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Men of Iron by  Howard Pyle

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A FIGHT

[60] EVERY ONE knows the disagreeable, lurking discomfort that follows a quarrel—a discomfort that imbitters the very taste of life for the time being. Such was the dull distaste that Myles felt that morning after what had passed in the dormitory. Every one in the proximity of such an open quarrel feels a reflected constraint, and in Myles's mind was a disagreeable doubt whether that constraint meant disapproval of him or of his late enemies.

It seemed to him that Gascoyne added the last bitter twang to his unpleasant feelings when, half an hour later, they marched with the others to chapel.

"Why dost thou breed such trouble for thyself, [61] Myles?" said he, recurring to what he had already said. "Is it not foolish for thee to come hither to this place, and then not submit to the ways thereof, as the rest of us do?"

"Thou talkest not like a true friend to chide me thus," said Myles, sullenly; and he withdrew his arm from his friend's.

"Marry, come up!" said Gascoyne; "an I were not thy friend, I would let thee jog thine own way. It aches not my bones to have thine drubbed."

Just then they entered the chapel, and words that might have led to a quarrel were brought to a close.

Myles was not slow to see that he had the ill will of the head of their company. That morning in the armory he had occasion to ask some question of Blunt; the head squire stared coldly at him for a moment, gave him a short, gruff answer, and then, turning his back abruptly, began talking with one of the other bachelors. Myles flushed hot at the other's insulting manner, and looked quickly around to see if any of the others had observed what had passed. It was a comfort to him to see that all were too busy arming themselves to think of anything else; nevertheless, his face was very lowering as he turned away.

"Some day I will show him that I am as good a [62] man as he," he muttered to himself. "An evil-hearted dog to put shame upon me!"

The storm was brewing and ready to break.

That day was exceptionally hot and close, and permission had been asked by and granted to those squires not on duty to go down to the river for a bath after exercise at the pels. But as Myles replaced his arms in the rack, a little page came with a bidding to come to Sir James in his office.

"Look now," said Myles, "here is just my ill-fortune. Why might he not have waited an hour longer rather than cause me to miss going with ye?"

"Nay," said Gascoyne, "let not that grieve thee, Myles. Wilkes and I will wait for thee in the dormitory—will we not, Edmund? Make thou haste and go to Sir James."

Sir James was sitting at the table studying over a scroll of parchment, when Myles entered his office and stood before him at the table.

"Well, boy," said he, laying aside the parchment and looking up at the lad, "I have tried thee fairly for these few days, and may say that I have found thee worthy to be entered upon the rolls as esquire of the body."

"I give thee thanks, sir," said Myles.

[63] The knight nodded his head in acknowledgement, but did not at once give the word of dismissal that Myles had expected. "Dost mean to write thee a letter home soon?" said he, suddenly.

"Aye," said Myles, gaping in great wonderment at the strangeness of the question.

"Then when thou dost so write," said Sir James, "give thou my deep regards to thy father." Then he continued, after a brief pause. "Him did I know well in times gone by, and we were right true friends in hearty love, and for his sake I would befriend thee—that is, in so much as is fitting."

"Sir," said Myles; but Sir James held up his hand, and he stopped short in his thanks.

"But, boy," said he, "that which I sent for thee for to tell thee was of more import than these. Dost thou know that thy father is an attainted outlaw?"

"Nay," cried Myles, his cheeks blazing up as red as fire; "who sayeth that of him lieth in his teeth."

"Thou dost mistake me," said Sir James, quietly. "It is sometimes no shame to be outlawed and banned. Had it been so, I would not have told thee thereof, nor have bidden thee send my true love to thy father, as I did but now. But, boy, certes he standest continually in great danger—greater than thou wottest of. Were it known where [64] he lieth hid, it might be to his undoing and utter ruin. Methought that belike thou mightest not know that; and so I sent for thee for to tell thee that it behoovest thee to say not one single word concerning him to any of these new friends of thine, nor who he is, nor what he is."

"But how came my father to be so banned?" said Myles, in a constrained and husky voice, and after a long time of silence.

