In times gone by there lived a Count of Ponthieu, who loved chivalry and the pleasures of the world beyond measure, and moreover was a stout knight and a gallant gentleman. In the self-same day there lived a Count of St. Pol, who was lord of much land, and a right worthy man. One grief he had, that there was no heir of his body; but a sister was his, a prudent woman and a passing good gentlewoman, who was dame of Dommare in Ponthieu. This lady had a son, Thibault by name, who was heir to this County of St. Pol, but he was a poor man so long as his uncle lived. He was a prudent knight, valiant and skilled with the spear, noble and fair. Greatly was he loved and honoured of all honest people, for he was of high race and gentle birth.
The Count of Ponthieu, of whom the tale hath spoken, had to wife a very worthy lady. He and his dame had but one child, a daughter, very good and gracious, who increased with her days in favour and in virtues; and the maid was of some sixteen years. The third year after her birth her mother died, whereof she was sorely troubled and right heavy. The Count, her father, took to himself another wife with no long tarrying, a dame of gentle race and breeding. Of this lady he got him quickly a son; very near was the boy to his father's heart. The lad grew with his years in stature and in valour, and gave promise to increase in all good qualities.
The Count of Ponthieu marked my lord Thibault of Dommare. He summoned the knight to his castle, and made him of his house for guerdon. When Sir Thibault was of his fellowship he rejoiced greatly, for the Count prospered in goods and in praise by reason of his servant's deeds. As they came from a tournament on a day, the Count and my lord Thibault together, the Count required of his companion and said,
"Thibault, by the aid of God tell me truly which jewel of my crown shines the fairest in your eyes!"
"Sir," replied Messire Thibault, "I am only a beggar, but so help me God, of all the jewels in your crown I love and covet none, save only my demoiselle, your daughter."
When he heard this thing the Count had great content. He laughed in his heart and said,
"Thibault, I will grant her to the beggar, if it be to her mind."
"Sir," answered he, "thanks and gramercy. May God make it up to you."
Then went the Count to his daughter, and said,
"Fair daughter, I have promised you in marriage, so it go not against your heart."
"Sir," inquired the maid, "to whom?"
"In the name of God, to a loyal man, and a true man, of whom much is hoped; to a knight of my own household, Thibault of Dommare."
"Dear sir," answered the maiden sweetly, "if your county were a kingdom, and I were the king's only child, I would choose him as my husband, and gladly give him all that I had."
"Daughter," said the Count, "blessed be your pretty person, and the hour that you were born."
Thus was this marriage made. The Count of Ponthieu and the Count of St. Pol were at the feast, and many another honourable man besides. Great was the joy in which they met, fair was the worship, and marvellous the delight. The bride and groom lived together in all happiness for five years. This was their only sorrow, that it pleased not our Lord Jesus Christ that they should have an heir to their flesh.
On a night Sir Thibault lay in his bed. He considered within himself and said,
"Lord, whence cometh it that I love this dame so fondly, and she me, yet we may have no heir of our bodies to serve God and to do a little good in the world?"
Then he remembered my lord St. James, the Apostle of Spain, who gives to the fervent supplicant that which rightly he desires. Earnestly, to his own heart, he promised that he would walk a pilgrim in his way. His wife lay sleeping at his side, but when she came from out her sleep, he took her softly in his arms, and required of her that she would bestow on him a gift.
"Sir," said the lady, "what gift would you have?"
"Wife," he made answer, "that you shall know when it is mine."
"Husband," said she, "if it be mine to grant, I will give it you, whatever the price."
"Wife," he said, "I pray you to grant me leave to seek my lord St. James the Apostle, that he may intercede with our Lord Jesus Christ to bestow on us an heir of our flesh, whereby God may be served in this world and Holy Church glorified."
"Sir," cried the lady, "sweet and dear it is that you should crave such bounty, and I grant the permission you desire right willingly."
Deep and long was the tenderness that fell betwixt these twain. Thus passed a day, and another day, and yet a third. On this third day it chanced that they lay together in their bed, and it was night. Then said the dame,
"Husband, I pray and require of you a gift."
"Wife," he replied, "ask, and I will give it you, if by any means I can."
"Husband," she said, "I require leave to come with you on this errand and journey."
When Messire Thibault heard this thing he was right sorrowful, and said,
"Wife, grievous would be the journey to your body, for the way is very long, and the land right strange and perilous."
"Husband, be not in doubt because of me. You shall be more hindered of your squire than of your wife."
"Dame," said he, "as God wills and as you wish."
The days went, and these tidings were so noised abroad that the Count of Ponthieu heard thereof. He commanded my lord Sir Thibault to his house, and said,
"Thibault, you are a vowed pilgrim, as I hear, and my daughter too!"
"Sir," answered he, "that is verily and truly so."
"Thibault," replied the Count, "as to yourself what pleases you is to my mind also, but concerning my daughter that is another matter."
"Sir," made answer Sir Thibault, "go she must, and I cannot deny her."
"Since this is so," said the Count, "part when you will. Make ready for the road your steeds, your palfreys, and the pack horses, and I will give you riches and gear enough for the journey."
"Sir," said Messire Thibault, "thanks and gramercy."
Thus these pilgrims arrayed them, and sought that shrine with marvellous joy. They fared so speedily upon the way, that at length they came near to my lord St. James, by less than two days faring. That night they drew to a goodly town. After they had eaten in the hostel, Sir Thibault called for the host and inquired of him the road for the morrow, how it ran, and whether it were smooth.
"Fair sir," replied the innkeeper to the knight, "at the gate of this town you will find a little wood. Beyond the wood a strong smooth road runs for the whole day's journey."
