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A Tale of A Crusader by Charles E. Waite

 

CHAPTER I.

  He whirls his sword, with unresisted rage,
  When closely prest, the Christian bands engage
  The high, the low, his equal prowess feel,
  The bravest warriors sink beneath his steel.

JERUSALEM DELIVERED.

THERE sat a palmer within the old baronial banqueting hall of Percy Du Bois. The wassail had not yet begun, and there was a pause in the feast. All eyes were bent upon the travel soiled pilgrim,—for he was telling a stirring tale of the martial deeds done in Palestine. The valiant Percy bent forward his anxious visage,—seamed by many a scar, gained in feudal broils and festive brawls,—and ever and anon burst forth, with uncontrollable excitement, into shouts of approval, as some daring achievement was recounted.

His leathern doublet was frayed and stained by the friction of often-tried armor, and in his richly studded belt glistened a diamond handled poniard. Around his massive settle stood servants to do his bidding, while at his side were two or three shaggy hounds, resting their chins upon their master's knee-now soliciting a caress, and now a share of the banquet. Next to the sturdy baron sat the fair Joan, his daughter. Her features were regular, and surpassingly beautiful, and her moist, dark eyes strained upon the palmer, were eloquent of the deep and passionate feelings of her heart. The cut and fashion of her habit were well calculated to exhibit the contour of a bust, and waist that would have triumphed over the strictest criticism of a sculptor or painter-connoisseur. From the multitudinous folds of an ample sleeve peeped forth a little jewelled hand, white as snow, and soft and round as a child's. The chair in which she reclined, was of massive oak, inlaid richly with ivory, and canopied with purple velvet, embroidered with, flowers of gold. Her foot-encased within the smallest shoe in Burgundy, and ornamented with a flashing jewel upon the instep-rested upon a footstool of massive oak, magnificently carved and inlaid.

Together with the baron and his daughter, there sat upon a dais, at the head of the board, several guests of distinction-all listening with intense eagerness to the tales of the exploits of the Crusaders, in battling for the holy sepulchre. Around the walls of the banquet-hall, were suspended the implements and spoils of war or the chase. Crossbows and hunting-spears, helmets and corselets, the tusks of the wild-boar and the antlers of the deer, were displayed in picturesque confusion upon the walls, and within the niches of the apartment.

"O, it was a glorious sight to see!" said the palmer, continuing his narration, while his eyes flashed, and his whole form dilated with enthusiasm. "The gorgeous trappings of the horses glistened in the sunbeams, pennons and banners flashed and fluttered in the wind, and the axes, and morions, and gorgets of polished steel, surging and plunging, as the chargers reared, made the Christian army appear like a billowy sea of silver sheen. Before them stood a host of turbaned Moslems, defending the gates of Jerusalem. The crescents upon their turbans gleamed, and long lines of myriads of scimitars offered a barrier of naked steel against the crusading host, which had come to rescue the Holy Sepulchre. I saw in the van of the Christian array, a knight locked in complete black steel, and enveloped in all the magnificent panoply of war. His charger was coal-black, compact, and of gigantic proportions. The harnessings were of cloth of gold, which swept the ground,—the bridle was sprinkled with stars and jewels,—and pendant from the bridle-rein were fringes of the most precious stones. He rode by the side of the Prince D'Olivar, and he sat in his saddle, as if he were a part of the animal that bore him so gallantly.

"'Advance,' shouted the prince. 'Now to rescue the tomb of the holy Jesus from the impious Saracen!'

"That splendid array moved quickly on, in all the pomp and magnificence of chivalry. Amid the fanfares of trumpets and clarions, the clashing of cymbals, and the shouts of thousands of spectators, they charged. Peal upon peal came the ringing of steel, as sabres crashed down through morion and gorget, or sword crossed with scimitar, in unending clang. Wherever rode the knight of the sable armor, the success of the Christians was signal and complete. His dark plume was seen floating wherever the turbans were thickest, and the conflict hottest. Right into the midst of the Moslem host did his impetuosity bear him, and the heathen throng swaying uncertainly for a moment, finally broke, and dispersed in universal flight, over the field. I saw him fighting single-handed, with a band of Saracens, who had checked their headlong flight to attack him,—and then the clouds of dust took him from my view.

