* * * * *
A number of typographical errors found in the original text have been corrected in this version. A list of these errors is provided at the end of the book.
* * * * *
VAN TASSEL SUTPHEN
AUTHOR OF "THE CARDINAL'S ROSE" "THE GATES OF CHANCE" ETC.
NEW YORK AND LONDON HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS MCMVI
Copyright, 1905, 1906, by The Metropolitan Magazine Company.
Copyright, 1906, by HARPER & BROTHERS.
All rights reserved.
Published June, 1906.
I. THE VERMILION FEATHER 1
II. THE NIGHT OF THE TERROR 14
III. THE NEW WORLD 19
IV. THE MAN ON HORSEBACK 25
V. THE RAT'S-HOLE 32
VI. TROY TOWN 41
VII. THE BREAD OF AFFLICTION 50
VIII. IN THE SHADOW OF DOOM 58
IX. THE KEYS OF POWER 67
X. THE MESSAGE 83
XI. THE SISTERS 93
XII. THE HEDGE OF ARROWS 106
XIII. GODS IN EXILE 120
XIV. ARCADIA HOUSE 136
XV. A MAN AND A MAID 150
XVI. AS IN A LOOKING-GLASS 162
XVII. THE AWAKENING 173
XVIII. A PROPHET OF EVIL 181
XIX. IN QUINTON EDGE'S GARDEN 188
XX. THE SILVER WHISTLE BLOWS 199
XXI. OXENFORD'S DAUGHTER 209
XXII. YET THREE DAYS 223
XXIII. THE RED LIGHT IN THE NORTH 231
XXIV. THE EVE OF THE THIRD DAY 238
XXV. ENTR'ACTE 242
XXVI. THE SONG OF THE SWORD 250
XXVII. DOOMSDAY 266
XXVIII. IN THE FULNESS OF TIME 274
XXIX. DEATH AND LIFE 281
XXX. THE STAR IN THE EAST 290
"CONSTANS AND NIGHT WERE DOWN" Frontispiece
"OUT LEAPED QUINTON EDGE'S SWORD" Facing p. 48
"CONSTANS LOOKED ABOUT HIM IN WONDERMENT" " 64
"THE BLOWS RAINED DOWN UPON HIS FACE" " 76
"THEY PARTED WITHOUT FURTHER SPEAKING" " 90
"AN INSTANT LATER THE BOWSTRING TWANGED" " 118
"SHE STOOD MUTE AND WIDE-EYED BEFORE HIM" " 156
"OF DOOM SHALL WE REQUIRE IT" " 220
* * * * *
THE VERMILION FEATHER
A beach of yellow sand and a stranded log upon which sat a boy looking steadfastly out upon the shining waters.
It was a delicious morning in early May, and the sun was at his back, its warm rays falling upon him with affectionate caress. But the lad was plainly oblivious of his immediate surroundings; in spirit he had followed the leading of his eyes a league or more to the westward, where a mass of indefinable shadow bulked hugely upon the horizon line. Indefinable, in that it was neither forest nor mountain nor yet an atmospheric illusion produced by the presence of watery vapor. It did not change in density as does the true cloud; for all of its mistiness of outline there was an impression of solidity about its deeper shadows, something that the wind could not lift nor the light pierce. A mystery, and the boy devoured it with his eyes, his head bent forward and his shoulders held tensely.
The place was a rocky point of land jutting forth into a reef-strewn tideway. The forest came down close to the strip of beach, but there was comparatively little underwood, and the grass, growing up to the very roots of the trees, gave to the glade an appearance almost parklike. There was no house in sight, not even the thin, blue curl of a smoking hearth to proclaim the neighborhood of man. Yet the sign of human handicraft was not wholly wanting; through the tree trunks, at perhaps a hundred yards away, appeared the line of a timber stockade—enormous palisades, composed of twelve-foot ash and hickory poles, set in a double row and bound together by lengths of copper wire. It was to be further observed that the timbers had been stripped of their bark and the knots smoothed down so as to afford no coigne of vantage to even a naked foot. Add, again, that the poles had been charred and sharpened at the top, and it will be understood that the barrier was a formidable one against any assault short of artillery.
There was no beaten road or path near the line of palisades, but, following the curving of the shore, a forest track, already green with the young grass that was pushing its way through last year's stubble, stretched away to the north and south. It was hardly more than a runway for the deer and wild cattle, but it did not give one the impression of having been originally plotted out by these creatures, after the immemorial fashion of their kind. An animal does not lay out his road in sections of perfectly straight lines connected by mathematical curves, neither does he fill up gullies nor cut through hills, when it is so easy to go around these obstructions.
The boy, who sat and dreamed at the water's edge, was in his eighteenth year or thereabouts, slenderly proportioned, and with well-cut features. The delicately moulded chin, the sensitive nostril—these are the signs of the poet, the dreamer, rather than of the man of action. And yet the face was not altogether deficient in indications of strength. That heavy line of eyebrow should mean something, as also the free up-fling of the head when he sat erect; the final impression was of immaturity of character rather than of the lack of it. From the merely superficial stand-point, it may be added that he had brown eyes and hair (the latter being cut square across his forehead and falling to his shoulders), a good mouth containing the whitest of teeth, and a naturally light complexion that was already beginning to accumulate its summer's coat of tan.
He was dressed in a tunic or smock of brown linen, gathered at the waist by a belt of greenish leather, with a buckle that shone like gold. His knees were bare, but around his legs were wound spiral bands of soft-dressed deer-hide. Buskins, secured by thongs of red leather and soled with moose-hide, to prevent slipping, covered his feet, while his head-dress consisted of a simple band of thin gold, worn fillet-wise. This last, being purely ornamental, was doubtless a token of gentle birth or of an assured social station. A short fur coat, made from the pelt of the much-prized forest cat, lay in a careless heap at the boy's feet. It had felt comfortable enough in the still keenness of the early morning hour, but now that the sun was well up in the sky it had been discarded.
In his belt was stuck a long, double-edged hunting-knife, having its wooden handle neatly bound with black waxed thread. A five-foot bow of second-growth hickory leaned against the log beside him, but it was unstrung, and the quiver of arrows, suspended by a strap from his shoulders, had been allowed to shift from its proper position so that it hung down the middle of his back and was, consequently, out of easy hand-reach. But the youth was in no apparent fear of being surprised by the advent of an enemy; certainly he had made no provision against such a contingency, and the carelessness of his attitude was entirely unaffected. It may be remarked that the arrows aforesaid were iron-tipped instead of being simply fire-hardened, and in the feathering of each a single plume of the scarlet tanager had been carefully inserted. Presumably, the vermilion feather was the owner's private sign of his work as a marksman. So far the lad's dress and accoutrements were in entire conformity to the primeval rusticity of his surroundings. Judge, then, of the reasonable surprise which the observer might feel at discovering that the object in the boy's hand was nothing less incongruous than a pair of binocular glasses, an exquisitely finished example of the highest art of the optician. One of the eye-piece lenses had been lost or broken, for, as the youth raised the glasses to sweep again the distant sea-line, he covered the left-hand cylinder with a flat, oblong object—a printed book. Its title, indeed, could be clearly read as, a moment after, it lay partly open upon his knee—A Child's History of the United States—and across the top of the page had been neatly written in charcoal ink, "Constans, Son of Gavan at the Greenwood Keep."
Mechanically, the boy began turning the leaves, stopping finally at a page upon which was a picture of the lower part of New York City as seen from the bay. Long and earnestly he studied it, looking up occasionally as though he would find its visible presentment in that dark blur on the horizon line. "It must be," he muttered, with a quick intake of his breath. "The Forgotten City and Doom the Forbidden—one and the same. Well, and what then?" and again he fell upon his dreaming.
For the best part of an hour the boy had sat almost motionless, looking out across the water. Then, suddenly, he turned his head; his ear had caught a suspicious sound, perhaps the dip of an oar-blade. Thrusting the field-glass and book into his bosom, he drew the bow towards him and listened. All was still, except for the chatter of a blue-jay, and after a moment or so his attention again relaxed. But his eyes, instead of losing themselves in the distance as before, remained fixed upon the sand at his feet. Fortunately so, or he must have failed to notice the long shadow that hung poised for an instant above his right shoulder and then darted downward, menacing, deadly.
An infinitesimal fraction of a second, yet within that brief space Constans had contrived to fling himself, bodily, forward and sideways from his seat. The spear-shaft grazed his shoulder and the blade buried itself in the sand. The treacherous assailant, overbalanced by the force of his thrust, toppled over the log and fell heavily, ignominiously, at the boy's side. In the indefinite background some one laughed melodiously.
Constans was up and out upon the forest track before his clumsy opponent had begun to recover his breath. It was almost too easy, and then he all but cannoned plump into a horseman who sat carelessly in his saddle, half hidden by the bole of a thousand-year oak. The cavalier, gathering up his reins, called upon the fugitive to stop, but Constans, without once looking behind, ran on, actuated by the ultimate instinct of a hunted animal, zigzagging as much as he dared, and glancing from side to side for a way of escape.
