Chapter XV. A Crushing Defeat
 

The two young knights were both pleased to hear Sir Ralph's counsel, for they themselves had several times talked the matter over together, and agreed that there was little prospect of aught being done for many months. They felt that they were but wasting their time remaining before Oudenarde, where they were frequently offended by the overbearing manner of the Ghentois, who, on the strength of their defeat of the people of Bruges, considered themselves to be invincible. They had, during the four months that they had been in Flanders, learned enough of the language to make themselves easily understood. They had paid visits to Brussels and other places of importance, and were likely to learn nothing from the events of the siege, which, they could already see, was not going to be attended with success.

It was their first absence from home, and in the lack of all adventure and excitement, they would be glad to be back again. Therefore, after remaining three days, which only confirmed Sir Ralph in his view, they took leave of Van Artevelde, saying that they hoped to rejoin him as soon as there was any prospect of active service, and, riding to Sluys, took ship with their followers. At Sir Ralph's suggestion they retained in their train the two Flemings, whom they had found stout and useful fellows.

"Are you glad to go home again, Hal?" Sir Edgar said.

"Well, master, I should not be glad were there aught doing here, though now that they have granted a pardon to all concerned in Wat the Tyler's business, I can show my face without fear. But it has been a dull time. Except just for a score of blows in that business with the Bruges people there has been naught to do since we came over, except to groom the horses and polish the armour. One might as well have been driving a cart at St. Alwyth as moping about this camp."

"Perhaps there will be more stirring times when we come back again, Hal. Burgundy is arming, and it is like enough that France may join him, and in that case there will be fighting enough even to satisfy you; but we may have a few months at home before that is likely to take place."

The knights were landed at Gravesend, and their road lay together as far as St. Alwyth. It was late in the afternoon, and Sir Ralph and Albert rode straight home, telling Edgar that they should expect to see him in the morning. Edgar found his father going on just as usual. He received his son with pleasure, but without surprise, as Sir Ralph had called before he left, and had said that if he found that naught was doing at Oudenarde, he would recommend his own son and Edgar to return home for a while.

"Well, sir knight," Mr. Ormskirk said, smiling, "I have not yet congratulated you on your honour, but, believe me, I was right glad when I heard the news. You have had but little fighting, I hear."

"None at all, father, for the affair near Bruges could scarcely be called fighting. It was as naught to the fight we had down here before we went away; save for that, I have not drawn sword. I have returned home somewhat richer, for Van Artevelde gave Albert and myself rich presents as our share of the spoil taken there."

"You have grown nigh two inches," Mr. Ormskirk said, as Edgar laid aside his armour.

"I have done little else but eat and sleep, ride for an hour or two every day, and practise arms other two hours with Albert, for indeed there were few among the Flemings who knew aught of the matter save to strike a downright blow. They are sturdy fellows and strong, and can doubtless fight well side by side in a pitched battle, but they can scarce be called men-at-arms, seeing that they but takedown their weapons when these are required, and hang them up again until there is fresh occasion for their use. So that I have doubtless grown a bit, having nothing else to do."

"And for how long are you home, Edgar?"

"That I know not, father. Sir Ralph will go up with us to London next week. He says that it will be well we should present ourselves at Court, but after that we shall do nothing until affairs change in Flanders, or till a force goes from here to their aid."

Edgar rode over to the De Courcys' place the next morning, and received a warm welcome.

Four days later they rode to town with Sir Ralph. The king received them with much favour.

"Philip Van Artevelde sent me by Master Van Voorden a most favourable report of you," he said, "and told me that he was mightily beholden to you for his victory over the men of Bruges, for that had it not been for your collecting supplies for his men, they would have been too famished to have given battle, and that you led the charge into the midst of their ranks. I was pleased to find that my knights had borne themselves so well. And how goes on the siege of Oudenarde?"

"It can scarcely be called a siege, your Majesty," Edgar said; "there are a few skirmishes, but beyond that naught is done. If your Majesty would but send them out a good knight with skill in such matters they might take Oudenarde in ten days. As it is, 'tis like to extend to the length of the siege of Troy, unless the Burgundians come to its relief."

"I could send them a good knight, for I have plenty of them, but would they obey him?"

