Chapter X. A Fight in the Open
 

It was seven in the evening, and Sir Ralph and his family had just finished their evening meal, when one of the retainers announced that two porters had brought a letter and some goods from Mynheer Van Voorden.

"Let them bring the goods in here," Sir Ralph said, "and then take them into the kitchen and give them a tankard of ale and refreshment, and keep them there till we have a letter ready for their master."

The party were surprised to see the bulky parcels brought in. One of the men handed a letter addressed to Sir Ralph. "Go with my retainers, my good fellows," the latter said, "and remain until I see what your master says. Here, Albert, my scholarship is rusty; read what the Fleming says; it may tell us what are in those crates."

"They are not for you, father," Aline, who had run across to look at them, said; "one is for Albert and the other for Edgar."

The letter was as follows:--

"_To the good knight, Sir Ralph De Courcy, greeting--It seems to me that, prone as your son and Master Edgar Ormskirk are to rush into danger in order to aid and succour those in peril, it were but right that they should be clad in armour suitable for such adventures, and meet that such armour should be provided for them by one of those who has benefited by their valour, whose life and that of his wife and daughter have been preserved by them. Therefore I send them two suits as the only token I can at present give them of my thankfulness and gratitude. It is feeble testimony indeed, but none the less sincere. I know well that the armour made by Master Armstrong could be borne by none worthier, and trust that the swords will ever be used in the cause of right and in the protection of the oppressed and the unfortunate._"

Aline clapped her hands joyfully as Albert finished reading the letter.

"A timely gift indeed," the knight said; "and one that does honour both to the giver and those who receive it. Open the crates, lads, and let us see what the worthy Fleming has sent us."

The casques were the first pieces that came to view. Albert carried his to his father, while Aline placed Edgar's on the table in front of Dame Agatha. The knight examined it carefully.

"I know the suit," he said, "for I was in the armourer's shop a week before these troubles began, with the Earl of Suffolk, who had asked me to go with him to choose a suit. This, and another like it, stood in one corner, and mightily took my fancy, though others were there from the master armourers of Milan and Toledo. These two suits were, however, he thought, not as fine and ornamental as he should like; indeed, they were scarce large enough for him, for he is well-nigh as big as I am myself, and he chose a Milan suit, but Master Armstrong said to me, 'I see you know a good piece of steel, sir knight, for methinks those two suits are the best that I have ever forged, and I would not part with them for less than the price of the very finest of those inlaid ones. I have tried their strength in every way and am proud of them, but it may be that I shall keep them here for some time before I sell them. The foreign arms are now all the fashion, and those who can afford the best would take the more showy of the foreign suits, but I would not bate a penny in their price were these two suits to stand in my shop as long as I live. Do you see that tiny mark?--you need to look closely at it to make it out. That was made by a cloth-yard arrow shot by an archer, who is reputed the strongest in the city, and who carries a bow that few others can bend to its full; he shot at a distance of five yards, and I doubt if among all those suits you would find one that would have stood such a test without a deep dint.' 'Tis a noble gift, lads, and the Fleming, whom I should hardly take to be a judge of armour, must either have had a good adviser with him, or he must have trusted himself wholly to Master Armstrong's advice."

"'Tis like enough, father, that Sir Robert Gaiton may have gone with him to choose them when they left us yesterday. I have heard him say that though 'tis in the stuffs of Italy and the East that he chiefly deals, that his agents abroad sometimes send him suits of the finest Milan armour, swords of Damascus, and other such things, for which he can always find purchasers among the nobles who deal with him. He therefore would probably be a good judge."

By this time the crates were completely unpacked, and the armour, with the swords and daggers, laid upon the table, where the two lads surveyed them in silent admiration.

"Put them on," Sir Ralph said. "I know that you are longing to do so, and it would be strange were you not. Do you buckle them on the lads, dame. You have done me the service many a time, and it is right that you should be the first to do it for Albert. Aline, do you wait upon Edgar. As you are new to such work, your mother will show you how to do it, but seeing that he has struck five mortal blows in your defence, it is right that you should do him this service."

