Read CHAPTER XII - A STRANGE BRIDAL. of The Lord of Dynevor, free online book, by Evelyn Everett-Green, on ReadCentral.com.

“My prince, tempt me not.  It is hard to refuse; but there are some things no man may do with honour, and, believe me, honour is dearer to me than life, dearer even than liberty; though Heaven alone knows how dear that is to every free-born son of Cambria.  I to leave my brother to wear away his days in captivity whilst I escape under his name!  Prince Alphonso, I know not what you think my heart is made of.  Am I to live in freedom, whilst he whom I love best in the world bears the burden of my fault, and lingers out his young life within the walls of the king’s prison?”

Alphonso looked searchingly in Wendot’s face, and realized for the first time the youth’s absolute ignorance of his brother’s state.  No wonder he refused with scorn the proffered boon!  Yet it would be a hard task to break the sad tidings to one who so deeply loved his gentle younger brother, from childhood his chosen comrade.

Alphonso was lying on a couch in one of the smaller state apartments of Windsor Castle, and the window, close to which he had bidden his attendants wheel him, overlooked the beautiful valley of the Thames.  The first of the autumn tints were gilding the rich stretches of woodland, whilst a faint blue haze hung over the distance, and the river ran like a silver thread, glinting here and there into golden brightness as some brighter ray of sunlight fell upon it.

Alphonso loved the view commanded by this window.  He and Griffeth spent many long happy hours here, looking out on the fair prospect, and exchanging whispered thoughts and bright aspirations with regard to some land even fairer than the one they now beheld.

But Wendot never looked at the beautiful valley without experiencing a strange oppression of spirit.  It reminded him of that wilder valley of the Towy, and his eyes would grow dim and his heart sick with the fruitless longing after home, which grew harder and harder to hear with every week of captivity, now that his bodily health was restored.  Captivity was telling upon him, and he was pining as an eagle pines when caught and shut up by man even in a gilded cage.  He looked pale and wan and wistful.  Often he felt stifled by the warm, close air of the valley, and felt that he must die did he not escape to the freer air of the mountains.

But he seldom spoke of these feelings even to Griffeth, and strangely enough his illness and these homesick longings produced upon his outer man an effect which was wonderfully favourable to the plan fermenting in the brains of the royal children and their immediate companions.

Wendot had lost the sturdiness of figure, the brown colouring, and the strength of limb which had distinguished him in old days from Griffeth.  A striking likeness had always existed between the brothers, whose features were almost identical, and whose height and contours were the same.  Now that illness had sharpened the outlines of Wendot’s face, had reduced his fine proportions, and had given to him something of the hollow-eyed wistfulness of expression which Griffeth had so long worn, this likeness became so remarkable that few in the castle knew one brother from the other.  Knowing this, they both answered indifferently to the name of either, and any change of personality would be managed without exciting the smallest fear of remark.

Wendot had been perplexed at times by the persistence with which he had been addressed as Griffeth, even when he was certain that the speaker was one of the few who knew him and his brother apart; but he had not troubled his head much over the matter until this day, when Alphonso had openly spoken to him of the plan that was in their minds, and had bidden him prepare for a secret flight from the castle, promising that there should be no ardent search after him, as Wendot, and not Griffeth, was the culprit who had fallen under the royal displeasure, and the king would care little for the escape of the younger brother so long as he held the ex-Lord of Dynevor in his own safe keeping.

Wendot’s indignant refusal to leave his brother and make good his own escape showed Alphonso how little he realized Griffeth’s condition, and with gentle sympathy, but with candour and frankness, he explained to the elder brother how short would be the period of Griffeth’s captivity ­ how soon and how complete the release for which he was patiently and happily waiting.

Wendot gave a great start as the meaning of Alphonso’s words first broke upon him, and then he buried his face in his hands, and sat motionless, neither answering nor moving.  Alphonso looked at him, and by-and-by put out his own wasted hand and laid it upon Wendot’s knee.

