The White Company, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter 22

How the Bowmen Held Wassail at the “Rose De Guienne.”

“Mon Dieu! Alleyne, saw you ever so lovely a face?” cried Ford as they hurried along together. “So pure, so peaceful, and so beautiful!”

“In sooth, yes. And the hue of the skin the most perfect that ever I saw. Marked you also how the hair curled round the brow? It was wonder fine.”

“Those eyes, too!” cried Ford. “How clear and how tender—simple, and yet so full of thought!”

“If there was a weakness it was in the chin,” said Alleyne.

“Nay. I saw none.”

“It was well curved, it is true.”

“Most daintily so.”

“And yet—”

“What then, Alleyne? Wouldst find flaw in the sun?”

“Well, bethink you, Ford, would not more power and expression have been put into the face by a long and noble beard?”

“Holy Virgin!” cried Ford, “the man is mad. A beard on the face of little Tita!”

“Tita! Who spoke of Tita?”

“Who spoke of aught else?”

“It was the picture of St. Remi, man, of which I have been discoursing.”

“You are indeed,” cried Ford, laughing, “a Goth, Hun, and Vandal, with all the other hard names which the old man called us. How could you think so much of a smear of pigments, when there was such a picture painted by the good God himself in the very room with you? But who is this?”

“If it please you, sirs,” said an archer, running across to them, “Aylward and others would be right glad to see you. They are within here. He bade me say to you that the Lord Loring will not need your service to-night, as he sleeps with the Lord Chandos.”

“By my faith!” said Ford, “we do not need a guide to lead us to their presence.” As he spoke there came a roar of singing from the tavern upon the right, with shouts of laughter and stamping of feet. Passing under a low door, and down a stone-flagged passage, they found themselves in a long narrow hall lit up by a pair of blazing torches, one at either end. Trusses of straw had been thrown down along the walls, and reclining on them were some twenty or thirty archers, all of the Company, their steel caps and jacks thrown off, their tunics open and their great limbs sprawling upon the clay floor. At every man’s elbow stood his leathern blackjack of beer, while at the further end a hogshead with its end knocked in promised an abundant supply for the future. Behind the hogshead, on a half circle of kegs, boxes, and rude settles, sat Aylward, John, Black Simon and three or four other leading men of the archers, together with Goodwin Hawtayne, the master-shipman, who had left his yellow cog in the river to have a last rouse with his friends of the Company. Ford and Alleyne took their seats between Aylward and Black Simon, without their entrance checking in any degree the hubbub which was going on.

“Ale, mes camarades?” cried the bowman, “or shall it be wine? Nay, but ye must have the one or the other. Here, Jacques, thou limb of the devil, bring a bottrine of the oldest vernage, and see that you do not shake it. Hast heard the news?”

“Nay,” cried both the squires.

“That we are to have a brave tourney.”

“A tourney?”

“Aye, lads. For the Captal du Buch hath sworn that he will find five knights from this side of the water who will ride over any five Englishmen who ever threw leg over saddle; and Chandos hath taken up the challenge, and the prince hath promised a golden vase for the man who carries himself best, and all the court is in a buzz over it.”

“Why should the knights have all the sport?” growled Hordle John. “Could they not set up five archers for the honor of Aquitaine and of Gascony?”

“Or five men-at-arms,” said Black Simon.

“But who are the English knights?” asked Hawtayne.

“There are three hundred and forty-one in the town,” said Aylward, “and I hear that three hundred and forty cartels and defiances have already been sent in, the only one missing being Sir John Ravensholme, who is in his bed with the sweating sickness, and cannot set foot to ground.”

“I have heard of it from one of the archers of the guard,” cried a bowman from among the straw; “I hear that the prince wished to break a lance, but that Chandos would not hear of it, for the game is likely to be a rough one.”

“Then there is Chandos.”

“Nay, the prince would not permit it. He is to be marshal of the lists, with Sir William Felton and the Duc d’Armagnac. The English will be the Lord Audley, Sir Thomas Percy, Sir Thomas Wake, Sir William Beauchamp, and our own very good lord and leader.”

“Hurrah for him, and God be with him!” cried several. “It is honor to draw string in his service.”

