Chapter XXV. In Search of the King.
 

The following day, with many thanks Cuthbert started from the castle, and in the first place visited the convent, and told Lady Margaret that she would be fetched in a few days by Sir Baldwin and his wife. He took a tender adieu of her, not without many forebodings and tears upon her part; but promising blithely that he would return and lead her back in triumph to her castle, he bade adieu and rode for London.

He had attired himself as a merchant, and took up his abode at a hostelry near Cheapside. Here he remained quietly for some days, and, mixing among the people, learnt that in London as elsewhere the rapacity of Prince John had rendered him hateful to the people, and that they would gladly embrace any opportunity of freeing themselves from his yoke. He was preparing to leave for France, when the news came to him that Prince John had summoned all the barons faithful to him to meet him near London, and had recalled all his mercenaries from different parts of the country, and was gathering a large army; also, that the barons faithful to King Richard, alarmed by the prospect, had raised the royal standard, and that true men were hurrying to their support. This entirely destroyed the plans that he had formed. Taking horse again, and avoiding the main road, by which he might meet the hostile barons on their way to London, he journeyed down to Nottingham. Thence riding boldly into the forest, he sought the outlaws, and was not long ere he found them. At his request he was at once taken before their leader, a man of great renown both for courage and bowmanship, one Robin Hood. This bold outlaw had long held at defiance the Sheriff of Nottingham, and had routed him and all bodies of troops who had been sent against him. With him Cuthbert found many of his own men; and upon hearing that the royal standard had been raised, Robin Hood at once agreed to march with all his men to join the royal force. Messengers were despatched to summon the rest of the forest band from their hiding places, and a week later Cuthbert, accompanied by Robin Hood and 300 archers, set out for the rendezvous. When they arrived there they found that Sir Baldwin had already joined with his retainers, and was by him most warmly received, and introduced to the other barons in the camp, by whom Cuthbert was welcomed as a brother. The news that Prince John's army was approaching was brought in, a fortnight after Cuthbert had joined the camp, and the army in good order moved out to meet the enemy.

The forces were about equal. The battle began by a discharge of arrows; but Robin Hood and his men shot so true and fast that they greatly discomfited the enemy; and King John's mercenaries having but little stomach for the fight, and knowing how unpopular they were in England, and that if defeated small mercy was likely to be shown to them, refused to advance against the ranks of the loyal barons, and falling back declined to join in the fray. Seeing their numbers so weakened by this defection, the barons on the prince's side hesitated, and surrounding the prince advised him to make terms with the barons while there was yet time. Prince John saw that the present was not a favourable time for him, and concealing his fury under a mask of courtesy, he at once acceded to the advice of his followers, and despatched a messenger to the barons with an inquiry as to what they wanted of him. A council was held, and it was determined to demand the dismissal of the mercenaries and their despatch back to their own country; also that John would govern only as his brother's representative; that the laws of the country should be respected; that no taxes should be raised without the assent of the barons; that all men who had taken up arms against his authority should be held free; and that the barons on Prince John's side should return peaceably home and disband their forces. Seeing, under the circumstances, that there was no way before him but to yield to these demands, Prince John accepted the terms. The mercenaries were ordered to march direct to London, and orders were given that ships should be at once prepared to take them across to Normandy, and the barons marched for their homes.

Satisfied, now that the mercenaries were gone, that they could henceforth hold their ground against Prince John, the royal barons also broke up their forces. Robin Hood with his foresters returned to Sherwood; and Cuthbert, bidding adieu to Sir Baldwin, rode back to London, determined to carry out the plan which he had formed. He was the more strengthened in this resolution, inasmuch as in the royal camp he had met a friend from whom he parted last in the Holy Land. This was Blondel, the minstrel of King Richard, whose songs and joyous music had often lightened the evening after days of fighting and toil in Palestine. To him Cuthbert confided his intention, and the minstrel instantly offered to accompany him.

"I shall," he said, "be of assistance to you. Minstrels are like heralds. They are of no nationality, and can pass free where a man at arms would be closely watched and hindered. Moreover, it may be that I might aid you greatly in discovering the prison of the king. So great is the secrecy with which this has been surrounded, that I question if any inquiries you could make would enable you to trace him. My voice, however, can penetrate into places where we cannot enter. I will take with me my lute, and as we journey I will sing outside the walls of each prison we come to one of the songs which I sang in Palestine. King Richard is himself a singer and knows my songs as well as myself. If I sing a verse of some song which I wrote there and which, therefore, would be known only to him, if he hears it he may follow with the next verse, and so enable us to know of his hiding place."

