A BOY'S RIDE
BY GULIELMA ZOLLINGER
ILLUSTRATIONS AND COVER DESIGN BY FANNY M. CHAMBERS
"Yield thee in the king's name!"
Hugo seeks shelter within the walls
"Thou art welcome, my lad," said Lady De Aldithely
"It is well thou hast me to lead thee"
Humphrey and Hugo in the oak tree
The little spy and Humphrey
Hugo looked about him with interest
Humphrey started up, snatching a great bunch of long, flaming reeds
None knew which way to turn to escape
Richard Wood finds Walter Skinner
Walter Skinner's horse refused to be controlled
Richard Wood beckoned the Saxons to approach
He rode to the edge of the moat and looked down
Humphrey in priest's garb
Bartlemy bore garments for disguise
Humphrey, half turning in his saddle, saw a priest
A BOY'S RIDE
It was the last of May in the north of England, in the year 1209. A very different England from what any boy of to-day has seen. A chilly east wind was blowing. The trees of the vast forests were all in leaf but the ash trees, and they were unfolding their buds. And along a bridle-path a few miles southwest of York a lad of fourteen was riding, while behind him followed a handsome deerhound. A boy of fourteen, at that age of the world, was an older and more important personage than he is to-day. If he were well-born he had, generally, by this time, served his time as a page and was become an esquire in the train of some noble lord. That this lad had not done so was because his uncle, a prior in whose charge he had been reared since the early death of his parents, had designed him for a priest. Priest, however, he had declined to be, and his uncle had now permitted him to go forth unattended to attach himself as page to some lord, if he could.
To-day he seemed very much at home in the great wood as he glanced about him fearlessly, but so he would have been anywhere. Apparently he was unprotected from assault save by the bow he carried. In reality he wore a shirt of chain mail beneath his doublet, a precaution which he the more willingly took because of his good hope one day to be a knight, when not only the shirt of mail, but the helmet, shield, sword, and lance would be his as well.
It was not far from noon when he came to the great open place cleared of all timber and undergrowth which announced the presence of a castle. And looking up, he saw the flag of the De Aldithelys flying from its turrets.
There was a rustle in the thicket, horse and deerhound pricked up their ears, and then ran pursued by flying arrows. And now ride! ride, my brave boy, and seek shelter within the walls! For till thou reach them, thy shirt of mail must be thy salvation.
The drawbridge was yet down, for a small party of men-at-arms had just been admitted, and across it rushed boy, and horse, and dog before the warder had time to wind his horn: the horse and rider unharmed, but the deerhound wounded.
The warder stared upon the strange boy, and the boy stared back at him. And then the warder crossed himself. "'Tis some witchcraft," he muttered. "Here cometh the young lord, and all the time I know that the young lord is safe within the walls."
The grooms also crossed themselves before they drew up the bridge. But the boy, unconcerned, rode on across the outer court and passed into the inner one followed by the wounded dog. Here the men-at-arms were dismounting, horses were neighing, and grooms running about. The boy, too, dismounted, and bent anxiously over his dog.
Presently a young voice demanded, "Whence comest thou?"
The boy looked up to see his counterpart, the son of the lord of the castle, standing imperiously before him.
"From York," answered the stranger, briefly. "Hast thou a leech that can care for my dog? See how he bleeds."
"Oh, ay," was the answer. "But how came he wounded? He hath been deer-stealing, perchance, and the ranger hath discovered him."
"Nay," replied the strange lad, in tones the echo of his questioner's. "Thou doest Fleetfoot wrong. We were but pursuing our way when from yonder thicket to the north and adjoining the open, a flight of arrows came. I had been sped myself but for my shirt of mail."
The leech had now advanced and was caring skilfully for the dog while the strange lad looked on, now and then laying a caressing hand on the hound's head.
Meanwhile the men-at-arms conferred together and exchanged wise looks while a stout and clumsy Saxon serving-man of about forty shook his head. "I did dream of an earthquake no longer ago than night before last," he said, "which is a dream that doth ever warn the dreamer and all concerned with him to be cautious and careful. Here cometh riding the twin of our young lord: and the Evil One only knoweth how this stranger hath the nose, the eyes, the mouth, the complexion, the gait, the size, and the voice of our young lord, Josceline De Aldithely. Thinkest thou not, William Lorimer, it were cautious and careful to put him and his hound outside the walls, to say nothing of his horse?"
William Lorimer, the captain of the men-at-arms, smiled in derision. A great belief in dreams and omens was abroad in the land: and nowhere had it a more devoted adherent than in Humphrey, the Saxon serving-man, and nowhere a greater scoffer than in William Lorimer.
"I see thou scoffest, William Lorimer," pursued Humphrey. "But were he put out, then might those minions of the king shoot at him once more, and spare to shoot at our young lord. I will away to our lady, and see what she ordereth."
There had always been times in England when no man who stood in the way of another was safe, but these were the times when women and children were not safe. For perhaps the wickedest king who ever sat upon the English throne occupied it now, and his name was John.
This king had tried to snatch the kingdom from his brother, Richard Coeur de Lion, and had failed. When Richard was dead, and John was made king in his stead, there was still another claimant to the throne,—his nephew Arthur,—and him the king in 1204 had murdered, so report said, with his own hand. This was the deed that lost him Normandy and all his other French possessions, and shut him up to rule in England alone. And the English soon had enough of him. He was now in a conflict with the Pope, who had commanded him to receive Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. This John had refused to do. Now, the kingdom, on account of the king's disobedience, was under the papal interdict, and the king was threatened with excommunication.
England had at this time many, many churches, and their bells, before this unfortunate situation, had seemed to be ringing all day long. They rang to call the people to the ordinary church services; they rang to call them to work, and to bid them cease from work. They rang when a baby was born, and when there was a death. And for many other things they rang. Now, under the interdict, no bell rang. There were no usual church services, and everywhere was fasting. A strange England it seemed.
The king had never gotten on well with his barons, and they hated him. Nevertheless they would have stood by him if he had been at all just to them. And surely he needed them to stand by him, for all the world was against him. The French were eager to fight him, and the Church was arrayed against him. But all these things only made the king harder and more unjust to the barons because just now they were the only ones in his power, and his wicked heart was full of rage. He had hit upon one means of punishing them which they all could feel,—he struck them through their wives and children. Some of the barons were obliged to flee from England for their lives. Many were obliged to give the king their sons as pledges of their loyalty. In every man's knowledge was the sad case of one baron who had been obliged to flee with his wife and son into hiding. The king, through his officers, had pursued them, ferreted them out of their hiding-place, taken the wife and son captive, shut them up in prison, and starved them to death. Lord De Aldithely himself had been obliged to flee, but his son would never be delivered up peaceably to the king's messengers, for De Aldithely castle was strong and well defended.
This was the meaning of the arrows shot at the strange boy. The king's messengers, who were constantly spying on the castle from the wood in the hope of gaining possession of the person of the young lord by stratagem, had taken him for Josceline, the young heir of the De Aldithelys.
And now came a summons for both lads to come to the ladies' bower, for Humphrey had not been idle.
"My change of raiment?" said the strange lad, inquiringly.
"Shall be in thy chamber presently," answered Josceline.
"I would that Fleetfoot also might be conveyed thither," said the stranger, with an engaging smile.
"It shall be done," promised Josceline.
He gave the necessary commands to two grooms, and the lads, each the counterpart of the other, waited a few moments and then started toward the tower stairway, followed by the grooms bearing the huge dog between them on a stretcher. The stair was steep, narrow, and winding, and built of stone. Josceline went first, and was followed by the stranger, who every now and then glanced back to speak a reassuring word to his dog. At the entrance to the ladies' bower Josceline paused. "Thou mayest, if thou like, lay the dog for a while on a skin by my mother's fire," he said, and looked inquiringly at his guest.
"That would I be glad to do," was the grateful reply. "See how he shivers from the loss of blood and the chill air."
For answer Josceline waved his hand toward his mother's parlor, and the grooms, conveying the dog, obediently entered. For all but Humphrey, the Saxon serving-man, were accustomed to obey the young heir unquestioningly. But Humphrey obeyed no one without question. It was often necessary to convince his rather slow reason and his active and many superstitions before his obedience could be secured. No one else in the castle would have dared to take his course, but Humphrey was thus favored and trusted because he was born a servant in Lord De Aldithely's father's house, and was ten years older than the mistress of the castle, whose master was now gone. He had already told Lady De Aldithely all that he knew of the strange lad, and had advised her, with his accustomed frankness, to put lad, horse, and hound at once without the castle walls. Lady De Aldithely had listened, and when he had finished, without any comment, she had commanded him to send the two lads to her.
For a moment Humphrey had seemed disappointed. Then recovering himself he had made answer, "Oh, ay. It will no doubt be best to see for yourself first, and there is no denying that the three can then be put outside the walls."
Receiving no reply, he had withdrawn and delivered his message.
Lady De Aldithely was standing evidently in deep thought when the little group entered. The strange lad looked at her curiously. He saw a slight figure clad in a green robe, and as she turned he caught the gleam of a jewel in the golden fillet that bound her wimple on the forehead. Her eyes were blue, and her look one of high courage shadowed somewhat by an expression of anxiety. One could well believe that, however anxious and worried she might be, she would still dare to do what seemed to her best. She now diligently and eagerly compared the two lads, glancing quickly from one to the other, and their exceeding great likeness to each other seemed to strike her with astonishment. At last she smiled and spoke to the stranger. "Thou art welcome, my lad," she said kindly. "But whence comest thou? and what is thy name?"
"I am to-day from York, and I am called Hugo Aungerville," was the frank reply with an answering smile.
"To-day," repeated Lady De Aldithely. "That argueth that thy residence is not there, as doth also thy name, which is strange to me."
"Thou art right," replied Hugo. "I come from beyond Durham, from the priory of St. Wilfrid, the prior whereof is my uncle, I having no other kin so near as he."
"And whither dost thou journey?" asked Lady De Aldithely.
"South," was the answer. "My uncle, the prior, would have had me bred a priest, but I would be a knight. Therefore he hath at last given me his blessing and bid me fare forth to attach myself to the train of some nobleman."
"Why did he not secure thee a place himself?" asked Lady De Aldithely in surprise.
