Squire of the Escort
A ND so ended Myles Falworth's boyhood. Three years followed, during which he passed through that state which immediately follows boyhood in all men's lives—a time when they are neither lads nor grown men, but youths passing from the one to the other period through what is often an uncouth and uncomfortable age.
He had fancied, when he talked with Gascoyne in the Eyry that time, that he was to become a man all at once; he felt just then that he had forever done with boyish things. But that is not the way it happens in men's lives. Changes do not come so suddenly and swiftly as that, but by little and little. For three or four days, maybe, he went his new way of life big with the great change that had come upon him, and then, now in this and now in that, he drifted back very much into his old ways of boyish doings. As was said, one's young days do not end all at once, even when they be so suddenly and sharply shaken, and Myles was not different from others. He had been stirred to the core by that first wonderful sight of the great and glorious life of manhood opening before him, but he had yet many a sport to enjoy, many a game to play, many a boisterous romp to riot in the dormitory, many an expedition to make to copse and spinney and river on days when he was off duty, and when permission had been granted.
Nevertheless, there was a great and vital change in his life; a change which he hardly felt or realized. Even in resuming his old life there was no longer the same vitality, the same zest, the same enjoyment in all these things. It seemed as though they were no longer a part of himself. The savor had gone from them, and by-and-by it was pleasanter to sit looking on at the sports and the games of the younger lads than to take active part in them.
These three years of his life that had thus passed had been very full; full mostly of work, grinding and monotonous; of training dull, dry, laborious. For Sir James Lee was a taskmaster as hard as iron and seemingly as cold as a stone. For two, perhaps for three, weeks Myles entered into his new exercises with all the enthusiasm that novelty brings; but these exercises hardly varied a tittle from day to day, and soon became a duty, and finally a hard and grinding task. He used, in the earlier days of his castle life, to hate the dull monotony of the tri-weekly hacking at the pels with a heavy broadsword as he hated nothing else; but now, though he still had that exercise to perform, it was almost a relief from the heavy dulness of riding, riding, riding in the tilt-yard with shield and lance—couch—recover—en passant.
But though he had nowadays but little time for boyish plays and escapades, his life was not altogether without relaxation. Now and then he was permitted to drive in mock battle with other of the younger knights and bachelors in the paddock near the outer walls. It was a still more welcome change in the routine of his life when, occasionally, he would break a light lance in the tilting-court with Sir Everard Willoughby; Lord George, perhaps, and maybe one or two others of the Hall folk, looking on.
Then one gilded day, when Lord Dudleigh was visiting at Devlen, Myles ran a course with a heavier lance in the presence of the Earl, who came down to the tilt-yard with his guest to see the young novitiate ride against Sir Everard. He did his best, and did it well. Lord Dudleigh praised his poise and carriage, and Lord George, who was present, gave him an approving smile and nod. But the Earl of Mackworth only sat stroking his beard impassively, as was his custom. Myles would have given much to know his thoughts.
In all these years Sir James Lee almost never gave any expression either of approbation or disapproval—excepting when Myles exhibited some carelessness or oversight. Then his words were sharp and harsh enough. More than once Myles's heart failed him, and bitter discouragement took possession of him; then nothing but his bull-dog tenacity and stubbornness brought him out from the despondency of the dark hours.
"Sir," he burst out one day, when his heart was heavy with some failure, "tell me, I beseech thee, do I get me any of skill at all? Is it in me ever to make a worthy knight, fit to hold lance and sword with other men, or am I only soothly a dull heavy block, worth naught of any good?"
"Thou art a fool, sirrah!" answered Sir James, in his grimmest tones. "Thinkest thou to learn all of knightly prowess in a year and a half? Wait until thou art ripe, and then I will tell thee if thou art fit to couch a lance or ride a course with a right knight."
"Thou art an old bear!" muttered Myles to himself, as the old one-eyed knight turned on his heel and strode away. "Beshrew me! an I show thee not that I am as worthy to couch a lance as thou one of these fine days!"