Cuthbert at once saw the advantages which such companionship would bring him, and joyfully accepted the minstrel's offer, agreeing himself to go as serving man to Blondel. The latter accompanied him to London. Here their preparations were soon made, and taking ship in a merchantman bound for the Netherlands, they started without delay upon their adventure.

The minstrels and troubadours were at that time a privileged race in Europe, belonging generally to the south of France, although produced in all lands. They travelled over Europe singing the lays which they themselves had composed, and were treated with all honour at the castles where they chose to alight. It would have been considered as foul a deed to use discourtesy to a minstrel as to insult a herald. Their persons were, indeed, regarded as sacred, and the knights and barons strove to gain their good will by hospitality and presents, as a large proportion of their ballads related to deeds of war; and while they would write lays in honour of those who courteously entertained them, they did not hesitate to heap obloquy upon those who received them discourteously, holding them up to the gibes and scoffs of their fellows. In no way, therefore, would success be so likely to attend the mission of those who set out to discover the hiding place of King Richard as under the guise of a minstrel and his attendant. No questions would be asked them; they could halt where they would, in castle or town, secure of hospitality and welcome. Blondel was himself a native of the south of France, singing his songs in the soft language of Languedoc. Cuthbert's Norman French would pass muster anywhere as being that of a native of France; and although when dressed as a servitor attention might be attracted by his bearing, his youth might render it probable that he was of noble family, but that he had entered the service of the minstrel in order to qualify himself some day for following that career. He carried a long staff, a short sword, and at his back the lute or small harp played upon by the troubadour. Blondel's attire was rich, and suitable to a person of high rank.

They crossed to the Scheldt, and thence travelled by the right bank of the Rhine as far as Mannheim, sometimes journeying by boat, sometimes on foot. They were also hospitably entertained, and were considered to more than repay their hosts by the songs which Blondel sang. At Mannheim they purchased two horses, and then struck east for Vienna. The journey was not without danger, for a large portion of this part of Europe was under no settled government, each petty baron living in his own castle, and holding but slight allegiance to any feudal lord, making war upon his neighbour on his own account, levying blackmail from travellers, and perpetually at variance with the burghers of the towns. The hills were covered with immense forests, which stretched for many leagues in all directions, and these were infested by wolves, bears, and robbers. The latter, however, although men without pity or religion, yet held the troubadours in high esteem, and the travellers without fear entered the gloomy shades of the forest.

They had not gone far when their way was barred by a number of armed men.

"I am a minstrel," Blondel said, "and as such doubt not that your courtesy will be extended to me."

"Of a surety," the leader said, "the gay science is as much loved and respected in the greenwood as in the castle; and moreover, the purses of those who follow it are too light to offer any temptation to us. We would pray you, however, to accompany us to our leader, who will mightily rejoice to see you, for he loves music, and will gladly be your host so long as you will stay with him."

Blondel, without objection, turned his horse's head and accompanied the men, followed by Cuthbert. After half an hour's travelling, they came to a building which had formerly been a shrine, but which was now converted to the robbers' headquarters. The robber chief on hearing from his followers the news that a minstrel had arrived, came forward to meet him, and courteously bade him welcome.

"I am Sir Adelbert, of Rotherheim," he said, "although you see me in so poor a plight. My castle and lands have been taken by my neighbour, with whom for generations my family have been at feud. I was in the Holy Land with the emperor, and on my return found that the baron had taken the opportunity of my absence, storming my castle and seizing my lands. In vain I petitioned the emperor to dispossess this traitorous baron of my lands, which by all the laws of Christendom should have been respected during my absence. The emperor did indeed send a letter to the baron to deliver them up to me; but his power here is but nominal, and the baron contemptuously threw the royal proclamation into the fire, and told the messenger that what he had taken by the sword he would hold the sword; and the emperor, having weightier matters on hand than to set troops in motion to redress the grievances of a simple knight, gave the matter no further thought. I have therefore been driven to the forest, where I live as best I may with my followers, most of whom were retainers upon my estate, and some my comrades in the Holy Land. I make war upon the rich and powerful, and beyond that do harm to no man. But, methinks," he continued, "I know your face, gentle sir."

