Some time in the Middle Ages there lived in the Duchy of Lombardy, which, as everybody knows, is part of Italy, two knights, who loved each other like brothers. And, what is more to be wondered at, their wives were the best friends in the world. To complete the happiness of the two couples, two little boys were born to them on the same day, and they were given the names of Amys and Amyle.
Now it generally happens that when parents are very anxious for their children to be friends, because they are the same age, or neighbours, or for some equally good reason, the young people make up their minds to hate each other. However, Amys and Amyle did not disappoint their fathers and mothers in this way. From the moment they could walk they were never seen apart; if they ever did quarrel no one ever heard of it; and by the time they were twelve years old they had grown so like each other that even their parents could hardly tell the difference between them. Indeed, the likeness between them is supposed to have given rise to the proverb, ‘A miss is as good as a mile.’
It was in that year that the duke, their liege lord, bade all his vassals to a great festival to be held in his castle, and many of them took their sons with them, to show them some of the customs of chivalry. Amys and Amyle went with the rest, and endless were the mistakes made about them. The boys themselves, who were merry little fellows, delighted in increasing the confusion, and played so many pranks that the duke declared that they must remain at the court with him, as his life would be too dull without them.
Perhaps the knights thought that their homes would be dull too, but, if so, they did not dare say so; only their wives noticed, as they entered the castle gates, that their heads were bowed, as if some ill had befallen them.
At first the boys felt unhappy and lonely in this strange new world, and clung to each other more closely than ever, but, after a little, they got used to the change, and learned eagerly how to shoot at a mark and tilt at a ring, or to sing sweet love-songs to the sound of a lute.
So the years passed away till Amys and Amyle were eighteen years old, and thought themselves men, and were ready to cross lances with the bravest. The first step they took towards proving to the world that no tie of blood could bind them closer than the love they bore one to another, was to swear the oaths which made them brothers in arms, and obliged them to fight in each other’s quarrels, avenge each other’s wrongs — even to sacrifice what the other held most dear in the service of his friend. Marriage itself was not more sacred.
All this time the duke had been too busy with his own affairs to have the youths much in his company, though he took care that they had the best chances of learning everything that they ought to know. When, however, he heard that Amys and Amyle had sworn the solemn oaths that made them brothers in arms, he ordered a tournament to be held in their honour, and, when it was over, knighted them on the field. He further declared that henceforth Sir Amys should be his chief butler and Sir Amyle his head steward over his household, thus the steward whom Amyle displaced became their deadly enemy.
Although the young men knew a great deal about hunting, and wrestling, and other such sports, they had no idea what the duties of a butler and a steward might be. But what they did know was that they would have to be very careful, for the eyes of the old steward were watching eagerly to report any mistakes to the duke their master. Luckily for them, they were favourites with everyone, and if now and then they forgot their work, or slipped away for a day’s hunting, well! the task was done by somebody, and not even the old steward could find out by whom.
Everything seemed going smoothly, and the new-made knights were in danger of being spoilt by the favour of the ladies of the court, when a sudden stop was put to all their pleasures. One day a man-at-arms riding a jaded horse appeared at the palace gateway, and demanded to be led into the presence of the good knight Sir Amyle.
‘Oh, my lord,’ said he, and knew not that it was Amys before whom he was kneeling, ‘it is grievous news that I bear unto you. Your father and mother, that noble knight and his lady, died of a pestilence but seven days agone, and none save you can take their place. Therefore am I sent unto you.’
‘My father and mother?’ cried Amys, staggering back.
‘Yes, my lord, yours,’ answered the man. ‘At least ——’ he stammered, as Sir Amyle came and stood by his friend, ‘I know not if indeed it may be yours. It is long years since I have seen you, and this knight and you have but one face. But it is Sir Amyle with whom I would speak.’
Then Amys laid his hand on his brother’s shoulder.
‘Be comforted,’ he said softly. ‘Am I not with thee? and, though I cannot go with thee now, I will follow thee shortly unless thou quickly return to me.’
