KING JOHN.—I'll tell thee what, my friend, He is a very serpent in my way; And wheresoe'er this foot of mine doth tread, He lies before me.—Dost thou understand me? — King John
There was brave feasting in the Castle of York, to which Prince John had invited those nobles, prelates, and leaders, by whose assistance he hoped to carry through his ambitious projects upon his brother's throne. Waldemar Fitzurse, his able and politic agent, was at secret work among them, tempering all to that pitch of courage which was necessary in making an open declaration of their purpose. But their enterprise was delayed by the absence of more than one main limb of the confederacy. The stubborn and daring, though brutal courage of Front-de-Boeuf; the buoyant spirits and bold bearing of De Bracy; the sagacity, martial experience, and renowned valour of Brian de Bois-Guilbert, were important to the success of their conspiracy; and, while cursing in secret their unnecessary and unmeaning absence, neither John nor his adviser dared to proceed without them. Isaac the Jew also seemed to have vanished, and with him the hope of certain sums of money, making up the subsidy for which Prince John had contracted with that Israelite and his brethren. This deficiency was likely to prove perilous in an emergency so critical.
It was on the morning after the fall of Torquilstone, that a confused report began to spread abroad in the city of York, that De Bracy and Bois-Guilbert, with their confederate Front-de-Boeuf, had been taken or slain. Waldemar brought the rumour to Prince John, announcing, that he feared its truth the more that they had set out with a small attendance, for the purpose of committing an assault on the Saxon Cedric and his attendants. At another time the Prince would have treated this deed of violence as a good jest; but now, that it interfered with and impeded his own plans, he exclaimed against the perpetrators, and spoke of the broken laws, and the infringement of public order and of private property, in a tone which might have become King Alfred.
“The unprincipled marauders,” he said—“were I ever to become monarch of England, I would hang such transgressors over the drawbridges of their own castles.”
“But to become monarch of England,” said his Ahithophel coolly, “it is necessary not only that your Grace should endure the transgressions of these unprincipled marauders, but that you should afford them your protection, notwithstanding your laudable zeal for the laws they are in the habit of infringing. We shall be finely helped, if the churl Saxons should have realized your Grace's vision, of converting feudal drawbridges into gibbets; and yonder bold-spirited Cedric seemeth one to whom such an imagination might occur. Your Grace is well aware, it will be dangerous to stir without Front-de-Boeuf, De Bracy, and the Templar; and yet we have gone too far to recede with safety.”
Prince John struck his forehead with impatience, and then began to stride up and down the apartment.
“The villains,” he said, “the base treacherous villains, to desert me at this pinch!”
“Nay, say rather the feather-pated giddy madmen,” said Waldemar, “who must be toying with follies when such business was in hand.”
“What is to be done?” said the Prince, stopping short before Waldemar.
“I know nothing which can be done,” answered his counsellor, “save that which I have already taken order for.—I came not to bewail this evil chance with your Grace, until I had done my best to remedy it.”
“Thou art ever my better angel, Waldemar,” said the Prince; “and when I have such a chancellor to advise withal, the reign of John will be renowned in our annals.—What hast thou commanded?”
“I have ordered Louis Winkelbrand, De Bracy's lieutenant, to cause his trumpet sound to horse, and to display his banner, and to set presently forth towards the castle of Front-de-Boeuf, to do what yet may be done for the succour of our friends.”
Prince John's face flushed with the pride of a spoilt child, who has undergone what it conceives to be an insult. “By the face of God!” he said, “Waldemar Fitzurse, much hast thou taken upon thee! and over malapert thou wert to cause trumpet to blow, or banner to be raised, in a town where ourselves were in presence, without our express command.”
“I crave your Grace's pardon,” said Fitzurse, internally cursing the idle vanity of his patron; “but when time pressed, and even the loss of minutes might be fatal, I judged it best to take this much burden upon me, in a matter of such importance to your Grace's interest.”
“Thou art pardoned, Fitzurse,” said the prince, gravely; “thy purpose hath atoned for thy hasty rashness.—But whom have we here?—De Bracy himself, by the rood!—and in strange guise doth he come before us.”
