The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 20

The courage, like the talent, of common men, runs in a narrow groove. Take them but an inch out of that, and they are done. Martin’s courage was perfect as far as it went. He had met and baffled many dangers in the course of his rude life, and these familiar dangers he could face with Spartan fortitude, almost with indifference; but he had never been hunted by a bloodhound, nor had he ever seen that brute’s unerring instinct baffled by human cunning. Here then a sense of the supernatural combined with novelty to ungenteel his heart. After going a few steps, he leaned on his bow, and energy and hope oozed out of him. Gerard, to whom the danger appeared slight in proportion as it was distant, urged him to flight.

“What avails it?” said Martin sadly; “if we get clear of the wood we shall die cheap; here, hard by, I know a place where we may die dear.”

“Alas! good Martin,” cried Gerard, “despair not so quickly; there must be some way to escape.”

“Oh, Martin!” cried Margaret, “what if we were to part company? Gerard’s life alone is forfeit. Is there no way to draw the pursuit on us twain and let him go safe?”

“Girl, you know not the bloodhound’s nature. He is not on this man’s track or that; he is on the track of blood. My life on’t they have taken him to where Ghysbrecht fell, and from the dead man’s blood to the man that shed it that cursed hound will lead them, though Gerard should run through an army or swim the Meuse.” And again he leaned upon his bow, and his head sank.

The hound’s mellow voice rang through the wood.

A cry more tunable

Was never halloed to, nor cheered with horn,

In Crete, in Sparta, or in Thessaly.

Strange that things beautiful should be terrible and deadly’ The eye of the boa-constrictor, while fascinating its prey, is lovely. No royal crown holds such a jewel; it is a ruby with the emerald’s green light playing ever upon it. Yet the deer that sees it loses all power of motion, and trembles, and awaits his death and even so, to compare hearing with sight, this sweet and mellow sound seemed to fascinate Martin Wittenhaagen. He stood uncertain, bewildered, and unnerved. Gerard was little better now. Martin’s last words had daunted him, He had struck an old man and shed his blood, and, by means of that very blood, blood’s four-footed avenger was on his track. Was not the finger of Heaven in this?

Whilst the men were thus benumbed, the woman’s brain was all activity. The man she loved was in danger.

“Lend me your knife,” said she to Martin. He gave it her.

“But ’twill be little use in your hands,” said he.

Then Margaret did a sly thing. She stepped behind Gerard, and furtively drew the knife across her arm, and made it bleed freely; then stooping, smeared her hose and shoes; and still as the blood trickled she smeared them; but so adroitly that neither Gerard nor Martin saw. Then she seized the soldier’s arm.

“Come, be a man!” she said, “and let this end. Take us to some thick place, where numbers will not avail our foes.”

“I am going,” said Martin sulkily. “Hurry avails not; we cannot shun the hound, and the place is hard by;” then turning to the left, he led the way, as men go to execution.

He soon brought them to a thick hazel coppice, like the one that had favoured their escape in the morning.

“There,” said he, “this is but a furlong broad, but it will serve our turn.”

“What are we to do?”

“Get through this, and wait on the other side; then as they come straggling through, shoot three, knock two on the head, and the rest will kill us.”

“Is that all you can think of?” said Gerard.

“That is all.”

“Then, Martin Wittenhaagen, I take the lead, for you have lost your head. Come, can you obey so young a man as I am?”

“Oh, yes, Martin,” cried Margaret, “do not gainsay Gerard! He is wiser than his years.”

Martin yielded a sullen assent.

“Do then as you see me do,” said Gerard; and drawing his huge knife, he cut at every step a hazel shoot or two close by the ground, and turning round twisted them breast-high behind him among the standing shoots. Martin did the same, but with a dogged hopeless air. When they had thus painfully travelled through the greater part of the coppice, the bloodhound’s deep bay came nearer and nearer, less and less musical, louder and sterner.

Margaret trembled.

Martin went down on his stomach and listened.

“I hear a horse’s feet.”

“No,” said Gerard; “I doubt it is a mule’s. That cursed Ghysbrecht is still alive: none other would follow me up so bitterly.”

“Never strike your enemy but to slay him,” said Martin gloomily.

“I’ll hit harder this time, if Heaven gives me the chance,” said Gerard.

At last they worked through the coppice, and there was an open wood. The trees were large, but far apart, and no escape possible that way.

And now with the hound’s bay mingled a score of voices hooping and hallooing.

“The whole village is out after us,” said Martin.

“I care not,” said Gerard. “Listen, Martin. I have made the track smooth to the dog, but rough to the men, that we may deal with them apart. Thus the hound will gain on the men, and as soon as he comes out of the coppice we must kill him.”

“The hound? There are more than one.”

“I hear but one.”

“Ay! but one speaks, the others run mute; but let the leading hound lose the scent, then another shall give tongue. There will be two dogs, at least, or devils in dog’s hides.”

“Then we must kill two instead of one. The moment they are dead, into the coppice again, and go right back.”

“That is a good thought, Gerard,” said Martin, plucking up heart.

“Hush! the men are in the wood.”

