The Knights of the Rose
T HE two friends kept the secret of the Eyry to themselves for a little while, now and then visiting the old tower to rummage among the lumber stored in the lower room, or to loiter away the afternoon in the windy solitudes of the upper heights. And in that little time, when the ancient keep was to them a small world unknown to any but themselves—a world far away above all the dull matters of every-day life—they talked of many things that might else never have been known to one another. Mostly they spoke the crude romantic thoughts and desires of boyhood's time—chaff thrown to the wind, in which, however, lay a few stray seeds, fated to fall to good earth, and to ripen to fruition in manhood's day.
In the intimate talks of that time Myles imparted something of his honest solidity to Gascoyne's somewhat weathercock nature, and to Myles's ruder and more uncouth character Gascoyne lent a tone of his gentler manners, learned in his pagehood service as attendant upon the Countess and her ladies.
In other things, also, the character and experience of the one lad helped to supply what was lacking in the other. Myles was replete with old Latin gestes, fables, and sermons picked up during his school life, in those intervals of his more serious studies when Prior Edward had permitted him to browse in the greener pastures of the Gesta Romanorum and the Disciplina Clericalis of the monastery library, and Gascoyne was never weary of hearing him tell those marvellous stories culled from the crabbed Latin of the old manuscript volumes.
Upon his part Gascoyne was full of the lore of the waiting-room and the antechamber, and Myles, who in all his life had never known a lady, young or old, excepting his mother, was never tired of lying silently listening to Gascoyne's chatter of the gay doings of the castle gentle-life, in which he had taken part so often in the merry days of his pagehood.
"I do wonder," said Myles, quaintly, "that thou couldst ever find the courage to bespeak a young maid, Francis. Never did I do so, nor ever could. Rather would I face three strong men than one young damsel."
Whereupon Gascoyne burst out laughing. "Marry!" quoth he, "they be no such terrible things, but gentle and pleasant spoken, and soft and smooth as any cat."
"No matter for that," said Myles; "I would not face one such for worlds."
It was during the short time when, so to speak, the two owned the solitude of the Brutus Tower, that Myles told his friend of his father's outlawry and of the peril in which the family stood. And thus it was.
"I do marvel," said Gascoyne one day, as the two lay stretched in the Eyry, looking down into the castle court-yard below—"I do marvel, now that thou art 'stablished here this month and more, that my Lord doth never have thee called to service upon household duty. Canst thou riddle me why it is so, Myles?"
The subject was a very sore one with Myles. Until Sir James had told him of the matter in his office that day he had never known that his father was attainted and outlawed. He had accepted the change from their earlier state and the bald poverty of their life at Crosbey-Holt with the easy carelessness of boyhood, and Sir James's words were the first to awaken him to a realization of the misfortunes of the house of Falworth. His was a brooding nature, and in the three or four weeks that passed he had meditated so much over what had been told him, that by-and-by it almost seemed as if a shadow of shame rested upon his father's fair fame, even though the attaint set upon him was unrighteous and unjust, as Myles knew it must be. He had felt angry and resentful at the Earl's neglect, and as days passed and he was not noticed in any way, his heart was at times very bitter.
So now Gascoyne's innocent question touched a sore spot, and Myles spoke with a sharp, angry pain in his voice that made the other look quickly up. "Sooner would my Lord have yonder swine-herd serve him in the household than me," said he.
"Why may that be, Myles?" said Gascoyne.
"Because," answered Myles, with the same angry bitterness in his voice, "either the Earl is a coward that feareth to befriend me, or else he is a caitiff, ashamed of his own flesh and blood, and of me, the son of his one-time comrade."
Gascoyne raised himself upon his elbow, and opened his eyes wide in wonder. "Afeard of thee, Myles!" quoth he. "Why should he be afeared to befriend thee? Who art thou that the Earl should fear thee?"
