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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesVia Crucis - Chapter 14
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Via Crucis - Chapter 14 Post by :spublish Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :3247

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Via Crucis - Chapter 14

CHAPTER XIV


Three weeks the French armies lay encamped without the walls of Constantinople, while the Emperor of the Greeks used every art and every means to rid himself of the unwelcome host, without giving overmuch offence to his royal guests. The army of Conrad, he said, had gained a great victory in Asia Minor. Travel-stained messengers arrived in Chrysopolis, and were brought across the Bosphorus to appear before the King and Queen of France, with tales of great and marvellous deeds of arms against the infidels. Fifty thousand Seljuks had been drowned in their own blood; three times that number had fled from the field, and were scattered fainting and wounded in the Eastern hills; vast spoils of gold and silver had fallen to the Christians, and if the Frenchmen craved a share in the victories of the Cross, or hoped for some part or parcel of the splendid booty, it was high time that they should be marching to join the Germans in the field.

Yet Louis would have tarried longer to complete the full month of devotions and thanksgiving for the march accomplished, and many of his followers would cheerfully have spent the remainder of their days on the pleasant shores of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn; but the Queen was weary of the long preface to her unwritten history of arms, and grew impatient, and took the Greek Emperor's side, believing all the messages which he provided for her imagination. And so at last the great multitude was brought over to Asia by boat, and marched by quick stages to the plain of Nicaea. There they pitched their camp by the Lake of Ascanius, and waited for news of the Germans; for the messengers had brought information that the German Emperor desired to make Nicaea the trysting-place. But the messengers had all been Greeks, and the French waited many days in vain, spoiling the country of all they could take, though it was in the dominion of Christians, and no man dared raise a hand to defend his own against the Crusaders.

Among the French, there were many, both of the great lords and of the simple knights, and of poor men-at-arms, who would have counted it mortal sin to take anything from a stranger without payment, who had come for faith's sake, to fight for faith, and who looked for faith's reward. Yet as there can be in logic nothing good excepting by its own comparison with things evil, so in that great pilgrimage of arms the worst followed the best in a greedy throng, as the jackal and the raven cross the desert in the lion's track. And the roads by which they had marched, and the lands wherein they had camped, lay waste as lie the wheat-fields of Palestine in June, when the plague of locusts has eaten its way from east to west.

When they came to a resting-place after many days' march, mud-stained or white with dust, weary and footsore, their horses lame, their mules overladen with the burdens of those that had died by the way, beards half grown, hair unkempt, faces grimy, clothes worn shapeless, they were more like a multitude of barbarians wandering upon the plains of Asia than like nobles of France and high-born Crusaders. At first, when they reached the halting-place by stream or river or lake, there was a struggle for drinking and a strife for the watering of horses and beasts of burden, so that sometimes men and mules were trampled down and hurt, and some were killed; but it mattered little in so great a host, and a spade's depth of earth was ample burial for a man, and if a priest could be found to bless his body on the spot where he lay it was enough, since he had died on the road to Jerusalem; but the jackals and wild dogs followed the march and lay in wait for dead beasts. Then when the first confusion was over, when hunger and thirst were satisfied, the tents were unpacked with their poles, and the sound of the great wooden mallets striking upon the tent-pegs was like the irregular pounding stroke of the fullers' hammers as the water-wheel makes them rise and fall; and though the army had crossed Europe and had encamped in many places, the colours of the tents were bright still, and the pennants floated in streaks of vivid colour against the sky. Soon, when the first work was over and the little villages of red and green and purple and white canvas were built up in their long irregular lines, the smoke of camp-fires rose in curling wreaths, and bag and baggage, pack and parcel, were opened and the contents spread out. As if for some great festival, men and women chose their gayest clothes and richest ornaments, so that when they met again before the open tents which were set up for chapels, one for each little band of fellow- townsmen and neighbours at home, and afterwards when they ate and drank together according to their rank, under wide awnings at noontide, or beneath the clear sky in the cool of the evening, it was a goodly sight, and every man's heart was lightened and his courage returned as he felt that he himself had his share and part of the glorious whole. For it was as it always is and always must be, where power and wealth are masters of the scene, and there is no acting room for misery or sorrow or such poor strolling players as sickness and death. The things which please not the eye are quick to offend souls nursed in a faultless taste, and the charnel-house of failure receives whatsoever things have not the power of pleasing.

Now when they came to Nicaea, hope was high, and the light of victory to come seemed to be shining in every man's eyes. There for the first time Queen Eleanor led out her three hundred ladies in battle array, clad in bright mail, with skirts of silk and cloth of gold, and long white mantles, each with the scarlet cross upon the shoulder; and on their heads they wore light caps of steel ornamented with chiselled gold and silver, and here and there with a metal crest or a bird's wing, beaten out of thin silver plate.

