Chapter 6 HOW SAMKIN AYLWARD WAGERED HIS FEATHER-BED.
He was a middle-sized man, of most massive and robust build, with an archin_hest and extraordinary breadth of shoulder. His shaven face was as brown as _azel-nut, tanned and dried by the weather, with harsh, well-marked features, which were not improved by a long white scar which stretched from the corne_f his left nostril to the angle of the jaw. His eyes were bright an_earching, with something of menace and of authority in their quick glitter, and his mouth was firm-set and hard, as befitted one who was wont to set hi_ace against danger. A straight sword by his side and a painted long-bo_utting over his shoulder proclaimed his profession, while his scarre_rigandine of chain-mail and his dinted steel cap showed that he was n_oliday soldier, but one who was even now fresh from the wars. A white surcoa_ith the lion of St. George in red upon the centre covered his broad breast, while a sprig of new-plucked broom at the side of his head-gear gave a touc_f gayety and grace to his grim, war-worn equipment.
"Ha!" he cried, blinking like an owl in the sudden glare. "Good even to you, comrades! Hola! a woman, by my soul!" and in an instant he had clipped Dam_liza round the waist and was kissing her violently. His eye happening t_ander upon the maid, however, he instantly abandoned the mistress and dance_ff after the other, who scurried in confusion up one of the ladders, an_ropped the heavy trap-door upon her pursuer. He then turned back and salute_he landlady once more with the utmost relish and satisfaction.
"La petite is frightened," said he. "Ah, c'est l'amour, l'amour! Curse thi_rick of French, which will stick to my throat. I must wash it out with som_ood English ale. By my hilt! camarades, there is no drop of French blood i_y body, and I am a true English bowman, Samkin Aylward by name; and I tel_ou, mes amis, that it warms my very heart-roots to set my feet on the dea_ld land once more. When I came off the galley at Hythe, this very day, I dow_n my bones, and I kissed the good brown earth, as I kiss thee now, ma belle, for it was eight long years since I had seen it. The very smell of it seeme_ife to me. But where are my six rascals? Hola, there! En avant!"
At the order, six men, dressed as common drudges, marched solemnly into th_oom, each bearing a huge bundle upon his head. They formed in military line, while the soldier stood in front of them with stern eyes, checking off thei_everal packages.
"Number one—a French feather-bed with the two counter-panes of white sendall,"
"Here, worthy sir," answered the first of the bearers, laying a great packag_own in the corner.
"Number two—seven ells of red Turkey cloth and nine ells of cloth of gold. Pu_t down by the other. Good dame, I prythee give each of these men a bottrin_f wine or a jack of ale. Three—a full piece of white Genoan velvet wit_welve ells of purple silk. Thou rascal, there is dirt on the hem! Thou has_rushed it against some wall, coquin!"
"Not I, most worthy sir," cried the carrier, shrinking away from the fierc_yes of the bowman.
"I say yes, dog! By the three kings! I have seen a man gasp out his las_reath for less. Had you gone through the pain and unease that I have done t_arn these things you would be at more care. I swear by my ten finger-bone_hat there is not one of them that hath not cost its weight in French blood!
Four—an incense-boat, a ewer of silver, a gold buckle and a cope worked i_earls. I found them, camarades, at the Church of St. Denis in the harrying o_arbonne, and I took them away with me lest they fall into the hands of th_icked. Five—a cloak of fur turned up with minever, a gold goblet with stan_nd cover, and a box of rose-colored sugar. See that you lay them together.
Six—a box of monies, three pounds of Limousine gold-work, a pair of boots, silver tagged, and, lastly, a store of naping linen. So, the tally i_omplete! Here is a groat apiece, and you may go."
"Go whither, worthy sir?" asked one of the carriers.
"Whither? To the devil if ye will. What is it to me? Now, ma belle, to supper.
A pair of cold capons, a mortress of brawn, or what you will, with a flask o_wo of the right Gascony. I have crowns in my pouch, my sweet, and I mean t_pend them. Bring in wine while the food is dressing. Buvons my brave lads; you shall each empty a stoup with me."
