The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 42

Letters of fire on the church wall had just inquired, with an appearance of genuine curiosity, why there was no mass for the duke in this time of trouble. The supernatural expostulation had been seen by many, and had gradually faded, leaving the spectators glued there gaping. The upshot was, that the corporation, not choosing to be behind the angelic powers in loyalty to a temporal sovereign, invested freely in masses. By this an old friend of ours, the cure, profited in hard cash; for which he had a very pretty taste. But for this I would not of course have detained you over so trite an occurrence as a miracle.

Denys begged for his arms. “Why disgrace him as well as break his heart?”

“Then swear on the cross of thy sword not to leave the bastard’s service until the sedition shall be put down.” He yielded to necessity, and delivered three volleys of oaths, and recovered his arms and liberty.

The troops halted at “The Three Fish,” and Marion at sight of him cried out, “I’m out of luck; who would have thought to see you again?” Then seeing he was sad, and rather hurt than amused at this blunt jest, she asked him what was amiss? He told her. She took a bright view of the case. Gerard was too handsome and well-behaved to come to harm. The women too would always be on his side. Moreover, it was clear that things must either go well or ill with him. In the former case he would strike in with some good company going to Rome; in the latter he would return home, perhaps be there before his friend; “for you have a trifle of fighting to do in Flanders by all accounts.” She then brought him his gold pieces, and steadily refused to accept one, though he urged her again and again. Denys was somewhat convinced by her argument, because she concurred with his own wishes, and was also cheered a little by finding her so honest. It made him think a little better of that world in which his poor little friend was walking alone.

Foot soldiers in small bodies down to twos and threes were already on the road, making lazily towards Flanders, many of them penniless, but passed from town to town by the bailiffs, with orders for food and lodging on the innkeepers.

Anthony of Burgundy overtook numbers of these, and gathered them under his standard, so that he entered Flanders at the head of six hundred men. On crossing the frontier he was met by his brother Baldwyn, with men, arms, and provisions; he organized his whole force and marched on in battle array through several towns, not only without impediment, but with great acclamations. This loyalty called forth comments not altogether gracious.

“This rebellion of ours is a bite,” growled a soldier called Simon, who had elected himself Denys’s comrade.

Denys said nothing, but made a little vow to St. Mars to shoot this Anthony of Burgundy dead, should the rebellion, that had cost him Gerard, prove no rebellion.

That afternoon they came in sight of a strongly fortified town; and a whisper went through the little army that this was a disaffected place.

But when they came in sight, the great gate stood open, and the towers that flanked it on each side were manned with a single sentinel apiece. So the advancing force somewhat broke their array and marched carelessly.

When they were within a furlong, the drawbridge across the moat rose slowly and creaking till it stood vertical against the fort and the very moment it settled into this warlike attitude, down rattled the portcullis at the gate, and the towers and curtains bristled with lances and crossbows.

A stern hum ran through the bastard’s front rank and spread to the rear.

“Halt!” cried he. The word went down the line, and they halted. “Herald to the gate!” A pursuivant spurred out of the ranks, and halting twenty yards from the gate, raised his bugle with his herald’s flag hanging down round it, and blew a summons. A tall figure in brazen armour appeared over the gate. A few fiery words passed between him and the herald, which were not audible, but their import clear, for the herald blew a single keen and threatening note at the walls, and came galloping back with war in his face. The bastard moved out of the line to meet him, and their heads had not been together two seconds ere he turned in his saddle and shouted, “Pioneers, to the van!” and in a moment hedges were levelled, and the force took the field and encamped just out of shot from the walls; and away went mounted officers flying south, east, and west, to the friendly towns, for catapults, palisades, mantelets, raw hides, tar-barrels, carpenters, provisions, and all the materials for a siege.

The bright perspective mightily cheered one drooping soldier. At the first clang of the portcullis his eyes brightened and his temple flushed; and when the herald came back with battle in his eye he saw it in a moment, and for the first time this many days cried, “Courage, tout le monde, le diable est mort.”

If that great warrior heard, how he must have grinned!

The besiegers encamped a furlong from the walls, and made roads; kept their pikemen in camp ready for an assault when practicable; and sent forward their sappers, pioneers, catapultiers, and crossbowmen. These opened a siege by filling the moat, and mining, or breaching the wall, etc. And as much of their work had to be done under close fire of arrows, quarels, bolts, stones, and little rocks, the above artists “had need of a hundred eyes,” and acted in concert with a vigilance, and an amount of individual intelligence, daring, and skill, that made a siege very interesting, and even amusing: to lookers on.

