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On a certain afternoon, in the late springtime, the bell upon Tunstall Moat House was heard ringing at an unaccustomed hour. Far and near, in the forest and in the fields along the river, people began to desert their labours and hurry towards the sound; and in Tunstall hamlet a group of poor country-folk stood wondering at the summons.
Tunstall hamlet at that period, in the reign of old King Henry VI., wore much the same appearance as it wears to-day. A score or so of houses, heavily framed with oak, stood scattered in a long green valley ascending from the river. At the foot, the road crossed a bridge, and mounting on the other side, disappeared into the fringes of the forest on its way to the Moat House, and further forth to Holywood Abbey. Half-way up the village, the church stood among yews. On every side the slopes were crowned and the view bounded by the green elms and greening oak-trees of the forest.
Hard by the bridge, there was a stone cross upon a knoll, and here the group had collected - half a dozen women and one tall fellow in a russet smock - discussing what the bell betided. An express had gone through the hamlet half an hour before, and drunk a pot of ale in the saddle, not daring to dismount for the hurry of his errand; but he had been ignorant himself of what was forward, and only bore sealed letters from Sir Daniel Brackley to Sir Oliver Oates, the parson, who kept the Moat House in the master’s absence.
But now there was the noise of a horse; and soon, out of the edge of the wood and over the echoing bridge, there rode up young Master Richard Shelton, Sir Daniel’s ward. He, at the least, would know, and they hailed him and begged him to explain. He drew bridle willingly enough - a young fellow not yet eighteen, sun-browned and grey-eyed, in a jacket of deer’s leather, with a black velvet collar, a green hood upon his head, and a steel cross-bow at his back. The express, it appeared, had brought great news. A battle was impending. Sir Daniel had sent for every man that could draw a bow or carry a bill to go post-haste to Kettley, under pain of his severe displeasure; but for whom they were to fight, or of where the battle was expected, Dick knew nothing. Sir Oliver would come shortly himself, and Bennet Hatch was arming at that moment, for he it was who should lead the party.
“It is the ruin of this kind land,” a woman said. “If the barons live at war, ploughfolk must eat roots.”
“Nay,” said Dick, “every man that follows shall have sixpence a day, and archers twelve.”
“If they live,” returned the woman, “that may very well be; but how if they die, my master?”
“They cannot better die than for their natural lord,” said Dick.
“No natural lord of mine,” said the man in the smock. “I followed the Walsinghams; so we all did down Brierly way, till two years ago, come Candlemas. And now I must side with Brackley! It was the law that did it; call ye that natural? But now, what with Sir Daniel and what with Sir Oliver - that knows more of law than honesty - I have no natural lord but poor King Harry the Sixt, God bless him! - the poor innocent that cannot tell his right hand from his left.”
“Ye speak with an ill tongue, friend,” answered Dick, “to miscall your good master and my lord the king in the same libel. But King Harry - praised be the saints! - has come again into his right mind, and will have all things peaceably ordained. And as for Sir Daniel, y’ are very brave behind his back. But I will be no tale-bearer; and let that suffice.”
“I say no harm of you, Master Richard,” returned the peasant. “Y’ are a lad; but when ye come to a man’s inches, ye will find ye have an empty pocket. I say no more: the saints help Sir Daniel’s neighbours, and the Blessed Maid protect his wards!”
“Clipsby,” said Richard, “you speak what I cannot hear with honour. Sir Daniel is my good master, and my guardian.”
“Come, now, will ye read me a riddle?” returned Clipsby. “On whose side is Sir Daniel?”
“I know not,” said Dick, colouring a little; for his guardian had changed sides continually in the troubles of that period, and every change had brought him some increase of fortune.
“Ay,” returned Clipsby, “you, nor no man. For, indeed, he is one that goes to bed Lancaster and gets up York.”
Just then the bridge rang under horse-shoe iron, and the party turned and saw Bennet Hatch come galloping - a brown-faced, grizzled fellow, heavy of hand and grim of mien, armed with sword and spear, a steel salet on his head, a leather jack upon his body. He was a great man in these parts; Sir Daniel’s right hand in peace and war, and at that time, by his master’s interest, bailiff of the hundred.
