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   Chapter 4 EYES OF YOUTH

The Path of the King By John Buchan Characters: 36921

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


On the morning of Shrove Tuesday, in the year of our Lord 1249, Sir Aimery of Beaumanoir, the envoy of the most Christian king, Louis of France, arrived in the port of Acre, having made the voyage from Cyprus with a fair wind in a day and a night in a ship of Genoa flying the red and gold banner of the Temple. Weary of the palms and sun-baked streets of Limasol and the eternal wrangling of the Crusading hosts, he looked with favour at the noble Palestine harbour, and the gilt steeples and carven houses of the fair city. From the quay he rode to the palace of the Templars and was admitted straightway to an audience with the Grand Master. For he had come in a business of some moment.

The taste of Cyprus was still in his mouth; the sweet sticky air of the coastlands; the smell of endless camps of packed humanity, set among mountains of barrels and malodorous sprouting forage-stuffs; the narrow streets lit at night by flares of tarry staves; and over all that rotting yet acrid flavour which is the token of the East. The young damoiseau of Beaumanoir had grown very sick of it all since the royal dromonds first swung into Limasol Bay. He had seen his friends die like flies of strange maladies, while the host waited on Hugh of Burgundy. Egypt was but four days off across the waters, and on its sands Louis had ordained that the War of the Cross should begin.

... But the King seemed strangely supine. Each day the enemy was the better forewarned, and each day the quarrels of Templar and Hospitaller grew more envenomed, and yet he sat patiently twiddling his thumbs, as if all time lay before him and not a man's brief life. And now when at long last the laggards of Burgundy and the Morea were reported on their way, Sir Aimery had to turn his thoughts from the honest field of war. Not for him to cry Montjole St. Denis by the Nile. For behold he was now speeding on a crazy errand to the ends of the earth.

There had been strange councils in the bare little chamber of the Most Christian King. Those locusts of the dawn whom men called Tartars, the evil seed of the Three Kings who had once travelled to Bethlehem, had, it seemed, been vouchsafed a glimpse of grace. True, they had plundered and eaten the faithful and shed innocent blood in oceans, but they hated the children of Mahound worse than the children of Christ. On the eve of Christmas-tide four envoys had come from their Khakan, monstrous men with big heads that sprang straight from the shoulder, and arms that hung below the knee, and short thin legs like gnomes. For forty weeks they had been on the road, and they brought gifts such as no eye had seen before-silks like gossamer woven with wild alphabets, sheeny jars of jade, and pearls like moons. Their Khakan, they said, had espoused the grandchild of Prester John, and had been baptized into the Faith. He marched against Bagdad, and had sworn to root the heresy of Mahound from the earth. Let the King of France make a league with him, and between them, pressing from east and west, they would accomplish the holy task. Let him send teachers to expound the mysteries of God, and let him send knights who would treat on mundane things. The letter, written in halting Latin and sealed with a device like a spider's web, urged instant warfare with Egypt. "For the present we dwell far apart," wrote the Khakan; "therefore let us both get to business."

So Aimery had been summoned to the King's chamber, where he found his good master, the Count of St. Pol, in attendance with others. After prayer, Louis opened to them his mind. Pale from much fasting and nightly communing with God, his face was lit again with that light which had shone in it when on the Friday after Pentecost the year before he had received at St. Denis the pilgrim's scarf and the oriflamme of France.

"God's hand is in this, my masters," he said. "Is it not written that many shall come from the east and from the west to sit down with Abraham in his kingdom? I have a duty towards those poor folk, and I dare not fail."

There was no man present bold enough to argue with the white fire in the King's eyes. One alone cavilled. He was a Scot, Sir Patrick, the Count of Dunbar, who already shook with the fever which was to be his death.

"This Khakan is far away, sire," he said. "If it took his envoys forty weeks to reach us, it will be a good year before his armies are on the skirts of Egypt. As well make alliance with a star."

