Winning His Spurs by G. A. Henty
Chapter V. Preparations.
Next Sunday a large number of people from some miles round were gathered on the green at Evesham, to hear Father Francis preach on the holy sepulchre. The forest men in their green jerkins mingled with the crowd, and a look of attention and seriousness was on the faces of all, for the news of the loss of the holy sepulchre had really exercised a great effect upon the minds of the people in England as elsewhere.
Those were the days of pilgrimage to holy places, when the belief in the sanctity of places and things was overwhelming, and when men believed that a journey to the holy shrines was sufficient to procure for them a pardon for all their misdeeds. The very word "infidel" in those days was full of horror, and the thought that the holy places of the Christians were in the hands of Moslems, affected all Christians throughout Europe with a feeling of shame as well as of grief.
Among the crowd were many of the Norman retainers from the castle and from many of the holds around, and several knights with the ladies of their family stood a little apart from the edge of the gathering; for it was known that Father Francis would not be alone, but that he would be accompanied by a holy friar who had returned from the East, and who could tell of the cruelties which the Christians had suffered at the hands of the Saracens.
Father Francis, at ordinary times a tranquil preacher, was moved beyond himself by the theme on which he was holding forth. He did not attempt to hide from those who stood around that the task to be undertaken was one of grievous peril and trial; that disease and heat, hunger and thirst, must be dared, as well as the sword of the infidel. But he spoke of the grand nature of the work, of the humiliation to Christians of the desecration of the shrines, and of the glory which awaited those who joined the crusade, whether they lived or whether they died in the Holy Land.
His words had a strong effect upon the simple people who listened to him, but the feelings so aroused were as nought to the enthusiasm which greeted the address of the friar.
Meagre and pale, with a worn, anxious face as one who had suffered much, the friar, holding aloft two pieces of wood from the Mount of Olives tied together in the form of a cross, harangued the crowd. His words poured forth in a fiery stream, kindling the hearts, and stirring at once the devotion and the anger of his listeners.
He told of the holy places, he spoke of the scenes of Holy Writ, which had there been enacted; and then he depicted the men who had died for them. He told of the knights and men-at-arms, each of whom proved himself again and again a match for a score of infidels. He spoke of the holy women, who, fearlessly and bravely, as the knights themselves, had borne their share in the horrors of the siege and in the terrible times which had preceded it.
He told them that this misfortune had befallen Christianity because of the lukewarmness which had come upon them.
"What profited it," he asked, "if the few knights who remained to defend the holy sepulchre were heroes? A few heroes cannot withstand an army. If Christendom after making a mighty effort to capture the holy sepulchre had not fallen away, the conquest which had been made with so vast an expenditure of blood would not have been lost. This is a work in which no mere passing fervour will avail; bravery at first, endurance afterwards, are needed. Many men must determine not only to assist to wrest the holy sepulchre from the hands of the infidels, but to give their lives, so long as they might last, to retaining it. It is scarce to be expected that men with wives and families will take a view like this, indeed it is not to be desired. But there are single men, men of no ties, who can devote their whole lives, as did the Knights of the Orders of the Cross, to this great object. When their life has come to an end, doubtless others will take up the banner that their hands can no longer hold. But for life it is, indeed, that many of humble as well as of princely class must bind themselves to take and defend to death the holy sepulchre."
So, gradually raising the tone of his speech, the friar proceeded; until at length by his intense earnestness, his wild gesticulations, his impassioned words, he drew the whole of his listeners along with him; and when he ceased, a mighty shout of "To the Holy Land!" burst from his hearers.
Falling upon their knees, the crowd begged of him to give them the sign of the cross, and to bestow his blessing upon their swords, and upon their efforts.
Father Francis had prepared, in contemplation of such a movement, a large number of small white crosses of cloth. These he and the friar now fastened to the shoulders of the men as they crowded up to receive it, holding their hands aloft, kissing the cross that the Friar extended to them, and swearing to give their lives, if need be, to rescue the holy shrines from the infidel.
