How the Good Knight Kept the Bridge
"The Good Knight, without fear and without reproach." This was the name by which the Chevalier Bayard was always known, the name he had earned for himself not only by a series of exploits and adventures, but by his gentleness, his courteous behaviour to rich and poor alike, his generosity and goodness when times were very evil.
As quite a little boy he began to earn this name for himself. He lived with his father and mother and three brothers in an old castle in France.
One day the old lord of Bayard, his father, feeling that he had not much longer to live, called his four sons to him. He had been renowned for his great height and strength, but he had been badly wounded some years before, and he wanted to settle his sons in life before he died.
In the presence of his wife and other relations, the old lord asked the lads one by one what they wished to do in life.
"My wish," said the eldest, "is never to leave the family house, but to wait upon my lord of Bayard to the end of his days."
"Very well, George," answered the old man. "Since thou lovest the old house, thou shalt remain."
He then turned to the second boy, Pierre, afterwards the Good Knight. He was a bright, laughing boy of thirteen.
"My lord and father," he replied smiling, "although filial love maketh it a bounden duty in me to forego all things for the sake of serving you to the end of your life, yet so deeply graven in my heart are all your good discourses of the noble men of days past, especially those of our house, that I will be, if it pleases you, of the same profession as yourself and your predecessors, that of arms; and I hope, by the grace of God, to do you no dishonour."
Tears rolled down the old man's cheeks as he answered,—
"My child, may God's grace be with thee! Already thou dost resemble in face and figure thy grandfather, who was in his time one of the most accomplished knights in Christendom. I will do my best to further thy wishes."
The other boys expressed their desires and retired.
Then the old lord of Bayard sent for his brother-in-law, the Bishop of Grenoble, who lived some sixteen miles away, to beg him to come. The good bishop, "never in all his life weary of obliging any one," set out at once and arrived at the Castle Bayard. He found the old lord seated in an armchair by the fire.
"My son Pierre tells me he would be a soldier," began the old man, "and this gives me special pleasure, for he resembles altogether in appearance my lord, my late father; and if he will resemble him as well in conduct and character, he cannot but be a great man. But I must, as a first step, place him in the family of some prince or lord that he may learn to conduct himself honourably, and when he is a little taller acquire the science of arms. I pray you, therefore, to advise me where I may best place him."
Then said one of the party, "Send him to the King of France."
"No, to the family of Bourbon," suggested another. But last of all the bishop spoke.
"Send him to the Duke Charles of Savoy," he said firmly. "He is our fast friend, and will, I think, gladly take him as one of his pages. He is hard by, and if it seem good to you and the company I will take him to the duke to-morrow morning, after having put him in complete trim and supplied him with a good little charger which I got a few days since."
The old lord of Bayard took the bishop's advice, and delivering up the boy to his uncle, he said,—
"Take him, my lord; and I pray God that he may do you honour in his life."
The bishop at once sent to the town to order his tailor to come and bring velvet, satin, and other materials to make a suitable outfit for the boy Pierre. The tailor came and worked all night long, so that by next morning everything should be ready. And everything was ready.
So the next morning, after breakfast, the boy mounted his new charger and presented himself to those who were in the courtyard, dressed as if he were just going to be presented to the Duke of Savoy.
But the horse, feeling such a light weight on his back, and, moreover, being pricked by the child, proud of his new spurs, made three or four plunges. The people looking on in the courtyard feared that the boy should be thrown. But instead of his calling for help as they expected, he bravely spurred his horse again and again, galloped round the courtyard, and brought the charger to a standstill, as if he had been a grown-up man.
The old lord of Bayard was watching his boy. Smiling with joy, he said,—
"But were you not afraid, my son, seeing you have left school but a fortnight?"
"My lord, I hope, with God's help, before six years are over, to spur him in a more dangerous place," answered the boy fearlessly. "For here I am among friends, and I may then be among the enemies of the master whom I shall serve."
"Come, come," said the good bishop, who was impatient to set out; "my friend nephew, do not dismount, but take leave of all the company."
The boy turned to his father with a smile, as he said,—
"My lord and father, I pray God to grant you a happy and a long life, and to give me such grace that before He takes you out of this world you may hear good things of rue."
"God grant it, boy I" said the old man.
Meanwhile his mother was weeping alone in a tower of the old castle. She was glad he should go with good prospects before him, but parting with him was causing "her tender heart great pain."
At last they came to tell her that the boy was on horseback and ready to depart with his uncle. So the gentle lady of Bayard went down to say good-bye.
