’And oh, lady, if I should—should win honour, may I lay it at your feet?’
‘Whatever you achieve as a good man and true will gladden me,’ said Esclairmonde, ’as it will all others that wish you well. Both you and your sister in her loneliness shall have my best prayers. Farewell, Lord Malcolm; may the Saints bless and guard you, whether in the world or the Church.’
Malcolm knew why she spoke of his sister, and felt as if there were no hope for him. Esclairmonde’s grave kindness was a far worse sign than would have been any attempt to evade him; but at any rate she had spoken with him, and his heart could not but be cheered. What might he not do in the glorious future? As the foremost champion of a crusading king, bearing St. Andrew’s cross through the very gates of Jerusalem, what maiden, however saintly, could refuse him his guerdon?
And he knew that, for the present, Esclairmonde was safe from retiring into any convent, since her high birth and great possessions would make any such establishment expect a large dower with her as a right, and few abbesses would have ventured to receive a runaway foreigner, especially as one of her guardians was the Bishop of Therouenne.
Wintry winds and rains were sweeping over the English tents on the banks of the Marne, where Henry V. was besieging Meaux, then the stronghold of one of those terrible freebooters who were always the offspring of a lengthened war. Jean de Gast, usually known as the Bastard de Vaurus, nominally was of the Armagnac or patriotic party, but, in fact, pillaged indiscriminately, especially capturing travellers on their way to Paris, and setting on their heads a heavy price, failing which he hung them upon the great elm-tree in the market-place. The very suburbs of Paris were infested by the forays of this desperate routier, as such highway robbers were called; the supplies of previsions were cut off, and the citizens had petitioned King Henry that he would relieve them from so intolerable an enemy.
The King intended to spend the winter months with his queen in England, and at once attacked the place in October, hoping to carry it by a coup de main. He took the lower city, containing the market-place and several large convents, with no great difficulty; but the upper city, on a rising ground above the river, was strongly fortified, well victualled, and bravely defended, and he found himself forced to invest it, and make a regular siege, though at the expense of severe toil and much sickness and suffering. Both his own prestige in France and the welfare of the capital depended on his success, and he had therefore fixed himself before Meaux to take it at whatever cost.