Walter's first step on assuming the command was to examine thoroughly into the capabilities of defence of the place, to see that the well was in good order, and the supply of water ample, and to send out a foraging party, which, driving in a number of beasts and some cart-loads of forage, would supply his garrison for some time. The castle he found was less strong than it looked. The walls were lightly built, and were incapable of withstanding any heavy battering. The moat was dry, and the flanking towers badly placed, and affording little protection to the faces of the walls; however, the extent of the defences was small, and Walter felt confident that with the force at his command he could resist any sudden attack, unless made in overwhelming force, so that all the faces of the wall could be assaulted at the same time. He had a large number of great stones brought in to pile against the gate, while others were brought into the central keep, similarly to defend the door should the outer wall be carried. He appointed Ralph as his lieutenant, and every day, leaving him in charge of the castle, rode through the country for many miles round, with twenty men-at-arms, to convince himself that no considerable force of the enemy were approaching. These reconnaissances were not without some danger and excitement, for several times bodies of the country people, armed with scythes, axes, and staves, tried to intercept them on their return to the castle, and once or twice Walter and his men had to fight their way through their opponents. Contrary to the custom of the times, Walter gave orders to his men not to slay any when resistance had ceased.
"They are but doing what we ourselves should do did French garrisons hold our castles at home, and I deem them in no way to be blamed for the efforts which they make to slay us. In self-defence, of course, we must do our best, and must kill in order that we may not ourselves be slain; but when they are once routed, let them go to their homes. Poor people, the miseries which this war has brought upon them are great, and there is no wonder that they hate us."
This leniency on Walter's part was not without good effect. When the country people found that the garrison of the castle of Pres did not carry fire and sword through the villages around, that they took only sufficient for their needs, and behaved with courtesy to all, their animosity to a great extent subsided. No longer did the women and children of the little villages fly to the woods when they saw the gleam of Walter's approaching spears, but remained at their avocations, and answered willingly enough the questions which he asked them as to whether they had heard aught of the movements of French troops. So far as possible, Walter refrained from seizing the cattle or stores of grain of the poorer classes, taking such as he needed from the lands of the wealthy proprietors, all of whom had left the country, and were either with the French army or sheltering in Paris. Five of his best mounted men Walter chose as messengers, and one rode each day to New Town with the news which had been gathered, returning on the following day, and then resting his horse for three days before again setting out.
Night and day sentries were placed on the walls, for although Walter heard nothing of any body gathering in his immediate vicinity, a force might at any moment issue from Amiens and appear suddenly before the place. Such was indeed what really took place, and at daybreak one morning Walter was aroused by the news that the sentinels saw a large body of men rapidly approaching. The horse of the messenger next on duty stood, as usual, saddled and bridled in readiness, and without a moment's delay Walter ordered the man to mount and ride to the prince, and to give news that the castle was assailed, but by how large a force he could not as yet say.
The instant the messenger had started through the gates Walter ascended to the walls; he saw at once that the party was a strong one; for although still at some distance, and but dimly seen in the gray morning light, he judged that it must contain at least a thousand men-at-arms. At this moment a call from the sentry on the other side of the castle was heard, and hastening thither, Walter saw that another body nearly as numerous as the first were approaching from the side of Calais, having made a detour so as to place themselves between the castle and the army, to which news would naturally be sent of their coming. Walter watched his messenger, who had now ridden half a mile towards the approaching body. Suddenly he saw him turn his horse and ride off at right angles to the road.
"He sees them," he said, "and is going to try to ride round them. I fear that there is but little hope of his escaping, seeing that they are between him and Calais, and that assuredly some among them must be as well or better mounted than himself." As he spoke a party of horsemen were seen to detach themselves from the flank of the French column and to gallop off at full speed to intercept the messenger; the latter diverged more and more from his course, but he was constantly headed off by his pursuers, and at last, seeing the impossibility of getting through them, he again turned his horse's head and galloped off towards the castle, which he reached a few hundred yards only in advance of his foes.
"I could not help it, Sir Walter," he said, as he galloped in at the gate. "I found that although Robin is fast, some of those horsemen had the turn of speed of me, and that it was impossible that I could get through; so deeming that I should do more service by coming to strike a blow here than by having my throat cut out in the fields, I made the best of my way back."
"Quite right, Martin!" Walter said. "I should have been grieved had you thrown your life away needlessly. I saw from the first that your escape was cut off. And now, men, each to his place; but first pile up the stones against the gate, and then let each man take a good meal, for it is like enough to be long before we get a chance of doing so again."
