The river Till was a wide, sluggish, clayey water, oozing out of fens, and in this part of its course it strained among some score of willow-covered, marshy islets.
It was a dingy stream; but upon this bright, spirited morning everything was become beautiful. The wind and the martens broke it up into innumerable dimples; and the reflection of the sky was scattered over all the surface in crumbs of smiling blue.
A creek ran up to meet the path, and close under the bank the ferryman’s hut lay snugly. It was of wattle and clay, and the grass grew green upon the roof.
Dick went to the door and opened it. Within, upon a foul old russet cloak, the ferryman lay stretched and shivering; a great hulk of a man, but lean and shaken by the country fever.
“Hey, Master Shelton,” he said, “be ye for the ferry? Ill times, ill times! Look to yourself. There is a fellowship abroad. Ye were better turn round on your two heels and try the bridge.”
“Nay; time’s in the saddle,” answered Dick. “Time will ride, Hugh Ferryman. I am hot in haste.”
“A wilful man!” returned the ferryman, rising. “An ye win safe to the Moat House, y’ have done lucky; but I say no more.” And then catching sight of Matcham, “Who be this?” he asked, as he paused, blinking, on the threshold of his cabin.
“It is my kinsman, Master Matcham,” answered Dick.
“Give ye good day, good ferryman,” said Matcham, who had dismounted, and now came forward, leading the horse. “Launch me your boat, I prithee; we are sore in haste.”
The gaunt ferryman continued staring.
“By the mass!” he cried at length, and laughed with open throat.
Matcham coloured to his neck and winced; and Dick, with an angry countenance, put his hand on the lout’s shoulder.
“How now, churl!” he cried. “Fall to thy business, and leave mocking thy betters.”
Hugh Ferryman grumblingly undid his boat, and shoved it a little forth into the deep water. Then Dick led in the horse, and Matcham followed.
“Ye be mortal small made, master,” said Hugh, with a wide grin; “something o’ the wrong model, belike. Nay, Master Shelton, I am for you,” he added, getting to his oars. “A cat may look at a king. I did but take a shot of the eye at Master Matcham.”
“Sirrah, no more words,” said Dick. “Bend me your back.”
They were by that time at the mouth of the creek, and the view opened up and down the river. Everywhere it was enclosed with islands. Clay banks were falling in, willows nodding, reeds waving, martens dipping and piping. There was no sign of man in the labyrinth of waters.
“My master,” said the ferryman, keeping the boat steady with one oar, “I have a shrew guess that John-a-Fenne is on the island. He bears me a black grudge to all Sir Daniel’s. How if I turned me up stream and landed you an arrow-flight above the path? Ye were best not meddle with John Fenne.”
“How, then? is he of this company?” asked Dick.
“Nay, mum is the word,” said Hugh. “But I would go up water, Dick. How if Master Matcham came by an arrow?” and he laughed again.
“Be it so, Hugh,” answered Dick.
“Look ye, then,” pursued Hugh. “Sith it shall so be, unsling me your cross-bow – so: now make it ready – good; place me a quarrel. Ay, keep it so, and look upon me grimly.”
“What meaneth this?” asked Dick.
“Why, my master, if I steal you across, it must be under force or fear,” replied the ferryman; “for else, if John Fenne got wind of it, he were like to prove my most distressful neighbour.”
“Do these churls ride so roughly?” Dick inquired. “Do they command Sir Daniel’s own ferry?”
“Nay,” whispered the ferryman, winking. “Mark me! Sir Daniel shall down. His time is out. He shall down. Mum!” And he bent over his oars.
They pulled a long way up the river, turned the tail of an island, and came softly down a narrow channel next the opposite bank. Then Hugh held water in midstream.
“I must land you here among the willows,” he said.
“Here is no path but willow swamps and quagmires,” answered Dick.
“Master Shelton,” replied Hugh, “I dare not take ye nearer down, for your own sake now. He watcheth me the ferry, lying on his bow. All that go by and owe Sir Daniel goodwill, he shooteth down like rabbits. I heard him swear it by the rood. An I had not known you of old days – ay, and from so high upward – I would ‘a’ let you go on; but for old days’ remembrance, and because ye had this toy with you that’s not fit for wounds or warfare, I did risk my two poor ears to have you over whole. Content you; I can no more, on my salvation!”
