitch of tension. He was weary of obscurity, weary of the peasant life. He cared not how soon he threw off the mask. Asked a downright question, even by a foe, it was natural to him to make a straightforward answer, and he spoke without fear and without hesitation.
"We are the sons of Arnald de Brocas. De Brocas is our name; we can prove it whenever such proof becomes needful. Our fathers held these fair lands long ere you or yours did. The day may come when a De Brocas may reign here once more, and the cursed brood of Navailles be rooted out for ever."
And without waiting to see the effect produced by such words upon the haughty horseman, the two brothers dashed off into the wood, and were speedily lost to sight.
CHAPTER II. FATHER ANSELM.
The mill of Sainte-Foi, which was the home of the twin brothers of the De Brocas line, was situated upon a tributary stream of the river Adour, and was but a couple of leagues distant from the town of Sauveterre — one of those numerous "bastides" or "villes Anglaises" built by the great King Edward the First of England during his long regency of the province of Gascony in the lifetime of his father. It was one of those so-called "Filleules de Bordeaux" which, bound by strong ties to the royal city, the queen of the Garonne, stood by her and played so large a part in the great drama of the Hundred Years' War. Those cities had been built by a great king and statesman to do a great work, and to them were granted charters of liberties such as to attract into their walls large numbers of persons who helped originally in the construction of the new townships, and then resided there, and their children after them, proud of the rights and immunities they claimed, and loyally true to the cause of the English Kings, which made them what they were.
It is plain to the reader of the history of those days that Gascony could never have remained for three hundred years a fief of the English Crown, had it not been to the advantage of her people that she should so remain. Her attachment to the cause of the Roy Outremer, her willing homage to him, would never have been given for so long a period of time, had not the people of the land found that it was to their own advancement and welfare thus to accord this homage and fealty.
Nor is the cause for this advantage far to seek. Gascony was of immense value to England, and of increasing value as she lost her hold upon the more northerly portions of France. The wine trade alone was so profitable that the nobility, and even the royal family of England, traded on their own account. Bordeaux, with its magnificent harbour and vast trade, was a queen amongst maritime cities. The vast "landes" of the province made the best possible rearing ground for the chargers and cavalry horses to which England owed much of her warlike supremacy; whilst the people themselves, with their strength and independence of character, their traditions of personal and individual freedom which can be clearly traced back to the Roman occupation of the province, and their long attachment to England and her King, were the most valuable of allies; and although they must have been regarded to a certain extent as foreigners when on English soil, they still assimilated better and worked more easily with British subjects than any pure Frenchman had ever been found to do.
Small wonder then that so astute a monarch as the First Edward had taken vast pains to draw closer the bond which united this fair province to England. The bold Gascons well knew that they would find no such liberties as they now enjoyed did they once put themselves beneath the rule of the French King. His country was already overgrown and almost unmanageable. He might cast covetous eyes upon Gascony, but he would not pour into it the wealth that flowed steadily from prosperous England. He would not endow it with charters, each one more liberal than the last, or bind it to his kingdom by giving it a pre-eminence that would but arouse the jealousy of its neighbours. No: the shrewd Gaseous knew that full well, and knew when they were well off. They could often obtain an increase of liberty and an enlarged charter of rights by coquetting with the French monarch, and thus rousing the fears of the English King; but they had no wish for any real change, and lived happily and prosperously beneath the rule of the Roy Outremer; and amongst all the freemen of the Gascon world, none enjoyed such full privileges as those who lived within the walls of the "villes Anglaises," of which Sauveterre was one amongst the smaller cities.
The construction of these towns (now best seen in Libourne) is very simple, and almost always practically the same — a square in the centre formed by the public buildings, with eight streets radiating from it, each guarded by a gate. An outer ditch or moat protected the wall or palisade, and the towns were thus fortified in a simple but effective manner, and guarded as much by their own privileges as by any outer bulwarks. The inhabitants were bound together by close ties, and each smaller city looked to the parent city of Bordeaux, and was proud of the title of her daughter.
Sauveterre and its traditions and its communistic life were familiar enough, and had been familiar from childhood to the twin brothers.
Halfway between the mill and the town stood a picturesque and scattered hamlet, and to this hamlet was attached a church, of which a pious ecclesiastic, by name Father Anselm, had charge. He was a man of much personal piety, and was greatly beloved through all the countryside, where he was known in every hut and house for leagues around the doors of his humble home. He was, as was so frequently the case in those times, the doctor and the scribe, as well as the spiritual adviser, of his entire flock; and he was so much trusted and esteemed that all men told him their affairs and asked advice, not in the confessional alone, but as one man speaking to another in whom he has strong personal confidence.
The twin brothers knew that during the years when their dead mother had resided at the mill with honest Jean and Margot (they began greatly to wonder now why she had so lived in hiding and obscurity), she had been constantly visited by the holy Father, and that she had told him things about herself and her history which were probably known to no other human being beside. Brought up as the youths had been, and trained in a measure beneath the kindly eye of the priest, they would in any case have asked his counsel and blessing before taking any overt step in life; but all the more did they feel that they must speak to him now, since he was probably the only person within their reach who could tell them anything as to their own parentage and history that they did not know already.
"We will go to him upon the morrow," said Gaston with flashing eyes. "We will rise with the sun — or before it — and go to him ere his day's work is begun. He will surely find time to talk with us when he hears the errand upon which we come. I trow now that when he has sat at our board, and has bent upon our faces those glances I have not known how to read aright, he has been wondering how long it would be ere we should awake to the knowledge that this peasant life is not the life of the De Brocas race, guessing that we should come to him for counsel and instruction ere we spread our wings to flee away. They call us eaglets in sooth; and do eaglets rest for ever in their mountain eyry? Nay, they spread their wings as strength comes upon them, and soar upwards and onwards to see for themselves the great world around; even as thou and I will soar away, Brother, and seek other fortunes than will ever be ours here in Sauveterre."
With these burning feelings in their hearts, it was no wonder that the twins uttered a simultaneous exclamation of satisfaction and pleasure when, as they approached the mill, they were aware of the familiar figure of Father Anselm sitting at the open door of the living house, engaged, as it seemed, in an animated discussion with the worthy miller and his good wife.
