Chapter VIII. The Attack.

All day they rode with their faces west, and before nightfall had made a journey of over forty miles. Then bestowing a largess upon the men-at-arms, Cuthbert dismissed them, and took up his abode at a hostelry, his guide looking to the two horses.

Cuthbert was pleased with the appearance of the man who had been placed at his disposal. He was a young fellow of two-or-three-and-twenty, with an honest face. He was, he told Cuthbert, the son of a small farmer near Avignon; but having a fancy for trade, he had been apprenticed to a master smith. Having served his apprenticeship, he found that he had mistaken his vocation, and intended to return to the paternal vineyards.

Cuthbert calculated that he would make at least four days' journey to the south before he could meet with any dangers. Doubtless his exit from the convent had been discovered, and the moment the gates of the city were opened the spy would have proceeded south to warn his comrades, and these would doubtless have taken a road which at a distance would again take them on to that by which Cuthbert would be now travelling. As, however, he rode fast, and made long marches each day, he hoped that he might succeed in distancing them. Unfortunately, upon the third day his horse cast his shoe, and no smith could be met with until the end of the day's journey. Consequently, but a short distance could be done, and this at a slow pace. Upon the fifth day after their first start they arrived at a small town.

The next morning, Cuthbert on rising found that his guide did not present himself as usual. Making inquiries, he found that the young man had gone out the evening before, and had not returned. Extremely uneasy at the circumstance, Cuthbert went to the city guard, thinking that perhaps his guide might have got drunk, and been shut up in the cells. No news, however, was to be obtained there, and after waiting some hours, feeling sure that some harm had befallen him, he gave notice to the authorities of his loss, and then, mounting his horse, and leaving some money with the landlord of the hostelry to give to his guide in case the latter should return, he started at mid-day by the southern road.

He felt sure now that he was overtaken, and determined to keep his eyes and faculties thoroughly on watch.

The roads in those days were mere tracks. Here and there a little village was to be met with; but the country was sparsely cultivated, and travelling lonely work. Cuthbert rode fast, carefully avoiding all copses and small woods through which the road ran, by making a circuit round them and coming on to it again on the other side.

His horse was an excellent one, the gift of the earl, and he had little fear, with his light weight, of being overtaken, if he could once leave his enemies behind him.

At length he approached an extensive forest, which stretched for miles on either side.

Half a mile before he reached it the track divided.

He had for some little time eased his horse down to a walk, as he felt that the wood would be the spot where he would in all probability be attacked, and he needed that his steed should be possessed of its utmost vigour.

At the spot where the track branched, a man in the guise of a mendicant was sitting. He begged for alms, and Cuthbert threw him a small coin.

A sudden thought struck him as he heard a rustling in the bushes near.

"Which is the nearest and best road to Avignon?" he said.

"The right-hand road is the best and shortest," the beggar said. "The other makes a long circuit, and leads through several marshes, which your honour will find it hard to pass."

Cuthbert thanked him, and moved forward, still at a walk, along the right-hand road.

When he had gone about 200 yards, and was hidden from the sight of the man he had left--the country being rough, and scattered with clumps of bushes--he halted, and, as he expected, heard the sound of horses' hoofs coming on at full gallop along the other road.

"Your master must have thought me young indeed," he said, "to try and catch me with such a transparent trick as that. I do not suppose that accursed page has more than ten men with him, and doubtless has placed five on each road. This fellow was placed here to see which track I would follow, and has now gone to give the party on the left hand the news that I have taken this way. Had it not been for him I should have had to run the gauntlet with four or five of my enemies. As it is, the path will doubtless be clear."

So saying, he turned his horse, galloped back to the spot where the tracks separated, and then followed the left-hand route.

As he had hoped, he passed through the wood without incident or interruption, and arrived safely that night at a small town, having seen no signs of his enemies.

The next day he started again early, and rode on until mid-day, when he halted at a large village, at which was the only inn between the place from which he started and his destination. He declined the offer of the servant of the inn to take his horse round to the stable, telling the man to hold him outside the door and give him from a sieve a few handfuls of grain.

Then he entered the inn and ate a hearty meal. As he appeared at the door, he saw several men gathered near. With a single spring he threw himself into the saddle, just as a rush forward was made by those standing round. The man next to him sprang upon him, and endeavoured to drag him from the saddle. Cuthbert drew the little dagger called a Mis,ricorde from his belt, and plunged it into his throat. Then seizing the short mace which hung at the saddle bow, he hurled it with all his force full in the face of his enemy, the page of Sir Philip, who was rushing upon him sword in hand. The heavy weapon struck him fairly between the eyes, and with a cry he fell back, his face completely smashed in by the blow, the sword which he held uplifted to strike flying far through the air.

