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Sir Bevis The Strong







Many hundreds of years ago there lived in the South of England an earl

of Southampton, whose name was Guy. He spent most of his life in

defending his country from all sorts of invaders who sailed from beyond

the seas, and it was not until he was getting old that he had time to

think of a wife. Then he made a very foolish choice, for he asked in

marriage the daughter of the king of Scotland, who had already plighted

her troth to the young and handsome Sir Murdour.



But though Sir Murdour was brother to the emperor, the Scottish king

preferred to wed the princess to the stout earl of Southampton, whom he

had known of old, and his word was law to all his court. So the bride

journeyed with a great following to the south of England, where the

marriage took place, and the next year a baby was born that was called

Bevis.



Now, though her husband was good and kind, and gave her the most

beautiful dresses and horse-trappings in the whole kingdom, the princess

hated him with a deadly hatred, just because he was not Sir Murdour. And

when her son Bevis was seven years old she determined to seek the help

of her old lover, and entice the earl to his death.



* * * * *



To this end she made use of her charms and beauty to gain over to her

side some of her husband's most trusted lords, and when this was done

she chose out a faithful messenger to ride north to Sir Murdour.



'Bid him,' she said, 'to come without fail on the first of May to the

great forest that lies by the sea. Thither will I take care that my lord

shall fare, with but a small company, and--the rest Sir Murdour can

grasp. Only, I should like to see a bleeding head, in proof that all has

gone as I wish.'



Sir Murdour did not delay when he heard this message, but called

together a troop of armed knights, and set sail with them for the forest

on the water over against Southampton. They landed late one night, and

Sir Murdour bade his foster-brother go secretly to the palace, and let

the countess know that he was close at hand. After that he posted his

men in deep dells and behind trees, and awaited his enemy.



The sun was scarcely up before the countess roused her husband, who was

sleeping heavily after a day's hunting.



'Awake,' she cried, shaking his shoulder, 'I am feeling like unto death,

and I have dreamed that this day I shall surely die if I eat not of the

flesh of a wild boar of the forest.'



At these woeful tidings the earl sprang from his bed, and in a short

while he was riding with a pack of hounds and a few attendants towards

the part of the forest where the wild boars were most plentiful. The

dogs were soon racing down a track, having scented a boar, and the earl

was preparing to follow when Sir Murdour and his men leapt out from

their hiding-places and suddenly surrounded him.



'I am here at your lady's bidding,' said the knight; 'she has begged me

to send her your head, and I mean to do it.'






The earl's face grew pale at these dreadful words. He did not fear any

man alive, but the thought of his wife's baseness took the strength from

his arm and the courage from his heart. Still, for the honour of his

name and knighthood, it behoved him to fight his best, though his only

weapon was a boar spear. The battle lasted long, but at length the

earl's horse was killed under him, and he fell to the ground. In another

moment Sir Murdour struck his head from his shoulders, and, placing it

on a spear, he ordered his squire to bear it to the castle.



Bevis, who was standing on the battlements, saw this terrible sight, and

seeking out his mother he vowed vengeance against the murderer. Though

he was only seven years old, his strength was so great that the countess

felt that her life would not be safe if once he discovered the truth, so

she ordered his uncle Saber to take the boy to some distant place and

there to slay him. Saber did not dare to disobey. He took Bevis with him

to a small hut near the forest, and, killing a pig, sprinkled the

child's garments with the blood and sent them to his mother. Afterwards

he dressed Bevis in the clothes of a peasant, and, putting a stout staff

in his hands, set him to watch a flock of sheep.



The boy did what he was told without a word, but the sheep wandered far

that day, and by-and-by he found himself in sight of his father's

castle. Then a sudden fury filled his soul, and, leaving the sheep to go

whither they would, he ran swiftly down the hill, and never stopped till

he reached the castle gate. Here the porter, to whom the countess had

given much gold, tried to stop him, but Bevis only knocked him down with

his cudgel, and on into the hall he went, and there he beheld his mother

and Sir Murdour feasting at the high table.



