Chapter XVI: A Prisoner
 

As long as it was light an anxious look-out was kept from the top of the keep towards Calais. There was nothing to be done. The besiegers who had entered the walls were ensconced in the various buildings in the courtyard or placed behind walls so as to be out of arrow-shot from above, and were in readiness to repel any sortie which might be made to interfere with the work going on under the penthouse. But no sortie was possible, for to effect this it would be necessary to remove the stones from the door, and before this could be accomplished the besiegers would have rallied in overwhelming force, nor could a sortie have effected anything beyond the slaying of the men actually engaged in the work. The beams of the penthouse were too strong and too heavily weighted with earth to be removed, and the attempt would only have entailed useless slaughter. The penthouse was about forty feet in length, and the assailants were piercing three openings, each of some six feet in width, leaving two strong supporting pillars between them. Anxiously the garrison within listened to the sounds of work, which became louder and louder as the walls crumbled before the stroke of pickaxe and crowbar.

"I shall hold out until the last moment," Walter said to Ralph, "in hopes of relief, but before they burst in I shall sound a parley. To resist further would be a vain sacrifice of life."

Presently a movement could be seen among the stones, and then almost simultaneously two apertures appeared. The chamber into which the openings were made was a large one, being used as the common room of the garrison. Here twenty archers, and the remaining men-at-arms - of whom nearly one-half had fallen in the defence of the breach - were gathered, and the instant the orifices appeared the archers began to send their arrows through them. Then Walter ascended to another chamber, and ordered the trumpeter to sound a parley.

The sound was repeated by the assailants' trumpeter.

"Who commands the force?" Walter asked.

"I, Guy, Count of Evreux."

"I am Sir Walter Somers," the young knight continued. "I wish to ask terms for the garrison.

"You must surrender unconditionally," the count replied from the courtyard. "In ten minutes we shall have completely pierced your walls, and you will be at our mercy."

"You may pierce our walls," Walter replied, "but it will cost you many lives before you force your way in; we will defend the hold from floor to floor, and you know how desperate men can fight. It will cost you scores of lives before you win your way to the summit of this keep; but if I have your knightly word that the lives of all within these walls shall be spared, then will I open the door and lay down our arms.

A consultation took place between the leaders below. There was truth in Walter's words that very many lives would be sacrificed before the resistance of so gallant a garrison could be overcome. Every minute was of importance, for it was possible that at any moment aid might arrive from Calais, and that the table would be turned upon the besiegers.

Therefore, after a short parley among themselves, the count replied:

"You have fought as a gallant knight and gentleman, Sir Walter Somers, and have wrought grievous harm upon my leading. I should grieve that so brave a knight should lose his life in a useless resistance. Therefore I agree to your terms, and swear upon my knightly honour that upon your surrendering yourselves prisoners of war, the lives of all within these walls shall be spared."

Walter at once gave the order. The stones were removed and the door thrown open, and leading his men Walter descended the steps into the courtyard, which was now illuminated with torches, and handed his sword to the Count of Evreux.

"You promised me, count," a tall knight standing by his side said, "that if he were taken alive, the commander of this castle should be my prisoner."

"I did so, Sir Phillip Holbeaut. When you proposed this adventure to me, and offered to place your following at my command, I agreed to the request you made me; but mind," he said sternly, "my knightly word has been given for his safety. See that he receives fair and gentle treatment at your hand. I would not that aught should befall so brave a knight."

"I seek him no harm," the knight said angrily; "but I know that he is one of the knights of the Black Prince's own suite, and that his ransom will be freely paid, and as my coffers are low from the expenses of the war, I would fain replenish them at the expense of the English prince."

"I said not that I doubted you, Sir Phillip," the count said calmly; "but as the knight surrendered on my word, it was needful that I should warn you to treat him as I myself should do did he remain in my hands, and to give him fair treatment until duly ransomed."

"I should be glad, count," Walter said, "if you will suffer me to take with me as companion in my captivity this man-at-arms. He is strongly attached to me, and we have gone through many perils together; it will lighten my captivity to have him by my side."

