Chapter IV: A Knight's Chain
 

The following morning Walter put on the sober russet dress which he wore on Sundays and holidays, for gay colours were not allowed to the apprentices, and set out for Westminster. Although he endeavoured to assume an air of carelessness and ease as he approached the dwelling of Earl Talbot, he was very far from feeling comfortable, and wished in his heart that his master had accompanied him on his errand. Half a dozen men-at-arms were standing on the steps of the mansion, who looked with haughty surprise at the young apprentice.

"Dame Alice Vernon has sent to express her desire to have speech with me," he said quietly, "and I would fain know if she can receive me."

"Here, Dikon," one of the men cried to another within the hall. "This is the lad you were sent to fetch yesterday. I wondered much who the city apprentice was, who with such an assured air, marched up to the door; but if what thou sayest be true, that he saved the life of Dame Vernon and her little daughter, he must be a brave lad, and would be more in place among men and soldiers than in serving wares behind the counter of a fat city tradesman.

"I serve behind no counter," Walter said indignantly. "I am an armourer, and mayhap can use arms as well as make them."

There was a laugh among the men at the boy's sturdy self-assertion, and then the man named Dikon said: "Come along, lad. I will take you to Dame Vernon at once. She is expecting you; and, my faith, it would not be safe to leave you standing here long, for I see you would shortly be engaged in splitting the weasands of my comrades."

There was another roar of laughter from the men, and Walter, somewhat abashed, followed his conductor into the house. Leading him through the hall and along several corridors, whose spaciousness and splendour quite overpowered the young apprentice, he handed him over to a waiting woman, who ushered him into an apartment where Dame Vernon was reclining on a couch. Her little daughter was sitting upon a low stool beside her, and upon seeing Walter she leapt to her feet, clapping her hands.

"Oh! mother, this is the boy that rescued us out of the river."

The lady looked with some surprise at the lad. She had but a faint remembrance of the events which occurred between the time when she received a blow from the sword of one of her assailants and that when she found herself on a couch in the abode of her kinsman; and when she had been told that she had been saved by a city apprentice she had pictured to herself a lad of a very different kind to him who now stood before her.

Walter was now nearly sixteen years old. His frame was very powerful and firmly knit. His dark brown hair was cut short, but, being somewhat longer than was ordinary with the apprentices, fell with a slight wave back on his forehead. His bearing was respectful, and at the same time independent. There was none of that confusion which might be expected on the part of a lad from the city in the presence of a lady of rank. His dark, heavy eyebrows, resolute mouth, and square chin gave an expression of sternness to his face, which was belied by the merry expression of his eyes and the bright smile when he was spoken to.

"I have to thank you, young sir," she said, holding out her hand, which Walter, after the custom of the time, raised to his lips, bending upon one knee as he did so, "for the lives of myself and my daughter, which would surely have been lost had you not jumped over to save us.

"I am glad that I arrived in time to be of aid," Walter said frankly; "but indeed I am rather to be blamed than praised, for had I, when I heard the plotting against the safety of the boat, told my master of it, as I should have done, instead of taking the adventure upon mine own shoulders, doubtless a boat would have been sent up in time to prevent the attack from taking place. Therefore, instead of being praised for having arrived a little too late, I should be rated for not having come there in time."

Dame Vernon smiled.

"Although you may continue to insist that you are to blame, this does not alter the fact that you have saved our lives. Is there any way in which I can be useful to you? Are you discontent with your state? For, in truth, you look as if Nature had intended you for a gallant soldier rather than a city craftsman. Earl Talbot, who is my uncle, would, I am sure, receive you into his following should you so choose it, and I would gladly pay for the cancelling of your indentures."

"I thank you, indeed, lady, for your kind offices," Walter said earnestly; "for the present I am well content to remain at my craft, which is that of an armourer, until, at any rate, I have gained such manly strength and vigour as would fit me for a man-at-arms, and my good master, Geoffrey Ward, will, without payment received, let me go when I ask that grace of him."

"Edith, go and look from the window at the boats passing along the river; and now," she went on, as the girl had obeyed her orders, "I would fain ask you more about the interview you overhead in the marshes. Sir William de Hertford told me of the evidence that you had given before the justice. It is passing strange that he who incited the other to the deed should have been by him termed 'Sir Knight'. Maybe it was merely a nickname among his fellows."

"Before I speak, lady," Walter said quietly, "I would fain know whether you wish to be assured of the truth. Sometimes, they say, it is wiser to remain in ignorance; at other times forewarned is forearmed. Frankly, I did not tell all I know before the court, deeming that peradventure you might wish to see me, and that I could then tell the whole to your private ear, should you wish to know it, and you could then bid me either keep silence or proclaim all I knew when the trial of these evil-doers comes on."

"You seem to me to be wise beyond your years, young sir," the lady said.

