The Men in Buckram
THE MEN IN
By H. C. BAILEY
FULKE, the little lay brother, he that six hundred years ago wrote in very strange Latin a book of noble histories (that is Fulke's own phrase), has given me the bones and sinew of this tale. I think from a certain archness in Fulke's style—and Fulke's Latin, when it strives to be arch, is most wonderful reading—that the little man thought it a tale of humour. Myself, I hold it for a most moral relation and a warning to sundry my friends.
For the cause of all was nothing but the King's hurry. You cannot think it right that a King should ever be in a hurry. Now, hear what came of that deplorable moment, perpend and hereafter be leisurely.
In the spring of the year of grace 1282, Llywelyn ab Gruffydd broke out of Anglesey and ravaged the four lantreds of Perveddwlad and the marches as far as the very battlements of Chester. But that, of course, we all know. So it happened that, in the summer of 1282, King Edward I. moved westward with a great host to speak with Llywelyn. Now, the gout had laid the Chancellor, Robert Burnell, by the heels, and in his place was only Anthony Bek, the Bishop of Durham. On a day in June, at Market Drayton, Anthony Bek consulted the King on an infinity of small matters. Thus:
"Arises also," says Anthony Bek, sniffing, "the matter of the Lady Elinor of——" The King was in a hurry and—
"Now, why must the Lady Elinor arise?" he snapped.
"—of Tarporley, of Chertsey, of Fawkham, of Meopham and de Lorgnac," says Anthony Bek, who always finished a sentence.
"Does she need more than that?"
"Surely, sir, no," says the Bishop very seriously. "But she being by the decease of her father, Sir Roger of Tarporley, of Chertsey, of——"
"Of heaven, we trust!" cried the King in haste. The Bishop crossed himself.
"This lady, then, sir, the Lady Elinor of——"
"All the earth. My lord bishop, be short!"
"I try, sir, zealously. This Lady Elinor of—of these manors, sir—hath come into wardship of the Crown——"
"Humph. Marry her. Is that all?" Sir Stephen, captain of the King's House, strode in, gleaming in his mail, and to him the King turned eagerly to talk of the host, and heard not the Bishop's—
"She would then need a husband, sir." A moment the King pondered on Sir Stephen's words. Then—
"I keep you but the time to arm me," he cried, and was going.
"But, sir, arises need of a husband," said the Bishop anxiously, and Sir Stephen gaped, knowing not why a bishop needed one.
"Roger de Belesme," snapped the King in a hurry, and went out. It was the first name that rose to his lips.
"Beelzebub!" muttered Sir Stephen, who had met Roger.
"Sir?" said the Bishop, who had not heard, nor yet knew Roger.
"A nom de guerre, my lord," said Sir Stephen.
The Bishop had no knowledge of the lady nor the spouse. To him they were names on a piece of parchment. Wherefore he indited, with flourishes of pen and style, a letter to the Lady Elinor that called her to the Court and advised her of her happy fate. Then the Bishop went to Sir Bertram, the lieutenant of Sir Stephen, and begged him go, take the letter, and bring the lady back. So all things went fairly.
Now see Sir Bertram and his men riding over the mead in the golden dawn, mark the flash and flicker of light on lance-point and mail, hear the melody of steel. Riding two and two, a score of them, they came to the old moss-green house beyond Tarporley. Maids and men running up swept the ground in bows and curtsies. Then it was told Sir Bertram that the Lady Elinor was in the apple-orchard. So Sir Bertram's great charger, Bedivere, must needs pick his feet daintily down the narrow path and through the narrow gap in the high yew hedge, and the huge pair of them, man and horse, backed by the golden sun of a morning in June, came to the orchard and the Dew Pond and a vision. There, standing in the dark dappled water, was an apple-green goddess. Was the hair of her brown, or rich gold? Now this, now that, Sir Bertram saw it. Was the round neck white, or cream as a peach? Or either, or both, it was adorable. For sure she was tall and—the stupid horse must needs toss his head and make her turn to the rattling bridle ere Sir Bertram had looked an instant long. The lady saw a man that in every way was very large. I cannot find out what she thought.
Sir Bertram bowed: "Pardon, lady, and again pardon. I am Bertram, of the King's House, and I bear a letter from the King."
