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HOW FIVE MEN HELD THE KEEP OF VILLEFRANCHE
UNDER the guidance of the French squire the party passed down two narrow
corridors. The first was empty, but
at the head of the second stood a peasant sentry, who started off at the sight
of them, yelling loudly to his comrades. "Stop
him, or we are undone!" cried Du Guesclin, and had started to run, when
Aylward's great war-bow twanged like a harp-string, and the man fell forward
upon his face, with twitching limbs and clutching fingers.
Within five paces of where he lay a narrow and little- used door led out
into the bailey. From beyond it
came such a Babel of hooting and screaming, horrible oaths and yet more horrible
laughter, that the stoutest heart might have shrunk from casting down the frail
barrier which faced them.
"Make straight for the keep!" said Du Guesclin, in a sharp,
stern whisper. "The two
archers in front, the lady in the centre, a squire on either side, while we
three knights shall bide behind and beat back those who press upon us.
So! Now open the door, and
God have us in his holy keeping!"
For a few moments it seemed that their object would be attained without
danger, so swift and so silent had been their movements. They were half-way
across the bailey ere the frantic, howling peasants made a movement to stop
them. The few who threw themselves
in their way were overpowered or brushed aside, while the pursuers were beaten
back by the ready weapons of the three cavaliers.
Unscathed they fought their way to the door of the keep, and faced round
upon the swarming mob, while the squire thrust the great key into the lock.
"My God!" he cried, "it is the wrong key."
"The wrong key!"
"Dolt, fool that I am! This
is the key of the castle gate; the other opens the keep.
I must back for it!" He
turned, with some wild intention of retracing his steps, but at the instant a
great jagged rock, hurled by a brawny peasant, struck him full upon the ear, and
he dropped senseless to the ground.
"This is key enough for me!" quoth Hordle John, picking up the
huge stone, and hurling it against the door with all the strength of his
enormous body. The lock shivered,
the wood smashed, the stone flew into five pieces, but the iron clamps still
held the door in its position. Bending
down, he thrust his great fingers under it, and with a heave raised the whole
mass of wood and iron from its hinges. For
a moment it tottered and swayed, and then, falling outward, buried him in its
ruin, while his comrades rushed into the dark archway which led to safety.
"Up the steps, Tiphaine!" cried Du Guesclin.
"Now round, friends, and beat them back!"
The mob of peasants had surged in upon their heels, but the two trustiest
blades in Europe gleamed upon that narrow stair, and four of their number
dropped upon the threshold. The
others gave back, and gathered in a half circle round the open door, gnashing
their teeth and shaking their clenched hands at the defenders.
The body of the French squire had been dragged out by them and hacked to
pieces, Three or four others had pulled John from under the door, when he
suddenly bounded to his feet, and clutching one in either hand dashed them
together with such force that they fell senseless across each other upon the
ground. With a kick and a blow he freed himself from two others who clung to
him, and in a moment he was within the portal with his comrades.
Yet their position was a desperate one.
The peasants from far and near had been assembled for this deed of
vengeance, and not less than six thousand were within or around the walls of the
Chateau of Villefranche. Ill armed
and half starved, they were still desperate men, to whom danger had lost all
fears: for what was death that they should shun it to cling to such a life as
theirs? The castle was theirs, and the roaring flames were spurting
through the windows and flickering high above the turrets on two sides of the
quadrangle. From either side they
were sweeping down from room to room and from bastion to bastion in the
direction of the keep. Faced by an
army, and girt in by fire, were six men and one woman; but some of them were men
so trained to danger and so wise in war that even now the combat was less
unequal than it seemed. Courage and
resource were penned in by desperation and numbers, while the great yellow
sheets of flame threw their lurid glare over the scene of death.
"There is but space for two upon a step to give free play to our
sword-arms," said Du Guesclin. "Do
you stand with me, Nigel, upon the lowest.
France and England will fight together this night.
Sir Otto, I pray you to stand behind us with this young squire.
The archers may go higher yet and shoot over our heads. I would that we
had our harness, Nigel."
"Often have I heard my dear Sir John Chandos say that a knight
should never, even when a guest, be parted from it. Yet it will be more honor to
us if we come well out of it. We have a vantage, since we see them against the
light and they can scarce see us. It seems to me that they muster for an
"If we can but keep them in play," said the Bohemian, "it
is likely that these flames may bring us succor if there be any true men in the
"Bethink you, my fair lord," said Alleyne to Sir Nigel,
"that we have never injured these men, nor have we cause of quarrel against
them. Would it not be well, if but
for the lady's sake, to speak them fair and see if we may not come to honorable
terms with them?"
