Winning His Spurs by G. A. Henty
Chapter XX. Under the Greenwood.
At the end of a month, news came from England that Sir Baldwin of B,thune had returned there, bearing the news that the King had been arrested at Gortz, only two days' journey north of the Adriatic--that he had been recognized, and at once captured. He had offered no resistance, finding indeed that it would be hopeless so to do. Sir Baldwin had been permitted to depart without molestation. He believed that the folk into whose hands he had fallen were retainers of the Archduke John. This news, although sad in itself, was yet in some degree reassuring to the duke and his wife; for they felt that while the followers of Conrad of Montferat would not hesitate to put King Richard to death should he fall into their hands, the Archduke John would not dare to bring upon himself the indignation of Europe by such treatment of his royal captive. Cuthbert at once determined to return to England to see Sir Baldwin, and to ascertain what steps were being taken for the discovery of the prison in which King Richard was confined, and for his release therefrom; and also to establish himself in his new dignity as Earl of Evesham. Therefore, bidding adieu to the duke and duchess, he started north. The duke furnished him with letters of introduction to the princes through whose countries he would travel; and again crossing the Rhine, he journeyed through the territories of the Dukes of Cleves and Brabant, and reached the mouth of the Scheldt without interruption. There taking ship, he sailed for London.
It was a long and stormy passage between the mouth of the Scheldt and London. The vessel in which Cuthbert had shipped was old and somewhat unseaworthy, and several times in the force of the gale all on board gave up hope for their lives. At last, however, they reached the mouth of the Thames, and dropping up with the tide, reached London eight days after their embarcation. The noble charger which the King of Saxony had presented to Cuthbert, had suffered greatly, and he feared at one time, that the poor animal would succumb to the effects of the tempest. However, after entering into smooth water it recovered itself, and on landing near the Tower he found that it was able to support his weight. Cnut and the archers were, like Cuthbert, delighted to have their feet again upon English soil; and although London did not now strike them with the same wonder which it would have done had they first visited it before starting on their journey--for in many respects it was greatly behind some of the continental cities--yet the feeling of home, and the pleasure of being able to understand the conversation of those around them, made the poor fellows almost beside themselves with joy. Beyond the main political incidents, Cuthbert had heard little of what had passed in England since his departure; and putting up at a hostelry, he inquired of the host whether Sir Baldwin of B,thune was in London, or whether he was away on his estates. The landlord did not know. There were, he said, but few nobles at court, and London was never so dull as at present. As Cuthbert did not wish his coming home to be known to John until he had learnt something of the position of affairs, he despatched Cnut to the Tower to inquire privately of some of the officials about the place whether Sir Baldwin was there. Cnut soon returned with the news that he had not been at the court since his return from the Holy Land, and that he was living at his castle down in Dorsetshire. After some hesitation, Cuthbert resolved to set out to see his friend, and after six days' travel he arrived at the castle of the knight.
Sir Baldwin received him with immense joy. He had not heard of him since they parted at Zara, and he feared that a fate similar to that which had befallen King Richard had overtaken Cuthbert, even if he were still alive.
"Have you seen aught of the king, our master?" the good knight inquired.
"Nothing," Cuthbert said. "I know no more than yourself. Indeed, I hoped to have learnt something from you as to the king."
"I was separated from him at Gortz, and while he was taken a prisoner to the archduke, I was allowed to pursue my way. I had many difficulties and dangers, and was some weeks in finding my way back. Nothing was known of the king when I returned. Indeed, I was the first bearer of any definite news concerning him since the day when he sailed from Acre. Three weeks ago, as you may have learnt, the news came that he is now detained in captivity by the emperor who demanded his delivery by the Archduke John, into whose hands he first fell. But where he is, no one exactly knows. The news has created an immense excitement in the kingdom, and all are resolved to sacrifice any of their treasures which may be demanded in order to satisfy the ransom which the recreant emperor has placed upon the king. Shame is it indeed that a Christian sovereign should hold another in captivity. Still more, when that other was returning through his dominions as a crusader coming from the Holy Land, when his person should be safe, even to his deadliest enemy. It has long been suspected that he was in the hands either of the emperor, or of the archduke, and throughout Europe the feeling of indignation has been strong; and I doubt not, now that the truth is known, this feeling will be stronger than ever."