The look which the Father bent upon the two youths as they approached betrayed a very deep and sincere affection for them; and when after supper they asked to speak with him in private, he readily acceded to their request, accepting the offer of a bed from the miller's wife, as already the sun had long set, and his own home was some distance away.
The faces of Jean and Margot were grave with anxious thought, and that of the priest seemed to reflect something of the same expression; for during the course of the simple meal which all had shared together, Gaston had told of the unlooked-for encounter with the proud Sieur de Navailles in the forest, and of the defiance he had met with from the twin eaglets. As the good miller and his wife heard how Gaston had openly declared his name and race to the implacable foe of his house, they wrung their hands together and uttered many lamentable exclamations. The present Lord of Saut was terribly feared throughout the neighbourhood in which he dwelt. His fierce and cruel temper had broken forth again and again in acts of brutality or oppression from which there was practically no redress. Free as the Gascon peasant was from much or the serfdom and feudal servitude of other lands, he was in some ways worse off than the serf, when he chanced to have roused the anger of some great man of the neighbourhood. The power of the nobles and barons — the irresponsible power they too often held — was one of the crying evils of the age, one which was being gradually extinguished by the growing independence of the middle classes. But such changes were slow of growth, and long in penetrating beyond great centres; and it was a terrible thing for a brace of lads, unprotected and powerless as these twin brothers, to have brought upon themselves the hostility and perchance the jealousy of a man like the Sieur de Navailles. If he wished to discover their hiding place, he would have small difficulty in doing so; and let him but once find that out, and the lives of the boys would not be safe either by night or day. The retainers of the proud baron might swoop down at any moment upon the peaceful mill, and carry off the prey without let or hindrance; and this was why the secret of their birth and name had been so jealously kept from all (save a few who loved the house of De Brocas) by the devoted miller and his wife.
But Gaston little recked of the threatened peril. The fearless nature of his race was in him, and he would have scorned himself had he failed to speak out boldly when questioned by the haughty foe of his house. If the De Brocas had been ruined in all else, they had their fearless honour left them still.
But the priest's face was grave as he let the boys lead him into the narrow bedchamber where they slept — a room bare indeed of such things as our eyes would seek, but which for the times was commodious and comfortable enough. He was pondering in his mind what step must now be taken, for it seemed to him as though the place of safety in the mill in which their mother had left her sons could hide them no longer. Go they must, of that he felt well assured; but where? That was a question less easily answered offhand.
"Father," began Gaston eagerly, so soon as the door had closed behind the three, and Raymond had coaxed the dim taper into its feeble flicker — "Father, we have come to thee for counsel — for help. Father, chide us not, nor call us ingrate; but it has come to this with us — we can no longer brook this tame and idle life. We are not of the peasant stock; why must we live the peasant life? Father, we long to be up and doing — to spread our wings for a wider flight. We know that those who bear our name are not hiding their heads in lowly cots; we know that our sires have been soldiers and statesmen in the days that are past. Are we then to hide our heads here till the snows of age gather upon them? Are we, of all our race, to live and die obscure, unknown? Father, we cannot stand it; it shall not be! To thee we come to ask more of ourselves than yet we know. To thee our mother commended us in her last moments; to thee she bid us look in days to come when we needed guidance and help. Wherefore to thee we have come now, when we feel that there must surely be an end to all of this. Tell us, Father, of our sire; tell us of our kinsfolk. Where be they? Where may we seek them? I trow thou knowest all. Then tell us, I beseech thee tell us freely all there is to know."
The good priest raised his eyes and thoughtfully scanned the faces of the two eager youths. Gaston was actually shivering with repressed excitement; Raymond was more calm, but not, as it seemed, one whit less interested. What a strong and manly pair they looked! The priest's eyes lighted with pride as they rested on the stalwart figures and noble faces. It was hard to believe that these youths were not quite sixteen, though man's estate was then accounted reached at an age which we should call marvellously immature in these more modern days.
"My children," said the good old man, speaking slowly and with no small feeling, "I have long looked for this day to come — the day when ye twain should stand thus before me and put this selfsame question."
"You have looked for it!" said Gaston eagerly; "then, in very sooth, there is something to tell?"
"Yes, my children, there is a long story to tell; and it seemeth to me, even as it doth to you, that the time has now come to tell it. This day has marked an era in your lives. Methinks that from this night your childhood will pass for ever away, and the life of your manhood commence. May the Holy Mother of God, the Blessed Saints, and our gracious Saviour Himself watch over and guard you in all the perils and dangers of the life that lies before you!"
So solemn were the tones of the Father that the boys involuntarily sank upon their knees, making the sign of the Cross as they did so. The priest breathed a blessing over the two, and when they had risen to their feet, he made them sit one on each side of him upon the narrow pallet bed.
"The story is something long — the story which will tell ye twain who and what ye are, and why ye have been thus exiled and forced to dwell obscure in this humble home; but I will tell all I know, and ye will then see something of the cause.
"My children, ye know that ye have a noble name — that ye belong to the house of De Brocas, which was once so powerful and great in these fair lands around this home of yours. I wot that ye know already some thing of the history of your house, how that it was high in favour with the great King of England, that first Edward who so long dwelt amongst us, and made himself beloved by the people of these lands. It was in part fidelity to him that was the cause of your kinsfolk's ruin: for whilst they served him in other lands, following him across the sea when he was bidden to go thither, the treacherous foe of the house of Navailles wrested from them, little by little, all the lands they had owned here, and not even the many mandates from the Roy Outremer sufficed to gain them their rights again. It might have been done had the great Edward lived; but when he died and his son mounted the throne, men found at once how weak were the hands that held the sovereign power, and the Sieur de Navailles laughed in his beard at commands he knew there was no power to enforce. But listen again, my sons; that feeble King, despite many and great faults, was not without some virtues also; and he did not forget that the house of De Brocas had ruined itself in the cause of himself and his father."
"Did he do aught to show his gratitude?"
"Thou shalt hear, my son. The younger Edward had not been many years upon his father's throne before a great battle was fought by him against the Scottish race his father had vanquished and subdued. These rebel subjects revolted from under his hand, and he fought with them a battle on the field of Bannockburn, in which he was overthrown and defeated, and in which your grandsire, Arnald de Brocas, lost his life, fighting gallantly for England's King."
