Notwithstanding the occasional exhortation and chiding of his companion, th_oise of the horsemen's feet continuing to approach, Wamba could not b_revented from lingering occasionally on the road, upon every pretence whic_ccurred; now catching from the hazel a cluster of half-ripe nuts, and no_urning his head to leer after a cottage maiden who crossed their path. Th_orsemen, therefore, soon overtook them on the road.
Their numbers amounted to ten men, of whom the two who rode foremost seemed t_e persons of considerable importance, and the others their attendants. It wa_ot difficult to ascertain the condition and character of one of thes_ersonages. He was obviously an ecclesiastic of high rank; his dress was tha_f a Cistercian Monk, but composed of materials much finer than those whic_he rule of that order admitted. His mantle and hood were of the best Flander_loth, and fell in ample, and not ungraceful folds, around a handsome, thoug_omewhat corpulent person. His countenance bore as little the marks of self- denial, as his habit indicated contempt of worldly splendour. His feature_ight have been called good, had there not lurked under the pent-house of hi_ye, that sly epicurean twinkle which indicates the cautious voluptuary. I_ther respects, his profession and situation had taught him a ready comman_ver his countenance, which he could contract at pleasure into solemnity, although its natural expression was that of good-humoured social indulgence.
In defiance of conventual rules, and the edicts of popes and councils, th_leeves of this dignitary were lined and turned up with rich furs, his mantl_ecured at the throat with a golden clasp, and the whole dress proper to hi_rder as much refined upon and ornamented, as that of a quaker beauty of th_resent day, who, while she retains the garb and costume of her sect continue_o give to its simplicity, by the choice of materials and the mode o_isposing them, a certain air of coquettish attraction, savouring but too muc_f the vanities of the world.
This worthy churchman rode upon a well-fed ambling mule, whose furniture wa_ighly decorated, and whose bridle, according to the fashion of the day, wa_rnamented with silver bells. In his seat he had nothing of the awkwardness o_he convent, but displayed the easy and habitual grace of a well-traine_orseman. Indeed, it seemed that so humble a conveyance as a mule, in howeve_ood case, and however well broken to a pleasant and accommodating amble, wa_nly used by the gallant monk for travelling on the road. A lay brother, on_f those who followed in the train, had, for his use on other occasions, on_f the most handsome Spanish jennets ever bred at Andalusia, which merchant_sed at that time to import, with great trouble and risk, for the use o_ersons of wealth and distinction. The saddle and housings of this super_alfrey were covered by a long foot-cloth, which reached nearly to the ground, and on which were richly embroidered, mitres, crosses, and othe_cclesiastical emblems. Another lay brother led a sumpter mule, loade_robably with his superior's baggage; and two monks of his own order, o_nferior station, rode together in the rear, laughing and conversing with eac_ther, without taking much notice of the other members of the cavalcade.
The companion of the church dignitary was a man past forty, thin, strong, tall, and muscular; an athletic figure, which long fatigue and constan_xercise seemed to have left none of the softer part of the human form, havin_educed the whole to brawn, bones, and sinews, which had sustained a thousan_oils, and were ready to dare a thousand more. His head was covered with _carlet cap, faced with fur—of that kind which the French call "mortier", fro_ts resemblance to the shape of an inverted mortar. His countenance wa_herefore fully displayed, and its expression was calculated to impress _egree of awe, if not of fear, upon strangers. High features, naturally stron_nd powerfully expressive, had been burnt almost into Negro blackness b_onstant exposure to the tropical sun, and might, in their ordinary state, b_aid to slumber after the storm of passion had passed away; but the projectio_f the veins of the forehead, the readiness with which the upper lip and it_hick black moustaches quivered upon the slightest emotion, plainly intimate_hat the tempest might be again and easily awakened. His keen, piercing, dar_yes, told in every glance a history of difficulties subdued, and danger_ared, and seemed to challenge opposition to his wishes, for the pleasure o_weeping it from his road by a determined exertion of courage and of will; _eep scar on his brow gave additional sternness to his countenance, and _inister expression to one of his eyes, which had been slightly injured on th_ame occasion, and of which the vision, though perfect, was in a slight an_artial degree distorted.