“Does it seem a sad thing to thee, Wendot?  Believe me, there is no sadness for Griffeth in the thought.  Nay, is it not a blessed thing to know that soon, very soon, we shall be free of this weary burden of pain and sickness and weakness, and laying all aside will pass away to the land of which the seer of old foretold that ’the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest.’  Thou knowest not, perhaps, the sweetness of those words, but I know it well, and Griffeth likewise.

“Nay, Wendot, thou must learn not to grudge him the rest and the bliss of yon bright land.  In this world he could look for nothing save wearing weakness and lingering pain.  Thou shouldst be glad that the fiat has gone forth, and that the end may not be far off ­ the end of trouble and sorrow; for of the glory that shall follow there shall be no end.”

But Wendot broke in hoarsely and impetuously.

“If he must die, let him at least die in freedom, with the old hills around him; let him be laid to rest beneath their shadow.  You say that he might well escape; that no cry would be made after him so long as I were in the king’s safe keeping.  Let him then fly.  Let him fly to Llewelyn and Arthyn.  They will give him tendance and a home.  He shall not die in prison, away from all that he holds dear.  I cannot brook the thought!”

“Nay, Wendot,” answered Alphonso with a kindling smile, “thou needest not grieve for thy brother because that he is here.  Ask him ­ take it not from my lips; but I will tell thee this, that where thou art and where I am is the place where Griffeth would fain end his days.  Ah! thou canst not understand, good youth, how when the great and wonderful call comes for the human soul, how lightly press the fetters of the flesh; how small these things of time and place appear that erst have been of such moment.  Griffeth and I are treading the same path at the same time, and I think not even the offer of a free pardon and unfettered liberty would draw him from my side.

“Moreover, Wendot, he could not take the journey of which thou speakest.  The keen autumn air, which will give thee strength and vigour, would but lay him low on the bed from which he would never rise.  His heart is here with me.  Think not that thou art wronging him in taking his name.  The one load lying now upon his heart is the thought that he is leaving thee in captivity.  Let him but know that thou art free ­ that he has been thy helper in thy flight ­ and he will have nought left to wish for in this world.  His soul will be at peace.”

Wendot rose and paced through the chamber, and then returned to the side of the prince.  His face betrayed many conflicting emotions.  He spoke with bitterness and impetuosity.

“And what good is life to me if I take you at your word and fly this spot?  Have I not lost all that makes life worth living?  My lands given to my traitorous kinsman; the brother who has been more to me than life lying in a foreign grave.  What use is life to one so lonely and bereft?  Where should I fly? what should I do?  I have never lived alone.  I have always had another to live for and to love.  Methinks death would be the better thing than such a loveless life.”

“And why should thy life be loveless, Wendot?” asked Alphonso, with kindling eyes and a brightening smile.  “Dost not thou know? ­ does not thine own heart tell thee that one faithful heart beats for thee and thee alone?  Have I not seen thee with her times and again?  Have not your eyes told eloquent secrets ­ though I know not what your lips have said ­”

Wendot’s face was all in a glow, but he broke in hastily: 

“Prince, prince, speak not of her.  If I have been beguiled, if I have betrayed the feelings which I cannot help, but which I must hold sternly in check ­ be not thou the one to taunt me with my weakness.  There is none like her in the world.  I have known it for long.  But even because I know it so well I may not even dream of her.  It is not with me as of old, when her father spoke to me of troth plight.  I am a beggar, an outcast, a prisoner.  She is rich, honoured, courted.  She is the brightest star of the court ­”

“And she loveth thee, Wendot,” interposed Alphonso firmly.  “She has loved thee from childhood with a faithful and true love which merits better things than to be cast aside as if it were but dross.  What are lands and gold to a woman if her lover share them not?  Is it meet that she should suffer so cruelly simply because her father has left her well endowed?  Wendot, on Lord Montacute’s dying bed this daughter of his avowed her love for thee, and he gave her his blessing and bade her act as she would.  Art thou, then, to be the one to break her heart, ay, and thine own, too, because thou art too proud to take more than thou canst give?

