The third day after the arrival of the Earl of Evesham there was a great banquet given by the King of France to King Richard and his principal nobles.
Among those present was the Earl of Evesham, and Cuthbert as his page followed him to the great tent where the banquet was prepared.
Here, at the top of the tent, on a raised dais, sat the King of France, surrounded by his courtiers.
The Earl of Evesham, having been conducted by the herald to the dais, paid his compliments to the king, and was saluted by him with many flattering words.
The sound of a trumpet was heard, and Richard of England, accompanied by his principal nobles, entered.
It was the first time that Cuthbert had seen the king.
Richard was a man of splendid stature and of enormous strength. His appearance was in some respects rather Saxon than Norman, for his hair was light and his complexion clear and bright. He wore the moustache and pointed beard at that time in fashion; and although his expression was generally that of frankness and good humour, there might be observed in his quick motions and piercing glances signs of the hasty temper and unbridled passion which went far to wreck the success of the enterprise upon which he was embarked.
Richard possessed most of the qualities which make a man a great king and render him the idol of his subjects, especially in a time of semi-civilization, when personal prowess is placed at the summit of all human virtues. In all his dominions there was not one man who in personal conflict was a match for his king.
Except during his fits of passion, King Richard was generous, forgiving, and royal in his moods. He was incapable of bearing malice. Although haughty of his dignity, he was entirely free from any personal pride, and while he would maintain to the death every right and privilege against another monarch, he could laugh and joke with the humblest of his subjects on terms of hearty good fellowship. He was impatient of contradiction, eager to carry out whatever he had determined upon; and nothing enraged him so much as hesitation or procrastination. The delays which were experienced in the course of the Crusade angered him more than all the opposition offered by the Saracens, or than the hardships through which the Christian host had to pass.
At a flourish of trumpets all took their seats at dinner, their places being marked for them by a herald, whose duty it was to regulate nicely the various ranks and dignities.
The Earl of Evesham was placed next to a noble of Brabant. Cuthbert took his place behind his lord and served him with wines and meats, the Brabant being attended by a tall youth, who was indeed on the verge of manhood.
As the dinner went on the buzz of conversation became fast and furious. In those days men drank deep, and quarrels often arose over the cups. From the time that the dinner began, Cuthbert noticed that the manner of Sir de Jacquelin Barras, Count of Brabant, was rude and offensive.
It might be that he was accustomed to live alone with his retainers, and that his manners were rude and coarse to all. It might be that he had a special hostility to the English. At any rate, his remarks were calculated to fire the anger of the earl.
He began the conversation by wondering how a Norman baron could live in a country like England, inhabited by a race but little above pigs.
The earl at once fired up at this, for the Normans were now beginning to feel themselves English, and to resent attacks upon a people for whom their grandfathers had entertained contempt.
He angrily repelled the attack upon them by the Brabant knight, and asserted at once that the Saxons were every bit as civilized, and in some respects superior, to the Normans or French.
The ill-feeling thus begun at starting clearly waxed stronger as dinner went on. The Brabant knight drank deeply, and although his talk was not clearly directed against the English, yet he continued to throw out innuendoes and side attacks, and to talk with a vague boastfulness, which greatly irritated Sir Walter.
Presently, as Cuthbert was about to serve his master with a cup of wine, the tall page pushed suddenly against him, spilling a portion of the wine over his dress.
"Chastise me!" he said. "Why, I could put you in my pocket for a little hop-of-my-thumb as you are."
"I think," said Sir Jacquelin--for the boys' voices both rose loud--to the earl, "you had better send that brat home and order him to be whipped."
"Sir count," said the earl, "your manners are insolent, and were we not engaged upon a Crusade, it would please me much to give you a lesson on that score."
Higher and higher the dispute rose, until some angry word caught the ear of the king.
Amid the general buzz of voices King Phillip rose, and speaking a word to King Richard, moved from the table, thus giving the sign for the breaking up of the feast.
Immediately afterwards a page touched the earl and Sir Jacquelin upon the shoulder, and told them that the kings desired to speak with them in the tent of the King of France.
The two nobles strode through the crowd, regarding each other with eyes much like those of two dogs eager to fly at each other's throat.
"My lords, my lords," said King Phillip when they entered, "this is against all law and reason. For shame, to be brawling at my table. I would not say aught openly, but I think it is early indeed for the knights and nobles engaged in a common work to fall to words."
"Your Majesty," said the Earl of Evesham, "I regret deeply what has happened. But it seemed, from the time we sat down to the meal, that this lord sought to pass a quarrel upon me, and I now beseech your Majesty that you will permit us to settle our differences in the lists."
King Richard gave a sound of assent, but the King of France shook his head gravely.
