A Bold Request
I T was the custom to conclude the ceremonies of the bestowal of knighthood by a grand feast given in honor of the newly-created knight. But in Myles's instance the feast was dispensed with. The Earl of Mackworth had planned that Myles might be created a Knight of the Bath with all possible pomp and ceremony; that his personality might be most favorably impressed upon the King; that he might be so honorably knighted as to make him the peer of any who wore spurs in all England; and, finally, that he might celebrate his new honors by jousting with some knight of high fame and approved valor. All these desiderata chance had fulfilled in the visit of the King to Devlen.
As the Earl had said to Myles, he would rather have waited a little while longer until the lad was riper in years and experience, but the opportunity was not to be lost. Young as he was, Myles must take his chances against the years and grim experience of the Sieur de la Montaigne. But it was also a part of the Earl's purpose that the King and Myles should not be brought too intimately together just at that time. Though every particular of circumstance should be fulfilled in the ceremony, it would have been ruination to the Earl's plans to have the knowledge come prematurely to the King that Myles was the son of the attainted Lord Falworth. The Earl knew that Myles was a shrewd, cool-headed lad; but the King had already hinted that the name was familiar to his ears, and a single hasty answer or unguarded speech upon the young knight's part might awaken him to a full knowledge. Such a mishap was, of all things, to be avoided just then, for, thanks to the machinations of that enemy of his father of whom Myles had heard so much, and was soon to hear more, the King had always retained and still held a bitter and rancorous enmity against the unfortunate nobleman.
It was no very difficult matter for the Earl to divert the King's attention from the matter of the feast. His Majesty was very intent just then upon supplying a quota of troops to the Dauphin, and the chief object of his visit to Devlen was to open negotiations with the Earl looking to that end. He was interested—much interested in Myles and in the coming jousting in which the young warrior was to prove himself, but he was interested in it by way of a relaxation from the other and more engrossing matter. So, though he made some passing and half preoccupied inquiry about the feast, he was easily satisfied with the Earl's reasons for not holding it: which were that he had arranged a consultation for that morning in regard to the troops for the Dauphin, to which meeting he had summoned a number of his own more important dependent nobles, that the King himself needed repose and the hour or so of rest that his barber-surgeon had ordered him to take after his mid-day meal; that Father Thomas had laid upon Myles a petty penance—that for the first three days of his knighthood he should eat his meals without meat and in his own apartment—and various other reasons equally good and sufficient. So the King was satisfied, and the feast was dispensed with.
The next morning had been set for the jousting, and all that day the workmen were busy erecting the lists in the great quadrangle upon which, as was said before, looked the main buildings of the castle. The windows of Myles's apartment opened directly upon the bustling scene—the carpenters hammering and sawing, the upholsterers snipping, cutting, and tacking. Myles and Gascoyne stood gazing out from the open casement, with their arms lying across one another's shoulders in the old boyhood fashion, and Myles felt his heart shrink with a sudden tight pang as the realization came sharply and vividly upon him that all these preparations were being made for him, and that the next day he should, with almost the certainty of death, meet either glory or failure under the eyes not only of all the greater and lesser castle folk, but of the King himself and noble strangers critically used to deeds of chivalry and prowess. Perhaps he had never fully realized the magnitude of the reality before. In that tight pang at his heart he drew a deep breath, almost a sigh. Gascoyne turned his head abruptly, and looked at his friend, but he did not ask the cause of the sigh. No doubt the same thoughts that were in Myles's mind were in his also.
It was towards the latter part of the afternoon that a message came from the Earl, bidding Myles attend him in his private closet. After Myles had bowed and kissed his lordship's hand, the Earl motioned him to take a seat, telling him that he had some final words to say that might occupy a considerable time. He talked to the young man for about half an hour in his quiet, measured voice, only now and then showing a little agitation by rising and walking up and down the room for a turn or two. Very many things were disclosed in that talk that had caused Myles long hours of brooding thought, for the Earl spoke freely, and without concealment to him concerning his father and the fortunes of the house of Falworth.
Myles had surmised many things, but it was not until then that he knew for a certainty who was his father's malignant and powerful enemy—that it was the great Earl of Alban, the rival and bitter enemy of the Earl of Mackworth. It was not until then that he knew that the present Earl of Alban was the Lord Brookhurst, who had killed Sir John Dale in the anteroom at Falworth Castle that morning so long ago in his early childhood. It was not until then that he knew all the circumstances of his father's blindness; that he had been overthrown in the mêlée at the great tournament at York, and that that same Lord Brookhurst had ridden his iron-shod war-horse twice over his enemy's prostrate body before his squire could draw him from the press, and had then and there given him the wound from which he afterwards went blind. The Earl swore to Myles that Lord Brookhurst had done what he did wilfully, and had afterwards boasted of it. Then, with some hesitation, he told Myles the reason of Lord Brookhurst's enmity, and that it had arisen on account of Lady Falworth, whom he had one time sought in marriage, and that he had sworn vengeance against the man who had won her.