"Our grandsire?" cried both the boys in a breath. "Tell us more of him."
"It is little that I know, my children, save what I have just said. He served the King faithfully in life and death, and his sons reaped some reward for their father's fidelity. At first, whilst they were quite young, his three sons (of whom your father was the third) were sent to dwell with their mother's relatives — the De Campaines of Agen, of whom, doubtless, ye have heard; but as they grew to man's estate, they were recalled to the English Court, and received offices there, as many another noble Gascon has done before them."
"Have we then uncles in England?" asked Raymond eagerly. "Then, if we find but our way across the water, we may find a home with one of them? Is it not so, good Father?"
The priest did not exclaim at the idea of the boys journeying forth across the seas alone, but he shook his head thoughtfully as he continued his narrative as if there had been no interruption.
"The English King was not unmindful of the service done him by the father of these youths, and he promoted them to places of honour about his Court. First, they were all made serviens of his own royal person, and were brought up with his son, who is now the King; then, as I have heard, they greatly endeared themselves to the Prince by loyalty and faithful service. When he ascended the throne, and purged the Court of the false favourites from this and other lands who had done so much ill to that country, he was ably helped in the task before him by thy father and thy two uncles; and I can well believe that this was so, seeing that they were speedily advanced to posts of honour in the royal service."
"What posts?" asked the eager youths.
"The head of your branch of this noble house," continued the priest, "is your uncle Sir John de Brocas, who is the King's Master of the Horse, and the lord of many fair Manors and wide lands in England, and high in favour with his master. Second in the line is your uncle Master Bernard de Brocas, a clerk, and the Rector (as it is called in the realm of England) of St. Nicholas, in or near a town that is called Guildford — if I can frame my lips aright to the strange words. He too is high in favour with the Roy Outremer, and, as I have heard, is oft employed by him in these parts to quell strife or redress grievances; but I know not how that may be. It is of thy father that I would fain speak to thee, Gaston, for thou art heir to his name and estate if thou canst make good the claim, as in time thou mayest yet. Listen whilst I tell all that I know. Thy father — Arnald — was the youngest of the three sons of him who died on the field of Bannockburn, and to him was given the post of Master of the Horse to Prince John of Eltham. I misdoubt me if that Prince is living yet; but of that I cannot speak with certainty. He was also valettus or serviens to the King, and might have carved out for himself as great a career as they, had it not been that he estranged himself from his kindred, and even offended the King himself, by the marriage that he made with Mistress Alice Sanghurst of Basildene."
The brothers exchanged quick glances as the name passed the priest's lips. Their memory had not then played them false.
"But why were they thus offended? Was not our mother rightful owner of Basildene? and is it not a fair heritage?"
"The reason for the ill will, my sons, I know not. Your mother did not fully understand it, and from her lips it was I heard all this tale. Perchance some nobler alliance was wished by the family and by the King himself, perchance the young man acted something hastily, and gave umbrage that might have been spared. I know not how that may have been. All I for certainty know is that your father, Arnald, brought hither his wife, flying from some menaced peril, fearful of capture and discovery; and that here in this lonely mill, amongst those who had ever loved the name of De Brocas, the sweet lady was able to hide her head, and to find a place of safe refuge. Jean, then a youth, had been in the service of Arnald, having been seized with a love of wandering in his boyhood, which had led him to cross the sea to England, where he had fallen in with your father and attached himself to his person. The elder Jean, his father, was miller then and right glad was he to welcome back his son, and give a shelter to the lady in her hour of need. Good Margot, as you know, was your nurse when you were born; she had married Jean a short time back, and her own babe had died the very week before you came into the world. She has always loved you as her own, and though your mother was taken from you, you have never lost a mother's love. Do not forget that, my children, in the years to come; and if the time should ever be when you can requite the faithful attachment of these two honest hearts, be sure that you let not the chance slip."
"We will not," answered the boys in a breath. "But the rest of your story, good Father."
"You shall hear it all, my sons. It was in the year of grace 1329 that your father first brought his wife here, and in the following year you twain were born. Your father stayed till he could fold you in his arms, and bestow upon you the blessing of a father; but then his duties to his master called him to England, and for a whole long year we heard no news of him. At the end of that time a messenger arrived with despatches for his lady. She sent to ask my help in reading these; and together we made out that the letter contained a summons for her to join her lord in England, where he would meet her at the port of Southampton, into which harbour many of our vessels laden with wine put in for safe anchorage. As for the children, said the letter, she must either bring or leave them, as seemed best to her at the time; and after long and earnest debate we resolved that she should go alone, and that you should be left to good Margot's tender care. I myself escorted our gentle lady to Bordeaux, and there it was easy to find safe and commodious transport for her across the sea. She left us, and we heard no more until more than a year had passed by, and she returned to us, sorely broken down in mind and body, to tell a sorrowful tale."
"Sorrowful? Had our proud uncles refused to receive her?" asked Gaston, with flashing eyes. "I trow if that be so —"
But the Father silenced him by a gesture.
"Wait and let me tell my tale, boy. Thou canst not judge till thou knowest all. She came back to us, and to me she told all her tale, piece by piece and bit by bit, not all at once, but as time and opportunity served. And this is what I learned. When your father summoned her back to join him, it was because her one brother was dead — dead without leaving children behind — and her father, now growing old, wished to see her once again, and give over to her before he died the fair domain of Basildene, which she would now inherit, but to which she had had no title when she married your father. It seemed like enow to both of them that if Arnald de Brocas could lead a well-dowered bride to his brothers' halls, all might be well between them and so it came about when the old man died, and the lady had succeeded to the lands, that he started forth to tell the news, not taking her, as the weather was inclement, and she somewhat suffering from the damp and fog which they say prevail so much in England, but faring forth alone on his embassy, trusting to come with joy to fetch her anon."
"And did he not?" asked the boys eagerly.
"I will tell you what chanced in his absence. You must know that your grandsire on your mother's side had a kinsman, by name Peter Sanghurst, who had long cast covetous eyes upon Basildene. He was next of kin after your mother, and he, as a male, claimed to call the property his. He had failed to make good his claim by law; but so soon as he knew your mother to be alone in the house, he came down upon it with armed retainers and drove her forth ere she well knew what had befallen; and she, not knowing whither her lord had gone, nor how to find him, and being in sore danger from the malice of the wicked man who had wrested from her the inheritance, and would gladly have done her to death, knew not what better to do than to fly back here, leaving word for her lord where she was to be found; and thus it came that ere she had been gone from us a year, she returned in more desolate plight than at the first."
