by H. Rider Haggard
First Published 1911.
Ditchingham, May 27, 1911. My dear Jehu:
For five long but not unhappy years, seated or journeying side by side, we have striven as Royal Commissioners to find a means whereby our coasts may be protected from "the outrageous flowing surges of the sea" (I quote the jurists of centuries ago), the idle swamps turned to fertility and the barren hills clothed with forest; also, with small success, how "foreshore" may be best defined!
What will result from all these labours I do not know, nor whether grave geologists ever read romance save that which the pen of Time inscribes upon the rocks. Still, in memory of our fellowship in them I offer to you this story, written in their intervals, of Red Eve, the dauntless, and of Murgh, Gateway of the Gods, whose dreadful galley still sails from East to West and from West to East, yes, and evermore shall sail. Your friend and colleague, H. Rider Haggard. To Dr. Jehu, F.G.S., St. Andrews, N.B.
MURGH THE DEATH
They knew nothing of it in England or all the Western countries in those days before Crecy was fought, when the third Edward sat upon the throne. There was none to tell them of the doom that the East, whence come light and life, death and the decrees of God, had loosed upon the world. Not one in a multitude in Europe had ever even heard of those vast lands of far Cathay peopled with hundreds of millions of cold-faced yellow men, lands which had grown very old before our own familiar states and empires were carved out of mountain, of forest, and of savage-haunted plain. Yet if their eyes had been open so that they could see, well might they have trembled. King, prince, priest, merchant, captain, citizen and poor labouring hind, well might they all have trembled when the East sent forth her gifts!
Look across the world beyond that curtain of thick darkness. Behold! A vast city of fantastic houses half buried in winter snows and reddened by the lurid sunset breaking through a saw-toothed canopy of cloud. Everywhere upon the temple squares and open spaces great fires burning a strange fuel—the bodies of thousands of mankind. Pestilence was king of that city, a pestilence hitherto unknown. Innumerable hordes had died and were dying, yet innumerable hordes remained. All the patient East bore forth those still shapes that had been theirs to love or hate, and, their task done, turned to the banks of the mighty river and watched.
Down the broad street which ran between the fantastic houses advanced a procession toward the brown, ice-flecked river. First marched a company of priests clad in black robes, and carrying on poles lanterns of black paper, lighted, although the sun still shone. Behind marched another company of priests clad in white robes, and bearing white lanterns, also lighted. But at these none looked, nor did they listen to the dirges that they sang, for all eyes were fixed upon him who filled the centre space and upon his two companions.
The first companion was a lovely woman, jewel-hung, wearing false flowers in her streaming hair, and beneath her bared breasts a kirtle of white silk. Life and love embodied in radiance and beauty, she danced in front, looking about her with alluring eyes, and scattering petals of dead roses from a basket which she bore. Different was the second companion, who stalked behind; so thin, so sexless that none could say if the shape were that of man or woman. Dry, streaming locks of iron-grey, an ashen countenance, deep-set, hollow eyes, a beetling, parchment-covered brow; lean shanks half hidden with a rotting rag, claw-like hands which clutched miserably at the air. Such was its awful fashion, that of new death in all its terrors.
Between them, touched of neither, went a man, naked save for a red girdle and a long red cloak that was fastened round his throat and hung down from his broad shoulders. There was nothing strange about this man, unless it were perhaps the strength that seemed to flow from him and the glance of his icy eyes. He was just a burly yellow man, whose age none could tell, for the hood of the red cloak hid his hair; one who seemed to be far removed from youth, and yet untouched by time. He walked on steadily, intently, his face immovable, taking no heed.
Only now and again he turned those long eyes of his upon one of the multitude who watched him pass crouched upon their knees in solemn silence, always upon one, whether it were man, woman, or child, with a glance meant for that one and no other. And ever the one upon whom it fell rose from the knee, made obeisance, and departed as though filled with some inspired purpose.
Down to the quay went the black priests, the white priests, and the red-cloaked man, preceded by rose life, followed by ashen death. Through the funeral fires they wended, and the lurid sunset shone upon them all.
To the pillars of this quay was fastened a strange, high-pooped ship with crimson sails set upon her masts. The white priests and the black priests formed lines upon either side of the broad gangway of that ship and bowed as the red-cloaked man walked over it between them quite alone, for now she with the dead roses and she of the ashen countenance had fallen back. As the sun sank, standing on the lofty stern, he cried aloud:
"Here the work is done. Now I, the Eating Fire, I the Messenger, get me to the West. Among you for a while I cease to burn; yet remember me, for I shall come again."
As he spoke the ropes of the ship were loosened, the wind caught her crimson sails, and she departed into the night, one blood-red spot against its blackness.
The multitude watched until they could see her no longer. Then they flamed up with mingled joy and rage. They laughed madly. They cursed him who had departed.
"We live, we live, we live!" they cried. "Murgh is gone! Murgh is gone! Kill his priests! Make sacrifice of his Shadows. Murgh is gone bearing the curse of the East into the bosom of the West. Look, it follows him!" and they pointed to a cloud of smoke or vapour, in which terrible shapes seemed to move dimly, that trailed after the departing, red-sailed ship.
The black priests and the white priests heard. Without struggle, without complaint, as though they were but taking part in some set ceremony, they kneeled down in lines upon the snow. Naked from the waist up, executioners with great swords appeared. They advanced upon the kneeling lines without haste, without wrath, and, letting fall the heavy swords upon the patient, outstretched necks, did their grim office till all were dead. Then they turned to find her of the flowers who had danced before, and her of the tattered weeds who had followed after, purposing to cast them to the funeral flames. But these were gone, though none had seen them go. Only out of the gathering darkness from some temple or pagoda-top a voice spoke like a moaning wind.
"Fools," wailed the voice, "still with you is Murgh, the second Thing created; Murgh, who was made to be man's minister. Murgh the Messenger shall reappear from beyond the setting sun. Ye cannot kill, ye cannot spare. Those priests you seemed to slay he had summoned to be his officers afar. Fools! Ye do but serve as serves Murgh, Gateway of the Gods. Life and death are not in your hands or in his. They are in the hands of the Master of Murgh, Helper of man, of that Lord whom no eye hath seen, but whose behests all who are born obey—yes, even the mighty Murgh, Looser of burdens, whom in your foolishness ye fear."
So spoke this voice out of the darkness, and that night the sword of the great pestilence was lifted from the Eastern land, and there the funeral fires flared no more.
On the very day when Murgh the Messenger sailed forth into that uttermost sea, a young man and a maiden met together at the Blythburgh marshes, near to Dunwich, on the eastern coast of England. In this, the month of February of the year 1346, hard and bitter frost held Suffolk in its grip. The muddy stream of Blyth, it is true, was frozen only in places, since the tide, flowing up from the Southwold harbour, where it runs into the sea between that ancient town and the hamlet of Walberswick, had broken up the ice. But all else was set hard and fast, and now toward sunset the cold was bitter.
Stark and naked stood the tall, dry reeds. The blackbirds and starlings perched upon the willows seemed swollen into feathery balls, the fur started on the backs of hares, and a four-horse wain could travel in safety over swamps where at any other time a schoolboy dared not set his foot.
On such an eve, with snow threatening, the great marsh was utterly desolate, and this was why these two had chosen it for their meeting place.
To look on they were a goodly pair—the girl, who was clothed in the red she always wore, tall, dark, well shaped, with large black eyes and a determined face, one who would make a very stately woman; the man broad shouldered, with grey eyes that were quick and almost fierce, long limbed, hard, agile, and healthy, one who had never known sickness, who looked as though the world were his own to master. He was young, but three-and-twenty that day, and his simple dress, a tunic of thick wool fastened round him with a leathern belt, to which hung a short sword, showed that his degree was modest.
The girl, although she seemed his elder, in fact was only in her twentieth year. Yet from her who had been reared in the hard school of that cruel age childhood had long departed, leaving her a ripened woman before her time.
This pair stood looking at each other.
"Well, Cousin Eve Clavering," said the man, in his clear voice, "why did your message bid me meet you in this cold place?"
"Because I had a word to say to you, Cousin Hugh de Cressi," she answered boldly; "and the marsh being so cold and so lonesome I thought it suited to my purpose. Does Grey Dick watch yonder?"
"Ay, behind those willows, arrow on string, and God help him on whom Dick draws! But what was that word, Eve?"
"One easy to understand," she replied, looking him in the eyes—"Farewell!"
He shivered as though with the cold, and his face changed.
"An ill birthday greeting, yet I feared it," he muttered huskily, "but why more now than at any other time?"
"Would you know, Hugh? Well, the story is short, so I'll let it out. Our great-grandmother, the heiress of the de Cheneys, married twice, did she not, and from the first husband came the de Cressis, and from the second the Claverings. But in this way or in that we Claverings got the lands, or most of them, and you de Cressis, the nobler stock, took to merchandise. Now since those days you have grown rich with your fishing fleets, your wool mart, and your ferry dues at Walberswick and Southwold. We, too, are rich in manors and land, counting our acres by the thousand, but yet poor, lacking your gold, though yonder manor"—and she pointed to some towers which rose far away above the trees upon the high land—"has many mouths to feed. Also the sea has robbed us at Dunwich, where I was born, taking our great house and sundry streets that paid us rent, and your market of Southwold has starved out ours at Blythburgh."
"Well, what has all this to do with you and me, Eve?"
"Much, Hugh, as you should know who have been bred to trade," and she glanced at his merchant's dress. "Between de Cressi and Clavering there has been rivalry and feud for three long generations. When we were children it abated for a while, since your father lent money to mine, and that is why they suffered us to grow up side by side. But then they quarrelled about the ferry that we had set in pawn, and your father asked his gold back again, and, not getting it, took the ferry, which I have always held a foolish and strife-breeding deed, since from that day forward the war was open. Therefore, Hugh, if we meet at all it must be in these frozen reeds or behind the cover of a thicket, like a village slut and her man."
