The Sons of St. George
"A knightly house is sad and desolate:
A brother's love is turned by pride to hate,"
it said. It spoke in one tone, with no raising of voice or accent. Guy shivered.
"You know me, old beldam!" he said haughtily. "Doubtless you know also why I came."
"I know you, Guy, son of George," said the even, weak voice."I know why you come hither. I know how your quest will end. I know what deeds you shall do before you die." And with that the figure stood erect, and threw something upon the coals in the brazier. Immediately a bright flame leapt up, five or six feet in height, licking the top of the low cavern with its edge. In the light the witch was revealed. She had a look of unknown age; her eyes were deep sunken, her cheek-bones stood out like white lines in her yellow, parched skin; her shrivelled lips moved upon gums that held no teeth; her hair was white and long and unkempt. She wore a robe of black, from which stretched her lean, bare arms. She looked at Guy with eyes that seemed to pierce him.
The sudden flame died down. At first Guy could see nothing after the change. But he did not wait for light. He stepped towards the brazier boldly.
"Since you know my errand, give me my answer," he said sternly.
The old woman laughed. The sound of her laughter was shrill and evil. "Why should I answer you?" she cried. "Your family has persecuted all of us who hold secret intercourse with the unseen world. Am I to show that I am grateful by doing you a service?"
"You will answer," said Guy fiercely, "or I will kill you here and now."
He drew his sword and threatened her. She shrank in terror. "I will answer," she cried, "if you will spare me. But you must swear not to reveal my hiding-place, nor to give information of me to the King's judges."
Guy vowed to do her no harm, and she continued:"You seek to do honour to the memory of your mother, the Princess Sabra; is not that true?" she asked. Guy gave a sign of assent." I tell you that you do dishonour to yourself by this false pride and by the jealousy you show to your brothers. Nevertheless, you are wilful and must have your way. You desire that I shall give you some offering that you may take to your mother's tomb, and it must be so splendid that it will put to shame whatsoever your brothers may bring. That is true also, is it not?" Guy nodded."You accuse yourself; you wish to shame your brothers, not to show your love. Yet through this quarrel of yours the hidden world is about to give you a warning, and I must do the bidding of the spirits I consult and bestow upon you what you desire. Now be silent; speak no word and move no limb until I give you leave, or you will be torn into a thousand pieces by forces that no man can master."
Guy was awed by her strange knowledge of his mind and the threat in her last words. He stood silent and motionless in the dim light.
The witch took up a wand, and threw some dried leaves upon the brazier. Little flames leapt up to meet the fluttering leaves, caught them in mid-air, flared with a cold blue radiance, and died, while the charred leaves sank slowly, glittering with red sparks. For a moment the whole cave was lit up by an unearthly glare, as of a flash of lightning. Guy could see the witch standing upright, facing towards the brazier, her arm with the wand in it stretched out stiff and straight, as if it were of bronze. The cavern shook and trembled; a great wind rushed and whistled through it, and Guy felt as if moths and blown leaves and gossamer were for an instant brushing his face. Then there was a dreadful stillness for the space of a minute or more.
Suddenly a faint light was seen in the air near the witch. Something frail and thin was being given to her by unseen hands. There was another flash, and when his eyes recovered, Guy could see that the witch had laid her wand down, and was busy lighting other torches. Soon the cavern was brightly lit.
"You may move," she said in a weak voice. She was trembling a little, as though from a great effort. Guy stepped towards her, half in wonder, half in fear.
She held out to him a spray of a flowering plant. "This is a flower men call Loose-strife," she said. "It may be that the name has a meaning for you. This is the gift I am to give you."
"That is worth nothing!" cried Guy angrily. I could pluck it in any hedge or ditch in due season."
"But now is not the due season," sneered the witch. "That is why I had to have it fetched for me by my familiar spirits. If you do not take this flower as your gift, you will never find an offering more costly."
"But how shall I persuade my brothers that a country weed is worth more than silver or gold, or whatever offering they may bring?"
"Ah!" said the witch. "That is what you must pay to learn. I have done my part in offering you this flower. If you wish it to seem wondrous to others, I must set a charm upon it, and for that I must receive a fee."
Guy thought that all her talk was but a device to make him give her a heavier reward for her enchantments; but he had come prepared for such greed, for he knew that witches were as eager for money as simpler folk. He drew from his wallet a bag of gold and a bag of precious stones.
"Either of these I will give you," he said, holding them towards her, one in each hand. "In this are a hundred nobles of gold; in that rubies and emeralds of price."
"A hundred nobles is not much," she answered cunningly; "and what should a lonely old woman like me do with rubies and emeralds of price? I am not beautiful, to wear them, and if I sold them, men would suspect that I had stolen them. Give me both, gentle sir, and you shall have the flower, enchanted so that it will seem more precious than anything on earth. Give both the bags to a poor old woman!"
Guy had no love of bargaining. "Take them both, and let me begone," he said, thrusting the bags upon her. He knew that witches always grumbled, however great their reward.
She took them and hobbled away, and shut them into a receptacle in the wall of the cave. Then she came back, the flower in her hand. She took her wand again and waved it over the branch. Before Guy's startled eyes the flower began to grow, putting forth new shoots and new flowers, of a size and a colour and a scent more lovely than any living plant's. It grew till it was five feet in height, covered with leaves and blossoms. The blossoms were of every hue, and the leaves sparkled as if they had been silver.
"Is that a rich enough offering?" asked the witch in triumph, giving the branch to Guy. It was as light as a feather in his hand.
"It will suffice," said Guy simply. "Now show me the way hence."
She led him to a little door at the far end of the cave; a narrow passage, just the height of a man, ran thence into the darkness. "This passage is quite straight," said the witch. "Follow it, and it will lead you out into the woods two furlongs hence."
"I thank you, old woman," answered Guy. "Farewell."
But the witch had already turned away, and was going to the place where she had hidden the two bags. As Guy went to the passage, he looked back. The witch had taken out the bag of gold, and was shaking it close to her ear to hear the clinking of the metal.
Guy pushed on through the darkness of the passage, and presently found himself in the woods again. After the darkness and heavy scents of the witch's cave, it was sweet to see again the bare trees and smell the damp earth, and hear robins piping cheerfully. He hastened home with his marvellous bough, which neither air nor cold seemed to harm. He kept it tended in a private place, that his brothers might not learn his secret; and at last, on the day appointed, he bore it carefully to their mother's tomb, and laid it upon the marble. The scent from the blossoms filled all the church.
He was the first to arrive. But he had not been there long when Alexander appeared, bringing with him a gift which he had obtained at a great price from an old poor man at Warwick. It was a silver lute, so wonderfully made that it seemed almost to be enchanted. So perfect was its form, and so finely was it strung, that always music came from it at the mere touch of the breeze. Wherever it was set, and however light the wind, the lute sounded sweetly, and its music was like that of thin silver bells.
Alexander set this magical lute upon Sabra's tomb, and looked at the other offering which was already there.
"So," he said sullenly, "you have brought a rare gift. How did you come by this scented branch in the dead of winter?"
"That is my business," answered Guy. He knew he had done wrong in going to the witch. "Where did you find that singing lute? But it does not matter where you found it. My branch is a better offering."
"Better, quotha!" cried Alexander. "How is a mere flower better than this divine music?"
"We shall not come to agreement upon this matter," said Guy, more peaceably. "David shall judge between us, and I will judge between you and him, and you shall judge between him and me."
"And how near to agreement will that bring us?" said Alexander, laughing. "No matter. Hither comes David, strangely robed. Let us look at his gift before we quarrel again."
As he spoke, David approached. He was garbed as if for a holy festival, in a long robe of pure white silk, and he bore in his hands a silver basin and jewelled dagger.
"What is this, David?" asked Guy, half mocking."Are you bringing these things as your gift to our mother's tomb ? You have a strange fancy."
"I bring the most precious thing I have," answered David.
He set the basin down upon the tomb, and pushed his long sleeve from his forearm. Then he held his arm over the basin and pricked it deeply with the dagger, so that blood came from the wound. Thirty drops of his blood did he let fall into the basin, and as he did so he cried in a loud, firm voice: "This is the best offering that I can make at your grave, dear lady mother; nothing more precious can I give than my life's blood."
At that Guy and Alexander were amazed, for they saw how foolish they had been in choosing worldly riches and human possessions for their offerings. David had truly given a more precious thing than they; he had shown that he was ready even to give up his life in memory of Sabra.
Then a kind of madness must have fallen upon them, for they drew their swords with one accord and rushed at David to cut him down. But as they raised the blades, an invisible force held their arms, and the swords flew from their hands, and fell clattering on to the marble pavement. At the same time the whole floor of the church rocked, and the tomb opened, and the spirit of Sabra appeared to them.
"Dear sons," it said in a solemn voice, "forbear to quarrel among yourselves. I taught you a better way of life than that. I do not doubt that you all love me equally, according to your natures. There is no need of such gifts as you bring to this tomb. Live in peace with one another henceforth, and join together against a common enemy. Know that your father and the six champions are in deadly peril, from which only you can save them. Go to the King, and ask his leave to quit England in search of the champions; he will readily give it. Set out to go to the Holy Land, and you will be guided to their rescue. Be worthy of St. George of England, the bravest and truest of Christian knights. Farewell, dear sons.Love one another,and keep faith."
