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 th_astern sky was barred with solemn colours. Half starved and over-weary a_hey were, they lay without moving, sunk in a delightful lassitude. And a_hey 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 t_ound 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 h_oves.”
“I see that well,” said Dick. “But wherefore? What maketh he in Tunstal_oods? Jack,” he added, “laugh at me an ye will, but I like not the hollo_ound of it.”
“Nay,” said Matcham, with a shiver, “it hath a doleful note. An the day wer_ot 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 leape_he 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 yo_ight speedily. ’Tis a man in some fear of his life, or about some hurrie_usiness. 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 certai_minence, 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 whit_ootpath 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 it_ourse, 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 no_ppeared. It paused a little, and seemed to look about; and then, at a slo_ace, and bent almost double, it began to draw near across the heath. At ever_tep the bell clanked. Face, it had none; a white hood, not even pierced wit_ye-holes, veiled the head; and as the creature moved, it seemed to feel it_ay 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 wit_ staff. Let us lie still; the wind bloweth towards the path, and he will g_y 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 ros_nd shone full on his veiled face. He had been a tall man before he was bowe_y his disgusting sickness, and even now he walked with a vigorous step. Th_ismal beating of his bell, the pattering of the stick, the eyeless scree_efore his countenance, and the knowledge that he was not only doomed to deat_nd suffering, but shut out for ever from the touch of his fellow-men, fille_he lads’ bosoms with dismay; and at every step that brought him nearer, thei_ourage and strength seemed to desert them.
As he came about level with the pit, he paused, and turned his face full upo_he 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 agai_urned and seemed to gaze upon the lads. Even Dick became dead-white an_losed his eyes, as if by the mere sight he might become infected. But soo_he bell sounded, and this time, without any farther hesitation, the lepe_rossed the remainder of the little heath and disappeared into the covert o_he woods.
“He saw us,” said Matcham. “I could swear it!”
“Tut!” returned Dick, recovering some sparks of courage. “He but heard us. H_as in fear, poor soul! An ye were blind, and walked in a perpetual night, y_ould start yourself, if ever a twig rustled or a bird cried ‘Peep.’”
“Dick, good Dick, he saw us,” repeated Matcham. “When a man hearkeneth, h_oth not as this man; he doth otherwise, Dick. This was seeing; it was no_earing. 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; _hall not breathe till I have my back turned upon that leper.”
“Jack, y’ are too cowardly,” replied Dick. “We shall go fair for Holywood, o_s 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, an_egan to mount on the other side, which was steeper, towards the margin of th_ood. The ground became very uneven, full of knolls and hollows; trees gre_cattered or in clumps. it became difficult to choose a path, and the lad_omewhat wandered. They were weary, besides, with yesterday’s exertions an_he lack of food, and they moved but heavily and dragged their feet among th_and.
Presently, coming to the top of a knoll, they were aware of the leper, som_undred 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 befor_im with the swift and assured footsteps of a man who sees. Next moment he ha_isappeared into a little thicket.
The lads, at the first glimpse, had crouched behind a tuft of gorse; ther_hey lay, horror-struck.
“Certain, he pursueth us,” said Dick - “certain! He held the clapper of hi_ell in one hand, saw ye? that it should not sound. Now may the saints aid an_uide 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 hi_ell to that very end, that people may avoid him? Dick, there is below thi_omething deeper.”
“Nay, I care not,” moaned Dick; “the strength is gone out of me; my legs ar_ike water. The saints be mine assistance!”
“Would ye lie there idle?” cried Matcham. “Let us back into the open. We hav_he 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. “Th_and would fail me. Nay, now,” he added - “nay, now, let be! With sound men _ill fight, but not with ghosts and lepers. Which this is, I wot not. One o_ther, Heaven be our protection!”
“Now,” said Matcham, “if this be man’s courage, what a poor thing is man! Bu_ith 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! ho_ear 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’_ead was thrust forth from behind a trunk, and he seemed narrowly to scan th_eighbourhood before he once again withdrew. To their stretched senses, th_hole bush appeared alive with rustlings and the creak of twigs; and the_eard the beating of each other’s heart.
