Sir Daniel and his men lay in and about Kettley that night, warmly quartered and well patrolled. But the Knight of Tunstall was one who never rested from money-getting; and even now, when he was on the brink of an adventure which should make or mar him, he was up an hour after midnight to squeeze poor neighbours. He was one who trafficked greatly in disputed inheritances; it was his way to buy out the most unlikely claimant, and then, by the favour he curried with great lords about the king, procure unjust decisions in his favour; or, if that was too roundabout, to seize the disputed manor by force of arms, and rely on his influence and Sir Oliver’s cunning in the law to hold what he had snatched. Kettley was one such place; it had come very lately into his clutches; he still met with opposition from the tenants; and it was to overawe discontent that he had led his troops that way.
By two in the morning, Sir Daniel sat in the inn room, close by the fireside, for it was cold at that hour among the fens of Kettley. By his elbow stood a pottle of spiced ale. He had taken off his visored headpiece, and sat with his bald head and thin, dark visage resting on one hand, wrapped warmly in a sanguine-coloured cloak. At the lower end of the room about a dozen of his men stood sentry over the door or lay asleep on benches; and somewhat nearer hand, a young lad, apparently of twelve or thirteen, was stretched in a mantle on the floor. The host of the Sun stood before the great man.
“Now, mark me, mine host,” Sir Daniel said, “follow but mine orders, and I shall be your good lord ever. I must have good men for head boroughs, and I will have Adam-a–More high constable; see to it narrowly. If other men be chosen, it shall avail you nothing; rather it shall be found to your sore cost. For those that have paid rent to Walsingham I shall take good measure — you among the rest, mine host.”
“Good knight,” said the host, “I will swear upon the cross of Holywood I did but pay to Walsingham upon compulsion. Nay, bully knight, I love not the rogue Walsinghams; they were as poor as thieves, bully knight. Give me a great lord like you. Nay; ask me among the neighbours, I am stout for Brackley.”
“It may be,” said Sir Daniel, dryly. “Ye shall then pay twice.”
The innkeeper made a horrid grimace; but this was a piece of bad luck that might readily befall a tenant in these unruly times, and he was perhaps glad to make his peace so easily.
“Bring up yon fellow, Selden!” cried the knight.
And one of his retainers led up a poor, cringing old man, as pale as a candle, and all shaking with the fen fever.
“Sirrah,” said Sir Daniel, “your name?”
“An’t please your worship,” replied the man, “my name is Condall — Condall of Shoreby, at your good worship’s pleasure.”
“I have heard you ill reported on,” returned the knight. “Ye deal in treason, rogue; ye trudge the country leasing; y’ are heavily suspicioned of the death of severals. How, fellow, are ye so bold? But I will bring you down.”
“Right honourable and my reverend lord,” the man cried, “here is some hodge-podge, saving your good presence. I am but a poor private man, and have hurt none.”
“The under-sheriff did report of you most vilely,” said the knight. “‘Seize me,’ saith he, ‘that Tyndal of Shoreby.’”
“Condall, my good lord; Condall is my poor name,” said the unfortunate.
“Condall or Tyndal, it is all one,” replied Sir Daniel, coolly. “For, by my sooth, y’ are here and I do mightily suspect your honesty. If ye would save your neck, write me swiftly an obligation for twenty pound.”
“For twenty pound, my good lord!” cried Condall. “Here is midsummer madness! My whole estate amounteth not to seventy shillings.”
“Condall or Tyndal,” returned Sir Daniel, grinning, “I will run my peril of that loss. Write me down twenty, and when I have recovered all I may, I will be good lord to you, and pardon you the rest.”
“Alas! my good lord, it may not be; I have no skill to write,” said Condall.
“Well-a-day!” returned the knight. “Here, then, is no remedy. Yet I would fain have spared you, Tyndal, had my conscience suffered. Selden, take me this old shrew softly to the nearest elm, and hang me him tenderly by the neck, where I may see him at my riding. Fare ye well, good Master Condall, dear Master Tyndal; y’ are post-haste for Paradise; fare ye then well!”
“Nay, my right pleasant lord,” replied Condall, forcing an obsequious smile, “an ye be so masterful, as doth right well become you, I will even, with all my poor skill, do your good bidding.”
“Friend,” quoth Sir Daniel, “ye will now write two score. Go to! y’ are too cunning for a livelihood of seventy shillings. Selden, see him write me this in good form, and have it duly witnessed.”
And Sir Daniel, who was a very merry knight, none merrier in England, took a drink of his mulled ale, and lay back, smiling.
Meanwhile, the boy upon the floor began to stir, and presently sat up and looked about him with a scare.
“Hither,” said Sir Daniel; and as the other rose at his command and came slowly towards him, he leaned back and laughed outright. “By the rood!” he cried, “a sturdy boy!”
The lad flushed crimson with anger, and darted a look of hate out of his dark eyes. Now that he was on his legs, it was more difficult to make certain of his age. His face looked somewhat older in expression, but it was as smooth as a young child’s; and in bone and body he was unusually slender, and somewhat awkward of gait.
“Ye have called me, Sir Daniel,” he said. “Was it to laugh at my poor plight?”
“Nay, now, let laugh,” said the knight. “Good shrew, let laugh, I pray you. An ye could see yourself, I warrant ye would laugh the first.”
“Well,” cried the lad, flushing, “ye shall answer this when ye answer for the other. Laugh while yet ye may!”
“Nay, now, good cousin,” replied Sir Daniel, with some earnestness, “think not that I mock at you, except in mirth, as between kinsfolk and singular friends. I will make you a marriage of a thousand pounds, go to! and cherish you exceedingly. I took you, indeed, roughly, as the time demanded; but from henceforth I shall ungrudgingly maintain and cheerfully serve you. Ye shall be Mrs. Shelton — Lady Shelton, by my troth! for the lad promiseth bravely. Tut! ye will not shy for honest laughter; it purgeth melancholy. They are no rogues who laugh, good cousin. Good mine host, lay me a meal now for my cousin, Master John. Sit ye down, sweetheart, and eat.”
“Nay,” said Master John, “I will break no bread. Since ye force me to this sin, I will fast for my soul’s interest. But, good mine host, I pray you of courtesy give me a cup of fair water; I shall be much beholden to your courtesy indeed.”
“Ye shall have a dispensation, go to!” cried the knight. “Shalt be well shriven, by my faith! Content you, then, and eat.”
But the lad was obstinate, drank a cup of water, and, once more wrapping himself closely in his mantle, sat in a far corner, brooding.
In an hour or two, there rose a stir in the village of sentries challenging and the clatter of arms and horses; and then a troop drew up by the inn door, and Richard Shelton, splashed with mud, presented himself upon the threshold.
“Save you, Sir Daniel,” he said.
“How! Dickie Shelton!” cried the knight; and at the mention of Dick’s name the other lad looked curiously across. “What maketh Bennet Hatch?”
“Please you, sir knight, to take cognisance of this packet from Sir Oliver, wherein are all things fully stated,” answered Richard, presenting the priest’s letter. “And please you farther, ye were best make all speed to Risingham; for on the way hither we encountered one riding furiously with letters, and by his report, my Lord of Risingham was sore bested, and lacked exceedingly your presence.”
“How say you? Sore bested?” returned the knight. “Nay, then, we will make speed sitting down, good Richard. As the world goes in this poor realm of England, he that rides softliest rides surest. Delay, they say, begetteth peril; but it is rather this itch of doing that undoes men; mark it, Dick. But let me see, first, what cattle ye have brought. Selden, a link here at the door!”
And Sir Daniel strode forth into the village street, and, by the red glow of a torch, inspected his new troops. He was an unpopular neighbour and an unpopular master; but as a leader in war he was well-beloved by those who rode behind his pennant. His dash, his proved courage, his forethought for the soldiers’ comfort, even his rough gibes, were all to the taste of the bold blades in jack and salet.
“Nay, by the rood!” he cried, “what poor dogs are these? Here be some as crooked as a bow, and some as lean as a spear. Friends, ye shall ride in the front of the battle; I can spare you, friends. Mark me this old villain on the piebald! A two-year mutton riding on a hog would look more soldierly! Ha! Clipsby, are ye there, old rat? Y’ are a man I could lose with a good heart; ye shall go in front of all, with a bull’s eye painted on your jack, to be the better butt for archery; sirrah, ye shall show me the way.”
“I will show you any way, Sir Daniel, but the way to change sides,” returned Clipsby, sturdily.
Sir Daniel laughed a guffaw.
“Why, well said!” he cried. “Hast a shrewd tongue in thy mouth, go to! I will forgive you for that merry word. Selden, see them fed, both man and brute.”
The knight re-entered the inn.
“Now, friend Dick,” he said, “fall to. Here is good ale and bacon. Eat, while that I read.”
Sir Daniel opened the packet, and as he read his brow darkened. When he had done he sat a little, musing. Then he looked sharply at his ward.
“Dick,” said he, “Y’ have seen this penny rhyme?”
The lad replied in the affirmative.
“It bears your father’s name,” continued the knight; “and our poor shrew of a parson is, by some mad soul, accused of slaying him.”
“He did most eagerly deny it,” answered Dick.
“He did?” cried the knight, very sharply. “Heed him not. He has a loose tongue; he babbles like a jack-sparrow. Some day, when I may find the leisure, Dick, I will myself more fully inform you of these matters. There was one Duckworth shrewdly blamed for it; but the times were troubled, and there was no justice to be got.”
“It befell at the Moat House?” Dick ventured, with a beating at his heart.
“It befell between the Moat House and Holywood,” replied Sir Daniel, calmly; but he shot a covert glance, black with suspicion, at Dick’s face. “And now,” added the knight, “speed you with your meal; ye shall return to Tunstall with a line from me.”
Dick’s face fell sorely.
“Prithee, Sir Daniel,” he cried, “send one of the villains! I beseech you let me to the battle. I can strike a stroke, I promise you.”
“I misdoubt it not,” replied Sir Daniel, sitting down to write. “But here, Dick, is no honour to be won. I lie in Kettley till I have sure tidings of the war, and then ride to join me with the conqueror. Cry not on cowardice; it is but wisdom, Dick; for this poor realm so tosseth with rebellion, and the king’s name and custody so changeth hands, that no man may be certain of the morrow. Toss-pot and Shuttle-wit run in, but my Lord Good–Counsel sits o’ one side, waiting.”
With that, Sir Daniel, turning his back to Dick, and quite at the farther end of the long table, began to write his letter, with his mouth on one side, for this business of the Black Arrow stuck sorely in his throat.
