Chapter XI: A Stormy Interview
 

Soon after Walter's return from France Dame Vernon returned to her country estate, and a year passed before he again saw her. During this time the truce which had been established between England and France had remained unbroken. It was certain, however, that ere long the two powers would again come to blows. The King of England had honourably observed the terms of the treaty. Upon his return home he had entirely disbanded his army and had devoted his whole attention to increasing the trade and prosperity of the country. The measures which he took to do this were not always popular with the people of England, for seeing how greatly they excelled the English manufacturers Edward encouraged large numbers of Flemings and other foreign workmen to settle in London, and gave them many privileges to induce them to do so; this the populace strongly resented. There was a strong ill feeling against the Flemings and serious popular riots took place, for the English traders and workmen considered that these foreigners were taking the bread from their mouths. The king, however, was wiser than his people, he saw that although the English weavers were able to produce coarse cloths, yet that all of the finer sort had to be imported from the Continent. He deemed that in time the Flemings would teach their art to his subjects, and that England would come to vie with the Low Countries in the quality of her produce. Such was indeed afterwards the case, and England gained greatly by the importation of the industrious Flemings, just as she afterwards profited from the expulsion from France of tens of thousands of Protestant workmen who brought here many of the manufactures of which France had before the monopoly. The relations between England and the Flemings were at this time very close, for the latter regarded England as her protector against the ambition of the King of France.

But while King Edward had laid aside all thought of war, such was not the case with Phillip of Valois. He had retired after the signature of the treaty full of rage and humiliation; for hitherto in all their struggles his English rival had had the better of him, and against vastly superior forces had foiled all his efforts and had gained alike glory and military advantage. King Edward had hardly set sail when Phillip began to break the terms of truce by inciting the adherents of Charles of Blois to attack those of De Montford, and by rendering assistance to them with money and men. He also left no means untried to detach Flanders from its alliance with England. Several castles and towns in Brittany were wrested from the partisans of De Montford, and King Edward, after many remonstrances at the breaches of the conditions of the truce, began again to make preparations for taking the field. Several brilliant tournaments were held and every means were taken to stir up the warlike spirit of the people.

One day Walter had attended his lord to the palace and was waiting in the anteroom with many other squires and gentlemen, while Sir Walter, with some other noblemen, was closeted with the king, discussing the means to be adopted for raising funds for a renewal of a war with France, when a knight entered whom Walter had not previously seen at court.

"Who is that?" he asked one of his acquaintances; "methinks I know his face, though it passes my memory to say where I have seen it."

"He has been away from England for some two years," his friend answered. "That is Sir James Carnegie; he is a cousin of the late Sir Jasper Vernon; he left somewhat suddenly a short time after Dame Vernon had that narrow escape from drowning that you wot of; he betook himself then to Spain, where he has been fighting the Moors; he is said to be a valiant knight, but otherwise he bears but an indifferent good reputation."

Walter remembered the face now; it was that of the knight he had seen enter the hut of the river pirate on the Lambeth marshes. When released from duty he at once made his way to the lodging of Dame Vernon. Walter was now nineteen, for a year had elapsed since the termination of the French war, and he was in stature and strength the match of most men, while his skill at knightly exercises, as well as with the sword, was recognized as pre-eminent among all the young esquires of the court.

After the first greeting he said to Dame Vernon: "I think it right to tell you, lady, that I have but now, in the king's anteroom, seen the man who plotted against your life in the hut at Lambeth. His face is a marked one and I could not mistake it. I hear that he is a cousin of yours, one Sir James Carnegie, as you doubtless recognized from my description of him. I came to tell you in order that you might decide what my conduct should be. If you wish it so I will keep the secret in my breast; but if you fear aught from him I will openly accuse him before the king of the crime he attempted, and shall be ready to meet him in the ordeal of battle should he claim it."

