BESIDE the minister and myself, nothing human moved in the crimson woods. Blu_aze was there, and the steady drift of colored leaves, and the sunshin_reely falling through bared limbs, but no man or woman. The fallen leave_ustled as the deer passed, the squirrels chattered and the foxes barked, bu_e heard no sweet laughter or ringing song.
We found a bank of moss, and lying upon it a chaplet of red-brown oak leaves; further on, the mint beside a crystal streamlet had been trodden underfoot; then, flung down upon the brown earth beneath some pines, we came upon a lon_railer of scarlet vine. Beyond was a fairy hollow, a cuplike depression, curtained from the world by the red vines that hung from the trees upon it_rim, and carpeted with the gold of a great maple; and here Fear became _iant with whom it was vain to wrestle.
There had been a struggle in the hollow. The curtain of vines was torn, th_oughs of a sumach bent and broken, the fallen leaves groun underfoot. In on_lace there was blood upon the leaves.
The forest seemed suddenly very quiet,—quite soundless save for the beating o_ur hearts. On every side opened red and yellow ways, sunny glades, labyrinthine paths, long aisles, all dim with the blue haze like the cloud_ncense in stone cathedrals, but nothing moved in them save the creatures o_he forest. Without the hollow there was no sign. The leaves looke_ndisturbed, or others, drifting down, had hidden any marks there might hav_een; no footprints, no broken branches, no token of those who had left th_ollow. Down which of the painted ways had they gone, and where were they now?
Sparrow and I sat our horses, and stared now down this alley, now down that, into the blue that closed each vista.
"The Santa Teresa is just off the big spring," he said at last. "She must hav_ropped down there in order to take in water quietly."
"The man that came upon her is still in town,—or was an hour agone," _eplied.
"Then she has n't sailed yet," he said.
In the distance something grew out of the blue mist. I had not lived thirtee_ears in the woodland to be dim of sight or dull of hearing.
"Some one is coming," I announced. "Back your horse into this clump o_umach."
The sumach grew thick, and was draped, moreover, with some broad-leafed vine.
Within its covert we could see with small danger of being seen, unless th_pproaching figure should prove to be that of an Indian. It was not an Indian; it was my Lord Carnal. He came on slowly, glancing from side to side, an_ausing now and then as if to listen. He was so little of a woodsman that h_ever looked underfoot.
Sparrow touched my arm and pointed down a glade at right angles with the pat_y lord was pursuing. Up this glade there was coming toward us anothe_igure,—a small black figure that moved swiftly, looking neither to the righ_or to the left.
Black Lamoral stood like a stone; the brown mare, too, had learned what mean_ certain touch upon her shoulder. Sparrow and I, with small shame for ou_avesdropping, bent to our saddlebows and looked sideways through tiny gaps i_he crimson foliage.
My lord descended one side of the hollow, his heavy foot bringing down th_ead leaves and loose earth; the Italian glided down the opposite side, disturbing the economy of the forest as little as a snake would have done.
"I thought I should never meet you," growled my lord. "I thought I had los_ou and her and myself. This d-d red forest and this blue haze are enoug_o"—He broke off with an oath.
"I came as fast as I could," said the other. His voice was strange, thin an_reamy, matching his filmy eyes and his eternal, very faint smile. "Your poo_hysician congratulates your lordship upon the success that still attends you.
Yours is a fortunate star, my lord."
"Then you have her safe?" cried my lord.
"Three miles from here, on the river bank, is a ring of pines, in which th_rees grow so thick that it is always twilight. Ten years ago a man wa_urdered there, and Sir Thomas Dale chained the murderer to the tree beneat_hich his victim was buried, and left him to perish of hunger and thirst. Tha_s the tale they tell at Jamestown. The wood is said to be haunted by murdere_nd murderer, and no one enters it or comes nearer to it than he can avoid: which makes it an excellent resort for those whom the dead cannot scare. Th_ady is there, my lord, with your four knaves to guard her. They do not kno_hat the gloom and quiet of the place are due to more than nature."
My lord began to laugh. Either he had been drinking, or the success of hi_illainy had served for wine. "You are a man in a thousand, Nicolo!" he said.
"How far above or below the ship is this fortunate wood?"
"Just opposite, my lord."
"Can a boat land easily?"
"A creek runs through the wood to the river. There needs but the appointe_ignal from the bank, and a boat from the Santa Teresa can be rowed up th_tream to the very tree beneath which the lady sits."
My lord's laughter rang out again. "You're a man in ten thousand, Nicolo!
Nicolo, the bridegroom's in town."
"Back so soon?" said the Italian. "Then we must change your lordship's plan.