Gaston's face was full of fury, and Raymond's hands were clenched in an access of rage.
"And what did our father then? Sure he waged war with the vile usurper, and won back our mother's lands for her! Sure a De Brocas never rested quiet under so foul an insult!"
"My sons, your father had been taught patience in a hard school. He returned to Basildene, not having seen either of his brothers, who were both absent on the King's business, to find his wife fled, and the place in the firm grasp of the wily man, who well knew how to strengthen himself in the possession of ill-gotten gains. His first care was for your mother's safety, and he followed her hither before doing aught else. When he found her safe with honest Jean and Margot, and when they had taken counsel together, he returned to England to see what could be done to regain the lost inheritance and the favour of his kinsmen who had been estranged. You were babes of less than three summers when your father went away, and you never saw him more."
"He did not come again?"
"Nay, he came no more, for all too soon a call which no man may disobey came for him, and he died before the year was out."
"And had he accomplished naught?"
"So little that it must needs come to naught upon his death. He sent a trusty messenger — one of his stout Gascon henchmen — over to us with all needful tidings. But there was little of good to tell. He had seen his brother, Sir John, the head of the family, and had been received not unkindly by him; but in the matter of the recovery of Basildene the knight had but shaken his head, and had said that the King had too many great matters on hand just then to have leisure to consider so small a petition as the one concerning a Manor of no repute or importance. If Arnald had patience to wait, or to interest Prince John in the matter, something might in time be done; but Peter Sanghurst would strive to make good his claim by any means bad or good, and as he held possession it might be difficult indeed to oust him. The property belonged to one who had been a cause of much offence, and perchance that weighed with Sir John and made him less willing to bestir himself in the matter. But be that as it may, nothing had been done when Arnald de Brocas breathed his last; and his wife, when she heard the tale, looked at you two young children as you lay upon the grass at play, and she said with a sigh and a smile, 'Father, I will wait till my boys be grown, for what can one weak woman do alone? and then we will go together to the land that is mine by birth, and my boys shall win back for me and for themselves the lost inheritance of Basildene.'"
"And so we will!" cried Gaston, with flashing eyes; "and so we will! Here as I stand I vow that we will win it back from the false and coward kinsman who holds it now."
"Ay," answered Raymond, with equal ardour and enthusiasm, "that, Brother, will we do; and we will win for ourselves the name that she herself gave to us — The Twin Brothers of Basildene."
CHAPTER III. THE UNKNOWN WORLD.
So that was the story of their past. That was why they two, with the blood of the De Brocas running in their veins, had lived all their past lives in the seclusion of a humble mill; why they had known nothing of their kinsfolk, albeit they had always known that they must have kindred of their own name and race; and why their mother upon her deathbed had spoken to them not of any inheritance that they might look to claim from descent through their father, but of Basildene, which was theirs in very right, as it had been hers before, till her ambitious and unscrupulous kinsman had driven her forth.
And now what should they do? Whither should they go; and what should be the object of the lives — the new lives of purpose and resolve which had awakened within them?
Gaston had given voice to this feeling in vowing them to the attempt to recover their lost heritage of Basildene, and Father Anselm did not oppose either that desire or the ardent wish of the youths to fare forth into the great world alone.
"My sons," he said a few days later, when he had come to see if the twins held yet to their first resolve. "You are something young as yet to sally forth into the unknown world and carve for yourselves your fortunes there; but nevertheless I trow the day has come, for this place is no longer a safe shelter for you. The Sieur de Navailles, as it is told me, is already searching for you. It cannot be long before he finds your hiding place, and then no man may call your lives safe by night or day. And not only would ye yourselves be in peril, but peril would threaten good Jean and Margot; and methinks you would be sorely loath that harm should come to them through the faithful kindness they have ever shown to you and yours."
"Sooner would we die than that one hair of their head should be touched!" cried both the boys impetuously; "and Margot lives in fear and trembling ever since we told her of the words we spoke to yon tyrant and usurper of Saut. We told her for her comfort that he would think us too poor and humble and feeble to vent his rage on us; but she shook her head at that, and feared no creature hearing the name of De Brocas would be too humble to be a mark for his spite. And then we told her that we would sally forth to see the world, as we had ever longed to do and though she wept to think that we must go, she did not bid us stay. She said, as thou hast done, good Father, that she had known that such day would surely come; and though it has come something early and something suddenly, she holds that we shall be safer facing the perils of the unknown world, than living here a mark for the spite and malice of the foe of our house. If no man holds us back, why go we not forth tomorrow?"
The priest's face was grave and even sorrowful, but he made no objection even to so rapid a move.
"My sons, if this thing is to be, it is small use to tarry and linger. I would not that the Sieur de Navailles should know that you have hidden your heads here so long; and a secret, however faithfully kept, that belongs to many, may not be a secret always. It is right that you should go, and with the inclement winter season hard upon us, with its dangers from heavy snows, tempests at sea, and those raids from wolves that make the peril of travellers when the cold once sets in, it behoves you, if go ye must, to go right speedily. And in the belief that I should find your minds made up and your preparations well-nigh complete, I have brought to you the casket given into my charge by your mother on her dying bed. Methinks that you will find therein gold enough to carry you safe to England, and such papers as shall suffice to prove to your proud kinsmen at the King's Court that ye are in very truth the sons of their brother, and that it is of just and lawful right that you make your claim to Basildene."
The brothers looked eagerly at the handsome case, wrought and inlaid with gold, in which certain precious parchments had lain ever since they had been carried in haste from England. The boys looked at these with a species of awe, for they had but very scant knowledge of letters, and such as they had acquired from the good Father was not enough to enable them to master the contents of the papers. Learning was almost entirely confined to the ecclesiastics in those days, and many were the men of birth and rank who could scarce read or write their own name.
