The Black Tor, by George Manville Fenn, A Tale of the Reign of James the First.
As always with this author there is plenty of action in this book. Two teenage boys of about the same age come from families which have been in intense rivalry for centuries. Each of them lives in a castle set among the wild and desolate hills of Derbyshire, an almost mountainous area in the Midlands of England, known generally as the Peak District.
The boys know each other but as enemies. Yet events occur which draw them together as allies, but they dare not call themselves friends. A roguish band of ex-soldiers have arrived in the district, and set up camp out on the moors, from whence they descend to steal from, rob and loot the houses of the poorer folk.
The boys privately form an alliance using the men working on their fathers' land as a private army, to attack and rid the land of these desperadoes. Their first attack results in dreadful failure. But then they revise their ideas of what they can use for weaponry, and are finally successful.
Yet another excellent book from the prolific pen of this great author. NH _____________
THE BLACK TOR, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN, A TALE OF THE REIGN OF JAMES THE FIRST.
ONE CAPTAIN PURLROSE.
About as rugged, fierce-looking a gang of men as a lad could set eyes on, as they struggled up the steep cliff road leading to the castle, which frowned at the summit, where the flashing waters of the Gleame swept round three sides of its foot, half hidden by the beeches and birches, which overhung the limpid stream. The late spring was at its brightest and best, but there had been no rain; and as the men who had waded the river lower down, climbed the steep cliff road, they kicked up the white limestone dust, and caked their wet high boots, which, in several instances, had opened holes in which toes could be seen, looking like curious reptiles deep in gnarled and crumpled shells.
"Beggars! What a gang!" said Ralph Darley, a dark, swarthy lad of perhaps seventeen, but looking older, from having an appearance of something downy beginning to come up that spring about his chin, and a couple of streaks, like eyebrows out of place, upon his upper lip. He was well dressed, in the fashion of Solomon King James's day; and he wore a sword, as he sat half up the rugged slope, on a huge block of limestone, which had fallen perhaps a hundred years before, from the cliff above, and was mossy now, and half hidden by the ivy which covered its side.
"Beggars," he said again; "and what a savage looking lot."
As they came on, it began to dawn upon him that they could not be beggars, for if so, they would have been the most truculent-looking party that ever asked for the contributions of the charitable. One, who seemed to be their leader, was a fierce, grizzled, red-nosed fellow, wearing a rusty morion, in which, for want of a feather, a tuft of heather was stuck; he wore a long cloak, as rusty-looking as his helmet; and that he carried a sword was plain enough, for the well-worn scabbard had found a very convenient hole in the cloak, through which it had thrust itself in the most obtrusive manner, and looked like a tail with a vicious sting, for the cap of the leathern scabbard had been lost, and about three inches of steel blade and point were visible.
Ralph Darley was quick at observation, and took in quickly the fact that all the men were armed, and looked shabbier than their leader, though not so stout; for he was rubicund and portly, where he ought not to have been, for activity, though in a barrel a tubby space does indicate strength. Neither were the noses of the other men so red as their leader's, albeit they were a villainous-looking lot.
"Not beggars, but soldiers," thought Ralph; "and they've been in the wars."
He was quite right, but he did not stop to think that there had been no wars for some years. Still, as aforesaid, he was right, but the war the party had been in was with poverty.
"What in the world do they want in this out-of-the-way place—on the road to nowhere?" thought Ralph. "If they're not beggars, they have lost their way."
He pushed back the hilt of his sword, and drew up one leg, covered with its high, buff-leather boot, beneath him, holding it as he waited for the party to come slowly up; and as they did, they halted where he sat, at the side of the road, and the leader, puffing and panting, took off his rusty morion with his left hand, and wiped his pink, bald head, covered with drops of perspiration, with his right, as he rolled his eyes at the lad.
"Hallo, young springald!" he cried, in a blustering manner. "Why don't you jump up and salute your officer?"
"Because I can't see him," cried the lad sharply.
"What? And you carry a toasting-iron, like a rat's tail, by your side. Here, who made this cursed road, where it ought to have been a ladder?"
"I don't know," said Ralph angrily. "Who are you? What do you want? This road does not lead anywhere."
"That's a lie, my young cock-a-hoop; if it did not lead somewhere, it would not have been made."
The man's companions burst into a hoarse fit of laughter, and the boy flushed angrily.
"Well," he said haughtily, "it leads up to Cliff Castle, and no farther."
"That's far enough for us, my game chicken. Is that heap of blocks of stone on the top there the castle?"
"Yes! What do you want?"
The man looked the lad up and down, rolled one of his eyes, which looked something like that of a lobster, and then winked the lid over the inflated orb, and said:
"Gentlemen on an ambassage don't read their despatches to every springald they see by the roadside. Here, jump up, and show us the way, and I'll ask Sir Morton Darley to give you a stoup of wine for your trouble, or milk and water."
"You ask Sir Morton to give you wine!" cried the lad angrily. "Why, who are you, to dare such a thing?"
"What!" roared the man. "Dare? Who talks to Captain Purlrose, his Highness's trusted soldier, about dare?" and he put on a tremendously fierce look, blew out his cheeks, drew his brows over his eyes, and slapped his sword-hilt heavily, as if to keep it in its sheath, for fear it should leap out and kill the lad, adding, directly after, in a hoarse whisper: "Lie still, good sword, lie still."
All this theatrical display was evidently meant to awe the lad, but instead of doing so, it made him angry, for he flushed up, and said quickly:
"I dare," and the men laughed.
"You dare!" cried the leader; "and pray, who may you be, my bully boy?"
"I don't tell my name to every ragged fellow I meet in the road," said the boy haughtily.
"What!" roared the man, clapping his hand upon the hilt of his blade, an action imitated by his followers.
"Keep your sword in its scabbard," said Ralph, without wincing in the least. "If you have business with my father, this way."
He sprang to his feet now, and gazed fiercely at the stranger.
"What?" cried the man, in a voice full of exuberant friendliness, which made the lad shrink in disgust, "you the son of Sir Morton Darley?"
"Yes: what of it?"
"The son of my beloved old companion-in-arms? Boy, let me embrace thee."
To Ralph's horror, the man took a step forward, and would have thrown his arms about his neck; but by a quick movement the lad stepped back, and the men laughed to see their leader grasp the wind.
"Don't do that," said Ralph sternly. "Do you mean to say that you want to speak to my father?"
"Speak to him? Yes, to fly to the hand of him whom I many a time saved from death. And so you are the son of Morton Darley? And a brave-looking, manly fellow too. Why, I might have known. Eye, nose, curled-up lip. Yes: all there. You are his very reflection, that I ought to have seen in the looking-glass of memory. Excuse this weak moisture of the eyes, boy. The sight of my old friend's son brings up the happy companionship of the past. Time flies fast, my brave lad. Your father and I were hand and glove then. Never separate. We fought together, bled together, and ah! how fate is partial in the way she spreads her favours! Your father dresses his son in velvet; while I, poor soldier of fortune—I mean misfortune—am growing rusty; sword, morion, breast-plate, body battered, and face scarred by time."
"Aren't we going to have something to eat and drink, captain?" growled one of the men, with an ugly scowl.
"Ay, brave boys, and soon," cried the leader.
"Then, leave off preaching, captain, till we've got our legs under a table."
"Ah, yes. Poor boys, they are footsore and weary with the walk across your hilly moors. Excuse this emotion, young sir, and lead me to my old brother's side."
There was something comic in the boy's look of perplexity and disgust, as, after a few moments' hesitation, he began to lead the way toward the half castle, half manor-house, which crowned the great limestone cliff.
"Surely," he thought, "my father cannot wish to see such a ragamuffin as this, with his coarse, bloated features, and disgraceful rags and dirt."
But the next minute his thoughts took a different turn.
"If what the man says be true, father will be only too glad to help an old brother-officer in misfortune, and be sorry to see him in such a plight."
With the frank generosity of youth, then, he softened his manner toward his companion, as they slowly climbed upward, the great beeches which grew out of the huge cracks and faults of the cliff shading them from the sun.
"So this is the way?" cried the man.
"Yes: the castle is up there," and Ralph pointed.
"What! in ruins?" cried the captain.
"Ruins? No!" cried Ralph. "Those stones are natural; the top of the cliff. Our place is behind them. They do look like ruins, though."
"Hah! But what an eagle's nest. No wonder I find an eaglet on my way."
Ralph winced, for the man clapped a dirty hand upon his shoulder, and gripped him fast, turning the lad into a walking-staff to help him on his road.
"Have you come far this morning?" said Ralph, to conceal his disgust.
"Ay, miles and miles, over stones and streams, and in and out among mines and holes. We were benighted, too, up yonder on the mountain."
"Hill," said Ralph; "we have no mountains here."
