The Lion of the North by G. A. Henty
Chapter XIV. In the Churchtower
Malcolm was the first to awake, and was vexed to find by a stream of light pouring down through the half open trapdoor above that it was broad day. He roused the men, and the stoppings were at once removed from the loopholes. The sun was already high, for the party, overpowered with fatigue, had slept long and soundly.
Malcolm looked cautiously from the window; no one was in sight, and the ruins of the village below lay black and deserted. The men resumed the clothes which had been used for blocking the loopholes, and sat down to pass the long hours which would elapse before the time for action arrived. It was exceedingly cold, for there were loopholes on each side of the chamber, and the wind blew keenly through.
"Sergeant," Malcolm said, "we will risk a bit of fire again, for the cold pierces to the bone; only be sure that you use perfectly dry wood. Examine each piece to see that no drip from the roof has penetrated it. If it is dry it will give but little smoke, and a slight vapour is not likely to be observed rising from the top of the tower."
The fire was again lighted, and the smoke was so slight that Malcolm had little fear of its being observed.
An hour later, as the men were talking, Malcolm suddenly held up his hand for silence, and the murmur of voices was heard without. Malcolm rose to his feet to reconnoitre, standing far back from the loophole as he did so. A group of some eight or ten peasants were standing looking at the tower, while a woman was pointing to it and talking eagerly.
It was towards the windows that she was pointing, and Malcolm guessed at once that, having returned in the early morning to see what remained of her home, she had happened to notice the garments stuffed in the windows, and had carried the news to some of her companions. Malcolm regretted bitterly now that he had not set a watch, so that at the first gleam of daylight the windows might have been unblocked; but it was now too late.
"We shall have to fight for it, lads," he said, turning round. "Our clothes must have been seen early this morning, and there is a party of peasants watching the tower. Of course they cannot know at present whether we are friends or foes; but no doubt the news of last evening's doings has travelled through the country, and the peasants are on the lookout for us, so they may well guess that we are here. However, we shall soon see. Sergeant, place one of your men on sentry at the foot of the stairs, but do not let him speak or give any signs of his presence if the door is tried."
One of the soldiers was placed on guard. Scarcely had he taken his station when there was a knocking at the door, and shouts were heard outside from the peasants calling on those within, if they were friends, to come out. No answer was returned.
"It's fortunate for you," Malcolm muttered, "that we don't come out, or we should make short work of you; but I know you would fly like hares if you saw us, and would bring the whole country down on us. No; we must hold out here. Our only hope is to escape at night, or to hold this place till some of our troops come along. At any moment some regiments from the Lech may be marching forward to join the king.
"We must make our bread last, lads," he said cheerfully to the men, "for we may have to stand a long siege. Methinks we can hold this stone staircase against all the peasants of this part of Bavaria; and we must do so until we hear the sound of the Swedish drums; they may come along at any time. If the worst comes to the worst one of us must start at night and carry news of our peril to the Lech. We made a good supper last night, and can fast for a bit. If we cut our bread up into small portions we can hold out for days. There should be snow enough on the tower top to furnish us with drink."
After hammering at the door for some time, the peasants retired convinced that there were none of their own people within the tower, and that those who had slept there were the fugitives of whom they had been in search during the night. These might, indeed, have departed in the interval between the time when the woman first saw the traces of their presence and her return with them; but they did not think that this was so, for in that case they could not have fastened the door behind them. The peasants accordingly withdrew a short distance from the church, and three of their number were sent off in different directions to bring up reinforcements. As soon as Malcolm saw this movement he knew that concealment was useless, and began to make preparations for the defence. First, he with the sergeant ascended to the roof of the tower. To his disappointment he saw that the heat of the flames had melted the snow, and that most of the water had run away. Some, however, stood in the hollows and inequalities of the stone platform, where it had again frozen into ice.
As the supply would be very precious, Malcolm directed that before any moved about on the platform every piece of ice should be carefully taken up and carried below. Here it was melted over the fire in one of the iron caps, and was found to furnish three quarts of water. The appearance of Malcolm and his companion on the tower had been hailed by a shout of hatred and exultation by the peasants; but the defenders had paid no attention to the demonstration, and had continued their work as if regardless of the presence of their enemies.
On his return to the platform Malcolm found, looking over the low parapet, that on the side farthest from the church great icicles hung down from the mouth of the gutter, the water having frozen again as it trickled from the platform. These icicles were three or four inches in diameter and many feet in length. They were carefully broken off, and were laid down on the platform where they would remain frozen until wanted. Malcolm now felt secure against the attacks of thirst for some days to come. The stones of the parapet were next tried, and were without much trouble moved from their places, and were all carried to the side in which the door was situated, in readiness to hurl down upon any who might assault it. Some of the beams of the upper flooring were removed from their places, and being carried down, were wedged against the upper part of the door, securing it as firmly as did the stones below. These preparations being finished, Malcolm took a survey of the situation outside.