The upper dress of this personage resembled that of his companion in shape, being a long monastic mantle; but the colour, being scarlet, showed that h_id not belong to any of the four regular orders of monks. On the righ_houlder of the mantle there was cut, in white cloth, a cross of a peculia_orm. This upper robe concealed what at first view seemed rather inconsisten_ith its form, a shirt, namely, of linked mail, with sleeves and gloves of th_ame, curiously plaited and interwoven, as flexible to the body as those whic_re now wrought in the stocking-loom, out of less obdurate materials. Th_ore-part of his thighs, where the folds of his mantle permitted them to b_een, were also covered with linked mail; the knees and feet were defended b_plints, or thin plates of steel, ingeniously jointed upon each other; an_ail hose, reaching from the ankle to the knee, effectually protected th_egs, and completed the rider's defensive armour. In his girdle he wore a lon_nd double-edged dagger, which was the only offensive weapon about his person.
He rode, not a mule, like his companion, but a strong hackney for the road, t_ave his gallant war-horse, which a squire led behind, fully accoutred fo_attle, with a chamfron or plaited head-piece upon his bead, having a shor_pike projecting from the front. On one side of the saddle hung a shor_attle-axe, richly inlaid with Damascene carving; on the other the rider'_lumed head-piece and hood of mail, with a long two-handed sword, used by th_hivalry of the period. A second squire held aloft his master's lance, fro_he extremity of which fluttered a small banderole, or streamer, bearing _ross of the same form with that embroidered upon his cloak. He also carrie_is small triangular shield, broad enough at the top to protect the breast, and from thence diminishing to a point. It was covered with a scarlet cloth, which prevented the device from being seen.
These two squires were followed by two attendants, whose dark visages, whit_urbans, and the Oriental form of their garments, showed them to be natives o_ome distant Eastern country.
The whole appearance of this warrior and his retinue was wild and outlandish; the dress of his squires was gorgeous, and his Eastern attendants wore silve_ollars round their throats, and bracelets of the same metal upon thei_warthy arms and legs, of which the former were naked from the elbow, and th_atter from mid-leg to ankle. Silk and embroidery distinguished their dresses, and marked the wealth and importance of their master; forming, at the sam_ime, a striking contrast with the martial simplicity of his own attire. The_ere armed with crooked sabres, having the hilt and baldric inlaid with gold, and matched with Turkish daggers of yet more costly workmanship. Each of the_ore at his saddle-bow a bundle of darts or javelins, about four feet i_ength, having sharp steel heads, a weapon much in use among the Saracens, an_f which the memory is yet preserved in the martial exercise called "E_errid", still practised in the Eastern countries.
The steeds of these attendants were in appearance as foreign as their riders.
They were of Saracen origin, and consequently of Arabian descent; and thei_ine slender limbs, small fetlocks, thin manes, and easy springy motion, formed a marked contrast with the large-jointed heavy horsastic vows.
Yet so loose were the ideas of the times respecting the conduct of the clergy, whether secular or regular, that the Prior Aymer maintained a fair characte_n the neighbourhood of his abbey. His free and jovial temper, and th_eadiness with which he granted absolution from all ordinary delinquencies, rendered him a favourite among the nobility and principal gentry, to severa_f whom he was allied by birth, being of a distinguished Norman family. Th_adies, in particular, were not disposed to scan too nicely the morals of _an who was a professed admirer of their sex, and who possessed many means o_ispelling the ennui which was too apt to intrude upon the halls and bowers o_n ancient feudal castle. The Prior mingled in the sports of the field wit_ore than due eagerness, and was allowed to possess the best-trained hawks, and the fleetest greyhounds in the North Riding; circumstances which strongl_ecommended him to the youthful gentry. With the old, be had another part t_lay, which, when needful, he could sustain with great decorum. His knowledg_f books, however superficial, was sufficient to impress upon their ignoranc_espect for his supposed learning; and the gravity of his deportment an_anguage, with the high tone which he exerted in setting forth the authorit_f the church and of the priesthood, impressed them no less with an opinion o_is sanctity. Even the common people, the severest critics of the conduct o_heir betters, had commiseration with the follies of Prior Aymer. He wa_enerous; and charity, as it is well known, covereth a multitude of sins, i_nother sense than that in which it is said to do so in Scripture. Th_evenues of the monastery, of which a large part was at his disposal, whil_hey gave him the means of supplying his own very considerable expenses, afforded also those largesses which he bestowed among the peasantry, and wit_hich he frequently relieved the distresses of the oppressed. If Prior Ayme_ode hard in the chase, or remained long at the banquet,—if Prior Aymer wa_een, at the early peep of dawn, to enter the postern of the abbey, as h_lided home from some rendezvous which had occupied the hours of darkness, me_nly shrugged up their shoulders, and reconciled themselves to hi_rregularities, by recollecting that the same were practised by many of hi_rethren who had no redeeming qualities whatsoever to atone for them. Prio_ymer, therefore, and his character, were well known to our Saxon serfs, wh_ade their rude obeisance, and received his "benedicite, mes filz_," i_eturn.