"Hills when you're fresh, lad; mountains when you're footsore and weary. But we stumbled upon a niche, in a bit of a slope near the top, and turned out the bats and foxes, and slept there."
"Where?" cried Ralph quickly. "Was there a little stream running there—warm water?"
"To be sure there was. Hard stones, and warm water: those were our bed and beverage last night."
"I know the place. Darch Scarr."
"Fine scar, too, lad. Been better if it had been healed up, with a door to keep out the cold wind. Oh! so this is where my old comrade lives," he added, as he came in sight of an arched gateway, with embattled top and turrets, while through the entry, a tree-shaded courtyard could be seen. "And a right good dwelling too. Come on, brave boys. Here's rest and breakfast at last."
"And I hope you'll go directly after," thought Ralph, as he led the way into the courtyard, and paused at a second entrance, at the top of a flight of stone steps, well commanded by loopholes on either side. Then aloud:
"Will you wait here a minute, while I go and tell my father?"
"Yes: tell him his old brother-officer is here."
"I did not catch your name when you spoke before," said Ralph. "Captain Pearl Ross?"
"Nay, nay, boy; Purlrose. He'll know directly you speak. Tell him, I'm waiting to grasp him by the hand."
Ralph nodded, and sprang up the stone flight, while the visitor's companions threw themselves down upon the steps to rest, their leader remaining standing, and placing himself by the mounting stone on one side, hand upon sword-hilt, and arranging his ragged cloak in folds with as much care as if it had been of newest velvet.
SIR MORTON RECEIVES HIS GUEST.
"Father can't be pleased," thought the lad, as he hurried in through a heavy oaken door, strengthened by the twisted and scrolled iron bands of the huge hinges, and studded with great-headed nails. This yielded heavily, as, seizing a ring which moved a lever, he raised the heavy latch, and for a moment, as he passed through, he hesitated about closing the door again upon the group below. But as he glanced at the party, he hesitated no longer. Their appearance begat no confidence, and the great latch clicked directly.
The next minute, he was hurrying along a dark stone passage, to spring up a few more stairs, leading into a corridor with a polished oaken floor, and mullioned windows looking down upon the courtyard; and as he reached the second, a bright, handsome girl, whose features proclaimed sisterhood, started out to meet him.
"Oh Ralph," she said, "who are those dreadful-looking men you have brought up?"
"Don't stop me, Min," he said hastily. "Old soldiers who want to see father. Where is he?"
"In his room."
The lad hurried on, and entered through a door way on his left, to where, in an oaken-panelled room, a stern, slightly grey, military-looking man sat poring over an old book, but looked up directly the lad entered.
"Ah, Ralph, boy," he said; "been out?"
"Only on the cliff, father," cried the lad hastily. "Visitors."
"Visitors? Nonsense! I expect no visitors. Who are they?"
"Captain Purlrose and his men."
"Purlrose!" cried Sir Morton, with a look of angry disgust. "Here?"
"Yes, father," said Ralph, watching keenly the impression made by his words. "Waiting at the foot of the steps."
"Bah! I thought the drunken, bullying scoundrel was dead and gone years ago. Hung or shot, for he deserved either."
"Hah!" ejaculated the lad, with a sigh of relief. "Then you are not glad to see him, father?"
"Glad to see him? Are you mad, boy?"
"No, father," said the lad, with a merry laugh. "I hope not; but he said you would be, and that you were old brothers-in-arms, and that he longed to grip you by the hand; and he tried to hug me, and shed tears, and flattered me, and said all sorts of things."
"Pah! the same as of old; but you said—and his men."
"Yes, about a dozen like him; ruffianly-looking, rag-bags of fellows, all armed, and looking like a gang of bullies and robbers."
Sir Morton frowned, rose from his seat, and walked to the side of the room, where his sword and belt lay in front of a bookcase.
"Well, I suppose I must see the fellow. He served under me, years ago, Ralph, and I suppose he has come begging, unless he sees a chance to steal."
"Then I was not unjust, father, in thinking ill of the man and disliking him."
"Unjust? Pah! The fellow was a disgrace to the name of soldier; and now, I suppose, that there is no war on the way, he has been discharged from the king's service, with a pack of his companions."
"He said he had saved your life, father."
Sir Morton laughed contemptuously. "I have no recollection of the fact, Ralph, boy, and I don't think I should have forgotten so important a matter; but I do recollect saving his, by interceding when he was about to be shot for plundering some helpless people. There; let him and a couple of his men come in. The poor wretch is in a bad state, I suppose, and I will give him something to help him on his road."
Ralph went to the door, but turned back, hesitating.
"Well, my boy?" said his father.
"Had I not better tell some of the men to arm, and be ready?" asked the lad.
"What! Nonsense, boy! I know my man. He would not dare to be insolent."
"But he has a dangerous-looking gang of fellows with him."
"Of the same kind as himself, Ralph. Have no fear of that. If there were real danger, we could soon summon a dozen stout men to deal with him and his party. But, as I said, let him only bring in two or three with him."
Ralph hurried out, and found the captain and his men forming a picturesque group about the stone steps; and as soon as he appeared, the former swung himself round, and threw his cloak over his shoulder, with a swaggering gesture.
"Hallo, my young eagle," he cried. "What saith the parent bird, the gallant lord of the castle?"
"My father will see you, sir," replied Ralph. "This way."
"Aha! I knew he would," cried the man, giving his steel cap a cock over on one side, and displaying a large pink patch of his bald head. "Come on, brave boys."
"Stop!" cried Ralph quickly. "Three of you, only, are to accompany your leader."
"Eh? What?" cried the captain fiercely, as a low murmur arose.
"That is what my father said, sir."
"What does this mean?" cried the man theatrically. "Separate me from my brave companions-in-arms? Does this mean treachery, young sir?"
"Treachery? Why should it mean that?" cried Ralph stoutly, as the man's words endorsed the character so lately given of him. "If," argued Ralph to himself, "the fellow were the honest, brave soldier, why should he fear treachery from the brother-officer with whom he said he had often shared danger?"
"The world is full of wickedness, boy," replied the captain; "and I have often been misjudged. But there; a brave man never knows fear. You three come with me, and if in half an hour I do not come back, boys, you know what to do."
There was a shout at this, and hands struck sword-hilts with a loud clang.
"Right, brave boys, and don't leave one stone upon another until you have found your captain."
Ralph burst out into a fit of laughter, and then felt annoyed with himself, as the man turned round scowling.
"What do you mean by that, boy?"
"That your men would have their work cut out, sir," said Ralph sharply. "This way, please."
The captain uttered a low growl, signed to three of his men, and the party followed the lad, who, to his annoyance, once more came across his sister, hurrying along the passage.
"Salute, brave boys, salute," cried the captain. "Youth and beauty in front—the worship of the gallant soldiers of the king."
He struck an attitude, which was roughly imitated by the men.
"A sister, on my life," cried the captain.
"This way," said Ralph shortly, and with the colour coming into his cheeks, as he felt indignant with the man for daring to notice his sister, and angry with her for being there.
The door of Sir Morton's room was thrown open, and the captain strode in, followed by his men; and, as he saw the knight, standing with his back to the fireplace, he struck a fresh attitude.
"Ah! at last!" he cried. "My old brave companion-in-arms! Well met, once more."
He stretched out his hands, and swaggered forward to grasp Sir Morton's.
"Halt!" cried that gentleman sharply, without stirring from his position. "Now, Captain Purlrose, what is your business with me?"
"Business with you? Is this my reception, after long years of absence? Ah, I see! The war-worn soldier forgotten once again. Ah, Sir Morton Darley, why humble me before my gallant men?"
"I have not forgotten you, Captain Purlrose. I remember you perfectly, and you are not changed in the least. Now, if you please, be brief, and explain your business."
"My business! I thought I was coming to an old friend and brother."
"No, sir; you thought nothing of the kind. Come, you know I understand you thoroughly. State your business, if you please."
The three men laughed aloud, and Sir Morton, who had not before noticed them, turned upon them sharply, with the result that the laughter died out, and they looked uncomfortable.
"And this before my men! Humbled thus! Have I fallen so low?"
"You are wasting words, Captain Purlrose; and, as you have found where I lived, and have evidently journeyed long, tell me at once why you have come."
"I will," cried the captain, resuming his swaggering air. "I, as an old soldier, sir, came to ask favours of no man."
"Then why have you come, sir, if not to ask a favour?"
"I was passing this way, and, as an old brother-in-arms lived here, I thought I would call."
"You were not passing this way, sir; no brother-in-arms lived here, but an officer, under whom you once served; and you had some object in view to make you cross our desolate moors," said Sir Morton, sternly. "If you want help, speak out."
"I am no beggar, Sir Morton Darley," said the man, in blustering tones.
"I am glad to hear it. Now, then, what is it?"
"Well, sir, you boast of knowing me thoroughly. Let me tell you that I know you, and your position here."
