Winning His Spurs by G. A. Henty
Chapter XVII. An Alpine Storm.
The tremendous exertions which King Richard had made told upon him, and attacks of fever succeeded each other at short intervals. This, however, mattered the less, since negotiations were now proceeding between him and Saladin. It was impossible, with the slight means at his disposal, for Richard further to carry on the crusade alone. Moreover, pressing news had arrived from his mother in England, urging him to return, as his brother John was intriguing against him, and had already assumed all but the kingly tide. Saladin was equally desirous of peace. His wild troops were, for the most part, eager to return to their homes, and the defeats which they had suffered, and the, to them, miraculous power of King Richard's arm, had lowered their spirit and made them eager to be away. Therefore he consented without difficulty to the terms proposed. By these, the Christians were to surrender Ascalon, but were to keep Jaffa, Tyre, and the fortresses along the coast. All hostilities were to be suspended on both sides for the space of three years, three months, three weeks, three days, and three hours, when Richard hoped to return again and to recommence the struggle.
Between the sultan and King Richard a feeling approaching that of friendship had sprung up during the campaign. Saladin was himself brave in the extreme, and exposed his life as fearlessly as did his Christian rival, and the two valiant leaders recognized the great qualities of each other. Several times during the campaign, when Richard had been ill, the emir had sent him presents of fruit and other matters, to which Richard had responded in the same spirit. An interview had taken place between them which further cemented their friendship; and when Richard promised to return again at the end of the truce with a far larger army, and to accomplish the rescue of the holy city, the sultan smiled, and said that it appeared that valour alone was not sufficient to conquer in the Holy Land, but that if Jerusalem were to fall into the hands of the Christians, it could fall into no worthier hands than those of Malek-Rik.
So, with many mutual courtesies, the great rivals separated, and, soon after, King Richard and the little remnant of his army embarked on board ship, and set sail for England.
It was on the 11th of October, 1192, that Richard Coeur de Lion left Palestine. Soon after they started, a storm suddenly burst upon them, and dispersed them in various directions. The ship in which Queen Berengaria was carried, arrived safely in Sicily; but that in which King Richard was borne was missing, and none of his fellow-voyagers knew what had become of him.
Sir Cuthbert was in the same vessel as the king, and the bark was driven upon the Island of Corfu. All reached shore in safety, and King Richard then hired three small vessels, in which he sailed to the port of Zara, whence he hoped to reach the domains of his nephew, Otho of Saxony, the son of his sister Matilda. The king had with him now but two of his knights, Baldwin of B,thune, and Cuthbert of Evesham. Cnut was with his feudal chief--for such Cuthbert had now, by his accession to the rank of Earl of Evesham, become--and three or four English archers.
"I fear, my lords," the king said to his knights as he sat in a little room in an inn at Zara, "that my plight is a bad one. I am surrounded by enemies, and, alas! I can no longer mount my steed and ride out as at Jaffa to do battle with them. My brother, John Lackland, is scheming to take my place upon the throne of England. Philip of France, whose mind is far better at such matters than at setting armies in the field, is in league with him. The Emperor Henry has laid claim to the throne of Sicily. Leopold of Austria has not forgiven me the blow I struck him in the face at Ascalon, and the friends of Conrad of Montferat are spreading far and wide the lie that I was the instigator of his murder. Sure never had a poor king so many enemies, and few have ever had so small a following as I have now. What think you, my lords? What course would you advise that I should adopt? If I can reach Saxony, doubtless Otho will aid me. But hence to Dresden is a long journey indeed. I have neither credit nor funds to hire a ship to take us by sea. Nor would such a voyage be a safe one, when so many of my enemies' ships are on the main. I must needs, I think, go in disguise, for my way lies wholly through the country of my enemies."
"Surely," Cuthbert said, "no potentate could for very shame venture to detain your Majesty on your way from the Holy Land, where you have wrought such great deeds. Were I in your place, I would at once proclaim myself, mount my horse, have my banner carried before me, and ride openly on. You have, too, another claim, namely, that of being shipwrecked, and even in war-time nations respect those whom the force of God has thrown upon their shores."
