Suddenly there came the sound of flying feet, and the crowd of beasts opened and stood aside. The newcomer was little Lapreel the Rabbit, who, panting and breathless, rushed up and threw himself at the king's feet. "Help, Your Majesty!" he gasped. "Give me justice, I pray!"
"Who has wronged you?" asked the king and frowned; he thought he knew the answer before the rabbit spoke.
"It is that villain Reynard, my lord," panted Lapreel. "Oh, I am near to death."
"Tell your tale," said the king, "but waste no words."
"It is short enough," answered Lapreel. "As I was coming over the hill this morning, I passed by the gate of Reynard's castle. He was standing there, dressed in a long robe, his head cast down as though he were praying. I was near him before I knew, and my first thought was to run away, but seeing him so quiet and still, and having heard how his heart was changed, I took courage and made to pass him by, and as I went I spoke to him in a gentle voice and said," Good morning, Reynard."
"Instead of answering me, he raised his right foot and gave me such a kick between the eyes that I was well-nigh stunned, and fell to the ground. I did not quite lose my senses, however, and in a moment I was up again and running for my life. But I only escaped by the skin of my teeth, for as I sprang forward I felt his cruel claws in my side. See, king, my wounds, how they bleed! Of your might, give me justice against that cruel beast!"
Poor Lapreel stopped and stood trembling, and hardly had finished his story than there came a whirl of wings, and Corbant the Rook, his feathers all draggled and awry, flew down to the foot of the king's throne.
"I, too!" he cried. "I, too, claim justice against Reynard the Fox. This morning I set out with Sharpbeak, my wife, to ramble over the heath. We had not gone far before we came across Reynard. He lay stretched out on the ground as if he were dead. His tongue was lolling from his mouth; his limbs were stiff; no movement came from his body. We were sorry to see him in such a plight, and we walked round him several times to see if we could discover a sign of life, but he lay quite still. At last Sharpbeak put her ear close to his mouth to listen for his breath, and as she did so – snap! The cruel jaws snapped, and my poor wife was a headless corpse!
"How can I tell Your Majesty my feelings when I saw this dreadful scene! Would that I had died in her place. As it was, I was so stunned by the terrible sight that I had barely strength to fly to a neighbouring tree, where I remained while the fox made his terrible meal. He ate all of her, all of her, beak, bone, flesh and feathers, and all the time he gazed on me with a disgusting grin. At last he slunk off to his lair, and I made all haste to fly to Your Majesty to appeal for justice."
In silence the noble lion listened to the rook's tale, nor did he speak when the story was ended, but remained with downcast, gloomy gaze. Then the rook spoke again:.
"Why are you silent, king? If ever you would enjoy peace in this your realm you must destroy this evil beast. The blood of many innocent creatures cries out for vengeance. Will you listen to that cry?"
Then the king raised his head and spoke in a loud voice.
"I swear," said he, "by all I hold most dear – by my own crown, by my kingdom, yea, even by my life – that I will exact from this villain fox the utmost penalty for his crimes. I will take such a vengeance that the fame of it shall echo round the world, and evildoers in lands far away shall tremble. I have been over-merciful and perhaps a little foolish, but never again shall Reynard's lies pass for truth with me. Now I lay my commands on you all, high and low; steel your hearts to grim resolve. Set yourselves one task and one alone – to bring to judgment this creature who disturbs our peace; and never look back until that task is accomplished!"
Nobody heard this speech with greater pleasure than Isegrim the Wolf and Bruin the Bear, who had good cause to hate Reynard. But Grimbert the Badger raised his voice:.
"Surely, king," said he, "you would not order us to kill Reynard at sight. Villain he may be, but no matter how great his crimes he ought at least to have a fair trial before he is condemned to death. It would ill become you to sentence him without giving him a chance to say a word in his own defence!"
"A fig for trials!" growled Isegrim. Trials are all very well in their way, but we know what a trial means where Reynard is concerned. If he came here today, I well believe he could prove himself innocent of crime as a baby a day old; but he would be a villain none the less. A speedy end to him, I say, a speedy end and no talking; just a tree and a good strong rope!"