“So you may well say,” said Aylward. “By my ten finger-bones! if you march behind the pennon of the five roses you are like to see all that a good bowman would wish to see. Ha! yes, mes garçons, you laugh, but, by my hilt! you may not laugh when you find yourselves where he will take you, for you can never tell what strange vow he may not have sworn to. I see that he has a patch over his eye, even as he had at Poictiers. There will come bloodshed of that patch, or I am the more mistaken.”

“How chanced it at Poictiers, good Master Aylward?” asked one of the young archers, leaning upon his elbows, with his eyes fixed respectfully upon the old bowman’s rugged face.

“Aye, Aylward, tell us of it,” cried Hordle John.

“Here is to old Samkin Aylward!” shouted several at the further end of the room, waving their blackjacks in the air.

“Ask him!” said Aylward modestly, nodding towards Black Simon. “He saw more than I did. And yet, by the holy nails! there was not very much that I did not see either.”

“Ah, yes,” said Simon, shaking his head, “it was a great day. I never hope to see such another. There were some fine archers who drew their last shaft that day. We shall never see better men, Aylward.”

“By my hilt! no. There was little Robby Withstaff, and Andrew Salblaster, and Wat Alspaye, who broke the neck of the German. Mon Dieu! what men they were! Take them how you would, at long butts or short, hoyles, rounds, or rovers, better bowmen never twirled a shaft over their thumb-nails.”

“But the fight, Aylward, the fight!” cried several impatiently.

“Let me fill my jack first, boys, for it is a thirsty tale. It was at the first fall of the leaf that the prince set forth, and he passed through Auvergne, and Berry, and Anjou, and Touraine. In Auvergne the maids are kind, but the wines are sour. In Berry it is the women that are sour, but the wines are rich. Anjou, however, is a very good land for bowmen, for wine and women are all that heart could wish. In Touraine I got nothing save a broken pate, but at Vierzon I had a great good fortune, for I had a golden pyx from the minster, for which I afterwards got nine Genoan janes from the goldsmith in the Rue Mont Olive. From thence we went to Bourges, were I had a tunic of flame-colored silk and a very fine pair of shoes with tassels of silk and drops of silver.”

“From a stall, Aylward?” asked one of the young archers.

“Nay, from a man’s feet, lad. I had reason to think that he might not need them again, seeing that a thirty-inch shaft had feathered in his back.”

“And what then, Aylward?”

“On we went, coz, some six thousand of us, until we came to Issodun, and there again a very great thing befell.”

“A battle, Aylward?”

“Nay, nay; a greater thing than that. There is little to be gained out of a battle, unless one have the fortune to win a ransom. At Issodun I and three Welshmen came upon a house which all others had passed, and we had the profit of it to ourselves. For myself, I had a fine feather-bed—a thing which you will not see in a long day’s journey in England. You have seen it, Alleyne, and you, John. You will bear me out that it is a noble bed. We put it on a sutler’s mule, and bore it after the army. It was on my mind that I would lay it by until I came to start house of mine own, and I have it now in a very safe place near Lyndhurst.”

“And what then, master-bowman?” asked Hawtayne. “By St. Christopher! it is indeed a fair and goodly life which you have chosen, for you gather up the spoil as a Warsash man gathers lobsters, without grace or favor from any man.”

“You are right, master-shipman,” said another of the older archers. “It is an old bowyer’s rede that the second feather of a fenny goose is better than the pinion of a tame one. Draw on old lad, for I have come between you and the clout.”

“On we went then,” said Aylward, after a long pull at his blackjack. “There were some six thousand of us, with the prince and his knights, and the feather-bed upon a sutler’s mule in the centre. We made great havoc in Touraine, until we came into Romorantin, where I chanced upon a gold chain and two bracelets of jasper, which were stolen from me the same day by a black-eyed wench from the Ardennes. Mon Dieu! there are some folk who have no fear of Domesday in them, and no sign of grace in their souls, for ever clutching and clawing at another man’s chattels.”

“But the battle, Aylward, the battle!” cried several, amid a burst of laughter.

