Chapter XXIII. The False and Perjured Knight.
 

As the band of knights and their retainers issued from the gate, a trumpeter blew a parley, and the three knights advanced alone towards the group of archers.

"Sir Cuthbert de Lance," Sir Hubert said, "in the name of myself and my two friends here we ask your pardon for having so far taken part in this foul action. We did so believing only that Sir Rudolph intended the capture of your lady mother as a threat. Now that we see he was in earnest, we wash our hands of the business; and could we in any way atone for our conduct in having joined him, we would gladly do so, consistently only with our allegiance to the Prince Regent."

Cuthbert bowed courteously.

"Thanks for your words, Sir Hubert. I had always heard yourself and the knights here spoken of as brave and gallant gentlemen, whose sole fault was that they chose to take part with a rebel prince, rather than with the King of England. I rejoice that you have cleared your name of so foul a blot as this would have placed upon it, and I acknowledge that your conduct now is knightly and courteous. But I can no more parley. The sun is within a few minutes of twelve, and I must surrender, to meet such fate as may befall me."

So saying, with a bow he left them, and again advanced to the castle gate.

"Sir Rudolph," he shouted, "the hour is at hand. I call upon you to deliver, outside the gate, the lady, my mother. Whether she wills it or not, I call upon you to place her beyond the gate, and I give you my knightly word that as she leaves it I enter it."

Dame Editha would then have attempted resistance; but she saw that it would be useless. With a pale face she descended the steps, accompanied by the men-at-arms. She knew that any entreaty to Sir Rudolph would be vain, and with the courage of her race she mentally vowed to devote the rest of her life to vengeance for her son.

As the gate opened and she was thrust forth, for a moment she found herself in the arms of her son.

"Courage, mother!" he whispered; "all may yet be well."

Cnut was waiting a few paces behind, and offering his hand to Dame Editha, he led her to the group of archers, while Cuthbert, alone, crossed the drawbridge, and entered the portal, the heavy portcullis falling after him.

Cnut immediately ordering four of his men to escort Dame Editha to the wood with all speed, advanced with his men towards the walls. All had strung their bows and placed their arrows on the ground in front of them in readiness for instant use. Cnut himself, with two others carrying the rope, advanced to the edge of the moat. None observed their doings, for all within the castle were intent upon the proceedings there.

In the courtyard Sir Rudolph had taken his post, with the captain of the mercenaries beside him, and the men-at-arms drawn up in order. He smiled sardonically as Cuthbert entered.

"So, at last," he said, "this farce is drawing to an end. You are in my power, and for the means which I have taken to capture you, I will account to the prince. You are a traitor to him; you have attacked and slaughtered many of my friends; you are an outlaw defying the law; and for each of these offences your head is forfeited."

"I deny," Cuthbert said, standing before him, "your right to be my judge. By my peers only can I be tried. As a knight of England and as rightful lord of this castle, I demand to be brought before a jury of my equals."

"I care nothing for rights or for juries," said Sir Rudolph. "I have the royal order for your execution, and that order I shall put into effect, although all the knights and barons in England objected."

Cuthbert looked round to observe the exact position in which he was standing. He knew, of course, every foot of the castle, and saw that but a short distance behind a single row of armed men was the staircase leading to the battlements.

"False and perjured knight," he said, taking a step forward, "I may die; but I would rather a thousand deaths than such a life as yours will be when this deed is known in England. But I am not yet dead. For myself, I could pardon you; but for the outrage to my mother--" and with a sudden movement he struck Sir Rudolph in the face with all his strength, with his mailed hand.

With the blood gushing from his nostrils, the knight fell backwards, and Sir Cuthbert, with a bound, before the assembly could recover from their astonishment at the deed, burst through the line of men-at-arms, and sprang up the narrow staircase. A score of men-at-arms started in pursuit; but Sir Cuthbert gained the battlements first, and without a moment's hesitation sprang upon them and plunged forward, falling into the moat fifty feet below. Here he would have perished miserably, for in his heavy armour he was of course unable to swim a stroke, and his weight took him at once into the mud of the moat. At its margin, however, Cnut stood awaiting him, with one end of the rope in his hand. In an instant he plunged in, and diving to the bottom, grasped Cuthbert by the body, and twisted the rope round him. The two archers on the bank at once hauled upon it, and in a minute Sir Cuthbert was dragged to the bank.

