Sir Nigel, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter xxiii.

How Thirty of Josselin Encountered Thirty of Ploermel

All night the Castle of Ploermel rang with warlike preparations, for the smiths were hammering and filing and riveting, preparing the armor for the champions. In the stable yard hostlers were testing and grooming the great war-horses, whilst in the chapel knights and squires were easing their souls at the knees of old Father Benedict.

Down in the courtyard, meanwhile, the men-at-arms had been assembled, and the volunteers weeded out until the best men had been selected. Black Simon had obtained a place, and great was the joy which shone upon his grim visage. With him were chosen young Nicholas Dagsworth, a gentleman adventurer who was nephew to the famous Sir Thomas, Walter the German, Hulbitee — a huge peasant whose massive frame gave promise which his sluggish spirit failed to fulfil — John Alcock, Robin Adey and Raoul Provost. These with three others made up the required thirty. Great was the grumbling and evil the talk amongst the archers when it was learned that none of them were to be included, but the bow had been forbidden on either side. It is true that many of them were expert fighters both with ax and with sword, but they were unused to carry heavy armor, and a half-armed man would have short shrift in such a hand-to-hand struggle as lay before them.

It was two hours after tierce, or one hour before noon, on the fourth Wednesday of Lent in the year of Christ 1351 that the men of Ploermel rode forth from their castle-gate and crossed the bridge of the Due. In front was Bambro’ with his Squire Croquart, the latter on a great roan horse bearing the banner of Ploermel, which was a black rampant lion holding a blue flag upon a field of ermine. Behind him came Robert Knolles and Nigel Loring, with an attendant at their side, who carried the pennon of the black raven. Then rode Sir Thomas Percy with his blue lion flaunting above him, and Sir Hugh Calverly, whose banner bore a silver owl, followed by the massive Belford who carried a huge iron club, weighing sixty pounds, upon his saddlebow, and Sir Thomas Walton the knight of Surrey. Behind them were four brave Anglo–Bretons, Perrot de Commelain, Le Gaillart, d’Aspremont and d’Ardaine, who fought against their own countrymen because they were partisans of the Countess of Montfort. Her engrailed silver cross upon a blue field was carried at their head. In the rear were five German or Hainault mercenaries, the tall Hulbitee, and the men-at-arms. Altogether of these combatants twenty were of English birth, four were Breton and six were of German blood.

So, with glitter of armor and flaunting of pennons, their warhorses tossing and pawing, the champions rode down to the midway oak. Behind them streamed hundreds of archers and men-at-arms whose weapons had been wisely taken from them lest a general battle should ensue. With them also went the townsfolk, men and women, together with wine-sellers, provisions merchants, armorers, grooms and heralds, with surgeons to tend the wounded and priests to shrive the dying. The path was blocked by this throng, but all over the face of the country horsemen and footmen, gentle and simple, men and women, could be seen speeding their way to the scene of the encounter.

The journey was not a long one, for presently, as they threaded their way through the fields, there appeared before them a great gray oak which spread its gnarled leafless branches over the corner of a green and level meadow. The tree was black with the peasants who had climbed into it, and all round it was a huge throng, chattering and calling like a rookery at sunset. A storm of hooting broke out from them at the approach of the English, for Bambro’ was hated in the country where he raised money for the Montfort cause by putting every parish to ransom and maltreating those who refused to pay. There was little amenity in the warlike ways which had been learned upon the Scottish border. The champions rode onward without deigning to take notice of the taunts of the rabble, but the archers turned that way and soon beat the mob to silence. Then they resolved themselves into the keepers of the ground, and pressed the people back until they formed a dense line along the edge of the field, leaving the whole space clear for the warriors.

The Breton champions had not yet arrived, so the English tethered their horses at one side of the ground, and then gathered round their leader. Every man had his shield slung round his neck, and had cut his spear to the length of five feet so that it might be more manageable for fighting on foot. Besides the spear a sword or a battle-ax hung at the side of each. They were clad from head to foot in armor, with devices upon the crests and surcoats to distinguish them from their antagonists. At present their visors were still up and they chatted gayly with each other.

