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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Virgin Of The Sun - BOOK I - Chapter II - THE LADY BLANCHE
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The Virgin Of The Sun - BOOK I - Chapter II - THE LADY BLANCHE Post by :websitejack Category :Long Stories Author :H. Rider Haggard Date :May 2011 Read :3566

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The Virgin Of The Sun - BOOK I - Chapter II - THE LADY BLANCHE

So I went, with a sore heart, for I remembered that when my father and
brothers were drowned, although I was then but a little one, my mother
had foreseen it, and I feared much lest it might be thus in her own
case also. I loved my mother. She was a stern woman, it was true, with
little softness about her, which I think came with her blood, but she
had a high heart, and oh! her last words were noble. Yet through it
all I was pleased, as any young man would have been, with the gift of
the wonderful sword which once had been that of Thorgrimmer, the sea-
rover, whose blood ran in my body against which it lay, and I hoped
that this day I might have chance to use it worthily as Thorgrimmer
did in forgotten battles. Having imagination, I wondered also whether
the sword knew that after its long sleep it had come forth again to
drink the blood of foes.

Also I was pleased with another thing, namely, that my mother had told
me that I should live my life and not die that day by the hand of
Frenchmen; and that in my life I should find love, of which to tell
truth already I knew a little of a humble sort, for I was a comely
youth, and women did not run away from me, or if they did, soon they
stopped. I wanted to live my life, I wanted to see great adventures
and to win great love. The only part of the business which was not to
my taste was that command of my mother's, that I should go to London
to sit in a goldsmith's shop. Still, I had heard that there was much
to be seen in London, and at least it would be different from
Hastings.

The street outside our doors was crowded with folk, some of the men
making their way to the market-place, about whom hung women and
children weeping; others, old people, wives and girls and little ones
fleeing from the town. I found the two sailormen who had been with me
on the boat, waiting for me. They were brawny fellows named Jack
Grieves and William Bull, who had been in our service since my
childhood, good fishermen and fighters both; indeed one of them,
William Bull, had served in the French wars.

"We knew that you were coming, Master, so we bided here for you," said
William, who having once been an archer was armed with a bow and a
short sword, whereas Jack had only an axe, also a knife such as we
used on the smacks for cleaning fish.

I nodded, and we went on to the market-place and joined the throng of
men, a vast number of them, who were gathered there to defend Hastings
and their homes. Nor were we too soon, for the French ships were
already beaching within a few yards of the shore or on it, their
draught being but small, while the sailors and men-at-arms were
pushing off in small boats or wading to the strand.

There was great confusion in the market-place, for as is common in
England, no preparation had been made against attack though such was
always to be feared.

The bailiff ran about shouting orders, as did others, but proper
officers were lacking, so that in the end men acted as the fancy took
them. Some went down towards the beach and shot with arrows at the
Frenchmen. Others took refuge in houses, others stood irresolute,
waiting, knowing not which way to turn. I and my two men were with
those who went on to the beach where I loosed some arrows from my big
black bow, and saw a man fall before one of them.

But we could do little or nothing, for these Frenchmen were trained
soldiers under proper command. They formed themselves into companies
and advanced, and we were driven back. I stopped as long as I dared,
and drawing the sword, Wave-Flame, fought with a Frenchman who was in
advance of the others. What is more, making a great blow at his head
which I missed, I struck him on the arm and cut it off, for I saw it
fall to the ground. Then others rushed up at me and I fled to save my
life.

Somehow I found myself being pressed up the steep Castle Hill with a
number of Hastings folk, followed by the French. We reached the Castle
and got into it, but the old portcullis would not close, and in sundry
places the walls were broken down. Here we found a number of women who
had climbed for refuge, thinking that the place would be safe. Among
these was a beautiful and high-born maiden whom I knew by sight. Her
father was Sir Robert Aleys who, I believe, was then the Warden of the
Castle of Pevensey, and she was named the lady Blanche. Once, indeed,
I had spoken with her on an occasion too long to tell. Then her large
blue eyes, which she knew well how to use, had left me with a swimming
head, for she was very fair and very sweet and gracious, with a most
soft voice, and quite unlike any other woman I had ever seen, nor did
she seem at all proud. Soon her father, an old knight, who had no name
for gentleness in the countryside, but was said to be a great lover of
gold, had come up and swept her away, asking her what she did, talking
with a common fishing churl. This had happened some months before.