But Louis was in missionary mood. "God's ways are not as our ways. To Him a thousand years are a day, and He can make the weakest confound a multitude. This far-away King asks for instruction, and I will send him holy men to fortify his young faith. And this knight, of whom you, my lord of St. Pol, speak well, shall bear the greetings of a soldier."

Louis' face, which for usual was grave like a wise child's, broke into a smile which melted Aimery's heart. He scarcely heard the Count of St. Pol as that stout friend enlarged on his merits. "The knight of Beaumanoir," so ran the testimony, "has more learning than any clerk. In Spain he learned the tongues of the heathen, and in Paris he read deep in their philosophy. Withal he is a devout son of Holy Church."

The boy blushed at the praise and the King's kindly regard. But St. Pol spoke truth, for Aimery, young as he was, had travelled far both on the material globe and in the kingdom of the spirit. As a stripling he had made one of the Picardy Nation in the schools of Paris. He had studied the metaphysics of Aristotle under Aquinas, and voyaged strange seas of thought piloted by Roger, the white-bearded Englishman. Thence, by the favour of the Queen-mother, he had gone as squire to Alphonso's court of Castile, where the Spanish doctors had opened windows for him into the clear dry wisdom of the Saracens. He had travelled with an embassy to the Emperor, and in Sicily had talked with the learned Arabs who clustered around the fantastic Frederick. In Italy he had met adventurers of Genoa and Venice who had shown him charts of unknown oceans and maps of Prester John's country and the desert roads that led to Cambaluc, that city farther than the moon, and told him tales of awful and delectable things hidden beyond the dawn. He had returned to his tower by the springs of Canche, a young man with a name for uncanny knowledge, a searcher after concealed matters, negligent of religion and ill at ease in his world.

Then Louis cast his spell over him. He saw the King first at a great hunting in Avesnes and worshipped from afar the slight body, royal in every line of it, and the blue eyes which charmed and compelled, for he divined there a spirit which had the secret of both earth and heaven. While still under the glamour he was given knighthood at the royal hands, and presently was weaned from unwholesome fancies by falling in love. The girl, Alix of Valery, was slim like a poplar and her eyes were grey and deep as her northern waters. She had been a maid of Blanche the Queen, and had a nun's devoutness joined to a merry soul. Under her guiding Aimery made his peace with the Church, and became notable for his gifts to God, for he derived great wealth from his Flemish forbears. Yet the yeast of youth still wrought in him, and by Alix's side at night he dreamed of other lands than his grey-green Picardy. So, when the King took the croix d'outre mer and summoned his knights to the freeing of Jerusalem, Sir Aimery of Beaumanoir was the first to follow. For to him, as to others like him, the goal was no perishable city made by mortal hands, but that beata urbs without foundations which youth builds of its dreams.

He heard mass by the King's side and, trembling with pride, kissed the royal hands and set out on his journey. His last memory of Louis was of a boyish figure in a surcoat of blue samite, gazing tenderly on him as of bidding farewell to a brother.

The Grand Master of the Templars, sitting in a furred robe in a warm upper chamber, for he had an ague on him, spoke gloomily of the mission. He would have preferred to make alliance with the Soldan of Egypt, and by his aid recover the Holy Cities. "What Khakan is this?" he cried, "to whom it is a journey of a lifetime to come nigh? What kind of Christian will you make of men that have blood for drink and the flesh of babes for food, and blow hither and thither on horses like sandstorms? Yours is a mad venture, young sir, and I see no good that can come of it." Nevertheless he wrote letters of commendation to the Prince of Antioch and the Constable of Armenia; and he brought together all those about the place who had travelled far inland to make a chart of the journey.