“By Saint Dunstan!” cried Percy, slapping his gauntleted hands together and stamping his steel feet. “I shall be right glad to get to work, for my blood is chilled.”

“I warrant you will be warm enough ere you get through,” said Calverly.

“Or cold forever. Candle shall burn and bell toll at Alnwick Chapel if I leave this ground alive, but come what may, fair sirs, it should be a famous joust and one which will help us forward. Surely each of us will have worshipfully won worship, if we chance to come through.”

“You say truth, Thomas,” said Knolles, bracing his girdle. “For my own part I have no joy in such encounters when there is warfare to be carried out, for it standeth not aright that a man should think of his own pleasure and advancement rather than of the King’s cause and the weal of the army. But in times of truce I can think of no better way in which a day may be profitably spent. Why so silent, Nigel?”

“Indeed, fair sir, I was looking toward Josselin, which lies as I understand beyond those woods. I see no sign of this debonair gentleman and of his following. It would be indeed grievous pity if any cause came to hold them back.”

Hugh Calverly laughed at the words. “You need have no fear, young sir,” said he. “Such a spirit lies in Robert de Beaumanoir that if he must come alone he would ride against us none the less. I warrant that if he were on a bed of death he would be borne here and die on the green field.”

“You say truly, Hugh,” said Bambro’. “I know him and those who ride behind him. Thirty stouter men or more skilled in arms are not to be found in Christendom. It is in my mind that come what may there will be much honor for all of us this day. Ever in my head I have a rhyme which the wife of a Welsh archer gave me when I crossed her hand with a golden bracelet after the intaking of Bergerac. She was of the old blood of Merlin with the power of sight. Thus she said —

“‘Twixt the oak-tree and the river

Knightly fame and brave endeavor

Make an honored name forever.’

“Methinks I see the oak-tree, and yonder is the river. Surely this should betide some good to us.”

The huge German Squire betrayed some impatience during this speech of his leader. Though his rank was subordinate, no man present had more experience of warfare or was more famous as a fighter than he. He new broke brusquely into the talk. “We should be better employed in ordering our line and making our plans than in talking of the rhymes of Merlin or such old wives’ tales,” said he. “It is to our own strong arms and good weapons that we must trust this day. And first I would ask you, Sir Richard, what is your will if perchance you should fall in the midst of the fight?”

Bambro’ turned to the others. “If such should be the case, fair sirs, I desire that my Squire Croquart should command.”

There was a pause while the knights looked with some chagrin at each other. The silence was broken by Knolles.

“I will do what you say, Richard,” said he, “though indeed it is bitter that we who are knights should serve beneath a squire. Yet it is not for us to fall out among ourselves now at this last moment, and I have ever heard that Croquart is a very worthy and valiant man. Therefore, I will pledge you on jeopardy of my soul that I will accept him as leader if you fall.”

“So will I also, Richard,” said Calverly.

“And I too!” cried Belford. “But surely I hear music, and yonder are their pennons amid the trees.”

They all turned, leaning upon their short spears, and watched the advance of the men of Josselin, as their troop wound its way out from the woodlands. In front rode three heralds with tabards of the ermine of Brittany, blowing loudly upon silver trumpets. Behind them a great man upon a white horse bore the banner of Josselin which carries nine golden torteaus upon a scarlet field. Then came the champions riding two and two, fifteen knights and fifteen squires, each with his pennon displayed. Behind them on a litter was borne an aged priest, the Bishop of Rennes, carrying in his hands the viaticum and the holy oils that he might give the last aid and comfort of the Church to those who were dying. The procession was terminated by hundreds of men and women from Josselin, Guegon, and Helleon, and by the entire garrison of the fortress, who came, as the English had done, without their arms. The head of this long column had reached the field before the rear were clear of the wood, but as they arrived the champions picketed their horses on the farther side, behind which their banner was planted and the people lined up until they had inclosed the whole lists with a dense wall of spectators.

With keen eyes the English party had watched the armorial blazonry of their antagonists, for those fluttering pennons and brilliant surcoats carried a language which all men could read. In front was the banner of Beaumanoir, blue with silver frets. His motto “J’ayme qui m’ayme” was carried on a second flag by a little page.

“Whose is the shield behind him — silver with scarlet drops?” asked Knolles.

