A Daring Escape
I T was a fine summer evening, and Richard and Carloman were playing at ball on the steps of the Castle-gate, when a voice was heard from beneath, begging for alms from the noble Princes in the name of the blessed Virgin, and the two boys saw a pilgrim standing at the gate, wrapt in a long robe of serge, with a staff in his hand, surmounted by a Cross, a scrip at his girdle, and a broad shady hat, which he had taken off, as he stood, making low obeisances, and asking charity.
"Come in, holy pilgrim," said Carloman. "It is late, and you shall
sup and rest here
"Blessings from Heaven light on you, noble Prince," replied the pilgrim, and at that moment Richard shouted joyfully, "A Norman, a Norman! 'tis my own dear speech! Oh, are you not from Normandy? Osmond, Osmond! he comes from home!"
"My Lord! my own Lord!" exclaimed the pilgrim, and, kneeling on one knee at the foot of the steps, he kissed the hand which his young Duke held out to him—"This is joy unlooked for!"
"Walter!—Walter, the huntsman!" cried Richard. "Is it you? Oh, how is Fru Astrida, and all at home?"
"Well, my Lord, and wearying to know how it is with you—" began Walter—but a very different tone exclaimed from behind the pilgrim, "What is all this? Who is stopping my way? What! Richard would be King, and more, would he? More insolence!" It was Lothaire, returning with his attendants from the chase, in by no means an amiable mood, for he had been disappointed of his game.
"He is a Norman—a vassal of Richard's own," said Carloman.
"A Norman, is he? I thought we had got rid of the robbers! We want no robbers here! Scourge him soundly, Perron, and teach him how to stop my way!"
"He is a pilgrim, my Lord," suggested one of the followers.
"I care not; I'll have no Normans here, coming spying in disguise. Scourge him, I say, dog that he is! Away with him! A spy, a spy!"
"No Norman is scourged in my sight!" said Richard, darting forwards, and throwing himself between Walter and the woodsman, who was preparing to obey Lothaire, just in time to receive on his own bare neck the sharp, cutting leathern thong, which raised a long red streak along its course. Lothaire laughed.
"My Lord Duke! What have you done? Oh, leave me—this befits you not!" cried Walter, extremely distressed; but Richard had caught hold of the whip, and called out, "Away, away! run! haste, haste!" and the words were repeated at once by Osmond, Carloman, and many of the French, who, though afraid to disobey the Prince, were unwilling to violate the sanctity of a pilgrim's person; and the Norman, seeing there was no help for it, obeyed: the French made way for him and he effected his escape; while Lothaire, after a great deal of storming and raging, went up to his mother to triumph in the cleverness with which he had detected a Norman spy in disguise.
Lothaire was not far wrong; Walter had really come to satisfy himself as to the safety of the little Duke, and try to gain an interview with Osmond. In the latter purpose he failed, though he lingered in the neighbourhood of Laon for several days; for Osmond never left the Duke for an instant, and he was, as has been shown, a close prisoner, in all but the name, within the walls of the Castle. The pilgrim had, however, the opportunity of picking up tidings which made him perceive the true state of things: he learnt the deaths of Sybald and Henry, the alliance between the King and Arnulf, and the restraint and harshness with which the Duke was treated; and with this intelligence he went in haste to Normandy.
Soon after his arrival, a three days' fast was observed throughout the dukedom, and in every church, from the Cathedral of Bayeux to the smallest and rudest village shrine, crowds of worshippers were kneeling, imploring, many of them with tears, that God would look on them in His mercy, restore to them their Prince, and deliver the child out of the hands of his enemies. How earnest and sorrowful were the prayers offered at Centeville may well be imagined; and at Montemar sur Epte the anxiety was scarcely less. Indeed, from the time the evil tidings arrived, Alberic grew so restless and unhappy, and so anxious to do something, that at last his mother set out with him on a pilgrimage to the Abbey of Jumièges, to pray for the rescue of his dear little Duke.
