Chapter VII: The Young Esquire
 

While the attention of the whole of the spectators and combatants was fixed upon the struggle at the right-hand angle of the castle, a party of twenty 'prentices suddenly leapt to their feet from among the broken palisades of the outwork. Lying prone there they had escaped the attention of the spectators as well as of the defenders. The reason why the assailants carried the planks and ladders to this spot was now apparent. Only a portion had been taken on to the assault of the right-hand tower; those who now rose to their feet lifted with them planks and ladders, and at a rapid pace ran towards the left angle of the castle, and reached that point before the attention of the few defenders who remained on the wall there was attracted to them, so absorbed were they in the struggle at the other angle. The moment that they saw the new assailants they raised a shout of alarm, but the din of the combat, the shouts of the leaders and men were so loud, that their cries were unheard. Two or three then hurried away at full speed to give the alarm, while the others strove to repel the assault. Their efforts were in vain. The planks were flung across the moat, the ladders placed in position, and led by Walter the assailants sprang up and gained a footing on the wall before the alarm was fairly given. A thundering cheer from the spectators greeted the success of the assailants. Springing along the wall they drove before them the few who strove to oppose them, gained the central tower, and Walter, springing up to the top, pulled down the banner of the defenders and placed that of the city in its place. At this moment the defenders, awakened too late to the ruse which had been played upon them, came swarming back along the wall and strove to regain the central tower. In the confusion the assault by the flying tower of the assailants was neglected, and at this point also they gained footing on the wall. The young nobles of the court, furious at being outwitted, fought desperately to regain their lost laurels. But the king rose from his seat and held up his hand. The trumpeter standing below him sounded the arrest of arms, which was echoed by two others who accompanied Earl Talbot, who had taken his place on horseback close to the walls. At the sound swords dropt and the din abruptly ceased, but the combatants stood glaring at each other, their blood too heated to relinquish the fray readily.

Already much damage had been done. In spite of armour and mail many serious wounds had been inflicted, and some of the combatants had already been carried senseless from the field. Some of the assailants had been much shaken by being thrown backward from the ladders into the moat, one or two were hurt to death; but as few tourneys took place without the loss of several lives, this was considered but a small amount of damage for so stoutly fought a melee, and the knowledge that many were wounded, and some perhaps dying, in no way damped the enthusiasm of the spectators, who cheered lustily for some minutes at the triumph which the city had obtained. In the galleries occupied by the ladies and nobles of the court there was a comparative silence. But brave deeds were appreciated in those days, and although the ladies would far rather have seen the victory incline the other way, yet they waved their handkerchiefs and clapped their hands in token of their admiration at the success of an assault which, at the commencement, appeared well-nigh hopeless.

Lord Talbot rode up to the front of the royal pavilion.

"I was about to stop the fight, sire, when you gave the signal. Their blood was up, and many would have been killed had the combat continued. But the castle was fairly won, the central tower was taken and the flag pulled down, a footing had been gained at another point of the wall, and the assailants had forced their way through the sally-port. Further resistance was therefore hopeless, and the castle must be adjudged as fairly and honourably captured."

A renewed shout greeted the judge's decision. The king now ordered the rival hosts to be mustered before him as before the battle, and when this was done Earl Talbot conducted Walter up the broad steps in front of the king's pavilion. Geoffrey Ward, who had, after fastening on Walter's armour in the tent, before the sports began, taken his place among the guards at the foot of the royal pavilion, stept forward and removed Walter's helmet at the foot of the steps.

"Young sir," the king said, "you have borne yourself right gallantly today, and have shown that you possess the qualities which make a great captain. I do my nobles no wrong when I say that not one of them could have better planned and led the assault than you have done. Am I not right, sirs?" and he looked round. A murmur of assent rose from the knights and nobles, and the king continued: "I thought you vain and presumptuous in undertaking the assault of a fort held by an equal number, many of whom are well accustomed to war, while the lads who followed you were all untrained in strife, but you have proved that your confidence in yourself was not misplaced. The Earl of Talbot has adjudged you victor, and none can doubt what the end of the strife would have been. Take this chain from your king, who is glad to see that his citizens of London are able to hold their own even against those of our court, than whom we may say no braver exist in Europe. Kneel now to the queen of the tourney, who will bestow upon you the chaplet which you have so worthily earned."