“I come to it, my young war-pups. Well, then, the King of France had followed us with fifty thousand men, and he made great haste to catch us, but when he had us he scarce knew what to do with us, for we were so drawn up among hedges and vineyards that they could not come nigh us, save by one lane. On both sides were archers, men-at-arms and knights behind, and in the centre the baggage, with my feather-bed upon a sutler’s mule. Three hundred chosen knights came straight for it, and, indeed, they were very brave men, but such a drift of arrows met them that few came back. Then came the Germans, and they also fought very bravely, so that one or two broke through the archers and came as far as the feather-bed, but all to no purpose. Then out rides our own little hothead with the patch over his eye, and my Lord Audley with his four Cheshire squires, and a few others of like kidney, and after them went the prince and Chandos, and then the whole throng of us, with axe and sword, for we had shot away our arrows. Ma foi! it was a foolish thing, for we came forth from the hedges, and there was naught to guard the baggage had they ridden round behind us. But all went well with us, and the king was taken, and little Robby Withstaff and I fell in with a wain with twelve firkins of wine for the king’s own table, and, by my hilt! if you ask me what happened after that, I cannot answer you, nor can little Robby Withstaff either.”

“And next day?”

“By my faith! we did not tarry long, but we hied back to Bordeaux, where we came in safety with the King of France and also the feather-bed. I sold my spoil, mes garçons, for as many gold-pieces as I could hold in my hufken, and for seven days I lit twelve wax candles upon the altar of St. Andrew; for if you forget the blessed when things are well with you, they are very likely to forget you when you have need of them. I have a score of one hundred and nineteen pounds of wax against the holy Andrew, and, as he was a very just man, I doubt not that I shall have full weigh and measure when I have most need of it.”

“Tell me, master Aylward,” cried a young fresh-faced archer at the further end of the room, “what was this great battle about?”

“Why, you jack-fool, what would it be about save who should wear the crown of France?”

“I thought that mayhap it might be as to who should have this feather-bed of thine.”

“If I come down to you, Silas, I may lay my belt across your shoulders,” Aylward answered, amid a general shout of laughter. “But it is time young chickens went to roost when they dare cackle against their elders. It is late, Simon.”

“Nay, let us have another song.”

“Here is Arnold of Sowley will troll as good a stave as any man in the Company.”

“Nay, we have one here who is second to none,” said Hawtayne, laying his hand upon big John’s shoulder. “I have heard him on the cog with a voice like the wave upon the shore. I pray you, friend, to give us ‘The Bells of Milton,’ or, if you will, ‘The Franklin’s Maid.’”

Hordle John drew the back of his hand across his mouth, fixed his eyes upon the corner of the ceiling, and bellowed forth, in a voice which made the torches flicker, the southland ballad for which he had been asked:—

The franklin he hath gone to roam,

The franklin’s maid she bides at home,

But she is cold and coy and staid,

And who may win the franklin’s maid?

There came a knight of high renown

In bassinet and ciclatoun;

On bended knee full long he prayed,

He might not win the franklin’s maid.

There came a squire so debonair

His dress was rich, his words were fair,

He sweetly sang, he deftly played:

He could not win the franklin’s maid.

There came a mercer wonder-fine

With velvet cap and gaberdine;

For all his ships, for all his trade

He could not buy the franklin’s maid.

There came an archer bold and true,

With bracer guard and stave of yew;

His purse was light, his jerkin frayed;

Haro, alas! the franklin’s maid!

Oh, some have laughed and some have cried

And some have scoured the country-side!

But off they ride through wood and glade,

The bowman and the franklin’s maid.

A roar of delight from his audience, with stamping of feet and beating of blackjacks against the ground, showed how thoroughly the song was to their taste, while John modestly retired into a quart pot, which he drained in four giant gulps. “I sang that ditty in Hordle ale-house ere I ever thought to be an archer myself,” quoth he.

“Fill up your stoups!” cried Black Simon, thrusting his own goblet into the open hogshead in front of him. “Here is a last cup to the White Company, and every brave boy who walks behind the roses of Loring!”

“To the wood, the flax, and the gander’s wing!” said an old gray-headed archer on the right.

“To a gentle loose, and the King of Spain for a mark at fourteen score!” cried another.

“To a bloody war!” shouted a fourth. “Many to go and few to come!”

“With the most gold to the best steel!” added a fifth.

“And a last cup to the maids of our heart!” cried Aylward. “A steady hand and a true eye, boys; so let two quarts be a bowman’s portion.” With shout and jest and snatch of song they streamed from the room, and all was peaceful once more in the “Rose de Guienne.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/doyle/arthur_conan/white/chapter22.html

Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:33