"Methinks not, sire," Edgar replied, frankly. "Just at present they are so content with themselves that they would assuredly accept no foreign leader, and have indeed but small respect for their own."

The king laughed. "What thought you of them, Sir Ralph?"

"'Tis what might be looked for, your Majesty. It is an army of bourgeois and craftsmen, stout fellows who could doubtless defend their walls against an attack, or might fight stoutly shoulder to shoulder, but they have an over-weening conceit in themselves, and deem that all that is necessary in war is to carry a pike or a pole-axe and use it stoutly. A party of children would do as well, or better, were they set to besiege a town. Leadership there is none. Parties go out to skirmish with the garrison; a few lives are lost, and then they return, well content with themselves. 'Tis a mockery of war!"

The king asked them many questions about the state of things in Flanders, to which they replied frankly that Flanders was united at present, and that they thought that--with five thousand English archers and as many men-at-arms under a commander of such station as would give him authority not only over his own troops but over the Flemings--they might be able to resist the attacks of Burgundy, or even of Burgundy allied with France; but that by themselves, without military leaders, they feared that matters would go ill with the Flemings.

The king bade the two friends come to the Court that evening; and when they did so he presented them to the young queen, speaking of them in very high terms.

"They were," he said, "the only men who did their duty on that day when the rioters invaded the Tower during our absence, killing with their own hands seven men who invaded the apartment of Lady De Courcy, and carrying her and her daughter safely through the crowd. Had all done their duty but a tenth part as well, the disgrace this rabble brought upon us would never have occurred, and the lives of my trusty councillors would have been saved."

"The king has already told me of your exploit here, and of other deeds as notable done by you; and Mynheer Van Voorden also spoke to me of the service you rendered him," the queen said, graciously, "but I had scarcely looked to see the heroes of these stories such young knights."

She spoke to them for some time, while the king's favourites looked on, somewhat ill-pleased at such graciousness being shown to the new-comers. The haughty De Vere, who had just been created Duke of Dublin, and who was about to start to undertake the governorship of Ireland, spoke in a sneering tone to a young noble standing next to him. Sir Ralph happened to overhear him, and touched him on the shoulder.

"My lord duke," he said, "methinks you need not grudge the honour that has fallen to those two young knights; you yourself have achieved far greater honour, and that without, so far as I know, ever having drawn your sword. But it were best that, if you have aught to say against them, you should say it in their hearing, when, I warrant me, either of them would gladly give you an opportunity of proving your valour. Your skill, indeed, would be needed, since I would wager either of them to spit you like a fly within five minutes; or should you consider them too young for so great a noble to cross swords with, I myself would gladly take up their quarrel."

The favourite flushed hotly, and for a moment hesitated. "I have no quarrel with them, Sir Ralph De Courcy," he said, after a short hesitation. "My words were addressed to a friend here."

"You spoke loud enough for me to hear, my lord duke, and should know that such words so spoken are an insult."

"They were not meant as such, Sir Ralph."

"Then, sir, I will give you my advice to hold your tongue more under government. Those young knights have earned royal favour not by soft words or mincing ways, but by their swords; and it were best in future that any remarks you may wish to make concerning them, should be either in strict privacy or openly and in their hearing."

So saying, he turned his back on the disconcerted young courtier, who shortly afterwards left the royal presence overcome by chagrin and confusion, for the knight's words had been heard by several standing round, and more than one malicious smile had been exchanged among his rivals for Court favour.

De Vere had a fair share of bravery, but the reports of the singular feats of swordsmanship by the young knights convinced him that he would have but small chance with either of them in a duel. Even if he came well out of it there would be but small credit indeed to him in overcoming a young knight who had not yet reached manhood, while, if worsted, it would be a fatal blow to his reputation. That evening he had a private interview with the king, and requested leave to start the next day to take up his new governorship. Sir Ralph related the incident to the lads as they returned to the hostelry where they had taken up their lodging.

