The frank and bold voice of Richard was heard in joyous gratulation.
"Thomas de Vaux! stout Tom of the Gills! by the head of King Henry, thou art welcome to me as ever was flask of wine to a jolly toper! I should scarce have known how to order my battle-array, unless I had thy bulky form in mine eye as a landmark to form my ranks upon. We shall have blows anon, Thomas, if the saints be gracious to us; and had we fought in thine absence, I would have looked to hear of thy being found hanging upon an elder-tree."
"I should have borne my disappointment with more Christian patience, I trust," said Thomas de Vaux, "than to have died the death of an apostate. But I thank your Grace for my welcome, which is the more generous, as it respects a banquet of blows, of which, saving your pleasure, you are ever too apt to engross the larger share. But here have I brought one to whom your Grace will, I know, give a yet warmer welcome."
The person who now stepped forward to make obeisance to Richard was a young man of low stature and slight form. His dress was as modest as his figure was unimpressive; but he bore on his bonnet a gold buckle, with a gem, the lustre of which could only be rivalled by the brilliancy of the eye which the bonnet shaded. It was the only striking feature in his countenance; but when once noticed, it ever made a strong impression on the spectator. About his neck there hung in a scarf of sky-blue silk a WREST as it was called—that is, the key with which a harp is tuned, and which was of solid gold.
This personage would have kneeled reverently to Richard, but the Monarch raised him in joyful haste, pressed him to his bosom warmly, and kissed him on either side of the face.
"Blondel de Nesle!" he exclaimed joyfully—"welcome from Cyprus, my king of minstrels!—welcome to the King of England, who rates not his own dignity more highly than he does thine. I have been sick, man, and, by my soul, I believe it was for lack of thee; for, were I half way to the gate of heaven, methinks thy strains could call me back. And what news, my gentle master, from the land of the lyre? Anything fresh from the TROUVEURS of Provence? Anything from the minstrels of merry Normandy? Above all, hast thou thyself been busy? But I need not ask thee—thou canst not be idle if thou wouldst; thy noble qualities are like a fire burning within, and compel thee to pour thyself out in music and song."
"Something I have learned, and something I have done, noble King," answered the celebrated Blondel, with a retiring modesty which all Richard's enthusiastic admiration of his skill had been unable to banish.
"We will hear thee, man—we will hear thee instantly," said the King. Then, touching Blondel's shoulder kindly, he added, "That is, if thou art not fatigued with thy journey; for I would sooner ride my best horse to death than injure a note of thy voice."
"My voice is, as ever, at the service of my royal patron," said Blondel; "but your Majesty," he added, looking at some papers on the table, "seems more importantly engaged, and the hour waxes late."
"Not a whit, man, not a whit, my dearest Blondel. I did but sketch an array of battle against the Saracens, a thing of a moment, almost as soon done as the routing of them."
"Methinks, however," said Thomas de Vaux, "it were not unfit to inquire what soldiers your Grace hath to array. I bring reports on that subject from Ascalon."
"Thou art a mule, Thomas," said the King—"a very mule for dullness and obstinacy! Come, nobles—a hall—a hall—range ye around him! Give Blondel the tabouret. Where is his harp-bearer?—or, soft, lend him my harp, his own may be damaged by the journey."
"I would your Grace would take my report," said Thomas de Vaux. "I have ridden far, and have more list to my bed than to have my ears tickled."
"THY ears tickled!" said the King; "that must be with a woodcock's feather, and not with sweet sounds. Hark thee, Thomas, do thine ears know the singing of Blondel from the braying of an ass?"
"In faith, my liege," replied Thomas, "I cannot well say; but setting Blondel out of the question, who is a born gentleman, and doubtless of high acquirements, I shall never, for the sake of your Grace's question, look on a minstrel but I shall think upon an ass."
"And might not your manners," said Richard, "have excepted me, who am a gentleman born as well as Blondel, and, like him, a guild-brother of the joyeuse science?"
"Your Grace should remember," said De Vaux, smiling, "that 'tis useless asking for manners from a mule."
"Most truly spoken," said the King; "and an ill-conditioned animal thou art. But come hither, master mule, and be unloaded, that thou mayest get thee to thy litter, without any music being wasted on thee. Meantime do thou, good brother of Salisbury, go to our consort's tent, and tell her that Blondel has arrived, with his budget fraught with the newest minstrelsy. Bid her come hither instantly, and do thou escort her, and see that our cousin, Edith Plantagenet, remain not behind."
