Read The Story of the Sestina of Chivalry, free online book, by James Branch Cabell, on ReadCentral.com.

In this place we have to do with the opening tale of the Dizain of Queens.  I abridge, as afterward, at discretion; and an initial account of the Barons’ War, among other superfluities, I amputate as more remarkable for veracity than interest.  The result, we will agree at outset, is that to the Norman cleric appertains whatever these tales may have of merit, whereas what you find distasteful in them you must impute to my delinquencies in skill rather than in volition.

Within the half hour after de Giars’ death (here one overtakes Nicolas mid-course in narrative) Dame Alianora thus stood alone in the corridor of a strange house.  Beyond the arras the steward and his lord were at irritable converse.

First, “If the woman be hungry,” spoke a high and peevish voice, “feed her.  If she need money, give it to her.  But do not annoy me.”

“This woman demands to see the master of the house,” the steward then retorted.

“O incredible Boeotian, inform her that the master of the house has no time to waste upon vagabonds who select the middle of the night as an eligible time to pop out of nowhere.  Why did you not do so in the beginning, you dolt?” The speaker got for answer only a deferential cough, and very shortly continued:  “This is remarkably vexatious. Vox et praeterea nihil which signifies, Yeck, that to converse with women is always delightful.  Admit her.”  This was done, and Dame Alianora came into an apartment littered with papers, where a neat and shriveled gentleman of fifty-odd sat at a desk and scowled.

He presently said, “You may go, Yeck.”  He had risen, the magisterial attitude with which he had awaited her entrance cast aside.  “Oh, God!” he said; “you, madame!” His thin hands, scholarly hands, were plucking at the air.

Dame Alianora had paused, greatly astonished, and there was an interval before she said, “I do not recognize you, messire.”

“And yet, madame, I recall very clearly that some thirty years ago the King-Count Raymond Berenger, then reigning in Provence, had about his court four daughters, each one of whom was afterward wedded to a king.  First, Meregrett, the eldest, now regnant in France; then Alianora, the second and most beautiful of these daughters, whom troubadours hymned as the Unattainable Princess.  She was married a long while ago, madame, to the King of England, Lord Henry, third of that name to reign in these islands.”

Dame Alianora’s eyes were narrowing.  “There is something in your voice,” she said, “which I recall.”

He answered:  “Madame and Queen, that is very likely, for it is a voice which sang a deal in Provence when both of us were younger.  I concede with the Roman that I have somewhat deteriorated since the reign of Cynara.  Yet have you quite forgotten the Englishman who made so many songs of you?  They called him Osmund Heleigh.”

“He made the Sestina of Spring which won the violet crown at my betrothal,” the Queen said; and then, with eagerness:  “Messire, can it be that you are Osmund Heleigh?” He shrugged assent.  She looked at him for a long time, rather sadly, and demanded if he were the King’s man or of the barons’ party.

The nervous hands were raised in deprecation.  “I have no politics,” Messire Heleigh began, and altered it, gallantly enough, to, “I am the Queen’s man, madame.”

“Then aid me, Osmund,” she said.

He answered with a gravity which singularly became him, “You have reason to understand that to my fullest power I will aid you.”

“You know that at Lewes these swine overcame us.”  He nodded assent.  “Now they hold the King, my husband, captive at Kenilworth.  I am content that he remain there, for he is of all the King’s enemies the most dangerous.  But, at Wallingford, Leicester has imprisoned my son, Prince Edward.  The Prince must be freed, my Osmund.  Warren de Basingbourne commands what is left of the royal army, now entrenched at Bristol, and it is he who must liberate my son.  Get me to Bristol, then.  Afterward we will take Wallingford.”  The Queen issued these orders in cheery, practical fashion, and did not admit opposition into the account, for she was a capable woman.

“But you, madame?” he stammered.  “You came alone?”

