T HAT same afternoon the squires' quarters were thrown into such a ferment of excitement as had, perhaps, never before stirred them. About one o'clock in the afternoon the Earl himself and Lord George came walking slowly across the Armory Court wrapped in deep conversation, and entered Sir James Lee's office.
All the usual hubbub of noise that surrounded the neighborhood of the dormitory and the armory was stilled at their coming, and when the two noblemen had entered Sir James's office, the lads and young men gathered in knots discussing with an almost awesome interest what that visit might portend.
After some time Sir James Lee came to the door at the head of the long flight of stone steps, and whistling, beckoned one of the smaller pages to him. He gave a short order that sent the little fellow flying on some mission. In the course of a few minutes he returned, hurrying across the stony court with Myles Falworth, who presently entered Sir James's office. It was then and at this sight that the intense half-suppressed excitement reached its height of fever-heat. What did it all mean? The air was filled with a thousand vague, wild rumors—but the very wildest surmises fell short of the real truth.
Perhaps Myles was somewhat pale when he entered the office; certainly his nerves were in a tremor, for his heart told him that something very portentous was about to befall him. The Earl sat at the table, and in the seat that Sir James Lee usually occupied; Lord George half sat, half leaned in the window-place. Sir James stood with his back to the empty fireplace, and his hands clasped behind him. All three were very serious.
"Give thee good den, Myles Falworth," said the Earl, as Myles bowed first to him and then to the others; "and I would have thee prepare thyself for a great happening." Then, continuing directly to the point: "Thou knowest, sirrah, why we have been training thee so closely these three years gone; it is that thou shouldst be able to hold thine own in the world. Nay, not only hold thine own, but to show thyself to be a knight of prowess shouldst it come to a battle between thee and thy father's enemy; for there lieth no half-way place for thee, and thou must be either great or else nothing. Well, sir, the time hath now come for thee to show thy mettle. I would rather have chosen that thou hadst labored a twelvemonth longer; but now, as I said, hath come a chance to prove thyself that may never come again. Sir James tells me that thou art passably ripe in skill. Thou must now show whether that be so or no. Hast thou ever heard of the Sieur de la Montaigne?"
"Yea, my Lord. I have heard of him often," answered Myles. "It was he who won the prize at the great tourney at Rochelle last year."
"I see that thou hast his fame pat to thy tongue's end," said the Earl; "he is the chevalier of whom I speak, and he is reckoned the best knight of Dauphiny. That one of which thou spokest was the third great tourney in which he was adjudged the victor. I am glad that thou holdest his prowess highly. Knowest thou that he is in the train of the Comte de Vermoise?"
"Nay," said Myles, flushing; "I did hear news he was in England, but knew not that he was in this place."
"Yea," said Lord Mackworth; "he is here." He paused for a moment; then said, suddenly. "Tell me, Myles Falworth, an thou wert a knight and of rank fit to run a joust with the Sieur de la Montaigne, wouldst thou dare encounter him in the lists?"
The Earl's question fell upon Myles so suddenly and unexpectedly that for a moment or so he stood staring at the speaker with mouth agape. Meanwhile the Earl sat looking calmly back at him, slowly stroking his beard the while.
It was Sir James Lee's voice that broke the silence. "Thou heardst thy Lord speak," said he, harshly. "Hast thou no tongue to answer, sirrah?"
"Be silent, Lee," said Lord Mackworth, quietly. "Let the lad have time to think before he speaketh."
The sound of the words aroused Myles. He advanced to the table, and rested his hand upon it. "My Lord—my Lord," said he, "I know not what to say, I—I am amazed and afeard."
"How! how!" cried Sir James Lee, harshly. "Afeard, sayst thou? An thou art afeard, thou knave, thou needst never look upon my face or speak to me more! I have done with thee forever an thou art afeard even were the champion a Sir Alisander."
"Peace, peace, Lee," said the Earl, holding up his hand. "Thou art too hasty. The lad shall have his will in this matter, and thou and no one shall constrain him. Methinks, also, thou dost not understand him. Speak from thy heart, Myles; why art thou afraid?"
"Because," said Myles, "I am so young, sir; I am but a raw boy. How should I dare be so hardy as to venture to set lance against such an one as the Sieur de la Montaigne? What would I be but a laughing-stock for all the world who would see me so foolish as to venture me against one of such prowess and skill?"
"Nay, Myles," said Lord George, "thou thinkest not well enough of thine own skill and prowess. Thinkest thou we would undertake to set thee against him, an we did not think that thou couldst hold thine own fairly well?"
