Men of Iron - Howard Pyle

The Joust

As myles took his place at the south end of the lists, he found the Sieur de la Montaigne already at his station. Through the peep-hole in the face of the huge helmet, a transverse slit known as the occularium, he could see, like a strange narrow picture, the farther end of the lists, the spectators upon either side moving and shifting with ceaseless restlessness, and in the centre of all, his opponent, sitting with spear point directed upward, erect, motionless as a statue of iron, the sunlight gleaming and flashing upon his polished plates of steel, and the trappings of his horse swaying and fluttering in the rushing of the fresh breeze.

Upon that motionless figure his sight gradually centred with every faculty of mind and soul. He knew the next moment the signal would be given that was to bring him either glory or shame from that iron statue. He ground his teeth together with stern resolve to do his best in the coming encounter, and murmured a brief prayer in the hallow darkness of his huge helm. Then with a shake he settled himself more firmly in his saddle, slowly raised his spear point until the shaft reached the exact angle, and there suffered it to rest motionless. There was a moment of dead, tense, breathless pause, then he rather felt than saw the Marshal raise his baton. He gathered himself together, and the next moment a bugle sounded loud and clear. In one blinding rush he drove his spurs into the sides of his horse, and in instant answer felt the noble steed spring forward with a bound.

Through all the clashing of his armor reverberating in the hollow depths of his helmet, he saw the mail-clad figure from the other end of the lists rushing towards him, looming larger and larger as they came together. He gripped his saddle with his knees, clutched the stirrup with the soles of his feet, and bent his body still more forward. In the instant of meeting, with almost the blindness of instinct, he dropped the point of his spear against the single red flower-de-luce in the middle of the on-coming shield. There was a thunderous crash that seemed to rack every joint, he heard the crackle of splintered wood, he felt the momentary trembling recoil of the horse beneath him, and in the next instant had passed by. As he checked the onward rush of his horse at the far end of the course, he heard faintly in the dim hollow recess of the helm the loud shout and the clapping of hands of those who looked on, and found himself gripping with nervous intensity the butt of a broken spear, his mouth clammy with excitement, and his heart thumping in his throat.

Then he realized that he had met his opponent, and had borne the meeting well. As he turned his horse's head towards his own end of the lists, he saw the other trotting slowly back towards his station, also holding a broken spear shaft in his hand.

As he passed the iron figure a voice issued from the helmet, "Well done, Sir Myles, nobly done!" and his heart bounded in answer to the words of praise. When he had reached his own end of the lists, he flung away his broken spear, and Gascoyne came forward with another.

"Oh, Myles!" he said, with sob in his voice, "it was nobly done. Never did I see a better ridden course in all my life. I did not believe that thou couldst do half so well. Oh, Myles, prithee knock him out of his saddle an thou lovest me!"

Myles, in his high-keyed nervousness, could not forbear a short hysterical laugh at his friend's warmth of enthusiasm. He took the fresh lance in his hand, and then, seeing that his opponent was walking his horse slowly up and down at his end of the lists, did the same during the little time of rest before the next encounter.

When, in answer to the command of the Marshal, he took his place a second time, he found himself calmer and more collected than before, but every faculty no less intensely fixed than it had been at first. Once more the Marshal raised his baton, once more the horn sounded, and once more the two rushed together with the same thunderous crash, the same splinter of broken spears, the same momentary trembling recoil of the horse, and the same onward rush past one another. Once more the spectators applauded and shouted as the two knights turned their horses and rode back towards their station.

This time as they met midway the Sieur de la Montaigne reined in his horse. "Sir Myles," said his muffled voice, "I swear to thee, by my faith, I had not thought to meet in thee such an opponent as thou dost prove thyself to be. I had thought to find in thee a raw boy, but find instead a Paladin. Hitherto I have given thee grace as I would give grace to any mere lad, and thought of nothing but to give thee opportunity to break thy lance. Now I shall do my endeavor to unhorse thee as I would an acknowledged peer in arms. Nevertheless, on account of thy youth, I give thee this warning, so that thou mayst hold thyself in readiness."

