To the surprise of them all, De la Zouch added his request to the baron's, declaring that he and Manners would depart together in a few days, and if his late antagonist did not offer any serious opposition to the plan, he intended to entertain him for a short time at Ashby, adding that he had already given commands that the castle should be prepared for their reception.
The request was couched in such a manner that Manners could do no other than accept it, but he immediately resolved to curtail his visit into Leicestershire as much as he possibly could, and he felt that it would be a relief to him when the visit was concluded.
The days swiftly passed; all too quickly for the two lovers. Sir Thomas Stanley had sent a messenger to inform them that his brother had met with an accident, and was too ill to travel then, and he feared he would be obliged to return to Haddon alone; but the letter brought the unwelcome news to Dorothy that Edward Stanley would come and claim her as his bride before the year had passed.
THE PLOT IN PROGRESS.
His eyebrow dark, and eye of fire Showed spirit proud, and prompt to ire; Yet lines of thought upon his cheek, Did deep design and counsel speak.
It was with mingled feelings of sorrow, suspicion, and gladness that John Manners received news from Sir Henry de la Zouch, who had gone over to his castle some days before, that he was coming back upon the morrow to escort his guests to Ashby.
Sir Thomas Stanley had returned to Haddon, and though he was well satisfied, upon the whole, with the result of his mission, yet he clearly perceived the real state of affairs, and was far too astute not to make strenuous efforts to alter their course.
He had interposed himself as much as possible between Dorothy and her forbidden lover, and had succeeded in some degree in keeping them apart. He might, however, have spared himself the trouble, for, although he prevented their meeting on some occasions, yet love was conqueror in the end, and with Lettice as a trusty helpmeet, the two lovers found ways and means by which to see each other of which he never dreamed.
Sir Thomas was too much of a gentleman to affront Manners, as he had been secretly urged to do, but he made no secret of his opinion that it would be a relief to him when the time came for the visitors to depart.
True to his word, Sir Henry arrived at Haddon on the following day, bringing with him an invitation for Sir Thomas Stanley and Crowleigh to accompany him on his return.
Sir Thomas refused it, as indeed he was expected to do, but Sir Everard Crowleigh, glad to be able to bear his friend company, promptly accepted the offer, and Manners began to look upon the prospect of his stay at Ashby with a little more hopefulness.
Sir George Vernon was too hospitable a host to let even De la Zouch depart again upon the self-same day upon which he had arrived. He would not tolerate the idea for a single moment; there must be a carousal and a dance at night in honour of the departing guests, and then they would be at liberty to depart upon the first grey streaks of dawn if they were so minded.
De la Zouch, well aware that the King of the Peak was the soul of hospitality itself, had calculated upon the offer, and at once accepted it; while the baron, not content with what he had already done, when the morrow came, drew the designing Stanley with himself into his private room, and, under the pretext of taking counsel with him, kept him by his side, leaving the way open for Manners to have a farewell afternoon with Dorothy.
De la Zouch proposed a ride, and as there appeared to be little prospect of enjoying undisturbed peace at Haddon, the two lovers fell in with the suggestion, and very soon after the mid-day meal they met, booted and spurred, at the gate of the hall.
"Aye, aye, there," hailed a voice, as Manners was helping Dorothy off the riding-stone into the saddle, "whither away so gaily?"
"Aye, Everard," replied his friend, as he turned round and saw who it was that called. "Hurry up, we are off for a ride."
"Shall I come, too?" he inquired, as he hastened up and stood beside them.
"Do," returned Dorothy. "Make haste, though, for time is precious with us now."
"I will not keep you waiting, fair Mistress Dorothy," he gallantly responded; "I will follow thee anon. Which way am I to come, Bakewell, Cromford, or which?"
"Oh, Cromford," replied Sir Henry quickly. "See how restive my horse is, he will bolt off if I try to hold him in much longer. Are we ready? Let us go then; time is short, remember," and giving the rein to his steed he started off at a good pace, whilst the others followed quickly in his wake.
It was a beautiful day, and the scenery around was so majestically grand that even its familiarity did not detract from its beauty in the eyes of the little party as it rode laughingly by. The early leaves were just beginning to drop from off the parent stems; the ferns and bracken, which grew in abundance on either side of the road, were just assuming their peculiar fading, golden hue, whilst the hardier leaves were just beginning to bedeck themselves in the full glory of their rich autumnal tints.
"This is beautiful," exclaimed Dorothy, enthusiastically, as she gazed enraptured at the rich variety of form and colour which met them at every turn. "Look at those cliffs. It is lovely, it is grand."
They had just passed the little hamlet of Matlock Bath, and were approaching Cromford. There were no stone walls then to hide from view even the smallest portion of the gorgeous picture. From the road to the Derwent there sloped a narrow strip of marshy meadow, which covered itself with a superabundance of luxurious tall grasses and tough bracken. Beyond the stream there rose, standing straight up by the water's edge, a wall of jagged and scarred rock, overgrown with trees and climbing foliage, which was faithfully mirrored in the placid water below. The scene could hardly fail to appeal to their sense of beauty.
Manners avowed that he thought it the fairest spot on earth, and De la Zouch, not to be outdone in gallantry, added that the presence of so fair a maiden as Dorothy Vernon in the midst of so much natural beauty made a picture a better than which he never desired to see.
"And, after all, fair Dorothy," he concluded, "I wot that it is but the reflection of thine own sweet form and peerless grace."
Dorothy frowned. She did not care for compliments from Sir Henry de la Zouch; she always feared them, for they generally had a sting somewhere, and she had noticed that, as a rule, they were followed by something more or less unpleasant.
"Sir Everard has not come yet," she exclaimed, turning round in her saddle, "perhaps he is not coming after all?"
"He is sure to follow us," replied Manners. "Maybe he has been delayed, and yet we have come slowly. Hark! I hear the ring of hoofs upon the road even now."
They halted to await their companion, but they soon discovered, as the sound of the galloping grew rapidly more and more distinct, that the horseman was advancing towards them from the opposite direction.
"He is hindered, surely," exclaimed De la Zouch, who heartily wished he was stating the truth, "and it will soon be time for us to turn our faces again towards the Hall."
"Not just yet, Sir Henry," Dorothy quickly replied; "but you may; and you will."
"Not yet, eh! Then let us have a race along this lane," suggested De la Zouch, evading the hint and pointing to a long lane almost completely overarched with the massive branches of the overhanging trees which grew on either side.
Dorothy looked at Manners appealingly.
"What say you, Doll?" he inquired. "You shall determine."
"Nay, you decide."
"To that clump of trees," interposed De la Zouch.
"Well, if Dorothy does not object—"
"Not I, in truth," she interrupted.
"Away we go, then," replied Manners. "There and back at once?" he asked.
"No, only there," replied Sir Henry, ill-concealing a malicious grin. "It will be a long, long time before you come back this way, I trow," he added under his breath.
"But we are not yet placed," said Dorothy's lover, as De la Zouch was about to start away. "We two must fall in the rear, Sir Henry."
"Nay, I am equally as well mounted as you," returned the maiden. "We will run upon our merits, or I shall withdraw."
In a few minutes they were careening along the course in gallant style, as nearly as possible all three abreast, but as they neared the trees which formed the winning mark, Sir Henry fell behind and left the other two to finish the exciting race alone.
"Curse them, a murrain on them!" he muttered, as he pulled his horse to a standstill; "where can the fellows be?"
His objurgation might have been heard, for no sooner were the words out of his mouth than he saw, rising up from the brushwood, the men of whom he had just spoken in such uncomplimentary terms.
Burdened as he was with anxiety for the successful issue of his plot, and fearful lest at the last stage it should miscarry and snatch away the prize for which he had struggled so long, and which already seemed to be within his grasp, De la Zouch was in a terrible ferment of hope and fear.
"The villains," he muttered, as he sat still in his saddle impatiently watching; "why don't they move? It will be too late in a minute. I'll thrash every mother's son of them when we get back to Ashby, that I will. Dear me! what a fool I am to forget the signal;" and putting his hand to his mouth he blew a loud shrill whistle through his fingers.
Manners and Dorothy had just raced up together to the trees, and hearing the unusual sound that their companion made, they turned round at the same instant to see how much they were before him, and to ascertain the meaning of the noise. Just at this juncture, in answer to the signal of their lord, De la Zouch's hirelings rushed through the already prepared gaps in the tall hedges and fell upon the lovers, taking them completely by surprise.
Dorothy was quickly unhorsed with no more roughness than her own resistance necessitated, but it was not so with her lover. Though Manners had nothing to defend himself with, except the stock of his riding-whip, yet he gave so good an account of himself, and wielded his paltry weapon to so much purpose that he quickly freed himself, and rushed to aid poor Doll. This purpose, however, he failed to accomplish. The odds were ten to one, but even then it was for some time an open question whether the one would not prevail over the ten. All his skill was brought into play. He laid about him right and left until his weapon broke, and then, undismayed, he lunged out with the remnant, and succeeded in wresting a bludgeon from one of his injured opponents, and plunged into the fray with renewed vigour.
In spite of his efforts, however, he was unable to rescue Dorothy. Having once got her into their possession the men were determined to keep her, and she was borne away from the contest ineffectually struggling with her captors, who, having retired to a safe distance, awaited with their quarry until Manners himself was captured too.
De la Zouch sat aghast at this exhibition of his rival's prowess. Whatever the cost might be it was imperative that Manners should not escape to tell the tale at Haddon, and he alternately groaned and cursed each time he witnessed his followers quail and fall beneath the terrific blows of their antagonist. He had come, he thought, prepared for any contingency, but it appeared as though his force was by no means strong enough to achieve the desired end.