“Clipsby,” he shouted, “off to the Moat House, and send all other laggards the same gate. Bowyer will give you jack and salet. We must ride before curfew. Look to it: he that is last at the lych-gate Sir Daniel shall reward. Look to it right well! I know you for a man of naught. Nance,” he added, to one of the women, “is old Appleyard up town?”
“I’ll warrant you,” replied the woman. “In his field, for sure.”
So the group dispersed, and while Clipsby walked leisurely over the bridge, Bennet and young Shelton rode up the road together, through the village and past the church.
“Ye will see the old shrew,” said Bennet. “He will waste more time grumbling and prating of Harry the Fift than would serve a man to shoe a horse. And all because he has been to the French wars!”
The house to which they were bound was the last in the village, standing alone among lilacs; and beyond it, on three sides, there was open meadow rising towards the borders of the wood.
Hatch dismounted, threw his rein over the fence, and walked down the field, Dick keeping close at his elbow, to where the old soldier was digging, knee-deep in his cabbages, and now and again, in a cracked voice, singing a snatch of song. He was all dressed in leather, only his hood and tippet were of black frieze, and tied with scarlet; his face was like a walnut-shell, both for colour and wrinkles; but his old grey eye was still clear enough, and his sight unabated. Perhaps he was deaf; perhaps he thought it unworthy of an old archer of Agincourt to pay any heed to such disturbances; but neither the surly notes of the alarm bell, nor the near approach of Bennet and the lad, appeared at all to move him; and he continued obstinately digging, and piped up, very thin and shaky:
“Now, dear lady, if thy will be, I pray you that you will rue on me.”
“Nick Appleyard,” said Hatch, “Sir Oliver commends him to you, and bids that ye shall come within this hour to the Moat House, there to take command.”
The old fellow looked up.
“Save you, my masters!” he said, grinning. “And where goeth Master Hatch?”
“Master Hatch is off to Kettley, with every man that we can horse,” returned Bennet. “There is a fight toward, it seems, and my lord stays a reinforcement.”
“Ay, verily,” returned Appleyard. “And what will ye leave me to garrison withal?”
“I leave you six good men, and Sir Oliver to boot,” answered Hatch.
“It’ll not hold the place,” said Appleyard; “the number sufficeth not. It would take two score to make it good.”
“Why, it’s for that we came to you, old shrew!” replied the other. “Who else is there but you that could do aught in such a house with such a garrison?”
“Ay! when the pinch comes, ye remember the old shoe,” returned Nick. “There is not a man of you can back a horse or hold a bill; and as for archery - St. Michael! if old Harry the Fift were back again, he would stand and let ye shoot at him for a farthen a shoot!”
“Nay, Nick, there’s some can draw a good bow yet,” said Bennet.
“Draw a good bow!” cried Appleyard. “Yes! But who’ll shoot me a good shoot? It’s there the eye comes in, and the head between your shoulders. Now, what might you call a long shoot, Bennet Hatch?”
“Well,” said Bennet, looking about him, “it would be a long shoot from here into the forest.”
“Ay, it would be a longish shoot,” said the old fellow, turning to look over his shoulder; and then he put up his hand over his eyes, and stood staring.
“Why, what are you looking at?” asked Bennet, with a chuckle. “Do, you see Harry the Fift?”
The veteran continued looking up the hill in silence. The sun shone broadly over the shelving meadows; a few white sheep wandered browsing; all was still but the distant jangle of the bell.
“What is it, Appleyard?” asked Dick.
“Why, the birds,” said Appleyard.
And, sure enough, over the top of the forest, where it ran down in a tongue among the meadows, and ended in a pair of goodly green elms, about a bowshot from the field where they were standing, a flight of birds was skimming to and fro, in evident disorder.
“What of the birds?” said Bennet.
“Ay!” returned Appleyard, “y’ are a wise man to go to war, Master Bennet. Birds are a good sentry; in forest places they be the first line of battle. Look you, now, if we lay here in camp, there might be archers skulking down to get the wind of us; and here would you be, none the wiser!”
“Why, old shrew,” said Hatch, “there be no men nearer us than Sir Daniel’s, at Kettley; y’ are as safe as in London Tower; and ye raise scares upon a man for a few chaffinches and sparrows!”