Aimery heeded little the Templar's forebodings, for his heart had grown high again and romance was kindling his fancy. There was a knuckle of caution in him, for he had the blood of Flemish traders in his veins, though enriched by many nobler streams. "The profit is certain," a cynic had whispered to him ere they left Aigues Mortes. "Should we conquer we shall grow rich, and if we fail we shall go to heaven." The phrase had fitted some of his moods, notably the black ones at Limasol, but now he was all aflame with the quixotry of the Crusader. He neither needed nor sought wealth, nor was he concerned about death. His feet trod the sacred soil of his faith, and up in the hills which rimmed the seaward plain lay all the holiness of Galilee and Nazareth, the three tabernacles built by St. Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, the stone whence Christ ascended into heaven, the hut at Bethlehem which had been the Most High's cradle, the sanctuary of Jerusalem whose every stone was precious. Presently his King would win it all back for God. But for him was the sterner task-no clean blows in the mellay among brethren, but a lone pilgrimage beyond the east wind to the cradle of all marvels. The King had told him that he carried the hopes of Christendom in his wallet; he knew that he bore within himself the delirious expectation of a boy. Youth swelled his breast and steeled his sinews and made a golden mist for his eyes. The new, the outlandish, the undreamed-of!-Surely no one of the Seven Champions had had such fortune! Scribes long after would write of the deeds of Aimery of Beaumanoir, and minstrels would sing of him as they sang of Roland and Tristan.

The Count of Jaffa, whose tower stood on the borders and who was therefore rarely quit of strife, convoyed him a stage or two on his way. It was a slender company: two Franciscans bearing the present of Louis to the Khakan-a chapel-tent of scarlet cloth embroidered inside with pictures of the Annunciation and the Passion; two sumpter mules with baggage; Aimery's squire, a lad from the Boulonnais; and Aimery himself mounted on a Barbary horse warranted to go far on little fodder. The lord of Jaffa turned back when the snows of Lebanon were falling behind on their right. He had nodded towards the mountains.

"There lives the Old Man and his Ishmaelites. Fear nothing, for his fangs are drawn." And when Aimery asked the cause of the impotence of the renowned Assassins, he was told-"That Khakan whom ye seek."

After that they made good speed to the city of Antioch, where not so long before angels from heaven had appeared as knights in white armour to do battle for the forlorn Crusaders. There they were welcomed by the Prince and sent forward into Armenia, guided by the posts of the Constable of that harassed kingdom. Everywhere the fame of the Tartars had gone abroad, and with each mile they journeyed the tales became stranger. Conquerers and warriors beyond doubt, but grotesque paladins for the Cross. Men whispered their name with averted faces, and in the eyes of the travelled ones there was the terror of sights remembered outside the mortal pale. Aimery's heart was stout, but he brooded much as the road climbed into the mountains. Far off in Cyprus the Khakan had seemed a humble devotee at Christ's footstool, asking only to serve and learn; but now he had grown to some monstrous Cyclops beyond the stature of man, a portent like a thundercloud brooding over unnumbered miles. Besides, the young lord was homesick, and had long thoughts of Alix his wife and the son she had borne him. As he looked at the stony hills he remembered that it would now be springtide in Picardy, when the young green of the willows fringed every watercourse and the plovers were calling on the windy downs.

The Constable of Armenia dwelt in a castle of hewn stone about which a little city clustered, with mountains on every side to darken the sky, He was as swarthy as a Saracen and had a long nose like a Jew, but he was a good Christian and a wise ruler, though commonly at odds with his cousin of Antioch. From him Aimery had more precise news of the Khakan.

There were two, said the Constable. "One who rules all Western Asia east of the Sultan's principates. Him they call the Ilkhan for title, and Houlagou for name. His armies have eaten up the Chorasmians and the Muscovites and will presently bite their way into Christendom, unless God change their heart. By the Gospels, they are less and more than men. Swinish drinkers and gluttons, they rise from their orgies to sweep the earth like a flame. Here inside our palisade of rock we wait fearfully."

"And the other?" Aimery asked.

