The Talisman, by Walter Scott

Chapter VII.

There never was a time on the march parts yet,

When Scottish with English met,

But it was marvel if the red blood ran not

As the rain does in the street.

BATTLE OF OTTERBOURNE.

A considerable band of Scottish warriors had joined the Crusaders, and had naturally placed themselves under the command of the English monarch, being, like his native troops, most of them of Saxon and Norman descent, speaking the same languages, possessed, some of them, of English as well as Scottish demesnes, and allied in some cases by blood and intermarriage. The period also preceded that when the grasping ambition of Edward I. gave a deadly and envenomed character to the wars betwixt the two nations — the English fighting for the subjugation of Scotland, and the Scottish, with all the stern determination and obstinacy which has ever characterized their nation, for the defence of their independence, by the most violent means, under the most disadvantageous circumstances, and at the most extreme hazard. As yet, wars betwixt the two nations, though fierce and frequent, had been conducted on principles of fair hostility, and admitted of those softening shades by which courtesy and the respect for open and generous foemen qualify and mitigate the horrors of war. In time of peace, therefore, and especially when both, as at present, were engaged in war, waged in behalf of a common cause, and rendered dear to them by their ideas of religion, the adventurers of both countries frequently fought side by side, their national emulation serving only to stimulate them to excel each other in their efforts against the common enemy.

The frank and martial character of Richard, who made no distinction betwixt his own subjects and those of William of Scotland, excepting as they bore themselves in the field of battle, tended much to conciliate the troops of both nations. But upon his illness, and the disadvantageous circumstances in which the Crusaders were placed, the national disunion between the various bands united in the Crusade, began to display itself, just as old wounds break out afresh in the human body when under the influence of disease or debility.

The Scottish and English, equally jealous and high-spirited, and apt to take offence — the former the more so, because the poorer and the weaker nation — began to fill up by internal dissension the period when the truce forbade them to wreak their united vengeance on the Saracens. Like the contending Roman chiefs of old, the Scottish would admit no superiority, and their southern neighbours would brook no equality. There were charges and recriminations, and both the common soldiery and their leaders and commanders, who had been good comrades in time of victory, lowered on each other in the period of adversity, as if their union had not been then more essential than ever, not only to the success of their common cause, but to their joint safety. The same disunion had begun to show itself betwixt the French and English, the Italians and the Germans, and even between the Danes and Swedes; but it is only that which divided the two nations whom one island bred, and who seemed more animated against each other for the very reason, that our narrative is principally concerned with.

Of all the English nobles who had followed their King to Palestine, De Vaux was most prejudiced against the Scottish. They were his near neighbours, with whom he had been engaged during his whole life in private or public warfare, and on whom he had inflicted many calamities, while he had sustained at their hands not a few. His love and devotion to the King was like the vivid affection of the old English mastiff to his master, leaving him churlish and inaccessible to all others even towards those to whom he was indifferent — and rough and dangerous to any against whom he entertained a prejudice. De Vaux had never observed without jealousy and displeasure his King exhibit any mark of courtesy or favour to the wicked, deceitful, and ferocious race born on the other side of a river, or an imaginary line drawn through waste and wilderness; and he even doubted the success of a Crusade in which they were suffered to bear arms, holding them in his secret soul little better than the Saracens whom he came to combat. It may be added that, as being himself a blunt and downright Englishman, unaccustomed to conceal the slightest movement either of love or of dislike, he accounted the fair-spoken courtesy which the Scots had learned, either from imitation of their frequent allies, the French, or which might have arisen from their own proud and reserved character, as a false and astucious mark of the most dangerous designs against their neighbours, over whom he believed, with genuine English confidence, they could, by fair manhood, never obtain any advantage.

Yet, though De Vaux entertained these sentiments concerning his Northern neighbours, and extended them, with little mitigation, even to such as had assumed the Cross, his respect for the King, and a sense of the duty imposed by his vow as a Crusader, prevented him from displaying them otherwise than by regularly shunning all intercourse with his Scottish brethren-at-arms as far as possible, by observing a sullen taciturnity when compelled to meet them occasionally, and by looking scornfully upon them when they encountered on the march and in camp. The Scottish barons and knights were not men to bear his scorn unobserved or unreplied to; and it came to that pass that he was regarded as the determined and active enemy of a nation, whom, after all, he only disliked, and in some sort despised. Nay, it was remarked by close observers that, if he had not towards them the charity of Scripture, which suffereth long, and judges kindly, he was by no means deficient in the subordinate and limited virtue, which alleviates and relieves the wants of others. The wealth of Thomas of Gilsland procured supplies of provisions and medicines, and some of these usually flowed by secret channels into the quarters of the Scottish — his surly benevolence proceeding on the principle that, next to a man’s friend, his foe was of most importance to him, passing over all the intermediate relations as too indifferent to merit even a thought. This explanation is necessary, in order that the reader may fully understand what we are now to detail.