"Because he hath too great caution," was the answer. "These be troublous times. Few be true to the king, and no man knoweth who those few be. Should he choose for me a place and use his influence to secure it, perchance the next week the noble lord might be fleeing, and all in his service, under the hatred of the king. And there might be those who would say, 'Here is Hugo Aungerville, the page to my lord, and the nephew of the prior of St. Wilfrid.' And then might the king pull down the priory about my uncle's ears,—that is, I mean he would set my uncle packing. For the priory is fat, and with the prior gone—why, the king is so much the richer. Thou knowest the king."
"Too well," rejoined Lady De Aldithely, with a sigh. "The Archbishop of York is 'gone packing,' as thou sayest, and the king is all the richer therefor. And this is thy dog that hath the arrow wound," she continued, as she advanced a few steps and laid her hand on the hound's head. "I have here a medicament of wonderful power." She turned to a little casket on a table and unlocked it. Then taking out a small flask, she opened it and, stooping over the dog, poured a few drops on the bandage of his wound. "He is now as good as well," she said smilingly. "That is, with our good leech's care, which he shall have. Nay, thou needst not speak thy thanks. They are written in thy face. I see thou lovest thy dog."
"Yea, my lady, right well. I have naught else to love."
"Except thine uncle, the prior," said Lady De Aldithely.
"Except my uncle," agreed Hugo.
All this time Josceline had waited with impatience and he now spoke. "He is not to be put outside the walls, mother, is he?"
"Nay, my son. That were poor hospitality. He may bide here so long as he likes."
Life was rather monotonous at the castle, as Hugo found. Occasionally the men-at-arms sallied out, but there were no guests, for Lady De Aldithely was determined to keep her son, if possible, and would trust few strangers. It was a mystery to Humphrey why she had trusted Hugo.
"I may have dreams of earthquakes," he grumbled, "and what doth it count? Naught. Here cometh a lad, most like sent by the Evil One, and he is taken in, and housed and fed, and his hound leeched; and he goeth often to my lady's bower to chat with her; and often into the tilt-yard to practise with our young lord Josceline; and often lieth on the rushes in the great hall at the evening time before the fire with the men-at-arms; and he goeth to the gates with the warder and the grooms; and on the walls with William Lorimer; and Robert Sadler followeth him about to have speech with him and to hear what he will say; and he is as good as if he were My Lord Hugo with everybody, when he is but Hugo, a strange lad, and no lord at all."
It was as Humphrey had said. Hugo was a favorite with all in the castle. His company was a great solace to Lady De Aldithely in particular. She was drawn to trust him, and every day confided more and more to him concerning her painful and perilous situation. "I am convinced," she said one day when two weeks had passed, "that there is mischief brewing. I fear that I shall lose my boy, and it will break his father's heart."
Hugo looked sympathetic.
"Thou knowest that fathers' hearts can break," she said. "Our first King Henry fell senseless when his son was lost."
"What fearest thou, Lady De Aldithely?" asked Hugo.
"Treachery," was the answer. "There is some one within the castle walls who will ere long betray us."
Hugo was silent a while. He was old for his years, very daring, and fond of adventure. And he loved Lady De Aldithely not only for her kindness to him, but for the attention she had given to Fleetfoot. At last he spoke. "I have a plan. But, perchance, thou mistakest and there is no traitor within the walls."
Lady De Aldithely looked at him quickly. "Nay, I am not mistaken," she said.
"Then this is my plan," announced Hugo. "Josceline and I be alike. I will personate him. In a week Fleetfoot will be quite recovered. We will go forth. They who watch will think they see Josceline and pursue me. I will lead them a merry chase, I warrant thee."
"But, my boy!" cried Lady De Aldithely. "What wild plan is this? Thou lead such evil men a merry chase? Speak rather of the dove leading the hawk a merry chase."
"Even so I will lead them," declared Hugo. "If they catch me, they shall do well."
Lady De Aldithely smiled at the boyish presumption. "My poor lad!" she said. "How if they catch thee with an arrow as they caught Fleetfoot? Thou mightest find no castle then to give thee shelter, no leech to salve thy wound."
"For thee, because of thy kindness, I will risk that," declared Hugo, after a pause.
Lady De Aldithely put up her hand. "Hush!" she said. "Speak no more at present to me, and nothing on the subject at any time to any but me. I hear footsteps."
The footsteps, bounding and light, drew nearer, and presently Josceline looked in at the door. "Come, Hugo!" he cried. "Let us away to the tilt-yard and do our exercise."
Josceline was already an esquire, and very diligent in the exercises required of an esquire as a part of his training for knighthood. But not more diligent than Hugo had been during his stay at the castle. For Hugo felt himself at a disadvantage on account of having been bred up at the priory, and was eager to make up for his shortcomings. In all their practice Robert Sadler, one of the men-at-arms, was present. And both boys liked him very well. He was not a young man, being some sixty years old, and gray and withered. He was of Irish parentage, and short in stature; and he had a tongue to which falsehood was not so much a stranger as the truth. He was also as inquisitive as a magpie, and ready to put his own ignorant construction on all that he saw and heard. The two boys, however, had never stopped to think of his character. He was always praising their performances in the tilt-yard, and always deferring to them, so that they regarded him very favorably and were quite ready to abide by his judgment. To-day he was waiting for them with a tall horse which he held by the bridle. "I would fain see both of you vault over him," he said.
Josceline advanced, put one hand on the saddlebow and the other on the horse's neck, and vaulted over fairly well. After him came Hugo, whose performance was about equal to Josceline's.
"It was the cousin to the king that could not do so well as that," commented Robert Sadler.
"And how knowest thou that?" asked Josceline, complacently. "Didst thou see him?"
"See him!" exclaimed Robert Sadler. "I have seen him more times than thou art years old. And never did he do so well as thou and Hugo."
With hearts full of pride the two went from vaulting over the horse to striking heavy blows with a battle axe.
"Ah!" cried Robert Sadler. "Could the cousin to the king see the strokes that ye make, he were fit to die from shame. He can strike not much better than a baby. I could wish that all mine enemies might strike me no more heavily than the cousin to the king."
"This cousin to the king must be worthless," observed Josceline, his face red from the exertion of striking.
"Worthless!" exclaimed Robert Sadler. "It were not well that the king heard that word, but a true word it is. Worthless he is."
"I knew not that the king had a cousin," observed Hugo, with uplifted axe.
"There was never a man born," declared Robert Sadler, recklessly, "who had not a cousin. And would the king that hath everything else be lacking in a common thing like a cousin? Thy speech is well nigh treasonable. But strike thou on. I will not stay to see thee put the king's cousin to shame, and then hear thee deny there is such a one." And he stalked off to the stables leading the horse.
"I fear thou hast angered him," said Josceline. "But no matter. He will not harbor anger long." And so it proved. For before the two had finished striking he had returned to the tilt-yard apparently full of good humor.
Two days went by. Then Lady De Aldithely spoke again to Hugo of his project. "Hast abandoned thy plan?" she asked.
"Nay, my lady," he replied. "How should I abandon it? Is it not a good one?"
"Good for my son," admitted Lady De Aldithely, "but bad for thee."
"Thou wilt find it will be bad for neither," said Hugo, stoutly. "I am resolved."
Lady De Aldithely sighed in relief. "Come nearer," she said. "I would confide in thee, and none but thou must hear. I have discovered the traitor within our walls. For a sum of money he will deliver my son to the king. Ask me not how. I have discovered it."
Hugo looked at her and his eyes flashed indignation. "Deliver Josceline, he shall not!" he cried.
"He could but for thee, for we are powerless."
"Then again I say, he shall not."
"Come nearer still," said Lady De Aldithely. "I would tell thee the man's name. What sayest thou to Robert Sadler?"
Hugo stared. "Robert Sadler!" he repeated. "Why, 'tis he of all the men-at-arms, save William Lorimer, who is kindest to Josceline and me. He will be ever with us; in the tilt-yard, in the stables, in the hall, everywhere."
"To watch you," said Lady De Aldithely. "To mark what you say. To catch your plans."
"He shall catch no more plans from me!" cried Hugo, indignantly. "I will speak no more with him, nor be with him."
"Ah, but thou must," counselled Lady De Aldithely. "Wert thou to turn from him, as thou sayest, he would know at once thou hadst been warned against him, and would hasten his own plans. What said he to thee yesterday?"
"He did ask me when I should leave the castle."
Lady De Aldithely's face clouded with anxiety. "And what didst thou answer?" she asked.
"I said it might be one day and it might be another. For thou didst forbid me to speak of my plan."
"I marvel at thy prudence," smiled Lady De Aldithely. "Where didst thou learn it?"
"From my uncle, the prior. He never telleth aught to any man. And no one can wring from him ay or nay by a question."
"A blessing upon him!" breathed Lady De Aldithely.
The boy's eyes brightened. "He is a good man, my uncle, the prior," he said. "And ever he saith to me, 'In troublous times a prudent tongue is worth ten lances and shields.'"
Lady De Aldithely smiled. "May he keep his priory in peace," she said. "'Twere a pity that he should lose it."
Hugo looked at her gratefully. Not every one so leniently regarded the prior's prudence. In more than one quarter his reticence was severely blamed. By some it was called cowardice, by others self-seeking.
"And now thou knowest the worst," said Lady De Aldithely. "Within three days I will contrive to send Robert Sadler hence on an errand. When he is gone thou shalt go forth in the daylight, and that same night my son and I will flee into Scotland. There, if no one tracks our steps, we may be safe. Were I to drive Robert Sadler forth as a traitor, I know full well that some other would arise in his place to practise treachery against us. And so we flee."
And now Hugo drew himself proudly up. He felt that he was trusted and that he was doing a knight's part in rescuing a lady in distress, though he had not, as yet, taken his knightly vow, and was not even an esquire.
Lady De Aldithely saw it and smiled. "Thou must put off that high look, dear lad," she said. "It might beget wonderment in the brain of Robert Sadler, and so lead him to seek its cause. Look and act as thou hast in the past. Call to mind thine uncle, the prior, and guard not only thy tongue, but the glance of thine eye, and the carriage of thy body."
Hugo blushed. "I fear I am like to mar all without thy counsel," he said humbly.
"Thou art but a lad," replied Lady De Aldithely, kindly, "and my counsel thou shalt freely have. And now I must tell thee that thou art to take our good Humphrey with thee on thy journey."
Hugo started and looked disappointed. But all he said was, "Dost not think him very like an old crone, with his dreams and his omens and his charms?"