"Ah, he is as much the greater as the sun is greater than a star. Kublai they name him, and he is in some sort the lord of Houlagou. I have never met the man who has seen him, for he dwells as far beyond the Ilkhan as the Ilkhan is far from the Pillars of Hercules. But rumour has it that he is a clement and beneficent prince, terrible in battle, but a lover of peace and all good men. They tell wonders about his land of Cathay, where strips of parchment stamped with the King's name take the place of gold among the merchants, so strong is that King's honour. But the journey to Cambaluc, the city of Kublai, would fill a man's lifetime."

One April morning they heard mass after the odd Syrian fashion, and turned their faces eastward. The Constable's guides led them through the mountains, up long sword-cuts of valleys and under frowning snowdrifts, or across stony barrens where wretched beehive huts huddled by the shores of unquiet lakes. Presently they came into summer, and found meadows of young grass and green forests on the hills' skirts, and saw wide plains die into the blueness of morning. There the guides left them, and the little cavalcade moved east into unknown anarchies.

The sky grew like brass over their heads, and the land baked and rutted with the sun's heat. It seemed a country empty of man, though sometimes they came on derelict ploughlands and towns of crumbling brick charred and glazed by fire. In sweltering days they struggled through flats where the grass was often higher than a horse's withers, and forded the tawny streams which brought down the snows of the hills. Now and then they would pass wandering herdsmen, who fled to some earth-burrow at their appearance. The Constable had bidden them make for the rising sun, saying that sooner or later they would foregather with the Khakan's scouts. But days passed into weeks and weeks into months, and still they moved through a tenantless waste. They husbanded jealously the food they had brought, but the store ran low, and there were days of empty stomachs and light heads. Unless, like the King of Babylon, they were to eat grass in the fashion of beasts, it seemed they must soon famish.

But late in summertime they saw before them a wall of mountain, and in three days climbed by its defiles to a pleasant land, where once more they found the dwellings of man. It appeared that they were in a country where the Tartars had been for some time settled and which had for years been free of the ravages of war. The folks were hunters and shepherds who took the strangers for immortal beings and offered food on bent knees like oblations to a god. They knew where the Ilkhan dwelt, and furnished guides for each day's journey. Aimery, who had been sick of a low fever in the plains, and had stumbled on in a stupor torn by flashes of homesickness, found his spirits reviving. He had cursed many times the futility of his errand. While the Franciscans were busied with their punctual offices and asked nothing of each fresh day but that it should be as prayerful as the last, he found a rebellious unbelief rising in his heart. He was travelling roads no Christian had ever trod, on a wild-goose errand, while his comrades were winning fame in the battle-front. Alas! that a bright sword should rust in these barrens!

But with the uplands peace crept into his soul and some of the mystery of his journey. It was a brave venture, whether it failed or no, for he had already gone beyond the pale even of men's dreams. The face of Louis hovered before him. It needed a great king even to conceive such a mission.... He had been sent on a king's errand too. He stood alone for France and the Cross in a dark world. Alone, as kings should stand, for to take all the burden was the mark of kingship. His heart bounded at the thought, for he was young. His father had told him of that old Flanders grandam, who had sworn that his blood came from proud kings.

But chiefly he thought of Louis with a fresh warmth of love. Surely the King loved him, or he would not have chosen him out of many for this fateful work. He had asked of him the ultimate service, as a friend should. Aimery reconstructed in his inner vision all his memories of the King: the close fair hair now thinning about the temples; the small face still contoured like a boy's; the figure strung like a bow; the quick, eager gestures; the blue dove's eyes, kindly and humble, as became one whose proudest title was to be a "sergeant of the Crucified." But those same eyes could also steel and blaze, for his father had been called the Lion, his mother Semiramis, and his grandsire Augustus. In these wilds Aimery was his vicegerent and bore himself proudly as the proxy of such a monarch.