“It is his Squire, William of Montaubon,” Calverly answered. “And there are the golden lion of Rochefort and the silver cross of Du Bois the Strong. I would not wish to meet a better company than are before us this day. See, there are the blue rings of young Tintiniac, who slew my Squire Hubert last Lammastide. With the aid of Saint George I will avenge him ere nightfall.”

“By the three kings of Almain,” growled Croquart, “we will need to fight hard this day, for never have I seen so many good soldiers gathered together. Yonder is Yves Cheruel, whom they call the man of iron, Caro de Bodegat also with whom I have had more than one bickering — that is he with the three ermine circles on the scarlet shield. There too is left-handed Alain de Karanais; bear in mind that his stroke comes on the side where there is no shield.”

“Who is the small stout man”— asked Nigel —“he with the black and silver shield? By Saint Paul! he seems a very worthy person and one from whom much might be gained, for he is nigh as broad as he is long.”

“It is Sir Robert Raguenel,” said Calverly, whose long spell of service in Brittany had made him familiar with the people. “It is said that he can lift a horse upon his back. Beware a full stroke of that steel mace, for the armor is not made that can abide it. But here is the good Beaumanoir, and surely it is time that we came to grips.”

The Breton leader had marshaled his men in a line opposite to the English, and now he strode forward and shook Bambro’ by the hand. “By Saint Cadoc! this is a very joyous meeting, Richard,” said he, “and we have certainly hit upon a very excellent way of keeping a truce.”

“Indeed, Robert,” said Bambro’, “we owe you much thanks, for I can see that you have been at great pains to bring a worthy company against us this day. Surely if all should chance to perish there will be few noble houses in Brittany who will not mourn.”

“Nay, we have none of the highest of Brittany,” Beaumanoir answered. “Neither a Blois, nor a Leon, nor a Rohan, nor a Conan, fights in our ranks this day. And yet we are all men of blood and coat-armor, who are ready to venture our persons for the desire of our ladies and the love of the high order of knighthood. And now, Richard, what is your sweet will concerning this fight?”

“That we continue until one or other can endure no longer, for since it is seldom that so many brave men draw together it is fitting that we see as much as is possible of each other.”

“Richard, your words are fair and good. It shall be even as you say. For the rest, each shall fight as pleases him best from the time that the herald calls the word. If any man from without shall break in upon us he shall be hanged on yonder oak.”

With a salute he drew down his visor and returned to his own men, who were kneeling in a twinkling, many colored group whilst the old bishop gave them his blessing.

The heralds rode round with a warning to the spectators. Then they halted at the side of the two bands of men who now stood in a long line facing each other with fifty yards of grass between. The visors had been closed, and every man was now cased in metal from head to foot, some few glowing in brass, the greater number shining in steel. Only their fierce eyes could be seen smoldering in the dark shadow of their helmets. So for an instant they stood glaring and crouching.

Then with a loud cry of “Allez!” the herald dropped his upraised hand, and the two lines of men shuffled as fast as their heavy armor would permit until they met with a sharp clang of metal in the middle of the field. There was a sound as of sixty smiths working upon their anvils. Then the babel of yells and shouts from the spectators, cheering on this party or that, rose and swelled until even the uproar of the combat was drowned in that mighty surge.

So eager were the combatants to engage that in a few moments all order had been lost and the two bands were mixed up in one furious scrambling, clattering throng, each man tossed hither and thither, thrown against one adversary and then against another, beaten and hustled and buffeted, with only the one thought in his mind to thrust with his spear or to beat with his ax against anyone who came within the narrow slit of vision left by his visor.

But alas for Nigel and his hopes of some great deed! His was at least the fate of the brave, for he was the first to fall. With a high heart he had placed himself in the line as nearly opposite to Beaumanoir as he could, and had made straight for the Breton leader, remembering that in the outset the quarrel had been so ordered that it lay between them. But ere he could reach his goal he was caught in the swirl of his own comrades, and being the lighter man was swept aside and dashed into the arms of Alain de Karanais, the left-handed swordsman, with such a crash that the two rolled upon the ground together. Light footed as a cat, Nigel had sprung up first, and was stooping over the Breton Squire when the powerful dwarf Raguenel brought his mace thudding down upon the exposed back of his helmet. With a groan Nigel fell upon his face, blood gushing from his mouth, nose, and ears. There he lay, trampled over by either party, while that great fight for which his fiery soul had panted was swaying back and forward above his unconscious form.