Hugh was still speaking, lying on his oars, when there came a great shout from among the willows on the island, and sounds followed as of a strong man breasting roughly through the wood.
“A murrain!” cried Hugh. “He was on the upper island all the while!” He pulled straight for shore. “Threat me with your bow, good Dick; threat me with it plain,” he added. “I have tried to save your skins, save you mine!”
The boat ran into a tough thicket of willows with a crash. Matcham, pale, but steady and alert, at a sign from Dick, ran along the thwarts and leaped ashore; Dick, taking the horse by the bridle, sought to follow, but what with the animal’s bulk, and what with the closeness of the thicket, both stuck fast. The horse neighed and trampled; and the boat, which was swinging in an eddy, came on and off and pitched with violence.
“It may not be, Hugh; here is no landing,” cried Dick; but he still struggled valiantly with the obstinate thicket and the startled animal.
A tall man appeared upon the shore of the island, a long-bow in his hand. Dick saw him for an instant, with the corner of his eye, bending the bow with a great effort, his face crimson with hurry.
“Who goes?” he shouted. “Hugh, who goes?”
“’Tis Master Shelton, John,” replied the ferryman.
“Stand, Dick Shelton!” bawled the man upon the island. “Ye shall have no hurt, upon the rood! Stand! Back out, Hugh Ferryman.”
Dick cried a taunting answer.
“Nay, then, ye shall go afoot,” returned the man; and he let drive an arrow.
The horse, struck by the shaft, lashed out in agony and terror; the boat capsized, and the next moment all were struggling in the eddies of the river.
When Dick came up, he was within a yard of the bank; and before his eyes were clear, his hand had closed on something firm and strong that instantly began to drag him forward. It was the riding-rod, that Matcham, crawling forth upon an overhanging willow, had opportunely thrust into his grasp.
“By the mass!” cried Dick, as he was helped ashore, “that makes a life I owe you. I swim like a cannon-ball.” And he turned instantly towards the island.
Midway over, Hugh Ferryman was swimming with his upturned boat, while John-a-Fenne, furious at the ill-fortune of his shot, bawled to him to hurry.
“Come, Jack,” said Shelton, “run for it! Ere Hugh can hale his barge across, or the pair of ’em can get it righted, we may be out of cry.”
And adding example to his words, he began to run, dodging among the willows, and in marshy places leaping from tussock to tussock. He had no time to look for his direction; all he could do was to turn his back upon the river, and put all his heart to running.
Presently, however, the ground began to rise, which showed him he was still in the right way, and soon after they came forth upon a slope of solid turf, where elms began to mingle with the willows.
But here Matcham, who had been dragging far into the rear, threw himself fairly down.
“Leave me, Dick!” he cried, pantingly; “I can no more.”
Dick turned, and came back to where his companion lay.
“Nay, Jack, leave thee!” he cried. “That were a knave’s trick, to be sure, when ye risked a shot and a ducking, ay, and a drowning too, to save my life. Drowning, in sooth; for why I did not pull you in along with me, the saints alone can tell!”
“Nay,” said Matcham, “I would ‘a’ saved us both, good Dick, for I can swim.”
“Can ye so?” cried Dick, with open eyes. It was the one manly accomplishment of which he was himself incapable. In the order of the things that he admired, next to having killed a man in single fight came swimming. “Well,” he said, “here is a lesson to despise no man. I promised to care for you as far as Holywood, and, by the rood, Jack, y’ are more capable to care for me.”
“Well, Dick, we’re friends now,” said Matcham.
“Nay, I never was unfriends,” answered Dick. “Y’ are a brave lad in your way, albeit something of a milksop, too. I never met your like before this day. But, prithee, fetch back your breath, and let us on. Here is no place for chatter.”
“My foot hurts shrewdly,” said Matcham.
