Winning His Spurs by G. A. Henty
Chapter XXII. A Dastardly Stratagem.
The return of Sir Rudolph's party to Evesham was not unmarked by incident, for as they passed along the road, from an ambush in a wood other archers, whose numbers they could not discover, shot hard upon them, and many fell there who had escaped from the square at Worcester. When the list was called upon the arrival at the castle, it was found that no less than thirty of those who had set out were missing, while many others were grievously wounded.
The noise of the tumult in the square of the convent aroused the whole town of Worcester. Alarm bells were rung; and the burgesses, hastily arming themselves, poured into the streets. Directed by the sound, they made their way to the square, and were astonished at finding it entirely deserted, save for some twenty men, lying dead or dying in front of the gate of the convent, pierced with long arrows. They speedily found that Sir Rudolph and his troop had departed; and further inquiry revealed the fact that the burgher guard at one of the gates had been overpowered and were prisoners in the watchroom. These could only say that they were suddenly seized, all being asleep save the one absolutely on guard. They knew nothing more than that a few minutes later there was a great clatter of horsemen and men on foot leaving the city. Unable to find any solution to this singular circumstance, but satisfied that Sir Rudolph had departed, and that no more disturbance was likely to arise that night, the burgesses again betook themselves to their beds, having closed the gates and placed a strong guard over them, determining next morning to sift the affair to the bottom.
In the morning the leading burgesses met in council, and finding none who could give them any information, the mayor and two of the councillors repaired to the convent, where they asked for an interview with the lady abbess. Mightily indignant were they at hearing that Sir Rudolph had attempted to break into the convent, and to carry off a boarder residing there. But the abbess herself could give them no further news. She said that after she retired from the window, she heard great shouts and cries, and that almost immediately afterwards the whole of the party in front hastily retired.
That Sir Rudolph had been attacked by a party of archers was evident; but whence they had shot, or how they had come upon the spot at the time, or whither they had gone, were mysteries that could not be solved. In the search which the authorities made, however, it was discovered that the house of the draper, Master Nicholas, was closed. Finding that summonses to open were unanswered, the door was broken in, and the premises were found in confusion. No goods of any kind were discovered there, but many bales filled with dried leaves, bark of trees, and other worthless matters. Such goods as had been displayed in the window had clearly been carried away. Searching the house, they found signs that a considerable number of men had been concealed there, and although not knowing whence the body of archers could have come, they concluded that those who defeated the attempt of Sir Rudolph must have been hidden in the draper's house. The singularity of this incident gave rise to great excitement; but the indignation against Sir Rudolph was in no way lessened by the fact that his attempt had been defeated, not by the townsmen themselves, but by some unknown force.
After much consultation on the part of the council, it was resolved that a deputation, consisting of the mayor and the five senior councillors, should resort to London, and there demand from the prince redress for the injury put upon their town by Sir Rudolph. These worthy merchants betook themselves to London by easy stages, and upon their arrival there were kept for some days before they could obtain an interview with King John. When they appeared before him and commenced telling their story, the prince fell into sudden rage.
"I have heard of this matter before," he said, "and am mightily angry with the people of Worcester, inasmuch as they have dared to interfere to prevent the carrying out of my commands. The Earl of Evesham has written to me, that thinking to scare the abbess of St. Anne's into a compliance with the commands which I had laid upon her, and to secure the delivery of a contumacious ward of the crown, he had pretended to use force, having, however, no idea of carrying his threats into effect. When, as he doubted not, the abbess was on the point of yielding up the ward, the good knight was suddenly set upon by the rascals of the town, who slew some of his companions and followers, and did grievously ill-treat the remainder. This," said the prince, "you now pretend was done by a party of men of whose presence in the town you had no cognizance. Your good sense must be small, if you think that I should believe such a tale as this. It is your rascaldom at Worcester which interfered to prevent my will being carried out, and I have a goodly mind to order the troop of Sir Charles Everest, which is now marching towards Evesham, to sack the town, as a punishment for its rebellion. As, however, I am willing to believe that you and the better class of burgesses were in ignorance of the doings of the rougher kind, I will extend mercy towards the city, and will merely inflict a fine of 3000 golden marks upon it."
The mayor attempted humbly to explain and to entreat; but the prince was seized with a sudden passion, and threatened if he said more he would at once cast him and his fellows into durance. Therefore, sadly crestfallen at the result of their mission, the mayor and councillors returned to Worcester, where their report caused great consternation. This was heightened by the fact that upon the following day Sir Charles Everest, with 500 mercenaries of the prince, together with Sir Rudolph and his following, and several other barons favourable to the cause of the prince, were heard to be approaching the town.