Manners himself, suspicious of De la Zouch, as he all along had been, perceived at the outset the trap into which he had been led, and now, finding it useless to attempt Dorothy's rescue any longer, and feeling the first approach of weariness come warningly over him, set spurs to his horse and galloped back again towards Sir Henry de la Zouch, intent on wreaking a full vengeance upon him, and at the same time determined to make an effort to escape in order to discover aid by which to rescue his betrothed.
"Villain!" he hissed, "thou shalt pay dearly for this."
De la Zouch did not wait to meet the overpowering fury of his foe. He no longer marvelled at the result of the tournament. He had seen enough of Manners' prowess already to have much faith left in his own powers of defense. To him distance lent enchantment to the view, so turning his horse sharply round he galloped away, bidding Manners do his worst.
It would have fared ill with the knight of Ashby had his foe but once reached within arm's length of him; but Fortune, after wavering about as if uncertain which way to make up its mind, declared itself at last upon the side of villainy, and Manners was stretched low upon the ground by a stone hurled at him by one of his assailants.
With his fall Dorothy's last chance of escape was taken from her.
De la Zouch heard the groan of his injured foe, and turning his face round to ascertain its meaning, he was just in time to see his rival drop from his saddle upon the road, where he was quickly surrounded amid a considerable show of bravery by the minions of De la Zouch to whom he had just given such a terrible exhibition of his skill.
"You cowardly knaves," cried that worthy, "secure him ere he escapes again."
Not a man stirred, for Manners had inspired them with so wholesome a dread of the power of his arm that, although he was sorely wounded, no one was willing to venture within his reach.
"Secure him, I say," imperiously repeated Sir Henry, who, from his safe position on horseback, could well afford to ridicule their fears and give his commands with confidence.
Manners with difficulty managed to raise himself upon his elbow, and he looked so fierce and desperate that the solitary man who had advanced towards him retreated with dismay.
"By St. George, seize him, sirrah," exclaimed the knight, springing off his saddle in high dudgeon. "You are all cowards together."
"Seize him, do you say," returned the man, insolently; "seize him, do you say? Seize him yourself, then, for I vow I have had more than enough of it already. He fights like a dragon; see here," and the man bared his arm and showed a number of bruises upon it. "Now then, master," he continued, "seize him yourself, say I, for I will have no more to do with the affair;" and to this his companions sullenly murmured assent.
"A woman would have less fear than thee," returned the knight contemptuously, as he glanced at the arm held out before him. "Why, I have fought for hours after being grievously wounded in the fray."
It had been more to Sir Henry's mind to have struck the man down to the ground for his insolence, and this he felt strongly impelled to do, but seeing the threatening aspect of the man's companions he restrained his fury, promising himself that his punishment should lose nothing by the fact of it being reserved to another and a safer time. It was with difficulty that he had contented himself with returning so mild an answer, but the man's retort drove him at once beyond the bounds of prudence and patience, and made him utterly reckless.
"Mayhap you have," returned the man incredulously, "but I'll warrant me it was no fault of thine. You showed us some of your skill just now."
"I will prove it," shouted the knight, furiously, and, suiting the action to the word, he seized hold of the nearest weapon, a stout ash stick, and advancing towards the dazed and bleeding esquire, he dealt him a blow on the head which stretched him insensible upon the turf.
"Coward!" cried the man, springing forward from among his companions. "You are the coward. I will be no party to such a cold-blooded murder as this," and his bosom swelled with indignation as he turned round to his companions and pointed to where Manners lay.
"Who says I am a coward? Who dares to speak such insolence?" demanded De la Zouch, trembling all over with rage.
"I do, and I repeat it," replied the other, bending over the prostrate form of his late antagonist.
For a moment Sir Henry stood in speechless amazement at such unlooked-for presumption, and then suddenly raising his weapon, he brought it down upon his offending servant, and stretched him beside the object of his sympathy.
"Who says I am a coward now?" he fiercely asked, turning upon the abashed companions of the latest victim of his temper.
Whatever the others thought, they wisely held their peace, and, terrified and cowed by the lesson their lord had taught them, they silently raised the two inanimate bodies, and, according to their instructions, proceeded to rejoin Dorothy and her guard ere they began their journey back to the castle at Ashby.
* * * * *
ON A FALSE SCENT.
I can counterfeit the deep tragedian! Speak, and look back, and pry on every side, Tremble, and start at wagging of a straw. Pretending deep suspicion; ghastly looks Are at my service like enforced smiles, And both are ready in their offices, At any time to grace my stratagems.
Dorothy Vernon had impatiently awaited the conclusion of the contest, and the prodigious amount of faith she had in her lover's capabilities, coupled with what she had already witnessed of the fight, led her to hope that he would yet return victorious to deliver her.
She had ceased to struggle ere the victors returned, partly because of the hope with which she had deluded herself, and partly because her attempts had only wearied her without bringing her any nearer to success; but at the first glimpse of the slowly approaching company she broke away from her too trustful captors and fled precipitately towards the advancing party.
"Let me go to him; is he hurt?" she cried, as one of her guardians overtook her and pulled her to a standstill, and starting forward again she left a fragment of her dress between the man's fingers, and hastened on again until she reached her lover's side.
"Speak, John," she exclaimed in piteous tones, as she gazed upon his pallid face and livid form. "Speak just one word to me."
But Manners did not speak. Thoroughly stunned by the blows he had received, he lay quite unconscious in the position in which he had been placed, and he was so weakened by the loss of blood from his wounds that his immediate return to consciousness was exceedingly problematical. He lay deaf, and apparently dead, whilst Dorothy pleaded in vain for a word from his lips.
"Just one word," she repeated, pathetically.
"Poor Lady," exclaimed Sir Henry's page, who was in charge of the party. "Don't take it to heart so much; he will come round soon, and be himself again. Nay, touch her not," he commanded, as one of the men was about to take her away, "she will do no harm."
"He is dead," she sobbed, and ere she could be assured that her conjecture was wrong she fainted away, and was gently laid beside her lover, while they were borne swiftly and silently, by sequestered roads, from the scene of the adventure.
Sir Henry watched them departing till a turn in the road hid them from view, and then, bethinking himself of his position, he mounted his steed and rode rapidly away, feeling immensely relieved that, after all, he had proved successful.
A few minutes in the saddle sufficed him, and then dismounting, he took of his hat and belaboured it well with the stock end of his whip.
He satisfied himself at length, and ceasing from his efforts in that direction he laid it on the ground and surveyed the effect.
It looked battered indeed, and evidently well pleased with the result, the knight set busily to work upon his clothes. He carefully tore them here and there with a sharp-pointed piece of wood, while to complete the deception, he spoiled the appearance of his attire by daubing it freely with dirt.
"I trow that will be enough," he murmured, as ceasing his labours he complacently gazed upon the transformation he had effected; "but no!" he added, "I had best be on the safe side," and he gently scratched his hands to give himself the appearance of having passed through a long and stern struggle.
"A bruise or two would improve my appearance considerably," he added, "but then bruises hurt and are apt to turn awkward; I think I might safely spare myself the pain; but I might, at all events, break my whip-stock and carry the end of it back;" and having settled these points to his own satisfaction, he mounted his saddle afresh, and setting spurs to his horse he never drew rein until long after he had passed out of the lane, and was well on the high road to Haddon.
As he neared the vicinity of the Hall he proceeded to put into practice what yet remained unfinished of his disguise. He had treated his own person, and now he turned his attention to the faithful steed which had carried him often and well.
There was no time to waste. He had lost much precious time already. He would have found little time in which to be sentimental had he been so inclined, but such an idea never entered into his head, and pulling his jack-knife out of his pocket, he opened the blade and stabbed the horse in the shoulder.
As previously related, De la Zouch had thought of ornamenting himself with a few slight bruises, but he had decided to forego whatever advantages might accrue to him from such a course of conduct, but now the matter was decided for him in a manner which he had never considered.
It had never flashed upon the heated brain of the malignant knight that wounding a horse was a very delicate operation to perform, and in his reckless hurry he had never taken into account that such conduct would be attended with any danger, or he would have proceeded to accomplish his design in a more cautious fashion; and it was not until the horse kicked out after the first blow that Sir Henry de la Zouch became suddenly aware of the danger of his position. He had not the power to stay the second thrust, and before he could retreat out of danger he was sent sprawling into the hedge bottom.
Fortunately, the effects of the blow were considerably diminished, inasmuch as its greatest force was already spent ere De la Zouch was struck. Had it not been for this circumstance he would have come off ill indeed, but even as it was he was sorely injured, and lay insensible in the place where he had fallen until he opened his eyes at dusk and found himself being lifted up.
"Where am I?" he gasped, as he mechanically rubbed his eyes and gazed around. "I am hurt."
"Lie still awhile," returned Crowleigh, for he it was who stood over him. "You will be yourself again directly," and raising his horn to his lips he blew a loud, clear note upon the still evening air.
"What does that portend?" asked the conscience-stricken and mistrustful knight. He feared that he was about to be carried off to answer for his misdeeds.
"There will be help soon," said Crowleigh. "Lie still, for you are hurt. You will be better by-and-by. Drink this," and he filled his horn with water and offered it to him.
De la Zouch took the water and drank it off. It appeared to do him good, for he rapidly rallied, and the reassuring words of Crowleigh had a magical effect in clearing his brow and helping on his recovery.
