On the evening on which Sir Kenneth assumed his post, Richard, after the stormy event which disturbed its tranquillity, had retired to rest in the plenitude of confidence inspired by his unbounded courage and the superiority which he had displayed in carrying the point he aimed at in presence of the whole Christian host and its leaders, many of whom, he was aware, regarded in their secret souls the disgrace of the Austrian Duke as a triumph over themselves; so that his pride felt gratified, that in prostrating one enemy he had mortified a hundred.
Another monarch would have doubled his guards on the evening after such a scene, and kept at least a part of his troops under arms. But Coeur de Lion dismissed, upon the occasion, even his ordinary watch, and assigned to his soldiers a donative of wine to celebrate his recovery, and to drink to the Banner of Saint George; and his quarter of the camp would have assumed a character totally devoid of vigilance and military preparation, but that Sir Thomas de Vaux, the Earl of Salisbury, and other nobles, took precautions to preserve order and discipline among the revellers.
The physician attended the King from his retiring to bed till midnight was past, and twice administered medicine to him during that period, always previously observing the quarter of heaven occupied by the full moon, whose influences he declared to be most sovereign, or most baleful, to the effect of his drugs. It was three hours after midnight ere El Hakim withdrew from the royal tent, to one which had been pitched for himself and his retinue. In his way thither he visited the tent of Sir Kenneth of the Leopard, in order to see the condition of his first patient in the Christian camp, old Strauchan, as the knight's esquire was named. Inquiring there for Sir Kenneth himself, El Hakim learned on what duty he was employed, and probably this information led him to Saint George's Mount, where he found him whom he sought in the disastrous circumstances alluded to in the last chapter.
It was about the hour of sunrise, when a slow, armed tread was heard approaching the King's pavilion; and ere De Vaux, who slumbered beside his master's bed as lightly as ever sleep sat upon the eyes of a watch-dog, had time to do more than arise and say, "Who comes?" the Knight of the Leopard entered the tent, with a deep and devoted gloom seated upon his manly features.
"Whence this bold intrusion, Sir Knight?" said De Vaux sternly, yet in a tone which respected his master's slumbers.
"Hold! De Vaux," said Richard, awaking on the instant; "Sir Kenneth cometh like a good soldier to render an account of his guard. To such the general's tent is ever accessible." Then rising from his slumbering posture, and leaning on his elbow, he fixed his large bright eye upon the warrior—"Speak, Sir Scot; thou comest to tell me of a vigilant, safe, and honourable watch, dost thou not? The rustling of the folds of the Banner of England were enough to guard it, even without the body of such a knight as men hold thee."
"As men will hold me no more," said Sir Kenneth. "My watch hath neither been vigilant, safe, nor honourable. The Banner of England has been carried off."
"And thou alive to tell it!" said Richard, in a tone of derisive incredulity. "Away, it cannot be. There is not even a scratch on thy face. Why dost thou stand thus mute? Speak the truth —it is ill jesting with a king; yet I will forgive thee if thou hast lied."
"Lied, Sir King!" returned the unfortunate knight, with fierce emphasis, and one glance of fire from his eye, bright and transient as the flash from the cold and stony flint. "But this also must be endured. I have spoken the truth."
"By God and by Saint George!" said the King, bursting into fury, which, however, he instantly checked. "De Vaux, go view the spot. This fever has disturbed his brain. This cannot be. The man's courage is proof. It CANNOT be! Go speedily—or send, if thou wilt not go."
The King was interrupted by Sir Henry Neville, who came, breathless, to say that the banner was gone, and the knight who guarded it overpowered, and most probably murdered, as there was a pool of blood where the banner-spear lay shivered.
"But whom do I see here?" said Neville, his eyes suddenly resting upon Sir Kenneth.
"A traitor," said the King, starting to his feet, and seizing the curtal-axe, which was ever near his bed—"a traitor! whom thou shalt see die a traitor's death." And he drew back the weapon as in act to strike.
Colourless, but firm as a marble statue, the Scot stood before him, with his bare head uncovered by any protection, his eyes cast down to the earth, his lips scarcely moving, yet muttering probably in prayer. Opposite to him, and within the due reach for a blow, stood King Richard, his large person wrapt in the folds of his camiscia, or ample gown of linen, except where the violence of his action had flung the covering from his right arm, shoulder, and a part of his breast, leaving to view a specimen of a frame which might have merited his Saxon predecessor's epithet of Ironside. He stood for an instant, prompt to strike; then sinking the head of the weapon towards the ground, he exclaimed, "But there was blood, Neville—there was blood upon the place. Hark thee, Sir Scot—brave thou wert once, for I have seen thee fight. Say thou hast slain two of the thieves in defence of the Standard—say but one—say thou hast struck but a good blow in our behalf, and get thee out of the camp with thy life and thy infamy!"
"You have called me liar, my Lord King," replied Kenneth firmly; "and therein, at least, you have done me wrong. Know that there was no blood shed in defence of the Standard save that of a poor hound, which, more faithful than his master, defended the charge which he deserted."