"That I may not tell thee just now," said the old knight, "only this—that I have been bidden to make it known to thee that thy father hath an enemy full as powerful as my Lord the Earl himself, and that through that enemy all his ill-fortune—his blindness and everything—hath come. Moreover, did this enemy know where thy father lieth, he would slay him right speedily."

"Sir," cried Myles, violently smiting his open palm upon the table, "tell me who this man is, and I will kill him!"

Sir James smiled grimly. "Thou talkest like a boy," said he. "Wait until thou art grown to be a man. Mayhap then thou mayst repent thee of these bold words, for one time this enemy of thy father's was reckoned the foremost knight in England, and he is now the King's dear friend and a great lord."

[65] "But," said Myles, after another long time of heavy silence, "will not my Lord then befriend me for the sake of my father, who was one time his dear comrade?"

Sir James shook his head. "It may not be," said he. "Neither thou nor thy father must look for open favor from the Earl. An he befriended Falworth, and it came to be known that he had given him aid or succor, it might belike be to his own undoing. No, boy; thou must not even look to be taken into the household to serve with gentlemen as the other squires do serve, but must even live thine own life here and fight thine own way."

Myles's eyes blazed. "Then," cried he, fiercely, "it is shame and attaint upon my Lord the Earl, and cowardice as well, and never will I ask favor of him who is so untrue a friend as to turn his back upon a comrade in trouble as he turneth his back upon my father."

"Thou art a foolish boy," said Sir James with a bitter smile, "and knowest naught of the world. An thou wouldst look for man to befriend man to his own danger, thou must look elsewhere than on this earth. Was I not one time Mackworth's dear friend as well as thy father? It could cost him naught to honor me, and here am I fallen to be a teacher of boys. Go to! thou art a fool."

[66] Then, after a little pause of brooding silence, he went on to say that the Earl was no better or worse than the rest of the world. That men of his position had many jealous enemies, ever seeking their ruin, and that such must look first of all each to himself, or else be certainly ruined, and drag down others in that ruin. Myles was silenced, but the bitterness had entered his heart, and abided with him for many a day afterwards.

Perhaps Sir James read his feelings in his frank face, for he sat looking curiously at him, twirling his grizzled mustache the while. "Thou art like to have hard knocks of it, lad, ere thou hast gotten thee safe through the world," said he, with more kindness in his harsh voice than was usual. "But get thee not into fights before thy time." Then he charged the boy very seriously to live at peace with his fellow-squires, and for his father's sake as well as his own to enter into none of the broils that were so frequent in their quarters.

It was with this special admonition against brawling that Myles was dismissed, to enter, before five minutes had passed, into the first really great fight of his life.

Besides Gascoyne and Wilkes, he found gathered in the dormitory six or eight of the company [67] of squires who were to serve that day upon household duty; among others, Walter Blunt and three other bachelors, who were changing their coarse service clothes for others more fit for the household.

"Why didst thou tarry so long, Myles?" said Gascoyne, as he entered. "Methought thou wert never coming."

"Where goest thou, Falworth?" called Blunt from the other end of the room, where he was lacing his doublet.

Just now Myles had no heart in the swimming or sport of any sort, but he answered, shortly, "I go to the river to swim."

"Nay," said Blunt, "thou goest not forth from the castle to-day. Hast thou forgot how thou didst answer me back about fetching the water this morning? This day thou must do penance, so go thou straight to the armory and scour thou up my breastplate."

From the time he had arisen that morning everything had gone wrong with Myles. He had felt himself already outrated in rendering service to the bachelors, he had quarrelled with the head of the esquires, he had nearly quarrelled with Gascoyne, and then had come the bitterest and worst of all, the knowledge that his father was an out- [68] law, and that the Earl would not stretch out a hand to aid him or to give him any countenance. Blunt's words brought the last bitter cut to his heart, and they stung him to fury. For a while he could not answer, but stood glaring with a face fairly convulsed with passion at the young man, who continued his toilet, unconscious of the wrath of the new recruit.

