The White Company, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter 35

How Sir Nigel Hawked at an Eagle.

To the south of Pampeluna in the kingdom of Navarre there stretched a high table-land, rising into bare, sterile hills, brown or gray in color, and strewn with huge boulders of granite. On the Gascon side of the great mountains there had been running streams, meadows, forests, and little nestling villages. Here, on the contrary, were nothing but naked rocks, poor pasture, and savage, stone-strewn wastes. Gloomy defiles or barrancas intersected this wild country with mountain torrents dashing and foaming between their rugged sides. The clatter of waters, the scream of the eagle, and the howling of wolves the only sounds which broke upon the silence in that dreary and inhospitable region.

Through this wild country it was that Sir Nigel and his Company pushed their way, riding at times through vast defiles where the brown, gnarled cliffs shot up on either side of them, and the sky was but a long winding blue slit between the clustering lines of box which fringed the lips of the precipices; or, again leading their horses along the narrow and rocky paths worn by the muleteers upon the edges of the chasm, where under their very elbows they could see the white streak which marked the gave which foamed a thousand feet below them. So for two days they pushed their way through the wild places of Navarre, past Fuente, over the rapid Ega, through Estella, until upon a winter’s evening the mountains fell away from in front of them, and they saw the broad blue Ebro curving betwixt its double line or homesteads and of villages. The fishers of Viana were aroused that night by rough voices speaking in a strange tongue, and ere morning Sir Nigel and his men had ferried the river and were safe upon the land of Spain.

All the next day they lay in a pine wood near to the town of Logrono, resting their horses and taking counsel as to what they should do. Sir Nigel had with him Sir William Felton, Sir Oliver Buttesthorn, stout old Sir Simon Burley, the Scotch knight-errant, the Earl of Angus, and Sir Richard Causton, all accounted among the bravest knights in the army, together with sixty veteran men-at-arms, and three hundred and twenty archers. Spies had been sent out in the morning, and returned after nightfall to say that the King of Spain was encamped some fourteen miles off in the direction of Burgos, having with him twenty thousand horse and forty-five thousand foot.

A dry-wood fire had been lit, and round this the leaders crouched, the glare beating upon their rugged faces, while the hardy archers lounged and chatted amid the tethered horses, while they munched their scanty provisions.

“For my part,” said Sir Simon Burley, “I am of opinion that we have already done that which we have come for. For do we not now know where the king is, and how great a following he hath, which was the end of our journey.”

“True,” answered Sir William Felton, “but I have come on this venture because it is a long time since I have broken a spear in war, and, certes, I shall not go back until I have run a course with some cavalier of Spain. Let those go back who will, but I must see more of these Spaniards ere I turn.”

“I will not leave you, Sir William,” returned Sir Simon Burley; “and yet, as an old soldier and one who hath seen much of war, I cannot but think that it is an ill thing for four hundred men to find themselves between an army of sixty thousand on the one side and a broad river on the other.”

“Yet,” said Sir Richard Causton, “we cannot for the honor of England go back without a blow struck.”

“Nor for the honor of Scotland either,” cried the Earl of Angus. “By Saint Andrew! I wish that I may never set eyes upon the water of Leith again, if I pluck my horse’s bridle ere I have seen this camp of theirs.”

“By Saint Paul! you have spoken very well,” said Sir Nigel, “and I have always heard that there were very worthy gentlemen among the Scots, and fine skirmishing to be had upon their border. Bethink you, Sir Simon, that we have this news from the lips of common spies, who can scarce tell us as much of the enemy and of his forces as the prince would wish to hear.”

“You are the leader in this venture, Sir Nigel,” the other answered, “and I do but ride under your banner.”

“Yet I would fain have your rede and counsel, Sir Simon. But, touching what you say of the river, we can take heed that we shall not have it at the back of us, for the prince hath now advanced to Salvatierra, and thence to Vittoria, so that if we come upon their camp from the further side we can make good our retreat.”

