When the bugle sounded, De Bracy was engaged in pressing his suit with the Saxon heiress Rowena, whom he had carried off under the impression that she would speedily surrender to his rough wooing. But he found her vobdurate as well as tearful and in no humor to listen to his professions of devotion. It was, therefore, with some relief that the free-lance heard the summons at the barbican. Going into the hall of the castle, De Bracy was presently joined by Bois-Guilbert.
“Where is Front-de-Boeuf!” the latter asked.
“He is vnegotiating with the Jew, I suppose,” replied De Bracy, coolly; “probably the howls of Isaac have drowned the blast of the bugle. But we will make the vvassals call him.”
They were soon after joined by Front-de-Boeuf, who had only tarried to give some necessary directions.
“Let us see the cause of this cursed clamor,” he said. “Here is a letter which has just been brought in, and, if I mistake not, it is in Saxon.”
He looked at it, turning it round and round as if he had some hopes of coming at the meaning by inverting the position of the paper, and then handed it to De Bracy.
“It may be magic spells for aught I know,” said De Bracy, who possessed his full proportion of the ignorance which characterized the chivalry of the period.
“Give it to me,” said the Templar. “We have that of the priestly character that we have some knowledge to enlighten our valor.”
“Let us profit by your most reverend knowledge, then,” returned De Bracy. “What says the scroll?”
“It is a formal letter of defiance,” answered Bois-Guilbert; “but, by our Lady of Bethlehem, if it be not a foolish jest, it is the most extraordinary vcartel that ever went across the drawbridge of a baronial castle.”
“Jest!” exclaimed Front-de-Boeuf. “I would gladly know who dares jest with me in such a matter! Read it, Sir Brian.”
The Templar accordingly read as follows:
“I, Wamba, the son of Witless, jester to a noble and free-born man, Cedric of Rotherwood, called the Saxon: and I, Gurth, the son of Beowulph, the swineherd—”
“Thou art mad!” cried Front-de-Boeuf, interrupting the reader.
“By Saint Luke, it is so set down,” answered the Templar. Then, resuming his task, he went on: “I, Gurth, the son of Beowulph, swineherd unto the said Cedric, with the assistance of our allies and confederates, who make common cause with us in this our feud, namely, the good knight, called for the present the Black Knight, and the stout yeoman, Robert Locksley, called Cleve-the-wand: Do you, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, and your allies and accomplices whomsoever, to wit, that whereas you have, without cause given or feud declared, wrongfully and by mastery, seized upon the person of our lord and master, the said Cedric; also upon the person of a noble and free-born damsel, the Lady Rowena; also upon the person of a noble and free-born man, Athelstane of Coningsburgh; also upon the persons of certain free-born men, their vassals; also upon certain serfs, their born bondsmen; also upon a certain Jew, named Isaac of York, together with his daughter, and certain horses and mules: therefore, we require and demand that the said persons be within an hour after the delivery hereof delivered to us, untouched and unharmed in body and goods. Failing of which, we do pronounce to you that we hold ye as robbers and traitors and will wager our bodies against ye in battle and do our utmost to your destruction. Signed by us upon the eve of Saint Withold’s day, under the great oak in the Hart-hill Walk, the above being written by a holy man, clerk to God and Saint Dunstan in the chapel of Copmanhurst.”
The knights heard this uncommon document read from end to end and then gazed upon each other in silent amazement, as being utterly at a loss to know what it could portend. De Bracy was the first to break silence by an uncontrollable fit of laughter, wherein he was joined, though with more moderation, by the Templar. Front-de-Boeuf, on the contrary, seemed impatient of their ill-timed vjocularity.
“I give you plain warning,” he said, “fair sirs, that you had better consult how to bear yourselves under these circumstances than to give way to such misplaced merriment.”
“Front-de-Boeuf has not recovered his temper since his overthrow in the tournament,” said De Bracy to the Templar. “He is cowed at the very idea of a cartel, though it be from a fool and a swineherd.”