"Am I much hurt?" he inquired with a look of intense agony upon his brow.
"Bruised and stunned, I think, that is all. Ha, here they come;" and, as he suddenly stopped speaking, the sound of the replying horns could be distinctly heard, and within a few minutes, from different quarters, over walls and fences, the horsemen came riding in by ones and twos until at last there numbered a full dozen.
"Oh!" groaned De la Zouch, loudly, "it is painful, cannot you relieve me?"
"Where is Sir George Vernon?" inquired Sir Everard; "have none of you seen him of late?"
No one had, but they had all blown their horns, so he was sure to be in soon.
De la Zouch shuddered at the mention of the King of the Peak—he was hardly himself again as yet, but he was fast rallying, and by the time that the baron arrived he was quite ready to meet him.
"Heigho! found at last;" exclaimed the baron, as he made his way through the group. "But whom have we here; tush, where is my Doll?"
De la Zouch, for answer, began to play his game, and he only replied to the query with a deceitful and prolonged groan.
"Where's my Dorothy?" impatiently repeated the baron, disregarding the agonised look which met his gaze.
"There—miles on," gasped Sir Henry, jerking his thumb over his shoulder, and pointing along the road by which he had just travelled; and then, as if the effort had been too much for him, he fell back panting upon the turf.
Sir George Vernon waited for no more, but hastily bestriding his saddle, he galloped away, bidding the others disperse again upon their search. Only Sir Thomas Stanley and one solitary retainer remained, and these from very different reasons; the former because he suspected foul play, and wished for the immediate future to have De la Zouch under his own eye; and the latter, much against his will, was constrained to tarry behind to help the unfortunate nobleman back to Haddon.
"Twenty nobles for the man who finds my Dorothy," shouted the baron as he rode off, "and twice twenty if there has been any knavery and the rogues are caught"; and as the knight of Ashby heard the sound of the galloping grow fainter he was fain to own himself so far only partially successful, and as he was lifted up to be carried away, he shut his eyes and ruminated on the probable present condition of his captives, and wondered where they were.
Dorothy soon awoke from the swoon into which she had fallen on seeing the prostrate condition of her lover, and being graciously permitted by the page to have a considerable amount of liberty, she soon busied herself in trying to restore Manners to consciousness.
Eustace, the page in question, had judged her aright. There was little fear now of her attempting to escape. Indeed, the thought never entered into her head; her whole attention was concentrated upon the one effort of restoring her lover to consciousness, and even the heart of the hardest of the rough men around her was softened by the picture of grief which she presented.
At last John Manners opened his eyes, and as he caught sight of Dorothy's tear-stained face bending over him, he smiled. His smile dispelled all Dorothy's fears, as the rising sun dispels the morning mist, and through her grief she smiled responsively back upon her lover.
Eustace witnessed his recovery with a profound sense of relief. It was in ignorance of the plot that he had been inveigled to obey his lord's behests, for though at Haddon De la Zouch had acquainted him with a part of the conspiracy, yet he had grossly deceived him. He had informed him that it was Dorothy Vernon's wish to flee to Ashby, and it was not until he was undeceived by the conduct of the maiden herself that the fullness of his master's treachery revealed itself to him.
True, he had been engaged on sundry occasions with his master in unworthy and unknightly deeds, but never until now had he perceived the outrageous conduct of his lord. His whole nature recoiled from the task which had been imposed upon him, and nothing but the extreme fear with which De la Zouch had inspired him during a long acquaintanceship held him back from releasing the two lovers on the way, and helping them back to Haddon.
He was not yet courageous enough to pursue such a course, however. He felt that his master's eye was upon him, and he could not shake the evil influence off; but, although failing in this particular, he gave them a practical token of his sympathy by offering them such food as he possessed—a small flagon of wine, purloined from Sir Henry's store, together with a rough rye cake, which were gratefully accepted as a token of friendship, and before long were thankfully consumed.
He tendered them gracefully to the captives, and without waiting to be thanked he made his way to the rear, where, forming the men in order, he divided them into two companies, and sending the one on in front, the other half walked a little distance behind, leaving Dorothy and her lover free to converse as they chose. In this order, without molestation or accident, they reached their destination as the grey light of the succeeding morning melted into the clearer light of riper day.
But oh, that hapless maiden?— Where may she wander now, whither betake her, From the chill dew, amongst rude burrs and thistles? Perhaps some cold bank is her bolster now. Or, 'gainst the rugged bark of some broad elm Leans her unpillowed head, fraught with sad fears. What, if in wild amazement and affright Or while we speak, within the direful grasp Of savage hunger.
The liberal offer which the King of the Peak made for the recovery of his daughter fired his followers with enthusiasm; for, although they had searched willingly enough before, both for the sake of love and duty, yet the tempting reward added to their zeal, and each one set out on his journey anew, feeling pretty confident that very soon he would be at least twenty nobles the richer.
As the shades of evening fell, and the twilight began to fade into darkness, the prospect of finding the maiden grew fainter and fainter, until at length the most hopeful gave up the search and returned disconsolately to Haddon, hoping that the maiden would be found at the Hall, and that with her return the chance of gaining the twenty nobles was irretrievably lost. Sir George was the last to return, and the jaded condition of his horse told far more plainly than ever words could have done how far he had ridden.
He had hoped, amid fear and trembling, that his lost darling had been found. He even half expected her to meet him upon his return; but all his anticipations were rudely dispelled. Not a trace of her had been found, and crushed by the ill news, he retired to the solitude of his dressing room, with his riding accoutrements unremoved, and gazed for a time meditatively into the empty fireplace, in an agony of fear as to the fate which had befallen her. So far, there was no clue to guide him; he could not even imagine or suspect any adequate reason for her absence; he could only ruminate sorrowfully on the fact that she was gone, and lament his inability to find her.
He was pondering in this fashion when a gentle knock at the door aroused him from his reverie.
"Enter," he gruffly and impatiently responded.
The door opened and Lettice entered. Her face was suffused with tears.
"Well, Lettice," he inquired in a somewhat gentler voice, "what is it, eh?"
"Is there any news of my mistress?" she tremblingly asked.
"None," he replied, "would God there were."
The maid curtsied and withdrew, but ere she had closed the door, the baron called her back.
"Lettice!" he cried.
She was in the room again in an instant.
"Is Sir Thomas Stanley here?" he asked.
"He is with Mistress Margaret, keeping watch in Sir Henry's room," she replied.
"Bid him attend me here, then," he commanded. Lettice closed the door again, and with a feeling of keen disappointment went off to discharge her mission.
Sir Thomas received the summons ungraciously, but feeling constrained to obey it, he bade the maid keep his betrothed company, and telling her not to let her eyes depart from De la Zouch he hastened to see Sir George.
When the good folk of Haddon awoke next morning, they were summoned to the Hall by the sound of the bell. The news of Dorothy's mysterious disappearance had quickly spread, and feeling sure that some announcement concerning her was about to be made, they quickly flocked into the courtyard curious to learn the latest tidings.
They were not disappointed. Sir George repeated his offer of the previous day, increasing it upon the impulse of the moment to fifty nobles, and he at once despatched a number of his household to renew the search.
Meanwhile De la Zouch, to revenge himself upon the baron for his behaviour to him on the preceding afternoon, continued in a well-feigned semi-unconscious state, and throughout the day he declared himself too faint and dazed and altogether unfit to explain Dorothy's absence. Although besieged with inquiries from early morning, he remained obstinately deaf to all entreaties, nor was it until the evening that he professed himself able to understand their inquiries or returned intelligent answers to their questions.
"I was almost killed by that treacherous esquire," he whined, as he began his explanation.
"Never mind that, tell us about Dorothy," interrupted the baron.
"I am coming to that," he replied. "No sooner were we started than I began to suspect mischief. I could see that Manners did not want me."
"Very like," interrupted Sir Thomas dryly.
De la Zouch felt hurt by the unfeeling remark, and he looked hurt, too, but Sir Thomas took no note of it, and the effort was futile.
"Why did you not come, Crowleigh?" he continued, changing the expression of his countenance from anger to agony, "then all would have been different."
It would, indeed, but not as Sir Henry implied.
"I was hindered," returned Sir Everard, highly nettled at the other's tone and speech. "My horse fell lame with a stone in his shoe, and I had to return."
"At Cromford he set a pack of knaves upon me," pursued De la Zouch, with the coolest audacity. "I was almost murdered; I tried to save her, but what could I do? They were ten to one, and whilst I fought like a madman, Dorothy and Manners laughed at me to my face and rode off together."
"You lie," returned Crowleigh, hotly.
"Do I?" he replied with a sneer, "then prithee what does this bespeak, and this, and this?" and he showed in turn the scratches and bruises on the various parts of his body.
"At Cromford?" inquired the baron. "Did you say at Cromford?"
"Aye, at Cromford, Sir George. I struggled hard to rescue Dorothy for thee, but it was of no avail. No man can combat ten and win."
"I passed Cromford myself and saw naught of it, nor yet had any of the villagers," said the baron severely.
"And what means this?" continued De la Zouch, pointing to the battered hat and soiled and torn clothes. "Do not these alone prove that I am speaking but the truth? Can you doubt me longer now?" and he glanced round indignantly, and acted his part so well that he almost persuaded himself that he was a much-abused and persecuted person.
"Did no one witness the struggle, Sir Henry?" asked the sceptical Stanley. "Was there not one during all that time passed by?"
"In faith, Sir Thomas, I know not," he replied. "I found no time to look. I had work enough to do to save my skin, I assure you. He has taken her to London."