Myles hesitated for a moment or two; wisdom bade him remain silent upon the dangerous topic, but his heart yearned for sympathy and companionship in his trouble. "I will tell thee," said he, suddenly, and therewith poured out all of the story, so far as he knew it, to his listening, wondering friend, and his heart felt lighter to be thus eased of its burden. "And now," said he, as he concluded, "is not this Earl a mean-hearted caitiff to leave me, the son of his one-time friend and kinsman, thus to stand or to fall alone among strangers and in a strange place without once stretching me a helping hand?" He waited, and Gascoyne knew that he expected an answer.
"I know not that he is a mean-hearted caitiff, Myles," said he at last, hesitatingly. "The Earl hath many enemies, and I have heard that he hath stood more than once in peril, having been accused of dealings with the King's foes. He was cousin to the Earl of Kent, and I do remember hearing that he had a narrow escape at that time from ruin. There be more reasons than thou wottest of why he should not have dealings with thy father."
"I had not thought," said Myles, bitterly, after a little pause, "that thou wouldst stand up for him and against me in this quarrel, Gascoyne. Him will I never forgive so long as I may live, and I had thought that thou wouldst have stood by me."
"So I do," said Gascoyne, hastily, "and do love thee more than any one in all the world, Myles; but I had thought that it would make thee feel more easy to think that the Earl was not against thee. And, indeed, from all thou has told me, I do soothly think that he and Sir James mean to befriend thee and hold thee privily in kind regard."
"Then why doth he not stand forth like a man and befriend me and my father openly, even if it be to his own peril?" said Myles, reverting stubbornly to what he had first spoken.
Gascoyne did not answer, but lay for a long while in silence. "Knowest thou," he suddenly asked, after a while, "who is this great enemy of whom Sir James speaketh, and who seeketh so to drive thy father to ruin?"
"Nay," said Myles, "I know not, for my father hath never spoken of these things, and Sir James would not tell me. But this I know," said he, suddenly, grinding his teeth together, "an I do not hunt him out some day and slay him like a dog—" He stopped abruptly, and Gascoyne, looking askance at him, saw that his eyes were full of tears, whereupon he turned his looks away again quickly, and fell to shooting pebbles out through the open window with his finger and thumb.
"Thou wilt tell no one of these things that I have said?" said Myles, after a while.
"Not I," said Gascoyne. "Thinkest thou I could do such a thing?"
"Nay," said Myles, briefly.
Perhaps this talk more than anything else that had ever passed between them knit the two friends the closer together, for, as I have said, Myles felt easier now that he had poured out his bitter thoughts and words; and as for Gascoyne, I think that there is nothing so flattering to one's soul as to be made the confidant of a stronger nature.
But the old tower served another purpose than that of a spot in which to pass away a few idle hours, or in which to indulge the confidences of friendship, for it was there that Myles gathered a backing of strength for resistance against the tyranny of the bachelors, and it is for that more than for any other reason that it has been told how they found the place and of what they did there, feeling secure against interruption.
Myles Falworth was not of a kind that forgets or neglects a thing upon which the mind has once been set. Perhaps his chief objective since the talk with Sir James following his fight in the dormitory had been successful resistance to the exactions of the head of the body of squires. He was now (more than a month had passed) looked upon by nearly if not all of the younger lads as an acknowledged leader in his own class. So one day he broached a matter to Gascoyne that had for some time been digesting in his mind. It was the formation of a secret order, calling themselves the "Knights of the Rose," their meeting-place to be the chapel of the Brutus Tower, and their object to be the righting of wrongs, "as they," said Myles, "of Arthur his Round-table did right wrongs."
"But, prithee, what wrongs are there to right in this place?" quoth Gascoyne, after listening intently to the plan which Myles set forth.
"Why, first of all, this," said Myles, clinching his fists, as he had a habit of doing when anything stirred him deeply, "that we set those vile bachelors to their right place; and that is, that they be no longer our masters, but our fellows."
