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- The Prince and the Page - 3/37 -
"None that will serve with me," stoutly responded Adam.
"That shall we see," was the brief answer.
And he signed to his prisoners to move on before him, taking care so to interpose his stately person between them, that there should be no communication by word, far less by look.
CHAPTER II--THE LADY OF THE FOREST
"Behold how mercy softeneth still The haughtiest heart that beats: Pride with disdain may he answered again, But pardon at once defeats!"--S. M.
The so-called forest was in many parts mere open heath, thickly adorned by the beautiful purple ling, blending into a rich carpet with the dwarf furze, and backed by thickets of trees in the hollows of the ground.
Across this wild country the tall forester conducted his captives in silence--moving along with a pace that evidently cost him so little exertion, and was so steady and even, that his companions might have supposed it slow, had they only watched it, and not been obliged to keep up with it. Light of foot as the youth was, he was at times reduced to an almost breathless run; and Adam plodded along, with strides that worked his arms and shoulders in sympathy.
After about three miles, when the boy was beginning to feel as if he must soon be in danger of lagging, they came into a dip of the ground where stood a long, low, irregular building, partly wood and partly stone, roofed with shingle in some parts, in others with heather. The last addition, a deep porch, still retained the fresh tints of the bark on the timber sides, and the purple of the ling that roofed it.
Sheds and out-houses surrounded it; dogs in couples, horses, grooms, and foresters, were congregated in the background; but around this new porch were gathered a troop of peasant women, children, and aged men. The fine bald brow and profile of the old peasant, the eager face of the curly-haired child, the worn countenance of the hard- tasked mother, were all uplifted towards the doorway, in which stood, slightly above them, a lady, with two long plaited flaxen tresses descending on her shoulders, under a black silken veil, that disclosed a youthful countenance, full of pure calm loveliness, of a simple but dignified and devotional expression, that might have befitted an angel of charity. A priest and a lady were dispensing loaves and warm garments to the throng around; but each gift was accompanied by a gentle word from the lady, framed with difficulty to their homely English tongue, but listened to even by uncomprehending ears like a strain of Church music.
Adam had expected the forester to turn aside to the group of servants, but in blank amazement saw him lead the way through the poor at the gate; and advancing to the porch with a courteous bending of his head, he said in the soft Provencal--far more familiar than English to Adam's ears--"Hast room for another suppliant, mi Dona?"
The sweet fair face lighted up with a sudden sunbeam of joy; and a musical voice replied. "Welcome, my dearest Lord: much did I need thee to hear the plaints of some of these thy lieges, which my ears can scarce understand! But why art thou alone? or rather, why thus strangely accompanied?"
"These are the captives won by my single arm, whom, according to all laws of chivalry, thine own true knight thus lays at thy feet, fair lady mine, to be disposed of at thine own gracious will and pleasure."
And a smile of such sweetness lightened his features, that a murmur of "Blessings on his comely face!" ran through the assembly; and Adam indulged in a gruff startled murmur of "'Tis the Prince, or the devil himself!" while his young master, comprehending the gesture of the Prince, and overborne by the lovely winning graces of the Princess, stepped forward, doffing his cap and bending his knee, and signing to Adam to follow his example.
"Thou hast been daring peril again!" said the Princess, holding her husband's arm, and looking up into his face with lovingly reproachful yet exulting eyes. "Yet I will not be troubled! Naught is danger to thee! And yet alone and unarmed to encounter such a sturdy savage as I see yonder! But there is blood on his brow! Let his hurt be looked to ere we speak of his fate."
"He is at thy disposal, mi Dona," returned Edward: "thou art the judge of both, and shall decide their lot when thou hast heard their tale."
"It can scarce be a very dark one," replied Eleanor, "or thou wouldst never have led them to such a judge!" Then turning to the prisoners, she began to say in her foreign English, "Follow the good father, friends--" when she broke off at fuller sight of the boy's countenance, and exclaimed in Provencal, "I know the like of that face and mien!"
"Truly dost thou know it," her husband replied; "but peace till thou hast cleared thy present court, and we can be private.--Follow the priest," he added, "and await the Princess's pleasure."
