Child Christopher - Chapter 19
XIX. EARL GEOFFREY SPEAKETH WITH CHRISTOPHER
Now it is to be said that the Earl had had much tidings told him of Christopher, and had no intent to put him to death, but rather meant to take him into the company of his guard, to serve him in all honour; and that which he said as to hanging him was but to try Goldilind; but having heard and seen of her such as we have told, he now thought it good to have a privy talk with this young man. So he bade a squire lead him to where Christopher was held in ward, and went much pondering.
So the squire brought him to the self-same Littlest Guardroom (in sooth a prison) where Goldilind had lain that other morn; and he gave the squire leave, and entered and shut the door behind him, so that he and Christopher were alone together. The young man was lying on his back on the pallet, with his hands behind his head, and his knees drawn up, murmuring some fag-end of an old song; but when he heard the door shut to he sat up, and, turning to the new-comer, said: "Art thou tidings? If so, then tell me quickly which it is to be, the gallows or freedom?"
"Friend," said the Earl sternly, "dost thou know who I am?"
"Nay," said Christopher; "by thine attire thou shouldst be some great man; but that is of little matter to me, since thou wilt neither bid slay me, or let me go, for a heedless word.
Quoth the Earl: "I am the master of the land of Meadham, so there is no need to tell thee that I have thy life or death in my hand. Now thou wilt not deny that thou art of the company of Jack o' the Tofts?"
"It is sooth," said Christopher.
"Well," said the Earl, "thou art bold then to have come hither, for thou sayest it that thou art a wolf's-head and forfeit of thy life. Now, again, thou didst take the Lady of Meadham home to thy house yesterday, and wert with her alone a great while. Now according to thy dealings with her thou dost merit either the most evil of deaths, or else it may be a reward: hah! what sayest thou?"
Christopher leapt up, and said in a loud voice: "Lord King, whatsoever I may be, I am not each man's dastard; when I saw that pearl of all women, I loved her indeed, as who should not, but it was even as I had loved the Mother of God had she come down from the altar picture at the Church of Middleham of the Wood. And whoso saith otherwise, I give him the lie back in his teeth, and will meet him face to face if I may; and then, meseems, it will go hard with him."
Spake the Earl, laughing: "I will be no champion against thee, for I hold my skin and my bones of too much price thereto. And, moreover, though meseemeth the Blessed Virgin would have a hot lover in thee were she to come down to earth anigh thy dwelling, yet trow I thy tale, that thou hast dealt with my Lady in honour. Therefore, lad, what sayest thou, wilt thou be a man of mine, and bear arms for me, and do my will?"
Spake Christopher: "Lord, this is better than hanging."
"Why, so it is, lad," said the Earl, laughing again, "and some would say better by a good deal. But hearken! if thou take it, thou must abide here in Greenharbour--a long while, maybe; yea, even so long as my Lady dwelleth here."
Christopher flushed and said: "Lord, thou art kind and gracious, and I will take thy bidding."
The Earl said: "Well, so it shall be then; and presently thou shalt go out of this guard-room a free man. But abide a while."
Therewith he drew a stool to him and sat down, and spake not for a long while; and Christopher abode his pleasure; at last spake the Earl: "One day, mayhappen, we may make a wedding for thee, and that no ill one."
Christopher laughed: "Lord," said he, "what lady will wed me, a no man's son?"
Said the Earl: "Not if the Lord of Meadham be thy friend? Well then, how if the Lady and Queen of Meadham make thee the wedding?"
Said Christopher: "I were liefer to make mine own wedding, whenso I need a woman in my bed: I will compel no woman, nor ask others to compel her."
The Earl rose up, and fell to pacing the prison to and fro; and at last he stood over against Christopher, and said: "Hearken, forester: I will foretell thy fortune; it is that thou shalt become great by wedding."
Christopher held his peace; and the Earl spake again: "Now is the shortest word best. We deem thee both goodly and doughty, and would wed thee to a great lady, even that one to whom thou hast shown kindness in the wilderness."
Said Christopher: "It is the wont of great lords to mock poor folk, therefore I must not show anger against thee."
"I mock thee not," said the Earl; "I mean nought, but as my words say."
"Nay then," said Christopher, "thou biddest me an evil deed, great Lord. What I said was that I would compel no woman; and shall I compel her who is the wonder of the world and my very own Lady?"
"Hold thy peace, sir fool," said the Earl; "let me tell thee that she is as like to compel thee as thou her. And as to her being thy Lady, she shall be thy Lady and wife indeed; but not here, for above all things will she get her away from Greenharbour, and thou shalt be her champion, to lead her about the world like a knight errant."
Now was Christopher so troubled that he knew not what countenance to make, and scarce might he get a word out of his mouth a long while. At last he said: "Lord, I see that I must needs do thy will if this be no trap which thou hast set for me. But overwonderful it is, that a great lady should be wedded to a gangrel churl."
The Earl laughed: "Many a ferly fares to the fair-eyed," quoth he; "and also I will tell thee in thine ear that this Lady may not be so great as her name is great. Did she praise her life-days to thee?"
"Nay," said Christopher; "I mind me well, she called herself the poor captive."
"She said but sooth," quoth the Earl; "and her going away from Greenharbour is instead of her captivity; and I tell thee it is by that only I may make her joyous. And now one word: thou that criest out For the Tofts in battle art not altogether unfriended, meseemeth."
Christopher looked up proudly and fiercely: he said: "Forsooth, Lord, my friends are good, though thou callest them wolf-heads and gallows-meat."
"Champion," said the Earl, laughing, "that may well be sooth; and there are a many ups and downs in the world. Bethink thee that the time may come when thou and thy friends may wend to my help, and may win the names of knight and baron and earl: such hap hath been aforetime. And now I crave of thee, when thou comest back to the Tofts, to bid Jack fall upon other lands than Meadham when he rideth, because of the gift and wedding that I give thee now. So, lad, I deem that thou hast chosen thy part; but let not the tale thereof go out of thy mouth, or thou wilt gab away thy wedding. Lo, thou, I leave this door open behind me; and presently shall the smith come here to do away thine irons; and I shall send a squire to thee to lead thee to a fair chamber, and to bring thee goodly raiment, and do thou play amongst thy fellows as one of the best of them; and show them, if thou wilt, some such feats in peace as yesterday thou showedst them in battle. And to-morrow there will be new tidings." And therewith he departed.
No worse than his word he was, and anon came the smith and the squire; and he was brought to a chamber, and raiment of fine linen and silk and embroidery was brought to him: and when he was new clad he looked like a king's son, whereas aforetime he looked like a God of the Gentiles of old. All men praised his beauty and his courtesy, and after dinner was, and they had rested, they bade him play with them and show them his prowess, and he was nought loth thereto, and did what he might in running and leaping, and casting of the bar, and shooting in the bow. And in all these things he was so far before everyone, that they marvelled at him, and said it was well indeed that he had not been slain yesterday. As to wrestling, therein he might do but little; for all forbore him after the first man had stood before him, a squire, well learned in war, and long and tough, and deemed a very stark man; him Christopher threw over his shoulder as though he had been a child of twelve years. So wore the day at Greenharbour in merrier wise for all good folk than for many a day had been the wont there.