Upon the following evening Cuthbert proceeded to Worcester. He left his horse some little distance outside the town, and entered on foot. Having no apprehension of an attack, he had left all his pieces of armour behind, and was in the quiet garb of a citizen. Cnut attended him--for that worthy follower considered himself as responsible that no harm of any sort should befall his young master. The consequences of his own imprudence in the Tyrol were ever before his mind, and he determined that from henceforth there should be no want of care on his part. He accompanied Cuthbert to within a short distance of the convent, and took up his position in the shade of a house, whence he could watch should any one appear to be observing Cuthbert's entrance.
Upon ringing the bell, Cuthbert told the porteress, as had been arranged, that he had called on a message from Dame Editha, and he was immediately ushered into the parlour of the convent, where, a minute or two later, he was joined by the lady abbess. He had when young been frequently to the convent, and had always been kindly received.
"I am indeed glad to see you, Sir Cuthbert," she said, "though I certainly should not have recognized the lad who used to come here with my cousin, in the stalwart young knight I see before me. You are indeed changed and improved. Who would think that my gossip Editha's son would come to be the Earl of Evesham! The Lady Margaret is eager to see you; but I think that you exaggerate the dangers of her residence here. I cannot think that even a minion of Prince John would dare to violate the sanctity of a convent."
"I fear, good mother," Cuthbert said, "that when ambition and greed are in one scale, reverence for the holy church will not weigh much in the other. Had King Richard been killed upon his way home, or so long as nothing was heard of him, Sir Rudolph might have been content to allow matters to remain as they were, until at least Lady Margaret attained an age which would justify him in demanding that the espousal should be carried out. But the news which has now positively been ascertained, that the king is in the hands of the emperor, and the knowledge that sooner or later his freedom will be obtained, will hasten the friends of the usurper to make the most of their advantage. He knows that the king would at once upon his return annul the nomination of Sir Rudolph to the earldom which had previously been bestowed upon me. But he may well think that if before that time he can secure in marriage the person of the late earl's daughter, no small share of the domains may be allotted to him as her dowry, even if he be obliged to lay by his borrowed honours. You will, unless I am greatly mistaken, hear from him before long."
The abbess looked grave.
"There is much in what you say, Sir Cuthbert; and indeed a certain confirmation is given to it by the fact that only yesterday I received a letter from Sir Rudolph, urging that now the Lady Margaret is past the age of fifteen, and may therefore be considered marriageable, the will of the prince should be carried into effect, and that she should for the present be committed to the charge of the Lady Clara Boulger, who is the wife of a friend and associate of Sir Rudolph. He says that he should not wish to press the marriage until she attains the age of sixteen, but that it were well that his future wife should become accustomed to the outside world, so as to take her place as Castellan of Evesham with a dignity befitting the position. I wrote at once to him saying, that in another year it would, in my poor judgment, be quite time to think about such worldly matters; that at the present the Lady Margaret was receiving an education suitable to her rank; that she was happy here; and that unless constrained by force--of which, I said, I could not suppose that any possibility existed--I should not surrender the Lady Margaret into any hands whatsoever, unless, indeed, I received the commands of her lawful guardian, King Richard."
"You said well, holy mother," Sir Cuthbert said. "But you see the hawks scent the danger from afar, and are moving uneasily already. Whether they consider it so pressing that they will dare to profane the convent, I know not. But I am sure that should they do so, they will not hesitate a moment at the thought of the anger of the church. Prince John has already shown that he is ready, if need be, to oppose the authority of the holy father, and he may well, therefore, despise any local wrath that might be excited by an action which he can himself disavow, and for which, even at the worst, he need only inflict some nominal punishment upon his vassal. Think, lady, whether it would not be safer to send the Lady Margaret to the care of some person, where she may be concealed from the search of Sir Rudolph."
"I would gladly do so," the abbess said, "did I know of such a person or such a place. But it is difficult indeed for a young lady of rank to be concealed from such sharp searchers as Sir Rudolph would be certain to place upon her track. Your proposal that she should take refuge in the house of some small franklin near the forest, I cannot agree to. In the first place, it would demean her to be so placed; and in the second, we could never be sure that the report of her residence there might not reach the ears of Sir Rudolph. As a last resource, of course such a step would be justifiable, but not until at least overt outrages have been attempted. Now I will call Lady Margaret in."
The young girl entered with an air of frank gladness, but was startled at the alteration which had taken place in her former playfellow, and paused and looked at the abbess, as if inquiring whether this could be really the Cuthbert she had known.
Lady Margaret was fifteen in years; but she looked much younger. The quiet seclusion in which she had lived in the convent had kept her from approaching that maturity which as an earl's daughter, brought up in the stir and bustle of a castle, she would doubtless have attained.
