How the Minstrel Saved the King

here were once two strolling players who travelled much about the fair realm of England, playing at castle, and farmhouse, and at many a wayside inn. One carried a guitar, which he twanged with a careless hand, waking quaint songs of a wondrous sweetness, and often strange marches in which could be heard the ring of horses’ hoofs; the other – of a stronger and fiercer type than his fellow – sang, with a voice of stirring tones, of warlike deeds.

Many a heart waked to that sweet music, many a pulse bounded to the tune of the song; and many a maid and man questioned who were these strolling musicians, whose eyes were ever drooped as they played and sang, as if only the music held their hearts. Suddenly they came, and suddenly they went; and they wore masks upon their faces, and showed great love for each other. And there you have the beginning, and the end, and the middle of what folk knew.

Never a farmer who loudly applauded the couple, nor a good dame who proffered her fare with a joke, guessed that the singer was that reckless prince Richard, and the player his friend Blondel, his boon companion whom he dearly loved.

Prince Richard was wild and of a reckless valour which allowed him to think little of the safety of his head. His finger was ready for any pie that was like to burn it, and his sword the first to leap out in any brawl. Did any fair lady seek redress? my Prince was ready, nay, eager, to espouse her cause, careless of the cost. Was any mischief brewing? there went Richard, his sword ready to leap into his hand.

These diversions kept the Prince well occupied, for betwixt his chivalry and his love of partisanship, he was seldom out of a pother. When occasions of quiet did occur, he was off with that loved companion Blondel, his wild spirit finding in the gentle art of music a strange delight.

Richard could weave a song as readily as he could wield a sword, and he turned many a neat verse to Blondel’s music.

“‘Tis thy quaint melodies that ripen my brain,” quoth he to Blondel.

But Blondel smiled, and, stroking a string so that it sang, he said, “There is no fruit on a barren tree to ripen; but where there be fruit, the sun will ripen it.” And he played a melody so sweet that tears gushed to the wild Prince’s eyes as he heard.

Richard and Blondel had gone upon many a journey together, and shared many a homely lodging, when a shaft fell upon their friendship, not severing it, but pinning it to quieter ways. For Richard became King.

Now he swore to Blondel that all should be as it had been; but Blondel replied:

“Nay, were I to desire that, I should be a false friend to thee. When thou art king, thou art king. If on any day there be an hour when no claim calls upon thy kingship, then remember Blondel. For friendship hangs not upon a string of words.”

And he withdrew himself, and would not have it that Richard should seek him often as in olden days.

Then Richard loved him the better, and the friendship was not broken, but rather waxed stronger; for the King perceived the truth of the minstrel’s words, and he reflected that Blondel had ever been a wise companion, and had often guided his steps safely where alone he had fared but ill.

Now if a hot-blooded prince be made king, his impetuosity may be tempered, but his spirit remains unchanged; and Richard had not long been head of the realm when he felt within him that fever of action which had sent him brawl-seeking in other days.

But, having much good in him, in spite of all his faults, he began to consider how he might bestir himself to do some deed that was noble and worthy a king. And having thought of many schemes, and discarded them, he decided to go on a Crusade. For the Sacred Tomb of our Lord was still in the hands of the Saracens, to the grief of Christian men, and the shame of the Faith.

Richard was determined to rescue it, and right well did the scheme commend itself to him, so that he was at once on fire to set about his preparations. And since he was not the first to institute a Crusade, he would not allow himself to think of those other monarchs who had sought to redeem the Tomb of our Lord from the Saracens and had failed.

Philip, King of France, decided that he would join with Richard in this attempt; and together they made many preparations, being resolved that this Crusade should be the bravest of any, and, by God’s grace, the most successful. Therefore they took more soldiers than had ever been taken, and these were better equipped, and were of a very valorous intention. And by these means, and by making a sudden terrible onslaught, Richard hoped to overthrow the Saracens, and rescue the Sacred Tomb.

And when all was ready he set forth with his men, and at a place they had agreed upon he met Philip; and they went upon their quest.

But to Blondel it fell that he should remain behind, for he had no place in the expedition; and he set himself to guard and watch over the interests of his King. For while Richard was absent there were plots and jealousies in England, and also in Normandy where Richard had his dukedom; and there were many who hoped to work their own advantage from the absence of the King. These things Blondel perceived, and he was saddened by them. Then he yearned for the King’s quick return.