"I fear me, Sir Cuthbert," Sir Baldwin said, "that you overrate the chivalry of our master's enemies. Had we been thrown on the shores of France, Philip perhaps would hesitate to lay hands upon the king; but these petty German princelings have no idea of the observances of true chivalry. They are coarse and brutal in their ways; and though in outward form following the usages of knighthood, they have never been penetrated with its spirit. If the friends of Conrad of Montferat lay hands upon King Richard, I fear that no scruples will prevent them from using their advantage to the utmost. Even their emperor I would not trust. The course which you advise would no doubt be in accordance with the spirit of King Richard; but it would be madness for him to judge other people's spirit by his own, and it would be rushing into the lion's den to proclaim himself here. I should recommend, if I might venture to do so, that his Majesty should assume a false name, and that we should travel in small parties so as to attract no attention, each making his way to Saxony as best he may."
There was silence for a minute or two, and then the king with a sigh, said,--
"I fear that you are right, Sir Baldwin, and that there is no chivalry among these swinish German lords. You shall accompany me. Not, Sir Cuthbert," he observed kindly, noticing a look of disappointment upon the face of the young knight, "that I estimate your fidelity one whit lower than that of my brave friend; but he is the elder and the more versed in European travel, and may manage to bring matters through better than you would do. You will have dangers enough to encounter yourself, more even than I shall, for your brave follower, Cnut, can speak no language but his own, and your archers will be hard to pass as any other than what they are. You must be my messenger to England, should you arrive there without me. Tell my mother and wife where you left me, and that, if I do not come home I have fallen into the hands of one or other of my bitter foes. Bid them bestir themselves to hold England for me against my brother John, and, if needs be, to move the sovereigns of Europe to free me from the hands of my enemies. Should a ransom be needed, I think that my people of England will not grudge their goods for their king."
The following day the king bade farewell to his faithful followers, giving his hand to kiss, not only to Sir Cuthbert, but to Cnut and his archers.
"You have done me brave service," he said, "and I trust may yet have occasion to do it again. These are bad times when Richard of England has nought wherewith to reward his friends. But," he said, taking a gold chain from his neck and breaking it with his strong fingers into five fragments, "that is for you, Cnut, and for your four archers, in remembrance of King Richard."
The men, albeit hardened by many scenes of warfare, yet shed tears plenteously at parting with the king.
"We had better," Cuthbert said to them when they were alone, "delay here for a few days. If we are taken, the news that some Englishmen have been captured making their way north from Zara will spread rapidly, and may cause the enemies of Richard to be on the look-out for him, suspecting that the ship which bore us may also have carried him; for the news that he is missing will spread rapidly through Europe, and will set all his enemies on the alert."
In accordance with this plan, they delayed for another ten days at Zara, and then, hiring a small boat, were landed some thirty miles further along the coast. Cuthbert had obtained for Cnut the dress of a palmer, as in this he would pass almost unquestioned, and his silence might be accounted for on the ground that he had taken a vow of silence. He himself had placed on his coat and armour a red cross, instead of the white cross borne by the English knights, and would now pass as a French knight. Similar changes were made in the dress of his followers, and he determined to pass as a French noble who had been wrecked on his way home, and who was returning through Germany to France. The difficulties in his own case would not be serious, as his French would pass muster anywhere in Germany. The greatest difficulty would be with his attendants; but he saw no way of avoiding this.
Cuthbert's object, when with his little party he separated from King Richard, was to make his way to Verona, thence cross by Trent into Bavaria, and so to journey to Saxony. Fortunately he had, at the storming of Acre, become possessed of a valuable jewel, and this he now sold, and purchased a charger for himself. He had little fear of any trouble in passing through the north of Italy, for this was neutral ground, where knights of all nations met, and where, neither as an English nor a French crusader would he attract either comment or attention.
It was a slow journey across the northern plains, as of course he had to accommodate his pace to that of his men. Cnut and the archers had grumbled much at the change in the colour of the cross upon their jerkins; and, as Cnut said, would have been willing to run greater perils under their true colours than to affect to belong to any other nationality. On their way they passed through Padua, and there stopped a few days. Cuthbert could but feel, in looking at the splendour of this Italian city, the courteous manner of its people, and the university which was even then famous, how far in advance were those stately cities of Italy to Western Europe. His followers were as much surprised as himself at the splendour of the city. Here they experienced no trouble or annoyance whatever, for to the cities of Italy knights of all nations resorted, learned men came to study, philosophers to dispute, and as these brought their attendants with them, you might in the streets of Padua and its sister cities hear every language in Europe spoken.
