Now when all that company understood the meaning of these outspoken words, they swayed to and fro and whispered like reeds in an evening wind. Presently above this whispering a soft yet penetrating voice was heard to say:
"If this English knight desires to study the poor face of Acour, de Noyon, and Cattrina, he who owns it is much honoured and prays your Excellency's leave to wait upon his pleasure."
So saying a tall and noble-looking man, who wore the badge of a white swan worked in pearls upon his rich tunic, stepped forward out of the ring of courtiers and bowed, first to the Doge and next to Hugh.
De Cressi looked at his handsome face with its quick dark eyes and little, square-cut, black beard, and answered:
"I thank you, Sir Edmund Acour, for I take it you are he. Now I shall never forget you again, for though a man may shift his armour he cannot change his countenance"—a saying at which de Noyon coloured a little and looked down uneasily.
"Cavalier de Cressi, he whom you seek is before you; we ourselves vouch for his identity," said the Doge. "Now be pleased to set out your case."
"My private case I thrust to one side," answered Hugh, Sir Geoffrey interpreting all the time, "for it is a matter between this Count, a certain lady and myself, and can wait. That which I have to lay before you, Illustrious, has to do with my master the King of England, as whose champion I am here to-day. I accuse this lord of the three names of black treachery to his august liege, Edward, all details of which treason I am prepared to furnish, and on behalf of that most puissant monarch I challenge him to single combat, as I am empowered and commissioned to do."
"Why should I fight the King of England's bravoes?" inquired Acour in a languid voice of those who stood about him, a question at which they laughed.
"If the charge of treason is not sufficient," went on Hugh, "I'll add to it one of cowardice. At the battle of Crecy, as a man here will bear me witness," and he pointed to Dick, "I overcame in single combat a knight who wore upon his shield the cognizance of a wolf and on his helm a wolf's head, which were the arms of Sir Pierre de la Roche. At this knight's prayer I spared his life, for that day we took no prisoners, and let him go. Afterward I fought with another knight carrying the cognizance of a white swan, the arms of the Count de Noyon, and slew him in fair and single fight. But before he died he told me that he bore that armour by command of his lord, the Count de Noyon, and that the said Count fought that day in his mail because he feared the vengeance of the King of England and my own. Thus it came about that the Wolf who fought paid the price for the Swan who fled away, hid in the armour of his friend, whom he left to die for him."
There followed a great silence, for all those noble lords and ladies who thought little of treason, which to most of them was a very familiar thing, were not a little stirred by this tale of cowardice and false arms. The Doge said:
"Noble Cattrina, you have heard the story of the English knight. What do you answer to it?"
"Only that it is a lie, Illustrious, like everything else that he has told us," replied Acour with a shrug of his broad shoulders.
"You said that you had a witness, Cavalier de Cressi," said the Doge. "Where is he?"
"Here," answered Hugh. "Stand forward, Dick, and tell what you saw."
Dick obeyed, and in his low, rasping voice, with more detail than Hugh had given, set out the story of those two combats at Crecy, of the sparing of the wolf knight and the slaying of the swan knight.
"What say you now, noble Cattrina?" asked the Doge.
"I say that the man lies even better than his master," answered Acour coolly, and all the Court laughed.
"Illustrious," said Hugh, "doubtless you have some herald at your Court. I pray that he may fetch his book and tell us what are the arms of de Noyon and Cattrina, with all their colourings and details."
The Doge beckoned to an officer in a broidered tabard, who with bows, without needing to fetch any book, described the crest and arms of Cattrina in full particular. He added that, to his knowledge, these were borne by no other family or man in Italy, France, or England.
"Then you would know them if you saw them?" said Hugh.
"Certainly, cavalier. On it I stake my repute as a herald."
Now while all wondered what this talk might mean, the Doge and Acour most of any, although the latter grew uneasy, fearing he knew not what, Hugh whispered to Dick. Then Dick loosed the mouth of the leather sack he carried, and out of it tumbled on to the marble floor a whole suit of blood-stained armour.
