by Robert Louis Stevenson
Saranac Lake, April 8, 1888.
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It was, indeed, high time for them to run. On every side the company of the Black Arrow was making for the hill. Some, being better runners, or having open ground to run upon, had far outstripped the others, and were already close upon the goal; some, following valleys, had spread out to right and left, and outflanked the lads on either side.
Dick plunged into the nearest cover. It was a tall grove of oaks, firm under foot and clear of underbrush, and as it lay down hill, they made good speed. There followed next a piece of open, which Dick avoided, holding to his left. Two minutes after, and the same obstacle arising, the lads followed the same course. Thus it followed that, while the lads, bending continually to the left, drew nearer and nearer to the high road and the river which they had crossed an hour or two before, the great bulk of their pursuers were leaning to the other hand, and running towards Tunstall.
The lads paused to breathe. There was no sound of pursuit. Dick put his ear to the ground, and still there was nothing; but the wind, to be sure, still made a turmoil in the trees, and it was hard to make certain.
“On again,” said Dick; and, tired as they were, and Matcham limping with his injured foot, they pulled themselves together, and once more pelted down the hill.
Three minutes later, they were breasting through a low thicket of evergreen. High overhead, the tall trees made a continuous roof of foliage. It was a pillared grove, as high as a cathedral, and except for the hollies among which the lads were struggling, it was an open and smooth meadow.
On the other side, pushing through the last fringe of evergreen, they blundered forth again into the open twilight of the grove.
“Stand!” cried a voice.
And there, between the huge stems, not fifty feet before them, they beheld a stout fellow in green, sore blown with running, who instantly drew an arrow to the head and covered them. Matcham stopped with a cry; but Dick, without a pause, ran straight upon the forester, drawing his dagger as he went. The other, whether he was startled by the daring of the onslaught, or whether he was hampered by his orders, did not shoot; he stood wavering; and before he had time to come to himself, Dick bounded at his throat, and sent him sprawling backward on the turf. The arrow went one way and the bow another with a sounding twang. The disarmed forester grappled his assailant; but the dagger shone and descended twice. Then came a couple of groans, and then Dick rose to his feet again, and the man lay motionless, stabbed to the heart.
“On!” said Dick; and he once more pelted forward, Matcham trailing in the rear. To say the truth, they made poor speed of it by now, labouring dismally as they ran, and catching for their breath like fish. Matcham had a cruel stitch, and his head swam; and as for Dick, his knees were like lead. But they kept up the form of running with undiminished courage.
Presently they came to the end of the grove. It stopped abruptly; and there, a few yards before them, was the high road from Risingham to Shoreby, lying, at this point, between two even walls of forest.
At the sight Dick paused; and as soon as he stopped running, he became aware of a confused noise, which rapidly grew louder. It was at first like the rush of a very high gust of wind, but soon it became more definite, and resolved itself into the galloping of horses; and then, in a flash, a whole company of men-at-arms came driving round the corner, swept before the lads, and were gone again upon the instant. They rode as for their lives, in complete disorder; some of them were wounded; riderless horses galloped at their side with bloody saddles. They were plainly fugitives from the great battle.
The noise of their passage had scarce begun to die away towards Shoreby, before fresh hoofs came echoing in their wake, and another deserter clattered down the road; this time a single rider and, by his splendid armour, a man of high degree. Close after him there followed several baggage-wagons, fleeing at an ungainly canter, the drivers flailing at the horses as if for life. These must have run early in the day; but their cowardice was not to save them. For just before they came abreast of where the lads stood wondering, a man in hacked armour, and seemingly beside himself with fury, overtook the wagons, and with the truncheon of a sword, began to cut the drivers down. Some leaped from their places and plunged into the wood; the others he sabred as they sat, cursing them the while for cowards in a voice that was scarce human.
All this time the noise in the distance had continued to increase; the rumble of carts, the clatter of horses, the cries of men, a great, confused rumor, came swelling on the wind; and it was plain that the rout of a whole army was pouring, like an inundation, down the road.
Dick stood sombre. He had meant to follow the highway till the turn for Holywood, and now he had to change his plan. But above all, he had recognized the colours of Earl Risingham, and he knew that the battle had gone finally against the rose of Lancaster. Had Sir Daniel joined, and was he now a fugitive and ruined? or had he deserted to the side of York, and was he forfeit to honour? It was an ugly choice.
“Come,” he said, sternly; and, turning on his heel, he began to walk forward through the grove, with Matcham limping in his rear.
For some time they continued to thread the forest in silence. It was now growing late; the sun was setting in the plain beyond Kettley; the tree-tops overhead glowed golden; but the shadows had begun to grow darker and the chill of the night to fall.
“If there were anything to eat!” cried Dick, suddenly, pausing as he spoke.
Matcham sat down and began to weep.
“You can weep for your own supper, but when it was to save men’s lives, your heart was hard enough,” said Dick, contemptuously. “You have seven deaths upon your conscience, Master John; I’ll never forgive you that.”
“Conscience!” cried Matcham, looking fiercely up. “Mine! And you have the man’s red blood upon your dagger! And why did you slay him, the poor soul? He drew his arrow, but he let not fly; he held you in his hand, and spared you! It is as brave to kill a kitten, as a man that does not defend himself.”
Dick was struck dumb.
