But, as there ever is to all things, there was an end to the tunnel. Blake first glimpsed it in a little patch of distant daylight ahead, and presently he stepped out into the sunlight and looked out across a wide valley that was tree-dotted and beautiful. He found himself standing upon a wide ledge, or shelf, some hundred feet above the base of the mountain through which the tunnel had been cut. There was a sheer drop before him, and to his right the ledge terminated abruptly at a distance of a hundred feet or less. Then he glanced to the left and his eyes went wide in astonishment.
Across the shelf stood a solid wall of masonry flanked at either side by great, round towers pierced by long, narrow embrasures. In the center of the wall was a lofty gateway which was closed by a massive and handsomely wrought portcullis behind which Blake saw two Negroes standing guard. They were clothed precisely as his captors, but held great battle-axes, the butts of which rested upon the ground.
“What ho, the gate!” shouted Paul Bodkin. “Open to the outer guard and a prisoner!”
Slowly the portcullis rose and Blake and his captor passed beneath. Directly inside the gateway and at the left, built into the hillside, was what was evidently a guardhouse. Before it loitered a score or so of soldiers, uniformed like Paul Bodkin, upon the breast of each the red cross. To a heavy wooden rail gaily caparisoned horses were tethered, their handsome trap-pings recalling to Blake’s memory paintings he had seen of mounted knights of medieval England.
There was so much of unreality in the strangely garbed Macks, the massive barbican that guarded the way, the trappings of the horses, that Blake was no longer capable of surprise when one of the two doors in the guardhouse opened and there stepped out a handsome young man clad in a hauberk of chain mail over which was a light surcoat of rough stuff, dyed purple. Upon the youth’s head fitted a leopard skin bassinet from the lower edge of which depended a casmail or gorget of chain mail that entirely surrounded and protected his throat and neck. He was armed only with a heavy sword and a dagger, but against the side of the guardhouse, near the doorway where he paused to look at Blake, leaned a long lance, and near it was a shield with a red cross emblazoned upon its boss.
“Od zounds!” exclaimed the young man. “What has thou there, varlet?”
“A prisoner, an’ it pleases thee, noble lord,” replied Paul Bodkin, deferentially.
“A Saracen, of a surety,” stated the young man.
“Nay, an’ I may make so bold, Sir Richard,” replied Paul—“but me thinks he be no Saracen.”
“With mine own eyes I didst see him make the sign before the Cross.”
“Fetch him hither, lout!”
Bodkin prodded Blake in the rear with his pike, but the American scarce noticed the offense so occupied was his mind by the light of truth that had so suddenly illuminated it. In the instant he had grasped the solution. He laughed inwardly at himself for his denseness. Now he understood everything—and these fellows thought they could put it over on him, did they? Well, they had come near to doing it, all right.
He stepped quickly toward the young man and halted, upon his lips a faintly sarcastic smile. The other eyed him with haughty arrogance.
“Whence comest thou,” he asked, “and what doest thou in the Valley of the Sepulcher, varlet?”
Blake’s smile faded—too much was too much. “Cut the comedy, young fellow,” he drawled in his slow way. “Where’s the director?”
“Director? Forsooth, I know not what thou meanest.”
“Yes you don’t!” snapped Blake, with fine sarcasm. “But let me tell you right off the bat that no seven-fifty a day extra can pull anything like that with me!”
“Od’s blud, fellow! I ken not the meaning of all the words, but I mislike thy tone. It savors o’er much of insult to fall sweetly upon the ears of Richard Montmorency.”
“Be yourself,” advised Blake. “If the director isn’t handy send for the assistant director, or the camera man—even the continuity writer may have more sense than you seem to have.”
“Be myself? And who thinkest thee I would be other than Richard Montmorency, a noble knight of Nimmr.”
Blake shook his head in despair, then he turned to the soldiers who were standing about listening to the conversation. He thought some of them would be grinning at the joke that was being played on him, but he saw only solemn, serious faces.
“Look here,” he said, addressing Paul Bodkin, “don’t any of you know where the director is?”
“‘Director’?” repeated Bodkin, shaking his head. “There be none in Nimmr thus y-clept, nay, nor in all the Valley of the Sepulcher that I wot.”
“I’m sorry,” said Blake, “the mistake is mine; but if there is no director there must be a keeper. May I see him?”
“Ah, keeper!” cried Bodkin, his face lighting with understanding. “Sir Richard is the keeper.”