The group of peasants had increased largely, some thirty or forty men armed with pikes, bills, and scythes being gathered in a body, while many more could be seen across the country hurrying over the white plain towards the spot. The windows of the lower apartment had been barricaded with planks, partly to keep out missiles, partly for warmth. A good fire now blazed in the centre, and the soldiers, confident in themselves and their leader, cracked grim jokes as, their work being finished, they sat down around it and awaited the attack, one of their number being placed on the summit of the tower to give warning of the approach of the enemy.
"I would that we had a musket or two," Malcolm said; "for we might then keep them from the door. I have only some twenty charges for my pistols, and the most of these, at any rate, I must keep for the defence of the stairs."
Presently the sentry from above called out that the peasants were moving forward to the attack.
"Sergeant," Malcolm said, "do you fasten my green scarf to a long strip of plank and fix it to the top of the tower. We cannot fight under a better banner. Now let us mount to the roof and give them a warm reception."
"Look out, sir," the sentry exclaimed as Malcolm ascended the stair, "three or four of them have got muskets."
"Then we must be careful," Malcolm said. "I don't suppose they are much of marksmen, but even a random shot will tell at times, and I want to take you all back safe with me; so keep low when you get on the roof, lads, and don't show your heads more than you can help."
Heralding their attack by a discharge from their muskets, whose balls whistled harmlessly round the tower, the peasants rushed forward to the door and commenced an assault upon it with hatchets and axes.
Malcolm and his men each lifted a heavy stone and rolled it over the parapet, the five loosing the missiles simultaneously. There was a dull crash, and with a terrible cry the peasants fled from the door. Looking over, Malcolm saw that six or seven men had been struck down. Five of these lay dead or senseless; two were endeavouring to drag themselves away.
"That is lesson number one," he said. "They will be more prudent next time."
The peasants, after holding a tumultuous council, scattered, most of them making for a wood a short distance off.
"They are going to cut down a tree and use it as a battering ram," Malcolm observed. "They know that these large stones are too heavy for us to cast many paces from the foot of the wall. We must get to work and break some of them up. That will not be difficult, for the wind and weather have rotted many of them half through."
The stones were for the most part from two to three feet long and nine or ten inches square. Two were laid down on the platform some eighteen inches apart and another placed across them. The four men then lifted another stone, and holding it perpendicularly brought it down with all their strength upon the unsupported centre of the stone, which broke in half at once. To break it again required greater efforts, but it yielded to the blows. Other stones were similarly treated, until a large pile was formed of blocks of some ten inches each way, besides a number of smaller fragments.
In half an hour the peasants reappeared with a slight well grown tree some forty feet long which had been robbed of its branches. It was laid down about fifty yards from the church, and then twenty men lifted it near the butt and advanced to use it as a battering ram, with the small end forward; but before they were near enough to touch the door the bearers were arrested by a cry from the crowd as the defenders appeared on the tower, and poising their blocks of stone above their heads, hurled them down. Three of them flew over the heads of the peasants, but the others crashed down among them, slaying and terribly mutilating two of the bearers of the tree and striking several others to the ground. The battering ram was instantly dropped, and before the Scotchmen had time to lift another missile the peasants were beyond their reach.
"Lesson number two," Malcolm said. "What will our friends do next, I wonder?"
The peasants were clearly at a loss. A long consultation was held, but this was not followed by any renewal of the attack.
"I think they must have made up their minds to starve us out, sir," the sergeant remarked as the hours went slowly by without any renewal of the attack.
"Yes; either that, sergeant, or a night attack. In either case I consider that we are safe for a time, but sooner or later our fate is sealed unless aid comes to us, and therefore I propose that one of you should tonight try and bear a message to the Lech. We can lower him down by the bell rope from this window in the angle where the tower touches the church. Keeping round by the church he will be in deep shadow until he reaches the other end, and will then be close to the ruins of the village. Before morning he could reach our camp."
"I will undertake it myself, sir, if you will allow me," the sergeant said, while the other men also volunteered for the duty.
"You shall try first, sergeant," Malcolm said. "It will be dangerous work, for as the news of our being here spreads the peasants will be coming in from all quarters. Their numbers are already greatly increased since they commenced the attack, and there must be at least three or four hundred men around us. They will be sure to keep a sharp lookout against our escaping, and it will need all your care and caution to get through them."
