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The Story of Wat Tyler's Rebellion is but little known, but the hero of this story passes through that perilous time and takes part in the civil war in Flanders which followed soon after. Although young he is thrown into many exciting and dangerous adventures, through which he passes with great coolness and much credit. Brought into royal favor he is knighted for bravery on the battlefield, and saving the lives of some wealthy merchants, he realizes fortune with his advancement and rank.
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Copyright © 2016 by G.A. Henty
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“And what do you think of it all, good Father?”
“‘Tis a difficult question, my son, and I am glad that it is one that wiser heads than mine will have to solve.”
“But they don’t seem to try to solve it; things get worse and worse. The king is but a lad, no older than myself, and he is in the hands of others. It seems to me a sin and a shame that things should go on as they are at present. My father also thinks so.”
The speaker was a boy of some sixteen years old. He was walking with the prior in the garden of the little convent of St. Alwyth, four miles from the town of Dartford. Edgar Ormskirk was the son of a scholar. The latter, a man of independent means, who had always had a preference for study and investigation rather than for taking part in active pursuits, had, since the death of his young wife, a year after the birth of his son, retired altogether from the world and devoted himself to study. He had given up his comfortable home, standing on the heights of Highgate—that being in too close proximity to London to enable him to enjoy the seclusion that he desired—and had retired to a small estate near Dartford.
Educated at Oxford, he had gone to Padua at his father’s death, which happened just as he left the university, and had remained at that seat of learning for five years. There he had spent the whole of his income in the purchase of manuscripts. The next two years were passed at Bologna and Pisa, and he there collected a library such as few gentlemen of his time possessed. Then Mr. Ormskirk had returned to England and settled at Highgate, and two years later married the daughter of a neighbouring gentleman, choosing her rather because he felt that he needed someone to keep his house in order, than from any of the feeling that usually accompanies such unions. In time, however, he had come to love her, and her loss was a very heavy blow to him. It was the void that he felt in his home as much as his desire for solitude, that induced him to leave Highgate and settle in the country.
Here, at least, he had no fear of intrusive neighbours, or other interruptions to his studies. The news from London seldom reached his ears, and he was enabled to devote himself entirely to his experiments. Like many other learned men of his age, it was to chemistry that he chiefly turned his attention. His library comprised the works of almost every known writer on the subject, and he hoped that he might gain an immortal reputation by discovering one or both of the great secrets then sought for—the elixir of life, or the philosopher’s stone that would convert all things into gold. It was not that he himself had any desire for a long life, still less did he yearn for more wealth than he possessed, but he fondly believed that these discoveries would ameliorate the condition of mankind.
He did not see that if gold was as plentiful as the commonest metal it would cease to be more valuable than others, or that the boon of a long life would not add to the happiness of mankind. For some years he gave little thought to his son, who was left to such care as the old housekeeper and the still older man-servant chose to bestow upon him, and who, in consequence, was left altogether to follow the dictates of his own fancy. The child, therefore, lived almost entirely in the open air, played, tussled, and fought with boys of his own age in the village, and grew up healthy, sturdy, and active. His father scarcely took any heed of his existence until the prior of the Convent of St. Alwyth one day called upon him.
“What are you going to do with your boy, Mr. Ormskirk?” he asked.
“My boy?” the student repeated in tones of surprise. “Oh, yes; Edgar, of course. What am I going to do with him? Well, I have never thought about it. Does he want anything? My housekeeper always sees to that. Do you think that he wants a nurse?”
“A nurse, Mr. Ormskirk!” the Prior said with a smile. “A nurse would have a hard time with him. Do you know what his age is?”
“Four or five years old, I suppose.”
“Nearly double that. He is nine.”
“Impossible!” Mr. Ormskirk said. “Why, it is only the other day that he was a baby.”
“It is eight years since that time; he is now a sturdy lad, and if there is any mischief in the village he is sure to be in it. Why, it was but three days ago that Friar Anselmo caught him, soon after daybreak, fishing in the Convent pool with two of the village lads. The friar gave them a sound trouncing, and would have given one to your son, too, had it not been for the respect that we all feel for you. It is high time, Mr. Ormskirk, that he was broken of his wild ways and received an education suited to his station.”
“Quite so, quite so. I own that I have thought but little about him, for indeed ‘tis rarely that I see him, and save that at times his racket in the house sorely disturbs my studies, I have well-nigh forgotten all about him. Yes, yes; it is, of course, high time that he began his education, so that if I should die before I have completed my discoveries he may take up my work.”
The Prior smiled quietly at the thought of the sturdy, dirty-faced boy working among crucibles and retorts. However, he only said:
“Do you think of undertaking his education yourself?”
“By no means,” Mr. Ormskirk said, hastily. “It would be impossible for me to find time at present, but when he has completed his studies I should then take him in hand myself, make him my companion and assistant, and teach him all that is known of science.”
“But in the meantime?”
“In the meantime? Yes, I suppose something must be done. I might get him a tutor, but that would be a great disturbance to me. I might send him up to the monastery at Westminster, where the sons of many gentlemen are taught.”
“I doubt whether the training, or rather want of training, that he has had would fit him for Westminster,” the Prior said, quietly. “There is another plan that perhaps might be more suitable for him. One of our brethren is a scholar, and already three or four of the sons of the gentry in the neighbourhood come to him for three hours or so a day. Our convent is a poor one, and the fees he receives are a welcome addition to our means.”
