Sir Nigel, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter xv.

How the Red Ferret Came to Cosford

The old chronicler in his “Gestes du Sieur Nigel” has bewailed his broken narrative, which rose from the fact that out of thirty-one years of warfare no less than seven were spent by his hero at one time or another in the recovery from his wounds or from those illnesses which arose from privation and fatigue. Here at the very threshold of his career, on the eve of a great enterprise, this very fate befell him.

Stretched upon a couch in a low-roofed and ill-furnished chamber, which looks down from under the machicolated corner turret upon the inner court of the Castle of Calais, he lay half-unconscious and impotent, while great deeds were doing under his window. Wounded in three places, and with his head splintered by the sharp pommel of the Ferret’s mace, he hovered betwixt life and death, his shattered body drawing him downward, his youthful spirit plucking him up.

As in some strange dream he was aware of that deed of arms within the courtyard below. Dimly it came back to his memory afterwards the sudden startled shout, the crash of metal, the slamming of great gates, the roar of many voices, the clang, clang, clang, as of fifty lusty smiths upon their anvils, and then at last the dwindling of the hubbub, the low groans and sudden shrill cries to the saints, the measured murmur of many voices, the heavy clanking of armored feet.

Sometime in that fell struggle he must have drawn his weakened body as far as the narrow window, and hanging to the iron bars have looked down on the wild scene beneath him. In the red glare of torches held from windows and from roof he saw the rush and swirl of men below, the ruddy light shining back from glowing brass and gleaming steel. As a wild vision it came to him afterward, the beauty and the splendor, the flying lambrequins, the jeweled crests, the blazonry and richness of surcoat and of shield, where sable and gules, argent and vair, in every pattern of saltire, bend or chevron, glowed beneath him like a drift of many-colored blossoms, tossing, sinking, stooping into shadow, springing into light. There glared the blood-red gules of Chandos, and he saw the tall figure of his master, a thunderbolt of war, raging in the van. There too were the three black chevrons on the golden shield which marked the noble Manny. That strong swordsman must surely be the royal Edward himself, since only he and the black-armored swift-footed youth at his side were marked by no symbol of heraldry. “Manny! Manny! George for England!” rose the deep-throated bay, and ever the gallant counter-cry: “A Chargny! A Chargny! Saint Denis for France!” thundered amid the clash and thudding of the battle.

Such was the vague whirling memory still lingering in Nigel’s mind when at last the mists cleared away from it and he found himself weak but clear on the low couch in the corner turret. Beside him, crushing lavender betwixt his rough fingers and strewing it over floor and sheets, was Aylward the archer. His longbow leaned at the foot of the bed, and his steel cap was balanced on the top of it, while he himself, sitting in his shirt sleeves, fanned off the flies and scattered the fragrant herbs over his helpless master.

“By my hilt!” he cried with a sudden shout, every tooth in his head gleaming with joy, “I thank the Virgin and all the saints for this blessed sight! I had not dared to go back to Tilford had I lost you. Three weeks have you lain there and babbled like a babe, but now I see in your eyes that you are your own man again.”

“I have indeed had some small hurt,” said Nigel feebly; “but it is shame and sorrow that I should lie here if there is work for my hands. Whither go you, archer?”

“To tell the good Sir John that you are mending.”

“Nay, bide with me a little longer, Aylward. I can call to mind all that has passed. There was a bickering of small boats, was there not, and I chanced upon a most worthy person and exchanged handstrokes with him? He was my prisoner, was he not?”

“He was, fair sir.”

“And where is he now?”

“Below in the castle.”

A smile stole over Nigel’s pale face. “I know what I will do with him,” said he.

“I pray you to rest, fair sir,” said Aylward anxiously. “The King’s own leech saw you this morning, and he said that if the bandage was torn from your head you would surely die.”

“Nay, good archer, I will not move. But tell me what befell upon the boat?”

“There is little to tell, fair sir. Had this Ferret not been his own squire and taken so long a time to don his harness it is likely that they would have had the better of us. He did not reach the battle till his comrades were on their backs. Him we took to the Marie Rose, because he was your man. The others were of no worth, so we threw them into the sea.”

