The French, excited to the utmost by the exhortations of their commanders, and by their desire to wipe out the disgrace of the easy capture of Vannes by the English, advanced with ardour to the assault, and officers and men vied with each other in the valour which they displayed. In vain did the garrison shower arrows and cross-bow bolts among them, and pour down burning oil and quicklime upon them as they thronged at the foot of the wall. In vain were the ladders, time after time, hurled back loaded with men upon the mass below. The efforts of the men-at-arms to scale the defences were seconded by their archers and crossbow-men, who shot such a storm of bolts that great numbers of the defenders were killed. The assault was made at a score of different points, and the garrison was too weak to defend all with success. Sir John Powis and his party repulsed over and over again the efforts of the assailants against that part of the wall entrusted to them, but at other points the French gained a footing, and swarming up rushed along the walls, slaying all whom they encountered.
"All is lost," Sir John exclaimed; "let us fall back to the castle and die fighting there."
Descending from the wall the party made their way through the streets. The French were already in the town; every house was closed and barred, and from the upper windows the burghers hurled down stones and bricks upon the fugitives, while parties of the French soldiers fell upon them fiercely. Many threw down their arms and cried for quarter, but were instantly slain.
For a while the streets were a scene of wild confusion; here and there little knots of Englishmen stood together and defended themselves until the last, others ran through the streets chased by their exulting foes, some tried in vain to gain shelter in the houses. Sir John Powis's band was soon broken and scattered, and their leader slain by a heavy stone from a housetop. Walter fought his way blindly forward towards the castle although he well knew that no refuge would be found there. Ralph Smith kept close beside him, levelling many of his assailants with the tremendous blows of a huge mace. Somehow, Walter hardly knew how, they made their way through their assailants and dashed in at the castle gate. A crowd of their assailants were close upon their heels. Walter glanced round; dashing across the courtyard he ran through some passages into an inner yard, in which, as he knew, was the well. The bucket hung at the windlass.
"Catch hold, Ralph!" he exclaimed; "there is just a chance, and we may as well be drowned as killed." They grasped the rope and jumped off. The bucket began to descend with frightful velocity. Faster and faster it went and yet it seemed a long time before they plunged into the water, which was nigh a hundred feet below the surface. Fortunately the rope was considerably longer than was necessary, and they sank many feet into the water, still retaining their hold. Then clinging to the rope they hauled themselves to the surface.
"We cannot hold on here five minutes," Ralph exclaimed, "my armour is dragging me down."
"We will soon get rid of that," Walter said.
"There go our helmets; now I will hold on with one hand and help you to unbuckle your breast and back pieces; you do the same for me."
With great efforts they managed to rid themselves of their armour, and then held on with ease to the rope. They hauled the bucket to the surface and tied a knot in the slack of the rope, so that the bucket hung four feet below the level of the water. Putting their feet in this, they were able to stand with their heads above the surface without difficulty.
"This is a nice fix," Ralph exclaimed. "I think it would have been just as well to have been killed at once. They are sure to find us here, and if they don't we shall die of cold before tomorrow morning."
"I don't think they will find us," Walter said cheerfully. "When they have searched the castle thoroughly it may occur to some of them that we have jumped down the well, but it will be no particular business of anyone to look for us, and they will all be too anxious to get at the wine butts to trouble their heads about the matter; besides, it must be a heavy job to wind up this bucket, and it is not likely there will be such urgent need of water that anyone will undertake the task."
"But we are no better off if they don't," Ralph remarked, "for we must die here if we are not hauled out. I suppose you don't intend to try and climb that rope. I might do twenty feet or so on a pinch, but I could no more get up to the top there than I could fly."
"We must think it over," Walter rejoined; "where there is a will there is a way, you know. We will take it by turns to watch that little patch of light overhead; if we see anyone looking down we must leave the bucket and swim to the side without making the least noise. They may give a few turns of the windlass to see if anyone has hold of the rope below; be sure you do not make the slightest splashing or noise, for the sound would be heard above to a certainty."
Ten minutes later they saw two heads appear above, and instantly withdrew their feet from the bucket and made a stroke to the side, which was but four feet distant, being careful as they did that no motion was imparted to the rope. Then though it was too dark to see anything, they heard the bucket lifted from the water. A minute later it fell back again with a splash, then all was quiet.
"We are safe now, and can take our place in the bucket. They are satisfied that if we did jump down here we are drowned. And now we must think about climbing up."
"Aye, that will require a good deal of thinking," Ralph grumbled.