Walter bent his knee before Edith Vernon. She rose to her feet, and with an air of pretty dignity, placed a chaplet of laurel leaves, wrought in gold and clasped with a valuable ruby, on his head.

"I present to you," she said, "the chaplet of victory, and am proud that my gage should have been worn by one who has borne himself so bravely and well. May a like success rest on all your undertakings, and may you prove a good and valiant knight!"

"Well said, Mistress Edith," Queen Philippa said smiling. "You may well be proud of your young champion. I too must have my gift," and drawing a ring set with brilliants from her finger she placed it in Walter's hand.

The lad now rose to his feet. "The prince my son," the king said, "has promised that you shall ride with his men-at-arms when he is old enough to take the field. Should you choose to abandon your craft and do so earlier I doubt not that one of my nobles, the brave Sir Walter Manny, for example, will take you before that time."

"That will I readily enough," Sir Walter said, "and glad to have so promising a youth beneath my banner."

"I would that you had been of gentle blood," the king said.

"That makes no difference, sire," Sir Walter replied. "I will place him among the young gentlemen, my pages and esquires, and am sure that they will receive him as one of themselves."

Geoffrey Ward had hitherto stood at the foot of the steps leading to the royal pavilion, but doffing his cap he now ascended. "Pardon my boldness, sire," he said to the king, "but I would fain tell you what the lad himself has hitherto been ignorant of. He is not, as he supposes, the son of Giles Fletcher, citizen and bowmaker, but is the lawfully born son of Sir Roland Somers, erst of Westerham and Hythe, who was killed in the troubles at the commencement of your majesty's reign. His wife, Dame Alice, brought the child to Giles Fletcher, whose wife had been her nurse, and dying left him in her care. Giles and his wife, if called for, can vouch for the truth of this, and can give you proofs of his birth."

Walter listened with astonishment to Geoffrey's speech. A thrill of pleasure rushed through his veins as he learned that he was of gentle blood and might hope to aspire to a place among the knights of King Edward's court. He understood now the pains which Geoffrey had bestowed in seeing that he was perfected in warlike exercises, and why both he and Giles had encouraged rather than repressed his love for martial exercises and his determination to abandon his craft and become a man-at-arms when he reached man's estate.

"Ah is it so?" the king exclaimed. "I remember Sir Roland Somers, and also that he was slain by Sir Hugh Spencer, who, as I heard on many hands, acted rather on a private quarrel than, as he alleged, in my interest, and there were many who avowed that the charges brought against Sir Roland were unfounded. However, this matter must be inquired into, and my High Justiciar shall see Master Giles and his wife, hear their evidence, and examine the proofs which they may bring forward. As to the estates, they were granted to Sir Jasper Vernon and cannot be restored. Nevertheless I doubt not that the youth will carve out for himself a fortune with his sword. You are his master, I suppose? I would fain pay you to cancel his apprenticeship. Sir Walter Manny has promised to enroll him among his esquires."

"I will cancel his indentures willingly, my liege," the armourer answered, "and that without payment. The lad has been to me as a son, and seeing his high spirit, and knowing the gentle blood running in his veins, I have done my best so to teach him and so to put him in the way of winning back his father's rank by his sword."

"He hath gone far towards it already," the king said, "and methinks may yet gain some share in his father's inheritance," and he glanced at little Mistress Edith Vernon and then smiled at the queen. "Well, we shall see," he went on. "Under Sir Walter Manny he will have brave chances of distinguishing himself, and when my son takes the field he shall ride with him. But I am keeping the hosts waiting. Bring hither," he said to Earl Talbot, "Clarence Aylmer."

The young noble was led up to the king. "You have done well, Clarence; though you have been worsted you fought bravely, but you were deceived by a ruse which might have taken in a more experienced captain. I trust that you will be friends with your adversary, who will be known to you henceforth as Walter Somers, son of Sir Roland of that name, and who will ride to the wars, whither you also are shortly bound, under the standard of Sir Walter Manny."

The cloud which had hung over the face of the young noble cleared. It had indeed been a bitter mortification to him that he, the son of one of the proudest of English nobles, should have been worsted by a London apprentice, and it was a relief to him to find that his opponent was one of knightly blood. He turned frankly to Walter and held out his hand. "I greet you as a comrade, sir," he said, "and hope some day that in our rivalry in the field I may do better than I have done today."