She vanished suddenly from their sight, and the tomb closed again. The three young knights were left staring in wonder. Then Guy spoke.
"Brothers," he said, "we have done wrong. Forgive me, David, and you, Alexander, for my pride and jealousy."
They readily forgave him,and asked his forgiveness in turn. Then they went to their household, and made preparations to set out. When they were ready, they rode first to the King, who lay at Winchester, and asked his leave to seek St. George and his comrades, The King, having questioned them narrowly, and learnt the vision of Sabra, gave them permission to quit England. He set a trusty steward over the estate of St. George in their absence; and so pleased was he by their courage and resolution in setting forth upon so perilous a quest that he gave them armour from his own armoury, and horses from his own stables, and dubbed each knight. And so, well equipped and filled with dauntless spirit, they journeyed to the coast and thence to France.
The seven champions, in the meanwhile, fared forth from England as humble pilgrims, laying aside all the power of their knighthood and the riches of their conquests, and journeying on foot in the sober robes of palmers. Slowly they wound through Europe, living sparingly and fasting often. No longer did they find it needful to watch for robbers or giants or necromancers; such violent folk took no heed of the poor, from whom neither glory nor ransom was to be won.
So the champions travelled slowly and obscurely over hill and dale, by forest and river, until at last, as the sun was setting one evening, the domes and pinnacles of Damascus shone at a great distance before them. Between them and the city lay a great plain, with a few houses scattered over it here and there.
To one of these houses they went for a lodging. A little silver bell hung upon the doorpost. They rang it, and in a short time the lord of the house himself came to greet them. He was a grave man, with a long white beard, and a look of deep sadness upon his face.
"We are pilgrims, fair sir," said St. George courteously,"and we are bound for the holy city of Jerusalem. It was in our minds to lodge this night in Damascus, but we cannot reach the city before the gates are shut for the night. We pray that you will grant us the shelter of your roof, even if it be but a stable that covers us."
"I will entertain you more honourably than that," said the old man. "Enter, strangers; you are my guests this night. But this is a lonely house, and a house of sorrow. Come, I will lead you to a chamber where you may be rid of the stains of travel."
He went before them through the house. On every side they saw rich hangings and costly furniture. Here would be a court filled with fountains and cool, green palm-trees; there a divan with cushions and soft couches for repose; here a great hall for banquets. On the walls were devices in precious stones and rare enamels, and costly statues stood in every passage. Everywhere were signs of high estate and wealth. But everywhere, also, were signs of mourning. Instruments of music lay dumb; few servants were busy about their duties; the banqueting-hall was cold and bare.
The champions were conducted to a fair chamber,where they washed themselves, and made their humble raiment clean. Then they were taken to a great room, where food and wine, very delicate and pleasing, were served to them; and last of all they were led to rooms in which were beds of the softest down. And there they slept in peace and comfort.
On the next day they were bidden to break-fast with their host. They saw that he seemed even more sad and weary than before. Beyond what courtesy demanded, he spoke little. But he looked narrowly upon the strong figures of the champions, as though he guessed they were no ordinary pilgrims.
When they had breakfasted, they were taken to a splendid hall with a musicians' gallery, and into the gallery came six fair youths, with lutes and harps and viols, and played and sang to them in the most exquisite manner. As they sang, the lord of the house veiled his face with his hands;and when the music died away, and the youths went from the gallery, St. George saw that their host was weeping.
"Fair sir," he cried, with kindly sorrow in his voice, "we have come to you in an hour of grief. We do not know what misfortune has befallen you, but it may be that we can aid you. Though we are bound upon a holy and peaceful errand, we are yet not unskilled in arms. It is our hope, before we die, to subdue all the evil things in the world—all monstrous beasts, all pagan tyrants and giants and wizards, and to win the whole earth to the Christian faith. Tell us, therefore, in what way we may serve you. Or if you have no need for our service, let us go hence without delay, and not intrude any longer upon your sorrow."
"Good sir, I will tell you all," answered the old man, "for I perceive that you are no common pilgrims. Those six youths are my sons. They are all that I have left. But formerly I had fourteen, as comely and honourable as any man could desire. We have a proverb that a man's strength is in his sons; but where is my strength when a foul giant has taken eight sons from me and stolen also my wealth?"
"Where is this giant?" said St. George. "Know, sir, that I am George of England, and there is no giant on earth whom I fear; aye,and my comrades,these six champions of Christendom"—and he named his companions to their host—"are no less ready to encounter any giants or wizards or other enemies of the human race. Tell us where this monster may be found, and we will instantly seek him out and kill him."
"That is a deed for men more than mortal," said their host. "But hear my story. I possessed formerly two palaces, this in which it gives me pleasure to entertain you, and another many miles hence, in a fruitful valley watered by a pleasant stream. Now, I have some slight skill in alchemy. Though I have not yet found the Philosopher's Stone, which turns all things into gold, yet I do not despair of that success before I die. This much did I learn from my study of the secret ways of nature: that a certain spring near my palace was possessed of alchemic properties, so that anything of base metal steeped in its waters in a certain way would, in the space of a day, be changed into pure gold. This fountain flowed copiously, and I had little fear that it would run dry. Nevertheless, I deemed it wise at first to keep my knowledge secret, lest avaricious men should drive me by force from my beauteous valley. I had in a little time as much gold as I needed for my own uses, and I was willing to tell certain of my friends, slowly, one by one, that they also might enrich themselves. But by some means, I know not how, news of the Golden Fountain crept about, and all manner of base folk flocked hither to test it, so that in the end I had to set a guard upon it, and in this work the eight oldest of my sons took a great part. At last there came this great giant, whose dwelling is in Arabia, and brave though they were, my sons could not withstand his terrible strength. He took them all prisoners; and if I had not been warned in time, so that I was able to flee with my young sons and some of my household, we should have been slain, every one of us. Brave knights, I beseech you, if you would bring happiness to an old man who has not many more years on earth for either joy or sorrow, rescue my sons and kill this foul giant; but I beseech you no less, if you set a value upon your own lives, do not heed my prayer."
"Sir," said St. George, "we will kill the giant and set your sons free, and give you back your Golden Fountain."
"I pray that you may," answered the old knight sorrowfully, yet with hope in his voice. "Now let me give you weapons and armour out of my store, for pilgrims do not go armed; you must be knights when you seek out the giant."
He clapped his hands, and a black slave appeared. "Bid my steward attend me," he commanded.
In a little time the steward came, and it was not long before the champions were armed from head to foot in good steel, with weapons worthy of so great an adventure. Their host gave them directions by which they might find the giant's castle, and they set forth, comrades in arms once again.
They came at length to the giant's castle, and beat upon the shut gates. But a warder appeared who told them that his lord was absent, hunting, though he would return soon-The champions withdrew to a little distance to await his coming.
"It appears to me," said St. George while they waited, "that we should win greater honour if we attacked this monster one by one, single-handed. I doubt not that anyone of us can overthrow him, and it will bring the more glory to our faith and our order of knighthood if he were slain by one man only. Let us draw lots to see who shall assail him first."
The other champions agreed. They found six smooth white stones and one black one, and each in turn drew a stone from St. George's helmet. The black stone fell to St. Denis. Even as they finished drawing, they heard a noise of horns and of wild shouting, and, looking up, saw the giant returning from his hunt with a crew of wild huntsmen.
They let the cavalcade get within the castle gates, which were closed upon the hunters. Then St. Denis rode boldly to the gates and summoned the warder. His comrades saw the warder speaking to him at the wicket-door and going away; then came a great shout from within, in a voice that made the air tremble, and the warder came back and opened the gates. St. Denis entered and disappeared; the gates were closed.
For a little space the champions heard no sound. Doubtless the fight was begun. Then they heard the great voice roaring again, but what the sound meant they could not tell.
They waited, and heard no more. Every moment they expected St. Denis to come forth triumphant. But the gates remained shut, and no sign of what had happened within was given. The minutes passed; half an hour, three-quarters of an hour, went to join the hours of yesterday. The champion of France did not return.
"We must draw lots again," said St. George simply at last. "If our brother has fallen into any snare, it should be no great matter for one of us to set him free."
They drew again, and this time the lot fell on St. Patrick. Once more the warder came to the gates, and disappeared, and came back and admitted him; once more they heard the first shout of the mighty voice. But no more did they hear, and St. Patrick did not return.
St. Anthony went next, and after him St. David, and then St. James. St. George and St. Andrew, left alone together, noticed that the warder no longer waited to learn the giant's will before admitting the champions, but threw open the gates as they approached.
"This giant is a greater foe than we have yet met, brother," said St. George, as they waited."But be of good cheer. Even if he overcomes you, and me also, all is not lost. He must use some magic spell, against which knightly weapons are of no avail; but no magic can long prevail against the champions of Christendom. It is not our fate to die here in Arabia by the hand of a monster like this. Now go, friend. I think there is no need to wait longer. I will come soon if you do not return. But doubtless you will return, and our comrades with you."