Aline coloured with pleasure. Her mother first instructed her how to arm Edgar, and then herself buckled on Albert's harness. Their swords were girt on, and the casques added last of all.

"They look two proper esquires, wife," the knight said; "and as we ride to-morrow I shall make but a sorry show beside them."

"Ah, father," said Albert, "but your armour has many an honourable mark, and it can be seen that, if it is not as bright as ours, 'tis in battle that its lustre has been lost, while all can see that, bright as our armour may be, it has not had the christening of battle."

"Well put!" his mother said, softly. "There was no more noble figure than your father when I first buckled his armour on for him. It was a new suit he had taken from a great French lord he had overthrown in battle, and I was as proud of him as I now feel of you, for you have shown yourself worthy of him, and though your arms are unmarked, 'tis but because your battles were fought before you had them."

"We had hardly ventured to hope for this, dame," Sir Ralph said, with a strange huskiness in his throat. "No knight could have begun a career more creditably or more honourably. Three times has he fought--once on behalf of you and Aline, twice for men and women in danger. In what better causes could he have first fleshed his sword? Now, unbuckle him at once, dame, that he may write in my name a letter of thanks to this noble Fleming. I have not written a letter for years, and our friend would scarce be able to decipher it were I to try." Then he went on, as she removed Albert's casque: "There was good taste as well as judgment in the purchase of those arms, Agatha. To me who knows what arms are, they are superb, but to the ordinary eye they would seem no better than those generally worn by knights or by esquires of good family; whereas, had he bought one of these damascened suits it would at once have attracted attention, and the lads would have been taken for great nobles. I doubt not that guided the stout alderman in his choice. He is a man of strong sense and sober taste, and had he not been born a merchant he would have made a rare good fighter."

As soon as Albert's harness was taken off he sat down and wrote, in his fair clerkly hand, a letter of the warmest thanks on the part of Sir Ralph, Edgar, and himself to Van Voorden. After this had been sent off, the swords and daggers were examined and admired, Sir Ralph declaring the former to be of the finest Toledo steel and the latter to come from Damascus. Edgar had said little, but he was even more delighted with his new acquisition than Albert. To have a good suit of armour had been his greatest ambition, but his father was by no means wealthy, and he had thought that his only chance of obtaining such a suit would be to overthrow some French noble in battle.

The next morning they were up betimes, and mounted a few minutes before the hour at which the city gates would be opened. Sir Ralph and his dame rode first, Aline took her place between her brother and Edgar, the latter keeping a watchful eye over her horse, which was fresh after six or seven days' idleness. The two retainers rode behind, having the ladies' valises strapped behind them. The city churches rang out the hour when they were within a hundred yards of the gate, and as this opened, Van Voorden, with his daughter behind him on a pillion, rode out to meet them, followed by two mounted men.

"That is thoughtful and courteous of him, dame," the knight said. "He might well have come alone; but it is kindly of him as well as courteous to bring his daughter."

As the party met, the Fleming bowed deeply to Lady Agatha.

"I have brought my daughter with me," he said, "in that I might introduce her to you, and that she might assure you, in her mother's name, of the pleasure your visit will give her."

"'Tis kind and courteous of you, Mynheer Van Voorden," Dame Agatha said, as, leaning over, she shook his daughter's hand.

"My mother bade me say that she is impatiently waiting your coming, and that your visit will give her the greatest pleasure--and yours also, Mistress Aline," she added, as the girl rode up, "and I am sure that it will give me great pleasure too."

Joanna Van Voorden was some two years older than Aline. Both were fair, but of a different type, for while Aline's hair was golden, the Joanna's was of a tawny red. Even making allowance for the difference in age, she was of a heavier build than the English girl, and gave signs of growing up into a stately woman.

"And now, Master Van Voorden," the knight said, as the latter turned his horse, and they proceeded on their way, "I must repeat in person what I said in my letter, how deeply obliged we are to you for the superb suits of armour you sent last night to my son and his friend."