"Whence came these?" asked Hugh of Dick.
"Off the body of the night, Sir Pierre de la Roche, whom you slew at Crecy. I stripped him of them myself."
"Whose crest and cognizance are these, herald?" asked Hugh again, lifting the helm and shield and holding them on high that all might see.
The herald stepped forward and examined them.
"Without doubt," he said slowly, "they are those of the lord of Cattrina. Moreover," he added, "five years ago I limned yonder swan upon this very shield with my own hand. I did it as a favour to Cattrina there, who said that he would trust the task to none but an artist."
Now the silence grew intense, so much so that the rustle of a lady's dress sounded loud in the great hall.
"What say you now, my lord of Cattrina?" asked the Doge.
"I say that there is some mistake, Illustrious. Even if there were none," he added slowly, "for their own good and lawful purposes knights have changed armour before to-day."
"There is no mistake!" cried Hugh in a ringing voice. "This signor of so many names is a signor of many coats also, which he can change to save his skin. He wore that of Sir Pierre de la Roche to protect himself from the vengeance of the King of England and of the English squire whom he had wronged. He took mercy from the hand of that squire, who, as he knew well, would have shown him none had he guessed the truth. He left the poor knight, whom he had bribed to be his double, to die beneath that same squire's hand who thought him named de Noyon. Therefore the blood of this de la Roche is on his head. Yet these are small matters of private conduct, and one that is greater overtops them. This false lord, as Sir Edmund Acour, swore fealty to Edward of England. Yet while he was bound by that sacred oath he plotted to depose Edward and to set up on his throne the Duke of Normandy.
"The King of England learned of that plot through me, and gave me charge to kill or capture the traitor. But when we came face to face in a consecrated church where I thought it sacrilege to draw sword, he, who had just done me bitter wrong, stayed not to answer the wrong. He slunk away into the darkness, leaving me felled by a treacherous blow. Thence he fled to France and stirred up war against his liege lord under the Oriflamme of King Philip. Now that this banner is in the dust he has fled again to Venice, and here, as I have heard, broods more mischief. Once, when after the sack of Caen I sent him my challenge, he returned to me an insolent answer that he did not fight with merchants' sons—he who could take mercy from the hand of a merchant's son.
"Now that for deeds done a King has made me knight, and now that this King under his seal and sign has named me his champion, in your presence, Illustrious, and in that of all your Court, I challenge Cattrina again to single combat to the death with lance and sword and dagger. Yes, and I name him coward and scullion if he refuses this, King Edward's gage and mine," and drawing the gauntlet from his left hand, Hugh cast it clattering to the marble floor at de Noyon's feet.
A babel of talk broke out in the great hall, and with it some vivas and clapping of hands, for Hugh had spoken boldly and well; moreover, the spectators read truth in his grey eyes. A dark figure in priest's robe—it was that of Father Nicholas, the secretary who had brewed Red Eve's potion—glided up to Cattrina and whispered swiftly in his ear. Then the Doge lifted his hand and there was silence.
"My lord of Cattrina," he said, "Sir Hugh de Cressi, speaking as the champion of our ally, the King of England, has challenged you to single combat a outrance. What say you?"
"I, Illustrious?" he answered in his rich voice, drawling out his words like one who is weary. "Oh, of course, I say that if yon brawler wishes to find a grave in fair Venice, which is more than he deserves, I am not the man to thwart him, seeing that his cut-throat King——"
"As the ambassador of that King I protest," broke in Sir Geoffrey. "It is an insult that such a word should be used before me."
"I accept the protest of his Excellency, who forgot his noble presence," replied Cattrina bowing back. "Seeing that his King, who is not a cut-throat"—here a titter of laughter went through the company, though it was evident from the frown upon his face that the Doge liked the jest ill—"has chosen to make a knight of this de Cressi. Or so he says, which will show you, friends all, how hard it must be to find gentlemen in England."
