The King's Esquires; or, The Jewel of France, by George Manville Fenn.
This excellent book is, as always with this author, a constant succession of tense moments.
Dated at the beginning of the 1500s, the action starts in the Court of the King of France. He is fretting because at some time in the past, when the English ruled part of France, one of the French Crown Jewels, a beautiful ruby, was taken from France and put among the English Crown Jewels. So Francis, the King, decides on going to England on a visit to the English King, the young Henry the Eighth, finding out where the jewel is, purloining it before leaving, and restoring it to its place among his own Crown Jewels. This all goes pretty well, except that King Henry notices that the jewel is missing, and a chase is made after them.
They are all brought back, but no jewel is to be found. So eventually they return to France, where to the amazement of all it turns out that they were successful in their mission, and they really did manage to bring back the famous ruby.
THE KING'S ESQUIRES; OR, THE JEWEL OF FRANCE, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
OR, THE JEWEL OF FRANCE.
HOW YOUNG DENIS KEPT GUARD.
His Most Christian Majesty King Francis the First had a great preference for his Palace of Fontainebleau among the many places of residence from which he could choose, and it is interesting to glance into that magnificent palace on a certain afternoon in the year 151—. In a special apartment, from which direct access could be obtained to the guard chamber, where a detachment of the favourite musketeers of the King of France was on duty, and which also communicated with the monarch's private apartments, a youth, nearly a man but not quite was impatiently striding up and down. He stopped every now and then to glance out of the low window, from which a view could be obtained over the great Forest of Fontainebleau, where Philip Augustus in the old days, centuries before, loved to go hunting. It seemed as though to the young man there was a chafing disquietude in the silence, the inaction, of the afternoon, when the inmates of the palace, like the inhabitants of the tiny little white town, retired to rest for a time in order to be ready for the evening, when life began to be lived once more.
It was a very handsome chamber in which the young man was evidencing a species of disquietude, as of awaiting the coming of somebody, or a summons. As he stopped once in his feverish pacing up and down, a massive clock was heard to strike three. Rich mats lay on the polished floor, and the salon was so lofty that high-up it seemed almost grey dusk by contrast with the bars of sunshine which came through the window.
From outside there came the challenging clarion note of a trumpet.
"Changing guard," he muttered, "already!" And then he fell to thinking of other things, for there was beneath the thud of horses' feet, the baying of a dog and a loud shout.
He turned away from the window at last and tapped the dark arras with which the walls were draped.
He was a tall, dark-eyed, well-made lad, looking handsome enough in his rich velvet doublet, evidently one who spent a large part of his time in the open air, in the chase, or perhaps in sterner work still.
"How much danger?" he murmured, and he went to one side of the room, raising the heavy folds of a curtain which concealed a door, and listening intently a minute, before dropping the drapery and then impatiently springing on to a chair. The chair stood before a long, narrow, slit-like window, and from it likewise there was little to be seen but forest, all deep green and silent, and a strip of blue sky. He sprang down again with a sigh, crossed to the other side of the chamber, lifted the curtain again, opened a door, and looked out, before closing the door, dropping the curtain, and resuming his restless walk, as if saying, "What shall I do with myself?" Somehow the answer seemed to come to that question, for he suddenly clapped his hand to its side, drew a long, thin, triangular-bladed sword from its sheath, and admiringly and caressingly examined the beautiful chased and engraved open-work steel hilt and guard, giving it a rub here and there with his dark velvet sleeve. Then he crossed to the great open carved mantelpiece, took hold of the point of the sword, passing the blade over so that the hilt rested beyond his right shoulder; and, using the keen point as a graver, he marked-out, breast high upon one of the supporters of the chimney-piece, which happened to be a massive half-nude figure, the shape of a heart—the figure being about four inches in diameter. Apparently satisfied with his work, he drew back a few feet, turned up his right sleeve, and grasping his rapier by the handle, made the thin blade whistle as he waved it through the air and dropped gracefully at once into position, as if prepared to assault or receive an enemy, the enemy being the dark oak, chipped and much rubbed, semi-classic figure, the work of some wood-carver of a hundred years before, and whose grim aspect was rendered grotesque by the want of a nose. The next minute the polished floor gave forth sounds of softly shuffling feet, and stamps, as the lad, page or esquire, and evidently for the time guardian of the ante-chamber, began to fence and foin, parry and guard, every now and then delivering a fierce thrust in the latest Italian fashion right at the marked-out heart upon the grim figure's breast. It was warm work, for the lad put plenty of spirit and life into his efforts, and before long his clear, broad forehead and the sides of a rather aquiline nose began to glisten with a very slight dew. But the efforts were quite unsuccessful, bringing forth softly uttered ejaculations of impatience as the keen point of the rapier stuck into the solid wood above, below, to the right and left, never once within the ellipse traced out to represent a heart. But evidently under the belief that practice makes perfect, and regardless of coming shortness of breath, the lad kept on thrusting away, so intent upon his work that he did not bear the faint smothered click as of a latch behind him, nor note a white hand from one of whose fingers glistened dully the stone en cabochon of a big ruby ring.
This hand looked thin and ghastly against the dark curtain which it grasped and held on one side for some minutes, while its owner, hidden by the arras, seemed to be watching the sword-play of the lad. This went on vigorously as ever even when the tapestry was lightly brushed aside and a rather short, keen-looking, grizzled-bearded man appeared, in square black velvet cap and long gown, which half hid a closely fitting black velvet doublet and silken hose. He was armed, according to the custom of the time, with a long rapier balanced by a stiletto at his girdle, and as he dropped the curtain, his hands moved as if involuntarily to these occupants of his belt and rested there. It was not a pleasant face that watched the sword-play, for the wrinkles therein were not those of age, but deeply marked all the same.
They showed, fan-like, in two sets of rays at the corners of his eyes, and curiously about the corners of his mouth and beside his nose, as if he were about to laugh, the sort of laugh that one would give who enjoyed seeing a fellow-creature in pain; while his dark right eye seemed to glow beneath the grey shaggy brow, at one moment in a strange fiery way, while the next, as its owner made some slight movement, it literally flashed as if sending forth scintillations of light, giving to his countenance a weird, strange aspect, emphasised by the peculiar fixed stare of his left optic, which suggested that it was doing the fixed, quiet, patient work of its master, while the other searched and flashed and sought for fresh subjects upon which its fellow might gaze. Whatever value such a pair of eyes might be to their possessor, they had one great drawback, and that was that they caused distrust in a stranger who met him for the first time, making him involuntarily feel that this man must be having him at a disadvantage, for it was as if one eye held him in play and took up his attention, while that other with its strange fixed stare searched him through and through.
His was not a pleasant smile, and there were people about the Court who said sinister things about Master Leoni, the King's physician, and who would not have taken a dose of his medicine even to save their lives, for he had acquired a bad name, and Saint Simon had once half laughingly said:
"He knows too much about poisons to please me."
It was no wonder, then, that taking into consideration his quiet and unexpected approach, and the grim aspect of his face, the fencing lad should, when he became aware of his presence, give a violent start and slightly change colour, his exercise-flushed face turning for the moment pale. It was just after one of his most vigorous attacks upon the supporter of the great mantelpiece, one which ended in a really successful thrust delivered with a suppressed "Ha, ha!" followed by a dull thud, and a tug on the lad's part to extricate the point of his sword from its new sheath, quite a couple of inches being firmly thrust into the hard old wood right in the centre of the marked-out heart.
"Humph! At last!" said the watcher, as the boy faced round. "You won't kill many of the King's enemies, Master Denis, if you can't do better work than that."
"What!" cried the boy, flushing. "You've been watching?"
"Of course, I watch everything," said the other, smiling. "That's the way to learn. You must watch, too, my boy—good fencing masters—and learn how to parry and thrust. It's of no use to carry a fine blade like that if you don't master its use. Some day you may have to draw it to defend the King, and aim its point perhaps at an assassin's heart; and that will be a harder target to hit than that motionless mark. You seem to have drawn upon the King's furniture to the great damage of the carving. Denis, my lad, you ought to be able to handle a sword to better purpose than that. Why, even I, old man as I am, who have not held a blade in my hand this many a year, could make a better show."
"At binding up wounds perhaps," said the boy scornfully.
"Ay, and making of them too.—His Majesty is not in his chamber, I suppose?"
"Yes, he is," said the lad shortly; "asleep."
"Soundly, then, or the noise you made must have aroused him. Go and see if he is yet awake. I want to see him."
The boy frowned, and gave a tug at his weapon, which refused to leave the wood.
"Gently, my lad," said the doctor. "That is a very beautiful weapon, too good to spoil, and if you use it like that you will snap off the point, or drag the blade from the hilt."
"But it is in so fast," cried the lad impatiently, and he pulled with all his might, his anger gathering at being dictated to and taught.
"Let me," said the doctor, raising one hand; and the lad resented the offer for the moment, but on second thoughts gave way.
"Perhaps you will find it as hard as I do," he said, with a malicious smile.
"Perhaps I shall," said his elder; "but I should like to try. Sometimes, my boy, the tactus eruditus will succeed when main force fails."
"I wish you wouldn't talk Latin," said the boy impatiently, and he snatched his hand from the sword-hilt, leaving it vibrating and swaying up and down where it stuck in the wood.
"Worse and worse," said the doctor quickly, as he caught it by the guard. "Why, Denis, you don't deserve to possess a blade like that. There," he continued, as, apparently without an effort, he drew the rapier from its imprisonment and handed it back to the owner. "There; sheathe your blade, and if his Majesty is awake, tell him that I beg an audience."
