The Talisman, by Walter Scott

Chapter VI.

Now change the scene — and let the trumpets sound,

For we must rouse the lion from his lair.

OLD PLAY.

The scene must change, as our programme has announced, from the mountain wilderness of Jordan to the camp of King Richard of England, then stationed betwixt Jean d’Acre and Ascalon, and containing that army with which he of the lion heart had promised himself a triumphant march to Jerusalem, and in which he would probably have succeeded, if not hindered by the jealousies of the Christian princes engaged in the same enterprise, and the offence taken by them at the uncurbed haughtiness of the English monarch, and Richard’s unveiled contempt for his brother sovereigns, who, his equals in rank, were yet far his inferiors in courage, hardihood, and military talents. Such discords, and particularly those betwixt Richard and Philip of France, created disputes and obstacles which impeded every active measure proposed by the heroic though impetuous Richard, while the ranks of the Crusaders were daily thinned, not only by the desertion of individuals, but of entire bands, headed by their respective feudal leaders, who withdrew from a contest in which they had ceased to hope for success.

The effects of the climate became, as usual, fatal to soldiers from the north, and the more so that the dissolute license of the Crusaders, forming a singular contrast to the principles and purpose of their taking up arms, rendered them more easy victims to the insalubrious influence of burning heat and chilling dews. To these discouraging causes of loss was to be added the sword of the enemy. Saladin, than whom no greater name is recorded in Eastern history, had learned, to his fatal experience, that his light-armed followers were little able to meet in close encounter with the iron-clad Franks, and had been taught, at the same time, to apprehend and dread the adventurous character of his antagonist Richard. But if his armies were more than once routed with great slaughter, his numbers gave the Saracen the advantage in those lighter skirmishes, of which many were inevitable.

As the army of his assailants decreased, the enterprises of the Sultan became more numerous and more bold in this species of petty warfare. The camp of the Crusaders was surrounded, and almost besieged, by clouds of light cavalry, resembling swarms of wasps, easily crushed when they are once grasped, but furnished with wings to elude superior strength, and stings to inflict harm and mischief. There was perpetual warfare of posts and foragers, in which many valuable lives were lost, without any corresponding object being gained; convoys were intercepted, and communications were cut off. The Crusaders had to purchase the means of sustaining life, by life itself; and water, like that of the well of Bethlehem, longed for by King David, one of its ancient monarchs, was then, as before, only obtained by the expenditure of blood.

These evils were in a great measure counterbalanced by the stern resolution and restless activity of King Richard, who, with some of his best knights, was ever on horseback, ready to repair to any point where danger occurred, and often not only bringing unexpected succour to the Christians, but discomfiting the infidels when they seemed most secure of victory. But even the iron frame of Coeur de Lion could not support without injury the alternations of the unwholesome climate, joined to ceaseless exertions of body and mind. He became afflicted with one of those slow and wasting fevers peculiar to Asia, and in despite of his great strength and still greater courage, grew first unfit to mount on horseback, and then unable to attend the councils of war which were from time to time held by the Crusaders. It was difficult to say whether this state of personal inactivity was rendered more galling or more endurable to the English monarch by the resolution of the council to engage in a truce of thirty days with the Sultan Saladin; for on the one hand, if he was incensed at the delay which this interposed to the progress of the great enterprise, he was, on the other, somewhat consoled by knowing that others were not acquiring laurels while he remained inactive upon a sick-bed,

That, however, which Coeur de Lion could least excuse was the general inactivity which prevailed in the camp of the Crusaders so soon as his illness assumed a serious aspect; and the reports which he extracted from his unwilling attendants gave him to understand that the hopes of the host had abated in proportion to his illness, and that the interval of truce was employed, not in recruiting their numbers, reanimating their courage, fostering their spirit of conquest, and preparing for a speedy and determined advance upon the Holy City, which was the object of their expedition, but in securing the camp occupied by their diminished followers with trenches, palisades, and other fortifications, as if preparing rather to repel an attack from a powerful enemy so soon as hostilities should recommence, than to assume the proud character of conquerors and assailants.