"I know that well enough, Eve, who have spoken with you but twice in nine months." And he devoured her beautiful face with hungry eyes. "But of that word, 'Farewell'——"
"Of that ill word, this, Hugh: I have a new suitor up yonder, a fine French suitor, a very great lord indeed, whose wealth, I am told, none can number. From his mother he has the Valley of the Waveney up to Bungay town—ay, and beyond—and from his father, a whole county in Normandy. Five French knights ride behind his banner, and with them ten squires and I know not how many men-at-arms. There is feasting yonder at the manor, I can tell you. Ere his train leaves us our winter provender will be done, and we'll have to drink small beer till the wine ships come from France in spring."
"And what is this lord's name?"
"God's truth, he has several," she answered. "Sir Edmund Acour in England, and in France the high and puissant Count of Noyon, and in Italy, near to the city of Venice—for there, too, he has possessions which came to him through his grandmother—the Seigneur of Cattrina."
"And having so much, does he want you, too, as I have heard, Eve? And if so, why?"
"So he swears," she answered slowly; "and as for the reason, why, I suppose you must seek it in my face, which by ill-fortune has pleased his lordship since first he saw it a month ago. At the least he has asked me in marriage of my father, who jumped at him like a winter pike, and so I'm betrothed."
"And do you want him, Eve?"
"Ay, I want him as far as the sun is from the moon or the world from either. I want him in heaven or beneath the earth, or anywhere away from me."
At these words a light shone in Hugh's keen grey eyes.
"I'm glad of that, Eve, for I've been told much of this fine fellow—amongst other things that he is a traitor come here to spy on England. But should I be a match for him, man to man, Eve?" he asked after a little pause.
She looked him up and down; then answered:
"I think so, though he is no weakling; but not for him and the five knights and the ten squires, and my noble father, and my brother, and the rest. Oh, Hugh, Hugh!" she added bitterly, "cannot you understand that you are but a merchant's lad, though your blood be as noble as any in this realm—a merchant's lad, the last of five brothers? Why were you not born the first of them if you wished for Eve Clavering, for then your red gold might have bought me."
"Ask that of those who begot me," said Hugh. "Come now, what's in your mind? You're not one to be sold like a heifer at a faring and go whimpering to the altar, and I am not one to see you led there while I stand upon my feet. We are made of a clay too stiff for a French lord's fingers, Eve, though it is true that they may drag you whither you would not walk."
"No," she answered, "I think I shall take some marrying against my wish. Moreover, I am Dunwich born."
"What of that, Eve?"
"Go ask your godsire and my friend, Sir Andrew Arnold, the old priest. In the library of the Temple there he showed me an ancient roll, a copy of the charter granted by John and other kings of England to the citizens of Dunwich."
"What said this writing, Eve?"
"It said, among other things, that no man or maid of Dunwich can be forced to marry against their will, even in the lifetime of their parents."
"But will it hold to-day?"
"Ay, I think so. I think that is why the holy Sir Andrew showed it to me, knowing something of our case, for he is my confessor when I can get to him."
"Then, sweet, you are safe!" exclaimed Hugh, with a sigh of relief.
"Ay, so safe that to-morrow Father Nicholas, the French chaplain in his train, has been warned to wed me to my lord Acour—that is, if I'm there to wed."
"And if this Acour is here, I'll seek him out to-night and challenge him, Eve," and Hugh laid hand upon his sword.
"Doubtless," she replied sarcastically, "Sir Edmund Acour, Count of Noyon, Seigneur of Cattrina, will find it honour to accept the challenge of Hugh de Cressi, the merchant's youngest son. Oh, Hugh, Hugh! are your wits frozen like this winter marsh? Not thus can you save me."
The young man thought a while, staring at the ground and biting his lips. Then he looked up suddenly and said:
"How much do you love me, Eve?"
With a slow smile, she opened her arms, and next moment they were kissing each other as heartily as ever man and maid have kissed since the world began, so heartily, indeed, that when at length she pushed him from her, her lovely face was as red as the cloak she wore.
"You know well that I love you, to my sorrow and undoing," she said, in a broken voice. "From childhood it has been so between us, and till the grave takes one or both it will be so, and for my part beyond it, if the priests speak true. For, whatever may be your case, I am not one to change my fancy. When I give, I give all, though it be of little worth. In truth, Hugh, if I could I would marry you to-night, though you are naught but a merchant's son, or even——" And she paused, wiping her eyes with the back of her slim, strong hand.
"I thank you," he answered, trembling with joy. "So it is with me. For you and no other woman I live and die; and though I am so humble I'll be worthy of you yet. If God keeps me in breath you shall not blush for your man, Eve. Well, I am not great at words, so let us come to deeds. Will you away with me now? I think that Father Arnold would find you lodging for the night and an altar to be wed at, and to-morrow our ship sails for Flanders and for France."
"Yes, but would your father give us passage in it, Hugh?"
"Why not? It could not deepen the feud between our Houses, which already has no bottom, and if he refused, we would take one, for the captain is my friend. And I have some little store set by; it came to me from my mother."
"You ask much," she said; "all a woman has, my life, perchance, as well. Yet there it is; I'll go because I'm a fool, Hugh; and, as it chances, you are more to me than aught, and I hate this fine French lord. I tell you I sicken at his glance and shiver when he touches me. Why, if he came too near I should murder him and be hanged. I'll go, though God alone knows the end of it."
"Our purpose being honest, the end will be good, Eve, though perhaps before all is done we may often think it evil. And now let's away, though I wish that you were dressed in another colour."
"Red Eve they name me, and red is my badge, because it suits my dark face best. Cavil not at my robe, Hugh, for it is the only dowry you will get with Eve Clavering. How shall we go? By the Walberswick ferry? You have no horses."
"Nay, but I have a skiff hidden in the reeds five miles furlongs off. We must keep to the heath above Walberswick, for there they might know your red cloak even after dark, and I would not have you seen till we are safe with Sir Arnold in the Preceptory. Mother of Heaven! what is that?"
"A peewit, no more," she answered indifferently.
"Nay, it is my man Dick, calling like a peewit. That is his sign when trouble is afoot. Ah, here he comes."
As he spoke a tall, gaunt man appeared, advancing towards them. His gait was a shambling trot that seemed slow, although, in truth, he was covering the ground with extraordinary swiftness. Moreover, he moved so silently that even on the frost-held soil his step could not be heard, and so carefully that not a reed stirred as he threaded in and out among their clumps like an otter, his head crouched down and his long bow pointed before him as though it were a spear. Half a minute more, and he was before them—a very strange man to see. His years were not so many, thirty perhaps, and yet his face looked quite old because of its lack of colouring, its thinness, and the hard lines that marked where the muscles ran down to the tight, straight mouth and up to the big forehead, over which hung hair so light that at a little distance he seemed ashen-grey. Only in this cold, rocky face, set very far apart, were two pale-blue eyes, which just now, when he chose to lift their lids that generally kept near together, as though he were half asleep, were full of fire and quick cunning.
Reaching the pair, this strange fellow dropped to his knee and raised his cap to Eve, the great lady of the Claverings—Red Eve, as they called her through that country-side. Then he spoke, in a low, husky voice:
"They're coming, master! You and your mistress must to earth unless you mean to face them in the open," and the pale eyes glittered as he tapped his great black bow.
"Who are coming, Dick? Be plain, man!"
"Sir John Clavering, my lady's father; young John, my lady's brother; the fine French lord who wears a white swan for a crest; three of the nights, his companions; and six—no seven—men-at-arms. Also from the other side of the grieve, Thomas of Kessland, and with him his marsh men and verderers."
"And what are they coming for?" he asked again. "Have they hounds, and hawk on wrist?"
"Nay, but they have swords and knife on thigh," and he let his pale eyes fall on Eve.
"Oh, have done!" she broke in. "They come to take me, and I'll not be taken! They come to kill you, and I'll not see you slain and live. I had words with my father this morning about the Frenchman and, I fear, let out the truth. He told me then that ere the Dunwich roses bloomed again she who loved you would have naught but bones to kiss. Dick, you know the fen; where can we hide till nightfall?"
"Follow me," said the man, "and keep low!"
Plunging into the dense brake of reeds, through which he glided like a polecat, Dick led them over ground whereon, save in times of hard frost, no man could tread, heading toward the river bank. For two hundred paces or more they went thus, till, quite near to the lip of the stream, they came to a patch of reeds higher and thicker than the rest, in the centre of which was a little mound hid in a tangle of scrub and rushes. Once, perhaps a hundred or a thousand years before, some old marsh dweller had lived upon this mound, or been buried in it. At any rate, on its southern side, hidden by reeds and a withered willow, was a cavity of which the mouth could not be seen that might have been a chamber for the living or the dead.
Thrusting aside the growths that masked it, Dick bade them enter and lie still.
"None will find us here," he said as he lifted up the reeds behind them, "unless they chance to have hounds, which I did not see. Hist! be still; they come!"
THE FIGHT BY THE RIVER
For a while Hugh and Eve heard nothing, but Grey Dick's ears were sharper than theirs, quick as these might be. About half a minute later, however, they caught the sound of horses' hoofs ringing on the hard earth, followed by that of voices and the crackle of breaking reeds.
Two of the speakers appeared and pulled up their horses near by in a dry hollow that lay between them and the river bank. Peeping between the reeds that grew about the mouth of the earth-dwelling, Eve saw them.
"My father and the Frenchman," she whispered. "Look!" And she slid back a little so that Hugh might see.
Peering through the stems of the undergrowth, set as it were in a little frame against the red and ominous sky, the eyes of Hugh de Cressi fell upon Sir Edmund Acour, a gallant, even a splendid-looking knight—that was his first impression of him. Broad shouldered, graceful, in age neither young nor old, clean featured, quick eyed, with a mobile mouth and a little, square-cut beard, soft and languid voiced, black haired, richly dressed in a fur robe, and mounted on a fine black horse, such was the man.
Staring at Acour, and remembering that he, too, loved Red Eve, Hugh grew suddenly ashamed. How could a mere merchant compare himself with this magnificent lord, this high-bred, many-titled favourite of courts and of fortune? How could he rival him, he who had never yet travelled a hundred miles from the place where he was born, save once, when he sailed on a trading voyage to Calais? As well might a hooded crow try to match a peregrine that swooped to snatch away the dove from beneath its claws. Yes, he, Hugh, was the grey crow, Eve was the dove whom he had captured, and yonder shifty-eyed Count was the fleet, fierce peregrine who soon would tear out his heart and bear the quarry far away. Hugh shivered a little as the thought struck him, not with fear for himself, but at the dread of that great and close bereavement.
