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- Via Crucis - 30/55 -


wing, beaten out of thin silver plate.

It was at noonday under the fair autumn sun. A broad meadow, green still in patches, where the grass had not been burned brown by the early summer heat, stretched toward the Lake of Ascanius, where the ground rose in hillocks, to end abruptly in a sheer fall of thirty or forty feet to the water's edge. There were places where there was no grass at all, and where the dry gravel lay bare and dusty, yet on the whole it was a fair field for a great assembly of men on horseback and on foot. To southward the meadow rose, rolling away to the distant hills, whither the German host was already gone. The great lords, with their men-at-arms and squires, riding each in the midst of his vassal knights, went out thither to see such a sight as none had seen before, and ranged themselves by ranks around the field, so that there was room for all. And thither Gilbert went also with his man Dunstan, in the King's train, for he owed no service nor allegiance to any man there. But they waited long for the Queen.

She came at last, leading her company and mounted on a beautiful white Arab mare, the gift of the Greek Emperor, as gentle a creature as ever obeyed voice and hand, and as swift as the swiftest of the breed of Nejd. She rode alone, ten lengths before the rest, tall and straight in the saddle as any man, a lance in her right hand, while her left held the bridle low and lightly; and at the very first glance every soldier in that great field knew that there was none like her in the troop. Yet her fair ladies made a good showing and rode not badly as they cantered by, brilliant and changing as a shower of blossoms, with black eyes, and blue, and brown, fair cheeks and dark, and laughing lips not made to talk of rough deeds save to praise them in husband or lover.

Next to the Queen and before the following ranks rode one who bore the standard of Eleanor's ancient house, Saint George and the Dragon, displayed on a white ground and now for the first time quartered in a cross. The Lady Anne of Auch was very dark, and her black hair streamed like a shadow in the air behind her, while her dark eyes looked upward and onward. Splendidly handsome she was, and doubtless Eleanor had chosen her for her beauty to be standard bearer of the troop, well knowing that no living face could be compared with her own, and willing to outshine a rival whose features and form were the honour and boast of the South.

They rode in a sort of order, in squadrons of fifty each, but not in serried ranks, for they had not the skill to keep in line, though they rode well and boldly. And before each squadron rode a lady who for her beauty or her rank, or for both, was captain, and wore upon her steel cap a gilded crest. Each squadron had a colour of its own, scarlet and green and violet, and the tender shade of anemones in spring, and their mantles had been dyed with each hue in the dyeing-vats of Venice, and were lined with delicately tinted silks from the East, brought to the harbours of France by Italian traders. For the merchants of Amalfi filled the Mediterranean with their busy commerce and had quarters of their own in every Eastern city, and had then but lately founded the saintly order of the Knights Hospitallers of Saint John of Jerusalem, whence grew the noble community of the Knights of Malta, which was to live through many centuries even to our day.

Nor could the Queen's ladies have worn mail and steel and wielded sword and lance, so that at a long stone's throw they might almost have passed for men, but that cunning jewellers and artificers of Italy, and Moorish smiths from Spain, had been brought at great pains and cost to France to make such armour and weapons as had never been wrought before. The mail was of finest rings of steel sewn upon soft doeskin, fitted so closely that there was no room for gambison or jerkin; and though it might have stopped a broad arrow or turned the edge of a blade, a sharp dagger could have made a wound beneath it, and against a blow it afforded less protection than a woollen cloak. Many had little rings of gold sewn regularly in the rows of steel ones, that caught the light with a warmer sparkle, and the clasps of their mantles were of chiselled gold and silver. The trappings of each horse were matched in colour with the ladies' mantles, and the captains of the squadrons wore golden spurs.

They dropped the points of their lances as they passed the King where he sat on his horse, a stone's throw from the high shore of the lake, in the midst of his chief barons, his pale face expressing neither interest nor pleasure in what he saw, and his eyes distrustful, as always, of his Queen and her many caprices. She, when she had saluted him with a smile that was almost a laugh, rode on a little way, and then, with a sharply uttered word of command, she wheeled by the left, crossed half the broad field, and led her ladies back straight toward the King. Within five lengths of him she halted suddenly, almost bringing her horse's haunches to the ground, and keeping her seat in a way that would have done credit to a man brought up in the saddle. To tell the truth, very few of her ladies were able to perform such a feat with any ease or assurance, and in the sudden halt there was more than a little disorder, accompanied by all sorts of exclamations of annoyance and ejaculations of surprise; yet, in spite of difficulty, the whole troop came to a standstill; moreover, a hundred thousand or more of knights and soldiers on horseback and on foot were so much more interested in the looks of the riders than in their horsemanship, and the whole effect of the gay confusion, with its many colours, its gleams of gold and glint of silver, was so pretty and altogether novel, that a great cry of enthusiasm and delight rang in the sunny air. A faint flush of pleasure rose in the Queen's cheeks, and her eyes sparkled with triumph at the long applause which was on her side against the King's disapproval. She dropped the point of her lance until it almost touched the ground, and spoke to her husband in a high clear voice that was heard by many.

