Chapter XXIV. The Siege of Evesham Castle.
 

Upon the day before starting out to head the expedition against the outlaws, Sir Rudolph sent word to the Lady Margaret that she must prepare to become his wife at the end of the week. He had provided two tiring maids for her by ordering two of the franklins to send in their daughters for that purpose, and these mingled their tears with Margaret's at the situation in which they were placed. She replied firmly to the messenger of the knight that no power on earth could oblige her to marry him. He might drive her to the altar; but though he killed her there, her lips should refuse to say the words which would unite them.

The following morning, early, the castle rang with the din of preparation. The great portion of the mercenaries were encamped in tents outside the walls, for, spacious as it was, Evesham could hardly contain 400 men in addition to its usual garrison. The men-at-arms were provided with heavy axes to cut their way through the bushes. Some carried bundles of straw, to fire the wood should it be found practicable to do so; and as it was now summer and the wind was blowing high, Sir Rudolph hoped that the dry grass and bushes would catch, and would do more even than his men-at-arms in clearing the forest of those whom he designated the villains infesting it. They had, too, with them several fierce dogs trained to hunting the deer, and these, the knight hoped, would do good service in tracking the outlaws. He and the knights and the men-at-arms with him were all dismounted, for he felt that horses would in the forest be an encumbrance, and he was determined himself to lead the way to the men-at-arms.

When they reached the forest, they were saluted by a shower of arrows; but as all were clad in mail, these at a distance effected but little harm. As they came closer, however, the clothyard arrows began to pierce the coarse and ill-made armour of the foot soldiers, although the finer armour of the knight kept out the shafts which struck against it. Sir Rudolph and his knights leading the way, they entered the forest, and gradually pressed their invisible foe backwards through the trees. The dogs did good service, going on ahead and attacking the archers; but, one by one, they were soon shot, and the assailants left to their own devices. Several attempts were made to fire the wood. But these failed, the fire burning but a short time and then dying out of itself. In addition to the fighting men, Sir Rudolph had impressed into the service all the serfs of his domain, and these, armed with axes, were directed to cut down the trees as the force proceeded, Sir Rudolph declaring that he would not cease until he had levelled the whole forest, though it might take him months to do so.

The assailants gained ground steadily, the resistance being less severe than Sir Rudolph had anticipated. Several small huts and clearings in the forest which had been used by the outlaws, and round which small crops had been planted, were destroyed, and all seemed to promise well for the success of the enterprise.

It was about two hours after they had left the castle, when a heavy cart filled with faggots was seen approaching its gates. The garrison, who had not the least fear of any attack, paid no attention to it until it reached the edge of the moat. Then the warder, seeing that it contained faggots, lowered the drawbridge without question, raised the portcullis, and opened the gates.

"From whom do you bring this wood?" he asked, as the man driving the oxen began to cross the bridge.

"From the franklin of Hopeburn."

"It is well," said the warder, "for he is in arrear now, and should have sent in the firewood two months since. Take it to the wood-house at the other end of the court."

The heavy-waggon crossed the drawbridge, but as it was entering the gate it came suddenly to a stop. With a blow of his ox goad Cnut levelled the warder to the ground, and cutting the cords of the bullocks, drove them into the yard ahead. As he did so the pile of faggots fell asunder, and twelve men armed with bow and pike leaped out. The men-at-arms standing near, lounging in the courtyard, gave a shout of alarm, and the garrison, surprised at this sudden cry, ran to their arms. At first they were completely panic-stricken. But seeing after a time how small was the number of their assailants, they took heart and advanced against them. The passage was narrow, and the twelve men formed a wall across it. Six of them with their pikes advanced, the other six with bent bows standing behind them and delivering their arrows between their heads. The garrison fought stoutly, and although losing many, were pressing the little band backwards. In vain the assistant-warder tried to lower the portcullis, or to close the gates. The former fell on to the top of the waggon, and was there retained. The gates also were barred by the obstacle. The chains of the drawbridge had at once been cut. Cnut encouraged his followers by his shouts, and armed with a heavy axe, did good service upon the assailants. But four of his party had fallen, and the rest were giving way, when a shout was heard, and over the drawbridge poured Cuthbert and 150 of the outlaws of the forest. Struck with terror at this attack, the garrison drew back, and the foresters poured into the yard. For a few minutes there was a fierce fight; but the defenders of the castle, disheartened and taken by surprise, were either cut down or, throwing down their arms, cried for quarter.

Ten minutes after the waggon had crossed the drawbridge, the castle was safely in possession of Sir Cuthbert. The bridge was raised, the waggon removed, the portcullis lowered, and to the external eye all remained as before.