“Fie, man! the world is wide and thou art young.  Thou hast time to win thy spurs and bring home noble spoil to lay at thy lady’s feet.  Only let not pride stand in the way of her happiness and thine own.  Thou hast said that life is dark and drear unless it be shared with some loved one.  Then how canst thou hold back, when thou hast confessed thine own love and learned that hers is thine?  Take it, and be grateful for the treasure thou hast won, and fear not but that thou wilt bring as much as thou wilt receive.  There are strange chances in the fate of each one of us.  Who knows but that thou and she will not yet reign again in the halls of Dynevor?”

Wendot started and flushed, and again paced down the whole length of the room.  When he returned to the window Alphonso had gone, and in his place stood Gertrude herself, her sweet face dyed rosy red with blushes, her hands half stretched out towards him, her lips quivering with the intensity of her emotion.

He paused just one moment looking at her, and then holding out his arms, he said: 

“Gertrude!”

Next moment she was clasped in his close embrace, and was shedding happy tears upon his shoulder.

“Oh!” said Gertrude at last, in a soft whisper, “it was worth waiting for this.  I never thought I could have been so happy.”

“Joanna ­ Alphonso, it is all settled.  He will leave the castle with me.  He will help me now in the care of my lands.  But he will not move whilst Griffeth lives.  And I think he is right.  They have so loved each other, and he will not leave his brother to die amongst strangers in captivity.”

“It is like him,” said Joanna eagerly.  “Gertrude, thou hast found a very proper knight, as we told thee from the first, when he was but a lad, and held the Eagle’s Crag against a score of men.  But ye must be wedded soon, that there be no delay when once the poor boy be gone.  Every day he looks more shadowy and frail.  Methinks that our softer air ill suits him, for he hath dwindled to a mere shadow since he came.  You will not have to wait long.”

“Joanna speaks the truth,” said Alphonso, half sadly, half smilingly.  “He will not be with us long.  But it is very true that this marriage must be privately celebrated, and that without delay, that when the day comes when ‘Griffeth’ flies from the castle, he and his wife may go together.”

“Ay, and my chaplain will make them man and wife, and breathe not a word to any man,” cried Joanna, who, now that she was older, had her own retinue of servants, equal in number to those of her sister, by whom she was dearly loved for her generosity and frankness, so that she could always command ready and willing obedience to any expressed wish of hers.

“You think he will?  O Joanna, when shall it be?”

“It shall be at midnight in the chapel,” said the girl, with the prompt decision which characterized her.  “Not tonight, but three nights from this.  Leave all things in my hands, sweet Gertrude; I will see that nought is lacking to bind thee lawfully to thy lord.  My chaplain is a good and holy man from the west country.  He loveth those poor Welsh who are prisoners here, and spends much of his time in ministering to them.  He loves thy future lord and his dying brother, and he knows somewhat of our plan, for I have revealed it in the confessional, and he has not chided me for it.

“Oh, I can answer for him.  He will be glad that thou shouldst find so proper a knight; and he is kind of heart, and stanch to my service.  Fear not, sweet Gertrude:  ere three days have gone by thou shalt be a wedded wife; and when the time comes thou mayest steal away with him thy plighted lord, and trust thy sister Joanna to make thy peace with the king, if he be in any way angered or grieved.”

Gertrude threw herself into Joanna’s arms and kissed her a hundred times; and Joanna laughed, and said she deserved much credit for plotting to rid herself of her dearest friend, but was none the less loyal to the cause because Gertrude’s gain would be her loss.

So there came a strange night, never to be forgotten by those who witnessed the proceedings, when Wendot ap Res Vychan and the Lady Gertrude Cherleton stood at midnight before the altar in the small private chapel of the castle, whilst the chaplain of the Princess Joanna’s private suite made them man and wife according to the law of the Church.  And of the few spectators who witnessed the ceremony two were of royal blood ­ Alphonso and Joanna ­ and beside them were only one or two attendants, sworn to secrecy, and in full sympathy with the youthful lovers thus plighting their troth and being united in wedlock at one and the same time.

