by Robert Louis Stevenson
Saranac Lake, April 8, 1888.
Note: Look up difficult words at The Free Dictionary.
There was not a foe left within striking distance; and Dick, as he looked ruefully about him on the remainder of his gallant force, began to count the cost of victory. He was himself, now that the danger was ended, so stiff and sore, so bruised and cut and broken, and, above all, so utterly exhausted by his desperate and unremitting labours in the fight, that he seemed incapable of any fresh exertion.
But this was not yet the hour for repose. Shoreby had been taken by assault; and though an open town, and not in any manner to be charged with the resistance, it was plain that these rough fighters would be not less rough now that the fight was over, and that the more horrid part of war would fall to be enacted. Richard of Gloucester was not the captain to protect the citizens from his infuriated soldiery; and even if he had the will, it might be questioned if he had the power.
It was, therefore, Dick’s business to find and to protect Joanna; and with that end he looked about him at the faces of his men. The three or four who seemed likeliest to be obedient and to keep sober he drew aside; and promising them a rich reward and a special recommendation to the duke, led them across the market-place, now empty of horsemen, and into the streets upon the further side.
Every here and there small combats of from two to a dozen still raged upon the open street; here and there a house was being besieged, the defenders throwing out stools and tables on the heads of the assailants. The snow was strewn with arms and corpses; but except for these partial combats the streets were deserted, and the houses, some standing open, and some shuttered and barricaded, had for the most part ceased to give out smoke.
Dick, threading the skirts of these skirmishers, led his followers briskly in the direction of the abbey church; but when he came the length of the main street, a cry of horror broke from his lips. Sir Daniel’s great house had been carried by assault. The gates hung in splinters from the hinges, and a double throng kept pouring in and out through the entrance, seeking and carrying booty. Meanwhile, in the upper stories, some resistance was still being offered to the pillagers; for just as Dick came within eyeshot of the building, a casement was burst open from within, and a poor wretch in murrey and blue, screaming and resisting, was forced through the embrasure and tossed into the street below.
The most sickening apprehension fell upon Dick. He ran forward like one possessed, forced his way into the house among the foremost, and mounted without pause to the chamber on the third floor where he had last parted from Joanna. It was a mere wreck; the furniture had been overthrown, the cupboards broken open, and in one place a trailing corner of the arras lay smouldering on the embers of the fire.
Dick, almost without thinking, trod out the incipient conflagration, and then stood bewildered. Sir Daniel, Sir Oliver, Joanna, all were gone; but whether butchered in the rout or safe escaped from Shoreby, who should say?
He caught a passing archer by the tabard.
“Fellow,” he asked, “were you here when this house was taken?”
“Let me alone,” said the archer. “Let me alone, or I strike.”
“Listen,” returned Richard, “two can play at that. Stand and be plain.”
But the man, flushed with drink and battle, struck Dick upon the shoulder with one hand, while with the other he twitched away his garment. Thereupon the full wrath of the young leader burst from his control. He seized the fellow in his strong embrace, and crushed him on the plates of his mailed bosom like a child; then, holding him at arm’s length, he bid him speak as he valued life.
“I pray for mercy!” gasped the archer. “If I had thought you were so angry I would have thought twice about crossing you. I was here indeed.”
“Do you know Sir Daniel?” pursued Dick.
“Well do I know him,” returned the man.
“Was he in the mansion?”
“Ay, sir, he was,” answered the archer; “but even as we entered by the yard gate he rode out by the garden.”
“Alone?” cried Dick.
“He may have had a score of lances with him,” said the man.
“Lances! No women, then?” asked Shelton.
“That I did not see,” said the archer. “But there were none in the house, if that is your quest.”
“I thank you,” said Dick. “Here is a piece for your pains.” But groping in his wallet, Dick found nothing. “Inquire for me to-morrow,” he added—“Richard Shelt—Sir Richard Shelton,” he corrected, “and I will see you handsomely rewarded.”
And then an idea struck Dick. He hastily descended to the courtyard, ran with all his might across the garden, and came to the great door of the church. It stood wide open; within, every corner of the pavement was crowded with fugitive burghers, surrounded by their families and laden with the most precious of their possessions, while, at the high altar, priests in full canonicals were imploring the mercy of God. Even as Dick entered, the loud chorus began to thunder in the vaulted roofs.
He hurried through the groups of refugees, and came to the door of the stair that led into the steeple. And here a tall churchman stepped before him and arrested his advance.
“Where are you going, my son?” he asked, severely.
“My father,” answered Dick, “I am here upon an errand of expedition. Do not delay. I command here for my Lord of Gloucester.”
“For my Lord of Gloucester?” repeated the priest. “Has, then, the battle gone so sore?”
“The battle, father, is at an end, Lancaster clean sped, my Lord of Risingham—Heaven rest him!—left upon the field. And now, with your good leave, I follow mine affairs.” And thrusting on one side the priest, who seemed stupefied at the news, Dick pushed open the door and rattled up the stairs four at a bound, and without pause or stumble, till he stepped upon the open platform at the top.