St. Andrew departed, and vanished within the quickly opened gates. St. George waited, but he knew in his heart that the champion of Scotland would not return. Presently he, too, rode up to the gates, resolved to discover whatever secret lay hid behind them.
The warder laughed as he opened the gates. "Seven of you,"he said jeeringly. "My master has not had so good a catch since he took the eight sons of the knight of the Golden Fountain. Well, I shall not see you again."
"You will see me again in half an hour's time," answered St. George sternly. "With me will be my comrades. Your lord,the monstrous giant, will be dead. You shall be beaten for insolence."
For a moment the man was abashed, with such firmness and confidence did St. George speak. Then he recovered his boldness."You will never return, knight," he said. "And since you have made me a promise,and you will not be able to fulfil it,grant me a boon instead. Give me your sword;I would like to possess a good sword. It will be of no service to you; no sword yet forged can wound my master, as everyone knows; he has a charm against blades of steel."
"That is the secret!" thought St. George. But he did not speak the words aloud. He looked round him quickly. Across the gate stretched a great rod of iron, that fell into a socket and kept all fast barred.
"Take my sword, fellow," he said. "I can fight well enough without it. But when I come to claim it again, you shall have fifty stripes for your trouble in keeping it. Now begone from my sight, lest I repent and kill you with my bare hands."
He gave his sword to the warder, who, awed by his mien, ran hastily with it into the gate-house. St. George leapt from his horse and tethered it to the gate. Then with a wrench he pulled the iron bar from its fastenings. It was twelve feet in length, and few men could have wielded it. But to the champion of England it was almost a plaything.
He passed through the archway of the gate into the courtyard of the castle. A second gate lay the other side. There was no one in the courtyard.
St. George went across and struck the second gate with his iron bar. The blow broke the bolts, and the gate flew open. A great roaring came from inside, and in a moment the giant rushed out, a long club in his hand.
"Hola!" he cried, seeing St. George awaiting him. "Another knight! I thought I had done with you for to-day. Well, I can put seven into my dungeon as well as six, and when I take your bodies to my Golden Fountain, it will be seven gold images I shall have instead of six. Now, knight, look well at me and my castle; you have not long to look upon us, and we are a rare sight. You will have eyes of gold soon, but you will not be able to see out of them.Look! Am I not a fine fellow? Did you ever see a greater man?"
"Have done with your jests,monster," said St. George,"and use your own eyes as long as I give you leave."
With that he swung the huge bar up, up, and down again, so swiftly that it could hardly be seen. Down it fell upon the giant's wrist; there was a crack as if an oak-tree had been riven asunder, and the monster's hand dangled idly, and the club fell out of it. The wrist was broken.
The giant made a terrible sound,half roar,half scream,and rushed at St. George, grasping at him with his left hand. But St. George sprang out of his reach, and swept the iron bar round with all his force. It struck the giant on the knee and broke his leg. He staggered and fell, and as he fell the bar rose and came down once again, smiting him on the head, so that by the time he lay stretched on the ground he was dead.
St. George took from him his keys, which hung at his girdle. With them he went through the castle. In a deep dungeon he found the six champions, bound fast, but unhurt. Their swords had been useless against the giant, even as the warder had said; and he had taken them alive and made them prisoners thus. Other captives also St. George found elsewhere. He set them all free; among them were the sons of the knight of the Golden Fountain.
Then the champions and the freed captives left the castle. But first St. George sought the warder of the gate, and took his sword back from him, and gave him fifty stripes, as he promised.
Very joyous was their return to their host, and great were his rejoicings at the sight of his sons. A feast was held, and then the champions donned once more their pilgrims' weeds, and set out for Jerusalem. It was not far distant, to men who had journeyed so great a way already, and in due time they came to the Holy Sepulchre, and fulfilled the vows they had made at the death of the Princess Sabra.
When their vows were duly paid, the champions left Jerusalem to return to England, choosing a different way from that by which they had come. The road led them across a great wilderness, where there were no habitations of man. Beyond the wilderness lay a range of mountains.
The track through the wilderness was long and barren. The hot, dry sun gave them neither water nor kindly fruits in their season. For many days they journeyed through it (they were now habited as knights again, and riding horses, not afoot, since they had ended their pilgrimage). But their provision of food barely lasted. They ate sparingly, and divided their store up so that it might last the longer. But they grew very anxious both for themselves and for their horses, who fared even worse than they, for there was little enough grazing-land in the desert. They were glad when they suddenly saw in the distance, at the foot of the mountains, a great column of smoke going up into the sky.
"Smoke is the work of man, said St. George cheerfully. "Let us find whose dwelling lies near that smoke, and demand a resting-place and food for ourselves and our beasts."
They rode to the column of smoke, taking fresh heart and comforting their weary steeds. But when they drew near, they saw that the smoke came from a great cave in the side of a hill, or from the ground in front of it, for the hill was a burning mountain or volcano, and a little outlet for the hidden fires was to be found almost at the entrance to the cave.
"What shall we do, brothers?" asked St. George, when they halted a little distance from the cave, seeing that their hopes were deceived."Shall we see if any man—a hermit, maybe—lives in this cave, or shall we journey on, and try to find some dwelling of mankind in these rough mountains? Soon it will be night, and our horses are weary. We must rest somewhere. Shall I spur onwards and peer into this cave? If you abide here, you can in the meantime look all about to see if anywhere you can discern so much as a peasant's hut."
They agreed, and St. George rode as swiftly as his steed could bear him towards the cave. He was very near the entrance when he heard a low, rumbling sound. He halted his horse, thinking that the ground was unsafe, and might at any minute quake and burst asunder. But even as he drew near he learnt that the noise was not of the earth, but of man. A monstrous giant rushed forth, heaving himself through the column of smoke, so that it obscured his coming. He bore a huge mace in his right hand, and so suddenly and swiftly did he come that he was close upon St. George before the champion could draw his sword. But the English knight was alert. His battle-axe hung ready to hand at his saddle-bow. As the giant dashed on, St. George pulled his bridle violently, so that the horse reared up on high. The giant swerved a little to avoid the fore-hoofs; but his rush was too violent for him to stop quickly, and as he swept past St. George swung his battle-axe, and struck him on the back of his head so mighty a blow that his skull was split, and he fell dead upon the spot.
The other champions, in the eagerness to discover some mortal habitation, had not seen what had so quickly happened to St. George. But he called them at once, and together they rode past the column of smoke and into the cave. Deep in the mountain-side they found a great hollow place, which was the giant's lair. It was lit by torches, and at a great fire in the midst was half a sheep roasting on a spit. Other provisions also they found in great plenty, even fodder for their horses.
They feasted well, and lay that night in the cave at their ease. On the morrow they woke refreshed, and, taking with them as great a store of food as they could carry, set out again upon their road through the mountains, thankful to have passed the hot desert with so little misadventure.
They had not ridden very far before they descried upon the track before them a dark figure, and by it some object which sparkled in the sun like a thousand diamonds. When they came nearer, they saw that the figure was that of an old knight, in robes of deep mourning, sitting by the side of a marvellous shrine made of pure crystal. In the midst of the shrine lay a coffin of gold.
"Aged sir," said St. George courteously, when they reached the mourning knight, "have you suffered any wrong that a Christian knight may avenge? My comrades and I are champions of the afflicted and the oppressed, and if you desire it and your cause is just, we will do you whatever service lies in our power."
"You cannot bring back the dead to life," answered the old man sadly. "That is the only service I could willingly ask of you."
"Tell us what has befallen you, sir," said St. George. "It may chance that some remedy may yet be in our power."
"I will tell you my sorrowful tale," said the old knight. "You shall judge for yourselves whether you can serve me or not. In this shrine lies the body of my dear daughter. A week ago she was living, and beautiful as a flower. Now she is dead, foully slain by a knight false to every vow of knighthood. Know, sirs, that I am lord of these regions by right; my forbears so long as the memory of man runs have held this land, and there is no one, high or humble, in these parts by whom my daughter was not known and beloved. Now, a few years ago a knight named Leoger was granted possession of estates bordering mine, their lord having been slain in battle, leaving no heir. This Leoger was fair-spoken, and of great wealth, and seemed to be an honourable knight, and he became my friend. Woe is me that ever I admitted him to my castle! But I think he must have secretly cast a spell upon me and all my household, for we saw nothing evil in him, though all the time (if we had but known it) he was in league with wizards and enchanters, and deep in their vile plots, being himself a magician of power. Of his wizardry I have only had news since his most wicked deed."
"We have sworn to slay all magicians," said St. George, interrupting gently. "We will take up your cause. But tell us all."
