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   Chapter 4 AT THE SIGN OF THE MITRE

The Tavern Knight By Rafael Sabatini Characters: 9864

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


For a week after the coming of the King to Worcester, Crispin's relations with Kenneth steadily improved. By an evil chance, however, there befell on the eve of the battle that which renewed with heightened intensity the enmity which the lad had fostered for him, but which lately he had almost overcome.

The scene of this happening-leastways of that which led to it-was The Mitre Inn, in the High Street of Worcester.

In the common-room one day sat as merry a company of carousers as ever gladdened the soul of an old tantivy boy. Youthful ensigns of Lesley's Scottish horse-caring never a fig for the Solemn League and Covenant-rubbed shoulders with beribboned Cavaliers of Lord Talbot's company; gay young lairds of Pitscottie's Highlanders, unmindful of the Kirk's harsh commandments of sobriety, sat cheek by jowl with rakehelly officers of Dalzell's Brigade, and pledged the King in many a stoup of canary and many a can of stout March ale.

On every hand spirits ran high and laughter filled the chamber, the mirth of some having its source in a neighbour's quip, that of others having no source at all save in the wine they had taken.

At one table sat a gentleman of the name of Faversham, who had ridden on the previous night in that ill-fated camisado that should have resulted in the capture of Cromwell at Spetchley, but which, owing to a betrayal-when was a Stuart not betrayed and sold?-miscarried. He was relating to the group about him the details of that disaster.

"Oddslife, gentlemen," he was exclaiming, "I tell you that, but for that roaring dog, Sir Crispin Galliard, the whole of Middleton's regiment had been cut to pieces. There we stood on Red Hill, trapped as ever fish in a net, with the whole of Lilburne's men rising out of the ground to enclose and destroy us. A living wall of steel it was, and on every hand the call to surrender. There was dismay in my heart, as I'll swear there was dismay in the heart of every man of us, and I make little doubt, gentlemen, that with but scant pressing we had thrown down our arms, so disheartened were we by that ambush. Then of a sudden there arose above the clatter of steel and Puritan cries, a loud, clear, defiant shout of 'Hey for Cavaliers!'"

"I turned, and there in his stirrups stood that madman Galliard, waving his sword and holding his company together with the power of his will, his courage, and his voice. The sight of him was like wine to our blood. 'Into them, gentlemen; follow me!' he roared. And then, with a hurricane of oaths, he hurled his company against the pike-men. The blow was irresistible, and above the din of it came that voice of his again: 'Up, Cavaliers! Slash the cuckolds to ribbons, gentlemen!' The cropears gave way, and like a river that has burst its dam, we poured through the opening in their ranks and headed back for Worcester."

There was a roar of voices as Faversham ended, and around that table "The Tavern Knight" was for some minutes the only toast.

Meanwhile half a dozen merry-makers at a table hard by, having drunk themselves out of all sense of fitness, were occupied in baiting a pale-faced lad, sombrely attired, who seemed sadly out of place in that wild company-indeed, he had been better advised to have avoided it.

The matter had been set afoot by a pleasantry of Ensign Tyler's, of Massey's dragoons, with a playful allusion to a letter in a feminine hand which Kenneth had let fall, and which Tyler had restored to him. Quip had followed quip until in their jests they transcended all bounds. Livid with passion and unable to endure more, Kenneth had sprung up.

"Damnation!" he blazed, bringing his clenched hand down upon the table. "One more of your foul jests and he that utters it shall answer to me!"

The suddenness of his action and the fierceness of his tone and gesture-a fierceness so grotesquely ill-attuned to his slender frame and clerkly attire left the company for a moment speechless with amazement. Then a mighty burst of laughter greeted him, above which sounded the shrill voice of Tyler, who held his sides, and down whose crimson cheeks two tears of mirth were trickling.

"Oh, fie, fie, good Master Stewart!" he gasped. "What think you would the reverend elders say to this bellicose attitude and this profane tongue of yours?"

"And what think you would the King say to this drunken poltroonery of yours?" was the hot unguarded answer. "Poltroonery, I say," he repeated, embracing the whole company in his glance.

The laughter died down as Kenneth's insult penetrated their befuddled minds. An instant's lull there was, like the lull in nature that precedes a clap of thunder. Then, as with one accord, a dozen of them bore down upon him.

