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The Tavern Knight By Rafael Sabatini Characters: 16746

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

The morn of the third of September-that date so propitious to Cromwell, so disastrous to Charles-found Crispin the centre of a company of gentlemen in battle-harness, assembled at The Mitre Inn. For a toast he gave them "The damnation of all crop-ears."

"Sirs," quoth he, "a fair beginning to a fair day. God send the evening find us as merry."

It was not to be his good fortune, however, to be in the earlier work of the day. Until afternoon he was kept within the walls of Worcester, chafing to be where hard knocks were being dealt-with Montgomery at Powick Bridge, or with Pittscottie on Bunn's Hill. But he was forced to hold his mood in curb, and wait until Charles and his advisers should elect to make the general attack.

It came at last, and with it came the disastrous news that Montgomery was routed, and Pittscottie in full retreat, whilst Dalzell had surrendered, and Keith was taken. Then was it that the main body of the Royal army formed up at the Sidbury Gate, and Crispin found himself in the centre, which was commanded by the King in person. In the brilliant charge that followed there was no more conspicuous figure, no voice rang louder in encouragement to the men. For the first time that day Cromwell's Ironsides gave back before the Royalists, who in that fierce, irresistible charge, swept all before them until they had reached the battery on Perry Wood, and driven the Roundheads from it hell-to-leather.

It was a glorious moment, a moment in which the fortunes of the day hung in the balance; the turn of the tide it seemed to them at last.

Crispin was among the first to reach the guns, and with a great shout of "Hurrah for Cavaliers!" he had cut down two gunners that yet lingered. His cry lacked not an echo, and a deafening cheer broke upon the clamorous air as the Royalists found themselves masters of the position. Up the hill on either side pressed the Duke of Hamilton and the Earl of Derby to support the King. It but remained for Lesley's Scottish horse to follow and complete the rout of the Parliamentarian forces. Had they moved at that supreme moment who shall say what had been the issue of Worcester field? But they never stirred, and the Royalists waiting on Perry Wood cursed Lesley for a foul traitor who had sold his King.

With bitterness did they then realize that their great effort was to be barren, their gallant charge in vain. Unsupported, their position grew fast untenable.

And presently, when Cromwell had gathered his scattered Ironsides, that gallant host was driven fighting, down the hill and back to the shelter of Worcester. With the Roundheads pressing hotly upon them they gained at last the Sidbury Gate, but only to find that an overset ammunition wagon blocked the entrance. In this plight, and without attempting to move it, they faced about to make a last stand against the Puritan onslaught.

Charles had flung himself from his charger and climbed the obstruction, and in this he was presently followed by others, amongst whom was Crispin.

In the High Street Galliard came upon the King, mounted on a fresh horse, addressing a Scottish regiment of foot. The soldiers had thrown down their arms and stood sullenly before him, refusing to obey his command to take them up again and help him attempt, even at that late hour, to retrieve the fortunes of the day. Crispin looked on in scorn and loathing. His passions awakened at the sight of Lesley's inaction needed but this last breath to fan it into a very blaze of wrath. And what he said to them touching themselves, their country, and the Kirk Committee that had made sheep of them, was so bitter and contemptuous that none but men in the most parlous and pitiable of conditions could have suffered it.

He was still hurling vituperations at them when Colonel Pride with a troop of Parliamentarian horse-having completely overcome the resistance at the Sidbury Gate-rode into the town. At the news of this, Crispin made a last appeal to the infantry.

"Afoot, you Scottish curs!" he thundered. "Would you rather be cut to pieces as you stand? Up, you dogs, and since you know not how to live, die at least without shame!"

But in vain did he rail. In sullen quiet they remained, their weapons on the ground before them. And then, as Crispin was turning away to see to his own safety, the King rode up again, and again he sought to revive the courage that was dead in those Scottish hearts. If they would not stand by him, he cried at last, let them slay him there, sooner than that he should be taken captive to perish on the scaffold.

While he was still urging them, Crispin unceremoniously seized his bridle.

"Will you stand here until you are taken, sire?" he cried. "Leave them, and look to your safety."

Charles turned a wondering eye upon the resolute, battle-grimed face of the man that thus addressed him. A faint, sad smile parted his lips.

"You are right, sir," he made answer. "Attend me." And turning about he rode down a side street with Galliard following closely in his wake.

With the intention of doffing his armour and changing his apparel, he made for the house in New Street where he had been residing. As they drew up before the door, Crispin, chancing to look over his shoulder, rapped out an oath.

"Hasten, sire," he exclaimed, "here is a portion of Colonel's Pride's troop."

The King looked round, and at sight of the Parliamentarians, "It is ended," he muttered despairingly. But already Crispin had sprung from his horse.