"And if you killed him," said Grimbert, "what would become of the treasure of Krekynpit, the treasure that he alone knows the secret of?"
The treasure of Krekynpit!" growled the wolf. "Treasure, indeed! a fine treasure that! It never existed outside his own evil mind. Fools were all of us who believed that lying tale!"
"At least let us send a messenger to Reynard to bid him attend the court and answer for his crimes," pleaded Grimbert.
"No!" thundered the king. "I will send no more envoys. My mind is made up. We will not give the fox the chance to deceive us again, but go to his castle and dig him out of it like a rat out of a hole; and then, as Isegrim says, a speedy end, with a high tree, and a stout cord about his villain neck."
At this a great cry arose from all the beasts that stood around the throne:.
"Death to the traitor! Lead on, king, and we will follow."
When Grimbert the Badger heard the king swear to take revenge on Reynard, he made up his mind to warn his uncle. Unnoticed by anybody he slunk to the edge of the crowd, and then, while all the beasts were still cheering the king's words, he set off running as fast as he could to the castle of the fox. Straight as the crow flies he went, over hill and dale, jumping streams and crashing through woods, until he came at last to Malpertuis.
The fox was standing at the gate. He looked very hale and healthy, and he had grown a good deal fatter. He was playing with a couple of young pigeons which he had just killed, and he looked up from them to grin at his nephew, who arrived panting and out of breath.
"Why, good morning, Grimbert," said Reynard, "am glad to see you. How are things going at court? You seem to have come in a great hurry; has anything important happened while I have been away? On my word, I live the life of a hermit here, and get no news at all."
"If it's news you want," said Grimbert, "I have plenty. But it's not good news, I'm sorry to say - Uncle! fly for your life! Do not waste a minute, for King Nobel has sworn that he will have your blood, and even now he may be marching against you!"
"Come, come!" said the fox, smiling, "surely there's no great hurry!"
"It is all very well to laugh," said Grimbert, "but I assure you things are very serious indeed this time. The king is going to bring an army to besiege your castle, and he will dig you out like a rat from its hole – those were his very words!"
"And why has the king made this sudden resolve?: asked Reynard.
"You should know that," answered Grimbert. What about Cuwaert's head that you sent to the king in a bag? And what about the treasure?"
The fox grinned.
"And even that is not all, for this morning who should come to court but little Lapreel the Rabbit, whining because you nearly made a meal of him. His tale made the king show his teeth, I can tell you! And hardly had he finished when Corbant the Rook flew down, looking for all the world as though he'd combed his feathers the wrong way, and cried out that you had eaten his wife!"
"So I had," grinned Reynard. "And she tasted very nice."
"There you go, laughing again!" said Grimbert. "But it's no laughing matter. The king is deadly angry. Reynard, I'm very much afraid your last hour is near!"
"Pouf!" said the fox. "A fig for your last hour! What, Grimbert, do you know me so little as to imagine that I cannot find a way to outwit the king this time as I did before? The court have sworn my death, have they? We'll see!.
"But come, Grimbert, don't pull such a long face! You must be very tired after your journey. Step inside with me, and my wife shall cook us these two plump pigeons that I caught this morning. Then, after dinner, we'll have a friendly talk, and I will tell you my plans."
Grimbert followed the fox into his underground lair, and paid his respects to Reynard's wife, who was there as usual with her cubs. She made him welcome and set about preparing the meal at once. Presently the pigeons were cooked to a turn, and the good wife set them on the table. "I'm sorry I've nothing better to offer you," said Reynard. "If I had known you were coming I would have prepared for you. Two pigeons won't go very far, I'm afraid, between a badger and a fox and his wife, to say nothing of four cubs, who shall have the bones if they're good. What do you think of my children, Grimbert? Aren't they fine youngsters? There's young Reynkin, now; I have great hopes of him. One day he'll grow up to be as cunning as his father, if not better! And as for Rosel, you just ought to see him at the game of snaring fowls – it's a sight for sore eyes, I promise you!"