"But, now that it is known," Cuthbert said, "I suppose there will be no delay in ransoming the king."
"There will be no delay in raising the ransom," Sir Baldwin said. "But the kingdom is very impoverished by war, by the exactions of Prince John, and by those of Langley, who held it for King Richard. He was a loyal servant of the king, but an exacting and rapacious prelate. However, I doubt not that the rents of the English nobles will soon be charged with sums sufficient for the ransom; and if this avail not, not one of them will grudge their silver flagons and vessels to melt down to make the total required. But we must not flatter ourselves that he will obtain his liberty so soon as the money is raised. Prince John has long been yearning for sovereignty. He has long exercised the real, if not the nominal, power, and he has been intriguing with the Pope and Phillip of France for their support for his seizing the crown. He will throw every obstacle in the way, as, we may be sure, will Phillip of France, Richard's deadly enemy. And now about yourself, Sir Cuthbert; tell me what has befallen you since we last met."
Cuthbert related the adventures which had befallen him, and heard those of Sir Baldwin.
"You have not, I suppose," the latter remarked, "as yet seen Prince John?"
"No," Cuthbert replied, "I thought it better to come down to ask you to advise me on the position of affairs before I attempted to see him."
"You did well," Sir Baldwin said. "When I arrived, I found that the proper officials, had, according to King Richard's instructions, drawn up the patent conferring upon you the lands and title of Earl of Evesham, before leaving Acre, and had received the king's signature to it. This was attested by several of the nobles who were with us and who returned safely to England. Prince John, however, declared that he should not give any heed to the document; that King Richard's power over this realm had ceased before he made it; and that he should bestow the earldom upon whomsoever he chose. As a matter of fact, it has been given to Sir Rudolph Fleming, a Norman knight and a creature of the prince. The king has also, I hear, promised to him the hand of the young Lady Margaret, when she shall become of marriageable age. At present she is placed in a convent in Worcester. The abbess is, I believe, a friend of the late earl, and the girl had been with her for some time previously. Indeed she went there, I think, when her father left England. This lady was ordered to give up her charge to the guardianship of Sir Rudolph; but she refused to do so, saying that it would not be convenable for a young lady to be under the guardianship of a bachelor knight having no lady at the head of his establishment, and that therefore she should retain her, in spite of the orders of the Prince. Prince John, I hear, flew into a fury at this; but he did not dare to provoke the anger of the whole of the clergy by ordering the convent to be violated. And indeed, not only would the clergy have been indignant, but many of the great nobles would also have taken their part, for there can be no doubt that the contention of the abbess was reasonable; and there is among all the friends of King Richard a very strong feeling of anger at your having been deprived of the earldom. This, however, has, so far, not found much vent in words, for as it was uncertain whether you would ever return to claim your rights, it was worth no one's while to embroil himself unnecessarily with the prince upon such a subject. God knows that there are subjects enough of dispute between John Lackland and the English barons without any fresh ones arising. The whole kingdom is in a state of disturbance. There have been several risings against Prince John's authority; but these have been, so far, suppressed. Now that we know where King Richard is, and hope for his return ere very long, it is probable that peace will be maintained; but should treachery prevail, and King Richard's return be prevented, you may be sure that John will not be permitted to mount the throne without the determined resistance of a large number of the nobles."
"But," Cuthbert said, "John is not the successor to the throne. Prince Arthur of Brittany was named by King Richard from the first as his successor. He is so by blood and by right, and John can have no pretence to the throne so long as he lives."
