Upon his return home, after relating to his mother the events of the morning's conflict, Cuthbert took his way to the cottage inhabited by an old man who had in his youth been a mason.
"Have I not heard, Gurth," he said, "that you helped to build the Castle of Wortham?"
"No, no, young sir," he said; "old as I am, I was a child when the castle was built. My father worked at it, and it cost him, and many others, his life."
"And why was that?" asked Cuthbert.
"He was, with several others, killed by the baron, the grandfather of the present man, when the work was finished."
"But why was that, Gurth?"
"We were but Saxon swine," said Gurth bitterly, "and a few of us more or less mattered not. We were then serfs of the baron. But my mother fled with me on the news of my father's death. For years we remained far away, with some friends in a forest near Oxford. Then she pined for her native air, and came back and entered the service of the franklin."
"But why should your mother have taken you away?" Cuthbert asked.
"She always believed, Master Cuthbert, that my father was killed by the baron, to prevent him giving any news of the secrets of the castle. He and some others had been kept in the walls for many months, and were engaged in the making of secret passages."
"That is just what I came to ask you, Gurth. I have heard something of this story before, and now that we are attacking Wortham Castle, and the earl has sworn to level it to the ground, it is of importance if possible to find out whether any of the secret passages lead beyond the castle, and if so, where. Almost all the castles have, I have been told, an exit by which the garrison can at will make sorties or escape; and I thought that maybe you might have heard enough to give us some clue as to the existence of such a passage at Wortham."
The old man thought for some time in silence, and then said,--
"I may be mistaken, but I think a diligent search in the copse near the stream might find the mouth of the outlet."
"What makes you think that this is so, Gurth?"
"I had been with my mother to carry some clothes to my father on the last occasion on which I saw him. As we neared the castle I saw my father and three other of the workmen, together with the baron, coming down from the castle towards the spot.
As my mother did not wish to approach while the baron was at hand, we stood within the trees at the edge of the wood, and watched what was being done. The baron came with them down to the bushes, and then they again came out, crossed the river, and one of them cut some willows, peeled them, and erected the white staves in a line towards the castle. They walked for a bit on each side, and seemed to be making calculations. Then they went back into the castle, and I never saw my father again."
"Why did you not go in at once according to your intention?"
"Because my mother said that she thought some important work was on hand, and that maybe the baron would not like that women should know aught of it, for he was of suspicious and evil mind. More than this I know not. The castle had already been finished, and most of the masons discharged. There were, however, a party of serfs kept at work, and also some masons, and rumour had it that they were engaged in making the secret passages. Whether it was so or not I cannot say, but I know that none of that party ever left the castle alive. It was given out that a bad fever had raged there, but none believed it; and the report went about, and was I doubt not true, that all had been killed, to preserve the secret of the passage."
Cuthbert lost no time in making use of the information that he had gained.
Early next morning, at daybreak, he started on his pony to Wortham.
As he did not wish the earl or his followers to know the facts that he had learned until they were proved, he made his way round the camp of the besiegers, and by means of his whistle called one of the foresters to him.
"Where is Cnut?" he asked.
"He is with a party occupied in making ladders."
"Go to him," Cuthbert said, "and tell him to withdraw quietly and make his way here. I have an important matter on which I wish to speak to him,'"
Cnut arrived in a few minutes, somewhat wondering at the message. He brightened greatly when Cuthbert told him what he had learned.
"This is indeed important," he said. "We will lose no time in searching the copse you speak of. You and I, together with two of my most trusty men, with axes to clear away the brush, will do. At present a thing of this sort had best be kept between as few as may be."
They started at once and soon came down upon the stream.
It ran at this point in a little valley, some twenty or thirty feet deep. On the bank not far from the castle grew a small wood, and it was in this that Cuthbert hoped to find the passage spoken of by Gurth.
The trees and brushwood were so thick that it was apparent at once that if the passage had ever existed it had been unused for some years.
The woodmen were obliged to chop down dozens of young saplings to make their way up from the water towards the steeper part of the bank.
The wood was some fifty yards in length, and as it was uncertain at which point the passage had come out, a very minute search had to be made.
"What do you think it would be like, Cnut?" Cuthbert asked.