But none offered. On the right ran the wall of the stockade, impenetrable and unscalable, and it was a long two miles to the north gate. On the left was the water and behind him the enemy. A few hundred yards and he must inevitably be brought to a standstill, breathless and defenceless. Yet he kept on; there was nothing else to do.
The horseman followed, putting his big blood-bay into a leisurely hand-gallop. A sword-thrust would settle the business quite as effectually as a shot from his cross-bow, and he would not be obliged to risk the loss of a bolt, a consideration of importance in this latter age when good artisan work is scarce and correspondingly precious.
Constans could run, and he was sound of wind and limb. Yet, as the thunder of hoofs grew louder, he realized that his chance was of a desperate smallness. If only he could gain a dozen seconds in which to string his bow and fit an arrow.
But he could not make or save those longed-for moments; already he had lost a good part of his original advantage, and the horseman was barely sixty yards behind. His head felt as though it were about to split in two; a cloud, shot with crimson stars, swam before his eyes.
The track swung suddenly to the right, in a sharp curve, and Constans's heart bounded wildly; he had forgotten how close he must be to the crossing of the Swiftwater. Now the rotting and worm-eaten timbers of the open trestle-work were under his feet; mechanically, he avoided the numerous gaps, where a misstep meant destruction, and so at last gained the farther bank and sank down panting on the short, crisp sward.
The cavalier reined in at the beginning of the trestle; he looked doubtfully at the ford above the bridge; but the Swiftwater was in spring flood, and, was the chase worth a wetting?
Evidently not, for, with a shrug of his shoulders, the horseman threw one leg across the saddle-pommel and sat there, very much at his ease, while he proceeded to roll himself a cigarette from coarse, black tobacco and a leaf of dampened corn-husk.
Constans felt his face flush hotly as he noted the contempt implied in his enemy's well-played indifference. Already he had put his bow in order; now he stood up and, with some ostentation, proceeded to fit an arrow to the string. The cavalier looked at these preparations with entire calmness and busied himself again with his flint and steel.
"It would be murder," muttered Constans, irritably, and lowered his hand. Then, moved by sudden impulse, he took aim anew and with more than ordinary care. The arrow sung through the air and transfixed the fleshy part of the cavalier's bridle-arm. The horse, whose withers had been grazed by the shaft, started to rear, but his rider neither moved nor changed color. Quieting the frightened animal with a reassuring word, he deftly caught the tinder spark at the tip of his cigarette and drew in a deep inhalation of the smoke. Then, with the utmost coolness, he proceeded to snap the arrow-shaft in twain and draw out the barb, Constans yielding him grudging admiration, for it was all very perfectly done.
"Here is a man," thought Constans, and looked him over carefully.
And truly the cavalier made a gallant figure, dressed as he was in the bravest raiment that the eyes of Constans had ever yet beheld. For his close-fitting suit was of claret-colored velvet with gilt buttons, while his throat-gear was a wonderfully fine lace jabot, with a great red jewel fastened in the knot. A soft hat, trimmed with gold lace and an ostrich-feather, covered his dark curls, while yellow gauntlets and high riding-boots of polished leather completed his outward attire. Not an unpleasing picture as he sat there in the sunshine astride the big blood-bay, but Constans, looking upon him, knew that neither now nor hereafter could there be any verity of peace between them. There is such a thing as hate at first sight even as there is love.
The horseman had retained the feathered end of the arrow-shaft, and he proceeded to examine it with an appearance of polite interest.
"Your private token, young sir?" he inquired, indicating the single feather of scarlet. His voice was pitched in an affectedly high key, his manner languidly ceremonious. Constans could only bow stiffly in the affirmative.
"Ah, yes; it is one not to be easily forgotten. I, too, have my sign-manual, and I should have been glad to have exchanged with you."
Again Constans bowed. He wanted to say something, but the words would not come. The cavalier smiled.
"But there may be another opportunity later on," he continued. "At least, we may hope so." He bowed, lifting his plumed hat. "To our future acquaintance." He turned his horse's head to the southward, and rode away at a slow canter without once looking back.
Constans watched the ostrich-crest as it rose and fell, until it was lost to sight among the tree-trunks. Then, drawing his belt tight, he started on a dog-trot in the contrary direction; the barrier, admitting him to the protection of the stockade, was still some distance away, and he must reach it without delay and give the warning. But, even as he ran, he heard the tolling of a bell; it was the alarm that the Doomsmen were abroad. Now, indeed, he must make haste or he would find the barrier closed against himself.
Ten minutes later he stood before the northern entrance of the Greenwood Keep. Already the warders were fitting into place the gates of iron-studded oak, but they recognized the voice of their lord's son and allowed him to squeeze his way through. Guyder Touchett, the burly captain of the watch, clapped him familiarly on the back.
"Your legs have saved your skin, master. God's life! but you flashed through the cover like a cock-grouse going down the wind. Yet I trembled lest a cross-bow bolt might be following even faster."
"They have come—the Doomsmen?" panted Constans.
"Garth, the swineherd, reported their landing at the Golden Cove an hour before sunup. Three war-galleys, which means twice that score of men."
"Some mischance of wind or tide," said Constans, thoughtfully. "I noticed that the water in the Gut was rougher than is usual at dawn."
"Like enough," assented Touchett. "These night-birds are not often seen in a blue sky, and luckily so, for the safety of your father's ricks and byres. After all, there is no certainty in the matter; Garth is stupid enough betimes for one of his own boars, and there was a christening-party at the barracks last night. You know what that means—the can clinking until the tap runs dry."
"Yet you say he saw——"
Guyder Touchett shrugged his shoulders. "Anything you like. When the ale is in the eye there are stranger things than gray cats to be discovered at the half-dawn. In my opinion, Garth is a fool and a liar."
"And, as usual, your opinion is wrong," retorted Constans, "for the Gray Men are really here. But I cannot wait; I must speak with Sir Gavan himself."
"You will find him at the water gate," bawled Touchett, as the boy ran past him.
Constans sped rapidly up the green slope leading to the house a quarter of a mile away. As he ran, he mentally rehearsed the story of his late adventure. Surely, now, Sir Gavan would permit him to bear a man's part in the impending crisis. Had he not already drawn hostile blood—the first?
Sir Gavan awaited his son at the water gate, his ruddy countenance streaked with an unwonted pallor and his gray eyes dark with trouble.
"Where is your sister?" he asked, abruptly, as Constans ran up.
The boy stared. "She did not go out with me, sir. Do you mean that Issa——"
"Hush! or your mother will overhear. Come this way." And Sir Gavan preceded his son into the guard-room on the left of the vaulted entrance, walking heavily, as one who bears an unaccustomed burden upon his shoulders. Yet when he spoke again his voice had its accustomed steadiness.
"No one has seen her since ten of the sundial. It is now noon, and the alarm-bell has been ringing this half-hour."
Constans felt something tighten at his own throat. "You have searched the enclosure?" he faltered.
"Every nook and corner," returned Sir Gavan. "Tennant, with a dozen men, is now beating the upper plantations."
Constans thought guiltily of that cleverly concealed gap in the palisades just beyond the intake of the Ochre brook. He and Issa had shared it between them as a precious secret, and he had used it this very morning as a short cut to the water-side. Tennant, their elder brother, was not aware of its existence, but then Tennant was a prig, and not to be trusted in truly momentous affairs.
There was his father's wrath. Constans turned sick at the thought of arousing it. No; he could not tell him.
"I don't know," he said, vaguely.
Sir Gavan looked at him searchingly, then turned and strode out of the room.
Constans felt his cheeks grow hot. Why had he not told all the truth? He was a coward, a liar, in all but the actual word. He sat down on a bench and buried his face in his hands; then the recurring thought of Issa and of her peril stung him to his feet. Where had Sir Gavan gone?
Constans made his way, hesitatingly, into the court-yard of the keep. He found it thronged with men, his father's retainers and servants. The archers were busy putting new strings to their bows; the spearmen were testing, with grave eagerness, the stout ash of their weapons, or perchance whetting an edge on the broad blades. Half a dozen of the younger men were engaged in covering the roof of the main and out buildings with horse-hides soaked in water, as a protection against burning arrows; others were driving the protesting cattle into the byres and sacking up a quantity of newly threshed grain that lay upon the flailing floor; everywhere the noise of shouting men and of hurrying feet.
Sir Gavan was not to be seen, and Constans, after inquiring for him through a fruitless quarter of an hour, entered the main house and sought the fighting platform on its roof. Why had no lookout been stationed here? Surely an oversight. He gazed eagerly about him.
Directly to the right of the house lay the home paddock, stretching away some two hundred yards to the edge of a white-birch plantation. The Ochre brook bounded it on one side, and the current had scoured out for itself an ever-deepening channel in the soft, alluvial soil. A clump of alders, just bursting into leaf, masked the bed of the stream at one particular point, where the bank rose into a miniature bluff. Constans, from his elevated position, was enabled to overlook this point, and so to make out the figure of a mounted man behind the alder screen, his horse standing belly deep in the water. It was the cavalier of the ostrich-feathers; and then, through the white trunks of the birches, he caught the flutter of a woman's gown. Constans tried to shout, to call out, but the vocal chords refused to relax, the sounds rattled in his throat.
