by Robert Louis Stevenson
Saranac Lake, April 8, 1888.
Note: Look up difficult words at The Free Dictionary.
The Moat House stood not far from the rough forest road. Externally, it was a compact rectangle of red stone, flanked at each corner by a round tower, pierced for archery and battlemented at the top. Within, it enclosed a narrow court. The moat was perhaps twelve feet wide, crossed by a single drawbridge. It was supplied with water by a trench, leading to a forest pool and commanded, through its whole length, from the battlements of the two southern towers. Except that one or two tall and thick trees had been suffered to remain within half a bowshot of the walls, the house was in a good position for defense.
In the court, Dick found a part of the garrison, busy with preparations for defense, and gloomily discussing the chances of a siege. Some were making arrows, some sharpening swords that had long been disused; but even as they worked, they shook their heads.
Twelve of Sir Daniel’s party had escaped the battle, run the gauntlet through the wood, and come alive to the Moat House. But out of this dozen, three had been gravely wounded: two at Risingham in the disorder of the rout, one by John Amend-All’s marksmen as he crossed the forest. This raised the force of the garrison, counting Hatch, Sir Daniel, and young Shelton, to twenty-two effective men. And more might be continually expected to arrive. The danger lay not therefore in the lack of men.
It was the terror of the Black Arrow that oppressed the spirits of the garrison. For their open foes of the party of York, in these most changing times, they felt but a far-away concern. “The world,” as people said in those days, “might change again” before harm came. But for their neighbours in the wood, they trembled. It was not Sir Daniel alone who was a mark for hatred. His men, conscious of impunity, had carried themselves cruelly through all the country. Harsh commands had been harshly executed; and of the little band that now sat talking in the court, there was not one who had not been guilty of some act of oppression or barbarity. And now, by the fortune of war, Sir Daniel had become powerless to protect his instruments; now, by the issue of some hours of battle, at which many of them had not been present, they had all become punishable traitors to the State, outside the buckler of the law, a shrunken company in a poor fortress that was hardly tenable, and exposed upon all sides to the just resentment of their victims. Nor had there been lacking grisly advertisements of what they might expect.
At different periods of the evening and the night, no fewer than seven riderless horses had come neighing in terror to the gate. Two were from Selden’s troop; five belonged to men who had ridden with Sir Daniel to the field. Lastly, a little before dawn, a spearman had come staggering to the moat side, pierced by three arrows; even as they carried him in, his spirit had departed; but by the words that he uttered in his agony, he must have been the last survivor of a considerable company of men.
Hatch himself showed, under his sun-brown, the pallour of anxiety; and when he had taken Dick aside and learned the fate of Selden, he fell on a stone bench and fairly wept. The others, from where they sat on stools or doorsteps in the sunny angle of the court, looked at him with wonder and alarm, but none ventured to inquire the cause of his emotion.
“Master Shelton,” said Hatch, at last—“what did I say? We shall all go. Selden was a man of his hands; he was like a brother to me. Well, he has gone second; well, we shall all follow! For what said their knave rhyme?—‘A black arrow in each black heart.’ Was it not so it went? Appleyard, Selden, Smith, old Humphrey gone; and there lies poor John Carter, crying, poor sinner, for the priest.”
Dick gave ear. Out of a low window, hard by where they were talking, groans and murmurs came to his ear.
“He is there?” he asked.
“Yes, in the second porter’s chamber,” answered Hatch. “We could not bear him further, soul and body were so bitterly at odds. At every step we lifted him, he thought he was dying. But now, I think, it is the soul that suffers. Ever for the priest he cries, and Sir Oliver, I know not why, still does not come. It will be a long confession; but poor Appleyard and poor Selden, they had none.”
Dick stooped to the window and looked in. The little cell was low and dark, but he could make out the wounded soldier lying moaning on his pallet.
“Carter, poor friend, how goes it?” he asked.
“Master Shelton,” returned the man, in an excited whisper, “for the dear light of heaven, bring the priest. Please, I am dying; I am brought very low down; my hurt is to the death. You may do me no more service; this shall be the last. Now, for my poor soul’s interest, and as a loyal gentleman, go get the priest; for I have a matter on my conscience that shall drag me deep.”
He groaned, and Dick heard the grating of his teeth, whether in pain or terror.
Just then Sir Daniel appeared upon the threshold of the hall. He had a letter in one hand.