"Speak not of it again, I pray you," the merchant said. "I owe them a debt of gratitude that I never can hope to repay, and the harness was indeed but a slight token of it. I can only hope that some day I may have an opportunity of more worthily testifying my gratitude. We shall scarcely be able to lodge you, lady," he went on, turning to Dame Agatha, "as I could have done in my house at Bread Street, for the one I have hired, although comfortable enough, is much less commodious; still, I doubt not that you will find your rooms more comfortable than those you occupied in the Tower, for indeed, as yet, even English palaces, stately though they be, have not the comforts that we Flemings have come to regard as necessaries."

"So I have understood, sir, but I think that some of our city merchants cannot be far behind you, judging from what my daughter has told me of the abode of Sir Robert Gaiton."

"No; many of the London traders are in this respect far better housed than any of the nobles with whose castles I am acquainted, and Sir Robert has, in Italy and elsewhere, had opportunities of seeing how the merchant princes there live. I have known him for some years. He is one of the foremost men in the city; he has broad and liberal ideas, and none of the jealousy of us Flemings that is so common among the citizens, although my countrymen more directly rival him in his trade than they do many others who grumble at us, though they are in no way injured by our trading."

So they chatted until they reached the spot where the knight required to turn off towards the bridge. There was a moment's pause, the valises were transferred to the saddles of the Van Voorden's followers, while adieux were exchanged. Then the Fleming's party turned to the right, while the knight, Edgar, Albert, and the two retainers trotted down at a smart pace to the bridge. Here Sir Robert Gaiton, in full armour, with fifty stout men-at-arms, were awaiting them.

"Good morrow, Sir Ralph, and you, young sirs," Sir Robert said, as they rode up. "Let me congratulate you on your armour, which becomes you mightily."

"And for which," Sir Ralph put in, "I think we have somewhat to thank you for choosing."

"Yes; I went with Van Voorden to Master Armstrong's, not so much to choose the harness as to give my opinion as to the size required, and these suits greatly took my fancy. The armourer guaranteed their temper, and they were, as it seemed to me, about the right size; for although just at first they may be somewhat roomy, 'tis a matter that a few months will mend.

"Are they comfortable, Edgar?" he added.

"I suppose as much so as any armour can be, Sir Robert; but 'tis the first time I have worn such things, and they seem to me marvellously to confine me, and with the vizor down I should feel well-nigh stifled in my casque, and as if fighting in the dark."

"You will get accustomed to it in a short time. I know that when I began to be known in the city, and found that I must, like others of the better class of citizens, ride in full armour when occasion offered, I felt just as you do. Perhaps more so, for I was some seven or eight years older, and less accustomed to changes, but even now I would far rather fight with my vizor up, save that one must have its protection when arrows or cross-bow bolts are flying; but as against other knights I would always keep it up; the helm itself and the cheek-pieces cover no small part of the face, and naught but a straight thrust could harm one, and I think I could trust my sword to ward that off. However, I have never yet had occasion to try. I have had more than one encounter with Eastern and African pirates during my voyages, but I have never taken my helmet with me on such journeys, and have not suffered by its loss."

By this time they were across the bridge, and, proceeding at a sharp trot, until beyond the boundaries of Southwark, they broke into a gallop. When, after going at this pace for three or four miles, they reined their horses into a walk, Sir Ralph said, "Albert, if it likes you, you can remove your helmet and carry it on your saddle-bow."

"Thanks, father; indeed I was well-nigh reeling in my saddle with heat. Edgar, will you take yours off?"

"No, thank you, I have got to get accustomed to it, and may as well do so now as at any other time." Under their helmet both wore a small velvet cap. "You are looking quite pale, Albert," Edgar went on, as his friend unhelmed.

"It is not everyone who is made of iron, as you are," Albert laughed. "You must make allowances for me. In another year or two I hope that I too shall be able to bear the weight of all these things without feeling them; but you must remember that it is not two years since I began hard exercise, while you have been at it since your childhood."

"I don't forget it, Albert, and I wonder at you daily."

At Greenwich they heard many tales as to the damage committed by the peasants on their homeward way. Houses had been sacked and burnt, and many persons of substance killed.

