Two Penniless Princesses by J. M. Synge
Chapter 9. Balchenburg
'In these wylde deserts where she now abode There dwelt a salvage nation, which did live On stealth and spoil, and making nightly rade Into their neighbours' borders.'--SPENSER.
A terrible legacy of the Hundred Years' War, which, indeed, was not yet entirely ended by the Peace of Tours, was the existence of bands of men trained to nothing but war and rapine, and devoid of any other means of subsistence than freebooting on the peasantry or travellers, whence they were known as routiers--highwaymen, and ecorcheurs--flayers. They were a fearful scourge to France in the early part of the reign of Charles VII., as, indeed, they had been at every interval of peace ever since the battle of Creci, and they really made a state of warfare preferable to the unhappy provinces, or at least to those where it was not actually raging. In a few years more the Dauphin contrived to delude many of them into an expedition, where he abandoned them and left them to be massacred, after which he formed the rest into the nucleus of a standing army; but at this time they were the terror of travellers, who only durst go about any of the French provinces in well-armed and large parties.
The domains of King Rene, whether in Lorraine or Provence, were, however, reckoned as fairly secure, but from the time the little troop, with the princesses among them, had started from Nanci, Madame de Ste. Petronelle became uneasy. She looked up at the sun, which was shining in her face, more than once, and presently drew the portly mule she was riding towards George Douglas.
'Sir,' she said, 'you are the ladies' squire?'
'I have that honour, Madame.'
'And a Scot?'
'I ask you, which way you deem that we are riding?'
'Eastward, Madame, if the sun is to be trusted. Mayhap somewhat to the south.'
'Yea; and which side lies Chalons?'
This was beyond George's geography. He looked up with open mouth and shook his head.
'Westward!' said the lady impressively. 'And what's yon in the distance?'
'Save that this land is as flat as a bannock, I'd have said 'twas mountains.'
'Mountains they are, young man!' said Madame de Ste. Petronelle emphatically--'the hills between Lorraine and Alsace, which we should be leaving behind us.'
'Is there treachery?' asked George, reining up his horse. 'Ken ye who is the captain of this escort?'
'His name is Hall; he is thick with the Dauphin. Ha! Madame, is he sib to him that aided in the slaughter of Eastern's Eve night?'
'Just, laddie. 'Tis own son to him that Queen Jean made dae sic a fearful penance. What are ye doing?'
'I'll run the villain through, and turn back to Nanci while yet there is time,' said George, his hand on his sword.
'Hold, ye daft bodie! That would but bring all the lave on ye. There's nothing for it but to go on warily, and maybe at the next halt we might escape from them.'
But almost while Madame de Ste. Petronelle spoke there was a cry, and from a thicket there burst out a band of men in steel headpieces and buff jerkins, led by two or three horsemen. There was a confused outcry of 'St. Denys! St. Andrew!' on one side, 'Yield!' on the other. Madame's rein was seized, and though she drew her dagger, her hand was caught before she could strike, by a fellow who cried, 'None of that, you old hag, or it shall be the worse for thee!'
'St. Andrew! St. Andrew!' screamed Eleanor. 'Scots, to the rescue of your King's sisters!'
'Douglas--Douglas, help!' cried Jean. But each was surrounded by a swarm of the ruffians; and as George Douglas hastily pushed down some with his horse, and struck down one or two with his sword, he was felled by a mighty blow on the head, and the ecorcheurs thronged over him, dragging him off his horse, any resistance on the part of the Scottish archers, their escort, they could not tell; they only heard a tumult of shouts and cries, and found rude hands holding them on their horses and dragging them among the trees. Their screams for help were answered by a gruff voice from a horseman, evidently the leader of the troop. 'Hold that noise, Lady! No ill is meant to you, but you must come with us. No; screams are useless! There's none to come to you. Stop them, or I must!'
'There is none!' said Madame de Ste. Petronelle's voice in her own tongue; 'best cease to cry, and not fash the loons more.'
The sisters heard, and in her natural tone Eleanor said in French, 'Sir, know you who you are thus treating? The King's daughter--sisters of the Dauphiness!'
He laughed. 'Full well,' he answered, in very German-sounding French.
'Such usage will bring the vengeance of the King and Dauphin on you.'