Here was an offer which the company in an English inn at that or any othe_ate are slow to refuse. The flagons were re-gathered and came back with th_hite foam dripping over their edges. Two of the woodmen and three of th_aborers drank their portions off hurriedly and trooped off together, fo_heir homes were distant and the hour late. The others, however, drew closer, leaving the place of honor to the right of the gleeman to the free-handed new- comer. He had thrown off his steel cap and his brigandine, and had placed the_ith his sword, his quiver and his painted long-bow, on the top of his varie_eap of plunder in the corner. Now, with his thick and somewhat bowed leg_tretched in front of the blaze, his green jerkin thrown open, and a grea_uart pot held in his corded fist, he looked the picture of comfort and o_ood-fellowship. His hard-set face had softened, and the thick crop of cris_rown curls which had been hidden by his helmet grew low upon his massiv_eck. He might have been forty years of age, though hard toil and harde_leasure had left their grim marks upon his features. Alleyne had cease_ainting his pied merlin, and sat, brush in hand, staring with open eyes at _ype of man so strange and so unlike any whom he had met. Men had been good o_ad been bad in his catalogue, but here was a man who was fierce one instan_nd gentle the next, with a curse on his lips and a smile in his eye. What wa_o be made of such a man as that?
It chanced that the soldier looked up and saw the questioning glance which th_oung clerk threw upon him. He raised his flagon and drank to him, with _erry flash of his white teeth.
"A toi, mon garcon," he cried. "Hast surely never seen a man-at-arms, tha_hou shouldst stare so?"
"I never have," said Alleyne frankly, "though I have oft heard talk of thei_eeds."
"By my hilt!" cried the other, "if you were to cross the narrow sea you woul_ind them as thick as bees at a tee-hole. Couldst not shoot a bolt down an_treet of Bordeaux, I warrant, but you would pink archer, squire, or knight.
There are more breastplates than gaberdines to be seen, I promise you."
"And where got you all these pretty things?" asked Hordle John, pointing a_he heap in the corner.
"Where there is as much more waiting for any brave lad to pick it up. Where _ood man can always earn a good wage, and where he need look upon no man a_is paymaster, but just reach his hand out and help himself. Aye, it is _oodly and a proper life. And here I drink to mine old comrades, and th_aints be with them! Arouse all together, me, enfants, under pain of m_ispleasure. To Sir Claude Latour and the White Company!"
"Sir Claude Latour and the White Company!" shouted the travellers, drainin_ff their goblets.
"Well quaffed, mes braves! It is for me to fill your cups again, since yo_ave drained them to my dear lads of the white jerkin. Hola! mon ange, brin_ine and ale. How runs the old stave?—
> We'll drink all together > To the gray goose feather > And the land where the gray goose flew."
He roared out the catch in a harsh, unmusical voice, and ended with a shout o_aughter. "I trust that I am a better bowman than a minstrel," said he.
"Methinks I have some remembrance of the lilt," remarked the gleeman, runnin_is fingers over the strings, "Hoping that it will give thee no offence, mos_oly sir"—with a vicious snap at Alleyne—"and with the kind permit of th_ompany, I will even venture upon it."
Many a time in the after days Alleyne Edricson seemed to see that scene, fo_ll that so many which were stranger and more stirring were soon to crowd upo_im. The fat, red-faced gleeman, the listening group, the archer with upraise_inger beating in time to the music, and the huge sprawling figure of Hordl_ohn, all thrown into red light and black shadow by the flickering fire in th_entre—memory was to come often lovingly back to it. At the time he was los_n admiration at the deft way in which the jongleur disguised the loss of hi_wo missing strings, and the lusty, hearty fashion in which he trolled out hi_ittle ballad of the outland bowmen, which ran in some such fashion as this:
> What of the bow?
> The bow was made in England: > Of true wood, of yew wood, > The wood of English bows; > So men who are free > Love the old yew tree > And the land where the yew tree grows.
> > What of the cord?
> The cord was made in England: > A rough cord, a tough cord, > A cord that bowmen love; > So we'll drain our jacks > To the English flax > And the land where the hemp was wove.
> > What of the shaft?
> The shaft was cut in England: > A long shaft, a strong shaft, > Barbed and trim and true; > So we'll drink all together > To the gray goose feather > And the land where the gray goose flew.
> > What of the men?
> The men were bred in England: > The bowman—the yeoman— > The lads of dale and fell > Here's to you—and to you; > To the hearts that are true > And the land where the true hearts dwell.
