THE FALL OF THE GRAND SARRASIN
BEING A CHRONICLE OF SIR NIGEL DE BESSIN, KNIGHT, OF THINGS THAT HAPPED IN GUERNSEY ISLAND, IN THE NORMAN SEAS, IN AND ABOUT THE YEAR ONE THOUSAND AND FIFTY-SEVEN.
WILLIAM JOHN FERRAR.
ILLUSTRATED BY HAROLD PIFFARD.
PUBLISHED UNDER THE DIRECTION OF THE GENERAL LITERATURE COMMITTEE.
SOCIETY FOR PROMOTING CHRISTIAN KNOWLEDGE,
NORTHUMBERLAND AVENUE, W.C.;
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BRIGHTON: 129, NORTH STREET.
NEW YORK: E.S. GORHAM.
Some people bring home a bundle of sketches from their summer holiday—water-colour memories of cliff, of sea, ruined castle, and ancient abbey. I brought back from the Channel Islands these pages here printed, as a kind of bundle of sketches in black and white, put together day by day as a holiday-task, and forming a string, as it were, on which the memories of ramble after ramble were threaded,—rambles from end to end of Guernsey, and rambles, too, among the treasures of the Guille-Alles Library. I enjoyed my holiday all the better, as I peopled the cliffs and glens with the shadows of eight hundred years ago, and I hope that others may find some reality and some pleasure in the result as it is given here.
If any inquire into the real historical foundations for the story, I refer them to the few notes at the end of the book, which will reveal without much doubt where fiction begins and fact ends. I hope I may be allowed a little license in the treatment of facts. There is—is there not?—a logic of fiction, as well as a logic of facts. At least there seemed to be as I wrote the story, and I hope no one who reads it will be inclined to quarrel with any part of it because its only basis is—imagination. Anyway, I will shelter myself under the great words of a great man, in the preface of one of the great books of the world: "For herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue, and sin. Do after the good and leave the evil, and it shall bring you to good fame and renommee. And for to pass the time this book shall be pleasant to read in, but for to give faith and belief that all is true that is contained herein, ye be at your liberty: but all is written for our doctrine, and for to beware that we fall not to vice nor sin, but to exercise and follow virtue by the which we may come and attain to good fame and renown in this life, and after this short and transitory life to come unto everlasting bliss in heaven" (Preface of William Caxton to "The Book of King Arthur").
Of how I, Nigel de Bessin, was brought up by the monks of the Vale in Guernsey Island, and how on a certain day the abbot gave me choice of two lives, and which I chose. 5
Of Vale Castle hard by the Abbey, and how I was sent with a letter to Archbishop Maugher, and by the way first saw the Sarrasin pirates at work. 12
Of my Lord Maugher and his Familiar Demon. How he received the abbot's letter, and how I was courteously entertained at his house of Blanchelande. 18
Of the coming of the Sarrasins in force, and of the building of their chateau—Of Brother Hugo's confidence in God, and how I rang the alarm-bell at St. Pierre Port. 28
Of what befell the abbot's envoys to Duke William, our liege lord, and more particularly Brother Ralf, and how we were hemmed in by our foes. 34
Of our passing from cloister to castle, and of the burning of Vale Abbey—Of the siege of the castle, and the exploits of Brother Hugo. 40
Of Le Grand Sarrasin, and of the renewed attack upon Vale Castle—Of my first deeds of arms, and how the Moors were beaten back. 47
How I was sent forth by my lord abbot to seek protection of Duke William, and of what befell me by the way of the pirates. 54
Of our battle on the rocks of Jersey Isle, and how Simon gave up his life, and how I was taken captive and brought back. 61
How I was brought before Le Grand Sarrasin, and of his magnificence—How I saw Folly in his chamber, and was lodged in a cavern under earth. 65
By what means I was delivered from Le Grand Sarrasin, and how I found shelter with the priest of St. Apolline's. 72
Of my second setting-forth for Normandy, and in what guise I took passage. 80
How I arrived at St. Malo, and, proceeding to the Abbey of St. Michael de Tombelaine, found friends to set me on my road. 85
How, being given letters to Duke William by the Abbots of St. Michael and of Bec, I set out for Coulances, and of what befell me on my way. 93
How I saw an evil face at a casement, and how at my uncle's house of St. Sauveur I heard tell of my father—And of what happed on our getting forth for Valognes. 99
How, at length I was brought before William, Conquestor Invictissimus, of all soldiers the greatest, and most invincible of dukes—Of the manner he received my mission, and of the expedition of Samson d'Anville. 106
Of the journey of our ships to relieve the Brethren of the Vale, and how we fought a great battle with the Moors outside the Bay of L'Ancresse. 113
The story of the relief of Vale Castle. 122
How we set forth to attack Le Chateau du Grand Sarrasin—Of the Normans' valour, and of the flight of our foes. 128
Of the sore slaughter in the glen of Moulin Huet, and on the shore, and how Le Grand Sarrasin was slain, and of his secret. 135
Conclusion. How, the above matters being finished, I was made known to my father. 143
A. Archbishop Maugher 147
B. Vale Abbey 148
C. Vale Castle 148
D. Visit of Duke Robert 149
E. The Sarrazins in Guernsey 150
F. The Expedition of Samson d'Anville 150
Of how I, Nigel de Bessin, was brought up by the monks of the Vale in Guernsey Island, and how on a certain day the abbot gave me choice of two lives, and which I chose.
This is the chronicle of me, Nigel de Bessin, of good Norman stock, being a cadet of the great house, whose elder branch is even to-day settled at St. Sauveur, in the Cotentin. And I write it for two reasons. First, for the sake of these grandchildren, Geoffrey, Guy, and William, who gather round me in the hall here at Newton, asking for the story of great deeds of old days, such as were the deeds of Tancred and Duke Rollo, and him I loved and fought for—loved, though stern he was and rude—William, who by his mighty conquest gave us our place in this fair realm. And second, since the winter days are long, and I go no more out to hunt or to fight as of old, to recall all this and more will have much sweetness, and delight my old heart with gentle memories, like the smell of lavender laid between robes or napery in the oak press yonder, as one takes this or that from the store.
And first, how came I to write it in such clerkly wise? Ay, that was through the foresight of my uncle, the Vicomte de Bessin, since I knew not then my father, and the good care of the monks of the Vale, and chiefly of Brother Bernard, a ripe scholar and a good, with whom I progressed so well in learning, that at fifteen I was more like to have put this grissled head under a cowl than under a soldier's helm. A fair place was L'Ancresse in the days of Abbot Michael, false Maugher, and the Grand Sarrasin. And a good school of manners and of learning of books and piety, that may aid men in their earthly life, was the Vale Cloister. I see it now—the quiet, sober place, with its great round arches, and its seats of stone, pleasant and cool in summer, bitter cold in winter, when the wind came in sharp from the Eastern sea, so that we wrapt our Norway furs about us, and shivered as we sat, till Brother Bernard said, "Up, lads; catch who catch can up to the Viking's tomb!" or "Haste ye now, and run to meet the pirates in Bordeaux Bay, and bring them to me to shrive, ere ye do them to death, as Normans should!" The blood ran free and warm then, and the limbs grew straight and strong, and the muscles of arms and legs like whipcord, and brown we were as the brown rocks of L'Ancresse Bay, as we played at war on those salt-breathed plains—Guy, Rainauld, Gwalkelyn. Alas! they are all passed to their account! There were no aches or pains of back or shoulder; there were no mean jealousies, no bitter hatreds, no discourtesies, no words that suit not the sons of good knights or lords, but wrestle or tussle and mock battle, and tourney, and race by land or water in summer, when our bodies gleamed white beneath the calm waves as we played like young dolphins in the bay. And ever and anon would Brother Hugo be amongst us, his cowl thrown back, and his keen eagle face furrowed into merriment as he sped on some knightly play—for he himself was a nobleman, and had been a good knight, and a famous name lay hid under that long Benedictine robe. Thus, wondrous peacefully and happily had I been reared with other right princely youths and some of humble lineage in that fair place. And but one unhappiness ever disturbed my joyous spirit. It was that while all had fathers and mothers that loved them, and took pride in their increase in learning year by year, or else had dear memories of those that were their parents, I had been told naught of my parents save their name, and asking of them was bidden not to ask further. This at times was a grief to my spirit, but amid so many joys it weighed not on me heavily.
Now it was before the coming of the Grand Sarrasin and his troop of the wild off-scouring of every sea, that settled in the midst of the isle and defied lord and squire, abbot and prior—it was before those days with which my chronicle has most to do—that to me, Nigel, sitting conning an old book of knightly exploits, which for a reward Brother Hugo let us read on summer days, came a summons to go and see no less a one than the abbot himself. Now, the abbot was a great man of holy and blameless life, that sat in his own chamber towards the west, and had much traffic in matters of State and Church with the duke, and messengers went often to and fro from him to Caen, Rouen, and Paris, and in that year, the year one thousand and fifty-seventh since the birth of the Saviour of men, ever adorable and blessed, there was much afoot, for William, with the young blood still in him, gaining to himself by force of will chief power upon the mainland, was already spreading his wings like a young falcon for another more terrible flight. And lately Maugher, his uncle, and his bitterest foe though out of his own household, he had banished, archbishop though he was, from Rouen, to our small Isle of Guernsey, where there was scarce footing for the tread of so great and dark a schemer in high matters. And already the Conqueror had himself appeared at Edward's Court in England, and prepared his way thither.
I was near sixteen years old, and I stood tall for my years, some five foot and a half, and for a lad I was well made, if yet lacking my full strength and girth round the chest, such a lad as in two years more Geoffrey my grandson will grow to, if God will. Fair I should have been if I were not burnt black with the hot sun pouring through the salt air, and my fair hair clustered crisp and neat round my temples and neck. So stood I, no doubt a fair and honourable youth, at the entering in of the abbot's inner chamber.
And the abbot, sitting in his carven chair amid his rolls of parchment and instruments of writing, raised me swiftly as I stooped to kiss his hand. Dark-eyed, hawk-nosed, with black hair not yet flecked with snow, there was an awe and stateliness in him whether he spoke to gentle or to simple. He was a Norman, and being such feared none, and had his will, and when it was possible mixed a rare gentleness with his acts and words.
