The Moat House stood not far from the rough forest road. Externally, it was a compact rectangle of red stone, flanked at each corner by a round tower, pierced for archery and battlemented at the top. Within, it enclosed a narrow court. The moat was perhaps twelve feet wide, crossed by a single drawbridge. It was supplied with water by a trench, leading to a forest pool and commanded, through its whole length, from the battlements of the two southern towers. Except that one or two tall and thick trees had been suffered to remain within half a bowshot of the walls, the house was in a good posture for defence.
In the court, Dick found a part of the garrison, busy with preparations for defence, and gloomily discussing the chances of a siege. Some were making arrows, some sharpening swords that had long been disused; but even as they worked, they shook their heads.
Twelve of Sir Daniel’s party had escaped the battle, run the gauntlet through the wood, and come alive to the Moat House. But out of this dozen, three had been gravely wounded: two at Risingham in the disorder of the rout, one by John Amend–All’s marksmen as he crossed the forest. This raised the force of the garrison, counting Hatch, Sir Daniel, and young Shelton, to twenty-two effective men. And more might be continually expected to arrive. The danger lay not therefore in the lack of men.
It was the terror of the Black Arrow that oppressed the spirits of the garrison. For their open foes of the party of York, in these most changing times, they felt but a far-away concern. “The world,” as people said in those days, “might change again” before harm came. But for their neighbours in the wood, they trembled. It was not Sir Daniel alone who was a mark for hatred. His men, conscious of impunity, had carried themselves cruelly through all the country. Harsh commands had been harshly executed; and of the little band that now sat talking in the court, there was not one but had been guilty of some act of oppression or barbarity. And now, by the fortune of war, Sir Daniel had become powerless to protect his instruments; now, by the issue of some hours of battle, at which many of them had not been present, they had all become punishable traitors to the State, outside the buckler of the law, a shrunken company in a poor fortress that was hardly tenable, and exposed upon all sides to the just resentment of their victims. Nor had there been lacking grisly advertisements of what they might expect.
At different periods of the evening and the night, no fewer than seven riderless horses had come neighing in terror to the gate. Two were from Selden’s troop; five belonged to men who had ridden with Sir Daniel to the field. Lastly, a little before dawn, a spearman had come staggering to the moat side, pierced by three arrows; even as they carried him in, his spirit had departed; but by the words that he uttered in his agony, he must have been the last survivor of a considerable company of men.
Hatch himself showed, under his sun-brown, the pallour of anxiety; and when he had taken Dick aside and learned the fate of Selden, he fell on a stone bench and fairly wept. The others, from where they sat on stools or doorsteps in the sunny angle of the court, looked at him with wonder and alarm, but none ventured to inquire the cause of his emotion.
“Nay, Master Shelton,” said Hatch, at last —“nay, but what said I? We shall all go. Selden was a man of his hands; he was like a brother to me. Well, he has gone second; well, we shall all follow! For what said their knave rhyme? —‘A black arrow in each black heart.’ Was it not so it went? Appleyard, Selden, Smith, old Humphrey gone; and there lieth poor John Carter, crying, poor sinner, for the priest.”
Dick gave ear. Out of a low window, hard by where they were talking, groans and murmurs came to his ear.
“Lieth he there?” he asked.
“Ay, in the second porter’s chamber,” answered Hatch. “We could not bear him further, soul and body were so bitterly at odds. At every step we lifted him, he thought to wend. But now, methinks, it is the soul that suffereth. Ever for the priest he crieth, and Sir Oliver, I wot not why, still cometh not. ’Twill be a long shrift; but poor Appleyard and poor Selden, they had none.”
Dick stooped to the window and looked in. The little cell was low and dark, but he could make out the wounded soldier lying moaning on his pallet.
“Carter, poor friend, how goeth it?” he asked.
“Master Shelton,” returned the man, in an excited whisper, “for the dear light of heaven, bring the priest. Alack, I am sped; I am brought very low down; my hurt is to the death. Ye may do me no more service; this shall be the last. Now, for my poor soul’s interest, and as a loyal gentleman, bestir you; for I have that matter on my conscience that shall drag me deep.”
He groaned, and Dick heard the grating of his teeth, whether in pain or terror.
Just then Sir Daniel appeared upon the threshold of the hall. He had a letter in one hand.
“Lads,” he said, “we have had a shog, we have had a tumble; wherefore, then, deny it? Rather it imputeth to get speedily again to saddle. This old Harry the Sixt has had the undermost. Wash we, then, our hands of him. I have a good friend that rideth next the duke, the Lord of Wensleydale. Well, I have writ a letter to my friend, praying his good lordship, and offering large satisfaction for the past and reasonable surety for the future. Doubt not but he will lend a favourable ear. A prayer without gifts is like a song without music: I surfeit him with promises, boys — I spare not to promise. What, then, is lacking? Nay, a great thing — wherefore should I deceive you? — a great thing and a difficult: a messenger to bear it. The woods — y’ are not ignorant of that — lie thick with our ill-willers. Haste is most needful; but without sleight and caution all is naught. Which, then, of this company will take me this letter, bear me it to my Lord of Wensleydale, and bring me the answer back?”
One man instantly arose.
“I will, an’t like you,” said he. “I will even risk my carcase.”
“Nay, Dicky Bowyer, not so,” returned the knight. “It likes me not. Y’ are sly indeed, but not speedy. Ye were a laggard ever.”
“An’t be so, Sir Daniel, here am I,” cried another.
“The saints forfend!” said the knight. “Y’ are speedy, but not sly. Ye would blunder me headforemost into John Amend–All’s camp. I thank you both for your good courage; but, in sooth, it may not be.”
Then Hatch offered himself, and he also was refused.
“I want you here, good Bennet; y’ are my right hand, indeed,” returned the knight; and then several coming forward in a group, Sir Daniel at length selected one and gave him the letter.
“Now,” he said, “upon your good speed and better discretion we do all depend. Bring me a good answer back, and before three weeks, I will have purged my forest of these vagabonds that brave us to our faces. But mark it well, Throgmorton: the matter is not easy. Ye must steal forth under night, and go like a fox; and how ye are to cross Till I know not, neither by the bridge nor ferry.”
“I can swim,” returned Throgmorton. “I will come soundly, fear not.”
“Well, friend, get ye to the buttery,” replied Sir Daniel. “Ye shall swim first of all in nut-brown ale.” And with that he turned back into the hall.
“Sir Daniel hath a wise tongue,” said Hatch, aside, to Dick. “See, now, where many a lesser man had glossed the matter over, he speaketh it out plainly to his company. Here is a danger, ’a saith, and here difficulty; and jesteth in the very saying. Nay, by Saint Barbary, he is a born captain! Not a man but he is some deal heartened up! See how they fall again to work.”
This praise of Sir Daniel put a thought in the lad’s head.
“Bennet,” he said, “how came my father by his end?”
“Ask me not that,” replied Hatch. “I had no hand nor knowledge in it; furthermore, I will even be silent, Master Dick. For look you, in a man’s own business there he may speak; but of hearsay matters and of common talk, not so. Ask me Sir Oliver — ay, or Carter, if ye will; not me.”
