'Tis woman that seduces all mankind. GAY.
In the days of chivalry, a dangerous post or a perilous adventure was a reward frequently assigned to military bravery as a compensation for its former trials; just as, in ascending a precipice, the surmounting one crag only lifts the climber to points yet more dangerous.
It was midnight, and the moon rode clear and high in heaven, when Kenneth of Scotland stood upon his watch on Saint George’s Mount, beside the banner of England, a solitary sentinel, to protect the emblem of that nation against the insults which might be meditated among the thousands whom Richard’s pride had made his enemies. High thoughts rolled, one after each other, upon the mind of the warrior. It seemed to him as if he had gained some favour in the eyes of the chivalrous monarch, who till now had not seemed to distinguish him among the crowds of brave men whom his renown had assembled under his banner, and Sir Kenneth little recked that the display of royal regard consisted in placing him upon a post so perilous. The devotion of his ambitious and high-placed affection inflamed his military enthusiasm. Hopeless as that attachment was in almost any conceivable circumstances, those which had lately occurred had, in some degree, diminished the distance between Edith and himself. He upon whom Richard had conferred the distinction of guarding his banner was no longer an adventurer of slight note, but placed within the regard of a princess, although he was as far as ever from her level. An unknown and obscure fate could not now be his. If he was surprised and slain on the post which had been assigned him, his death—and he resolved it should be glorious—must deserve the praises as well as call down the vengeance of Coeur de Lion, and be followed by the regrets, and even the tears, of the high-born beauties of the English Court. He had now no longer reason to fear that he should die as a fool dieth.
Sir Kenneth had full leisure to enjoy these and similar high-souled thoughts, fostered by that wild spirit of chivalry, which, amid its most extravagant and fantastic flights, was still pure from all selfish alloy—generous, devoted, and perhaps only thus far censurable, that it proposed objects and courses of action inconsistent with the frailties and imperfections of man. All nature around him slept in calm moon-shine or in deep shadow. The long rows of tents and pavilions, glimmering or darkening as they lay in the moonlight or in the shade, were still and silent as the streets of a deserted city. Beside the banner-staff lay the large staghound already mentioned, the sole companion of Kenneth’s watch, on whose vigilance he trusted for early warning of the approach of any hostile footstep. The noble animal seemed to understand the purpose of their watch; for he looked from time to time at the rich folds of the heavy pennon, and, when the cry of the sentinels came from the distant lines and defences of the camp, he answered them with one deep and reiterated bark, as if to affirm that he too was vigilant in his duty. From time to time, also, he lowered his lofty head, and wagged his tail, as his master passed and repassed him in the short turns which he took upon his post; or, when the knight stood silent and abstracted leaning on his lance, and looking up towards heaven, his faithful attendant ventured sometimes, in the phrase of romance, “to disturb his thoughts,” and awaken him from his reverie, by thrusting his large rough snout into the knight’s gauntleted hand, to solicit a transitory caress.
Thus passed two hours of the knight’s watch without anything remarkable occurring. At length, and upon a sudden, the gallant staghound bayed furiously, and seemed about to dash forward where the shadow lay the darkest, yet waited, as if in the slips, till he should know the pleasure of his master.
“Who goes there?” said Sir Kenneth, aware that there was something creeping forward on the shadowy side of the mount.
“In the name of Merlin and Maugis,” answered a hoarse, disagreeable voice, “tie up your fourfooted demon there, or I come not at you.”
“And who art thou that would approach my post?” said Sir Kenneth, bending his eyes as keenly as he could on some object, which he could just observe at the bottom of the ascent, without being able to distinguish its form. “Beware—I am here for death and life.”
“Take up thy long-fanged Sathanas,” said the voice, “or I will conjure him with a bolt from my arblast.”
At the same time was heard the sound of a spring or check, as when a crossbow is bent.
“Unbend thy arblast, and come into the moonlight,” said the Scot, “or, by Saint Andrew, I will pin thee to the earth, be what or whom thou wilt!”
As he spoke he poised his long lance by the middle, and, fixing his eye upon the object, which seemed to move, he brandished the weapon, as if meditating to cast it from his hand—a use of the weapon sometimes, though rarely, resorted to when a missile was necessary. But Sir Kenneth was ashamed of his purpose, and grounded his weapon, when there stepped from the shadow into the moonlight, like an actor entering upon the stage, a stunted, decrepit creature, whom, by his fantastic dress and deformity, he recognized, even at some distance, for the male of the two dwarfs whom he had seen in the chapel at Engaddi. Recollecting, at the same moment, the other and far different visions of that extraordinary night, he gave his dog a signal, which he instantly understood, and, returning to the standard, laid himself down beside it with a stifled growl.
