The Devil of Marston

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'TIS the old book that bids you admire here in this tale the nobility of Sir Bertram D' Aylesford; and Fulke who wrote it, the little man, adds that no man dare ever speak of the story to Sir Bertram's self. Now it is strange, says the old book—saying it at great length—it is strange that Sir Bertram D'Aylesford, who was but a man-of-arms at the first, and spite of it married the fairest maid in England, was hailed comrade by King Edward, lorded it in three good shires—strange it is that this man made scarce one enemy of all those whom he passed in the race to fortune and power. Well! Six hundred years are gone and more since Bertram buckled on his golden spurs, and it may be we are cynics all, and sneer at Fulke's heroics. Yet Fulke, whose words I give you, if he was not a cynic, was yet no fool, and I seem to hear Fulke give us back sneer for sneer as he goes on: "Ye doubt me, gentles? Very sure are ye that ye would have held this great man in despite. Doubtless ye know—yourselves!" Strange also, as Fulke thinks, it was that God and Our Lady chose a very evil man to bring two good men to honour and love each other. Fulke is apt to think things strange.

But surely a very evil man he was—Giles Dentnoire, his name—but men called him, as he called himself, the Devil of Marston. An unkind Fate made him a younger son; which was very ill for Giles Dentnoire, but worse for his brother Amaury, whom Giles stabbed in his cups for the sake of their father's heritage. But again was Fate unkind. For it was in the days of the great Earl, Simon of Montfort, and Earl Simon fell upon the murderer and drove him into outlawry. It was then that Giles began to merit his name in good earnest. The tale of the things he did is writ in bad Latin, and in Latin it is best left. From one deed of his you may judge the rest. He and his men had stolen a woman and her babe away to their lair at Marston. The Devil of Marston made the woman serve him in his cups while the babe cried to her from the ground. For fear of his threats to the babe she did it, weeping, white-faced. Foul oaths and fouler laughter rang loud about her; at last they began to heed her less. They were jeering at a man whose head was weaker than the rest, who was madly drunk, and that man staggered to his feet suddenly and cried—

"Why—Captain— Captain Devil—you be going round and round!" At that the Devil of Marston laughed, and his men with him. But the drunken man brushed his hand across his eyes: "Why—Captain—why—the Devil has you! He be swinging you round—and round—and round."

The Devil of Marston sprang up with an oath, and he caught the babe from the floor and flung it at the drunkard. The babe and the man fell together, and the babe was dead. Then the mother ran forward screaming, and she caught her babe to her bosom and kissed its bloody head, and she sobbed, while the Devil of Marston laughed. She heard that fiendish laughter, and, fearless now, she hissed through her teeth: "God grant you may die so! Ah! God grant that you shall die so!" But the Devil of Marston laughed, and he said: "Let your God try!"

You may guess what manner of man he was by that; and that was nowise the worst of his deeds. In the midst of them came to the throne a new King. Slowly he made men feel his power; slowly the iron arm gathered the realm in its grasp; and little by little even the Devil of Marston in his lair on the Welsh marches felt the grip grow hard. Then he thought of craft. One of the great lords hard by was at feud with the King, and the Devil of Marston sent a man to the King offering to slay that lord for a price.

And now we come to Fulke's tale.

The Devil's man came from one knight to another with his errand till at the last he reached Sir Stephen, the captain of the King's House. Now, Sir Stephen was stout and choleric, and when the Devil's man hinted at his errand, Sir Stephen's face flushed and he cried—

"Death of my life!" then suddenly he broke off. "So you would see the King, sirrah?"

"As I told you," said the Devil's man. And Sir Stephen chuckled.

"Certainly you shall see the King!" said he.

So the Devil's man was given audience. With his hand in his belt, he stood fronting the King.

"I come from Giles Dentnoire," said he.

"They call him the Devil of Marston," said Robert Burnell, the Chancellor, softly. The Devil's man turned to him, ready for a hot answer. But Robert Burnell smiled.

"Go on," said the King. His dark brows were lowering.

"Sir King, I bring you an offer from Giles Dentnoire."

"Offer!" said Robert Burnell softly. The King's right hand clenched.

"Go on," said the King.

"You have a quarrel with Robert of Wenlock. Giles Dentnoire hath the will to deal with him so that he shall not trouble the King; and for that—for that——" he began to stammer. The King's dark eyes were blazing. The veins in his temples were swollen with anger. Through his teeth he had muttered—

"Splendour of Heaven!"—that only; but the Devil's man began to be afraid.