"Just then, from amid the rabble-rout of infidels, there burst a small troop of Moorish horse. Swiftly they flew across the plain, hoping by dint of hoof to reach the city unscathed. Their silken mantles floated in the wind, as they spurred their horses to the top of their speed, and they preserved the finest order in their tumultuous flight. Before they had proceeded above a quarter of a league in their headlong course, a knight in armor left the Christian ranks, and started in pursuit. He was mounted upon a steed of blood and bone, and though the sand of the plain was hot and arid, and unfavorable in every respect for speed, yet his mettled horse bore him gallantly forward, and brought him nearer every instant to the foe. On he flies-at every stride he gains-spurs and harness jingle like the iron upon the smith's forge. The sand rolls up in huge folds behind his horse's heels-the polished steel flashes back the sunlight, as it penetrates the clouds of dust. Nearer and nearer he approaches,—madly plunged the horses of the Moslems as they strove vainly to reach the haven of safety-the walls of the holy city. It is useless. The knight has divined the object of their precipitate flight, as a stifled female shriek is borne to his ears, and nothing can exceed the impetuosity of his pursuit.

"'Turn, cowards! Deliver up to me the maiden!'

"On he thundered;-with a clang his sword leaped from the scabbard, and in an instant came crashing through a Moslem turban, and a Moslem skull-splitting them both in twain. Then the Moors turned. Sword strokes fell thick and fast, and nothing was heard but the clinking of iron, and nothing seen but the flashing of scimitars. Straight into the middle of the troop penetrated the knight, where supported fainting upon a rearing steed, was a beautiful Moslem lady.

"'Zelica, have courage! I come to save you!'

"The infidels tumbled from their horses, as the blows of the knight's good sword fell among them, and several sought safety in flight. Those who remained continued the combat desperately around the sinking maiden, as if determined to sell their captive's deliverance only with their lives. But four were left, and against these, who had drawn up in line, the knight was about to hurl himself, when a Templar, in armor glittering with jewels and gold, came scouring across a the plain, and mingled in the fight. But instead of of helping the hotly pressed knight, he cleft his morion by a dastard stroke from behind, and but for the thickly plated steel, would have thus ended his life upon the spot. The good knight was hurled dizzy from his steed upon the trodden field, and the Templar spurred against the Moors. His charger was fresh, and his blood was up, so he had but little difficulty in slaying the Infidels, and reaching the beautiful captive. Seizing her in his powerful arms, he was about to leave the spot, when 'Conrad,' burst from the maiden's lips, and the knight who had been prostrated by the felon blow, rose from the dust upon his knees, and hurled his gauntlet into the Templar's very face.

"'Stop!' he thundered. 'Release the lady, or fear the vengeance of Heaven!'

"The Templar's visor was up, and as the glove struck him, his face grew black with rage.

"'Conrad D'Amboise!' he shouted, 'your attempts to thwart my purposes are vain. Thus do I take vengeance upon you!' And plunging his spurs into his horse's sides, he would have rode him down. Yes," continued the palmer; his eyes sparkling with fire, and his whole frame quivering with the most intense excitement, "he would have trampled his bones in the dust beneath his horse's hoofs, had not the sable knight burst upon him like a thunderbolt, and checked him in mid career. The dastardly Templar turned to fly, but the sword of the black warrior flashed from its sheath, and with a single vault that dark charger stood directly before him.

"'Stand, and disgrace no longer chivalry!'

"The Templar closed his visor, and drew his blade. Sparks of fire were struck from the clashing metal, and tufts of crests were borne by the wind towards the walls of Jerusalem, as plumes were mutilated by the ringing weapons. I saw that Knight Templar thrice borne to the ground, by the powerful arm in the sable mail, and thrice arise again, like a phenix from its ashes, to renew the deadly struggle. As he recovered his seat the third time, almost spent by his exertions, he threatened to plunge his sword into the heart of his senseless burden, unless the black knight desisted from the combat, and declared his motive for assailing him.

"'To wipe out the foul stain with which thou hast this day sullied the fair escutcheon of chivalry, in riding down a helpless Christian knight, and ravishing a defenceless maiden from the hands that alone have a right to protect her! I will give thee thy life on one condition, craven! Surrender up to me the maiden, and thou art free to depart! But enter not a foot again into the Christian camp. An army renowned as being the mirror of French chivalry cannot honorably harbor a miscreant like thee!'

"The form of the Templar quivered with rage. But his armor was split from helm to gorget—his horse bleeding and staggering with pain and terror, and certain destruction could be his only fate, if he continued the combat.

