Ensign Knightley and Other Stories

The Princess Joceliande

A.E.W. Mason

THE TRUTH concerning the downfall of the Princess Joceliande has never as yet been honestly inscribed. Doubtless there be few alive except myself that know it; for from the beginning many strange and insidious rumours were set about to account for her mishap, whereby great damage was done to the memory of the Sieur Rudel le Malaise and Solita his wife; and afterwards these rumours were so embroidered and painted by rhymesters that the truth has become, as you might say, doubly lost. For minstrels take more thought of tickling the fancies of those to whom they sing with joyous and gallant histories than of their high craft and office, and hence it is that though many and various accounts are told to this day throughout the country-side by grandsires at their winter hearths, not one of them has so much as a grain of verity. They are but rude and homely versions of the chaunts of Troubadours.

And yet the truth is sweet and pitiful enough to furnish forth a song, were our bards so minded. Howbeit, I will set it down here in simple prose; for so my duty to the Sieur Rudel bids me, and, moreover, ’twas from this event his wanderings began wherein for twenty years I bare him company.

And let none gainsay my story, for that I was not my master’s servant at the time, and saw not the truth with mine own eyes. I had it from the Sieur Rudel’s lips, and more than once when he was vexed at the aspersions thrown upon his name. But he was ever proud, as befitted so knightly a gentleman, and deigned not to argue or plead his honour to the world, but only with his sword. Thus, then, it falls to me to right him as skilfully as I may. Though, alas! I fear my skill is little worth, and calumnies are ever fresh to the palate, while truth needs the sauce of a bright fancy to command it.

These columnies have assuredly gained some credit, because with ladies my lord was ever blithe and débonnaire. That he loved many I do not deny; but while he loved, he loved right loyally, and, indeed, it is no small honour to be loved by a man of so much worship, even for a little—the which many women thought also, and those amongst the fairest. And I doubt not that as long as she lived, he loved his wife Solita no less ardently than those with whom he fell in after she had most unfortunately died.

The Sieur Rudel was born within the castle of Princess Joceliande, and there grew to childhood and from childhood to youth, being ever entreated with great amity and love for his own no less than for his father’s sake. Though of a slight and delicate figure, he excelled in all manly exercises and sports and in venery and hawking. There was not one about the court that could equal him. Books too he read, and in many languages, labouring at philosophies and logics, so that had you but heard him speak, and not marked the hardihood of his limbs and his open face, you might have believed you were listening to some doxical monk.

In the tenth year of his age came Solita to the castle, whence no man knew, nor could they ever learn more than this, that she sailed out of the grey mists of a November morning to our bleak Brittany coast in a white-painted boat. A fisherman drew the boat to land, perceiving it when he was casting his nets, and found a woman-child therein, cushioned upon white satin; and marvelling much at the richness of her purveyance, for even the sail of the boat was of white silk, he bore her straightway to the castle. And the abbot took her and baptised her and gave her Sola for a name. “For,” said he, “she hath come alone and none knoweth her parentage or place.” In time she grew to exceeding beauty, with fair hair clustering like finest silk above her temples and curling waywardly about her throat; wondrous fair she was and white, shaming the snowdrops, so that all men stopped and gazed at her as she passed.

And the Princess Joceliande, perceiving her, joined her to the company of her hand-maidens and took great delight in her for her modesty and beauty, so that at last she changed her name. “Sola have you been called till now,” she said, “but henceforth shall your name be Solita, as who shall say ‘you have become my wont.’”

Meanwhile the Sieur Rudel was advanced from honour to honour, until he stood ever at the right hand of the Princess, and ruled over her kingdom as her chancellor and vicegerent. Her enemies he conquered and added their lands and sovereignties to hers, until of all the kings in those parts, none had such power and dominions as the Princess Joceliande. Many ladies, you may believe, cast fond eyes on him, and dropped their gauntlet that he might bend to them upon his knee and pick it up, but his heart they could not bend, strive how they might, and to each and all he showed the same courtesy and gentleness. For he had seen the maiden Solita, and of an evening when the Court was feasting in the hall and the music of harps rippled sweetly in the ears, he would slip from the table as one that was busied in statecraft, and in company with Solita pace the terrace in the dark, beneath the lighted windows. Yet neither spoke of love, though loving was their intercourse. Solita for that her modesty withheld her, and she feared even to hope that so great a lord should give his heart to her keeping; Rudel because he had not achieved enough to merit she should love him. “In a little,” he would mutter, “in a little! One more thing must I do, and then will I claim my guerdon of the Princess Joceliande.”

Now this one more thing was the highest and most dangerous emprise of all that he had undertaken. Beyond the confines of the kingdom there dwelt a great horde of men that had come to Brittany from the East in many deep ships and had settled upon the coast, whence they would embark and, travelling hard by the land, burn and ravage the sea-borders for many days.

Against these did the Sieur Rudel make war, and gathering the nobles and yeomen he mustered them in boats and prepared to sail forth to what he believed was the last of his adventures, knowing not that it was indeed but the beginning. And to the princess he said: “Lady, I have served you faithfully, as a gentleman should serve his queen. From nothing have I drawn back that could establish or increase you. Therefore when I get me home again, one boon will I ask of you, and I pray you of your mercy grant it me.”

“I will well,” replied the princess. “For such loyal service hath no queen known before—nay, not even Dame Helen among the Trojans.”