Cuthbert at once made his way to the chamber where the Lady Margaret was confined, and her joy at her deliverance was great indeed. So unlimited was her faith in Sir Cuthbert that she had never lost confidence; and although it did not seem possible that in the face of such disparity of numbers he could rescue her from the power of Sir Rudolph, yet she had not given up hope. The joy of the farmers' daughters who had been carried off to act as her attendants was little inferior to her own; for once in the power of this reckless baron, the girls had small hopes of ever being allowed to return again to their parents.

The flag of Sir Rudolph was thrown down from the keep, and that of the late earl hoisted in its stead; for Cuthbert himself, although he had assumed the cognizance which King Richard had granted him, had not yet any flag or pennon emblazoned with it.

No words can portray the stupefaction and rage of Sir Rudolph when a man who had managed to slip unobserved from the castle at the time of its capture, bore the news to him in the forest. All opposition there had ceased, and the whole of the troops were engaged in aiding the peasants in cutting wide roads through the trees across the forest, so as to make it penetrable by horsemen in every direction. It was supposed that the outlaws had gradually stolen away through the thickets and taken to the open country, intending to scatter to their homes, or other distant hiding-places; and the news that they had by a ruse captured the castle, came as a thunderclap.

Sir Rudolph's first impulse was to call his men together and to march towards the castle. The drawbridge was up, and the walls bristled with armed men. It was useless to attempt a parley; still more useless to think of attacking the stronghold without the proper machines and appliances. Foaming with rage, Sir Rudolph took possession of a cottage near, camped his men around and prepared for a siege.

There were among the mercenaries many men accustomed to the use of engines of war. Many, too, had aided in making them; and these were at once set to work to construct the various machines in use at that time. Before the invention of gunpowder, castles such as those of the English barons were able to defy any attack by an armed force for a long period. Their walls were so thick that even the balistas, casting huge stones, were unable to breach them except after a very long time. The moats which surrounded them were wide and deep, and any attempt at storming by ladders was therefore extremely difficult; and these buildings were consequently more often captured by famine than by other means. Of provisions, as Sir Rudolph knew, there was a considerable supply at present in the castle, for he had collected a large number of bullocks in order to feed the strong body who had been added to the garrison. The granaries, too, were well stored; and with a groan Sir Rudolph thought of the rich stores of French wines which he had collected in his cellars.

After much deliberation with the knights with him and the captain of the mercenaries, it was agreed in the first instance to attempt to attack the place by filling up a portion of the moat and ascending by scaling ladders. Huge screens of wood were made, and these were placed on waggons; the waggons themselves were filled with bags of earth, and a large number of men getting beneath them shoved the ponderous machines forward to the edge of the moat. The bags of stones and earth were then thrown in, and the waggons pushed backwards to obtain a fresh supply. This operation was of course an exceedingly slow one, a whole day being occupied with each trip of the waggons. They were not unmolested in their advance, for, from the walls, mangonels and other machines hurled great stones down upon the wooden screens, succeeding sometimes, in spite of their thickness, in crashing through them, killing many of the men beneath. The experiment was also tried of throwing balls of Greek fire down upon the wood; but as this was green and freshly felled it would not take fire, but the flames dropping through, with much boiling pitch and other materials, did grievously burn and scald the soldiers working below it. Upon both sides every device was tried. The cross-bow men among the mercenaries kept up a fire upon the walls to hinder the defenders from interfering with the operations, while the archers above shot steadily, and killed many of those who ventured within range of their bows.

After ten days' labour, a portion of the moat some twenty yards in length was filled with bags of earth, and all was ready for the assault. The besiegers had prepared great numbers of strong ladders, and these were brought up under shelter of the screens. Then, all being ready, the trumpets sounded for the assault, and the troops moved forward in a close body, covering themselves with their shields so that no man's head or body was visible, each protecting the one before him with his shield held over him. Thus the body presented the appearance of a great scale-covered animal. In many respects, indeed, the warfare of those days was changed in no way from that of the time of the Romans. In the 1200 years which had elapsed between the siege of Jerusalem and the days of the crusades there had been but little change in arms or armour, and the operations which Titus undertook for the reduction of the Jewish stronghold differed but little from those which a Norman baron employed in besieging his neighbour's castle.

Within Evesham Castle all was contentment and merriment during these days. The garrison had no fear whatever of being unable to repel the assault when it should be delivered. Huge stones had been collected in numbers on the walls, cauldrons of pitch, beneath which fires kept simmering, stood there in readiness. Long poles with hooks with which to seize the ladders and cut them down were laid there; and all that precaution and science could do was prepared.

Cuthbert passed much of the day, when not required upon the walls, chatting with the Lady Margaret, who, attended by her maidens, sat working in her bower. She had learnt to read from the good nuns of the convent--an accomplishment which was by no means general, even among the daughters of nobles; but books were rare, and Evesham boasted but few manuscripts. Here Margaret learnt in full all the details of Cuthbert's adventures since leaving England, and the fondness with which as a child she had regarded the lad grew gradually into the affection of a woman.