'Traitors and murderers!' cried he, and lifting his staff, he dealt

three fierce blows at the head of Sir Murdour, which felled him to the

ground, where he lay unconscious. Then the boy turned and walked out of

the hall, none daring to stop him.



He told his uncle what had happened, but Saber was never ready of

counsel, and before he had time to think what was best the countess

entered the hut attended by two knights, whom she ordered to seize

Bevis, and sell him as a slave to any captain in the port of

Southampton who might be sailing that night for the lands of the

Infidel.



The captain of the ship was a kind man and took a liking to the boy

whose fate was so hard, and when a fair wind blew them into the harbour

of Heathenesse he bade the child bear him company to the palace. The

king, whose name was Ermyn, thought he had never seen any boy of his age

so tall and beautiful, and asked him many things as to his past life.

These Bevis answered with so much truth and spirit that Ermyn was

persuaded that he would grow into a man much above the common, and

declared that he would make him heir to his throne and wed him in due

course to his daughter Josyan, if he would only give up Christianity and

become a convert to the faith of Heathenesse. But this Bevis swore he

would never do.



The good captain feared greatly that the king might be angered by

Bevis's refusal, but instead Ermyn seemed to think that the boy, who

would not break his vows lightly, was fain to turn out a true and loyal

man. So he smiled, and told Bevis that he would make him his

chamberlain, and when he was of age to be a knight, he should be his

banneret.



Eight years passed by, spent by Bevis in learning all the feats with the

sword and spear for which the knights of Heathenesse had long been

famous. His life was smooth and pleasant, and it was only when he had

counted fifteen summers that he had his first adventure.



It was Christmas Day, and Bevis was riding with a large company of

Paynim knights through the great plain that surrounded the city. The

talk ran upon the many lion chases they had held in that very place,

when suddenly one of the knights who had journeyed both to Rome and

Jerusalem turned to Bevis, who happened to be next him, and asked if he

knew what day it was.



'No,' answered Bevis; 'why should I? Is it different from any other

day?' and the knight laughed and told him he was but a poor Christian.

This angered Bevis, who said that, as he had lived among heathens since

he was seven years old, it was not likely he should have learnt anything

about his faith, but that in defence of it he was ready to tilt with the

knights one after the other and hoped that in so good a cause he might

prevail.



'Listen to the crowing of this young cock' cried one of the party,

highly wroth at the answer of Bevis; and indeed so furious were they

that they set upon him at once and dealt him many wounds before the boy

was able to defend himself. Then he snatched a sword from the man

nearest him, and laid about him so hardly that in a short time they were

all stretched dead upon the ground, while their horses galloped back to

their stalls. Bevis himself, suffering great pain, went quietly back to

his room in the palace and waited to see what would come next.



When king Ermyn heard the news, and how so many of his best knights had

been put to death by his page, he was beside himself with fury, and gave

orders that Bevis should be instantly beheaded. But Josyan, his

daughter, pleaded so hard for the young page that the king agreed to

hear his story, and when he had heard it he not only forgave the youth,

but told Josyan, who was skilled in leechcraft, to heal his wounds. And

in a little while Bevis was raised to higher favour than ever by slaying

a boar which had carried away and eaten several children on the

outskirts of the city.



By this time the fame of the princess's beauty had spread far and wide,

and the king of Damascus sent an embassy to the court of king Ermyn,

praying that she should be given him to wife.



'But,' added he, 'in case you do not well consider my suit, I would have

you know that I will gather together a great army, and lay waste your

land with fire and sword. So think well before you refuse me.'



King Ermyn was little used to language of this sort, and for all answer

collected twenty thousand men, whom he commanded to be in readiness.

Next, at the request of his daughter, he dubbed Bevis a knight, and the

princess herself clad him in a richly inlaid helmet, and buckled on him

the good sword Morglay. As a parting gift she bestowed on him a swift

white horse called Arundel, and very proud was Bevis as he rode away at

the head of the army beside the commander.