Hearing this they asked no more questions, but the beds being laid down, they went to their rest. The morrow broke full sweetly. The pilgrims rose lightly from their beds as soon as it was day, and made much stir and merriment. Sir Thibault rose also, since he might not sleep, but his head was heavy. He therefore called his chamberlain, and said,
"Rise quickly, and bid the company to pack the horses and go their way. Thou shalt remain with me, and make ready our harness, for I am a little heavy and disquieted."
The chamberlain made known to the sergeants the pleasure of their lord, so that presently they took the road. In no great while Messire Thibault and his dame got them from the bed, and arraying their persons, followed after their household. The chamberlain folded the bed linen, and it was yet but dawn, though warm and fair. The three went forth through the gate of the city, those three together, with no other companion save God alone, and drew near to the forest. When they came close they found two roads, the one good, the other ill; so that Sir Thibault said to his chamberlain,
"Put spurs to your horse, and ride swiftly after our people. Bid them await our coming, for foul it is for lady and knight to pass through this wood with so little company."
The servitor went speedily, and Messire Thibault entered the forest. He drew rein beside the two roads, for he knew not which to follow.
"Wife," he said, "which way is ours?"
"Please God, the good," she answered.
Now in this wood were robbers, who spoiled the fair way, and made wide and smooth the false, so that pilgrims should mistake and wander from the path. Messire Thibault lighted from his horse. He looked from one to the other, and finding the wrong way broader and more smooth than the true, he cried,
"Wife, come now; in the name of God, this."
They had proceeded along this road for some quarter of a mile when the path grew strict and narrow, and boughs made dark the way.
"Wife," said the knight, "I fear that we fare but ill."
When he had thus spoken he looked before him, and marked four armed thieves, seated on four strong horses, and each bore lance in hand. Thereupon he glanced behind him, and, lo, four other robbers, armed and set in ambush, so he said,
"Dame, be not affrighted of aught that you may see from now."
Right courteously Sir Thibault saluted the robbers in his path, but they gave no answer to his greeting. Afterwards he sought of them what was in their mind, and one replied that he should know anon. The thief, who had thus spoken, drew towards my lord Thibault, with outstretched sword, thinking to smite him in the middle. Messire Thibault saw the blow about to fall, and it was no marvel if he feared greatly. He sprang forward nimbly, as best he might, so that the glaive smote the air. Then as the robber staggered by, Sir Thibault seized him fiercely, and wrested the sword from his hand. The knight advanced stoutly against those three from whom the thief had come. He struck the foremost amidst the bowels, so that he perished miserably. Then he turned and went again to that one who had first come against him with the sword, and slew him also. Now it was decreed of God that after the knight had slain three of this company of robbers, that the five who were left, encompassed him round about, and killed his palfrey. Sir Thibault tumbled flat upon his back, although he was not wounded to his hurt. Since he had neither sword nor other harness he could do no more. The thieves therefore stripped him to his very shirt, his boots and hosen, and binding him hand and foot with a baldrick, cast him into a thorn bush, right thick and sharp. When they had done this they hastened to the lady. From her they took her palfrey and her vesture, even to the shift. Passing fair was the lady; she wept full piteously, and never was dame more sorrowful than she. Now one of these bold robbers stared upon the lady, and saw that she was very fair. He spoke to his companions in this fashion,
"Comrades, I have lost my brother in this broil. I will take this woman for his blood money."
But the others made answer,
"I, too, have lost my kin. I claim as much as you, and my right is good as yours."
So said a third, and a fourth, and a fifth. Then spake yet another.
"In keeping of the lady will be found neither peace nor profit. Rather let us lead her from here within the forest, there do our pleasure upon her, and then put her again upon the path, so that she may go her way."
Thus they did as they had devised together, and left her on the road.
Right sick at heart was Messire Thibault when he saw her so entreated, but nothing could he do. He bore no malice against his wife by reason of that which had befallen, for well he knew that it, was by force, and not according to her will. When he saw her again, weeping bitterly and altogether shamed, he called to her, and said,
"Wife, for God's love unloose me from these bonds, and deliver me from the torment that I suffer, for these thorns are sharper than I can endure."
The lady hastened to the place where Sir Thibault lay, and marked a sword flung behind the bush, belonging to one of those felons that were slain. She took the glaive, and went towards her lord, filled full of wrath and evil thoughts because of what had chanced to her. She feared greatly lest her husband should bear malice for that which he had seen, reproaching her upon a day, and taunting her for what was past. She said,
"Sir, you are out of your pain already."
She raised the sword, and came towards her husband, thinking to strike him midmost the body. When he marked the falling glaive he deemed that his day had come, for he was a naked man, clad in nought but his shirt and hosen. He trembled so sorely that his bonds were loosed, and the lady struck so feebly that she wounded him but little, severing that baldrick with which his hands were made fast. Thereat the knight brake the cords about his legs, and leaping upon his feet, cried, "Dame, by the grace of God it is not to-day that you shall slay me with the sword."
Then she made answer, "Truly, sir, the sorer grief is mine."
Sir Thibault took the sword, and set it again in the sheath, afterwards he put his hand upon the lady's shoulder, and brought her back by the path they had fared. At the fringe of the woodland he found a large part of his fellowship, who were come to meet him. When these saw their lord and lady so spoiled and disarrayed they inquired of them, "Sir, who hath put you in this case?"
He set them by, saying that they had fallen amongst felons who had done them much mischief.
Mightily the sergeants lamented; but presently they fetched raiment from the packs, and arrayed them, for enough they had and to spare. So they climbed into the saddle, and continued their journey.