"And if he is asleep?" said the lad.
"Let him rest," replied the other, with a smile. "Let sleeping—kings lie. They are always better tempered, my lad, when they have rested well. Take that as being the truth from an old philosopher, Denis, my boy, and act accordingly. You and I don't want to lose our heads through offending the master we serve."
"I don't," cried the boy sharply.
"Nor I," said the doctor, with a smile that was more unpleasant than ever. "There, go softly."
"Yea, I'll go," said the lad; "but I am sure he's asleep."
"If he is, make haste back and while I wait till his Majesty has ended his afternoon nap, suppose I give you one of my prescriptions on the proper way to use a sword."
"But will you?" cried the lad eagerly, his whole manner changing.
"To be sure I will. There was a time when I used to fence, and had sometimes to wound or take life to save my own. But of late years my work has been to heal."
The lad nodded sharply, rested his left hand upon the hilt of his now sheathed sword, drew aside the arras to the right of the fireplace, and passed through the door that faced him, one which closed behind him with a soft click.
A FENCING LESSON.
"Pert—impudent—all over the young courtier," said the doctor thoughtfully; "but I like the boy for his father's sake. Yes, all that was good and true. Now then, what will he say to me this time? I moved him a little yesterday, and I think that his love of adventure will make him think well of my proposals."
He stood thoughtful for a few moments, bent of form and dreamy of eye. Then with a sudden movement he drew himself up quick and alert, and looking ten years younger, as he swung back his long gown from his shoulders, grasped his rapier by the sheath, brought round his right hand to the hilt, and drew forth a glistening blade, to hold it at arm's length, quivering in the rays of light which came athwart the room from the high-up narrow window. Then falling into position, his whole body seemed to glide forward following the blade, as he made a thrust in the most effortless way, the point of his weapon passing into the hole made a few minutes earlier by the young esquire; and he was in the act of drawing it forth to thrust again, when the arras to his right was plucked aside and the boy stood before him.
"What, you trying!" he cried.
"Yes.—But the King?"
"Asleep, and he will not awaken for an hour yet. No one can hear us," continued the lad eagerly. "Do give me a fencing lesson, Master Leoni. I remember how Saint Simon once said that you were the finest swordsman about the Court."
"Did he say that?" said the doctor quietly.
"To be sure he did," cried the lad, drawing his sword and putting himself on guard.—"Come on."
"Better not now," said the doctor. "We may awaken the King."
"Don't I tell you he's fast asleep?"
"Yes; but the guard may hear."
"Not they; and what matter if they did? Now then; shall I attack you?"
"Yes," said the doctor quietly. "Would you like a place marked-out upon my chest?"
"There, now you are mocking at me."
"Yes: I was."
"Well, you shall attack. But had I better get some buttoned swords? I shouldn't like to hurt you, sir."
"I'll take care you do not," said the doctor quietly; "and there will be no need, for I will not hurt you."
The lad coloured slightly as the thought flashed through him that he should like to humble the other's confidence and pride. The next moment he was looking on, half astonished, as his adversary slipped off his long robe-like gown and stood before him in his tight doublet and hose, upright, keen, and active as a man of half his years, ready to fall into position the next moment and challenge him to come on.
The lad required no second invitation, for, calling up all he knew of fencing, he crossed swords and attacked vigorously, with the sensation the next moment that he had received a sharp jerk of the wrist as his rapier described a curve in the air and the doctor leaped up, making a snatch with his left hand, and catching it by the middle of the blade as it fell, to hold it to its owner with a smile.
"Bad," he said. "Don't let me do that again."
"You can't," cried the lad defiantly, as, tingling with annoyance, he attacked once more, to feel his adversary's blade seem as if endowed with snake-like vitality, and twine round his own, which then twitched and fell with a sharp jingle upon the oaken boards.
"Oh," cried the lad impatiently, "I can't fence a bit! But tell me, doctor; is there any—no, absurd—stuff! I don't believe in magic. I'd give anything, though, if you would teach me how to do that."
"You must learn to fence first, my boy, and work hard. I did not learn to do that in one lesson. Now attack again, and keep a good grip of your hilt. There, come on."
"No, not now, sir," said the boy huskily. "This has made me hot and angry, and one ought to be cool when handling pointed weapons. I shouldn't like to hurt you, sir."
"Neither should I, my lad," said the doctor calmly; "but you need not fear doing that. Come on, I tell you. There, I'm not speaking boastingly, Denis, my lad. I am no master of fence, but I can do precisely what I please with your weapon, disarm you at every encounter, or turn your point whichever way I choose. There: you see." For nettled by his words, and in a futile effort to prove that they were untrue, the lad attacked sharply once again, made about a dozen passes, to find himself perfectly helpless in his adversary's hands, and at last stopped short, lowered his point to the floor, and stood with both hands resting on the hilt.
"You are right, sir," he said. "It's horrible. I thought I could; but I can't fence a bit."
At that moment there was a sharp click of the outer door, and the doctor hurriedly began to sheathe his rapier, but not quickly enough for his action to be unseen. The arras was thrown aside, and a tall handsome young cavalier strode into the ante-chamber and stopped short in astonishment.
"Words and wonder!" he cried. "A duel? or young Denis defending his Majesty from an attempted assassination on the part of Master Leoni with a sword instead of physic?"
"Does it ever occur to you, Saint Simon, that your tongue runs at times somewhat too fast?" said the doctor coldly.
"Oh yes, often," was the laughing reply; "but it's a habit it has. What have I interrupted, though?"
"Master Leoni was giving me a fencing lesson, Saint Simon," cried the lad eagerly.
"Then you are the luckiest fellow at Court," cried the new arrival. "Why was I not here? There, pray go on, and let me stand by and learn."
Denis glanced at the doctor, grasping his hilt tightly the while, and ready to spring into position for a fresh encounter; but at the same moment he noted the change which came over his adversary, who from being tense, erect and active, suddenly seemed to grow limp of body, though his face was more animated than ever. He hung his head till his chin rested upon his chest, his eyes literally flashed, and he gazed up through his bushy brows at the young courtier who had just joined them, while for answer to his request he slowly finished sheathing his rapier and then took his heavy gown from where he had thrown it upon a chair, and held it out to Denis.
"Help me," he said. "I am growing old and stiff."
The lad looked at him wonderingly as he recalled the marvellous activity of a few minutes earlier, and then helped his instructor to resume his garment.
"What!" cried Saint Simon warmly. "You will not go on? Why, doctor, I want to learn."
The doctor gave him a peculiar, double sinister look, and said, with his unpleasant smile playing about his thin lips:
"The time to bend and train the wand is while it is young and green. You, sir, have grown too old and tough and stubborn to learn."
"At five and twenty?" cried the young man, flushing.
"Yes, at five and twenty. The soil of a court makes a tree old before its time, and—hark! Did I not hear his Majesty ring?"
"Yes," cried Denis quickly, and hurriedly smoothing his hair, which hung loose from his late exertions, and then, readjusting his doublet and seeing to the hang of his sword, he hurried through the arras, those who waited hearing the click of the door latch as he passed into the King's chamber.
"You don't like me, doctor," said Saint Simon, as soon as they were alone.
"I don't dislike you," said the other, smiling. "Have I ever treated you as an enemy?"
"Hist!" whispered the doctor, as voices were heard beyond the hangings; the door fastening clicked again, and the lad appeared, carrying himself in stiff and formal fashion.
"Gentlemen," he said, "enter. His Majesty will give you audience."
"Both? Together?" said the doctor.
"Yes. His Majesty asked who waited. I told him, and he bade me show both in."
"There, doctor," said Saint Simon; "it is not my doing, so don't visit this upon my head. I daresay he will soon send me away."
Then, following their young escort, the two men stepped into the darkened chamber where his Majesty, heavy-eyed, as if he was hardly yet awakened from sleep, lolled back in a short fur-trimmed robe in the corner of a couch, his left hand behind his neck, his right resting upon the shaggy head of a huge boar-hound which glanced suspiciously at the new-comers and uttered a deep muttering growl.
The King's fingers closed tightly upon the animal's ear, and he gave it a jerk.
"Quiet, Tonnerre!" he said. "Can't you see they are friends?"
Ugh! grunted the dog.
"Brute!" cried the King. "You see, gentlemen, he seeks the company of the wild boar so much that he has acquired his uncouth expressions. Well, Saint Simon, you want to see me?"
"Always, your Majesty," said the young man lightly. "You told me to wait upon you this afternoon."
"Did I? Well, I don't know that I want you. But to return your compliment, the place seems dull when you are not here."
The young man smiled and darted a triumphant glance at the saturnine-looking doctor, before turning to give Denis a look, his eyes sparkling with pleasure the while.
"And you, Leoni," said the King, yawning. "Tut, tut!" he added impatiently. "I am hardly awake. I was tired, gentlemen. Tonnerre and his brother here led us such a race yesterday that I feel it yet. Well, Leoni, what do you want?"
"Your Majesty told me that I might come and continue our little debate of yesterday—"
"To be sure, yes," said the King, yawning again. "Let me see; it was a sort of historical, half prophetic discourse, very learned and hard for a hunting man to understand, about the past and the future, and the safety of my throne, and its depending upon the recovery of a certain mystic stone carried off—carried off—let me see, Leoni, who did you say carried it off?"