"Like enough to a rabbit-hole, or more likely still there would be no hole whatever. We must look for moss and greenery, for it is likely that such would have been planted, so as to conceal the door from any passer-by, while yet allowing a party from inside to cut their way through it without difficulty."
After a search of two hours, Cnut decided that the only place in the copse in which it was likely that the entrance to a passage could be hidden, was a spot where the ground was covered thickly with ivy and trailing plants.
"It looks level enough with the rest," Cuthbert said.
"Ay, lad, but we know not what lies behind this thick screen of ivy. Thrust in that staff."
One of the woodmen began to probe with the end of a staff among the ivy. For some time he was met by the solid ground, but presently the butt of the staff went through suddenly, pitching him on his head, amidst a suppressed laugh from his comrades.
"Here it is, if anywhere," said Cnut, and with their billhooks they at once began to clear away the thickly grown creepers.
Five minutes' work was sufficient to show a narrow cut, some two feet wide, in the hill side, at the end of which stood a low door.
"Here it is," said Cnut, with triumph, "and the castle is ours. Thanks, Cuthbert, for your thought and intelligence. It has not been used lately, that is clear," he went on. "These creepers have not been moved for years. Shall we go and tell the earl of our discovery? What think you, Cuthbert?"
"I think we had better not," Cuthbert said. "We might not succeed in getting in, as the passage may have fallen farther along; but I will speak to him and tell him that we have something on hand which may alter his dispositions for fighting to-morrow."
Cuthbert made his way to the earl, who had taken possession of a small cottage a short distance from the castle.
"What can I do for you?" Sir Walter said.
"I want to ask you, sir, not to attack the castle to-morrow until you see a white flag waved from the keep."
"But how on earth is a white flag to be raised from the keep?"
"It may be," Cuthbert said, "that I have some friends inside who will be able to make a diversion in our favour. However sir, it can do no harm if you will wait till then, and may save many lives. At what hour do you mean to attack?"
"The bridges and all other preparations to assist us across the moat will be ready to-night. We will advance then under cover of darkness, and as soon after dawn as may be attack in earnest."
"Very well, sir," Cuthbert said. "I trust that within five minutes after your bugle has sounded, the white flag will make its appearance on the keep, but it cannot do so until after you have commenced an attack, or at least a pretense of an attack."
"It may be," Cnut said, "that the door has not been opened as you say for years, but it is certain," and he placed his torch to the hinges, "that it has been well oiled within the last two or three days. No doubt the baron intended to make his escape this way, should the worst arrive. Now that we have the door open we had better wait quiet until the dawn commences. The earl will blow his bugle as a signal for the advance; it will be another ten minutes before they are fairly engaged, and that will be enough for us to break open any doors that there may be between this and the castle, and to force our way inside."
It seemed a long time waiting before the dawn fairly broke--still longer before the earl's bugle was heard to sound the attack. Then the band, headed by Cnut and two or three of the strongest of the party, entered the passage.
Cuthbert had had some misgivings as to his mother's injunctions to take no part in the fray, and it cannot be said that in accompanying the foresters he obeyed the letter of her instructions. At the same time as he felt sure that the effect of a surprise would be complete and crushing, and that the party would gain the top of the keep without any serious resistance, he considered the risk was so small as to justify him in accompanying the foresters.
The passage was some five feet high, and little more than two feet wide. It was dry and dusty, and save the marks on the ground of a human foot going and returning, doubtless that of the man who had oiled the lock the day before, the passage appeared to have been unused from the time that it left the hands of its builders.
Passing along for some distance they came to another strong oaken door. This, like the last, yielded to the efforts of the crowbars of the foresters, and they again advanced. Presently they came to a flight of steps.
"We must now be near the castle," Cnut said. "In fact, I think I can hear confused noises ahead."
Mounting the steps, they came to a third door; this was thickly studded with iron, and appeared of very great strength. Fortunately the lock was upon their side, and they were enabled to shoot the bolt; but upon the other side the door was firmly secured by large bolts, and it was fully five minutes before the foresters could succeed in opening it. It was not without a good deal of noise that they at last did so; and several times they paused, fearing that the alarm must have been given in the castle. As, however, the door remained closed, they supposed that the occupants were fully engaged in defending themselves from the attacks of the earl's party.
