And all this, Nigel, we owe to you."
The Squire flushed with pleasure at the words. "Nay, most honored lord, it was but a small thing which I have been able to do. But I thank God and our Lady that I have done some service, since it has pleased you to take me with you to the wars. Should it chance - "
But the words were cut short upon Nigel's lips, and he lay back with amazed eyes staring from his pallid face. The door of his little chamber had opened, and who was this, the tall stately man with the noble presence, the high forehead, the long handsome face, the dark, brooding eyes - who but the noble Edward of England?"
"Ha, my little cock of Tilford Bridge, I still bear you in mind," said he. "Right glad I was to hear that you had found your wits again, and I trust that I have not helped to make you take leave of them once more."
Nigel's stare of astonishment had brought a smile to the King's lips. Now the Squire stammered forth some halting words of gratitude at the honor done to him.
"Nay, not a word," said the King. "But in sooth it is a joy to my heart to see the son of my old comrade Eustace Loring carry himself so bravely. Had this boat got before us with news of our coming, then all our labor had been in vain, and no Frenchman ventured to Calais that night. But above all I thank you for that you have delivered into my hands one whom I had vowed to punish in that he has caused us more scathe by fouler means than any living man. Twice have I sworn that Peter the Red Ferret shall hang, for all his noble blood and coat-armor, if ever he should fall into my hands. Now at last his time has come; but I would not put him to death until you, who had taken him, could be there to see it done. Nay, thank me not, for I could do no less, seeing that it is to you that I owe him."
But it was not thanks which Nigel was trying to utter. It was hard to frame his words, and yet they must be said. "Sire," he murmured, "it ill becomes me to cross your royal will - "
The dark Plantagenet wrath gathered upon the King's high brow and gloomed in his fierce deep-set eyes. "By God's dignity! no man has ever crossed it yet and lived unscathed. How now, young sir, what mean such words, to which we are little wont? Have a care, for this is no light thing which you venture."
"Sire," said Nigel, "in all matters in which I am a free man I am ever your faithful liege, but some things there are which may not be done."
"How?" cried the King. "In spite of my will?"
"In spite of your will, sire," said Nigel, sitting up on his couch, with white face and blazing eyes.
"By the Virgin!" the angry King thundered, "we are come to a pretty pass! You have been held too long at home, young man. The overstabled horse will kick. The unweathered hawk will fly at check. See to it, Master Chandos! He is thine to break, and I hold you to it that you break him. And what is it that Edward of England may not do, Master Loring?"
Nigel faced the King with a face as grim as his own. "You may not put to death the Red Ferret."
"Pardieu! And why?"
"Because he is not thine to slay, sire. Because he is mine. Because I promised him his life, and it is not for you, King though you be, to constrain a man of gentle blood to break his plighted word and lose his honor."
Chandos laid his soothing hand upon his Squire's shoulder. "Excuse him, sire; he is weak from his wounds," said he. "Perhaps we have stayed overlong, for the leech has ordered repose."
But the angry King was not easily to be appeased. "I am not wont to be so browbeat," said he hotly. "This is your Squire, Master John. How comes it that you can stand there and listen to his pert talk, and say no word to chide him? Is this how you guide your household? Have you not taught him that every promise given is subject to the King's consent, and that with him only lie the springs of life and death? If he is sick, you at least are hale. Why stand you there in silence?"
"My liege," said Chandos gravely, "I have served you for over a score of years, and have shed my blood through as many wounds in your cause, so that you should not take my words amiss.