His eye then rested for a moment on the Nubian, with that expression of doubtful meaning which his countenance usually displayed when he looked at him.
"Ha, our silent and secret messenger returned?—Stand up, slave, behind the back of De Neville, and thou shalt hear presently sounds which will make thee bless God that He afflicted thee rather with dumbness than deafness."
So saying, he turned from the rest of the company towards De Vaux, and plunged instantly into the military details which that baron laid before him.
About the time that the Lord of Gilsland had finished his audience, a messenger announced that the Queen and her attendants were approaching the royal tent.—"A flask of wine, ho!" said the King; "of old King Isaac's long-saved Cyprus, which we won when we stormed Famagosta. Fill to the stout Lord of Gilsland, gentles—a more careful and faithful servant never had any prince."
"I am glad," said Thomas de Vaux, "that your Grace finds the mule a useful slave, though his voice be less musical than horse-hair or wire."
"What, thou canst not yet digest that quip of the mule?" said Richard. "Wash it down with a brimming flagon, man, or thou wilt choke upon it. Why, so—well pulled!—and now I will tell thee, thou art a soldier as well as I, and we must brook each other's jests in the hall as each other's blows in the tourney, and love each other the harder we hit. By my faith, if thou didst not hit me as hard as I did thee in our late encounter! thou gavest all thy wit to the thrust. But here lies the difference betwixt thee and Blondel. Thou art but my comrade—I might say my pupil—in the art of war; Blondel is my master in the science of minstrelsy and music. To thee I permit the freedom of intimacy; to him I must do reverence, as to my superior in his art. Come, man, be not peevish, but remain and hear our glee."
"To see your Majesty in such cheerful mood," said the Lord of Gilsland, "by my faith, I could remain till Blondel had achieved the great romance of King Arthur, which lasts for three days."
"We will not tax your patience so deeply," said the King. "But see, yonder glare of torches without shows that our consort approaches. Away to receive her, man, and win thyself grace in the brightest eyes of Christendom. Nay, never stop to adjust thy cloak. See, thou hast let Neville come between the wind and the sails of thy galley."
"He was never before me in the field of battle," said De Vaux, not greatly pleased to see himself anticipated by the more active service of the chamberlain.
"No, neither he nor any one went before thee there, my good Tom of the Gills," said the King, "unless it was ourself, now and then."
"Ay, my liege," said De Vaux, "and let us do justice to the unfortunate. The unhappy Knight of the Leopard hath been before me too, at a season; for, look you, he weighs less on horseback, and so—"
"Hush!" said the King, interrupting him in a peremptory tone, "not a word of him," and instantly stepped forward to greet his royal consort; and when he had done so, he presented to her Blondel, as king of minstrelsy and his master in the gay science. Berengaria, who well knew that her royal husband's passion for poetry and music almost equalled his appetite for warlike fame, and that Blondel was his especial favourite, took anxious care to receive him with all the flattering distinctions due to one whom the King delighted to honour. Yet it was evident that, though Blondel made suitable returns to the compliments showered on him something too abundantly by the royal beauty, he owned with deeper reverence and more humble gratitude the simple and graceful welcome of Edith, whose kindly greeting appeared to him, perhaps, sincere in proportion to its brevity and simplicity.
Both the Queen and her royal husband were aware of this distinction, and Richard, seeing his consort somewhat piqued at the preference assigned to his cousin, by which perhaps he himself did not feel much gratified, said in the hearing of both, "We minstrels, Berengaria, as thou mayest see by the bearing of our master Blondel, pay more reverence to a severe judge like our kinswoman than to a kindly, partial friend like thyself, who is willing to take our worth upon trust."
Edith was moved by this sarcasm of her royal kinsman, and hesitated not to reply that, "To be a harsh and severe judge was not an attribute proper to her alone of all the Plantagenets."
