Winning His Spurs by G. A. Henty
Chapter XVI. A Fight of Heroes.
The horse was a good and spirited one, and when he had once descended to the plains, Cuthbert rode gaily along, exulting in his freedom, and in once again possessing arms to defend himself should it be needed. His appearance was so exactly that of the horsemen who were continually passing and repassing that no observation whatever was attracted by it. Through villages, and even through camps, Cuthbert rode fearlessly, and arrived, without having once been accosted, near the main camp of the Saracens, which extended for miles parallel to the sea. But at a distance of some three leagues beyond, could be seen the white tents of the Christian host, and Cuthbert felt that the time of trial was now at hand.
He dismounted for an hour to allow his steed to rest itself, fed it with dates from his wallet, and gave it a drink of water at the stream. Then, when he felt that it had thoroughly recovered its strength and freshness, he re-mounted, and rode briskly on as before. He passed unchallenged, attracting no more notice than a person now-a-days would do in walking along a crowded street. Without hesitation he passed through the tents and started across the open country. Bands of horsemen were seen here and there, some going, and some coming from the direction of the Christian camp. As it was doubtless supposed that he was on his way to join some band that had gone on in advance, the passage of the solitary horseman excited no comment until he approached within about two miles of the Christian camp. There were now, so far as he could see, no enemies between him and the point he so longed to gain. But at this minute a group of Arab horsemen, gathered, apparently on the look-out against any movement of the Christians, shouted to him "Halt!" demanding whither he was going.
Up to this point Cuthbert had ridden at a gentle canter; but at the challenge he put spurs into his steed and made across the plain at full speed. With a wild yell the Arabs started in pursuit. They lay at first some 200 yards on his right, and he had therefore a considerable start of them. His horse was fairly fresh, for the journey that he had made had only been about fifteen miles--an inconsiderable distance to an Arab steed. For half a mile he did not think that his pursuers gained much upon him, riding as they had done sideways. They had now gathered in his rear, and the nearest was some 150 yards behind him. A quarter of a mile farther he again looked round, and found that two of the Arabs, far better mounted than the others, had come within half the distance which separated them from him when he last glanced back. His horse was straining to the utmost, and he felt that it could do no more; he therefore prepared himself for a desperate fight should his pursuers overtake him. In another quarter of a mile they were but a short distance behind, and an arrow whizzing by Cuthbert's ear told him they had be-taken themselves to their bows.
Half a mile ahead he saw riding towards him a group of Christian knights; but he felt that it was too late for him to hope to reach them, and that his only chance now was to boldly encounter his pursuers. The main body of the Arabs was fully 200 yards behind--a short distance when going at a gallop--which left him but little time to shake off the pursuit of the two immediately behind him.
A sharp stinging pain in his leg told him that it was time to make his effort; and checking his horse, he wheeled suddenly round. The two Arabs with a yell rode at him with pointed lance. With his right hand Cuthbert grasped the short heavy mace which hung at his saddle-bow, and being well practised in the hurling of this weapon--which formed part of the education of a good knight--he cast it with all his force at the chest of the Arab approaching on that side. The point of the spear was within a few yards of his breast as he flung the mace; but his aim was true, for it smote the Saracen full on the chest, and hurled him from his horse as if struck with a thunderbolt. At the same instant Cuthbert threw himself flat on the neck of his steed and the lance of the Arab who came up on the other side passed harmlessly between his shoulders, tearing his clothes as it went. In an instant Cuthbert had wheeled his horse, and before the Arab could turn his steed Cuthbert, coming up from behind, had run him through the body.
Short as the delay had been, the main body of the pursuers were scarcely fifty yards away; but Cuthbert now continued his flight towards the knights, who were galloping forward at full speed; and a moment afterwards glancing back, he saw that his pursuers had turned and were in full flight.
With a shout of joy he rode forward to the party who had viewed with astonishment this conflict between what appeared to be three of the infidels. Even louder than his first shout of exultation was the cry of joy which he raised at seeing among the party to whom he rode up, the Earl of Evesham, who reined in his horse in astonishment, and drew his sword as the supposed enemy galloped towards him.
"My lord, my lord!" Cuthbert said. "Thank heaven I am safe with you again."
The earl lowered his sword in astonishment.
"Am I mad," he said, "or dreaming, or is this really Sir Cuthbert?"