“Hear him!” grinned Appleyard. “How many a rogue would give his two crop ears to have a shoot at either of us? Saint Michael, man! they hate us like two polecats!”
“Well, sooth it is, they hate Sir Daniel,” answered Hatch, a little sobered.
“Ay, they hate Sir Daniel, and they hate every man that serves with him,” said Appleyard; “and in the first order of hating, they hate Bennet Hatch and old Nicholas the bowman. See ye here: if there was a stout fellow yonder in the wood-edge, and you and I stood fair for him - as, by Saint George, we stand! - which, think ye, would he choose?”
“You, for a good wager,” answered Hatch.
“My surcoat to a leather belt, it would be you!” cried the old archer. “Ye burned Grimstone, Bennet - they’ll ne’er forgive you that, my master. And as for me, I’ll soon be in a good place, God grant, and out of bow-shoot - ay, and cannon-shoot - of all their malices. I am an old man, and draw fast to homeward, where the bed is ready. But for you, Bennet, y’ are to remain behind here at your own peril, and if ye come to my years unhanged, the old true-blue English spirit will be dead.”
“Y’ are the shrewishest old dolt in Tunstall Forest,” returned Hatch, visibly ruffled by these threats. “Get ye to your arms before Sir Oliver come, and leave prating for one good while. An ye had talked so much with Harry the Fift, his ears would ha’ been richer than his pocket.”
An arrow sang in the air, like a huge hornet; it struck old Appleyard between the shoulder-blades, and pierced him clean through, and he fell forward on his face among the cabbages. Hatch, with a broken cry, leapt into the air; then, stooping double, he ran for the cover of the house. And in the meanwhile Dick Shelton had dropped behind a lilac, and had his crossbow bent and shouldered, covering the point of the forest.
Not a leaf stirred. The sheep were patiently browsing; the birds had settled. But there lay the old man, with a cloth-yard arrow standing in his back; and there were Hatch holding to the gable, and Dick crouching and ready behind the lilac bush.
“D’ye see aught?” cried Hatch.
“Not a twig stirs,” said Dick.
“I think shame to leave him lying,” said Bennet, coming forward once more with hesitating steps and a very pale countenance. “Keep a good eye on the wood, Master Shelton - keep a clear eye on the wood. The saints assoil us! here was a good shoot!”
Bennet raised the old archer on his knee. He was not yet dead; his face worked, and his eyes shut and opened like machinery, and he had a most horrible, ugly look of one in pain.
“Can ye hear, old Nick?” asked Hatch. “Have ye a last wish before ye wend, old brother?”
“Pluck out the shaft, and let me pass, a’ Mary’s name!” gasped Appleyard. “I be done with Old England. Pluck it out!”
“Master Dick,” said Bennet, “come hither, and pull me a good pull upon the arrow. He would fain pass, the poor sinner.”
Dick laid down his cross-bow, and pulling hard upon the arrow, drew it forth. A gush of blood followed; the old archer scrambled half upon his feet, called once upon the name of God, and then fell dead. Hatch, upon his knees among the cabbages, prayed fervently for the welfare of the passing spirit. But even as he prayed, it was plain that his mind was still divided, and he kept ever an eye upon the corner of the wood from which the shot had come. When he had done, he got to his feet again, drew off one of his mailed gauntlets, and wiped his pale face, which was all wet with terror.
“Ay,” he said, “it’ll be my turn next.”
“Who hath done this, Bennet?” Richard asked, still holding the arrow in his hand.
“Nay, the saints know,” said Hatch. “Here are a good two score Christian souls that we have hunted out of house and holding, he and I. He has paid his shot, poor shrew, nor will it be long, mayhap, ere I pay mine. Sir Daniel driveth over-hard.”
“This is a strange shaft,” said the lad, looking at the arrow in his hand.
“Ay, by my faith!” cried Bennet. “Black, and black-feathered. Here is an ill-favoured shaft, by my sooth! for black, they say, bodes burial. And here be words written. Wipe the blood away. What read ye?”
“‘Appulyaird fro Jon Amend-All,’” read Shelton. “What should this betoken?”