"They are very fine children," answered Grimbert, with his mouth full. "I am proud to call them my cousins! Will you pass a bit more of that juicy wing, Reynard, dear?"
After the dinner was over the fox brought out a bottle of wine, and the two sat drinking together for some time. Master Reynard grew very merry and sang a song. It was a very long song, and I cannot remember all the verses of it, but this is how the first verse went:
"Ever since I was born,
"Now," said Reynard, when the song was finished, "it is time for us to talk business. I have quite made up my mind what to do. Tomorrow morning we will set out for the court together, you and I, and we will see what the king has in store for us!"
"Go to court?" stammered Grimbert. "Are you mad?'.
Not a bit!" said Reynard. "You leave everything to me, and do not worry. Let us go to bed now so as to get a good night's rest, and we will be afoot before dawn."
Very much troubled, poor Grimbert retired to rest. He tried to think how the fox meant to escape his just punishment, but thinking was not his strong point, and it only made his head ache and kept him awake for hours. As for the fox, he was snoring almost as soon as his head touched the pillow.
The next morning before dawn the fox arose and made a journey all through the castle. Truth to tell, in spite of the bold air he had put on when talking to Grimbert, he was more than a little troubled, and he wondered, as he passed through the rooms of his house, whether he would ever see any of them again.
His tour ended, he awoke Grimbert, and then went to say farewell to his wife. "Goodbye, wife," said he. "Look after the little ones, and don't worry about me. I hope to be back again very shortly, but even if I stay away a long time you must not feel alarmed - not even if you hear bad news. Just trust me to find a way out of this coil, as I have found a way out of others."
Then, in the grey dawn, the two set out across the heath towards' the king's court. And as they went, Reynard asked: "Tell me, Grimbert, did Isegrim the Wolf speak ill of me to the king?"
"Yes, indeed he did," answered Grimbert. "His voice was raised above all the others. A long cord and a short shrift would be your fate if he were allowed to have his way!"
"I know he hates me," said Reynard. Did I ever tell you the story of the red mare and her colt?"
"No," said Grimbert, "not that I remember."
"Well then, listen," said Reynard, "and you will understand why Isegrim is so bitter against me."
"One day, a long time ago, when Isegrim and I were good friends, we went out hunting together. On the way to the woods we crossed a field where a fine red mare was browsing along with her colt, a fine plump youngster.
"'Here, Reynard,' said Isegrim to me," go and ask the mare if she'll sell that colt. If so, I'll buy him.'.
"Well, I did not much like the task, but I was anxious to oblige Isegrim, so up I went to the mare and said," Excuse me, madam, but are you willing to sell your colt?"
"'Why, certainly,' answered she; 'it is quite the fashion among mares to sell their children.'.
"'And how much,' said I, 'are you asking for him?'
"'As for that," said the mare, 'if you will come behind me and lift my right hoof you will find the price written there in plain figures. It is our custom, you know.'.
"As she said this, she looked at me with such a wicked eye that I easily saw she was laying a trap for me. So I edged away quickly and went back to the wolf. "'Well?"' said Isegrim.
"'She'll sell,' said I.
"'Good!' said he. 'Now I shall get a good meal.'
"'And what about me?' I asked. 'I hope you will give me a share!'
"'Give you a share, indeed!' laughed Isegrim. 'That's a good joke if ever I heard one! Yes, my friend, you shall have the hair and the hide.' Then I understood what sort of a friend I had in Isegrim, but I did not let him see I was annoyed.
"'Well,' said I, 'the mare will sell, but I cannot tell what her price is, because it is written on her right hoof, and, alas! I never learned to read. I don't suppose you can read either, can you?'
""Can I not!' cried Isegrim. 'Why, I'm one of the most learned scholars in the realm. I'll soon find out what the price is; you watch me!'
"So up he marched to the mare, and went to lift her right hinder foot. But as soon as he came near the mare kicked out at him with all her might, and sent him flying across the road. Then she and her colt scampered away.
