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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,"
  • said he.
  • "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."