by Robert Louis Stevenson
Saranac Lake, April 8, 1888.
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Sir Daniel’s residence in Shoreby was a tall, commodious, plastered mansion, framed in carven oak, and covered by a low-pitched roof of thatch. To the back there stretched a garden, full of fruit-trees, alleys, and thick arbours, and overlooked from the far end by the tower of the abbey church.
The house might contain, upon a pinch, the retinue of a greater person than Sir Daniel; but even now it was filled with hubbub. The court rang with arms and horseshoe-iron; the kitchens roared with cookery like a bees’-hive; minstrels, and the players of instruments, and the cries of tumblers, sounded from the hall. Sir Daniel, in his profusion, in the gaiety and gallantry of his establishment, rivalled with Lord Shoreby, and eclipsed Lord Risingham.
All guests were made welcome. Minstrels, tumblers, players of chess, the sellers of relics, medicines, perfumes, and enchantments, and along with these every sort of priest, friar, or pilgrim, were made welcome to the lower table, and slept together in the ample lofts, or on the bare boards of the long dining-hall.
On the afternoon following the wreck of the Good Hope, the buttery, the kitchens, the stables, the covered cartshed that surrounded two sides of the court, were all crowded by idle people, partly belonging to Sir Daniel’s establishment, and attired in his livery of murrey and blue, partly nondescript strangers attracted to the town by greed, and received by the knight through policy, and because it was the fashion of the time.
The snow, which still fell without interruption, the extreme chill of the air, and the approach of night, combined to keep them under shelter. Wine, ale, and money were all plentiful; many sprawled gambling in the straw of the barn, many were still drunken from the noontide meal. To the eye of a modern it would have looked like the sack of a city; to the eye of a contemporary it was like any other rich and noble household at a festive season.
Two monks—a young and an old—had arrived late, and were now warming themselves at a bonfire in a corner of the shed. A mixed crowd surrounded them—jugglers, mountebanks, and soldiers; and with these the elder of the two had soon engaged so brisk a conversation, and exchanged so many loud guffaws and country witticisms, that the group momentarily increased in number.
The younger companion, in whom the reader has already recognized Dick Shelton, sat from the first somewhat backward, and gradually drew himself away. He listened, indeed, closely, but he opened not his mouth; and by the grave expression of his countenance, he made but little account of his companion’s pleasantries.
At last his eye, which travelled continually to and fro, and kept a guard upon all the entrances of the house, lit upon a little procession entering by the main gate and crossing the court in an oblique direction. Two ladies, muffled in thick furs, led the way, and were followed by a pair of waiting-women and four stout men-at-arms. The next moment they had disappeared within the house; and Dick, slipping through the crowd of loiterers in the shed, was already giving hot pursuit.
“The taller of these twain was Lady Brackley,” he thought; “and where Lady Brackley is, Joan will not be far.”
At the door of the house the four men-at-arms had ceased to follow, and the ladies were now mounting the stairway of polished oak, under no better escort than that of the two waiting-women. Dick followed close behind. It was already the dusk of the day; and in the house the darkness of the night had almost come. On the stair-landings, torches flared in iron holders; down the long, tapestried corridors, a lamp burned by every door. And where the door stood open, Dick could look in upon arras-covered walls and rush-bescattered floors, glowing in the light of the wood fires.
Two floors were passed, and at every landing the younger and shorter of the two ladies had looked back keenly at the monk. He, keeping his eyes lowered, and affecting the demure manners that suited his disguise, had but seen her once, and was unaware that he had attracted her attention. And now, on the third floor, the party separated, the younger lady continuing to ascend alone, the other, followed by the waiting-maids, descending the corridor to the right.
Dick mounted with a swift foot, and holding to the corner, thrust forth his head and followed the three women with his eyes. Without turning or looking behind them, they continued to descend the corridor.
“It is right well,” thought Dick. “Let me but know my Lady Brackley’s chamber, and it will go hard if I find not Dame Hatch upon an errand.”
And just then a hand was laid upon his shoulder, and, with a bound and a choked cry, he turned to grapple his assailant.
He was somewhat abashed to find, in the person whom he had so roughly seized, the short young lady in the furs. She, on her part, was shocked and terrified beyond expression, and hung trembling in his grasp.
“Madam,” said Dick, releasing her, “I cry you a thousand pardons; but I have no eyes behind, and, by the mass, I could not tell you were a maid.”
The girl continued to look at him, but, by this time, terror began to be succeeded by surprise, and surprise by suspicion. Dick, who could read these changes on her face, became alarmed for his own safety in that hostile house.
“Fair maid,” he said, affecting easiness, “suffer me to kiss your hand, in token that you forgive my roughness, and I will even go.”
“You are a strange monk, young sir,” returned the young lady, looking him both boldly and shrewdly in the face; “and now that my first astonishment has somewhat passed away, I can spy the layman in each word you utter. What are you doing here? Why are you sacrilegiously disguised? Do you come in peace or war? And why spy after Lady Brackley like a thief?”
