The White Company, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter 29

How the Blessed Hour of Sight Came to the Lady Tiphaine.

Sir Tristram de Rochefort, Seneschal of Auvergne and Lord of Villefranche, was a fierce and renowned soldier who had grown gray in the English wars. As lord of the marches and guardian of an exposed country-side, there was little rest for him even in times of so-called peace, and his whole life was spent in raids and outfalls upon the Brabanters, late-comers, flayers, free companions, and roving archers who wandered over his province. At times he would come back in triumph, and a dozen corpses swinging from the summit of his keep would warn evil-doers that there was still a law in the land. At others his ventures were not so happy, and he and his troop would spur it over the drawbridge with clatter of hoofs hard at their heels and whistle of arrows about their ears. Hard he was of hand and harder of heart, hated by his foes, and yet not loved by those whom he protected, for twice he had been taken prisoner, and twice his ransom had been wrung by dint of blows and tortures out of the starving peasants and ruined farmers. Wolves or watch-dogs, it was hard to say from which the sheep had most to fear.

The Castle of Villefranche was harsh and stern as its master. A broad moat, a high outer wall turreted at the corners, with a great black keep towering above all—so it lay before them in the moonlight. By the light of two flambeaux, protruded through the narrow slit-shaped openings at either side of the ponderous gate, they caught a glimpse of the glitter of fierce eyes and of the gleam of the weapons of the guard. The sight of the two-headed eagle of Du Guesclin, however, was a passport into any fortalice in France, and ere they had passed the gate the old border knight came running forwards with hands out-thrown to greet his famous countryman. Nor was he less glad to see Sir Nigel, when the Englishman’s errand was explained to him, for these archers had been a sore thorn in his side and had routed two expeditions which he had sent against them. A happy day it would be for the Seneschal of Auvergne when they should learn that the last yew bow was over the marches.

The material for a feast was ever at hand in days when, if there was grim want in the cottage, there was at least rude plenty in the castle. Within an hour the guests were seated around a board which creaked under the great pasties and joints of meat, varied by those more dainty dishes in which the French excelled, the spiced ortolan and the truffled beccaficoes. The Lady Rochefort, a bright and laughter-loving dame, sat upon the left of her warlike spouse, with Lady Tiphaine upon the right. Beneath sat Du Guesclin and Sir Nigel, with Sir Amory Monticourt, of the order of the Hospitallers, and Sir Otto Harnit, a wandering knight from the kingdom of Bohemia. These with Alleyne and Ford, four French squires, and the castle chaplain, made the company who sat together that night and made good cheer in the Castle of Villefranche. The great fire crackled in the grate, the hooded hawks slept upon their perches, the rough deer-hounds with expectant eyes crouched upon the tiled floor; close at the elbows of the guests stood the dapper little lilac-coated pages; the laugh and jest circled round and all was harmony and comfort. Little they recked of the brushwood men who crouched in their rags along the fringe of the forest and looked with wild and haggard eyes at the rich, warm glow which shot a golden bar of light from the high arched windows of the castle.

Supper over, the tables dormant were cleared away as by magic and trestles and bancals arranged around the blazing fire, for there was a bitter nip in the air. The Lady Tiphaine had sunk back in her cushioned chair, and her long dark lashes drooped low over her sparkling eyes. Alleyne, glancing at her, noted that her breath came quick and short, and that her cheeks had blanched to a lily white. Du Guesclin eyed her keenly from time to time, and passed his broad brown fingers through his crisp, curly black hair with the air of a man who is perplexed in his mind.

“These folk here,” said the knight of Bohemia, “they do not seem too well fed.”

“Ah, canaille!” cried the Lord of Villefranche. “You would scarce credit it, and yet it is sooth that when I was taken at Poictiers it was all that my wife and foster-brother could do to raise the money from them for my ransom. The sulky dogs would rather have three twists of a rack, or the thumbikins for an hour, than pay out a denier for their own feudal father and liege lord. Yet there is not one of them but hath an old stocking full of gold pieces hid away in a snug corner.”

“Why do they not buy food then?” asked Sir Nigel. “By St. Paul! it seemed to me their bones were breaking through their skin.”

“It is their grutching and grumbling which makes them thin. We have a saying here, Sir Nigel, that if you pummel Jacques Bonhomme he will pat you, but if you pat him he will pummel you. Doubtless you find it so in England.”

“Ma foi, no!” said Sir Nigel. “I have two Englishmen of this class in my train, who are at this instant, I make little doubt, as full of your wine as any cask in your cellar. He who pummelled them might come by such a pat as he would be likely to remember.”

“I cannot understand it,” quoth the seneschal, “for the English knights and nobles whom I have met were not men to brook the insolence of the base born.”