And Hatch set off to make the rounds, leaving Dick in a muse.
“Wherefore would he not tell me?” thought the lad. “And wherefore named he Carter? Carter — nay, then Carter had a hand in it, perchance.”
He entered the house, and passing some little way along a flagged and vaulted passage, came to the door of the cell where the hurt man lay groaning. At his entrance Carter started eagerly.
“Have ye brought the priest?” he cried.
“Not yet awhile,” returned Dick. “Y’ ’ave a word to tell me first. How came my father, Harry Shelton, by his death?”
The man’s face altered instantly.
“I know not,” he replied, doggedly.
“Nay, ye know well,” returned Dick. “Seek not to put me by.”
“I tell you I know not,” repeated Carter.
“Then,” said Dick, “ye shall die unshriven. Here am I, and here shall stay. There shall no priest come near you, rest assured. For of what avail is penitence, an ye have no mind to right those wrongs ye had a hand in? and without penitence, confession is but mockery.”
“Ye say what ye mean not, Master Dick,” said Carter, composedly. “It is ill threatening the dying, and becometh you (to speak truth) little. And for as little as it commends you, it shall serve you less. Stay, an ye please. Ye will condemn my soul — ye shall learn nothing! There is my last word to you.” And the wounded man turned upon the other side.
Now, Dick, to say truth, had spoken hastily, and was ashamed of his threat. But he made one more effort.
“Carter,” he said, “mistake me not. I know ye were but an instrument in the hands of others; a churl must obey his lord; I would not bear heavily on such an one. But I begin to learn upon many sides that this great duty lieth on my youth and ignorance, to avenge my father. Prithee, then, good Carter, set aside the memory of my threatenings, and in pure goodwill and honest penitence give me a word of help.”
The wounded man lay silent; nor, say what Dick pleased, could he extract another word from him.
“Well,” said Dick, “I will go call the priest to you as ye desired; for howsoever ye be in fault to me or mine, I would not be willingly in fault to any, least of all to one upon the last change.”
Again the old soldier heard him without speech or motion; even his groans he had suppressed; and as Dick turned and left the room, he was filled with admiration for that rugged fortitude.
“And yet,” he thought, “of what use is courage without wit? Had his hands been clean, he would have spoken; his silence did confess the secret louder than words. Nay, upon all sides, proof floweth on me. Sir Daniel, he or his men, hath done this thing.”
Dick paused in the stone passage with a heavy heart. At that hour, in the ebb of Sir Daniel’s fortune, when he was beleaguered by the archers of the Black Arrow and proscribed by the victorious Yorkists, was Dick, also, to turn upon the man who had nourished and taught him, who had severely punished, indeed, but yet unwearyingly protected his youth? The necessity, if it should prove to be one, was cruel.
“Pray Heaven he be innocent!” he said.
And then steps sounded on the flagging, and Sir Oliver came gravely towards the lad.
“One seeketh you earnestly,” said Dick.
“I am upon the way, good Richard,” said the priest. “It is this poor Carter. Alack, he is beyond cure.”
“And yet his soul is sicker than his body,” answered Dick.
“Have ye seen him?” asked Sir Oliver, with a manifest start.
“I do but come from him,” replied Dick.
“What said he? what said he?” snapped the priest, with extraordinary eagerness.
“He but cried for you the more piteously, Sir Oliver. It were well done to go the faster, for his hurt is grievous,” returned the lad.
“I am straight for him,” was the reply. “Well, we have all our sins. We must all come to our latter day, good Richard.”
“Ay, sir; and it were well if we all came fairly,” answered Dick.
The priest dropped his eyes, and with an inaudible benediction hurried on.
“He, too!” thought Dick —“he, that taught me in piety! Nay, then, what a world is this, if all that care for me be blood-guilty of my father’s death? Vengeance! Alas! what a sore fate is mine, if I must be avenged upon my friends!”
The thought put Matcham in his head. He smiled at the remembrance of his strange companion, and then wondered where he was. Ever since they had come together to the doors of the Moat House the younger lad had disappeared, and Dick began to weary for a word with him.
About an hour after, mass being somewhat hastily run through by Sir Oliver, the company gathered in the hall for dinner. It was a long, low apartment, strewn with green rushes, and the walls hung with arras in a design of savage men and questing bloodhounds; here and there hung spears and bows and bucklers; a fire blazed in the big chimney; there were arras-covered benches round the wall, and in the midst the table, fairly spread, awaited the arrival of the diners. Neither Sir Daniel nor his lady made their appearance. Sir Oliver himself was absent, and here again there was no word of Matcham. Dick began to grow alarmed, to recall his companion’s melancholy forebodings, and to wonder to himself if any foul play had befallen him in that house.
After dinner he found Goody Hatch, who was hurrying to my Lady Brackley.
“Goody,” he said, “where is Master Matcham, I prithee? I saw ye go in with him when we arrived.”
The old woman laughed aloud.
“Ah, Master Dick,” she said, “y’ have a famous bright eye in your head, to be sure!” and laughed again.
“Nay, but where is he, indeed?” persisted Dick.
“Ye will never see him more,” she returned —“never. It is sure.”
“An I do not,” returned the lad, “I will know the reason why. He came not hither of his full free will; such as I am, I am his best protector, and I will see him justly used. There be too many mysteries; I do begin to weary of the game!”
But as Dick was speaking, a heavy hand fell on his shoulder. It was Bennet Hatch that had come unperceived behind him. With a jerk of his thumb, the retainer dismissed his wife.
“Friend Dick,” he said, as soon as they were alone, “are ye a moon-struck natural? An ye leave not certain things in peace, ye were better in the salt sea than here in Tunstall Moat House. Y’ have questioned me; y’ have baited Carter; y’ have frighted the Jack-priest with hints. Bear ye more wisely, fool; and even now, when Sir Daniel calleth you, show me a smooth face for the love of wisdom. Y’ are to be sharply questioned. Look to your answers.”
“Hatch,” returned Dick, “in all this I smell a guilty conscience.”
“An ye go not the wiser, ye will soon smell blood,” replied Bennet. “I do but warn you. And here cometh one to call you.”
And indeed, at that very moment, a messenger came across the court to summon Dick into the presence of Sir Daniel.
Sir Daniel was in the hall; there he paced angrily before the fire, awaiting Dick’s arrival. None was by except Sir Oliver, and he sat discreetly backward, thumbing and muttering over his breviary.
“Y’ have sent for me, Sir Daniel?” said young Shelton.
“I have sent for you, indeed,” replied the knight. “For what cometh to mine ears? Have I been to you so heavy a guardian that ye make haste to credit ill of me? Or sith that ye see me, for the nonce, some worsted, do ye think to quit my party? By the mass, your father was not so! Those he was near, those he stood by, come wind or weather. But you, Dick, y’ are a fair-day friend, it seemeth, and now seek to clear yourself of your allegiance.”
