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Our Little Crusader Cousin of Long Ago by  Evaleen Stein


 

 

THE HILL OF HEBRON

[108] It was now May, and in the gardens of Ascalon the peach and apricot trees were laden with young fruit, while the roadsides shone with scarlet anemones and golden poppies. The crusading army, rested and no longer hungry, took cheer; but all the beauty around him could not comfort the troubled spirit of King Richard. The new from home was still as bad as ever, but he had been obliged to put off his return there for another year. Even before the death of Conrad the crusaders had been unwilling for him to leave them, and he felt he could not do so now. For though he had chosen Count Henry of Champagne to be called king of Jerusalem, he knew that if left to head the crusade, the count, with all his bravery and loyalty, lacked power to settle the hard questions that were always coming up.

And one of the hardest of these was worrying [109] Richard right then. The army was demanding to be led once more to Jerusalem; And while of course the taking of the city and rescue of the Holy Sepulchre was the great thing for which he had come, he knew far better than the rest how impossible it was to hope to do it then. The reinforcements he had waited for had not come, though Saladin's army had all the while grown bigger and stronger. Richard foresaw that while the crusaders, full of fresh hope and courage, might start again for the holy city, as they drew near they would find the same hardships they had found before, and they would have neither the strength nor numbers to attempt a long siege of its strong walls. When a leader so bold and of such heroic bravery as the Lion Heart hesitated to undertake the thing he most cared to do, the rest of the crusaders should have known he had the best of reasons. But they would listen to nothing, and at last declared that if Richard would not lead them they would go by themselves.

At this the king yielded, though against his own judgment; perhaps he thought the only way was to let them find out for themselves how it would turn out. At any rate, having decided to go, he [110] made preparations with all his usual energy. Hugh was sent flying here and there on many errands, provisions were got together, knights rode out to gather in the straggling foot-soldiers, and when all was ready, one bright Sunday morning they set off.

As out two pages marched along together they could not help but feel full of hope and cheer. For the first week or more the country was green and flowery, they had plenty to eat, fresh streams to drink from, and, best of all, the crusaders, happy in being once more on the road to Jerusalem, seemed to have laid aside their quarrels for the time and showed each other the greatest kindness. "There!" said Hugh one morning, "that's the third knight today I've seen get off his horse so a sick foot-soldier can ride it!"

"Yes," said Raymond, "and haven't you noticed how the rich share their money with the poorer ones in the army so they can buy things they need? Everybody seems to be trying to be as good as they can!"

But this pleasant state of affairs did not last long. As they went farther and farther from the seashore, so the ships could no longer sup- [111] ply them, food again became scarce, for it took a great deal for so many men. As they drew nearer Jerusalem, again they found the whole country laid waste, not even providing enough for the horses, while the streams failed and no one dared to drink from the poisoned wells. And the hungrier and thirstier they became, the harder it was to bear the heat of the Palestine sun. Hotter and hotter it blazed, till, as before, many fell sick and died, while still more began to straggle off and desert.

At last, after the greatest hardships and suffering, the worn-out army managed to reach Hebron, this time only seven miles from the holy city. That sounds very near, but to Richard with his famished and footsore men it seemed a long way yet; and seeing the utter hopelessness of it all, he determined to camp there a few days, until he and the chief knights could decide whether to go on, for he wanted them to see for themselves how matters were.

Hugh, as he attended his master on the march, had seen each day how more and more troubled he grew, and as they camped there at Hebron his heart fairly ached for him. When he carried in his supper, which Richard scarcely touched, [112] he found him sitting with his head bowed on his hands, and as he raised his fearless blue eyes that had been so full of high hopes and dreams, the lad could not but be struck with the disappointment and misery in them. Indeed, one can only guess what the lion-hearted king must have suffered, knowing at last that he must give up the dream he had cherished for years, for which he had worked and planned and fought, had sacrificed his fortune and almost his kingdom. Bitter, bitter must have been his thoughts of Philip, who had deserted him, of the quarrels and misfortunes that had divided and dimished his army, and the thousand and one things that, in spite of all his boldness and courage and military skill, now forced him to leave Jersualem still unconquered, the Holy Sepulchre still in the hands of the infidels. For he knew that the knights whom he had asked to help him decide whether to go on must at last agree with him that it was quite hopeless.

The next day a group of soldiers were talking and Hugh heard one of them say, "I saw one of the spies the king sent ahead to get news of the city,—you know he sent out spies the other time, too,—this one came back this [113] morning, and he says the walls of Jerusalem are stronger than ever. It seems last winter, while we were waiting for reinforcements, everybody from the sultan down worked on the walls, just as King Richard and the rest of us did at Ascalon. Saladin even brought stones for them on the back of his fine horse; and as the walls were tremendously strong to begin with, now nobody could take the place, except maybe by a long siege, and we are in no shape for that!"

