Sir Nigel, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter xxii.

How Robert of Beaumanoir Came to Ploermel

Sir Robert Knolles and his men passed onward that day, looking back many a time to see the two dark columns of smoke, one thicker and one more slender, which arose from the castle and from the fort of La Brohinière. There was not an archer nor a man-at-arms who did not bear a great bundle of spoil upon his back, and Knolles frowned darkly as he looked upon them. Gladly would he have thrown it all down by the roadside, but he had tried such matters before, and he knew that it was as safe to tear a half-gnawed bone from a bear as their blood-won plunder from such men as these. In any case it was but two days’ march to Ploermel, where he hoped to bring his journey to an end.

That night they camped at Mauron, where a small English and Breton garrison held the castle. Right glad were the bowmen to see some of their own countrymen once more, and they spent the night over wine and dice, a crowd of Breton girls assisting, so that next morning their bundles were much lighter, and most of the plunder of La Brohinière was left with the men and women of Mauron. Next day their march lay with a fair sluggish river upon their right, and a great rolling forest upon their left which covered the whole country. At last toward evening the towers of Ploermel rose before them and they saw against a darkening sky the Red Cross of England waving in the wind. So blue was the river Duc which skirted the road, and so green its banks, that they might indeed have been back beside their own homely streams, the Oxford Thames or the Midland Trent, but ever as the darkness deepened there came in wild gusts the howling of wolves from the forest to remind them that they were in a land of war. So busy had men been for many years in hunting one another that the beasts of the chase had grown to a monstrous degree, until the streets of the towns were no longer safe from the wild inroads of the fierce creatures, the wolves and the bears, who swarmed around them.

It was nightfall when the little army entered the outer gate of the Castle of Ploermel and encamped in the broad Bailey yard. Ploermel was at that time the center of British power in Mid–Brittany, as Hennebon was in the West, and it was held by a garrison of five hundred men under an old soldier, Richard of Bambro’, a rugged Northumbrian, trained in that great school of warriors, the border wars. He who had ridden the marches of the most troubled frontier in Europe, and served his time against the Liddlesdale and Nithsdale raiders was hardened for a life in the field.

Of late, however, Bambro’ had been unable to undertake any enterprise, for his reinforcements had failed him, and amid his following he had but three English knights and seventy men. The rest were a mixed crew of Bretons, Hainaulters and a few German mercenary soldiers, brave men individually, as those of that stock have ever been, but lacking interest in the cause, and bound together by no common tie of blood or tradition.

On the other hand, the surrounding castles, and especially that of Josselin, were held by strong forces of enthusiastic Bretons, inflamed by a common patriotism, and full of warlike ardor. Robert of Beaumanoir, the fierce seneschal of the house of Rohan, pushed constant forays and excursions against Ploermel so that town and castle were both in daily dread of being surrounded and besieged. Several small parties of the English faction had been cut off and slain to a man, and so straitened were the others that it was difficult for them to gather provisions from the country round.

Such was the state of Bambro’s garrison when on that March evening Knolles and his men streamed into the bailey-yard of his Castle.

In the glare of the torches at the inner gate Bambro’ was waiting to receive them, a dry, hard, wizened man, small and fierce, with beady black eyes and quick furtive ways.

Beside him, a strange contrast, stood his Squire, Croquart, a German, whose name and fame as a man-at-arms were widespread, though like Robert Knolles himself he had begun as a humble page. He was a very tall man, with an enormous spread of shoulders, and a pair of huge hands with which he could crack a horse-shoe. He was slow and lethargic, save in moments of excitement, and his calm blond face, his dreamy blue eyes and his long fair hair gave him so gentle an appearance that none save those who had seen him in his berserk mood, raging, an iron giant, in the forefront of the battle, could ever guess how terrible a warrior he might be. Little knight and huge squire stood together under the arch of the donjon and gave welcome to the newcomers, whilst a swarm of soldiers crowded round to embrace their comrades and to lead them off where they might feed and make merry together.

Supper had been set in the hall of Ploermel wherein the knights and squires assembled. Bambro’ and Croquart were there with Sir Hugh Calverly, an old friend of Knolles and a fellow-townsman, for both were men of Chester. Sir Hugh was a middle-sized flaxen man, with hard gray eyes and fierce large-nosed face sliced across with the scar of a sword-cut. There too were Geoffrey D’Ardaine, a young Breton seigneur, Sir Thomas Belford, a burly thick-set Midland Englishman, Sir Thomas Walton, whose surcoat of scarlet martlets showed that he was of the Surrey Waltons, James Marshall and John Russell, young English squires, and the two brothers, Richard and Hugh Le Galliard, who were of Gascon blood. Besides these were several squires, unknown to fame, and of the new-comers, Sir Robert Knolles, Sir Thomas Percy, Nigel Loring and two other squires, Allington and Parsons. These were the company who gathered in the torch-light round the table of the Seneschal of Ploermel, and kept high revel with joyous hearts because they thought that much honor and noble deeds lay before them.

