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   Chapter 6 COMPANIONS IN MISFORTUNE

The Tavern Knight By Rafael Sabatini Characters: 13714

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


Through the streets of Worcester the Roundheads dragged Sir Crispin, and for all that he was as hard and callous a man as any that ever buckled on a cuirass, the horrors that in going he beheld caused him more than once to shudder.

The place was become a shambles, and the very kennels ran with blood. The Royalist defeat was by now complete, and Cromwell's fanatic butchers overran the town, vying to outdo one another in savage cruelty and murder. Houses were being broken into and plundered, and their inmates-resisting or unresisting; armed or unarmed; men, women and children alike were pitilessly being put to the sword. Charged was the air of Worcester with the din of that fierce massacre. The crashing of shivered timbers, as doors were beaten in, mingled with the clatter and grind of sword on sword, the crack of musket and pistol, the clank of armour, and the stamping of men and horses in that troubled hour.

And above all rang out the fierce, raucous blasphemy of the slayers, and the shrieks of agony, the groans, the prayers, and curses of their victims.

All this Sir Crispin saw and heard, and in the misery of it all, he for the while forgot his own sorry condition, and left unheeded the pike-butt wherewith the Puritan at his heels was urging him along.

They paused at length in a quarter unknown to him before a tolerably large house. Its doors hung wide, and across the threshold, in and out, moved two continuous streams of officers and men.

A while Crispin and his captors stood in the spacious hall; then they ushered him roughly into one of the abutting rooms. Here he was brought face to face with a man of middle height, red and coarse of countenance and large of nose, who stood fully armed in the centre of the chamber. His head was uncovered, and on the table at his side stood the morion he had doffed. He looked up as they entered, and for a few seconds rested his glance sourly upon the lank, bold-eyed prisoner, who coldly returned his stare.

"Whom have we here?" he inquired at length, his scrutiny having told him nothing.

"One whose offence is too heinous to have earned him a soldier's death, my lord," answered Pride.

"Therein you lie, you damned rebel!" cried Crispin. "If accuse you must, announce the truth. Tell Master Cromwell"-for he had guessed the man's identity-"that single-handed I held my own against you and a score of you curs, and that not until I had cut down seven of them was I taken. Tell him that, master psalm-singer, and let him judge whether you lied or not. Tell him, too, that you, who-"

"Have done!" cried Cromwell at length, stamping his foot. "Peace, or I'll have you gagged. Now, Colonel, let us hear your accusation."

At great length, and with endless interlarding of proverbs did Pride relate how this impious malignant had been the means of the young man, Charles Stuart, making good his escape when otherwise he must have fallen into their hands. He accused him also of the murder of his son and of four other stout, God-fearing troopers, and urged Cromwell to let him deal with the malignant as he deserved.

The Lord General's answer took expression in a form that was little puritanical. Then, checking himself:

"He is the second they have brought me within ten minutes charged with the same offence," said he. "The other one is a young fool who gave Charles Stuart his horse at Saint Martin's Gate. But for him again the young man had been taken."

"So he has escaped!" cried Crispin. "Now, God be praised!"

Cromwell stared at him blankly for a moment, then:

"You will do well, sir," he muttered sourly, "to address the Lord on your own behalf. As for that young man of Baal, your master, rejoice not yet in his escape. By the same crowning mercy in which the Lord hath vouchsafed us victory to-day shall He also deliver the malignant youth into my hands. For your share in retarding his capture your life, sir, shall pay forfeit. You shall hang at daybreak together with that other malignant who assisted Charles at the Saint Martin's Gate."

"I shall at least hang in good company," said Crispin pleasantly, "and for that, sir, I give you thanks."

"You will pass the night with that other fool," Cromwell continued, without heeding the interruption, "and I pray that you may spend it in such meditation as shall fit you for your end. Take him away."

"But, my lord," exclaimed Pride, advancing.