They rode that day, nor for aught that had chanced did Messire Thibault show sourer countenance to the lady. At nightfall they came to a goodly town, and there took shelter in an inn. Messire Thibault sought of his host if there was any convent of nuns in those parts where a lady might repose her. The host made answer to him,
"Sir, you are served to your wish. Just beyond the walls is a right fair religious house, with many holy women."
On the morrow Messire Thibault went to this house, and heard Mass. Afterwards he spoke to the Abbess and her chapter, praying that he might leave his lady in their charge, until his return; and this they accorded very willingly. Messire Thibault bestowed the lady in this convent, with certain of his house to do her service, and went his way to bring his pilgrimage to a fair end. When he had knelt before the shrine, and honoured the Saint, he came again to the convent and the lady. He gave freely of his wealth to the house, and taking to himself his wife, returned with her to their own land, in the same joy and honour as he had brought her forth, save only that they lay not together.
Great was the gladness of the folk of that realm when Sir Thibault returned to his home. The Count of Ponthieu, the father of his wife was there, and there, too, was his uncle the Count of St. Pol. Many worthy and valiant gentlemen came for his welcome, and a fair company of dames and maidens likewise honoured the lady. That day the Count of Ponthieu sat at meat with my lord Thibault, and ate from the same dish, the two together. Then it happed that the Count spake to him,
"Thibault, fair son, he who journeys far hears many a strange matter and sees many strange sights, which are hidden from those who sit over the fire. Tell me therefore, of your favour, something of all you have seen and heard since you went from amongst us."
Messire Thibault answered shortly that he knew no tale worth the telling. The Count would take no denial, but plagued him so sorely, begging him of his courtesy to tell over some adventure, that at the last he was overborne.
"Sir, I will narrate a story, since talk I must; but at least let it be in your private ear, if you please, and not for the mirth of all."
The Count replied that his pleasure was the same. After meat, when men had eaten their fill, the Count rose in his chair, and taking my lord Thibault by the hand, entreated,
"Tell me now, I pray, that which it pleases you to tell, for there are few of the household left in hall."
Then Messire Thibault began to relate that which chanced to a knight and a dame, even as it has been rehearsed before you in this tale; only he named not the persons to whom this lot was appointed. The Count, who was wise and sober of counsel, inquired what the knight had done with the lady. Thibault made answer that the knight had brought the lady back by the way she went, with the same joy and worship as he led her forth, save only that they slept not together.
"Thibault," said the Count, "your knight walked another road than I had trod. By my faith in God and my love for you, I had hanged this dame by her tresses to a tree. The laces of her gown would suffice if I could find no other cord."
"Sir," said Messire Thibault, "you have but my word. The truth can only be assured if the lady might bear witness and testify with her own mouth."
"Thibault," said the Count, "know you the name of this knight?"
"Sir," cried Messire Thibault, "I beg you again to exempt me from naming the knight to whom this sorrow befell. Know of a truth that his name will bring no profit."
"Thibault," said the Count, "it is my pleasure that his name should not be hid."
"Sir," answered Thibault, "tell I must, as you will not acquit me; but I take you to witness that I speak only under compulsion, since gladly I would have kept silence, had this been your pleasure, for in the telling there is neither worship nor honour."
"Thibault," replied the Count, "without more words I would know forthwith who was the knight to whom this adventure chanced. By the faith that you owe to your God and to me, I conjure you to tell me his name, since it is in your mind."
"Sir," replied Messire Thibault, "I will answer by the faith I owe my God and you, since you lay this charge upon me. Know well, and be persuaded, that I am the knight on whom this sorrow lighted. Hold it for truth that I was sorely troubled and sick of heart. Be assured that never before have I spoken to any living man about the business, and moreover that gladly would I have held my peace, had such been your will."
When the Count heard this adventure he was sore astonied, and altogether cast down. He kept silence for a great space, speaking never a word. At the last he said, "Thibault, was it indeed my child who did this thing?"
"Sir, it is verily and truly so."
"Thibault," said the Count, "sweet shall be your vengeance, since you have given her again to my hand."
Because of his exceeding wrath the Count sent straightway for his daughter, and demanded of her if those things were true of which Messire Thibault had spoken. She inquired of the accusation, and her father answered, "That you would have slain him with the sword, even as he has told me?"
"Sir, of a surety."
"And wherefore would you slay your husband?"
"Sir, for reason that I am yet heavy that he is not dead."
When the Count heard the lady speak in this fashion, he answered her nothing, but suffered in silence until the guests had departed. After these were gone, the Count came on a day to Rue-sur-Mer, and Messire Thibault with him, and the Count's son. With them also went the lady. Then the Count caused a ship to be got ready, very stout and speedy, and he made the dame to enter in the boat. He set also on the ship an untouched barrel, very high and strong. These three lords climbed into the nave, with no other company, save those sailors who should labour at the oar. The Count commanded the mariners to put the ship to sea, and all marvelled greatly as to what he purposed, but there was none so bold as to ask him any questions. When they had rowed a great way from the land, the Count bade them to strike the head from out the barrel. He took that dame, his own child, who was so dainty and so fair, and thrust her in the tun, whether she would or whether she would not. This being done he caused the cask to be made fast again with staves and wood, so that the water might in no manner enter therein. Afterwards he dragged the barrel to the edge of the deck, and with his own hand cast it into the sea, saying,
"I commend thee to the wind and waves."
Passing heavy was Messire Thibault at this, and the lady's brother also, and all who saw. They fell at the Count's feet, praying him of his grace that she might be delivered from the barrel. So hot was his wrath that he would not grant their prayer, for aught that they might do or say. They therefore left him to his rage, and turning to the Heavenly Father, besought our Lord Jesus Christ that of His most sweet pity He would have mercy on her soul, and give her pardon for her sins.