Meanwhile, young Shelton was going on heartily enough with his breakfast, when he felt a touch upon his arm, and a very soft voice whispering in his ear.
“Make not a sign, I do beseech you,” said the voice, “but of your charity tell me the straight way to Holywood. Beseech you, now, good boy, comfort a poor soul in peril and extreme distress, and set me so far forth upon the way to my repose.”
“Take the path by the windmill,” answered Dick, in the same tone; “it will bring you to Till Ferry; there inquire again.”
And without turning his head, he fell again to eating. But with the tail of his eye he caught a glimpse of the young lad called Master John stealthily creeping from the room.
“Why,” thought Dick, “he is a young as I. ‘Good boy’ doth he call me? An I had known, I should have seen the varlet hanged ere I had told him. Well, if he goes through the fen, I may come up with him and pull his ears.”
Half an hour later, Sir Daniel gave Dick the letter, and bade him speed to the Moat House. And, again, some half an hour after Dick’s departure, a messenger came, in hot haste, from my Lord of Risingham.
“Sir Daniel,” the messenger said, “ye lose great honour, by my sooth! The fight began again this morning ere the dawn, and we have beaten their van and scattered their right wing. Only the main battle standeth fast. An we had your fresh men, we should tilt you them all into the river. What, sir knight! Will ye be the last? It stands not with your good credit.”
“Nay,” cried the knight, “I was but now upon the march. Selden, sound me the tucket. Sir, I am with you on the instant. It is not two hours since the more part of my command came in, sir messenger. What would ye have? Spurring is good meat, but yet it killed the charger. Bustle, boys!”
By this time the tucket was sounding cheerily in the morning, and from all sides Sir Daniel’s men poured into the main street and formed before the inn. They had slept upon their arms, with chargers saddled, and in ten minutes five-score men-at-arms and archers, cleanly equipped and briskly disciplined, stood ranked and ready. The chief part were in Sir Daniel’s livery, murrey and blue, which gave the greater show to their array. The best armed rode first; and away out of sight, at the tail of the column, came the sorry reinforcement of the night before. Sir Daniel looked with pride along the line.
“Here be the lads to serve you in a pinch,” he said.
“They are pretty men, indeed,” replied the messenger. “It but augments my sorrow that ye had not marched the earlier.”
“Well,” said the knight, “what would ye? The beginning of a feast and the end of a fray, sir messenger;” and he mounted into his saddle. “Why! how now!” he cried. “John! Joanna! Nay, by the sacred rood! where is she? Host, where is that girl?”
“Girl, Sir Daniel?” cried the landlord. “Nay, sir, I saw no girl.”
“Boy, then, dotard!” cried the knight. “Could ye not see it was a wench? She in the murrey-coloured mantle — she that broke her fast with water, rogue — where is she?”
“Nay, the saints bless us! Master John, ye called him,” said the host. “Well, I thought none evil. He is gone. I saw him — her — I saw her in the stable a good hour agone; ’a was saddling a grey horse.”
“Now, by the rood!” cried Sir Daniel, “the wench was worth five hundred pound to me and more.”
“Sir knight,” observed the messenger, with bitterness, “while that ye are here, roaring for five hundred pounds, the realm of England is elsewhere being lost and won.”
“It is well said,” replied Sir Daniel. “Selden, fall me out with six cross-bowmen; hunt me her down. I care not what it cost; but, at my returning, let me find her at the Moat House. Be it upon your head. And now, sir messenger, we march.”
And the troop broke into a good trot, and Selden and his six men were left behind upon the street of Kettley, with the staring villagers.
It was near six in the May morning when Dick began to ride down into the fen upon his homeward way. The sky was all blue; the jolly wind blew loud and steady; the windmill-sails were spinning; and the willows over all the fen rippling and whitening like a field of corn. He had been all night in the saddle, but his heart was good and his body sound, and he rode right merrily.
The path went down and down into the marsh, till he lost sight of all the neighbouring landmarks but Kettley windmill on the knoll behind him, and the extreme top of Tunstall Forest far before. On either hand there were great fields of blowing reeds and willows, pools of water shaking in the wind, and treacherous bogs, as green as emerald, to tempt and to betray the traveller. The path lay almost straight through the morass. It was already very ancient; its foundation had been laid by Roman soldiery; in the lapse of ages much of it had sunk, and every here and there, for a few hundred yards, it lay submerged below the stagnant waters of the fen.
About a mile from Kettley, Dick came to one such break in the plain line of causeway, where the reeds and willows grew dispersedly like little islands and confused the eye. The gap, besides, was more than usually long; it was a place where any stranger might come readily to mischief; and Dick bethought him, with something like a pang, of the lad whom he had so imperfectly directed. As for himself, one look backward to where the windmill sails were turning black against the blue of heaven — one look forward to the high ground of Tunstall Forest, and he was sufficiently directed and held straight on, the water washing to his horse’s knees, as safe as on a highway.
Half-way across, and when he had already sighted the path rising high and dry upon the farther side, he was aware of a great splashing on his right, and saw a grey horse, sunk to its belly in the mud, and still spasmodically struggling. Instantly, as though it had divined the neighbourhood of help, the poor beast began to neigh most piercingly. It rolled, meanwhile, a blood-shot eye, insane with terror; and as it sprawled wallowing in the quag, clouds of stinging insects rose and buzzed about it in the air.
“Alack!” thought Dick, “can the poor lad have perished? There is his horse, for certain — a brave grey! Nay, comrade, if thou criest to me so piteously, I will do all man can to help thee. Shalt not lie there to drown by inches!”
And he made ready his crossbow, and put a quarrel through the creature’s head.
Dick rode on after this act of rugged mercy, somewhat sobered in spirit, and looking closely about him for any sign of his less happy predecessor in the way. “I would I had dared to tell him further,” he thought; “for I fear he has miscarried in the slough.”
And just as he was so thinking, a voice cried upon his name from the causeway side, and, looking over his shoulder, he saw the lad’s face peering from a clump of reeds.
“Are ye there?” he said, reining in. “Ye lay so close among the reeds that I had passed you by. I saw your horse bemired, and put him from his agony; which, by my sooth! an ye had been a more merciful rider, ye had done yourself. But come forth out of your hiding. Here be none to trouble you.”
“Nay, good boy, I have no arms, nor skill to use them if I had,” replied the other, stepping forth upon the pathway.
“Why call me ‘boy’?” cried Dick. “Y’ are not, I trow, the elder of us twain.”
“Good Master Shelton,” said the other, “prithee forgive me. I have none the least intention to offend. Rather I would in every way beseech your gentleness and favour, for I am now worse bested than ever, having lost my way, my cloak, and my poor horse. To have a riding-rod and spurs, and never a horse to sit upon! And before all,” he added, looking ruefully upon his clothes —“before all, to be so sorrily besmirched!”
“Tut!” cried Dick. “Would ye mind a ducking? Blood of wound or dust of travel — that’s a man’s adornment.”
“Nay, then, I like him better plain,” observed the lad. “But, prithee, how shall I do? Prithee, good Master Richard, help me with your good counsel. If I come not safe to Holywood, I am undone.”
“Nay,” said Dick, dismounting, “I will give more than counsel. Take my horse, and I will run awhile, and when I am weary we shall change again, that so, riding and running, both may go the speedier.”
So the change was made, and they went forward as briskly as they durst on the uneven causeway, Dick with his hand upon the other’s knee.
“How call ye your name?” asked Dick.
“Call me John Matcham,” replied the lad.
“And what make ye to Holywood?” Dick continued.
“I seek sanctuary from a man that would oppress me,” was the answer. “The good Abbot of Holywood is a strong pillar to the weak.”
“And how came ye with Sir Daniel, Master Matcham?” pursued Dick.
“Nay,” cried the other, “by the abuse of force! He hath taken me by violence from my own place; dressed me in these weeds; ridden with me till my heart was sick; gibed me till I could ’a’ wept; and when certain of my friends pursued, thinking to have me back, claps me in the rear to stand their shot! I was even grazed in the right foot, and walk but lamely. Nay, there shall come a day between us; he shall smart for all!”
“Would ye shoot at the moon with a hand-gun?” said Dick. “’Tis a valiant knight, and hath a hand of iron. An he guessed I had made or meddled with your flight, it would go sore with me.”
“Ay, poor boy,” returned the other, “y’ are his ward, I know it. By the same token, so am I, or so he saith; or else he hath bought my marriage — I wot not rightly which; but it is some handle to oppress me by.”
“Boy again!” said Dick.
“Nay, then, shall I call you girl, good Richard?” asked Matcham.
“Never a girl for me,” returned Dick. “I do abjure the crew of them!”
“Ye speak boyishly,” said the other. “Ye think more of them than ye pretend.”
“Not I,” said Dick, stoutly. “They come not in my mind. A plague of them, say I! Give me to hunt and to fight and to feast, and to live with jolly foresters. I never heard of a maid yet that was for any service, save one only; and she, poor shrew, was burned for a witch and the wearing of men’s clothes in spite of nature.”
Master Matcham crossed himself with fervour, and appeared to pray.
“What make ye?” Dick inquired.
“I pray for her spirit,” answered the other, with a somewhat troubled voice.
“For a witch’s spirit?” Dick cried. “But pray for her, an ye list; she was the best wench in Europe, was this Joan of Arc. Old Appleyard the archer ran from her, he said, as if she had been Mahoun. Nay, she was a brave wench.”
“Well, but, good Master Richard,” resumed Matcham, “an ye like maids so little, y’ are no true natural man; for God made them twain by intention, and brought true love into the world, to be man’s hope and woman’s comfort.”
“Faugh!” said Dick. “Y’ are a milk-sopping baby, so to harp on women. An ye think I be no true man, get down upon the path, and whether at fists, back-sword, or bow and arrow, I will prove my manhood on your body.”
“Nay, I am no fighter,” said Matcham, eagerly. “I mean no tittle of offence. I meant but pleasantry. And if I talk of women, it is because I heard ye were to marry.”
“I to marry!” Dick exclaimed. “Well, it is the first I hear of it. And with whom was I to marry?”
“One Joan Sedley,” replied Matcham, colouring. “It was Sir Daniel’s doing; he hath money to gain upon both sides; and, indeed, I have heard the poor wench bemoaning herself pitifully of the match. It seems she is of your mind, or else distasted to the bridegroom.”
“Well! marriage is like death, it comes to all,” said Dick, with resignation. “And she bemoaned herself? I pray ye now, see there how shuttle-witted are these girls: to bemoan herself before that she had seen me! Do I bemoan myself? Not I. An I be to marry, I will marry dry-eyed! But if ye know her, prithee, of what favour is she? fair or foul? And is she shrewish or pleasant?”