Again ascending to the walls Walter saw that the first body of men-at-arms he had perceived was followed at a distance by a strong force of footmen having with them some large wagons.
"I fear," he said to Ralph, "that they have brought machines with them from Amiens, and in that case they will not be long in effecting a breach, for doubtless they know that the walls are but weak. We shall have to fight stoutly, for it may be days before the news of our leaguer reaches the camp. However, I trust that the prince will, by tomorrow night, when he finds that two days have elapsed without the coming of my usual messenger, suspect that we are besieged and will sally forth to our assistance. And now let us to breakfast, for we shall need all our strength today, and you may be sure that French will lose no time in attacking, seeing that assistance may shortly arrive from Calais."
There were but few preparations to be made. Each man had had his post assigned to him on the walls in case of an attack, and piles of stones had been collected in readiness to cast down upon the heads of those attempting an assault. Cauldrons were carried up to the walls and filled with water, and great fires were lighted under them. In half an hour the French infantry had reached the spot, but another two hours elapsed before any hostile movement was made, the leaders of the assailants giving their men that time to rest after their long march. Then a stir was visible among them, and they were seen to form in four columns, each about a thousand strong, which advanced simultaneously against opposite sides of the castle. As soon as their intentions were manifest Walter divided his little force, and these, gathering in four groups upon the walls, prepared to resist the assault. To four of his most trusty men-at-arms he assigned the command of these parties, he himself and Ralph being thus left free to give their aid where it was most needed.
The assailants were well provided with scaling-ladders, and advanced with a number of crossbow-men in front, who speedily opened a hot fire on the walls. Walter ordered his archers to bide their time, and not to fire a shot till certain that every shaft would tell. They accordingly waited until the French arrived within fifty yards of the wall, when the arrows began to rain among them with deadly effect, scarce one but struck its mark—the face of an enemy. Even the closed vizors of the knights and chief men-at-arms did not avail to protect their wearers; the shafts pierced between the bars or penetrated the slits left open for sight, and many fell slain by the first volley. But their numbers were far too great to allow the columns being checked by the fire of so small a number of archers; the front ranks, indeed, pressed forward more eagerly than before, being anxious to reach the foot of the wall, where they would be in comparative shelter from the arrows.
The archers disturbed themselves in no way at the reaching of the wall by the heads of the columns; but continued to shoot fast and true into the mass behind them, and as these were, for the most part, less completely armed than their leaders, numbers fell under the fire of the sixty English bowmen. It was the turn of the men-at-arms now. Immediately the assailants poured into the dry moat and sought to raise their ladders the men-at-arms hurled down the masses of stones piled in readiness, while some poured buckets of boiling water over them. In spite of the loss they were suffering the French raised their ladders, and, covering their heads with their shields, the leaders strove to gain the walls. As they did so, some of the archers took post in the flanking towers, and as with uplifted arms the assailants climbed the ladders, the archers smote them above the joints of their armour beneath the arm-pits, while the men-at-arms with pike and battle-axe hewed down those who reached the top of the ladders. Walter and Ralph hastened from point to point encouraging the men and joining in the defence where the pressure was hottest; and at last, after two hours of vain effort and suffering great loss, the assailants drew off and the garrison had breathing time.
"Well done, my men!" Walter said, cheeringly; "they have had a lesson which they will remember, and if so be that they have brought with them no machines we may hold out against them for any time."
It was soon manifest, however, that along with the scaling-ladders the enemy had brought one of their war-machines. Men were seen dragging massive beams of timber towards the walls, and one of the wagons was drawn forward and upset on its side at a distance of sixty yards from the wall, not, however, without those who drew it suffering much from the arrows of the bowmen. Behind the shelter thus formed the French began to put together the machine, whose beams soon raised themselves high above the wagon.
In the meantime groups of men dragged great stones laid upon a sort of hand sledge to the machine, and late in the afternoon it began to cast its missiles against the wall. Against these Walter could do little. He had no sacks, which, filled with earth, he might have lowered to cover the part of the walls assailed, and beyond annoying those working the machines by flights of arrows shot high in the air, so as to descend point downwards among them, he could do nothing.