"Dismount, sire," he roared, and he assisted him so vigorously as to appear to drag him out of the saddle.

"Which way?" demanded Charles, looking helplessly from left to right. "Which way?"

But Crispin's quick mind had already shaped a plan. Seizing the royal arm-for who in such straits would deal ceremoniously?-he thrust the King across the threshold, and, following, closed the door and shot its only bolt. But the shout set up by the Puritans announced to them that their movement had been detected.

The King turned upon Sir Crispin, and in the half-light of the passage wherein they stood Galliard made out the frown that bent the royal brows.

"And now?" demanded Charles, a note almost of reproach in his voice.

"And now begone, sire," returned the knight. "Begone ere they come."

"Begone?" echoed Charles, in amazement. "But whither, sir? Whither and how?"

His last words were almost drowned in the din without, as the Roundheads pulled up before the house.

"By the back, sire," was the impatient answer. "Through door or window-as best you can. The back must overlook the Corn-Market; that is your way. But hasten-in God's name hasten!-ere they bethink them of it and cut off your retreat."

As he spoke a violent blow shook the door.

"Quick, Your Majesty," he implored, in a frenzy.

Charles moved to depart, then paused. "But you, sir? Do you not come with me?"

Crispin stamped his foot, and turned a face livid with impatience upon his King. In that moment all distinction of rank lay forgotten.

"I must remain," he answered, speaking quickly. "That crazy door will not hold for a second once a stout man sets his shoulder to it. After the door they will find me, and for your sake I trust I may prove of stouter stuff. Fare you well, sire," he ended in a softer tone. "God guard Your Majesty and send you happier days."

And, bending his knee, Crispin brushed the royal hand with his hot lips.

A shower of blows clattered upon the timbers of the door, and one of its panels was splintered by a musket-shot. Charles saw it, and with a muttered word that was not caught by Crispin, he obeyed the knight, and fled.

Scarce had he disappeared down that narrow passage, when the door gave way completely and with a mighty crash fell in. Over the ruins of it sprang a young Puritan-scarce more than a boy-shouting: "The Lord of Hosts!"

But ere he had taken three strides the point of Crispin's tuck-sword gave him pause.

"Halt! You cannot pass this way."

"Back, son of Moab!" was the Roundhead's retort. "Hinder me not, at your peril."

Behind him, in the doorway, pressed others, who cried out to him to cut down the Amalekite that stood between them and the young man Charles Stuart. But Crispin laughed grimly for answer, and kept the officer in check with his point.

"Back, o

r I cut you down," threatened the Roundhead. "I am seeking the malignant Stuart."

"If by those blasphemous words you mean his sacred Majesty, learn that he is where you will never be-in God's keeping."

"Presumptuous hound," stormed the lad, "giveway!"

Their swords met, and for a moment they ground one against the other; then Crispin's blade darted out, swift as a lightning flash, and took his opponent in the throat.

"You would have it so, rash fool," he deprecated.

The boy hurtled back into the arms of those behind, and as he fell he dropped his rapier, which rolled almost to Crispin's feet. The knight stooped, and when again he stood erect, confronting the rebels in that narrow passage, he held a sword in either hand.

There was a momentary pause in the onslaught, then to his dismay Crispin saw the barrel of a musket pointed at him over the shoulder of one of his foremost assailants. He set his teeth for what was to come, and braced himself with the hope that the King might already have made good his escape.

The end was at hand, he thought, and a fitting end, since his last hope of redress was gone-destroyed by that fatal day's defeat.

But of a sudden a cry rang out in a voice wherein rage and anguish were blended fearfully, and simultaneously the musket barrel was dashed aside.

"Take him alive!" was the cry of that voice. "Take him alive!" It was Colonel Pride himself, who having pushed his way forward, now beheld the bleeding body of the youth Crispin had slain. "Take him alive!" roared the old man. Then his voice changing to one of exquisite agony-"My son, my boy," he moaned.

At a glance Crispin caught the situation; but the old Puritan's grief left him unmoved.

"You must have me alive?" he laughed grimly. "Gadslife, but the honour is like to cost you dear. Well, sirs? Who will be next to court the distinction of dying by the sword of a gentleman?" he mocked them. "Come on, you sons of dogs!"

His answer was an angry growl, and straightway two men sprang forward. More than two could not attack him at once by virtue of the narrowness of the passage. Again steel clashed on steel. Crispin-lithe as a panther crouched low, and took one of their swords on each of his.

A disengage and a double he foiled with ease, then by a turn of the wrist he held for a second one opponent's blade; and before the fellow could disengage again, he had brought his right-hand sword across, and stabbed him in the neck. Simultaneously his other opponent had rushed in and thrust. It was a risk Crispin was forced to take, trusting to his armour to protect him. It did him the service he hoped from it; the trooper's sword glanced harmlessly aside, whilst the fellow himself, overbalanced by the fury of his onslaught, staggered helplessly forward. Ere he could recover, Crispin had spitted him from side to side betwixt the straps that held his back and breast together.