The hour came when they met the Tartar outposts. A cloud of horse swept down on them, each man riding loose with his hand on a taut bowstring. In silence they surrounded the little party, and their leader made signs to Aimery to dismount. The Constable had procured for him a letter in Tartar scr

ipt, setting out the purpose of his mission. This the outpost could not read, but they recognised some word among the characters, and pointed it out to each other with uncouth murmurings. They were strange folk, with eyes like pebbles and squat frames and short, broad faces, but each horse and man moved in unison like a centaur.

With gestures of respect the Tartars signalled to the Christians to follow, and led them for a day and a night southward down a broad valley, where vines and fruit trees grew and peace dwelt in villages. They passed encampments of riders like themselves, and little scurries of horsemen would ride athwart their road and exchange greetings. On the second morning they reached a city, populous in men but not in houses. For miles stretched lines of skin tents, and in the heart of them by the river's edge stood a great hall of brick, still raw from the builders.

Aimery sat erect on his weary horse with the hum of an outlandish host about him, himself very weary and very sick at heart. For the utter folly of it all had come on him like the waking from a dream. These men were no allies of the West. They were children of the Blue Wolf, as the Constable had said, a monstrous brood, swarming from the unknown to blight the gardens of the world. A Saracen compared to such was a courteous knight.... He thought of Kublai, the greater Khakan. Perhaps in his court might dwell gentlehood and reason. But here was but a wolf pack in the faraway guise of man.

They gave the strangers food and drink-halfcooked fish and a porridge of rye and sour spiced milk, and left them to sleep until sundown. Then the palace guards led them to the presence.

The hall was immense, dim and shapeless like the inside of a hill, not built according to the proportions of mankind. Flambeaux and wicks floating in great basins of mutton fat showed a dense concourse of warriors, and through an aisle of them Aimery approached the throne. In front stood a tree of silver, springing from a pedestal of four lions whose mouths poured streams of wine, syrup, and mead into basins, which were emptied by a host of slaves, the cup-bearers of the assembly. There were two thrones side by side, on one of which sat a figure so motionless that it might have been wrought of jasper. Weighted with a massive head-dress of pearls and a robe of gold brocade, the little grandchild of Prester John seemed like a doll on which some princess had lavished wealth and fancy. The black eyelashes lay quiet on her olive cheeks, and her breathing did not stir her stiff, jewelled bodice.

"I have seen death in life," thought Aimery as he shivered and looked aside.

Houlagou, her husband, was a tall man compared with the others. His face was hairless, and his mouth fine and cruel. His eyes were hard like agates, with no light in them. A passionless power lurked in the low broad forehead, and the mighty head sunk deep between the shoulders; but the power not of a man, but of some abortion of nature, like storm or earthquake. Again Aimery shivered. Had not the prophets foretold that one day Antichrist would be reborn in Babylon?

Among the Ilkhan's scribes was a Greek who spoke a bastard French and acted as interpreter. King Louis' letter was read, and in that hall its devout phrases seemed a mockery. The royal gifts were produced, the tent-chapel with its woven pictures and the sacred utensils. The half-drunk captains fingered them curiously, but the eyes from the throne scarcely regarded them.

"These are your priests," said the Khakan "Let them talk with my priests and then go their own way. I have little concern with priestcraft."

Then Aimery spoke, and the Greek with many haltings translated. He reminded Houlagou of the Tartar envoys who had sought from his King instruction in the Christian faith and had proclaimed his baptism.

"Of that I know nothing," was the answer. "Maybe 'twas some whim of my brother Kublai. I have all the gods I need."

With a heavy heart Aimery touched on the proposed alliance, the advance on Bagdad, and the pinning of the Saracens between two fires. He spoke as he had been ordered, but with a bitter sense of futility, for what kind of ally could be looked for in this proud pagan?

The impassive face showed no flicker of interest.

"I am eating up the Caliphs," he said, "but that food is for my own table. As for allies, I have need of none. The children of the Blue Wolf do not make treaties."

