The court at Westminster during the few months which followed the capture of Calais was the most brilliant in Europe. Tournaments and fetes followed each other in rapid succession, and to these knights came from all parts. So great was the reputation of King Edward that deputies came from Germany, where the throne was now vacant, to offer the crown of that kingdom to him. The king declined the offer, for it would have been impossible indeed for him to have united the German crown with that of England, which he already held, and that of France, which he claimed.
Some months after his return to England the Black Prince asked his father as a boon that the hand of his ward Edith Vernon should be bestowed upon the prince's brave follower Sir Walter Somers, and as Queen Philippa, in the name of the lady's mother, seconded the request, the king at once acceded to it. Edith was now sixteen, an age at which, in those days, a young lady was considered to be marriageable, and the wedding took place with great pomp and ceremony at Westminster; the king himself giving away the bride, and bestowing, as did the prince and Queen Philippa, many costly presents upon the young couple. After taking part in several of the tournaments, Walter went with his bride and Dame Vernon down to their estates, and were received with great rejoicing by the tenantry, the older of whom well remembered Walter's father and mother, and were rejoiced at finding that they were again to become the vassals of one of the old family. Dame Vernon was greatly loved by her tenantry; but the latter had looked forward with some apprehension to the marriage of the young heiress, as the character of the knight upon whom the king might bestow her hand would greatly affect the happiness and well being of his tenants.
Sir James Carnegie had not returned to England after the fall of Calais; he perceived that he was in grave disfavour with the Black Prince, and guessed, as was the case, that some suspicion had fallen on him in reference to the attack upon Walter in the camp, and to the strange attempt which had been made to destroy him by Sir Phillip Holbeaut. He had, therefore, for a time taken service with the Count of Savoy, and was away from England, to the satisfaction of Walter and Dame Vernon, when the marriage took place; for he had given proofs of such a malignity of disposition that both felt, that although his succession to the estates was now hopelessly barred, yet that he might at any moment attempt some desperate deed to satisfy his feeling of disappointment and revenge.
In spite of the gaiety of the court of King Edward a cloud hung over the kingdom; for it was threatened by a danger far more terrible than any combination of foes—a danger which no gallantry upon the part of her king or warriors availed anything. With a slow and terrible march the enemy was advancing from the East, where countless hosts had been slain. India, Arabia, Syria, and Armenia had been well-nigh depopulated. In no country which the dread foe had invaded had less than two-thirds of the population been slain; in some nine-tenths had perished. All sorts of portents were reported to have accompanied its appearance in the East; where it was said showers of serpents had fallen, strange and unknown insects had appeared in the atmosphere, and clouds of sulphurous vapour had issued from the earth and enveloped whole provinces and countries. For two or three years the appearance of this scourge had been heralded by strange atmospheric disturbances; heavy rains and unusual floods, storms of thunder and lightning of unheard-of violence, hail-showers of unparalleled duration and severity, had everywhere been experienced, while in Italy and Germany violent earthquake shocks had been felt, and that at places where no tradition existed of previous occurrences of the same kind.
From Asia it had spread to Africa and to Europe, affecting first the sea-shores and creeping inland by the course of the rivers. Greece first felt its ravages, and Italy was not long in experiencing them. In Venice more than 100,000 persons perished in a few months, and thence spreading over the whole peninsula, not a town escaped the visitation. At Florence 60,000 people were carried off, and at Lucca and Genoa, in Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica it raged with equal violence. France was assailed by way of Provence, and Avignon suffered especially. Of the English college at that place not an individual was left, and 120 persons died in a single day in that small city. Paris lost upwards of 50,000 of its inhabitants, while 90,000 were swept away in Lubeck, and 1,200,000 died within a year of its first appearance in Germany.
In England the march of the pestilence westward was viewed with deep apprehension, and the approaching danger was brought home to the people by the death of the Princess Joan, the king's second daughter. She was affianced to Peter, the heir to the throne of Spain; and the bride, who had not yet accomplished her fourteenth year, was sent over to Bordeaux with considerable train of attendants in order to be united there to her promised husband. Scarcely had she reached Bordeaux when she was attacked by the pestilence and died in a few hours. A few days later the news spread through the country that the disease had appeared almost simultaneously at several of the seaports in the south-west of England. Thence with great rapidity it spread through the kingdom; proceeding through Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire it broke out in London, and the ravages were no less severe than they had been on the Continent, the very lowest estimate being that two-thirds of the population were swept away. Most of those attacked died within a few hours of the seizure. If they survived for two days they generally rallied, but even then many fell into a state of coma from which they never awoke.