The courage of the garrison was high, for although they believed that sooner or later the castle might be carried by the besiegers, they had already been told by Cnut that there was a means of egress unknown to the besiegers, and that when the time came they would be able to escape unharmed. This, while it in no way detracted from their determination to defend the castle to the last, yet rendered their task a far lighter and more agreeable one than it would have been had they seen the gallows standing before them as the end of the siege. As the testudo, as it was called in those days, advanced towards the castle, the machines upon the walls--catapults, mangonels, and arbalasts--poured forth showers of stones and darts upon it, breaking up the array of shields and killing many; and as these openings were made, the archers, seizing their time, poured in volleys of arrows. The mercenaries, however, accustomed to war, advanced steadily, and made good their footing beneath the castle wall, and proceeded to rear their ladders. Here, although free from the action of the machines, they were exposed to the hand missiles, which were scarcely less destructive. In good order, and with firmness, however, they reared the ladders, and mounted to the assault, covering themselves as well as they could with their shields. In vain, however, did they mount. The defenders poured down showers of boiling pitch and oil, which penetrated the crevices of their armour, and caused intolerable torment. Great stones were toppled over from the battlements upon them; and sometimes the ladders, seized by the poles with hooks, were cast backwards, with all upon them, on the throng below. For half-an-hour, encouraged by the shouts of Sir Rudolph and their leaders, the soldiers strove gallantly; but were at last compelled to draw off, having lost nigh 100 men, without one gaining a footing upon the walls.

That evening another council of war was held without. Already some large machines for which Sir Rudolph had sent had arrived. In anticipation of the possibility of failure, two castles upon wheels had been prepared, and between these a huge beam with an iron head was hung. This was upon the following day pushed forward on the newly-formed ground across the moat. Upon the upper part of each tower were armed men who worked machines casting sheaves of arrows and other missiles. Below were those who worked the ram. To each side of the beam were attached numerous cords, and with these it was swung backwards and forwards, giving heavy blows each stroke upon the wall. The machines for casting stones, which had arrived, were also brought in play, and day and night these thundered against the walls; while the ram repeated its ceaseless blows upon the same spot, until the stone crumbled before it.

Very valiantly did the garrison oppose themselves to these efforts. But each day showed the progress made by the besiegers. Their forces had been increased, Prince John having ordered his captain at Gloucester to send another 100 men to the assistance of Sir Rudolph. Other towers had now been prepared. These were larger than the first, and overtopped the castle walls. From the upper story were drawbridges, so formed as to drop from the structures upon the walls, and thus enable the besiegers to rush upon them. The process was facilitated by the fact that the battlements had been shot away by the great stones, and there was a clear space on which the drawbridges could fall. The attack was made with great vigour; but for a long time the besieged maintained their post, and drove back the assailants as they poured out across the drawbridges on to the wall. At last Cuthbert saw that the forces opposed to him were too numerous to be resisted, and gave orders to his men to fall back upon the inner keep.

Making one rush, and clearing the wall of those who had gained a footing, the garrison fell back hastily, and were safely within the massive keep before the enemy had mustered in sufficient numbers upon the wall to interfere with them. The drawbridge was now lowered, and the whole of the assailants gained footing within the castle. They were still far from having achieved a victory. The walls of the keep were massive and strong, and its top far higher than the walls, so that from above a storm of arrows poured down upon all who ventured to show themselves. The keep had no windows low enough down for access to be gained; and those on the floors above were so narrow, and protected by bars, that it seemed by scaling the walls alone could an entry be effected. This was far too desperate an enterprise to be attempted, for the keep rose eighty feet above the courtyard. It was upon the door, solid and studded with iron, that the attempt had to be made.

Several efforts were made by Sir Rudolph, who fought with a bravery worthy of a better cause, to assault and batter down the door. Protected by wooden shields from the rain of missiles from above, he and his knights hacked at the door with their battle-axes. But in vain. It had been strengthened by beams behind, and by stones piled up against it. Then fire was tried. Faggots were collected in the forest, and brought; and a huge pile having been heaped against the door, it was lighted. "We could doubtless prolong the siege for some days, Lady Margaret," said Cuthbert, "but the castle is ours; and we wish not, when the time comes that we shall again be masters of it, that it should be a mere heap of ruins. Methinks we have done enough. With but small losses on our side, we have killed great numbers of the enemy, and have held them at bay for a month. Therefore, I think that tonight it will be well for us to leave the place."