"Son," said he, "thou hast been happy here?"
The keen eyes were fixed upon me, and I could not but answer the truth, even had I wished to lie.
"Yes, holy father," I answered.
"And thou wouldst stay here ever?" The eyes were still upon me, and they searched my soul as a bright flush, I knew, rose to my cheek, and I hesitated how to answer. Then suddenly, as I stood in doubt, they seemed to change, and it was as if sunlight gleamed over a landscape that before lay dark and grim, for the abbot smiled upon me with the kindest of all smiles. "Thou feelest no calling to the cloister and the cowl, the book and the pen, the priesthood, and the life of prayer?"
"Ah, no, holy Father." I had gained my tongue, and spoke boldly, if reverently. "Books and prayer are good; but I am young, and there is a world beyond these grey walls, and my kinsmen fight and do rather than pray or read."
"The eaglet beats his wings against his cage already," said the abbot, kindly; "it is indeed a shapely bird. Thou art right, lad. There is a world outside, where men strive and fight and do—how blindly and how wildly thou knowest not. But the battle is not to the strong or the race to the swift, though so it seem. Go, then, out into the world boldly but warily, and be thou a good soldier, as thou art a good scholar. Thine uncle shall know of these words between us."
I knelt again and kissed his hand, and left his broad and pleasant chamber.
And outside I strolled upon the green, dim vague thoughts surging up swift into my mind, as I went striding on swifter than I knew. Ere long I reached the extreme limit of the land, the high-piled rocks of L'Ancresse. I looked out upon the sea to where Auremen lay flat and wide against the sky, and I thought I could descry the Norman shores and La Hague Cape stretching towards me; and, though I knew no home but the Vale Cloister, another voice of home seemed calling me over thither. A voice in which battlecries and trumpet-blasts were strangely mingled; and I seemed to see men fighting and striving, and banners and pennons flying; and a voice seemed to spring up from my soul, bidding me go forth, and fight and strive with them, and gain something—I knew not what.
I knew not then; but I know now, what that voice was, that yearning, that discontent with the past. It was the Norman blood rising within me, the blood of force, and battle, and achievement. Surely there is something in us Normans—a hidden fire, which sends us forth and onwards, and makes us claim what we will for our own! And having claimed it, we fight for it, and fighting we win it. So with Tancred of Hauteville, so with Rou, so with William. Will of iron, heart of fire! A grand thing it is to be born a Norman.
Of Vale Castle, hard by the Abbey, and how I was sent with a letter to Archbishop Maugher, and by the way first saw the Sarrasin pirates at work.
Now, men were busy in the Vale. I have yet said no word of Vale Castle, built a mile away from the cloister, of hewn stone, goodly and strong. It lay upon the left horn of St. Sampson's Harbour, near where that holy man landed with the good news of God in days of old, and its stout bastions rested on the bare rock, and its walls seemed one with the rock below, so thick and stout they were, built as Normans alone can build, to last as long as the rocks, as long as the earth. And in Vale Castle no lord or baron ruled. It was the Castle and outward defence of the Vale Cloister, and its lord was the Abbot of the Vale. And within its ramparts there was room (as we found ere long), in times of danger from pirate or strange foes, for all the brethren and children of the Cloister, and for many more besides, so that when the watch-tower fire sprang into life upon the beacon, and the alarm-bell rang out by night or day, the folk of the dale came flocking in with their babes and their most prized goods for shelter beneath the abbot's wing. Vale Castle feared no pirate-band, and in a short space all our most precious things could be secured behind those walls snug and safe enough, until the evil men who had come to alarm our peace steered their long ships away again, sore dissatisfied with the plunder of our isle. So well guarded we were, and so strong were our three castles, within whose walls all who listed could find safety. As, indeed, it proved in the attack of the great Moor, of which this chronicle will chiefly tell.
Now, the Castle had been built some forty years before, by none other than the great Cherbourg himself, Duke Robert's engineer. For it chanced that Duke Robert was royally entertained years ago by Abbot Magloirios, when he was forced by foul weather to put into L'Ancresse Bay, who, on his departure, left Cherbourg and other skilled men to build three castles for their safety against pirates. So it was through Duke Robert's stay at the Vale that our Castle was made so strong. Thus God brought here, as ever, good out of evil.
And among the lay brothers were good soldiers, who could man the Castle. And once, in bygone days, they say a whole company of knights (all resting now in Abraham's bosom, and their bodies in the Vale churchyard) came together, and sought to be made quit of the world and its strife in our peaceful cloister. These, though they left the world behind, were able to teach for safety's sake something of warlike matters to the brethren; and thus it chanced that our brothers were ready to be men of war when peace was impossible, and men said of them, in rhyming fashion—
"White cowl and white cloak, Chain-mail and hard stroke."
Now, about this Castle of late men had been more than ever busy. Sundry instruments of besieged men of a new and deadly fashion lay in the armoury, and were at times by Brother Hugo brought out and practised by the brethren that formed, as he said, his corps d'armes. Then were they soldiers indeed, not monks at all, as, cassock and cowl thrown aside, they drew the bows, or aimed with their great engines the balls of stone and iron.
Now, it was in those days that the abbot sent me on matters more heavy than I knew to that archbishop of whom I have already made mention, who, his state laid aside, lay in exile as a poor humble man, though Duke William's uncle, in a small moat-house, by name Blanchelande, with little land attached beyond the forest of St. Pierre, and hard by the bay of the Saints of God.
Though I would fain haste to our meeting, yet must I first tell what manner of man he was reckoned by the folk of our island and by ourselves. Abbot Michael had expressly charged us, on his first coming, we should believe nothing of aught we heard of him. Yet tales went round, and gathered force as they went, ill tales that took scant time to travel; and we lads, innocent of mind, were full of shame for what was common talk, and we were ready to believe that here was no common sinner. We knew there were witch women whom men justly burn for sin. And of Archbishop Maugher men said a spirit of evil ever went with him, or was at his hand.
Now, when abbot Michael gave me the missive into my hand, there was a look in his face that seemed to ask if I feared the journey; but I took it readily and heartily, and turned to go.
"Stay," said the abbot, as I went. "Bring me word how my Lord Archbishop takes my letter, what he says, how he looks. Bring me his slightest word, his least look. Thou art quick and clever. Do my bidding as a good lad should. Thou hast naught to fear of such as he."
So I went forth boldly, leaving the Vale behind me, and within an hour had entered among the trees that part it from the forest land.
Now, in due course of travel I reached that high point of the isle whence through the trees one can look down on all sides save the south, and see the blue waves and the distant islands, and there lay, I knew, the earthworks of an ancient fort, that the first tenants of the isle used for defence in days long past—yea, and their wall of stone circled the space this way and that, and the roofless walls of some building—a temple perhaps—stood near, wherein they worshipped the false god of the sky or the hearth; here awhile I rested, and after brake again into the path, and made for the Bay of the Saints, where Maugher dwelt.
Now, I was not far upon my road when I heard a faint whistle through the trees, and, running back a few yards, I saw the old ruins I had left, not empty, as I had left them, but—strange sight—tenanted, I could see, by men, and, as I thought, men of evil aspect. Now, I knew that they had seen me, and thought me well upon my road, so I dared not return; and, indeed, I feared in my heart, for I had little doubt they were pirates, if not spirits of the men of old of whom I had been dreaming. Therefore I went swiftly on my path, and covered quite a mile ere I brake into the forest again, and made my way back to another side of that old ruined fort. Now, as I crept up, I saw little that was strange—only two men walking to and fro in earnest conversation, and from where I lay—for nearer I durst not approach—I could hear nothing of their talk. They were men of light and supple build, bearded, and of dark swarthy skin, as of those who know no shelter but the decking of a ship, and their hands were seldom absent, as they paced it side by side, from the hilts of the brace of daggers swinging from their waists. I guessed that they were pirates, and my heart fell as I remembered what manner of men they were—haters of all—their God, their king, their fellow-men—and how, in consequence, the hand of man was against their hand, as their hand was against man's. Where were the other men I had seen? In a moment I guessed the truth, for I caught the dull sound of digging and delving in the earth below—thud, thud, thud—as of many spades and picks, and beyond the angle of the wall I saw the earthwork piled with new earth in many places. So my young eyes peered curiously and cautiously out through the leaves, and a flood of feelings struggled in my heart, and the digging went on—thud, thud, thud—beneath my very feet, and the two strange men trod ever up and down, staying at times upon their way to point to this side or that, to tap the wall, or draw figures with their swords amid the fallen leafage.
I stood a long time fixed to the ground, and then with a great effort I stole noiselessly away, and, once on the beaten track, I hasted on to the moat-house.
With a heart that I could hear beating, I turned my back on the bay, and, crossing the little drawbridge, craved of a warder at the gate—half fisher, half ecclesiastic, in a frayed frock and seamen's shoes—an audience of my Lord the Archbishop for the delivery of a missive from the Abbot of the Vale, that must be delivered into his hand alone.
Of my Lord Maugher and his Familiar Demon. How he received the abbot's letter, and how I was courteously entertained at his house of Blanchelande.
And my lord was not difficult of access. He sat in a deep chair in the hall, and round him were all manner of strange things whose shape and name I knew not, but little was there save old rolls of parchment to betoken a Churchman's dwelling. A great table held bottles of many shapes of glass and earthenware, and optic glasses and tools lay intermingled. I caught the gleam of much bright steel on settle and shelf—chain-mail, targe, dagger, helmet, and sword. A great warrior's complete equipment, tunic and hose of mail, shield, and helm, hung before me as I entered. Three huge hounds, with heavy chaps hanging loose from their jaws, lay about the hearth, but only noted my entrance with a drowsy gaze, then dropped back upon their paws; but a strange ugly creature, like an ill-shaped child, that was so vile to look on that I thought him the very Devil himself, crouching on the table by the archbishop's side, set up a chattering and a muttering, with now and then a kind of mocking laughter like a madman's meaningless merriment. Nor would he cease until my lord clouted him twice or thrice rudely on his ill-favoured crown with a "Hist, folly, stay thy devil's clatter." Now, this beast it was, one, I suppose, of those apes that King Solomon trafficked in, that gave rise to the saying that a familiar from Hell housed with my lord in Guernsey. But being of a bold spirit, and expecting even worse than I yet saw from the ill-fame of my lord, and the tales of monk and churl, I stood firm, and with something of a courtier's air placed in his hand the letter I bore, with a simple, "Greeting, your grace, from my lord the Abbot of the Vale;" and as I gave the letter, I set my gaze on him for the first time square and straight, and met eyes as keen and straight as mine own. Now, this surprised me, for I had heard evil men could not look straight into men's faces. He was far above the common height, and his body and face were very fat; like a great bull of the stall he lay in his chair. His face was full and red, and I noted he had little hair, save a mass, half grey, half red, that clung about his ears and neck. Of his passions I was soon to see evidence, for having gazed at me a moment, he took the letter from my hand, tore away the seal, and unrolled the scroll. As he did so I saw another little scroll roll out, which fell upon the ground before my feet. Then I knelt and handed this to him likewise. Can I ere forget his look as he took it from me, or wrung it rather from my fingers?