When all had received the holy symbol, Father Francis again ascended the bank from which they had addressed the crowd:
"Now go to your homes, my sons," he said. "Think of the oath that you have taken, and of the course that lies open to you when the time comes. When King Richard is prepared to start, then will you be called upon to fulfil your vows. It may be that all who have sworn may not be called upon to go. It needs that the land here should be tilled, it needs that there should be protectors for the women and children, it needs that this England of ours should flourish, and we cannot give all her sons, however willing they might be to take the cross. But the willingness which you will, I am sure, show to go if needs be, and to redeem your vows, will be sufficient. Some must go and some must stay; these are matters to be decided hereafter; for the time let us separate; you will hear when the hour for action arrives."
A fortnight later the Earl of Evesham, who had been on a long journey to London, returned with full authority to raise and organize a force as his contingent to the holy wars.
All was now bustle and activity in the castle.
Father Francis informed him of the willingness of such of the forest men as he deemed fit to enlist under his banner; and the earl was much gratified at finding that the ranks of heavily-armed retainers whom he would take with him, were to be swollen by the addition of so useful a contingent as that of 100 skilful archers.
Cuthbert was not long in asking for an interview with the earl.
He had indeed great difficulty in persuading Dame Editha that he was old enough to share in the fatigues of so great an expedition, but he had Father Francis on his side; and between the influence of her confessor, and the importunities of her son, the opposition of the good lady fell to the ground.
Cuthbert was already, for his age, well trained to arms. Many of the old soldiers at the castle who had known and loved his father, had been ever ready to give lessons in the use of arms to Cuthbert, who was enthusiastic in his desire to prove as good a knight as his father had been. His friends, the outlaws, had taught him the use of the bow and of the quarter-staff; and Cuthbert, strong and well-built for his age, and having little to do save to wield the sword and the bow, had attained a very considerable amount of skill with each.
He had too, which was unusual, a certain amount of book learning, although this, true to say, had not been acquired so cheerfully or willingly as the skill at arms. Father Francis had, however, taught him to read and to write--accomplishments which were at that time rare, except in the cloister. In those days if a knight had a firm seat in his saddle, a strong arm, a keen eye, and high courage, it was thought to be of little matter whether he could or could not do more than make his mark on the parchment. The whole life of the young was given to acquiring skill in arms; and unless intended for the convent, any idea of education would in the great majority of cases have been considered as preposterous.
To do Cuthbert justice, he had protested with all his might against the proposition of Father Francis to his mother to teach him some clerkly knowledge. He had yielded most unwillingly at last to her entreaties, backed as they were by the sound arguments and good sense of Father Francis.
The Earl of Evesham received Cuthbert's application very graciously.
"Certainly, Cuthbert," he said, "you shall accompany me; first, on account of my promise to you; secondly, because from the readiness you displayed both in the matter of my daughter and of the attack on Wortham, you will be a notable aid and addition to my party; thirdly, from my friendship for your father and Dame Editha."
This point being settled, Cuthbert at once assumed his new duties. There was plenty for him to do--to see that the orders of the earl were properly carried out; to bear messages to the knights who followed the earl's fortunes, at their various holds; to stand by and watch the armourers at work, and the preparation of the stores of arms and missiles which would be necessary for the expedition.
Sometimes he would go round to summon the tenants of the various farms and lands, who held from the earl, to come to the castle; and here Sir Walter would, as far as might be without oppression, beg of them to contribute largely to the expedition.
In these appeals he was in no slight way assisted by Father Francis, who pointed out loudly to the people that those who stayed behind were bound to make as much sacrifice of their worldly goods, as those who went to the war might make of their lives. Life and land are alike at the service of God. Could the land be sold, it would be a good deed to sell it; but as this could not be, they should at least sell all that they could, and pledge their property if they could find lenders, in order to contribute to the needs of their lord, and the fitting out of this great enterprise.