"Surely I will do so, Sir Walter, and wish that your boon had been a larger one. The rest I will take back with me to Amiens, there to hold until exchanged for some of those who at various times have fallen into your king's hands. And now to work, men; lose not a moment in stripping the castle of all that you choose to carry away, then apply fire to the storehouses, granaries, and the hold itself. I would not that it remained standing to serve as an outpost for the English."

The horses were brought from the stables. Walter and Ralph took their horses by the bridle, and followed Sir Phillip Holbeaut through the now open gates of the castle to the spot where the horses of the besiegers were picketed. The knight, and his own men-at-arms, who had at the beginning of the day numbered a hundred and fifty, but who were now scarcely two-thirds of that strength, at once mounted with their prisoners, and rode off from the castle. A few minutes later a glare of light burst out from behind them. The count's orders had been obeyed; fire had been applied to the stores of forage, and soon the castle of Pres was wrapped in flames.

"I like not our captor's manner," Ralph said to Walter as they rode along side by side.

"I agree with you, Ralph. I believe that the reason which he gave the count for his request was not a true one, though, indeed, I can see no other motive which he could have for seeking to gain possession of me. Sir Phillip, although a valiant knight, bears but an indifferent reputation. I have heard that he is a cruel master to his serfs, and that when away fighting in Germany he behaved so cruelly to the peasantry that even the Germans, who are not nice in their modes of warfare, cried out against him. It is an evil fortune that has thrown us into his hands; still, although grasping and avaricious, he can hardly demand for a simple knight any inordinate ransom. The French themselves would cry out did he do so, seeing that so large a number of their own knights are in our hands, and that the king has ample powers of retaliation; however, we need not look on the dark side. It is not likely that our captivity will be a long one, for the prince, who is the soul of generosity, will not haggle over terms, but will pay my ransom as soon as he hears into whose hands I have fallen, while there are scores of men-at-arms prisoners, whom he can exchange for you. Doubtless Sir Phillip will send you over, as soon as he arrives at his castle, with one of his own followers to treat for my ransom.

After riding for some hours the troop halted their weary horses in a wood, and lighting fires, cooked their food, and then lay down until morning. Sir Phillip exchanged but few words with his captive; as, having removed his helm, he sat by the fire, Walter had an opportunity of seeing his countenance. It did not belie his reputation. His face had a heavy and brutal expression which was not decreased by the fashion of his hair, which was cut quite short, and stood up without parting all over his bullet-shaped head; he had a heavy and bristling moustache which was cut short in a line with his lips.

"It is well," Walter thought to himself, "that it is my ransom rather than my life which is dear to that evil-looking knight; for, assuredly, he is not one to hesitate did fortune throw a foe into his hands."

At daybreak the march was resumed, and was continued until they reached the castle of Sir Phillip Holbeaut, which stood on a narrow tongue of land formed by a sharp bend of the Somme.

On entering the castle the knight gave an order to his followers, and the prisoners were at once led to a narrow cell beneath one of the towers. Walter looked round indignantly when he arrived there.

"This is a dungeon for a felon," he exclaimed, "not the apartment for a knight who has been taken captive in fair fight. Tell your master that he is bound to award me honourable treatment, and that unless he removes me instantly from this dungeon to a proper apartment, and treats me with all due respect and courtesy, I will, when I regain liberty, proclaim him a dishonoured knight."

The men-at-arms made no reply; but, locking the door behind them, left the prisoners alone.

"What can this mean, Ralph?" Walter exclaimed. "We are in the lowest dungeon, and below the level of the river. See how damp are the walls, and the floor is thick with slimy mud. The river must run but just below that loophole, and in times of flood probably enters here."

Phillip of Holbeaut, on dismounting, ascended to an upper chamber, where a man in the dress of a well-to-do citizen was sitting.

"Well, Sir Phillip," he exclaimed, rising to his feet as the other entered, "what news?"

