The Sundering Flood - Chapter 55
THE BLUE KNIGHT BUYS THE MAIDEN OF THE CHAPMAN
They had ridden scarce a three hours ere they came through a cleft in the hills which here were grown somewhat higher and straiter, on to a very fair little valley, well-grassed, and with a stream of clear water running through it; and amidst of the said valley a fair white pavilion pitched, but no coat-armour done thereon. Then quoth one of the men to the Carline: "Lo, dame, how likest thou the sight of our master's journey-house? Meseems in an hour's time thou shalt be well on thy journey to hell." The other men laughed, but the Carline answered them nought.
So down they went, and as they drew nigher they saw a tall black-bearded man standing before the tent door, and presently knew him for the chapman who had been such an ill guest to them at their own house. And the Maiden quaked and turned pale at the sight of him. But the Carline spake to her under her breath and said: "Fear not, we shall not abide long with this one." Now he came forward to meet them; but when he saw the Carline he cried out wrathfully to his men and said: "Why have ye brought this accursed hag with you over all these many miles of way? Now must she be hewn down here, and her carcase will lie stinking at our door." The men said nought, but sat in their saddles staring stupidly at him. But the Carline looked him hard in the face, and again made that muttering and the passing of her hands to and fro. The chapman said nought for a while, and then he spoke in a lower voice, wherein his pride seemed abated, and said: "Well, after all, the damsel must needs have some woman to wait upon her, and this one shall serve our turn for the present. Ho ye! come and take these women off their horses, and take them into the inner tent and give them to eat, and let them rest." Then came forward two serving-men, who bore short-swords by their sides, and led the Carline and the Maiden through the big tent into the lesser one, and there brought water for their hands, and then victual and drink, and waited on them with honour; and the Carline laughed and said: "Lo my dear, here am I an honoured guest instead of a stinking corpse. Seest thou, the old woman is still good for something, and always to serve thee and help thee, my dear." Then the Maiden kissed the Carline and caressed her, not without tears, and presently, being very weary with the way and the sorrow, laid her down on the bed and fell asleep. But the Carline sat watching heedfully all that went on, setting her eye to the default between the cloths of the tent, so that she could see all that was toward in the big tent, and somewhat the goings-on without.
Now it must be said the chapman, for as eager as had been his lust after the Maiden when he saw her at her house, found it somewhat abated when he saw her lighted down from her nag at his tent door. Forsooth she was worn with the travel, and yet more with the overmuch sorrow, so that she looked wan and haggard, and he said to himself that of all her beauty there was nought but the eyes of her left. But he thought: Let her rest a little, and be by herself if she will, and have good and pleasant meat and drink, and not be worried and troubled; and I will withhold the heat of my longing, and then in a day or two it will all come back again. So he bade his varlets deal with her as ye have heard, and suffered her to have the fellowship of the Carline her friend.
After this it befel that about noon the chapman and his men saw the riding of folk; so they looked to their weapons, and presently came riding up to the tent a Knight in bright armour, and two men-at-arms, and all of them right well arrayed. The Knight bore on his coat-armour wavy of blue and white, and he looked like to be a proper man of his hands.
Now when he had drawn rein at the tent door, and saw the men standing to their arms thereby, he seemed to be not thinking of battle with them, but he said: "The sele of the day to the men. Which of you is the master?" Then came forward the chapman, and sheathed his sword and said: "That am I, Sir Knight; and to make a long story short, I am no warrior or fighting man, but a merchant seeking gain from town to town and house to house. And I have some pretty things amongst my packs. Might I ask of your valour what thou wouldst have of me?"
The Knight, who by this time was off his horse, laughed and said: "Well, first we three would have meat and drink of you, and some horse-meat also, for we have ridden far this morning; and next, meseems, after what thou hast said, that it would help the victual down if I were to turn over some of those dear-bought and far-fetched wares of thine, even if I have to pay for peeping."
