Two Penniless Princesses by J. M. Synge
Chapter 10. Tender and True
'For I am now the Earlis son, And not a banished, man.'--The Nut-Brown Maid.
'0 St. Andrew! St. Bride! Our Lady of Succour! St. Denys!-- all the lave of you, that may be nearest in this fremd land,-- come and aid him. It is the Master of Angus, ye ken--the hope of his house. He'll build you churches, gie ye siller cups and braw vestments gin ye'll bring him back. St. Andrew! St. Rule! St. Ninian!--you ken a Scots tongue! Stay his blood,-- open his een,--come to help ane that ever loved you and did you honour!'
So wailed Ringan of the Raefoot, holding his master's head on his knees, and binding up as best he might an ugly thrust in the side, and a blow which had crushed the steel cap into the midst of the hair. When be saw his master fall and the ladies captured, he had, with the better part of valour, rushed aside and hid himself in the thicket of thorns and hazels, where, being manifestly only a stray horseboy, no search was made for him. He rightly concluded that, dead or alive, his master might thus be better served than by vainly struggling over his fallen body.
It seemed as though, in answer to his invocation, a tremor began to pass through Douglas's frame, and as Ringan exclaimed, 'There! there!--he lives! Sir, sir! Blessings on the saints! I was sure that a French reiver's lance could never be the end of the Master,' George opened his eyes.
'What is it?' he said faintly. 'Where are the ladies?'
'Heed not the leddies the noo, sir, but let me bind your head. That cap has crushed like an egg-shell, and has cut you worse than the sword. Bide still, sir, I say, if ye mean to do any gude another time!'
'The loons rid aff wi' them, sir--up towards the hills yonder. Nay! but if ye winna thole to let me bind your wound, how d'ye think to win to their aid, or ever to see bonnie Scotland again?'
George submitted to this reasoning; but, as his senses returned, asked if all the troop had gone.
'Na, sir; the ane with that knight who was at the tourney--a plague light on him--went aff with the leddies--up yonder; but they, as they called the escort--the Archers of the Guard, as they behoved to call themselves--they rid aff by the way that we came by--the traitor loons!'
'Ah! it was black treachery. Follow the track of the ladies, Ringan;--heed not me.'
'Mickle gude that wad do, sir, if I left you bleeding here! Na, na; I maun see you safely bestowed first before I meet with ony other. I'm the Douglas's man, no the Stewart's.'
'Then will I after them!' cried George of Angus, starting up; but he staggered and had to catch at Ringan.
There was no water near; nothing to refresh or revive him had been left. Ringan looked about in anxiety and distress on the desolate scene--bare heath on one side, thicket, gradually rising into forest and mountain, on the other. Suddenly he gave a long whistle, and to his great joy there was a crackling among the bushes and he beheld the shaggy-faced pony on which he had ridden all the way from Yorkshire, and which had no doubt eluded the robbers. There was a bundle at the saddle- bow, and after a little coquetting the pony allowed itself to be caught, and a leathern bottle was produced from the bag, containing something exceedingly sour, but with an amount of strength in it which did something towards reviving the Master.
'I can sit the pony,' he said; 'let us after them.'
'Nae sic fulery,' said Ringan. 'I ken better what sorts a green wound like yours, sir! Sit the pony ye may, but to be safely bestowed, ere I stir a foot after the leddies.'
George broke out into fierce language and angry commands, none of which Ringan heeded in the least.
'Hist:' he cried, 'there's some one on the road. Come into shelter, sir.'
He was half dragging, half supporting his master to the concealment of the bushes, when he perceived that the new- comers were two friars, cowled, black gowned, corded, and barefooted.
'There will be help in them,' he muttered, placing his master with his back against a tree; for the late contention had produced such fresh exhaustion that it was plain the wounds were more serious than he had thought at first.
The two friars, men with homely, weather-beaten, but simple good faces, came up, startled at seeing a wounded man on the way-side, and ready to proffer assistance.
Need like George Douglas's was of all languages, and besides, Ringan had, among the exigencies of the journey, picked up something by which he could make himself moderately well understood. The brethren stooped over the wounded man and examined his wounds. One of them produced some oil from a flask in his wallet, and though poor George's own shirt was the only linen available, they contrived to bandage both hurts far more effectually than Ringan could.
