Chapter 37 HOW THE WHITE COMPANY CAME TO BE DISBANDED.
Then up rose from the hill in the rugged Cantabrian valley a sound such as ha_ot been heard in those parts before, nor was again, until the streams whic_ippled amid the rocks had been frozen by over four hundred winters and thawe_y as many returning springs. Deep and full and strong it thundered down th_avine, the fierce battle-call of a warrior race, the last stern welcome t_hoso should join with them in that world-old game where the stake is death.
Thrice it swelled forth and thrice it sank away, echoing and reverberatin_midst the crags. Then, with set faces, the Company rose up among the storm o_tones, and looked down upon the thousands who sped swiftly up the slop_gainst them. Horse and spear had been set aside, but on foot, with sword an_attle-axe, their broad shields slung in front of them, the chivalry of Spai_ushed to the attack.
And now arose a struggle so fell, so long, so evenly sustained, that even no_he memory of it is handed down amongst the Cantabrian mountaineers and th_ll-omened knoll is still pointed out by fathers to their children as the
"Altura de los Inglesos," where the men from across the sea fought the grea_ight with the knights of the south. The last arrow was quickly shot, no_ould the slingers hurl their stones, so close were friend and foe. From sid_o side stretched the thin line of the English, lightly armed and quick- footed, while against it stormed and raged the pressing throng of fier_paniards and of gallant Bretons. The clink of crossing sword-blades, the dul_hudding of heavy blows, the panting and gasping of weary and wounded men, al_ose together in a wild, long-drawn note, which swelled upwards to the ears o_he wondering peasants who looked down from the edges of the cliffs upon th_waying turmoil of the battle beneath them. Back and forward reeled th_eopard banner, now borne up the slope by the rush and weight of th_nslaught, now pushing downwards again as Sir Nigel, Burley, and Black Simo_ith their veteran men-at arms, flung themselves madly into the fray. Alleyne, at his lord's right hand, found himself swept hither and thither in th_esperate struggle, exchanging savage thrusts one instant with a Spanis_avalier, and the next torn away by the whirl of men and dashed up agains_ome new antagonist. To the right Sir Oliver, Aylward, Hordle John, and th_owmen of the Company fought furiously against the monkish Knights o_antiago, who were led up the hill by their prior—a great, deep-chested man, who wore a brown monastic habit over his suit of mail. Three archers he sle_n three giant strokes, but Sir Oliver flung his arms round him, and the two, staggering and straining, reeled backwards and fell, locked in each other'_rasp, over the edge of the steep cliff which flanked the hill. In vain hi_nights stormed and raved against the thin line which barred their path: th_word of Aylward and the great axe of John gleamed in the forefront of th_attle and huge jagged pieces of rock, hurled by the strong arms of th_owmen, crashed and hurtled amid their ranks. Slowly they gave back down th_ill, the archers still hanging upon their skirts, with a long litter o_rithing and twisted figures to mark the course which they had taken. At th_ame instant the Welshmen upon the left, led on by the Scotch earl, ha_harged out from among the rocks which sheltered them, and by the fury o_heir outfall had driven the Spaniards in front of them in headlong fligh_own the hill. In the centre only things seemed to be going ill with th_efenders. Black Simon was down—dying, as he would wish to have died, like _rim old wolf in its lair with a ring of his slain around him. Twice Sir Nige_ad been overborne, and twice Alleyne had fought over him until he ha_taggered to his feet once more. Burley lay senseless, stunned by a blow fro_ mace, and half of the men-at-arms lay littered upon the ground around him.
Sir Nigel's shield was broken, his crest shorn, his armor cut and smashed, an_he vizor torn from his helmet; yet he sprang hither and thither with ligh_oot and ready hand, engaging two Bretons and a Spaniard at the sam_nstant—thrusting, stooping, dashing in, springing out—while Alleyne stil_ought by his side, stemming with a handful of men the fierce tide whic_urged up against them. Yet it would have fared ill with them had not th_rchers from either side closed in upon the flanks of the attackers, an_ressed them very slowly and foot by foot down the long slope, until they wer_n the plain once more, where their fellows were already rallying for a fres_ssault.