"That is well spoken," the king said. Then he rose and in a loud voice addressed the combatants, saying, that all had borne themselves well and bravely, and that he thanked them, not only for the rare pastime which they had made, but for the courage and boldness which had been displayed on both sides. So saying, he waved his hand as a token that the proceedings were ended, and returned with the court to Westminster; while the crowd of spectators overflowed the lists, those who had friends in the apprentice array being anxious to know how they had fared. That evening there was a banquet given by the lord-mayor. Walter was invited to be present, with Giles and Geoffrey, and many complimentary things were said to him, and he was congratulated on the prospects which awaited him. After dinner all the 'prentices who had taken part in the sports filed through the hall and were each presented with a gold piece by the lord-mayor, in the name of the corporation, for having so nobly sustained the renown of the city.

After the entertainment was over Walter returned with Geoffrey to the bowyer's house, and there heard from his two friends and Bertha the details of his mother's life from the time that she had been a child, and the story of her arrival with him, and her death. He had still difficulty in believing that it was all true, that Giles and Bertha, whom he had so long regarded as father and mother, were only his kind guardians, and that he was the scion of two noble families. Very warmly and gratefully he thanked his three friends for the kindness which they had shown to him, and vowed that no change of condition should ever alter his feelings of affection towards them. It was not until the late hour of nine o'clock that he said goodbye to his foster parents, for he was next day to repair to the lodging of Sir Walter Manny, who was to sail again before the week was out for the Low Countries, from which he had only returned for a few days to have private converse with the king on the state of matters there. His friends would have delivered to him his mother's ring and other tokens which she had left, but thought it better to keep these, with the other proofs of his birth, until his claim was established to the satisfaction of the lord justiciaries.

The next morning early, when Walter descended the stairs, he found Ralph Smith waiting for him. His face was strapped up with plaster and he wore his arm in a sling, for his armour had been twice cut through as he led his party in through the sally-port.

"How goes it with you, Ralph?" Walter said. "Not much the worse, I hope, for your hard knocks?"

"Not a whit," Ralph replied cheerfully, "and I shall be all right again before the week is out; but the leech made as much fuss over me as if I had been a girl, just as though one was not accustomed to hard knocks in a smithy. Those I got yesterday were not half so hard as that which you gave me the day before. My head rings yet with the thought of it. But I have not come to talk about myself. Is the story true which they tell of you, Master Walter, that you are not the son of Giles the bowyer, but of a great noble?"

"Not of a great noble, Ralph, but of a gallant knight, which is just as good. My father was killed when I was three years old, and my mother brought me to Bertha, the wife of Giles the bowyer, who had been her nurse in childhood. I had forgotten all that had passed, and deemed myself the son of the good citizen, but since I have heard the truth my memory has awakened somewhat, and I have a dim recollection of a lordly castle and of my father and mother."

"And they say, Walter, that you are going with Sir Walter Manny, with the force which is just sailing to the assistance of Lady De Montford."

"That is so, Ralph, and the good knight has taken me among his esquires, young as I am, although I might well have looked for nothing better than to commence, for two years at least, as a page, seeing that I am but eighteen now. Now I shall ride with him into the battles and shall have as good a chance as the others of gaining honour and winning my spurs."

"I have made up my mind that I will go with you, Master Walter, if you will take me; each squire has a man-at-arms who serves him, and I will give you good and faithful service if you will take me with you. I spoke to the smith, my master, last night when I heard the news, and as my apprenticeship is out next week he was willing enough to give me the few days which remain. Once out of my apprenticeship I may count to be a man, and seeing that I am nineteen, and as I may say well grown of my years, methinks I am fit for service as a man-at-arms, and I would rather fight behind you than labour all my life in the smithy."

"I shall be glad indeed, Ralph, to have you with me if such be really your wish, and I do not think that Sir Walter Manny will say nay, for they have been beating up for recruits through the kingdom, and we proved yesterday that you have courage as well as strength. If he will consent I should be glad indeed to have so brave a comrade with me, so we may consider that settled, and if you will come down to Westminster, to Sir Walter Manny's lodging, this afternoon, I will tell you what he says touching the matter. You will, of course, need arms and armour."