But the devices upon the parchments told a tale more easily understood. There was the golden lion rampant upon the black ground — the arms of the De Brocas family, as the Father told them; whilst the papers that referred to Basildene were adorned with a shield bearing a silver stag upon an azure ground. They would have no difficulty in knowing the deeds apart; and good Margot sewed them first into a bag of untanned leather, and then stitched them safely within the breast of Gaston's leathern jerkin. The golden pieces, and a few rings and trinkets that were all that remained to the boys of their lost inheritance, were sewn in like manner into Raymond's clothing, and there was little more to be done ere the brothers went forth into the unknown world.
As for their worldly possessions, they were soon numbered, and comprised little more than their clothing, their bows and arrows, and the poniards which hung at their girdles. As they were to proceed on foot to Bordeaux, and would probably journey in the same simple fashion when they reached the shores of England, they had no wish to hamper themselves with any needless encumbrances, and all that they took with them was a single change of under vest and hose, which they were easily able to carry in a wallet at their back. They sallied forth in the dress they commonly wore all through the inclement winter season — an under-dress of warm blue homespun, with a strong jerkin of leather, soft and well-dressed, which was as long as a short tunic, and was secured by the girdle below the waist which was worn by almost all ranks of the people in that age. The long hose were likewise guarded by a species of gaiter of the same strong stuff. And a peasant clad in his own leather garments was often a match for a mailed warrior, the tough substance turning aside sword point or arrow almost as effectually as a coat of steel, whilst the freedom and quickness of motion allowed by the simpler dress was an immense advantage to the wearer in attack or defence.
The good Father looked with tender glances at the brave bright boys as they stood forth on the morning of their departure, ready to sally out into the wide world with the first glimpse of dawn. He had spent the previous night at the mill, and many words of fatherly counsel and good advice had he bestowed upon the lads, now about to be subjected to temptations and perils far different from any they had known in their past life. And his words had been listened to with reverent heed, for the boys loved him dearly, and had been trained by him in habits of religious exercise, more common in those days than they became, alas in later times. They had with them an English breviary which had been one of their mother's most valued possessions, and they promised the Father to study it with reverent heed; for they were very familiar with the petitions, and could follow them without difficulty despite their rudimentary education. So that when they knelt before him for his last blessing, he was able to give it with a heart full of hope and tender confidence; and he felt sure that whether the lads went forth for weal or woe, he should (if they and he both lived through the following years) see their faces again in this selfsame spot. They would not forget old friends — they would seek them out in years to come; and if fate smiled upon their path, others would share in the sunshine of their good fortune.
And so the boys rose to their feet again to meet a proud, glad smile from the eyes of the kind old man; and though Margot's face was buried in her apron, and honest Jean was not ashamed to let the tears run down his weatherbeaten face, there was no attempt made to hinder or to sadden the eager lads. They kissed their good nurse with many protestations of love and gratitude, telling her of the days to come when they would return as belted knights, riding on fine horses, and with their esquires by their side, and how they would tell the story of how they had been born and bred in this very mill, and of all they owed to those who had sheltered them in their helpless infancy.
The farewells once over, with the inevitable sadness that such scenes must entail, the boys' spirits rose with wonderful celerity. True, they looked back with fond glances at the peaceful homestead where their childhood had been passed, as they reached the ridge of the undulating plain from which the last glimpse of the red roofs and tumbling water was to be had. Raymond even felt a mist rise before his eyes as he stood and gazed, and Gaston dashed his hand impatiently across his eyes as though something hindered his vision; but his voice was steady and full of courage as he waved his right arm and cried aloud:
"We will come back! we will see this place again! Ah, Raymond, methinks I shall love it better then than I do today; for though it has been a timely place of shelter, it has not been — it never could be — our true home. Our home is Basildene, in the fair realm of England's King. I will rest neither day nor night until I have looked upon the home our mother dwelt in, and have won the right to call that home our own."
Then the brothers strode with light springy steps along the road which would in time lead them to the great seaport city of Bordeaux, towards which all the largest roads of the whole province converged.
The royal city of the Garonne was full forty leagues away — over a hundred British miles — and the boys had never visited it yet, albeit their dream had long been to travel thither on their feet, and see the wonders of which travellers spoke. A day's march of ten leagues or more was as nothing to them. Had the days been longer they would have done more, but travelling in the dark through these forest-clad countries was by no means safe, and the Father had bid them promise that they would always strive to seek shelter ere the shades of night fell; for great picks of wolves ravaged the forests of Gascony until a much later date, and though the season of their greatest boldness and fierceness had not yet come, they were customers not to be trifled with at any time, and a hunting knife and a crossbow would go but a small way in defence if a resolute attack were to be made by even half-a-dozen of the fierce beasts.
But the brothers thought not of peril as they strode through the clear crisp air, directing their course more by the sun than by any other guide, as they pursued their way engrossed in eager talk. They were passing through the great grazing pastures, the Landes of Gascony, which supplied England with so many of her best horses, and walking was easy and they covered the ground fast. Later on would come dark stretches of lonely forest, but here were smiling pasture and bright sunshine and the brothers talked together of the golden future before them, of their proud kinsmen at the King's Court, of the Roy Outremer himself, and of Basildene and that other treacherous kinsman there. As they travelled they debated within themselves whether it were better to seek first the countenance of their uncles on their father's side, or whether to make their way first to Basildene and see what manner of place it was, and what likelihood there seemed of ousting the intruder.
How to decide this point themselves the brothers did not know; but as it chanced, fortune was to decide it for them in her own fashion, and that before many suns had set.
Two days of travel had passed. The brothers had long left behind them every trace of what had been familiar to them in the old life. The evening of the third day was stealing fast upon them, and they were yet, as it seemed, in the heart of the vast forest which they had entered soon after noon, and which they had hoped to pass completely through before the daylight waned. They had been told that they might look, if they pushed on fast, to reach the town of Castres by nightfall; but the paths through the forest were intricate: they had several times felt uncertain as to whether they were going right. Now that the darkness was coming on so fast they were still more uncertain, and more than once they had heard behind and before them the unmistakable howl of the wolf.