"The enemy and invader of your country, your Majesty: Henry, the English King. But, your Majesty—" The doctor ceased speaking and turned slowly, to let his eyes rest meaningly upon the two young men in turn.
"Eh? What? You mean this is secret, and not for other ears?"
The two young men made a quick movement as their eyes sought the King's, and mutely asked the question:
Your Majesty wishes us to go?
"My liege, what I communicated was of the gravest import to you and yours, meant for your ears alone."
"To be sure, Leoni, but kings need very long ears indeed to take in all that concerns them—and have them too, sometimes, my learned doctor, as I have no doubt you men of wisdom think. But to be serious; I find I cannot hear all I want for myself, and am glad to have the help of other ears that I can trust. You are suspicious, my good old friend."
"No, your Majesty: cautious in your service. Years of experience have taught me to trust no one in your Majesty's service but myself."
"Ah, but you are not a king. Where should I be if I trusted none?"
The doctor bowed.
"There, you see, I trust you; and what is more, I trust these two boys as thoroughly as anyone at Court. You know, old friend, that there are hundreds here who will say they would die for me. Now, those two lads would not say such a thing to save their lives."
"Your Majesty!" cried the two young courtiers, in the same tone of protest.
"Well," said the King, smiling; "I am right. I believe you would either of you die to save me, and without saying word."
The pair drew back, smiling and satisfied, each glancing at the doctor as much as to say, Do you hear that?
"There," said the King, "I trust you all; so now go on, Leoni, and say what you have to say; and, boys, mind this; we are in secret conclave now. There must be no chattering afterwards, or discussion."
"Your Majesty commands," said the doctor gravely. "Shall I continue from where we left off yesterday?"
"No; let's have it all again. My gallop yesterday through the forest gave me so much to do in managing a fiery horse and keeping him from breaking my neck amongst the boughs as he carried me into so many real dangers, that all your imaginary notions were swept away. Let's have it all again."
The doctor bowed.
"It will save me," said the King, "from making only a half confidence to my young friends here. But be brief. Put it if you can into a few words. You in your studies and porings over black books are convinced— of what?"
"That your Majesty's throne and succession—"
"Well, really, Leoni, I don't know that I care much about the succession. But my throne is not a safe seat unless—"
"Unless, your Majesty, that half sacred mystic balas ruby that was carried off by Henry of England is brought back and restored to its place in the French Crown."
"Yes, that's it," said the King. "I remember all now. But do you believe, Leoni, as a man who has long studied the secrets of nature, and the mysteries of life, that there can be such virtue in precious stones that they can influence our lives?"
"Yes, your Majesty," said the doctor solemnly; "and everything goes to prove it the wide world through; amongst the greatest and most civilised down to the most savage nations these talismanic gems have been preserved and treasured up. Prosperity and safety of life have always accompanied their possession; misfortune and destruction their loss."
"Well," said the King thoughtfully, "I don't think that I believe it. It sounds to me like an old woman's tale."
"If your Majesty would read and study the history of the past—"
"I haven't time," said the King. "But look here; do you mean to tell me that this present Henry—what is he—the Eighth?—of England believes all this?"
"Yes, your Majesty, and proves it by treasuring up the ruby that by right is yours."
"Then you think that the holding of this stone, reft from our crown, had something to do with the hold of these English upon our fair domains of France?"
"Certainly, your Majesty, and moreover, I hold that it is your sovereign duty to restore it to its place."
"How?" said the King, and his eyes rested upon those of the two young men, whose intent and watchful faces told how they were drinking in with intense interest the subject that was being discussed.
"That, your Majesty," said the doctor gravely, "is what I am here to urge upon you."
"But what do you want, man?" cried the King impatiently. "If Henry is more wise than I, and believes in all this mystic stuff, is it likely that he will give me back this talisman, as I suppose you would call it, that his ancestors plundered from our crown?"
"No, your Majesty. Efforts have been made by statesmen of the past, in previous reigns, to get the jewel back, but all in vain."
"Very well," said the King impatiently; "and France seems to have got on very well without it. We are at peace with England. Why should I disturb our friendly brotherly intercourse by raking up the past? I am quite content and happy to enjoy my hunting pursuits. Do you want me to go to war, invade England, and bring the jewel back?"
"Far from it, your Majesty."
"Then why disturb the pleasant present?"
"For fear of a troubled future, Sire. It is to ensure your long and prosperous reign that I speak like this. Believe me, Sire, I have no other aim."
"Well, Leoni, I believe your words. You have a good position here at Court, and a good master ready to give you anything in reason; and believe me, I want to enjoy a quiet prosperous reign. Mine is a very pleasant life. There are plenty of boars to kill, and I would rather slay them than Englishmen. War is very attractive and very grand. The clash of arms, the trumpets' bray, and the thunder of chargers' hoofs, all thrill me to the core; but I prefer it in the tourney, the mimic charge, and I don't much care for blood. But you as a wise and thoughtful man, you tell me that I ought to stir in this and get the ruby back?"
"I do, Sire," said Leoni sternly.
"Well, well, then I suppose it must be done."
The dog gave a sharp growl and showed his teeth.
"What, sir!" roared the King, snatching back his hand to grasp the dagger in his girdle. "Do you dare to turn upon your lord?"
"No, no, Sire," cried Denis excitedly. "It was not his fault."
"What do you mean, sir?" said the King angrily.
"You were pulling his ears so hard, Sire, and dragging his head to and fro."
"Was I?" said the King.
"Yes, Sire. He bore it as long as he could."
"Poor old Tonnerre!" said the King, clapping his hand upon the dog's head again; and the dog whined with pleasure at the caress. "I was growing excited, I suppose. Well, never mind the hound. Now then, Leoni; we must have this ruby back?"
"Yes, Sire. I shall never rest till I see it safely in the ancient crown."
"And I suppose I must say the same," said the King. "But how is it to be done? There: speak. You have studied all this out, I suppose? How is it to be done?"
"By a trusty mission to England, Sire."
"Absurd! I am sure King Henry would never give anything up."
"And I, Sire. He must be forced."
"No, Sire. The force must be that of one strong, daring envoy who would seize upon the gem and bring it back."
"What, steal?" cried the King.
"Can one steal that which is one's own, Sire?"
"True. No," said the King. "This is ours by right."
"Your Majesty speaks well," said the doctor triumphantly. "This gem belongs to France's ancient crown, from which it was wrenched, plundered, stolen, carried away as spoil. And now it must be recovered."
"Openly," said the King.
"No, Sire. That means war. My plan is that you should send a trusted envoy to watch his opportunity, seize the gem or gems, and bring them back."
"Hah!" ejaculated Denis, in the excitement of the moment; and Saint Simon turned upon him sharply, and with a resentful look which was returned.
"But it means a deal," said the King thoughtfully. "That ambassador would risk his life."
"Hah!" ejaculated Saint Simon, giving vent to his suppressed excitement in his turn; and Denis now gave him back his resentful jealous look.
"Yes, Sire," continued Leoni; "the envoy would risk his life, of course—in the service of his King. But there are men who would do this for their master's sake, to ensure his long and peaceful reign."
"And if he fails?" said the King.
"He would not fail, Sire. He would be carried forward by the knowledge that he was fighting in the cause of right and duty towards the master that he loved. Have no fear of that, Sire. He would succeed."
"But I have fear," cried the King. "Find me such a man as that, and I should look upon him as a treasure whose life I would not risk."
"There would be no risk, Sire. It would be a question not of force but guile. He would make his way to the Court of your brother of England in a way which I have planned."
"With recommendations from me?"
"Perhaps, Sire. I have not settled that."
"No," said the King angrily. "Why, man, when the gems were missed, the theft would be laid at my door. I would sooner march my people across English ground and take them honestly by force."
"That could not be done, Sire. Leave that to me. Your messenger must go, and carry out his ambassage by guile."
"And who is to be the man?" asked the King.
"I!" cried Denis, springing forward, to sink upon one knee before Francis, and so suddenly as to rouse the dog, which leaped towards him, barking furiously.
"You, my boy!" cried the King.
"No, Sire," cried Saint Simon excitedly, following Denis's example, to spring to the King's feet. "I will go. It is work for a man grown, not for a puny boy."
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed the King merrily. "Quiet, Tonnerre! Quiet!" For the great hound, roused by the excitement, was filling the chamber with his deep-toned bay, his eyes glaring redly, and his glistening white fangs bared, as he gazed in his master's face as if asking for orders as to whom he should seize by the throat and pin.
"Down, sir!" cried the King again. "Quiet! There, Leoni, was I not right in letting these boys share our confidence? Who says that Francis of Valois has not followers in whom he can trust?"
"Not I, Sire," said the doctor grimly; "but this is no work for them."
"Not for Denis here," cried Saint Simon excitedly, "but, your Majesty, for me. I would strike, and strike now. Mine be the task to do or die!"
"Silence, boy!" cried the King, laying his hand on Denis's head as he dumbly looked up at him in protest, his eyes appealing the while that his monarch's favour should be awarded to him alone. "No, no; emphatically no! Neither of you will go alone. You hear, boys? I will not send you on this quest."
Francis turned to Leoni as he spoke, and the doctor bowed his head in acquiescence.
"Yours are the words of wisdom, Sire," he said. "The work is not for such as these—these two gallant followers of their King."
"Who then is to follow out the task?" said Francis. "For I like it well, and it must and shall be done. You hear me, Leoni? I have spoken now, and I will not rest, since you have roused me to this task, until this jewel glistens once more in its rightful place above my kingly crown."