No words can describe the terror and dismay caused by this the most destructive plague of which there is any record in history. No remedies were of the slightest avail against it; flight was impossible, for the loneliest hamlets suffered as severely as crowded towns, and frequently not a single survivor was left. Men met the pestilence in various moods: the brave with fortitude, the pious with resignation, the cowardly and turbulent with outbursts of despair and fury. Among the lower classes the wildest rumours gained credence. Some assigned the pestilence to witchcraft, others declared that the waters of the wells and streams had been poisoned. Serious riots occurred in many places, and great numbers of people fell victims to the fury of the mob under the suspicion of being connected in some way with the ravages of the pestilence. The Jews, ever the objects of popular hostility, engendered by ignorance and superstition, were among the chief sufferers. Bands of marauders wandered through the country plundering the houses left empty by the death of all their occupants, and from end to end death and suffering were universal.
Although all classes had suffered heavily the ravages of the disease were, as is always the case, greater among the poor than among the rich, the insanitary conditions of their life, and their coarser and commoner food rendering them more liable to its influence; no rank, however, was exempted, and no less than three Archbishops of Canterbury were carried off in succession by the pestilence within a year of its appearance.
During the months which succeeded his marriage Sir Walter Somers lived quietly and happily with his wife at Westerham. It was not until late in the year that the plague approached the neighbourhood. Walter had determined to await its approach there. He had paid a few short visits to the court, where every effort was made by continuous gaiety to keep up the spirits of the people and prevent them from brooding over the approaching pestilence; but when it was at hand Walter and his wife agreed that they would rather share the lot of their tenants, whom their presence and example might support and cheer in their need, than return to face it in London. One morning when they were at breakfast a frightened servant brought in the news that the disease had appeared in the village, that three persons had been taken ill on the previous night, that two had already died, and that several others had sickened.
"The time has come, my children," Dame Vernon said calmly, "the danger so long foreseen is at hand, now let us face it as we agreed to do. It has been proved that flight is useless, since nowhere is there escape from the plague; here, at least, there shall be no repetition of the terrible scenes we have heard of elsewhere, where the living have fled in panic and allowed the stricken to die unattended. We have already agreed that we will set the example to our people by ourselves going down and administering to the sick."
"It is hard," Walter said, rising and pacing up and down the room, "to let Edith go into it."
"Edith will do just the same as you do," his wife said firmly. "Were it possible that all in this house might escape, there might be a motive for turning coward, but seeing that no household is spared, there is, as we agreed, greater danger in flying from the pestilence than facing it firmly."
"You are right," he said, "but it wrings my heart to see you place yourself in danger."
"Were we out of danger here, Walter, it might be so," Edith replied gently; "but since there is no more safety in the castle than in the cottage, we must face death whether it pleases us or not, and it were best to do so bravely."
"So be it," Walter said; "may the God of heaven watch over us all! Now, mother, do you and Edith busy yourselves in preparing broths, strengthening drinks, and medicaments. I will go down at once to the village and see how matters stand there and who are in need. We have already urged upon all our people to face the danger bravely, and if die they must, to die bravely like Christians, and not like coward dogs. When you have prepared your soups and cordials come down and meet me in the village, bringing Mabel and Janet, your attendants, to carry the baskets."
Ralph, who was now installed as major-domo in the castle, at once set out with Walter. They found the village in a state of panic. Women were sitting crying despairingly at their doors. Some were engaged in packing their belongings in carts preparatory to flight, some wandered aimlessly about wringing their hands, while others went to the church, whose bells were mournfully tolling the dirge of the departed. Walter's presence soon restored something like order and confidence; his resolute tone cheered the timid and gave hope to the despairing. Sternly he rebuked those preparing to fly, and ordered them instantly to replace their goods in their houses. Then he went to the priest and implored him to cause the tolling of the bell to cease.
"There is enough," he said, "in the real danger present to appall even the bravest, and we need no bell to tell us that death is among us. The dismal tolling is enough to unnerve the stoutest heart, and if we ring for all who die its sounds will never cease while the plague is among us; therefore, father, I implore you to discontinue it. Let there be services held daily in the church, but I beseech you strive in your discourses to cheer the people rather than to depress them, and to dwell more upon the joys that await those who die as Christian men and women than upon the sorrows of those who remain behind. My wife and mother will anon be down in the village and will strive to cheer and comfort the people, and I look to you for aid in this matter."