“I come from France, where I have been entreating and vainly entreating succor from yet another monkish king, the holy Lewis of that realm.  Eh, what is God about when He enthrones these whining pieties!  Were I a king, were I even a man, I would drive these smug English out of their foggy isle in three days’ space!  I would leave alive not one of these curs that dare yelp at me!  I would ” She paused, anger veering into amusement.  “See how I enrage myself when I think of what your people have made me suffer,” the Queen said, and shrugged her shoulders.  “In effect, I skulked back in disguise to this detestable island, accompanied by Avenel de Giars and Hubert Fitz-Herveis.  To-night some half-dozen fellows robbers, thorough knaves, like all you English, attacked us on the common yonder and slew the men of our party.  While they were cutting de Giars’ throat I slipped away in the dark and tumbled through many ditches till I spied your light.  There you have my story.  Now get me an escort to Bristol.”

It was a long while before Messire Heleigh spoke.  Then, “These men,” he said “this de Giars and this Fitz-Herveis they gave their lives for yours, as I understand it, pro caris amicis.  And yet you do not grieve for them.”

“I shall regret de Giars,” the Queen acknowledged, “for he made excellent songs.  But Fitz-Herveis? foh! the man had a face like a horse.”  Again her mood changed.  “Many persons have died for me, my friend.  At first I wept for them, but now I am dry of tears.”

He shook his head.  “Cato very wisely says, ’If thou hast need of help, ask it of thy friends.’  But the sweet friend that I remember was a clean eyed girl, joyous and exceedingly beautiful.  Now you appear to me one of those ladies of remoter times Faustina, or Jael, or Artemis, the King’s wife of Tauris, they that slew men, laughing.  I am somewhat afraid of you, madame.”

She was angry at first; then her face softened.  “You English!” she said, only half mirthful.  “Eh, my God! you remember me when I was a high hearted young sorceress.  Now the powers of the Apsarasas have departed from me, and time has thrust that Alianora, who was once the Unattainable Princess, chin deep in misery.  Yet even now I am your Queen, messire, and it is not yours to pass judgment upon me.”  “I do not judge you,” he returned.  “Rather I cry with him of old, Omnia incerta ratione! and I cry with Salomon that he who meddles with the strife of another man is like to him that takes a hound by the ears.  Yet listen, madame and Queen.  I cannot afford you an escort to Bristol.  This house, of which I am in temporary charge, is Longaville, my brother’s manor.  Lord Brudenel, as you doubtless know, is of the barons’ party and scant cause for grief! is with Leicester at this moment.  I can trust none of my brother’s people, for I believe them to be of much the same opinion as those Londoners who not long ago stoned you and would have sunk your barge in Thames River.  Oh, let us not blink the fact that you are not overbeloved in England.  So an escort is out of the question.  Yet I, madame, if you so elect, will see you safe to Bristol.”

“You?  Singly?” the Queen demanded.

“My plan is this:  Singing folk alone travel whither they will.  We will go as jongleurs, then.  I can yet manage a song to the viol, I dare affirm.  And you must pass as my wife.”

He said this with simplicity.  The plan seemed unreasonable, and at first Dame Alianora waved it aside.  Out of the question!  But reflection suggested nothing better; it was impossible to remain at Longaville, and the man spoke sober truth when he declared any escort other than himself to be unprocurable.  Besides, the lunar madness of the scheme was its strength; that the Queen would venture to cross half England unprotected and Messire Heleigh on the face of him was a paste-board buckler was an event which Leicester would neither anticipate nor on report credit.  There you were! these English had no imagination.  The Queen snapped her fingers and said:  “Very willingly will I be your wife, my Osmund.  But how do I know that I can trust you?  Leicester would give a deal for me; he would pay any price for the pious joy of burning the Sorceress of Provence.  And you are not wealthy, I suspect.”

“You may trust me, mon bel esper,” his eyes here were those of a beaten child “because my memory is better than yours.”  Messire Osmund Heleigh gathered his papers into a neat pile.  “This room is mine.  To-night I keep guard in the corridor, madame.  We will start at dawn.”

When he had gone, Dame Alianora laughed contentedly.  “Mon bel esper! my fairest hope!  The man called me that in his verses thirty years ago!  Yes, I may trust you, my poor Osmund.”