He laughed yet more loudly. His face was concealed by his visor, but the ill-fitting armour and great roan horse made Jean recognise the knight whose eyes had dwelt on her so boldly at the tournament, and she added her voice.
'Your Duke of the Tirol will punish this.'
'He has enough to do to mind his own business,' was the answer.
'Come, fair one, hold your tongue! There's no help for it, and the less trouble you give us the better it will be for you.'
'But our squire!' Jean exclaimed, looking about her. 'Where is he?'
Again there was a rude laugh.
'Showed fight. Disposed of. See there!' and Jean could not but recognise the great gray horse from the Mearns that George Douglas had always ridden. Had she brought the gallant youth to this, and without word or look to reward his devotion? She gave one low cry, and bowed her head, grieved and sick at heart. While Eleanor, on her side, exclaimed,
'Felon, thou hast slain a nobleman's brave heir! Disgrace to knighthood!'
'Peace, maid, or we will find means to silence thy tongue,' growled the leader; and Madame de Ste. Petronelle interposed, 'Whisht--whisht, my bairn; dinna anger them.' For she saw that there was more disposition to harshness towards Eleanor than towards Jean, whose beauty seemed to command a sort of regard.
Eleanor took the hint. Her eyes filled with tears, and her bosom heaved at the thought of the requital of the devotion of the brave young man, lying in his blood, so far from his father and his home; but she would not have these ruffians see her weep and think it was for herself, and she proudly straightened herself in her saddle and choked down the rising sob.
On, on they went, at first through the wood by a tangled path, then over a wide moor covered with heather, those mountains, which had at first excited the old lady's alarm, growing more distinct in front of them; going faster, too, so that the men who held the reins were half running, till the ground began to rise and grow rougher, when, at an order in German from the knight, a man leapt on in front of each lady to guide her horse.
Where were they going? No one deigned to ask except Madame de Ste. Petronelle, and her guard only grunted, 'Nicht verstand,' or something equivalent.
A thick mass of wood rose before them, a stream coming down from it, and here there was a halt, the ladies were lifted down, and the party, who numbered about twelve men, refreshed themselves with the provisions that the Infanta Yolande had hospitably furnished for her guests. The knight awkwardly, but not uncivilly, offered a share to his captives, but Eleanor would have moved them off with disdain, and Jean sat with her head in her hands, and would not look up.
The old lady remonstrated. 'Eat--eat,' she said. 'We shall need all our spirit and strength, and there's no good in being weak and spent with fasting.'
Eleanor saw the prudence of this, and accepted the food and wine offered to her; but Jean seemed unable to swallow anything but a long draught of wine and water, and scarcely lifted her head from her sister's shoulder. Eleanor held her rosary, and though the words she conned over were Latin, all her heart was one silent prayer for protection and deliverance, and commendation of that brave youth's soul to bis Maker.
The knight kept out of their way, evidently not wishing to be interrogated, and he seemed to be the only person who could speak French after a fashion. By and by they were remounted and led across some marshy ground, where the course of the stream was marked by tall ferns and weeds, then into a wood of beeches, where the sun lighted the delicate young foliage, while the horses trod easily among the brown fallen leaves. This gave place to another wood of firs, and though the days were fairly long, here it was rapidly growing dark under the heavy branches, so that the winding path could only have been followed by those well used to it. As it became steeper and more stony the trees became thinner, and against the eastern sky could be seen, dark and threatening, the turrets of a castle above a steep, smooth-looking, grassy slope, one of the hills, in fact, called from their shape by the French, ballons.
Just then Jean's horse, weary and unused to mountaineering, stumbled. The man at its head was perhaps not attending to it, for the sudden pull he gave the rein only precipitated the fall. The horse was up again in a moment, but Jean lay still. Her sister and the lady were at her side in a moment; but when they tried to raise her she cried out, at first inarticulately, then, 'Oh, my arm!' and on another attempt to lift her she fainted away. The knight was in the meantime swearing in German at the man who had been leading her, then asking anxiously in French how it was with the maiden, as she lay with her head on her sister's lap, Madame answered,
'But not to the death?'