“My gawd!” exclaimed Blake, turning to the young man. “I beg your pardon, I thought that you were one of the inmates.”
“Inmates? Indeed thou speakest a strange tongue and yet withall it hath the flavor of England,” replied the young man gravely. “But yon varlet be right—I am indeed this day the Keeper of the Gate.”
Blake was commencing to doubt his own sanity, or at least his judgment. Neither the young white man nor any of the Negroes had any of their facial characteristics of mad men. He looked up suddenly at the keeper of the gate.
“I am sorry,” he said, flashing one of the frank smiles that was famous amongst his acquaintances. “I have acted like a boor, but I’ve been under considerable of a nervous strain for a long time, and on top of that I’ve been lost in the jungle for days without proper or sufficient food.
“I thought that you were trying to play some sort of a joke on me and, well, I wasn’t in any mood for jokes when I expected friendship and hospitality instead.
“Tell me, where am I? What country is this?”
“Thou art close upon the city of Nimmr,” replied the young man.
“I suppose this is something of a national holiday or something?” suggested Blake.
“I do not understand thee,” replied the young man.
“Why, you’re all in a pageant or something, aren’t you?”
“Od’s bodikins! the fellow speaks an outlandish tongue! Pageant?”
“Yes, those costumes.”
“What be amiss with this apparel? True, ’tis not of any wondrous newness, but methinks it be at least more fair than thine. At least it well suffices the daily service of a knight.”
“You don’t mean that you dress like this every day?” demanded Blake.
“And why not? But enough of this. I have no wish to further bandy words with thee. Fetch him within, two of thee. And thou, Bodkin, return to the outer guard!” The young man turned and re-entered the building, while two of the soldiers seized Blake, none too gently, and hustled him within.
He found himself in a high-ceiled room with walls of cut stone and great, hand-hewn beams and rafters blackened with age. Upon the stone floor stood a table behind which, upon a bench, the young man seated himself while Blake was placed facing him with a guard on either hand.
“Thy name,” demanded the young man.
“That be all—just Blake?”
“James Hunter Blake.”
“What title bearest thou in thine own country?”
“I have no title.”
“Ah, thou art not a gentleman, then?”
“I am called one.”
“What is thy country?”
“America! There is no such country, fellow.”
“And why not?”
“I never heard of it. What doest thou near the Valley of the Sepulcher? Didst not know ’tis forbidden?”
“I told you I was lost. I didn’t know where I was. All I want is to get back to my safari or to the coast.”
“That be impossible. We be surrounded by Saracens. For seven hundred and thirty-five years we have been invested by their armies. How come you through the enemies’ lines? How passed you through his vast army?”
“There isn’t any army.”
“Givest thou the lie to Richard Montmorency, varlet? Anr thou weit of gentle blood thou shouldst account to me that insult upon the field of honor. Methink’st thou beest some lowborn spy sent hither by the Saracen sultan. Twould be well an thou confessed all to me, for if I take thee before the Prince he will wrest the truth from thee in ways that are far from pleasant. What say?”
“I have nothing to confess. Take me before the Prince, or whoever your boss is; perhaps he will at least give me food.”
“Thou shall have food here. Never shall it be said that Richard Montmorency turned a hungry man from his doorway Hey! Michel! Michel! Where is the lazy brat? Michel!”
A door opened from an inner apartment to admit a boy, sleepy eyed, digging a grimy fist into one eye. He was clothed in a short tunic, his legs encased in green tights. In his cap was a feather.
“Sleeping again, eh?” demanded Sir Richard. “Thou lazy knave! Fetch bread and meat for this poor wayfarer and be not until the morrow at it!”
Wide-eyed and rather stupidly, the boy stared at Blake. “A Saracen, master?” he asked.
“What boots it?” snapped Sir Richard. “Did not our Lord Jesus feed the multitude, nor ask if there were unbelievers among them? Haste, churl! The stranger be of great hunger.”
The youth turned and shuffled from the room, wiping his nose upon his sleeve, and Sir Richard’s attention came back to Blake.
“Thou are not ill-favored, fellow,” he said. “’Tis a pity that thou beest not of noble blood, for thy mien appearth not like that of one lowborn.”
“I never considered myself lowborn,” said Blake, with a grin.
“Thy father, now—was he not at least a sir knight?”
Blake was thinking quickly now. He was far from being able as yet to so much as hazard a guess that might explain his host’s archaic costume and language, but he was sure that the man was in earnest, whether sane or not, and were he not sane it seemed doubly wise to humor him.