So right gladly did the Sieur Rudel depart from her, and down he walked among the sandhills, where he found Solita standing in a hollow in the midst of a cloud of sand which the sharp wind whirled about her. Nothing she said to him, but she stood with downcast head and eyes that stung with tears.

“Solita,” said he, “the Princess hath granted me such boon as I may ask on my return. What say you?”

And she answered in a low voice. “Who am I, my lord, that I should oppose the will of the princess? A nameless maiden, meet only to yoke with a nameless yeoman!”

At that the Sieur Rudel laughed and said, “Look you into a mirror, sweet! and your face will gainsay your words.”

She lifted her eyes to his and the light came into them again, so that they danced behind the tears, and Rudel clipped her about the waist for all that he had not as yet merited her, and kissed her upon the lips and the forehead and upon her white hands and wrists.

But she, gazing past his head, saw the blowing sands beyond and the armed men in the boats upon the sea, and “O, Rudel, my sweet lord!” she cried, “never till this moment did I know how barren and lonely was the coast. Come back, and that soon—for of a truth I dread to be left alone!”

“In God’s good time and if so He will, I will come back, and from the moment of my coming I will never again depart from you.”

“Promise me that!” she said, clinging to him with her arms twined about his neck, and he promised her, and so, comforting her a little more, he got him into his boat and sailed away upon his errand.

But of all this, the Princess Joceliande knew nothing. From her balcony in the castle she saw the Sieur Rudel sail forth. He stood upon the poop, the wind blowing the hair back from his face, and as she watched his straight figure, she said, “A boon he shall ask, but a greater will I grant. Surely no man ever did such loyal service but for love, and for love’s sake, he shall share my throne with me.” With that she wept a little for fear he might be slain or ever he should return; but she remembered from how many noble exploits he had come scatheless, and so taking heart once more she fell to thinking of his black locks and clear olive face and darkly shining eyes. For, in truth, these outward qualities did more enthral and delight her than his most loyal services.

But for the maiden Solita, she got her back to her chamber and, remembering her lord’s advice, spied about for a mirror. No mirror, however, did she possess, having never used aught else but a basin of clear water, and till now found it all-sufficient, so little curious had she been concerning the whiteness of her beauty. Thereupon she thought for a little, and unbinding her hair so that it fell to her feet in a golden cloud, hied her to Joceliande, who bade her take a book of chivalry and read aloud. But Solita so bent her head that her hair fell ever across the pages and hindered her from reading, and each time she put it roughly back from her forehead with some small word of anger as though she was vexed.

“What ails you, child?” asked the princess.

“It is my hair,” replied Solita. But the princess paid no heed. She heard little, indeed, even of what was read, but sat by the window gazing out across the grey hungry sea, and bethinking her of the Sieur Rudel and his gallant men. And again Solita let her hair fall upon the scroll, and again she tossed it back, saying, “Fie! Fie!”

“What ails you, child?” the princess asked.

“It is my hair,” she replied, and Joceliande, smiling heedlessly, bade her read on. So she read until Joceliande bade her stop and called to her, and Solita came over to the window and knelt by the side of the princess, so that her hair fell across the wrist of Joceliande and fettered it. “It is ever in the way,” said Solita, and she loosed it from the wrist of the princess. But the princess caught the silky coils within her hand and smoothed them tenderly. “That were easily remedied,” she replied with a smile, and she sought for the scissors which hung at her girdle.

But Solita bethought her that many men had praised the colour and softness of her hair—why, she could not tell, for dark locks alone were beautiful in her eyes. Howbeit men praised hers, and for Sieur Rudel’s sake she would fain be as praiseworthy as might be. Therefore she stayed Joceliande’s hand and cried aloud in fear, “Nay, nay, sweet lady, ’tis all the gold I have, and I pray you leave it me who am so poor.”

And the Princess Joceliande laughed, and replaced the scissors in her girdle. “I did but make pretence, to try you,” she said, “for, in truth, I had begun to think you were some holy angel and no woman, so little share had you in a woman’s vanities. But ’tis all unbound, and I wonder not that it hinders you. Let me bind it up!”

And while the princess bound the hair cunningly in a coronal upon her head, Solita spake again hesitatingly, seeking to conceal her craft.

“Madame, it is easy for you to bind my hair, but for myself, I have no mirror and so dress it awkwardly.”

Joceliande laughed again merrily at the words. “Dear heart!” she cried. “What man is it? Hast discovered thou art a woman after all? First thou fearest for thy hair, and now thou askest a mirror. But in truth I like thee the better for thy discovery.” And she kissed Solita very heartily, who blushed that her secret was so readily found out, and felt no small shame at her lack of subtlety. For many ladies, she knew, had secrets—ay, even from their bosom lords and masters—-and kept them without effort in the subterfuge, whereas she, poor fool, betrayed hers at the first word.

“And what man is it?” laughed the princess. “For there is not one that deserves thee, as thou shalt judge for thyself.” Whereupon she summoned one of her servants and bade him place a mirror in the bed-chamber of Solita, wherein she might see herself from top to toe.

“Art content?” she asked. “Thus shalt thou see thyself, without blemish or fault even for this crown of hair to the heel of thy foot. But I fear me the sight will change all thy thoughts and incline thee to scorn of thy suitor.”

