by Robert Louis Stevenson
Saranac Lake, April 8, 1888.
Note: Look up difficult words at The Free Dictionary.
“Yes, by my faith!” cried Bennet. “Black, and black-feathered. Here is an ill-favoured shaft, by my word! for black, they say, predicts burial. And here be words written. Wipe the blood away. What do you read?”
“‘Appleyard from Jon Amend-All,’” read Shelton. “What does this mean?”
“I like it not,” returned the retainer, shaking his head. “John Amend-All! Here is a rogue’s name for those that be up in the world! But why are we standing here as targets? Take him by the knees, good Master Shelton, while I lift him by the shoulders, and let us lay him in his house. This will be a shock to poor Sir Oliver; he will turn paper colour; he will pray like a windmill.”
They took up the old archer, and carried him between them into his house, where he had lived alone. And there they laid him on the floor, out of regard for the mattress, and sought, as best they might, to straighten and compose his limbs.
Appleyard’s house was clean and bare. There was a bed, with a blue cover, a cupboard, a great chest, a pair of joint-stools, a hinged table in the chimney corner, and hung upon the wall the old soldier’s armoury of bows and defensive armour. Hatch began to look about him curiously.
“Nick had money,” he said. “He may have had 60 pounds saved up. I would I could find it! When you lose an old friend, Master Richard, the best consolation is to be his heir. See, now, this chest. I would make a mighty wager there is a bushel of gold in it. He had a strong hand to get, and a hard hand to spend, had Appleyard the archer. Now may God rest his spirit! For near eighty years he was afoot and about, and ever getting; but now he’s on the broad of his back, poor whiner, and has no more wants; and if his chattels came to a good friend, he would be merrier, I think, in heaven.”
“Come, Hatch,” said Dick, “respect his stone-blind eyes. Would you rob the man before his body? No, he would rise up and walk!”
Hatch made several signs of the cross; but by this time his natural complexion had returned, and he was not easily to be dashed from any purpose. It would have gone hard with the chest had not the gate sounded, and presently after the door of the house opened and admitted a tall, portly, ruddy, black-eyed man of near fifty, in a priest’s black robe.
“Appleyard”—the newcomer was saying, as he entered; but he stopped dead. “Ave Maria!” he cried. “Saints be our shield! What happened?”
“Cold cheer with Appleyard, sir parson,” answered Hatch, with perfect cheerfulness. “Shot at his own door, and he is even now at purgatory gates. There, if tales be true, he shall lack neither coal nor candle.”
Sir Oliver groped his way to a joint-stool, and sat down upon it, sick and white.
“This is a judgment! O, a great stroke!” he sobbed, and rattled off a leash of prayers.
Hatch meanwhile reverently doffed his helmet and knelt down.
“Yes, Bennet,” said the priest, somewhat recovering, “and what may this be? What enemy has done this?”
“Here, Sir Oliver, is the arrow. See, it is written upon with words,” said Dick.
“No,” cried the priest, “this is a foul hearing! John Amend-All! And black of hue, as for an omen! Sirs, I do not like this knave arrow. But it important to take counsel. Who should this be? What do you think, Bennet. Of so many black ill-wishers, which should he be that does so boldly attack us? Simnel? I do much question it. The Walsinghams? No, they are not yet so broken; they still think to have the law over us, when times change. There was Simon Malmesbury, too. What do you think , Bennet?”
“What do you think, sir,” returned Hatch, “of Ellis Duckworth?”
“No, Bennet, never. No, not he,” said the priest. “There never comes any rising, Bennet, from below—so all judicious chroniclers agree in their opinion; but rebellion travels ever downward from above; and when Dick, Tom, and Harry take them to their bills, look ever narrowly to see what lord is profited thereby. Now, Sir Daniel, having once more joined him to the Queen’s party, is in ill odour with the Yorkist lords. From there, Bennet, comes the blow—but who did it, that I must find out.”
“Sir Oliver,” said Bennet, “the axles are so hot in this country that I have long been smelling fire. So did this poor sinner, Appleyard. And, by your leave, men’s spirits are so foully inclined to all of us, that it needs neither York nor Lancaster to spur them on. Hear my plain thoughts: You, that are a clerk, and Sir Daniel, that sails on any wind, you have taken many men’s goods, and beaten and hanged not a few. You are called to count for this; in the end, I know not how, you have ever the uppermost at law, and you think all patched. But give me leave, Sir Oliver: the man that you have dispossessed and beaten is but the angrier, and some day, when the black devil is by, he will up with his bow and fire a yard of arrow through your inwards.”