"It is I sure enough," Cuthbert exclaimed, "although truly I look more like a Bedouin soldier than a Christian knight."
"My dear boy!" exclaimed the earl, galloping forward and throwing his arms around Cuthbert's neck, "we thought you were dead. But by what wonderful fortune have you succeeded in escaping?"
In a few words Cuthbert related the principal incidents of his adventures, and he was heartily congratulated by the assembled knights.
There was, however, no time for long explanations. Large bodies of the Saracen horse were already sweeping down, to capture, if possible, this small band of knights who had ventured so far from the camp; and as King Richard's orders were that none should venture upon conflicts except by his orders, the party reluctantly turned their horses and galloped back to the camp.
Great as had been the earl's joy, it was, if possible, exceeded by that of Cnut on discovering in the Arab chief who rode up alongside the earl, the lad he loved so well. Loud and hearty were the cheers which rang out from the earl's camp as the news spread, and Cuthbert was compelled to shake hands with the whole party before entering the earl's tent, to refresh himself and give the narrative of what had happened.
Cuthbert, retiring to his tent with the Earl of Evesham, inquired of him what had taken place during his absence.
"For," he said, "although but a short three days' march from here, I have been as one of the dead, and have heard nothing whatever of what has taken place."
"Nothing could have gone worse," the earl said. "We have had nothing but dissensions and quarrels. First, the king fell out with the Archduke of Austria."
"On what ground did this happen?" Cuthbert asked.
"For once," the earl said, "the king our master was wholly in the wrong, which is not generally the case. We had just taken Ascalon, and were hard at work fortifying the place. King Richard with his usual zeal, in order to encourage the army, seized heavy stones and himself bore them into their place. The Archduke stood near with some of his knights: and it may be that the haughty Austrian looked somewhat superciliously at our king, thus labouring.
"'Why do you not make a show of helping?' King Richard said, going up to him. 'It would encourage the men, and show that the labour upon which we are engaged can be undertaken by all without derogation.'
"To this the Archduke replied,--
"'I am not the son of a mason!'
"Whereupon Richard, whose blood no doubt had been excited by the air of the Austrian, struck him with his hand a fierce blow across the face. We nearly betook ourselves to our swords on both sides; but King Richard himself could have scattered half the Austrians, and these, knowing that against his impetuous valour they could do nothing, simply withdrew from our camp, and sailed the next day for home. Then the king, in order to conciliate some at least of his allies, conferred the crown of Jerusalem upon Conrad of Montferat. No sooner had he done this than Conrad was mysteriously wounded. By whom it was done none knew. Some say that it was by emissaries of the Old Man of the Mountain. Others affirm that it was the jealousy of some of the knights of the holy orders. But be that as it may, he died. Some of the French, ever jealous of the valour of our king, ascribed it to his orders. This monstrous accusation coming to the ears of King Richard, he had hot words with the Duke of Burgundy. In this I blame him not, for it is beyond all reason that a man like the king, whose faults, such as they are, arise from too much openness, and from the want of concealment of such dislikes as he may have, should resort to poison to free himself of a man whom he himself had but a day or two before appointed King of Jerusalem. However it be, the consequences were most unfortunate, for the result of the quarrel was that the Duke of Burgundy and his Frenchmen followed the example of the Austrians, and we were left alone. Before this we had marched upon Jerusalem. But the weather had been so bad, and our train was so insufficient to carry the engines of war, that we had been forced to fall back again. King Richard again advanced, and with much toil we went as far as the village of Bethany."
"Why," Cuthbert exclaimed, "I passed through that village, and it is but three miles from the holy city."
"That is so," the earl said; "and many of us, ascending the hill in front, saw Jerusalem. But even then it was certain that we must again retrace our steps; and when we asked King Richard to come to the crest of the hill to see the holy city, he refused to do so, saying, 'No; those who are not worthy of conquering Jerusalem should not look at it!' This was but a short time since, and we are now retracing our steps to Acre, and are treating with Saladin for a peace."
"Then," Cuthbert said sadly, "all our hopes and efforts are thrown away; all this blood has been shed for nothing; and after the three great powers of Europe have engaged themselves solemnly in the war, we are baffled, and have to fall back before the hordes of the infidels."