"I can provide that," Ralph replied, "seeing that his worshipful the lord-mayor bestowed upon me yesterday five gold pieces as the second in command in the sports. I have already a steel cap and breast and back pieces, which I have made for myself in hours of leisure, and warrant will stand as hard a knock as the Frenchmen can give them."

Going across into the city with Geoffrey, Walter purchased, with the contents of the purse which the king had given him, the garments suited for his new position. He was fortunate in obtaining some which fitted him exactly. These had been made for a young esquire of the Earl of Salisbury; but the tailor, when he heard from Geoffrey for whom they were required, and the need for instant despatch, parted with them to Walter, saying that he for whom they were made could well wait a few days, and that he would set his journeymen to work at once to make some more of similar fit and fashion.

Walter felt strange in his new attire, and by no means relished the tightness of the garments, which was strictly demanded by the fashion of the day. His long hose, one of which was of a deep maroon, the other a bright yellow, came far up above the knee, then came a short pair of trunks of similar colours divided in the middle. The tight-fitting doublet was short and circled at the waist by a buff belt mounted in silver, and was of the same colours as the hose and trunks. On his head was a cap, peaked in front; this was of maroon, with a short erect feather of yellow. The long-pointed shoes matched the rest of the costume. There were three other suits similar in fashion, but different in colour; two like the first were of cloth, the third was of white and blue silk, to be worn on grand occasions.

"You look a very pretty figure, Walter," Geoffrey said, "and will be able to hold your own among the young gallants of the court. If you lack somewhat of courtly manners it will matter not at all, since you are leaving so soon for the wars.

The dress sets off your figure, which is fully two years in advance of your age, seeing that hard work has widened you out and thickened your muscles. I need not tell you, lad, not to be quarrelsome, for that was never your way; but just at first your companions may try some jests with you, as is always the manner of young men with newcomers, but take them in a good spirit and be sure that, seeing the strength of arm and skill which you showed yesterday and the day before, none will care to push matters with you unduly."

One of the journeymen accompanied Walter to Westminster to carry up from the boat the valise with his clothes and the armour which he had worn in the sports. Sir Walter received the lad with much kindness and introduced him to his future companions. They were five in number; the eldest was a man of some thirty years old, a Hainaulter, who had accompanied Sir Walter Manny to England at the time when the latter first came over as a young squire in the suite of the Princess Philippa. He was devotedly attached to the knight, his master, and although he might several times have received the rank of knighthood for his bravery in the field, he preferred remaining in his position as esquire and faithful friend of his master.

The other four were between the ages of nineteen and twenty-one, and all belonged to the families of the highest nobility of England, it being deemed a distinguished honour to be received as a squire by the most gallant knight at the court of England. Their duties were, as Walter soon learned, almost nominal, these being discharged almost exclusively by John Mervaux. Two of the young esquires, Richard Coningsby and Edward Clifford, had fought in the melee, having been among the ten leaders under Clarence Aylmer. They bore no malice for the defeat, but received Walter with cordiality and kindness, as did the other young men. Walter on his arrival acquainted the knight with Ralph's wish to follow him, and requested permission for him to do so. This was readily granted, Sir Walter Manny telling the lad that although esquires were supposed to wait entirely upon themselves, to groom their horses, and keep their armour and arms bright and in good order, yet, in point of fact, young men of good families had the greater part of these duties performed for them by a retainer who rode in the ranks of their master's following as a man-at-arms.

"The other esquires have each one of their father's retainers with them, and I am glad that you should be in the same position. After you have taken your midday meal you had best go across to the Earl of Talbot's and inquire for the Lady Vernon, who is still staying with him. She told me at the king's ball last night that she wished to have speech with you, and I promised to acquaint you with her desire. By the way, dost know aught of riding?"

"I have learnt to sit on a horse, Sir Walter," the lad answered. "My good friend Geoffrey, the armourer, advised that I should learn, and frequently hired from the horse-dealer an animal for my use. I have often backed half-broken horses which were brought up by graziers from Kent and Sussex for use in the wars. Many of them abode at the hostels at Southwark, and willingly enough granted me permission to ride their horses until they were sold. Thus I have had a good deal of practice, and that of a rough kind; and seeing that latterly the horses have, for the most part, found it difficult to fling me when sitting barebacked across them, I think I could keep my seat in the high-peaked saddles on the most vicious, but I have had no practice at tilting, or at the ring, or other knightly exercises."