"It was a heavy blow for his pride," he said. "I think not that he is a coward. The De Veres come of a good stock, but he saw that such a duel would do him great harm. The king himself, if he learned its cause, as he must have done, would have been greatly displeased, and the queen equally so, and there would have been no credit to him had he wounded you; while if he had been wounded, it would have been deemed a disgrace that he, the Duke of Dublin and Governor of Ireland, should have been worsted by so young a knight; therefore, I blame him not for refusing to accept the challenge I offered him, and it will make him soberer and more careful of his speech in future. It was a lesson he needly greatly, for I have often heard him among his companions using insolent remarks concerning men who were in every respect his superiors, save that they stood not so high in the favour of the king."

They remained a week in London, attending the Court regularly and improving their acquaintance with many whom they had met there in the troubled times. There was scarce a day that they did not spend some time at the house of Sir Robert Gaiton, Albert especially being always ready with some pretext for a visit there. Van Voorden had left London, sailing thence on the very day before they had arrived at Gravesend.

The summer passed quietly. Oudenarde still held out, and indeed no serious attack had been made upon it. Van Artevelde had sent a messenger to the King of France, begging him to mediate between the Flemings and the Duke of Burgundy, but the king had thrown the messenger into prison without returning answer, and in the autumn had summoned his levies to aid the duke in the invasion of Flanders. Seeing that fighting in earnest was likely to commence shortly, the knights took ship with their followers early in October, and after a fair voyage landed at Sluys and rode to Oudenarde. A formal alliance had by this time been made between the two countries, but no steps had been taken towards gathering an army in England. The two knights were, however, very cordially received by Van Artevelde.

"You have arrived just in time to ride with me to-morrow," he said. "I am going to see that all has been done to prevent the French from crossing the river. All the bridges have been broken save those at Comines and Warneton, and Peter De Bois is appointed to hold the one, and Peter De Winter the other."

The following morning some twenty horsemen started with Van Artevelde and rode to Ghent, and thence followed the bank of the Lys. Most of the bridges had been completely destroyed, and those at Comines and Warneton had both been so broken up that a handful of men at either could keep it against an army.

"We may feel safe, I think, sir knights," Van Artevelde said to his friends when they brought their tour of inspection to an end on the second day after starting.

"Assuredly we are safe against the French crossing by the bridges," Edgar said, "but should they find boats they may cross where they please."

"I have ordered every boat to be brought over to this side of the river, Sir Edgar, and a number of men have, by my orders, been engaged in doing so."

"Doubtless, sir. I have kept a look-out the whole distance and have not seen one boat on the other side of the stream; but there are numerous channels and canals by which the country folk bring down their produce; and however sharp the search may be, some boats may have escaped notice. Even a sunken one, that might seem wholly useless, could be raised and roughly repaired, and in a few trips could bring a number of men across under shadow of night. So far as I have read, it is rarely that an army has failed to find means of some kind for crossing a river."

But Philip Van Artevelde was not now, as he had been a year before, ready to take hints from others, and he simply replied, carelessly, "I have no doubt that my orders have been strictly carried out, sir knight," and rode forward again.

"I don't think things will go well with us, Albert," Edgar said. "With a general who knows nothing whatever of warfare, an army without officers, and tradesmen against men-at-arms, the look-out is not good. Van Artevelde ought to have had horsemen scattered over on the other side of the river, who would have brought us exact news as to the point against which the main body of the French is marching. They ought to have a man posted every two hundred yards along the river bank for fifteen miles above and below that point, then I should have four bodies of five thousand men each posted at equal distances three miles behind the river, so that one of these could march with all haste to the spot where they learned that the French were attempting to cross, and could arrive there long before enough of the enemy had made a passage, to withstand their onslaught.

"I will wager that the Lys will not arrest the passage of the French for twenty-four hours. Were Peter De Bois a reasonable man, I would ask leave of Van Artevelde to ride and take up our post with him, but he is an arrogant and ignorant fellow with whom I should quarrel before I had been in his camp an hour."

Two days passed quietly at Oudenarde, then the news came that the enemy had passed the Lys at Comines. Seeing that the bridge could not be crossed, the French army had halted. Some of the knights went down to the river, and after a search discovered some boats, in which they passed over with four hundred men-at-arms before nightfall, unperceived by the Flemings. They then marched towards Comines, hoping that the Flemings would leave their strong position near the head of the bridge to give battle, in which case they doubted not that the constable would find means so far to repair the bridge that the passage could begin.