Griffeth was not of the number who was present to witness this ceremony.  He was unable to rise from his bed, a sudden access of illness having overtaken him, possibly as the result of the excitement of hearing what was about to take place.

When the solemn words had been spoken, and the bride was led away by her proud and happy spouse ­ happy even in the midst of so much peril and sorrow in the thought of the treasure he had won ­ she paused at the door of her apartments, whither he would have left her (for so long as they remained within the walls of the castle they would observe the same manner of life as before), and glancing into his face said softly: 

“May I not go with thee to tell the news to Griffeth?”

“Ay, well bethought,” said Alphonso, who was leaning on Wendot’s other arm, the distance through the long passages being somewhat fatiguing to him.  “Let us go and show to him thy wife.  None will rejoice more than he to know that she is thine in very truth, and that none can take her from thee.”

Griffeth’s room was nigh at hand, and thither Wendot led his bride.  A taper was burning beside the bed, and the sick youth lay propped up with pillows, his breath coming in laboured gasps, though his eyes were bright and full of comprehension as Wendot led the slim, white-robed figure to his side.

But the elder brother was startled at the change he saw in his patient since he had left him last.  There was something in his look that struck chill upon his heart.  He came forward and took the feeble hand in his.  It was deadly cold, and the unearthly radiance upon the lad’s face was as significant in its own way.  Had not their mother looked at them with just such a smile when she had slipped away into another world, whilst they were trying to persuade themselves that she was better?

“My sister Gertrude,” whispered Griffeth.  “Oh, I am so happy!  You will be good to him ­ you will comfort him.

“Wendot ­ Gertrude ­” he made a faint effort, and joined their hands together; and then, as if his last earthly task was accomplished, he seemed to look right on beyond them, whilst a strange expression of awe and wonder shone from his closing eyes.

“Howel,” he whispered ­ “father ­ mother ­ oh, I am coming!  Take me with you.”

Then the head fell backwards, the light vanished from the eyes, the cold hand fell nervelessly from Wendot’s grasp, and they knew that Griffeth was the king’s prisoner no longer.

Three days later the Lady Gertrude Cherleton said farewell to her royal companions, and started forth for her own estates in Derbyshire, which she had purposed for some time to visit.  Perhaps had the minds of those in the castle been free to wonder at anything so trivial as the movements of the young heiress, they would have felt surprise at her selecting this time to betake herself to a solitary and independent existence, away from all her friends and playmates; but the mortal illness of the Prince Alphonso occupied the whole attention of the castle.  The remains of the so-called Wendot, late of Dynevor, had been laid to rest with little ceremony and no pomp, and the very existence of the other brother was almost forgotten in the general dismay and grief which permeated through all ranks of people both within and without the castle walls.

The lady had a small but sufficient retinue; but it was considered rather strange that she should not start until the dusk had begun to gather round the castle, so that the confusion of the start was a good deal increased from the darkness which was stealing upon the place.  Had there been much time or attention free, it might have been noted by a keen observer that Lady Gertrude had added to her personal attendants one who looked like a tall and stout woman, though her hood was so closely drawn that her face was seen by none of the warders, who, however, let her pass unchallenged:  for she rode beside her mistress, and was evidently in the position of a trusted companion; for the lady was speaking to her as they passed out through the gate, and there could certainly be no reason for offering any obstruction to any servant of hers.

If there were any fear or excitement in Gertrude’s breast as she and her husband passed out of the gate and rode quickly along the path which led through the town, she did not betray it by look or gesture.  Her eagerness was mainly showed by a desire to push on northward as fast as possible, and the light of a full harvest moon made travelling almost as easy as by day.  On they rode, by sleeping hamlets and dreaming pastures, until the lights of Windsor lay twinkling in the dim, hazy distance miles away.