But one sad face there was at the board, and that belonged to him at the head of it. Sir Robert Bambro’ sat with his chin leaning upon his hand and his eyes downcast upon the cloth, whilst all round him rose the merry clatter of voices, everyone planning some fresh enterprise which might now be attempted. Sir Robert Knolles was for an immediate advance upon Josselin. Calverly thought that a raid might be made into the South where the main French power lay. Others spoke of an attack upon Vannes.

To all these eager opinions Bambro’ listened in a moody silence, which he broke at last by a fierce execration which drew a hushed attention from the company. “Say no more, fair sirs,” he cried; “for indeed your words are like so many stabs in my heart. All this and more we might indeed have done. But of a truth you are too late.”

“Too late?’” cried Knolles. “What mean you, Richard?”

“Alas; that I should have to say it, but you and all these fair soldiers might be back in England once more for all the profit that I am like to have from your coming. Saw you a rider on a white horse ere you reached the Castle?”

“Nay, I saw him not?”

“He came by the western road from Hennebon. Would that he had broken his neck ere he came here. Not an hour ago he left his message and now hath ridden on to warn the garrison of Malestroit. A truce has been proclaimed for a year betwixt the French King and the English, and he who breaks it forfeits life and estate.”

“A truce!” Here was an end to all their fine dreams. They looked blankly at each other all round the table, whilst Croquart brought his great fist down upon the board until the glasses rattled again. Knolles sat with clenched hands as if he were a figure of stone, while Nigel’s heart turned cold and heavy within him. A truce! Where then was his third deed, and how might he return without it?

Even as they sat in moody silence there was the call of a bugle from somewhere out in the darkness.

Sir Richard looked up with surprise. “We are not wont to be summoned after once the portcullis is up,” said he. “Truce or no truce, we must let no man within our walls until we have proved him. Croquart, see to it!”

The huge German left the room. The company were still seated in despondent silence when he returned.

“Sir Richard,” said he, “the brave knight Robert of Beaumanoir and his Squire William de Montaubon are without the gate, and would fain have speech with you.”

Bambro’ started in his chair. What could the fierce leader of the Bretons, a man who was red to the elbow with English blood, have to say to them? On what errand had he left his castle of Josselin to pay this visit to his deadly enemies?

“Are they armed?” he asked.

“They are unarmed.”

“Then admit them and bring them hither, but double the guards and take all heed against surprise.”

Places were set at the farther end of the table for these most unexpected guests. Presently the door was swung open, and Croquart with all form and courtesy announced the two Bretons, who entered with the proud and lofty air of gallant warriors and high-bred gentlemen.

Beaumanoir was a tall dark man with raven hair and long swarthy beard. He was strong and straight as a young oak, with fiery black eyes, and no flaw in his comely features save that his front teeth had been dashed from their sockets. His Squire, William of Montaubon, was also tall, with a thin hatchet face, and two small gray eyes set very close upon either side of a long fierce nose. In Beaumanoir’s expression one read only gallantry and frankness; in Montaubon’s there was gallantry also, but it was mixed with the cruelty and cunning of the wolf. They bowed as they entered, and the little English seneschal advanced with outstretched hand to meet them.

“Welcome, Robert, so long as you are beneath this roof,” said he. “Perhaps the time may come in another place when we may speak to each other in another fashion.”

“So I hope, Richard,” said Beaumanoir; “but indeed we of Josselin bear you in high esteem and are much beholden to you and to your men for all that you have done for us. We could not wish better neighbors nor any from whom more honor is to be gained. I learn that Sir Robert Knolles and others have joined you, and we are heavy-hearted to think that the orders of our Kings should debar us from attempting a venture.” He and his squire sat down at the places set for them, and filling their glasses drank to the company.

“What you say is true, Robert,” said Bambro’, “and before you came we were discussing the matter among ourselves and grieving that it should be so. When heard you of the truce?”

“Yester-evening a messenger rode from Nantes.”

“Our news came to-night from Hennebon. The King’s own seal was on the order. So I fear that for a year at least you will bide at Josselin and we at Ploermel, and kill time as we may. Perchance we may hunt the wolf together in the great forest, or fly our hawks on the banks of the Duc.”

“Doubtless we shall do all this, Richard,” said Beaumanoir; “but by Saint Cadoc it is in my mind that with good-will upon both sides we may please ourselves and yet stand excused before our Kings.”