Gascoyne and Wilkes, accepting Myles's punishment as a thing of course, were about to leave the dormitory when Myles checked them.

"Stop, Francis!" he cried, hoarsely. "Thinkest thou that I will stay behind to do yon dog's dirty work? No; I go with ye."

A moment or two of dumb, silent amazement followed his bold words; then Blunt cried, "Art thou mad?"

"Nay," answered Myles in the same hoarse voice, "I am not mad. I tell thee a better man than thou shouldst not stay me from going an I list to go.

"I will break thy cockerel head for that speech," said Blunt, furiously. He stooped as he spoke, and picked up a heavy clog that lay at his feet.

It was no insignificant weapon either. The shoes of those days were sometimes made of cloth, and had long pointed toes stuffed with tow or wool. In muddy weather thick heavy clogs or wooden soles [69] were strapped, like a skate, to the bottom of the foot. That clog which Blunt had seized was perhaps eighteen or twenty inches long, two or two and a half inches thick at the heel, tapering to a point at the toe. As the older lad advanced, Gascoyne stepped between him and his victim.

"Do not harm him, Blunt," he pleaded. "Bear thou in mind how new-come he is among us. He knoweth not our ways as yet."

"Stand thou back, Gascoyne," said Blunt, harshly, as he thrust him aside. "I will teach him our ways so that he will not soon forget them."

Close to Myles's feet was another clog like that one which Blunt held. He snatched it up, and set his back against the wall, with a white face and a heart beating heavily and tumultuously, but with courage steeled to meet the coming encounter. There was a hard, grim look in his blue eyes that, for a moment perhaps, quelled the elder lad. He hesitated. "Tom! Wat! Ned!" he called to the other bachelors, "come hither, and lend me a hand with this knave."

"An ye come nigh me," panted Myles, "I will brain the first within reach."

Then Gascoyne dodged behind the others, and, without being seen, slipped out of the room for help.

The battle that followed was quick, sharp, and [70] short. As Blunt strode forward, Myles struck, and struck with might and main, but he was too excited to deliver his blow with calculation. Blunt parried it with the clog he held, and the next instant, dropping his weapon, gripped Myles tight about the body, pinning his arms to his sides.

Myles also dropped the clog he held, and, wrenching out his right arm with a sudden heave, struck Blunt full in the face, and then with another blow sent him staggering back. It all passed in an instant; the next the three other bachelors were upon him, catching him by the body, the arms, the legs. For a moment or two they swayed and stumbled hither and thither, and then down they fell in a struggling heap.

Myles fought like a wild-cat, kicking, struggling, scratching; striking with elbows and fists. He caught one of the three by his collar, and tore his jacket open from the neck to the waist; he drove his foot into the pit of the stomach of another, and knocked him breathless. The other lads not in the fight stood upon the benches and the beds around, but such was the awe inspired by the prestige of the bachelors that not one of them dared to lend hand to help him, and so Myles fought his fierce battle alone.


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AT LAST THEY HAD THE POOR BOY DOWN.

But four to one were odds too great, and [71] though Myles struggled as fiercely as ever, by-and-by it was with less and less resistance.

Blunt had picked up the clog he had dropped when he first attacked the lad, and now stood over the struggling heap, white with rage, the blood running from his lip, cut and puffed where Myles had struck him, and murder looking out from his face, if ever it looked out of the face of any mortal being.

"Hold him a little," said he, fiercely, "and I will still him for you."

Even yet it was no easy matter for the others to do his bidding, but presently he got his chance and struck a heavy, cruel blow at Myles's head. Myles only partly warded it with his arm. Hitherto he had fought in silence, now he gave a harsh cry.

"Holy Saints!" cried Edmund Wilkes. "They will kill him."

Blunt struck two more blows, both of them upon the body, and then at last they had the poor boy down, with his face upon the ground and his arms pinned to his sides, and Blunt, bracing himself for the stroke, with a grin of rage raised a heavy clog for one terrible blow that should finish the fight.


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