Sir Nigel Part 11

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On the left of the King, and so near to him that great intimacy was implied, rode a man about his own age, with the broad face, the projecting jaw and the flattish nose which are often the outward indications of a pugnacious nature.

His complexion was crimson, his large blue eyes somewhat prominent, and his whole appearance full-blooded and choleric. He was short, but ma.s.sively built, and evidently possessed of immense strength. His voice, however, when he spoke was gentle and lisping, while his manner was quiet and courteous. Unlike the King or the Prince, he was clad in light armor and carried a sword by his side and a mace at his saddle-bow, for he was acting as Captain of the King's Guard, and a dozen other knights in steel followed in the escort. No hardier soldier could Edward have at his side, if, as was always possible in those lawless times, sudden danger was to threaten, for this was the famous knight of Hainault, now naturalized as an Englishman, Sir Walter Manny, who bore as high a reputation for chivalrous valor and for gallant temerity as Chandos himself.

Behind the knights, who were forbidden to scatter and must always follow the King's person, there was a body of twenty or thirty hobblers or mounted bowmen, together with several squires, unarmed themselves but leading spare horses upon which the heavier part of their knights'

equipment was carried. A straggling tail of falconers, harbingers, varlets, body-servants and huntsmen holding hounds in leash completed the long and many-colored train which rose and dipped on the low undulations of the moor.

Many weighty things were on the mind of Edward the King. There was truce for the moment with France, but it was a truce broken by many small deeds of arms, raids, surprises and ambushes upon either side, and it was certain that it would soon dissolve again into open war. Money must be raised, and it was no light matter to raise it, now that the Commons had once already voted the tenth lamb and the tenth sheaf. Besides, the Black Death had ruined the country, the arable land was all turned to pasture, the laborer, laughing at statutes, would not work under fourpence a day, and all society was chaos. In addition, the Scotch were growling over the border, there was the perennial trouble in half-conquered Ireland, and his allies abroad in Flanders and in Brabant were clamoring for the arrears of their subsidies.

All this was enough to make even a victorious monarch full of care; but now Edward had thrown it all to the winds and was as light-hearted as a boy upon a holiday. No thought had he for the dunning of Florentine bankers or the vexatious conditions of those busybodies at Westminster.

He was out with his hawks, and his thoughts and his talk should be of nothing else. The varlets beat the heather and bushes as they pa.s.sed, and whooped loudly as the birds flew out.

"A magpie! A magpie!" cried the falconer.

"Nay, nay, it is not worthy of your talons, my brown-eyed queen," said the King, looking up at the great bird which flapped from side to side above his head, waiting for the whistle which should give her the signal. "The tercels, falconer--a cast of tercels! Quick, man, quick!

Ha! the rascal makes for wood! He puts in! Well flown, brave peregrine!

He makes his point. Drive him out to thy comrade. Serve him, varlets!

Beat the bushes! He breaks! He breaks! Nay, come away then! You will see Master Magpie no more."

The bird had indeed, with the cunning of its race, flapped its way through brushwood and bushes to the thicker woods beyond, so that neither the hawk amid the cover nor its partner above nor the clamorous beaters could harm it. The King laughed at the mischance and rode on.

Continually birds of various sorts were flushed, and each was pursued by the appropriate hawk, the snipe by the tercel, the partridge by the goshawk, even the lark by the little merlin. But the King soon tired of this petty sport and went slowly on his way, still with the magnificent silent attendant flapping above his head.

"Is she not a n.o.ble bird, fair son?" he asked, glancing up as her shadow fell upon him.

"She is indeed, sire. Surely no finer ever came from the isles of the north."

"Perhaps not, and yet I have had a hawk from Barbary as good a footer and a swifter flyer. An Eastern bird in yarak has no peer."

"I had one once from the Holy Land," said de Manny. "It was fierce and keen and swift as the Saracens themselves. They say of old Saladin that in his day his breed of birds, of hounds and of horses had no equal on earth."

"I trust, dear father, that the day may come when we shall lay our hands on all three," said the Prince, looking with s.h.i.+ning eyes upon the King. "Is the Holy Land to lie forever in the grasp of these unbelieving savages, or the Holy Temple to be defiled by their foul presence? Ah! my dear and most sweet lord, give to me a thousand lances with ten thousand bowmen like those I led at Crecy, and I swear to you by G.o.d's soul that within a year I will have done homage to you for the Kingdom of Jerusalem!"

The King laughed as he turned to Walter Manny. "Boys will still be boys," said he.

"The French do not count me such!" cried the young Prince, flus.h.i.+ng with anger.

"Nay, fair son, there is no one sets you at a higher rate than your father. But you have the nimble mind and quick fancy of youth, turning over from the thing that is half done to a further task beyond. How would we fare in Brittany and Normandy while my young paladin with his lances and his bowmen was besieging Ascalon or battering at Jerusalem?"

"Heaven would help in Heaven's work."

"From what I have heard of the past," said the King dryly, "I cannot see that Heaven has counted for much as an ally in these wars of the East. I speak with reverence, and yet it is but sooth to say that Richard of the Lion Heart or Louis of France might have found the smallest earthly princ.i.p.ality of greater service to him than all the celestial hosts. How say you to that, my Lord Bishop?"

A stout churchman who had ridden behind the King on a solid bay cob, well-suited to his weight and dignity, jogged up to the monarch's elbow.

"How say you, sire? I was watching the goshawk on the partridge and heard you not."