She came through the rippling water to the bank, dropping her gown inch by inch. I do not think that she blushed. Over the soft grass she came, while her little white feet stole in and out under her gown. Down sprang Bertram and knelt to give her the letter. When he rose, she looked into his eyes. She discovered that his were black; he discovered that hers were beautiful.
"From the King, sir? And why?"
"At least, from the Bishop of Durham, in the King's name. It is feared that Tarporley may be in danger of the war, and I am sent to escort you to Whitchurch"; so Bertram telling all he knew. The lady gave him a curtsy.
"In truth I am honoured," she murmured; and he would have given much to know whether she laughed at him or no. Then she broke the seal and began to read that florid letter. Bertram had a chance to watch her face, and he saw it suddenly crimson as a rose. She crumpled the parchment in her hand; her eyes flashed; her bosom rose stormily.
"And is thy name Roger?" she cried sharply.
"I am called Bertram," says he, amazed—and still amazed to hear a little angry laugh and a muttered: "I am spared something, then." She took a step nearer Bertram. "I despise your King!" she cried. Bertram drew himself up.
"You speak of what you do not know, lady." She was aware that she had forgotten her dignity and that he saw it. That made her angry.
"Haply you know a certain Roger de Belesme, Sir Bertram?" Bertram bowed. "And do you honour him?" Bertram laughed.
"Honour? Why, honour! Truth to tell, I had not thought of it with Roger de Belesme."
"I thank you, sir. I am to marry him," says the lady, and with that swept queenly away.
So Bedivere the charger was left to see his master turn to a lichened apple tree and pick at the grey bark with his fingers. Bedivere the charger snorted. Like mere men and women, Bedivere scorned what he did not understand. And still Bertram picked at the bark. For if you know that you are completely a fool, you may as well pick apple bark as aught else.
It was not till the next day that he saw the Lady Elinor again. Then, riding last of his troop, he marked the grace of her as she swayed to her palfrey's paces. His own steed Bedivere felt him grow mightily heavy, as a man does who is dead with weariness and cannot yield to his horse. Now the Lady Elinor (who never once looked at Sir Bertram) saw him a clumsy lump in the saddle and told herself that the boor could not even ride. Justice forgive her! Shall I warn you again of being in a hurry?
So, happily, they came to Whitchurch, and there before the door of the royal pavilion was the Bishop of Durham, there also Sir Roger de Belesme, very splendid in cloth of silver. Plump (says Fulke) he was, and had curling brown hair to his shoulders. Smiling sweetly, he came to help the Lady Elinor to the ground, but she had sprung lightly down ere he reached her. Then Sir Roger, amorous of a lady so well endowed, would have taken her in his arms to kiss her.
She held out her hand to him, so Sir Roger, failing of better, kissed that. She swept him a low curtsy.
"’Tis you are Sir Roger de Belesme, sir?" she said; and Sir Roger was wreathed in smiles and bowed. Then she turned to Sir Bertram, a glum giant on Bedivere. "Sure, sir, I shall never forget your part," said she. Whereat Bertram bowed stiffly like a jointed doll and watched her pass in on Sir Roger's arm.
The next day and the next Sir Roger made love ardently, as a man does to a lady of many manors. What the lady thought of it or of him I profess I cannot tell. Sir Bertram, I know, thought very meanly of both, and, to tell truth, Sir Roger was inches too plump to be romantic. Bertram was not joyous, and that was noted by his friend and sworn brother, young Sir Harry of Silvermere, who, dining with him at the "Wheatsheaf," complained that Bertram did not laugh at his jokes.
"And these same jests have made men laugh these five years past," says Harry. Bertram grunted. "Even my wife laughs at them sometimes." Bertram grunted again. "And if a man can make his wife laugh, sure he can give a laugh to any." Bertram grunted a third time. "But, faith! you are become pig!" cried Harry. Bertram looked at him. "O most noble and chivalric knight, since you saw that lady at Tarporley, you are become a pig." Bertram grew red as the Bordeaux wine. "Ho, ho!" says Harry. "Pigs blush, then!"
"Oh, Harry, stop your tongue!" groaned Bertram.
