by Robert Louis Stevenson
Saranac Lake, April 8, 1888.
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From the battlements nothing further was observed. The sun journeyed westward, and at last went down; but, to the eyes of all these eager sentinels, no living thing appeared in the neighbourhood of Tunstall House.
When the night was at length fairly come, Throgmorton was led to a room overlooking an angle of the moat. Thence he was lowered with every precaution; the ripple of his swimming was audible for a brief period; then a black figure was observed to land by the branches of a willow and crawl away among the grass. For some half hour Sir Daniel and Hatch stood eagerly giving ear; but all remained quiet. The messenger had got away in safety.
Sir Daniel’s brow grew clearer. He turned to Hatch.
“Bennet,” he said, “this John Amend-All is no more than a man, you will see. He sleeps. We will make a good end of him!”
All the afternoon and evening, Dick had been ordered hither and thither, one command following another, till he was bewildered with the number and the hurry of commissions. All that time he had seen no more of Sir Oliver, and nothing of Matcham; and yet both the priest and the young lad ran continually in his mind. It was now his chief purpose to escape from Tunstall Moat House as speedily as might be; and yet, before he went, he desired a word with both of these.
At length, with a lamp in one hand, he mounted to his new apartment. It was large, low, and somewhat dark. The window looked upon the moat, and although it was so high up, it was heavily barred. The bed was luxurious, with one pillow of down and one of lavender, and a red coverlet worked in a pattern of roses. All about the walls were cupboards, locked and padlocked, and concealed from view by hangings of dark-coloured tapestries. Dick made the round, lifting the tapestries, sounding the panels, seeking vainly to open the cupboards. He assured himself that the door was strong and the bolt solid; then he set down his lamp upon a bracket, and once more looked all around.
For what reason had he been given this chamber? It was larger and finer than his own. Could it conceal a snare? Was there a secret entrance? Was it, indeed, haunted? His blood ran a little chilly in his veins.
Immediately over him the heavy foot of a sentry trod the leads. Below him, he knew, was the arched roof of the chapel; and next to the chapel was the hall. Certainly there was a secret passage in the hall; the eye that had watched him from the tapestry gave him proof of that. Was it not more than probable that the passage extended to the chapel, and, if so, that it had an opening in his room?
To sleep in such a place, he felt, would be foolhardy. He made his weapons ready, and took his position in a corner of the room behind the door. If ill was intended, he would sell his life dear.
The sound of many feet, the challenge, and the password, sounded overhead along the battlements; the watch was being changed.
And just then there came a scratching at the door of the chamber; it grew a little louder; then a whisper:
“Dick, Dick, it is I!”
Dick ran to the door, drew the bolt, and admitted Matcham. He was very pale, and carried a lamp in one hand and a drawn dagger in the other.
“Shut the door,” he whispered. “Swift, Dick! This house is full of spies; I hear their feet follow me in the corridors; I hear them breathe behind the tapestries.”
“Well, be content,” returned Dick, “it is closed. We are safe for this while, if there be safety anywhere within these walls. But my heart is glad to see you. By the mass, lad, I thought you had left! Where did you hide?”
“It matters not,” returned Matcham. “Since we are together, it matters not. But, Dick, are your eyes open? Have they told you of to-morrow’s doings?”
“Not they,” replied Dick. “What are they doing to-morrow?”
“To-morrow, or to-night, I know not,” said the other, “but one time or other, Dick, they do intend upon your life. I had the proof of it; I have heard them whisper; no, they as good as told me.”
“Yes,” returned Dick, “is it so? I had thought as much.”
And he told him the day’s occurrences at length.
When it was done, Matcham arose and began, in turn, to examine the apartment.
“No,” he said, “there is no entrance visible. Yet it is a pure certainty there is one. Dick, I will stay by you. If you are to die, I will die with you. And I can help—look! I have stolen a dagger—I will do my best! And meanwhile, if you know of any exit we could get opened, or any window that we might descend by, I will most joyfully face any jeopardy to flee with you.”
“Jack,” said Dick, “by the mass, Jack, you are the best soul, and the truest, and the bravest in all England! Give me your hand, Jack.”
And he grasped the other’s hand in silence.
“I will tell you,” he resumed. “There is a window, out of which the messenger descended; the rope should still be in the chamber. It is a hope.”
“Quiet!” said Matcham.
Both listened intently. There was a sound below the floor; then it paused, and then began again.
“Someone is walking in the room below,” whispered Matcham.
“No,” returned Dick, “there is no room below; we are above the chapel. It is my murderer in the secret passage. Well, let him come; it shall go hard with him;” and he ground his teeth.
“Blow the lights out,” said the other. “Maybe he will betray himself.”
They blew out both the lamps and lay still as death. The footfalls underneath were very soft, but they were clearly audible. Several times they came and went; and then there was a loud jar of a key turning in a lock, followed by a considerable silence.
Presently the steps began again, and then, all of a sudden, a chink of light appeared in the planking of the room in a far corner. It widened; a trap-door was being opened, letting in a gush of light. They could see the strong hand pushing it up; and Dick raised his cross-bow, waiting for the head to follow.
