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interrupted him with a loud ha! ha! of derision. "A pretty story truly," would they cry, "about a wolf and a dragon, and a young widow rescued in the dark by a sturdy varlet, who dares not show his face in the daylight. You may tell that to those who do not know human nature; for our parts, we know and that's enough."
If, however, the other repeated his assertion, they would suddenly knit their brows, swell, looked big, and put their hands upon their swords. As few people like to fight in a cause that does not touch their own interests, the nephew and the uncles were suffered to have their way, and swagger uncontradicted.
The matter was at length referred to a tribunal composed of all the dignitaries of the dukedom, and many and repeated consultations were held. The character of the duchess, throughout the year, was as bright and spotless as the moon in a cloudless night; one fatal hour of darkness alone intervened to eclipse its brightness. Finding human sagacity incapable of dispelling the mystery, it was determined to leave the question to heaven; or, in other words, to decide it by the ordeal of the sword-a sage tribunal in the age of chivalry. The nephew and two bully uncles were to maintain their accusation in listed combat, and six months were allowed to the duchess to provide herself with three champions, to meet them in the field. Should she fail in this, or should her champions be vanquished, her honour would be considered attainted, her fidelity as forfeit, and her dukedom would go to the nephew, as a matter of right.
With this determination the duchess was fain to comply. Proclamations were accordingly made, and heralds sent to various parts; but day after day, week after week, and month after mouth elapsed, without any champion appearing to assert her loyalty throughout that darksome hour. The fair widow was reduced to despair, when tidings reached her of grand tournaments to be held at Toledo, in celebration of the nuptials of Don Roderick, the last of the Gothic kings, with the Morisco princess Exilona. As a last resort, the duchess repaired to the Spanish court, to implore the gallantry of its assembled chivalry.
The ancient city of Toledo was a scene of gorgeous revelry on the event of the royal nuptials. The youthful king, brave, ardent, and magnificent, and his lovely bride, beaming with all the radiant beauty of the East, were hailed with shouts and acclamations whenever they appeared. Their nobles vied with
each other in the luxury of their attire, their splendid retinues, and prancing steeds; and the haughty dames of the court appeared in a blaze of jewels.
In the midst of all this pageantry, the beautiful but afflicted Duchess of Lorraine made her approach to the throne. She was dressed in black, and closely veiled; four duennas of the most staid and severe aspect, and six beautiful demoiselles, formed her female attendants. She was guarded by several very ancient, withered, and grey-headed cavaliers; and her train was borne by one of the most deformed and diminutive dwarfs in existence.
Advancing to the foot of the throne, she knelt down, and throwing up her veil, revealed a countenance so beautiful, that half the courtiers present were ready to renounce their wives and mistresses, and devote themselves to her service; but when she made known that she came in quest of champions to defend her fame, every cavalier pressed forward to offer his arm and sword, without inquiring into the merits of the case; for it seemed clear that so beauteous a lady could have done nothing but what was right; and that, at any rate, she ought to be championed in following the bent of her humours, whether right or wrong.
Encouraged by such gallant zeal, the duchess suffered herself to be raised from the ground, and related the whole story of her distress. When she concluded, the king remained for some time silent, charmed by the music of her voice. At length: "As I hope for salvation, most beautiful duchess," said he, "were I not a sovereign king, and bound in duty to my kingdom, I myself would put lance in rest to vindicate your cause; as it is, I here give full permission to my knights, and promise lists and a fair field, and that the contest shall take place before the walls of Toledo, in presence of my assembled court."
As soon as the pleasure of the king was known, there was a strife among the cavaliers present, for the honour of the contest. It was decided by lot, and the successful candidates were objects of great envy, for every one was ambitious of finding favour in the eyes of the beautiful widow.
Missives were sent, summoning the nephew and his two uncles to Toledo, to maintain their accusation, and a day was appointed for the combat. When the day arrived, all Toledo was in commotion at an early hour. The lists had been prepared in the usual place, just without the walls, at the foot of the rugged rocks on which the city is built, and on that beau
tiful meadow along the Tagus, known by the name of the king's garden. The populace had already assembled each, one eager to secure a favourable place; the balconies were soon filled with the ladies of the court, clad in their richest attire, and bands of youthful knights, splendidly armed, and decorated with their ladics' devices, were managing their superblycaparisoned steeds about the field. The king at length came forth in state, accompanied by the queen Exilona. They took their seats in a raised balcony, under a canopy of rich damask; and, at sight of them, the people rent the air with acclamations.