"I may not criticise Humphrey thus," said Lady De Aldithely, gravely, "because I know his great faithfulness to me and mine. And thou knowest there is much superstition abroad in the land—too much to make it just to single out Humphrey for dislike because he is tainted with it. I send him with thee because I have the highest regard for thy safety. Thou wilt consent to take him to attend thee?"
"If thou require it," answered Hugo, reluctantly.
"I do require it," said Lady De Aldithely, "and I thank thee for yielding. Now go. Come not again to me until Robert Sadler be well sped on his journey. Had I but known that he was treacherous and greedy of gold, no matter how gained, he had never been admitted to these walls."
Obediently Hugo left the apartment and slowly descended the winding stair. And almost at the small door of the stairway tower he found Robert Sadler waiting for him. The traitor was growing impatient and was now resolved to proceed more boldly. "Thou stayest long with her ladyship," he began. "I had thought the sun would set or ever thou came down the stair."
Hugo did not meet his glance. He was trying hard to conceal the sudden aversion he had to the man-at-arms, the sudden desire he felt to look him scornfully in the face, and then turn on his heel and leave him. And he knew he must succeed in his effort or Josceline was lost.
Meanwhile the man-at-arms stole questioning glances at him. He could see that the boy was not his usual self, but he did not guess the cause of his changed manner. With his usual prying way he began:
"Thou hast been here now a fortnight and more. Perchance her ladyship will be rid of thee. Was't of that she spake to thee?"
And now Hugo had sufficiently conquered himself so that he dared to lift his eyes. Innocently he looked into the traitor's face. "We spake of my uncle, the prior," he said.
For a moment Robert Sadler was silent. "That is it," he thought. "She will send him packing back to his uncle. The lad wishes not to go. Therefore he looks down. Now is the time to ask him about the postern key. When one is angered a little then is when he telleth what he hath discovered."
He cast a searching look at Hugo, but by it he learned nothing. The boy now began to take his way toward the tilt-yard, and Robert Sadler kept close at his side, talking as he went.
"Women be by nature suspicious, you will find," he began. "They be ever thinking some one will be breaking in; and ever for having some one on guard. Her ladyship now—surely thou knowest she keepeth the postern key herself, and will trust no one with it. The grooms and the warder at the great gate she will trust, but it is the postern she feareth, because she thinketh an enemy might be secretly admitted there. Knowest thou where she keepeth the key? I would but know in case my lord returneth suddenly, and, perchance, pursued, since the king will have his head or ever he cometh to his home, he hath such an enmity against him. And all because my lord spake freely on the murder of Arthur and other like matters. He might be sped to his death awaiting the opening of the postern while her ladyship was coming with the key."
"Cometh the lord soon, then?" asked Hugo, interestedly.
"That no man can tell," answered Robert Sadler. "He is now safe over sea in France; but he might be lured back if he knew the young lord Josceline was in peril."
"In peril, sayest thou?" asked Hugo. He was learning his lesson of self-control fast.
"Why else are we mewed up here in the castle?" demanded the man-at-arms. "I be weary of so much mewing-up. If the king will have our young lord Josceline to keep in his hand so that he may thereby muzzle his father, why, he is king. And he must have his will. Sooner or later he will have it. Why, who can stand against the king?"
"And how can that muzzle his father?" asked Hugo.
"Why, if Lord De Aldithely, who is a great soldier, and a great help to victory wherever he fighteth, should join with King Louis of France to fight against our king—why, then it would go ill with Josceline if he were biding in the king's hand. And, knowing this, his father would forbear to fight, and so be muzzled."
"And Josceline would not otherwise be harmed?" asked Hugo.
"Why, no man knoweth that," admitted the man-at-arms. "The rage of the king against all who have offended him is now fierce, and he stoppeth at nothing."
"I know not so much as some of such matters," observed Hugo, quietly.
"Nor needest thou," answered the man-at-arms. "It is sufficient for such as be of thy tender years to know the whereabouts of the postern key. I would ask the young lord Josceline, but, merry as he is, he turneth haughty if one ask what he termeth a meddling question. He would say, 'What hast thou to do with the whereabouts of the postern key?' And then he would away to his mother with a tale of me, and the key would be more securely hidden than before."
"And Lord De Aldithely still further endangered if he came riding and pursued?"
"Even so. I see that thou art a clever lad. Much cleverer than thy years warrant. And I warn thee, speak to no one of what I have said to thee, or it may be worse for thee. But tell me plainly, since we have gone so far, knowest thou the whereabouts of the key?"
"Nay," answered Hugo. "I know not. I have never before thought of the postern and its key."
The traitor's frowning face cleared. "I believe thou speakest truly," he said. "Thou art so full of being a knight that thou thinkest only of knightly exercises in the tilt-yard. I will speak a good word for thee, and it may be thou wilt be admitted a page to the Earl of Hertford."
"And hast thou influence there?" inquired Hugo, with assumed interest.
"Yea, that have I," answered Robert Sadler, falsely. For he had no influence anywhere. "I will so speak for thee that thou wilt be page but a short while before thou art made an esquire. Do thou but bide quiet concerning what hath passed between us, and thou shalt fare never the worse."
Then he departed to the stables and Hugo was left alone. To be able to conceal what one feels is a great accomplishment. Rarely do people of any age succeed in doing so, and it was with a feeling of exultation over his success that the boy looked after Robert Sadler.
The next day Lady De Aldithely summoned her men-at-arms before her in the castle hall. She had a missive in her hand. "I must send one of you on a journey," she said. "More than one I cannot now spare to go to Chester. Who will take this missive from me to the town of Chester, and bring back from my aunt what it calleth for?"
A light flashed in the eyes of Robert Sadler which Lady De Aldithely affected not to see. The opportunity he had been seeking was before him. He would go out alone, but he would not return alone. When the drawbridge should be lowered to admit him on his return the king's messengers with a troop of horse would be at hand. They would make a rush while he held parley with the old warder. They would gain entrance to the castle; Josceline would be taken, and the reward for his own treachery would be gained. He had plenty of time to think of all this, for the men were slow to offer. Aside from Robert Sadler they were all true and devoted adherents of the De Aldithelys, and each one imagined the castle and its inmates safer because of his presence. Therefore none desired to go.
"No man seemeth willing to do thy ladyship's behest," said Robert Sadler, with a crafty smile. "I will, by thy leave, undertake it."
Lady De Aldithely looked calmly upon him. "Thou shalt do so, Robert Sadler," she said courteously, "and thou hast my thanks for the service. Thou shalt depart to-morrow morn, and thou shouldest return by the evening of this day week. See that thou bringest safely with thee what the missive calleth for."
"I will return at eventide of this day week," promised the traitor as he received the missive.
"And now," he said to himself, when Lady De Aldithely had retired from the hall, "let her keep the postern key. I care not for it."
It was now mid-June. The air was dry and cool. But Robert Sadler thought not of June nor dryness and coolness of air as in triumph he made ready for his journey.
"I should have gone," grumbled Humphrey the serving-man when he heard of it. "Who knoweth this Robert Sadler? My lord had him at the recommendation of Lord Clifford and he hath been at the castle not yet a year. Who knoweth that he is to be trusted? I should have gone. I did dream of serpents last night, and that foretelleth a prison. Robert Sadler will no doubt be caught by some marauding baron as he cometh again from Chester, and he will be thrown into the dungeon, and then my lady will see."
So grumbling he was summoned to the ladies' bower just as the drawbridge was lowered to permit the departure of Robert Sadler. Ungraciously he obeyed; and just as ungraciously he continued his grumbling in her ladyship's presence. "I did dream of serpents last night," he began, "and that foretelleth a prison."
Lady De Aldithely shivered. "I pray thee, speak not of prisons, Humphrey," she said firmly, "but attend my words."
"Am I not faithful?" demanded Humphrey.
"Thou art, my good Humphrey," was the reply.
"Was it then for Robert Sadler to do thine errand?"
"I have a greater errand for thee," was the grave answer. "Robert Sadler is a traitor, and we have much to do ere he return."
Humphrey seemed bewildered. "And wouldst thou trust a traitor?" he at length demanded.
"Abroad, good Humphrey, and in a small matter, but not within these walls."
The dense Humphrey showing still by his countenance that he could not comprehend his mistress, Lady De Aldithely spoke more plainly. "I must tell thee, Humphrey, that Robert Sadler designeth for a sum of money to deliver Josceline to the king."
"I have discovered it, and have been almost crazed in consequence. But a deliverer hath come."
"I saw no one," said Humphrey in a dazed tone.
"Didst thou not see Hugo?" asked Lady De Aldithely with a faint smile. "My lord will be fain to do much for him when he heareth what Hugo will do for Josceline."
"And what can a lad like him do?" demanded Humphrey. "Thou hadst better trust me. I am forty years of age and have served the De Aldithelys all my life."
"I do trust thee, Humphrey, and I do honor thee by sending thee to attend on this brave lad, Hugo."
"I will not go," declared Humphrey. "Why should I leave thee and Josceline to serve a stranger? Here I bide where my lord left me."
"Wilt thou not go at my command, Humphrey?"
There was no reply but a mutinous look, and Lady De Aldithely continued, "Thou hast doubtless seen how very like in appearance Hugo is to my son. This good lad, Hugo, this best of lads, Hugo, will, for my sake and Josceline's, assume to be my son. He will ride forth toward London as if he made to escape to his father in France. The servants of the king will hear of it through the spies they keep in the wood near us. They will pursue him while Josceline and I escape into Scotland."
Humphrey reflected. "I see it, I see it," he said at last. "Hugo is the good lad."
"He is indeed, Humphrey. So good I cannot see him go unattended. Thou art the trustiest servant I have; and so I send thee with him to keep him from what peril thou mayest, and to defend him in what thou canst not ward off. Thou must serve him as thou wouldst Josceline, on pain of my displeasure."
"I did dream of serpents," said Humphrey, slowly, "and they foretell a prison. It were better for thee to abide here, for, perchance, it is not to foretell the fate of Robert Sadler but the fate of Josceline that the dream was sent."
"Abide here, and let Robert Sadler take my son? Nay, good Humphrey, we must away. Hugo and thou to-morrow morn, Josceline and I to-morrow night." And then Humphrey was dismissed with the command, "Send Hugo to me."