So they set out at cockcrow.  He had procured for himself a viol and a long falchion, and had somewhere got suitable clothes for the Queen; and in their aging but decent garb the two approached near enough to the appearance of what they desired to be thought.  In the courtyard a knot of servants gaped, nudged one another, but openly said nothing.  Messire Heleigh, as they interpreted it, was brazening out an affair of gallantry before the countryside; and they esteemed his casual observation that they would find a couple of dead men on the common exceedingly diverting.

When the Queen asked him the same morning, “And what will you sing, my Osmund?  Shall we begin the practise of our new profession with the Sestina of Spring?” old Osmund Heleigh grunted out:  “I have forgotten that rubbish long ago. Omnis amans, amens, saith the satirist of Rome town, and with reason.”

Followed silence.

One sees them thus trudging the brown, naked plains under a sky of steel.  In a pageant the woman, full-veined and comely, her russet gown girded up like a harvester’s might not inaptly have prefigured October; and for less comfortable November you could nowhere have found a symbol more precise than her lank companion, humorously peevish under his white thatch of hair, and constantly fretted by the sword tapping at his ankles.

They made Hurlburt prosperously and found it vacant, for the news of Falmouth’s advance had driven the villagers hillward.  There was in this place a child, a naked boy of some two years, lying on a doorstep, overlooked in his elders’ gross terror.  As the Queen with a sob lifted this boy the child died.

“Starved!” said Osmund Heleigh; “and within a stone’s throw of my snug home!”

The Queen laid down the tiny corpse, and, stooping, lightly caressed its sparse flaxen hair.  She answered nothing, though her lips moved.

Past Vachel, scene of a recent skirmish, with many dead in the gutters, they were overtaken by Falmouth himself, and stood at the roadside to afford his troop passage.  The Marquess, as he went by, flung the Queen a coin, with a jest sufficiently high flavored.  She knew the man her inveterate enemy, knew that on recognition he would have killed her as he would a wolf; she smiled at him and dropped a curtsey.

“This is remarkable,” Messire Heleigh observed.  “I was hideously afraid, and am yet shaking.  But you, madame, laughed.”

The Queen replied:  “I laughed because I know that some day I shall have Lord Falmouth’s head.  It will be very sweet to see it roll in the dust, my Osmund.”

Messire Heleigh somewhat dryly observed that tastes differed.

At Jessop Minor befell a more threatening adventure.  Seeking food at the Cat and Hautbois in that village, they blundered upon the same troop at dinner in the square about the inn.  Falmouth and his lieutenants were somewhere inside the house.  The men greeted the supposed purveyors of amusement with a shout; and one of these soldiers a swarthy rascal with his head tied in a napkin demanded that the jongleurs grace their meal with a song.

Osmund tried to put him off with a tale of a broken viol.

But, “Haro!” the fellow blustered; “by blood and by nails! you will sing more sweetly with a broken viol than with a broken head.  I would have you understand, you hedge thief, that we gentlemen of the sword are not partial to wordy argument.”  Messire Heleigh fluttered inefficient hands as the men-at-arms gathered about them, scenting some genial piece of cruelty.  “Oh, you rabbit!” the trooper jeered, and caught at Osmund’s throat, shaking him.  In the act this rascal tore open Messire Heleigh’s tunic, disclosing a thin chain about his neck and a handsome locket, which the fellow wrested from its fastening.  “Ahoi!” he continued.  “Ahoi, my comrades, what sort of minstrel is this, who goes about England all hung with gold like a Cathedral Virgin!  He and his sweetheart” the actual word was grosser “will be none the worse for an interview with the Marquess.”

The situation smacked of awkwardness, because Lord Falmouth was familiar with the Queen, and to be brought specifically to his attention meant death for two detected masqueraders.  Hastily Osmund Heleigh said: 

“Messire, the locket contains the portrait of a lady whom in my youth I loved very greatly.  Save to me, it is valueless.  I pray you, do not rob me of it.”

But the trooper shook his head with drunken solemnity.  “I do not like the looks of this.  Yet I will sell it to you, as the saying is, for a song.”

“It shall be the king of songs,” said Osmund, “the song that Arnaut Daniel first made.  I will sing for you a Sestina, messieurs, a Sestina in salutation of Spring.”

The men disposed themselves about the dying grass, and presently he sang.