“Nay, what matters it?” said Matcham. “An y’ are to marry, ye can but marry. What matters foul or fair? These be but toys. Y’ are no milksop, Master Richard; ye will wed with dry eyes, anyhow.”
“It is well said,” replied Shelton. “Little I reck.”
“Your lady wife is like to have a pleasant lord,” said Matcham.
“She shall have the lord Heaven made her for,” returned Dick. “It trow there be worse as well as better.”
“Ah, the poor wench!” cried the other.
“And why so poor?” asked Dick.
“To wed a man of wood,” replied his companion. “O me, for a wooden husband!”
“I think I be a man of wood, indeed,” said Dick, “to trudge afoot the while you ride my horse; but it is good wood, I trow.”
“Good Dick, forgive me,” cried the other. “Nay, y’ are the best heart in England; I but laughed. Forgive me now, sweet Dick.”
“Nay, no fool words,” returned Dick, a little embarrassed by his companion’s warmth. “No harm is done. I am not touchy, praise the saints.”
And at that moment the wind, which was blowing straight behind them as they went, brought them the rough flourish of Sir Daniel’s trumpeter.
“Hark!” said Dick, “the tucket soundeth.”
“Ay,” said Matcham, “they have found my flight, and now I am unhorsed!” and he became pale as death.
“Nay, what cheer!” returned Dick. “Y’ have a long start, and we are near the ferry. And it is I, methinks, that am unhorsed.”
“Alack, I shall be taken!” cried the fugitive. “Dick, kind Dick, beseech ye help me but a little!”
“Why, now, what aileth thee?” said Dick. “Methinks I help you very patently. But my heart is sorry for so spiritless a fellow! And see ye here, John Matcham — sith John Matcham is your name — I, Richard Shelton, tide what betideth, come what may, will see you safe in Holywood. The saints so do to me again if I default you. Come, pick me up a good heart, Sir White-face. The way betters here; spur me the horse. Go faster! faster! Nay, mind not for me; I can run like a deer.”
So, with the horse trotting hard, and Dick running easily alongside, they crossed the remainder of the fen, and came out upon the banks of the river by the ferryman’s hut.
The river Till was a wide, sluggish, clayey water, oozing out of fens, and in this part of its course it strained among some score of willow-covered, marshy islets.
It was a dingy stream; but upon this bright, spirited morning everything was become beautiful. The wind and the martens broke it up into innumerable dimples; and the reflection of the sky was scattered over all the surface in crumbs of smiling blue.
A creek ran up to meet the path, and close under the bank the ferryman’s hut lay snugly. It was of wattle and clay, and the grass grew green upon the roof.
Dick went to the door and opened it. Within, upon a foul old russet cloak, the ferryman lay stretched and shivering; a great hulk of a man, but lean and shaken by the country fever.
“Hey, Master Shelton,” he said, “be ye for the ferry? Ill times, ill times! Look to yourself. There is a fellowship abroad. Ye were better turn round on your two heels and try the bridge.”
“Nay; time’s in the saddle,” answered Dick. “Time will ride, Hugh Ferryman. I am hot in haste.”
“A wilful man!” returned the ferryman, rising. “An ye win safe to the Moat House, y’ have done lucky; but I say no more.” And then catching sight of Matcham, “Who be this?” he asked, as he paused, blinking, on the threshold of his cabin.
“It is my kinsman, Master Matcham,” answered Dick.
“Give ye good day, good ferryman,” said Matcham, who had dismounted, and now came forward, leading the horse. “Launch me your boat, I prithee; we are sore in haste.”
The gaunt ferryman continued staring.
“By the mass!” he cried at length, and laughed with open throat.
Matcham coloured to his neck and winced; and Dick, with an angry countenance, put his hand on the lout’s shoulder.
“How now, churl!” he cried. “Fall to thy business, and leave mocking thy betters.”
Hugh Ferryman grumblingly undid his boat, and shoved it a little forth into the deep water. Then Dick led in the horse, and Matcham followed.
“Ye be mortal small made, master,” said Hugh, with a wide grin; “something o’ the wrong model, belike. Nay, Master Shelton, I am for you,” he added, getting to his oars. “A cat may look at a king. I did but take a shot of the eye at Master Matcham.”
“Sirrah, no more words,” said Dick. “Bend me your back.”
They were by that time at the mouth of the creek, and the view opened up and down the river. Everywhere it was enclosed with islands. Clay banks were falling in, willows nodding, reeds waving, martens dipping and piping. There was no sign of man in the labyrinth of waters.
“My master,” said the ferryman, keeping the boat steady with one oar, “I have a shrew guess that John-a–Fenne is on the island. He bears me a black grudge to all Sir Daniel’s. How if I turned me up stream and landed you an arrow-flight above the path? Ye were best not meddle with John Fenne.”
“How, then? is he of this company?” asked Dick.
“Nay, mum is the word,” said Hugh. “But I would go up water, Dick. How if Master Matcham came by an arrow?” and he laughed again.
“Be it so, Hugh,” answered Dick.
“Look ye, then,” pursued Hugh. “Sith it shall so be, unsling me your cross-bow — so: now make it ready — good; place me a quarrel. Ay, keep it so, and look upon me grimly.”
“What meaneth this?” asked Dick.
“Why, my master, if I steal you across, it must be under force or fear,” replied the ferryman; “for else, if John Fenne got wind of it, he were like to prove my most distressful neighbour.”
“Do these churls ride so roughly?” Dick inquired. “Do they command Sir Daniel’s own ferry?”
“Nay,” whispered the ferryman, winking. “Mark me! Sir Daniel shall down. His time is out. He shall down. Mum!” And he bent over his oars.
They pulled a long way up the river, turned the tail of an island, and came softly down a narrow channel next the opposite bank. Then Hugh held water in midstream.
“I must land you here among the willows,” he said.
“Here is no path but willow swamps and quagmires,” answered Dick.
“Master Shelton,” replied Hugh, “I dare not take ye nearer down, for your own sake now. He watcheth me the ferry, lying on his bow. All that go by and owe Sir Daniel goodwill, he shooteth down like rabbits. I heard him swear it by the rood. An I had not known you of old days — ay, and from so high upward — I would ’a’ let you go on; but for old days’ remembrance, and because ye had this toy with you that’s not fit for wounds or warfare, I did risk my two poor ears to have you over whole. Content you; I can no more, on my salvation!”
Hugh was still speaking, lying on his oars, when there came a great shout from among the willows on the island, and sounds followed as of a strong man breasting roughly through the wood.
“A murrain!” cried Hugh. “He was on the upper island all the while!” He pulled straight for shore. “Threat me with your bow, good Dick; threat me with it plain,” he added. “I have tried to save your skins, save you mine!”
The boat ran into a tough thicket of willows with a crash. Matcham, pale, but steady and alert, at a sign from Dick, ran along the thwarts and leaped ashore; Dick, taking the horse by the bridle, sought to follow, but what with the animal’s bulk, and what with the closeness of the thicket, both stuck fast. The horse neighed and trampled; and the boat, which was swinging in an eddy, came on and off and pitched with violence.
“It may not be, Hugh; here is no landing,” cried Dick; but he still struggled valiantly with the obstinate thicket and the startled animal.
A tall man appeared upon the shore of the island, a long-bow in his hand. Dick saw him for an instant, with the corner of his eye, bending the bow with a great effort, his face crimson with hurry.
“Who goes?” he shouted. “Hugh, who goes?”
“’Tis Master Shelton, John,” replied the ferryman.
“Stand, Dick Shelton!” bawled the man upon the island. “Ye shall have no hurt, upon the rood! Stand! Back out, Hugh Ferryman.”
Dick cried a taunting answer.
“Nay, then, ye shall go afoot,” returned the man; and he let drive an arrow.
The horse, struck by the shaft, lashed out in agony and terror; the boat capsized, and the next moment all were struggling in the eddies of the river.
When Dick came up, he was within a yard of the bank; and before his eyes were clear, his hand had closed on something firm and strong that instantly began to drag him forward. It was the riding-rod, that Matcham, crawling forth upon an overhanging willow, had opportunely thrust into his grasp.
“By the mass!” cried Dick, as he was helped ashore, “that makes a life I owe you. I swim like a cannon-ball.” And he turned instantly towards the island.
Midway over, Hugh Ferryman was swimming with his upturned boat, while John-a–Fenne, furious at the ill-fortune of his shot, bawled to him to hurry.
“Come, Jack,” said Shelton, “run for it! Ere Hugh can hale his barge across, or the pair of ’em can get it righted, we may be out of cry.”
And adding example to his words, he began to run, dodging among the willows, and in marshy places leaping from tussock to tussock. He had no time to look for his direction; all he could do was to turn his back upon the river, and put all his heart to running.
Presently, however, the ground began to rise, which showed him he was still in the right way, and soon after they came forth upon a slope of solid turf, where elms began to mingle with the willows.
But here Matcham, who had been dragging far into the rear, threw himself fairly down.
“Leave me, Dick!” he cried, pantingly; “I can no more.”
Dick turned, and came back to where his companion lay.
“Nay, Jack, leave thee!” he cried. “That were a knave’s trick, to be sure, when ye risked a shot and a ducking, ay, and a drowning too, to save my life. Drowning, in sooth; for why I did not pull you in along with me, the saints alone can tell!”
“Nay,” said Matcham, “I would ’a’ saved us both, good Dick, for I can swim.”
“Can ye so?” cried Dick, with open eyes. It was the one manly accomplishment of which he was himself incapable. In the order of the things that he admired, next to having killed a man in single fight came swimming. “Well,” he said, “here is a lesson to despise no man. I promised to care for you as far as Holywood, and, by the rood, Jack, y’ are more capable to care for me.”
“Well, Dick, we’re friends now,” said Matcham.
“Nay, I never was unfriends,” answered Dick. “Y’ are a brave lad in your way, albeit something of a milksop, too. I never met your like before this day. But, prithee, fetch back your breath, and let us on. Here is no place for chatter.”
“My foot hurts shrewdly,” said Matcham.
“Nay, I had forgot your foot,” returned Dick. “Well, we must go the gentlier. I would I knew rightly where we were. I have clean lost the path; yet that may be for the better, too. An they watch the ferry, they watch the path, belike, as well. I would Sir Daniel were back with two score men; he would sweep me these rascals as the wind sweeps leaves. Come, Jack, lean ye on my shoulder, ye poor shrew. Nay, y’ are not tall enough. What age are ye, for a wager? — twelve?”
“Nay, I am sixteen,” said Matcham.