Almost immediately the boy appeared, and Lady De Aldithely met him with a smile. "I send thee forth to-morrow morn," she said, "and Humphrey will go with thee—if thou be still of a mind to go."
"I am still of a mind to go, Lady De Aldithely," was the answer.
"Thou knowest the danger to thyself," she said. "And 'twere not to save my only son, I could not let thee take such peril. Cross thou to France, I charge thee, and take this favor to my husband. Tell him, because thou wouldst do knightly service for me and mine, I give it thee. Thou wilt not go unrewarded." And she held out a knot of blue ribbon.
The boy looked from it to her green robe, and back again. Lady De Aldithely saw the look. "Green is not my color, Hugo," she said. "It is but the fashion of the time." Suddenly she drew back her hand and laid the knot against her sleeve. "See how the colors war," she said. "But not more than truth and constancy with the wickedness of this most wicked reign." Then she held out the knot of blue to him again. "Receive it, dear lad," she said. "Whatever knightly service it is thine to render after thou hast taken thy vow, thou canst render none greater than thou dost now render to Matilda De Aldithely."
"And what service is that?" inquired Josceline as he came smiling into the room. "And what solemn manner is this, my mother? There must be great deeds afoot to warrant it." And he glanced from one to the other.
"Thou hast well come, my son," returned his mother, gravely. "I would this moment have sent to summon thee. Thou and I must away to-morrow night to wander through the forest of Galtus and on into the wilds of Scotland, where we may, perchance, find safety."
At this Josceline stared in astonishment. "We be safe here in the castle," he said at length.
"Nay, my son," returned his mother. "Here be we not safe. I had told thee before of the treachery of Robert Sadler but for thy hasty, impetuous nature which, by knowing, would have marred my plans. Thou wouldst have dealt with him according to his deserts—"
"Ay, that would I," interrupted Josceline, "if he be a traitor. And that will I when he returneth."
Lady De Aldithely looked at him sadly. "We be in the midst of grave perils, my son," she said. "Control thyself. It is not always safe to deal with traitors according to their deserts, and never was it less safe than now. When Robert Sadler returneth we must be far away."
But Josceline was hard to convince. "Here is the castle," he said, "than which none is stronger, and here be good men and true to defend it. Moreover, Robert Sadler is now outside the walls. Thou canst, if thou wilt, keep him out, and we have naught to fear. Why should we go wandering with our all on the backs of sumpter mules, and with only a few men-at-arms and serving-men to bear us company?"
"My son," said Lady De Aldithely, rising from her seat, "thy father gave thee into my keeping. And thou didst promise him upon thine honor to obey me. Thou mayest not break thy pledged word."
"I had not pledged it," rejoined Josceline, sulkily, "had I known of wanderings through forest and wild."
"Better forest and wild than the king's dungeon, my son," replied Lady De Aldithely. "We go hence to-morrow night."
During this conversation Hugo had stood a silent and unwilling listener. Josceline now turned to him. "And whither goest thou, Hugo?" he asked. "With us?"
"Nay, let me speak," said Lady De Aldithely, holding up her hand to check Hugo's reply. "Hugo goeth south toward London clad in thy bravery, and with Humphrey to attend him."
Again Josceline showed astonishment. "I understand not thy riddles," he said at last petulantly.
"He is thy counterpart, my son, and he will personate thee," said Lady De Aldithely. "He setteth out to-morrow morn. The king's spies will pursue him, and thus we shall be able to flee unseen."
"And thou hast planned all this without a word to me?" cried Josceline, angrily. "But for my pledged word I would not stir. Nay, not even if I knew Robert Sadler would give me up to the king's messengers."
Lady De Aldithely gave Hugo a sign to leave the room. When he was gone she herself withdrew, and Josceline was left alone in the ladies' bower, where he stamped about in great irritation for a while. But he could not retain his anger long. Insensibly it faded away, and he found visions of wood and wild taking its place.
Meanwhile Lady De Aldithely had gone to the castle hall, when she sent a summons to William Lorimer to attend her there. To him, when he arrived, she unfolded Robert Sadler's treachery and her own meditated flight with her son.
"Thee," she said, "I leave in charge of these bare walls to deal with Robert Sadler on his return. Whatever happeneth I hold thee blameless. Do as seemeth thee best, and when thou art through here, repair with the others I leave behind, to my lord in France. And if thou shouldst ever find Hugo to be in need, what thou doest for him thou doest for my lord and me."
The man-at-arms bowed low. "I will deal with Robert Sadler as I may," he answered. "Only do thou leave me the postern key. As for Hugo, I will not fail him if ever in my presence or hearing he hath need."
Then Lady De Aldithely with a relieved smile gave him the postern key and he withdrew.
The day was now drawing to a close, and an air of solemnity was upon the castle. Each man knew he was facing death; each man was anxious for the safety of Lady Aldithely and her son; and each man cast a sober eye on Hugo and Humphrey. The effect upon Hugo was visibly depressing, while upon Humphrey it was irritating.
Humphrey had been thinking: and while he would be ostensibly Hugo's servant, he had decided that he would be in reality the master of the expedition. "I like not this obeying of strangers," he said to himself. "Moreover, it is not seemly that any other lad than our own young lord should rule over a man of my years. Let the lad Hugo think I follow him. He shall find he will follow me. And why should these men-at-arms look at us both as if we went out to become food for crows? Did I not dream of acorns last night, and in my dream did I not eat one? And what doth that betoken but that I shall gradually rise to riches and honor? Let the men-at-arms look to themselves. They will have need of all their eyes when that rascal Robert Sadler cometh galloping again to the castle with the king's minions at his back."
Now all this grumbling was not done in idleness. For all the time Humphrey was busy filling certain bags which were to be swung across the haunches of the horses he and Hugo were to ride. Brawn, meal for cakes, grain for the horses, and various other sundries did Humphrey stow away in the bags which were to supply their need at such times as, on account of pursuit, they would not dare to venture inside a town. "And what care I that the interdict forbiddeth us meat as if we were in Lent," grumbled Humphrey as he packed the brawn. "Were the king a good king, meat would be our portion as in other years. Since he is the bad king he is, I will e'en eat the brawn and any other meat to be had. And upon the head of the king be the sin of it, if sin there be."
And the packing finished, he went early to rest.
The castle stood on a ridge near the river Wharfe, from which stream the castle moat derived its water. Its postern gate was toward the east, the great gate being on the northwest. From the postern Hugo and Humphrey were to set out and follow along down the river toward Selby. They were to make no effort at concealment on this first stage of their journey which might, therefore, possibly be the most dangerous part of it. They had little to fear, however, from arrows, as the king's men would not so much wish to injure the supposed Josceline as to capture him. They had shot at him before simply to disable him before he could reach the shelter of the castle.
But Humphrey was not thinking of the dangers of the way. He was up and looking at the sky at the early dawn. "I did hear owls whooping in the night before I slept, which foretelleth a fair day for the beginning of our enterprise," he said. "The sky doth not now look it, but my trust is in owls. I will call Hugo. It is not meet that he should slumber now."
Hugo was not easily roused. He had slept ill: for as night had come down upon him in the castle for the last time, he had not felt quite so sure of being able to lead his pursuers a merry chase. And it was midnight when he fell into an uneasy sleep which became heavy as morning dawned. Humphrey knew nothing of this, however, nor would he have cared if he had. By his own arguing of the case in his mind, he was now firm in the conviction that Hugo had been put into his charge, and he was quite determined to control him in all things. So he routed him from his slumbers and his bed without the slightest compunction, bidding him make haste that they might take advantage of the fair day prognosticated by the owls.
This duty done, Humphrey betook himself to the walls near the postern where he had before noticed William Lorimer apparently deeply engaged in reconnoitring and planning. Now, whatever Humphrey lacked, it was not curiosity; and he was speedily beside the man-at-arms, who impatiently, in his heart, wished him elsewhere.
"What seest thou?" began Humphrey curiously as he gazed about him on all sides.
"The same that thou seest, no doubt," retorted William Lorimer, gruffly.
"Why, then," observed Humphrey, slowly, "thou seest what I and thou have seen these many times,—a bare open place beyond the ditch, and then the wood. I had thought some king's man must have shown himself from his hiding."
"Not so, good Humphrey, not so," rejoined William Lorimer more pleasantly as he reflected that he would soon be rid of the prying serving-man. "Hugo and thou will see king's men before I do."
"Ah, trust me," boasted Humphrey, complacently. "I shall know how to manage when we see them."
"Thou manage?" said William Lorimer, teasingly. "Bethink thee, thou art but servant to Hugo. Hast thou not promised Lady De Aldithely to be his servant?"
Humphrey hesitated a moment and then replied: "Yea, in a measure. But I take it that there are servants and servants. Besides, I did dream of acorns of late and of eating one of them, which doth foretell that I shall gradually rise to riches and honor; and surely the first step in such a rise is the managing of Hugo. My dream hath it, thou seest, that Hugo shall obey me. Wherefore I said I shall know how to manage when I see the king's men."
"Hath Hugo heard of this fine dream?" inquired William Lorimer with pretended gravity.
"Not he. Why should he hear of it? He is as headstrong as our young lord Josceline, though not so haughty. I shall but oppose the weight of my years and experience against him at every turn, and thou shalt see I shall prevail." So saying, Humphrey, with an air of great self-satisfaction, turned and descended the wall to the court-yard.
For a moment William Lorimer smiled. "I would I might follow the two," he said. "There will be fine arguments between them."
The spies who kept watch on De Aldithely castle were four in number, and were hired by Sir Thomas De Lany, who had been commissioned by the king to capture Josceline in any manner that he could. It chanced that there was but one of them on duty in the wood that morning—a certain short, stalky little fellow whose name was Walter Skinner, and who was fond of speaking of himself as a king's man. Formed by nature to make very little impression on the beholder, it was his practice to eke out what he lacked in importance by boasting, by taking on mysterious airs, and by dropping hints as to his connection with great personages and his knowledge of their plans. He was about the age of Humphrey, and though he was but a spy hired by Sir Thomas, he persisted in regarding himself as of great consequence and directly in the employ of the king. He was mounted in the top of a very tall tree in the edge of the wood, and he could hardly believe his eyes when, about nine o'clock, he saw Hugo and Humphrey issue from the postern gate, cross the bridge over the moat, and ride away into the wood, which they struck a quarter of a mile south of him.