Then she stood for a little watching the sunlight play upon the golden head and pry into the soft shadows of the curls, and her face saddened and her voice faltered.

“But what of me, Solita?” she said. “All men give me reverence, not one knows me for a woman. I crave the bread of love, all day long I hunger for it, but they offer me the polished stones of courtesy and respect, and so I starve slowly to my death. What of me, Solita? What of me?”

But Solita made reply, soothing her:

“Madame,” she said, “all your servants love you, but it beseems them not to flaunt it before your face, so high are you placed above them. You order their fortunes and their lives, and surely ’tis nobler work than meddling with this idle love-prattle.”

“Nay,” replied the princess, laughing in despite of her heaviness, for she noted how the blush on Solita’s cheek belied the scorn of her tongue. “There spoke the saint, and I will hear no more from her now that I have found the woman. Tell me, did he kiss you?”

And Solita blushed yet more deeply, so that even her neck down to her shoulders grew rosy, and once or twice she nodded her head, for her lips would not speak the word.

Then Joceliande sighed to herself and said—

“And yet, perchance, he would not die for you, whereas men die for me daily, and from mere obedience. How is he called?”

“Madame,” she replied, “I may not tell you, for all my pride in him. ’Twill be for my lord to answer you in his good time. But that he would die for me, if need there were, I have no doubt. For I have looked into his eyes and read his soul.”

So she spake with much spirit, upholding Sieur Rudel; but Joceliande was sorely grieved for that Solita would not trust her with her lover’s name, and answered bitterly:

“And his soul which you did see was doubtless your own image. And thus it will be with the next maiden who looks into his eyes. Her own image will she see, and she will go away calling it his soul, and not knowing, poor fool, that it has already faded from his eyes.”

At this Solita kept silence, deeming it unnecessary to make reply. It might be as the princess said with other men and other women, but the Sieur Rudel had no likeness to other men, and in possessing the Sieur Rudel’s love she was far removed from other women. Therefore did she keep silence, but Joceliande fancied that she was troubled by the words which she had spoken, and straightway repented her of them.

“Nay, child,” she said, and she laid her hand again upon Solita’s head. “Take not the speech to heart. ’Tis but the plaint of a woman whose hair is withered from its brightness and who grows peevish in her loneliness. But open your mind to me, for you have twined about my heart even as your curls did but now twine and coil about my wrist, and the more for this pretty vanity of yours. Therefore tell me his name, that I may advance him.”

But once more Solita did fob her off, and the princess would no longer question her, but turned her wearily to the window.

“All day long,” she said, “I listen to soft speeches and honeyed tongues, and all night long I listen to the breakers booming upon the sands, and in truth I wot not which sound is the more hollow.”

Such was the melancholy and sadness of her voice that the tears sprang into Solita’s eyes and ran down her cheeks for very pity of Joceliande.

“Think not I fail in love to you, sweet princess,” she cried. “But I may not tell you, though I would be blithe and proud to name him. But ’tis for him to claim me of you, and I must needs wait his time.”

But Joceliande would not be comforted, and chiding her roughly, sent her to her chamber. So Solita departed out of her sight, her heart heavy with a great pity, though little she understood of Joceliande’s distress. For this she could not know: that at the sight of her white beauty the Princess Joceliande was ashamed.

And coming into her chamber, Solita beheld the mirror ranged against the wall, and long she stood before it, being much comforted by the image which she saw. From that day ever she watched the ladies of the court, noting jealously if any might be more fair than she whom Sieur Rudel had chosen; and often of a night when she was troubled by the aspect of some fair and delicate new-comer, she would rise from her couch and light a taper, and so gaze at herself until the fear of her unworthiness diminished. For there were none that could compare with her in daintiness and fair looks ever came to the castle of the Princess Joceliande.

But of the Sieur Rudel, though oft she thought, she never spake, biding his good time, and the princess questioned her in vain. For she, whose heart hitherto had lain plain to see, like a pebble in a clear brook of water, had now learnt all the sweet cunning of love’s duplicity.

Thus the time drew on towards the Sieur Rudel’s home-coming, and ever the twain looked out across the sea for the black boats to round the bluff and take the beach—Joceliande from her balcony, Solita from the window of her little chamber in the tower; and each night the princess gave orders to light a beacon on the highest headland that the wayfarers might steer safely down that red path across the tumbling waters.

So it fell that one night both ladies beheld two ships swim to the shore, and each made dolorous moan, seeing how few of the goodly company that sailed forth had got them home again, and wondering in sore distress whether Rudel had returned with them or no.

But in a little there came a servant to the princess and told of one Sir Broyance de Mille-Faits, a messenger from the neighbouring kingdom of Broye, that implored instant speech with her. And being admitted before all the Court assembled in the great hall, he fell upon his knees at the foot of the princess, and, making his obeisance, said—

“Fair Lady Joceliande, I crave a boon, and I pray you of your gentleness to grant it me.”

“But what boon, good Sir Broyance?” replied the princess. “I know you for a true and loyal gentleman who has ever been welcome at my castle. Speak, then, your need, and if so be I may, you shall find me complaisant to your request.”

