by Robert Louis Stevenson
Saranac Lake, April 8, 1888.
Note: Look up difficult words at The Free Dictionary.
It was almost certain that Sir Daniel had made for the Moat House; but, considering the heavy snow, the lateness of the hour, and the necessity under which he would lie of avoiding the few roads and striking across the wood, it was equally certain that he could not hope to reach it before the morning.
There were two courses open to Dick; either to continue to follow in the knight’s trail, and, if he were able, to fall upon him that very night in camp, or to strike out a path of his own, and seek to place himself between Sir Daniel and his destination.
Either scheme was open to serious objection, and Dick, who feared to expose Joanna to the hazards of a fight, had not yet decided between them when he reached the borders of the wood.
At this point Sir Daniel had turned a little to his left, and then plunged straight under a grove of very lofty timber. His party had then formed to a narrower front, in order to pass between the trees, and the track was trod proportionally deeper in the snow. The eye followed it under the leafless tracery of the oaks, running direct and narrow; the trees stood over it, with knotty joints and the great, uplifted forest of their boughs; there was no sound, whether of man or beast—not so much as the stirring of a robin; and over the field of snow the winter sun lay golden among netted shadows.
“What do you think,” asked Dick of one of the men, “to follow straight on, or strike across for Tunstall?”
“Sir Richard,” replied the man-at-arms, “I would follow the line until they scatter.”
“You are, doubtless, right,” returned Dick; “but we came right hastily upon the errand, even as the time commanded. Here are no houses, neither for food nor shelter, and by the morrow’s dawn we shall know both cold fingers and an empty belly. What do you say, lads? Will you stand a pinch for expedition’s sake, or shall we turn by Holywood and sup with Mother Church? The case being somewhat doubtful, I will drive no man; yet if you would allow me to lead you, you would choose the first.”
The men answered, almost with one voice, that they would follow Sir Richard where he would.
And Dick, setting spur to his horse, began once more to go forward.
The snow in the trail had been trodden very hard, and the pursuers had thus a great advantage over the pursued. They pushed on, indeed, at a round trot, two hundred hoofs beating alternately on the dull pavement of the snow, and the jingle of weapons and the snorting of horses raising a warlike noise along the arches of the silent wood.
Presently, the wide slot of the pursued came out upon the high road from Holywood; it was there, for a moment, indistinguishable; and, where it once more plunged into the unbeaten snow upon the farther side, Dick was surprised to see it narrower and lighter trod. Plainly, profiting by the road, Sir Daniel had begun already to scatter his command.
At all hazards, one chance being equal to another, Dick continued to pursue the straight trail; and that, after an hour’s riding, in which it led into the very depths of the forest, suddenly split, like a bursting shell, into two dozen others, leading to every point of the compass.
Dick drew bridle in despair. The short winter’s day was near an end; the sun, a dull red orange, shorn of rays, swam low among the leafless thickets; the shadows were a mile long upon the snow; the frost bit cruelly at the finger-nails; and the breath and steam of the horses mounted in a cloud.
“Well, we are outwitted,” Dick confessed. “We will for Holywood, after all. It is still nearer us than Tunstall—or should be by the station of the sun.”
So they wheeled to their left, turning their backs on the red shield of sun, and made across country for the abbey. But now times were changed with them; they could no longer spank forth briskly on a path beaten firm by the passage of their foes, and for a goal to which that path itself conducted them. Now they must plough at a dull pace through the encumbering snow, continually pausing to decide their course, continually floundering in drifts. The sun soon left them; the glow of the west decayed; and presently they were wandering in a shadow of blackness, under frosty stars.
Presently, indeed, the moon would clear the hilltops, and they might resume their march. But till then, every random step might carry them wider of their march. There was nothing for it but to camp and wait.
