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- A March on London - 4/56 -


Edgar, on the contrary, was tall and strongly built, and had never known a day's illness. He was somewhat grave in manner, for the companionship of his father and the character of their conversations had made him older and more thoughtful than most lads of his age. He was eager for adventure, and burned for an opportunity to distinguish himself, while his enthusiasm for noble exploits and great commanders interested his quiet friend, who had the power of admiring things that he could not hope to imitate. In him, alone of his school-fellows, did Edgar find any sympathy with his own feelings as to the condition of the people. Henry Nevil laughed to scorn Edgar's advocacy of their cause. Richard Clairvaux more than once quarrelled with him seriously, and on one or two occasions they almost betook themselves to their swords. The other three, who were of less spirit, took no part in these arguments, saying that these things did not concern them, being matters for the king and his ministers, and of no interest whatever to them.

In other respects Edgar was popular with them all. His strength and his skill in arms gave him an authority that even Richard Clairvaux acknowledged in his cooler moments. Edgar visited at the houses of all their fathers, his father encouraging him to do so, as he thought that association with his equals would be a great advantage to him. As far as manners were concerned, however, the others, with the exception of Albert de Courcy, who did not need it, gained more than he did, for Mr. Ormskirk had, during his long residence at foreign universities and his close connection with professors, acquired a certain foreign courtliness of bearing that was in strong contrast to the rough bluffness of speech and manner that characterized the English of that period, and had some share in rendering them so unpopular upon the Continent, where, although their strength and fighting power made them respected, they were regarded as island bears, and their manners were a standing jest among the frivolous nobles of the Court of France.

At the house of Sir Ralph de Courcy Edgar was a special favourite. Lady de Courcy was fond of him because her son was never tired of singing his praises, and because she saw that his friendship was really a benefit to the somewhat dreamy boy. Aline, a girl of fourteen, regarded him with admiration; she was deeply attached to her brother, and believed implicitly his assertion that Edgar would some day become a valiant knight; while Sir Ralph himself liked him both for the courtesy of his bearing and the firmness and steadiness of his character, which had, he saw, a very beneficial influence over that of Albert. Sir Ralph was now content that the latter should enter the Church, but he was unwilling that his son should become what he called a mere shaveling, and desired that he should attain power and position in his profession.

The lack of ambition and energy in his son were a grievance to him almost as great as his lack of physical powers, and he saw that although, so far there was still an absence of ambition, yet the boy had gained firmness and decision from the influence of his friend, and that he was far more likely to attain eminence in the Church than he had been before. He was himself surprised that the son of a man whose pursuits he despised should have attained such proficiency with his weapons--a matter which he had learned, when one day he had tried his skill with Edgar in a bout with swords--and he recognized that with his gifts of manner, strength and enthusiasm for deeds of arms, he was likely one day to make a name for himself.

Whenever, therefore, Edgar rode over to Sir Ralph's he was certain of a hearty welcome from all. As to the lad's opinions as to the condition of the peasantry--opinions which he would have scouted as monstrous on the part of a gentleman--Sir Ralph knew nothing, Albert having been wise enough to remain silent on the subject, the custom of the times being wholly opposed to anything like a free expression of opinion on any subject from a lad to his elders.

"It is quite a time since you were here last, Master Ormskirk," Lady De Courcy said when he entered. "Albert so often goes up for a talk with you when he has finished his studies at the monastery that you are forgetting us here."

"I crave your pardon, Mistress De Courcy," Edgar said; "but, indeed, I have been working hard, for my father has obtained for me a good master for the sword--a Frenchman skilled in many devices of which my English teachers were wholly ignorant. He has been teaching some of the young nobles in London, and my father, hearing of his skill, has had him down here, at a heavy cost, for the last month, as he was for the moment without engagements in London. It was but yesterday that he returned. Naturally, I have desired to make the utmost of the opportunity, and most of my time has been spent in the fencing-room."

"And have you gained much by his instruction?" Sir Ralph asked.

"I hope so, Sir Ralph. I have tried my best, and he has been good enough to commend me warmly, and even told my father that I was the aptest pupil that he had."

"I will try a bout with you presently," the knight said. "It is nigh two years since we had one together, and my arm is growing stiff for want of practice, though every day I endeavour to keep myself in order for any opportunity or chance that may occur, by practising against an imaginary foe by hammering with a mace at a corn-sack swinging from a beam. Methinks I hit it as hard as of old, but in truth I know but little of the tricks of these Frenchmen. They availed nothing at Poictiers against our crushing downright blows. Still, I would gladly see what their tricks are like."