"That is so," Sir Baldwin said. "But, unhappily, in England at present might makes right, and you may be sure that at King Richard's death, be it when it may, Prince John will make a bold throw for the throne, and, aided as he will be by the pope and by Phillip of France, methinks that his chances are better than those of the young prince. A man's power, in warlike times, is more than a boy's. He can intrigue and promise and threaten, while a boy must be in the hands of partisans. I fear that Prince Arthur will have troubled times indeed before he mounts the throne of England. Should Richard survive until he becomes of age to take the field himself and head armies, he may succeed, for all speak well of him as a boy of singular sweetness of disposition, while Prince John is detested by all save those who flatter and live by him. But enough for the present of politics, Cuthbert; let us now to table. It is long since we two feasted together; and, indeed, such meals as we took in the Holy Land could scarcely have been called feasts. A boar's head and a good roasted capon are worthy all the strange dishes that we had there. I always misdoubted the meat, which seemed to me to smack in flavour of the Saracens, and I never could bring myself to inquire whence that strange food was obtained. A stoup of English ale, too, is worth all the Cyprus wines, especially when the Cyprus wines are half full of the sand of the desert. Pah! it makes my throat dry to think of those horrible meals. So you have brought Cnut and your four archers safely back with you?"
"Yes," Cuthbert said, smiling, "But they were, I can assure you, a heavy weight on me, in spite of their faithfulness and fidelity. Their ignorance of the language brought most of my troubles upon me, and Cnut had something of the nature of a bull in him. There are certain things which he cannot stomach, and when he seeth them he rageth like a wild beast, regardless altogether of safety or convenience."
In the evening, the two knights again talked over the course which Cuthbert should adopt. The elder knight's opinion was that his young friend had best formally claim the title by writing to the king-at-arms, and should also announce his return to Prince John, signing himself "Sir Cuthbert, Earl of Evesham;" but that, in the present state of things, it would be unwise for him to attempt to regain his position, should, as was certain to be the case, Prince John refuse to recognize him.
"You are very young yet," Sir Baldwin said, "not eighteen, I think, and can afford to wait, at any rate, to see whether King Richard returns. Should he come back, he will see all these wrongs are righted; and one of his first cares would assuredly be to cast this usurper out of his stolen dignities. How old is the Lady Margaret?"
"She is fifteen," Cuthbert said. "She was three years younger than I."
"I wish she had been younger," Sir Baldwin said. "At fifteen she is not by custom fairly marriageable; but men can strain these points when they choose; and I fear that the news of your coming will hasten both the prince and Sir Rudolph in their determination to strengthen the claim of this usurper by marriage with the heiress of Evesham. The Lady Margaret and her friends can of course claim that she is a royal ward, and that as such the king alone can dispose of her person and estates. But, unfortunately, force overrides argument."
"But surely," Cuthbert said, "they will never venture to take her by force from the convent?"
"They venture a great many strange things in England now," Sir Baldwin said; "and Worcester is perilously near to Evesham. With a clump of twenty spears, Sir Rudolph might break into the convent and carry off the young lady, and marry her by force; and although the Church might cry out, crying would be of little avail when the deed was done; and a handsome present on the part of Sir Rudolph might go far to shut the mouths of many of the complainants, especially as he will be able to say that he has the king's sanction for what he did."
"Methinks," Cuthbert said, "that if such be the case it would be perilous indeed to wait for King Richard's return. Assuredly Sir Rudolph would not tarry until she attained the age of seventeen, and it may well be that two years may yet pass before King Richard comes back. It seems to me the wiser part will be that I should give Prince John no notice that I am in England. As you say, such notice would be of no avail in recovering my lands and title, but it would put the prince upon his guard; and assuredly he and his minions would press forward their measures to obtain possession of the person of the Lady Margaret; while, on the other hand, no harm can come of my maintaining silence."
"I think that you are right, Sir Cuthbert. It were indeed best that your enemies should suppose you either dead or in some dungeon in the Tyrol. What would you then do?"