It was at noonday under the fair autumn sun. A broad meadow, green still in patches, where the grass had not been burned brown by the early summer heat, stretched toward the Lake of Ascanius, where the ground rose in hillocks, to end abruptly in a sheer fall of thirty or forty feet to the water's edge. There were places where there was no grass at all, and where the dry gravel lay bare and dusty, yet on the whole it was a fair field for a great assembly of men on horseback and on foot. To southward the meadow rose, rolling away to the distant hills, whither the German host was already gone. The great lords, with their men-at-arms and squires, riding each in the midst of his vassal knights, went out thither to see such a sight as none had seen before, and ranged themselves by ranks around the field, so that there was room for all. And thither Gilbert went also with his man Dunstan, in the King's train, for he owed no service nor allegiance to any man there. But they waited long for the Queen.

She came at last, leading her company and mounted on a beautiful white Arab mare, the gift of the Greek Emperor, as gentle a creature as ever obeyed voice and hand, and as swift as the swiftest of the breed of Nejd. She rode alone, ten lengths before the rest, tall and straight in the saddle as any man, a lance in her right hand, while her left held the bridle low and lightly; and at the very first glance every soldier in that great field knew that there was none like her in the troop. Yet her fair ladies made a good showing and rode not badly as they cantered by, brilliant and changing as a shower of blossoms, with black eyes, and blue, and brown, fair cheeks and dark, and laughing lips not made to talk of rough deeds save to praise them in husband or lover.

Next to the Queen and before the following ranks rode one who bore the standard of Eleanor's ancient house, Saint George and the Dragon, displayed on a white ground and now for the first time quartered in a cross. The Lady Anne of Auch was very dark, and her black hair streamed like a shadow in the air behind her, while her dark eyes looked upward and onward. Splendidly handsome she was, and doubtless Eleanor had chosen her for her beauty to be standard bearer of the troop, well knowing that no living face could be compared with her own, and willing to outshine a rival whose features and form were the honour and boast of the South.

They rode in a sort of order, in squadrons of fifty each, but not in serried ranks, for they had not the skill to keep in line, though they rode well and boldly. And before each squadron rode a lady who for her beauty or her rank, or for both, was captain, and wore upon her steel cap a gilded crest. Each squadron had a colour of its own, scarlet and green and violet, and the tender shade of anemones in spring, and their mantles had been dyed with each hue in the dyeing-vats of Venice, and were lined with delicately tinted silks from the East, brought to the harbours of France by Italian traders. For the merchants of Amalfi filled the Mediterranean with their busy commerce and had quarters of their own in every Eastern city, and had then but lately founded the saintly order of the Knights Hospitallers of Saint John of Jerusalem, whence grew the noble community of the Knights of Malta, which was to live through many centuries even to our day.

Nor could the Queen's ladies have worn mail and steel and wielded sword and lance, so that at a long stone's throw they might almost have passed for men, but that cunning jewellers and artificers of Italy, and Moorish smiths from Spain, had been brought at great pains and cost to France to make such armour and weapons as had never been wrought before. The mail was of finest rings of steel sewn upon soft doeskin, fitted so closely that there was no room for gambison or jerkin; and though it might have stopped a broad arrow or turned the edge of a blade, a sharp dagger could have made a wound beneath it, and against a blow it afforded less protection than a woollen cloak. Many had little rings of gold sewn regularly in the rows of steel ones, that caught the light with a warmer sparkle, and the clasps of their mantles were of chiselled gold and silver. The trappings of each horse were matched in colour with the ladies' mantles, and the captains of the squadrons wore golden spurs.

They dropped the points of their lances as they passed the King where he sat on his horse, a stone's throw from the high shore of the lake, in the midst of his chief barons, his pale face expressing neither interest nor pleasure in what he saw, and his eyes distrustful, as always, of his Queen and her many caprices. She, when she had saluted him with a smile that was almost a laugh, rode on a little way, and then, with a sharply uttered word of command, she wheeled by the left, crossed half the broad field, and led her ladies back straight toward the King. Within five lengths of him she halted suddenly, almost bringing her horse's haunches to the ground, and keeping her seat in a way that would have done credit to a man brought up in the saddle. To tell the truth, very few of her ladies were able to perform such a feat with any ease or assurance, and in the sudden halt there was more than a little disorder, accompanied by all sorts of exclamations of annoyance and ejaculations of surprise; yet, in spite of difficulty, the whole troop came to a standstill; moreover, a hundred thousand or more of knights and soldiers on horseback and on foot were so much more interested in the looks of the riders than in their horsemanship, and the whole effect of the gay confusion, with its many colours, its gleams of gold and glint of silver, was so pretty and altogether novel, that a great cry of enthusiasm and delight rang in the sunny air. A faint flush of pleasure rose in the Queen's cheeks, and her eyes sparkled with triumph at the long applause which was on her side against the King's disapproval. She dropped the point of her lance until it almost touched the ground, and spoke to her husband in a high clear voice that was heard by many.