But Nigel was not long unavenged. The huge iron club of Belford struck the dwarf Raguenel to the ground, while Belford in turn was felled by a sweeping blow from Beaumanoir. Sometimes a dozen were on the ground at one time, but so strong was the armor, and so deftly was the force of a blow broken by guard and shield, that the stricken men were often pulled to their feet once more by their comrades, and were able to continue the fight.

Some, however, were beyond all aid. Croquart had cut at a Breton knight named Jean Rousselot and had shorn away his shoulder-piece, exposing his neck and the upper part of his arm. Vainly he tried to cover this vulnerable surface with his shield. It was his right side, and he could not stretch it far enough across, nor could he get away on account of the press of men around him. For a time he held his foemen at bay, but that bare patch of white shoulder was a mark for every weapon, until at last a hatchet sank up to the socket in the knight’s chest. Almost at the same moment a second Breton, a young Squire named Geoffrey Mellon, was slain by a thrust from Black Simon which found the weak spot beneath the armpit. Three other Bretons, Evan Cheruel, Caro de Bodegat, and Tristan de Pestivien, the first two knights and the latter a squire, became separated from their comrades, and were beaten to the ground with English all around them, so that they had to choose between instant death and surrender. They handed their swords to Bambro’ and stood apart, each of them sorely wounded, watching with hot and bitter hearts the mêlée which still surged up and down the field.

But now the combat had lasted half an hour without stint or rest, until the warriors were so exhausted with the burden of their armor, the loss of blood, the shock of blows, and their own furious exertions, that they could scarce totter or raise their weapons. There must be a pause if the combat was to have any decisive end. “Cessez! Cessez! Retirez!” cried the heralds, as they spurred their horses between the exhausted men.

Slowly the gallant Beaumanoir led the twenty-five men who were left to their original station, where they opened their visors and threw themselves down upon the grass, panting like weary dogs, and wiping the sweat from their bloodshot eyes. A pitcher of wine of Anjou was carried round by a page, and each in turn drained a cup, save only Beaumanoir who kept his Lent with such strictness that neither food nor drink might pass his lips before sunset. He paced slowly amongst his men, croaking forth encouragement from his parched lips and pointing out to them that among the English there was scarce a man who was not wounded, and some so sorely that they could hardly stand. If the fight so far had gone against them, there were still five hours of daylight, and much might happen before the last of them was laid upon his back.

Varlets had rushed forth to draw away the two dead Bretons, and a brace of English archers had carried Nigel from the field. With his own hands Aylward had unlaced the crushed helmet and had wept to see the bloodless and unconscious face of his young master. He still breathed, however, and stretched upon the grass by the riverside the bowman tended him with rude surgery, until the water upon his brow and the wind upon his face had coaxed back the life into his battered frame. He breathed with heavy gasps, and some tinge of blood crept back into his cheeks, but still he lay unconscious of the roar of the crowd and of that great struggle which his comrades were now waging once again.

The English had lain for a space bleeding and breathless, in no better case than their rivals, save that they were still twenty-nine in number. But of this muster there were not nine who were hale men, and some were so weak from loss of blood that they could scarce keep standing. Yet, when the signal was at last given to reengage there was not a man upon either side who did not totter to his feet and stagger forward toward his enemies.

But the opening of this second phase of the combat brought one great misfortune and discouragement to the English. Bambro’ like the others, had undone his visor, but with his mind full of many cares he had neglected to make it fast again. There was an opening an inch broad betwixt it and the beaver. As the two lines met the left-handed Breton squire, Alain de Karanais, caught sight of Bambro’s face, and in an instant thrust his short spear through the opening. The English leader gave a cry of pain and fell on his knees, but staggered to his feet again, too weak to raise his shield. As he stood exposed the Breton knight, Geoffrey Dubois the Strong, struck him such a blow with his ax that he beat in the whole breast-plate with the breast behind it. Bambro’ fell dead upon the ground and for a few minutes a fierce fight raged round his body.