"Not so, by St. Paul!" cried Sir Nigel.
"It does not accord with mine honor, nor shall it ever be said that
I, a knight of England, was ready to hold parley with men who have slain a fair
lady and a holy priest."
"As well hold parley with a pack of ravening wolves," said the
French captain. "Ha! Notre
Dame Du Guesclin! Saint Ives! Saint
As he thundered forth his war-cry, the Jacks who had been gathering
before the black arch of the gateway rushed in madly in a desperate effort to
carry the staircase. Their leaders
were a small man, dark in the face, with his beard done up in two plaits, and
another larger man, very bowed in the shoulders, with a huge club studded with
sharp nails in his hand. The first
had not taken three steps ere an arrow from Aylward's bow struck him full in the
chest, and he fell coughing and spluttering across the threshold.
The other rushed onwards, and breaking between Du Guesclin and Sir Nigel
he dashed out the brains of the Bohemian with a single blow of his clumsy
weapon. With three swords through him he still struggled on, and had almost won
his way through them ere he fell dead upon the stair.
Close at his heels came a hundred furious peasants, who flung themselves
again and again against the five swords which confronted them.
It was cut and parry and stab as quick as eye could see or hand act.
The door was piled with bodies, and the stone floor was slippery with
blood. The deep shout of Du
Guesclin, the hard, hissing breath of the pressing multitude, the clatter of
steel, the thud of falling bodies, and the screams of the stricken, made up such
a medley as came often in after years to break upon Alleyne's sleep.
Slowly and sullenly at last the throng drew off, with many a fierce
backward glance, while eleven of their number lay huddled in front of the stair
which they had failed to win.
"The dogs have had enough," said Du Guesclin.
"By Saint Paul! there appear to be some very worthy and valiant
persons among them," observed Sir Nigel.
"They are men from whom, had they been of better birth, much honor
and advancement might be gained. Even
as it is, it is a great pleasure to have seen them.
But what is this that they are bringing forward?"
"It is as I feared," growled Du Guesclin.
"They will burn us out, since they cannot win their way past us.
Shoot straight and hard, archers; for, by St. Ives! our good swords are
of little use to us."
As he spoke, a dozen men rushed forward, each screening himself behind a
huge fardel of brushwood. Hurling
their burdens in one vast heap within the portal, they threw burning torches
upon the top of it. The wood had
been soaked in oil, for in an instant it was ablaze, and a long, hissing, yellow
flame licked over the heads of the defenders, and drove them further up to the
first floor of the keep. They had
scarce reached it, however, ere they found that the wooden joists and planks of
the flooring were already on fire. Dry
and worm-eaten, a spark upon them became a smoulder, and a smoulder a blaze.
A choking smoke filled the air, and the five could scarce grope their way
to the staircase which led up to the very summit of the square tower.
Strange was the scene which met their eyes from this eminence. Beneath
them on every side stretched the long sweep of peaceful country, rolling plain,
and tangled wood, all softened and mellowed in the silver moonshine.
No light, nor movement, nor any sign of human aid could be seen, but far
away the hoarse clangor of a heavy bell rose and fell upon the wintry air.
Be- neath and around them blazed the huge fire, roaring find crackling on
every side of the bailey, and even as they looked the two corner turrets fell in
with a deafening crash, and the whole castle was but a shapeless mass, spouting
flames and smoke from every window and embrasure.
The great black tower upon which they stood rose like a last island of
refuge amid this sea of fire but the ominous crackling and roaring below showed
that it would not be long ere it was engulfed also in the common ruin. At their
very feet was the square courtyard, crowded with the howling and dancing
peasants, their fierce faces upturned, their clenched hands waving, all drunk
with bloodshed and with vengeance. A
yell of execration and a scream of hideous laughter burst from the vast throng,
as they saw the faces of the last survivors of their enemies peering down at
them from the height of the keep. They
still piled the brushwood round the base of the tower, and gambolled hand in
hand around the blaze, screaming out the doggerel lines which had long been the
watchword of the Jacquerie:
Cessez, cessez, gens d'armes et pletons, De piller et manger le bonhomme
Qui de longtemps Jacques Bonhomme Se homme.
Their thin, shrill voices rose high above the roar of the flames and the
crash of the masonry, like the yelping of a pack of wolves who see their quarry
before them and know that they have well-nigh run him down.
