A damn'd cramp piece of penmanship as ever I saw in my life!
She Stoops to Conquer
When the Templar reached the hall of the castle, he found De
Bracy already there. "Your love-suit," said De Bracy, "hath, I
suppose, been disturbed, like mine, by this obstreperous summons.
But you have come later and more reluctantly, and therefore I
presume your interview has proved more agreeable than mine."
"Has your suit, then, been unsuccessfully paid to the Saxon
heiress?" said the Templar.
"By the bones of Thomas a Becket," answered De Bracy, "the Lady
Rowena must have heard that I cannot endure the sight of women's
"Away!" said the Templar; "thou a leader of a Free Company, and
regard a woman's tears! A few drops sprinkled on the torch of
love, make the flame blaze the brighter."
"Gramercy for the few drops of thy sprinkling," replied De Bracy;
"but this damsel hath wept enough to extinguish a beacon-light.
Never was such wringing of hands and such overflowing of eyes,
since the days of St Niobe, of whom Prior Aymer told us.*
* I wish the Prior had also informed them when Niobe was
sainted. Probably during that enlightened period when
"Pan to Moses lent his pagan horn." L. T.
A water-fiend hath possessed the fair Saxon."
"A legion of fiends have occupied the bosom of the Jewess,"
replied the Templar; "for, I think no single one, not even
Apollyon himself, could have inspired such indomitable pride and
resolution.---But where is Front-de-Boeuf? That horn is sounded
more and more clamorously."
"He is negotiating with the Jew, I suppose," replied De Bracy,
coolly; "probably the howls of Isaac have drowned the blast of
the bugle. Thou mayst know, by experience, Sir Brian, that a Jew
parting with his treasures on such terms as our friend
Front-de-Boeuf is like to offer, will raise a clamour loud enough
to be heard over twenty horns and trumpets to boot. But we will
make the vassals call him."
They were soon after joined by Front-de-Boeuf, who had been
disturbed in his tyrannic cruelty in the manner with which the
reader is acquainted, and had only tarried to give some
"Let us see the cause of this cursed clamour," said
Front-de-Boeuf---"here is a letter, and, if I mistake not, it is
He looked at it, turning it round and round as if he had had
really some hopes of coming at the meaning by inverting the
position of the paper, and then handed it to De Bracy.
"It may be magic spells for aught I know," said De Bracy, who
possessed his full proportion of the ignorance which
characterised the chivalry of the period. "Our chaplain
attempted to teach me to write," he said, "but all my letters
were formed like spear-heads and sword-blades, and so the old
shaveling gave up the task."
"Give it me," said the Templar. "We have that of the priestly
character, that we have some knowledge to enlighten our valour."
"Let us profit by your most reverend knowledge, then," said De
Bracy; "what says the scroll?"
"It is a formal letter of defiance," answered the Templar; "but,
by our Lady of Bethlehem, if it be not a foolish jest, it is the
most extraordinary cartel that ever was sent across the
drawbridge of a baronial castle."
"Jest!" said Front-de-Boeuf, "I would gladly know who dares jest
with me in such a matter!---Read it, Sir Brian."
The Templar accordingly read it as follows:---"I, Wamba, the son
of Witless, Jester to a noble and free-born man, Cedric of
Rotherwood, called the Saxon,---And I, Gurth, the son of
Beowulph, the swineherd------"
"Thou art mad," said Front-de-Boeuf, interrupting the reader.