“An’t please you, Sir Daniel, not so,” returned Dick, firmly. “I am grateful and faithful, where gratitude and faith are due. And before more is said, I thank you, and I thank Sir Oliver; y’ have great claims upon me both — none can have more; I were a hound if I forgot them.”
“It is well,” said Sir Daniel; and then, rising into anger: “Gratitude and faith are words, Dick Shelton,” he continued; “but I look to deeds. In this hour of my peril, when my name is attainted, when my lands are forfeit, when this wood is full of men that hunger and thirst for my destruction, what doth gratitude? what doth faith? I have but a little company remaining; is it grateful or faithful to poison me their hearts with your insidious whisperings? Save me from such gratitude! But, come, now, what is it ye wish? Speak; we are here to answer. If ye have aught against me, stand forth and say it.”
“Sir,” replied Dick, “my father fell when I was yet a child. It hath come to mine ears that he was foully done by. It hath come to mine ears — for I will not dissemble — that ye had a hand in his undoing. And in all verity, I shall not be at peace in mine own mind, nor very clear to help you, till I have certain resolution of these doubts.”
Sir Daniel sat down in a deep settle. He took his chin in his hand and looked at Dick fixedly.
“And ye think I would be guardian to the man’s son that I had murdered?” he asked.
“Nay,” said Dick, “pardon me if I answer churlishly; but indeed ye know right well a wardship is most profitable. All these years have ye not enjoyed my revenues, and led my men? Have ye not still my marriage? I wot not what it may be worth — it is worth something. Pardon me again; but if ye were base enough to slay a man under trust, here were, perhaps, reasons enough to move you to the lesser baseness.”
“When I was lad of your years,” returned Sir Daniel, sternly, “my mind had not so turned upon suspicions. And Sir Oliver here,” he added, “why should he, a priest, be guilty of this act?”
“Nay, Sir Daniel,” said Dick, “but where the master biddeth there will the dog go. It is well known this priest is but your instrument. I speak very freely; the time is not for courtesies. Even as I speak, so would I be answered. And answer get I none! Ye but put more questions. I rede ye be ware, Sir Daniel; for in this way ye will but nourish and not satisfy my doubts.”
“I will answer you fairly, Master Richard,” said the knight. “Were I to pretend ye have not stirred my wrath, I were no honest man. But I will be just even in anger. Come to me with these words when y’ are grown and come to man’s estate, and I am no longer your guardian, and so helpless to resent them. Come to me then, and I will answer you as ye merit, with a buffet in the mouth. Till then ye have two courses: either swallow me down these insults, keep a silent tongue, and fight in the meanwhile for the man that fed and fought for your infancy; or else — the door standeth open, the woods are full of mine enemies — go.”
The spirit with which these words were uttered, the looks with which they were accompanied, staggered Dick; and yet he could not but observe that he had got no answer.
“I desire nothing more earnestly, Sir Daniel, than to believe you,” he replied. “Assure me ye are free from this.”
“Will ye take my word of honour, Dick?” inquired the knight.
“That would I,” answered the lad.
“I give it you,” returned Sir Daniel. “Upon my word of honour, upon the eternal welfare of my spirit, and as I shall answer for my deeds hereafter, I had no hand nor portion in your father’s death.”
He extended his hand, and Dick took it eagerly. Neither of them observed the priest, who, at the pronunciation of that solemn and false oath, had half arisen from his seat in an agony of horror and remorse.
“Ah,” cried Dick, “ye must find it in your great-heartedness to pardon me! I was a churl, indeed, to doubt of you. But ye have my hand upon it; I will doubt no more.”
“Nay, Dick,” replied Sir Daniel, “y’ are forgiven. Ye know not the world and its calumnious nature.”
“I was the more to blame,” added Dick, “in that the rogues pointed, not directly at yourself, but at Sir Oliver.”
As he spoke, he turned towards the priest, and paused in the middle of the last word. This tall, ruddy, corpulent, high-stepping man had fallen, you might say, to pieces; his colour was gone, his limbs were relaxed, his lips stammered prayers; and now, when Dick’s eyes were fixed upon him suddenly, he cried out aloud, like some wild animal, and buried his face in his hands.
Sir Daniel was by him in two strides, and shook him fiercely by the shoulder. At the same moment Dick’s suspicions reawakened.
“Nay,” he said, “Sir Oliver may swear also. ’Twas him they accused.”
“He shall swear,” said the knight.
Sir Oliver speechlessly waved his arms.
“Ay, by the mass! but ye shall swear,” cried Sir Daniel, beside himself with fury. “Here, upon this book, ye shall swear,” he continued, picking up the breviary, which had fallen to the ground. “What! Ye make me doubt you! Swear, I say; swear!”
But the priest was still incapable of speech. His terror of Sir Daniel, his terror of perjury, risen to about an equal height, strangled him.
And just then, through the high, stained-glass window of the hall, a black arrow crashed, and struck, and stuck quivering, in the midst of the long table.
Sir Oliver, with a loud scream, fell fainting on the rushes; while the knight, followed by Dick, dashed into the court and up the nearest corkscrew stair to the battlements. The sentries were all on the alert. The sun shone quietly on green lawns dotted with trees, and on the wooded hills of the forest which enclosed the view. There was no sign of a besieger.
“Whence came that shot?” asked the knight.
“From yonder clump, Sir Daniel,” returned a sentinel.
The knight stood a little, musing. Then he turned to Dick. “Dick,” he said, “keep me an eye upon these men; I leave you in charge here. As for the priest, he shall clear himself, or I will know the reason why. I do almost begin to share in your suspicions. He shall swear, trust me, or we shall prove him guilty.”
Dick answered somewhat coldly, and the knight, giving him a piercing glance, hurriedly returned to the hall. His first glance was for the arrow. It was the first of these missiles he had seen, and as he turned it to and fro, the dark hue of it touched him with some fear. Again there was some writing: one word —“Earthed.”
“Ay,” he broke out, “they know I am home, then. Earthed! Ay, but there is not a dog among them fit to dig me out.”
Sir Oliver had come to himself, and now scrambled to his feet.
“Alack, Sir Daniel!” he moaned, “y’ ’ave sworn a dread oath; y’ are doomed to the end of time.”
“Ay,” returned the knight, “I have sworn an oath, indeed, thou chucklehead; but thyself shalt swear a greater. It shall be on the blessed cross of Holywood. Look to it; get the words ready. It shall be sworn to-night.”
“Now, may Heaven lighten you!” replied the priest; “may Heaven incline your heart from this iniquity!”
“Look you, my good father,” said Sir Daniel, “if y’ are for piety, I say no more; ye begin late, that is all. But if y’ are in any sense bent upon wisdom, hear me. This lad beginneth to irk me like a wasp. I have a need for him, for I would sell his marriage. But I tell you, in all plainness, if that he continue to weary me, he shall go join his father. I give orders now to change him to the chamber above the chapel. If that ye can swear your innocency with a good, solid oath and an assured countenance, it is well; the lad will be at peace a little, and I will spare him. If that ye stammer or blench, or anyways boggle at the swearing, he will not believe you; and by the mass, he shall die. There is for your thinking on.”