“No, Bennet, you are in the wrong. Bennet, you should be glad to be corrected,” said Sir Oliver. “You are a prater, Bennet, a talker, a babbler; your mouth is wider than your two ears. Mend it, Bennet, mend it.”
“I say no more. Believe what you want,” said the retainer.
The priest now rose from the stool, and from the writing-case that hung about his neck took forth wax and a taper, and a flint and steel. With these he sealed up the chest and the cupboard with Sir Daniel’s arms, Hatch looking on gloomily; and then the whole party proceeded, somewhat fearfully, to leave the house and get to their horses.
“It is time we were on the road, Sir Oliver,” said Hatch, as he held the priest’s stirrup while he mounted.
“But, Bennet, things are changed,” returned the parson. “There is now no Appleyard—rest his soul!—to keep the garrison. I shall keep you, Bennet. I must have a good man to depend on in this day of black arrows. ‘The arrow that flies by day,’ says the evangel; I have no mind of the context; but, I am a sluggard priest, I am too deep in men’s affairs. Well, let us ride forth, Master Hatch. The jackmen should be at the church by now.”
So they rode forward down the road, with the wind after them, blowing the tails of the parson’s cloak; and behind them, as they went, clouds began to arise and blot out the sinking sun. They had passed three of the scattered houses that make up Tunstall hamlet, when, coming to a turn, they saw the church before them. Ten or twelve houses clustered immediately round it; but to the back the churchyard was next the meadows. At the lych-gate, near a score of men were gathered, some in the saddle, some standing by their horses’ heads. They were variously armed and mounted; some with spears, some with bills, some with bows, and some riding plow-horses, still splashed with the mire of the furrow; for these were the very dregs of the country, and all the better men and the fair equipment were already with Sir Daniel in the field.
“We have not done amiss, praised be the cross of Holywood! Sir Daniel will be right well content,” observed the priest, inwardly numbering the troop.
“Who goes? Stand! if you be true!” shouted Bennet. A man was seen slipping through the churchyard among the yews; and at the sound of this summons he discarded all concealment, and fairly took to his heels for the forest. The men at the gate, who had been unaware of the stranger’s presence, woke and scattered. Those who had dismounted began scrambling into the saddle; the rest rode in pursuit; but they had to make the circuit of the consecrated ground, and it was plain their quarry would escape them. Hatch, roaring an oath, put his horse at the hedge, to head him off; but the beast refused, and sent his rider sprawling in the dust. And though he was up again in a moment, and had caught the bridle, the time had gone by, and the fugitive had gained too great a lead for any hope of capture.
The wisest of all had been Dick Shelton. Instead of starting in a vain pursuit, he had whipped his crossbow from his back, bent it, and set a quarrel to the string; and now, when the others had desisted, he turned to Bennet and asked if he should shoot.
“Shoot! shoot!” cried the priest, with sanguinary violence.
“Cover him, Master Dick,” said Bennet. “Bring him down like a ripe apple.”
The fugitive was now within but a few leaps of safety; but this last part of the meadow ran very steeply uphill; and the man ran slower in proportion. What with the greyness of the falling night, and the uneven movements of the runner, it was no easy aim; and as Dick levelled his bow, he felt a kind of pity, and a half desire that he might miss. The quarrel sped.
The man stumbled and fell, and a great cheer arose from Hatch and the pursuers. But they were counting their corn before the harvest. The man fell lightly; he was lightly afoot again, turned and waved his cap in a bravado, and was out of sight next moment in the margin of the wood.
“And the plague go with him!” cried Bennet. “He has thieves’ heels; he can run, by St Banbury! But you touched him, Master Shelton; he has stolen your quarrel.”
“What was he doing by the church?” asked Sir Oliver. “I am afraid there has been mischief here. Clipsby, good fellow, get down from your horse, and search thoroughly among the yews.”
Clipsby was gone but a little while before he returned carrying a paper.
“This writing was pinned to the church door,” he said, handing it to the parson. “I found nothing else, sir parson.”
“Now, by the power of Mother Church,” cried Sir Oliver, “but this runs hard on sacrilege! For the king’s good pleasure, or the lord of the manor—well! But that every run-the-hedge in a green jerkin should fasten papers to the church door—it runs hard on sacrilege, hard; and men have burned for matters of less weight. But what have we here? The light fails. Good Master Richard, you have young eyes. Read me, I pray, this libel.”