“Nay, I had forgot your foot,” returned Dick. “Well, we must go the gentlier. I would I knew rightly where we were. I have clean lost the path; yet that may be for the better, too. An they watch the ferry, they watch the path, belike, as well. I would Sir Daniel were back with two score men; he would sweep me these rascals as the wind sweeps leaves. Come, Jack, lean ye on my shoulder, ye poor shrew. Nay, y’ are not tall enough. What age are ye, for a wager? – twelve?”
“Nay, I am sixteen,” said Matcham.
“Y’ are poorly grown to height, then,” answered Dick. “But take my hand. We shall go softly, never fear. I owe you a life; I am a good repayer, Jack, of good or evil.”
They began to go forward up the slope.
“We must hit the road, early or late,” continued Dick; “and then for a fresh start. By the mass! but y’ ’ave a rickety hand, Jack. If I had a hand like that, I would think shame. I tell you,” he went on, with a sudden chuckle, “I swear by the mass I believe Hugh Ferryman took you for a maid.”
“Nay, never!” cried the other, colouring high.
“A’ did, though, for a wager!” Dick exclaimed. “Small blame to him. Ye look liker maid than man; and I tell you more – y’ are a strange-looking rogue for a boy; but for a hussy, Jack, ye would be right fair – ye would. Ye would be well favoured for a wench.”
“Well,” said Matcham, “ye know right well that I am none.”
“Nay, I know that; I do but jest,” said Dick. “Ye’ll be a man before your mother, Jack. What cheer, my bully! Ye shall strike shrewd strokes. Now, which, I marvel, of you or me, shall be first knighted, Jack? for knighted I shall be, or die for ’t. ‘Sir Richard Shelton, Knight’: it soundeth bravely. But ‘Sir John Matcham’ soundeth not amiss.”
“Prithee, Dick, stop till I drink,” said the other, pausing where a little clear spring welled out of the slope into a gravelled basin no bigger than a pocket. “And O, Dick, if I might come by anything to eat! – my very heart aches with hunger.”
“Why, fool, did ye not eat at Kettley?” asked Dick.
“I had made a vow – it was a sin I had been led into,” stammered Matcham; “but now, if it were but dry bread, I would eat it greedily.”
“Sit ye, then, and eat,” said Dick, “while that I scout a little forward for the road.” And he took a wallet from his girdle, wherein were bread and pieces of dry bacon, and, while Matcham fell heartily to, struck farther forth among the trees.
A little beyond there was a dip in the ground, where a streamlet soaked among dead leaves; and beyond that, again, the trees were better grown and stood wider, and oak and beech began to take the place of willow and elm. The continued tossing and pouring of the wind among the leaves sufficiently concealed the sounds of his footsteps on the mast; it was for the ear what a moonless night is to the eye; but for all that Dick went cautiously, slipping from one big trunk to another, and looking sharply about him as he went. Suddenly a doe passed like a shadow through the underwood in front of him, and he paused, disgusted at the chance. This part of the wood had been certainly deserted, but now that the poor deer had run, she was like a messenger he should have sent before him to announce his coming; and instead of pushing farther, he turned him to the nearest well-grown tree, and rapidly began to climb.
Luck had served him well. The oak on which he had mounted was one of the tallest in that quarter of the wood, and easily out-topped its neighbours by a fathom and a half; and when Dick had clambered into the topmost fork and clung there, swinging dizzily in the great wind, he saw behind him the whole fenny plain as far as Kettley, and the Till wandering among woody islets, and in front of him, the white line of high-road winding through the forest. The boat had been righted – it was even now midway on the ferry. Beyond that there was no sign of man, nor aught moving but the wind. He was about to descend, when, taking a last view, his eye lit upon a string of moving points about the middle of the fen. Plainly a small troop was threading the causeway, and that at a good pace; and this gave him some concern as he shinned vigorously down the trunk and returned across the wood for his companion.
Matcham was well rested and revived; and the two lads, winged by what Dick had seen, hurried through the remainder of the outwood, crossed the road in safety, and began to mount into the high ground of Tunstall Forest. The trees grew more and more in groves, with heathy places in between, sandy, gorsy, and dotted with old yews. The ground became more and more uneven, full of pits and hillocks. And with every step of the ascent the wind still blew the shriller, and the trees bent before the gusts like fishing-rods.