In great haste he began to come down the tree, muttering as he did so. "They must all away yesterday morn to York on a holiday," he cried, "and here am I left to take the young lord in my own person. When I have done so I warrant they get none of the reward. I will sue to the king, and we shall see if he who catcheth the game is not entitled to the reward."
By this time he was on the ground and strutting finely as he hurried about for his horse. "A plague upon the beast!" he cried. "He hath slipped halter and strayed. I had come up with the young lord while I seek my horse."
It was some ten minutes before the animal was discovered quietly browsing and brought back to the watch-tree, and then a sign must be made on the tree to let his companions know whither he had gone, so that they might follow immediately on their return. And all this delay was fatal to his catching up with the fugitives. For, once in the wood, Humphrey's authority asserted itself. He pushed his horse ahead of Hugo's and led the way directly through the thick forest for a short distance when he emerged into a narrow and evidently little used bridle-path. "It is well thou hast me to lead thee," he observed complacently. "There be not many that know this path."
Meanwhile Richard Wood, one of the other spies, had unexpectedly returned, read the sign on the watch-tree, and followed his companion. It was at this moment that Hugo discovered that Fleetfoot was not with them. In the excitement of getting under cover of the forest he had not noticed the dog's absence. "Where is Fleetfoot?" he asked as he stood in his stirrups and looked about him anxiously.
"Fleetfoot is at the castle," replied Humphrey, calmly.
"By thy command?" asked Hugo, quickly.
"Ay," replied Humphrey. "Why, what young lord would journey about with a great dog like that in his train? If thou art to play Josceline, thou must play in earnest. Moreover, the hound would get us into trouble with half the keepers of the forest. If ever a deer were missing, would not thy dog bear the blame? So think no more of thy Fleetfoot."
Hugo was silent while the complacent Humphrey jogged on ahead of him. What the serving-man had said was in large measure true. And he thought with a swelling heart that it was not so easy, after all, to personate Josceline when that personating cost him Fleetfoot.
But no less a person than William Lorimer had discovered that Fleetfoot had been left behind. William was fond of both the dog and his master; so now, when Fleetfoot made his appeal to William, the man-at-arms at once responded. He snapped the chain that bound him, and leading him by the collar to the postern gate opened it and let down the bridge. "Why, what would become of thee, Fleetfoot," he said, "when that which is to come to the castle hath come?" Then while the great deerhound looked up expectantly into his face he added as he pointed to the place where Hugo and Humphrey had entered the wood, "After thy master, Fleetfoot! Seek him!"
The deerhound is a dog of marvellous swiftness, and, like an arrow from the bow, Fleetfoot shot across the open space and gained the wood. William Lorimer looked after him. "If thy other commands be no better obeyed, Humphrey, than this which left Fleetfoot behind, I fear thou wilt have cause to lose a part of thy self-satisfaction," he said. Then he drew up the bridge and shut the postern gate.
Hugo had taken the loss of Fleetfoot so quietly that Humphrey with still greater confidence now changed the course slightly, and went down to the river-bank at a point which was half ford and half deep water. But at this Hugo was not so obedient.
"What doest thou, Humphrey?" he demanded. "Was not our course marked out toward Selby? Why wouldst thou cross the river here? We must be seen once on our road, and that thou knowest, or the king's men will not pursue us, and perchance Lady De Aldithely and Josceline shall fare the worse."
"I go not to Selby," declared Humphrey, stubbornly. "And why shouldst thou think we have not been seen? The king's men have eyes, and it was their business to watch the castle."
Then Hugo sat up very straight in his saddle and looked at Humphrey full as haughtily as Josceline himself could have done. "Thou art, for the time, my servant," he said. "And we go to Selby."
For a moment Humphrey was disconcerted, but he did not relinquish his own plan. Presently he said: "If we must go to Selby, let us cross the river here. We can go on the south side of it as well as the north."
Hugo reflected. Then without a word he directed his horse down the bank and into the water, which was here swimming deep. Well satisfied, Humphrey followed.
"I did not dream of acorns and of eating one of them for nothing," he said to himself. "I shall be master yet."
And hardly had the words passed through his mind when splash went a heavy body into the water behind the two swimming horses. Fleetfoot had come up with his master. Swiftly Hugo and Humphrey turned their heads, Hugo with a smile and an encouraging motion of the hand toward his dog, and Humphrey with a frown. "I would I knew who sent the hound after us," grumbled the disgusted serving-man to himself when, the shallow water reached, both riders drew rein for the horses to drink.
Once across the Wharfe Humphrey led the way to a heavy thicket, and dismounting pushed the growth this way and that and so made a passage for the horses, Fleetfoot, Hugo, and himself. In the middle of the thick was a little cleared grassy place where, crowded closely together, all might find room, and here Humphrey announced that they would take their midday rest and meal.
Hugo still said nothing, but he looked very determined, as Humphrey could see. "But I go not to Selby," thought the stubborn serving-man. "I run not my head into the king's noose so near home."
It was an early nooning they had taken, for it was barely half-past twelve when Humphrey broke the silence. He rose, tied each horse securely, and then turning to Hugo said: "Bid the dog stay here. We will go and have a look over the country."
Hugo rose, laid down his bow and arrows, and, bidding the dog watch them, followed Humphrey out of the thicket.
The serving-man, who was well acquainted with this part of the country, now made a little detour into a path which he followed a short distance till he came out a quarter of a mile away from the thicket into a grassy glade in the centre of which towered one of those enormous oaks of which there were many in England at this time. "We will climb up," said Humphrey, "and have a look."
Up they went; Hugo nimbly and Humphrey clumsily and slowly, as became his years and experience, as William Lorimer would have said if he had seen him. Barely had they reached complete cover, and the rustling they made had just ceased, when the tramp of two approaching horses was heard. The sky was now overcast with clouds in spite of the prognostications of the owls, and the rain began to descend heavily, so that the two riders sought refuge beneath the tree. Hugo and Humphrey looked at each other and then down upon the horsemen, who were the two spies, Walter Skinner and Richard Wood.
"I had thought to have come up with them ere this," said Walter Skinner. "They had not more than half an hour the start of me."
"Have no fear," replied Richard Wood, who was a tall and determined- looking man. "They have most like gone on to Selby on the north side of the river. We shall catch them there."
"Thou saidst there is no one to watch the castle?" inquired Walter Skinner.
"Ay, I said it," returned Richard Wood. "Why, who should there be when Sir Thomas hath taken the other two and gone off to get a troop together against Robert Sadler's return? There be thirty men-at-arms within the castle, and all will fight to the death if need be, and none more fiercely than William Lorimer. So saith Robert Sadler. He giveth not so brave an account of the warder and the grooms at the drawbridge, for, saith he, 'The warder is old and slow, and the grooms stupid.' It was well we fell in with Robert Sadler as he departed on his journey."
There was a brief silence while the rain still fell heavily, though the sky showed signs of clearing. Then Walter Skinner in his small cracked voice laughed aloud. "The troop will be there, and there will be hard fighting for naught," he said. "For the prize is escaped and we shall capture it and have the reward."
"What thinkest thou of Selby?" asked Humphrey, when the two spies had gone on toward the river.
"I think thou art right," answered Hugo, frankly.
Without a word Humphrey climbed still higher in the tree and gazed after the two till they were hidden from view in the forest.
"Hast thou been before in this wood?" he inquired, when he and Hugo had descended and stood upon the ground.
"Nay," replied Hugo.
"I thought not. Ask me no questions and I will lead thee through it. I know it of old."
Hugo at this looked rather resentful. He had regarded himself as the important personage on the journey just undertaken, and now it seemed that the serving-man regarded the important personage as Humphrey. And the boy thought that because Humphrey had been right in his purpose to avoid Selby was no reason why he should assume the charge of the expedition. He did not dispute him, however, but followed the triumphant serving-man back to the thicket, to the horses, his bow and arrows, and his dog.
In a short time they were out of the thicket and mounted; and then Humphrey condescendingly said to Hugo: "Follow me, and thou shalt see I will keep out of sight of keepers and rangers. And keep thy hound beside thee, if thou canst. He is like to make us trouble."
At this Hugo felt indignant. He was not accustomed to be treated as if he were a small child.
They now jogged on in silence a few zigzag miles until Humphrey came to another thicket, in which he announced they would pass the night. "Had we kept the open path," he observed, "we might have been further along on our journey, if, perchance, we had not been entirely stopped by a ranger or a king's man."
"The two spies went down the Wharfe toward the Ouse and Selby," remarked Hugo.
"Oh, ay," returned Humphrey. "But the king hath many men, and they all know how to do a mischief for which there is no redress. Hadst thou been a Saxon as long as I have been, and that is forty years, thou hadst found it out before this. And now I will make a fire, for the night is chill, and, moreover, I would have a cake of meal for my supper." So saying, he set to work with his flint and soon had a fire in the small open place in the midst of the thicket.
"Hast thou no fear of the ranger?" asked Hugo.
"Not I. This thick is well off his track. I would have no fear of him at any time but for thy dog. Moreover, he is a timid man, and the wood hath many robbers roving around in it. Could he meet us alone with thy dog, there would be trouble. But here I fear him not."
Hugo laid his hand on Fleetfoot's head. "Thou hast no friend in Humphrey," he said in a low tone as he looked into the dog's eyes. Then, while Humphrey baked the oatmeal cake in the coals, Hugo gave the dog as liberal a supper as he could from their scant supply.
"Be not too free," cautioned Humphrey, as he glanced over his shoulder. "We have yet many days to journey ere we reach London if we escape the clutches of the king's men. Could they but look in at the castle now, I warrant they would laugh louder and longer than they did under the big oak."
Hugo glanced around him nervously.
"Tush, boy! what fearest thou?" said Humphrey. "Here be no listeners. Thou knowest this is the hour. I tell thee frankly I had rather be with her ladyship than to lead thee in safety; yea, even though the way lay, as her way doth lie, through that robber-infested forest of Galtus. Hast heard how there be lights shown in York to guide those coming into the town from that wild place?"
"Yea," answered Hugo, briefly.
Humphrey sighed. "There will be somewhat to do on that journey," he said. "A train of sumpter mules carry the clothing, the massy silver dishes, and the rich hangings; and with them go all the serving-men and half the men-at-arms."
