The Talisman by Walter Scott
You talk of Gaiety and Innocence!
Sir Kenneth was left for some minutes alone and in darkness. Here was another interruption which must prolong his absence from his post, and he began almost to repent the facility with which he had been induced to quit it. But to return without seeing the Lady Edith was now not to be thought of. He had committed a breach of military discipline, and was determined at least to prove the reality of the seductive expectations which had tempted him to do so. Meanwhile his situation was unpleasant. There was no light to show him into what sort of apartment he had been led --the Lady Edith was in immediate attendance on the Queen of England--and the discovery of his having introduced himself thus furtively into the royal pavilion might, were it discovered; lead to much and dangerous suspicion. While he gave way to these unpleasant reflections, and began almost to wish that he could achieve his retreat unobserved, he heard a noise of female voices, laughing, whispering, and speaking, in an adjoining apartment, from which, as the sounds gave him reason to judge, he could only be separated by a canvas partition. Lamps were burning, as he might perceive by the shadowy light which extended itself even to his side of the veil which divided the tent, and he could see shades of several figures sitting and moving in the adjoining apartment. It cannot be termed discourtesy in Sir Kenneth that, situated as he was, he overheard a conversation in which he found himself deeply interested.
"Call her--call her, for Our Lady's sake," said the voice of one of these laughing invisibles. "Nectabanus, thou shalt be made ambassador to Prester John's court, to show them how wisely thou canst discharge thee of a mission."
The shrill tone of the dwarf was heard, yet so much subdued that Sir Kenneth could not understand what he said, except that he spoke something of the means of merriment given to the guard.
"But how shall we rid us of the spirit which Nectabanus hath raised, my maidens?"
"Hear me, royal madam," said another voice. "If the sage and princely Nectabanus be not over-jealous of his most transcendent bride and empress, let us send her to get us rid of this insolent knight-errant, who can be so easily persuaded that high-born dames may need the use of his insolent and overweening valour."
"It were but justice, methinks," replied another, "that the Princess Guenever should dismiss, by her courtesy, him whom her husband's wisdom has been able to entice hither."
Struck to the heart with shame and resentment at what he had heard, Sir Kenneth was about to attempt his escape from the tent at all hazards, when what followed arrested his purpose.
"Nay, truly," said the first speaker, "our cousin Edith must first learn how this vaunted wight hath conducted himself, and we must reserve the power of giving her ocular proof that he hath failed in his duty. It may be a lesson will do good upon her; for, credit me, Calista, I have sometimes thought she has let this Northern adventurer sit nearer her heart than prudence would sanction."
One of the other voices was then heard to mutter something of the Lady Edith's prudence and wisdom.
"Prudence, wench!" was the reply. "It is mere pride, and the desire to be thought more rigid than any of us. Nay, I will not quit my advantage. You know well that when she has us at fault no one can, in a civil way, lay your error before you more precisely than can my Lady Edith. But here she comes."
A figure, as if entering the apartment, cast upon the partition a shade, which glided along slowly until it mixed with those which already clouded it. Despite of the bitter disappointment which he had experienced--despite the insult and injury with which it seemed he had been visited by the malice, or, at best, by the idle humour of Queen Berengaria (for he already concluded that she who spoke loudest, and in a commanding tone, was the wife of Richard), the knight felt something so soothing to his feelings in learning that Edith had been no partner to the fraud practised on him, and so interesting to his curiosity in the scene which was about to take place, that, instead of prosecuting his more prudent purpose of an instant retreat, he looked anxiously, on the contrary, for some rent or crevice by means of which be might be made eye as well as ear witness to what was to go forward.
"Surely," said he to himself, "the Queen, who hath been pleased for an idle frolic to endanger my reputation, and perhaps my life, cannot complain if I avail myself of the chance which fortune seems willing to afford me to obtain knowledge of her further intentions."
It seemed, in the meanwhile, as if Edith were waiting for the commands of the Queen, and as if the other were reluctant to speak for fear of being unable to command her laughter and that of her companions; for Sir Kenneth could only distinguish a sound as of suppressed tittering and merriment.