"And for that?" said Robert Burnell softly.

"For that you shall give Giles Dentnoire Robert's lands," said the Devil's man hastily.

"Spawn of Mahound! would you sell your murders to me?" thundered the King. But the Devil's man had his courage.

"Will you buy, Sir King?" he said bluntly. Then the guard took a step forward, watching the King; but the Devil's man had no fear of armed men, though he might tremble at the hot wrath of the King. He glanced at the guard and laughed. "Will you buy?" said he.

"By the saints of Heaven!" the King cried; then he stopped, seeing the man meet his glance coolly, standing there with folded arms in a throng where was not one but would have slain him at a word from the King. The guard came clanking forward another step.

"Go!" said the King, pointing to the door; and as the man walked away: "Take heed to your life if you meet me again."

So the Devil's embassy went back down the hall. On the threshold he paused.

"Take heed to yourself, Sir King," he cried, "for the Devil is loosed!"

Then Sir Stephen, the captain of the King's House, said—

"May we follow him, sire?" The King shook his head.

"Even with the Devil we keep faith," he said; and Sir Stephen looked downcast. "Nay, never grieve for that, Stephen," cried the King. "Shalt hunt him none the less," and Sir Stephen fell on his knee and kissed the King's hand in great joy. But that night a homestead flared scarce half a mile from the King's outer guard; and when John Bowlegs, the sergeant of the guard, rode down with his men through the darkness, they found nought but blazing ricks and a blazing roof. As they came back again, a hoarse voice cried from the darkness.

"The Devil is loosed! Ho, ho! The Devil is loosed!" And the guard were very wroth.

So the next morning early, Sir Stephen rode out in great anger to hunt the Devil of Marston, and with him went half the King's House, angry likewise.

But it was a lesser company that came back after nightfall—a throng of jaded horses and wounded men; and when Sir Stephen walked up the hall, his chin was on his breast.

"Sire, I have failed," he said in a low voice. "I have lost a dozen good men, and still the Devil is loose." The King frowned. Then through the hall rang a child's cry—

Hawold! My Hawold! " The King looked round him questioning.

"That is the child we saved," said Sir Stephen.

"And this Harold?" said the King sharply.

"Him we lost," said Sir Stephen in a low voice.

"Tell me," growled the King.

"A yeoman's children by Braxted Mill they were," said Sir Stephen. "Thither we came too late. The Devil's men were in, her father and mother slain. "We chased them out, and we saved her—her brother they took——"

"Did ye not follow?" growled the King.

"That did we. Chased them till we were scattered——"

"Scattered!" echoed the King scornfully.

"Aye, sire, 'tis my blame," said Sir Stephen; and then the King might have softened to him, but the child wailed again—

"My Hawold! My Hawold!"

"Bring her in!" cried the King; and Sir Stephen went doggedly on with his tale.

"Then, out of the cleft in the hills, the Devil charged us as twilight fell—there, sir, I lost your men."

"But I want my Hawold!" cried the child in the doorway.

The King muttered an oath and rose from his chair; he passed Sir Stephen without a look and came to the door. A little, dark-haired maid was struggling in the arms of one of his men.

"But I want my Hawold! I don't want your King!" she cried.

The deep voice sounded close to her ear—

"I am the King, little maid." The big, sinewy hand patted her wet cheek. "Never weep now; be a brave lady." The grim face lit up with a slow, sad smile. "Harold is happy that you are safe."

"He was angwy with me," sobbed the child. "Oh! I want my Hawold—and I hit him yester morning."

The King stood still stroking her hair.

"Must I march against this brigand with ban and arrière-ban?" that had been his thought a minute earlier. Now he wondered: "Can I save this boy?" And while he pondered and the little child sobbed, out of the darkness came a thunderous chantey—

For mail shall ring,
And helms we'll ding,
Comrades—comrades—Maison du roy!

The words rolled on to the music of clashing hoofs and swords.

And bones shall crack
Ere we come back,
Comrades—comrades—Maison du roy!

Then riding into the light from the doorway came six men in flashing mail; to each man's stirrup was bound a prisoner, only the leader had one on either side. The child dried her eyes to stare.

"Splendour of Heaven! who are ye?" cried the King.

"We are the night-guard, sire," said the leader, whose name was Bertram. "These be the night-thieves, sire."

