Full in the midst a mighty pile arose,
Where iron grated gates their strength oppose
To each invading step — and strong and steep,
The battled walls arose, the fosse sunk deep.
Slow round the fortress roll’d the sluggish stream,
And high in middle air the warder’s turrets gleam.
While Durward and his acquaintance thus spoke, they came in sight of the whole front of the Castle of Plessis les Tours, which, even in those dangerous times, when the great found themselves obliged to reside within places of fortified strength, was distinguished for the extreme and jealous care with which it was watched and defended.
From the verge of the wood where young Durward halted with his companion, in order to take a view of this royal residence, extended, or rather arose, though by a very gentle elevation, an open esplanade, devoid of trees and bushes of every description, excepting one gigantic and half withered old oak. This space was left open, according to the rules of fortification in all ages, in order that an enemy might not approach the walls under cover, or unobserved from the battlements, and beyond it arose the Castle itself.
There were three external walls, battlemented and turreted from space to space and at each angle, the second enclosure rising higher than the first, and being built so as to command the exterior defence in case it was won by the enemy; and being again, in the same manner, itself commanded by the third and innermost barrier.
Around the external wall, as the Frenchman informed his young companion (for as they stood lower than the foundation of the wall, he could not see it), was sunk a ditch of about twenty feet in depth, supplied with water by a dam head on the river Cher; or rather on one of its tributary branches. In front of the second enclosure, he said, there ran another fosse, and a third, both of the same unusual dimensions, was led between the second and the innermost inclosure. The verge, both of the outer and inner circuit of this triple moat was strongly fenced with palisades of iron, serving the purpose of what are called chevaux de frise in modern fortification, the top of each pale being divided into a cluster of sharp spikes, which seemed to render any attempt to climb over an act of self destruction.
From within the innermost enclosure arose the Castle itself, containing buildings of all periods, crowded around, and united with the ancient and grim looking donjon keep, which was older than any of them, and which rose, like a black Ethiopian giant, high into the air, while the absence of any windows larger than shot holes, irregularly disposed for defence, gave the spectator the same unpleasant feeling which we experience on looking at a blind man. The other buildings seemed scarcely better adapted for the purposes of comfort, for the windows opened to an inner and enclosed courtyard; so that the whole external front looked much more like that of a prison than a palace. The reigning King had even increased this effect; for, desirous that the additions which he himself had made to the fortifications should be of a character not easily distinguished from the original building (for, like many jealous persons, he loved not that his suspicions should be observed), the darkest coloured brick and freestone were employed, and soot mingled with the lime, so as to give the whole Castle the same uniform tinge of extreme and rude antiquity.
This formidable place had but one entrance — at least Durward saw none along the spacious front, except where, in the centre of the first and outward boundary, arose two strong towers, the usual defences of a gateway; and he could observe their ordinary accompaniments, portcullis and drawbridge — of which the first was lowered, and the last raised. Similar entrance towers were visible on the second and third bounding wall, but not in the same line with those on the outward circuit; because the passage did not cut right through the whole three enclosures at the same point, but, on the contrary, those who entered had to proceed nearly thirty yards betwixt the first and second wall, exposed, if their purpose were hostile, to missiles from both; and again, when the second boundary was passed, they must make a similar digression from the straight line, in order to attain the portal of the third and innermost enclosure; so that before gaining the outer court, which ran along the front of the building, two narrow and dangerous defiles were to be traversed under a flanking discharge of artillery, and three gates, defended in the strongest manner known to the age, were to be successively forced.
Coming from a country alike desolated by foreign war and internal feuds — a country, too, whose unequal and mountainous surface, abounding in precipices and torrents, affords so many situations of strength, young Durward was sufficiently acquainted with all the various contrivances by which men, in that stern age, endeavoured to secure their dwellings; but he frankly owned to his companion, that he did not think it had been in the power of art to do so much for defence, where nature had done so little; for the situation, as we have hinted, was merely the summit of a gentle elevation ascending upwards from the place where they were standing.
To enhance his surprise, his companion told him that the environs of the Castle, except the single winding path by which the portal might be safely approached, were, like the thickets through which they had passed, surrounded with every species of hidden pitfall, snare, and gin, to entrap the wretch who should venture thither without a guide; that upon the walls were constructed certain cradles of iron, called swallows’ nests, from which the sentinels, who were regularly posted there, could without being exposed to any risk, take deliberate aim at any who should attempt to enter without the proper signal or password of the day; and that the Archers of the Royal Guard performed that duty day and night, for which they received high pay, rich clothing, and much honour and profit at the hands of King Louis. “And now tell me, young man,” he continued, “did you ever see so strong a fortress, and do you think there are men bold enough to storm it?”
