As far as physical feats went, to vault barebacked upon a horse, to hit a running hare with a crossbow-bolt, or to climb the angle of a castle courtyard, were feats which had come by nature to the young Squire; but it was very different with music, which had called for many a weary hour of irksome work. Now at last he could master the strings, but both his ear and his voice were not of the best, so that it was well perhaps that there was so small and so unprejudiced an audience to the Norman-French chanson, which he sang in a high reedy voice with great earnestness of feeling, but with many a slip and quaver, waving his yellow head in cadence to the music:
A sword! A sword! Ah, give me a sword! For the world is all to win. Though the way be hard and the door be barred, The strong man enters in. If Chance and Fate still hold the gate, Give me the iron key, And turret high my plume shall fly, Or you may weep for me!
A horse! A horse! Ah, give me a horse! To bear me out afar, Where blackest need and grimmest deed And sweetest perils are. Hold thou my ways from glutted days Where poisoned leisure lies, And point the path of tears and wrath Which mounts to high emprise!
A heart! A heart! Ah, give me a heart To rise to circumstance! Serene and high and bold to try The hazard of the chance, With strength to wait, but fixed as fate To plan and dare and do, The peer of all, and only thrall, Sweet lady mine, to you!
It may have been that the sentiment went for more than the music, or it may have been the nicety of her own ears had been dulled by age, but old Dame Ermyntrude clapped her lean hands together and cried out in shrill applause.
"Weathercote has indeed had an apt pupil!" she said. "I pray you that you will sing again."
"Nay, dear dame, it is turn and turn betwixt you and me. I beg that you will recite a romance, you who know them all. For all the years that I have listened I have never yet come to the end of them, and I dare swear that there are more in your head than in all the great books which they showed me at Guildford Castle. I would fain hear `Doon of Mayence,' or `The Song of Roland,' or `Sir Isumbras.'"
So the old dame broke into a long poem, slow and dull in the inception, but quickening as the interest grew, until with darting hands and glowing face she poured forth the verses which told of the emptiness of sordid life, the beauty of heroic death, the high sacredness of love and the bondage of honor. Nigel, with set, still features and brooding eyes, drank in the fiery words, until at last they died upon the old woman's lips and she sank back weary in her chair.
Nigel stooped over her and kissed her brow. "Your words will ever be as a star upon my path," said he. Then, carrying over the small table and the chessmen, he proposed that they should play their usual game before they sought their rooms for the night.
But a sudden and rude interruption broke in upon their gentle contest. A dog pricked its ears and barked. The others ran growling to the door. And then there came a sharp clash of arms, a dull heavy blow as from a club or sword-pommel, and a deep voice from without summoned them to open in the King's name. The old dame and Nigel had both sprung to their feet, their table overturned and their chessmen scattered among the rushes. Nigel's hand had sought his crossbow, but the Lady Ermyntrude grasped his arm.
"Nay, fair son! Have you not heard that it is in the King's name?" said she. "Down, Talbot! Down, Bayard! ! Open the door and let his messenger in!"
Nigel undid the bolt, and the heavy wooden door swung outward upon its hinges. The light from the flaring cressets beat upon steel caps and fierce bearded faces, with the glimmer of drawn swords and the yellow gleam of bowstaves.