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We heard the Tecbir - so these Arabs call
Their shout of onset, when, with loud acclaim,
They challenge Heaven to give them victory.
SIEGE OF DAMASCUS.
On the subsequent morning Richard was invited to a conference by Philip of France, in which the latter, with many expressions of his high esteem for his brother of England, communicated to him in terms extremely courteous, but too explicit to be misunderstood, his positive intention to return to Europe, and to the cares of his kingdom, as entirely despairing of future success in their undertaking, with their diminished forces and civil discords. Richard remonstrated, but in vain; and when the conference ended he received without surprise a manifesto from the Duke of Austria, and several other princes, announcing a resolution similar to that of Philip, and in no modified terms, assigning, for their defection from the cause of the Cross, the inordinate ambition and arbitrary domination of Richard of England. All hopes of continuing the war with any prospect of ultimate success were now abandoned; and Richard, while he shed bitter tears over his disappointed hopes of glory, was little consoled by the recollection that the failure was in some degree to be imputed to the advantages which he had given his enemies by his own hasty and imprudent temper.
"They had not dared to have deserted my father thus," he said to De Vaux, in the bitterness of his resentment. "No slanders they could have uttered against so wise a king would have been believed in Christendom; whereas - fool that I am! - I have not only afforded them a pretext for deserting me, but even a colour for casting all the blame of the rupture upon my unhappy foibles."
These thoughts were so deeply galling to the King, that De Vaux was rejoiced when the arrival of an ambassador from Saladin turned his reflections into a different channel.
This new envoy was an Emir much respected by the Soldan, whose name was Abdallah el Hadgi. He derived his descent from the family of the Prophet, and the race or tribe of Hashem, in witness of which genealogy he wore a green turban of large dimensions. He had also three times performed the journey to Mecca, from which he derived his epithet of El Hadgi, or the Pilgrim. Notwithstanding these various pretensions to sanctity, Abdallah was (for an Arab) a boon companion, who enjoyed a merry tale, and laid aside his gravity so far as to quaff a blithe flagon when secrecy ensured him against scandal. He was likewise a statesman, whose abilities had been used by Saladin in various negotiations with the Christian princes, and particularly with Richard, to whom El Hadgi was personally known and acceptable. Animated by the cheerful acquiescence with which the envoy of Saladin afforded a fair field for the combat, a safe conduct for all who might choose to witness it, and offered his own person as a guarantee of his fidelity, Richard soon forgot his disappointed hopes, and the approaching dissolution of the Christian league, in the interesting discussions preceding a combat in the lists.
The station called the Diamond of the Desert was assigned for the place of conflict, as being nearly at an equal distance betwixt the Christian and Saracen camps. It was agreed that Conrade of Montserrat, the defendant, with his godfathers, the Archduke of Austria and the Grand Master of the Templars, should appear there on the day fixed for the combat, with a hundred armed followers, and no more; that Richard of England and his brother Salisbury, who supported the accusation, should attend with the same number, to protect his champion; and that the Soldan should bring with him a guard of five hundred chosen followers, a band considered as not more than equal to the two hundred Christian lances. Such persons of consideration as either party chose to invite to witness the contest were to wear no other weapons than their swords, and to come without defensive armour. The Soldan undertook the preparation of the lists, and to provide accommodations and refreshments of every kind for all who were to assist at the solemnity; and his letters expressed with much courtesy the pleasure which he anticipated in the prospect of a personal and peaceful meeting with the Melech Ric, and his anxious desire to render his reception as agreeable as possible.
All preliminaries being arranged and communicated to the defendant and his godfathers, Abdullah the Hadgi was admitted to a more private interview, where he heard with delight the strains of Blondel. Having first carefully put his green turban out of sight, and assumed a Greek cap in its stead, he requited the Norman minstrel's music with a drinking song from the Persian, and quaffed a hearty flagon of Cyprus wine, to show that his practice matched his principles. On the next day, grave and sober as the water-drinker Mirglip, he bent his brow to the ground before Saladin's footstool, and rendered to the Soldan an account of his embassy.
