Winning His Spurs by G. A. Henty
Chapter IX. The Princess Berengaria.
One night it chanced that Cuthbert was late in his return to camp, and his road took him through a portion of the French encampment; the night was dark, and Cuthbert presently completely lost all idea as to his bearings. Presently he nearly ran against a tent; he made his way to the entrance in order to crave directions as to his way--for it was a wet night; the rain was pouring in torrents, and few were about of whom he could demand the way--and, as he was about to draw aside the hangings, he heard words said in a passionate voice which caused him to withdraw his hand suddenly.
"I tell you," said a voice, "I would rather drive a dagger myself into her heart, than allow our own princess to be insulted by this hot-headed island dog."
"It is sad indeed," said another, but in a calmer and smoother tone, "that the success of a great expedition like this, which has for its object the recovery of the holy sepulchre from the infidels, should be wrecked by the headstrong fancies of one man. It is even, as is told by the old Grecian poet, as when Helen caused a great war between peoples of that nation."
"I know nothing," another voice said, "either of Helen or the Greeks, or of their poets. They are a shifty race, and I can believe aught that is bad of them. But touching this princess of Navarre, I agree with our friend, it would be a righteous deed to poniard her, and so to remove the cause of dispute between the two kings, and, indeed, the two nations. This insult laid upon our princess is more than we, as French knights and gentlemen, can brook; and if the king says the word, there is not a gentleman in the army but will be ready to turn his sword against the islanders."
Then the smooth voice spoke again.
"It would, my brethren, be wrong and useless to shed blood; but methinks, that if this apple of discord could be removed, a good work would be done; not, as our friend the count has suggested, by a stab of the dagger; that indeed would be worse than useless. But surely there are scores of religious houses, where this bird might be placed in a cage without a soul knowing where she was, and where she might pass her life in prayer that she may be pardoned for having caused grave hazards of the failure of an enterprise in which all the Christian world is concerned."
The voices of the speakers now fell, and Cuthbert was straining his ear to listen, when he heard footsteps approaching the tent, and he glided away into the darkness.
With great difficulty he recovered the road to the camp, and when he reached his tent he confided to the Earl of Evesham what he had heard.
"This is serious indeed," the earl said, "and bodes no little trouble and danger. It is true that the passion which King Richard has conceived for Berengaria bids fair to wreck the Crusade, by the anger which it has excited in the French king and his nobles; but the disappearance of the princess would no less fatally interfere with it, for the king would be like a raging lion deprived of his whelps, and would certainly move no foot eastward until he had exhausted all the means in his power of tracing his lost lady love. You could not, I suppose, Cuthbert, point out the tent where this conversation took place?"
"I could not," Cuthbert answered; "in the darkness one tent is like another. I think I should recognize the voices of the speakers did I hear them again; indeed, one voice I did recognize, it was that of the Count of Brabant, with whom we had trouble before."
"That is good," the earl said, "because we have at least an object to watch. It would never do to tell the king what you have heard. In the first place, his anger would be so great that it would burst all bounds, and would cause, likely enough, a battle at once between the two armies; nor would it have any good effect, for he of Brabant would of course deny the truth of your assertions, and would declare it was merely a got-up story to discredit him with the king, and so to wipe out the old score now standing between us. No, if we are to succeed, alike in preventing harm happening to the princess, and an open break between the two monarchs, it must be done by keeping a guard over the princess, unsuspected by all, and ourselves frustrating any attempt which may be made."
Cuthbert expressed his willingness to carry out the instructions which the earl might give him; and, much disturbed by the events of the day, both earl and page retired to rest, to think over what plan had best be adopted.
The princess was staying at the palace of the bishop of the town; this he, having another residence a short distance outside the walls, had placed at the disposal of the Queen of Navarre and her suite; and the first step of Cuthbert in the morning was to go into the town, to reconnoitre the position and appearance of the building. It was a large and irregular pile, and communicated with the two monasteries lying alongside of it. It would therefore clearly be a most difficult thing to keep up a complete watch on the exterior of so large a building. There were so many ways in which the princess might be captured and carried off by unscrupulous men, that Cuthbert in vain thought over every plan by which it could be possible to safeguard her. She might be seized upon returning from a tournament or entertainment; but this was improbable, as the queen would always have an escort of knights with her, and no attempt could be successful except at the cost of a public fracas and much loss of blood. Cuthbert regarded as out of the question that an outrage of this kind would be attempted.