But terrible indeed was the cost at which the last had been repelled. Of th_hree hundred and seventy men who had held the crest, one hundred and seventy- two were left standing, many of whom were sorely wounded and weak from loss o_lood. Sir Oliver Buttesthorn, Sir Richard Causton, Sir Simon Burley, Blac_imon, Johnston, a hundred and fifty archers, and forty-seven men-at-arms ha_allen, while the pitiless hail of stones was already whizzing and piping onc_ore about their ears, threatening every instant to further reduce thei_umbers.
Sir Nigel looked about him at his shattered ranks, and his face flushed with _oldier's pride.
"By St. Paul!" he cried, "I have fought in many a little bickering, but neve_ne that I would be more loth to have missed than this. But you are wounded, Alleyne?"
"It is nought," answered his squire, stanching the blood which dripped from _word-cut across his forehead.
"These gentlemen of Spain seem to be most courteous and worthy people. I se_hat they are already forming to continue this debate with us. Form up th_owmen two deep instead of four. By my faith! some very brave men have gon_rom among us. Aylward, you are a trusty soldier, for all that your shoulde_as never felt accolade, nor your heels worn the gold spurs. Do you tak_harge of the right; I will hold the centre, and you, my Lord of Angus, th_eft."
"Ho! for Sir Samkin Aylward!" cried a rough voice among the archers, and _oar of laughter greeted their new leader.
"By my hilt!" said the old bowman, "I never thought to lead a wing in _tricken field. Stand close, camarades, for, by these finger-bones! we mus_lay the man this day."
"Come hither, Alleyne," said Sir Nigel, walking back to the edge of the clif_hich formed the rear of their position. "And you, Norbury," he continued, beckoning to the squire of Sir Oliver, "do you also come here."
The two squires hurried across to him, and the three stood looking down int_he rocky ravine which lay a hundred and fifty feet beneath them.
"The prince must hear of how things are with us," said the knight. "Anothe_nfall we may withstand, but they are many and we are few, so that the tim_ust come when we can no longer form line across the hill. Yet if help wer_rought us we might hold the crest until it comes. See yonder horses whic_tray among the rocks beneath us?"
"I see them, my fair lord."
"And see yonder path which winds along the hill upon the further end of th_alley?"
"I see it."
"Were you on those horses, and riding up yonder track, steep and rough as i_s, I think that ye might gain the valley beyond. Then on to the prince, an_ell him how we fare."
"But, my fair lord, how can we hope to reach the horses?" asked Norbury.
"Ye cannot go round to them, for they would be upon ye ere ye could come t_hem. Think ye that ye have heart enough to clamber down this cliff?"
"Had we but a rope."
"There is one here. It is but one hundred feet long, and for the rest ye mus_rust to God and to your fingers. Can you try it, Alleyne?"
"With all my heart, my dear lord, but how can I leave you in such a strait?"
"Nay, it is to serve me that ye go. And you, Norbury?"
The silent squire said nothing, but he took up the rope, and, having examine_t, he tied one end firmly round a projecting rock. Then he cast off hi_reast-plate, thigh pieces, and greaves, while Alleyne followed his example.
"Tell Chandos, or Calverley, or Knolles, should the prince have gone forward,"
cried Sir Nigel. "Now may God speed ye, for ye are brave and worthy men."
It was, indeed, a task which might make the heart of the bravest sink withi_im. The thin cord dangling down the face of the brown cliff seemed from abov_o reach little more than half-way down it. Beyond stretched the rugged rock, wet and shining, with a green tuft here and there thrusting out from it, bu_ittle sign of ridge or foothold. Far below the jagged points of the boulder_ristled up, dark and menacing. Norbury tugged thrice with all his strengt_pon the cord, and then lowered himself over the edge, while a hundred anxiou_aces peered over at him as he slowly clambered downwards to the end of th_ope. Twice he stretched out his foot, and twice he failed to reach the poin_t which he aimed, but even as he swung himself for a third effort a ston_rom a sling buzzed like a wasp from amid the rocks and struck him full upo_he side of his head. His grasp relaxed, his feet slipped, and in an instan_e was a crushed and mangled corpse upon the sharp ridges beneath him.
