Sir Nigel, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter xviii.

How Black Simon Claimed Forfeit from the King of Sark

For a day and a half the small fleet made good progress, but on the second morning, after sighting Cape de la Hague, there came a brisk land wind which blew them out to sea. It grew into a squall with rain and fog so that they were two more days beating back. Next morning they found themselves in a dangerous rock studded sea with a small island upon their starboard quarter. It was girdled with high granite cliffs of a reddish hue, and slopes of bright green grassland lay above them. A second smaller island lay beside it. Dennis the shipman shook his head as he looked.

“That is Brechou,” said he, “and the larger one is the Island of Sark. If ever I be cast away, I pray the saints that I may not be upon yonder coast!”

Knolles gazed across at it. “You say well, master-shipman,” said he. “It does appear to be a rocky and perilous spot.”

“Nay, it is the rocky hearts of those who dwell upon it that I had in my mind,” the old sailor answered. “We are well safe in three goodly vessels, but had we been here in a small craft I make no doubt that they would have already had their boats out against us.”

“Who then are these people, and how do they live upon so small and windswept an island?” asked the soldier.

“They do not live from the island, fair sir, but from what they can gather upon the sea around it. They are broken folk from all countries, justice-fliers, prison-breakers, reavers, escaped bondsmen, murderers and staff-strikers who have made their way to this outland place and hold it against all comers. There is one here who could tell you of them and of their ways, for he was long time prisoner amongst them.” The seaman pointed to Black Simon, the dark man from Norwich, who was leaning against the side lost in moody thought and staring with a brooding eye at the distant shore.

“How now, fellow?” asked Knolles. “What is this I hear? Is it indeed sooth that you have been a captive upon this island?”

“It is true, fair sir. For eight months I have been servant to the man whom they call their King. His name is La Muette, and he comes from Jersey nor is there under God’s sky a man whom I have more desire to see.”

“Has he then mishandled you?”

Black Simon gave a wry smile and pulled off his jerkin. His lean sinewy back was waled and puckered with white scars. “He has left his sign of hand upon me,” said he. “He swore that he would break me to his will, and thus he tried to do it. But most I desire to see him because he hath lost a wager to me and I would fain be paid.”

“This is a strange saying,” said Knolles. “What is this wager, and why should he pay you?”

“It is but a small matter,” Simon answered; “but I am a poor man and the payment would be welcome. Should it have chanced that we stopped at this island I should have craved your leave that I go ashore and ask for that which I have fairly won.”

Sir Robert Knolles laughed. “This business tickleth my fancy,” said he. “As to stopping at the island, this shipman tells me that we must needs wait a day and a night, for that we have strained our planks. But if you should go ashore, how will you be sure that you will be free to depart, or that you will see this King of whom you speak?”

Black Simon’s dark face was shining with a fierce joy. “Fair sir, I will ever be your debtor if you will let me go. Concerning what you ask, I know this island even as I know the streets of Norwich, as you may well believe seeing that it is but a small place and I upon it for near a year. Should I land after dark, I could win my way to the King’s house, and if he be not dead or distraught with drink I could have speech with him alone, for I know his ways and his hours and how he may be found. I would ask only that Aylward the archer may go with me, that I may have one friend at my side if things should chance to go awry.”

Knolles thought awhile. “It is much that you ask,” said he, “for by God’s truth I reckon that you and this friend of yours are two of my men whom I would be least ready to lose. I have seen you both at grips with the Spaniards and I know you. But I trust you, and if we must indeed stop at this accursed place, then you may do as you will. If you have deceived me, or if this is a trick by which you design to leave me, then God be your friend when next we meet, for man will be of small avail!”

It proved that not only the seams had to be calked but that the cog Thomas was out of fresh water. The ships moored therefore near the Isle of Brechou, where springs were to be found. There were no people upon this little patch, but over on the farther island many figures could be seen watching them, and the twinkle of steel from among them showed that they were armed men. One boat had ventured forth and taken a good look at them, but had hurried back with the warning that they were too strong to be touched.

Black Simon found Aylward seated under the poop with his back, against Bartholomew the bowyer. He was whistling merrily as he carved a girl’s face upon the horn of his bow.

“My friend,” said Simon, “will you come ashore to-night — for I have need of your help?”