"Do you forget," he said, "the mission upon which you are assembled here? Has not every knight and noble in these armies taken a solemn oath to put aside private quarrels and feuds until the holy sepulchre is taken? Shall we at this very going off show that the oath is a mere form of words? Shall we show before the face of Christendom that the knights of the cross are unable to avoid flying at each other's throats, even while on their way to wrest the holy sepulchre from the infidel? No, sirs, you must lay aside your feuds, and must promise me and my good brother here that you will keep the peace between you until this war is over. Whose fault it was that the quarrel began I know not. It may be that my Lord of Brabant was discourteous. It may be that the earl here was too hot. But whichever it be, it matters not."
"The quarrel, sire," said Sir Jacquelin, "arose from a dispute between our pages, who were nigh coming to blows in your Majesty's presence. I desired the earl to chide the insolence of his varlet, and instead of so doing he met my remarks with scorn."
"Pooh, pooh," said King Richard, "there are plenty of grounds for quarrel without two nobles interfering in the squabbles of boys. Let them fight; it will harm no one. By-the-bye, your Majesty," he said, turning to the King of France with a laugh, "if the masters may not fight, there is no reason in the world why the varlets should not. We are sorely dull for want of amusement. Let us have a list to-morrow, and let the pages fight it out for the honour of their masters and their nations."
"It were scarce worth while to have the lists set for two boys to fight," said the King of France.
"Oh, we need not have regular lists," said King Richard. "Leave that matter in my hands. I warrant you that if the cockerels are well plucked, they will make us sport. What say you, gentlemen?"
The Brabant noble at once assented, answering that he was sure that his page would be glad to enter the lists; and the earl gave a similar assent, for he had not noticed how great was the discrepancy between the size of the future combatants.
"That is agreed, then," said King Richard joyously. "I will have a piece of ground marked out on the edge of the camp to-morrow morning. It shall be kept by my men-at-arms, and there shall be a raised place for King Phillip and myself, who will be the judges of the conflict. Will they fight on foot or on horse?"
"On foot, on foot," said the King of France. "It would be a pity that knightly exercises should be brought to scorn by any failure on their part on horseback. On foot at least it will be a fair struggle."
"What arms shall they use?" the Brabant knight asked.
"Oh, swords and battle-axes, of course," said King Richard with a laugh.
"Before you go," King Phillip said, "you must shake hands, and swear to let the quarrel between you drop, at least until after our return. If you still wish to shed each other's blood, I shall offer no hindrance after that."
The earl and Count Jacquelin touched each other's hands in obedience to the order, went out of the tent together, and strode off without a word in different directions.
"My dear lad," the Earl of Evesham said on entering his tent where his page was waiting him, "this is a serious business. The kings have ordered this little count and myself to put aside our differences till after the Crusade, in accordance with our oath. But as you have no wise pledged yourself in the same fashion, and as their Majesties fell somewhat dull while waiting here, it is determined that the quarrel between me, and between you and the count's page, shall be settled by a fight between you in the presence of the kings."
"Well, sir," Cuthbert said, "I am glad that it should be, seeing the varlet insulted me without cause, and purposely upset the cup over me."
"What is he like?" the earl asked. "Do you think that you are a fair match?"
"I doubt not that we are fair match enough," Cuthbert said. "As you know, sir, I have been well trained to arms of all kinds, both by my father and by the men-at-arms at the castle, and could hold my own against any of your men with light weapons, and have then no fear that this gawky loon, twenty years old though he seems to be, will bring disgrace upon me or discredit upon my nation."
"If you think so," the earl said, "the matter can go on. But had it been otherwise, I would have gone to the king and protested that the advantage of age was so great that it would be murder to place you in the list together."
"There is," Cuthbert said, "at most no greater difference between us than between a strong man and a weak one, and these, in the ordeal of battle, have to meet in the lists. Indeed I doubt if the difference is so great, for if he be a foot taller than I, I think that round the shoulders I should have the advantage of him."
"Send my armourer here," the earl said; "we must choose a proper suit for you. I fear that mine would be of little use; but doubtless there are some smaller suits among my friends."
"The simpler and lighter the better," Cuthbert said. "I'd rather have a light coat of mail and a steel cap, than heavy armour and a helmet that would press me down and a visor through which I could scarcely see. The lighter the better, for after all if my sword cannot keep my head, sooner or later the armour would fail to do so too."
The armourer speedily arrived, and the knights and followers of the earl being called in and the case stated, there was soon found a coat of fine linked mail, which fitted Cuthbert well. As to the steel cap, there was no difficulty whatever.
"You must have a plume at least," the earl said, and took some feathers from his own casque and fastened them in. "Will you want a light sword and battle-axe?"
"No," Cuthbert said, "my arms are pretty well used to those of the men-at-arms. I could wield my father's sword, and that was a heavy one."
The lightest of the earl's weapons were chosen, and it was agreed that all was now ready for the conflict to-morrow.
In the morning there was a slight bustle in the camp.
The news that a fight was to take place between an English and a Brabant page, by the permission of the Kings of England and France, that their Majesties were to be present, and that all was to be conducted on regular rules, caused a stir of excitement and novelty in the camp.