Thereupon, Sir Broyance took heart and said:

“Since our king died, God rest his soul, there has been no peace or quiet in our kingdom of Broye. ’Tis rent with strife and factions, so that no man may dwell in it but he must fight from morn to night, and withal win no rest for the morrow. The king’s three sons contend for the throne, and meanwhile is the country eaten up. Therefore am I sent by many, and those our chiefest gentlemen, to ask you to send us Sieur Rudel, that he may quell these conflicts and rule over us as our king.”

So Sir Broyance spake and was silent, and a great murmur and acclamation rose about the hall for that the Sieur Rudel was held in such honour and worship even beyond his own country. But for the Princess Joceliande, she sat with downcast head, and for a while vouchsafed no reply. For her heart was sore at the thought that Sieur Rudel should go from her.

“There is much danger in the adventure,” she said at length, doubtfully.

“Were there no danger, madame,” he replied, “we should not ask Sieur Rudel of you to be our leader, and great though the danger be, greater far is the honour. For we offer him a kingdom.”

Then the princess spake again to Sir Broyance:

“It may not be,” she said. “Whatever else you crave, that shall you have, and gladly will I grant it you. But the Sieur Rudel is the flower of our Court, he stands ever at my right hand, and woe is me if I let him go, for I am only a woman.”

“But, madame, for his knighthood’s sake, I pray you assent to our prayer,” said Sir Broyance. “Few enemies have you, but many friends, whereas we are sore pressed on every side.”

But the princess repeated: “I am only a woman,” and for a long while he made his prayer in vain.

At last, however, the princess said:

“For his knighthood’s sake thus far will I yield to you: Bide here within my castle until Sieur Rudel gets him home, and then shall you make your prayer to him, and by his answer will I be bound.”

“That I will well,” replied Sir Broyance, bethinking him of the Sieur Rudel’s valour, and how that he had a kingdom to proffer to him.

But the Princess Joceliande said to herself:

“I, too, will offer him a kingdom. My throne shall he share with me;” and so she entertained Sir Broyance right pleasantly until the Sieur Rudel should get him back from the foray. Meanwhile she would say to Solita, “He shall not go to Broye, for in truth I need him;” and Solita would laugh happily, replying, “It is truth: he will not go to Broye,” and thinking thereto silently, “but it is not the princess who will keep him, but even I, her poor handmaiden. For I have his promise never to depart from me.” So much confidence had her mirror taught her, as it ever is with women.

But despite them both did the Sieur Rudel voyage to Broye and rule over the kingdom as its king, and how that came about ye shall hear.

Now on the fourth day after the coming of Sir Broyance, the Princess Joceliande was leaning over the baluster of her balcony and gazing seawards as was her wont. The hours had drawn towards evening, and the sun stood like a glowing wheel upon the farthest edge of the sea’s grey floor, when she beheld a black speck crawl across its globe, and then another and another, to the number of thirty. Thereupon, she knew that the Sieur Rudel had returned, and joyfully she summoned her tirewomen and bade them coif and robe her as befitted a princess. A coronet of gold and rubies they set upon her head, and a robe of purple they hung about her shoulders. With pearls they laced her neck and her arms, and with pearls they shod her feet, and when she saw the ships riding at their anchorage, and the Sieur Rudel step forth amid the shouts of the sailors, then she hied her to the council-chamber and prepared to give him instant audience. Yet for all her jewels and rich attire, she trembled like a common wench at the approach of her lover, and feared that the loud beating of her heart would drown the sound of his footsteps in the passage.

But the Sieur Rudel came not, and she sent a messenger to inquire why he tarried, and the messenger brought word and said:

“He is with the maiden Solita in the tower.”

Then the princess stumbled as though she were about to fall, and her women came about her. But she waved them back with her hand, and so stood shivering for a little. “The night blows cold,” she said; “I would the lamps were lit.” And when her servants had lighted the council-chamber, she sent yet another messenger to Sieur Rudel, bidding him instantly come to her, and waited in great bitterness of spirit. For she remembered how that she had promised to grant him the boon that he should ask, and much she feared that she knew what that boon was.

Now leave we the Princess Joceliande, and hie before her messenger to the chamber of Solita. No pearls or purple robes had she to clad her beauty in, but a simple gown of white wool fastened with a silver girdle about the waist, and her hair she loosed so that it rippled down her shoulders and nestled round her ears and face.

Thither the Sieur Rudel came straight from the sea, and—

“Love,” he said, kissing her, “it has been a weary waste of days and nights, and yet more weary for thee than for me. For stern work was there ever to my hand—ay, and well-nigh more than I could do; but for thee nought but to wait.”

“Yet, my dear lord,” she replied, “the princess did give me this mirror, wherein I could see myself from top to toe, and a great comfort has it been to me.”

So she spake, and the messenger from the princess brake in upon them, bidding the Sieur Rudel hasten to the council-chamber, for that the Princess Joceliande waited this long while for his coming.

“Now will I ask for the fulfilment of her promise,” said Rudel to Solita, “and to-night, sweet, I will claim thee before the whole Court.” With that he got him from the chamber and, following the messenger, came to where the princess awaited him.

“Madame,” he said, “good tidings! By God’s grace we have won the victory over your enemies. Never again will they buzz like wasps about your coasts, but from this day forth they will pay you yearly truage.”

“Sir,” she replied, rebuking him shrewdly, “indeed you bring me good tidings, but you bring them over-late. For here have I tarried for you this long while, and it beseems neither you nor me.”

