by Robert Louis Stevenson
Saranac Lake, April 8, 1888.
Note: Look up difficult words at The Free Dictionary.
Sir Daniel and his men lay in and about Kettley that night, warmly quartered and well patrolled. But the Knight of Tunstall was one who never rested from money-getting; and even now, when he was on the brink of an adventure which should make or mar him, he was up an hour after midnight to squeeze poor neighbours. He was one who trafficked greatly in disputed inheritances; it was his way to buy out the most unlikely claimant, and then, by the favour he curried with great lords about the king, get unjust decisions in his favour; or, if that was too roundabout, to seize the disputed manor by force of arms, and rely on his influence and Sir Oliver’s cunning in the law to hold what he had snatched. Kettley was one such place; it had come very lately into his clutches; he still met with opposition from the tenants; and it was to overawe discontent that he had led his troops that way.
By two in the morning, Sir Daniel sat in the inn room, close by the fireside, for it was cold at that hour among the fens of Kettley. By his elbow stood a bottle of spiced ale. He had taken off his visored headpiece, and sat with his bald head and thin, dark visage resting on one hand, wrapped warmly in a cloak. At the lower end of the room about a dozen of his men stood sentry over the door or lay asleep on benches; and somewhat nearer hand, a young lad, apparently of twelve or thirteen, was stretched in a mantle on the floor. The host of the Sun Inn stood before the great man.
“Now listen well, my host,” Sir Daniel said, “follow my orders, and I shall be your good lord ever. I must have good men for village leaders, and I will have Adam-a-More for high constable. See that he is chosen. If another man is chosen, it shall hurt your position. For those that have paid rent to Walsingham I will treat with suspicion—including you.”
“Good knight,” said the host, “I will swear upon the cross of Holywood I did but pay Walsingham upon compulsion. No, fine knight, I love not the Walsinghams; they were as poor as thieves, fine knight. Give me a great lord like you. Ask about me among the neighbours, I am loyal for Brackley.”
“It may be,” said Sir Daniel, dryly. “You shall then pay twice.”
The innkeeper made a horrid grimace; but this was a piece of bad luck that might readily befall a tenant in these unruly times, and he was perhaps glad to make his peace so easily.
“Bring up the fellow from over there, Selden!” cried the knight.
And one of his retainers led up a poor, cringing old man, as pale as a candle, and all shaking with fever.
“Sir,” said Sir Daniel, “your name?”
“If it please your worship,” replied the man, “my name is Condall—Condall of Shoreby, at your good worship’s pleasure.”
“I have heard you ill reported on,” returned the knight. “You deal in treason, rogue; you travel the country stirring up trouble; you are heavily suspicioned of the death of several people. How, fellow, are you so bold? But I will bring you down.”
“Right honourable and my reverend lord,” the man cried, “here is some lies, saving your good presence. I am but a poor private man, and have hurt none.”
“The under-sheriff did report of you most vilely,” said the knight. “‘Seize me,’ he said, ‘that Tyndal of Shoreby.’”
“Condall, my good lord; Condall is my poor name,” said the unfortunate.
“Condall or Tyndal, it is all one,” replied Sir Daniel, coolly. “For you are here and I do mightily suspect your honesty. If you would save your neck, write me swiftly an obligation for twenty pounds.”
“For twenty pounds, my good lord!” cried Condall. “Here is midsummer madness! My whole estate is not worth seventy shillings.”
“Condall or Tyndal,” returned Sir Daniel, grinning, “I will run my peril of that loss. Write me down twenty, and when I have recovered all I may, I will be good lord to you, and pardon you the rest.”
“Alas! my good lord, it may not be; I have no skill to write,” said Condall.
“Oh well,” returned the knight , “Then we have no solution. Yet I wanted to spared you, Tyndal, for my conscience sake. Selden, take this old whiner softly to the nearest elm, and hang him tenderly by the neck, where I may see him at my riding. Goodby, good Master Condall, dear Master Tyndal; you are going quickly to Paradise!”
“No, my right pleasant lord,” replied Condall, forcing an obsequious smile, “you be so masterful, as does right well become you, I will even, with all my poor skill, do your good bidding.”
“Friend,” replied Sir Daniel, “you will now write twenty-four pounds. Go to! You are too cunning for a livelihood of seventy shillings. Selden, see him write this in good form, and have it duly witnessed.”
And Sir Daniel, who was a very merry knight, none merrier in England, took a drink of his mulled ale, and lay back, smiling.
Meanwhile, the boy upon the floor began to stir, and presently sat up and looked about him with a scare.