"Whence hast thou this? Whence came it?" he shrieked, with a rabble of ill words; and for a moment it seemed he would have crushed me in his great sinewy clenched hands as I stood there before him. His face was scarlet that before was only red. Great black veins started up upon his forehead, and his round blue eyes were straining out of the flesh in which they were enclosed.
I stood firm before him, and humbly showed him that the second scroll fell out of the first. Then he turned suddenly upon his heel and went towards the window, and looking forth upon the bay below in a few moments calmed himself, read what was writ on the first scroll, and with an air of unconcern tossed them to a corner of the table.
"Thou knowest naught of these papers, lad?" he said at length.
"Naught, my lord, in good faith, save that I bore them hither."
"And thou didst well to do that," he said, "for here is a matter dangerous to me, as thou sawest by mine anger. Your good abbot hath done well to send me this letter by thee."
I answered not, since it was not for me to speak, and yet I craved to know what could be in the second scroll to move him so.
"May I return with your grace's greeting or other message to my lord?" I said.
"Ay, and by word of mouth," he said. "We exiled men well-nigh forget to write, nor have much practice in the tools of the clerk. Tell the abbot the Archbishop of Rouen thanks him for his courtesy, and that this paper—this paper was written by some foe of other days that chooses thus to strike the fallen. Canst thou carry that."
I said I could, but I thought that there was an ill lie behind his words.
"Hist, good lad, what is thy name?" said he.
"Nigel de Bessin, nephew of the Vicomte of St. Sauveur," I answered.
He pondered and gazed at me curiously. "Ay, well I knew thy grandsire, the old vicomte," said he. "And thine uncle has had of me other gifts than shriving."
Now it came into my heart to ask him of my father, since he knew my grandsire and my uncle; so I said boldly—
"And didst thou know my father?"
"Ay, I knew him—I knew him," said he; "but what do they tell thee of him?"
"Nothing, in sooth, my lord," I answered; "and bid me wait till my pupilage is over."
"Then I may tell thee naught more than thou knowest, save that we were good friends. Thou wilt not long be bearing missives for your abbot, if thou art like thy sires. Thou art soon for Normandy?"
I wished not to unfold my purpose to this man, so I simply bowed, and prepared to go with due courtesy. Now, as I knelt upon one knee, he laid his hand upon my shoulder wondrous kindly, and raised me up by the arm, and led me to a seat so gently that for the moment I forgot that I distrusted him. Then he spoke of studies, and brought down some great tomes, excellently well writ and pictured in French scriptoria, and turning from them to his table he showed me a wondrous box, which looking through, as I held it up, I saw as it were the far off bay draw near to mine eyes, so that I could see men walk clear where I saw but shapes before. And with surprise I well-nigh dropped it from my hands. He took it from me, and told me I had seen what none had seen in the earth before but he alone.
And the thought entering into my mind that here was something more than human, he seemed to guess it, and said with a smile that was hard and keen—
"Nor is there wizardry therein, save the wizardry of a lonely man, that devises new solace for his loneliness."
A pasty was ere long set before us and a flask of wine, whereof we both partook.
"Say not," said he, "that my lord of Rouen sends his guests hungry away."
So we ate together. And after eating, as the sun was already stealing down the western sky, he bade me farewell, and pressed a little ring upon my finger as I left him, bidding me not forget to see him again ere I left for the wars, and at any time he said he would stand my friend, with a greater air of power, it struck me, than one could show who knew no other future than more long years of exile, such as he now lived in our small isle.
Now, as I turned from the drawbridge at the moat-house of Blanchelande to go homewards the remembrance came to me of those men that I guessed were pirates digging their storehouse in mother earth in the midst of the wood. And thinking on it, though I feared them not, I had no taste to return to the vale that way. So, instead, I followed the path rugged and uneven as it was, along the side of the cliff to the northward. First along the gorge of the Bay of Saints I went by the side of the stream that ran singing from Blanchelande, and then I cut straight up the cliff amid the heather, and so came into sight of Moulin Huet, where an ugly craft, that I liked not the sight of lay at anchor, right under the nose of Jerbourg Castle, wherein our abbot had a small corps of men, even as at the Vale. I stood a moment looking down on her riding deep in the sky-blue water, and presently I saw a boat put out from shore with men on board that rowed towards her. I could not tell if they were the same I saw up by the chateau, but I guessed they were, as I saw them climb into the bark. And then I journeyed on, clinging here and there to the cliff or the green stuff that grew thereon, like a very cat of the woods, past Fermain Bay, and through the little township of St. Pierre Port, and I wondered, since the pirate bark was so near at hand, that naught was stirring in the street or on the jetty. Now, St. Pierre Port was a pleasant place to me. A little world of its own, for every man of St. Pierre Port was a soldier, and could draw bow and slash with his broadsword, and pirates meddled not much with St. Pierre Port, for its men were tough and stern and loved their homes right well.
I stayed not to chatter with fishermen or priest to-day; but hasted on, and at length the little tower of St. Sampson arose before me, and ere long I was at the abbot's lodging.
The abbot paced up and down his orchard and garden of flowers.
"Thou art late, my son," said he. "Did my lord detain you?"
"My lord," I said, "was very kind and gentle, far beyond that I dreamed possible, and kept me with good entertainment and choice converse far into the day."
"And my lord was pleasing to thy taste?" said Abbot Michael, with a strange smile, not like his own, that I knew not.
"How may I, holy Father," answered I, "speak aught but well of him, who did me no ill, but good only? And, indeed, my lord spake to me out of his store of knowledge, as to one not ignorant and young; but, indeed, like himself in age and state. And yet, in good faith, he pleased me not at first."
"And how was that?"
"There seemed indeed, Father, somewhat that I distrusted, and then his passion at the opening of thy scroll was terrible to see."
"Ay, was he moved? And what said he when he perceived that inner scroll?" inquired the abbot.
"Moved, Father! I thought he might have done some deadly deed. But he calmed himself at length."
"And what sent he in return?"
"Nothing in writing," I answered, "but this by my mouth—that the inner scroll was the writing of some foe of other days, who thus strikes at a fallen man."
The abbot mused in silence at this reply, and took a pace or two beside his lily border. Then he gazed seriously at me for a moment, and bade me walk by his side.
"Thou hast seen to-day, son, one of the world's schemers, and thou hadst been, as was natural, deceived by him. With ill men first impressions are the true ones. Thou hadst been more than a stripling of the cloister, and we had taught thee over well for thy years, had he, whose power has lain in such arts, not made thee love him in spite of thyself. Son, dost thou know why this Maugher lies here in exile?"
"Ay, Father, was he not like St. John of old, who said, 'Thou shalt not have her:' to King Herod?" answered I, as I thought aptly.
"Indeed, my son, they said so, and strong were the archbishop's words when Duke William wedded against God's law. But thou wilt learn, that words and censures of Holy Church are too oft like daggers and knives in the hands of evil men in high places of the Church—and such was this censure of the marriage of Matilda in the hand of Maugher. He would have cut his way with it—dost thou know whither, son?"
"My son, to the dukedom itself, Churchman though he was."
I listened in astonishment, and an air of doubt must have shone out from my innocent eyes, that never knew to hide the thought within.
"Wouldst thou have proof of this that I say, and know how even to-day this serpent in our island-grass bites at the heel of princely authority?" the abbot asked.
"Indeed, Father, I would. His words to me so frank, his description of great men so just—his——" I was about to be fervent indeed in the praise of my new-found friend. Abbot Michael drew a scroll from his breast, and held it before my eyes with firm fingers, watching me intently the while. It was like the scroll I had taken to Blanchelande within the other. It was the same scroll, or a cunning copy, for there lay two great hasty blots upon it in one corner, and its signature ran up the page like a ladder against a wall.
"Read here, and here," said he, "and understand how this cursed man would incite milder men to shed Duke William's blood!"
Of the coming of the Sarrasins in force, and of the building of their chateau. Of Brother Hugo's confidence in God, and how I rang the alarm-bell at St. Pierre Port.
Through that journey to Blanchelande I was able to give the first warning to the abbot, and Brother Hugo, our tete d'armee, of the presence of new pirates in the very midst of the isle, through the ugly sight I had seen on my way by what men called the chateau.
And, indeed, all looked grave at my account, and Hugo shook his head, and he and the abbot and Martin and Richard had long and anxious converse in the Castle, and already we were bid to move very many of our holy things that bedecked the Church, or were used in God's service, within the Castle wall, and the builders had set up among the ramparts long sheds of wood, wherein began to be stored all manner of com, brought in from all the granaries around.
For the abbot had received from St. Michael's Mount and other places on the Breton coast most portentous accounts of a gathering together of the pirates of the sea and marauders of the land, and that some devil's bond had been forged between them, and that the wildest and most daring of these villains of every race and land had elected as their chief captain one whom they named "the Grand Sarrasin," one born of that black race, the deadliest enemy of Christendom. Others called him "Le Grand Geoffroy" as though they would save him at least from the black stamp of Paynim birth; but for us he was ever the Grand Sarrasin, and still the Grand Sarrasin, cursed a hundred times a day by every tongue in our cloister and island.