“Excellent!” Mr. Ormskirk said, delighted at the difficulty being taken off his shoulders, “It would be the very thing.”
“Then perhaps you will speak to the boy, and lay your orders upon him,” the Prior said. “He was in the village as I passed by, and I brought him up here, very much against his will I admit. Then I gave him in charge on arrival to your servitor, knowing that otherwise the young varlet would slip off again as soon as my back was turned. Perhaps you will send for him.”
Mr. Ormskirk rang a bell. The housekeeper entered.
“Where is Andrew?” he asked.
“He is looking after Master Edgar, sir. His reverence told him to do so, and he dare not leave him for a moment or he would be off again.”
“Tell Andrew to bring him in here.”
A minute later the old servant entered with the boy. Edgar was in a dishevelled condition, the result of several struggles with Andrew. His face was begrimed with dirt, his clothes were torn and untidy. His father looked at him in grave surprise. It was not that he had not seen him before, for occasionally he had noticed him going across the garden, but though his eyes had observed him, his mental vision had not in any way taken him in, his thoughts being intent upon the work that he had reluctantly left to take a hurried meal.
“Tut, tut, tut!” he murmured to himself, “and this is my son. Well, well, I suppose he is not to be blamed; it is my own fault for being so heedless of him. This is bad, Edgar,” he said, “and yet it is my own fault rather than thine, and I am thankful that the good prior has brought your condition before me before it is too late. There must be no more of this. Your appearance is disgraceful both to yourself and me—to me because you are in rags, to yourself because you are dirty. I had never dreamt of this. Henceforth all must be changed. You must be clothed as befits the son of a gentleman, you must be taught as it is right for the son of a scholar to be, and you must bear in mind that some day you will become a gentleman yourself, and I trust a learned one. I have arranged with the good prior here that you shall go every day to the monastery to be instructed for three hours by one of his monks. In future you will take your meals with me, and I will see that your attire is in order, and that you go decent as befits your station. What hours is he to attend, Prior?”
“From nine till twelve.”
“You hear—from nine to twelve. In the afternoon I will procure a teacher for you in arms. In these days every gentleman must learn the use of his weapons. I, myself, although most peacefully inclined, have more than once been forced, when abroad, to use them. A man who cannot do so becomes the butt of fools, and loses his self-respect.”
“I shall like that, sir,” Edgar said, eagerly. “I can play at quarter-staff now with any boy of my size in the village.”
“Well, there must be no more of that,” his father said. “Up to the present you have been but a child, but it is time now that you should cease to consort with village boys and prepare for another station in life. They may be good boys—I know naught about them—but they are not fit associates for you. I am not blaming you,” he said more kindly as he saw the boy’s face fall. “It was natural that you, having no associates of your own rank, should make friends where you could find them. I trust that it has done you no harm. Well, Prior, this day week the boy shall come to you. I must get befitting clothes for him, or the other pupils will think that he is the son of a hedge tinker.”
An hour later Andrew was despatched to Dartford in a cart hired in the village, with orders to bring back with him a tailor, also to inquire as to who was considered the best teacher of arms in the town, and to engage him to come up for an hour every afternoon to instruct Edgar.
Seven years had passed since that time, and the rough and unkempt boy had grown into a tall young fellow, who had done fair credit to his teacher at the convent, and had profited to the full by the teaching of the old soldier who had been his instructor in arms. His father had, unconsciously, been also a good teacher to him. He had, with a great effort, broken through the habits to which he had been so long wedded. A young waiting-maid now assisted the housekeeper. The meals were no longer hastily snatched and often eaten standing, but were decently served in order, and occupied a considerable time, the greater portion of which was spent in pleasant chat either upon the scenes which Mr. Ormskirk had witnessed abroad, or in talk on the subjects the boy was studying; sometimes also upon Mr. Ormskirk’s researches and the hopes he entertained from them; and as Edgar grew older, upon the ordinary topics of the day, the grievances caused by the heavy taxation, the troubles of the time and the course of events that had led to them; for, although very ignorant of contemporary matters, Mr. Ormskirk was well acquainted with the history of the country up to the time when he had first gone abroad.
The recluse was surprised at the interest he himself came to feel in these conversations. While endeavouring to open his son’s mind he opened his own, and although when Edgar was not present he pursued his researches as assiduously as before, he was no longer lost in fits of abstraction, and would even occasionally walk down to the village when Edgar went to school in order to continue the conversation upon which they were engaged. Edgar on his part soon ceased to regard his father as a stranger, and his admiration for his store of information and learning served as a stimulant to his studies, for which his previous life had given him but little liking.
For the last two years, however, his father had seen with regret that there was but little hope of making a profound scholar of him, and that unless he himself could discover the solution of the problems that still eluded him, there was little chance of it being found by his successor.
Once roused, he had the good sense to see that it was not in such a life that Edgar was likely to find success, and he wisely abandoned the idea of pressing a task upon him that he saw was unfitted to the boy’s nature. The energy with which Edgar worked with his instructors in arms—who had been already twice changed, so as to give him a greater opportunity of attaining skill with his weapons—and the interest with which the lad listened to tales of adventure, showed the direction in which his bent lay. For the last two years his father had frequently read to him the records of Sir Walter Manny and other chroniclers of war and warlike adventure, and impressed upon him the virtues necessary to render a man at once a great soldier and a great man.