Peter De Bois, however, was not to be tempted to leave his position, and the French had to remain all night on the marshy ground without food for themselves or their horses. In the morning, however, the Fleming, fearing that others might cross and reinforce the party, marched out against them. The knights and men-at-arms met them so stoutly that in a very short time the Flemings took to flight. The French at once set to work to repair the bridge, and by nightfall a great portion of the army had crossed. The weather was very wet and stormy, and the French army had suffered much.

There were besides Edgar and Albert some other English knights in the camp, and these gathered together as soon as the news came, and talked over what in their opinion had best be done.

"I think," said Sir James Pinder, a knight who had seen much service on many stricken fields, "it would be best to remain where we are, and to throw up fortifications behind which we can fight to better advantage, while the French cavalry would be able to do but little against us. The French troops must be worn out with marching, and with the terrible weather; they will find it difficult to procure food, and might even abstain altogether from coming against us, while, from what I see of this rabble, they may fight bravely, but they will never be able to withstand the shock of the French knights and men-at-arms. 'Tis like the French will be three or four days before they come hither, and by that time, with fifty thousand men to work at them, we should have works so strong and high that we could fearlessly meet them. Moreover, the threescore English archers who still remain would be able to gall them as they pressed forward, whereas in a pitched battle they would not be numerous enough to avail anything."

The other six knights all agreed with Sir James, who then said, "I hear that Van Artevelde has summoned his leaders to consult them as to the best course. I will go across and tell them what in our opinion had better be done."

He returned in half an hour. "'Tis hopeless," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "These Flemings are as obstinate as they are ignorant; not one of those present agreed with my proposal. Many, indeed, broke into rude laughter, and so I left them."

After crossing the Lys the French came to Ypres, and on the same day the Flemings broke up their camp before Oudenarde and marched, fifty thousand strong, to Courtray. On the following day they moved forward to ground which Van Artevelde and his counsellors deemed good for fighting. Behind them was a hill, a dyke was on one wing, and a grove of wood was on the other. The French were camped at Rosbecque, some four miles away. That evening Van Artevelde invited all the principal men and officers to sup with him, and gave them instructions for the morrow. He said that he was not sorry that no large force of Englishmen had come to their aid, for had they done so they would assuredly have had the credit of the victory. He also gave orders that no prisoners should be taken save the king himself, whom they would bring to Ghent and instruct in the Flemish language.

A false alarm roused the camp at midnight, and although it proved to be ill-founded, the Flemings were so uneasy at the thought that they might be attacked unawares, that great fires were lighted and meat cooked and wine drunk until an hour before daylight, when they arranged themselves in order of battle and also occupied a heath beyond the wood. A large dyke ran across in front of them, and behind them the ground was covered by small bushes. Philip Van Artevelde was in the centre with 9,000 picked men of Ghent, whom he always kept near his person, as he had but little faith in the goodwill of those from other towns.

Beyond these were the contingents of Alost and Grammont, of Courtray and Bruges, Damme and Sluys. All were armed with maces, steel caps, breast- pieces, and gauntlets of steel. Each carried a staff tipped with iron; each company and craft had its own livery, and colours and standards with the arms of their town. The morning was misty, and no sign could be seen of the French. After a time the Flemings became impatient, and determined to sally out to meet the enemy.

"It is just madness," Sir James said to the English knights, who, with their followers, had gathered round him. "I had great hopes that, with the dyke in their front to check the onrush of the French, they might withstand all attacks and come out victors; now they are throwing away their advantage, and going like sheep to the shearers. By my faith, friends, 'tis well that our horses have rested of late, for we shall need all their speed if we are to make our escape from this business."

As they moved forward in the mist they caught sight of some French knights, who moved backwards and forwards along their front and then rode away, doubtless to inform their countrymen that the Flemings were advancing against them. In the French army were all the best knights and leaders of France, and as soon as they heard that the Flemings were advancing they divided into three bodies, the one carrying the royal banner, which was to attack the Flemings in front; the two others were to move on either side and fall upon their flanks. This arranged, they moved forward with full confidence of victory.

