Two Penniless Princesses by J. M. Synge
Chapter 11. Fetters Broken
Then long and loud the victor shout From turret and from tower rang out; The rugged walls replied. SCOTT, Lord of the Isles.
'Sir,I have something to show you.'
It was the early twilight of a summer's morning when Ringan crept up to the shelter of pine branches under which George Douglas was sleeping, after hotly opposing Gebhardt, who had nearly persuaded his master that retreat was inevitable, unless he meant to be deserted by more than half his men.
George sat up. 'Anent the ladies?' he said.
Ringan bowed his head, with an air of mystery and George doubted no longer, but let him lead the way, keeping among the brushwood to the foot of the quarry whence the castle had been built. It had once been absolutely precipitous, no doubt, but the stone was of a soft quality, on which weather told: ivy and creepers had grown on it, and Ringan pointed to what to dwellers on plains might have seemed impracticable, but to those who had bird's-nested on the crags of Tantallon had quite a different appearance. True, there was castle wall and turret above, but on this, the weather side, there had likewise been a slight crumbling, which had been neglected, perhaps from over security, perhaps on account of the extreme difficulty of repairing, where there was the merest ledge for foothold above the precipitous quarry; indeed, the condition of the place might never even have been perceived by the inhabitants, as there were no traces of the place below having been frequented.
'Tis a mere staircase as far as the foot of the walls compared with the Guillemot's crag,' observed Ringan.
'And a man with a heart and a foot could be up the wall in the corner where the ivy grows,' added George. 'It is well, Ringan, thou hast done good service. Here is the way.'
'With four or five of our own tall carles, we may win the castle, and laugh at the German pock-puddings,' added Ringan. 'Let them gang their gate, and we'll free our leddies.'
George was tempted, but he shook his head. 'That were scarce knightly towards the Duke,' he said. 'He has been gude friend to me, and I may not thus steal a march on him. Moreover, we ken na the strength of the loons within.'
'I misdoot there being mair than ten of them,' said Ringan. 'I have seen the same faces too often for there to be many. And what there be we shall take napping.'
That was true; nevertheless George Douglas felt bound in honour not to undertake the enterprise without the cognisance of his ally, though he much doubted the Germans being alert or courageous enough to take advantage of such a perilous clamber.
Sigismund had a tent under the pine-trees, and a guard before the entrance, who stood, halbert in hand, like a growling statue, when the young Scot would have entered, understanding not one word of his objurgations in mixed Scotch and French, but only barring the way, till Sigismund's own 'Wer da?' sounded from within.
'Moi--George of Angus!' shouted that individual in his awkward French. 'Let me in, Sir Duke; I have tidings!'
Sigismund was on foot in a moment. 'And from King Eene?' he asked.
'Far better, strong heart and steady foot can achieve the adventure and save the ladies unaided! Come with me, beau sire! Silently.'
George had fully expected to see the German quail at the frightful precipice and sheer wall before him, but the Hapsburg was primarily a Tirolean mountaineer, and he measured the rock with a glistening triumphant eye.
'Man can,' he said. 'That will we. Brave sire, your hand on it.'
The days were almost at their longest, and it was about five in the morning, the sun only just making his way over the screen of the higher hills to the north-east, though it had been daylight for some time.
Prudence made the two withdraw under the shelter of the woods, and there they built their plan, both young men being gratified to do so without their two advisers.
Neither of them doubted his own footing, and George was sure that three or four of the men who had come with Sir Robert were equally good cragsmen. Sigismund sighed for some Tirolese whom he had left at home, but he had at least one man with him ready to dare any height; and he thought a rope would make all things sure. Nothing could be attempted till the next night, or rather morning, and Sigismund decided on sending a messenger down to the Franciscans to borrow or purchase a rope, while George and Ringan, more used to shifts, proceeded to twist together all the horses' halters they could collect, so as to form a strong cable.
To avert suspicion, Sigismund appeared to have yielded to the murmurs of his people, and sent more than half his troop down the hill, in the expectation that he was about to follow. The others were withdrawn under one clump of wood, the Scotsmen under another, with orders to advance upon the gateway of the castle so soon as they should hear a summons from the Duke's bugle, or the cry, 'A Douglas!' Neither Sir Gebhardt nor Sir Robert was young enough or light enough to attempt the climb, each would fain have withheld his master, had it been possible, but they would have their value in dealing with the troop waiting below.