"I present to your Grace this troop of brave knights," she said. "In strength the advantage is yours, in numbers, you far outdo us, in age you are older, in experience there are those with you who have lived a lifetime in arms. Yet we have some skill also, and those who are old in battles know that the victory belongs to the spirit and the heart, before it is the work of the hand; and in these my knights are not behind yours."

The men who heard her words and saw the lovely light in her wondrous face threw up their right hands and shouted great cheers for her and her three hundred riders, but the King spoke no word of praise, and his face was still and sour. Again the Queen's cheek flushed.

"Your Grace leads the army of France," she said, "an army of brave men. My knights are many, and brave too, the troops of Guienne and of Poitou and of Gascony and of more than half of all the duchies that speak our tongue and owe me allegiance. But of them all, and before them all, to ride in van of this Holy War, I choose these three hundred ladies. My Lord King, and you, lords, barons, knights, and men, who have taken upon you the sign of the Cross, you, the flower of French chivalry and manhood, your comrades in arms are these, the flowers of France! Long live the King!"

She threw up her lance and caught it easily in her right hand as she uttered the cry, laughing in the King's face, and well knowing her power compared with his; and as the high young voices behind her took up the shout, the great multitude that bordered the meadow took it up also; but one word was changed, and a hundred thousand throats shouted, "Long live the Queen!"

When there was silence at last, the King looked awkwardly to his right and left as if seeking advice; but the nobles about him were watching the fair ladies, and had perhaps no counsel to offer. In the great stillness the Queen waited, still smiling triumphantly, and still he could find nothing to say, so that a soft titter ran through the ladies' ranks, whereat the King looked more sour than ever.

"Madam," he began at last. And after that he seemed to be speaking, but no one heard what he said.

Apparently with the intention of showing that he had nothing more to say,--and indeed it was of very little importance whether he had or not,--he waved his hand with a rather awkward gesture and slightly bowed his head.

"Long live the monk!" said Eleanor, audibly, as she wheeled to the right to lead her troop away.

Gilbert Warde sat on his horse in the front line of the spectators, some fifty yards from the King, and near the edge of the lake. As the Queen cantered along the line, gathering her harvest of admiration in men's faces, her eyes met the young Englishman's and recognized him. On his great Norman horse he sat half a head taller than the men on each side of him, motionless as a statue. Yet his look expressed something which she had never seen in his face till then; for, being freed from her immediate influence and at liberty to look on her merely as the loveliest sight in the world, more strangely beautiful than ever in her gleaming armour, he had not thought of concealing the pleasure he felt in watching her.

Not all the cheering of the great army, not all the light in the thousands of eyes that followed her, could have done more than bring a faint colour to her face, nor could any man in all that host have found a word to make her heart beat faster. But when she saw Gilbert the blood sank suddenly and her eyes grew darker. They lingered on him as she rode by, and turned back to him a little with drooping lids, and a slight bend of the head that had in it a grace beyond her own knowledge or intention. He, like those beside him, threw up his hand and cheered again, arid she did not see that almost before she had passed him he was looking along the ranks for another face.

The three hundred cantered slowly round half the meadow, and the cheer followed them as they went, like the moving cry of birds on the wing; and first they rode along the line of the King's men, but presently they came to the knights and soldiers of Eleanor's great vassalage, and all at once there were flowers in the air, wild flowers from the fields and autumn roses from the gardens of Nicaea, plucked early by young squires and boys, and tied into nosegays and carefully shielded from the sun, that they might be still fresh when the time came to throw them. The light blossoms scattered in the air, and the leaves were blown into the faces of the fair women as they passed. Moreover, some of the knights had silken scarfs of red and white, and waved them above their heads while they cheered and shouted. And so the troop rode round three sides of the great meadow.

But at the last side there was a change that fell like a chill upon the whole multitude of men and women, and a cry came ringing down the air that struck a discord through the triumphant notes, long, harsh, bad to hear as the howl of wild beasts when the fire licks up the grass of the wilderness behind them. At the sound, men turned their heads and looked in the direction whence it came, and many, by old instinct, slipped their left hands to the hilts of sword and dagger, and felt that each blade was loose in its sheath. As she galloped along, Queen Eleanor's white mare threw up her head sideways with a snort and swerved, almost wrenching the bridle from the Queen's hold, and at the same moment the lusty cheering broke high in the air and died fitfully away. The instinct of fear and the foreknowledge of great evil were present, unseen and terrible, and of the three hundred ladies who reined in their horses as the Queen halted, nine out of ten felt that they changed colour, scarcely knowing why. With one common impulse all turned their eyes towards the rising ground to southward.