Knights and squires leaned forward in their chairs, their eager eyes, fixed upon him. He broke into a gap-toothed smile as he looked round at the circle, the wizened seneschal, the blond giant, Nigel’s fresh young face, the grim features of Knolles, and the yellow hawk-like Calverly, all burning with the same desire.

“I see that I need not doubt the good-will,” said he, “and of that I was very certain before I came upon this errand. Bethink you then that this order applies to war but not to challenges, spear-runnings, knightly exchanges or the like. King Edward is too good a knight, and so is King John, that either of them should stand in the way of a gentleman who desires to advance himself or to venture his body for the exaltation of his lady. Is this not so?”

A murmur of eager assent rose from the table.

“If you as the garrison of Ploermel march upon the garrison of Josselin, then it is very plain that we have broken the truce and upon our heads be it. But if there be a private bickering betwixt me, for example, and this young squire whose eyes show that he is very eager for honor, and if thereafter others on each side join in and fight upon the quarrel, it is in no sense war, but rather our own private business which no king can alter.”

“Indeed, Robert,” said Bambro’, “all that you say is very good and fair.”

Beaumanoir leaned forward toward Nigel, his brimming glass in his hand. “Your name, squire?” said he.

“My name is Nigel Loring.”

“I see that you are young and eager, so I choose you as I would fain have been chosen when I was of your age.”

“I thank you, fair sir,” said Nigel. “It is great honor that one so famous as yourself should condescend to do some small deed upon me.”

“But we must have cause for quarrel, Nigel. Now here I drink to the ladies of Brittany, who of all ladies upon this earth are the most fair and the most virtuous, so that the least worthy-amongst them is far above the best of England. What say you to that, young sir?”

Nigel dipped his finger in his glass and leaning over he placed its wet impress on the Breton’s hand. “This in your face!” said he.

Beaumanoir swept off the red drop of moisture and smiled his approval. “It could not have been better done,” said he. “Why spoil my velvet paltock as many a hot-headed fool would have done. It is in my mind, young sir, that you will go far. And now, who follows up this quarrel?”

A growl ran round the table.

Beaumanoir ran his eye round and shook his head. “Alas!” said he, “there are but twenty of you here, and I have thirty at Josselin who are so eager to advance themselves that if I return without hope for all of them there will be sore hearts amongst them. I pray you, Richard, since we have been at these pains to arrange matters, that you in turn will do what you may. Can you not find ten more men?”

“But not of gentle blood.”

“Nay, it matters not, if they will only fight.”

“Of that there can be no doubt, for the castle is full of archers and men-at-arms who would gladly play a part in the matter.”

“Then choose ten,” said Beaumanoir.

But for the first time the wolf-like squire opened his thin lips. “Surely, my lord, you will not allow archers,” said he.

“I fear not any man.”

“Nay, fair sir, consider that this is a trial of weapons betwixt us where man faces man. You have seen these English archers, and you know how fast and how strong are their shafts. Bethink you that if ten of them were against us it is likely that half of us would be down before ever we came to handstrokes.”

“By Saint Cadoc, William, I think that you are right,” cried the Breton. “If we are to have such a fight as will remain in the memories of men, you will bring no archers and we no crossbows. Let it be steel upon steel. How say you then?”

“Surely we can bring ten men-at-arms to make up the thirty that you desire, Robert. It is agreed then that we fight on no quarrel of England and France, but over this matter of the ladies in which you and Squire Loring have fallen out. And now the time?”

“At once.”

“Surely at once, or perchance a second messenger may come and this also be forbidden. We will be ready with to-morrow’s sunrise.”

“Nay, a day later,” cried the Breton Squire. “Bethink you, my lord, that the three lances of Radenac would take time to come over.”

“They are not of our garrison, and they shall not have a place.”

“But, fair sir, of all the lances of Brittany —”

“Nay, William, I will not have it an hour later. To-morrow it shall be, Richard.”

“And where?”

“I marked a fitting place even as I rode here this evening. If you cross the river and take the bridle-path through the fields which leads to Josselin you come midway upon a mighty oak standing at the corner of a fair and level meadow. There let us meet at midday to-morrow.”

“Agreed!” cried Bambro’. “But I pray you not to rise, Robert! The night is still young and the spices and hippocras will soon be served. Bide with us, I pray you, for if you would fain hear the latest songs from England, these gentlemen have doubtless brought them. To some of us perchance it is the last night, so we would make it a full one.”

But the gallant Breton shook his head. “It may indeed be the last night for many,” said he, “and it is but right that my comrades should know it. I have no need of monk or friar, for I cannot think that harm will ever come beyond the grave to one who has borne himself as a knight should, but others have other thoughts upon these matters and would fain have time for prayer and penitence. Adieu, fair sirs, and I drink a last glass to a happy meeting at the midway oak.”

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