The Betrothed, by Walter Scott

Chapter the Twentieth

The Kiugr call’d down his merry men all,

By one, and by two, and three;

Earl Marshal was wont to be the foremost man,

But the hindmost man was he.

OLD BALLAD.

If the Lady Eveline retired satisfied and pleased from her private interview with De Lacy, the joy on the part of the Constable rose to a higher pitch of rapture than he was in the habit of feeling or expressing; and it was augmented by a visit of the leeches who attended his nephew, from whom he received a minute and particular account of his present disorder, with every assurance of a speedy recovery.

The Constable caused alms to be distributed to the convents and to the poor, masses to be said, and tapers to be lighted. He visited the Archbishop, and received from him his full approbation of the course which he proposed to pursue, with the promise, that out of the plenary power which he held from the Pope, the Prelate was willing, in consideration of his instant obedience, to limit his stay in the Holy Land to the term of three years, to become current from his leaving Britain, and to include the space necessary for his return to his native country. Indeed, having succeeded in the main point, the Archbishop judged it wise to concede every inferior consideration to a person of the Constable’s rank and character, whose good-will to the proposed expedition was perhaps as essential to its success as his bodily presence.

In short, the Constable returned to his pavilion highly satisfied with the manner in which he had extricated himself from those difficulties which in the morning seemed almost insuperable; and when his officers assembled to disrobe him, (for great feudal lords had their levees and couchees, in imitation of sovereign princes,) he distributed gratuities amongst them, and jested and laughed in a much gayer humour than they had ever before witnessed.

“For thee,” he said, turning to Vidal the minstrel, who, sumptuously dressed, stood to pay his respects among the other attendants, “I will give thee nought at present; but do thou remain by my bedside until I am asleep, and I will next morning reward thy minstrelsy as I like it.”

“My lord,” said Vidal, “I am already rewarded, both by the honour, and by the liveries, which better befit a royal minstrel than one of my mean fame; but assign me a subject, and I will do my best, not out of greed of future largess, but gratitude for past favours.”

“Gramercy, good fellow,” said the Constable. “Guarine,” he added, addressing his squire, “let the watch be posted, and do thou remain within the tent — stretch thyself on the bear-hide, and sleep, or listen to the minstrelsy, as thou likest best. Thou thinkest thyself a judge, I have heard, of such gear.”

It was usual, in those insecure times, for some faithful domestic to sleep at night within the tent of every great baron, that, if danger arose, he might not be unsupported or unprotected. Guarine accordingly drew his sword, and, taking it in his hand, stretched himself on the ground in such a manner, that, on the slightest alarm, he could spring up, sword in hand. His broad black eyes, in which sleep contended with a desire to listen to the music, were fixed on Vidal, who saw them glittering in the reflection of the silver lamp, like those of a dragon or a basilisk.

After a few preliminary touches on the chords of his rote, the minstrel requested of the Constable to name the subject on which he desired the exercise of his powers.

“The truth of woman,” answered Hugo de Lacy, as he laid his head upon his pillow.

After a short prelude, the minstrel obeyed, by singing nearly as follows:—

“Woman’s faith, and woman’s trust —

Write the characters in dust;

Stamp them on the running stream,

Print them on the moon’s pale best,

And each evanescent letter,

Shall be clearer, firmer, better,

And more permanent, I ween,

Than the thing those letters mean.

I have strain’d the spider’s thread

‘Gainst the promise of a maid;

I have weigh’d a grain of sand

‘Gainst her plight of heart and hand;

I told my true love of the token,

How her faith proved light, and her word was broken

Again her word and truth she plight,

And I believed them again ere night.”

“How now, sir knave,” said the Constable, raising himself on his elbow, from what drunken rhymer did you learn that half-witted satire?”

“From an old, ragged, crossgrained friend of mine, called Experience,” answered Vidal. “I pray Heaven, he may never take your lordship, or any other worthy man, under his tuition.”

“Go to, fellow,” said the Constable, in reply; “thou art one of those wiseacres, I warrant me, that would fain be thought witty, because thou canst make a jest of those things which wiser men hold worthy of most worship-the honour of men, and the truth of women. Dost thou call thyself a minstrel, and hast no tale of female fidelity?”

“I had right many a one, noble sir, but I laid them aside when I disused my practice of the jesting part of the Joyous Science. Nevertheless, if it pleases your nobleness to listen, I can sing you an established lay upon such a subject.”

De Lacy made a sign of acquiescence, and laid himself as if to slumber; while Vidal began one of those interminable and almost innumerable adventures concerning that paragon of true lovers, fair Ysolte; and of the constant and uninterrupted faith and affection which she displayed in numerous situations of difficulty and peril, to her paramour, the gallant Sir Tristrem, at the expense of her less favoured husband, the luckless King Mark of Cornwall; to whom, as all the world knows, Sir Tristrem was nephew.

This was not the lay of love and fidelity which De Lacy would have chosen; but a feeling like shame prevented his interrupting it, perhaps because he was unwilling to yield to or acknowledge the unpleasing sensations excited by the tenor of the tale. He soon fell asleep, or feigned to do so; and the harper, continuing for a time his monotonous chant, began at length himself to feel the influence of slumber; his words, and the notes which he continued to touch upon the harp, were broken and interrupted, and seemed to escape drowsily from his fingers and voice. At length the sounds ceased entirely, and the minstrel seemed to have sunk into profound repose, with his head reclining on his breast, and one arm dropped down by his side, while the other rested on his harp. His slumber, however, was not very long, and when he awoke from it, and cast his eyes around him, reconnoitering, by the light of the night-lamp, whatever was in the tent, he felt a heavy hand, which pressed his shoulder as if gently to solicit his attention. At the same time the voice of the vigilant Philip Guarine whispered in his ear, “Thine office for the night is ended — depart to thine own quarters with all the silence thou mayst.”

The minstrel wrapt himself in his cloak without reply, though perhaps not without feeling some resentment at a dismissal so unceremonious.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29