And now I will unclasp a secret book, And, to your quick-conceiving discontent, I’ll read you matter deep and dangerous. HENRY IV., PART I.
The Marquis of Montserrat and the Grand Master of the Knights Templars stood together in the front of the royal pavilion, within which this singular scene had passed, and beheld a strong guard of bills and bows drawn out to form a circle around it, and keep at distance all which might disturb the sleeping monarch. The soldiers wore the downcast, silent, and sullen looks with which they trail their arms at a funeral, and stepped with such caution that you could not hear a buckler ring or a sword clatter, though so many men in armour were moving around the tent. They lowered their weapons in deep reverence as the dignitaries passed through their files, but with the same profound silence.
“There is a change of cheer among these island dogs,” said the Grand Master to Conrade, when they had passed Richard’s guards. “What hoarse tumult and revel used to be before this pavilion!—nought but pitching the bar, hurling the ball, wrestling, roaring of songs, clattering of wine pots, and quaffing of flagons among these burly yeomen, as if they were holding some country wake, with a Maypole in the midst of them instead of a royal standard.”
“Mastiffs are a faithful race,” said Conrade; “and the King their Master has won their love by being ready to wrestle, brawl, or revel amongst the foremost of them, whenever the humour seized him.”
“He is totally compounded of humours,” said the Grand Master. “Marked you the pledge he gave us! instead of a prayer, over his grace-cup yonder.”
“He would have felt it a grace-cup, and a well-spiced one too,” said the Marquis, “were Saladin like any other Turk that ever wore turban, or turned him to Mecca at call of the muezzin. But he affects faith, and honour, and generosity, as if it were for an unbaptized dog like him to practise the virtuous bearing of a Christian knight. It is said he hath applied to Richard to be admitted within the pale of chivalry.”
“By Saint Bernard!” exclaimed the Grand Master, “it were time then to throw off our belts and spurs, Sir Conrade, deface our armorial bearings, and renounce our burgonets, if the highest honour of Christianity were conferred on an unchristened Turk of tenpence.”
“You rate the Soldan cheap,” replied the Marquis; “yet though he be a likely man, I have seen a better heathen sold for forty pence at the bagnio.”
They were now near their horses, which stood at some distance from the royal tent, prancing among the gallant train of esquires and pages by whom they were attended, when Conrade, after a moment’s pause, proposed that they should enjoy the coolness of the evening breeze which had arisen, and, dismissing their steeds and attendants, walk homewards to their own quarters through the lines of the extended Christian camp. The Grand Master assented, and they proceeded to walk together accordingly, avoiding, as if by mutual consent, the more inhabited parts of the canvas city, and tracing the broad esplanade which lay between the tents and the external defences, where they could converse in private, and unmarked, save by the sentinels as they passed them.
They spoke for a time upon the military points and preparations for defence; but this sort of discourse, in which neither seemed to take interest, at length died away, and there was a long pause, which terminated by the Marquis of Montserrat stopping short, like a man who has formed a sudden resolution, and gazing for some moments on the dark, inflexible countenance of the Grand Master, he at length addressed him thus: “Might it consist with your valour and sanctity, reverend Sir Giles Amaury, I would pray you for once to lay aside the dark visor which you wear, and to converse with a friend barefaced.”
The Templar half smiled.
“There are light-coloured masks,” he said, “as well as dark visors, and the one conceals the natural features as completely as the other.”
“Be it so,” said the Marquis, putting his hand to his chin, and withdrawing it with the action of one who unmasks himself; “there lies my disguise. And now, what think you, as touching the interests of your own order, of the prospects of this Crusade?”
“This is tearing the veil from my thoughts rather than exposing your own,” said the Grand Master; “yet I will reply with a parable told to me by a santon of the desert. ‘A certain farmer prayed to Heaven for rain, and murmured when it fell not at his need. To punish his impatience, Allah,’ said the santon, ‘sent the Euphrates upon his farm, and he was destroyed, with all his possessions, even by the granting of his own wishes.’”
“Most truly spoken,” said the Marquis Conrade. “Would that the ocean had swallowed up nineteen parts of the armaments of these Western princes! What remained would better have served the purpose of the Christian nobles of Palestine, the wretched remnant of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. Left to ourselves, we might have bent to the storm; or, moderately supported with money and troops, we might have compelled Saladin to respect our valour, and grant us peace and protection on easy terms. But from the extremity of danger with which this powerful Crusade threatens the Soldan, we cannot suppose, should it pass over, that the Saracen will suffer any one of us to hold possessions or principalities in Syria, far less permit the existence of the Christian military fraternities, from whom they have experienced so much mischief.”