Piece by piece the Earl of Mackworth recounted every circumstance and detail of the revenge that the blind man's enemy had afterwards wreaked upon him. He told Myles how, when his father was attainted of high-treason, and his estates forfeited to the crown, the King had granted the barony of Easterbridge to the then newly-created Earl of Alban in spite of all the efforts of Lord Falworth's friends to the contrary; that when he himself had come out from an audience with the King, with others of his father's friends, the Earl of Alban had boasted in the anteroom, in a loud voice, evidently intended for them all to hear, that now that he had Falworth's fat lands, he would never rest till he had hunted the blind man out from his hiding, and brought his head to the block.
"Ever since then," said the Earl of Mackworth, "he hath been striving by every means to discover thy father's place of concealment. Some time, haply, he may find it, and then—"
Myles had felt for a long time that he was being moulded and shaped, and that the Earl of Mackworth's was the hand that was making him what he was growing to be; but he had never realized how great were the things expected of him should he pass the first great test, and show himself what his friends hoped to see him. Now he knew that all were looking upon him to act, sometime, as his father's champion, and when that time should come, to challenge the Earl of Alban to the ordeal of single combat, to purge his father's name of treason, to restore him to his rank, and to set the house of Falworth where it stood before misfortune fell upon it.
But it was not alone concerning his and his father's affairs that the Earl of Mackworth talked to Myles. He told him that the Earl of Alban was the Earl of Mackworth's enemy also; that in his younger days he had helped Lord Falworth, who was his kinsman, to win his wife, and that then, Lord Brookhurst had sworn to compass his ruin as he had sworn to compass the ruin of his friend. He told Myles how, now that Lord Brookhurst was grown to be Earl of Alban, and great and powerful, he was forever plotting against him, and showed Myles how, if Lord Falworth were discovered and arrested for treason, he also would be likely to suffer for aiding and abetting him. Then it dawned upon Myles that the Earl looked to him to champion the house of Beaumont as well as that of Falworth.
"Mayhap," said the Earl, "thou didst think that it was all for the pleasant sport of the matter that I have taken upon me this toil and endeavor to have thee knighted with honor that thou mightst fight the Dauphiny knight. Nay, nay, Myles Falworth, I have not labored so hard for such a small matter as that. I have had the King, unknown to himself, so knight thee that thou mayst be the peer of Alban himself, and now I would have thee to hold thine own with the Sieur de la Montaigne, to try whether thou be'st Alban's match, and to approve thyself worthy of the honor of thy knighthood. I am sorry, ne'theless," he added, after a moment's pause, "that this could not have been put off for a while longer, for my plans for bringing thee to battle with that vile Alban are not yet ripe. But such a chance of the King coming hither haps not often. And then I am glad of this much—that a good occasion offers to get thee presently away from England. I would have thee out of the King's sight so soon as may be after this jousting. He taketh a liking to thee, and I fear me lest he should inquire more nearly concerning thee and so all be discovered and spoiled. My brother George goeth upon the first of next month to France to take service with the Dauphin, having under his command a company of tenscore men—knights and archers; thou shalt go with him, and there stay till I send for thee to return."
With this, the protracted interview concluded, the Earl charging Myles to say nothing further about the French expedition for the present—even to his friend—for it was as yet a matter of secrecy, known only to the King and a few nobles closely concerned in the venture.
Then Myles arose to take his leave. He asked and obtained permission for Gascoyne to accompany him to France. Then he paused for a moment or two, for it was strongly upon him to speak of a matter that had been lying in his mind all day—a matter that he had dreamed of much with open eyes during the long vigil of the night before.
The Earl looked up inquiringly. "What is it thou wouldst ask?" said he.
Myles's heart was beating quickly within him at the thought of his own boldness, and as he spoke his cheeks burned like fire. "Sir," said he, mustering his courage at last, "haply thou hast forgot it, but I have not; ne'theless, a long time since when I spoke of serving the—the Lady Alice as her true knight, thou didst wisely laugh at my words, and bade me wait first till I had earned my spurs. But now, sir, I have gotten my spurs, and—and do now crave thy gracious leave that I may serve that lady as her true knight."