"Never fear, sir," the man replied confidently. "I have stalked the deer scores of times, and it will be hard if I cannot crawl through a number of thick witted Bavarian peasants."
"Even beyond the village you will have to keep your eyes open, as you may meet parties of peasants on their way here. Fortunately you will have no difficulty in keeping the road, so well beaten is it by the march of the army. If by tomorrow night no rescue arrives I shall consider that you have been taken or killed, and shall try with the others to make my way through. It would be better to die sword in hand while we have still the strength to wield our arms than to be cooped up here until too weak any longer to defend ourselves, and then to be slowly tortured to death."
As soon as it was dusk a sentry was placed on the top of the tower, with orders to report the slightest sound or stir. During the day this had not been necessary, for a view could be obtained from the windows, and the men with firearms, who had now considerably increased in numbers, kept up a constant fire at the tower.
An hour later the sentry reported that he could hear the sound of many feet in the darkness, with the occasional snapping as of dry twigs.
"They are going to burn down the door," Malcolm said. "That is what I expected. Now, sergeant, is your time. They are all busy and intent upon their purpose. You could not have a better time."
The rope was fastened round the sergeant's waist, and with some difficulty he squeezed himself through the narrow window, after listening attentively to discover if any were below.
All seemed perfectly still on this side, and he was gradually and steadily lowered down. Presently those above felt the rope slack. Another minute and it swung loosely. It was drawn up again, and Malcolm, placing one of the men at the loophole, with instructions to listen intently for any sound of alarm or conflict, turned his attention to the other side.
Soon he saw a number of dark figures bearing on their heads great bundles which he knew to be faggots approaching across the snow.
As they approached a brisk fire suddenly opened on the tower. Malcolm at once called the sentry down.
"It is of no use exposing yourself," he said, "and we could not do much harm to them did we take to stoning them again. We have nothing to do now but to wait."
Soon a series of dull heavy crashes were heard as the faggots were thrown down against the door. Malcolm descended the stairs until he reached the lowest loophole which lighted them, and which was a few feet above the top of the door. He took one of the men with him.
"Here are my flask and bullet pouch," he said. "Do you reload my pistols as I discharge them."
For some minutes the sound of the faggots being thrown down continued, then the footsteps were heard retreating, and all was quiet again.
"Now it is our turn again," Malcolm said. "It is one thing to prepare a fire and another to light it, my fine fellows. I expect that you have forgotten that there are firearms here."
Presently a light was seen in the distance, and two men with blazing brands approached. They advanced confidently until within twenty yards of the tower, then there was the sharp crack of a pistol, and one of them fell forward on his face, the other hesitated and stood irresolute, then, summoning up courage, he sprang forward.
As he did so another shot flashed out, and he, too, fell prostrate, the brand hissing and spluttering in the snow a few feet from the pile of brushwood. A loud yell of rage and disappointment arose on the night air, showing how large was the number of peasants who were watching the operations. Some time elapsed before any further move was made on the part of the assailants, then some twenty points of light were seen approaching.
"Donald," Malcolm said to the soldier, "go up to the top of the tower with your comrades. They are sure to light the pile this time, but if it is only fired in one place you may possibly dash out the light with a stone."
The lights rapidly approached, but when the bearers came within forty yards they stopped. They were a wild group, as, with their unkempt hair and beards, and their rough attire, they stood holding the lighted brands above their heads. A very tall and powerful man stood at their head.
"Come on," he said, "why do you hesitate? Let us finish with them." And he rushed forward.
Malcolm had his pistol lying on the sill of the loophole covering him, and when the peasant had run ten paces he fired, and the man fell headlong. The others stopped, and a second shot took effect among them. With a yell of terror they hurled the brands towards the pile and fled. Most of the brands fell short, others missed their aim, but from his loophole Malcolm saw that one had fallen on to the outside faggot of the pile.
Almost instantly a heavy stone fell in the snow close by, another, and another. Malcolm stood with his eyes fixed on the brand. The twigs against which it leaned were catching, and the flames began to shoot up. Higher and higher they rose, and a shout of triumph from the peasants told how keenly they were also watching. Still the heavy stones continued to fall. The flames rose higher, and half the faggot was now alight. Another minute and the fire would communicate with the pile. Then there was a crash. A shower of sparks leapt up as the faggot, struck by one of the heavy stones, was dashed from its place and lay blazing twenty feet distant from the pile. There it burnt itself out, and for a time the tower was safe.
For an hour the defenders watched the peasants, who had now lighted great fires just out of pistol shot from the tower, and were gathered thickly round them, the light flashing redly from pike head and scythe.