"The wisdom is not mine, lady, but my master's. I took counsel with him, and acted as he advised me.

"I would fain know all," the lady said. "I have already strange suspicions of one from whom assuredly I looked not for such evil designs. It will grieve me to be convinced that the suspicions are well founded; but it will be better to know the truth than to remain in a state of doubt."

"The person then was a knight, for I had seen him before when he came in knightly harness into my master's shop to have two rivets put into his hauberk. I liked not his face then, and should have remembered it anywhere. I knew him at once when I saw him. He was a dark faced knight, handsome, and yet with features which reminded me of a hawk."

Dame Vernon gave a little exclamation, which assured the lad that she recognized the description.

"You may partly know, lady, whether it is he whom you suppose, for he said that he would detain your boat so that it should not come along until dark, and, moreover, he told them that they would know the boat since you would be wrapt in a white mantle."

The lady sat for some time with her face hidden in her hands.

"It is as I feared," she said at last, "and it grieves me to the heart to think that one who, although not so nearly related in blood, I regarded as a brother, should have betrayed me to death. My mind is troubled indeed, and I know not what course I shall take, whether to reveal this dreadful secret or to conceal it."

"I may say, madam," Walter said earnestly, "that should you wish the matter to remain a secret, you may rely upon it that I will tell no more at the trial than I revealed yesterday; but I would remind you that there is a danger that the leader of yon ruffians, who is probably alone acquainted with the name of his employer, may, under the influence of the torture, reveal it."

"That fear is for the present past, since a messenger arrived from Kingston but a few minutes since, saying that yester-even, under the threat of torture, the prisoners had pointed out the one among their number who was their chief. This morning, however, it was found that the warder who had charge of them had been bribed; he was missing from his post, and the door of the cell wherein the principal villain had been immured, apart from the others, was opened, and he had escaped."

"Then," Walter said, "it is now open to you to speak or be silent as you will. You will pardon my forwardness if I say that my master, in talking the matter over with me, suggested that this evil knight might be scared from attempting any future enterprise against you were he informed that it was known to several persons that he was the author of this outrage, and that if any further attempts were at any time made against you, the proofs of his crime would be laid before the king."

"Thanks, good lad," the lady said, "for your suggestion. Should I decide to keep the matter secret, I will myself send him a message to that effect, in such guise that he would not know whence it comes. And now, I would fain reward you for what you have done for us; and," she went on, seeing a flush suddenly mount upon the lad's face, as he made a half step backwards, "before I saw you, had thought of offering you a purse of gold, which, although it would but poorly reward your services, would yet have proved useful to you when the time came for you to start as a craftsman on your own account; but now that I have seen you, I feel that although there are few who think themselves demeaned by accepting gifts of money in reward for services, you would rather my gratitude took some other form. It can only do that of offering you such good services that I can render with Earl Talbot, should you ever choose the profession of arms; and in the meantime, as a memento of the lives you have saved, you will, I am sure, not refuse this chain," and she took a very handsome one of gold from her neck; "the more so since it was the gift of her majesty, our gracious queen to myself. She will, I am sure, acquit me of parting with her gift when I tell her that I transferred it to one who had saved the lives of myself and my daughter, and who was too proud to accept other acknowledgment."

Colouring deeply, and with tears in his eyes at the kindness and thoughtful consideration of the lady, Walter knelt on one knee before her, and she placed round his neck the long gold chain which she had been wearing.

"It is a knight's chain," the lady said, smiling, "and was part of the spoil gained by King Edward from the French. Maybe," she added kindly, "it will be worn by a knight again. Stranger things have happened, you know."

Walter flushed again with pleasure.

"Maybe, lady," he said modestly, "even apprentices have their dreams, and men- at-arms may always hope, by deeds of valour, to attain a knight's spurs even though they may not be of noble blood or have served as page and squire to a baron; but whether as a 'prentice or soldier, I hope I shall never do discredit to your gift."

"Edith, come here," Dame Vernon said, "I have done talking now. And what are you going to give this brave knight of ours who saved us from drowning."

The girl looked thoughtfully at Walter. "I don't think you would care for presents," she said; "and you look as if a sword or a horse would suit you better than a girl's gift. And yet I should like to give you something, such as ladies give their knights who have done brave deeds for them. It must be something quite my own, and you must take it as a keepsake. What shall it be, mamma?"

"Give him the bracelet which your cousin gave you last week," her mother said; "I would rather that you did not keep it, and I know you are not very fond of him."

"I can't bear him," the girl said earnestly, "and I wish he would not kiss me; he always looks as if he were going to bite, and I will gladly give his bracelet to this brave boy."

"Very well, Edith, fetch the bracelet from that coffer in the corner."

The girl went to the coffer and brought out the little bracelet, then she approached Walter.

