Chapter XIII. A Starving Town
 

Many of the leading citizens, hearing of Van Voorden's arrival, called in the course of the evening. The conversation, of course, turned upon the state of public affairs in Flanders; and Van Voorden inquired particularly as to the feeling in Bruges, and the sides taken by leading citizens there.

"That is difficult to say," one of the merchants replied. "Bruges has always been a rival to Ghent, and there has been little good-will between the cities. The lower class are undoubtedly in favour of Ghent; but among the traders and principal families the feeling is the other way. Were Ghent in a position to head a national movement with a fair chance of success, no doubt Bruges would go with her, for she would fear that, should it be successful, she would suffer from the domination of Ghent. At present, however, the latter is in a strait, the rivers are blockaded by the earl's ships, and the town is sorely pressed by famine. After the vengeance taken by the earl on the places that, at the commencement of the trouble, threw in their lot with Ghent, she can expect no aid until she shows herself capable of again defeating the prince's army."

"Of course, at present I know but little how matters stand," Van Voorden said. "I have been so long settled in England that I have hardly kept myself informed of affairs here. I am thinking now of making Flanders my home again, but I would not do so if the land is like to be torn by civil war; I shall, therefore, make it my business to sojourn for a time in many of the large towns, and so to learn the general feeling throughout the country towards the earl, and to find out what prospect there is of the present trouble coming to a speedy end. France, Burgundy, or even England may interfere in the matter if they see a prospect of gain by it, and in that case the fighting might become general."

"Is the feeling of England in favour of Ghent?" one of the burghers asked, anxiously.

"So far I have heard but little on the matter. The English have had troubles of their own, and have had but little time to cast their eyes abroad. Nevertheless, if the struggle continues, they may remember that a Van Artevelde was their stout ally, and that Ghent, after his murder, again submitted itself to them. There is, too, the bond of sympathy that Flanders accepts the same pope as England, and that in aiding her they aid the pope's cause, and strike a blow at France, with whom they are always at daggers drawn. Therefore, methinks more unlikely things have happened than that; if France gives aid to the earl, the English may strike in for Ghent."

"I trust not," one of the burghers said, earnestly, "for Sluys might well be the landing point for an English expedition, and then the first brunt of the war would fall upon us."

"I say not that there is much chance of such a thing," Van Voorden said; "I was but mentioning the complication that might arise if Ghent is able to prolong the struggle."

On the following morning the party started from Sluys. They made a good show, for Van Voorden had the evening before engaged two mounted men, well-armed, to ride with the young knights as men-at-arms. Behind the merchant and his party came the two maids and the four retainers who had accompanied them from England. These carried swords and daggers, but no defensive armour. Behind were the two English men-at-arms and the two freshly taken on, all wearing breast-and back-pieces and steel caps. They tarried but a day or two at Bruges, Van Voorden finding that among the burgesses the trade animosity against Ghent overpowered any feeling of patriotism, and moreover it was felt that the success of that town would give such encouragement to the democracy elsewhere that every city would become the scene of riot and civil strife.

They learnt that, unless they fell in with one of the parties that was stationed to prevent strong forces of foragers issuing from Ghent to drive in cattle, they would find no difficulty in entering the town, for the citizens had shown themselves such stout fighters, that the earl, believing that the city must fall by famine, had drawn off the greater portion of his army. Travelling by easy stages, the party approached the town on the second evening. Soon after they started that morning they came upon a body of the troops of the Earl of Flanders. The officer in command rode up to the merchant and asked him for his name and his object in going to Ghent, and also who were the two knights with him. As soon as Van Voorden mentioned his name, and said that he had for many years been established in London, the officer at once recognized it.

"I am well acquainted with your name as one of the foremost among our countrymen at King Richard's Court, and that you have several times acted as our representative when complaints have been made of injury to Flemish traders by English adventurers, but I must still ask, what do you propose doing at Ghent?"