The hardy twins would have thought nothing of sleeping in the open air even at this somewhat inclement season; but the proximity of the wolves was unpleasant. For two days the cold had been sharp, and though it was not probable that it had yet seriously interfered with the supplies of the wild beasts, yet it was plain that they had emerged from their summer retreats in the more remote parts of the forest, and were disposed to venture nearer to the habitable world on the outskirts. If the brothers slept out of doors at all, it would have to be in the fork of some tree, and in that elevated position they would be likely to feel the cold rather keenly, though down below in some hollow trunk they could make themselves a warm nest enough. Mindful of their promise to the priest, they resolved to try yet to reach some hut or place of shelter, however rude, before the night absolutely closed in, and marched quickly forward with the practised tread of those born to forest life.
Suddenly Gaston, who was a couple of paces in the front, paused and laid a hand upon his brother's arm.
"Hist!" he said below his breath. "Methought I heard a cry."
Raymond stopped short and listened, too. Yes; there was certainly some tumult going on a little distance ahead of them. The brothers distinguished the sound of human voices raised in shrill piercing cries, and with that sound was mingled the fierce baying note that they had heard too often in their lives to mistake at any time.
"It is some traveller attacked by wolves!" cried the brothers in a breath, and without a single thought of their own peril the gallant boys tore headlong through the dark wood to the spot whence the tumult proceeded.
Guided by the sound of shouts, cries, and the howling of the beasts, the brothers were not long in nearing the scene of the strife.
"Shout aloud!" cried Gaston to his brother as they ran. "Make the cowardly brutes believe that a company is advancing against them. It is the best, the only chance. They will turn and fly if they think there be many against them."
Raymond was not slow to act upon this hint. The next moment the wood rang again to the shouts and calls of the brothers, voice answering to voice till it seemed as though a score of men were approaching. The brothers, moreover, knew and used the sharp fierce call employed by the hunters of the wolves in summoning their dogs to their aid — a call that they knew would be heard and heeded by the savage brutes, who would well know what it meant. And in effect the artifice was perfectly successful; for ere they had gained the spot upon which the struggle had taken place, they heard the breaking up of the wolf party, as the frightened beasts dashed headlong through the coverts, whilst their howling and barking died away in the distance, and a great silence succeeded.
"Thank Heaven for a timely rescue!" they heard a voice say in the English tongue; "for by my troth, good Malcolm, I had thought that thou and I would not live to tell this tale to others. But where are our good friends and rescuers? Verily, I have seen nothing, yet there must have been a good dozen or more. Light thy lantern, an thou canst, and let us look well round us, for by the mass I shall soon think we have been helped by the spirits of the forest."
"Nay, fair sir, but only by two travellers," said Gaston, advancing from the shadow of the giant trees, his brother closely following him. "We are ourselves benighted in this forest, having by some mischance lost our road to Castres, which we hoped to have sighted ere now. Hearing the struggle, and the shouts with which you doubtless tried to scare off the brutes, we came to see if we might not aid, and being well acquainted with the calls of the hunters of the wolves, succeeded beyond our hopes. I trust the cowardly and treacherous beasts have done you no injury?"
"By my troth, it is strange to hear my native tongue in these parts, and so fairly spoken withal. I trust we are not bewitched, or the sport of spirits. Who art thou, brave boy? and whence comest thou? How comes it that thou, being, as it seems, a native of these parts, speakest so well a strange language?"
"It was our mother's tongue," answered Gaston, speaking nevertheless guardedly, for he had been warned by the Father not to be too ready to tell his name and parentage to all the world. "We are bound for Bordeaux, and thence to England, to seek our mother's kindred, as she bid us ere she died."
"If that be so, then let us join forces and travel on together," said he whom they had thus succoured, a man well mounted on a fine horse, and with a mounted servant beside him, so that the brothers took him for a person of quality, which indeed he was, as they were soon to learn. "There is safety in numbers, and especially so in these inhospitable forest tracks, where so many perils beset the traveller. I have lost my other stout fellows in the windings of the wood, and it were safer to travel four than two. Riding is slow work in this gloom. I trow ye will have no trouble in keeping pace with our good chargers."
The hardy Gascon boys certainly found no difficulty about that. Gaston walked beside the bridle rein of the master, whilst Raymond chatted amicably to the man, whose broad Scotch accent puzzled him a little, and led in time to stories of Border warfare, and to the tale of Bannockburn, told from a Scotchman's point of view; to all of which the boy listened with eager interest. As for Gaston, he was hearing of the King's Court, the gay tourneys, the gallant feats of arms at home and abroad which characterized the reign of the Third Edward. The lad drank in every item of intelligence, asking such pertinent questions, and appearing so well informed upon many points, that his interlocutor was increasingly surprised, and at last asked him roundly of his name and kindred.
Now the priest had warned the boys at starting not to speak with too much freedom to strangers of their private affairs, and had counselled them very decidedly not to lay claim at starting to the name of De Brocas, and thus draw attention to themselves at the outset. There was great laxity in the matter of names in ages when penmanship was a recondite art, and even in the documents of the period a name so well known as that of De Brocas was written Broc and Brook, Brocaz and Brocazt, and half-a-dozen more ways as well. Wherefore it mattered the less what the lads called themselves, and they had agreed that Broc, without the De before it, would be the best and safest patronymic for them in the present.
"We are twin brothers, may it please you, fair sir; English on our mother's side, though our father was a Gascon. Our father was much in England likewise, and, as we hear, held some office about the Court, though of its exact nature we know not. Both our parents died many long years since; but we have never ceased to speak the tongue of England, and to dream of one day going thither. Our names are Gaston and Raymond Broc, and we are going forth at last in search of the adventures which men say in these warlike days may be found by young and old, by rich and poor. Our faces are set towards England. What may befall us there kind Fortune only knows."
Something in the frank and noble bearing of the lad seemed to please the knightly stranger. He laid a friendly hand on Gaston's shoulder as the youth paced with springy strides beside him.
"I trow thou art a mettlesome knave, and I owe thee and thy brother something more than fair words for the service ye have rendered me this night. I have lost three or four of my followers by disease and accident since I left the shores of England. Boy, what sayest thou to taking service with me for a while — thou and thy brother likewise — and journeying to fair England as two of my young esquires? I like you well, and in these days it is no small thing to rank in one's train those to whom the language of Gascony is familiar. I trow ye be able to speak the French tongue likewise, since ye be so ready with our foreign English?"
