Sir Bertram's Tryst
ONCE on a time, three men-at-arms, Bertram, and John Bowlegs, and Denis the Gascon, plighted a faith that held firm as ever man's to maid. Full early Bertram and John Bowlegs buckled on the golden spurs of knighthood, but they stayed still firm friends to Denis, the man-at-arms, nor did he envy nor grudge their honour. Denis, too, in good time, was made knight. Hear how.
Denis fell in love. That is not matter for marvel. He had been in love two-score times since he was twelve. But this forty-first love was of a new kind. She was a little maid, slender as a birch-tree, and lithe. You might have guessed her a boy in coif and kirtle, save for the pale, golden hair that broke rippling from under that coif, and the dainty curve of her chin to her neck. Denis was wont to meet her under the oak that bounded her father's farm-holding by Oswestry.
Denis was a mighty man of war; and that is matter for marvel. He was short and slight, and seemed scarce to have the strength for wearing mail. But when swords shone and sang in the sunlight, Denis had the fire of ten men, and the strength of three in his arm. Once with three comrades on patrol, Denis had smitten sorely the riders of a certain renegade Norman, Percy de Vigne, though a dozen were set against four. This Percy de Vigne, a man I cannot love, had cast in his lot with Llywellyn of Wales, and from a tower in the hills above Llangollen rode forth and harried the border-side. It was a troop of his rascals, then, that Denis smote and had wounded Percy himself, when Sir Bertram coming up, charged them, and broke them and hunted them down. Only one or two, wounded and in evil case, had struggled back with their leader to the grey tower in the hills. So Percy de Vigne had a burning hate for Denis and Bertram both.
His spies were good. Soon he learnt that Denis met Enid at sunset under the oak, and was so pleased thereat that he spared his page a whipping. One night as Denis clasped the girl to his heart, and she, smiling, whispered: "Kiss my eyes, dear heart," she was torn from him as his lips touched her. Both man and maid were hurled to the ground and bound and gagged. Few moments passed ere they were tied on mountain ponies and trotting fast to Wales. This work Percy de Vigne's men knew.
Up through the firs in the fragrant summer twilight went the troop, and Denis groaned behind the gag. At his elbow rode Percy de Vigne, and laughed aloud at the man's agony. I cannot love Percy de Vigne. He made Enid's pony come level with Denis, and smoothed the girl's neck with his hand. "Sweetheart, sweetheart!" said he, watching Denis, and laughed at his tortured face.
Blue darkness fell over the pinewoods before they came to the tower on its crag of bare rock. The maid and the man were pulled to the ground and borne roughly in and up the narrow stair, and flung down on the stones in a big, low-roofed chamber. There, in the gloom, only two braziers of charcoal glimmered red, and Percy de Vigne cried: "Torches, fools!"
Then, in yellow, smoky light, Denis, all helpless, saw the chains and red, rusty staples, the greasy, oaken bed, and irons, pointed and blunt—the tools of the torturer's foul trade.
"Take away his gag," quoth Percy. "Now, fool, you may scream." And Denis, white of face, with his eyes bloodshot, drove his teeth into his underlip, bleeding from the gag. He could hear Enid moaning. "Ventre d'enfer! he will find his voice later," quoth Percy de Vigne. He came and stood across his captive. "My lord Denis needs one more to our pleasant company. You—it is well. Your leman— it is very well. Also I need that bully Bertram."
"And when he find thee, there will be a great vengeance!" cried Denis.
"Art a true prophet, good my lord Denis. A noble vengeance there shall be. And thou shalt see it. My lord Denis, too, shall bid him thither." And he called for parchment and pen and ink. "See, now, 'tis sweetly simple. Shalt write and say thou hast been sore hurt in a fall, and liest in a peasant's hut—dost pray him come to take thy last words to thy leman—for the love of God." Percy laughed, well pleased with himself. "’Twill work with the fool, that last." Denis set his teeth.
"Never!" he muttered.
"Oh, a stubborn spirit! Sear his cheek, Boris." Boris, a swarthy rogue, took an iron, red hot, from the brazier. "Wilt write, my lord Denis?" quoth Percy, laughing. Denis made no sound. Only Enid was moaning. Boris brought the iron very near. Then Percy de Vigne stayed him suddenly. "Nay, we may do better," he said, and laughed. "Take out the woman's gag," and roughly it was done. "Now, my lord Denis, let her sweet voice persuade! To the work, Boris—slow!" Nearer and nearer the red iron crept to the girl's white brow.