'Who knows? No thanks to you.' He tendered a flask where only a few drops of wine remained, growling something or other about the Schelm; and when Jean's lips had been moistened with it she opened her eyes, but sobbed with pain, and only entreated to be let alone. This, of course, was impossible; but with double consternation Eleanor looked up at what, in the gathering darkness, seemed a perpendicular height. The knight made them understand that all that could be done was to put the sufferer on horseback and support her there in the climb upwards, and he proceeded without further parley to lift her up, not entirely without heed to her screams and moans, for he emitted such sounds as those with which he might have soothed his favourite horse, as he placed her on the back of a stout, little, strong, mountain pony. Eleanor held her there, and he walked at its head. Madame de Ste. Petronelle would fain have kept up on the other side, but she had lost her mountain legs, and could not have got up at all without the mule on which she was replaced. Eleanor's height enabled her to hold her arm round her sister, and rest her head on her shoulder, though how she kept on in the dark, dragged along as it were blindly up and up, she never could afterwards recollect; but at last pine torches came down to meet them, there was a tumult of voices, a yawning black archway in front, a light or two flitting about. Jean lay helplessly against her, only groaning now and then; then, as the arch seemed to swallow them up, Eleanor was aware of an old man, lame and rugged, who bawled loud and seemed to be the highly displeased master; of calls for 'Barbe,' and then of an elderly, homely-looking woman, who would have assisted in taking Jean off the pony but that the knight was already in the act. However, he resigned her to her sister and Madame de Ste. Petronelle, while Barbe led the way, lamp in hand. It was just as well poor Jeanie remained unconscious or nearly so while she was conveyed up the narrow stairs to a round chamber, not worse in furnishing than that at Dunbar, though very unlike their tapestried rooms at Nanci.
It was well to be able to lay her down at all, and old Barbe was not only ready and pitying, but spoke French. She had some wine ready, and had evidently done her best in the brief warning to prepare a bed. The tone of her words convinced Madame de Ste. Petronelle that at any rate she was no enemy. So she was permitted to assist in the investigation of the injuries, which proved to be extensive bruises and a dislocated shoulder. Both had sufficient experience in rough-and-ready surgery, as well as sufficient strength, for them to be able to pull in the shoulder, while Eleanor, white and trembling, stood on one side with the lamp, and a little flaxen-haired girl of twelve years old held bandages and ran after whatever Barbe asked for.
This done, and Jean having been arranged as comfortably as might be, Barbe obeyed some peremptory summonses from without, and presently came back.
'The seigneur desires to speak with the ladies,' she said; 'but I have told him that they cannot leave la pauvrette, and are too much spent to speak with him to-night. I will bring them supper and they shall rest.'
'We thank you,' said Madame de Ste. Petronelle, 'Only, de grace, tell us where we are, and who this seigneur is, and what he wants with us poor women.'
'This is the Castle of Balchenburg,' was the reply; 'the seigneur is the Baron thereof. For the next'--she shrugged her shoulders--'it must be one of Baron Rudiger's ventures. But I must go and fetch the ladies some supper. Ah! the demoiselle surely needs it.'
'And some water!' entreated Eleanor.
'Ah yes,' she replied; 'Trudchen shall bring some.'
The little girl presently reappeared with a pitcher as heavy as she could carry. She could not understand French, but looked much interested, and very eager and curious as she brought in several of the bundles and mails of the travellers.
'Thank the saints,' cried the lady, 'they do not mean to strip us of our clothes!'
'They have stolen us, and that is enough for them,' said Eleanor.
Jean lay apparently too much exhausted to take notice of what was going on, and they hoped she might sleep, while they moved about quietly. The room seemed to be a cell in the hollow of the turret, and there were two loophole windows, to which Eleanor climbed up, but she could see nothing but the stars. 'Ah! yonder is the Plough, just as when we looked out at it at Dunbar o'er the sea!' she sighed. 'The only friendly thing I can see! Ah! but the same God and the saints are with us still!' and she clasped her rosary's cross as she returned to her sister, who was sighing out an entreaty for water.