Shoreby Church tower not only commanded the town, as in a map, but looked far, on both sides, over sea and land. It was now near upon noon; the day exceeding bright, the snow dazzling. And as Dick looked around him, he could measure the consequences of the battle.
A confused, growling uproar reached him from the streets, and now and then, but very rarely, the clash of steel. Not a ship, not so much as a skiff remained in harbour; but the sea was dotted with sails and row-boats laden with fugitives. On shore, too, the surface of the snowy meadows was broken up with bands of horsemen, some cutting their way towards the borders of the forest, others, who were doubtless of the Yorkist side, stoutly interposing and beating them back upon the town. Over all the open ground there lay a prodigious quantity of fallen men and horses, clearly defined upon the snow.
To complete the picture, those of the foot soldiers as had not found place upon a ship still kept up an archery combat on the borders of the port, and from the cover of the shoreside taverns. In that quarter, also, one or two houses had been fired, and the smoke towered high in the frosty sunlight, and blew off to sea in voluminous folds.
Already close upon the margin of the woods, and somewhat in the line of Holywood, one particular clump of fleeing horsemen riveted the attention of the young watcher on the tower. It was fairly numerous; in no other quarter of the field did so many Lancastrians still hold together; thus they had left a wide, discoloured wake upon the snow, and Dick was able to trace them step by step from where they had left the town.
While Dick stood watching them, they had gained, unopposed, the first fringe of the leafless forest, and, turning a little from their direction, the sun fell for a moment full on their array, as it was relieved against the dusky wood.
“Murrey and blue!” cried Dick. “I swear it—murrey and blue!”
The next moment he was descending the stairway.
It was now his business to seek out the Duke of Gloucester, who alone, in the disorder of the forces, might be able to supply him with a sufficiency of men. The fighting in the main town was now practically at an end; and as Dick ran hither and thither, seeking the commander, the streets were thick with wandering soldiers, some laden with more booty than they could well stagger under, others shouting drunk. None of them, when questioned, had the least notion of the duke’s whereabouts; and, at last, it was by sheer good fortune that Dick found him, where he sat in the saddle directing operations to dislodge the archers from the harbour side.
“Sir Richard Shelton, you are well found,” he said. “I owe you one thing that I value little, my life; and one that I can never pay you for, this victory. Catesby, if I had ten such captains as Sir Richard, I would march forthright on London. But now, sir, claim your reward.”
“Freely, my lord,” said Dick, “freely and loudly. One has escaped to whom I owe some grudges, and taken with him one whom I owe love and service. Give me, then, fifty lances, that I may pursue; and for any obligation that your graciousness is pleased to allow, it shall be clean discharged.”
“What is his name?” inquired the duke.
“Sir Daniel Brackley,” answered Richard.
“Out upon him, double-face!” cried Gloucester. “Here is no reward, Sir Richard; here is fresh service offered, and, if you bring his head to me, a fresh debt upon my conscience. Catesby, get him these lances; and you, sir, in the meanwhile, think what pleasure, honour, or profit it shall be mine to give you.”
Just then the Yorkist skirmishers carried one of the shoreside taverns, swarming in upon it on three sides, and driving out or taking its defenders. Crookback Dick was pleased to cheer the exploit, and pushing his horse a little nearer, called to see the prisoners.
There were four or five of them—two men of my Lord Shoreby’s and one of Lord Risingham’s among the number, and last, but in Dick’s eyes not least, a tall, shambling, grizzled old shipman, between drunk and sober, and with a dog whimpering and jumping at his heels.
The young duke passed them for a moment under a severe review.
“Good,” he said. “Hang them.”
And he turned the other way to watch the progress of the fight.
“My lord,” said Dick, “so please you, I have found my reward. Grant me the life and liberty of the old shipman.”
Gloucester turned and looked the speaker in the face.
“Sir Richard,” he said, “I make not war with peacock’s feathers, but steel shafts. Those that are my enemies I slay, and that without excuse or favour. For, I think, in this realm of England, that is so torn in pieces, there is not a man of mine but has a brother or a friend upon the other party. If, then, I did begin to grant these pardons, I might sheathe my sword.”
“It may be so, my lord; and yet I will be overbold, and at the risk of your disfavour, recall your lordship’s promise,” replied Dick.
Richard of Gloucester flushed.
“Mark it right well,” he said, harshly. “I love not mercy, nor yet mercymongers. You have this day laid the foundations of high fortune. If you oppose to me my word, which I have plighted, I will yield. But, by the glory of heaven, there your favour dies!"
“Mine is the loss,” said Dick.
“Give him his sailor,” said the duke; and wheeling his horse, he turned his back upon young Shelton.
Dick was nor glad nor sorry. He had seen too much of the young duke to set great store on his affection; and the origin and growth of his own favour had been too flimsy and too rapid to inspire much confidence. One thing alone he feared—that the vindictive leader might revoke the offer of the lances. But here he did justice neither to Gloucester’s honour (such as it was) nor, above all, to his decision. If he had once judged Dick to be the right man to pursue Sir Daniel, he was not one to change; and he soon proved it by shouting after Catesby to be speedy, for the paladin was waiting.