"Partly before them," the earl said, "partly as the result of our own jealousies and passions. Had King Richard been a lesser man than he is, we might have conquered Jerusalem. But he is so extraordinary a warrior that his glory throws all others into the shade. He is a good general, perhaps the best in Europe; and had he done nothing but lead, assuredly we should have carried out our purpose. See how ably he maneuvered the army at the fight of Azotus. Never was a more complete defeat than that which he inflicted there upon the Saracens; and although the fact that his generalship achieved this, might have caused some jealousy to the other commanders, this might have died away could he between the battles have been a general, and nothing more. But alas! he is in addition a knight-errant--and such a knight-errant as Europe has never seen before. Wherever there is danger, Richard will plunge into the midst. There are brave men in all the three armies; but the strongest and bravest are as children to King Richard. Alone he can dart into ranks of the infidels, and cut a lane for himself by the strength of his right arm. More than this, when danger has threatened he has snatched up his battle-axe and dashed into the fray without helm or cuirass, performing such prodigies of valour and strength that it has been to his prowess alone that victory was to be ascribed. Hence he is the idol of all the soldiers, whatever their nationality; for he is as ready to rush to the rescue of a French or Austrian knight when pressed as to that of his own men. But the devotion which the whole army felt for him was as gall and wormwood to the haughty Austrian and the indolent Frenchman; and the retirement of the King of France, which left Richard in supreme command, was in every way unfortunate."
Upon the following day the army again marched, and Cuthbert could not but notice the difference, not only in number but in demeanour, from the splendid array which had left Acre a few months before. There was little now of the glory of pennon and banner; the bright helms and cuirasses were rusted and dinted, and none seemed to care aught for bravery of show. The knights and men-at-arms were sunburnt and thin, and seemed but half the weight that they had been when they landed. Fatigue, hardship, and the heat had done their work; disease had swept off vast numbers. But the remains of the army were so formidable in their fighting powers that the Saracens, although following them at a distance in vast numbers, did not venture an attack upon them.
A few days after their arrival at Acre, the king gave orders for the embarcation of the troops. Just as they were preparing to enter the ships a small vessel was seen entering the harbour. It drew up to the shore, and a knight leaped from it, and, inquiring where King Richard was to be found, made his way to the king, who was standing superintending the embarcation of some of the horses.
"The Saracens, sire!" he exclaimed. "The Saracens are besieging Jaffa, and the place must be lost unless assistance arrives in a day or two."
The king leaped on board the nearest ship, shouted to his leading officers to follow him, and gave orders to others to bring down the troops with all possible speed, to waste not a moment, and to see that all was done, and then, in five minutes after the receipt of the news he started for Jaffa. The Earl of Evesham and Cuthbert had been standing near the king when the order was given, and followed him at once on board the bark which he had chosen.
"Ah, my gallant young knight," the king exclaimed, "I am right glad to see you with me. We shall have more fighting before we have done, and I know that that suits your mood as well as my own."
The king's vessel was far in advance of any of the others, when early the following morning it arrived at Jaffa.
"Your eyes are better than mine," the king said to Cuthbert. "Tell me what is that flag flying on the top of the town."
Cuthbert looked at it earnestly.
"I fear, sire, that it is the crescent. We have arrived too late."
"By the holy cross," said King Richard, "that shall not be so; for if the place be taken, we will retake it."
As the vessel neared the shore a monk ran out into the water up to his shoulders, and said to the king that the citadel still held out, and that even now the Saracens might be driven back. Without delay the king leaped into the water, followed by the knights and men-at-arms, and entering the gate, threw himself upon the infidels within, who, busy plundering, had not noticed the arrival of the ship.
The war cry of "St. George! St. George!" which the king always shouted in battle, struck panic among the infidels; and although the king was followed but by five knights and a few men-at-arms, the Saracens, to the number of 3000, fled before him, and all who tarried were smitten down. The king followed them out upon the plain, driving them before him as a lion would drive a flock of sheep, and then returned triumphant into the city.