With him on the ground, you can no longer wait until nightfall to ro_ownstream to the lady and the Santa Teresa. He'll come to look for her."
"Ay he'll come to look for her, curse him!" echoed my lord.
"Do you think the dead will scare him?" continued the Italian.
"No, I don't!" answered my lord, with an oath. "I would he were among them! A_ could have killed him before I went"—
"I had devised a way to do it long ago, had not your lordship's conscienc_een so tender. And yet, before now, our enemies—yours and mine, my lord—hav_et with sudden and mysterious death. Men stared, but they ended by calling i_ dispensation of Providence." He broke off to laugh with silent, hatefu_aughter, as mirthful as the grin of a death's-head.
"I know, I know!" said my lord impatiently. "We are not overnice, Nicolo. Bu_etween me and those who then stood in my way there had passed no challenge.
This is my mortal foe, through whose heart I would drive my sword. I woul_ive my ruby to know whether he's in the town or in the forest."
"He's in the forest," I said.
Black Lamoral and the brown mare were beside them before either moved hand o_oot, or did aught but stare and stare, as though men and horses had rise_rom the dead. All the color was gone from my lord's face,—it looked white, drawn, and pinched; as for his companion, his countenance did no_hange,—never changed, I believe,—but the trembling of the feather in his ha_as not caused by the wind.
Jeremy Sparrow bent down from his saddle, seized the Italian under th_rmpits, and swung him clean from the ground up to the brown mare's neck.
"Divinity and medicine," he said genially, "soul healer and body poisoner, we'll ride double for a time," and proceeded to bind the doctor's hands wit_is own scarf. The creature of venom before him writhed and struggled, but th_inister's strength was as the strength of ten, and the minister's hand hel_im down. By this I was off Black Lamoral and facing my lord. The color ha_ome back to his lip and cheek, and the flash to his eye. His hand went to hi_word hilt.
"I shall not draw mine, my lord," I told him. "I keep troth."
He stared at me with a frown that suddenly changed into a laugh, forced an_nnatural enough. "Then go thy ways, and let me go mine!" he cried. "B_omplaisant, worthy captain of trainbands and Burgess from a dozen huts! Th_ing and I will make it worth your while."
"I will not draw my sword upon you," I replied, "but I will try a fall wit_ou," and I seized him by the wrist.
He was a good wrestler as he was a good swordsman, but, with bitter anger i_y heart and a vision of the haunted wood before my eyes, I think I could hav_restled with Hercules and won. Presently I threw him, and, pinning him dow_ith my knee upon his breast, cried to Sparrow to cut the bridle reins fro_lack Lamoral and throw them to me. Though he had the Italian upon his hands, he managed to obey. With my free hand and my teeth I drew a thong about m_ord's arms and bound them to his sides; then took my knee from his chest an_y hand from his throat, and rose to my feet. He rose too with one spring. H_as very white, and there was foam on his lips.
"What next, captain?" he demanded thickly. "Your score is mounting up rathe_apidly. What next?"
"This," I replied, and with the other thong fastened him, despite hi_truggles, to the young maple beneath which we had wrestled. When the task wa_one, I first drew his sword from its jeweled scabbard and laid it on th_round at his feet, and then cut the leather which restrained his arms, leaving him only tied to the tree. "I am not Sir Thomas Dale," I said, "an_herefore I shall not gag you and leave you bound for an indefinite length o_ime, to contemplate a grave that you thought to dig. One haunted wood i_nough for one county. Your lordship will observe that I have knotted you_onds in easy reach of your hands, the use of which I have just restored t_ou. The knot is a peculiar one; an Indian taught it to me. If you set to wor_t once, you will get it untied before nightfall. That you may not think i_he Gordian knot and treat it as such, I have put your sword where you can ge_t only when you have worked for it. Your familiar, my lord, may prove of us_o us; therefore we will take him with us to the haunted wood. I have th_onor to wish your lordship a very good day."
I bowed low, swung myself into my saddle, and turned my back upon his glarin_yes and bared teeth. Sparrow, his prize flung across his saddlebow, turne_ith me. A minute more saw us out of the hollow, and entered upon the glade u_hich had come the Italian. When we had gone a short distance, I turned in m_addle and looked back. The tiny hollow had vanished; all the forest looke_evel, dreamy and still, barren of humanity, given over to its own sh_hildren, nothing moving save the slow-falling leaves. But from beyond a grea_lump of sumach, set like a torch in the vaporous blue, came a steady strea_f words, happily rendered indistinguishable by distance, and I knew that th_ing's minion was cursing the Italian, the Governor, the Santa Teresa, the Du_eturn, the minister, the forest, the haunted wood, his sword, the knot that _ad tied, and myself.