"In so far as I can," answered Athelstane, "I will withdraw them; and I fear not but that my father Cedric will do his best to assist me."
"We are agreed then," said Front-de-Boeuf — "thou and they are to be set at freedom, and peace is to be on both sides, for payment of a thousand marks. It is a trifling ransom, Saxon, and thou wilt owe gratitude to the moderation which accepts of it in exchange of your persons. But mark, this extends not to the Jew Isaac."
"Nor to the Jew Isaac's daughter," said the Templar, who had now joined them.
"Neither," said Front-de-Boeuf, "belong to this Saxon's company."
"I were unworthy to be called Christian, if they did," replied Athelstane: "deal with the unbelievers as ye list."
"Neither does the ransom include the Lady Rowena," said De Bracy. "It shall never be said I was scared out of a fair prize without striking a blow for it."
"Neither," said Front-de-Boeuf, "does our treaty refer to this wretched Jester, whom I retain, that I may make him an example to every knave who turns jest into earnest."
"The Lady Rowena," answered Athelstane, with the most steady countenance, "is my affianced bride. I will be drawn by wild horses before I consent to part with her. The slave Wamba has this day saved the life of my father Cedric — I will lose mine ere a hair of his head be injured."
"Thy affianced bride? — The Lady Rowena the affianced bride of a vassal like thee?" said De Bracy; "Saxon, thou dreamest that the days of thy seven kingdoms are returned again. I tell thee, the Princes of the House of Anjou confer not their wards on men of such lineage as thine."
"My lineage, proud Norman," replied Athelstane, "is drawn from a source more pure and ancient than that of a beggarly Frenchman, whose living is won by selling the blood of the thieves whom he assembles under his paltry standard. Kings were my ancestors, strong in war and wise in council, who every day feasted in their hall more hundreds than thou canst number individual followers; whose names have been sung by minstrels, and their laws recorded by Wittenagemotes; whose bones were interred amid the prayers of saints, and over whose tombs minsters have been builded."
"Thou hast it, De Bracy," said Front-de-Boeuf, well pleased with the rebuff which his companion had received; "the Saxon hath hit thee fairly."
"As fairly as a captive can strike," said De Bracy, with apparent carelessness; "for he whose hands are tied should have his tongue at freedom. — But thy glibness of reply, comrade," rejoined he, speaking to Athelstane, "will not win the freedom of the Lady Rowena."
To this Athelstane, who had already made a longer speech than was his custom to do on any topic, however interesting, returned no answer. The conversation was interrupted by the arrival of a menial, who announced that a monk demanded admittance at the postern gate.
"In the name of Saint Bennet, the prince of these bull-beggars," said Front-de-Boeuf, "have we a real monk this time, or another impostor? Search him, slaves — for an ye suffer a second impostor to be palmed upon you, I will have your eyes torn out, and hot coals put into the sockets."
"Let me endure the extremity of your anger, my lord," said Giles, "if this be not a real shaveling. Your squire Jocelyn knows him well, and will vouch him to be brother Ambrose, a monk in attendance upon the Prior of Jorvaulx."
"Admit him," said Front-de-Boeuf; "most likely he brings us news from his jovial master. Surely the devil keeps holiday, and the priests are relieved from duty, that they are strolling thus wildly through the country. Remove these prisoners; and, Saxon, think on what thou hast heard."
"I claim," said Athelstane, "an honourable imprisonment, with due care of my board and of my couch, as becomes my rank, and as is due to one who is in treaty for ransom. Moreover, I hold him that deems himself the best of you, bound to answer to me with his body for this aggression on my freedom. This defiance hath already been sent to thee by thy sewer; thou underliest it, and art bound to answer me — There lies my glove."
"I answer not the challenge of my prisoner," said Front-de-Boeuf; "nor shalt thou, Maurice de Bracy. — Giles," he continued, "hang the franklin's glove upon the tine of yonder branched antlers: there shall it remain until he is a free man. Should he then presume to demand it, or to affirm he was unlawfully made my prisoner, by the belt of Saint Christopher, he will speak to one who hath never refused to meet a foe on foot or on horseback, alone or with his vassals at his back!"