Gerard now gave his orders in a whisper.

“Stand you with your bow by the side of the coppice — there, in the ditch. I will go but a few yards to yon oak-tree, and hide behind it; the dogs will follow me, and, as they come out, shoot as many as you can, the rest will I brain as they come round the tree.”

Martin’s eye flashed. They took up their places.

The hooping and hallooing came closer and closer, and soon even the rustling of the young wood was heard, and every now and then the unerring bloodhound gave a single bay.

It was terrible! the branches rustling nearer and nearer, and the inevitable struggle for life and death coming on minute by minute, and that death-knell leading it. A trembling hand was laid on Gerard’s shoulder. It made him start violently, strung up as he was.

“Martin says if we are forced to part company, make for that high ash-tree we came in by.”

“Yes! yes! yes! but go back for Heaven’s sake! don’t come here, all out in the open!”

She ran back towards Martin; but, ere she could get to him, suddenly a huge dog burst out of the coppice, and stood erect a moment. Margaret cowered with fear, but he never noticed her. Scent was to him what sight is to us. He lowered his nose an instant, and the next moment, with an awful yell, sprang straight at Gerard’s tree and rolled head-over-heels dead as a stone, literally spitted with an arrow from the bow that twanged beside the coppice in Martin’s hand. That same moment out came another hound and smelt his dead comrade. Gerald rushed out at him; but ere he could use his cudgel, a streak of white lightning seemed to strike the hound, and he grovelled in the dust, wounded desperately, but not killed, and howling piteously.

Gerard had not time to despatch him: the coppice rustled too near: it seemed alive. Pointing wildly to Martin to go back, Gerard ran a few yards to the right, then crept cautiously into the thick coppice just as three men burst out. These had headed their comrades considerably: the rest were following at various distances. Gerard crawled back almost on all-fours. Instinct taught Martin and Margaret to do the same upon their line of retreat. Thus, within the distance of a few yards, the pursuers and pursued were passing one another upon opposite tracks.

A loud cry announced the discovery of the dead and the wounded hound. Then followed a babble of voices, still swelling as fresh pursuers reached the spot. The hunters, as usual on a surprise, were wasting time, and the hunted ones were making the most of it.

“I hear no more hounds,” whispered Martin to Margaret, and he was himself again.

It was Margaret’s turn to tremble and despair.

“Oh, why did we part with Gerard? They will kill my Gerard, and I not near him.”

“Nay, nay! the head to catch him is not on their shoulders. You bade him meet us at the ash-tree?”

“And so I did. Bless you, Martin, for thinking of that. To the ash-tree!”

“Ay! but with less noise.”

They were now nearly at the edge of the coppice, when suddenly they heard hooping and hallooing behind them. The men had satisfied themselves the fugitives were in the coppice, and were beating back.

“No matter,” whispered Martin to his trembling companion. “We shall have time to win clear and slip back out of sight by hard running. Ah!”

He stooped suddenly; for just as he was going to burst out of the brushwood, his eye caught a figure keeping sentinel. It was Ghysbrecht Van Swieten seated on his mule; a bloody bandage was across his nose, the bridge of which was broken; but over this his eyes peered keenly, and it was plain by their expression he had heard the fugitives rustle, and was looking out for them. Martin muttered a terrible oath, and cautiously strung his bow, then with equal caution fitted his last arrow to the string. Margaret put her hands to her face, but said nothing. She saw this man must die or Gerard. After the first impulse she peered through her fingers, her heart panting to her throat.

The bow was raised, and the deadly arrow steadily drawn to its head, when at that moment an active figure leaped on Ghysbrecht from behind so swiftly, it was like a hawk swooping on a pigeon. A kerchief went over the burgomaster, in a turn of the hand his head was muffled in it, and he was whirled from his seat and fell heavily upon the ground, where he lay groaning with terror; and Gerard jumped down after him.

“Hist, Martin! Martin!”

Martin and Margaret came out, the former openmouthed crying, “Now fly! fly! while they are all in the thicket; we are saved.”

At this crisis, when safety seemed at hand, as fate would have it, Margaret, who had borne up so bravely till now, began to succumb, partly from loss of blood.

“Oh, my beloved, fly!” she gasped. “Leave me, for I am faint.”

“No! no!” cried Gerard. “Death together, or safety. Ah! the mule! mount her, you, and I’ll run by your side.”

In a moment Martin was on Ghysbrecht’s mule, and Gerard raised the fainting girl in his arms and placed her on the saddle, and relieved Martin of his bow.

“Help! treason! murder! murder!” shrieked Ghysbrecht, suddenly rising on his hams.

“Silence, cur,” roared Gerard, and trode him down again by the throat as men crush an adder.

“Now, have you got her firm? Then fly! for our lives! for our lives!”

But even as the mule, urged suddenly by Martin’s heel, scattered the flints with his hind hoofs ere he got into a canter, and even as Gerard withdrew his foot from Ghysbrecht’s throat to run, Dierich Brower and his five men, who had come back for orders, and heard the burgomaster’s cries, burst roaring out of the coppice on them.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33