Aylward crowed lustily. “Will I come, Simon? By my hilt, I shall be right glad to put my foot on the good brown earth once more. All my life I have trod it, and yet I would never have learned its worth had I not journeyed in these cursed ships. We will go on shore together, Simon, and we will seek out the women, if there be any there, for it seems a long year since I heard their gentle voices, and my eyes are weary of such faces as Bartholomew’s or thine.”

Simon’s grim features relaxed into a smile. “The only face that you will see ashore, Samkin, will bring you small comfort,” said he, “and I warn you that this is no easy errand, but one which may be neither sweet nor fair, for if these people take us our end will be a cruel one.”

“By my hilt,” said Aylward, “I am with you, gossip, wherever you may go! Say no more, therefore, for I am weary of living like a cony in a hole, and I shall be right glad to stand by you in your venture.”

That night, two hours after dark, a small boat put forth from the Basilisk. It contained Simon, Aylward and two seamen. The soldiers carried their swords, and Black Simon bore a brown biscuit-bag over his shoulder. Under his direction the rowers skirted the dangerous surf which beat against the cliffs until they came to a spot where an outlying reef formed a breakwater. Within was a belt of calm water and a shallow cover with a sloping beach. Here the boat was dragged up and the seamen were ordered to wait, while Simon and Aylward started on their errand.

With the assured air of a man who knows exactly where he is and whither he is going, the man-at-arms began to clamber up a narrow fern-lined cleft among the rocks. It was no easy ascent in the darkness, but Simon climbed on like an old dog hot upon a scent, and the panting Aylward struggled after as best he might. At last they were at the summit and the archer threw himself down upon the grass.

“Nay, Simon, I have not enough breath to blow out a candle,” said he. “Stint your haste for a minute, since we have a long night before us. Surely this man is a friend indeed, if you hasten so to see him.”

“Such a friend,” Simon answered, “that I have often dreamed of our next meeting. Now before that moon has set it will have come.”

“Had it been a wench I could have understood it,” said Aylward. “By these ten finger-bones, if Mary of the mill or little Kate of Compton had waited me on the brow of this cliff, I should have come up it and never known it was there. But surely I see houses and hear voices over yonder in the shadow?”

“It is their town,” whispered Simon. “There are a hundred as bloody-minded cutthroats as are to be found in Christendom beneath those roofs. Hark to that!”

A fierce burst of laughter came out of the darkness, followed by a long cry of pain.

“All-hallows be with us!” cried Aylward. “What is that?”

“As like as not some poor devil has fallen into their clutches, even as I did. Come this way, Samkin, for there is a peat-cutting where we may hide. Aye, here it is, but deeper and broader than of old. Now follow me close, for if we keep within it we shall find ourselves a stone cast off the King’s house.”

Together they crept along the dark cutting. Suddenly Simon seized Aylward by the shoulder and pushed him into the shadow of the bank. Crouching in the darkness, they heard footsteps and voices upon the farther side of the trench. Two men sauntered along it and stopped almost at the very spot where the comrades were lying. Aylward could see their dark figures outlined against the starry sky.

“Why should you scold, Jacques,” said one of them, speaking a strange half-French, half-English lingo. “Le diable t’emporte for a grumbling rascal. You won a woman and I got nothing. What more would you have?”

“You will have your chance off the next ship, mon garçon, but mine is passed. A woman, it is true — an old peasant out of the fields, with a face as yellow as a kite’s claw. But Gaston, who threw a nine against my eight, got as fair a little Normandy lass as ever your eyes have seen. Curse the dice, I say! And as to my woman, I will sell her to you for a firkin of Gascony.”

“I have no wine to spare, but I will give you a keg of apples,” said the other. “I had it out of the Peter and Paul, the Falmouth boat that struck in Creux Bay.”

“Well, well your apples may be the worse for keeping, but so is old Marie, and we can cry quits on that. Come round and drink a cup over the bargain.”

They shuffled onward in the darkness.

“Heard you ever such villainy?” cried Aylward, breathing fierce and hard. “Did you hear them, Simon? A woman for a keg of apples! And my heart’s root is sad for the other one, the girl of Normandy. Surely we can land to-morrow and burn all these water-rats out of their nest.”