In the meantime, Louis had sent notice to Laon that he should return home in a week's time; and Richard rejoiced at the prospect, for the King had always been less unkind to him than the Queen, and he hoped to be released from his captivity within the Castle. Just at this time he became very unwell; it might have been only the effect of the life of unwonted confinement which he had lately led that was beginning to tell on his health; but, after being heavy and uncomfortable for a day or two, without knowing what was the matter with him, he was one night attacked with high fever.
Osmond was dreadfully alarmed, knowing nothing at all of the treatment of illness, and, what was worse, fully persuaded that the poor child had been poisoned, and therefore resolved not to call any assistance; he hung over him all night, expecting each moment to see him expire—ready to tear his hair with despair and fury, and yet obliged to restrain himself to the utmost quietness and gentleness, to soothe the suffering of the sick child.
Through that night, Richard either tossed about on his narrow bed, or, when his restlessness desired the change, sat, leaning his aching head on Osmond's breast, too oppressed and miserable to speak or think. When the day dawned on them, and he was still too ill to leave the room, messengers were sent for him, and Osmond could no longer conceal the fact of his sickness, but parleyed at the door, keeping out every one he could, and refusing all offers of attendance. He would not even admit Carloman, though Richard, hearing his voice, begged to see him; and when a proposal was sent from the Queen, that a skilful old nurse should visit and prescribe for the patient, he refused with all his might, and when he had shut the door, walked up and down, muttering, "Ay, ay, the witch! coming to finish what she has begun!"
All that day and the next, Richard continued very ill, and Osmond waited on him very assiduously, never closing his eyes for a moment, but constantly telling his beads whenever the boy did not require his attendance. At last Richard fell asleep, slept long and soundly for some hours, and waked much better. Osmond was in a transport of joy: "Thanks to Heaven, they shall fail for this time and they shall never have another chance! May Heaven be with us still!" Richard was too weak and weary to ask what he meant, and for the next few days Osmond watched him with the utmost care. As for food, now that Richard could eat again, Osmond would not hear of his touching what was sent for him from the royal table, but always went down himself to procure food in the kitchen, where he said he had a friend among the cooks, who would, he thought, scarcely poison him intentionally. When Richard was able to cross the room, he insisted on his always fastening the door with his dagger, and never opening to any summons but his own, not even Prince Carloman's. Richard wondered, but he was obliged to obey; and he knew enough of the perils around him to perceive the reasonableness of Osmond's caution.
Thus several days had passed, the King had returned, and Richard was so much recovered, that he had become very anxious to be allowed to go down stairs again, instead of remaining shut up there; but still Osmond would not consent, though Richard had done nothing all day but walk round the room, to show how strong he was.
"Now, my Lord, guard the door—take care," said Osmond; "you have no
Osmond was absent nearly half an hour, and, when he returned, brought on his shoulders a huge bundle of straw. "What is this for?" exclaimed Richard. "I wanted my supper, and you have brought straw!"
"Here is your supper," said Osmond, throwing down the straw, and
producing a bag with some bread and meat. "What should you say, my
Lord, if we should sup in Normandy
"In Normandy!" cried Richard, springing up and clapping his hands. "In Normandy! Oh, Osmond, did you say in Normandy? Shall we, shall we really? Oh, joy! joy! Is Count Bernard come? Will the King let us go?"
"Hush! hush, sir! It must be our own doing; it will all fail if you are not silent and prudent, and we shall be undone."
"I will do anything to get home again!"
"Eat first," said Osmond.
"But what are you going to do? I will not be as foolish as I was when you tried to get me safe out of Rollo's tower. But I should like to wish Carloman farewell."
"That must not be," said Osmond; "we should not have time to escape, if they did not still believe you very ill in bed."
"I am sorry not to wish Carloman good-bye," repeated Richard; "but we shall see Fru Astrida again, and Sir Eric; and Alberic must come back! Oh, do let us go! O Normandy, dear Normandy!"