They had just entered one of the clearings, when Dick suddenly clapped down upon his face among the brambles, and began to crawl slowly backward towards the shelter of the grove. Matcham, in great bewilderment, for he could see no reason for this flight, still imitated his companion’s course; and it was not until they had gained the harbour of a thicket that he turned and begged him to explain.
For all reply, Dick pointed with his finger.
At the far end of the clearing, a fir grew high above the neighbouring wood, and planted its black shock of foliage clear against the sky. For about fifty feet above the ground the trunk grew straight and solid like a column. At that level, it split into two massive boughs; and in the fork, like a mast-headed seaman, there stood a man in a green tabard, spying far and wide. The sun glistened upon his hair; with one hand he shaded his eyes to look abroad, and he kept slowly rolling his head from side to side, with the regularity of a machine.
The lads exchanged glances.
“Let us try to the left,” said Dick. “We had near fallen foully, Jack.”
Ten minutes afterwards they struck into a beaten path.
“Here is a piece of forest that I know not,” Dick remarked. “Where goeth me this track?”
“Let us even try,” said Matcham.
A few yards further, the path came to the top of a ridge and began to go down abruptly into a cup-shaped hollow. At the foot, out of a thick wood of flowering hawthorn, two or three roofless gables, blackened as if by fire, and a single tall chimney marked the ruins of a house.
“What may this be?” whispered Matcham.
“Nay, by the mass, I know not,” answered Dick. “I am all at sea. Let us go warily.”
With beating hearts, they descended through the hawthorns. Here and there, they passed signs of recent cultivation; fruit trees and pot herbs ran wild among the thicket; a sun-dial had fallen in the grass; it seemed they were treading what once had been a garden. Yet a little farther and they came forth before the ruins of the house.
It had been a pleasant mansion and a strong. A dry ditch was dug deep about it; but it was now choked with masonry, and bridged by a fallen rafter. The two farther walls still stood, the sun shining through their empty windows; but the remainder of the building had collapsed, and now lay in a great cairn of ruin, grimed with fire. Already in the interior a few plants were springing green among the chinks.
“Now I bethink me,” whispered Dick, “this must be Grimstone. It was a hold of one Simon Malmesbury; Sir Daniel was his bane! ’Twas Bennet Hatch that burned it, now five years agone. In sooth, ’twas pity, for it was a fair house.”
Down in the hollow, where no wind blew, it was both warm and still; and Matcham, laying one hand upon Dick’s arm, held up a warning finger.
“Hist!” he said.
Then came a strange sound, breaking on the quiet. It was twice repeated ere they recognised its nature. It was the sound of a big man clearing his throat; and just then a hoarse, untuneful voice broke into singing.
“Then up and spake the master, the king of the outlaws:
‘What make ye here, my merry men, among the greenwood shaws?’
And Gamelyn made answer – he looked never adown:
‘O, they must need to walk in wood that may not walk in town!’”
The singer paused, a faint clink of iron followed, and then silence.
The two lads stood looking at each other. Whoever he might be, their invisible neighbour was just beyond the ruin. And suddenly the colour came into Matcham’s face, and next moment he had crossed the fallen rafter, and was climbing cautiously on the huge pile of lumber that filled the interior of the roofless house. Dick would have withheld him, had he been in time; as it was, he was fain to follow.
Right in the corner of the ruin, two rafters had fallen crosswise, and protected a clear space no larger than a pew in church. Into this the lads silently lowered themselves. There they were perfectly concealed, and through an arrow-loophole commanded a view upon the farther side.