“Y’ are poorly grown to height, then,” answered Dick. “But take my hand. We shall go softly, never fear. I owe you a life; I am a good repayer, Jack, of good or evil.”
They began to go forward up the slope.
“We must hit the road, early or late,” continued Dick; “and then for a fresh start. By the mass! but y’ ’ave a rickety hand, Jack. If I had a hand like that, I would think shame. I tell you,” he went on, with a sudden chuckle, “I swear by the mass I believe Hugh Ferryman took you for a maid.”
“Nay, never!” cried the other, colouring high.
“A’ did, though, for a wager!” Dick exclaimed. “Small blame to him. Ye look liker maid than man; and I tell you more — y’ are a strange-looking rogue for a boy; but for a hussy, Jack, ye would be right fair — ye would. Ye would be well favoured for a wench.”
“Well,” said Matcham, “ye know right well that I am none.”
“Nay, I know that; I do but jest,” said Dick. “Ye’ll be a man before your mother, Jack. What cheer, my bully! Ye shall strike shrewd strokes. Now, which, I marvel, of you or me, shall be first knighted, Jack? for knighted I shall be, or die for ’t. ‘Sir Richard Shelton, Knight’: it soundeth bravely. But ‘Sir John Matcham’ soundeth not amiss.”
“Prithee, Dick, stop till I drink,” said the other, pausing where a little clear spring welled out of the slope into a gravelled basin no bigger than a pocket. “And O, Dick, if I might come by anything to eat! — my very heart aches with hunger.”
“Why, fool, did ye not eat at Kettley?” asked Dick.
“I had made a vow — it was a sin I had been led into,” stammered Matcham; “but now, if it were but dry bread, I would eat it greedily.”
“Sit ye, then, and eat,” said Dick, “while that I scout a little forward for the road.” And he took a wallet from his girdle, wherein were bread and pieces of dry bacon, and, while Matcham fell heartily to, struck farther forth among the trees.
A little beyond there was a dip in the ground, where a streamlet soaked among dead leaves; and beyond that, again, the trees were better grown and stood wider, and oak and beech began to take the place of willow and elm. The continued tossing and pouring of the wind among the leaves sufficiently concealed the sounds of his footsteps on the mast; it was for the ear what a moonless night is to the eye; but for all that Dick went cautiously, slipping from one big trunk to another, and looking sharply about him as he went. Suddenly a doe passed like a shadow through the underwood in front of him, and he paused, disgusted at the chance. This part of the wood had been certainly deserted, but now that the poor deer had run, she was like a messenger he should have sent before him to announce his coming; and instead of pushing farther, he turned him to the nearest well-grown tree, and rapidly began to climb.
Luck had served him well. The oak on which he had mounted was one of the tallest in that quarter of the wood, and easily out-topped its neighbours by a fathom and a half; and when Dick had clambered into the topmost fork and clung there, swinging dizzily in the great wind, he saw behind him the whole fenny plain as far as Kettley, and the Till wandering among woody islets, and in front of him, the white line of high-road winding through the forest. The boat had been righted — it was even now midway on the ferry. Beyond that there was no sign of man, nor aught moving but the wind. He was about to descend, when, taking a last view, his eye lit upon a string of moving points about the middle of the fen. Plainly a small troop was threading the causeway, and that at a good pace; and this gave him some concern as he shinned vigorously down the trunk and returned across the wood for his companion.
Matcham was well rested and revived; and the two lads, winged by what Dick had seen, hurried through the remainder of the outwood, crossed the road in safety, and began to mount into the high ground of Tunstall Forest. The trees grew more and more in groves, with heathy places in between, sandy, gorsy, and dotted with old yews. The ground became more and more uneven, full of pits and hillocks. And with every step of the ascent the wind still blew the shriller, and the trees bent before the gusts like fishing-rods.
They had just entered one of the clearings, when Dick suddenly clapped down upon his face among the brambles, and began to crawl slowly backward towards the shelter of the grove. Matcham, in great bewilderment, for he could see no reason for this flight, still imitated his companion’s course; and it was not until they had gained the harbour of a thicket that he turned and begged him to explain.
For all reply, Dick pointed with his finger.
At the far end of the clearing, a fir grew high above the neighbouring wood, and planted its black shock of foliage clear against the sky. For about fifty feet above the ground the trunk grew straight and solid like a column. At that level, it split into two massive boughs; and in the fork, like a mast-headed seaman, there stood a man in a green tabard, spying far and wide. The sun glistened upon his hair; with one hand he shaded his eyes to look abroad, and he kept slowly rolling his head from side to side, with the regularity of a machine.
The lads exchanged glances.
“Let us try to the left,” said Dick. “We had near fallen foully, Jack.”
Ten minutes afterwards they struck into a beaten path.
“Here is a piece of forest that I know not,” Dick remarked. “Where goeth me this track?”
“Let us even try,” said Matcham.
A few yards further, the path came to the top of a ridge and began to go down abruptly into a cup-shaped hollow. At the foot, out of a thick wood of flowering hawthorn, two or three roofless gables, blackened as if by fire, and a single tall chimney marked the ruins of a house.
“What may this be?” whispered Matcham.
“Nay, by the mass, I know not,” answered Dick. “I am all at sea. Let us go warily.”
With beating hearts, they descended through the hawthorns. Here and there, they passed signs of recent cultivation; fruit trees and pot herbs ran wild among the thicket; a sun-dial had fallen in the grass; it seemed they were treading what once had been a garden. Yet a little farther and they came forth before the ruins of the house.
It had been a pleasant mansion and a strong. A dry ditch was dug deep about it; but it was now choked with masonry, and bridged by a fallen rafter. The two farther walls still stood, the sun shining through their empty windows; but the remainder of the building had collapsed, and now lay in a great cairn of ruin, grimed with fire. Already in the interior a few plants were springing green among the chinks.
“Now I bethink me,” whispered Dick, “this must be Grimstone. It was a hold of one Simon Malmesbury; Sir Daniel was his bane! ’Twas Bennet Hatch that burned it, now five years agone. In sooth, ’twas pity, for it was a fair house.”
Down in the hollow, where no wind blew, it was both warm and still; and Matcham, laying one hand upon Dick’s arm, held up a warning finger.
“Hist!” he said.
Then came a strange sound, breaking on the quiet. It was twice repeated ere they recognised its nature. It was the sound of a big man clearing his throat; and just then a hoarse, untuneful voice broke into singing.
“Then up and spake the master, the king of the outlaws:
‘What make ye here, my merry men, among the greenwood shaws?’
And Gamelyn made answer — he looked never adown:
‘O, they must need to walk in wood that may not walk in town!’”
The singer paused, a faint clink of iron followed, and then silence.
The two lads stood looking at each other. Whoever he might be, their invisible neighbour was just beyond the ruin. And suddenly the colour came into Matcham’s face, and next moment he had crossed the fallen rafter, and was climbing cautiously on the huge pile of lumber that filled the interior of the roofless house. Dick would have withheld him, had he been in time; as it was, he was fain to follow.
Right in the corner of the ruin, two rafters had fallen crosswise, and protected a clear space no larger than a pew in church. Into this the lads silently lowered themselves. There they were perfectly concealed, and through an arrow-loophole commanded a view upon the farther side.
Peering through this, they were struck stiff with terror at their predicament. To retreat was impossible; they scarce dared to breathe. Upon the very margin of the ditch, not thirty feet from where they crouched, an iron caldron bubbled and steamed above a glowing fire; and close by, in an attitude of listening, as though he had caught some sound of their clambering among the ruins, a tall, red-faced, battered-looking man stood poised, an iron spoon in his right hand, a horn and a formidable dagger at his belt. Plainly this was the singer; plainly he had been stirring the caldron, when some incautious step among the lumber had fallen upon his ear. A little further off, another man lay slumbering, rolled in a brown cloak, with a butterfly hovering above his face. All this was in a clearing white with daisies; and at the extreme verge, a bow, a sheaf of arrows, and part of a deer’s carcase, hung upon a flowering hawthorn.
Presently the fellow relaxed from his attitude of attention, raised the spoon to his mouth, tasted its contents, nodded, and then fell again to stirring and singing.
“‘O, they must need to walk in wood that may not walk in town,’”
he croaked, taking up his song where he had left it.
“O, sir, we walk not here at all an evil thing to do.
But if we meet with the good king’s deer to shoot a shaft into.”
Still as he sang, he took from time to time, another spoonful of the broth, blew upon it, and tasted it, with all the airs of an experienced cook. At length, apparently, he judged the mess was ready; for taking the horn from his girdle, he blew three modulated calls.
The other fellow awoke, rolled over, brushed away the butterfly, and looked about him.
“How now, brother?” he said. “Dinner?”
“Ay, sot,” replied the cook, “dinner it is, and a dry dinner, too, with neither ale nor bread. But there is little pleasure in the greenwood now; time was when a good fellow could live here like a mitred abbot, set aside the rain and the white frosts; he had his heart’s desire both of ale and wine. But now are men’s spirits dead; and this John Amend–All, save us and guard us! but a stuffed booby to scare crows withal.”
“Nay,” returned the other, “y’ are too set on meat and drinking, Lawless. Bide ye a bit; the good time cometh.”
“Look ye,” returned the cook, “I have even waited for this good time sith that I was so high. I have been a grey friar; I have been a king’s archer; I have been a shipman, and sailed the salt seas; and I have been in greenwood before this, forsooth! and shot the king’s deer. What cometh of it? Naught! I were better to have bided in the cloister. John Abbot availeth more than John Amend–All. By ’r Lady! here they come.”
One after another, tall, likely fellows began to stroll into the lawn. Each as he came produced a knife and a horn cup, helped himself from the caldron, and sat down upon the grass to eat. They were very variously equipped and armed; some in rusty smocks, and with nothing but a knife and an old bow; others in the height of forest gallantry, all in Lincoln green, both hood and jerkin, with dainty peacock arrows in their belts, a horn upon a baldrick, and a sword and dagger at their sides. They came in the silence of hunger, and scarce growled a salutation, but fell instantly to meat.
There were, perhaps, a score of them already gathered, when a sound of suppressed cheering arose close by among the hawthorns, and immediately after five or six woodmen carrying a stretcher debauched upon the lawn. A tall, lusty fellow, somewhat grizzled, and as brown as a smoked ham, walked before them with an air of some authority, his bow at his back, a bright boar-spear in his hand.
“Lads!” he cried, “good fellows all, and my right merry friends, y’ have sung this while on a dry whistle and lived at little ease. But what said I ever? Abide Fortune constantly; she turneth, turneth swift. And lo! here is her little firstling — even that good creature, ale!”