Then he spoke aside to his captains, and fixed Aimery with his agate eyes. It was like listening to a voice from a stone.

"The King of France has sent you to ask for peace. Peace, no doubt, is good, and I will grant it of my favour. A tribute will be fixed in gold and silver, and while it is duly paid your King's lands will be safe from my warriors. Should the tribute fail, France will be ours. I have heard that it is a pleasant place."

The Ilkhan signed that the audience was over. The fountains of liquor ceased to play, and the drunken gathering stood up with a howling like wild beasts to acclaim their King. Aimery went back to his hut, and sat deep in thought far into the night.

He perceived that the shadows were closing in upon him. He must get the friars away, and with them a message to his master. For himself there could be no return, for he could not shame his King who had trusted him. In the bestial twilight of this barbaric court the memory of Louis shone like a star. He must attempt to reach Kublai, of whom men spoke well, though the journey cost him his youth and his life. It might mean years of wandering, but there was a spark of hope in it. There, in the bleak hut, he suffered the extreme of mental anguish. A heavy door seemed to have closed between him and all that he held dear. He fell on his knees and prayed to the saints to support his loneliness. And then he found comfort, for had not God's Son suffered even as he, and left the bright streets of Paradise for loneliness among the lost?

Next morning he faced the world with a clearer eye. It was not difficult to provide for the Franciscans. They, honest men, understood nothing save that the Tartar king had not the love of holy things for which they had hoped. They explained the offices of the Church as well as they could to ribald and uncomprehending auditors, and continued placidly in their devotions. As it chanced, a convoy was about to start for Muscovy, whence by ship they might come to Constantinople. The Tartars made no objection to their journey, for they had some awe of these pale men and were glad to be quit of foreign priestcraft. With them Aimery sent a letter in which he told the King that the immediate errand had been done, but that no good could be looked for from this western Khakan. "I go," he said, "to Kublai the Great, in Cathay, who has a heart more open to God. If I return not, know, Sire, that I am dead in your most loving service, joyfully and pridefully as a Christian knight dies for the Cross, his King, and his lady." He added some prayers on behalf of the little household at Beaumanoir and sealed it with his ring. It was the ring he had got from his father, a thick gold thing in which had been cut his cognisance of three lions' heads.

This done, he sought an audience with the Ilkhan, and told him of his purpose. Houlagou did not speak for a little, and into his set face seemed to creep an ill-boding shadow of a smile. "Who am I," he said at length, "to hinder your going to my brother Kublai? I will give you an escort to my eastern borders."

Aimery bent his knee and thanked him, but from the courtiers rose a hubbub of mirth which chilled his gratitude. He was aware that he sailed on very desperate waters.

Among the Tartars was a recreant Genoese who taught them metal work and had once lived at the court of Cambaluc. The man had glimmerings of honesty, and tried hard to dissuade Aimery from the journey. "It is a matter of years," he told him, "and the road leads through deserts greater than all Europe and over mountains so high and icy that birds are frozen in the crossing. And a word in your ear, my lord. The Ilkhan permits few to cross his eastern marches. Beware of treason, I say. Your companions are the blood-thirstiest of the royal guards."

But from the Genoese he obtained a plan of the first stages of the road, and one morning in autumn he set out from the Tartar city, his squire from the Boulonnais by his side, and at his back a wild motley of horsemen, wearing cuirasses of red leather stamped with the blue wolf of Houlagou's house.

October fell chill and early in those uplands, and on the fourth day they came into a sprinkling of snow. At night round the fires the Tartars made merry, for they had strong drink in many skin bottles, and Aimery was left to his own cold meditations. If he had had any hope, it was gone now, for the escort made it clear that he was their prisoner. Judging from the chart of the Genoese, they were not following any road to Cambaluc, and the sight of the sky told him that they were circling round to the south. The few Tartar words he had learned were not enough to communicate with them, and in any case it was clear that they would take no orders from him. He was trapped like a bird in the fowler's hands. Escape was folly, for in an hour their swift horses would have ridden him down. He had thought he had grown old, but the indignity woke his youth again, and he fretted passionately. If death was his portion, he longed for it to come cleanly in soldier fashion.