THE NIGHT OF THE TERROR
The reader, desiring to inform himself in extenso regarding the physical and social changes that followed the catastrophe by which the ancient civilization was so suddenly subverted, would do well to consult the final authority upon the subject, the learned Vigilas, author of The Later Cosmos (elephant folio edition). But for our present purpose a brief epitome should suffice. To borrow then, with all due acknowledgments, from our admirable historian:
* * * * *
"It was in the later years of the twentieth century that the Great Change came; at least, so the traditions agree, and how is a man to know certainly of such things except as he learns them from his father's lips? True, the accounts differ, and widely so at times, but that much is to be expected—where were there ever two men who heard or saw the same things in the same way? It is human nature that we should color even transparent fact with the reflected glow of our passions and fancies, and so the distortion becomes inevitable; we should be satisfied if, to-day, we succeed in making out even the broad outlines of the picture.
"It appears tolerably certain that the wreck of the ancient civilization took place about three generations ago, the catastrophe being both sudden and overwhelming; moreover, all the authorities agree that only an infinitesimal portion of the race escaped, with whole skins, from what were, in very sooth, cities of destruction. These fortunate ones were naturally the politically powerful and the immensely rich, and they owed their safety to the fact that they were able to seize upon the shipping in the harbors for their exclusive use. The fugitives sailed away, presumably to the southward, and so disappeared from the pages of authentic history. We know nothing for certain; only that they departed, and that we saw their faces no more.
"Let us reconstruct, as best we may, the panorama of those few but awful days. The first rush was naturally to the country, but the crowds, choking the ferry and railway stations, were quickly confronted with the terror-stricken thousands of the suburbs, who were flocking to the city for refuge. And all through the dragging hours the same despairing reports flowed in from the remoter rural districts; everywhere the Terror walked, and men were dying like flies. From ocean to ocean, from the lakes to the gulf, the shadow rushed, and now the whole land lay in darkness.
"Such was the situation in what was then the United States of America, and similar conditions prevailed throughout the habitable world. London and Hong-Kong, Vienna and Pekin, Buenos Ayres and Archangel—from every direction came the same inquiry, to every questioner was returned the same answer. It was the end of all things.
"Coincidently with this great recession of the human tide, occurred the eclipse of industry, science, and, indeed, every form of thought and progress. The plough rusted in the furrow, the half-formed web dropped to pieces in the loom, the very crops stood unharvested in the fields, to be finally devoured by the birds and by a horde of rats and mice. Up to the last moment there had been confusion and dismay certainly, but the wheels of trade and of the civil administration had continued to turn; men had stood at their posts in answer to the call of duty or impressed by the blind instinct of habit. And then, suddenly, the sun went down, only to rise again upon a silent land.
"The relapse into barbarism was swift. The few who had escaped were segregated from one another in small family groups, each man content with the bare necessities of animal existence and fearing the face of the stranger. Under such circumstances, there could be but little neighborly intercourse, and the ancient highways speedily became overgrown with grass and weeds, or else they were undermined and washed out by the winter storms. It was not until the second generation after the Terror that men once more began to draw together, in obedience to inherited instincts, and even then the new movement must have been largely brought about through the increasing aggressions of the Doomsmen. But of this in another place.
"It has been asserted that fire played a principal part in the destruction of the ancient cities, and it was at one time supposed that these extensive conflagrations were partly accidental and partly attributable to the wide-spread lawlessness that marked the closing hours of the greatest drama in all history. But later researches have evolved a new theory, and it now seems probable that the torch was employed by the authorities themselves as a final and truly a desperate measure. An heroic cautery, but, alas, a useless one.
"The comparative exemption of New York from the universal fate goes to support rather than to discredit this hypothesis. It escaped the dynamite cartridge and the torch simply because in that city no recognized authority remained in power; there was no one to carry out the imperative orders of the federal government. There were, of course, many isolated cases of incendiarism, but the city did not suffer from any general and organized conflagration, as was the fate of Philadelphia and St. Louis and New Orleans. The destiny of the metropolis was decided in a different way; already it had passed into the keeping of the Doomsmen.
"In effect, then, the highly civilized North American continent had relapsed, within the brief period of ninety years, into its primeval estate. In every direction stretched an inhospitable wilderness of morass and forest, with a few feeble settlements of the Stockade people fringing the principal waterways, and here and there the smoke of an encampment of the Painted Men rising in a thin spiral from out of the vast ocean of green leaves. To-day the wild boar ranges where once the tide of human passion most turbulently flowed, and the poor herdsman, eating his noonday curds from a wooden bowl, crushes with indifferent heel the priceless bit of faience lying half hidden in the rotting leaves. Everywhere, the old order changing and disappearing, only to recreate itself in form ever more fantastic and enfeebled, a dead being, and yet inextricably bound up with the life of the new age. And over all, the shadow of Doom, gigantic, threatening, omnipotent."
THE NEW WORLD
Again we make acknowledgment to the "Laudable" Vigilas and quote at large from the luminous pages of The Later Cosmos. Now the reader, scenting more learned discourse, may meditate upon skipping this chapter; nay, will probably do so. Yet, to my thinking, he will act more wisely in buckling down to it, seeing that it contains matter of moment for the perfect understanding of the narrative proper. The studying of guide-posts is not an amusing occupation, but it is infinitely less tedious than to wander around all day in a fog and perhaps miss one's destination altogether.
* * * * *
"It is, indeed, a small world as we know it to-day. Our philosophers, reconstructing, as best they may, the science of the ancients from the treatises, few and sadly incomplete, that have come down to us, affirm that the earth is an orb and that another continent (perhaps more than one) lies beyond the rim of the eastern horizon. It may be so, but the issue is not of practical importance, seeing that there are none who care to make adventure of the great salty gulf that lies between. And so the sea keeps its mysteries.
"On the other hand, we count it inadvisable to wander far afield. To the north, to the west, and to the south stretches the unbroken forest, and in a few hours a man's legs may easily carry him out of hailing of the voice of his kind. The waterways form the only regular channels for social and commercial intercourse, and the busybody and gad-about are not regarded with favor by honest people.
"It appears highly probable that the human race was virtually annihilated over the general area of the ancient United States of America; it persisted only in a few particularly favored localities and through accidental circumstances of which we know nothing definite. In our own day, the northern, central, and southern group of colonies maintain a system of infrequent intercommunication, and beyond that certain knowledge does not extend. It is possible that mankind may exist in a degraded state, in many inaccessible corners of this vast continent of ours, but this is only a possibility, concerning which the theories of the learned are no more susceptible of proof than are the idle speculations of the vulgar.
"For convenience, we will accept the popular classification of the human race as it exists to-day—the Painted Men, the House People, and the Doomsmen. To take them up in that order.
"The Painted Men, otherwise the Wood Folk, are the descendants of the Indians of old, but the strain is largely mingled with that of the negro race, and, with hardly an exception, it is the weaker qualities both of body and of mind that have been emphasized in the hybrid. From their Indian forebears they have preserved the custom of painting their face with crude and hideous pigments upon all occasions of ceremony; hence their popular designation—the 'Painted Men.'
"The House People are conveniently subdivided into two classes—the townsmen, or House People proper, and the stockade dwellers, colloquially, the Stockaders.
"The House People of the walled towns represent as nearly as may be the middle classes of the ancient civilization. Originally, the family was the political and social unit, just as with the patriarchs of Holy Writ, but within the last generation the community idea has been growing rapidly, and there are perhaps a score of towns and villages scattered along the banks of the Greater and Lesser rivers.
"The Stockaders, reversing the procedure of their kinsmen of the towns, live apart from one another, each proprietor depending wholly upon his own resources for sustenance and defence. Some of the larger estates contain several hundred acres enclosed by a strong timber stockade and otherwise defended against the assaults of enemies. The head of the family, or clan, as it might more properly be termed, is lord paramount within his own borders, even possessing the rights of life and death. But this last authority is rarely called in exercise, since these folk of the free country-side are naturally wholesome, honest, generous-hearted men, content to lead a simple life and coveting no man's honor or goods. On the other hand, it must be admitted that the stockade dweller is both provincial of habit and prejudiced of mind. He looks down upon the townsman as a huckster in private and a shuffler in public life, and this feeling of contemptuous enmity is fully returned by the cit, who regards the free proprietor in the light of a boor and a bully. Moreover, it rankles in the Houseman's breast that no Stockader pays a farthing of head-money to the treasure-chest of the Doomsmen. Now and then some well-to-do proprietor may suffer loss from cattle thieving and rick burning, but as often as not the marauders pay full price for all they get. And this leads us to a consideration of the Doomsman himself, that foul excrescence upon our modern body politic. Fortunately, history here speaks clearly, and we have only to listen to her voice.
"It was a natural procedure, upon the coming of the Terror, to throw open the doors of the jails and other punitive institutions, thereby giving the wretched inmates an equal chance for life. The great mass of these degraded beings gravitated inevitably towards the cities, seeking plunder and opportunities for bestial dissipation that even the dread presence of the Terror could not restrain. Without hope and without fear, they rushed to the vulture's feast; here was wine and gold and soft raiment; let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.