There was a murmur of applause as the bearers set down the stretcher and displayed a goodly cask.
“And now haste ye, boys,” the man continued. “There is work toward. A handful of archers are but now come to the ferry; murrey and blue is their wear; they are our butts — they shall all taste arrows — no man of them shall struggle through this wood. For, lads, we are here some fifty strong, each man of us most foully wronged; for some they have lost lands, and some friends; and some they have been outlawed — all oppressed! Who, then, hath done this evil? Sir Daniel, by the rood! Shall he then profit? shall he sit snug in our houses? shall he till our fields? shall he suck the bone he robbed us of? I trow not. He getteth him strength at law; he gaineth cases; nay, there is one case he shall not gain — I have a writ here at my belt that, please the saints, shall conquer him.”
Lawless the cook was by this time already at his second horn of ale. He raised it, as if to pledge the speaker.
“Master Ellis,” he said, “y’ are for vengeance — well it becometh you! — but your poor brother o’ the greenwood, that had never lands to lose nor friends to think upon, looketh rather, for his poor part, to the profit of the thing. He had liever a gold noble and a pottle of canary wine than all the vengeances in purgatory.”
“Lawless,” replied the other, “to reach the Moat House, Sir Daniel must pass the forest. We shall make that passage dearer, pardy, than any battle. Then, when he hath got to earth with such ragged handful as escapeth us — all his great friends fallen and fled away, and none to give him aid — we shall beleaguer that old fox about, and great shall be the fall of him. ’Tis a fat buck; he will make a dinner for us all.”
“Ay,” returned Lawless, “I have eaten many of these dinners beforehand; but the cooking of them is hot work, good Master Ellis. And meanwhile what do we? We make black arrows, we write rhymes, and we drink fair cold water, that discomfortable drink.”
“Y’ are untrue, Will Lawless. Ye still smell of the Grey Friars’ buttery; greed is your undoing,” answered Ellis. “We took twenty pounds from Appleyard. We took seven marks from the messenger last night. A day ago we had fifty from the merchant.”
“And to-day,” said one of the men, “I stopped a fat pardoner riding apace for Holywood. Here is his purse.”
Ellis counted the contents.
“Five score shillings!” he grumbled. “Fool, he had more in his sandal, or stitched into his tippet. Y’ are but a child, Tom Cuckow; ye have lost the fish.”
But, for all that, Ellis pocketed the purse with nonchalance. He stood leaning on his boar-spear, and looked round upon the rest. They, in various attitudes, took greedily of the venison pottage, and liberally washed it down with ale. This was a good day; they were in luck; but business pressed, and they were speedy in their eating. The first-comers had by this time even despatched their dinner. Some lay down upon the grass and fell instantly asleep, like boa-constrictors; others talked together, or overhauled their weapons: and one, whose humour was particularly gay, holding forth an ale-horn, began to sing:
“Here is no law in good green shaw,
Here is no lack of meat;
’Tis merry and quiet, with deer for our diet,
In summer, when all is sweet.
Come winter again, with wind and rain —
Come winter, with snow and sleet,
Get home to your places, with hoods on your faces,
And sit by the fire and eat.”
All this while the two lads had listened and lain close; only Richard had unslung his cross-bow, and held ready in one hand the windac, or grappling-iron that he used to bend it. Otherwise they had not dared to stir; and this scene of forest life had gone on before their eyes like a scene upon a theatre. But now there came a strange interruption. The tall chimney which over-topped the remainder of the ruins rose right above their hiding-place. There came a whistle in the air, and then a sounding smack, and the fragments of a broken arrow fell about their ears. Some one from the upper quarters of the wood, perhaps the very sentinel they saw posted in the fir, had shot an arrow at the chimney-top.
Matcham could not restrain a little cry, which he instantly stifled, and even Dick started with surprise, and dropped the windac from his fingers. But to the fellows on the lawn, this shaft was an expected signal. They were all afoot together, tightening their belts, testing their bow-strings, loosening sword and dagger in the sheath. Ellis held up his hand; his face had suddenly assumed a look of savage energy; the white of his eyes shone in his sun-brown face.
“Lads,” he said, “ye know your places. Let not one man’s soul escape you. Appleyard was a whet before a meal; but now we go to table. I have three men whom I will bitterly avenge — Harry Shelton, Simon Malmesbury, and”— striking his broad bosom —“and Ellis Duckworth, by the mass!”
Another man came, red with hurry, through the thorns.
“’Tis not Sir Daniel!” he panted. “They are but seven. Is the arrow gone?”
“It struck but now,” replied Ellis.
“A murrain!” cried the messenger. “Methought I heard it whistle. And I go dinnerless!”
In the space of a minute, some running, some walking sharply, according as their stations were nearer or farther away, the men of the Black Arrow had all disappeared from the neighbourhood of the ruined house; and the caldron, and the fire, which was now burning low, and the dead deer’s carcase on the hawthorn, remained alone to testify they had been there.
The lads lay quiet till the last footstep had melted on the wind. Then they arose, and with many an ache, for they were weary with constraint, clambered through the ruins, and recrossed the ditch upon the rafter. Matcham had picked up the windac and went first, Dick following stiffly, with his cross-bow on his arm.
“And now,” said Matcham, “forth to Holywood.”
“To Holywood!” cried Dick, “when good fellows stand shot? Not I! I would see you hanged first, Jack!”
“Ye would leave me, would ye?” Matcham asked.
“Ay, by my sooth!” returned Dick. “An I be not in time to warn these lads, I will go die with them. What! would ye have me leave my own men that I have lived among. I trow not! Give me my windac.”
But there was nothing further from Matcham’s mind.
“Dick,” he said, “ye sware before the saints that ye would see me safe to Holywood. Would ye be forsworn? Would you desert me — a perjurer?”
“Nay, I sware for the best,” returned Dick. “I meant it too; but now! But look ye, Jack, turn again with me. Let me but warn these men, and, if needs must, stand shot with them; then shall all be clear, and I will on again to Holywood and purge mine oath.”
“Ye but deride me,” answered Matcham. “These men ye go to succour are the I same that hunt me to my ruin.”
Dick scratched his head.
“I cannot help it, Jack,” he said. “Here is no remedy. What would ye? Ye run no great peril, man; and these are in the way of death. Death!” he added. “Think of it! What a murrain do ye keep me here for? Give me the windac. Saint George! shall they all die?”
“Richard Shelton,” said Matcham, looking him squarely in the face, “would ye, then, join party with Sir Daniel? Have ye not ears? Heard ye not this Ellis, what he said? or have ye no heart for your own kindly blood and the father that men slew? ‘Harry Shelton,’ he said; and Sir Harry Shelton was your father, as the sun shines in heaven.”
“What would ye?” Dick cried again. “Would ye have me credit thieves?”
“Nay, I have heard it before now,” returned Matcham. “The fame goeth currently, it was Sir Daniel slew him. He slew him under oath; in his own house he shed the innocent blood. Heaven wearies for the avenging on’t; and you — the man’s son — ye go about to comfort and defend the murderer!”
“Jack,” cried the lad “I know not. It may be; what know I? But, see here: This man hath bred me up and fostered me, and his men I have hunted with and played among; and to leave them in the hour of peril — O, man, if I did that, I were stark dead to honour! Nay, Jack, ye would not ask it; ye would not wish me to be base.”
“But your father, Dick?” said Matcham, somewhat wavering. “Your father? and your oath to me? Ye took the saints to witness.”
“My father?” cried Shelton. “Nay, he would have me go! If Sir Daniel slew him, when the hour comes this hand shall slay Sir Daniel; but neither him nor his will I desert in peril. And for mine oath, good Jack, ye shall absolve me of it here. For the lives’ sake of many men that hurt you not, and for mine honour, ye shall set me free.”
“I, Dick? Never!” returned Matcham. “An ye leave me, y’ are forsworn, and so I shall declare it.”
“My blood heats,” said Dick. “Give me the windac! Give it me!”
“I’ll not,” said Matcham. “I’ll save you in your teeth.”
“Not?” cried Dick. “I’ll make you!”
“Try it,” said the other.
They stood, looking in each other’s eyes, each ready for a spring. Then Dick leaped; and though Matcham turned instantly and fled, in two bounds he was over-taken, the windac was twisted from his grasp, he was thrown roughly to the ground, and Dick stood across him, flushed and menacing, with doubled fist. Matcham lay where he had fallen, with his face in the grass, not thinking of resistance.
Dick bent his bow.
“I’ll teach you!” he cried, fiercely. “Oath or no oath, ye may go hang for me!”
And he turned and began to run. Matcham was on his feet at once, and began running after him.
“What d’ye want?” cried Dick, stopping. “What make ye after me? Stand off!”
“Will follow an I please,” said Matcham. “This wood is free to me.”
“Stand back, by ’r Lady!” returned Dick, raising his bow.
“Ah, y’ are a brave boy!” retorted Matcham. “Shoot!”
Dick lowered his weapon in some confusion.
“See here,” he said. “Y’ have done me ill enough. Go, then. Go your way in fair wise; or, whether I will or not, I must even drive you to it.”
“Well,” said Matcham, doggedly, “y’ are the stronger. Do your worst. I shall not leave to follow thee, Dick, unless thou makest me,” he added.
Dick was almost beside himself. It went against his heart to beat a creature so defenceless; and, for the life of him, he knew no other way to rid himself of this unwelcome and, as he began to think, perhaps untrue companion.
“Y’ are mad, I think,” he cried. “Fool-fellow, I am hasting to your foes; as fast as foot can carry me, go I thither.”
“I care not, Dick,” replied the lad. “If y’ are bound to die, Dick, I’ll die too. I would liever go with you to prison than to go free without you.”
“Well,” returned the other, “I may stand no longer prating. Follow me, if ye must; but if ye play me false, it shall but little advance you, mark ye that. Shalt have a quarrel in thine inwards, boy.”
So saying, Dick took once more to his heels, keeping in the margin of the thicket and looking briskly about him as he went. At a good pace he rattled out of the dell, and came again into the more open quarters of the wood. To the left a little eminence appeared, spotted with golden gorse, and crowned with a black tuft of firs.
“I shall see from there,” he thought, and struck for it across a heathy clearing.
He had gone but a few yards, when Matcham touched him on the arm, and pointed. To the eastward of the summit there was a dip, and, as it were, a valley passing to the other side; the heath was not yet out; all the ground was rusty, like an unscoured buckler, and dotted sparingly with yews; and there, one following another, Dick saw half a score green jerkins mounting the ascent, and marching at their head, conspicuous by his boar-spear, Ellis Duckworth in person. One after another gained the top, showed for a moment against the sky, and then dipped upon the further side, until the last was gone.
