"How now, messieurs?" said a harsh voice, that fell upon the turmoil like a thunder-clap, and there stood Sir James Lee. Instantly the struggle ceased, and the combatants scrambled to their feet.
The older lads stood silent before their chief, but Myles was deaf and blind and mad with passion, he knew not where he stood or what he said or did. White as death, he stood for a while glaring about him, catching his breath convulsively. Then he screamed hoarsely.
"Who struck me? Who struck me when I was down? I will have his blood that struck me!" He caught sight of Blunt. "It was he that struck me!" he cried. "Thou foul traitor! thou coward!" and thereupon leaped at his enemy like a wild-cat.
"Stop!" cried Sir James Lee, clutching him by the arm.
Myles was too blinded by his fury to see who it was that held him. "I will not stop!" he cried, struggling and striking at the knight. "Let me go! I will have his life that struck me when I was down!"
The next moment he found himself pinned close against the wall, and then, as though his sight came back, he saw the grim face of the old one- eyed knight looking into his.
"Dost thou know who I am?" said a stern, harsh voice.
Instantly Myles ceased struggling, and his arms fell at his side. "Aye," he said, in a gasping voice, "I know thee." He swallowed spasmodically for a moment or two, and then, in the sudden revulsion of feeling, burst out sobbing convulsively.
Sir James marched the two off to his office, he himself walking between them, holding an arm of each, the other lads following behind, awe-struck and silent. Entering the office, Sir James shut the door behind him, leaving the group of squires clustered outside about the stone steps, speculating in whispers as to what would be the outcome of the matter.
After Sir James had seated himself, the two standing facing him, he regarded them for a while in silence. "How now, Walter Blunt," said he at last, "what is to do?"
"Why, this," said Blunt, wiping his bleeding lip. "That fellow, Myles Falworth, hath been breeding mutiny and revolt ever sin he came hither among us, and because he was thus mutinous I would punish him therefor."
"In that thou liest!" burst out Myles. "Never have I been mutinous in my life."
"Be silent, sir," said Sir James, sternly. "I will hear thee anon."
"Nay," said Myles, with his lips twitching and writhing, "I will not be silent. I am friendless here, and ye are all against me, but I will not be silent, and brook to have lies spoken of me."
Even Blunt stood aghast at Myles's boldness. Never had he heard any one so speak to Sir James before. He did not dare for the moment even to look up. Second after second of dead stillness passed, while Sir James sat looking at Myles with a stern, terrifying calmness that chilled him in spite of the heat of his passion.
"Sir," said the old man at last, in a hard, quiet voice, "thou dost know naught of rules and laws of such a place as this. Nevertheless, it is time for thee to learn them. So I will tell thee now that if thou openest thy lips to say only one single word more except at my bidding, I will send thee to the black vault of the donjon to cool thy hot spirits on bread and water for a week." There was something in the measured quietness of the old knight's tone that quelled Myles utterly and entirely. A little space of silence followed. "Now, then, Blunt," said Sir James, turning to the bachelor, "tell me all the ins and outs of this business without any more underdealing."
This time Blunt's story, though naturally prejudiced in his own favor, was fairly true. Then Myles told his side of the case, the old knight listening attentively.
"Why, how now, Blunt," said Sir James, when Myles had ended, "I myself gave the lads leave to go to the river to bathe. Wherefore shouldst thou forbid one of them?"
"I did it but to punish this fellow for his mutiny," said the bachelor. "Methought we at their head were to have oversight concerning them."
"So ye are," said the knight; "but only to a degree. Ere ye take it upon ye to gainsay any of my orders or permits, come ye first to me. Dost thou understand?"
"Aye," answered Blunt, sullenly.
"So be it, and now get thee gone," said the knight; "and let me hear no more of beating out brains with wooden clogs. An ye fight your battles, let there not be murder in them. This is twice that the like hath happed; gin I hear more of such doings--" He did utter his threat, but stopped short, and fixed his one eye sternly upon the head squire. "Now shake hands, and be ye friends," said he, abruptly.
Blunt made a motion to obey, but Myles put his hand behind him.
"Nay, I shake not hands with any one who struck me while I was down."
"So be it," said the knight, grimly. "Now thou mayst go, Blunt. Thou, Falworth, stay; I would bespeak thee further."
"Tell me," said he, when the elder lad had left them, "why wilt thou not serve these bachelors as the other squires do? Such is the custom here. Why wilt thou not obey it?"
"Because," said Myles, "I cannot stomach it, and they shall not make me serve them. An thou bid me do it, sir, I will do it; but not at their command."
"Nay," said the knight, "I do not bid thee do them service. That lieth with thee, to render or not, as thou seest fit. But how canst thou hope to fight single-handed against the commands of a dozen lads all older and mightier than thou?"
"I know not," said Myles; "but were they an hundred, instead of thirteen, they should not make me serve them."
"Thou art a fool!" said the old knight, smiling faintly, "for that be'st not courage, but folly. When one setteth about righting a wrong, one driveth not full head against it, for in so doing one getteth naught but hard knocks. Nay, go deftly about it, and then, when the time is ripe, strike the blow. Now our beloved King Henry, when he was the Earl of Derby, what could he have gained had he stood so against the old King Richard, brooking the King face to face? I tell thee he would have been knocked on the head as thou wert like to have been this day. Now were I thee, and had to fight a fight against odds, I would first get me friends behind me, and then--" He stopped short, but Myles understood him well enough.
"Sir," said he, with a gulp, "I do thank thee for thy friendship, and ask thy pardon for doing as I did anon."
"I grant thee pardon," said the knight, "but tell thee plainly, an thou dost face me so again, I will truly send thee to the black cell for a week. Now get thee away."
All the other lads were gone when Myles came forth, save only the faithful Gascoyne, who sacrificed his bath that day to stay with his friend; and perhaps that little act of self-denial moved Myles more than many a great thing might have done.
"It was right kind of thee, Francis," said he, laying his hand affectionately on his friend's shoulder. "I know not why thou lovest me so."
"Why, for one thing, this matter," answered his friend; "because methinks thou art the best fighter and the bravest one of all of us squires."
Myles laughed. Nevertheless Gascoyne's words were a soothing balm for much that had happened that day. "I will fight me no more just now," said he; and then he told his friend all that Sir James had advised about biding his time.
Gascoyne blew a long whistle. "Beshrew me!" quoth he, "but methinks old Bruin is on thy side of the quarrel, Myles. An that be so, I am with thee also, and others that I can name as well."
"So be it," said Myles. "Then am I content to abide the time when we may become strong enough to stand against them."