* * * * *



It were too long to tell of all the deeds wrought by Sir Bevis during

the fight with the king of Damascus, whose standard-bearer, the giant

Radyson, he slew at the very outset of the battle. In the end, and owing

in a great measure to the valour of the young knight, the Damascenes

owned themselves beaten, and their king remained a captive in the hands

of Sir Bevis.



'I will spare your life on one condition only,' said the victor, 'and

that is that you shall swear fealty on my sword to king Ermyn, and

acknowledge yourself to be his vassal.'



The king's heart was sore when he heard what was demanded of him, for

never before had he been vanquished in war. Still, he saw that there was

no help for it, and he took the oath that Bevis required of him, after

which he was suffered to depart into his own country.



King Ermyn could not do enough honour to Sir Bevis when he came back to

the palace, and, as was the custom, he bade his daughter rid him of his

heavy armour, to put on him gorgeous robes, and to wait on him when he

sat down to table. Sir Bevis was half glad and half ashamed to receive

these services at the hands of the princess, but Josyan heard her

father's orders right willingly, and led him away to fulfil them at

once.



The first thing she did was to order her slaves to prepare a bath for

him, and to make it soft with all manner of sweet-smelling spices. Then

she summoned him to her chamber, where she had prepared food and wine,

and, like a wise woman, spoke nothing till he had eaten and drunk as

much as he would. When he had satisfied his hunger, he flung himself to

rest on a pile of cushions, and Josyan seated herself near him. Taking

one of his hands in hers, she said softly:



'Oh, Bevis, little do you know what I have suffered these many months

from the love I bear you! Indeed, so grievous have been my pains that I

marvel that I am alive this day. But if you return not my love, of a

surety I am a dead woman.'



Now Bevis had long loved the princess in secret; but his heart was

proud, and, besides, he feared to seem that he had betrayed the king's

trust. So he answered:



'Fair Josyan, I thank you for your gentle words, but it would ill become

me to take advantage of them. There is no prince in all the world, be he

who he may, who would not crown you queen, and hold himself honoured.

For me, I am but a poor knight, and one from a strange land, to whom

your father has shown more favour than I deserve. It is not thus I

should repay his kindness.'



These words struck a chill through Josyan. All her life she had never

known what it was to be denied anything she asked for, and she fell to

weeping.



'I would sooner have you, poor as you are, than the greatest king

alive,' sobbed she; but when Bevis sat still and kept silence her grief

turned to wrath.



'Am I, who might reign over any of the kingdoms of the earth, to be

flouted by you, a mere churl? Out of my chamber this instant, and betake

yourself to working in the fields, for they are fitter setting for one

of your birth than a lady's bower!'



'Damsel,' said Bevis, 'you wrong me. No churl am I, but the son of an

earl, and a knight withal. And now farewell, for I shall depart into my

own country.'



For a short time Josyan's anger held sway in her heart, and even the

death of Bevis would hardly have moved her, but when she heard that

Bevis was actually preparing to leave the city her pride broke down,

and she sent a messenger to implore his forgiveness. But she had to

learn that Bevis was no less proud than she, and he dismissed the

messenger with a ring that the king had given him, merely saying that he

had already bid good-bye to the princess Josyan.



Then Josyan saw that if she would keep Bevis at her side she must humble

herself to the dust, so she went herself to the chamber of Bevis, and

implored him to forget her hasty words, and not to forsake her. Nay, she

would even promise to give up her own faith and to become a Christian.



At this proof of her devotion, Sir Bevis's resolve gave way, and he told

her that he had loved her always, but feared that her father would never

accept him as a son-in-law. Josyan made light of this obstacle, and

declared that her father would never refuse her anything she had set her

heart upon; but Bevis was not so hopeful, and soon events proved that he

was right.



Two knights whom Bevis had rescued from captivity and had brought to the

palace overheard the vows exchanged between him and Josyan, and her

offer of being baptized. Hating and envying the good fortune of Bevis,

they sought out the king, and told him that his daughter was about to

give up the faith of Mahomet, and to fly from the country with a

Christian knight.