Sentries were posted; a spot of ground was cleared of snow, and, after some failures, a good fire blazed in the midst. The men-at-arms sat close about this forest hearth, sharing such provisions as they had, and passing about the flask; and Dick, having collected the most delicate of the rough and scanty fare, brought it to Lord Risingham’s niece, where she sat apart from the soldiery against a tree.
She sat upon one horse-cloth, wrapped in another, and stared straight before her at the firelit scene. At the offer of food she started, like one wakened from a dream, and then silently refused.
“Madam,” said Dick, “let me beseech you, punish me not so cruelly. How I have offended you, I know not; I have, indeed, carried you away, but with a friendly violence; I have, indeed, exposed you to the inclemency of night, but the hurry that lies upon me has for its end the preservation of another, who is no less frail and no less unfriended than yourself. At least, madam, punish not yourself; and eat, if not for hunger, then for strength.”
“I will eat nothing at the hands that slew my kinsman,” she replied.
“Dear madam,” Dick cried, “I swear to you upon the cross I touched him not.”
“Swear to me that he still lives,” she returned.
“I will not palter with you,” answered Dick. “Pity bids me to wound you. In my heart I do believe him dead.”
“And you ask me to eat!” she cried. “Yes, and they call you ‘sir!’ You have won your spurs by my good kinsman’s murder. And had I not been fool and traitor both, and saved you in your enemy’s house, you should have died the death, and he—he that was worth twelve of you—were living.”
“I did but my man’s best, even as your kinsman did upon the other party,” answered Dick. “Were he still living—as I vow to Heaven I wish it!—he would praise, not blame me.”
“Sir Daniel has told me,” she replied. “He saw you at the barricade. Upon you, he said, their party foundered; it was you that won the battle. Well, then, it was you that killed my good Lord Risingham, as sure as though you had strangled him. And you would have me eat with you—and your hands not washed from killing? But Sir Daniel has sworn your downfall. He it is that will avenge me!”
The unfortunate Dick was plunged in gloom. Old Arblaster returned upon his mind, and he groaned aloud.
“Do you hold me so guilty?” he said; “you that defended me—you that are Joanna’s friend?”
“What made you go in the battle?” she retorted. “You are of no party; you are but a lad—but legs and body, without government of wit or counsel! Why did you fight? For the love of hurt, shame!”
“No,” cried Dick, “I know not. But as the realm of England goes, if that a poor gentleman fight not upon the one side, then he must fight upon the other. He may not stand alone; it is not in nature.”
“They that have no judgment should not draw the sword,” replied the young lady. “You that fight but for adventure, what are you but a butcher? War is but noble by the cause, and you have disgraced it.”
“Madam,” said the miserable Dick, “I do partly see my error. I have made too much haste; I have been busy before my time. Already I stole a ship—thinking, I do swear it, to do well—and thereby brought about the death of many innocent, and the grief and ruin of a poor old man whose face this very day has stabbed me like a dagger. And for this morning, I did but plan to do myself credit, and get fame to marry with, and, behold! I have brought about the death of your dear kinsman that was good to me. And what besides, I know not. For, alas! I may have set York upon the throne, and that may be the worser cause, and may do hurt to England. O, madam, I do see my sin. I am unfit for life. I will, for penance sake and to avoid worse evil, once I have finished this adventure, get me to a cloister. I will give up Joanna and the trade of arms. I will be a friar, and pray for your good kinsman’s spirit all my days.”
It appeared to Dick, in this extremity of his humiliation and repentance, that the young lady had laughed.
Raising his countenance, he found her looking down upon him, in the fire-light, with a somewhat peculiar but not unkind expression.
“Madam,” he cried, thinking the laughter to have been an illusion of his hearing, but still, from her changed looks, hoping to have touched her heart, “madam, will not this content you? I give up all to undo what I have done wrong; I make heaven certain for Lord Risingham. And all this upon the very day that I have won my spurs, and thought myself the happiest young gentleman on ground.”
“O boy,” she said—“good boy!”
