James Branch Cabell.

Chivalry online

. (page 10 of 14)
Online LibraryJames Branch CabellChivalry → online text (page 10 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

men! For I come of an accursed race. And now let some of you lament
that fearful hour wherein Foulques the Querulous held traffic with a
demon and on her begot the first of us Plantagenets! For of ice and of
lust and of hell-fire are all we sprung; old records attest it; and
fickle and cold and ravenous and without fear are all we Plantagenets
until the end. Ay, until the end! O God of Gods!" this Maudelain
cried, with a great voice, "wilt Thou dare bid a man die patiently,
having aforetime filled his veins with such a venom! Nay, I lack the
grace to die as all Thy saints, without one carnal blow struck in my
own defence. I lack the grace, my Father, for even at the last the
devil's blood You gave me is not quelled. I dare atone for that old
sin done by my father in the flesh, but yet I must atone as a

Then it was he and not they who pressed to the attack. Their meeting
was a bloody business, for in that dark and crowded room Maudelain
raged among his nine antagonists as an angered lion among wolves.

They struck at random and cursed shrilly, for they were now half-afraid
of this prey they had entrapped; so that presently he was all hacked
and bleeding, though as yet he had no mortal wound. Four of these men
he had killed by this, and Piers Exton also lay at his feet.

Then the other four drew back a little. "Are ye tired so soon?" said
Maudelain, and he laughed terribly. "What, even you! Why, look ye, my
bold veterans, I never killed before to-day, and I am not breathed as

Thus he boasted, exultant in his strength. But the other men saw that
behind him Piers Exton had crawled into the chair from which (they
thought) King Richard had just risen, and stood erect upon the cushions
of it. They saw this Exton strike the King with his pole-axe, from
behind, and once only, and they knew no more was needed.

"By God!" said one of them in the ensuing stillness, and it was he who
bled the most, "that was a felon's blow."

But the dying man who lay before them made as though to smile. "I
charge you all to witness," he faintly said, "how willingly I render to
Caesar's daughter that which was ever hers."

Then Exton fretted, as with a little trace of shame: "Who would have
thought the rascal had remembered that first wife of his so long?
Caesar's daughter, saith he! and dares _in extremis_ to pervert Holy
Scripture like any Wycliffite! Well, he is as dead as that first
Caesar now, and our gracious King, I think, will sleep the better for
it. And yet - God only knows! for they are an odd race, even as he
said - these Plantagenets."



The Story of the Scabbard

"_Ainsi il avoit trouve sa mie
Si belle qu'on put souhaiter.
N'avoit cure d'ailleurs plaider,
Fors qu'avec lui manoir et estre.
Bien est Amour puissant et maistre._"


The Story of the Scabbard

In the year of grace 1400 (Nicolas begins) King Richard, the second
monarch of that name to rule in England, wrenched his own existence,
and nothing more, from the close wiles of Bolingbroke. The
circumstances have been recorded otherwhere. All persons, saving only
Owain Glyndwyr and Henry of Lancaster, believed King Richard dead at
that period when Richard attended his own funeral, as a proceeding
taking to the fancy, and, among many others, saw the body of Edward
Maudelain interred with every regal ceremony in the chapel at Langley
Bower. Then alone Sire Richard crossed the seas, and at thirty-three
set out to inspect a transformed and gratefully untrammelling world
wherein not a foot of land belonged to him.

Holland was the surname he assumed, the name of his half-brothers; and
to detail his Asian wanderings were both tedious and unprofitable. But
at the end of each four months would come to him a certain messenger
from Glyndwyr, whom Richard supposed to be the devil Bembo, who
notoriously ran every day around the world upon the Welshman's
business. It was in the Isle of Taprobane, where the pismires are as
great as hounds, and mine and store the gold the inhabitants afterward
rob them of through a very cunning device, that this emissary brought
the letter which read simply, "Now is England fit pasture for the White
Hart." Presently was Richard Holland in Wales, and then he rode to

There, after salutation, Glyndwyr gave an account of his long
stewardship. It was a puzzling record of obscure and tireless
machinations with which we have no immediate concern: in brief, the
very barons who had ousted King Log had been the first to find King
Stork intolerable; and Northumberland, Worcester, Douglas, Mortimer,
and so on, were already pledged and in open revolt. "By the God I do
not altogether serve," Owain ended, "you have but to declare yourself,
sire, and within the moment England is yours."