Sang Messire Heleigh: 

  “Awaken! for the servitors of Spring
  Proclaim his triumph! ah, make haste to see
  With what tempestuous pageantry they bring
  The victor homeward! haste, for this is he
  That cast out Winter and all woes that cling
  To Winter’s garments, and bade April be!

  “And now that Spring is master, let us be
  Content, and laugh, as anciently in spring
  The battle-wearied Tristan laughed, when he
  Was come again Tintagel-ward, to bring
  Glad news of Arthur’s victory and see
  Ysoude, with parted lips, that waver and cling.

  “Not yet in Brittany must Tristan cling
  To this or that sad memory, and be
  Alone, as she in Cornwall; for in spring
  Love sows against far harvestings, and he
  Is blind, and scatters baleful seed that bring
  Such fruitage as blind Love lacks eyes to see!”

Osmund paused here for an appreciable interval, staring at the Queen.  You saw his flabby throat a-quiver, his eyes melting, saw his cheeks kindle, and youth seeping into the lean man like water over a crumbling dam.  His voice was now big and desirous.

Sang Messire Heleigh: 

  “Love sows, but lovers reap; and ye will see
  The loved eyes lighten, feel the loved lips cling,
  Never again when in the grave ye be
  Incurious of your happiness in spring,
  And get no grace of Love there, whither he
  That bartered life for love no love may bring.

  “No braggart Heracles avails to bring
  Alcestis hence; nor here may Roland see
  The eyes of Aude; nor here the wakening spring
  Vex any man with memories:  for there be
  No memories that cling as cerements cling,
  No force that baffles Death, more strong than he.

  “Us hath he noted, and for us hath he
  An hour appointed; and that hour will bring
  Oblivion. Then, laugh!  Laugh, dear, and see
  The tyrant mocked, while yet our bosoms cling,
  While yet our lips obey us, and we be
  Untrammeled in our little hour of spring!

  “Thus in the spring we jeer at Death, though he
  Will see our children perish and will briny
  Asunder all that cling while love may be.”

Then Osmund put the viol aside and sat quite silent.  The soldiery judged, and with cordial frankness stated, that the difficulty of his rhyming scheme did not atone for his lack of indecency, but when the Queen of England went among them with Messire Heleigh’s faded green hat she found them liberal.  Even the fellow with the broken head admitted that a bargain was proverbially a bargain, and returned the locket with the addition of a coin.  So for the present these two went safe, and quitted the Cat and Hautbois fed and unmolested.

“My Osmund,” Dame Alianora said, presently, “your memory is better than I had thought.”

“I remembered a boy and a girl,” he returned.  “And I grieved that they were dead.”

Afterward they plodded on toward Bowater, and the ensuing night rested in Chantrell Wood.  They had the good fortune there to encounter dry and windless weather and a sufficiency of brushwood, with which Osmund constructed an agreeable fire.  In its glow these two sat, eating bread and cheese.

But talk languished at the outset.  The Queen had complained of an ague, and Messire Heleigh was sedately suggesting three spiders hung about the neck as an infallible corrective for this ailment, when Dame Alianora rose to her feet.  “Eh, my God!” she said; “I am wearied of such ungracious aid!  Not an inch of the way but you have been thinking of your filthy books and longing to be back at them!  No; I except the moments when you were frightened into forgetfulness first by Falmouth, then by the trooper.  O Eternal Father! afraid of a single dirty soldier!”

“Indeed, I was very much afraid,” said Messire Heleigh, with perfect simplicity; “timidus perire, madame.

“You have not even the grace to be ashamed!  Yet I am shamed, messire, that Osmund Heleigh should have become the book-muddled pedant you are.  For I loved young Osmund Heleigh.”

He also had risen in the firelight, and now its convulsive shadows marred two dogged faces.  “I think it best not to recall that boy and girl who are so long dead.  And, frankly, madame and Queen, the merit of the business I have in hand is questionable.  It is you who have set all England by the ears, and I am guiding you toward opportunities for further mischief.  I must serve you.  Understand, madame, that ancient folly in Provence yonder has nothing to do with the affair.  Count Manuel left you:  and between his evasion and your marriage you were pleased to amuse yourself with me ”

“You were more civil then, my Osmund ”

“I am not uncivil, I merely point out that this old folly constitutes no overwhelming obligation, either way.  I cry nihil ad Andromachen! For the rest, I must serve you because you are a woman and helpless; yet I cannot forget that he who spares the wolf is the sheep’s murderer.  It would be better for all England if you were dead.  Hey, your gorgeous follies, madame!  Silver peacocks set with sapphires!  Cloth of fine gold ”

“Would you have me go unclothed?” Dame Alianora demanded, pettishly.