"What now?"

Crispin caught not his answer, but his half-whispered words were earnest and pleading. Cromwell shook his head.

"I cannot sanction it. Let it satisfy you that he dies. I condole with you in your bereavement, but it is the fortune of war. Let the thought that your son died in a godly cause be of comfort to you. Bear in mind, Colonel Pride, that Abraham hesitated not to offer up his child to the Lord. And so, fare you well."

Colonel Pride's face worked oddly, and his eyes rested for a second upon the stern, unmoved figure of the Tavern Knight in malice and vindictiveness. Then, shrugging his shoulders in token of unwilling resignation, he withdrew, whilst Crispin was led out.

In the hall again they kept him waiting for some moments, until at length an officer came up, and bidding him follow, led the way to the guardroom. Here they stripped him of his back-and-breast, and when that was done the officer again led the way, and Crispin followed between two troopers. They made him mount three flights of stairs, and hurried him along a passage to a door by which a soldier stood mounting guard. At a word from the officer the sentry turned, and unfastening the heavy bolts, he opened the door. Roughly the officer bade Sir Crispin enter, and stood aside that he might pass.

Crispin obeyed him silently, and crossed the threshold to find himself within a mean, gloomy chamber, and to hear the heavy door closed and made fast again behind him. His stout heart sank a little as he realized that that closed door shut out to him the world for ever; but once again would he cross that threshold, and that would be the preface to the crossing of the greater threshold of eternity.

Then something stirred in one of that room's dark corners, and he started, to see that he was not alone, remembering that Cromwell had said he was to have a companion in his last hours.

"Who are you?" came a dull voice-a voice that was eloquent of misery.

"Master Stewart!" he exclaimed, recognizing his companion. "So it was you gave the King your horse at the Saint Martin's Gate! May Heaven reward you. Gadswounds," he added, "I had little thought to meet you again this side the grave."

"Would to Heaven you had not!" was the doleful answer. "What make you here?"

"By your good leave and with your help I'll make as merry as a man may whose sands are all but run. The Lord General-whom the devil roast

in his time will make a pendulum of me at daybreak, and gives me the night in which to prepare."

The lad came forward into the light, and eyed Sir Crispin sorrowfully.

"We are companions in misfortune, then."

"Were we ever companions in aught else? Come, sir, be of better cheer. Since it is to be our last night in this poor world, let us spend it as pleasantly as may be."

"Pleasantly?"

"Twill clearly be difficult," answered Crispin, with a laugh. "Were we in Christian hands they'd not deny us a black jack over which to relish our last jest, and to warm us against the night air, which must be chill in this garret. But these crop-ears..." He paused to peer into the pitcher on the table. "Water! Pah! A scurvy lot, these psalm-mongers!"

"Merciful Heaven! Have you no thought for your end?"

"Every thought, good youth, every thought, and I would fain prepare me for the morning's dance in a more jovial and hearty fashion than Old Noll will afford me-damn him!"

Kenneth drew back in horror. His old dislike for Crispin was all aroused by this indecent flippancy at such a time. Just then the thought of spending the night in his company almost effaced the horror of the gallows whereof he had been a prey.

Noting the movement, Crispin laughed disdainfully, and walked towards the window. It was a small opening, by which two iron bars, set crosswise, defied escape. Moreover, as Crispin looked out, he realized that a more effective barrier lay in the height of the window itself. The house overlooked the river on that side; it was built upon an embankment some thirty feet high; around this, at the base of the edifice, and some forty feet below the window, ran a narrow pathway protected by an iron railing. But so narrow was it, that had a man sprung from the casement of Crispin's prison, it was odds he would have fallen into the river some seventy feet below. Crispin turned away with a sigh. He had approached the window almost in hope; he quitted it in absolute despair.

"Ah, well," said he, "we will hang, and there's the end of it."