"I should think not!" said another standing by. "We would starve to death ourselves long before we could starve out those heathens by a siege!"

"They say Saladin has an enormous army," put in a third, "and if we tried to besiege the city with our few men, he could swing around behind us, and then where would we be?"

For even the common soldiers now could begin to see some of the things Richard had foreseen at the beginning of the march. And when the knights he had called together talked over everything, they agreed, as he knew they must, that it would be death for the army to try to take the city. Like many crusaders before and after them, they had at last learned the bitter [114] truth that to conquer Jerusalem was a task to baffle the boldest, and a thousand times harder than it had seemed to their eager hearts as they had set off from their far-away homes. And hardest of all it was to give up their dream of rescuing Christ's tomb when they had marched almost in sight of it!

Indeed, only a few miles from Hebron there was a hill from which Jerusalem could be plainly seen. The afternoon of the day it was decided to turn back, Richard ordered Favelle to be brought to his tent door, and Hugh held the bridle while he mounted; and then, attended by Count William and a few other knights and squires, he rode off in the direction of this hill.

"Do you suppose they are going to look at Jerusalem?" asked Raymond, who had run over to talk to Hugh.

"Yes," said Hugh, "I think Richard wants to see it even if he has to give up taking it. Oh, isn't it just a shame the way things have turned out! I had no idea when we started that a crusade was such a hard thing!"

"Neither had I," replied Raymond, "and I do wish we could go on,—but," he added with a sigh, "it would seem mighty nice to have [115] enough to eat again, and all the fresh water we want to drink! I'm sick of these muddy, brackish brooks around here!" for he was very thirsty.

"So am I," agreed Hugh, "and sick of eating dead horses!" for he was very hungry.

"I wish we could go over that hill and see the city," said Raymond.

"We could walk the few miles easily enough," replied Hugh "but we wouldn't have time today before they got back, and they might want us for something. But likely we can find a chance tomorrow."

A few hours later, when Richard and his party returned, Hugh ran to take Favelle, and the king walked into his tent with such a far-away look in his eyes that he seemed not to hear as the knights took leave of him. The next morning both the pages asked permission, which was readily granted, to go to the hill, though Hugh was puzzled at King Richard's answer when he inquired if one could really see the city from there. "So they say, lad," replied the king absently, with such a strange expression in his face the page dared not ask more. But when he and Raymond set off together, "Raymond," [116] he said, "didn't they go to look at the city yesterday?"

"Yes," answered Raymond, "but what do you think Count William told some knights who came to the tent last evening while I was fixing his bed? He said that as they rode toward the hill the king hardly spoke a word, but seemed thinking things over all tot himself. Then at last, when they reached the highest point, from which he says you can see the city quite distinctly, one of the squires, who had been there before, led Favelle to the best place to look at it, and they all reined their horses to one side so as not to interfere with the king's view. And then, while they waited for him to take the first look, King Richard—he had been riding with his head bowed—made as if he would raise his eyes, then suddenly he dropped his head again and lifted his shield before his face. You know they all wore their armor and had their swords and shields along."


[Illustration]

"LIFTED HIS SHIELD BEFORE HIS FACE."

"What?"  exclaimed Hugh, "didn't he look at all?"

"No," replied Raymond, "that's the strange part of it. It seemed as if, when it came right to the point, much as he wanted to see Jerusalem, [117] he couldn't quite stand it. Count William, who was nearest to him, said he heard him say in a low tone, as if talking to himself, something about how, since God had held him unworthy to conquer the city and rescue the Holy Sepulchre, he felt himself unworthy to look at it. Anyway, still holding the shield before his eyes as if he was afraid he might look in spite of himself, he turned his horse around and quietly waited till the others had seen what they wanted, and then rode back without another word."

Hugh was silent a few moments, and then he said slowly, "Well, that was just like him. You know, besides being a tremendous fighter, he's a poet, too, and I've heard that poets feel things like that more than other people. He must be frightfully disappointed, especially as he hasn't been beaten in a single battle here. It's just that everything else has gone against him!"

As the boys talked they were all the while going along as fast as they could, and before long had reached and climbed the hill to its highest point. But as they stood with eager eyes gazing on the distant city of Jerusalem, the chatter on their lips died away. The towers and domes shone in the sunlight, and the great walls girdling [118] the city about showed how strong a fortress it was. In all the long months, almost a year, since they had landed at Acre, every night the hearld had cried through the camp, "God save the Holy Sepulchre!"and now, somewhere within those frowning walls on which they looked, was the tomb for the sake of which they had toiled and suffered so much; and boys though they were, the two pages could not help but feel their hearts swell as there swept over them the great pang of disappointment which all the crusaders shared.


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