"And find it is in every respect a strong one, sir. Well?"
"You live here, close at hand to an enemy who covets your lands, and with whom you have fought again and again. You and your ancestors were always enemies with the Edens."
"Quite right, sir. Well, what is that to you?"
"This, Sir Morton Darley. The war is over. I and my brave fellows are idle, our swords rusting in their sheaths."
"More shame to the brave fellows who do not keep their weapons bright. Well, this is a long preamble to tell me that you have all been dismissed from the king's service. Go on."
The captain stared and scowled, but he could not fully meet the searching eyes which looked him down.
"Well," he said, rather blunderingly now, "knowing what I did of my old officer's state—"
"'Old officer' is better, Captain Purlrose. Go on, sir."
"I said, here am I, a brave soldier, with a handful of stout followers, eager to do good, honest work; why should I not go and offer my sword to Sir Morton Darley? He is sorely pressed."
"Wrong," said Sir Morton.
"He would be glad of our help," continued the man, without heeding the interruption; "we could garrison his castle and help him to drive his enemy from the field. Twelve of them, all well-tried soldiers, who can make him king of the country round. That, sir, is why I have come, to confer a favour more than ask one. Now, sir, what do you say? Such a chance for you may never occur again."
"Hah!" ejaculated Sir Morton; "and all this out of pure good fellowship!"
"Of course; save that a retainer who risks his life in his chief's service is worthy of his hire."
"Naturally, sir. So that is your meaning—your object in coming?"
"That is it, Sir Morton. We can put your castle in a state of defence, make raids, and harass the enemy, fetch in stores from the surrounding country, and make you a great man. Think of how you can humble the Edens."
Sir Morton frowned as he looked back at the past, and then from thence up to his present position, one in which he felt that he played a humble part in presence of his stronger enemy; and Ralph watched him, read in his face that he was about to accept his visitor's proposal, and with a feeling of horror at the thought of such a gang being hired to occupy a part of the castle, and brought, as it were, into a kind of intimacy, he turned quickly to his father, laid his hand upon his arm, and whispered eagerly:
"Father, pray, pray don't do this. They are a terribly villainous set of ruffians."
The captain twitched his big ears in his efforts to catch what was said; but he could only hear enough to make out that the son was opposing the plans, and he scowled fiercely at the lad.
"Wait, wait," said Sir Morton.
"But do go out and look at the rest of the men, father," whispered Ralph.
"There is no need."
"Then you will not agree, father?"
"Most certainly not, my boy."
Purlrose could not catch all this, but he scowled again.
"Look here, young cockerel," he cried, "don't you try and set my old officer against me."
"No need," said Sir Morton hotly.
"Ah, that's because hard times have made me and my poor gallant fellows look a little shabby."
"Not that, sir. Your old character stands in your way."
"Oh, this is hard—this is hard. You rich, and with everything comfortable, while I am poor, and unrewarded for all my labour and risk by an ungrateful Scot."
"Don't insult your sovereign, sir!" cried Sir Morton.
"Oh, this is hard—this is hard."
"Look here, Michael Purlrose, if you had been an officer and a gentleman in distress, I would have helped you."
"Do you mean to say that I am not an officer, and a gentleman in distress, sir?" cried the captain, clapping his hand to the hilt of his sword, a movement imitated by Ralph, angrily. But Sir Morton stood back, unmoved.
"Let your sword alone, boy," he said sternly. "You, Michael Purlrose, knowing you as I do of old, for a mouthing, cowardly bully, do you think that I am going to be frightened by your swagger? Yes, I tell you that you are no gentleman."
"Oh, this is too much," cried the visitor. "It is enough to make me call in my men."
"Indeed!" said Sir Morton coolly. "Why call them in to hear me recapitulate your disgrace? As to your appeals to me for help, and your claim, which you profess to have upon me, let me remind you that you were engaged as a soldier of fortune, and well paid for your services, though you and yours disgraced the royal army by your robberies and outrages. All you gained you wasted in riot and drunkenness, and now that you are suffering for your follies, you come and make claims upon me."
"Oh, this is too hard upon a poor soldier who has bled in his country's service. Did I not once save your life, when you were at your last gasp?"
"No, sir; it was the other way on. I saved yours, and when I was surrounded, and would have been glad of your help, you ran away."
"Ha-ha-ha!" cried Ralph, bursting into a roar of laughter.
"Ah-h-ah!" cried the captain fiercely, as he half drew his sword; but he drove it back with a loud clang into its sheath directly. "Stay there, brave blade, my only true and trusted friend. He is the son of my old companion-in-arms, and I cannot draw upon a boy."
Ralph laughed aloud again, and the captain scowled, and rolled his eyes fiercely; but he did not startle the lad in the least, and after a long, fierce stare, the man turned to Sir Morton.
"Don't be hard upon an old brother-soldier, Morton Darley," he said.
"No, I will not," said Sir Morton quietly. "You and your men can refresh yourselves in the hall, and when you start on your way, I will give you a pound or two to help you."
"Oh, as if I were a common wayside beggar. Comrade, this is too hard. Can you not see that my beard is getting grizzled and grey?"
"Yes; but I do not see what that has to do with it."
"Think again, old comrade. Twelve brave and true men have I with me. Take us as your gentlemen and men at arms to protect you and yours against those who are unfriendly. You must have enemies."
Sir Morton started and glanced at his son, for these words touched a spring in his breast. With thirteen fighting men to increase his little force, what might he not do? The Edens' stronghold, with its regularly coming-in wealth, must fall before him; and, once in possession, Sir Edward Eden might petition and complain; but possession was nine points of the law, and the king had enough to do without sending a force into their wild out-of-the-way part of the world to interfere. Once he had hold of the Black Tor, he could laugh at the law, and see the old enemy of his house completely humbled.
Sir Morton hesitated and turned his head, to find his son watching him keenly, while Captain Purlrose stood with his left hand resting on the hilt of his sword, making the scabbard cock out behind, and lift up the back of his ragged cloak, as with his right he twisted up and pointed one side of his rusty-grey fierce moustache.
The man was watching Sir Morton keenly, and his big ears twitched, as he tried to catch the whispered words which passed between father and son.
"What do you say, Ralph, lad? With the help of these men I could easily make Eden bite the dust. Then the Black Tor would be mine, and afterwards yours; with all the rich revenue to be drawn from the lead-mine. It is very tempting, boy."
"Yes, father," said the boy hotly, and his face flushed as he spoke; "but that's what it is—a miserable temptation. We'll humble the Edens, and have the Black Tor and the lead-mine; but we'll win all with our swords like gentlemen, or fail. We could not go and take the place with a set of ruffians like those outside, and helped by such a man as yonder bully. You couldn't do it, father. Say no."
"Hah! More insults," cried Purlrose, who had caught a word here and there. "But no; lie still, good sword: he is a beardless boy, and the son of the brave comrade I always honoured, whate'er my faults."
Ralph turned upon him angrily; but his father laid a hand upon the boy's shoulder, and pressed it hard.
"Right, Ralph, lad," he said warmly, and he looked proudly in the boy's eyes. "I could not do it in that way."
"Hah!" ejaculated the lad, with a sigh of content.
"No, Purlrose," continued Sir Morton. "I shall not avail myself of your services. Go into the hall and refresh yourself and your men. Come to me afterward, and I will help you as I said."
"With a mouthful of bread, and a few pence, and after all this weary journey across these wild moors. But I see: it is all through the words of this beardless boy. Suppose I tell you that, now I have come, I mean to stay?" he added threateningly.
"Shall I get the men together, father?" said Ralph quickly.
"No, boy, there is no need," said Sir Morton firmly. "I am not afraid of Michael Purlrose's threats."
"What!" cried the man. "You do not know me yet."
"Better than you know yourself, sir," said Sir Morton, rising. "That is the way to the hall. Have the goodness to go first."
The captain threw his cloak back over his right shoulder, slapped his right hand heavily upon his rusty breast-plate, and then, with a flourish, caught at the hilt of his sword, and again half drew it from its sheath, to stand scowling at Ralph, the intentness of his gaze seeming to affect his eyes, so that they began to lean towards each other, as if for help, till his look became a villainous squint. Then, as neither father nor son quailed before him, he uttered a loud "Hah!" thrust back his sword, and strode with a series of stamps to the door, his high, buff-leather boots rustling and creaking the while.
There he faced round.
"I give you one more chance, Morton Darley," he cried. "Yes or no?"
"No," said Sir Morton firmly.
"One moment before it is too late. Are we to be friends or foes?"
"Neither," shouted Ralph quickly.
"Yes, boy, one or the other. You, Morton Darley, will you take me into your service, or do you drive me into going straight to your rival and enemy, who will jump at my offer, and pay me better than I could expect of you?"
"Go where you please, sir," said Sir Morton.