"I rushed up to where Isegrim lay, all battered and bleeding.
"'Well, Isegrim,' I asked, 'did you see the figures? How much did she want for the colt?" But he did not answer.
"Then I asked him again: 'Come, clever one, what was written on the hoof? Was it in verse or prose?' But still he did not answer. And so I told him that learned fools were often the biggest fools of all, and came away. And ever since then Isegrim has been my deadliest enemy".
Grimbert the Badger and Reynard the Fox talked together till at last they came to the court of the king.
All the beasts were gathered together round the king's throne, and there was silence as the fox passed by. But Reynard held his head high, and did not seem a bit ashamed, and when he stood in front of the king he fell down on his knees and said:.
"Sire, and lord, I pray for our old friendship's sake: Give ear to what I have to say in my defence."
The king frowned at him and answered nothing. So Reynard went on:.
"Dear lord, I have been told that my enemies have dared to slander me when I was not here. They have accused me of I know not what crimes. If I am guilty, let me be punished, but if you will listen to me, you may find I am not the villain you think. I am no flatterer when I say that you are just. Further, I can so explain my actions that you will grant that I am in the right." .
"Reynard," said the king, "a pot may go so often to the water that it is broken at last. You have deceived me many times, but I have sworn that you shall do so no more." .
At these words Reynard inwardly quaked with fear, but he gave no sign of it.
"Sire," he cried, "if I had known myself guilty, do you think I should have come here today to place myself in your power and in that of my foes? I was free to go where I liked, and had I chosen to escape I could have done so. But as soon as I heard of the tales that had been told about me, I hurried to court, and I would have been here sooner had I not gone some distance on my way to Rome."
"And Lapreel the Rabbit, whom you treated so vilely," said the king, "what have you to say about him?"
Why," answered Reynard, "here is the truth of that matter. Yesterday morning, as I stood at my door saying my morning prayers, the rabbit came by. "Good morning, dear Lapreel," I said. "Where are you going in such a hurry?"
"'Reynard,' he answered, 'have you by any chance a scrap of meat in the house? I am on my way to court, but I am so weak with hunger that I shall never reach there if I do not get some food quickly.'.
"'Why,' said I, 'come in, my dear friend. I have no meat at all, because, you know, I always fast on a Wednesday, but I have plenty of bread, and that you shall have, with some of the finest butter you ever tasted.".
"So Lapreel followed me into my home, and I set a good meal before him, and he ate till he could eat no more. Rosel, my little son, who had not yet had his breakfast, came to the table and took a piece of the bread that was left. Then, suddenly Lapreel hit him with all his force in the mouth, making him bleed badly. Seeing this, his brother Reynkin sprung upon the Rabbit and would have killed him if I had not torn him away. As a matter of fact, Lapreel has to thank me for saving his life, and yet he complains to the king that I tried to murder him!"
"Hum!" said King Nobel. "And Corbant the Rook – what of him?"
"It was the same day, my lord," answered Reynard. "Corbant the Rook came to me with his feathers all draggled, and he was crying bitterly.
"'Why, what is the matter with you?' I asked.
"'Alas!' he said. 'My poor wife is dead. She found a dead hare on the heath over there and ate some of the flesh. The hare had been dead a long time, and the flesh poisoned her.".
"Then I tried to comfort the poor fellow, but he would not listen to my words, and flew off to a high tree, and the next thing I hear is that he accuses me of killing his wife! How could I kill her when she has wings and I go afoot? How could I come near her? Now, king, if anyone should doubt my words I am willing to stand against them in fair fight!"
All the court was silent when they heard Reynard speak thus stoutly, but the king cried:.
You have heard what Reynard says. Come forth, you who accuse him, and speak before his face. Yesterday there were many who came to complain of him. Who will speak now that he is here?"
But no one answered, for all the beasts were afraid of Reynard's fierceness and cunning, and as for Lapreel the Rabbit and Corbant the Rook, they had long ago fled in fear.
