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- The Battle Of The Strong [A Romance of Two Kingdoms], Volume 6. - 1/12 -
THE BATTLE OF THE STRONG
[A ROMANCE OF TWO KINGDOMS]
By Gilbert Parker
The bell on the top of the Cohue Royale clattered like the tongue of a scolding fishwife. For it was the fourth of October, and the opening of the Assise d'Heritage.
This particular session of the Court was to proceed with unusual spirit and importance, for after the reading of the King's Proclamation, the Royal Court and the States were to present the formal welcome of the island to Admiral Prince Philip d'Avranche, Duc de Bercy; likewise to offer a bounty to all Jerseymen enlisting under him.
The island was en fete. There had not been such a year of sensations since the Battle of Jersey. Long before chicane--chicane ceased clanging over the Vier Marchi the body of the Court was filled. The Governor, the Bailly, the jurats, the seigneurs and the dames des fiefs, the avocats with their knowledge of the ancient custom of Normandy and the devious inroads made upon it by the customs of Jersey, the military, all were in their places; the officers of the navy had arrived, all save one and he was to be the chief figure of this function. With each arrival the people cheered and the trumpets blared. The islanders in the Vier Marchi turned to the booths for refreshments, or to the printing-machine set up near La Pyramide, and bought halfpenny chapsheets telling of recent defeats of the French; though mostly they told in ebullient words of the sea-fight which had made Philip d'Avranche an admiral, and of his elevation to a sovereign dukedom. The crowds restlessly awaited his coming now.
Inside the Court there was more restlessness still. It was now many minutes beyond the hour fixed. The Bailly whispered to the Governor, the Governor to his aide, and the aide sought the naval officers present; but these could give no explanation of the delay. The Comtesse Chantavoine was in her place of honour beside the Attorney-General--but Prince Philip and his flag-lieutenant came not.
The Comtesse Chantavoine was the one person outwardly unmoved. What she thought, who could tell? Hundreds of eyes scanned her face, yet she seemed unconscious of them, indifferent to them. What would not the Bailly have given for her calmness! What would not the Greffier have given for her importance! She drew every eye by virtue of something which was more than the name of Duchesse de Bercy. The face, the bearing, had an unconscious dignity, a living command and composure: the heritage, perhaps, of a race ever more fighters than courtiers, rather desiring good sleep after good warfare than luxurious peace.
The silence, the tension grew painful. A whole half hour had the Court waited beyond its time. At last, however, cheers arose outside, and all knew that the Prince was coming. Presently the doors were thrown open, two halberdiers stepped inside, and an officer of the Court announced Admiral his Serene Highness Prince Philip d'Avranche, Duc de Bercy.
"Oui-gia, think of that!" said a voice from somewhere in the hall.
Philip heard it, and he frowned, for he recognised Dormy Jamais's voice. Where it came from he knew not, nor did any one; for the daft one was snugly bestowed above a middle doorway in what was half balcony, half cornice.
When Philip had taken his place beside the Comtesse Chantavoine, came the formal opening of the Cour d'Heritage.
The Comtesse's eyes fixed themselves upon Philip. There was that in his manner which puzzled and evaded her clear intuition. Some strange circumstance must have delayed him, for she saw that his flag-lieutenant was disturbed, and this she felt sure was not due to delay alone. She was barely conscious that the Bailly had been addressing Philip, until he had stopped and Philip had risen to reply.
He had scarcely begun speaking when the doors were suddenly thrown open again, and a woman came forward quickly. The instant she entered Philip saw her, and stopped speaking. Every one turned.
It was Guida. In the silence, looking neither to right nor left, she advanced almost to where the Greffier sat, and dropping on her knee and looking up to the Bailly and the jurats, stretched out her hands and cried:
"Haro, haro! A l'aide, mon Prince, on me fait tort!"
If one rose from the dead suddenly to command them to an awed obedience, Jerseymen could not be more at the mercy of the apparition than at the call of one who cries in their midst, "Haro! Haro!"--that ancient relic of the custom of Normandy and Rollo the Dane. To this hour the Jerseyman maketh his cry unto Rollo, and the Royal Court--whose right to respond to this cry was confirmed by King John and afterwards by Charles--must listen, and every one must heed. That cry of Haro makes the workman drop his tools, the woman her knitting, the militiaman his musket, the fisherman his net, the schoolmaster his birch, and the ecrivain his babble, to await the judgment of the Royal Court.