“Madam,” said Dick, “of one thing I pray you to be very sure: I am no thief. And even if I come here in war, as in some degree I do, I make no war upon fair maids, and I hereby entreat them to copy me so far, and to leave me be. For, indeed, fair mistress, cry out—if such be your pleasure—cry but once, and say what you have seen, and the poor gentleman before you is merely a dead man. I cannot think you would be cruel,” added Dick; and taking the girl’s hand gently in both of his, he looked at her with courteous admiration.
“Are you, then, a spy—a Yorkist?” asked the maid.
“Madam,” he replied, “I am indeed a Yorkist, and, in some sort, a spy. But that which brings me into this house, the same which will win for me the pity and interest of your kind heart, is neither of York nor Lancaster. I will wholly put my life in your discretion. I am a lover, and my name—”
But here the young lady clapped her hand suddenly upon Dick’s mouth, looked hastily up and down and east and west, and, seeing the coast clear, began to drag the young man, with great strength and vehemence, up-stairs.
“Hush!” she said, “and come! Talk later.”
Somewhat bewildered, Dick suffered himself to be pulled up-stairs, bustled along a corridor, and thrust suddenly into a chamber, lit, like so many of the others, by a blazing log upon the hearth.
“Now,” said the young lady, forcing him down upon a stool, “sit there and attend my sovereign good pleasure. I have life and death over you, and I will not scruple to abuse my power. Look to yourself; you have cruelly mauled my arm. He knew not I was a maid, says he! Had he known I was a maid, he had taken his belt to me, for sure!”
And with these words, she whipped out of the room and left Dick gaping with wonder, and not very sure if he were dreaming or awake.
“Taken my belt to her!” he repeated. “Taken my belt to her!” And the recollection of that evening in the forest flowed back upon his mind, and he once more saw Matcham’s wincing body and beseeching eyes.
And then he was recalled to the dangers of the present. In the next room he heard a stir, as of a person moving; then followed a sigh, which sounded strangely near; and then the rustle of skirts and tap of feet once more began. As he stood listening, he saw the arras wave along the wall; there was the sound of a door being opened, the hangings divided, and, lamp in hand, Joanna Sedley entered the apartment.
She was attired in costly stuffs of deep and warm colours, such as befit the winter and the snow. Upon her head, her hair had been gathered together and became her as a crown. And she, who had seemed so little and so awkward in the attire of Matcham, was now tall like a young willow, and swam across the floor as though she scorned the drudgery of walking.
Without a start, without a tremor, she raised her lamp and looked at the young monk.
“What are you doing here, good brother?” she inquired. “You are doubtless ill-directed. Whom do you require? And she set her lamp upon the bracket.
“Joanna,” said Dick; and then his voice failed him. “Joanna,” he began again, “you said you loved me; and the more fool I, but I believed it!”
“Dick!” she cried. “Dick!”
And then, to the wonder of the lad, this beautiful and tall young lady made but one step of it, and threw her arms about his neck and gave him a hundred kisses all in one.
“Oh, the fool fellow!” she cried. “Oh, dear Dick! Oh, if you could see yourself! Alas!” she added, pausing. “I have spoilt you, Dick! I have knocked some of the paint off. But that can be mended. What cannot be mended, Dick—or I much fear it cannot!—is my marriage with Lord Shoreby.”
“Is it decided, then?” asked the lad.
“To-morrow, before noon, Dick, in the abbey church,” she answered, “John Matcham and Joanna Sedley both shall come to a right miserable end. There is no help in tears, or I could weep my eyes out. I have not spared myself to pray, but Heaven frowns on my petition. And, dear Dick—good Dick—but unless you can get me out of this house before the morning, we must even kiss and say good-bye.”
“Nay,” said Dick, “not I; I will never say that word. It is like despair; but while there’s life, Joanna, there is hope. Yet will I hope. Yes, by the mass, and triumph! Look, now, when you were but a name to me, did I not follow—did I not rouse good men—did I not stake my life upon the quarrel? And now that I have seen you for what you are—the fairest maid and stateliest of England—think you I would turn?—if the deep sea were there, I would swim straight through it; if the way were full of lions, I would scatter them like mice.”
“Yes,” she said, dryly, “you make a great ado about a sky-blue robe!”
“No, Joan,” protested Dick, “It is not alone the robe. But, lass, you were disguised. Here am I disguised; and, to the proof, do I not cut a figure of fun—a right fool’s figure?”
“Yes, Dick, that you do!” she answered, smiling.
“Well, then!” he returned, triumphant. “So was it with you, poor Matcham, in the forest. In truth, you were a maid to laugh at. But now!”
So they ran on, holding each other by both hands, exchanging smiles and lovely looks, and melting minutes into seconds; and so they might have continued all night long. But presently there was a noise behind them; and they were aware of the short young lady, with her finger on her lips.