However, during the last of the three years the grinding routine of his training had not been quite so severe as at first. His exercises took him more often out into the fields, and it was during this time of his knightly education that he sometimes rode against some of the castle knights in friendly battle with sword or lance or wooden mace. In these encounters he always held his own; and held it more than well, though, in his boyish simplicity, he was altogether unconscious of his own skill, address, and strength. Perhaps it was his very honest modesty that made him so popular and so heartily liked by all.
He had by this time risen to the place of head squire or chief bachelor, holding the same position that Walter Blunt had occupied when he himself had first come, a raw country boy, to Devlen. The lesser squires and pages fairly worshipped him as a hero, albeit imposing upon his good-nature. All took a pride in his practice in knightly exercises, and fabulous tales were current among the young fry concerning his strength and skill.
Yet, although Myles was now at the head of his class, he did not, as other chief bachelors had done, take a leading position among the squires in the Earl's household service. Lord Mackworth, for his own good reasons, relegated him to the position of Lord George's especial attendant. Nevertheless, the Earl always distinguished him from the other esquires, giving him a cool nod whenever they met; and Myles, upon his part—now that he had learned better to appreciate how much his Lord had done for him—would have shed the last drop of blood in his veins for the head of the house of Beaumont.
As for the two young ladies, he often saw them, and sometimes, even in the presence of the Earl, exchanged a few words with them, and Lord Mackworth neither forbade it nor seemed to notice it.
Towards the Lady Anne he felt the steady friendly regard of a lad for a girl older than himself; towards the Lady Alice, now budding into ripe young womanhood, there lay deep in his heart the resolve to be some day her true knight in earnest as he had been her knight in pretence in that time of boyhood when he had so perilously climbed into the privy garden.
In body and form he was now a man, and in thought and heart was quickly ripening to manhood, for, as was said before, men matured quickly in those days. He was a right comely youth, for the promise of his boyish body had been fulfilled in a tall, powerful, well-knit frame. His face was still round and boyish, but on cheek and chin and lip was the curl of adolescent beard—soft, yellow, and silky. His eyes were as blue as steel, and quick and sharp in glance as those of a hawk; and as he walked, his arms swung from his broad, square shoulders, and his body swayed with pent-up strength ready for action at any moment.
If little Lady Alice, hearing much talk of his doings and of his promise in these latter times, thought of him now and then it is a matter not altogether to be wondered at.
Such were the changes that three years had wrought. And from now the story of his manhood really begins.
Perhaps in all the history of Devlen Castle, even at this, the high tide of pride and greatness of the house of Beaumont, the most notable time was in the early autumn of the year 1411, when for five days King Henry IV. was entertained by the Earl of Mackworth. The King was at that time making a progress through certain of the midland counties, and with him travelled the Comte de Vermoise. The Count was the secret emissary of the Dauphin's faction in France, at that time in the very bitterest intensity of the struggle with the Duke of Burgundy, and had come to England seeking aid for his master in his quarrel.
It was not the first time that royalty had visited Devlen. Once, in Earl Robert's day, King Edward II. had spent a week at the castle during the period of the Scottish wars. But at that time it was little else than a military post, and was used by the King as such. Now the Beaumonts were in the very flower of their prosperity, and preparations were made for the coming visit of royalty upon a scale of such magnificence and splendor as Earl Robert, or perhaps even King Edward himself, had never dreamed.
For weeks the whole castle had been alive with folk hurrying hither and thither; and with the daily and almost hourly coming of pack-horses, laden with bales and boxes, from London. From morning to night one heard the ceaseless chip-chipping of the masons' hammers, and saw carriers of stones and mortar ascending and descending the ladders of the scaffolding that covered the face of the great North Hall. Within, that part of the building was alive with the scraping of the carpenters' saws, the clattering of lumber, and the rapping and banging of hammers.
The North Hall had been assigned as the lodging place for the King and his court, and St. George's Hall (as the older building adjoining it was called) had been set apart as the lodging of the Comte de Vermoise and the knights and gentlemen attendant upon him.