The girl at his side felt the shiver, and her mind, quickened by love and peril, guessed its purport. She said nothing, for words were dangerous; only turning her beautiful face she pressed her lips upon her lover's hand. It was her message to him; thereby, as he knew well, humble as he might be, she acknowledged him her lord forever. I am with you, said that kiss. Have no fear; in life or in death none shall divide us. He looked at her with grateful eyes, and would have spoken had she not placed her hand upon his mouth and pointed.
Acour was speaking in English, which he used with a strong French accent.
"Well, we do not find your beautiful runaway, Sir John," he said, in a clear and cultivated voice; "and although I am not vain, for my part I cannot believe that she has come to such a place as this to meet a merchant's clerk, she who should company with kings."
"Yet I fear it is so, Sir Edmund," answered Sir John Clavering, a stout, dark man of middle age. "This girl of mine is very heady, as I give warning you will find out when she is your wife. For years she has set her fancy upon Hugh de Cressi; yes, since they were boy and girl together, as I think, and while he lives I doubt she'll never change it."
"While he lives—then why should he continue to live, Sir John?" asked the Count indifferently. "Surely the world will not miss a chapman's son!"
"The de Cressis are my kin, although I hate them, Sir Edmund. Also they are rich and powerful, and have many friends in high places. If this young man died by my command it would start a blood feud of which none can tell the end, for, after all, he is nobly born."
"Then, Sir John, he shall die by mine. No, not at my own hands, since I do not fight with traders. But I have those about me who are pretty swordsmen and know how to pick a quarrel. Before a week is out there will be a funeral in Dunwich."
"I know nothing of your men, and do not want to hear of their quarrels, past or future," said Sir John testily.
"Of course not," answered the Count. "I pray you, forget my words. Name of God! what an accursed and ill-omened spot is this. I feel as though I were standing by my own grave—it came upon me suddenly." And he shivered and turned pale.
Dick lifted his bow, but Hugh knocked the arrow aside ere he could loose it.
"To those who talk of death, death often draws near," replied Clavering, crossing himself, "though I find the place well enough, seeing the hour and season."
"Do you—do you, Sir John? Look at that sky; look at the river beneath which has turned to blood. Hark to the howl of the wind in the reeds and the cry of the birds we cannot see. Ay, and look at our shadows on the snow. Mine lies flat by a great hole, and yours rising against yonder bank is that of a hooded man with hollow eyes—Death himself as I should limn him! There, it is gone! What a fool am I, or how strong is that wine of yours! Shall we be going also?"
"Nay, here comes my son with tidings. Well, Jack, have you found your sister?" he added, addressing a dark and somewhat saturnine young man who now rode up to them from over the crest of the hollow.
"No, sir, though we have beat the marsh through and through, so that scarce an otter could have escaped us. And yet she's here, for Thomas of Kessland caught sight of her red cloak among the reeds, and what's more, Hugh de Cressi is with her, and Grey Dick too, for both were seen."
"I am glad there's a third," said Sir John drily, "though God save me from his arrows! This Grey Dick," he added to the Count, "is a wild, homeless half-wit whom they call Hugh de Cressi's shadow, but the finest archer in Suffolk, with Norfolk thrown in; one who can put a shaft through every button on your doublet at fifty paces—ay, and bring down wild geese on the wing twice out of four times, for I have seen him do it with that black bow of his."
"Indeed? Then I should like to see him shoot—at somebody else," answered Acour, for in those days such skill was of interest to all soldiers. "Kill Hugh de Cressi if you will, friend, but spare Grey Dick; he might be useful."
"Ay, Sir Edmund," broke in the young man furiously, "I'll kill him if I can catch him, the dog who dares to bring scandal on my sister's name. Let the Saints but give me five minutes face to face with him alone, with none to help either of us, and I'll beat him to a pulp, and hang what's left of him upon the nearest tree to be a warning to all such puppies."
"I note the challenge," said Sir Edmund, "and should the chance come my way will keep the lists for you with pleasure, since whatever this Hugh may be I doubt that from his blood he'll prove no coward. But, young sir, you must catch your puppy ere you hang him, and if he is in this marsh he must have gone to ground."
"I think so, too, Sir Edmund; but, if so, we'll soon start the badger. Look yonder." And he pointed to smoke rising at several spots half a mile or more away.
"What have you done, son?" asked Sir John anxiously.
"Fired the reeds," he said with a savage laugh, "and set men to watch that the game does not break back. Oh, have no fear, father! Red Eve will take no harm. The girl ever loved fire. Moreover, if she is there she will run to the water before it, and be caught."
"Fool," thundered Sir John, "do you know your sister so little? As like as not she'll stay and burn, and then I'll lose my girl, who, when all is said, is worth ten of you! Well, what is done cannot be undone, but if death comes of this mad trick it is on your head, not mine! To the bank, and watch with me, Sir Edmund, for we can do no more."
Ten minutes later, and the fugitives in the mound, peeping out from their hole, saw clouds of smoke floating above them.
"You should have let me shoot, Master Hugh," said Grey Dick, in his hard, dry whisper. "I'd have had these three, at least, and they'd have been good company on the road to hell, which now we must walk alone."
"Nay," answered Hugh sternly, "I'll murder none, though they strive to murder us, and these least of all," and he glanced at Eve, who sat staring out of the mouth of the hole, her chin resting on her hand. "You had best give in, sweetheart," he said hoarsely. "Fire is worse than foes, and it draws near."
"I fear it less," she answered. "Moreover, marriage is worse than either—sometimes."
Hugh took counsel with Grey Dick.
"This place will burn like tinder," he said, pointing to the dry reeds which grew thickly all about them, and to the masses of brushwood and other rubbish that had drifted against the side of the little mound in times of flood. "If the fire reaches us we must perish of flame, or smoke, or both."
"Ay," answered Dick, "like old witch Sarah when they burned her in her house. She screeched a lot, though some say it was her cat that screeched and she died mum."
"If we could get into the water now, Dick?"
He shook his ash-hued head.
"The pools are frozen. Moreover, as well die of heat as cold; I love not ice-water."
"What counsel, then, Dick?"
"You'll not take the best, master—to loose my bow upon them. That fine fellow did well to be afraid, for had you not knocked up my hand there'd be an arrow sticking in his throat by now. He was right, Death walked near to him."
"It must not be, Dick, unless they strike first. What else?"
"Perchance, when the smoke begins to trouble them, which it must soon, they'll move. Then we will run for the river; 'tis but fifty yards. The Lady Eve can swim like a duck, and so can you. The tide has turned, and will bear you to the point, and I'll hold the bank against any who try to follow, and take my chance. What say you of that plan, lady?"
"That it is good as another, or as bad," she answered indifferently. "Let's bide where we are and do what we must when we must. Nay, waste no more breath, Hugh. I'll not yield and go home like a naughty child to be married. It was you who snatched away Grey Dick's shaft, not I; and now I'll save myself."
"Red Eve!—that's Red Eve!" muttered the henchman, with a dry chuckle of admiration. "The dead trouble neither man nor woman. Ah, she knows, she knows!"
After this there was silence for a while, save for the roar of the fire that ever drew more near.
Eve held her cloak pressed against her mouth to filter the smoke, which grew thick.
"It is time to move," said Hugh, coughing as he spoke. "By Heaven's grace, we are too late! Look!"
As he spoke, suddenly in the broad belt of reeds which lay between them and the river bank fire appeared in several places, caused doubtless by the flaming flakes which the strong wind had carried from behind the mound. Moreover, these new fires, burning up briskly and joining themselves together, began to advance toward the three in the hole.
"The wind has turned," said Dick. "Now it is fire, or water if you can get there. How do you choose to die?" and as he spoke he unstrung his bow and slipped it into its leathern case.
"Neither one way nor the other," answered Eve. "Some may die to-night, but we shall not."
Hugh leapt up and took command.
"Cover your faces to the eyes, and run for it," he said. "I'll go first, then you, Eve, and Dick behind. Make for the point and leap—the water is deep there."
They sprang to their feet and forward into the reeds. When they were almost at the edge of the fire a shout told them that they had been seen. Eve, the swift of foot, outpaced Hugh, and was the first to leap into that circle of tall flames. She was through it! They were all through it, scorched but unharmed. Thirty paces away was the little point of land where nothing grew, for the spring tides washed it, that jutted out into the waters of the Blythe, and, perhaps a hundred to their right, the Claverings poured down on them, foot and horse together.
Hugh caught his foot in a willow root and fell. Eve and Grey Dick sped onward unknowing. They reached the point above the water, turned, and saw. Dick slipped his bow from its case, strung it, and set an arrow on the string. Hugh had gained his feet, but a man who had come up sprang, and cast his arms about him. Hugh threw him to the ground, for he was very strong, and shook himself free. Then he drew the short and heavy sword that he wore, and, shouting out, "Make way!" to those who stood between him and the little promontory, started to run again.
These opened to the right and left to let him pass, for they feared the look in his eyes and the steel in his hand. Only young John Clavering, who had leapt from his horse, would not budge. As Hugh tried to push past him, he struck him in the face, calling out:
"We have caught the de Cressi thief! Take him and hang him!"
At the insult of the blow and words, Hugh stopped dead and turned quite white, whereupon the men, thinking that he was afraid, closed in upon him. Then in the silence the harsh, croaking voice of Grey Dick was heard saying:
"Sir John of Clavering, bid your people let my master go, or I will send an arrow through your heart!" and he lifted the long bow and drew it.
Sir John muttered something, thinking that this was a poor way to die, and again the men fell back, except one French knight, who, perhaps, did not catch or understand his words.
This man stretched out his hand to seize Hugh, but before ever it fell upon his shoulder the bow twanged and Acour's retainer was seen whirling round and round, cursing with pain. In the palm of his hand was an arrow that had sunk through it to the feathers.
"You are right; that knave shoots well," said the Count to Sir John, who made no answer.
Now again all fell back, so that Hugh might have run for it if he would. But his blood was up, and he did not stir.