On the day before that appointed for the combat Conrade and his friends set off by daybreak to repair to the place assigned, and Richard left the camp at the same hour and for the same purpose; but, as had been agreed upon, he took his journey by a different route - a precaution which had been judged necessary, to prevent the possibility of a quarrel betwixt their armed attendants.
The good King himself was in no humour for quarrelling with any one. Nothing could have added to his pleasurable anticipations of a desperate and bloody combat in the lists, except his being in his own royal person one of the combatants; and he was half in charity again even with Conrade of Montserrat. Lightly armed, richly dressed, and gay as a bridegroom on the eve of his nuptials, Richard caracoled along by the side of Queen Berengaria's litter, Pointing out to her the various scenes through which they passed, and cheering with tale and song the bosom of the inhospitable wilderness. The former route of the Queen's pilgrimage to Engaddi had been on the other side of the chain of mountains, so that the ladies were strangers to the scenery of the desert; and though Berengaria knew her husband's disposition too well not to endeavour to seem interested in what he was pleased either to say or to sing, she could not help indulging some female fears when she found herself in the howling wilderness with so small an escort, which seemed almost like a moving speck on the bosom of the plain, and knew at the same time they were not so distant from the camp of Saladin, but what they might be in a moment surprised and swept off by an overpowering host of his fiery-footed cavalry, should the pagan be faithless enough to embrace an opportunity thus tempting. But when she hinted these suspicions to Richard he repelled them with displeasure and disdain. "It were worse than ingratitude," he said, "to doubt the good faith of the generous Soldan."
Yet the same doubts and fears recurred more than once, not to the timid mind of the Queen alone, but to the firmer and more candid soul of Edith Plantagenet, who had no such confidence in the faith of the Moslem as to render her perfectly at ease when so much in their power; and her surprise had been far less than her terror, if the desert around had suddenly resounded with the shout of ALLAH HU! and a band of Arab cavalry had pounced on them like vultures on their prey. Nor were these suspicions lessened when, as evening approached, they were aware of a single Arab horseman, distinguished by his turban and long lance, hovering on the edge of a small eminence like a hawk poised in the air, and who instantly, on the appearance of the royal retinue, darted off with the speed of the same bird when it shoots down the wind and disappears from the horizon.
"We must be near the station," said King Richard; "and yonder cavalier is one of Saladin's outposts - methinks I hear the noise of the Moorish horns and cymbals. Get you into order, my hearts, and form yourselves around the ladies soldierlike and firmly."
As he spoke, each knight, squire, and archer hastily closed in upon his appointed ground, and they proceeded in the most compact order, which made their numbers appear still smaller. And to say the truth, though there might be no fear, there was anxiety as well as curiosity in the attention with which they listened to the wild bursts of Moorish music, which came ever and anon more distinctly from the quarter in which the Arab horseman had been seen to disappear.
De Vaux spoke in a whisper to the King. "Were it not well, my liege, to send a page to the top of that sand-bank? Or would it stand with your pleasure that I prick forward? Methinks, by all yonder clash and clang, if there be no more than five hundred men beyond the sand-hills, half of the Soldan's retinue must be drummers and cymbal-tossers. Shall I spur on?"
The baron had checked his horse with the bit, and was just about to strike him with the spurs when the King exclaimed, "Not for the world. Such a caution would express suspicion, and could do little to prevent surprise, which, however, I apprehend not."
They advanced accordingly in close and firm order till they surmounted the line of low sand-hills, and came in sight of the appointed station, when a splendid, but at the same time a startling, spectacle awaited them.