"By my hilt!" said Aylward to John, "it is in my mind that
we shall not see Spain this journey. It
is a great joy to me that I have placed my feather-bed and other things of price
with that worthy woman at Lyndhurst, who will now have the use of them. I have
thirteen arrows yet, and if one of them fly unfleshed, then, by the twang of
string! I shall deserve my doom.
First at him who flaunts with my lady's silken frock.
Clap in the clout, by God! though a hand's-breadth lower than I had
meant. Now for the rogue with the head upon his pike.
Ha! to the inch, John. When
my eye is true, I am better at rovers than at long-butts or hoyles.
A good shoot for you also, John! The
villain hath fallen forward into the fire.
But I pray you, John, to loose gently, and not to pluck with the
drawing-hand, for it is a trick that hath marred many a fine bowman."
Whilst the two archers were keeping up a brisk fire upon the mob beneath
them, Du Guesclin and his lady were consulting with Sir Nigel upon their
" 'Tis a strange end for one who has seen so many stricken
fields," said the French chieftain. "For
me one death is as another, but it is the thought of my sweet lady which goes to
"Nay, Bertrand, I fear it as little as you," said she.
"Had I my dearest wish, it would be that we should go
"Well answered, fair lady!" cried Sir Nigel.
"And very sure I am that my own sweet wife would have said the same. If the end be now come, I have had great good fortune in
having lived in times when so much glory was to be won, and in knowing so many
valiant gentlemen and knights. But
why do you pluck my sleeve, Alleyne?"
"If it please you, my fair lord, there are in this corner two great
tubes of iron, with many heavy balls, which may perchance be those bombards and
shot of which I have heard."
"By Saint Ives! it is true," cried Sir Bertrand, striding
across to the recess where the ungainly, funnel-shaped, thick-ribbed engines
were standing. "Bombards they
are, and of good size. We may shoot down upon them."
"Shoot with them, quotha?" cried Aylward in high disdain, for
pressing danger is the great leveller of classes.
"How is a man to take aim with these fool's toys, and how can he
hope to do scath with them?"
"I will show you," answered Sir Nigel; "for here is the
great box of powder, and if you will raise it for me, John, I will show you how
it may be used. Come hither, where
the folk are thickest round the fire. Now,
Aylward, crane thy neck and see what would have been deemed an old wife's tale
when we first turned our faces to the wars.
Throw back the lid, John, and drop the box into the fire!"
A deafening roar, a fluff of bluish light, and the great square tower
rocked and trembled from its very foundations, swaying this way and that like a
reed in the wind. Amazed and dizzy, the defenders, clutching at the cracking
parapets for support, saw great stones, burning beams of wood, and mangled
bodies hurtling past them through the air. When they staggered to their feet once more, the whole keep
had settled down upon one side, so that they could scarce keep their footing
upon the sloping platform. Gazing over the edge, they looked down upon the
horrible destruction which had been caused by the explosion. For forty yards
round the portal the ground was black with writhing, screaming figures, who
struggled up and hurled themselves down again, tossing this way and that,
sightless, scorched, with fire bursting from their tattered clothing.
Beyond this circle of death their comrades, bewildered and amazed,
cowered away from this black tower and from these invincible men, who were most
to be dreaded when hope was furthest from their hearts.
"A sally, Du Guesclin, a sally!" cried Sir Nigel.
"By Saint Paul! they are in two minds, and a bold rush may turn
them." He drew his sword as he spoke and darted down the winding stairs,
closely followed by his four comrades. Ere
he was at the first floor, however, he threw up his arms and stopped.
"Mon Dieu!" he said, "we are lost men!"
"What then?" cried those behind him.
"The wail hath fallen in, the stair is blocked, and the fire still
rages below. By Saint Paul!
friends, we have fought a very honorable fight, and may say in all humbleness
that we have done our devoir, but I think that we may now go back to the Lady
Tiphaine and say our orisons, for we have played our parts in this world, and it
is time that we made ready for another."
The narrow pass was blocked by huge stones littered in wild confusion
over each other, with the blue choking smoke reeking up through the crevices.
The explosion had blown in the wall and cut off the only path by which
they could descend. Pent in, a
hundred feet from earth, with a furnace raging under them and a ravening
multitude all round who thirsted for their blood, it seemed indeed as though no
men had ever come through such peril with their lives.
Slowly they made their way back to the summit, but as they came out upon
it the Lady Tiphaine darted forward and caught her husband by the wrist.
"Bertrand," said she, "hush and listen!