The fact that one of the speakers in the tent had used the words "my sons," showed that one priest or monk, at least, was connected with the plot. It was possible that this man might have power in one of the monasteries, or he might be an agent of the bishop himself; and Cuthbert saw that it would be easy enough in the night for a party from one or other of the monasteries to enter by the door of communication with the palace, and carry off the princess without the slightest alarm being given. Once within the walls of the convent, she could be either hidden in the dungeons or secret places, which buildings of that kind were sure to possess, or could be at once carried out by some quiet entrance, and taken into the country, or transferred to some other building in the town.
When Cuthbert joined the earl he told him the observations that he had made, and Sir Walter praised the judgment which he had shown in his conclusions. The earl was of opinion that it would be absolutely necessary to get some clue as to the course which the abductors purposed to take; indeed it was possible that on after-consideration they might drop their plan altogether, for the words which Cuthbert had overheard scarcely betokened a plan completely formed and finally decided upon.
The great point he considered, therefore, was that the tent of his old enemy should be carefully watched, and that an endeavour should be made to hear something of what passed within, which might give a clue to the plan fixed upon. They did not, of course, know whether the tent in which the conversation had been heard by Cuthbert was that of Sir de Jacquelin Barras, or of one of the other persons who had spoken; and Cuthbert suggested that the first thing would be to find out whether the count, after nightfall, was in the habit of going to some other tent, or whether, on the other hand, he remained within, and was visited by others.
It was easy, of course, to discover which was his tent; and Cuthbert soon got its position, and then took Cnut into his counsels.
"The matter is difficult," Cnut said, "and I see no way by which a watch can be kept up by day; but after dark--I have several men in my band who can track a deer, and surely could manage to follow the steps of this baron without being observed. There is little Jack, who is no bigger than a boy of twelve, although he can shoot, and run, and play with the quarter-staff, or, if need be, with the bill, against the best man in the troop. I warrant me that if you show him the tent, he will keep such sharp watch that no one shall enter or depart without his knowing where they go to. On a dark night he will be able to slip among the tents, and to move here and there without being seen. He can creep on his stomach without moving a leaf, and trust me the eyes of these French men-at-arms will look in vain for a glimpse of him."
"You understand, Cnut, all that I want to know is whether the other conspirators in this matter visit his tent, or whether he goes to theirs."
"I understand," Cnut said. "That is the first point to be arrived at."
Three days later Cnut brought news that each night after dark a party of five men met in the tent that was watched; that one of the five always came out when all had assembled, and took his station before the entrance of the tent, so as to be sure that no eavesdropper was near.
"It is a case of locking the door after the horse has gone."
"What is to be done now?" Cnut asked.
"I will talk with the earl before I tell you, Cnut. This matter is too serious for me to take a step without consulting Sir Walter."
That night there was a long talk between the earl and his page as to the best course to be pursued. It was clear that their old enemy was the leading person in the plot, and that the only plan to baffle it with any fair chances of success was to keep a constant eye upon his movements, and also to have three or four of the sturdiest men of the band told off to watch, without being perceived, each time that the princess was in her palace.
The Earl of Evesham left the arrangements entirely in the hands of his page, of whose good sense and sagacity he had a very high opinion.
His own first impulse had been to go before the king and denounce the Count of Brabant. But the ill-will between them was already well known; for not only was there the original dispute at the banquet, but when the two armies had joined at Sicily, King Richard, who had heard from the earl of the attempt at the assassination of Cuthbert, had laid a complaint before King Phillip of the conduct of his subject.
Sir de Jacquelin Barras, however, had denied that he had any finger in the matter.
"He had," he said, "discharged his page after the encounter with Cuthbert, and knew nothing further whatever of his movements."
Although it was morally certain that the page could not have purchased the services of the men who assisted him, from his own purse, or gain them by any means of persuasion, but that they were either the followers of the Count of Brabant, or ruffians hired with his money, as no proof could be obtained, the matter was allowed to drop.
The earl felt, however, that an accusation against the count by him of an intention to commit a high crime, and this merely on the evidence of his page, would appear like an attempt to injure the fair fame of his rival.
Feeling, therefore, that nothing could be done save to watch, he left the matter entirely in the hands of his page, telling him that he could take as many men-at-arms or archers as he might choose and use them in his name.