“What then would you propose?” asked Sir Simon, shaking his grizzled head as one who is but half convinced.

“That we ride forward ere the news reach them that we have crossed the river. In this way we may have sight of their army, and perchance even find occasion for some small deed against them.”

“So be it, then,” said Sir Simon Burley; and the rest of the council having approved, a scanty meal was hurriedly snatched, and the advance resumed under the cover of the darkness. All night they led their horses, stumbling and groping through wild defiles and rugged valleys, following the guidance of a frightened peasant who was strapped by the wrist to Black Simon’s stirrup-leather. With the early dawn they found themselves in a black ravine, with others sloping away from it on either side, and the bare brown crags rising in long bleak terraces all round them.

“If it please you, fair lord,” said Black Simon, “this man hath misled us, and since there is no tree upon which we may hang him, it might be well to hurl him over yonder cliff.”

The peasant, reading the soldier’s meaning in his fierce eyes and harsh accents dropped upon his knees, screaming loudly for mercy.

“How comes it, dog?” asked Sir William Felton in Spanish. “Where is this camp to which you swore that you would lead us?”

“By the sweet Virgin! By the blessed Mother of God!” cried the trembling peasant, “I swear to you that in the darkness I have myself lost the path.”

“Over the cliff with him!” shouted half a dozen voices; but ere the archers could drag him from the rocks to which he clung Sir Nigel had ridden up and called upon them to stop.

“How is this, sirs?” said he. “As long as the prince doth me the honor to entrust this venture to me, it is for me only to give orders; and, by Saint Paul! I shall be right blithe to go very deeply into the matter with any one to whom my words may give offence. How say you, Sir William? Or you, my Lord of Angus? Or you, Sir Richard?”

“Nay, nay, Nigel!” cried Sir William. “This base peasant is too small a matter for old comrades to quarrel over. But he hath betrayed us, and certes he hath merited a dog’s death.”

“Hark ye, fellow,” said Sir Nigel. “We give you one more chance to find the path. We are about to gain much honor, Sir William, in this enterprise, and it would be a sorry thing if the first blood shed were that of an unworthy boor. Let us say our morning orisons, and it may chance that ere we finish he may strike upon the track.”

With bowed heads and steel caps in hand, the archers stood at their horse’s heads, while Sir Simon Burley repeated the Pater, the Ave, and the Credo. Long did Alleyne bear the scene in mind—the knot of knights in their dull leaden-hued armor, the ruddy visage of Sir Oliver, the craggy features of the Scottish earl, the shining scalp of Sir Nigel, with the dense ring of hard, bearded faces and the long brown heads of the horses, all topped and circled by the beetling cliffs. Scarce had the last deep “amen” broken from the Company, when, in an instant, there rose the scream of a hundred bugles, with the deep rolling of drums and the clashing of cymbals, all sounding together in one deafening uproar. Knights and archers sprang to arms, convinced that some great host was upon them; but the guide dropped upon his knees and thanked Heaven for its mercies.

“We have found them, caballeros!” he cried. “This is their morning call. If ye will but deign to follow me, I will set them before you ere a man might tell his beads.”

As he spoke he scrambled down one of the narrow ravines, and, climbing over a low ridge at the further end, he led them into a short valley with a stream purling down the centre of it and a very thick growth of elder and of box upon either side. Pushing their way through the dense brushwood, they looked out upon a scene which made their hearts beat harder and their breath come faster.

In front of them there lay a broad plain, watered by two winding streams and covered with grass, stretching away to where, in the furthest distance, the towers of Burgos bristled up against the light blue morning sky. Over all this vast meadow there lay a great city of tents—thousands upon thousands of them, laid out in streets and in squares like a well-ordered town. High silken pavilions or colored marquees, shooting up from among the crowd of meaner dwellings, marked where the great lords and barons of Leon and Castile displayed their standards, while over the white roofs, as far as eye could reach, the waving of ancients, pavons, pensils, and banderoles, with flash of gold and glow of colors, proclaimed that all the chivalry of Iberia were mustered in the plain beneath them. Far off, in the centre of the camp, a huge palace of red and white silk, with the royal arms of Castile waiving from the summit, announced that the gallant Henry lay there in the midst of his warriors.