“Nay, Sir Robert will not waste time or strength ere he reach Brittany.”

“Sure I am that if my little master Squire Loring had the handling of it, every woman on this island would be free ere another day had passed.”

“I doubt it not,” said Simon. “He is one who makes an idol of woman, after the manner of those crazy knight errants. But Sir Robert is a true soldier and hath only his purpose in view.”

“Simon,” said Aylward, “the light is not overgood and the place is cramped for sword-play, but if you will step out into the open I will teach you whether my master is a true soldier or not.”

“Tut, man! you are as foolish yourself,” said Simon. “Here we are with our work in hand, and yet you must needs fall out with me on our way to it. I say nothing against your master save that he hath the way of his fellows who follow dreams and fancies. But Knolles looks neither to right nor left and walks forward to his mark. Now, let us on, for the time passes.”

“Simon, your words are neither good nor fair. When we are back on shipboard we will speak further of this matter. Now lead on, I pray you, and let us see some more of this ten-devil island.”

For half a mile Simon led the way until they came to a large house which stood by itself. Peering at it from the edge of the cutting, Aylward could see that it was made from the wreckage of many vessels, for at each corner a prow was thrust out. Lights blazed within, and there came the sound of a strong voice singing a gay song which was taken up by a dozen others in the chorus.

“All is well, lad!” whispered Simon in great delight. “That is the voice of the King. It is the very song he used to sing. ‘Les deux filles de Pierre.’ ‘Fore God, my back tingles at the very sound of it. Here we will wait until his company take their leave.”

Hour after hour they crouched in the peat-cutting, listening to the noisy songs of the revelers within, some French, some English, and all growing fouler and less articulate as the night wore on. Once a quarrel broke out and the clamor was like a cageful of wild beasts at feeding-time. Then a health was drunk and there was much stamping and cheering.

Only once was the long vigil broken. A woman came forth from the house and walked up and down, with her face sunk upon her breast. She was tall and slender, but her features could not be seen for a wimple over her head. Weary sadness could be read in her bowed back and dragging steps. Once only they saw her throw her two hands up to Heaven as one who is beyond human aid. Then she passed slowly into the house again. A moment later the door of the hall was flung open, and a shouting stumbling throng came crowding forth, with whoop and yell, into the silent night. Linking arms and striking up a chorus, they marched past the peat-cutting, their voices dwindling slowly away as they made for their homes.

“Now, Samkin, now!” cried Simon, and jumping out from the hiding-place he made for the door. It had not yet been fastened. The two comrades sprang inside. Then Simon drew the bolts so that none might interrupt them.

A long table littered with flagons and beakers lay before them. It was lit up by a line of torches, which flickered and smoked in their iron sconces. At the farther end a solitary man was seated. His head rested upon his two hands, as if he were befuddled with wine, but at the harsh sound of the snapping bolts he raised his face and looked angrily around him. It was a strange powerful head, tawny and shaggy like a lion’s, with a tangled beard and a large harsh face, bloated and blotched with vice. He laughed as the newcomers entered, thinking that two of his boon companions had returned to finish a flagon. Then he stared hard and he passed his hand over his eyes like one who thinks he may be dreaming.

Mon Dieu!” he cried. “Who are you and whence come you at this hour of the night? Is this the way to break into our royal presence?”

Simon approached up one side of the table and Aylward up the other. When they were close to the King, the man-at-arms plucked a torch from its socket and held it to his own face. The King staggered back with a cry, as he gazed at that grim visage.

Le diable noir!” he cried. “Simon, the Englishman! What make you here?”

Simon put his hand upon his shoulder. “Sit here!” said he, and he forced the King into his seat. “Do you sit on the farther side of him, Aylward. We make a merry group, do we not? Often have I served at this table, but never did I hope to drink at it. Fill your cup, Samkin, and pass the flagon.”

The King looked from one to the other with terror in his bloodshot eyes. “What would you do?” he asked. “Are you mad, that you should come here. One shout and you are at my mercy.”

“Nay, my friend, I have lived too long in your house not to know the ways of it. No man-servant ever slept beneath your roof, for you feared lest your throat would be cut in the night-time. You may shout and shout, if it so please you. It chanced that I was passing on my way from England in those ships which lie off La Brechou, and I thought I would come in and have speech with you.”