These tidings were grievous to king Ermyn. He could not forgive his

daughter, and yet, after all the deeds he had done, the people of the

city would not suffer Bevis to be punished. What was he to do? The more

he thought of it the more bewildered he felt; and all the while the two

traitors stood patiently by, knowing well what was passing through the

king's mind.



At length he turned, as they were sure he would, and asked their

counsel, which was quite ready.



'Let your Majesty write a letter to King Bradmond, as from liege lord to

vassal, and let Sir Bevis be the bearer of it, and bid the king put the

knight to instant death.' So said the traitors, and, though the device

was neither new nor honourable, it would serve. Bevis was summoned to

the king's presence, and listened carefully to all he was told. Joyful

was he at being chosen for this mission, which he thought betokened

special favour, though his spirits were somewhat damped by the assurance

that he must leave his sword Morglay and Arundel, his swift horse,

behind him.



'It were an insult to the king to approach him on a war-horse, and

brandishing the sword that has slain so many of his men,' said Ermyn.

'You shall ride the ambling palfrey on which I make my progress through

the city; and, as for weapons, you will have no need of them.' So

Arundel remained quietly in his stable, while Bevis unwillingly jogged

along at the slow pace of the palfrey. But in one thing he disobeyed

king Ermyn, for under his tunic was hidden a short sword.



On the way he fell in with a pilgrim, whose offer to share his dinner

Bevis accepted gladly. They soon began to tell each other their

adventures, and, to his surprise, Bevis found that the pilgrim was his

own cousin, the son of his uncle Saber, and that he had come so far with

no other purpose than to seek out the young knight and to inform him of

all that had happened during the years that had passed since his

father's death.



The vassals of the old earl, said the pilgrim, had been so ground down

by the wicked Sir Murdour and his wife, that they had risen up as one

man, and, headed by Saber, had defended the Isle of Wight against the

usurper. But it was greatly to be desired that the young earl should

return home as fast as possible, and attack Murdour in his castle of

Southampton, and for this reason had he set forth to seek him.



Bevis's heart and his blood waxed hot with the listening, but he did not

wish that the pilgrim should learn just then who he was, so he answered

that the young earl was his friend and brother, and that on his part he

would promise speedy help to the faithful vassals fighting in his cause.

With this they parted, and Bevis pursued his way to Damascus.



On entering the gates of the city he found himself in the midst of a

large crowd, who were making ready a sacrifice to a wooden idol, which

was carried in a golden car. This roused the wrath of the young man,

and, forcing his way through the multitude, he seized the idol and flung

it into the mud, calling loudly on the people to go and help their god,

since he could not help them. In an instant a thousand arms were raised

against the stranger who had dared to insult the majesty of their idol,

and, though Bevis drew his short sword and defended himself bravely, he

could not have held out against such numbers had not the palace gates

been close behind. Still fighting, Bevis entered the gates, and drawing

the letter from his tunic ordered the guards to take him at once into

the presence of the king.



Bradmond read the letter with joy, as he felt that his enemy was

delivered into his hands, and the tidings of the attack on the idol

hardened his heart still more. Without further delay he bade the guards

take Bevis and carry him off to a deep dungeon under the palace where

lived two huge dragons, who would be fain to eat him forthwith.



'And I do this,' said Bradmond, 'not to avenge my own wrongs, but to

perform my oath of duty unto my sovereign lord king Ermyn. For this is

the service he requires of me, in the letter that you yourself have

brought.'






Ropes were tied under Bevis's arms, and he was lowered down, down, down,

till he could see nothing but four fiery eyes which glared furiously up

at him. Soon after his hands knocked against something hard and rough,

which moved under his touch. At the same moment his feet touched the

bottom, and he found himself standing in a large cave with a feeble ray

of light coming from the far end. By this he dimly perceived two

horrible dragons, but for a moment they were still, and did not move to



attack him.



Bevis made use of the short time allowed him to feel about if perchance

he could find some weapon with which to defend himself instead of the

short sword which had been taken from him, and he came upon a stout

staff, thrown into one corner, and by the aid of this he held those two

monsters at bay for a whole night and day. By this time the dragons, who

had been weakened by a slothful life and the flesh of many prisoners,

were too weak to resist any longer, and fell an easy prey to the strong

arm of Bevis.