“If, my boy,” he said, “you should some day go to Court and mingle in public affairs, above all things keep yourself clear of any party. Those who cling to a party may rise with its success, but such rises are ever followed by reverses; then comes great suffering to those upon the fallen side. The duty of an English gentleman is simple: he must work for his country, regardless altogether of personal interest. Such a man may never rise to high rank, but he will be respected. Personal honours are little to be desired; it is upon those who stand higher than their neighbours that the blow falls the heaviest; while the rank and file may escape unscathed, it is the nobles and the leaders whose heads fall upon the block. I think that there are troubles in store for England. The Duke of Gloucester overshadows the boy king, but as the latter grows older he will probably shake off his tutelage, though it may be at the cost of a civil war.
“Then, too, there are the exactions of the tax-gatherers. Some day the people will rise against them as they did in France at the time of the Jacquerie, and as they have done again and again in Flanders. At present the condition of the common people, who are but villeins and serfs, is well-nigh unbearable. Altogether the future seems to me to be dark. I confess that, being a student, the storm when it bursts will affect me but slightly, but as it is clear to me that this is not the life that you will choose it may affect you greatly; for, however little you may wish it, if civil strife comes, you, like everyone else, may be involved in it. In such an event, Edgar, act as your conscience dictates. There is always much to be said for both sides of any question, and it cannot but be so in this. I wish to lay no stress on you in any way. You cannot make a good monk out of a man who longs to be a man-at-arms, nor a warrior of a weakling who longs for the shelter of a cloister.
“Let, however, each man strive to do his best in the line he has chosen for himself. A good monk is as worthy of admiration as a good man-at-arms. I would fain have seen you a great scholar, but as it is clear that this is out of the question, seeing that your nature does not incline to study, I would that you should become a brave knight. It was with that view when I sent you to be instructed at the convent I also gave you an instructor in arms, so that, whichever way your inclinations might finally point, you should be properly fitted for it.”
At fifteen all lessons were given up, Edgar having by that time learnt as much as was considered necessary in those days. He continued his exercises with his weapons, but without any strong idea that beyond defence against personal attacks they would be of any use to him. The army was not in those days a career. When the king had need of a force to fight in France or to carry fire and sword into Scotland, the levies were called out, the nobles and barons supplied their contingent, and archers and men-at-arms were enrolled and paid by the king. The levies, however, were only liable to service for a restricted time, and beyond their personal retainers the barons in time followed the royal example of hiring men-at-arms and archers for the campaign; these being partly paid from the royal treasury, and partly from their own revenue.
At the end of the campaign, however, the army speedily dispersed, each man returning to his former avocation; save therefore for the retainers, who formed the garrisons of the castles of the nobles, there was no military career such as that which came into existence with the formation of standing armies. Nevertheless, there was honour and rank to be won in the foreign wars, and it was to these the young men of gentle blood looked to make their way. But since the death of the Black Prince matters had been quiet abroad, and unless for those who were attached to the households of powerful nobles there was, for the present, no avenue towards distinction.
Edgar had been talking these matters over with the Prior of St. Alwyth, who had taken a great fancy to him, and with whom he had, since he had given up his work at the convent, frequently had long conversations. They were engaged in one of these when this narrative begins:
“I quite agree with your father,” the Prior continued. “Were there a just and strong government, the mass of the people might bear their present position. It seems to us as natural that the serfs should be transferred with the land as if they were herds of cattle, for such is the rule throughout Europe as well as here, and one sees that there are great difficulties in the way of making any alteration in this state of things. See you, were men free to wander as they chose over the land instead of working at their vocations, the country would be full of vagrants who, for want of other means for a living, would soon become robbers. Then, too, very many would flock to the towns, and so far from bettering their condition, would find themselves worse off than before, for there would be more people than work could be found for.
[Illustration: EDGAR TALKS MATTERS OVER WITH THE PRIOR OF ST. ALWYTH.]
“So long as each was called upon only to pay his fifteenth to the king’s treasury they were contented enough, but now they are called upon for a tenth as well as a fifteenth, and often this is greatly exceeded by the rapacity of the tax-collectors. Other burdens are put upon them, and altogether men are becoming desperate. Then, too, the cessation of the wars with France has brought back to the country numbers of disbanded soldiers who, having got out of the way of honest work and lost the habits of labour, are discontented and restless. All this adds to the danger. We who live in the country see these things, but the king and nobles either know nothing of them or treat them with contempt, well knowing that a few hundred men-at-arms can scatter a multitude of unarmed serfs.”
“And would you give freedom to the serfs, good Father?”
“I say not that I would give them absolute freedom, but I would grant them a charter giving them far greater rights than at present. A fifteenth of their labour is as much as they should be called upon to pay, and when the king’s necessities render it needful that further money should be raised, the burden should only be laid upon the backs of those who can afford to pay it. I hear that there is much wild talk, and that the doctrines of Wickliffe have done grievous harm. I say not, my son, that there are not abuses in the Church as well as elsewhere; but these pestilent doctrines lead men to disregard all authority, and to view their natural masters as oppressors. I hear that seditious talk is uttered openly in the villages throughout the country; that there are men who would fain persuade the ignorant that all above them are drones who live on the proceeds of their labour—as if indeed every man, however high in rank, had not his share of labour and care—I fear, then, that if there should be a rising of the peasantry we may have such scenes as those that took place during the Jacquerie in France, and that many who would, were things different, be in favour of giving more extended rights to the people, will be forced to take a side against them.”