The ship came again to land, leaving the lady in sore peril and trouble, even as the tale has told you. But our Lord Jesus Christ, who is Lord and Father of all, and desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live--as each day He showeth us openly by deed, by example and by miracle--sent succour to this lady, even as you shall hear. For a ship from Flanders, laden with merchandise, marked this barrel drifting at the mercy of winds and waters, before ever the Count and his companions were come ashore. One of the merchants said to his comrades,
"Friends, behold a barrel drifting in our course. If we may reach it, perchance we may find it to our gain."
This ship was wont to traffic with the Saracens in their country, so the sailors rowed towards the barrel, and partly by cunning and partly by strength, at the last got it safely upon the deck. The merchants looked long at the cask. They wondered greatly what it could be, and wondering, they saw that the head of the barrel was newly closed. They opened the cask, and found therein a woman at the point of death, for air had failed her. Her body was gross, her visage swollen, and the eyes started horribly from her head. When she breathed the fresh air and felt the wind blow upon her, she sighed a little, so that the merchants standing by, spoke comfortably to her, but she might not answer them a word. In the end, heart and speech came again to her. She spoke to the chapmen and the sailors who pressed about her, and much she marvelled how she found herself amongst them. When she perceived that she was with merchants and Christian men she was the more easy, and fervently she praised Jesus Christ in her heart, thanking Him for the loving kindness which had kept her from death. For this lady was altogether contrite in heart, and earnestly desired to amend her life towards God, repenting the trespass she had done to others, and fearing the judgment that was rightly her due. The merchants inquired of the lady whence she came, and she told them the truth, saying that she was a miserable wretch and a poor sinner, as they could see for themselves. She related the cruel adventure which had chanced to her, and prayed them to take pity on a most unhappy lady, and they answered that mercy they would show. So with meat and drink her former beauty came to her again.
Now this merchant ship fared so far that she came to the land of the Paynims, and cast anchor in the port of Aumarie. Galleys of these Saracens came to know their business, and they answered that they were traffickers in divers merchandise in many a realm. They showed them also the safe conduct they carried of princes and mighty lords that they might pass in safety through their countries to buy and sell their goods. The merchants got them to land in this port, taking the lady with them. They sought counsel one of the other to know what it were best to do with her. One was for selling her as a slave, but his companion proposed to give her as a sop to the rich Soudan of Aumarie, that their business should be the less hindered. To this they all agreed. They arrayed the lady freshly in broidered raiment, and carried her before the Soudan, who was a lusty young man. He accepted their gift, receiving the lady with a right glad heart, for she was passing fair. The Soudan inquired of them as to who she was.
"Sire," answered the merchants, "we know no more than you, but marvellous was the fashion in which she came to our hands."
The gift was so greatly to the Soudan's mind that he served the chapmen to the utmost of his power. He loved the lady very tenderly, and entreated her in all honour. He held and tended her so well, that her sweet colour came again to her, and her beauty increased beyond measure. The Soudan sought to know by those who had the gift of tongues as to the lady's home and race, but these she would not reveal to any. He was the more thoughtful therefore, because he might see that she was a dame of birth and lineage. He inquired of her as to whether she were a Christian woman, promising that if she would deny her faith, he would take her as his wife, since he was yet unwed. The lady saw clearly that it were better to be converted by love than perforce; so she answered that her religion was to do her master's pleasure. When she had renounced her faith, and rejected the Christian law, the Soudan made her his dame according to the use and wont of this country of the Paynim. He held her very dear, cherishing her in all honour, for his love waxed deeper as the days wore on.
In due time it was with this lady after the manner of women, and she came to bed of a son. The Soudan rejoiced greatly, being altogether merry and content. The lady, for her part, lived in fair fellowship with the folk of her husband's realm. Very courteous was she, and very serviceable, so that presently she was instructed in the Saracen tongue. In no long while after the birth of her son she conceived of a maid, who in the years that befell grew passing sweet and fair, and richly was she nurtured as became the daughter of so high a prince. Thus for two years and a half the lady dwelt with the Paynim in much softness and delight.
Now the story keeps silence as to the lady and the Soudan, her husband, till later, as you may hear, and returns to the Count of Ponthieu, the son of the Count, and to my lord Thibault of Dommare, who were left grieving for the dame who was flung into the sea, as you have heard, nor knew aught of her tidings, but deemed that she were rather dead than alive. Now tells the story--and the truth bears witness to itself and is its own confirmation--that the Count was in Ponthieu, together with his son, and Messire Thibault. Very heavy was the Count, for in no wise could he get his daughter from his mind, and grievously he lamented the wrong that he had done her. Messire Thibault dared not take to himself another wife, because of the anguish of his friend. The son of the Count might not wed also; neither durst he to become knight, though he was come to an age when such things are greatly to a young man's mind.
On a day the Count considered deeply the sin that he had committed against his own flesh. He sought the Archbishop of Rheims in confession, and opened out his grief, telling in his ear the crime that he had wrought. He determined to seek those holy fields beyond the sea, and sewed the Cross upon his mantle. When Messire Thibault knew that his lord, the Count, had taken the Cross, he confessed him, and did likewise. And when the Count's son was assured of the purpose of his sire and of Messire Thibault, whom he loved dearly, he took the Cross with them. Passing heavy was the Count to mark the Sign upon his son's raiment.
"Fair son, what is this you have done; for now the land remains without a lord!"
The son answered, and said, "Father, I wear the Sign first and foremost for the love of God; afterwards for the saving of my soul, and by reason that I would serve and honour Him to the utmost of my power, so long as I have life in my body."