"I am over here for a time with my wife and daughter, and am paying visits to friends and business correspondents in the various towns, and it may be that if these troubles come to an end I may retire from business altogether and settle down here. These knights have done me a signal service, having saved the lives of myself and daughter during the riots in London; therefore I have asked of them the courtesy to ride with me through Flanders. Having a desire to visit foreign countries, they accepted my invitation."

"Adieu, then, Master Van Voorden. I know that you are a man of influence among the merchants, and trust that you will do your best to persuade the stiff-necked burghers of Ghent to submit themselves to their lord."

"Methinks, from what I hear," the merchant replied, "that if it depended upon the burgesses and traders there would be a speedy end to these troubles, but they are overborne by the demagogues of the craftsmen."

"That is true enough," the officer replied. "Numbers of the richer burgesses have long since left Ghent, and many have established themselves in trade in other cities where there was better chance of doing their business in peace and quiet."

The party now rode on, and without further interruption arrived at Ghent. They put up for the night at a hostelry, but in the morning the merchant had no difficulty in hiring the use of a house for a month, for many of the better class houses were standing empty. Then he called on several of the leading burgesses, some of whom were known to him personally, and had long and earnest talk with them upon the situation.

Late in the afternoon he sent a letter to Philip Van Artevelde, saying that he had just arrived from England, and would be glad to have a private parley with him. An answer was received from Van Artevelde saying that he would call that evening upon him, as it would be more easy to have quiet speech together there than if he visited him at his official residence. At eight o'clock Van Artevelde arrived. He was wrapped in a cloak, and gave no name, simply saying to the retainer who opened the door that he was there by appointment with his master. Van Voorden received him alone. They had met on two or three occasions previously, and saluted each other cordially.

"I think it best that we should meet quietly," the merchant said, as they shook hands. "I know the Ghentois, how greedily they swallow every rumour, how they magnify the smallest things, and how they rage if their desires are not gratified, and give themselves wholly up to the demagogues. 'Tis for that reason that I think it well that you have come to see me privately.

"I have no official mission to you, but I am charged by King Richard, or rather by his council--when they heard that I was coming over here on my private affairs--to find out in the first place how things really stand here; and secondly, to learn your own opinion and thoughts on the matters in hand."

By this time they had seated themselves by the fire.

"The position is grievous enough in that we are straitened for food," was the reply; "indeed, although we have of late been fortunate in obtaining supplies, the pressure cannot be borne. Of one thing you may be sure, Ghent will not tamely be starved out. If we cannot obtain fair terms, every man will arm himself and sally out, and, it need be, we will sweep the whole country clear of its flocks and herds, and bring in such stores as we want from all quarters, carrying our arms to the gates of Brussels and Malines in one direction, to Lisle in another, and to Ypres and Dixmuide south of the Lys. Earl though he be, Louis cannot bar every road to us, nor forever keep up a force sufficient to withstand us. Already the feudal lords have kept their levies under arms far beyond the time they have a right to require them, but this cannot go on. War costs us no more than peace, and whenever we will we can march with 20,000 men in any direction that may please us. As to defending ourselves against assault, I have no fear whatever. Thus, then, so long as Ghent chooses she can maintain the war." He put an emphasis on the last words.

"That means, I take it," the merchant said, "as long as the people are willing to go on fasting."

"That is so. There is a sore pinch; food is distributed gratuitously; for, as all trade is stopped, there is little work to be had. So long as they could live in idleness, obtain enough food, and a small sum paid daily, there were no signs of discontent; and there is still plenty of money in the coffers, for the goods and estates of many who have fled, and who are known to be favourable to the earl, have been confiscated, but money cannot provide food. Thus, it seems to me that, save for the lack of food, matters could go on as at present. But if fair terms cannot be obtained, the people will demand to be led against their enemy. We shall lead them, but what will come after that I cannot say.