"I pray thee, cease thy speech," said Hugo, still more nervously as he looked about him apprehensively in the semi-darkness of the fire-lit enclosure. "Thy prating may mar all."
"Was it for this," demanded Humphrey, "that I did dream of acorns and of eating one of them, which foretelleth, as all men know, a gradual rise to riches and honor, that I should be bid to cease prating by a stranger, and he a mere lad? But I can cease, if it please thee. I had not come with thee but for her ladyship's commands." And in much dudgeon he composed himself to sleep.
As for Hugo, he lay on the grass, his eyes on the glimmering fire, and his ears alert for any sound. But all was still; and he soon fell to picturing the scene at the castle,—Lady De Aldithely and Josceline, mounted for their journey, going out at the postern gate at the head of the train of sumpter mules and attended by the band of serving-men and men-at-arms. And with all his heart he hoped for their safety. He did not wonder at their taking their treasures with them. It was the custom of the time to do so, and was quite as sensible as leaving them behind to be stolen.
The great deerhound blinked his eyes lazily in the firelight and drew, after a while, the lad's thoughts away from the castle. What should he do with Fleetfoot? How should he feed him, and with what? And how should he get him through the town of Ferrybridge near which they now were, and which they must pass through in the morning, unless Humphrey would agree to swim the horses across the Aire above the town and so avoid it?
And now the wood seemed to awake. Owls insisted to the ears of the sleeping Humphrey that the morrow would be a fair day. Leaves rustled in the gentle wind. Far off sounded a wildcat's cry. And with these sounds in his ears Hugo fell asleep.
The fire was plentifully renewed, and Humphrey was preparing breakfast when, in the morning, Hugo awoke.
With what seemed to the boy a reckless hand, the serving-man flung Fleetfoot his breakfast. "He may eat his fill if he will," said Humphrey, noting Hugo's expression of surprise. "He hath already so lowered our store that more must be bought."
"And where?" inquired Hugo.
"At Ferrybridge," returned Humphrey, complacently, to Hugo's dismay.
"I had thought best to avoid Ferrybridge," said Hugo. "I would swim the horses across the Aire above the town."
Humphrey seemed to ruminate a short time. Then he put on a look of stupid wisdom. "Let us have breakfast now," he said.
Hugo looked at him impatiently, and wondered how he could ever have found such favor with Lady De Aldithely. But in silence he took the brawn and oat-cake Humphrey gave him. The horses were already feeding, and, despatching his own breakfast with great celerity, Humphrey soon had them ready for the day's journey. Still in silence Hugo mounted, for a glance at the stubborn Humphrey's face told him he might as well hold his peace.
Straight toward the river-bank rode Humphrey, while Hugo and Fleetfoot followed.
"There!" said Humphrey, when they had reached the river's brink. "Seest thou that thick across the stream? Swim thy horse and thy dog across, and bide there in that thick for me. I go to the town to buy supplies. Last night I did have two dreams. I had but gone to sleep when I dreamed I was going up a ladder. Knowest thou what that meaneth?"
"Nay," replied Hugo. "I am not skilled in old woman's lore."
Humphrey frowned. "Thou mayest call it what thou likest," he said, "but dreams be dreams; and this one signifieth honor. I waked only long enough to meditate upon it and fell asleep again, and dreamed I climbed once more the big oak of yesterday. And that meaneth great preferment. Canst thou see now how I have no cause to fear king's men? For what honor could it be to be caught by them? or what preferment to be laid by the heels in the king's dungeon? And canst thou see how it is meet for me to go into the town, and for thee and the hound to swim the river? I warrant thee the king's men, though they fill the streets of Ferrybridge, will be no match for me with such a dream as that."
Then Hugo lost his temper. "Thou art a foolish fellow," he said, "and moreover thou art but my servant. Where is thy prudence of yesterday? I am of a mind to forbid thee to go into the town. But this I tell thee; I know this region by report. We be not so many miles from Pontefract castle. If thou comest not to the thick by noon, Fleetfoot and I journey on southward, and thou mayest overtake us as thou canst."
"I know not if I can come by noon," answered Humphrey, more submissively than he had yet spoken. "Never have I been in Ferrybridge. I know not what supplies I may find."
"Take care thou find not the king's men," said Hugo. "At noon Fleetfoot and I journey on." With that he directed his horse into the water, Fleetfoot followed, and Humphrey was left on the bank.
"Ay," he said to himself, rather ruefully, "thou canst play the master as haughtily as our young lord Josceline himself when it pleaseth thee. But for all that, last night I did go up a ladder and climb a tree. No doubt I shall yet prevail."
Then he galloped off toward the town, where he mingled with the throng of people quite unnoticed in the number, for, in spite of the interdict which forbade amusements of all kinds, a tournament was to be held at Doncaster, and many were on the way to attend it. Since the king scouted the interdict, many of the people braved it also, and the inns were already full. Humphrey was riding slowly along with curious eyes when, in the throng, he caught sight of Walter Skinner, the pompous little spy, who sat up very straight on his horse, and looked fiercely around, as if to warn the people of what they might expect if they unduly jostled him, the king's man. For so he regarded himself, although he was only the hired spy of Sir Thomas De Lany.
"A plague upon my dreams!" thought Humphrey, his native common sense getting the better of his superstition. "I had never ventured my head in this noose but for them. I must now get it out as I can, but that will never be done by noon."
Almost as soon as Humphrey had seen him, Walter Skinner had seen Humphrey, and had recognized both man and horse as the same he had seen from the treetop leaving the castle with Hugo the previous day. Not finding any trace of the two in the neighborhood of Selby, he had come on to Ferrybridge, while his companion, Richard Wood, had gone south by the very way Hugo would start out on at noon. He gave no sign of recognizing Humphrey, however, and Humphrey seemed not to recognize him.
Said Walter Skinner to himself, "I will not alarm him, and the sooner he will lead me to his master."
While Humphrey thought, "I will not seem to see him, and when I can, I give him the slip."
So up and down the narrow streets rode these two, Walter Skinner looking fiercely upon the innocent throng, and Humphrey apparently gazing about him with all a countryman's curiosity. Noon came and Humphrey managed to find a place for himself and horse at an inn. "I may as well eat and drink," he said, "for what profit is it to be going up and down these narrow streets? At every turn is this little cock of a king's man who, though he croweth not with his mouth, doeth so with his looks. I know not for whom he is seeking. Not for me, or he would assail me and capture me and put me to the torture to tell him where Hugo is, for he thinketh Hugo is Josceline, which he is not, but a stranger, and a headstrong one. There is nothing in dreaming of going up a ladder or climbing a tree, if I get not the better of him." And so he betook him to his dinner.
The little spy followed him, and the innkeeper was obliged to make room for him also, which, when Humphrey saw, he changed his opinion as to whom the spy was in search of. "He thinketh," said Humphrey to himself, with sudden enlightenment, "to follow me quietly and so find Hugo."
Humphrey was ever a gross eater, and Walter Skinner watched him with great impatience and dissatisfaction. For Humphrey ate as if no anxiety preyed upon his mind, but as if his whole concern was to make away with all placed before him.
"It may be," reflected Walter Skinner, "that he hath bestowed his master, as he thinketh in safety, in a neighboring abbey or priory. From whence my master will not be long in haling him out. For what careth the king for abbots or priors? And so let him leave off this partridge dance he hath been leading me about the streets." And he scowled upon the apparently unconscious serving-man.
"Ay, let him scowl," thought Humphrey, with his mouth full of savory viands that filled him with satisfaction. "He may do more scowling ere evening if he like. I did go up a ladder and climb a tree last night."
His dinner over, Humphrey went out to the stables, whither Walter Skinner followed him as if to look after the welfare of his own horse, thus confirming Humphrey's suspicion that he had recognized him. And the serving-man at once put on an air of self-confidence and pride in his own wisdom which effectually concealed his anxiety from the watching Walter Skinner. He entered into conversation with the grooms, and let fall, in a loud voice, such a weight of opinions as must have crushed any intelligent mind to consider. And there about the stables he stayed; for the grooms took to him, and evidently regarded him as some new Solomon.
The impatient Walter Skinner listened as long as he could, but seeing, at last, that Humphrey's wisdom was from an unfailing supply, he went back to the inn, after beckoning one of the grooms to him and giving him a piece of money, in return for which, as he pompously instructed him, he was to keep an eye on Humphrey, and on no account to allow him to escape him; at the same time he threw out hints about the king and his wrath if such a thing should happen.
The groom, who was himself a Saxon, and who hated all king's men, listened respectfully, took the coin, said that he had but two eyes, but he would use them to see all that went on before him, and returned to the stables, where he at once told Humphrey what had passed. "I have a hatred to the king and his men," declared the groom.
"And what Saxon hath not?" asked Humphrey. "I have lived forty years, and in all that time the Normans grow worse, and this John is worst of all."
"Perchance thy master is oppressed by him," ventured the groom.
"Perchance he is, and his lady and his son likewise," returned Humphrey.
The groom looked at him. "I ask thee to reveal nothing," he said significantly. "I have but two eyes, and I must use them, as I said, to see, all that goeth on before me. Do thou but ask Eric there to show thee the way out of the town before the curfew ring. He hateth king's men worse even than I. My master will summon me to the house shortly, according to his custom. That will be the time for thee, for I can in no wise see what goeth on behind my back, nor did I promise to do so."
At once Humphrey betook himself to Eric, explained matters so far as he dared, and received the groom's ready promise to guide him out of the town, which he did within an hour, while Walter Skinner sat impatiently waiting for him to reenter the inn from the stables. Eric did more for him also; for he provided him with provender for the horses and abundant provisions for himself, Hugo, and the dog, receiving therefor a good price which he promised to transmit to his master.
"And now," said Humphrey to himself, when he was well quit of the town, "if the time cometh when Saxon as well as Norman hath preferment, my device shall be a ladder and a tree. And may the king's man have a good supper at Ferrybridge and be long in the eating of it."
Straight to the thicket rode Humphrey at a good pace, but he found no Hugo there. "Here is a snarl to be undone!" he cried. "The lad is too headstrong. Perchance he hath already run into the noose of the other king's man. For who knoweth where he is? And I shall be held to answer for it. This cometh of a man being servant to a boy and a stranger at that. I will away after him." So saying, he rode to the south, giving all habitations of men and walks of forest rangers a wide berth, and hoping sincerely that Hugo before him had done the same. "For the lad," said he, "is in the main a good lad. And how can I face my lady if harm cometh to him? It is no blame to him that he hath not a knack at dreams to help him on his way."