“Nay, 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 stand we here to make a mark? 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 rare shog 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 dwelt 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 three score pounds put by. I would I could light upon’t! When ye lose an old friend, Master Richard, the best consolation is to heir him. See, now, this chest. I would go a mighty wager there is a bushel of gold therein. He had a strong hand to get, and a hard hand to keep withal, had Appleyard the archer. Now may God rest his spirit! Near eighty year he was afoot and about, and ever getting; but now he’s on the broad of his back, poor shrew, and no more lacketh; and if his chattels came to a good friend, he would be merrier, methinks, in heaven.”
“Come, Hatch,” said Dick, “respect his stone-blind eyes. Would ye rob the man before his body? Nay, he would 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 surplice and black robe.
“Appleyard” - the newcomer was saying, as he entered; but he stopped dead. “Ave Maria!” he cried. “Saints be our shield! What cheer is this?”
“Cold cheer with Appleyard, sir parson,” answered Hatch, with perfect cheerfulness. “Shot at his own door, and alighteth even now at purgatory gates. Ay! 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 salet and knelt down.
“Ay, Bennet,” said the priest, somewhat recovering, “and what may this be? What enemy hath done this?”
“Here, Sir Oliver, is the arrow. See, it is written upon with words,” said Dick.
“Nay,” cried the priest, “this is a foul hearing! John Amend-All! A right Lollardy word. And black of hue, as for an omen! Sirs, this knave arrow likes me not. But it importeth rather to take counsel. Who should this be? Bethink you, Bennet. Of so many black ill-willers, which should he be that doth so hardily outface us? Simnel? I do much question it. The Walsinghams? Nay, they are not yet so broken; they still think to have the law over us, when times change. There was Simon Malmesbury, too. How think ye, Bennet?”
“What think ye, sir,” returned Hatch, “of Ellis Duckworth?”
“Nay, Bennet, never. Nay, not he,” said the priest. “There cometh never any rising, Bennet, from below - so all judicious chroniclers concord in their opinion; but rebellion travelleth 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. Thence, Bennet, comes the blow - by what procuring, I yet seek; but therein lies the nerve of this discomfiture.”
“An’t please you, 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, ye have taken many men’s goods, and beaten and hanged not a few. Y’ are called to count for this; in the end, I wot not how, ye have ever the uppermost at law, and ye think all patched. But give me leave, Sir Oliver: the man that ye have dispossessed and beaten is but the angrier, and some day, when the black devil is by, he will up with his bow and clout me a yard of arrow through your inwards.”
“Nay, Bennet, y’ are in the wrong. Bennet, ye should be glad to be corrected,” said Sir Oliver. “Y’ are a prater, Bennet, a talker, a babbler; your mouth is wider than your two ears. Mend it, Bennet, mend it.”
“Nay, I say no more. Have it as ye list,” 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 disconsolate; and then the whole party proceeded, somewhat timorously, to sally from the house and get to horse.
“’Tis time we were on the road, Sir Oliver,” said Hatch, as he held the priest’s stirrup while he mounted.
“Ay; 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 rest me on in this day of black arrows. ‘The arrow that flieth by day,’ saith the evangel; I have no mind of the context; nay, 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 a dozen 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 bestriding plough-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 equipments 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 ye 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 hitherto 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 me 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, may he never have good I grudge him less!”
“Nay, but what made he by the church?” asked Sir Oliver. “I am shrewdly afeared there has been mischief here. Clipsby, good fellow, get ye down from your horse, and search thoroughly among the yews.”
Clipsby was gone but a little while ere he returned carrying a paper.
“This writing was pinned to the church door,” he said, handing it to the parson. “I found naught 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 chancel door - nay, it runs hard on sacrilege, hard; and men have burned for matters of less weight. But what have we here? The light falls apace. Good Master Richard, y’ 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 doggerel, hardly even rhyming, written in a gross character, and most uncouthly spelt. With the spelling somewhat bettered, this is how they ran:
“I had four blak arrows under my belt, Four for the greefs that I have felt, Four for the nomber of ill menne That have opressid me now and then.
One is gone; one is wele sped; Old Apulyaird is ded.
One is for Maister Bennet Hatch, That burned Grimstone, walls and thatch.