"John Clavering," he said, addressing the young man, "just now, when I lay hid in yonder hole, I heard you say that if you had five minutes with me alone you'd beat me to a pulp and hang what was left of me on the nearest tree. Well, here I stand, and there's a tree. Having first tried to burn me and your sister, you have struck me in the face. Will you make good your words, or shall I strike you in the face and go my way? Nay, keep your dogs off me! Grey Dick yonder has more arrows."
Now a tumult rose, some saying one thing and some another, but all keeping an eye upon Grey Dick and his bent bow. At last Sir Edmund Acour rode forward, and in his polished, stately way said to John:
"Young sir, this merchant is in the right, and whatever his trade may be, his blood is as good as your own. After your brave words, either you should fight him or take back the blow you gave."
Then he leaned down and whispered into John's ear:
"Your sword is longer than his. Make an end of him and of all his trouble, lest men should laugh at you as an empty boaster."
Now John, who was brave and needed but little urging, turned to his father and said:
"Have I your leave to whip this fellow, sir?"
"You should have asked that before you struck him in the face," replied the knight. "You are a man grown. Do as best pleases you. Only if you take the blow, begone from Blythburgh."
Then Eve, who all this time had been listening, called out from where she stood above the river.
"Brother John, if you fight your cousin Hugh, who is my affianced husband, and fall, on your own head be it, for know, your blood shall not stand between him and me, since it was you who struck him, and not he you. Be warned, John, and let him go, lest he should send you farther than you wish to travel. And to you, Hugh, I say, though it is much to ask, if he throws down his sword, forget that unknightly blow and come thither."
"You hear," said Hugh shortly to John. "Now, because she is your sister, if it's your will I'll begone in peace."
"Ay," answered John, setting his thin lips, "because you are a coward, woman-thief, and seek to live that you may bring shame upon our House. Well, that will pass when you die presently!"
"John, John, boast not," cried Eve. "Who has shown you where you will sleep to-night?"
"Whether I shall live or die, God knows alone," said Hugh solemnly. "But what I seek to know is, should it chance to be your lot to die, whether your people or this Frenchman will set on me, or raise a blood-feud against me. Tell me now, Sir John Clavering."
"If you kill my son in combat a outrance, he being the challenger," answered the knight, "none shall lift hand against you for that deed if I can hold them back. But know that I have other cause of quarrel against you"—and he pointed to his daughter—"and that if you meddle more with her, who is not for you, certainly you shall die."
"And, young sir," broke in Sir Edmund, "I pray you to understand that this Lady Eve to-morrow becomes my wife with the will of her father and her kin; and that if you try to stand between us, although I may not fight you, seeing what I am and what you are, I'll kill you like a rat when and where I get the chance! Yes," he added, in a savage snarl, "I pledge my knightly honour that I will kill you like a rat, if I must follow you across the world to do so!"
"You will not have need to travel far if I have my will," answered the young man sternly, "since Red Eve is mine, not yours, and, living or dead, mine she will remain. As for your fine knightly honour, Sir Edmund Acour, Count de Noyon, Seigneur of Cattrina, what has a traitor to his King to do with honour, one who is here as a spy of Philip of France, as the poor merchant's lad knows well? Oh, take you hand from your sword, of which you say I am not worthy, and, since you say also that I have so many enemies, let me begin with a squire of my own degree."
Now at these bold words arose a clamour of voices speaking in French and English.
"What say you to this, Sir Edmund?" shouted Sir John Clavering above them all. "You are a great lord and a wealthy, beloved by me also as the affianced of my daughter, but I am a loyal Englishman who have no truck with traitors to my King."
"What say I?" asked Sir Edmund calmly. "I say that if this fellow can fight as well as he can lie, your son has but a poor chance with him. As you know well, I came hither from France to visit my estates, not to learn what strength his Grace of England, my liege lord, gathers for the new war with Philip."
"Enough," said Sir John; "though this is the first I have heard of such a war, for it would seem that you know more of King Edward's mind than I do. The light begins to fail, there is no time for talk. Stand clear, all men, and let these two settle it."
"Ay," croaked Grey Dick, "stand clear, all men, while my master cuts the throat of his cousin Clavering, since he who stands not clear shall presently lie straight!" and he tapped his terrible bow with his right hand, then instantly seized the string again.
The two were face to face. Round them on horse and on foot, at a distance perhaps of twenty paces, were gathered the Clavering men and the French Count's troop; for now all had come up from the far parts of the marsh. Only toward the river side the ring was open, whether because those who made it feared Grey Dick's arrows, or in order that he and Red Eve might see everything that chanced.
The pair were well matched, for though Hugh was the taller, John, his senior by a year, was thicker set and better trained in arms. But the sword of John was longer by a hand's breadth than that Hugh carried as a merchant, which was heavy, of such a make as the ancient Romans used, and sharpened on either edge. Neither of them wore armour, since Hugh had no right to do so, and John had not come out to fight.
They stood still for a moment in the midst of a breathless silence, the red light of the stormy sunset striking across them both. Everything was red, the smoke-clouds rising from the sullen, burning marsh, into which the fire was still eating far away; the waters of the Blythe brimful with the tide that had just turned toward the sea, the snow and ice itself. Even the triangle of wild swans brought by the hard weather from the northern lands looked red as they pursued their heavy and majestic flight toward the south, heedless of man and his affairs beneath.
Not long did these remain heedless, however, since, either to show his skill or for some other purpose of his own, Grey Dick lifted his bow and loosed an arrow, almost, it seemed, at hazard. Yet that arrow pierced the leader of the flock, so that down it came in wide circles, and in a last struggle hovered for a moment over the group of men, then fell among them with a thud, the blood from its pierced breast bespattering Sir Edmund Acour and John Clavering's black hair.
"An ill omen for those two, and especially for him who wears a white swan for a crest," said a voice. But at the moment none took much notice, except Grey Dick, who chuckled at the success of his shot, since all were intent on greater matters—namely, which of those two young men should die.
Sir John, the father, rode forward and addressed them.
"To the death without mercy to the fallen," he said grimly.
They bent their heads in answer.
"Now!" he cried, and reined back his horse.
"The first home thrust wins," whispered Acour to him, as he wiped the blood of the swan off his sleeve. "Thank God, your son's sword is the longer!"
Perhaps the pair heard this whisper, or, perhaps, being without mail, they knew that it was so. At least for a while they circled round and round each other, but out of reach.
Then at length John Clavering rushed in and thrust. Hugh sprang back before his point. Again he rushed and thrust and again Hugh sprang back. A third time and Hugh fairly ran, whereon a shout went up from the Claverings.
"The chapman's afraid!" cried one. "Give him a yard measure," shouted another; "he cannot handle steel!"
Eve turned her face, and her very eyes were sick with doubt.
"Is it true?" she gasped.
"Ay," answered Dick the Archer, "it's true that he draws him to the river bank! Those who wait will learn why. Oh, the swan! He sees not the swan!"
As he spoke, Hugh, in his retreat before another of John Clavering's rushes, struck his foot against the great dead bird, and staggered. John leapt upon him, and he went down.
"Is he pierced?" muttered Eve.
"Nay, missed," answered Dick, "by half an inch. Ah, I thought so!"
As the words left his lips Clavering fell sprawling on his back, for Hugh had caught his leg with his left arm and thrown him, so that they lay both together on the ground.
There they closed, rolling over each other, but too close to stab.
"Now good-night, John," said Dick, with his hoarse chuckle. "Throat him, master—throat him!"
The flurry in the snow was at an end. John lay on his back, de Cressi knelt on him and lifted his short sword.
"Do you yield?" men heard him say.
"Nay," answered Clavering. Then suddenly Hugh rose and suffered his adversary to do likewise.
"I'll not stick you like a hog!" he said, and some cried, "Well done!" for the act seemed noble. Only Acour muttered, "Fool!"
Next instant they were at it again, but this time it was Hugh who attacked and John who gave back right to the river's edge, for skill and courage seemed to fail him at once.
"Turn your head, lady," said Dick, "for now one must die." But Eve could not.
The swords flashed for the last time in the red light, then that of de Cressi vanished. Clavering threw his arms wide, and fell backward. A splash as of a great stone thrown into water, and all was done.
Hugh stood a moment on the river's bank, staring at the stream beneath; then he turned and began to walk slowly toward the dead swan.
Ere ever he reached it Sir John Clavering fell from his horse in a swoon, and a shout of rage went up from all his people.
"Kill him!" they yelled, and leapt forward.
Now Hugh understood, and ran for the point of land. One man, a Frenchman, got in front of him. He cut him down, and sped on.
"What now?" said Eve, as he joined them.
He did not answer, only pointed first to the Clavering folk and next to the water, showing that she must choose between the two.
"Swim for it!" growled Grey Dick. "I'll hold them back a while and then join you," and as he spoke his bow twanged.
For an instant Eve paused, then threw off her scarlet cloak.
"Remember, I slew your brother!" said Hugh hoarsely.
"I remember that he would have slain you," she answered; and leapt straight from the point into the icy flood, beneath which her head sank.
When it rose again there was another head beside it, that of dead John, who appeared for one moment, to be seen no more for ever, since ere morning the ocean had him.
Now Hugh leapt after her, and presently the pair of them were swimming side by side to the river's further shore. Then, as now, it was but a narrow stream. Yet they did not reach it easily, for, cumbered as they were with clothes, and numbed by the ice-cold water, the fierce tide caught them and carried them beyond the bend. There they were lost in the gathering darkness, so that most of those who watched believed that they had sunk and drowned. But it was not so, for after a long struggle they came safe to shore near to a clump of willows, and clambered over the frozen mud to the heath beyond.
"First fire, then water," said Hugh, in a mazed voice.
"You have missed out love and death," answered the girl—"a full feast for a day that is not done. But whither now?"
"To take sanctuary at the Preceptory and raise my kin. Forward, Eve, ere you freeze."
"I think there is that in me which will not freeze," she answered; and broke into a run.
Now night closed in, and the snow which had been threatening all day began to fall, making their path over the heath difficult.
"We need Grey Dick to guide us; but alack, I fear he is dead!" muttered Hugh.
"I think others will be dead, not Dick," she answered.
Just then they heard a footstep behind them.
Hugh wheeled round and drew his sword, but almost before it had left the scabbard a long figure glided out of the snow, and said:
"More to the left, master, more to the left, unless you would make your peace on Blythburgh bridge, where some would be glad to meet you."