Now, as I saw Brother Hugo on the ramparts and knew, though full of matters now, he grudged not a word to us lads whom he loved full well, I spake to him thus—
"What news to-day, brother, of 'Le Grand Sarrasin'?" I spake half in jest indeed, for long ere this, this very brother had made great sport of pirates and their dark deeds, and especially, ere this name I spake had risen to such a sound of evil omen, had he delighted to tease the children of the cloister therewith. As on some dangerous path he would whisper, "Go not that way for fear of Le Grand Sarrasin!" or out in the fishing-smack, he would point to some cosy, full-bottomed trading ship with a "Hist, lads, the great Geoffroy there astern!" But now Brother Hugo liked not the jest, but looked sternly at me from beneath his great brows.
"Le Grand Sarrasin!" said he, "if so thou lovest to call the vilest foam of filth on these Norman seas, this day last week rode into St. Brieuc by night with eighteen ships, climbed into the fort, none letting him, slit the throat of a sentinel and warder, barred the garrison into its own quarters, and poured like a midnight pestilence through the streets, bidding his Paynim hounds of slaughter, without pity and without fear, enter where they listed, and that they did. And there by night in St. Brieuc, good men and good wives, who never harmed man or beast were knifed as they lay, the young maids led captive, and the babes flung like useless baggage through windows into the gutter, and that is the last I have heard of Le Grand Sarrasin!" said Brother Hugo, sadly enough.
I stood beside him silently, and the salt tears burst painfully under my eyelids as I heard the fate of that poor town by the Breton coast.
"Ay, weep, lad, weep!" he said. "And God give strength to our arms to show him better than tears, if he come our way, this fiend that fears not God nor man."
"But the monks, brother, are they not safe? The worst pirates ofttimes fear to touch holy men and holy places," I interposed.
"The monks of St Brieuc," he said solemnly and sadly, "holy men and servants of the poor, lie cold and still in their dormitories, brother by brother, saint by saint. And the sun looks in on them and sees their faces agonized in death, and the blind eyes staring with horror at the fate that woke them but for death. In such wise the Sarrasin's devils fear holy men and holy places."
I saw Brother Hugo as he looked far out to sea in his turn dash the drops of salt from his eyes, and strive to master his sorrow.
"Should they come our way?" I asked, in bitter questioning.
"Surely, ere long!" he answered, "and we shall be prepared. I pray to God, and—smile not at it, lad—some sort of vision in a dream has come to me that the downfall of 'the Grand Sarrasin' shall be through us, brethren of the Vale, and perhaps through me."
A kind of holy look floated into his face as he said this and looked seaward; an upward look as of seraphs close to God, not seraphs frail and delicate, but full of lusty strength and goodly spirit of war, such as went forth with Michael, when there was war in Heaven.
"Be strong, and of good courage!" he murmured to himself; and, pausing awhile, strode with me across the fort, showing me this or that, that was fresh provided for safety, and the goodly stores of food, and the watchmen even now out on the towers, and the alarms all ready to call in the defenceless. Indeed all was there that a great captain could devise for safety in time of border warfare.
"Thou knowest," he said presently, pointing towards the chateau, "that it is forbid to travel thither. Nigel, it is a very castle they are building, and beside it this fortress of ours is weak and small."
"It will be then," I said, "maybe a strife of castle with castle," said I.
"Ay, so it will," he said, "and that ere long."
"Then, Brother Hugo, I need not voyage to Normandy to taste battle under Duke William."
"The battle," said Hugo, "will be hot enough before these very walls. Therefore thou shalt be my esquire and learn to taste blood under my command."
Indeed I had no higher desire than this, and so I said.
* * * * *
Now, it was not many days after these words, one afternoon about evensong, a summons came to Hugo from the watchman on the wall at Vale Castle. He called me to go with him. We swiftly reached the rampart, the watchman saying nothing, simply pointed to the northward, and then we saw a very fleet of ships—pirate ships, we felt sure—bearing steadily towards Grand Havre. And one that seemed longer and heavier than the rest ran far ahead.
"They are making for their anchorage in Moulin Huet," said Hugo, "and it were well for our islanders to be prepared this night. Light the beacon, honest Bertrand, let it carry its bright word from Vale to Ivy Castle, from Ivy to St. Pierre, from St. Pierre to Jerbourg, though they lie at anchor below, to Torteval and far Lihou, and thou, son, shalt take a kindly message to the men of St. Pierre."
In a few moments the bright flame burst out on the rampart tower, like a red tongue of fire telling forth a deadly message. And lo! I saw, as I went, other tongues leap forth along the coast from tower and castle, all singing out in direful glee the same word "War."
And once within the market-place I ran as I was bid to the Church of St. Pierre, and great man I felt myself, as I pushed open the church door and took the bell-rope in my hand. "Ding-dong!" rang out the alarm bell from the tower hasty and quick, and ere twenty pulls at the rope, the townsmen were all around, and I was drawn into the market-place, and there at the head of the Rue des Vaches I sang out lustily—
"Good men, good citizens and sons of St Pierre, make fast your defences, and man your walls this night; the fleet of Le Grand Sarrasin is anchored in Moulin Huet."
Of what befell the abbot's envoys to Duke William, our liege lord, and more particularly Brother Ralf, and how we were hemmed in by our foes.
There was no attack of the pirates upon St. Pierre that night, and no assault on our castles or cloister. And those who had taken refuge within our walls, ladies and children for the most part, whose lords were at the wars, spake as though they would return home having nought to fear. But this our abbot did prevent, except the very nearest living souls. Others from afar, as Dame Maude de Torteval, and the Lady Marie de la Mahie with those that they brought with them he sternly bade to stay in their safe haven.
Now, the pirates touched nor harmed naught in Guernsey through those first days, save some few beasts they drave up to their chateau with its high bastions amidst the trees, and its great flagstaff bearing a green flag with a white curve like a sickle moon broidered on it.
And it would seem that the fleet that lay in Moulin Huet had chiefly come to disencumber itself of all manner of goods for the furnishing and defence of the castle up yonder. For some four days the train of rough-bearded men in long seamen's boots toiled to and fro from bay to castle, from castle to bay, with horse and ass, waggon and cart, till men said all the spoil of Brittany and Spain, with all manner of treasures of Moorish lands were stored in the deep caverns under the chateau. And it was even said that since Le Grand Sarrasin would be lord of Guernsey, he would treat well and justly them that dwelt therein, and that if the islanders touched not him he would smite not them, and so forth. But we of the cloister knew our abbot was no man to close his eyes, when ill was afoot around him, and that though the pirate-swarm had none other hand thrust into their comb, his at least would go there, or send others that were mightier.
And messengers to Normandy had been sent week by week, but none had of late returned. Day by day our hearts grew more anxious as we saw the number of Moorish ships in our waters, and we began to fear that they and their letters had fallen into those evil hands.
And then our worst fears were realized. It was late one evening, I stood at the cloister gate, and on the white road that led to the chateau I saw a figure I seemed to know; but kind heavens, what a figure I It was good Brother Ralf indeed! But his white skirts were slit in rags, his ankles bleeding with sore wounds; he stooped and tottered as he walked, and, horror! that women's sons should do such deeds, his ears had been hacked and hewn away, and his head hung bloody on his breast whereon a strip of parchment said—
The envoy of Michael to William returns from Geoffroy to Michael. More such will follow, and Geoffroy himself ere long cometh to do unto Michael likewise for his courtesies. Salut.
In a horror I summoned up the brothers, as they trooped out from compline-prayer, and two of the stoutest bore Ralf gently to the refectory. There, drugs and good care brought the life back to his eyes, and he smiled on us as though half in fear that we were foes.
We would have had him speak; but he spake not. And the abbot came, calm and unmoved yet, but a glitter of keen light kept glancing lightning-like from his eyes, and he said, as he stood by the settle whereon he lay—
"Speak, dear son—speak to us thy brethren."
Ralf struggled, and raised his heavy hand, and but babbled without meaning.
A quick burst of colour rushed into the abbot's face. Calm, stately, still, with a very blaze of anger hidden in his eyes, that we trembled again, he stood with that red glow in his cheeks.
"He speaks not—for he is distraught," he said. "What shall God do to men that rob their brothers of His noblest gift—the gift of reason?"
For a moment he stood in prayer, and then raised his shapely hand and blessed him thrice, and then bid us bear him to the sick-house, where sisters nursed him tenderly to life, and won him back much of strength and health—but never the gift, the abbot called God's noblest gift—for he had left that for ever behind in the chateau on the hill.
Now, this Brother Ralf had set out three weeks before in a trader's bark that sailed for Granville Harbour in Normandy. And he had borne most urgent missives from our abbot to Duke William. In them was writ how that a castle of ill-fame was already built, in them that the arch-foe himself, that so harried St. Brieuc with a very fleet of ships, either lay in the harbour, or in the new chateau.
But thus three things we knew. First, that as yet Duke William had had no word of the evil presumption of this foul settler in the isle, and could therefore send none to destroy him, and that therefore we had for the time naught but our own hands and walls to succour us. And next, we understood, that there was indeed between Le Grand Geoffroy and ourselves war that none could stay with prayer or supplication to men or to God. For whereas he knew we had sent to the duke, the sternest sweeper from land or sea of robber and marauder, to deliver us—so we knew, as we thought of Ralf, that life and life's joy would have for us neither sweetness nor endurance, if he went free, who had been to our brother without mercy and without pity. And, lastly, it was clear that Geoffroy's Moors were yet more deadly than we thought, and more numerous. They were stationed, we dreaded to believe, off every point, at all four quarters. They ringed the Norman Sea with their cursed hulks. They lay like a moving line of forts 'twixt us and William.
I longed in my heart to break through that encircling line and reach Duke William; but how could I go? The attack might at any hour come, the brethren were armed beneath their robes, all goodly things were already stored in the Castle, and we were ready to pass thither when commanded. Hugo had his watchmen on the seaward wall, and had enrolled in martial wise all the lay brethren, many gentlemen, and sundry stout herdmen, shepherds, and merchants of the island. None slept, though some lay down to sleep; two days passed without attack, but at the dawning of the third day we saw some twenty ships sweep from St. Martin's northward, and as the wind permitted, draw nearer, until they were as close as they dared come, and we saw the boats trailing astern of every ship.