Well, there I found her in the Castle, alone it seemed, and knowing me
again, which I thought strange, she ran to me, praying me to protect
her. More, she began to tell me some long tale, to which I had not
time to listen, of how she had come to Hastings with her father, Sir
Robert, and a young lord named Deleroy, who, I understood, was some
kinsman of hers, and slept there. How, too, she had been separated
from them in the throng when they were attempting to return to
Pevensey which her father must go to guard, because her horse was
frightened and ran away, and of how finally men took her by the arm
and brought her to this castle, saying that it was the safest place.

"Then here you must bide, Lady Blanche," I answered, cutting her
short. "Cling to me and I will save you if I can, even if it costs me
my life."

Certainly she did cling to me for all the rest of that terrible day,
as will be seen.

From this height we saw Hastings beginning to burn, for the Frenchmen
had fired the town in sundry places, and being built of wood, it burnt
furiously. Also we saw and heard horrible scenes and sounds of rapine,
such as chance in this Christian world of ours where a savage foe
finds peaceful folk of another race at his mercy. In the houses people
were burnt; in the streets they were being murdered, or worse. Yes,
even children were murdered, for afterwards I saw the bodies of some
of them.

Awhile later through the wreaths of smoke we perceived companies of
the French advancing to attack the Castle. There may have been three
hundred of them in all, and we did not count more than fifty men, some
of us ill-armed, together with a mob of aged people and many women and
children. What had become of the other men I do not know, but orders
had been shouted from all quarters, and some had gone this way and
some that. Some, too, I think, had fled, lacking leaders.

The French having climbed the hill, began to attack our ill-fenced
gateways, bringing up beams of timber to force them in. Those of us
who had bows shot some of them, though, their armour being good, for
the most part the arrows glanced. But few had bows. Moreover, whenever
we showed ourselves they poured such a rain of quarrels and other
shafts upon us that we could not face it, lacking mail as we did, and
a number of us were killed or wounded. At last they forced the
easternmost gate which was the weakest, and got in there and over a
place in the wall were it was broken. We fought them as well as we
could; myself I cut down two with the sword, Wave-Flame, hewing right
through the helm of one, for the steel of that sword was good. Here,
too, Jack Grieves was killed by my side by a pike thrust, and died
calling to me to fight on for old England and Hastings town; after
which he said something about beer and breathed his last.

The end of it was that those who were left were driven out of the
Castle together with the women and children, the murdering French
killing every man who fell wounded where he lay, and trying to make
prisoner any women they thought young and fair enough. Especially did
they seek to capture the lady Blanche because they saw that she was
beautiful and of high station. But by good fortune more than aught
else, I saved her from this fate.

As it chanced we were among the last to leave the Castle, whence, to
tell the truth, I was loath to go, for by now my blood was up, and
with a few others fought till I was driven out. I prayed the lady
Blanche to run forward with the other women. But she would not,
answering that she trusted no one else, but would stay to die with me,
as though that would help either of us.

Thus it came about that a tall French knight who had set his eyes on
her, outclimbed his fellows upon the slope of the hill, for they were
weary and gathering to re-form, and catching her round the middle,
strove to drag her away. I fell on him and we fought. He had fine
armour and a shield while I had none, but I held the long sword while
he only wielded a battle-axe. I knew that if he could get in a blow
with that battle-axe, I was sped, since the bull's hide of my jerkin
would never stand against it. Therefore it was my business to keep out
of his reach. This, being young and active, for the most part I made
shift to do, especially as he could not move very quickly in his mail.
The end of it was that I cut him on the arm through a joint in his
harness, whereon he rushed at me, swearing French oaths.