Dick looked at Matcham with a kindlier eye.
“So y’ are to be true to me, Jack?” he asked. “I thought ye were of the other party.”
Matcham began to sob.
“What cheer!” cried Dick. “Now the saints behold us! would ye snivel for a word?”
“Ye hurt me,” sobbed Matcham. “Ye hurt me when ye threw me down. Y’ are a coward to abuse your strength.”
“Nay, that is fool’s talk,” said Dick, roughly. “Y’ had no title to my windac, Master John. I would ’a’ done right to have well basted you. If ye go with me, ye must obey me; and so, come.”
Matcham had half a thought to stay behind; but, seeing that Dick continued to scour full-tilt towards the eminence and not so much as looked across his shoulder, he soon thought better of that, and began to run in turn. But the ground was very difficult and steep; Dick had already a long start, and had, at any rate, the lighter heels, and he had long since come to the summit, crawled forward through the firs, and ensconced himself in a thick tuft of gorse, before Matcham, panting like a deer, rejoined him, and lay down in silence by his side.
Below, in the bottom of a considerable valley, the short cut from Tunstall hamlet wound downwards to the ferry. It was well beaten, and the eye followed it easily from point to point. Here it was bordered by open glades; there the forest closed upon it; every hundred yards it ran beside an ambush. Far down the path, the sun shone on seven steel salets, and from time to time, as the trees opened, Selden and his men could be seen riding briskly, still bent upon Sir Daniel’s mission. The wind had somewhat fallen, but still tussled merrily with the trees, and, perhaps, had Appleyard been there, he would have drawn a warning from the troubled conduct of the birds.
“Now, mark,” Dick whispered. “They be already well advanced into the wood; their safety lieth rather in continuing forward. But see ye where this wide glade runneth down before us, and in the midst of it, these two score trees make like an island? There were their safety. An they but come sound as far as that, I will make shift to warn them. But my heart misgiveth me; they are but seven against so many, and they but carry cross-bows. The long-bow, Jack, will have the uppermost ever.”
Meanwhile, Selden and his men still wound up the path, ignorant of their danger, and momently drew nearer hand. Once, indeed, they paused, drew into a group, and seemed to point and listen. But it was something from far away across the plain that had arrested their attention — a hollow growl of cannon that came, from time to time, upon the wind, and told of the great battle. It was worth a thought, to be sure; for if the voice of the big guns were thus become audible in Tunstall Forest, the fight must have rolled ever eastward, and the day, by consequence, gone sore against Sir Daniel and the lords of the dark rose.
But presently the little troop began again to move forward, and came next to a very open, heathy portion of the way, where but a single tongue of forest ran down to join the road. They were but just abreast of this, when an arrow shone flying. One of the men threw up his arms, his horse reared, and both fell and struggled together in a mass. Even from where the boys lay they could hear the rumour of the men’s voices crying out; they could see the startled horses prancing, and, presently, as the troop began to recover from their first surprise, one fellow beginning to dismount. A second arrow from somewhat farther off glanced in a wide arch; a second rider bit the dust. The man who was dismounting lost hold upon the rein, and his horse fled galloping, and dragged him by the foot along the road, bumping from stone to stone, and battered by the fleeing hoofs. The four who still kept the saddle instantly broke and scattered; one wheeled and rode, shrieking, towards the ferry; the other three, with loose rein and flying raiment, came galloping up the road from Tunstall. From every clump they passed an arrow sped. Soon a horse fell, but the rider found his feet and continued to pursue his comrades till a second shot despatched him. Another man fell; then another horse; out of the whole troop there was but one fellow left, and he on foot; only, in different directions, the noise of the galloping of three riderless horses was dying fast into the distance.
All this time not one of the assailants had for a moment shown himself. Here and there along the path, horse or man rolled, undespatched, in his agony; but no merciful enemy broke cover to put them from their pain.
The solitary survivor stood bewildered in the road beside his fallen charger. He had come the length of that broad glade, with the island of timber, pointed out by Dick. He was not, perhaps, five hundred yards from where the boys lay hidden; and they could see him plainly, looking to and fro in deadly expectation. But nothing came; and the man began to pluck up his courage, and suddenly unslung and bent his bow. At the same time, by something in his action, Dick recognised Selden.
At this offer of resistance, from all about him in the covert of the woods there went up the sound of laughter. A score of men, at least, for this was the very thickest of the ambush, joined in this cruel and untimely mirth. Then an arrow glanced over Selden’s shoulder; and he leaped and ran a little back. Another dart struck quivering at his heel. He made for the cover. A third shaft leaped out right in his face, and fell short in front of him. And then the laughter was repeated loudly, rising and reechoing from different thickets.
It was plain that his assailants were but baiting him, as men, in those days, baited the poor bull, or as the cat still trifles with the mouse. The skirmish was well over; farther down the road, a fellow in green was already calmly gathering the arrows; and now, in the evil pleasure of their hearts, they gave themselves the spectacle of their poor fellow-sinner in his torture.
Selden began to understand; he uttered a roar of anger, shouldered his cross-bow, and sent a quarrel at a venture into the wood. Chance favoured him, for a slight cry responded. Then, throwing down his weapon, Selden began to run before him up the glade, and almost in a straight line for Dick and Matcham.
The companions of the Black Arrow now began to shoot in earnest. But they were properly served; their chance had past; most of them had now to shoot against the sun; and Selden, as he ran, bounded from side to side to baffle and deceive their aim. Best of all, by turning up the glade he had defeated their preparations; there were no marksmen posted higher up than the one whom he had just killed or wounded; and the confusion of the foresters’ counsels soon became apparent. A whistle sounded thrice, and then again twice. It was repeated from another quarter. The woods on either side became full of the sound of people bursting through the underwood; and a bewildered deer ran out into the open, stood for a second on three feet, with nose in air, and then plunged again into the thicket.
Selden still ran, bounding; ever and again an arrow followed him, but still would miss. It began to appear as if he might escape. Dick had his bow armed, ready to support him; even Matcham, forgetful of his interest, took sides at heart for the poor fugitive; and both lads glowed and trembled in the ardour of their hearts.
He was within fifty yards of them, when an arrow struck him and he fell. He was up again, indeed, upon the instant; but now he ran staggering, and, like a blind man, turned aside from his direction.
Dick leaped to his feet and waved to him.
“Here!” he cried. “This way! here is help! Nay, run, fellow — run!”
But just then a second arrow struck Selden in the shoulder, between the plates of his brigandine, and, piercing through his jack, brought him, like a stone, to earth.
“O, the poor heart!” cried Matcham, with clasped hands.
And Dick stood petrified upon the hill, a mark for archery.
Ten to one he had speedily been shot — for the foresters were furious with themselves, and taken unawares by Dick’s appearance in the rear of their position — but instantly, out of a quarter of the wood surprisingly near to the two lads, a stentorian voice arose, the voice of Ellis Duckworth.
“Hold!” it roared. “Shoot not! Take him alive! It is young Shelton — Harry’s son.”
And immediately after a shrill whistle sounded several times, and was again taken up and repeated farther off. The whistle, it appeared, was John Amend–All’s battle trumpet, by which he published his directions.
“Ah, foul fortune!” cried Dick. “We are undone. Swiftly, Jack, come swiftly!”
And the pair turned and ran back through the open pine clump that covered the summit of the hill.
It was, indeed, high time for them to run. On every side the company of the Black Arrow was making for the hill. Some, being better runners, or having open ground to run upon, had far outstripped the others, and were already close upon the goal; some, following valleys, had spread out to right and left, and outflanked the lads on either side.
Dick plunged into the nearest cover. It was a tall grove of oaks, firm under foot and clear of underbrush, and as it lay down hill, they made good speed. There followed next a piece of open, which Dick avoided, holding to his left. Two minutes after, and the same obstacle arising, the lads followed the same course. Thus it followed that, while the lads, bending continually to the left, drew nearer and nearer to the high road and the river which they had crossed an hour or two before, the great bulk of their pursuers were leaning to the other hand, and running towards Tunstall.
The lads paused to breathe. There was no sound of pursuit. Dick put his ear to the ground, and still there was nothing; but the wind, to be sure, still made a turmoil in the trees, and it was hard to make certain.
“On again,” said Dick; and, tired as they were, and Matcham limping with his injured foot, they pulled themselves together, and once more pelted down the hill.
Three minutes later, they were breasting through a low thicket of evergreen. High overhead, the tall trees made a continuous roof of foliage. It was a pillared grove, as high as a cathedral, and except for the hollies among which the lads were struggling, open and smoothly swarded.
On the other side, pushing through the last fringe of evergreen, they blundered forth again into the open twilight of the grove.
“Stand!” cried a voice.
And there, between the huge stems, not fifty feet before them, they beheld a stout fellow in green, sore blown with running, who instantly drew an arrow to the head and covered them. Matcham stopped with a cry; but Dick, without a pause, ran straight upon the forester, drawing his dagger as he went. The other, whether he was startled by the daring of the onslaught, or whether he was hampered by his orders, did not shoot; he stood wavering; and before he had time to come to himself, Dick bounded at his throat, and sent him sprawling backward on the turf. The arrow went one way and the bow another with a sounding twang. The disarmed forester grappled his assailant; but the dagger shone and descended twice. Then came a couple of groans, and then Dick rose to his feet again, and the man lay motionless, stabbed to the heart.
“On!” said Dick; and he once more pelted forward, Matcham trailing in the rear. To say truth, they made but poor speed of it by now, labouring dismally as they ran, and catching for their breath like fish. Matcham had a cruel stitch, and his head swam; and as for Dick, his knees were like lead. But they kept up the form of running with undiminished courage.
Presently they came to the end of the grove. It stopped abruptly; and there, a few yards before them, was the high road from Risingham to Shoreby, lying, at this point, between two even walls of forest.
At the sight Dick paused; and as soon as he stopped running, he became aware of a confused noise, which rapidly grew louder. It was at first like the rush of a very high gust of wind, but soon it became more definite, and resolved itself into the galloping of horses; and then, in a flash, a whole company of men-at-arms came driving round the corner, swept before the lads, and were gone again upon the instant. They rode as for their lives, in complete disorder; some of them were wounded; riderless horses galloped at their side with bloody saddles. They were plainly fugitives from the great battle.