"Ah, you drive me to it, when I would have been your friend. There, it must be so; but don't blame me when you are humbled in the dust."
"Why, if you go there," cried Ralph, "Sir Edward Eden will make his men disarm your crew of ragged Jacks, and set you all to work in his mine."
"What! Never. Now, Darley, once more—friends or foes?"
"Neither, I tell you, man. Now leave my place at once, you and yours. I will neither help you nor have any further dealings with you. Go."
"What!" roared Purlrose; and this time he drew his sword fully, and Ralph's bright blade followed suit, glittering, while the captain's looked rusty and dull.
"Pooh! put up your sword, Ralph," said Sir Morton, advancing toward their visitor, who began to shrink back. "Sheathe your blade, sir," he said sternly, and without paying the least attention to the man's bullying looks, he threw open the door, and pointed to the entrance.
He passed out, giving the door behind him a heavy slam, and marched out to the group standing about the broad steps and road, where father and son could hear him haranguing his men, who immediately burst into an angry yell, and for the most part turned menacingly toward the house.
ABOUT THE ENEMY.
"Shall I fasten the door, father?" cried Ralph excitedly.
"No," said Sir Morton firmly. "I know my man of old."
Ralph looked on and listened, as a low growl arose; but, bully and coward or no, it was evident that Captain Purlrose was master of his men, who stood listening and nodding their heads, one or two slapping the hilts of their swords menacingly, and at last the leader of the ragged crew turned and shook his fist threateningly at the house, and ended by striding jauntily away through the embattled gateway, followed by his gang.
"Will they come back, father, at night?" said Ralph, after uttering a sigh of relief.
"No, my boy; I judge the men by their leader. Michael Purlrose always had a wholesome love of keeping his skin sound; his men have, without doubt, the same. He will execute his threat, though, of going to Eden's."
"And if Sir Edward takes them into his service, it will be awkward for us, father."
"Yes, if, my boy; but I do not think that Eden will. We shall hear no more of the vagabonds, unless Purlrose comes back to beg."
"I'll go and watch them, father," cried Ralph eagerly.
"Yes; but you will not go near, so as to run any risk? If they found you alone, they would attack and strip you of everything of value you have."
"I'll take care," cried the lad. "I can get up to the side of the cliff, and watch them right away. I can see the path to the Black Tor from there."
"Yes; go," said Sir Morton, and the boy hurried out, crossed the little court, and passing through a small side-door, reached the slope of the cliff upon which the old castle was built, and then by a narrow pathway, clambered a couple of hundred feet higher, starting the jackdaws from their resting-places, making them fly off, uttering angry cries of tah! tah! Then throwing himself down behind a great block of limestone, which had fallen from above, and which looked as if a thrust would send it hurtling down some hundred feet, into the river below, he waited till, as he fully expected, he saw the party of men appear down below in the track; and then he followed their course, seeing them disappear behind the trees, appear again, and after making divers short cuts, as if their leader were well acquainted with the place, make off for the ford. Then he watched them as they straggled across the river, and struck into the narrow cliff path which led to the great dark-hued cliff known as the Black Tor, where the Edens' impregnable stronghold stood, perched upon a narrow ledge of rock which rose up like a monstrous tongue from the earth, connected on one side by a narrow natural bridge with the main cliff, the castellated building being protected on all sides by a huge rift fully a couple of hundred feet deep, the tongue being merely a portion of the cliff split away during some convulsion of nature; or perhaps gradually separated by subsidence, the top affording sufficient space for the building, and its courtyards.
Ralph watched the men until the last had disappeared; and then, knowing from the configuration of the place as he had seen it from another point of view, that he would probably not see them again for an hour or two, perhaps not again that day, if Sir Edward Eden received the proposals of Captain Purlrose favourably, he began slowly and thoughtfully to descend. For he knew that it would be a serious matter for his father if Sir Edward Eden seized upon the opportunity for strengthening his retainers and attacking his rival.
The feud between the two families had lasted for generations, beginning so far back that the origin was lost in the mists of time. All that Ralph Darley knew was, that in the days of Henry the Eighth, an Eden had done a Darley deadly injury that could never be forgiven, and ever since the wrong had been handed down from father to son as a kind of unpleasant faith by which it was the duty of all Darleys to be prepared to exterminate all Edens; and if they could not exterminate them and seize upon their possessions, to do them all the injury they could.
There was another version of the story, as Ralph well knew, and it was precisely the same, saving for the following exception: that in the beginning it was a Darley who did the deadly wrong to an Eden. But one thing was certain—the two families had carried on their petty warfare in the most determined way. Edens had fallen by the sword; so had Darleys. There was a grim legend, too, of an Eden having been taken prisoner, and starved to death in one of the dungeons of Cliffe Castle, in Queen Mary's time; and Ralph had often gone down below to look at the place, and the staple ring and chain in the gloomy place, shuddering at the horror of the prisoner's fate.
For this the Edens had waited their time, and surprised the castle one night, driving the occupants from place to place, till they took refuge in the central tower, from which they could not be dislodged; so the Edens contented themselves by the following reprisal: they set fire to the castle in a dozen places before they retired, the flames raging till there was no more woodwork to destroy, and nothing was left but the strong central tower and the sturdy walls. The place was restored, though, soon after, and the Sir Ralph Darley of Elizabeth's time made an expedition one night to give tit-for-tat, but only to find out that it was impossible to get across the stoutly-defended natural bridge at Black Tor, and that it was waste of time to keep on shooting arrows, bearing burning rags soaked in pitch, on to the roofs of the towers and in at the loopholes. So he retreated, with a very sore head, caused by a stone thrown from above, dinting in his helmet, and with half his men carrying the other half, wounded or dead.
His successor had tried again and again to master the Edens and seize their possessions. Amongst these was the Black Tor lead-mine, approached by steps in the side of the cliff; its galleries honeycombed the place, running right under the earth, and into natural caverns of the large opposite cliffs of limestone, where the jackdaws built their nests.
Ralph Darley, living as he did that day in the days of King James, pondered on all those old legends as he descended to give his father the information he had acquired; and as he stepped down, he knit his brows and began to think that it was quite time this feud had an end, and that it must be his duty to finish it all off, in spite of the addition to the strength at Black Tor, by waiting his opportunity, and meeting, and in fair fight slaying, young Mark Eden, who was about his own age, seventeen, and just back home from one of the great grammar-schools. This done, he would make a scheme for seizing the Black Tor, putting Sir Edward Eden and his mercenaries to the sword, but sparing the men who were miners, so that they might go on working for the Darleys. By this means he would end the feud, secure peace, and make his father a rich and happy man, having proved himself a thoroughly good and chivalrous son.
Ralph felt very brave, and proud, and happy, when he had reached this point, which was just as he opened the door of his father's room, which contained a very small library—books being rare and precious in those days—plenty of handsome armour and war-like weapons of offence, and a corner set apart for alchemy and the study of minerals; for, in a desultory way, Sir Morton Darley, bitten by the desire to have a mine of his own to produce him as good an income as that of his enemy neighbour, had been given to searching without success for a good lode of lead.
Sir Morton was reading an old tome as his son entered the room, hot, eager, and excited.
"Well, boy," he said, looking up dreamily; "what is it?"
"They've gone straight to Black Tor, father."
"The Edens? Have they? I did not know they had been away."
"No, no, father; that captain fellow and his men."
"Oh, of course. I had almost forgotten them. Tut, tut, tut! It will be very awkward for us, Ralph, if Sir Edward listens to that scoundrel's proposals. But there, it cannot be helped. There never was an Eden yet who was a gentlemen, and all we have to do is to be well prepared. The old tower is stronger than ever, and if they come we'll fight them from the outer gate to the wall, from the wall to the inner wall, and if they drive us from that, there is the tower, where we can set them at defiance."
"As old Sir Ralph did, father," cried the boy, flushing with pride.
"Exactly, my boy; and I do not feel much fear of Captain Purlrose and his men."
"No, father; I suppose he will keep on half-drawing his sword, and thrusting it back with a clang."
"Exactly, Ralph, boy," cried Sir Morton, laughing. "Just that one act shows the man's character to a T. Bluster, and then retreat. But suppose it should come to fighting, my boy. Hadn't you better go back to school, and stay till the trouble's over?"
"What!" cried Ralph fiercely.
"You surely don't want to fight, boy?"
"No, father, I don't want to fight; but if you are obliged to—Oh, father, you will not send me away?"
Sir Morton looked searchingly at the flushed countenance before him for some moments before speaking.
"If you wish to stay, Ralph, certainly I shall not send you away. I only gave you the opportunity to go if you wished. However, perhaps we shall hear no more of the matter. Eden may not listen to that scoundrel. If he does, we may set to work and furbish up our arms, lay in stores of provisions, and be prepared for our defence."
