“Tush, tell not me, fellow,” said the military rider; “’tis easy for them to arise and supply the wants of travellers such as we are, who will not stoop to beg the hospitality which we have a right to command.”
“I know not,” said Gurth, sullenly, “if I should show the way to my master’s house, to those who demand as a right, the shelter which most are fain to ask as a favour.”
“Do you dispute with me, slave!” said the soldier; and, setting spurs to his horse, he caused him make a demivolte across the path, raising at the same time the riding rod which he held in his hand, with a purpose of chastising what he considered as the insolence of the peasant.
Gurth darted at him a savage and revengeful scowl, and with a fierce, yet hesitating motion, laid his hand on the haft of his knife; but the interference of Prior Aymer, who pushed his mule betwixt his companion and the swineherd, prevented the meditated violence.
“Nay, by St Mary, brother Brian, you must not think you are now in Palestine, predominating over heathen Turks and infidel Saracens; we islanders love not blows, save those of holy Church, who chasteneth whom she loveth.—Tell me, good fellow,” said he to Wamba, and seconded his speech by a small piece of silver coin, “the way to Cedric the Saxon’s; you cannot be ignorant of it, and it is your duty to direct the wanderer even when his character is less sanctified than ours.”
“In truth, venerable father,” answered the Jester, “the Saracen head of your right reverend companion has frightened out of mine the way home—I am not sure I shall get there to-night myself.”
“Tush,” said the Abbot, “thou canst tell us if thou wilt. This reverend brother has been all his life engaged in fighting among the Saracens for the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre; he is of the order of Knights Templars, whom you may have heard of; he is half a monk, half a soldier.”
“If he is but half a monk,” said the Jester, “he should not be wholly unreasonable with those whom he meets upon the road, even if they should be in no hurry to answer questions that no way concern them.”
“I forgive thy wit,” replied the Abbot, “on condition thou wilt show me the way to Cedric’s mansion.”
“Well, then,” answered Wamba, “your reverences must hold on this path till you come to a sunken cross, of which scarce a cubit’s length remains above ground; then take the path to the left, for there are four which meet at Sunken Cross, and I trust your reverences will obtain shelter before the storm comes on.”
The Abbot thanked his sage adviser; and the cavalcade, setting spurs to their horses, rode on as men do who wish to reach their inn before the bursting of a night-storm. As their horses’ hoofs died away, Gurth said to his companion, “If they follow thy wise direction, the reverend fathers will hardly reach Rotherwood this night.”
“No,” said the Jester, grinning, “but they may reach Sheffield if they have good luck, and that is as fit a place for them. I am not so bad a woodsman as to show the dog where the deer lies, if I have no mind he should chase him.”
“Thou art right,” said Gurth; “it were ill that Aymer saw the Lady Rowena; and it were worse, it may be, for Cedric to quarrel, as is most likely he would, with this military monk. But, like good servants let us hear and see, and say nothing.”
We return to the riders, who had soon left the bondsmen far behind them, and who maintained the following conversation in the Norman-French language, usually employed by the superior classes, with the exception of the few who were still inclined to boast their Saxon descent.
“What mean these fellows by their capricious insolence?” said the Templar to the Benedictine, “and why did you prevent me from chastising it?”
“Marry, brother Brian,” replied the Prior, “touching the one of them, it were hard for me to render a reason for a fool speaking according to his folly; and the other churl is of that savage, fierce, intractable race, some of whom, as I have often told you, are still to be found among the descendants of the conquered Saxons, and whose supreme pleasure it is to testify, by all means in their power, their aversion to their conquerors.”
“I would soon have beat him into courtesy,” observed Brian; “I am accustomed to deal with such spirits: Our Turkish captives are as fierce and intractable as Odin himself could have been; yet two months in my household, under the management of my master of the slaves, has made them humble, submissive, serviceable, and observant of your will. Marry, sir, you must be aware of the poison and the dagger; for they use either with free will when you give them the slightest opportunity.”
“Ay, but,” answered Prior Aymer, “every land has its own manners and fashions; and, besides that beating this fellow could procure us no information respecting the road to Cedric’s house, it would have been sure to have established a quarrel betwixt you and him had we found our way thither. Remember what I told you: this wealthy franklin is proud, fierce, jealous, and irritable, a withstander of the nobility, and even of his neighbors, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf and Philip Malvoisin, who are no babies to strive with. He stands up sternly for the privileges of his race, and is so proud of his uninterrupted descend from Hereward, a renowned champion of the Heptarchy, that he is universally called Cedric the Saxon; and makes a boast of his belonging to a people from whom many others endeaver to hide their descent, lest they should encounter a share of the ‘vae victis,’ or severities imposed upon the vanquished.”
“Prior Aymer,” said the Templar, “you are a man of gallantry, learned in the study of beauty, and as expert as a troubadour in all matters concerning the ‘arrets’ of love; but I shall expect much beauty in this celebrated Rowena to counterbalance the self-denial and forbearance which I must exert if I am to court the favor of such a seditious churl as you have described her father Cedric.”
“Cedric is not her father,” replied the Prior, “and is but of remote relation: she is descended from higher blood than even he pretends to, and is but distantly connected with him by birth. Her guardian, however, he is, self-constituted as I believe; but his ward is as dear to him as if she were his own child. Of her beauty you shall soon be judge; and if the purity of her complexion, and the majestic, yet soft expression of a mild blue eye, do not chase from your memory the black-tressed girls of Palestine, ay, or the houris of old Mahound’s paradise, I am an infidel, and no true son of the church.”