"Ay, we can both speak and understand it," answered Gaston, whose cheeks had crimsoned with eager delight; "but we speak English better. Good Sir, we could desire nothing better than to follow you to the world's end; but we have not been trained to the use of arms, nor to knightly exercises. I know not if we could make shift to please you, be our service never so faithful."
"In such a case as that, sure I should be a hard master to please," returned the other, and Gaston knew from his voice that he was smiling. "But we need not settle it all out here in this dark wood. You must wait awhile to see what manner of man it is you speak of serving. And you may at least be my companions of voyage across the sea, though once on English shores you shall please yourselves whether or not you serve me farther. As for my name, it is James Audley, and I am one of the King's knights. I am now bound for Windsor — thou hast doubtless heard of Windsor, the mighty fortress where the King holds his Court many a time and oft. Well, it hath pleased his Majesty of late to strive to bring back those days of chivalry of which our bards sing and of which we hear from ancient legend — days that seem to be fast slipping away, and which it grieves our most excellent King to see die out in his time. Hast heard, boy, of the great King Arthur of whom men wrote and sung in days gone by? Has his fame reached as far as thy Gascon home?"
"Yea, verily," answered Gaston eagerly. "Our mother in long-past days would speak to us of that great King, and of his knights, and of the Round Table at which they sat together, their King in their midst —"
"Ay, truly thou knowest well the tale, and it is of this same Round Table I would speak. The King has thought good to hold such a Round Table himself, and has sent forth messages to numbers of his knights to hold themselves in readiness to attend it early in the year which will soon be upon us. Men say that he is building a wondrous round tower at his fortress of Windsor, wherein his Round Table will be placed and the feast celebrated. I know not with what truth they rumour this, but it is like enough, for his Majesty hath the love of his people and a kingly mind; and what he purposes he makes shift to carry out, and that right speedily. But be that as it may, there is no mistaking his royal summons to his Round Table, and I am hastening back across the water to be at Windsor on the appointed day; and if it will pleasure you twain to journey thither with me, I trow you will see things the like of which you have never dreamed before; and sure a better fashion of entering life could scarce be found than to follow one of the King's knights to one of the fairest assemblies of chivalry that the world has ever locked upon."
And indeed Gaston thought so too. His breath was taken away by the prospect. He was dazzled by the very thought of such a thing, and his words of eager thanks were spoken with the falterings of strong emotion.
The road had widened out here, and the travellers had got free of the forest. Lights sparkled pleasantly in front of them, and Raymond had come up in time to hear the offer just made. The eager delight of the two lads seemed to please the brave Sir James, who was not much more than a youth himself, as we should reckon things now, though four-and-twenty appeared a more advanced age then.
As the travellers at last found themselves within the precincts of a fairly comfortable hostelry, and the horsemen dismounted at the door and entered the inn, Sir James pushed the two lads into the lighted room before him, and looked them well over with a pair of searching but kindly blue eyes. He was himself a fine man, of noble stature and princely hearing. His face was pleasant, though it could be stern too on occasion, and the features were regular and good. The boys had never seen such a kingly-looking man, and their hearts went out to him at once. As for him, he looked from one bright face to the other, and nodded his head with a smile.
"Methinks you will make a pair of gallant squires," he said. "So long as it pleases you to remain in my service, you may call yourselves my men, and receive from my hands what my other servants do."
CHAPTER IV. THE MASTER OF THE HORSE.
What a wonderful experience it was for the twin brothers to find themselves for the first time in their lives upon the great ocean of which they had so many times heard! As the little vessel, with her cargo of wine, plunged merrily through the white-crested waves, bearing her freight northward through the stormy Bay of Biscay to the white shores of Albion, the brothers loved to stand in the pointed prow of the brave little craft, feeling the salt spray dashing in their faces, and listening to the swirl of water round the ship's sides as she raced merrily on her way. Now indeed, were they well embarked upon a career of adventure and glory. Were they not habited like the servants of an English knight — their swords by their sides (if need be), their master's badge upon their sleeves? Were they not bound for the great King's Court — for the assembly of the Round Table, of which, as it seemed, all men were now talking? Would they not see their own kinsmen, feel their way perhaps to future friendship with those who bore their own name? For the present they were dubbed Brook by the English servants with whom they associated, though more frequently they went by their Christian names alone.
It was the fashion in these times to think well of the Gascon race. The King set the example, knowing how useful such men were like to be to him in days to come; and these lads, who spoke English almost as their mother tongue, and were so full of spirit, grace, and vivacity, rapidly rose in favour both with Sir James himself and with his retinue. No auspices could well have been more favourable for the lads upon their first entrance into the great world, and they only wished that Father Anselm could hear of their good fortune.
They had settled now to let the visit to Basildene stand over for a time. They had but the vaguest idea where to seek their mother's home. The priest could not help them to any information on this point, and the way to Windsor was open. Their kinsfolk there could possibly give them news of Basildene, even did they decide to keep their own true name a secret for a time. There could be no doubt as to the wisdom of learning something of their mother's country and the ways of its sons before they launched themselves upon a difficult and possibly dangerous quest.
With what strange feelings did the brothers first set eyes upon the shores of England, as the little sloop slid merrily into the smoother Solent, after a rough but not unpleasant passage! How they gazed about them as they neared the quays of Southampton, and wondered at the contrast presented by this seaport with the stately and beautiful city of Bordeaux, which they had seen a fortnight back! Certainly this English port could not compare with her a single moment, yet the boys' hearts bounded with joyful exhilaration as they first set foot on English soil. Was not the first step of their wild dream safely and prosperously accomplished? Might they not augur from this a happy and prosperous career till their aim and object was accomplished?
Their master had some business to transact in and about Southampton which detained him there many days; but the Gaston lads found no fault with this arrangement, for everything they saw was new and full of interest; they were well lodged and well fed without cost to themselves, and had full license to go where they would and do what they would, as their master had no present use for their services.
Gaston and Raymond had no desire to idle away their time without profit to themselves, and after taking counsel with honest Malcolm, who had a great liking for the boys, they put themselves under the instruction of a capable swordsman, who undertook to teach them the art of using those weapons with skill and grace. As their natural quickness of eye and strength of hand made them quickly proficient in this exercise, they became anxious to try their skill at the more difficult sport of tilting, then so much in vogue with both knights and gentlemen — a sport which the King greatly encouraged as likely to be excellent training for those charges of his picked horsemen which so often turned the fortunes of the day in his favour in the sterner game of war.