The Saxon prisoners were accordingly removed, just as they introduced the monk Ambrose, who appeared to be in great perturbation.
"This is the real 'Deus vobiscum'," said Wamba, as he passed the reverend brother; "the others were but counterfeits."
"Holy Mother," said the monk, as he addressed the assembled knights, "I am at last safe and in Christian keeping!"
"Safe thou art," replied De Bracy; "and for Christianity, here is the stout Baron Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, whose utter abomination is a Jew; and the good Knight Templar, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, whose trade is to slay Saracens — If these are not good marks of Christianity, I know no other which they bear about them."
"Ye are friends and allies of our reverend father in God, Aymer, Prior of Jorvaulx," said the monk, without noticing the tone of De Bracy's reply; "ye owe him aid both by knightly faith and holy charity; for what saith the blessed Saint Augustin, in his treatise 'De Civitate Dei' — -"
"What saith the devil!" interrupted Front-de-Boeuf; "or rather what dost thou say, Sir Priest? We have little time to hear texts from the holy fathers."
"'Sancta Maria!'" ejaculated Father Ambrose, "how prompt to ire are these unhallowed laymen! — But be it known to you, brave knights, that certain murderous caitiffs, casting behind them fear of God, and reverence of his church, and not regarding the bull of the holy see, 'Si quis, suadende Diabolo' — -"
"Brother priest," said the Templar, "all this we know or guess at — tell us plainly, is thy master, the Prior, made prisoner, and to whom?"
"Surely," said Ambrose, "he is in the hands of the men of Belial, infesters of these woods, and contemners of the holy text, 'Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets naught of evil.'"
"Here is a new argument for our swords, sirs," said Front-de-Boeuf, turning to his companions; "and so, instead of reaching us any assistance, the Prior of Jorvaulx requests aid at our hands? a man is well helped of these lazy churchmen when he hath most to do! — But speak out, priest, and say at once, what doth thy master expect from us?"
"So please you," said Ambrose, "violent hands having been imposed on my reverend superior, contrary to the holy ordinance which I did already quote, and the men of Belial having rifled his mails and budgets, and stripped him of two hundred marks of pure refined gold, they do yet demand of him a large sum beside, ere they will suffer him to depart from their uncircumcised hands. Wherefore the reverend father in God prays you, as his dear friends, to rescue him, either by paying down the ransom at which they hold him, or by force of arms, at your best discretion."
"The foul fiend quell the Prior!" said Front-de-Boeuf; "his morning's drought has been a deep one. When did thy master hear of a Norman baron unbuckling his purse to relieve a churchman, whose bags are ten times as weighty as ours? — And how can we do aught by valour to free him, that are cooped up here by ten times our number, and expect an assault every moment?"
"And that was what I was about to tell you," said the monk, "had your hastiness allowed me time. But, God help me, I am old, and these foul onslaughts distract an aged man's brain. Nevertheless, it is of verity that they assemble a camp, and raise a bank against the walls of this castle."
"To the battlements!" cried De Bracy, "and let us mark what these knaves do without;" and so saying, he opened a latticed window which led to a sort of bartisan or projecting balcony, and immediately called from thence to those in the apartment — "Saint Dennis, but the old monk hath brought true tidings! — They bring forward mantelets and pavisses, and the archers muster on the skirts of the wood like a dark cloud before a hailstorm."
Reginald Front-de-Boeuf also looked out upon the field, and immediately snatched his bugle; and, after winding a long and loud blast, commanded his men to their posts on the walls.
"De Bracy, look to the eastern side, where the walls are lowest — Noble Bois-Guilbert, thy trade hath well taught thee how to attack and defend, look thou to the western side — I myself will take post at the barbican. Yet, do not confine your exertions to any one spot, noble friends! — we must this day be everywhere, and multiply ourselves, were it possible, so as to carry by our presence succour and relief wherever the attack is hottest. Our numbers are few, but activity and courage may supply that defect, since we have only to do with rascal clowns."