Peering through this, they were struck stiff with terror at their predicament. To retreat was impossible; they scarce dared to breathe. Upon the very margin of the ditch, not thirty feet from where they crouched, an iron caldron bubbled and steamed above a glowing fire; and close by, in an attitude of listening, as though he had caught some sound of their clambering among the ruins, a tall, red-faced, battered-looking man stood poised, an iron spoon in his right hand, a horn and a formidable dagger at his belt. Plainly this was the singer; plainly he had been stirring the caldron, when some incautious step among the lumber had fallen upon his ear. A little further off, another man lay slumbering, rolled in a brown cloak, with a butterfly hovering above his face. All this was in a clearing white with daisies; and at the extreme verge, a bow, a sheaf of arrows, and part of a deer’s carcase, hung upon a flowering hawthorn.
Presently the fellow relaxed from his attitude of attention, raised the spoon to his mouth, tasted its contents, nodded, and then fell again to stirring and singing.
“‘O, they must need to walk in wood that may not walk in town,’” he croaked, taking up his song where he had left it.
“O, sir, we walk not here at all an evil thing to do.
But if we meet with the good king’s deer to shoot a shaft into.”
Still as he sang, he took from time to time, another spoonful of the broth, blew upon it, and tasted it, with all the airs of an experienced cook. At length, apparently, he judged the mess was ready; for taking the horn from his girdle, he blew three modulated calls.
The other fellow awoke, rolled over, brushed away the butterfly, and looked about him.
“How now, brother?” he said. “Dinner?”
“Ay, sot,” replied the cook, “dinner it is, and a dry dinner, too, with neither ale nor bread. But there is little pleasure in the greenwood now; time was when a good fellow could live here like a mitred abbot, set aside the rain and the white frosts; he had his heart’s desire both of ale and wine. But now are men’s spirits dead; and this John Amend-All, save us and guard us! but a stuffed booby to scare crows withal.”
“Nay,” returned the other, “y’ are too set on meat and drinking, Lawless. Bide ye a bit; the good time cometh.”
“Look ye,” returned the cook, “I have even waited for this good time sith that I was so high. I have been a grey friar; I have been a king’s archer; I have been a shipman, and sailed the salt seas; and I have been in greenwood before this, forsooth! and shot the king’s deer. What cometh of it? Naught! I were better to have bided in the cloister. John Abbot availeth more than John Amend-All. By ’r Lady! here they come.”
One after another, tall, likely fellows began to stroll into the lawn. Each as he came produced a knife and a horn cup, helped himself from the caldron, and sat down upon the grass to eat. They were very variously equipped and armed; some in rusty smocks, and with nothing but a knife and an old bow; others in the height of forest gallantry, all in Lincoln green, both hood and jerkin, with dainty peacock arrows in their belts, a horn upon a baldrick, and a sword and dagger at their sides. They came in the silence of hunger, and scarce growled a salutation, but fell instantly to meat.
There were, perhaps, a score of them already gathered, when a sound of suppressed cheering arose close by among the hawthorns, and immediately after five or six woodmen carrying a stretcher debauched upon the lawn. A tall, lusty fellow, somewhat grizzled, and as brown as a smoked ham, walked before them with an air of some authority, his bow at his back, a bright boar-spear in his hand.
“Lads!” he cried, “good fellows all, and my right merry friends, y’ have sung this while on a dry whistle and lived at little ease. But what said I ever? Abide Fortune constantly; she turneth, turneth swift. And lo! here is her little firstling – even that good creature, ale!”
There was a murmur of applause as the bearers set down the stretcher and displayed a goodly cask.
“And now haste ye, boys,” the man continued. “There is work toward. A handful of archers are but now come to the ferry; murrey and blue is their wear; they are our butts – they shall all taste arrows – no man of them shall struggle through this wood. For, lads, we are here some fifty strong, each man of us most foully wronged; for some they have lost lands, and some friends; and some they have been outlawed – all oppressed! Who, then, hath done this evil? Sir Daniel, by the rood! Shall he then profit? shall he sit snug in our houses? shall he till our fields? shall he suck the bone he robbed us of? I trow not. He getteth him strength at law; he gaineth cases; nay, there is one case he shall not gain – I have a writ here at my belt that, please the saints, shall conquer him.”
Lawless the cook was by this time already at his second horn of ale. He raised it, as if to pledge the speaker.
