The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 8

While the burgomaster was exposing Gerard at Tergou, Margaret had a trouble of her own at Sevenbergen. It was a housewife’s distress, but deeper than we can well conceive. She came to Martin Wittenhaagen, the old soldier, with tears in her eyes.

“Martin, there’s nothing in the house, and Gerard is coming, and he is so thoughtless. He forgets to sup at home. When he gives over work, then he runs to me straight, poor soul; and often he comes quite faint. And to think I have nothing to set before my servant that loves me so dear.”

Martin scratched his head. “What can I do?”

“It is Thursday; it is your day to shoot; sooth to Say, I counted on you to-day.”

“Nay,” said the soldier, “I may not shoot when the Duke or his friends are at the chase; read else. I am no scholar.” And he took out of his pouch a parchment with a grand seal. It purported to be a stipend and a licence given by Philip, Duke of Burgundy, to Martin Wittenhaagen, one of his archers, in return for services in the wars, and for a wound received at the Dukes side. The stipend was four merks yearly, to be paid by the Duke’s almoner, and the licence was to shoot three arrows once a week, viz., on Thursday, and no other day, in any of the Duke’s forests in Holland, at any game but a seven-year-old buck or a doe carrying fawn; proviso, that the Duke should not be hunting on that day, or any of his friends. In this case Martin was not to go and disturb the woods on peril of his salary and his head, and a fine of a penny.

Margaret sighed and was silent.

“Come, cheer up, mistress,” said he; “for your sake I’ll peril my carcass; I have done that for many a one that was not worth your forefinger. It is no such mighty risk either. I’ll but step into the skirts of the forest here. It is odds but they drive a hare or a fawn within reach of my arrow.”

“Well, if I let you go, you must promise me not to go far, and not to be seen; far better Gerard went supperless than ill should come to you, faithful Martin.”

The required promise given, Martin took his bow and three arrows, and stole cautiously into the wood: it was scarce a furlong distant. The horns were heard faintly in the distance, and all the game was afoot. “Come,” thought Martin, “I shall soon fill the pot, and no one be the wiser.” He took his stand behind a thick oak that commanded a view of an open glade, and strung his bow, a truly formidable weapon. It was of English yew, six feet two inches high, and thick in proportion; and Martin, broad-chested, with arms all iron and cord, and used to the bow from infancy, could draw a three-foot arrow to the head, and, when it flew, the eye could scarce follow it, and the bowstring twanged as musical as a harp. This bow had laid many a stout soldier low in the wars of the Hoecks and Cabbel-jaws. In those days a battlefield was not a cloud of smoke; the combatants were few, but the deaths many — for they saw what they were about; and fewer bloodless arrows flew than bloodless bullets now. A hare came cantering, then sat sprightly, and her ears made a capital V. Martin levelled his tremendous weapon at her. The arrow flew, the string twanged; but Martin had been in a hurry to pot her, and lost her by an inch: the arrow seemed to hit her, but it struck the ground close to her, and passed under her belly like a flash, and hissed along the short grass and disappeared. She jumped three feet perpendicular and away at the top of her speed. “Bungler!” said Martin. A sure proof he was not an habitual bungler, or he would have blamed the hare. He had scarcely fitted another arrow to his string when a wood-pigeon settled on the very tree he stood under. “Aha!” thought he, “you are small, but dainty.” This time he took more pains; drew his arrow carefully, loosed it smoothly, and saw it, to all appearance, go clean through the bird, carrying feathers skyward like dust. Instead of falling at his feet, the bird, whose breast was torn, not fairly pierced, fluttered feebly away, and, by a great effort, rose above the trees, flew some fifty yards and dead at last; but where, he could not see for the thick foliage.

“Luck is against me,” said he despondingly. But he fitted another arrow, and eyed the glade keenly. Presently he heard a bustle behind him, and turned round just in time to see a noble buck cross the open, but too late to shoot at him. He dashed his bow down with an imprecation. At that moment a long spotted animal glided swiftly across after the deer; its belly seemed to touch the ground as it went. Martin took up his bow hastily: he recognized the Duke’s leopard. “The hunters will not be far from her,” said he, “and I must not be seen. Gerard must go supperless this night.”