And then, to the extreme surprise of Dick, she first very tenderly wiped the tears away from his cheeks, and then, as if yielding to a sudden impulse, threw both her arms about his neck, drew up his face, and kissed him. A pitiful bewilderment came over simple-minded Dick.
“But come,” she said, with great cheerfulness, “you that are a captain, you must eat. Why are you not eating?”
“Dear Mistress Risingham,” replied Dick, “I did but wait first upon my prisoner; but, to say truth, penitence will no longer suffer me to endure the sight of food. I were better to fast, dear lady, and to pray.”
“Call me Alicia,” she said; “are we not old friends? And now, come, I will eat with you, bit for bit and sup for sup; so if you eat not, neither will I; but if you eat hearty, I will dine like a ploughman.”
So there and then she fell to; and Dick, who had an excellent stomach, proceeded to bear her company, at first with great reluctance, but gradually, as he entered into the spirit, with more and more vigour and devotion: until, at last, he forgot even to watch his model, and most heartily repaired the expenses of his day of labour and excitement.
“Lion-driver,” she said, at length, “you do not admire a maid in a man’s jerkin?”
The moon was now up; and they were only waiting to rest the wearied horses. By the moon’s light, the still penitent but now well-fed Richard beheld her looking somewhat coquettishly down upon him.
“Madam”—he stammered, surprised at this new turn in her manners.
“Yes,” she interrupted, “it skills not to deny; Joanna has told me, but come, Sir Lion-driver, look at me—am I so homely—come!”
And she made bright eyes at him.
“You are something smallish, indeed”—began Dick.
And here again she interrupted him, this time with a ringing peal of laughter that completed his confusion and surprise.
“Smallish!” she cried. “Yes, now, be honest as you are bold; I am a dwarf, or little better; but for all that—come, tell me!—for all that, passably fair to look upon; is it not so?”
“Yes, madam, exceedingly fair,” said the distressed knight, pitifully trying to seem easy.
“And a man would be right glad to wed me?” she pursued.
“O, madam, right glad!” agreed Dick.
“Call me Alicia,” said she.
“Alicia,” quoth Sir Richard.
“Well, then, lion-driver,” she continued, “since you slew my kinsman, and left me without stay, you owe me, in honour, every reparation; do you not?”
“I do, madam,” said Dick. “Although, upon my heart, I do hold me but partially guilty of that brave knight’s blood.”
“Would you evade me?” she cried.
“Madam, not so. I have told you; at your bidding, I will even turn me a monk,” said Richard.
“Then, in honour, you belong to me?” she concluded.
“In honour, madam, I suppose”—began the young man.
“Go on!” she interrupted; “you are too full of catches. In honour do you belong to me, till ye have paid the evil?”
“In honour, I do,” said Dick.
“Hear, then,” she continued; “You would make but a sad friar, I think; and since I am to dispose of you at pleasure, I will even take you for my husband. No, now, no words!” cried she. “They will avail you nothing. For see how just it is, that you who deprived me of one home, should supply me with another. And as for Joanna, she will be the first, believe me, to commend the change; for, after all, as we be dear friends, what matters it with which of us you wed? Not one bit!”
“Madam,” said Dick, “I will go into a cloister, if you please to bid me; but to wed with anyone in this big world besides Joanna Sedley is what I will consent to neither for man’s force nor yet for lady’s pleasure. Pardon me if I speak my plain thoughts plainly; but where a maid is very bold, a poor man must even be the bolder.”
“Dick,” she said, “you sweet boy, you must come and kiss me for that word. No, fear not, you shall kiss me for Joanna; and when we meet, I shall give it back to her, and say I stole it. And as for what you owe me, why, dear simpleton, I think you were not alone in that great battle; and even if York be on the throne, it was not you that set him there. But for a good, sweet, honest heart, Dick, you are all that; and if I could find it in my soul to envy your Joanna anything, I would even envy her your love.”