"As you doubtless know, I am here by no choice of my own. I had naught to do with the rising of Ghent, or what has been done hitherto, but when Lyon died and the leaders who succeeded him were killed, they sent to me to be their governor. For a time I refused, but I was overborne. I was living quietly and peaceably on my estates, with no love for strife; but it was pointed out that I alone could unite the factions, that many of the better classes of citizens, who held aloof from the demagogues of the streets, would feel confidence in me, that my name would carry weight, and that other cities might make alliance with me when they would have naught to say to butchers and skinners and such like, and that possibly the earl would be more likely to grant terms to me than to those whom he considers as the rabble. I took up the position reluctantly, but, having taken it up, I shall not lay it down. Like enough it will cost me my life, as it cost the life of Jacob Van Artevelde before me, but it may be that aid will come from some unexpected quarter."

"That is the next point. Do you look for aid from France?"

"France is never to be relied upon," Artevelde replied, gloomily. "The Valois has, of course, made us vague promises, but all he cares for is that the war should go on, so that, if he and Burgundy come to blows, Flanders can give no aid to the duke. I have no hope in that quarter. Of late, however, Burgundy and Berry have prevailed in his councils, and we hear that he has decided to join the duke against us. We have sent, as doubtless you know, to the King of England, to ask him to ally himself with us."

"'Tis concerning that matter he has charged me. It was known when I left England that Burgundy had promised his aid to the earl, but naught was known of France joining in. The king is well disposed towards you, but his council hold that, so long as Ghent stands alone, England can make no alliance with her, for she would have to fight, not only Burgundy and France, but the rest of Flanders. But if Ghent makes herself master of Flanders, England will gladly ally herself with you, and will send troops and money."

"'Tis reasonable," Artevelde said, "and we will bestir ourselves. I myself have done all that is possible to obtain peace, and in three days I am going, with twelve of the principal citizens, to Bruges, where the earl arrived yesterday. We shall offer to submit ourselves to his mercy if he will have pity on the city. If he demands the entire mastership we shall fight in earnest. If he will content himself with taking our lives, we are ready to give them for the sake of the city. We know that we have a strong body of friends in every town, and should it come to blows, methinks it is not improbable that all Flanders will join, and if we are supported by England, we may well hope to withstand both France and Burgundy."

"I have two young English knights with me, Van Artevelde; they are young, but have already shown themselves capable of deeds of the greatest bravery. During the late riots in London they defended my house against a mob many hundreds strong, and so gave time for myself, my wife, and daughter to gain a place of hiding; they did many other brave feats, and so distinguished themselves that, though very young, the king has knighted them. I invited them to accompany me hither, in order that they might see service, and I would fain commend them greatly to you. The fact that they are English knights would be of advantage to you, seeing that it will, in the eyes of the people, be taken as a proof that the sympathy of England is with us, and should there be fighting, or any occasion for the use of brave men, you can rely upon them to do their utmost."

"I will gladly accept their services, Van Voorden, and, as you say, the people will certainly draw a good augury from their presence."

The merchant left the room, and returned in a minute with the two young knights.

"These are the gentlemen of whom I have spoken to you, Van Artevelde," he said, "Sir Edgar Ormskirk and Sir Albert De Courcy, both very valiant gentlemen, and high in the esteem of King Richard."

"I greet you gladly, sir knights," Van Artevelde said, "both for your own sakes and for that of Mynheer Van Voorden, my worthy friend, who has presented you, and right glad shall I be if you will aid us in this sore strait into which we have fallen."

"I fear that our aid will not be of much avail to you, sir," Edgar said, "but such service as we can render we will right willingly give. I shall be glad to see service for the first time under one bearing the name of the great man who lost his life because he was so firm an ally of England."

"At present, gentlemen, things have not come to a crisis here, and for a few days I must ask your patience; by that time we shall know how matters are to go. If it be war, gladly, indeed, will I have you ride with me in the field."