"Hold mine own?" cried Myles, turning to Lord George. "Sir; thou dost not mean—thou canst not mean, that I may hope or dream to hold mine own against the Sieur de la Montaigne."
"Aye," said Lord George, "that was what I did mean."
"Come, Myles," said the Earl; "now tell me: wilt thou fight the Sieur de la Montaigne?"
"Yea," said Myles, drawing himself to his full height and throwing out his chest. "Yea," and his cheeks and forehead flushed red; "an thou bid me do so, I will fight him."
"There spake my brave lad!" cried Lord George, heartily.
"I give thee joy, Myles," said the Earl, reaching him his hand, which Myles took and kissed. "And I give thee double joy. I have talked with the King concerning thee this morning, and he hath consented to knight thee—yea, to knight thee with all honors of the Bath—provided thou wilt match thee against the Sieur de la Montaigne for the honor of England and Mackworth. Just now the King lieth to sleep for a little while after his dinner; have thyself in readiness when he cometh forth, and I will have thee presented."
Then the Earl turned to Sir James Lee, and questioned him as to how the bachelors were fitted with clothes. Myles listened, only half hearing the words through the tumbling of his thoughts. He had dreamed in his day-dreams that some time he might be knighted, but that time always seemed very, very distant. To be knighted now, in his boyhood, by the King, with the honors of the Bath, and under the patronage of the Earl of Mackworth; to joust—to actually joust—with the Sieur de la Montaigne, one of the most famous chevaliers of France! No wonder he only half heard the words; half heard the Earl's questions concerning his clothes and the discussion which followed; half heard Lord George volunteer to array him in fitting garments from his own wardrobe.
"Thou mayst go now," said the Earl, at last turning to him. "But be thou at George's apartments by two of the clock to be dressed fittingly for the occasion."
Then Myles went out stupefied, dazed, bewildered. He looked around, but he did not see Gascoyne. He said not a word to any of the others in answer to the eager questions poured upon him by his fellow-squires, but walked straight away. He hardly knew where he went, but by-and-by he found himself in a grassy angle below the end of the south stable; a spot overlooking the outer wall and the river beyond. He looked around; no one was near, and he flung himself at length, burying his face in his arms. How long he lay there he did not know, but suddenly some one touched him upon the shoulder, and he sprang up quickly. It was Gascoyne.
"What is to do, Myles?" said his friend, anxiously. "What is all this talk I hear concerning thee up yonder at the armory?"
"Oh, Francis!" cried Myles, with a husky choking voice; "I am to be knighted—by the King—by the King himself; and I—I am to fight the Sieur de la Montaigne."
He reached out his hand, and Gascoyne took it. They stood for a while quite silent, and when at last the stillness was broken, it was Gascoyne who spoke, in a choking voice.
"Thou art going to be great, Myles," said he. "I always knew that it must be so with thee, and now the time hath come. Yea, thou wilt be great, and live at court amongst noble folk, and Kings haply. Presently thou wilt not be with me any more, and wilt forget me by-and-by."
"Nay, Francis, never will I forget thee!" answered Myles, pressing his friend's hand. "I will always love thee better than any one in the world, saving only my father and my mother."
Gascoyne shook his head and looked away, swallowing at the dry lump in his throat. Suddenly he turned to Myles. "Wilt thou grant me a boon?"
"Yea," answered Myles. "What is it?"
"That thou wilt choose me for thy squire."
"Nay," said Myles; "how canst thou think to serve me as squire? Thou wilt be a knight thyself some day, Francis, and why dost thou wish now to be my squire?"
"Because," said Gascoyne, with a short laugh, "I would rather be in thy company as a squire than in mine own as a knight, even if I might be banneret."
Myles flung his arm around his friend's neck, and kissed him upon the cheek. "Thou shalt have thy will," said he; "but whether knight or squire, thou art ever mine own true friend."
Then they went slowly back together, hand in hand, to the castle world again.
At two o'clock Myles went to Lord George's apartments, and there his friend and patron dressed him out in a costume better fitted for the ceremony of presentation—a fur-trimmed jacket of green brocaded velvet embroidered with golden thread, a black velvet hood-cap rolled like a turban and with a jewel in the front, a pair of crimson hose, and a pair of black velvet shoes trimmed and stitched with gold-thread. Myles had never worn such splendid clothes in his life before, and he could not but feel that they became him well.
"Sir," said he, as he looked down at himself, "sure it is not lawful for me to wear such clothes as these."