The priest, who was naturally a timid man, nevertheless nerved himself to carry out Walter's suggestions, and soon the dismal tones of the bell ceased to be heard in the village.
Walter despatched messengers to all the outlying farms desiring his tenants to meet him that afternoon at the castle in order that measures might be concerted for common aid and assistance. An hour later Dame Vernon and Edith came down and visited all the houses where the plague had made its appearance, distributing their soups, and by cheering and comforting words raising the spirits of the relatives of the sufferers.
The names of all the women ready to aid in the general work of nursing were taken down, and in the afternoon at the meeting at the castle the full arrangements were completed. Work was to be carried on as usual in order to occupy men's minds and prevent them from brooding over the ravages of the plague. Information of any case that occurred was to be sent to the castle, where soups and medicines were to be obtained. Whenever more assistance was required than could be furnished by the inmates of a house another woman was to be sent to aid. Boys were told off as messengers to fetch food and other matters as required from the castle.
So, bravely and firmly, they prepared to meet the pestilence; it spread with terrible severity. Scarce a house which did not lose some of its inmates, while in others whole families were swept away. All day Walter and his wife and Dame Vernon went from house to house, and although they could do nothing to stem the progress of the pestilence, their presence and example supported the survivors and prevented the occurrence of any of the panic and disorder which in most places accompanied it.
The castle was not exempt from the scourge. First some of the domestics were seized, and three men and four women died. Walter himself was attacked, but he took it lightly, and three days after the seizure passed into a state of convalescence. Dame Vernon was next attacked, and expired six hours after the commencement of the seizure. Scarcely was Walter upon his feet than Ralph, who had not for a moment left his bedside, was seized, but he too, after being at death's door for some hours, turned the corner. Lastly Edith sickened.
By this time the scourge had done its worst in the village, and three-fifths of the population had been swept away. All the male retainers in the castle had died, and the one female who survived was nursing her dying mother in the village.
Edith's attack was a very severe one. Walter, alone now, for Ralph, although convalescent, had not yet left his bed, sat by his wife's bedside a prey to anxiety and grief; for although she had resisted the first attack she was now, thirty-six hours after it had seized her, fast sinking. Gradually her sight and power of speech faded, and she sank into the state of coma which was the prelude of death, and lay quiet and motionless, seeming as if life had already departed. Suddenly Walter was surprised by the sound of many heavy feet ascending the stairs. He went out into the ante-room to learn the cause of this strange tumult, when five armed men, one of whom was masked, rushed into the room. Walter caught up his sword from the table.
"Ruffians," he exclaimed, "how dare you desecrate the abode of death?"
Without a word the men sprang upon him. For a minute he defended himself against their attacks, but he was still weak, his guard was beaten down, and a blow felled him to the ground.
"Now settle her," the masked man exclaimed, and the band rushed into the adjoining room. They paused, however, at the door at the sight of the lifeless figure on the couch.
"We are saved that trouble," one said, "we have come too late."
The masked figure approached the couch and bent over the figure.
"Yes," he said, "she is dead, and so much the better."
Then he returned with the others to Walter.
"He breathes yet," he said. "He needs a harder blow than that you gave him to finish him. Let him lie here for a while, while you gather your booty together; then we will carry him off. There is scarcely a soul alive in the country round, and none will note us as we pass. I would not despatch him here, seeing that his body would be found with wounds upon it, and even in these times some inquiry might be made; therefore it were best to finish him elsewhere. When he is missed it will be supposed that he went mad at the death of his wife, and has wandered out and died, may be in the woods, or has drowned himself in a pond or stream. Besides, I would that before he dies he should know what hand has struck the blow, and that my vengeance, which he slighted and has twice escaped, has overtaken him at last."
After ransacking the principal rooms and taking all that was valuable, the band of marauders lifted the still insensible body of Walter, and carrying it down-stairs flung it across a horse. One of the ruffians mounted behind it, and the others also getting into their saddles the party rode away.
They were mistaken, however, in supposing that the Lady Edith was dead. She was indeed very nigh the gates of death, and had it not been for the disturbance would assuredly have speedily entered them. The voice of her husband raised in anger, the clash of steel, followed by the heavy fall, had awakened her deadened brain. Consciousness had at once returned to her, but as yet no power of movement. As at a great distance she had heard the words of those who entered her chamber, and had understood their import. More and more distinctly she heard their movements about the room as they burst open her caskets and appropriated her jewels, but it was not until silence was restored that the gathering powers of life asserted themselves; then with a sudden rush the blood seemed to course through her veins, her eyes opened, and her tongue was loosed, and with a scream she sprang up and stood by the side of her bed.