“The quick and the dead?”

“Every man of them.”

“It was an evil deed.”

Aylward shrugged his shoulders. “I tried to save one boy,” said he; “but Cock Badding would not have it, and he had Black Simon and the others at his back. ‘It is the custom of the Narrow Seas,’ said they: ‘To-day for them; to-morrow for us.’— Then they tore him from his hold and cast him screaming over the side. By my hilt! I have no love for the sea and its customs, so I care not if I never set foot on it again when it has once borne me back to England.”

“Nay, there are great happenings upon the sea, and many worthy people to be found upon ships,” said Nigel. “In all parts, if one goes far enough upon the water, one would find those whom it would be joy to meet. If one crosses over the Narrow Sea, as we have done, we come on the French who are so needful to us; for how else would we win worship? Or if you go south, then in time one may hope to come to the land of the unbelievers, where there is fine skirmishing and much honor for him who will venture his person. Bethink you, archer, how fair a life it must be when one can ride forth in search of advancement with some hope of finding many debonair cavaliers upon the same quest, and then if one be overborne one has died for the faith, and the gates of Heaven are open before you. So also the sea to the north is a help to him who seeks honor, for it leads to the country of the Eastlanders and to those parts where the heathen still dwell who turn their faces from the blessed Gospel. There also a man might find some small deeds to do, and by Saint Paul! Aylward, if the French hold the truce and the good Sir John permits us, I would fain go down into those parts. The sea is a good friend to the cavalier, for it takes him where he may fulfil his vows.”

Aylward shook his head, for his memories were too recent; but he said nothing, because at this instant the door opened and Chandos entered. With joy in his face he stepped forward to the couch and took Nigel’s hand in his. Then he whispered a word in Aylward’s ear, who hurried from the room.

Pardieu! this is a good sight,” said the knight. “I trust that you will soon be on your feet again.”

“I crave your pardon, my honored lord, that I have been absent from your side,” said Nigel.

“In truth my heart was sore for you, Nigel; for you have missed such a night as comes seldom in any man’s life. All went even as we had planned. The postern gate was opened, and a party made their way in; but we awaited them, and all were taken or slain. But the greater part of the French had remained without upon the plain of Nieullet, so we took horse and went out against them. When we drew near them they were surprised, but they made good cheer among themselves, calling out to each other: ‘If we fly we lose all. It is better to fight on, in the hopes that the day may be ours.’ This was heard by our people in the van, who cried out to them: ‘By Saint George! you speak truth. Evil befall him who thinks of flying!’ So they held their ground like worthy people for the space of an hour, and there were many there whom it is always good to meet: Sir Geoffrey himself, and Sir Pepin de Werre, with Sir John de Landas, old Ballieul of the Yellow Tooth, and his brother Hector the Leopard. But above all Sir Eustace de Ribeaumont was at great pains to meet us worthily, and he was at handstrokes with the King for a long time. Then, when we had slain or taken them, all the prisoners were brought to a feast which was ready for them, and the knights of England waited upon them at the table and made good cheer with them. And all this, Nigel, we owe to you.”

The Squire flushed with pleasure at the words. “Nay, most honored lord, it was but a small thing which I have been able to do. But I thank God and our Lady that I have done some service, since it has pleased you to take me with you to the wars. Should it chance —”

But the words were cut short upon Nigel’s lips, and he lay back with amazed eyes staring from his pallid face. The door of his little chamber had opened, and who was this, the tall stately man with the noble presence, the high forehead, the long handsome face, the dark, brooding eyes — who but the noble Edward of England?

“Ha, my little cock of Tilford Bridge, I still bear you in mind,” said he. “Right glad I was to hear that you had found your wits again, and I trust that I have not helped to make you take leave of them once more.”

Nigel’s stare of astonishment had brought a smile to the King’s lips. Now the Squire stammered forth some halting words of gratitude at the honor done to him.