"The Devil's men?" cried the King.

"Aye, foul fare ye! The Devil's men!" growled one of the captives. Bertram swung to the ground and he laughed.

"By the best of fortune, my lord, the Devil's own men. We threw the outer guard further afield and doubled the outer posts this even. We heard faintly a din at the Coppice Farm, and by the meadows we came thereto silently. Without the steading were horses tethered, a dozen in all—them we cut loose and drove away; and then a blithe hunt we had for the Devil's men, till five we slew and seven we took!"

"We! we! we!" said the King. "Who was sergeant of the guard this even?" And Bertram bowed. "Ha! And who doubled the outer posts?" Bertram bowed. "And who planned the onrush at the Coppice Farm?" Bertram saw Sir Stephen standing by in the gloom, and mindful of the day's disaster, he said—

"I did but copy Sir Stephen's plan in the onfall by Wenlock Edge, where Sir Stephen had won a great fight the year before." But Sir Stephen glowered.

"By 'r Lady of Walsingham! 'tis well you did not copy his plan of to-day!" cried the King. Now, Bertram was young, and the days when his tongue, as Fulke says, was dangerous as his sword had not come yet, and he said like a fool, though he meant kindly—

"My lord, you are over hard on Sir Stephen." The King frowned.

"And wilt thou teach me my part, knave?" he cried angrily. Sir Stephen was angrier still.

"I am much beholden to the sergeant," he sneered.

"Silence!" growled the King. "See these fellows ironed, sergeant. Hast done well." Bertram bowed low and gave the order, and the King turned to the child. "Wilt come with me, little one?" he asked; and the child looked up into his fierce face and held out her arms. So the miller's daughter was borne to Court on the King's breast—a thing whereof she was very proud in the after days.

Sir Stephen was turning sifter the King when Bertram plucked him by the sleeve.

"Sir, I have somewhat to say." Sir Stephen waited, frowning on him. "Sir, I have learnt where the Devil is," said Bertram, whispering.

"Well?" said Sir Stephen, and sneered.

"Why, sir, is 't not of great moment?" cried Bertram in amaze.

"Moment?" snarled Sir Stephen. "Moment? No, save to fools like you. Any one of us might have learnt it of a pedlar, for a crown!" Now, that was not true, and Bertram knew it, and Sir Stephen might have known it but for the angry shame that possessed him.

"Are we to do naught, sir?" said Bertram, wondering.

"Do? Yes, go to him, fool!" cried Sir Sir Stephen angrily. Bertram stared at him as he turned away. Then Bertram saluted, though Sir Stephen's back was towards him, and mounted his horse and rode away without a word to any man. His duty was to obey; also to thank God if obedience offered a high emprise. Bertram thanked God.

That night at supper the King was deep in thought. That night at supper Sir Stephen was moody and silent. But the Devil of Marston was very merry. The old book notes herein the strange ways of God.

From under the shadow of a limestone crag three men sprang out upon Bertram. One seized his bridle, another his sword; and Bertram laughed and suffered it.

"Hereafter do not swear when you be in ambush," he said placidly. " 'Tis like to spoil your sport." The three cursed him in unison and inquired in the name of many and diverse devils why he came that way.

"De par le roy!" said Bertram. "In the name of the King, gentles."

"Beelzebub!" cried one, and the others gaped.

"Not at all; to see him, gentles," said Bertram.

"To see——?" they cried.

"The Devil," said Bertram. "Your master, the Devil of Marston." At first they only gaped the wider, and then together they burst out laughing.

"Ho, ho, ho! we've seen your like before."

"And I yours," said Bertram, and he also laughed.

"Come off!" they cried, and dragged him to the ground. That also he suffered. They took his mail from him and bound his eyes; his arms they tied behind his back, and Bertram said only—

"I see that your master is brave."

"Come on!" cried one with an oath; "By Beelzebub's fiends! art a fool?"

"Perhaps," said Bertram. So they led the big man, bound and blind and helpless. Many times he stumbled and fell. At first they jeered at him; then, as his stumbling grew tedious, they cursed. But still again and again he fell.

"Fiend seize you! You'll know what the ground feels like," they grumbled as he fell for the fiftieth time. It may be that Bertram smiled, for the moon was not risen and the night was dark.