"It was the ancient city of New York that received the vast bulk of this army of human rats; naturally so, since it was the supreme treasure-house of the western world. In such overwhelming numbers did these vermin come that the civil and military administrations were literally swarmed over. Between two days the outlaws were in complete possession, and the small remnant of the decent residents retired precipitately, preferring to meet death under the open sky rather than in company with their new masters.
"The years went on, but the changes that they brought were few. The descendants of the ancient criminals remained in the ruined city, at first of necessity, afterwards by choice, finding there fuel and shelter in abundance besides large stores of non-perishable food supplies. When, in the next generation, these provisions became exhausted it was inevitable that the refugees should fix covetous eyes upon the threshing-floors and herd-stalls of their rural neighbors. But although the outlaws had continued to gain in numbers, their natural increase was not proportionate to the growing power of their adversaries. Little by little the Doomsmen began to lose ground; already they had been defeated several times in pitched battle, and it looked as though the hornet's-nest would soon be smoked out.
"It was at this critical juncture that the infamous personality of Dom Gillian made itself of commanding account, and thenceforth the balance began to incline the other way. It was but the weight of one man's hand in the scale-pan, yet there are still many of us who remember how heavy that hand could be.
"Infamous is the adjective deliberately applied, and with reason. Dominus Gillian, to give him his full name, was a renegade, the unworthy son of a distinguished Stockader family. Admittedly a man of fine intellect and force, it is equally unquestionable that he was entirely devoid of moral sense. He possessed a genius for organization, and he succeeded in consolidating the unruly Doomsmen into a compact and disciplined body of outlaws. Murder and rapine were quickly reduced to exact sciences, and, unfortunately, the House People could not be made to see the necessity of united action; the townsman and the stockade dweller preferred to contend with each other rather than against the common enemy. As a consequence, the freebooters had a clear road before them, and so was established that intolerable tyranny under which the land still groans. All this occurred upward of sixty years ago.
"It only remains to add that Dominus, or, more colloquially, Dom Gillian, still lives, albeit he must be verging upon ninety years of age. For many years he has not been seen in the field, and it is even asserted that he no longer takes active part in the councils of the Doomsmen. Be that as it may, his will still remains dominant to animate and direct the malign powers created by his wicked genius. And the evil that men do, doth it not live after them?
"Such is the world, or, rather, one infinitesimal portion of the cosmos, in the year 2015, according to the ancient calendar, or 90 since the Terror."
THE MAN ON HORSEBACK
Gavan of the Greenwood Keep was a prosperous man according to the standard of these latter days, and his estate was reckoned to be the largest and finest holding in all the western country-side. A man might walk from break of day until darkness and yet not complete the periphery of its boundary-lines, but the palisaded portion included only the arable land and home paddocks and was of comparatively limited extent. Viewed from a bird's-eye elevation, this stockaded enclosure appeared to be laid out in the shape of a pear, the house being situated near the small end. The greatest length of the area thus enclosed was a mile and a half, and it was three-quarters of a mile wide at the big or southern side, tapering down to a couple of hundred yards at the northern entrance or barrier.
A quarter of a mile back from the north gate stood the keep, not one distinct building, but rather several, built in the form of a hollow square and consolidated for mutual protection. The principal entrance, the one at the northern end, was called the water gate, for it should be explained that the keep stood on the bank of the Ochre brook and access was only possible by means of a drawbridge. Some day Sir Gavan intended to turn the course of the stream so as to carry it around the keep and thereby secure the protection of a continuous moat. But hitherto other duties had seemed more pressing, and the plan was still in abeyance.
Entering through the covered way of the water gate, with guard-room and bailiff's office to the right and left, one found himself in the court-yard, some fifty yards in the square. On the right were the cow-barns, horse-stalls, granaries, tool-houses, and store-buildings, while the dwelling proper, known as the Great House, occupied the entire left of the square, the kitchens and other offices adjoining the retainers' quarters on the south. An enormous hall, running clear to the roof, took up the central portion of the house, staircases and galleries affording access to the store and sleeping-rooms on the second and attic stories. The roof proper was surmounted by a para-petted and loop-holed structure called the fighting platform, and it was thither that Constans had repaired upon receiving the startling intelligence of his sister's disappearance. Let us rejoin him there.
In the leisurely moving figure glimpsed through the birches, Constans had instantly recognized Issa. Plainly she had been out flower-hunting; with the aid of his binoculars he could determine that she carried a bunch of the delicate pink-and-white blossoms that we call May-bloom. She was directing her steps straight for the house, but either she was unaccountably deaf to the continuous clanging of the alarm-bell or, still more strangely, unaware of its significance; she walked as though in a reverie, slowly and with her head bent forward. Thunder of God! it was a trap, and the foolish girl would not see. Unquestionably, the Doomsmen had forced the stockade at some distant point and were even now in ambush about the keep. But Constans, for all his keenness of vision and the assistance of his glass, could discover nothing to indicate the presence of any considerable body of men. There was no one in actual sight save he who sat upon his blood-bay steed, girth deep in the Ochre brook under shadow of the alders. Only one, but that one!
Constans found himself in the court-yard; how he scarcely knew. The water gate still stood open with the drawbridge lowered, but both could be easily secured within a few seconds should the enemy venture upon any open demonstration. Sir Gavan stood in the covered way talking anxiously with his eldest son Tennant, who had just returned from an unsuccessful search of the upper orchard.
Constans, in his confusion of mind, did not notice his father and brother; he ran across the court-yard to the horse-boxes. His black mare Night whickered upon recognizing her master, and tried to rub her muzzle against his cheek as he fumbled with the throat-latch of the bridle. An instant longer, to lead out the mare and vault upon her back, and he was clattering through the court-yard and covered way.
Upon reaching the open Constans saw that the situation had developed into a crisis. The cavalier of the ostrich-feather had forced his horse up the steep bank of the Ochre brook and was riding slowly towards the girl, who stood motionless, realizing her perilous position, but unable for the moment to cope with it. She half turned, as though to seek again the shelter of the birchen copse; then, clutching at her impeding skirts, she ran in the direction of the keep. He of the ostrich-plume spurred to the gallop; inevitably their paths must intersect a few yards farther on.
From behind came the noise of men shouting and the thud of quarrels impinging upon stout oak; the Doomsmen, hitherto in hiding, were making a diversion, in answer, doubtless, to a signal from their leader. A hundred gray-garbed men showed themselves in the open, coming from the shelter of the fir plantation back of the rickyards; they ran towards the open water gate, exposing themselves recklessly in their eagerness to reach it.
But the defenders were not to be surprised so easily, and Constans, glancing backward, saw that the drawbridge was already in the air and the gate closed. The outlaws, realizing that the surprise was a failure, and unwilling to brave the arrows sent whistling about their ears from the fighting platforms of the keep, fell back in some disorder. At the same moment a solitary figure appeared, emerging as though by magic from the solid wall of the keep—Sir Gavan himself, a father forgetful of all else but the peril of his children. He must have used the "Rat's-Hole" for egress; he hurried down the green slope, calling his daughter by name. All this Constans saw in that swift backward glance. Well, there was but one thing that he could do.
And Night knew it, too; brave little Night, how cleverly you forced yourself under the towering bulk of that brute of a blood-bay! A thunder of hoofs and they were in touch; Constans felt himself hurled into space; the bridle-reins of tough plaited leather were torn from his hands; Night and he were down.
The dust cloud cleared and the boy struggled up, although his head was still spinning from the shock of the encounter. Ten yards away lay the black mare with a broken foreleg. She was trying to rise, her eyes glazed with pain and her flanks heaving horribly.
The blood-bay had kept his feet and his master his saddle—a hardy pair, these two. But the desperate expedient had proved successful in that Issa was safe. Already Sir Gavan had her in his arms, and before the horseman had fully found himself the fugitives were under the shadow of the keep's walls.
The question of his own danger did not immediately concern Constans; he had no eyes for anything but Night lying there in her agony. His father had given him the horse when she was a foal of a week old, and Constans had broken and trained her himself. Well, she had served him faithfully, and in return he would show her the last mercy. His knife-sheath hung from his girdle; he drew out the blade and drove it home just behind the glossy black shoulder. Night shuddered and lay still. The knife had sunken deep, and Constans had to exert all his strength to withdraw it. The bare point of a rapier touched him meaningly on the arm; he stood up and faced his enemy.
The man on horseback laughed softly. "Oho, my young cockerel, it was but a touch of the gaff, and now that you are ready is reason sufficient why I should prefer to wait. But that neither of us may forget—" He bent down and caught Constans by the shoulders, turning him around and forcing him backward until his head rested against the blood-bay's withers. Two slashes of his hunting-knife and a tiny, triangular nick appeared on the upper part of the lad's right ear.
"That is my sign-manual of which I spoke to you an hour or more ago. It is Quinton Edge's mark, as all men know, and it brands whatever bears it as Quinton Edge's property. Some day I may deem it worth while to claim my own; until then you can be my caretaker, my tenant. What! no answer? And yet it is a generous offer, I think, considering how sore my arm has grown and how impertinently you behaved just now in interfering between me and a lady. Light of God! but she is a bewitching bundle of femineity. But twice, boy, have I seen her; hardly a dozen words have passed——"
He stopped abruptly and gazed hard at Constans. Then slowly:
"Your sister, I take it; there is the same straight line of eyebrow. No answer again? Well, we will pass it over for the nonce; you have still many things to learn, and, chiefly, to becomingly order body and soul in the presence of your lord. After all, it pleases me better to have the last word from the lady's own lips; she had been most discourteously treated, and I would fain be shriven. Until we meet again, then."