“Saints!” she cried, “but what a noise you make! Can you not speak quietly? And now, Joanna, my fair maid of the woods, what will you give your friend for bringing you your sweetheart?”
Joanna ran to her, by way of answer, and embraced her fierily.
“And you, sir,” added the young lady, “what do you give me?”
“Madam,” said Dick, “I would fain offer to pay you in the same money.”
“Come, then,” said the lady, “it is permitted you.”
But Dick, blushing like a peony, only kissed her hand.
“What ails you at my face, fair sir?” she inquired, curtseying to the very ground; and then, when Dick had at length and most tepidly embraced her, “Joanna,” she added, “your sweetheart is very backward under your eyes; but I warrant you, when first we met he was more ready. I am all black and blue, maid; trust me never, if I be not black and blue! And now,” she continued, “have you said your sayings? for I must speedily dismiss your champion.”
But at this they both cried out that they had said nothing, that the night was still very young, and that they would not be separated so early.
“And supper?” asked the young lady. “Must we not go down to supper?”
“Yes, to be sure!” cried Joan. “I had forgotten.”
“Hide me, then,” said Dick, “put me behind the arras, shut me in a chest, or what you will, so that I may be here on your return. Indeed, fair lady,” he added, “bear this in mind, that we are in trouble, and may never look upon each other’s face from this night forward till we die.”
At this the young lady melted; and when, a little after, the bell summoned Sir Daniel’s household to supper, Dick was planted very stiffly against the wall, at a place where a division in the tapestry permitted him to breathe the more freely, and even to see into the room.
He had not been long in this position, when he was somewhat strangely disturbed. The silence, in that upper storey of the house, was only broken by the flickering of the flames and the hissing of a green log in the chimney; but presently, to Dick’s strained hearing, there came the sound of some one walking with extreme precaution; and soon after the door opened, and a little black-faced, dwarfish fellow, in Lord Shoreby’s colours, pushed first his head, and then his crooked body, into the chamber. His mouth was open, as though to hear the better; and his eyes, which were very bright, flitted restlessly and swiftly to and fro. He went round and round the room, striking here and there upon the hangings; but Dick, by a miracle, escaped his notice. Then he looked below the furniture, and examined the lamp; and, at last, with an air of cruel disappointment, was preparing to go away as silently as he had come, when down he dropped upon his knees, picked up something from among the rushes on the floor, examined it, and, with every signal of delight, concealed it in the wallet at his belt.
Dick’s heart sank, for the object in question was a tassel from his own girdle; and it was plain to him that this dwarfish spy, who took a malign delight in his employment, would lose no time in bearing it to his master, the baron. He was half-tempted to throw aside the arras, fall upon the scoundrel, and, at the risk of his life, remove the telltale token. And while he was still hesitating, a new cause of concern was added. A voice, hoarse and broken by drink, began to be audible from the stair; and presently after, uneven, wandering, and heavy footsteps sounded without along the passage.
“What make here, my merry men, among the greenwood shaws?” sang the voice. “What make here? Hey! sots, what make you here?” it added, with a rattle of drunken laughter; and then, once more breaking into song:
“If you should drink the clary wine, Fat Friar John, you friend o’ mine— If I should eat, and you should drink, Who shall sing the mass, do you think?”
Lawless, alas! rolling drunk, was wandering the house, seeking for a corner wherein to slumber off the effect of his potations. Dick inwardly raged. The spy, at first terrified, had grown reassured as he found he had to deal with an intoxicated man, and now, with a movement of cat-like rapidity, slipped from the chamber, and was gone from Richard’s eyes.
What was to be done? If he lost touch of Lawless for the night, he was left impotent, whether to plan or carry forth Joanna’s rescue. If, on the other hand, he dared to address the drunken outlaw, the spy might still be lingering within sight, and the most fatal consequences ensue.
It was, nevertheless, upon this last hazard that Dick decided. Slipping from behind the tapestry, he stood ready in the doorway of the chamber, with a warning hand upraised. Lawless, flushed crimson, with his eyes injected, vacillating on his feet, drew still unsteadily nearer. At last he hazily caught sight of his commander, and, in despite of Dick’s imperious signals, hailed him instantly and loudly by his name.
Dick leaped upon and shook the drunkard furiously.
“Beast!” he hissed—“beast and no man! It is worse than treachery to be so witless. We may all be killed for your drinking.”
But Lawless only laughed and staggered, and tried to clap young Shelton on the back.
And just then Dick’s quick ear caught a rapid brushing in the arras. He leaped towards the sound, and the next moment a piece of the wall-hanging had been torn down, and Dick and the spy were sprawling together in its folds. Over and over they rolled, grappling for each other’s throat, and still baffled by the arras, and still silent in their deadly fury. But Dick was by much the stronger, and soon the spy lay prostrate under his knee, and, with a single stroke of the long knife, ceased to breathe.