Early next morning Amyle started with a heavy heart for the home which he had left six years before; but before his departure he had caused to be made two cups of gold, delicately wrought with figures of birds and beasts, such as he and Amys had often chased in the forests and lakes of Lombardy. The cups were no more to be told from each other than were Amys and Amyle themselves, and Amyle placed them in the pockets of his saddle till the moment came for him to part from Sir Amys, who had ridden with him as far as he might. Then, drawing out one of the cups, Amyle placed it in his friend’s hands.
‘Farewell, my brother,’ he said. ‘Be true to me as I will be true to you, according to the oath which we sware, that as long as we both shall live nothing and nobody shall stand between me and thee.’
And Sir Amys repeated the words of his oath, then slowly turned his horse’s head towards the castle.
Seven days’ hard riding brought Sir Amyle back to his native place, and for many months he had much to do in setting aside the pretenders who had sprung up to claim his father’s lands. When at last peace was restored and the false traitors had been thrown into prison, a petition on the part of his vassals to take a wife and settle down amongst them, turned his thoughts in other directions.
It was the custom of the country that the ruler of those lands should choose his wife from the most beautiful maidens in the Duchy of Lombardy, no matter what might be their degree. So a herald was sent forth to proclaim that any damsel who wished to fill this high place was to present herself in the courtyard of the palace on the morning following the next new moon, where the chamberlain would receive her. Oh, what a fluttering of hearts there was in the towns and villages, as the herald, with his silver trumpet and his satin coat of red and yellow, covered with figures of strange beasts, passed up and down the streets! How the girls all ran to their mirrors, and turned themselves this way and that to see if there could possibly be a chance for them! Perhaps it was the fault of the headdress they wore that their faces seemed so long and their noses so big, or surely something was wrong with the glass that their cheeks looked so yellow! But even when it was proved beyond a doubt that neither headdress nor mirror was to blame in the matter, there were enough lovely maidens and to spare in the courtyard of the castle on the day following the new moon.
‘He is certain to choose you,’ said one, who in her secret heart thought it was impossible that she should be passed over.
‘Oh no; fair men’s eyes alway rest upon dark women,’ answered the girl, whose locks were brighter than the sun, though while she spoke she was really thinking that no one could bear comparison with her. And then all grew silent, for there was heard a blast of trumpets announcing that Sir Amyle was at hand.
The young knight had donned for this occasion a close-fitting coat of silver cloth, while a short blue velvet mantle hung from his shoulders. He walked slowly down the ranks of the maidens, watching each carefully, and noting the way in which she received his gaze. Some looked down and blushed; some looked up and smiled, but one there was who did neither, only stood calm and pale as the young man drew near.
She was a tall girl with dark hair and soft grey eyes, and the chamberlain had doubted long, before he told her father that she might take her stand with the rest. None would have chosen her as Queen of a Tourney, or bidden her preside over a Court of Love, yet there was that in her face which had caused Amyle to pause before her and to hold out his hand.
So they were married, and by the side of his wife Sir Amyle for a while forgot his brother.
Meanwhile Sir Amys dwelt sorrowfully at the court, defending himself as best he might against the wiles of the black-hearted steward, who now received him with smiles and fair words. Nay, he even desired that they should become brothers at arms, but to this Sir Amys replied that, having made oath to one brother at arms, the rules of chivalry did not allow him to take another.
At these words the steward threw off the mask with which he had sought to beguile Sir Amys.
‘You will have cause to rue this day,’ roared he, nearly choking in his wrath; ‘you dog, you white-livered cur!’ but Amys only smiled, and bade him do his worst.
By this time the duke’s only daughter, Belisante, had reached the age of fifteen, and on her birthday her father proclaimed a great tournament, which was to last for fourteen days. Knights from far and near flocked to break a lance in honour of the fair damsel, but, though many doughty deeds were done, the prize fell to Sir Amys. When he came up to receive the golden circlet from the hands of the duchess — for the duke held his daughter to be of too tender years to be queen of the tourney — Belisante looked earnestly at the knight whose praises had rung in her ears ever since her childhood. It was almost the first time her eyes had beheld him, for she had lived in one of her father’s distant castles, and had seldom visited the court.
Now we all know full well that whenever we form to ourselves the picture of a man or woman of whom great things are said, woeful is in general the disappointment. But even in that assembly Sir Amys was taller and stronger and fairer to look upon than the rest.
