by Robert Louis Stevenson
Saranac Lake, April 8, 1888.
Note: Look up difficult words at The Free Dictionary.
Sir Daniel was in the hall; there he paced angrily before the fire, awaiting Dick’s arrival. None was there except Sir Oliver, and he sat discreetly backward, thumbing and muttering over his prayer book.
“You have sent for me, Sir Daniel?” said young Shelton.
“I have sent for you, indeed,” replied the knight. “What am I hearing? Have I been to you so heavy a guardian that you are quick to think the worst of me? Or since that you see me, for the once, some worsted, do you think to quit my party? By the mass, your father was not so! Those he was near, those he stood by, come wind or weather. But you, Dick, you are a fair-day friend, it seems, and now seek to clear yourself of your allegiance.”
“If it please you, Sir Daniel, not so,” returned Dick, firmly. “I am grateful and faithful, where gratitude and faith are due. And before more is said, I thank you, and I thank Sir Oliver; you have great claims upon me both—none can have more; I were a hound if I forgot them.”
“It is well,” said Sir Daniel; and then, rising into anger: “Gratitude and faith are words, Dick Shelton,” he continued; “but I look to deeds. In this hour of my peril, when my name is attainted, when my lands are forfeit, when this wood is full of men that hunger and thirst for my destruction, what is gratitude? what is faith? I have but a little company remaining; is it grateful or faithful to poison their hearts with your insidious whisperings? Save me from such gratitude! But, come, now, what is it you wish? Speak; we are here to answer. If you have anything against me, stand up and say it.”
“Sir,” replied Dick, “my father fell when I was yet a child. It has come to my ears that he was foully done by. It has come to my ears—for I will not be dishonest—that you had a hand in his undoing. And in all verity, I shall not be at peace in my own mind, nor very clear to help you, till I have certain resolution of these doubts.”
Sir Daniel sat down in deep thought. He took his chin in his hand and looked at Dick fixedly.
“And you think I would be guardian to the man’s son that I had murdered?” he asked.
“ Pardon me,” said Dick, “if I answer foolishly; but indeed you know right well a wardship is most profitable. All these years have you not enjoyed my revenues, and led my men? Have you not still my marriage? I do not what it may be worth—it is worth something. Pardon me again; but if you were base enough to slay a man under trust, here were, perhaps, reasons enough to move you to the lesser baseness.”
“When I was lad of your years,” returned Sir Daniel, sternly, “my mind had not so turned upon suspicions. And Sir Oliver here,” he added, “why should he, a priest, be guilty of this act?”
“Sir Daniel,” said Dick, “but where the master bids there will the dog go. It is well known this priest is but your instrument. I speak very freely; the time is not for courtesies. Even as I speak, so would I be answered. And answer get I none! You but put more questions. I advise you to beware, Sir Daniel; for in this way you will but nourish and not satisfy my doubts.”
“I will answer you fairly, Master Richard,” said the knight. “Were I to pretend you have not stirred my wrath, I were no honest man. But I will be just even in anger. Come to me with these words when you are grown and come to man’s estate, and I am no longer your guardian, and so helpless to resent them. Come to me then, and I will answer you as you deserve, with a buffet in the mouth. Till then you have two courses: either swallow down these insults, keep a silent tongue, and fight in the meanwhile for the man that fed and fought for your infancy; or else—the door stands open, the woods are full of mine enemies—go.”
The spirit with which these words were uttered, the looks with which they were accompanied, staggered Dick; and yet he could not but observe that he had got no answer.
“I desire nothing more earnestly, Sir Daniel, than to believe you,” he replied. “Assure me you are free from this.”
“Will you take my word of honour, Dick?” inquired the knight.
“That would I,” answered the lad.
“I give it you,” returned Sir Daniel. “Upon my word of honour, upon the eternal welfare of my spirit, and as I shall answer for my deeds hereafter, I had no hand nor portion in your father’s death.”