The Diamond of the Desert, so lately a solitary fountain, distinguished only amid the waste by solitary groups of palmtrees, was now the centre of an encampment, the embroidered flags and gilded ornaments of which glittered far and wide, and reflected a thousand rich tints against the setting sun. The coverings of the large pavilions were of the gayest colours-scarlet, bright yellow, pale blue, and other gaudy and gleaming hues - and the tops of their pillars, or tent-poles, were decorated with golden pomegranates and small silken flags. But besides these distinguished pavilions, there were what Thomas de Vaux considered as a portentous number of the ordinary black tents of the Arabs, being sufficient, as he conceived, to accommodate, according to the Eastern fashion, a host of five thousand men. A number of Arabs and Kurds, fully corresponding to the extent of the encampment, were hastily assembling, each leading his horse in his hand, and their muster was accompanied by an astonishing clamour of their noisy instruments of martial music, by which, in all ages, the warfare of the Arabs has been animated.
They soon formed a deep and confused mass of dismounted cavalry in front of their encampment, when, at the signal of a shrill cry, which arose high over the clangour of the music, each cavalier sprung to his saddle. A cloud of dust arising at the moment of this manoeuvre hid from Richard and his attendants the camp, the palm-trees, and the distant ridge of mountains, as well as the troops whose sudden movement had raised the cloud, and, ascending high over their heads, formed itself into the fantastic forms of writhed pillars, domes, and minarets. Another shrill yell was heard from the bosom of this cloudy tabernacle. It was the signal for the cavalry to advance, which they did at full gallop, disposing themselves as they came forward so as to come in at once on the front, flanks, and rear of Richard's little bodyguard, who were thus surrounded, and almost choked by the dense clouds of dust enveloping them on each side, through which were seen alternately, and lost, the grim forms and wild faces of the Saracens, brandishing and tossing their lances in every possible direction with the wildest cries and halloos, and frequently only reining up their horses when within a spear's length of the Christians, while those in the rear discharged over the heads of both parties thick volleys of arrows. One of these struck the litter in which the Queen was seated, who loudly screamed, and the red spot was on Richard's brow in an instant.
"Ha! Saint George," he exclaimed, "we must take some order with this infidel scum!"
But Edith, whose litter was near, thrust her head out, and with her hand holding one of the shafts, exclaimed, "Royal Richard, beware what you do! see, these arrows are headless!"
"Noble, sensible wench!" exclaimed Richard; "by Heaven, thou shamest us all by thy readiness of thought and eye. - Be not moved, my English hearts," he exclaimed to his followers; "their arrows have no heads - and their spears, too, lack the steel points. It is but a wild welcome, after their savage fashion, though doubtless they would rejoice to see us daunted or disturbed. Move onward, slow and steady."
The little phalanx moved forward accordingly, accompanied on all sides by the Arabs, with the shrillest and most piercing cries, the bowmen, meanwhile, displaying their agility by shooting as near the crests of the Christians as was possible, without actually hitting them, while the lancers charged each other with such rude blows of their blunt weapons that more than one of them lost his saddle, and well-nigh his life, in this rough sport. All this, though designed to express welcome, had rather a doubtful appearance in the eyes of the Europeans.
As they had advanced nearly half way towards the camp, King Richard and his suite forming, as it were, the nucleus round which this tumultuary body of horsemen howled, whooped, skirmished, and galloped, creating a scene of indescribable confusion, another shrill cry was heard, on which all these irregulars, who were on the front and upon the flanks of the little body of Europeans, wheeled off; and forming themselves into a long and deep column, followed with comparative order and silence in the rear of Richard's troops. The dust began now to dissipate in their front, when there advanced to meet them through that cloudy veil a body of cavalry of a different and more regular description, completely armed with offensive and defensive weapons, and who might well have served as a bodyguard to the proudest of Eastern monarchs. This splendid troop consisted of five hundred men and each horse which it contained was worth an earl's ransom. The riders were Georgian and Circassian slaves in the very prime of life. Their helmets and hauberks were formed of steel rings, so bright that they shone like silver; their vestures were of the gayest colours, and some of cloth of gold or silver; the sashes were twisted with silk and gold, their rich turbans were plumed and jewelled, and their sabres and poniards, of Damascene steel, were adorned with gold and gems on hilt and scabbard.