The next day, some more ships having arrived, King Richard found that in all, including the garrison, he could muster 2000 combatants. The enemy renewed the attack in great numbers, and the assaults upon the walls were continuous and desperate. King Richard, who loved fighting in the plain rather than behind walls, was impatient at this, and at one time so fierce was the attack that he resolved to sally out. Only ten horses remained in the town, and King Richard, mounting one, called upon nine of the knights to mount and sally out with him. The little band of ten warriors charged down upon the host of the Saracens and swept them before them. It was a marvellous sight indeed to see so small a group of horsemen dashing through a crowd of Saracen warriors. These, although at first beaten back, yet rallied, and the ten knights had great difficulty in fighting their way back to the town. When near the walls the Christians again made a stand, and a few knights sallied out from the town on foot and joined them. Among these was Cuthbert, the Earl of Evesham having accompanied King Richard in his charge. In all, seventeen knights were now rallied round the king. So fierce was the charge of the Saracens that the king ordered those on horseback to dismount, and with their horses in the centre, the little body knelt with their lances opposed to the Saracens. Again and again the wild cavalry swept down upon this little force, but in vain did they attempt to break their ranks. The scene was indeed an extraordinary one. At last the king, seeing that the enemy were losing heart, again ordered the knights to mount, and these dashing among the enemy, completed their defeat.
While this had been going on, news came to the king that the Saracens from another side had made their way into Jaffa, and were massacring the Christians. Without an instant's delay he flew to their succour, followed only by two knights and a few archers, the rest being so worn by their exertions as to be unable to move. The Mamelukes, the chosen guard of Saladin, had headed the attack; but even these were driven out from the town, and Richard dashed out from the city in their pursuit. One Saracen emir, distinguished for his stature and strength, ventured to match himself against the king, and rode boldly at him. But with one blow Richard severed his head, and his right shoulder and arm, from his body. Then having, by his single arm, put to rout the Saracens at this point, he dashed through them to the aid of the little band of knights who had remained on the defensive when he left them at the alarm of the city being entered. These were almost sinking with fatigue and wounds; but King Richard opened a way around them by slaying numbers of the enemy, and then charged again alone into the midst of the Mussulman host, and was lost to the sight of his companions. All thought that they would never see him again. But he soon reappeared, his horse covered with blood, but himself unwounded; and the attack of the enemy ceased.
From the hour of daybreak, it is said, Richard had not ceased for a moment to deal out his blows, and the skin of his hand adhered to the handle of his battle-axe. This narration would appear almost fabulous, were it not that it is attested in the chronicles of several eye-witnesses, and for centuries afterwards the Saracen women hushed their babes when fractious by threatening them with Malek-Rik, the name which they gave to King Richard.
Glorious as was the success, it was a sad one, for several of the most devoted of the followers of King Richard were wounded badly, some few to death. Among these last, to the terrible grief of Cuthbert, was his friend and patron, the Earl of Evesham. The king, on taking off his armour, hurried to his tent.
"The glory of this day is marred indeed," he said to the wounded knight, "if I am to lose you, Sir Walter."
"I fear that it must even be so, my lord," the dying earl said. "I am glad that I have seen this day, for never did I think to witness such feats as those which your Majesty has performed; and though the crusade has failed, and the Holy City remains in the hands of the infidel, yet assuredly no shadow of disgrace has fallen upon the English arms, and, indeed, great glory has accrued to us. Whatever may be said of the Great Crusade, it will, at least, be allowed by all men, and for all time, that had the princes and soldiers of other nations done as your Majesty and your followers have done, the holy city would have fallen into our hands within a month of our putting foot upon the soil. Your Majesty, I have a boon to ask."
"You have but to name it, Sir Walter, and it is yours."
"Sir Cuthbert, here," he said, pointing to the young knight, who was sorrowfully kneeling by his bedside, "is as a son to me. The relationship by blood is but slight, but by affection it is as close as though he were mine own. I have, as your Majesty knows, no male heirs, and my daughter is but young, and will now be a royal ward. I beseech your Majesty to bestow her in marriage, when the time comes, upon Sir Cuthbert. They have known each other as children, and the union will bring happiness, methinks, to both, as well as strength and protection to her; and further, if it might be, I would fain that you should bestow upon him my title and dignity."
"It shall be so," the king said. "When your eyes are closed, Sir Walter, Sir Cuthbert shall be Earl of Evesham, and, when the time comes, the husband of your daughter."
Cuthbert was too overwhelmed with grief to feel a shadow of exaltation at the gracious intimation of the king; although, even then, a thought of future happiness in the care of the fair young lady Margaret passed before his mind. For the last time the king gave his hand to his faithful servant, who pressed it to his lips, and a few minutes afterwards breathed his last.