"Then I hope he will engage the men, father," cried Ralph.
"Eh? And pray why, boy?" exclaimed Sir Morton.
"Because, father," said the lad, speaking in a deeply-moved tone of voice, his eyes flashing and his cheeks flushed. "You have done nothing lately to show how deeply you resent all the old wrongs; and if the Edens hire these men, it will be a good opportunity for fighting our old foes, beating them and taking possession, and ending the feud."
"Yes," said Sir Morton, smiling, "a good opportunity, boy; but we might lose the day."
"We will not lose the day, father," cried the lad hotly. "Those men who fight for pay are cowards at heart, and they will lead the Edens to their destruction."
"But suppose that, after all, the Darleys were the ones to blame?"
"Oh, father, we can't stop to think of that. We do know that they have committed outrage after outrage against our family, and you have always taught me that it was our duty to punish the Edens."
"Yes, my boy, I have, as my father and my grandfather taught me; but I have often wished the wretched business were at an end. I want to be at peace."
"And you shall be, father, and soon, too, now," cried Ralph excitedly. "But you will begin at once?"
"What, making peace?"
"No, father, war," cried the lad eagerly.
"Yes," said Sir Morton sternly, "if the Edens do."
"Oh, father, how calmly you take it all. I should have thought you would be ready to begin at once."
"Yes, Ralph, because you are young, and have never seen what even the pettiest war means, not even the bright side, with its chivalry and panoply, and gay show. I have seen that, and the other side too."
"But you would fight, father?" cried the lad, looking astonished.
"Yes," said Sir Morton, with his face turning hard and stern, "if the need arises, boy, and to the death."
MARK EDEN HAS A MORNING'S WALK.
Eden, fresh from Linkeham, on account of a terrible attack of fever ravaging the school to such an extent that it was considered wise to close it for a time, was enjoying the pleasant change, and wondering how long it would be before the school would reopen, and whether his father, Sir Edward Eden of Black Tor, would send him back.
"I ought to be old enough now to give up a schoolboy's life," he said to himself, "and begin thinking of what I shall be as a man."
He said this to himself as he descended the stone steps which led to the platform at the side of the precipice, where a natural Gothic arch hung over the entrance to the mine, which began with a steep slope running down through the limestone for fifty yards, and then opened out into an extensive cavity, whose roof was a hundred feet overhead, and in whose floor the square hole had been cut to follow the great vein of lead, which spread like the roots of some gigantic tree in various directions. The great hole represented the trunk of the tree, and this had once been solid lead ore, but all had been laboriously cut away, as well as many of the branches, which represented the roots, though plenty were left to excavate, and fresh ones and new cavities were constantly being formed, so that the Eden mine at Black Tor was looked upon as the richest in the county.
Mark Eden stopped to have a chat with some of his father's men, who were going and coming from the square trunk-hole, and he watched them ascending and descending the greasy ladders fixed against the side, each man bearing a candle, stuck in his leather cap.
"I shan't want to be a miner," he said, as he gazed down at the tiny sparks of light below. "Faugh! how dark and dismal it looks. A dirty hole. But father says dirty work brings clean money, and it's just as well to be rich, I suppose. But what a life! Might just as well be a mole."
He began to hum over an old English ditty, and his voice echoed strangely from above.
"Let's see: Mary wants some of that blue spar, and I promised to get a lot. Must go down one of these days with Dummy Rugg: he says he knows of some fine bits. Not to-day, though."
He hurried out into the bright sunshine again, went up the steps to the castle, which stood perched at the top of a huge mass of rock, surrounded on all sides by the deep gorge, and then crossed the natural bridge to the main cliff, of which the foundation of the castle was the vast slice, split away, most probably by some volcanic disturbance. Masses of lava and scoria uncovered by the miners, from time to time, showed that volcanic action had been rife there at one period; additional suggestion that the said action had not yet died out, being afforded by the springs of beautifully clear warm water, which bubbled out in several places in the district.
As the lad crossed the bridge, thinking nothing of the giddy, profound depths on either side, there being not the slightest protection in the way of rail to the six-foot wide path, he shook back his brown hair, thrust his hands in his pockets, and with the sheath of his sword banging against his legs, started off along the first level place for a run.
A looker-on would have wondered why he did this, and would have gazed ahead to see what there was to induce him to make so wild a rush in a dangerous place. But he would have seen nothing but rugged path, tree-top, and the face of the cliff, and would not have grasped the fact that the reason for the boy's wild dash was, that he was overcharged with vitality, and that energy which makes a lad exert himself in that natural spontaneous effort to get rid of some of the vital gas, flashing along his nerves and bubbling through his veins.
"What a day!" he cried aloud. "How blue the sky is. Hallo! there they go."
He stopped suddenly to watch a cavernous hole in the cliff, from which half-a-dozen blue rock-pigeons had darted out, and as he watched, others swooped by, and darted in.
The next minute he went on, followed the path, and turned a buttress-like corner, which took him to the other side of the great chine of limestone, which was here quite as precipitous, but clothed with trees, which softened the asperities of nature, and hung from shelf, crack, and chasm, to cast shadows down and down, right to where the river flashed and sparkled in its rapid flow, or formed deep dark pools, which reflected the face of the cliff in picture after picture.
"One never gets tired of this place," muttered the lad, as he began to descend a zigzag path, worn in the face of the cliff, starting the powdered-headed jackdaws from their breeding shelves and holes, and sending the blackbirds chinking from out of the bushes which clung to the grey precipice.
"That's where the brown owl's nest was," muttered the lad. "Bound to say there's one this year. S'pose I'm getting too old for birds'-nesting and climbing. Don't see why I should be, though."
He reached the river's bank at last, and after walking for a few yards, trampling down the white blossoms of the broad-leaved garlic, which here grew in profusion, and suggested salad, he reached a rippling shallow, stepped down into the river, and waded across, the water only reaching to his ankles.
As he stepped out on the other side, and kicked and stamped to get rid of the water, he gazed along the winding dale at as glorious a bit of English scenery as England can produce; and on that bright May morning, as he breathed in the sweet almond-like odour of the fully-blown hawthorn blossom, he muttered: "Linkeham's nice enough, but the lads would never believe how beautiful it is here. Hallo! there he goes. I wonder where they are building this year."
He shaded his eyes as he looked up at a great blackbird, winging its way high up above the top of the great cliff which hung over the river, and watched till it disappeared, when, in a low melodious voice, he began singing softly another snatch of an old English song, something about three ravens that sat upon a tree, with a chorus of: "Down, a-down, a-down," which he repeated again and again, as if it helped him to reflect.
"Wonder where they are building this year," he said to himself again. "I should like a couple of little ones to bring up. Get them young, and they'd be as tame as tame."
He went on wondering where the ravens, which frequented the neighbourhood of the river and its mountainous cliffs, built their nests; but wondering did not help him, and he gave up the riddle, and began, in his pleasant holiday idleness, to look about at other things in the unfrequented wilderness through which the river ran. To trace the raven by following it home seemed too difficult, but it was easy to follow a great bumble-bee, which went blundering by, alighting upon a block of stone, took flight again, and landed upon a slope covered with moss, entering at last a hole which went sloping down beneath the stones.
A little farther on, where a hawthorn whitened the bank with its fragrant wreaths, there was a quick, fluttering rush, a glimpse of a speckle-breasted thrush, and a little examination showed the neat nest, plastered inside smoothly with clay, like a cup, to hold four beautiful blue eggs, finely-spotted at the ends.
"Sitting, and nearly hatched," said the lad. "Might wait for them, and bring them up. I dunno, though. Sing best in the trees. Wouldn't hop about the courtyard and cliffs like the young ravens. Wonder where they build?"
He went on, to stop and watch the trout and grayling, which kept darting away, as he approached the riverside, gleaming through the sunlit water, and hiding in the depths, or beneath some mass of rock or tree-root on the other side.
"Rather stupid for me, getting to be a man, to think so much about birds' nests; but I don't know: perhaps it isn't childish. Old Rayburn is always watching for them, and picking flowers, and chipping bits of stone. Why, he has books full of pressed grasses and plants; and boxes full of bits of ore and spar, and stony shells out of the caves and mines.—Well now, isn't that strange?"
He stopped short, laughing to himself, as he suddenly caught sight of a droll-looking figure, standing knee-deep in the river, busy with rod and line, gently throwing a worm-baited hook into the deep black water, under the projecting rocks at the foot of the cliff.
The figure, cut off, as it were, at the knees, looked particularly short and stout, humped like a camel, by the creel swung behind to be out of the way. His dress was a rusty brown doublet, with puffed-out breeches beneath, descending half-way down the thigh, and then all was bare. A steeple-crowned, broad-brimmed hat, from beneath which hung an abundance of slightly-curling silvery hair, completed the figure at which Mark Eden gazed, unseen; for the old man was intent upon his fishing, and just then he struck, and after a little playing, drew in and unhooked a finely-spotted trout, which he was about to transfer to his basket, when he was checked by a greeting from the back.