On a sudden he heard voices. In a moment he knew he was in the light. He heard a voice cry sharp—

"What? What?" Heard his escort answer—

"A fool from Edward Longshanks." Then silence; then a long, cruel laugh, and the bandage was torn roughly from his eyes.

Blinking, he saw he was in a cave lighted by smoking torches. Rude swordsmen sat gaping at him; among them were women in dirty finery, some shameless, some few timid and pale. An old crone waited to serve their master. There at the head of the table he sat, the Devil of Marston, licking his thin lips and smiling.

"Well, fool?" said the Devil of Marston; and again he laughed.

"I had thought you a bigger man," said Bertram.

"Long shanks are weak," said the Devil, jeering at Bertram's King. "Mine are strong—eh, wench?" and he kicked the woman nearest him and laughed. "Well, fool?" Bertram's face had grown a little paler. He shifted his bound arms a little and then smiled,

"I bid you render the boy you took, and render yourself to the King's mercy: de par le roy, Sir Devil."

The Devil laughed long; his men with him, and some of the women. A few looked at Bertram pitifully.

"The fool grows witty," laughed the Devil. Suddenly his face changed. His heavy grey brows came lowering down, his thin lips curled back from his teeth. "And here is my answer, fool—fool!" He hissed the word. "First, the boy shall make sport for us; then you—fool! That for your King!" he spat upon the ground.

"Art a little man to talk so high," said Bertram coolly. "Six-score pounds of skin and bone, I guess thee, Master Devil. Less without thy teeth."

"Bring in the whelp!" cried the Devil, glaring at him.

The boy was brought. His hands were bound behind him with a leathern thong that cut the flesh.

"Set him on the board," said the Devil. And the boy looked fearlessly round, while the men and the shameless women jeered at him. But some few were weeping covertly. "Now, whelp!" said the Devil, and again the thin lips curled back. "Your sire is broiling in hell, so dance for joy!" There was a burst of laughter. The boy stood still. "Soon shalt be with him," said the Devil. Bertram laughed loud, above all the rest. "Dance! dance, whelp! as your mother dances with the fiends!" Again the laugh rang loud, and Bertram's loudest; but through the laughter came another, sharper sound, and the Devil's quick ear caught it and he turned. It was the sound of a snapped rope.

"Fool of the fiend!——"

Right and left Bertram's great arms shot out. Right and left his guards fell stunned. And he rushed at the Devil of Marston and caught the wretch by the middle and swung him aloft like a flail.

"De par le roy!" he thundered, "De par le roy!" and the Devil of Marston was swung round in the air cursing, and his body bore down his own men, and Bertram broke his way to the door.

But they say that the old crone who served the table shrieked aloud—

"God hath answered! God is just!"

For the Devil of Marston's head was bloody, even as her own babe's had been long ago.

The boy had sprung from the table at the first, and with the Devil's shattered head Bertram beat down a man who would have stayed him, and together the two ran down the steep hillside. And Bertram as he ran cried again—

"De par le roy! Gentles, de par le roy!"

The Devil of Marston lay limp on his shoulder. His wages on earth were paid.

Lightly Bertram ran, giving a hand to the boy sometimes. It was not for nothing he had fallen fifty times on that path. It was not for nothing he had let them take his mail without a word. He whistled shrill, and his horse neighed in answer.

"Canst ride?" he muttered to the boy. The Devil was something heavy.

"Aye," said the boy, breathless. Then, as Bedivere came trotting to meet them, he flung the Devil across the saddle and swung the boy up after him. One glance he gave behind him; no man was mounted yet. One last shout.

"De par le roy!" he gave ere he clapped his hand on Bedivere's quarter and caught the stirrup-leather as the roan sprang forward in the gloom.

It was long after Bertram had gone that one of the night-guard came to the door of the hall and peered in, looking puzzled. In a moment he stole in and sidled furtively up the hall till he stood behind Sir Stephen's chair; he touched Sir Stephen's arm and whispered—

"Sir—'tis time to go the rounds."

"And what a plague is that to me?" cried Sir Stephen. "Where is your knave of a sergeant?"

"Heaven knows, sir!—or you belike," said the corporal dutifully. Sir Stephen turned in his chair, and his face was white.

"What dost mean, corporal?" he muttered.

"By 'r Lady, sir, you bade him go to the Devil of Marston. Body o' me, I think he hath gone." Sir Stephen fell back in his chair muttering—

"God ha' mercy upon us!" Choleric he was, but no coward ever, and he rose from his chair and walked slowly towards the King; but ere he reached the gilt chair came a great din without, and, above all, a deep voice shouting—

De par le roy! Comrades, de par le roy!"