For some time there was silence; then Walter said, "The first thing to do is to cut off the slack of the rope, there are some twelve feet of it. Then we will unwind the strands of that. There are five or six large strands as far as I can feel; we will cut them up into lengths of about a couple of feet and we ought to be able to tie these to the rope in such a way as not to slip down with our weight. If we tie them four feet apart we can go up step by step; I don't see much difficulty about that."
"No," Ralph said much more cheerfully, "I should think that we could manage that."
They at once set to work. The rope was cut up and unravelled, and the strands cut into pieces about two feet long. They then both set to work trying to discover some way of fastening it by which it would not slip down the rope. They made many fruitless attempts; each time that a strand was fastened with a loop large enough for them to pass a leg through, it slid down the rope when their weight was applied to it. At last they succeeded in finding out a knot which would hold. This was done by tying a knot close to one end of a piece of the strand, then sufficient was left to form the loop, and the remainder was wound round the rope in such a way that the weight only served to tighten its hold.
"Shall we begin at once?" Ralph said, when success was achieved.
"No, we had better wait until nightfall. The vibration of the rope when our weight once gets on it might be noticed by anyone crossing the courtyard."
"Do you think we have sufficient bits of rope," Ralph asked.
"Just enough, I think," Walter replied; "there were six strands, and each has made six pieces, so we have thirty-six. I know the well is about a hundred feet deep, for the other day I heard some of the soldiers who were drawing water grumbling over the labour required. So if we put them three feet apart it will take thirty-three of them, which will leave three over; but we had better place them a little over a yard so as to make sure."
In a short time the fading brightness of the circle of light far overhead told them that twilight had commenced, and shortly afterwards they attached the first strand to the rope some three feet above the water.
"Now," Walter said, "I will go first, at any rate for a time. I must put one leg through the loop, and sit, as it were, while I fasten the one above, as I shall want both hands for the work. You will find it a good deal easier to stand with your foot in the loop. If I get tired I will fasten another loop by the side of that on which I am resting, so you can come up and pass me. There is no hurry. It ought not to take up above an hour, and it will not do for us to get to the top until the place becomes a little quiet. Tonight they are sure to be drinking and feasting over their victory until late."
They now set to work, and step by step mounted the rope. They found the work less arduous than they had expected. The rope was dry, and the strands held tightly to it. Two or three times they changed places, resting in turn from the work; but in less than two hours from the time they made the first loop Walter's head and shoulders appeared above the level of the courtyard. He could hear sounds of shouting and singing within the castle, and knew that a great feast was going on. Descending a step or two he held parley with Ralph.
"I think, perhaps, it will be better to sally out at once. Everyone is intent on his own pleasure, and we shall have no difficulty in slipping out of the castle unnoticed. All will be feasting and riot in the town, and so long as we do not brush against any one so that they may feel our wet garments we are little likely to be noticed; besides, the gates of the town will stand open late, for people from the villages round will have come in to join in the revels."
"I am ready to try it, Master Walter," Ralph replied, "for I ache from head to foot with holding on to this rope. The sooner the better, say I."
In another minute both stood in the courtyard. It was a retired spot, and none were passing. Going along the passage they issued into the main yard. Here great fires were blazing, and groups of men sat round them drinking and shouting. Many lay about in drunken sleep.
"Stay where you are in the shade, Ralph. You had best lie down by the foot of the wall. Anyone who passes will think that you are in a drunken sleep. I will creep forward and possess myself of the steel caps of two of these drunkards, and if I can get a couple of cloaks so much the better."
There was no difficulty about the caps, and by dint of unbuckling the cloaks and rolling their wearers gently over, Walter succeeded at last in obtaining two of them. He also picked up a sword for Ralph—his own still hung in its sheath—and then he joined his companion, and the two putting on the steel caps and cloaks walked quietly to the gate. There were none on guard, and they issued unmolested into the town. Here all was revelry. Bonfires blazed in the streets. Hogsheads of wine, with the heads knocked out, stood before many of the houses for all to help themselves who wished. Drunken soldiers reeled along shouting snatches of songs, and the burghers in the highest state of hilarity thronged the ways.
"First of all, Ralph, we will have a drink of wine, for I am chilled to the bone."
"Aye, and so am I," Ralph replied. "I got hot enough climbing that rope, but now the cold has got hold of me again, and my teeth are chattering in my head."