"The ingrate!" warmly exclaimed Lady Maude, who had just entered the room. "And Dorothy is worse than he. Let them go, Sir George, they are not worth the finding; let them go."
"Well, 'twas a knightly thing to do, to leave a lady; a right gallant thing, nay by my troth it was," said Stanley, severely. "And my brother is on his way here, too; what will Edward say?"
"Poor Sir Henry, we have judged thee hardly, I fear, but we must try to make amends for it now," said the dame sympathetically.
"She must be found; she shall," interrupted the baron, emphasising the last word with a stamp of the foot. "Manners shall suffer though I—"
"Tush, Sir George, let them go," interrupted his good lady. "They will want to return soon enough."
"Nay, she must be traced and brought home again," said Stanley. "Edward would die of chagrin else."
"She shall be found," repeated the baron decisively.
De la Zouch had mentally calculated that a slight relapse in his condition would probably arouse a wider feeling of sympathy for him, and to secure this end he closed his eyes and gasped for breath, but the feeling of suspicion was too firmly rooted to be dispelled so easily, and he opened his eyes again to find his companions as cold and unsympathetic as before.
"You have not told us all," exclaimed Crowleigh. "Manners would never leave his host in so graceless a style, I know."
"Have I not told thee the truth, Sir George?" De la Zouch meekly appealed, "and do not these rents and scars bear me out? 'Tis a pretty reward for a noble fight is this," and he finished with a sigh of profound discontent.
"I believe thee," returned the baron slowly, to whom the evidence of the torn garments and De la Zouch's wounds appeared irresistible.
"And was not my poor horse lamed by the miscreants, who would have killed it outright had I not interposed myself?" continued Sir Henry. "Are all these things to count as naught, and is not the absence of the lovers itself sufficient proof? What more do you require? What have you to disprove these things? Why should you doubt me?" and he looked round in triumph, feeling sure that his reply was perfectly unanswerable.
"He speaks the truth, Sir Thomas," said the old knight. "We owe a debt of gratitude to thee, Sir Henry."
"I found this knife where De la Zouch was lying," said Stanley bluntly. "I thought it was his, and so I brought it for him."
De la Zouch gazed with horror upon the tell-tale weapon, but in an instant he decided how to parry the thrust.
"'Tis mine," he cried, hastily snatching it away. "The villains wrested it from my grasp."
"And part of the blade was buried in the horse's flank," pursued Sir Thomas. "I discovered it there when the horse dashed into the yard covered with blood and foam."
"The wretches!" interjected De la Zouch.
"And yet, Sir Henry, methought the struggle took place at Cromford, and that would be nigh three miles from where I found the knife."
Sir Henry turned livid with anger, and was at a loss how to reply, when Lady Vernon fortunately came to the rescue.
"You struggled worthily, sir knight," said she, "and I would that the cause had been more worthy of thy mettle. We cannot doubt thee more."
"I cannot contradict thee," went on Margaret's lover, "but you will show us the exact scene of the fray, Sir Henry, of course?"
"Assuredly I will, to-morrow—if I am well enough," he added carefully.
Sir George Vernon noted the answer with displeasure. He was not very strong in his belief of Sir Henry's innocence as yet, though the evidence in De la Zouch's favour would have been decisive enough for him had not Stanley shaken it so.
"Has thy Dorothy forsaken thee, then, Sir George?" asked Crowleigh pertinently.
"Why no, Sir Everard—yes; that is—I cannot say," he hopelessly replied. "It must be so, and yet, no! I cannot believe it either."
De la Zouch ground his teeth in ill-suppressed rage. Matters had taken a decidedly unfavourable turn; he was being sorely worsted, and he wished himself far away. The suspicions of Sir Thomas Stanley were pressing uncomfortably near him, and he found himself in a quandary how to evade them.
"I am doubted, Sir George, I see," he said angrily. "Lady Vernon is the only one who does me justice. I will go. Your deed shall be blazoned to the world. Is this the boasted hospitality of the King of the Peak?—then I disdain it. I shall shake the dust off my feet and shall depart at once, and you will find out when too late that you drove away in such a scurvy fashion the truest friend you ever had," and boiling over with well-simulated fury, De la Zouch leapt from his chair and passed through the doorway, chuckling to himself at the success of his little scheme to extricate himself.
He was liberated now from the awkwardness of his false position. His day's rest and the attention he had received had done wonders towards effecting his recovery, and ordering a horse to be saddled, a few minutes later he passed out of the precincts of the Hall, and hoping that he would never have occasion to return, he mustered up his strength and started out upon a midnight ride to Ashby.
But in these cases We still have judgment that we but teach Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return To plague th' inventor; this evil-handed justice Commends th' ingredients of our poisoned chalice To our own lips.
When Eustace delivered his charges into the hands of the chamberlain at Ashby his task was ended, and he had no further responsibility in the matter.
The rest afforded him by the journey had the effect of refreshing John Manners to a considerable degree, and when he stood before Sir Henry's deputy he felt well able to take care of himself and quite capable of resisting any unwarrantable liberties that they might attempt to take with him.
Simon Greenwood, the chamberlain of Ashby Castle, was a fit person to represent his lord. Indeed, had Sir Henry searched throughout the length and breadth of the land, he would probably never have discovered a man more after his own heart, or a servant who would have so faithfully aided him in the many questionable transactions in which he was from time to time engaged. He had grown up on the estate. His father had served the former lord of the manor, and entering into his master's service when quite a youth, Simon had flourished on the success of his numerous petty stratagems; he had supplanted those who had been above him, and now, as the right hand of his lord, he was ever eager to distinguish himself in Sir Henry's eyes.
He glanced at the two prisoners with an air of haughty contempt which would have done credit to De la Zouch himself.
"So you are John Manners, eh?" he drawled out at length.
Manners looked at him disdainfully, but returned no answer.
"And you be Miss Dorothy, I suspect," he went on with a most unprepossessing leer.
"You will remember my lord's instructions, Simon," interrupted the page.
"Yes, yes, of course; be off, I know. I am not going to hurt her," replied the chamberlain. "Well, Mistress Dorothy, I have got to take particular care of you," he continued, ironically.
"And of Master Manners, too, I hope," she fearlessly replied, not noticing the hidden meaning of his remark. "Remember that he is a gentleman."
"Yes, oh yes," returned the man, with a hideous grin, "we have got to take particular care of him as well. He will sleep downstairs for awhile," and he laughed with a coarse guffaw, again and again repeated, at his own joke.
"Enough of this, sirrah," broke in Manners, sternly.
"We are not here to amuse you. There will be a host of our friends here soon to deliver us, so thou had'st best beware of what thou do'st."
Simon scowled darkly, but Manners's threat had its effect, and he restrained his temper.
"I care not," he replied, "so long as Sir Henry be here. I shall but obey my instructions nor more nor less."
"And what are they?"
"You shall find that out for yourself in good time."
"And remember that though I am within your power, I am the nephew of an earl, and have friends at Court who will avenge me on your lord," Manners pursued.
"Then I shall put you in a safe place."
The man was longing to assert his authority, but the bearing of the prisoner thoroughly cowed him, and he felt helplessly bound to be more civil to him than he wished.
"And what about this lady?" asked Manners.
"Sir Henry's instructions apply equally to her as to you," he replied.
"If she is treated ill you shall answer for it," said Manners, fiercely, "so I bid you look to it that you treat her well."
"Teach me not," Simon hastily broke in. "I know what is expected of me, and, mark me, I shall do it. Captives ought not to be too conceited, mark that, too, an it please you."
"Enough, sirrah, cease thy prating. I am no fool."
"Take him away; take him to the old dungeon," cried Simon, whose wrath was fast gaining mastery over him; "and mind you double lock the door."
"The dungeon!" shrieked Dorothy. "No, not the dungeon."
Manners looked round, but there was no chance of escape, nor would he have cared to have left Dorothy in such a position, even had the way been clear.
"Sir Henry said he was to be kept in the North Tower," ventured Eustace.
"Did he, indeed," sneeringly retorted the chamberlain. "You had better be off or I will have you whipped;" and smarting under the rejoinder, Eustace, who considered prudence the better part of valour, took the hint so broadly given and retired.
An hour later, as Manners sat brooding in his deep and lonely dungeon, he was startled by hearing the key turn slowly in the lock, and a moment later Eustace slipped into the cell and the door was closed and locked again.
"Oh, Master Manners," he cried, as he dropped on his knees, "this is a shameful thing; what can I do, I would help thee if I might? I am disgusted with my lord; I loathe him and I shall flee from him."
"'Tis no fault of thine, thou art young," kindly responded Manners, "but canst thou tell me aught of Mistress Dorothy Vernon?"
"She is safe in the topmost room of the tower," he replied.
"Is she in danger yet?"
"Nay, she is safe, and will be treated well. Simon Greenwood's dame says my lord left strange commands about her comfort, and she has already rated Simon soundly for his rudeness to the maiden."
"Hist," whispered a voice through the keyhole, "Simon is coming."
Eustace threw up his hands in blank despair. "O, Master Manners," he ejaculated, "I am lost; Simon, would kill me if he finds me here."
"Creep under there," replied the prisoner, quickly; "it is dark, and I will befriend thee."
The page obeyed, and he was not a moment too soon; before he could comfortably ensconce himself in the damp and fusty hole under the stone bench, the door opened and the chamberlain entered.
He was flushed with wine, and not at all the same cool, calculated man who had stood before the captive an hour before.