"Well sung, by my hilt!" shouted the archer in high delight. "Many a nigh_ave I heard that song, both in the old war-time and after in the days of th_hite Company, when Black Simon of Norwich would lead the stave, and fou_undred of the best bowmen that ever drew string would come roaring in upo_he chorus. I have seen old John Hawkwood, the same who has led half th_ompany into Italy, stand laughing in his beard as he heard it, until hi_lates rattled again. But to get the full smack of it ye must yourselves b_nglish bowmen, and be far off upon an outland soil."
Whilst the song had been singing Dame Eliza and the maid had placed a boar_cross two trestles, and had laid upon it the knife, the spoon, the salt, th_ranchoir of bread, and finally the smoking dish which held the savory supper.
The archer settled himself to it like one who had known what it was to fin_ood food scarce; but his tongue still went as merrily as his teeth.
"It passes me," he cried, "how all you lusty fellows can bide scratching you_acks at home when there are such doings over the seas. Look at me—what have _o do? It is but the eye to the cord, the cord to the shaft, and the shaft t_he mark. There is the whole song of it. It is but what you do yourselves fo_leasure upon a Sunday evening at the parish village butts."
"And the wage?" asked a laborer.
"You see what the wage brings," he answered. "I eat of the best, and I drin_eep. I treat my friend, and I ask no friend to treat me. I clap a silk gow_n my girl's back. Never a knight's lady shall be better betrimmed an_etrinketed. How of all that, mon garcon? And how of the heap of trifles tha_ou can see for yourselves in yonder corner? They are from the South French, every one, upon whom I have been making war. By my hilt! camarades, I thin_hat I may let my plunder speak for itself."
"It seems indeed to be a goodly service," said the tooth-drawer.
"Tete bleu! yes, indeed. Then there is the chance of a ransom. Why, look you, in the affair at Brignais some four years back, when the companies slew Jame_f Bourbon, and put his army to the sword, there was scarce a man of ours wh_ad not count, baron, or knight. Peter Karsdale, who was but a common countr_out newly brought over, with the English fleas still hopping under hi_oublet, laid his great hands upon the Sieur Amaury de Chatonville, who own_alf Picardy, and had five thousand crowns out of him, with his horse an_arness. 'Tis true that a French wench took it all off Peter as quick as th_renchman paid it; but what then? By the twang of string! it would be a ba_hing if money was not made to be spent; and how better than on woman—eh, m_elle?"
"It would indeed be a bad thing if we had not our brave archers to brin_ealth and kindly customs into the country," quoth Dame Eliza, on whom th_oldier's free and open ways had made a deep impression.
"A toi, ma cherie!" said he, with his hand over his heart. "Hola! there is l_etite peeping from behind the door. A toi, aussi, ma petite! Mon Dieu! bu_he lass has a good color!"
"There is one thing, fair sir," said the Cambridge student in his pipin_oice, "which I would fain that you would make more clear. As I understand it, there was peace made at the town of Bretigny some six years back between ou_ost gracious monarch and the King of the French. This being so, it seems mos_assing strange that you should talk so loudly of war and of companies whe_here is no quarrel between the French and us."
"Meaning that I lie," said the archer, laying down his knife.
"May heaven forfend!" cried the student hastily. " _Magna est veritas se_ara_ , which means in the Latin tongue that archers are all honorable men. _ome to you seeking knowledge, for it is my trade to learn."
"I fear that you are yet a 'prentice to that trade," quoth the soldier; "fo_here is no child over the water but could answer what you ask. Know then tha_hough there may be peace between our own provinces and the French, yet withi_he marches of France there is always war, for the country is much divide_gainst itself, and is furthermore harried by bands of flayers, skinners, Brabacons, tardvenus, and the rest of them. When every man's grip is on hi_eighbor's throat, and every five-sous-piece of a baron is marching with tuc_f drum to fight whom he will, it would be a strange thing if five hundre_rave English boys could not pick up a living. Now that Sir John Hawkwood hat_one with the East Anglian lads and the Nottingham woodmen into the service o_he Marquis of Montferrat to fight against the Lord of Milan, there are bu_en score of us left, yet I trust that I may be able to bring some back wit_e to fill the ranks of the White Company. By the tooth of Peter! it would b_ bad thing if I could not muster many a Hamptonshire man who would be read_o strike in under the red flag of St. George, and the more so if Sir Nige_oring, of Christchurch, should don hauberk once more and take the lead o_s."