But Richard came not quickly back, for he had taken a dangerous quest upon him, and was, besides, overtaken by many misfortunes by land and by sea. He made but ill journeys; and as for Philip of France, he was not the true companion to Richard that Blondel had been, and for that matter, the King liked him not as well.

Nor were the Saracens as easily overthrown as Richard had imagined, for they were good fighters, and had a knowledge of strategy. Those things Richard won from them they gained speedily back, so that they were not often at a disadvantage. As for the French and English soldiers, there was a great jealousy between them; and Richard repented him many a time that he had joined with Philip in this expedition; for he saw that there had been little wisdom in the plan. And he believed he had done better with his own soldiers, and had gained a better victory over the heathen.

Now the Sacred Tomb was not yet won when Richard was summoned back to England that he might look after his crown, which he was in danger of losing. Therefore in great sorrow he withdrew himself, leaving his mission unfulfilled.

And having, gone a part of the way home by water – which was the longer journey – he decided to forsake his ship and finish the journey by land. For it seemed to him a good plan to arrive early in England, and so discover his enemies ere they dreamt of his coming.

And doubtless this had been a plan not so ill, had not the King’s way lain through the territory of the Archduke Leopold of Austria, one of Richard’s bitterest enemies, and of the King of Germany, with whom he had a quarrel.

Of these things Richard took little heed, though he knew well that his enemies sought him, and would treat him harshly for the sake of their quarrels. Had Blondel been by his side, he had not taken a step so rash; but without that boon companion his inclination led him, and he set out joyfully upon his adventure.

Now he gave out that he was a merchant passing on a pilgrimage through these lands; and there his discretion ended. For never a merchant pilgrim travelled attended as Richard was by his gentlemen. Nevertheless he went gaily. But he had gone but a part of his way when he received warning that the Archduke Leopold had heard that he fared across country and was not travelling by sea.

Said Richard to his gentlemen: “See ye, sirs, we must be cautious. I will press onward therefore with this page, and ye shall travel by other ways. For I have a grievous quarrel with the Archduke, and he is hot against me; and it were an ill thing that I should suffer capture ere I reach my realm.” And with the little page he rode on.

But having so advised himself, Richard had done with discretion, and he gave no more heed to danger. Thus it happened that, ere he had gone a great way farther, the Archduke heard of him; for he was told of a merchant pilgrim whose page bought bread with gold pieces, and wore lace of a costly price; and well Leopold imagined who that pilgrim might be! Therefore he seized Richard, and, very joyful to have so easily possessed himself of an enemy so dangerous, he clapped him into a dungeon, and fastened a dozen stout bolts behind him.

But after he had been imprisoned for a time, it came to the ears of Henry of Germany how the Archduke had seized Richard, and had made him his prisoner. Therefore the King met the Archduke, and having shown to him how unseemly this thing was that he, who was only an Archduke, should have for prisoner the King of England, he bought Richard from him for a large sum of money, and bore him away.

And that the English King should be the better hidden, Henry conveyed him to a dark and desolate castle which stands alone upon a rock, and which has beside it the ruins of its fellows; for there were once three castles there. In that castle had been done many deeds of which men spake with changing face and pallid lip.

Now Blondel awaited Richard’s coming. And when the ships were upon their way, he said, “In a little time he will be here,” And when the ships arrived in England, he cried, “The King is come.”

But Richard was not in any of the ships. And Blondel learned how the King had set out upon that other journey by land, which is the shorter journey; and how he ought to have reached England a long time before this day.

Then he waited. And when he had waited a long time, and heard the people murmur how the King was surely dead, and when he had marked the murmur grow into open talk, and the talk into conviction, and still the King came not; then Blondel lifted his guitar, and set out to seek for him. And with him he took a few knights who were faithful and who did not believe in the death of the King.

Then they sought those places which Richard had passed through in his journey; and where they stopped a night, there they made sweet music that men should not discover their errand. And as if the story were but a tale that tickled the fancy, they asked questions about the English King who had passed alone through that country, and wondered aloud what had befallen him, and if he had met his death.

And some folk there were who whispered in reply, with an eye upon the door, lest a listener should be hiding: “We remember one of so high a courage that it may be it was he of whom ye speak. But he tarried but a little while to buy food from us, and we know not whence he came nor whither he fared. These are dangerous days, and we are a simple folk and know naught of wandering kings. Yet we remember him that he rode with a high courage, and looked fearlessly upon every man.”

And others said: “As we sat at our doors at nightfall, we saw one pass through the woods on foot, yet without weariness. And there was a little page with him. And as the man went by, he piped a song that was as sweet and careless as a bird’s. And mayhap he was not of earth, but a wraith of the dead King.”

