It was some ten minutes before the men-at-arms rallied sufficiently from their surprise to obey orders. Two bodies were then drawn up, and proceeded at a rapid pace towards the staircases leading to the wall, one on each side of the turret in which they believed that the little body of audacious assailants were still lying. Having reached the wall, the soldiers advanced, covering themselves with their shields, for they had learnt the force with which an English clothyard shaft drawn by a strong hand flies. Many had been killed by these missiles passing through and through the cuirass and backpiece.
No reply being obtained to the summons to surrender, they proceeded to break in with their battle-axes the door of the little turret. Rushing in with axe and pike, they were astonished to find the place empty. A glance over the wall showed the rope still hanging, and the manner of the escape became manifest. The fugitives were already out of sight, and the knights, furious at the escape of the men who had bearded them in the heart of the city with such audacity, and had slain the lord baron and several of his knights, gave orders that an instant pursuit should be organized. It was, however, a full half hour before the city gates were thrown open, and a strong troop of knights and mounted men issued out.
Cuthbert had been certain that an instant pursuit would be set on foot, and the moment that he was out of sight of the battlements, he changed the direction in which he had started, and turning at right angles, swept round the city, still keeping at a distance, until he reached the side next the mountains, and then plunged into the woods on the lower slopes of the hills.
"They will," he said, as they halted breathless from their run, "follow the road towards the south, and scour the country for awhile before it occurs to their thick German skulls that we have doubled back on our tracks. Why, what is it, Cnut?"
This exclamation was provoked by the forester throwing himself on his knees before Sir Cuthbert, and imploring his pardon for the dire strait into which his imprudence had drawn him.
"It was a dire strait, certainly, Cnut. But if you got me into it, at least you have extricated me; and never say more about it, for I myself was near committing the imprudence to which you gave way, and I can well understand that your English blood boiled at the sight of the outrage to the flag of England. Now, let us waste no time in talk, but, keeping to the foot of this mountain, make along as far as we can to the west. We
must cling to the hills for many days' march before we venture again to try to cross the plains. If possible, we will keep on this way until we reach the confines of the country of the Swiss, who will assuredly give us hospitality, and who will care little for any threats of these German barons, should they hear that we have reached their asylum."
By nightfall they had already travelled many leagues, and making a fire in the wood, Cuthbert asked Cnut for an account of what had taken place on the previous day.
"We ran for life, Sir Cuthbert, and had not noticed that you had been drawn into the fray. Had we done so, we would have remained, and sold our lives with yours; but hoping that you had passed unnoticed in the crowd, and that you would find some means to rejoin us, we kept upon our way. After running down three streets, we passed a place where a courtyard with stables ranged round it was open. There were none about, and we entered, and, taking refuge in a loft, hid ourselves beneath some provender. There we remained all night, and then borrowing some apparel which some of the stablemen had hung up on the walls, we issued into the town. As we neared the great square we saw some men employed in erecting a platform in the midst, and a suspicion that all might not be right, and that you might have fallen into the hands of these German dogs, beset our minds. After much consultation we determined to see what the affair meant, and making our way on to the walls, which, indeed, were entirely deserted, we took refuge in that turret where you saw us.
“Seeing the crowd gather, and being still more convinced that some misfortune was about to occur, I again went back to the stables, where I had noticed a long rope used by the carters for fastening their loads to the wagons. With this I returned, for it was clear that if we had to mingle in this business it would be necessary to have a mode of escape. Of the rest you are aware. We saw the knights coming out of the castle, with that portly baron, their lord, at their head. We saw the block and the headsman upon the platform, and were scarcely surprised when you were led out, a prisoner, from the gates. We judged that what did happen would ensue. Seeing that the confusion wrought by a sudden attack from men perched up aloft as we were, commanding the courtyard, and being each of us able to hit a silver mark at the distance of 100 yards, would be great indeed, we judged that you might be able to slip away unobserved, and were sure that your quick wit would seize any opportunity which might offer. Had you not been able to join us, we should have remained in the turret and sold our lives to the last, as, putting aside the question that we could never return to our homes, having let our dear lord die here, we should not, in our ignorance of the language and customs of the country, have ever been able to make our way across it. We knew, however, that before this turret was carried we could show these Germans how five Englishmen, when brought to bay, can sell their lives."