Again the company tittered, though Dick's grey face turned scarlet and he bit upon his pale lip until the blood ran.
"As you accept the challenge," broke in the Doge shortly, "cease from gibes, my lord, which more befit an angry woman's mouth than that of one whose life is about to be put to hazard, and take up the gage of his Grace of England."
Cattrina looked round and bade a page who waited on his person obey the Doge's command, saying:
"Your pardon, most Illustrious, if I do not touch that glove myself, as it seems somewhat foul. I think it must have served its owner in his useful labours at the dyer's vat before his master made him noble."
Now it was Hugh's turn to colour, but when he understood the insult Grey Dick could contain himself no more.
"Ay, Sir Cheat and Traitor," he said in his hissing voice. "The vat in which it has been dipped was that of the life-blood of your dupe, Sir Pierre de la Roche, and of many a nobler Norman. Oh, did we not stand where we do I'd thrust it down your false throat, and with it twist out your slanderous tongue."
"Peace, peace!" cried the Doge, while those present who understood English translated Dick's wild words to their neighbours, and Cattrina laughed mockingly at the success of his sneer. "Have I not said that such words are unseemly? Ah! I thought it; well, my lord, you have brought it on yourself."
For while he spoke, the page, a mincing young man tied up with bows and ribbon like a woman, had lifted the glove. Holding it between his thumb and forefinger, he returned it to Hugh with a low, mock bow, being careful as he did so, as all might see, to tread upon Dick's foot and hustle him. Next moment two things happened. The first was that, dropping his cased bow, Grey Dick seized that young in his iron grip and hurled him into the air so that he fell heavily on the marble floor and lay there stunned, the blood running from his nose and mouth. The second was that, seizing his gauntlet, Hugh strode to where Cattrina stood, and struck him with it across the face, saying:
"Let your lips kiss what your fingers are too fine to touch."
With an oath Cattrina drew his sword and out flashed Hugh's in answer, as he cried:
"Ay, here and now if you will! Here and now!"
Then the Guard rushed in and forced them apart.
"Is this a place for brawling?" cried Dandolo in wrath, adding: "Yet I cannot blame the Englishmen overmuch, seeing that they were sore affronted, as I saw with my eyes and heard with my ears. Be silent, my lord of Cattrina. After your fashion you make trouble at my Court. And—hearken all—blood so hot had best be quickly cooled lest one or other of these knights should take a fever. Moreover, the noble Cattrina has but to-day asked my leave to ride from Venice to-morrow, having urgent business at Avignon at the Court of Pope Clement. So I decree that this combat a outrance shall take place in our presence on the Campo del Marte to-morrow, three hours before noon, ere the sun grows too hot. To all the details of the combat our heralds will attend forthwith. Officer, take soldiers and escort the Ambassador and the Champion of his Grace of England, together with this Captain of Archers, back to their own door. Set guards there and see that none molest them by word or deed under pain of fine and strait imprisonment. Sir Geoffrey Carleon, your requests are granted; be pleased to write it to the most puissant Edward, whom you serve, and for this time fare you well. Why, what is it, Captain Ambrosio?" he added irritably, addressing a raw-boned, lantern-jawed giant of a man clad in the splendid uniform of the Guard who stepped before his throne and saluted.
"Most Illustrious," said Ambrosio, in bad, guttural Italian, "my mother was a Swiss."
"Then congratulations to the Swiss, Ambrosio, but what of it?"
"Very Illustrious," replied the captain in his hollow voice, "the Swiss are brave and do not swallow insults. That lad whom the Englishman kicked, or smote, or tossed like a bull," and he pointed to the poor page, who, still senseless, was being carried from the hall, "is my youngest brother, who resembles our Venetian father somewhat more than I do."
"We see it, we see it. Indeed are you sure that the father was——" and the Doge checked himself. "The point, captain; we would dine."
"Illustrious, I would avenge my brother and myself on the Englishman, whom I will beat to a jelly," said the giant. "I crave leave to fight him to-morrow when the lord Cattrina fights his master," and advancing toward Grey Dick he made as though he would pull his nose.