"Well, my hearty," he exclaimed, as he seated himself upon the stone bench just over the gasping page, "things are rather bad, eh?"
"Begone," said Manners, curtly.
"Nay, now, that's hardly polite," he replied. "We will tame you down with the chains; 'tis many a year since I saw them used, and it would be quite a treat to see them on somebody once again," and he kicked the rusty manacles which lay upon the ground.
"You dare not, and you know it," retorted Manners fiercely; and, drunk as the man was, he cowered back beneath the glance.
"Ah, well, you are safe enough as you are, I reckon," he returned, "and I am taking care of Doll for you," he added with a sickening grin.
Dorothy's lover started forward as the name of the maiden was pronounced.
"Scoundrel!" he cried, "weak as I am I would thrash thee well for such presumption, were I sure you would not visit your displeasure upon her."
"Do as you list," was the coarse reply, "but I swear Doll is a pretty lass."
"Come here, you lout," exclaimed a shrill voice, as the door opened and admitted a buxom woman of forty or thereabouts. "I have found you at last; come out with you," and she emphasised the command by a smart clout on his head.
Simon turned quickly round and prepared to retaliate, but quailing under the stern glance of his better half, he obeyed her will, and meekly slunk out through the open door.
"I'll teach him, sir, how to behave to his betters," said the woman, turning to Manners. "He shall have a thrashing for this."
Much amused, the captive esquire thanked her warmly for her kindness. "But I have another favour to seek at your hands," he said. "I have had naught to eat as yet, and it is now evening."
"The dial only points to three as yet, sir knight," replied the dame, who was not quite certain of the quality of the prisoner, "but you shall have some food."
"Only three! Ah, well. And Mistress Dorothy?" he anxiously inquired.
"She is doing well. She has had a meal already. I have her under my own care, the sweet creature; heaven bless her! I had come to thee at her request to bid thee be of good cheer."
"Aye, heaven bless her, for she is in a sorry fix," assented Manners. "Tend her well, and I will well reward thee. Thou shalt have such gauds as thy neighbours shall turn green with envy at the sight of thee."
"I want them not," was the short reply, and Simon Greenwood's dame passed out of the dungeon, leaving Manners alone with the page.
The door had barely closed before Eustace emerged from his uncomfortable retreat, covered with insects of many kinds.
"Ha, ha!" he laughed. "Simon boasts that he cares for no man, save his lord; but he has to care for Dame Greenwood, though, ha, ha! I would even venture in that vile hole once more to see him thwacked again."
"Thank heaven Mistress Vernon is safe," said Manners. "Simon will not disturb her, think you?"
"Not he, sir, never fear. Simon Greenwood knows better than that; and, see, I have brought thee this," and the page pulled out a dagger and offered it to him.
"Nay, put it back," said Manners kindly. "I would not kill my gaoler, he is but performing his commands."
"But if it were for Sir Henry De la Zouch?"
"Ha! then I might, perchance."
"You have much to forgive me," continued the page, "for I have done thee grievous wrong."
"How? Thou art but a lad, and I have seen thee only once before?"
"It was then, at the hawking party, when Sir Henry slew the pedlar. It has haunted me ever since."
Manners was intensely surprised at this announcement. It was, indeed, startling and important news. The mystery was solved at last.
"It was Sir Henry, then!" he exclaimed. "I might have guessed as much."
"It was Sir Henry, and I witnessed it, but I will tell thee afterwards. Listen, for time is short. Pierce this corner with the dagger; do it quickly, for the wall is thick. There is a passage on the other side, of which none knows save my master and myself. The wall is softest here, and I will help thee from the other side: but I must make thy gaoler drunk. He is full fond of ale, so you may be assured that you will be unmolested, and I will have horses saddled at a distance. Adieu until to-night," and not heeding the thanks which Manners poured out from his grateful heart, he rapped at the door so that he might pass out.
The meal arrived in good time. A tankard of ale and a slice of bacon with wheaten bread, more than he could eat.
It was not long before Manners had satisfied his hunger, and in his feverish anxiety he could barely wait to hear Eustace's cheery voice exclaim to the gaoler, "Mat, I have brought thee some ale for letting me in to see the prisoner."
"Welcome it is," was the reply, and very soon a stentorian snore announced to the captive that his guardian had fallen into a drunken slumber, and told him that he might venture to set about his work with safety.
An hour's labour proved very unsatisfactory, for the wall was much harder than he had anticipated, and in spite of the goodwill with which he worked, the injuries he had received the day before seriously retarded his efforts.
Eustace, however, was working with more success on the other side, and in a couple more hours a hole, sufficiently wide for Manners to creep through, had been made, and in a few more minutes Dorothy's betrothed was a free man again, urging his steed to the utmost, to fetch help from Haddon, and to capture the miscreant knight who had effected so much evil.
THE LAST OF DE LA ZOUCH.
Face to face with the past he stands, With guilty soul, and blood-stained hands; And his deeds rise up against him. Too weak to win, he cannot fly, He begs for life and fears to die, But justice overtakes him.
The second day's search for Dorothy proved as ineffectual as the first, and yielding with ill grace to the counsel of his friends, Sir George Vernon submitted to retire from active search, and agreed to remain at Haddon while others scoured the country round for the truants.
"It is of no use," said the baron, "I cannot sleep. I shall not attempt it to-night either. It is enough that I should consent to stay at home."
"But you must have rest," expostulated Stanley, "or you will quickly break down under the strain."
"I shall stay here, I tell you," was the dogged reply, "and receive the reports as they come in. There are four or five out yet."
"Has Crowleigh returned?" asked Sir Thomas abruptly.
"Not yet; may he bring her back."
"'Tis most queer," soliloquised the young knight. "I cannot understand it, I confess. Do you suspect him, Sir George?"
"No, I don't," he replied, bluntly, "do you?"
"I do now. I suspect the whole lot of them; and that Manners and De la Zouch are at heart at daggers drawn."
"As for her," continued Sir Thomas, demurely; "she is far too fond of Manners. I thought we should have trouble with her, for she has a stubborn will."
"Like Lady Maude," exclaimed Sir George sententiously, "but go! Leave me alone; you must be in the saddle early in the morning, and you at all events require rest."
"Will nothing shake your determination?" pursued Stanley, as he looked in unfeigned pity at the toil-worn, care-riven brow of the unfortunate baron. "You will make yourself far worse else."
"I shall sit and wait. Send me in Father Nicholas, for he alone shall bear me company."
"Well, well," he replied, "I would persuade thee if I could Sir George, but since I cannot do that I will go, but you should rest," and leaving these words to ring in the baron's ears, the young nobleman retired to his couch and left the baron alone.
The sun had not long risen ere he was with Sir George Vernon again. His horse was ready to carry him once more upon the search, and he himself was ready for the ride. He had expected to find the baron asleep, but in this he was disappointed, for Sir George sat beside the table deep in converse with the priest. Crowleigh had returned, and so had the rest, but their tales were alike despondent; none of them had discovered a trace, and good Father Nicholas had found it a difficult task under the circumstances to revive the drooping spirit of his master.
"No luck, Sir Thomas, naught but ill news," said the baron, as he replied to his friend's greeting; "'tis an ill wind this. There is never a trace as yet, and——"
"Hist!" interrupted Margaret's lover. "I hear the sounds of galloping hoofs."
Sir George opened the casement window, and peered out into the gloom.
"I cannot see them yet," he exclaimed, "but there are more than one, and they are nearing fast. If it should be Dorothy," he said with a sigh of intense feeling; "what joy!"
"Aye, there are more than one," said Stanley. "We cannot see them here. Hark, they are thundering at the gate even now; let us go and meet them, and heaven grant, whoever it may be, that they bring good news."
"Amen," ejaculated the baron fervently, and his prayer was echoed by the rest.
Before they could reach the gate, the horseman had been admitted; and as Sir George and his friends stepped into the yard they recognised—not the features of Sir Edward Stanley, as Margaret's lover secretly thought, but the well-known form of Manners.
"How!—by my halidame, what meaneth this?" exclaimed the baron, delighted beyond measure to see the esquire again. "Tell me, Manners, where my Dorothy is?"
"Speak fair words," cautioned Stanley, with a frown.
"Dorothy!" gasped her lover. "Hasten, I beseech thee. She is at Ashby. Where is De la Zouch, the villain?"
"On his way home," answered Sir Thomas.
Manners groaned aloud.
"Heaven forfend us, then," he cried. "He is a monster of iniquity. We must hasten back, an you would rescue Dorothy."
"There is some conspiracy in this," exclaimed Stanley. "Here is De la Zouch's page lurking behind these horses. Come hither, sirrah, for I recognise thee well. 'Twere a bold thing of thee to venture on so rash an errand here."
Eustace was pushed unwillingly forward, and as he stood before the knight his knees knocked together under the terrible frowns that were bestowed upon him.
"Nay, it is right," expostulated Manners. "Leave him alone, Sir Thomas, he will be of service to us yet."
"But where is Dorothy?" asked the impatient baron. "What has become of her? Why does she not return with thee?"
"De la Zouch waylaid us," answered the esquire, "and we fell into his trap. I have ridden hard from Ashby since the sun last set. I escaped his dungeon by the aid of this, his page, to save poor Dorothy. I am faint from my bruises and hard riding. Cannot you believe me?"
"Sir Henry," replied the baron, with a sneer. "Sir Henry told us a similar story, but then it was you who had waylaid him."
"The villain!" groaned Manners, "I will have revenge."
"That's just what he called you," said Sir Thomas, promptly. "Two of a trade never agree."