"Now, by Saint George!" said Richard, again heaving up his arm. But De Vaux threw himself between the King and the object of his vengeance, and spoke with the blunt truth of his character, "My liege, this must not be—here, nor by your hand. It is enough of folly for one night and day to have entrusted your banner to a Scot. Said I not they were ever fair and false?" [Such were the terms in which the English used to speak of their poor northern neighbours, forgetting that their own encroachments upon the independence of Scotland obliged the weaker nation to defend themselves by policy as well as force. The disgrace must be divided between Edward I. and Edward III., who enforced their domination over a free country, and the Scots, who were compelled to take compulsory oaths, without any purpose of keeping them.]
"Thou didst, De Vaux; thou wast right, and I confess it," said Richard. "I should have known him better—I should have remembered how the fox William deceived me touching this Crusade."
"My lord," said Sir Kenneth, "William of Scotland never deceived; but circumstances prevented his bringing his forces."
"Peace, shameless!" said the King; "thou sulliest the name of a prince, even by speaking it.—And yet, De Vaux, it is strange," he added, "to see the bearing of the man. Coward or traitor he must be, yet he abode the blow of Richard Plantagenet as our arm had been raised to lay knighthood on his shoulder. Had he shown the slightest sign of fear, had but a joint trembled or an eyelid quivered, I had shattered his head like a crystal goblet. But I cannot strike where there is neither fear nor resistance."
There was a pause.
"My lord," said Kenneth—
"Ha!" replied Richard, interrupting him, "hast thou found thy speech? Ask grace from Heaven, but none from me; for England is dishonoured through thy fault, and wert thou mine own and only brother, there is no pardon for thy fault."
"I speak not to demand grace of mortal man," said the Scot; "it is in your Grace's pleasure to give or refuse me time for Christian shrift—if man denies it, may God grant me the absolution which I would otherwise ask of His church! But whether I die on the instant, or half an hour hence, I equally beseech your Grace for one moment's opportunity to speak that to your royal person which highly concerns your fame as a Christian king."
"Say on," said the King, making no doubt that he was about to hear some confession concerning the loss of the Banner.
"What I have to speak," said Sir Kenneth, "touches the royalty of England, and must be said to no ears but thine own."
"Begone with yourselves, sirs," said the King to Neville and De Vaux.
The first obeyed, but the latter would not stir from the King's presence.
"If you said I was in the right," replied De Vaux to his sovereign, "I will be treated as one should be who hath been found to be right—that is, I will have my own will. I leave you not with this false Scot."
"How! De Vaux," said Richard angrily, and stamping slightly, "darest thou not venture our person with one traitor?"
"It is in vain you frown and stamp, my lord," said De Vaux; "I venture not a sick man with a sound one, a naked man with one armed in proof."
"It matters not," said the Scottish knight; "I seek no excuse to put off time. I will speak in presence of the Lord of Gilsland. He is good lord and true."
"But half an hour since," said De Vaux, with a groan, implying a mixture of sorrow and vexation, "and I had said as much for thee!"
"There is treason around you, King of England," continued Sir Kenneth.
"It may well be as thou sayest," replied Richard; "I have a pregnant example."
"Treason that will injure thee more deeply than the loss of a hundred banners in a pitched field. The—the—" Sir Kenneth hesitated, and at length continued, in a lower tone, "The Lady Edith—"
"Ha!" said the King, drawing himself suddenly into a state of haughty attention, and fixing his eye firmly on the supposed criminal; "what of her? what of her? What has she to do with this matter?"
"My lord," said the Scot, "there is a scheme on foot to disgrace your royal lineage, by bestowing the hand of the Lady Edith on the Saracen Soldan, and thereby to purchase a peace most dishonourable to Christendom, by an alliance most shameful to England."
This communication had precisely the contrary effect from that which Sir Kenneth expected. Richard Plantagenet was one of those who, in Iago's words, would not serve God because it was the devil who bade him; advice or information often affected him less according to its real import, than through the tinge which it took from the supposed character and views of those by whom it was communicated. Unfortunately, the mention of his relative's name renewed his recollection of what he had considered as extreme presumption in the Knight of the Leopard, even when he stood high in the roll of chivalry, but which, in his present condition, appeared an insult sufficient to drive the fiery monarch into a frenzy of passion.
"Silence," he said, "infamous and audacious! By Heaven, I will have thy tongue torn out with hot pincers, for mentioning the very name of a noble Christian damsel! Know, degenerate traitor, that I was already aware to what height thou hadst dared to raise thine eyes, and endured it, though it were insolence, even when thou hadst cheated us—for thou art all a deceit—into holding thee as of some name and fame. But now, with lips blistered with the confession of thine own dishonour—that thou shouldst NOW dare to name our noble kinswoman as one in whose fate thou hast part or interest! What is it to thee if she marry Saracen or Christian? What is it to thee if, in a camp where princes turn cowards by day and robbers by night—where brave knights turn to paltry deserters and traitors—what is it, I say, to thee, or any one, if I should please to ally myself to truth and to valour, in the person of Saladin?"