"Your Majesty," said Edith at last, "seems in a merry mood, though, methinks, the hour of night prompts a sleepy one. I was well disposed bedward when I had your Majesty's commands to attend you."
"I will not long delay you, cousin, from your repose," said the Queen, "though I fear you will sleep less soundly when I tell you your wager is lost."
"Nay, royal madam," said Edith, "this, surely, is dwelling on a jest which has rather been worn out, I laid no wager, however it was your Majesty's pleasure to suppose, or to insist, that I did so."
"Nay, now, despite our pilgrimage, Satan is strong with you, my gentle cousin, and prompts thee to leasing. Can you deny that you gaged your ruby ring against my golden bracelet that yonder Knight of the Libbard, or how call you him, could not be seduced from his post?"
"Your Majesty is too great for me to gainsay you," replied Edith, "but these ladies can, if they will, bear me witness that it was your Highness who proposed such a wager, and took the ring from my finger, even while I was declaring that I did not think it maidenly to gage anything on such a subject."
"Nay, but, my Lady Edith," said another voice, "you must needs grant, under your favour, that you expressed yourself very confident of the valour of that same Knight of the Leopard."
"And if I did, minion," said Edith angrily, "is that a good reason why thou shouldst put in thy word to flatter her Majesty's humour? I spoke of that knight but as all men speak who have seen him in the field, and had no more interest in defending than thou in detracting from him. In a camp, what can women speak of save soldiers and deeds of arms?"
"The noble Lady Edith," said a third voice, "hath never forgiven Calista and me, since we told your Majesty that she dropped two rosebuds in the chapel."
"If your Majesty," said Edith, in a tone which Sir Kenneth could judge to be that of respectful remonstrance, "have no other commands for me than to hear the gibes of your waiting-women, I must crave your permission to withdraw."
"Silence, Florise," said the Queen, "and let not our indulgence lead you to forget the difference betwixt yourself and the kinswoman of England.--But you, my dear cousin," she continued, resuming her tone of raillery, "how can you, who are so good- natured, begrudge us poor wretches a few minutes' laughing, when we have had so many days devoted to weeping and gnashing of teeth?"
"Great be your mirth, royal lady," said Edith; "yet would I be content not to smile for the rest of my life, rather than--"
She stopped, apparently out of respect; but Sir Kenneth could hear that she was in much agitation.
"Forgive me," said Berengaria, a thoughtless but good-humoured princess of the House of Navarre; "but what is the great offence, after all? A young knight has been wiled hither--has stolen, or has been stolen, from his post, which no one will disturb in his absence--for the sake of a fair lady; for, to do your champion justice, sweet one, the wisdom of Nectabanus could conjure him hither in no name but yours."
"Gracious Heaven! your Majesty does not say so?" said Edith, in a voice of alarm quite different from the agitation she had previously evinced,--"you cannot say so consistently with respect for your own honour and for mine, your husband's kinswoman! Say you were jesting with me, my royal mistress, and forgive me that I could, even for a moment, think it possible you could be in earnest!"
"The Lady Edith," said the Queen, in a displeased tone of voice, "regrets the ring we have won of her. We will restore the pledge to you, gentle cousin; only you must not grudge us in turn a little triumph over the wisdom which has been so often spread over us, as a banner over a host."
"A triumph!" exclaimed Edith indignantly--"a triumph! The triumph will be with the infidel, when he hears that the Queen of England can make the reputation of her husband's kinswoman the subject of a light frolic."
"You are angry, fair cousin, at losing your favourite ring," said the Queen. "Come, since you grudge to pay your wager, we will renounce our right; it was your name and that pledge brought him hither, and we care not for the bait after the fish is caught."
"Madam," replied Edith impatiently, "you know well that your Grace could not wish for anything of mine but it becomes instantly yours. But I would give a bushel of rubies ere ring or name of mine had been used to bring a brave man into a fault, and perhaps to disgrace and punishment."
