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HOW THE WHITE COMPANY CAME TO BE DISBANDED.
THEN uprose from the hill in the rugged Calabrian valley a sound such as
had not been heard in those parts before, nor was again, until the streams which
rippled amid the rocks had been frozen by over four hundred winters and thawed
by as many returning springs. Deep
and full and strong it thundered down the ravine, the fierce battle-call of a
warrior race, the last stern welcome to whoso should join with them in that
world-old game where the stake is death. Thrice
it swelled forth and thrice it sank away, echoing and reverberating amidst the
crags. Then, with set faces, the
Company rose up among the storm of stones, and looked down upon the thousands
who sped swiftly up the slope against them.
Horse and spear had been set aside, but on foot, with sword and
battle-axe, their broad shields slung in front of them, the chivalry of Spain
rushed to the attack.
And now arose a struggle so fell, so long, so evenly sustained, that even
now the memory of it is handed down amongst the Calabrian mountaineers and the
ill-omened knoll is still pointed out by fathers to their children as the
"Altura de los Inglesos," where the men from across the sea fought the
great fight with the knights of the south.
The last arrow was quickly shot, nor could the slingers hurl their
stones, so close were friend and foe. From side to side stretched the thin line
of the English, lightly armed and quick-footed, while against it stormed and
raged the pressing throng of fiery Spaniards and of gallant Bretons.
The clink of crossing sword-blades, the dull thudding of heavy blows, the
panting and gasping of weary and wounded men, all rose together in a wild,
long-drawn note, which swelled upwards to the ears of the wondering peasants who
looked down from the edges of the cliffs upon the swaying turmoil of the battle
beneath them. Back and forward reeled the leopard banner, now borne up the slope
by the rush and weight of the onslaught, now pushing downwards again as Sir
Nigel, Burley, and Black Simon with their veteran men-at arms, flung themselves
madly into the fray. Alleyne, at his lord's right hand, found himself swept
hither and thither in the desperate struggle, exchanging savage thrusts one
instant with a Spanish cavalier, and the next torn away by the whirl of men and
dashed up against some new antagonist. To
the right Sir Oliver, Aylward, Hordle John, and the bowmen of the Company fought
furiously against the monkish Knights of Santiago, who were led up the hill by
their prior--a great, deep-chested man, who wore a brown monastic habit over his
suit of mail. Three archers he slew in three giant strokes, but Sir Oliver flung
his arms round him, and the two, staggering and straining, reeled backwards and
fell, locked in each other's grasp, over the edge of the steep cliff which
flanked the hill. In vain his
knights stormed and raved against the thin line which barred their path: the
sword of Aylward and the great axe of John gleamed in the forefront of the
battle and huge jagged pieces of rock, hurled by the strong arms of the bowmen,
crashed and hurtled amid their ranks. Slowly
they gave back down the hill, the archers still hanging upon their skirts, with
a long litter of writhing and twisted figures to mark the course which they had
taken. At the same instant the
Welshmen upon the left, led on by the Scotch earl, had charged out from among
the rocks which sheltered them, and by the fury of their outfall had driven the
Spaniards in front of them in headlong flight down the hill. In the centre only things seemed to be going ill with the
defenders. Black Simon was down--dying, as he would wish to have died, like a
grim old wolf in its lair with a ring of his slain around him. Twice Sir Nigel
had been overborne, and twice Alleyne had fought over him until he had staggered
to his feet once more. Burley lay
senseless, stunned by a blow from a mace, and half of the men-at-arms lay
littered upon the ground around him. Sir
Nigel's shield was broken, his crest shorn, his armor cut and smashed, and the
vizor torn from his helmet; yet he sprang hither and thither with light foot and
ready hand, engaging two Bretons and a Spaniard at the same instant--thrusting,
stooping, dashing in, springing out--while Alleyne still fought by his side,
stemming with a handful of men the fierce tide which surged up against them. Yet
it would have fared ill with them had not the archers from either side closed in
upon the flanks of the attackers, and pressed them very slowly and foot by foot
down the long slope, until they were on the plain once more, where their fellows
were already rallying for a fresh assault.
But terrible indeed was the cost at which the last had been repelled.
