A Murder in the Time of the Crusades, by Samuel Warren

Experiences of a Barrister, and Confessions of an Attorney

There is, perhaps, no country or climate more beautiful than England, as seen in one of its rural landscapes, when the sun has just risen upon a cloudless summer's dawn. The very feeling that the delightful freshness of the moment will not be entirely destroyed during the whole day, renders the prospect more agreeable than the anticipated fiery advance of the sun in southern or tropical lands. Exhilaration and gladness are the marked characteristics of an English summer morning. So it ever is, and so it was hundreds of years ago, when occurred the events we are about to narrate. How lovely then, on such a morning as we allude to, looked that rich vale in the centre of Gloucestershire, through which the lordly Severn flows! The singing of the birds, the reflective splendor of the silvery waters, the glittering of the dew as it dazzled and disappeared—all combined to charm sound, sight, and sense, and to produce a strong feeling of joy. But the horseman, who was passing through this graceful scene, scarcely needed the aid of any external object to enhance the pleasurable sensation that already filled his breast. The stately horse on which he sat, seemed, by its light steps, and by ever and anon proudly prancing, to share in the animation of its rider. So, the noble stag-hound that followed, and continually looked up contentedly at its master, appeared, likewise, a participator in the general content. The stranger had indeed cause to rejoice, for he was upon the fairest errand. He bad wooed and won the gentle heiress of a proud, but good-hearted Gloucestershire baron—he had wooed and won her, too, with the full consent of father, kinsmen, and friends, and he was now on his way to the baron's castle to arrange with his betrothed the ceremonial of the nuptials. Ride on, thou gallant knight, ride on, and swifter too; for though the day will be yet early when thou arrivest, thou wilt find thyself expected within the Gothic enciente of the Baron de Botetourt's dwelling. A banner waves from the topmost tower to do thee honor and welcome; there walks, too, by the battlements, one whose night has been sleepless because of thee, whose thoughts and whose whole existence centre in thee, whose look firmly attaches to the road that brings thee to her. Ride on then speedily, Sir Knight, to the happiness thy virtue and thy deeds have so well deserved.

This lover is no ordinary suitor: he is of mingled Saxon and Norman noble blood, the recent companion-in-arms of Richard Coeur de Lion. His name is Ralph de Sudley, and though he has passed his thirtieth year, the effect of long toil and war scarcely appears upon his handsome and still very youthful countenance. Yet the knight has seen and endured much: he has been with Richard at the siege and capture of Acre, and at the battle of Azotus. When Conrad of Montferrat fell by the dagger of the assassins, Sir Ralph took a prominent part in the stormy debates which ensued among the Crusaders. He even proposed with his men-at-arms, and those who would follow him, to invade the territory of the Lord of the Mountain, and to avenge in his blood the death which that king of murderers had caused to be done to Conrad. This event made so deep an impression on his mind, that he still took every opportunity of urging upon his own and other Christian governments the necessity of extirpating these eastern assassins. On his return from the crusades, Sir Ralph found the daughter of his friend, the Baron de Botetourt, just verging into beauteous womanhood. The glory of his reputation, and the graces of his person, gained her heart at once; the Lady Alianore, though much his junior in years, loved the knight fondly and devotedly.

Sir Ralph has reached the portcullis of the castle; the wardour and men-at-arms are there to receive him with full honors, though he comes privately, without his armor or his followers: he wears the civil but costly dress of the period, with no other weapon than a slight sword at his side. But the baron will have each advent of his future son-in-law welcomed as an approach of state.

"Grammercy, Sir Baron," observed the knight, as after passing through a crowd of domestics, he grasped his host's hand upon the threshold, "one would imagine me Richard of England himself, or rather Saladin, that greatest and most gaudy of Oriental Soldans, to see this pompous prelude to my disjune with your lovely daughter and yourself."

"Nay, Ralph de Sudley," replied the baron, "my castle must needs put on its best looks, when it beholds the entry of one who is to be its lord and protector when I shall be no more. But I see you are all impatience to go within; and, in truth, the sooner your first interview be over the better, for the table is prepared, and the pasty awaits us, and the chaplain too, whose inward man, after the morning's Mass, craves some solid refreshment."