"You must go down on your knee," she said; "true knights always do that to receive their lady's gifts. Now hold out your hand. There," she went on in a pretty imperious way, "take this gage as a reward of your valour, and act ever as a true knight in the service of your lady."

Bending down she dropt a kiss upon Walter's glowing cheek, and then, half frightened at her own temerity, ran back to her mother's side.

"And now," Dame Vernon went on, "will you thank your five comrades for their service in the matter, and give them each two gold pieces to spend as they will."

"He is a noble lad," Dame Vernon had said to herself when Walter had taken his leave. "Would he had been the son of one of the nobles of the court! It might have been then, if he distinguished himself in war, as he would surely do, that the king might have assigned Edith to him. As her lord and guardian he is certain to give her hand as a reward for valour in the field, and it may well be to a man with whom she would be less happy than with this 'prentice lad; but there, I need not be troubling myself about a matter which is five or six years distant yet. Still the thought that Edith is a ward of the crown, and that her hand must go where the king wills, often troubles me. However, I have a good friend in the queen, who will, I know, exert what influence she has in getting me a good husband for my child. But even for myself I have some fears, since the king hinted, when last he saw me, that it was time I looked out for another mate, for that the vassal of Westerham and Hyde needed a lord to lead them in the field. However, I hope that my answer that they were always at his service under the leading of my cousin James will suffice for him. Now, what am I to do in that matter? Who would have thought that he so coveted my lands that he would have slain me and Edith to possess himself of them? His own lands a thrice as broad as mine, though men say that he has dipped deeply into them and owes much money to the Jews. He is powerful and has many friends, and although Earl Talbot would stand by me, yet the unsupported word of an apprentice boy were but poor evidence on which to charge a powerful baron of such a crime as this. It were best, methinks, to say nought about it, but to bury the thought in my own heart. Nevertheless, I will not fail to take the precaution which the lad advised, and to let Sir James know that there are some who have knowledge of his handiwork. I hear he crosses the seas tomorrow to join the army, and it may be long ere he return. I shall have plenty of time to consider how I had best shape my conduct towards him on his return; but assuredly he shall never be friendly with me again, or frighten Edith with his kisses."

"Well, Walter, has it been such a dreadful business as you expected?" the armourer asked the lad when he re-entered the shop. "The great folks have not eaten you at any rate."

"It has not been dreadful," Walter replied with a smile, "though I own that it was not pleasant when I first arrived at the great mansion; but the lady put me quite at my ease, and she talked to me for some time, and finally she bestowed on me this chain, which our lady, the queen, had herself given her."

"It is a knight's chain and a heavy one," Geoffrey said, examining it, "of Genoese work, I reckon, and worth a large sum. It will buy you harness when you go to the wars."

"I would rather fight in the thickest melee in a cloth doublet," Walter said indignantly, "than part with a single link of it."

"I did but jest, Walter," Geoffrey said laughing; "but as you will not sell it, and you cannot wear it, you had best give it me to put aside in my strong coffer until you get of knightly rank."

"Lady Vernon said," the lad replied, "that she hoped one day it might again belong to a knight; and if I live," he added firmly, "it shall."

"Oh! she has been putting these ideas into your head; nice notions truly for a London apprentice! I shall be laying a complaint before the lord mayor against Dame Vernon, for unsettling the mind of my apprentice, and setting him above his work. And the little lady, what said she? Did she give you her colours and bid you wear them at a tourney?"

Walter coloured hotly.

"Ah! I have touched you," laughed the armourer; "come now, out with the truth. My lad," he added more gravely, "there is no shame in it; you know that I have always encouraged your wishes to be a soldier, and have done my best to render you as good a one as any who draws sword 'neath the king's banner, and assuredly I would not have taken all these pains with you did I think that you were always to wear an iron cap and trail a pike. I too, lad, hope some day to see you a valiant knight, and have reasons that you wot not of, for my belief that it will be so. No man rises to rank and fame any the less quickly because he thinks that bright eyes will grow brighter at his success."

"But, Geoffrey, you are talking surely at random. The Lady Edith Vernon is but a child; a very beautiful child," he added reverently, "and such that when she grows up, the bravest knight in England might be proud to win. What folly for me, the son of a city bowyer, and as yet but an apprentice, to raise mine eyes so high!"

"The higher one looks the higher one goes," the armourer said sententiously. "You aspire some day to become a knight, you may well aspire also to win the hand of Mistress Edith Vernon. She is five years younger than yourself, and you will be twenty-two when she is seventeen. You have time to make your way yet, and I tell you, though why it matters not, that I would rather you set your heart on winning Mistress Edith Vernon than any other heiress of broad lands in merry England. You have saved her life, and so have made the first step and a long one. Be ever brave, gentle, and honourable, and, I tell you, you need not despair; and now, lad, we have already lost too much time in talking; let us to our work."