There were strange figures upon the low hillocks, riding out of the woods at furious speed towards the meadow, and already the deep lines began to open and part to make way for the rush. There were men bareheaded, with rags of mantles streaming on the wind, spurring lame and jaded horses to the speed of a charge, and crying out strange words in tones of terror. But only one word was understood by some of those who heard.

"The Seljuks! The Seljuks!"

Down the gentle slope they came spurring like madmen. As they drew nearer, one could see that there was blood on their armour, blood on the rags of their cloaks, blood on their faces and on their hands; some were wounded in the head, and the clotted gore made streaks upon their necks; some had bandages upon them made of strips of torn-up clothes-- and one man who rode in the front, when his horse sprang a ditch at the foot of the hill, threw up an arm that was without a hand.

No man of all the throng who had ever seen war doubted the truth for one moment after the first of the wild riders was in sight, and the older and more experienced men instinctively looked into each other's faces and came forward together. But even had they been warned in time, they could have done nothing against the fright that seized the younger men and the women at the throat like a bodily enemy, choking out hope and strength and youth in the dreadful premonition of untimely death. The squires pressed upon the knights, the boys and young men-at-arms and the followers of the camp forced their weight inward next, and the inner circle yielded and allowed itself to be crushed in upon the troop of ladies, whose horses began to plunge and rear with their riders' fright; and still, on one side, the crowd tried to part before the coming fugitives. The first came tearing down, his horse's nostrils streaming with blood, himself wild-eyed, with foam-flecked lips that howled the words of terror. "The Seljuks! The Seljuks!"

A dozen lengths before the terror-stricken wall of human beings that could not make way to let him in, without warning, without a death- gasp, the horse doubled his head under himself as he galloped his last stride, and falling in a round heap rolled over and over forwards with frightful violence, till he suddenly lay stiff and stark with twisted neck and outstretched heels, within a yard of the shrinking crowd, his rider crushed to death on the grass behind him. And still the others came tearing down the hill, more and more, faster and faster, as if no earthly power could stop their rush. First a score and then a hundred, and then the torn remnants of a vanquished host, blown, as it were like fallen leaves by the whirlwind of the death they had but just escaped. Many of them, not knowing and not caring what they did, and remembering only the wrath from which they fled, did not even try to rein in their horses, and the beasts themselves, mad with fright and pain, charged right at the ranks of people on foot and reared their full height at the last bound rather than override a living man; and many were crushed in the press, and many fell from their jaded mounts, too weary to rise and too much exhausted to utter any words save a cry for water.

Nevertheless, two or three who had more life in them than the rest were able to stand, and were presently led round the close-packed crowd to the edge of the lake, where the King was quietly waiting with his courtiers until the confusion should end itself, saying a prayer or two for the welfare of every one concerned, but making not the slightest attempt to restrain the panic nor to restore order. But the Queen and her ladies were in danger of being crushed to death in the very midst of the seething, bruising, stifling mass of humanity.

Gilbert was near the King, and sitting high on his great horse he saw farther than most men above the wild confusion. It was as if some frightful, unseen monster were gathering a hundred thousand men in iron coils, always inward, as great snakes crush their prey, thousands upon thousands, the bodies of horses and men upon men and horses, with resistless force, till the human beings could struggle no longer, and the beasts themselves could neither kick nor plunge, but only trample all that was near them, while they moved slowly towards the centre. In thousands and thousands again, on an almost even level, the small round caps of many colours were pressed together, till it seemed impossible that there could be room for the bodies that belonged to them. As when, in vintage time, the gathered fruit is brought home to the vats in the sweating panniers of wood, pressed down and level to the brim, and the red and white and blue and green grapes lie closely touching each other almost floating in the juice, rocking and bobbing all at once with every step of the laden mule--so, as Gilbert looked out before him, the bright-hued, close-fitting caps moved restlessly and without ceasing all round a central turmoil of splendid colour, shaded by tender tones of violet and olive, and shot by the glare of sunlit gold, and the sheen of silver, and the cold light of polished steel.

But there in the heart of the press there was danger, and from far away Gilbert saw clearly enough, through the cloud of light and colour, the lifeless tones that are like nothing else of nature, the deadly unreflecting paleness of frightened faces, and the cries of women hurt and in terror came rising over the heads of the multitude. He sat still and looked before him as if his sight could distinguish the features of one or another at that distance, and he felt icy cold when he thought of what might happen, and that all those fair young girls and women, in their beauty and in their youth, in their fanciful dresses, might be crushed and trampled and kicked to death before thousands who would have died to save them. His first instinct was to charge the crowd before him, to force the way, even by the sword, and to bring the Queen and her ladies safely back; but a moment's thought showed him how utterly futile any such attempt must be, and that even if the whole throng had felt as he felt himself, and had wished to make way for any one, it would have had no power to do so. There was but one chance of saving the women, and that evidently lay in leading off the crowd by some excitement counter to its present fear.