"My master felled Master Manners to the ground himself," interposed the page; "or rather, I mean he struck him senseless while he lay injured on the ground."
"And he carried Doll away to his castle," said Manners. "I shall avenge her, though. I can understand your suspicions now, and forgive you, for De la Zouch has played you false as well as me, and has returned to his castle now to reap the reward of his villainy. I shall pursue him, though. He sought my life, defamed my name, imprisoned me, and now he has gone when I get here. Eustace," he added, turning to the page, "let us return; I will gather friends of my own with which to rescue her, and I shall be strong till I have met and paid my enemy. God grant we may yet be in time. Crowleigh, you believe me? You will come, and, mayhap, we may intercept him ere his journey's end, for he cannot long be gone."
"Nay, nay, man; stay and have thy wound attended to," said the baron sympathetically. "Thou'rt honest, I would swear."
"And yesterday he seemed well nigh dead," said Eustace, referring to Manners. "Sure I am he can ride no longer. We rode hard here, and well I trow his wound—"
"Stay not for me," interrupted Manners. "This is precious time. I command you to hasten or it will be too late, for when De la Zouch discovers I am gone, he will certainly remove her to another place."
"We will," enthusiastically shouted Sir George, and in the twinkling of an eye he seized hold of the alarm-bell rope and in an instant awakened the tired sleepers of the neighbourhood by its clang.
"And thou art his page," said Stanley. "Thou wilt show us the way."
"Aye, that I will an it please you, my lord, but I will never return to him."
"Meg, we are off," exclaimed Sir Thomas to his betrothed, who had hastily descended from her own room, startled at the unusual noise in the courtyard at that early hour. "We are going to bring Dorothy back."'
"Where is she?"
"At Ashby Castle, so Master Manners saith," he replied. "You will go with us, I hope," he added, turning round to the esquire. "You will want to revenge yourself."
"I will avenge her, yes;" he responded, not heeding the convert sneer, "that I will right heartily."
Meanwhile lanterns had been glimmering in the lower portion of the yard; men had been frantically shouting to each other, and their voices had mingled with the trampling of horses' feet; and now, everything being ready, the fact was announced, and in a few minutes the cavalcade started out upon its expedition, determined not only to rescue the maiden, but also to administer a sharp and well-merited rebuke upon the faithless knight who had decoyed her away.
De la Zouch arrived at his castle soon after the party started from Haddon, and although he had failed to lull the Vernons into a false belief in his fidelity, yet he had put them on a wrong scent, and he congratulated himself inasmuch as he had left behind him no strong suspicion of the truth.
Simon Greenwood had retired to rest. Sir Henry was not expected home so soon. Indeed, he had told his chamberlain confidentially that if events progressed aright he should probably not return for a week or maybe more, and the sudden return of his lord found the worthy deputy in nowise prepared to meet him, and he had his good dame to thank that, inasmuch as she had deprived him of liquor sufficient to make him drunk, he was in no worse condition than he happened to be.
"Ha, Simon," exclaimed the knight, as that functionary put in an appearance, "I am back again, you see."
"Troth, and in good time, too, my lord."
"Aye, I have come pretty quick, I assure you. The birds are safe, eh?"
"Safe enough, I would stake my head on that."
"That's right, I knew I could trust you, Simon. I am hungry though, and by all the saints in the calendar, I am sore and stiff as well. I am injured, too, for my horse fell down with me and crushed my leg."
"You look it, my lord, and worse," exclaimed Dame Greenwood. "You look badly hurt."
"Ah, my own fault, my own fault; I have been a fool. Eustace himself could not have ridden worse. Where is Eustace, I have not seen him yet?"
Simon looked inquiringly at his better half, and to his discomfiture, she stolidly returned the glance. Neither of them appeared to know anything of his whereabouts. In the scuffle and worry of the time he had been forgotten, and they had to make the best defence they could.
"Methinks he is paying a visit to some fair damsel of the town, Sir Henry, with his dulcimer," suggested the dame. "I saw him with the music some while before the gates were closed."
"He was prating this and that to me, my lord," added Simon, who found his tongue at length, "until I threatened to whip him. He sneaked away quick enough then, ha, ha!"
"Ha, ha!" laughed the knight, as he divested himself, with Simon's aid, of his riding coat, "he would order thee about, eh? But, by my faith, man, I am hungry, I swear. I am quite ready to sup when I have seen my prisoners."
Dame Greenwood took the hint and went out to procure the meal. "Sir Henry is in wonderful good humour to-night," she murmured, "and 'tis a good thing, too for Simon, that he is. What a fool he would be without me," and comforting herself with this reflection, she hastened to obey her lord's behests.
"Dorothy is in the tower?" asked Sir Henry as he ravenously fell upon his meal. "How is she now? Proud, I suppose, eh?"
"Humph! well enough, though a trifle obstinate."
"Well, we will go and see her. And Manners, what of him?"
"Ha! high and haughty. Rides the high horse, my lord. Has friends at Court and friends all around coming to release him."
"A pretty tale, truly, Simon," laughed the knight, as he finished his hasty meal and ordered some more spiced wine to drink.
"Yes, my lord," replied the chamberlain. "So I put him in the old dungeon."
"Eh, what! You have put him where?" asked Sir Henry, turning back breathlessly. "You idiot, you; where are the keys?"
"In the old dungeon, I said," explained the wonder-stricken chamberlain. "The safest part of the castle, my lord."
"Where are the keys?" thundered his master. "Quick!"
Simon handed them over, and struck with intense amazement at the sudden and complete change in his master's manner, he awaited the course of events.
"Follow me," said the knight, sharply, as he opened the door and started across the yard. "Did I not command thee to put him in the tower?" he cried.
Simon returned no answer. He was stupified. His head swam, and he half persuaded himself as he followed his master across the yard that he was the victim of some dread nightmare.
"See here!" exclaimed Sir Henry as he kicked the drunken gaoler aside and sharply awoke him; "and here!" he added, as he unlocked the ponderous door and held the glimmering lantern up. "See here," he cried, "what's this?" and he pushed the wondering Simon in.
"Why—how! He has gone," he gasped.
"Of course he has."
And true it was. The worst fears of De la Zouch were realised. Manners, as we already know, had found out the secret of the dungeon, and his flight was only just discovered.
Sir Henry de la Zouch was prompt in action, and immediately upon satisfying himself of Dorothy's safety, he set out, accompanied by a number of his retainers, to find her lover, feeling pretty well convinced that he would be discovered lurking somewhere in the neighbouring woods. It was in vain they searched. Under the eye of their ubiquitous lord, the tired followers beat every copse and glade, and it was not until the afternoon was well advanced that the Knight of Ashby relinquished the search and thought of turning back.
"Hark!" said Simon to his master, as the latter gave the order to return, "I hear the tread of horse."
"We will advance, then," was the reply, and the unwilling company once more turned their backs upon their homes, and marched further into the forest.
The two parties had for some time unconsciously been approaching each other, and when the quick ears of the chamberlain had detected the proximity of Sir George Vernon and his followers, they were only separated from each other by a narrow strip of thickly-grown wood, and a minute or two sufficed to bring them into collision.
"Ha, ha!" shouted Sir George, as he sighted the faithless knight. "Ha, ha, torn clothes, we have you now. Here the villain is," and he spurred his horse forward to cope with his enemies single-handed.
De la Zouch was amazed and staggered at the sight, and without waiting to meet the baron he rode back to his party, hotly pursued by the King of the Peak and his men of Derbyshire.
"Stay," cried Manners, "we will settle this between ourselves"; and without waiting for assistance he dashed forward at De la Zouch, and made a furious onslaught upon him.
It was no tournament now; it was a struggle for life itself! And whilst Dorothy's lover was animated by a stern resolve to punish his foe, at whatever the cost, De la Zouch fought like a madman, because he fought with a halter round his neck.
As for the latter's followers, at the first charge, with one accord they turned, and leaving their lord, for whom they had little love, to meet his fate, they tried to save themselves by flight.
The struggle was not prolonged. Manners was by far the better swordsman of the two, and De la Zouch, disheartened at the flight of his followers gradually weakened in his attack, and at length fell mortally wounded, leaving no one now to hinder them from marching victoriously on to Ashby.
A DISGUISED LOVER.
Imperious beauty, Treading upon the neck of understanding, Compelled me to put off my natural shape Of loyal duty, to disguise myself.
The autumn winds were howling among the trees and scattering the later leaves in all directions, when, with the fall of twilight, a gentle knock was heard at the door of the hut of the chief forester of Haddon.
A lonely traveller stood outside, shivering in his rough and scanty garments as he stood in the still evening breeze, and as he waited expectantly at the unopened door he heard a gruff voice inside the cottage trolling forth a simple ballad of the chase.
He waited patiently until the song was finished, and then, taking courage, he tapped again much louder than before, and was rewarded by hearing footsteps advance towards the threshold, and a moment later the crazy portal was standing open, and the unkempt head of the forester peered inquiringly out.
"What now, what now," he inquired, as his eye lighted upon the strange figure before him; "who and what art thou?"
"Art thou Roger the forester?" asked the wanderer in reply.
"Roger Morton, at your service, yes."
"Then, by the love of heaven, I beseech thee let me in."
"Well, there are few ask that favour off me, but none shall ever say I turned an empty mouth away at night, e'en though it were a beggar's. Come in."
Thankful indeed to receive so ready an invitation, the traveller entered the hospitable cottage.