As the two men went down, one after the other, the watching troopers set up a shout of rage, and pressed forward in a body. But the Tavern Knight stood his ground, and his points danced dangerously before the eyes of the two foremost. Alarmed, they shouted to those behind to give them room to handle their swords; but too late. Crispin had seen the advantage, and taken it. Twice he had thrust, and another two sank bleeding to the ground.

At that there came a pause, and somewhere in the street a knot of them expostulated with Colonel Pride, and begged to be allowed to pick off that murderous malignant with their pistols. But the grief-stricken father was obdurate. He would have the Amalekite alive that he might cause him to die a hundred deaths in one.

And so two more were sent in to try conclusions with the indomitable Galliard. They went to work more warily. He on the left parried Crispin's stroke, then knocking up the knight's blade, he rushed in and seized his wrist, shouting to those behind to follow up. But even as he did so, Crispin sent back his other antagonist, howling and writhing with the pain of a transfixed sword-arm, and turned his full attention upon the foe that clung to him. Not a second did he waste in thought. To have done so would have been fatal. Instinctively he knew that whilst he shortened his blade, others would rush in; so, turning his wrist, he caught the man a crushing blow full in the face with the pommel of his disengaged sword.

Fulminated by that terrific stroke, the man reeled back into the arms of another who advanced.

Again there fell a pause. Then silently a Roundhead charged Sir Crispin with a pike. He leapt nimbly aside, and the murderous lunge shot past him; as he did so he dropped his left-hand sword and caught at the halberd. Exerting his whole strength in a mighty pull, he brought the fellow that wielded it toppling forward, and received him on his outstretched blade.

Covered with blood-the blood of others-Crispin stood before them now. He was breathing hard and sweating at every pore, but still grim and defiant. His strength, he realized, was ebbing fast. Yet he shook himself, and asked them with a gibing laugh did they not think that they had better shoot him.

The Roundheads paused again. The fight had lasted but a few moments, and already five of them were stretched upon the ground, and a sixth disabled. There was something in the Tavern Knight's attitude and terrific, blood-bespattered appearance that deterred them. From out of his powder-blackened face his eyes flashed fiercely, and a mocking diabolical smile played round the corners of his mouth. What manner of man, they asked themselves, was this who could laugh in such an extremity? Superstition quickened their alarm as they gazed upon his undaunted front, and told themselves this was no man they fought against, but the foul fiend himself.

"Well, sirs," he mocked them presently. "How long am I to await your pleasure?"

They snarled for answer, yet hung back until Colonel Pride's voice shook them into action. In a body they charged him now, so suddenly and violently that he was forced to give way. Cunningly did he ply his sword before them, but ineffectually. They had adopted fresh tactics, and engaging his blade they acted cautiously and defensively, advancing steadily, and compelling him to fall back.

Sir Crispin guessed their scheme at last, and vainly did he try to hold his ground; his retreat slackened perhaps, but it was still a retreat, and their defensive action gave him no opening. Vainly, yet by every trick of fence he was master of, did he seek to lure the two foremost into attacking him; stolidly they pursued the adopted plan, and steadily they impelled him backward.

At last he reached the staircase, and he realized that did he allow himself to go farther he was lost irretrievably. Yet farther was he driven; despite the strenuous efforts he put forth, until on his right there was room for a man to slip on to the stairs and take him in the flank. Twice one of his opponents essayed it, and twice did Galliard's deadly point repel him. But at the third attempt the man got through, another stepped into his place in front, and thus from two, Crispin's immediate assailants became increased to three.

He realized that the end was at hand, and wildly did he lay about him, but to no purpose. And presently, he who had gained the stairs leaped suddenly upon him sideways, and clung to his swordarm. Before he could make a move to shake himself free, the two that faced him had caught at his other arm.

Like one possessed he struggled then, for the sheer lust of striving; but they that held him gripped effectively.

Thrice they bore him struggling to the ground, and thrice he rose again and sought to shake them from him as a bull shakes off a pack of dogs. But they held fast, and again they forced him down; others sprang to their aid, and the Tavern Knight could rise no more.

"Disarm the dog!" cried Pride. "Disarm and truss him hand and foot."

"Sirs, you need not," he answered, gasping. "I yield me. Take my sword. I'll do your bidding."

The fight was fought and lost, but it had been a great Homeric struggle, and he rejoiced almost that upon so worthy a scene of his life was the curtain to fall, and again to hope that, thanks to the stand he had made, the King should have succeeded in effecting his escape.

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