"Pierre, my boy," she said before he went, "you are just going into the service of a noble prince. I want you to observe three things which will enable you to pass through life with honour. The first is, that before all things you love, fear, and serve God; for without Him and His grace we can do no good thing in this world. Every morning and every evening commit yourself to Him, and He will aid you. The second is, that you be gentle and courteous to all, putting away all pride. Be humble and obliging to everybody. Be sober and temperate. Avoid envy; it is a mean vice. Be true and loyal in word and deed. Keep your promises. Help poor widows and orphans, and God will reward you. The third is, that of the goods which God shall give you, you be charitable to the poor and needy. This is all I have to charge you with. Your father and I shall not live much longer; God grant that while we live, we may always have a good report of you!"
Then, young as he was, the boy answered,—
"My lady mother, I thank you most humbly for your good counsel, and hope so well to follow it that you shall be content. And so humbly commending myself to your good favour, I take my leave."
Then his mother drew out of her sleeve a little purse, in which were six crowns in gold and one in silver. These she gave to her son. Then calling one of the bishop's servants, she gave into his keeping a small valise, in which was some linen for her son, begging him to look after the boy a little until he was older.
So the happy boy rode away to his uncle, and the same evening they arrived at Chambery, where the Duke of Savoy resided.
Here young Bayard lived as page for six months, during which time he made himself beloved by great and small. There was neither page nor lord who could compare with him. He could leap and wrestle and ride better than any other boy of his age, and the duke loved him as a son.
Such was the boyhood of the Good Knight.
How he shared his money with his poorer friends, how he was ever ready to help those in trouble, of his courage, his chivalry, his charity, it would take too long to tell. Was he in possession of a crown? all shared it. So that at his death he was no richer than at his birth.
Now Bayard was but five-and-twenty when the French and Spanish were at war over the kingdom of Naples. The two armies had been encamped for some time on opposite sides of the river Garigliano, north of Naples, and Bayard, always to the front, was quartered near the little narrow bridge over the river with one friend, Le Basco by name.
Now the Spanish captain, one Pedro de Pas, a little hump-backed man whose head barely showed above his saddle when on horseback, took it into his head to give an alarm to the French by making for this little bridge.
So all of a sudden, one day Bayard saw some two hundred Spanish horsemen, all well armed and equipped, riding toward the bridge under their little, hump-backed leader. Now the bridge was so narrow, that only two men-at-arms could pass side by side at a time; the river Garigliano ran strong and deep below.
If the Spaniards could pass over that little bridge, the French army could be practically destroyed. Bayard, the Good Knight, saw the danger of the position.
On rode the two hundred Spaniards—on towards the little bridge.
The Good Knight was alone with Le Basco. It was but the work of a few minutes to arm and mount their horses.
"My friend," said Bayard hurriedly, "I pray you, run as fast as you can to our people, and bring them to guard this bridge against the passage of this great sea of armed men that are coming toward us. While waiting for you, I will do my best to keep the enemy at bay and guard the bridge. But, I pray you, make haste."
Away went Le Basco as fast as he could, and the Good Knight, without fear indeed, took his lance in his hand and rode on to the little bridge.
On came the Spaniards, confident of victory. Were they not two hundred to one?
They were already near the bridge.
Then Bayard, like a furious lion, put his lance in rest and charged the Spanish troop. He was in deadly earnest, and soon overthrew the first four Spaniards; two fell over into the river, for the parapet was low, and the stream being strong and deep they were drowned. The Spaniards were amazed at such strength and courage. On they came again. But the Good Knight backed his horse against the barrier of the bridge that they might not get in his rear, and, like a "chafed tiger," defended himself so well that the Spaniards could make no way. He hurled them into the river one after another, and, the banks of the river being high and the water muddy, neither man nor horse could scramble out again. Seeing themselves thus shamed by a Frenchman, the Spaniards charged with their pikes, lances, and other weapons. But to no effect; the knight repulsed them all. For a whole hour he stuck to his post—one man against two hundred!
Then to his relief he heard Le Basco with a hundred men-at-arms coming to his help.
"Follow me, my friends!" he cried aloud.
The French obeyed, and the whole body, with Bayard at their head, forced back the Spaniards and pursued them for nearly a mile, till they saw some seven or eight hundred horsemen coming to the enemy's support.
"Stop! stop, my friends!" cried Bayard, "for I see a large body of horsemen coming to help our enemies. Gentlemen, we have done enough to-day in having saved the bridge. Let us retreat in as compact a body as possible."