Then we knew we were surrounded both on land and by sea. Yet that sheer cliff was hard to mount, running straight up to our wall from the very sea. So in God and our own walls we had confidence still, and the prayers of men in danger went up from the Abbey choir. No prayers were said in those walls, after that day for ever. The day after, church, cloister, hall, refectory, guesthouse and abbot's dwelling were flaming up to heaven, or charred and ruined amid their fallen roofs and stones.
Of our passing from cloister to castle, and of the burning of the Vale Abbey. Of their siege of the castle, and the exploits of Brother Hugo.
Now, on the next day it was close upon the hour of Lauds, when the scouts that were set in sight of the chateau among the thick brushwood and gorse, came with great haste and told us that the Moors were even now on their way to us, hoping to catch us unsuspecting at our prayers. Now we had our orders of Brother Hugo in such a case, and we simply did what we had done already at his bidding, many times for practice of safety in an hour of danger. First the great heavy doors of the monastery were closed, and the bolts drawn, and the bars of iron swung into place to stay their passage. Then we swiftly gathered up whatever still was left that was precious or useful—books, vestments, relics, and sacred vessels had gone already—and by the ringing of a little bell gathering together all that were now housed with us—a goodly company indeed it was of old and young—with all due confidence of heart and mind we proceeded in long line to the Church, which lay from east to west, forming with high thick walls the northern defence of our cloister. And as we passed two and two up the choir that morning, the monks raised with slow and solemn voice their last Miserere in that holy place, the home of many of them from their boyhood.
But what did the convent at its prayers, as the Moorish host drew near? This was made clear ere long. For we were to see, we lads, what ne'er had met our eyes before, the very earth open to save us, and this by no miracle save man's skill given by God to devise wise and cunning shifts for those in peril.
Lo! the abbot stood, in medio chori, noble and calm, and the sad strains of Miserere rolled down the aisle. He stood by a stool of oak that rested there for prayer withal, and ever so lightly touched a little point of brass, that lay but a speck in the midst of the stone floor. And as he pressed with his kid shoe a moment, the stone sank slowly some two fathoms, leaving disclosed a stairway, and a passage arched overhead with bricks, with a cool and pleasant air therein, that, rushing up, refreshed our souls.
Then we passed downwards, old and young, and so along the brick passage, that ran straight eastward, as I guessed to the Vale Castle. And the abbot stayed till we had all passed through. Then, as he pressed upon the stone, it slowly rose again to its right level, and looking round I saw him in like manner cause sundry other stones to drop behind him as he came. Then letting loose a trap—lo! a very shower of granite blocks came falling down closing the path behind us with great heaps high as a man's shoulders.
So, heartening one another with cheery words as we went, we passed through a little chamber that led straight through the Keep—and so we were met by Hugo and Bernard, and dispersed each to his right place, as was meet in such a perilous time.
Now, by favour of Brother Hugo, I stood near and succoured him, and though in my stormy life I have had fighting and besieging in Normandy, Brittany, Touraine, and here in England, never have I seen such prowess and such strength as I saw in Brother Hugo.
Thus, by his favour, I was ere long on the south bastion that overlooked the gate of the Castle. There was but one gate by Cherbourg's design, and that a small one for so great a place, and yet, what need of greater? The larger hole surely that a rat's home hath the easier to find the rat, and rabbiting were easier were the burrow a yard in circuit. So Cherbourg built Vale gate not for state but for use, to pass men through, not foes but friends, and it was clamped with well-hammered iron, and secured by ponderous bars and bolts.
From the rampart we looked southward, and saw away by the cloister gates the black swarm of the Sarrasin. We saw them nearer by-and-by. But now they stood before the gate, and seemed as they would hold parley with those that they thought to be within. But they heard naught, and saw naught through trap or grating. Then must they have thought the brethren were in hiding, or maybe stayed in the church to meet death at prayer, as good monks have chosen to do ere this, preferring so with calm hope to pass to God than in a useless struggle, for which He framed them not. For a young tree was rooted up, and with its full weight, rammed by a troop of knaves against the gate. And though it stood the charge not once, nor twice, nor thrice indeed, at length with the rush and weight of many men behind it, it charged with such a force that the great gate fell with a sound that we could hear in the still morning, and in a moment the barbarous swarms were over it, and ready to work their will in cloister and house of prayer.
It was a sore moment, and one to make the strongest set their teeth hard together, when we saw through the trees a little curl of smoke wreathe itself up in the calm air, and then smoke more dense, and still more dense to follow, and then the bright red tongues of flame leaping and dancing as though in ungrateful glee o'er the ruin of the home of men who did no harm, but only good.
"They will soon be here, lad," said Hugo, beside me on the wall. "Let us say, 'Sursum corda.'"
"Ay, 'ad Dominum,'" I answered bravely.
Now, these were our sign and countersign for our holy war that day. And just then word came from the north-east bastion that the Moors were already in their boats, and rowing to the Castle, with ladder and rope on board, a round hundred or so of the knaves, hoping to catch us asleep in the rear, while we met the foe in front, and order was given that at once we be prepared to discharge plenty of stones, and to shoot our ignited darts down on them from the height. There was no sign yet of the foe in front, so we went to the seaward wall, whither the boats drew near. Now, Hugo himself sent forth the first stones, but the boats were yet too far, and the balls but struck the waves, and made them spurt up fountains of foam.
Yet the rogues seemed surprised and scared at our being so ready with defence, and they stayed a moment ere they came within range of our armoury. Then at a signal of command they all rowed straight forward. They hoped out of so many some would get through. See! A very hail of stones and rocky fragments, and a very shower of fiery arrows, each one a deadly comet as it falls! They descend on the swift-rowed boats. They fall as they will without mercy on man or thwart. The devils shriek out and drop their oars, and writhe horribly when they are hit. And some with bold hands sweep them out of their craft.
In one boat some three fire-darts fell, and while the rogues struggled among themselves to escape burning, a worse thing happened, for the dry wood within sprang into flame, and no dowsing of the water could put the fire out, till the waves rushed in and swamped her in a moment, and the crew of some ten souls were struggling in the water. None of the rest essayed to save them; they were already overburdened, and had their own work to escape damage.
I know not whether they retired, or whether, landing hard by, they swelled the main attack, which as I write had already begun. For Hugo had left me to speed the manage of the balls, and when he called me again I saw a new sight in front of the great southwestern bastion.
The Moors were gathered in force indeed, and an evil crew, evil equipped, and in evil order they were. Each within a little his own general as we first viewed them, each his own envoy to shoot forth to us on the walls foul and blasphemous words, that shamed us to hear: "Come forth, ye foul rats of the cloister; come and be spitted here on the ground." "Spear or fire, greasy monks, which choose ye, or a spit to roast your fat carcases by the flame." "Good Michael, send us, prithee, thine envoy hither; see us deck him with fair traps for thine entertainment"
In such wise they ranted and railed before us, but naught was said in answer, nor, as they doubtless hoped, did they draw us to think of leaving our fastness for the open. No word was spoken. No arrow was shot. Nor was a ball thrown yet.
But the number of the villains! Stretching back across the common, well-nigh to the cloister, and seeming even still to be pouring down from the woods. Ah me! What a black hell of sin lay 'neath those faces, like an ugly, stormy sea below us, and what a motley of lost souls of every race. Dark Moors were there in plenty, with rich dress and shining mail; black Africans with blubber lips and mats of furzy hair; sleek Jews slithering in and out the groups, inciting to devil's work; figures of nobles and gentlemen of France or Espagne, dishonoured and merged in the depth of the lowest scum there present; great Saxon churls and Danes, standing stern and resolute, but barbarous, as lions in the ranks of jackals and wolves!
Of Le Grand Sarrasin, and of the renewed attack upon Vale Castle. Of my first deeds of arms, and how the Moors were beaten back.
What they waited for we guessed not, till a great black horse came cantering over the plain, and a whisper went through the ramparts: "The Grand Sarrasin himself!" And he it was. He had his visor down. For none, so men said, had ever seen his face; and with excellent management of the steed of Araby, whereon he sat, drew up straight in front of the long rank of villains that he led. A great figure he sat on his horse, but swift and ready in his movements, though stout and heavy, and exceedingly knightly, as he rested with one hand on the beast's haunch.
The ranks were no more in disorder, and the sounds ceased. Side by side they stood, erect and deadly. Each eye on him. Each head steady. It was a disciplined host. It was a band of music that he ruled with the sweep of his hand. We understood how the pirates of the Norman seas were all at one. They had found their master, and knew naught but his will.
Soon we saw the army break into three, and come forth to assault us at different points. Of the southeastern bastion, where I was stationed, I can only tell. What happened otherwhere I only know by hearsay. There we had some forty of our complement of men to relieve one another with the stones, and shoot their arrows, and be prepared for service with the broadsword should need come. And great prongs we had very swiftly to dislodge the ladders, which with sore effort they strove to thrust into the thick cement 'twixt stone and stone. And once or twice when the ladder held, there was quick work pouring hot pitch on their heads. Hour by hour they strove on, caring not for defeat, for when men fell wounded and hurt, others more like devil-cats took their place; but we thought, for our part, the attack was slacker, when sudden, from the northern rampart, that was steeper than the rest, and therefore less defended, rang deadly, heartrending shrieks and clamour for aid, and we knew that at that post the Moors had gained a footing, and "Haste ye, left rank with me," said Brother Hugo; "you, Bertram, and you, Alain, keep up the defence here."
So by Brother Hugo's side I rushed to the northern rampart, and saw him, with his bright blade sweeping like lightning through the air, deal death amid that Sarrasin crowd, that in face of pitch and stones had worked their way up the well-nigh upright wall.