That evening Walter recalled to Geoffrey his promise to tell him the causes which had involved England in so long and bloody a war with France.

"It is a tangled skein," Geoffrey said, "and you must follow me carefully. First, with a piece of chalk I will draw upon the wall the pedigree of the royal line of France from Phillip downwards, and then you will see how it is that our King Edward and Phillip of Valois came to be rival claimants to the throne of France.

"Now, you see that our King Edward is nephew of Charles le Bel, the last King of France, while Phillip of Valois is only nephew of Phillip le Bel, the father of Charles. Edward is consequently in the direct line, and had Isabella been a man instead of a woman his right to the throne would be unquestionable. In France, however, there is a law called the 'Salic' law, which excludes females from the throne; but it is maintained by many learned in the law, that although a female is held to be incompetent to reign because from her sex she cannot lead her armies to battle, yet she no ways forfeits otherwise her rights, and that her son is therefore the heir to the throne. If this contention, which is held by all English jurists, and by many in France also, be well founded, Edward is the rightful King of France. Phillip of Valois contends that the 'Salic law' not only bars a female from ascending the throne, but also destroys all her rights, and that the succession goes not to her sons but to the next heir male; in which case, of course, Phillip is rightful king. It is not for me to say which view is the right one, but certainly the great majority of those who have been consulted have decided that, according to ancient law and usage, the right lies with Edward. But in these matters 'right is not always might.' Had Isabella married a French noble instead of an English king it is probable that her son's claim to the throne would have been allowed without dispute, but her son is King of England, and the French nobles prefer being ruled by one of themselves to becoming united with England under one king.

"At the time of the death of the last king, Edward was still but a boy under the tuition of his mother, Phillip was a man, and upon the spot, therefore he was able to win support by presence and promises, and so it came that the peers of France declared Phillip of Valois to be their rightful monarch. Here in England, at parliament held at Northampton, the rights of Edward were discussed and asserted, and the Bishops of Worcester and Coventry were despatched to Paris to protest against the validity of Phillip's nomination. As, however, the country was not in a position to enforce the claim of their young king by arms, Phillip became firmly seated as King of France, and having shown great energy in at once marching against and repressing the people of Flanders, who were in a state of rebellion against their count, one of the feudatories of the French crown, the nobles were well satisfied with their choice, and no question as to his right was ever henceforth raised in France. As soon as the rebellion in Flanders was crushed, Phillip summoned the King of England to do homage for Aquitaine, Ponthieu and Montreuil, fiefs held absolutely from the crown of France. Such a proceeding placed Edward and his council in a great embarrassment. In case of a refusal the whole of the possessions of the crown in France might be declared forfeited and be seized, while England was in no condition to defend them; on the other hand, the fact of doing homage to Phillip of Valois would be a sort of recognition of his right to the throne he had assumed. Had Edward then held the reins of power in his hands, there can be little doubt that he would at once have refused, and would have called out the whole strength of England to enforce his claim. The influence of Isabella and Mortimer was, however, all powerful, and it was agreed that Edward should do homage as a public act, making a private reservation in secret to his own councillors, taking exception to the right of Phillip.

"Edward crossed to France and journeyed to Amiens, where Phillip with a brilliant court awaited him, and on the appointed day they appeared together in the cathedral. Here Edward, under certain protestations, did homage for his French estates, leaving certain terms and questions open for the consideration of his council. For some time the matter remained in this shape; but honest men cannot but admit that King Edward did, by his action at the time, acknowledge Phillip to be King of France, and that he became his vassal for his estates there; but, as has happened scores of times before, and will no doubt happen scores of times again, vassals, when they become powerful enough, throw off their allegiance to their feudal superiors, and so the time came to King Edward.

"After the death of Mortimer and the imprisonment of Isabella, the king gave rein to his taste for military sports. Tournaments were held at Dartford and other places, one in Westcheape. What a sight was that, to be sure! For three days the king, with fourteen of his knights, held the list against all comers, and in the sight of the citizens and the ladies of the court, jousted with knights who came hither from all parts of Europe. I was there each day and the sight was a grand one, though England was well-nigh thrown into mourning by an accident which took place. The gallery in which the queen and her attendants were viewing the sports had been badly erected, and in the height of the contests it gave way. The queen and her ladies were in great peril, being thrown from a considerable height, and a number of persons were severely injured. The king, who was furious at the danger to which the queen had been exposed, would have hung upon the spot the master workman whose negligence had caused the accident, but the queen went on her knees before him and begged his life of the king. The love of Edward for warlike exercises caused England to be regarded as the most chivalrous court in Europe, and the frequent tournaments aroused to the utmost the spirits of the people and prepared them for the war with France. But of the events of that war I will tell you some other night. It is time now for us to betake us to our beds."