Winning His Spurs by G. A. Henty
Chapter XV. A Hermit's Tale.
The next day he discovered on his excursions plenty of eatable berries on the bushes; and now that he had no longer fear of hunger he resolved to stay for some little time, until his wounds, which had festered badly, had recovered, before making an attempt to rejoin the Christian army.
One day when employed in gathering berries he was surprised by meeting a wild-looking figure, who appeared suddenly from one of the caves. It was that of a very old man, with an extremely long white beard flowing to his waist; his hair, which was utterly unkempt, fell to the same point. He was thin to an extraordinary extent, and Cuthbert wondered how a man could have been reduced to such a state of starvation, with so plentiful a supply of fruit and berries at hand.
The old man looked at Cuthbert attentively, and then made the sign of the cross. Cuthbert gave a cry of joy, and repeated the sign. The old man at once came down from his cavern, and looked at him with surprise and astonishment, and then addressed him in the French language.
"Are you a Christian truly; and if so, whence do you come?"
Cuthbert at once explained that he had been taken prisoner when with King Richard's army, and had effected his escape. He also told the old man that he had been remaining for the last four days in a cave higher up the stream. The hermit--for he was one--beckoned him to follow him, and Cuthbert found himself in a cave precisely similar to that which he himself inhabited. There were no signs of comfort of any kind; a bed-place made of great stones stood in one corner, and Cuthbert, remembering the comforts of his own grassy couch, shuddered at the thought of the intense discomfort of such a sleeping-place. In another corner was an altar, upon which stood a rough crucifix, before which the hermit knelt at once in prayer, Cuthbert following his example. Rising again, the hermit motioned to him to sit down, and then began a conversation with him.
It was so long since the hermit had spoken to any living being, that he had almost lost the use of his tongue, and his sentences were slow and ill-formed. However, Cuthbert was able to understand him, and he to gather the drift of what Cuthbert told him. The old man then showed him, that by touching a stone in the corner of his cave the apparently solid rock opened, and revealed an entrance into an inner cave, which was lit by a ray of light, which penetrated from above.
"This," he said, "was made centuries ago, and was intended as a refuge from the persecutors of that day. The caves were then almost all inhabited by hermits, and although many recked not of their lives, and were quite ready to meet death through the knife of the infidel, others clung to existence, and preferred to pass many years of penance on earth for the sake of atoning for their sins before called upon to appear before their Maker.
"If you are pursued, it will be safer for you to take up your abode here. I am known to all the inhabitants of this country, who look upon me as mad, and respect me accordingly. None ever interfere with me, or with the two or three other hermits, the remains of what was once almost an army, who now alone survive. I can offer you no hospitality beyond that of a refuge; but there is water in the river below, fruits and berries in abundance on the shrubs. What would you have more?"
Cuthbert accepted the invitation with thanks; for he thought that even at the worst the presence of this holy man would be a protection to him from any Arabs who might discover him.
For three or four days he resided with the hermit, who, although he stretched his long lean body upon the hard stones of his bed, and passed many hours of the night kneeling on the stone floor in front of his alter, yet had no objection to Cuthbert making himself as comfortable as he could under the circumstances.
At the end of the fourth day Cuthbert asked him how long he had been there, and how he came to take up his abode in so desolate and fearsome a place. The hermit was silent for a time, and then said,--
"It is long indeed since my thoughts have gone back to the day when I was of the world. I know not whether it would not be a sin to recall them; but I will think the matter over to-night, and if it appears to me that you may derive good from my narrative, I will relate it to you to-morrow."
The next day Cuthbert did not renew the request, leaving it to the hermit to speak should he think fit. It was not until the evening that he alluded to the subject; and then taking his seat on a bank near the edge of the river, he motioned to Cuthbert to sit beside him, and began,--
"My father was a peer of France, and I was brought up at the court. Although it may seem strange to you, looking upon this withered frame, sixty-five years back I was as bold and comely a knight as rode in the train of the king, for I am now past ninety, and for sixty years I have resided here. I was a favourite of the king's, and he loaded me with wealth and honour. He, too, was young, and I joined with him in the mad carousals and feastings of the court. My father resided for the most part at one of his castles in the country, and I, an only son, was left much to myself. I need not tell you that I was as wild and as wicked as all those around me; that I thought little of God, and feared neither Him nor man.
"It chanced that one of the nobles--I need not mention his name--whose castle lay in the same province as that of my father, had a lovely daughter, who, being an only child, would be his heiress. She was considered one of the best matches in France, and reports of her exceeding beauty had reached the court. Although my allowance from my father, and from the estates which the king had give me personally, should have been more than enough for my utmost wants, gambling and riotous living swallowed up my revenue faster than it came in, and I was constantly harassed by debt.
"Talking one night at supper with a number of bold companions, as to the means we should take for restoring our wasted fortunes, some said in jest that the best plan would be for one of us to marry the beauty of Dauphiny. I at once said that I would be the man to do it; the ideas was a wild one, and a roar of laughter greeted my words. Her father was known to be a stern and rigid man, and it was certain that he would not consent to give his daughter to a spendthrift young noble like myself. When the laughter had subsided I repeated my intention gravely, and offered to wager large sums with all around the table that I would succeed.