"Morning, Master Rayburn. That's a fine one."
"Ah, Mark, boy, how are you?" said the old man, smiling. "Yes: I've got his brother in the basket, and I want two more. Better come and help me to eat them."
"Can't to-day.—Quite well?"
"Yes, thank God, boy. Well for an old man. I heard you were back from school. How's that?"
"Bad fever there. All sent home."
"That's sad. Ought to be at work, boy. Better come and read with me."
"Well, I will sometimes, sir."
"Come often, my boy; keep you out of mischief."
"Oh, I shan't get into mischief, sir."
"Of course not; idle boys never do. Not likely to get fighting, either. I see young Ralph Darley's at home. Fine chance for you," said the old man, with a sarcastic ring in his voice, as he slipped his trout into the basket.
"Is he?" cried the lad excitedly.
"Oh yes; he's up at the Cliff. Now then, why don't you fill your pockets with big stones to throw at him, or cut a big club? Oh, I see, though. You've mounted a skewer. Pull it out, and try if the point's sharp. I suppose you're going down the river to lay wait for him and kill him."
"There, you're as bad as ever, Master Rayburn," cried the lad, flushing, and looking mortified. "Last time I saw you it was just the same: laughing at, and bantering, and sneering at me. No wonder my father gets angry with you, and doesn't ask you to the Tor."
"Yes, no wonder. Quarrels with me, boy, instead of with himself for keeping up such a mad quarrel."
"It isn't father's fault, sir," cried the lad quickly. "It's the old feud that has been going on for generations."
"Old feud! Old disgrace!" cried the fisherman, throwing away the worm he was about to impale on his hook, to see it snapped up at once by a good fish; and standing his rod in the water, like a staff to lean on, as he went on talking, with the cold water swirling about over his knees, and threatening to wet his feather-stuffed breeches. "I'm ashamed of your father and Ralph's father. Call themselves Christian gentlemen, and because a pair of old idiots of ancestors in the dark ages quarrelled, and tried to cut one another's throats, they go on as their fathers did before them, trying to seize each other's properties, and to make an end of one another, and encouraging their sons to grow up in the same vile way."
"My father is a gentleman and a knight, sir," cried Mark Eden hotly; "and I'm sure that he would never turn cut-throat or robber if he was left alone."
"Of course; and that's what Sir Morton Darley would say, or his son either; and still the old feud is kept up. Look here, boy; suppose you were to run against young Ralph now, what would happen?"
"There'd be a fight," cried the lad, flushing up; and he drew in his breath with a hiss.
"Of course!" sneered the old man.
"Well, he never sees me without insulting me."
"And you never see him without doing the same."
"But! Bah! I haven't patience with you all. Six of one; half a dozen of the other. Both your families well off in this world's goods, and yet miserable, Fathers, two Ahabs, longing for the other's land to make a garden of herbs; and if they got it, a nice garden of herbs it would be! Why, Mark Eden, as I'm a scholar and a gentleman, my income is fifty pounds a year. My cottage is my own, and I'm a happier man than either of your fathers. Look about you, boy—here, at the great God's handiwork; wherever your eyes rest, you see beauty. Look at this silvery flashing river, the lovely great trees, the beautiful cliffs, and up yonder in the distance at the soft blues of the mountains, melting into the bluer skies. Did you ever see anything more glorious than this dale?"
"Never," cried the lad enthusiastically.
"Good, boy! That came from the heart. That heart's young and soft, and true, as I know. Don't let it get crusted over with the hard shell of a feud. Life's too great and grand to be wasted over a miserable quarrel, and in efforts to make others wretched. And it's so idiotic, Mark, for you can't hurt other people without hurting yourself more. Look here, next time you, spring boy, meet the other spring boy, act at once; don't wait till you are summer men, or autumn men. When you get to be a winter man as I am, it will be too late. Begin now, while it is early with you. Hold out your hand and shake his, and become fast friends. Teach your fathers what they ought to have done when they were young. Come, promise me that."
"I can't, sir," said the boy, frowning. "And if I could, Ralph Darley would laugh in my face."
"Bah!" ejaculated the old man, stamping the butt of his rod in the water. "There, I've done with you both. You are a pair of young ravens, sons of the old ravens, who have their nests up on the stony cliffs, and you'll both grow up to be as bad and bitter as your fathers, and take to punching out the young lambs' eyes with your beaks. I've done with you both."
"No, you haven't, Master Rayburn," said the lad softly. "I was coming to see you this evening, to ask you to go with me for a day, hunting for minerals and those stones you showed me in the old cavern, where the hot spring is."
"Done with you, quite," said the old man fiercely, as he began to bait his hook with another worm.
"And I say, Master Rayburn, I want to come and read with you."
"An untoward generation," said the old man. "There, be off! I'm wasting time, and I want my trout, and thymallus, my grayling, for man must eat, and it's very nice to eat trout and grayling, boy. Be off! I've quite done with you." And the old man turned his back, and waded a few steps upstream.
"I say, Master Rayburn," continued the lad, "when you said 'Bah!' in that sharp way, it was just like the bark of one of the great black birds."
"What, sir!" snapped the old man; "compare me to a raven?"
"You compared me and my father, and the Darleys, all to ravens, sir."
"Humph! Yes, so I did," muttered the old fisherman.
"I didn't mean to be rude. But you reminded me: I saw one of them fly over just before I met you, sir. Do you know where they are nesting this year?"
"Eh?" cried the fisherman, turning sharply, with a look of interest in his handsome old face. "Well, not for certain, Mark, but I've seen them several times lately—mischievous, murderous wretches. They kill a great many lambs. They're somewhere below, near the High Cliffs. I shouldn't at all wonder, if you got below there and hid among the bushes, you'd see where they came. It's sure to be in the rock face."
"I should like to get the young ones," said the lad.
"Yes, do, my boy; and if you find an addled egg or two, save them for me. Bring then on, and we'll blow them."
"I will," said the lad, smiling.—"Don't be hard on me, Master Rayburn."
"Eh? No, no, my boy; but I can't help being a bit put out sometimes. Coming down this evening, were you? Do. I'll save you a couple of grayling for supper—if I catch any," he added, with a smile.
"May I come?"
"Of course. Come early, my boy. I've a lot of things to show you that I've found since you were at home, and we'll plan out some reading, eh? Mustn't go back and get rusty, because you are at home. We'll read a great deal, and then you won't have time to think about knocking Ralph Darley's brains out—if he has any. You haven't much, or you wouldn't help to keep up this feud."
"Oh, please don't say any more about that, Master Rayburn."
"Not a word, boy. Must go on—a beautiful worm morning."
The old man turned his back again.
"Don't be late," he cried; and he waded onward, stooping, and looking more humped and comical than ever, as he bent forward to throw his bait into likely places, while Mark Eden went onward down-stream.
"I like old Master Rayburn," he said to himself; "but I wish he wouldn't be so bitter about the old trouble. It isn't our fault. Father would be only too glad to shake hands and be friends, if the Darleys were only nice, instead of being such savage beasts."
He went on, forcing his way among the bushes, and clambering over the great blocks of stone which strewed the sides of the river, and then stopped suddenly, as he sent up a moor-hen, which flew across the river, dribbling its long thin toes in the water as it went.
"I wonder," he said thoughtfully, "whether the Darleys think we are beasts too?"
HOW MARK EDEN FOUND THE RAVEN'S NEST.
"Ah, there he goes," said Mark, beneath his breath, as he stood motionless, and watched a large raven flapping along, high overhead, in the direction he was taking. "Perhaps that's the cock bird. Looks big. The nest may be where old Master Rayburn says, or up this way, and the bird's going for food."
He waited till the raven disappeared, and then went on down-stream, taking to a path higher up, which led him by a pretty cottage, standing in a niche at a bend of the river, so that the place had a good view up and down-stream, and with its pleasant garden, looked the sort of home which might well make its owner content.
But Mark Eden's mind was too full of ravens' nests, to leave room for any contemplation of the old scholar's cottage; and he hurried on by the path, which cut off two or three bends of the river, taking him right away for quite a couple of miles, and bringing him to the water's-edge again, just in front of a mighty cliff, which towered up out of a dense grove of beeches on the other side of the river.
The place was solitary and still in the extreme; and going close down to the water's-edge, Mark Eden seated himself upon a mossy stone, between two great hawthorns, which hid him from anything coming up or down-stream, while brambles, ferns, and clustering hemlock-plants, hid his back and front.
It was a pleasant resting-place, to sit and watch the rapidly running river, which was very shallow here; and from his hiding-place, he could see the shadows of the ripples, and the stony bottom, and also those cast by trout, as they glided here and there, waiting for the unfortunate flies and caterpillars which had fallen from overhanging boughs, to be washed down the stream.