The noise of their passage had scarce begun to die away towards Shoreby, before fresh hoofs came echoing in their wake, and another deserter clattered down the road; this time a single rider and, by his splendid armour, a man of high degree. Close after him there followed several baggage-waggons, fleeing at an ungainly canter, the drivers flailing at the horses as if for life. These must have run early in the day; but their cowardice was not to save them. For just before they came abreast of where the lads stood wondering, a man in hacked armour, and seemingly beside himself with fury, overtook the waggons, and with the truncheon of a sword, began to cut the drivers down. Some leaped from their places and plunged into the wood; the others he sabred as they sat, cursing them the while for cowards in a voice that was scarce human.
All this time the noise in the distance had continued to increase; the rumble of carts, the clatter of horses, the cries of men, a great, confused rumour, came swelling on the wind; and it was plain that the rout of a whole army was pouring, like an inundation, down the road.
Dick stood sombre. He had meant to follow the highway till the turn for Holywood, and now he had to change his plan. But above all, he had recognised the colours of Earl Risingham, and he knew that the battle had gone finally against the rose of Lancaster. Had Sir Daniel joined, and was he now a fugitive and ruined? or had he deserted to the side of York, and was he forfeit to honour? It was an ugly choice.
“Come,” he said, sternly; and, turning on his heel, he began to walk forward through the grove, with Matcham limping in his rear.
For some time they continued to thread the forest in silence. It was now growing late; the sun was setting in the plain beyond Kettley; the tree-tops overhead glowed golden; but the shadows had begun to grow darker and the chill of the night to fall.
“If there were anything to eat!” cried Dick, suddenly, pausing as he spoke.
Matcham sat down and began to weep.
“Ye can weep for your own supper, but when it was to save men’s lives, your heart was hard enough,” said Dick, contemptuously. “Y’ ’ave seven deaths upon your conscience, Master John; I’ll ne’er forgive you that.”
“Conscience!” cried Matcham, looking fiercely up. “Mine! And ye have the man’s red blood upon your dagger! And wherefore did ye slay him, the poor soul? He drew his arrow, but he let not fly; he held you in his hand, and spared you! ’Tis as brave to kill a kitten, as a man that not defends himself.”
Dick was struck dumb.
“I slew him fair. I ran me in upon his bow,” he cried.
“It was a coward blow,” returned Matcham. “Y’ are but a lout and bully, Master Dick; ye but abuse advantages; let there come a stronger, we will see you truckle at his boot! Ye care not for vengeance, neither — for your father’s death that goes unpaid, and his poor ghost that clamoureth for justice. But if there come but a poor creature in your hands that lacketh skill and strength, and would befriend you, down she shall go!”
Dick was too furious to observe that “she.”
“Marry!” he cried, “and here is news! Of any two the one will still be stronger. The better man throweth the worse, and the worse is well served. Ye deserve a belting, Master Matcham, for your ill-guidance and unthankfulness to meward; and what ye deserve ye shall have.”
And Dick, who, even in his angriest temper, still preserved the appearance of composure, began to unbuckle his belt.
“Here shall be your supper,” he said, grimly. Matcham had stopped his tears; he was as white as a sheet, but he looked Dick steadily in the face, and never moved. Dick took a step, swinging the belt. Then he paused, embarrassed by the large eyes and the thin, weary face of his companion. His courage began to subside.
“Say ye were in the wrong, then,” he said, lamely.
“Nay,” said Matcham, “I was in the right. Come, cruel! I be lame; I be weary; I resist not; I ne’er did thee hurt; come, beat me — coward!”
Dick raised the belt at this last provocation, but Matcham winced and drew himself together with so cruel an apprehension, that his heart failed him yet again. The strap fell by his side, and he stood irresolute, feeling like a fool.
“A plague upon thee, shrew!” he said. “An ye be so feeble of hand, ye should keep the closer guard upon your tongue. But I’ll be hanged before I beat you!” and he put on his belt again. “Beat you I will not,” he continued; “but forgive you? — never. I knew ye not; ye were my master’s enemy; I lent you my horse; my dinner ye have eaten; y’ ’ave called me a man o’ wood, a coward, and a bully. Nay, by the mass! the measure is filled, and runneth over. ’Tis a great thing to be weak, I trow: ye can do your worst, yet shall none punish you; ye may steal a man’s weapons in the hour of need, yet may the man not take his own again; — y’ are weak, forsooth! Nay, then, if one cometh charging at you with a lance, and crieth he is weak, ye must let him pierce your body through! Tut! fool words!”
“And yet ye beat me not,” returned Matcham.
“Let be,” said Dick —“let be. I will instruct you. Y’ ’ave been ill-nurtured, methinks, and yet ye have the makings of some good, and, beyond all question, saved me from the river. Nay, I had forgotten it; I am as thankless as thyself. But, come, let us on. An we be for Holywood this night, ay, or to-morrow early, we had best set forward speedily.”
But though Dick had talked himself back into his usual good-humour, Matcham had forgiven him nothing. His violence, the recollection of the forester whom he had slain — above all, the vision of the upraised belt, were things not easily to be forgotten.
“I will thank you, for the form’s sake,” said Matcham. “But, in sooth, good Master Shelton, I had liever find my way alone. Here is a wide wood; prithee, let each choose his path; I owe you a dinner and a lesson. Fare ye well!”
“Nay,” cried Dick, “if that be your tune, so be it, and a plague be with you!”
Each turned aside, and they began walking off severally, with no thought of the direction, intent solely on their quarrel. But Dick had not gone ten paces ere his name was called, and Matcham came running after.
“Dick,” he said, “it were unmannerly to part so coldly. Here is my hand, and my heart with it. For all that wherein you have so excellently served and helped me — not for the form, but from the heart, I thank you. Fare ye right well.”
“Well, lad,” returned Dick, taking the hand which was offered him, “good speed to you, if speed you may. But I misdoubt it shrewdly. Y’ are too disputatious.” So then they separated for the second time; and presently it was Dick who was running after Matcham.
“Here,” he said, “take my cross-bow; shalt not go unarmed.”
“A cross-bow!” said Matcham. “Nay, boy, I have neither the strength to bend nor yet the skill to aim with it. It were no help to me, good boy. But yet I thank you.”
The night had now fallen, and under the trees they could no longer read each other’s face.
“I will go some little way with you,” said Dick. “The night is dark. I would fain leave you on a path, at least. My mind misgiveth me, y’ are likely to be lost.”
Without any more words, he began to walk forward, and the other once more followed him. The blackness grew thicker and thicker. Only here and there, in open places, they saw the sky, dotted with small stars. In the distance, the noise of the rout of the Lancastrian army still continued to be faintly audible; but with every step they left it farther in the rear.
At the end of half an hour of silent progress they came forth upon a broad patch of heathy open. It glimmered in the light of the stars, shaggy with fern and islanded with clumps of yew. And here they paused and looked upon each other.
“Y’ are weary?” Dick said.
“Nay, I am so weary,” answered Matcham, “that methinks I could lie down and die.”
“I hear the chiding of a river,” returned Dick. “Let us go so far forth, for I am sore athirst.”
The ground sloped down gently; and, sure enough, in the bottom, they found a little murmuring river, running among willows. Here they threw themselves down together by the brink; and putting their mouths to the level of a starry pool, they drank their fill.
“Dick,” said Matcham, “it may not be. I can no more.”
“I saw a pit as we came down,” said Dick. “Let us lie down therein and sleep.”
“Nay, but with all my heart!” cried Matcham.
The pit was sandy and dry; a shock of brambles hung upon one hedge, and made a partial shelter; and there the two lads lay down, keeping close together for the sake of warmth, their quarrel all forgotten. And soon sleep fell upon them like a cloud, and under the dew and stars they rested peacefully.
They awoke in the grey of the morning; the birds were not yet in full song, but twittered here and there among the woods; the sun was not yet up, but the eastern sky was barred with solemn colours. Half starved and over-weary as they were, they lay without moving, sunk in a delightful lassitude. And as they thus lay, the clang of a bell fell suddenly upon their ears.
“A bell!” said Dick, sitting up. “Can we be, then, so near to Holywood?”
A little after, the bell clanged again, but this time somewhat nearer hand; and from that time forth, and still drawing nearer and nearer, it continued to sound brokenly abroad in the silence of the morning.
“Nay, what should this betoken?” said Dick, who was now broad awake.
“It is some one walking,” returned Matcham, and “the bell tolleth ever as he moves.”
“I see that well,” said Dick. “But wherefore? What maketh he in Tunstall Woods? Jack,” he added, “laugh at me an ye will, but I like not the hollow sound of it.”
“Nay,” said Matcham, with a shiver, “it hath a doleful note. An the day were not come”—
But just then the bell, quickening its pace, began to ring thick and hurried, and then it gave a single hammering jangle, and was silent for a space.
“It is as though the bearer had run for a pater-noster while, and then leaped the river,” Dick observed.
“And now beginneth he again to pace soberly forward,” added Matcham.
“Nay,” returned Dick —“nay, not so soberly, Jack. ’Tis a man that walketh you right speedily. ’Tis a man in some fear of his life, or about some hurried business. See ye not how swift the beating draweth near?”
“It is now close by,” said Matcham.
They were now on the edge of the pit; and as the pit itself was on a certain eminence, they commanded a view over the greater proportion of the clearing, up to the thick woods that closed it in.
The daylight, which was very clear and grey, showed them a riband of white footpath wandering among the gorse. It passed some hundred yards from the pit, and ran the whole length of the clearing, east and west. By the line of its course, Dick judged it should lead more or less directly to the Moat House.
Upon this path, stepping forth from the margin of the wood, a white figure now appeared. It paused a little, and seemed to look about; and then, at a slow pace, and bent almost double, it began to draw near across the heath. At every step the bell clanked. Face, it had none; a white hood, not even pierced with eye-holes, veiled the head; and as the creature moved, it seemed to feel its way with the tapping of a stick. Fear fell upon the lads, as cold as death.
“A leper!” said Dick, hoarsely.
“His touch is death,” said Matcham. “Let us run.”
“Not so,” returned Dick. “See ye not? — he is stone blind. He guideth him with a staff. Let us lie still; the wind bloweth towards the path, and he will go by and hurt us not. Alas, poor soul, and we should rather pity him!”
“I will pity him when he is by,” replied Matcham.
The blind leper was now about halfway towards them, and just then the sun rose and shone full on his veiled face. He had been a tall man before he was bowed by his disgusting sickness, and even now he walked with a vigorous step. The dismal beating of his bell, the pattering of the stick, the eyeless screen before his countenance, and the knowledge that he was not only doomed to death and suffering, but shut out for ever from the touch of his fellow-men, filled the lads’ bosoms with dismay; and at every step that brought him nearer, their courage and strength seemed to desert them.
As he came about level with the pit, he paused, and turned his face full upon the lads.