The preparations were at last complete, and a gallant band gathered at the castle ready for starting. It consisted of some 200 men-at-arms led by six knights, and of 100 bowmen dressed in Lincoln green, with quilted jerkins to keep out the arrows of the enemy. All the country from around gathered to see the start. Dame Editha was there, and by her side stood the earl's little daughter. The earl himself was in armour, and beside him rode Cuthbert in the gay attire of a page.
Just at that moment, however, his face did not agree with his costume, for although he strove his best to look bright and smiling, it was a hard task to prevent the tears from filling his eyes at his departure from his mother. The good lady cried unrestrainedly, and Margaret joined in her tears. The people who had gathered round cheered lustily; the trumpets blew a gay fanfaronade; and the squire threw to the wind the earl's colours.
It was no mere pleasure trip on which they were starting, for all knew that, of the preceding crusades, not one in ten of those who had gone so gladly forth had ever returned.
It must not be supposed that the whole of those present were animated by any strong religious feeling. No doubt there existed a desire, which was carefully fanned by the preaching of the priests and monks, to rescue the holy sepulchre from the hands of the Saracens; but a far stronger feeling was to be found in the warlike nature of the people in those days. Knights, men-at-arms, and indeed men of all ranks, were full of a combative spirit. Life in the castle and hut was alike dull and monotonous, and the excitement of war and adventure was greatly looked for, both as a means of obtaining glory and booty, and for the change they afforded to the dreary monotony of life.
There is little to tell of the journey of the Earl of Evesham's band through England to Southampton, at which place they took ship and crossed to France--or rather to Normandy, for in those days Normandy was regarded, as indeed it formed, a part of England.
Cuthbert, as was natural to his age, was full of delight at all the varying scenes through which they passed. The towns were to him an especial source of wonder, for he had never visited any other than that of Worcester, to which he had once or twice been taken on occasions of high festival. Havre was in those days an important place, and being the landing-place of a great portion of the English bands, it was full of bustle and excitement. Every day ships brought in nobles and their followings.
The King of England was already in Normandy hastening the preparations, and each band, as it landed, marched down to the meeting-place on the plains of Vezelay. Already they began to experience a taste of the hardships which they were to endure.
In those days there was no regular supply train for an army, but each division or band supported itself by purchase or pillage, as the case might be, from the surrounding country.
As the English troops were marching through a friendly country, pillage was of course strictly forbidden; but while many of the leaders paid for all they had, it must be owned that among the smaller leaders were many who took anything that they required with or without payment.
The country was eaten up.
The population in those days was sparse, and the movement of so large a number of men along a certain route completely exhausted all the resources of the inhabitants; and although willing to pay for all that his men required, the Earl of Evesham had frequently to lie down on the turf supperless himself.
"If this is the case now," he said to Cuthbert, "what will it be after we have joined the French army? Methinks whatever we may do if we reach the Holy Land, that we have a fair chance of being starved before we sail."
After a long succession of marches they arrived in sight of the great camp at Vezelay. It was indeed rather a canvas town than a camp. Here were gathered nearly 100,000 men, a vast host at any time, but in those days far greater in proportion to the strength of the countries than at present. The tents of the leaders, nobles, and other knights and gentlemen, rose in regular lines, forming streets and squares.
The great mass of troops, however, were contented to sleep in the open air; indeed the difficulties of carriage were so great that it was only the leaders who could carry with them their canvas abodes. Before each tent stood the lance and colours of its owner, and side by side in the centre of the camp stood the royal pavilions of Phillip of France and Richard of England, round which could be seen the gonfalons of all the nobles of Western Europe.
Nothing could be gayer than the aspect of this camp as the party rode into it. They were rather late, and the great body of the host were already assembled.
Cuthbert gazed with delight at the varied colours, the gay dresses, the martial knights, and the air of discipline and order which reigned everywhere.
This was indeed war in its most picturesque form, a form which, as far as beauty is concerned, has been altogether altered, and indeed destroyed, by modern arms.