“The chamber above the chapel!” gasped the priest.
“That same,” replied the knight. “So if ye desire to save him, save him; and if ye desire not, prithee, go to, and let me be at peace! For an I had been a hasty man, I would already have put my sword through you, for your intolerable cowardice and folly. Have ye chosen? Say!”
“I have chosen,” said the priest. “Heaven pardon me, I will do evil for good. I will swear for the lad’s sake.”
“So is it best!” said Sir Daniel. “Send for him, then, speedily. Ye shall see him alone. Yet I shall have an eye on you. I shall be here in the panel room.”
The knight raised the arras and let it fall again behind him. There was the sound of a spring opening; then followed the creaking of trod stairs.
Sir Oliver, left alone, cast a timorous glance upward at the arras-covered wall, and crossed himself with every appearance of terror and contrition.
“Nay, if he is in the chapel room,” the priest murmured, “were it at my soul’s cost, I must save him.”
Three minutes later, Dick, who had been summoned by another messenger, found Sir Oliver standing by the hall table, resolute and pale.
“Richard Shelton,” he said, “ye have required an oath from me. I might complain, I might deny you; but my heart is moved toward you for the past, and I will even content you as ye choose. By the true cross of Holywood, I did not slay your father.”
“Sir Oliver,” returned Dick, “when first we read John Amend–All’s paper, I was convinced of so much. But suffer me to put two questions. Ye did not slay him; granted. But had ye no hand in it?”
“None,” said Sir Oliver. And at the same time he began to contort his face, and signal with his mouth and eyebrows, like one who desired to convey a warning, yet dared not utter a sound.
Dick regarded him in wonder; then he turned and looked all about him at the empty hall.
“What make ye?” he inquired.
“Why, naught,” returned the priest, hastily smoothing his countenance. “I make naught; I do but suffer; I am sick. I— I— prithee, Dick, I must begone. On the true cross of Holywood, I am clean innocent alike of violence or treachery. Content ye, good lad. Farewell!”
And he made his escape from the apartment with unusual alacrity.
Dick remained rooted to the spot, his eyes wandering about the room, his face a changing picture of various emotions, wonder, doubt, suspicion, and amusement. Gradually, as his mind grew clearer, suspicion took the upper hand, and was succeeded by certainty of the worst. He raised his head, and, as he did so, violently started. High upon the wall there was the figure of a savage hunter woven in the tapestry. With one hand he held a horn to his mouth; in the other he brandished a stout spear. His face was dark, for he was meant to represent an African.
Now, here was what had startled Richard Shelton. The sun had moved away from the hall windows, and at the same time the fire had blazed up high on the wide hearth, and shed a changeful glow upon the roof and hangings. In this light the figure of the black hunter had winked at him with a white eyelid.
He continued staring at the eye. The light shone upon it like a gem; it was liquid, it was alive. Again the white eyelid closed upon it for a fraction of a second, and the next moment it was gone.
There could be no mistake. The live eye that had been watching him through a hole in the tapestry was gone. The firelight no longer shone on a reflecting surface.
And instantly Dick awoke to the terrors of his position. Hatch’s warning, the mute signals of the priest, this eye that had observed him from the wall, ran together in his mind. He saw he had been put upon his trial, that he had once more betrayed his suspicions, and that, short of some miracle, he was lost.
“If I cannot get me forth out of this house,” he thought, “I am a dead man! And this poor Matcham, too — to what a cockatrice’s nest have I not led him!”
He was still so thinking, when there came one in haste, to bid him help in changing his arms, his clothing, and his two or three books, to a new chamber.
“A new chamber?” he repeated. “Wherefore so? What chamber?”
“’Tis one above the chapel,” answered the messenger.
“It hath stood long empty,” said Dick, musing. “What manner of room is it?”
“Nay, a brave room,” returned the man. “But yet”— lowering his voice —“they call it haunted.”
“Haunted?” repeated Dick, with a chill. “I have not heard of it. Nay, then, and by whom?”
The messenger looked about him; and then, in a low whisper, “By the sacrist of St. John’s,” he said. “They had him there to sleep one night, and in the morning — whew! — he was gone. The devil had taken him, they said; the more betoken, he had drunk late the night before.”
Dick followed the man with black forebodings.
From the battlements nothing further was observed. The sun journeyed westward, and at last went down; but, to the eyes of all these eager sentinels, no living thing appeared in the neighbourhood of Tunstall House.
When the night was at length fairly come, Throgmorton was led to a room overlooking an angle of the moat. Thence he was lowered with every precaution; the ripple of his swimming was audible for a brief period; then a black figure was observed to land by the branches of a willow and crawl away among the grass. For some half hour Sir Daniel and Hatch stood eagerly giving ear; but all remained quiet. The messenger had got away in safety.
Sir Daniel’s brow grew clearer. He turned to Hatch.
“Bennet,” he said, “this John Amend–All is no more than a man, ye see. He sleepeth. We will make a good end of him, go to!”
All the afternoon and evening, Dick had been ordered hither and thither, one command following another, till he was bewildered with the number and the hurry of commissions. All that time he had seen no more of Sir Oliver, and nothing of Matcham; and yet both the priest and the young lad ran continually in his mind. It was now his chief purpose to escape from Tunstall Moat House as speedily as might be; and yet, before he went, he desired a word with both of these.
At length, with a lamp in one hand, he mounted to his new apartment. It was large, low, and somewhat dark. The window looked upon the moat, and although it was so high up, it was heavily barred. The bed was luxurious, with one pillow of down and one of lavender, and a red coverlet worked in a pattern of roses. All about the walls were cupboards, locked and padlocked, and concealed from view by hangings of dark-coloured arras. Dick made the round, lifting the arras, sounding the panels, seeking vainly to open the cupboards. He assured himself that the door was strong and the bolt solid; then he set down his lamp upon a bracket, and once more looked all around.
For what reason had he been given this chamber? It was larger and finer than his own. Could it conceal a snare? Was there a secret entrance? Was it, indeed, haunted? His blood ran a little chilly in his veins.
Immediately over him the heavy foot of a sentry trod the leads. Below him, he knew, was the arched roof of the chapel; and next to the chapel was the hall. Certainly there was a secret passage in the hall; the eye that had watched him from the arras gave him proof of that. Was it not more than probable that the passage extended to the chapel, and, if so, that it had an opening in his room?
To sleep in such a place, he felt, would be foolhardy. He made his weapons ready, and took his position in a corner of the room behind the door. If ill was intended, he would sell his life dear.
The sound of many feet, the challenge, and the password, sounded overhead along the battlements; the watch was being changed.
And just then there came a scratching at the door of the chamber; it grew a little louder; then a whisper:
“Dick, Dick, it is I!”
Dick ran to the door, drew the bolt, and admitted Matcham. He was very pale, and carried a lamp in one hand and a drawn dagger in the other.