So they retreated at a good pace, the Good Knight bringing up the rear and receiving every charge of the enemy himself.
At last he found himself very hard pressed; his poor horse was failing him through very weariness, for he had fought on him all day. At this moment the Spaniards made a fresh charge on him. The Good Knight's horse was driven backward into a ditch. It was too tired to struggle out. He was surrounded, and cries of "Yield, signor, yield!" fell on his ear. He still fought on, but the Spaniards overpowered him.
"Sir," cried the Good Knight at last, addressing one of those nearest to him, "there is not much honour in fifty fighting against one, but if there be any one of you who will fight me, I am ready."
"Frenchman," cried the Spaniard, "how can you speak like that? Do you think to escape us now?"
"No, indeed; I am too tired just now to defend myself against so many," said Bayard.
"Tell me, are you of gentle birth?" asked the Spaniard. "Indeed I am," answered Bayard.
"Tell me your name," said the Spaniard, "and I will save your life."
Now Bayard knew if he told them his real name, they would probably kill him at once.
"My name is Champion," answered the knight, not untruthfully.
"Let us guard him well," said the Spaniard to his companions. "We have gained one prisoner; let him not escape us."
Meanwhile the French were riding toward the bridge, believing the Good Knight to be yet with them, when suddenly the report spread through their ranks that he was missing.
"Oh, gentlemen," cried one, an old friend and neighbour of Bayard, "we have lost all! The good Captain Bayard is dead or a prisoner, for he is not with us. And to-day he has led us so well, and brought us so much honour. Even if I go alone, I will go back. I may be slain or taken prisoner, but I must have some news of him."
Every man in the little French troop was filled with sorrow when they found the Good Knight was indeed gone.
"We must win him back," they said.
Then each man dismounted, looked to and tightened his girths, then remounted, and with renewed courage turned round and set off full gallop for the Spaniards; for would they not do anything to save their good knight, the man who had just saved the French army by his bravery and strength? It was only owing to his tired horse that he had been taken at all. They must and they would win him back again.
The Spaniards were leading off their prisoner without having the least idea that it was the great knight Bayard, or they would assuredly have disarmed him, for his fame had spread far and wide.
Suddenly the little French troop was seen galloping towards them.
"See, the French are coming on fiercely!" they cried. When Bayard heard this, his heart beat fast.
Meanwhile the French had arrived.
"France! France!" they cried. "Let this prisoner go, or it shall cost you dear. You shall not carry off the flower of knighthood thus."
The Spaniards were astounded at the cry. Had they really taken the great Bayard prisoner and left him his arms? They would have taken his life surely had they known, for he was their most formidable enemy.
The French charged again, and one by one the Spaniards fell. Suddenly Bayard saw his chance. He needed but a fresh horse to ensure his escape. He saw a Spanish gentleman fall from his charger. Without putting his foot into the stirrup the Good Knight bounded on to the horse.
"France! France!" he cried, performing wonderful feats of arms as he sat on the Spanish charger.
"'Tis Bayard, Bayard you have let escape. You have had in your very hands the man you have long wished for. Spaniards, you have lost your character for shrewdness to-day!"
When the Spaniards realized what they had done, how they had let slip their prisoner Bayard, they were nearly out of their minds with wrath.
"Let us away to our camp," they said. "We shall do no more to-day. It is an evil hour in which we have lost this man, for none ever did so much harm to Spain as this Bayard. If France had many such, no nation could resist France."
"And yet," said others, "God always guards good people and their honour. It would have been a pity if he had been kept prisoner, because he is known to be a knight ` without reproach,' and well has he shown it this day."
Even his enemies spoke well of him, though they were mightily disgusted at having let him go. So the Spaniards turned and fled, and the French, both men and horses, were too tired and hungry to think of following them. Besides, had they not saved their Good Knight, and got him back in their midst once more?
Overjoyed, the French returned merrily enough to their quarters, where, the story says, they talked of nothing else for a whole week but their brilliant adventure, and the feats of the Good Knight, without fear and without reproach.
After a life of unblemished renown, Bayard was killed in an engagement with the Spaniards. In a retreat, being placed in the post of honour, he was struck by a ball from an arquebuse. His squire laid him under a tree, and Bayard was praying, when the Constable de Bourbon, who had gone over to the enemy, approached and expressed his grief. "Pity is not for me, my lord," replied Bayard, "for I die like a man of honour; but I pity you, who bear arms against your prince, your country, and your oath."