“Perchance, my fair lord, the poor folk are sweeter and of a better countenance in England,” laughed the Lady Rochefort. “Mon Dieu! you cannot conceive to yourself how ugly they are! Without hair, without teeth, all twisted and bent; for me, I cannot think how the good God ever came to make such people. I cannot bear it, I, and so my trusty Raoul goes ever before me with a cudgel to drive them from my path.”

“Yet they have souls, fair lady, they have souls!” murmured the chaplain, a white-haired man with a weary, patient face.

“So I have heard you tell them,” said the lord of the castle; “and for myself, father, though I am a true son of holy Church, yet I think that you were better employed in saying your mass and in teaching the children of my men-at-arms, than in going over the country-side to put ideas in these folks’ heads which would never have been there but for you. I have heard that you have said to them that their souls are as good as ours, and that it is likely that in another life they may stand as high as the oldest blood of Auvergne. For my part, I believe that there are so many worthy knights and gallant gentlemen in heaven who know how such things should be arranged, that there is little fear that we shall find ourselves mixed up with base roturiers and swine-herds. Tell your beads, father, and con your psalter, but do not come between me and those whom the king has given to me!”

“God help them!” cried the old priest. “A higher King than yours has given them to me, and I tell you here in your own castle hall, Sir Tristram de Rochefort, that you have sinned deeply in your dealings with these poor folk, and that the hour will come, and may even now be at hand, when God’s hand will be heavy upon you for what you have done.” He rose as he spoke, and walked slowly from the room.

“Pest take him!” cried the French knight. “Now, what is a man to do with a priest, Sir Bertrand?—for one can neither fight him like a man nor coax him like a woman.”

“Ah, Sir Bertrand knows, the naughty one!” cried the Lady Rochefort. “Have we not all heard how he went to Avignon and squeezed fifty thousand crowns out of the Pope.”

“Ma foi!” said Sir Nigel, looking with a mixture of horror and admiration at Du Guesclin. “Did not your heart sink within you? Were you not smitten with fears? Have you not felt a curse hang over you?”

“I have not observed it,” said the Frenchman carelessly. “But by Saint Ives! Tristram, this chaplain of yours seems to me to be a worthy man, and you should give heed to his words, for though I care nothing for the curse of a bad pope, it would be a grief to me to have aught but a blessing from a good priest.”

“Hark to that, my fair lord,” cried the Lady Rochefort. “Take heed, I pray thee, for I do not wish to have a blight cast over me, nor a palsy of the limbs. I remember that once before you angered Father Stephen, and my tire-woman said that I lost more hair in seven days than ever before in a month.”

“If that be sign of sin, then, by Saint Paul! I have much upon my soul,” said Sir Nigel, amid a general laugh. “But in very truth, Sir Tristram, if I may venture a word of counsel, I should advise that you make your peace with this good man.”

“He shall have four silver candlesticks,” said the seneschal moodily. “And yet I would that he would leave the folk alone. You cannot conceive in your mind how stubborn and brainless they are. Mules and pigs are full of reason beside them. God He knows that I have had great patience with them. It was but last week that, having to raise some money, I called up to the castle Jean Goubert, who, as all men know, has a casketful of gold pieces hidden away in some hollow tree. I give you my word that I did not so much as lay a stripe upon his fool’s back, but after speaking with him, and telling him how needful the money was to me, I left him for the night to think over the matter in my dungeon. What think you that the dog did? Why, in the morning we found that he had made a rope from strips of his leathern jerkin, and had hung himself to the bar of the window.”

“For me, I cannot conceive such wickedness!” cried the lady.

“And there was Gertrude Le Boeuf, as fair a maiden as eye could see, but as bad and bitter as the rest of them. When young Amory de Valance was here last Lammastide he looked kindly upon the girl, and even spoke of taking her into his service. What does she do, with her dog of a father? Why, they tie themselves together and leap into the Linden Pool, where the water is five spears’-lengths deep. I give you my word that it was a great grief to young Amory, and it was days ere he could cast it from his mind. But how can one serve people who are so foolish and so ungrateful?”

Whilst the Seneschal of Villefranche had been detailing the evil doings of his tenants, Alleyne had been unable to take his eyes from the face of Lady Tiphaine. She had lain back in her chair, with drooping eyelids and bloodless face, so that he had feared at first her journey had weighed heavily upon her, and that the strength was ebbing out of her. Of a sudden, however, there came a change, for a dash of bright color flickered up on to either cheek, and her lids were slowly raised again upon eyes which sparkled with such lustre as Alleyne had never seen in human eyes before, while their gaze was fixed intently, not on the company, but on the dark tapestry which draped the wall. So transformed and so ethereal was her expression, that Alleyne, in his loftiest dream of archangel or of seraph, had never pictured so sweet, so womanly, and yet so wise a face. Glancing at Du Guesclin, Alleyne saw that he also was watching his wife closely, and from the twitching of his features, and the beads upon his brick-colored brow, it was easy to see that he was deeply agitated by the change which he marked in her.