Well, Reynard," said the king, "you may be right in what you say. It could be so, since none of your accusers come forward. But there is still one matter – the gravest of all that you have not explained. When you were here before and were condemned to die I listened to your pleadings and granted you mercy. I sent you to Rome that you might beg forgiveness of the pope, and at your own request I sent Bellyn the Ram and Cuwaert the Hare with you. Bellyn the Ram came back, but what of Cuwaert the hare? We saw him no more, only his head, that you sent here in the small bag I gave you to take to Rome! What have you to say to this?"
Then Reynard was very much afraid, and even his ready wit failed him for a time. He stood there confused and trembling, and the king's stern voice was raised again.
"You false villain!" cried he, and his eyes flashed with anger. "Why do you not speak? Are you struck dumb by the memory of your crimes?"
But Reynard still stood confused and trembling, and could not utter a word.
Now, among the beasts that stood around the king's throne was Dame Rukenaw, the wife of Martin the Ape. She was Reynard's aunt, and she stood high in favour with the queen. When she saw the turn things were taking she was sorry for Reynard and stood forward to say a word in his defence. She reminded the king of the fox's cunning and wisdom, and bade him remember how often he had done good service in days gone by.
"Do not judge hastily, my lord," said she. "Remember there are always two sides to a tale, and you have heard but one. The very fact that the fox cannot answer you is to me proof of his innocence, for everybody knows his ready wit. Had he expected to face this dreadful charge who can doubt but that he would have prepared a tale that would have explained everything away?.
"Moreover, my lord, the fox is just. Do you remember how he dealt with that case of the man and the serpent two years ago?.
"The serpent had been caught in a snare as he was gliding through a hedge.
"The noose was round his neck, and in spite of all his writhings he could not free himself.
"A man came by, and the serpent called out to him for help. The man was sorry for the serpent and was minded to release him, but being a prudent fellow, he said, "If I set you free, will you promise to do me no harm?" So the serpent promised, and the man set him free, and the two went on together.
"Now, the serpent was hungry, and before they had gone very far he sprang upon the man, and would have killed him. But the man leapt aside, and said, "What, have you forgotten the oath you swore, that you would do me no harm?"
"The serpent answered, 'Hunger can make a man break an oath.' So the man said, 'Give me at least a chance, and let us go on till we meet with someone who can judge between us.'.
"The serpent granted this, and they went on till they met the raven, who thought it right that the serpent should eat the man. The raven said this because he hoped to have a share also.
"But the man said, 'How shall a robber judge justly?'
And so they went on again till they met the wolf and the bear. The man and the serpent told their case to them, too, and both judged that the serpent was right in eating the man.
"Once again the serpent sprang on him, but once again the man leapt away.
"'My case is not fairly judged,' he said. 'Those who have spoken so far are themselves robbers and murderers. I appeal to the king!'
"So it was agreed, and they came to this court, and Your Majesty will remember that you were sorely puzzled, and could not give judgment, for you thought that, as the serpent said, hunger may cause a man to break an oath.
"Then came Reynard the Fox, and the case was told to him, because of his wisdom. And Reynard said:.
""This is a hard case, and I cannot judge unless I see exactly how the man found the serpent in the first place. Let me see the serpent in the hedge with the snare round his neck.".
So they took the serpent and put the noose round his neck as it was before.
Then Reynard called the man, and said: ' Was it just like this that you found him?" And the man said it was so.
""Then," said Reynard," begin the matter all over again. Let the man, knowing what he knows, set the serpent free if he will, and if he does not care to let the serpent free, then the serpent's neck must remain in the noose!"
"That was the fox's judgment, king, and right well did you applaud it. Was that the judgment of a wicked man? I, myself, will stand for Reynard's honour, and I am not the only one. Stand forth, all of you who are of my kin and of Reynard's, and pray the king to have mercy on him."
Then a crowd of beasts stepped forward, headed by Grimbert the Badger, Reynard's nephew. And the king said, "It is well. I will give Reynard another chance and listen to what he has to say. Let him explain, if he can, how Cuwaert the Hare died."