This splendid array advanced to the sound of military music, and when they met the Christian body they opened their files to the right and left, and let them enter between their ranks. Richard now assumed the foremost place in his troop, aware that Saladin himself was approaching. Nor was it long when, in the centre of his bodyguard, surrounded by his domestic officers and those hideous negroes who guard the Eastern haram, and whose misshapen forms were rendered yet more frightful by the richness of their attire, came the Soldan, with the look and manners of one on whose brow Nature had written, This is a King! In his snow-white turban, vest, and wide Eastern trousers, wearing a sash of scarlet silk, without any other ornament, Saladin might have seemed the plainest-dressed man in his own guard. But closer inspection discerned in his turban that inestimable gem which was called by the poets the Sea of Light; the diamond on which his signet was engraved, and which he wore in a ring, was probably worth all the jewels of the English crown; and a sapphire which terminated the hilt of his cangiar was not of much inferior value. It should be added that, to Protect himself from the dust, which in the vicinity of the Dead Sea resembles the finest ashes, or, perhaps, out of Oriental pride, the Soldan wore a sort of veil attached to his turban, which partly obscured the view of his noble features. He rode a milk-white Arabian, which bore him as if conscious and proud of his noble burden.
There was no need of further introduction. The two heroic monarchs - for such they both were - threw them selves at once from horseback, and the troops halting and the music suddenly ceasing, they advanced to meet each other in profound silence, and after a courteous inclination on either side they embraced as brethren and equals. The pomp and display upon both sides attracted no further notice - no one saw aught save Richard and Saladin, and they too beheld nothing but each other. The looks with which Richard surveyed Saladin were, however, more intently curious than those which the Soldan fixed upon him; and the Soldan also was the first to break silence.
"The Melech Ric is welcome to Saladin as water to this desert. I trust he hath no distrust of this numerous array. Excepting the armed slaves of my household, those who surround you with eyes of wonder and of welcome are - even the humblest of them - the privileged nobles of my thousand tribes; for who that could claim a title to be present would remain at home when such a Prince was to be seen as Richard, with the terrors of whose name, even on the sands of Yemen, the nurse stills her child, and the free Arab subdues his restive steed!"
"And these are all nobles of Araby?" said Richard, looking around on wild forms with their persons covered with haiks, their countenance swart with the sunbeams, their teeth as white as ivory, their black eyes glancing with fierce and preternatural lustre from under the shade of their turbans, and their dress being in general simple even to meanness.
"They claim such rank," said Saladin; "but though numerous, they are within the conditions of the treaty, and bear no arms but the sabre - even the iron of their lances is left behind."
"I fear," muttered De Vaux in English, "they have left them where they can be soon found a most flourishing House of Peers, I confess, and would find Westminster Hall something too narrow for them."
"Hush, De Vaux," said Richard, "I command thee. - Noble Saladin," he said, "suspicion and thou cannot exist on the same ground. Seest thou," pointing to the litters, "I too have brought some champions with me, though armed, perhaps, in breach of agreement; for bright eyes and fair features are weapons which cannot be left behind."
The Soldan, turning to the litters, made an obeisance as lowly as if looking towards Mecca, and kissed the sand in token of respect.
"Nay," said Richard, "they will not fear a closer encounter, brother; wilt thou not ride towards their litters, and the curtains will be presently withdrawn?" "That may Allah prohibit!" said Saladin, "since not an Arab looks on who would not think it shame to the noble ladies to be seen with their faces uncovered."
"Thou shalt see them, then, in private, brother," answered Richard.
"To what purpose?" answered Saladin mournfully. "Thy last letter was, to the hopes which I had entertained, like water to fire; and wherefore should I again light a flame which may indeed consume, but cannot cheer me? But will not my brother pass to the tent which his servant hath prepared for him? My principal black slave hath taken order for the reception of the Princesses, the officers of my household will attend your followers, and ourself will be the chamberlain of the royal Richard."