As the English adventurers, peeping out from behind their brushwood screen, looked down upon this wondrous sight they could see that the vast army in front of them was already afoot. The first pink light of the rising sun glittered upon the steel caps and breastplates of dense masses of slingers and of crossbowmen, who drilled and marched in the spaces which had been left for their exercise. A thousand columns of smoke reeked up into the pure morning air where the faggots were piled and the camp-kettles already simmering. In the open plain clouds of light horse galloped and swooped with swaying bodies and waving javelins, after the fashion which the Spanish had adopted from their Moorish enemies. All along by the sedgy banks of the rivers long lines of pages led their masters’ chargers down to water, while the knights themselves lounged in gayly-dressed groups about the doors of their pavilions, or rode out, with their falcons upon their wrists and their greyhounds behind them, in quest of quail or of leveret.

“By my hilt! mon gars!” whispered Aylward to Alleyne, as the young squire stood with parted lips and wondering eyes, gazing down at the novel scene before him, “we have been seeking them all night, but now that we have found them I know not what we are to do with them.”

“You say sooth, Samkin,” quoth old Johnston. “I would that we were upon the far side of Ebro again, for there is neither honor nor profit to be gained here. What say you, Simon?”

“By the rood!” cried the fierce man-at-arms, “I will see the color of their blood ere I turn my mare’s head for the mountains. Am I a child, that I should ride for three days and nought but words at the end of it?”

“Well said, my sweet honeysuckle!” cried Hordle John. “I am with you, like hilt to blade. Could I but lay hands upon one of those gay prancers yonder, I doubt not that I should have ransom enough from him to buy my mother a new cow.”

“A cow!” said Aylward. “Say rather ten acres and a homestead on the banks of Avon.”

“Say you so? Then, by our Lady! here is for yonder one in the red jerkin!”

He was about to push recklessly forward into the open, when Sir Nigel himself darted in front of him, with his hand upon his breast.

“Back!” said he. “Our time is not yet come, and we must lie here until evening. Throw off your jacks and headpieces, least their eyes catch the shine, and tether the horses among the rocks.”

The order was swiftly obeyed, and in ten minutes the archers were stretched along by the side of the brook, munching the bread and the bacon which they had brought in their bags, and craning their necks to watch the ever-changing scene beneath them. Very quiet and still they lay, save for a muttered jest or whispered order, for twice during the long morning they heard bugle-calls from amid the hills on either side of them, which showed that they had thrust themselves in between the outposts of the enemy. The leaders sat amongst the box-wood, and took counsel together as to what they should do; while from below there surged up the buzz of voices, the shouting, the neighing of horses, and all the uproar of a great camp.

“What boots it to wait?” said Sir William Felton. “Let us ride down upon their camp ere they discover us.”

“And so say I,” cried the Scottish earl; “for they do not know that there is any enemy within thirty long leagues of them.”

“For my part,” said Sir Simon Burley, “I think that it is madness, for you cannot hope to rout this great army; and where are you to go and what are you to do when they have turned upon you? How say you, Sir Oliver Buttesthorn?”

“By the apple of Eve!” cried the fat knight, “it appears to me that this wind brings a very savory smell of garlic and of onions from their cooking-kettles. I am in favor of riding down upon them at once, if my old friend and comrade here is of the same mind.”

“Nay,” said Sir Nigel, “I have a plan by which we may attempt some small deed upon them, and yet, by the help of God, may be able to draw off again; which, as Sir Simon Burley hath said, would be scarce possible in any other way.”

“How then, Sir Nigel?” asked several voices.