By this time a crowd of men-at-arms appeared upon the battlements. But as they did so the archers opened a storm of arrows upon them, and quickly compelled them to find shelter. Carried by Cnut and the men with him--for he was insensible--Sir Cuthbert was quickly conveyed to the centre of the outlaws, and these at once in a compact body began their retreat to the wood. Cuthbert quickly recovered consciousness, and was soon able to walk. As he did so, the gates of the castle were thrown open, and a crowd of men-at-arms, consisting of the retainers of the castle and the mercenaries of Prince John, sallied forth. So soon as Cuthbert was able to move, the archers started at a brisk run, several of them carrying Cuthbert's casque and sword, and others assisting him to hurry along. The rear ranks turned as they ran and discharged flights of arrows at the enemy, who, more heavily armed and weighted, gained but slowly upon them.

Had not Sir Rudolph been stunned by the blow dealt him by Cuthbert, he would himself have headed the pursuit, and in that case the foresters would have had to fight hard to make their retreat to their fastness. The officer in command of the mercenaries, however, had no great stomach for the matter. Men were hard to get, and Prince John would not have been pleased to hear that a number of the men whom he had brought with such expense from foreign parts had been killed in a petty fray. Therefore after following for a short time he called them off, and the archers fell back into the forest.

Here they found Dame Editha, and for three days she abode among them, living in a small hut in the centre of the forest. Then she left, to take up her abode, until the troubles were past, with some kin who lived in the south of Gloucestershire.

Although the lady abbess had assured Cuthbert that the retreat of Lady Margaret was not likely to be found out, he himself, knowing how great a stake Sir Rudolph had in the matter, was still far from being easy. It would not be difficult for the latter to learn through his agents that the lady superior of the little convent near Hereford was of kin to her of St. Anne's, and, close as a convent is, yet the gossiping of the servants who go to market was certain to let out an affair so important as the arrival of a young lady to reside under the charge of the superior. Cuthbert was not mistaken as to the acuteness of his enemy. The relationship between the two lady superiors was no secret, and after having searched all the farmhouses and granges near the forest, and being convinced that the lady abbess would have sent her charge rather to a religious house than to that of a franklin, Sir Rudolph sought which of those within the circuit of a few miles would be likely to be the one selected. It was not long before he was enabled to fix upon that near Hereford, and spies going to the spot soon found out from the countrypeople that it was a matter of talk that a young lady of rank had been admitted by the superior. Sir Rudolph hesitated whether to go himself at the head of a strong body of men and openly to take her, or to employ some sort of device. It was not that he himself feared the anathema of the church; but he knew Prince John to be weak and vacillating, at one time ready to defy the thunder of the pope, the next cringing before the spiritual authority. He therefore determined to employ some of his men to burst into the convent and carry off the heiress, arranging that he himself, with some of his men-at-arms, should come upon them in the road, and make a feigned rescue of her, so that, if the lady superior laid her complaint before the pope's legate, he could deny that he had any hand in the matter, and could even take credit for having rescued her from the men who had profaned the convent. That his story would be believed mattered but little. It would be impossible to prove its falsity, and this was all that he cared for.

This course was followed out. Late one evening, the lady superior was alarmed by a violent knocking at the door. In reply to questions asked through the grill, the answer was given, "We are men of the forest, and we are come to carry the Lady Margaret of Evesham off to a secure hiding-place. The lord of Evesham has discovered her whereabouts, and will be here shortly, and we would fain remove her before he arrives."

"From whom have you warrant?" the lady superior said. "I surrender her to no one, save to the lady abbess of St. Anne's. But if you have a written warrant from Sir Cuthbert, the rightful lord of Evesham, I will lay the matter before the Lady Margaret, and will act as it may seem fit to her."

"We have no time for parleying," a rough voice said. "Throw open the gate at once, or we will break it down."

"Ye be no outlaws," the lady superior said, "for the outlaws are men who fear God and respect the church. Were ye what ye say, ye would be provided with the warrants that I mention. I warn you, therefore, that if you use force, you will be excommunicated, and placed under the ban of the church."

The only answer was a thundering assault upon the gate, which soon yielded to the blows. The sisters and novices ran shrieking through the corridors at this rude uproar. The lady superior, however, stood calmly awaiting the giving way of the gate.