"Six months ago," continued the old knight, his voice broken with grief," Leoger came to me and asked me for the hand of my daughter in marriage. He told me of his great wealth and possessions (how evilly he came by them I can now guess), and promised that my daughter, as his wife, should live in the state befitting her lineage and possession. I called her to me, and learnt that she had looked on him with favour, admiring, doubtless, the graces of his person and his fair speeches, for, as I have said, he seemed to be a very comely knight. I gave my consent to his request, and allotted a great dowry to my daughter, as was seemly for one of my house. In due time, without long waiting, he married her. For a month they lived together; then, upon some slight occasion, he abused her and beat her. With one servant she fled from his castle, seeking to return to me. But Leoger pursued and caught her, and killed her then and there, seven days ago. The servant escaped and brought me word. But I could not avenge her, for Leoger, coming swiftly upon the heels of this murder, ravaged my lands suddenly, and by bribes and promises—yes, and I doubt not also by magic arts—drew away from me all but a few most faithful servants. I think that he means before long to slay me also, and claim my possessions in virtue of the wife he murdered so vilely. Day by day have I sat by this shrine, weeping, and praying that Heaven would send me some aid, for I am old and weak, and hope has grown feeble within me. I think no mortal man can prevail against this wizard Leoger; but I crave for aid to escort me and this precious shrine to some place of safety, where I may end my years in peace."
"No harm shall come to you yourself, gentle sir," said St. George;", but we will do more than protect you—we will destroy this Leoger and all his tribe of necromancers. Even if he were but a knight who had been false to his vows, we would chasten him; but now we will kill him. Show us how we may approach his castle."
"The castle is distant seven leagues from here,"answered the old man."In a little while this road branches. Follow the right branch, and you will come to the castle without fail. But it is an ill place to enter by force. It is set upon a great mountain. Outside runs a mighty wall, containing but one gate. Beyond this gate is a drawbridge, across a moat which men say is bottomless. This moat must have been built by arts beyond mortal knowledge, for there is no stream so high up the mountain to fill it, and yet, so it is said, it never runs dry or becomes stagnant. Beyond it is yet another great wall, and in it only one gate, to which the drawbridge leads. When this gate is passed, there is a courtyard, and at one side of the courtyard a great staircase of marble going down into the chief hall of the castle, which is hollowed out in the very body of the mountain itself. More than that I cannot tell you, for I have visited the accursed place only once in my life. Go, brave knights, and take my blessing with you; but I pray you beware of snares and enchantments, for Leoger is strong in them, whatever your valour in arms may be. As for me, I will retire to a cave hard by that I know of, and await your return; and if it is to be that you never return, I will remain there nevertheless, for if your strength cannot aid me, no mortal help will be of use."
"Farewell, good sir," cried the champions, and took the road in joy at this high and worthy adventure. Soon they reached the place where the road branched, and turned to the right. And when they had ridden for a long time, without meeting man or woman by the way, they came in sight of Leoger's castle. It was as the knight had described it, a mighty fortress crowning a steep and barren mountain. There was but the one rough winding track up to the gates of carved bronze. Grim and terrible it was, a place of emptiness and echoes, where a stone dislodged by a horse's hoof would rumble and crash as if the mountain itself were falling.
The knights rode boldly up to the shut gates. There was no watchman or sentinel on guard. They peered through the wrought bronze, and saw beyond it the vast moat, and on the other side the drawbridge, raised, so that it hid the gate in the second long, smooth wall. The waters in the moat looked black and oily and still. There was no movement in them, no ripple of a fish rising, no green leaves of lilies. No grass or weeds grew in the crevices of the stone at the moat's edges. A silence that seemed almost like an unceasing low murmur lay over all the gloomy castle.
They looked for some means to summon a warder. Fastened to the gates by a golden chain St. George spied a silver horn. He clasped it; it was rough to the touch. There were words spelt upon it in fine, small emeralds:
"Sound me: I open gates for all who dare,
But let the man who enters here beware."
St. George took the horn and blew it with all his might. The sound rang through the stillness, and echoed as though a thousand elves were mocking him. So loud was the blast that the castle seemed to rock and sway on its very foundations. As the last note died away the gates clanged open. Slowly the drawbridge, with a grinding and screaming of its chains, lowered itself by invisible means, until the end touched the edge of the sombre moat almost at the champions' feet.
"Forward, friends!" cried St. George. "Here is a proud adventure for the knights of Christendom!"
The horses' hoofs clattered upon the drawbridge. They were across in a moment, and facing the second gate. It, too, was shut, and on it also hung a horn, which St. George sounded. Even more terrible was the blast than before. On the horn were the words:
"Be warned in time: this is no place of peace;
Who comes within death only can release."
At the sound of the horn the gates flew open, and the champions entered. Immediately the gates clanged behind them, and the drawbridge slowly rose and shut the moat from their view. They were cut off, unless they could kill Leoger, or force him to open the gates again.
They were in a huge courtyard, such as they had been told of by the old knight. In front, across the open space, lay the walls of Leoger's keep, high, massive walls of stone, with narrow windows here and there, and on the top battlements and machicolations through which stones and boiling oil could be thrown down upon besiegers. On the left the walls and the courtyard curved away out of sight. On the right a wall stretched out a little way from either side, from the keep and from the moat wall, and then ended, leaving open the way to a broad downward stairway of gleaming white marble.
There was no living thing to be seen. But from the stairway the champions thought they heard the sound of music and of laughter; it was an evil sound, as it were of wicked mirth and triumphant malice. They dismounted from their horses and left them by the gate. Drawing their swords, they went towards the stairway.
Suddenly, as they were in the middle of the courtyard, a dense blackness fell upon them. Not a foot in front of their faces could they see, and the sudden change from light to utter darkness confused them, so that they lost their feeling for direction.
But St. George kept his wits about him. "Clasp hands," he cried at once, "and say quickly your names, as soon as another grasps your hand."
"George," he cried out in a moment, as his hand touched another. "Anthony," cried a voice, and then "Patrick," and "Denis." Then for a moment there was silence, and their hearts grew anxious. At last the sound came "Andrew," and a minute later, "James." Last of all, after another silence, "David." They were joined, hand in hand.They had to sheath their swords, but it was better to be unready than alone in that evil place.
"We must find the stairway," said St. George. The voices seemed strangely distant and muffled in the dark fog.
"It is on our left," said St. Patrick.
"Our right," said St. David.
"Straight in front," said St. James.
"This is vain talk,"said St. Andrew bluntly."Let us walk until we touch some upright surface, whether it be wall or gate or keep. Then let us feel along it, and so in time we shall discover where we are. I should say that when this enchantment descended upon us we were forty paces from the stairway. If, when we find a wall to touch, we walk along it for fifty paces, and do not find either the stairway or the gate, or the cross-walls leading to the stairway, we may be certain we are going in the wrong direction, and must retrace our steps for fifty paces, and then start again in the opposite direction. So we shall find the stairway, unless this Leoger is so great a wizard that he can make it vanish altogether."
"Well said, brother," said St. George. "I think we were not so much as forty paces from the stairway; but if we walk fifty, we shall make sure of not going too far astray. Come, let us to it. Forward!"
They advanced, groping. Presently St. David, at the end of the line, gave a cry: "A wall!" and almost immediately afterwards his comrades touched it. They began to pace along it, going to the left, for they thought they were at the outer wall. Fifty paces they trod, and another ten, to make sure. But they met with no cross-wall and no gate. By that they knew that they were on the farther side of the courtyard, walking in the wrong direction. They retraced their steps-As they walked, clumsily and uncertainly in the blackness, they heard the mocking laughter more loudly. Fifty—forty—twenty—ten—they were at the starting-point. On they went: ten—twenty—thirty ¦- thirty-one—thirty-two-and St. George cried out: "The wall ends; the cross-wall is here. Loose hands and draw swords. When we reach the stairway, let each take paces to the right according to his position. I will take seven, Anthony six, and the rest in order. Now!"
They began their pacing again. In a little while St. George cried again: "The wall ends; there is nothing in front of me. The stairway is here. I shall step seven paces. Let all do their parts."
He paced off his distance, and the others after him. They felt forward with their feet, and stepped downwards in the dark. Immediately the blackness vanished, and they were in broad daylight again. The staircase lay before them. On either side it was walled. In front it curved away as though leading into the very heart of the grim keep.
And thither indeed it led. The champions went down the steps, swiftly but cautiously. In their armour they could not walk silently, but they did not wish to rush headlong into a snare.
At the foot of the stairs they found a large door of oak. They pushed against it. It swung open easily, and they found themselves in a huge hall, lit by hundreds of torches. A feast was being held. A table ran up each side of the hall, and a third across, at the top, on a raised daïs. Strange and terrible were the guests at that feast. Here was a giant with three heads, there a long-bearded genie from Arabia; there a dwarf, here a monstrous creature with a bull's head and a man's body; there a shadowy thing like a wisp of smoke that changed its shape perpetually. One guest would be black, with eyes of fire; another pale and livid, long-faced and threatening. This one wore rich robes of scarlet embroidered with cabalistic signs in black; that one was covered with hair, or wrapped about in tightly-fitting black. Every face had upon it a look of wickedness. All the company were practisers of the black arts, necromancers of hateful repute.
At the middle of the table on the daïs sat one whom the champions judged to be Leoger: a swarthy man, with a lean face like a weasel's, and a long, fierce, drooping black moustache. His mouth was large, and his teeth showed white when his thin lips parted in speech.
The champions advanced between the two side-tables. "Where is the lord of this castle?" cried St. George in a loud voice. "Where is Leoger, the false knight and foul wizard?"