"I have seen Sir James," Lady Vernon said. "I had a letter writ in a feigned hand telling him that his handiwork in the plot against my life was known, and warning him that, unless he left England, the proofs thereof would be laid before justice. He at once sailed for Spain, whence, he has returned but a few days since. He does not know for certain that I am aware of his plottings against us; but he must have seen by my reception of him when he called that I no longer regard him with the friendship which I formerly entertained. I have received a message from him that he will call upon me this evening, and that he trusts he will find me alone, as he would fain confer with me on private matters. When I have learned his intentions I shall be the better able to judge what course I had best adopt. I would fain, if it may be, let the matter rest. Sir James has powerful interest, and I would not have him for an open enemy if I can avoid it; besides, all the talk and publicity which so grave an accusation against a knight, and he of mine own family, would entail, would be very distasteful to me; but should I find it necessary for the sake of my child, I shall not shrink from it. I trust, however, that it will not come to that; but I shall not hesitate, if need be, to let him know that I am acquainted with his evil designs towards us. I will inform you of as much of our interview as it is necessary that you should know."

That evening Sir James Carnegie called upon Dame Vernon. "I would not notice it the other day, fair cousin," he said, in return for her stiff and ceremonious greeting; "but methinks that you are mightily changed in your bearing towards me. I had looked on my return from my long journeying for something of the sisterly warmth with which you once greeted me, but I find you as cold and hard as if I had been altogether a stranger to you. I would fain know in what way I have forfeited your esteem."

"I do not wish to enter into bygones, Sir James," the lady said, "and would fain let the past sleep if you will let me. Let us then turn without more ado to the private matters concerning which you wished to speak with me."

"If such is your mood, fair dame, I must needs fall in with it, though in no way able to understand your allusion to the past, wherein my conscience holds me guiltless of aught which could draw upon me your disfavour. I am your nearest male relative, and as such would fain confer with you touching the future of young Mistress Edith, your daughter. She is now nigh thirteen years of age, and is the heiress of broad lands; is it not time that she were betrothed to one capable of taking care of them for her, and leading your vassals to battle in these troubled times?"

"Thanks, Sir James, for your anxiety about my child," Dame Vernon said coldly. "She is a ward of the king. I am in no way anxious that an early choice should be made for her; but our good Queen Philippa has promised that, when the time shall come, his Majesty shall not dispose of her hand without my wishes being in some way consulted; and I have no doubt that when the time shall come that she is of marriageable age - and I would not that this should be before she has gained eighteen years, for I like not the over young marriages which are now in fashion - a knight may be found for her husband capable of taking care of her and her possessions; but may I ask if, in so speaking to me, you have anyone in your mind's eye as a suitor for her hand?"

"Your manner is not encouraging, certes; but I had my plan, which would, I hoped, have met with your approval. I am the young lady's cousin, and her nearest male relative; and although we are within the limited degrees, there will be no difficulty in obtaining a dispensation from Rome. I am myself passably well off, and some of the mortgages which I had been forced to lay upon my estates have been cleared off during my absence. I have returned home with some reputation, and with a goodly sum gained in the wars with the Moors. I am older than my cousin certainly; but as I am still but thirty-two, this would not, I hope, be deemed an obstacle, and methought that you would rather entrust her to your affectionate cousin than to a stranger. The king has received me very graciously, and would, I trust, offer no opposition to my suit were it backed by your goodwill."

"I suppose, Sir James," Dame Vernon said, "that I should thank you for the offer which you have made; but I can only reply, that while duly conscious of the high honour you have done my daughter by your offer, I would rather see her in her grave than wedded to you.

The knight leapt from his seat with a fierce exclamation. "This is too much," he exclaimed, "and I have a right to know why such an offer on my part should be answered by disdain, and even insolence."

"You have a right to know," Dame Vernon answered quietly, "and I will tell you. I repeat that I would rather see my child in her grave than wedded to a man who attempted to compass the murder of her and her mother."

"What wild words are these?" Sir James asked sternly. "What accusation is this that you dare to bring against me?"

"I repeat what I said, Sir James," Dame Alice replied quietly. "I know that you plotted with the water pirates of Lambeth to upset our boat as we came down the Thames; that you treacherously delayed us at Richmond in order that we might not reach London before dark; and that by enveloping me in a white cloak you gave a signal by which I might be known to your creatures.

The knight stood for a moment astounded. He was aware that the fact that he had had some share in the outrage was known, and was not surprised that his cousin was acquainted with the secret; but that she should know all the details with which but one besides himself was, as he believed, acquainted, completely stupefied him. He rapidly, however, recovered himself.

"I recall now," he said scornfully, "the evidence which was given before the justices by some ragged city boy, to the effect that he had overheard a few words of a conversation between some ruffian over in the Lambeth marshes, and an unknown person; but it is new to me indeed that there was any suspicion that I was the person alluded to, still less that a lady of my own family, in whose affection I believed, should credit so monstrous an accusation."