"Little to me, indeed, to whom all the world will soon be as nothing," answered Sir Kenneth boldly; "but were I now stretched on the rack, I would tell thee that what I have said is much to thine own conscience and thine own fame. I tell thee, Sir King, that if thou dost but in thought entertain the purpose of wedding thy kinswoman, the Lady Edith—"
"Name her not—and for an instant think not of her," said the King, again straining the curtal-axe in his gripe, until the muscles started above his brawny arm, like cordage formed by the ivy around the limb of an oak.
"Not name—not think of her!" answered Sir Kenneth, his spirits, stunned as they were by self-depression, beginning to recover their elasticity from this species of controversy. "Now, by the Cross, on which I place my hope, her name shall be the last word in my mouth, her image the last thought in my mind. Try thy boasted strength on this bare brow, and see if thou canst prevent my purpose."
"He will drive me mad!" said Richard, who, in his despite, was once more staggered in his purpose by the dauntless determination of the criminal.
Ere Thomas of Gilsland could reply, some bustle was heard without, and the arrival of the Queen was announced from the outer part of the pavilion.
"Detain her—detain her, Neville," cried the King; "this is no sight for women.—Fie, that I have suffered such a paltry traitor to chafe me thus!—Away with him, De Vaux," he whispered, "through the back entrance of our tent; coop him up close, and answer for his safe custody with your life. And hark ye—he is presently to die—let him have a ghostly father—we would not kill soul and body. And stay—hark thee—we will not have him dishonoured—he shall die knightlike, in his belt and spurs; for if his treachery be as black as hell, his boldness may match that of the devil himself."
De Vaux, right glad, if the truth may be guessed, that the scene ended without Richard's descending to the unkingly act of himself slaying an unresisting prisoner, made haste to remove Sir Kenneth by a private issue to a separate tent, where he was disarmed, and put in fetters for security. De Vaux looked on with a steady and melancholy attention, while the provost's officers, to whom Sir Kenneth was now committed, took these severe precautions.
When they were ended, he said solemnly to the unhappy criminal, "It is King Richard's pleasure that you die undegraded—without mutilation of your body, or shame to your arms—and that your head be severed from the trunk by the sword of the executioner."
"It is kind," said the knight, in a low and rather submissive tone of voice, as one who received an unexpected favour; "my family will not then hear the worst of the tale. Oh, my father —my father!"
This muttered invocation did not escape the blunt but kindly-natured Englishman, and he brushed the back of his large hand over his rough features ere he could proceed.
"It is Richard of England's further pleasure," he said at length, "that you have speech with a holy man; and I have met on the passage hither with a Carmelite friar, who may fit you for your passage. He waits without, until you are in a frame of mind to receive him."
"Let it be instantly," said the knight. "In this also Richard is kind. I cannot be more fit to see the good father at any time than now; for life and I have taken farewell, as two travellers who have arrived at the crossway, where their roads separate."
"It is well," said De Vaux slowly and solemnly; "for it irks me somewhat to say that which sums my message. It is King Richard's pleasure that you prepare for instant death."
"God's pleasure and the King's be done," replied the knight patiently. "I neither contest the justice of the sentence, nor desire delay of the execution."
De Vaux began to leave the tent, but very slowly—paused at the door, and looked back at the Scot, from whose aspect thoughts of the world seemed banished, as if he was composing himself into deep devotion. The feelings of the stout English baron were in general none of the most acute, and yet, on the present occasion, his sympathy overpowered him in an unusual manner. He came hastily back to the bundle of reeds on which the captive lay, took one of his fettered hands, and said, with as much softness as his rough voice was capable of expressing, "Sir Kenneth, thou art yet young—thou hast a father. My Ralph, whom I left training his little galloway nag on the banks of the Irthing, may one day attain thy years, and, but for last night, would to God I saw his youth bear such promise as thine! Can nothing be said or done in thy behalf?"
"Nothing," was the melancholy answer. "I have deserted my charge—the banner entrusted to me is lost. When the headsman and block are prepared, the head and trunk are ready to part company."
"Nay, then, God have mercy!" said De Vaux. "Yet would I rather than my best horse I had taken that watch myself. There is mystery in it, young man, as a plain man may descry, though he cannot see through it. Cowardice? Pshaw! No coward ever fought as I have seen thee do. Treachery? I cannot think traitors die in their treason so calmly. Thou hast been trained from thy post by some deep guile—some well-devised stratagem—the cry of some distressed maiden has caught thine ear, or the laughful look of some merry one has taken thine eye. Never blush for it; we have all been led aside by such gear. Come, I pray thee, make a clean conscience of it to me, instead of the priest. Richard is merciful when his mood is abated. Hast thou nothing to entrust to me?"
The unfortunate knight turned his face from the kind warrior, and answered, "NOTHING."
And De Vaux, who had exhausted his topics of persuasion, arose and left the tent, with folded arms, and in melancholy deeper than he thought the occasion merited—even angry with himself to find that so simple a matter as the death of a Scottish man could affect him so nearly.
"Yet," as he said to himself, "though the rough-footed knaves be our enemies in Cumberland, in Palestine one almost considers them as brethren."