"By St Luke, it is so set down," answered the Templar. Then
resuming his task, he went on,---"I, Gurth, the son of Beowulph,
swineherd unto the said Cedric, with the assistance of our allies
and confederates, who make common cause with us in this our feud,
namely, the good knight, called for the present 'Le Noir
Faineant', and the stout yeoman, Robert Locksley, called
Cleave-the-Wand. Do you, Reginald Front de-Boeuf, and your allies
and accomplices whomsoever, to wit, that whereas you have,
without cause given or feud declared, wrongfully and by mastery
seized upon the person of our lord and master the said Cedric;
also upon the person of a noble and freeborn damsel, the Lady
Rowena of Hargottstandstede; also upon the person of a noble and
freeborn man, Athelstane of Coningsburgh; also upon the persons
of certain freeborn men, their 'cnichts'; also upon certain
serfs, their born bondsmen; also upon a certain Jew, named Isaac
of York, together with his daughter, a Jewess, and certain
horses and mules: Which noble persons, with their 'cnichts' and
slaves, and also with the horses and mules, Jew and Jewess
beforesaid, were all in peace with his majesty, and travelling
as liege subjects upon the king's highway; therefore we require
and demand that the said noble persons, namely, Cedric of
Rotherwood, Rowena of Hargottstandstede, Athelstane of
Coningsburgh, with their servants, 'cnichts', and followers, also
the horses and mules, Jew and Jewess aforesaid, together with all
goods and chattels to them pertaining, be, within an hour after
the delivery hereof, delivered to us, or to those whom we shall
appoint to receive the same, and that untouched and unharmed in
body and goods. Failing of which, we do pronounce to you, that
we hold ye as robbers and traitors, and will wager our bodies
against ye in battle, siege, or otherwise, and do our utmost to
your annoyance and destruction. Wherefore may God have you in
his keeping.---Signed by us upon the eve of St Withold's day,
under the great trysting oak in the Hart-hill Walk, the above
being written by a holy man, Clerk to God, our Lady, and St
Dunstan, in the Chapel of Copmanhurst."
At the bottom of this document was scrawled, in the first place,
a rude sketch of a cock's head and comb, with a legend expressing
this hieroglyphic to be the sign-manual of Wamba, son of Witless.
Under this respectable emblem stood a cross, stated to be the
mark of Gurth, the son of Beowulph. Then was written, in rough
bold characters, the words, "Le Noir Faineant". And, to conclude
the whole, an arrow, neatly enough drawn, was described as the
mark of the yeoman Locksley.
The knights heard this uncommon document read from end to end,
and then gazed upon each other in silent amazement, as being
utterly at a loss to know what it could portend. De Bracy was
the first to break silence by an uncontrollable fit of laughter,
wherein he was joined, though with more moderation, by the
Templar. Front-de-Boeuf, on the contrary, seemed impatient of
their ill-timed jocularity.
"I give you plain warning," he said, "fair sirs, that you had
better consult how to bear yourselves under these circumstances,
than give way to such misplaced merriment."
"Front-de-Boeuf has not recovered his temper since his late
overthrow," said De Bracy to the Templar; "he is cowed at the
very idea of a cartel, though it come but from a fool and a
"By St Michael," answered Front-de-Boeuf, "I would thou couldst
stand the whole brunt of this adventure thyself, De Bracy. These
fellows dared not have acted with such inconceivable impudence,
had they not been supported by some strong bands. There are
enough of outlaws in this forest to resent my protecting the
deer. I did but tie one fellow, who was taken redhanded and in
the fact, to the horns of a wild stag, which gored him to death
in five minutes, and I had as many arrows shot at me as there
were launched against yonder target at Ashby.---Here, fellow," he
added, to one of his attendants, "hast thou sent out to see by
what force this precious challenge is to be supported?"
"There are at least two hundred men assembled in the woods,"
answered a squire who was in attendance.
"Here is a proper matter!" said Front-de-Boeuf, "this comes of
lending you the use of my castle, that cannot manage your
undertaking quietly, but you must bring this nest of hornets
about my ears!"
"Of hornets?" said De Bracy; "of stingless drones rather; a band
of lazy knaves, who take to the wood, and destroy the venison
rather than labour for their maintenance."
"Stingless!" replied Front-de-Boeuf; "fork-headed shafts of a
cloth-yard in length, and these shot within the breadth of a
French crown, are sting enough."
"For shame, Sir Knight!" said the Templar. "Let us summon our
people, and sally forth upon them. One knight---ay, one
man-at-arms, were enough for twenty such peasants."
"Enough, and too much," said De Bracy; "I should only be ashamed
to couch lance against them."