Then Gertrude suddenly threw back her hood, and leaning towards her companion ­ they two had outridden their followers some time before ­ cried in a strange, tense voice: 

“O Wendot husband, thou art free!  Tomorrow will see us safe within those halls of which thou art rightful lord.  Captivity, trouble, peril is at an end.  Nothing can greatly hurt us now, for are we not one in bonds that no man may dissever?”

“My noble, true-hearted wife,” said Wendot, in accents of intense feeling; and then he leaned forward and kissed her in the whispering wood, and they rode forward through the glades of silvery moonlight towards the new life that was awaiting them beyond.

“Hills, wild rocks, woods, and water!” cried Wendot, with a sudden kindling gleam in his eyes.  “O Gertrude, thou didst not tell me the half!  I never guessed that England had aught so like home as this.  Truly it might be Dynevor itself ­ that brawling torrent, those craggy fells, and these gray stone walls.  And to be free ­ free to breathe the fresh wind, to go where the fancy prompts, to be loosed from all control save the sweet bonds that thou boldest me in, dearest!  Ah, my wife, thou knowest not what thou hast done for me.  How shall I thank thee for the boon?”

“Why, by being thine old self again, Vychan,” said Gertrude, who was standing by her husband’s side on a natural terrace of rock above the Hall which was to be their home.  She had brought him out early in the morning to see the sun rise upon their home, and the rapture of his face, the passionate joy she saw written there, was more than she had hoped for.

“Thou hast grown old and worn of late, too saddened, too grave for thy years.  Thou must grow young again, and be the bright-faced youth to whom I gave my heart.  Thy youth is not left so far behind but what thou canst recall it ere it be too late.”

“In sooth I shall grow young again here, sweetheart,” quoth Wendot, or Vychan, as we must call him now.  He had an equal right to that name with his father, though for convenience he had always been addressed by the other; and now that Lady Gertrude had brought her husband home, he was to be known as Res Vychan, one of the descendants of the last princes of South Wales, who had taken his wife’s name also, as he was now the ruler of her land; so, according to the fashion of the English people, he would henceforth be known as Vychan Cherleton.  His brother’s name he could not bear to hear applied to himself, and it was left to Joanna to explain matters to the king and queen when the chance should arrive.  None else need ever know that the husband of the Lady Gertrude had ever been a captive of Edward’s; and the name of Griffeth ap Res Vychan disappears from the ken of the chroniclers as if it had never been known that he was once a prisoner in England.

There was no pursuit made after the missing Welshman.  The king and queen had other matters to think of, and the fondness of their son for the youth would have been protection enough even if he had not begged with his dying breath that his father would forgive and forget.  Lady Gertrude and her husband did not come to court for very many years; and by the time they did so, Vychan Cherleton’s loyalty and service to the English cause were too well established for any one to raise a question as to his birth or race.

If the king and queen ever knew they had been outwitted by their children, they did not resent that this had been so, nor that an act of mercy had been contrived greater than they might have felt justified in ratifying.

But all this was yet in the future.  As Vychan and his wife stood on that high plateau overlooking the fair valley of the Derwent, it seemed to Gertrude as though during the past three days her husband had undergone some subtle change.  There was a new light in his eyes; his frame had lost its drooping air of languor; he had stood the long days of rough riding without the smallest fatigue.  It really seemed as if the old Wendot had come back again, and she smilingly asked him how it was that he had gained such strength in so short a time.

“Ah, that question is soon answered, sweet wife.  It is freedom that is the elixir of life to us sons of Cambria.  I know not if your English-born men can brook the sense of fetter and constraint, but it is death to us.

“Let us not think of it more.  That page has closed for ever; and never shall it reopen, for sooner will I die than fall alive into the hands of a foe.  Nay, sweetest Gertrude, look not so reproachfully at me.  Thou shalt soon see that I mean not to die, but to live for thee.  Here in this fair, free spot we begin our new life together.  It may be even yet ­ for see, is not that bright sky, illumined by those quivering shafts of light athwart our path, an omen of good? ­ that as thou showest me this fair spot with which thou hast endowed me, I may one day show thee again and endow thee with the broad lands of Dynevor.”