"'I yield to thy conditions, but when we meet again in fair field, I shall dictate the terms of surrender!'

"The black champion lifted, as if she had been an infant, the charming Zelica from the Templar's saddle-bow, and bore her senseless form to the unhorsed knight. The Templar rode slowly and sullenly away in the direction of the hills of Palestine, and I have never seen him since. It is reported that he has returned to France, and having renounced the oaths of his order, travels in the guise of a simple knight, doing deeds that dishonor chivalry, and render him universally odious. The dark mailed warrior has remained in Palestine for a long period, doing mighty deeds of valor, and sustaining the cause of Christ with his powerful arm; but he left the Holy Land about the time of my departure, and is now on his way home, to share the laurels bestowed upon the valiant defenders of the faith."

The palmer ceased. All eyes were still bent upon him, and all looked sorry that his tale had closed so soon.

"When did you leave the knight of the black armor?" asked the beautiful Joan, crimsoning to the temples as she put the simple question.

"It was above six months since, when I saw him at Constantinople. He was on the eve of departure for France with his retinue."

The fair girl blushed still more brightly, and reclining within the cushions of her splendid chair, remained silent and thoughtful during the remainder of the evening.

CHAPTER II.

While the pilgrim was engaged in his recital, one of the guests at the head of the festal board had listened with peculiar eagerness. He was a knight, tall and finely limbed, and attired with pointed elegance and taste. His pourpoint was barred with gold, and deep fringes of the same precious metal adorned its borders. His face was swarthy from exposure, though classical in contour, and eminently handsome in expression. His lips curled proudly, his nostrils were thin, and in every feature might be traced the unmistakable tokens of pride and sensuality. His seat was by the side of Joan, and he was assiduous in his efforts to please her-performing for her all those knightly devoirs which the gallant age of chivalry required.

The eye of the palmer had more than once, during his narration, been fastened upon this handsome knight, with incomprehensible significance, and particularly as he spoke of the attempt of the Templar to ride over the prostrate champion of Zelica, did his large orbs cast upon the richly attired guest a look of mingled scorn and anger, which, had it been observed by the host or the other guests, would have tasked the skill of the greatest Odipus among them to divine.

"Pass round the flagon! Let the wassail begin!" shouted the jovial Percy Du Bois.

Joan retired to her chamber with her maids, and the revel began. The board groaned with the good cheer, and as the wine flowed more freely, the constant potations of the generous liquor began to have its effect upon the hilarity of the guests. They began to display unusual license, in their songs and conversation. Broad jests went round, and the hall commenced resounding with the shouts of an incipient revel. Seizing a flagon of foaming Burgundy, the knight of the gold embroidered pourpoint quaffed it to the lovely Joan Du Bois. The health was received with a general uproar of approval, and wassail was drunk to many other fair dames, by the rest of the revellers.

"'Destruction and death to the cowardly Templar, who battles against defenceless maids and unhorsed knights!"

As the palmer uttered this, he turned to see if all were emptying their flagons. Every one except the proud knight had quaffed his goblet to the dregs with peculiar satisfaction, and a yell of approbation. His stood untasted upon the board, and his eyes glared fiercely upon the palmer as their gazes met.

"Knew you personally this Knight Templar of whom you speak?" he asked.

"I did," replied the pilgrim, "and I owe him a debt which Heaven will yet afford me the means of repaying!"

The scowl upon the other's brow became more savage and lowering. He moved his position, and placing himself by the palmer's side, uttered in a low tone in his ear:

"Conrad D'Amboise, I know you, in spite of your disguise! Beware how you interfere with me or mine!"

Without waiting for a reply, he strode haughtily from the hall.

The revel was long protracted. At length the effect of the frequent libations began to show itself, and one by one the wassailers dropped unconsciously upon their benches, or staggering left the apartment for their own chambers, until the palmer, who was Conrad D'Amboise in disguise, remained the sole sensible occupant of the banquet hall. He sat silent and thoughtful, by the reeking board, listening to the murmur of the wind, as it sighed among the boughs of the trees in the adjacent forest of Ardennes. His mind was dwelling upon the events of the evening-the fierce demeanor of the knight-his insolent defiance-and his marked penchant for the lovely and sole heiress of the honors of the house of Du Bois. The hall was silent, not a sound broke the solemn stillness. The lamps gave forth a flickering light, and the vapor of the spilled wine poured up from the steaming table, and diffused itself throughout the room. Suddenly the harsh creaking of iron was borne audibly to his cars. The disguised knight was on his feet in an instant. He listened, and the same rough, grating noise was heard again distinctly—apparently issuing from the corridor which led to the outer portal. Conrad divested himself of his palmer's gown, and drawing his sword, opened the door of the banqueting-hall, and stood in the corridor. Cautiously he proceeded, and silently, until on arriving within a few yards of the castle entrance, the cause of the grating sounds which he had heard was apparent to him.