He plunged into the wood, following the buck and leopard, for that was his way home. He had not gone far when he heard an unusual sound ahead of him — leaves rustling violently and the ground trampled. He hurried in the direction. He found the leopard on the buck’s back, tearing him with teeth and claw, and the buck running in a circle and bounding convulsively, with the blood pouring down his hide. Then Martin formed a desperate resolution to have the venison for Margaret. He drew his arrow to the head, and buried it in the deer, who, spite of the creature on his back, bounded high into the air, and fell dead. The leopard went on tearing him as if nothing had happened.

Martin hoped that the creature would gorge itself with blood, and then let him take the meat. He waited some minutes, then walked resolutely up, and laid his hand on the buck’s leg. The leopard gave a frightful growl, and left off sucking blood. She saw Martin’s game, and was sulky and on her guard. What was to be done? Martin had heard that wild creatures cannot stand the human eye. Accordingly, he stood erect, and fixed his on the leopard: the leopard returned a savage glance, and never took her eye off Martin. Then Martin continuing to look the beast down, the leopard, brutally ignorant of natural history, flew at his head with a frightful yell, flaming eyes, and jaws and distended. He had but just time to catch her by the throat, before her teeth could crush his face; one of her claws seized his shoulder and rent it, the other, aimed at his cheek, would have been more deadly still, but Martin was old-fashioned, and wore no hat, but a scapulary of the same stuff as his jerkin, and this scapulary he had brought over his head like a hood; the brute’s claw caught in the loose leather. Martin kept her teeth off his face with great difficulty, and griped her throat fiercely, and she kept rending his shoulder. It was like blunt reaping-hooks grinding and tearing. The pain was fearful; but, instead of cowing the old soldier, it put his blood up, and he gnashed his teeth with rage almost as fierce as hers, and squeezed her neck with iron force. The two pair of eyes flared at one another — and now the man’s were almost as furious as the brute’s. She found he was throttling her, and made a wild attempt to free herself, in which she dragged his cowl all over his face and blinded him, and tore her claw out of his shoulder, flesh and all; but still he throttled her with hand and arm of iron. Presently her long tail, that was high in the air, went down. “Aha!” cried Martin, joyfully, and gripped her like death; next, her body lost its elasticity, and he held a choked and powerless thing: he gripped it still, till all motion ceased, then dashed it to the earth; then, panting, removed his cowl: the leopard lay mute at his feet with tongue protruding and bloody paw; and for the first time terror fell on Martin. “I am a dead man: I have slain the Duke’s leopard.” He hastily seized a few handfuls of leaves and threw them over her; then shouldered the buck, and staggered away, leaving a trail of blood all the way his own and the buck’s. He burst into Peter’s house a horrible figure, bleeding and bloodstained, and flung the deer’s carcass down.

“There — no questions,” said he, “but broil me a steak on’t, for I am faint.”

Margaret did not see he was wounded; she thought the blood was all from the deer.

She busied herself at the fire, and the stout soldier stanched and bound his own wound apart; and soon he and Gerard and Margaret were supping royally on broiled venison.

They were very merry; and Gerard, with wonderful thoughtfulness, had brought a flask of Schiedam, and under its influence Martin revived, and told them how the venison was got; and they all made merry over the exploit.

Their mirth was strangely interrupted. Margaret’s eye became fixed and fascinated, and her cheek pale with fear. She gasped, and could not speak, but pointed to the window with trembling finger. Their eyes followed hers, and there in the twilight crouched a dark form with eyes like glowworms.

It was the leopard.

While they stood petrified, fascinated by the eyes of green fire, there sounded in the wood a single deep bay. Martin trembled at it.

“They have lost her, and laid muzzled bloodhounds on her scent; they will find her here, and the venison. Good-bye, friends, Martin Wittenhaagen ends here.”

Gerard seized his bow, and put it into the soldier’s hands.

“Be a man,” he cried; “shoot her, and fling her into the wood ere they come up. Who will know?”

More voices of hounds broke out, and nearer.

“Curse her!” cried Martin; “I spared her once; now she must die, or I, or both more likely;” and he reared his bow, and drew his arrow to the head.

“Nay! nay!” cried Margaret, and seized the arrow. It broke in half: the pieces fell on each side the bow. The air at the same time filled with the tongues of the hounds: they were hot upon the scent.

“What have you done, wench? You have put the halter round my throat.”

“No!” cried Margaret. “I have saved you: stand back from the window, both! Your knife, quick!”

She seized his long-pointed knife, almost tore it out of his girdle, and darted from the room. The house was now surrounded with baying dogs and shouting men.

The glowworm eyes moved not.

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