The little, distorted miniature of humanity, assured of his safety from an enemy so formidable, came panting up the ascent, which the shortness of his legs rendered laborious, and, when he arrived on the platform at the top, shifted to his left hand the little crossbow, which was just such a toy as children at that period were permitted to shoot small birds with, and, assuming an attitude of great dignity, gracefully extended his right hand to Sir Kenneth, in an attitude as if he expected he would salute it. But such a result not following, he demanded, in a sharp and angry tone of voice, “Soldier, wherefore renderest thou not to Nectabanus the homage due to his dignity? Or is it possible that thou canst have forgotten him?”
“Great Nectabanus,” answered the knight, willing to soothe the creature’s humour, “that were difficult for any one who has ever looked upon thee. Pardon me, however, that, being a soldier upon my post, with my lance in my hand, I may not give to one of thy puissance the advantage of coming within my guard, or of mastering my weapon. Suffice it that I reverence thy dignity, and submit myself to thee as humbly as a man-at-arms in my place may.”
“It shall suffice,” said Nectabanus, “so that you presently attend me to the presence of those who have sent me hither to summon you.”
“Great sir,” replied the knight, “neither in this can I gratify thee, for my orders are to abide by this banner till daybreak—so I pray you to hold me excused in that matter also.”
So saying, he resumed his walk upon the platform; but the dwarf did not suffer him so easily to escape from his importunity.
“Look you,” he said, placing himself before Sir Kenneth, so as to interrupt his way, “either obey me, Sir Knight, as in duty bound, or I will lay the command upon thee, in the name of one whose beauty could call down the genii from their sphere, and whose grandeur could command the immortal race when they had descended.”
A wild and improbable conjecture arose in the knight’s mind, but he repelled it. It was impossible, he thought, that the lady of his love should have sent him such a message by such a messenger; yet his voice trembled as he said, “Go to, Nectabanus. Tell me at once, and as a true man, whether this sublime lady of whom thou speakest be other than the houri with whose assistance I beheld thee sweeping the chapel at Engaddi?”
“How! presumptuous Knight,” replied the dwarf, “think’st thou the mistress of our own royal affections, the sharer of our greatness, and the partner of our comeliness, would demean herself by laying charge on such a vassal as thou? No; highly as thou art honoured, thou hast not yet deserved the notice of Queen Guenevra, the lovely bride of Arthur, from whose high seat even princes seem but pigmies. But look thou here, and as thou knowest or disownest this token, so obey or refuse her commands who hath deigned to impose them on thee.”
So saying, he placed in the knight’s hand a ruby ring, which, even in the moonlight, he had no difficulty to recognize as that which usually graced the finger of the high-born lady to whose service he had devoted himself. Could he have doubted the truth of the token, he would have been convinced by the small knot of carnation-coloured ribbon which was fastened to the ring. This was his lady’s favourite colour, and more than once had he himself, assuming it for that of his own liveries, caused the carnation to triumph over all other hues in the lists and in the battle.
Sir Kenneth was struck nearly mute by seeing such a token in such hands.
“In the name of all that is sacred, from whom didst thou receive this witness?” said the knight. “Bring, if thou canst, thy wavering understanding to a right settlement for a minute or two, and tell me the person by whom thou art sent, and the real purpose of thy message, and take heed what thou sayest, for this is no subject for buffoonery.”
“Fond and foolish Knight,” said the dwarf, “wouldst thou know more of this matter than that thou art honoured with commands from a princess, delivered to thee by a king? We list not to parley with thee further than to command thee, in the name and by the power of that ring, to follow us to her who is the owner of the ring. Every minute that thou tarriest is a crime against thy allegiance.”
“Good Nectabanus, bethink thyself,” said the knight. “Can my lady know where and upon what duty I am this night engaged? Is she aware that my life—pshaw, why should I speak of life—but that my honour depends on my guarding this banner till daybreak; and can it be her wish that I should leave it even to pay homage to her? It is impossible—the princess is pleased to be merry with her servant in sending him such a message; and I must think so the rather that she hath chosen such a messenger.”
“Oh, keep your belief,” said Nectabanus, turning round as if to leave the platform; “it is little to me whether you be traitor or true man to this royal lady—so fare thee well.”
“Stay, stay—I entreat you stay,” said Sir Kenneth. “Answer me but one question: is the lady who sent thee near to this place?”
“What signifies it?” said the dwarf. “Ought fidelity to reckon furlongs, or miles, or leagues—like the poor courier, who is paid for his labour by the distance which he traverses? Nevertheless, thou soul of suspicion, I tell thee, the fair owner of the ring now sent to so unworthy a vassal, in whom there is neither truth nor courage, is not more distant from this place than this arblast can send a bolt.”
The knight gazed again on that ring, as if to ascertain that there was no possible falsehood in the token. “Tell me,” he said to the dwarf, “is my presence required for any length of time?”
“Time!” answered Nectabanus, in his flighty manner; “what call you time? I see it not—I feel it not—it is but a shadowy name—a succession of breathings measured forth by night by the clank of a bell, by day by a shadow crossing along a dial-stone. Knowest thou not a true knight’s time should only be reckoned by the deeds that he performs in behalf of God and his lady?”
“The words of truth, though in the mouth of folly,” said the knight. “And doth my lady really summon me to some deed of action, in her name and for her sake?—and may it not be postponed for even the few hours till daybreak?”
“She requires thy presence instantly,” said the dwarf, “and without the loss of so much time as would be told by ten grains of the sandglass. Hearken, thou cold-blooded and suspicious knight, these are her very words—Tell him that the hand which dropped roses can bestow laurels.”
This allusion to their meeting in the chapel of Engaddi sent a thousand recollections through Sir Kenneth’s brain, and convinced him that the message delivered by the dwarf was genuine. The rosebuds, withered as they were, were still treasured under his cuirass, and nearest to his heart. He paused, and could not resolve to forego an opportunity, the only one which might ever offer, to gain grace in her eyes whom he had installed as sovereign of his affections. The dwarf, in the meantime, augmented his confusion by insisting either that he must return the ring or instantly attend him.
“Hold, hold, yet a moment hold,” said the knight, and proceeded to mutter to himself, “Am I either the subject or slave of King Richard, more than as a free knight sworn to the service of the Crusade? And whom have I come hither to honour with lance and sword? Our holy cause and my transcendent lady!”
“The ring! the ring!” exclaimed the dwarf impatiently; “false and slothful knight, return the ring, which thou art unworthy to touch or to look upon.”
“A moment, a moment, good Nectabanus,” said Sir Kenneth; “disturb not my thoughts.—What if the Saracens were just now to attack our lines? Should I stay here like a sworn vassal of England, watching that her king’s pride suffered no humiliation; or should I speed to the breach, and fight for the Cross? To the breach, assuredly; and next to the cause of God come the commands of my liege lady. And yet, Coeur de Lion’s behest—my own promise! Nectabanus, I conjure thee once more to say, are you to conduct me far from hence?”
“But to yonder pavilion; and, since you must needs know,” replied Nectabanus, “the moon is glimmering on the gilded ball which crowns its roof, and which is worth a king’s ransom.”
“I can return in an instant,” said the knight, shutting his eyes desperately to all further consequences, “I can hear from thence the bay of my dog if any one approaches the standard. I will throw myself at my lady’s feet, and pray her leave to return to conclude my watch.—Here, Roswal” (calling his hound, and throwing down his mantle by the side of the standard-spear), “watch thou here, and let no one approach.”
The majestic dog looked in his master’s face, as if to be sure that he understood his charge, then sat down beside the mantle, with ears erect and head raised, like a sentinel, understanding perfectly the purpose for which he was stationed there.
“Come now, good Nectabanus,” said the knight, “let us hasten to obey the commands thou hast brought.”
“Haste he that will,” said the dwarf sullenly; “thou hast not been in haste to obey my summons, nor can I walk fast enough to follow your long strides—you do not walk like a man, but bound like an ostrich in the desert.”
There were but two ways of conquering the obstinacy of Nectabanus, who, as he spoke, diminished his walk into a snail’s pace. For bribes Sir Kenneth had no means—for soothing no time; so in his impatience he snatched the dwarf up from the ground, and bearing him along, notwithstanding his entreaties and his fear, reached nearly to the pavilion pointed out as that of the Queen. In approaching it, however, the Scot observed there was a small guard of soldiers sitting on the ground, who had been concealed from him by the intervening tents. Wondering that the clash of his own armour had not yet attracted their attention, and supposing that his motions might, on the present occasion, require to be conducted with secrecy, he placed the little panting guide upon the ground to recover his breath, and point out what was next to be done. Nectabanus was both frightened and angry; but he had felt himself as completely in the power of the robust knight as an owl in the claws of an eagle, and therefore cared not to provoke him to any further display of his strength.
He made no complaints, therefore, of the usage he had received; but, turning amongst the labyrinth of tents, he led the knight in silence to the opposite side of the pavilion, which thus screened them from the observation of the warders, who seemed either too negligent or too sleepy to discharge their duty with much accuracy. Arrived there, the dwarf raised the under part of the canvas from the ground, and made signs to Sir Kenneth that he should introduce himself to the inside of the tent, by creeping under it. The knight hesitated. There seemed an indecorum in thus privately introducing himself into a pavilion pitched, doubtless, for the accommodation of noble ladies; but he recalled to remembrance the assured tokens which the dwarf had exhibited, and concluded that it was not for him to dispute his lady’s pleasure.
He stooped accordingly, crept beneath the canvas enclosure of the tent, and heard the dwarf whisper from without, “Remain here until I call thee.”