“Indeed, Simon, I am right glad to see you,” said the King, cringing away from the fierce eyes of the soldier. “We were good friends in the past, were we not, and I cannot call to mind that I have ever done you injury. When you made your way to England by swimming to the Levantine there was none more glad in heart than I!”

“If I cared to doff my doublet I could show you the marks of what your friendship has done for me in the past,” said Simon. “It is printed on my back as clearly as on my memory. Why, you foul dog, there are the very rings upon the wall to which my hands were fastened, and there the stains upon the boards on which my blood has dripped! Is it not so, you king of butchers?”

The pirate chief turned whiter still. “It may be that life here was somewhat rough, Simon, but if I have wronged you in anyway, I will surely make amends. What do you ask?”

“I ask only one thing, and I have come hither that I may get it. It is that you pay me forfeit for that you have lost your wager.”

“My wager, Simon! I call to mind no wager.”

“But I will call it to your mind, and then I will take my payment. Often have you sworn that you would break my courage. ‘By my head!’ you have cried to me. ‘You will crawl at my feet!’ and again: ‘I will wager my head that I will tame you!’ Yes, yes, a score of times you have said so. In my heart, as I listened, I have taken up your gage. And now, dog, you have lost and I am here to claim the forfeit.”

His long heavy sword flew from its sheath. The King, with a howl of despair, flung his arms round him, and they rolled together under the table. Aylward sat with a ghastly face, and his toes curled with horror at the sight, for he was still new to scenes of strife and his blood was too cold for such a deed. When Simon rose he tossed something into his bag and sheathed his bloody sword.

“Come, Samkin, our work is well done,” said he.

“By my hilt, if I had known what it was I would have been less ready to come with you,” said the archer. “Could you not have clapped a sword in his fist and let him take his chance in the hall?”

“Nay, Samkin, if you had such memories as I, you would have wished that he should die like a sheep and not like a man. What chance did he give me when he had the power? And why should I treat him better? But, Holy Virgin, what have we here?”

At the farther end of the table a woman was standing. An open door behind her showed that she had come from the inner room of the house. By her tall figure the comrades knew that she was the same that they had already seen. Her face had once been fair, but now was white and haggard with wild dark eyes full of a hopeless terror and despair. Slowly she paced up the room, her gaze fixed not upon the comrades, but upon the dreadful thing beneath the table. Then as she stooped and was sure she burst into loud laughter and clapped her hands.

“Who shall say there is no God?” she cried. “Who shall say that prayer is unavailing? Great sir, brave sir, let me kiss that conquering hand!”

“Nay, nay, dame, stand back! Well, if you must needs have one of them, take this which is the clean one.”

“It is the other I crave — that which is red with his blood! Oh! joyful night when my lips have been wet with it! Now I can die in peace!”

“We must go, Aylward,” said Simon. “In another hour the dawn will have broken. In daytime a rat could not cross this island and pass unseen. Come, man, and at once!”

But Aylward was at the woman’s side. “Come with us, fair dame,” said he. “Surely we can, at least, take you from this island, and no such change can be for the worse.”

“Nay,” said she, “the saints in Heaven cannot help me now until they take me to my rest. There is no place for me in the world beyond, and all my friends were slain on the day I was taken. Leave me, brave men, and let me care for myself. Already it lightens in the east, and black will be your fate if you are taken. Go, and may the blessing of one who was once a holy nun go with you and guard you from danger!”

Sir Robert Knolles was pacing the deck in the early morning, when he heard the sound of oars, and there were his two night-birds climbing up the side.

“So, fellow,” said he, “have you had speech with the King of Sark?”

“Fair sir, I have seen him.”

“And he has paid his forfeit?”

“He has paid it, sir!”

Knolles looked with curiosity at the bag which Simon bore. “What carry you there?” he asked.

“The stake that he has lost.”

“What was it then? A goblet? A silver plate?”

For answer Simon opened his bag and shook it on the deck.

Sir Robert turned away with a whistle. “‘Fore God!” said he, “it is in my mind that I carry some hard men with me to Brittany.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/doyle/arthur_conan/sir-nigel/chapter18.html

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