Suddenly, with a cry, the leper sprang into the open close by, and ra_traight upon the lads. They, shrieking aloud, separated and began to ru_ifferent ways. But their horrible enemy fastened upon Matcham, ran hi_wiftly down, and had him almost instantly a prisoner. The lad gave one screa_hat echoed high and far over the forest, he had one spasm of struggling, an_hen 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 hi_pirit and his strength revived; With a cry of pity and anger, he unslung an_ent 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 you_uardian, rogue? But here is this” - And there he broke off, and pointing t_atcham, asked: “How call ye him, Dick?”
“Nay,” said Dick, “I call him Master Matcham. Know ye him not? He said ye kne_im!”
“Ay,” replied Sir Daniel, “I know the lad;” and he chuckled. “But he ha_ainted; and, by my sooth, he might have had less to faint for! Hey, Dick? Di_ put the fear of death upon you?”
“Indeed, Sir Daniel, ye did that,” said Dick, and sighed again at the mer_ecollection. “Nay, sir, saving your respect, I had as lief ‘a’ met the devi_n person; and to speak truth, I am yet all a-quake. But what made ye, sir, i_uch 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 m_oor life in my own wood of Tunstall, Dick. We were ill sped at the battle; w_ut 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 amon_s; I have not seen one man in my own colours since I saw three fall. Fo_yself, I came sound to Shoreby, and being mindful of the Black Arrow, got m_his gown and bell, and came softly by the path for the Moat House. There i_o disguise to be compared with it; the jingle of this bell would scare me th_toutest outlaw in the forest; they would all turn pale to hear it. At lengt_ came by you and Matcham. I could see but evilly through this same hood, an_as not sure of you, being chiefly, and for many a good cause, astonished a_he finding you together. Moreover, in the open, where I had to go slowly an_ap with my staff, I feared to disclose myself. But see,” he added, “this poo_hrew begins a little to revive. A little good canary will comfort me th_eart of it.”
The knight, from under his long dress, produced a stout bottle, and began t_ub the temples and wet the lips of the patient, who returned gradually t_onsciousness, 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!
“Swallow me a good draught of this,” said the knight. “This will give yo_anhood. Thereafter, I will give you both a meal, and we shall all three on t_unstall. For, Dick,” he continued, laying forth bread and meat upon th_rass, “I will avow to you, in all good conscience, it irks me sorely to b_afe between four walls. Not since I backed a horse have I been pressed s_ard; peril of life, jeopardy of land and livelihood, and to sum up, all thes_osels in the wood to hunt me down. But I be not yet shent. Some of my lad_ill 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 righ_ortunate and undeserving Lord of York, why, Dick, we’ll be a man again and g_-horseback!”
And so saying, the knight filled himself a horn of canary, and pledged hi_ard 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 becam_onvulsed 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 m_ody! I broke this Duckworth like a rush; I beggared him to his door; I burne_he thatch above his head; I drove him from this country; and now, cometh h_ack 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 a_ath 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’_elfare!”
Matcham gave the required oath; and Sir Daniel re-adjusted the hood over hi_ace, and prepared his bell and staff. To see him once more in that appallin_ravesty somewhat revived the horror of his two companions. But the knight wa_oon 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 bel_egan to sound, numbering his steps, and the two lads sat by their untaste_eal, 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’_ack than to his face.”
They ate hastily, and set forth along the path through the airy upper level_f the forest, where great beeches stood apart among green lawns, and th_irds and squirrels made merry on the boughs. Two hours later, they began t_escend upon the other side, and already, among the tree-tops, saw before the_he 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 yo_et again, I trow, and that right often.”
“Ye’ll never again see poor Jack Matcham,” replied the other, “that was s_earful and burthensome, and yet plucked you from the river; ye’ll not see hi_ore, Dick, by mine honour!” He held his arms open, and the lads embraced an_issed. “And, Dick,” continued Matcham, “my spirit bodeth ill. Y’ are now t_ee a new Sir Daniel; for heretofore hath all prospered in his hand_xceedingly, and fortune followed him; but now, methinks, when his fate hat_ome upon him, and he runs the adventure of his life, he will prove but a fou_ord 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 dow_nto that house, Saint Mary guide us forth again!”
And so they continued their descent in silence, and came out at last befor_ir Daniel’s forest stronghold, where it stood, low and shady, flanked wit_ound towers and stained with moss and lichen, in the lilied waters of th_oat. Even as they appeared, the doors were opened, the bridge lowered, an_ir Daniel himself, with Hatch and the parson at his side, stood ready t_eceive them.