“Madame,” he answered, “I pray you acquit me of the fault and lay the blame on Love. For when sweet Cupid thrones a second queen in one’s heart beside the first, what wonder that a man forgets his duty? And now I would that of your gentleness you would grant me your maiden Solita for wife.”

“That I may not,” returned Joceliande, stricken to the soul at that image of a second queen. “A nameless child, and my handmaiden! Sieur Rudel, it befits a man to look above him for a wife.”

“And that, madame,” he answered, “in very truth I do. Moreover, though no man knows Solita’s parentage and place, yet must she be of gentle nurture, else had there been no silk sail to float her hitherwards; and so much it liketh you to grant my boon, for God’s love, I pray you, hold your promise.”

Thereupon was the princess sore distressed for that she had given her promise. Howbeit she said: “Since it is so, and since my maiden Solita is the boon you crave, I give her to you;” and so dismissed the Sieur Rudel from her presence, and getting her back to her chamber, made moan out of all measure.

“Lord Jesu,” she cried, “of all my kingdom and barony, but one thing did I hunger for and covet, and that one thing this child, whom of my kindness I loved and fostered, hath traitorously robbed me of! Why did I take her from the sea?”

So she wept for a great while, until she bethought her of a remedy. Then she wiped her tears and gave order that Sir Broyance should come to her. To him she said: “To-night at the high feast you shall make your prayer to the Lord Rudel, and I myself will join with you, so that he shall become your leader and rule over you as king.”

So she spake, thinking that when the Sieur Rudel had departed, she would privily put Solita to death—openly she dared not do it, for the great love the nobles bore towards Rudel—and when Solita was dead, then would she send again for Rudel and share her siege with him. Sir Broyance, as ye may believe, was right glad at her words, and made him ready for the feast. Hither, when the company was assembled, came the Sieur Rudel, clad in a green tunic edged with fur of a white fox, and a chain set with stones of great virtue about his neck. His hose were green and of the finest silk, and on his feet he wore shoes of white doeskin, and the latchets were of gold. So he came into the hall, and seeing him thus gaily attired with all his harness off, much did all marvel at his knightly prowess. For in truth he looked more like some tender minstrel than a gallant warrior. Then up rose Sir Broyance and said;

“From the kingdom of Broye the nobles send greeting to the Sieur Rudel, and a message.”

And with that he set forth his errand and request; but the Sieur Rudel laughed and answered:

“Sir Broyance, great honour you do me, and so, I pray, tell your countrymen of Broye. But never more will I draw sword or feuter spear, for this day hath the Princess Joceliande granted me her maiden Solita for wife, and by her side I will bide till death.”

Thereupon rose a great murmur of astonishment within the hall, the men lamenting that the Sieur Rudel would lead them no more to battle, and the women marvelling to each other that he should choose so mean a thing as Solita for wife. But Sir Broyance said never a word, but got him from the table and out of the hall, so that the company marvelled yet more for that he had not sought to persuade the Sieur Rudel. Then said the Princess Joceliande, and greatly was she angered both against Solita and Rudel:

“Fie, my lord! shame on you; you forget your knighthood!”

And he replied, “My knighthood, your highness, had but one use, and that to win my sweet Solita.”

Wherefore was Joceliande’s heart yet hotter against the twain, and she cried aloud:

“Nay, but it is on us that the shame of your cowardice will fall. Even now Sir Broyance left our hall in anger and scorn. It may not be that our chiefest noble shall so disgrace us.”

But Sieur Rudel laughed lightly, and answered her:

“Madame, full oft have I jeopardised my life in your good cause, and I fear no charge of cowardice more than I fear thistle-down.”

His words did but increase the fury of the princess, and she brake out in most bitter speech:

“Nay, but it is a kitchen knave we have been honouring unawares, and bidding sit with us at table!”

And straightway she called to her servants and bade them fetch the warden of the castle with the fetters. But the Sieur Rudel laughed again, and said:

“Thus it will be impossible that I leave my dear Solita and voyage perilously to Broye.”

Nor any effort or resistance did he make, but lightly suffered them to fetter him, the while the princess most foully mis-said him. With fetters they prisoned his feet, and manacles they straitly fastened about his wrists, and they bound him to a pillar in the hall by a chain about his middle.

“There shall you bide,” she said, “in shameful bonds until you make promise to voyage forth to Broye. For surely there is nothing so vile in all this world as a craven gentleman.”

With that she turned her again to the feast, though little heart she had thereto. But the Sieur Rudel was well content; for not for all the honour in Christendom would he break his word to his dear Solita. Howbeit, the nobles were ever urgent that the princess should set him free, pleading the worshipful deeds he had accomplished in her cause. But to none of them would she hearken, and the fair gentle ladies of the Court greatly applauded her for her persistence—and especially those who had erstwhile dropped their gauntlets that Rudel might bend and pick them up. And many pleasant jests they passed upon the Sieur Rudel, bidding him dance with them, since he was loth to fight. But he paid no heed to them, nor could they provoke him by any number of taunts. Whereupon, being angered at his silence, they were fain to send to Solita and make their sport with her.

But that Joceliande would not suffer, and, rising, she went to Solita’s chamber and entreated her most kindly, telling her that for love of her the Sieur Rudel would not adventure himself at Broye. Not a word did she say of how she had mistreated him, and Solita answered her jocundly for that her lord had held his pledge with her. But when the castle was still, the princess took Solita by the hand and led her down the steps to where Rudel stood against the pillar in the dark hall.

