by Robert Louis Stevenson
Saranac Lake, April 8, 1888.
Note: Look up difficult words at The Free Dictionary.
Dick, blowing out his lamp lest it should attract attention, led the way up-stairs and along the corridor. In the brown chamber the rope had been made fast to the frame of an exceeding heavy and ancient bed. It had not been detached, and Dick, taking the coil to the window, began to lower it slowly and cautiously into the darkness of the night. Joan stood by; but as the rope lengthened, and still Dick continued to pay it out, extreme fear began to conquer her resolution.
“Dick,” she said, “is it so deep? I may not climb it. I would surely fall, good Dick.”
It was just at the delicate moment of the operations that she spoke. Dick started; the remainder of the coil slipped from his grasp, and the end fell with a splash into the moat. Instantly, from the battlement above, the voice of a sentinel cried, “Who goes?”
“Curses!” cried Dick. “We are trapped now! Down with you—take the rope.”
“I cannot,” she cried, recoiling.
“If you cannot, then I cannot,” said Shelton. “How can I swim the moat without you? Do you desert me, then?”
“Dick,” she gasped, “I cannot. The strength is gone from me.”
“By the mass, then, we are all caught!” he shouted, stamping with his foot; and then, hearing steps, he ran to the room door and sought to close it.
Before he could shoot the bolt, strong arms were thrusting it back upon him from the other side. He struggled for a second; then, feeling himself overpowered, ran back to the window. The girl had fallen against the wall in the embrasure of the window; she was more than half insensible; and when he tried to raise her in his arms, her body was limp and unresponsive.
At the same moment the men who had forced the door against him laid hold upon him. The first he struck with a blow, and the others falling back for a second in some disorder, he profited by the chance, strode to the window-sill, seized the cord in both hands, and let his body slip.
The cord was knotted, which made it the easier to descend; but so furious was Dick’s hurry, and so small his experience of such gymnastics, that he span round and round in mid-air like a criminal upon a gibbet, and now beat his head, and now bruised his hands, against the rugged stonework of the wall. The air roared in his ears; he saw the stars overhead, and the reflected stars below him in the moat, whirling like dead leaves before the tempest. And then he lost hold, and fell, and pludged head over ears into the icy water.
When he came to the surface his hand encountered the rope, which, newly lightened of his weight, was swinging wildly to and fro. There was a red glow overhead, and looking up, he saw, by the light of several torches and a cresset full of burning coals, the battlements lined with faces. He saw the men’s eyes turning hither and thither in quest of him; but he was too far below, the light reached him not, and they looked in vain.
And now he perceived that the rope was considerably too long, and he began to struggle as well as he could towards the other side of the moat, still keeping his head above water. In this way he got much more than halfway over; indeed the bank was almost within reach, before the rope began to draw him back by its own weight. Taking his courage in both hands, he left go and made a leap for the trailing sprays of willow that had already, that same evening, helped Sir Daniel’s messenger to land. He went down, rose again, sank a second time, and then his hand caught a branch, and with the speed of thought he had dragged himself into the thick of the tree and clung there, dripping and panting, and still half uncertain of his escape.
But all this had not been done without a considerable splashing, which had so far indicated his position to the men along the battlements. Arrows and quarrels fell thick around him in the darkness, thick like driving hail; and suddenly a torch was thrown down—flared through the air in its swift passage—stuck for a moment on the edge of the bank, where it burned high and lit up its whole surroundings like a bonfire—and then, in a good hour for Dick, slipped off, plumped into the moat, and was instantly extinguished.
It had served its purpose. The marksmen had had time to see the willow, and Dick hidden among its boughs; and though the lad instantly sprang higher up the bank, and ran for his life, he was yet not quick enough to escape a shot. An arrow struck him in the shoulder, another grazed his head.
The pain of his wounds lent him wings; and he had no sooner got upon the level than he took to his heels and ran straight before him in the dark, without a thought for the direction of his flight.
For a few steps missiles followed him, but these soon ceased; and when at length he came to a halt and looked behind, he was already a good way from the Moat House, though he could still see the torches moving to and fro along its battlements.