One for Sir Oliver Oates, That cut Sir Harry Shelton’s throat.
Sir Daniel, ye shull have the fourt; We shall think it fair sport.
Ye shull each have your own part, A blak arrow in each blak heart. Get ye to your knees for to pray: Ye are ded theeves, by yea and nay!
“JON AMEND-ALL of the Green Wood, And his jolly fellaweship.
“Item, we have mo arrowes and goode hempen cord for otheres of your following.”
“Now, well-a-day for charity and the Christian graces!” cried Sir Oliver, lamentably. “Sirs, this is an ill world, and groweth 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 the babe unchristened. Neither was his throat cut; for therein they are again in error, as there still live credible witnesses to show.”
“It boots not, sir parson,” said Bennet. “Here is unseasonable talk.”
“Nay, Master Bennet, not so. Keep ye in your due place, good Bennet,” answered the priest. “I shall make mine innocence appear. I will, upon no consideration, 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 tucket 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 loutish 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, exquisite penmanship, a memorandum of the last occurrences to his master, Sir Daniel Brackley, Bennet came up to his pupil to wish him God-speed upon his enterprise.
“Ye must go the long way about, Master Shelton,” he said; “round by the bridge, for your life! Keep a sure man fifty paces afore you, to draw shots; and go softly till y’ are past the wood. If the rogues fall upon you, ride for ’t; ye will do naught by standing. And keep ever forward, Master Shelton; turn me not back again, an ye love your life; there is no help in Tunstall, mind ye that. And now, since ye 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 intendeth not amiss, but doth the will of others; it is a hand-gun for Sir Daniel! Get your good lordship where ye go; make you strong friends; look to it. And think ever a pater-noster-while on Bennet Hatch. There are worse rogues afoot than Bennet. So, God-speed!”
“And Heaven be with you, Bennet!” returned Dick. “Ye were a good friend to me-ward, and so I shall say ever.”
“And, look ye, master,” added Hatch, with a certain embarrassment, “if this Amend-All should get a shaft into me, ye might, mayhap, lay out a gold mark or mayhap a pound for my poor soul; for it is like to go stiff with me in purgatory.”
“Ye shall have your will of it, Bennet,” answered Dick. “But, what cheer, man! we shall meet again, where ye shall have more need of ale than masses.”
“The saints so grant it, Master Dick!” returned the other. “But here comes Sir Oliver. An he were 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 ryght worchypful master, Sir Daniel Brackley, knyght, be thys delyvered in haste.”
And Dick, putting it in the bosom of his jacket, gave the word and set forth westward up the village.
Sir Daniel and his men lay in and about Kettley that night, warmly quartered and well patrolled. But the Knight of Tunstall was one who never rested from money-getting; and even now, when he was on the brink of an adventure which should make or mar him, he was up an hour after midnight to squeeze poor neighbours. He was one who trafficked greatly in disputed inheritances; it was his way to buy out the most unlikely claimant, and then, by the favour he curried with great lords about the king, procure unjust decisions in his favour; or, if that was too roundabout, to seize the disputed manor by force of arms, and rely on his influence and Sir Oliver’s cunning in the law to hold what he had snatched. Kettley was one such place; it had come very lately into his clutches; he still met with opposition from the tenants; and it was to overawe discontent that he had led his troops that way.
By two in the morning, Sir Daniel sat in the inn room, close by the fireside, for it was cold at that hour among the fens of Kettley. By his elbow stood a pottle of spiced ale. He had taken off his visored headpiece, and sat with his bald head and thin, dark visage resting on one hand, wrapped warmly in a sanguine-coloured cloak. At the lower end of the room about a dozen of his men stood sentry over the door or lay asleep on benches; and somewhat nearer hand, a young lad, apparently of twelve or thirteen, was stretched in a mantle on the floor. The host of the Sun stood before the great man.
“Now, mark me, mine host,” Sir Daniel said, “follow but mine orders, and I shall be your good lord ever. I must have good men for head boroughs, and I will have Adam-a-More high constable; see to it narrowly. If other men be chosen, it shall avail you nothing; rather it shall be found to your sore cost. For those that have paid rent to Walsingham I shall take good measure - you among the rest, mine host.”