“For thy sake, sweet Solita,” she said, “is he bound. For thy sake!” and she made her feel the manacles upon his hands. And when Solita had so felt his bonds, she wept, and made the greatest sorrow that ever man heard.

“Alas!” she cried, “that my dear lord should suffer in such straits. In God’s mercy, madame, I pray you let him go! Loyal service hath he done for you, such as no other in the kingdom.”

“Loyal service, I trow,” replied the princess. “He hath brought such shame upon my Court that for ever am I dishonoured. It may not be that I let him go, without you give him back his word and bid him forth to Broye.”

“And that will I never do,” replied Solita, “for all your cruelty.”

So the princess turned her away and gat her from the hall, but Solita remained with her lord, making moan and easing his fetters with her hands as best she might. Hence it fell out that she who should have comforted must needs be comforted herself, and that the Sieur Rudel did right willingly.

The like, he would say to me, hath often happened to him since, and when he was harassed with sore distress he must needs turn him about to stop a woman’s tears; for which he thanked God most heartily, and prayed that so it might ever be, since thus he clean forgot his own sad plight. Whence, meseems, may men understand how noble a gentleman was my good lord the Sieur Rudel.

Now when the night was well spent and drawing on to dawn, Solita, for very weariness, fell asleep at the pillar’s foot, and Rudel began to take counsel with himself if, by any manner of means, he might outwit the Princess Joceliande. For this he saw, that she would not have him wed her handmaiden, and for that cause, and for no cowardice of his, had so cruelly entreated him. And when he had pondered a little with himself, he bent and touched Solita with his hands, and called to her in a low voice.

“Solita,” he said, “it is in Joceliande’s heart to keep us twain each from other. Rise, therefore, and get thee to the good abbot who baptised thee. Ever hath he stood my friend, and for friendship’s sake this thing he will do. Bring him hither into the hall, that he may marry us even this night, and when the morning comes I will tell the princess of our marriage; and so will she know that her cruelty is of small avail, and release me unto thee.”

Thereupon Solita rose right joyously.

“Surely, my dear lord,” said she, “no man can match thee, neither in craft nor prowess,” and she hurried through the dark passages towards the lodging of the abbot. Hard by this lodging was the chapel of the castle, and when she came thereto the windows were ablaze with light, and Solita clapped her ear to the door. But no sound did she hear, no, not so much as the stirring of a mouse, and bethinking her that the good abbot might be holding silent vigil, she gently pressed upon the door, so that it opened for the space of an inch; and when she looked into the chapel, she beheld the Princess Joceliande stretched upon the steps before the altar. Her coronet had fallen from her head and rolled across the stones, and she lay like one that had fallen asleep in the counting of her beads. Greatly did Solita marvel at the sight, but no word she said lest she should wake the princess; and in a little, becoming afeard of the silence and of the shadows which the flickering candles set racing on the wall, she shut the door quickly and stole on tiptoe to the abbot. Long she entreated him or ever she prevailed, for the holy man was timorous, and feared the wrath of the princess. But at the last, for the Sieur Rudel’s sake, he consented, and married them privily in the hall as the grey dawn was breaking across the sea.

Now, in the morning, the princess bid Solita be brought to her, and when they were alone, gently and cunningly she spake:

“Child,” she said, “I doubt not thy heart is hot against me for that I will not enlarge the Sieur Rudel. Alas! fain were I to do this thing, but for the honour of my Court I may not. Bound are we not by our wills but by our necessities—and thus it is with all women. Men may ride forth and shape their lives with their good swords; but for us, we must needs bide where we were born, and order such things as fall to us, as best we can. Therefore, child, take my word to heart: the Sieur Rudel loves thee, and thou wouldst keep his love. Let my age point to thee the way! What if I release him? No longer can he stay with us, holding high honour and dignity, since he hath turned him from his knightlihood and avoided this great adventure, but forth with you must he fare. And all day long will he sit with you in your chamber, idle as a woman, and ever his thoughts will go back to the times of his nobility. The clash of steel will grow louder in his ears; he will list again to the praises of minstrels in the banquet-hall, and when men speak to him of great achievements wrought by other hands, then thou wilt see the life die out of his eyes, and his heart will become cold as stone, and thou wilt lose his love. A great thing will it be for thee if he come not to hate thee in the end. But if, of thy own free will, thou send him from thee, then shalt thou ever keep his love. Thy image will ride before his eyes in the van of battles; for very lack of thee he will move from endeavour to endeavour; and so thy life will be enshrined in his most noble deeds.”

At these words, with such cunning gentleness were they spoken, Solita was sore troubled.

“I cannot send him from me,” she cried, “for never did woman so love her lord—no, not ever in the world!”

“Then prove thy love,” said Joceliande again. “A kingdom is given into his hand, and he will not take it because of thee. It is a hard thing, I trow right well. But the cross becomes a crown when a woman lifts it. Think! A kingdom! And never yet was kingdom established but the stones of its walls were mortised with the blood of women’s hearts.”

So she pleaded, hiding her own thoughts, until Solita answered her, and said:

“God help me, but he shall go to Broye!”