He led the way accordingly to a splendid pavilion, where was everything that royal luxury could devise. De Vaux, who was in attendance, then removed the chappe (CAPA), or long riding-cloak, which Richard wore, and he stood before Saladin in the close dress which showed to advantage the strength and symmetry of his person, while it bore a strong contrast to the flowing robes which disguised the thin frame. of the Eastern monarch. It was Richard's two-handed sword that chiefly attracted the attention of the Saracen - a broad, straight blade, the seemingly unwieldy length of which extended well-nigh from the shoulder to the heel of the wearer.
"Had I not," said Saladin, "seen this brand flaming in the front of battle, like that of Azrael, I had scarce believed that human arm could wield it. Might I request to see the Melech Ric strike one blow with it in peace, and in pure trial of strength?"
"Willingly, noble Saladin," answered Richard; and looking around for something whereon to exercise his strength, he saw a steel mace held by one of the attendants, the handle being of the same metal, and about an inch and a half in diameter. This he placed on a block of wood.
The anxiety of De Vaux for his master's honour led him to whisper in English, "For the blessed Virgin's sake, beware what you attempt, my liege! Your full strength is not as yet returned - give no triumph to the infidel."
"Peace, fool!" said Richard, standing firm on his ground, and casting a fierce glance around; "thinkest thou that I can fail in HIS presence?"
The glittering broadsword, wielded by both his hands, rose aloft to the King's left shoulder, circled round his head, descended with the sway of some terrific engine, and the bar of iron rolled on the ground in two pieces, as a woodsman would sever a sapling with a hedging-bill.
"By the head of the Prophet, a most wonderful blow!" said the Soldan, critically and accurately examining the iron bar which had been cut asunder; and the blade of the sword was so well tempered as to exhibit not the least token of having suffered by the feat it had performed. He then took the King's hand, and looking on the size and muscular strength which it exhibited, laughed as he placed it beside his own, so lank and thin, so inferior in brawn and sinew.
"Ay, look well," said De Vaux in English, "it will be long ere your long jackanape's fingers do such a feat with your fine gilded reaping-hook there."
"Silence, De Vaux," said Richard;"by Our Lady, he understands or guesses thy meaning - be not so broad, I pray thee."
The Soldan, indeed, presently said, "Something I would fain attempt - though wherefore should the weak show their inferiority in presence of the strong? Yet each land hath its own exercises, and this may be new to the Melech Ric." So saying, he took from the floor a cushion of silk and down, and placed it upright on one end. "Can thy weapon, my brother, sever that cushion?" he said to King Richard.
"No, surely," replied the King; "no sword on earth, were it the Excalibur of King Arthur, can cut that which opposes no steady resistance to the blow."
"Mark, then," said Saladin; and tucking up the sleeve of his gown, showed his arm, thin indeed and spare, but which constant exercise had hardened into a mass consisting of nought but bone, brawn, and sinew. He unsheathed his scimitar, a curved and narrow blade, which glittered not like the swords of the Franks, but was, on the contrary, of a dull blue colour, marked with ten millions of meandering lines, which showed how anxiously the metal had been welded by the armourer. Wielding this weapon, apparently so inefficient when compared to that of Richard, the Soldan stood resting his weight upon his left foot, which was slightly advanced; he balanced himself a little, as if to steady his aim; then stepping at once forward, drew the scimitar across the cushion, applying the edge so dexterously, and with so little apparent effort, that the cushion seemed rather to fall asunder than to be divided by violence.
"It is a juggler's trick," said De Vaux, darting forward and snatching up the portion of the cushion which had been cut off, as if to assure himself of the reality of the feat; "there is gramarye in this."
The Soldan seemed to comprehend him, for he undid the sort of veil which he had hitherto morn, laid it double along the edge of his sabre, extended the weapon edgeways in the air, and drawing it suddenly through the veil, although it hung on the blade entirely loose, severed that also into two parts, which floated to different sides of the tent, equally displaying the extreme temper and sharpness of the weapon, and the exquisite dexterity of him who used it.