“Good knight,” said the host, “I will swear upon the cross of Holywood I did but pay to Walsingham upon compulsion. Nay, bully knight, I love not the rogue Walsinghams; they were as poor as thieves, bully knight. Give me a great lord like you. Nay; ask me among the neighbours, I am stout for Brackley.”
“It may be,” said Sir Daniel, dryly. “Ye shall then pay twice.”
The innkeeper made a horrid grimace; but this was a piece of bad luck that might readily befall a tenant in these unruly times, and he was perhaps glad to make his peace so easily.
“Bring up yon fellow, Selden!” cried the knight.
And one of his retainers led up a poor, cringing old man, as pale as a candle, and all shaking with the fen fever.
“Sirrah,” said Sir Daniel, “your name?”
“An’t please your worship,” replied the man, “my name is Condall - Condall of Shoreby, at your good worship’s pleasure.”
“I have heard you ill reported on,” returned the knight. “Ye deal in treason, rogue; ye trudge the country leasing; y’ are heavily suspicioned of the death of severals. How, fellow, are ye so bold? But I will bring you down.”
“Right honourable and my reverend lord,” the man cried, “here is some hodge-podge, saving your good presence. I am but a poor private man, and have hurt none.”
“The under-sheriff did report of you most vilely,” said the knight. “‘Seize me,’ saith he, ‘that Tyndal of Shoreby.’”
“Condall, my good lord; Condall is my poor name,” said the unfortunate.
“Condall or Tyndal, it is all one,” replied Sir Daniel, coolly. “For, by my sooth, y’ are here and I do mightily suspect your honesty. If ye would save your neck, write me swiftly an obligation for twenty pound.”
“For twenty pound, my good lord!” cried Condall. “Here is midsummer madness! My whole estate amounteth not to seventy shillings.”
“Condall or Tyndal,” returned Sir Daniel, grinning, “I will run my peril of that loss. Write me down twenty, and when I have recovered all I may, I will be good lord to you, and pardon you the rest.”
“Alas! my good lord, it may not be; I have no skill to write,” said Condall.
“Well-a-day!” returned the knight. “Here, then, is no remedy. Yet I would fain have spared you, Tyndal, had my conscience suffered. Selden, take me this old shrew softly to the nearest elm, and hang me him tenderly by the neck, where I may see him at my riding. Fare ye well, good Master Condall, dear Master Tyndal; y’ are post-haste for Paradise; fare ye then well!”
“Nay, my right pleasant lord,” replied Condall, forcing an obsequious smile, “an ye be so masterful, as doth right well become you, I will even, with all my poor skill, do your good bidding.”
“Friend,” quoth Sir Daniel, “ye will now write two score. Go to! y’ are too cunning for a livelihood of seventy shillings. Selden, see him write me this in good form, and have it duly witnessed.”
And Sir Daniel, who was a very merry knight, none merrier in England, took a drink of his mulled ale, and lay back, smiling.
Meanwhile, the boy upon the floor began to stir, and presently sat up and looked about him with a scare.
“Hither,” said Sir Daniel; and as the other rose at his command and came slowly towards him, he leaned back and laughed outright. “By the rood!” he cried, “a sturdy boy!”
The lad flushed crimson with anger, and darted a look of hate out of his dark eyes. Now that he was on his legs, it was more difficult to make certain of his age. His face looked somewhat older in expression, but it was as smooth as a young child’s; and in bone and body he was unusually slender, and somewhat awkward of gait.
“Ye have called me, Sir Daniel,” he said. “Was it to laugh at my poor plight?”
“Nay, now, let laugh,” said the knight. “Good shrew, let laugh, I pray you. An ye could see yourself, I warrant ye would laugh the first.”
“Well,” cried the lad, flushing, “ye shall answer this when ye answer for the other. Laugh while yet ye may!”
“Nay, now, good cousin,” replied Sir Daniel, with some earnestness, “think not that I mock at you, except in mirth, as between kinsfolk and singular friends. I will make you a marriage of a thousand pounds, go to! and cherish you exceedingly. I took you, indeed, roughly, as the time demanded; but from henceforth I shall ungrudgingly maintain and cheerfully serve you. Ye shall be Mrs. Shelton - Lady Shelton, by my troth! for the lad promiseth bravely. Tut! ye will not shy for honest laughter; it purgeth melancholy. They are no rogues who laugh, good cousin. Good mine host, lay me a meal now for my cousin, Master John. Sit ye down, sweetheart, and eat.”