I leapt on one side and as he passed, smote with all my strength. The
blow fell between neck and shoulder, from behind as it were, and such
was the temper of that sword named Wave-Flame that it shore through
his mail deep into the flesh beneath, to the backbone as I believe. At
least he went down in a heap--I remember the rattle of his armour as
he fell, and there lay still. Then we fled on down the steep path, I
holding the bloody sword with one hand and Lady Blanche with the
other, while she thanked me with her eyes.

At length we were in the town again, running up my own street. On
either side of us the houses burned, and behind us came another body
of the French. The reek got into our eyes and we stumbled over dead or
fainting people.

Looking to the left I caught sight of the elm tree of which I have
spoken, that grew in front of our door, and saw that the house behind
it was burning. Yes, and I saw more, for at the attic window, which
was open, the flames making an arch round her, sat my mother.
Moreover, she was singing for I heard her voice and the wild words she
sang, though this was a strange thing for a woman to do in the hour of
such a death. Further, she saw and knew me, for she waved her hands to
me, then pointed towards the sea, why, I did not guess at the time. I
stopped, purposing to try to rescue her though the front of the house
was flaming, and the attempt must have ended in my death. But at that
moment the roof fell in, causing the fire to spout upwards and
outwards. This was the last that I saw of my mother, though afterwards
we found her body and gave it burial with those of many other victims.

There was no time to stay, for the conquering French were pouring up
the street behind us, shooting as they came and murdering any laggards
whom they could catch. On we went up the steep slope of the Minnes
Rock. I would have fled on into the open country, but the lady Blanche
had no strength left. Twice she sank to the ground, stricken with
terror and weariness, and each time prayed me not to leave her; nor
indeed did I wish to do so. The end of it was that William Bull and I
between us half carried her with much toil to the cave of which I had
spoken to my mother. The task was heavy and slow, since always we must
scramble over sheer ground. What is more, a party of the French,
seeing our plight, followed us. Perhaps some of them guessed who the
lady was, for there were many spies in Hastings who might have told
them, and desired to capture and hold her to ransom.

At the least they came on after us and a few others, women all of
them, who had joined our company, being unable to travel further, or
trusting to William Bull and myself to protect them.

We reached the cave, and thrusting the women along it, William and I
stood in the mouth and waited. He had no bow and all my arrows were
gone save three, but of these I, who was noted for my archery,
determined to make the best use I could. So I drew them out, and
having strung the bow, sat down to get my breath. On came the French,
shouting and jabbering at us to the effect that they would cut our
throats and carry off /la belle dame/ to be their sport.

"She shall be mine!" yelled a big fellow with a flattened nose and a
wide mouth who was ahead of the others, and not more than fifty yards
away.

I rose, and praying my patron, good St. Hubert after whom I was named
because I first saw light upon his day, the 23rd of November, to give
me skill, I drew the great bow to my ear, aimed, and loosed. Nor did
St. Hubert, a lover of fine shooting, fail me in my need, for that
arrow rushed out and found its home in the big mouth of the Frenchman,
through which it passed, pinning his foul tongue to his neck bone.

Down he went, and cheered by the sight I refitted and loosed at the
next. Him, too, the arrow caught, so that he fell almost on the other.

I set the third and last arrow on the string and waited a space.
Behind these two was a squat, broad man, a knight I suppose, for he
wore armour, and had a shield with a cock painted on it. This man,
frightened by the fate of his companions, yet not minded to give up
the venture for those in rear of him urged him on, bent himself almost
double, and holding the shield over his helm which was closed, so as
to protect his head and body, came on at a good pace.

I waited till he was within five-and-twenty yards or so, hoping that
the roughness of the ground would cause him to stumble and the shield
to shift so that I could get a chance at him behind it. But I did not,
so at last, again praying to St. Hubert, I drew the big bow till the
string touched my ear, and let drive. The shaft, pointed with tempered
steel, struck the shield full in the centre, and by Heaven, pierced
it, aye, and the mail behind, aye, and the flesh it covered, so that
he, too, got his death.

"A great shot, Master," said William, "that no other bow in Hastings
could have sped."