It was indeed De Bracy—“bloody with spurring, fiery red with speed.” His armour bore all the marks of the late obstinate fray, being broken, defaced, and stained with blood in many places, and covered with clay and dust from the crest to the spur. Undoing his helmet, he placed it on the table, and stood a moment as if to collect himself before he told his news.
“De Bracy,” said Prince John, “what means this?—Speak, I charge thee!—Are the Saxons in rebellion?”
“Speak, De Bracy,” said Fitzurse, almost in the same moment with his master, “thou wert wont to be a man—Where is the Templar?—where Front-de-Boeuf?”
“The Templar is fled,” said De Bracy; “Front-de-Boeuf you will never see more. He has found a red grave among the blazing rafters of his own castle and I alone am escaped to tell you.”
“Cold news,” said Waldemar, “to us, though you speak of fire and conflagration.”
“The worst news is not yet said,” answered De Bracy; and, coming up to Prince John, he uttered in a low and emphatic tone—“Richard is in England—I have seen and spoken with him.”
Prince John turned pale, tottered, and caught at the back of an oaken bench to support himself—much like to a man who receives an arrow in his bosom.
“Thou ravest, De Bracy,” said Fitzurse, “it cannot be.”
“It is as true as truth itself,” said De Bracy; “I was his prisoner, and spoke with him.”
“With Richard Plantagenet, sayest thou?” continued Fitzurse.
“With Richard Plantagenet,” replied De Bracy, “with Richard Coeur-de-Lion—with Richard of England.”
“And thou wert his prisoner?” said Waldemar; “he is then at the head of a power?”
“No—only a few outlawed yeomen were around him, and to these his person is unknown. I heard him say he was about to depart from them. He joined them only to assist at the storming of Torquilstone.”
“Ay,” said Fitzurse, “such is indeed the fashion of Richard—a true knight-errant he, and will wander in wild adventure, trusting the prowess of his single arm, like any Sir Guy or Sir Bevis, while the weighty affairs of his kingdom slumber, and his own safety is endangered.—What dost thou propose to do De Bracy?”
“I?—I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them—I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment. And thou, Waldemar, wilt thou take lance and shield, and lay down thy policies, and wend along with me, and share the fate which God sends us?”
“I am too old, Maurice, and I have a daughter,” answered Waldemar.
“Give her to me, Fitzurse, and I will maintain her as fits her rank, with the help of lance and stirrup,” said De Bracy.
“Not so,” answered Fitzurse; “I will take sanctuary in this church of Saint Peter—the Archbishop is my sworn brother.”
During this discourse, Prince John had gradually awakened from the stupor into which he had been thrown by the unexpected intelligence, and had been attentive to the conversation which passed betwixt his followers. “They fall off from me,” he said to himself, “they hold no more by me than a withered leaf by the bough when a breeze blows on it!—Hell and fiends! can I shape no means for myself when I am deserted by these cravens?”—He paused, and there was an expression of diabolical passion in the constrained laugh with which he at length broke in on their conversation.
“Ha, ha, ha! my good lords, by the light of Our Lady's brow, I held ye sage men, bold men, ready-witted men; yet ye throw down wealth, honour, pleasure, all that our noble game promised you, at the moment it might be won by one bold cast!”
“I understand you not,” said De Bracy. “As soon as Richard's return is blown abroad, he will be at the head of an army, and all is then over with us. I would counsel you, my lord, either to fly to France or take the protection of the Queen Mother.”
“I seek no safety for myself,” said Prince John, haughtily; “that I could secure by a word spoken to my brother. But although you, De Bracy, and you, Waldemar Fitzurse, are so ready to abandon me, I should not greatly delight to see your heads blackening on Clifford's gate yonder. Thinkest thou, Waldemar, that the wily Archbishop will not suffer thee to be taken from the very horns of the altar, would it make his peace with King Richard? And forgettest thou, De Bracy, that Robert Estoteville lies betwixt thee and Hull with all his forces, and that the Earl of Essex is gathering his followers? If we had reason to fear these levies even before Richard's return, trowest thou there is any doubt now which party their leaders will take? Trust me, Estoteville alone has strength enough to drive all thy Free Lances into the Humber.”—Waldemar Fitzurse and De Bracy looked in each other's faces with blank dismay.—“There is but one road to safety,” continued the Prince, and his brow grew black as midnight; “this object of our terror journeys alone—He must be met withal.”
