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Men of Iron by  Howard Pyle


 

 

BLOOD CHALLENGE

[298] IT WAS not until the end of July that the High Court of Chivalry rendered its judgment. There were many unusual points in the case, some of which bore heavily against Lord Falworth, some of which were in his favor. He was very ably defended by the lawyers whom the Earl of Mackworth had engaged upon his side; nevertheless, under ordinary circumstances, the judgment, no doubt, would have been quickly rendered against him. As it was, however, the circumstances were not ordinary, and it was rendered in his favor. The Court besought the King to grant the ordeal by battle, to accept Lord Falworth's champion, and to appoint the time and place for the meeting.

The decision must have been a most bitter, galling one for the sick King. He was naturally of [299] a generous, forgiving nature, but Lord Falworth in his time of power had been an unrelenting and fearless opponent, and his Majesty who, like most generous men, could on occasions be very cruel and intolerant, had never forgiven him. He had steadily thrown the might of his influence with the Court against the Falworths' case, but that influence was no longer all-powerful for good or ill. He was failing in health, and it could only be a matter of a few years, probably of only a few months, before his successor sat upon the throne.

Upon the other hand, the Prince of Wales's faction had been steadily, and of late rapidly, increasing in power, and in the Earl of Mackworth, its virtual head, it possessed one of the most capable politicians and astute intriguers in Europe. So, as the outcome of all the plotting and counter-plotting, scheming and counter-scheming, the case was decided in Lord Falworth's favor. The knowledge of the ultimate result was known to the Prince of Wales's circle almost a week before it was finally decided. Indeed, the Earl of Mackworth had made pretty sure of that result before he had summoned Myles from France, but upon the King it fell like the shock of a sudden blow. All that day he kept himself in moody seclusion, nursing his silent, bitter anger, and making only one [300] outbreak, in which he swore by the Holy Rood that should Myles be worsted in the encounter, he would not take the battle into his own hands, but would suffer him to be slain, and furthermore, that should the Earl show signs of failing at any time, he would do all in his power to save him. One of the courtiers who had been present, and who was secretly inclined to the Prince of Wales's faction, had repeated this speech at Scotland Yard, and the Prince had said, "That meaneth, Myles, that thou must either win or die."

"And so I would have it to be, my Lord," Myles had answered.

It was not until nearly a fortnight after the decision of the Court of Chivalry had been rendered that the King announced the time and place of battle—the time to be the 3d of September, the place to be Smithfield—a spot much used for such encounters.

During the three weeks or so that intervened between this announcement and the time of combat, Myles went nearly every day to visit the lists in course of erection. Often the Prince went with him; always two or three of his friends of the Scotland Yard court accompanied him.

The lists were laid out in the usual form. The true or principal list in which the combatants were [301] to engage was sixty yards long and forty yards wide; this rectangular space being surrounded by a fence about six feet high, painted vermilion. Between the fence and the stand where the King and the spectators sat, and surrounding the central space, was the outer or false list, also surrounded by a fence. In the false list the Constable and the Marshal and their followers and attendants were to be stationed at the time of battle to preserve the general peace during the contest between the principals.

One day as Myles, his princely patron, and his friends entered the barriers, leaving their horses at the outer gate, they met the Earl of Alban and his followers, who were just quitting the lists, which they also were in the habit of visiting nearly every day. As the two parties passed one another, the Earl spoke to a gentleman walking beside him and in a voice loud enough to be clearly overheard by the others: "Yonder is the young sprig of Falworth," said he. "His father, my Lords, is not content with forfeiting his own life for his treason, but must, forsooth, throw away his son's also. I have faced and overthrown many a better knight than that boy."

Myles heard the speech, and knew that it was intended for him to hear it; but he paid no atten- [302] tion to it, walking composedly at the Prince's side. The Prince had also overheard it, and after a little space of silence asked, "Dost thou not feel anxiety for thy coming battle, Myles?"

"Yea, my Lord," said Myles; "sometimes I do feel anxiety, but not such as my Lord of Alban would have me feel in uttering the speech that he spake anon. It is anxiety for my father's sake and my mother's sake that I feel, for truly there are great matters for them pending upon this fight. Ne'theless, I do know that God will not desert me in my cause, for verily my father is no traitor."

"But the Earl of Alban," said the Prince, gravely, "is reputed one of the best-skilled knights in all England; moreover, he is merciless and without generosity, so that an he gain aught advantage over thee, he will surely slay thee."

"I am not afraid, my Lord," said Myles, still calmly and composedly.