‘He shall be my knight,’ said Belisante to herself, never dreaming that any man alive could pass her by. But Sir Amys’ thoughts dwelt not upon women, and he hardly so much as marked her where she sat.
This slight was more than the spoiled damsel could bear. She fell sick with love and anger, and for many days lay in bed, pondering how she should win the love of Sir Amys.
A full week went by, and still she had never had speech of him — nor had even so much as caught sight of him as he followed her father to the chase. But one morning her lady brought her word — for indeed she had guessed something of her mistress’s heart — that Sir Amys had so wearied himself in pursuit of a boar the previous evening that he had let his lord ride forth alone. So Belisante bade her maiden bring her kirtle of green silk, and clasp it with her golden belt set with precious stones, and place a veil of shining white upon her hair; then seeking her mother they went down into the garden together.
It was not long before her quick-glancing eyes beheld Sir Amys lying under a tree by the side of a stream, but in her guile she took no heed of him, but turned away and entered a little wood.
‘I can sleep now,’ she said, stretching herself on a bank of soft moss. ‘Listen to the birds, how sweetly they sing! Methinks I hear the voice of the nightingale, for the trees make such darkness that he knows not night from day.’
‘Let us leave her,’ answered her mother, and signing to her ladies they all returned to the castle.
For a moment Belisante lay still, feigning to sleep; then she raised herself on her arm and looked about her. Nothing was to be seen save the green darkness about her, nothing was to be heard save the songs of the birds. Softly she rose to her feet, and stole out of the wood to the orchard where Sir Amys was resting, thinking, though she guessed it not, of his brother in arms Amyle.
He sprang to his feet in surprise as Belisante the Fair drew near him; but she begged him to sit beside her, and told him how that she had been sick of love, and besought him of his grace not to withhold this good gift from her. Sir Amys hearkened to her words, not knowing if he had heard aright, but, calling his wits to his aid, he answered that she was the daughter of a great prince while he was only the son of a poor knight, and that marriage between them might never be. This speech so wrought upon Belisante that she broke out in such tears and entreaties that Sir Amys, to gain time to ponder what best to do, replied that if in eight days her mind was still set on him, he would ask her hand in marriage.
By ill-luck for both the knight and the maiden, the steward, who had been seeking a chance of doing Sir Amys an ill turn, had seen Belisante leave the wood and go in search of Sir Amys. Creeping stealthily up to them, he hid himself behind a clump of bushes and heard all that was said. Cunningly he made his plan, and on the eighth day he waylaid the duke and told him that Sir Amys was about to repay all the kindness shown him by a secret marriage with the duke’s daughter.
Sir Amys was keeping guard that day in the hall of the palace, when, sword in hand, his liege lord stood before him charging him with beguiling his daughter. In another moment Amys would have fallen dead, but behind him was a little room, and into this he stepped, shutting the door, so that the sword stuck in the hard wood as it came against it. This mischance somewhat cooled the duke’s anger, and, bidding Sir Amys come out and speak with him, he again accused him of having sought to steal away his daughter, whom he wished to betrothe to the emperor’s son.
Sir Amys was in sore straits. If he could have borne the penalty alone, he would have suffered gladly whatever sentence the duke might have passed on him; but this could not be. So, to save Belisante from her father’s wrath, he swore a great oath that there was no truth in that tale, and, flinging down his glove, offered to fight any man whom the duke should appoint, and prove his innocence on his body. Then the king bade his steward pick up Sir Amys’ glove, and fixed a morning, fourteen days hence, when the two should meet in single combat.
Still it was not enough that Sir Amys and the steward should agree to fight; it was needful also that sureties should be found, and such was the steward’s power at court that all men feared to come forward on behalf of Sir Amys. The young man would have fared badly, and indeed would at once have been thrown into prison, had not both Belisante and her mother offered themselves as sureties for his presence when the day arrived.
But not all the wiles of the fair Belisante could chase the gloom from the face of Sir Amys. He never forgot that he had sworn a false oath, and it was to no purpose that Belisante reminded him of all the ill deeds done by the steward to him and others. ‘This time,’ he said sadly, ‘I have the wrong and he the right, therefore I am afraid to fight,’ and no other answer could she wring from him.