"What is it he wants?" asked Grey Dick, staring up at the great fellow with a look in his eyes that caused Ambrosio to cease flourishing his fists.
The challenge was translated to him, and its reason. "Oh," said Dick, "tell him I am much obliged and that I will fight him with the bow or with the axe and dagger, or with all three. Then we will see whether he beats me to a jelly, or whether I cut him into collops, who, as I think, needs shortening."
Now the Captain Ambrosio consulted with his friends, who with much earnestness prayed him have nothing to do with arrows. They pointed out that there his bulk would put him at a disadvantage, especially in dealing with an English archer who had an eye like a snake and a face like that of death itself.
In short, one and all they recommended the battle-axe and the dagger as his most appropriate weapons—since his adversary refused swords. The battle-axe with which to knock him down, as he could easily do, being so strong, and the dagger with which to finish him.
When this was explained to Grey Dick he assented to the proposal with a kind of unholy joy that was almost alarming to those who saw it. Moreover, as neither of them had gauntlets to throw down or pick up, he stretched out his hand to seal the bargain, which, incautiously enough, the huge, half-breed Swiss accepted.
Dick's grasp, indeed, was so firm and long that presently the giant was observed first to move uneasily, secondly to begin to dance and thirdly to shout out with pain.
"What is the matter?" asked his friends.
"The matter is," he groaned, as Dick let go, "that this son of Satan has a blacksmith's vise in place of a hand," and he showed his great fingers, from beneath the nails of which the blood was oozing.
His Venetian companions of the Guard looked at them, then they looked at Grey Dick and gave him a wide berth. Also Ambrosio said something about having offered to fight a man and not a fiend. But it was too late to retract, for the Doge, taking, as was natural, no share in this small matter, had already left his throne.
Then, escorted by Sir Geoffrey and the city Guards, Hugh and Grey Dick passed through that splendid company away home to dinner, Dick carrying his bow-case in one hand and the sack of armour which de Noyon had not thought fit to claim in the other.
In the midst of dead silence, they departed, for now no one seemed to find either of them a fit subject for jest. Indeed there were some who said, as they watched the pair pass the door, that Cattrina and the giant would do well to consult a lawyer and a priest that night.
THE MAN FROM THE EAST
In a great, cool room of his splendid Venetian palace, Sir Edmund Acour, Seigneur of Cattrina sat in consultation with the priest Nicholas. Clearly he was ill at ease; his face and his quick, impatient movements showed it.
"You arrange badly," he said in a voice quite devoid of its ordinary melodious tones. "Everything goes wrong. How is it you did not know that this accursed Englishman and his Death's-head were coming here? What is the use of a spy who never spies? Man, they should have been met upon the road, for who can be held answerable for what brigands do? Or, at the least, I might have started for Avignon two days earlier."
"Am I omnipotent, lord, that I should be held able to read the minds of men in far countries and to follow their footsteps?" asked the aggrieved Nicholas. "Still it might have been guessed that this bulldog of a Briton would hang to your heels till you kick out his brains or he pulls you down. Bah! the sight of that archer, who cannot miss, always gives me a cold pain in the stomach, as though an arrow-point were working through my vitals. I pity yonder poor fool of a Swiss to-morrow, for what chance has he against a fish-eyed wizard?"
"Ten thousand curses on the Swiss!" said Acour. "He thrust himself into the affair and will deserve all he gets. I pity myself. You know I am no coward, as not a few have learned before to-day, but I have little luck against this Englishman. I tell you that there at Crecy I went down before him like a ninepin, and he spared my life. My God! he spared my life, being a fool like all his breed. And now the tale is known against me and that of the changed armour, too. Why could not de la Roche die without speaking, the faithless hound whom I had fed so well! So, so, regrets are vain; de Cressi is here, and must be faced or I be shamed."