In the meanwhile, Dick turned to the old shipman, who had seemed equally indifferent to his condemnation and to his subsequent release.
“Arblaster,” said Dick, “I have done you ill; but now, by the cross, I think I have cleared the score.”
But the old skipper only looked upon him dully and held his peace.
“Come,” continued Dick, “a life is a life, and it is more than ships or liquor. Say you forgive me; for if your life be worth nothing to you, it has cost me the beginnings of my fortune. Come, I have paid for it dearly; don’t be so ungrateful.”
“If I had had my ship,” said Arblaster, “I would have been out and safe on the high seas—I and my man Tom. But you took my ship, friend, and I’m a beggar; and for my man Tom, a knave fellow in russet shot him down. ‘Captian!’ he said, and spake never again. ‘Captain’ was the last of his words, and the poor spirit of him passed. ‘He will never sail no more, will my Tom.’”
Dick was seized with unavailing penitence and pity; he sought to take the skipper’s hand, but Arblaster avoided his touch.
“No,” said he, “let me be. You have played the devil with me, and let that content you.”
The words died in Richard’s throat. He saw, through tears, the poor old man, bemused with liquor and sorrow, go shambling away, with bowed head, across the snow, and the unnoticed dog whimpering at his heels, and for the first time began to understand the desperate game that we play in life; and how a thing once done is not to be changed or remedied, by any penitence.
But there was no time left to him for vain regret.
Catesby had now collected the horsemen, and riding up to Dick he dismounted, and offered him his own horse.
“This morning,” he said, “I was somewhat jealous of your favour; it has not been of a long growth; and now, Sir Richard, it is with a very good heart that I offer you this horse—to ride away with.”
“Wait a moment,” replied Dick. “This favour of mine—on what was it founded?”
“Upon your name,” answered Catesby. “It is my lord’s chief superstition. Were my name Richard, I should be an earl to-morrow.”
“Well, sir, I thank you,” returned Dick; “and since I am little likely to follow these great fortunes, I will even say farewell. I will not pretend I was displeased to think myself upon the road to fortune; but I will not pretend, neither, that I am over-sorry to be done with it. Command and riches, they are brave things, to be sure; but a word in your ear—that duke of yours, he is a fearsome lad.”
“Yes,” said he, “truly he that rides with Crooked Dick will ride deep. Well, God keep us all from evil! Good speed.”
Thereupon Dick put himself at the head of his men, and giving the word of command, rode off.
He made straight across the town, following what he supposed to be the route of Sir Daniel, and spying around for any signs that might decide if he were right.
The streets were strewn with the dead and the wounded, whose fate, in the bitter frost, was far the more pitiable. Gangs of the victors went from house to house, pillaging and stabbing, and sometimes singing together as they went.
From different quarters, as he rode on, the sounds of violence and outrage came to young Shelton’s ears; now the blows of the sledge-hammer on some barricaded door, and now the miserable shrieks of women.
Dick’s heart had just been awakened. He had just seen the cruel consequences of his own behaviour; and the thought of the sum of misery that was now acting in the whole of Shoreby filled him with despair.
At length he reached the outskirts, and there, sure enough, he saw straight before him the same broad, beaten track across the snow that he had marked from the summit of the church. Here, then, he went the faster on; but still, as he rode, he kept a bright eye upon the fallen men and horses that lay beside the track. Many of these, he was relieved to see, wore Sir Daniel’s colours, and the faces of some, who lay upon their back, he even recognized.
About half-way between the town and the forest, those whom he was following had plainly been assailed by archers; for the corpses lay pretty closely scattered, each pierced by an arrow. And here Dick spied among the rest the body of a very young lad, whose face was somehow hauntingly familiar to him.
He halted his troop, dismounted, and raised the lad’s head. As he did so, the hood fell back, and a profusion of long brown hair unrolled itself. At the same time the eyes opened.
“Ah! lion driver!” said a feeble voice. “She is farther on. Ride—ride fast!”
And then the poor young lady fainted once again.
One of Dick’s men carried a flask of some strong cordial, and with this Dick succeeded in reviving consciousness. Then he took Joanna’s friend upon his saddlebow, and once more pushed toward the forest.
“Why do you take me?” said the girl. “You but delay your speed.”
“No, Mistress Risingham,” replied Dick. “Shoreby is full of blood and drunkenness and riot. Here you are safe; be content.”
“I will not be beholden to any of your faction,” she cried; “set me down.”
“Madam, you don’t know what you are saying,” returned Dick. “You are hurt”—
“I am not,” she said. “It was my horse was slain.”
“It matters not one bit,” replied Richard. “You are here in the midst of open snow, and compassed about with enemies. Whether you will or not, I carry you with me. Glad am I to have the occasion; for by this shall I repay some portion of our debt.”
For a little while she was silent. Then, very suddenly, she asked: “My uncle?”
“My Lord Risingham?” returned Dick. “I would I had good news to give you, madam; but I have none. I saw him once in the battle, and once only. Let us hope the best.”