CHAPTER II

A FENCING BOUT

After he had talked for a short time with Mistress De Courcy, Edgar went to the fencing-room with Sir Ralph, and they there put on helmets and quilted leather jerkins, with chains sewn on at the shoulders.

"Now, you are to do your best," Sir Ralph said, as he handed a sword to Edgar, and took one himself.

So long as they played gently Edgar had all the advantage.

"You have learned your tricks well," Sir Ralph said, good-temperedly, "and, in truth, your quick returns puzzle me greatly, and I admit that were we both unprotected I should have no chance with you, but let us see what you could do were we fighting in earnest," and he took down a couple of suits of complete body armour from the wall.

Albert, who was looking on, fastened the buckles for both of them.

"Ah, you know how the straps go," Sir Ralph said, in a tone of satisfaction. "Well, it is something to know that, even if you don't know what to do with it when you have got it on. Now, Master Edgar, have at you."

Edgar stood on the defence, but, strong as his arm was from constant exercise, he had some difficulty to save his head from the sweeping blows that Sir Ralph rained upon it.

"By my faith, young fellow," Sir Ralph said as, after three or four minutes, he drew back breathless from his exertions, "your muscles seem to be made of iron, and you are fit to hold your own in a serious _mle_. You were wrong not to strike, for I know that more than once there was an opening had you been quick."

Edgar was well aware of the fact, but he had not taken advantage of it, for he felt that at his age it was best to abstain from trying to gain a success that could not be pleasant for the good knight.

"Well, well, we will fight no more," the latter said.

When Albert had unbuckled his father's armour and hung it up, Edgar said: "Now, Albert, let us have a bout."

The lad coloured hotly, and the knight burst into a hearty laugh.

"You might as soon challenge my daughter Aline. Well, put on the jerkin, Albert; it were well that you should feel what a poor creature a man is who has never had a sword in his hand."

Albert silently obeyed his father's orders and stood up facing Edgar. They were about the same height, though Albert looked slim and delicate by the side of his friend.

"By St. George!" his father exclaimed, "you do not take up a bad posture, Albert. You have looked at Edgar often enough at his exercises to see how you ought to place yourself. I have never seen you look so manly since the day you were born. Now, strike in."

Sir Ralph's surprise at his son's attitude grew to amazement as the swords clashed together, and he saw that, although Edgar was not putting out his full strength and skill, his son, instead of being scarce able, as he had expected, to raise the heavy sword, not only showed considerable skill, but even managed to parry some of the tricks of the weapon to which he himself had fallen a victim.

"Stop, stop!" he said, at last. "Am I dreaming, or has someone else taken the place of my son? Take off your helmet. It is indeed Albert!" he said, as they uncovered. "What magic is this?"

"It is a little surprise that we have prepared for you, Sir Ralph," Edgar said, "and I trust that you will not be displeased. Two years ago I persuaded Albert that there was no reason why even a priest should not have a firm hand and a steady eye, and that this would help him to overcome his nervousness, and would make him strong in body as well as in arm. Since that time he has practised with me almost daily after he had finished his studies at St. Alwyth, and my masters have done their best for him. Though, of course, he has not my strength, as he lacks the practice I have had, he has gained wonderfully of late, and would in a few years match me in skill, for what he wants in strength he makes up in activity."

"Master Ormskirk," the knight said, "I am beholden to you more than I can express. His mother and I have observed during the last two years that he has gained greatly in health and has widened out in the shoulders. I understand now how it has come about. We have never questioned him about it; indeed, I should as soon have thought of asking him whether he had made up his mind to become king, as whether he had begun to use a sword. Why, I see that you have taught him already some of the tricks that you have just learnt."

"I have not had time to instruct him in many of them, Sir Ralph, but I showed him one or two, and he acquired them so quickly that in another month I have no doubt he will know them as well as I do."

"By St. George, you have done wonders, Edgar. As for you, Albert, I am as pleased as if I had heard that the king had made me an earl. Truly, indeed, did Master Ormskirk tell you that it would do you good to learn to use a sword. 'Tis not a priest's weapon--although many a priest and bishop have ridden to battle before now--but it has improved your health and


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