"Spoken like the King of France!" cried the doctor, drawing himself up. "And now, Sire, it will be done."
"By whom?" cried Francis sternly.
"By your servant, Sire, who has dwelt upon this for years, thought out and nurtured the plans until the fruit is ripe. By the man who possesses the energy, the guile, and the determination to serve his master in this great duty to his King."
"And who is that man?" cried Francis, rising to his feet and standing proudly before his three courtiers kneeling before him; for as he uttered his next words Leoni sank in turn upon one knee and bent his head, to say in a low deep tone, almost a whisper, but which seemed to fill the silence of the place:
"I, Sire—your faithful servant. I am that man."
The silence for the next few moments was profound, while a cloud that had eclipsed the sun for some time past floated slowly from before the glowing orb, which poured its full beams through the gorgeous panes of the stained-glass windows of the chamber, and flooded the standing monarch with its glowing light as he made reply. His words were quick, sharp, and decisive, and fell upon the listeners like a thunderbolt, stunning them for a moment with the astonishment they felt; but they were only these:
"Neither are you the man to carry out this quest. I will go myself."
THE DOCTOR'S EYES.
For some moments the trio remained kneeling and staring up at the King in absolute wonderment; for in a few brief words he had swept away, as by the touch of a magician's wand, the gathering feeling of jealous annoyance which was forming in each breast. Leoni was the first to find the use of his tongue; but it was in a hesitating way quite foreign to his usual speech that he faltered out:
"You go, Sire?"
"Yes, I said so," said the King sharply.
"But it is impossible, Sire. You could not stoop to do such a thing as this."
"Then what's the use of being a king," cried Francis, "if one cannot do what one likes?"
Leoni slowly rose to his feet and shrugged his shoulders.
"That is a question I cannot answer, Sire. It forms part of the scheme of life. I have lived fifty years in the world, thirty of which have been spent in thinking and in study of my fellows. I never met one man yet who could do exactly as he liked."
"Well, if you come to that," said the King, "I don't think that I ever did; but I mean to do this all the same."
"But how could you, Sire? If the King of England chose to play you false he might throw you into prison."
"What!" cried Francis hotly.
"And hold you to ransom, Sire."
"Ah! I didn't think of that; but if he did it would give young Denis a chance to come and rescue me. You would, wouldn't you, boy?"
"Yes, Sire, or die in the attempt."
"Don't you be so fond of talking about dying," cried the King. "Who wants to die? Here, with all France at my feet, one wants to live and enjoy oneself. But let's see, Leoni; that wouldn't do at all. What's to be done?"
"Your Majesty will have to stay at Fontainebleau and let your servant do this duty, as he has said."
"No!" shouted the King. "I told you I would go myself."
"With a powerful following, Sire," cried Saint Simon, giving Leoni a triumphant look. "Let me choose and lead your bodyguard."
Denis frowned and set his teeth hard in his annoyance at being passed in the race by his companion; but he brightened directly on hearing the King's next impatient words:
"Hang your bodyguard! Leoni is right."
"Yes, Sire," said that individual, just loud enough for the young man to hear.
"This must be done with guile."
Denis's eyes flashed.
"Pardon, Sire," he cried eagerly. "You might go in disguise." And the next moment the boy's heart swelled within his breast, for the King slapped him heartily on the shoulder.
"Good!" he cried. "That's it! Do you hear, Leoni? That's the idea: I'll go in disguise."
"Sire! It is impossible!" cried the doctor.
"Quite," said the King, laughing; "but I like doing impossible things. Let me see, what's the proper way to go to work? I have it! As a learned doctor like you. H'm, no. They'd want me to cure somebody, and I should be killing him perhaps. Here, Saint Simon, how should I disguise myself?"
"Well, Sire, if I were going to undertake the task I should dress myself like a—like a—like a—"
"Minstrel, Sire," cried Denis excitedly, "like the English King Alfred."
"Or Richard Coeur de Lion," shouted Saint Simon, striving not to be beaten in the race.
"Here, hallo!" cried the King, "that won't do! I do know better than that. It was Richard's minstrel who went in disguise."
"Yes, Sire," cried Denis eagerly, while Leoni, with his eyelids nearly closed, glanced from one to the other with a look of contempt.
"That will not do," said the King gruffly. "There is no instrument that I could play; but I must go as something."
"Is your Majesty seriously determined to go in disguise?" said the doctor.
"Yes, old Wisdom. Now then, what do you propose?"
"I can only think of one way, Sire, and that is that I should go as what I am—a doctor—a part, I believe, that I could worthily play."
"Of course," said the King. "There is not a better doctor in the world."
Leoni's eyes flashed, as he bowed his head gravely.
"But you are not going," said the King decisively.
"No, Sire, unless your Majesty thought it wise that I should go, and take you as my servant."
"What!" shouted the King.
"In disguise, of course, Sire."
"That I won't!" cried the King. "Either in disguise or out of it. Bah! Pish! The idea is absurd. Go as your servant! Are you growing into your dotage, man?"
The two young men exchanged glances, brothers once again in combination against their rival for the King's favour, who seemed to be coming to the front and leaving them behind.
"Pardon me, Sire," said the doctor humbly. "I proposed that, as it seemed an easy way to achieve your ends."
"I would sooner give up the project, Master Leoni," said the King haughtily. "Propose something else."
The doctor spread his hands apart in the most self-abasing way, but the King was not appeased.
"Picture me, the eldest son of Holy Church, His Most Christian Majesty, masquerading as the servant of a leech! Have a care, Master Leoni. You have a way of handling a lancet and letting your patients' blood. Recollect that kings have a way too of treating patients so that they never bleed again."
"I am your Majesty's humble slave," said Leoni, in low, deprecating tones; but Denis noticed that there was no humility in the half veiled eyes as they were lowered to the ground; "You are forgiven," said the King. "But have a care. By the Faith! It brought the blood hotly to my eyes! Now then, speak again. In what habit shall I go?"
There was silence in the chamber, broken the next moment by the impatient trampling of the monarch's feet as he paced up and down, while for a time nobody ventured to speak. And then in his excitement lest he should be supplanted, it was Denis who sprang into the gap.
"I have a plan, Sire," he cried. "Go as a powerful French noble, travelling to see the Courts of Europe, and—and—"
"Yes, go on, boy. That notion likes me well."
"Your Majesty might take me as your esquire, or page," added the boy, trembling lest he should have brought his master's wrath down burning upon his head.
"Hah!" shouted the King, and for a moment the boy's heart sank, for the King's hand came down upon his shoulder in a painful grip; but the next moment the sinking heart rose with a bound, his eyes flashed with excitement, and for the life of him he could not keep from darting triumphant glances at his fellow-courtiers. "There, Master Leoni! There, Saint Simon! Who dares tell me we haven't got a young Solomon of wisdom in our Court? Hear him! That's the very idea I had in my own breast, only I couldn't think it then. Yes, Denis, that's the plan, and we will go at once."
"But your Majesty will want other followers," cried Saint Simon excitedly. "I could—"
"Select a score of quarrelsome, fiery young blades like yourself, to pick quarrels with the English courtiers and spoil our plans? No, sir; that will never do."
"Oh!" groaned the young man, so despairingly that the King laughed merrily.
"Well, you're not a bad fellow, Saint Simon, and I might get into some trouble and want the help of your sword as well as my own. Denis, boy, shall we take him with us?"
The lad flushed deeply at the "shall we?"
It was his moment of triumph. He was called upon to say yes or no, and he turned his eyes, which flashed with pride, upon his elder companion, who gazed at him imploringly, and generosity prevailed.
"Oh yes, Sire," he cried. "He will be a splendid follower to have with us at such a time."
"Then he shall come," cried the King; and Saint Simon sprang forward to kiss his sovereign's hand, while as he rose he turned his eyes upon Denis, and the boy react in them, as it were, the extinction of rivalry, for they seemed to say, I shall never forget this.
"Then that's about all," cried the King, with a sigh of mingled relief and content.
"Sire, may your servant speak?" said Leoni humbly.
"Yes. What is it?" was the impatient reply.
"You are going into a strange country to encounter many perils."
"And adventures," said Leoni—"and may meet with injuries, suffer in your health. Would it not be wise to have the leech in your train?"
"My faith, no!" cried the monarch. "I know you of old, my plotting, scheming friend. You would be having me ill, stretched upon a pallet, within a week, and then it is the doctor who becomes the King. I think we three can manage without your help; but I won't be forgetful of old services, and I'll trust you in this. There is no such scribe about the Court as you, so you shall keep a chronicle of everything that happens here while the cat's away, and read the record of the sporting of my mice to me on my return. I can trust you to see twice as much as any other man about the Court, in your double-sighted way."
"Double-sighted suggests duplicity, Sire," said the doctor.
"No, no; I don't mean that," cried the King, "and you know it. If I thought that you were guilty of duplicity, Leoni, do you think that I should trust you as I do? There," he continued impatiently, "don't look at me like that, man. It worries me."
"It is my misfortune, Sire, not my intention."
"Of course. I know; I know. But you look sometimes as if you were keeping me in conversation with one eye, while the other was seeking how to take me at a disadvantage."
"That's what people about the Court say, Sire," said the doctor, with a grim smile.
"Yes, I know," replied the King. "I have heard Saint Simon say so. I shouldn't have thought of it myself. But it is quite right, all the same."
"In appearance, Sire; but it is not true."
The King laughed.