"The king ought to have let us charge the fellows," Sir Ralph said, as they went forward again. "When men find that they get off without punishment for misdeeds, they will recommence them as soon as the danger is past. One lesson would have made itself felt over the whole land. I heard last night that there was news that many manors and the houses of men of law have been destroyed in Essex, and that the rioters have beheaded the Lord Chief-Justice of England, Sir John of Cambridge, and the Prior of St. Edmondsbury, and set tip their heads on poles in the market- place of Bury, and have destroyed all the charters and documents of the town. We shall have great trouble before order is restored, whereas had we charged the rioters of Kent, who are the worst of all, the others would have been cowed when they heard of the slaughter. By our lady, we will give these fellows a rough lesson if we find them besieging our castle."

"Is it a strong place, Sir Ralph?"

"No. With a fair garrison it could easily repel any assault by such fellows as these, but it could not stand for a day against an attack by a strong body of men-at-arms, even if they were unprovided with machines."

When within five miles of the castle they obtained sure news that it was attacked by some two thousand of the rioters, but that so far as was known it was still holding out.

"Shall we gallop on, Sir Ralph?" the alderman asked.

"Nay, we will rather go more slowly than before, so that our horses may be in good wind when they arrive. We shall need all their strength, for we may have to charge through them two or three times before they break and run, and then we will pursue and cut them up as long as the horses have breath. These fellows must have a lesson, or we shall never be able to dwell in peace and quiet."

When within half a mile of the castle they saw that the flag was still flying above it, and knew that they had arrived in time. Then Albert put on his helmet again, and the two lads followed the example of Sir Ralph and the alderman, and lowered their vizors, for, as the knight said, "Though some of the knaves threw away their bows at Smithfield, many of the others took them away." On reaching a field near the castle, they could see that a fierce fight was going on. The rioters had procured ladders, and were striving to climb the walls, while a small party of armed men were defending the battlement.

"By St. Mary, we are but just in time!" the knight said. "We four will ride in front. Sir Robert, will you bid your men form in two lines and follow us, one line twenty yards behind the other. Bid them all keep together in their rank, the second line closing up with the first if the fellows make a stout resistance, but above all things they must keep in their order, and follow close behind us."

The alderman raised his voice, and repeated the orders to the men.

"The reports as to the rascals' numbers were about right," Sir Ralph said. "Now, boys, do you keep between us, and leave a space of some three yards between each horse, so as to give each man room to swing his sword. Now, Sir Robert, let us have at them."

Going slowly at first, they increased their speed to a fierce gallop as they neared the mass of rioters. They had been noticed now. The men on the ladders hastily climbed down again; confused orders were heard, and many were seen separating themselves from the main body and flying. The mass of the rioters, however, held their ground, seeing how small was the number of their opponents. A flight of arrows was shot when they were some sixty yards distant, but as all were bending forward in their saddles, and the arrows were shot in haste, most of them fell harmless; three or four of the horses were struck, and plunged violently from the pain, but still kept on with the others. With a shout the party fell upon the rioters, the weight of the riders and horses throwing great numbers to the ground, while the knights and their followers hewed right and left with their swords.

The bravest spirits had thrown themselves in front, and once the troops had cut their way through these, but little resistance was met with beyond, the peasants seeking only to get out of their way. As soon as they were through the crowd they turned again, and in the same order as before, charged the mob, with the same success. As they drew up and again turned, Sir Ralph ordered them to charge this time in single line.

"They are becoming utterly disheartened now," he said, "and we shall sweep a wider path."

This time when they drew up they saw that the crowd had broken up, and the rioters were flying filled with dismay through the fields.

"Chase and slay!" Sir Ralph shouted, raising his vizor that his voice might reach all; "give no quarter; the business must be ended once and for all."

Edgar and Albert both threw up their vizors--there was no fear of arrows now, and both felt half stifled. There was no longer any order kept, and the horsemen followed the fugitives in all directions. The two lads kept together so as to be able to give each other assistance should any stand be made. None, however, was attempted; the greater portion of the rioters had thrown away their arms, and when overtaken they raised cries, for mercy.