"Where is the Lady Margaret?" the leader of the party, who were dressed in rough garb, and had the seeming of a band of outlaws, demanded.

"I will say nothing," she said, "nor do I own that she is here."

"We will soon take means to find out," the man exclaimed. "Unless in five minutes she is delivered to us, we will burn your place to the ground."

The lady abbess was insensible to the threat; but the men rushing in, seized some sisters, who, terrified out of their wits by this irruption, at once gave the information demanded, and the men made their way to the cell where the Lady Margaret slept.

The girl had at once risen when the tumult commenced, doubting not in her mind that this was another attempt upon the part of her enemy to carry her off. When, therefore, she heard heavy footsteps approaching along the gallery--having already hastily attired herself--she opened the door and presented herself.

"If you seek the Lady Margaret of Evesham," she said calmly, "I am she. Do not harm any of the sisters here. I am in your power, and will go with you at once. But I beseech you add not to your other sins that of violence against holy women."

The men, abashed by the calm dignity of this young girl, abstained from laying hands upon her, but merely motioned to her to accompany them. Upon their way they met the man who appeared to be their leader, and he, well pleased that the affair was over, led the way to the courtyard.

"Farewell, my child," the abbess exclaimed. "God will deliver you from the power of these wicked men. Trust in Him, and keep up your courage. Wickedness will not be permitted to triumph upon the earth; and be assured that the matter shall be brought to the ears of the pope's legate, and of Prince John himself."

She could say no more, for the men closing round the weeping girl, hurried her out from the convent. A litter awaited them without, and in this the young lady was placed, and, borne upon the shoulders of four stout men, she started at a fast pace, surrounded closely by the rest of the band.

It was a dark night, and the girl could not see the direction in which she was being taken; but she judged from the turn taken upon leaving the convent, that it was towards Evesham. They had proceeded some miles, when a trampling of horses was heard, and a body of armed men rode up. For a moment Lady Margaret's heart gave a leap, for she thought that she had been rescued by her friends. There was a loud and angry altercation, a clashing of swords, and a sound of shouting and cries outside the litter. Then it was placed roughly on the ground, and she heard the sound of the footsteps of her first captors hurrying away. Then the horsemen closed round the litter, and the leader dismounted.

"I am happy indeed, Lady Margaret," he said approaching the litter, "to have been able to save you from the power of these villains. Fortunately, word came to me that the outlaws in the forest were about to carry you off, and that they would not hesitate even to desecrate the walls of the convent. Assembling my men-at-arms, I at once rode to your rescue, and am doubly happy to have saved you, first, as a gentleman, secondly, as being the man to whom our gracious prince has assigned you as a wife. I am Sir Rudolph, Earl of Evesham."

As from the first the girl had been convinced that she had fallen into the power of her lawless suitor, this came upon her as no surprise.

"Whether your story is true, Sir Rudolph," she said, "or not, God knows, and I, a poor weak girl, will not pretend to venture to say. It is between you and your conscience. If, as you say, you have saved me from the power of the outlaws, I demand that, as a knight and a gentleman, you return with me at once to the convent from which I was taken by force."

"I cannot do that," Sir Rudolph said. "Fortune has placed you in my hands, and has enabled me to carry out the commands of the prince. Therefore, though I would fain yield to your wishes and so earn your goodwill, which above all things I wish to obtain, yet my duty towards the prince commands me to utilize the advantage which fate has thrown in my hands."

"You must do as you will, Sir Rudolph," the girl said with dignity. "I believe not your tale. You sought before, in person, to carry me off, but failed, and you have now employed other means to do so. The tale of your conduct to Dame Editha has reached my ears, and I hold you a foresworn knight and a dishonoured man, and as such I would rather die than become your wife, although as yet I am but a child, and have no need to talk of weddings for years to come."

"We need not parley here," the knight said coldly. "We shall have plenty of time when at my castle."

The litter was now lifted, placed between two horses, and proceeded rapidly on its journey. Although the hope was but faint, yet until the gates of the castle closed upon them the Lady Margaret still hoped that rescue might reach her. But the secret had been too well kept, and it was not until the following day that the man who had been placed in a cottage near the convent arrived in all haste in the forest, to say that it was only in the morning that he had learnt that the convent had been broken open by men disguised as archers, and the Lady Margaret carried off.