"My dear doctor, yes, of course; I know that. Do you know what I lay and thought once when I was ill?"
"No, Sire; but something wise, no doubt."
"Bah! None of your subtle flattery. No one knows better than I do, Leoni, that I am not a clever man. What I lay and thought was that you had studied your two crafts so well that one eye was the window from which the clever doctor's brain looked out, the other that of the calm, quiet, thoughtful statesman. I should long to have two such eyes as yours, Leoni, only that there are the ladies, you know. I don't think that they would approve, eh, doctor? What is your experience?"
"That your Majesty is quite right," replied the other, with his cynical smile. "I have never been a ladies' man."
A KING AT SEA.
"Well, boys, we are fairly started," said the King, "but this vessel moves about a great deal. I hope we are not going to have rough weather."
"Well, I'm sorry to say, Sire—" began Saint Simon.
"Ah!" cried the King, in a low angry voice. "Four days since we started, and I have been giving you lesson after lesson, and you begin at once addressing me like that. Once more, both of you, I am the Comte de la Seine, on my travels, and you, Saint Simon, are my friend, and you, Denis, my esquire. Now look here, Denis, do I look at all like a king now?"
"Not in the least, Comte."
"And now you, Saint Simon; what have you got to say about the weather?"
"That I have been talking to the shipmaster, and he says the weather is going to be very fine—"
"That's good," cried the King.
"—but very windy."
"That's bad," said the King—"for the poor horses," he added hastily. "I wish we had had them fastened up below."
As he spoke he glanced forward at where, a good distance apart, three very beautiful chargers were doubly haltered to the rail, and whinnying uneasily and pawing at the deck, and then made an uneasy gesture, for a puff of wind filled out the two big sails of the clumsy vessel and made it careen, so that the royal passenger made a snatch at a rope which was hanging loose and gave to his touch, when he made another snatch and caught at Saint Simon to save himself from falling.
"A bad, a clumsy vessel!" he cried angrily. "Here, I'm tired with our long two days' ride. I think I'll go into the cabin and lie down. Give me your arm, Denis." And, steadying himself by the lad, he went below, lay down at once, and dismissed his attendant, who returned on deck, to be met by Saint Simon.
The two young men, gazed silently at each other, and with mirth in their eyes.
"The sea doesn't respect kings," said Saint Simon merrily.
"Nor anybody else," replied Denis; "so don't let us holloa till we are out of the wood."
"You mean across the water."
"Yes," said Denis. "It may be our turn next. I wish we were over in England now."
"What, are you afraid?" cried Saint Simon.
"Yes—for my poor horse. I'm afraid of his breaking away. Look how he is straining at his halter, and how rough his coat is. It looked like satin yesterday. If he broke loose what should we do?"
"Try to tie him up again," said Saint Simon bluntly. "But if one gets loose the others will follow, and then—"
He stopped short and spread his legs as wide as he could, for the vessel was beginning to dance in the chopping sea.
"Well, and what then?" cried Denis.
"Our wild-goose journey would be at end, for those horses would go overboard as sure as we stand here."
"What!" cried Denis excitedly.
"What I have said. My charger is safe to make a dash for the side, and rise at it; and he'd go over like a skimming bird, and the others would follow at once."
He had hardly spoken when the skipper of the vessel, a heavy, sun-tanned-looking man in scarlet cap, high boots and petticoat, came up to them.
"Look here, young masters," he cried, "I don't often take cattle in my boat, and when I do I have them slung down into the hold. My deck isn't a safe place for beasts, and if those three don't break loose before long I'm no shipman."
"Then what is to be done?" cried Denis hurriedly.
"If the—" He stopped short, for Saint Simon gave him a sharp jerk with his elbow and continued his speech.
"—Comte's horse were to be lost overboard he'd never forgive us."
"No," said Denis, recovering himself. "Look here, you have plenty of ropes. Call some of your men to help; we must put slip-knots round above their hoofs and tie them in different places, so that they couldn't get away."
"Yes, that's right," said the skipper. "But won't they kick?"
"No," replied Denis; "we can manage that if your men will help."
No time was lost, for the need for doing something grew more and more evident; and with the young men standing by to calm and caress each beautiful steed in turn, running nooses were placed round their fetlocks, and the ropes' ends slipped through ring-bolt and round belaying pin, to be made fast, so that before half an hour had passed the horses were thoroughly secured, and stood staring-eyed and shivering, ready to burst out into a piteous whinnying if the young men attempted to move away.
It was a rough passage, growing worse hour after hour till nightfall, and the cares that had come upon them were so onerous that the two young men were too busy and excited to feel any qualms themselves. Not only were there the horses, but their companion below made no little call upon their attention, and in turn they descended into the rough cabin to see what they could do. But the second time that Saint Simon approached the spot where his suffering sovereign lay he was ordered back.
"Send Denis," he said. "You go on deck again and mind that nothing happens to my horse."
"He's very ill," said Saint Simon, who did not look at all sorry, but more disposed to laugh, as he joined Denis, who was dividing his attention among the three horses, and patting each in turn.
"Then why did you leave him?"
"Because he wants you. He's ashamed to let me see how bad he is."
"Is he so very ill then?" said Denis.
"He thinks he is; but you had better make haste down."
Denis hurriedly went below, to find that the sea entertained not the slightest respect for the stricken monarch, who uttered a low groan from time to time, and grew less king-like in his sufferings.
"This is very bad, Denis," he said, "and it doesn't seem fair. Why am I ill, and you going about as if we were on dry land?"
"I wish I could suffer for you, my master," said the lad earnestly.
"Thank you. That's very good," said the King; "but unfortunately you can't. Denis, my lad, it takes all the bravery out of a man when he is like this. Do you think the shipmaster would call it cowardly if I were to send word for him to turn the vessel round and make sail back for Havre de Grace?"
"I don't think he would notice it, my—Comte," said Denis earnestly; "but I don't think he could do it now."
"Why?" cried the King.
"Because the wind is growing stronger, and blowing hard from behind, driving us fast for the other coast; and even if he could turn we should not get back."
"No," said the King. "But this is very horrible, Denis, my lad.—Are the horses safe?"
"Yes, sir, quite."
"Ah! that's right," moaned the King. "Say sir, not Sire, on your life."
"What's that?" cried the King, in a startled voice, sitting up, but falling back with a groan. "Oh, how my head swims! Can you swim, Denis, boy?" he moaned.
"Yes, sir; but no one could swim in a sea like this."
Boomp! Crash! Rush!
"What's that, boy?" groaned the King again. "Why don't you tell me? Didn't I ask before?"
"It was a big wave, sir, leaping at the vessel's bows, and curling over and rushing along the deck."
"How dreadful!" said the King. "Why is it so dark? Is it the sea flooding the ship?"
"No, sir; it is nearly night."
"Oh yes, I forgot. I think I have been asleep. Are we almost there?"
"No, sir. It is a long way yet."
"If I could only go to sleep! Why didn't I let that doctor come? Denis, my boy, if I die, or if we are drowned, or—go up and ask the shipmaster how long it will be before we get across."
In no wise troubled by the pitching and tossing of the clumsy vessel, Denis climbed on deck; but it was some moments before he could make out where the captain stood, and then only by the help of one of the men, who pointed out the dim figure in the semi-darkness lightened by the foam, standing beside the man at the rudder beam; and then it needed no little care to pass along, holding on by the bulwarks, to ask the question the lad was sent to bear.
"How long, my lad?" said the skipper. "Oh, very soon. We are flying across to-night. This is the fastest run I can remember to have made."
"But are we nearly there?"
"Nearly there! No, not halfway; but if the wind holds on like this we shall be across in time for dinner at noon to-morrow, and perhaps before."
"So long as that?" cried Denis.
"So soon as that," said the skipper, laughing. "There, I see how it is. You are afraid—"
"I'm not!" cried Denis sharply.
"Don't be in such a hurry, my lad. You don't give a man time to speak— about your horses, I was going to say. But they're all right. I have another rope passed from neck to neck, and as soon as the poor beasts felt it it seemed to give them comfort, like being more in company. Don't you be afraid. They're noble animals, but not fit for work like this. Go and see."
Denis hurried to where Saint Simon was standing with the horses, drenched with spray, and growing impatient at his task.
"Oh, there you are!" he cried. "Why didn't you come before?"
"I couldn't leave him. He sent me up to ask how soon we shall be across."
"The skipper says at noon to-morrow."
"Not till then?" said Saint Simon.
"Well, I'm glad of it. Serve him right. It will finish this wild-goose chase and send him back quite satisfied, ready to settle down again."
"I hope so," said Denis. "How wet you are!"
"Yes, I don't mind now," said Saint Simon. "It was very horrible at first, but I can't get any wetter, and that's some comfort after all."
"I'd stop and keep guard myself so that you could go into shelter," said Denis; "but I must go down again to tell him what I have learned. But why couldn't you go?"
"Because he sent you, and he'd be furious perhaps. There, go and tell him."
"Yes, I had better go," said the lad thoughtfully; "but—I am sorry to leave you, all the same."
"Hah! That makes me feel warm," cried Saint Simon—"that and the knowledge that the horses can't get loose. There, go on down. After all, he's worse off than we."
Denis crept along by the bulwarks till he could reach the cabin hatch, lowered himself down to where a vile-odoured lamp was swinging from the cabin ceil, and then, moving slowly, having hard work to keep his feet, he reached the spot where the suffering monarch lay, to find to his great relief that Francis had sunk into a deep sleep, and was breathing heavily, leaving him nothing to do but sit down and watch.