Thomas de Vaux had not made many steps beyond the entrance of the royal pavilion when he was aware of what the far more acute ear of the English monarch — no mean proficient in the art of minstrelsy — had instantly discovered, that the musical strains, namely, which had reached their ears, were produced by the pipes, shalms, and kettle-drums of the Saracens; and at the bottom of an avenue of tents, which formed a broad access to the pavilion of Richard, he could see a crowd of idle soldiers assembled around the spot from which the music was heard, almost in the centre of the camp; and he saw, with great surprise, mingled amid the helmets of various forms worn by the Crusaders of different nations, white turbans and long pikes, announcing the presence of armed Saracens, and the huge deformed heads of several camels or dromedaries, overlooking the multitude by aid of their long, disproportioned necks.

Wondering, and displeased at a sight so unexpected and singular — for it was customary to leave all flags of truce and other communications from the enemy at an appointed place without the barriers — the baron looked eagerly round for some one of whom he might inquire the cause of this alarming novelty.

The first person whom he met advancing to him he set down at once, by his grave and haughty step, as a Spaniard or a Scot; and presently after muttered to himself, “And a Scot it is — he of the Leopard. I have seen him fight indifferently well, for one of his country.”

Loath to ask even a passing question, he was about to pass Sir Kenneth, with that sullen and lowering port which seems to say, “I know thee, but I will hold no communication with thee.” But his purpose was defeated by the Northern Knight, who moved forward directly to him, and accosting him with formal courtesy, said, “My Lord de Vaux of Gilsland, I have in charge to speak with you.”

“Ha!” returned the English baron, “with me? But say your pleasure, so it be shortly spoken — I am on the King’s errand.”

“Mine touches King Richard yet more nearly,” answered Sir Kenneth; “I bring him, I trust, health.”

The Lord of Gilsland measured the Scot with incredulous eyes, and replied, “Thou art no leech, I think, Sir Scot; I had as soon thought of your bringing the King of England wealth.”

Sir Kenneth, though displeased with the manner of the baron’s reply, answered calmly, “Health to Richard is glory and wealth to Christendom. — But my time presses; I pray you, may I see the King?”

“Surely not, fair sir,” said the baron, “until your errand be told more distinctly. The sick chambers of princes open not to all who inquire, like a northern hostelry.”

“My lord,” said Kenneth, “the cross which I wear in common with yourself, and the importance of what I have to tell, must, for the present, cause me to pass over a bearing which else I were unapt to endure. In plain language, then, I bring with me a Moorish physician, who undertakes to work a cure on King Richard.”

“A Moorish physician!” said De Vaux; “and who will warrant that he brings not poisons instead of remedies?”

“His own life, my lord — his head, which he offers as a guarantee.”

“I have known many a resolute ruffian,” said De Vaux, “who valued his own life as little as it deserved, and would troop to the gallows as merrily as if the hangman were his partner in a dance.”

“But thus it is, my lord,” replied the Scot. “Saladin, to whom none will deny the credit of a generous and valiant enemy, hath sent this leech hither with an honourable retinue and guard, befitting the high estimation in which El Hakim [The Physician] is held by the Soldan, and with fruits and refreshments for the King’s private chamber, and such message as may pass betwixt honourable enemies, praying him to be recovered of his fever, that he may be the fitter to receive a visit from the Soldan, with his naked scimitar in his hand, and a hundred thousand cavaliers at his back. Will it please you, who are of the King’s secret council, to cause these camels to be discharged of their burdens, and some order taken as to the reception of the learned physician?”

“Wonderful!” said De Vaux, as speaking to himself. —“And who will vouch for the honour of Saladin, in a case when bad faith would rid him at once of his most powerful adversary?”

“I myself,” replied Sir Kenneth, “will be his guarantee, with honour, life, and fortune.”

“Strange!” again ejaculated De Vaux; “the North vouches for the South — the Scot for the Turk! May I crave of you, Sir Knight, how you became concerned in this affair?”

“I have been absent on a pilgrimage, in the course of which,” replied Sir Kenneth “I had a message to discharge towards the holy hermit of Engaddi.”

“May I not be entrusted with it, Sir Kenneth, and with the answer of the holy man?”