There were with us at that moment some twenty on the rampart, and this was well-nigh enough, had there been no surprise in the attack. For the Sarrasins could but come up slowly, and one, discomfited at the summit, would roll back and carry with him many that were clambering up below him. But already some thirty were on the rampart, or in preparation to spring. And our men had been affrighted and fled, had not Hugo, with his "Rou! Rou!" loud upraised, relighted their failing courage. And, indeed, who would not follow bravely such a one, in such peril fearless, and himself tackling already a knot of five or six of the foe with his invincible sword that was named "Roland"? The white blade swept down sharp and swift, and in a moment two Sarrasins lay helpless, for they were surprised by the swift onset. Up the blade rose again, and met ready parry and defence from a tall, sinewy fellow, that bore in his address the signs of nobility. And then began a sharp tussle 'twixt the twain, sword against sword with ready guard of shield, that I saw not, for a passion that I knew not possessed me—the fever of war, a sad thing, but a glad thing yet when it doth sweep into a youth's heart in his first assay of arms. This new thing in me, raging like a fire, bore me to bar the way of two that rushed to clear the path that ran down beside me to the open lawn within, and so to shun the onset of our men who were driving back with good success already those that were in act to spring over the wall. 'Gainst one I struck, and he, despising my stroke, or but half seeing 'neath the stairway, parried but carelessly, and my blade slipped through, and wounded his sword-arm at the wrist, that it fell slack, and the blade dropped clattering on the paving-stones. Then the other knave pinned me against the bastion, and I for five good minutes stuck at sword-play with him, he waxing each moment more wild and fierce, I striving to remember and show forth in act all that I had learned of defence.
"Play not longer with the lad, Guilbert," quoth one behind, "or he will breathe thee." And at this cry shame stung him, and he waxed more dreadful fierce, and I within me seemed to hear a voice say "Keep cool, and all is well!" So, wonderful to tell, the more he raged the more cool was I, and little strange was it that he, sweeping the air with wild thrust and parry, met ere long in his heart the clean stroke of my sword, and I, quivering and half appalled as I drew it reeking forth, was forced in a moment to be on guard again, for another rogue was at me. Yet, with a wild gladness, I saw the villain roll moaning at my feet, and the new rogue found himself involved at once in a battle with two—myself and a stout farmer, who, seeing me in danger, had rushed in to my defence. He, with sheer strength, beat down his sword, and sore wounded him, catching himself a scar meanwhile, and so I had time to glance and see how the battle went.
Still Hugo stood like a king of swordsmen, and around him lay those that he or others mustering to his defence had slain—some five or six—and now he was engaged with one that seemed the captain of that storming party—as I believe, an Englishman, cold and resolute, and thereby the more dangerous. And I dreaded, for I saw Hugo grow wilder in his stroke, and moreover weaker and weary withal with his great prowess. And I seemed almost to see with my eyes what I dreaded—that the Englishman should tire him out, and then take him where he would; so, careless of rule, I ran and struck forth at him on the left, and for a moment he kept us both in play. And then Hugo, gathering himself now as for a final stroke, struck him below the tunic, and he too fell among the slain or wounded.
Then we looked round. "It was done warily and bravely, lad," he said. "Maybe thine arm saved my life. But see! No longer they leap our wall, and but few are left to slay."
"See, see!" I cried in exultation, "they rush back! We have them now in the rear."
And so we had in faith, for the scant dozen that were yet unharmed were easy prey as they fled, choosing to risk their bones as they dropped, or clung with a bare chance of life, to be cut to pieces by us; for it was clear that Le Grand Sarrasin had called off the attack at that quarter. Two or three got off scot-free; but, thank Heaven, these gave such an account of us as monk-devils and witch-men, that all hope was given up of taking us by storm—by day at least.
It was now towards evening. No better success had been won by the Sarrasin at any point in the attack. It but remained for him to sweep his forces back again to the chateau. Our hearts leapt up to see them turn their faces towards the forest-land. And before long, with a flag of truce, they were collecting the wounded and the bodies of the dead. Those of the storming party we handed down the wall, or, if living still, led them through the gate.
Now we reckoned that the Moors that day, by sea, arrow, stone, and ball, and in storming, had lost at least a hundred men, while our loss was only nine men killed and twenty-six in hospital. So nobly and well we faced that day of my first fighting.
"Now, look you," said Hugo, "we shall have no more storming, unless they find greater forces."
"What then?" said I.
"Next will they come like Brother Mole," he said, "with his long tunnel under earth. And then, if that fail—as God grant it may—they will trust to a surer aide-de-camp that I fear the most. His step is heard already—"
"And who is he—this friend who will aid them best?"
"Hush! Whisper it not, Nigel, abroad to dishearten any; but we have but three weeks' provisions here for so many mouths, or a month's at the most, if we be wary in giving rations."
"Then their friend is——"
"Famine!" said Hugo, grimly.
How I was sent forth by my lord abbot to seek the protection of Duke William, and of what befell me by the way of the pirates.
That night there was restless sleeping in Vale Castle and but rough quarters, but no assault nor alarm.
Next morning there was singing of "Non nobis" and "Te Deum" to boot by the brethren assembled in martial conclave on the open lawn. Their church was destroyed and its beauty perished; but said Abbot Michael—
"Lo, brethren, here be your choir these days, here your House of God. See, its pillars are the Lord's, and they fear no sacrilegious hand; see, its arch is the heaven, and its roof the sunlit sky, and for music to our chant hear the lapping of the waves that God hath set in their bed below." So, with comforting words, did he restore our courage, as we thought sadly of the ruined cloister, whose smoke yet went up pitifully to the sky.
And shortly after these solemn offices I was taken by Hugo to the abbot's presence, in the little chamber he had on the seaward wall. Very strange and careworn he was.
"Son," he said, greeting me with a sweet dignity, "thou hast done well already in the profession thou hast chosen, as I hear by good report of all, and indeed so comes out in thee the prowess of a noble race. Thou seest what straits the brethren are in by this blockade and siege?" He pointed seaward and landward. "And that, should help come not, a deadlier enemy than the Sarrasin himself will strive with us—the famine with the sword. Thou knowest all this?"
Now, as he spake, I guessed why he spake thus, and so right boldly I replied, with a straight look in his eyes—
"Ay, my lord, right well I know. Send me, therefore, now, whither thou thinkest well, for succour in this day of extremity!"
His eye brightened at my words, and he and Hugo looked gladly at one another, and Hugo said, with low voice, proudly—
"Our Father, the abbot, hath chosen thee, my esquire, and a proud mission it is, being assured of thy strength and truth of heart, to be his messenger to our sovereign lord the duke, and to inform him of the dangers of his faithful bedesmen here, and of the arrogance of their foes and his own. To-night thou wilt start on a noble and knightly enterprise."
"It is, my son," said the abbot, "a path full of danger. But also, as our brother saith, an enterprise both noble and knightly, for the saving of these men of God, and the feeble ones that are sheltered in our fold, not alone from death, but from rude insult and sharp pain."
I told my lord that I was indeed willing to accept it, though I loved life full dearly. And he, assuring me that all matters of my setting forth that night were in Brother Hugo's hands, bent over me, and pressing his hands, that trembled the while, on my young head, committed me to God's care. And I went forth calm and steady with his holy words yet in my ears and a great glory of gladness in my heart, that I, still a lad, was thus chosen for a knight's work.
I was to set out, Hugo told me, at nightfall from a little cove named Bordeaux Bay that lay hard by the Castle. Old Simon Renouf, a wary pilot amid the dangerous rocks and shallows of our seas, was, with one other, to be my comrade, and I was to be clad in the rough dress of the fisher folk in case of capture. We were that night to make for the Isle of Jersey, and craftily to lie hid in a quiet opening in the rocks for the day, and then next day, if the wind were good, to sail to the port of Granville in Normandy.
Now, it was arranged I was to bear no written message to my lord the duke, only a ring of gold hung in a little bag about my neck, that our abbot said would stand me in better stead with William, recalling past services and duties, and would be thought, were I taken by the pirates, but some harmless relic or valued heirloom. Now, the ring had on it but the letter "A," and the motto inscribed around "Loyal devoir."
And so at nightfall we went forth from the back side of the Castle, down the steep and rugged path that led at length to the shore of Bordeaux Bay, Brother Hugo, as we went, giving me words of good counsel as to my behaviour before Duke William, impressing on him the insult of these knaves to his high fame as duke, and how I should keep a still tongue if I fell into the hands of the Grand Sarrasin.
We found Simon Renouf and Jacques de la Mare waiting for us in their small fishing-smack which I knew so well, having so often sailed with them as boy and lad, and well they loved me, as did all the fishers of Grande Havre and St. Sampson. But now, as Jacques took the tiller, old Simon bade me handle the sail, as though I were indeed that which I appeared, a raw hand learning seaman's craft. Right manfully I took up my task, and in a moment the dark sail ran up the mast, Simon undid the fastening and pushed off, and with Jacques cunningly guiding us from the rocks, the boat stole noiselessly from the bay, coasting northward for a space to get away from the Moorish ships that still lay outside, and then, aided by a dim white mist that lay upon the face of the waters and a chill night-breeze, we bore away to the south of Herm and Jethou, whose craggy sides loomed black and terrible as we sailed by.
Presently the wind fell, and we lay well-nigh becalmed, and the moon came out, and we could see now the high walls of Sark and the steep side of Brecquou, and slowly we approached thither. So we ran straight to Jersey. The moon set presently, and we made little way, and with the light of breaking dawn we entered a small creek, wherein the water lay calm and still. When the boat was in safety we clambered upon the rocks, and among them Simon showed a little cave overhung with green streaming plants that indeed was a pleasant place, with all manner of coloured sea-plants clinging to the wall, that the light as it entered played upon. Here we ate of the good store that lay in the boat's locker, and a rare draught of wine washed down the food and refreshed our spirits, and then Simon bade me lie down and rest, and as the sun began to climb up and make all the sea glisten along its crest, I lay down and slept, and awaked not till he had climbed far up into the sky. But when I awoke old Simon Renouf still sat by the cave-mouth, gazing out to sea from under his looming brows, and I thought he sat there like some great eagle by its eyrie keeping watch over its young. And such indeed he was, an eagle soaring high in fidelity, and my guardian to the death, as in the end it appeared.
Now, as evening drew near, Simon showed us that with an early start that night, with good weather as the wind lay, we would make the Norman coast ere morning, and creep along as we might to Port Granville by daylight.
But alas! that night we had but just shot out of our hermitage amid the rocks, and were giving great heed to the perilous passage withal, when, as we rounded a sudden shelve of rock, we met almost face to face a great ship that was making across our course. And I feared that the worst would hap, for she was of the same build as the fleet of Le Grand Sarrasin. Did they see us lying in now close by the rock? We could not tell for a moment, but then there was no doubt. A shout rang out, and a voice bidding us come aside.