"I give thee gramercy for thy courtesy, my Lord," answered Myles, speaking in French; "and I will strive to encounter thee as best I may, and pardon me if I seem forward in so saying, but were I in thy place, my Lord, I would change me yon breast-piece and over-girth of my saddle; they are sprung in the stitches."

"Nay," said the Sieur de la Montaigne, laughing, "breast-piece and over-girth have carried me through more tilts than one, and shall through this. An thou give me a blow so true as to burst breast-piece and over-girth, I will own myself fairly conquered by thee." So saying, he saluted Myles with the butt of the spear he still held, and passed by to his end of the lists.

Myles, with Gascoyne running beside him, rode across to his pavilion, and called to Edmund Wilkes to bring him a cup of spiced wine. After Gascoyne had taken off his helmet, and as he sat wiping the perspiration from his face Sir James came up and took him by the hand.

"My dear boy," said he, gripping the hand he held, "never could I hope to be so overjoyed in mine old age as I am this day. Thou dost bring honor to me, for I tell thee truly thou dost ride like a knight seasoned in twenty tourneys."

"It doth give me tenfold courage to hear thee so say, dear master," answered Myles. "And truly," he added, "I shall need all my courage this bout, for the Sieur de la Montaigne telleth me that he will ride to unhorse me this time."

"Did he indeed so say?" said Sir James. "Then belike he meaneth to strike at thy helm. Thy best chance is to strike also at his. Doth thy hand tremble?"

"Not now," answered Myles.

"Then keep thy head cool and thine eye true. Set thy trust in God, and haply thou wilt come out of this bout honorably in spite of the rawness of thy youth."

Just then Edmund Wilkes presented the cup of wine to Myles, who drank it off at a draught, and thereupon Gascoyne replaced the helm and tied the thongs.

The charge that Sir James Lee had given to Myles to strike at his adversary's helm was a piece of advice he probably would not have given to so young a knight, excepting as a last resort. A blow perfectly delivered upon the helm was of all others the most difficult for the recipient to recover from, but then a blow upon the helm was not one time in fifty perfectly given. The huge cylindrical tilting helm was so constructed in front as to slope at an angle in all directions to one point. That point was the centre of a cross formed by two iron bands welded to the steel-face plates of the helm where it was weakened by the opening slit of the occularium, or peephole. In the very centre of this cross was a little flattened surface where the bands were riveted together, and it was upon that minute point that the blow must be given to be perfect, and that stroke Myles determined to attempt.

As he took his station Edmund Wilkes came running across from the pavilion with a lance that Sir James had chosen, and Myles, returning the one that Gascoyne had just given him, took it in his hand. It was of seasoned oak, somewhat thicker than the other, a tough weapon, not easily to be broken even in such an encounter as he was like to have. He balanced the weapon, and found that it fitted perfectly to his grasp. As he raised the point to rest, his opponent took his station at the farther extremity of the lists, and again there was a little space of breathless pause. Myles was surprised at his own coolness; every nervous tremor was gone. Before, he had been conscious of the critical multitude looking down upon him; now it was a conflict of man to man, and such a conflict had no terrors for his young heart of iron.

The spectators had somehow come to the knowledge that this was to be a more serious encounter than the two which had preceded it, and a breathless silence fell for the moment or two that the knights stood in place.

Once more he breathed a short prayer, "Holy Mary, guard me!"

Then again, for the third time, the Marshal raised his baton, and the horn sounded, and for the third time Myles drove his spurs into his horse's flanks. Again he saw the iron figure of his opponent rushing nearer, nearer, nearer. He centred, with a straining intensity, every faculty of soul, mind, and body upon one point—the cross of the occularium, the mark he was to strike. He braced himself for the tremendous shock which he knew must meet him, and then in a flash dropped lance point straight and true. The next instant there was a deafening stunning crash—a crash like the stroke of a thunder-bolt. There was a dazzling blaze of blinding light, and a myriad sparks danced and flickered and sparkled before his eyes. He felt his horse stagger under him with the recoil, and hardly knowing what he did, he drove his spurs deep into its sides with a shout. At the same moment there resounded in his ears a crashing rattle and clatter, he knew not of what, and then, as his horse recovered and sprang forward, and as the stunning bewilderment passed, he found that his helmet had been struck off. He heard a great shout arise from all, and thought, with a sickening, bitter disappointment, that it was because he had lost. At the farther end of the course he turned his horse, and then his heart gave a leap and a bound as though it would burst, the blood leaped to his cheeks tingling, and his bosom thrilled with an almost agonizing pang of triumph, of wonder, of amazement.