One night his squire disappeared. The Tartars, when he tried to question them, only laughed and pointed westward. That was the last he heard of the lad from the Boulonnais.

And then on a frosty dawn, when the sun rose red-rimmed over the barrens, he noted a new trimness in his escort. They rode in line, and they rode before and behind him, so that his captivity was made patent. On a ridge far to the west he saw a great castle, and he knew the palace of Houlagou. His guess had been right; he had been brought back by a circuit to his starting-point.

Presently he was face to face with the Ilkhan, who was hunting. The Greek scribe was with him, so the meeting had been foreseen. The King's face was dark with the weather and his stony eyes had a glow in them.

"O messenger of France," he said, "there is a little custom of our people that I had forgotten. When a stranger warrior visits us it is our fashion to pit him in a bout against one of our own folk, so that if he leaves us alive he may speak well of his entertainment."

"I am willing," said Aimery. "I have but my sword for weapon."

"We have no lack of swordsmen," said the Ilkhan. "I would fain see the Frankish way of it."

A man stepped out from the ring, a great square fellow shorter by a head than Aimery, and with a nose that showed there was Saracen blood in him. He had a heavy German blade, better suited for fighting on horseback than on foot. He had no buckler, and no armour save a headpiece, so the combatants were fairly matched.

It was a contest of speed and deftness against a giant's strength, for a blow from the great weapon would have cut deep into a man's vitals. Aimery was weary and unpractised, but the clash of steel gave life to him. He found that he had a formidable foe, but one who lacked the finer arts of the swordsman. The Tartar wasted his strength in the air against the new French parries and guards, though he drew first blood and gashed his opponent's left arm. Aimery's light blade dazzled his eyes, and presently when breath had grown short claimed its due. A deft cut on the shoulder paralysed the Tartar's sword arm, and a breaststroke brought him to his knees.

"Finish him," said the Ilkhan.

"Nay, sire," said Aimery, "it is not our custom to slay a disabled foe."

Houlagou nodded to one of his guards, who advanced swinging his sword. The defeated man seemed to know his fate, and stretched out his neck. With a single blow his head rolled on the earth.

"You have some skill of the sword, Frenchman," said the Ilkhan. "Hear, now, what I have decreed concerning you. I will have none of this journey to my brother Kublai. I had purposed to slay you, for you have defied my majesty. You sought to travel to Cathay instead of bearing my commands forthwith to your little King. But I am loath to kill so stout a warrior. Swear to me allegiance, and you shall ride with me against the Caliphs."

"And if I refuse?" Aimery asked.

"Then you die ere sundown."

"I am an envoy, sire, from a brother majesty, and of such it is the custom to respect the persons."

"Tush!" said the Ilkhan, "there is no brother majesty save Kublai. Between us we rule the world."

"Hear me, then," said Aimery. The duel had swept all cobwebs from his brain and doubts from his heart. "I am a knight of the Sire Christ and of the most noble King Louis, and I can own no other lord. Do your work, King. I am solitary among your myriads, but you cannot bend me."

"So be it," said Houlagou.

"I ask two boons as one about to die. Let me fall in battle against your warriors. And let me spend the hours till sundown alone, for I would prepare myself for my journey."

"So be it," said Houlagou, and turned to his hounds.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The damoiseau of Beaumanoir sat on a ridge commanding for fifty miles the snow-sprinkled uplands. The hum of the Tartars came faint from a hollow to the west, but where he sat he was in quiet and alone.