The first thing they did was to advance their carpenters behind rolling mantelets, to erect a stockade high and strong on the very edge of the moat. Some lives were lost at this, but not many; for a strong force of crossbowmen, including Denys, rolled their mantelets up and shot over the workmen’s heads at every besieged who showed his nose, and at every loophole, arrow-slit, or other aperture, which commanded the particular spot the carpenters happened to be upon. Covered by their condensed fire, these soon raised a high palisade between them and the ordinary missiles from the pierced masonry.

But the besieged expected this, and ran out at night their boards or wooden penthouses on the top of the curtains. The curtains were built with square holes near the top to receive the beams that supported these structures, the true defence of mediaeval forts, from which the besieged delivered their missiles with far more freedom and variety of range than they could shoot through the oblique but immovable loopholes of the curtain, or even through the sloping crenelets of the higher towers. On this the besiegers brought up mangonels, and set them hurling huge stones at these woodworks and battering them to pieces. Contemporaneously they built a triangular wooden tower as high as the curtain, and kept it ready for use, and just out of shot.

This was a terrible sight to the besieged. These wooden towers had taken many a town. They began to mine underneath that part of the moat the tower stood frowning at; and made other preparations to give it a warm reception. The besiegers also mined, but at another part, their object being to get under the square barbican and throw it down. All this time Denys was behind his mantelet with another arbalestrier, protecting the workmen and making some excellent shots. These ended by earning him the esteem of an unseen archer, who every now and then sent a winged compliment quivering into his mantelet. One came and struck within an inch of the narrow slit through which Denys was squinting at the moment. “Peste,” cried he, “you shoot well, my friend. Come forth and receive my congratulations! Shall merit such as thine hide its head? Comrade, it is one of those cursed Englishmen, with his half ell shaft. I’ll not die till I’ve had a shot at London wall.”

On the side of the besieged was a figure that soon attracted great notice by promenading under fire. It was a tall knight, clad in complete brass, and carrying a light but prodigiously long lance, with which he directed the movements of the besieged. And when any disaster befell the besiegers, this tall knight and his long lance were pretty sure to be concerned in it.

My young reader will say, “Why did not Denys shoot him?” Denys did shoot him; every day of his life; other arbalestriers shot him; archers shot him. Everybody shot him. He was there to be shot, apparently. But the abomination was, he did not mind being shot. Nay, worse, he got at last so demoralised as not to seem to know when he was shot. He walked his battlements under fire, as some stout skipper paces his deck in a suit of Flushing, calmly oblivious of the April drops that fall on his woollen armour. At last the besiegers got spiteful, and would not waste any more good steel on him; but cursed him and his impervious coat of mail.

He took those missiles like the rest.

Gunpowder has spoiled war. War was always detrimental to the solid interests of mankind. But in old times it was good for something: it painted well, sang divinely, furnished Iliads. But invisible butchery, under a pall of smoke a furlong thick, who is any the better for that? Poet with his note-book may repeat, “Suave etiam belli certamina magna tueri;” but the sentiment is hollow and savours of cuckoo. You can’t tueri anything but a horrid row. He didn’t say, “Suave etiam ingentem caliginem tueri per campos instructam.”

They managed better in the Middle Ages.

This siege was a small affair; but, such as it was, a writer or minstrel could see it, and turn an honest penny by singing it; so far then the sport was reasonable, and served an end.

It was a bright day, clear, but not quite frosty. The efforts of the besieging force were concentrated against a space of about two hundred and fifty yards, containing two curtains and two towers, one of which was the square barbican, the other had a pointed roof that was built to overlap, resting on a stone machicolade, and by this means a row of dangerous crenelets between the roof and the masonry grinned down at the nearer assailants, and looked not very unlike the grinders of a modern frigate with each port nearly closed. The curtains were overlapped with penthouses somewhat shattered by the mangonels, trebuchets, and other slinging engines of the besiegers. On the besiegers’ edge of the moat was what seemed at first sight a gigantic arsenal, longer than it was broad, peopled by human ants, and full of busy, honest industry, and displaying all the various mechanical science of the age in full operation. Here the lever at work, there the winch and pulley, here the balance, there the capstan. Everywhere heaps of stones, and piles of fascines, mantelets, and rows of fire-barrels. Mantelets rolling, the hammer tapping all day, horses and carts in endless succession rattling up with materials. Only, on looking closer into the hive of industry, you might observe that arrows were constantly flying to and fro, that the cranes did not tenderly deposit their masses of stone, but flung them with an indifference to property, though on scientific principles, and that among the tubs full of arrows, and the tar-barrels and the beams, the fagots, and other utensils, here and there a workman or a soldier lay flatter than is usual in limited naps, and something more or less feathered stuck in them, and blood, and other essentials, oozed out.