"Ah, you would indeed be in luck then," quoth a woodman; "for it is said that, setting aside the prince, and mayhap good old Sir John Chandos, there was no_n the whole army a man of such tried courage."
"It is sooth, every word of it," the archer answered. "I have seen him wit_hese two eyes in a stricken field, and never did man carry himself better.
Mon Dieu! yes, ye would not credit it to look at him, or to hearken to hi_oft voice, but from the sailing from Orwell down to the foray to Paris, an_hat is clear twenty years, there was not a skirmish, onfall, sally, bushment, escalado or battle, but Sir Nigel was in the heart of it. I go now t_hristchurch with a letter to him from Sir Claude Latour to ask him if he wil_ake the place of Sir John Hawkwood; and there is the more chance that he wil_f I bring one or two likely men at my heels. What say you, woodman: wil_eave the bucks to loose a shaft at a nobler mark?"
The forester shook his head. "I have wife and child at Emery Down," quoth he;
"I would not leave them for such a venture."
"You, then, young sir?" asked the archer.
"Nay, I am a man of peace," said Alleyne Edricson. "Besides, I have other wor_o do."
"Peste!" growled the soldier, striking his flagon on the board until th_ishes danced again. "What, in the name of the devil, hath come over the folk?
Why sit ye all moping by the fireside, like crows round a dead horse, whe_here is man's work to be done within a few short leagues of ye? Out upon yo_ll, as a set of laggards and hang-backs! By my hilt I believe that the men o_ngland are all in France already, and that what is left behind are in soot_he women dressed up in their paltocks and hosen."
"Archer," quoth Hordle John, "you have lied more than once and more tha_wice; for which, and also because I see much in you to dislike, I am sorel_empted to lay you upon your back."
"By my hilt! then, I have found a man at last!" shouted the bowman. "And,
'fore God, you are a better man than I take you for if you can lay me on m_ack, mon garcon. I have won the ram more times than there are toes to m_eet, and for seven long years I have found no man in the Company who coul_ake my jerkin dusty."
"We have had enough bobance and boasting," said Hordle John, rising an_hrowing off his doublet. "I will show you that there are better men left i_ngland than ever went thieving to France."
"Pasques Dieu!" cried the archer, loosening his jerkin, and eyeing his foema_ver with the keen glance of one who is a judge of manhood. "I have only onc_efore seen such a body of a man. By your leave, my red-headed friend, _hould be right sorry to exchange buffets with you; and I will allow tha_here is no man in the Company who would pull against you on a rope; so le_hat be a salve to your pride. On the other hand I should judge that you hav_ed a life of ease for some months back, and that my muscle is harder tha_our own. I am ready to wager upon myself against you if you are not afeard."
"Afeard, thou lurden!" growled big John. "I never saw the face yet of the ma_hat I was afeard of. Come out, and we shall see who is the better man."
"But the wager?"
"I have nought to wager. Come out for the love and the lust of the thing."
"Nought to wager!" cried the soldier. "Why, you have that which I covet abov_ll things. It is that big body of thine that I am after. See, now, mo_arcon. I have a French feather-bed there, which I have been at pains to kee_hese years back. I had it at the sacking of Issodun, and the King himsel_ath not such a bed. If you throw me, it is thine; but, if I throw you, the_ou are under a vow to take bow and bill and hie with me to France, there t_erve in the White Company as long as we be enrolled."
"A fair wager!" cried all the travellers, moving back their benches an_restles, so as to give fair field for the wrestlers.
"Then you may bid farewell to your bed, soldier," said Hordle John.
"Nay; I shall keep the bed, and I shall have you to France in spite of you_eeth, and you shall live to thank me for it. How shall it be, then, mo_nfant? Collar and elbow, or close-lock, or catch how you can?"
"To the devil with your tricks," said John, opening and shutting his great re_ands. "Stand forth, and let me clip thee."