Then the English drew back, sullen and dogged, bearing Bambro’ with them, and the Bretons, breathing hard, gathered again in their own quarter. At the same instant the three prisoners picked up such weapons as were scattered upon the grass and ran over to join their own party.

“Nay, nay!” cried Knolles, raising his visor and advancing. “This may not be. You have been held to mercy when we might have slain you, and by the Virgin I will hold you dishonored, all three, if you stand not back.”

“Say not so, Robert Knolles,” Evan Cheruel answered. “Never yet has the word dishonor been breathed with my name, but I should count myself faineant if I did not fight beside my comrades when chance has made it right and proper that I should do so.”

“By Saint Cadoc! he speaks truly,” croaked Beaumanoir, advancing in front of his men. “You are well aware, Robert, that it is the law of war and the usage of chivalry that if the knight to whom you have surrendered is himself slain the prisoners thereby become released.”

There was no answer to this and Knolles, weary and spent, returned to his comrades. “I would that we had slain them,” said he. “We have lost our leader and they have gained three men by the same stroke.”

“If any more lay down their arms it is my order that you slay them forthwith,” said Croquart, whose bent sword and bloody armor showed how manfully he had borne himself in the fray. “And now, comrades, do not be heavy-hearted because we have lost our leader. Indeed, his rhymes of Merlin have availed him little. By the three kings of Almain! I can teach you what is better than an old woman’s prophecies, and that is that you should keep your shoulders together and your shields so close that none can break between them. Then you will know what is on either side of you, and you can fix your eyes upon the front. Also, if any be so weak or wounded that he must sink his hands his comrades on right and left can bear him up. Now advance all together in God’s name, for the battle is still ours if we bear ourselves like men.”

In a solid line the English advanced, while the Bretons ran forward as before to meet them. The swiftest of these was a certain Squire, Geoffrey Poulart, who bore a helmet which was fashioned as a cock’s head, with high comb above, and long pointed beak in front pierced with the breathing-holes. He thrust with his sword at Calverly, but Belford who was the next in the line raised his giant club and struck him a crushing blow from the side. He staggered, and then pushing forth from the crowd, he ran round and round in circles as one whose brain is stricken, the blood dripping from the holes of his brazen beak. So for a long time he ran, the crowd laughing and cock-crowing at the sight, until at last he stumbled and fell stone-dead upon his face. But the fighters had seen nothing of his fate, for desperate and unceasing was the rush of the Bretons and the steady advance of the English line.

For a time it seemed as if nothing would break it, but gap-toothed Beaumanoir was a general as well as a warrior. Whilst his weary, bleeding, hard-breathing men still flung themselves upon the front of the line, he himself with Raguenel, Tentiniac, Alain de Karanais, and Dubois rushed round the flank and attacked the English with fury from behind. There was a long and desperate mêlée until once more the heralds, seeing the combatants stand gasping and unable to strike a blow, rode in and called yet another interval of truce.

But in those few minutes whilst they had been assaulted upon both sides, the losses of the English party had been heavy. The Anglo–Breton D’Ardaine had fallen before Beaumanoir’s sword, but not before he had cut deeply into his enemy’s shoulder. Sir Thomas Walton, Richard of Ireland one of the Squires, and Hulbitee the big peasant had all fallen before the mace of the dwarf Raguenel or the swords of his companions. Some twenty men were still left standing upon either side, but all were in the last state of exhaustion, gasping, reeling, hardly capable of striking a blow.

It was strange to see them as they staggered with many a lurch and stumble toward each other once again, for they moved like drunken men, and the scales of their neck-armor and joints were as red as fishes’ gills when they raised them They left foul wet footprints behind them on the green grass as they moved forward once more to their endless contest.

Beaumanoir, faint with the drain of his blood and with a tongue of leather, paused as he advanced. “I am fainting, comrades,” he cried. “I must drink.”

“Drink your own blood, Beaumanoir!” cried Dubois, and the weary men all croaked together in dreadful laughter.