At the last word his horse shied; for out of the undergrowth at the side of the little glade through which he was riding fluttered a partridge, while, after it, floundering through the bushes with a great noise, came Fleetfoot. In vain Humphrey tried to call the dog from his prey. In a twinkling the unhappy bird was in the hound's mouth and Fleetfoot was off again to the thicket to supplement his scant dinner with a bird of his own catching.
"Here be troubles enough!" cried Humphrey. "King's men on our track, and now partridge feathers to set the keepers and rangers after us. Well, I will push through this underbrush to the right. Perchance Hugo rideth in the bridle-path beyond, since it was from that part the dog came. And he shall put the hound in leash. I am resolved on it. I have no mind to have hand or foot lopped off that so a deerhound may have his fill of partridges."
With a frown he pushed through the underbrush. The sun was setting when he emerged into a path and, at a little distance, caught sight of Hugo jogging slowly along and looking warily about him. He dared not signal him by a whistle, so, putting spurs to his loaded horse, he advanced as fast as he was able, and shortly after came up with the lad, his anger at Fleetfoot's trespass rather increased than abated, and, in consequence, with his manner peremptory.
"Into the thick here to the right," he growled, laying his hand on the bridle of Hugo's horse. "The sun is now set, and we go no farther to-night. In this stretch robbers abound, and I have no mind to face three dangers when two be enough."
Hugo looked at him inquiringly.
"Yea, by St. Swithin!" went on the angry serving-man. "King's men and partridge feathers be enough without robbers." And giving Hugo's horse, which he had now headed toward the thicket, a slight cut on the flank with his whip, he drove Hugo before him, much to the boy's indignation. "Thou hast been drinking!" he cried, turning in his saddle. "Strike not my horse again."
They were barely screened from sight when Humphrey, his head turned over his shoulder, held up his hand warningly. A horse was coming on the gallop. A second elapsed, and then Walter Skinner went by. He had discovered Humphrey's flight a half-hour after Eric had led him out of the city, but the grooms had successfully delayed him half an hour longer. Then he had started in pursuit, and had gone thundering along at such a pace that he could hear nothing nor see anything that was not in full view. This new sight of danger at once pacified both Hugo and Humphrey. The boy forgot what he had been pleased to regard as the insubordination of his servant, and Humphrey forgot the anger he had felt against Fleetfoot and his master.
As soon as they dared, they pushed cautiously farther into the thicket, and presently Humphrey dismounted and tied his horse. Here was no grassy spot within enclosing underbrush where comfort might be found. There was such a place not far off, but Humphrey would not go to it. With his knife he set to work clearing a place large enough for the tied horses to lie down in. Cutting every stick into the very ground, he laid the cut brush in an orderly heap, and thus made a bed for himself and Hugo. Then without a word he went out on foot and down to the bank of the Went, peeled a willow, and came back with a long strip of its bark. "Thou wilt tie this to the collar of thy dog," he said." He hath been trespassing, and hath taken a partridge. Should the keeper discover it and us, thy hand or foot, or mine, must pay for it."
"How knowest thou that Fleetfoot did take a partridge?" asked Hugo, with disbelief in his tone.
"I did see him," replied Humphrey. "And noting whence he came, I did find thee, and none too soon."
There was a short silence. Then Hugo said: "A partridge is not much; and, as thou sayest, if thou hadst not seen Fleetfoot, thou hadst not found me in time; and so the spy would now have me in custody. Therefore Fleetfoot should not have too much blame."
"Ay," grumbled Humphrey. "Thou art ready with thy excuses for thy dog."
"He is all I have, Humphrey," returned Hugo, quietly. "But I promise thee he shall be put in leash on the morrow if he cometh." And he listened anxiously for some sound of his dog's approach. But he heard none.
And now Humphrey's good-nature was quite restored, so that he said: "Think no more of the hound to-night. He hath begun on a partridge. May he not end on a deer; and, if he doth, may the keeper set its loss down to these prowling robber bands. It is well with us thus far."
By this time the horses were fed and supper was over, all having been accomplished in darkness, and Humphrey lay down to sleep.
The part of Yorkshire which they had been traversing abounded in rivers. The Wharfe and the Aire, the first of which joins the Ouse eight miles south, and the second eighteen miles southeast of York, they had already crossed. They were now near the Went, and here, as Hugo discovered the next morning, it was Humphrey's decision to stay a day or two.
"I go no further without a dream," he declared. "Last night I slept too sound to have one. And moreover I wish not to fall in with these galloping king's men. Let them ride up and down till they think us securely hid away in some religious house, since they find us not in the wood. So shall we go the safer on our way to Doncaster."
Hugo had thought much the evening before, and he had resolved to dispute Humphrey in future no more than was necessary. For he now saw that, though he was but a serving-man, Humphrey knew more of Yorkshire woods than his master. He therefore made no objection when Humphrey announced his decision, much to the serving-man's surprise, for he had expected opposition. Finding none, he enlarged his air of importance, and bade Hugo stay where he was while he took the horses down to the stream for water.
Hugo, putting a strong restraint on himself, obeyed, and was rewarded on the serving-man's return with the promise that, as soon as the dog came in and was tied, he might venture forth with Humphrey to explore the region.
"Thou must know," remarked Humphrey, "that we be on the high bank. On the other side of the valley sloping coppices abound, and therein can I show thee many badger holes. Hast ever seen a badger hunt?"
"Nay," answered Hugo.
"I was but twenty years old," continued Humphrey, "when first I came through these woods, and on the bank across the valley from this point I did see a badger hunt. Three men and two dogs did I see, and they five did at length dig out one badger. The old badger was inside the hole taking his sleep, for it was ten o'clock in the morning. And a badger not only sleepeth all day in summer, but day and night in winter. Thou knowest that?"
"Yea," replied Hugo. And added that at his uncle's priory he had occasionally eaten badger meat, which was very good.
"Cured like ham, was it?" inquired Humphrey.
"Yea," responded Hugo.
Humphrey nodded his head approvingly. "A priest," he said, "for knowing and having good eating."
The two sat silent a few moments waiting for Fleetfoot, who did not come, and then Humphrey continued: "The badger hath a thick skin. He goeth into a wasp's nest or a bees' nest, and the whole swarm may sting him and he feeleth it not."
"What doth the badger in wasps' nests and bees' nests?" inquired Hugo.
"Why, he will eat up their grubs. The eggs make footless grubs, and these the badger eateth. My grandsire went a journey through this wood once on a moonlight night. He rode slowly along, and at a certain place was a bees' nest beside the path, and there, full in the moonlight, was a badger rooting out the nest. Out swarmed the bees, and several did sting the horse of my grandsire at the moment when he had taken good aim at the badger with his stick. The horse bolted, and my grandsire found himself lying in the path with his neck all but broken, and the bees taking vengeance on him for the trespass of the badger. He hath had no liking to bees or badgers since that day."
"He still liveth, then?" asked Hugo.
"Ay," returned Humphrey, much pleased at the question. "Hale and hearty he is, and ninety-six years of age."
By common consent both now paused to listen for Fleetfoot. Hearing nothing Humphrey continued, "Didst ever see a tame badger?"
"Nay," was the reply.
"A badger becometh as tame as a dog, if he be taken young. Report hath it that there is great sport in London at the public houses baiting the badger. I know not how it may be."
And now Fleetfoot came. Not joyfully, but slinking, for he knew he had been doing wrong. Three partridges, a fox, and a badger he had slain since Humphrey had seen him, and he wore a guilty look.
"Thou wilt do no more than tie him with the willow thong," observed Humphrey, eyeing Fleetfoot with disfavor. "Were he mine, I should beat him. The king maketh nothing of lopping off a man's hand or foot for such a trespass, or even putting out of his eyes. And should the keepers discover what he hath done, it were all the same as if we had done it."
"Nay, Humphrey," said Hugo, smoothing the dog's head. "Perchance he hath taken no more than the partridge thou sawest."
For answer Humphrey struck lightly the dog's rounded-out side. "Tell me not," he said, "that one partridge hath such a filling power. Else would I feed only on partridges. Moreover, he is a knowing dog, and see how he slinketh. He would not be that cast down for one partridge, I warrant thee."
"It may be thou art right," replied Hugo, as he tied up Fleetfoot.
"Yea, that I may be," returned Humphrey, importantly. "A man that hath dreams of going up a ladder and climbing a tree in the same night is most likely to be right when it cometh to measuring up the trespasses of a straying deerhound. For why should a man be advanced to preferment and honor except that he hath merit? And to dream of going up a ladder and climbing a tree is sure warrant that he hath it. And now fare we forth to see this Brockadale."
Hugo having finished tying Fleetfoot securely with a tether so short that he could not gnaw through it, followed Humphrey, and the dog attempted to follow Hugo, much to Humphrey's satisfaction. "Ay, thou wouldst follow, wouldst thou?" he said. "Bide where thou art with the horses, and think on thy evil deeds." Then turning to the boy he added, "If thou wilt not beat him, Hugo, my chiding may do him some good."
It was a most beautiful little valley that the boy saw when he stood on the edge of a hill on its northern side and gazed down into it, while Humphrey stood by pointing out its features with the air of a proprietor. Green and lovely it stretched away to the southeast some two miles, as Humphrey told him. Through it flowed the Went, bending and turning, its banks lined with osiers and willows. Wooded hills were the northern, and sloping coppices the southern boundary of the vale.
The two had not ventured out into the open. They were still in the shelter of the trees. "The Normans rule, and honest men must skulk and hide," observed Humphrey, with some bitterness.
"Lord De Aldithely is a Norman," remarked Hugo. "So also am I."
"Ay," rejoined Humphrey, "but all Normans are not alike bad. Thou art not the king, moreover, nor is my lord, who is an honest man and standeth bravely by the people, and is opposed to murder and robbery. Therefore is he fled, and therefore is our young lord Josceline in danger, and therefore are we skulking and hiding and leading the king's men this chase. The times be evil; and who knoweth what shall amend them?"
Hugo did not reply. His eye had caught sight of the flash of sunlight on steel down the valley, and he pointed it out to Humphrey.