"Nor am I afraid for thee, Myles," said the Prince, heartily, putting his arm, as he spoke, around the young man's shoulder; "for truly, wert thou a knight of forty years, instead of one of twenty, thou couldst not bear thyself with more courage."

As the time for the duel approached, the days seemed to drag themselves along upon leaden feet; [303] nevertheless, the days came and went, as all days do, bringing with them, at last, the fateful 3d of September.

Early in the morning, while the sun was still level and red, the Prince himself, unattended, came to Myles's apartment, in the outer room of which Gascoyne was bustling busily about arranging the armor piece by piece; renewing straps and thongs, but not whistling over his work as he usually did. The Prince nodded to him, and then passed silently through to the inner chamber. Myles was upon his knees, and Father Ambrose, the Prince's chaplain, was beside him. The Prince stood silently at the door, until Myles, having told his last bead, rose and turned towards him.

"My dear Lord," said the young knight, "I give you gramercy for the great honor you do me in coming so early for to visit me."

"Nay, Myles, give me no thanks," said the Prince, frankly reaching him his hand, which Myles took and set to his lips. "I lay bethinking me of thee this morning, while yet in bed, and so, as I could not sleep any more, I was moved to come hither to see thee."

Quite a number of the Prince's faction were at the breakfast at Scotland Yard that morning; among others, the Earl of Mackworth. All were [304] more or less oppressed with anxiety, for nearly all of them had staked much upon the coming battle. If Alban conquered, he would be more powerful to harm them and to revenge himself upon them than ever, and Myles was a very young champion upon whom to depend. Myles himself, perhaps, showed as little anxiety as any; he certainly ate more heartily of his breakfast that morning than many of the others.

After the meal was ended, the Prince rose. "The boat is ready at the stairs," said he; "if thou wouldst go to the Tower to visit thy father, Myles, before hearing mass, I and Cholmondeley and Vere and Poins will go with thee, if ye, Lords and gentlemen, will grant me your pardon for leaving you. Are there any others that thou wouldst have accompany thee?"

"I would have Sir James Lee and my squire, Master Gascoyne, if thou art so pleased to give them leave to go," answered Myles.

"So be it," said the Prince. "We will stop at Mackworth stairs for the knight."

The barge landed at the west stairs of the Tower wharf, and the whole party were received with more than usual civilities by the Governor, who conducted them at once to the Tower where Lord Falworth was lodged. Lady Falworth met [305] them at the head of the stairs; her eyes were very red and her face pale, and as Myles raised her hand and set a long kiss upon it, her lips trembled, and she turned her face quickly away, pressing her handkerchief for one moment to her eyes. Poor lady! What agony of anxiety and dread did she not suffer for her boy's sake that day! Myles had not hidden both from her and his father that he must either win or die.

As Myles turned from his mother, Prior Edward came out from the inner chamber, and was greeted warmly by him. The old priest had arrived in London only the day before, having come down from Crosbey Priory to be with his friend's family during this their time of terrible anxiety.

After a little while of general talk, the Prince and his attendants retired, leaving the family together, only Sir James Lee and Gascoyne remaining behind.

Many matters that had been discussed before were now finally settled, the chief of which was the disposition of Lady Falworth in case the battle should go against them. Then Myles took his leave, kissing his mother, who began crying, and comforting her with brave assurances. Prior Edward accompanied him as far as the head of the Tower stairs, where Myles kneeled upon the stone [306] steps, while the good priest blessed him and signed the cross upon his forehead. The Prince was waiting in the walled garden adjoining, and as they rowed back again up the river to Scotland Yard, all were thoughtful and serious, even Poins' and Vere's merry tongues being stilled from their usual quips and jesting.


[Illustration]

MYLES KNEELED UPON THE STONE STEPS WHILE THE GOOD PRIEST BLESSED HIM.

It was about the quarter of the hour before eleven o'clock when Myles, with Gascoyne, set forth for the lists. The Prince of Wales, together with most of his court, had already gone on to Smithfield, leaving behind him six young knights of his household to act as escort to the young champion. Then at last the order to horse was given; the great gate swung open, and out they rode, clattering and jingling, the sunlight gleaming and flaming and flashing upon their polished armor. They drew rein to the right, and so rode in a little cloud of dust along the Strand Street towards London town, with the breeze blowing merrily, and the sunlight shining as sweetly and blithesomely as though they were riding to a wedding rather than to a grim and dreadful ordeal that meant either victory or death.


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