In those days there was a law, known as a sumptuary law, which regulated by statute the clothes that each class of people were privileged to wear. It was, as Myles said, against the law for him to wear such garments as those in which he was clad—either velvet, crimson stuff, fur or silver or gold embroidery—nevertheless such a solemn ceremony as presentation to the King excused the temporary overstepping of the law, and so Lord George told him. As he laid his hand upon the lad's shoulder and held him off at arm's-length, he added, "And I pledge thee my word, Myles, that thou art as lusty and handsome a lad as ever mine eyes beheld."
"Thou art very kind to me, sir," said Myles, in answer.
Lord George laughed; and then giving him a shake, let go his shoulder.
It was about three o'clock when little Edmond de Montefort, Lord Mackworth's favorite page, came with word that the King was then walking in the Earl's pleasance.
"Come, Myles," said Lord George, and then Myles arose from the seat where he had been sitting, his heart palpitating and throbbing tumultuously.
At the wicket-gate of the pleasance two gentlemen-at-arms stood guard in half-armor; they saluted Lord George, and permitted him to pass with his protégé. As he laid his hand upon the latch of the wicket he paused for a moment and turned.
"Myles," said he, in a low voice, "thou art a thoughtful and cautious lad; for thy father's sake be thoughtful and cautious now. Do not speak his name or betray that thou art his son." Then he opened the wicket-gate and entered.
Any lad of Myles's age, even one far more used to the world than he, would perhaps have felt all the oppression that he experienced under the weight of such a presentation. He hardly knew what he was doing as Lord George led him to where the King stood, a little apart from the attendants, with the Earl and the Comte de Vermoise. Even in his confusion he knew enough to kneel, and somehow his honest, modest diffidence became the young fellow very well. He was not awkward, for one so healthful in mind and body as he could not bear himself very ill, and he felt the assurance that in Lord George he had a kind friend at his side, and one well used to court ceremonies to lend him countenance. Then there is something always pleasing in frank, modest manliness such as was stamped on Myles's handsome, sturdy face. No doubt the King's heart warmed towards the fledgling warrior kneeling in the pathway before him. He smiled very kindly as he gave the lad his hand to kiss, and that ceremony done, held fast to the hard, brown, sinewy fist of the young man with his soft white hand, and raised him to his feet.
"By the mass!" said he, looking Myles over with smiling eyes, "thou art a right champion in good sooth. Such as thou art haply was Sir Galahad when he came to Arthur's court. And so they tell me, thou hast stomach to brook the Sieur de la Montaigne, that tough old boar of Dauphiny. Hast thou in good sooth the courage to face him? Knowest thou what a great thing it is that thou hast set upon thyself—to do battle, even in sport, with him?"
"Yea, your Majesty," answered Myles, "well I wot it is a task haply beyond me. But gladly would I take upon me even a greater venture, and one more dangerous, to do your Majesty's pleasure!"
The King looked pleased. "Now that was right well said, young man," said he, "and I like it better that it came from such young and honest lips. Dost thou speak French?"
"Yea, your Majesty," answered Myles. "In some small measure do I so."
"I am glad of that," said the King; "for so I may make thee acquainted with Sieur de la Montaigne."
He turned as he ended speaking, and beckoned to a heavy, thick-set, black-browed chevalier who stood with the other gentlemen attendants at a little distance. He came instantly forward in answer to the summons, and the King introduced the two to one another. As each took the other formally by the hand, he measured his opponent hastily, body and limb, and perhaps each thought that he had never seen a stronger, stouter, better-knit man than the one upon whom he looked. But nevertheless the contrast betwixt the two was very great—Myles, young, boyish, fresh-faced; the other, bronzed, weather-beaten, and seamed with a great white scar that ran across his forehead and cheek; the one a novice, the other a warrior seasoned in twoscore battles.
A few polite phrases passed between the two, the King listening smiling, but with an absent and far-away look gradually stealing upon his face. As they ended speaking, a little pause of silence followed, and then the King suddenly aroused himself.
"So," said he, "I am glad that ye two are acquainted. And now we will leave our youthful champion in thy charge, Beaumont—and in thine, Mon Sieur, as well—and so soon as the proper ceremonies are ended, we will dub him knight with our own hands. And now, Mackworth, and thou my Lord Count, let us walk a little; I have bethought me further concerning these threescore extra men for Dauphiny."
Then Myles withdrew, under the charge of Lord George and the Sieur de la Montaigne and while the King and the two nobles walked slowly up and down the gravel path between the tall rose-bushes, Myles stood talking with the gentlemen attendants, finding himself, with a certain triumphant exultation, the peer of any and the hero of the hour.
That night was the last that Myles and Gascoyne spent lodging in the dormitory in their squirehood service. The next day they were assigned apartments in Lord George's part of the house, and thither they transported themselves and their belongings, amid the awestruck wonder and admiration of their fellow-squires.