He extended his hand, and Dick took it eagerly. Neither of them observed the priest, who, at the pronunciation of that solemn and false oath, had half arisen from his seat in an agony of horror and remorse.
“Please,” cried Dick, “you must find it in your great-heartedness to pardon me! I was a fool, indeed, to doubt of you. But you have my hand upon it; I will doubt no more.”
“Yes, Dick,” replied Sir Daniel, “you are forgiven. You know not the world and its calumnious nature.”
“I was the more to blame,” added Dick, “in that the rogues pointed, not directly at yourself, but at Sir Oliver.”
As he spoke, he turned towards the priest, and paused in the middle of the last word. This tall, ruddy, corpulent, high-stepping man had fallen, you might say, to pieces; his colour was gone, his limbs were relaxed, his lips stammered prayers; and now, when Dick’s eyes were fixed upon him suddenly, he cried out aloud, like some wild animal, and buried his face in his hands.
Sir Daniel was by him in two strides, and shook him fiercely by the shoulder. At the same moment Dick’s suspicions reawakened.
“Yes” he said, “Sir Oliver may swear also. It was him they accused.”
“He shall swear,” said the knight.
Sir Oliver speechlessly waved his arms.
“Yes, by the mass! but you shall swear,” cried Sir Daniel, beside himself with fury. “Here, upon this book, you shall swear,” he continued, picking up the prayer book, which had fallen to the ground. “What! You make me doubt you! Swear, I say; swear!”
But the priest was still incapable of speech. His terror of Sir Daniel, his terror of perjury, risen to about an equal height, strangled him.
And just then, through the high, stained-glass window of the hall, a black arrow crashed, and struck, and stuck quivering, in the midst of the long table.
Sir Oliver, with a loud scream, fell fainting on the rushes; while the knight, followed by Dick, dashed into the court and up the nearest corkscrew stair to the battlements. The sentries were all on the alert. The sun shone quietly on green lawns dotted with trees, and on the wooded hills of the forest which enclosed the view. There was no sign of a besieger.
“Where did that shot come from?” asked the knight.
“From yonder clump, Sir Daniel,” returned a sentinel.
The knight stood a little, musing. Then he turned to Dick. “Dick,” he said, “keep me an eye upon these men; I leave you in charge here. As for the priest, he shall clear himself, or I will know the reason why. I do almost begin to share in your suspicions. He shall swear, trust me, or we shall prove him guilty.”
Dick answered somewhat coldly, and the knight, giving him a piercing glance, hurriedly returned to the hall. His first glance was for the arrow. It was the first of these missiles he had seen, and as he turned it to and fro, the dark hue of it touched him with some fear. Again there was some writing: one word—“Earthed.”
“Yes,” he broke out, “they know I am home, then. Earthed! Yes, but there is not a dog among them fit to dig me out.”
Sir Oliver had come to himself, and now scrambled to his feet.
“Alas, Sir Daniel!” he moaned, “you have sworn a dread oath; you are doomed to the end of time.”
“Yes,” returned the knight, “I have sworn an oath, indeed, you knucklehead; but you will swear a greater. It shall be on the blessed cross of Holywood. Look to it; get the words ready. It shall be sworn to-night.”
“Now, may Heaven lighten you!” replied the priest; “may Heaven incline your heart from this iniquity!”
“Look, my good father,” said Sir Daniel, “if you are for piety, I say no more; you begin late, that is all. But if you are in any sense bent upon wisdom, hear me. This lad begins to irk me like a wasp. I have a need for him, for I would sell his marriage. But I tell you, in all plainness, if he continues to weary me, he shall go join his father. I give orders now to change him to the chamber above the chapel. If you can swear your innocency with a good, solid oath and an assured countenance, it is well; the lad will be at peace a little, and I will spare him. If you stammer or blench, or anyways boggle at the swearing, he will not believe you; and by the mass, he shall die. There is for your thinking on.”
“The chamber above the chapel!” gasped the priest.
“That same,” replied the knight. “So if you desire to save him, save him; and if you desire it not, please, go to, and let me be at peace! For if I had been a hasty man, I would already have put my sword through you, for your intolerable cowardice and folly. Have you chosen? Say!”