“I can hardly think that they would take up arms, Father. They must know that they could not withstand a charge of armour-clad knights and men-at-arms.”
“Unhappily, my son, the masses do not think. They believe what it pleases them to believe, and what the men who go about stirring up sedition tell them. I foresee that in the end they will suffer horribly, but before the end comes they may commit every sort of outrage. They may sack monasteries and murder the monks, for we are also looked upon as drones. They may attack and destroy the houses of the better class, and even the castles of the smaller nobles. They may even capture London and lay it in ashes, but the thought that after they had done these things a terrible vengeance would be taken, and their lot would be harder than before, would never occur to them. Take your own house for instance—what resistance could it offer to a fierce mob of peasants?”
“None,” Edgar admitted. “But why should they attack it?”
The Prior was silent.
“I know what you mean, good Father,” Edgar said, after a pause. “They say that my father is a magician, because he stirs not abroad, but spends his time on his researches. I remember when I was a small boy, and the lads of the village wished to anger me, they would shout out, ‘Here is the magician’s son,’ and I had many a fight in consequence.”
“Just so, Edgar; the ignorant always hate that which they cannot understand; so Friar Bacon was persecuted, and accused of dabbling in magic when he was making discoveries useful to mankind. I say not that they will do any great harm when they first rise, for it cannot be said that the serfs here are so hardly treated as they were in France, where their lords had power of life and death over them, and could slay them like cattle if they chose, none interfering. Hence the hatred was so deep that in the very first outbreak the peasants fell upon the nobles and massacred them and their families.
“Here there is no such feeling. It is against the government that taxes them so heavily that their anger is directed, and I fear that this new poll-tax that has been ordered will drive them to extremities. I have news that across the river in Essex the people of some places have not only refused to pay, but have forcibly driven away the tax-gatherers, and when these things once begin, there is no saying how they are going to end. However, if there is trouble, I think not that at first we shall be in any danger here, but if they have success at first their pretensions will grow. They will inflame themselves. The love of plunder will take the place of their reasonable objections to over-taxation, and seeing that they have but to stretch out their hands to take what they desire, plunder and rapine will become general.”
As Edgar walked back home he felt that there was much truth in the Prior’s remarks. He himself had heard many things said among the villagers which showed that their patience was well-nigh at an end. Although, since he began his studies, he had no time to keep up his former close connection with the village, he had always been on friendly terms with his old playmates, and they talked far more freely with him than they would do to anyone else of gentle blood. Once or twice he had, from a spirit of adventure, gone with them to meetings that were held after dark in a quiet spot near Dartford, and listened to the talk of strangers from Gravesend and other places. He knew himself how heavily the taxation pressed upon the people, and his sympathies were wholly with them. There had been nothing said even by the most violent of the speakers to offend him. The protests were against the exactions of the tax-gatherers, the extravagance of the court, and the hardship that men should be serfs on the land.
Once they had been addressed by a secular priest from the other side of the river, who had asserted that all men were born equal and had equal rights. This sentiment had been loudly applauded, but he himself had sense enough to see that it was contrary to fact, and that men were not born equal. One was the son of a noble, the other of a serf. One child was a cripple and a weakling from its birth, another strong and lusty. One was well-nigh a fool, and another clear-headed. It seemed to him that there were and must be differences.
Many of the secular clergy were among the foremost in stirring up the people. They themselves smarted under their disabilities. For the most part they were what were called hedge priests, men of but little or no education, looked down upon by the regular clergy, and almost wholly dependant on the contributions of their hearers. They resented the difference between themselves and the richly endowed clergy and religious houses, and denounced the priests and monks as drones who sucked the life-blood of the country.
This was the last gathering at which Edgar had been present. He had been both shocked and offended at the preaching. What was the name of the priest he knew not, nor did the villagers, but he went by the name of Jack Straw, and was, Edgar thought, a dangerous fellow. The lad had no objection to his abuse of the tax-gatherers, or to his complaints of the extravagance of the court, but this man’s denunciation of the monks and clergy at once shocked and angered him. Edgar’s intercourse with the villagers had removed some of the prejudices generally felt by his class, but in other respects he naturally felt as did others of his station, and he resolved to go to no more meetings.
After taking his meal with his father, Edgar mounted the horse that the latter had bought for him, and rode over to the house of one of his friends.
The number of those who had, like himself, been taught by the monk of St. Alwyth had increased somewhat, and there were, when he left, six other lads there. Three of these were intended for the Church. All were sons of neighbouring landowners, and it was to visit Albert de Courcy, the son of Sir Ralph de Courcy, that Edgar was now riding. Albert and he had been special friends. They were about the same age, but of very different dispositions. The difference between their characters was perhaps the chief attraction that had drawn them to each other. Albert was gentle in disposition, his health was not good, and he had been a weakly child. His father, who was a stout knight, regarded him with slight favour, and had acceded willingly to his desire to enter the Church, feeling that he would never make a good fighter.