HOW TO LAND HORSES.
It was a long and dreary night, full of suffering; but, like the worst, it slowly came to an end. The grey dawn began to creep through the dim skylight, grew stronger and brighter, and at last the sun arose, with the King still sleeping profoundly, and Denis standing at the top of the cabin ladder, gazing out over a glorious foaming sea, all purple, orange, and gold, wide awake to the beauty of the scene, and ready to wonder what had become of the horror and darkness of the night.
There was a fresh breeze blowing and the sea was rough, but the clumsy craft rode more easily and had ceased to pitch and toss. Far ahead too the sea looked smoother, and so Denis said to the rough-looking skipper, who came up with a nod and smile.
"Only looks so," he said, "because it is so far off. But the wind is going down, and in a couple of hours we shall be in smooth water. How's your master?"
"Fast asleep still," replied Denis.
"Best thing for a man not used to the sea. Well, you see, we shall get your horses over safely. Poor beasts! They are worse sailors than men. How are you? Feel as if you could eat some breakfast?"
"Yes, I'm getting horribly hungry."
"That's right. You are the best sailor of the lot. There will be some in an hour's time."
The skipper passed on, leaving Denis with a look of disgust upon his features, for he was thinking of the roughness of the common vessel upon which they had been obliged to take their passage, and the pleasant meal of which he would have eaten at Fontainebleau.
Just then Saint Simon turned, caught sight of him, and signalled to him to come. Denis started, hesitated, and then ran down into the cabin again to see whether the King had awakened. But far from it: he was flat on his back and looking far from king-like, for his mouth was open and he was giving forth sounds which in a common person would have been called snores.
Hurrying back to the deck, Denis ran forward, awakening to the fact that the sea was much smoother, for he could not have progressed like that over-night.
"Well, how are you?" he cried.
"Beginning to get dry," was the morose reply. "Look here, boy, if I had known that I was going to play horse-keeper all through a night like this I wouldn't have volunteered to come. I shall want a week's sleep to put me straight."
"Why didn't you ask one or two of the sailors to come and help you?"
"Why didn't you come and help me?"
"You know: because I was obliged to be in attendance on the—"
"Comte!" shouted Saint Simon. "You will be spoiling the expedition before you have done."
"Yes, it is hard work to remember. I am sorry, though, Saint Simon. You know that I would have come and helped you if I could."
"Oh yes, I know," said the other. "I couldn't trust anyone to help, for the poor beasts knew me, and at the worst times a word or two and a pat on the neck seemed to calm them, and they left off shivering with cold and fear; but I have had a night such as I don't want to have again."
"You must have had. But the skipper says that we shall soon be in smooth water, and that there will be some breakfast in an hour."
"Heugh!" ejaculated Saint Simon. "Breakfast here! I don't want anything till we get on shore—if we ever do. Here, look behind you."
Denis turned sharply, to see a familiar face in the full sunshine peering over the edge of the hatchway and looking about, but apparently not seeing what was sought till a hand appeared to shade its owner's eyes, sending forth a flash or two of light from a ring upon one of the fingers.
"Why, it's the—"
"Comte!" said Saint Simon quickly. "Stop here, and lay hold of his horse."
Saint Simon said no more, and Denis obeyed, grasping his companion's reason, while the next minute the King had mounted to the deck, and came forward to join them, after making a rush to the bulwarks and grasping the rail.
"Oh, you're here, gentlemen," he said sharply. "Why was not somebody in attendance—oh, I see; you're minding our steeds. It has been a very bad night for them. Not injured, I hope?"
"No, sir," replied Saint Simon; "but during the worst part of the storm we had to have extra ropes. I was afraid at one time that we should lose them all."
"But they are safe," said the King, "thanks to you, gentlemen. Poor boys," he continued, as he passed amongst the ropes, each charger in turn uttering a low, piteous whinny, and stretching out its muzzle to receive the King's caress, each too snorting its satisfaction the next moment, and impatiently pawing the deck.
"Morning, master!" cried the skipper, hurrying up. "Been a windy night, but it will be all smooth directly. Wind's veered round to the north, and coming off the shore. Sha'n't be getting on so fast now."
"But these horses," said the King; "they ought to have water and food."
"Not they, master. They wouldn't touch it if you gave them of the best. They want to feel solid ground under their hoofs."
"And how soon will they get that?" asked Denis quickly.
"Two or three hours if the wind doesn't drop," replied the skipper; "and," he continued, as he held up his hand and shouted an order or two to his men to stand by the sheets, "it's chopping round again to the south. Give us an hour like this, and we shall be in shelter, sailing between the island and the mainland. You can't say but what we have had a splendid run."
There was such a quaint comical expression upon the King's countenance that Denis felt obliged to swing swiftly round and bend down to make believe to loosen the slip-knot about his charger's leg.
"If I hadn't done so," he said afterwards to Saint Simon, "I should have burst out laughing in the Comte's face. There," he added quickly, in triumphant tones, "I have got it now!"
"Yes, and you would have got it then," replied Saint Simon, "for my lord will forgive a good deal sooner than being laughed at."
This was some time later, when they were gliding gently on through the smooth water on a bright sunny morning with their port close at hand and full prospect of being, some time during the next half-hour, close up to the landing-place; and before long so it proved, for the King, quite recovered now from his indisposition, was in eager converse with the skipper as to the best means of getting the horses ashore.
"Well, master, you see this: Southampton isn't Havre de Grace."
"Bah!" ejaculated the King impatiently.
"We had nothing to do there but walk the horses straight from the wharf over the planks, and down through the gangway on to the deck; but you see it's different here."
"Nonsense!" said the King. "There are landing-places here, for I can see them. Work your vessel up quite close, and then boards can be laid from the deck, and the same thing can be done the other way on."
"Yes, master, that's what I meant; but I forgot all about the tide. You see, we are coming in just at low water, and I sha'n't be able to get within fifty fathoms of the shore till well on towards night."
"What! And we have to stop here all day?" cried the King angrily.
"Yes, that's about it. I'll get in as close as I can, and then we shall be in the mud."
"But is there no other way farther along?" cried the King.
"The only other way is for me to hail a barge or a flat, and swing the horses down into that; but I shouldn't like to undertake the job."
"It must be done," said the King. His words were law, and, in his impatient eagerness to get clear of the vessel where he had passed so many uncomfortable hours, he promised to hold the skipper free from responsibility.
Taking advantage of the King going aft with Saint Simon, Denis went up to the skipper.
"Do you think there will be any danger," he said, "to the horses?"
"Shouldn't like to promise, my lad," was the reply, "but if they were my horses I should go to your master and say, What's the use of being in such a hurry? It's only waiting a tide, and then we could get close in."
"But you don't know him," said Denis. "He will have his own way."
"Yes, I can see that," said the bluff skipper. "It'd do him good to be six months aboard my vessel under me. I'd make another man of him. Ah, you may laugh, my young sharper. You think I'm a quiet, good-tempered sort of an old chap, but a ship's captain has to be a bit of a Tartar too. Do you know what he is aboard his ship? Well, I'll tell you. He's a king."
Denis gazed sharply in the man's face, wondering whether he had any suspicion as to who his passenger really was, as he went on talking.
"You see, my boy, I'm used to this sort of thing. Sometimes it's cattle, sometimes it's pigs and sheep. Well, they don't like going down into a flat-bottomed boat; but," he added, with a chuckle and a nudge, "they have to go, and if they won't go decently like passengers, we just shoves them overboard and lets them swim ashore. But with horses like these it would be spoiling them to treat them roughly."
"But you need not treat them roughly," said Denis. "You could sling them with your ropes and tackle into the boat."
"Yes, you could," said the skipper; "but they wouldn't let you."
"Oh, they would," said Denis.
"Well, sir," said the skipper, "you wait and see."
ONLY A BOY.
The rough old skipper was right, for after getting in as close as he could, the vessel took the ground, and some time was spent in hailing and getting a large flat barge close alongside to the open gangway.
A big spar with its blocks and tackle was run out, and proceedings were commenced with the men for slinging the horses off the deck and lowering them down; but everything was of the roughest kind and perfectly unsuitable, while the horses, which were recovering fast from their stormy journey, grew more and more restless, and after several attempts with the King's charger, which was to be the first, it resented the handling of the men, lashed out, and then began to rear, proving in a short time that disaster must follow the attempt, for plainly enough, if the horse began to struggle when raised from the deck, it would free itself from the badly fitted on ropes and be seriously damaged and maimed before being finally lowered down.
The worse matters grew the more the King lost his temper. He bullied, raged, and stormed, called the skipper and his men clumsy idiots and imbeciles, till temper was lost on the other side, the skipper's face, always ruddy and brown, grew red and black, and he ended by telling his Majesty that he would have to wait, for the men should do no more.
"This will be the end of our travels," whispered Saint Simon, "for the King will now betray himself."
"The Comte, you mean," said Denis quietly; for he had been standing very thoughtful and quiet, thinking over his conversation with the skipper hours before, and starting forward suddenly just as the King was clapping his hand to his sword, he whispered to him quickly:
"I think I can get the horses ashore, Sire."
"Will your Majesty let me try—I mean, Monsieur le Comte, will you let me try?"
"Hah! That's better, boy. But speak; what do you mean to do?"
"Let me show you, sir," cried the boy excitedly, and going to where his steed was tethered, he patted and tried to soothe it for a few moments before taking bit and bridle and fitting them on. Then he called to the skipper.