The wall crumbled rapidly beneath the blows of the great stones, and Walter saw that by the following morning a breach would be effected. When night fell he called his men together and asked if any would volunteer to carry news through the enemy to the prince. The enterprise seemed well-nigh hopeless, for the French, as if foreseeing that such an attempt might be made, had encamped in a complete circle round the castle, as was manifest by the position of their fires. Several men stepped forward, and Walter chose three light and active men—archers—to attempt the enterprise. These stripped off their steel caps and breastpieces, so that they might move more quickly, and when the French fires burned low and all was quiet save the creak of the machine and the dull heavy blows of the stones against the wall, the three men were lowered by ropes at different points, and started on their enterprise. A quarter of an hour later the garrison heard shouts and cries, and knew that a vigilant watch had been set by the French, and that one, if not all, of their friends had fallen into their hands. All night long the machine continued to play.
An hour before daylight, when he deemed that the enemy's vigilance would be relaxed, Walter caused himself with Ralph and twelve of his men-at-arms to be lowered by ropes from the wall. Each rope had a loop at the bottom in which one foot was placed, and knots were tied in order to give a better grasp for the hands. They were lowered at a short distance from the spot at which the machine was at work; all were armed with axes, and they made their way unperceived until within a few yards of the wagon. Then there was a cry of alarm, and in a moment they rushed forward among the enemy. The men working the machine were instantly cut down, and Walter and his party fell upon the machine, cutting the ropes and smashing the wheels and pulleys and hewing away at the timber itself. In a minute or two, however, they were attacked by the enemy, the officer in command having bade a hundred men lie down to sleep close behind the machine in case the garrison should attempt a sortie. Walter called upon Ralph and four of the men-at-arms to stand beside him while the others continued their work of destruction. The French came up in a tumultuous body, but, standing so far apart that they could wield their axes, the English dealt such destruction among their first assailants that these for a time recoiled. As fresh numbers came up, encouraged by their leader they renewed the attack, and in spite of the most tremendous efforts Walter and his party were driven back. By this time, however, so much damage had been done to the machine that it would be some hours before it could be repaired, even if spare ropes and other appliances had been brought with it from Amiens; so that, reinforced by the working party, Walter was again able to hold his ground and after repulsing a fresh onslaught of the enemy he gave the word for his men to retire at full speed.
The French were so surprised by the sudden disappearance of their foes that it was a moment or two before they started in pursuit, and Walter and his men had gained some thirty yards before the pursuit really commenced.
The night was a dark one, and they considerably increased this advantage before they reach the foot of the wall, where the ropes were hanging.
"Has each of you found his rope?" Walter asked.
As soon as an affirmative answer was given he placed his foot in the loop and shouted to the men above to draw up, and before the enraged enemy could reach the spot the whole party were already some yards above their heads. The archers opened fire upon the French, doing, in spite of the darkness, considerable execution, for the men had snatched up their arms at the sudden alarm, and had joined the fray in such haste that many of them had not had time to put on their steel caps. There was noise and bustle in the enemy's camp, for the whole force were now under arms, and in their anger at the sudden blow which had been struck them some bodies of men even moved forward towards the walls as if they intended to renew the assault of the previous day; but the showers of arrows with which they were greeted cooled their ardour and they presently retired out of reach of bowshot. There was a respite now for the besiegers. No longer every few minutes did a heavy stone strike the walls.
The morning's light enabled the defenders of the castle to see the extent of the damage which the battering machine had effected. None too soon had they put a stop to its work, for had it continued its operations another hour or two would have effected a breach.
Already large portions of the wall facing it had fallen, and other portions were so seriously damaged that a few more blows would have levelled them.
"At any rate," Walter said to Ralph, "we have gained a respite; but even now I fear that if the Black Prince comes not until tomorrow he will arrive too late."
The French, apparently as well aware as the garrison of the necessity for haste, laboured at the repair of the machine. Bodies of men started to cut down trees to supply the place of the beams which had been rendered useless. Scarcely had the assault ceased when horsemen were despatched in various directions to seek for fresh ropes, and by dint of the greatest exertions the machine was placed in position to renew its attack shortly after noon.
By two o'clock several large portions of the damaged wall had fallen, and the debris formed a slope by which an assaulting column could rush to the bridge. As soon as this was manifest the French force formed for the assault and rushed forward in solid column.
Walter had made the best preparation possible for the defence. In the courtyard behind the breach his men had since morning been driving a circle of piles, connected by planks fastened to them. These were some five feet high, and along the top and in the face next to the breach sharp-pointed spikes and nails had been driven, rendering it difficult in the extreme for anyone to climb over. As the column of the assailants approached Walter placed his archers on the walls on either side of the breach, while he himself, with his men-at-arms, took his station in the gap and faced the coming host. The breach was some ten yards wide, but it was only for about half this width that the mound of broken stones rendered it possible for their enemies to assault, consequently there was but a space of some fifteen feet in width to be defended. Regardless of the flights of arrows, the French, headed by their knights and squires, advanced to the assault, and clambering up the rough stones attacked the defenders.