They asked whether this was the effect of a quarrel or the work of robbers.
'Routiers,' Ringan said. 'The ladies--we guarded them--they carried them off--up there.'
'What ladies?--the Scottish princesses?' asked one of the friars; for they had been at Nanci, and knew who had been assembled there; besides that, the Scot was known enough all over France for the nationality of Ringan and his master to have been perceived at once.
George understood this, and answered vehemently, 'I must follow them and save them!'
'In good time, with the saints' blessing,' replied Brother Benigne soothingly, 'but healing must come first. We must have you to our poor house yonder, where you will be well tended.'
George was lifted to the pony's back, and supported in the saddle by Ringan and one of the brethren. He had been too much dazed by the cut on the head to have any clear or consecutive notion as to what they were doing with him, or what passed round him; and Ringan did his best to explain the circumstances, and thought it expedient to explain that his master was 'Grand Seigneur' in his own country, and would amply repay whatever was done for him; the which Brother Gerard gave him to understand was of no consequence to the sons of St. Francis. The brothers had no doubt that the outrage was committed by the Balchenburg Baron, the ally of the ecorcheurs and routiers, the terrors of the country, in his impregnable castle. No doubt, they said, he meant to demand a heavy ransom from the good King and Dauphin. For the honour of Scotland, Ringan, though convinced that Hall had his share in the treason, withheld that part of the story. To him, and still more to his master, the journey seemed endless, though in reality it was not more than two miles before they arrived at a little oasis of wheat and orchards growing round a vine-clad building of reddish stone, with a spire rising in the midst.
Here the porter opened the gate in welcome. The history was volubly told, the brother-infirmarer was summoned, and the Master of Angus was deposited in a much softer bed than the good friars allowed themselves. There the infirmarer tended him in broken feverish sleep all night, Ringan lying on a pallet near, and starting up at every moan or murmur. But with early dawn, when the brethren were about to sing prime, the lad rose up, and between signs and words made them understand that he must be released, pointing towards the mountains, and comporting himself much like a dog who wanted to be let out.
Perceiving that he meant to follow the track of the ladies, the friars not only opened the doors to him, but gave him a piece of black barley bread, with which he shot off, like an arrow from a bow, towards the place where the catastrophe had taken place.
George Douglas's mind wandered a good deal from the blow on his head, and it was not till two or three days had elapsed that he was able clearly to understand what his follower had discovered. Almost with the instinct of a Red Indian, Ringan had made his way. At first, indeed, the bushes had been sufficiently trampled for the track to be easy to find, but after the beech-trees with no underwood had been reached, he had often very slight indications to guide him. Where the halt had taken place, however, by the brook-side, there were signs of trampling, and even a few remnants of food; and after a long climb higher, he had come on the marks of the fall of a horse, and picked up a piece of a torn veil, which he recognised at once as belonging to the Lady Joanna. He inferred a struggle. What had they been doing to her?
Faithful Ringan had climbed on, and at length had come below the castle. He had been far too cautious to show himself while light lasted, but availing himself of the shelter of trees and of the projections, he had pretty well reconnoitred the castle as it stood on its steep slopes of turf, on the rounded summit of the hill, only scarped away on one side, whence probably the materials had been taken.
There could be no doubt that this was the prison of the princesses, and the character of the Barons of Balchenburg was only too well known to the good Franciscans.
'Soevi et feroces,' said the Prior to George, for Latin had turned out to be the most available medium of communication. Spite of Scott's averment in the mouth of George's grandson, Bell the Cat, that--
'Thanks to St Bothan, son of mine, Save Gawain, ne'er could pen a line,'
the Douglases were far too clever to go without education, and young nobles who knew anything knew a little Latin. There was a consultation over what was to be done, and the Prior undertook to send one of his brethren into Nanci with Ringan, to explain the matter to King Rene, or, if he had left Nanci for Provence, to the governor left in charge. But a frontier baron like Balchenburg was a very serious difficulty to one so scrupulous in his relations with his neighbours as was good King Rene.
'A man of piety, peace, and learning,' said the Prior, 'and therefore despised by lawless men, like a sheep among wolves, though happy are we in living under such a prince.'