“Not by me,” said De Bracy, hastily; “I was his prisoner, and he took me to mercy. I will not harm a feather in his crest.”
“Who spoke of harming him?” said Prince John, with a hardened laugh; “the knave will say next that I meant he should slay him!—No—a prison were better; and whether in Britain or Austria, what matters it?—Things will be but as they were when we commenced our enterprise—It was founded on the hope that Richard would remain a captive in Germany—Our uncle Robert lived and died in the castle of Cardiffe.”
“Ay, but,” said Waldemar, “your sire Henry sate more firm in his seat than your Grace can. I say the best prison is that which is made by the sexton—no dungeon like a church-vault! I have said my say.”
“Prison or tomb,” said De Bracy, “I wash my hands of the whole matter.”
“Villain!” said Prince John, “thou wouldst not bewray our counsel?”
“Counsel was never bewrayed by me,” said De Bracy, haughtily, “nor must the name of villain be coupled with mine!”
“Peace, Sir Knight!” said Waldemar; “and you, good my lord, forgive the scruples of valiant De Bracy; I trust I shall soon remove them.”
“That passes your eloquence, Fitzurse,” replied the Knight.
“Why, good Sir Maurice,” rejoined the wily politician, “start not aside like a scared steed, without, at least, considering the object of your terror.—This Richard—but a day since, and it would have been thy dearest wish to have met him hand to hand in the ranks of battle—a hundred times I have heard thee wish it.”
“Ay,” said De Bracy, “but that was as thou sayest, hand to hand, and in the ranks of battle! Thou never heardest me breathe a thought of assaulting him alone, and in a forest.”
“Thou art no good knight if thou dost scruple at it,” said Waldemar. “Was it in battle that Lancelot de Lac and Sir Tristram won renown? or was it not by encountering gigantic knights under the shade of deep and unknown forests?”
“Ay, but I promise you,” said De Bracy, “that neither Tristram nor Lancelot would have been match, hand to hand, for Richard Plantagenet, and I think it was not their wont to take odds against a single man.”
“Thou art mad, De Bracy—what is it we propose to thee, a hired and retained captain of Free Companions, whose swords are purchased for Prince John's service? Thou art apprized of our enemy, and then thou scruplest, though thy patron's fortunes, those of thy comrades, thine own, and the life and honour of every one amongst us, be at stake!”
“I tell you,” said De Bracy, sullenly, “that he gave me my life. True, he sent me from his presence, and refused my homage—so far I owe him neither favour nor allegiance—but I will not lift hand against him.”
“It needs not—send Louis Winkelbrand and a score of thy lances.”
“Ye have sufficient ruffians of your own,” said De Bracy; “not one of mine shall budge on such an errand.”
“Art thou so obstinate, De Bracy?” said Prince John; “and wilt thou forsake me, after so many protestations of zeal for my service?”
“I mean it not,” said De Bracy; “I will abide by you in aught that becomes a knight, whether in the lists or in the camp; but this highway practice comes not within my vow.”
“Come hither, Waldemar,” said Prince John. “An unhappy prince am I. My father, King Henry, had faithful servants—He had but to say that he was plagued with a factious priest, and the blood of Thomas-a-Becket, saint though he was, stained the steps of his own altar.—Tracy, Morville, Brito 47 loyal and daring subjects, your names, your spirit, are extinct! and although Reginald Fitzurse hath left a son, he hath fallen off from his father's fidelity and courage.”
“He has fallen off from neither,” said Waldemar Fitzurse; “and since it may not better be, I will take on me the conduct of this perilous enterprise. Dearly, however, did my father purchase the praise of a zealous friend; and yet did his proof of loyalty to Henry fall far short of what I am about to afford; for rather would I assail a whole calendar of saints, than put spear in rest against Coeur-de-Lion.—De Bracy, to thee I must trust to keep up the spirits of the doubtful, and to guard Prince John's person. If you receive such news as I trust to send you, our enterprise will no longer wear a doubtful aspect.—Page,” he said, “hie to my lodgings, and tell my armourer to be there in readiness; and bid Stephen Wetheral, Broad Thoresby, and the Three Spears of Spyinghow, come to me instantly; and let the scout-master, Hugh Bardon, attend me also.—Adieu, my Prince, till better times.” Thus speaking, he left the apartment. “He goes to make my brother prisoner,” said Prince John to De Bracy, “with as little touch of compunction, as if it but concerned the liberty of a Saxon franklin. I trust he will observe our orders, and use our dear Richard's person with all due respect.”