“Come here,” said Sir Daniel; and as the other rose at his command and came slowly towards him, he leaned back and laughed outright. “By my word!” he cried, “a sturdy boy!”
The lad flushed crimson with anger, and darted a look of hate out of his dark eyes. Now that he was on his legs, it was more difficult to make certain of his age. His face looked somewhat older in expression, but it was as smooth as a young child’s; and in bone and body he was unusually slender, and walked somewhat awkwardly.
“You have called me, Sir Daniel,” he said. “Was it to laugh at my poor plight?”
“Let me laugh,” said the knight. “Let me laugh, I pray you, my cousin. If you could see yourself, I bet you would laugh the first.”
“Well,” cried the lad, flushing, “you shall answer for this when you answer for the other. Laugh while you may!”
“No, my good cousin,” replied Sir Daniel, with some earnestness, “Don’t think that I mock you, except as a joke, as between kinsfolk and singular friends. I will make you a marriage of a thousand pounds, go to! and cherish you exceedingly. I took you, indeed, roughly, as the time demanded; but from now on I shall ungrudgingly maintain and cheerfully serve you. You shall be Mrs. Shelton—Lady Shelton, by my word! for the lad promises to be brave. Tut! you will not shy for honest laughter; it purges sadness. They are no rogues who laugh, good cousin. Good host, set a meal now for my cousin, Master John. Sit down, sweetheart, and eat.”
“No,” said Master John, “I will break no bread. Since you force me to this sin, I will fast for my soul’s interest. But, good host, I pray you of courtesy give me a cup of fair water; I shall be indebted to your courtesy indeed.”
“You shall have a dispensation, ” cried the knight. “I don’t want you to waste away, by my faith! Be content, then, and eat.”
But the lad was obstinate, drank a cup of water, and, once more wrapping himself closely in his mantle, sat in a far corner, brooding.
In an hour or two, there rose a stir in the village of sentries challenging and the clatter of arms and horses; and then a troop drew up by the inn door, and Richard Shelton, splashed with mud, presented himself upon the threshold.
“Save you, Sir Daniel,” he said.
“How! Dickie Shelton!” cried the knight; and at the mention of Dick’s name the other lad looked curiously across. “Where is Bennet Hatch?”
“Please, sir knight, read this packet from Sir Oliver, in it are all things are fully stated,” answered Richard, presenting the priest’s letter. “And, if you please, you need to make all speed to Risingham; for on the way here we encountered one riding furiously with letters, and by his report, my Lord of Risingham was sore bested, and lacked exceedingly your presence.”
“How say you? Sore bested?” returned the knight. “No, then, we will make speed sitting down, good Richard. As the world goes in this poor realm of England, he that rides softest rides surest. Delay, they say, makes peril; but it is rather this itch of doing that undoes men; mark it, Dick. But let me see, first, what men you have brought.”
Sir Daniel strode forth into the village street, and, by the red glow of a torch, inspected his new troops. He was an unpopular neighbour and an unpopular master; but as a leader in war he was well-beloved by those who rode behind his pennant. His dash, his proved courage, his forethought for the soldiers’ comfort, even his rough gibes, were all to the taste of the bold blades in jack and halmet.
“By my word!” he cried, “what poor dogs are these? Here be some as crooked as a bow, and some as lean as a spear. Friends, you shall ride in the front of the battle; I can spare you, friends. Mark me this old villain on the piebald horse! A two-year mutton riding on a hog would look more soldierly! Ha! Clipsby, are you there, old rat? You are a man I could lose with a good heart; you shall go in front of all, with a bull’s eye painted on your jack, to be the better butt for archery; sir, you will lead the way.”
“I will show you any way, Sir Daniel, but the way to change sides,” returned Clipsby, sturdily.
Sir Daniel laughed a guffaw.
“Why, well said!” he cried. “You have a shrewd tongue in thy mouth! I will forgive you for that merry word. Selden, see them fed, both man and brute.”
The knight re-entered the inn.
“Now, friend Dick,” he said, “relax. Here is good ale and bacon. Eat, while I read.”
Sir Daniel opened the packet, and as he read his brow darkened. When he had done he sat a little, musing. Then he looked sharply at his ward.
“Dick,” said he, “You have seen this penny rhyme?”
The lad replied in the affirmative.
“It bears your father’s name,” continued the knight; “and our poor whiner of a parson is, by some mad soul, accused of slaying him.”
“He did most eagerly deny it,” answered Dick.
“He did?” cried the knight, very sharply. “Don’t listen to him. He has a loose tongue; he babbles like a jack-sparrow. Some day, when I may find the leisure, Dick, I will myself more fully inform you of these matters. There was one Duckworth shrewdly blamed for it; but the times were troubled, and there was no justice to be got.”