The nephew and his uncles now rode into the field, armed cap-a-pie, and followed by a train of cavaliers of their own roystering cast, great swearers and carousers, arrant swashbucklers, that went about with clanking armour and jingling spurs. When the people of Toledo beheld the vaunting and discourteous appearance of these knights, they were more anxious than ever for the success of the gentle duchess; but at the same time, the sturdy and stalwart frames of these warriors, showed that whoever won the victory from them, must do it at the cost of many a bitter blow.
As the nephew and his riotous crew rode in at one side of the field, the fair widow appeared at the other, with her suite of grave gray-headed courtiers, her ancient duennas and dainty demoiselles, and the little dwarf toiling along under the weight of her train. Every one made way for her as she passed, and blessed her beautiful face, and prayed for success to her cause. She took her seat in a lower balcony, not far from the sovereigns; and her pale face, set off by her mourning weeds, was as the moon, shining forth from among the clouds of night.
The trumpets sounded for the combat. The warriors were just entering the lists, when a stranger knight, armed in panoply, and followed by two pages and an esquire, came galloping into the field, and, riding up to the royal balcony, claimed the combat as a matter of right.
"In me," cried he, "behold the cavalier who had the happiness to rescue the beautiful duchess from the peril of the forest, and the misfortune to bring on her this grievous calumny. It was but recently, in the course of my errantry, that tidings of her wrongs have reached my ears, and I have urged hither at all speed, to stand forth in her vindication.'
No sooner did the duchess hear the accents of the knight, than she recognised his voice, and joined her prayers with his that he might enter the lists. The difficulty was, to determine
which of the three champions already appointed should yield his place, each insisting on the honour of the combat. The stranger knight would have settled the point, by taking the whole contest upon himself; but this the other knights would not permit. It was at length determined, as before, by lot, and the cavalier who lost the chance retired murmuring and disconsolate.
The trumpets again sounded-the lists were opened. The arrogant nephew and his two drawcansir uncles appeared so completely cased in steel, that they and their steeds were like moving masses of iron. When they understood the stranger knight to be the same that had rescued the duchess from her peril, they greeted him with the most boisterous derision: "Oho! sir Knight of the Dragon," said they ; you who pretend to champion fair widows in the dark, come on, and vindicate your deeds of darkness in the open day."
The only reply of the cavalier was, to put lance in rest, and brace himself for the encounter. Needless is it to relate the particulars of a battle, which was like so many hundred combats that have been said and sung in prose and verse. Who is there but must have foreseen the event of a contest, where Heaven had to decide on the guilt or innocence of the most beautiful and immaculate of widows?
The sagacious reader, deeply read in this kind of judicial combats, can imagine the encounter of the graceless nephew and the stranger knight, He sees their concussion, man to man, and horse to horse, in mid career, and in that Sir Graceless hurled to the ground and slain. He will not wonder that the assailants of the brawny uncles were less successful in their rude encounter; but he will picture to himself the stout stranger spurring to their ruscue, in the very critical moment; he will see him transfixing one with his lance, and cleaving the other to the chine with a back stroke of his sword, thus leaving the trio of accusers dead upon the field, and establishing the immaculate fidelity of the duchess, and her title to the dukedom, beyond the shadow of a doubt.
The air rang with acclamations; nothing was heard but praises of the beauty and virtue of the duchess, and of the prowess of the stranger knight; but the public joy was still more increased when the champion raised his visor, and revealed the countenance of one of the bravest cavaliers in Spain, renowned for his gallantry in the service of the sex, who had long been absent, in quest of similar adventures.
That worthy knight, however, was severely wounded in the
battle and remained for a long time ill of his wounds. The lovely duchess, grateful for having twice owed her protection to his arm, attended him daily during his ilmness. A tender passion grew up between them, and she finally rewarded his gallantry by giving him her hand.
The king would fain have had the knight establish his title to such high advancement by farther deeds of arms; but his courtiers declared that he had already merited the lady, by thus vindicating her fame and fortune in a deadly combat to outrance; and the lady herself hinted that she was perfectly satisfied of his prowess in arms, from the proofs she received in his achievement in the forest.
Their nuptials were celebrated with great magnificence. The present husband of the duchess did not pray and fast like his predecessor, Phillibert the wife-ridden; yet he found greater favour in the eyes of Heaven, for their union was blessed with a numerous progeny-the daughters chaste and beauteous as their mother; the sons all stout and valiant as their sire, and all renowned, like him, for relieving disconsolate damsels and desolate widows.
"DEAR, beauteous Death! the jewel of the just,
What mysteries do lie beyond thy dust,
THE REAPER AND THE FLOWERS.
THERE is a Reaper whose name is Death,
He reaps the bearded grain at a breath,
"Shall I have nought that is fair," saith he
Have nought but the bearded grain?
Thongh the breath of these flowers is sweet to me,
I will give them all back again."