They obeyed; and the priest led them through a side-door, through which they could still hear Eleanor's sweet Castillian voice laying before her husband her difficulties in comprehending her various petitioners. The priest being English, was hardly more easily understood than his flock; and her lady spoke little but langue d'oui, the Northern French, which was as little serviceable in dealing with her Spanish and Provencal as with the rude West-Saxon- English. Edward's deep manly tones were to be heard, however, now interrogating the peasants in their own tongue, now briefly interpreting to his wife in Provencal; and a listener could easily gather that his hand was as bounteous, his heart as merciful, as hers, save where attacks on the royal game had been requited by the trouble complained of; and that in such cases she pleaded in vain.
The captives, whom her husband had surrendered to her mercy, had been led into a great, long, low hall, with rudely-timbered sides, and rough beams to the roof, with a stone floor, and great open fire, over which a man-cook was chattering French to his bewildered English scullion. An oak table, and settles on either side of it, ran the whole length of the hall; and here the priest bade the two prisoners seat themselves. They obeyed--the boy slouching his cap over his face, averting it, and keeping as far as possible from the group of servants near the fire. The priest called for bread, meat, and beer, to be set before them; and after a moment's examination of Adam's bruise, applied the simple remedy that was all it required, and left them to their meal. Adam took this opportunity to growl in an undertone, "Does HE there know you?" The reply was a nod of assent. "And you knew him?" Another nod; and then the boy, looking heedfully round, added in a quick, undertone, "Not till you were down. Then he helped me to restore you. You forgive me, Adam, now?" and he held out his hand, and wrung the rugged one of the forester.
"What should I forgive! Poor lad! you could not have striven in the Longshanks' grasp! I was a fool not to guess how it was, when I saw you not knowing which way to look!"
"Hush!" broke in the youth with uplifted hand, as a page of about his own age came daintily into the hall, gathering his green robe about him as if he disdained the neighbourhood, and holding his head high under his jaunty tall feathered cap.
"Outlaws!" he said, speaking English, but with a strong foreign accent, and as if it were a great condescension, "the gracious Princess summons you to her presence. Follow me!"
The colour rushed to the boy's temples, and a retort was on his lips, but he struggled to withhold it; and likewise speaking English, said, "I would we could have some water, and make ourselves meeter for her presence."
"Scarce worth the pains," returned the page. "As if thou couldst ever be meet for her presence! She had rather be rid of thee promptly, than wait to be regaled with thy May-day braveries--honest lad!"
Again the answer was only restrained with exceeding difficulty; and there was a scornful smile on the young prisoner's cheek, that caused the page to exclaim angrily, "What means that insolence, malapert boy?"
But there was no time for further strife; for the door was pushed open, and the Prince's voice called, "Hamlyn de Valence, why tarry the prisoners?"
"Only, Sir," returned Hamlyn, "that this young robber is offended that he hath not time to deck himself out in his last stolen gold chain, to gratify the Princess!"
"Peace, Hamlyn," returned the Prince: "thou speakest thou knowest not what.--Come hither, boy," he added, laying his hand on his young captive's shoulder, and putting him through the door with a familiarity that astonished Hamlyn--all the more, when he found that while both prisoners were admitted, he himself was excluded!
Princess Eleanor was alone in another chamber of the sylvan lodge, hung with tapestry representing hunting scenes, the floor laid with deer-skins, and deer's antlers projecting from the wall, to support the feminine properties that marked it as her special abode. She was standing when they entered; and was turning eagerly with outstretched hand and face of recognition, when Prince Edward checked her by saying, "Nay, the cause is not yet tried:" and placing her in a large carved oaken chair, where she sat with a lily-like grace and dignity, half wondering, but following his lead, he proceeded, "Sit thou there, fair dame, and exercise thy right, as judge of the two captives whom I place at thy feet."
"And you, my Lord?" she asked.
"I stand as their accuser," said Edward. "Advance, prisoners!--Now, most fair judge, what dost thou decree for the doom of Adam de Gourdon, rebel first, and since that the terror of our royal father's lieges, the robber of his treasurers, the rifler of our Cousin Pembroke's jewellery, the slayer of our deer?"
"Alas! my Lord, why put such questions to me," said Eleanor imploringly, "unless, as I would fain hope, thou dost but jest?"
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