“We shall lie here all day; for amid this brushwood it is ill for them to see us. Then when evening comes we shall sally out upon them and see if we may not gain some honorable advancement from them.”

“But why then rather than now?”

“Because we shall have nightfall to cover us when we draw off, so that we may make our way back through the mountains. I would station a score of archers here in the pass, with all our pennons jutting forth from the rocks, and as many nakirs and drums and bugles as we have with us, so that those who follow us in the fading light may think that the whole army of the prince is upon them, and fear to go further. What think you of my plan, Sir Simon?”

“By my troth! I think very well of it,” cried the prudent old commander. “If four hundred men must needs run a tilt against sixty thousand, I cannot see how they can do it better or more safely.”

“And so say I,” cried Felton, heartily. “But I wish the day were over, for it will be an ill thing for us if they chance to light upon us.”

The words were scarce out of his mouth when there came a clatter of loose stones, the sharp clink of trotting hoofs, and a dark-faced cavalier, mounted upon a white horse, burst through the bushes and rode swiftly down the valley from the end which was farthest from the Spanish camp. Lightly armed, with his vizor open and a hawk perched upon his left wrist, he looked about him with the careless air of a man who is bent wholly upon pleasure, and unconscious of the possibility of danger. Suddenly, however, his eyes lit upon the fierce faces which glared out at him from the brushwood. With a cry of terror, he thrust his spurs into his horse’s sides and dashed for the narrow opening of the gorge. For a moment it seemed as though he would have reached it, for he had trampled over or dashed aside the archers who threw themselves in his way; but Hordle John seized him by the foot in his grasp of iron and dragged him from the saddle, while two others caught the frightened horse.

“Ho, ho!” roared the great archer. “How many cows wilt buy my mother, if I set thee free?”

“Hush that bull’s bellowing!” cried Sir Nigel impatiently. “Bring the man here. By St. Paul! it is not the first time that we have met; for, if I mistake not, it is Don Diego Alvarez, who was once at the prince’s court.”

“It is indeed I,” said the Spanish knight, speaking in the French tongue, “and I pray you to pass your sword through my heart, for how can I live—I, a caballero of Castile—after being dragged from my horse by the base hands of a common archer?”

“Fret not for that,” answered Sir Nigel. “For, in sooth, had he not pulled you down, a dozen cloth-yard shafts had crossed each other in your body.”

“By St. James! it were better so than to be polluted by his touch,” answered the Spaniard, with his black eyes sparkling with rage and hatred. “I trust that I am now the prisoner of some honorable knight or gentleman.”

“You are the prisoner of the man who took you, Sir Diego,” answered Sir Nigel. “And I may tell you that better men than either you or I have found themselves before now prisoners in the hands of archers of England.”

“What ransom, then, does he demand?” asked the Spaniard.

Big John scratched his red head and grinned in high delight when the question was propounded to him. “Tell him,” said he, “that I shall have ten cows and a bull too, if it be but a little one. Also a dress of blue sendall for mother and a red one for Joan; with five acres of pasture-land, two scythes, and a fine new grindstone. Likewise a small house, with stalls for the cows, and thirty-six gallons of beer for the thirsty weather.”

“Tut, tut!” cried Sir Nigel, laughing. “All these things may be had for money; and I think, Don Diego, that five thousand crowns is not too much for so renowned a knight.”

“It shall be duly paid him.”

“For some days we must keep you with us; and I must crave leave also to use your shield, your armor, and your horse.”

“My harness is yours by the law of arms,” said the Spaniard, gloomily.