A space of dead silence fell, in which Myles's heart beat tumultuously within him.
"I know not what thou meanest," said the Earl at last, in a somewhat constrained voice. "How wouldst thou serve her? What wouldst thou have?"
"I would have only a little matter just now," answered Myles. "I would but crave of her a favor for to wear in the morrow's battle, so that she may know that I hold her for my own true lady, and that I may have the courage to fight more boldly, having that favor to defend."
The Earl sat looking at him for a while in brooding silence, stroking his beard the while. Suddenly his brow cleared. "So be it," said he. "I grant thee my leave to ask the Lady Alice for a favor, and if she is pleased to give it to thee, I shall not say thee nay. But I set this upon thee as a provision: that thou shalt not see her without the Lady Anne be present. Thus it was, as I remember, thou saw her first, and with it thou must now be satisfied. Go thou to the Long Gallery, and thither they will come anon if naught hinder them."
Myles waited in the Long Gallery perhaps some fifteen or twenty minutes. No one was there but himself. It was a part of the castle connecting the Earl's and the Countess's apartments, and was used but little. During that time he stood looking absently out of the open casement into the stony court-yard beyond, trying to put into words that which he had to say; wondering, with anxiety, how soon the young ladies would come; wondering whether they would come at all. At last the door at the farther end of the gallery opened, and turning sharply at the sound, he saw the two young ladies enter, Lady Alice leaning upon Lady Anne's arm. It was the first time that he had seen them since the ceremony of the morning, and as he advanced to meet them, the Lady Anne came frankly forward, and gave him her hand, which Myles raised to his lips.
"I give thee joy of thy knighthood, Sir Myles," said she, "and do believe, in good sooth, that if any one deserveth such an honor, thou art he."
At first little Lady Alice hung back behind her cousin, saying nothing until the Lady Anne, turning suddenly, said: "Come, coz, has thou naught to say to our new-made knight? Canst thou not also wish him joy of his knighthood?"
Lady Alice hesitated a minute, then gave Myles a timid hand, which he, with a strange mixture of joy and confusion, took as timidly as it was offered. He raised the hand, and set it lightly and for an instant to his lips, as he had done with the Lady Anne's hand, but with very different emotions.
"I give you joy of your knighthood, sir," said Lady Alice, in a voice so low that Myles could hardly hear it.
Both flushed red, and as he raised his head again, Myles saw that the Lady Anne had withdrawn to one side. Then he knew that it was to give him the opportunity to proffer his request.
A little space of silence followed, the while he strove to key his courage to the saying of that which lay at his mind. "Lady," said he at last, and then again—"Lady, I—have a favor for to ask thee."
"What is it thou wouldst have, Sir Myles?" she murmured, in reply.
"Lady," said he, "ever sin I first saw thee I have thought that if I might choose of all the world, thou only wouldst I choose for—for my true lady, to serve as a right knight should." Here he stopped, frightened at his own boldness. Lady Alice stood quite still, with her face turned away. "Thou—thou art not angered at what I say?" he said.
She shook her head.
"I have longed and longed for the time," said he, "to ask a boon of thee, and now hath that time come. Lady,
Again the Lady Alice shook her head.
"I would that thou—I would that thou would give me some favor for to wear—thy veil or thy necklace."
He waited anxiously for a little while, but Lady Alice did not answer immediately.
"I fear me," said Myles, presently, "that I have in sooth offended thee in asking this thing. I know that it is a parlous bold matter for one so raw in chivalry and in courtliness as I am, and one so poor in rank, to ask thee for thy favor. An I ha' offended, I prithee let it be as though I had not asked it."
Perhaps it was the young man's timidity that brought a sudden courage to Lady Alice; perhaps it was the graciousness of her gentle breeding that urged her to relieve Myles's somewhat awkward humility; perhaps it was something more than either that lent her bravery to speak, even knowing that the Lady Anne heard all. She turned quickly to him: "Nay, Sir Myles," she said, "I am foolish, and do wrong thee by my foolishness and silence, for, truly, I am proud to have thee wear my favor." She unclasped, as she spoke, the thin gold chain from about her neck. "I give thee this chain," said she, "and it will bring me joy to have it honored by thy true knightliness, and, giving it, I do wish thee all success." Then she bowed her head, and, turning, left him holding the necklace in his hand.
Her cousin left the window to meet her, bowing her head with a smile to Myles as she took her cousin's arm again and led her away. He stood looking after them as they left the room, and when they were gone, he raised the necklace to his lips with a heart beating tumultuously with a triumphant joy it had never felt before.