"Devil! The pen!" screamed Denis, and—
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed Percy de Vigne. "Hold it so, Boris. Let him feast his eyes." He cut Denis's right arm loose from the bonds and gave him quill, parchment, and ink. "Write: 'Bertram—being stricken sore by a fall, I am come here, I think, to die.' You do think in truth, my lord Denis—— 'By our faith, I pray you come to me. There are words I would say to Enid.' Wilt say them, my lord Denis, ere you die. Sign!" And Denis, with the red iron scorching his love's eye, wrote to betray his friend to torture. But Enid made no cry. And the thing was written, and Denis was bound again ere the iron was moved from the girl. Then Percy mocked them both, and what he said it is not fit that I should write or you should read. Only be it writ that, when he turned at last and left them, laughing, the girl was crimson and shuddering with shame, and Denis writhing.
So they were left to think of the tortures that waited, and they could not come to each other, so strait were the bonds. The girl could hear him groan. At last, very low, he heard her voice.
"Dear—do not grieve so—dear, I'll not cry—not much, dear. Denis, if 'twas to be for thee, I am glad to be here." And still he groaned, for he had betrayed his friend, and not even his honour was left. "Denis, dear—with me——" her voice rose in a simple Latin prayer old Father Aloysius had taught her. "Ave Maria gratia plena——" and again she said it, and again.
Eight miles away, by a sweet-briar hedge in Oswestry town, Sir Bertram walked with the Lady Elinor, his love, most happy both in the August moonlight. The lady must needs know the bravest thing ever he had done, and would not be contented with his answer that he was bravest when he dared first to speak to her.
"But, faith! I was sore afraid," says he.
"Art far past fear now, Sir Tyrant," she whispered, for she was held very close.
"Love driveth out fear. Yet thee I honour and worship."
"And I thee, Bertram."
"Nay, dear heart——"
So they were talking, foolishly belike! certainly in a strain that had won vast scorn of Percy de Vigne. Yet one would rather be fool with Bertram than wise with Percy de Vigne.
Down the garden to them came a little man, running, breathless, and thrust at Bertram a parchment.
"Whence?" saith Bertram curtly. He was not best pleased.
"Am a cottar of Gobowen, lordship," said the little man. "Found a man-at-arms sore hurt on the hills. His hand of writ." Bertram read that broken, quavering writing and—
"Our Lady aid him! Sure, he is in ill case," he muttered; then turning, cried for his horse. His lady he drew aside: "Love, Denis is stricken sore and near to death. I must seek him."
"Aye; I grieve, Bertram."
"He is my dear friend," said Bertram. At that the little man in the shadow smiled; he had much scorn of Bertram and others who talked so.
So Bertram rode away in the moonlight with the sturdy little man hanging by his stirrup-leather. Once, twice, and again Bertram asked how far were they from Denis, and always was answered—
"My lord will be with him anon."
At last the path wound down through a dark defile. All on a sudden, Bertram felt the bite of a noose about his arms—another—another. Choked and blinded by a cloak about his head, he was dragged heavily from his horse and, struggling vainly, was bound and gagged. But it is upon record that one kick of his got home and sent a man straight to the hereafter.
Judge, then, how much marvelled his captors when they saw a man who could struggle so lose all his spirit once he was bound. He was tied, sitting like a woman, on a pony, and his head fell on his breast, his back drooped limply, he shook a quivering mass of flesh to the pony's paces. And that poor pony found him mightily heavy, and, panting and sweating, could not break into a trot despite their blows. At gibes, at stripes—and both he had in plenty to bear—Bertram but grunted and swayed in the saddle.
Never, sure, was so wretched a captive. Not Denis, nor even Denis's maid, was the cause of so much wit in the riders of Percy de Vigne. They set forth the fate that waited him, with humorous phrase on the grilling of flesh and the crackling of joints. The passions of his companions and their plight were foretold with care and pains. Frank was the language of Percy's men, and they knew well the things whereof they spoke. If you would learn what devilry men can do, read in Fulke's Prœclarissimæ Historic, for there 'tis all set down, and grisly is the tale. But Bertram swung on his pony like a sack and groaned and grunted.