“Shut me the door,” he whispered. “Swift, Dick! This house is full of spies; I hear their feet follow me in the corridors; I hear them breathe behind the arras.”
“Well, content you,” returned Dick, “it is closed. We are safe for this while, if there be safety anywhere within these walls. But my heart is glad to see you. By the mass, lad, I thought ye were sped! Where hid ye?”
“It matters not,” returned Matcham. “Since we be met, it matters not. But, Dick, are your eyes open? Have they told you of to-morrow’s doings?”
“Not they,” replied Dick. “What make they to-morrow?”
“To-morrow, or to-night, I know not,” said the other, “but one time or other, Dick, they do intend upon your life. I had the proof of it; I have heard them whisper; nay, they as good as told me.”
“Ay,” returned Dick, “is it so? I had thought as much.”
And he told him the day’s occurrences at length.
When it was done, Matcham arose and began, in turn, to examine the apartment.
“No,” he said, “there is no entrance visible. Yet ’tis a pure certainty there is one. Dick, I will stay by you. An y’ are to die, I will die with you. And I can help — look! I have stolen a dagger — I will do my best! And meanwhile, an ye know of any issue, any sally-port we could get opened, or any window that we might descend by, I will most joyfully face any jeopardy to flee with you.”
“Jack,” said Dick, “by the mass, Jack, y’ are the best soul, and the truest, and the bravest in all England! Give me your hand, Jack.”
And he grasped the other’s hand in silence.
“I will tell you,” he resumed. “There is a window, out of which the messenger descended; the rope should still be in the chamber. ’Tis a hope.”
“Hist!” said Matcham.
Both gave ear. There was a sound below the floor; then it paused, and then began again.
“Some one walketh in the room below,” whispered Matcham.
“Nay,” returned Dick, “there is no room below; we are above the chapel. It is my murderer in the secret passage. Well, let him come; it shall go hard with him;” and he ground his teeth.
“Blow me the lights out,” said the other. “Perchance he will betray himself.”
They blew out both the lamps and lay still as death. The footfalls underneath were very soft, but they were clearly audible. Several times they came and went; and then there was a loud jar of a key turning in a lock, followed by a considerable silence.
Presently the steps began again, and then, all of a sudden, a chink of light appeared in the planking of the room in a far corner. It widened; a trap-door was being opened, letting in a gush of light. They could see the strong hand pushing it up; and Dick raised his cross-bow, waiting for the head to follow.
But now there came an interruption. From a distant corner of the Moat House shouts began to be heard, and first one voice, and then several, crying aloud upon a name. This noise had plainly disconcerted the murderer, for the trap-door was silently lowered to its place, and the steps hurriedly returned, passed once more close below the lads, and died away in the distance.
Here was a moment’s respite. Dick breathed deep, and then, and not till then, he gave ear to the disturbance which had interrupted the attack, and which was now rather increasing than diminishing. All about the Moat House feet were running, doors were opening and slamming, and still the voice of Sir Daniel towered above all this bustle, shouting for “Joanna.”
“Joanna!” repeated Dick. “Why, who the murrain should this be? Here is no Joanna, nor ever hath been. What meaneth it?”
Matcham was silent. He seemed to have drawn further away. But only a little faint starlight entered by the window, and at the far end of the apartment, where the pair were, the darkness was complete.
“Jack,” said Dick, “I wot not where ye were all day. Saw ye this Joanna?”
“Nay,” returned Matcham, “I saw her not.”
“Nor heard tell of her?” he pursued.
The steps drew nearer. Sir Daniel was still roaring the name of Joanna from the courtyard.
“Did ye hear of her?” repeated Dick.
“I heard of her,” said Matcham.
“How your voice twitters! What aileth you?” said Dick. “’Tis a most excellent good fortune, this Joanna; it will take their minds from us.”
“Dick,” cried Matcham, “I am lost; we are both lost. Let us flee if there be yet time. They will not rest till they have found me. Or, see! let me go forth; when they have found me, ye may flee. Let me forth, Dick — good Dick, let me away!”
She was groping for the bolt, when Dick at last comprehended.
“By the mass!” he cried, “y’ are no Jack; y’ are Joanna Sedley; y’ are the maid that would not marry me!”
The girl paused, and stood silent and motionless. Dick, too, was silent for a little; then he spoke again.
“Joanna,” he said, “y’ ’ave saved my life, and I have saved yours; and we have seen blood flow, and been friends and enemies — ay, and I took my belt to thrash you; and all that time I thought ye were a boy. But now death has me, and my time’s out, and before I die I must say this: Y’ are the best maid and the bravest under heaven, and, if only I could live, I would marry you blithely; and, live or die, I love you.”
She answered nothing.
“Come,” he said, “speak up, Jack. Come, be a good maid, and say ye love me!”
“Why, Dick,” she cried, “would I be here?”
“Well, see ye here,” continued Dick, “an we but escape whole we’ll marry; and an we’re to die, we die, and there’s an end on’t. But now that I think, how found ye my chamber?”
“I asked it of Dame Hatch,” she answered.
“Well, the dame’s staunch,” he answered; “she’ll not tell upon you. We have time before us.”
And just then, as if to contradict his words, feet came down the corridor, and a fist beat roughly on the door.
“Here!” cried a voice. “Open, Master Dick; open!” Dick neither moved nor answered.
“It is all over,” said the girl; and she put her arms about Dick’s neck.
One after another, men came trooping to the door. Then Sir Daniel arrived himself, and there was a sudden cessation of the noise.
“Dick,” cried the knight, “be not an ass. The Seven Sleepers had been awake ere now. We know she is within there. Open, then, the door, man.”
Dick was again silent.
“Down with it,” said Sir Daniel. And immediately his followers fell savagely upon the door with foot and fist. Solid as it was, and strongly bolted, it would soon have given way; but once more fortune interfered. Over the thunderstorm of blows the cry of a sentinel was heard; it was followed by another; shouts ran along the battlements, shouts answered out of the wood. In the first moment of alarm it sounded as if the foresters were carrying the Moat House by assault. And Sir Daniel and his men, desisting instantly from their attack upon Dick’s chamber, hurried to defend the walls.
“Now,” cried Dick, “we are saved.”
He seized the great old bedstead with both hands, and bent himself in vain to move it.
“Help me, Jack. For your life’s sake, help me stoutly!” he cried.
Between them, with a huge effort, they dragged the big frame of oak across the room, and thrust it endwise to the chamber door.
“Ye do but make things worse,” said Joanna, sadly. “He will then enter by the trap.”
“Not so,” replied Dick. “He durst not tell his secret to so many. It is by the trap that we shall flee. Hark! The attack is over. Nay, it was none!”
It had, indeed, been no attack; it was the arrival of another party of stragglers from the defeat of Risingham that had disturbed Sir Daniel. They had run the gauntlet under cover of the darkness; they had been admitted by the great gate; and now, with a great stamping of hoofs and jingle of accoutrements and arms, they were dismounting in the court.
“He will return anon,” said Dick. “To the trap!”