Who then was was full of smiles and soft words save the chapman; he bade the Knight into his tent most sweetly, and set his folk to dighting a noble dinner. The Knight entered and did off his basnet, and showed a well-looking face, with good grey eyes like a hawk, and dark hair curling close to his head; there was nought cruel or base to be seen in his visage, though it had the fierceness of the warrior. So they sat down to meat, and talked the while of their eating; and a good deal of their talk was concerning the Knight of Longshaw, Sir Godrick, and his uprising, and what his chances might be of his outfacing all his foes, who, said the chapman, were many and great, and more belike than Sir Godrick wotted of. Quoth he: "And glad shall I be if he be overborne: for what should a knight do, to set him up against great and noble men, and wage all kinds of rascaile on behoof of a set of villeins and handicraftsmen!" And he looked on his guest as if he deemed he should please him by that word; but the other shook his head and said: "So should I not be glad; for Sir Godrick is both fearless and wise, and of good heart to such as need help. Yet I doubt me that he will be overthrown at last, such might as is arrayed against him. Forsooth could he get to him two or three like to himself, yea, or were it only one, then might he endure; but where shall he find such an one?"
Quoth the chapman: "If ye bear the man such love and honour, mightest not thyself give thyself to him and be such an one to him as thou tellest of?" The Knight laughed: "Chapman," said he, "of such mere skull-splitters as I be hath he enough amongst his men-at-arms, who, I must tell thee, be nowise rascaile, but valiant and well-ordered warriors. What he needeth is one fulfilled of the wisdom of war; yea, and of peace also, so as to know when to hold fast and when to let go, when to press hard on the foe and when to cast the golden bridge before them. Of such wisdom have I nought, and know little but of hard hitting and how to keep the face to the foe in the stour. Moreover, though in a way I wish him goodhap, yet is is such goodhap as one wishes a man who needs be a foe. For I must tell thee that I am of the Barons' company and against Sir Godrick. Yet this I know, that if he fall at the last it shall not be till after he hath put us to the worse more than once or twice."
Herewith their talk turned else-whither; but all this the Carline heard, and stored it up in her breast, and thought that she might hereafter get more tidings of Sir Godrick, and belike piece one thing to another till she had got somewhat which should be to her purpose.
So when they had done dinner the chapman opened some of his packs before the Knight (who is here called the Blue Knight), and the Knight cheapened here an ouch and there a finger-ring or a gold chain, and a piece of Saracen silk, and so forth; and all these he paid for down on the nail in pennies good and true, for he had with him a big pouch of money. Said he: "Thou seest I am rich in spending-silver, for I have been paid the ransom of three knights whom I took in sharp stour last autumn."
But now as he was sitting turning over his fairings, a tidings befel. For the Carline, having well considered the looks of the Knight and having hearkened heedfully his speech, deemed that deliverance might come of him from the sordid wretch who had stolen the Maiden. So while the two were yet at table she roused her fosterling, and dight her attire as seemly as she might, and tired her hair and made it smooth and sleek; and just as the Blue Knight was about doing his marketings together, she brought the Maiden to the entry between the two tents and bade her stand there, and then drew the hangings apart to right and left and let the Maiden stand there as in a picture. The Knight looked up and saw it, and stared astonished, and was wordless a while; the chapman scowled, but durst not say aught, for he knew not how the Knight would take it; and as for the Knight, he leaned across to the chapman and spake to him softly, not taking his eyes off the Maiden the while: "Chapman, wilt thou tell me what this is, this wonder of women? Whether it is a queen of some far country, or an image made by wizardry?" The chapman, taken at unawares, had no lie handy, so he said: "This is my war-taken thrall, and she hath been with me some three hours." Said the Knight, still speaking softly: "Thy thrall! Then mayst do with her what thou wilt. Tell me wilt thou not sell her, and to me?"
The chapman was somewhat slow to answer, for he feared the Knight, and durst not buy the slaking of his lust with the peril of death. And moreover he deemed it a thing to be looked for that, if he sold her not, the bold Knight would take her from him perforce, so that he should lose both wealth and woman. Again, it came into his mind that if he sold her he might yet take an occasion to steal her again; so he said in a surly voice: "I took her not to sell her again, but to keep her and make her one of my household."
"Yea," said the Knight, "and wilt thou bring her to the church and wed her before the priest with ring and book?"
The chapman answered nought, and the Knight held his peace a while; but presently he spoke to the Maiden kindly, and said: "Sweet maiden, wouldst thou draw nigher to me, for I would speak with thee?" Then she left the fold of the tent and came and stood before him with no fear in her eyes.