By and by the woman returned, and with her the child. She made a low reverence as she entered, having evidently been informed of the rank of her captives. A white napkin was spread over the great chest that served for a table--a piece of civilisation such as the Dunbar captivity had not known--three beechen bowls and spoons, and a porringer containing a not unsavoury stew of a fowl in broth thickened with meal. They tried to make their patient swallow a little broth, but without much success, though Eleanor in the mountain air had become famished enough to make a hearty meal, and feel more cheered and hopeful after it. Barbe's evident sympathy and respect were an element of comfort, and when Jean revived enough to make some inquiry after poor Skywing, and it was translated into French, there was an assurance that the hawk was cared for--hopes even given of its presence. Barbe was not only compassionate, but ready to answer all the questions in her power. She was Burgundian, but her home having been harried in the wars, her husband had taken service as a man-at-arms with the Baron of Balchenburg, she herself becoming the bower-woman of the Baroness, now dead. Since the death of the good lady, whose influence had been some restraint, everything had become much rougher and wilder, and the lords of the castle, standing on the frontier as it did, had become closely connected with the feuds of Germany as well as the wars in France. The old Baron had been lamed in a raid into Burgundy, since which time he had never left home; and Barbe's husband had been killed, her sons either slain or seeking their fortune elsewhere, so that nothing was left to her but her little daughter Gertrude, for whose sake she earnestly longed to find her way down to more civilised and godly life; but she was withheld by the difficulties in the path, and the extreme improbability of finding a maintenance anywhere else, as well as by a certain affection for her two Barons, and doubts what they would do without her, since the elder was in broken health and the younger had been her nursling. In fact, she was the highest female authority in the castle, and kept up whatever semblance of decency or propriety remained since her mistress's death. All this came out in the way of grumbling or lamentation, in the satisfaction of having some woman to confide in, though her young master had made her aware of the rank of his captives. Every one, it seemed, had been taken by surprise. He was in the habit of making expeditions on his own account, and bringing home sometimes lawless comrades or followers, sometimes booty; but this time, after taking great pains to furbish up a suit of armour brought home long ago, he had set forth to the festivities at Nanci. The lands and castle were so situated, that the old Baron had done homage for the greater part to Sigismund as Duke of Elsass, and for another portion to King Rene as Duke of Lorraine, as whose vassal the young Baron had appeared. No more had been heard of him till one of his men hurried up with tidings that Herr Rudiger had taken a bevy of captives, with plenty of spoil, but that one was a lady much hurt, for whom Barbe must prepare her best.
Since this, Barbe had learnt from her young master that the injured lady was the sister of the Dauphiness, and a king's daughter, and that every care must be taken of her and her sister, for he was madly in love with her, and meant her to be his wife.
Eleanor and Madame de Ste. Petronelle cried out at this with horror, in a stifled way, as Barbe whispered it.
'Too high, too dangerous game for him, I know,' said the old woman. 'So said his father, who was not a little dismayed when he heard who these ladies were.'
'The King, my brother, the Dauphin, the Duke of Brittany--' began Eleanor.
'Alas! the poor boy would never have ventured it but for encouragement,' sighed Barbe. 'Treacherous I say it must be!'
'I knew there was treachery, 'exclaimed Madame de Ste. Petronelle, 'so soon as I found which way our faces were turned.'
'But who could or would betray us?' demanded Eleanor.
'You need not ask that, when your escort was led by Andrew Hall,' returned the elder lady. 'Poor young George of the Red Peel had only just told me so, when the caitiffs fell on him, and he came to his bloody death.'
'Hall! Then I marvel not,' said Eleanor, in a low, awe-struck voice. 'My brother the Dauphin could not have known.'
The old Scotswoman refrained from uttering her belief that he knew only too well, but by the time all this had been said Barbe was obliged to leave them, having arranged for the night that Eleanor should sleep in the big bed beside her sister, and their lady across it at their feet--a not uncommon arrangement in those days.
Sleep, however, in spite of weariness, was only to be had in snatches, for poor Jean was in much pain, and very feverish, besides being greatly terrified at their situation, and full of grief and self-reproach for the poor young Master of Angus, never dozing off for a moment without fancying she saw him dying and upbraiding her, and for the most part tossing in a restless misery that required the attendance of one or both. She had never known ailment before, and was thus all the more wretched and impatient, alarming and distressing Eleanor extremely, though Madame de Ste. Petronelle declared it was only a matter of course, and that the lassie would soon be well.
'Ah, Madame, our comforter and helper,' said Elleen.
'Call me no French names, dearies. Call me the Leddy Lindsay or Dame Elspeth, as I should be at home. We be all Scots here, in one sore stour. If I could win a word to my son, Ritchie, he would soon have us out of this place.'
'Would not Barbe help us to a messenger?'
'I doubt it. She would scarce bring trouble on her lords; but we might be worse off than with her.'