Of the three hundred and seventy men who had held the crest, one hundred
and seventy-two were left standing, many of whom were sorely wounded and weak
from loss of blood. Sir Oliver
Buttesthorn, Sir Richard Causten, Sir Simon Burley, Black Simon, Johnston, a
hundred and fifty archers, and forty-seven men-at- arms had fallen, while the
pitiless hail of stones was already whizzing and piping once more about their
ears, threatening every instant to further reduce their numbers.
Sir Nigel looked about him at his shattered ranks, and his face flushed
with a soldier's pride.
"By St. Paul!" he cried, "I have fought in many a little
bickering, but never one that I would be more loth to have missed than this.
But you are wounded, Alleyne?"
"It is nought," answered his squire, stanching the blood which
dripped from a sword-cut across his forehead.
"These gentlemen of Spain seem to be most courteous and worthy
people. I see that they are already
forming to continue this debate with us. Form
up the bowmen two deep instead of four. By
my faith! some very brave men have gone from among us.
Aylward, you are a trusty soldier, for all that your shoulder has never
felt accolade, nor your heels worn the gold spurs.
Do you take charge of the right; I will hold the centre, and you, my Lord
of Angus, the left."
"Ho! for Sir Samkin Aylward!" cried a rough voice among the
archers, and a roar of laughter greeted their new leader.
"By my hilt!" said the old bowman, "I never thought to
lead a wing in a stricken field. Stand
close, camarades, for, by these finger-bones! we must play the man this
"Come hither, Alleyne," said Sir Nigel, walking back to the
edge of the cliff which formed the rear of their position.
"And you, Norbury," he continued, beckoning to the squire of
Sir Oliver, "do you also come here."
The two squires hurried across to him, and the three stood looking down
into the rocky ravine which lay a hundred and fifty feet beneath them.
"The prince must hear of how things are with us," said the
knight. "Another onfall we may
withstand, but they are many and we are few, so that the time must come when we
can no longer form line across the hill. Yet
if help were brought us we might hold the crest until it comes.
See yonder horses which stray among the rocks beneath us?"
"I see them, my fair lord."
"And see yonder path which winds along the hill upon the further end
of the valley?"
"I see it."
"Were you on those horses, and riding up yonder track, steep and
rough as it is, I think that ye might gain the valley beyond. Then on to the
prince, and tell him how we fare."
"But, my fair lord, how can we hope to reach the horses?" asked
"Ye cannot go round to them, for they would be upon ye ere ye could
come to them. Think ye that ye have
heart enough to clamber down this cliff?"
"Had we but a rope."
"There is one here. It
is but one hundred feet long, and for the rest ye must trust to God and to your
fingers. Can you try it,
"With all my heart, my dear lord, but how can I leave you in such a
"Nay, it is to serve me that ye go.
And you, Norbury?"
The silent squire said nothing, but he took up the rope, and, having
examined it, he tied one end firmly round a projecting rock.
Then he cast off his breast-plate, thigh pieces, and greaves, while
Alleyne followed his example.
"Tell Chandos, or Calverley, or Knolles, should the prince have gone
forward," cried Sir Nigel. "Now
may God speed ye, for ye are brave and worthy men."
It was, indeed, a task which might make the heart of the bravest sink
within him. The thin cord dangling
down the face of the brown cliff seemed from above to reach little more than
half-way down it. Beyond stretched the rugged rock, wet and shining, with a
green tuft here and there thrusting out from it, but little sign of ridge or
foothold. Far below the jagged
points of the boulders bristled up, dark and menacing. Norbury tugged thrice with all his strength upon the cord,
and then lowered himself over the edge, while a hundred anxious faces peered
over at him as he slowly clambered downwards to the end of the rope.
Twice he stretched out his foot, and twice he failed to reach the point
at which he aimed, but even as he swung himself for a third effort a stone from
a sling buzzed like a wasp from amid the rocks and struck him full upon the side
of his head. His grasp relaxed, his
feet slipped, and in an instant he was a crushed and mangled corpse upon the
sharp ridges beneath him.
"If I have no better fortune," said Alleyne, leading Sir Nigel
aside. "I pray you, my dear
lord, that you will give my humble service to the Lady Maude, and say to her
that I was ever her true servant and most unworthy cavalier."