"True," answered Front-de-Boeuf; "were they black Turks or Moors,
Sir Templar, or the craven peasants of France, most valiant De
Bracy; but these are English yeomen, over whom we shall have no
advantage, save what we may derive from our arms and horses,
which will avail us little in the glades of the forest. Sally,
saidst thou? we have scarce men enough to defend the castle. The
best of mine are at York; so is all your band, De Bracy; and we
have scarcely twenty, besides the handful that were engaged in
this mad business."
"Thou dost not fear," said the Templar, "that they can assemble
in force sufficient to attempt the castle?"
"Not so, Sir Brian," answered Front-de-Boeuf. "These outlaws
have indeed a daring captain; but without machines, scaling
ladders, and experienced leaders, my castle may defy them."
"Send to thy neighbours," said the Templar, "let them assemble
their people, and come to the rescue of three knights, besieged
by a jester and a swineherd in the baronial castle of Reginald
"You jest, Sir Knight," answered the baron; "but to whom should I
send?---Malvoisin is by this time at York with his retainers, and
so are my other allies; and so should I have been, but for this
"Then send to York, and recall our people," said De Bracy. "If
they abide the shaking of my standard, or the sight of my Free
Companions, I will give them credit for the boldest outlaws ever
bent bow in green-wood."
"And who shall bear such a message?" said Front-de-Boeuf; "they
will beset every path, and rip the errand out of his bosom.---I
have it," he added, after pausing for a moment---"Sir Templar,
thou canst write as well as read, and if we can but find the
writing materials of my chaplain, who died a twelvemonth since in
the midst of his Christmas carousals---"
"So please ye," said the squire, who was still in attendance, "I
think old Urfried has them somewhere in keeping, for love of the
confessor. He was the last man, I have heard her tell, who ever
said aught to her, which man ought in courtesy to address to maid
"Go, search them out, Engelred," said Front-de-Boeuf; "and then,
Sir Templar, thou shalt return an answer to this bold challenge."
"I would rather do it at the sword's point than at that of the
pen," said Bois-Guilbert; "but be it as you will."
He sat down accordingly, and indited, in the French language, an
epistle of the following tenor:---"Sir Reginald Front-de-Boeuf,
with his noble and knightly allies and confederates, receive no
defiances at the hands of slaves, bondsmen, or fugitives. If the
person calling himself the Black Knight have indeed a claim to
the honours of chivalry, he ought to know that he stands degraded
by his present association, and has no right to ask reckoning at
the hands of good men of noble blood. Touching the prisoners we
have made, we do in Christian charity require you to send a man
of religion, to receive their confession, and reconcile them with
God; since it is our fixed intention to execute them this morning
before noon, so that their heads being placed on the battlements,
shall show to all men how lightly we esteem those who have
bestirred themselves in their rescue. Wherefore, as above, we
require you to send a priest to reconcile them to God, in doing
which you shall render them the last earthly service."
This letter being folded, was delivered to the squire, and by him
to the messenger who waited without, as the answer to that which
he had brought.
The yeoman having thus accomplished his mission, returned to the
head-quarters of the allies, which were for the present
established under a venerable oak-tree, about three arrow-flights
distant from the castle. Here Wamba and Gurth, with their allies
the Black Knight and Locksley, and the jovial hermit, awaited
with impatience an answer to their summons. Around, and at a
distance from them, were seen many a bold yeoman, whose silvan
dress and weatherbeaten countenances showed the ordinary nature
of their occupation. More than two hundred had already
assembled, and others were fast coming in. Those whom they
obeyed as leaders were only distinguished from the others by a
feather in the cap, their dress, arms, and equipments being in
all other respects the same.
Besides these bands, a less orderly and a worse armed force,
consisting of the Saxon inhabitants of the neighbouring township,
as well as many bondsmen and servants from Cedric's extensive
estate, had already arrived, for the purpose of assisting in his
rescue. Few of these were armed otherwise than with such rustic
weapons as necessity sometimes converts to military purposes.