“Should your boasted beauty,” said the Templar, “be weighed in the balance and found wanting, you know our wager?”
“My gold collar,” answered the Prior, “against ten butts of Chian wine;—they are mine as securely as if they were already in the convent vaults, under the key of old Dennis the cellarer.”
“And I am myself to be judge,” said the Templar, “and am only to be convicted on my own admission, that I have seen no maiden so beautiful since Pentecost was a twelvemonth. Ran it not so?—Prior, your collar is in danger; I will wear it over my gorget in the lists of Ashby-de-la-Zouche.”
“Win it fairly,” said the Prior, “and wear it as ye will; I will trust your giving true response, on your word as a knight and as a churchman. Yet, brother, take my advice, and file your tongue to a little more courtesy than your habits of predominating over infidel captives and Eastern bondsmen have accustomed you. Cedric the Saxon, if offended,—and he is noway slack in taking offence,—is a man who, without respect to your knighthood, my high office, or the sanctity of either, would clear his house of us, and send us to lodge with the larks, though the hour were midnight. And be careful how you look on Rowena, whom he cherishes with the most jealous care; an he take the least alarm in that quarter we are but lost men. It is said he banished his only son from his family for lifting his eyes in the way of affection towards this beauty, who may be worshipped, it seems, at a distance, but is not to be approached with other thoughts than such as we bring to the shrine of the Blessed Virgin.”
“Well, you have said enough,” answered the Templar; “I will for a night put on the needful restraint, and deport me as meekly as a maiden; but as for the fear of his expelling us by violence, myself and squires, with Hamet and Abdalla, will warrant you against that disgrace. Doubt not that we shall be strong enough to make good our quarters.”
“We must not let it come so far,” answered the Prior; “but here is the clown’s sunken cross, and the night is so dark that we can hardly see which of the roads we are to follow. He bid us turn, I think to the left.”
“To the right,” said Brian, “to the best of my remembrance.”
“To the left, certainly, the left; I remember his pointing with his wooden sword.”
“Ay, but he held his sword in his left hand, and so pointed across his body with it,” said the Templar.
Each maintained his opinion with sufficient obstinacy, as is usual in all such cases; the attendants were appealed to, but they had not been near enough to hear Wamba’s directions. At length Brian remarked, what had at first escaped him in the twilight; “Here is some one either asleep, or lying dead at the foot of this cross—Hugo, stir him with the butt-end of thy lance.”
This was no sooner done than the figure arose, exclaiming in good French, “Whosoever thou art, it is discourteous in you to disturb my thoughts.”
“We did but wish to ask you,” said the Prior, “the road to Rotherwood, the abode of Cedric the Saxon.”
“I myself am bound thither,” replied the stranger; “and if I had a horse, I would be your guide, for the way is somewhat intricate, though perfectly well known to me.”
“Thou shalt have both thanks and reward, my friend,” said the Prior, “if thou wilt bring us to Cedric’s in safety.”
And he caused one of his attendants to mount his own led horse, and give that upon which he had hitherto ridden to the stranger, who was to serve for a guide.
Their conductor pursued an opposite road from that which Wamba had recommended, for the purpose of misleading them. The path soon led deeper into the woodland, and crossed more than one brook, the approach to which was rendered perilous by the marshes through which it flowed; but the stranger seemed to know, as if by instinct, the soundest ground and the safest points of passage; and by dint of caution and attention, brought the party safely into a wilder avenue than any they had yet seen; and, pointing to a large low irregular building at the upper extremity, he said to the Prior, “Yonder is Rotherwood, the dwelling of Cedric the Saxon.”
This was a joyful intimation to Aymer, whose nerves were none of the strongest, and who had suffered such agitation and alarm in the course of passing through the dangerous bogs, that he had not yet had the curiosity to ask his guide a single question. Finding himself now at his ease and near shelter, his curiosity began to awake, and he demanded of the guide who and what he was.
“A Palmer, just returned from the Holy Land,” was the answer.
“You had better have tarried there to fight for the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre,” said the Templar.
“True, Reverend Sir Knight,” answered the Palmer, to whom the appearance of the Templar seemed perfectly familiar; “but when those who are under oath to recover the holy city, are found travelling at such a distance from the scene of their duties, can you wonder that a peaceful peasant like me should decline the task which they have abandoned?”
The Templar would have made an angry reply, but was interrupted by the Prior, who again expressed his astonishment, that their guide, after such long absence, should be so perfectly acquainted with the passes of the forest.
“I was born a native of these parts,” answered their guide, and as he made the reply they stood before the mansion of Cedric;—a low irregular building, containing several court-yards or enclosures, extending over a considerable space of ground, and which, though its size argued the inhabitant to be a person of wealth, differed entirely from the tall, turretted, and castellated buildings in which the Norman nobility resided, and which had become the universal style of architecture throughout England.
Rotherwood was not, however, without defences; no habitation, in that disturbed period, could have been so, without the risk of being plundered and burnt before the next morning. A deep fosse, or ditch, was drawn round the whole building, and filled with water from a neighbouring stream. A double stockade, or palisade, composed of pointed beams, which the adjacent forest supplied, defended the outer and inner bank of the trench. There was an entrance from the west through the outer stockade, which communicated by a drawbridge, with a similar opening in the interior defences. Some precautions had been taken to place those entrances under the protection of projecting angles, by which they might be flanked in case of need by archers or slingers.
Before this entrance the Templar wound his horn loudly; for the rain, which had long threatened, began now to descend with great violence.