There, in a tangle of his horse's harness and of embroidered trappings, the Sieur de la Montaigne lay stretched upon the ground, with his saddle near by, and his riderless horse was trotting aimlessly about at the farther end of the lists.

Myles saw the two squires of the fallen knight run across to where their master lay, he saw the ladies waving their kerchiefs and veils, and the castle people swinging their hats and shouting in an ecstasy of delight. Then he rode slowly back to where the squires were now aiding the fallen knight to arise. The senior squire drew his dagger, cut the leather points, and drew off the helm, disclosing the knight's face—a face white as death, and convulsed with rage, mortification, and bitter humiliation.

"I was not rightly unhorsed!" he cried, hoarsely and with livid lips, to the Marshal and his attendants, who had ridden up. "I unhelmed him fairly enough, but my over-girth and breast-strap burst, and my saddle slipped. I was not unhorsed, I say, and I lay claim that I unhelmed him."

"Sir," said the Marshal calmly, and speaking in French, "surely thou knowest that the loss of helmet does not decide an encounter. I need not remind thee, my Lord, that it was so awarded by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, when in the jousting match between Reynand de Roye and John de Holland, the Sieur Reynand left every point of his helm loosened, so that the helm was beaten off at each stroke. If he then was justified in doing so of his own choice, and wilfully suffering to be unhelmed, how then can this knight be accused of evil who suffered it by chance?"

"Nevertheless," said the Sieur de la Montaigne, in the same hoarse, breathless voice, "I do affirm, and will make my affirmation good with my body, that I fell only by the breaking of my girth. Who says otherwise lies!"

"It is the truth he speaketh," said Myles. "I myself saw the stitches were some little what burst, and warned him thereof before we ran this course.

"Sir," said the Marshal to the Sieur de la Montaigne, "how can you now complain of that thing which your own enemy advised you of and warned you against? Was it not right knightly for him so to do?"

The Sieur de la Montaigne stood quite still for a little while, leaning on the shoulder of his chief squire, looking moodily upon the ground; then, without making answer, he turned, and walked slowly away to his pavilion, still leaning on his squire's shoulder, whilst the other attendant followed behind, bearing his shield and helmet.

Gascoyne had picked up Myles's fallen helmet as the Sieur de la Montaigne moved away, and Lord George and Sir James Lee came walking across the lists to where Myles still sat. Then, the one taking his horse by the bridle-rein, and the other walking beside the saddle, they led him before the raised dais where the King sat.

Even the Comte de Vermoise, mortified and amazed as he must have been at the overthrow of his best knight, joined in the praise and congratulation that poured upon the young conqueror. Myles, his heart swelling with a passion of triumphant delight, looked up and met the gaze of Lady Alice fixed intently upon him. A red spot of excitement still burned in either cheek, and it flamed to a rosier red as he bowed his head to her before turning away.

Gascoyne had just removed Myles's breastplate and gorget, when Sir James Lee burst into the pavilion. All his grim coldness was gone, and he flung his arms around the young man's neck, hugging him heartily, and kissing him upon either cheek.

Ere he let him go, "Mine own dear boy," he said, holding him off at arm's-length, and winking his one keen eye rapidly, as though to wink away a dampness of which he was ashamed—"mine own dear boy, I do tell thee truly this is as sweet to me as though thou wert mine own son; sweeter to me than when I first broke mine own lance in triumph, and felt myself to be a right knight."

"Sir," answered Myles, "what thou sayest doth rejoice my very heart. Ne'theless, it is but just to say that both his breast-piece and over-girth were burst in the stitches before he ran his course, for so I saw with mine own eyes."

"Burst in the stitches!" snorted Sir James. "Thinkest thou he did not know in what condition was his horse's gearing? I tell thee he went down because thou didst strike fair and true, and he did not so strike thee. Had he been Guy of Warwick he had gone down all the same under such a stroke and in such case."