“Ay, but,” said the Templar, “these adventurous Crusaders may succeed, and again plant the Cross on the bulwarks of Zion.”
“And what will that advantage either the Order of the Templars, or Conrade of Montserrat?” said the Marquis.
“You it may advantage,” replied the Grand Master. “Conrade of Montserrat might become Conrade King of Jerusalem.”
“That sounds like something,” said the Marquis, “and yet it rings but hollow. Godfrey of Bouillon might well choose the crown of thorns for his emblem. Grand Master, I will confess to you I have caught some attachment to the Eastern form of government—a pure and simple monarchy should consist but of king and subjects. Such is the simple and primitive structure—a shepherd and his flock. All this internal chain of feudal dependance is artificial and sophisticated; and I would rather hold the baton of my poor marquisate with a firm gripe, and wield it after my pleasure, than the sceptre of a monarch, to be in effect restrained and curbed by the will of as many proud feudal barons as hold land under the Assizes of Jerusalem. [The Assises de Jerusalem were the digest of feudal law, composed by Godfrey of Boulogne, for the government of the Latin kingdom of Palestine, when reconquered from the Saracens. “It was composed with advice of the patriarch and barons, the clergy and laity, and is,” says the historian Gibbon, “a precious monument of feudatory jurisprudence, founded upon those principles of freedom which were essential to the system.”] A king should tread freely, Grand Master, and should not be controlled by here a ditch, and there a fence-here a feudal privilege, and there a mail-clad baron with his sword in his hand to maintain it. To sum the whole, I am aware that Guy de Lusignan’s claims to the throne would be preferred to mine, if Richard recovers, and has aught to say in the choice.”
“Enough,” said the Grand Master; “thou hast indeed convinced me of thy sincerity. Others may hold the same opinions, but few, save Conrade of Montserrat, dared frankly avow that he desires not the restitution of the kingdom of Jerusalem, but rather prefers being master of a portion of its fragments—like the barbarous islanders, who labour not for the deliverance of a goodly vessel from the billows, expecting rather to enrich themselves at the expense of the wreck.”
“Thou wilt not betray my counsel?” said Conrade, looking sharply and suspiciously. “Know, for certain, that my tongue shall never wrong my head, nor my hand forsake the defence of either. Impeach me if thou wilt—I am prepared to defend myself in the lists against the best Templar who ever laid lance in rest.”
“Yet thou start’st somewhat suddenly for so bold a steed,” said the Grand Master. “However, I swear to thee by the Holy Temple, which our Order is sworn to defend, that I will keep counsel with thee as a true comrade.”
“By which Temple?” said the Marquis of Montserrat, whose love of sarcasm often outran his policy and discretion; “swearest thou by that on the hill of Zion, which was built by King Solomon, or by that symbolical, emblematical edifice, which is said to be spoken of in the councils held in the vaults of your Preceptories, as something which infers the aggrandizement of thy valiant and venerable Order?”
The Templar scowled upon him with an eye of death, but answered calmly, “By whatever Temple I swear, be assured, Lord Marquis, my oath is sacred. I would I knew how to bind THEE by one of equal obligation.”
“I will swear truth to thee,” said the Marquis, laughing, “by the earl’s coronet, which I hope to convert, ere these wars are over, into something better. It feels cold on my brow, that same slight coronal; a duke’s cap of maintenance were a better protection against such a night-breeze as now blows, and a king’s crown more preferable still, being lined with comfortable ermine and velvet. In a word, our interests bind us together; for think not, Lord Grand Master, that, were these allied princes to regain Jerusalem, and place a king of their own choosing there, they would suffer your Order, any more than my poor marquisate, to retain the independence which we now hold. No, by Our Lady! In such case, the proud Knights of Saint John must again spread plasters and dress plague sores in the hospitals; and you, most puissant and venerable Knights of the Temple, must return to your condition of simple men-at-arms, sleep three on a pallet, and mount two upon one horse, as your present seal still expresses to have been your ancient most simple custom.”
“The rank, privileges, and opulence of our Order prevent so much degradation as you threaten,” said the Templar haughtily.