More lately Richard spoke with narrowed eyes. "You forget that while
Henry of Lancaster lives no other man will ever reign out a tranquil
week in these islands. Come then! the hour strikes; and we will coax
the devil for once in a way to serve God."

"Oh, but there is a boundary appointed," Glyndwyr moodily returned.
"You, too, forget that in cold blood this Henry stabbed my best-loved
son. But I do not forget this, and I have tried divers methods which
we need not speak of - I who can at will corrupt the air, and cause
sickness and storms, raise heavy mists, and create plagues and fires
and shipwrecks; yet the life itself I cannot take. For there is a
boundary appointed, sire, and in the end the Master of our Sabbaths
cannot serve us even though he would."

And Richard crossed himself. "You horribly mistake my meaning. Your
practices are your own affair, and in them I decline to dabble. I
design but to trap a tiger with his appropriate bait. For you have a
fief at Caer Idion, I think? - Very well! I intend to herd your sheep
there, for a week or two, after the honorable example of Apollo. It is
your part merely to see that Henry knows I live alone and in disguise
at Caer Idion."

The gaunt Welshman chuckled. "Yes, Bolingbroke would cross the world,
much less the Severn, to make quite sure of Richard's death. He would
come in his own person with at most some twenty followers. I will have
a hundred there; and certain aging scores will then be settled in that
place." Glyndwyr meditated afterward, very evilly. "Sire," he said
without prelude, "I do not recognize Richard of Bordeaux. You have
garnered much in travelling!"

"Why, look you," Richard returned, "I have garnered so much that I do
not greatly care whether this scheme succeed or no. With age I begin
to contend even more indomitably that a wise man will consider nothing
very seriously. You barons here believe it an affair of importance who
may chance to be the King of England, say, this time next year; you
take sides between Henry and myself. I tell you frankly that neither
of us, that no man in the world, by reason of innate limitations, can
ever rule otherwise than abominably, or, ruling, create anything save
discord. Nor can I see how this matters either, since the discomfort
of an ant-village is not, after all, a planet-wrecking disaster. Nay,
if the planets do indeed sing together, it is, depend upon it, to the
burden of _Fools All_. For I am as liberally endowed as most people;
and when I consider my abilities, performances, instincts, and so on,
quite aloofly, as I would those of another person, I can only shrug:
and to conceive that common-sense, much less Omnipotence, would ever
concern itself about the actions of a creature so entirely futile is,
to me at least, impossible."

"I have known the thought," said Owain - "though rarely since I found
the Englishwoman that was afterward my wife, and never since my son, my
Grunyd, was murdered by a jesting man. He was more like me than the
others, people said.... You are as yet the empty scabbard, powerless
alike for help or hurt. Ey, hate or love must be the sword, sire, that
informs us here, and then, if only for a little while, we are as gods."

"Pardie! I have loved as often as Salomon, and in fourteen kingdoms."

"We of Cymry have a saying, sire, that when a man loves par amours the
second time he may safely assume that he has never been in love at all."

"And I hate Henry of Lancaster as I do the devil."

"I greatly fear," said Owain with a sigh, "lest it may be your
irreparable malady to hate nothing, not even that which you dislike."

So then Glyndwyr rode south to besiege and burn the town of Caerdyf,
while at Caer Idion Richard Holland tranquilly abode for some three
weeks. There was in this place only Caradawc (the former shepherd),
his wife Alundyne, and their sole daughter Branwen. They gladly
perceived Sire Richard was no more a peasant than he was a curmudgeon;
as Caradawc observed: "It is perfectly apparent that the robe of Padarn
Beisrudd would fit him as a glove does the hand, but we will ask no
questions, since it is not wholesome to dispute the orderings of Owain

They did not; and later day by day would Richard Holland drive the
flocks to pasture near the Severn, and loll there in the shade, and
make songs to his lute. He grew to love this leisured life of bright
and open spaces; and its long solitudes, grateful with the warm odors
of growing things and with poignant bird-noises, and the tranquillity
of these meadows, that were always void of hurry, bedrugged the man
through many fruitless and incurious hours.

Each day at noon would Branwen bring his dinner, and sometimes chat
with him while he ate. After supper he would discourse to Branwen of
remote kingdoms, wherethrough he had ridden at adventure, as the wind
veers, among sedate and alien peoples who adjudged him a madman; and
she, in turn, would tell him many curious tales from the _Red Book of
Hergest_ - as of Gwalchmai, and Peredur, and Geraint, in each one of
whom she had presently discerned an inadequate forerunnership of
Richard's existence.