They had not much difficulty in obtaining food in the forest, for game abounded, and they could kill as many deer as seemed fit to them. As Cnut said, it was difficult to believe that they were not back again in the forest near Evesham, so similar was their life to that which they had led three years before. To Cnut and the archers, indeed, it was a pleasanter time than any which they had passed since they had left the shores of England, and they blithely marched along, fearing little any pursuit which might be set on foot, and, indeed, hearing nothing of their enemies. After six days' travel they came upon a rude village, and here Cuthbert learnt from the people--with much difficulty, however, and pantomime, for neither could understand a word spoken by the other--that they were now in one of the Swiss cantons, and therefore secure from all pursuit by the Germans.
Without much difficulty Cuthbert engaged one of the young men of the village to act as their guide to Basle, and here, after four days' traveling, they arrived safely. Asking for the residence of the Burgomaster, Cuthbert at once proceeded thither, and
"We care little," the Burgomaster said, "what quarrel you may have had with your neighbours. All who come hither are free to come and go as they list, and you, as a knight on the return from the Holy Land, have a claim beyond that of an ordinary traveller."
The Burgomaster was himself able to speak French, and summoning several of the councillors of the town, he requested Cuthbert to give a narrative of his adventures; which he did. The councillors agreed with the Burgomaster that Cuthbert must be received hospitably; but the latter saw that there was among many of them considerable doubt as to the expediency of quarrelling with a powerful neighbour. He therefore said to the Burgomaster,--
"I have no intention, honourable sir, of taking up any prolonged residence here. I only ask to be furnished with a charger and arms, and in payment of these I will leave this gold chain, the gift of King Richard himself, as a gage, and will on my return to my country forward to you the value of the arms and horse, trusting that you will return the chain to me."
The Burgomaster, however, said that the city of Basle was not so poor that it need take the gage of an honourable knight, but that the arms and charger he required should be given him in a few hours, and that he might pay the value in London to a Jew merchant there who had relations with one at Basle. Full instructions were given to him, and he resolved to travel down upon the left bank of the Rhine, until he reached Lorraine, and thence to cross into Saxony. The same afternoon the promised horse and arms were provided, and Cuthbert, delighted again to be in harness, and thanking courteously the Burgomaster and council for their kindness, started with his followers on his journey north. These latter had been provided with doublets and other garments suitable to the retinue of a knight, and made a better show than they had done since they first left England.
Leaving Basle, they travelled along the left side of the Rhine by easy stages. The country was much disturbed, owing to the return and disbandment of so many of the troops employed in the Crusades. These, their occupation being gone, scattered over the country, and France and Germany alike were harassed by bands of military robbers. The wild country between the borders of Switzerland and Lorraine was specially vexed, as the mountains of the Vosges afforded shelter, into which the freebooters could not be followed by the troops of the duke.
Upon the evening of the third day they reached a small inn standing in a lonely position near the foot of the mountains.
"I like not the look of this place," Cuthbert said; "but as we hear that there is no other within a distance of another ten miles, we must make the best of it."
The host received them with extreme and even fawning civility, which by no means raised him in the estimation of Cuthbert or Cnut. A rough meal was taken, and they then ascended to the rude accommodation which had been provided. It was one large room, barely furnished. Upon one side straw was thickly littered down--for in those days beds among the common people were unknown. In a sort of alcove at the end was a couch with a rough mattress and coverlet. This Cuthbert took possession of, while his followers stretched themselves upon the straw.
"I think," Cnut said, "that it were well that one should keep watch at the door. I like not the look of our host, and we are near the spot where the bands of the robbers are said to be busy."
Towards morning the archer on guard reported that he could hear the sound of many approaching footsteps. All at once sprang to their feet, and grabbed their weapons. Looking from the window they saw a large party of rough men, whose appearance at once betokened that they were disbanded soldiers--a title almost synonymous in those days with that of robber. With the united strength of the party the truckle bed was carried from the alcove and placed against the door. Cuthbert then threw open the window, and asked in French what they wanted. One of the party, who appeared to be the leader, said that the party had better surrender immediately. He promised them good treatment, and said that the knight would be put to ransom, should it be found that the valuables upon his person were not sufficient to pay the worshipful company present for the trouble which they had taken in waiting upon him. This sally was received with shouts of laughter. Cuthbert replied quietly that he had no valuables upon his person; that if they took him there were none would pay as much as a silver mark for the ransom of them all; and that the only things that they had to give were sharp arrows and heavy blows.
"You talk bravely, young sir," the man said. "But you have to do with men versed in fight, and caring but little either for knocks or for arrows. We have gone through the Crusades, and are therefore held to be absolved from all sin, even that so great as would be incurred in the cutting of your knightly throat."