But Mark had but a glance for the fish: his attention was taken up by the mass of precipitous stone before him, so steep, that it was only here and there, in cracks or on ledges, that herb or stunted bush could find a place to root; and as he scanned the precipice, from its foot among the beeches, to its brow, five hundred feet above where he sat, he wondered whether the ravens nested there.
No more likely place could be found for the great birds to rear their young; the cliff looked inaccessible, and days would pass, sometimes weeks, and not a soul come near.
"Old Master Rayburn must be right," thought the lad. "What eyes he has for everything of this kind. There are no rooks in the beeches; there isn't a jackdaw about; and I haven't seen a rock-dove; all proof that the ravens are here, for the others would not dare to nest near them. Only be to hatch young ones for food. But I don't see my gentleman nor his lady."
A hoarse, distant bark was heard, just as the lad's neck began to ache with staring up in vain, in the search for the nest, and he sat perfectly motionless, crouched amongst the hemlock and heracleum, to be rewarded by seeing a shadow thrown on the white limestone far on high, and directly after one of the great glossy black birds alight, right on the edge of the cliff, from whence it hopped into the air, and seemed to let itself fall some forty feet, down behind a stunted patch of broom, which had rooted in a cleft. There it disappeared for a few moments, to reappear, diving down toward the stream, but only to circle upward again, rise higher and higher, and finally disappear over the cliff, half a quarter of a mile away.
"Found it!" panted Mark; "a nest with young ones. Chance if there are any eggs for Master Rayburn."
He leaned back to examine the place.
"Can't get up there," he muttered at last; "but it would be easy to get down from the top. I could do it, but—"
He took off his cap, and gave his brown hair a vicious scratch, for there were other obstacles in the way.
It would be easy to wade across the river; easy to make his way along the other side to where the cliff sloped, five hundred yards lower down the stream. From there he could reach the high down, which was broken off short to form the cliff, and walk along the edge till he was exactly over the nest, and then descend. Those were not obstacles, but trifles. The great difficulty was moral. That great mass of limestone was on the Darley estate, and for a few minutes, the lad felt as if he must give it up.
But obstacles only spurred him on to action, and he cried to himself, petulantly:
"Is it theirs? Who are they, to claim an open wild place like that? They'll be saying next that all Darbyshire belongs to them. It's as much ours as theirs, and, if we had our rights, it would be ours. I shall go, in spite of all the Darleys in the county. Who are they? Piece of rock and moor like that, and they claim it. Let them. I shall not stop away for them."
The boy flushed, and ignoring the fact that he was about to commit a trespass, he slipped off shoes and hose, waded straight across the shallow river, and sat down on the other side to dry his feet, and put on hose and shoes again.
And all the time he felt a strong desire to glance up and down the river, to see if he had been observed by any one; but in his pride of heart he would not, for fear that he would be seen watching, and some one connected with his family's enemies take it for a sign of fear.
This done, he rose, gave his feet a stamp, glanced up at the face of the cliff, to see one of the parent ravens fly off, uttering an angry croak; and then he began to bear off to the right, so as to ascend the low part of the cliff, reaching the top quite five hundred yards away, and turning at once to continue his ascent by walking along the edge, which rose steeply, till it reached the point above the raven's nest, and then sloped down into a hollow, to rise once more into the wooded eminence which was crowned by Cliff Castle, the Darleys' home.
"They've a deal better place than we," said Mark to himself, as he strode on, in full defiance of the possibility of being seen, though it was hardly likely, a great patch of mighty beech-trees, mingled with firs, lying between the top of the big cliff and the Darleys' dwelling. "More trees, and facing toward the west and south, with the river below them, while our home is treeless and bare, and looks to the north and east, and is often covered with snow when their side's sunny and bright. My word! warm work, climbing up here, and the grass is as slippery as if it had been polished. Mustn't go over. Father wouldn't like it if I were to be killed; but I shouldn't be, for I should come down in the tree-tops, and then fall from bough to bough into the river, and it's deep just under the raven's nest."
Thinking this, he went on, up and up, cautiously, clear of head as one who had from childhood played about the cliffs, and reaching the summit breathless, to stand on the extreme verge, watching one of the ravens, which came sailing up, saw him at a distance, rose above his head, and then began to circle round, uttering hoarse cries.
"Ah, thief!" cried the lad; "I see what you have in your beak. A chicken; but your tricks are at an end. No more feeding young ravens here."
"Better get to the nest, first, though," said the boy laughingly; and he leaned forward, quite out of the perpendicular, to look down below the bush which sheltered the nest. "Easy enough: I can do it. If Ralph Darley had been half a fellow, he would have taken it himself. Better take off my sword, though. No; mustn't leave that in the enemy's country. I'll take it down with me. Be nice to come up again, and find that one of those ragged Jacks had got hold of it! I wonder whether Sir Morton engaged them the other day. Very likely. He's bad enough to do such an ungentlemanly thing. What did that fellow call himself. Pearl nose? Ought to have been Ruby nose. No, no; I remember now; it was Pearl Rose. My word, how high and mighty he was! Quite threatening. He'd go straight to Sir Morton Darley, if father did not enlist him and his men in our service. That upset father, just as he was thinking whether he should have them. He never could bear being threatened. How soon he sent them about their business, and threatened to summon the miners as well as our men. It will be awkward, though, if Sir Morton has engaged them, and strengthened his followers like that. May mean an attack. I wonder whether he did take their offer. If he has, father will wish he had agreed to the fellow's terms. I don't know, though. As he said to me, they would have been falling out with the mine men, and they seemed a ragged, drunken-looking set. Glad he sent them about their business."
All this, suggested by the possibility of losing his sword, just when he was upon an enemy's land; but he had not stopped on the top to think, for after lying down upon his breast, to gaze down and select the best place for his descent, he turned as he mused, lowered his legs, and began to descend, finding that after all his sword was not much in his way.
It was no new thing to Mark Eden to climb about the limestone cliffs, which formed one side of the Gleame, sometimes sloping down gradually, at others perpendicular, and in some cases partly overhanging, though in the latter case, it meant only for a few winters before, after being well saturated, the frost split them, piece by piece, till they went thundering down among the trees, generally to bound right into the river bed.
But, sloping or perpendicular, the formation was nearly always the same, stratum after stratum of from one to three feet in thickness, lying one upon the other, and riven into blocks which looked as if they had been laid by giant masons, to form a monstrous wall. Consequently, between the strata and their upright dividing cracks, there were plenty of places where a bold climber could find foot and hand-hold, without counting upon roots of trees, wiry shrubs, and tough herbs, to hold on by when other objects failed.
So easily enough, down went Mark, humming his tune again, and changing the humming to singing about the three ravens sitting on a tree, though in this instance, excepting the young in the nest below, there were only two, and instead of sitting, they were sailing round and round, croaking and barking angrily, the cock bird, if it was not the hen, making a pretence every now and then, to dart down and strike at the would-be marauder, who was descending to their home.
But Mark lowered himself steadily enough, laughing at the angry birds, and listening for the first cries of their young, as he wondered how big they would be.
He soon found that appearances were deceitful, upon a great height like that, for instead of the bush which hid the nest, being forty feet from the cliff brow, it was a good sixty, and the climbing was not so good as he had anticipated. The limestone crumbled away here and there; tufts of tough grass came out by the roots, and the stunted stems of bushes were not plentiful enough for hand-hold. But whenever the lad found the place too difficult, he edged off to right or left, and found an easier spot from which he lowered himself, and edged his way back along the joining of the next row of blocks.
To any one gazing from the opposite side, his appearance, flattened against the cliff, would have seemed appalling, but to Mark Eden it was a mere nothing; he was descending the old cliff, and trying to find the easiest way, that was all. No nervous qualms troubled him, and the thought of falling never once came into his head.
Lower and lower, with the sun beating upon his back, and the ravens croaking more and more loudly, and getting more threatening.
"Just wait till I get down to the bush, my fine fellows," he said aloud. "Then you may come on if you like, and I should like to see you do it; only look out, for it means spitting yourselves. Glad I brought my sword."
He was now only about ten feet above the bush; and as he held on for a few moments and looked down, he saw that there was a good-sized ledge in front of a cranny, in which the nest must be, and upon this ledge, bones, bits of wool, feathers, and remains of rabbits' fur, were scattered, showing how hard the old birds had worked to feed their young.
He saw, too, something else which completely upset one of his plans, which was, to continue his descent right to the bottom of the cliff, after securing the young ravens; for the strata retired for some distance below the bush, and he grasped at once the fact, that he must return by the way he descended.
"Wish I had a bag with me," he thought, as he heard a peculiar squeaking arise from beneath his feet. "Never mind: I'll tie their legs together with my handkerchief, or thrust them into toy breast."