"How went it?" asked Hugh shortly.
"Not well. I shot thrice and slew three men, two of the French knights, and Thomas of Kessland, against whom I had a score that now is settled. But the fourth time I missed."
"Who?" asked Eve between her teeth as she ran beside him.
"The Frenchman who means to marry you. When the others fell back he came at me on his horse as I was setting a fresh arrow, thinking to get me. I had to shoot quick, and aimed low for his heart, because in that light I could not make certain of his face. He saw, and jerked up the horses head, so that the shaft took it in the throat and killed the beast without hurting its rider. He was off in an instant and at me, with others, before I could draw again. So I thought it time to go, which I did, backward, as he thrust. Perhaps he thinks he killed me, as I meant he should, only when he looks at his sword he'll find it clean. That's all."
And again Grey Dick chuckled.
None were abroad in the streets of Dunwich on that bitter winter night when these three trudged wearily down Middlegate Street through the driving snow to the door of the grey Preceptory of the Knights Templar. In a window above the porch a light burned dimly, the only one to be seen in any of the houses round about, for by now all men were abed.
"'Tis Father Arnold's room," said Eve. "He sits there at his books. I'll knock and call him, but do you two go lay hold of the ring of the church door," and she nodded toward a grey pile that stood near by. "Then none can touch you, and how know we who may be in this house?"
"I'll go no step further," answered Hugh sullenly. "All this Temple ground is sanctuary, or at least we will risk it." And, seizing the knocker, he hammered at the door.
The light in the window vanished, and presently they heard a sound of creaking bolts. Then the door opened, revealing a tall man, white-bearded, ancient, and clad in a frayed, furred robe worn over a priest's cassock, who held a lantern in his hand.
"Who knocks?" he asked. "Does some soul pass that you disturb me after curfew?"
"Ay, Father Andrew," answered Hugh, "souls have passed, and souls are near to passing. Let us in, and we will tell you all."
Without waiting for an answer he entered with the others, pushed to the massive door and bolted it again.
"What's this? A woman?" said the old priest. "Eve of Clavering, by the Saints!"
"Yes," she answered calmly, though her teeth chattered; "Eve of Clavering, Eve the Red, this time with the blood of men, soaked with the waters of the Blythe, frozen with the snows of Dunwich Heath, where she has lain hid for hours with a furze bush for shelter. Eve who seeks shriving, a dry rag for her back, a morsel for her lips, and fire to warm her, which in the Name of Christ and of charity she prays you will not refuse to her."
So she spoke, and laughed recklessly.
Almost before she had finished her wild words the old man, who looked what he was, a knight arrayed in priestly robes, had run to a door at the end of the hall and was calling through it, "Mother Agnes! Mother Agnes!"
"Be not so hasty, Sir Andrew," answered a shrill voice. "A posset must have time to boil. It is meet now that you wear a tonsure that you who are no longer a centurion should forget these 'Come, and he cometh,' ways. When the water's hot——"
The rest of that speech was lost, for Father Arnold, muttering some word belonging to his "centurion" days, dived into the kitchen, to reappear presently dragging a little withered old woman after him who was dressed in a robe of conventual make.
"Peace, Mother Agnes, peace!" he said. "Take this lady, dry her, array her in your best gown, give her food, warm her, and bring her back to me. Short? What care I if the robe be short? Obey, or it will not be come, and he cometh, but go and she goeth, and then who will shelter one who talks so much?"
He thrust the pair of them through the kitchen door and, returning, led Hugh and Grey Dick up a broad oak stair to what had been the guest-hall of the Preceptory on its first floor.
It was a very great chamber where, before their Order was dispersed, all the Knights Templar had been wont to dine with those who visited them at times of festival. Tattered banners still hung among the cobwebs of the ancient roof, the shields of past masters with stately blazonings were carved in stone upon the walls. But of all this departed splendour but little could be seen, since the place was lit only by a single lamp of whale's oil and a fire that burned upon the wide stone hearth, a great fire, since Father Arnold, who had spent many years of his life in the East, loved warmth.
"Now, Hugh de Cressi," he said, "what have you done?"
"Slain my cousin, John of Clavering, Father, and perhaps another man."
"In fair fight, very fair fight," croaked Grey Dick.
"Who doubts it? Can a de Cressi be a murderer?" asked the priest. "And you, Richard the Archer, what have you done?"
"Shot a good horse and three bad men dead with arrows—at least they should be dead—and another through the hand, standing one against twenty."
"A gallant—I mean—an evil deed," broke in the old warrior priest, "though once it happened to me in a place called Damascus—but you both are wet, also. Come into my chamber; I can furnish you with garments of a sort. And, Richard, set that black bow of yours near the fire, but not too fire. As you should know well, a damp string is ill to draw with. Nay, fear not to leave it; this is sanctuary, and to make sure I will lock the doors."
Half an hour was gone by, and a very strange company had gathered round the big fire in the guest-chamber of the Temple, eating with appetite of such food as its scanty larder could provide for them. First there was Red Eve in a woollen garment, the Sunday wear of Mother Agnes for twenty years past and more, which reached but little below her knees, and was shaped like a sack. On her feet were no shoes, and for sole adornment her curling black hair fell about her shoulders, for so she had arranged it because the gown would not meet across her bosom. Yet, odd as it might be, in this costume Eve looked wonderfully beautiful, perhaps because it was so scant and the leathern strap about her waist caused it to cling close to her shapely form.
By her stood Hugh, wearing a splendid suit of chain armour. It had been Sir Andrew Arnold's in his warlike years, and now he lent it to his godson Hugh because, as he said, he had nothing else. Also, it may have crossed the minds of both of them that such mail as this which the Saracens had forged, if somewhat out of fashion, could still turn swordcuts.
Then there was Grey Dick, whose garments seemed to consist of a sack with holes in it tied round him with a rope, his quiver of arrows slung over it for ornament. He sat by the fire on a stool, oiling his black bow with a rind of the fat bacon that he had been eating.
All the tale had been told, and Father Arnold looked very grave indeed.
"I have known strange and dreadful stories in my time," he said, "but never, I think, one stranger or more dreadful. What would you do now, godson?"
"Take sanctuary for myself and Grey Dick because of the slaying of John Clavering and others, and afterward be married by you to Eve."
"Be married to the sister with the brother's blood upon your hands without absolution from the Church or pardon from the King; and you but a merchant's younger son and she to-night one of the greatest heiresses in East Anglia! Why, how may that be?"
"I blame him not," broke in Eve. "John, whom I never loved, strove to smoke us out like rats because he was in the pay of the Norman, my Lord of Acour. John struck Hugh in the face with his hand and slandered him with his tongue. John was given his life once, and afterwards slain in fair fight. Oh, I say, I blame him not, nor shall John's blood rise between him and me!"
"Yet the world will blame him, and you, too, Eve; yes, even those who love you both. A while must go by, say a year. At least I'll not marry you at once, and cannot, if I would, with both your fathers living and unadvised, and the sheriff waiting at the gate. Tell me now, do any know that you have entered here?"
"Nay," said Dick, looking up from his bow. "The hunt came after us, but I hid these two in a bush and led it away past Hinton to the Ipswich road, keeping but just ahead in the snow and talking in three voices. Then I gave them the slip and returned. They'll not guess that we have come to Dunwich for a while."
"And when they do even the boldest will not enter this holy sanctuary while the Church has terrors for men's souls. Yet, here you must not stay for long, lest in this way or in that your lives pay the price of it, or a bloody feud break out between the Claverings of Blythburgh and the de Cressis of Dunwich. Daughter Eve, get you to bed with old Agnes. You are so weary that you will not mind her snores. To-morrow ere the dawn I'll talk with you, and, meanwhile, I have words for Hugh. Nay, have no fear, the windows are all barred, and Archer Dick shall watch the door."
Eve went, unwillingly enough, although she could scarcely walk, flashing a good-night to her lover with her fine eyes. Presently Grey Dick also went to sleep, like a dog with one eye open, in the little ante-chamber, near to the great door.
"Now, Hugh," said Father Arnold, when they were left alone, "your case is desperate, for if you stay here certainly these Claverings will have your blood. Yet, if you can be got away safely, there is still a shaft that you may shoot more deadly than any that ever left Grey Dick's quiver. But yesterday I told you for your comfort—when we spoke of his wooing of Red Eve—that this Norman, for such he is, although his mother was English and he was English born, is a traitor to King Edward, whom he pretends to serve."
"Ay, and I said as much to him this afternoon when he prated to me of his knightly honour, and, though I had no time to take note of faces, I thought he liked it little who answered hotly that I was a liar."
"I am sorry, Hugh; it may put him on his guard, or perhaps he'll pay no heed. At least the words are said, and there's an end. Now hearken. I told neither you nor any one all the blackness of his treachery. Have you guessed what this Acour is here to do?"
"Spy out the King's power in these parts, I suppose."
"More than that"—and he dropped his voice to a whisper—"spy out a safe landing-place for fifty thousand Normans upon our Suffolk coast. They are to sail hither this coming summer and set the crown of England upon their Duke John, who will hold it as vassal to his sire, Philip of France."
"God's name! Is that true?"
"Ay, though in such a devil's business that Name is best left out. Look you, lad, I had warning from overseas, where, although I am now nothing but a poor old priest of a broken Order, I still have friends in high places. Therefore I watched and found that messengers were passing between Acour and France. One of these messengers, a priest, came a week ago to Dunwich, and spent the night in a tavern waiting for his ship to sail in the morning. The good wife who keeps that tavern—ask not her name—would go far to serve me. That night this priest slept sound, and while he slept a letter was cut from the lining of his cassock, and another without writing sewn there in place of it, so that he'll never know the difference till he reaches John of Normandy, and then not where he lost it. Stay, you shall see," and he went to the wall and from some secret place behind the hangings produced a writing, which he handed to Hugh, who looked at it, then gave it back to him, saying:
"Read it to me, Father, English I can spell out, but this French puzzles my eyes."