Edgar, on the contrary, was tall and strongly built, and had never known a day’s illness. He was somewhat grave in manner, for the companionship of his father and the character of their conversations had made him older and more thoughtful than most lads of his age. He was eager for adventure, and burned for an opportunity to distinguish himself, while his enthusiasm for noble exploits and great commanders interested his quiet friend, who had the power of admiring things that he could not hope to imitate. In him, alone of his school-fellows, did Edgar find any sympathy with his own feelings as to the condition of the people. Henry Nevil laughed to scorn Edgar’s advocacy of their cause. Richard Clairvaux more than once quarrelled with him seriously, and on one or two occasions they almost betook themselves to their swords. The other three, who were of less spirit, took no part in these arguments, saying that these things did not concern them, being matters for the king and his ministers, and of no interest whatever to them.
In other respects Edgar was popular with them all. His strength and his skill in arms gave him an authority that even Richard Clairvaux acknowledged in his cooler moments. Edgar visited at the houses of all their fathers, his father encouraging him to do so, as he thought that association with his equals would be a great advantage to him. As far as manners were concerned, however, the others, with the exception of Albert de Courcy, who did not need it, gained more than he did, for Mr. Ormskirk had, during his long residence at foreign universities and his close connection with professors, acquired a certain foreign courtliness of bearing that was in strong contrast to the rough bluffness of speech and manner that characterized the English of that period, and had some share in rendering them so unpopular upon the Continent, where, although their strength and fighting power made them respected, they were regarded as island bears, and their manners were a standing jest among the frivolous nobles of the Court of France.
At the house of Sir Ralph de Courcy Edgar was a special favourite. Lady de Courcy was fond of him because her son was never tired of singing his praises, and because she saw that his friendship was really a benefit to the somewhat dreamy boy. Aline, a girl of fourteen, regarded him with admiration; she was deeply attached to her brother, and believed implicitly his assertion that Edgar would some day become a valiant knight; while Sir Ralph himself liked him both for the courtesy of his bearing and the firmness and steadiness of his character, which had, he saw, a very beneficial influence over that of Albert. Sir Ralph was now content that the latter should enter the Church, but he was unwilling that his son should become what he called a mere shaveling, and desired that he should attain power and position in his profession.
The lack of ambition and energy in his son were a grievance to him almost as great as his lack of physical powers, and he saw that although, so far there was still an absence of ambition, yet the boy had gained firmness and decision from the influence of his friend, and that he was far more likely to attain eminence in the Church than he had been before. He was himself surprised that the son of a man whose pursuits he despised should have attained such proficiency with his weapons—a matter which he had learned, when one day he had tried his skill with Edgar in a bout with swords—and he recognized that with his gifts of manner, strength and enthusiasm for deeds of arms, he was likely one day to make a name for himself.
Whenever, therefore, Edgar rode over to Sir Ralph’s he was certain of a hearty welcome from all. As to the lad’s opinions as to the condition of the peasantry—opinions which he would have scouted as monstrous on the part of a gentleman—Sir Ralph knew nothing, Albert having been wise enough to remain silent on the subject, the custom of the times being wholly opposed to anything like a free expression of opinion on any subject from a lad to his elders.
“It is quite a time since you were here last, Master Ormskirk,” Lady De Courcy said when he entered. “Albert so often goes up for a talk with you when he has finished his studies at the monastery that you are forgetting us here.”
“I crave your pardon, Mistress De Courcy,” Edgar said; “but, indeed, I have been working hard, for my father has obtained for me a good master for the sword—a Frenchman skilled in many devices of which my English teachers were wholly ignorant. He has been teaching some of the young nobles in London, and my father, hearing of his skill, has had him down here, at a heavy cost, for the last month, as he was for the moment without engagements in London. It was but yesterday that he returned. Naturally, I have desired to make the utmost of the opportunity, and most of my time has been spent in the fencing-room.”
“And have you gained much by his instruction?” Sir Ralph asked.
“I hope so, Sir Ralph. I have tried my best, and he has been good enough to commend me warmly, and even told my father that I was the aptest pupil that he had.”
“I will try a bout with you presently,” the knight said. “It is nigh two years since we had one together, and my arm is growing stiff for want of practice, though every day I endeavour to keep myself in order for any opportunity or chance that may occur, by practising against an imaginary foe by hammering with a mace at a corn-sack swinging from a beam. Methinks I hit it as hard as of old, but in truth I know but little of the tricks of these Frenchmen. They availed nothing at Poictiers against our crushing downright blows. Still, I would gladly see what their tricks are like.”
A FENCING BOUT
After he had talked for a short time with Mistress De Courcy, Edgar went to the fencing-room with Sir Ralph, and they there put on helmets and quilted leather jerkins, with chains sewn on at the shoulders.
“Now, you are to do your best,” Sir Ralph said, as he handed a sword to
Edgar, and took one himself.
So long as they played gently Edgar had all the advantage.
“You have learned your tricks well,” Sir Ralph said, good-temperedly, “and, in truth, your quick returns puzzle me greatly, and I admit that were we both unprotected I should have no chance with you, but let us see what you could do were we fighting in earnest,” and he took down a couple of suits of complete body armour from the wall.
Albert, who was looking on, fastened the buckles for both of them.