“Nay, not a word,” said the King. “But in sooth it is a joy to my heart to see the son of my old comrade Eustace Loring carry himself so bravely. Had this boat got before us with news of our coming, then all our labor had been in vain, and no Frenchman ventured to Calais that night. But above all I thank you for that you have delivered into my hands one whom I had vowed to punish in that he has caused us more scathe by fouler means than any living man. Twice have I sworn that Peter the Red Ferret shall hang, for all his noble blood and coat-armor, if ever he should fall into my hands. Now at last his time has come; but I would not put him to death until you, who had taken him, could be there to see it done. Nay, thank me not, for I could do no less, seeing that it is to you that I owe him.”

But it was not thanks which Nigel was trying to utter. It was hard to frame his words, and yet they must be said. “Sire,” he murmured, “it ill becomes me to cross your royal will —”

The dark Plantagenet wrath gathered upon the King’s high brow and gloomed in his fierce deep-set eyes. “By God’s dignity! no man has ever crossed it yet and lived unscathed. How now, young sir, what mean such words, to which we are little wont? Have a care, for this is no light thing which you venture.”

“Sire,” said Nigel, “in all matters in which I am a free man I am ever your faithful liege, but some things there are which may not be done.”

“How?” cried the King. “In spite of my will?”

“In spite of your will, sire,” said Nigel, sitting up on his couch, with white face and blazing eyes.

“By the Virgin!” the angry King thundered, “we are come to a pretty pass! You have been held too long at home, young man. The overstabled horse will kick. The unweathered hawk will fly at check. See to it, Master Chandos! He is thine to break, and I hold you to it that you break him. And what is it that Edward of England may not do, Master Loring?”

Nigel faced the King with a face as grim as his own. “You may not put to death the Red Ferret.”

Pardieu! And why?”

“Because he is not thine to slay, sire. Because he is mine. Because I promised him his life, and it is not for you, King though you be, to constrain a man of gentle blood to break his plighted word and lose his honor.”

Chandos laid his soothing hand upon his Squire’s shoulder. “Excuse him, sire; he is weak from his wounds,” said he. “Perhaps we have stayed overlong, for the leech has ordered repose.”

But the angry King was not easily to be appeased. “I am not wont to be so browbeat,” said he hotly. “This is your Squire, Master John. How comes it that you can stand there and listen to his pert talk, and say no word to chide him? Is this how you guide your household? Have you not taught him that every promise given is subject to the King’s consent, and that with him only lie the springs of life and death? If he is sick, you at least are hale. Why stand you there in silence?”

“My liege,” said Chandos gravely, “I have served you for over a score of years, and have shed my blood through as many wounds in your cause, so that you should not take my words amiss. But indeed I should feel myself to be no true man if I did not tell you that my Squire Nigel, though perchance he has spoken more bluntly than becomes him, is none the less right in this matter, and that you are wrong. For bethink you, sire —”

“Enough!” cried the King, more furious than ever. “Like master, like man, and I might have known why it is that this saucy Squire dares to bandy words with his sovereign lord. He does but give out what he hath taken in. John, John, you grow overbold. But this I tell you, and you also, young man, that as God is my help, ere the sun has set this night the Red Ferret will hang as a warning to all spies and traitors from the highest tower of Calais, that every ship upon the Narrow Seas, and every man for ten miles round may see him as he swings and know how heavy is the hand of the English King. Do you bear it in mind, lest you also may feel its weight!” With a glare like an angry lion he walked from the room, and the iron-clamped door clanged loudly behind him.

Chandos and Nigel looked ruefully at each other. Then the knight patted his Squire upon his bandaged head.

“You have carried yourself right well, Nigel. I could not wish for better. Fear not. All will be well.”

“My fair and honored lord,” cried Nigel, “I am heavy at heart, for indeed I could do no other, and yet I have brought trouble upon you.”

“Nay, the clouds will soon pass. If he does indeed slay this Frenchman, you have done all that lay within your power, and your mind may rest easy.”

“I pray that it will rest easy in Paradise,” said Nigel; “for at the hour that I hear that I am dishonored and my prisoner slain I tear this bandage from my head and so end all things. I will not live when once my word is broken.”