“How is it with you, lady?” he asked at last, in a tremulous voice.

Her eyes remained fixed intently upon the wall, and there was a long pause ere she answered him. Her voice, too, which had been so clear and ringing, was now low and muffled as that of one who speaks from a distance.

“All is very well with me, Bertrand,” said she. “The blessed hour of sight has come round to me again.”

“I could see it come! I could see it come!” he exclaimed, passing his fingers through his hair with the same perplexed expression as before.

“This is untoward, Sir Tristram,” he said at last. “And I scarce know in what words to make it clear to you, and to your fair wife, and to Sir Nigel Loring, and to these other stranger knights. My tongue is a blunt one, and fitter to shout word of command than to clear up such a matter as this, of which I can myself understand little. This, however, I know, that my wife is come of a very sainted race, whom God hath in His wisdom endowed with wondrous powers, so that Tiphaine Raquenel was known throughout Brittany ere ever I first saw her at Dinan. Yet these powers are ever used for good, and they are the gift of God and not of the devil, which is the difference betwixt white magic and black.”

“Perchance it would be as well that we should send for Father Stephen,” said Sir Tristram.

“It would be best that he should come,” cried the Hospitaller.

“And bring with him a flask of holy water,” added the knight of Bohemia.

“Not so, gentlemen,” answered Sir Bertrand. “It is not needful that this priest should be called, and it is in my mind that in asking for this ye cast some slight shadow or slur upon the good name of my wife, as though it were still doubtful whether her power came to her from above or below. If ye have indeed such a doubt I pray that you will say so, that we may discuss the matter in a fitting way.”

“For myself,” said Sir Nigel, “I have heard such words fall from the lips of this lady that I am of the opinion that there is no woman, save only one, who can be in any way compared to her in beauty and in goodness. Should any gentleman think otherwise, I should deem it great honor to run a small course with him, or debate the matter in whatever way might be most pleasing to him.”

“Nay, it would ill become me to cast a slur upon a lady who is both my guest and the wife of my comrade-in-arms,” said the Seneschal of Villefranche. “I have perceived also that on her mantle there is marked a silver cross, which is surely sign enough that there is nought of evil in these strange powers which you say that she possesses.”

This argument of the seneschal’s appealed so powerfully to the Bohemian and to the Hospitaller that they at once intimated that their objections had been entirely overcome, while even the Lady Rochefort, who had sat shivering and crossing herself, ceased to cast glances at the door, and allowed her fears to turn to curiosity.

“Among the gifts which have been vouchsafed to my wife,” said Du Guesclin, “there is the wondrous one of seeing into the future; but it comes very seldom upon her, and goes as quickly, for none can command it. The blessed hour of sight, as she hath named it, has come but twice since I have known her, and I can vouch for it that all that she hath told me was true, for on the evening of the Battle of Auray she said that the morrow would be an ill day for me and for Charles of Blois. Ere the sun had sunk again he was dead, and I the prisoner of Sir John Chandos. Yet it is not every question that she can answer, but only those—”

“Bertrand, Bertrand!” cried the lady in the same mutterings far-away voice, “the blessed hour passes. Use it, Bertrand, while you may.”

“I will, my sweet. Tell me, then, what fortune comes upon me?”

“Danger, Bertrand—deadly, pressing danger—which creeps upon you and you know it not.”

The French soldier burst into a thunderous laugh, and his green eyes twinkled with amusement. “At what time during these twenty years would not that have been a true word?” he cried. “Danger is in the air that I breathe. But is this so very close, Tiphaine?”

“Here—now—close upon you!” The words came out in broken, strenuous speech, while the lady’s fair face was writhed and drawn like that of one who looks upon a horror which strikes, the words from her lips. Du Guesclin gazed round the tapestried room, at the screens, the tables, the abace, the credence, the buffet with its silver salver, and the half-circle of friendly, wondering faces. There was an utter stillness, save for the sharp breathing of the Lady Tiphaine and for the gentle soughing of the wind outside, which wafted to their ears the distant call upon a swine-herd’s horn.

“The danger may bide,” said he, shrugging his broad shoulders. “And now, Tiphaine, tell us what will come of this war in Spain.”

“I can see little,” she answered, straining her eyes and puckering her brow, as one who would fain clear her sight. “There are mountains, and dry plains, and flash of arms and shouting of battle-cries. Yet it is whispered to me that by failure you will succeed.”

“Ha! Sir Nigel, how like you that?” quoth Bertrand, shaking his head. “It is like mead and vinegar, half sweet, half sour. And is there no question which you would ask my lady?”