Gascoyne shook his head. He hated clashing and conflict above all things, and was for peace. Why should they thus rush to thrust themselves into trouble? Let matters abide as they were a little longer; surely life was pleasant enough without turning it all topsy-turvy. Then, with a sort of indignation, why should Myles, who had only come among them a month, take such service more to heart than they who had endured it for years? And, finally, with the hopefulness of so many of the rest of us, he advised Myles to let matters alone, and they would right themselves in time.
But Myles's mind was determined; his active spirit could not brook resting passively under a wrong; he would endure no longer, and now or never they must make their stand.
"But look thee, Myles Falworth," said Gascoyne, "all this is not to be done withouten fighting shrewdly. Wilt thou take that fighting upon thine own self? As for me, I tell thee I love it not."
"Why, aye," said Myles; "I ask no man to do what I will not do myself."
Gascoyne shrugged his shoulders. "So be it," said he. "An thou hast appetite to run thy head against hard knocks, do it i' mercy's name! I for one will stand thee back while thou art taking thy raps."
There was a spirit of drollery in Gascoyne's speech that rubbed against Myles's earnestness.
"Out upon it!" cried he, his patience giving way. "Seest not that I am in serious earnest? Why then dost thou still jest like Mad Noll, my Lord's fool? An thou wilt not lend me thine aid in this matter, say so and ha' done with it, and I will bethink me of somewhere else to turn."
Then Gascoyne yielded at once, as he always did when his friend lost his temper, and having once assented to it, entered into the scheme heart and soul. Three other lads—one of them that tall thin squire Edmund Wilkes, before spoken of—were sounded upon the subject. They also entered into the plan of the secret organization with an enthusiasm which might perhaps not have been quite so glowing had they realized how very soon Myles designed embarking upon active practical operations. One day Myles and Gascoyne showed them the strange things that they had discovered in the old tower—the inner staircases, the winding passage-ways, the queer niches and cupboard, and the black shaft of a well that pierced down into the solid wall, and whence, perhaps, the old castle folk had one time drawn their supply of water in time of siege, and with every new wonder of the marvellous place the enthusiasm of the three recruits rose higher and higher. They rummaged through the lumber pile in the great circular room as Myles and Gascoyne had done, and at last, tired out, they ascended to the airy chapel, and there sat cooling themselves in the rustling freshness of the breeze that came blowing briskly in through the arched windows.
It was then and there that the five discussed and finally determined upon the detailed plans of their organization, canvassing the names of the squirehood, and selecting from it a sufficient number of bold and daring spirits to make up a roll of twenty names in all.
Gascoyne had, as I said, entered into the matter with spirit, and perhaps it was owing more to him than to any other that the project caught its delightful flavor of romance.
"Perchance," said he, as the five lads lay in the rustling stillness through which sounded the monotonous and ceaseless cooing of the pigeons—"perchance there may be dwarfs and giants and dragons and enchanters and evil knights and what not even nowadays. And who knows but that if we Knights of the Rose hold together we may go forth into the world, and do battle with them, and save beautiful ladies, and have tales and gestes written about us as they are writ about the Seven Champions and Arthur his Round-table."
Perhaps Myles, who lay silently listening to all that was said, was the only one who looked upon the scheme at all in the light of real utility, but I think that even with him the fun of the matter outweighed the serious part of the business.
So it was that the Sacred Order of the Twenty Knights of the Rose came to be initiated. They appointed a code of secret passwords and countersigns which were very difficult to remember, and which were only used when they might excite the curiosity of the other and uninitiated boys by their mysterious sound. They elected Myles as their Grand High Commander, and held secret meetings in the ancient tower, where many mysteries were soberly enacted.
Of course in a day or two all the body of squires knew nearly everything concerning the Knights of the Rose, and of their secret meetings in the old tower. The lucky twenty were the objects of envy of all not so fortunate as to be included in this number, and there was a marked air of secrecy about everything they did that appealed to every romantic notion of the youngsters looking on. What was the stormy outcome of it all is now presently to be told.