It was a vile thing they did, perhaps; but then they had drunk deep, and Kenneth Stewart counted no friend amongst them. In an instant they had him, kicking and biting, on the floor; his doublet

was torn rudely open, and from his breast Tyler plucked the letter whose existence had led to this shameless scene.

But ere he could so much as unfold it, a voice rang harsh and imperative:

"Hold!"

Pausing, they turned to confront a tall, gaunt man in a leather jerkin and a broad hat decked by goose-quill, who came slowly forward.

"The Tavern Knight," cried one, and the shout of "A rouse for the hero of Red Hill!" was taken up on every hand. For despite his sour visage and ungracious ways there was not a roysterer in the Royal army to whom he was not dear.

But as he now advanced, the coldness of his bearing and the forbidding set of his face froze them into silence.

"Give me that letter," he demanded sternly of Tyler.

Taken aback, Tyler hesitated for a second, whilst Crispin waited with hand outstretched. Vainly did he look round for sign or word of help or counsel. None was afforded him by his fellow-revellers, who one and all hung back in silence.

Seeing himself thus unsupported, and far from wishing to try conclusions with Galliard, Tyler with an ill grace surrendered the paper; and, with a pleasant bow and a word of thanks, delivered with never so slight a saturnine smile, Crispin turned on his heel and left the tavern as abruptly as he had entered it.

The din it was that had attracted him as he passed by on his way to the Episcopal Palace where a part of his company was on guard duty. Thither he now pursued his way, bearing with him the letter which so opportunely he had become possessed of, and which he hoped might throw further light upon Kenneth's relations with the Ashburns.

But as he reached the palace there was a quick step behind him, and a hand fell upon his arm. He turned.

"Ah, 'tis you, Kenneth," he muttered, and would have passed on, but the boy's hand took him by the sleeve.

"Sir Crispin," said he, "I came to thank you."

"I have done nothing to deserve your thanks. Give you good evening." And he made shift to mount the steps when again Kenneth detained him.

"You are forgetting the letter, Sir Crispin," he ventured, and he held out his hand to receive it.

Galliard saw the gesture, and for a moment it crossed his mind in self-reproach that the part he chose to play was that of a bully. A second he hesitated. Should he surrender the letter unread, and fight on without the aid of the information it might bring him? Then the thought of Ashburn and of his own deep wrongs that cried out for vengeance, overcame and stifled the generous impulse. His manner grew yet more frozen as he made answer:

"There has been too much ado about this letter to warrant my so lightly parting with it. First I will satisfy myself that I have been no unconscious abettor of treason. You shall have your letter tomorrow, Master Stewart."

"Treason!" echoed Kenneth. And before that cold rebuff of Crispin's his mood changed from conciliatory to resentful-resentful towards the fates that made him this man's debtor.

"I assure you, on my honour," said he, mastering his feelings, "that this is but a letter from the lady I hope to make my wife. Assuredly, sir, you will not now insist upon reading it."

"Assuredly I shall."

"But, sir-"

"Master Stewart, I am resolved, and were you to talk from now till doomsday, you would not turn me from my purpose. So good night to you."

"Sir Crispin," cried the boy, his voice quavering with passion, "while I live you shall not read that letter!"

"Hoity-toity, sir! What words! What heroics! And yet you would have me believe this paper innocent?"

"As innocent as the hand that penned it, and if I so oppose your reading it, it is because thus much I owe her. Believe me, sir," he added, his accents returning to a beseeching key, "when again I swear that it is no more than such a letter any maid may write her lover. I thought that you had understood all this when you rescued me from those bullies at The Mitre. I thought that what you did was a noble and generous deed. Instead-" The lad paused.

"Continue, sir," Galliard requested coldly. "Instead?"

"There can be no instead, Sir Crispin. You will not mar so good an action now. You will give me my letter, will you not?"

Callous though he was, Crispin winced. The breeding of earlier days-so sadly warped, alas!-cried out within him against the lie that he was acting by pretending to suspect treason in that woman's pothooks. Instincts of gentility and generosity long dead took life again, resuscitated by that call of conscience. He was conquered.

"There, take your letter, boy, and plague me no more," he growled, as he held it out to Kenneth. And without waiting for reply or acknowledgment, he turned on his heel, and entered the palace. But he had yielded overlate to leave a good impression and, as Kenneth turned away, it was with a curse upon Galliard, for whom his detestation seemed to increase at every step.

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