The cavalier put spur to the blood-bay's flank and rode straight for the Great House. The boy stood staring after him; he did not notice the trickle of blood from the cut in his ear; he was not even conscious that he was still in life. He remembered only the unforgivable affront which this man had put upon him, the mark which was the infamous badge of the bondman, the slave. Quinton Edge! Ah, yes; he would remember that face and name.
The Doomsman had ridden in cool defiance up to the very walls of the keep. It would have been an easy matter for one of the garrison to have bored his gay jacket through with a feathered shaft, and for a moment Constans trembled, fearing lest some overzealous partisan should thus rob him of his future vengeance. But the very audacity of the man proved the saving of his skin. They were brave men who manned the fighting platforms of the Greenwood Keep, and they could not bring themselves to set upon naked courage.
Constans fancied that the man spoke to some one who stood hidden in the deep embrasure of a window, but it was too far to either see or hear. Then it seemed that a small object fell lightly from the window-sill. The Doomsman caught it dexterously and fastened it on his breast. Another low bow and, wheeling his horse, he dashed down the slope. Constans ran blindly to meet him; why, he did not know. He who named himself Quinton Edge swerved slightly in his course so as to pass within arm's-length, calling out as he did so:
"Gage of battle and gage of love; a fortunate day for me. Believe me that at some future time I shall answer for them both."
It was a sprig of the May-bloom that the cavalier wore in his button-hole; Constans had only time to recognize it when the blood-bay broke into full gallop. The lad flung himself at full length upon the turf, face downward, and lay there motionless.
It was a warm, cloudy night some two weeks later, and Constans sat in the great hall of the keep, listlessly regarding the preparations that were being made for the evening meal. Six or seven of the house-servants were bustling to and from the buttery laden with flagons and dishes, which they deposited with a vast amount of noise and confusion upon the tables. These latter were of the most primitive construction, nothing more than puncheons smoothed down with the adze and supported by wooden trestles.
The main table ran nearly the full length of the hall, and was intended to accommodate the men-at-arms and the superior servants, together with such strangers of low degree as might chance to be present. The furniture was of the rudest pattern—platters of bass and white wood, which were daily scoured with sand to keep them clean and sweet, earthenware pitchers of a bricklike hue, drinking-cups of pewter and leather, and clumsy iron forks. There was no provision of cutlery; evidently the guests were expected to use their hunting-knives and daggers for the dismemberment of the viands.
At the upper or dais end of the hall there was a second table, placed at right angles to the long one and elevated above it by the height of the superior flooring upon which it stood. This principal board was, of course, for the exclusive use of the family and distinguished guests, and from the circumstance of its being raised above the main level the master could command an unobstructed view of the entire household in the event of any overt disorder or indecorum.
The viands were quite in keeping with the simplicity of the table-gear. Huge chines of beef and mutton, with spare-rib and fowl in apparently unlimited quantity, formed the staple of the repast, and were reinforced by vast bowls of the commoner garden vegetables and by bread made of unbolted flour. Sweetmeats were scarce, for the products of the sugarcane are difficult to procure in these northern latitudes. Maple sugar and honey serve as the ordinary substitutes, and even these are regarded as luxuries, since maple-trees are few in number and bee-keeping is but little practised. Finally, there were the drinkables, these including hard cider and a thin, acid wine made from the wild grape.
Annoyed by the clatter of the dishes and the half-whispered conversation of the domestics, Constans rose and walked to the dais end of the hall, where his mother and sister were seated, engaged in the agreeable occupation of inspecting the contents of a peddler's pack. It was an imposing array to the eye, and the chapman, kneeling on the floor close by Issa's stool, kept handing up one article after another for closer examination. The stuff seemed worthless enough to Constans—trumpery pieces of quartz crystal set in copper and debased silver, rings and bangles of a hue unmistakably brassy, hair ribbons, parti-colored dress goods, pins, needles, and a miscellaneous assortment of useless trinkets. Constans was genuinely astonished that Issa, who had been hitherto something of a good-fellow, should seem interested in such rubbish; but then women were all alike when it was a question of pretty things to buy. He looked sharply at the peddler, but the latter appeared commonplace enough, a man of forty or thereabouts, and dressed in the looped-up gray gaberdine peculiar to the guild of itinerant chapmen. Possibly he was bald, for he wore a close-fitting skull-cap; his beard, however, was luxuriant and effectually hid the contour of the lower half of his face. Constans stood by frowning lightly, but he had no reasonable pretext for interfering with his sister's amusement, and in the feminine catalogue of diversions the peddler's infrequent visit held a prominent place.
The major-domo, wearing a silver chain about his neck by virtue of his office, advanced to his mistress's chair and announced that the meal was ready for serving. The Lady Rayne nodded, a brazen gong sounded, the big folding-doors at the south end were thrown open, and the hall was quickly filled with the customary throng of retainers and hangers-on. But all remained standing in silence until the master and mistress had taken their places. Sir Gavan entered from his workshop, and, offering his hand to his wife, led her ceremoniously to her seat, Issa and Constans following.
To Constans's indignant amazement the peddler stepped forward, as though to take the vacant seat alongside of Issa. But before Constans could move or speak the chapman appeared to recognize the impropriety of which he had been so nearly guilty; with a profound genuflection, he withdrew from the dais and found a place at the lower table. The incident had been so momentary that it had passed entirely unnoticed by his father and the Lady Rayne; Constans could not even be sure that Issa had understood, and certainly she gave no sign of discomposure.
"What presumption!" muttered Constans, under his breath. "These fellows are becoming more insufferable every day, and my father sees nothing." Constans resolved that the man should be packed off immediately upon the conclusion of the meal. He could easily persuade Sir Gavan that the fellow had none too honest a look, while his wares were assuredly the cheapest trash. He must be got rid of before the women had been beguiled into spending all their pin-money.
The repast dragged out to its end, and the women withdrew to the upper end of the hall, comparative privacy being secured by large leather screens set up along the edge of the dais. The men remained at the table for deeper potations and the smoking of rank black kinnectikut tobacco in huge wooden pipes.
A heavy thunderstorm, the first of the season, had come up, and Constans recognized, to his vexation, that he would have no decent excuse for turning the peddler out-of-doors. So he kept his seat at the table in sulky silence, watching the man closely, and ready to note anything of further suspicion in his actions and bearing. But he had his trouble for his pains, for the fellow was the itinerant chapman to the life, even to the stock of gross stories with which he kept his bucolic audience in an uninterrupted guffaw. Pah! would Sir Gavan never finish his second pipe and give the signal to rise?
The storm had turned into a heavy downpour, and the peddler was consequently sure of his night's lodging. He had been summoned again to the presence of the ladies, and, as before, Constans stood aloof and wondered irritably how his fastidious sister could find aught in common with this wayside huckster. She was talking to him now with an animation rare with her, her checks flushed and her eyes glowing.
"And you have been in Doom—in the city itself?" she asked, incredulously.
"Yes, gracious lady; and not once, but a score of times. The brocades that I promised to show you after supper will be my witness. And there are some superlative satin and silk lengths which my Lady Rayne wished particularly to see. Will you allow me, then?"
The peddler, opening an inner compartment of his pack, drew out several pieces of stuff wrapped up in brown linen. Removing the covering, he spread the goods upon the rug before the ladies, holding up each separate piece to the light and expatiating upon its merits in the approved fashion of the shopman. The two women gave a little gasp of astonishment; never had they seen such wondrous beauty of color and finish; their little market-town of Croye held nothing to compare to this.
"I must send for Meta to advise me," said the Lady Rayne, glancing fondly from one rich fabric to another. "She ought to know good silk when she sees it, after living so long in Croye; and you, Issa, seem strangely indifferent to-night. You hardly looked at this piece of brocade."
Meta, the Lady Rayne's bedwoman, speedily appeared, and mistress and maid fell into earnest converse. Issa, as in duty bound, listened; then her attention seemed to flag again. She bent over the open pack and picked up a chain of filigree work. It was beautifully fashioned and looked like gold.
"It is gold," said the chapman, answering the question in her eyes. "The pure gold of the ancients; you never see that pale yellow nowadays. Ah, yes, a pretty trinket to have brought from the heart of Doom for the delight of a fair woman's eyes, and well worth its price of a man's life. But, then, fortune was kind, and I did not have to pay."
"Tell me about it," said the girl, beseechingly, and her breath came short and hot.
Whereupon the chapman drew a little nearer and began a wondrous tale of a secret visit that he had lately made to Doom, the Forbidden; of how he had crossed the river on a raft, the moon being in its dark quarter; of his landing upon a shaking wharf, where each foot-fall left a print of phosphorescent fire on the rotting planks; then of the marvels that he had seen there—vast warehouses covering whole acres of ground and filled with incalculable store of goods; lofty buildings, whose chimney-pots were in the clouds; palaces of sculptured stone, now empty and despoiled, the habitation of foxes and unclean nocturnal creatures.