But there were others again, who said roughly: ‘” We are a folk of bended backs, for we toil till we are weary. What do we know of the strangers that pass by ?”

And Blondel replied to these, “He was a King.” But they answered, “One looks as high to see a King as to see any other stranger; and one sees only a man when all is done.”

And of Richard, Blondel could learn no more than this – the meandering speech of country folk.

Then he began to quest.ion within himself whether the King were really dead, and his quest without an end to it; and his heart became heavy. And the knights that were with him saw the shadow on his face, that it was like the shadow of night. For his soul was sad nigh to tears.

Nevertheless, because his love would not allow him to weary of his quest, and because he had vowed that he would discover the fate of the King, he still went searching; and after a while, when he had passed through the neighbourhood of the Danube, and was searching that of the Rhine, he came into a wild and dark valley over which brooded a great shadow of silence.

Upon one side of the valley were great rocky hills, and on one of these stood a sombre castle, black and grim, and of an aspect most terrible. And beside it, on either side, were the ruins of two other castles of a like sternness. They lay there like huge animals of some other age that had fallen dead. Against the sky they lay in the shape of monstrous beasts.

Said the knights among themselves: “When the minstrel feels upon him the gloom of this valley, he will be like to die of sadness; for the silence upon it is that of darkness, of despair, and of death.”

But when Blondel paused to look up at that desolate castle, a great quiet fell upon his soul, as if his search were near an end; and his face became illuminated.

Then said he to his followers: “It is evening, but not yet the time of darkness. Hide ye in yon thicket the while I climb to the castle; for if the spirit speak aright which is within me, I shall find there tidings of him we seek.”

And they obeyed him, wondering greatly at the light upon his face.

“There hath never been a greater love,” said one, “than the love Blondel bears to the King.”

And another said, “Pray God we may find King Richard, for I would like all to see that light put out which shone on the minstrel’s face.”

But of these words Blondel knew nothing; and when he had climbed a great part of the valley-side he came upon a young damsel who was stepping down from the place where she had been tending her sheep, and so glad with youth was the smile upon her lips that the gloom could not touch it.

Then Blondel questioned her about the castle, if it had a history, and what that history might be, and if any prisoners were kept there.

“Alas I sir,” said she, “the history of the castle is one of crime and bloodshed, and I have liked little to hear it, and have remembered no more than I was made to remember. Yet this I can tell thee: it is of so great a strength it hath never been taken; and there are many soldiers there even to this day.”

Now the minstrel would have questioned her further about these things, but the maid had fear and would make no answer. Whereupon he brought forth his guitar and would have sung a song to her so to reward her courtesy; but he had voiced no more than a few notes when the damsel cried, “Why, if it be not that song again which I have heard the poor knight in the north tower sing! I have listened many a time as I tended my sheep, for it is a wayward strain and comes close to the heart. Ay, and the poor knight hath a sweeter voice than thou, Sir Minstrel, though he singeth in a cage.”

Having uttered these words, the damsel was filled with confusion that she had so spoken to a stranger; and with a fleet foot she passed from the minstrel and pursued her way.

But Blondel was filled with a gladness so great that it was close to tears, and when he had climbed to the castle, he found his way to that north tower of which the damsel had spoken. And when he had found it, he leant there, and, plucking out a note from his guitar, he sang that song which the damsel had known, a song sweet with youth and dreams.

Now the verses were those which Richard had written when the music of Blondel had stirred his heart in the days gone by. And when the first verse was finished, a voice within the tower took up the second, and sang it quaintly. And it was the voice of Richard.

“Art thou there, my faithful Blondel?” cried he. Blondel replied with a great joyfulness: “It is I, sire, for I have sought thee, and have now found thee. And in the thicket in the valley hide valiant men who will contrive for thee a way of escape; for they have sought with me, and that with fearless hearts.”

Now after much glad discourse, those true friends had again to part. Blondel hastened to make search for the castellan, who proved to be of a good temper and overjoyed to greet him, since the castle was lonely and attracted few players of a light wit such as he imagined Blondel to be.

When the minstrel had told those knights who were with him on his quest of the imprisonment of the King, they began to recount among themselves the divers fashions in which brave men had escaped from the hands of their enemies, that they might contrive a like escape for the King.

But by every wind their thoughts took they came back to that spot from which they set out; for there were two difficulties that beset them. The first was, that they themselves were few in number; and the second was – and it was equally potent that the castle had never been taken by force.