"Shalt clip me as best you can then," quoth the archer, moving out into th_pen space, and keeping a most wary eye upon his opponent. He had thrown of_is green jerkin, and his chest was covered only by a pink silk jupon, o_ndershirt, cut low in the neck and sleeveless. Hordle John was stripped fro_is waist upwards, and his huge body, with his great muscles swelling out lik_he gnarled roots of an oak, towered high above the soldier. The other, however, though near a foot shorter, was a man of great strength; and ther_as a gloss upon his white skin which was wanting in the heavier limbs of th_enegade monk. He was quick on his feet, too, and skilled at the game; so tha_t was clear, from the poise of head and shine of eye, that he counted th_hances to be in his favor. It would have been hard that night, through th_hole length of England, to set up a finer pair in face of each other.
Big John stood waiting in the centre with a sullen, menacing eye, and his re_air in a bristle, while the archer paced lightly and swiftly to the right an_he left with crooked knee and hands advanced. Then with a sudden dash, s_wift and fierce that the eye could scarce follow it, he flew in upon his ma_nd locked his leg round him. It was a grip that, between men of equa_trength, would mean a fall; but Hordle John tore him off from him as he migh_ rat, and hurled him across the room, so that his head cracked up against th_ooden wall.
"Ma foi!" cried the bowman, passing his fingers through his curls, "you wer_ot far from the feather-bed then, mon gar. A little more and this good hoste_ould have a new window."
Nothing daunted, he approached his man once more, but this time with mor_aution than before. With a quick feint he threw the other off his guard, an_hen, bounding upon him, threw his legs round his waist and his arms round hi_ull-neck, in the hope of bearing him to the ground with the sudden shock.
With a bellow of rage, Hordle John squeezed him limp in his huge arms; an_hen, picking him up, cast him down upon the floor with a force which migh_ell have splintered a bone or two, had not the archer with the most perfec_oolness clung to the other's forearms to break his fall. As it was, h_ropped upon his feet and kept his balance, though it sent a jar through hi_rame which set every joint a-creaking. He bounded back from his perilou_oeman; but the other, heated by the bout, rushed madly after him, and so gav_he practised wrestler the very vantage for which he had planned. As big Joh_lung himself upon him, the archer ducked under the great red hands tha_lutched for him, and, catching his man round the thighs, hurled him over hi_houlder—helped as much by his own mad rush as by the trained strength of th_eave. To Alleyne's eye, it was as if John had taken unto himself wings an_lown. As he hurtled through the air, with giant limbs revolving, the lad'_eart was in his mouth; for surely no man ever yet had such a fall and cam_cathless out of it. In truth, hardy as the man was, his neck had bee_ssuredly broken had he not pitched head first on the very midriff of th_runken artist, who was slumbering so peacefully in the corner, all unaware o_hese stirring doings. The luckless limner, thus suddenly brought out from hi_reams, sat up with a piercing yell, while Hordle John bounded back into th_ircle almost as rapidly as he had left it.
"One more fall, by all the saints!" he cried, throwing out his arms.
"Not I," quoth the archer, pulling on his clothes, "I have come well out o_he business. I would sooner wrestle with the great bear of Navarre."
"It was a trick," cried John.
"Aye was it. By my ten finger-bones! it is a trick that will add a proper ma_o the ranks of the Company."
"Oh, for that," said the other, "I count it not a fly; for I had promise_yself a good hour ago that I should go with thee, since the life seems to b_ goodly and proper one. Yet I would fain have had the feather-bed."
"I doubt it not, mon ami," quoth the archer, going back to his tankard. "Her_s to thee, lad, and may we be good comrades to each other! But, hola! what i_t that ails our friend of the wrathful face?"
The unfortunate limner had been sitting up rubbing himself ruefully an_taring about with a vacant gaze, which showed that he knew neither where h_as nor what had occurred to him. Suddenly, however, a flash of intelligenc_ad come over his sodden features, and he rose and staggered for the door.
"'Ware the ale!" he said in a hoarse whisper, shaking a warning finger at th_ompany. "Oh, holy Virgin, 'ware the ale!" and slapping his hands to hi_njury, he flitted off into the darkness, amid a shout of laughter, in whic_he vanquished joined as merrily as the victor. The remaining forester and th_wo laborers were also ready for the road, and the rest of the company turne_o the blankets which Dame Eliza and the maid had laid out for them upon th_loor. Alleyne, weary with the unwonted excitements of the day, was soon in _eep slumber broken only by fleeting visions of twittering legs, cursin_eggars, black robbers, and the many strange folk whom he had met at the "Pie_erlin."