Then again of hidden treasure, heaps and heaps of yellow gold; of the fierce Doomsmen who guarded it so well; of pitfalls and gins and siren voices that lured the soul astray; of ghastly shapes that crept along the crumbling walls; of mystery in every sound and shadow; of treacheries and alarms and the ever present terror of death—a tale of amazing wonder, at which the blood ran alternately warm and cold and the heart fluttered with a certain fearful joy.
How the maid hung upon the word, her little breasts heaving and her lips parted! "You have seen all these things?" she panted. "How wonderful! And you were not afraid? That was like a man—to be brave——" She blushed deeply, stammered, and turned to the neglected brocades. Constans, standing close at hand, was moved to new anger. The impertinent, how dared he! Yet he had listened himself, and in spite of himself, for assuredly the fellow talked well.
The evening was now well advanced and the customary hour of retirement was at hand. It was still raining, but Guyder Touchett, who came in dripping from his nightly task of posting the watch, remarked that the wind was changing and that it was likely to clear when the moon rose. Of course the peddler would now spend the night at the keep, and at his own request he was allowed to remain in the hall, a straw pallet being brought in for his accommodation.
* * * * *
Constans repeated the words half aloud, holding the paper close to the guttering candle. It was but a tiny scrap, scarce large enough for the writing that it held. But paper of any kind is rare in these days, and so the gleam of white had caught his eye as he went up-stairs to his sleeping apartment. The handwriting was unfamiliar, and besides it was in back-hand, and it may be disguised as well; he was hardly an expert in such fine distinctions. But it was plainly a message, and its possible import startled him. For the Rat's-Hole was the secret exit that existed behind the jamb of the fireplace at the upper end of the hall. So cunningly had the panelled door been joinered into the wainscoting that a man might search for hours and yet not discover the spring that threw it open. Furthermore, the wainscoting was but a screen for the real door of iron-bound oak giving passage directly through the outer wall of the keep to the open country. A jealously guarded secret, this matter of the Rat's-Hole, and supposed to be known only to the master of the household and his immediate family. Even among them its existence was never referred to in ordinary conversation, while its actual use was restricted to the gravest of emergencies.
"The Rat's-Hole!" A message, an agreement, an appointment? By whose hand had these words been written? For whose eye had they been intended?
It would have been the wiser course to have communicated at once with Sir Gavan, but the latter, feeling somewhat indisposed, had retired early, and Constans hesitated to disturb him. Moreover, the boy stood in awe of his father, and of late a feeling of estrangement had been growing up between them. To Sir Gavan, Constans, with his dreamy, inactive nature, was a keen disappointment—so different from his brother Tennant. And Constans felt that his father did not understand him nor, indeed, cared to do so. Latterly, they had gone their own ways, and now at this perplexing juncture Constans could not bring himself to take his father into his confidence.
When, a few moments later, the lights had been formally extinguished for the night, Constans made his way back to the hall; he had to pass close by the pallet occupied by the peddler, and he paused an instant to listen to his deep and measured breathing. Surely the man slept.
Even in the dark Constans knew how to put his hand on the spring in the wainscoting, and it yielded to his touch. It was discomposing to find the key of the real door standing, ready for turning, in the lock. In theory, the key was never out of the master's immediate possession. An oversight, then? Constans's mind reverted to the one occasion in his remembrance on which the Rat's-Hole had been used, that day a fortnight back, when his sister Issa came out of the birch-copse, with her hands full of May-bloom and Quinton Edge had waited under cover of the alders. It was possible; his father might have forgotten. And yet——
Constans took the key and slipped it into the bosom of his doublet. Then closing the secret door in the wainscoting, he drew one of the big leather screens into convenient position and crouched down behind it. The dying fire gave out a flickering and uncertain light; he watched the grotesque procession of the shadows on the opposite wall until his eyes grew heavy. The odor of a smouldering bough of balsam-fir hung in the air—warm, spicy, soporific. He slept.
Constans awoke just as the footsteps died away; he listened, but again the stillness was profound. He felt his way to the secret door; the wainscot screen stood ajar. It was plain that some one had come to the Rat's-Hole only to discover that the key of the outside door was missing. Constans realized that he, too, had missed something—his chance to get to the bottom of the mystery. Shame on such a sentinel!
Without any definite plan of action, Constans made his way to the lower hall. The moonbeams were pouring a flood of light through the east windows and he could see plainly. The peddler's couch was empty, save for his gabardine of gray and the false hair that had served him for a beard. There were two figures dimly visible in the obscurity of the vaulted entrance to the water gate. They were working at the clumsy fastenings of the doors. As Constans ran up he recognized his sister Issa and the man who called himself Quinton Edge.
Without a word Constans seized the girl by the arm and swung her behind him. He struck at the Doomsman with his hunting-knife, but the latter caught his wrist with the grip of a wolf-trap. Yet even at that moment of stress Quinton Edge's voice preserved its soft, mincing inflections; the man wore his irritating affectations of speech as jauntily as he did the ostrich plumes in his cap.
"A brave ruffling of feathers—but gently, gently boy, you are frightening the lady. She goes with me of her full consent. Is it not so, sweetheart?"
"You lie!" said the boy, thickly.
The man laughed. "I tell you," he went on, "that the girl is mine by her own choice, and you have only to stand aside quietly to save the house and your own skin. But softly now; you are tearing the lace of my sleeve. A plague on your clumsy fingers!"
With a wrench Constans twisted himself free and turned to face his sister. "Issa!" he implored.
But she, with eyes like rain-washed stars, only looked beyond him to where Quinton Edge stood, softly smiling and holding out his womanish white hands. She would have rejoined him, but once again Constans forced her back. The dangling rope of the alarm-bell grazed his hand; he clutched at it, and a clang re-echoed through the court-yard, rousing the recreant warders from their slumbers. In that same instant Quinton Edge blew his whistle.
The Doomsmen must have already crossed the moat and been close up to the water gate, for the response to their leader's call was immediate. Quinton Edge had just time to remove the last of the bars securing the barrier when the night-watch streamed out tumultuously from their quarters under the arch, and he was obliged to retreat into the court-yard. But already the outlaws had forced apart the wooden leaves of the water gate; now they filled the vaulted passageway, and by sheer impact of superior weight began to drive back the bewildered and disorganized defenders. Friend and foe together, the mass surged into the quadrangle, a blind, indefinite cluster of struggling men, like to a swarm of hiving bees.
The storm had blown over, but the moon was every now and then obscured by masses of scurrying cloud-wrack, and in these periods of semi-darkness Doomsman and Stockader were hardly to be told apart. So closely packed was the scrimmage that the use of any missile weapon was impossible. The dagger and the night-stick (the latter a stout truncheon weighted with lead) were doing the work, and effectively, too. And in that press a man might be struck and die upon his feet, the corpse being stayed from falling through its juxtaposition to the bodies of the living.
The men of the keep, now that they had recovered from their first discomfiture, rallied manfully. So stubborn and bitter raged the struggle that there was not a sound to be heard outside the noise of scuffling feet and the thud of blows. A man when hard beset for his life has no breath to spare for either oath of despair or shout of triumph. But not for long were the scales to swing so evenly; presently the ranks of the Stockaders yielded again to the pressure and broke into separate groups. Then were to be heard the groans of the wounded and dying; then for the first time the yell of the Doomsmen broke forth, ear-piercing in its exultancy.
Constans had managed to reach the shelter of the Great House, half dragging, half carrying the fainting form of his sister. Already Sir Gavan, with Tennant and the house-servants, were under arms and making what preparations they could for the final stand. A hopeless task it seemed, for the outlaws were now in full possession of the rest of the keep. The retainers occupying the general quarters in the south barracks had fallen easy victims. Surprised, out-numbered, and poorly armed, they had been quickly cut down as they reached the court-yard, and active resistance to the invaders was at an end.
Now the attack was turned directly upon the entrance to the Great House, and Sir Gavan, with his handful of followers, waited on the threshold for the inevitable issue. Already the ponderous door of iron-banded oak was groaning and splintering under the hail of blows. And in the forefront, with a laugh upon his lips, hewed Quinton Edge.
The barrier was down at last and the wolves were free to fall upon their quarry. A score of men, all told, against a hundred; the outcome was hardly doubtful. Yet it was not Gavan of the Greenwood Keep who held up his hand in sign of parley, but the Doomsman, Quinton Edge.
"The maiden Issa," he said, speaking with a smooth insolence that made Constans set his teeth. "Give her safely to my hand and your goods and your lives shall go free of further damage. A cheap bargain; but speak quickly, old man, these hounds of mine are not to be held in leash for long."
The partisans on either side had fallen back, leaving the two leaders face to face. Sir Gavan plucked twice at his throat, where the veins stood out like cords, constricting the vocal passages so that he stuttered thickly as he spoke.
"This—this gallows-scape!" he stammered. "This burner of peasants' hayricks, this pitiful plunderer of hen-roosts and cattle byres! If it were a man, now—to nail the insult to his lips——"
"We lose time," interrupted the Doomsman. "I have named my price."