"If I have no better fortune," said Alleyne, leading Sir Nigel aside. "I pra_ou, my dear lord, that you will give my humble service to the Lady Maude, an_ay to her that I was ever her true servant and most unworthy cavalier."
The old knight said no word, but he put a hand on either shoulder, and kisse_is squire, with the tears shining in his eyes. Alleyne sprang to the rope, and sliding swiftly down, soon found himself at its extremity. From above i_eemed as though rope and cliff were well-nigh touching, but now, whe_winging a hundred feet down, the squire found that he could scarce reach th_ace of the rock with his foot, and that it was as smooth as glass, with n_esting-place where a mouse could stand. Some three feet lower, however, hi_ye lit upon a long jagged crack which slanted downwards, and this he mus_each if he would save not only his own poor life, but that of the eight-scor_en above him. Yet it were madness to spring for that narrow slit with nough_ut the wet, smooth rock to cling to. He swung for a moment, full of thought, and even as he hung there another of the hellish stones sang through hi_urls, and struck a chip from the face of the cliff. Up he clambered a fe_eet, drew up the loose end after him, unslung his belt, held on with knee an_ith elbow while he spliced the long, tough leathern belt to the end of th_ord: then lowering himself as far as he could go, he swung backwards an_orwards until his hand reached the crack, when he left the rope and clung t_he face of the cliff. Another stone struck him on the side, and he heard _ound like a breaking stick, with a keen stabbing pain which shot through hi_hest. Yet it was no time now to think of pain or ache. There was his lord an_is eight-score comrades, and they must be plucked from the jaws of death. O_e clambered, with his hand shuffling down the long sloping crack, sometime_earing all his weight upon his arms, at others finding some small shelf o_uft on which to rest his foot. Would he never pass over that fifty feet? H_ared not look down and could but grope slowly onwards, his face to the cliff, his fingers clutching, his feet scraping and feeling for a support. Every vei_nd crack and mottling of that face of rock remained forever stamped upon hi_emory. At last, however, his foot came upon a broad resting-place and h_entured to cast a glance downwards. Thank God! he had reached the highest o_hose fatal pinnacles upon which his comrade had fallen. Quickly now he spran_rom rock to rock until his feet were on the ground, and he had his han_tretched out for the horse's rein, when a sling-stone struck him on the head, and he dropped senseless upon the ground.
An evil blow it was for Alleyne, but a worse one still for him who struck it.
The Spanish slinger, seeing the youth lie slain, and judging from his dres_hat he was no common man, rushed forward to plunder him, knowing well tha_he bowmen above him had expended their last shaft. He was still three paces, however, from his victim's side when John upon the cliff above plucked up _uge boulder, and, poising it for an instant, dropped it with fatal aim upo_he slinger beneath him. It struck upon his shoulder, and hurled him, crushe_nd screaming, to the ground, while Alleyne, recalled to his senses by thes_hrill cries in his very ear, staggered on to his feet, and gazed wildly abou_im. His eyes fell upon the horses, grazing upon the scanty pasture, and in a_nstant all had come back to him—his mission, his comrades, the need fo_aste. He was dizzy, sick, faint, but he must not die, and he must not tarry, for his life meant many lives that day. In an instant he was in his saddle an_purring down the valley. Loud rang the swift charger's hoofs over rock an_eef, while the fire flew from the stroke of iron, and the loose stone_howered up behind him. But his head was whirling round, the blood was gushin_rom his brow, his temple, his mouth. Ever keener and sharper was the deadl_ain which shot like a red-hot arrow through his side. He felt that his ey_as glazing, his senses slipping from him, his grasp upon the reins relaxing.
Then with one mighty effort, he called up all his strength for a singl_inute. Stooping down, he loosened the stirrup-straps, bound his knees tightl_o his saddle-flaps, twisted his hands in the bridle, and then, putting th_allant horse's head for the mountain path, he dashed the spurs in and fel_orward fainting with his face buried in the coarse, black mane.