Cnut entered warmly into Cuthbert's plans; and finally it was arranged between them that six of the archers should nightly keep watch opposite the various entrances of the bishop's palace and of the two monasteries joining. Of course they could not patrol up and down without attracting attention, but they were to take up posts where they could closely observe the entrances, and were either to lie down and feign drunken sleep, or to conceal themselves within the shadow of an arch or other hiding-place.
Down on the sea-shore, Cuthbert made an arrangement with one of the owners of small craft lying there that ten of his men should sleep on board every night, together with some fishermen accustomed to the use of the oar.
Cuthbert himself determined to be always with this party.
Night after night passed, and so long a time went by that Cuthbert began to think the design must have been given up.
However, he resolved to relax none of his watchfulness during the remaining time that the expedition might stop in Sicily.
It was in January, three weeks after the first watch had been set, when one of the men who had been placed to watch the entrance to one of the monasteries, leapt on board the craft and shook Cuthbert by the shoulder.
"A party of some five men," he said, "have just issued out from the monastery. They are bearing a burden--what, I cannot see. They were making in the direction of the water. I whistled to Dick, who was next to me in the lane. He is following them, and I came on to tell you to prepare."
The night was pitch dark, and it was difficult in the extreme to see any one moving at a short distance off.
There were two or three streets that led from the monastery, which stood at the top of the town, towards the sea; and a party coming down might take any of these, according to the position in which the boat they were seeking was placed.
Cuthbert now instantly sent five or six of his men, with instructions to avoid all noise, along the line of the port, with orders to bring in word should any one come down and take boat, or should they hear any noise in the town.
He himself with the sailors loosed the ropes which fastened the boat to shore, got out the oars, and prepared to put off at a moment's notice.
He was of course ignorant whether the abductors would try to carry the princess off by water, or would hide her in one of the convents of the town; but he was inclined to think that the former would be the course adopted; for the king in his wrath would be ready to lay the town in flames, and to search every convent from top to bottom for the princess. Besides, there would be too many aware of the secret.
Cuthbert was not wrong in his supposition.
Soon the man he had sent to the extreme right came running up with the news that a boat had embarked at the farther end, with a party of some ten men on board. As he came along he had warned the others, and in five minutes the whole party were collected in the craft, numbering in all twelve of Cuthbert's men and six sailors. They instantly put out, and rowed in the direction in which the boat would have gone, the boatmen expressing their opinion that probably the party would make for a vessel which was lying anchored at some little distance from shore. The bearings of the position of this ship was known to the boatmen, but the night was so dark that they were quite unable to find it. Orders had been given that no sound or whisper was to be heard on board the boat; and after rowing as far as they could, the boatmen said they were in the direction of the ship.
The boatmen all lay on their oars, and all listened intently. Presently the creaking of a pulley was heard in the still night, at a distance of a few hundred yards. This was enough. It was clear that the vessel was getting up sail. The boat's head was turned in that direction; the crew rowed steadily but noiselessly, and in a few minutes the tall mast of a vessel could be seen faintly against the sky. Just as they perceived the situation, a hail from on board showed that their approach was now observed.
"Stretch to your oars," Cuthbert said, "we must make a dash for it now."
The rowers bent to their work and in a minute the boat ran alongside the craft.
As Cuthbert and his followers scrambled upon the deck, they were attacked by those of the crew and passengers who were standing near; but it was evident at once that the chiefs of the expedition had not heard the hail, and that there was no general plan of defence against them.
It was not until the last of them had gained a footing, and were beginning to fight their way along the vessel, that from below three or four men-at-arms ran up, and one in a tone of authority demanded what was the matter. When he heard the clash of swords and the shouts of the combatants, he put himself at once at the head of the party, and a fierce and obstinate fight now took place.
The assailants had, however, the advantage.
Cuthbert and his men were all lightly clad, and this on the deck of a ship lumbered with ropes and gear, and in the dark, was a great advantage, for the mailed men-at-arms frequently stumbled and fell. The fight lasted for several minutes. Cnut who was armed with a heavy mace, did great service, for with each of his sweeping blows he broke down the guard of an opponent, and generally levelled him to the deck.
The numbers at the beginning of the fight were not unequal, but the men to whom the vessel belonged made but a faint resistance when they perceived that the day was going against them. The men-at-arms, however, consisting of three, who appeared to be the leaders, and of eight pikemen, fought stubbornly and well.
Cuthbert was not long in detecting in the tones of the man who was clearly at the head of affairs the voice of Sir de Jacquelin Barras. To do him justice he fought with extreme bravery, and when almost all his followers were cut down or beaten overboard, he resisted staunchly and well. With a heavy two-handed sword he cleaved a space at the end of the boat, and kept the whole of Cuthbert's party at bay.