“Lads,” he said, “we have had a shock, we have had a tumble; why, then, deny it? Rather it is better to get quickly again into the saddle. Our old King Harry the Sixth has lost. We will wash our hands of him. I have a good friend that is going to be the next the duke, the Lord of Wensleydale. Well, I have written a letter to my friend, praying his good lordship, and offering large satisfaction for the past and reasonable surety for the future. Doubt not but he will lend a favourable ear. A prayer without gifts is like a song without music: I have loaded him with promises, boys—I spare not to promise. What, then, is lacking? This is a great thing—would I deceive you?—a great thing and a difficult: a messenger to bear it. The woods—you are not ignorant of that—lie thick with our enemies. Haste is most needful; but without sleight and caution all is useless. Which, then, of this company will take this letter to my Lord of Wensleydale, and bring me the answer back?”
One man instantly arose.
“I will, if you like,” said he. “I will even risk my body.”
“No, Dicky Bowyer, not so,” returned the knight. “I don’t like it. You are sly indeed, but not speedy. You were always a straggler.”
“I will go, Sir Daniel, here am I,” cried another.
“The saints forbid!” said the knight. “You are speedy, but not sly. You would blunder headfirst into John Amend-All’s camp. I thank you both for your good courage; but, in truth, it may not be.”
Then Hatch offered himself, and he also was refused.
“I want you here, good Bennet; you are my right hand, indeed,” returned the knight; and then several coming forward in a group, Sir Daniel at length selected one and gave him the letter.
“Now,” he said, “upon your good speed and better discretion we do all depend. Bring me a good answer back, and before three weeks, I will have purged my forest of these vagabonds that brave us to our faces. But mark it well, Throgmorton: the matter is not easy. You must steal out at night, and go like a fox; and how you are to cross the river Till I know not, neither by the bridge nor ferry.”
“I can swim,” returned Throgmorton. “I will arrive safely, fear not.”
“Well, friend, go to the kitchen,” replied Sir Daniel. “You shall swim first of all in nut-brown ale.” And with that he turned back into the hall.
“Sir Daniel has a wise tongue,” said Hatch, aside, to Dick. “See, now, where many a lesser man had glossed the matter over, he speaks it out plainly to his company. Here is a danger, he says, and here difficulty; and jokes about it in the very saying. By Saint Barbary, he is a born captain! Not a man here that is not encouraged! See how hard they work again.”
This praise of Sir Daniel put a thought in the lad’s head.
“Bennet,” he said, “how did my father die?”
“Don’t ask me about that,” replied Hatch. “I had no hand nor knowledge in it; furthermore, I will even be silent, Master Dick. For look you, in a man’s own business there he may speak; but of hearsay matters and of common talk, not so. Ask Sir Oliver—or Carter, if you want; not me.”
And Hatch set off to make the rounds, leaving Dick thinking.
“Why would he not tell me?” thought the lad. “And why did he name Carter? Carter— then maybe Carter had a hand in it.”
He entered the house, and passing some little way along a flagged and vaulted passage, came to the door of the cell where the hurt man lay groaning. At his entrance Carter started eagerly.
“Have you brought the priest?” he cried.
“Not yet,” returned Dick. “You have something to tell me first. How came my father, Harry Shelton, by his death?”
The man’s face altered instantly.
“I know not,” he replied, doggedly.
“No, you know well,” returned Dick. “Don’t try to deceive me.”
“I tell you I know not,” repeated Carter.
“Then,” said Dick, “you shall die unconfessed. Here am I, and here shall stay. There shall no priest come near you, rest assured. For of what purpose is penitence, if you have no mind to right those wrongs you had a hand in? and without penitence, confession is but mockery.”
“You don’t mean that, Master Dick,” said Carter, composedly. “It is not good to threaten the dying, and becomes you (to speak truth) little. And for as little as it commends you, it shall serve you less. Stay, if you please. You will condemn my soul—you shall learn nothing! There is my last word to you.” And the wounded man turned upon the other side.
Now, Dick, to say the truth, had spoken hastily, and was ashamed of his threat. But he made one more effort.
“Carter,” he said, “don’t misunderstand me. I know you were but an instrument in the hands of others; a servant must obey his lord; I would not hold it against such a one. But I begin to learn upon many sides that this great duty lies on my youth and ignorance, to avenge my father. Please, then, good Carter, set aside the memory of my threatenings, and in pure goodwill and honest penitence give me a word of help.”