“Master Ellis,” he said, “y’ are for vengeance – well it becometh you! – but your poor brother o’ the greenwood, that had never lands to lose nor friends to think upon, looketh rather, for his poor part, to the profit of the thing. He had liever a gold noble and a pottle of canary wine than all the vengeances in purgatory.”
“Lawless,” replied the other, “to reach the Moat House, Sir Daniel must pass the forest. We shall make that passage dearer, pardy, than any battle. Then, when he hath got to earth with such ragged handful as escapeth us – all his great friends fallen and fled away, and none to give him aid – we shall beleaguer that old fox about, and great shall be the fall of him. ’Tis a fat buck; he will make a dinner for us all.”
“Ay,” returned Lawless, “I have eaten many of these dinners beforehand; but the cooking of them is hot work, good Master Ellis. And meanwhile what do we? We make black arrows, we write rhymes, and we drink fair cold water, that discomfortable drink.”
“Y’ are untrue, Will Lawless. Ye still smell of the Grey Friars’ buttery; greed is your undoing,” answered Ellis. “We took twenty pounds from Appleyard. We took seven marks from the messenger last night. A day ago we had fifty from the merchant.”
“And to-day,” said one of the men, “I stopped a fat pardoner riding apace for Holywood. Here is his purse.”
Ellis counted the contents.
“Five score shillings!” he grumbled. “Fool, he had more in his sandal, or stitched into his tippet. Y’ are but a child, Tom Cuckow; ye have lost the fish.”
But, for all that, Ellis pocketed the purse with nonchalance. He stood leaning on his boar-spear, and looked round upon the rest. They, in various attitudes, took greedily of the venison pottage, and liberally washed it down with ale. This was a good day; they were in luck; but business pressed, and they were speedy in their eating. The first-comers had by this time even despatched their dinner. Some lay down upon the grass and fell instantly asleep, like boa-constrictors; others talked together, or overhauled their weapons: and one, whose humour was particularly gay, holding forth an ale-horn, began to sing:
“Here is no law in good green shaw,
Here is no lack of meat;
’Tis merry and quiet, with deer for our diet,
In summer, when all is sweet.
Come winter again, with wind and rain —
Come winter, with snow and sleet,
Get home to your places, with hoods on your faces,
And sit by the fire and eat.”
All this while the two lads had listened and lain close; only Richard had unslung his cross-bow, and held ready in one hand the windac, or grappling-iron that he used to bend it. Otherwise they had not dared to stir; and this scene of forest life had gone on before their eyes like a scene upon a theatre. But now there came a strange interruption. The tall chimney which over-topped the remainder of the ruins rose right above their hiding-place. There came a whistle in the air, and then a sounding smack, and the fragments of a broken arrow fell about their ears. Some one from the upper quarters of the wood, perhaps the very sentinel they saw posted in the fir, had shot an arrow at the chimney-top.
Matcham could not restrain a little cry, which he instantly stifled, and even Dick started with surprise, and dropped the windac from his fingers. But to the fellows on the lawn, this shaft was an expected signal. They were all afoot together, tightening their belts, testing their bow-strings, loosening sword and dagger in the sheath. Ellis held up his hand; his face had suddenly assumed a look of savage energy; the white of his eyes shone in his sun-brown face.
“Lads,” he said, “ye know your places. Let not one man’s soul escape you. Appleyard was a whet before a meal; but now we go to table. I have three men whom I will bitterly avenge – Harry Shelton, Simon Malmesbury, and” – striking his broad bosom – “and Ellis Duckworth, by the mass!”
Another man came, red with hurry, through the thorns.
“’Tis not Sir Daniel!” he panted. “They are but seven. Is the arrow gone?”
“It struck but now,” replied Ellis.
“A murrain!” cried the messenger. “Methought I heard it whistle. And I go dinnerless!”
In the space of a minute, some running, some walking sharply, according as their stations were nearer or farther away, the men of the Black Arrow had all disappeared from the neighbourhood of the ruined house; and the caldron, and the fire, which was now burning low, and the dead deer’s carcase on the hawthorn, remained alone to testify they had been there.