“Mary be my shield! He sees us!” said Matcham, faintly.
“Hush!” whispered Dick. “He doth but hearken. He is blind, fool!”
The leper looked or listened, whichever he was really doing, for some seconds. Then he began to move on again, but presently paused once more, and again turned and seemed to gaze upon the lads. Even Dick became dead-white and closed his eyes, as if by the mere sight he might become infected. But soon the bell sounded, and this time, without any farther hesitation, the leper crossed the remainder of the little heath and disappeared into the covert of the woods.
“He saw us,” said Matcham. “I could swear it!”
“Tut!” returned Dick, recovering some sparks of courage. “He but heard us. He was in fear, poor soul! An ye were blind, and walked in a perpetual night, ye would start yourself, if ever a twig rustled or a bird cried ‘Peep.’”
“Dick, good Dick, he saw us,” repeated Matcham. “When a man hearkeneth, he doth not as this man; he doth otherwise, Dick. This was seeing; it was not hearing. He means foully. Hark, else, if his bell be not stopped!”
Such was the case. The bell rang no longer.
“Nay,” said Dick, “I like not that. Nay,” he cried again, “I like that little. What may this betoken? Let us go, by the mass!”
“He hath gone east,” added Matcham. “Good Dick, let us go westward straight; I shall not breathe till I have my back turned upon that leper.”
“Jack, y’ are too cowardly,” replied Dick. “We shall go fair for Holywood, or as fair, at least, as I can guide you, and that will be due north.”
They were afoot at once, passed the stream upon some stepping-stones, and began to mount on the other side, which was steeper, towards the margin of the wood. The ground became very uneven, full of knolls and hollows; trees grew scattered or in clumps. it became difficult to choose a path, and the lads somewhat wandered. They were weary, besides, with yesterday’s exertions and the lack of food, and they moved but heavily and dragged their feet among the sand.
Presently, coming to the top of a knoll, they were aware of the leper, some hundred feet in front of them, crossing the line of their march by a hollow. His bell was silent, his staff no longer tapped the ground, and he went before him with the swift and assured footsteps of a man who sees. Next moment he had disappeared into a little thicket.
The lads, at the first glimpse, had crouched behind a tuft of gorse; there they lay, horror-struck.
“Certain, he pursueth us,” said Dick —“certain! He held the clapper of his bell in one hand, saw ye? that it should not sound. Now may the saints aid and guide us, for I have no strength to combat pestilence!”
“What maketh he?” cried Matcham. “What doth he want? Who ever heard the like, that a leper, out of mere malice, should pursue unfortunates? Hath he not his bell to that very end, that people may avoid him? Dick, there is below this something deeper.”
“Nay, I care not,” moaned Dick; “the strength is gone out of me; my legs are like water. The saints be mine assistance!”
“Would ye lie there idle?” cried Matcham. “Let us back into the open. We have the better chance; he cannot steal upon us unawares.”
“Not I,” said Dick. “My time is come, and peradventure he may pass us by.”
“Bend me, then, your bow!” cried the other. “What! will ye be a man?”
Dick crossed himself. “Would ye have me shoot upon a leper?” he cried. “The hand would fail me. Nay, now,” he added —“nay, now, let be! With sound men I will fight, but not with ghosts and lepers. Which this is, I wot not. One or other, Heaven be our protection!”
“Now,” said Matcham, “if this be man’s courage, what a poor thing is man! But sith ye will do naught, let us lie close.”
Then came a single, broken jangle on the bell.
“He hath missed his hold upon the clapper,” whispered Matcham. “Saints! how near he is!”
But Dick answered never a word; his teeth were near chattering.
Soon they saw a piece of the white robe between some bushes; then the leper’s head was thrust forth from behind a trunk, and he seemed narrowly to scan the neighbourhood before he once again withdrew. To their stretched senses, the whole bush appeared alive with rustlings and the creak of twigs; and they heard the beating of each other’s heart.
Suddenly, with a cry, the leper sprang into the open close by, and ran straight upon the lads. They, shrieking aloud, separated and began to run different ways. But their horrible enemy fastened upon Matcham, ran him swiftly down, and had him almost instantly a prisoner. The lad gave one scream that echoed high and far over the forest, he had one spasm of struggling, and then all his limbs relaxed, and he fell limp into his captor’s arms.
Dick heard the cry and turned. He saw Matcham fall; and on the instant his spirit and his strength revived; With a cry of pity and anger, he unslung and bent his arblast. But ere he had time to shoot, the leper held up his hand.
“Hold your shot, Dickon!” cried a familiar voice. “Hold your shot, mad wag! Know ye not a friend?”
And then laying down Matcham on the turf, he undid the hood from off his face, and disclosed the features of Sir Daniel Brackley.
“Sir Daniel!” cried Dick.
“Ay, by the mass, Sir Daniel!” returned the knight. “Would ye shoot upon your guardian, rogue? But here is this”— And there he broke off, and pointing to Matcham, asked: “How call ye him, Dick?”
“Nay,” said Dick, “I call him Master Matcham. Know ye him not? He said ye knew him!”
“Ay,” replied Sir Daniel, “I know the lad;” and he chuckled. “But he has fainted; and, by my sooth, he might have had less to faint for! Hey, Dick? Did I put the fear of death upon you?”
“Indeed, Sir Daniel, ye did that,” said Dick, and sighed again at the mere recollection. “Nay, sir, saving your respect, I had as lief ’a’ met the devil in person; and to speak truth, I am yet all a-quake. But what made ye, sir, in such a guise?”
Sir Daniel’s brow grew suddenly black with anger.
“What made I?” he said. “Ye do well to mind me of it! What? I skulked for my poor life in my own wood of Tunstall, Dick. We were ill sped at the battle; we but got there to be swept among the rout. Where be all my good men-at-arms? Dick, by the mass, I know not! We were swept down; the shot fell thick among us; I have not seen one man in my own colours since I saw three fall. For myself, I came sound to Shoreby, and being mindful of the Black Arrow, got me this gown and bell, and came softly by the path for the Moat House. There is no disguise to be compared with it; the jingle of this bell would scare me the stoutest outlaw in the forest; they would all turn pale to hear it. At length I came by you and Matcham. I could see but evilly through this same hood, and was not sure of you, being chiefly, and for many a good cause, astonished at the finding you together. Moreover, in the open, where I had to go slowly and tap with my staff, I feared to disclose myself. But see,” he added, “this poor shrew begins a little to revive. A little good canary will comfort me the heart of it.”
The knight, from under his long dress, produced a stout bottle, and began to rub the temples and wet the lips of the patient, who returned gradually to consciousness, and began to roll dim eyes from one to another.
“What cheer, Jack!” said Dick. “It was no leper, after all; it was Sir Daniel! See!”
“Swallow me a good draught of this,” said the knight. “This will give you manhood. Thereafter, I will give you both a meal, and we shall all three on to Tunstall. For, Dick,” he continued, laying forth bread and meat upon the grass, “I will avow to you, in all good conscience, it irks me sorely to be safe between four walls. Not since I backed a horse have I been pressed so hard; peril of life, jeopardy of land and livelihood, and to sum up, all these losels in the wood to hunt me down. But I be not yet shent. Some of my lads will pick me their way home. Hatch hath ten fellows; Selden, he had six. Nay, we shall soon be strong again; and if I can but buy my peace with my right fortunate and undeserving Lord of York, why, Dick, we’ll be a man again and go a-horseback!”
And so saying, the knight filled himself a horn of canary, and pledged his ward in dumb show.
“Selden,” Dick faltered —“Selden”— And he paused again.
Sir Daniel put down the wine untasted.
“How!” he cried, in a changed voice. “Selden? Speak! What of Selden?”
Dick stammered forth the tale of the ambush and the massacre.
The knight heard in silence; but as he listened, his countenance became convulsed with rage and grief.
“Now here,” he cried, “on my right hand, I swear to avenge it! If that I fail, if that I spill not ten men’s souls for each, may this hand wither from my body! I broke this Duckworth like a rush; I beggared him to his door; I burned the thatch above his head; I drove him from this country; and now, cometh he back to beard me? Nay, but, Duckworth, this time it shall go bitter hard!”
He was silent for some time, his face working.
“Eat!” he cried, suddenly. “And you here,” he added to Matcham, “swear me an oath to follow straight to the Moat House.”
“I will pledge mine honour,” replied Matcham.
“What make I with your honour?” cried the knight. “Swear me upon your mother’s welfare!”
Matcham gave the required oath; and Sir Daniel re-adjusted the hood over his face, and prepared his bell and staff. To see him once more in that appalling travesty somewhat revived the horror of his two companions. But the knight was soon upon his feet.
“Eat with despatch,” he said, “and follow me yarely to mine house.”
And with that he set forth again into the woods; and presently after the bell began to sound, numbering his steps, and the two lads sat by their untasted meal, and heard it die slowly away up hill into the distance.
“And so ye go to Tunstall?” Dick inquired.
“Yea, verily,” said Matcham, “when needs must! I am braver behind Sir Daniel’s back than to his face.”
They ate hastily, and set forth along the path through the airy upper levels of the forest, where great beeches stood apart among green lawns, and the birds and squirrels made merry on the boughs. Two hours later, they began to descend upon the other side, and already, among the tree-tops, saw before them the red walls and roofs of Tunstall House.
“Here,” said Matcham, pausing, “ye shall take your leave of your friend Jack, whom y’ are to see no more. Come, Dick, forgive him what he did amiss, as he, for his part, cheerfully and lovingly forgiveth you.”
“And wherefore so?” asked Dick. “An we both go to Tunstall, I shall see you yet again, I trow, and that right often.”
“Ye’ll never again see poor Jack Matcham,” replied the other, “that was so fearful and burthensome, and yet plucked you from the river; ye’ll not see him more, Dick, by mine honour!” He held his arms open, and the lads embraced and kissed. “And, Dick,” continued Matcham, “my spirit bodeth ill. Y’ are now to see a new Sir Daniel; for heretofore hath all prospered in his hands exceedingly, and fortune followed him; but now, methinks, when his fate hath come upon him, and he runs the adventure of his life, he will prove but a foul lord to both of us. He may be brave in battle, but he hath the liar’s eye; there is fear in his eye, Dick, and fear is as cruel as the wolf! We go down into that house, Saint Mary guide us forth again!”
And so they continued their descent in silence, and came out at last before Sir Daniel’s forest stronghold, where it stood, low and shady, flanked with round towers and stained with moss and lichen, in the lilied waters of the moat. Even as they appeared, the doors were opened, the bridge lowered, and Sir Daniel himself, with Hatch and the parson at his side, stood ready to receive them.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00