The English king chafed under these reports, like the imprisoned lion viewing his prey from the iron barriers of his cage. Naturally rash and impetuous, the irritability of his temper preyed on itself. He was dreaded by his attendants and even the medical assistants feared to assume the necessary authority which a physician, to do justice to his patient, must needs exercise over him. One faithful baron, who, perhaps, from the congenial nature of his disposition, was devoutly attached to the King’s person, dared alone to come between the dragon and his wrath, and quietly, but firmly, maintained a control which no other dared assume over the dangerous invalid, and which Thomas de Multon only exercised because he esteemed his sovereign’s life and honour more than he did the degree of favour which he might lose, or even the risk which he might incur, in nursing a patient so intractable, and whose displeasure was so perilous.

Sir Thomas was the Lord of Gilsland, in Cumberland, and in an age when surnames and titles were not distinctly attached, as now, to the individuals who bore them, he was called by the Normans the Lord de Vaux; and in English by the Saxons, who clung to their native language, and were proud of the share of Saxon blood in this renowned warrior’s veins, he was termed Thomas, or, more familiarly, Thom of the Gills, or Narrow Valleys, from which his extensive domains derived their well-known appellation.

This chief had been exercised in almost all the wars, whether waged betwixt England and Scotland, or amongst the various domestic factions which then tore the former country asunder, and in all had been distinguished, as well from his military conduct as his personal prowess. He was, in other respects, a rude soldier, blunt and careless in his bearing, and taciturn — nay, almost sullen — in his habits of society, and seeming, at least, to disclaim all knowledge of policy and of courtly art. There were men, however, who pretended to look deeply into character, who asserted that the Lord de Vaux was not less shrewd and aspiring than he was blunt and bold, and who thought that, while he assimilated himself to the king’s own character of blunt hardihood, it was, in some degree at least, with an eye to establish his favour, and to gratify his own hopes of deep-laid ambition. But no one cared to thwart his schemes, if such he had, by rivalling him in the dangerous occupation of daily attendance on the sick-bed of a patient whose disease was pronounced infectious, and more especially when it was remembered that the patient was Coeur de Lion, suffering under all the furious impatience of a soldier withheld from battle, and a sovereign sequestered from authority; and the common soldiers, at least in the English army, were generally of opinion that De Vaux attended on the King like comrade upon comrade, in the honest and disinterested frankness of military friendship contracted between the partakers of daily dangers.

It was on the decline of a Syrian day that Richard lay on his couch of sickness, loathing it as much in mind as his illness made it irksome to his body. His bright blue eye, which at all times shone with uncommon keenness and splendour, had its vivacity augmented by fever and mental impatience, and glanced from among his curled and unshorn locks of yellow hair as fitfully and as vividly as the last gleams of the sun shoot through the clouds of an approaching thunderstorm, which still, however, are gilded by its beams. His manly features showed the progress of wasting illness, and his beard, neglected and untrimmed, had overgrown both lips and chin. Casting himself from side to side, now clutching towards him the coverings, which at the next moment he flung as impatiently from him, his tossed couch and impatient gestures showed at once the energy and the reckless impatience of a disposition whose natural sphere was that of the most active exertion.

Beside his couch stood Thomas de Vaux, in face, attitude, and manner the strongest possible contrast to the suffering monarch. His stature approached the gigantic, and his hair in thickness might have resembled that of Samson, though only after the Israelitish champion’s locks had passed under the shears of the Philistines, for those of De Vaux were cut short, that they might be enclosed under his helmet. The light of his broad, large hazel eye resembled that of the autumn morn; and it was only perturbed for a moment, when from time to time it was attracted by Richard’s vehement marks of agitation and restlessness. His features, though massive like his person, might have been handsome before they were defaced with scars; his upper lip, after the fashion of the Normans, was covered with thick moustaches, which grew so long and luxuriantly as to mingle with his hair, and, like his hair, were dark brown, slightly brindled with grey. His frame seemed of that kind which most readily defies both toil and climate, for he was thin-flanked, broad-chested, long-armed, deep-breathed, and strong-limbed. He had not laid aside his buff-coat, which displayed the cross cut on the shoulder, for more than three nights, enjoying but such momentary repose as the warder of a sick monarch’s couch might by snatches indulge. This Baron rarely changed his posture, except to administer to Richard the medicine or refreshments which none of his less favoured attendants could persuade the impatient monarch to take; and there was something affecting in the kindly yet awkward manner in which he discharged offices so strangely contrasted with his blunt and soldierly habits and manners.