The instant the difficulty and the danger flashed upon him Gilbert began to look about him for some means of safety for those in peril, and in his distress of mind every lost minute was monstrously lengthened as it passed. Beside him, his man Dunstan stood in silence, apparently indifferent to all that was taking place, his quiet dark face a trifle more drawn and keen than usual; and though a very slight contraction of the curved nostrils expressed some inward excitement, it was scarcely perceptible. Gilbert knew that his own face showed his extreme anxiety, and as he in vain attempted to find some expedient, the man's excessive coolness began to irritate him.

"You stand there," said Gilbert, rather coldly, "as if you did not care that three hundred ladies of France are being crushed to death and that we Englishmen can do nothing to help them."

Dunstan raised his lids and looked up at his master without lifting his head.

"I am not so indifferent as the King, sir," he answered, barely raising a finger in the direction of the knot of courtiers, in the midst of whom, some fifty yards away, the cold, pale face of the King was just then distinctly visible. "France might be burned before his eyes, yet he would pray for his own soul rather than lift a hand for the lives of others."

"We are as bad as he," retorted Gilbert, almost angrily, and moving uneasily in his saddle as he felt himself powerless.

Dunstan did not answer at once, and he bit one side of his lower lip nervously with his pointed teeth. Suddenly he stooped down and picked up something against which his foot had struck as he moved. Gilbert paid no attention to what he did.

"Do you wish to draw away the crowd so as to make room for the Queen?" he asked.

"Of course I do!" Gilbert looked at his man inquiringly, though his tone was harsh and almost angry. "We cannot cut a way for them through the crowd," he added, looking before him again.

Dunstan laughed quietly.

"I will lay my life against a new tunic that I can make this multitude spin on itself like a whipped top," he said. "But I admit that you could not, sir."

"Why not?" asked Gilbert, instantly bending down in order to hear better. "What can you do that I cannot?"

"What gentle blood could never do," replied the man, with a shade of bitterness. "Shall I have the new tunic if I save the Lady Beatrix--and the Queen of France?"

"Twenty! Anything you ask for! But be quick--"

Dunstan stooped again, and again picked up something from under his foot.

"I am only a churl," he said as he stood upright again, "but I can risk my life like you for a lady, and if I win, I would rather win a sword than a bit of finery."

"You shall win more than that," Gilbert answered, his tone changing. "But if you know of anything to do, in the name of God do it quickly, for it is time."

"Good-by, sir."

Gilbert heard the two words, and while they were still in his ears, half understood, Dunstan had slipped away among the squires and knights around them, and was lost to sight.

One minute had not passed when a wild yell rent the air, with fierce words, high and clear, which thousands must have heard at the very first, even had they not been repeated again and again.

"The King has betrayed us! The King is a traitor to the Cross!"

At the very instant a stone flew straight from Dunstan's unerring hand, and struck the King's horse fairly between the eyes, upon the rich frontlet, heavy with gold embroidery. The charger reared up violently to his height, and before he had got his head down to plunge, Dunstan's furious scream split the air again, and the second stone struck the King himself full on the breast, and rolled to the saddle and then to the ground.

"The King has betrayed us all! Traitor! Traitor! Traitor!"

There never yet was a feverish, terror-struck throng of men, suddenly disheartened by the unanswerable evidence of a great defeat by which they themselves might be lost, that would not take up the cry of "Traitor!" against their leaders. Before he raised his voice, Dunstan had got among men who knew him neither by sight nor by name, and the second stone had not sped home before he was gone again in a new direction, silent now, with compressed lips, his inscrutable dark eyes looking sharply about him. He had done his work, and he knew what might happen to him if he were afterwards recognized. But none heeded him. The uproar went surging towards the King with a rising fury, like the turn of the tide in a winter storm, roaring up to the breaking pitch, and many would have stoned him and torn him to pieces; but there were many also, older and cooler men, who pressed round him, shoulder to shoulder, with swords drawn and flashing in the sunlight, and faces set to defend their liege lord and sovereign. In an instant the flying Germans were forgotten; and the Emperor and his army, and the meaning of the Holy War and of the Cross itself, were gone from men's minds in the fury of riot on the one side, in the stern determination of defence on the other. The vast weight of men rolled forward, pushed by those behind, forcing the King and those who stood by him to higher ground. In dire distress, and almost hopeless of extricating her gentle troop from destruction, the Queen heard the new tumult far away, and felt the close press yielding on one side. The word 'traitor' ran along like a quick echo from mouth to mouth, repeated again and again, sometimes angrily, sometimes in tones of unbelief, but always repeated, until there was scarcely one man in a hundred thousand whose lips had not formed the syllables. Eleanor saw her husband and his companions with their drawn swords moving in the air, on the knoll; she heard the stinging word, and a hard and scornful look lingered in her face a moment. She knew that the accusation was false, that it was too utterly empty to have meaning for honest men; yet she despised her husband merely because a madman could cast such a word at him; and in the security of power and dominions far greater than his, as well as of a popularity to which he could never attain, she looked upon him in her heart as a contemptible kinglet, to marry whom had been her most foolish mistake. And it had become the object of her life to put him away if she could.