“Nay,” said Master John, “I will break no bread. Since ye force me to this sin, I will fast for my soul’s interest. But, good mine host, I pray you of courtesy give me a cup of fair water; I shall be much beholden to your courtesy indeed.”
“Ye shall have a dispensation, go to!” cried the knight. “Shalt be well shriven, by my faith! Content you, then, and eat.”
But the lad was obstinate, drank a cup of water, and, once more wrapping himself closely in his mantle, sat in a far corner, brooding.
In an hour or two, there rose a stir in the village of sentries challenging and the clatter of arms and horses; and then a troop drew up by the inn door, and Richard Shelton, splashed with mud, presented himself upon the threshold.
“Save you, Sir Daniel,” he said.
“How! Dickie Shelton!” cried the knight; and at the mention of Dick’s name the other lad looked curiously across. “What maketh Bennet Hatch?”
“Please you, sir knight, to take cognisance of this packet from Sir Oliver, wherein are all things fully stated,” answered Richard, presenting the priest’s letter. “And please you farther, ye were best make all speed to Risingham; for on the way hither we encountered one riding furiously with letters, and by his report, my Lord of Risingham was sore bested, and lacked exceedingly your presence.”
“How say you? Sore bested?” returned the knight. “Nay, then, we will make speed sitting down, good Richard. As the world goes in this poor realm of England, he that rides softliest rides surest. Delay, they say, begetteth peril; but it is rather this itch of doing that undoes men; mark it, Dick. But let me see, first, what cattle ye have brought. Selden, a link here at the door!”
And Sir Daniel strode forth into the village street, and, by the red glow of a torch, inspected his new troops. He was an unpopular neighbour and an unpopular master; but as a leader in war he was well-beloved by those who rode behind his pennant. His dash, his proved courage, his forethought for the soldiers’ comfort, even his rough gibes, were all to the taste of the bold blades in jack and salet.
“Nay, by the rood!” he cried, “what poor dogs are these? Here be some as crooked as a bow, and some as lean as a spear. Friends, ye shall ride in the front of the battle; I can spare you, friends. Mark me this old villain on the piebald! A two-year mutton riding on a hog would look more soldierly! Ha! Clipsby, are ye there, old rat? Y’ are a man I could lose with a good heart; ye shall go in front of all, with a bull’s eye painted on your jack, to be the better butt for archery; sirrah, ye shall show me the way.”
“I will show you any way, Sir Daniel, but the way to change sides,” returned Clipsby, sturdily.
Sir Daniel laughed a guffaw.
“Why, well said!” he cried. “Hast a shrewd tongue in thy mouth, go to! I will forgive you for that merry word. Selden, see them fed, both man and brute.”
The knight re-entered the inn.
“Now, friend Dick,” he said, “fall to. Here is good ale and bacon. Eat, while that I read.”
Sir Daniel opened the packet, and as he read his brow darkened. When he had done he sat a little, musing. Then he looked sharply at his ward.
“Dick,” said he, “Y’ have seen this penny rhyme?”
The lad replied in the affirmative.
“It bears your father’s name,” continued the knight; “and our poor shrew of a parson is, by some mad soul, accused of slaying him.”
“He did most eagerly deny it,” answered Dick.
“He did?” cried the knight, very sharply. “Heed him not. He has a loose tongue; he babbles like a jack-sparrow. Some day, when I may find the leisure, Dick, I will myself more fully inform you of these matters. There was one Duckworth shrewdly blamed for it; but the times were troubled, and there was no justice to be got.”
“It befell at the Moat House?” Dick ventured, with a beating at his heart.
“It befell between the Moat House and Holywood,” replied Sir Daniel, calmly; but he shot a covert glance, black with suspicion, at Dick’s face. “And now,” added the knight, “speed you with your meal; ye shall return to Tunstall with a line from me.”
Dick’s face fell sorely.
