About one hour afterward a man arrayed in the cowl and frock of a hermit, and having his knotted cord twisted around his middle, stood before the portal of the castle of Front-de-Boeuf. The warder demanded of him his name and errand.
“Pax obiscum,” answered the priest, “I am a poor brother of the Order of St. Francis who come hither to do my office to certain unhappy prisoners now secured within this castle.”
“Thou art a bold friar,” said the warder, “to come hither, where, saving our own drunken confessor, a rooster of thy feather hath not crowed these twenty years.”
With these words, he carried to the hall of the castle his unwonted intelligence that a friar stood before the gate and desired admission. With no small wonder he received his master’s command to admit the holy man immediately; and, having previously manned the entrance to guard against surprise, he obeyed, without farther scruple, the order given him.
“Who and whence art thou, priest?” demanded Front-de-Boeuf.
“Pax vobiscum,” reiterated the priest, with trembling voice. “I am a poor servant of Saint Francis, who, traveling through this wilderness, have fallen among thieves, which thieves have sent me unto this castle in order to do my ghostly office on two persons condemned by your honorable justice.”
“Ay, right,” answered Front-de-Boeuf; “and canst thou tell me, the number of those banditti?”
“Gallant sir,” said the priest, “vnomen illis legio, their name is legion.”
“Tell me in plain terms what numbers there are, or, priest, thy cloak and cord will ill protect thee from my wrath.”
“Alas!” said the friar, “vcor meum eructavit, that is to say, I was like to burst with fear! But I conceive they may be—what of yeomen, what of commons—at least five hundred men.”
“What!” said the Templar, who came into the hall that moment, “muster the wasps so thick here? It is time to stifle such a mischievous brood.” Then taking Front-de-Boeuf aside, “Knowest thou the priest?”
“He is a stranger from a distant convent,” replied Front-de-Boeuf; “I know him not.”
“Then trust him not with our purpose in words,” urged the Templar. “Let him carry a written order to De Bracy’s company of Free Companions, to repair instantly to their master’s aid. In the meantime, and that the shaveling may suspect nothing, permit him to go freely about his task of preparing the Saxon hogs for the slaughter-house.”
“It shall be so,” said Front-de-Boeuf. And he forthwith appointed a domestic to conduct the friar to the apartment where Cedric and Athelstane were confined.
The natural impatience of Cedric had been rather enhanced than diminished by his confinement. He walked from one end of the hall to the other, with the attitude of a man who advances to charge an enemy or storm the breach of a beleaguered place, sometimes ejaculating to himself and sometimes addressing Athelstane. The latter stoutly and vstoically awaited the issue of the adventure, digesting in the meantime, with great composure, the liberal meal which he had made at noon and not greatly troubling himself about the duration of the captivity.
“Pax vobiscum!” pronounced the priest, entering the apartment. “The blessing of Saint Dunstan, Saint Dennis, Saint Duthoc, and all other saints whatsoever, be upon ye and about ye.”
“Enter freely,” said Cedric to the friar; “with what intent art thou come hither?”
“To bid you prepare yourselves for death,” was the reply.
“It is impossible!” said Cedric, starting. “Fearless and wicked as they are, they dare not attempt such open and vgratuitous cruelty!”
“Alas!” returned the priest, “to restrain them by their sense of humanity is the same as to stop a runaway horse with a bridle of silk thread. Bethink thee, therefore, Cedric, and you also, Athelstane, what crimes you have committed in the flesh, for this very day will ye be called to answer at a higher vtribunal.”
“Hearest thou this, Athelstane?” said Cedric. “We must rouse up our hearts to this last action, since better it is we should die like men than live like slaves.”
“I am ready,” answered Athelstane, “to stand the worst of their malice, and shall walk to my death with as much composure as ever I did to my dinner.”
“Let us, then, unto our holy vgear, father,” said Cedric.
“Wait yet a moment, good vuncle,” said the priest in a voice very different from his solemn tones of a moment before; “better look before you leap in the dark.”
“By my faith!” cried Cedric; “I should know that voice.”
“It is that of your trusty slave and jester,” answered the priest, throwing back his cowl and revealing the face of Wamba. “Take a fool’s advice, and you will not be here long.”