Four days elapsed before Sir Rudolph presented himself before the girl he had captured. So fearfully was his face bruised and disfigured by the blow from the mailed hand of Cuthbert three weeks before, that he did not wish to appear before her under such unfavourable circumstances, and the captive passed the day gazing from her casement in one of the rooms in the upper part of the keep, towards the forest whence she hoped rescue would come.

Within the forest hot discussions were going on as to the best course to pursue. An open attack was out of the question, especially as upon the day following the arrival there of Lady Margaret, 300 more mercenaries had marched in from Worcester, so that the garrison was now raised to 500 men.

"Is there no way," Cnut exclaimed furiously, "by which we might creep into this den, since we cannot burst into it openly?"

"There is a way from the castle," Cuthbert said, "for my dear lord told me of it one day when we were riding together in the Holy Land. He said then that it might be that he should never return, and that it were well that I should know of the existence of this passage, which few beside the earl himself knew of. It is approached by a very heavy slab of stone in the great hall. This is bolted down, and as it stands under the great table passes unnoticed, and appears part of the ordinary floor. He told me the method in which, by touching a spring, the bolts were withdrawn and the stone could be raised. Thence a passage a quarter of a mile long leads to the little chapel standing in the hollow, and which, being hidden among the trees, would be unobserved by any party besieging the castle. This of course was contrived in order that the garrison, or any messenger thereof, might make an exit in case of siege."

"But if we could escape," Cnut asked, "why not enter by this way?"

"The stone is of immense weight and strength," Cuthbert replied, "and could not be loosed from below save with great labour and noise. There are, moreover, several massive doors in the passage, all of which are secured by heavy bolts within. It is therefore out of the question that we could enter the castle by that way. But were we once in, we could easily carry off the lady through this passage."

The large force which Sir Rudolph had collected was not intended merely for the defence of the castle, for the knight considered that with his own garrison he could hold it against a force tenfold that which his rival could collect. But he was determined if possible to crush out the outlaws of the forest, for he felt that so long as this formidable body remained under an enterprising leader like Sir Cuthbert, he would never be safe for a moment, and would be a prisoner in his own castle.

Cuthbert had foreseen that the attack was likely to be made and had strengthened his band to the utmost. He felt, however, that against so large a force of regularly armed men, although he might oppose a stout resistance and kill many, yet that in the end he must be conquered. Cnut, however, suggested to him a happy idea, which he eagerly grasped.

"It would be rare sport," Cnut said, "when this armed force comes out to attack us, if we could turn the tables by slipping in, and taking their castle."

"The very thing," Cuthbert exclaimed. "It is likely that he will use the greater portion of his forces, and that he will not keep above fifty or sixty men, at the outside, in the castle. When they sally out we will at first oppose a stout resistance to them in the wood, gradually falling back. Then, at a given signal, all save twenty men shall retire hastily, and sweeping round, make for the castle. Their absence will not be noticed, for in this thick wood it is difficult to tell whether twenty men or two hundred are opposing you among the bushes; and the twenty who remain must shoot thick and fast to make believe that their numbers are great, retiring sometimes, and leading the enemy on into the heart of the wood."

"But supposing, Sir Cuthbert, that they should have closed the gates and lifted the drawbridge? We could not gain entrance by storming, even if only twenty men held the walls, until long after the main body would have returned."

Cuthbert thought for some time, and then said, "Cnut, you shall undertake this enterprise. You shall fill a cart high with faggots, and in it shall conceal a dozen of your best men. You, dressed as a serf, shall drive the oxen, and when you reach the castle shall say, in answer to the hail of the sentry, that you are bringing in the tribute of wood of your master the franklin of Hopeburn. They will then lower the drawbridge and open the gates; and when you have crossed the bridge and are under the portcullis, spring out suddenly, cut loose the oxen so that they will not draw the cart further in, cut the chains of the drawbridge so that it cannot be drawn off, and hold the gate for a minute or two until we arrive."

"The plan is capital," Cnut exclaimed. "We will do the proud Norman yet. How he will storm when he finds us masters of his castle. What then will you do, Sir Cuthbert?"

"We can hold the castle for weeks," Cuthbert said, "and every day is in our favour. If we find ourselves forced to yield to superior numbers, we can at last retire through the passage I have spoken of, and must then scatter and each shift for himself until these bad days be past."