Richard could hardly eat for excitement, while Osmond hastily made his arrangements, girding on his sword, and giving Richard his dagger to put into his belt. He placed the remainder of the provisions in his wallet, threw a thick purple cloth mantle over the Duke, and then desired him to lie down on the straw which he had brought in. "I shall hide you in it," he said, "and carry you through the hall, as if I was going to feed my horse."
"Oh, they will never guess!" cried Richard, laughing. "I will be quite still—I will make no noise—I will hold my breath."
"Yes, mind you do not move hand or foot, or rustle the straw. It is no play—it is life or death," said Osmond, as he disposed the straw round the little boy. "There, can you breathe?"
"Yes," said Richard's voice from the midst. "Am I quite hidden?"
"Entirely. Now, remember, whatever happens, do not move. May Heaven protect us! Now, the Saints be with us!"
Richard, from the interior of the bundle heard Osmond set open the door; then he felt himself raised from the ground; Osmond was carrying him along down the stairs, the ends of the straw crushing and sweeping against the wall. The only way to the outer door was through the hall, and here was the danger. Richard heard voices, steps, loud singing and laughter, as if feasting was going on; then some one said, "Tending your horse, Sieur de Centeville?"
"Yes," Osmond made answer. "You know, since we lost our grooms, the poor black would come off badly, did I not attend to him."
Presently came Carloman's voice: "O Osmond de Centeville! is Richard better?"
"He is better, my Lord, I thank you, but hardly yet out of danger."
"Oh, I wish he was well! And when will you let me come to him, Osmond? Indeed, I would sit quiet, and not disturb him."
"It may not be yet, my Lord, though the Duke loves you well—he told me so but now."
"Did he? Oh, tell him I love him very much—better than any one here—and it is very dull without him. Tell him so, Osmond."
Richard could hardly help calling out to his dear little Carloman; but he remembered the peril of Osmond's eyes and the Queen's threat, and held his peace, with some vague notion that some day he would make Carloman King of France. In the meantime, half stifled with the straw, he felt himself carried on, down the steps, across the court; and then he knew, from the darkness and the changed sound of Osmond's tread, that they were in the stable. Osmond laid him carefully down, and whispered—"All right so far. You can breathe?"
"Not well. Can't you let me out?"
"Not yet—not for worlds. Now tell me if I put you face downwards, for I cannot see."
He laid the living heap of straw across the saddle, bound it on, then led out the horse, gazing round cautiously as he did so; but the whole of the people of the Castle were feasting, and there was no one to watch the gates. Richard heard the hollow sound of the hoofs, as the drawbridge was crossed, and knew that he was free; but still Osmond held his arm over him, and would not let him move, for some distance. Then, just as Richard felt as if he could endure the stifling of the straw, and his uncomfortable position, not a moment longer, Osmond stopped the horse, took him down, laid him on the grass, and released him. He gazed around; they were in a little wood; evening twilight was just coming on, and the birds sang sweetly.
"Free! free!—this is freedom!" cried Richard, leaping up in the delicious cool evening breeze; "the Queen and Lothaire, and that grim room, all far behind."
"Not so far yet," said Osmond; "you must not call yourself safe till the Epte is between us and them. Into the saddle, my Lord; we must ride for our lives."
Osmond helped the Duke to mount, and sprang to the saddle behind him, set spurs to the horse, and rode on at a quick rate, though not at full speed, as he wished to spare the horse. The twilight faded, the stars came out, and still he rode, his arm round the child, who, as night advanced, grew weary, and often sunk into a sort of half doze, conscious all the time of the trot of the horse. But each step was taking him further from Queen Gerberge, and nearer to Normandy; and what recked he of weariness? On—on; the stars grew pale again, and the first pink light of dawn showed in the eastern sky; the sun rose, mounted higher and higher, and the day grew hotter; the horse went more slowly, stumbled, and though Osmond halted and loosed the girth, he only mended his pace for a little while.