"The news is bad," the knight growled. "This famous scheme of yours has cost me fifty of my best men. I would I had had nothing to do with it."

"But this Walter Somers," the other exclaimed, "what of him? He has not escaped surely! The force which marched from Amiens was large enough to have eaten him and his garrison.

"He has not escaped," the knight replied.

"Then he is killed!" the other said eagerly.

"No; nor is he killed. He is at present a prisoner in a dungeon below, together with a stout knave whom he begged might accompany him until ransomed."

"All is well then," the other exclaimed. "Never mind the loss of your men. The money which I have promised you for this business will hire you two hundred such knaves; but why didst not knock him on head at once?"

"It was not so easy to knock him on the head," Sir Phillip growled. "It cost us five hundred men to capture the outer walls, and to have fought our way into the keep, held, as it was, by men who would have contested every foot of the ground, was not a job for which any of us had much stomach, seeing what the first assaults had cost us; so the count took them all to quarter. The rest he carried with him to Amiens; but their leader, according to the promise which he made me, he handed over to me as my share of the day's booty, giving me every charge that he should receive good and knightly treatment.

"Which, no doubt, you will observe," the other said, with an ugly laugh.

"It is a bad business," the knight exclaimed angrily, "and were it not for our friendship, in Spain, and the memory of sundry deeds which we did together, not without profit to our purses, I would rather that you were thrown over the battlements into the river than I had taken a step in this business. However, none can say that Phillip of Holbeaut ever deserted a friend who had proved true to him, not to mention that the sum which you promised me for my aid in this matter will, at present time, prove wondrously convenient. Yet I foresee that it will bring me into trouble with the Count of Evreux. Ere many days a demand will come for the fellow to be delivered on ransom."

"And what will you say?" the other asked.

"I shall say what is the truth," the knight replied, "though I may add something that is not wholly so. I shall say that he was drowned in the Somme. I shall add that it happened as he was trying to make his escape, contrary to the parole he had given; but in truth he will be drowned in the dungeon in which I have placed him, which has rid me of many a troublesome prisoner before now. The river is at ordinary times but two feet below the loophole; and when its tide is swelled by rain it often rises above the sill, and then there is an end of any one within. They can doubt my word; but there are not many who would care to do so openly; none who would do so for the sake of an unknown English knight. And as for any complaints on the part of the Black Prince, King Phillip has shown over and over again how little the complaints of Edward himself move him."

"It were almost better to knock him on head at once," the other said thoughtfully; "the fellow has as many lives as a cat.

"If he had as many as nine cats," the knight replied, "it would not avail him. But I will have no violence. The water will do your work as well as a poinard, and I will not have it said, even among such ruffians as mine, that I slew a captured knight. The other will pass as an accident, and I care not what my men may think as long as they can say nothing for a surety. The count may storm as much as he will, and may even lay a complaint against me before the king; but in times like the present, even a simple knight who can lead two hundred good fighting men into the field is not to be despised, and the king is likely to be easily satisfied with my replies to any question that may be raised. Indeed, it would seem contrary to reason that I should slay a captive against whom I have no cause of quarrel, and so forfeit the ransom which I should get for him."

"But suppose that a messenger should come offering ransom before the river happens to rise?"

"Then I shall anticipate matters, and shall say that what I know will happen has already taken place. Do not be uneasy, Sir James. You have my word in the matter, and now I have gone so far I shall carry it through. From the moment when I ordered him into that dungeon his fate was sealed, and in truth, when I gave the order I did so to put an end to the indecision in which my mind had been all night. Once in there he could not be allowed to come out alive, for his report of such treatment would do me more harm among those of my own station in France than any rumours touching his end could do. It is no uncommon affair for one to remove an enemy from one's path; but cruelty to a knightly prisoner would be regarded with horror. Would you like to have a look at him?"