"I would return to my old home," Cuthbert said. "My lady mother is, I trust, still alive. But I will not appear at her house, but will take refuge in the forest there. Cnut, and the archers with him, were all at one time outlaws living there, and I doubt not that there are many good men and true still to be found in the woods. Others will assuredly join when they learn that Cnut is there, and that they are wanted to strike a blow for my rights. I shall then bide my time. I will keep a strict watch over the castle and over the convent. As the abbess is a friend and relative of Lady Margaret's, I may obtain an interview with her, and warn her of the dangers that await her, and ask if she be willing to fulfil the promise of her father, and King Richard's will, in accepting me as her husband when due time shall arrive, and whether she will be willing that I should take such steps as I may to deliver her from the persecution of Sir Rudolph. If, as I trust, she assents to this, I will keep a watch over the convent as well as the castle, and can then either attack the latter, or carry her off from the former, as the occasion may appear to warrant. There are plenty of snug cottages round the forest, where she can remain in concealment in the care of some good farmer's wife for months, and we shall be close at hand to watch over her. With the aid of the forest men, Sir Walter took the castle of Sir John of Wortham; and although Evesham is a far grander pile than that, yet methinks it could be carried by a sudden assault; and we know more of war now than we did then. Prince John may deny me the right of being the Earl of Evesham; but methinks before many months I can, if I choose, become its master."
"Be not too hasty in that matter," Sir Baldwin said. "You might capture the castle with the aid of your outlaws; but you could scarcely hold it. The prince has, ere now, with the aid of those faithful to him and his foreign mercenaries, captured stronger holds than that of Evesham; and if you turn his favourite out, you would have a swarm of hornets around you such as the walls of Evesham could not keep out. It would therefore be worse than useless for you to attempt what would be something like an act of rebellion against Prince John's authority, and would give him what now he has no excuse for, a ground for putting a price upon your head--and cutting it off if he got the opportunity. You might now present yourself boldly at court, and although he might refuse to recognize your title of earl, yet, as a knight and a crusader who has distinguished himself greatly in the Holy Land, he dare not interfere with your person, for this would be resented by the whole of the chivalry of England. Still, I agree with you that your best course is to keep your return a secret. You will then be unwatched and unnoticed, and your enemies will take their time in carrying their designs into effect."
Two days later Cuthbert, attended by his faithful retainers, left Sir Baldwin's castle, and travelled by easy stages through Wiltshire and the confines of Gloucestershire up to Worcester. He had been supplied by Sir Baldwin with suitable attire for himself and his followers, and now rode as a simple knight, without arms or cognizance, journeying from one part to another. All the crosses and other crusading signs were laid aside, and there was nothing to attract any attention to him upon his passage. Cuthbert had at first thought of going direct to the convent of Worcester, and asking for an interview with Lady Margaret; but he reflected that it might be possible that some of the myrmidons of Sir Rudolph might be keeping a watch over that building, to see that Lady Margaret was not secretly removed to some other place of refuge, and that the appearance of a knight before its doors would excite comment and suspicion. He therefore avoided the town, and journeyed straight to the forest, where he had so often roamed with Cnut and the outlaws.
Here he found that matters had but little changed since he was last there. Many of those who had fought with him in the Holy Land, and who had returned by sea, had again taken to the forest, joined by many new men whom the exactions of Sir Rudolph had already goaded into revolt. Cnut was received with enthusiasm, and when he presented Cuthbert to them as the rightful heir of Evesham and the well-known friend of the foresters, their enthusiasm knew no bounds. They at once accepted him as their lord and master, and promised to obey his orders, and to lay down their lives, if necessary, in his cause, as they knew that it was he who had formally obtained the pardon of the forest band, and who had fought with them in their attack on Wortham Castle.