Nowhere is life duller than among a large body of men kept together for any time under canvas, and the thought of a combat of this novel kind excited general interest.
In a meadow at a short distance from the camp, a body of King Richard's men-at-arms marked off an oval space of about an acre. Upon one side of this a tent was pitched for the kings, and a small tent was placed at each end for the combatants. Round the enclosure the men-at-arms formed the ring, and behind them a dense body of spectators gathered, a place being set aside for nobles, and others of gentle blood.
At the hour fixed the Kings of England and France arrived together. King Richard was evidently in a state of high good humour, for he preferred the clash of arms and the sight of combat to any other pleasure.
The King of France, on the other hand, looked grave. He was a far wiser and more politic king than Richard; and although he had consented to the sudden proposal, yet he felt in his heart that the contest was a foolish one, and that it might create bad feeling among the men of the two nationalities whichever way it went. He had reserved to himself the right of throwing down the baton when the combat was to cease, and he determined to avail himself of this right, to put a stop to the conflict before either party was likely to sustain any deadly injury.
When the monarchs had taken their places the trumpeters sounded their trumpets, and the two combatants advanced on foot from their ends of the lists. A murmur of surprise and dissatisfaction broke from the crowd.
"My Lord of Evesham," the king said angrily to the earl, who with Count Jacquelin was standing by the royal party, "you should have said that the difference between the two was too great to allow the combat to be possible. The Frenchman appears to be big enough to take your page under his arm and walk off with him."
The difference was indeed very striking. The French champion was arrayed in a full suit of knightly armour--of course without the gold spurs which were the distinguishing mark of that rank--and with his helmet and lofty plume of feathers he appeared to tower above Cuthbert, who, in his close-fitting steel cap and link armour, seemed a very dwarf by the side of a giant.
"It is not size, sire, but muscle and pluck will win in a combat like this. Your Majesty need not be afraid that my page will disgrace me. He is of my blood, though the kinship is not close. He is of mixed Saxon and Norman strain, and will, believe me, do no discredit to either."
The king's brow cleared, for in truth he was very proud of his English nationality, and would have been sorely vexed to see the discomfiture of an English champion, even though that champion were a boy.
"Brother Phillip," he said, turning to the king, "I will wager my gold chain against yours on yonder stripling."
"I think that it would be robbery to take your wager," the King of France said. "The difference between their bulk is disproportionate. However, I will not baulk your wish. My chain against yours."
The rule of the fight was that they were to commence with swords, but that either could, if he chose, use his battle-axe.
The fight need scarcely be described at length, for the advantage was all one way. Cuthbert was fully a match in strength for his antagonist, although standing nigh a foot shorter. Constant exercise, however, had hardened his muscles into something like steel, while the teaching that he had received had embraced all that was then known of the use of arms.
Science in those days there was but little of; it was a case rather of hard, heavy hitting, than of what we now call swordsmanship.
With the sword Cuthbert gained but slight advantage over his adversary, whose superior height enabled him to rain blows down upon the lad, which he was with difficulty enabled to guard; but when the first paroxysm of his adversary's attack had passed, he took to the offensive, and drove his opponent back step by step. With his sword, however, he was unable to cut through the armour of the Frenchman, but in the course of the encounter, guarding a severe blow aimed at him, his sword was struck from his hand, and he then, seizing his axe, made such play with it that his foe dropped his own sword and took to the same weapon.
In this the superior height and weight of his opponent gave him even a greater advantage than with the sword, and Cuthbert knowing this, used his utmost dexterity and speed to avoid the sweeping blows showered upon him. He himself had been enabled to strike one or two sweeping strokes, always aiming at the same place, the juncture of the visor with the helmet. At last the Frenchman struck him so heavy a blow that it beat down his guard and struck his steel cap from his head, bringing him to the knee. In an instant he was up, and before his foe could be again on guard, he whirled his axe round with all its force, and bringing it just at the point of the visor which he had already weakened with repeated blows, the edge of the axe stove clean through the armour, and the page was struck senseless to the ground.
A great shout broke from the English portion of the soldiery as Cuthbert leant over his prostrate foe, and receiving no answer to the question "Do you yield?" rose to his feet, and signified to the squire who had kept near that his opponent was insensible.
King Richard ordered the pursuivant to lead Cuthbert to the royal enclosure.
"You are a brave lad and powerful," the king said, "and has borne yourself in the fight as well as many a knight would have done. If you older, I would myself dub you a knight; and I doubt not that the occasion will yet come when you will do as good deeds upon the bodies of the Saracens as you have upon that long-shanked opponent of yours. Here is a gold chain; take it as a proof that the King of England holds that you have sustained well the honour of his country; and mark me, if at any time you require a favor, bring or send me that chain, and you shall have it freely. Sir Walter," he said, turning to the earl, "in this lad you have a worthy champion, and I trust me that you will give him every chance of distinguishing himself. As soon as you think him fit for the knightly rank I myself will administer the accolade."
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