Sir Harry put down his wine-cup. Sir Harry's smile changed, and—
"I am often a fool," says he. "I did not know . . ." And the two looked at each other awhile. "And what shall we do?" says Sir Harry lightly. For a little Bertram sat, head on hand, then looked up and laughed not gaily.
"Why, thank God for the war," says he. "And fight! Fight!"
"And—forget?" says Harry very quietly, watching him. Bertram nodded. Harry stretched out his hand to Bertram's. "My dear lad," said he.
Now, Sir Harry in the afternoon saw Sir Roger and the Lady Elinor ride in together from hawking, and I fear that he swore. He saw Sir Roger hand the lady from her saddle, and blamed (most unjustly) the way it was done. For Sir Roger was very perfect in the little arts. In went the lady, and Harry, grudging, owned to himself that she walked as a goddess. Sir Roger was left plump and magnificent. Just then it befell that a forester came leading two boarhounds, and one of them slipped the leash and rushed barking round. Sir Roger was tapping his spur noisily with his whip. The sound, belike, displeased Master Boarhound. I know not. At least, white-fanged and roaring, he rushed at Sir Roger. Out came that good knight's dagger, and—and a gripe fell on his dagger hand: a great brown fist knocked the dog's jaws clashing together. He turned a somersault in the air, and arose, chastened, a wiser dog: departed without noise.
"And what a pox wouldst do with the dagger?" growled Sir Stephen—he that owned the brown fist.
"Sir Stephen!" cried Sir Roger haughtily.
"Bah! Steel to a hound? To a woman next!" So Sir Stephen, and turned his broad back. Sir Roger muttered something anent boors and departed. "Bah! There goes a coward!" said Sir Stephen.
"May Heaven," says Harry devoutly, "be praised!" and went off in a hurry.
That night a minstrel sang a Provençal lay while Sir Roger leant plumply amorous over the Lady Elinor's chair; to whom came Sir Harry, and was greeted with a scowl from the knight and a smile from the lady. Even she drew her skirts from the chair at her side that Sir Harry might sit with her. And "The King hath not come, then, Sir Harry?" says the lady.
Harry opened his eyes wider.
"Not yet. On the morrow, I think."
"I am glad. I would speak to him."
And all to himself and silently: "Oho, oho!" said Sir Harry. But aloud—
"Then, doubtless, we move. And, faith! we pine for war, save such"—and he bowed at Sir Roger—"as be more than happy here."
"The Welshmen will not bide our coming. They be," quoth Sir Roger valiantly, "all runagate cowards."
"H'm. Well, at least we lie in a pleasant place. Noble hawking there is on the westward hills." In truth, those hills breed naught; but that, for certain, is what he said.
"We have had no sport," says the lady. "Ah! but we have not been on the hills."
"Not on the hills?" cried Harry, amazed. "Why, 'tis the place of all others." Heaven forgive him the speech.
"The hills are not safe," said Sir Roger sharply. "The border Welsh——"
"Be all runagate cowards," Harry murmured.
The lady laughed.
"Surely we must take to the hills, Sir Roger?" said she.
"Nay, Elinor, in faith——"
"Why, do you fear, sir?"
"I fear naught for myself. But for you——"
"And I fear nor for you nor for myself, sir," said the lady sharply. To which there was no answer. What, indeed, could a lover say? And, having thus aided the course of love, Sir Harry removed himself. His conduct is worthy stern reproof, but mark what he did next!
Bertram he found alone and moody, painting a coat-of-arms. Sir Harry (oh, shame!) dissembled a grin and cried out fiercely—
"Pardi, Bertram. I have sought you long!" The Angel of Truth—if there be one—surely hid his face. "Lad, the fellow Roger is a fool. The mad hothead! Ah, feu d'enfer, the mad hothead! Guess what I have heard? Why, that on the morrow they would go a-hawking on the hills. Think, lad! To take a lady over the march! Oh!—fiend seize him!—sure he is mad! Nay; go he will! He'll not be stayed!" So the veracious Sir Harry—and backed his words with a whole mouthful of oaths.
Since this is a moral tale, let me point the lesson: Trust no man's version of another's words.