"I am he. Call me what you please; I care not," answered Leoger, starting up. "I had news of your coming. What! seven champions against one poor knight? And all seven have come hither safely," he continued, laughing bitterly. "Well, I had hoped to separate you. But you have come through the darkness safely. You have more skill than I expected. But it is useless. You will not go hence. What say you,friends?"
And he looked round at his terrible guests, whose evil faces scowled and. grinned and mocked at the Christian knights.
"Ho,ho! Ha,ha!" they laughed horribly. "There are dungeons in the castle of Leoger!"
"We defy you!" cried St. George. "Brothers, fall on!"
And they began to lay about them with their swords. Christendom was rid of many a wizard that day. With his own hand St. George slew eight giants, and many another magician and necromancer fell before his comrades. But suddenly, as they swept in triumph up the hall towards Leoger, darkness came upon them again. And as the darkness descended, the floor of the hall vanished beneath them, and they found themselves, unhurt, alone in a dungeon deep beneath the keep.
They did not know at first that they were alone,and only their voices calling to one another warned them.
"Denis, are you near me?" asked St. George.
"Here, brother of England," answered St. Denis from, it seemed, a few paces away. But their voices sounded strangely in the darkness.
"Patrick was by me in the hall," said the voice of St. Andrew. "Are you there, Patrick?"
No answer came. "James!" cried St. Anthony, "I heard you stumble. Speak!"
"I am here," answered the voice of St. James; but it spoke heavily and drowsily, as though the champion were half asleep.
"Is David with us?" asked St. George. But again there was no answer. "Denis, was not David on your right hand as we fought the wizards?"
But St. Denis did not answer either. "Brothers, speak!" cried St. George loudly. "Answer, all of you, by your names!"
All the answer he received was a faint shuffling of feet and a little jingling, as of men in armour sinking upon some soft surface gently. No voice replied to his.
"Where am I? Where are my comrades? What witchcraft of Leoger's is this?" said St. George in dismay.
"Witchcraft!" said a deep, hollow voice far away in the darkness. "Who speaks evil of witchcraft? This is the very palace of witchcraft."
St. George looked towards the sound. A faint light came rapidly towards him. A monstrous creature, shaped like a giant, but almost as broad as he was tall, was shuffling along, bearing a lantern in one hand and a clumsy axe in the other. He had lost the sight of one eye, but the other gleamed fiercely. A long tooth stuck from his upper jaw over his lip, and little snakes were writhing in his thick hair.
"Ha! a knight!" the figure said, holding the lantern on high so that he could see the champion. He growled horribly, and slid forward stealthily, clutching the axe threateningly. But St. George did not wait for him to strike. He ran at him with sword uplifted and smote at the ugly head. The blade clove the throat, and the giant fell suddenly in a heap, dead. The lantern clattered out of his hand, and lay, still alight, on the ground near the champion's feet.
St. George stooped and picked up the lantern, and held it up to look at the fallen monster. But the body of the giant had vanished. By that St. George knew that it was some evil spirit sent by the arts of the enchanter to terrify him.
Even as he gazed he heard a fresh sound, a roaring and blowing as of some great beast. He put the lantern on the floor quickly,and grasped his sword in readiness. Out of the darkness into the circle of faint light came a dragon breathing fire. But he who slew the dragon of Egypt was not terrified; nor was this dragon so large or powerful as that of Egypt. With a shout St. George ran at the creature, and shore off one of its wings with his sword; and immediately, with a scream like a man's, it vanished.
The dungeon fell into silence again. St. George picked up the lantern, keeping his sword drawn in the other hand. The light was not strong, but he could see a few paces away a large, low shape. He went towards it, and as the lantern was brought nearer, he saw that it was an enormous bed or couch, strewn with rich coverlets and cushions of soft down. On it lay the six champions, asleep, so still and motionless that they might have been dead.
St. George shook one of them by the shoulder. It was St. Denis. He did not wake or show signs of life. But his flesh was warm, and he breathed; he was not dead. St. George tried to wake the others, but they were fast bound in an enchanted sleep.
The champion set the lantern upon the ground and gazed at his comrades, wondering what he should do to rid them of the spell which clearly had fallen upon them. Immediately the lantern touched the ground the light went out.
A great drowsiness came over the English champion. He stooped a little, and put his hand on the couch. There was, he remembered, an empty space upon it in front of him. He felt the soft cushions with his hand. He was very weary with travelling and fighting. To rest would be good; he would wake refreshed and ready to combat Leoger with all his force.
He put his knee upon the bed. He hesitated, thinking of the slumber that had fallen upon his comrades. Then he cast himself upon the cushions at full length, and in a moment was fast asleep. So all the champions lay in a magic trance in the stillness and darkness of the dungeon under Leoger's castle.
When the three sons of St. George crossed over into France, they landed in Provence. Thence they began to journey East. They thought it best to turn their steps towards Jerusalem, believing that there, if not before, they might have tidings of the seven champions. But they had not gone far before an adventure fell in their path. They were riding through a forest, when Alexander bade his brothers draw rein: he had heard a strange sound.
They halted and listened in silence. For a moment they heard nothing. Then there came to their ears a low moaning and sobbing.
"Draw!" cried Sir Alexander, "and press on: there is some villainy afoot here."
They drew their swords and spurred their horses. In a few moments they came to a clearing among the trees. There they saw lying on the ground a most beautiful maiden, fastened down by the hair of her head, which was tied to the stump of a tree. Her hands were bound, and she could not free herself.
Sir Guy sprang from his horse and ran swiftly forward. He cut the bonds which bound the maiden's hands, untied her hair from the tree, and helped her to rise.
"Fair knights, I thank you," she said, when she was able to speak. "I pray you avenge me. I was left thus by six wicked Moors, who have half killed my father and have robbed me of my jewels. They have not long gone. Doubtless they heard your horses' hoofs afar off. They were carrying me off to Spain or to the coast; but when I struggled, they tied me cruelly as you found me, and galloped away. If one of you will guard me, I doubt not that the others can overtake these villains and do justice upon them."
Sir Guy and Sir David remounted, and hastened off in the direction she pointed out, leaving Sir Alexander to guard the Princess, for such by her raiment and bearing she appeared to be. While they were absent she told Sir Alexander her history.
"I am a Princess," she began.
"That I had guessed the moment my eyes fell on your loveliness," said Sir Alexander boldly.
"Your eyes are far-sighted, Sir Knight," answered the Princess. "But my eyes tell me that you also are of high lineage."
"I am of the blood royal of England," said Sir Alexander.
"And I of France," she replied. "My father is Duke of Normandy, but I am Princess in my own right by virtue of my mother, who was a King's daughter. But my father's palace is many leagues from here, and we may not dwell in it. Alas! it would have pleased him mightily to entertain you and your comrades there; but I do not even know whether he is alive or dead. Nevertheless, if he cannot bid you to his palace, he would have welcomed you in the little dwelling-place that is ours. He is exiled, and he and I live alone, but for one old servant, in a little arbour of trees and wattles not far distant from here. There we subsist on what game I can kill (for I was brought up to ride and to use the bow and spear), and on the fruits of the earth, and on what we can buy from time to time with our scant means. Old retainers in Normandy send us money when they can. And so we live frugally, but content."
"Who would not be content—" began Sir Alexander,for he was dazzled by the beauty of the Princess, and had fallen head over heels in love with her.
"Nay,this is no time for idle speeches," said the Princess, checking him. "I pray that your comrades——"
"They are my brothers," interrupted Sir Alexander, and told her who they were, and upon what errand they were bent.
"I pray that they return soon," said she, "for I desire greatly to go back to my father and succour him. You must know that the Moors came upon us unawares and slew our servant. My father they bound roughly to a tree not far from our lodging, and me they carried off as I have said. My father is old and weak, Sir Knight, and may bear their cruelty ill. Do you think that your brothers——"
Even as she spoke there was a jingling of horses, and Sir Guy and Sir David came gaily back.
"They are dead!" cried Sir Guy triumphantly. He was young, and exulted in his prowess. "We came upon them like a whirlwind. They had halted, and it seemed as if they were quarrelling. But we did not wait for them to end their debate, but rode them down, and all six were slain in as many minutes. We rescued your jewels from them, Princess. Certain other booty which we found upon them we took also. Alexander, here is your portion." And he gave him a jewelled dagger, a chain of gold, and a ring set with a ruby as large as a fourpenny-piece."The gold we will keep in our common purse," added Sir Guy. "They must have robbed many men."
Sir Alexander told his brothers quickly part of the Princess's story, and they resolved to go at once to her father's aid. Sir Alexander set her upon his horse in front of him; and she did not take the position amiss, for the truth was that she had fallen as deeply in love with the young English knight as he with her.
They rode for a quarter of an hour or more. Then they reached a kind of arbour or shelter made of interlacing boughs and twigs, and walled in with woven wattles plastered with clay. It was large and spacious within, and furnished with rough tables and chairs. At either end a part was curtained off to make sleeping-rooms.
But they could do no more than glance at this green dwelling-place: they must search for the old Duke. They found him tied to a tree not many yards away, so tightly bound that he had swooned with the pain.