Two days later Philip Van Artevelde rode away with the twelve citizens, who, like himself, went to offer their lives for the sake of the city. The scene was an affecting one, and crowds of haggard men and half-starved women filled the streets. Most of them were in tears, and all prayed aloud that Heaven would soften the earl's heart and suffer them to come back unharmed to the city. Three days later they returned. As they rode through the streets all could see that their news was bad, and that they had returned because the earl had refused to accept them as sacrifices for the rest. An enormous crowd gathered in front of the town-hall, and in a few minutes Van Artevelde and his companions appeared on the balcony.

There was a dead hush among the multitude. They felt that life or death hung on his words. He told them that the count had refused altogether to accept twelve lives as ransom for the city, and that he would give no terms save that he would become its master and would execute all such as were found to have taken part in the rebellion against him.

A despairing moan rose from the square below.

"Fellow citizens," Van Artevelde went on, "there is now but one of two things for us to do. The one is to shut our gates, retire to our houses, and there die either by famine or by such other means as each may choose. The other way is, that every man capable of bearing arms shall muster, that we shall march to Bruges, and there either perish under the lances of his knights, or conquer and drive him headlong from the land. Which choose ye, my friends?"

A mighty shout arose: "We will fight!"

"You have chosen well," Van Artevelde said. "Have we not before now defeated forces of men-at-arms superior in numbers to ourselves? Are we less brave than our fathers? Shall we not fight as stoutly when we know that we leave famishing wives and children behind who look to us to bring them back food? Return to your homes! A double ration of bread shall be served out from the magazines to all. Two hours before daybreak we will muster in our companies, and an hour later start for Bruges."

Among those who shouted loudest, "We will fight!" were the two young knights. They had, as soon as it was known that Van Artevelde and his party had entered the town, gone with Van Voorden to the house of a friend of his in the great square. They heard with indignation the refusal of the Earl of Flanders to accept the noble sacrifice offered by the twelve burgesses, who had followed the example of the Governor of Calais and its leading citizens in offering their lives as a sacrifice for the rest. They had met, however, with a less generous foe, whose terms would, if accepted, have placed the life and property of every citizen of Ghent at his mercy. What that was likely to be had been shown at Ypres. Now the young knights felt indeed that the cause was a righteous one, and that they could draw their swords for Ghent with the conviction that by so doing they were fighting to save its people from massacre.

"By heavens!" Van Voorden exclaimed, "were I but younger I too would go out with the Ghentois to battle. I care but little myself as to the rights of the quarrel, though methinks that Ghent is right in resisting the oppressive taxes which, contrary to their franchise, the earl has laid on the city. But that is nothing. One has but to look upon the faces of the crowd to feel one's blood boil at the strait to which their lord, instead of fighting them boldly, has, like a coward, reduced them by famine. But now when I hear that he has refused the prayer for mercy, refused to stay his vengeance, or to content himself with the heads of the noblest of the citizens offered to him, but instead would deluge the streets with blood, I would march with them as to a crusade. I will presently see Van Artevelde if but for a moment, tell him that you will ride with him, and ask where you shall take your station."

Late that evening Van Voorden returned. "I have been present at the council," he said. "The gates will not be open to-morrow, but on Thursday five thousand men will set out early."

"But five thousand is a small number," Edgar said, "to march against Bruges, a city as large as this, and having there the earl, and no doubt a strong body of his own troops."

"That is true; but most of the men are so weakened that it is thought that it will be best to take but a small number of the strongest and most capable. They will carry with them the three hundred hand guns. What little provision there is must be divided; half will go with those who march, the other half will be kept for those here to sustain life until news comes how matters have fared in the field."

"But with only five thousand men, without machines for the siege, they can never hope to storm the walls of Bruges. It would be a feat that as many veteran soldiers might well hesitate to undertake."