He leaned against a tree, streaming with blood and water, bruised, wounded, alone, and unarmed. For all that, he had saved his life for that bout; and though Joanna remained behind in the power of Sir Daniel, he neither blamed himself for an accident that it had been beyond his power to prevent, nor did he blame the girl herself. Sir Daniel was cruel, but he was not likely to be cruel to a young gentlewoman who had other protectors, willing and able to bring him to account. It was more probable he would make haste to marry her to some friend of his own.
“Well,” thought Dick, “between then and now I will find me the means to bring that traitor under; for I think, by the mass, that I be now absolved from any gratitude or obligation; and when war is open, there is a fair chance for all.”
In the meanwhile, here he was in a sore plight.
For some little way farther he struggled forward through the forest; but what with the pain of his wounds, the darkness of the night, and the extreme uneasiness and confusion of his mind, he soon became equally unable to guide himself or to continue to push through the close undergrowth, and he at length had to sit down and lean his back against a tree.
When he awoke from something between sleep and swooning, the grey of the morning had begun to take the place of night. A little chilly breeze was bustling among the trees, and as he still sat staring before him, only half awake, he became aware of something dark that swung to and fro among the branches, some hundred yards in front of him. The progressive brightening of the day and the return of his own senses at last enabled him to recognize the object. It was a man hanging from the bough of a tall oak. His head had fallen forward on his breast; but at every stronger puff of wind his body span round and round, and his legs and arms tossed, like some ridiculous plaything.
Dick clambered to his feet, and, staggering and leaning on the tree-trunks as he went, drew near to this grim object.
The bough was perhaps twenty feet above the ground, and the poor fellow had been drawn up so high by his executioners that his boots swung clear above Dick’s reach; and as his hood had been drawn over his face, it was impossible to recognize the man.
Dick looked about him right and left; and at last he perceived that the other end of the cord had been made fast to the trunk of a little hawthorn which grew, thick with blossom, under the lofty arcade of the oak. With his dagger, which alone remained to him of all his arms, young Shelton severed the rope, and instantly, with a dead thump, the corpse fell in a heap upon the ground.
Dick raised the hood; it was Throgmorton, Sir Daniel’s messenger. He had not gone far upon his errand. A paper, which had apparently escaped the notice of the men of the Black Arrow, stuck from the bosom of his doublet, and Dick, pulling it forth, found it was Sir Daniel’s letter to Lord Wensleydale.
“Come,” thought he, “if the world changes yet again, I may have here the means to shame Sir Daniel—and maybe to bring him to the block.”
And he put the paper in his own bosom, said a prayer over the dead man, and set forth again through the woods.
His fatigue and weakness increased; his ears sang, his steps faltered, his mind at intervals failed him, so low had he been brought by loss of blood. Doubtless he made many deviations from his true path, but at last he came out upon the high-road, not very far from Tunstall hamlet.
A rough voice bid him stand.
“Stand?” repeated Dick. “By the mass, but I am nearer falling.”
And he suited the action to the word, and fell all his length upon the road.
Two men came forth out of the thicket, each in green forest jerkin, each with long-bow and quiver and short sword.
“Why, Lawless,” said the younger of the two, “it is young Shelton.”
“This will be as good as bread to John Amend-All,” returned the other. “Though, faith, he hath been to the wars. Here is a tear in his scalp that must have cost him many a good ounce of blood.”
“And here,” added Greensheve, “is a hole in his shoulder that must have pricked him well. Who do you think did this? If it be one of ours, he may all to prayer; Ellis will give him a short shrift and a long rope.”
“Up with the cub,” said Lawless. “Clap him on my back.”
And then, when Dick had been hoisted to his shoulders, and he had taken the lad’s arms about his neck, and got a firm hold of him, the ex-Grey Friar added:
“Keep the post, brother Greensheve. I will on with him by myself.”
So Greensheve returned to his ambush on the wayside, and Lawless trudged down the hill, whistling as he went, with Dick, still in a dead faint, comfortably settled on his shoulders.
The sun rose as he came out of the skirts of the wood and saw Tunstall hamlet straggling up the opposite hill. All seemed quiet, but a strong post of some half a score of archers lay close by the bridge on either side of the road, and, as soon as they perceived Lawless with his burden, began to stir themselves and set arrow to string like vigilant sentries.
“Who goes?” cried the man in command.
“Will Lawless, by the rood—you know me as well as your own hand,” returned the outlaw, contemptuously.
“Give the word, Lawless,” returned the other.