“I do but ask the loan of it. I have need of it this day, but it shall be duly returned to you. Set guards, Aylward, with arrow on string, at either end of the pass; for it may happen that some other cavaliers may visit us ere the time be come.” All day the little band of Englishmen lay in the sheltered gorge, looking down upon the vast host of their unconscious enemies. Shortly after mid-day, a great uproar of shouting and cheering broke out in the camp, with mustering of men and calling of bugles. Clambering up among the rocks, the companions saw a long rolling cloud of dust along the whole eastern sky-line, with the glint of spears and the flutter of pennons, which announced the approach of a large body of cavalry. For a moment a wild hope came upon them that perhaps the prince had moved more swiftly than had been planned, that he had crossed the Ebro, and that this was his vanguard sweeping to the attack.

“Surely I see the red pile of Chandos at the head of yonder squadron!” cried Sir Richard Causton, shading his eyes with his hand.

“Not so,” answered Sir Simon Burley, who had watched the approaching host with a darkening face. “It is even as I feared. That is the double eagle of Du Guesclin.”

“You say very truly,” cried the Earl of Angus. “These are the levies of France, for I can see the ensigns of the Marshal d’Andreghen, with that of the Lord of Antoing and of Briseuil, and of many another from Brittany and Anjou.”

“By St. Paul! I am very glad of it,” said Sir Nigel. “Of these Spaniards I know nothing; but the French are very worthy gentlemen, and will do what they can for our advancement.”

“There are at the least four thousand of them, and all men-at-arms,” cried Sir William Felton. “See, there is Bertrand himself, beside his banner, and there is King Henry, who rides to welcome him. Now they all turn and come into the camp together.”

As he spoke, the vast throng of Spaniards and of Frenchmen trooped across the plain, with brandished arms and tossing banners. All day long the sound of revelry and of rejoicing from the crowded camp swelled up to the ears of the Englishmen, and they could see the soldiers of the two nations throwing themselves into each other’s arms and dancing hand-inhand round the blazing fires. The sun had sunk behind a cloud-bank in the west before Sir Nigel at last gave word that the men should resume their arms and have their horses ready. He had himself thrown off his armor, and had dressed himself from head to foot in the harness of the captured Spaniard.

“Sir William,” said he, “it is my intention to attempt a small deed, and I ask you therefore that you will lead this outfall upon the camp. For me, I will ride into their camp with my squire and two archers. I pray you to watch me, and to ride forth when I am come among the tents. You will leave twenty men behind here, as we planned this morning, and you will ride back here after you have ventured as far as seems good to you.”

“I will do as you order, Nigel; but what is it that you propose to do?”

“You will see anon, and indeed it is but a trifling matter. Alleyne, you will come with me, and lead a spare horse by the bridle. I will have the two archers who rode with us through France, for they are trusty men and of stout heart. Let them ride behind us, and let them leave their bows here among the bushes for it is not my wish that they should know that we are Englishmen. Say no word to any whom we may meet, and, if any speak to you, pass on as though you heard them not. Are you ready?”

“I am ready, my fair lord,” said Alleyne.

“And I,” “And I,” cried Aylward and John.

“Then the rest I leave to your wisdom, Sir William; and if God sends us fortune we shall meet you again in this gorge ere it be dark.”

So saying, Sir Nigel mounted the white horse of the Spanish cavalier, and rode quietly forth from his concealment with his three companions behind him, Alleyne leading his master’s own steed by the bridle. So many small parties of French and Spanish horse were sweeping hither and thither that the small band attracted little notice, and making its way at a gentle trot across the plain, they came as far as the camp without challenge or hindrance. On and on they pushed past the endless lines of tents, amid the dense swarms of horsemen and of footmen, until the huge royal pavilion stretched in front of them. They were close upon it when of a sudden there broke out a wild hubbub from a distant portion of the camp, with screams and war-cries and all the wild tumult of battle. At the sound soldiers came rushing from their tents, knights shouted loudly for their squires, and there was mad turmoil on every hand of bewildered men and plunging horses. At the royal tent a crowd of gorgeously dressed servants ran hither and thither in helpless panic for the guard of soldiers who were stationed there had already ridden off in the direction of the alarm. A man-at-arms on either side of the doorway were the sole protectors of the royal dwelling.