At last Cnut, who had been engaged elsewhere, came to the front, and a tough fight ensued between them.
It might have ended badly for the brave forester, for his lack of armour gave an enormous advantage to his opponent. Soon, however, the count's foot slipped on the boards of the deck, and before he could recover himself the mace of Cnut descended with tremendous force upon his head, which was unprotected, as he had taken off his casque on arriving at the ship. Without a word or a cry the count fell forward on the deck, killed as a bullock by a blow of a pole-axe.
While this conflict had been going on, occasionally the loud screams of a woman had been heard below.
Cuthbert, attended by Cnut and two of his followers, now descended.
At the bottom of the steps they found a man-at-arms placed at the door of a cabin. He challenged them as they approached, but being speedily convinced that the vessel was in their hands, and that his employer and party were all conquered, he made a virtue of necessity, and laid down his arms.
"You had better go in alone," Cnut said, "Master Cuthbert. The lady is less likely to be frightened by your appearance than by us, for she must wonder indeed what is going on."
On entering the cabin, which had evidently been fitted up for the use of a lady, Cuthbert saw standing at the other end the princess whom of course he knew well by sight. A lamp was burning in the cabin, and by its light he could see that her face was deadly pale. Her robes were torn and disarranged, and she wore a look at once of grave alarm and surprise upon seeing a handsomely dressed page enter with a deep reverence.
"What means this outrage, young sir? Whoever you be, I warn you that the King of England will revenge this indignity."
"Your Highness," Cuthbert said, "you have no further reason for alarm; the knaves who carried you off from the bishop's palace and conveyed you to this ship are all either killed or in our power. I am the page of the Earl of Evesham, a devoted follower of King Richard. Some of the designs of the bold men came to the ears of my lord, and he ordered me and a band of his followers to keep good guard over the palace and buildings adjoining. We were unable to gather our strength in time to prevent your being taken on board, but we lost no time in putting forth when we found that your abductors had taken boat, and by good fortune arrived here in time; a few minutes later, and the knaves would have succeeded in their object, for the sails were already being hoisted, and the vessel making way, when we arrived. Your abductors are all either killed or thrown overboard, and the vessel's head is now turned towards the shore, and I hope in a few minutes to have the honour of escorting you to the palace."
The princess, with a sigh of much satisfaction and relief, sank on to a couch.
"I am indeed indebted to you, young sir," she said. "Believe me, the Princess Berengaria is not ungrateful, and should it be ever in her power to do aught for your lord, or for yourself, or for those who have accompanied you to rescue her, believe me that she will do it."
"May I be so bold as to ask a boon?" Cuthbert said, dropping on one knee before her.
"It is granted at once, whatever it be, if in my power."
"My boon is, lady," he said, "that you will do your best to assuage the natural anger which the King of England will feel at this bold and most violent attempt. That he should be told, is of course necessary; but, lady, much depends upon the telling, and I am sure that at your request the king would restrain his anger. Were it not for that, I fear that such quarrels and disputes might arise as would bring the two armies to blows, and destroy for ever all hope of the successful termination of our joint enterprise."
"You are a wise and good youth," the princess said, holding out her hand to Cuthbert, which, as in duty bound, he placed to his lips. "Your request is wise and most thoughtful. I will use any poor influence which I may possess"--and Cuthbert could see that the blood came back now to the white face--"to induce King Richard to allow this matter to pass over. There is no reason why he should take up the case. I am no more under his protection than under that of the King of France, and it is to the latter I should appeal, for as I believe the men who abducted me were his subjects."
"The leader of them, madam, was a certain Sir de Jacquelin Barras, a Count of Brabant, with whom my master has had an old feud, and who has been just killed by the leader of our men-at-arms. The others, who have had the most active hand in the matter, have also perished; and it would, I think, be doubtful whether any clue could be obtained to those who were in league with them. The only man in the party who is alive, was placed as a sentry at your door, and as he is but a man-at-arms, we may be sure that he knows nought of the enterprise, but has merely carried out the orders of his master."
The vessel had by this time brought up close to the port. The princess determined to wait on board until the first dawn was seen in the skies, and then under the escort of her deliverers to go back to the palace, before the town was moving. This plan was carried out, and soon after dawn the princess was safe in the palace from which she had been carried a few hours previously.