The wounded man lay silent; nor, say what Dick pleased, could he extract another word from him.
“Well,” said Dick, “I will go call the priest to you as you desired; for however you be in fault to me or mine, I would not be willingly in fault to any, least of all to one upon the last change.”
Again the old soldier heard him without speech or motion; even his groans he had suppressed; and as Dick turned and left the room, he was filled with admiration for that rugged fortitude.
“And yet,” he thought, “of what use is courage without wisdom? Had his hands been clean, he would have spoken; his silence did confess the secret louder than words. On all sides, proof flows to me. Sir Daniel, he or his men, has done this thing.”
Dick paused in the stone passage with a heavy heart. At that hour, in the ebb of Sir Daniel’s fortune, when he was beleaguered by the archers of the Black Arrow and proscribed by the victorious Yorkists, was Dick, also, to turn upon the man who had nourished and taught him, who had severely punished, indeed, but yet unwearyingly protected his youth? The necessity, if it should prove to be one, was cruel.
“Pray Heaven he be innocent!” he said.
And then steps sounded on the flagging, and Sir Oliver came gravely towards the lad.
“One seeks you earnestly,” said Dick.
“I am upon the way, good Richard,” said the priest. “It is this poor Carter. To bad he is beyond cure.”
“And yet his soul is sicker than his body,” answered Dick.
“Have you seen him?” asked Sir Oliver, obviously surprised.
“I am just coming from him,” replied Dick.
“What did he say? what did he say?” snapped the priest, with extraordinary eagerness.
“He only cried for you the more piteously, Sir Oliver. You had better hurry, for his hurt is grievous,” returned the lad.
“I am going straight to him,” was the reply. “Well, we have all our sins. We must all come to our latter day, good Richard.”
“Yes, sir; and it were well if we all came fairly,” answered Dick.
The priest dropped his eyes, and with an inaudible benediction hurried on.
“He, too!” thought Dick—“he, that taught me in piety! What kind of a world is this, if all that care for me are blood-guilty of my father’s death? Vengeance! Alas! what a sore fate is mine, if I must be avenged upon my friends!”
The thought put Matcham in his head. He smiled at the remembrance of his strange companion, and then wondered where he was. Ever since they had come together to the doors of the Moat House the younger lad had disappeared, and Dick began to weary for a word with him.
About an hour after, mass being somewhat hastily run through by Sir Oliver, the company gathered in the hall for dinner. It was a long, low apartment, strewn with green rushes, and the walls hung with tapestry in a design of savage men and questing bloodhounds; here and there hung spears and bows and bucklers; a fire blazed in the big chimney; there were tapestry-covered benches round the wall, and in the midst the table, fairly spread, awaited the arrival of the diners. Neither Sir Daniel nor his lady made their appearance. Sir Oliver himself was absent, and here again there was no word of Matcham. Dick began to grow alarmed, to recall his companion’s melancholy forebodings, and to wonder to himself if any foul play had come to him in that house.
After dinner he found Mrs. Goody Hatch, who was hurrying to my Lady Brackley.
“Goody,” he said, “where is Master Matcham? I saw you go in with him when we arrived.”
The old woman laughed aloud.
“Yes, Master Dick,” she said, “you have a famous bright eye in your head, to be sure!” and laughed again.
“No, but where is he, indeed?” persisted Dick.
“You will never see him anymore,” she returned—“never. It is sure.”
“If I cannot see him,” returned the lad, “I will know the reason why. He did not come here of his full free will; such as I am, I am his best protector, and I will see him justly used. There be too many mysteries; I do begin to weary of the game!”
But as Dick was speaking, a heavy hand fell on his shoulder. It was Bennet Hatch that had come unperceived behind him. With a jerk of his thumb, the retainer dismissed his wife.
“Friend Dick,” he said, as soon as they were alone, “are you a moon-struck moron? If you leave not certain things in peace, you were better in the salt sea than here in Tunstall Moat House. You have questioned me; you have baited Carter; you have frighted the Jack-priest with hints. Act more wisely, fool; and even now, when Sir Daniel calls you, show a smooth face for the love of wisdom. You are to be sharply questioned. Look well to your answers.”
“Hatch,” returned Dick, “in all this I smell a guilty conscience.”
“If you are not wiser, you will soon smell blood,” replied Bennet. “I do but warn you. And here comes one to call you.”
And indeed, at that very moment, a messenger came across the court to summon Dick into the presence of Sir Daniel.