What could men so bidden do? To sail forth were hopeless. This great craft would overhaul us of an instant. To coast along the shore were perilous and must end in capture. For a moment Simon hesitated, and then ran our boat into the creek again.
"See, lads," he said, "here we must stand. The land is more friendly than the water. Yet I have prayed oft to die on the sea, when my time came."
We climbed on to the rocks, and he handed us a cutlass apiece and a knife such as seamen use, and he pointed to a square ledge of rock, that but one could enter upon at a time, since a thick jagged wall protected half the front.
"Stay, Simon," said I, "art sure she is a pirate?"
"Ay, lad, sure," he said; "none but a pirate so hails peaceable fisher craft"
"Simon," I said, "why not give in? Why should you and the lad die for me?"
The old man laid his rugged hand upon me, and the sun lit up with a rich light his red beard as he spoke.
"Have not the Brethren taught thee a word called 'Duty,' lad?" he slowly said, "a word for me, that was born a poor fisherman in the calling of the Lord's Apostles, as well as for thee born of a great house."
"Then it is thy duty thus to do?" I said, perceiving that naught could move him, and that indeed a noble strain within him forbade him to be moved.
"Ay, lad," said he, "and may we all, thou, Jacques, and I, old though I be, do our duty right well this morn!"
Of our battle on the rocks of Jersey Isle, and how Simon gave up his life, and how I was taken captive and brought back.
The pirates had put off in two long-boats, and in a short space of time entered the creek, and climbed across our boat to shore—if shore it could be called, where the rocks stood broken into such strange and rude shapes, and where the footing amid them was so rough. I had no doubt of their errand, for each man had a great ugly naked weapon in his hand, such as we bore ourselves, only heavier.
Up the cliff they clambered, and soon spied us in our fastness.
"Come out, ye spies," they shouted; "come out, cursed rats, or we will come and slay you where you stand."
Our hearts panted to answer, but we said naught. Then they in a moment changed their tone, and two approaching more civilly, spoke with us almost at the entry of our fast place. Fair words they used, saying that their captain had business of great import with certain stalwart seamen of Jersey that day, and begged us for our own advantage to come down aboard their ship.
"And who is your captain?" curiously asked Renouf.
The rogue dissembled not. "Our captain is Le Grand Geoffroy, Lord of Guernsey, and his aide-de-camp, Mahmud le Terrible, is even now on board of yonder craft."
"Then, hark you, Sarrasin dog!" said Simon. "Sooner will we three die on this rock as good men and true to the law of God and man, than have parley further in anywise with you and your men of blood."
Our civil visitors saw that fair words were of no avail to save fighting, and so they ran back to their fellows, and with a few minutes' chatter among themselves, half of them climbed up amid the rocks, to drop on us, as we guessed from above, where they might find foothold among the crevices, and the others with determined aspect ran up to us in single line, taking the narrow ledge for their road to our stronghold.
Then began the fray. It was no hard matter for Jacques de la Mare and me at first to stay their attack, for the first comer and the next, struck ere they strove to pass us, fell down helpless among the rocks below. But the third, running in quickly, closed with Jacques, and forcing him back, left room for another to close with me, and by this a shout above our heads warned us that the rest would be upon us as it were from the sky. I dimly saw Jacques locked arm to arm and breast to breast with a villain, his equal in strength and stature; and then, as I had seen wrestlers in peaceful times, so each now on that narrow spot, grasping cutlasses the while, strove with all manner of feint and twist and turn to throw his adversary. Close to the side they were, when I saw the thickset pirate swing as easy as a child across Jacques' back. The two clung together for a moment. Jacques struggled to get loose. But the villain clung too well. And so they both fell together into the deep well below. Creux de la Mort the islanders call it to this day.
I sought rather with sword play to strike the villain in my path, and old Simon by my side saw soon his place to strike in, and gave him a deadly stroke. But as he did so the first two rogues dropped from above, and the little narrow ledge of rock, with its far outlook over the waves, and pleasant vision of white surf running over the rocks, and still gulls seated thereon, was soon like hell itself, full of dark and evil faces. Now Simon was attacked at back and front, as he stumbled back over the bodies; a great knife was thrust into his back, even as he faced a rogue before his face, and I saw the old faithful soul fall forward, and making a kind of stagger with his arms up, ere he fell, drop into the pool below. So, according to his prayer, he died in the sea, and nobly, as any knight of great fame, was true to death.
Now, what of myself. The villains would not kill me, though this they could have done many times. Yet like a young lion I fought fiercely with my back against the rock, and I know not how many I slashed and cut with my weapon, till, with a swift stroke, one struck it out of my hand, and I seemed at their mercy. But my great knife was in my hand in its place, and with that I hastened another of these evil men to his last account. And then two, rushing at me from either side, pinioned me as I stood with a rope, and I, seeing no hope in struggling longer, like a naughty child, let myself be led or carried to their boat, and so taken on board the dark ship, whither they bore me.
And once on board they took little heed of me. Only they bound me more securely with cords that cut my ankles, and threw me in a corner of their craft amid some baggage. One that I judged to be Mahmud the Terrible came and gazed on me with a dark smile, but said no word.
Now, after two hours or more, I heard a voice say from the tiller, "Straight for St. Martin's Point!" and in a short time we came to anchor in a certain harbour. I know not of a surety, for mine eyes were blinded, but I guess it was Moulin Huet. And presently I was partly unbound, set upon my feet, and made to walk. So, blindfolded and miserable, I entered again that dear island, that I had left for Normandy but two nights before.
How I was brought before Le Grand Sarrasin, and of his magnificence. How I saw Folly in his chamber, and was lodged in a cavern under earth.
It is long years ago since I was borne up the Castle Hill, the prisoner of the Moors, but I stand not upon any high hill even to-day to look down without remembering how I felt on that day, when the bandage was torn from my eyes, and I looked round, dazzled at first by the daylight. But there was that in me, in that I was young, and had all my boyhood been taught true faith in Heaven, which even now rose up and persuaded me that come what might a man could bear it, and that no evil man could by any means force out of a true man's lips that which he would fain not say.
Before me rose a bright pavilion of green and gold, and two great sentries in rich raiment with pikes stood either side of the entrance, letting none pass without a countersign.
Then as my captor drew me rudely onwards towards the entrance, I guessed, as they stood speaking with the sentries ere we entered, that this was the Pavilion of Le Grand Sarrasin.
We entered, and found ourselves in a rich antechamber, spread with carpets of Turkey, whereon men in glossy cloaks trod to and fro in converse or lay at ease. A fair curtain of blue silk was drawn across an inner entrance, guarded by two negro lads in scarlet. Awhile we waited, but at length a page came through the curtain, and with a low obeisance to Mahmud called us to follow him, and we went into a second chamber, wherein was no daylight, but only great lighted lamps of silver, that swung melancholy in the gloom. As mine eyes used themselves to the dim light, I saw it was indeed Geoffrey's presence chamber that I, poor Nigel, stood in, with the great foe of our cloister seated before me.
Stout and thick-set as I saw him on his Arabian steed, he sat in his golden chair, clad in black velvet, with buttons of glittering jewels. I looked up through the dim light to see his face, but lo! I saw naught, for a little veil of black gauze was stretched round from a small gold cap upon his head. And I remembered how it was current talk that no man had ever seen Le Grand Geoffroy's face in war or peace, and that a terrible mystery lay beneath this veil of gauze, through which he gazed on his men.
Upon my entrance, he stooped and spoke to one at his side, who it seemed was to act as interpreter between us; and he coming forward bade Mahmud speak, which he did in a strange tongue, pointing to me at times as though recounting my efforts to resist at Jersey.
Upon his ceasing, the interpreter presently approached, and bade me tell my name, and whither I went in that boat, and what my business. Now, I was determined to answer nothing, lest ill be done to the good cause of my friends, so I said not a word. Then at a word from the Sarrasin, Mahmud said—
"Silence avails not, Nigel of Vale Abbey; we know thee and thy business, and have power to know more!"
At this I forgot caution, and replied hotly—"My name thou knowest, and it is not a name that a man need be ashamed of; more shalt thou fail to learn, for all thy craft."
This I hurled madly at Le Grand Geoffroy on his throne, but he stirred not.
"Thou wilt tell us," proceeded the black-bearded ruffian, "how many there be shut up in Vale, what thou knowest of their treasuries, what store of food they have, and the disposition of their sentinels at nightfall."
My answer was a gaze of angry scorn.
The Grand Sarrasin bent down to the interpreter, and when he had spoken, he came forward like a herald, and spake thus—
"Thy lord, and the lord of these isles, would have thee know that he loves thy courage, Nigel de Bessin, but fears for thy folly in this matter. He would have thee answer to all questions asked thee, and so in good season enter his service as a brave man."
I smiled defiance at the cunning monster. "Yea! yea!" I said, "thou wouldst have me add to my other woes the woe of treachery! Geoffroy, if that be thy name, know thou my friends' matters are safe in my own keeping."
Again the Sarrasin bent and conversed with Mahmud, and the little bag they had robbed from my neck was taken to him, the which he opened, and curiously handled the ring that lay therein, with its motto, "Loyal devoir," and the letter "A."
Presently the interpreter again came forth, and bade them in his lord's name remove me to safe keeping, as other matters were at hand to occupy him. Then, with all due state, we passed out of the chamber on one side, and I was, by a straight passage, led downward to those very caverns under earth which the pirates had dug for their treasuries. Now, as we passed out, I saw others in a throng enter the Sarrasin's presence chamber, but I could scarce see them clearly, and beside this throng of visitors leapt, I thought, that very impish ugly devil, the ape that men called the familiar of the Lord of Rouen, that he named Folly, the which I had set eyes on at the house at Blanchelande. Yea, it ran chattering with many a mow and grimace, and though I saw not those that entered, I was well assured that my Lord of Rouen had free entry to Le Grand Sarrasin, full lot in his friendship and unholy fortunes; nay, as it struck me at once, was working through this Moorish devil evil to our abbot, whom he now hated, and danger to a greater than he. Now, these thoughts ran through my mind when I saw Folly, the archbishop's ape, so lively in the Sarrasin's presence chamber, and I exceedingly dreaded this evil union of evil men, yet remembered I my "Quare fremuerunt," and had good faith that One more powerful than man would save me and my good friends the Brethren from false Maugher and cruel Geoffroy.