But the singular appearance of his companion and his attendants, arreste_heir attention and excited their wonder, and they could scarcely attend t_he Prior of Jorvaulx' question, when he demanded if they knew of any place o_arbourage in the vicinity; so much were they surprised at the half monastic, half military appearance of the swarthy stranger, and at the uncouth dress an_rms of his Eastern attendants. It is probable, too, that the language i_hich the benediction was conferred, and the information asked, sounde_ngracious, though not probably unintelligible, in the ears of the Saxo_easants.
"I asked you, my children," said the Prior, raising his voice, and using th_ingua Franca, or mixed language, in which the Norman and Saxon race_onversed with each other, "if there be in this neighbourhood any good man, who, for the love of God, and devotion to Mother Church, will give two of he_umblest servants, with their train, a night's hospitality and refreshment?"
This he spoke with a tone of conscious importance, which formed a stron_ontrast to the modest terms which he thought it proper to employ.
"Two of the humblest servants of Mother Church!" repeated Wamba t_imself,—but, fool as he was, taking care not to make his observation audible;
"I should like to see her seneschals, her chief butlers, and other principa_omestics!"
After this internal commentary on the Prior's speech, he raised his eyes, an_eplied to the question which had been put.
"If the reverend fathers," he said, "loved good cheer and soft lodging, fe_iles of riding would carry them to the Priory of Brinxworth, where thei_uality could not but secure them the most honourable reception; or if the_referred spending a penitential evening, they might turn down yonder wil_lade, which would bring them to the hermitage of Copmanhurst, where a piou_nchoret would make them sharers for the night of the shelter of his roof an_he benefit of his prayers."
The Prior shook his head at both proposals.
"Mine honest friend," said he, "if the jangling of thy bells bad not dizzie_hine understanding, thou mightst know "Clericus clericum non decimat"; tha_s to say, we churchmen do not exhaust each other's hospitality, but rathe_equire that of the laity, giving them thus an opportunity to serve God i_onouring and relieving his appointed servants."
"It is true," replied Wamba, "that I, being but an ass, am, nevertheless, honoured to hear the bells as well as your reverence's mule; notwithstanding, I did conceive that the charity of Mother Church and her servants might b_aid, with other charity, to begin at home."
"A truce to thine insolence, fellow," said the armed rider, breaking in on hi_rattle with a high and stern voice, "and tell us, if thou canst, the roa_o—How call'd you your Franklin, Prior Aymer?"
"Cedric," answered the Prior; "Cedric the Saxon.—Tell me, good fellow, are w_ear his dwelling, and can you show us the road?"
"The road will be uneasy to find," answered Gurth, who broke silence for th_irst time, "and the family of Cedric retire early to rest."
"Tush, tell not me, fellow," said the military rider; "'tis easy for them t_rise and supply the wants of travellers such as we are, who will not stoop t_eg the hospitality which we have a right to command."
"I know not," said Gurth, sullenly, "if I should show the way to my master'_ouse, to those who demand as a right, the shelter which most are fain to as_s a favour."
"Do you dispute with me, slave! said the soldier; and, setting spurs to hi_orse, he caused him make a demivolte across the path, raising at the sam_ime the riding rod which he held in his hand, with a purpose of chastisin_hat he considered as the insolence of the peasant.
Gurth darted at him a savage and revengeful scowl, and with a fierce, ye_esitating motion, laid his hand on the haft of his knife; but th_nterference of Prior Aymer, who pushed his mule betwixt his companion and th_wineherd, prevented the meditated violence.
"Nay, by St Mary, brother Brian, you must not think you are now in Palestine, predominating over heathen Turks and infidel Saracens; we islanders love no_lows, save those of holy Church, who chasteneth whom she loveth.—Tell me, good fellow," said he to Wamba, and seconded his speech by a small piece o_ilver coin, "the way to Cedric the Saxon's; you cannot be ignorant of it, an_t is your duty to direct the wanderer even when his character is les_anctified than ours."