"Had I said that I would add two manors to the See of Chichester, I warrant that you would have heard me, my Lord Bishop."

"Nay, fair lord, test the matter by saying so," cried the jovial Bishop.

The King laughed aloud. "A fair counter, your reverence. By the rood!

you broke your lance that pa.s.sage. But the question I debated was this: How is it that since the Crusades have manifestly been fought in G.o.d's quarrel, we Christians have had so little comfort or support in fighting them. After all our efforts and the loss of more men than could be counted, we are at last driven from the country, and even the military orders which were formed only for that one purpose can scarce hold a footing in the islands of the Greek sea. There is not one seaport nor one fortress in Palestine over which the flag of the Cross still waves.

Where then was our ally?"

"Nay, sire, you open a great debate which extends far beyond this question of the Holy Land, though that may indeed be chosen as a fair example. It is the question of all sin, of all suffering, of all injustice--why it should pa.s.s without the rain of fire and the lightnings of Sinai. The wisdom of G.o.d is beyond our understanding."

The King shrugged his shoulders. "This is an easy answer, my Lord Bishop. You are a prince of the Church. It would fare ill with an earthly prince who could give no better answer to the affairs which concerned his realm."

"There are other considerations which might be urged, most gracious sire. It is true that the Crusades were a holy enterprise which might well expect the immediate blessing of G.o.d; but the Crusaders--is it certain that they deserved such a blessing? Have I not heard that their camp was the most dissolute ever seen?"

"Camps are camps all the world over, and you cannot in a moment change a bowman into a saint. But the holy Louis was a crusader after your own heart. Yet his men perished at Mansurah and he himself at Tunis."

"Bethink you also that this world is but the antechamber of the next,"

said the prelate. "By suffering and tribulation the soul is cleansed, and the true victor may be he who by the patient endurance of misfortune merits the happiness to come."

"If that be the true meaning of the Church's blessing, then I hope that it will be long before it rests upon our banners in France," said the King. "But methinks that when one is out with a brave horse and a good hawk one might find some other subject than theology. Back to the birds, Bishop, or Raoul the falconer will come to interrupt thee in thy cathedral."

Straightway the conversation came back to the mystery of the woods and the mystery of the rivers, to the dark-eyed hawks and the yellow-eyed, to hawks of the lure and hawks of the fist. The Bishop was as steeped in the lore of falconry as the King, and the others smiled as the two wrangled hard over disputed and technical questions: if an eyas trained in the mews can ever emulate the pa.s.sage hawk taken wild, or how long the young hawks should be placed at hack, and how long weathered before they are fully reclaimed.

Monarch and prelate were still deep in this learned discussion, the Bishop speaking with a freedom and a.s.surance which he would never have dared to use in affairs of Church and State, for in all ages there is no such leveler as sport. Suddenly, however, the Prince, whose keen eyes had swept from time to time over the great blue heaven, uttered a peculiar call and reined up his palfrey, pointing at the same time into the air.

"A heron!" he cried. "A heron on pa.s.sage!"

To gain the full sport of hawking a heron must not be put up from its feeding-ground, where it is heavy with its meal, and has no time to get its pace on before it is pounced upon by the more active hawk, but it must be aloft, traveling from point to point, probably from the fish-stream to the heronry. Thus to catch the bird on pa.s.sage was the prelude of all good sport. The object to which the Prince had pointed was but a black dot in the southern sky, but his strained eyes had not deceived him, and both Bishop and King agreed that it was indeed a heron, which grew larger every instant as it flew in their direction.

"Whistle him off, sire! Whistle off the gerfalcon!" cried the Bishop.

"Nay, nay, he is overfar. She would fly at check."

"Now, sire, now!" cried the Prince, as the great bird with the breeze behind him came sweeping down the sky.

The King gave the shrill whistle, and the well-trained hawk raked out to the right and to the left to make sure which quarry she was to follow.

Then, spying the heron, she shot up in a swift ascending curve to meet him.

"Well flown, Margot! Good bird!" cried the King, clapping his hands to encourage the hawk, while the falconers broke into the shrill whoop peculiar to the sport.

Going on her curve, the hawk would soon have crossed the path of the heron; but the latter, seeing the danger in his front and confident in his own great strength of wing and lightness of body, proceeded to mount higher in the air, flying in such small rings that to the spectators it almost seemed as if the bird was going perpendicularly upward.

"He takes the air!" cried the King. "But strong as he flies, he cannot out fly Margot. Bishop, I lay you ten gold pieces to one that the heron is mine."

"I cover your wager, sire," said the Bishop. "I may not take gold so won, and yet I warrant that there is an altar-cloth somewhere in need of repairs."

"You have good store of altar-cloths, Bishop, if all the gold I have seen you win at tables goes to the mending of them," said the King. "Ah!

by the rood, rascal, rascal! See how she flies at check!"

The quick eyes of the Bishop had perceived a drift of rooks when on their evening flight to the rookery were pa.s.sing along the very line which divided the hawk from the heron. A rook is a hard temptation for a hawk to resist. In an instant the inconstant bird had forgotten all about the great heron above her and was circling over the rooks, flying westward with them as she singled out the plumpest for her stoop.

"There is yet time, sire! Shall I cast off her mate?" cried the falconer.

"Or shall I show you, sire, how a peregrine may win where a gerfalcon fails?" said the Bishop. "Ten golden pieces to one upon my bird."

Sir Nigel Part 11

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Sir Nigel Part 11 summary

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