De Bracy only answered by a smile.
“By the light of Our Lady's brow,” said Prince John, “our orders to him were most precise—though it may be you heard them not, as we stood together in the oriel window—Most clear and positive was our charge that Richard's safety should be cared for, and woe to Waldemar's head if he transgress it!”
“I had better pass to his lodgings,” said De Bracy, “and make him fully aware of your Grace's pleasure; for, as it quite escaped my ear, it may not perchance have reached that of Waldemar.”
“Nay, nay,” said Prince John, impatiently, “I promise thee he heard me; and, besides, I have farther occupation for thee. Maurice, come hither; let me lean on thy shoulder.”
They walked a turn through the hall in this familiar posture, and Prince John, with an air of the most confidential intimacy, proceeded to say, “What thinkest thou of this Waldemar Fitzurse, my De Bracy?—He trusts to be our Chancellor. Surely we will pause ere we give an office so high to one who shows evidently how little he reverences our blood, by his so readily undertaking this enterprise against Richard. Thou dost think, I warrant, that thou hast lost somewhat of our regard, by thy boldly declining this unpleasing task—But no, Maurice! I rather honour thee for thy virtuous constancy. There are things most necessary to be done, the perpetrator of which we neither love nor honour; and there may be refusals to serve us, which shall rather exalt in our estimation those who deny our request. The arrest of my unfortunate brother forms no such good title to the high office of Chancellor, as thy chivalrous and courageous denial establishes in thee to the truncheon of High Marshal. Think of this, De Bracy, and begone to thy charge.”
“Fickle tyrant!” muttered De Bracy, as he left the presence of the Prince; “evil luck have they who trust thee. Thy Chancellor, indeed!—He who hath the keeping of thy conscience shall have an easy charge, I trow. But High Marshal of England! that,” he said, extending his arm, as if to grasp the baton of office, and assuming a loftier stride along the antechamber, “that is indeed a prize worth playing for!”
De Bracy had no sooner left the apartment than Prince John summoned an attendant.
“Bid Hugh Bardon, our scout-master, come hither, as soon as he shall have spoken with Waldemar Fitzurse.”
The scout-master arrived after a brief delay, during which John traversed the apartment with, unequal and disordered steps.
“Bardon,” said he, “what did Waldemar desire of thee?”
“Two resolute men, well acquainted with these northern wilds, and skilful in tracking the tread of man and horse.”
“And thou hast fitted him?”
“Let your grace never trust me else,” answered the master of the spies. “One is from Hexamshire; he is wont to trace the Tynedale and Teviotdale thieves, as a bloodhound follows the slot of a hurt deer. The other is Yorkshire bred, and has twanged his bowstring right oft in merry Sherwood; he knows each glade and dingle, copse and high-wood, betwixt this and Richmond.”
“'Tis well,” said the Prince.—“Goes Waldemar forth with them?”
“Instantly,” said Bardon.
“With what attendance?” asked John, carelessly.
“Broad Thoresby goes with him, and Wetheral, whom they call, for his cruelty, Stephen Steel-heart; and three northern men-at-arms that belonged to Ralph Middleton's gang—they are called the Spears of Spyinghow.”
“'Tis well,” said Prince John; then added, after a moment's pause, “Bardon, it imports our service that thou keep a strict watch on Maurice De Bracy—so that he shall not observe it, however—And let us know of his motions from time to time—with whom he converses, what he proposeth. Fail not in this, as thou wilt be answerable.”
Hugh Bardon bowed, and retired.
“If Maurice betrays me,” said Prince John—“if he betrays me, as his bearing leads me to fear, I will have his head, were Richard thundering at the gates of York.”