"It may well be so, Sir Adelbert," the minstrel said, "for I too was in the Holy Land. I followed the train of King Richard, and mayhap at some of the entertainments given by him you have seen my face. My name is Blondel."

"I remember now," the knight said. "It was at Acre that I first saw you, and if I remember rightly you can wield the sword as well as the lute."

"One cannot always be playing and singing," Blondel said, "and in lack of amusement I was forced to do my best against the infidel, who indeed would have but little respected my art had I fallen into his hands. The followers of the prophet hold minstrels but in slight reverence."

"What is the news of King Richard?" the knight said. "I have heard that he was lost on the voyage homewards."

"It is not so," Blondel said. "He landed safely on the coast, and was journeying north with a view of joining his sister at the Court of Saxony, when he was foully seized and imprisoned by the Archduke John."

"That were gross shame indeed," the knight said, "and black treachery on the part of Duke John. And where is the noble king imprisoned?"

"That," said Blondel, "no man knows. On my journey hither I have gathered that the emperor claimed him from the hand of the Archduke, and that he is imprisoned in one of the royal fortresses; but which, I know not. And indeed, sir knight, since you are well disposed towards him, I may tell you that the purport of my journey is to discover if I can the place of his confinement. He was a kind and noble master, and however long my search may be, I will yet obtain news of him."

The knight warmly applauded the troubadour's resolution, and was turning to lead him into his abode, when his eye fell upon Cuthbert.

"Methinks I know the face of your attendant as well as your own; though where I can have seen him I know not. Was he with you in the Holy Land?"

"Yes," Blondel said, "the youth was also there; and doubtless you may have noticed him, for he is indeed of distinguished and of good family."

"Then let him share our repast," the knight said, "if it seems good to you. In these woods there is no rank, and I myself have long dropped my knightly title, and shall not reassume it until I can pay off my score to the Baron of Rotherheim, and take my place again in my castle."

The minstrel and Cuthbert were soon seated at the table with the knight and one or two of his principal companions. A huge venison pasty formed the staple of the repast, but hares and other small game were also upon the table. Nor was the generous wine of the country wanting.

The knight had several times glanced at Cuthbert, and at last exclaimed, "I have it now. This is no attendant, sir minstrel, but that valiant young knight who so often rode near King Richard in battle. He is, as I guess, your companion in this quest; is it not so?"

"It is," Cuthbert replied frankly. "I am like yourself, a disinherited knight, and my history resembles yours. Upon my return to England I found another in possession of the land and titles that belonged to the noble I followed, and which King Richard bestowed upon me. The Earl of Evesham was doubtless known to you, and before his death King Richard, at his request, bestowed upon me as his adopted son--although but a distant connexion--his title and lands and the hand of his daughter. Prince John, who now rules in England, had however granted these things to one of his favourites, and he having taken possession of the land and title, though not, happily, of the lady, closed his door somewhat roughly in my face. I found means, however, to make my mark upon him; but as our quarrel could not be fought out to the end, and as the false knight had the aid of Prince John, I am forced for a while to postpone our settlement, and meeting my good friend the minstrel, agreed to join him in his enterprise to discover our lord the king."

The knight warmly grasped Cuthbert's hand.

"I am glad," he said, "to meet so true and valiant a knight. I have often wondered at the valour with which you, although so young, bore yourself; and there were tales afloat of strange adventures which you had undergone in captivity for a time among the infidels."

At Sir Adelbert's request, Cuthbert related the story of his adventures among the Saracens; and then Blondel, tuning his lute, sang several canzonets which he had composed in the Holy Land, of feats of arms and adventure.

"How far are you," Cuthbert asked presently, when Blondel laid his lute aside, "from the estates which were wrongfully wrested from you?"

"But twenty leagues," the knight said. "My castle was on the Rhine, between Coblentz and Mannheim."

"Does the baron know that you are so near?" Cuthbert asked.

"Methinks that he does not," the knight replied, "but that he deems me to have gone to the court of the emperor to seek for redress--which, he guesses, I shall certainly fail to obtain."

"How many men have you with you?" Cuthbert asked.