Worcester was capable of making a stout defence, but seeing that no help was likely to be forthcoming, and fearing the utter ruin of the town should it be taken by storm, the council, after sitting many hours in deliberation, determined to raise the money required to pay the fine inflicted by the prince. The bolder sort were greatly averse to this decision, especially as a letter had been received, signed "Cuthbert, Earl of Evesham," offering, should the townspeople decide to resist the unjust demands of Prince John, to enter the town with 150 archers to take part in its defence. With this force, as the more ardent spirits urged, the defeat of any attempt to carry it by storm would be assured. But the graver men argued that even if defeated for the first time, further attempts would be made, and as it was likely that King Richard would not return for a long time, and that Prince John might become Sovereign of England, sooner or later the town must be taken, and, in any case, its trade would for a long time be destroyed, and great suffering inflicted upon all; therefore, that it was better to pay the fine now than to risk all these evils, and perhaps the infliction of a heavier impost upon them.
The abbess was kept informed by friends in the council of the course of the proceedings. She had in the meantime had another interview with Sir Cuthbert, and had determined, seeing that Prince John openly supported the doings of his minion, it would be better to remove the Lady Margaret to some other place, as no one could say how the affair might terminate; and with 500 mercenaries at his back, Sir Rudolph would be so completely master of the city that he would be able in broad daylight, did he choose, to force the gates of the convent and carry off the king's ward.
Accordingly, two days before the arrival of the force before the walls of Worcester, Lady Margaret left the convent by a postern gate in the rear, late in the evening. She was attended by two of the sisters, both of whom, as well as herself, were dressed as countrywomen. Mules were in readiness outside the city gates, and here Sir Cuthbert, with an escort of archers, was ready to attend them. They travelled all night, and arrived in the morning at a small convent situated five miles from the city of Hereford. The abbess here was a cousin of the Superior of St. Anne's, and had already consented to receive Lady Margaret. Leaving her at the door, and promising that, as far as possible, he would keep watch over her, and that even in the worst she need never despair, Sir Cuthbert left her and returned to the forest.
The band there assembled varied considerably in numbers, for provisions could not be found continually for a large body of men. The forest was indeed very extensive, and the number of deer therein large. Still, for the feeding of 150 men many animals are required and other food. The franklins in the neighbourhood were all hostile to Sir Rudolph, whom they regarded as a cruel tyrant, and did their utmost in the way of supplies for those in the forest. Their resources, however, were limited, and it was found necessary to scatter the force, and for a number of them to take up their residence in places a short distance away, forty only remaining permanently on guard.
Sir Rudolph and his friends entered Worcester, and there received with great hauteur the apologies of the mayor and council, and the assurance that the townspeople were in nowise concerned in the attack made upon him. To this he pretended disbelief. The fine demanded was paid, the principal portion in gold, the rest in bills signed by the leading merchants of the place; for after every effort it had been found impossible to collect such a sum within the city.
The day after he arrived, he again renewed his demand to the abbess for the surrender of the Lady Margaret; this time, however, coming to her attended only by two squires, and by a pursuivant bearing the king's order for the delivery of the damsel. The abbess met him at the gate, and informed him that the Lady Margaret was no longer in her charge.
"Finding," she said, in a fearless tone, "that the holy walls of this convent were insufficient to restrain lawless men, and fearing that these might be tempted to acts of sacrilege, which might bring down upon them the wrath of the church and the destruction of their souls, I have sent her away."
"Whither has she gone?" Sir Rudolph demanded, half mad with passion.
"That I decline to say," the lady abbess replied. "She is in good hands; and when King Richard returns, his ward shall be delivered to him at once."
"Will you take oath upon the Bible that she is not within these walls?" Sir Rudolph exclaimed.
"My word is sufficient," the lady abbess replied calmly. "But should it be necessary, I should be ready to swear upon the relics that she is not here."
A few hours later Sir Rudolph, attended by his own party and by 100 of Sir Charles Everest's mercenaries, returned to his castle.
Three days afterwards, as Cuthbert was sitting at a rude but hearty meal in the forest, surrounded by Cnut and his followers, a hind entered breathless. Cuthbert at once recognized him as one of the servitors of his mother.