"You may be killed as well as shamed," Nicholas suggested unpleasantly. "It is certain that either you or that Englishman will die to-morrow, since he's set for no fancy tilting with waving of ladies' kerchiefs and tinsel crowns of victory, and so forth. Merchant bred or not, he is a sturdy fighter, as we all learned in France. Moreover, his heart is full with wrong, and the man whose quarrel is just is always to be feared."
"A pest on you!" snarled Cattrina. "Have you the evil eye that you then croak disaster in my ears? Look you, priest, I must come through this game unharmed. Death is a companion I do not seek just yet, who have too much to live for—power and wealth and high renown, if my plans succeed; and as you should know, they are well laid. Moreover, there is that English girl, Red Eve, my wife, from whose sweet side you made me flee. I tell you, Nicholas, I burn for her and had rather taste her hate than the love of any other woman on the earth. Now, too, the Pope has summoned me to Avignon, and her also, to lay our causes before him. Being bold, mayhap she will come, for his Holiness has sent her safe-conduct under his own hand. Nor has he mentioned—for I saw a copy of the brief—that the same business will take me to Avignon about this time. Well, if she comes she will not go away again alone; the French roads are too rough for ladies to travel unescorted. And if she does not come, at least our marriage will be declared valid and I'll take her when and where I can, and her wealth with her, which will be useful."
"Only then, lord, you must not die, nor even be wounded, to-morrow. It is the Englishman who should die, for whatever the Pope may decree I think that while de Cressi lives the slumbrous eyes of that Eve of yours will find a way to charm you to a sleep that has no wakening. She is not a fair-haired toy that weeps, forgets and at last grows happy in her babe. She's a woman to make men or break them. Oh, when her sense came back to her, for a flash she looked me cold yonder in that English chapel, and it seemed to me that God's curse was in her stare."
"You've caught the terror, Nicholas, like so many just now in Venice. Why, to-day I've not met a man or woman who is not afraid of something, they know not what—save the Englishman and his death's-head. I think 'tis the unwholesome air of this strange season, and all the signs and omens we hear of on every side that conjure vapours to the brain."
"Yes, I've the terror," said Nicholas with something like a groan. "Every sin I ever did—and most of them have been for you, lord—seems to haunt my sleep. Yes, and to walk with me when I wake, preaching woe at me with fiery tongues that repentance or absolution cannot quench or still."
"Yet, Nicholas, I think that you must add one more to their count, or a share of it, which should weigh light among so many. Either I or de Cressi must pack for our last journey, and if we meet face to face to-morrow, how know I that it will be de Cressi? Better far that we should not meet."
"Lord, lord, you cannot fly! He is King Edward's champion, so proclaimed before all whose names are written in the Golden Book of Venice. He would cry your shame in every Court, and so would they. There's not a knight in Europe but would spit upon you as a dastard, or a common wench but would turn you her back! You cannot fly!"
"Nay, fool, but he can die—and before to-morrow. What makes your brain so dull, Nicholas? It is not its wont."
"Ah, I see—not flight, murder. I had forgotten; it is not a usual sauce to a banquet of honour even in Italy, and therefore, perhaps, the safer to serve. But how is it to be done? Poison? He is in Carleon's house; Carleon has faithful servants. Though perhaps a basket of rare fruits—but then he might not eat them; those Englishmen live mostly on half-raw meat. The signora would probably eat them, and the others."
"Nay, no more of your drugs; your skill in them is too well known. Come, these men have been watched since they set foot in Venice. Have they offended none besides myself and the Swiss?"
A look of intelligence crept into the eyes of Nicholas.
"Now that you mention it, lord, they have. There is a certain boatman and bravo called Giuseppe. With him and his mates they quarrelled about their fare and threw them into the canal in front of the ambassador's house, just because they drew a knife or two. A woman I know told me of it. He's a great villain, this Giuseppe, who would do anything for ten pieces, also revengeful and a hater of cold water."
"Send for him, Nicholas, or send this woman to him—that may be safer. Ten pieces! I'll pay him fifty."