The pavilion in which these personages were, had, as became the time, as well as the personal character of Richard, more of a warlike than a sumptuous or royal character. Weapons offensive and defensive, several of them of strange and newly-invented construction, were scattered about the tented apartment, or disposed upon the pillars which supported it. Skins of animals slain in the chase were stretched on the ground, or extended along the sides of the pavilion; and upon a heap of these silvan spoils lay three ALANS, as they were then called (wolf-greyhounds, that is), of the largest size, and as white as snow. Their faces, marked with many a scar from clutch and fang, showed their share in collecting the trophies upon which they reposed; and their eyes, fixed from time to time with an expressive stretch and yawn upon the bed of Richard, evinced how much they marvelled at and regretted the unwonted inactivity which they were compelled to share. These were but the accompaniments of the soldier and huntsman; but on a small table close by the bed was placed a shield of wrought steel, of triangular form, bearing the three lions passant first assumed by the chivalrous monarch, and before it the golden circlet, resembling much a ducal coronet, only that it was higher in front than behind, which, with the purple velvet and embroidered tiara that lined it, formed then the emblem of England’s sovereignty. Beside it, as if prompt for defending the regal symbol, lay a mighty curtal-axe, which would have wearied the arm of any other than Coeur de Lion.

In an outer partition of the pavilion waited two or three officers of the royal household, depressed, anxious for their master’s health, and not less so for their own safety, in case of his decease. Their gloomy apprehensions spread themselves to the warders without, who paced about in downcast and silent contemplation, or, resting on their halberds, stood motionless on their post, rather like armed trophies than living warriors.

“So thou hast no better news to bring me from without, Sir Thomas!” said the King, after a long and perturbed silence, spent in the feverish agitation which we have endeavoured to describe. “All our knights turned women, and our ladies become devotees, and neither a spark of valour nor of gallantry to enlighten a camp which contains the choicest of Europe’s chivalry — ha!”

“The truce, my lord,” said De Vaux, with the same patience with which he had twenty times repeated the explanation —“the truce prevents us bearing ourselves as men of action; and for the ladies, I am no great reveller, as is well known to your Majesty, and seldom exchange steel and buff for velvet and gold — but thus far I know, that our choicest beauties are waiting upon the Queen’s Majesty and the Princess, to a pilgrimage to the convent of Engaddi, to accomplish their vows for your Highness’s deliverance from this trouble.”

“And is it thus,” said Richard, with the impatience of indisposition, “that royal matrons and maidens should risk themselves, where the dogs who defile the land have as little truth to man as they have faith towards God?”

“Nay, my lord,” said De Vaux, “they have Saladin’s word for their safety.”

“True, true!” replied Richard; “and I did the heathen Soldan injustice — I owe him reparation for it. Would God I were but fit to offer it him upon my body between the two hosts — Christendom and heathenesse both looking on!”

As Richard spoke, he thrust his right arm out of bed naked to the shoulder, and painfully raising himself in his couch, shook his clenched hand, as if it grasped sword or battle-axe, and was then brandished over the jewelled turban of the Soldan. It was not without a gentle degree of violence, which the King would scarce have endured from another, that De Vaux, in his character of sick-nurse, compelled his royal master to replace himself in the couch, and covered his sinewy arm, neck, and shoulders with the care which a mother bestows upon an impatient child.

“Thou art a rough nurse, though a willing one, De Vaux,” said the King, laughing with a bitter expression, while he submitted to the strength which he was unable to resist; “methinks a coif would become thy lowering features as well as a child’s biggin would beseem mine. We should be a babe and nurse to frighten girls with.”

“We have frightened men in our time, my liege,” said De Vaux; “and, I trust, may live to frighten them again. What is a fever-fit, that we should not endure it patiently, in order to get rid of it easily?”