“It may not be, my lord,” answered the Scot.

“I am of the secret council of England,” said the Englishman haughtily.

“To which land I owe no allegiance,” said Kenneth. “Though I have voluntarily followed in this war the personal fortunes of England’s sovereign, I was dispatched by the General Council of the kings, princes, and supreme leaders of the army of the Blessed Cross, and to them only I render my errand.”

“Ha! sayest thou?” said the proud Baron de Vaux. “But know, messenger of the kings and princes as thou mayest be, no leech shall approach the sick-bed of Richard of England without the consent of him of Gilsland; and they will come on evil errand who dare to intrude themselves against it.”

He was turning loftily away, when the Scot, placing himself closer, and more opposite to him, asked, in a calm voice, yet not without expressing his share of pride, whether the Lord of Gilsland esteemed him a gentleman and a good knight.

“All Scots are ennobled by their birthright,” answered Thomas de Vaux, something ironically; but sensible of his own injustice, and perceiving that Kenneth’s colour rose, he added, “For a good knight it were sin to doubt you, in one at least who has seen you well and bravely discharge your devoir.”

“Well, then,” said the Scottish knight, satisfied with the frankness of the last admission, “and let me swear to you, Thomas of Gilsland, that, as I am true Scottish man, which I hold a privilege equal to my ancient gentry, and as sure as I am a belted knight, and come hither to acquire LOS [Los — laus, praise, or renown] and fame in this mortal life, and forgiveness of my sins in that which is to come — so truly, and by the blessed Cross which I wear, do I protest unto you that I desire but the safety of Richard Coeur de Lion, in recommending the ministry of this Moslem physician.”

The Englishman was struck with the solemnity of the obtestation, and answered with more cordiality than he had yet exhibited, “Tell me, Sir Knight of the Leopard, granting (which I do not doubt) that thou art thyself satisfied in this matter, shall I do well, in a land where the art of poisoning is as general as that of cooking, to bring this unknown physician to practise with his drugs on a health so valuable to Christendom?”

“My lord,” replied the Scot, “thus only can I reply — that my squire, the only one of my retinue whom war and disease had left in attendance on me, has been of late suffering dangerously under this same fever, which, in valiant King Richard, has disabled the principal limb of our holy enterprise. This leech, this El Hakim, hath ministered remedies to him not two hours since, and already he hath fallen into a refreshing sleep. That he can cure the disorder, which has proved so fatal, I nothing doubt; that he hath the purpose to do it is, I think, warranted by his mission from the royal Soldan, who is true-hearted and loyal, so far as a blinded infidel may be called so; and for his eventual success, the certainty of reward in case of succeeding, and punishment in case of voluntary failure, may be a sufficient guarantee.”

The Englishman listened with downcast looks, as one who doubted, yet was not unwilling to receive conviction. At length he looked up and said, “May I see your sick squire, fair sir?”

The Scottish knight hesitated and coloured, yet answered at last, “Willingly, my Lord of Gilsland. But you must remember, when you see my poor quarter, that the nobles and knights of Scotland feed not so high, sleep not so soft, and care not for the magnificence of lodgment which is Proper to their southern neighbours. I am POORLY lodged, my Lord of Gilsland,” he added, with a haughty emphasis on the word, while, with some unwillingness, he led the way to his temporary place of abode.

Whatever were the prejudices of De Vaux against the nation of his new acquaintance, and though we undertake not to deny that some of these were excited by its proverbial poverty, he had too much nobleness of disposition to enjoy the mortification of a brave individual thus compelled to make known wants which his pride would gladly have concealed.

“Shame to the soldier of the Cross,” he said, “who thinks of worldly splendour, or of luxurious accommodation, when pressing forward to the conquest of the Holy City. Fare as hard as we may, we shall yet be better than the host of martyrs and of saints, who, having trod these scenes before us, now hold golden lamps and evergreen palms.”

This was the most metaphorical speech which Thomas of Gilsland was ever known to utter, the rather, perhaps (as will sometimes happen), that it did not entirely express his own sentiments, being somewhat a lover of good cheer and splendid accommodation. By this time they reached the place of the camp where the Knight of the Leopard had assumed his abode.