So it came to pass that when Eleanor, anxious, sorrowful, heated, and weary, awoke at daydawn and crept from the side of her sleeping sister to inhale a breath of morning breeze and murmur a morning prayer, as she gazed from her loophole over the woods with a vague, never-quenchable hope of seeing something, she became aware of something very stealthy below-- the rustling of a fox, or a hare in the fern mayhap, though she could not see to the bottom of the quarry, but she clung to the bar, craned forward, and beheld far down a shaking of the ivy and white-flowered rowan; then a hand, grasping the root of a little sturdy birch, then a yellow head gradually drawn up, till a thin, bony, alert figure was for a moment astride on the birch. Reaching higher, the sunburnt, freckled face was lifted up, and Eleanor's heart gave a great throb of hope. Was it not the wild boy, Ringan Raefoot? She could not turn away her head, she durst not even utter a word to those within, lest it should be a mere fancy, or a lad from the country bird's- nesting. Higher, higher he went, lost for a moment among the leaves and branches, then attaining a crag, in some giddy manner. But, but--what was that head under a steel cap that had appeared on the tree? What was that face raised for a moment? Was it the face of the dead? Eleanor forced back a cry, and felt afraid of wakening herself from what she began to think only a blissful dream,--all the more when that length of limb had reared itself, and attained to the dizzy crag above. A fairer but more solid face, with a long upper lip, appeared, mounting in its turn. She durst not believe her eyes, and she was not conscious of making any sound, unless it was the vehement beating of her own heart; but perhaps it was the power of her own excitement that communicated itself to her sleeping sister, for Jean's voice was heard, 'What is it, Elleen; what is it?'
She signed back with her hand to enjoin silence, for her sense began to tell her that this must be reality, and that castles had before now been thus surprised by brave Scotsmen. Jean was out of bed and at the loophole in a moment. There was room for only one, and Eleanor yielded the place, the less reluctantly that the fair head had reached the part veiled by the tree, and Jean's eyes would be an evidence that she herself might trust her own sight.
Jean's glance first fell on the backs of the ascending figures, now above the crag. 'Ah! ah!' she cried, under her breath, 'a surprise--a rescue! Oh! the lad--stretching, spreading! The man below is holding his foot. Oh! that tuft of grass won't bear him. His knees are up. Yes--yes! he is even with the top of the wall now. Elleen! Hope! Brave laddie! Why--'tis-- yes--'tis Ringan. Now the other, the muckle carle--Ah!' and then a sudden breathless silence came over her.
Eleanor knew she had recognised that figure!
Madame de Ste. Petronelle was awake now, asking what this meant.
'Deliverance!' whispered Eleanor. 'They are scaling the wall. Oh, Jean, one moment--'
'I canna, I canna,' cried Jean, grasping the iron bar with all her might: 'I see his face; he is there on the ledge, at fit of the wall, in life and strength. Ringan--yes, Ringan is going up the wall like a cat!'
'Where is he? Is he safe--the Duke, I would say?' gasped Eleanor. 'Oh, let me see, Jeanie.'
'The Duke, is it? Ah! Geordie is giving a hand to help him on the ground. Tak' tent, tak' tent, Geordie. Dinna coup ower. Ah! they are baith there, and one--two--three muckle fellows are coming after them.'
'Climbing up there!' exclaimed the Dame, bustling up. 'God speed them. Those are joes worth having, leddies!'
'There! there--Geordie is climbing now. St. Bride speed him, and hide them. Well done, Duke! He hoisted him so far. Now his hand is on that broken stone. Up! up! His foot is in the cleft now! His hand--oh!--clasps the ivy! God help him! Ah, he feels about. Yes, he has it. Now--now the top of the battlement. I see no more. They are letting down a rope. Your Duke disna climb like my Geordie, Elleen!'
'Oh, for mercy's sake, to your prayers, dinna wrangle about your joes, bairns,' cried Madame de Ste. Petronelle. 'The castle's no won yet!'
'But is as good as won,' said Eleanor. 'There are barely twelve fighting men in it, and sorry loons are the maist. How many are up yet, Jeanie?'
'There's a fifth since the Duke yet to come up,' answered Jean, 'eight altogether, counting the gallant Ringan. There!'
''Tis the warder's horn. They have been seen!' and the poor women clasped their hands in fervent prayer, with ears intent; but Jean suddenly darted towards her clothes, and they hastily attired themselves, then cautiously peeped out at their door, since neither sight nor sound came to them from either window. The guard who had hindered their passage was no longer there, and Jean led the way down the spiral stairs. At the slit looking into the court they heard cries and the clash of arms, but it was too high above their heads for anything to be seen, and they hastened on.
There also in the narrow court was a fight going on--but nearly ended. Geordie Douglas knelt over the prostrate form of Rudiger von Balchenburg, calling on him to yield, but meeting no answer. One or two other men lay overthrown, three or four more were pressed up against a wall, howling for mercy. Sigismund was shouting to them in German--Ringan and the other assailants standing guard over them; but evidently hardly withheld from slaughtering them. The maidens stood for a moment, then Jean's scream of welcome died on her lips, for as he looked up from his prostrate foe, and though he had not yet either spoken or risen, Sigismund had stepped to his side, and laid his sword on his shoulder.