Walter, with Ralph and three of his best men-at-arms, stood in the front line and received the first shock of the assault. The roughness and steepness of the mound prevented the French from attacking in regular order, and the very eagerness of the knights and squires who came first in contact with their enemies was a hindrance to them. When the columns were seen gathering for the assault Walter had scattered several barrels full of oil and tar which he found in the cellars over the mound in front of the breach, rendering it greasy and slippery, and causing the assailants to slip and stagger and many to fall as they pressed forward to the assault. Before the fight commenced he had encouraged his soldiers by recalling to them how a mere handful of men had at Cressy withstood for hours the desperate efforts of the whole of the French army to break through their line, and all were prepared to fight to the death.
The struggle was a desperate one. Served by their higher position, and by the difficulties which the French encountered from the slipperiness of the ground and their own fierce ardour to attack, Walter and his little band for a long time resisted every effort. He with his sword and Ralph with his heavy mace did great execution, and they were nobly seconded by their men-at-arms. As fast as one fell another took his place. The breach in front of them was cumbered with dead and red with blood. Still the French poured upwards in a wave, and the sheer weight of their numbers and the fatigue caused by the tremendous exertions the defenders were making began to tell. Step by step the English were driven back, and Walter saw that the defence could not much longer be continued. He bade one of his men-at-arms at once order the archers to cease firing, and, leaving the walls, to take refuge in the keep, and thence to open fire upon the French as they poured through the breach.
When he found that this movement had been accomplished Walter bade the men-at-arms fall back gradually. A gap had been left in the wooden fence sufficient for one at a time to pass, and through this the men-at-arms retired one by one to the keep until only Walter and five others were left. With these Walter flung himself suddenly upon the assailants and forced them a few feet down the slope. Then he gave the word, and all sprang back, and leaping down from the wall into the courtyard ran through the barrier, Walter and Ralph being the last to pass as the French with exulting shouts leapt down from the breach. There was another fierce fight at the barrier. Walter left Ralph to defend this with a few men-at-arms while he saw that all was in readiness for closing the door rapidly in the keep. Then he ran back again. He was but just in time. Ralph indeed could for a long time have held the narrow passage, but the barriers themselves were yielding. The French were pouring in through the breach, and as those behind could not see the nature of the obstacle which arrested the advance of their companions they continued to push forward, and by their weight pressed those in front against the spikes in the barrier. Many perished miserably on these. Others, whose armour protected them from this fate, were crushed to death by the pressure; but this was now so great that the timbers were yielding. Walter, seeing that in another moment they would be levelled, gave the word, sprang back with Ralph and his party, and entered the keep just as with a crash the barrier fell and the French poured in a crowd into the courtyard. Bolting the door the defenders of the keep piled against it the stones which had been laid in readiness.
The door was on the first floor, and was approached by a narrow flight of stone steps, up which but two abreast could advance. In their first fury the French poured up these steps, but from the loopholes which commanded it the English bowmen shot so hard that their arrows pierced the strongest armour. Smitten through vizor and armour, numbers of the bravest of the assailants fell dead. Those who gained the top of the steps were assailed by showers of boiling oil from an upper chamber which projected over the door, and whose floor was pierced for this purpose, while from the top of the keep showers of stones were poured down. After losing great numbers in this desperate effort at assault the French drew off for a while, while their leaders held council as to the best measures to be taken for the capture of the keep.
After a time Walter from the summit saw several bodies of men detach themselves from the crowd still without the castle and proceed into the country. Two hours later they were seen returning laden with trunks of trees. These were dragged through the breach, and were, in spite of the efforts of the archers and of the men-at-arms with their stones, placed so as to form a sort of penthouse against one side of the keep. Numbers of the soldiers now poured up with sacks and all kinds of vessels which they had gathered from the surrounding villages, filled with earth. This was thrown over the beams until it filled all the crevices between them and formed a covering a foot thick, so that neither boiling oil nor water poured from above could penetrate to injure those working beneath its shelter. When all was ready a strong body armed with picks and crowbars entered the penthouse and began to labour to cut away the wall of the keep itself.
"Their commander knows his business," Walter said, "and the device is an excellent one. We can do nothing, and it only depends upon the strength of the wall how long we can hold out. The masonry is by no means good, and before nightfall, unless aid comes, there will be nought for us but death or surrender."