During the interval of quiet which followed the first success of the besiegers, the Black Knight was employed in causing to be constructed a sort of floating bridge, or long raft, by means of which he hoped to cross the moat in despite of the resistance of the enemy. This was a work of some time.
When the raft was completed, the Black Knight addressed the besiegers: “It avails not waiting here longer, my friends; the sun is descending in the west, and I may not tarry for another day. Besides, it will be a marvel if the horsemen do not come upon us from York, unless we speedily accomplish our purpose. Wherefore, one of you go to Locksley and bid him commence a discharge of arrows on the opposite side of the castle, and move forward as if about to assault it; while you, true Englishmen, stand by me and be ready to thrust the raft end-long over the moat whenever the postern on our side is thrown open. Follow me boldly across, and aid me to burst yon sally-port in the main wall of the castle. As many of you as like not this service, or are but ill-armed, do you man the top of the outwork, draw your bowstrings to your ears and quell with your shot whoever shall appear upon the rampant. Noble Cedric, wilt thou take the direction of those that remain?”
“Not so,” answered the Saxon. “Lead I cannot, but my posterity curse me in my grave if I follow not with the foremost wherever thou shalt point the way!”
“Yet, bethink thee, noble Saxon,” said the knight, “thou hast neither hauberk nor corslet, nor aught but that light helmet, vtarget, and sword.”
“The better,” replied Cedric; “I shall be the lighter to climb these walls. And—forgive the boast, sir knight—thou shalt this day see the naked breast of a Saxon as boldly presented to the battle as ever you beheld the steel corslet of a Norman warrior.”
“In the name of God, then,” said the knight, “fling open the door and launch the floating bridge!”
The portal which led from the inner wall of the barbican, now held by the besiegers, to the moat and corresponded with a sally-port in the main wall of the castle was suddenly opened. The temporary bridge was immediately thrust forward and extended its length between the castle and outwork, forming a slippery and precarious passage for two men abreast to cross the moat. Well aware of the importance of taking the foe by surprise, the Black Knight, closely followed by Cedric, threw himself upon the bridge and reached the opposite shore. Here he began to thunder with his ax on the gate of the castle, protected in part from the shot and stones cast by the defenders by the ruins of the former drawbridge, which the Templar had demolished in his retreat from the barbican, leaving the vcounterpoise still attached to the upper part of the portal. The followers of the knight had no such shelter; two were instantly shot with cross-bow bolts, and two more fell into the moat. The others retreated back into the barbican.
The situation of Cedric and the Black Knight was now truly dangerous and would have been still more so but for the constancy of the archers in the barbican, who ceased not to shower their arrows on the battlements, distracting the attention of those by whom they were manned and thus affording a respite to their two chiefs from the storm of missiles, which must otherwise have overwhelmed them. But their situation was eminently perilous, and was becoming more so with every moment.
“Shame on ye all!” cried De Bracy to the soldiers around him; “do ye call yourselves cross-bowmen and let these two dogs keep their station under the walls of the castle? Heave over the coping stones from the battlement, an better may not be. Get pick-ax and levers and down with that huge pinnacle!” pointing to a heavy piece of stone-carved work that projected from the parapet.
At this moment Locksley whipped up the courage of his men.
“Saint George for England!” he cried. “To the charge, bold yeomen! Why leave ye the good knight and noble Cedric to storm the pass alone? Make in, yeomen! The castle is taken. Think of honor; think of spoil. One effort and the place is ours.”
With that he bent his good bow and sent a shaft right through the breast of one of the men-at-arms, who, under De Bracy’s direction, was loosening a fragment from one of the battlements to precipitate on the heads of Cedric and the Black Knight. A second soldier caught from the hands of the dying man the iron crow, with which he had heaved up and loosened the stone pinnacle, when, receiving an arrow through his headpiece, he dropped from the battlement into the moat a dead man. The men-at-arms were daunted, for no armor seemed proof against the shot of this tremendous archer.
“Do you give ground, base knaves?” cried De Bracy. “vMountjoy Saint Dennis! Give me the lever.”
Snatching it up, he again assailed the loosened pinnacle, which was of weight enough, if thrown down, not only to have destroyed the remnant of the drawbridge, which sheltered the two foremost assailants, but also to have sunk the rude float of planks over which they had crossed. All saw the danger, and the boldest, even the stout friar himself, avoided setting a foot on the raft. Thrice did Locksley bend his shaft against De Bracy, and thrice did his arrow bound back from the knight’s armor of proof.
“Curse on thy Spanish steel-coat!” said Locksley; “had English smith forged it, these arrows had gone through it as if it had been silk.” He then began to call out: “Comrades! friends! noble Cedric! bear back and let the ruin fall.”
His warning voice was unheard, for the din which the Black Knight himself occasioned by his strokes upon the postern would have drowned twenty war-trumpets. The faithful Gurth indeed sprang forward on the planked bridge to warn Cedric of his impending fate, or to share it with him. But his warning would have come too late; the massive pinnacle already tottered, and De Bracy, who still heaved at his task, would have accomplished it, had not the voice of the Templar sounded close in his ear.
“All is lost, De Bracy; the castle burns.”
“Thou art mad to say so,” replied the knight.
“It is all in a light flame on the western side,” returned Bois-Guilbert. “I have striven in vain to extinguish it.”
“What is to be done?” cried De Bracy. “I vow to Saint Nicholas of Limoges a candlestick of pure gold—”
“Spare thy vow,” said the Templar, “and mark me. Lead thy men down, as if to a sally; throw the postern-gate open. There are but two men who occupy the float; fling them into the moat and push across to the barbican. I will charge from the main gate and attack the barbican on the outside. If we can regain that post, we shall defend ourselves until we are relieved or, at least, until they grant us fair quarter.”