Osmond looked grievously perplexed; but they had not gone much further before a party of merchants came in sight, winding their way with a long train of loaded mules, and stout men to guard them, across the plains, like an eastern caravan in the desert. They gazed in surprise at the tall young Norman holding the child upon the worn- out war-horse.
"Sir merchant," said Osmond to the first, "see you this steed? Better horse never was ridden; but he is sorely spent, and we must make speed. Let me barter him with you for yonder stout palfrey. He is worth twice as much, but I cannot stop to chaffer—ay or no at once."
The merchant, seeing the value of Osmond's gallant black, accepted the offer; and Osmond removing his saddle, and placing Richard on his new steed, again mounted, and on they went through the country which Osmond's eye had marked with the sagacity men acquire by living in wild, unsettled places. The great marshes were now far less dangerous than in the winter, and they safely crossed them. There had, as yet, been no pursuit, and Osmond's only fear was for his little charge, who, not having recovered his full strength since his illness, began to suffer greatly from fatigue in the heat of that broiling summer day, and leant against Osmond patiently, but very wearily, without moving or looking up. He scarcely revived when the sun went down, and a cool breeze sprang up, which much refreshed Osmond himself; and still more did it refresh the Squire to see, at length, winding through the green pastures, a blue river, on the opposite bank of which rose a high rocky mound, bearing a castle with many a turret and battlement.
"The Epte! the Epte! There is Normandy, sir! Look up, and see your own dukedom." "Normandy!" cried Richard, sitting upright. "Oh, my own home!" Still the Epte was wide and deep, and the peril was not yet ended. Osmond looked anxiously, and rejoiced to see marks of cattle, as if it had been forded. "We must try it," he said, and dismounting, he waded in, leading the horse, and firmly holding Richard in the saddle. Deep they went; the water rose to Richard's feet, then to the horse's neck; then the horse was swimming, and Osmond too, still keeping his firm hold; then there was ground again, the force of the current was less, and they were gaining the bank. At that instant, however, they perceived two men aiming at them with cross-bows from the castle, and another standing on the bank above them, who called out, "Hold! None pass the ford of Montemar without permission of the noble Dame Yolande." "Ha! Bertrand, the Seneschal, is that you?" returned Osmond. "Who calls me by my name?" replied the Seneschal. "It is I, Osmond de Centeville. Open your gates quickly, Sir Seneschal; for here is the Duke, sorely in need of rest and refreshment."
"The Duke!" exclaimed Bertrand, hurrying down to the landing-place, and throwing off his cap. "The Duke! the Duke!" rang out the shout from the men-at-arms on the battlements above and in an instant more Osmond had led the horse up from the water, and was exclaiming, "Look up, my Lord, look up! You are in your own dukedom again, and this is Alberic's castle."
"Welcome, indeed, most noble Lord Duke! Blessings on the day!" cried the Seneschal. "What joy for my Lady and my young Lord!"
"He is sorely weary," said Osmond, looking anxiously at Richard, who, even at the welcome cries that showed so plainly that he was in his own Normandy, scarcely raised himself or spoke. "He had been very sick ere I brought him away. I doubt me they sought to poison him, and I vowed not to tarry at Laon another hour after he was fit to move. But cheer up, my Lord; you are safe and free now, and here is the good Dame de Montemar to tend you, far better than a rude Squire like me."
"Alas, no!" said the Seneschal; "our Dame is gone with young Alberic on a pilgrimage to Jumièges to pray for the Duke's safety. What joy for them to know that their prayers have been granted!"
Osmond, however, could scarcely rejoice, so alarmed was he at the extreme weariness and exhaustion of his charge, who, when they brought him into the Castle hall, hardly spoke or looked, and could not eat. They carried him up to Alberic's bed, where he tossed about restlessly, too tired to sleep.
"Alas! alas!" said Osmond, "I have been too hasty. I have but saved him from the Franks to be his death by my own imprudence."