"What do you want?" said the man gruffly, as he came up scowling.
"Have that flat hauled away," said Denis quickly, "and then give me a clear space on the deck. There isn't much room, but I think I can manage."
"Hah!" cried the skipper. "Well done, youngster! I see what you mean, and if you can do that there will be no trouble with the others. Well done! Good idea!"
The anger against the King seemed to die out at once, and giving his orders sharply, in a very brief space of time the shallow barge had been allowed to drift astern, there was a fairly clear space on deck, there was the open gangway on the side of the vessel nearest the shore, and the time had come for the young esquire to act.
The next minute Denis cast loose the halter which tethered his charger to the vessel's side, turned it round, patted the arched neck once more, and then, bridle in hand, sprang up, threw over one leg, and the next moment was seated upon his barebacked steed.
The sailors gave a cheer, which startled the horse, but a few words from Denis quieted it again, and in obedience to the pressure of the rider's heels it paced forward along the deck as far as the hamper of the vessel would allow, turned in obedience to the pressure on the rein, and paced back again in the other direction, to be turned once more.
Everyone else on board was turned into a spectator now, the men in the flat watching as eagerly as the rest. "He will never do it, Saint Simon," said the King.
"Think not, sir?" was the reply. "I believe he will. Look!"
For after walking his beautiful steed to and fro again, Denis waited till they reached the open gangway, and then turned the noble animal's head and let it stop to stretch out its muzzle towards the shore to gaze with starting eyes at the solid land and moving people there.
It snuffed the air loudly, and then a loud neigh rang out like a challenge, which was answered by one of the horses attached to a trolley high-up on a wharf.
This had the effect of setting the other two chargers challenging in turn, and as they ceased, Denis spoke to and patted his steed, bending well forward the while. Then he turned its head again and rode a few yards up and down the deck once more.
"Well done, my lad," cried the skipper, coming to his side. "You will do it. Go on."
"How deep is the water here?" said Denis eagerly.
"About a fathom. Plenty of room for you to swim."
Denis set his teeth, walked his horse up and down once more, turned it sharply toward the gangway, and then with voice and heel urged it forward, but only to elicit a loud snort as it stood with all four feet pressed firmly on the deck.
Once more, half despairing now, Denis rode up and down again, before turning toward the open gangway, and it happened that just as he reached it a neighing challenge came afresh from the shore, sending a quiver through the charger, which snorted loudly, and then, in obedience to the rider's voice and the pressure of his heel, rose and bounded bravely forward from the vessel's side, out into the water, descending with a heavy splash, and then submerged all but the extended neck, and with the lad with the water rising above his hips, but firmly in his seat, bending forward and giving as if part of the brave animal that had begun swimming steadily towards the shore.
A ringing cheer rose from the vessel, was taken up by the men on the flat, and answered from the shore, while all watched the progress of horse and rider, who both seemed as if to the manner born.
"That means success, sir," said Saint Simon eagerly. "Will you go next?"
"But I shall be so wet, man. You had better follow with my charger now."
"Yes, sir, I will if you wish," whispered Saint Simon; "but—this is the beginning of our adventures, and—"
"Yes," said the King, in a voice full of vexation, "it seems so cowardly if I hang back. I am not afraid to do it, man, but I shall be so horribly drenched."
"You can get dry, sir, when we are ashore."
"Yes, of course," whispered the King. "Here, I'll go next. I am not going to be beaten by that boy."
He was in full earnest, and bitting and bridling his horse himself, refusing Saint Simon's help and leaving him to perform the same task on his own steed, almost as soon as Denis had reached the shore, for his steed to stand snorting and shaking the water from its flowing mane and tail, the King was mounted, barebacked too. He rode his charger to the open gangway, where the brave beast answered the neigh that came from its companion on land, and without hesitation made the splashing leap so suddenly that the rider nearly lost his seat, having an undignified struggle to get himself upright again; while as soon as there was a clear way Saint Simon followed without the slightest difficulty, his charger in a few strides getting abreast of the King's; and they swam together till the water shallowed and the swimming became a splashing wade to where, wet and triumphant, Denis was waiting their arrival.
MADAME THE HOSTESS.
A little crowd of idlers soon began to gather about the adventurers, who had dismounted to shake the water from their clinging garments and make much of their brave steeds.
"My faith!" said the King. "We are beginning our adventures indeed; but we are in a sorry plight, and ought to change."
"Here's the boat coming, sir," cried Denis, who turned away from a man who began questioning him eagerly as to who they were and why they had come ashore like this.
The fellow's manner had annoyed him, for though he pretty well understood his English he replied shortly in his native tongue. But the man was in no wise rebuffed, and turned now to Saint Simon, with whom he fared no better, in fact, rather worse, the result being that he addressed the King, who shortly told him to go and mind his own affairs.
The boat, which soon reached the shore, contained the skipper, who had thoughtfully brought on the travellers' light valises, their saddles, and the remains of the horse-gear, ready to offer them any further assistance, and praising their gallant swim; but warmed up by his excitement, the King made light of it all, seeming ready to forget the state of his garments; and eager to get away from the crowd, he joined with his young companions in saddling up and mounting, to ride away from the curious crowd and the hangers-on, several of whom seemed on friendly terms with the man who had first addressed Denis, and whose curiosity seemed in no degree abated.
"I did think of going to some inn to change and rest, and start forward later on for Winchester," said the King; "but we will start at once and get away from here. Do the people think we have come to make an exhibition for them?"
"But you will want rest and refreshment, sir, and to dry your clothes," said Saint Simon.
"No," said the King. "Do you?"
"I am ready—we are ready," said Saint Simon, "to follow you in everything."
"Are our valises fast in their places, and the saddles well girthed?" said the King. "Yes? Then we ride on at once till we are clear of this town. We shall soon dry in the hot sunshine, and be better ready to make a breakfast, for I feel as if I could touch no food. Follow, gentlemen," he continued, and putting spurs to his charger he cantered away along what seemed to be the main street, at the end of which a few inquiries put them on their right road and direct for the open country, where, once amongst green fields and hedgerows, they dismounted, to rest their horses by a river-bank and let them drink and graze.
But for this the brave animals, which had suffered more than their riders from the crossing, displayed no eagerness, and the travellers advanced again, walking each with his bridle in his hand, enjoying the glowing sunshine and the simple beauty of the country, and gradually growing more light-hearted and ready for any fresh adventure that they might encounter.
The road became more and more deserted, a village or two was passed, and later on in the day they were attracted by the appearance of a substantial farmhouse whose very aspect suggested that here was the spot to put an end to certain qualms connected with the fact that they had not partaken of food for a considerable length of time.
Here there was corn for their horses in a shady barn-like stable whose loft shed a delicious odour of sweet hay, and in the house a clean white scrubbed table with bowls of new milk, newly made bread, and freshly fried ham, the whole forming a repast to which the party paid ample justice, while it made the King declare that it was the most delicious banquet he had ever enjoyed.
Then with the horses quite recovered, the journey was recommenced and the travellers rode off, Denis turning in his saddle to wave his hand to the farmer and his wife, just in time to catch sight of another party riding up to the farm as if to take their places and enjoy a similar meal.
Winchester at last, with the square tower of the fine old cathedral standing up from amongst the trees, the river sparkling in the sunshine, the wooded hills and verdant plains rising on all sides making Francis draw rein to breathe his horse and half close his eyes as he gazed around.
"Well," he said, "France is France, but my brother of England, if all his country is like this, possesses a land that any king might envy; and I shall tell him so if we meet, as of course we shall. But after all, I don't like this task. I am a king, and it begins to look to me, boys, as if I am going crawling up to the back door of this palace of his like some lacquey. But there, I have said that I would do it. It is for France, and I will. What do you say, Saint Simon?"
"Oh, sir, you mustn't turn back now."
"No: I must not turn back now, though we have been rather damped at the start, eh?" he added, with a laugh. "But are you lads dry?"
They declared they were, and the conversation turned upon their proceedings.
"This is evidently a fine city," said the King. "I have read enough to know that it has been a home of kings, so we will sleep there to-night and start afresh in good time to-morrow, though we shall not go to the Palace for a bed. But there is sure to be some good travellers' inn."
And this proved to be the case as they rode through the city gate down the High Street, to check their steeds by the Market Cross, the observed of all observers, and they were many lurking about the place, for it had been market day.
It was not the costume of the three horsemen, for they were purposely very plainly clad, everything about them, however, looking good and soldierly. It was their beautiful horses that took the attention of most of the sturdy country-looking folks, and more than one keen-eyed man approached them with no little freedom, scanning their mounts from head to heel, one man giving the King a nod and stretching out his hand to run it down his charger's leg.
The King looked furious, darted a fierce glance at the intruder, and reined up his horse so suddenly that the fine beast reared and made the man start back, his discomfiture being greeted by a roar of laughter on the part of the uncouth people around.
"The insolence!" muttered the King to Denis. "These English islanders are brutal in their ways. If they knew who I was! Here, let's ride on."
His horse answered to the pressure of his knees and moved off upward through the crowd, Saint Simon following his track, and Denis coming last, having no little difficulty in closing up, for the increasing crowd obstructed his way, the people's curiosity being aroused by the strangers.
"These horses for sale?" said the man who had been rebuffed, pressing up to the young esquire's knee.
"No," said the lad, in fairly good English. "Why?"