“How meanest thou, knave?” demanded the Saxon.
“Even thus,” replied Wamba; “take thou this frock and cord and march quietly out of the castle, leaving me your cloak and girdle to take the long leap in thy stead.”
“Leave thee in my stead!” exclaimed Cedric, astonished at the proposal; “why, they would hang thee, my poor knave.”
“E’en let them do as they are permitted,” answered Wamba. “I trust—no disparagement to your birth—that the son of Witless may hang in a chain with as much gravity as the chain hung upon his ancestor the valderman.”
“Well, Wamba,” said Cedric, “for one thing will I grant thy request. And that is, if thou wilt make the exchange of garments with Lord Athelstane instead of me.”
“No,” answered Wamba; “there were little reason in that. Good right there is that the son of Witless should suffer to save the son of Hereward; but little wisdom there were in his dying for the benefit of one whose fathers were strangers to his.”
“Villain,” cried Cedric, “the fathers of Athelstane were monarchs of England!”
“They might be whomsoever they pleased,” replied Wamba; “but my neck stands too straight on my shoulders to have it twisted for their sake. Wherefore, good my master, either take my proffer yourself, or suffer me to leave this dungeon as free as I entered.”
“Let the old tree wither,” persisted Cedric, “so the stately hope of the forest be preserved. Save the noble Athelstane, my trusty Wamba! It is the duty of each who has Saxon blood in his veins. Thou and I will abide together the utmost rage of our oppressors, while he, free and safe, shall arouse the awakened spirits of our countrymen to avenge us.”
“Not so, father Cedric,” said Athelstane, grasping his hand—for, when roused to think or act, his deeds and sentiments were not unbecoming his high race—“not so. I would rather remain in this hall a week without food save the prisoner’s stinted loaf, or drink save the prisoner’s measure of water, than embrace the opportunity to escape which the slave’s untaught kindness has vpurveyed for his master. Go, noble Cedric. Your presence without may encourage friends to our rescue; your remaining here would ruin us all.”
“And is there any prospect, then, of rescue from without?” asked Cedric, looking at the jester.
“Prospect indeed!” echoed Wamba. “Let me tell you that when you fill my cloak you are wrapped in a general’s cassock. Five hundred men are there without, and I was this morning one of their chief leaders. My fool’s cap was a vcasque, and my vbauble a truncheon. Well, we shall see what good they will make by exchanging a fool for a wise man. Truly, I fear they will lose in valor what they may gain in discretion. And so farewell, master, and be kind to poor Gurth and his dog Fangs; and let my vcoxcomb hang in the hall at Rotherwood in memory that I flung away my life for my master—like a faithful fool!”
The last word came out with a sort of double expression, betwixt jest and earnest. The tears stood in Cedric’s eyes.
“Thy memory shall be preserved,” he said, “while fidelity and affection have honor upon earth. But that I trust I shall find the means of saving Rowena and thee, Athelstane, and thee also, my poor Wamba, thou shouldst not overbear me in this matter.”
The exchange of dress was now accomplished, when a sudden doubt struck Cedric.
“I know no language but my own and a few words of their mincing Norman. How shall I bear myself like a reverend brother?”
“The spell lies in two words,” replied Wamba: “Pax vobiscum will answer all queries. If you go or come, eat or drink, bless or ban, Pax vobiscum carries you through it all. It is as useful to a friar as a broomstick to a witch or a wand to a conjurer. Speak it but thus, in a deep, grave tone,—Pax vobiscum!—it is irresistible. Watch and ward, knight and squire, foot and horse, it acts as a charm upon them all. I think, if they bring me out to be hanged to-morrow, as is much to be doubted they may, I will try its weight.”
“If such prove the case,” said his master, “my religious orders are soon taken. Pax vobiscum! I trust I shall remember the password. Noble Athelstane, farewell; and farewell, my poor boy, whose heart might make amends for a weaker head. I will save you, or return and die with you. Farewell.”
“Farewell, noble Cedric,” said Athelstane; “remember it is the true part of a friar to accept refreshment, if you are offered any.”