“It is well thought upon,” replied De Bracy; “I will play my part.”
De Bracy hastily drew his men together and rushed down to the postern-gate, which he caused instantly to be thrown open. Scarce was this done ere the portentous strength of the Black Knight forced his way inward in despite of De Bracy and his followers. Two of the foremost instantly fell, and the rest gave way, notwithstanding all their leader’s efforts to stop them.
“Dogs!” cried De Bracy; “will ye let two men win our only pass for safety?”
“He is the devil!” replied a veteran man-at-arms, bearing back from the blows of their sable antagonist.
“And if he be the devil,” said De Bracy, “would you fly from him into the mouth of hell? The castle burns behind us, villains! Let despair give you courage, or let me forward. I will cope with this champion myself.”
And well and chivalrously did De Bracy that day maintain the fame he had acquired in the civil wars of that dreadful period. The vaulted passages in which the two redoubted champions were now fighting hand to hand rang with the furious blows they dealt each other, De Bracy with his sword, the Black Knight with his ponderous ax. At length the Norman received a blow, which, though its force was partly parried by his shield, descended yet with such violence on his crest that he measured his length on the paved floor.
“Yield thee, De Bracy,” said the Black Knight, stooping over him and holding against the bars of his helmet the fatal poniard with which knights despatched their enemies; “yield thee, Maurice de Bracy, rescue or no rescue, or thou art but a dead man. Speak!”
The gallant Norman, seeing the hopelessness of further resistance, yielded, and was allowed to rise.
“Let me tell thee what it imports thee to know,” he said. “Wilfred of Ivanhoe is wounded and a prisoner, and will perish in the burning castle without present help.”
“Wilfred of Ivanhoe!” exclaimed the Black Knight. “The life of every man in the castle shall answer if a hair of his head be singed. Show me his chamber!”
“Ascend yonder stair,” directed De Bracy. “It leads to his apartment.”
The turret was now in bright flames, which flashed out furiously from window and shot-hole. But, in other parts, the great thickness of the walls and the vaulted roofs of the apartments resisted the progress of the fire, and there the rage of man still triumphed; for the besiegers pursued the defenders of the castle from chamber to chamber. Most of the garrison resisted to the uttermost; few of them asked quarter—none received it. The air was filled with groans and the clashing of arms.
Through this scene of confusion the Black Knight rushed in quest of Ivanhoe, whom he found in Rebecca’s charge. The knight, picking up the wounded man as if he were a child, bore him quickly to safety. In the meantime, Cedric had gone in search of Rowena, followed by the faithful Gurth. The noble Saxon was so fortunate as to reach his ward’s apartment just as she had abandoned all hope of safety and sat in expectation of instant death. He committed her to the charge of Gurth, to be carried without the castle. The loyal Cedric then hastened in quest of his friend Athelstane, determined at every risk to himself to save the prince. But ere Cedric penetrated as far as the old hall in which he himself had been a prisoner, the inventive genius of Wamba had procured liberation for himself and his companion.
When the noise of the conflict announced that it was at the hottest, the jester began to shout with the utmost power of his lungs, “Saint George and the Dragon! Bonny Saint George for merry England! The castle is won!” These sounds he rendered yet more fearful by banging against each other two or three pieces of rusty armor which lay scattered around the hall.
The guards at once ran to tell the Templar that foemen had entered the old hall. Meantime the prisoners found no difficulty in making their escape into the court of the castle, which was now the last scene of the contest. Here sat the fierce Templar, mounted on horseback and surrounded by several of the garrison, who had united their strength in order to secure the last chance of safety and retreat which remained to them. The principal, and now the single remaining drawbridge, had been lowered by his orders, but the passage was beset; for the archers, who had hitherto only annoyed the castle on that side by their missiles, no sooner saw the flames breaking out and the bridge lowered than they thronged to the entrance. On the other hand, a party of the besiegers who had entered by the postern on the opposite side were now issuing into the court-yard and attacking with fury the remnant of the defenders in the rear.
Animated, however, by despair and the example of their gallant leader, the remaining soldiers of the castle fought with the utmost valor; and, being well armed, they succeeded in driving back the assailants.
Crying aloud, “Those who would save themselves, follow me!” Bois-Guilbert pushed across the drawbridge, dispersing the archers who would have stopped them. He was followed by the Saracen slaves and some five or six men-at-arms, who had mounted their horses. The Templar’s retreat was rendered perilous by the number of arrows shot at him and his party; but this did not prevent him from galloping round to the barbican, where he expected to find De Bracy.
“De Bracy!” he shouted, “art thou there?”
“I am here,” answered De Bracy, “but a prisoner.”
“Can I rescue thee?” cried Bois-Guilbert.
“No,” said the other. “I have rendered myself.”
Upon hearing this, the Templar galloped off with his followers, leaving the besiegers in complete possession of the castle.
Fortunately, by this time all the prisoners had been rescued and stood together without the castle, while the yeomen ran through the apartments seeking to save from the devouring flames such valuables as might be found. They were soon driven out by the fiery element. The towering flames surmounted every obstruction and rose to the evening skies one huge and burning beacon, seen far and wide through the adjacent country. Tower after tower crashed down, with blazing roof and rafter.
The victors, assembling in large bands, gazed with wonder not unmixed with fear upon the flames, in which their own ranks and arms glanced dusky red. The voice of Locksley was at length heard, “Shout, yeomen! the den of tyrants is no more! Let each bring his spoil to the tree in Hart-hill Walk, for there we will make just partition among ourselves, together with our worthy allies in this great deed of vengeance.”