Cuthbert struck his spurs into his horse, and the animal dashed forward with a bound, Cuthbert striking with his long sword at one or two men who made a snatch at the reins. In another minute he was cantering out of the village, convinced that he had killed the leader of his foes, and that he was safe now to pursue the rest of his journey on to Marseilles.

So it turned out.

Without further incident, he travelled through the south of France, and arrived at the great seaport. He speedily discovered the quarters in which the Earl of Evesham's contingent were encamped, and made towards this without delay. As he entered a wild shout of joy was heard, and Cnut ran forward with many gestures of delight.

"My dear Cuthbert, my dear Cuthbert!" he exclaimed. "Can it be true that you have escaped? We all gave you up; and although I did my best, yet had you not survived it I should never have forgiven myself, believing that I might have somehow done better, and have saved you from the cut-throats who attacked us."

"Thanks, thanks, my good Cnut," Cuthbert cried. "I have been through a time of peril, no doubt; but as you see, I am hale and well--better, methinks than you are, for you look pale and ill; and I doubt not that the wound which I received was a mere scratch to that which bore you down. It sounded indeed like the blow of a smith's hammer upon an anvil."

"Fortunately, my steel cap saved my head somewhat," Cnut said, "and the head itself is none of the thinnest; but it tried it sorely, I confess. However, now that you are back I shall, doubt not, soon be as strong as ever I was. I think that fretting for your absence has kept me back more than the inflammation from the wound itself--but there is the Earl at the door of his tent."

Through the foresters and retainers who had at Cnut's shout of joy crowded up, Cuthbert made his way, shaking hands right and left with the men, among whom he was greatly loved, for they regarded him as being in a great degree the cause of their having been freed from outlawry, and restored to civil life again. The earl was really affected. As Cuthbert rode up he held out both arms, and as his page alighted he embraced him as a father.

"My dear Cuthbert!" he exclaimed. "What anxiety have we not suffered. Had you been my own son, I could not have felt more your loss. We did not doubt for an instant that you had fallen into the hands of some of the retainers of that villain Count; and from all we could learn, and from the absence of any dead body by the side of that of Cnut, I imagined that you must have been carried off. It was clear that your chance of life, if you fell into the hands of that evil page, or his equally vile master, was small indeed. The very day that Cnut was brought in, I visited the French camp, and accused him of having been the cause of your disappearance and Cnut's wounds. He affected the greatest astonishment at the charge. He had not, as he said, been out of the camp for two days. My accusation was unfounded and malicious, and I should answer this as well as the previous outrage, when the vow of the Crusaders to keep peace among themselves was at an end. Of course I had no means of proving what I said, or I would have gone direct to the king and charged him with the outrage. As it was I gained nothing by my pains. He has accompanied this French division to Genoa; but when we meet at Sicily, where the two armies are to rendezvous, I will bring the matter before the king, as the fact that his page was certainly concerned in it must be taken as showing that he was the instigator."

"It would, my lord earl, be perhaps better," Cuthbert said, "if I might venture to advise, to leave the matter alone. No doubt the count would say that he had discharged his page after the tournament, and that the latter was only carrying out his private feud with me. We should not be able to disprove the story, and should gain no satisfaction by the matter."

The earl admitted the justice of Cuthbert's reasoning, but reserved to himself the task of punishing the author of the outrage upon the first fitting opportunity.

There was a weary delay at Marseilles before the expedition set sail. This was caused by the fact of the English fleet, which had been ordered to be there upon their arrival, failing to keep the agreement.

The words English fleet badly describe the vessels which were to carry the English contingent to their destination. They were ships belonging to the maritime nations of Italy--the Venetians, Genoese, Pisans, etc.; for England at that time had but few of her own, and these scarcely fitted for the stormy navigation of the Bay of Biscay.

King Richard, impatient as ever of delay, at last lost his temper, and embarked on board a ship with a few of his chosen knights, and set sail by himself for Sicily, the point at which the two armies of the expedition were to re-unite. A few days after his departure, the long-looked-for fleet arrived, and a portion of the English host embarked at once, and set sail for Sicily, where they were to be landed, and the ships were to return to fetch the remaining contingent.