“Fever-fit!” exclaimed Richard impetuously; “thou mayest think, and justly, that it is a fever-fit with me; but what is it with all the other Christian princes — with Philip of France, with that dull Austrian, with him of Montserrat, with the Hospitallers, with the Templars — what is it with all them? I will tell thee. It is a cold palsy, a dead lethargy, a disease that deprives them of speech and action, a canker that has eaten into the heart of all that is noble, and chivalrous, and virtuous among them — that has made them false to the noblest vow ever knights were sworn to — has made them indifferent to their fame, and forgetful of their God!”

“For the love of Heaven, my liege,” said De Vaux, “take it less violently — you will be heard without doors, where such speeches are but too current already among the common soldiery, and engender discord and contention in the Christian host. Bethink you that your illness mars the mainspring of their enterprise; a mangonel will work without screw and lever better than the Christian host without King Richard.”

“Thou flatterest me, De Vaux,” said Richard, and not insensible to the power of praise, he reclined his head on the pillow with a more deliberate attempt to repose than he had yet exhibited. But Thomas de Vaux was no courtier; the phrase which had offered had risen spontaneously to his lips, and he knew not how to pursue the pleasing theme so as to soothe and prolong the vein which he had excited. He was silent, therefore, until, relapsing into his moody contemplations, the King demanded of him sharply, “Despardieux! This is smoothly said to soothe a sick man; but does a league of monarchs, an assemblage or nobles, a convocation of all the chivalry of Europe, droop with the sickness of one man, though he chances to be King of England? Why should Richard’s illness, or Richard’s death, check the march of thirty thousand men as brave as himself? When the master stag is struck down, the herd do not disperse upon his fall; when the falcon strikes the leading crane, another takes the guidance of the phalanx. Why do not the powers assemble and choose some one to whom they may entrust the guidance of the host?”

“Forsooth, and if it please your Majesty,” said De Vaux, “I hear consultations have been held among the royal leaders for some such purpose.”

“Ha!” exclaimed Richard, his jealousy awakened, giving his mental irritation another direction, “am I forgot by my allies ere I have taken the last sacrament? Do they hold me dead already? But no, no, they are right. And whom do they select as leader of the Christian host?”

“Rank and dignity,” said De Vaux, “point to the King of France.”

“Oh, ay,” answered the English monarch, “Philip of France and Navarre — Denis Mountjoie — his most Christian Majesty! Mouth-filling words these! There is but one risk — -that he might mistake the words EN ARRIERE for EN AVANT, and lead us back to Paris, instead of marching to Jerusalem. His politic head has learned by this time that there is more to be gotten by oppressing his feudatories, and pillaging his allies, than fighting with the Turks for the Holy Sepulchre.”

“They might choose the Archduke of Austria,” said De Vaux.

“What! because he is big and burly like thyself, Thomas — nearly as thick-headed, but without thy indifference to danger and carelessness of offence? I tell thee that Austria has in all that mass of flesh no bolder animation than is afforded by the peevishness of a wasp and the courage of a wren. Out upon him! He a leader of chivalry to deeds of glory! Give him a flagon of Rhenish to drink with his besmirched baaren-hauters and lance-knechts.”

“There is the Grand Master of the Templars,” continued the baron, not sorry to keep his master’s attention engaged on other topics than his own illness, though at the expense of the characters of prince and potentate. “There is the Grand Master of the Templars,” he continued, “undaunted, skilful, brave in battle, and sage in council, having no separate kingdoms of his own to divert his exertions from the recovery of the Holy Land — what thinks your Majesty of the Master as a general leader of the Christian host?”

“Ha, Beau-Seant?” answered the King. “Oh, no exception can be taken to Brother Giles Amaury; he understands the ordering of a battle, and the fighting in front when it begins. But, Sir Thomas, were it fair to take the Holy Land from the heathen Saladin, so full of all the virtues which may distinguish unchristened man, and give it to Giles Amaury, a worse pagan than himself, an idolater, a devil-worshipper, a necromancer, who practises crimes the most dark and unnatural in the vaults and secret places of abomination and darkness?”

“The Grand Master of the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem is not tainted by fame, either with heresy or magic,” said Thomas de Vaux.