"Mad he must be," Bertram muttered with furrowed brow. For the danger was real, and he, the bred soldier, knew it better than a carpet knight such as Roger de Belesme. Feared it, too, more since he feared for one he loved, and the plump Roger only for his own skin. "Aye, mad he must be," muttered Bertram, gazing at Harry: and Harry gazed back and shook a solemn, reproving head at Sir Roger, his rashness. Then—
"By your leave, sir, the tailor," says Harry's squire, putting a solemn face round the curtain. Harry jumped and broke away.
Observe that I do not defend Sir Harry. His conduct was such as all persons of refinement must deplore. Nor now can I excuse him for demanding of the tailor four loose jerkins of yellow leather by the morrow's noon; nor deny that he swore when the tailor said it might not be. I find it very painful to relate that when the tailor meekly offered him buckram, professing that yellow buckram and yellow leather are the same to all men at two paces off, Sir Harry shook the tailor by both hands, and swore by St. Martha of Pewley that he would speak for the tailor in heaven. In fine, they agreed for four jerkins of yellow buckram. None grieves for the iniquity more than I who must relate it, for Aristotle ordains that to friends one ought to tell the truth. Truth-telling is my only joy.
Now we come on the steep, bare hills of the Welsh marches, hard by where Cwm now stands. See a knight and a lady riding, falcon on wrist. The knight peers about him every instant—is, in fact, an apprehensive and plump knight. Far away behind, the sun was glinting on another pair of golden spurs. Followed another knight, a big man, trotting easily, sparing his horse and choosing the best of the turf.
Northward, beyond a crag of limestone, a column of blue smoke smirched the air.
Sir Harry foretold sport. Sport, truly, was found. The two riders are dismounted, and knight and lady watch their falcons soar. The quarry, I think, was naught nobler than a raven, for what else they can have found on those hills, I could never guess. But sport they found. Behold, from that grey limestone crag break a troop of riders in the yellow jerkins of Wales. They scream shrill, haply in Welsh, and their long hair streams in the wind as they gallop. Most horrific are they. Fearsome the javelins they hurl from afar.
To the saddle sprang Sir Roger—never man mounted at better speed—and dashed in his spurs and galloped headlong away.
"Ride, Elinor, ride!" he cried bravely.
But ride, alack! she could not, for she had no horse. The whistling javelins, and the gleam of them had frighted her palfrey, and it broke away from her and fled. Alone she was left to face the most awesome charge of those yellow jerkins. Yelling they galloped on, and now she could see the foam on their horses, the white of the eyes behind the leather vizards. For they wore vizards of leather, these Welshmen, and yet no helmet, which was something strange.
The girl stood alone, straight and very white, one gauntleted hand on her heart. Out from the hillside above broke a great shout—
"Maison du Roy! Maison du Roy!" the hills echoed it rolling back. Galloping madly, down rushed Bedivere and Sir Bertram, an avalanche of war.
The Welshmen pulled up jerkily, looked long at the knight, appeared not to like the air of him. They shook their heads, laughed, and galloped off in the tracks of Sir Roger, who turned his head and saw them and spurred amain. For he judged that they had slain the lady, and had no wish to be with her in heaven for awhile. Yet he remembered to regret that she had been slain before he married her, and not after. Since she had died a maid, her lands, you see, passed to the Crown. So Sir Roger mourned his love and spurred and spurred.
To the Lady Elinor, thus easily saved, came Sir Bertram, crying—
"Art hurt, lady?"
"Ah, 'tis you!" says she, and trembled a little. Down sprang Bertram and caught her hands.
"Art hurt?" he whispered, and his touch, his voice made her all rosy.
"Faith, no!" but she hung on his hands and looked into his eyes long. "But without you, sir——" she said softly. Then: "He—he fled and left me."
"He shall account!" said Bertram through his teeth. Still he held her hands.
"No." Bertram let her hands fall and drew back. She gave a queer little laugh. "What do I care if he flee or bide—such as he?" She stamped her little foot. "Shall I be prey of his, sir? I had rather lie under the sod!"
"Coward andhe is!" said Bertram.
"Yet you brought me to him, knowing!"
"I knew not, lady, nor knew I you." A step he made to her, his eyes afire. His arm was round her—then suddenly back he sprang. Some sound had come to the quick soldiery ear—a sound with which the Yellow Jerkins on Sir Roger's trail had naught to do. With a muttered oath he caught her in his arms and swung to the saddle.