"In truth, venerable father," answered the Jester, "the Saracen head of you_ight reverend companion has frightened out of mine the way home—I am not sur_ shall get there to-night myself."
"Tush," said the Abbot, "thou canst tell us if thou wilt. This reveren_rother has been all his life engaged in fighting among the Saracens for th_ecovery of the Holy Sepulchre; he is of the order of Knights Templars, who_ou may have heard of; he is half a monk, half a soldier."
"If he is but half a monk," said the Jester, "he should not be wholl_nreasonable with those whom he meets upon the road, even if they should be i_o hurry to answer questions that no way concern them."
"I forgive thy wit," replied the Abbot, "on condition thou wilt show me th_ay to Cedric's mansion."
"Well, then," answered Wamba, "your reverences must hold on this path till yo_ome to a sunken cross, of which scarce a cubit's length remains above ground; then take the path to the left, for there are four which meet at Sunken Cross, and I trust your reverences will obtain shelter before the storm comes on."
The Abbot thanked his sage adviser; and the cavalcade, setting spurs to thei_orses, rode on as men do who wish to reach their inn before the bursting of _ight-storm. As their horses' hoofs died away, Gurth said to his companion,
"If they follow thy wise direction, the reverend fathers will hardly reac_otherwood this night."
"No," said the Jester, grinning, "but they may reach Sheffield if they hav_ood luck, and that is as fit a place for them. I am not so bad a woodsman a_o show the dog where the deer lies, if I have no mind he should chase him."
"Thou art right," said Gurth; "it were ill that Aymer saw the Lady Rowena; an_t were worse, it may be, for Cedric to quarrel, as is most likely he would, with this military monk. But, like good servants let us hear and see, and sa_othing."
We return to the riders, who had soon left the bondsmen far behind them, an_ho maintained the following conversation in the Norman-French language, usually employed by the superior classes, with the exception of the few wh_ere still inclined to boast their Saxon descent.
"What mean these fellows by their capricious insolence?" said the Templar t_he Benedictine, "and why did you prevent me from chastising it?"
"Marry, brother Brian," replied the Prior, "touching the one of them, it wer_ard for me to render a reason for a fool speaking according to his folly; an_he other churl is of that savage, fierce, intractable race, some of whom, a_ have often told you, are still to be found among the descendants of th_onquered Saxons, and whose supreme pleasure it is to testify, by all means i_heir power, their aversion to their conquerors."
"I would soon have beat him into courtesy," observed Brian; "I am accustome_o deal with such spirits: Our Turkish you shall soon be judge; and if th_urity of her complexion, and the majestic, yet soft expression of a mild blu_ye, do not chase from your memory the black-tressed girls of Palestine, ay, or the houris of old Mahound's paradise, I am an infidel, and no true son o_he church."
"Should your boasted beauty," said the Templar, "be weighed in the balance an_ound wanting, you know our wager?"
"My gold collar," answered the Prior, "against ten buts of Chian wine;—the_re mine as securely as if they were already in the convent vaults, under th_ey of old Dennis the cellarer."
"And I am myself to be judge," said the Templar, "and am only to be convicte_n my own admission, that I have seen no maiden so beautiful since Pentecos_as a twelvemonth. Ran it not so? —Prior, your collar is in danger; I wil_ear it over my gorget in the lists of Ashby-de-la-Zouche."
"Win it fairly," said the Prior, "and wear it as ye will; I will trust you_iving true response, on your word as a knight and as a churchman. Yet, brother, take my advice, and file your tongue to a little more courtesy tha_our habits of predominating over infidel captives and Eastern bondsmen hav_ccustomed you. Cedric the Saxon, if offended,—and he is noway slack in takin_ffence,—is a man who, without respect to your knighthood, my high office, o_he sanctity of either, would clear his house of us, and send us to lodge wit_he larks, though the hour were midnight. And be careful how you look o_owena, whom he cherishes with the most jealous care; an he take the leas_larm in that quarter we are but lost men. It is said he banished his only so_rom his family for lifting his eyes in the way of affection towards thi_eauty, who may be worshipped, it seems, at a distance, but is not to b_pproached with other thoughts than such as we bring to the shrine of th_lessed Virgin."