"On the morrow I packed up a few of my belongings, put in my valise the dress of a wandering troubadour, and taking with me only a trusty servant, started for Dauphiny. It would be tedious to tell you the means I resorted to to obtain the affections of the heiress. I had been well instructed in music and could play on the lute, and knew by heart large numbers of ballads, and could myself, in case of necessity, string verses together with tolerable ease. As a troubadour I arrived at the castle gate, and craved permission to enter to amuse its occupants. Troubadours then, as now, were in high esteem in the south, and I was at once made a welcome guest.
"Days passed, and weeks; still I lingered at the castle, my heart being now as much interested as my pride in the wager which I had undertaken. Suffice it to say, that my songs, and perhaps my appearance--for I cannot be accused of vanity now in saying nature had been bountiful to me--won my way to her heart. Troubadours were licensed folk, and even in her father's presence there was nought unseemly in my singing songs of love. While he took them as the mere compliments of a troubadour, the lady, I saw, read them as serious effusions of my heart.
"It was only occasionally that we met alone; but ere long she confessed that she loved me. Without telling her my real name, I disclosed to her that I was of her own rank, and that I had entered upon the disguise I wore in order to win her love. She was romantic, and was flattered by my devotion. I owned to her that hitherto I had been wild and reckless; and she told me at once that her father destined her for the son of an old friend of his, to whom it appeared she had been affianced while still a baby. She was positive that nothing would move her father. For the man she was to marry she entertained no kind of affection, and indeed had never seen him, as she had been brought up in a convent to the age of fifteen; and just before she had returned thence, he had gone to finish his education at Padua.
"She trembled when I proposed flight; but I assured her that I was certain of the protection of the king, and that he would, I was sure, when the marriage was once celebrated, use his influence with her father to obtain his forgiveness.
"The preparations for her flight were not long in making. I purchased a fleet horse in addition to my own, and ordered my servant to bring it to a point a short distance from the castle gate. I had procured a long rope with which to lower her down from her lattice to the moat below, which was at present dry, intending myself to slide after her. The night chosen was one when I knew that the count was to have guests, and I thought that they would probably, as is the custom, drink heavily, and that there would be less fear of any watch being kept.
"The guests arrived just at nightfall. I had feigned illness, and kept my room. From time to time I heard through the windows of the banqueting hall bursts of laughter. These gradually ceased; and at last, when all was still, I, awaiting some time, stole from my room with a rope in my hand to the apartment occupied by her. A slight tap at the door, as arranged, was at once answered, and I found her ready cloaked and prepared for the enterprise. She trembled from head to foot, but I cheered her to the best of my power, and at last she was in readiness to be lowered. The window was at a considerable height from the ground; but the rope was a long one, and I had no fear of its reaching the bottom. Fastening it round her waist, I began to lower her from the window.
"The night was a windy one, and she swung backwards and forwards as she went down. By what chance it was I know not,--for I had examined the rope and found it secure--but methinks in swaying backwards and forwards it may have caught a sharp stone, maybe it was a punishment from Heaven upon me for robbing a father of his child--but suddenly I felt there was no longer a weight on my arms. A fearful shriek rang through the air, and, looking out, I saw far below a white figure stretched senseless in the mud!
"For a minute I stood paralyzed. But the cry had aroused others, and, turning round, I saw a man at the door with a drawn sword. Wild with grief and despair, and thinking, not of making my escape, or of concealing my part in what had happened, but rushing without an instant's delay to the body of her I loved so well, I drew my sword, and like a madman rushed upon him who barred the door. The combat was brief but furious, and nerved by the madness of despair I broke down his guard and ran him through the body. As he fell back, his face came in the full light of the moon, which streamed through the open door of the passage, and to my utter horror and bewilderment I saw that I had slain my father.
"What happened after that night I know not. I believe that I made my escape from the castle and rushed round to the body of her whose life I had destroyed, and that there finding her dead, I ran wildly across the country. When I came to my senses months had passed, and I was the inmate of an asylum for men bereaved of their senses, kept by noble monks. Here for two years I remained, the world believing that I was dead. None knew that the troubadour whose love had cost the lady her life, who had slain the guest of her father, and had then disappeared, was the unhappy son of that guest. My friends in Paris when they heard of the tragedy of course associated it with me, but they all kept silent. The monks, to whom I confessed the whole story, were shocked indeed, but consoled me in my grief and despair by the assurance that however greatly I had sinned, the death of the lady had been accidental, and that if I were a parricide it was at least unintentionally.
"My repentance was deep and sincere; and after a while, under another name, I joined the army of the crusaders, to expiate my sin by warring for the holy sepulchre. I fought as men fight who have no wish to live; but while all around me fell by sword and disease, death kept aloof from me. When the crusade had failed I determined to turn for ever from the world, and to devote my life to prayer and penance; and so casting aside my armour, I made my way here, and took up my abode in a cave in this valley, where at that time were many thousands of other hermits--for the Saracens, while they gained much money from fines and exactions from pilgrims who came to Jerusalem, and fought stoutly against those who sought to capture that city, were in the main tolerant, and offered no hindrance to the community of men whom they looked upon as mad.