Lady Margaret was rejoiced at the news that the time for escape had come, for the perpetual clash of war, the rattling of arrows, the ponderous thud of heavy stones, caused a din very alarming to a young girl; and although the room in which she sat, looking into the inner court of the castle, was not exposed to missiles, she trembled at the thought that brave men were being killed, and that at any moment a shot might strike Cuthbert, and so leave her without a friend or protector.

Content with having destroyed the door, the assailants made no further effort that evening, but prepared in the morning to attack it, pull down the stones filled behind it, and force their way into the keep. There was, with the exception of the main entrance, but one means of exit, a small postern door behind the castle, and throughout the siege a strong body of troops had been posted here, to prevent the garrison making a sortie.

Feeling secure therefore that upon the following day his enemies would fall into his power, Sir Rudolph retired to rest.

An hour before midnight the garrison assembled in the hall. The table was removed, and Cuthbert having pressed the spring, which was at a distance from the stone and could not be discovered without a knowledge of its existence, the stone turned aside by means of a counterpoise, and a flight of steps was seen. Torches had been prepared. Cnut and a chosen band went first; Cuthbert followed, with Lady Margaret and her attendants; and the rest of the archers brought up the rear, a trusty man being left in charge at last with orders to swing back the stone into its place, having first hauled the table over the spot, so that their means of escape should be unknown.

The passage was long and dreary, the walls were damp with wet, and the massive doors so swollen by moisture that it was with the greatest difficulty they could be opened. At last, however, they emerged into the little friary in the wood. It was deserted, the priest who usually dwelt there having fled when the siege began. The stone which there, as in the castle, concealed the exit, was carefully closed, and the party then emerged into the open air. Here Cuthbert bade adieu to his comrades. Cnut had very anxiously begged to be allowed to accompany him and share his fortunes, and Cuthbert had promised him that if at any time he should again take up arms in England, he would summon him to his side, but that at present as he knew not whither his steps would be turned, it would be better that he should be unattended. The archers had all agreed to scatter far and wide through the country, many of them proceeding to Nottingham and joining the bands in the forest of Sherwood.

Cuthbert himself had determined to make his way to the castle of his friend, Sir Baldwin, and to leave the Lady Margaret in his charge. Cnut hurried on at full speed to the house of a franklin, some three miles distant. Here horses were obtained and saddled, and dresses prepared; and when Cuthbert with Lady Margaret arrived there, no time was lost. Dressed as a yeoman, with the Lady Margaret as his sister, he mounted a horse, with her behind him on a pillion. The other damsels also mounted, as it would not have been safe for them to remain near Evesham. They therefore purposed taking refuge in a convent near Gloucester for the present. Bidding a hearty adieu to Cnut, and with thanks to the franklin who had aided them, they set forward on their journey. By morning they had reached the convent, and here the two girls were left, and Cuthbert continued his journey. He left his charge at a convent a day's ride distant from the castle of Sir Baldwin, as he wished to consult the knight first as to the best way of her entering the castle without exciting talk or suspicion.

Sir Baldwin received him with joy. He had heard something of his doings, and the news of the siege of Evesham had been noised abroad. He told him that he was in communication with many other barons, and that ere long they hoped to rise against the tyranny of Prince John, but that at present they were powerless, as many, hoping that King Richard would return ere long, shrank from involving the country in a civil war. When Cuthbert told him that the daughter of his old friend was at a convent but a day's ride distant, and that he sought protection for her, Sir Baldwin instantly offered her hospitality.

"I will," he said, "send my good wife to fetch her. Some here know your presence, and it would be better therefore that she did not arrive for some days, as her coming will then seem to be unconnected with yourself. My wife and I will, a week hence, give out that we are going to fetch a cousin of my wife's to stay here with her; and when we return no suspicion will be excited that she is other than she seems. Should it be otherwise, I need not say that Sir Baldwin of B,thune will defend his castle against any of the minions of Prince John. But I have no fear that her presence here will be discovered. What think you of doing in the meantime?"

"I am thinking," Cuthbert said, "of going east. No news has been obtained of our lord the king save that he is a prisoner in the hands of the emperor; but where confined, or how, we know not. It is my intent to travel to the Tyrol, and to trace his steps from the time that he was captured. Then, when I obtain knowledge of the place where he is kept, I will return, and consult upon the best steps to be taken. My presence in England is now useless. Did the barons raise the standard of King Richard against the prince, I should at once return and join them. But without land or vassals, I can do nothing here, and shall be indeed like a hunted hare, for I know that the false earl will move heaven and earth to capture me."

Sir Baldwin approved of the resolution; but recommended Cuthbert to take every precaution not to fall himself into the hands of the emperor; "for," he said, "if we cannot discover the prison of King Richard, I fear that it would be hopeless indeed ever to attempt to find that in which a simple knight is confined."