Picking up one of the fallen vessels by a cask they dipped it in and took a long draught of wine; then, turning off from the principal streets, they made their way by quiet lanes down to one of the gates. To their dismay they found that this was closed. The French commanders knew that Sir Walter Manny or Salisbury might ere this be pressing forward to relieve the town, and that, finding that it had fallen, they might attempt to recapture it by a sudden attack. While permitting therefore the usual licence, after a successful assault, to the main body of their forces, they had placed a certain number of their best troops on the walls, giving them a handsome largess to make up for their loss of the festivities.
At first Walter and his friend feared that their retreat was cut off for the night, but several other people presently arrived, and the officer on guard said, coming out, "You must wait a while; the last batch have only just gone, and I cannot keep opening and closing the gate; in half an hour I will let you out."
Before that time elapsed some fifty or sixty people, anxious to return to their villages, gathered round the gate.
"Best lay aside your steel cap, Ralph, before we join them," Walter said. "In the dim light of that lamp none will notice that we have head-gear, but if it were to glint upon the steel cap the officer might take us for deserters and question us as to who we are."
Presently the officer came out from the guard-room again. There was a forward movement of the little crowd, and Walter and Ralph closed in to their midst. The gates were opened, and without any question the villagers passed out, and the gates were shut instantly behind them.
Walter and his comrade at once started at a brisk pace and walked all night in the direction of Hennebon. Their clothes soon dried, and elated at their escape from danger they struggled on briskly. When morning broke they entered a wood, and lay there till evening, as they feared to continue their journey lest they might fall into the hands of some roving band of French horse. They were, too, dog-tired, and were asleep a few minutes after they lay down. The sun was setting when they awoke, and as soon as it was dark they resumed their journey.
"I don't know what you feel, Master Walter, but I am well-nigh famished. It is thirty-six hours since I swallowed a bit of food, just as the French were moving to the attack. Hard blows I don't mind—I have been used to it; but what with fighting, and being in the water for five or six hours, and climbing up that endless rope, and walking all night on an empty stomach, it does not suit me at all."
"I feel ravenous too, Ralph, but there is no help for it. We shall eat nothing till we are within the walls of Hennebon, and that will be by daylight tomorrow if all goes well. Draw your belt an inch or two tighter, it will help to keep out the wolf."
They kept on all night, and in the morning saw to their delight the towers of Hennebon in the distance. It was well that it was no further, for both were so exhausted from want of food that they could with difficulty drag their legs along.
Upon entering the town Walter made his way at once to the quarters of the leader. Sir Walter had just risen, and was delighted at the sight of his esquire.
"I had given you up for dead," he exclaimed. "By what miracle could you have escaped? Are you alone?"
"I have with me only my faithful follower Ralph Smith, who is below; but, Sir Walter, for mercy's sake order that some food be placed before us, or we shall have escaped from the French only to die of hunger here. We have tasted nought since the attack on Vannes began. Have any beside us escaped?"
"Lord Stafford contrived, with two or three others, to cut their way out by a postern-gate, bringing with them Robert of Artois, who is grievously wounded. None others, save you and your man-at-arms, have made their way here."
In a few minutes a cold capon, several manchets of bread, and a stoop of wine were placed before Walter, while Ralph's wants were attended to below. When he had satisfied his hunger the young esquire related his adventures to Sir Walter and several other knights and nobles, who had by this time gathered in the room.
"In faith, Master Somers, you have got well out of your scrape," Sir Walter exclaimed. "Had I been in your place I should assuredly have perished, for I would a thousand times rather meet death sword in hand, than drop down into the deep hole of that well. And your brains served you shrewdly in devising a method of escape. What say you, gentlemen?"
All present joined in expressions of praise at the lad's coolness and presence of mind.
"You are doing well, young sir," the English leader went on, "and have distinguished yourself on each occasion on which we have been engaged. I shall be proud when the time comes to bestow upon you myself the order of knighthood if our king does not take the matter off my hands."
A little later Robert of Artois died of his wounds and disappointment at the failure of his hopes.
In October King Edward himself set sail with a great army, and landing in Brittany early in November marched forward through the country and soon reduced Ploermel, Malestrail, Redon, and the rest of the province in the vicinity of Vannes, and then laid siege to that town. As his force was far more than sufficient for the siege, the Earls of Norfolk and Warwick were despatched in the direction of Nantes to reconnoitre the country and clear it of any small bodies of the enemy they might encounter. In the meantime Edward opened negotiations with many of the Breton lords, who, seeing that such powerful aid had arrived for the cause of the Countess of Montford, were easily persuaded to change sides. Among them were the lords of Clisson, Moheac, Machecoul, Retz, and many others of less importance.