Appearances here did indeed promise no breach of the laws of mortification, to which the Crusaders, according to the opinion expressed by him of Gilsland, ought to subject themselves. A space of ground, large enough to accommodate perhaps thirty tents, according to the Crusaders’ rules of castrametation, was partly vacant — because, in ostentation, the knight had demanded ground to the extent of his original retinue — partly occupied by a few miserable huts, hastily constructed of boughs, and covered with palm-leaves. These habitations seemed entirely deserted, and several of them were ruinous. The central hut, which represented the pavilion of the leader, was distinguished by his swallow-tailed pennon, placed on the point of a spear, from which its long folds dropped motionless to the ground, as if sickening under the scorching rays of the Asiatic sun. But no pages or squires — not even a solitary warder — was placed by the emblem of feudal power and knightly degree. If its reputation defended it not from insult, it had no other guard.

Sir Kenneth cast a melancholy look around him, but suppessing his feelings, entered the hut, making a sign to the Baron of Gilsland to follow. He also cast around a glance of examination, which implied pity not altogether unmingled with contempt, to which, perhaps, it is as nearly akin as it is said to be to love. He then stooped his lofty crest, and entered a lowly hut, which his bulky form seemed almost entirely to fill.

The interior of the hut was chiefly occupied by two beds. One was empty, but composed of collected leaves, and spread with an antelope’s hide. It seemed, from the articles of armour laid beside it, and from a crucifix of silver, carefully and reverentially disposed at the head, to be the couch of the knight himself. The other contained the invalid, of whom Sir Kenneth had spoken, a strong-built and harsh-featured man, past, as his looks betokened, the middle age of life. His couch was trimmed more softly than his master’s, and it was plain that the more courtly garments of the latter, the loose robe in which the knights showed themselves on pacific occasions, and the other little spare articles of dress and adornment, had been applied by Sir Kenneth to the accommodation of his sick domestic. In an outward part of the hut, which yet was within the range of the English baron’s eye, a boy, rudely attired with buskins of deer’s hide, a blue cap or bonnet, and a doublet, whose original finery was much tarnished, sat on his knees by a chafing-dish filled with charcoal, cooking upon a plate of iron the cakes of barley-bread, which were then, and still are, a favourite food with the Scottish people. Part of an antelope was suspended against one of the main props of the hut. Nor was it difficult to know how it had been procured; for a large stag greyhound, nobler in size and appearance than those even which guarded King Richard’s sick-bed, lay eyeing the process of baking the cake. The sagacious animal, on their first entrance, uttered a stifled growl, which sounded from his deep chest like distant thunder. But he saw his master, and acknowledged his presence by wagging his tail and couching his head, abstaining from more tumultuous or noisy greeting, as if his noble instinct had taught him the propriety of silence in a sick man’s chamber.

Beside the couch sat on a cushion, also composed of skins, the Moorish physician of whom Sir Kenneth had spoken, cross-legged, after the Eastern fashion. The imperfect light showed little of him, save that the lower part of his face was covered with a long, black beard, which descended over his breast; that he wore a high TOLPACH, a Tartar cap of the lamb’s wool manufactured at Astracan, bearing the same dusky colour; and that his ample caftan, or Turkish robe, was also of a dark hue. Two piercing eyes, which gleamed with unusual lustre, were the only lineaments of his visage that could be discerned amid the darkness in which he was enveloped.

The English lord stood silent with a sort of reverential awe; for notwithstanding the roughness of his general bearing, a scene of distress and poverty, firmly endured without complaint or murmur, would at any time have claimed more reverence from Thomas de Vaux than would all the splendid formalities of a royal presence-chamber, unless that presence-chamber were King Richard’s own. Nothing was for a time heard but the heavy and regular breathings of the invalid, who seemed in profound repose.

“He hath not slept for six nights before,” said Sir Kenneth, “as I am assured by the youth, his attendant.”

“Noble Scot,” said Thomas de Vaux, grasping the Scottish knight’s hand, with a pressure which had more of cordiality than he permitted his words to utter, “this gear must be amended. Your esquire is but too evil fed and looked to.”

In the latter part of this speech he naturally raised his voice to its usual decided tone, The sick man was disturbed in his slumbers.

“My master,” he said, murmuring as in a dream, “noble Sir Kenneth, taste not, to you as to me, the waters of the Clyde cold and refreshing after the brackish springs of Palestine?”

“He dreams of his native land, and is happy in his slumbers,” whispered Sir Kenneth to De Vaux; but had scarce uttered the words, when the physician, arising from the place which he had taken near the couch of the sick, and laying the hand of the patient, whose pulse he had been carefully watching, quietly upon the couch, came to the two knights, and taking them each by the arm, while he intimated to them to remain silent, led them to the front of the hut.