"I am not a beggar, though, forsooth," he began, as he seated himself upon the log which did duty for a seat. "You do not recognise me, Roger, I perceive."
"Roger Morton, I repeat it, at your service."
"Well, then, Roger Morton, be it so, but yet you seem to know me not."
"Odds, troth," ejaculated the forester, "I seem to know thee somewhat; we have met before."
"A many times, Roger."
"Well, well, Roger Morton, I am apt to forget myself."
"Ha! you are Nathan Grene," interrupted the man, as he laid before his guest some cheese and a mug of new milk. "I know your voice."
"Are we alone?" whispered the traveller.
"We are," replied Roger, as he picked up a stout stick with which to defend himself, "but he would be a bold man to tackle me alone, for I can take care of myself full well;" and he quickly placed himself in an attitude of defence.
"Tut, I mean no ill, 'tis a matter of secrecy which I am about to entrust you with; read this," and pulling up a piece of cord which suspended from his neck, he drew up a tiny casket from his bosom, and, opening it, he drew out a neatly-folded slip of paper and held it out.
Slowly and laboriously Roger spelled the missive out, and having succeeded at last in making himself master of its contents, he whistled with surprise, and closely scanned the visage of his guest.
"What a change!" he exclaimed at length. "What will the baron say?"
"Hush, speak gently, or we shall be overheard. The baron must not know. Can you be trusted?"
"Surely. And you are Master Manners who killed that De la Zouch. To think of it, now."
John Manners it was. His rescue of Dorothy had advanced his suit but little. Lady Vernon had been too proud to own herself defeated, and Sir George had passed his word to the Stanleys and was bound to keep to his promise, while Edward Stanley, who had arrived at Haddon soon after the maiden's rescue, had taken a dislike to his rival and had made matters so uncomfortable for him at the Hall that the unfortunate esquire had found it necessary to take the hint and withdraw himself from Haddon.
But though driven away he was not defeated, for he yet found means of hearing from his betrothed, and even occasionally to correspond with her, but he soon found that the long absence grew more and more unendurable, until at last he determined to venture forward at every risk to be near her again.
"And so they would force Mistress Dorothy to marry Sir Thomas Stanley's brother?" said the forester after a pause, as he handed the little missive back.
"Yes, and Dorothy conjures you to help us. You will do it, will you not?"
"So good as she has been to my poor little Lettice, yes, that I will do; but how?"
"I must be a forester."
"'Tis a rough life for such as thee, Master Manners."
"And it is dangerous, too, at times."
"Aye, I know."
"And then if you were to be discovered?"
"Don't talk of ifs, man. I talked it all over with Dorothy long ago. She could not dissuade me, nor can you. I am ready for anything for her sake."
"Heaven bless her. I—"
"Aye, heaven bless her," interrupted Manners. "I shall wed her yet, if heaven does but bless her."
"You are decided to join our craft, then?" asked Roger. "We are two woodmen short, as luck will have it."
"I have come to be one, then," replied Manners. "I am disguised for that alone."
And so it came to pass that John Manners, the nephew of an earl, whose uncle, even now, was high in favour with the Queen, and who had himself bowed the knee on more than one occasion before her throne, had become a woodsman, and joined the foresters of Sir George Vernon. Love, and love alone, could have induced him to humble himself so much. It was for love of Dorothy that he turned his back upon the Royal Court; and now, to win his bride, he was content, nay happy, to discard his own station in life, and take upon himself the lot of a common woodsman.
Fortune was indeed leading him by strange paths, but he trusted she would lead him to the prize at last.
Dorothy's lot, meanwhile, had not been a bright one. Edward Stanley was relentless, and in answer to her piteous appeals that she loved him not, he cited the baron's words, referred her to the promise Sir George had rashly made to Sir Thomas; he declared that he loved her fervently, and, had it not been for the baron's interference, would have carried her off at the end of a month and have married her straightway.
Manners was sternly forbidden her; the gates of Haddon were closed against him, and even an excuse was found to keep Crowleigh away as well. It was fondly hoped that these stringent measures would have the effect of bringing Dorothy to her senses, but their plans completely failed. The maiden began to sicken. The colour fled from her rosy cheeks, and she began to grow rapidly worse. Lady Vernon ascribed it to mere obstinacy, and grew impatient with her, and made her worse than she would otherwise have been by finding fault with everything she did; and by setting her long tasks of tenter-stitching to perform, making her unhappy lot more miserable still. The only friend she had to whom she could unbosom her secrets was her maid Lettice, and during this time the hearts of the two girls were knitted closely together, the one by a craving for sympathy, and the other drawn to love by the dual bond of love and pity.
Many a night had these two wept together in the darkness and silence of an unlighted room, and many a time had Dorothy laid her head upon her tire-maid's knee and sobbed until with swollen eyes she had sobbed herself to sleep; and many a night had Dorothy sat alone, forbidden to leave the Hall, while her maid had gone out on a fruitless errand to discover if her lover had yet come.
"Not yet?" she would ask, as the maid returned, and Lettice had echoed "Not yet," in reply, until she hated the very sound of the words.
"O, Lettice, he has not forgotten me?" she would sob distractedly, as she saw the disappointed face return.
"No, never, my lady. Something has happened, surely."
"It must be so," her mistress would reply, and then she would relapse into silence.
To-night Dorothy sat alone. Her eyes were heavy, for she had been weeping long. Her sky seemed overcast; there was not a rift discoverable anywhere, and she was almost broken-hearted. Nearly two months had passed, and no sign of her lover had she seen to brighten her. Edward had told her that her lover had renounced her, and in spite of herself she almost began to believe the story. Lettice had gone out on her mission once more, but she questioned whether she would ever go again, and she prepared herself, as the time for the maid's return drew nigh, to receive the usual answer, "No, my lady, not yet."
Later than usual Dorothy heard her well-known footstep lightly tripping along the passage. The very lateness of her return inspired her with a ray of hope, and opening the door, she went out to meet her.
"Has he come, Lettice, has he come?" she eagerly exclaimed, varying for once her usual despondent query. And, as she asked, her heart fluttered wildly within her, and the hot blood mounted to her cheeks.
"I have news of him for thee," returned the maid, gaily.
Dorothy was too overcome to speak. The long-expected news had come at last; she fell upon the tire-maid's neck and wept tears of joy, while Lettice drew her unresistingly along, and led her to her little room again.
"There," she said, as she closed the doors so that none might hear. "Master Manners sends his duty to thee, my lady."
"His duty, indeed," she exclaimed, with drooping eyes; "why not his love forsooth?"
"'Twas love he said," returned the maid. "He is a forester."
"A forester!" echoed Dorothy in amazement. "My John a forester! Not a common woodman, Lettice, surely?"
"Aye, but he is. He has done it for thy sake. It was the only way."
"And they told me he had forsaken me. Was ever man so noble as he?"
"He has sent thee this," said Lettice, as she handed a letter to her mistress. "'Tis but roughly done, but he said you would forgive it, and he sealed it with a score of kisses before he gave it me."
Dorothy hastily took up the note and read it. Evidently it pleased her well, for as she perused its contents her countenance flushed with pleasure.
"Lettice," she exclaimed, "only you and I, besides your father, know that Hubert is the same as Master Manners. We must keep it secret as the grave itself. Is he well disguised?"
"In truth, I knew him not until he called me by name."
"'Tis well. He runs a fearful risk. Edward or Thomas Stanley would as lief kill him as they would a dog did they but recognise him again."
"He has been ill, and he is deadly thin."
"Poor John. He tells me so. I understand all now."
"That will disguise him better than aught else, he said."
"Perhaps it is so, but 'tis a cruel disguise," said Dorothy sympathetically. "Did he give thee any word for me?"
"Naught, save that I was to tell thee he would write anon, as he could not see thee. He will hide the letters in the tree that Father Philip fell against; there is a hole in it, and he has shown it me. But you will see him soon; he wears a peacock's feather in his cap."
"I should know him well enough without a sign," said Dorothy decisively, "and he were best without it, for it might lead him into peril."
"Father will send him with the logs," pursued Lettice. "He came but yesternight."
"Hush, Lettice, is not that Lady Maude coming?"
"Gramercy no, I hope not, or it might fare ill with us," said the maid, "but hide the letter, for the love of heaven do," she added quickly as the footsteps quickly approached.
Quick as thought Doll transferred the missive into her pocket, and, with a guilty look which she vainly strove to hide, she turned to brave Lady Vernon.
Lady Vernon it was, but she passed hurriedly along the corridor, and having escaped thus luckily so far, they waited not to tempt fortune again, but bidding each other an affectionate "Good-night," Lettice withdrew, and left Dorothy alone with her newly-gotten joy.
A NARROW ESCAPE.
The moon in pearly light may steep The still blue air; The rose hath ceased to droop and weep, For lo! her joy is there. He sings to her, and o'er the trees She hears his sweet notes swim, The world may weary—she but hears Her love, and hears but him.
John Manners found life uncomfortable enough in the new condition of life in which he had placed himself. The work was hard, and the fare was rough. There was no difference between his lot and the lot of those around him, and yet, in spite of this, he was looked at askance by his new companions, while to crown all, he found very few opportunities of meeting or seeing his beloved Dorothy.
Often had he made arrangements to meet her at different trysting places, but, just as often had he waited patiently, only to be disappointed by the non-arrival of his lady-love. In this sorry plight he had been obliged to content himself with sending messages to her through Lettice, whom he constantly met at her father's hut; or, failing her, as a last resource he fell back upon communicating with his lover through the unsatisfactory medium of the tree, where, not unfrequently, as he placed a fresh note in he found the previous one untouched.