“Not so,” Osmund retorted; “again I say to you with Tertullian, ’Let women paint their eyes with the tints of chastity, insert into their ears the Word of God, tie the yoke of Christ about their necks, and adorn their whole person with the silk of sanctity and the damask of devotion.’  I say to you that the boy you wish to rescue from Wallingford, and make King of England, is freely rumored to be not verily the son of Sire Henry but the child of tall Manuel of Poictesme.  I say to you that from the first you have made mischief in England.  And I say to you ”

But Dame Alianora was yawning quite frankly.  “You will say to me that I brought foreigners into England, that I misguided the King, that I stirred up strife between the King and his barons.  Eh, my God!  I am sufficiently familiar with the harangue.  Yet listen, my Osmund:  They sold me like a bullock to a man I had never seen.  I found him a man of wax, and I remoulded him.  They asked of me an heir for England:  I provided that heir.  They gave me England as a toy; I played with it.  I was the Queen, the source of honor, the source of wealth the trough, in effect, about which swine gathered.  Never since I came into England, Osmund, has any man or woman loved me; never in all my English life have I loved man or woman.  Do you understand, my Osmund? the Queen has many flatterers, but no friends.  Not a friend in the world, my Osmund!  And so the Queen made the best of it and amused herself.”

Somewhat he seemed to understand, for he answered without asperity: 

“Mon bel esper, I do not find it anywhere in Holy Writ that God requires it of us to amuse ourselves; but upon many occasions we have been commanded to live righteously.  We are tempted in divers and insidious ways.  And we cry with the Psalmist, ’My strength is dried up like a potsherd.’  But God intends this, since, until we have here demonstrated our valor upon Satan, we are manifestly unworthy to be enregistered in God’s army.  The great Captain must be served by proven soldiers.  We may be tempted, but we may not yield.  O daughter of the South! we must not yield!”

“Again you preach,” Dame Alianora said.  “That is a venerable truism.”

Ho, madame,” he returned, “is it on that account the less true?”

Pensively the Queen considered this.  “You are a good man, my Osmund,” she said, at last, “though you are very droll.  Ohimè! it is a pity that I was born a princess!  Had it been possible for me to be your wife, I would have been a better woman.  I shall sleep now and dream of that good and stupid and contented woman I might have been.”  So presently these two slept in Chantrell Wood.

Followed four days of journeying.  As Messer Dante had not yet surveyed Malebolge, Osmund Heleigh and Dame Alianora lacked a parallel for that which they encountered; their traverse discovered England razed, charred, and depopulate picked bones of an island, a vast and absolute ruin about which passion-wasted men skulked like rats.  Messire Heleigh and the Queen traveled without molestation; malice and death had journeyed before them on this road, and had swept it clear.

At every trace of these hideous precessors Osmund Heleigh would say, “By a day’s ride I might have prevented this.”  Or, “By a day’s ride I might have saved this woman.”  Or, “By two days’ riding I might have fed this child.”

The Queen kept Spartan silence, but daily you saw the fine woman age.  In their slow advance every inch of misery was thrust before her for inspection; meticulously she observed and evaluated her handiwork.  Enthroned, she had appraised from a distance the righteous wars she set afoot; trudging thus among the debris of these wars, she found they had unsuspected aspects.  Bastling the royal army had recently sacked.  There remained of this village the skeletons of two houses, and for the rest a jumble of bricks, rafters half-burned, many calcined fragments of humanity, and ashes.  At Bastling, Messire Heleigh turned to the Queen toiling behind.

Oh, madame!” he said, in a dry whisper, “this was the home of so many men!”