"They have no thought of doing so. It has been agreed that this would be impossible, but the force will camp near the city, and seeing the smallness of their number, the people of Bruges will surely sally out and attack them. Then they will do their best for victory, and if they beat the enemy our men will follow on their rear hotly and enter the city."

"'Tis a bold plan," Edgar said; "but at least there seems some hope of success, which no other plan, methinks, could give. At any rate we two will do our best, and being well fed and well armed may hope to be able to cut our way out of the melee if all should be lost. We fight for honour and from good-will. But this is not a case in which we would die rather than turn bridle, as it would be were we fighting under the banner of England and the command of the king."

"Quite so, Edgar; I agree with you entirely," the merchant said. "You have not come to this country to die in the defence of Ghent. You came hither to do, if occasion offers, some knightly deeds, and feeling pity for the starving people here you offer them knightly aid, and will fight for them as long as there is a chance that fighting may avail them, but beyond that it would be folly indeed to go; and when you see the day hopelessly lost, you and your men-at-arms may well try to make your way out of the crowd of combatants, and to ride whither you will. I say not to return here, for that would indeed be an act of folly, since Ghent will have to surrender at once, and without conditions, as soon as the news comes that the battle is lost. Therefore your best plan would be to ride for Sluys, and there take ship again. As for me, I shall wait until news comes and then ride for Liege, and remain there with friends quietly until we see what the upshot of the affair is likely to be."

During the day preparations were made for the expedition. Five thousand of those best able to carry arms were chosen, but the store of provisions was so small that there were but five cartloads of biscuit and two tuns of wine for those who went, and a like quantity for the sustenance of those who stayed. The young knights were to ride in the train of Van Artevelde himself. In the morning the merchant had asked them what colours they would wear, for, so far, they had not provided themselves with scarves.

"You should have scarves, and knightly plumes also," he said, "and, if you carry lances, pennons; but as you say that you shall fight with sword, that matter can stand over. Tell me what colours you choose, and I will see that you have them."

Albert answered that he should carry his father's colours, namely, a red sash, and red and blue plumes. Edgar replied that he had never thought about it, but that he would choose white and red plumes, and a scarf of the same colour. These the merchant purchased in the afternoon, and his wife and daughter fastened the plumes in their helmets. At the appointed hour in the morning they clad themselves in full armour, and when they went down they found the merchant's wife and daughter were already afoot, and these fastened the scarves over their shoulders. On going down to the courtyard they found, to their surprise, that their two horses both carried armour on the chest, body, and head.

"It is right that you should go to battle in knightly fashion," the merchant said, "and I have provided you with what is necessary. Indeed, that is no more than is due. I brought you out here, and involved you in this business, and 'tis but right that I should see that you are protected as far as may be from harm."

The reins were supplemented by steel chains, so that the riders should not be left powerless were the leather cut by a sweeping blow. When they mounted, the merchant himself went with them to the spot where Van Artevelde's following were to assemble. The two men-at-arms, in high spirits at the thought of a fight, rode behind them, together with the two Van Voorden had engaged at Sluys, both of whom were able to speak a certain amount of English.

"If you are unhorsed, comrade," one of them said to Hal Carter, "and in an extremity, remember that the cry for mercy is 'Misericorde.'"

"By my faith," Hal replied, "'tis little likely that they will get that cry from me; as long as I can fight I will fight, when I can fight no longer they can slay me. Still, it is as well that I should know the word, as I should not like to kill any poor wretch who asks for quarter."

They found Van Artevelde already at the place of assembly. He greeted the young knights most cordially.

"Your presence here," he said, "will be invaluable to me. The word will soon go round to our host that you are English knights, and it will be held as a token that England is with us."