"Fifty men, all good and true," the knight said.

"Has it never entered your thoughts to attempt a surprise upon his castle?" Cuthbert said.

The knight was silent for a minute.

"At times," he said at length, "thoughts of so doing have occurred to me; but the castle is strong, and a surprise would be difficult indeed."

"If the baron is lulled in security at present," Cuthbert said, "and deems you afar off, the watch is likely to be relaxed, and with a sudden onslaught you might surely obtain possession. Blondel and myself are not pressed for time, and the delay of a few days can make but little difference. If, therefore, you think we could be of assistance to you in such an attempt, my sword, and I am sure that of my friend, would be at your disposal."

The knight sat for some time in silence.

"Thanks, generous knight," he said at last, "I am sorely tempted to avail myself of your offer; but I fear that the enterprise is hopeless. The aid, however, of your arm and knowledge of war would greatly add to my chances, and if it pleases you we will ride to-morrow to a point where we can obtain a sight of the baron's castle. When you see it, you shall judge yourself how far such an enterprise as you propose is possible."

"Is your own castle intact?" Cuthbert asked.

"The walls are standing," he said; "but a breach has been made in them, and at present it is wholly deserted."

"Do you think," Cuthbert asked, "that if you succeeded in surprising and defeating the garrison of the castle that you could then regain your own, and hold it against your enemy?"

"I think that I could," Sir Adelbert said. "The baron's domains are but little larger than my own. Many of my retainers still live upon the estate, and would; I am sure, gladly join me, if I were to raise my flag. The baron, too, is hated by his neighbours, and could I inflict a crushing blow upon him, methinks it would be so long a time before he could assemble a force, that I might regain my castle and put it in an attitude of defence before he could take the field against me."

"If," Cuthbert said, "we could surprise the castle, it might well be that the baron would fall into your hands, and in that case you might be able to make your own terms with him. How strong a force is he likely to have in his castle?"

"Some fifty or sixty men," the knight replied; "for with such a force he could hold the castle against an attack of ten times their number, and he could in twelve hours call in his retainers, and raise the garrison to 300 or 400 men."

Blondel warmly assented to Cuthbert's scheme, and it was settled that at daybreak they should start to view the Castle of Rotherheim. At early dawn they were in the saddle, and the three rode all day, until towards sunset they stood on the crest of a hill looking down into the valley of the Rhine.

The present aspect of that valley affords but a slight idea of its beauty in those days. The slopes are now clad with vineyards, which, although picturesque in idea, are really, to look at from a distance, no better than so many turnip fields. The vines are planted in rows and trained to short sticks, and as these rows follow the declivities of the hillside, they are run in all directions, and the whole mountain side, from the river far up, is cut up into little patches of green lines. In those days the mountains were clad with forests, which descended nearly to the river side. Here and there, upon craggy points, were situate the fortalices of the barons. Little villages nestled in the woods, or stood by the river bank, and a fairer scene could not be witnessed in Europe.

"That is Rotherheim," the knight said, pointing to a fortress standing on a crag, which rose high above the woods around it; "and that," he said, pointing to another some four miles away, similarly placed, "is my own."

Cuthbert examined closely the fortress of Rotherheim. It was a large building, with towers at the angles, and seemed to rise almost abruptly from the edge of the rock. Inside rose the gables and round turrets of the dwelling-place of the baron; and the only access was by a steep winding path on the river side.

"It is indeed a strong place," Cuthbert said, "and difficult to take by surprise. A watch no doubt is always kept over the entrance, and there we can hope for no success. The only plan will be to scale the wall by means of a ladder; but how the ladder is to be got to so great a height, I own at present passes my comprehension." After much thought, Cuthbert went on, "It might, methinks, be practicable for an archer to approach the walls, and to shoot an arrow over the angle of the castle so that it would pass inside the turret there, and fall in the forest beyond. If to this arrow were attached a light cord, it could be gained by one on the other side, and a stronger cord hauled over. To this could be attached a rope ladder, and so this could be raised to the top of the wall. If a sentinel were anywhere near he might hear the rope pulled across the battlements; but if as we may hope, a watch is kept only over the entrance, the operation might be performed without attracting notice."

The knight was delighted with the project, which seemed perfectly feasible, and it was agreed that the attempt should be made.