But now there came an interruption. From a distant corner of the Moat House shouts began to be heard, and first one voice, and then several, crying aloud upon a name. This noise had plainly disconcerted the murderer, for the trap-door was silently lowered to its place, and the steps hurriedly returned, passed once more close below the lads, and died away in the distance.
Here was a moment’s respite. Dick breathed deep, and then, and not till then, he gave ear to the disturbance which had interrupted the attack, and which was now rather increasing than diminishing. All about the Moat House feet were running, doors were opening and slamming, and still the voice of Sir Daniel towered above all this bustle, shouting for “Joanna.”
“Joanna!” repeated Dick. “Why, who the murrain should this be? Here is no Joanna, nor ever has been. What does it mean?”
Matcham was silent. He seemed to have drawn further away. But only a little faint starlight entered by the window, and at the far end of the apartment, where the pair were, the darkness was complete.
“Jack,” said Dick, “I don’t know where you were all day. Did you see this Joanna?”
“No,” returned Matcham, “I saw her not.”
“Nor heard tell of her?” he pursued.
The steps drew nearer. Sir Daniel was still roaring the name of Joanna from the courtyard.
“Did you hear of her?” repeated Dick.
“I have heard of her,” said Matcham.
“How your voice twitters! What is the matter with you?” said Dick. “It is a most excellent good fortune, this Joanna; it will take their minds from us.”
“Dick,” cried Matcham, “I am lost; we are both lost. Let us flee if there be yet time. They will not rest till they have found me. Or, see! let me go out; when they have found me, you may flee. Let me go out, Dick—good Dick, let me away!”
She was groping for the bolt, when Dick at last comprehended.
“By the mass!” he cried, “you are no Jack; you are Joanna Sedley; you are the maid that would not marry me!”
The girl paused, and stood silent and motionless. Dick, too, was silent for a little; then he spoke again.
“Joanna,” he said, “you have saved my life, and I have saved yours; and we have seen blood flow, and been friends and enemies—yes, and I took my belt to thrash you; and all that time I thought you were a boy. But now death has me, and my time’s out, and before I die I must say this: You are the best maid and the bravest under heaven, and, if only I could live, I would marry you willingly; and, live or die, I love you.”
She answered nothing.
“Come,” he said, “speak up, Jack. Come, be a good maid, and say you love me!”
“Why else, Dick,” she cried, “would I be here?”
“Well, see here,” continued Dick, “if we but escape whole we’ll marry; and if we’re to die, we die, and there’s an end of it. But now that I think, how did you find my chamber?”
“I asked it of Dame Hatch,” she answered.
“Well, the dame’s staunch,” he answered; “she’ll not tell upon you. We have time before us.”
And just then, as if to contradict his words, feet came down the corridor, and a fist beat roughly on the door.
“Here!” cried a voice. “Open, Master Dick; open!” Dick neither moved nor answered.
“It is all over,” said the girl; and she put her arms about Dick’s neck.
One after another, men came trooping to the door. Then Sir Daniel arrived himself, and there was a sudden cessation of the noise.
“Dick,” cried the knight, “don’t be a donkey. The Seven Sleepers had been awake before now. We know she is within there. Open, then, the door, man.”
Dick was again silent.
“Down with it,” said Sir Daniel. And immediately his followers fell savagely upon the door with foot and fist. Solid as it was, and strongly bolted, it would soon have given way; but once more fortune interfered. Over the thunderstorm of blows the cry of a sentinel was heard; it was followed by another; shouts ran along the battlements, shouts answered out of the wood. In the first moment of alarm it sounded as if the foresters were carrying the Moat House by assault. And Sir Daniel and his men, desisting instantly from their attack upon Dick’s chamber, hurried to defend the walls.
“Now,” cried Dick, “we are saved.”
He seized the great old bedstead with both hands, and bent himself in vain to move it.
“Help me, Jack. For your life’s sake, help me stoutly!” he cried.
Between them, with a huge effort, they dragged the big frame of oak across the room, and thrust it endwise to the chamber door.
“You do but make things worse,” said Joanna, sadly. “He will then enter by the trap.”
“Not so,” replied Dick. “He dare not tell his secret to so many. It is by the trap that we shall flee. Hark! The attack is over. No, it was none!”
It had, indeed, been no attack; it was the arrival of another party of stragglers from the defeat of Risingham that had disturbed Sir Daniel. They had run the gauntlet under cover of the darkness; they had been admitted by the great gate; and now, with a great stamping of hoofs and jingle of accoutrements and arms, they were dismounting in the court.
“He will return soon,” said Dick. “To the trap!”
He lighted a lamp, and they went together into the corner of the room. The open chink through which some light still glittered was easily discovered, and, taking a stout sword from his small armoury, Dick thrust it deep into the seam, and weighed strenuously on the hilt. The trap moved, gaped a little, and at length came widely open. Seizing it with their hands, the two young folk threw it back. It disclosed a few steps descending, and at the foot of them, where the would-be murderer had left it, a burning lamp.
“Now,” said Dick, “go first and take the lamp. I will follow to close the trap.”
So they descended one after the other, and as Dick lowered the trap, the blows began once again to thunder on the panels of the door.