“I burned it,” Dame Alianora replied.  “That man we passed just now I killed.  Those other men and women my folly slew them all.  And little children, my Osmund!  The hair like flax, blood-dabbled!”

Oh, madame!” he wailed, in the extremity of his pity.

For she stood with eyes shut, all gray.  The Queen demanded:  “Why have they not slain me?  Was there no man in England to strangle the proud wanton?  Are you all cowards here?”

He said:  “I detect only one coward in the affair.  Your men and Leicester’s men also ride about the world, and draw sword and slay and die for the right as they see it.  And you and Leicester contend for the right as ye see it.  But I, madame!  I!  I, who sat snug at home spilling ink and trimming rose-bushes!  God’s world, madame, and I in it afraid to speak a word for Him!  God’s world, and a curmudgeon in it grudging God the life He gave!” The man flung out his soft hands and snarled:  "We are tempted in divers and insidious ways. But I, who rebuked you! behold, now, with how gross a snare was I entrapped!” “I do not understand, my Osmund.”

“I was afraid, madame,” he returned, dully.  “Everywhere men fight, and I am afraid to die.”

So they stood silent in the ruins of Bastling.

“Of a piece with our lives,” Dame Alianora said at last.  “All ruin, my Osmund.”

But Messire Heleigh threw back his head and laughed, new color in his face.  “Presently men will build here, my Queen.  Presently, as in legend was re-born the Arabian bird, arises from these ashes a lordlier and more spacious town.”

They went forward.  The next day chance loosed upon them Gui Camoys, lord of Bozon, Foliot, and Thwenge, who, riding alone through Poges Copse, found there a man and a woman over their limited supper.  The woman had thrown back her hood, and Camoys drew rein to stare at her.  Lispingly he spoke the true court dialect.

“Ma belle,” said this Camoys, in friendly condescension, “n’estez vous pas jongleurs?”

Dame Alianora smiled up at him.  “Ouais, messire; mon mary faict les chancons ” She paused, with dilatory caution, for Camoys had leaped from his horse, giving a great laugh.

“A prize! ho, an imperial prize!” Camoys shouted.  “A peasant woman with the Queen’s face, who speaks French!  And who, madame, is this?  Have you by any chance brought pious Lewis from oversea?  Have I bagged a brace of monarchs?”

Here was imminent danger, for Camoys had known the Queen some fifteen years.  Messire Heleigh rose, his five days’ beard glinting like hoar-frost as his mouth twitched.

“I am Osmund Heleigh, messire, younger brother to the Earl of Brudenel.”

“I have heard of you, I believe the fellow who spoils parchment.  This is odd company, however, Messire Osmund, for Brudenel’s brother.”

“A gentleman must serve his Queen, messire.  As Cicero very justly observes ”

“I am inclined to think that his political opinions are scarcely to our immediate purpose.  This is a high matter, Messire Heleigh.  To let the sorceress pass is, of course, out of the question; upon the other hand, I observe that you lack weapons of defence.  Yet if you will have the kindness to assist me in unarming, your courtesy will place our commerce on more equal footing.”

Osmund had turned very white.  “I am no swordsman, messire

“Now, this is not handsome of you,” Camoys began.  “I warn you that people will speak harshly of us if we lose this opportunity of gaining honor.  And besides, the woman will be burned at the stake.  Plainly, you owe it to all three of us to fight.”

“ But I refer my cause to God.  I am quite at your service.”  “No, my Osmund!” Dame Alianora then cried.  “It means your death.”

He spread out his hands.  “That is God’s affair, madame.”

“Are you not afraid?” she breathed.

“Of course I am afraid,” said Messire Heleigh, irritably.

After that he unarmed Camoys, and presently they faced each other in their tunics.  So for the first time in the journey Osmund’s long falchion saw daylight.  He had thrown away his dagger, as Camoys had none.

The combat was sufficiently curious.  Camoys raised his left hand.  “So help me God and His saints, I have upon me neither bone, stone, nor witchcraft wherethrough the power and the word of God might be diminished or the devil’s power increased.”

Osmund made similar oath.  “Judge Thou this woman’s cause!” he cried, likewise.

Then Gui Camoys shouted, as a herald might have done, “Laissez les aller, laissez les aller, laissez les aller, les bons combatants!” and warily each moved toward the other.