The Count of Valentinois, who commanded the garrison of Vannes, supported the siege with great courage and fortitude, knowing that Charles of Blois and the King of France were collecting a great army for his relief. Uniting their forces they advanced towards the town. Before the force of the French, 40,000 strong, the Earl of Norfolk had fallen back and rejoined the king, but even after this junction the French forces exceeded those of Edward fourfold. They advanced towards Vannes and formed a large entrenched camp near that of the English, who thus, while still besieging Vannes, were themselves enclosed by a vastly superior force. The King of France himself arrived at the French camp. The French, although so greatly superior, made no motion toward attacking the English, but appeared bent upon either starving them out or forcing them to attack the strongly entrenched position occupied by the French.
Provisions were indeed running short in the English camp, and the arrival of supplies from England was cut off by a strong fleet under Don Louis, which cruised off the coast and captured all vessels arriving with stores. At this moment two legates, the Cardinal Bishop of Preneste and the Cardinal Bishop of Tusculum, arrived from the pope and strove to mediate between the two sovereigns and to bring about a cessation of hostilities, pointing out to them the scandal and desolation which their rivalry caused in Christendom, the waste of noble lives, the devastation of once happy provinces, and the effusion of innocent blood. Going from camp to camp they exhorted, prayed, and reproached the rival sovereigns, urging that while Christians were shedding each other's blood in vain, the infidels were daily waxing bolder and more insolent. Their arguments would have been but of little use had either of the monarchs felt sure of victory. King Edward, however, felt that his position was growing desperate, for starvation was staring him in the face, and only by a victory over an immensely superior force in a strongly entrenched position could he extricate himself. Upon the part of the French, however, circumstances were occurring which rendered them anxious for a release from their position, for they were not without their share of suffering. While the English army lay on a hill the French camp was pitched on low ground. An unusually wet season had set in with bitterly cold wind. The rain was incessant, a pestilence had destroyed a vast number of their horses, and their encampment was flooded. Their forces were therefore obligated to spread themselves over the neighbouring fields, and a sudden attack by the English might have been fatal.
Thus distress pressed upon both commanders, and the pope's legates found their exertions at last crowned with success. A suspension of hostilities was agreed to, and the Dukes of Burgundy and Bourbon on the one side and the Earls of Lancaster, Northampton, and Salisbury on the other, met as commissioners and agreed to a convention by which a general truce was to be made from the date of the treaty to the following Michaelmas, and to be prolonged from that day for the full term of three years. It was agreed that the truce should embrace not only the sovereigns, but all the adherents of each of them. The truce was to hold good in Brittany between all parties, and the city of Vannes was to be given into the hands of the cardinals to dispose of as they chose. It was specially provided that in the case of any of the adherents of either party in the Duchies of Gascony and Brittany waging war against each other, neither of the monarchs should either directly or indirectly meddle therewith, nor should the truce be at all broken thereby.
Immediately the treaty was signed, on the 19th of January, 1343, the King of France dismissed his army, and Edward sailed for England with the greater part of his troops. The Countess of Montford and her son accompanied him, and the possessions of her husband in Brittany were left to the guardianship of her partisans, with a small but choice body of English troops.
The towns which had fallen into their hands and still remained were Brest, Quimper-Corentin, Quimperle, Redon, and Guerande; Vannes was handed over to them by the cardinals, and Hennebon, of course, remained in their possession.
Walter returned to England with Sir Walter Manny, and on reaching London was received with delight by his old friends Geoffrey Ward and Giles Fletcher, who were never tired of listening to his tales of the wars. Dame Vernon also received him with great kindness, and congratulated him warmly upon the very favourable account which Sir Walter Manny had given of his zeal and gallantry.
The time now for a while passed very quietly. Walter and the other young squires practised diligently, under the instructions of Sir Walter, at knightly exercises. Walter learned to bear himself well on horseback and to tilt in the ring. He was already a skilful swordsman, but he spared no pains to improve himself with his weapons. The court was a gay one, and Walter, as a favoured esquire of one of the foremost knights there, was admitted to all that took place. His courtly education, of course, included dancing, and when he went down, as he often did, for a long chat with his old friends, Geoffrey often said, laughing, that he was growing such a fine gentleman that he hardly liked to sit in his presence; but although changed in manner, Walter continued to be, as before, a frank, manly young fellow, and free from the affectations which were so general among the young men of the court.