At last, however, after many fruitless attempts which would assuredly have effectually daunted less ardent lovers, they found themselves once more together in the woods. What bliss, what rapture, what delight, filled the heart of each as they gazed fondly at the other! Dorothy felt bright and lithesome as of yore, as she felt the touch of her lover's hands again. The weeks of misery through which she had just passed seemed but as a dream to her as she once more heard his cheery voice, and the haggard, careworn look, which had settled upon her fair face of late, was instantly dispelled as her betrothed imprinted a warm kiss upon her blushing cheeks. As for Manners, he was completely transported with delight, and for some moments he bathed his hungry eyes in the sunshine of her beauty. To see her again had been his dearest wish, and now she stood before him, and he felt that all the sacrifices he had been called upon to make for the sake of his love were more than compensated for as he heard her gently call him by the old familiar name.
"John," she said.
"Well, dearest one; we are met once more."
"You can trust me now?"
"Aye, indeed, I can," he replied, with glistening eyes. "Forgive me, Doll, I know you will."
"I do; I did long ago. I knew you could not doubt me long. How good of you to come, and to risk so much—for my sake," she added, raising her lustrous eyes up to his.
"Nay, Doll, it were for my sake, too. I could not be far from thee long; the saints forfend I should. But tell me, Dorothy, how go our fortunes now; I fear not well?"
"Alas, no! Lady Maude is stricter than ever," she replied. "Were I a lazy serving-maid mine were a happier lot."
"And Sir Edward, what of him?"
"He wooes me with threats. Was ever a maiden won thus, John? He vows I shall be his bride, and O—"
"Margaret is to be wedded soon, and Sir Edward swears there shall be two weddings at the same time. He says I shall like him well enough in time to come. Margaret wishes it, Lady Maude wishes it, Sir Thomas wishes it, and Edward Stanley says it shall be."
"He knows it not," sturdily replied Manners, as he clasped her to his breast. "Our love is strong enough to conquer all that, Doll."
"I hope it will. I think it will in the end," she replied, "but the way is very dark for us at present. But naught shall stay us now. Our love is too true not to win."
"It shall!" he returned, decisively. "Be of good heart, my precious one, we shall soon have passed all this and be happy together."
"Heaven grant it," replied Dorothy, fervently, "but it is a terrible time now. With you exposed to danger every hour outside, and every hand against me in the house, save Lettice, 'tis terrible, terrible!" and the maiden burst into tears.
"Poor Doll," said Manners, as he tenderly supported her. "Your lot is hard, but there will be a change ere long. The wind does not always blow from one quarter, you know; it will alter soon."
"I fear me not," replied the maiden disconsolately.
"Oh, surely, when they see what an unconquerable will thou hast. Sir George loves thee too well to lightly disregard thy happiness. He loves you dearly; he will surely repent ere the time comes, for he hath a tender heart for thee."
Dorothy laid her hand upon his arm and beckoned him to be still, pointing at the same time to a thick mass of the thick foliage with which they were surrounded.
"Hist," she whispered. "Methought I heard the sound of footsteps, listen!"
She paused, and together they bent their heads and listened, but nothing was to be heard save the rustling of the leaves.
"'Twas thy fancy," exclaimed Manners, "thou art frightened."
"I thought I saw the form of a man pass by those trees," she replied. "It must be fancy, though, and yet, methought I saw him stop and then pass on again."
"Sir George will stand by thee," pursued Manners, "he loves thee better than himself."
"I know it, I know he loves me much, John; but he has promised me to the Stanleys, and when I told him of our trothplight he laughed, and said he was doing it all for the best. He forbade me to mention your name ever more, or even think of you again—as if you were not ever in my mind."
"Does not Lady Maude relent at all?"
"Lady Maude relent! Nay, rather does she grow more bitter against me day by day, and that I may forget thee she makes me tenter-stitch from morn till eve. Even Margaret gives her voice bitterly against me now."
"Thou hast no one to console thee, then?"
"Save Lettice, no."
"Poor Dorothy. And Father Nicholas, what saith he? He is a friend of mine."
"He is so grave I have not mentioned it to him."
"Then by my troth, Doll, bid him meet me here to-morrow night. He shall help us, he shall befriend thee. Tell him all, he can be well trusted, I wot, unless he has strangely changed since he hath taken the cowl. Bid him come here alone and without fail."
Soon, all too soon, the brief interview came to an end, and Dorothy had to go back to the Hall, while her lover, having reluctantly parted from her when he dare accompany her no further, slowly wound his way back to the sorry hut which served him, in common with the rest of his fellows, as a home.
He had no heart to join in the boisterous fun with which his companions were making themselves merry as he entered, and passing them unnoticed by, he took a seat in the furthest corner of the room and watched the faggots as they blazed and burned away upon the hearth in front of him.
Dorothy returned with a sad heart, too. The moment of bliss which had so transported her with delight had passed away again, and she found herself in pretty well the same downcast frame of mind in which she had been before, for she knew not when she would see her lover again, and she dare not let herself ponder on the terrible risks her noble lover ran.
"Well, Dorothy," said Lady Maude, as she burst into the maiden's room ere Doll had found time to divest herself of hood and wimple, "thou art serving us a pretty trick. Thou would'st meet thy whilom lover all unbeknown to us, eh? Pick up thy things and follow me."
It would have been worse than useless to have refused, and argument, Dorothy knew of old, at such a time would have been equally futile; so, while her blood almost froze with terror in her veins, she meekly obeyed her step-mother and followed her through the long ballroom into the banqueting-room below in a perfect agony of terror lest her lover had been taken and was about to be confronted with her.
The stone-flagged chamber, in which the festive table, which has creaked under many a load of beef and venison, still stands in grandeur all unique, was in full glory then. The musicians' gallery was richly bedecked with gilt, and was adorned with antlers, the trophies of many a chase, in place of the dingy, whitewash-spotted, pictures which, hang upon its walls to-day (and look as if they were sadly in need of a washing). Gay hunting-scenes, and a canvas on which, were delineated the forms of the Virgin and her Babe, met the eye and pleased it. A savoury odour of newly-baked cakes floated along the passage from the kitchens right into the room, and a piece of tapestry, one of Dorothy's first attempts, depended over the doorway of the carved wooden screen to keep out draughts, and at the same time give a warm and pleasing effect to the interior.
It was into this room, in which sat the baron and Sir Thomas Stanley, looking terribly grave and severe, that Lady Vernon led poor Dorothy.
"Come hither, Dorothy," said the baron, as she entered.
The "Dorothy" sounded ominous, and she advanced in great trepidation.
"You have been out without our knowledge," he exclaimed.
"Out; of course she has," interrupted Lady Vernon. "See, she cannot deny it, she has the tokens of guilt upon her now," and she derisively pointed at the tell-tale garments she had made her carry in.
"Hush, Maude," said the baron, "you will frighten her. Dorothy, you have been with Manners," he added, turning severely towards her.
Dorothy hung down her head, but vouchsafed no reply. She was in an agony of fear for the safety of her lover, but amid all her terrors she was resolved that no words should fall from her lips which might bring trouble upon him.
"Aye, and with Master Manners again," repeated the dame.
"What have you to say, Dorothy?" asked Sir George quickly.
"Nothing," she replied.
"Then you have been with him?"
"Nay, I said not so."
"Of course she has," exclaimed Lady Vernon, "who can doubt it?"
"We heard Manners speaking; I could swear to it now," said Sir Thomas Stanley.
"I fear it is even so, Dorothy," said the baron, not unkindly. "There is a guilty look upon thy face. Now tell us where he is and we will forgive thee thy share."
Dorothy returned no answer. She was determined that no words of hers should injure him.
"He saved my life," she replied, as the question was repeated.
"Tut, tell us where to find him, else thou wilt have enough to thank that stubborn will of thine for," interrupted the baroness, impatiently.
There was a sound of footsteps just outside, and they all paused to listen.
"'Tis Edward bringing Manners back," said Sir Thomas quietly. "Here they come."
The tapestry was quickly pushed aside, and the ruddy face of Sir Edward Stanley insinuated itself between, the fringes and the screen, but it was not the face of a contented man, for it wore a disappointed look.
"Bring him in," commanded the baron.
"Nay, I have not caught him yet," he ruefully replied. "Come and help us, he has hidden himself amid the woodsmen's huts."
"You go," said the baron, addressing Sir Thomas. "I will stay with Dorothy"; and without waiting to be bidden a second time Sir Thomas Stanley left his untasted supper on the table and joined in the search for Dorothy's forbidden lover.
Meanwhile, the subject of all this commotion sat innocently gazing at the burning embers, watching the logs as they blazed up and then gradually disappeared into powder to be blown away by the first slight breath of wind. Surely, he reflected, 'tis so with the baron's will; he is in the height of his determined fury now. But soon—and as the door opened, another puff of wind blew away the airy ashes of a once stout log—aye, surely, his opposition will vanish like as that.
"Never a soul came in here, your lordship, for a long time back," said Roger, deferentially doffing his cap. "Your lordship must be mistaken."
Manners turned round and beheld, with a feeling akin to dismay, Sir Thomas Stanley and his brother just within the threshold of the door.
"Tut, tut, man," replied the knight, "I say he came in here; he was seen to enter, and no one has passed out since then."
Sir Thomas appealed to the others, but they were all unanimous in supporting their master, and replied in one chorus of surprise. Manners had not been seen for weeks, and not a soul among them had any idea of his whereabouts.