'Victor!' said he, 'in the name of God and St. Mary, I make thee Chevalier. Rise, Sire George of Douglas!'
'True knight!' cried Jean, leaping to his side. 'Oh, Geordie, Geordie, thou hast saved us! Thou noblest knight!'
'Ah! Lady, it canna be helpit,' said the new knight. ''Tis no treason to your brother to be dubbed after a fair fight, though 'tis by a Dutch prince.'
'Thy King's sister shall mend that, and bind your spurs,' said Jean. 'Is the reiver dead, Geordie?'
'Even so,' was the reply. 'My sword has spared his craig from the halter.'
Such were the times, and such Jean's breeding, that she looked at the fallen enemy much as a modern lady may look at a slain tiger.
Eleanor had meantime met Sigismund with, 'Ah! well I knew that you would come to our aid. So true a knight must achieve the adventure!'
'Safe, safe, I am blessed and thankful,' said the Duke, falling on one knee to kiss her hand. 'How have these robbers treated my Lady?'
'Well, as well as they know how. That good woman has been very kind to us,' said Eleanor, as she saw Barbe peeping from the stair. 'Come hither, Barbe and Trudchen, to the Lord Duke's mercy.'
They were entering the hall, and, at the same moment, the gates were thrown open, and the men waiting with Gebhardt and Robert Douglas began to pour in. It was well for Barbe and her daughter that they could take shelter behind the ladies, for the men were ravenous for some prize, or something to wreak their excitement upon, besides the bare walls of the castle, and its rude stores of meal and beer. The old Baron was hauled down from his bed by half-a-dozen men, and placed before the Duke with bound hands.
'Hola, Siege!' said he in German, all unabashed. 'You have got me at last--by a trick! I always bade Rudiger look to that quarry; but young men think they know best.'
'The old traitor!' said George in French. 'Hang him from his tower for a warning to his like, as we should do in Scotland.'
'What cause have you to show why we should not do as saith the knight?' said Sigismund.
'I care little how it goes with my old carcase now,' returned Balchenburg, in the spirit of the Amalekite of old. 'I only mourn that I shall not be there to see the strife you will breed with the lute-twanger or his fellows at Nanci.'
Gebhardt here gave his opinion that it would be wise to reserve the old man for King Rene's justice, so as to obviate all peril of dissension. The small garrison, to be left in the castle under the most prudent knight whom Gebhardt could select, were instructed only to profess to hold it till the Lords of Alsace and Lorraine should jointly have determined what was to be done with it.
It was not expedient to tarry there long. A hurried meal was made, and then the victors set out on the descent. George had found his good steed in the stables, together with the ladies' palfreys, and there had been great joy in the mutual recognition; but Jean's horse was found to show traces of its fall, and her arm was not yet entirely recovered, so that she was seated on Ringan's sure-footed pony, with the new-made knight walking by her side to secure its every step, though Ringan grumbled that Sheltie would be far safer if left to his own wits.
Sigismund was proposing to make for Sarrebourg, when the glittering of lances was seen in the distance, and the troop was drawn closely together, for the chance that, as had been already thought probable, some of the Lorrainers had risen as to war and invasion. However, the banner soon became distinguishable, with the many quarterings, showing that King Rene was there in person; and Sigismund rode forward to greet him and explain.
The chivalrous King was delighted with the adventure, only wishing he had shared in the rescue of the captive princesses. 'Young blood,' he said. 'Youth has all the guerdons reserved for it, while age is lagging behind.'
Yet so soon as Sir Patrick Drummond had overtaken him at Epinal, he had turned back to Nanci, and it was in consequence of what he there heard that he had set forth to bring the robbers of Balchenburg to reason. To him there was no difficulty in accepting thankfully what some would have regarded as an aggression on the part of the Duke of Alsace, and though old Balchenburg, when led up before him, seemed bent upon aggravating him. 'Ha! Sir King, so a young German and a wild Scot have done what you, with all your kingdoms, have never had the wit to do.'
'The poor old man is distraught,' said the King, while Sigismund put in--
'Mayhap because you never ventured on such audacious villainy and outrecuidance before.'
'Young blood will have its way,' repeated the old man. 'Nay, I told the lad no good would come of it, but he would have it that he had his backers, and in sooth that escort played into his hands. Ha! ha! much will the fair damsels' royal beau- frere thank you for overthrowing his plan for disposing of them.'
'Hark you, foul-mouthed fellow,' said King Rene; 'did I not pity you for your bereavement and ruin, I should requite that slander of a noble prince by hanging you on the nearest tree.'
'Your Grace is kindly welcome,' was the answer.
