Good knights were abundant in the romance of the age of chivalry; they seem to have been greatly lacking in its history. Of knights without fear there were many; of knights "without fear and without reproach" we are specially told of but one, Pierre du Terrail, Chevalier de Bayard, "Le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche." Many are the stories of the courage, the justice, the honor, the mercy, the intrepidity in war, the humanity and kindliness of spirit in peace, which make this admirable character an anomaly in that age of courteous appearance and brutal reality yclept the "age of chivalry." One such story we have to tell.
The town of Brescia had been taken by the French army under Gaston de Foix, and given up to pillage by his troops, with all the horrors which this meant in that day of license and inhumanity. Bayard took part in the assault on the town, and was wounded therein, so severely that he said to his fellow-captain, the lord of Molart,—
"Comrade, march your men forward; the town is ours. As for me, I cannot pull on farther, for I am a dead man."
Not quite dead, as it proved. He had many years of noble deeds before him still. When the town was taken, two of his archers bore him to a house whose size and show of importance attracted them as a fair harbor for their lord. It was the residence of a rich citizen, who had fled for safety to a monastery, leaving his wife to God's care in the house, and two fair daughters to such security as they could gain from the hay in a granary, under which they were hidden.
At the loud summons of the archers the lady tremblingly opened the door, and was surprised and relieved when she saw that it was a wounded knight who craved admittance. Sadly hurt as Bayard was, his instinct of kindness remained active. He bade the archers to close the door and remain there on guard.
"Take heed, for your lives," he said, "that none enter here unless they be some of my own people. I am sure that, when this is known to be my quarters, none will try to force a way in. If, by your aiding me, you miss a chance of gain in the sack of the town, let not that trouble you; you shall lose nothing by your service."
The archers obeyed, and the wounded knight was borne to a rich chamber, the lady herself showing the way. When he had been laid in bed, she threw herself on her knees before him, and pleadingly said,—
"Noble sir, I present you this house and all that is therein, all of which, in truth, I well know to be yours by right of war. But I earnestly pray that it be your pleasure to spare me and my two young daughters our lives and honor."
"Madam," answered the knight, with grave courtesy, "I know not if I can escape from my wound; but, so long as I live, trust me that no harm shall come to you and your daughters, any more than to myself. Only keep them in their chambers; let them not be seen; and I assure you that no man in the house will take upon himself to enter any place against your will."
These words the lady heard with joy, and on Bayard's request that he should have a good surgeon without delay, she and one of the archers set out in quest of the best that could be found. Fortunately, it proved that the knight's wound, though deep, was not mortal. At the second dressing Master Claude, the surgeon of Gaston de Foix, took him in hand, and afterwards attended him assiduously until his wound was healed, a process which took about a month. After the first dressing of the wound, Bayard asked his hostess, in kindly tones, where her husband was.
"I know not, my lord, if he be dead or alive," she answered, bursting into tears. "If he be living, I am sure he has taken refuge in a monastery where he is well known."
"Let him return home," answered Bayard. "I shall send those after him who will see that he has no harm."
The lady, elate with hope, sent to inquire, and found that her husband was really where she had supposed. Bayard's steward and the two archers were sent for him, and conducted him safely through the turmoil of the streets, where war's ravage, in its worst form, was still afoot. On his arrival, the knight received him with a courteous welcome, and bade him not to be alarmed, as only friends were quartered upon him, and he should suffer no loss in person or estate.
For a month the wounded knight lay on his couch, where, though he was made as comfortable as possible by the assiduous ministrations of his grateful host and hostess, he suffered much from his hurt. At the end of that time he was able to rise and walk across the chamber, though still very weak. But news came that a great battle between the French and the Spaniards was likely soon to be fought, and the brave Bayard burned with warlike desire to take part in the conflict.
"My dear friend," he said to the surgeon, "tell me if there is any danger in setting me on the march. It seems to me that I am well, or nearly so; and, in my judgment, to stay here longer will do me more harm than good, for I fret sorely to be thus tied."
"Your wound is not yet closed," said the surgeon, "though it is quite healed inside. After another dressing you may be able to ride, provided that your barber attends to dressing it with ointment and a little lint every day. The worst of the wound is now on the surface, and, as it will not touch your saddle, you will run no risk in riding."
Bayard heard these words with gladness, and at once gave orders to his people to prepare for the road, as he would set out for the army in two days.
Meanwhile, his host and hostess and their children were far from well at ease. Until now their guest had protected and spared them, but they knew too well the habits of soldiers to imagine that he intended to do this without being abundantly paid for the service. They held themselves as his prisoners, and feared that he might yet force them to ransom themselves with the utmost sum their estate would afford, perhaps ten or twelve thousand crowns. Yet he had been so gentle and kindly that the good lady entertained hopes that he might prove generous, if softened by a suitable present. Therefore, on the morning of the day which he had fixed for his departure, she appeared in his chamber, followed by a servant who carried a small steel box.
Bayard had been walking up and down the room to try his leg, and had now thrown himself into a chair to rest. The lady fell upon her knees before him; but before he would permit her to speak he insisted that she should rise and be seated.