'Why does she not come? I want some more drink,' moaned Jean. Barbe did come, and, moreover, brought not only water but some tisane of herbs that was good for fever and had been brewing all night, and she was wonderfully good-humoured at the patient's fretful refusal, though between coaxing and authority 'Leddy Lindsay' managed to get it taken at last. After Margaret's experience of her as a stern duenna, her tenderness in illness and trouble was a real surprise.
No keys were turned on them, but there was little disposition to go beyond the door which opened on the stone stair in the gray wall. The view from the windows revealed that they were very high up. There was a bit of castle wall to be seen below, and beyond a sea of forest, the dark masses of pine throwing out the lighter, more delicate sweeps of beech, and pale purple distance beyond--not another building within view, giving a sense of vast solitude to Eleanor's eyes, more dreary than the sea at Dunbar, and far more changeless. An occasional bird was all the variety to be hoped for.
By and by Barbe brought a message that her masters requested the ladies' presence at the meal, a dinner, in fact, served about an hour before noon. Eleanor greatly demurred, but Barbe strongly advised consent, 'Or my young lord will be coming up here,' she said; 'they both wish to have speech of you, and would have been here before now, if my old lord were not so lame, and the young one so shy, the poor child!'
'Shy,' exclaimed Eleanor, 'after what he has dared to do to us!'
'All the more for that very reason,' said Barbe.
'True,' returned Madame; 'the savage who is most ferocious in his acts is most bashful in his breeding.'
'How should my poor boy have had any breeding up here in the forests?' demanded Barbe. 'Oh, if he had only fixed his mind on a maiden of his own degree, she might have brought the good days back; but alas, now he will be only bringing about his own destruction, which the saints avert.'
It was agreed that Eleanor had better make as royal and imposing an appearance as possible, so instead of the plain camlet riding kirtles that she and Lady Lindsay had worn, she donned a heraldic sort of garment, a tissue of white and gold thread, with the red lion ramping on back and breast, and the double tressure edging all the hems, part of the outfit furnished at her great-uncle's expense in London, but too gaudy for her taste, and she added to her already considerable height by the tall, veiled headgear that had been despised as unfashionable.
Jean from her bed cried out that she looked like Pharaoh's daughter in the tapestry, and consented to be left to the care of little Trudchen, since Madame de Ste. Petronelle must act attendant, and Barbe evidently thought her young master's good behaviour might be the better secured by her presence.
So, at the bottom of the narrow stone stair, Eleanor shook out her plumes, the attendant lady arranged her veil over her yellow hair, and drew out her short train and long hanging sleeves, a little behind the fashion, but the more dignified, as she swept into the ball, and though her heart beat desperately, holding her head stiff and high, and looking every inch a princess, the shrewd Scotch lady behind her flattered herself that the two Barons did look a little daunted by the bearing of the creature they had caught.
The father, who had somewhat the look of an old fox, limped forward with a less ungraceful bow than the son, who had more of the wolf. Some greeting was mumbled, and the old man would have taken her hand to lead her to the highest place at table, but she would not give it.
'I am no willing guest of yours, sir,' she said, perhaps alarmed at her own boldness, but drawing herself up with great dignity. 'I desire to know by what right my sister and I, king's daughters, on our way to King Charles's Court, have thus been seized and detained?'
'We do not stickle as to rights here on the borders, Lady,' said the elder Baron in bad French; 'it would be wiser to abate a little of that outre-cuidance of yours, and listen to our terms.'
'A captive has no choice save to listen,' returned Eleanor; 'but as to speaking of terms, my brothers-in-law, the Dauphin and the Duke of Brittany, may have something to say to them.'
'Exactly so,' replied the old Baron, in a tone of some irony, which she did not like. 'Now, Lady, our terms are these, but understand first that all this affair is none of my seeking, but my son here has been backed up in it by some whom'--on a grunt from Sir Rudiger--'there is no need to name. He--the more fool he--has taken a fancy to your sister, though, if all reports be true, she has nought but her royal blood, not so much as a denier for a dowry nor as ransom for either of you. However, this I will overlook, dead loss as it is to me and mine, and so your sister, so soon as she recovers from her hurt, will become my son's wife, and I will have you and your lady safely conducted without ransom to the borders of Normandy or Brittany, as you may list.'