"Hush! Sieur de Centeville," said the Seneschal's wife, coming into the room. "To talk in that manner is the way to be his death, indeed. Leave the child to me—he is only over-weary."
Osmond was sure his Duke was among friends, and would have been glad to trust him to a woman; but Richard had but one instinct left in all his weakness and exhaustion—to cling close to Osmond, as if he felt him his only friend and protector; for he was, as yet, too much worn out to understand that he was in Normandy and safe. For two or three hours, therefore, Osmond and the Seneschal's wife watched on each side of his bed, soothing his restlessness, until at length he became quiet, and at last dropped sound asleep.
The sun was high in the heavens when Richard awoke. He turned on his straw-filled crib, and looked up. It was not the tapestried walls of his chamber at Laon that met his opening eyes, but the rugged stone and tall loop-hole window of a turret chamber. Osmond de Centeville lay on the floor by his side, in the sound sleep of one overcome by long watching and weariness. And what more did Richard see?
It was the bright face and sparkling eyes of Alberic de Montemar, who was leaning against the foot of his bed, gazing earnestly, as he watched for his waking. There was a cry—"Alberic! Alberic!" "My Lord! my Lord!" Richard sat up and held out both arms, and Alberic flung himself into them. They hugged each other, and uttered broken exclamations and screams of joy, enough to have awakened any sleeper but one so wearied out as Osmond.
"And is it true? Oh, am I really in Normandy again?" cried Richard.
"Yes, yes!—oh, yes, my Lord! You are at Montemar. Everything here is yours. The bar-tailed hawk is quite well, and my mother will be here this evening; she let me ride on the instant we heard the news."
"We rode long and late, and I was very weary," said Richard, "but I don't care, now we are at home. But I can hardly believe it! Oh, Alberic, it has been very dreary!"
"See here, my Lord!" said Alberic, standing by the window. "Look here, and you will know you are at home again!"
Richard bounded to the window, and what a sight met his eyes! The Castle court was thronged with men-at-arms and horses, the morning sun sparkling on many a burnished hauberk and tall conical helmet, and above them waved many a banner and pennon that Richard knew full well. "There! there!" he shouted aloud with glee. "Oh, there is the horse-shoe of Ferrieres! and there the chequers of Warenne! Oh, and best of all, there is—there is our own red pennon of Centeville! O Alberic! Alberic! is Sir Eric here? I must go down to him!"
"Bertrand sent out notice to them all, as soon as you came, to come and guard our Castle," said Alberic, "lest the Franks should pursue you; but you are safe now—safe as Norman spears can make you—thanks be to God!"
"Yes, thanks to God!" said Richard, crossing himself and kneeling reverently for some minutes, while he repeated his Latin prayer; then, rising and looking at Alberic, he said, "I must thank Him, indeed, for he has saved Osmond and me from the cruel King and Queen, and I must try to be a less hasty and overbearing boy than I was when I went away; for I vowed that so I would be, if ever I came back. Poor Osmond, how soundly he sleeps! Come, Alberic, show me the way to Sir Eric!"
And, holding Alberic's hand, Richard left the room, and descended the stairs to the Castle hall. Many of the Norman knights and barons, in full armour, were gathered there; but Richard looked only for one. He knew Sir Eric's grizzled hair, and blue inlaid armour, though his back was towards him, and in a moment, before his entrance had been perceived, he sprang towards him, and, with outstretched arms, exclaimed: "Sir Eric—dear Sir Eric, here I am! Osmond is safe! And is Fru Astrida well?"
The old Baron turned. "My child!" he exclaimed, and clasped him in his mailed arms, while the tears flowed down his rugged cheeks. "Blessed be God that you are safe, and that my son has done his duty!"
"And is Fru Astrida well?"
"Yes, right well, since she heard of your safety. But look round, my Lord; it befits not a Duke to be clinging thus round an old man's neck. See how many of your true vassals be here, to guard you from the villain Franks."