Dick Shelton took the paper in his hand and read it aloud. It contained some lines of very rugged, poorly-written verse, hardly even rhyming with terrible spelling. With the spelling somewhat corrected, this is how it ran:
“I had four black arrows under my belt,
Four for the griefs that I have felt,
Four for the number of ill men
That have oppressed me now and then.
One is gone; one is well sped;
Old Appleyard is dead.
One is for Master Bennet Hatch,
That burned Grimstone, walls and thatch.
One for Sir Oliver Oates,
That cut Sir Harry Shelton’s throat.
Sir Daniel, you shall have the fourth;
We shall think it fair sport.
You shall each have your own part,
A black arrow in each black heart.
Get you to your knees for to pray:
You are dead thieves, by yea and nay!
Jon Amend-All of the Green Wood,
And his jolly fellowship.
PS. We have more arrows and good hempen cord for hanging others of your following.”
“Now, this is a bad for charity and the Christian graces!” cried Sir Oliver, lamentably. “Sirs, this is an ill world, and grows daily worse. I will swear upon the cross of Holywood I am as innocent of that good knight’s hurt, whether in act or purpose, as a babe unchristened. Neither was his throat cut; for there they are again in error, as there still live credible witnesses to show.”
“It matters not, sir parson,” said Bennet. “Here is unreasonable talk.”
“No, Master Bennet, not so.” answered the priest. “I shall prove my innocence. I will not lose my poor life in error. I take all men to witness that I am clear of this matter. I was not even in the Moat House. I was sent of an errand before nine upon the clock”—
“Sir Oliver,” said Hatch, interrupting, “since it please you not to stop this sermon, I will take other means. Goffe, sound to horse.”
And while the trumpet was sounding, Bennet moved close to the bewildered parson, and whispered violently in his ear.
Dick Shelton saw the priest’s eye turned upon him for an instant in a startled glance. He had some cause for thought; for this Sir Harry Shelton was his own natural father. But he said never a word, and kept his countenance unmoved.
Hatch and Sir Oliver discussed together for a while their altered situation; ten men, it was decided between them, should be reserved, not only to garrison the Moat House, but to escort the priest across the wood. In the meantime, as Bennet was to remain behind, the command of the reinforcement was given to Master Shelton. Indeed, there was no choice; the men were clumsy fellows, dull and unskilled in war, while Dick was not only popular, but resolute and grave beyond his age. Although his youth had been spent in these rough, country places, the lad had been well taught in letters by Sir Oliver, and Hatch himself had shown him the management of arms and the first principles of command. Bennet had always been kind and helpful; he was one of those who are cruel as the grave to those they call their enemies, but ruggedly faithful and well willing to their friends; and now, while Sir Oliver entered the next house to write, in his swift, beautiful penmanship, a note of the last occurrences to his master, Sir Daniel Brackley, Bennet came up to his pupil to wish him God-speed upon his enterprise.
“You must go the long way about, Master Shelton,” he said; “round by the bridge, for your life! Keep a sure man fifty paces before you, to draw shots; and go softly till you are past the wood. If the rogues fall upon you, ride for it; you will do nothing by standing. And keep ever forward, Master Shelton; turn not back again, if you love your life; there is no help in Tunstall, remember that. And now, since you go to the great wars about the king, and I continue to dwell here in extreme jeopardy of my life, and the saints alone can certify if we shall meet again below, I give you my last counsels now at your riding. Keep an eye on Sir Daniel; he is unsure. Put not your trust in the jack-priest; he is well intending, but does the will of others. Make strong friends wherever you go. And say a prayer for Bennet Hatch. There are worse rogues around than Bennet. So, God-speed!”
“And Heaven be with you, Bennet!” returned Dick. “You were a good friend to me, and so I shall say ever.”
“And, look you, master,” added Hatch, with a certain embarrassment, “if this Amend-All should get a shaft into me, you might, perhaps, lay out a gold coin for my poor soul; for it is likely to go stiff with me in purgatory.”
“You shall have your will of it, Bennet,” answered Dick. “But, cheer up, man! we shall meet again, where you shall have more need of ale than masses.”
“The saints so grant it, Master Dick!” returned the other. “But here comes Sir Oliver. If he was as quick with the long-bow as with the pen, he would be a brave man-at-arms.”
Sir Oliver gave Dick a sealed packet, with this superscription: “To my right worshipful master, Sir Daniel Brackley, knight, to be delivered in haste.”
And Dick, putting it in the bosom of his jacket, gave the word and set forth westward up the village.