The other hesitated. "No," he replied. "Against him personally I have no great grudge. He has thwarted my plans, and stands now grievously in the way of my making fresh ones; but as he did so from no ill-will towards myself, but as it were by hazard, I have no personal hatred towards him, though I would fain remove him from my path. Besides, I tell you fairly, that even in that dungeon where you have thrown him I shall not feel that he is safe until you send me word that he is dead. He has twice already got out of scrapes when other men would have been killed. Both at Vannes and at Ghent he escaped in a marvellous way; and but a few weeks since, by the accident of his having a coat of mail under his doublet he saved his life from as fair a blow as ever was struck. Therefore I would not that he knew aught of my having a hand in this matter, for if after having seen me he made his escape I could never show my face in England again. I should advise you to bid three or four men always enter his cell together, for he and that man-of-arms who follows him like a shadow are capable of playing any desperate trick to escape.

"That matter is easily enough managed," Sir Phillip said grimly, "by no one entering the dungeon at all. The river may be slow of rising, though in sooth the sky looks overcast now, and it is already at its usual winter level; and whether he dies from lack of water or from a too abundant supply matters but little to me; only, as I told you I will give no orders for him to be killed. Dost remember that Jew we carried off from Seville and kept without water until he agreed to pay us a ransom which made us both rich for six months? That was a rare haul, and I would that rich Jews were plentiful in this country.

"Yes, those were good times," the other said, "although I own that I have not done badly since the war began, having taken a count and three knights prisoners, and put them to ransom, and having reaped a goodly share of plunder from your French burghers, else indeed I could not have offered you so round a sum to settle this little matter for me. There are not many French knights who have earned a count's ransom in the present war. And now I will take horse; here is one-half of the sum I promised you, in gold nobles. I will send you the remainder on the day when I get news from you that the matter is finished."

"Have your money ready in a week's time," the knight replied, taking the bag of gold which the other placed on the table, "for by that time you will hear from me. I hope this will not be the last business which we may do together; there ought to be plenty of good chances in a war like this. Any time that you can send me word of an intended foray by a small party under a commander whose ransom would be a high one I will share what I get with you; and similarly I will let you know of any rich prize who may be pounced upon on the same terms.

"Agreed!" the other said. "We may do a good business together in that way. But you lie too far away. If you move up as near as you can to Calais and let me know your whereabouts, so that I could send or ride to you in a few hours, we might work together with no small profit."

"I will take the field as soon as this affair of yours is settled," the knight replied; "and the messenger who brings you the news shall tell you where I may be found. And now, while your horse is being got ready, let us drink a stoup of wine together in memory of old times, though, for myself, these wines of ours are poor and insipid beside the fiery juice of Spain."

While this conversation, upon which their fate so much depended, had been going on, Walter and Ralph had been discussing the situation, and had arrived at a tolerably correct conclusion.

"This conduct on the part of this brutal French knight, Ralph, is so strange that methinks it cannot be the mere outcome of his passions or of hate against me as an Englishman, but of some deeper motive; and we were right in thinking that in bargaining for my person with the Count of Evreux it was more than my ransom which he sought. Had that been his only object he would never have thrown us into this noisome dungeon, for my report of such treatment would bring dishonour upon him in the eyes of every knight and noble in France as well as in England. It must be my life he aims at, although what grudge he can have against me it passes me to imagine. It may be that at Cressy or elsewhere some dear relative of his may have fallen by my sword; and yet were it so, men nourish no grudge for the death of those killed in fair fight. But this boots not at present. It is enough for us that it is my life which he aims at, and I fear, Ralph, that yours must be included with mine, since he would never let a witness escape to carry the foul tale against him. This being so, the agreement on which I surrendered is broken, and I am free to make my escape if I can, and methinks the sooner that be attempted the better.

So let us work to plan how we may best get out of this place. After our escape from that well at Vannes we need not despair about breaking out from this dungeon of Holbeaut."

"We might overpower the guard who brings our food," Ralph said.