Struck with a new timidity, the girl advanced, and, according to the custom of the times, held up her cheek to be kissed. Cuthbert was almost as timid as herself.
"I feel, Lady Margaret," he said, "a deep sense of my own unworthiness of the kindness and honour which the dear lord your father bestowed upon me; and were it not that many dangers threaten, and that it were difficult under the circumstances to find one more worthy of you, I would gladly resign you into the hands of such a one were it for your happiness. But believe me that the recollection of your face has animated me in many of the scenes of danger in which I have been placed; and although even in fancy my thoughts scarcely ventured to rise so high, yet I felt as a true knight might feel for the lady of his love."
"I always liked you, Sir Cuthbert," the girl said frankly, "better than any one else next to my father, and gladly submit myself to his will. My own inclinations indeed, so far as is maidenly, go with his. These are troubled times," she said anxiously, "and our holy mother tells me that you fear some danger is overhanging me."
"I trust that the danger may not be imminent," Cuthbert answered. "But knowing the unscrupulous nature of the false Earl of Evesham, I fear that the news that King Richard is found will stir him to early action. But you can rely, dear lady, on a careful watch being kept over you night and day; and should any attempt be made to carry you away, or to put force upon you, be assured that assistance will be at hand. Even should any attempt succeed, do not lose heart, for rescue will certainly be attempted; and I must be dead, and my faithful followers crushed, before you can become the bride of Sir Rudolph."
Then turning to other subjects, he talked to her of the life he had led since he last saw her. He told her of the last moments of her father, and of the gallant deeds he had done in the Holy Land.
After waiting for two hours, the abbess judged that the time for separation had arrived; and Cuthbert, taking a respectful goodby of his young mistress, and receiving the benediction of the abbess, departed.
He found Cnut on guard at the point where he had left him.
"Have you seen aught to give rise to suspicion?" Cuthbert asked.
"Yes," Cnut said, "the place is undoubtedly watched. Just after you had entered, a man came from that house yonder and went up to the gate, as if he would could learn by staring at its iron adornments the nature of him who had passed in. Then he re-entered his house, and if I mistake not is still on the watch at that casement. If we stand here for a minute or two, perchance he may come out to see what delays you in this dark corner, in which case I may well give him a clout with my axe which will settle his prying."
"Better not," Cuthbert said. "We can retire round this corner and so avoid his observation; and were his body found slain here, suspicion would be at once excited in the mind of his employer. At present he can have no ground for any report which may make the knight uneasy, for he can but know that a gentleman has entered, and remained for two hours at the convent, and he will in no way connect my visit with the Lady Margaret."
They had just turned the corner which Cuthbert indicated, when a man came up rapidly behind them and almost brushed them as he passed, half-turning round and trying to gaze into their faces. Cnut at once assumed the aspect of an intoxicated person, and stretching forth his foot, with a dexterous shove pushed the stranger into the gutter. The latter rose with a fierce cry of anger; but Cnut with a blow of his heavy fist again stretched him on the ground, this time to remain quiet until they had walked on and passed out of sight.
"A meddling fool," Cnut grumbled. "He will not, I think, have much to report to Sir Rudolph this time. Had I thought that he had seen your face, I would have cleft his skull with no more hesitation than I send an arrow into the brain of a stag in the forest."
As they journeyed along, Cuthbert informed Cnut of what the abbess had told him; and the latter agreed that a watch must be placed on the convent, and that a force must be kept as near as possible at hand so as to defeat any attempt which might be made.
The next day one of the forest men who had been a peaceable citizen, but who had been charged with using false weights and had been condemned to lose his ears, went to Worcester. His person was unknown there, as he had before lived at Gloucester. He hired a house in the square in which the convent was situated, giving out that he desired to open a house of business for the sale of silks, and for articles from the Low Countries. As he paid down earnest-money for the rent, no suspicion whatever was excited. He at once took up his abode there, having with him two stout serving-men, and a 'prentice boy; and from that time two sets of watchers observed without ceasing what passed at the Convent of St. Anne.
At a distance of half a mile from the road leading between Worcester and Evesham, stood a grange, which had for some time been disused, the ground belonging to it having been sequestrated and given to the lord of an adjoining estate, who did not care to have the grange occupied. In this, ten men, headed by Cnut, took up their residence, blocking up the window of the hall with hangings, so that the light of the fire kindled within would not be observed.
Two months passed on without any incident of importance. The feeling between the outlaws in the forest and the retainers of the false Earl of Evesham was becoming much embittered. Several times the foresters of the latter, attempting pursuit of men charged with breaking the game laws, were roughly handled. These on making their report were sent back again, supported by a force of footmen; but these, too, were driven back, and the authority of Sir Rudolph was openly defied.
