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- The Prince and the Page - 10/37 -
beginning to rise, below which the little muddy stream called the Flete stagnated along its way, meandering to the Thames. Thatched hovels and wooden booths left so narrow a passage that the horsemen were forced to move in single file, and did not gain a clearer space even when the stone houses of merchants began to stand thick on Ludgate Hill, their carved wooden balconies so projecting, that it would seem to have been an object with the citizens to be able to shake hands across the street. The city was comparatively empty and quiet, as all the world were keeping holiday at Westminster; but even as it was, the passengers seemed to swarm in the streets, and knots of persons who had been unable to witness the spectacle, sat with gazing children upon the stairs outside the houses, to admire the fragments of the pageant that came their way. Acclamations of delight greeted the appearance of the scarlet-mantled Hospitaliers, such as Richard had often heard in his boyhood, when riding in his father's train, but far less frequently since he had been a part of the Prince's retinue. And equally diverse was the merry nod and smile of Sir Robert to each gaping shouting group of little ones, from the stately distant courtesy with which Edward returned the popular salutations. He could be gracious--he could not be friendly except to a few.
They passed the capitular buildings of St. Paul's, with the beautiful cathedral towering over them, and in its rear, numerous booths for the purchase of rosaries--recent inventions then of St. Dominic, the great friend of Richard's stern grandfather, the persecutor of the Albigenses. Sir Robert drew up, and declared he must buy one for the little maid as a remembrance of the day, and then found she was fast asleep; but he nevertheless purchased a black-beaded chaplet, giving for it one of the sorely-clipped coins of King Henry.
"Prithee let me have one likewise, holy Sir," quoth Richard, "in memory of the talk that hath taught me so much of the import of my crusading vow."
"Thou shalt bring me for it one of the olive of Bethlehem," said Sir Robert; "I have given away all I brought from the East. They are so great a boon to our poor sick folk that I wish I had brought twice as many, but to me they have always a Saracen look. Your Moslem always fingers one much of the same fashion as he parleys."
Ludgate, freshly built, and adorned with new figures to represent the fabulous King Lud, was not yet closed for the night; and the party came forth beyond the walls, with the desolate Moorfields to their left, and before them a number of rising villages clustered round their churches.
The Hospital, a grand fortified monastery, was already to be seen over the fields; but Sir Robert, sending home the rest of his troop, turned aside with Richard and Brother Hilary towards the common, with a border of cottages around it, which went by the name of Bednall Green.
Brother Hilary knew the hut inhabited by Blind Hal, and led the way to it. Low and mud-built, thatched, and with a wattled door, it had a wretched appearance; but the old woman who came to the door was not ill clad. "Blessings on you, holy Father!" she cried; "do I see the child, my lamb, my lady-bird! Would that she may come in time to cheer her poor father!"
"How is it with him then, Gammer?" demanded Sir Robert, springing to the ground with the alacrity of a doctor anxious about his patient.
"Ill, very ill, Sir. Whether the horse's feet hurt his old wound, or whether it be the loss of the child, he hath done nought but moan and rave, and lie as one dead ever since they brought him home. He is lying in one of the dead swoons now! It were not well that the child saw him."
But Bessee, awakening with a cry of joy, saw her borne, and struggled to go to her father, whose name she called on with all her might, disregarding the caresses of the old woman, and the endeavour made by Richard to restrain without alarming her, while Sir Robert went into the hut to endeavour to restore the sufferer.
Suddenly a cry broke from within; and Richard, turning at the voice, beheld the blind man sitting up on his pallet with arms outstretched. "My child!--My Father! hast thou brought her to visit me in limbo?" he cried.
"He raves!" said Richard, using his strength to withhold the child, who broke out into a shriek.
"Nay, nay! she doth not abide here!" he exclaimed. "Her spirit is pure! My sins are not visited on her beyond the grave!"
"Thou art on the earthly side of the grave still, my son," said Sir Robert, at the same time as Bessee sprang from Richard, and nestled on his breast, clinging to his neck.
"My babe--my Bessee!" he exclaimed, gathering her close to him. "Living, living, indeed! Yet how may it be! Surely this is the other world. That voice sounds not among the living!"
"It is the voice of the youth who saved thy child," said the Grand Prior.