From Padua they journeyed to Verona, marvelling greatly at the richness of the country. The footmen, however, grumbled at the flatness of the plain, and said that it was as bad as marching in the Holy Land. On their right, however, the slopes of the Alps, thickly clad with forests, reached down nearly to the road, and Cuthbert assured them that they would have plenty of climbing before they had done. At Verona they tarried again, and wondered much at the great amphitheatre, then almost perfect. Cuthbert related to Cnut and the archers, how men had there been set to fight, while the great stone benches round were thronged with men and women looking on at their death struggles, and said that not unfrequently British captives were brought hither and made to contend in the arena. The honest fellows were full of indignation and horror at the thought of men killing themselves to give sport to others. They were used to hard knocks, and thought but little of their life, and would have betaken themselves to their bows and bills without hesitation in case of a quarrel. But to fight in cold blood for amusement seemed to them very terrible.
Cuthbert would then have travelled on to Milan at that time next to Rome the richest city in Europe, but he longed to be back in England, and was the more anxious as he knew that King Richard would be passing through great dangers, and he hoped to meet him at the Court of Saxony. His money, too, was fast running out, and he found that it would be beyond his slender means to extend his journey so far. At Verona, then, they turned their back on the broad plains of Lombardy, and entered the valley of the Trent.
So far no observation whatever had been excited by the passage of the English knight. So many crusaders were upon their way home, many in grievous plight, that the somewhat shabby retinue passed unnoticed. But they were now leaving Italy, and entering a country where German was spoken. Trent, in those days an important city, was then, and is still, the meeting place of Italy and Germany. Both tongues are here spoken; but while the Italian perhaps preponderates, the customs, manners, and mode of thought of the people belong to those of the mountaineers of the Tyrol, rather than of the dwellers on the plains.
"You are choosing a stormy time," the landlord of the hostelry where they put up said to Cuthbert. "The winter is now at hand, and storms sweep across the passes with terrible violence. You had better, at the last village you come to in the valley, obtain the services of a guide, for should a snowstorm come on when you are crossing, the path will be lost, and nothing will remain but a miserable death. By daylight the road is good. It has been cut with much trouble, and loaded mules can pass over without difficulty. Poles have been erected at short distances to mark the way when the snow covers it. But when the snowstorms sweep across the mountains, it is impossible to see ten paces before you, and if the traveller leaves the path he is lost."
"But I suppose," Cuthbert said, "that even in winter travellers pass over?"
"They do," the host said. "The road is as open in winter as in summer, although, of course, the dangers are greater. Still, there is nothing to prevent vigorous men from crossing over when the storms come on. Now, too, with the snow already lying in the upper forests, the wolves are abroad, and should you be attacked by one of those herds, you will find it hard work to defend your lives. Much has been done to render the road safe. At the distance of every league stone houses have been erected, where travellers can find shelter either from the storm or from the attacks of wolves or bears, for these, too, abound in the forests, and in summer there is fine hunting among them. You are, as I see, returning from the Holy Land, and are therefore used to heat rather than cold, so I should advise you before you leave this city to buy some rough cloaks to shield you from the cold. You can obtain them for your followers very cheaply, made of the mountain goat or of sheepskins, and even those of bearskin well dressed are by no means dear."
Obtaining the address of a merchant who kept these things, Cuthbert proceeded thither; and purchased five cloaks of goat-skin with hoods to pull over their heads for his followers, while for himself he obtained one of rather finer material.
Another two days' journey brought them to the foot of the steep ascent, and here they hired the services of a guide. The ascent was long and difficult, and in spite of the praises which the host had bestowed upon the road, it was so steep that Cuthbert was, for the most part, obliged to walk, leading his steed, whose feet slipped on the smooth rock, and as in many places a false step would have thrown them down many hundreds of feet into the valley below, Cuthbert judged it safer to trust himself to his own feet. He disencumbered himself of his helmet and gorget, and placed these upon the horse's back. At nightfall they had attained a very considerable height, and stopped at one of the small refuges of which the landlord had spoken.
"I like not the look of the weather," the guide said in the morning--at least that was what Cuthbert judged him to say, for he could speak no word of the man's language. His actions, however, as he looked towards the sky, and shook his head, spoke for themselves, and Cuthbert, feeling his own powerlessness in a situation so novel to him, felt serious misgivings at the prospect.
The scenery was now very wild. On all sides crags and mountain tops covered with snow glistened in the sun. The woods near the path were free of snow; but higher up they rose black above the white ground. The wind blew keenly, and all rejoiced in the warm cloaks which they had obtained; for even with the protection of these they had found the cold bitter during the night.