Said the Blue Knight: "Tell me, fair damsel, is it true what this man says, that thou art his war-taken thrall?" Said she: "Three days ago I was stolen from mine own home by this man's servants while the stout men of my folk were in battle with a sort of reivers who had fallen on our land. How might we defend us, two weak women against three weaponed men?"
"Wert thou thrall or free before that day, damsel?" said the Knight. She flushed red, and said: "Never has there been an unfree man of our blood for generation after generation." Said the Knight: "Now thou art here in this man's tent, wilt thou go with him freely and of thine own will, if he swear to thee to take thee into his household and deal honestly by thee?" She reddened again: "But he will not deal honestly by me, lord," she said, "and never will I go with him uncompelled." "How knowest thou that he is not a true man?" said the Knight. "Fair sir," she said, "hast thou looked in the face of him? Look now with what eyes he is beholding me!"
The Blue Knight was silent a while; then he said, but halted in his speech: "And with me -- wouldst thou go with me of thine own free will, if I swore to deal with thee in all honour?"
"Yea," she said, "or without the swearing if thou make me the same offer after I have said a word to thee; to wit, that there is a young and goodly man whom I love, and he me again. And now I have lost him, and know not how to come to him, but I will seek him the world over till I find him, and he me: and if I find him not, then never shall I come into any man's arms in this world. What sayest thou now?"
The Knight rose up and walked to and fro a while, casting a look on the chapman every now and then. At last he came to the Maiden, and said to her in a low voice: "I make the the same offer, and will swear to thee on my father's sword, which here is." She looked on him, and the tears came into her eyes: nor forsooth were they very far from his. But she said: "This goes with it, that thou take along with thee my foster-mother, who is hereby, and suffer her to be ever with me if I will." "That is soon yeasaid," quoth he. Then he set her down in his chair, and said: "Fear nothing, I will see to this matter straightway."
Then he turned to the chapman, who sat scowling on the Maiden, and said: "Now, chapman, wilt thou sell me thy thrall as thou hast sold me those pretty things?" The other answered him not a while, and the Knight said: "Nay, it avails nought to draw faces at me; one way or the other the thing can soon be settled. For look to it, that thy war-taken thrall my be mine by the same title. There are weapons enough hereby, and ye are five and we three; and thou shalt arm thee, or I will unarm me to my kirtle and my sword, and then let us out on to the green and fight for the Maiden." The chapman said: "I see thou wilt take her perforce; so give me her price: but take heed that I sell her not uncompelled. And thou who hast eaten and drunk with me!"
"I would I might vomit up thy victuals," said the Knight angrily; "for then I knew not that it was thy wont to carry off free women from their houses while other folk were fighting. But I will have no more words with thee, save this, that thou shalt sell me also two of thy nags, that we may all ride and be away hence the speedier. Ho Robert, go thou and take two fresh horses of the chapman and saddle them straightway."
Now the chapman named his price, and it was a big one indeed, no less than an earl's ransom; but the Blue Knight but nodded his head in token of yeasay, and the chapman said: "I suppose thou wilt not have all that gold in thy scrip; but thou mayst take thy bargain away, for as violently and strifefully as thou hast dealt with me, if thou wilt send the money in one month's frist to the hostelry of the Wool-pack in the good town of Westcheaping hard by here, and let thy bearer ask for Gregory Haslock to give him quittance. But for thine ill-dealings with me I shall give thee no quittance, but shall watch my turn to do thee a service."
The Knight said all shortly: "I shall send thy money as thou biddest;" and then turned away from him, and took the Maiden by the hand and led her out of the tent, and the Carline followed them. So they gat to horse and rode their ways. But so it was that the Carline rode the last of them; and when they were gone but a few yards the chapman ran to the tent door with a bent bow in his hand and an arrow notched to the string, and drew on the said Carline, who was but some ten yards from him by then. But, whether it were the caitiff's evil shooting or the Carline's wizardry, ye must choose between the two, the arrow flew wide of the mark, and the Carline laughed merrily as she rode along. Thus were those two quit of this felon for that time.