So he read, Hugh listening eagerly to every word:
My Lord Duke:
This by a faithful hand that you know to tell you all goes well with your Grace's business, and with that of your royal father. While pretending to hunt or hawk I have found three places along this seaboard at any one of which the army can land next summer with little resistance to fear, for though the land is rich in cattle and corn, the people are few.
These places of which I have made survey have deep water up to the beach. I will tell you of them more particularly when I return. Meanwhile I linger here for sundry reasons, which you know, hoping to draw those of whom you speak to me to your cause, which, God aiding me, I shall do, since he of England has wronged one of them and slighted the others, so that they are bitter against him, and ready to listen to the promises which I make in your name.
As an excuse for my long stay that has caused doubts in some quarters, I speak of my Suffolk lands which need my care. Also I court the daughter of my host here, the Knight of Clavering, a stubborn Englishman who cannot be won, but a man of great power and repute. This courtship, which began in jest, has ended in earnest, since the girl is very haughty and beautiful, and as she will not be played with I propose, with your good leave, to make her my wife. Her father accepts my suit, and when he and the brother are out of the way, as doubtless may happen after your army comes, she will have great possessions.
I thank your Grace for the promise of the wide English lands of which I spoke to you, and the title that goes with them. These I will do my best to earn, nor will I ask for them till I kneel before you when you are crowned King of England at Westminster, as I doubt not God will bring about before this year is out. I have made a map of the road by which your army should march on London after landing, and of the towns to be sacked upon the way thither. This, however, I keep, since although not one in ten thousand of these English swine can read French, or any other tongue, should it chance to be lost, all can understand a map. Not that there is any fear of loss, for who will meddle with a priest who carries credentials signed by his Holiness himself.
I do homage to your Grace. This written with my hand from Blythburgh, in Suffolk, on the twentieth day of February, 1346.
Edmund of Noyon.
Father Arnold ceased reading, and Hugh gasped out:
"What a fool is this knave-Count!"
"Most men are, my son, in this way or in that, and the few wise profit by their folly. Thus this letter, which he thought so safe, will save England to Edward and his race, you from many dangers, your betrothed from a marriage which she hates—that is, if you can get safe away with it from Dunwich."
"Where to, Father?"
"To King Edward in London, with another that I will write for you ere the dawn."
"But is it safe, Father, to trust so precious a thing to me, who have bitter enemies awaiting me, and may as like as not be crow's meat by to-morrow?"
Father Arnold looked at him with his soft and dreamy eyes, then said:
"I think the crow's not hatched that will pick your bones, Hugh, though at the last there be crows, or worms, for all of us."
"Why not, Father? Doubtless, this morning young John of Clavering thought as much, and now he is in the stake-nets, or food for fishes."
"Would you like to hear, Hugh, and will you keep it to yourself, even from Eve?"
"Ay, that I would and will."
"He'll think me mad!" muttered the old priest to himself, then went on aloud as one who takes a sudden resolution. "Well, I'll tell you, leaving you to make what you will of a story that till now has been heard by no living man."
"Far in the East is the great country that we call Cathay, though in truth it has many other names, and I alone of all who breathe in England have visited that land."
"How did you get there?" asked Hugh, amazed, for though he knew dimly that Father Arnold had travelled much in his youth, he never dreamed that he had reached the mystic territories of Cathay, or indeed that such a place really was except in fable.
"It would take from now till morning to tell, son, nor even then would you understand the road. It is enough to say that I went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where our blessed Saviour died. That was the beginning. Thence I travelled with Arabs to the Red Sea, where wild men made a slave of me, and we were blown across the Indian Ocean to a beauteous island named Ceylon, in which all the folk are black.
"From this place I escaped in a vessel called a junk, that brought me to the town of Singapore. Thence at last, following my star, I came to Cathay after two years of journeyings. There I dwelt in honour for three more years, moving from place to place, since never before had its inhabitants seen a Western man, and they made much of me, always sending me forward to new cities. So at length I reached the greatest of them all, which is called Kambaluc, or Peking, and there was the guest of its Emperor, Timur.
"All the story of my life and adventures yonder I have written down, and any who will may read it after I am dead. But of these I have no time to speak, nor have they anything to do with you. Whilst I dwelt in Kambaluc as the guest of the Emperor Timur, I made study of the religion of this mighty people, who, I was told, worshipped gods in the shape of men. I visited a shrine called the Temple of Heaven, hoping that there I should see such a god who was named Tien, but found in it nothing but splendid emptiness.
"Then I asked if there was no god that I could see with my eyes, whereon the Emperor laughed at me and said there was such a god, but he counselled me not to visit him. I prayed him to suffer me to do so, since I, who worshipped the only true God, feared no other. Whereon, growing angry, he commanded some of his servants to 'take this fool to the house of Murgh and let him see whether his God could protect him against Murgh.' Having said this he bade me farewell, adding that though every man must meet Murgh once, few met him twice, and therefore he did not think that he should see me again.
"Now, in my heart I grew afraid, but none would tell me more of this Murgh or what was likely to happen to me at his hands. Still, I would not show any fear, and, strong in the faith of Christ, I determined to look upon this idol, for such I expected him to be.
"That night the servants of Timur bore me out of the city in a litter, and by the starlight I saw that we travelled toward a hill through great graveyards, where people were burying their dead. At the foot of the hill they set me down upon a road, and told me to walk up it, and that at dawn I should see the House of Murgh, whereof the gates were always open, and could enter there if I wished. I asked if they would wait for my return, whereon they answered, smiling, that if I so desired they would do so till evening, but that it seemed scarcely needful, since they did not suppose that I should return.
"'Do yonder pilgrims to the House of Murgh return?' asked their captain, pointing towards those graveyards which we had passed.
"I made no answer, but walked forward up a broad and easy road, unchallenged of any, till I came to what, even in that dim light, I could see was a great and frowning gateway, whereof the doors appeared to be open. Now, at first I thought I would pass this gateway at once and see what lay beyond. But from this I was held back by some great fear, for which I could find no cause, unless it were bred of what the Emperor and his servants had said to me. So I remembered their words—namely, that I should tarry till dawn to enter the house.
"There, then, I tarried, seated on the ground before the gateway, and feeling as though, yet alive, I had descended among the dead. Indeed, the silence was that of the dead. No voice spoke, no hound barked, no leaf stirred. Only far above me I heard a continual soughing, as though winged souls passed to and fro. Never in my life had I felt so much alone, never so much afraid.
"At length the dawn broke, and oh, glad was I to see its light, for fear lest I should die in darkness! Now I saw that I was on a hilltop where grew great groves of cedar trees, and that set amid them was a black-tiled temple, surrounded by a wall built of black brick.
"It was not a great place, although the gateway, which was surmounted by two black dragons of stone or iron, was very great, so great that a tall ship could have sailed through it and left its arch untouched.
"I kneeled down and prayed to the blessed Saints and the guardian angels to protect me. Then I arose, crossed myself to scare off all evil things by that holy sign, and set forward toward the mighty gateway. Oh, never, never till that hour had I understood how lowly a thing is man! On that broad road, travelling toward the awful, dragon-guarded arch, beyond which lay I knew not what, it seemed to me that I was the only man left in the world, I, whose hour had come to enter the portals of destruction.
"I passed into the cold shadow of the gateway, unchallenged by any watchman, and found myself in a courtyard surrounded by a wall also built of black brick, which had doors in it that seemed to be of dark stone or iron. Whither these doors led I do not know, since the wall cut off the sight of any buildings that may have lain beyond. In the centre of this courtyard was a pool of still, black water, and at the head of the pool a chair of black marble."
Sir Andrew paused, and Hugh said:
"A plain place for a temple, Father, without adornments or images. But perhaps this was the outer court, and the temple stood within."
"Ay, son, the plainest temple that ever I saw, who have seen many in all lands, though what was beyond it I do not know. And yet—terrible, terrible, terrible!—I tell you that those black walls and that black water were more fearsome to look on than any churchyard vault grim with bones, or a torture-pit where victims quiver out their souls midst shrieks and groanings. And yet I could see nothing of which to be afraid, and hear nothing save that soughing of invisible wings whereof I have spoken. An empty chair, a pool of water, some walls and doors, and, above, the quiet sky. What was there to fear in such things as these? Still, so greatly did I fear that I sank to my knees and began to pray once more, this time to the blessed Saviour himself, since I was sure that none else could help me.
"When I looked up again the chair was no longer empty. Hugh, a man sat in it, of whom I thought at first only one thing—that he must be very strong, though not bigger than other men. Strength seemed to flow from him. I should not have wondered if he had placed his hands upon the massive sides of that stone chair and torn it asunder."
"What was he like, Father? Samson or Goliath?"
"I never saw either, son, so cannot say. But what was he like? Oh, I cannot say that either, although still I see him in my heart. My mortal lips will not tell the likeness of that man, perhaps because he seemed to be like all men, and yet different from all. He had an iron brow, beneath which shone deep, cold eyes. He was clean-shaven, or perchance his face grew no hair. His lips were thick and still and his features did not change like those of other men. He looked as though he could not change; as though he had been thus for infinite ages, and yet remained neither young nor old. As for his dress, he wore a cloak of flaming red, such a cloak as your Eve loves to wear, and white sandals on his feet. There was no covering on his shaven head, which gleamed like a skull. His breast was naked, but across it hung one row of black jewels. From the sheen of them I think they must have been pearls, which are sometimes found of that colour in the East. He had no weapon nor staff, and his hands hung down on either side of the chair.
"For a long while I watched him, but if he saw me he took no note. As I watched I perceived that birds were coming to and leaving him in countless numbers, and thought that it must be their wings which made the constant soughing sound that filled all the still and dreadful air."
"What kind of birds were they, Father?"
"I am not sure, but I think doves; at least, their flight was straight and swift like to that of doves. Yet of this I am not sure either, since I saw each of them for but a second. As they reached the man they appeared out of nothingness. They were of two colours, snow-white and coal-black. The white appeared upon his right side, the black upon his left side. Each bird in those never-ceasing streams hovered for an instant by his head, the white over his right shoulder, the black over his left shoulder, as though they whispered a message to his ear, and having whispered were gone upon their errand."
"What was that errand, Father?"
"How can I know, as no one ever told me? Yet I will hazard a guess that it had to do with the mystery of life and death. Souls that were born into the world, and souls departing from the world, perchance, making report to one of God's ministers clothed in flesh. But who can say? At least I watched those magic fowls till my eyes grew dizzy, and a sort of slumber began to creep into my brain.