The young man looked long and fixedly on the place, the sight of which interested him so much that he had forgotten, in the eagerness of youthful curiosity, the wetness of his dress. His eye glanced, and his colour mounted to his cheek like that of a daring man who meditates an honourable action, as he replied, “It is a strong castle, and strongly guarded; but there is no impossibility to brave men.”
“Are there any in your country who could do such a feat?” said the elder, rather scornfully.
“I will not affirm that,” answered the youth; “but there are thousands that, in a good cause, would attempt as bold a deed.”
“Umph!” said the senior, “perhaps you are yourself such a gallant!”
“I should sin if I were to boast where there is no danger,” answered young Durward; “but my father has done as bold an act, and I trust I am no bastard.”
“Well,” said his companion, smiling, “you might meet your match, and your kindred withal in the attempt; for the Scottish Archers of King Louis’s Life Guards stand sentinels on yonder walls — three hundred gentlemen of the best blood in your country.”
“And were I King Louis,” said the youth, in reply, “I would trust my safety to the faith of the three hundred Scottish gentlemen, throw down my bounding walls to fill up the moat; call in my noble peers and paladins, and live as became me, amid breaking of lances in gallant tournaments, and feasting of days with nobles, and dancing of nights with ladies, and have no more fear of a foe than I have of a fly.”
His companion again smiled, and turning his back on the Castle, which, he observed, they had approached a little too nearly, he led the way again into the wood by a more broad and beaten path than they had yet trodden. “This,” he said, “leads us to the village of Plessis, as it is called, where you, as a stranger, will find reasonable and honest accommodation. About two miles onward lies the fine city of Tours, which gives name to this rich and beautiful earldom. But the village of Plessis, or Plessis of the Park as it is sometimes called, from its vicinity to the royal residence, and the chase with which it is encircled, will yield you nearer and as convenient hospitality.”
“I thank you, kind master, for your information,” said the Scot; “but my stay will be so short here, that, if I fail not in a morsel of meat, and a drink of something better than water, my necessities in Plessis, be it of the park or the pool, will be amply satisfied.”
“Nay,” answered his companion, “I thought you had some friend to see in this quarter.”
“And so I have — my mother’s own brother,” answered Durward; “and as pretty a man, before he left the braes of Angus 16, as ever planted brogue on heather.”
“What is his name?” said the senior. “We will inquire him out for you; for it is not safe for you to go up to the Castle, where you might be taken for a spy.”
“Now, by my father’s hand!” said the youth, “I taken for a spy! — By Heaven, he shall brook cold iron that brands me with such a charge! — But for my uncle’s name, I care not who knows it — it is Lesly. Lesly — an honest and noble name.”
“And so it is, I doubt not,” said the old man; “but there are three of the name in the Scottish Guard.”
“My uncle’s name is Ludovic Lesly,” said the young man.
“Of the three Leslys,” answered the merchant, “two are called Ludovic.”
“They call my kinsman Ludovic with the Scar,” said Quentin. “Our family names are so common in a Scottish house, that, where there is no land in the case, we always give a to-name 17.”
“A nom de guerre 18, I suppose you to mean,” answered his companion; “and the man you speak of, we, I think, call Le Balafre, from that scar on his face — a proper man, and a good soldier. I wish I may be able to help you to an interview with him, for he belongs to a set of gentlemen whose duty is strict, and who do not often come out of garrison, unless in the immediate attendance on the King’s person. — And now, young man, answer me one question. I will wager you are desirous to take service with your uncle in the Scottish Guard. It is a great thing, if you propose so; especially as you are very young, and some years’ experience is necessary for the high office which you aim at.”
“Perhaps I may have thought on some such thing,” said Durward, carelessly; “but if I did, the fancy is off.”
“How so, young man?” said the Frenchman, something sternly, “Do you speak thus of a charge which the most noble of your countrymen feel themselves emulous to be admitted to?”
“I wish them joy of it,” said Quentin, composedly. “To speak plain, I should have liked the service of the French King full well; only, dress me as fine and feed me as high as you will, I love the open air better than being shut up in a cage or a swallow’s nest yonder, as you call these same grated pepper boxes. Besides,” he added, in a lower voice, “to speak truth, I love not the Castle when the covin tree bears such acorns as I see yonder.” 19
“I guess what you mean,” said the Frenchman; “but speak yet more plainly.”
“To speak more plainly, then,” said the youth, “there grows a fair oak some flight shot or so from yonder Castle — and on that oak hangs a man in a gray jerkin, such as this which I wear.”
“Ay and indeed!” said the man of France — “Pasques dieu! see what it is to have youthful eyes! Why, I did see something, but only took it for a raven among the branches. But the sight is no ways strange, young man; when the summer fades into autumn, and moonlight nights are long, and roads become unsafe, you will see a cluster of ten, ay of twenty such acorns, hanging on that old doddered oak. — But what then? — they are so many banners displayed to scare knaves; and for each rogue that hangs there, an honest man may reckon that there is a thief, a traitor, a robber on the highway, a pilleur and oppressor of the people the fewer in France. These, young man, are signs of our Sovereign’s justice.”