At the edge of the moat opposite the wooden tower, a strong penthouse, which they called “a cat,” might be seen stealing towards the curtain, and gradually filling up the moat with fascines and rubbish, which the workmen flung out at its mouth. It was advanced by two sets of ropes passing round pulleys, and each worked by a windlass at some distance from the cat. The knight burnt the first cat by flinging blazing tar-barrels on it. So the besiegers made the roof of this one very steep, and covered it with raw hides, and the tar-barrels could not harm it. Then the knight made signs with his spear, and a little trebuchet behind the walls began dropping stones just clear of the wall into the moat, and at last they got the range, and a stone went clean through the roof of the cat, and made an ugly hole.

Baldwyn of Burgundy saw this, and losing his temper, ordered the great catapult that was battering the wood-work of the curtain opposite it to be turned and levelled slantwise at this invulnerable knight. Denys and his Englishman went to dinner. These two worthies being eternally on the watch for one another had made a sort of distant acquaintance, and conversed by signs, especially on a topic that in peace or war maintains the same importance. Sometimes Denys would put a piece of bread on the top of his mantelet, and then the archer would hang something of the kind out by a string; or the order of invitation would be reversed. Anyway, they always managed to dine together.

And now the engineers proceeded to the unusual step of slinging fifty-pound stones at an individual.

This catapult was a scientific, simple, and beautiful engine, and very effective in vertical fire at the short ranges of the period.

Imagine a fir-tree cut down, and set to turn round a horizontal axis on lofty uprights, but not in equilibrio; three-fourths of the tree being on the hither side. At the shorter and thicker end of the tree was fastened a weight of half a ton. This butt end just before the discharge pointed towards the enemy. By means of a powerful winch the long tapering portion of the tree was forced down to the very ground, and fastened by a bolt; and the stone placed in a sling attached to the tree’s nose. But this process of course raised the butt end with its huge weight high in the air, and kept it there struggling in vain to come down. The bolt was now drawn; Gravity, an institution which flourished even then, resumed its sway, the short end swung furiously down, the long end went as furiously round up, and at its highest elevation flung the huge stone out of the sling with a tremendous jerk. In this case the huge mass so flung missed the knight; but came down near him on the penthouse, and went through it like paper, making an awful gap in roof and floor. Through the latter fell out two inanimate objects, the stone itself and the mangled body of a besieger it had struck. They fell down the high curtain side, down, down, and struck almost together the sullen waters of the moat, which closed bubbling on them, and kept both the stone and the bone two hundred years, till cannon mocked those oft perturbed waters, and civilization dried them.

“Aha! a good shot,” cried Baldwyn of Burgundy.

The tall knight retired. The besiegers hooted him.

He reappeared on the platform of the barbican, his helmet being just visible above the parapet. He seemed very busy, and soon an enormous Turkish catapult made its appearance on the platform and aided by the elevation at which it was planted, flung a twentypound stone some two hundred and forty yards in the air; it bounded after that, and knocked some dirt into the Lord Anthony’s eye, and made him swear. The next stone struck a horse that was bringing up a sheaf of arrows in a cart, bowled the horse over dead like a rabbit, and spilt the cart. It was then turned at the besiegers’ wooden tower, supposed to be out of shot. Sir Turk slung stones cut with sharp edges on purpose, and struck it repeatedly, and broke it in several places. The besiegers turned two of their slinging engines on this monster, and kept constantly slinging smaller stones on to the platform of the barbican, and killed two of the engineers. But the Turk disdained to retort. He flung a forty-pound stone on to the besiegers’ great catapult, and hitting it in the neighbourhood of the axis, knocked the whole structure to pieces, and sent the engineers skipping and yelling.

In the afternoon, as Simon was running back to his mantelet from a palisade where he had been shooting at the besieged, Denys, peeping through his slit, saw the poor fellow suddenly stare and hold out his arms, then roll on his face, and a feathered arrow protruded from his back. The archer showed himself a moment to enjoy his skill. It was the Englishman. Denys, already prepared, shot his bolt, and the murderous archer staggered away wounded. But poor Simon never moved. His wars were over.

“I am unlucky in my comrades,” said Denys.

The next morning an unwelcome sight greeted the besieged. The cat was covered with mattresses and raw hides, and fast filling up the moat. The knight stoned it, but in vain; flung burning tar-barrels on it, but in vain. Then with his own hands he let down by a rope a bag of burning sulphur and pitch, and stunk them out. But Baldwyn, armed like a lobster, ran, and bounding on the roof, cut the string, and the work went on. Then the knight sent fresh engineers into the mine, and undermined the place and underpinned it with beams, and covered the beams thickly with grease and tar.

At break of day the moat was filled, and the wooden tower began to move on its wheels towards a part of the curtain on which two catapults were already playing to breach the hoards, and clear the way. There was something awful and magical in its approach without visible agency, for it was driven by internal rollers worked by leverage. On the top was a platform, where stood the first assailing party protected in front by the drawbridge of the turret, which stood vertical till lowered on to the wall; but better protected by full suits of armour. The beseiged slung at the tower, and struck it often, but in vain. It was well defended with mattresses and hides, and presently was at the edge of the moat. The knight bade fire the mine underneath it.