Boar-spears, scythes, flails, and the like, were their chief
arms; for the Normans, with the usual policy of conquerors, were
jealous of permitting to the vanquished Saxons the possession or
the use of swords and spears. These circumstances rendered the
assistance of the Saxons far from being so formidable to the
besieged, as the strength of the men themselves, their superior
numbers, and the animation inspired by a just cause, might
otherwise well have made them. It was to the leaders of this
motley army that the letter of the Templar was now delivered.
Reference was at first made to the chaplain for an exposition of
"By the crook of St Dunstan," said that worthy ecclesiastic,
"which hath brought more sheep within the sheepfold than the
crook of e'er another saint in Paradise, I swear that I cannot
expound unto you this jargon, which, whether it be French or
Arabic, is beyond my guess."
He then gave the letter to Gurth, who shook his head gruffly, and
passed it to Wamba. The Jester looked at each of the four
corners of the paper with such a grin of affected intelligence as
a monkey is apt to assume upon similar occasions, then cut a
caper, and gave the letter to Locksley.
"If the long letters were bows, and the short letters broad
arrows, I might know something of the matter," said the brave
yeoman; "but as the matter stands, the meaning is as safe, for
me, as the stag that's at twelve miles distance."
"I must be clerk, then," said the Black Knight; and taking the
letter from Locksley, he first read it over to himself, and then
explained the meaning in Saxon to his confederates.
"Execute the noble Cedric!" exclaimed Wamba; "by the rood, thou
must be mistaken, Sir Knight."
"Not I, my worthy friend," replied the knight, "I have explained
the words as they are here set down."
"Then, by St Thomas of Canterbury," replied Gurth, "we will have
the castle, should we tear it down with our hands!"
"We have nothing else to tear it with," replied Wamba; "but mine
are scarce fit to make mammocks of freestone and mortar."
"'Tis but a contrivance to gain time," said Locksley; "they dare
not do a deed for which I could exact a fearful penalty."
"I would," said the Black Knight, "there were some one among us
who could obtain admission into the castle, and discover how the
case stands with the besieged. Methinks, as they require a
confessor to be sent, this holy hermit might at once exercise his
pious vocation, and procure us the information we desire."
"A plague on thee, and thy advice!" said the pious hermit; "I
tell thee, Sir Slothful Knight, that when I doff my friar's
frock, my priesthood, my sanctity, my very Latin, are put off
along with it; and when in my green jerkin, I can better kill
twenty deer than confess one Christian."
"I fear," said the Black Knight, "I fear greatly, there is no one
here that is qualified to take upon him, for the nonce, this same
character of father confessor?"
All looked on each other, and were silent.
"I see," said Wamba, after a short pause, "that the fool must be
still the fool, and put his neck in the venture which wise men
shrink from. You must know, my dear cousins and countrymen, that
I wore russet before I wore motley, and was bred to be a friar,
until a brain-fever came upon me and left me just wit enough to
be a fool. I trust, with the assistance of the good hermit's
frock, together with the priesthood, sanctity, and learning which
are stitched into the cowl of it, I shall be found qualified to
administer both worldly and ghostly comfort to our worthy master
Cedric, and his companions in adversity."
"Hath he sense enough, thinkst thou?" said the Black Knight,
"I know not," said Gurth; "but if he hath not, it will be the
first time he hath wanted wit to turn his folly to account."
"On with the frock, then, good fellow," quoth the Knight, "and
let thy master send us an account of their situation within the
castle. Their numbers must be few, and it is five to one they
may be accessible by a sudden and bold attack. Time wears---away
"And, in the meantime," said Locksley, "we will beset the place
so closely, that not so much as a fly shall carry news from
thence. So that, my good friend," he continued, addressing
Wamba, "thou mayst assure these tyrants, that whatever violence
they exercise on the persons of their prisoners, shall be most
severely repaid upon their own."
"Pax vobiscum," said Wamba, who was now muffled in his religious
And so saying he imitated the solemn and stately deportment of a
friar, and departed to execute his mission.