"Not so ill," I answered, "but it is my last. Now we must fight as we
can with sword and axe until we be sped."

William nodded, and the women in the cave began to wail while I
unstrung my bow and set it in its case, from habit I think, seeing
that I never hoped to look upon it again.

Just then from the French ships in the harbour there came a great
blaring of trumpets giving some alarm, and the Frenchmen of a sudden,
ceasing from their attack, turned and ran towards the shore. I stepped
out of the cave with William and looked. There on the sea, drawing
near from the east before a good wind, I saw ships, and saw, too, that
from their masts flew the pennons of England, for the golden leopards
gleamed in the sun.

"It is our fleet, William," I said, "come to talk with these French."

"Then I would that it had come sooner," answered William. "Still,
better now than not at all."

 

Thus were we saved, through Hamo de Offyngton, the Abbot of Battle
Abbey, or so I was told afterwards, who collected a force by land and
sea and drove off the French after they had ravaged the Isle of Wight,
attacked Winchelsea, and burned the greater part of Hastings. So it
came about that in the end these pirates took little benefit by their
wickedness, since they lost sundry ships with all on board, and others
left in such haste that their people remained on shore where they were
slain by the mob that gathered as soon as it was seen that they were
deserted, helped by a company of the Abbot's men who had marched from
Battle. But with all this I had nothing to do who now that the fight
was over, felt weak as a child and could think of little save that I
had seen my mother burning.

Presently, however, that happened which woke me from my grief and
caused my blood which had grown sluggish to run again. For when she
knew that she was safe the lady Blanche came out of the cave and
addressed me as I stood there leaning against the rock with the red
sword Wave-Flame in my hand, as I had drawn it to make ready for the
last fight to the death. All sorts of sweet names she called me--a
hero, her deliverer, and I know not what besides.

In the end, as I made no answer, being dazed, also hurt by an axe blow
on the breast which I had not felt before, dealt by that Frenchman
whom I slew near the Castle, she did more. Throwing her arms about me
she kissed me thrice, on either cheek and on the lips, doubtless
because she was overwrought, and in her thankfulness forgot her
maidenly reserve, though as William Bull said afterwards, this
forgetfulness did not cause her to kiss him who had also helped her up
the hill.

Those kisses were like wine to me, for it is strange how, if we love
her, by the decree of Nature the touch of a beautiful woman's lips,
felt for the first time, affects us in our youth. Whatever else we
forget, that we always remember, however false those lips afterwards
be proved. For then the wax is soft and the die sinks deep, so deep
that no after-heats can melt its stamp and no fretting wear it out
while we live beneath the sun.

Now my young blood being awakened, I was minded to return those
kisses, and began to do so with a Jew's interest, when I heard a rough
voice swearing many strange oaths, and heard also the other women who
had sheltered with us in the cave begin to titter, for the moment
forgetting all their private woes, as those of their sex will do when
there is kissing in the wind.

"God's blood!" said the rough voice, "who is this that handles my
daughter as though they had been but an hour wed? Take those lips of
yours from her, fellow, or I'll cut them from your chops."

I looked round astonished, to see Sir Robert Aleys mounted on a grey
horse, and followed by a company of men-at-arms who appeared to be
under the command of a well-favoured, dark-eyed young captain with
long hair, and dressed more wondrously than any man I had ever seen
before. Had he put on Joseph's coat over his mail, he could not have
worn more colours, and I noted that the toes of his shoes curled up so
high that I wondered however he worked them through his stirrups, and
what would happen to him if by chance he were unhorsed.

Being taken aback I made no answer, but William Bull, who, if a rough
fellow, had a tongue in his head and a ready wit, spoke up for me.

"If you want to know," he said in his Sussex drawl, "I'll tell you who
he is, Sir Robert Aleys. He is my worshipful master, Hubert of
Hastings, ship-owner, householder, and trader of this town. Or at
least he was these things, but now it seems that his ships and house
are burnt and his mother with them; also that there will be no trade
in Hastings for many a day."

"Mayhap," answered Sir Robert, adding other oaths, "but why does he
buss my daughter?"