For a few moments she looked on across the sea of heads that had already begun to move away. Her mare was quieter now in the larger space, being a docile creature, but many of the other ladies' horses were still plunging and kicking, though so crowded that they could do each other little hurt. She saw how the knights were forcing their way to the King's side, and how the great herd of footmen resisted them, while the word of shame rose louder in their yells; and though she despised the King, the fierce instinct of the great noble against the rabble ran through her like a painful shock, and her face turned pale as she felt her anger in her throat.

There was room now, for the great throng was rushing from her, spreading like a river, and dividing at the hillock where it met the knights' swords, and flowing to right and left along the edge of the lake. The Queen looked behind her, to see what ladies were nearest to her, and she saw her standard bearer, Anne of Auch, fighting her rearing charger; and next to her, quiet and pale, on a vicious Hungarian gelding a great deal too big for her, but which she seemed to manage with extraordinary ease, sat Beatrix de Curboil, a small, slim figure in a delicate mail that looked no stronger than a silver fishing-net, her shape half hidden by her flowing mantle of soft olive- green with its scarlet cross on the shoulder, and wearing a silver dove's wing on her light steel cap.

Her eyes met Eleanor's and lightened in sympathy of thought, so that the other understood in a flash. The Queen's right hand went up, lifting the lance high in air; half wheeling to the left, and turning her head still farther, she called out to those behind her:--

"Ladies of France! The rabble is at the King--Forward!"

An instant later, the fleet Arab mare was galloping straight for the crowd, and Eleanor did not look behind her again, but held her lance before her and a little raised, so that it was just ready to fall into rest. Directly behind her rode the Lady Anne, the shaft of the standard in the socket of her stirrup, her arm run through the thong, so that she had both hands free; she sat erect in the saddle, her horse already at a racing gallop, neck out, eyes up, red nostrils wide, delighting in being free from restraint; and Beatrix was there, too, like a feather on her big brown Hungarian, that thundered along like a storm, his wicked ears laid straight back, and his yellowish young teeth showing under his quivering lip. But of all the three hundred ladies none followed them. The others had not understood the Queen's command, or had not heard, or could not manage their horses, or were afraid. And the three women rode at the mob, that was now four hundred yards away.

Straight they rode, heedless and unaware that they were alone, nor counting how little three women could do against thousands. But the people heard the hammering hoofs of the two big horses, and the Arab's light footfall resounded quickly and steadily, as the fingers of a dancer striking the tambourine. Hundreds glanced back to see who rode so fast, and thousands turned their heads to know why the others looked; and all, seeing the Queen, pressed back to right and left, making way, partly in respect for her and much in fear for themselves. Far up the rising ground, the riot ceased as suddenly as it had begun; the men-at-arms drew back in shame, and many tried to hide their faces, lest they should be known again. The tide of human beings divided before the swiftly riding women, as the cloud-bank splits before the northwest wind in winter, and the white mare sped like a ray of light between long wavering lines of rough faces and gleaming arms.

The Queen glanced scornfully to each side as she passed in a gale, and the dear sense of power soothed her stirred pride. Still the line opened, and still she rode on, scarcely rising and sinking with the mare's wonderful stride. But the way that was made for her was not straight to the King now; the throng was more dense there, and the people parted as they could, so that the three ladies had to follow the only open passage. Suddenly, before them, there was an end, where the rolling ground broke away sharply in a fall of forty feet to the edge of the lake below. The heads of the last of the crowd who stood at the brink were clear and distinct against the pale sky. The Queen could not see the water, but she felt that there was death in the leap. Her two companions looked beyond her and saw also.

Eleanor dropped her lance quietly to the right, so that it should not make her followers fall, and with hands low and weight thrown back in the deep saddle she pulled with all her might. Her favourite black horse, broken to her own hand, would have obeyed her; she might have been able to stop Beatrix's great Hungarian, for her white hands were as strong as a man's; but the Arab mare was trained only to the touch of an Arab halter and the deep caress of an Arab voice, and at the first strain of the cruel French bit she threw up her head, swerved, caught the steel in her teeth, and shot forward again at twice her speed. Eleanor tried in vain to wrench the mare's head to one side, into the shrinking crowd.