They waited half an hour, and then Van Voorden bade them adieu, as the cavalcade moved forward. Already the greater part of the armed men had moved out from the city, each band having assembled in its own quarter, and moved through the gates as soon as its number was complete. The instructions had been that each company, as it issued from the gates, was to follow the road to Bruges, and as soon as the sun rose it was to halt, when they were all to form up and move in order. Van Artevelde introduced the young knights to many of those who rode with him, as having lately arrived from England, and as being willing to take part in a battle for so good a cause.

The road was broad and wide, but the cavalcade rode in single file, so as to pass without difficulty the masses of marching men. Just as the sun rose they reached the head of the column. A halt was called; the country was flat, and the companies were now formed on a front half a mile wide, so that they could march at once faster and in an orderly body, as it was possible that some spy might have sent the news of their coming to Bruges, and they might be attacked on their way. There were no horses, save those of Van Artevelde and his immediate followers, the seven carts being dragged by men. As the march proceeded, Edgar and Albert requested Van Artevelde to give them leave to ride with their four men across the country, and to take with them a score of the most active foot-men.

"It will be hard," they said, "if we cannot come across a few cattle, sheep, or horses, or some sacks of flour, which would mightily help us. If we keep ahead of the main body we may, too, come by surprise on some of the farm-houses, and shall be able to send back news to you should there be any armed force approaching."

"By all means do so, and thanks for the offer."

Artevelde gave orders at once that twenty men of the company next to him should proceed as rapidly as they could ahead with the English knights, and should hold themselves under their command.

"We will go on, good fellows," Edgar said to them; "if we meet with a force too strong for us we shall ride back, but if we can capture aught in the way of food we will wait until you come up and leave it in your charge to hold until the others arrive."

Riding on fast the friends were soon two miles ahead of the main body. The villages on the road were found to be completely deserted, the people having removed weeks before; for lying, as they did, between the rival cities, they were likely to suffer at the hands of both. The party soon turned off and made across the country. Here and there a few animals could be seen over the flat expanse. Presently they came upon a mill; the water of the canal that turned its wheel was running to waste, and the place was evidently deserted.

"Hew down the door, Hal," Edgar said to his follower.

"That will I right willingly, my lord, for, in truth, I begin to feel well-nigh as hungry as those of Ghent. We have had good lodgings, and the beasts have fared well on hay, but had it not been for the food we brought from the last halting-place, verily I believe that we should not have had a bite from the time we entered the place five days ago to now."

"We have been in almost as bad a plight, Hal. It was well indeed that we filled up our panniers, in the knowledge that there was little to be obtained in Ghent; though in truth we knew not that the pressure of want was so great."

A few strokes with the heavy axe Hal carried at his saddlebow stove in the door, and they entered.

The interior of the mill was in great confusion, and by the manner in which things were thrown about, it was evident that it had been deserted in great haste, and probably some months before, when the fighting was going on hotly. "Look round, lads!" Edgar exclaimed. "They may well have left something behind when they fled so suddenly."

A shout was raised when the men-at-arms entered the next chamber. In one corner stood ten sacks of flour, and the bin, into which the flour ran from the stones, was half full, and contained enough to fill five or six others. One of the Flemish men-at-arms was at once ordered to ride back at full speed to the road to intercept the twenty foot-men. These were to be directed to come at once to take charge of the mill, and the messenger was then to ride on till he met Van Artevelde, and to beg him to send forward as many bakers as there might be among his following, and to inform him that there was flour enough to furnish a loaf for every man in the force. As soon as the foot-men arrived, Edgar and Albert set them to work. The three men had already collected a quantity of wood and lighted the fire in a great oven that they had found, and from which it was evident that the miller was also a baker, and supplied the villagers round them. The two knights, with their followers, again started on horseback, and after four hours' riding, returned with twelve cattle, four horses, and a score of sheep they had found grazing masterless over the country. By this time fifty bakers were at work, and five hundred men were sitting down round the mill waiting to carry the loaves, when baked, to the army. The animals were given over to the charge of ten of these men, who were ordered to drive them after the army until this halted. The young knights and their men-at-arms then rode away.