A sea voyage of this kind in those days was a serious matter. Long voyages were rare, and troops were carried very much upon the principle of herrings; that is, were packed as close as they could be, without any reference to their comfort. As the voyages seldom lasted more than twenty-four hours, this did not much matter, but during long voyages the discomforts, or as may be said sufferings, of the troops were considerable. So tightly packed were the galleys in which the English set sail from Marseilles, that there was no walking about. Every man slept where he sat, and considered himself lucky indeed if he could obtain room sufficient to stretch himself at full length. Most slept sitting against bulwarks or other supports. In the cabins, where the knights, their pages and squires, were placed, the crowding was of course less excessive, but even here the amount of space, which a subaltern travelling to India for the first time now-a-days would grumble at, was considered amply sufficient for half-a-dozen knights of distinction. It was a week after sailing, when Cnut touched Cuthbert's arm as he came on deck one morning, and said,--

"Look, look, Cuthbert! that mountain standing up in the water has caught fire on the top. Did you ever see such a thing?"

The soldiers crowded to the side of the vessel, in intense astonishment and no little awe. From the top of a lofty and rugged hill, rising almost straight from the sea, flames were roaring up, smoke hung over the island, and stones were thrown into the air and rattled down the side of the hill, or fell into the sea with a splash.

"That is a fearsome sight," Cnut said, crossing himself.

"It looks as if it was the mouth of purgatory," exclaimed another, standing by.

Cuthbert himself was amazed, for the instruction he had received from Father Francis was of too slight a nature to include the story of volcanoes. A priest, however, who accompanied the ship in the character of leech and confessor, explained the nature of the phenomenon to his astonished listeners, and told them that over on the mainland was a mountain which at times vomited forth such masses of stones and of liquid rock that it had swallowed up and covered many great cities. There was also, he told them, another mountain of the same sort, even more vast, on the island of Sicily itself; but that this had seldom, as far back as man could remember, done any great harm.

Sailing on, in another day they arrived off the coast of Sicily itself, and sailing up the straits between it and the mainland, they landed at Messina. Here a considerable portion of the French army had already arrived, having been brought down from Genoa.

There was no news of the King of England; and, as often happens, the saying "the more haste the less speed," had been verified here.

It was some days later before King Richard arrived, having been driven from his course by tempests, well-nigh cast ashore, and having besides gone through many adventures. Three weeks later, the whole of the army of the Crusaders were gathered around Messina, where it was intended to remain some little time before starting. It was a gay time; and the kings vied with each other in entertainments, joustings, and tournaments. The Italian knights also made a brave show, and it might have been thought that this huge army of men were gathered there simply for amusement and feasting. In the tournaments every effort was made to prevent any feeling of national rivalry, and although parties of knights held their own against all comers, these were most carefully selected to represent several nationalities, and therefore victory, on whichsoever side it fell, excited no feelings of bitterness.

Alone, King Richard was undoubtedly the strongest cavalier of the two armies. Against his ponderous strength no knight could keep his seat; and this was so palpable, that after many victories, King Richard was forced to retire from the lists from want of competitors, and to take his place on the dais with the more peace-loving King of France.

The gaiety of the camp was heightened by the arrival of many nobles and dames from Italy. Here, too, came the Queen of Navarre, bringing with her the beautiful Princess Berengaria.

"Methinks," the Earl of Evesham said to Cuthbert, a fortnight after the arrival of the queen, "that unless my eyes deceive me, the princess is likely to be a cause of trouble."

"In what way?" asked Cuthbert with surprise, for he had been struck with her marvellous beauty, and wondered greatly what mischief so fair a being could do.

"By the way in which our good lord, the king, gazes upon her, methinks that it were like enough that he broke off his engagement with the Princess of France, for the sake of the fair eyes of this damsel."

"That were indeed a misfortune," Cuthbert said gravely, for he saw at once the anger which such a course would excite in the minds of the French king and his knights, who would naturally be indignant in the extreme at the slight put upon their princess. As day after day passed, it became evident to all that the King of England was infatuated by the princess. Again he entered the lists himself, and as some fresh Italian knights and others had arrived, he found fresh opponents, and conspicuously laid the spoils of victory at the feet of the princess, whom he selected as the Queen of Beauty.

All sorts of rumours now became current in camp; violent quarrels between the kings, and bad feeling between the French and English knights, broke out again in consequence, and this more violently than before.