The uproar of voices was loud; but though the defenders guessed that they were discussing the next plan of attack they could catch no meaning from such words as reached them, for the patois of the Bavarian peasants was unintelligible. At last a large number seized brands, some approached as before towards the pile, the others scattered in various directions, while the men with muskets again opened fire at the top of the tower.
Malcolm took his post at the loophole awaiting attack, but the men in front of him did not advance. Suddenly a light sprang up beneath him. There was a sound of falling stones, but the light grew brighter and brighter, and he knew that this time the pile had been fired. As he ran upstairs he was met by one of the soldiers from above.
"They crept round by the back of the church, sir, and round at the foot of the tower, and they had fired the pile before we saw that they were there."
"It cannot be helped," Malcolm said, "they were sure to succeed sooner or later. Call the others down from the roof."
The door at the top of the stairs was now closed, and the crevices were stuffed tightly with strips torn from the men's clothes so as to prevent the smoke from entering when the door below gave way to the flames. A broad glare of light now lit up the scene, and showers of sparks, and an occasional tongue of flame were visible through the window.
"Shut down the trapdoor in the roof," Malcolm said, "that will check the draught through the windows."
The wood was dry, and what smoke made its way in through the window found its way out through the loopholes of the upper chamber without seriously incommoding those below.
"We can take it easy, now," Malcolm said as he set the example by sitting down against the wall. "It will be hours before the stonework below will be cool enough to permit them to attack."
"They are lighting a circle of fires all round the church," one of the soldiers said looking out.
"They think we shall be trying to escape, now that our door is burned. They are too late; I trust our messenger is miles away by this time."
In half an hour the flames died away, but a deep red glow showed that the pile of embers was still giving out an intense heat. One of the men was now placed on the top of the tower again, as a measure of precaution, but it was certain that hours would elapse before an attack could be made. The peasants, indeed, secure of their prey, evinced no hurry to commence the attack, but spent the night in shouting and singing round their fires, occasionally yelling threats of the fate which awaited them against the defenders of the tower.
Towards daylight Malcolm commenced his preparations for defence. The door was taken off its hinges and was laid on the stone stairs. These were but two feet wide, the door itself being some three inches less. The rope was fastened round its upper end to prevent it from sliding down.
"I wish we had some grease to pour over it," Malcolm said, "but dry as it is it will be next to impossible for anyone to walk up that sharp incline, and we four should be able to hold it against the peasants till doomsday."
It was not until broad daylight that the peasants prepared for the attack. So long as the operation had been a distant one it had seemed easy enough, but as in a confused mass they approached the open doorway they realized that to ascend the narrow staircase, defended at the top by desperate men, was an enterprise of no common danger, and that the work which they had regarded as finished was in fact scarcely begun.
The greater part then hung back, but a band of men, who by their blackened garments and swarthy faces Malcolm judged to be charcoal burners, armed with heavy axes, advanced to the front, and with an air of dogged resolution approached the door. The defenders gave no sign of their presence, no pistol flashed out from window or loophole.
Striding through the still hot ashes the leader of the woodmen passed through the doorway and advanced up the stairs. These ran in short straight flights round the tower, lighted by narrow loopholes. No resistance was encountered until he reached the last turning, where a broader glare of light came from the open doorway, where two of the soldiers, pike in hand, stood ready to repel them. With a shout to his followers to come on, the peasant sprang forward. He ascended three steps, and then, as he placed his foot upon the sharply inclined plane of the door, which he had not noticed, he stumbled forward. His companions, supposing he had been pierced with a spear, pressed on after him, but each fell when they trod upon the door until a heap of men cumbered the stair. These were not unharmed, for with their long pikes the Scottish spearmen ran them through and through as they lay.
Their bodies afforded a foothold to those who followed, but these could make but little way, for as but one could advance at a time, each as he came on was slain by the pikes. Finding that two were well able to hold the door, Malcolm with the other ran up to the top of the tower, and toppled over the stones of the parapet upon the mass gathered around the door. These at once scattered, and those on the stairs, finding themselves unable to get forward, for the narrow passage was now completely choked with the dead, made their way out again and rejoined their comrades.
"I expect they will send their musketeers first next time," Malcolm said as he rejoined those below, leaving the soldier on the watch. "Now let us get the door up again, and bring the dead here; we can form a barrier with them breast high."
The door was quickly shifted on one side, and then the troopers brought up the dead, who were eleven in number.
"Now replace the door," Malcolm ordered; "fill your iron caps with blood -- there is plenty flowing from these fellows -- and pour it over the door, it will be as good as oil."
This was done, and the bodies were then piled shoulder high across the door.
"They can fire as much as they like now," Malcolm said, "they will be no nearer, and I defy anyone to climb up that door now."