In those days individual prowess and bravery went for everything. A handful of armoured knights were a match for thousands of footmen, and battles were decided as much by the prowess and bravery of the leader and his immediate following as by that of the great mass of the army.
The earl had the day before sent on a messenger to state that he was coming, and as the party entered the camp they were met by a squire of the camp-marshal, who conducted them to the position allotted to them.
The earl's tent was soon erected, with four or five grouped around it for his knights, one being set aside for his squires and pages.
When this was done, Cuthbert strolled away to look at the varied sights of the camp. A military officer in these days would be scandalized at the scenes which were going on, but the strict, hard military discipline of modern times was then absolutely unknown.
A camp was a moving town, and to it flocked the country people with their goods; smiths and armourers erected their forges; minstrels and troubadours flocked in to sing of former battles, and to raise the spirits of the soldiers by merry lays of love and war; simple countrymen and women came in to bring their presents of fowls or cakes to their friends in camp; knights rode to and fro on their gaily caparisoned horses through the crowd; the newly raised levies, in many cases composed of woodmen and peasants who had not in the course of their lives wandered a league from their birthplaces, gaped in unaffected wonder at the sights around them; while last, but by no means least, the maidens and good wives of the neighbourhood, fond then as now of brave men and gay dresses, thronged the streets of the camp, and joined in, and were the cause of, merry laughter and jest.
Here and there, a little apart from the main stream of traffic, the minstrels would take up their position, and playing a gay air, the soldier lads and lasses would fall to and foot it merrily to the strains. Sometimes there would be a break in the gaiety, and loud shouts, and perhaps fierce oaths, would rise. Then the maidens would fly like startled fawns, and men hasten to the spot; though the quarrel might be purely a private one, yet should it happen between the retainers of two nobles, the friends of each would be sure to strike in, and serious frays would arise before the marshal of the camp with his posse could arrive to interfere. Sometimes indeed these quarrels became so serious and desperate that alliances were broken up and great intentions frustrated by the quarrels of the soldiery.
Here and there, on elevated platforms, or even on the top of a pile of tubs, were friars occupied in haranguing the soldiers, and in inspiring them with enthusiasm for the cause upon which they were embarked. The conduct of their listeners showed easily enough the motives which had brought them to war. Some stood with clasped hands and eager eyes listening to the exhortations of the priests, and ready, as might be seen from their earnest gaze, to suffer martyrdom in the cause. More, however, stood indifferently round, or after listening to a few words walked on with a laugh or a scoff; indeed preaching had already done all that lay in its power. All those who could be moved by exhortations of this kind were there, and upon the rest the discourses and sermons were thrown away.
Several times in the course of his stroll round the camp Cuthbert observed the beginnings of quarrels, which were in each case only checked by the intervention of some knight or other person in authority coming past, and he observed that these in every instance occurred between men of the English and those of the French army.
Between the Saxon contingent of King Richard's army and the French soldiers there could indeed be no quarrel, for the Saxons understood no word of their language; but with the Normans the case was different, for the Norman-French, which was spoken by all the nobles and their retainers in Britain, was as nearly as possible the same as that in use in France.
It seemed, however, to Cuthbert, watching narrowly what was going on, that there existed by no means a good feeling between the men of the different armies; and he thought that this divergence so early in the campaign boded but little good for the final success of the expedition.
When he returned to the tent the earl questioned him as to what he had seen, and Cuthbert frankly acknowledged that it appeared to him that the feeling between the men of the two armies was not good.
"I have been," the earl said, "to the royal camp, and from what I hear, Cuthbert, methinks that there is reason for what you say. King Richard is the most loyal and gallant of kings, but he is haughty, and hasty in speech. The Normans, too, have been somewhat accustomed to conquer our neighbours, and it may well be that the chivalry of France love us not. However, it must be hoped that this feeling will die away, and that we shall emulate each other only in our deeds on the battlefield."