"You gave none to the Flemings," the lads shouted in return, infuriated by the scenes that they had witnessed in London; and for an hour they followed the fugitives, sparing none who came within reach of their swords.

"We have done enough now," Albert exclaimed at last; "I am fairly spent, and can scarce lift my sword."

"My horse is spent, but not my strength," Edgar said, as he reined up. "Well, we have avenged the Flemings, and have done something towards paying these fellows for their insults to the princess. Now let us wend our way back; I must say good-bye to Sir Ralph and the sturdy alderman, and will then ride home and see how my father has fared. I have little fear that any harm has befallen him, for his magic would frighten the rioters even more than our swords. Well, our armour has stood us in good stead, Albert. When we charged the first time I was several times struck with bill-hook and pike, and more than one arrow shivered on my breast- piece, but I found that the blows all fell harmless, and after that I wasted no pains in defending myself, but simply struck straightforward blows at my opponents."

"I found the same, Edgar; the weapons glanced off the armour as a stone would fly from a sheet of strong ice."

For a while they rode slowly to give their horses time to recover wind. When they had done so, they rode more rapidly, and, keeping a straight line--they had before ridden a devious course in pursuit--they arrived in an hour at the castle. Here they found that most of the horsemen had already returned. Two hundred bodies lay dead on the ground over which they had charged so often; and when notes were compared they calculated that no less than five hundred of the rioters had been slain.

"I think we shall hear no more of rioting in this neighbourhood," Sir Ralph said, grimly. "If the king had but taken my advice and ridden out to Blackheath with his knights and half the garrison of the Tower, and with such aid as the loyal citizens would have furnished him, he and the city would have been spared the humiliation that they have suffered. One blow struck in time will save the need of twenty struck afterwards. Had we but killed a thousand on Blackheath it would have spared us the trouble of slaying perhaps ten times that number now; would have saved the lives of many honourable gentlemen throughout the country, to say nothing of the damage that has been wrought in London. So you are riding home, Edgar? You are right, lad; I trust you will find all quiet there."

"Would you like twenty of my men to ride with you?" the alderman asked.

"No, thank you, Sir Robert; my father, who, as I told you, is a man of science, has prepared sundry devices, any one of which would terrify these peasants out of their wits; and if they have troubled him, which is like enough, I will warrant that he has given them as great a scare as we have given these fellows to-day."

"At any rate, Edgar, you had best take a fresh horse. Yours has done a good day's work, indeed; and it is just as well that you should bestride an animal that can carry you off gaily should you fall in with another party. There are half a dozen in the stalls. I don't suppose they have been out since we have been away; besides, methinks that after such hot work as we have been doing a cup of wine will do us all good."

Edgar, therefore, rode into the castle, and while he was taking a cup of wine and a hasty meal in the hall, Sir Ralph's servitors changed his saddle to a fresh horse, and the lad then started for home. Confident as he felt, it was still a great satisfaction to him to see that no signs of violence were visible as he approached the house. The door in the gate was indeed closed, contrary to usual custom.

Dismounting, he rung the bell. A small grille in the door opened, then the servitor's head appeared.

"Now then, Andrew, what are you staring at? Why don't you open the gate?"

"I was not sure that it was yourself, Master Edgar. In that grand helmet I did not at first make you out. Well, I am glad that you have come back safely, young master, for we heard of parlous doings in London."

"Yes, I have come back all right. I hope that everything has gone on well here."

"Ay, ay, sir; we had a bit of trouble, but, bless you, the master sent them running, most scared out of their senses." And the man burst into a fit of laughter.

"Here, take the horse, Andrew; I must go in to see him."

"Hulloa! hulloa!" Mr. Ormskirk exclaimed; "is this really my son?"

"It is, father; and right glad am I to see you safe and well. I told Sir Ralph that I felt sure you would be able to hold your own here; still, I was very pleased when I saw that the gate stood uninjured, and that there were no signs of attack."

"Has Sir Ralph come back?" Mr. Ormskirk asked; "and knows he that the rabble are besieging his castle?"