'And think you, sir,' returned Eleanor, quivering with indignation, 'that the daughter of a hundred kings is like to lower herself by listening to the suit of a petty robber baron of the Marches?'
'I do not think! but I know that though I am a fool for giving in to my son's madness, these are the only terms I propose; and if you, Lady, so deal with her as to make her accept them, you are free without ransom to go where you will.'
'You expect me to sell my sister,' said Eleanor disdainfully.
'Look you here,' broke in Rudiger, bursting out of his shyness. 'She is the fairest maiden, gentle or simple, I ever saw; I love her with all my heart. If she be mine, I swear to make her a thousand times more cared for than your sister the Dauphiness; and if all be true your Scottish archers tell me, you Scottish folk have no great cause to disdain an Elsass forest castle.'
An awkward recollection, of the Black Knight of Lorn came across Eleanor, but she did not lose her stately dignity.
'It is not the wealth or poverty that we heed,' she said, 'but the nobility and princeliness.'
'There is nothing to be done then, son,' said the old Baron, 'but to wait a day or two and see whether the maiden herself will be less proud and more reasonable. Otherwise, these ladies understand that there will be close imprisonment and diet according to the custom of the border till a thousand gold crowns be paid down for each of these sisters of a Scotch king, and five hundred for Madame here; and when that is like to be found, the damoiselle herself may know,' and he laughed.
'We have those who will take care of our ransom,' said Eleanor, though her heart misgave her. 'Moreover, Duke Sigismund will visit such an offence dearly!' and there was a glow on her cheeks.
'He knows better than to meddle with a vassal of Lorraine,' said the old man.
'King Rene--' began Eleanor.
'He is too wary to meddle with a vassal of Elsass,' sneered the Baron. 'No, no, Lady, ransom or wedding, there lies your choice.'
With this there appeared to be a kind of truce, perhaps in consequence of the appearance of a great pie; and Eleanor did not refuse to sit down to the table and partake of the food, though she did not choose to converse; whereas Madame de Ste. Petronelle thought it wiser to be as agreeable as she could, and this, in the opinion of the Court of the Dauphiness, was not going very far.
Long before the Barons and their retainers had finished, little Trudchen came hurrying down to say that the lady was crying and calling for her sister, and Eleanor was by no means sorry to hasten to her side, though only to receive a petulant scolding for the desertion that had lasted so very long, according to the sick girl's sensations.
Matters remained in abeyance while the illness continued; Jean had a night of fever, and when that passed, under the experienced management of Dame Elspie, as the sisters called her more and more, she was very weak and sadly depressed. Sometimes she wept and declared she should die in these dismal walls, like her mother at Dunbar, and never see Jamie and Mary again; sometimes she blamed Elleen for having put this mad scheme into her head; sometimes she fretted for her cousins Lilias and Annis of Glenuskie, and was sure it was all Elleen's fault for having let themselves be separated from Sir Patrick; while at others she declared the Drummonds faithless and disloyal for having gone after their own affairs and left the only true and leal heart to die for her; and then came fresh floods of tears, though sometimes, as she passionately caressed Skywing, she declared the hawk to be the only faithful creature in existence.
Baron Rudiger was evidently very uneasy about her; Barbe reported how gloomy and miserable he was, and how he relieved his feelings by beating the unfortunate man who had been leading the horse, and in a wiser manner by seeking fish in the torrent and birds on the hills for her refreshment, and even helping Trudchen to gather the mountain strawberries for her. This was, however, so far from a recommendation to Jean, that after the first Barbe gave it to be understood that all were Trudchen's providing.
They suspected that Barbe nattered and soothed 'her boy,' as she termed him, with hopes, but they owed much to the species of authority with which she kept him from forcing himself upon them. Eleanor sometimes tried to soothe her sister, and while away the time with her harp. The Scotch songs were a great delight to Dame Elspie, but they made Jean weep in her weakness, and Elleen's great resource was King Rene's parting gift of the tales of Huon de Bourdeaux, with its wonderful chivalrous adventures, and the appearances of the dwarf Oberon; and she greatly enjoyed the idea of the pleasure it would give Jamie--if ever she should see Jamie again; and she wondered, too, whether the Duke of the Tirol knew the story--which even at some moments amused Jean.