“Now, Heaven lighten you, you are great fool,” replied Lawless. “Did I not tell you the password myself? But you are all mad for this playing at soldiers. When I am in the greenwood, give me greenwood ways; and my word for this tide is: ‘A fig for all mock soldiery!’”
“Lawless, you show a bad example; give us the word, fool jester,” said the commander of the post.
“And if I had forgotten it?” asked the other.
“If you had forgotten it—as I know you have not—by the mass, I would clap an arrow into your big body,” returned the first.
“If you are so bad a jester,” said Lawless, “you shall have your word for me. ‘Duckworth and Shelton’ is the word; and here, to the illustration, is Shelton on my shoulders, and to Duckworth do I carry him.”
“Pass, Lawless,” said the sentry.
“And where is John?” asked the Grey Friar.
“He holds a court, by the mass, and takes rents as to the manner born!” cried another of the company.
So it proved. When Lawless got as far up the village as the little inn, he found Ellis Duckworth surrounded by Sir Daniel’s tenants, and, by the right of his good company of archers, coolly taking rents, and giving written receipts in return for them. By the faces of the tenants, it was plain how little this proceeding pleased them; for they argued very rightly that they would simply have to pay them twice.
As soon as he knew what had brought Lawless, Ellis dismissed the remainder of the tenants, and, with every mark of interest and apprehension, conducted Dick into an inner chamber of the inn. There the lad’s hurts were looked to; and he was recalled, by simple remedies, to consciousness.
“Dear lad,” said Ellis, pressing his hand, “you are in a friend’s hands that loved your father, and loves you for his sake. Rest quietly, for you have lost blood. Then shall you tell me your story, and between the two of us we shall find a remedy for all.”
A little later in the day, and after Dick had awakened from a comfortable slumber to find himself still very weak, but clearer in mind and easier in body, Ellis returned, and sitting down by the bedside, begged him, in the name of his father, to relate the circumstance of his escape from Tunstall Moat House. There was something in the strength of Duckworth’s frame, in the honesty of his brown face, in the clearness and shrewdness of his eyes, that moved Dick to obey him; and from first to last the lad told him the story of his two days’ adventures.
“Well,” said Ellis, when he had done, “see what the kind saints have done for you, Dick Shelton, not alone to save your body in so numerous and deadly perils, but to bring you into my hands that have no dearer wish than to assist your father’s son. Be but true to me—and I see you are true—and between you and me, we shall bring that false-heart traitor to the death.”
“Will you assault the house?” asked Dick.
“I were mad, indeed, to think of it,” returned Ellis. “He has too much power; his men gather to him; those that gave me the slip last night, and by the mass came in so handily for you—those have made him safe. No, Dick, to the contrary, you and I and my brave bowmen, we must all slip from this forest speedily, and leave Sir Daniel free.”
“My mind is troubled for Jack,” said the lad.
“For Jack!” repeated Duckworth. “O, I see, for the maid! No, Dick, I promise you, if there come talk of any marriage we shall act at once; till then, or till the time is ripe, we shall all disappear, even like shadows at morning; Sir Daniel shall look east and west, and see no enemies; he shall think, by the mass, that he has dreamed awhile, and has now awakened in his bed. But our four eyes, Dick, shall follow him right close, and our four hands—so help us all the army of the saints!—shall bring that traitor low!”
Two days later Sir Daniel’s garrison had grown to such a strength that he ventured on a sally, and at the head of some two score horsemen, pushed without opposition as far as Tunstall hamlet. Not an arrow flew, not a man stirred in the thicket; the bridge was no longer guarded, but stood open to all corners; and as Sir Daniel crossed it, he saw the villagers looking timidly from their doors.
Presently one of them, taking heart of grace, came forward, and with the lowliest salutations, presented a letter to the knight.
His face darkened as he read the contents. It ran thus:
To the most untrue and cruel gentleman, Sir Daniel Brackley, Knight, These:
I find you were untrue and unkind from the first. You have my father’s blood upon your hands; let be, it will not washed. Some day you shall perish by my hands, so much I let you to know; and I let you to know farther, that if you seek to wed to any other the gentlewoman, Mistress Joan Sedley, whom that I am bound upon a great oath to wed myself, the blow will be very swift. The first step toward that will be your first step to the grave.