On a sudden Osmund attacked, desperately apprehensive of his own cowardice.  Camoys lightly eluded him and slashed at Osmund’s undefended thigh, drawing much blood.  Osmund gasped.  He flung away his sword, and in the instant catching Camoys under the arms, threw him to the ground.  Messire Heleigh fell with his opponent, who in stumbling had lost his sword, and thus the two struggled unarmed, Osmund atop.  But Camoys was the younger man, and Osmund’s strength was ebbing rapidly by reason of his wound.  Now Camoys’ tethered horse, rearing with nervousness, tumbled his master’s flat-topped helmet into the road.  Osmund caught up this helmet and with it battered Camoys in the face, dealing severe blows.

“God!” Camoys cried, his face all blood.

“Do you acknowledge my quarrel just?” said Osmund, between horrid sobs.

“What choice have I?” said Gui Camoys, very sensibly.

So Osmund rose, blind with tears and shivering.  The Queen bound up their wounds as best she might, but Camoys was much dissatisfied.

“For private purposes of His own, madame,” he observed, “and doubtless for sufficient reasons, God has singularly favored your cause.  I am neither a fool nor a pagan to question His decision, and you two may go your way unhampered.  But I have had my head broken with my own helmet, and this I consider to be a proceeding very little conducive toward enhancing my reputation.  Of your courtesy, messire, I must entreat another meeting.”

Osmund shrank as if from a blow.  Then, with a short laugh, he conceded that this was Camoys’ right, and they fixed upon the following Saturday, with Poges Copse as the rendezvous.

“I would suggest that the combat be to the death,” Gui Camoys said, “in consideration of the fact it was my own helmet.  You must undoubtedly be aware, Messire Osmund, that such an affront is practically without any parallel.”

This, too, was agreed upon.

Then, after asking if they needed money, which was courteously declined, Gui Camoys rode away, and sang as he went.  Osmund Heleigh remained motionless.  He raised quivering hands to the sky.

“Thou hast judged!” he cried.  “Thou hast judged, O puissant Emperor of Heaven!  Now pardon!  Pardon us twain!  Pardon for unjust stewards of Thy gifts!  Thou hast loaned this woman dominion over England, with all instruments to aid Thy cause, and this trust she has abused.  Thou hast loaned me life and manhood, agility and wit and strength, all instruments to aid Thy cause.  Talents in a napkin, O God!  Repentant we cry to Thee.  Pardon for unjust stewards!  Pardon for the ungirt loin, for the service shirked, for all good deeds undone!  Pardon and grace, O King of kings!”

Thus he prayed, while Gui Camoys sang, riding deeper into the tattered, yellowing forest.  By an odd chance Camoys had lighted on that song made by Thibaut of Champagne, beginning Signor, saciez, ki or ne s’en ira, which denounces all half-hearted servitors of Heaven; and this he sang with a lilt gayer than his matter countenanced.  Faintly there now came to Osmund and the Queen the sound of Camoys’ singing, and they found it, in the circumstances, ominously apt.

Sang Camoys: 

  “Et vos, par qui je n’ci onques aie,
  Descendez luit en infer parfont.”

Dame Alianora shivered.  But she was a capable woman, and so she said:  “I may have made mistakes.  But I am sure I never meant any harm, and I am sure, too, that God will be more sensible about it than are you poets.”

They slept that night in Ousley Meadow, and the next afternoon came safely to Bristol.  You may learn elsewhere with what rejoicing the royal army welcomed the Queen’s arrival, how courage quickened at sight of the generous virago.  In the ebullition Messire Heleigh was submerged, and Dame Alianora saw nothing more of him that day.  Friday there were counsels, requisitions, orders signed, a memorial despatched to Pope Urban, chief of all a letter (this in the Queen’s hand throughout) privily conveyed to the Lady Maude de Mortemer, who shortly afterward contrived Prince Edward’s escape from her husband’s gaolership.  There was much sowing of a seed, in fine, that eventually flowered victory.  There was, however, no sign of Osmund Heleigh, though by Dame Alianora’s order he was sought.