"I would that I could discredit it, Sir James," Dame Vernon said sadly; "but the proofs were too strong for me. Much more of your conversation than was narrated in court was overheard, and it was at my request that the ragged boy, as you call him, kept silence."

"And is it possible," the knight asked indignantly, "that you believed the word of a fellow like this to the detriment to your kinsman? Why, in any court of law the word of such a one as opposed to that of a knight and gentleman of honour would not be taken for a moment."

"You are mistaken, sir," Dame Vernon said haughtily. "You may remember, in the first place, that the lad who overheard this conversation risked his life to save me and my daughter from the consequences of the attack which he heard planned; in the second place, he was no ragged lad, but the apprentice of a well-known citizen; thirdly, and this is of importance, since he has recognized you since your return, and is ready should I give him the word, to denounce you. He is no mere apprentice boy, but is of gentle blood, seeing that he is the son of Sir Roland Somers, the former possessor of the lands which I hold, and that he is in high favour with the good knight Sir Walter Manny, whose esquire he now is, and under whom he distinguished himself in the wars in France, and is, as Sir Walter assured me, certain to win his spurs ere long. Thus you see his bare word would be of equal value to your own, beside the fact that his evidence does not rest upon mere assertion; but that the man in the hut promised to do what you actually performed, namely, to delay me at Richmond, and to wrap me in a white cloak in order that I might be recognized by the river pirates."

Sir James was silent. In truth, as he saw, the evidence was overwhelmingly strong against him. After a while he stammered out, "I cannot deny that I was the man in question; but I swear to you that this boy was mistaken, and that the scoundrel acted altogether beyond my instructions, which were simply that he should board the boat and carry you and your daughter away to a safe place."

"And with what object, sir," Dame Vernon said contemptuously, "was I to be thus taken away?"

"I do not seek to excuse myself," the knight replied calmly, having now recovered his self-possession, "for I own I acted wrongly and basely; but in truth I loved you, and would fain have made you my wife. I knew that you regarded me with only the calm affection of a kinswoman; but I thought that were you in my power you would consent to purchase your freedom with your hand. I know now that I erred greatly. I acknowledge my fault, and that my conduct was base and unknightly, and my only excuse is the great love I bore you.

"And which," the lady said sarcastically, "you have now transferred to my daughter. I congratulate you, Sir James, upon the possession of a ready wit and an invention which does not fail you at a pinch, and of a tongue which repeats unfalteringly any fable which your mind may dictate. You do not, I suppose, expect me to believe the tale. Still, I own that it is a well-devised one, and might, at a pinch, pass muster; but fear not, Sir James. As hitherto I have kept silence as to the author of the outrage committed upon me, so I have no intention of proclaiming the truth now unless you force me to do so. Suffice that both for myself and for my daughter I disclaim the honour of your hand. So long as you offer no molestation to us, and abstain from troubling us in any way, so long will my mouth be sealed; and I would fain bury in my breast the memory of your offence. I will not give the world's tongue occasion to wag by any open breach between kinsfolk, and shall therefore in public salute you as an acquaintance, but under no pretence whatever will I admit you to any future private interview. Now leave me, sir, and I trust that your future life will show that you deeply regret the outrage which in your greed for my husband's lands you were tempted to commit."

Without a word Sir James turned and left the room, white with shame and anger, but with an inward sense of congratulation at the romance which he had, on the spur of the moment, invented, and which would, he felt sure, be accepted by the world as probable, in the event of the share he had in the matter being made public, either upon the denunciation of Dame Vernon or in any other manner.

One determination, however, he made, and swore, to himself, that he would bitterly avenge himself upon the youth whose interference had thwarted his plans, and whose report to his kinswoman had turned her mind against him. He, at any rate, should be put out of the way at the first opportunity, and thus the only witness against himself be removed; for Lady Vernon's own unsupported story would be merely her word against his, and could be treated as the malicious fiction of an angry woman.

The following day Dame Vernon sent for Walter, and informed him exactly what had taken place.

"Between Sir James and me," she said, "there is, you see, a truce. We are enemies, but, we agree to lay aside our arms for the time. But, Walter, you must be on your guard.