Thus exhorted, Cedric sallied forth upon his expedition and presently found himself in the presence of Front-de-Boeuf. The Saxon, with some difficulty, compelled himself to make obeisance to the haughty baron, who returned his courtesy with a slight inclination of the head.
“Thy penitents, father,” said the latter, “have made a long vshrift. It is the better for them, since it is the last they shall ever make. Hast thou prepared them for death?”
“I found them,” said Cedric, in such French as he could command, “expecting the worst, from the moment they knew into whose power they had fallen.”
“How now, sir friar,” replied Front-de-Boeuf, “thy speech, me thinks, smacks of the rude Saxon tongue?”
“I was bred in the convent of Saint Withold of Burton,” answered Cedric.
“Ay,” said the baron; “it had been better for thee to have been a Norman, and better for my purpose, too; but need has no choice of messengers. That Saint Withold’s of Burton is a howlet’s nest worth the harrying. The day will soon come that the frock shall protect the Saxon as little as the mail-coat.”
“God’s will be done!” returned Cedric, in a voice tremulous with passion, which Front-de-Boeuf imputed to fear.
“I see,” he said, “thou dreamest already that our men-at-arms are in thy refectory and thy ale-vaults. But do me one cast of thy holy office and thou shalt sleep as safe in thy cell as a snail within his shell of proof.”
“Speak your commands,” replied Cedric, with suppressed emotion.
“Follow me through this passage, then, that I may dismiss thee by the postern.”
As he strode on his way before the supposed friar, Front-de-Boeuf thus schooled him in the part which he desired he should act.
“Thou seest, sir friar, yon herd of Saxon swine who have dared to environ this castle of Torquilstone. Tell them whatever thou hast a mind of the weakness of this vfortalice, or aught else that can detain them before it for twenty-four hours. Meantime bear this scroll—but soft—canst thou read, sir priest?”
“Not a jot I,” answered Cedric, “save on my vbreviary; and then I know the characters because I have the holy service by heart, praised be Saint Withold!”
“The fitter messenger for my purpose. Carry thou this scroll to the castle of Philip de vMalvoisin; say it cometh from me and is written by the Templar, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, and that I pray him to send it to York with all speed man and horse can make. Meanwhile, tell him to doubt nothing he shall find us whole and sound behind our battlement. Shame on it, that we should be compelled to hide thus by a pack of runagates who are wont to fly even at the flash of our pennons and the tramp of our horses! I say to thee, priest, contrive some cast of thine art to keep the knaves where they are until our friends bring up their lances.”
With these words, Front-de-Boeuf led the way to a postern where, passing the moat on a single plank, they reached a small barbican, or exterior defense, which communicated with the open field by a well-fortified sally-port.
“Begone, then; and if thou wilt do mine errand, and return hither when it is done, thou shalt see Saxon flesh cheap as ever was hog’s in the shambles of Sheffield. And, hark thee! thou seemest to be a jolly confessor—come hither after the onslaught and thou shalt have as much good wine as would drench thy whole convent.”
“Assuredly we shall meet again,” answered Cedric.
“Something in the hand the whilst,” continued the Norman; and, as they parted at the postern door, he thrust in Cedric’s reluctant hand a gold vbyzant, adding, “Remember, I will flay off both cowl and skin if thou failest in thy purpose.”
The supposed priest passed out of the door without further words.
Front-de-Boeuf turned back within the castle.
“Ho! Giles jailer,” he called, “let them bring Cedric of Rotherwood before me, and the other churl, his companion—him I mean of Coningsburgh—Athelstane there, or what call they him? Their very names are an encumbrance to a Norman knight’s mouth, and have, as it were, a flavor of bacon. Give me a stoop of wine, as jolly Prince John would say, that I may wash away the relish. Place it in the armory, and thither lead the prisoners.”
His commands were obeyed; and upon entering that Gothic apartment, hung with many spoils won by his own valor and that of his father, he found a flagon of wine on a massive oaken table, and the two Saxon captives under the guard of four of his dependants. Front-de-Boeuf took a long draught of wine and then addressed his prisoners, for the imperfect light prevented his perceiving that the more important of them had escaped.
