It was a bright morning in the month of August, when a lad of some fifteenyears of age, sitting on a low wall, watched party after party of armedmen riding up to the castle of the Earl of Evesham. A casual observerglancing at his curling hair and bright open face, as also at the fashionof his dress, would at once have assigned to him a purely Saxon origin;but a keener eye would have detected signs that Norman blood ran also inhis veins, for his figure was lither and lighter, his features morestraightly and shapely cut, than was common among Saxons. His dressconsisted of a tight-fitting jerkin, descending nearly to his knees. Thematerial was a light-blue cloth, while over his shoulder hung a shortcloak of a darker hue. His cap was of Saxon fashion, and he wore on oneside a little plume of a heron. In a somewhat costly belt hung a lightshort sword, while across his knees lay a crossbow, in itself almost asure sign of its bearer being of other than Saxon blood. The boy lookedanxiously as party after party rode past toward the castle.
“I would give something,” he said, “to know what wind blows these knaveshere. From every petty castle in the Earl’s feu the retainers seemhurrying here. Is he bent, I wonder, on settling once and for all hisquarrels with the Baron of Wortham? or can he be intending to make a clearsweep of the woods? Ah! here comes my gossip Hubert; he may tell me themeaning of this gathering.”
Leaping to his feet, the speaker started at a brisk walk to meet ajovial-looking personage coming down from the direction of the castle. Thenewcomer was dressed in the attire of a falconer, and two dogs followed athis heels.
“Ah, Master Cuthbert,” he said, “what brings you so near to the castle? Itis not often that you favor us with your presence.”
“I am happier in the woods, as you well know, and was on my way thitherbut now, when I paused at the sight of all these troopers flocking in toEvesham. What enterprise has Sir Walter on hand now, think you?”
“The earl keeps his own counsel,” said the falconer, “but methinks ashrewd guess might be made at the purport of the gathering. It was butthree days since that his foresters were beaten back by the landless men,whom they caught in the very act of cutting up a fat buck. As thouknowest, my lord though easy and well-disposed to all, and not fond ofharassing and driving the people as are many of his neighbors, is yet tothe full as fanatical anent his forest privileges as the worst of them.They tell me that when the news came in of the poor figure that hisforesters cut with broken bows and draggled plumes — for the varletshad soused them in a pond of not over savory water — he swore a greatoath that he would clear the forest of the bands. It may be, indeed, thatthis gathering is for the purpose of falling in force upon thatevil-disposed and most treacherous baron, Sir John of Wortham, who hasalready begun to harry some of the outlying lands, and has driven off, Ihear, many heads of cattle. It is a quarrel which will have to be foughtout sooner or later, and the sooner the better, say I. Although I am noman of war, and love looking after my falcons or giving food to my dogsfar more than exchanging hard blows, yet would I gladly don the buff andsteel coat to aid in leveling the keep of that robber and tyrant, Sir Johnof Wortham.”
“Thanks, good Hubert,” said the lad. “I must not stand gossiping here. Thenews you have told me, as you know, touches me closely, for I would notthat harm should come to the forest men.”
“Let it not out, I beseech thee, Cuthbert, that the news came from me, fortemperate as Sir Walter is at most times, he would, methinks, give meshort shift did he know that the wagging of my tongue might have givenwarning through which the outlaws of the Chase should slip through hisfingers.”
“Fear not, Hubert; I can be mum when the occasion needs. Can you tell mefurther, when the bands now gathering are likely to set forth?”
“In brief breathing space,” the falconer replied. “Those who first arrivedI left swilling beer, and devouring pies and other provisions cooked forthem last night, and from what I hear, they will set forth as soon as thelast comer has arrived. Whichever be their quarry, they will try to fallupon it before the news of their arrival is bruited abroad.”
With a wave of his hand to the falconer the boy started. Leaving the road,and striking across the slightly undulated country dotted here and thereby groups of trees, the lad ran at a brisk trot, without stopping to haltor breathe, until after half an hour’s run he arrived at the entrance of abuilding, whose aspect proclaimed it to be the abode of a Saxon franklinof some importance. It would not be called a castle, but was rather afortified house, with a few windows looking without, and surrounded by amoat crossed by a drawbridge, and capable of sustaining anything short ofa real attack. Erstwood had but lately passed into Norman hands, and wasindeed at present owned by a Saxon. Sir William de Lance, the father ofthe lad who is now entering its portals, was a friend and follower of theEarl of Evesham; and soon after his lord had married Gweneth, the heiressof all these fair lands — given to him by the will of the king, towhom by the death of her father she became a ward — Sir William hadmarried Editha, the daughter and heiress of the franklin of Erstwood, acousin and dear friend of the new Countess of Evesham.
In neither couple could the marriage at first have been called one ofinclination on the part of the ladies, but love came after marriage.Although the knights and barons of the Norman invasion would, no doubt, beconsidered rude and rough in these days of broadcloth and civilization,yet their manners were gentle and polished by the side of those of therough though kindly Saxon franklins; and although the Saxon maids weredoubtless as patriotic as their fathers and mothers, yet the female mindis greatly led by gentle manners and courteous address. Thus, then, whenbidden or forced to give their hands to the Norman knights, they speedilyaccepted their lot, and for the most part grew contented and happy enough.In their changed circumstances it was pleasanter to ride by the side oftheir Norman husbands, surrounded by a gay cavalcade, to hawk and to hunt,than to discharge the quiet duties of mistress of a Saxon farmhouse. Inmany cases, of course, their lot was rendered wretched by the violence andbrutality of their lords; but in the majority they were well satisfiedwith their lot, and these mixed marriages did more to bring the peoplestogether and weld them in one than all the laws and decrees of the Normansovereigns.
This had certainly been the case with Editha, whose marriage with SirWilliam had been one of the greatest happiness. She had lost him threeyears before the story begins, fighting in Normandy, in one of theinnumerable wars in which our first Norman kings were constantly involved.On entering the gates of Erstwood Cuthbert had rushed hastily to the roomwhere his mother was sitting, with three or four of her maidens, engagedin work.
“I want to speak to you at once, mother,” he said.