"Now, in good faith, my brother," said Richard, "thou art even matchless at the trick of the sword, and right perilous were it to meet thee! Still, however, I put some faith in a downright English blow, and what we cannot do by sleight we eke out by strength. Nevertheless, in truth thou art as expert in inflicting wounds as my sage Hakim in curing them. I trust I shall see the learned leech. I have much to thank; him for, and had brought some small present."
As he spoke, Saladin exchanged his turban for a Tartar cap. He had no sooner done so, than De Vaux opened at once his extended mouth and his large, round eyes, and Richard gazed with scarce less astonishment, while the Soldan spoke in a grave and altered voice: "The sick man, saith the poet, while he is yet infirm, knoweth the physician by his step; but when he is recovered, he knoweth not even his face when he looks upon him."
"A miracle! - a miracle!" exclaimed Richard.
"Of Mahound's working, doubtless," said Thomas de Vaux.
"That I should lose my learned Hakim," said Richard, "merely by absence of his cap and robe, and that I should find him again in my royal brother Saladin!"
"Such is oft the fashion of the world," answered the Soldan; "the tattered robe makes not always the dervise."
"And it was through thy intercession," said Richard, "that yonder Knight of the Leopard was saved from death, and by thy artifice that he revisited my camp in disguise?"
"Even so," replied Saladin. "I was physician enough to know that, unless the wounds of his bleeding honour were stanched, the days of his life must be few. His disguise was more easily penetrated than I had expected from the success of my own."
"An accident," said King Richard (probably alluding to the circumstance of his applying his lips to the wound of the supposed Nubian), "let me first know that his skin was artificially discoloured; and that hint once taken, detection became easy, for his form and person are not to be forgotten. I confidently expect that he will do battle on the morrow."
"He is full in preparation, and high in hope," said the Soldan. "I have furnished him with weapons and horse, thinking nobly of him from what I have seen under various disguises."
"Knows he now," said Richard, "to whom he lies under obligation?"
"He doth," replied the Saracen. "I was obliged to confess my person when I unfolded my purpose."
"And confessed he aught to you?" said the King of England.
"Nothing explicit," replied the Soldan; "but from much that passed between us, I conceive his love is too highly placed to be happy in its issue."
"And thou knowest that his daring and insolent passion crossed thine own wishes?" said Richard.
"I might guess so much," said Saladin; "but his passion had existed ere my wishes had been formed - and, I must now add, is likely to survive them. I cannot, in honour, revenge me for my disappointment on him who had no hand in it. Or, if this highborn dame loved him better than myself, who can say that she did not justice to a knight of her own religion, who is full of nobleness?"
"Yet of too mean lineage to mix with the blood of Plantagenet," said Richard haughtily.
"Such may be your maxims in Frangistan," replied the Soldan. "Our poets of the Eastern countries say that a valiant cameldriver is worthy to kiss the lip of a fair Queen, when a cowardly prince is not worthy to salute the hem of her garment. But with your permission, noble brother, I must take leave of thee for the present, to receive the Duke of Austria and yonder Nazarene knight, much less worthy of hospitality, but who must yet be suitably entreated, not for their sakes, but for mine own honour - for what saith the sage Lokman? 'Say not that the food is lost unto thee which is given to the stranger; for if his body be strengthened and fattened therewithal, not less is thine own worship and good name cherished and augmented.'"
The Saracen Monarch departed from King Richard's tent, and having indicated to him, rather with signs than with speech, where the pavilion of the Queen and her attendants was pitched, he went to receive the Marquis of Montserrat and his attendants, for whom, with less goodwill, but with equal splendour, the magnificent Soldan had provided accommodations. The most ample refreshments, both in the Oriental and after the European fashion, were spread before the royal and princely guests of Saladin, each in their own separate pavilion; and so attentive was the Soldan to the habits and taste of his visitors, that Grecian slaves were stationed to present them with the goblet, which is the abomination of the sect of Mohammed. Ere Richard had finished his meal, the ancient Omrah, who had brought the Soldan's letter to the Christian camp, entered with a plan of the ceremonial to be observed on the succeeding day of combat. Richard, who knew the taste of his old acquaintance, invited him to pledge him in a flagon of wine of Shiraz; but Abdallah gave him to understand, with a rueful aspect, that self-denial in the present circumstances was a matter in which his life was concerned, for that Saladin, tolerant in many respects, both observed and enforced by high penalties the laws of the Prophet.