They loosed his bonds gently, and took him into the hut, and gave. him a cordial water which the Princess produced from her store of provisions. It brought him out of his swoon, but not back to life and strength. He had been too cruelly used by the Moors. He was of a great age, and weak, and weary of the troubles of his long life. He gathered himself up to give his daughter his blessing, and then fell back dead.
The three knights withdrew for a little, and left the Princess to mourn alone. They talked among themselves as to what they should do with her. Alexander told them of his love for her, and vowed that he would return and marry her. But he did not know how to leave her in that deserted place.
They went back to her presently. She asked them to bury her father, and they dug a grave in a place where violets would bloom over him. When they had laid him to rest, they asked the Princess what she would have them do to make her safe.
"No more help do I need of you," she said bravely. "Go your ways and carry out your quest. Never shall I forget you and the help you have given me. Here in this arbour will I end my days, living alone, mourning my father and praying. If there is any danger, I will dress as a man, But no one willl harm me now that you have slain these Moorish robbers, who were the plague of all this region.Now farewell, young knights. May you prosper always."
She turned away. She was loth to part with Sir Alexander.
"We will go, since you wish it, Princess," said Sir Alexander." But I will return to this place and find you. I pray that you will wear this chain in remembrance of me." And he gave her the gold chain which had been taken from the robbers.
"Thank you, Sir Knight," she answered. "Take this ring in token that I shall not forget you."
She gave him a ring from her finger. He put it upon a little chain he wore round his neck, for it was too small to go upon his strong fingers. Then the three knights remounted their horses, and the Princess, standing by her home of branches, saw them ride jingling away into the dark woods.
They came after a few days to the coast, and took ship, meaning to sail to Athens, or it might be to Constantinople, to learn, if possible, some news of the champions. But contrary winds drove the boat out of its reckoning, and they came presently to a large and fertile island. Here, when they saw before them a little seaport, they bade the captain put them ashore, with their horses, to obtain tidings.
They made their way through the city. It was like a place of the dead. Not a soul was to be seen, nor so much as a dog or a cat. The young knights rode through the streets, to the outskirts of the town, and along a high road which, by the direction of the sun, seemed to lead east.
It was when they had gone a little way along this road that they first saw signs of life in the island. They heard a great rustling and breaking of boughs in a little copse, and a scream, and fierce bellowings. Out of the trees suddenly darted a peasant, running at the top of his speed towards the knights. He fell at their feet, talking wildly in a speech they could not understand. The crashing sound in the copse continued and grew louder.
The man looked up at the knights beseechingly. His eyes were starting out of his head with terror. He saw that they could not understand him, and his voice grew feeble and hesitating. One word he said over and over again: "Mongo! mongo!" He looked fearfully behind him at the copse, and then in terror at the knights again, and the poor remnants of his courage suddenly left him altogether, and he gave a cry and ran like a madman past the knights along the road to the town.
"What does the fellow mean?" began Sir Guy. But he did not finish his question, for he saw the answer to it. Out of the trees which caught it and hindered its steps, there came a terrible monster, with the head of a dragon, claws like an eagle's talons, and eyes that flamed like living fire. It had no wings, but was clad all over in hard scales, and it was ten yards long from head to tail.
It rushed towards them with a lumbering gait that yet bore it along swiftly. Sir Guy did not wait for its onset, but spurred his horse forward. The good beast was trembling in every limb. It had got wind of the monster, and its ears were laid back in anger and fear. Nevertheless, after a moment's hesitation, it sprang onward. At full speed, lance in rest, Guy met the monster. His lance struck its bony scales full and checked its rush. But the lance was shivered to atoms, and the point did not pierce the scales. Quick as thought Guy drew his sword; but the speed of his horse and the shock of meeting had thrown him a little off his balance. The monster turned on him clumsily but quickly, and with one great paw clutched him by the arm, dragging at him till he fell at length from the saddle. It would have gone ill with Sir Guy if by now Sir David had not come up. He smote the creature fiercely on the head, so that it was shaken and reeled unsteadily, though even yet the scales were not pierced. As he struck, Sir David unfortunately wheeled his horse into Sir Alexander's, so that it fell, and Sir Alexander with it. Immediately the monster turned on the fallen man. But Guy, now freed from its clutch, thrust with his sword at its open jaws. The blade entered the gaping mouth, and went deep down the hideous throat, wounding it mortally where alone steel could do it harm. The jaws snapped, and bit the blade in two as if it had been a thin lath of wood. But the wound was too deep. With a groan the creature rolled over and lay dead.
The three knights could hardly believe that it was dead. But when they were sure of it, they left it, well pleased at ridding the country of such a monster. They did not yet know what country they were in, nor whether it had any inhabitants living, save the man whom they had met in flight. But it was not long before they received tidings, for they passed very soon the cave of a hermit. The hermit himself was sitting outside the entrance.
He called to them. "Young sirs," he said, "ride warily. You may be in search of knightly adventure. If you are, you will have your fill of it here. But do not go unarmed or alone. No man's life is safe in this region."
"What region may it be?" asked Sir Guy courteously. "We have come hither in a ship driven out of her course, and we do not know what land this is."
"This is the great island of Sicily, and the road you are upon leads to the famous city of Syracuse."
"What is the danger that you warn us against?" asked Sir Alexander.
But before the old hermit could answer, a trumpet was heard. A herald in a gay tabard, on horseback, approached. He was accompanied by four pursuivants, richly dressed, but in black, as though mourning.
"Hail,sirs!" cried the herald,when he reached the English knights.They gave him a courteous greeting."I am commanded by my lord the King," continued he, "to ride into every corner of this island, and make proclamation to all brave warriors and knights-errant whom I may meet. This I am to say, that whereas the whole land of Sicily is plagued by a dreadful monster which the common folk call the Mongo, and which has devoured many of His Majesty's subjects, high and low, rich and poor, the King will bestow on any man who kills this monster a helmet of gold set with diamonds, and will make him a peer of this realm."
"What will the King do if three men slay the monster?" asked Sir David, smiling.
"I doubt not that the King's bounty will not fail," answered the herald courteously.
"What was this monster like?" Sir Guy asked.
"No man knows exactly," replied the herald. "Those who have been near it to see have not returned to tell.
"I have seen it at a little distance," said the hermit. "It is wont to pass near my cave from time to time." And he described the creature the English knights had slain. "They say it is a sea-monster really," added the hermit. "A month or more ago it came out of the sea. Two fishermen, drawing in their nets, found it following the net to prey upon the fish. They fled at the sight of it, but it pursued and caught one of them, and ate him; since when its liking for human flesh has grown, so that men dare not abide in towns, but all have taken refuge in the high mountains or in well-hidden caves; I am old, and do not fear it, and it has not yet discovered me."
"We three brothers have killed this monster," said Sir Guy simply. "Sicily is rid of it for ever."
"What do you say, young sir?" exclaimed the herald in amazement. "Three young knights—for you will not take it amiss that I call you that—have slain a creature that threw a whole nation into terror?"
"Go a little way along this road," said Sir Alexander, pointing along the way he and his brothers have come," and you will find the Mongo's body in proof of our words."
The herald and his pursuivants wenty and presently returned. Meanwhile the old hermit had been discoursing with the Englishmen about knights and knight-errantry; but he could give them no news of the seven champions.
When the herald came back, he was overjoyed at the wondrous deed; and he insisted that the knights should come at once to the court of the King and receive the appointed reward. They went with him, and were welcomed by the King; and when their deed was told, a solemn festival was held in their honour, and a week of public rejoicing for the whole island decreed.
While they were taking part in this festival, news came to them of a further adventure awaiting them. The King of Thessaly had been driven out of his dominions by the King of Thrace—not the father of the six Princesses whom St. Andrew had rescued; he had long been dead, and at his death his country had once more gradually become pagan. The King of Thessaly was sending messengers into o all Christian lands to seek aid vanquishing the usurper, who had many giants and wizards in alliance with him. These ambassadors were nearing Sicily when they heard of the great feat performed by three Christian knights in slaying the Mongo, and they hastened to seek the knights and ask their help. They had power, if they found warriors of sufficient fame and might, to offer them all authority and command over the whole army of Thessaly.
The sons of St. George pondered this opportunity long, and at last they decided to take it. It would bring them nearer to the East, and so they might learn something of the champions, and they would gain also honour and some experience in warfare.
They gave their consent to the ambassadors, bade farewell to the King of Sicily, and set out. There is no need here to recount the long battles and weary journeys of the war they undertook. They achieved prodigies of valour, and in the end drove out the usurping Thracians, and killed all the enchanters and giants who aided them.
From Thessaly they set out for the Holy Land. Still they had heard nothing of St. George and his companions. But now, though they did not know it, they were near the end of their quest. Their way to Palestine led them through Constantinople and into Asia Minor, and so into Armenia. In that country they passed through a wide and lonely forest. As they rode through it, they heard a voice raised in lamentation. They could not at first catch the words, but soon they were near enough to see from whom the sound came. A little tent of black cloth lay half-hidden among the trees. At the entrance to it, on a couch, was a lady, old, but still beautiful. It was plain that she was near death. By her side, tending her, was a beautiful maiden. At her breast the maiden wore a rose of deep crimson.