The old knight said no word, but he put a hand on either shoulder, and
kissed his squire, with the tears shining in his eyes.
Alleyne sprang to the rope, and sliding swiftly down, soon found himself
at its extremity. From above it
seemed as though rope and cliff were well-nigh touching, but now, when swinging
a hundred feet down, the squire found that he could scarce reach the face of the
rock with his foot, and that it was as smooth as glass, with no resting-place
where a mouse could stand. Some
three feet lower, however, his eye lit upon a long jagged crack which slanted
downwards, and this he must reach if he would save not only his own poor life,
but that of the eight-score men above him.
Yet it were madness to spring for that narrow slit with nought but the
wet, smooth rock to cling to. He swung for a moment, full of thought, and even
as he hung there another of the hellish stones sang through his curls, and
struck a chip from the face of the cliff. Up
he clambered a few feet, drew up the loose end after him, unslung his belt, held
on with knee and with elbow while he spliced the long, tough leathern belt to
the end of the cord: then lowering himself as far as he could go, he swung
backwards and forwards until his hand reached the crack, when he left the rope
and clung to the face of the cliff. Another
stone struck him on the side, and he heard a sound like a breaking stick, with a
keen stabbing pain which shot through his chest. Yet it was no time now to think
of pain or ache. There was his lord
and his eight-score comrades, and they must be plucked from the jaws of death.
On he clambered, with his hand shuffling down the long sloping crack,
sometimes bearing all his weight upon his arms, at others finding some small
shelf or tuft on which to rest his foot. Would
he never pass over that fifty feet? He dared not look down and could but grope
slowly onwards, his face to the cliff, his fingers clutching, his feet scraping
and feeling for a support. Every vein and crack and mottling of that face of
rock remained forever stamped upon his memory.
At last, however, his foot came upon a broad resting-place and he
ventured to cast a glance downwards. Thank
God! he had reached the highest of those fatal pinnacles upon which his comrade
had fallen. Quickly now he sprang from rock to rock until his feet were on the
ground, and he had his hand stretched out for the horse's rein, when a
sling-stone struck him on the head, and he dropped senseless upon the ground.
An evil blow it was for Alleyne, but a worse one still for him who struck
it. The Spanish slinger, seeing the
youth lie slain, and judging from his dress that he was no common man, rushed
forward to plunder him, knowing well that the bowmen above him had expended
their last shaft. He was still
three paces, however, from his victim's side when John upon the cliff above
plucked up a huge boulder, and, poising it for an instant, dropped it with fatal
aim upon the slinger beneath him. It
struck upon his shoulder, and hurled him, crushed and screaming, to the ground,
while Alleyne, recalled to his senses by these shrill cries in his very ear,
staggered on to his feet, and gazed wildly about him.
His eyes fell upon the horses, grazing upon the scanty pasture, and in an
instant all had come back to him-- his mission, his comrades, the need for
haste. He was dizzy, sick, faint, but he must not die, and he must
not tarry, for his life meant many lives that day.
In an instant he was in his saddle and spurring down the valley.
Loud rang the swift charger's hoofs over rock and reef, while the fire
flew from the stroke of iron, and the loose stones showered up behind him. But
his head was whirling round, the blood was gushing from his brow, his temple,
his mouth. Ever keener and sharper
was the deadly pain which shot like a red-hot arrow through his side. He felt
that his eye was glazing, his senses slipping from him, his grasp upon the reins
relaxing. Then with one mighty
effort, he called up all his strength for a single minute.
Stooping down, he loosened the stirrup-straps, bound his knees tightly to
his saddle-flaps, twisted his hands in the bridle, and then, putting the gallant
horse's head for the mountain path, he dashed the spurs in and fell forward
fainting with his face buried in the coarse, black mane.
Little could he ever remember of that wild ride.
Half conscious, but ever with the one thought beating in his mind, he
goaded the horse onwards, rushing swiftly down steep ravines over huge boulders,
along the edges of black abysbes. Dim
memories he had of beetling cliffs, of a group of huts with wondering faces at
the doors, of foaming, clattering water, and of a bristle of mountain beeches.