But now the English had learned from experience, and under the guidance of Croquart they fought no longer in a straight line, but in one so bent that at last it became a circle. As the Bretons still pushed and staggered against it they thrust it back on every side, until they had turned it into the most dangerous formation of all, a solid block of men, their faces turned outward, their weapons bristling forth to meet every attack. Thus the English stood, and no assault could move them. They could lean against each other back to back while they waited and allowed their foemen to tire themselves out. Again and again the gallant Bretons tried to make a way through. Again and again they were beaten back by a shower of blows.

Beaumanoir, his head giddy with fatigue, opened his helmet and gazed in despair at this terrible, unbreakable circle. Only too clearly he could see the inevitable result. His men were wearing themselves out. Already many of them could scarce stir hand or foot, and might be dead for any aid which they could give him in winning the fight. Soon all would be in the same plight. Then these cursed English would break their circle to swarm over his helpless men and to strike them down. Do what he might, he could see no way by which such an end might be prevented. He cast his eyes round in his agony, and there was one of his Bretons slinking away to the side of the lists. He could scarce credit his senses when he saw by the scarlet and silver that the deserter was his own well-tried squire, William of Montaubon.

“William! William!” he cried. “Surely you would not leave me?”

But the other’s helmet was closed and he could hear nothing. Beaumanoir saw that he was staggering away as swiftly as he could. With a cry of bitter despair, he drew into a knot as many of his braves as could still move, and together they made a last rush upon the English spears. This time he was firmly resolved, deep in his gallant soul, that he would come no foot back, but would find his death there amongst his foemen or carve a path into the heart of their ranks. The fire in his breast spread from man to man of his followers, and amid the crashing of blows they still locked themselves against the English shields and drove hard for an opening in their ranks.

But all was vain! Beaumanoir’s head reeled. His senses were leaving him. In another minute he and his men would have been stretched senseless before this terrible circle of steel, when suddenly the whole array fell in pieces before his eyes, his enemies Croquart, Knolles, Calverly, Belford, all were stretched upon the ground together, their weapons dashed from their hands and their bodies too exhausted to rise. The surviving Bretons had but strength to fall upon them dagger in hands, and to wring from them their surrender with the sharp point stabbing through their visors. Then victors and vanquished lay groaning and panting in one helpless and blood-smeared heap.

To Beaumanoir’s simple mind it had seemed that at the supreme moment the Saints of Brittany had risen at their country’s call. Already, as he lay gasping, his heart was pouring forth its thanks to his patron Saint Cadoc. But the spectators had seen clearly enough the earthly cause of this sudden victory, and a hurricane of applause from one side, with a storm of hooting from the other showed how different was the emotion which it raised in minds which sympathized with the victors or the vanquished.

William of Montaubon, the cunning squire, had made his way across to the spot where the steeds were tethered, and had mounted his own great roussin. At first it was thought that he was about to ride from the field, but the howl of execration from the Breton peasants changed suddenly to a yell of applause and delight as he turned the beast’s head for the English circle and thrust his long prick spurs into its side. Those who faced him saw this sudden and unexpected appearance. Time was when both horse and rider must have winced away from the shower of their blows. But now they were in no state to meet such a rush. They could scarce raise their arms. Their blows were too feeble to hurt this mighty creature. In a moment it had plunged through the ranks, and seven of them were on the grass. It turned and rushed through them again, leaving five others helpless beneath its hoofs. No need to do more! Already Beaumanoir and his companions were inside the circle, the prostrate men were helpless, and Josselin had won.

That night a train of crestfallen archers, bearing many a prostrate figure, marched sadly into Ploermel Castle. Behind them rode ten men, all weary, all wounded, and all with burning hearts against William of Montaubon for the foul trick that he had served them.

But over at Josselin, yellow gorse-blossoms in their helmets, the victors were borne in on the shoulders of a shouting mob, amid the fanfare of trumpets and the beating of drums. Such was the combat of the Midway Oak, where brave men met brave men, and such honor was gained that from that day he who had fought in the Battle of the Thirty was ever given the highest place and the post of honor, nor was it easy for any man to pretend to have been there, for it has been said by that great chronicler who knew them all, that not one on either side failed to carry to his grave the marks of that stern encounter.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/doyle/arthur_conan/sir-nigel/chapter23.html

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