"The price—ah, yes, the price. Tennant, Constans, you heard what he said. But where is my child? Let the girl stand forth; she is her father's daughter, and she shall answer for herself."
"I will abide by it," said Quinton Edge, with cool confidence.
The half-circle opened and Issa stood before them; a mere child she looked in her simple slip of white and with her fair hair all unbound. A vague terror seized upon Sir Gavan. What was this question that he was about to ask of his daughter? Could there be other than the one answer? How quietly she stood there and waited. Yes, and they were all waiting upon him; he must speak.
It seemed to him that he had shouted aloud; then he realized that he had not spoken at all. "Issa!" he said, again, and she turned towards him.
"This man; he is not known to you. How could it be?"
"Yet it is the truth, my father," answered the girl, steadily. "It is just a month ago that chance set us face to face—one day when I rode alone in the green drive."
"Once he came to the walled garden, adventuring the thousand chances of discovery. Yet how he managed to cross the stockade-line I know not, for I was frightened, and begged him to leave me. And this he did most courteously, only swearing that he would again return."
"The third time?"
"That was the day—the day of the first May-bloom—the Ochre brook and the Doomsmen——" The girl's voice faltered.
"Yet never a word to me or to your mother?"
"It was not my secret," she answered, bravely; and upon that Quinton Edge himself took up the word.
"The blame is mine, since I used the peril in which I stood to set a seal upon her lips. A true and loyal maid is your daughter, and it was only after she had twice said me nay that I resolved to take without the asking. So I came that day which we both remember, and waited under the alder bushes, and once again I missed my cast. Yet was the quest not altogether fruitless, for I carried away this token from my lady's hostile garden."
He drew a faded spray of the May-bloom from his doublet and touched it lightly to his lips.
"What gentleman could refuse to redeem so dear a pledge? You have seen how I took head in hand and sat me down under your own roof-tree, my good Gavan of the keep. Faith, it was an even chance on which side the platter would fall, but this time the luck was mine. We should have been leagues away in the sun's eye by now, only that a peevish boy would have his way."
"And this—this is also true?" said Sir Gavan, and it seemed that the preceding silence had been very long.
"It is true." She had answered quietly, almost mechanically, but the heart of the Lady Rayne thrilled to the new note in her child's voice.
"Issa!" she cried, softly, and fell to weeping, not as a mother for her daughter but as one woman who sorrows for another.
"Issa!" she said, again, but neither then nor thereafter did the girl vouchsafe her mother look or word, all her soul seeming to hang upon the will of the man who had brought this woe upon her house. There was no need for word to pass; reading the command in her lover's eyes, she slipped from her mother's detaining clasp and placed her hand in his. Now, Issa was exceeding fair to look upon, and Quinton Edge's blood stirred hotly within him. And so for once he lost his head and did a foolish thing (only that no woman would agree that it was foolish), for there, in the presence of all, he quickly drew her face to his and kissed her on the lips. Then turning to his men, he made as though to send them from the house.
But it was not to be. A keen-pointed, heavy throwing-knife hung at Sir Gavan's side. Without a word he snatched it from the sheath, poised and flung it with all his force at his enemy's heart, a master throw and executed like a flash of light. Issa felt rather than saw the coming of the missile, and with an instinctive movement contrived to interpose her own delicate body. The steel bit deep into the white flesh, and with a little, shuddering cry the girl sank to the floor; out leaped Quinton Edge's sword. Constans, supporting his mother, felt her hand grow cold in his. He laid her gently down upon a convenient settle and thanked God that she, too, was safe.
It seemed to Constans that he was wandering in a bristling thicket of steel points; thunderous crashes re-echoed in his ears; the red light from the burning building eddied about his feet, a sea of blood and flame. His father and Tennant were down, never to rise again; a few paces in front of him Guyder Touchett headed a little knot of the defenders, swearing furiously as he hewed and hacked. A half-dozen against ten times their number; the issue could not be doubtful. Even as he gazed, two of the six sunk to their knees and then fell face downward, a dreadful sign that even a child might understand.
Now, Guyder Touchett stood alone, and about him a snarling pack of Dom Gillian's wolves, waiting cautiously upon one another, for the Stockader had a long sword-arm. Thereupon a man broke out of the press, signing the prudent ones to fall back. It was Quinton Edge, and, as ever, he was laughing, only that now his laughter sounded like to a bell that has cracked in the ringing. The swords clashed together; then the Doomsman dropped his point.
"You are too good a man for crows' meat," he said, shortly. "Stand clear and save your ears; my business is with the white-faced boy behind you."
But Guyder Touchett, ruddy, full-bodied, and loving his life as well as any man, only girded at him, saying:
"Is there, then, a deeper hell than this? I follow where my master has gone, and you, my lord, shall show me the way."
"The more fool you," quoth Quinton Edge, and drove at him.
Again the blades engaged, and a great fear suddenly tightened at the boy's heart. His champion had been exhausted by his previous efforts, and now his strength was going fast. Constans saw Touchett stagger and Quinton Edge preparing for a final stroke; he turned and ran for the upper end of the hall—the Rat's-Hole.
The key was still in his bosom, and in a few seconds he had passed the postern, closing and locking it behind him. Five minutes' hard running and he was free of the stockade and at the summit of a hill that commanded the scene which he had just left. The conflagration was progressing with astonishing rapidity; already the Great House itself was in flames, and dark figures could be seen issuing from the water gate. There! the red cock was crowing from the top of the bell-tower, and now the whole court-yard was a furnace of fire. A spark carried by the wind fell on his naked shoulder, where it bit like a fiery serpent. Yet he scarcely felt the smart; he stood motionless, looking upon the wreck of his little world, the only one that he had ever known.
"So in the end he made me a coward as well," said the boy, speaking softly to himself. "Is it that a slave must be a slave—always?"
He drew a long breath. "No, not always. But in the mean time I am to go on living and bearing everywhere his mark—Quinton Edge's mark. Well, I will begin by learning how to wait."
He stood irresolute for a moment longer, gazing at the scene of the night's tragedy as though to impress it indelibly upon his memory. Then turning his back to the east, where the faint saffron of early dawn was now showing, he started off on a long, swinging trot that speedily carried him down the slope and into the deeper shadow of the wood beyond.
THE BREAD OF AFFLICTION
Two miles from the keep was a cave that Constans had discovered on one of his hunting-trips, and which, boylike, he had proceeded to fit up with some rude furniture for lodging and cooking, little dreaming that he should ever stand in actual need of these necessities.
Thither he betook himself, impelled primarily by the mere instinct for refuge and shelter. Fortunately, the larder had been replenished within the past week, there was an abundance of dry fuel stacked up in the interior of the cavern, and the woods were full of game. But during those first two or three days it is doubtful if Constans would have remarked either the presence or the absence of these creature comforts; he ate when he was hungry and went to sleep when it grew dark. The rest of the time he sat motionless, thinking, thinking—living for the most part in that past that now seemed so infinitely far away.
Of course, the cavern had been the storehouse of his treasures. Here he kept a spare hunting-bow and a full stock of arrows, together with his fishing lines and nets and a miscellaneous assortment of traps and tools. Here, too, was the secret depository of his cherished spying-glasses and of another equally marvellous but unfortunately valueless piece of mechanism—a revolver of large caliber. This latter had belonged to his grandfather (for whom he had been named), and upon his death Constans had claimed and taken possession of it. The weapon was in perfect order, for its former owner had been careful to keep it well cleaned and oiled; an absurd whim, of course, since without its ammunition it was useless. The boy used to puzzle mightily over it, setting the hammer and watching the cylinder as it revolved, then pulling the trigger and listening to its fascinating click. But he never got any nearer to the secret.
Even more precious than the pistol and binoculars were his books, an oddly assorted library that included the child's pictorial history already mentioned, Dryden's translation of the Iliad, an imperfect copy of The Three Musketeers, and The Descent of Man. These, indeed, made up the full list of books belonging to the keep, and Constans had been permitted to appropriate them, nobody else caring to waste time over their stained and worm-eaten pages.
With Constans, however, it had been different. In company with the other children he had been set at the task of learning his letters, and at first he, too, had rebelled at the uncongenial labor. What possible use could these ugly, crooked characters ever be to him? And then, suddenly, he found in them a magic key unlocking a door that opened upon an undiscovered country—that of the mighty past.
Naturally he experienced some difficulty in viewing this new old world in anything like its proper proportions, and it was the literal baldness of the child's school-book that first gave him anything like a true perspective. Here was both the written story and the visible picture of the world as it once was, as it might be again. Studying these records and achievements of the ancient civilization, Constans found himself possessed of the knowledge of many things and consumed by the desire to lay hold of many more.
But all this lay in the past—ages ago, when as yet no Doomsman had landed at the Golden Cove, and the pine-tree banner still flew from the fighting platform of the Greenwood Keep. Now nothing mattered to the boy sitting dull-eyed and inert in the darkest corner of his miserable refuge, while outside it was raining in torrents. But on the third day it cleared, and the rays of the morning sun, striking level with the mouth of the cave, fell full upon the lad's face, rousing him in a double sense. He sprang to his feet and drew in a deep breath of the morning air. How blue the sky! How golden the sun! As he sat eating his frugal breakfast of oat-cake and honey he rapidly reviewed his present condition and future prospects, coming at last to the decision that he would go to Croye and see what his uncle Hugolin might be inclined to do for him.