Of course it was not long before the men who had charge of the dungeon

discovered that the dragons were dead, but they were so filled with

admiration of Bevis's courage that they kept his counsel, and let down

into his prison daily a good portion of wheat cake, so that he managed

to keep himself alive. Bradmond the king very soon forgot all about him,

so that the soldiers did as they pleased.



Thus some years passed away.



At the end of that time one of the gaolers died, and the other was sent

to a distant city. The two men who took their places knew nothing of

Bevis, save that he was a captive in the dungeon, and that as long as he

was alive it was part of their duty to feed him every day. 'Let us

murder him,' said one man to another; 'it is small use to feed a man in

a dungeon who is forgotten by himself and all the world'; so one of them

fastened a ladder of ropes to the side and climbed down it, in the hope

of finding an easy victim lying on the ground. Instead there was a man

as strong as ten other men, who leapt swiftly aside to avoid the blow of

his sword, and struck him dead to the ground with a blow of his fist.

The other gaoler, hearing no noise from below, crept down the ladder to

see what had taken place; but as soon as he was on the floor of the

dungeon Bevis gave a mighty spring which snapped the chain that had

bound him to the rock, and thrust him through with the sword he had

taken from his fellow. Then, when, as far as he could reckon, the night

was nearly gone, he climbed up the ladder, and stood once more a free

man.



At the first gleam of dawn, Sir Bevis stole out to the stables, where

the king's horses were being groomed. Peeping through a hole, he

discovered a room hung round with suits of armour, and, getting in

through the roof, he took down a coat of mail, a helmet, and a shield,

while he chose out a good sword from a pile standing in a corner. Then

entering the stable, he cut off the heads of several of the men, while

the rest fled out of reach of the strange being with the long hair and

strong arm. When they were all gone Bevis brought out the best horse in

the stable, and rode out across the drawbridge into the world again.



Of course, directly he was missed, king Ermyn sent his best knights in

pursuit of him, but in one way or another Sir Bevis got the better of

them all, and made his way to Jerusalem, where, for the first time since

he was seven years old, he entered a Christian church. But so anxious

was he to hear some tidings of Josyan, that he remained only a short

time in the city, and soon rode on again along the road to her father's

court.



On the way he met with a young knight who had once been his squire, and

who told him a sad tale. Josyan, he said, had been asked in marriage by

the most powerful and fierce of all the kings of Heathenesse, but she

steadily refused to wed any man who was not a Christian like herself.

This so enraged her father that he gave leave to her suitor to do with

her as he would; so king Inor, for so was he named, carried her off to

his own kingdom, and shut her up in a tower till she should come to a

better mind, and be ready to return to her old faith.



'In her tower she is still,' continued the knight; 'but if you would

have speech with her it is first needful to persuade the king to go on

some distant mission. And first you must put on a disguise, for at any

moment those may come by who knew you well at the royal palace.'



This advice Bevis followed; he hid himself with his friend behind a

clump of bushes till a pilgrim passed on the way to Jerusalem. The young

knight then left his hiding-place, and prayed the pilgrim for the sake

of charity and a dole of money to be given in alms that he would

exchange clothes with Sir Bevis. To this the pilgrim readily agreed, and

soon Bevis was arrayed in a long mantle, carrying a staff in his hand.



'Now go and stand about the door of the palace, and when the king comes

from hunting he will see you, and will ask you where you come from, and

what news is stirring in the world. And you must say to him that you

have lately journeyed from Syria, from the kingdom of his brother, and

that the land has been overrun by strange armies, and that the country

is in a great strait. When he hears that he will of a surety hasten to

his aid, and then you will be able to escape with Josyan without danger

of losing your head.'