Croak—croak—craw—awk! came from one of the ravens, as it swept by him with a rush.
"Wait a minute, my fine fellow, or madam," said the boy. "Hard for you, perhaps; but how many chickens and ducklings have you stolen? how many unfortunate lambs have you blinded this spring? Can't have ravens here. Hah! that's it."
For upon forcing his hands well into a fault in the rock, he had lowered his feet and found good foot-hold on the ledge, lowered himself a little more, and saw that he could easily sit down, hold on by his left hand, the stout bush being ready, and draw out a pair of well-grown nestlings as soon as he liked.
"I'm afraid, Master Rayburn, that if there are eggs I should get them broken if I put them in my pocket," he said aloud; "and if they do break, phew! It would be horrible. Ah, put them in my cap. Let's see."
He thrust his right hand into the niche, and snatched it back, for the young ravens were big enough to use their beaks fiercely, and set up a loud, hoarse series of cries, as soon as they found that an enemy was at the gate.
"You vicious little wretches!" he cried. "My word, they can bite. Ah, would you!"
This was to one of the ravens, which rendered frantic by the cries of the young, swooped at him, and struck him with a wing in passing.
"Declaration of war, eh!" he said. "Well, it's your doing, you murderous creatures, you lamb-slayers. I did not know you could be so fierce."
The raven had sailed off to a distance now, croaking loudly, and joined its mate; and as at the next movement of Mark, seated on his perilous perch, the young ravens screeched hoarsely again, it was evident that there was to be a fresh attack, this time united.
But the lad reached down his right arm, got hold of the hilt of his thin rapier, and pressing closely to the niche, drew the weapon from its sheath.
"Now then!" he cried, as the blade flashed in the sunshine, "I'm ready for you. A new way of killing ravens. Come on."
He had not long to wait, for finding the entrance to their nesting-place partly darkened, the young birds set up a loud series of cries, maddening the old ones, and with a rush, down came one of them, so fiercely that the lad's arm received a heavy stroke from a powerful wing, the sword, passing through the feathers, between the bird's wing and body.
"That's one to you," said the lad, drawing his breath with a sharp hiss. "My word, you can hit hard! It's your life or mine, my fine fellow, so look out."
Almost before he had breathed these words, amidst the outcry made by the young, the second raven stooped at him, just as a falcon would at a heron, and it came so unexpectedly, that once more the point of the sword was ill directed, and a severe buffet of the bird's wing nearly sent him down.
"This is getting too serious," he said, pressing his teeth together, as he for the first time fully realised what enormous power a bird has in its breast muscles.
They gave him no time for thinking, the first bird which had attacked, after taking a swift curve round and upward, coming down again with a fierce rush. But it was its last. Mark's sword was too well pointed this time; there was a whirr, a heavy thud which made the hilt jar against the lad's thigh, and the brave fierce bird had spitted itself so thoroughly, that it struggled and beat its wings heavily as it lay on the lad's lap, till he thrust out his arm to keep off the rain of blows, and the bird fluttered itself off the rapier, and fell with the force of a stone, down, down, out of sight.
A hoarse croak set the lad on guard again, and none too soon, for once more he received a heavy blow from the companion raven's wing, as it passed him with a whirr, striking the bush as well. Then recovering itself from the stoop which carried it low down, it sailed up again, to prepare for another attack.
"A bad miss," muttered the lad. "There was so little time to aim. Now then, come on again."
The raven was far enough away, but as if it heard the challenge, it swept round, and came on now from the other direction, an awkward one for Mark; but he managed to hoist himself round a little, and presented his point steadily at the advancing bird, as it came on, looking small at first, then rapidly appearing bigger and bigger, till, with a furious whish through the air, it was upon him.
"Hah!" ejaculated the lad, as his right arm was swung round by the violence of the raven's stoop, and the unfortunate bird had shared its mate's fate, for with the rush it had not only pierced itself through and through, but swept itself off the blade, wrenching the holder's shoulder, and falling, fluttering feebly, downward, till it too passed from sight.
"Well done, brave birds!" panted the lad. "Seems too bad: but it has saved no end of lambs. Who'd have thought that they would fight like that? Why, they could have beaten me off. Lucky I brought my sword. Phew! it has made me hot," he muttered, as he wiped the blade carefully; and after a little wriggling to find the hole in the scabbard, thrust the weapon home. "They will not come at me again; so now for our young friends."
He began to feel the nest again, making the young birds squeal hoarsely, and peck at him viciously as well; but after the parents' attack, this seemed trifling, and, to his great satisfaction, he found that there was an egg as well.
"Must get that down safe," he said. "Old Master Rayburn will be so—"
He did not finish his sentence, for at that moment a hoarse voice shouted: "Hallo, below! What you doing there?" And looking up, to his horror he saw three heads against the sky, as their owners lay on the cliff and looked down at him; one of the faces being that of Ralph Darley, the others, those of two of the enemy's men.
NICK GARTH MAKES A FIND.
"Hi! Nick! Nick, I say, hallo!" Ralph Darley ran as he shouted at a couple of his father's men, who were descending the slope on the eastern side of the castle, each shouldering a short sharp pick, of the kind in common use for hewing stone.
At first, though they must have heard, they paid no attention whatever; but at the third angry summons, they both stopped short, looked slowly round, and seeing their young master running, they stood still, and waited for him to come up, which he did, panting and angry.
"You, Nick Garth," he cried; "you must have heard me call."
"Yerse," said the man addressed, a strong-built fellow, with a perfectly smooth face, and an unpleasant-looking pair of eyes, so arranged that they did not work properly; in fact, he could only use one at a time. If he brought one to bear upon an object, that eye dragged its fellow round so that the pupil dived under the man's thick nose; and if he made an effort to see with the eclipsed one, it served its fellow in the same way.
"You must have heard too, Ram Jennings."
"Yoss, I heared," said the other man, a dark, rather villainous-looking fellow, whose face could not be called troubled with yellow specks, but streaked here and there with a little whitish red, the rest being one enormous freckle, which covered brow, cheeks, and chin.
"Then why didn't you answer?"
"Both on us stopped," said the first man addressed.
"Ay, that's so," said the other.
"Why didn't you come back, then?"
"'Cause we see you running. Didn't we, mate?"
"Ay, that's so."
"It's your duty to come to me when your called," said Ralph hotly. "The man to the master, not the master to the man."
"Allus do," said Nick, looking insolently at the lad first with one eye, and then with the other.
"Don't be impertinent, sir. Now then, where are you two going?"
"Over yonder," said the first man surlily.
"Ay, over yonder," said the other.
"Fads. Young missus wants some o' they softy stones cut to build up in the yard, round a bit o' drain pipe, to make a puddle to keep fishes in."
"Oh!" said the lad, cooling down. "Go and do it then; I'll wait till the afternoon."
The men grinned, shouldered their picks, and went off, while the lad took a few paces in another direction; but turned sharply, and called the men again, with the same result—that is, they stood still and waited for him to join them.
"They're a pair of thick-headed fools, that's what they are," muttered the lad. "I could teach a dog to be more dutiful. Here, Nick—Ram—did you see those soldiers who came the other day?"
"Nay, only one o' their cloak things as they left behind."
"Left a cloak behind?"
"Ay," said the second man. "I fun' it."
"What did you do with it?"
"Burnt it. Warn't good for nothing else."
"Do you know where they went?"
"Summun said they went to Black Tor, and old Eden set 'em to work in the mine, and keeps 'em there," said Nick, moving his head from side to side, so as to bring his eyes alternately to bear upon his young master.
"Oh!" said Ralph softly to himself. Then aloud: "That will do."
The men grinned again, and went off, while Ralph walked slowly away to where he could throw himself down at the side of the cliff in the sunshine, swing his legs over the edge, where it was nice and dangerous if he slipped, and finally leaned back to rest on one elbow, and gaze in the direction of the high cliff beyond the depression, where the men were gone to chip out pieces of the soft spongy-looking tufa, which lay in beds on the slope.
"That's bad news," thought the lad. "I wonder what father will say. It will be horrible. They will be so strong there, that one doesn't know what will happen, only that we shall have to fight. Well, then," he cried hotly, "we'll fight. Let them come. The Darleys have never been beaten yet."
For the next half-hour, he lay thinking about swords, and pikes, and armour, and big stones to cast down off the towers upon assailants, and then his attention was taken by one of the great black ravens, flapping its way along over the dale, and he watched it till it seemed to him to slide down toward the cliff, a quarter of a mile away.
By-and-by he saw another great bird, and thought it the same, but directly after, the first one reappeared, and he saw the pair cross in the air.
"They've got a nest, and it must be on the High Cliff. Wonder whether I could hit one of the great thieves with a crossbow-bolt. Be practice," he thought; "I may have to shoot at two-legged thieves."