Rene and Sigismund, however, took counsel together, and agreed that the old man should, instead of this fate, be relegated to an abbey, where he might at least have the chance of repenting of his crimes, and be kept in safe custody.
'That's your mercy,' muttered the old mountain wolf when he heard their decision.
All this was settled as they rode back along the way where Madame de Ste. Petronelle had first become alarmed. She had now quite resumed her authority and position, and promised protection and employment to Barbe and Trudchen. The former had tears for 'her boy,' thus cut off in his sins; but it was what she always foreboded for him, and if her old master was not thankful for the grace offered him, she was for him.
King Rene, who believed not a word against his nephew, intended himself to conduct the ladies to the Court of his sister, and see them in safety there. Jean, however, after the first excitement, so drooped as she rode, and was so entirely unable to make answer to all the kindness around her, that it was plain that she must rest as soon as possible, and thus hospitality was asked at a little country castle, around which the suite encamped. A pursuivant was, however, despatched by Rene to the French Court to announce the deliverance of the princesses, and Sir Patrick sent his son David with the party, that his wife and the poor Dauphiness might be fully reassured.
There was a strange stillness over Chateau le Surry when David rode in triumphantly at the gate. A Scottish archer, who stood on guard, looked up at him anxiously with the words, 'Is it weel with the lassies?' and on his reply, 'They are sain and safe, thanks, under Heaven, to Geordie Douglas of Angus!' the man exclaimed, 'On, on, sir squire, the saints grant ye may not be too late for the puir Dolfine! Ah! but she has been sair misguided.'
'Is my mother here?' asked David.
'Ay, sir, and with the puir lady. Ye may gang in without question. A' the doors be open, that ilka loon may win in to see a princess die.'
The pursuivant, hearing that the King and Dauphin were no longer in the castle, rode on to Chalons, but David dismounted, and followed a stream of persons, chiefly monks, friars, and women of the burgher class, up the steps, and on into the vaulted room, the lower part shut off by a rail, against which crowded the curious and only half-awed multitude, who whispered to each other, while above, at a temporary altar, bright with rows of candles, priests intoned prayers. The atmosphere was insufferably hot, and David could hardly push forward; but as he exclaimed in his imperfect French that he came with tidings of Madame's sisters, way was made, and he heard his mother's voice. 'Is it? Is it my son? Bring him. Oh, quickly!'
He heard a little, faint, gasping cry, and as a lane was opened for him, struggled onwards. In poor Margaret's case the etiquette that banished the nearest kin from Royalty in articulo mortis was not much to be regretted. David saw her-- white, save for the death-flush called up by the labouring breath, as she lay upheld in his mother's arms, a priest holding a crucifix before her, a few ladies kneeling by the bed.
'Good tidings, I see, my son,' said Lady Drummond.
'Are--they--here?' gasped Margaret.
'Alack, not yet, Madame; they will come in a few days' time.' She gave a piteous sigh, and David could not hear her words.
'Tell her how and where you found them,' said his mother.
David told his story briefly. There was little but a quivering of the heavy eyelids and a clasping of the hands to show whether the dying woman marked him, but when he had finished, she said, so low that only his mother heard, 'Safe! Thank God! Nunc dimittis. Who was it--young Angus?'
'Even so,' said David, when the question had been repeated to him by his mother.
'So best!' sighed Margaret. 'Bid the good father give thanks.'
Dame Lilias dismissed her son with a sign. Margaret lay far more serene. For a few minutes there was a sort of hope that the good news might inspire fresh life, and yet, after the revelation of what her condition was in this strange, frivolous, hard-hearted Court, how could life be desired for her weary spirit? She did not seem to wish--far less to struggle to wish--to live to see them again; perhaps there was an instinctive feeling that, in her weariness, there was no power of rousing herself, and she would rather sink undisturbed than hear of the terror and suffering that she knew but too well her husband had caused.
Only, when it was very near the last, she said, 'Safe! safe in leal hands. Oh, tell my Jeanie to be content with them--never seek earthly crowns--ashes--ashes--Elleen--Jeanie--all of them- -my love-oh! safe, safe. Now, indeed, I can pardon--'
'Pardon!' said the French priest, catching the word. 'Whom, Madame, the Sieur de Tillay?'
Even on the gasping lips there was a semi-smile. 'Tillay--I had forgotten! Tillay, yes, and another.'
If no one else understood, Lady Drummond did, that the forgiveness was for him who had caused the waste and blight of a life that might have been so noble and so sweet, and who had treacherously prepared a terrible fate for her young innocent sisters.
It was all ended now; there was no more but to hear the priest commend the parting Christian soul, while, with a few more faint breaths, the soul of Margaret of Scotland passed beyond the world of sneers, treachery, and calumny, to the land 'where the wicked cease from troubling, and where the weary are at rest.'