'Then what's the use of him and all his raree shows,' demanded the Scot, 'if be can neither hinder two peaceful maids from being carried off, nor will stir a finger to deliver them? Much should we heed borders and kings if it had been a Ridley or a Graeme who had laid hands on them.'
However, he consented to the Prior's proposal, and the incongruous pair set out together,--the sober-paced friar on the convent donkey, and Ringan on his shaggy pony,--both looking to civilised eyes equally rough and unkempt. At the gates they heard that King Rene had the day before set forth on his way to Aix, which boded ill for them, since more might be hoped from the impulsive chivalry of the King than from the strict scrupulosity of a responsible governor.
But they had not gone far on their way across the Place de La Carriere, where the tournament had been held, before Ringan startled his companion with a perfect howl, which had in it, however, an element of ecstasy, as he dashed towards a tall, bony figure in a blue cap, buff coat, and shepherd's plaid over one shoulder.
'Archie o' the Brake. Archie! Oh, ye're a sight for sair een! How cam' ye here?'
'Eh!' was the answer, equally astonished. 'Wha is it that cries on me here? Eh! eh! 'Tis never Ringan of the Raefoot-sae braw and grand?'
For Ringan was a wonderful step before him in civilisation.
Queries--'How cam' ye here?' and 'Whar' is the Master?'--were rapidly exchanged, while the friar looked on in amaze at the two wild-looking men, about whom other tall Scots, more or less well equipped, began to gather, coming from a hostelry near at hand.
The Earl of Angus, as they told him, had been neither to have nor to hold when first his embassy to Dunbar came back, and his son was found to be missing. He had been very near besieging the young King, until Bishop Kennedy had convinced him that no one of the Court had suspected the Master's presence, far less connived at his disappearance. The truth had been suspected before long, though there was no certainty until the letter that George Douglas had at last vouchsafed to write had, after spending a good deal of time on the road, at last reached Tantallon. Then the Earl had declared that, since his son had set out on this fool's errand, he should be suitably furnished for the heir of Angus, and should play his part as became him in their sports at Nanci, whither his letter said he was bound, instead of figuring as a mere groom of Drummond of Glenuskie, and still worse, in the train of a low-born Englishman like De la Pole.
So he had sent off ten lances, under a stout kinsman who had campaigned in France before--Sir Robert Douglas of Harside-- with all their followers, and full equipment, such as might befit the heir of a branch of the great House of the Bleeding Heart. But their voyage had not been prosperous, and after riding from Flanders they had found the wedding over, and no one in the hostel having heard of the young Master of Angus, nor even having distinguished Sir Patrick Drummoud, though there was a vague idea that the Scottish king's sisters had been there.
Sir Robert Douglas had gone to have an interview with the governor left in charge. Thus the separation of the party became known to him--how the Drummonds had gone to Paris, and the Scottish ladies had set forth for Chalons; but there was nothing to show with whom the Master had gone. No sooner, then, had he come forth than half his men were round him shouting that here was Ringan of the Raefoot, that the Master had been foully betrayed, and that he was lying sair wounded at a Priory not far off.
Ringan, a perfectly happy man among those who not only had Scots tongues, but the Bleeding Heart on shield and breast, was brought up to him and told of the attack and capture of the princesses, and of the Master's wounds.
Sir Robert, after many imprecations, turned back to the governor, who heard the story in a far more complete form than if it had been related to him by Ringan and the friar.
But his hands were tied till he could communicate with King Rene, for border warfare was strictly forbidden, and unfortunately Duke Sigismund had left Nanci some days before for Luxembourg to meet the Duke of Burgundy.
However, just as George Douglas had persuaded the infirmarer to let him put on his clothes, there had been a clanging and jangling in the outer court, and the Lion and Eagle banner was visible. Duke Sigismund had drawn up there to water the horses, and to partake of any hospitality the Prior might offer him.
The first civilities were passing between them, when a tall figure, his red hair crossed by a bandage, his ruddy face paled, his steps faltering, came stumbling forward to the porch, crying, in his wonderful dialect between Latin and French, 'Sire, Domine Dux! Justitia! You loved the Lady Eleanor. Free her! They are prisoners to latroni--un routier- -sceleratissimo--reiver--Balchenburg!'