He had forgotten the ache of loss which had preyed on him.... His youth had not been squandered. The joy of young manhood which had been always like a tune in his heart had risen to a nobler song. For now, as it seemed to him, he stood beside his King, and had found a throne in the desert. Alone among all Christian men he had carried the Cross to a new world, and had been judged worthy to walk in the footprints of his captain Christ. A great gladness and a great humility possessed him.

He had ridden beyond the ken of his own folk, and no tale of his end would ever be told in that northern hall of his when the hearth-fire flickered on the rafters. That seemed small loss, for they would know that he had ridden the King's path, and that can have but the one ending.... Most clear in his memory now were the grey towers by Canche, where all day long the slow river made a singing among the reeds. He saw Alix his wife, the sun on her hair, playing in the close with his little Philip. Even now in the pleasant autumn weather that curly-pate would be scrambling in the orchard for the ripe apples which his mother rolled to him. He had thought himself born for a high destiny. Well, that destiny had been accomplished. He would not die, but live in the son of his body, and his sacrifice would be eternally a spirit moving in the hearts of his seed. He saw the thing clear and sharp, as if in a magic glass. There was a long road before the house of Beaumanoir, and on the extreme horizon a great brightness.

Now he remembered that he had always known it, known it even when his head had been busy with ardent hopes. He had loved life and had won life everlasting. He had known it when he sought learning from wise books. When he kept watch by his armour in the Abbey church of Corbie and questioned wistfully the darkness, that was the answer he had got. In the morning, when he had knelt in snow-white linen and crimson and steel before the high altar and received back his sword from God, the message had been whispered to his heart. In the June dawn when, barefoot, he was given the pilgrim's staff and entered on his southern journey, he had had a premonition of his goal. But now what had been dim, like a shadow in a mirror, was as clear as the colours in a painted psaltery. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem," he sighed, as his King was wont to sigh. For he was crossing the ramparts of the secret city.

He tried to take the ring from his finger that he might bury it, for it irked him that his father's jewel should fall to his enemies. But the wound had swollen his left hand, and he could not move the ring.

He was looking westward, for that way lay the Holy Places, and likewise Alix and Picardy. His minutes were few now, for he heard the bridles of the guards, as they closed in to carry him to his last fight.... He had with him a fragment of rye-cake and beside him on the ridge was a little spring. In his helmet he filled a draught, and ate a morsel. For, by the grace of the Church to the knight in extremity, he was now sealed of the priesthood, and partook of the mystic body and blood of his Lord....

Somewhere far off there was a grass fire licking the hills, and the sun was setting in fierce scarlet and gold. The hollow of the sky seemed a vast chapel ablaze with lights, like the lifting of the Host at Candlemas.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The tale is not finished. For, as it chanced, one Maffeo of Venice, a merchant who had strayed to the court of Cambaluc and found favour there, was sent by Kublai the next year on a mission to Europe, and his way lay through the camp of Houlagou. He was received with honour, and shown the riches of the Tartar armies. Among other things he heard of a Frankish knight who had fallen in battle with Houlagou's champions, and won much honour, they said, having slain three. He was shown the shrivelled arm of this knight, with a gold ring on the third finger. Maffeo was a man of sentiment, and begged for and was given the poor fragment, meaning to accord it burial in consecrated ground when he should arrive in Europe. He travelled to Bussorah, whence he came by sea to Venice. Now at Venice there presently arrived the Count of St. Pol with a company of Frenchmen, bound on a mission to the Emperor. Maffeo, of whom one may still read in the book of Messer Marco Polo, was become a famous man in the city, and strangers resorted to his house to hear his tales and see his treasures. From him St. Pol learned of the dead knight, and, reading the cognisance on the ring, knew the fate of his friend. On his return journey he bore the relic to Louis at Paris, who venerated it as the limb of a saint; and thereafter took it to Beaumanoir, where the Lady Alix kissed it with proud tears. The arm in a rich casket she buried below the chapel altar, and the ring she wore till her death.

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