The Queen's face turned grey, but her lips were set and her eyes steady, as she looked death in the face. Behind her, Beatrix's little gloved hands were like white moths on her steadily jerking bridle, the Hungarian's terrific stride threw up the sods behind her, and there was a hopeless, far-away look in her face, almost like a death-smile. Only the strong dark woman of the South seemed still to have control over her horse, and he slowly slackened his speed, and fell a little behind the other two.

In the fearful danger the crowd was silent and breathless, and many men turned pale as they saw. But none moved.

One second, two seconds, three seconds, and to every second two strides; the end of three women's lives was counted by the wild hoof- strokes. The race might last while one could count ten more.

Gilbert Warde had at first tried to press nearer to the King, but he saw that it was useless, because the latter was already shoulder to shoulder with the nobles and knights. So he had turned back to face the crowd with those about him, and with the flat of his blade he had beaten down some few swords which men had dared to draw; but he had wounded no one, for he knew that it was a madness which must pass and must be forgiven.

Then he found himself with his horse on the very edge of the open track made by the dividing people, and he looked and saw the Queen, and Beatrix three or four lengths behind her, as the matchless Arab gained ground in the race. He had been above the deep fall and understood. Instantly he was on his feet on the turf, a step out in the perilous way; and he wished that he had the strength of Lancelot in his hands, with the leap of a wild beast in his feet, but his heart did not fail him.

In one second he lived an hour. His life was nothing, but he could only give it once, to save one woman, and she must be Beatrix, let such chance befall Eleanor as might. Yet Eleanor was the Queen, and she had been kind to him, and in the fateful instant of doom his eyes were on her face; he would try to save the other, but unconsciously he made one step forward again and stood waiting in midway. One second for a lifetime's thought, one for the step he made, and the next was the last. He could hear the rush of the wind, and Eleanor was looking at him.

In that supreme moment her face changed, and the desperate calm in her eyes became desperate fear for him she loved even better than she knew.

"Back!" she cried, and the cry was a woman's agonized scream, not for herself.

With all her might, but utterly in vain, she wrenched sideways at the mare's mouth and she closed her eyes lest she should see the man die. He had meant to let her pass to her death, for the girl was dearer to him, and he had gathered his strength like a bent spring to serve him. But he saw her eyes and heard her cry, and in the flash of instinct he knew she loved him, and that she wished him to save himself rather than her; and thereby is real love proved on the touchstone of fear.

(Illustration: "HE... HELD, WHILE EARTH AND SKY WHIRLED WITH HIM.")

As he sprang, he knew that he had no choice, though he did not love her. The fall of her mare, if his grip held, might stop the rest. He sprang; he saw only the Arab's bony head and the gold on the bridle, as both his hands grasped it. Then he saw nothing, but yet he held, and, dead, he would have held still, as the steel jaws of the hunter's trap hold upon the wolf's leg-bone. He knew that he was thrown down, dragged, pounded, bruised, twisted like a rope till his joints cracked. But he held, and felt no pain, while earth and sky whirled with him. It was not a second; it was an hour, a year, a lifetime; yet he could not have loosed his hands, had he wished to let go, for there were in him the blood and the soul of the race that never yielded its grip on whatsoever it held.

It lasted a breathing-space, while the mare plunged wildly and staggered, and her head almost touched the ground and dragged the man's hands on the turf; then as his weight wrenched her neck back, her violent speed threw her hind quarters round, as a vane is blown from the gale. At the same instant the great Hungarian horse was upon her, tried to leap her in his stride, struck her empty saddle with his brown chest, and fell against her and upon her with all his enormous weight, and the two rolled over each other, frantically kicking. The standard bearer's horse, less mad than the others and some lengths behind, checked himself cleverly, and after two or three short, violent strides, that almost unseated his rider, planted his fore feet in the turf and stood stock-still, heaving and trembling. The race was over.

With the strength and instinct of the born rider, Eleanor had slipped her feet from the stirrups and had let herself be thrown, lifting herself with her hands on the high pommel and vaulting clear away. She fell, but was on her feet before any man of the dazed throng could help her. She saw Gilbert lying his full length on his side, his body passive, but his arms stretched beyond his head, while his gloved hands still clenched upon the bridle and were pulled from side to side by the mare's faintly struggling head. His eyes were half open toward the Queen, but they were pale and saw nothing. The Hungarian had rolled half upon his back, little hurt, and the pommels of the saddle under him kept him from turning completely over.

Beatrix lay like one dead. She had been thrown over the Arab's back, striking her head on the turf, and the mare in her final struggle had rolled upon her feet. The light steel cap had been forced down over her forehead in spite of its cushioned lining, and the chiselled rim had cut into the flesh so that a little line of dark blood was slowly running across the white skin; and her white gloved hands were lying palm upward, half open and motionless. The Queen scarcely glanced at her.

