Approach the chamber, look upon his bed. His is the passing of no peaceful ghost, Which, as the lark arises to the sky, ′Mid morning′s sweetest breeze and softest dew, Is wing′d to heaven by good men′s sighs and tears!— Anselm parts otherwise. —Old Play
During the interval of quiet which followed the first success of the besiegers, while the one party was preparing to pursue their advantage, and the other to strengthen their means of defence, the Templar and De Bracy held brief council together in the hall of the castle.
“Where is Front-de-Boeuf?” said the latter, who had superintended the defence of the fortress on the other side; “men say he hath been slain.”
“He lives,” said the Templar, coolly, “lives as yet; but had he worn the bull′s head of which he bears the name, and ten plates of iron to fence it withal, he must have gone down before yonder fatal axe. Yet a few hours, and Front-de-Boeuf is with his fathers—a powerful limb lopped off Prince John′s enterprise.”
“And a brave addition to the kingdom of Satan,” said De Bracy; “this comes of reviling saints and angels, and ordering images of holy things and holy men to be flung down on the heads of these rascaille yeomen.”
“Go to—thou art a fool,” said the Templar; “thy superstition is upon a level with Front-de-Boeuf′s want of faith; neither of you can render a reason for your belief or unbelief.”
“Benedicite, Sir Templar,” replied De Bracy, “pray you to keep better rule with your tongue when I am the theme of it. By the Mother of Heaven, I am a better Christian man than thou and thy fellowship; for the ′bruit′ goeth shrewdly out, that the most holy Order of the Temple of Zion nurseth not a few heretics within its bosom, and that Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert is of the number.”
“Care not thou for such reports,” said the Templar; “but let us think of making good the castle.—How fought these villain yeomen on thy side?”
“Like fiends incarnate,” said De Bracy. “They swarmed close up to the walls, headed, as I think, by the knave who won the prize at the archery, for I knew his horn and baldric. And this is old Fitzurse′s boasted policy, encouraging these malapert knaves to rebel against us! Had I not been armed in proof, the villain had marked me down seven times with as little remorse as if I had been a buck in season. He told every rivet on my armour with a cloth-yard shaft, that rapped against my ribs with as little compunction as if my bones had been of iron—But that I wore a shirt of Spanish mail under my plate-coat, I had been fairly sped.”
“But you maintained your post?” said the Templar. “We lost the outwork on our part.”
“That is a shrewd loss,” said De Bracy; “the knaves will find cover there to assault the castle more closely, and may, if not well watched, gain some unguarded corner of a tower, or some forgotten window, and so break in upon us. Our numbers are too few for the defence of every point, and the men complain that they can nowhere show themselves, but they are the mark for as many arrows as a parish-butt on a holyday even. Front-de-Boeuf is dying too, so we shall receive no more aid from his bull′s head and brutal strength. How think you, Sir Brian, were we not better make a virtue of necessity, and compound with the rogues by delivering up our prisoners?”
“How?” exclaimed the Templar; “deliver up our prisoners, and stand an object alike of ridicule and execration, as the doughty warriors who dared by a night-attack to possess themselves of the persons of a party of defenceless travellers, yet could not make good a strong castle against a vagabond troop of outlaws, led by swineherds, jesters, and the very refuse of mankind?—Shame on thy counsel, Maurice de Bracy!—The ruins of this castle shall bury both my body and my shame, ere I consent to such base and dishonourable composition.”
“Let us to the walls, then,” said De Bracy, carelessly; “that man never breathed, be he Turk or Templar, who held life at lighter rate than I do. But I trust there is no dishonour in wishing I had here some two scores of my gallant troop of Free Companions?—Oh, my brave lances! if ye knew but how hard your captain were this day bested, how soon should I see my banner at the head of your clump of spears! And how short while would these rabble villains stand to endure your encounter!”
“Wish for whom thou wilt,” said the Templar, “but let us make what defence we can with the soldiers who remain—They are chiefly Front-de-Boeuf′s followers, hated by the English for a thousand acts of insolence and oppression.”
“The better,” said De Bracy; “the rugged slaves will defend themselves to the last drop of their blood, ere they encounter the revenge of the peasants without. Let us up and be doing, then, Brian de Bois-Guilbert; and, live or die, thou shalt see Maurice de Bracy bear himself this day as a gentleman of blood and lineage.”