The central division fell first upon the Flemings, but it was received so roughly that it recoiled a little, and several good knights fell. In a few minutes, however, the other two divisions attacked the Flemings' flanks. The English knights, who were stationed on the right, seeing what was coming, had in vain tried to get the companies on this side to face round so as to oppose a front to the attack. The consequence was that the weight of the attack fell entirely upon the extreme end of the line, doubling it up and driving it in upon the centre, while the same took place on the right. Thus in a very few minutes the Flemings were driven into a helpless mass, inclosed on three sides, and so pressed in, that those in front could scarce use their arms, many falling stifled without having struck a blow.

The centre fought well, but their rough armour could not resist the better tempered swords of the French knights, which cleft through the iron caps as if they had been but leather, while the steel points of the lances pierced breast-and back-piece. But chiefly the knights fought with axes and heavy maces, beating the Flemings to the ground, while their own armour protected them effectually from any blows in return. The noise was tremendous. The shouts of the leaders were unheard in the din of the blows of sword and mace on helm and steel cap. Specially fierce was the French assault against the point where Van Artevelde's banner flew. He himself had dismounted, and was fighting in the front rank, and in the terrible melee was, erelong, struck down and trampled to death; and indeed to every man that fell by the French weapons many were suffocated by the press, and on the French side many valiant knights, after fighting their way into the thick of the battle, met with a similar fate.

When the French division bore down on the right flank the seven English knights with their men-at-arms had fallen back. Single-handed it would have been madness had they attempted to charge against the solid line of the French.

"Keep well back!" Sir James Pinder cried, "If we get mixed up with the foot-men we shall be powerless. Let us bide our time, and deliver a stroke where we see an opportunity."

They continued, therefore, to rein back, as the Flemings were doubled up, powerless to give any aid, or to press forward towards the front line.

"Didst ever see so fearful a sight?" Sir James said. "Sure never before was so dense a mass. 'Tis like a sea raging round the edge of a black rock, and eating it away piecemeal. Were there but five thousand Flemings, they might do better; for now their very numbers prevent them from using their arms. Ah, here is a party with whom we may deal," and he pointed to a small body of French knights who were about to fall on the rear of the Flemings. "Now, gentlemen, St. George, St. George!"

Putting spurs to their horses, the seven knights and their followers dashed at the French. The latter were also mounted, unlike the majority of their companions, who before attacking had dismounted, and handed their horses to their pages. The party were fully double the strength of the English, but the impetus of the charge broke their line, and in a moment a fierce melee began. Edgar and Albert fought side by side. The former, as no missiles were flying, had thrown up his vizor, the better to be able to see what was passing round him. He was fighting with a battle-axe, for a sword was a comparatively poor weapon against knightly armour. His three first opponents fell headlong, their helmets crushed in under the tremendous blows he dealt them. Then warding off a blow dealt at him, he turned swiftly and drove his horse at a French knight who was on the point of striking at Albert with a mace while the latter was engaged with another opponent.

The sudden shock rolled rider and horse over. He heard Hal Carter shout, "Look out, Sir Edgar!" and forcing his horse to leap aside, he struck off the head of a lance that would have caught him in the gorget, and an instant later swept a French knight from his saddle. He looked round. Three of his companions were already down, and although many more of the French had fallen, the position was well-nigh desperate.

"We must cut our way through," he shouted, "or we shall be lost. Let all keep close together--forward!" and he and Albert, spurring their horses, fell furiously upon the French opposed to them.

Their splendid armour now proved invaluable; sword blows fell harmless on it, and lances glanced from its polished face. As he put spurs to his horse Edgar had dropped his vizor down again, for he wanted to strike now, and not to have to defend himself. With crushing blows he hewed his way through his opponents. The other two English knights kept close, and the men-at-arms fought as stoutly as their masters, until the party emerged from among their assailants. As they did so the knight next to Edgar reeled in his saddle. Edgar threw his arm round him, and supported him until they had ridden a short distance. Then, as they halted, he sprung from his horse and lowered him to the ground.

"Thanks," the knight murmured, as he opened his vizor. "But I am hurt to death. Leave me here to die quietly, and look to yourselves. All is lost."

Edgar saw that indeed his case was hopeless. A lance had pierced his body, and had broken short off; a minute later he had breathed his last. Edgar sprung upon his horse again, and looked round. Of the whole of their retainers but four remained, and all of these were wounded.