Much ado had the Princess Joceliande to hide her joy for the success of her device; but Solita, poor lass! had neither eyes nor thoughts for her. Forthwith she rose to her feet, and quickly gat her to the hall, lest her courage should fail, before that she had accomplished her resolve. But when she came near to the Sieur Rudel, blithely he smiled at her and called “Solita, my wife.” It seemed to her that words so sweet had never as yet been spoken since the world began, and all her strength ebbed from her, and she stood like one that is dumb, gazing piteously at her husband. Again Rudel called to her, but no answer could she make, and she turned and fled sobbing to the chamber of the princess.

“I could not speak,” she said; “my lips were locked, and Rudel holds the key.”

But the princess spoke gently and craftily, bidding her take heart, for that she herself would go with her and second her words; and taking Solita by the hand, she led her again to the hall.

This time Solita made haste to speak first. “Rudel,” she said, “no honour can I bring to you, but only foul disgrace, and that is no fit gift from one who loves you. Therefore, from this hour I hold you quit of your promise and pray you to undertake this mission and set forth for Broye.”

But the Sieur Rudel would hearken to nothing of what she said.

“No foul disgrace can come to me,” he cried, “but only if I prove false to you and lose your love. My promise I will keep, and all the more for that I see the Princess Joceliande hath set you on to this.”

But Solita protested that it was not so, and that of her own will and desire she released him, for the longing to sacrifice herself for her dear lord’s sake grew upon her as she thought upon it. Yet he would not consent.

“My word I passed to you when you were a maid, and shall I not keep it now that you are a wife?” he cried.

“Wife?” cried the princess, “you are his wife?” And she roughly gripped Solita’s wrist so that the girl could not withhold a cry.

“In truth, madame,” replied the Sieur Rudel, “even last night, in this hall, Solita and I were married by the good abbot, and therefore I will not leave her while she lives.”

Still Joceliande would not believe it, bethinking her that the Sieur Rudel had hit upon the pretence as a device for his enlargement; but Solita showed to her the ring which the abbot had taken from the finger of her lord and placed upon hers, and then the princess knew that of a surety they were married, and her hatred for Solita burned in her blood like fire.

But no sign she gave of what she felt, but rather spoke with greater softness to them both, bidding them look forward beyond the first delights of love, and behold how all their years to come were the price they needs must pay.

Now, while they were yet debating each with other, came Sir Broyance into the hall, and straightway the princess called to him and begged him to add his prayers to Solita’s. But he answered:

“That, madame, I will not do, for, indeed, the esteem I have for the Sieur Rudel is much increased, and I hold it no cowardice that he should refuse a kingdom for his wife’s sake, but the sweetest bravery. And therefore it was that I broke off my plea last night and sought not to persuade him.”

At that Rudel was greatly rejoiced, and said:

“Dost hear him, Solita? Even he who most has need of me acquits me of disgrace. Truly I will never leave thee while I live.”

But the princess turned sharply to Sir Broyance. “Sir, have you changed your tune?” she said; “for never was a man so urgent as you with me for the Sieur Rudel’s help.”

“Alas! madame,” he replied, “I knew not then that he was plighted to the maiden Solita, or never would I have borne this message. For this I surely know, that all my days are waste and barren because I suffered my mistress to send me from her after a will-of-the-wisp honour, even as Solita would send her lord.”

Thereupon Solita brake in upon him:

“But, my lord, you have won great renown, and far and wide is your prowess known and sung.”

“That avails me nothing,” he replied, “my life rings hollow like an empty cup, and so are two lives wasted.”

“Nay, my lord, neither life is wasted. For much have you done for others, though maybe little for yourself, while for her you loved the noise of your achievements must have been enough.”

“Of that I cannot tell,” he answered. “But this I know: she drags a pale life out behind convent walls. Often have I passed the gate with my warriors, but never could I hold speech with her.”

“She will have seen your banners glancing in the sun,” said Solita, “and so will she know her sacrifice was good.” Thereupon she turned her again to her husband. “For my sake, dear Rudel, I pray you go to Broye.”

But still he persisted, saying he would not depart from her till death, until at last she ceased from her importunities, and went sadly to her chamber. Then she unbound her hair and stood gazing at her likeness in the mirror.

“O cursed beauty,” she cried, “wherein I took vain pride for my sweet lord’s sake—truly art thou my ruin and snare!” And while she thus made moan, the princess came softly into her chamber.

“He will not leave me, madame,” she sobbed. Joceliande came over to her and gently laid her hand upon her head and whispered in her ear, “Not while you live!”

For awhile Solita sat silent.

“Ay, madame,” she said at length, “even as I came alone to these coasts, so will I go from them;” and slowly she drew from its sheath a little knife which she carried at her girdle. She tried the point upon her finger, so that the blood sprang from the prick and dropped on her white gown. At the sight she gave a cry and dropped the knife, and “I cannot do it” she said, “I have not the courage. But you, madame! Ever have you been kind to me, and therefore show me this last kindness.”

“I will well,” said the princess; and she made Solita to sit upon a couch, and with two bands of her golden hair she tied her hands fast behind her, and so laid her upon her back on the couch. And when she had so laid her she said:

“But for all that you die, he shall not go to Broye, but here shall he bide, and share my throne with me.”