She had perhaps said more, having some touch of the temper of that house, which, deriving their name and cognizance from the lowly broom (PLANTA GENISTA), assumed as an emblem of humility, were perhaps one of the proudest families that ever ruled in England; but her eye, when kindling in her reply, suddenly caught those of the Nubian, although he endeavoured to conceal himself behind the nobles who were present, and she sunk upon a seat, turning so pale that Queen Berengaria deemed herself obliged to call for water and essences, and to go through the other ceremonies appropriate to a lady's swoon. Richard, who better estimated Edith's strength of mind, called to Blondel to assume his seat and commence his lay, declaring that minstrelsy was worth every other recipe to recall a Plantagenet to life. "Sing us," he said, "that song of the Bloody Vest, of which thou didst formerly give me the argument ere I left Cyprus. Thou must be perfect in it by this time, or, as our yeomen say, thy bow is broken."
The anxious eye of the minstrel, however, dwelt on Edith, and it was not till he observed her returning colour that he obeyed the repeated commands of the King. Then, accompanying his voice with the harp, so as to grace, but yet not drown, the sense of what he sung, he chanted in a sort of recitative one of those ancient adventures of love and knighthood which were wont of yore to win the public attention. So soon as he began to prelude, the insignificance of his personal appearance seemed to disappear, and his countenance glowed with energy and inspiration. His full, manly, mellow voice, so absolutely under command of the purest taste, thrilled on every ear and to every heart. Richard, rejoiced as after victory, called out the appropriate summons for silence,
"Listen, lords, in bower and hall;"
while, with the zeal of a patron at once and a pupil, he arranged the circle around, and hushed them into silence; and he himself sat down with an air of expectation and interest, not altogether unmixed with the gravity of the professed critic. The courtiers turned their eyes on the King, that they might be ready to trace and imitate the emotions his features should express, and Thomas de Vaux yawned tremendously, as one who submitted unwillingly to a wearisome penance. The song of Blondel was of course in the Norman language, but the verses which follow express its meaning and its manner.
The Bloody Vest
"Thou hast changed the measure upon us unawares in that last couplet, my Blondel," said the King.
"Most true, my lord," said Blondel. "I rendered the verses from the Italian of an old harper whom I met in Cyprus, and not having had time either to translate it accurately or commit it to memory, I am fain to supply gaps in the music and the verse as I can upon the spur of the moment, as you see boors mend a quickset fence with a fagot."
"Nay, on my faith," said the King, "I like these rattling, rolling Alexandrines. Methinks they come more twangingly off to the music than that briefer measure."
"Both are licensed, as is well known to your Grace," answered Blondel.
"They are so, Blondel," said Richard, "yet methinks the scene where there is like to be fighting will go best on in these same thundering Alexandrines, which sound like the charge of cavalry, while the other measure is but like the sidelong amble of a lady's palfrey."
"It shall be as your Grace pleases," replied Blondel, and began again to prelude.
"Nay, first cherish thy fancy with a cup of fiery Chios wine," said the King. "And hark thee, I would have thee fling away that new-fangled restriction of thine, of terminating in accurate and similar rhymes. They are a constraint on thy flow of fancy, and make thee resemble a man dancing in fetters."
"The fetters are easily flung off, at least," said Blondel, again sweeping his fingers over the strings, as one who would rather have played than listened to criticism.
"But why put them on, man?" continued the King. "Wherefore thrust thy genius into iron bracelets? I marvel how you got forward at all. I am sure I should not have been able to compose a stanza in yonder hampered measure."
Blondel looked down, and busied himself with the strings of his harp, to hide an involuntary smile which crept over his features; but it escaped not Richard's observation.
"By my faith, thou laughest at me, Blondel," he said; "and, in good truth, every man deserves it who presumes to play the master when he should be the pupil. But we kings get bad habits of self-opinion. Come, on with thy lay, dearest Blondel—on after thine own fashion, better than aught that we can suggest, though we must needs be talking."
Blondel resumed the lay; but as extemporaneous composition was familiar to him, he failed not to comply with the King's hints, and was perhaps not displeased to show with how much ease he could new-model a poem, even while in the act of recitation.
The Bloody Vest
A murmur of applause ran through the assembly, following the example of Richard himself, who loaded with praises his favourite minstrel, and ended by presenting him with a ring of considerable value. The Queen hastened to distinguish the favourite by a rich bracelet, and many of the nobles who were present followed the royal example.
"Is our cousin Edith," said the King, "become insensible to the sound of the harp she once loved?"