So much he swayed, falling now on the pony's neck, now over his side, that the poor beast could go little more than the pace of a snail, and long and very long it was, and the moon had set. before they came to the tower of Percy de Vigne. Then fell work was there to carry Bertram, that huge knight, up the narrow stair. The sides of him grazed and scraped the stones. Head and feet were bruised against the walls. When at last the bearers had him in that low, dark chamber, they dropped him speedily, and he fell against the brazier and there lay, stupid, scorched by the red charcoal.
Torches and Percy de Vigne came in, and Denis saw his friend and started to his feet and fell again as the bonds constrained him, groaning—
But Bertram lay with his back against the red coals and heard not nor moved.
Jollily laughed Percy de Vigne.
"A trinity, faith, a trinity!" and tore Bertram's gag away. The head swayed to this side and that at his violence, senseless. "See now, good my lord Bertram, to what a pleasant banquet hath your friend bidden you. Your friend!"
And Denis, prone on the floor, was sobbing now, for his pride was broken. So jollily laughed Percy de Vigne. "See, my lord! Hear, my lord!" he cried, and stirred Bertram with a rod of iron. But Bertram only moved like a dead thing to the blows. The air stank with the reek of his doublet burning against the brazier. "Bah, fools! have ye killed the fool?" cried Percy de Vigne. They surged forward to look and kick, but the man Boris brought a red iron from the other brazier and put it in Percy's hand and grinned. "Aye, ventre d'enfer! this should wake him," said Percy, and poised it and was going to plunge it in Bertram's face.
All bound as he was, Denis flung himself forward, and the iron slipped hissing down his shoulder and arm as he fell. With a foul oath, Percy de Vigne turned upon him—when lo! up from his very feet started Bertram, bound, indeed, still by the legs, but from his great arms he shook the bonds, burnt and charred, and hopped back, and shouted, full-voiced—
"Maison du roy! Maison du roy!"
The great brazier of red charcoal he tore from the ground and lifted high, and hurled it at them, and they sprang back and away pell-mell, stumbling, cursing under the rain of fire. A whistling blow of the empty brazier stretched Percy de Vigne on the stones, and snatching a red iron from the other brazier, Bertram fell on his chest and cried—
"Out, hounds, or I blind him!" And now it was Percy himself whose eyeball the red iron scorched. "Bid your hounds out, hound, out! Else——" closer and closer yet hovered the smoking iron, and Percy screamed—
"Away, fools, away! Out! Away! Out! Oh, my lord, 'twas but a jest. By the Virgin, I swear 'twas but a jest." The men stumbled to the door and there stood gazing.
"I also jest," quoth Bertram, and made the iron quiver a little, so that Percy de Vigne screamed. "Silence, hound! you offend the Lady Enid." With his left hand Bertram drew the glowing brazier nearer, and: "Waits another iron, hounds!" he said, over his shoulder. And they huddled together in the doorway, muttering, cursing.
Bertram, watching always the face of Percy de Vigne, and holding always the iron close, drew Percy's dagger with his left hand, and cut the bonds of his legs and rose stiffly. Then stuck the dagger under his arm, drew a fresh hot iron from the brazier, poised it over Percy's other eye, and put back the first to heat again. "It was growing cold, hound! Roll nearer, Denis." And Denis began to roll. But at that some of Percy's men started in. "Feu d'enfer! thieves, out!" roared Bertram, and let the red iron touch an instant. With very foul oaths, screaming, Percy bade them forth, and—
"Sure, Sir Bertram, I will let you go in all honour and peace. In peace and honour, good Sir Bertram," he whined. But Bertram made him no answer. Now Denis had rolled up to them, and Bertram, stooping an instant, sliced his bonds. "Shut the door, Denis; we would be alone," said Bertram.
Tottering, numb and stiff, Denis rose and stumbled to the door. The men swore at him, but durst no more, and the door was shut. "Irons, man, irons!" muttered Bertram; and Denis looked dazed an instant, then caught up two of the torture irons that were pointed, and drove them under the door, so that they held like wedges. Bertram changed to a new hot iron again, and: "Your lady now," he said quietly; and Denis sprang at her and cut her bonds, and kissed her and her hands and her feet, and chafed her poor numb limbs.