“Ah, you know how the straps go,” Sir Ralph said, in a tone of satisfaction. “Well, it is something to know that, even if you don’t know what to do with it when you have got it on. Now, Master Edgar, have at you.”
Edgar stood on the defence, but, strong as his arm was from constant exercise, he had some difficulty to save his head from the sweeping blows that Sir Ralph rained upon it.
“By my faith, young fellow,” Sir Ralph said as, after three or four minutes, he drew back breathless from his exertions, “your muscles seem to be made of iron, and you are fit to hold your own in a serious mêlée. You were wrong not to strike, for I know that more than once there was an opening had you been quick.”
Edgar was well aware of the fact, but he had not taken advantage of it, for he felt that at his age it was best to abstain from trying to gain a success that could not be pleasant for the good knight.
“Well, well, we will fight no more,” the latter said.
When Albert had unbuckled his father’s armour and hung it up, Edgar said: “Now, Albert, let us have a bout.”
The lad coloured hotly, and the knight burst into a hearty laugh.
“You might as soon challenge my daughter Aline. Well, put on the jerkin, Albert; it were well that you should feel what a poor creature a man is who has never had a sword in his hand.”
Albert silently obeyed his father’s orders and stood up facing Edgar. They were about the same height, though Albert looked slim and delicate by the side of his friend.
“By St. George!” his father exclaimed, “you do not take up a bad posture, Albert. You have looked at Edgar often enough at his exercises to see how you ought to place yourself. I have never seen you look so manly since the day you were born. Now, strike in.”
Sir Ralph’s surprise at his son’s attitude grew to amazement as the swords clashed together, and he saw that, although Edgar was not putting out his full strength and skill, his son, instead of being scarce able, as he had expected, to raise the heavy sword, not only showed considerable skill, but even managed to parry some of the tricks of the weapon to which he himself had fallen a victim.
“Stop, stop!” he said, at last. “Am I dreaming, or has someone else taken the place of my son? Take off your helmet. It is indeed Albert!” he said, as they uncovered. “What magic is this?”
“It is a little surprise that we have prepared for you, Sir Ralph,” Edgar said, “and I trust that you will not be displeased. Two years ago I persuaded Albert that there was no reason why even a priest should not have a firm hand and a steady eye, and that this would help him to overcome his nervousness, and would make him strong in body as well as in arm. Since that time he has practised with me almost daily after he had finished his studies at St. Alwyth, and my masters have done their best for him. Though, of course, he has not my strength, as he lacks the practice I have had, he has gained wonderfully of late, and would in a few years match me in skill, for what he wants in strength he makes up in activity.”
“Master Ormskirk,” the knight said, “I am beholden to you more than I can express. His mother and I have observed during the last two years that he has gained greatly in health and has widened out in the shoulders. I understand now how it has come about. We have never questioned him about it; indeed, I should as soon have thought of asking him whether he had made up his mind to become king, as whether he had begun to use a sword. Why, I see that you have taught him already some of the tricks that you have just learnt.”
“I have not had time to instruct him in many of them, Sir Ralph, but I showed him one or two, and he acquired them so quickly that in another month I have no doubt he will know them as well as I do.”
“By St. George, you have done wonders, Edgar. As for you, Albert, I am as pleased as if I had heard that the king had made me an earl. Truly, indeed, did Master Ormskirk tell you that it would do you good to learn to use a sword. ‘Tis not a priest’s weapon—although many a priest and bishop have ridden to battle before now—but it has improved your health and given you ten years more life than you would be likely to have had without it. It seemed to me strange that any son of my house should be ignorant as to how to use a sword, and now I consider that that which seemed to me almost a disgrace is removed. Knows your mother aught of this?”
“No, sir. When I began I feared that my resolution would soon fade; and indeed it would have done so had not Edgar constantly encouraged me and held me to it, though indeed at first it so fatigued me that I could scarce walk home.”
“That I can well understand, my lad. Now you shall come and tell your mother. I have news for you, dame, that will in no small degree astonish you,” he said, as, followed by the two lads, he returned to the room where she was sitting. “In the first place, young Master Ormskirk has proved himself a better man than I with the sword.”
“Say not so, I pray you, Sir Ralph,” Edgar said. “In skill with the French tricks I may have had the better of you, but with a mace you would have dashed my brains out, as I could not have guarded my head against the blows that you could have struck with it.”
“Not just yet, perhaps,” the knight said; “but when you get your full strength you could assuredly do so. He will be a famous knight some day, dame. But that is not the most surprising piece of news. What would you say were I to tell you that this weakling of ours, although far from approaching the skill and strength of his friend, is yet able to wield a heavy sword manfully and skilfully?”
“I should say that either you were dreaming, or that I was, Sir Ralph.”
“Well, I do say so in wide-awake earnest. Master Ormskirk has been his instructor, and for the last two years the lad has been learning of him and of his masters. That accounts for the change that we have noticed in his health and bearing. Faith, he used to go along with stooping neck, like a girl who has outgrown her strength. Now he carries himself well, and his health of late has left naught to be desired. It was for that that his friend invited him to exercise himself with the sword; and indeed his recipe has done wonders. His voice has gained strength, and though it still has a girlish ring about it, he speaks more firmly and assuredly than he used to do.”