“Gallants of England,” said Front-de-Boeuf, “how relish ye your entertainment at Torquilstone? Faith and Saint Dennis, an ye pay not a rich ransom, I will hang ye up by the feet from the iron bars of these windows till the kites and hooded crows have made skeletons of you! Speak out, ye Saxon dogs, what bid ye for your worthless lives? What say you, you of Rotherwood?”
“Not a vdoit I,” answered poor Wamba, “and for hanging up by the feet, my brain has been topsy-turvy ever since the vbiggin was bound first around my head; so turning me upside down may peradventure restore it again.”
“Hah!” cried Front-de-Boeuf, “what have we here?”
And with the back of his hand he struck Cedric’s cap from the head of the jester, and throwing open his collar, discovered the fatal badge of servitude, the silver collar round his neck.
“Giles—Clement—dogs and varlets!” called the furious Norman, “what villain have you brought me here?”
“I think I can tell you,” said De Bracy, who just entered the apartment. “This is Cedric’s clown.”
“Go,” ordered Front-de-Boeuf; “fetch me the right Cedric hither, and I pardon your error for once—the rather that you but mistook a fool for a Saxon vfranklin.”
“Ay, but,” said Wamba, “your chivalrous excellency will find there are more fools than franklins among us.”
“What means this knave?” said Front-de-Boeuf, looking toward his followers, who, lingering and loath, faltered forth their belief that if this were not Cedric who was there in presence, they knew not what was become of him.
“Heavens!” exclaimed De Bracy. “He must have escaped in the monk’s garments!”
“Fiends!” echoed Front-de-Boeuf. “It was then the boar of Rotherwood whom I ushered to the postern and dismissed with my own hands! And thou,” he said to Wamba, “whose folly could over-reach the wisdom of idiots yet more gross than thyself. I will give thee holy orders, I will shave thy crown for thee! Here, let them tear the scalp from his head and pitch him headlong from the battlements. Thy trade is to jest: canst thou jest now?”
“You deal with me better than your word, noble knight,” whimpered forth poor Wamba, whose habits of vbuffoonery were not to be overcome even by the immediate prospect of death; “if you give me the red cap you propose, out of a simple monk you will make a vcardinal.”
“The poor wretch,” said De Bracy, “is resolved to die in his vocation.” The next moment would have been Wamba’s last but for an unexpected interruption. A hoarse shout, raised by many voices, bore to the inmates of the hall the tidings that the besiegers were advancing to the attack. There was a moment’s silence in the hall, which was broken by De Bracy. “To the battlements,” he said; “let us see what these knaves do without.”
So saying, he opened a latticed window which led to a sort of projecting balcony, and immediately called to those in the apartment, “Saint Dennis, it is time to stir! They bring forward vmantelets and vpavisses, and the archers muster on the skirts of the wood like a dark cloud before a hail-storm.”
Front-de-Boeuf also looked out upon the field and immediately snatched his bugle. After winding a long and loud blast, he commanded his men to their posts on the walls.
“De Bracy, look to the eastern side, where the walls are lowest. Noble Bois-Guilbert, thy trade hath well taught thee how to attack and defend, so look thou to the western side. I myself will take post at the barbican. Our numbers are few, but activity and courage may supply that defect, since we have only to do with rascal clowns.”
The Templar had in the meantime been looking out on the proceedings of the besiegers with deeper attention than Front-de-Boeuf or his giddy companion.
“By the faith of mine order,” he said, “these men approach with more touch of discipline than could have been judged, however they come by it. See ye how dexterously they avail themselves of every cover which a tree or bush affords and avoid exposing themselves to the shot of our cross-bows? I spy neither banner nor pennon, and yet I will gage my golden chain that they are led by some noble knight or gentleman skillful in the practice of wars.”
“I espy him,” said De Bracy; “I see the waving of a knight’s crest and the gleam of his armor. See yon tall man in the black mail who is busied marshaling the farther troop of the rascally yeomen. By Saint Dennis, I hold him to be the knight who did so well in the tournament at Ashby.”
The demonstrations of the enemy’s approach cut off all farther discourse. The Templar and De Bracy repaired to their posts and, at the head of the few followers they were able to muster, awaited with calm determination the threatened assault, while Front-de-Boeuf went to see that all was secure in the besieged fortress.