"A moment, my worthiest of friends, and I am with you," said the knight, as he hurried by: in another instant the Lady Alianore was in his embrace. Need we repeat the oft-told tale of love? Need we describe the day of delight Sir Ralph passed in the castle, lingering from hour to hour until the dusk? O, there is some one we must depict, the lady herself, who so subdued and softened this knightly soul. There, one hand upon the shoulder of her lover, her other hand locked in his, she sits listening to his words, and luxuriating in his discourse. The Lady Alianore, somewhat tall in stature, but perfect in form, has a face of dazzling beauty, yet the bewitching sweetness of her smile is tempered by a certain dignity of countenance, to which her dark, raven hair, and darker eyes, do not a little contribute; her hands, and the foot that peeps from beneath, her graceful robe, are of exquisite smallness, and bespeak the purest Norman blood. Her extreme fairness, shaded by her sable locks, form a strong contrast to the auburn hair and ruddy visage of the stalwart warrior beside her.

"This will indeed be too much, Ralph," observed the lady; "a monarch, his queen, and his court, to come to this out-of-the-way castle, to honor the wedding of a lone damsel like myself; I can hardly support the idea of so much splendor."

"Fear not, my beloved," replied the knight, "Richard is homely enough, and all good nature. Moreover, it is but a return of civility; for I it was who accompanied him to the altar, where he obtained the hand of Berengaria of Navarre; the office was a dangerous one then, since I incurred by it the wrath of Philip of France. And why, dearest, should not every magnificence attend our nuptials? It is the outward emblem of our great content—a mark, like those gorgeous ceremonies that accompany the festive prayers of the Church, which tell the people of the earth of a joy having something of the gladness and glory of Heaven in it."

"Be it as you wish, my own true knight; yet I almost feel that I am too happy. May God bless and protect us!"

Thus passed this bright day, until the approach of dusk imperatively compelled the enraptured lovers to separate. The knight had urgent business to settle, early on the morrow, at his own castle, before setting out for London, to announce to the king the day fixed for the espousal, and to beg from the monarch the fulfilment of the promise he had made, to be present in person with his court, at the wedding of his gallant and faithful vassal. The knight was therefore forced to depart ere the gloom advanced; for though his journey lay in a friendly and peaceful country, it was not the habit in those days to be abroad much after dusk, without an efficient escort.

Sir Ralph reluctantly quitted his betrothed: he made his escape moreover from the baron and the chaplain, who prayed his further tarrying, to share in another flagon of Rhenish about to be produced. The horse and dog were at the porch, and, in a few minutes, the knight had passed the drawbridge, and was in the same fair road again.

"I have known Sir Ralph from his birth," observed the baron to the chaplain, "and I love him as my own son. The king may well come here to see him wedded; for he has not a nobler, braver, or more generous knight within his realm."

"Truly, Sir Baron, he is endowed with much excellence," replied the priest; "I do greatly admire his strong denunciation against the Templars and other warlike orders, who tolerate the protracted existence of that band of murderers in the past who have their daggers ever pointed against the sons of the Church. Sir Ralph speaks on this subject like a true soldier of the Cross."

"Very true," retorted the baron, "yet I wish our chevaliers would cease to think of foreign broils and questions, and attend to affairs at home. This Rhenish is perfect: after all, wine is the only thing really good that originates beyond our seas."

Their discourse had scarcely proceeded farther, when it was suddenly interrupted by the loud howling and barking of a dog. The baron and the chaplain started up. "It is Leo, Sir Ralph's dog," exclaimed the former, "what in God's name can be the matter?" and the two rushed out.

The Lady Alianore, at her orisons above, heard the same terrible howl and bark. She instantly descended to the courtyard; as she came there, the outer gate was opened, and Leo, the knight's dog, flew past the wardour, and ran to the feet of the lady. The animal's mouth was blood-stained, and his glaring eye-balls and ruffled crest showed the extent of his fury and despair.

"Something dreadful has happened to Sir Ralph," she cried, and urged by the dog, who had seized her robe, she hurried through the gate, and crossed the drawbridge, with a rapidity those who followed could not arrest.

When the baron, his chaplain, and his domestics had proceeded a little beyond a quarter of a mile upon the road, a fearful sight met their view.

