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Книга The Black Arrow. Страница 16

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Suddenly, with a cry, the leper sprang into the open close by, and ran straight upon the lads. They, shrieking aloud, separated and began to run different ways. But their horrible enemy fastened upon Matcham, ran him swiftly down, and had him almost instantly a prisoner. The lad gave one scream that echoed high and far over the forest, he had one spasm of struggling, and then all his limbs relaxed, and he fell limp into his captor’s arms.

Dick heard the cry and turned. He saw Matcham fall; and on the instant his spirit and his strength revived; With a cry of pity and anger, he unslung and bent his arblast. But ere he had time to shoot, the leper held up his hand.

“Hold your shot, Dickon!” cried a familiar voice. “Hold your shot, mad wag! Know ye not a friend?”

And then laying down Matcham on the turf, he undid the hood from off his face, and disclosed the features of Sir Daniel Brackley.

“Sir Daniel!” cried Dick.

“Ay, by the mass, Sir Daniel!” returned the knight. “Would ye shoot upon your guardian, rogue? But here is this” — And there he broke off, and pointing to Matcham, asked: “How call ye him, Dick?”

“Nay,” said Dick, “I call him Master Matcham. Know ye him not? He said ye knew him!”

“Ay,” replied Sir Daniel, “I know the lad;” and he chuckled. “But he has fainted; and, by my sooth, he might have had less to faint for! Hey, Dick? Did I put the fear of death upon you?”

“Indeed, Sir Daniel, ye did that,” said Dick, and sighed again at the mere recollection. “Nay, sir, saving your respect, I had as lief ‘a’ met the devil in person; and to speak truth, I am yet all a-quake. But what made ye, sir, in such a guise?”

Sir Daniel’s brow grew suddenly black with anger.

“What made I?” he said. “Ye do well to mind me of it! What? I skulked for my poor life in my own wood of Tunstall, Dick. We were ill sped at the battle; we but got there to be swept among the rout. Where be all my good men-at-arms? Dick, by the mass, I know not! We were swept down; the shot fell thick among us; I have not seen one man in my own colours since I saw three fall. For myself, I came sound to Shoreby, and being mindful of the Black Arrow, got me this gown and bell, and came softly by the path for the Moat House. There is no disguise to be compared with it; the jingle of this bell would scare me the stoutest outlaw in the forest; they would all turn pale to hear it. At length I came by you and Matcham. I could see but evilly through this same hood, and was not sure of you, being chiefly, and for many a good cause, astonished at the finding you together. Moreover, in the open, where I had to go slowly and tap with my staff, I feared to disclose myself. But see,” he added, “this poor shrew begins a little to revive. A little good canary will comfort me the heart of it.”

The knight, from under his long dress, produced a stout bottle, and began to rub the temples and wet the lips of the patient, who returned gradually to consciousness, and began to roll dim eyes from one to another.

“What cheer, Jack!” said Dick. “It was no leper, after all; it was Sir Daniel! See!”

“Swallow me a good draught of this,” said the knight. “This will give you manhood. Thereafter, I will give you both a meal, and we shall all three on to Tunstall. For, Dick,” he continued, laying forth bread and meat upon the grass, “I will avow to you, in all good conscience, it irks me sorely to be safe between four walls. Not since I backed a horse have I been pressed so hard; peril of life, jeopardy of land and livelihood, and to sum up, all these losels in the wood to hunt me down. But I be not yet shent. Some of my lads will pick me their way home. Hatch hath ten fellows; Selden, he had six. Nay, we shall soon be strong again; and if I can but buy my peace with my right fortunate and undeserving Lord of York, why, Dick, we’ll be a man again and go a-horseback!”

And so saying, the knight filled himself a horn of canary, and pledged his ward in dumb show.

“Selden,” Dick faltered — “Selden” — And he paused again.

Sir Daniel put down the wine untasted.

“How!” he cried, in a changed voice. “Selden? Speak! What of Selden?”

Dick stammered forth the tale of the ambush and the massacre.

The knight heard in silence; but as he listened, his countenance became convulsed with rage and grief.

“Now here,” he cried, “on my right hand, I swear to avenge it! If that I fail, if that I spill not ten men’s souls for each, may this hand wither from my body! I broke this Duckworth like a rush; I beggared him to his door; I burned the thatch above his head; I drove him from this country; and now, cometh he back to beard me? Nay, but, Duckworth, this time it shall go bitter hard!”

He was silent for some time, his face working.

“Eat!” he cried, suddenly. “And you here,” he added to Matcham, “swear me an oath to follow straight to the Moat House.”

“I will pledge mine honour,” replied Matcham.

“What make I with your honour?” cried the knight. “Swear me upon your mother’s welfare!”

Matcham gave the required oath; and Sir Daniel re-adjusted the hood over his face, and prepared his bell and staff. To see him once more in that appalling travesty somewhat revived the horror of his two companions. But the knight was soon upon his feet.

“Eat with despatch,” he said, “and follow me yarely to mine house.”

And with that he set forth again into the woods; and presently after the bell began to sound, numbering his steps, and the two lads sat by their untasted meal, and heard it die slowly away up hill into the distance.

“And so ye go to Tunstall?” Dick inquired.

“Yea, verily,” said Matcham, “when needs must! I am braver behind Sir Daniel’s back than to his face.”

They ate hastily, and set forth along the path through the airy upper levels of the forest, where great beeches stood apart among green lawns, and the birds and squirrels made merry on the boughs. Two hours later, they began to descend upon the other side, and already, among the tree-tops, saw before them the red walls and roofs of Tunstall House.

“Here,” said Matcham, pausing, “ye shall take your leave of your friend Jack, whom y’ are to see no more. Come, Dick, forgive him what he did amiss, as he, for his part, cheerfully and lovingly forgiveth you.”

“And wherefore so?” asked Dick. “An we both go to Tunstall, I shall see you yet again, I trow, and that right often.”

“Ye’ll never again see poor Jack Matcham,” replied the other, “that was so fearful and burthensome, and yet plucked you from the river; ye’ll not see him more, Dick, by mine honour!” He held his arms open, and the lads embraced and kissed. “And, Dick,” continued Matcham, “my spirit bodeth ill. Y’ are now to see a new Sir Daniel; for heretofore hath all prospered in his hands exceedingly, and fortune followed him; but now, methinks, when his fate hath come upon him, and he runs the adventure of his life, he will prove but a foul lord to both of us. He may be brave in battle, but he hath the liar’s eye; there is fear in his eye, Dick, and fear is as cruel as the wolf! We go down into that house, Saint Mary guide us forth again!”

And so they continued their descent in silence, and came out at last before Sir Daniel’s forest stronghold, where it stood, low and shady, flanked with round towers and stained with moss and lichen, in the lilied waters of the moat. Even as they appeared, the doors were opened, the bridge lowered, and Sir Daniel himself, with Hatch and the parson at his side, stood ready to receive them.

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