King Richard and Blondel
I. KING RICHARD
King Richard the Lion-Hearted, with a great army of English knights and fighting men, went on a crusade to the Holy Land. The object of the crusade was to drive the Saracens out of Jerusalem and make it safe for Christian pilgrims to visit the holy places in that city.
Richard was a brave warrior. He was afraid of nothing, and no savage beast was more fond of fighting. Never was he more happy than when in battle, knocking the heads of his foes with his huge battle ax and shouting the Norman war cry, "God help us! God help us!"
Many were his exploits in the Holy Land. His deeds of cruelty and of daring were such that even his name was a terror to the Saracens. But with all his rudeness and roughness and savage love of bloodshed, he was not wholly bad. Now and then he would act so kindly, or show such gentleness of heart, that men would forget his grievous faults.
Much fierce fighting did the crusaders find to do. The walls of Jerusalem were so well guarded by the Saracens that King Richard's men could find no way to get inside. They had to encamp on the barren hills outside and wait for help to come.
One morning Saladin, the noble leader of the Saracens, rode out of the city to see King Richard. The king went out from his camp to meet him; and each was so pleased with the other that soon they were fast friends. Later in the day Richard rode by the side of Saladin into the city. Through the narrow, winding streets they passed until they came at last to the Holy Sepulcher, where men said the body of the Saviour had been laid. There they shook hands and parted.
Soon after this Richard made a truce with the Saracens. He promised to withdraw his army from the Holy Land; and it was agreed that there should be no more fighting until after three years, three months, three days, and three hours had passed by.
With some of his bravest knights King Richard embarked on a small ship and sailed for home. At first the sea was calm and the wind wafted the king swiftly on his way. But after a few days a storm arose. The waves rolled mountain high. The ship was driven this way and that, until at last it was wrecked on an unknown shore.
Most of the men who were with the king were drowned. It was as much as he could do to reach the land alive. He was bruised by the rocks and choked by salt water and chilled by the rushing wind. For the rocks and the water and the wind have no more respect for a king than for any other man.
The country in which Richard found himself was wild and rough. Alone and quietly he made his way through woods and over mountains, not daring to tell who he was. For in those rude times no stranger was safe in a foreign land; and a ship-wrecked king would have been a fine prize. So, as a poor pilgrim returning from the Holy Land, he trudged onward, looking very ragged and forlorn and keeping out of the way of people as much as he could. Now and then he found food and lodging at the hut of some poor woodsman, but often he had no shelter under which to rest at night. He did not know how far it was to England, yet he kept going, toward the northwest, and every day he felt that he was a little nearer home.
He had traveled in this way for some time, when he came to a more thickly settled country. There was a road, with now and then a field or a house by it. The few people he met looked at him in a way that he did not like, but he kept straight on and said nothing.
One afternoon he came within sight of a strong castle with high towers and thick gray walls of rough stone. A little way from the castle there was a village of half a dozen houses, and at the entrance to the village there was a small inn.
"Whose castle is that?" he asked of a boy who was driving some cows along the road.
The boy stared at him, as though he thought him mad, and then answered, "Why, everybody knows it's the Duke of Austria's castle."
Now, Richard had good reason for not wishing to see the Duke of Austria. But he could not well turn back, and he followed the boy and the cows down to the village.
When they came to the inn they went through a wide gateway into a courtyard where some knights were exercising their horses. As luck would have it, one of the knights was the duke himself. He stared hard at Richard as he came trudging in behind the cows.
"Hello, you fellow!" cried the duke. "Who are you, and what do you want here?"
"I am a poor woodcutter from the forest," answered Richard, "and I have come to offer you my services. There is no man in Austria who can handle an ax better than I."
"Indeed!" said the duke, looking very keenly at his visitor. "I think I saw you wield an ax once. It was made of twenty pounds of English steel. I saw you wield it, not among the trees, but against the heads of Saracens. Am I not right?"
Richard knew that he was discovered. The Duke of Austria had seen him a hundred times in the Holy Land, and would have known his face anywhere.
"Yes, you are right," answered Richard. "As king of England I have often wielded such an ax, and I would fain wield it again when in the presence of the Duke of Austria."
"Do you remember Ascalon?" asked the duke.
"I remember it well," said Richard; "and I remember the wall that I helped to build there with my own hands. I remember, too, the kick that I gave the Duke of Austria because he was too lazy to work on that same wall."
"Very well," said the duke. "You shall now have that kick back with interest." Then turning to his men he cried, "Ho, guards! Seize this fellow. Put him in chains, and shut him up where the sunlight will never trouble him."