This Branwen was a fair wench, slender as a wand, and, in a harmless
way, of a bold demeanor twin to that of a child who is ignorant of evil
and in consequence of suspicion. Happily, though, had she been named
for that unhappy lady of old, the wife of King Matholwch, for this
Branwen, too, had a white, thin, wistful face, like that of an empress
on a silver coin which is a little worn. Her eyes were large and
brilliant, colored like clear emeralds, and her abundant hair was so
much cornfloss, only more brightly yellow and of immeasurably finer
texture. In full sunlight her cheeks were frosted like the surface of
a peach, but the underlying cool pink of them was rather that of a
cloud, Richard decided. In all, a taking morsel! though her shapely
hands were hard with labor, and she rarely laughed; for, as in
recompense, her heart was tender and ignorant of discontent, and she
rarely ceased to smile as over some peculiar and wonderful secret which
she intended, in due time, to share with you alone. Branwen had many
lovers, and preferred among them young Gwyllem ap Llyr, a portly lad,
who was handsome enough, for all his tiny and piggish eyes, and sang

Presently this Gwyllem came to Richard with two quarter-staves.
"Saxon," he said, "you appear a stout man. Take your pick of these,
then, and have at you."

"Such are not the weapons I would have named," Richard answered, "yet
in reason, messire, I may not deny you."

With that they laid aside their coats and fell to exercise. In these
unaccustomed bouts Richard was soundly drubbed, as he had anticipated,
but throughout he found himself the stronger man, and he managed
somehow to avoid an absolute overthrow. By what method he never

"I have forgotten what we are fighting about," he observed, after a
half-hour of this; "or, to be perfectly exact, I never knew. But we
will fight no more in this place. Come and go with me to Welshpool,
Messire Gwyllem, and there we will fight to a conclusion over good sack
and claret."

"Content!" cried Gwyllem; "but only if you yield me Branwen."

"Have we indeed wasted a whole half-hour in squabbling over a woman?"
Richard demanded; "like two children in a worldwide toyshop over any
one particular toy? Then devil take me if I am not heartily ashamed of
my folly! Though, look you, Gwyllem, I would speak naught save
commendation of these delicate and livelily-tinted creatures so long as
one is able to approach them in a proper spirit of levity: it is only
their not infrequent misuse which I would condemn; and in my opinion
the person who elects to build a shrine for any one of them has only
himself to blame if his divinity will ascend no pedestal save the
carcass of his happiness. Yet have many men since time was young been
addicted to the practice, as were Hercules and Merlin to their
illimitable sorrow; and, indeed, the more I reconsider the old
gallantries of Salomon, and of other venerable and sagacious
potentates, the more profoundly am I ashamed of my sex."

Gwyllem said: "That is all very fine. Perhaps it is also reasonable.
Only when you love you do not reason."

"I was endeavoring to prove that," said Richard gently. Then they went
to Welshpool, ride and tie on Gwyllem's horse. Tongue loosened by the
claret, Gwyllem raved aloud of Branwen, like a babbling faun, while to
each rapture Richard affably assented. In his heart he likened the boy
to Dionysos at Naxos, and could find no blame for Ariadne. Moreover,
the room was comfortably dark and cool, for thick vines hung about
either window, rustling and tapping pleasantly, and Richard was content.

"She does not love me?" Gwyllem cried. "It is well enough. I do not
come to her as one merchant to another, since love was never bartered.
Listen, Saxon!" He caught up Richard's lute. The strings shrieked
beneath Gwyllem's fingers as he fashioned his rude song.

Sang Gwyllem:

"_Love me or love me not, it is enough
That I have loved you, seeing my whole life is
Uplifted and made glad by the glory of Love -
My life that was a scroll all marred and blurred
With tavern-catches, which that pity of his
Erased, and writ instead one perfect word,
O Branwen!_

"_I have accorded you incessant praise
And song and service long, O Love, for this,
And always I have dreamed incessantly
Who always dreamed, 'When in oncoming days
This man or that shall love you, and at last
This man or that shall win you, it must be
That loving him you will have pity on me
When happiness engenders memory
And long thoughts, nor unkindly, of the past,
O Branwen!'_

"_I know not! - ah, I know not, who am sure
That I shall always love you while I live!
And being dead, and with no more to give
Of song or service? - Love shall yet endure,
And yet retain his last prerogative,
When I lie still, through many centuries,
And dream of you and the exceeding love
I bore you, and am glad dreaming thereof,
And give God thanks therefor, and so find peace,
O Branwen!_"

"Now, were I to get as tipsy as that," Richard enviously thought,
midway in a return to his stolid sheep, "I would simply go to sleep and
wake up with a headache. And were I to fall as many fathoms deep in
love as this Gwyllem has blundered without any astonishment I would
perform - I wonder, now, what miracle?"