Both the Gascon youths were good horsemen; not that they had ever owned a horse themselves, or had ridden upon a saddle after the fashion of knights and their esquires, but they had lived amongst the droves of horses that were bred upon the wide pasture lands of their own country, and from childhood it had been their favourite pastime to get upon the back of one of these beautiful, unbroken creatures, and go careering wildly over the sweeping plain. That kind of rough riding was as good a training as they could have had, and when once they had grown used to the feel of a saddle between their knees, and had learned the right use of rein and spur, they became almost at once excellent and fearless riders, and enjoyed shivering a lance or carrying off a ring or a handkerchief from a pole as well as any of their comrades. So that the month they passed in the seaport town was by no means wasted on them, and when they took to horse once again to accompany Sir James on his way to Windsor, they felt that they had made great strides, and were very different from the country-bred Gascon youths of two months back.
There was one more halt made in London, that wonderful city of which time fails us to speak here; and in that place a new surprise awaited the young esquires, for they and their comrades who wore Sir James Audley's livery were all newly equipped in two new suits of clothes, and these of such a sumptuous description as set the boys agape with wonder.
Truly as we read of the bravery in which knights and dames and their servants of old days were attired, one marvels where the money came from to clothe them all. It could have been no light thing to be a great man in such times, and small wonder was it that those who lived in and about the Court, whose duty it was to make a brave show in the eyes of royalty, were so often rewarded for trifling services by the gifts of Manors, benefices, or wardships; for the cost of keeping up such state as was required was great indeed, and could not have been done without some adequate compensation.
Sir James had always been a favourite with the King, as he was with the Prince of Wales — the Black Prince of the days to come. He had at various times received marks of the royal favour by substantial grants, and was resolved to appear at this festival of the Round Table in such guise as should be fitting to his rank and revenues.
Thus it came about that the Gascon youths found themselves furnished with tunics of blue and silver, richly embroidered with their master's cognizances, and trimmed with costly fur, with long mantles of blue cloth fastened with golden clasps, with rich girdles, furnished with gipciere and anelace, and hose and long embroidered shoes, such as they began to see were the fashion of the day in England. Their stout nags, which had carried them bravely thus far, were now exchanged for handsome animals of a better breed, horses trained to knightly exercises, and capable of carrying their masters bravely through any game of battle or tourney such as the King loved to organize when he had his knights round him. It was often that the esquires as well as the knights competed in these contests of skill and strength, or followed their masters into some great melee, and it was a point of honour with the latter that their followers should be well and suitably equipped for the sport.
"By my faith, but I wish good Margot and the holy Father could see us now," quoth Gaston, laughing, as Sir James and his followers sallied forth one bright December morning to take their last stage on the journey to Windsor.
They had traversed the main distance the day previously, for Sir James had no wish to arrive weary and travel stained at the King's Court. Orders had been given for every man to don his best riding dress and look well to the trappings of his steed, and it was a gallant-looking company indeed that sallied out from the door of the wayside hostelry and took the road towards the great Castle, glimpses of which began from time to time to be visible through the trees.
"I trow they would scarce know us! There be moments, Raymond, when I scarce know myself for the same. It seems as though years had passed since we left the old home, and by the Mass I feel as though I were a new being since then!"
"Yea, verily, and I also," answered Raymond, looking round him with eager eyes. "Gaston, look well about thee; for by what Malcolm says, these very woods through which we shall pass, and the Manor of old Windsor hard by, are the property of our uncle Sir John de Brocas, the King's Master of the Horse; and by what I hear, methinks we shall see him in the flesh ere the day has passed."
"Ha!" exclaimed Gaston, with interest; "if that be so let us heed him well, for much of our future may hang on him. He is in the King's favour, they say, and if he did but plead our cause with the Roy Outremer, we might well look to call Basildene our home ere long."
"We must call him no longer the Roy Outremer," said Raymond, with a smile. "If we are to be the brothers of Basildene, we must be English subjects and he our liege lord."
"True," answered Gaston readily; "and methinks, if he be what all men say, it will be no hardship to own ourselves his subjects. I would ten thousand times sooner call myself so than be servant to yon weak and treacherous King of France."
At that moment an interruption occurred to delay the little cavalcade for a few moments. The road they were traversing led them past a solid gateway, which showed that upon one side at least the property was that of a private individual; and just as they were approaching this gateway the portal swung open, and out of it rode a fine-looking man of middle age and imposing aspect, followed by three youths richly attired, and by some dozen mounted attendants. The leader of the party wore a dress that was evidently the livery of some office — a tunic of blue and a cape of white Brussels cloth. His cap was of white and blue, and the King's badge of a silver swan was fastened in the front.
As he rode out, the esquires round Gaston and Raymond drew rein and whispered one to another:
"It is the King's Master of the Horse!"
Eagerly and curiously the two lads gazed at the face and figure of the kinsman now before them, whilst Sir James spurred his horse forward, a smile lighting up the grave face of the King's servant.
"Marry well met, good Sir James!" was the hearty greeting of the latter, as the two men grasped hands. "I warrant you will be welcome at the Castle, whither, I doubt not, your steps are bent. It was but two days since that his Majesty was asking news of you, no man knowing rightly whither you had gone, nor upon what errand. There be fine musterings already at the Court, and every day brings some fresh faces to the gathering assembly. I trow that such a sight as will shortly be witnessed within those walls has scarce been seen by England before."
"Nay, nor since the days of good King Arthur, if all be true that I have heard," answered Sir James. "Be these gallant youths your sons, Sir John? Verily time flies! I have not been in these parts for full three years. I scarce know them once again."
"Yes, these be my three sons," answered the father, with a proud glance at the handsome youths, who came up at a sign from him to be presented to the knight. "It may well be many long years since you saw them, for they have often been away from my side, travelling in foreign parts with my good brother, and learning the lessons of life as I have been able to see occasion. This is John, my first born. Oliver and Bernard follow after him. I trust in years to come they will live to win their spurs in the King's service. They are often about the Court, and the Prince has chosen them amongst his serviens. But they have not yet seen war, albeit I trow they will not be missing when the day for fighting shall come, which I verily believe will not be long now."