Richard, with his back to the wall, made a strong fight for freedom. But what could he, with his bare hands, do against so many armed men? He was soon overpowered, and dragged away to the duke's castle, where he was thrown into a dismal dungeon at the bottom of the tower.
For more than a year the English people heard no tidings of their king. They knew that he had started home from the Holy Land. They had heard, too, of his shipwreck, and it was rumored that he was held as a prisoner in some distant land. But nobody knew where that land was.
Now Richard in his happier days at home had trained up a young rhymer, or minstrel, whose name was Blondel de Nesle. Before going to the Holy Land, he had spent many a pleasant hour in Blondel's company, listening to his beautiful songs. For the young minstrel had a rare, rich voice, full of the most charming melody; and no other singer in England or France could excel him. Sometimes Richard himself had composed little songs which he and Blondel sang together; and a strong love, like that of two brothers, had sprung up between the minstrel and the king.
Very sad was Blondel when no news could be heard of Richard. He wandered hither and thither about the king's lonely palace, and would not open his mouth to sing for anybody. At last he said, "I know that my master is a prisoner in a strange land. I will seek him; I will find him; I will save him."
With his harp in his hand he set out on his quest. He traveled through many lands in that part of Europe where he would be most likely to find his master. He made friends wherever he went. For in those days minstrels were welcome in every palace and in every hut, and Blondel's wonderful voice delighted all who heard it.
One day he stopped at a little inn by the edge of a great forest. It was quite near to a strong castle which was surrounded by high walls of rough, gray stones.
"Whose castle is that?" he asked of the inn-keeper.
"It belongs to the Duke of Austria," was the answer. "But the duke has other and finer places, and it is now a year since he was last here. While he is away the Count Tribables is master of the castle."
Then Blondel inquired if there were any prisoners in the castle; for he asked that question in every place he visited.
"Only one," answered the innkeeper. "He is kept in the dungeon at the bottom of the tower. I know not who he is. The duke keeps a close watch upon him and feeds him well, and so I think he must be somebody."
That evening Blondel sang before the Count Tribables and his family in the gray castle. All who heard him praised his fine voice and loved him for his gentle manners. They begged him to stay a while; for he had made the dreary old place merrier than it had been for many a day.
The next morning Blondel wandered around to the great tower. He saw a slit in the wall which he knew was the only means by which light was let into the dungeon below. He sat down on a block of stone and tuned his harp. Then he began to sing a song which he and King Richard had sung together in the old happy days before his master had gone crusading:—
"Your beauty, lady fair,
All view with strange delight;
But you've so cold an air,
None love you as they might.
Yet this I'm pleased to see,
You love none more than me."
This was the first half of the song; and when he had sung it he paused. Then, far down in the dismal dungeon, he heard the clear but mournful voice of King Richard singing the rest:—
"My heart you'll sorely wound
If favor you divide
And smile on all around,
Unwilling to decide.
I'd rather hatred bear
Than love with others share."
Blondel sprang to his feet, his heart filled with delight. "O Richard! O my king!" he cried in ecstasy. Then he hurried away, to do what he could to secure his master's liberty.
He went to the emperor of Germany and to the king of France, and finally back to England, telling how Richard was cruelly kept in prison by the Duke of Austria.
The king of France would have been glad to leave Richard in prison; for he was one of his bitterest foes. The emperor of Germany was but little more friendly; yet many of his knights and warriors said that it was a shame to treat the king of England so meanly.
Then the French king accused Richard of having tried to poison him when both were crusading in the Holy Land. Upon this, the emperor ordered that Richard should be brought out of his dungeon and made to plead his case before the high court of Germany. He hoped in this way to get rid of the troublesome prisoner.
Richard pleaded his case so well that many who heard him wept. Pale and weak from his long imprisonment, he told how the Duke of Austria had abused him. He showed how the French king had plotted to have him put to death. Then he spoke of the battles he had won in the Holy Land, shouting the war cry of "God help us! God help us!"
The high court had nothing to gain by declaring him guilty. And so it was decided that he should be set free on the payment of a large ransom to the emperor and the duke.
It was Blondel and Queen Eleanor, Richard's mother, who helped to raise the ransom. With his harp and his fine voice, Blondel so wrought upon the feelings of the English people that they paid more willingly the price that was required of them. They gave the value of one fourth of all the movable property that they owned, and we may well doubt whether any king was worth so much. Then Queen Eleanor herself carried the money to Germany and put it in the hands of the emperor and the duke. And when Richard the Lion-hearted was at last a free man again, in his own country, it was Blondel who first welcomed him back.