"What is it?" he exclaimed, leaping to his feet.
"Terrible news, Master Cuthbert, terrible news!" exclaimed the man. "The wicked earl came down this morning, with fifty of his men, set fire to the house, and all its buildings and stacks, and has carried off the lady, your mother, a prisoner to the castle, on a charge, as he said, of harbouring traitors."
A cry of fury broke from Cnut and his men.
"The false traitor shall bitterly regret this outrage," Cuthbert exclaimed.
He had in the first excitement seized his arms, and his followers snatched up their bows, as if for instant warfare. A few moments' reflection, however, showed to Cuthbert the impossibility of his attacking a fortress like Evesham, garrisoned by a strong body of well-armed men, with only the archers of the forest, without implements necessary for such an assault.
"Send at once, Cnut," he said, "and call in all the band. We cannot take the castle; but we will carry fire and sword round its walls. We will cut off all communication from within or from without. If attacked by large forces, we will retire upon the wood, returning to our posts without the walls as soon as the force is withdrawn. These heavily armed men can move but slowly; while we can run at full speed. There cannot be more than some twenty horsemen in the castle; and methinks with our arrows and pikes we can drive these back if they attempt to fall upon us."
Cnut at once sent off swift-footed messengers to carry out Cuthbert's orders, and on the following day the whole of the band were again assembled in the woods. Just as Cuthbert was setting them in motion, a distant blast of a horn was heard.
"It is," Cuthbert exclaimed, "the note calling for a parley. Do you, Cnut, go forward, and see what is demanded. It is probably a messenger from Sir Rudolph."
After half-an-hour's absence, Cnut returned, bringing with him a pursuivant or herald. The latter advanced at once towards Cuthbert, who, now in his full knightly armour, was evidently the leader of the party.
"I bear to you, Sir Cuthbert, falsely calling yourself Earl of Evesham, a message from Sir Rudolph. He bids me tell you that the traitress, Dame Editha, your mother, is in his hands, and that she has been found guilty of aiding and abetting you in your war against Prince John, the Regent of this kingdom. For that offence she has been condemned to die."
Here he was interrupted by a cry of rage which broke from the assembled foresters. Continuing unmoved, he said,--
"Sir Rudolph, being unwilling to take the life of a woman, however justly forfeited by the law, commands me to say, that if you will deliver yourself up to him by to-morrow at twelve, the Dame Editha shall be allowed to go free. But that if by the time the dial points to noon you have not delivered yourself up, he will hang her over the battlements of the castle."
Cuthbert was very pale, and he waved his hand to restrain the fury which animated the outlaws.
"This man," he said to them, "is a herald, and, as such, is protected by all the laws of chivalry. Whatsoever his message, it is none of his. He is merely the mouthpiece of him who sent him." Then, turning to the herald, he said, "Tell the false knight, your master, on my part, that he is a foul ruffian, perjured to all the vows of knighthood; that this act of visiting upon a woman the enmity he bears her son, will bring upon him the execration of all men; and that the offer which he makes me is as foul and villainous as himself. Nevertheless, knowing his character, and believing that he is capable of keeping his word, tell him that by to-morrow at noon I will be there; that the lady, my mother, is to leave the castle gates as I enter them; and that though by his foul device he may encompass my death, yet that the curse of every good man will light upon him, that he will be shunned as the dog he is, and that assuredly heaven will not suffer that deeds so foul should bring with them the prize he seeks to gain."
The herald bowed, and, escorted by two archers to the edge of the forest, returned to Evesham Castle.
After his departure, an animated council took place. Cnut and the outlaws, burning with indignation, were ready to attempt anything. They would, had Cuthbert given the word, have attacked the castle that very night. But Cuthbert pointed out the absolute impossibility of their carrying so strong a place by such an assault, unprovided with engines for battering down the gates. He said that surprise would be impossible, as the knight would be sure to take every precaution against it; and that in the event of such an attack being attempted, he would possibly carry his threat into execution, and murder Dame Editha before their eyes. Cnut was like a madman, so transported with fury was he; and the archers were also beside themselves. Cuthbert alone retained his calmness. Retiring apart from the others, he paced slowly backwards and forwards among the trees, deliberating upon the best course to be pursued. The archers gathered round the fire and passed the night in long and angry talk, each man agreeing that in the event of their beloved leader being sacrificed by Sir Rudolph, they would one and all give their lives to avenge him by slaying the oppressor whensoever he ventured beyond the castle gates.