“To the walls!” answered the Templar; and they both ascended the battlements to do all that skill could dictate, and manhood accomplish, in defence of the place. They readily agreed that the point of greatest danger was that opposite to the outwork of which the assailants had possessed themselves. The castle, indeed, was divided from that barbican by the moat, and it was impossible that the besiegers could assail the postern-door, with which the outwork corresponded, without surmounting that obstacle; but it was the opinion both of the Templar and De Bracy, that the besiegers, if governed by the same policy their leader had already displayed, would endeavour, by a formidable assault, to draw the chief part of the defenders′ observation to this point, and take measures to avail themselves of every negligence which might take place in the defence elsewhere. To guard against such an evil, their numbers only permitted the knights to place sentinels from space to space along the walls in communication with each other, who might give the alarm whenever danger was threatened. Meanwhile, they agreed that De Bracy should command the defence at the postern, and the Templar should keep with him a score of men or thereabouts as a body of reserve, ready to hasten to any other point which might be suddenly threatened. The loss of the barbican had also this unfortunate effect, that, notwithstanding the superior height of the castle walls, the besieged could not see from them, with the same precision as before, the operations of the enemy; for some straggling underwood approached so near the sallyport of the outwork, that the assailants might introduce into it whatever force they thought proper, not only under cover, but even without the knowledge of the defenders. Utterly uncertain, therefore, upon what point the storm was to burst, De Bracy and his companion were under the necessity of providing against every possible contingency, and their followers, however brave, experienced the anxious dejection of mind incident to men enclosed by enemies, who possessed the power of choosing their time and mode of attack.
Meanwhile, the lord of the beleaguered and endangered castle lay upon a bed of bodily pain and mental agony. He had not the usual resource of bigots in that superstitious period, most of whom were wont to atone for the crimes they were guilty of by liberality to the church, stupefying by this means their terrors by the idea of atonement and forgiveness; and although the refuge which success thus purchased, was no more like to the peace of mind which follows on sincere repentance, than the turbid stupefaction procured by opium resembles healthy and natural slumbers, it was still a state of mind preferable to the agonies of awakened remorse. But among the vices of Front-de-Boeuf, a hard and griping man, avarice was predominant; and he preferred setting church and churchmen at defiance, to purchasing from them pardon and absolution at the price of treasure and of manors. Nor did the Templar, an infidel of another stamp, justly characterise his associate, when he said Front-de-Boeuf could assign no cause for his unbelief and contempt for the established faith; for the Baron would have alleged that the Church sold her wares too dear, that the spiritual freedom which she put up to sale was only to be bought like that of the chief captain of Jerusalem, “with a great sum,” and Front-de-Boeuf preferred denying the virtue of the medicine, to paying the expense of the physician.
But the moment had now arrived when earth and all his treasures were gliding from before his eyes, and when the savage Baron′s heart, though hard as a nether millstone, became appalled as he gazed forward into the waste darkness of futurity. The fever of his body aided the impatience and agony of his mind, and his death-bed exhibited a mixture of the newly awakened feelings of horror, combating with the fixed and inveterate obstinacy of his disposition;—a fearful state of mind, only to be equalled in those tremendous regions, where there are complaints without hope, remorse without repentance, a dreadful sense of present agony, and a presentiment that it cannot cease or be diminished!
“Where be these dog-priests now,” growled the Baron, “who set such price on their ghostly mummery?—where be all those unshod Carmelites, for whom old Front-de-Boeuf founded the convent of St Anne, robbing his heir of many a fair rood of meadow, and many a fat field and close—where be the greedy hounds now?—Swilling, I warrant me, at the ale, or playing their juggling tricks at the bedside of some miserly churl.—Me, the heir of their founder—me, whom their foundation binds them to pray for—me—ungrateful villains as they are!—they suffer to die like the houseless dog on yonder common, unshriven and unhouseled!—Tell the Templar to come hither—he is a priest, and may do something—But no!—as well confess myself to the devil as to Brian de Bois-Guilbert, who recks neither of heaven nor of hell.—I have heard old men talk of prayer—prayer by their own voice—Such need not to court or to bribe the false priest—But I—I dare not!”
“Lives Reginald Front-de-Boeuf,” said a broken and shrill voice close by his bedside, “to say there is that which he dares not!”
The evil conscience and the shaken nerves of Front-de-Boeuf heard, in this strange interruption to his soliloquy, the voice of one of those demons, who, as the superstition of the times believed, beset the beds of dying men to distract their thoughts, and turn them from the meditations which concerned their eternal welfare. He shuddered and drew himself together; but, instantly summoning up his wonted resolution, he exclaimed, “Who is there?—what art thou, that darest to echo my words in a tone like that of the night-raven?—Come before my couch that I may see thee.”