The Count put his realm in ward full wisely. He used diligence in making all things ready, and bade farewell to his friends. Messire Thibault and the son of the Count ordered their business, and the three set forth together, with a fair company. They came to that holy land beyond the sea, safe of person and of gear. There they made devout pilgrimage to every place where they were persuaded it was meet to go, and God might be served. When the Count had done all that he was able, he deemed that there was yet one thing to do. He gave himself and his fellowship to the service of the Temple for one year; and at the end of this term he purposed to seek his country and his home. He sent to Acre, and made ready a ship against his voyage. He took his leave of the Knights Templar, and other lords of that land, and greatly they praised him for the worship that he had brought them. When the Count and his company were come to Acre they entered in the ship, and departed from the haven with a fair wind. But little was their solace. For when they drew to the open sea a strong and horrible tempest sprang suddenly upon them, so that the sailors knew not where they went, and feared each hour that all would be drowned. So piteous was their plight that, with ropes, they bound themselves one to another, the son to the father, the uncle to the nephew, according as they stood. The Count, his son, and Messire Thibault for their part, fastened themselves together, so that the same end should chance to all. In no long time after this was done they saw land, and inquired of the shipmen whither they were come. The mariners answered that this realm belonged to the Paynim, and was called the Land of Aumarie. They asked of the Count,
"Sire, what is your will that we do? If we seek the shore, doubtless we shall be made captives, and fall into the hands of the Saracen."
The Count made answer, "Not my will, but the will of Jesus Christ be done. Let the ship go as He thinks best. We will commit our bodies and our lives to His good keeping, for a fouler and an uglier death we cannot die, than to perish in this sea."
They drove with the wind along the coast of Aumarie, and the galleys and warships of the Saracens put out to meet them. Be assured that this was no fair meeting, for the Paynims took them and led them before the Soudan, who was lord of that realm. There they gave him the goods and the bodies of these Christians as a gift. The Soudan sundered this fair fellowship, setting them in many places and in divers prisons; but since the Count, his son, and Messire Thibault were so securely bound together, he commanded that they should be cast into a dungeon by themselves, and fed upon the bread of affliction and the water of affliction. So it was done, even as he commanded. In this prison they lay for a space, till such time as the Count's son fell sick. His sickness was so grievous that the Count and Messire Thibault feared greatly that this sorrow was to death.
Now it came to pass that the Soudan held high Court because of the day of his birth, for such was the custom of the Saracens. After they had well eaten, the Saracens stood before the Soudan, and said,
"Sire, we require of you our right."
He inquired of what right they were speaking, and they answered,
"Sire, a Christian captive to set as a mark for our arrows."
When the Soudan heard this he gave no thought to such a trifle, but made reply,
"Get you to the prison, and take out that captive who has the least of life in him."
The Paynim hastened to the dungeon, and brought forth the Count, bearded, unkempt and foredone. The Soudan marked his melancholy case, so he said to them, "This man has not long to live; take him hence, and do your will on him."
The wife of the Soudan, of whom you have heard, the daughter of this very Count, was in the hall, when they brought forth her father to slay him. Immediately that her eyes fell upon him the blood in her veins turned to water; not so much that she knew him as her sire, but rather that Nature tugged at her heart strings. Then spake the dame to the Soudan, "Husband, I, too, am French, and would gladly speak with this poor wretch ere he die, if so I may."
"Wife," answered the Soudan, "truly, yes; it pleases me well."
The lady came to the Count. She took him apart, and bidding the Saracens fall back, she inquired of him whence he was.
"Lady, I am from the kingdom of France, of a county that men call Ponthieu."
When the lady heard this her bowels were moved. Earnestly she demanded his name and race.
"Of a truth, lady, I have long forgotten my father's house, for I have suffered such pain and anguish since I departed, that I would rather die than live. But this you may know, that I--even the man who speaks to you--was once the Count of Ponthieu."
The lady hearkened to this, but yet she made no sign. She went from the Count, and coming to the Soudan, said,
"Husband, give me this captive as a gift, if such be your pleasure. He knows chess and draughts and many fair tales to bring solace to the hearer. He shall play before you, and we will make our pastime of his skill."
"Wife," answered the Soudan, "I grant him to you very willingly; do with him as you wish."
The lady took the captive, and bestowed him in her chamber. The gaolers sought another in his stead, and brought forth my lord Thibault, the husband to the dame. He came out in tatters, for he was clothed rather in his long hair and great beard, than in raiment. His body was lean and bony, and he seemed as one who had endured pain and sorrow enough, and to spare. When the lady saw him she said to the Soudan,
"Husband, with this one also would I gladly speak, if so I may."
"Wife," answered the Soudan, "it pleases me well."
The lady came to my lord Thibault, and inquired of him whence he was.
"Lady, I am of the realm of that ancient gentleman who was taken from prison before me. I had his daughter to wife, and am his knight."
The lady knew well her lord, so she returned to the Soudan, and said to him, "Husband, great kindness will you show me, if you give me this captive also."
"Wife," said the Soudan, "I grant him to you very willingly."
She thanked him sweetly, and bestowed the gift in her chamber, with the other.
The archers hastened together, and drawing before the Soudan said, "Sire, you do us wrong, for the day is far spent."
They went straight to the prison, and brought forth the son of the Count, shagged and filthy, as one who had not known of water for many a day. He was a young man, so young that his beard had not come on him, but for all his youth he was so thin and sick and weak, that he scarce could stand upon his feet. When the lady saw him she had compassion upon him. She came to him asking whose son he was and of his home, and he replied that he was son to that gentleman, who was first brought out of the dungeon. She knew well that this was her brother, but she made herself strange unto him.