Thereupon did Solita perceive all the treachery of Princess Joceliande, and vainly she struggled to free her hands and to cry out for help. But Joceliande clapped her palm upon Solita’s mouth, and drawing a gold pin from her own hair, she drove it straight into her heart, until nothing but the little knob could be seen. So Solita died, and quickly the princess wiped the blood from her breast, and unbound her hands and arranged her limbs as though she slept. Then she returned to the hall, and, summoning the warden, bade him loose the Sieur Rudel.

“It shall be even as you wish,” she said to him. Wise and prudent had she been, had she ended with that; but her malice was not yet sated, and so she suffered it to lead her to her ruin. For she stretched out her hand to him and said, “I myself will take you to your wife.” And greatly marvelling, the Sieur Rudel took her hand and followed.

Now when they were come to Solita’s chamber, the princess entered first, and turned her again to my Lord Rudel and laid her finger to her lips, saying, “Hush!” Therefore he came in after her on tiptoe and stood a little way from the foot of the couch, fearing lest he might wake his wife.

“Is she not still?” asked Joceliande in a whisper. “Is she not still and white?”

“Still and white as a folded lily,” he replied, “and like a folded lily, too, in her white flesh there sleeps a heart of gold.” Therewith he crept softly to the couch and bent above her, and in an instant he perceived that her bosom did not rise and fall. He gazed swiftly at the princess; she was watching him, and their glances met. He dropped upon his knees by the couch and felt about Solita’s heart that he might know whether it beat or not, and his fingers touched the knob of Joceliande’s bodkin. Gently he drew the gown from Solita’s bosom, and beheld how that she had been slain. Then did he weep, believing that in truth she had killed herself, but the princess must needs touch him upon the shoulder.

“My lord,” she said, “why weep for the handmaid when the princess lives?”

Then the Sieur Rudel rose straightway to his feet and said:

“This is thy doing!” For a little Joceliande denied it, saying that of her own will and desire Solita had perished. But Rudel looked her ever sternly in the face, and again he said, “This is thy doing!” and at that Joceliande could gainsay him no more. But she dropped upon the floor, and kissed his feet, and cried:

“It was for love of thee, Rudel. Look, my kingdom is large and of much wealth, yet of no worth is it to me, but only if it bring thee service and great honour. A princess am I, yet no joy do I have of my degree, but only if thou share my siege with me.”

Then Rudel broke out upon her, thrusting her from him with his hand and spurning her with his foot as she crouched upon the floor.

“No princess art thou, but a changeling. For surely princess never did such foul wrong and crime;” and even as he spake, many of the nobles burst into the chamber, for they had heard the outcry below and marvelled what it might mean. And when Rudel beheld them crowding the doorway, “Come in, my lords,” said he, “so that ye may know what manner of woman ye serve and worship. There lies my dear wife, Solita, murdered by this vile princess, and for love of me she saith, for love of me!” And again he turned him to Joceliande. “Now all the reverence I held thee in is turned to hatred, God be thanked; such is the guerdon of thy love for me.”

Joceliande, when she heard his injuries, knew indeed that her love was unavailing, and that by no means might she win him to share her siege with her. Therefore her love changed to a bitter fury, and standing up forthwith she bade the nobles take their swords and smite off the Sieur Rudel’s head. But no one so much as moved a hand towards his hilt. Then spake Rudel again:

“O vile and treacherous,” he cried, “who will obey thee?” and his eyes fell upon Solita where she lay in her white beauty upon the golden pillow of her hair. Thereupon he dropped again upon his knees by the couch, and took her within his arms, kissing her lips and her eyes, and bidding her wake; this with many tears. But seeing she would not, but was dead in very truth, he got him to his feet and turned to where the princess stood like stone in the middle of the chamber. “Now for thy sin,” he cried, “a shameful death shalt thou die and a painful, and may the devil have thy soul!”

He bade the nobles depart from the chamber, and following them the last, firmly barred the door upon the outside. Thus was the Princess Joceliande left alone with dead Solita, and ever she heard the closing and barring of doors and the sound of feet growing fainter and fainter. But no one came to her, loud though she cried, and sorely was she afeard, gazing now at the dead body, now wondering what manner of death the Sieur Rudel planned for her. Then she walked to the window if by any chance she might win help that way, and saw the ships riding at their anchorage with sails loose, and heard the songs of the sailors as they made ready to cast free; and between the coast and the castle were many men hurrying backwards and forwards with all the purveyance of a voyage. Then did she think that she was to be left alone in the tower, to starve to death in company of the girl she had murdered, and great moan she made; but other device was in the mind of my ingenious master Lord Rudel. For all about the castle he piled stacks of wood and drenched them with oil, bethinking him that Solita his wife, if little joy she had had of her life, should have undeniable honour in her obsequies. And so having set fire to the stacks, he got him into the ships with all the company that had dwelled within the castle, and drew out a little way from shore. Then the ships lay to and watched the flames mounting the castle walls. The tower wherein the Princess Joceliande was prisoned was the topmost turret of the building, so that many a roof crashed in, and many a rampart bowed out and crumbled to the ground, or ever the fire touched it. But just as night was drawing on, lo! a great tongue of flame burst through the window from within, and the Sieur Rudel beheld in the midst of it as it were the figure of a woman dancing.

Thereupon he signed to his sailors to hoist the sail again, and the other ships obeying his example, he led the way gallantly to Broye.

Ensign Knightley and Other Stories - Contents

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