“I would thou couldst stand the whole brunt of this adventure thyself, De Bracy,” answered Front-de-Boeuf. “These fellows dared not to have acted with such inconceivable impudence had they not been supported by some strong bands. There are enough outlaws in this forest to resent my protecting the deer. I did but tie one fellow, who was taken red-handed and in the fact, to the horns of a wild stag, which gored him to death in five minutes, and I had as many arrows shot at me as were launched in the tournament. Here, fellow,” he added to one of his attendants, “hast thou sent out to see by what force this precious challenge is to be supported?”
“There are at least two hundred men assembled in the woods,” answered a squire who was in attendance.
“Here is a proper matter!” said Front-de-Boeuf. “This comes of lending you the use of my castle. You cannot manage your undertaking quietly, but you must bring this nest of hornets about my ears!”
“Of hornets?” echoed De Bracy. “Of stingless drones rather—a band of lazy knaves who take to the wood and destroy the venison rather than labor for their maintenance.”
“Stingless!” replied Front-de-Boeuf. “Fork-headed shafts of a cloth-yard in length, and these shot within the breadth of a French crown, are sting enough.”
“For shame, sir knight!” said the Templar. “Let us summon our people and sally forth upon them. One knight—ay, one man-at-arms—were enough for twenty such peasants.”
“Enough, and too much,” agreed De Bracy. “I should be ashamed to couch lance against them.”
“True,” answered Front-de-Boeuf, drily, “were they black Turks or Moors, Sir Templar, or the craven peasants of France, most valiant De Bracy; but these are English yeomen, over whom we shall have no advantage save what we may derive from our arms and horses, which will avail us little in the glades of the forest. Sally, saidst thou? We have scarce men enough to defend the castle. The best of mine are at York; so is your band, De Bracy; and we have scarce twenty, besides the handful that were engaged in this mad business.”
“Thou dost not fear,” said the Templar, “that they can assemble in force sufficient to attempt the castle?”
“Not so, Sir Brian,” answered Front-de-Boeuf. “These outlaws have indeed a daring captain; but without machines, scaling ladders, and experienced leaders my castle may defy them.”
“Send to thy neighbors,” suggested the Templar. “Let them assemble their people and come to the rescue of three knights, besieged by a jester and swineherd in the baronial castle of Reginald Front-de-Boeuf!”
“You jest, sir knight,” answered the baron; “but to whom shall I send? My allies are at York, where I should have also been but for this infernal enterprise.”
“Then send to York and recall our people,” said De Bracy. “If these vchurls abide the shaking of my standard, I will give them credit for the boldest outlaws that ever bent bow in greenwood.”
“And who shall bear such a message?” said Front-de-Boeuf. “The knaves will beset every path and rip the errand out of the man’s bosom. I have it,” he added, after pausing for a moment. “Sir Templar, thou canst write as well as read, and if we can but find writing materials, thou shalt return an answer to this bold challenge.”
Paper and pen were presently brought, and Bois-Guilbert sat down and wrote, in the French language, an epistle of the following tenor:
“Sir Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, with his noble and knightly allies and confederates, receives no defiances at the hands of slaves, bondsmen, or fugitives. If the person calling himself the Black Knight hath indeed a claim to the honors of chivalry, he ought to know that he stands degraded by his present association and has no right to ask reckoning at the hands of good men of noble blood. Touching the prisoners we have made, we do in Christian charity require you to send a man of religion to receive their confession and reconcile them with God; since it is our fixed intention to execute them this morning before noon, so that their heads, being placed on the battlements, shall show to all men how lightly we esteem those who have bestirred themselves in their rescue. Wherefore, as above, we require you to send a priest to reconcile them with God, in doing which you shall render them the last earthly service.”
This letter, being folded, was delivered to the squire, and by him to the messenger who waited without, as the answer to that which he had brought.