Now, all this while, Percy was whining out that he would let them go—with presents—with noble presents—would serve the King—would serve him well—would——
"All in good time," quoth Bertram. "Denis, man, at your leisure—thongs and a gag." So while for fear of the red iron Percy dared not cry, they bound him and gagged him even as he had done to them. Denis was something zealous to draw tight the thongs. Then Bertram put back his iron in the fire and drew a long breath.
"Faith! lady, I grieve that I had that to do before your eyes. I grieve also that a while I must ask you to wait here. She ran to him and caught his hand and kissed it. "Why will you shame me?" says he laughing, and gently put her by. He took up the torturer's mallet, and swinging it on high,tighter the wedges under the door.
"Ah, Sir Bertram, but for you——"
"Now, is it like that I am grieved to be here?" says Bertram, with his deep laugh. But Denis sat apart, with his head on his hands: he remembered the letter and was ashamed. Now, that letter it seemed that Bertram had forgotten altogether. He fetched a block to the door, and drew Percy de Vigne's sword, and sat himself down and dandled the blade; and ever he chuckled, for he saw much humour in the matter.
"What do we do, Bertram?" said Denis at last.
"We await the deeds of Bedivere," quoth Bertram, and chuckled again.
"Bedivere?" cried Enid.
"My good horse," said Bertram. "Him they did not capture."
For Sir Bertram, falling, had let go his bridle-rein. Bedivere, rearing, had turned, and Bertram heard the sound of his galloping hoofs—wherefore Bertram resolved that whoever had caught him should not slay him speedily. Hence that slow ride.
Fast Bedivere galloped back and came to the door of Sir Bertram's quarters and whinnied loud. Out came Bertram's squire Arthur, and caught the bridle and swore aloud; felt the hot, heaving sides, muttered: "A two-mile gallop. Three haply." Shouted then within to the men-at-arms: "Saddle, saddle! Sir Bertram is taken!" then vaulted on Bedivere and galloped off to the quarters of Sir John of Netherby—he that was John Bowlegs. Now, Sir John, who went early to bed, was just roused to hear the plaint of a yeoman that his daughter was carried away by the Welsh, and Sir John came waddling in, in his bedgown, to Enid's father and Arthur the squire.
Scarce were the two brief stories told when Sir John puts his head out of window and shouts: "Trumpets! Ho, rogues! trumpets! Sound to horse! Kick me up a two-score bowmen! Hubert, my breeches!—Dick, the mail! Fetch me Stephen Armstrong, Arthur, lad. Off he waddled to his breeches, while the blare of the trumpets sounded in the street, and the men-at-arms came running out, buckling their mail as they ran.
Mark them soon moving off into the night, mounted men three-score, bowmen a score hanging to the stirrup-leathers, and in front a long, lean man running behind a dog in leash. Stephen Armstrong the border tracker and his lurcher Curtail were on Bedivere's first trail. Or ever a knight came galloping from the King's pavilion beyond the town to learn why the trumpets blared, Stephen Armstrong was a mile away.
And the Lady Elinor sat at her window, gazing wide-eyed into the blue darkness. And the King, when the tale was told him, swore by Our Lady of Walsingham he would hang Percy de Vigne and all his men if Bertram were scathed. Which was not much to the purpose: but the King was choleric. Then the King bade send riders to keep close with Sir John's force, and a string of riders to bear back news from moment to moment. Which was very much to the purpose, for the King was a great soldier.
It needs not tell how Curtail the lurcher came to the place where Bertram was surprised and ran round in a circle; nor how Stephen Armstrong saw the dead man and gave one look and said "De Vigne's!" and ran on in the dark.
Go back now to the torture-room, where Bertram sits dandling a sword and smiling to himself; where Denis sits with Enid's hand in his arm, distraught, ashamed.
"Bertram," says Denis at last in a low voice.
"’Twas I wrote that letter."
"And glad of it I am," said Bertram lightly.