"Perchance because he must give as good as he got, which is a law
among honest merchants, noble Sir Robert. Or perchance because he has
a better right to buss her than any man alive, seeing that but for
him, by now she would be but stinking clay, or a Frenchman's leman."

Here the fine young captain cut in, saying,

"Whatever else this worshipful trader may need, he does not lack a
trumpeter."

"That is so, my Lord Deleroy," replied William, unmoved, "for when I
find a good song I like to sing it. Go now and look at those three men
who lie yonder on the slope, and see whether the arrows in them bear
my master's mark. Go also and look upon the Castle hill and find a
knight with his head well-nigh hewn from his shoulders, and see
whether yonder sword fits into the cut. Aye, and at others that I
could tell you of, slain, every one of them, to save this fair lady.
Aye, go you whose garments are so fine and unstained, and then come
back and talk of trumpeters."

"Pish!" said my Lord Deleroy with a shrug of his shoulders, "a lady
who is over-wrought and hangs to some common fellow, like one who
kisses the feet of a wooden saint that she thinks has saved her from
calamity!"

At these words I, who had been listening like a man in a dream, awoke,
as it were, for they stung me. Moreover, I had heard that this fine
Deleroy was one of those who owed his place and rank to the King's
favour, as he did his high name, being, it was reported, by birth but
a prince's bastard sprung from some relative of Sir Robert whom
therefore he called cousin.

"Sir," I said, "you know best whether I am more common than you are.
Let that be. At least I hold in my hand the sword of one who begat my
forefather hundreds of years ago, a certain Thorgrimmer who was great
in his time. Now I have had my fill of fighting to-day, and you,
doubtless through no fault of your own, have had none; you also are
clad in mail and I, a common fellow, have none. Deign then to descend
from that horse and take a turn with me though I be tired, and thus
prove my commonness upon my body. Of your nobility do this, seeing
that after all we are of one flesh."

Now, stung in his turn, he made as though he would do what I prayed,
when for the first time, after glancing at her father who sat still--
puzzled, it would seem--the lady Blanche spoke.

"Be not mad, Cousin," she said. "I tell you that this gentleman has
saved my life and honour, twice at least to-day. Is it wonderful,
then, if I thanked him in the best fashion that a woman can, and thus
brought your insults on him?"

He hesitated, though one of his curled-up shoes was out of the
stirrup, when suddenly Sir Robert broke in in his big voice, saying:

"God's truth, Cousin, I think that you will do well to leave this
young cock alone, since I like not the look of that red spur of his,"
and he glanced at the sword Wave-Flame. "Though he be weary, he may
have a kick or two in him yet."

Then he turned to me and added:

"Sir, you have fought well; many a man has earned knighthood for less,
and if a fair maid thanked you in her own fashion, you are not to
blame. I, her father, also thank you and wish you all good fortune
till we meet again. Farewell. Daughter, make shift to share this horse
with me, and let us away out of this stricken town to Pevensey, where
perchance it will please those French to call to-morrow."

A minute later they were gone, and I noted with a pang that as they
went the lady Blanche, having waved her good-bye to me, talked fast to
her cousin Deleroy and that he held her hand to steady her upon her
father's horse.

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When the lady Blanche was out of sight, followed by the women who hadsheltered with us in the cave, William and I went to a stream we knewof not far away and drank our fill. Then we walked to the three whom Ihad shot with my big bow, hoping to regain the arrows, for I had noneleft. This, however, could not be done though all the men were dead,for one of the shafts, the last, was broken, and the other two were sofixed in flesh and bone that only a surgeon's saw would loose them.So we left them where they were,
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I, Hubert of Hastings, write this in the land of Tavantinsuyu, farfrom England I was born, whither I shall never more return,being a wanderer as the rune upon the sword of my ancestor,Thorgrimmer, foretold that I should be, which sword my mother gave meon the day of the burning of Hastings by the French. I write it with apen that I have shaped from a wing feather of the great eagle of themountains, with ink that I have made from the juices of certain herbswhich I discovered, and on parchment that I have split from the skinsof native sheep, with
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