"Nay, then," said Richard, "if he loves not wine, that lightener of the human heart, his conversion is not to be hoped for, and the prediction of the mad priest of Engaddi goes like chaff down the wind."
The King then addressed himself to settle the articles of combat, which cost a considerable time, as it was necessary on some points to consult with the opposite parties, as well as with the Soldan.
They were at length finally agreed upon, and adjusted by a protocol in French and in Arabian, which was subscribed by Saladin as umpire of the field, and by Richard and Leopold as guarantees for the two combatants. As the Omrah took his final leave of King Richard for the evening, De Vaux entered.
"The good knight," he said, "who is to do battle tomorrow requests to know whether he may not to-night pay duty to his royal godfather!"
"Hast thou seen him, De Vaux?" said the King, smiling; "and didst thou know an ancient acquaintance?"
"By our Lady of Lanercost," answered De Vaux, "there are so many surprises and changes in this land that my poor brain turns. I scarce knew Sir Kenneth of Scotland, till his good hound, that had been for a short while under my care, came and fawned on me; and even then I only knew the tyke by the depth of his chest, the roundness of his foot, and his manner of baying, for the poor gazehound was painted like any Venetian courtesan."
"Thou art better skilled in brutes than men, De Vaux," said the King.
"I will not deny," said De Vaux, "I have found them ofttimes the honester animals. Also, your Grace is pleased to term me sometimes a brute myself; besides that, I serve the Lion, whom all men acknowledge the king of brutes."
"By Saint George, there thou brokest thy lance fairly on my brow," said the King. "I have ever said thou hast a sort of wit, De Vaux; marry, one must strike thee with a sledge-hammer ere it can be made to sparkle. But to the present gear - is the good knight well armed and equipped?"
"Fully, my liege, and nobly," answered De Vaux. "I know the armour well; it is that which the Venetian commissary offered your highness, just ere you became ill, for five hundred byzants."
"And he hath sold it to the infidel Soldan, I warrant me, for a few ducats more, and present payment. These Venetians would sell the Sepulchre itself!"
"The armour will never be borne in a nobler cause," said De Vaux.
"Thanks to the nobleness of the Saracen," said the King, "not to the avarice of the Venetians."
"I would to God your Grace would be more cautious," said the anxious De Vaux. "Here are we deserted by all our allies, for points of offence given to one or another; we cannot hope to prosper upon the land; and we have only to quarrel with the amphibious republic, to lose the means of retreat by sea!"
"I will take care," said Richard impatiently; "but school me no more. Tell me rather, for it is of interest, hath the knight a confessor?"
"He hath," answered De Vaux; "the hermit of Engaddi. who erst did him that office when preparing for death, attends him on the present occasion, the fame of the duel having brought him hither."
"'Tis well," said Richard; "and now for the knight's request. Say to him, Richard will receive him when the discharge of his devoir beside the Diamond of the Desert shall have atoned for his fault beside the Mount of Saint George; and as thou passest through the camp, let the Queen know I will visit her pavilion-and tell Blondel to meet me there."
De Vaux departed, and in about an hour afterwards, Richard, wrapping his mantle around him, and taking his ghittern in his hand, walked in the direction of the Queen's pavilion. Several Arabs passed him, but always with averted heads and looks fixed upon the earth, though he could observe that all gazed earnestly after him when he was past. This led him justly to conjecture that his person was known to them; but that either the Soldan's commands, or their own Oriental politeness, forbade them to seem to notice a sovereign who desired to remain incognito.