"Here be more!" he muttered in her ear. But she looked up smiling. At least she lay over his heart.
Now these new Welshmen wore yellow indeed, but they shouted not at all nor threw any spears. Two on little mountain ponies, a score on foot, came creeping round the shoulder of the hill. Far away down the valley across the road to safety a thin line of saffron marked another company of foot. Up and up the hill went Bedivere, labouring under the double burden. They struck the level track, and Bedivere was springing forward more freely when he felt the bit.
"Trust me, lady," Bertram whispered, and—
"Always," she said.
The two mounted Welsh broke into a gallop, for a tired horse with a double burden was to be an easy prey. Closer came the patter of the ponies' galloping hoofs, and the sword was not even drawn. Closer and closer yet. And Bertram lifted the girl and, leaning far back in the saddle, set her on the ground. Then on the instant at touch of spur round swung Bedivere, his hind-legs under him. Two feet Bertram swayed in the saddle, and the Welshman's spear rushed bootless by. Not so the Welshman. A mighty backward buffet sent him rolling down the hillside. Not so his fellow, whose spear was jerked from his hand and broken over his head. Stunned he fell, and Bertram vaulted down and snatched his shield, caught up the girl, and galloped away.
"Ah, my knight!" said the girl softly.
"The worst is not met," said Bertram, looking through the sunlight to the yellow coats of the footmen. The girl laughed low. I have never been minded to envy those Welsh footmen who had to meet Sir Bertram charging down upon them with a girl on his heart. Many they were, and stout little men of their hands, and naught had Bertram save Bedivere's speed and his own sword-arm. Still I do not envy those Welshmen. In a cluster they gathered on the track to meet him, and Bertram gave one keen glance at the array, then caught the girl to him and kissed her fiercely.
"Once, love, once!" he muttered hoarsely, and the girl, crushed in his arms, clung to him closer yet.
And then a most strange thing befell. Rose on the air a roar—
"Points! Points!" Shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee, gleaming in chain mail, galloping down from the hill-top came four knights. There were Gilbert of Stoke, and Harold of Kenley, and Raoul de Dormont, and Harry of Silver mere. How can I tell what they were doing on the hills? Down they came, and those footmen in yellow stayed not to meet them—scattered, fled.
"Pardi! This was not in the plan—this was not at all in the plan," mutters Harry, reining up, and: "Oh, by the father of lies! now we must meet Bertram. . . . Raoul, if you laugh, I will break your crackling ribs!" There was a curious choking chuckle from the four. Then, wheeling round, they saluted Bertram gravely, and: "Sorely we grieve you have been troubled by these bickerings, lady," says Harry, solemn as an owl.
"The Lady Elinor is much beholden to you," says Bertram.
"These malapert Welsh!" cried Harry severely. Whereat Raoul gurgled, and the others looked fire and steel at him.
"In truth I thank you all. And they have done me no hurt," said Elinor, who was still between Bertram's arms. There was, you see, no other place.
So, all much content, they began to ride homeward.
"Did you mark that fire on the hills, Harry?" said Bertram.
"Faith, no!" says Harry. The four shaded their eyes and stared like one man. "But indeed——"
"That is a fire," said Gilbert hastily, who was expecting to hear Harry say it was a waterfall or a dragon, and wished to spare his conscience.
"’Tis on the hill," said Raoul.
"Most strange," said Harold. "But, faith! who knows the ways of the Welsh?"
While they are riding back to Whitchurch, let me tell what had happened there. King Edward was come back in high good humour, for all things now were ready for war. With Henry Lacy, the Earl of Lincoln, and Sir Stephen he was walking before his pavilion, when they saw Sir Roger de Belesme spurring over the mead.
"By Gabriel and Michael, here comes a fat loon in haste!" says the king. "Why, 'tis my blissful bridegroom."
"Humph! And is he galloping from his bride or towards her?" growled the Earl of Lincoln.
"Faith, sir, you chose him not for his horsemanship!" said Sir Stephen, for Roger was rolling in the saddle. "Mort de ma rie! if the lady hath seen him on a horse, there will be trouble toward."