Once, ere he had ridden far, he heard behind him three deep, sullen
shouts, which told him that his comrades had set their faces to the foe once
more. Then all was blank, until he
woke to find kindly blue English eyes peering down upon him and to hear the
blessed sound of his country's speech. They
were but a foraging party--a hundred archers and as many men at- arms-but their
leader was Sir Hugh Calverley, and he was not a man to bide idle when good blows
were to be had not three leagues from him. A scout was sent flying with a message to the camp, and Sir
Hugh, with his two hundred men, thundered off to the rescue.
With them went Alleyne, still bound to his saddle, still dripping with
blood, and swooning and recovering, and swooning once again.
On they rode, and on, until, at last, topping a ridge, they looked down
upon the fateful valley. Alas! and
alas! for the sight that met their eyes.
There, beneath them, was the blood-bathed hill, and from the highest
pinnacle there flaunted the yellow and white banner with the lions and the
towers of the royal house of Castile. Up
the long slope rushed ranks and ranks of men exultant, shouting, with waving
pennons and brandished arms. Over
the whole summit were dense throngs of knights, with no enemy that could be seen
to face them, save only that at one corner of the plateau an eddy and swirl amid
the crowded mass seemed to show that all resistance was not yet at an end.
At the sight a deep groan of rage and of despair went up from the baffled
rescuers, and, spurring on their horses, they clattered down the long and
winding path which led to the valley beneath.
But they were too late to avenge, as they had been too late to save.
Long ere they could gain the level ground, the Spaniards, seeing them
riding swiftly amid the rocks, and being ignorant of their numbers, drew off
from the captured hill, and, having secured their few prisoners, rode slowly in
a long column, with drum-beating and cymbal-clashing, out of the valley.
Their rear ranks were already passing out of sight ere the new-comers
were urging their panting, foaming horses up the slope which had been the scene
of that long drawn and bloody fight.
And a fearsome sight it was that met their eyes!
Across the lower end lay the dense heap of men and horses where the first
arrow-storm had burst. Above, the
bodies of the dead and the dying--French, Spanish, and Aragonese--lay thick and
thicker, until they covered the whole ground two and three deep in one dreadful
tangle of slaughter. Above them lay
the Englishmen in their lines, even as they had stood, and higher yet upon the
plateau a wild medley of the dead of all nations, where the last deadly grapple
had left them. In the further
corner, under the shadow of a great rock, there crouched seven bowmen, with
great John in the centre of them--all wounded, weary, and in sorry case, but
still unconquered, with their blood-stained weapons waving and their voices
ringing a welcome to their countrymen. Alleyne rode across to John, while Sir
Hugh Calverley followed close behind him.
"By Saint George!" cried Sir Hugh, "I have never seen
signs of so stern a fight, and I am right glad that we have been in time to save
"You have saved more than us," said John, pointing to the
banner which leaned against the rock behind him.
"You have done nobly," cried the old free companion, gazing
with a soldier's admiration at the huge frame and bold face of the archer.
"But why is it, my good fellow, that you sit upon this man."
"By the rood! I had forgot him," John answered, rising and dragging
from under him no less a person than the Spanish caballero, Don Diego Alvarez.
"This man, my fair lord, means to me a new house, ten cows, one
bull--if it be but a little one--a grindstone, and I know not what besides; so
that I thought it well to sit upon him, lest he should take a fancy to leave
"Tell me, John," cried Alleyne faintly: "where is my dear
lord, Sir Nigel Loring?"
"He is dead, I fear. I
saw them throw his body across a horse and ride away with it, but I fear the
life had gone from him."
"Now woe worth me! And
where is Aylward?"
"He sprang upon a riderless horse and rode after Sir Nigel to save
him. I saw them throng around him,
and he is either taken or slain."
"Blow the bugles!" cried Sir Hugh, with a scowling brow.
"We must back to camp, and ere three days I trust that we may see these
Spaniards again. I would fain have
ye all in my company."
"We are of the White Company, my fair lord," said John.
"Nay, the White Company is here disbanded," answered Sir Hugh
solemnly, looking round him at the lines of silent figures, "Look to the
brave squire, for I fear that he will never see the sun rise again."
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