"Husband," said she to the Soudan, "verily you will shew kindness to your wife beyond measure if you grant me this captive. He knows chess and draughts and other delights passing fair to see and hear."
And the Soudan made answer, "Wife, by our holy law if they were a hundred I would give them all to you gladly."
The lady thanked him tenderly, and bestowed the captive swiftly in her chamber. The Saracens went again to the prison and fetched out another, but the lady left him to his fate, when she looked upon his face. So he won a martyr's crown, and our Lord Jesus Christ received his soul. As for the dame, she hid herself from the sight, for it gave her little joy, this slaying of the Christian by the Paynims.
The lady came to her chamber, and at her coming the captives would have got them to their feet, but she made signs that they should remain seated. Drawing close she made gestures of friendship. The Count, who was very shrewd, asked at this, "Lady, when will they slay us?"
She answered that their time had not yet come.
"Lady," said he, "the sorer grief is ours, for we are so anhungered, that for a little our souls would leave our bodies."
The lady went out, and bade meat to be made ready. This she carried in, giving to each a little, and to each a little drink. When they had eaten, they had yet greater hunger than before. In this manner she fed them, little by little, ten times a day, for she deemed that should they eat to their desire, they would die of repletion. For this reason she caused them to break their fast temperately. Thus the good lady dealt with them for the first seven days, and at nights, by her grace, they lay softly at their ease. She did away with their rags, and clad them in seemly apparel. When the week was done she set before them meat and drink to their heart's desire, so that their strength returned to them again. They had chess and draughts, and played these games to their great content. The Soudan was often with them. He watched the play, and took pleasure in their gladness. But the lady refrained, so that none might conceive, either by speech or fashion, that he had known her before.
Now a short while after this matter of the captives, the story tells that the Soudan had business enough of his own, for a mighty Sultan laid waste his realm, and sought to do him much mischief. To avenge his wrong the Soudan commanded his vassals from every place, and assembled a great host. When the lady knew this, she entered the chamber where the captives lay, and sitting amidst them lifted her hand, and said, "Sirs, you have told me somewhat of your business; now will I be assured whether you are true men or not. You told me that in your own land you were once the Count of Ponthieu, that this man was wedded to your daughter, and that this other was your son. Know that I am a Saracen, having the science of astrology; so I tell you plainly that you were never so near to a shameful death, as you are now, if you hide from me the truth. What chanced to your daughter, the wife of this knight?"
"Lady," replied the Count, "I deem her to be dead."
"How came she to her death?"
"Certes, lady," said the Count, "because for once she received her deserts."
"Tell me of these deservings," said the dame.
Then the Count began to tell, with tears, of how she was wedded, but was yet a barren wife; how the good knight vowed pilgrimage to my lord St. James in Galicia, and how the lady prayed that she might go with him, which prayer he granted willingly. He told how they went their way with joy, till alone, in the deep wood, they met with sturdy felons who set upon them. The good knight might do nothing against so many, for he was a naked man; but despite of all, he slew three, and five were left, who killed his palfrey, and spoiling him to the very shirt, bound him hands and feet, and flung him into a thorn bush. They spoiled the lady also and stole her palfrey from her. When they looked upon her, and saw that she was fair, each would have taken her. Afterwards they accorded that she should be to all, and having had their will in her despite, they departed and left her weeping bitterly. This the good knight saw, so he besought her courteously to unloose his hands, that they might get them from the wood. But the lady marked a sword belonging to one of these felons that were slain. She handselled it, and hastening where he lay, cried in furious fashion, "You are unbound already." Then she raised the naked sword, and struck at his body. But by the loving kindness of God, and the vigour of the knight, she but sundered the bonds that bound him, so that he sprang forth, and wounded as he was, cried, "Dame, by the grace of God it is not to-day that you shall kill me with the sword."
At this word that fair lady, the wife of the Soudan, spoke suddenly, and said,
"Ah, sir, you have told the tale honestly, and very clear it is why she would have slain him."
"For what reason, lady?"
"Certes," answered she, "for reason of the great shame which had befallen her."
When Messire Thibault heard this he wept right tenderly, and said, "Alas, what part had she in this wickedness! May God keep shut the doors of my prison if I had shown her the sourer face therefore, seeing that her will was not in the deed."
"Sir," said the lady, "she feared your reproach. But tell me which is the more likely, that she be alive or dead?"
"Lady," said Thibault, "we know not what to think."
"Well I know," cried the Count, "of the great anguish we have suffered, by reason of the sin I sinned against her."
"If it pleased God that she were yet living," inquired the lady, "and tidings were brought which you could not doubt, what would you have to say?"
"Lady," said the Count, "I should be happier than if I were taken from this prison, or were granted more wealth than ever I have had in my life."
"Lady," said Messire Thibault, "so God give me no joy of my heart's dearest wish, if I had not more solace than if men crowned me King of France."
"Certes, lady," said the dansellon, who was her brother, "none could give or promise me aught so sweet, as the life of that sister, who was so fair and good."
When the lady hearkened to these words her heart yearned with tenderness. She praised God, rendering Him thanks, and said to them, "Be sure that you speak with unfeigned lips."
And they answered and said that they spoke with unfeigned lips. Then the lady began to weep with happy tears, and said to them, "Sir, now may you truly say that you are my father, for I am that daughter on whom you wrought such bitter justice. And you, Messire Thibault, are my lord and husband; and you, sir dansellon, are my brother."