There remained to them only strategy, for by no other means might the King escape.

Therefore Blondel climbed to the castle day by day; and while he stood in the great hall and played, or sang beside the blaze of the kitchen coals, he let his eyes roam round the assembled roisterers, seeking a face that would fit into his scheme. But the soldiers were loutish fellows, rough and rude, and of a dull wit, their only virtue that pride which they took in the castle they defended; and the minstrel’s eye ever returned to the floor beside his feet, not having found that which it sought.

Yet one day as the minstrel’s eyes swept round the hall in a sombre glance they fell upon that which roused a new fire in them, and made his song more hotly tender; for a little maid walked between the men, serving them, and she was slim and fair, and sweet to see. And as the minstrel sang, she looked away.

On the morrow she was again serving, and again the minstrel marked her; and he saw that her eyes were blue, and her smile so quaintly tender that he smiled himself to see it, and her mouth of so gracious a curve that it could surely fashion but gentle words.

And afterwards she was away for a time, so that the minstrel saw not her face, and he learnt that she was the jailer’s daughter, and that she was well beloved.

At last, as the minstrel sang one eve in the kitchen where the dancing flames made merry in the half-dark, he saw the jailer’s daughter enter and place her stool beside the fire. And there she sat with her head upon her hand, dreaming; and she was right fair to see.

Then awoke Blondel’s heart, and he sang a new glad song, for he knew that he loved the maiden; and he saw in his love a way of escape for his King, whom this new love but fixed the stronger in his heart.

Now the jailer loved Blondel but little, for he was a stranger, and a mysterious fellow withal, and he would have had none of him as a husband for his daughter. Therefore the little maid counselled silence for a time, when the minstrel spake of that love which was in his heart. But when he spake of the prisoned King, fear fell upon her. “My father is a harsh man, and a cruel,” said she, “yet will he never betray his trust. He will not release the King.” And she wept.

Now Blondel thought of many plans by which the King might be rescued; and in each one the maiden perceived that the life of the minstrel must be given for the life of the King. Then she clasped her hands hard, and pondered; and when she had thought well, she cried again with anguish, “My father will never let him go.”

Thus the days passed. But at last a morn came when the jailer’s daughter sought the minstrel secretly.

“To-morrow,” said she, “my father goes to the town to report himself. Now it is a mad thing that I purpose, yet will I gain the key of the King’s chamber, and release him unto thee. Do thou and thy followers do the rest.” With that she turned away.

But when she had gone a little way, she returned and said: “It is very easy to see that when thou goest with thy King I must go with thee; for there will be no place for me in the castle when I have done this thing.” And she went away, torn betwixt grief and joy, for she loved her father, despite his cruelty; but her love for Blondel went as far beyond that love as the sky is beyond the sea.

When the day came for the jailer to be absent, Blondel stole to the castle in secrecy. And the soldiers knew not that he was there, for the jailer’s daughter gave him shelter, and they were about their business.

Then took the jailer’s daughter the key of the King’s chamber in her hand, and when a given time was come, she went her way to the north tower, being met by no one; and she undid the door of that chamber in which the King was prisoner, and in a sweet voice she said to him, “Come gently, sire, for the way from the castle is a treacherous way and full of dangers.” And she led him safely to the place in which she had hidden Blondel.

Now Blondel had brought for the King a shield and helmet, and a sword of quaint device. When Richard had put these as he would have them, Blondel said, “Now, my King, the hour is come.”

And with that they issued from the castle, and fell upon the sentries, and overthrew them. And they crossed the courtyard with a great haste, and threw open the gates.

No sooner were the gates open than Blondel’s knights rode in, one after another, with a most amazing swiftness. And they fell with a great fury upon those soldiers that showed themselves; for their purpose was that for a time no alarm should be given. And being brave men, and of a great skill in warfare, they had no difficulty in overcoming these men; and they disposed of them every one.

When these things were thus well accomplished, Richard mounted the horse which had been brought for him, one of a fleet race, and used to the mountain side. And when Blondel had likewise mounted, and that brave maiden who had done him such good service, they urged their horses to a great speed, and went all of them upon their way.

Thereafter followed many adventures, and the surmounting of dangers in which all showed a good courage; till at last they were able to leave that country, and to reach the fair realm of England toward which stretched their desires.

Now Richard became a King of much valour and generosity. And he bare great love to Blondel, and to Matilda, Blondel’s wife. Many gifts he gave to them, of beauty, and great worth; but of all the gifts he gave them they valued most his love.