To Cuthbert's great delight he heard that his mother was in good health, although she had for some months been grievously fretting over his disappearance and supposed death. Cuthbert hesitated whether he should proceed at once to see her; but he feared that the shock of his appearance might be too much for her, and that her expressions of joy might make the retainers and others aware of his arrival, and the news might in some way reach the ears of those at the castle. He therefore despatched Cnut to see her, and break the news to her cautiously, and to request her to arrange for a time when she would either see Cuthbert at some place at a distance from the house, or would so arrange that the domestics should be absent and that he would have an interview with her there unobserved.
Cnut was absent some hours, and on his return told Cuthbert that he had seen Dame Editha, and that her joy on hearing of her son's safe arrival had caused her no harm, but rather the reverse. The news that King Richard had bestowed upon him the title and lands of Evesham was new to her, and she was astonished indeed to hear of his elevation. Having heard much of the character of the pretending earl, she had great fears for the safety of Cuthbert, should his residence in the neighbourhood get to his ears; and although sure of the fidelity of all her retainers, she feared that in their joy at their young master's return they might let slip some incautious word which would come to the ears of some of those at the castle. She therefore determined to meet him at a distance. She had arranged that upon the following day she would give out that she intended to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Dunstan, which lay at the edge of the forest, to thank him for her recovery from illness, and to pray for the safety of her son.
She would be carried thither in a litter, and her journey would excite no comment whatever. She would take with her four of her most trusted retainers, and would on her arrival at the shrine send them to a distance, in order to pay her devotions undisturbed. Cuthbert was to be near, and the moment he saw them depart, to enter.
This arrangement was carried out, and the joy of Dame Editha at again meeting her son was deep indeed. He had left her a lad of fifteen. He now returned a youth of nearly eighteen, stout and strong beyond his age, and looking far older than he was, from the effect of the hot sun of Syria and of the hardships through which he had gone. That he should win his spurs upon the first opportunity the earl had promised her, and she doubted not that he would soon attain the rank which his father had held. But that he should return to her a belted earl was beyond her wildest thoughts. This, however, was but little in her mind then. It was her son, and not the Earl of Evesham, whom she clasped in her arms.
As the interview must necessarily be a short one, Cuthbert gave her but a slight outline of what had happened since they parted, and the conversation then turned upon the present position, and upon the steps which had best be taken.
"Your peril is, I fear, as great here as when you were fighting the infidels in the Holy Land," she said. "Sir Rudolph has not been here long; but he has proved himself a cruel and ruthless master. He has driven forth many of the old tenants and bestowed their lands upon his own servants and retainers. The forest laws he carries out to the fullest severity, and has hung several men who were caught infringing them. He has laid such heavy burdens on all the tenants that remain that they are fairly ruined, and if he stay here long he will rule over a desert. Did he dream of your presence here, he would carry fire and sword through the forest. It is sad indeed to think that so worthless a knave as this should be a favourite of the ruler of England. But all men say that he is so. Thus were you to attack him, even did you conquer and kill him, you would have the enmity of Prince John to contend with; and he spareth none, man or woman, who stand in his way. It will be a bad day indeed for England should our good King Richard not return. I will, as you wish me, write to my good cousin, the Lady Abbess of St. Anne's, and will ask that you may have an interview with the Lady Margaret, to hear her wishes and opinions concerning the future, and will pray her to do all that she can to aid your suit with the fair young lady, and to keep her at all events safe from the clutches of the tyrant of Evesham."
Three days later, a boy employed as a messenger by Dame Editha brought a note to Cuthbert, saying that she had heard from the Abbess of St. Anne's, who would be glad to receive a visit from Cuthbert. The abbess had asked his mother to accompany him; but this she left for him to decide. Cuthbert sent back a message in reply, that he thought it would be dangerous for her to accompany him, as any spy watching would report her appearance, and inquiries were sure to be set on foot as to her companion. He said that he himself would call at the convent on the following evening after nightfall, and begged her to send word to the abbess to that effect, in order that he might, when he presented himself, be admitted at once.