The knight lay dead upon the green sward by the side of the highway; a poignard which had effected the mortal wound, still rested fixed into his back. His body was locked fast in the embrace of the Lady Alianore, who lay senseless upon it: the dog stood by, howling piteously. No trace could be discovered of who had done the deed. No proof was there beyond the dagger itself, which was of Oriental fashion, and bore the inscription in Latin Hoc propter verba tua; naught beyond that and another circumstance, which went to show that the knight had been slain by an eastern enemy. The dog, as he re-entered the castle, called attention to some pieces of blood-stained rag, which, from their appearance, had dropped from his mouth; one of these, the innermost, was in texture and pattern evidently part of a Syrian garment.

The Lady Alianore did not die under this dreadful calamity: she lived to mourn. The knight was interred within the precinct of the Abbey Church of Gloucester; his tomb and effigy were in a niche at an angle of the cloisters. Here would Alianore continually come, accompanied by Leo, who, since his master's death, never left her side; here would she stop, fixedly gazing upon the monument, the tear in her eye, and the chill of hopeless sorrow in her heart. There are, indeed, few of us, who, wandering through the interior of some noble ecclesiastical edifice, can suppress a feeling of melancholy, when we view the sepulchre of a knight of repute, who has died in his prime, in the midst of his achievements and his fame, and who, clad in the harness of his pride, lies outstretched in the marble before us. Courage and courtesy, chivalry and Christianity, are buried there—there the breast, replete with honor, the heart to feel, and the right arm to defend. The monument tells of the sudden extinguishment of some bright light that shone in a semi-barbarous age, which had its main civilization and refinement from knights and churchmen solely. If this sight would sadden a stranger soul, what must have been the deep grief of the lady as she contemplated the cold memorial of Sir Ralph, and felt that the consummation of her whole earthly comfort was there entombed! A secret sentiment that satisfied, or rather softened her mental agony, brought her again and again to the place—ay, again and again to gaze upon the grave, and then to retire into the church to long and ardent prayer.

About two years after the knight had been dead, the Lady Alianore was one morning departing through the cloisters from a visit to the tomb, when her attention was suddenly arrested by a low growl from the dog who accompanied her. She turned back, and saw two persons in the garb of foreign merchants or traders, the one pointing out to the other the knight's monumental effigy. Scarcely had she made the observation, when Leo rushed from her side, and flew at the throat of him who was exhibiting the grave; in an instant he brought him to the ground; the other endeavored to escape, but some sacristans who heard the noise, hastened to the spot, and the men were arrested.

On examination, the two pretended merchants were found to wear eastern habilaments beneath their long gowns, and the cloth of the turban was concealed under the broad brimmed hat of each. They both had daggers, and upon the arm of the one the dog had seized, there was the deep scar of what seemed to be a desperate bite. Further proof became needless, for when every chance of escape was gone, they made a full confession, and appeared to glory in it. They were emissaries from the Old Man of the Mountain. The one on a previous occasion had journeyed from the far east to do his fearful master's bidding, and had stabbed the knight in the back, on the evening he rode in his gladness from the abode of his affianced bride. The fanatic himself narrowly escaped destruction at the time; for the dog had fixed his teeth into his arm, and it was only by allowing the flesh to be torn out, (his dagger was in his victim,) that he contrived to reach a swift Arabian horse, which bore him from the scene. He had since returned to Phoenicia, and had once more come to England, bringing with him a comrade to remove a doubt expressed by his master, and to testify to the monarch of the Mountain how effectively his object had been accomplished.

The Baron de Botetourt, with the assent of the crown, caused the two miscreants to be hanged upon a gibbet on the summit of his castle, their turbans tied to their heels. Leo, as if he had nothing more to live for, soon after pined and died. The Lady Alianore, retired into a convent, and eventually became its abbess. During the course of her monastic life, she preserved in silence her undying regret for the knight, and the recollection of her happiness, so miserably thwarted. She was always kind and gentle, yet always also dignified and reserved. On her death-bed, she requested that her remains might be interred in the Abbey of Gloucester, nigh unto the tomb of Sir Ralph de Sudley, and that her monumental tablet should contain no more than her name and state, and an inscription pointing out the extreme vanity of all human felicity. Such a memorial, it is said, was, until entirely effaced by time, to be seen, read, and thought upon, within the cloisters of Gloucester's time-honored and sanctified cathedral.