There was a stair above their chamber, likewise in the thickness of the wall, which Barbe told them they might safely explore, and thence Eleanor discovered that the castle was one of the small but regularly-built fortresses not uncommon on the summit of hills. It was an octagon--as complete as the ground would permit--with a huge wall and a tower at each angle. One face, that on the most accessible side, was occupied by the keep in which they were, with a watch-tower raising its finger and banner above them, the little, squat, round towers around not lifting their heads much above the battlements of the wall. The descent on most of the sides was almost precipitous, on two entirely so, while in the rear another steep hill rose so abruptly that it seemed to frown over them though separated by a ravine.
Nothing was to be seen all round but the tops of trees--dark pines, beeches, and chestnuts in the gay, light green of spring, a hopeless and oppressive waste of verdure, where occasionally a hawk might be seen to soar, and whence the howlings of wolves might be heard at night.
Jean was, in a week, so well that there was no cause for deferring the interview any longer, and, indeed, she was persuaded that Elleen had not been half resolute or severe enough, and that she could soon show the two Barons that they detained her at their peril. Still she looked white and thin, and needed a scarf for her arm, when she caused herself to be arrayed as splendidly as her sister had been, and descended to the hall, where, like Eleanor, she took the initiative by an appeal against the wrong and injustice that held two free-born royal ladies captive.
'He who has the power may do as he wills, my pretty damsel,' replied the old Baron. 'Once for all, as I told your sister, these threats are of no avail, though they sound well to puff up your little airs. Your own kingdom is a long way off, and breeds more men than money; and as to our neighbours, they dare not embroil themselves by meddling with us borderers. You had better take what we offer, far better than aught your barbarous northern lords could give, and then your sister will be free, without ransom, to depart or to stay here till she finds another bold baron of the Marches to take her to wife. Ha, thou Rudiger! why dost stand staring like a wild pig in a pit? Canst not speak a word for thyself?'
'She shall be my queen,' said Rudiger hoarsely, bumping himself down on his knees, and trying to master her hand, but she drew it away from him.
'As if I would be queen of a mere nest of robbers and freebooters,' she said. 'You forget, Messires, that my sister is daughter-in-law to the King of France. We must long ago have been missed, and I expect every hour that my brother, the Dauphin, will be here with his troops.'
'That's what you expect. So you do not know, my proud demoiselle, that my son would scarce have been rash enough to meddle with such lofty gear, for all his folly, if he had not had a hint that maidens with royal blood but no royal portions were not wanted at Court, and might be had for the picking up!'
'It is a brutal falsehood, or else a mere invention of the traitor Hall's, our father's murderer!' said Jean, with flashing eyes. 'I would have you to know, both of you, my Lords, that were we betrayed and forsaken by every kinsman we have, I will not degrade the blood royal of Scotland by mating it with a rude and petty freebooter. You may keep us captives as you will, but you will not break our spirit.'
So saying, Jean swept back to the stairs, turning a deaf ear to the Baron's chuckle of applause and murmur, 'A gallant spirited dame she will make thee, my junker, and hold out the castle well against all foes, when once she is broken in.'
Jean and Eleanor alike disbelieved that Louis could have encouraged this audacious attempt, but they were dismayed to find that Madame de Ste. Petronelle thought it far from improbable, for she believed him capable of almost any underhand treachery. She did, however, believe that though there might be some delay, a stir would be made, if only by her own son, which would end in their situation being publicly known, and final release coming, if Jean could only be patient and resolute.
But to the poor girl it seemed as if the ground were cut from under her feet; and as her spirits drooped more and more, there were times when she said, 'Elleen, I must consent. I have been the death of the one true heart that was mine! Why should I hold out any longer, and make thee and Dame Elspie wear out your days in this dismal forest hold? Never shall I be happy again, so it matters not what becomes of me.'
'It matters to me,' said Elleen. 'Sister, thinkest thou I could go away to be happy, leaving thee bound to this rude savage in his donjon? Fie, Jean, this is not worthy of King James's daughter; he spent all those years of patience in captivity, and shall we lose heart in a few days?'
'Is it a few days? It is like years!'
'That is because thou hast been sick. See now, let us dance and sing, so that the jailers may know we are not daunted. We have been shut up ere now, God brought us out, and He will again, and we need not pine.'
'Ah, then we were children, and had seen nothing better; and-- and there was not his blood on me!'
And Jean fell a-weeping.