"Speak again! Let him speak again!" implored the beggar.
"Can I do aught for you, good man?" asked Richard.
Again there was a strange start and thrill of amazement.
"Only for Heaven's sake tell me who thou art!"
"A page of Prince Edward's good man. I am called Richard Fowen! And who, for Heaven's sake, are you?" added Richard, as Leonillo, who had been smelling about and investigating, threw himself on the blind man in a transport of caresses. "Off, Leon--off!" cried Richard. "It is but a dog!--Fear not, little one!--Tell me, tell me," he added, trembling, as he knelt before the miserable object, holding back the eager Leonillo with one arm round his neck, "who art thou, thou ghost of former times?"
"Knowst me not, Richard?" returned a suppressed voice in Provencal.
"Henry! Henry!" exclaimed Richard, and fell upon the foot of the low bed, weeping bitterly. "Is it come to this?"
"Ay, even to this," said the blind man, "that two sons of one father meet unknown--one with a changed name, the other with none at all, neither with the honoured one they were born to."
"Alack, alack!" was all Richard could say at the first moment, as he lifted himself up to look again at the first-born of his parents, the head of the brave troop of brethren, the gay, handsome, imperious young Lord de Montfort, whose proud head and gallant bearing he had looked at with a younger brother's imitative deference. What did he see but a wreck of a man, sitting crouched on the wretched bed, the left arm a mere stump, a bandage where the bright sarcastic eyes used to flash forth their dark fire, deep scars on all the small portion of the face that was visible through the over-grown masses of hair and beard, so plentifully sprinkled with white, that it would have seemed incredible that this man was but eight months older than the Prince, whose rival he had always been in personal beauty and activity. The beautiful child, clasped close to his breast, her face buried on his shoulder under his shaggy locks, was a strange contrast to his appearance, but only added to the look of piteous helplessness and desolation, as she hung upon him in her alarm at the agitation around her.
Richard had long been accustomed to think of his brother as dead; but such a spectacle as this was far more terrible to him, and his cheek blanched at the shock, as he gasped again, "Thou here, and thus! thou whom I thought slain!"
"Deem me so still," said his brother, "even as I deem the royal minion dead to me."
"Nay, Henry, thou knowst not."
"Who is present?" interrupted the blind man, raising his head and tossing back his hair with a gesture that for the first time gave Richard a sense that his eldest brother was indeed before him. "Methought I heard another voice."
"I am here, fair son," replied the old knight, "Father Robert of the Hospital! I will either leave thee, or keep thy secret as though it were thy shrift; but thou art sore spent, and mayst scarce talk more."
"Weariness and pain are past, Father, with my little one again in my bosom," said Henry; "and there are matters that must be spoken between me and this young brother of mine ere he quits this hut; and his voice resumed its old authoritative tone towards Richard. "Said you that he had saved my child?"
"He drew me from the river, Father," said Bessee looking up. "There was nothing to stand on, and it was so cold! And he took me in his arms and pulled me out, and put me in a boat; and the lady pulled off my blue coat, and put this one on me. Feel it, Father; oh, so pretty, so warm!"
"It was the Princess," said Richard; but Henry, not noticing, continued,
"Thou hast earned my pardon, Richard," and held out his remaining hand, somewhere towards the height where his brother's used to be.
Sir Robert smiled, saying, "Thou dost miscalculate thy brother's stature, son." And at the same moment Richard, who was now little short of his Cousin Edward in height, was kneeling by Henry, accepting and returning his embrace with agitation and gratitude, such as showed how their relative positions in the family still maintained their force; but Richard still asserted his independence so as to say, "When you have heard all, brother you will see that there is no need of pardoning me."
Henry, however, as perhaps Sir Robert had foreseen, instead of answering put his hand to his side, and sank back in a paroxysm of pain, ending in another swoon. The child stood by, quiet and frightened but too much used to similar occurrences to be as much terrified as was Richard, who thought his brother dying; but calling in the serving-brother, the old Hospitalier did all that was needed, and the blind man presently recovered and explained in a feeble voice that he had been jostled, thrown down, and trodden on, at the moment when he lost his hold of his little daughter; and this was evidently renewing his sufferings from the effect of an injury received in battle. "And what took thee there, son?" said Sir Robert, somewhat sharply.
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