Little could he ever remember of that wild ride. Half conscious, but ever wit_he one thought beating in his mind, he goaded the horse onwards, rushin_wiftly down steep ravines over huge boulders, along the edges of blac_bysses. Dim memories he had of beetling cliffs, of a group of huts wit_ondering faces at the doors, of foaming, clattering water, and of a bristl_f mountain beeches. Once, ere he had ridden far, he heard behind him thre_eep, sullen shouts, which told him that his comrades had set their faces t_he foe once more. Then all was blank, until he woke to find kindly blu_nglish eyes peering down upon him and to hear the blessed sound of hi_ountry's speech. They were but a foraging party—a hundred archers and as man_en-at-arms—but their leader was Sir Hugh Calverley, and he was not a man t_ide idle when good blows were to be had not three leagues from him. A scou_as sent flying with a message to the camp, and Sir Hugh, with his two hundre_en, thundered off to the rescue. With them went Alleyne, still bound to hi_addle, still dripping with blood, and swooning and recovering, and swoonin_nce again. On they rode, and on, until, at last, topping a ridge, they looke_own upon the fateful valley. Alas! and alas! for the sight that met thei_yes.
There, beneath them, was the blood-bathed hill, and from the highest pinnacl_here flaunted the yellow and white banner with the lions and the towers o_he royal house of Castile. Up the long slope rushed ranks and ranks of me_xultant, shouting, with waving pennons and brandished arms. Over the whol_ummit were dense throngs of knights, with no enemy that could be seen to fac_hem, save only that at one corner of the plateau an eddy and swirl amid th_rowded mass seemed to show that all resistance was not yet at an end. At th_ight a deep groan of rage and of despair went up from the baffled rescuers, and, spurring on their horses, they clattered down the long and winding pat_hich led to the valley beneath.
But they were too late to avenge, as they had been too late to save. Long er_hey could gain the level ground, the Spaniards, seeing them riding swiftl_mid the rocks, and being ignorant of their numbers, drew off from th_aptured hill, and, having secured their few prisoners, rode slowly in a lon_olumn, with drum-beating and cymbal-clashing, out of the valley. Their rea_anks were already passing out of sight ere the new-comers were urging thei_anting, foaming horses up the slope which had been the scene of that lon_rawn and bloody fight.
And a fearsome sight it was that met their eyes! Across the lower end lay th_ense heap of men and horses where the first arrow-storm had burst. Above, th_odies of the dead and the dying—French, Spanish, and Aragonese—lay thick an_hicker, until they covered the whole ground two and three deep in on_readful tangle of slaughter. Above them lay the Englishmen in their lines, even as they had stood, and higher yet upon the plateau a wild medley of th_ead of all nations, where the last deadly grapple had left them. In th_urther corner, under the shadow of a great rock, there crouched seven bowmen, with great John in the centre of them—all wounded, weary, and in sorry case, but still unconquered, with their blood-stained weapons waving and thei_oices ringing a welcome to their countrymen. Alleyne rode across to John, while Sir Hugh Calverley followed close behind him.
"By Saint George!" cried Sir Hugh, "I have never seen signs of so stern _ight, and I am right glad that we have been in time to save you."
"You have saved more than us," said John, pointing to the banner which leane_gainst the rock behind him.
"You have done nobly," cried the old free companion, gazing with a soldier'_dmiration at the huge frame and bold face of the archer. "But why is it, m_ood fellow, that you sit upon this man."
"By the rood! I had forgot him," John answered, rising and dragging from unde_im no less a person than the Spanish caballero, Don Diego Alvarez. "This man, my fair lord, means to me a new house, ten cows, one bull—if it be but _ittle one—a grindstone, and I know not what besides; so that I thought i_ell to sit upon him, lest he should take a fancy to leave me."
"Tell me, John," cried Alleyne faintly: "where is my dear lord, Sir Nige_oring?"
"He is dead, I fear. I saw them throw his body across a horse and ride awa_ith it, but I fear the life had gone from him."
"Now woe worth me! And where is Aylward?"
"He sprang upon a riderless horse and rode after Sir Nigel to save him. I sa_hem throng around him, and he is either taken or slain."
"Blow the bugles!" cried Sir Hugh, with a scowling brow. "We must back t_amp, and ere three days I trust that we may see these Spaniards again. _ould fain have ye all in my company."
"We are of the White Company, my fair lord," said John.
"Nay, the White Company is here disbanded," answered Sir Hugh solemnly, looking round him at the lines of silent figures, "Look to the brave squire, for I fear that he will never see the sun rise again."