The outer door stood thrown wide open, and the night wind was swinging it back and forth upon its rusty hinges, producing most mournful melody. Surprised at so unusual a circumstance, he approached the portal, and looked out into the courtyard. Before him upon the pavement were a dozen mailed warriors, mounted, armed to the teeth, and motionless as statues. The pale moon shone upon their polished helms and corselets, giving them a most spectre like and supernatural appearance. They stood directly before the arched barbacan, which formed the entrance to the court, and appeared waiting for the warder, to lower the drawbridge over the moat, for their exit. Without expressing any astonishment at the strange scene thus presented to him, Conrad D'Amboise glided from his post, and favored by the shadows of the frowning battlements, gained a postern in an angle of the wall, and stealthily left the court.

Above a quarter of an hour had elapsed after his departure, when the perfidious knight who had confronted him at the banquet, issued from the unclosed portal, bearing in his arms the drooping form of Joan Du Bois. Striding hastily across the pavement, and putting himself at the head of the armed men in the court, he hailed the warder at the gate.

"Ho, there! Lower the drawbridge and give us exit!"

The bolts were drawn, and the chains clanked, as the bridge came rattling down across the gloomy pass.

"On! Spare not the spur!" and suiting the action to the word, the knight drove his spurrowels deep into his horse's flanks. With a single vault the steed cleared the ditch, and as he came down upon his feet, stood front to front with a horseman in armor as black as night. By his side rode Conrad D'Amboise, and in the rear was a small retinue led by a mounted lady.

"Stand! thou stain upon knight-errantry, thou curse of Templars, and receive thy just reward!" shouted the sable knight, while his blade flashed in the moonbeams.

Paralyzed with astonishment, the false Templar slowly drew his weapon, while the followers of both knights drew back to watch the combat. Delivering the senseless Joan Du Bois to a retainer, the Templar knight plunged fiercely down upon his opponent, cutting left and right at his visor and corselet, in his progress. The black warrior parried the murderous strokes with infinite skill, and as his antagonist was employed in drawing his rein to check his steed, dealt him a blow upon the bridle arm, which split his mail and caused his limb to drop useless by his side. Infuriated with pain, and bursting with the conflict of all the savage passions of his nature, the Templar now struck with the ferocity of a madman. Blows were hailed down with most fearful vigor upon the armor of both, and great chips of steel were struck sparkling from the polished mail. Clang! Clang!-now the black champion is about to hurl his sword with awful force against the Templar's shoulder-the false villain's horse becomes unmanageable-he rushes forward towards Conrad D'Amboise, whirling his sword wildly in the air. '

"Zelica!" he shouts, with a horrid yell of astonishment, as he recognized the mounted lady. "Ha! upon one I can at least take vengeance!" And he is about to transfix her with his hacked and broken weapon, when a powerful arm intercepts his progress, and Conrad's good sword drinks his life blood, through a cleft in his gorget.

It is the morning after the just punishment of the Knight Templar, before the gates of the castle of Percy Du Bois. Within a little boudoir which looks out upon the cool shades of the forest of Ardennes, sit four happy beings. They are Joan and the sable knight, and Conrad D'Amboise with Zelica. The fair faces of the maidens glow with blushes of pleasure, and the knights shine in the perfection of manly beauty. The hand of Joan is clasped within the palm of the dark hero-for she is his betrothed-and she gazes into his noble face, with a look of love and trust that would have made St. Anthony forswear his vows.

"Will you renounce crusading henceforth?"

"I must."

"You must?"

"The magic of your eyes is more potent than the cup of Circe or the song of the Syren. It would be useless to attempt to evade it, as it would have been for any mortal but the Ithacan hero to escape the Circean wiles. But trust me, my fair and true Joan, I would never attempt to leave thee, even were it possible."

Joan hid her blushing face in his bosom. She was perfectly happy. She had waited long, and her fidelity had been rewarded.

 
 
 

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