Gradually it came to his ears that the outlaws were commanded by a man who had been their leader in times gone by, but who had been pardoned, and had, with a large number of his band, taken service in the army of the crusaders; also, that there was present a stranger, whose manner and the deference paid to him by Cnut proclaimed him to be of gentle blood. This news awakened grave uneasiness on the part of Sir Rudolph. The knight caused inquiries to be made, and ascertained that Cnut had been especially attached to the young Cuthbert, and that he had fought under the Earl of Evesham's banner. It seemed possible then that with him had returned the claimant for the earldom; and in that case Sir Rudolph felt that danger menaced him, for the bravery of the Earl of Evesham's adopted son had been widely spoken of by those who had returned from the Holy Land.
Sir Rudolph was a man of forty, tall and dark, with Norman features. He held the Saxons in utter contempt, and treated them as beings solely created to till the land for the benefit of their Norman lords. He was brave and fearless, and altogether free from the superstition of the times. Even the threats of the pope, which although Prince John defied them yet terrified him at heart, were derided by his follower, who feared no one thing in the world, save, perhaps, the return of King Richard from captivity.
No sooner had the suspicion that his rival was in the neighbourhood possessed him, than he determined that one of two things must be carried out: either Sir Cuthbert must be killed, or the Lady Margaret must be carried off and forced to accept him as her husband. First he endeavoured to force Sir Cuthbert to declare himself, and to trust to his own arm to put an end to his rival. To that end he caused a proclamation to be written, and to be affixed to the door of the village church at the fair of Evesham.
Cnut and several of his followers were there, all quietly dressed as yeomen. Seeing a crowd round the door of the church, he pressed forward. Being himself unable to read writing, he asked one of the burgesses what was written upon the paper which caused such excitement.
"It is," the burgess said, "in the nature of a cartel or challenge from our present lord, Sir Rudolf. He says that it having come to his ears that a Saxon serf, calling himself Sir Cuthbert, Earl of Evesham, is lurking in the woods and consorting with outlaws and robbers, he challenges him to appear, saying that he will himself, grievously although he would demean himself by so doing, yet condescend to meet him in the lists with sword and battle-axe, and to prove upon his body the falseness of his averments. Men marvel much," the burgess continued, "at this condescension on the earl's part. We have heard indeed that King Richard, before he sailed for England, did, at the death of the late good earl, bestow his rank and the domains of Evesham upon Sir Cuthbert, the son of the Dame Editha. Whether it be true or not, we cannot say; but it seems strange that such honour should have been bestowed upon one so young. In birth indeed he might aspire to the rank, since his father, Sir Walter, was a brave knight, and the mother, Dame Editha, was of good Saxon blood, and descended from those who held Evesham before the arrival of the Normans."
Cnut's first impulse was to stride forward and to tear down the proclamation. But the remembrance of his solemn determination not in future to act rashly, came across him, and he decided to take no steps until he had reported the facts to his master, and taken his counsel thereon.
Cuthbert received the news with much indignation.
"There is nothing that I should like better," he said, "than to try my strength against that of this false traitor. But although I have proved my arm against the Saracens, I think not that it is yet strong enough to cope against a man who, whatsoever be his faults, is said to be a valiant knight. But that would not deter me from attempting the task. It is craftily done on the part of Sir Rudolph. He reckons that if I appear he will kill me; that if I do not appear, I shall be branded as a coward, and my claims brought into disrepute. It may be, too, that it is a mere ruse to discover if I be in the neighbourhood. Some rumours thereof may have reached him, and he has taken this course to determine upon their truth. He has gone too far, and honest men will see in the cartel itself a sign that he does not doubt that my claims are just; for were I, as he says, a Saxon serf, be sure that he would not condescend to meet me in the lists as he proposes. I trust that the time will come when I may do so. But, at present, I will submit to his insult rather than imperil the success of our plans, and, what is of far greater importance, the safety and happiness of the Lady Margaret, who, did aught befall me, would assuredly fall into his hands."
After some thought, however, Cuthbert drew up an answer to the knight's proclamation. He did not in this speak in his own name, but wrote as if the document were the work of Cnut. It was worded as follows: "I, Cnut, a free Saxon and a leader of bowmen under King Richard in the Holy Land, do hereby pronounce and declare the statements of Sir Rudolph, miscalled the Earl of Evesham, to be false and calumnious. The earldom was, as Rudolph well knows, and as can be proved by many nobles and gentlemen of repute who were present with King Richard, granted to Sir Cuthbert, King Richard's true and faithful follower. When the time shall come, Sir Cuthbert will doubtless be ready to prove his rights. But at present right has no force in England, and until the coming of our good King Richard must remain in abeyance. Until then, I support the title of Sir Cuthbert, and do hereby declare Sir Rudolph a false and perjured knight; and warn him that if he falls into my hands it will fare but badly with him, as I know it will fare but badly with me should I come into his."