When the King reached the pavilion of his Queen he found it guarded by those unhappy officials whom Eastern jealousy places around the zenana. Blondel was walking before the door, and touched his rote from time to time in a manner which made the Africans show their ivory teeth, and bear burden with their strange gestures and shrill, unnatural voices.
"What art thou after with this herd of black cattle, Blondel?" said the King; "wherefore goest thou not into the tent?"
"Because my trade can neither spare the head nor the fingers," said Blondel, "and these honest blackamoors threatened to cut me joint from joint if I pressed forward."
"Well, enter with me," said the King, "and I will be thy safeguard."
The blacks accordingly lowered pikes and swords to King Richard, and bent their eyes on the ground, as if unworthy to look upon him. In the interior of the pavilion they found Thomas de Vaux in attendance on the Queen. While Berengaria welcomed Blondel, King Richard spoke for some time secretly and apart with his fair kinswoman.
At length, "Are we still foes, my fair Edith?" he said, in a whisper.
"No, my liege," said Edith, in a voice just so low as not to interrupt the music; "none can bear enmity against King Richard when he deigns to show himself, as he really is, generous and noble, as well as valiant and honourable."
So saying, she extended her hand to him. The King kissed it in token of reconciliation, and then proceeded.
"You think, my sweet cousin, that my anger in this matter was feigned; but you are deceived. The punishment I inflicted upon this knight was just; for he had betrayed - no matter for how tempting a bribe, fair cousin - the trust committed to him. But I rejoice, perchance as much as you, that to-morrow gives him a chance to win the field, and throw back the stain which for a time clung to him upon the actual thief and traitor. No! - future times may blame Richard for impetuous folly, but they shall say that in rendering judgment he was just when he should and merciful when he could."
"Laud not thyself, cousin King," said Edith. "They may call thy justice cruelty, thy mercy caprice."
"And do not thou pride thyself," said the King, "as if thy knight, who hath not yet buckled on his armour, were unbelting it in triumph - Conrade of Montserrat is held a good lance. What if the Scot should lose the day?"
"It is impossible!" said Edith firmly. "My own eyes saw yonder Conrade tremble and change colour like a base thief; he is guilty, and the trial by combat is an appeal to the justice of God. I myself, in such a cause, would encounter him without fear."
"By the mass, I think thou wouldst, wench," said the King, "and beat him to boot, for there never breathed a truer Plantagenet than thou."
He paused, and added in a very serious tone, "See that thou continue to remember what is due to thy birth."
"What means that advice, so seriously given at this moment?" said Edith. "Am I of such light nature as to forget my name - my condition?"
"I will speak plainly, Edith," answered the King, "and as to a friend. What will this knight be to you, should he come off victor from yonder lists?"
"To me?" said Edith, blushing deep with shame and displeasure. "What can he be to me more than an honoured knight, worthy of such grace as Queen Berengaria might confer on him, had he selected her for his lady, instead of a more unworthy choice? The meanest knight may devote himself to the service of an empress, but the glory of his choice," she said proudly, "must be his reward."
"Yet he hath served and suffered much for you," said the King.
"I have paid his services with honour and applause, and his sufferings with tears," answered Edith. "Had he desired other reward, he would have done wisely to have bestowed his affections within his own degree."
"You would not, then, wear the bloody night-gear for his sake?" said King Richard.
"No more," answered Edith, "than I would have required him to expose his life by an action in which there was more madness than honour."
"Maidens talk ever thus," said the King; "but when the favoured lover presses his suit, she says, with a sigh, her stars had decreed otherwise."
"Your Grace has now, for the second time, threatened me with the influence of my horoscope," Edith replied, with dignity. "Trust me, my liege, whatever be the power of the stars, your poor kinswoman will never wed either infidel or obscure adventurer, Permit me that I listen to the music of Blondel, for the tone of your royal admonitions is scarce so grateful to the ear."
The conclusion of the evening offered nothing worthy of notice.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XXVIII.