"Well, you have said enough," answered the Templar; "I will for a night put o_he needful restraint, and deport me as meekly as a maiden; but as for th_ear of his expelling us by violence, myself and squires, with Hamet an_bdalla, will warrant you against that disgrace. Doubt not that we shall b_trong enough to make good our quarters."
"We must not let it come so far," answered the Prior; "but here is the clown'_unken cross, and the night is so dark that we can hardly see which of th_oads we are to follow. He bid us turn, I think to the left."
"To the right," said Brian, "to the best of my remembrance."
"To the left, certainly, the left; I remember his pointing with his woode_word."
"Ay, but he held his sword in his left hand, and so pointed across his bod_ith it," said the Templar.
Each maintained his opinion with sufficient obstinacy, as is usual in all suc_ases; the attendants were appealed to, but they had not been near enough t_ear Wamba's directions. At length Brian remarked, what had at first escape_im in the twilight; "Here is some one either asleep, or lying dead at th_oot of this cross—Hugo, stir him with the but-end of thy lance."
This was no sooner done than the figure arose, exclaiming in good French,
"Whosoever thou art, it is discourteous in you to disturb my thoughts."
"We did but wish to ask you," said the Prior, "the road to Rotherwood, th_bode of Cedric the Saxon."
"I myself am bound thither," replied the stranger; "and if I had a horse, _ould be your guide, for the way is somewhat intricate, though perfectly wel_nown to me."
"Thou shalt have both thanks and reward, my friend," said the Prior, "if tho_ilt bring us to Cedric's in safety."
And he caused one of his attendants to mount his own led horse, and give tha_pon which he had hitherto ridden to the stranger, who was to serve for _uide.
Their conductor pursued an opposite road from that which Wamba ha_ecommended, for the purpose of misleading them. The path soon led deeper int_he woodland, and crossed more than one brook, the approach to which wa_endered perilous by the marshes through which it flowed; but the strange_eemed to know, as if by instinct, the soundest ground and the safest point_f passage; and by dint of caution and attention, brought the party safel_nto a wilder avenue than any they had yet seen; and, pointing to a large lo_rregular building at the upper extremity, he said to the Prior, "Yonder i_otherwood, the dwelling of Cedric the Saxon."
This was a joyful intimation to Aymer, whose nerves were none of th_trongest, and who had suffered such agitation and alarm in the course o_assing through the dangerous bogs, that he had not yet had the curiosity t_sk his guide a single question. Finding himself now at his ease and nea_helter, his curiosity began to awake, and he demanded of the guide who an_hat he was.
"A Palmer, just returned from the Holy Land," was the answer.
"You had better have tarried there to fight for the recovery of the Hol_epulchre," said the Templar.
"True, Reverend Sir Knight," answered the Palmer, to whom the appearance o_he Templar seemed perfectly familiar; "but when those who are under oath t_ecover the holy city, are found travelling at such a distance from the scen_f their duties, can you wonder that a peaceful peasant like me should declin_he task which they have abandoned?"
The Templar would have made an angry reply, but was interrupted by the Prior, who again expressed his astonishment, that their guide, after such lon_bsence, should be so perfectly acquainted with the passes of the forest.
"I was born a native of these parts," answered their guide, and as he made th_eply they stood before the mansion of Cedric;—a low irregular building, containing several court-yards or enclosures, extending over a considerabl_pace of ground, and which, though its size argued the inhabitant to be _erson of wealth, differed entirely from the tall, turretted, and castellate_uildings in which the Norman nobility resided, and which had become th_niversal style of architecture throughout England.
Rotherwood was not, however, without defences; no habitation, in tha_isturbed period, could have been so, without the risk of being plundered an_urnt before the next morning. A deep fosse, or ditch, was drawn round th_hole building, and filled with water from a neighbouring stream. A doubl_tockade, or palisade, composed of pointed beams, which the adjacent fores_upplied, defended the outer and inner bank of the trench. There was a_ntrance from the west through the outer stockade, which communicated by _rawbridge, with a similar opening in the interior defences. Some precaution_ad been taken to place those entrances under the protection of projectin_ngles, by which they might be flanked in case of need by archers or slingers.
Before this entrance the Templar wound his horn loudly; for the rain, whic_ad long threatened, began now to descend with great violence.