For he was, though vaguely, discontent. This Gwyllem was so young, so
earnest over every trifle, and above all so unvexed by any rational
afterthought; and each desire controlled him as varying winds sport
with a fallen leaf, whose frank submission to superior vagaries the boy
appeared to emulate. Richard saw that in a fashion Gwyllem was superb.
"And heigho!" said Richard, "I am attestedly a greater fool than he,
but I begin to weary of a folly so thin-blooded.".

The next morning came a ragged man, riding upon a mule. He claimed to
be a tinker. He chatted out an hour with Richard, who perfectly
recognized him as Sir Walter Blount; and then this tinker crossed over
into England.

And Richard whistled. "Now will my cousin be quite sure, and now will
my anxious cousin come to speak with Richard of Bordeaux. And now, by
every saint in the calendar! I am as good as King of England."

He sat down beneath a young oak and twisted four or five blades of
grass between his fingers what while he meditated. Undoubtedly he
would kill Henry of Lancaster with a clear conscience and even with a
certain relish, much as one crushes the uglier sort of vermin, but,
hand upon heart, he was unable to protest any particularly ardent
desire for the scoundrel's death. Thus crudely to demolish the knave's
adroit and year-long schemings savored of a tyranny a shade too gross.
The spider was venomous, and his destruction laudable; granted, but in
crushing him you ruined his web, a miracle of patient malevolence,
which, despite yourself, compelled both admiration and envy. True, the
process would recrown a certain Richard, but then, as he recalled it,
being King was rather tedious. Richard was not now quite sure that he
wanted to be King, and in consequence be daily plagued by a host of
vexatious and ever-squabbling barons. "I shall miss the little huzzy,
too," he thought.

"Heigho!" said Richard, "I shall console myself with purchasing all
beautiful things that can be touched and handled. Life is a flimsy
vapor which passes and is not any more: presently is Branwen married to
this Gwyllem and grown fat and old, and I am remarried to Dame Isabel
of France, and am King of England: and a trifle later all four of us
will be dead. Pending this deplorable consummation a wise man will
endeavor to amuse himself."

Next day he despatched Caradawc to Owain Glyndwyr to bid the latter
send the promised implements to Caer Idion. Richard, returning to the
hut the same evening, found Alundyne there, alone, and grovelling at
the threshold. Her forehead was bloodied when she raised it and
through tearless sobs told of the day's happenings. A half-hour since,
while she and Branwen were intent upon their milking, Gwyllem had
ridden up, somewhat the worse for liquor. Branwen had called him sot,
had bidden him go home. "That will I do," said Gwyllem and suddenly
caught up the girl. Alundyne sprang for him, and with clenched fist
Gwyllem struck her twice full in the face, and laughing, rode away with

Richard made no observation. In silence he fetched his horse, and did
not pause to saddle it. Quickly he rode to Gwyllem's house, and broke
in the door. Against the farther wall stood lithe Branwen fighting
silently in a hideous conflict; her breasts and shoulders were naked,
where Gwyllem had torn away her garments. He wheedled, laughed, swore,
and hiccoughed, turn by turn, but she was silent.

"On guard!" Richard barked. Gwyllem wheeled. His head twisted toward
his left shoulder, and one corner of his mouth convulsively snapped
upward, so that his teeth were bared. There was a knife at Richard's
girdle, which he now unsheathed and flung away. He stepped eagerly
toward the snarling Welshman, and with either hand seized the thick and
hairy throat. What followed was brutal.

For many minutes Branwen stood with averted face, shuddering. She very
dimly heard the sound of Gwyllem's impotent great fists as they beat
against the countenance and body of Richard, and the thin splitting
vicious noise of torn cloth as Gwyllem clutched at Richard's tunic and
tore it many times. Richard uttered no articulate word, and Gwyllem
could not. There was entire silence for a heart-beat, and then the
fall of something ponderous and limp.