"I like not this country," Cnut said. "We grumbled at the heat of Palestine, but I had rather march across the sand there than in this inhospitable frozen region. The woods look as if they might contain spectres. There is a silence which seems to be unnatural, and my courage, like the warmth of my body, is methinks oozing out from my fingers."
"I have no doubt that your courage would come again much quicker than the warmth, Cnut, if there were any occasion for it. A brisk walk will set you all right again, and banish these uneasy fancies. To-night we shall be at the highest point, and to-morrow begin to descend towards Germany."
All day the men kept steadily on. The guide from time to time looked apprehensively at the sky; and although in the earlier part of the day Cuthbert's inexperienced eye saw nothing to cause the slightest uneasiness, towards the afternoon the scene changed. Light clouds began to gather on the top of all the hills and to shut the mountain peaks entirely from view. The wind moaned between the gorges and occasionally swept along in such sudden gusts that they could with difficulty retain their feet. The sky became gradually overcast, and frequently light specks of snow, so small as to be scarcely perceptible, were driven along on the blast, making their faces smart by the force with which they struck them.
"It scarcely needs our guide's face," Cuthbert said, "to tell us that a storm is at hand, and that our position is a dangerous one. As for me, I own that I feel better pleased now that the wind is blowing, and the silence is broken, than at the dead stillness which prevailed this morning. After all, methinks that a snowstorm cannot be more dreaded than a sandstorm, and we have faced those before now."
Faster and faster the snow came down, until at last the whole air seemed full of it, and it was with difficulty that they could stagger forward. Where the path led across open places the wind swept away the snow as fast as it fell, but in the hollows the track was already covered; and feeling the difficulty of facing the blinding gale, Cuthbert now understood the urgency with which his host had insisted upon the danger of losing the track. Not a word was spoken among the party as they plodded along. The guide kept ahead, using the greatest caution wherever the path was obliterated by the snow, sometimes even sounding with his iron-shod staff to be sure that they were upon the level rock. In spite of his warm cloak Cuthbert felt that he was becoming chilled to the bone. His horse could with difficulty keep his feet; and Cnut and the archers lagged behind.
"You must keep together, lads," he shouted. "I have heard that in these mountains when sleepiness overpowers the traveller, death is at hand. Therefore, come what may, we must struggle on."
Many times the gale was so violent that they were obliged to pause, and take shelter under the side of a rock or precipice, until the fury of the blast had passed; and Cuthbert eagerly looked out for the next refuge. At last they reached it, and the guide at once entered. It was not that in which he had intended to pass the night, for this lay still higher; but it would have been madness to attempt to go further in the face of such a gale. He signed to Cuthbert that it was necessary at once to collect firewood, and he himself proceeded to light some brands which had been left by previous travellers. Cuthbert gave directions to Cnut and the archers; and these, feeling that life depended upon a good fire being kept up, set to with a will, cutting down shrubs and branches growing in the vicinity of the hut. In half an hour a huge fire blazed in the refuge; and as the warmth thawed their limbs, their tongues were unloosened, and a feeling of comfort again prevailed.
"If this be mountaineering, my lord," Cnut said, "I trust that never again may it be my fortune to venture among the hills. How long, I wonder, do the storms last here? I was grumbling all the way up the hill at the load of provisions which the guide insisted that each of us should bring with him. As it was to be but a three days' journey before we reached a village on the other side, I wondered why he insisted upon our taking food enough to last us at least for a week. But I understand now, and thank him for his foresight; for if this storm goes on, we are assuredly prisoners here for so long as it may continue."
The horse had to be brought into the hut, for it would have been death for it to have remained outside.
"What is that?" Cnut said presently, as a distant howl was heard between the lulls of the storm. The guide muttered some word, which Cuthbert did not understand. But he said to Cnut, "I doubt not that it is wolves. Thank God that we are safe within this refuge, for here not even the most ravenous beasts could make their way."
"Pooh!" Cnut said contemptuously. "Wolves are no bigger than dogs. I have heard my grandfather say that he shot one in the forest, and that it was no bigger than a hound. We should make short work of them."
"I know not," Cuthbert said. "I have heard tales of these animals which show that they must be formidable opponents. They hunt in great packs, and are so furious that they will attack parties of travellers; many of these have perished miserably, horses and men, and nothing but their swords and portions of their saddles have remained to tell where the battle was fought."