“I killed him fair. I ran in upon his bow,” he cried.
“It was a coward blow,” returned Matcham. “You are but a fool and bully, Master Dick; you only abuse advantages; let there come a stronger, we will see you lick his boot! You care not for vengeance, neither—for your father’s death that goes unpaid, and his poor ghost clamours for justice. But if there come but a poor creature in your hands that lacks skill and strength, and would befriend you, down she shall go!”
Dick was too furious to observe that “she.”
“Marry!” he cried, “and here is news! Of any two the one will still be stronger. The better man throws the worse, and the worse is well served. You deserve a belting, Master Matcham, for your ill-guidance and unthankfulness to me; and what you deserve you shall have.”
And Dick, who, even in his angriest temper, still preserved the appearance of composure, began to unbuckle his belt.
“Here shall be your supper,” he said, grimly. Matcham had stopped his tears; he was as white as a sheet, but he looked Dick steadily in the face, and never moved. Dick took a step, swinging the belt. Then he paused, embarrassed by the large eyes and the thin, weary face of his companion. His courage began to subside.
“Say you were in the wrong, then,” he said, lamely.
“No,” said Matcham, “I was in the right. Come, cruel! I am lame; I am weary; I resist not; I never did hurt you; come, beat me—coward!”
Dick raised the belt at this last provocation, but Matcham winced and drew himself together with so cruel an apprehension, that his heart failed him yet again. The strap fell by his side, and he stood irresolute, feeling like a fool.
“A plague upon you, fool!” he said. “If you be so feeble of hand, you should keep the closer guard upon your tongue. But I’ll be hanged before I beat you!” and he put on his belt again. “Beat you I will not,” he continued; “but forgive you?—never. I knew you not; you were my master’s enemy; I lent you my horse; my dinner you have eaten; you have called me a coward, and a bully. No, by the mass! the measure is filled, and runs over. It is a great thing to be weak, I think: you can do your worst, yet shall none punish you; you may steal a man’s weapons in the hour of need, yet may the man not take his own again;—you are weak! Yet, then, if one comes charging at you with a lance, and cries he is weak, you must let him pierce your body through! Tut! fool words!”
“And yet you beat me not,” returned Matcham.
“Let it alone,” said Dick—“let it alone. I will instruct you. You have been ill-nurtured, I think, and yet you have the makings of some good, and, beyond all question, saved me from the river. I had forgotten it; I am as thankless as you are. But, come, let us on. If we are going to get to Holywood this night, or to-morrow early, we had best set forward speedily.”
But though Dick had talked himself back into his usual good-humour, Matcham had forgiven him nothing. His violence, the recollection of the forester whom he had slain—above all, the vision of the upraised belt, were things not easily to be forgotten.
“I will thank you, for the form’s sake,” said Matcham. “But, in truth, good Master Shelton, I would rather find my way alone. Here is a wide wood; let each choose his path; I owe you a dinner and a lesson. Goodby!”
“So,” cried Dick, “if that is your tune, so be it, and a plague be with you!”
Each turned aside, and they began walking off severally, with no thought of the direction, intent solely on their quarrel. But Dick had not gone ten paces before his name was called, and Matcham came running after.
“Dick,” he said, “it were unmannerly to part so coldly. Here is my hand, and my heart with it. For all that you have so excellently served and helped me—not for the form, but from the heart, I thank you. And goodby.”
“Well, lad,” returned Dick, taking the hand which was offered him, “good speed to you, if speed you may. But I gravely doubt it. You are too argumentative.” So then they separated for the second time; and presently it was Dick who was running after Matcham.
“Here,” he said, “take my cross-bow; I will not have you go unarmed.”
“A cross-bow!” said Matcham. “No, boy, I have neither the strength to bend nor yet the skill to aim with it. It is no help to me, good boy. But yet I thank you.”
The night had now fallen, and under the trees they could no longer read each other’s face.
“I will go some little way with you,” said Dick. “The night is dark. I would like to leave you on a path, at least. My mind troubles me, you are likely to be lost.”
Without any more words, he began to walk forward, and the other once more followed him. The blackness grew thicker and thicker. Only here and there, in open places, they saw the sky, dotted with small stars. In the distance, the noise of the rout of the Lancastrian army still continued to be faintly audible; but with every step they left it farther in the rear.
At the end of half an hour of silent progress they came upon a broad patch of heathy open. It glimmered in the light of the stars, shaggy with fern and islanded with clumps of yew. And here they paused and looked upon each other.
“You are weary?” Dick said.
“Yes, I am so weary,” answered Matcham, “that I think I could lie down and die.”
“I hear the chiding of a river,” returned Dick. “Let us go that far for I am very thirsty.”
The ground sloped down gently; and, sure enough, in the bottom, they found a little murmuring river, running among willows. Here they threw themselves down together by the brink; and putting their mouths to the level of a starry pool, they drank their fill.
“Dick,” said Matcham, “I can go on no more.”
“I saw a pit as we came down,” said Dick. “Let us lie down there and sleep.”
“Yes, with all my heart!” cried Matcham.
The pit was sandy and dry; a shock of brambles hung upon one hedge, and made a partial shelter; and there the two lads lay down, keeping close together for the sake of warmth, their quarrel all forgotten. And soon sleep fell upon them like a cloud, and under the dew and stars they rested peacefully.