Kenneth had resumed his seat in the corner, and, wrapped in his cloak, he sat steeped in meditation, his comely young face seared with lines of pain. As Crispin looked upon him then, his heart softened and went out to the lad-went out as it had done on the night when first he had beheld him in the courtyard of Perth Castle.

He recalled the details of that meeting; he remembered the sympathy that had drawn him to the boy, and how Kenneth had at first appeared to reciprocate that feeling, until he came to know him for the rakehelly, godless ruffler that he was. He thought of the gulf that gradually had opened up between them. The lad was righteous and God-fearing, truthful and sober, filled with stern ideals by which he sought to shape his life. He had taxed Crispin with his dissoluteness, and Crispin, despising him for a milksop, had returned to his disgust with mockery, and had found a fiendish pleasure in arousing that disgust at every turn.

To-night, as Crispin eyed the youth, and remembered that at dawn he was to die in his company, he realized that he had used him ill, that his behaviour towards him had been that of the dissolute ruffler he was become, rather than of the gentleman he had once accounted himself.

"Kenneth," he said at length, and his voice bore so unusually mild a ring that the lad looked up in surprise. "I have heard tell that it is no uncommon thing for men upon the threshold of eternity to seek to repair some of the evil they may have done in life."

Kenneth shuddered. Crispin's words reminded him again of his approaching end. The ruffler paused a moment, as if awaiting a reply or a word of encouragement. Then, as none came, he continued:

"I am not one of your repentant sinners, Kenneth. I have lived my life-God, what a life!-and as I have lived I shall die, unflinching and unchanged. Dare one to presume that a few hours spent in whining prayers shall atone for years of reckless dissoluteness? 'Tis a doctrine of cravens, who, having lacked in life the strength to live as conscience bade them, lack in death the courage to stand by that life's deeds. I am no such traitor to myself. If my life has been vile my temptations have been sore, and the rest is in God's hands. But in my course I have sinned against many men; many a tall fellow's life have I wantonly wrecked; some, indeed, I have even taken in wantonness or anger. They are not by, nor, were they, could I now make amends. But you at least are here, and what little reparation may lie in asking pardon I can make. When I first saw you at Perth it was my wish to make you my friend-a feeling I have not had these twenty years towards any man. I failed. How else could it have been? The dove may not nest with the carrion bird."

"Say no more, sir," cried Kenneth, genuinely moved, and still more amazed by this curious humility in one whom he had never known other than arrogant and mocking. "I beseech you, say no more. For what trifling wrongs you may have done me I forgive you as freely as I would be forgiven. Is it not written that it shall be so?" And he held out his hand.

"A little more I must say, Kenneth," answered the other, leaving the outstretched hand unheeded. "The feeling that was born in me towards you at Perth Castle is on me again. I seek not to account for it. Perchance it springs from my recognition of the difference betwixt us; perchance I see in you a reflection of what once I was myself-honourable and true. But let that be. The sun is setting over yonder, and you and I will behold it no more. That to me is a small thing. I am weary. Hope is dead; and when that is dead what does it signify that the body die also? Yet in these last hours that we shall spend together I would at least have your esteem. I would have you forget my past harshness and the wrongs that I may have done you down to that miserable affair of your sweetheart's letter, yesterday. I would have you realize that if I am vile, I am but such as a vile world hath made me. And tomorrow when we go forth together, I would have you see in me at least a man in whose company you are not ashamed to die."

Again the lad shuddered.

"Shall I tell you my story, Kenneth? I have a strong desire to go over this poor life of mine again in memory, and by giving my thoughts utterance it may be that they will take more vivid shape. For the rest my tale may wile away a little of the time that's left, and when you have heard me you shall judge me, Kenneth. What say you?"

Despite the parlous condition whereunto the fear of the morrow had reduced him, this new tone of Galliard's so wrought upon him then that he was almost eager in his request that Sir Crispin should unfold his story. And this the Tavern Knight then set himself to do.

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