“In the name of Issa Ben Mariam,” he said, “whom we honour as you, though not with the same blinded superstition, disturb not the effect of the blessed medicine of which he hath partaken. To awaken him now is death or deprivation of reason; but return at the hour when the muezzin calls from the minaret to evening prayer in the mosque, and if left undisturbed until then, I promise you this same Frankish soldier shall be able, without prejudice to his health, to hold some brief converse with you on any matters on which either, and especially his master, may have to question him.”

The knights retreated before the authoritative commands of the leech, who seemed fully to comprehend the importance of the Eastern proverb that the sick chamber of the patient is the kingdom of the physician.

They paused, and remained standing together at the door of the hut — Sir Kenneth with the air of one who expected his visitor to say farewell, and De Vaux as if he had something on his mind which prevented him from doing so. The hound, however, had pressed out of the tent after them, and now thrust his long, rough countenance into the hand of his master, as if modestly soliciting some mark of his kindness. He had no sooner received the notice which he desired, in the shape of a kind word and slight caress, than, eager to acknowledge his gratitude and joy for his master’s return, he flew off at full speed, galloping in full career, and with outstretched tail, here and there, about and around, cross-ways and endlong, through the decayed huts and the esplanade we have described, but never transgressing those precincts which his sagacity knew were protected by his master’s pennon. After a few gambols of this kind, the dog, coming close up to his master, laid at once aside his frolicsome mood, relapsed into his usual gravity and slowness of gesture and deportment, and looked as if he were ashamed that anything should have moved him to depart so far out of his sober self-control.

Both knights looked on with pleasure; for Sir Kenneth was justly proud of his noble hound, and the northern English baron was, of course, an admirer of the chase, and a judge of the animal’s merits.

“A right able dog,” he said. “I think, fair sir, King Richard hath not an ALAN which may match him, if he be as stanch as he is swift. But let me pray you — speaking in all honour and kindness — have you not heard the proclamation that no one under the rank of earl shall keep hunting dogs within King Richard’s camp without the royal license, which, I think, Sir Kenneth, hath not been issued to you? I speak as Master of the Horse.”

“And I answer as a free Scottish knight,” said Kenneth sternly. “For the present I follow the banner of England, but I cannot remember that I have ever subjected myself to the forest-laws of that kingdom, nor have I such respect for them as would incline me to do so. When the trumpet sounds to arms, my foot is in the stirrup as soon as any — when it clangs for the charge, my lance has not yet been the last laid in the rest. But for my hours of liberty or of idleness King Richard has no title to bar my recreation.”

“Nevertheless,” said De Vaux, “it is a folly to disobey the King’s ordinance; so, with your good leave, I, as having authority in that matter, will send you a protection for my friend here.”

“I thank you,” said the Scot coldly; “but he knows my allotted quarters, and within these I can protect him myself. — And yet,” he said, suddenly changing his manner, “this is but a cold return for a well-meant kindness. I thank you, my lord, most heartily. The King’s equerries or prickers might find Roswal at disadvantage, and do him some injury, which I should not, perhaps, be slow in returning, and so ill might come of it. You have seen so much of my house-keeping, my lord,” he added, with a smile, “that I need not shame to say that Roswal is our principal purveyor, and well I hope our Lion Richard will not be like the lion in the minstrel fable, that went a-hunting, and kept the whole booty to himself. I cannot think he would grudge a poor gentleman, who follows him faithfully, his hour of sport and his morsel of game, more especially when other food is hard enough to come by.”

“By my faith, you do the King no more than justice; and yet,” said the baron, “there is something in these words, vert and venison, that turns the very brains of our Norman princes.”

“We have heard of late,” said the Scot, “by minstrels and pilgrims, that your outlawed yeomen have formed great bands in the shires of York and Nottingham, having at their head a most stout archer, called Robin Hood, with his lieutenant, Little John. Methinks it were better that Richard relaxed his forest-code in England, than endeavour to enforce it in the Holy Land.”

“Wild work, Sir Kenneth,” replied De Vaux, shrugging his shoulders, as one who would avoid a perilous or unpleasing topic —“a mad world, sir. I must now bid you adieu, having presently to return to the King’s pavilion. At vespers I will again, with your leave, visit your quarters, and speak with this same infidel physician. I would, in the meantime, were it no offence, willingly send you what would somewhat mend your cheer.”

“I thank you, sir,” said Sir Kenneth, “but it needs not. Roswal hath already stocked my larder for two weeks, since the sun of Palestine, if it brings diseases, serves also to dry venison.”

The two warriors parted much better friends than they had met; but ere they separated, Thomas de Vaux informed himself at more length of the circumstances attending the mission of the Eastern physician, and received from the Scottish knight the credentials which he had brought to King Richard on the part of Saladin.

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