To a sad dungeon beneath the ground was I led, exceeding dark, for the only light entered through a narrow slit in the rocky roof; and I saw that the walls and roof were rugged and rough, half cavern and half cell. Alas! alas! sad moment indeed it was when I was thrust therein, with my arms bound to my back and my wounds still undrest, my body stiff and full of pain, and my head dizzy and heavy after so great excitement. Helplessly enough I crawled around the rocky walls, and found a barrier that seemed framed of wood across the entry. I felt, and found that it hung like a great gate on a bar of iron that ran through holes cut in the solid rock. I looked in despair up to the narrow slip above. In agony of spirit I even for a short space threw myself as I might against the door, against the rock.
At length I knew it was hopeless, and I crawled to a heap of plundered goods, and lay on them passive for a season. Perchance I slept, and at least a little space forgot my troubles, but not heavily, for a very gentle moving of the door appalled me, and in a moment I was half on my feet. There was no need for such alarm, for he that entered came softly in and whispered that he was a friend. A moment I thought here was a wile of my foes to catch me, but I looked long and sternly at my visitor, and decided he had not come to work deceit. A man he was of noble and knightly aspect, easy in his bearing, frank in his gaze, exceeding handsome, so far as by the dim light I could judge. He came close and stood by me, and spoke softly.
"Hush, lad," he said, "fear me not, for I come hither as a friend! And if thou art to be saved from torture and death, thou must trust me as the saint trusts his God. Wilt thou do this?"
I murmured beneath my breath that I did not doubt him, and bade him for the sake of God not to delay.
"Thou dost not know me, Nigel de Bessin," he said, "but I know thee already, and with many another stood this day in yonder antechamber and heard thy words to Geoffroy. Now, those words I loved to hear, and I have been in a struggle since I heard thee, the one part of me saying, 'Save this lad,' and the other part counselling me to let thee die. But I am here to save thee."
"Yea! yea!" I broke in; "but how may it be done?"
"Trust me," he said, "and in an hour's space, for it is even now evening, the chateau will be at rest, and our sentinels are slack of watch. Meanwhile, refresh thyself, and prepare even now for what may be thy hardest battle." He laid before me some eatables and a little flask of wine, and with a slash of his poniard cut the cord from my arms, which for long hung cramped and aching, so tight had they been bound.
With that he vanished out of the cell, and hope again sprang up in my heart, and I thanked Heaven for sending me such aid in my woes, even here in the womb of the earth.
By what means I was delivered from Le Grand Sarrasin, and how I found shelter with the priest of St. Apolline's.
The cell had been dark before. Now it was black as night, and having eaten my friend's goodly parcel of food, I was refreshed, and eagerly awaited his return. Presently he was with me, and softly rolling the great door on its hinge, let me swiftly through into the long earthy passage that led upward. We traversed many yards, and I know not what treasures I saw heaped hastily on this side or on that, and I saw at the end, where the path passed forth, the form of the sentinel at his post. Now all our hope lay in what that moment chanced. He lolled easily against the rock, gazing forth, as I thought dreamily, into the open. My companion drew me along on tiptoe till we were even a pace behind him. We were so close that I think I heard him breathe. Then rapidly the man felt a scarf round his mouth and wiry fingers at his throat, so that he could make no sound.
"Strike, Nigel!" said my comrade. "There is little time for mercy!"
So I drew my companion's dagger from his waist and used it swiftly, though it went sore against my nature thus to strike a sentinel at his post by surprise.
He fell heavily backward. I drew forth the dagger, and we ran swiftly for the cover of the side of a building. Along the wall we crept warily and without sound, and the next moment I saw my deliverer swing himself upon a bough that hung within his reach. In his train I followed, as he caught wondrous craftily in the darkness now at this branch, now at that, and more than once passed like an ape or squirrel of the woodland from tree to tree. At last I looked down and saw the wall loom from below, and the branch whereon I clung spread across the wall into the open. There we dropped down right nimbly as I remember a full ten feet, and the branch swung back from our hands noiselessly, and without sound we passed swiftly on hands and knees for a space under the near shelter of the forest brushwood.
Nothing was said till we were a round two hundred yards within, and then my friend pointed to a little path, for the moon was risen.
"Yonder, dear lad," he said, "lies thy way to the Vale, and I must now be for a space a dead man in the woods, outcast even of the pirates."
"Nay, friend," said I, "I go not back to the Vale till I come with force to release them from their woes."
"What!" said he. "Thou still art minded to journey to Normandy? Oh, dear and knightly lad!"
"Yea," I said, "thither must lie my road, and I pray thee to help me on my way, for indeed I fear to fall into Geoffrey's jaws again; and now three days are lost that should have brought me nearer to William."
"If it be indeed thy will," he said, "and indeed thou couldst not will better, since, as the case is, yonder castle could not many weeks withstand the Sarrasin, thou must come with me, and on the road to my good friend, to whom I journey for safety, I will ponder over this matter, and concert a scheme, whereby the wish of thy heart may be carried out. Meanwhile, trust me, good child, as so far thou hast nobly done."
"One thing, good friend," I said, as we swung along southward, "what is thy name, that I may know whom I may thank for this wonderful deliverance."
My comrade laughed strangely at my words, and answered hastily—
"For names, lad, we are not over-ready with them in the chateau yonder. Ofttimes their sound, compared with their ring in other days, bringeth more pain than joy. You may call me, if thou wilt, Des Bois, for indeed I love the woodland. And for thanks, lad, thank me with a kind word and trustful look, and a good stroke of the sword, if that be needful ever for mine honour."
So we strode on, and as the moonlight made silvery passages amid the trees, I watched him as he knitted his brows in thought, whether on my account or his own I knew not. I thought I saw in him all that I dreamed of knightly spirit, and I guessed that in Des Bois lay hidden one like Brother Hugo, who for some reason masked a great and noble name in this poor, paltry disguise. Ay, but it was a visage that not long rested serious. A smile broke over its furrows, making it like a field that smiled in the sunlight, and he said right gaily in my ear—
"Ay, good lad, we will weave thee a rope to Normandy both strong and subtle, and witty withal, and thou shalt hear its texture when we arrive yonder; but as the night wears on, we must ride faster, or trot ourselves, since steed are lacking, so let us not lose time."
With that indeed he broke into a nimble run, and I followed. And ere half a mile was passed, we were out of the forest and by the shore of the sea, hard by Cobo Bay, and keeping still close to cover, lest danger should arise—for the pirates had their sentinels in huts in every small harbour of the isle—we ere long were by La Perelle Bay, and I could see on Lihou the dim outline of the monastery.
Soon Des Bois turned sharply to the left, and we were soon in a trim wood that ran up almost from the shore. The blind, thick wall of a small building lay in our path, and by its side a little low-roofed hut of daub and wattle.
"The chapel of good St. Apolline!" I said in surprise, for I knew well that little shrine by the coast, where the fisher-people made supplication for good weather and success in their craft, and hung up their poor offerings for the holy saint's honour.
"Ay, that it is," said Des Bois. "Now will we find its guardian at his vigils."
He oped with ease the latch of the lowly door of the hut, and we found, indeed, no saint at matins or prime, but only the priest of St. Apolline, curled on his wood settle in honest slumber, and snoring lustily withal.
Des Bois gazed at him with a merry smile, and presently tweaked him merrily by the ear, crying out—
"Up, good hog! up, griskin-knave! up, lubber! and provide meet entertainment for honest men."
"Ralf! Ralf!" sang out the priest in alarm, as he leapt from his poor couch. "What make you here at this hour of night?"
"Often hast thou," answered Des Bois, "with sage reproof bid me turn to an honest and a sober life, and now I have turned to the side of the holy saints. Lo! I have cut my ropes this night, and am free again. Free, that is to say, if thou wilt hide me for a season, and do thy good offices for Nigel here, who indeed hath saved me, as I him."
The good priest grasped his hand, and I thought he wept, as though Des Bois' words conveyed more than I could understand. The two men drew aside together and whispered seriously for a time.
But I was glad, before they ceased, to wash away the blood from my wounds, and all the dust and sweat of my capture and escape. And after much washing in the brook, I felt well-nigh a new man; and sitting down at the priest's rough board, we next refreshed ourselves with such store as the good man had. And after we had eaten, Des Bois, whose name I now knew was Ralf, began to explain the plan by means of which I was still to journey safely to Normandy.
"Hark you, good Nigel," said Ralf. "I have discovered a rare likeness betwixt you and our Father, this dear Augustine. Indeed, saving for the marks of time, ye might be brothers of one birth. Now, it likes me not to cast away prodigally such rare aid given by Mother Nature to our designs. So, look you, you shall journey to Normandy as Father Augustine, priest of St. Apolline's in Guernsey, while Father Augustine and I, dear yoke-fellows of old, shall betake ourselves, as once or twice before, to the nether-world for a season."
Father Augustine smiled his assent to the scheme, as I asked hastily—
"But, even so, how will the knaves yonder let me pass?"
Ralf smiled as he replied, "Ay, they will not molest thee. Augustine hath a gift of walking warily, so that all men count him their friend, and, earnest man, he hath full oft his own good designs, that carry him to and fro across the seas. Thou hast but to stride with his smart step boldly by yon chateau gate, and so to Pierre Port, and none will forbid thy passage on any vessel that thou pleasest, if thou but give good word to all thou meetest, Moor and islander alike, good man and good dame. Pat, too, the little innocents on the head with a paternal blessing. Answer not save in words of hearty jest. Keep a front unconcerned and free, though thy heart rap hard against thy chest-bones, and, in good faith, within a sennight or twain thou wilt be back in the isle, with Duke William at thy tail."
"And it is well for thee, good lad," said Augustine, "that thou art better suited than this rogue to figure harmlessly as a priest that men trust. But surely it will aid thee much in carrying through this scheme that thou wast bred amid monks, and churchmen, and art used to their ways of act and speech. Yea, lad, with a bold step and an easy manner thou wilt be safer beneath my cloak in the open than if by secret paths thou essayedst never so warily to cheat the Sarrasin's sentinels."