After a time, Cuthbert called Cnut to him, and the two talked long and earnestly. Cnut returned to his comrades with a face less despairing than that he had before worn, and sent off at once a messenger with all speed to a franklin near the forest to borrow a stout rope some fifty feet in length, and without telling his comrades what the plans of Sir Cuthbert were, bade them cheer up, for that desperate as the position was, all hope was not yet lost.
"Sir Cuthbert," he said, "has been in grievous straits before now, and has gone through them. Sir Rudolph does not know the nature of the man with whom he has to deal, and we may trick him yet."
At eleven o'clock the next day, from the walls of Evesham Castle a body of archers 150 strong were seen advancing in solid array.
"Think you, Sir Rudolph," one of his friends, Sir Hubert of Gloucester, said to him, "that these varlets think of attacking the castle?"
"They might as well think of scaling heaven," Sir Rudolph said. "Evesham could resist a month's siege by a force well equipped for the purpose; and were it not that good men are wanted for the king's service, and that these villains shoot straight and hard, I would open the gates of the castle and launch our force against them. We are two to one as strong as they, and our knights and mounted men-at-arms could alone scatter that rabble."
Conspicuous upon the battlements a gallows had been erected.
The archers stopped at a distance of a few hundred yards from the castle, and Sir Cuthbert advanced alone to the edge of the moat.
"Sir Rudolph of Eresby, false knight and perjured gentleman," he shouted in a loud voice, "I, Sir Cuthbert of Evesham, do denounce you as foresworn and dishonoured, and do challenge you to meet me here before the castle in sight of your men and mine, and decide our quarrel as heaven may judge with sword and battle-axe."
Sir Rudolph leant over the battlements, and said,--
"It is too late, varlet. I condescended to challenge you before, and you refused. You cannot now claim what you then feared to accept. The sun on the dial approaches noon, and unless you surrender yourself before it reaches the mark, I will keep my word, and the traitress, your mother, shall swing from that beam."
Making a sign to two men-at-arms, these brought forward Dame Editha and so placed her on the battlements that she could be seen from below. Dame Editha was still a very fair woman, although nigh forty years had rolled over her head. No sign of fear appeared upon her face, and in a firm voice she cried to her son,--
"Cuthbert, I beg--nay, I order you to retire. If this unknightly lord venture to carry out his foul threats against me, let him do so. England will ring with the dastardly deed, and he will never dare show his face again where Englishmen congregate. Let him do his worst. I am prepared to die."
A murmur rose from the knights and men-at-arms standing round Sir Rudolph.
Several of his companions had from the first, wild and reckless as they were, protested against Sir Rudolph's course, and it was only upon his solemn assurance that he intended but to frighten Sir Cuthbert into surrender, and had no intention of carrying his threats against the lady into effect, that they had consented to take part in the transaction. Even now, at the fearless words of the Saxon lady several of them hesitated, and Sir Hubert of Gloucester stepped forward to Sir Rudolph.
"Sir knight," he said, "you know that I am your true comrade and the faithful servant of Prince John. Yet in faith would I not that my name should be mixed up in so foul a deed. I repent me that I have for a moment consented to it. But the shame shall not hang upon the escutcheon of Hubert of Gloucester that he stood still when such foul means were tried. I pray you, by our long friendship, and for the sake of your own honour as a knight, to desist from this endeavour. If this lady be guilty, as she well may be, of aiding her son in his assaults upon the soldiers of Prince John, then let her be tried, and doubtless the court will confiscate her estates. But let her son be told that her life is in no danger, and that he is free to go, being assured that harm will not come to her."
"And if I refuse to consent to allow my enemy, who is now almost within my hand, to escape," Sir Rudolph said, "what then?"
"Then," said the knight, "I and my following will at once leave your walls, and will clear ourselves to the brave young knight yonder of all hand in this foul business."
A murmur of agreement from several of those standing round showed that their sentiments were in accordance with those of Sir Hubert.
"I refuse," said Rudolph passionately. "Go, if you will. I am master of my actions, and of this castle."
Without a word, Sir Hubert and two others of the knights present turned, and briefly ordering their men-at-arms to follow them, descended the staircase to the courtyard below. Their horses were brought out, the men fell into rank, and the gates of the castle were thrown open.
"Stand to arms!" Sir Cuthbert shouted to the archers. "They are going to attempt a sortie." And hastily he retired to the main body of his men.