The great North Hall had been very much altered and changed for the accommodation of the King and his people; a beautiful gallery of carved wood-work had been built within and across the south end of the room for the use of the ladies who were to look down upon the ceremonies below. Two additional windows had been cut through the wall and glazed, and passage-ways had been opened connecting with the royal apartments beyond. In the bedchamber a bed of carved wood and silver had been built into the wall, and had been draped with hangings of pale blue and silver, and a magnificent screen of wrought-iron and carved wood had been erected around the couch; rich and beautiful tapestries brought from Italy and Flanders were hung upon the walls; cushions of velvets and silks stuffed with down covered benches and chairs. The floor of the hall was spread with mats of rushes stained in various colors, woven into curious patterns, and in the smaller rooms precious carpets of arras were laid on the cold stones.
All of the cadets of the House had been assembled; all of the gentlemen in waiting, retainers and clients. The castle seemed full to overflowing; even the dormitory of the squires was used as a lodging place for many of the lesser gentry.
So at last, in the midst of all this bustle of preparation, came the day of days when the King was to arrive. The day before a courier had come bringing the news that he was lodging at Donaster Abbey overnight, and would make progress the next day to Devlen.
That morning, as Myles was marshalling the pages and squires, and, with the list of names in his hand, was striving to evolve some order out of the confusion, assigning the various individuals their special duties—these to attend in the household, those to ride in the escort—one of the gentlemen of Lord George's household came with an order for him to come immediately to the young nobleman's apartments. Myles hastily turned over his duties to Gascoyne and Wilkes, and then hurried after the messenger. He found Lord George in the antechamber, three gentlemen squires arming him in a magnificent suit of ribbed Milan.
He greeted Myles with a nod and a smile as the lad entered. "Sirrah," said he, "I have had a talk with
Mackworth this morn concerning thee, and have a mind to do thee an honor in my poor way. How wouldst thou like
Myles flushed to the roots of his hair. "Oh, sir!" he cried, eagerly, "an I be not too ungainly for thy purpose, no honor in all the world could be such joy to me as that!"
Lord George laughed. "A little matter pleases thee hugely," said he; "but as to being ungainly, who so sayeth
that of thee belieth thee, Myles; thou art not ungainly, sirrah. But that is not to the point. I have chosen
thee for my equerry
When Myles had made his bow and left his patron, he flew across the quadrangle, and burst into the armory upon Gascoyne, whom he found still lingering there, chatting with one or two of the older bachelors.
"What thinkest thou, Francis?" he cried, wild with excitement. "An honor hath been done me this day I could never have hoped to enjoy. Out of all this household, Lord George hath chosen me his equerry for the day to ride to meet the King. Come, hasten to help me to arm! Art thou not glad of this thing for my sake, Francis?"
"Aye, glad am I indeed!" cried Gascoyne, that generous friend; "rather almost would I have this befall thee than myself!" And indeed he was hardly less jubilant than Myles over the honor.
Five minutes later he was busy arming him in the little room at the end of the dormitory which had been lately set apart for the use of the head bachelor. "And to think," he said, looking up as he kneeled, strapping the thigh-plates to his friend's legs, "that he should have chosen thee before all others of the fine knights and lords and gentlemen of quality that are here!"
"Yea," said Myles, "it passeth wonder. I know not why he should so single me out for such an honor. It is strangely marvellous."
"Nay," said Gascoyne, "there is no marvel in it, and I know right well why he chooseth thee. It is because he sees, as we all see, that thou art the stoutest and the best-skilled in arms, and most easy of carriage of any man in all this place."
Myles laughed. "An thou make sport of me," said he, "I'll rap thy head with this dagger hilt. Thou art a silly fellow, Francis, to talk so. But tell me, hast thou heard who rides with my Lord?"
"Yea, I heard Wilkes say anon that it was Sir James Lee."
"I am right glad of that," said Myles; "for then he will show me what to do and how to bear myself. It frights me to think what would hap should I make some mistake in my awkwardness. Methinks Lord George would never have me with him more should I do amiss this day."
"Never fear," said Gascoyne; "thou wilt not do amiss."
And now, at last, the Earl, Lord George, and all their escort were ready; then the orders were given to horse, the bugle sounded, and away they all rode, with clashing of iron hoofs and ringing and jingling of armor, out into the dewy freshness of the early morning, the slant yellow sun of autumn blazing and flaming upon polished helmets and shields, and twinkling like sparks of fire upon spear points. Myles's heart thrilled within him for pure joy, and he swelled out his sturdy young breast with great draughts of the sweet fresh air that came singing across the sunny hill-tops. Sir James Lee, who acted as the Earl's equerry for the day, rode at a little distance, and there was an almost pathetic contrast between the grim, steadfast impassiveness of the tough old warrior and Myles's passionate exuberance of youth.