“Yes, indeed,” he replied, “my father is a thirty second degree Mason and a Knight Templar.”
“Sblud! I knew it,” cried Sir Richard.
“And so am I,” added Blake, when he realized the happy effect his statement had produced.
“Ah, I knew it! I knew it!” cried Sir Richard. “Thy bearing proclaimed thy noble blood; but why didst thou seek to deceive me? And so thou are one of the poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon who guard the way of the pilgrims to the Holy Land! This explaineth thy poor raiment and glorifies it.”
Blake was mystified by the allusion, as the picture always suggested by a reference to Knights Templar was of waving white plumes, gorgeous aprons and glittering swords. He did not know that in the days of their origin they were clothed in any old garments that the charity of others might bequeath them.
At this moment Michel returned bearing a wooden trencher containing cold mutton and several pieces of simnel bread and carrying in one hand a flagon of wine. These he set upon the table before Blake and going to a cupboard fetched two metal goblets into which he decanted a portion of the contents of the flagon.
Sir Richard arose and taking one of the goblets raised it before him on a level with his head.
“Hal, Sir James!” he cried, “and welcome to Nimmr and the Valley of the Sepulcher!”
“Here’s looking at you!” replied Blake.
“A quaint saying,” remarked Sir Richard. “Methinks the ways of England must be changed since the days of Richard the Lion Hearted when my noble ancestor set forth upon the great crusade in the company of his king. Here’s looking at you! Ods bodikins! I must not let that from my memory. Here’s looking at you! Just wait thou ’til some fair knight doth drink my health—I shall lay him flat with that!
“But, stay! Here, Michel, fetch yon stool for Sir James, and eat, sir knight. Thou must be passing hungry.”
“I’ll tell the world I am,” replied Blake, feelingly, as he sat down on the stool that Michel brought. There were no knives or forks, but there were fingers and these Blake used to advantage while his host sat smiling happily at him from across the rude table.
“Thou art better than a minstrel for pleasure,” cried Sir Richard. “I’ll tell the world I am! Ho, ho! Thou wilt be a gift from heaven in the castle of the prince. I’ll tell the world I am!”
When Blake had satisfied his hunger, Sir Richard ordered Michel to prepare horses. “We ride down to the castle, Sir James,” he explained. “No longer art thou my prisoner, but my friend and guest. That I should have received thee so scurvily shall ever be to my discredit.”
Mounted upon prancing chargers and followed at a respectful distance by Michel, the two rode down the winding mountain road. Sir Richard now carried his shield and lance, a pennon fluttering bravely in the wind from just below the tip of the latter, the sun glancing from the metal of his hauberk, a smile upon his brave face as he chattered with his erstwhile prisoner. To Blake he seemed a gorgeous picture ridden from out the pages of a story book. Yet, belying his martial appearance, there was a childlike simplicity about the man that won Blake’s liking from the first, for there was that about him that made it impossible for one to conceive him as the perpetrator of a dishonorable act.
His ready acceptance of Blake’s statements about himself bespoke a credulity that seemed incompatible with the high intelligence reflected by his noble countenance, and the American preferred to attribute it to a combination of un-sophistication and an innate integrity which could not conceive of perfidy in others.
As the road rounded the shoulder of a hill, Blake saw another barbican barring the way and, beyond, the towers and battlements of an ancient castle. At a command from Sir Richard the warders of the gate opened to them and the three rode through into the ballium. This space between the outer and inner walls appeared unkept and neglected. Several old trees flourished within it and beneath the shade of one of these, close to the outer gateway, lolled several men-at-arms, two of whom were engaged in a game that resembled draughts.
At the foot of the inner wall was a wide moat, the waters of which reflected the gray stones of the wall and the ancient vines that, growing upon its inner side, topped it to form a leaf coping that occasionally hung low upon the outer side.
Directly opposite the barbican was the great gateway in the inner wall and here a drawbridge spanned the moat and a heavy portcullis barred the way into the great court of the castle; but at a word from Sir Richard the gate lifted and, clattering across the drawbridge, they rode within.
Before Blake’s astonished eyes loomed a mighty castle of rough hewn stone, while to the right and left, within the great court, spread broad gardens not illy kept, in which were gathered a company of men and women who might have just stepped from Arthur’s court.
At sight of Sir Richard and his companion the nearer members of the company regarded Blake with interest and evident surprise. Several called greetings and questions to Sir Richard as the two men dismounted and turned their horses over to Michel.