"She thanks Blondel for his lay," replied Edith, "but doubly the kindness of the kinsman who suggested it."
"Thou art angry, cousin," said the King; "angry because thou hast heard of a woman more wayward than thyself. But you escape me not. I will walk a space homeward with you towards the Queen's pavilion. We must have conference together ere the night has waned into morning."
The Queen and her attendants were now on foot, and the other guests withdrew from the royal tent. A train with blazing torches, and an escort of archers, awaited Berengaria without the pavilion, and she was soon on her way homeward. Richard, as he had proposed, walked beside his kinswoman, and compelled her to accept of his arm as her support, so that they could speak to each other without being overheard.
"What answer, then, am I to return to the noble Soldan?" said Richard. "The kings and princes are falling from me, Edith; this new quarrel hath alienated them once more. I would do something for the Holy Sepulchre by composition, if not by victory; and the chance of my doing this depends, alas, on the caprice of a woman. I would lay my single spear in the rest against ten of the best lances in Christendom, rather than argue with a wilful wench who knows not what is for her own good. What answer, coz, am I to return to the Soldan? It must be decisive."
"Tell him," said Edith, "that the poorest of the Plantagenets will rather wed with misery than with misbelief."
"Shall I say with slavery, Edith?" said the King. "Methinks that is nearer thy thoughts."
"There is no room," said Edith, "for the suspicion you so grossly insinuate. Slavery of the body might have been pitied, but that of the soul is only to be despised. Shame to thee, King of merry England. Thou hast enthralled both the limbs and the spirit of a knight, one scarce less famed than thyself."
"Should I not prevent my kinswoman from drinking poison, by sullying the vessel which contained it, if I saw no other means of disgusting her with the fatal liquor?" replied the King.
"It is thyself," answered Edith, "that would press me to drink poison, because it is proffered in a golden chalice."
"Edith," said Richard, "I cannot force thy resolution; but beware you shut not the door which Heaven opens. The hermit of Engaddi —he whom Popes and Councils have regarded as a prophet—hath read in the stars that thy marriage shall reconcile me with a powerful enemy, and that thy husband shall be Christian, leaving thus the fairest ground to hope that the conversion of the Soldan, and the bringing in of the sons of Ishmael to the pale of the church, will be the consequence of thy wedding with Saladin. Come, thou must make some sacrifice rather than mar such happy prospects."
"Men may sacrifice rams and goats," said Edith, "but not honour and conscience. I have heard that it was the dishonour of a Christian maiden which brought the Saracens into Spain; the shame of another is no likely mode of expelling them from Palestine."
"Dost thou call it shame to become an empress?" said the King.
"I call it shame and dishonour to profane a Christian sacrament by entering into it with an infidel whom it cannot bind; and I call it foul dishonour that I, the descendant of a Christian princess, should become of free will the head of a haram of heathen concubines."
"Well, kinswoman," said the King, after a pause, "I must not quarrel with thee, though I think thy dependent condition might have dictated more compliance."
"My liege," replied Edith, "your Grace hath worthily succeeded to all the wealth, dignity, and dominion of the House of Plantagenet—do not, therefore, begrudge your poor kinswoman some small share of their pride."
"By my faith, wench," said the King, "thou hast unhorsed me with that very word, so we will kiss and be friends. I will presently dispatch thy answer to Saladin. But after all, coz, were it not better to suspend your answer till you have seen him? Men say he is pre-eminently handsome."
"There is no chance of our meeting, my lord," said Edith.
"By Saint George, but there is next to a certainty of it," said the King; "for Saladin will doubtless afford us a free field for the doing of this new battle of the Standard, and will witness it himself. Berengaria is wild to behold it also; and I dare be sworn not a feather of you, her companions and attendants, will remain behind—least of all thou thyself, fair coz. But come, we have reached the pavilion, and must part; not in unkindness thou, oh—nay, thou must seal it with thy lip as well as thy hand, sweet Edith—it is my right as a sovereign to kiss my pretty vassals."
He embraced her respectfully and affectionately, and returned through the moonlit camp, humming to himself such snatches of Blondel's lay as he could recollect.
On his arrival he lost no time in making up his dispatches for Saladin, and delivered them to the Nubian, with a charge to set out by peep of day on his return to the Soldan.