"There is that chance," Walter rejoined, "but I think it is a poor one. They may be sure that this dishonourable treatment will have rendered us desperate, and they will take every precaution and come well armed. It may be, too, that they will not come at all, but that they intend us to die of starvation, or perchance to be drowned by the floods, which it is easy to see often make their way in here. No, our escape, if escape there be, must be made through that loophole above. Were that bar removed, methinks it is wide enough for us to squeeze through. Doubtless such a hazard has not occurred to them, seeing that it is nigh twelve feet above the floor, and that a single man could by no possibility reach it, but with two of us there is no difficulty. Now, Ralph, do you stand against the wall. I will climb upon your shoulders, and standing there can reach the bar, and so haul myself up and look out."

This was soon done, and Walter seizing the bar, hauled himself up so that he could see through the loophole.

"It is as I thought," he said. "The waters of the Somme are but a foot below the level of this window; the river is yellow and swollen, and a few hours' heavy rain would bring it above the level of this sill. Stand steady, Ralph, I am coming down again."

When he reached the ground, he said:

"Take off your belt, Ralph; if we buckle that and mine together, passing it round the bar, it will make a loop upon which we can stand at the window and see how best we can loosen the bar. Constantly wet as it is, it is likely that the mortar will have softened, in which case we shall have little difficulty in working it out."

The plan was at once put into execution; the belts were fastened together and Walter standing on Ralph's shoulders passed one end around the bar and buckled it to the other, thus making a loop some three feet in length; putting a foot in this he was able to stand easily at the loophole.

"It is put in with mortar at the top, Ralph, and the mortar has rotted with the wet, but at the bottom lead was poured in when the bar was set and this must be scooped out before it can be moved. Fortunately the knight gave no orders to his men to remove our daggers when we were thrust in here, and these will speedily dig out the lead; but I must come down first, for the strap prevents my working at the foot of the bar. We must tear off a strip of our clothing and make a shift to fasten the strap half-way up the bar so as not to slip down with our weight."

In order to accomplish this Walter had to stand upon Ralph's head to gain additional height. He presently, after several attempts, succeeded in fixing the strap firmly against the bar half-way up, and then placing one knee in the loop and putting an arm through the bar to steady himself, he set to work at the lead. The sharp point of the dagger quickly cut out that near the surface, but farther down the hole narrowed and the task was much more difficult. Several times Ralph relieved him at the work, but at last it was accomplished, and the bar was found to move slightly when they shook it. There now remained only to loosen the cement above, and this was a comparatively easy task; it crumbled quickly before the points of their daggers, and the bar was soon free to move.

"Now," Walter said, "we have to find out whether the bar was first put in from below or from above; one hole or the other must be a good deal deeper than the iron, so that it was either shoved up or pushed down until the other end could get under or over the other hole. I should think most likely the hole is below, as if they held up the bar against the top, when the lead was poured in it would fill up the space; so we will first of all try to lift it. I must stand on your head again to enable me to be high enough to try this."

"My head is strong enough, I warrant," Ralph replied, "but I will fold up my jerkin, and put on it, for in truth you hurt me somewhat when you were tying the strap to the bar."

All Walter's efforts did not succeed in raising the bar in the slightest, and he therefore concluded that it had been inserted here and lifted while the space was filled with lead. "It is best so," he said; "we should have to cut away the stone either above or below, and can work much better below. Now I will put my knee in the strap again and set to work. The stone seems greatly softened by the wet, and will yield to our daggers readily enough. It is already getting dark, and as soon as we have finished we can start.

As Walter had discovered, the stone was rotten with the action of the weather, and although as they got deeper it became much harder, it yielded to the constant chipping with their daggers, and in two hours Ralph, who at the moment happened to be engaged, announced to Walter that his dagger had found its way under the bottom of the bar. The groove was soon made deep enough for the bar to be moved out; but another hour's work was necessary, somewhat further to enlarge the upper hole, so as to allow the bar to have sufficient play. Fortunately it was only inserted about an inch and a half in the stone, and the amount to be cut away to give it sufficient play was therefore not large. Then at last all was ready for their flight.