Sigismund, ponderous and not very rapid, opened wide his big blue eyes, while the Prior explained in French, 'It is even so, beau sire. This poor man-at-arms was found bleeding on the way-side by our brethren, having been left for dead by the robbers of Balchenburg, who, it seems, descended on the ladies, dispersed their escort, and carried them off to the castle.'
Sigismund made some tremendously emphatic exclamation in German, and turned upon Douglas to interrogate him. They had very little of common language, but Sigismund knew French, though he hated it, and was not devoid of Latin, so that the narrative was made tolerably clear to him, and he had no doubts or scruples as to instantly calling the latrones to account, and releasing the ladies. He paced up and down the guest- chamber, his spurs clattering against the stone pavement, growling imprecations in guttural German, now and then tugging at his long fair hair as he pictured Eleanor in the miscreants' power, putting queries to George, more than could be understood or answered, and halting at door or window to shout orders to his knights to be ready at once for the attack. George was absolutely determined that, whatever his own condition, he would not be left behind, though he could only go upon Ringan's pony, and was evidently in Sigismund's opinion only a faithful groom.
It was hard to say whether he was relieved or not when there was evidently a vehement altercation in German between the Duke and a tough, grizzled old knight, the upshot of which turned out to be that the Ritter Gebhardt von Fuchstein absolutely refused to proceed through those pine and beech forests so late in the day; since it would be only too easy to lose the way, and there might be ambuscades or the like if Balchenburg and his crew were on the watch, and there was no doubt that they were allied with all the rentiers in the country.
Sigismund raged, but he was in some degree under the dominion of his prudent old Marskalk, and had to submit, while George knew that another night would further restore him, and would besides bring back his attendant.
The next hour brought more than he had expected. Again there was a clattering of hoofs, a few words with the porter, and to the utter amazement of the Prior, as well as of Duke Sigismund, who had just been served with a meal of Franciscan diet, a knight in full armour, with the crowned heart on his breast, dashed into the hall, threw a hasty bow to the Prior, and throwing his arms round the wounded man-at-arms, cried aloud, 'Geordie--the Master--ye daft callant! See what you have brought yourself to! What would the Yerl your father say?'
'I trow that I have been striving to do my devoir to my liege's sisters,' answered George. 'How does my father?--and my mother? Make your obeisance to the Duke of the Tirol, Rab. Ye can knap the French with him better than I. Now I can go with him as becomes a yerl's son, for the freedom of the lady!'
Sir Robert, a veteran Scot, who knew the French world well, was soon explaining matters to Duke Sigismund, who presently advanced to the heir of Angus, wrung his hand, and gave him to understand that he accepted him as a comrade in their doughty enterprise, and honoured his proceeding as a piece of knight- errantry. He was free from any question whether George was to be esteemed a rival by hearing it was the Lady Joanna for whose sake he thus adventured himself, whereas it was not her beauty, but her sister's intellect that had won the heart of Sigismund. Perhaps Sir Robert somewhat magnified the grandeur of the house of Douglas, for Sigismund seemed to view the young man as an equal, which he was not, as the Hapsburgs of Alsace and the Tirol were sovereign princes; but, on the other hand, George could count princesses among his ancestresses, and only Jean's personal ambition had counted his as a mesalliance.
It was determined to advance upon the Castle of Balchenburg the next morning, the ten Scottish lances being really forty men, making the Douglas's troop not much inferior to the Alsatian.
A night's rest greatly restored George, and equipments had been brought for him, which made him no longer appear only the man- at-arms, but the gallant young nobleman, though not yet entitled to the Golden Spurs.
Ringan served as their guide up the long hills, through the woods, up steep slippery slopes, where it became expedient to leave behind the big heavy war-horses under a guard, while the rest pushed forward, the Master of Angus's long legs nearly touching the ground, as, not to waste his strength, he was mounted on Ringan's sure-footed pony, which seemed at home among mountains. Sigismund himself, and the Tirolese among his followers, were chamois-hunters and used enough to climbing, and thus at length they found themselves at the foot of the green rounded slopes of the talchen or ballon, crowned by the fortress with its eight corner-turrets and the broader keep.
Were Elleen and Jean looking out--when the Alsatian trumpeter came forward in full array, and blew three sonorous blasts, echoing among the mountains, and doubtless bringing hope to the prisoners? The rugged walls of the castle had, however, an imperturbable look, and there was nothing responsive at the gateway.