Sustained as by a supernatural power she hurried into the next room. A pool of blood on the floor showed her that what she had heard had not been a dream or the fiction of a disordered brain. Snatching up a cloak of her husband's which lay on a couch, she wrapped it round her, and with hurried steps made her way along the passages until she reached the apartment occupied by Ralph. The latter sprang up in bed with a cry of astonishment. He had heard but an hour before from Walter that all hope was gone, and thought for an instant that the appearance was an apparition from the dead. The ghastly pallor of the face, the eyes burning with a strange light, the flowing hair, and disordered appearance of the girl might well have alarmed one living in even less superstitious times, and Ralph began to cross himself hastily and to mutter a prayer when recalled to himself by the sound of Edith's voice.
"Quick, Ralph!" she said, "arise and clothe yourself. Hasten, for your life. My lord's enemies have fallen upon him and wounded him grievously, even if they have not slain him, and have carried him away. They would have slain me also had they not thought I was already dead. Arise and mount, summon everyone still alive in the village, and follow these murderers. I will pull the alarm-bell of the castle."
Ralph sprang from his bed as Edith left. He had heard the sound of many footsteps in the knight's apartments, but had deemed them those of the priest and his acolytes come to administer the last rites of the church to his dying mistress. Rage and anxiety for his master gave strength to his limbs. He threw on a few clothes and rushed down to the stables, where the horses stood with great piles of forage and pails of water before them, placed there two days before, by Walter when their last attendant died. Without waiting to saddle it, Ralph sprang upon the back of one of the animals, and taking the halters of four others started at a gallop down to the village.
His news spread like wild fire, for the ringing of the alarm-bell of the castle had drawn all to their doors and prepared them for something strange. Some of the men had already taken their arms and were making their way up to the castle when they met Ralph. There were but five men in the village who had altogether escaped the pestilence; others had survived its attacks, but were still weak. Horses there were in plenty. The five men mounted at once, with three others who, though still weak, were able to ride.
So great was the excitement that seven women who had escaped the disease armed themselves with their husbands' swords and leaped on horseback, declaring that, women though they were, they would strike a blow for their beloved lord, who had been as an angel in the village during the plague. Thus it was scarcely more than ten minutes after the marauders had left the castle before a motley band, fifteen strong, headed by Ralph, rode off in pursuit, while some of the women of the village hurried up to the castle to comfort Edith with the tidings that the pursuit had already commenced. Fortunately a lad in the fields had noticed the five men ride away from the castle, and was able to point out the direction they had taken.
At a furious gallop Ralph and his companions tore across the country. Mile after mile was passed. Once or twice they gained news from labourers in the field of the passage of those before them, and knew that they were on the right track. They had now entered a wild and sparsely inhabited country. It was broken and much undulated, so that although they knew that the band they were pursuing were but a short distance ahead they had not yet caught sight of them, and they hoped that, having no reason to dread any immediate pursuit, these would soon slacken their pace. This expectation was realized, for on coming over a brow they saw the party halted at a turf-burner's cottage in the hollow below. Three of the men had dismounted; two of them were examining the hoof of one of the horses, which had apparently cast a shoe or trodden upon a stone. Ralph had warned his party to make no sound when they came upon the fugitives. The sound of the horses' hoofs was deadened by the turf, and they were within a hundred yards of the marauders before they were perceived; then Ralph uttered a shout and brandishing their swords the party rode down at a headlong gallop.
The dismounted men leaped to their saddles and galloped off at full speed, but their pursuers were now close upon them. Ralph and two of his companions, who were mounted upon Walter's best horses, gained upon them at every stride. Two of them were overtaken and run through.
The man who bore Walter before him, finding himself being rapidly overtaken, threw his burden on to the ground just as the leader of the party had checked his horse and was about to deliver a sweeping blow at the insensible body.
With a curse at his follower for ridding himself of it, he again galloped on. The man's act was unavailing to save himself, for he was overtaken and cut down before he had ridden many strides; then Ralph and his party instantly reined up to examine the state of Walter, and the two survivors of the band of murderers continued their flight unmolested.