"Art hurt, Albert?" he asked.

"Naught to speak of, but I am sorely bruised, and my head rings with the blows I have had on my helmet."

"And you, Sir Eustace? I fear that you have fared less well."

"Wounded sorely," the English knight said. "But I can sit my horse, and methinks that it were best to ride off at once, seeing the Flemings are flying. We can assuredly do no good by remaining."

Edgar agreed. "Methinks that we had best ride for Sluys, and get there before the news of the defeat."

As they rode off they looked back. Behind them were a host of flying men, and many of them were throwing away their steel caps and armour to run the more quickly. The battle had lasted only half an hour, but by that time nine thousand Flemings had fallen, of whom more than half had been suffocated by the press. The flight, however, was far more fatal than the battle, for the French, as soon as the fight was won, mounted their horses, and chased the Flemings so hotly that twenty-five thousand were killed. The body of Van Artevelde was found after the battle. It was without a wound, but was so trampled on as to be almost unrecognizable. His body was taken and hung on a tree.

As they galloped off Edgar reined back to Hal Carter, who was one of the survivors.

"I see that you are badly hurt, Hal. As soon as we get fairly away we will halt, and I will bandage your wounds."

"They are of no great account, Sir Edgar. It was worth coming over from England to take part in such a fray; the worst part of it was that it did not last long enough."

"It lasted too long for many of us, Hal. You saved my life by that warning shout you gave, for, most assuredly, I must have been borne from my saddle had the blow struck me, unawares."

"It was a cowardly trick to charge a man when he was otherwise engaged," Hal said. "But you paid him well for it, master; you fairly crushed his helmet in."

Three miles on they halted in a wood to give the horses breathing time, when those unhurt bandaged the wounds of the others. It was found that Sir Eustace was so severely wounded that he could not go much farther, and that two of the men-at-arms were in as bad a case; the third was a Fleming.

"It were best to leave us here," Sir Eustace said. "We cannot ride much farther."

"That we will not do," Edgar said. "Torhut is but four miles away. We can ride at an easy pace, for the Flemings will make for Courtray and Ghent, and the French will pursue in that direction. 'Tis not likely that any will ride so far south as this."

"I have friends in Torhut," the Fleming said. "I come from that neighbourhood, and I can bestow Sir Eustace, my master, in a place of safety, and will look after him and these two who can go no farther."

"That will be well, indeed. Is it in the town itself?" Edgar asked.

"I have friends there, but an uncle of mine resides in a farm-house three quarters of a mile from the town. We can get help and shelter there."

"That would be safer, good fellow," Sir Eustace said. "I should not care to enter a town now, for some who saw us come in might be willing to gain favour with the French by saying where we were hidden. Moreover, we should be detained and questioned as to the battle. I have money wherewith to pay your uncle well for the pains to which he will be put. Well, let us forward; the sooner we are in shelter the better."

They rode slowly now until they saw the steeple of Torhut, and then turned off the road, and in half an hour came to a farm-house. The Fleming had ridden on a short distance ahead.

"My uncle will take them in," he said. "He has a loft in the top of his house, and can bestow them there safely, for none would be likely to suspect its existence, even if they searched the house. My uncle is a true Fleming, and would have taken them in without payment, but I say not that he will refuse what my master may be willing to pay."

Ten minutes later, Edgar and Albert continued their way, followed now by Hal Carter alone. The latter had washed the blood from his face and armour, and had thrown a short cloak over his shoulders, so that they could pass without its being suspected that they had taken part in a desperate fray. After riding for some hours they stopped at a wayside inn, and, avoiding Bruges, rode the next day into Sluys, where they found a vessel sailing that evening for England. No rumour of the disastrous battle of Rosebeque had, as yet, reached Sluys; but the two young knights, calling upon the merchant who had entertained them at their first landing, informed him of what had happened.

"'Tis well that it is so," he said, "for, in truth, the domination of the craftsmen of Ghent and the other great cities would have been far harder to bear than that of the earl, or of France, or of Burgundy. Already the taxes and imposts are four times as heavy as those laid upon us by the earl, and had they gained a victory these people would soon have come to exercise a tyranny altogether beyond bearing. 'Tis ever thus when the lower class gain dominion over the upper."