It was near six in the May morning when Dick began to ride down into the fe_pon his homeward way. The sky was all blue; the jolly wind blew loud an_teady; the windmill-sails were spinning; and the willows over all the fe_ippling and whitening like a field of corn. He had been all night in th_addle, 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 th_eighbouring landmarks but Kettley windmill on the knoll behind him, and th_xtreme top of Tunstall Forest far before. On either hand there were grea_ields of blowing reeds and willows, pools of water shaking in the wind, an_reacherous 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 o_t had sunk, and every here and there, for a few hundred yards, it la_ubmerged below the stagnant waters of the fen.
About a mile from Kettley, Dick came to one such break in the plain line o_auseway, where the reeds and willows grew dispersedly like little islands an_onfused the eye. The gap, besides, was more than usually long; it was a plac_here 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. A_or himself, one look backward to where the windmill sails were turning blac_gainst the blue of heaven - one look forward to the high ground of Tunstal_orest, and he was sufficiently directed and held straight on, the wate_ashing 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 dr_pon the farther side, he was aware of a great splashing on his right, and sa_ grey horse, sunk to its belly in the mud, and still spasmodicall_truggling. Instantly, as though it had divined the neighbourhood of help, th_oor beast began to neigh most piercingly. It rolled, meanwhile, a blood-sho_ye, insane with terror; and as it sprawled wallowing in the quag, clouds o_tinging 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, _ill 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, an_ooking closely about him for any sign of his less happy predecessor in th_ay. “I would I had dared to tell him further,” he thought; “for I fear he ha_iscarried in the slough.”
And just as he was so thinking, a voice cried upon his name from the causewa_ide, and, looking over his shoulder, he saw the lad’s face peering from _lump of reeds.
“Are ye there?” he said, reining in. “Ye lay so close among the reeds that _ad 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 don_ourself. 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 th_ther, 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 th_east intention to offend. Rather I would in every way beseech your gentlenes_nd 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 si_pon! And before all,” he added, looking ruefully upon his clothes - “befor_ll, 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, ho_hall I do? Prithee, good Master Richard, help me with your good counsel. If _ome 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 th_neven 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 goo_bbot 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 violenc_rom my own place; dressed me in these weeds; ridden with me till my heart wa_ick; 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 eve_razed in the right foot, and walk but lamely. Nay, there shall come a da_etween us; he shall smart for all!”
“Would ye shoot at the moon with a hand-gun?” said Dick. “’Tis a valian_night, and hath a hand of iron. An he guessed I had made or meddled with you_light, it would go sore with me.”
“Ay, poor boy,” returned the other, “y’ are his ward, I know it. By the sam_oken, so am I, or so he saith; or else he hath bought my marriage - I wot no_ightly 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, sa_! Give me to hunt and to fight and to feast, and to live with joll_oresters. I never heard of a maid yet that was for any service, save on_nly; and she, poor shrew, was burned for a witch and the wearing of men’_lothes 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 th_est wench in Europe, was this Joan of Arc. Old Appleyard the archer ran fro_er, 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 s_ittle, y’ are no true natural man; for God made them twain by intention, an_rought 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 y_hink 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. _eant but pleasantry. And if I talk of women, it is because I heard ye were t_arry.”
“I to marry!” Dick exclaimed. “Well, it is the first I hear of it. And wit_hom was I to marry?”
“One Joan Sedley,” replied Matcham, colouring. “It was Sir Daniel’s doing; h_ath money to gain upon both sides; and, indeed, I have heard the poor wenc_emoaning herself pitifully of the match. It seems she is of your mind, o_lse 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 ar_hese girls: to bemoan herself before that she had seen me! Do I bemoa_yself? 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 o_leasant?”
“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, Maste_ichard; 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 ther_e 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 whil_ou ride my horse; but it is good wood, I trow.”
“Good Dick, forgive me,” cried the other. “Nay, y’ are the best heart i_ngland; I but laughed. Forgive me now, sweet Dick.”
“Nay, no fool words,” returned Dick, a little embarrassed by his companion’_armth. “No harm is done. I am not touchy, praise the saints.”
And at that moment the wind, which was blowing straight behind them as the_ent, 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 h_ecame pale as death.
“Nay, what cheer!” returned Dick. “Y’ have a long start, and we are near th_erry. And it is I, methinks, that am unhorsed.”
“Alack, I shall be taken!” cried the fugitive. “Dick, kind Dick, beseech y_elp 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, Joh_atcham - sith John Matcham is your name - I, Richard Shelton, tide wha_etideth, come what may, will see you safe in Holywood. The saints so do to m_gain if I default you. Come, pick me up a good heart, Sir White-face. The wa_etters here; spur me the horse. Go faster! faster! Nay, mind not for me; _an run like a deer.”
So, with the horse trotting hard, and Dick running easily alongside, the_rossed the remainder of the fen, and came out upon the banks of the river b_he ferryman’s hut.