A pursuivant then stood forth--for Sigismund had gone in full state to his intended wooing at Nanci--and called upon the Baron of Balchenburg to open his gates to his liege lord the Duke of Alsace.
On this a wicket was opened in the gate; but the answer, in a hoarse shout, was that the Baron of Balchenburg owned allegiance only, under the Emperor Frederick, to King Rene, Duke of Lorraine.
What hot words were thereupon spoken between Sigismund, Gebhardt, and the two Douglases it scarcely needs to tell; but, looking at the strength of the castle, it was agreed that it would be wiser to couple with the second summons an assurance that, though Duke Sigismund was the lawful lord of the mountain, and entrance was denied at the peril of the Baron, yet he would remit his first wrath, provided the royal ladies, foully and unjustly detained there in captivity, were instantly delivered up in all safety.
To this the answer came back, with a sound of derisive mockery- -One was the intended wife of Baron Rudiger; the other should be delivered up to the Duke upon ransom according to her quality.
'The ransom I will pay,' roared Sigismund in German, 'shall be by the axe and cord!'
The while George Douglas gnashed his teeth with rage when the reply as to Jean had been translated to him. The Duke hurled his fierce defiance at the castle. It should be levelled with the ground, and the robbers should suffer by cord, wheel, and axe.
But what was the use of threats against men within six or eight feet every way of stone wall, with a steep slippery slope leading up to it? Heavily armed horsemen were of no avail against it. Even if there were nothing but old women inside, there was no means of making an entrance. Sigismund possessed three rusty cannon, made of bars of iron hooped together; but they were no nearer than Strasburg, and if they had been at hand, there was no getting them within distance of those walls.
There was nothing for it but to blockade the castle while sending after King Rene for assistance and authority. The worst of it was, that starving the garrison would be starving the captives; and likewise, so far up on the mountain, a troop of eighty or ninety men and horses were as liable to lack of provisions as could be the besieged garrison. Villages were distant, and transport not easy to find. Money was never abundant with Duke Sigismund, and had nearly all been spent on the entertainments at Nanci; nor could he make levies as lord of the country-folk, since the more accessible were not Alsatian, but Lorrainers, and to exasperate their masters by raids would bring fresh danger. Indeed, the two nearest castles were on Lorraine territory; their masters had not a much better reputation than the Balchenburgs, and, with the temptation of war-horses and men in their most holiday equipment, were only too likely to interpret Sigismund's attack as an invasion of their dukedom, and to fall in strength upon the party.
All this Gebhardt represented in strong colours, recommending that this untenable position should not be maintained.
Sigismund swore that nothing should induce him to abandon the unhappy ladies.
'Nay, my Lord Duke, it is only to retreat till King Rene sends his forces, and mayhap the French Dauphin.'
'To retreat would be to prolong their misery. Nay, the felons would think them deserted, and work their will. Out upon such craven counsel!'
'The captive ladies may be secured from an injury if your lordship holds a parley, demands the amount of ransom, and, without pledging yourself, undertakes to consult the Dauphin and their other kinsmen on the matter.'
'Detained here in I know not what misery, exposed to insults endless? Never, Gebhardt! I marvel that you can make such proposals to any belted knight!'
Gebhardt grumbled out, 'Rather to a demented lover! The Lord Duke will sing another tune ere long.'
Certainly it looked serious the next day when Sir Robert Douglas had had the greatest difficulty in hindering a hand-to- hand fight between the Scots and Alsatians for a strip of meadow land for pasture for their horses; when a few loaves of black bread were all that could be obtained from one village, and in another there had been a fray with the peasants, resulting in blows by way of payment for a lean cow and calf and four sheep. The Tirolese laid the blame on the Scots, the Scots upon the Tirolese; and though disputes between his Tirolese and Alsatian followers had been the constant trouble of Sigismund at Nanci, they now joined in making common cause against the Scots, so that Gebhardt strongly advised that these should be withdrawn to Nanci for the present, the which advice George Douglas hotly resented. He had as good a claim to watch the castle as the Duke. He was not going to desert his King's sisters, far less the lady he had followed from Scotland. If any one was to be ordered off, it should be the fat lazy Alsatians, who were good for nothing but to ride big Flemish horses, and were useless on a mountain.