“I am thine evil angel, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf,” replied the voice.
“Let me behold thee then in thy bodily shape, if thou be′st indeed a fiend,” replied the dying knight; “think not that I will blench from thee.—By the eternal dungeon, could I but grapple with these horrors that hover round me, as I have done with mortal dangers, heaven or hell should never say that I shrunk from the conflict!”
“Think on thy sins, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf,” said the almost unearthly voice, “on rebellion, on rapine, on murder!—Who stirred up the licentious John to war against his grey-headed father—against his generous brother?”
“Be thou fiend, priest, or devil,” replied Front-de-Boeuf, “thou liest in thy throat!—Not I stirred John to rebellion—not I alone—there were fifty knights and barons, the flower of the midland counties—better men never laid lance in rest—And must I answer for the fault done by fifty?—False fiend, I defy thee! Depart, and haunt my couch no more—let me die in peace if thou be mortal—if thou be a demon, thy time is not yet come.”
“In peace thou shalt NOT die,” repeated the voice; “even in death shalt thou think on thy murders—on the groans which this castle has echoed—on the blood that is engrained in its floors!”
“Thou canst not shake me by thy petty malice,” answered Front-de-Boeuf, with a ghastly and constrained laugh. “The infidel Jew—it was merit with heaven to deal with him as I did, else wherefore are men canonized who dip their hands in the blood of Saracens?—The Saxon porkers, whom I have slain, they were the foes of my country, and of my lineage, and of my liege lord.—Ho! ho! thou seest there is no crevice in my coat of plate—Art thou fled?—art thou silenced?”
“No, foul parricide!” replied the voice; “think of thy father!—think of his death!—think of his banquet-room flooded with his gore, and that poured forth by the hand of a son!”
“Ha!” answered the Baron, after a long pause, “an thou knowest that, thou art indeed the author of evil, and as omniscient as the monks call thee!—That secret I deemed locked in my own breast, and in that of one besides—the temptress, the partaker of my guilt.—Go, leave me, fiend! and seek the Saxon witch Ulrica, who alone could tell thee what she and I alone witnessed.—Go, I say, to her, who washed the wounds, and straighted the corpse, and gave to the slain man the outward show of one parted in time and in the course of nature—Go to her, she was my temptress, the foul provoker, the more foul rewarder, of the deed—let her, as well as I, taste of the tortures which anticipate hell!”
“She already tastes them,” said Ulrica, stepping before the couch of Front-de-Boeuf; “she hath long drunken of this cup, and its bitterness is now sweetened to see that thou dost partake it.—Grind not thy teeth, Front-de-Boeuf—roll not thine eyes—clench not thine hand, nor shake it at me with that gesture of menace!—The hand which, like that of thy renowned ancestor who gained thy name, could have broken with one stroke the skull of a mountain-bull, is now unnerved and powerless as mine own!”
“Vile murderous hag!” replied Front-de-Boeuf; “detestable screech-owl! it is then thou who art come to exult over the ruins thou hast assisted to lay low?”
“Ay, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf,” answered she, “it is Ulrica!—it is the daughter of the murdered Torquil Wolfganger!—it is the sister of his slaughtered sons!—it is she who demands of thee, and of thy father′s house, father and kindred, name and fame—all that she has lost by the name of Front-de-Boeuf!—Think of my wrongs, Front-de-Boeuf, and answer me if I speak not truth. Thou hast been my evil angel, and I will be thine—I will dog thee till the very instant of dissolution!”
“Detestable fury!” exclaimed Front-de-Boeuf, “that moment shalt thou never witness—Ho! Giles, Clement, and Eustace! Saint Maur, and Stephen! seize this damned witch, and hurl her from the battlements headlong—she has betrayed us to the Saxon!—Ho! Saint Maur! Clement! false-hearted, knaves, where tarry ye?”
“Call on them again, valiant Baron,” said the hag, with a smile of grisly mockery; “summon thy vassals around thee, doom them that loiter to the scourge and the dungeon—But know, mighty chief,” she continued, suddenly changing her tone, “thou shalt have neither answer, nor aid, nor obedience at their hands.—Listen to these horrid sounds,” for the din of the recommenced assault and defence now rung fearfully loud from the battlements of the castle; “in that war-cry is the downfall of thy house—The blood-cemented fabric of Front-de-Boeuf′s power totters to the foundation, and before the foes he most despised!—The Saxon, Reginald!—the scorned Saxon assails thy walls!—Why liest thou here, like a worn-out hind, when the Saxon storms thy place of strength?”