“These are your bane,” said Conrade of Montserrat; “and you, as well as I, reverend Grand Master, know that, were the allied princes to be successful in Palestine, it would be their first point of policy to abate the independence of your Order, which, but for the protection of our holy father the Pope, and the necessity of employing your valour in the conquest of Palestine, you would long since have experienced. Give them complete success, and you will be flung aside, as the splinters of a broken lance are tossed out of the tilt-yard.”
“There may be truth in what you say,” said the Templar, darkly smiling. “But what were our hopes should the allies withdraw their forces, and leave Palestine in the grasp of Saladin?”
“Great and assured,” replied Conrade. “The Soldan would give large provinces to maintain at his behest a body of well-appointed Frankish lances. In Egypt, in Persia, a hundred such auxiliaries, joined to his own light cavalry, would turn the battle against the most fearful odds. This dependence would be but for a time—perhaps during the life of this enterprising Soldan; but in the East empires arise like mushrooms. Suppose him dead, and us strengthened with a constant succession of fiery and adventurous spirits from Europe, what might we not hope to achieve, uncontrolled by these monarchs, whose dignity throws us at present into the shade—and, were they to remain here, and succeed in this expedition, would willingly consign us for ever to degradation and dependence?”
“You say well, my Lord Marquis,” said the Grand Master, “and your words find an echo in my bosom. Yet must we be cautious—Philip of France is wise as well as valiant.”
“True, and will be therefore the more easily diverted from an expedition to which, in a moment of enthusiasm, or urged by his nobles, he rashly bound himself. He is jealous of King Richard, his natural enemy, and longs to return to prosecute plans of ambition nearer to Paris than Palestine. Any fair pretence will serve him for withdrawing from a scene in which he is aware he is wasting the force of his kingdom.”
“And the Duke of Austria?” said the Templar.
“Oh, touching the Duke,” returned Conrade, “his self-conceit and folly lead him to the same conclusions as do Philip’s policy and wisdom. He conceives himself, God help the while, ungratefully treated, because men’s mouths—even those of his own MINNE-SINGERS [The German minstrels were so termed.]—are filled with the praises of King Richard, whom he fears and hates, and in whose harm he would rejoice, like those unbred, dastardly curs, who, if the foremost of the pack is hurt by the gripe of the wolf, are much more likely to assail the sufferer from behind than to come to his assistance. But wherefore tell I this to thee, save to show that I am in sincerity in desiring that this league be broken up, and the country freed of these great monarchs with their hosts? And thou well knowest, and hast thyself seen, how all the princes of influence and power, one alone excepted, are eager to enter into treaty with the Soldan.”
“I acknowledge it,” said the Templar; “he were blind that had not seen this in their last deliberations. But lift yet thy mask an inch higher, and tell me thy real reason for pressing upon the Council that Northern Englishman, or Scot, or whatever you call yonder Knight of the Leopard, to carry their proposals for a treaty?”
“There was a policy in it,” replied the Italian. “His character of native of Britain was sufficient to meet what Saladin required, who knew him to belong to the band of Richard; while his character of Scot, and certain other personal grudges which I wot of, rendered it most unlikely that our envoy should, on his return, hold any communication with the sick-bed of Richard, to whom his presence was ever unacceptable.”
“Oh, too finespun policy,” said the Grand Master; “trust me, that Italian spiders’ webs will never bind this unshorn Samson of the Isle—well if you can do it with new cords, and those of the toughest. See you not that the envoy whom you have selected so carefully hath brought us, in this physician, the means of restoring the lion-hearted, bull-necked Englishman to prosecute his Crusading enterprise. And so soon as he is able once more to rush on, which of the princes dare hold back? They must follow him for very shame, although they would march under the banner of Satan as soon.”
“Be content,” said Conrade of Montserrat; “ere this physician, if he work by anything short of miraculous agency, can accomplish Richard’s cure, it may be possible to put some open rupture betwixt the Frenchman—at least the Austrian—and his allies of England, so that the breach shall be irreconcilable; and Richard may arise from his bed, perhaps to command his own native troops, but never again, by his sole energy, to wield the force of the whole Crusade.”
“Thou art a willing archer,” said the Templar; “but, Conrade of Montserrat, thy bow is over-slack to carry an arrow to the mark.”
He then stopped short, cast a suspicious glance to see that no one overheard him, and taking Conrade by the hand, pressed it eagerly as he looked the Italian in the face, and repeated slowly, “Richard arise from his bed, sayest thou? Conrade, he must never arise!”