"How long I stayed thus I do not remember, for I had lost all sense of time. In the end, however, I was awakened by a cold, soft voice, the sound of which seemed to flow through my veins like ice, that addressed me in our own rough English tongue, spoken as you and I learned it at our nurses' knees.
"'To what god were you praying just now, Andrew Arnold?'
"'Oh, sir,' I answered, 'how do you, who dwell in Cathay, where I am a stranger, know my language and my name?'
"He lifted his cold eyes and looked at me, and I felt them pierce into the depths of my soul. 'In the same way that I know your heart,' he said. 'But do not ask questions. Answer them, that I may learn whether you are a true man or a liar.'
"'I was praying to Christ,' I faltered, 'the Saviour of us all.'
"'A great God, Andrew Arnold, and a pure, though His followers are few in the world as yet. But do you think that He can save you from Me, as you were asking Him to do?'
"'He can save my soul,' I replied, plucking up courage, who would not deny the Lord even in a devil's den.
"'Ah! your soul. Well, I have nothing to do with souls, except to count them as they pass through my dominion, and you are quite right to pray to one of the lords of that into which you go. Now, man, what is your business with me, and why do you visit one of whom you are so much afraid?'
"'O Murgh!' I began, then ceased, for I knew not what to answer.
"'So they have told you my name? Now I will tell you one of its meanings. It is "Gate of the Gods." Why did you dare to visit Gate of the Gods? You fear to answer. Listen! You came forth to see some painted idol, or some bedizened priest muttering rites he does not understand to that which is not; and lo! you have found that which is behind all idols and all priests. You sought an incensed and a golden shrine and you have found only the black and iron portals which every man must pass but which few desire to enter until they are called. Well, you are young and strong, come try a fall with Murgh, and when he has thrown you, rise and choose which of those ways you will,' and he swept his hand toward the doors around him. 'Then forget this world and enter into that which you have chosen.'
"Now, because I could not help myself, I rose from my knees and advanced, or was drawn toward that dreadful man. As I came he, too, rose from his chair, stretching out his arms as a wrestler does, and I knew that within the circle of those arms lay my death. Still I, who in my youth was held brave, went on and rushed, striving to clasp him. Next moment, before ever I touched him—oh, well was it for me that I touched him not!—some strength seized me and whirled me round and round as a dead leaf is whirled by the wind, and tossed me up and cast me down and left me prone and nerveless.
"'Rise,' said the cold voice above me, 'for you are unhurt.'
"So I rose, and felt even then that I who thought that every bone in my body must be broken, was stronger than I had ever been before. It was as though the lamp which had burnt low was filled suddenly with a new and purer oil.
"'Man,' said mine adversary, and I thought that in his cold eyes there was something like a smile, 'did you think to touch Murgh and live? Did you think to wrestle with him as in a book of one of your prophets a certain Jacob wrestled with an angel, and conquered—until it was his turn to pass the Gate of the Gods?'
"Now I stared at this dweller in Cathay, who spoke my tongue and knew the tale of Jacob in the ancient Book, then answered:
"'Sir Murgh, or Sir Gate, or whatever your name may be, I thought to do nothing. You drew me to you, you challenged me and, since by the rule of my Order I may refuse no challenge from one who is not a Christian, I came on to do my best. But before ever I laid hand on you I was cast down by a wind. That is all the story, save that it has pleased you to let me live, who evidently could have slain me, for which I thank you.'
"'You are wrong, Sir Andrew,' he answered, 'I did not draw you to me. Men come to Murgh at their appointed hour; Murgh does not come to them. You sought him before your hour, and therefore he refused you. Yet you will meet him again, as all flesh must when its hour comes, and because you are bold and have not cringed before my strength, for your comfort I will show you when and how. Stand by me, but lay no hand on me or my robe, and look into my glass while for a moment, for your sake, I stay the stream of time and show you what lies beneath its foam that blinds the eyes of men.'
"He waved his arms and the black doves and the white doves ceased to appear and disappear, and the eternal soughings of their wings was silent. He pointed to the water at his feet and I saw, not a picture, but a scene so real that I could have sworn it was alive about me. Yes, those who took part in it stood in front of me as though the pool were solid ground that their feet pressed. You were one of them, son, you were one of them," and the old knight paused, supporting himself against the mantel-shelf as though that recollection overcame him.
"What did you see?" whispered Hugh.
"By God's holy name, I saw the Blythburgh Marshes deep in snow that was red, blood-red with the light of sunrise. Oh! I could not be mistook, and there ran the wintry river, there the church tower soared, there were the frowning, tree-clad banks. There was the rough moorland over which the east wind piped, for the dead bracken bent before it, and not twenty paces from me leaped a hare, disturbed suddenly from its form by a hungry fox, whose red head peeped through the reeds. Yes, yes, I saw the brute's white teeth gleam as it licked its disappointed lips, and I felt glad that its prey had beaten it! When you look upon that scene, Hugh, as one day you shall, remember the hare and the head of the hungry fox, and by these judge my truth."
"A fox and a hare!" broke in Hugh. "I'd show you such to-morrow; was there no more?"
"Ay, much. For instance, a hollow in the Marsh, an open grave, and an axe; yes, an axe that had delved it where the bog was soft beneath the snow. Grey Dick held the axe in one hand and his black bow in the other, while Red Eve, your Eve, stood at its edge and stared into it like one in a dream. Then at the head of the grave an old, old man clad in mail beneath his priestly robes, and that man myself, Hugh, grown very ancient, but still myself, and no other.
"And at the foot of the grave you, Hugh de Cressi, you and no other, wayworn and fierce, but also clad in mail, and wearing a knight's crest upon your shield. You with drawn sword in hand, and facing you, also with drawn sword, rage and despair on his dark face, a stately, foreign-looking man, whom mine eyes have never seen, but whom I should know again midst a million, a man who, I think, was doomed to fill the grave.
"Lastly, standing on a little mound near to the bank of the swirling river, where jagged sheets of ice ground against each other like the teeth of the wicked in hell, strangely capped and clad in black, his arms crossed upon his breast and a light smile in his cold eyes, he who was called Murgh in Cathay, he who named himself Gateway of the Gods!
"For a moment I saw, then all was gone, and I found myself—I know not why—walking toward the mighty arch whereon sat the iron dragons. In its shadow I turned and looked back. There at the head of the pool the man was seated in his chair, and to right and to left of him came the black doves and the white doves in countless multitudes, all the thousands of them that had been stayed in their flight pouring down upon him at once—or so I thought. They wheeled about his head, they hid his face from me, and I—I departed into the shadow of the arch, and I saw him and them no more."
The tale was done, and these two stood staring at one another from each side of the glowing hearth, whose red light illumined their faces. At length the heavy silence was broken by Sir Andrew.
"I read your heart, Hugh," he said, "as Murgh read mine, for I think that he gave me not only strength, but something of his wisdom also, whereby I was able to win safe back to England and to this hour to walk unharmed by many a pit. I read your heart, and in its book is written that you think me mad, one who pleases his old age with tales of marvel that others told him, or which his own brain fashioned."
"Not so, Father," answered Hugh uneasily, for in truth some such thoughts were passing through his mind. "Only—only the thing is very strange, and it happened so long ago, before Eve and I were born, before those that begot us were born either, perchance."
"Yes; more than fifty years ago—it may be sixty—I forget. In sixty years the memory plays strange tricks with men, no doubt, so how can I blame you if you believe—what you do believe? And yet, Hugh," he went on after a pause, and speaking with passion, "this was no dream of which I tell you. Why do you suppose that among all those that have grown up about me I have chosen you out to love, you and your Eve? Not because a chance made me your godsire and her my pupil. I say that from your infancy your faces haunted me. Ay, and when you had turned childhood's corner and once I met the pair of you walking hand in hand, then of a sudden I knew that it was you two and no others whom that god or devil had showed to me standing by the open grave upon the banks of Blythe. I knew it of Dick the Archer also, and can I be mistaken of such a man as that who has no fellow in England? But you think I dreamed it all, and perhaps I should not have spoken, though something made me speak. Well, in a day to come you may change your mind, since whatever dangers threaten you will not die yet, Hugh. Tell me now, what is this Frenchman like who would marry Eve? I have never seen him."
Hugh, who was glad to get back to the things of earth, described Acour as best he could.
"Ah!" said Sir Andrew. "Much such a man as stood face to face with you by the grave while Murgh watched; and you are not likely to be friends, are you? But I forgot. You have determined that it was but a dream and now you are wondering how he who is called Gate of the Gods in Cathay could come to Blythburgh. Well, I think that all the world is his garden, given to him by God, but doubtless that's only another face of my dream whereof we'll speak no more—at present. Now for your troubles, which are no dream. Lie you down to sleep on the skin of that striped beast. I killed it in Cathay—in my day of dreams, and now it shall serve for yours, from which may the dead eyes of John Clavering be absent! I go forth to seek your father and to arrange certain matters. With Grey Dick at the door you'll be safe for a while, I think. If not, here's a cupboard where you may hide." And, drawing aside the arras, he showed him a certain secret place large enough to hold a man, then left the room.
Hugh laid himself upon the skin of the beast, which had been a tiger, though he did not know it by that name. So weary was he that not all he had gone through that day or even the old warrior-priest's marvellous tale, in which he and Eve played so wonderful a part, could keep his eyes from closing. Presently he was fast asleep, and so remained until, four hours later, something disturbed him, and he awoke to see Sir Andrew writing at a desk.
"Rise, my son," said the old priest without looking up from his paper. "Early as it is you must be stirring if you would be clear of Dunwich by daybreak and keep a whole skin. I have set a taper in my sleeping-closet yonder, and there you'll find water to wash with and a stool to kneel on for your prayers, neither of which neglect, since you have blood on your hands and great need for Heaven's help."
So Hugh arose, yawning, and stumbled heavily to the chamber, for he was still faint with sleep, which would not leave him till he had plunged his head into a basin of icy water. This done, he knelt and prayed as he had been bidden, with a very earnest heart, and afterward came back to the guest-hall.