Many men sprang forward when the danger was past, and they dragged Beatrix out and began to get her horse upon his feet. Eleanor knelt by Gilbert and tried to take his fingers from the bridle, but could not, so that she had to loose the buckle from the long bars of the bit. Her hands chafed his temples softly, and she bent lower and blew upon his face, that her cool breath might wake him. There were drops of blood on his forehead and on his chin, his cloth tunic was torn in many places, and the white linen showed at the rents; but Eleanor saw only the look in his face, serene and strong even in his unconsciousness, while in the dream of his swoon he saved her life again.

In that moment, knowing that he could not see her, she thought not of her own face as she gazed upon his, nor of hiding what she felt; and the thing she felt was evil, and it was sweet. But suddenly there was life in his look, with a gentle smile, and the strained fingers were loosed with a sigh, and a long-unused word came from his lips.

"Mother!"

Eleanor shook her beautiful head slowly. Then Gilbert's face darkened with understanding and the old pain clutched at his heart sharply, even before the keen bodily hurt awoke in his wrung limbs. All at once thought came, and he knew how, in a quick fall of his heart, he had forgotten Beatrix and had almost given his life to save the Queen. As if he had been stung, he started and raised himself on one hand, though it was as if he forced his body among hot knives.

"She is dead!" he cried, with twisting lips.

"No--you saved us both."

The words came soft and clear, as Eleanor laid her hand upon his shoulder to quiet him, and watched the change as the agony in his eyes faded to relief and brightened to peace.

"Thank God!"

He sank upon her arm, for he was much bruised. But her face changed, too, and she suffered new things, because in her there was good as well as evil; for as she loved him more than before he had saved her, so she would give him more, if she might, even to forgetting herself.

And so, for a few moments, she knelt and watched him, heedless of the people about her, and scarcely seeing a dark man whom she had never noticed before, and who bent so low that she could not see his face, quietly loosening his master's collar and then feeling along his arms and legs for any bone hurt there might be.

"Who are you?" asked the Queen, at last, gently, as to one who was helping him she loved.

"His man," answered Dunstan, laconically, without looking up.

"Take care of him and bring me word of him," she answered, and from a wallet she gave him gold, which he took, silently bending his head still lower in thanks.

He, too, had saved her that day, and knew it, though she did not.

She stood up at last, gathering her mantle round her. Less than ten minutes had passed since she had thrown up her hand and called to her ladies to follow her. Since then the world had been in herself and on fire, leaving no room for other thoughts; but now the crowd had parted wide, and the King was coming towards her, slow and late, to know whether she were hurt, for he had seen her ride.

"Madam," he said, when he had dismounted, "I thank the mercy of Heaven, which deigned to hear the prayers I was continually offering up for your safety while your life was threatened by that dangerous animal. We will render thanks in divine services during ten days before proceeding farther, or during a fortnight if you prefer it."

"Your Grace," said Eleanor, coldly, "is at liberty to praise Heaven by the month if it seems good to you. But for that poor Englishman, who lies there in a swoon, and who caught my horse's bridle at the risk of his life, you might have been ordering masses for my soul instead of for my bodily preservation. They would have been much needed had I been killed just then."

The King crossed himself devoutly, half closed his eyes, bent himself a little, and whispered a short prayer.

"It would be better," observed the Queen, "to move on at once and support the Emperor."

"It has pleased God that the army of the Emperor should be totally destroyed," answered the King, calmly. "The Emperor himself will be here in a few hours, unless he has perished with the rest of his knights, slain by the Seljuk horsemen who are pursuing the fugitives."

"The more reason why we should save those who are still alive. My army shall march to-morrow at daybreak--your Grace may stay behind and pray for us."

She turned from him scornfully. Dunstan and some foot-soldiers had made stretchers with lances and pikes and were just beginning to carry Beatrix and Gilbert away, northward, in the direction of the camp.

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Via Crucis - Chapter 15 Via Crucis - Chapter 15

Via Crucis - Chapter 15
CHAPTER XV When Gilbert learned from his man that Beatrix was badly hurt and suffering great pain, he turned his face away and bit hard on the saddle-bag that served him for a pillow. It was late in the afternoon, and Dunstan had just come back from making inquiries in the ladies' lines, half a mile away. Nothing could have been simpler than his round tent, which had a single pole and covered a circle four or five paces in diameter. The dry ground had been sprinkled with water and beaten with mallets so as to harden it as much as
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CHAPTER XIII The Crusade became a fact on that day when the sovereigns of France and Guienne together took the scarlet cross from Bernard's hand. But all was not ready yet. Men were roused, and the times were ripe, but not until the Abbot of Clairvaux had given Europe the final impulse could the armies of the King and of the Queen, and of Conrad, who was never to be crowned Emperor in Rome, begin the march of desperate toil and weariness that lay between their homes and their death. From Vezelay the master preacher and inspirer of mankind went straight
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