"The King looked up from his wine.

"What is this brawl?" he growled. Sir Stephen stood still in amaze. The noise took form, became a song; for the second time that night the night-guard broke into that boastful chantey—

No sword nor mail
'Gainst us avail,
Comrades—comrades—Maison du roy!
So skulls will crack
Ere we come back,
Comrades—comrades—Maison du roy!

The King swore by St. John of Beverley first, and Our Lady of Walsingham next, and in the midst of the last invocation the door of the hall flew wide. Into the light came Bertram, with something shapeless lying over his shoulder; a child had hold of his hand. Behind him his comrades jostled each other and chuckled.

"Splendour of Heaven!" cried the King wrathfully.

"Nay, sir; of hell!" said Bertram, and down on the floor before the King's feet he flung the dead Devil of Marston.

"The Devil—the Devil himself!" the words sprang from Sir Stephen's lips as he saw the grizzled hair and the sharp, cruel face.

"The Devil himself!" muttered the King, and for a moment he looked at Bertram, who stood there with his thick hair drenched with sweat and his great chest heaving. "Sit down, man," he said quickly, and he pushed Bertram into his own chair and filled him a cup of wine.

"How long hast been the King's knight-errant?" said he. "Who sent you devil-slaying, master sergeant?" Sir Stephen touched the King's arm.

"That I can tell, my lord," said he.

"You?" cried the King, turning to him.

"My lord, I," said Sir Stephen, fronting the King boldly. "Bertram had learnt of the Devil's lair. He told me of it, my lord, and I, being wroth, would not heed him. When he pressed me, I bade him go seek the Devil himself, and alone. This I did in anger, my lord, like a fool." So Sir Stephen confessed before them all. The King stood frowning. But Bertram set down the wine-cup with a clang.

"Sir Stephen, my lord, hath strangely forgot——" he cried, and stopped for breath.

"What?" said the King sharply. Then Bertram looked hard at Sir Stephen.

"How I jeered at him," said Bertram. "Sought to rouse his anger," said Bertram. "Boasted of mine own deeds," said Bertram. "Bore myself as an insolent fool," said Bertram; and then he turned to the King. "My lord, I went only because there was no other way to avoid disgrace at his hands and yours."

The King was puzzled. He looked at Robert Burnell, but Robert Burnell only smiled and glanced at Sir Stephen, who shook his head.

"This I have not forgotten, my lord," he smiled sadly at Bertram. "For I never heard it till now. Bertram bore himself like one of the King's House. I, like a fool."

Succeeded silence. And in the midst of it the boy cried suddenly—

"My lords, you should have seen it, my lords! 'Twas grand! This lord burst his bonds, and he swung the Devil about his head as a teamster swings his whip. Therewith he beat them, my lords. Ah! 'twas grand!"

The King patted the child's head.

"Here is one who knows a brave deed!" said he, and he began to smile. He laid his hand on Sir Stephen's shoulder. "Stephen, I think here be more who have erred than you. I also spoke in my wrath. I to you; you to Bertram; and here lies the Devil at our feet. Stephen, what shall we do to this knave who hath put us all to shame?" Then Bertram said quickly—

"Please you, my lord, another cup of wine." And they all laughed as men laugh freed from restraint. The King gave it, and Bertram gave it to the boy. But the boy ere he drank said—

"Sir, is Molly safe?"

"Safe," said the King; and the boy drank.

Robert Burnell, the Chancellor, who knew the ways of the King, reached forward suddenly and took from the wall the King's own sword, and drew it and gave it to the King, and the King, dandling it as a thing he loved, said laughing—

"But who will vouch for his valour?"

"My lords, I will," cried the boy.

"My lords, I will," said Sir Stephen.

"My lords, he does!" said the King, pointing to the dead Devil of Marston. So the King made Bertram knight. And Sir Stephen did off his own golden spurs and laid them in Bertram's hand.

And now, perhaps, you can guess why it was that Bertram made scarce one enemy of all those whom he passed in life's race. Now you see how God and Our Lady chose a very evil man to bring Sir Stephen and Sir Bertram into honour and love of each other. Now you know that the Devil's man saw true when he saw the Devil's death a dozen of years before. And, perhaps, like the old book, you may think it strange.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1961, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.