Seeing folk gathered there as he entered he laid hand on sword, not his own with which he had killed his cousin, but a long and knightly weapon that Sir Andrew had given him with the armour. Drawing it, he advanced boldly, for he thought that his enemies might have found him out, and that his best safety lay in courage. Thus he appeared in the ring of the lamplight clad in gleaming steel and with raised weapon.
"What, son!" asked a testy voice which he knew for that of his own father, "is it not enough to have killed your cousin? Would you fall on your brothers and me also, that you come at us clad in mail and with bare steel in hand?"
Hearing these words Hugh sheathed the sword, and, advancing toward the speaker, a handsome, portly man, who wore a merchant's robe lined with rich fur, sank to his knee before him.
"Your pardon, my father," he said. "Sir Andrew here will have told you the story; also that I am not to blame for this blood-shedding."
"I think you need to ask it," replied Master de Cressi, "and if you and that lean henchman of yours are not to blame, then say who is?"
Now a tall, slim figure glided up to them. It was Eve, clothed in her own robe again, and beautiful as ever after her short rest.
"Sir, I am to blame," she said in her full, low voice. "My need was sore and I sent a messenger to Hugh bidding him meet me in the Blythburgh Marsh. There we were set on, and there John Clavering, my brother, smote Hugh in the face. Would you, a de Cressi, have had him take the blow and yield me up to the Frenchman?"
"By God and my forefathers, no! least of all from one of your stock—saving your presence," answered the merchant. "In truth, had he done so, dead or living from that day I would have called him no son of mine. Yet, Red Eve, you and he and your love-makings have brought much trouble on me and my House. Look now what it means. A feud to the death between our families of which no man can foresee the end. Moreover, how can you marry, seeing that a brother's blood runs between you?"
"It is on John's head," she answered sadly, "not on Hugh's hand. I warned him, and Hugh spared him once. What more could we do?"
"I know not, Eve; I only know what you have done, you and Hugh and Grey Dick. Four dead and two wounded, that's the bill I must discharge as best I may. Doubtless too soon there will be more to follow, whether they be Claverings or de Cressis. Well, we must take things as God sends them, and leave Him to balance the account.
"But there is no time to lose if Hugh's neck is to escape a halter. Speak you, Father Andrew, who are wise and old, and have this matter in hand. Oh! Hugh, Hugh, you were born a fighter, not a merchant like your brethren," and he pointed to three young men who all this while had stood silently behind him looking upon their youngest brother with grave disapproval. "Yes, the old Norman blood comes out in you, and the Norman mail suits you well," he added with a flash of pride, "and so there's an end—or a beginning. Now, Sir Andrew, speak."
"Master de Cressi," said the old priest, "your son Hugh rides to London on an errand of mine which I think will save his neck from that halter whereof you spoke but now. Are those four mounted men that you promised me ready to companion him?"
"They will be within an hour, Father, but not before, since six good horses cannot be laid hands on in the dead of night, being stabled without the gates. But what is this message of yours, and to whom does Hugh go?"
"To his Grace Edward the King, none less, Geoffrey de Cressi, with that which shall earn pardon for him and Dick the Archer, or so I believe. As for what it is I may not tell you or any man. It has to do with great matters of State that are for the King's ear alone; and I charge you, every one, on your honour and your safety, to make no mention of this mission without these walls. Do you swear, Geoffrey de Cressi, and you, his sons?"
Then one by one they swore to be secret as the grave; and Eve swore also, though of her he had sought no promise. When this was finished Sir Andrew asked if any of his brothers accompanied Hugh, saying that if so they must arm.
"No," answered Master de Cressi, "one of the family is enough to risk as well as four of our best servants. My sons bide here with me, who may need their help, though they are not trained to arms."
"Perhaps it is as well," said Sir Andrew drily, "though were I their age—well, let that be. Now, son Hugh, before you eat do you and Eve come with me into the church."
At these words Hugh flushed red with joy, and opened his lips to speak.
"Nay, nay," broke in Sir Andrew, with a frown; "for a different purpose to that which is in your mind. Man, is this a time for marrying and giving in marriage? And if it were, could I marry you who are stained with new-shed blood? 'Tis that you both may be absolved from the guilt of that blood and learn the penance which God decrees to you through the mouth of me, His unworthy minister, in payment of its shedding. Thus you, son, may go forth upon your great adventure with a clean heart, and you, daughter, may await what shall befall with a quiet mind. Say, are you willing?"
Now they bowed their heads and answered that they were, though Eve whispered to Hugh that she misdoubted her of this talk of penance.
"So do I," he replied, beneath his breath, "but he is a merciful confessor and loves us. From some it might be harder."
They passed down the stairs, followed by Master de Cressi and his sons, into the entrance hall, where Grey Dick stood watching by the door.
"Whither go they?" he asked of Sir Andrew, "for their road is mine."
"To confession at God's altar," answered the old priest. "Do you come also, Richard?"
"Oh!" he replied, "I hoped it had been to breakfast. As for confession I have naught upon my soul save that I shot too low at the Frenchman."
"Bide where you are, O man of blood," said Sir Andrew sternly: "and pray that a better mood be given to you before it is too late."
"Ay, Father," he answered unabashed. "I'll pray, and it is as well that one should wait to watch the door lest you should all presently become men of blood against your will."
Turning to the right, Sir Andrew led them down steps to a passage underground that joined the Temple to the Church of the Holy Virgin and St. John. It was but short, and at the end of it they found a massive door which he unbolted, and, passing this door, entered the great building, whereof the silence and the icy cold struck them like blows. They had but two lanterns between them, one of which Master de Cressi and his elder sons took with them to the nave of the church. Bearing the other, Sir Andrew departed into the vestry, leaving Hugh and Eve seated together in the darkness of the chancel stalls.
Presently his light reappeared in the confessional, where he sat robed, and thither at his summons went first Hugh and then Eve. When their tales were told, those who watched in the nave of the splendid building—which, reared by the Knights Templar, was already following that great Order to decay and ruin—saw the star of light he bore ascend to the high altar. Here he set it down, and, advancing to the rail, addressed the two shadowy figures that knelt before him.
"Son and daughter," he said, "you have made confession with contrite hearts, and the Church has given you absolution for your sins. Yet penance remains, and because those sins, though grievous in themselves, were not altogether of your own making, it shall be light. Hugh de Cressi and Eve Clavering, who are bound together by lawful love between man and woman and the solemn oath of betrothal which you here renew before God, this is the penance that I lay upon you by virtue of the authority in me vested as a priest of Christ: Because between you runs the blood of John Clavering, the cousin of one of you and the brother of the other, slain by you, Hugh de Cressi, in mortal combat but yester eve, I decree and enjoin that for a full year from this day you shall not be bound together as man and wife in the holy bonds of matrimony, nor converse after the fashion of affianced lovers. If you obey this her command, faithfully, then by my mouth the Church declares that after the year has gone by you may lawfully be wed where and when you will. Moreover, she pronounces her solemn blessing on you both and her dreadful curse upon any and upon all who shall dare to sunder you against your desires, and of this blessing and this curse let all the congregation take notice."
Now Hugh and Eve rose and vanished into the darkness. When they had gone the priest celebrated a short mass, but two or three prayers and a blessing, which done, all of them returned to the Preceptory as they had come.
Here food was waiting for them, prepared by the old Sister Agnes. It was a somewhat silent meal of which no one ate very much except Grey Dick, who remarked aloud that as this might be his last breakfast it should be plentiful, since, shriven or unshriven, it was better to die upon a full stomach.
Master de Cressi called him an impious knave. Then he asked him if he had plenty of arrows, because if not he would find four dozen of the best that could be made in Norwich done up in a cloak on the grey horse he was to ride, and a spare bow also.
"I thank you for the arrows, Master, but as for the bow, I use none but my own, the black bow which the sea brought to me and death alone shall part from me. Perchance both will be wanted, since the Claverings will scarcely let us out of the sanctuary if they can help it. Still, it is true they may not know where we lie hid, and that is our best chance of eating more good breakfasts this side the grave."
"A pest on your evil talk," said de Cressi with an uneasy laugh, for he loved Hugh best of all his sons and was afraid of him. "Get through safely, man, and though I like not your grim face and bloody ways you shall lose little by it. I promise you," he added in a whisper, "that if you bring my boy safe home again, you shall not want for all your life; ay, and if there is need, I'll pay your blood-scot for you."
"Thank you, master, thank you. I'll remember, and for my part promise you this, that if he does not return safe, Dick the Archer never will. But I think I'll live to shoot more than your four dozen of arrows."
As he spoke there came a knock upon the outer door and every one sprang up.
"Fear not," said Sir Andrew; "doubtless it will be the men with the horses. I'll go look. Come you with me, Richard."
Presently he returned, saying that it was so, and that Master de Cressi's servants were waiting with the beasts in the courtyard. Also that they brought tidings that some of the Clavering party were now at the Mayor's house, rousing him from his sleep, doubtless to lay information of the slayings and ask for warrant to take those who wrought them, should they be in the borough.
"Then we had best be going," said Hugh, "since soon they will be here with or without their warrant."
"Ay," answered Sir Andrew. "Here are the papers. Take them, Hugh, and hide them well; and if any accident should befall you, try to pass them on to Richard that they may be delivered into the King's hands at Westminster. Say that Sir Andrew Arnold sends you on business that has to do with his Grace's safety, and neither of you will be refused a hearing. Then act as he may command you, and maybe ere long we shall see you back at Dunwich pardoned."
"I think it is the Claverings and their French lord who need pardon, not I," said Hugh. "But be that as it may, what of Eve?"
"Fear not for Eve, son, for here she bides in sanctuary until the Frenchman is out of England, or perchance," he added grimly, "under English soil."
"Ay, ay, we'll guard the maid," broke in Master de Cressi. "Come! to saddle ere you be trapped."
So they descended to a back entrance, and through it into the courtyard, where the four armed men waited with six good horses, one of them Hugh's own. Here he bade farewell to his brothers, to his father, who kissed him on the brow, and to Sir Andrew, who stretched his hand above his head in blessing. Then he turned to Eve and was about to embrace her even before that company, when Sir Andrew looked at him, and, remembering the penance that had been laid upon him, he but pressed her hand, whispering: