Yet this inconstancy is such, As thou, too, shalt adore; I could not love thee, love so much, Loved I not honour more. MONTROSE’S LINES.
When King Richard returned to his tent, he commanded the Nubian to be brought before him. He entered with his usual ceremonial reverence, and having prostrated himself, remained standing before the King in the attitude of a slave awaiting the orders of his master. It was perhaps well for him that the preservation of his character required his eyes to be fixed on the ground, since the keen glance with which Richard for some time surveyed him in silence would, if fully encountered, have been difficult to sustain.
“Thou canst well of woodcraft,” said the King, after a pause, “and hast started thy game and brought him to bay as ably as if Tristrem himself had taught thee. [A universal tradition ascribed to Sir Tristrem, famous for his love of the fair Queen Yseult, the laws concerning the practice of woodcraft, or VENERIE, as it was called, being those that related to the rules of the chase, which were deemed of much consequence during the Middle Ages.] But this is not all—he must be brought down at force. I myself would have liked to have levelled my hunting-spear at him. There are, it seems, respects which prevent this. Thou art about to return to the camp of the Soldan, bearing a letter, requiring of his courtesy to appoint neutral ground for the deed of chivalry, and should it consist with his pleasure, to concur with us in witnessing it. Now, speaking conjecturally, we think thou mightst find in that camp some cavalier who, for the love of truth and his own augmentation of honour, will do battle with this same traitor of Montserrat.”
The Nubian raised his eyes and fixed them on the King with a look of eager ardour; then raised them to Heaven with such solemn gratitude that the water soon glistened in them; then bent his head, as affirming what Richard desired, and resumed his usual posture of submissive attention.
“It is well,” said the King; “and I see thy desire to oblige me in this matter. And herein, I must needs say, lies the excellence of such a servant as thou, who hast not speech either to debate our purpose or to require explanation of what we have determined. An English serving man in thy place had given me his dogged advice to trust the combat with some good lance of my household, who, from my brother Longsword downwards, are all on fire to do battle in my cause; and a chattering Frenchman had made a thousand attempts to discover wherefore I look for a champion from the camp of the infidels. But thou, my silent agent, canst do mine errand without questioning or comprehending it; with thee to hear is to obey.”
A bend of the body and a genuflection were the appropriate answer of the Ethiopian to these observations.
“And now to another point,” said the King, and speaking suddenly and rapidly—“have you yet seen Edith Plantagenet?”
The mute looked up as in the act of being about to speak—nay, his lips had begun to utter a distinct negative—when the abortive attempt died away in the imperfect murmurs of the dumb.
“Why, lo you there!” said the King, “the very sound of the name of a royal maiden of beauty so surpassing as that of our lovely cousin seems to have power enough well-nigh to make the dumb speak. What miracles then might her eye work upon such a subject! I will make the experiment, friend slave. Thou shalt see this choice beauty of our Court, and do the errand of the princely Soldan.”
Again a joyful glance—again a genuflection—but, as he arose, the King laid his hand heavily on his shoulder, and proceeded with stern gravity thus: “Let me in one thing warn you, my sable envoy. Even if thou shouldst feel that the kindly influence of her whom thou art soon to behold should loosen the bonds of thy tongue, presently imprisoned, as the good Soldan expresses it, within the ivory walls of its castle, beware how thou changest thy taciturn character, or speakest a word in her presence, even if thy powers of utterance were to be miraculously restored. Believe me that I should have thy tongue extracted by the roots, and its ivory palace—that is, I presume, its range of teeth—drawn out one by one. Wherefore, be wise and silent still.”
The Nubian, so soon as the King had removed his heavy grasp from his shoulder, bent his head, and laid his hand on his lips, in token of silent obedience.
But Richard again laid his hand on him more gently, and added, “This behest we lay on thee as on a slave. Wert thou knight and gentleman, we would require thine honour in pledge of thy silence, which is one especial condition of our present trust.”
The Ethiopian raised his body proudly, looked full at the King, and laid his right hand on his heart.
Richard then summoned his chamberlain.
“Go, Neville,” he said, “with this slave to the tent of our royal consort, and say it is our pleasure that he have an audience—a private audience—of our cousin Edith. He is charged with a commission to her. Thou canst show him the way also, in case he requires thy guidance, though thou mayst have observed it is wonderful how familiar he already seems to be with the purlieus of our camp.—And thou, too, friend Ethiop,” the King continued, “what thou dost do quickly, and return hither within the half-hour.”
“I stand discovered,” thought the seeming Nubian, as, with downcast looks and folded arms, he followed the hasty stride of Neville towards the tent of Queen Berengaria—“I stand undoubtedly discovered and unfolded to King Richard; yet I cannot perceive that his resentment is hot against me. If I understand his words—and surely it is impossible to misinterpret them—he gives me a noble chance of redeeming my honour upon the crest of this false Marquis, whose guilt I read in his craven eye and quivering lip when the charge was made against him.—Roswal, faithfully hast thou served thy master, and most dearly shall thy wrong be avenged!—But what is the meaning of my present permission to look upon her whom I had despaired ever to see again? And why, or how, can the royal Plantagenet consent that I should see his divine kinswoman, either as the messenger of the heathen Saladin, or as the guilty exile whom he so lately expelled from his camp—his audacious avowal of the affection which is his pride being the greatest enhancement of his guilt? That Richard should consent to her receiving a letter from an infidel lover by the hands of one of such disproportioned rank are either of them circumstances equally incredible, and, at the same time, inconsistent with each other. But Richard, when unmoved by his heady passions, is liberal, generous, and truly noble; and as such I will deal with him, and act according to his instructions, direct or implied, seeking to know no more than may gradually unfold itself without my officious inquiry. To him who has given me so brave an opportunity to vindicate my tarnished honour, I owe acquiescence and obedience; and painful as it may be, the debt shall be paid. And yet”—thus the proud swelling of his heart further suggested—“Coeur de Lion, as he is called, might have measured the feelings of others by his own. I urge an address to his kinswoman! I, who never spoke word to her when I took a royal prize from her hand—when I was accounted not the lowest in feats of chivalry among the defenders of the Cross! I approach her when in a base disguise, and in a servile habit—and, alas! when my actual condition is that of a slave, with a spot of dishonour on that which was once my shield! I do this! He little knows me. Yet I thank him for the opportunity which may make us all better acquainted with each other.”
As he arrived at this conclusion, they paused before the entrance of the Queen’s pavilion.
They were of course admitted by the guards, and Neville, leaving the Nubian in a small apartment, or antechamber, which was but too well remembered by him, passed into that which was used as the Queen’s presence-chamber. He communicated his royal master’s pleasure in a low and respectful tone of voice, very different from the bluntness of Thomas de Vaux, to whom Richard was everything and the rest of the Court, including Berengaria herself, was nothing. A burst of laughter followed the communication of his errand.
“And what like is the Nubian slave who comes ambassador on such an errand from the Soldan?—a negro, De Neville, is he not?” said a female voice, easily recognized for that of Berengaria. “A negro, is he not, De Neville, with black skin, a head curled like a ram’s, a flat nose, and blubber lips—ha, worthy Sir Henry?”
“Let not your Grace forget the shin-bones,” said another voice, “bent outwards like the edge of a Saracen scimitar.”
“Rather like the bow of a Cupid, since he comes upon a lover’s errand,” said the Queen.—“Gentle Neville, thou art ever prompt to pleasure us poor women, who have so little to pass away our idle moments. We must see this messenger of love. Turks and Moors have I seen many, but negro never.”
“I am created to obey your Grace’s commands, so you will bear me out with my Sovereign for doing so,” answered the debonair knight. “Yet, let me assure your Grace you will see something different from what you expect.”
“So much the better—uglier yet than our imaginations can fancy, yet the chosen love-messenger of this gallant Soldan!”
“Gracious madam,” said the Lady Calista, “may I implore you would permit the good knight to carry this messenger straight to the Lady Edith, to whom his credentials are addressed? We have already escaped hardly for such a frolic.”
“Escaped?” repeated the Queen scornfully. “Yet thou mayest be right, Calista, in thy caution. Let this Nubian, as thou callest him, first do his errand to our cousin—besides, he is mute too, is he not?”
“He is, gracious madam,” answered the knight.
“Royal sport have these Eastern ladies,” said Berengaria, “attended by those before whom they may say anything, yet who can report nothing. Whereas in our camp, as the Prelate of Saint Jude’s is wont to say, a bird of the air will carry the matter.”
“Because,” said De Neville, “your Grace forgets that you speak within canvas walls.”
The voices sunk on this observation, and after a little whispering, the English knight again returned to the Ethiopian, and made him a sign to follow. He did so, and Neville conducted him to a pavilion, pitched somewhat apart from that of the Queen, for the accommodation, it seemed, of the Lady Edith and her attendants. One of her Coptic maidens received the message communicated by Sir Henry Neville, and in the space of a very few minutes the Nubian was ushered into Edith’s presence, while Neville was left on the outside of the tent. The slave who introduced him withdrew on a signal from her mistress, and it was with humiliation, not of the posture only but of the very inmost soul, that the unfortunate knight, thus strangely disguised, threw himself on one knee, with looks bent on the ground and arms folded on his bosom, like a criminal who expects his doom. Edith was clad in the same manner as when she received King Richard, her long, transparent dark veil hanging around her like the shade of a summer night on a beautiful landscape, disguising and rendering obscure the beauties which it could not hide. She held in her hand a silver lamp, fed with some aromatic spirit, which burned with unusual brightness.
When Edith came within a step of the kneeling and motionless slave, she held the light towards his face, as if to peruse his features more attentively, then turned from him, and placed her lamp so as to throw the shadow of his face in profile upon the curtain which hung beside. She at length spoke in a voice composed, yet deeply sorrowful,
“Is it you? It is indeed you, brave Knight of the Leopard—gallant Sir Kenneth of Scotland; is it indeed you?—thus servilely disguised—thus surrounded by a hundred dangers.”
At hearing the tones of his lady’s voice thus unexpectedly addressed to him, and in a tone of compassion approaching to tenderness, a corresponding reply rushed to the knight’s lips, and scarce could Richard’s commands and his own promised silence prevent his answering that the sight he saw, the sounds he just heard, were sufficient to recompense the slavery of a life, and dangers which threatened that life every hour. He did recollect himself, however, and a deep and impassioned sigh was his only reply to the high-born Edith’s question.
“I see—I know I have guessed right,” continued Edith. “I marked you from your first appearance near the platform on which I stood with the Queen. I knew, too, your valiant hound. She is no true lady, and is unworthy of the service of such a knight as thou art, from whom disguises of dress or hue could conceal a faithful servant. Speak, then, without fear to Edith Plantagenet. She knows how to grace in adversity the good knight who served, honoured, and did deeds of arms in her name, when fortune befriended him.—Still silent! Is it fear or shame that keeps thee so! Fear should be unknown to thee; and for shame, let it remain with those who have wronged thee.”
The knight, in despair at being obliged to play the mute in an interview so interesting, could only express his mortification by sighing deeply, and laying his finger upon his lips. Edith stepped back, as if somewhat displeased.
“What!” she said, “the Asiatic mute in very deed, as well as in attire? This I looked not for. Or thou mayest scorn me, perhaps, for thus boldly acknowledging that I have heedfully observed the homage thou hast paid me? Hold no unworthy thoughts of Edith on that account. She knows well the bounds which reserve and modesty prescribe to high-born maidens, and she knows when and how far they should give place to gratitude—to a sincere desire that it were in her power to repay services and repair injuries arising from the devotion which a good knight bore towards her. Why fold thy hands together, and wring them with so much passion? Can it be,” she added, shrinking back at the idea, “that their cruelty has actually deprived thee of speech? Thou shakest thy head. Be it a spell—be it obstinacy, I question thee no further, but leave thee to do thine errand after thine own fashion. I also can be mute.”
The disguised knight made an action as if at once lamenting his own condition and deprecating her displeasure, while at the same time he presented to her, wrapped, as usual, in fine silk and cloth of gold, the letter of the Soldan. She took it, surveyed it carelessly, then laid it aside, and bending her eyes once more on the knight, she said in a low tone, “Not even a word to do thine errand to me?”
He pressed both his hands to his brow, as if to intimate the pain which he felt at being unable to obey her; but she turned from him in anger.
“Begone!” she said. “I have spoken enough—too much—to one who will not waste on me a word in reply. Begone!—and say, if I have wronged thee, I have done penance; for if I have been the unhappy means of dragging thee down from a station of honour, I have, in this interview, forgotten my own worth, and lowered myself in thy eyes and in my own.”
She covered her eyes with her hands, and seemed deeply agitated. Sir Kenneth would have approached, but she waved him back.
“Stand off! thou whose soul Heaven hath suited to its new station! Aught less dull and fearful than a slavish mute had spoken a word of gratitude, were it but to reconcile me to my own degradation. Why pause you?—begone!”
The disguised knight almost involuntarily looked towards the letter as an apology for protracting his stay. She snatched it up, saying in a tone of irony and contempt, “I had forgotten—the dutiful slave waits an answer to his message. How’s this—from the Soldan!”
She hastily ran over the contents, which were expressed both in Arabic and French, and when she had done, she laughed in bitter anger.
“Now this passes imagination!” she said; “no jongleur can show so deft a transmutation! His legerdemain can transform zechins and byzants into doits and maravedis; but can his art convert a Christian knight, ever esteemed among the bravest of the Holy Crusade, into the dust-kissing slave of a heathen Soldan—the bearer of a paynim’s insolent proposals to a Christian maiden—nay, forgetting the laws of honourable chivalry, as well as of religion? But it avails not talking to the willing slave of a heathen hound. Tell your master, when his scourge shall have found thee a tongue, that which thou hast seen me do”—so saying, she threw the Soldan’s letter on the ground, and placed her foot upon it—“and say to him, that Edith Plantagenet scorns the homage of an unchristened pagan.”
With these words she was about to shoot from the knight, when, kneeling at her feet in bitter agony, he ventured to lay his hand upon her robe and oppose her departure.
“Heard’st thou not what I said, dull slave?” she said, turning short round on him, and speaking with emphasis. “Tell the heathen Soldan, thy master, that I scorn his suit as much as I despise the prostration of a worthless renegade to religion and chivalry—to God and to his lady!”
So saying, she burst from him, tore her garment from his grasp, and left the tent.
The voice of Neville, at the same time, summoned him from without. Exhausted and stupefied by the distress he had undergone during this interview, from which he could only have extricated himself by breach of the engagement which he had formed with King Richard, the unfortunate knight staggered rather than walked after the English baron, till they reached the royal pavilion, before which a party of horsemen had just dismounted. There were light and motion within the tent, and when Neville entered with his disguised attendant, they found the King, with several of his nobility, engaged in welcoming those who were newly arrived.