"Here, my son, for more than sixty years have I prayed, with much fasting and penance. I trust now that the end is nearly at hand, and that my long life of mortification may be deemed to have obliterated the evil deeds which I did in my youth. Let my fate be a warning to you. Walk steadily in the right way; indulge not in feasting and evil companionship; and above all, do not enter upon evil deeds, the end of which no man can see."
The hermit was silent, and Cuthbert, seeing that his thoughts had again referred to the past, wandered away, and left him sitting by the river side. Some hours later he returned, and found the hermit kneeling before the altar; and the next morning the latter said,--
"I presume, my son, you do not wish to remain here as a hermit, as I have done? Methinks it were well that we made our arrangements for your return to the Christian host, who will, I hope, ere long be at the gates of Jerusalem."
"I should like nothing better," Cuthbert said. "But ignorant as I am of the nature of the country, it seems to be nigh impossible to penetrate through the hosts of the Saracens to reach the camp of King Richard."
"The matter is difficult and not without danger," the hermit said. "As to the nature of the country, I myself know but little, for my dealings with the natives have been few and simple. There are, however, several Christian communities dwelling among the heathen. They are poor, and are forced to live in little-frequented localities. Their Christianity may be suspected by their neighbours, but as they do no man harm, and carry on their worship in secret, they are little interfered with. There is one community among the hills between this and Jerusalem, and I can give you instructions for reaching this, together with a token which will secure you hospitality there, and they will no doubt do their best to forward you to another station. When you approach the flat country where the armies are maneuvering you must doubtless trust to yourself; but as far as the slopes extend, methinks that our friends will be able to pass you without great difficulty."
Cuthbert's heart rose greatly at the prospect of once again entering upon an active life, and the next evening, with many thanks for his kindness, he knelt before the aged hermit to receive his blessing.
With the instructions given him he had no difficulty in making his way through the mountains, until after some five hours' walk he found himself at a little village situated in a narrow valley.
Going to the door of the principal hut, he knocked, and upon entering showed the owner--who opened the door--a rosette of peculiar beads, and repeated the name of Father Anselm. The peasant at once recognized it, and bade Cuthbert welcome. He knew but a few words of French, although doubtless his ancestors had been of European extraction. In the morning he furnished Cuthbert with the sheepskin and short tunic which formed the dress of a shepherd, and dyeing his limbs and face a deep brown, he himself started with Cuthbert on his journey to the next Christian community.
This was a small one, consisting of two huts only, built almost on the summit of a mountain, the inhabitants living partly on the milk and cheese of their goats, and partly upon the scanty vegetables which grew around the huts.
His welcome was as cordial as that of the night before; and the next morning, his former guide taking leave of him, the peasant in whose house he had slept, again conducted him forward to another community. This was the last station, and stood in a narrow gorge on the face of the hills looking down over the plain, beyond which in the far distance a faint line of blue sea was visible.
This community was far more prosperous and well-to-do than those at which the previous nights had been passed. The head of the village appeared to be a personage of some importance; and although clinging in secret to his Christian faith, he and his belongings had so far adopted the usages of the Mussulmen that apparently no thought of their Christianity entered into the minds of the authorities. He was the owner of two or three horses, and of some extensive vineyards and olive grounds. He was also able to speak French with some degree of fluency.
At considerable length he explained to Cuthbert the exact position of the Christian army, which had moved some distance along the coast since Cuthbert had left it. It was, he said, exposed to constant attacks by the Saracens, who harassed it in every way, and permitted it no repose. He said that the high hopes which had been raised by the defeat of the Saracens at Azotus, had now fallen, and that it was feared the Christians would not be able to force their way forward to Jerusalem. The great portion of their animals had died, and the country was so eaten up by the Saracen hosts, that an advance upon Jerusalem without a large baggage train was next to impossible; and indeed if the Christians were to arrive before that city, they could effect nothing without the aid of the heavy machines necessary for battering the walls or effecting an escalade.
Cuthbert was vastly grieved when he heard of the probable failure of the expedition, and he burned with eagerness to take his part again in the dangers and difficulties which beset the Christian army. His host pointed out to him the extreme difficulty and danger of his crossing the enemy's lines, but at the same time offered to do all in his power to assist him. After two days' stay at the village, and discussing the pros and cons of all possible plans, it was decided that the best chance lay in a bold effort. The host placed at his disposal one of his horses, together with such clothes as would enable him to ride as an Arab chief of rank and station; a long lance was furnished him, a short and heavy mace, and scimitar; a bag of dates was hung at the saddle-bow; and with the sincerest thanks to his protector, and with a promise that should the Christian host win their way to Jerusalem the steed should be returned with ample payment, Cuthbert started on his journey.