Richard stood up, and held out his hand, bowing courteously and acknowledging the greetings of each bold baron, with a grace and readiness he certainly had not when he left Normandy. He was taller too; and though still pale, and not dressed with much care (since he had hurried on his clothes with no help but Alberic's)—though his hair was rough and disordered, and the scar of the burn had not yet faded from his check—yet still, with his bright blue eyes, glad face, and upright form, he was a princely, promising boy, and the Norman knights looked at him with pride and joy, more especially when, unprompted, he said: "I thank you, gallant knights, for coming to guard me. I do not fear the whole French host now I am among my own true Normans."
Sir Eric led him to the door of the hall to the top of the steps, that the men-at-arms might see him; and then such a shout rang out of "Long live Duke Richard!"—"Blessings on the little Duke!"—that it echoed and came back again from the hills around—it pealed from the old tower—it roused Osmond from his sleep—and, if anything more had been wanting to do so, it made Richard feel that he was indeed in a land where every heart glowed with loyal love for him.
Before the shout had died away, a bugle-horn was heard winding before the gate; and Sir Eric, saying, "It is the Count of Harcourt's note," sent Bertrand to open the gates in haste, while Alberic followed, as Lord of the Castle, to receive the Count.
The old Count rode into the court, and to the foot of the steps, where he dismounted, Alberic holding his stirrup. He had not taken many steps upwards before Richard came voluntarily to meet him (which he had never done before), held out his hand, and said, "Welcome, Count Bernard, welcome. Thank you for coming to guard me. I am very glad to see you once more."
"Ah, my young Lord," said Bernard, "I am right glad to see you out of the clutches of the Franks! You know friend from foe now, methinks!"
"Yes, indeed I do, Count Bernard. I know you meant kindly by me, and that I ought to have thanked you, and not been angry, when you reproved me. Wait one moment, Sir Count; there is one thing that I promised myself to say if ever I came safe to my own dear home. Walter—Maurice—Jeannot—all you of my household, and of Sir Eric's- -I know, before I went away, I was often no good Lord to you; I was passionate, and proud, and overbearing; but God has punished me for it, when I was far away among my enemies, and sick and lonely. I am very sorry for it, and I hope you will pardon me; for I will strive, and I hope God will help me, never to be proud and passionate again."
"There, Sir Eric," said Bernard, "you hear what the boy says. If he speaks it out so bold and free, without bidding, and if he holds to what he says, I doubt it not that he shall not grieve for his journey to France, and that we shall see him, in all things, such a Prince as his father of blessed memory."
"You must thank Osmond for me," said Richard, as Osmond came down, awakened at length. "It is Osmond who has helped me to bear my troubles; and as to saving me, why he flew away with me even like an old eagle with its eaglet. I say, Osmond, you must ever after this wear a pair of wings on shield and pennon, to show how well we managed our flight."
"As you will, my Lord," said Osmond, half asleep; "but 'twas a good long flight at a stretch, and I trust never to have to fly before your foes or mine again."
What a glad summer's day was that! Even the three hours spent in council did but renew the relish with which Richard visited Alberic's treasures, told his adventures, and showed the accomplishments he had learnt at Laon. The evening was more joyous still; for the Castle gates were opened, first to receive Dame Yolande Montemar, and not above a quarter of an hour afterwards, the drawbridge was lowered to admit the followers of Centeville; and in front of them appeared Fru Astrida's own high cap. Richard made but one bound into her arms, and was clasped to her breast; then held off at arm's-length, that she might see how much he was grown, and pity his scar; then hugged closer than ever: but, taking another look, she declared that Osmond left his hair like King Harald Horrid-locks; and, drawing an ivory comb from her pouch, began to pull out the thick tangles, hurting him to a degree that would once have made him rebel, but now he only fondled her the more.
As to Osmond, when he knelt before her, she blessed him, and sobbed over him, and blamed him for over-tiring her darling, all in one; and assuredly, when night closed in and Richard had, as of old, told his beads beside her knee, the happiest boy in Normandy was its little Duke.