Then the Turkish engine flung a stone of half a hundredweight right amongst the knights, and carried two away with it off the tower on to the plain. One lay and writhed: the other neither moved nor spake.

And now the besieging catapults flung blazing tar-barrels, and fired the hoards on both sides, and the assailants ran up the ladders behind the tower, and lowered the drawbridge on to the battered curtain, while the catapults in concert flung tar-barrels and fired the adjoining works to dislodge the defenders. The armed men on the platform sprang on the bridge, led by Baldwyn. The invulnerable knight and his men-at-arms met them, and a fearful combat ensued, in which many a figure was seen to fall headlong down off the narrow bridge. But fresh besiegers kept swarming up behind the tower, and the besieged were driven off the bridge.

Another minute, and the town was taken; but so well had the firing of the mine been timed, that just at this instant the underpinners gave way, and the tower suddenly sank away from the walls, tearing the drawbridge clear and pouring the soldiers off it against the masonry, and on to the dry moat. The besieged uttered a fierce shout, and in a moment surrounded Baldwyn and his fellows; but strange to say, offered them quarter. While a party disarmed and disposed of these, others fired the turret in fifty places with a sort of hand grenades. At this work who so busy as the tall knight. He put the fire-bags on his long spear, and thrust them into the doomed structure late so terrible. To do this he was obliged to stand on a projecting beam of the shattered hoard, holding on by the hand of a pikeman to steady himself. This provoked Denys; he ran out from his mantelet, hoping to escape notice in the confusion, and levelling his crossbow missed the knight clean, but sent his bolt into the brain of the pikeman, and the tall knight fell heavily from the wall, lance and all. Denys gazed wonder-struck; and in that unlucky moment, suddenly he felt his arm hot, then cold, and there was an English arrow skewering it.

This episode was unnoticed in a much greater matter. The knight, his armour glittering in the morning sun, fell headlong, but turning as he neared the water, struck it with a slap that sounded a mile off.

None ever thought to see him again. But he fell at the edge of the fascines on which the turret stood all cocked on one side, and his spear stuck into them under water, and by a mighty effort he got to the side, but could not get out. Anthony sent a dozen knights with a white flag to take him prisoner. He submitted like a lamb, but said nothing.

He was taken to Anthony’s tent.

That worthy laughed at first at the sight of his muddy armour, but presently, frowning, said, “I marvel, sir, that so good a knight as you should know his devoir so ill as turn rebel, and give us all this trouble.”

“I am nun-nun-nun-nun-nun-no knight.”

“What then?”

“A hosier.”

“A what? Then thy armour shall be stripped off, and thou shalt be tied to a stake in front of the works, and riddled with arrows for a warning to traitors.”

“N-n-n-n-no! duda-duda-duda-duda-don’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Tuta-tuta-tuta-townsfolk will-h-h-h-hang t’other buba-buba-buba-buba-bastard.”

“What, whom?”

“Your bub-bub-bub-brother Baldwyn.”

“What, have you knaves ta’en him?”

The warlike hosier nodded.

“Hang the fool!” said Anthony, peevishly.

The warlike hosier watched his eye, and doffing his helmet, took out of the lining an intercepted letter from the duke, bidding the said Anthony come to court immediately, as he was to represent the court of Burgundy at the court of England; was to go over and receive the English king’s sister, and conduct her to her bridegroom, the Earl of Charolois. The mission was one very soothing to Anthony’s pride, and also to his love of pleasure. For Edward the Fourth held the gayest and most luxurious court in Europe. The sly hosier saw he longed to be off, and said, “We’ll gega-gega-gega-gega-give ye a thousand angels to raise the siege.”

“And Baldwyn?”

“I’ll gega-gega-gega-gega-go and send him with the money.”

It was now dinner-time; and a flag of truce being hoisted on both sides, the sham knight and the true one dined together and came to a friendly understanding.

“But what is your grievance, my good friend?”

“Tuta-tuta-tuta-tuta-too much taxes.”

Denys, on finding the arrow in his right arm, turned his back, which was protected by a long shield, and walked sulkily into camp. He was met by the Comte de Jarnac, who had seen his brilliant shot, and finding him wounded into the bargain, gave him a handful of broad pieces.

“Hast got the better of thy grief, arbalestrier, methinks.”

“My grief, yes; but not my love. As soon as ever I have put down this rebellion, I go to Holland, and there I shall meet with him.”

This event was nearer than Denys thought. He was relieved from service next day, and though his wound was no trifle, set out with a stout heart to rejoin his friend in Holland.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33