"Oh, it is for the safety of our true knight that we fear!" said the Queen. "You rate our power too low, fair cousin, when you speak of a life being lost for a frolic of ours. O Lady Edith, others have influence on the iron breasts of warriors as well as you--the heart even of a lion is made of flesh, not of stone; and, believe me, I have interest enough with Richard to save this knight, in whose fate Lady Edith is so deeply concerned, from the penalty of disobeying his royal commands."
"For the love of the blessed Cross, most royal lady," said Edith --and Sir Kenneth, with feelings which it were hard to unravel, heard her prostrate herself at the Queen's feet--"for the love of our blessed Lady, and of every holy saint in the calendar, beware what you do! You know not King Richard--you have been but shortly wedded to him. Your breath might as well combat the west wind when it is wildest, as your words persuade my royal kinsman to pardon a military offence. Oh, for God's sake, dismiss this gentleman, if indeed you have lured him hither! I could almost be content to rest with the shame of having invited him, did I know that he was returned again where his duty calls him!"
"Arise, cousin, arise," said Queen Berengaria, "and be assured all will be better than you think. Rise, dear Edith. I am sorry I have played my foolery with a knight in whom you take such deep interest. Nay, wring not thy hands; I will believe thou carest not for him--believe anything rather than see thee look so wretchedly miserable. I tell thee I will take the blame on myself with King Richard in behalf of thy fair Northern friend --thine acquaintance, I would say, since thou own'st him not as a friend. Nay, look not so reproachfully. We will send Nectabanus to dismiss this Knight of the Standard to his post; and we ourselves will grace him on some future day, to make amends for his wild-goose chase. He is, I warrant, but lying perdu in some neighbouring tent."
"By my crown of lilies, and my sceptre of a specially good water- reed," said Nectabanus, "your Majesty is mistaken, He is nearer at hand than you wot--he lieth ensconced there behind that canvas partition."
"And within hearing of each word we have said!" exclaimed the Queen, in her turn violently surprised and agitated. "Out, monster of folly and malignity!"
As she uttered these words, Nectabanus fled from the pavilion with a yell of such a nature as leaves it still doubtful whether Berengaria had confined her rebuke to words, or added some more emphatic expression of her displeasure.
"What can now be done?" said the Queen to Edith, in a whisper of undisguised uneasiness.
"That which must," said Edith firmly. "We must see this gentleman and place ourselves in his mercy."
So saying, she began hastily to undo a curtain, which at one place covered an entrance or communication.
"For Heaven's sake, forbear--consider," said the Queen--"my apartment--our dress--the hour--my honour!"
But ere she could detail her remonstrances, the curtain fell, and there was no division any longer betwixt the armed knight and the party of ladies. The warmth of an Eastern night occasioned the undress of Queen Berengaria and her household to be rather more simple and unstudied than their station, and the presence of a male spectator of rank, required. This the Queen remembered, and with a loud shriek fled from the apartment where Sir Kenneth was disclosed to view in a compartment of the ample pavilion, now no longer separated from that in which they stood. The grief and agitation of the Lady Edith, as well as the deep interest she felt in a hasty explanation with the Scottish knight, perhaps occasioned her forgetting that her locks were more dishevelled and her person less heedfully covered than was the wont of high- born damsels, in an age which was not, after all, the most prudish or scrupulous period of the ancient time. A thin, loose garment of pink-coloured silk made the principal part of her vestments, with Oriental slippers, into which she had hastily thrust her bare feet, and a scarf hurriedly and loosely thrown about her shoulders. Her head had no other covering than the veil of rich and dishevelled locks falling round it on every side, that half hid a countenance which a mingled sense of modesty and of resentment, and other deep and agitated feelings, had covered with crimson.