“Ho, Richard!” cried one. “What bringest thou—a Saracen?”
“Nay,” replied Richard. “A fair sir knight who would do his devoir to the prince. Where be he?”
“Yonder,” and they pointed toward the far end of the court where a large company was assembled.
“Come, Sir James!” directed Richard, and led him down the courtyard, the knights and ladies following closely, asking questions, commenting with a frankness that brought a flush to Blake’s face. The women openly praised his features and his image while the men, perhaps prompted by jealousy, made unflattering remarks about his soiled and torn apparel and its, to them, ridiculous cut; and indeed the contrast was great between their gorgeous dalmaticas of villosa or cyclas, their close fitting tights, their colored caps and Blake’s drab shirt, whipcord breeches and cordovan boots, now soiled, torn and scratched.
The women were quite as richly dressed as the men, wearing clinging mantles of rich stuff, their hair and shoulders covered with dainty wimples of various colors and often elaborately embroidered.
None of these men, nor any of those in the assemblage they were approaching wore armor, but Blake had seen an armored knight at the outer gateway and another at the inner and he judged that only when engaged in military duties did they wear this heavy and uncomfortable dress.
When they reached the party at the end of the court Sir Richard elbowed his way among them to the center of the group where stood a tall man of imposing appearance, chatting with those about him. As Sir Richard and Blake halted before him the company fell silent.
“My lord prince,” said Richard, bowing, “I bring thee Sir James, a worthy Knight Templar who hath come under the protection of God through the lines of the enemy to the gates el Nimmr.”
The tall man eyed Blake searchingly and he had not the appearance of great credulity.
“Thou sayest that thou comest from the Temple of Solomon in the Kingdom of Jerusalem?” he demanded.
“Sir Richard must have misunderstood me,” replied Blake.
“Then thou art no Knight Templar?”
“Yes, but I am not from Jerusalem.”
“Perchance he is one of those doughty sir knights that guard the pilgrims’ way to the Holy Land,” suggested a young woman standing near the prince.
Blake glanced quickly at the speaker and as their eyes met, hers fell, but not before he had seen that they were very beautiful eyes set in an equally beautiful, oval face.
“More like it haps he be a Saracen spy sent among us by the sultan,” snapped a dark man who stood beside the girl.
The latter raised her eyes to the prince. “He looketh not like a Saracen, my father,” she said.
“What knowest thou of the appearance of a Saracen, child?” demanded the prince. “Hast seen so many?” The party laughed and the girl pouted.
“Verily an’ I hast seen full as many a Saracen as has Sir Malud or thyself, my lord prince,” she snapped, haughtily. “Let Sir Malud describe a Saracen.”
The dark young man flushed angrily. “At least,” he said, “my lord prince, I knowest an English knight when I seest one, and if here be an English knight then Sir Malud be a Saracen!”
“Enough,” said the prince and then, turning to Blake: “If thou art not from Jerusalem where art thou from?”
“New York,” replied the American.
“Ha,” whispered Sir Malud to the girl, “didst I not tell you?”
“Tell me what—that he is from New York? Where is that?” she demanded.
“Some stronghold of the infidel,” asserted Malud.
“New York?” repeated the prince. “Be that in the Holy Land?”
“It is sometimes called New Jerusalem,” explained Blake.
“And thou comest to Nimmr through the lines of the enemy? Tell me, sir knight, had they many men-at-arms? And how were their forces disposed? Be they close upon the Valley of the Sepulcher? Thinkest thou they plan an early attack? Come, tell me all—thou canst be of great service.”
“I have come for days through the forest and seen no living man,” said Blake. “No enemy surrounds you.”
“What?” cried the prince.
“Didst I not tell thee?” demanded Malud. “He is an enemy spy. He wouldst lead us into the belief that we are safe that the forces of the sultan may find us off our guard and take Nimmr and the Valley.”
“Ods blud! Methinks thou beest right, Sur Malud,” cried the prince. “No enemy indeed! Why else then hast the knights of Nimmr lain here seven and a half centuries if there be no horde of infidels surrounding our stronghold?”
“Search me,” said Blake.
“Eh, what?” demanded the prince.
“He hath a quaint manner of speech, my lord prince,” ex-plained Richard, “but I do not think him an enemy of England. Myself will vouch for him and you will take him into your service, my lord prince.”
“Wouldst enter my service, sir?” demanded the prince.
Blake glanced at Sir Malud and looked dubious—then his eyes wandered to those of the girl. “I’ll tell the world I would!” he said.