It was inspiriting, the mere fact that he had determined upon a course of action, and Constans immediately began his preparations for departure. It did not take long to put together his worldly wealth—the four books, the binoculars, the pistol, and the chief of his other possessions; now he had everything compactly stowed away in a shoulder pack and was ready for the journey.
The town of Croye was situated on the Greater river (formerly the Hudson) and some ten miles north of the ancient city of New York. It boasted a population of quite fifteen hundred souls, and this, with its importance as a trading centre, made it a notable municipality for these latter days. Its appearance, however, does not call for any extended description; assuredly, it was not imposing. A heterogeneous jumble of low, half-timbered houses and mud-plastered hovels; dirty, unpaved streets, a mean-looking market-place, where the shrill clamor of huckstering never seemed to cease; some pretentious-looking public buildings, with stuccoed fronts; outside of all, the inevitable earth rampart, topped by a palisade and pierced by sally-ports at the cardinal points—such was Croye, the principal city of this western hemisphere in the year 2015, or ninety since the Great Change.
Constans frowned as he gazed upon this unlovely picture. Yet he determined that he would find something of good in it, and as though answering his thought, the sun reappeared at that very moment from behind a passing cloud, its rays lighting up the red tiling used as roofing in the houses of the better class—the one note of cheerful color among these dingy browns and grays. It was an omen, and he accepted it as such.
It was to one of these red-topped mansions that Constans finally found his way, after experiencing several rebuffs from churlish citizens of whom he had ventured to inquire for the whereabouts of his uncle. Now, as he laid his hand upon the knocker, he was conscious that the feeling of despondency had again fallen upon him; he recalled the old story of Messer Hugolin's bitter opposition to the marriage of his sister Rayne and Gavan of the keep, of how he had refused to attend the wedding and had sent no gift. Since then there had been no real intimacy between the families, although the breach had been outwardly healed and formal civilities infrequently passed. A poor prospect, it would seem, for the success of Constans's appeal. But blood is blood, and there was literally no one else to whom he could turn in this his extremity. He let the knocker fall.
Messer Hugolin, a stout man, with crafty lines creased in his broad face, received his nephew with nominal cordiality and listened attentively to his story. But he was not over-prompt with either advice or offer of assistance, and Constans, with a sore heart, finally rose to go.
"Don't be in a hurry," said his uncle, coolly. "Let me think this over again. After all, we are of the same stock, although your father always flouted me for a mean-spirited churl. Poor Gavan, we may forgive him now."
After another period of cogitation and incidental homilies upon the sinfulness of pride and free living, Messer Hugolin came to the point; he offered to take Constans into his employ as an apprentice in the tannery. Of course, Constans would have no wages until his indenture was out, but he would, at least, be assured of lodging, food, and clothes, the bare necessities of existence. Not an especially attractive proposition, but Constans, after a short consideration, concluded to accept it. He had a purpose in remaining here in Croye, almost within sight of Doom the Forbidden; he had not forgotten that therein dwelt one Quinton Edge.
And now a new life began for the boy, and a hard one. Lodged in a corner of the garret, clad in the meanest garments, fed on the coarsest fare, his lot was little better than that of the actual serf, and in some respects inferior to it, for it was good policy to treat the slave with some decency and so secure a full life's work from the human machine. Constans, on the other hand, was bound for four years only, and it was policy to drive him at full speed.
Messer Hugolin's business was of a general nature. He bought and sold everything in the way of raw product and finished goods, but cloth and leather formed the staple of his trade. The latter he manufactured himself, and his tannery was the largest in Croye. It occupied extensive yards along the river-front, and Constans entered upon the agreeable occupation of unloading stinking hides from the barges which came down from the upper river twice in the week, a routine varied only by long hours of pounding at interminable lengths of white-oak bark, preparing it for use in the tan-pits. Hard, dirty, malodorous work it was, but he kept at it steadily, his purpose always in view.
Little by little his plans had been taking shape, and now at last he had arrived at something definite. A secret, of course, and fortunately opportunity had been given him in which to develop his idea. To explain more particularly:
On ordinary days the working-hours were from dawn to dark, but Sunday was his own, save for the hour immediately following sunrise and that preceding sunset, when everybody was required to attend upon public worship.
Every Sunday, then, Constans made his way through the town barriers immediately upon their unclosing, and betook himself to a wooded river-cove about a mile south of the town. For three months he had been working on a canoe, shaping it with fire and adze from a poplar log, and now, after infinite difficulty, the task approached completion. Could he have had a confidant, a helper, the work might have been done in a third of the time, for Constans was not much of a mechanic. But there was no one among his fellow-workmen whom he dared trust, and so he toiled on alone.
The canoe had been launched, and, to Constans's delight, she was but slightly lopsided. A few stones brought her to trim, and she paddled beautifully.
He had fixed upon the third Sunday in August for the great trial, for the Monday following was a civic holiday, the anniversary of the founding of the city. The double event would give him abundant time in which to make a reconnoissance of his enemy's position and then return to Croye to resume his position in Messer Hugolin's tanyard. For his foothold there must not be endangered; if he returned at all, he would find it more necessary than ever.
Permission to absent himself from Saturday night to Tuesday morning had to be obtained from the city authorities. They objected at first, but finally accorded their consent. With his uncle, the matter was quickly settled. Messer Hugolin did not approve of holidays for apprentices, but he dared not controvert the law, and Constans was already in possession of the blue ticket which would enable him to pass the city barriers after sunset on Saturday. So Messer Hugolin contented himself with black looks and an acid jibe at the vanity of his civic associates, who multiplied holidays that they might have opportunity to display themselves in their gold chains and red robes of office.
"And harkee, boy!" he concluded, harshly. "Let me see you at roll-call Tuesday morning or not at all. With flour at ten tokens the quarter, there is no bread of idleness to be eaten in my house." And thereupon they parted without further speaking.
It was a warm August evening when he finally pushed out from shore and laid his course down-stream. He had not ventured upon the experiment of a sail, but the tide was beginning to run out, and that, with the current, should carry him to his destination without the dipping of an oar. But he reflected that the moon would rise at nine o'clock, and as it was barely past the full the light might betray him to watching eyes. He could take no risks, and so must reach the city under cover of darkness. Accordingly, he bent to his paddle, taking it easy at first, and then lengthening out the stroke as he gained confidence in this hitherto untried art.
IN THE SHADOW OF DOOM
An hour wore on, and Constans was approaching the suburbs of the ancient municipality. But it did not suit his purpose to make a landing here. His plan was to reach the lower end of the island upon which the city was built, then to work his way northward on foot until he should discover the innermost citadel of the Doomsmen. To get a fair idea of his task, he proposed to ascend one of the immensely high buildings which stood crowded together in the down-town district. From such a vantage-point he could surely fix upon landmarks for his future guidance in penetrating the labyrinth of streets. It would not be a pleasant experience to lose one's way, and, perhaps, stumble by mistake on Master Quinton Edge's front door.
Now, as Constans travelled onward, the ruined city began to grow upon him in ever heavier and darker mass. Here and there a half-demolished church-spire raised itself above the neighboring roof-line; plainly this had been one of the old-time residential sections and of the better class. Still farther down the stream and the water-front stood crowded thickly with wharves and warehouses, the scene of the mighty commerce of the past. The ships themselves were there, great monsters of iron and steel, scaled and honeycombed with red rust. But the wharf-slips had long since silted up, and the vessels, careening little by little with the subsidence of the water, had finally broken away from the restraining hawsers and lay on their beam-ends in the mud, a sorrowful spectacle.
The moon was rising and it was time to go ashore. Accordingly, he directed his course for a pier that extended somewhat farther than its fellows into the stream. There was just water enough to float the canoe within arm's-length of the girders—a fortunate circumstance, since Constans had not liked the idea of trusting himself upon the treacherous-looking mud-flat left uncovered by the ebbing tide. Securing the boat under shadow of the structure, he took his hunting-knife and basket of provisions and climbed easily to the floor of the pier, then picking his way across its broken planking he reached solid ground. At last he stood within Doom the Forbidden.
Now this street, which ran parallel with the river, was of unusual width, and Constans crossed it quickly, seeking for cover in some narrower and darker thoroughfare. A cross-street opened directly in front of him. He plunged into it without hesitation, for the moonlight was now in full flood and there might be sharp eyes about.
In the open spaces along the water-front grass grew thick and tall as in a meadow, but in this narrow, crooked lane the wholesomer, sun-loving plants found little encouragement to existence. In their stead, pale-colored creepers mantled the house walls, and everywhere were moss stains and the spore of the various fungoid growths. Constans's footsteps fell hollowly upon the pavement slippery with weed and the August damp, and as he walked along an unearthly radiance suddenly illuminated his path; from every cornice and eaves-end hung balls of the pale St. Elmo's fire; not a house but boasted its array of corpse-candles that flickered with a greenish flame.