He lighted a lamp, and they went together into the corner of the room. The open chink through which some light still glittered was easily discovered, and, taking a stout sword from his small armoury, Dick thrust it deep into the seam, and weighed strenuously on the hilt. The trap moved, gaped a little, and at length came widely open. Seizing it with their hands, the two young folk threw it back. It disclosed a few steps descending, and at the foot of them, where the would-be murderer had left it, a burning lamp.
“Now,” said Dick, “go first and take the lamp. I will follow to close the trap.”
So they descended one after the other, and as Dick lowered the trap, the blows began once again to thunder on the panels of the door.
The passage in which Dick and Joanna now found themselves was narrow, dirty, and short. At the other end of it, a door stood partly open; the same door, without doubt, that they had heard the man unlocking. Heavy cobwebs hung from the roof; and the paved flooring echoed hollow under the lightest tread.
Beyond the door there were two branches, at right angles. Dick chose one of them at random, and the pair hurried, with echoing footsteps, along the hollow of the chapel roof. The top of the arched ceiling rose like a whale’s back in the dim glimmer of the lamp. Here and there were spyholes, concealed, on the other side, by the carving of the cornice; and looking down through one of these, Dick saw the paved floor of the chapel — the altar, with its burning tapers — and stretched before it on the steps, the figure of Sir Oliver praying with uplifted hands.
At the other end, they descended a few steps. The passage grew narrower; the wall upon one hand was now of wood; the noise of people talking, and a faint flickering of lights, came through the interstices; and presently they came to a round hole about the size of a man’s eye, and Dick, looking down through it, beheld the interior of the hall, and some half a dozen men sitting, in their jacks, about the table, drinking deep and demolishing a venison pie. These were certainly some of the late arrivals.
“Here is no help,” said Dick. “Let us try back.”
“Nay,” said Joanna; “maybe the passage goeth farther.”
And she pushed on. But a few yards farther the passage ended at the top of a short flight of steps; and it became plain that, as long as the soldiers occupied the hall, escape was impossible upon that side.
They retraced their steps with all imaginable speed, and set forward to explore the other branch. It was exceedingly narrow, scarce wide enough for a large man; and it led them continually up and down by little break-neck stairs, until even Dick had lost all notion of his whereabouts.
At length it grew both narrower and lower; the stairs continued to descend; the walls on either hand became damp and slimy to the touch; and far in front of them they heard the squeaking and scuttling of the rats.
“We must be in the dungeons,” Dick remarked.
“And still there is no outlet,” added Joanna.
“Nay, but an outlet there must be!” Dick answered. Presently, sure enough, they came to a sharp angle, and then the passage ended in a flight of steps. On the top of that there was a solid flag of stone by way of trap, and to this they both set their backs. It was immovable. “Some one holdeth it,” suggested Joanna.
“Not so,” said Dick; “for were a man strong as ten, he must still yield a little. But this resisteth like dead rock. There is a weight upon the trap. Here is no issue; and, by my sooth, good Jack, we are here as fairly prisoners as though the gyves were on our ankle bones. Sit ye then down, and let us talk. After a while we shall return, when perchance they shall be less carefully upon their guard; and, who knoweth? we may break out and stand a chance. But, in my poor opinion, we are as good as shent.”
“Dick!” she cried, “alas the day that ever ye should have seen me! For like a most unhappy and unthankful maid, it is I have led you hither.”
“What cheer!” returned Dick. “It was all written, and that which is written, willy nilly, cometh still to pass. But tell me a little what manner of a maid ye are, and how ye came into Sir Daniel’s hands; that will do better than to bemoan yourself, whether for your sake or mine.”
“I am an orphan, like yourself, of father and mother,” said Joanna; “and for my great misfortune, Dick, and hitherto for yours, I am a rich marriage. My Lord Foxham had me to ward; yet it appears Sir Daniel bought the marriage of me from the king, and a right dear price he paid for it. So here was I, poor babe, with two great and rich men fighting which should marry me, and I still at nurse! Well, then the world changed, and there was a new chancellor, and Sir Daniel bought the warding of me over the Lord Foxham’s head. And then the world changed again, and Lord Foxham bought my marriage over Sir Daniel’s; and from then to now it went on ill betwixt the two of them. But still Lord Foxham kept me in his hands, and was a good lord to me. And at last I was to be married — or sold, if ye like it better. Five hundred pounds Lord Foxham was to get for me. Hamley was the groom’s name, and to-morrow, Dick, of all days in the year, was I to be betrothed. Had it not come to Sir Daniel, I had been wedded, sure — and never seen thee, Dick — dear Dick!”
And here she took his hand, and kissed it, with the prettiest grace; and Dick drew her hand to him and did the like.
“Well,” she went on, “Sir Daniel took me unawares in the garden, and made me dress in these men’s clothes, which is a deadly sin for a woman; and, besides, they fit me not. He rode with me to Kettley, as ye saw, telling me I was to marry you; but I, in my heart, made sure I would marry Hamley in his teeth.”
“Ay!” cried Dick, “and so ye loved this Hamley!”
“Nay,” replied Joanna, “not I. I did but hate Sir Daniel. And then, Dick, ye helped me, and ye were right kind, and very bold, and my heart turned towards you in mine own despite; and now, if we can in any way compass it, I would marry you with right goodwill. And if, by cruel destiny, it may not be, still ye’ll be dear to me. While my heart beats, it’ll be true to you.”
“And I,” said Dick, “that never cared a straw for any manner of woman until now, I took to you when I thought ye were a boy. I had a pity to you, and knew not why. When I would have belted you, the hand failed me. But when ye owned ye were a maid, Jack — for still I will call you Jack — I made sure ye were the maid for me. Hark!” he said, breaking off —“one cometh.”
And indeed a heavy tread was now audible in the echoing passage, and the rats again fled in armies.
Dick reconnoitred his position. The sudden turn gave him a post of vantage. He could thus shoot in safety from the cover of the wall. But it was plain the light was too near him, and, running some way forward, he set down the lamp in the middle of the passage, and then returned to watch.
Presently, at the far end of the passage, Bennet hove in sight. He seemed to be alone, and he carried in his hand a burning torch, which made him the better mark.
“Stand, Bennet!” cried Dick. “Another step, and y’ are dead.”
“So here ye are,” returned Hatch, peering forward into the darkness. “I see you not. Aha! y’ ’ave done wisely, Dick; y’ ’ave put your lamp before you. By my sooth, but, though it was done to shoot my own knave body, I do rejoice to see ye profit of my lessons! And now, what make ye? what seek ye here? Why would ye shoot upon an old, kind friend? And have ye the young gentlewoman there?”
“Nay, Bennet, it is I should question and you answer,” replied Dick. “Why am I in this jeopardy of my life? Why do men come privily to slay me in my bed? Why am I now fleeing in mine own guardian’s strong house, and from the friends that I have lived among and never injured?”
“Master Dick, Master Dick,” said Bennet, “what told I you? Y’ are brave, but the most uncrafty lad that I can think upon!”
“Well,” returned Dick, “I see ye know all, and that I am doomed indeed. It is well. Here, where I am, I stay. Let Sir Daniel get me out if he be able!”