On came Roger, riding as men ride with white fear at their elbow, and—
"Hold you, sir!" cried the King, and Sir Roger turned his foaming, spur-galled Steed, crying—
"Ah, good my lord, aid!"
"Aid whom?" cried the King.
"The Lady Elinor. For she is dead!" gasped Roger, whose reason was left on the hillside.
"Dead?" The three roared out the word together.
"Aye, good my lord. Dead, my good lord. Slain by the Welsh."
"Mort de Dieu!" growled the King, drawing back. "Where, then, wert thou?"
"I—I could not save her, my lord," Sir Roger stammered.
"And so saved yourself. Humph! A bridegroom!" says the Earl of Lincoln.
"Do I learn that you fled?" said the King.
"Oh, good my lord, they were on us! She sillily let her palfrey go—they were fairly upon us; they were four to one. What else was I to do? What else had you done yourself, my good lord?"
Burst on him a volley of oaths from the Earl and Sir Stephen. But the King turned short on his heel, and—
"Ask this man where he left the Lady Elinor, Stephen," he said. For him thereafter Roger did not exist.
"Whence hast fled?" said Stephen curtly.
"Why, she would have me go hawking. Oh, by my faith, Sir Stephen, I told her 'twas madness! But go she would, and this is what she hath gained by it. See——"
"Ugh! Is it a man?" growled the Earl of Lincoln.
Then the King tapped him on the shoulder and pointed across the mead. Briskly a little troop was coming.
"Where was your lady slain?" cried Sir Stephen.
"She lies beyond the march. God assoil her!" says Roger, and crossed himself. "You dare not venture, sir."
"I? Tête du diable! I? Dare not?" spluttered Sir Stephen.
The King put a hand on his arm and drew him away, nodding at the riders. Nearer they came and nearer, and certainly you guess who they were.
"To me, gentlemen!" cried the King, and the four looked at each other, and—
"Nor was this in the plan, either," muttered Sir Harry.
The King went out to meet them. The King handed the lady down all blushing to earth, and as Bertram swung down stalwart beside her—
"Bertram? Pardi! I might have guessed it," he said with a smile. Then more gravely: "Lady, I fear you have been in sore danger."
The Lady Elinor fell before him in a curtsy and said in a low voice—
"So please you, my lord; but for this, my love"—she laid her hand in Bertram's arm and blushed—"I had been dead."
"Mordieux! Dead!" came in a rattling whisper from Raoul, and the other three, closing, pushed Raoul to the back.
And Sir Roger de Belesme fell a-gaping.
"Bertram was there?" said the King.
"By your leave, sir, 'tis well he was!" cried Sir Harry. "We others were riding on the march in hope of some small affray. Certain rogues in yellow we saw beset the lady, and Sir Roger nobly fled. We, alack! were too far from these knaves to aid. But for Sir Bertram, who saved her alone, unhelmed, unshielded, beating down two, I do not know where now she had been." And that was most true.
"Sir Harry forgets that he and his friends scattered a company of Welsh footmen," said Bertram.
"A right brave charge," said the lady, and Sir Harry grew very red, and he and his friends appeared uncomfortable.
"You were in danger. I am sorry," Harry muttered.
"But how came Bertram there?" said the Earl of Lincoln.
"My lord, I feared for my love."
"Knowing that rogue De Belesme? Right."
The King took the lady's hand. "Lady Elinor, I have come nigh to doing you a great wrong," he said, and she bowed her head and did not gainsay it. He laid her hand in Bertram's. "Now let it be mine at least to do this." And the man and the maid looked each in the other's eyes.
And Sir Roger de Belesme slunk away.
Now, Sir Harry in his lodging spoke with his fellows thus: "Thank the Virgin we were asked no questions!" and they laughed aloud. "But how a pox could I tell there would be real Welsh?" And they laughed louder. And all the while upon the hilltop vestes de buckramo in flammis et igne solve-bantur, saith Fulke, which means, being interpreted, "the buckram coats burnt smokily."
So ends this moral tale. Observe herein, I pray you, how one sin leads to another. But for the King's hurry there had been no need for Sir Harry to make fiction, nor spend his money on buckram coats, nor had two real Welshmen gone home with broken heads. Blameless only are the two true lovers. Is it not a moral tale?