Now Inor the king had placed Josyan under the charge of Boniface, the

chamberlain, who had been long in the service of her father, and in

order the better to help her had pretended to approve of the evil way in

which she was treated. Directly he heard of the plot he began to play

his part towards its fulfilment, and in the evening of the day on which

the king had departed he managed to give the steward, who had been left

to rule the city, such a powerful sleeping draught that he did not wake

for twenty-four hours. Meanwhile Sir Bevis chose out the best suit of

armour in the king's armoury and the fastest horse in his stable; and

when night fell Josyan stole softly down from her tower, and, mounting

Arundel, whom she had brought with her from her old home, rode out of

the gates by the side of Bevis. Boniface followed close after them. He

did not dare to stay behind, as he knew that his head was forfeit.



But as things happened he might as well have remained where he was, for

the very next day, when Bevis was hunting, two lions came up to the cave

where Josyan and her chamberlain lay concealed. Without an instant's

pause they devoured Boniface and his horse, which was tethered outside,

though Josyan's beauty so overawed them that they bent their heads

humbly in her presence.



The next adventure that befell Sir Bevis was a battle with a giant

thirty feet high, who had been sent by the steward to catch the two

runaways. During the fight he was sore wounded, and in the end owned

Bevis to be his master, and begged to be allowed to take service with

him. Sir Bevis agreed, though somewhat doubtfully, but soon found reason

to rejoice in his new page, for by his help he was able to turn some

Saracens out of a ship which bore them all with a fair wind to the city

of Cologne.



Here he found his uncle, the bishop; who was brother to his father and

to Sir Saber, and, leaving Josyan in safety under his care, he set sail

with a hundred knights for Southampton. Before landing he sent one of

his most trusty squires for tidings as to how fared Sir Murdour, and

received for answer that the quarrel still raged betwixt him and Sir

Saber. Then Bevis went on shore with all his knights, and bade one of

them tell Sir Murdour that they had sailed from France in quest of

service, and that if he so willed they would fight under his banner,

but, if not, they would offer themselves to his foe.



Sir Murdour was overjoyed at the sight of the strangers, and asked the

name of their leader.



'Sir Jarrard,' said Bevis, who did not wish to make himself known, and

inquired further what were the causes of the war with Sir Saber, and how

long it had lasted. To this Sir Murdour made reply that Sir Saber had

been seeking for many years past to wrest from him the heritage which

was his by purchase from the spendthrift heir Bevis, who had afterwards

quitted the country, but that with the help of the strangers an end

would speedily be put to the quarrel.



While Bevis stood listening to Sir Murdour, his fingers unconsciously

crept to the handle of his sword, but he forced back his wrath and

answered that, had they brought their horses with them, the dispute

might have been settled that very night. Still, much might be done if

Sir Murdour would give them a ship in which to sail to the Isle of

Wight, and would provide them with horses.



Sir Murdour did not need to be asked twice; he gave to Sir Bevis his

finest horses and his best armour, and before many hours Bevis was

standing on the Isle of Wight by the side of his uncle Saber.



'Take yonder fishing-boat,' said he to one of his knights, 'and return

to Southampton and enter the castle. Then tell Sir Murdour that the man

to whom he has given his arms and his horses is no knight of France, but

Sir Bevis earl of Southampton, who has come to take vengeance for the

death of his father.'



* * * * *



The battle which decided the strife was fought upon the island, and

never for a moment did Bevis lose sight of his enemy. In vain did

Murdour ride from one part of the field to the other; Bevis was always

there, though it was long before he was close enough to thrust at him.

At last he managed to hurl him to the ground, but Murdour's followers

pressed hard on him, and Bevis could not, by his own self, take him

captive.



'To me! To me!' he cried at last, and Ascapard strode up, cleaving the

heads of all that stood in his way.



'What shall be done with him?' asked he, picking up the fallen knight

and holding him tightly.



'Put him in the cauldron that is boiling outside the camp,' said Bevis.

'For that is the death for traitors.'



So Sir Bevis got his own again, and he sent to Cologne for Josyan, and

was wedded to her by his uncle the bishop in his good town of

Southampton.





Next: Ogier The Dane

Previous: Cupid And Psyche



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