On Saturday at seven in the morning he came to her lodging, in complete armor.  From the open helmet his wrinkled face, showing like a wizened nut in a shell, smiled upon her questionings.

“I go to fight Gui Camoys, madame and Queen.”

Dame Alianora wrung her hands.  “You go to your death.”

He answered:  “That is true.  Therefore I am come to bid you farewell.”

The Queen stared at him for a while; on a sudden she broke into a curious fit of deep but tearless sobbing, which bordered upon laughter, too.

“Mon bel esper,” said Osmund Heleigh, gently, “what is there in all this worthy of your sorrow?  The man will kill me; granted, for he is my junior by some fifteen years, and is in addition a skilled swordsman.  I fail to see that this is lamentable.  Back to Longaville I cannot go after recent happenings; there a rope’s end awaits me.  Here I must in any event shortly take to the sword, since a beleaguered army has very little need of ink-pots; and shortly I must be slain in some skirmish, dug under the ribs perhaps by a greasy fellow I have never seen.  I prefer a clean death at a gentleman’s hands.”

“It is I who bring about your death!” she said.  “You gave me gallant service, and I have requited you with death, and it is a great pity.”

“Indeed the debt is on the other side.  The trivial services I rendered you were such as any gentleman must render a woman in distress.  Naught else have I afforded you, madame, save very anciently a Sestina.  Ho, a Sestina!  And in return you have given me a Sestina of fairer make, a Sestina of days, six days of manly common living.”  His eyes were fervent.

She kissed him on either cheek.  “Farewell, my champion!”

“Ay, your champion.  In the twilight of life old Osmund Heleigh rides forth to defend the quarrel of Alianora of Provence.  Reign wisely, my Queen, so that hereafter men may not say I was slain in an evil cause.  Do not, I pray you, shame my maiden venture at a man’s work.”

“I will not shame you,” the Queen proudly said; and then, with a change of voice:  “O my Osmund!  My Osmund, you have a folly that is divine, and I lack it.”

He caught her by each wrist, and stood crushing both her hands to his lips, with fierce staring.  “Wife of my King! wife of my King!” he babbled; and then put her from him, crying, “I have not failed you!  Praise God, I have not failed you!”

From her window she saw him ride away, a rich flush of glitter and color.  In new armor with a smart emblazoned surcoat the lean pedant sat conspicuously erect; and as he went he sang defiantly, taunting the weakness of his flesh.

Sang Osmund Heleigh: 

  “Love sows, but lovers reap; and ye will see
  The loved eyes lighten, feel the loved lips cling
  Never again when in the grave ye be
  Incurious of your happiness in spring,
  And get no grace of Love, there, whither he
  That bartered life for love no love may bring.”

So he rode away and thus out of our history.  But in the evening Gui Camoys came into Bristol under a flag of truce, and behind him heaved a litter wherein lay Osmund Heleigh’s body.

“For this man was frank and courteous,” Camoys said to the Queen, “and in the matter of the reparation he owed me acted very handsomely.  It is fitting that he should have honorable interment.”

“That he shall not lack,” the Queen said, and gently unclasped from Osmund’s wrinkled neck the thin gold chain, now locketless.  “There was a portrait here,” she said; “the portrait of a woman whom he loved in his youth, Messire Camoys.  And all his life it lay above his heart.”

Camoys answered stiffly:  “I imagine this same locket to have been the object which Messire Heleigh flung into the river, shortly before we began our combat.  I do not rob the dead, madame.”

“Well,” the Queen said, “he always did queer things, and so, I shall always wonder what sort of lady he picked out to love, but it is none of my affair.”

Afterward she set to work on requisitions in the King’s name.  But Osmund Heleigh she had interred at Ambresbury, commanding it to be written on his tomb that he died in the Queen’s cause.

How the same cause prospered (Nicolas concludes), how presently Dame Alianora reigned again in England and with what wisdom, and how in the end this great Queen died a nun at Ambresbury and all England wept therefor this you may learn elsewhere.  I have chosen to record six days of a long and eventful life; and (as Messire Heleigh might have done) I say modestly with him of old, Majores majora sonent. Nevertheless, I assert that many a forest was once a pocketful of acorns.