“That is indeed wonderful news, Sir Ralph, and I rejoice to hear it. Master Ormskirk, we are indeed beholden to you. For at one time I doubted whether Albert would ever live to grow into a man; and of late I have been gladdened at seeing so great a change in him, though I dreamed not of the cause.”
Aline had stood open-mouthed while her father was speaking, and now stole up to Albert’s side.
“I am pleased, brother,” she said. “May I tell them now what happened the other day with the black bull, you charged me to say nothing about?”
“What is this about the black bull, Aline?” her father said, as he caught the words.
“It was naught, sir,” Albert replied, colouring, “save that the black bull in the lower meadow ran at us, and I frightened him away.”
“No, no, father,” the girl broke in, “it was not that at all. We were walking through the meadow together when the black bull ran at us. Albert said to me, ‘Run, run, Aline!’ and I did run as hard as I could; but I looked back for some time as I ran, being greatly terrified as to what would come to Albert. He stood still. The bull lowered his head and rushed at him. Then he sprang aside just as I expected to see him tossed into the air, caught hold of the bull’s tail as it went past him and held on till the bull was close to the fence, and then he let go and scrambled over, while the bull went bellowing down the field.”
“Well done, well done!” Sir Ralph said. “Why, Albert, it seems marvellous that you should be doing such things; that black bull is a formidable beast, and the strongest man, if unarmed, might well feel discomposed if he saw him coming rushing at him. I will wager that if you had not had that practice with the sword, you would not have had the quickness of thought that enabled you to get out of the scrape. You might have stood between the bull and your sister, but if you had done so you would only have been tossed, and perhaps gored or trampled to death afterwards. I will have the beast killed, or otherwise he will be doing mischief. There are not many who pass through the field, still I don’t want to have any of my tenants killed.
“Well, Master Ormskirk, both my wife and I feel grateful to you for what you have done for Albert. There are the makings of a man in him now, let him take up what trade he will. I don’t say much, boy, it is not my way; but if you ever want a friend, whether it be at court or camp, you can rely upon me to do as much for you as I would for one of my own; maybe more, for I deem that a man cannot well ask for favours for those of his own blood, but he can speak a good word, and even urge his suit for one who is no kin to him. So far as I understand, you have not made up your mind in what path you will embark.”
“No, Sir Ralph, for at present, although we can scarce be said to be at peace with the French, we are not fighting with them. Had it been so I would willingly have joined the train of some brave knight raising a force for service there. There is ever fighting in the North, but with the Scots it is but a war of skirmishes, and not as it was in Edward’s reign. Moreover, by what my father says, there seems no reason for harrying Scotland far and near, and the fighting at present is scarce of a nature in which much credit is to be gained.”
“You might enter the household of some powerful noble, lad.”
“My father spoke to me of that, Sir Ralph, but told me that he would rather that I were with some simple knight than with a great noble, for that in the rivalries between these there might be troubles come upon the land, and maybe even civil strife; that one who might hold his head highest of all one day might on the morrow have it struck off with the executioner’s axe, and that at any rate it were best at present to live quietly and see how matters went before taking any step that would bind me to the fortunes of one man more than another.”
“Your father speaks wisely. ‘Tis not often that men who live in books, and spend their time in pouring over mouldy parchments, and in well-nigh suffocating themselves with stinking fumes have common sense in worldly matters. But when I have conversed with your father, I have always found that, although he takes not much interest in public affairs at present, he is marvellously well versed in our history, and can give illustrations in support of what he says. Well, whenever the time comes that he thinks it good for you to leave his fireside and venture out into the world, you have but to come to me, and I will, so far as is in my power, further your designs.”
“I thank you most heartily, Sir Ralph, and glad am I to have been of service to Albert, who has been almost as a brother to me since we first met at St. Alwyth.”
“I would go over and see your father, and have a talk with him about you, but I ride to London to-morrow, and may be forced to tarry there for some time. When I return I will wait upon him and have a talk as to his plans for you. Now, I doubt not, you would all rather be wandering about the garden than sitting here with us, so we will detain you no longer.”
“Albert, I am very angry with you and Master Ormskirk that you did not take me into your counsel and tell me about your learning to use the sword,” Aline said, later on, as they watched Edgar ride away through the gateway of the castle. “I call it very unkind of you both.”
“We had not thought of being unkind, Aline,” Albert said, quietly. “When we began I did not feel sure that either my strength or my resolution would suffice to carry me through, and indeed it was at first very painful work for me, having never before taken any strong exercise, and often I would have given it up from the pain and fatigue that it caused me, had not Edgar urged me to persevere, saying that in time I should feel neither pain nor weariness. Therefore, at first I said nothing to you, knowing that it would disappoint you did I give it up, and then when my arm gained strength, and Edgar encouraged me by praising my progress, and I began to hope that I might yet come to be strong and gain skill with the weapon, I kept it back in order that I might, as I have done to-day, have the pleasure of surprising you, as well as my father, by showing that I was not so great a milksop as you had rightly deemed me.”
“I never thought that you were a milksop, Albert,” his sister said, indignantly. “I knew that you were not strong, and was sorry for it, but it was much nicer for me that you should be content to walk and ride with me, and to take interest in things that I like, instead of being like Henry Nevil or Richard Clairvaux, who are always talking and thinking of nothing but how they would go to the wars, and what they would do there.”
“There was no need that I should do that, Aline. Edgar is a much better swordsman than either of them, and knows much more, and is much more likely to be a famous knight some day than either Nevil or Clairvaux, but I am certain that you do not hear him talk about it.”
“No, Edgar is nice, too,” the girl said, frankly, “and very strong. Do you not remember how he carried me home more than two miles, when a year ago I fell down when I was out with you, and sprained my ankle. And now, Albert, perhaps some day you will get so strong that you may not think of going into the Church and shutting yourself up all your life in a cloister, but may come to be famous too.”
“I have not thought of that, Aline,” he said, gravely. “If ever I did change my mind, it would be that I might always be with Edgar and be great friends with him, all through our lives, just as we are now.”
Sir Ralph and his wife were at the time discussing the same topic. “It may yet be, Agatha, that, after all, the boy may give up this thought of being a churchman. I have never said a word against it hitherto, because it seemed to me that he was fit for nothing else, but now that one sees that he has spirit, and has, thanks to his friend, acquired a taste for arms, and has a strength I never dreamt he possessed, the matter is changed. I say not yet that he is like to become a famous knight, but it needs not that every one should be able to swing a heavy mace and hold his own in a mêlée. There are many posts at court where one who is discreet and long-headed may hold his own, and gain honour, so that he be not a mere feeble weakling who can be roughly pushed to the wall by every blusterer.”
“I would ask him no question concerning it, Sir Ralph,” his wife said. “It may be as you say, but methinks that it will be more likely that he will turn to it if you ask him no questions, but leave him to think it out for himself. The lad Edgar has great influence over him, and will assuredly use it for good. As for myself, it would be no such great grief were Albert to enter the Church as it would be to you, though I, too, would prefer that he should not be lost to us, and would rather that he went to Court and played his part there. I believe that he has talent. The prior of St. Alwyth said that he and young Ormskirk were by far his most promising pupils; of course, the latter has now ceased to study with him, having learned as much as is necessary for a gentleman to know if he be not intended for the Church. Albert is well aware what your wishes are, and that if you have said naught against his taking up that profession, it was but because you deemed him fit for no other. Now, you will see that, having done so much, he may well do more, and it may be that in time he may himself speak to you and tell you that he has changed his mind on the matter.”
“Perhaps it would be best so, dame, and I have good hope that it will be as you say. I care not much for the Court, where Lancaster and Gloucester overshadow the king. Still, a man can play his part there; though I would not that he should attach himself to Lancaster’s faction or to Gloucester’s, for both are ambitious, and it will be a struggle between them for supremacy. If he goes he shall go as a king’s man. Richard, as he grows up, will resent the tutelage in which he is held, but will not be able to shake it off, and he will need men he can rely upon—prudent and good advisers, the nearer to his own age the better, and it may well be that Albert would be like to gain rank and honour more quickly in this way than by doughty deeds in the field. It is good that each man should stick to his last. As for me, I would rather delve as a peasant than mix in the intrigues of a Court. But there must be courtiers as well as fighters, and I say not aught against them.
“The boy with his quiet voice, and his habit of going about making little more noise than a cat, is far better suited for such a life than I with my rough speech and fiery temper. For his manner he has also much to thank young Ormskirk. Edgar caught it from his father, who, though a strange man according to my thinking, is yet a singularly courteous gentleman, and Albert has taken it from his friend. Well, wife, I shall put this down as one of my fortunate days, for never have I heard better news than that which Albert gave me this afternoon.”
When Edgar returned home he told his father what had taken place.
“I thought that Sir Ralph would be mightily pleased some day when he heard that his son had been so zealously working here with you, and I too was glad to see it. I am altogether without influence to push your fortunes. Learning I can give you, but I scarce know a man at Court, for while I lived at Highgate I seldom went abroad, and save for a visit now and then from some scholar anxious to consult me, scarce a being entered my house. Therefore, beyond relating to you such matters of history as it were well for you to know, and by telling you of the deeds of Caesar and other great commanders, I could do naught for you.”
“You have done a great deal for me, father. You have taught me more of military matters, and of the history of this country, and of France and Italy, than can be known to most people, and will assuredly be of much advantage to me in the future.”
“That may be so, Edgar, but the great thing is to make the first start, and here I could in no way aid you. I have often wondered how this matter could be brought about, and now you have obtained a powerful friend; for although Sir Ralph De Courcy is but a simple knight, with no great heritage, his wife is a daughter of Lord Talbot, and he himself is one of the most valiant of the nobles and knights who fought so stoutly in France and Spain, and as such is known to, and respected by, all those who bore a part in those wars. He therefore can do for you the service that of all others is the most necessary.
“The king himself is well aware that he was one of the knights in whom the Black Prince, his father, had the fullest confidence, and to whom he owed his life more than once in the thick of a mêlée. Thus, then, when the time comes, he will be able to secure for you a post in the following of some brave leader. I would rather that it were so than in the household of any great noble, who would assuredly take one side or other in the factions of the Court. You are too young for this as yet, being too old to be a page, too young for an esquire, and must therefore wait until you are old enough to enter service either as an esquire or as one of the retinue of a military leader.”
“I would rather be an esquire and ride to battle to win my spurs. I should not care to become a knight simply because I was the owner of so many acres of land, but should wish to be knighted for service in the field.”
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