“Gods and fiends!” exclaimed the wounded knight; “O, for one moment′s strength, to drag myself to the ′melee′, and perish as becomes my name!”
“Think not of it, valiant warrior!” replied she; “thou shalt die no soldier′s death, but perish like the fox in his den, when the peasants have set fire to the cover around it.”
“Hateful hag! thou liest!” exclaimed Front-de-Boeuf; “my followers bear them bravely—my walls are strong and high—my comrades in arms fear not a whole host of Saxons, were they headed by Hengist and Horsa!—The war-cry of the Templar and of the Free Companions rises high over the conflict! And by mine honour, when we kindle the blazing beacon, for joy of our defence, it shall consume thee, body and bones; and I shall live to hear thou art gone from earthly fires to those of that hell, which never sent forth an incarnate fiend more utterly diabolical!”
“Hold thy belief,” replied Ulrica, “till the proof reach thee—But, no!” she said, interrupting herself, “thou shalt know, even now, the doom, which all thy power, strength, and courage, is unable to avoid, though it is prepared for thee by this feeble band. Markest thou the smouldering and suffocating vapour which already eddies in sable folds through the chamber?—Didst thou think it was but the darkening of thy bursting eyes—the difficulty of thy cumbered breathing?—No! Front-de-Boeuf, there is another cause—Rememberest thou the magazine of fuel that is stored beneath these apartments?”
“Woman!” he exclaimed with fury, “thou hast not set fire to it?—By heaven, thou hast, and the castle is in flames!”
“They are fast rising at least,” said Ulrica, with frightful composure; “and a signal shall soon wave to warn the besiegers to press hard upon those who would extinguish them.—Farewell, Front-de-Boeuf!—May Mista, Skogula, and Zernebock, gods of the ancient Saxons—fiends, as the priests now call them—supply the place of comforters at your dying bed, which Ulrica now relinquishes!—But know, if it will give thee comfort to know it, that Ulrica is bound to the same dark coast with thyself, the companion of thy punishment as the companion of thy guilt.—And now, parricide, farewell for ever!—May each stone of this vaulted roof find a tongue to echo that title into thine ear!”
So saying, she left the apartment; and Front-de-Boeuf could hear the crash of the ponderous key, as she locked and double-locked the door behind her, thus cutting off the most slender chance of escape. In the extremity of agony he shouted upon his servants and allies—“Stephen and Saint Maur!—Clement and Giles!—I burn here unaided!—To the rescue—to the rescue, brave Bois-Guilbert, valiant De Bracy!—It is Front-de-Boeuf who calls!—It is your master, ye traitor squires!—Your ally—your brother in arms, ye perjured and faithless knights!—all the curses due to traitors upon your recreant heads, do you abandon me to perish thus miserably!—They hear me not—they cannot hear me—my voice is lost in the din of battle.—The smoke rolls thicker and thicker—the fire has caught upon the floor below—O, for one drought of the air of heaven, were it to be purchased by instant annihilation!” And in the mad frenzy of despair, the wretch now shouted with the shouts of the fighters, now muttered curses on himself, on mankind, and on Heaven itself.—“The red fire flashes through the thick smoke!” he exclaimed; “the demon marches against me under the banner of his own element—Foul spirit, avoid!—I go not with thee without my comrades—all, all are thine, that garrison these walls—Thinkest thou Front-de-Boeuf will be singled out to go alone?—No—the infidel Templar—the licentious De Bracy—Ulrica, the foul murdering strumpet—the men who aided my enterprises—the dog Saxons and accursed Jews, who are my prisoners—all, all shall attend me—a goodly fellowship as ever took the downward road—Ha, ha, ha!” and he laughed in his frenzy till the vaulted roof rang again. “Who laughed there?” exclaimed Front-de-Boeuf, in altered mood, for the noise of the conflict did not prevent the echoes of his own mad laughter from returning upon his ear—“who laughed there?—Ulrica, was it thou?—Speak, witch, and I forgive thee—for, only thou or the fiend of hell himself could have laughed at such a moment. Avaunt—avaunt!—-”
But it were impious to trace any farther the picture of the blasphemer and parricide′s deathbed.
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