When the door gave way, they found hanging across in front of them a very thick arras, and pressing this aside they entered a small room in the thickness of the wall of the keep. It contained the merest slit for light, and was clearly unused. Another door, this time unfastened, led into a larger apartment, which was also at present unoccupied. They could hear now the shouts of the combatants without, the loud orders given by the leaders on the walls, the crack, as the stones hurled by the mangonels struck the walls, and the ring of steel as the arrows struck against steel cap and cuirass.
"It is fortunate that all were so well engaged, or they would certainly have heard the noise of our forcing the door, which would have brought all of them upon us. As it is, we are in the heart of the keep. We have now but to make a rush up these winding steps, and I think we shall find ourselves on the battlements. They will be so surprised, that no real resistance can be offered to us. Now let us advance."
So saying Cnut led the way upstairs, followed by the foresters, Cuthbert, as before, allowing five or six of them to intervene between him and the leader. He carried his short sword and a quarterstaff, a weapon by no means to be despised in the hands of an active and experienced player.
Presently, after mounting some fifty or sixty steps, they issued on the platform of the keep.
Here were gathered some thirty or forty men, who were so busied in shooting with crossbows, and in working machines casting javelins, stones, and other missives upon the besiegers, that they were unaware of the addition to their numbers until the whole of the foresters had gathered on the summit, and at the order of Cnut suddenly fell upon them with a loud shout.
Taken wholly by surprise by the foe, who seemed to have risen from the bowels of the earth by magic, the soldiers of the Baron of Wortham offered but a feeble resistance. Some were cast over the battlement of the keep, some driven down staircases, others cut down, and then Cuthbert, fastening a small white flag he had prepared to his quarter-staff, waved it above the battlements.
Even now the combatants on the outer wall were in ignorance of what had happened in the keep; so great was the din that the struggle which had there taken place had passed unnoticed; and it was not until the fugitives, rushing out into the courtyard, shouted that the keep had been captured, that the besieged became aware of the imminence of the danger.
Hitherto the battle had been going well for the defenders of the castle. The Baron of Wortham was indeed surprised at the feebleness of the assault. The arrows which had fallen in clouds upon the first day's attack upon the castle among his soldiers were now comparatively few and ineffective. The besiegers scarcely appeared to push forward their bridges with any vigour, and it seemed to him that a coldness had fallen upon them, and that some disagreement must have arisen between the foresters and the earl, completely crippling the energy of the attack.
When he heard the words shouted from the courtyard below he could not believe his ears. That the keep behind should have been carried by the enemy appeared to him impossible. With a roar he called upon the bravest of his men to follow, and rushing across the courtyard, rapidly ascended the staircase. The movement was observed from the keep, and Cnut and a few of his men, stationed themselves with their battle-axes at the top of various stairs leading below.
The signal shown by Cuthbert had not passed unobserved. The earl, who had given instructions to his followers to make a mere feint of attacking, now blew the signal for the real onslaught. The bridges were rapidly run across the moat, ladders were planted, and the garrison being paralyzed and confused by the attack in their rear, as well as hindered by the arrows which now flew down upon them from the keep above, offered but a feeble resistance, and the assailants, led by Sir Walter himself, poured over the walls.
Now there was a scene of confusion and desperate strife. The baron had just gained the top of the stairs, and was engaged in a fierce conflict with Cnut and his men, when the news reached him that the wall was carried from without. With an execration he again turned and rushed down the stairs, hoping by a vigorous effort to cast back the foe.
It was, however, all too late: his followers, disheartened and alarmed, fought without method or order in scattered groups of threes and fours. They made their last stand in corners and passages. They knew there was but little hope of mercy from the Saxon foresters, and against these they fought to the last. To the Norman retainers, however, of the earl they offered a less determined resistance, throwing down their arms and surrendering at discretion.
The baron, when fiercely fighting, was slain by an arrow from the keep above, and with his fall the last resistance ceased. A short time was spent in searching the castle, binding the prisoners, and carrying off the valuables that the baron had collected in his raids. Then a light was set to the timbers, the granaries were fired, and in a few minutes the smoke wreathing out of the various loopholes and openings told the country round that the stronghold had fallen, and that they were free from the oppressor at last.
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