"Were besieging, father; for with us came a worthy city knight with a troop of fifty stout men; and we have given the rioters such a lesson that methinks there will be no more rioting in this part of Kent, for from four to five hundred of them have been slain, and I believe all the rest are still running!"

"It was a lesson much needed, Edgar, for after their doings in London these fellows would never have been quiet, had they not been roughly taught that they are but like a flock of sheep before the charge of men- at-arms.

"But whence this armour, my son? Truly it is a goodly suit. My coffer is so low that I know not how I shall make shift to pay for it."

"It is a gift, father, and Albert has one like it. 'Tis of the finest steel, and is, as you see, all undinted, though it has had many a shrewd blow from arrow, bill-hook, and pike in to-day's fight. But the story is a long one to tell, and I pray you, before I begin it, to let me know how matters have fared here, for I hear from Andrew that you have not been left entirely alone."

Mr. Ormskirk smiled. "No, I had a goodly company three days ago. Some hundred of men from Dartford joined, I am sorry to say, by a good share of those at the village, came round here in the evening with the intent, as they were good enough to say, of roasting the witchman in his bed. Andrew had brought me news of their intentions, so I was ready for them. I had gone out and had painted on the door, with that stuff I told you of, the rough figure of a skeleton holding a dart in his hand. It was of the same colour as the door, so that it did not show in the daylight. Then I fixed along on the top of the wall a number of coloured lights that I had seen in use in Italy on fete days, and of which I learned the composition. I had, as I told you before, placed cases of Friar Bacon's powder round the house, and had laid trains to them by which they could be fired from within the wall.

"Had it been dark when they came the skeleton and that skull would have sufficed; but it wanted still an hour before these devices would be of use. I made them out in the distance, and thought that something else would be needed. Therefore I got that Eastern gong that I purchased as a curiosity at Genoa, and lighted a fire in the courtyard. As soon as they approached I threw pitch into the fire, making thereby a great column of smoke, and set Andrew to beat the gong furiously, telling him to shout and yell as he pleased. Then I went to an upper window to observe the effect. The crowd had halted some fifty yards away and stood open-mouthed gazing at the place, and indeed it was no wonder that such ignorant men were scared, for truly the yelling of Andrew and the noise of the gong were enough to frighten anyone who knew not what it meant.

"For some time it seemed to me that they would depart without venturing farther, but some of the bolder spirits plucked up courage and went about among the others shouting that no true Kentish man would be frightened by a noise that meant nothing, they had but to break down the door and they would soon put an end to it. However, the night began to fall before they got fairly in motion, and I went down and prepared to fire the powder should it be needful, and besides I hoisted the skull above the parapet over the gate. Thinking that the light of the phosphorus might not show up well a short distance away, I placed in addition some red fire in the skull. I then got on the wall, and sat down where I could peep out without being seen. Shouting a great deal to encourage each other, they came on until within a few paces of the gate. Then I heard a sudden cry, and those in front pushed back and stood staring at the door as if bewitched; then all ran away some distance. After much talk they came forward again, timidly pointing to the figure as they advanced.

"This was now, doubtless, plain enough to be well made out fifty yards away. There they came to a halt again. Then I called out to Andrew to light the fire in the skull, and set the jaw wagging, having so balanced it, that having been once set going it would wag for two or three minutes before it stopped. Then he ran one way with a brand from the fire, and I the other, and twelve green fires burst out. There was a yell of horror when the skull was made out The alarm was doubtless heightened by the green fire, they having never seen such a thing before, and they started to run wildly off. To hasten their flight I ran down and fired four of the powder cases, which exploded with a noise that might have been heard at Dartford.

"After that Andrew and I went quietly to bed, sure that not another soul would venture to attack the house. Andrew went into the village in the morning. He found that some of the men had been well-nigh killed by fright. All sorts of tales were told of great blazing skeletons that dashed out from the gate with dart in hand, and of a skull that breathed out red fire from a blazing mouth, and grinned and gibbered at them. As to the noises and the ghastly green fire, none could account for them, and I do believe that there is not a villager who would approach within a quarter of a mile of the house after dark, on any condition."