“It happened at the Moat House?” Dick ventured, with a beating at his heart.
“It happened between the Moat House and Holywood,” replied Sir Daniel, calmly; but he shot a covert glance, black with suspicion, at Dick’s face. “And now,” added the knight, “Eat your meal quickly; you shall return to Tunstall with a message from me.”
Dick’s face fell sorely.
“Pity, Sir Daniel,” he cried, “send one of the villains! I beg you, let me go to the battle. I can strike a stroke, I promise you.”
“I doubt it not,” replied Sir Daniel, sitting down to write. “But here, Dick, is no honour to be won. I stay in Kettley till I have sure tidings of the war, and then ride to join with the conqueror. Cry not on cowardice; it is but wisdom, Dick; for this poor realm so tosses with rebellion, and the king’s name and custody so changes hands, that no man may be certain of the morrow. Toss-pot and Shuttle-wit run in, but my Lord Good-Counsel sits on one side, waiting.”
With that, Sir Daniel, turning his back to Dick, and quite at the farther end of the long table, began to write his letter, with his mouth on one side, for this business of the Black Arrow stuck sorely in his throat.
Meanwhile, young Shelton was going on heartily enough with his breakfast, when he felt a touch upon his arm, and a very soft voice whispering in his ear.
“Make not a sign, I do beg you,” said the voice, “but of your charity tell me the straight way to Holywood. I beg you, now, good boy, comfort a poor soul in peril and extreme distress, and set me so far upon the way to my repose.”
“Take the path by the windmill,” answered Dick, in the same tone; “it will bring you to Till Ferry; there inquire again.”
And without turning his head, he fell again to eating. But with the tail of his eye he caught a glimpse of the young lad called Master John stealthily creeping from the room.
“Why,” thought Dick, “he is a young as I. ‘Good boy’ does he call me? Had I known, I should have seen the varlet hanged before I had told him. Well, if he goes through the fen, I may come up with him and pull his ears.”
Half an hour later, Sir Daniel gave Dick the letter, and bade him speed to the Moat House. And, again, some half an hour after Dick’s departure, a messenger came, in hot haste, from my Lord of Risingham.
“Sir Daniel,” the messenger said, “you lose great honour, by my word! The fight began again this morning before the dawn, and we have beaten their van and scattered their right wing. Only the main battle stands fast. If we had your fresh men, we should tilt them all into the river. What, sir knight! Will you be the last? It stands not with your good credit.”
“No,” cried the knight, “I was but now upon the march. Selden, sound the trumpet. Sir, I am with you on the instant. It is not two hours since the more part of my command came in, sir messenger. What would you have? Spurring is good meat, but yet it killed the charger. Bustle, boys!”
By this time the trumpet was sounding cheerily in the morning, and from all sides Sir Daniel’s men poured into the main street and formed before the inn. They had slept upon their arms, with chargers saddled, and in ten minutes five-score men-at-arms and archers, cleanly equipped and briskly disciplined, stood ranked and ready. The chief part were in Sir Daniel’s uniform, dark purple and blue, which gave the greater show to their array. The best armed rode first; and away out of sight, at the tail of the column, came the sorry reinforcement of the night before. Sir Daniel looked with pride along the line.
“Here are the lads to serve you in a pinch,” he said.
“They are brave men, indeed,” replied the messenger. “It but increases my sorrow that you had not marched earlier.”
“Well,” said the knight, “what would you? The beginning of a feast and the end of a fray, sir messenger;” and he mounted into his saddle. “Why! how now!” he cried. “John! Joanna! By my word! where is she? Host, where is that girl?”
“Girl, Sir Daniel?” cried the landlord. “No, sir, I saw no girl.”
“Boy, then, fool!” cried the knight. “Could you not see it was a girl? She was in the dark purple-coloured mantle—she broke her fast with water, rogue—where is she?”
“The saints bless us! Master John, you called him,” said the host. “Well, I thought nothing was wrong. He is gone. I saw him—her—I saw her in the stable a good hour ago; She was saddling a grey horse.”
“Now, by my word!” cried Sir Daniel, “the girl was worth five hundred pounds to me and more.”
“Sir knight,” observed the messenger, with bitterness, “while that you are here, roaring for five hundred pounds, the realm of England is elsewhere being lost and won.”
“It is well said,” replied Sir Daniel. “Selden, fall me out with six cross-bowmen; hunt her down. I care not what it cost; but, at my returning, let me find her at the Moat House. It is your responsibility. And now, sir messenger, we march.”
And the troop broke into a good trot, and Selden and his six men were left behind upon the street of Kettley, with the staring villagers.