You know as well as I do how dangerous this man is, and how good a cause he has to hate you. I would not have divulged your name had I not known that the frequency of your visits here and the encouragement which I openly give you as the future suitor of my daughter, would be sure to come to his ears, and he would speedily discover that it was you who saved our lives on the Thames and gave your testimony before the justices as to the conversation in the hut on the marshes. Thus I forestalled what he would in a few days have learnt."

"I fear him not, lady," Walter said calmly. "I can hold mine own, I hope, against him in arms, and having the patronage and friendship of Sir Walter Manny I am above any petty malice. Nevertheless I will hold myself on my guard. I will, so far as possible, avoid any snare which he may, as 'tis not unlikely, set for my life, and will, so far as I honourably can, avoid any quarrel with which he may seek to saddle me.

A few days later Walter again met Sir James Carnegie in the king's anteroom, and saw at once, by the fixed look of hate with which he had regarded him, that he had already satisfied himself of his identity. He returned the knight's stare with a cold look of contempt. The knight moved towards him, and in a low tone said, "Beware, young sir, I have a heavy reckoning against you, and James Carnegie never forgets debts of that kind!"

"I am warned, Sir James," Walter said calmly, but in the same low tone, "and, believe me, I hold but very lightly the threats of one who does not succeed even when he conspires against the lives of women and children."

Sir James started as if he had been struck. Then, with a great effort he recovered his composure, and, repeating the word "Beware!" walked across to the other side of the chamber. The next day Walter went down the river and had a talk with his friend Geoffrey.

"You must beware, lad," the armourer said when he told him of the return of Sir James Carnegie and the conversation which had taken place between them. "This man is capable of anything, and careth not where he chooseth his instruments. The man of the hut at Lambeth has never been caught since his escape from Richmond Jail - thanks, doubtless, to the gold of his employer - and, for aught we know, may still be lurking in the marshes there, or in the purlieus of the city. He will have a grudge against you as well as his employer, and in him Sir James would find a ready instrument. He is no doubt connected, as before, with a gang of water pirates and robbers, and it is not one sword alone that you would have to encounter. I think not that you are in danger just at present, for he would know that, in case of your murder, the suspicions of Dame Vernon and of any others who may know the motive which he has in getting rid of you would be excited, and he might be accused of having had a share in your death. Still, it would be so hard to prove aught against him, that he may be ready to run the risk in order to rid himself of you. Look here, Walter. What think you of this?" and the smith drew out from a coffer a shirt of mail of finer work than Walter had ever before seen.

"Aye, lad, I knew you would be pleased," he said in answer to Walter's exclamation at the fineness of the workmanship. "I bought this a month ago from a Jew merchant who had recently come from Italy. How he got it I know not, but I doubt if it were honestly, or he would have demanded a higher price than I paid him. He told me that it was made by the first armourer in Milan, and was constructed especially for a cardinal of the church, who had made many enemies by his evil deeds and could not sleep for fear of assassination. At his death it came as the Jew said, into his possession. I suppose some rascally attendant took it as a perquisite, and, knowing not of its value, sold it for a few ducats to the Jew. However, it is of the finest workmanship. It is, as you see, double, and each link is made of steel so tough that no dagger or sword-point will pierce it. I put it on a block and tried the metal myself, and broke one of my best daggers on it without a single link giving. Take it, lad. You are welcome to it. I bought it with a special eye to you, thinking that you might wear it under your armour in battle without greatly adding to the weight; but for such dangers as threaten you now it is invaluable. It is so light and soft that none will dream that you have it under your doublet, and I warrant me it will hold you safe against the daggers of Sir James's ruffians.

Walter did not like taking a gift so valuable, for his apprenticeship as an armourer had taught him the extreme rarity and costliness of so fine a piece of work. Geoffrey, however, would not hear of his refusal, and insisted on his then and there taking off his doublet and putting it on. It fitted closely to the body, descending just below the hips, and coming well up on the neck, while the arms extended to the wrists.

"There!" the smith said with delight. "Now you are safe against sword or dagger, save for a sweeping blow at the head, and that your sword can be trusted to guard. Never take it off, Walter, save when you sleep; and except when in your own bed, at Sir Walter Manny's, I should advise you to wear it even at night. The weight is nothing, and it will not incommode you. So long as this caitiff knight lives, your life will not be safe. When he is dead you may hang up the shirt of mail with a light heart."