I have heard the voices of men all singing together in a strange
Breathless they stood and silent, but no sound came up to them, save the
roar of the flames and the clamor of their enemies.
"It cannot be, lady," said Du Guesclin.
"This night hath over wrought you, and your senses play you false.
What men ere there in this country who would sing in a strange
"Hola!" yelled Aylward, leaping suddenly into the air with
waving hands and joyous face. "I
thought I heard it ere we went down, and now I hear it again.
We are saved, comrades! By these ten finger-bones, we are saved! It is the marching song of the White Company.
With upraised forefinger and slanting head, he stood listening. Suddenly
there came swelling up a deep-voiced, rollicking chorus from somewhere out of
the darkness. Never did choice or
dainty ditty of Provence or Languedoc sound more sweetly in the ears than did
the rough-tongued Saxon to the six who strained their ears from the blazing
We'll drink all together To the gray goose feather And the land where the
gray goose flew.
"Ha, by my hilt!" shouted Aylward, "it is the dear old bow
song of the Company. Here come two
hundred as tight lads as ever twirled a shaft over their thumbnails.
Hark to the dogs, how lustily they sing!"
Nearer and clearer, swelling up out of the night, came the gay marching
What of the bow? The bow was made in England. Of true wood, of yew wood,
The wood of English bows; For men who are free
Love the old yew-tree And the land where the yew tree grows.
What of the men? The men were bred in England, The bowmen, the yeomen,
The lads of the dale and fell, Here's to you and to you, To the hearts that are
true, And the land where the true hearts dwell.
"They sing very joyfully," said Du Guesclin, "as though
they were going to a festival."
"It is their wont when there is work to be done."
"By Saint Paul!" quoth Sir Nigel, "it is in my mind that
they come too late, for I cannot see how we are to come down from this
"There they come, the hearts of gold!" cried Aylward.
"See, they move out from the shadow, Now they cross the meadow.
They are on the further side of the moat.
Hola camarades, hola! Johnston, Eccles, Cooke, Harward, Bligh! Would ye
see a fair lady and two gallant knights done foully to death?"
"Who is there?" shouted a deep voice from below.
"Who is this who speaks with an English tongue?"
"It is I, old lad. It
is Sam Aylward of the Company; and here is your captain, Sir Nigel Loring, and
four others, all laid out to be grilled like an Easterling's herrings."
"Curse me if I did not think that it was the style of speech of old
Samkin Aylward," said the voice, amid a buzz from the ranks. "Wherever
there are knocks going there is Sammy in the heart of it.
But who are these ill-faced rogues who block the path?
To your kennels, canaille! What!
you dare look us in the eyes? Out
swords, lads, and give them the flat of them!
Waste not your shafts upon such runagate knaves."
There was little fight left in the peasants, however, still dazed by the
explosion, amazed at their own losses and disheartened by the arrival of the
disciplined archers. In a very few
minutes they were in full flight for their brushwood homes, leaving the morning
sun to rise upon a blackened and blood-stained ruin, where it had left the night
before the magnificent castle of the Seneschal of Auvergne. Already the white lines in the east were deepening into pink
as the archers gathered round the keep and took counsel how to rescue the
"Had we a rope," said Alleyne, "there is one side which is
not yet on fire, down which we might slip."
"But how to get a rope?"
"It is an old trick," quoth Aylward.
"Hola! Johnston, cast me up a rope, even as you did at Maupertius in
the war time."
The grizzled archer thus addressed took several lengths of rope from his
comrades, and knotting them firmly together, he stretched them out in the long
shadow which the rising sun threw from the frowning keep.
Then he fixed the yew-stave of his bow upon end and measured the long,
thin, black line which it threw upon the turf.
"A six-foot stave throws a twelve-foot shadow," he muttered.
"The keep throws a shadow of sixty paces.
Thirty paces of rope will be enow and to spare.
Another strand, Watkin! Now pull at the end that all may be safe.
So! It is ready for them.'
"But how are they to reach it?" asked the young archer beside
"Watch and see, young fool's-head," growled the old bowman. He
took a long string from his pouch and fastened one end to an arrow.
"All ready, Samkin?"
"Close to your hand then."
With an easy pull he sent the shaft flickering gently up, falling upon
the stonework within a foot of where Aylward was standing.
The other end was secured to the rope, so that in a minute a good strong
cord was dangling from the only sound side of the blazing and shattered tower.
The Lady Tiphaine was lowered with a noose drawn fast under the arms, and the
other five slid swiftly down, amid the cheers and joyous outcry of their
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