“I have come for the king,” whispered Sir Nigel; “and, by Saint Paul! he must back with us or I must bide here.”

Alleyne and Aylward sprang from their horses, and flew at the two sentries, who were disarmed and beaten down in an instant by so furious and unexpected an attack. Sir Nigel dashed into the royal tent, and was followed by Hordle John as soon as the horses had been secured. From within came wild screamings and the clash of steel, and then the two emerged once more, their swords and forearms reddened with blood, while John bore over his shoulder the senseless body of a man whose gay surcoat, adorned with the lions and towers of Castile, proclaimed him to belong to the royal house. A crowd of white-faced sewers and pages swarmed at their heels, those behind pushing forwards, while the foremost shrank back from the fierce faces and reeking weapons of the adventurers. The senseless body was thrown across the spare horse, the four sprang to their saddles, and away they thundered with loose reins and busy spurs through the swarming camp.

But confusion and disorder still reigned among the Spaniards for Sir William Felton and his men had swept through half their camp, leaving a long litter of the dead and the dying to mark their course. Uncertain who were their attackers, and unable to tell their English enemies from their newly-arrived Breton allies, the Spanish knights rode wildly hither and thither in aimless fury. The mad turmoil, the mixture of races, and the fading light, were all in favor of the four who alone knew their own purpose among the vast uncertain multitude. Twice ere they reached open ground they had to break their way through small bodies of horses, and once there came a whistle of arrows and singing of stones about their ears; but, still dashing onwards, they shot out from among the tents and found their own comrades retreating for the mountains at no very great distance from them. Another five minutes of wild galloping over the plain, and they were all back in their gorge, while their pursuers fell back before the rolling of drums and blare of trumpets, which seemed to proclaim that the whole army of the prince was about to emerge from the mountain passes.

“By my soul! Nigel,” cried Sir Oliver, waving a great boiled ham over his head, “I have come by something which I may eat with my truffles! I had a hard fight for it, for there were three of them with their mouths open and the knives in their hands, all sitting agape round the table, when I rushed in upon them. How say you, Sir William, will you not try the smack of the famed Spanish swine, though we have but the brook water to wash it down?”

“Later, Sir Oliver,” answered the old soldier, wiping his grimed face. “We must further into the mountains ere we be in safety. But what have we here, Nigel?”

“It is a prisoner whom I have taken, and in sooth, as he came from the royal tent and wears the royal arms upon his jupon, I trust that he is the King of Spain.”

“The King of Spain!” cried the companions, crowding round in amazement.

“Nay, Sir Nigel,” said Felton, peering at the prisoner through the uncertain light, “I have twice seen Henry of Transtamare, and certes this man in no way resembles him.”

“Then, by the light of heaven! I will ride back for him,” cried Sir Nigel.

“Nay, nay, the camp is in arms, and it would be rank madness. Who are you, fellow?” he added in Spanish, “and how is it that you dare to wear the arms of Castile?”

The prisoner was bent recovering the consciousness which had been squeezed from him by the grip of Hordle John. “If it please you,” he answered, “I and nine others are the body-squires of the king, and must ever wear his arms, so as to shield him from even such perils as have threatened him this night. The king is at the tent of the brave Du Guesclin, where he will sup to night. But I am a caballero of Aragon, Don Sancho Penelosa, and, though I be no king, I am yet ready to pay a fitting price for my ransom.”

“By Saint Paul! I will not touch your gold,” cried Sir Nigel. “Go back to your master and give him greeting from Sir Nigel Loring of Twynham Castle, telling him that I had hoped to make his better acquaintance this night, and that, if I have disordered his tent, it was but in my eagerness to know so famed and courteous a knight. Spur on, comrades! for we must cover many a league ere we can venture to light fire or to loosen girth. I had hoped to ride without this patch to-night, but it seems that I must carry it yet a little longer.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/doyle/arthur_conan/white/chapter35.html

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