Then she rehearsed to them in what manner she was found of the chapmen, and how they bestowed her as a gift on the Soudan. They were very glad, and rejoiced mightily, humbling themselves before her, but she forbade them to show their mirth, saying, "I am a Saracen, and have renounced the faith; otherwise I should not be here, but were dead already. Therefore I pray and beseech you as you love your lives and would prolong your days, whatever you may see or hear, not to show me any affection, but keep yourselves strange to me, and leave me to unravel the coil. Now I will tell why I have revealed myself to you. My husband, the Soudan, rides presently to battle. I know well, Messire Thibault, that you are a hardy knight, and I will pray the Soudan to take you with him. If ever you were brave, now is the time to make it plain. See to it that you do him such service that he have no grievance against you."
The lady departed forthwith, and coming before the Soudan, said, "Husband, one of my captives desires greatly to go with you, if such be your pleasure."
"Wife," answered he, "I dare not put myself in his hand, for fear that he may do me a mischief."
"Husband, he will not dare to be false, since I hold his companions as hostages."
"Wife," said he, "I will take him with me, because of your counsel, and I will deliver him a good horse and harness, and all that warrior may require."
The lady returned straightway to the chamber. She said to Messire Thibault, "I have persuaded the Soudan to bring you to the battle. Act therefore manfully."
At this her brother knelt at her knee, praying her to plead with the Soudan that he might go also.
"That I may not do," said she, "or the thing will be too clear."
The Soudan ordered his business, and went forth, Messire Thibault being with him, and came upon the enemy. According to his word, the Soudan had given to the knight both horse and harness. By the will of Jesus Christ, who faileth never such as have faith and affiance in Him, Messire Thibault did such things in arms that in a short space the enemies of the Soudan were put under his feet. The Soudan rejoiced greatly at his knight's deeds and his victory, and returned bringing many captives with him. He went straight to the dame, and said, "Wife, by my law I have naught but good to tell of your prisoner, for he has done me faithful service. So he deny his faith, and receive our holy religion, I will grant him broad lands, and find him a rich heiress in marriage."
"Husband, I know not, but I doubt if he will do this thing."
No more was spoken of the matter; but the lady set her house in order, as best she was able, and coming to her captives said, "Sirs, go warily, so that the Saracens see nothing of what is in our mind; for, please God, we shall yet win to France and the county of Ponthieu."
On a day the lady came before the Soudan. She went in torment, and lamented very grievously.
"Husband, it is with me as it was before. Well I know it, for I have fallen into sore sickness, and my food has no relish in my mouth, no, not since you went to the battle."
"Wife, I am right glad to hear that you are with child, although your infirmity is very grievous unto me. Consider and tell me those things that you deem will be to your healing, and I will seek and procure them whatever the cost."
When the lady heard this, her heart beat lightly in her breast. She showed no semblance of joy, save this only, that she said, "Husband, my old captive tells me that unless I breathe for awhile such air as that of my native land, and that quickly, I am but dead, for in nowise have I long to live."
"Wife," said the Soudan, "your death shall not be on my conscience. Consider and show me where you would go, and there I will cause you to be taken."
"Husband, it is all one to me, so I be out of this city."
Then the Soudan made ready a ship, both fair and strong, and garnished her plenteously with wines and meats.
"Husband," said the lady to the Soudan, "I will take of my captives the aged and the young, that they may play chess and draughts at my bidding, and I will carry with me my son for my delight."
"Wife," answered he, "your will is my pleasure. But what shall be done with the third captive?"
"Husband, deal with him after your desire."
"Wife, I desire that you take him on the ship; for he is a brave man, and will keep you well, both on land and sea, if you have need of his sword."
The lady took leave of the Soudan, bidding him farewell, and urgently he prayed her to return so soon as she was healed of her sickness. The stores being put upon the ship and all things made ready, they entered therein and set sail from the haven. With a fair wind they went very swiftly, so that the shipmen sought the lady, saying, "Madam, this wind is driving the boat to Brindisi. Is it your pleasure to take refuge there, or to go elsewhere?"
"Let the ship keep boldly on her course," answered the lady to them, "for I speak French featly and other tongues also, so I will bring you to a good end."
They made such swift passage by day and by night, that according to the will of Our Lord they came quickly to Brindisi. The ship cast anchor safely in the harbour, and they lighted on the shore, being welcomed gladly by the folk of that country. The lady, who was very shrewd, drew her captives apart, and said, "Sirs, I desire you to call to mind the pledge and the covenant you have made. I must now be certain that you are true men, remembering your oaths and plighted words. I pray you to let me know, by all that you deem of God, whether you will abide or not by our covenant together; for it is yet not too late to return to my home."
They answered, "Lady, know beyond question that the bargain we have made we will carry out loyally. By our faith in God and as christened men we will abide by this covenant; so be in no doubt of our assurance."
"I trust you wholly," replied the lady; "but, sirs, see here my son, whom I had of the Soudan, what shall we do with him?"
"Lady, the boy is right welcome, and to great honour shall he come in our own land."
"Sirs," said the dame, "I have dealt mischievously with the Soudan, for I have stolen my person from him, and the son who was so dear to his heart."
The lady went again to the shipmen, and lifting her hand, said to them, "Sirs, return to the Soudan whence you came, and greet him with this message. Tell him that I have taken from him my body and the son he loved so well, that I might deliver my father, my lord, and my brother from the prison where they were captive."
When the sailors heard this they were very dolent, but there was naught that they might do. They set sail for their own country, sad and very heavy by reason of the lady, of the young lad, whom they loved greatly, and of the captives who were escaped altogether from their hand.