Gebhardt and Robert Douglas, both experienced men of the world, found it one of their difficulties to keep the peace between their young lords; and each day was likely to render it more difficult. They began to represent that it could be made a condition that the leaders should be permitted to see the ladies and ascertain whether they were treated with courtesy; and there was a certain inclination on Sigismund's part, when he was driven hard by his embarrassments, to allow this to be proposed.
The very notion of coming to any terms made Geordie furious. If the craven Dutchman chose to sneak off and go in search of a ransom, forsooth, he would lie at the foot of the castle till he had burrowed through the walls or found a way over the battlements.
'Ay,' said Douglas of Harside drily, 'or till the Baron sticks you in the thrapple, or his next neighbour throws you into his dungeon.'
In the meantime the captives themselves were suffering, as may well be believed, agonies of suspense. Their loophole did not look out towards the gateway, but they heard the peals of the trumpet, started up with joy, and thought their deliverance was come. Eleanor threw herself on her knees; Lady Lindsay began to collect their properties; Jean made a rush for the stair leading to the top of the turret, but she found her way barred by one of the few men-at-arms, who held his pike towards her in a menacing manner.
She tried to gaze from the window, but it told her nothing, except that a certain murmur of voices broke upon the silence of the woods. Nothing more befell them. They eagerly interrogated Barbe.
'Ah yes, lady birds!' she said, 'there is a gay company without, all in glittering harness, asking for you, but my Lords know 'tis like a poor frog smelling at a walnut, for any knight of them all to try to make way into this castle!'
'Who are they? For pity's sake, tell us, dear Barbe,' entreated Eleanor.
'They say it is the Duke himself; but he has never durst meddle with my Lords before. All but the Hawk's tower is in Lorraine, and my Lord can bring a storm about his ears if he lifts a finger against us. A messenger would soon bring Banget and Steintour upon him. But never you fear, fair ladies, you have friends, and he will come to terms,' said good old Barbe, divided between pity for her guests and loyalty to her masters.
'If it is the Duke, he will free you, Elleen,' said Jean weeping; 'he will not care for me!'
'Jeanie, Jeanie, could you think I would be set free without you?'
'You might not be able to help yourself. 'Tis you that the German wants.'
'Never shall be have me if he be such a recreant, mansworn fellow as to leave my sister to the reiver. Never!'
'Ah! if poor Geordie were there, he would have moved heaven and earth to save me; but there is none to heed me now,' and Jean fell into a passion of weeping.
When they had to go down to supper, the younger Baron received them with the news--'So, ladies, the Duke has been shouting his threats at us, but this castle is too hard a nut for the like of him.'
'I have seen others crack their teeth against it,' said his father; and they both laughed, a hoarse derisive laugh.
The ladies vouchsafed not a word till they were allowed to retire to their chamber.
They listened in the morning for the sounds of an assault, but none came; there was absolutely nothing but an occasional hum of voices and clank of armour. When summoned to the mid-day meal, it was scanty.
'Ay,' said the elder Baron, we shall have to live hard for a day or two, but those outside will live harder.'
'Till they fall out and cut one another's throats,' said his son. 'Fasting will not mend the temper of Hans of Schlingen and Michel au Bec rouge.'
'Or till Banget descends on him for meddling on Lorraine ground,' added old Balchenburg. 'Eat, lady,' he added to Jean; 'your meals are not so large that they will make much odds to our stores. We have corn and beer enough to starve out those greedy knaves outside!'
Poor Jean was nearly out of her senses with distress and uncertainty, and being still weak, was less able to endure. She burst into violent hysterical weeping, and had to be helped up to her own room, where she sometimes lay on her bed; sometimes raged up and down the room, heaping violent words on the head of the tardy cowardly German; sometimes talking of loosing Skywing to show they were in the castle and cognisant of what was going on; but it was not certain that Skywing, with the lion rampant on his hood, would fly down to the besiegers, so that she would only be lost.
Eleanor, by the very need of soothing her sister, was enabled to be more tranquil. Besides, there was pleasure in the knowledge that Sigismund had come after her, and there was imagination enough in her nature to trust to the true knight daring any amount of dragons in his lady's cause. And the lady always had to be patient.