"My lord," she began, "I can never be thankful enough for the grace which God did me, at the taking of this town, in directing you to this our house. We owe to you our lives and all that we hold dear. Moreover, from the time that you arrived here, neither I nor the least of my people have endured a single insult, but all has been good-will and courtesy, nor have your folks taken a farthing's worth of our goods without paying for them. I am aware that my husband, myself, my children, and all my household are your prisoners, to be dealt with according to your good pleasure, in person and goods; but, knowing the nobleness of your heart, I am come to entreat you humbly to have pity on us, and extend to us your wonted generosity. Here is a little present we make you; and we pray that you may be pleased to take it in good part."
She opened the box which the servant held, and Bayard saw that it was filled with golden coins. The free-hearted knight, who had never in his life troubled himself about money, burst out laughing, and said,—
"Madam, how many ducats are there in this box?"
His action, so different from what she expected, frightened the poor woman. Thinking it to indicate that the sum was below his expectations, she said hurriedly,—
"My lord, there are but two thousand five hundred ducats; but, if you are not content, we will find a larger sum."
"By my faith, madam," he warmly replied, "though you should give a hundred thousand crowns, you would not do as well towards me as you have done by the good cheer I have had here and the kind attendance you have given me. In whatsoever place I may happen to be, you will have, so long as God shall grant me life, a gentleman at your bidding. As for your ducats, I will have none of them, and yet I thank you; take them back; all my life I have always loved people much more than crowns. And take my word for it that I go away as well pleased with you as if this town were at your disposal and you had given it to me."
The good lady listened to him with deep astonishment. Never had she dreamed of such a marvel as this, a soldier who did not crave money. She was really distressed by his decision.
"My lord," she said, "I shall feel myself the most wretched creature in the world if you will not take this small present, which is nothing in comparison with your past courtesy and present kindness."
Seeing how firm she was in her purpose, he said, with a gentle smile,—
"Well, then, I will take it for love of you; but go and fetch me your two daughters, for I would fain bid them farewell."
Much pleased with his acceptance, the lady left the room in search of her daughters, whom the knight knew well, for they had solaced many of the weary hours of his illness with pleasant chat, and music from their voices and from the lute and spinet, on which they played agreeably. While awaiting them he bade the servant to empty the box and count the ducats into three lots, two of a thousand each and one of five hundred.
When the young ladies entered, they would have fallen on their knees as their mother had done before them, but Bayard would not consent that they should remain in this humble attitude.
"My lord," said the elder, "these two poor girls, who owe so much to your kindness, are come to take leave of you, and humbly to thank your lordship for your goodness, for which they can make no return other than to pray that God may hold you in His good care."
"Dear damsels," answered Bayard, much affected, "you have done what I ought to do; that is, to thank you for your good company, for which I am much beholden. You know that fighting men are not likely to be laden with pretty things to present to ladies. I am sorry not to be better provided. But here are some ducats brought me by your lady-mother. Of these I give to each of you a thousand towards your marriage; and for my recompense you shall, if it please you, pray God for me, as you have offered."
He swept the ducats from the table into their aprons, forcing them to accept them whether they would or not. Then, turning to his hostess, he said,—
"Madam, I will take these five hundred ducats that remain for my own profit, to distribute among the poor sisterhoods of this town which have been plundered; and to you I commit the charge of them, since you, better than any other, will understand where they are most needed. And with this mission I take my leave of you."
Then he bade them adieu by touching their hands, after the Italian fashion, "and they fell upon their knees, weeping so bitterly that it seemed as if they were to be led out to their deaths."
The dinner hour came and passed. When it was over the knight quickly left the table and called for his horses, being eager to be gone for fear the two armies might come to battle in his absence. As he left his chamber to seek his horse, the two fair daughters of the house came down to bid him a final farewell and to make him presents which they had worked for him during his illness.
One gave him a pair of pretty and delicate bracelets, made of gold and silver thread, worked with marvellous neatness. The other presented him a handsome purse of crimson satin very cleverly ornamented with the needle. The knight received these graceful gifts with warm thanks, saying that presents which came from hands so fair were more to him than a hundred-fold their value in gold. To do them the more honor, he put the bracelets on his wrists and the purse in his sleeve, and assured them that, as long as they lasted, he would wear them for love of the givers.
Then, mounting, the good knight rode away, leaving more tears of joy and heartfelt gratitude behind him than can be said of few soldiers since the world began. It was not for fame he had wrought, or of fame he had thought, but he won high fame by his generous behavior, for his treatment of his Brescian hosts is still quoted as the rarest deed in his chaplet of good actions.
The two archers who had stayed with Bayard failed not to receive the promised reward. Gaston de Foix, the Duke of Nemours, sent the knight a number of presents, among them five hundred crowns, and these he divided between the archers whom he had debarred from their share of the spoil.
It will suffice to say, in conclusion, that he reached the army in time to take part in the battle that followed, and to add therein to his fame as a "good knight without fear."