"I present to your Grace this troop of brave knights," she said. "In strength the advantage is yours, in numbers, you far outdo us, in age you are older, in experience there are those with you who have lived a lifetime in arms. Yet we have some skill also, and those who are old in battles know that the victory belongs to the spirit and the heart, before it is the work of the hand; and in these my knights are not behind yours."

The men who heard her words and saw the lovely light in her wondrous face threw up their right hands and shouted great cheers for her and her three hundred riders, but the King spoke no word of praise, and his face was still and sour. Again the Queen's cheek flushed.

"Your Grace leads the army of France," she said, "an army of brave men. My knights are many, and brave too, the troops of Guienne and of Poitou and of Gascony and of more than half of all the duchies that speak our tongue and owe me allegiance. But of them all, and before them all, to ride in van of this Holy War, I choose these three hundred ladies. My Lord King, and you, lords, barons, knights, and men, who have taken upon you the sign of the Cross, you, the flower of French chivalry and manhood, your comrades in arms are these, the flowers of France! Long live the King!"

She threw up her lance and caught it easily in her right hand as she uttered the cry, laughing in the King's face, and well knowing her power compared with his; and as the high young voices behind her took up the shout, the great multitude that bordered the meadow took it up also; but one word was changed, and a hundred thousand throats shouted, "Long live the Queen!"

When there was silence at last, the King looked awkwardly to his right and left as if seeking advice; but the nobles about him were watching the fair ladies, and had perhaps no counsel to offer. In the great stillness the Queen waited, still smiling triumphantly, and still he could find nothing to say, so that a soft titter ran through the ladies' ranks, whereat the King looked more sour than ever.

"Madam," he began at last. And after that he seemed to be speaking, but no one heard what he said.

Apparently with the intention of showing that he had nothing more to say,--and indeed it was of very little importance whether he had or not,--he waved his hand with a rather awkward gesture and slightly bowed his head.

"Long live the monk!" said Eleanor, audibly, as she wheeled to the right to lead her troop away.

Gilbert Warde sat on his horse in the front line of the spectators, some fifty yards from the King, and near the edge of the lake. As the Queen cantered along the line, gathering her harvest of admiration in men's faces, her eyes met the young Englishman's and recognized him. On his great Norman horse he sat half a head taller than the men on each side of him, motionless as a statue. Yet his look expressed something which she had never seen in his face till then; for, being freed from her immediate influence and at liberty to look on her merely as the loveliest sight in the world, more strangely beautiful than ever in her gleaming armour, he had not thought of concealing the pleasure he felt in watching her.

Not all the cheering of the great army, not all the light in the thousands of eyes that followed her, could have done more than bring a faint colour to her face, nor could any man in all that host have found a word to make her heart beat faster. But when she saw Gilbert the blood sank suddenly and her eyes grew darker. They lingered on him as she rode by, and turned back to him a little with drooping lids, and a slight bend of the head that had in it a grace beyond her own knowledge or intention. He, like those beside him, threw up his hand and cheered again, arid she did not see that almost before she had passed him he was looking along the ranks for another face.

The three hundred cantered slowly round half the meadow, and the cheer followed them as they went, like the moving cry of birds on the wing; and first they rode along the line of the King's men, but presently they came to the knights and soldiers of Eleanor's great vassalage, and all at once there were flowers in the air, wild flowers from the fields and autumn roses from the gardens of Nicaea, plucked early by young squires and boys, and tied into nosegays and carefully shielded from the sun, that they might be still fresh when the time came to throw them. The light blossoms scattered in the air, and the leaves were blown into the faces of the fair women as they passed. Moreover, some of the knights had silken scarfs of red and white, and waved them above their heads while they cheered and shouted. And so the troop rode round three sides of the great meadow.

But at the last side there was a change that fell like a chill upon the whole multitude of men and women, and a cry came ringing down the air that struck a discord through the triumphant notes, long, harsh, bad to hear as the howl of wild beasts when the fire licks up the grass of the wilderness behind them. At the sound, men turned their heads and looked in the direction whence it came, and many, by old instinct, slipped their left hands to the hilts of sword and dagger, and felt that each blade was loose in its sheath. As she galloped along, Queen Eleanor's white mare threw up her head sideways with a snort and swerved, almost wrenching the bridle from the Queen's hold, and at the same moment the lusty cheering broke high in the air and died fitfully away. The instinct of fear and the foreknowledge of great evil were present, unseen and terrible, and of the three hundred ladies who reined in their horses as the Queen halted, nine out of ten felt that they changed colour, scarcely knowing why. With one common impulse all turned their eyes towards the rising ground to southward.


Via Crucis - 30/55

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