But although Edith felt her situation with all that delicacy which is her sex's greatest charm, it did not seem that for a moment she placed her own bashfulness in comparison with the duty which, as she thought, she owed to him who had been led into error and danger on her account. She drew, indeed, her scarf more closely over her neck and bosom, and she hastily laid from her hand a lamp which shed too much lustre over her figure; but, while Sir Kenneth stood motionless on the same spot in which he was first discovered, she rather stepped towards than retired from him, as she exclaimed, "Hasten to your post, valiant knight!--you are deceived in being trained hither--ask no questions."
"I need ask none," said the knight, sinking upon one knee, with the reverential devotion of a saint at the altar, and bending his eyes on the ground, lest his looks should increase the lady's embarrassment.
"Have you heard all?" said Edith impatiently. "Gracious saints! then wherefore wait you here, when each minute that passes is loaded with dishonour!"
"I have heard that I am dishonoured, lady, and I have heard it from you," answered Kenneth. "What reck I how soon punishment follows? I have but one petition to you; and then I seek, among the sabres of the infidels, whether dishonour may not be washed out with blood."
"Do not so, neither," said the lady. "Be wise--dally not here; all may yet be well, if you will but use dispatch."
"I wait but for your forgiveness," said the knight, still kneeling, "for my presumption in believing that my poor services could have been required or valued by you."
"I do forgive you--oh, I have nothing to forgive! have been the means of injuring you. But oh, begone! I will forgive--I will value you--that is, as I value every brave Crusader--if you will but begone!"
"Receive, first, this precious yet fatal pledge," said the knight, tendering the ring to Edith, who now showed gestures of impatience.
"Oh, no, no " she said, declining to receive it. "Keep it--keep it as a mark of my regard--my regret, I would say. Oh, begone, if not for your own sake, for mine!"
Almost recompensed for the loss even of honour, which her voice had denounced to him, by the interest which she seemed to testify in his safety, Sir Kenneth rose from his knee, and, casting a momentary glance on Edith, bowed low, and seemed about to withdraw. At the same instant, that maidenly bashfulness, which the energy of Edith's feelings had till then triumphed over, became conqueror in its turn, and she hastened from the apartment, extinguishing her lamp as she went, and leaving, in Sir Kenneth's thoughts, both mental and natural gloom behind her.
She must be obeyed, was the first distinct idea which waked him from his reverie, and he hastened to the place by which he had entered the pavilion. To pass under the canvas in the manner he had entered required time and attention, and he made a readier aperture by slitting the canvas wall with his poniard. When in the free air, he felt rather stupefied and overpowered by a conflict of sensations, than able to ascertain what was the real import of the whole. He was obliged to spur himself to action by recollecting that the commands of the Lady Edith had required haste. Even then, engaged as he was amongst tent-ropes and tents, he was compelled to move with caution until he should regain the path or avenue, aside from which the dwarf had led him, in order to escape the observation of the guards before the Queen's pavilion; and he was obliged also to move slowly, and with precaution, to avoid giving an alarm, either by falling or by the clashing of his armour. A thin cloud had obscured the moon, too, at the very instant of his leaving the tent, and Sir Kenneth had to struggle with this inconvenience at a moment when the dizziness of his head and the fullness of his heart scarce left him powers of intelligence sufficient to direct his motions.
But at once sounds came upon his ear which instantly recalled him to the full energy of his faculties. These proceeded from the Mount of Saint George. He heard first a single, fierce, angry, and savage bark, which was immediately followed by a yell of agony. No deer ever bounded with a wilder start at the voice of Roswal than did Sir Kenneth at what he feared was the death-cry of that noble hound, from whom no ordinary injury could have extracted even the slightest acknowledgment of pain. He surmounted the space which divided him from the avenue, and, having attained it, began to run towards the mount, although loaded with his mail, faster than most men could have accompanied him even if unarmed, relaxed not his pace for the steep sides of the artificial mound, and in a few minutes stood on the platform upon its summit.
The moon broke forth at this moment, and showed him that the Standard of England was vanished, that the spear on which it had floated lay broken on the ground, and beside it was his faithful hound, apparently in the agonies of death.