"Come!" Richard said. Through the hut's twilight, glorious in her eyes
as Michael fresh from that primal battle, Richard came to her, his face
all blood, and lifted her in his arms lest Branwen's skirt be soiled by
the demolished thing which sprawled across their path. She never
spoke. She could not. In his arms she rode presently, passive, and
incuriously content. The horse trod with deliberation. In the east
the young moon was taking heart as the darkness thickened about them,
and innumerable stars awoke.

Richard was horribly afraid. He it had been, in sober verity it had
been Richard of Bordeaux, that some monstrous force had seized, and had
lifted, and had curtly utilized as its handiest implement. He had
been, and in the moment had known himself to be, the thrown spear as
yet in air, about to kill and quite powerless to refrain therefrom. It
was a full three minutes before he got the better of his bewilderment
and laughed, very softly, lest he disturb this Branwen, who was so near
his heart....

Next day she came to him at noon, bearing as always the little basket.
It contained to-day a napkin, some garlic, a ham, and a small soft
cheese; some shalots, salt, nuts, wild apples, lettuce, onions, and
mushrooms. "Behold a feast!" said Richard. He noted then that she
carried also a blue pitcher filled with thin wine and two cups of
oak-bark. She thanked him for last night's performance, and drank a
mouthful of wine to his health.

"Decidedly, I shall be sorry to have done with shepherding," said
Richard as he ate.

Branwen answered, "I too shall be sorry, lord, when the masquerade is
ended." And it seemed to Richard that she sighed, and he was the

But he only shrugged. "I am the wisest person unhanged, since I
comprehend my own folly. And so, I think, was once the minstrel of old
time that sang: 'Over wild lands and tumbling seas flits Love, at will,
and maddens the heart and beguiles the senses of all whom he attacks,
whether his quarry be some monster of the ocean or some wild denizen of
the forest, or man; for thine, O Love, thine alone is the power to make
playthings of us all.'"

"Your bard was wise, no doubt, yet it was not in similar terms that
Gwyllem sang of this passion. Lord," she demanded shyly, "how would
you sing of love?"

Richard was replete and quite contented with the world. He took up the
lute, in full consciousness that his compliance was in large part
cenatory. "In courtesy, thus - "

Sang Richard:

"_The gods in honor of fair Branwen's worth
Bore gifts to her - and Jove, Olympus' lord,
Co-rule of Earth and Heaven did accord,
And Venus gave her slender body's girth,
And Mercury the lyre he framed at birth,
And Mars his jewelled and resistless sword,
And wrinkled Plutus all the secret hoard
And immemorial treasure of mid-earth, - _

"_And while the puzzled gods were pondering
Which of these goodly gifts the goodliest was,
Dan Cupid came among them carolling
And proffered unto her a looking-glass,
Wherein she gazed and saw the goodliest thing
That Earth had borne, and Heaven might not surpass._"

"Three sounds are rarely heard," said Branwen; "and these are the song
of the birds of Rhiannon, an invitation to feast with a miser, and a
speech of wisdom from the mouth of a Saxon. The song you have made of
courtesy is tinsel. Sing now in verity."

Richard laughed, though he was sensibly nettled and perhaps a shade
abashed; and presently he sang again.

Sang Richard:

"_Catullus might have made of words that seek
With rippling sound, in soft recurrent ways,
The perfect song, or in the old dead days
Theocritus have hymned you in glad Greek;
But I am not as they - and dare not speak
Of you unworthily, and dare not praise
Perfection with imperfect roundelays,
And desecrate the prize I dare to seek._

"_I do not woo you, then, by fashioning
Vext similes of you and Guenevere,
And durst not come with agile lips that bring
The sugared periods of a sonneteer,
And bring no more - but just with lips that cling
To yours, and murmur against them, 'I love you, dear!'_"

For Richard had resolved that Branwen should believe him. Tinsel,
indeed! then here was yet more tinsel which she must and should receive
as gold. He was very angry, because his vanity was hurt, and the
pin-prick spurred him to a counterfeit so specious that consciously he
gloried in it. He was superb, and she believed him now; there was no
questioning the fact, he saw it plainly, and with exultant cruelty; and
curt as lightning came the knowledge that she believed the absolute

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10 12 13 14

Online LibraryJames Branch CabellChivalry → online text (page 10 of 14)