The armour of the knights rattled. The two women looked round, and the younger one ran to them when she saw them. "Help, knights!" she cried. "By your vows of knighthood, do not refuse me your aid."
They hastened to the tent. "Sirs, I pray you uphold my cause," said the dying woman, "for the sake of my dear daughter."
"Lady,if your cause is just,or if you have suffered any wrong at all,however little," answered Sir Guy, "our swords and our lives shall serve you,according to our knightly vows. Tell us what you would have us do."
"Sirs, a vile knight,if knight such a man can be," she said, with sorrow and passion together in her voice, "has used me most shamefully.This Leoger—that is his name—in days past plagued me to be his wife, and at length, not knowing what manner of man he was, I consented. This child was born to us, and then Leoger seized my lands and my wealth, and drove me into this forest to die, vowing to kill me if I returned to my home. Since then he has married a dozen maidens, and got their dowry into his clutches and then killed them. Many a knight has he spirited away by magic arts, for he is a wizard. This I discovered when first he drove me forth, for at that time he brought a host of men from his own castle—necromancers without doubt, for all the valour of my servants was of no avail against them—and pulled down my castle, where we had been dwelling together, about my ears, and slew my household, and turned me into this wilderness of a forest to starve. Since then for nigh a score of years I have lived upon fruits and berries, and the water of a little stream, I have brought up my daughter, Rosana, here alone, teaching her woodcraft, and the use of the bow and spear, for I had weapons when Leoger exiled me. These many weary years have I waited and hoped for one to come who would take vengeance on Leoger, and win back an inheritance for my daughter. But few have passed through this forest; and of those who came, some knew Leoger's evil repute, and deemed it vain to try to overcome him, and others made the attempt and perished miserably. I tell you this, young knights, that you may know what perils lie in wait for one who would serve me thus. Nor would I ask knights so young and so fair to suffer such perils if it were not that I have but few minutes of life upon earth left to me."
"Lady, we are young," said Sir Guy; "but we have fought battles already, not without honour. What our strength puts in our power that will we do. If your anguish is not too great, tell us how we may find this Leoger."
"He dwells a few leagues hence," answered the lady. "His castle is called the Black Castle,and it is surrounded by a moat and two walls." And she described narrowly the entrance to the castle in which St. George and the champions lay spell-bound. "Now Leoger," she continued, "practises the black art,as I have said. But there is to come a time when his magic power shall depart from him, and it has been prophesied fully. His spells, it has been told me, depend upon seven lanterns. So long as they burn, so long will he be invincible. How the lanterns may be extinguished I do not know. Doubtless the secret is hidden in his castle. That much I can tell you. And I can tell you this also, that Leoger shall come to his doom by a maiden's deed. Now my time is near. Know that I was once Queen of Armenia; that is the inheritance I would have you restore to my dear Rosana. Leave us now for a little, gentle knights: I would give her my dying blessing."
The English knights retired a little distance, and debated this adventure among themselves. They held that as knights they could not but undertake it; and who knew but what St. George, St. Denis, and their comrades might not have fallen, by ill chance, under the spells of this very enchanter? By the Queen of Armenia's account, the Black Castle lay but a little distance from the chief road away from Jerusalem to the west of Europe.
They had made up their minds when they heard Rosana calling them. Her mother was dead.
They buried the Queen there. Then they told Rosana that they had resolved to take up her quest. She thanked them, and begged that she might go with them. "Remember that the spell of the lanterns is to be broken by a maiden," she said.
They were willing—nay, glad—to take her with them. She mounted behind Sir Guy, and they set out to find the Black Castle.
The forest was of great extent. Many miles they rode upon the track they were following without ever losing sight of trees or seeing bare hills or green meadows. But once, when they were near the edge of the forest, though they did not know it, they came upon a vast open space, where trees had been cut down, and the bare ground and rock showed. It was on a slope, and as the ground grew higher, the rocks grew larger, till at last they formed natural caves and shelters between one and another.
It was at the beginning of this open space that they met their first adversary in the quest. As they left the shelter of the trees, something huge and hairy dashed out of some bushes, and crouched near their path. Sir Alexander was in front. They were riding in single file, with Sir Guy and Rosana in the middle.
Alexander approached the strange shape. It sprang suddenly at him. At its full height it looked nine feet high or more, but it huddled itself up except for a moment when it leapt. Sir Alexander had his sword loose in the scabbard, for he had seen the thing run out of the undergrowth. He drew quickly and struck; but long before the blade could reach the creature it had bounded out of reach. It did not flee, but remained a few paces away, glaring at the knights. They could see now what it was—a misshapen satyr, half man, half goat, but deformed even so. Its face was a third of its height, and it was taller than the tallest man. It had but one eye, and that in the middle of its forehead.
Suddenly it sprang at Alexander's horse. If the horse, in terror, had not shied and reared up on its hind-legs, the satyr would have struck it in the neck; and so great is the strength of such creatures that probably it would have killed the horse, or torn it with its powerful hands. But the charger swerved, and as it turned aside, Sir Alexander struck it down with his sword. The blade did but just touch the satyr, but it squealed with rage, and made as if to leap upon the knight itself. Then it changed its purpose, and ran off as swiftly as a hart up the slope and vanished among the rocks.
"Let us pursue it and kill it!" cried Sir David. "These creatures are evil; they attack peaceful folk and do great mischief."
Sir Alexander and Sir David spurred their horses.Sir Guy,having Rosana behind him,could not with safety join in the pursuit.
The two knights rode up the rocks. The great boulders lay piled this way and that. Suddenly the satyr leapt out from behind one of them, just as Sir David had passed it. It clung on to his horse's flanks, and with its sharp nails tore a long wound in the poor beast. Sir David swung his sword backwards, and the satyr dropped off hastily and darted among the stones. But this time Sir Alexander marked its retreat. He saw it leap down between two boulders, and pull, with marvellous strength, a third over the opening between them. The first two touched at the back; the satyr had made for itself a three-cornered refuge of rocks too heavy for any man to move.
Sir David dismounted and tended the wound in his horse. It was not deep. He had with him an ointment for these flesh wounds, and before long, when the blood ceased to flow, the ointment took effect, and the good steed felt little evil effect.
Sir Alexander chased the satyr to its hiding-place. He dismounted, and tried to move the stone that the creature had pulled across after it. But it was beyond his strength. It did not cover the opening exactly, and he peered within. He could see the bright fierce eye of the terrible creature. It gnashed its great white teeth at him, and threw itself against the stone in a fury. Quickly Sir Alexander thrust with his sword through the crevice between the rocks. It pierced the satyr's heart, and it fell dead in the little cave.
Thereafter the knights and Rosana continued their journey without adventure or mishap. The forest came to an end, and the way lay through stony desert ground. Presently the stones became rocks, and the rocks grew into cliffs. They were entering the mountain lands, and before long they struck into that grim, shut-in road which St. George and the champions had travelled-the road of frowning cliffs and countless echoes. And so at last they found themselves opposite the silent gates of the Black Castle.
The horses were left outside the castle gates, and the three knights and Rosana began their attempt with high hearts. Sir Guy blew a blast upon the same trumpet as St. George had sounded. The gates opened, the drawbridge fell, just as they had for the champion of England. The second gates likewise answered to the trumpet, and again the courtyard of Leoger's castle saw strangers within it. But no darkness descended upon Rosana and her knights.
Sir Guy was the first to see the marble stairway as they stood gazing in wonder at the hugeness and strength of the castle. They went down the stairs, and found themselves in the great banqueting hall. In the minstrels' gallery, looking down on them with contempt, stood Leoger. By him were four giants, whom he had chosen for his bodyguard, to stay by his side day and night.
"Uninvited guests!" cried Leoger, "you are welcome. My arts tell me that you are Christian knights. I have seven others of your kind asleep in an inner chamber. They will not wake to greet you, but, nevertheless, you will rejoice to join them."
"Caitiff!" cried Sir Guy, in deep anger. He did not know the full meaning of Leoger's words, but from the way in which the wizard knight spoke it was plain that seven Christian knights were his prisoners and under some evil spell. "Caitiff,are you that vile Leoger whom every true knight abhors? Set free your prisoners! We are come to break your power and make your spells in vain. Undo your enchantments and repent of your evil life,or we will slay you in addition."
"Repent!" sneered Leoger. "Sons of St. George"—the three knights started, they knew by this that the champions must truly be Leoger's captives—"sons of St. George, you shall lie bound for a thousand years in my dungeons, so that when my spells are lifted from you, you shall crumble into dust from old age. And as for that damsel you bring with you, whoever she may be——"
"Did not your wizardry tell you who I am?" cried Rosana. "Perhaps you cannot learn your own doom by your black arts. I am your daughter Rosana, and I have led these knights hither to take vengeance on you for my mother's sake, the Queen of Armenia, whom you used so shamefully."
Leoger turned pale at that name; then his face darkened with fury, and he made a signal to his giants.In a moment the huge men had put their hands upon the balustrade of the gallery, and vaulted down into the hall, receiving no hurt from the distance, but alighting as gently as a feather touching the ground.