“Certes there is. I would fain know, fair lady, how all things are at Twynham Castle, and above all how my sweet lady employs herself.”

“To answer this I would fain lay hand upon one whose thoughts turn strongly to this castle which you have named. Nay, my Lord Loring, it is whispered to me that there is another here who hath thought more deeply of it than you.”

“Thought more of mine own home?” cried Sir Nigel. “Lady, I fear that in this matter at least you are mistaken.”

“Not so, Sir Nigel. Come hither, young man, young English squire with the gray eyes! Now give me your hand, and place it here across my brow, that I may see that which you have seen. What is this that rises before me? Mist, mist, rolling mist with a square black tower above it. See it shreds out, it thins, it rises, and there lies a castle in green plain, with the sea beneath it, and a great church within a bow-shot. There are two rivers which run through the meadows, and between them lie the tents of the besiegers.”

“The besiegers!” cried Alleyne, Ford, and Sir Nigel, all three in a breath.

“Yes, truly, and they press hard upon the castle, for they are an exceeding multitude and full of courage. See how they storm and rage against the gate, while some rear ladders, and others, line after line, sweep the walls with their arrows. They are many leaders who shout and beckon, and one, a tall man with a golden beard, who stands before the gate stamping his foot and hallooing them on, as a pricker doth the hounds. But those in the castle fight bravely. There is a woman, two women, who stand upon the walls, and give heart to the men-at-arms. They shower down arrows, darts and great stones. Ah! they have struck down the tall leader, and the others give back. The mist thickens and I can see no more.”

“By Saint Paul!” said Sir Nigel, “I do not think that there can be any such doings at Christchurch, and I am very easy of the fortalice so long as my sweet wife hangs the key of the outer bailey at the head of her bed. Yet I will not deny that you have pictured the castle as well as I could have done myself, and I am full of wonderment at all that I have heard and seen.”

“I would, Lady Tiphaine,” cried the Lady Rochefort, “that you would use your power to tell me what hath befallen my golden bracelet which I wore when hawking upon the second Sunday of Advent, and have never set eyes upon since.”

“Nay, lady,” said du Guesclin, “it does not befit so great and wondrous a power to pry and search and play the varlet even to the beautiful châtelaine of Villefranche. Ask a worthy question, and, with the blessing of God, you shall have a worthy answer.”

“Then I would fain ask,” cried one of the French squires, “as to which may hope to conquer in these wars betwixt the English and ourselves.”

“Both will conquer and each will hold its own,” answered the Lady Tiphaine.

“Then we shall still hold Gascony and Guienne?” cried Sir Nigel.

The lady shook her head. “French land, French blood, French speech,” she answered. “They are French, and France shall have them.”

“But not Bordeaux?” cried Sir Nigel excitedly.

“Bordeaux also is for France.”

“But Calais?”

“Calais too.”

“Woe worth me then, and ill hail to these evil words! If Bordeaux and Calais be gone, then what is left for England?”

“It seems indeed that there are evil times coming upon your country,” said Du Guesclin. “In our fondest hopes we never thought to hold Bordeaux. By Saint Ives! this news hath warmed the heart within me. Our dear country will then be very great in the future, Tiphaine?”

“Great, and rich, and beautiful,” she cried. “Far down the course of time I can see her still leading the nations, a wayward queen among the peoples, great in war, but greater in peace, quick in thought, deft in action, with her people’s will for her sole monarch, from the sands of Calais to the blue seas of the south.”

“Ha!” cried Du Guesclin, with his eyes flashing in triumph, “you hear her, Sir Nigel?—and she never yet said word which was not sooth.”

The English knight shook his head moodily. “What of my own poor country?” said he. “I fear, lady, that what you have said bodes but small good for her.”

The lady sat with parted lips, and her breath came quick and fast. “My God!” she cried, “what is this that is shown me? Whence come they, these peoples, these lordly nations, these mighty countries which rise up before me? I look beyond, and others rise, and yet others, far and farther to the shores of the uttermost waters. They crowd! They swarm! The world is given to them, and it resounds with the clang of their hammers and the ringing of their church bells. They call them many names, and they rule them this way or that but they are all English, for I can hear the voices of the people. On I go, and onwards over seas where man hath never yet sailed, and I see a great land under new stars and a stranger sky, and still the land is England. Where have her children not gone? What have they not done? Her banner is planted on ice. Her banner is scorched in the sun. She lies athwart the lands, and her shadow is over the seas. Bertrand, Bertrand! we are undone for the buds of her bud are even as our choicest flower!” Her voice rose into a wild cry, and throwing up her arms she sank back white and nerveless into the deep oaken chair.

“It is over,” said Du Guesclin moodily, as he raised her drooping head with his strong brown hand. “Wine for the lady, squire! The blessed hour of sight hath passed.”

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