For his part the Count arrayed himself meetly by grace of merchants and Templars, who lent him gladly of their wealth. He abode in the town, together with his fellowship, for their solace, till they made them ready for the journey, and took the road to Rome. The Count sought the Pontiff, and his company with him. Each confessed him of the secrets of his heart, and when the Bishop heard thereof, he accepted their devotion, and comforted them right tenderly. He baptised the child, who was named William. He reconciled the lady with Holy Church, and confirmed the lady and Messire Thibault her lord, in their marriage bond, reknitting them together, giving penance to each, and absolution for their sins. After this they made no long sojourn in Rome, but took their leave of the Apostle who had honoured them so greatly. He granted them his benison, and commended them to God. So they went their way in great solace and delight, praising God and His Mother, and all the calendar of saints, and rendering thanks for the mercies which had been vouchsafed to them. Journeying thus they came at last to the country of their birth, and were met by a fair procession of bishops and abbots, monks and priests, who had desired them fervently. But of all these welcomes they welcomed most gladly her who was recovered from death, and had delivered her sire, her lord, and her brother from the hands of the Paynim, even as you have heard. There we leave them for awhile, and will tell you of the shipmen and Saracens who had fared with them across the sea.
The sailors and Saracens who had carried them to Brindisi, returned as quickly as they were able, and with a fair wind cast anchor before Aumarie. They got them to land, very sad and heavy, and told their tidings to the Soudan. Right sorrowful was the Soudan, and neither for time nor reason could he forget his grief. Because of this mischief he loved that daughter the less who tarried with him, and showed her the less courtesy. Nevertheless the maiden increased in virtue and in wisdom, so that the Paynim held her in love and honour, praising her for the good that was known of her. But now the story is silent as to that Soudan who was so tormented by reason of the flight of his dame and captives; and comes again to the Count of Ponthieu, who was welcomed to his realm with such pomp and worship, as became a lord of his degree.
In no long while after his return the son of the Count was dubbed knight, and rich was the feast. He became a knight both chivalrous and brave. Greatly he loved all honourable men, and gladly he bestowed fair gifts on the poor knights and poor gentlewomen of the country. Much was he esteemed of lord and hind, for he was a worthy knight, generous, valiant and debonair, proud only to his foes. Yet his days on earth were but a span, which was the sorer pity, for he died lamented of all.
Now it befell that the Count held high Court, and many a knight and lord sat with him at the feast. Amongst these came a very noble man and knight, of great place, in Normandy, named my lord Raoul des Preaux. This Raoul had a daughter, passing sweet and fair. The Count spoke so urgently to Raoul and to the maiden's kin that a marriage was accorded between William, his grandson, the son of the Soudan of Aumarie, and the daughter of my lord Raoul, the heiress to all his wealth. William wedded the damsel with every rich observance, and in right of his wife this William became Lord of Preaux.
For a long while the realm had peace from its foes.
Messire Thibault dwelt with the lady, and had of her two sons, who in later days were worthy gentlemen of great worship. The son of the Count of Ponthieu, of whom we have spoken much and naught but good, died shortly after, to the grief of all the land. The Count of St. Pol was yet alive; therefore the two sons of my lord Thibault were heirs to both these realms, and attained thereto in the end. That devout lady, their mother, because of her contrite heart, gave largely to the poor; and Messire Thibault, like the honourable gentleman he was, abounded in good works so long as he was quick.
Now it chanced that the daughter of the lady, who abode with the Soudan her father, increased greatly in favour and in virtue. She was called The Fair Captive, by reason that her mother had left her in the Soudan's keeping, as you have heard. A certain brave Turk in the service of the Soudan--Malakin of Baudas by name--saw this damsel, so fair and gracious, and desired her dearly in his heart, because of the good men told of her. He came before his master, and said to him,
"Sire, in return for his labour your servant craves a gift."
"Malakin," returned the Soudan, "what gift would you have?"
"Sire, I would dare to tell it to your face, if only she were not so high above my reach."
The Sultan who was both shrewd and quick witted made reply,
"Say out boldly what is in your mind, for I hold you dear, and remember what you have done. If there is aught it beseems me to grant--saving only my honour--be assured that it is yours."
"Sire, well I know that your honour is without spot, nor would I seek anything against it. I pray you to bestow on your servant--if so it be your pleasure--my lady your daughter, for she is the gift I covet most in all the world."
The Soudan kept silence, and considered for a space. He knew well that Malakin was both valiant and wise, and might easily come to great honour and degree. Since the servant was worthy of his high desire, the Soudan said, "By my law you have required of me a great thing, for I love my daughter dearly, and have no other heir. You know well, and it is the simple truth, that she comes of the best and bravest blood in France, for her mother is the child of the Count of Ponthieu. But since you too are valiant, and have done me loyal service, for my part I will give her to you willingly, save only that it be to the maiden's mind."
"Sire," said Malakin, "I would not take her against her wish."
The Soudan bade the girl be summoned. When she came, he said, "Fair daughter, I have granted you in marriage, if it pleases you."
"Sir," answered the maiden, "my pleasure is in your will."
The Soudan took her by the hand, saying, "Take her, Malakin, the maid is yours."
Malakin received her with a glad heart, and wedded her according to the Paynim rite, bringing her to his house right joyously, with the countenance of all his friends. Afterwards he returned with her to his own land. The Soudan escorted them upon their way, with such a fair company of his household as seemed good to him. Then he bade farewell to his child and her lord, and returned to his home. But a great part of his fellowship he commanded to go with her for their service, Malakin came back to his own land, where he was welcomed right gladly of his friends, and served and honoured by all the folk of his realm. He lived long and tenderly with his wife, neither were they childless, as this story testifies. For of this lady, who was called the Fair Captive, was born the mother of that courteous Turk, the Sultan Saladin, an honourable, a wise, and a conquering lord.