"That matters not at all," the knight said. "All these knightly exercises which you speak of are good in time of peace, for they give proficiency and steadiness, but in time of war he who can sit firmly in his saddle and wield sword and battle-axe lustily and skillfully is equal to the best; but never fear, when this expedition is over, and we have time for such things, I will see that you are instructed in them. One who has achieved so much martial skill as you have done at so early an age will have little difficulty in acquiring what may be termed the pastime of chivalry."

Ralph arrived just as Walter was setting out. The latter presented him to the knight, who spoke with praise of the gallantry which he had displayed on the previous day, and then handed him over to John Mervaux, with instructions to enroll him as a man-at-arms among his followers, to inform him of his duties, and to place him with those who attended upon the other esquires.

After seeing Ralph disposed of, Walter went across to the Earl of Talbot and was again conducted to the presence of Dame Vernon.

"You have changed since we met last, young sir," she said with a smile, "though it is but a month since. Then you were a 'prentice boy, now you are an esquire of Sir Walter Manny, and on the highway to distinction. That you will win it I am well assured, since one who risked his life to rescue a woman and child whose very names were unknown to him is sure to turn out a noble and valiant knight. I little thought when my daughter called you her knight, that in so short a time you might become an aspirant to that honour. I hope that you do not look askance at us, now that you know I am in possession of the lands of your parents. Such changes of land, you know, often occur, but now I know who you are, I would that the estates bestowed upon Sir Jasper had belonged to some other than you; however, I trust that you will hold no grudge against us, and that you may win as fair an estate by the strength of your arm and the king's favour."

"Assuredly I feel no grudge, madam," Walter replied, "and since the lands were forfeited, am pleased that of all people they should have gone to one so kind and so fair as yourself."

"What, learning to be a flatterer already!" Dame Vernon laughed. "You are coming on fast, and I predict great things from you. And now, Edith, lay aside that sampler you are pretending to be so busy upon and speak to this knight of yours.

Edith laid down her work and came forward. She was no longer the dignified little queen of the tournament, but a laughing, bright-faced girl.

"I don't see that you are changed," she said, "except in your dress. You speak softly and naturally, just as you used to do, and not a bit like those little court fops, Uncle Talbot's pages. I am afraid you will not want to be my knight any more, now that you are going to get great honours at the war; for I heard my Uncle Talbot tell my lady mother that he was sure you would gain great credit for yourself."

"I shall be always your knight," Walter said earnestly; "I told you I should, and I never break my word. That is," he went on, colouring, "if Dame Vernon makes no objection, as she well might."

"If I did not object before, Walter," she said smiling, "why should I do so now?"

"It is different, my lady; before, it was somewhat of a jest, a sort of childish play on the part of Mistress Edith, though so far as I was concerned it was no play, but sober earnest.

"It needs no permission from me," Dame Vernon replied, "for you to wear my daughter's colours. Any knight may proclaim any lady he chooses the mistress of his heart, and a reigning beauty will often have a dozen young knights who wear her colours. However, I am well content that one who has done me such great service and who has shown such high promise should be the first to wear the gage of my little daughter, and if in after years your life fulfils the promise of your youth, and you remain true to her gage, there is none among all the youths of the court whom I would so gladly see at her feet. Remember," she said, as Walter was about to speak, "her hand will not be at my disposal, but at that of the king. His majesty is wont to bestow the hands of his wards upon those who most distinguish themselves in the field. You have already attracted his royal attention and commendation. Under Sir Walter Manny you will be sure of opportunities of distinguishing yourself, and the king may well be glad some day at once to reward your services and to repair a cruel injustice by bestowing upon you the hand of the heiress of your father's lands. If I mistake not, such a thought has even now crossed his majesty's mind, unless I misinterpreted a glance which yesterday passed between him and our sweet queen. I need not tell you to speak of your hopes to none, but let them spur you to higher exertions and nobler efforts. Loving my little Edith as I do, I naturally consider the prize to be a high one. I have often been troubled by the thought that her hand may be some day given to one by years or temper unsuited for her, and it will be a pleasure to me henceforth to picture her future connected with one who is, I am sure, by heart and nature fitted for her. And now, farewell, young sir. May God protect you in the field, and may you carry in the battle which awaits you the gage of my daughter as fairly and successfully as you did in the mimic fray of yesterday!"