At nightfall the cartel of Sir Rudolph was torn down from the church and that of Cnut affixed in its place. The reading thereof caused great astonishment in Evesham, and the rage of Sir Rudolph, when the news came to his ears, was very great. Cuthbert was sure that this affair would quicken the intentions of Sir Rudolph with regard to the Lady Margaret, and he received confirmation of this in a letter which the abbess sent him, saying that she had received another missive from Sir Rudolph, authoritatively demanding in the king's name the instant surrender of Lady Margaret to him. That night forty archers stole, one by one, quietly into Worcester, entering the town before the gates were shut, and so mingling with the citizens that they were unobserved. When it was quite dark they quietly took their way, one by one, to the square in which stood the convent, and were admitted into the shop of Master Nicholas, the silk mercer.
The house was a large one, with its floors overhanging each the one beneath it, as was the custom of the time, and with large casements running the whole width of the house.
The mercer had laid by a goodly store of provisions, and for three days the troop, large as it was, was accommodated there. Cuthbert himself was with them, Cnut remaining at the grange with the ten men originally sent there.
On the third day Sir Rudolph, with a number of knights and men-at-arms, arrived in the town, giving out that he was passing northwards, but he would abide that night at the hostelry. A great many of his men-at-arms did, as those on the watch observed, enter one by one into the town. The people of Worcester were somewhat surprised at this large accompaniment of the earl, but thought no harm. The Abbess of St. Anne's, however, was greatly terrified, as she feared that some evil design might be intended against her. She was, however, reassured in the evening by a message brought by a boy, to the effect that succour would be near, whatsoever happened.
At midnight a sudden uproar was heard in the streets of Worcester.
A party of men fell upon the burgesses guarding the gate of the town, disarmed them, and took possession of it. At the same time those who had put up at the hostelry with Sir Rudolph suddenly mounted their horses, and with a great clatter rode down the streets to the Convent of St. Anne. Numbers of men on foot also joined, and some sixty in all suddenly appeared before the great gate of the convent. With a thundering noise they knocked at the door, and upon the grating being opened Sir Rudolph himself told the porteress who looked through it, that she was to go at once to the abbess and order her to surrender the body of the Lady Margaret to him, in accordance with the order of Prince John; adding, that if within the space of five minutes the order was not complied with, he would burst in the gates of the convent and take her for himself. In another minute a casement opened above, and the abbess herself appeared.
"Rash man," she said to Sir Rudolph, "I warn you against committing the sin of sacrilege. Neither the orders of Prince John nor of any other potentate can over-ride the rights of the holy church; and should you venture to lay the hand of force upon this convent you will be placed under the anathema of the church, and its spiritual terrors will be directed against you."
"I am prepared to risk that, holy mother," Sir Rudolph said, with a laugh. "So long as I am obeying the orders of my prince, I care nothing for those of any foreign potentate, be he pope or be he emperor. Three minutes of the time I gave you have elapsed, and unless within two more the Lady Margaret appears at the gate I will batter it down; and you may think yourself lucky if I do not order my men to set light to it and to smoke you out of your hole."
The abbess closed the window, and as she did so the long row of casements in the house of Master Nicholas were opened from top to bottom, and a volley of sixty clothyard arrows was poured into the group closely standing round the gate. Many fell, killed outright, and shouts of rage and pain were heard arising.
Furious at this unexpected attack, Sir Rudolph turned, and commanded those with him to attack the house whence this volley of missiles had come. But even while he spoke another flight of arrows, even more deadly than the last, was poured forth. One of the knights standing by the side of Sir Rudolph fell, shot through the brain. Very many of the common men, undefended by harness, fell shot through and through; and an arrow piercing the joint of the armour of Sir Rudolph, wounded him in the shoulder. In vain the knight stormed and raged and ordered his men to advance. The suddenness of the attack seemed to his superstitious followers a direct answer from heaven to the words of the abbess. Their number was already seriously lessened, and those who were in case to do so at once took flight and scattered through the city, making for the gate, which had already been seized by Sir Rudolph's men.
Finding himself alone with only a few of his knights and principal men-at-arms remaining, while the storm of arrows continued unabated, Sir Rudolph was forced to order his men to retreat, with many fierce threats of the vengeance which he would hereafter take.
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