"But we have gone through the Crusades also," Cuthbert said, "and our persons are sacred. The sin of slitting our weazands, which you speak of, would therefore be so great that even the absolution on which you rely would barely extend to it."
"We know most of those who have served in the Holy Land," the man said more respectfully than he had yet spoken, "and would like know with whom we speak."
"I am an Englishman, and a follower of King Richard," Cuthbert said, "and am known as Sir Cuthbert of Evesham. As I was the youngest among the knights who fought for the holy sepulchre, it may be that my appearance is known to you?"
"Ah," the other said, "you are he whom they called the Boy Knight, and who was often in the thick of the fray, near to Richard himself. How comes it, Sir Cuthbert, that you are here?"
"The fleet was scattered on its return," Cuthbert replied, "and I landed with my followers, well-nigh penniless, at Zara, and have since made my way across the Tyrol. I have, then, as you may well suppose, neither silver nor gold about my person; and assuredly neither Philip of France nor John of Austria would give a noble for my ransom; and it would be long, I think, to wait before John of England would care to ransom one of King Richard's followers."
The brigands spoke for awhile among themselves, and then the leader said,--
"You speak frankly and fairly, Sir Knight, and as you have proved yourself indeed a strong giver of hard blows, and as I doubt not that the archers with you can shoot as straight and as fast as the rest of the Saxon breed, we will even let you go on your way, for your position is but little better than ours, and dog should not rob dog."
"Thanks, good fellow," Cuthbert said. "We trust that in any case we might have made a strong defence against you; but it would be hard if those who have fought together in the Holy Land, should slay each other in this lonely corner of Lorraine."
"Are you seeking adventures or employment, Sir Knight? For if so, myself and comrades here would gladly take service with you; and it may be that with a clump of spears you might obtain engagement, either under the Duke of Lorraine or he of Cleves."
"Thanks for your offer," Cuthbert replied; "but at present my face is turned towards England. King Richard needs all his friends; and there is so little chance of sack or spoil, even should we have--which God forbid--civil war, that I fear I could ill reward the services which you offer me."
The leader and his men shouted goodby to Cuthbert, and departed for the mountains, leaving the latter well pleased with his escape from a fight of which the result was doubtful.
Journeying on without further adventure, they came to Nancy, and were there kindly received by the duke, who was not at that time upon good terms with Phillip of France, and was therefore well disposed towards the English. Cuthbert inquired from him whether any news had been heard of King Richard? but received as a reply that the duke had heard nothing of him since he sailed from Palestine.
"This is strange," Cuthbert said, "for I myself have journeyed but slowly, and have met with many delays. King Richard should long before this have reached Saxony; and I fear much that some foul treatment has befallen him. On our way, we found how bitter was the feeling among those related to Conrad of Montferat against him; and the Archduke John is still smarting from the blow which King Richard struck him at Ascalon. But surely they would not be so unknightly as to hinder so great a champion of Christendom as King Richard on his homeward way?"
"The Archduke John is crafty and treacherous," the duke said; "and the emperor himself would, I think, be not sorry Conrad of Montferat, who falsely allege that the death of their kinsman was caused by King Richard. The Archduke John, too, owes him no good-will; and even the emperor is evilly disposed towards him. The king travelled under an assumed name; but it might well be that he would be recognized upon the way. His face was known to all who fought in the East; and his lordly manner and majestic stature could ill be concealed beneath a merchant's garb. Still, lady, as I have been so long in making my way across, it may be that King Richard has been similarly delayed without danger befalling him, and it could hardly be that so important a man as the King of England would be detained, or come to any misfortune, without the news being bruited abroad."
In spite of Cuthbert's reassuring words, the duke and duchess were greatly alarmed at the news of King Richard's disappearance, although indeed consoled to find that their previous fears, that he had been drowned in the storm or captured by the Moorish corsairs, were unfounded.
They now requested from Cuthbert the story of what had befallen him since he left the king; and this he related at some length. The duke was greatly interested, and begged Cuthbert at least to remain at his court until some news might arrive of King Richard.
For a month Cuthbert tarried at the castle of the Duke of Saxony, where he was nobly entertained, and treated as a guest of much honour. Cnut and the archers were delighted at the treatment they received, for never in their lives had they been so royally entertained. Their Saxon tongue was nigh enough akin to the language spoken here to be understood; and their tales of adventure in the Holy Land rendered them as popular among the retainers of the duke as their master became with the duke and duchess.
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