Way out of the tangle there seemed none. Fight Sir Amys could not, with the weight of a false oath on his soul, yet to run away were to confess all, and leave Belisante to bear her father’s anger alone. Turn his thoughts which side he would, escape seemed barred, till the image of Sir Amyle flashed across him. ‘Fool, why had he not remembered him earlier? Luckily there was yet time, and he could ride with full speed to his brother’s castle, and bid him return to take the battle on himself.’ With a gladder face than he had known for long, he sought out the duchess and her daughter, and told them his plan.
Before the sun rose Sir Amys was in the saddle, and so busy was he with all that had befallen him that he pushed on and never drew rein till his horse dropped dead under him from sheer weariness. As there was no town or house where he might find another, he was forced to proceed on foot. But by-and-by he too fell from lack of sleep, and when Sir Amyle was returning home through the forest after a day’s hunting, he discovered his brother stretched across the path in the shade of a tree.
Joy at meeting gave new life to Sir Amys, and, sitting up, he told his friend all his woes, and how he dare not fight with a false oath on his conscience.
‘Oh! that is easily to be managed,’ cried Sir Amyle, with a great laugh. ‘Go home to my castle,’ said he, ‘and tell my wife that you have sent the horse to Sir Amys, at court, as you heard he had sore need of one. None will know you from me, no more than they did of old, and, as to my wife, it was but now I told her that business called me to the most distant parts of my lands, so this very night you can bid her farewell.’
Sir Amys did as his brother bade him, and Sir Amyle hastened with all speed to the duke’s palace.
He was only just in time. The hour for the fight had come, and the steward had entered the lists, and, looking round in triumph, proclaimed to all whom it might concern that his adversary knew himself to be a traitor to his lord, and had fled. Therefore, according to all the rules of chivalry, a fire should be made, and his sureties burned before all the people.
At these dreadful words, the hearts of the king and his wife and daughter trembled within them. For the steward had spoken truly, and the order for the execution must be given. It was in vain that the men worked right slowly; linger as they might, the pile was ready at last, and with one despairing glance round, the duchess and her daughter were bravely walking up to it, when Sir Amyle hastily pushed his way to the duke and demanded that the captives should be instantly set free. Then, followed by the duchess and Belisante, he entered the palace to gird himself with the armour of Sir Amys.
When his helmet and sword were buckled on him, he prayed them to leave him, as he would fain be alone for a short space before he mounted his horse. So the two ladies embraced him and left him, wishing him God-speed. As the door closed upon them, Sir Amyle held up his sword and muttered a prayer before it.
‘Come weal or woe, I will help my brother,’ he said softly; then mounting his horse he rode into the lists, and, kneeling, took the oath that he was guiltless of wrong and would prove his innocence on the body of his foe.
The fight lasted but a short time; the steward’s sword was keen, and he knew how to use it, and it was not long before he had given Sir Amyle a sharp thrust through the shoulder, and the young knight reeled in his saddle. The steward uttered a cry of fierce joy, and raised his arm to deal a second blow, when Sir Amyle suddenly spurred his horse to one side and pierced his enemy to the heart. Then, all bleeding as he was, the false Amys cut off the head of the traitor, and gave it to the duke, proving to him and to all the court that the right had conquered. But hardly had he done so when, faint from loss of blood, he fell senseless on the ground, and was carried into the palace, where the duke’s best leeches were called in to attend him. In a few days the fever left him, and he was able to receive a visit from the duke himself.
‘O Amys, my friend, how I have misjudged you!’ cried the duke, falling on his knees weeping; ‘but I will let my people know that you were always true, and you shall marry my daughter as soon as you can stand upon your feet, and I will hold a feast, and proclaim you heir to my duchy.’
And the wounded man gave him thanks and grace, but sent off a messenger in all haste to Sir Amys, bidding him be by a spring in the forest, nine days hence, which message Sir Amys obeyed, wondering what had passed. Then the two knights changed their clothes once more, and Sir Amyle returned to his wife and Sir Amys to his bride, and they lived happily to the end of their lives.
[Adapted and shortened from Early English Metrical Romances.]
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57