“But is he not a sordid miser?” said Richard hastily; “has he not been suspected — ay, more than suspected — of selling to the infidels those advantages which they would never have won by fair force? Tush, man, better give the army to be made merchandise of by Venetian skippers and Lombardy pedlars, than trust it to the Grand Master of St. John.”

“Well, then, I will venture but another guess,” said the Baron de Vaux. “What say you to the gallant Marquis of Montserrat, so wise, so elegant, such a good man-at-arms?”

“Wise? — cunning, you would say,” replied Richard; “elegant in a lady’s chamber, if you will. Oh, ay, Conrade of Montserrat — who knows not the popinjay? Politic and versatile, he will change you his purposes as often as the trimmings of his doublet, and you shall never be able to guess the hue of his inmost vestments from their outward colours. A man-at-arms? Ay, a fine figure on horseback, and can bear him well in the tilt-yard, and at the barriers, when swords are blunted at point and edge, and spears are tipped with trenchers of wood instead of steel pikes. Wert thou not with me when I said to that same gay Marquis, ‘Here we be, three good Christians, and on yonder plain there pricks a band of some threescore Saracens — what say you to charge them briskly? There are but twenty unbelieving miscreants to each true knight.”

“I recollect the Marquis replied,” said De Vaux, “that his limbs were of flesh, not of iron, and that he would rather bear the heart of a man than of a beast, though that beast were the lion, But I see how it is — we shall end where we began, without hope of praying at the Sepulchre until Heaven shall restore King Richard to health.”

At this grave remark Richard burst out into a hearty fit of laughter, the first which he had for some time indulged in. “Why what a thing is conscience,” he said, “that through its means even such a thick-witted northern lord as thou canst bring thy sovereign to confess his folly! It is true that, did they not propose themselves as fit to hold my leading-staff, little should I care for plucking the silken trappings off the puppets thou hast shown me in succession. What concerns it me what fine tinsel robes they swagger in, unless when they are named as rivals in the glorious enterprise to which I have vowed myself? Yes, De Vaux, I confess my weakness, and the wilfulness of my ambition. The Christian camp contains, doubtless, many a better knight than Richard of England, and it would be wise and worthy to assign to the best of them the leading of the host. But,” continued the warlike monarch, raising himself in his bed, and shaking the cover from his head, while his eyes sparkled as they were wont to do on the eve of battle, “were such a knight to plant the banner of the Cross on the Temple of Jerusalem while I was unable to bear my share in the noble task, he should, so soon as I was fit to lay lance in rest, undergo my challenge to mortal combat, for having diminished my fame, and pressed in before to the object of my enterprise. But hark, what trumpets are those at a distance?”

“Those of King Philip, as I guess, my liege,” said the stout Englishman.

“Thou art dull of ear, Thomas,” said the King, endeavouring to start up; “hearest thou not that clash and clang? By Heaven, the Turks are in the camp — I hear their LELIES.” [The war-cries of the Moslemah.]

He again endeavoured to get out of bed, and De Vaux was obliged to exercise his own great strength, and also to summon the assistance of the chamberlains from the inner tent, to restrain him.

“Thou art a false traitor, De Vaux,” said the incensed monarch, when, breathless and exhausted with struggling, he was compelled to submit to superior strength, and to repose in quiet on his couch. “I would I were — I would I were but strong enough to dash thy brains out with my battle-axe!”

“I would you had the strength, my liege,” said De Vaux, “and would even take the risk of its being so employed. The odds would be great in favour of Christendom were Thomas Multon dead and Coeur de Lion himself again.”

“Mine honest faithful servant,” said Richard, extending his hand, which the baron reverentially saluted, “forgive thy master’s impatience of mood. It is this burning fever which chides thee, and not thy kind master, Richard of England. But go, I prithee, and bring me word what strangers are in the camp, for these sounds are not of Christendom.”

De Vaux left the pavilion on the errand assigned, and in his absence, which he had resolved should be brief, he charged the chamberlains, pages, and attendants to redouble their attention on their sovereign, with threats of holding them to responsibility, which rather added to than diminished their timid anxiety in the discharge of their duty; for next, perhaps, to the ire of the monarch himself, they dreaded that of the stern and inexorable Lord of Gilsland. [Sir Thomas Multon of Gilsland.]

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