"Fall to, villains!" cried Sir Guy. "When we have slain you, we will discover the secret of the seven lanterns, and break the spells of this foul castle!"
He spoke at random, not knowing, indeed, where the seven lanterns were, or how he could break the spell. But his words struck fear into Leoger,who fled with a loud cry from the gallery,and was seen no more.
But only Rosana saw him flee, for the knights were too busily occupied with the giants to pay heed to anything else. Rosana herself, indeed, forgot Leoger in a moment, for she had to shrink back to the entrance of the hall to avoid the fierce combat that now began. It was the most perilous adventure that had befallen the young knights, for the giants were as active as lions, in spite of their great bulk, and they outnumbered the Englishmen. But this advantage they speedily lost, for Sir Alexander, ever quick and ready in the moment of need, had drawn his sword even as Leoger signed to the giants to make their attack, and had run at one of them almost as he touched the ground, and wounded him sorely in the side. Sir David, seeing this, had likewise turned swiftly upon the wounded giant, and in a moment the numbers were equal.
The battle was long and fierce. It was the youth of the knights, not their strength, which gave them the victory. They darted hither and thither like gadflies, pricking and cutting, advancing and retreating, not remaining each in combat with one giant, but leaping from one to the other unexpectedly, so that the monsters were bewildered, for all their skill and agility. At last one of them was brought to the ground and slain, and then the knights' task was light. The three of them made short work of the two other giants, and in a little while all four lay dead.
The three knights rested for a few minutes to regain their breath. But they dared not tarry long while Leoger was still free and his magic powers unharmed. As they rested they looked round the great hall. There was another door in it besides that by which they had entered. It was under the minstrels' gallery. When they were ready they went to this and pushed against it. It swung open, and they found themselves in another huge hall as large as the banqueting hall. The high roof of it was supported by a column of pure alabaster in the midst, on which they could see a plate of silver inscribed with words. All round the hall in silver sconces against the walls tall candles burned. From the ceiling, on long chains of gold, hung seven lamps, the flames of which glowed red. There was no living creature to be seen in the hall, and no sound to be heard.
They went forward to the alabaster column.Rosana read the words of the inscription first:
"Seven lanterns burn to guard Leoger's power:
When they are quenched, the wizard's fatal hour
Is come upon him. But their living fire
Shall by one hand and means alone expire.
The Rose Princess must tread the secret path
To where the Dark Pool bubbles in its wrath.
Let her its ever-gliding waters bring
And on the flames a crystal shower fling."
"The Rose Princess!" said Rosana. "Surely I am she!" She still wore at her breast the crimson rose which had been there when first the sons of St. George saw her in the forest of Armenia. "Look!"she said, touching it. "I am a Princess,and here is my rose,and here above us are the seven lanterns. It is as my dear mother said: Leoger's power will die with their flames."
Sir David raised his sword—all three knights now were carrying their swords drawn—and struck at the lantern hanging nearest to him. They hung low, about four feet from the ground. The sword smote the lantern full, but neither did it break nor did the flame so much as quiver;and a shock ran up Sir David's sword-arm as if he had beaten a wall of hard stone. Sir Alexander took a lantern in his mailed hand, and blew at the flame, but it did not even tremble at his breath. Sir Guy tried to extinguish the flame with his fingers, but in vain.
"They are indeed enchanted," said he. "Princess, I believe that it will be in your power to quench the flames, as this prophecy says, if we can but find this Dark Pool, whatever it may be."
"We must find it;" said Sir David. "Is there any other way out of this hall?"
"There is another door yonder," said Sir Alexander,pointing.
They went to the door. It was made of iron, with great bolts across it, and a large key in the lock. Sir Guy tried to turn the key; then his brothers tried. It would not move, for all their strength. Nor could they move the bolts.
"Is there no other door?" asked Sir David.
"There might be a secret door, perhaps, hidden in the wall,"said Sir Alexander.
They began to search all the walls of the chamber,feeling and pressing for unseen springs or invisible openings. They discovered nothing. But in the middle of their search they heard a cry from Rosana.
"Come, sirs!" she called to them. "I have opened the door."
They went to where she stood. The iron door was wide open: a dark passage lay beyond it.
"How did you open the door, Princess?" asked Sir Alexander.
"I do not know," she answered. "I thought I would try the key idly, with no real hope of turning it, and behold, it turned easily in my hand, and the bolts slid back as it turned! When they were undone,I pressed the door, and it swung open as you see."
"Without doubt you are fated to break the spell, Princess," said Sir Guy. "Now let us enter this passage warily."
Sword in hand, the three knights went slowly into the passage, followed by Rosana. It was narrow and low-roofed at first, but gradually grew broader. Slowly, also, a faint light began to appear. They came at the end of it into a wide underground cellar, the end of which was beyond their sight. It was lit by one solitary great torch a little distance in front of them. Round the light of the torch writhed and swirled grey mists, making the place look like an abode of ghosts.
As they came out of the passage, a faint murmuring sound which they had already begun to hear became more distinct. It grew into a bubbling, boiling sound as of angry waters.
They went towards the torch. When they were close to it, they could see into the mists beyond. Ten paces away lay the edge of a pool, in which water rose and eddied and bubbled without ceasing. On it a little crystal bowl, curiously shaped, rocked and danced, but was never filled with the water, and came to no harm for all its tossings.
"It is the Dark Pool!" cried Sir David joyfully. "Princess,take the crystal vessel and fill it with water, and hasten back to the lanterns."
Rosana started forward. But suddenly all the chamber was filled with a denser fog. It hung in the air for the space of a minute only, and then vanished. But when it had vanished, leaving only the thin mist as before, the knights saw all around them dreadful shapes: giants, hobgoblins, griffins, fiery serpents, dragons, and furies. Between them and the Dark Pool these creatures were crowded, rank on rank.
The knights did not hesitate. They fell upon the monsters with their swords; they cut and thrust, they struck and avoided blows; but they could not drive off the crowd of frightful shapes. If they slew one, his body vanished, and another creature appeared in his place. And if they forced the enemy to yield a little so that they should have drawn nearer to the Dark Pool, they found that its magic waters were no closer. The Pool withdrew itself as they advanced, and ever its edge was out of their reach.
But as they fought so valiantly, Rosana saw an opportunity. By chance a griffin knocked Sir David's shield out of his hand. She was close behind him, sheltered by him. She picked up the shield quickly and held it in front of her to cover her body, and thus protected she darted forward through the monsters and reached the Pool. Its waters did not retreat before her; against her Leoger's enchantments seemed void of power. She stretched out her arm over the boiling Pool, and caught the crystal vessel in her right hand. As she touched it, the bubbling ceased, and the dark surface became as still as a calm lake. She dipped the vessel in it and drew it out full of water. Then she turned to flee back to the lanterns.
Sir Guy, Sir Alexander, and Sir David were alone with her in the chamber. As she lifted the full vessel from the Pool, all the strange threatening shapes had vanished. The mist had disappeared wholly, the torch burnt clear and bright. The passage back lay open still, dark, but unguarded.
"You have saved us!" cried Sir David. "Leoger's power is broken."
"We must extinguish the lamps," said Sir Guy. "Back to the great hall!"
As quickly as they could, Rosana in their midst, they went through the passage, and out into the hall of the alabaster pillar.
Rosana stopped at a lamp. She hesitated. She feared at this last moment that there might be some fresh and terrible enchantment in the magic waters.
" 'On the flame a crystal shower fling!' " read Sir Guy from the silver tablet. "Hasten,Princess, lest Leoger have time to weave some new spell."
She hesitated no longer. Stretching out the crystal bowl, she spilled a few drops over the lantern. Immediately the floor of the hall rocked, and there was darkness for a moment. The flame of the lamp burst into a blazing light, and suddenly died as the darkness passed. One lantern was extinguished.
A second time Rosana threw water on a flame; a second time the flame flared and the hall rocked in darkness. Seven times in all did she sprinkle the magical drops, until all the lamps were extinguished. As the darkness fell for the seventh time, they heard a sound of thousands of harsh voices, speaking unknown words in tones of uttermost fear; and then there came a crying and screaming as of evil spirits, and a rushing noise of wind. All the enchantments and vile creatures of Leoger's castle were fleeing at that moment to their own place beyond the mortal world.
A silence descended upon them at this last wonder. Then they heard the sound of gates being flung open, and the door to the banquet hall opened of its own accord, and the noise of voices came through. They hastened to the foot of the great marble stair, the door of which also lay wide open. There, coming down the stair, they saw a host of knights and ladies. From every door others followed, and in the midst were the seven champions themselves. All the prisoners of the castle were freed from their spells; every chain was loosed, every dungeon opened, when the seven lanterns lost their light.
Long and glad were the greetings that followed, and many a tale of adventure and marvel had the freed captives to tell one another. That night a joyous feast was held in Leoger's castle, for they found in it great stores of food and wine, as well as armour and horses and all things necessary alike for warfare and for peaceful living. Never had there been in that once evil place mirth and jollity so innocent and so full of happiness.
When they had feasted, they searched the castle for resting-places, and lay down to sleep. On the morrow they would go everyone to his home.