"For fear of torture—brought you to torture——"
"Ah, Denis!" cried the girl. "Sir Bertram, 'twas I that they were to torture, and 'twas fear for me. Ah, Sir Bertram, I am ashamed; but—but—truly 'twas overhard——" Bertram came and gripped Denis's hand.
"Denis, what man dare blame?" he said, "Not I, faith! nor any man that hath loved." Then he laughed. "Pardi, what hurt have I? And——" Some sound came from without—the dull tramp of feet, the clatter of steel. Bertram ran to the narrow slit that served for window. The crag was alive with men. The whicker of arrows sounded soft and clear.
"Maison du roy!" roared Bertram.
"De par le roy!" came an answering shout, and in a moment he heard the crash of axes on the door of the tower.
Rose the wild cries of a fight. "Bowmen, bowmen! Roundly all! Strike! Strike!" and the thunder and crash of the blows on the door.
Then came some who rapped at that torture-room, screaming: "My lord, what is to do? My lord!" but Percy de Vigne could make no sound.
"’Twere better had you asked earlier," quoth Bertram coolly, and tried the weight of the sword. They beat upon the panels without; they flung themselves at the door, and it yielded. Bertram put the sword in Denis's hand. "'’Tis over-light!" said he, and took two red irons from the brazier. "Lady, your pardon. Look from the window," said he. Torn from the hinges, the door burst inward, and the irons and the sword fell to work with a shout: "Maison du roy!" and the long irons kept the threshold clear: who dodged beneath them met Denis, and Denis had his honour to win again. And soon up the stair came shouting the men of the King's House, and Percy de Vigne's men were driven up to their death.
Up the stair came waddling John Bowlegs—his pardon! Sir John of Netherby—crying: "Bertram, lad, Bertram!" and fairly hugged him. Then saw Denis, and hugged him too. And would have hugged Enid for what I know, but he saw Percy de Vigne and fell a-spluttering with laughter.
So very gaily, chanting the song of the King's House, the company came back to Oswestry town as the dawn broke.
But I remember I have not told how Denis was made knight. That day, when the sun was setting, the King held a Court—so that day nor Denis and Enid might be under the oak-tree, nor Bertram and Elinor by the sweet-briar hedge. The King must needs have them all and hear their story. Then Denis flushed and hung his head, and Enid blushed and looked away. With his eyes turned to the ground, Denis bluntly told his tale; had come to Percy's order for the letter when——
"By your good leave, my lord, now comes my part," quoth Bertram, stepping forward. "Even under threat of torment, write he would not. So this rascal Percy writes a note in a quavering, broken hand, and 'twas brought to me. The rest is little matter."
"Little matter!" quoth the King, laughing. "Faith the best is to come." But Denis looked at Bertram and could not speak. Enid smiled at Bertram, and she, with a curtsy to the King, told his deeds.
"Nay, lady, much you make of little!" cried Bertram soon.
"If this be little, save me from his much!" cried the King. And Bertram, seeing him in happy temper, knelt and said—
"My lord, a boon! Twice Denis saved me. Once from the red iron. Once in the fight at the doorway. Pray you, my lord, pay him." And the Lady Elinor came forward and curtsied low.
"My lord, I pray you. For so Denis, daring, saved my love." The King sprang up.
"By 'r Lady of Walsingham, never with better heart!" he cried. And there, before all the Court, made Denis knight.
But afterward Denis and Enid came to Bertram and Elinor, and—
"Lady, to you, what he would not tell, we must," said Denis. "Bertram would not shame me, but I am shamed." And so he told the true story, while Elinor listened with misty eyes. "Now, lady, you will know how to think of me," said Denis at last and turned sadly away. Enid and he were going, when Elinor cried—
"Sir Denis!" and caught his hand and Enid's. "My friends, my friends, how can I blame?" she said softly. "Ah, Sir Denis! is it not better so? And now surely we must thank God and Our Lady."
"For Sir Bertram," said Enid, and a light came in Elinor's eyes.
"Aye," she said very low.
"For a little matter, then, pardi!" cried Bertram, laughing. Elinor turned, looked smiling up at him as he stood square, broad of shoulder and mighty of limb.
"In truth, you are not a little matter, my lord," said she, with a soft laugh, happy.
- Copyright, 190ft, by Ward, Lock and Co., Limited, in the United States of America.