Every jurat fixed his eye upon Guida as though she had come to claim his life. The Bailly's lips opened twice as though to speak, but no words came. The Governor sat with hands clinched upon his chairarm. The crowd breathed in gasps of excitement. The Comtesse Chantavoine looked at Philip, looked at Guida, and knew that here was the opening of the scroll she had not been able to unfold. Now she should understand that something which had made the old Duc de Bercy with his last breath say, Don't be afraid!
Philip stood moveless, his eyes steady, his face bitter, determined. Yet there was in his look, fixed upon Guida, some strange mingling of pity and purpose. It was as though two spirits were fighting in his face for mastery. The Countess touched him upon the arm, but he took no notice. Drawing back in her seat she looked at him and at Guida, as one might watch the balances of justice weighing life and death. She could not read this story, but one glance at the faces of the crowd round her made her aware that here was a tale of the past which all knew in little or in much.
"Haro! haro! A l'aide, mon Prince, on me fait tort!" What did she mean, this woman with the exquisite face, alive with power and feeling, indignation and appeal? To what prince did she cry?--for what aid? who trespassed upon her?
The Bailly now stood up, a frown upon his face. He knew what scandal had said concerning Guida and Philip. He had never liked Guida, for in the first days of his importance she had, for a rudeness upon his part meant as a compliment, thrown his hat--the Lieutenant-Bailly's hat--into the Fauxbie by the Vier Prison. He thought her intrusive thus to stay these august proceedings of the Royal Court, by an appeal for he knew not what.
"What is the trespass, and who the trespasser?" asked the Bailly sternly.
Guida rose to her feet.
"Philip d'Avranche has trespassed," she said. "What Philip d'Avranche, mademoiselle?" asked the Bailly in a rough, ungenerous tone.
"Admiral Philip d'Avranche, known as his Serene Highness the Duc de Bercy, has trespassed on me," she answered.
She did not look at Philip, her eyes were fixed upon the Bailly and the jurats.
The Bailly whispered to one or two jurats. "Wherein is the trespass?" asked the Bailly sharply. "Tell your story."
After an instant's painful pause, Guida told her tale.
"Last night at Plemont," she said in a voice trembling a little at first but growing stronger as she went on, "I left my child, my Guilbert, in his bed, with Dormy Jamais to watch beside him, while I went to my boat which lies far from my hut. I left Dormy Jamais with the child because I was afraid--because I had been afraid, these three days past, that Philip d'Avranche would steal him from me. I was gone but half an hour; it was dark when I returned. I found the door open, I found Dormy Jamais lying unconscious on the floor, and my child's bed empty. My child was gone. He was stolen from me by Philip d'Avranche, Duc de Bercy."
"What proof have you that it was the Duc de Bercy?" asked the Bailly.
"I have told your honour that Dormy Jamais was there. He struck Dormy Jamais to the ground, and rode off with my child."
The Bailly sniffed.
"Dormy Jamais is a simpleton--an idiot."
"Then let the Prince speak," she answered quickly. She turned and looked Philip in the eyes. He did not answer a word. He had not moved since she entered the court-room. He kept his eyes fixed on her, save for one or two swift glances towards the jurats. The crisis of his life had come. He was ready to meet it now: anything would be better than all he had gone through during the past ten days. In mad impulse he had stolen the child, with the wild belief that through it he could reach Guida, could bring her to him. For now this woman who despised him, hated him, he desired more than all else in the world. Ambition has her own means of punishing. For her gifts of place or fortune she puts some impossible hunger in the soul of the victim which leads him at last to his own destruction. With all the world conquered there is still some mystic island of which she whispers, and to gain this her votary risks all--and loses all.
The Bailly saw by Philip's face that Guida had spoken truth. But he whispered with the jurats eagerly, and presently he said with brusque decision:
"Our law of Haro may only apply to trespass upon property. Its intent is merely civil."
Which having said he opened and shut his mouth with gusto, and sat back as though expecting Guida to retire.
"Your law of Haro, monsieur le Bailly!" Guida answered with flashing eyes, her voice ringing out fearlessly. "Your law of Haro! The law of Haro comes from the custom of Normandy, which is the law of Jersey. You make its intent this, you make it that, but nothing can alter the law,
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