Hatch was silent for a space.
“Hark ye,” he began, “return to Sir Daniel, to tell him where ye are, and how posted; for, in truth, it was to that end he sent me. But you, if ye are no fool, had best be gone ere I return.”
“Begone!” repeated Dick. “I would be gone already, an’ I wist how. I cannot move the trap.”
“Put me your hand into the corner, and see what ye find there,” replied Bennet. “Throgmorton’s rope is still in the brown chamber. Fare ye well.”
And Hatch, turning upon his heel, disappeared again into the windings of the passage.
Dick instantly returned for his lamp, and proceeded to act upon the hint. At one corner of the trap there was a deep cavity in the wall. Pushing his arm into the aperture, Dick found an iron bar, which he thrust vigorously upwards. There followed a snapping noise, and the slab of stone instantly started in its bed.
They were free of the passage. A little exercise of strength easily raised the trap; and they came forth into a vaulted chamber, opening on one hand upon the court, where one or two fellows, with bare arms, were rubbing down the horses of the last arrivals. A torch or two, each stuck in an iron ring against the wall, changefully lit up the scene.
Dick, blowing out his lamp lest it should attract attention, led the way up-stairs and along the corridor. In the brown chamber the rope had been made fast to the frame of an exceeding heavy and ancient bed. It had not been detached, and Dick, taking the coil to the window, began to lower it slowly and cautiously into the darkness of the night. Joan stood by; but as the rope lengthened, and still Dick continued to pay it out, extreme fear began to conquer her resolution.
“Dick,” she said, “is it so deep? I may not essay it. I should infallibly fall, good Dick.”
It was just at the delicate moment of the operations that she spoke. Dick started; the remainder of the coil slipped from his grasp, and the end fell with a splash into the moat. Instantly, from the battlement above, the voice of a sentinel cried, “Who goes?”
“A murrain!” cried Dick. “We are paid now! Down with you — take the rope.”
“I cannot,” she cried, recoiling.
“An ye cannot, no more can I,” said Shelton. “How can I swim the moat without you? Do you desert me, then?”
“Dick,” she gasped, “I cannot. The strength is gone from me.”
“By the mass, then, we are all shent!” he shouted, stamping with his foot; and then, hearing steps, he ran to the room door and sought to close it.
Before he could shoot the bolt, strong arms were thrusting it back upon him from the other side. He struggled for a second; then, feeling himself overpowered, ran back to the window. The girl had fallen against the wall in the embrasure of the window; she was more than half insensible; and when he tried to raise her in his arms, her body was limp and unresponsive.
At the same moment the men who had forced the door against him laid hold upon him. The first he poinarded at a blow, and the others falling back for a second in some disorder, he profited by the chance, bestrode the window-sill, seized the cord in both hands, and let his body slip.
The cord was knotted, which made it the easier to descend; but so furious was Dick’s hurry, and so small his experience of such gymnastics, that he span round and round in mid-air like a criminal upon a gibbet, and now beat his head, and now bruised his hands, against the rugged stonework of the wall. The air roared in his ears; he saw the stars overhead, and the reflected stars below him in the moat, whirling like dead leaves before the tempest. And then he lost hold, and fell, and soused head over ears into the icy water.
When he came to the surface his hand encountered the rope, which, newly lightened of his weight, was swinging wildly to and fro. There was a red glow overhead, and looking up, he saw, by the light of several torches and a cresset full of burning coals, the battlements lined with faces. He saw the men’s eyes turning hither and thither in quest of him; but he was too far below, the light reached him not, and they looked in vain.
And now he perceived that the rope was considerably too long, and he began to struggle as well as he could towards the other side of the moat, still keeping his head above water. In this way he got much more than halfway over; indeed the bank was almost within reach, before the rope began to draw him back by its own weight. Taking his courage in both hands, he left go and made a leap for the trailing sprays of willow that had already, that same evening, helped Sir Daniel’s messenger to land. He went down, rose again, sank a second time, and then his hand caught a branch, and with the speed of thought he had dragged himself into the thick of the tree and clung there, dripping and panting, and still half uncertain of his escape.
But all this had not been done without a considerable splashing, which had so far indicated his position to the men along the battlements. Arrows and quarrels fell thick around him in the darkness, thick like driving hail; and suddenly a torch was thrown down — flared through the air in its swift passage — stuck for a moment on the edge of the bank, where it burned high and lit up its whole surroundings like a bonfire — and then, in a good hour for Dick, slipped off, plumped into the moat, and was instantly extinguished.
It had served its purpose. The marksmen had had time to see the willow, and Dick ensconced among its boughs; and though the lad instantly sprang higher up the bank, and ran for his life, he was yet not quick enough to escape a shot. An arrow struck him in the shoulder, another grazed his head.
The pain of his wounds lent him wings; and he had no sooner got upon the level than he took to his heels and ran straight before him in the dark, without a thought for the direction of his flight.
For a few steps missiles followed him, but these soon ceased; and when at length he came to a halt and looked behind, he was already a good way from the Moat House, though he could still see the torches moving to and fro along its battlements.
He leaned against a tree, streaming with blood and water, bruised, wounded, alone, and unarmed. For all that, he had saved his life for that bout; and though Joanna remained behind in the power of Sir Daniel, he neither blamed himself for an accident that it had been beyond his power to prevent, nor did he augur any fatal consequences to the girl herself. Sir Daniel was cruel, but he was not likely to be cruel to a young gentlewoman who had other protectors, willing and able to bring him to account. It was more probable he would make haste to marry her to some friend of his own.
“Well,” thought Dick, “between then and now I will find me the means to bring that traitor under; for I think, by the mass, that I be now absolved from any gratitude or obligation; and when war is open, there is a fair chance for all.”
In the meanwhile, here he was in a sore plight.
For some little way farther he struggled forward through the forest; but what with the pain of his wounds, the darkness of the night, and the extreme uneasiness and confusion of his mind, he soon became equally unable to guide himself or to continue to push through the close undergrowth, and he was fain at length to sit down and lean his back against a tree.
When he awoke from something betwixt sleep and swooning, the grey of the morning had begun to take the place of night. A little chilly breeze was bustling among the trees, and as he still sat staring before him, only half awake, he became aware of something dark that swung to and fro among the branches, some hundred yards in front of him. The progressive brightening of the day and the return of his own senses at last enabled him to recognise the object. It was a man hanging from the bough of a tall oak. His head had fallen forward on his breast; but at every stronger puff of wind his body span round and round, and his legs and arms tossed, like some ridiculous plaything.
Dick clambered to his feet, and, staggering and leaning on the tree-trunks as he went, drew near to this grim object.
The bough was perhaps twenty feet above the ground, and the poor fellow had been drawn up so high by his executioners that his boots swung clear above Dick’s reach; and as his hood had been drawn over his face, it was impossible to recognise the man.