“Nay, fair son, you take this thing too heavily,” said Chandos, with a grave face. “When a man has done all he may there remains no dishonor; but the King hath a kind heart for all his hot head, and it may be that if I see him I will prevail upon him. Bethink you how he swore to hang the six burghers of this very town, and yet he pardoned them. So keep a high heart, fair son, and I will come with good news ere evening.”

For three hours, as the sinking sun traced the shadow higher and ever higher upon the chamber wall, Nigel tossed feverishly upon his couch, his ears straining for the footfall of Aylward or of Chandos, bringing news of the fate of the prisoner. At last the door flew open, and there before him stood the one man whom he least expected, and yet would most gladly have seen. It was the Red Ferret himself, free and joyous.

With swift furtive steps he was across the room and on his knees beside the couch, kissing the pendent hand. “You have saved me, most noble sir!” he cried. “The gallows was fixed and the rope slung, when the good Lord Chandos told the King that you would die by your own hand if I were slain. ‘Curse this mule-headed Squire!’ he cried. ‘In God’s name let him have his prisoner, and let him do what he will with him so long as he troubles me no more!’ So here I have come, fair sir, to ask you what I shall do.”

“I pray you to sit beside me and be at your ease,” said Nigel. “In a few words I will tell you what I would have you do. Your armor I will keep, that I may have some remembrance of my good fortune in meeting so valiant a gentleman. We are of a size, and I make little doubt that I can wear it. Of ransom I would ask a thousand crowns.”

“Nay, nay!” cried the Ferret. “It would be a sad thing if a man of my position was worth less than five thousand.”

“A thousand will suffice, fair sir, to pay my charges for the war. You will not again play the spy, nor do us harm until the truce is broken.”

“That I will swear.”

“And lastly there is a journey that you shall make.”

The Frenchman’s face lengthened. “Where you order I must go,” said he; “but I pray you that it is not to the Holy Land.”

“Nay,” said Nigel; “but it is to a land which is holy to me. You will make your way back to Southampton.”

“I know it well. I helped to burn it down some years ago.”

“I rede you to say nothing of that matter when you get there. You will then journey as though to London until you come to a fair town named Guildford.”

“I have heard of it. The King hath a hunt there.”

“The same. You will then ask for a house named Cosford, two leagues from the town on the side of a long hill.”

“I will bear it in mind.”

“At Cosford you will see a good knight named Sir John Buttesthorn, and you will ask to have speech with his daughter, the Lady Mary.”

“I will do so; and what shall I say to the Lady Mary, who lives at Cosford on the slope of a long hill two leagues from the fair town of Guildford?”

“Say only that I sent my greeting, and that Saint Catharine has been my friend — only that and nothing more. And now leave me, I pray you, for my head is weary and I would fain have sleep.”

Thus it came about that a month later on the eve of the Feast of Saint Matthew, the Lady Mary, as she walked front Cosford gates, met with a strange horseman, richly clad, a serving-man behind him, looking shrewdly about him with quick blue eyes, which twinkled from a red and freckled face. At sight of her he doffed his hat and reined his horse.

“This house should be Cosford,” said he. “Are you by chance the Lady Mary who dwells there?”

The lady bowed her proud dark head.

“Then,” said he, “Squire Nigel Loring sends you greeting and tells you that Saint Catharine has been his friend.” Then turning to his servant he cried: “Heh, Raoul, our task is done! Your master is a free man once more. Come, lad, come, the nearest port to France! Hola! Hola! Hola!” And so without a word more the two, master and man, set spurs to their horses and galloped like madmen down the long slope of Hindhead, until as she looked after them they were but two dark dots in the distance, waist-high in the ling and the bracken.

She turned back to the house, a smile upon her face. Nigel had sent her greeting. A Frenchman had brought it. His bringing it had made him a freeman. And Saint Catherine had been Nigel’s friend. It was at her shrine that he had sworn that three deeds should be done ere he should set eyes upon her again. In the privacy of her room the Lady Mary sank upon her prie-dieu and poured forth the thanks of her heart to the Virgin that one deed was accomplished; but even as she did so her joy was overcast by the thought of those two others which lay before him.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:33