"It will need," Sir Adelbert said, "an archer with a strong arm indeed to shoot an arrow with a cord attached to it, however light, over the corner of the castle."

"Methinks," Cuthbert said, "that I can do that, for as a lad I was used to the strong bows of my country. The first thing, however, will be to obtain such a bow; but doubtless one can be purchased in one of the towns, which, if not so strong as those to which I was accustomed, will at any rate suffice for us."

The party bivouacked in the woods for the night, for the horses had already done a very long journey, and needed rest before starting back for the Black Forest. At daybreak, however, they started, and at nightfall rejoined their band. These were delighted when they heard the scheme that had been set on foot, and all avowed their eagerness to join in the attempt to restore their lord to his rights.

Two days later they set out, having already procured from the nearest town a strong bow, some arrows, a very light rope, and a stronger one from a portion of which they manufactured a rope ladder capable of reaching from the top of the wall to the rock below. The journey this time occupied two days, as the men on foot were unable to march at the pace at which the mounted party had traversed the ground. The evening of the second day, however, saw them in sight of the castle. By Cuthbert's advice, Sir Adelbert determined to give them twenty-four hours of rest, in order that they might have their full strength for undertaking the task before them. During the day, Cuthbert, guided by the knight, made his way through the woods to the foot of the rocks on which the castle stood. They were extremely steep, but could be mounted by active men if unopposed from above. Cuthbert measured the height with his eye from the top of the castle wall to the place which he selected as most fitting from which to shoot the arrow, and announced to the knight that he thought there would be no difficulty in discharging an arrow over the angle.

At nightfall the whole party made their way silently through the woods. Three men were sent round to the side of the castle opposite that from which Cuthbert was to shoot. The length of light string was carefully coiled on the ground, so as to unwind with the greatest facility, and so offer as little resistance to the flight of the arrow as might be. Then, all being in readiness, Cuthbert attached the end to an arrow, and drawing the bow to its full compass, let fly the arrow. All held their breath; but no sound followed the discharge. They were sure, therefore, that the arrow had not struck the wall, but that it must have passed clear over it. Half-an-hour elapsed before they felt that the cord was pulled, and knew that the men upon the other side had succeeded in finding the arrow and string attached. The stronger cord was now fastened to that which the arrow had carried, and this gradually disappeared in the darkness. A party now stole up the rock, and posted themselves at the foot of the castle wall. They took with them the coil of rope-ladder and the end of the rope. At length the rope tightened, and to the end they attached the ladder. This again ascended until the end only remained upon the ground, and they knew that it must have reached the top of the wall. They now held fast, and knew that those on the other side, following the instructions given them, would have fastened the rope to a tree upon the opposite side. They were now joined by the rest of the party, and Sir Adelbert leading the way, and followed by Cuthbert and Blondel, began cautiously to ascend the rope ladder.

All this time no sound from the castle proclaimed that their intention was suspected, or that any alarm had been given, and in silence they gained the top of the wall. Here they remained quiet until the whole band were gathered there, and then made their way along until they reached the stairs leading to the courtyard. These they descended, and then, raising his war cry, Sir Adelbert sprang upon the men who, round a fire, were sitting by the gate. These were cut down before they could leap to their feet, and the party then rushed at the entrance to the dwelling-house. The retainers of the castle, aroused by the sudden din, rushed from their sleeping places, but taken completely by surprise, were unable to offer any resistance whatever to the strong force which had, as if by magic, taken possession of the castle. The surprise was complete, and with scarce a blow struck they found themselves in possession. The baron himself was seized as he rose from his bed, and his rage at finding himself in the power of his enemy was so great as for some time to render him speechless. Sir Adelbert briefly dictated to him the conditions upon which only he should desist from using his power to hang him over his own gate. The baron was instantly to issue orders to all his own retainers and tenantry to lend their aid to those of Sir Adelbert in putting the castle of the latter into a state of defence and mending the breach which existed. A sum of money, equal to the revenues of which he had possessed himself, was to be paid at once, and the knight was to retain possession of Rotherheim and of the baron's person until these conditions were all faithfully carried out. The baron had no resource but to assent to these terms, and upon the following day Cuthbert and Blondel departed upon their way, overwhelmed with thanks by Sir Adelbert, and confident that he would now be able to regain and hold the possession of his estate.