Dick looked about him right and left; and at last he perceived that the other end of the cord had been made fast to the trunk of a little hawthorn which grew, thick with blossom, under the lofty arcade of the oak. With his dagger, which alone remained to him of all his arms, young Shelton severed the rope, and instantly, with a dead thump, the corpse fell in a heap upon the ground.
Dick raised the hood; it was Throgmorton, Sir Daniel’s messenger. He had not gone far upon his errand. A paper, which had apparently escaped the notice of the men of the Black Arrow, stuck from the bosom of his doublet, and Dick, pulling it forth, found it was Sir Daniel’s letter to Lord Wensleydale.
“Come,” thought he, “if the world changes yet again, I may have here the wherewithal to shame Sir Daniel — nay, and perchance to bring him to the block.”
And he put the paper in his own bosom, said a prayer over the dead man, and set forth again through the woods.
His fatigue and weakness increased; his ears sang, his steps faltered, his mind at intervals failed him, so low had he been brought by loss of blood. Doubtless he made many deviations from his true path, but at last he came out upon the high-road, not very far from Tunstall hamlet.
A rough voice bid him stand.
“Stand?” repeated Dick. “By the mass, but I am nearer falling.”
And he suited the action to the word, and fell all his length upon the road.
Two men came forth out of the thicket, each in green forest jerkin, each with long-bow and quiver and short sword.
“Why, Lawless,” said the younger of the two, “it is young Shelton.”
“Ay, this will be as good as bread to John Amend–All,” returned the other. “Though, faith, he hath been to the wars. Here is a tear in his scalp that must ’a’ cost him many a good ounce of blood.”
“And here,” added Greensheve, “is a hole in his shoulder that must have pricked him well. Who hath done this, think ye? If it be one of ours, he may all to prayer; Ellis will give him a short shrift and a long rope.”
“Up with the cub,” said Lawless. “Clap him on my back.”
And then, when Dick had been hoisted to his shoulders, and he had taken the lad’s arms about his neck, and got a firm hold of him, the ex–Grey Friar added:
“Keep ye the post, brother Greensheve. I will on with him by myself.”
So Greensheve returned to his ambush on the wayside, and Lawless trudged down the hill, whistling as he went, with Dick, still in a dead faint, comfortably settled on his shoulders.
The sun rose as he came out of the skirts of the wood and saw Tunstall hamlet straggling up the opposite hill. All seemed quiet, but a strong post of some half a score of archers lay close by the bridge on either side of the road, and, as soon as they perceived Lawless with his burthen, began to bestir themselves and set arrow to string like vigilant sentries.
“Who goes?” cried the man in command.
“Will Lawless, by the rood — ye know me as well as your own hand,” returned the outlaw, contemptuously.
“Give the word, Lawless,” returned the other.
“Now, Heaven lighten thee, thou great fool,” replied Lawless. “Did I not tell it thee myself? But ye are all mad for this playing at soldiers. When I am in the greenwood, give me greenwood ways; and my word for this tide is: ‘A fig for all mock soldiery!’”
“Lawless, ye but show an ill example; give us the word, fool jester,” said the commander of the post.
“And if I had forgotten it?” asked the other.
“An ye had forgotten it — as I know y’ ’ave not — by the mass, I would clap an arrow into your big body,” returned the first.
“Nay, an y’ are so ill a jester,” said Lawless, “ye shall have your word for me. ‘Duckworth and Shelton’ is the word; and here, to the illustration, is Shelton on my shoulders, and to Duckworth do I carry him.”
“Pass, Lawless,” said the sentry.
“And where is John?” asked the Grey Friar.
“He holdeth a court, by the mass, and taketh rents as to the manner born!” cried another of the company.
So it proved. When Lawless got as far up the village as the little inn, he found Ellis Duckworth surrounded by Sir Daniel’s tenants, and, by the right of his good company of archers, coolly taking rents, and giving written receipts in return for them. By the faces of the tenants, it was plain how little this proceeding pleased them; for they argued very rightly that they would simply have to pay them twice.
As soon as he knew what had brought Lawless, Ellis dismissed the remainder of the tenants, and, with every mark of interest and apprehension, conducted Dick into an inner chamber of the inn. There the lad’s hurts were looked to; and he was recalled, by simple remedies, to consciousness.
“Dear lad,” said Ellis, pressing his hand, “y’ are in a friend’s hands that loved your father, and loves you for his sake. Rest ye a little quietly, for ye are somewhat out of case. Then shall ye tell me your story, and betwixt the two of us we shall find a remedy for all.”
A little later in the day, and after Dick had awakened from a comfortable slumber to find himself still very weak, but clearer in mind and easier in body, Ellis returned, and sitting down by the bedside, begged him, in the name of his father, to relate the circumstance of his escape from Tunstall Moat House. There was something in the strength of Duckworth’s frame, in the honesty of his brown face, in the clearness and shrewdness of his eyes, that moved Dick to obey him; and from first to last the lad told him the story of his two days’ adventures.
“Well,” said Ellis, when he had done, “see what the kind saints have done for you, Dick Shelton, not alone to save your body in so numerous and deadly perils, but to bring you into my hands that have no dearer wish than to assist your father’s son. Be but true to me — and I see y’ are true — and betwixt you and me, we shall bring that false-heart traitor to the death.”
“Will ye assault the house?” asked Dick.
“I were mad, indeed, to think of it,” returned Ellis. “He hath too much power; his men gather to him; those that gave me the slip last night, and by the mass came in so handily for you — those have made him safe. Nay, Dick, to the contrary, thou and I and my brave bowmen, we must all slip from this forest speedily, and leave Sir Daniel free.”
“My mind misgiveth me for Jack,” said the lad.
“For Jack!” repeated Duckworth. “O, I see, for the wench! Nay, Dick, I promise you, if there come talk of any marriage we shall act at once; till then, or till the time is ripe, we shall all disappear, even like shadows at morning; Sir Daniel shall look east and west, and see none enemies; he shall think, by the mass, that he hath dreamed awhile, and hath now awakened in his bed. But our four eyes, Dick, shall follow him right close, and our four hands — so help us all the army of the saints! — shall bring that traitor low!”
Two days later Sir Daniel’s garrison had grown to such a strength that he ventured on a sally, and at the head of some two score horsemen, pushed without opposition as far as Tunstall hamlet. Not an arrow flew, not a man stirred in the thicket; the bridge was no longer guarded, but stood open to all corners; and as Sir Daniel crossed it, he saw the villagers looking timidly from their doors.
Presently one of them, taking heart of grace, came forward, and with the lowliest salutations, presented a letter to the knight.
His face darkened as he read the contents. It ran thus:
To the most untrue and cruel gentylman, Sir Daniel Brackley, Knyght, These:
I fynde ye were untrue and unkynd fro the first. Ye have my father’s blood upon your hands; let be, it will not wasshe. Some day ye shall perish by my procurement, so much I let you to wytte; and I let you to wytte farther, that if ye seek to wed to any other the gentylwoman, Mistresse Joan Sedley, whom that I am bound upon a great oath to wed myself, the blow will be very swift. The first step therinne will be thy first step to the grave.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13