“I have chosen,” said the priest. “Heaven pardon me, I will do evil for good. I will swear for the lad’s sake.”
“So is it best!” said Sir Daniel. “Send for him, then, speedily. You shall see him alone. Yet I shall have an eye on you. I shall be here in the panel room.”
The knight raised the tapestry and let it fall again behind him. There was the sound of a spring opening; then followed the creaking of trod stairs.
Sir Oliver, left alone, cast a timorous glance upward at the tapestry-covered wall, and crossed himself with every appearance of terror and contrition.
“If he is in the chapel room,” the priest murmured, “were it at my soul’s cost, I must save him.”
Three minutes later, Dick, who had been summoned by another messenger, found Sir Oliver standing by the hall table, resolute and pale.
“Richard Shelton,” he said, “you have required an oath from me. I might complain, I might deny you; but my heart is moved toward you for the past, and I will even content you as you choose. By the true cross of Holywood, I did not slay your father.”
“Sir Oliver,” returned Dick, “when first we read John Amend-All’s paper, I was convinced of so much. But let me to put two questions. You did not slay him; granted. But had you no hand in it?”
“None,” said Sir Oliver. And at the same time he began to contort his face, and signal with his mouth and eyebrows, like one who desired to convey a warning, yet dared not utter a sound.
Dick regarded him in wonder; then he turned and looked all about him at the empty hall.
“What are you doing?” he inquired.
“Why, nothing,” returned the priest, hastily smoothing his countenance. “I'm not doing anything; I do but suffer; I am sick. I—I—please, Dick, I must be gone. On the true cross of Holywood, I am clean innocent alike of violence or treachery. Be content, good lad. Farewell!”
And he made his escape from the apartment with unusual alacrity.
Dick remained rooted to the spot, his eyes wandering about the room, his face a changing picture of various emotions, wonder, doubt, suspicion, and amusement. Gradually, as his mind grew clearer, suspicion took the upper hand, and was succeeded by certainty of the worst. He raised his head, and, as he did so, violently started. High upon the wall there was the figure of a savage hunter woven in the tapestry. With one hand he held a horn to his mouth; in the other he brandished a stout spear. His face was dark, for he was meant to represent an African.
Now, here was what had startled Richard Shelton. The sun had moved away from the hall windows, and at the same time the fire had blazed up high on the wide hearth, and shed a changeful glow upon the roof and hangings. In this light the figure of the black hunter had winked at him with a white eyelid.
He continued staring at the eye. The light shone upon it like a gem; it was liquid, it was alive. Again the white eyelid closed upon it for a fraction of a second, and the next moment it was gone.
There could be no mistake. The live eye that had been watching him through a hole in the tapestry was gone. The firelight no longer shone on a reflecting surface.
And instantly Dick awoke to the terrors of his position. Hatch’s warning, the mute signals of the priest, this eye that had observed him from the wall, ran together in his mind. He saw he had been put upon his trial, that he had once more betrayed his suspicions, and that, short of some miracle, he was lost.
“If I cannot get out of this house,” he thought, “I am a dead man! And this poor Matcham, too—to what a hornet’s nest I have led him!”
He was still so thinking, when there came one in haste, to bid him help in changing his arms, his clothing, and his two or three books, to a new chamber.
“A new chamber?” he repeated. “Why? What chamber?”
“’It the is one above the chapel,” answered the messenger.
“It has stood long empty,” said Dick, musing. “What manner of room is it?”
“A nice room,” returned the man. “But yet”—lowering his voice—“they call it haunted.”
“Haunted?” repeated Dick, with a chill. “I have not heard of it. When, and by whom?”
The messenger looked about him; and then, in a low whisper, “By the sacrist of St. John’s,” he said. “They had him there to sleep one night, and in the morning—whew!—he was gone. The devil had taken him, they said; the more betoken, he had drunk late the night before.”
Dick followed the man with black forebodings.