“Prithee, Sir Daniel,” he cried, “send one of the villains! I beseech you let me to the battle. I can strike a stroke, I promise you.”
“I misdoubt it not,” replied Sir Daniel, sitting down to write. “But here, Dick, is no honour to be won. I lie in Kettley till I have sure tidings of the war, and then ride to join me with the conqueror. Cry not on cowardice; it is but wisdom, Dick; for this poor realm so tosseth with rebellion, and the king’s name and custody so changeth hands, that no man may be certain of the morrow. Toss-pot and Shuttle-wit run in, but my Lord Good-Counsel sits o’ one side, waiting.”
With that, Sir Daniel, turning his back to Dick, and quite at the farther end of the long table, began to write his letter, with his mouth on one side, for this business of the Black Arrow stuck sorely in his throat.
Meanwhile, young Shelton was going on heartily enough with his breakfast, when he felt a touch upon his arm, and a very soft voice whispering in his ear.
“Make not a sign, I do beseech you,” said the voice, “but of your charity tell me the straight way to Holywood. Beseech you, now, good boy, comfort a poor soul in peril and extreme distress, and set me so far forth upon the way to my repose.”
“Take the path by the windmill,” answered Dick, in the same tone; “it will bring you to Till Ferry; there inquire again.”
And without turning his head, he fell again to eating. But with the tail of his eye he caught a glimpse of the young lad called Master John stealthily creeping from the room.
“Why,” thought Dick, “he is a young as I. ‘Good boy’ doth he call me? An I had known, I should have seen the varlet hanged ere I had told him. Well, if he goes through the fen, I may come up with him and pull his ears.”
Half an hour later, Sir Daniel gave Dick the letter, and bade him speed to the Moat House. And, again, some half an hour after Dick’s departure, a messenger came, in hot haste, from my Lord of Risingham.
“Sir Daniel,” the messenger said, “ye lose great honour, by my sooth! The fight began again this morning ere the dawn, and we have beaten their van and scattered their right wing. Only the main battle standeth fast. An we had your fresh men, we should tilt you them all into the river. What, sir knight! Will ye be the last? It stands not with your good credit.”
“Nay,” cried the knight, “I was but now upon the march. Selden, sound me the tucket. Sir, I am with you on the instant. It is not two hours since the more part of my command came in, sir messenger. What would ye have? Spurring is good meat, but yet it killed the charger. Bustle, boys!”
By this time the tucket was sounding cheerily in the morning, and from all sides Sir Daniel’s men poured into the main street and formed before the inn. They had slept upon their arms, with chargers saddled, and in ten minutes five-score men-at-arms and archers, cleanly equipped and briskly disciplined, stood ranked and ready. The chief part were in Sir Daniel’s livery, murrey and blue, which gave the greater show to their array. The best armed rode first; and away out of sight, at the tail of the column, came the sorry reinforcement of the night before. Sir Daniel looked with pride along the line.
“Here be the lads to serve you in a pinch,” he said.
“They are pretty men, indeed,” replied the messenger. “It but augments my sorrow that ye had not marched the earlier.”
“Well,” said the knight, “what would ye? The beginning of a feast and the end of a fray, sir messenger;” and he mounted into his saddle. “Why! how now!” he cried. “John! Joanna! Nay, by the sacred rood! where is she? Host, where is that girl?”
“Girl, Sir Daniel?” cried the landlord. “Nay, sir, I saw no girl.”
“Boy, then, dotard!” cried the knight. “Could ye not see it was a wench? She in the murrey-coloured mantle - she that broke her fast with water, rogue - where is she?”
“Nay, the saints bless us! Master John, ye called him,” said the host. “Well, I thought none evil. He is gone. I saw him - her - I saw her in the stable a good hour agone; ‘a was saddling a grey horse.”
“Now, by the rood!” cried Sir Daniel, “the wench was worth five hundred pound to me and more.”
“Sir knight,” observed the messenger, with bitterness, “while that ye are here, roaring for five hundred pounds, the realm of England is elsewhere being lost and won.”
“It is well said,” replied Sir Daniel. “Selden, fall me out with six cross-bowmen; hunt me her down. I care not what it cost; but, at my returning, let me find her at the Moat House. Be it upon your head. And now, sir messenger, we march.”