At the head of the party rode the Earl and his brother side by side, each clad cap-a-pie in a suit of Milan armor, the cuirass of each covered with a velvet juppon embroidered in silver with the arms and quarterings of the Beaumonts. The Earl wore around his neck an "S S" collar, with a jewelled St. George hanging from it, and upon his head a vizored bascinet, ornamented with a wreath covered with black and yellow velvet and glistening with jewels.
Lord George, as was said before, was clad in a beautiful suit of ribbed Milan armor. It was rimmed with a thin thread of gold, and, like his brother, he wore a bascinet wreathed with black and yellow velvet.
Behind the two brothers and their equerries rode the rest in their proper order—knights, gentlemen, esquires, men-at-arms—to the number, perhaps, of two hundred and fifty; spears and lances aslant, and banners, pennons, and pencels of black and yellow fluttering in the warm September air.
From the castle to the town they rode, and then across the bridge, and thence clattering up through the stony streets, where the folk looked down upon them from the windows above, or crowded the fronts of the shops of the tradesmen. Lusty cheers were shouted for the Earl, but the great Lord rode staring ever straight before him, as unmoved as a stone. Then out of the town they clattered, and away in a sweeping cloud of dust across the country-side.
It was not until they had reached the windy top of Willoughby Croft, ten miles away, that they met the King and his company. As the two parties approached to within forty or fifty yards of one another they stopped.
As they came to a halt, Myles observed that a gentleman dressed in a plain blue-gray riding-habit, and sitting upon a beautiful white gelding, stood a little in advance of the rest of the party, and he knew that that must be the King. Then Sir James nodded to Myles, and leaping from his horse, flung the reins to one of the attendants. Myles did the like; and then, still following Sir James's lead as he served Lord Mackworth, went forward and held Lord George's stirrup while he dismounted. The two noblemen quickly removed each his bascinet, and Myles, holding the bridle-rein of Lord George's horse with his left hand, took the helmet in his right, resting it upon his hip.
Then the two brothers walked forward bare-headed, the Earl, a little in advance. Reaching the King he stopped, and then bent his knee—stiffly in the armored plates—until it touched the ground. Thereupon the King reached him his hand, and he, rising again, took it, and set it to his lips.
Then Lord George, advancing, kneeled as his brother had kneeled, and to him also the King gave his hand.
Myles could hear nothing, but he could see that a few words of greeting passed between the three, and then the King, turning, beckoned to a knight who stood just behind him and a little in advance of the others of the troop. In answer, the knight rode forward; the King spoke a few words of introduction, and the stranger, ceremoniously drawing off his right gauntlet, clasped the hand, first of the Earl, and then of Lord George. Myles knew that he must be the great Comte de Vermoise, of whom he had heard so much of late.
A few moments of conversation followed, and then the King bowed slightly. The French nobleman instantly reined back his horse, an order was given, and then the whole company moved forward, the two brothers walking upon either side of the King, the Earl lightly touching the bridle-rein with his bare hand.
Whilst all this was passing, the Earl of Mackworth's company had been drawn up in a double line along the road-side, leaving the way open to the other party. As the King reached the head of the troop, another halt followed while he spoke a few courteous words of greeting to some of the lesser nobles attendant upon the Earl whom he knew.
In that little time he was within a few paces of Myles, who stood motionless as a statue, holding the bascinet and the bridle-rein of Lord George's horse.
What Myles saw was a plain, rather stout man, with a face fat, smooth, and waxy, with pale-blue eyes, and baggy in the lids; clean shaven, except for a mustache and tuft covering lips and chin. Somehow he felt a deep disappointment. He had expected to see something lion-like, something regal, and, after all, the great King Henry was commonplace, fat, unwholesome-looking. It came to him with a sort of a shock that, after all, a King was in nowise different from other men.
Meanwhile the Earl and his brother replaced their bascinets, and presently the whole party moved forward upon the way to Mackworth.