“I would have hung them farther from my palace, though, were I King Louis,” said the youth. “In my country, we hang up dead corbies where living corbies haunt, but not in our gardens or pigeon houses. The very scent of the carrion — faugh — reached my nostrils at the distance where we stood.”
“If you live to be an honest and loyal servant of your Prince, my good youth,” answered the Frenchman, “you will know there is no perfume to match the scent of a dead traitor.”
“I shall never wish to live till I lose the scent of my nostrils or the sight of my eyes,” said the Scot. “Show me a living traitor, and here are my hand and my weapon; but when life is out, hatred should not live longer. — But here, I fancy, we come upon the village, where I hope to show you that neither ducking nor disgust have spoiled mine appetite for my breakfast. So my good friend, to the hostelrie, with all the speed you may. — Yet, ere I accept of your hospitality, let me know by what name to call you.”
“Men call me Maitre Pierre,” answered his companion. “I deal in no titles. A plain man, that can live on mine own good — that is my designation.”
“So be it, Maitre Pierre,” said Quentin, “and I am happy my good chance has thrown us together; for I want a word of seasonable advice, and can be thankful for it.”
While they spoke thus, the tower of the church and a tall wooden crucifix, rising above the trees, showed that they were at the entrance of the village.
But Maitre Pierre, deflecting a little from the road, which had now joined an open and public causeway, said to his companion that the inn to which he intended to introduce him stood somewhat secluded, and received only the better sort of travellers.
“If you mean those who travel with the better filled purses,” answered the Scot, “I am none of the number, and will rather stand my chance of your flayers on the highway, than of your flayers in the hostelrie.”
“Pasques dieu!” said his guide, “how cautious your countrymen of Scotland are! An Englishman, now, throws himself headlong into a tavern, eats and drinks of the best, and never thinks of the reckoning till his belly is full. But you forget, Master Quentin, since Quentin is your name, you forget I owe you a breakfast for the wetting which my mistake pro — cured you. — It is the penance of my offence towards you.”
“In truth,” said the light hearted young man, “I had forgot wetting, offence, and penance, and all. I have walked my clothes dry, or nearly so, but I will not refuse your offer in kindness; for my dinner yesterday was a light one, and supper I had none. You seem an old and respectable burgess, and I see no reason why I should not accept your courtesy.”
The Frenchman smiled aside, for he saw plainly that the youth, while he was probably half famished, had yet some difficulty to reconcile himself to the thoughts of feeding at a stranger’s cost, and was endeavouring to subdue his inward pride by the reflection, that, in such slight obligations, the acceptor performed as complaisant a part as he by whom the courtesy was offered.
In the meanwhile, they descended a narrow lane, overshadowed by tall elms, at the bottom of which a gateway admitted them into the courtyard of an inn of unusual magnitude, calculated for the accommodation of the nobles and suitors who had business at the neighbouring Castle, where very seldom, and only when such hospitality was altogether unavoidable, did Louis XI permit any of his court to have apartments. A scutcheon, bearing the fleur de lys, hung over the principal door of the large irregular building; but there was about the yard and the offices little or none of the bustle which in those days, when attendants were maintained both in public and in private houses, marked that business was alive, and custom plenty. It seemed as if the stern and unsocial character of the royal mansion in the neighbourhood had communicated a portion of its solemn and terrific gloom even to a place designed according to universal custom elsewhere, for the temple of social indulgence, merry society, and good cheer.
Maitre Pierre, without calling any one, and even without approaching the principal entrance, lifted the latch of a side door, and led the way into a large room, where a faggot was blazing on the hearth, and arrangements made for a substantial breakfast.
“My gossip has been careful,” said the Frenchman to the Scot. “You must be cold, and I have commanded a fire; you must be hungry, and you shall have breakfast presently.”
He whistled and the landlord entered — answered Maitre Pierre’s bon jour with a reverence — but in no respect showed any part of the prating humour properly belonging to a French publican of all ages.
“I expected a gentleman,” said Maitre Pierre, “to order breakfast — hath he done so?”
In answer the landlord only bowed; and while he continued to bring, and arrange upon the table, the various articles of a comfortable meal, omitted to extol their merits by a single word. And yet the breakfast merited such eulogiums as French hosts are wont to confer upon their regales, as the reader will be informed in the next chapter.
16 hills and moors of Angus in Forfarshire, Scotland.
18 the war name; formerly taken by French soldiers on entering the service. Hence a fictitious name assumed for other purposes.
19 The large tree in front of a Scottish castle was sometimes called so. It is difficult to trace the derivation; but at that distance from the castle the laird received guests of rank, and thither he conveyed them on their departure. S.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00