"Up! up!" cried Humphrey. "Up into yon spreading oak at the edge of the vale. There shall we be concealed, and yet see all."
"They come from toward Doncaster, do they not?" asked Hugo when they were safely out of sight among the branches.
"Ay," answered Humphrey. "Nor was it for naught that I did sleep too sound to dream last night, else might we have been on the way to Doncaster, and so, perchance, have met them."
The party drew nearer, and soon the keen eyes of Humphrey and Hugo resolved them into three men-at-arms led by Walter Skinner.
"Three soldiers and a king's man to take a boy and a man!" laughed Humphrey. "It must be that they have a good opinion of our bravery."
"Or of thy cunning," said Hugo, to whom Humphrey had a short while before revealed all that had befallen him in Ferrybridge.
"Oh, ay," answered Humphrey, complacently. "I have my share, no doubt. A man doth not live forty years with treachery on all sides of him and learn nothing. My head had been off my shoulders ere this, had not some measure of cunning done its part to keep it on. They will beat up the whole forest hereabout for us, I doubt not. If I get a good dream to-night, we go on to-morrow."
Hugo smiled. He thought it strange that a man so sensible, in many respects, as Humphrey should pin such faith to dreams. So he said teasingly: "How if thou get not the dream to-night, nor yet to-morrow night? Do we bide here until the dream come, if that be next Michaelmas?"
The serving-man seemed puzzled. Then he answered: "Nay, to be sure. Then would the summer be done; and, moreover, I never went so long without the right dream in my life."
Nearer and nearer drew the horsemen until, in the vale just opposite and below Hugo and Humphrey, they dismounted. "Here do we stop," said Walter Skinner. "I warrant you they be hereabouts, else have the fat priests lied when they denied they were in abbey and priory."
"Ay," answered one of the men-at-arms. "They be hereabouts, no doubt, if they be not farther to the east, when thy fellow will catch them if we miss them. I marvel thou hast not come up with them before now. Thou sayest this is the third day of their flight?"
This seeming to reflect on the ability of the pompous little Walter Skinner, he frowned. And drawing himself up importantly he said, "The young lord hath to his servant a Saxon who knoweth well these parts."
"Some deer-stealer, without doubt," observed the man-at-arms.
"And he goeth not straight forward," continued Walter Skinner, "else had I met him. But he creepeth here, and hideth there, and goeth in retired paths."
"And all to balk thee!" said the big man-at-arms, regarding with scarce concealed contempt the little strutting spy.
There was that in the manner of the man-at-arms that nettled Walter Skinner, so that he became more pompous than before and, resolved to show the soldier how high he stood in the king's counsel, he said haughtily: "Why, it were best he balk me, if he knew what will come to his young master when I find him. King John, as thou knowest, hath a special hatred toward his father, Lord De Aldithely."
"De Aldithely, sayest thou?" interrupted the man-at-arms.
"Ay, and he is resolved the son shall not live, no more than his own nephew Arthur."
"And he will put him to death?" asked the man-at-arms.
"Why, not speedily," answered Walter Skinner, importantly, "but cat and mouse fashion, by which he will be the longer dying, and his father the more tormented. He will speedily give orders also to raze his castle as a nest of traitors."
"Whence hadst thou this?" demanded the man-at-arms.
Walter Skinner stood off and looked at him. Then, with an air of great mystery, he said: "It is whispered about. I may not say more. It becometh me not."
The man-at-arms now rose from the ground where he had thrown himself and mounted his horse. "I seek not the young lord," he said. "I betray no mouse to the cat, least of all the son of the brave De Aldithely. I will back to my own master from whom thou didst borrow me. I will say thou needest me not and hast bid me return. When thou art tired of thy life, say thou otherwise." And he looked meaningly at him.
"I go with thee," said the second man-at-arms, springing from the ground.
"And I also!" exclaimed the third.
In vain Walter Skinner tried to restrain them. They clattered off down the valley whence they had come, and were soon out of sight on their way to Doncaster.
The sound carried well here; the voices of the men were loud; and Hugo and Humphrey, whose ears were keen, heard with consternation all that passed. "I fear it meaneth death to thee also if thou be caught," said Humphrey. "For it is a serious thing to dupe a man of the king's rage. This calleth for dreams, and that right speedily, if we are not to fall into his hands."
The disappointed Walter Skinner made no attempt to depart. "Here will I stay a while," he said, "and berate the folly that did tell them the purpose of the king and the name of the young lord. I did think to raise myself in authority over them by showing that I did know the king's counsel, and, in so doing, I did forget that for murdering of Arthur all men hate him, and few will help him to his will upon others." Moodily he threw himself upon the grass, having staked his horse, and soon left off berating himself by falling into a sound sleep. The sun reached the meridian, and he still slept. It came to be mid-afternoon and still he moved not, for he had ridden hard and had been deprived of his rest the night before. His tethered horse at last whinnied softly and then loudly. And, to the dismay of Hugo and Humphrey, he was answered by their own horses in the thicket. But still the king's man moved not.
"Would that I knew certainly that he sleepeth," said Humphrey, anxiously. "For then we might come down and escape."
"Nay, nay," objected Hugo, earnestly. "Seest thou not how a little sound goeth far here? The rustling of the leaves and rattling of the boughs as we descend might awake him."
Humphrey looked at him. "Ay, poor mouse!" he said. "Mayhap thou art right."
And now Walter Skinner stirred in his slumber. Once more his horse whinnied loudly. Once more the horses in the thicket answered; and the spy, broad awake, sprang to his feet. "Aha, Fortune!" he cried, "thou art with me."
"Nevertheless," observed Humphrey, softly, "if thou hast not dreamed of going up a ladder and climbing a tree, all may not go so well with thee as thou thinkest."
Leaving his horse, the spy climbed the wooded hill, at the top of which he paused just under the oak in which Hugo and Humphrey were concealed. The horses whinnied no more, though he waited a few moments hoping to hear them. "I will on," he cried impatiently. "'Twas from this direction the answer came." And away he hurried on foot, for he imagined that those he sought were hidden near at hand, and waiting for the night to come ere they resumed their journey. He knew that he alone could not capture them, but if he could get on their trail and dog them unseen till he could get help he would be sure of them.
As soon as the spy was out of sight Humphrey began to descend the tree.
"Whither goest thou?" asked Hugo.
"Thou shalt see," returned Humphrey.
With speed he ran down the hill, breaking a switch of birch as he ran. He hastened to Walter Skinner's horse, cut him loose from his tether, and struck him sharply with the birch rod. Away galloped the horse down the valley, while Humphrey hastened back to his place in the tree. "Fortune may be with him," he said to Hugo, "but his horse is not. Mayhap I need not another dream, for, by the one I had, I think we have got the better of him. Moreover, there will be no more whinnying for our horses to answer."
Till the set of sun and the dusk of the evening the spy pursued the search, now stumbling over a tree root, now catching his foot in a straggling vine, and every now and then sorely struck in the face by the underbrush through which he pushed his way. But, although he was once very near the concealed horses and hound, he found nothing to reward him. The return to the little vale was even more tiresome than the journey from it had been. No moon would shine for an hour, and it was quite dark when he once more reached the oak in which Hugo and Humphrey had stayed all day, but from which they had a few moments before descended.
In climbing the tree, after setting Walter Skinner's horse loose, Humphrey had noticed a hollow in one of the lower branches. "Perchance," he said, "a hedgehog may lodge therein. Knowest thou the ways of hedgehogs?"
"Nay," returned Hugo, indifferently.
"The lad hath lost heart," said Humphrey to himself, "and all because of the words of this little snipe of a king's man and the slowness of the journey. I will not seem to see it." Then he continued as if Hugo had displayed the greatest interest: "I will tell thee, then, that hedgehogs have many ways. I warrant thee this king's man knoweth naught of them, any more than he knoweth the wood. Had he been some men, we had been caught ere now. I fear him not overmuch. For do but see how he is puffed up with undue pride and importance. And let me tell thee that undue pride and importance and good sense dwell not in the same skull. We shall therefore have the better of him."
Hugo made no reply, and Humphrey continued cheerfully: "A hedgehog will find a hollow in a tree, and there he will bide, sleeping all day. At night he will come forth. But first he must reach the ground. And this he will do by rolling into a ball and dropping on the ends of his spines. If the ground is beneath him, no harm is done. If this king's man should be beneath him, I think not that he would cry out that Fortune was with him when the spines of the hedgehog stuck into him."
"And how would the king's man be beneath him?" asked Hugo, dully.
"If the hedgehog be in the hollow of that low branch," answered Humphrey, "and if the king's man should stand under at such time as the hedgehog was ready to drop, then he would be beneath him."
"Yea," observed Hugo. "Many things might come to pass, if thou couldst make all the plans."
Humphrey did not hear the sarcasm in Hugo's tones. He heard only what he was pleased to take as a compliment to his own abilities. "Why, I believe thou art right," he answered. "Were I to make the plans, some that are now at the top would be at the bottom. Thou hast well said. But come. It grows dark. Let us go down ere the king's man come back on his way to the vale."
Slowly they made their way down. "This perching on trees all day is fit to make an old man of a boy," said Humphrey, as he stepped clumsily about on his half-numbed feet.
"Sh!" said Hugo.
Humphrey instantly stood still in the darkness and listened. Weary and slow steps were approaching. They came nearer, and directly under the oak they ceased, for the spy, his pompous manner quite gone, had stopped to rest a little. And now a rustling in the branches above was heard. Eagerly the spy looked up and strained his eyes to see. "Josceline! son of Lord De Aldithely!" he called, "I arrest thee in the king's name. Thou darest not oppose me. Yield thyself, and come down!"
And just then the hedgehog which Humphrey had surmised might be in the hollow, moved a little farther along on the branch, rustling the leaves as he did so. In the darkness the face of the spy was still turned upward. He had forgotten that he was alone and unaided. And he thought only of getting hold of the boy he sought.
"Come down!" he repeated. "Come down, I say! Make no dallying!"
And then the hedgehog rolled himself into a ball and came down plump into the face of Walter Skinner.
"Ugh! what have we here?" sputtered the spy, starting back.
Hugo and Humphrey did not wait for him to discover, but stepping softly away they went to the thicket, where the hungry animals gave them a warm welcome, and where they thoroughly enjoyed the first meal they had had since morning. Their supper eaten, Humphrey untied horses and hound, to lead them to water.