The Marquis of Montserrat started. “What! spoke you of Richard of England—of Coeur de Lion—the champion of Christendom?”
His cheek turned pale and his knees trembled as he spoke. The Templar looked at him, with his iron visage contorted into a smile of contempt.
“Knowest thou what thou look’st like, Sir Conrade, at this moment? Not like the politic and valiant Marquis of Montserrat, not like him who would direct the Council of Princes and determine the fate of empires—but like a novice, who, stumbling upon a conjuration in his master’s book of gramarye, has raised the devil when he least thought of it, and now stands terrified at the spirit which appears before him.”
“I grant you,” said Conrade, recovering himself, “that—unless some other sure road could be discovered—thou hast hinted at that which leads most direct to our purpose. But, blessed Mary! we shall become the curse of all Europe, the malediction of every one, from the Pope on his throne to the very beggar at the church gate, who, ragged and leprous, in the last extremity of human wretchedness, shall bless himself that he is neither Giles Amaury nor Conrade of Montserrat.”
“If thou takest it thus,” said the Grand Master, with the same composure which characterized him all through this remarkable dialogue, “let us hold there has nothing passed between us—that we have spoken in our sleep—have awakened, and the vision is gone.”
“It never can depart,” answered Conrade.
“Visions of ducal crowns and kingly diadems are, indeed, somewhat tenacious of their place in the imagination,” replied the Grand Master.
“Well,” answered Conrade, “let me but first try to break peace between Austria and England.”
They parted. Conrade remained standing still upon the spot, and watching the flowing white cloak of the Templar as he stalked slowly away, and gradually disappeared amid the fast-sinking darkness of the Oriental night. Proud, ambitious, unscrupulous, and politic, the Marquis of Montserrat was yet not cruel by nature. He was a voluptuary and an epicurean, and, like many who profess this character, was averse, even upon selfish motives, from inflicting pain or witnessing acts of cruelty; and he retained also a general sense of respect for his own reputation, which sometimes supplies the want of the better principle by which reputation is to be maintained.
“I have,” he said, as his eyes still watched the point at which he had seen the last slight wave of the Templar’s mantle—“I have, in truth, raised the devil with a vengeance! Who would have thought this stern, ascetic Grand Master, whose whole fortune and misfortune is merged in that of his order, would be willing to do more for its advancement than I who labour for my own interest? To check this wild Crusade was my motive, indeed, but I durst not think on the ready mode which this determined priest has dared to suggest. Yet it is the surest—perhaps even the safest.”
Such were the Marquis’s meditations, when his muttered soliloquy was broken by a voice from a little distance, which proclaimed with the emphatic tone of a herald, “Remember the Holy Sepulchre!”
The exhortation was echoed from post to post, for it was the duty of the sentinels to raise this cry from time to time upon their periodical watch, that the host of the Crusaders might always have in their remembrance the purpose of their being in arms. But though Conrade was familiar with the custom, and had heard the warning voice on all former occasions as a matter of habit, yet it came at the present moment so strongly in contact with his own train of thought, that it seemed a voice from Heaven warning him against the iniquity which his heart meditated. He looked around anxiously, as if, like the patriarch of old, though from very different circumstances, he was expecting some ram caught in a thicket some substitution for the sacrifice which his comrade proposed to offer, not to the Supreme Being, but to the Moloch of their own ambition. As he looked, the broad folds of the ensign of England, heavily distending itself to the failing night-breeze, caught his eye. It was displayed upon an artificial mound, nearly in the midst of the camp, which perhaps of old some Hebrew chief or champion had chosen as a memorial of his place of rest. If so, the name was now forgotten, and the Crusaders had christened it Saint George’s Mount, because from that commanding height the banner of England was supereminently displayed, as if an emblem of sovereignty over the many distinguished, noble, and even royal ensigns, which floated in lower situations.
A quick intellect like that of Conrade catches ideas from the glance of a moment. A single look on the standard seemed to dispel the uncertainty of mind which had affected him. He walked to his pavilion with the hasty and determined step of one who has adopted a plan which he is resolved to achieve, dismissed the almost princely train who waited to attend him, and, as he committed himself to his couch, muttered his amended resolution, that the milder means are to be tried before the more desperate are resorted to.
“To-morrow,” he said, “I sit at the board of the Archduke of Austria. We will see what can be done to advance our purpose before prosecuting the dark suggestions of this Templar.”