"Hallo!" said the man. "You are a Frenchman. Then you have brought these over to sell. Look here, young man, I can help your master to find a buyer in some great English lord. I deal in horses, and I'll make it worth his while. Where are you going to stay?"
"I don't know," replied Denis. "Keep back, please. My horse doesn't like crowding, and he may strike out."
"I'll take care," said the man. "I understand horses. Yes, this is a nice animal you are riding too."
Denis made no answer, but pressed forward. There was some shouting, but the crowd gave way and he rode up close just as the King drew rein by a gateway and then passed into a great inn-yard, where a couple of hostlers hurried to meet them, and a buxom-looking landlady in widow's coif came smiling to the door of the comfortable-looking inn.
"Hah!" said the King, dismounting. "This looks like France. Here we can rest and dine. Denis, my boy, talk to the dame there, and tell her to get us quickly a dinner of the best."
Denis turned, meeting the pleasant-faced landlady's eye as he dismounted and threw his rein to one of the stablemen, noting, as he walked to where the landlady stood waiting, that the man who had accosted them was following into the inn-yard with three or four others of the same stamp; and the sight of the fellow made the lad hesitate as he thought of the possibility of the fellow's insolence raising the King's ire. But he had his task to fulfil, and the next moment the landlady was receiving him with bows and smiles, ready to show him into a comfortable old-fashioned room, and make his task easy by suggesting instead of taking orders, the only one he found it necessary to give being the simple one:
"Everything, and of the best; but quickly, for we have ridden far."
This was in French, but to the lad's great delight the hostess spoke his tongue, with a good accent, easily and well.
"Anyone would think you were French," he said, with a courtly bow.
"Oh no," she said, "I am English. I was in Rouen many years at school, and we have French travellers here sometimes. But let me show you the chambers for your lord and your young friend. He is a lord?" she said, with a pleasant smile.
"He is what you English would call a lord," replied Denis. "The Comte de la Seine."
"Ah," said the hostess, with a smile of satisfaction at the quality of her guests, as she led the way to the best chambers of the fine old inn, Denis selecting two, one within the other, which were exactly such as he felt the King would like—that is to say, a fine old bedroom with a double-bedded ante-chamber, which he immediately determined should be for himself and Saint Simon.
Within an hour, partly refreshed, the King and his two followers entered the room where their dinner was spread, unbuckled and laid by their swords, and took their places at the well-furnished table, as a couple of fresh-looking serving-maids, under the guidance of the hostess, brought in the soup and plates, the mistress seeing to the helping and then retiring, leaving the guests to their repast.
"Hah!" exclaimed the King. "My appetite is grand. What soup! Why, we might be in France. No, it is better, thicker and stronger. But what's this? The insolence of these Englanders! Here, Denis, boy, read it aloud." And he tossed a folded paper, one end of which was sticking out from beneath his soup bowl, across to the young esquire.
The lad's eyes flashed, as he read in a crabbed, clear hand the words: "Imminent undique pericula."
"What's that, Leoni? Bah! He isn't here," cried the King, letting his spoon fall back into the bowl. "I thought it was the account. Latin. Read it again."
Denis obeyed, while the King's left hand began to play with his dagger, as he darted a suspicious look at the closed door, and then at the side dresser upon which he had thrown his sword.
"What do you make of that, Saint Simon?" he said, in a low, deep voice.
"Sir, I do not know Latin as I should," was the reply.
"Shame on you!" growled the King. "You, Denis, you were last at school. What do you make it to be?"
"In plain homely language, sir: Beware of danger."
"Yes, imminent danger," cried the King. "Poison! And I have eaten nearly half my soup!"
"No, no, sir," cried Denis. "I'll vouch for this. A woman with a motherly face like that could be trusted, I will vow."
"I don't know," said the King. "You are only a boy. Now I have grown old enough to think that it requires a very clever man to know exactly what there is behind a woman's pleasant smiling face. This one looks plump and comfortable and honest; but there's no knowing. Now, if we had Leoni here he'd fix her with that quiet eye of his, and search her through and through with the other. He'd know. And I am beginning to find out that I have done a very stupid thing in not bringing his Ugliness with us. By my sword, I wish we had brought him! I wished it last night too, over and over again, when I felt so—ah, hum—when I couldn't sleep for the creaking and groaning of that wretched vessel."
As he pulled himself up short he looked searchingly from one to the other of the two young men, giving each a suspicious glance, suspecting as he did that he would find a mocking smile upon their lips; but he was pleasantly disappointed, for Saint Simon looked stolidly stupid, and Denis eager and expectant of the next words he should let fall.
"Well," said the King, "we haven't got him here, and we must think for ourselves; but that must be right. The soup is too good for that," and he began to partake again. "Here, Denis, lad, on second thoughts it must mean that we are being recognised. The islanders know who I am, and that pleasant-faced woman wishes to give us warning. Saint Simon, my lad, fetch our sword and hang it by the belt upon the corner of the chair. Do the same by your own. I am not going to leave this soup, and if we are to fight for what is evidently intended for an excellent dinner, why, fight we will."
Saint Simon obeyed, and then at a sign from the King re-took his place and went on eating with such appetite as he could command.
"Shall I stand on guard by the door, sir, till you have dined?" said Denis.
"No, boy. Eat your soup and what else comes. We shall all three fight the better for a meal."
THE SCENT OF DANGER.
It was hard to imagine that there was danger in the air, for in that comfortably furnished panelled room everything was suggestive of plenty and peace, and, noticing as he went on with his meal how impressed his two followers seemed to be, the King paused, spoon in hand, and cried with a laugh:
"Come, boys, where are your appetites? Are we to be scared with a scrap of paper, a Latin exercise, perhaps, written by our hostess's son?"
As he spoke there was a faint rasping sound as of wood passing over wood, making Denis turn sharply and put out his hand towards his sword, for it seemed to him that there was a tremulous motion in one of the panels of the wall behind where the King was seated.
"What's that?" cried the latter sharply, as with a bound the lad sprang past him to stand between him and the side of the room.
For answer Denis drew his sword and pointed to the panel.
"Well? Why don't you speak?"
"There is a door there, sir, and I saw it move."
"There is no door here," cried Saint Simon, as he felt about the panel, which was perfectly rigid; and just then the hostess entered, followed by the maids bearing fresh dishes, to look wonderingly from one to the other.
"Ah, mistress!" cried the King. "Is there a door there? Does one of those panels open?"
"Oh yes, my lord," she replied. "It is a hatch to pass dishes through into a smaller dining chamber." And she smilingly stepped to the wall, turned a carved rose at one corner of the panel, and pressed it sidewise, showing a square opening through which a similarly furnished room could be seen.
"Send away those women," said the King sternly.
The hostess started, spoke to the two girls, who stepped back with the dishes, and she closed the door after them.
"One of my followers saw that panel move," said the King sternly. "There is some one there."
"Oh no, my lord," she cried, "The room is empty. Look."
"But the panel moved," cried Denis, "and I heard a sound."
"Impossible, sir," said the woman.
"Then what does this mean?" said the King, taking up the scrap of paper.
The woman took it, looked at it blankly, and passed it back.
"I don't know," she said. "It is a foreign tongue."
"Humph!" ejaculated the King. "This is strange, madam. That paper lay beneath my plate, and some one must have been watching us at our meal."
"No, my lord," said the woman; "it is impossible. Nobody could have been there. If anyone has dared—" She said no more, but angrily thrust the panel back into its place and turned the oaken rose, which gave a snap as of a bolt shooting into its socket, and then, raising her hand to the diagonal corner, she turned a fellow ornament in the oaken carving, to produce another sound as of a second bolt being shot.
"There," she cried, "it is quite fast now. One minute, and I will return."
She hurried out of the room, and the next minute they heard the sounds of knuckles rapping the panel on the other side and directly after the loud closing and locking of a door.
A few moments later, as the party stood there waiting, the woman was back at their side, to lay a large key upon the table, looking flushed and angry.
"I am very sorry, my lord and gentlemen," she cried, "and angry too"—a fact which was plainly enough marked in her countenance. "But this is a public inn, and some insolent idler, moved by curiosity, has dared to watch. I never imagined anyone would venture; and now I beg you will resume your meal."
"But there is the paper," said the King.
"Yes, yes," she said, "the paper. I do not understand."
"Ah, well," said the King, "we will not spoil our dinner; but I do not like to have hungry dogs watching while I make my meal. Sit down, gentlemen, and let us finish."
Setting the example, he recommenced, but thrust the half-finished bowl away with an impatient "Bah! The soup is cold. Here, hostess! Call those women back. And I want some wine. What have you in the house?"
"Some of the best vintages of France, my lord," said the woman eagerly, and drawing a deep breath of relief in the feeling that the trouble was at an end, though there was a twitching now and then at the corners of her eyes suggesting that she was not quite at ease.
The fresh dishes were placed upon the table as soon as the soup was removed, and soon after the hostess herself bore in a couple of rush-covered flasks of wine.
"Burgundy—Malvoisey," she said, indicating each in turn.
"The Burgundy," said the King, and as the glasses were filled, and they were once more quite alone, he made as if to tear up the paper, but altering his mind folded it quickly, and thrust it in the pouch he carried at his belt.
"Come, gentlemen," he said: "that scrap of paper shall not spoil a pleasant meal. It is a mere molehill in our path. Here's success to our expedition.—Hah! better vine than my own."
A few minutes later the hostess returned, and smiled once more upon finding that her guests were hard at work evidently in the full enjoyment of their meal.