"Ay, lord, but the Englishman may not give him a chance. Only fools would go out walking in Venice along after dark if they should happen to have enemies here, and the house is watched by the Doge's Guards. Yet one can try. Fortune loves the brave, and Englishmen are very great fools. They might stroll abroad to see the moon rise over the Adriatic."
"Try, Nicholas, try as you never tried before. Succeed, too, lest you and I should part company and you never be named abbot after all."
The afternoon of the day of their reception by the Doge was well filled for Hugh and Dick. Scarcely had they eaten with their host when the Marshal and his officers arrived with the articles of the Morrow's combat very fully drawn up, each of which must be considered with the help of Sir Geoffrey Carleon, lest they should hide some trick, before they confirmed them with their signatures. Not that Hugh was over-anxious about the details. As he said to Sir Geoffrey, all he sought was to come face to face with his enemy, even if he had but a club for a weapon.
At length these articles were signed and the Marshal departed with his fee, for they must be paid for as though they were a legal document. Next Hugh must try various horses from Sir Geoffrey's stable, and choose one of them as his war steed for the morrow, since the beast he had ridden to Venice was in no condition to bear a full-armed knight. In the end he selected a grey gelding, quiet of temperament and rather heavy of build, which it was reported had been used by its former owner in several tournaments and there borne itself handsomely. This done, well or ill, his armour must be seen to, and Dick's also, such as it was; his lance tested, and all their other weapons sharpened on a whetstone that Sir Geoffrey borrowed. For this was a task that Grey Dick would leave to no other hand.
At length all was prepared as well as possible in such haste, and they went to supper with Lady Carleon, who, now she understood that they were to fight for their lives on the morrow, was more mournful even than she had been on the previous night. When at last she asked what they desired as to their funerals and if they had any tokens to be sent to friends in England, Hugh, whose thoughts were already sad enough, could bear no more of it. So he rose, saying that he would seek Sir Geoffrey, who was already in his cabinet engaged upon a letter to King Edward descriptive of these events and other business. But when they were out of the room he said that he must have fresh air or he would faint, which was not strange, seeing that heat prevailed on this night in Venice of an intensity unknown there at this season of the year.
"Whither shall we go?" asked Dick, mopping his brow. "Guards stand at the door and, I doubt, will not let us pass."
"I wish to see the place where we are to fight to-morrow," answered Hugh, "so as to form my judgment of it, if only we may come there."
At this moment an English lad of Sir Geoffrey's household chanced to pass by, having come to ask as to the feeding of the horse which Hugh should ride. Dick caught him by the arm and asked whether he could get them out of the house secretly, so that the Guards would not see them, and conduct them to the spot called the Place of Arms, where they understood they were to fight.
The lad, whose name was David Day, replied somewhat doubtfully that he could do so by a back door near the kitchen, and guide them also, but that they must protect him from the anger of Sir Geoffrey. This Hugh promised to do. So presently they started, carrying their weapons, but wearing no mail because of the intense heat, although Dick reminded his master how they had been told that they should not venture forth without body armour.
"I have a sword and you have bow and axe," answered Hugh, "so we'll risk it. In leather-lined mail we should surely melt."
So they put on some light cloaks made of black silk, with hoods to them, such as the Venetians wore at their masques, for David knew where these were to be found. Slipping out quite unobserved by the kitchen door into a little courtyard, they passed into an unlighted back street through a postern gate whereof the lad had the key. At the end of the street they came to a canal, where David, who talked Italian perfectly, hailed a boat, into which they entered without exciting remark. For this sharp youth pointed to their cloaks and told the boatman that they were gallants engaged upon some amorous adventure.
On they rowed down the silent lanes of water, through the slumbrous city of palaces, turning here, turning there, till soon they lost all knowledge of the direction in which they headed. At length David whispered to them that they drew near the place where they must land. Everybody seemed to speak in a whisper that heavy night, even the folk, generally so light of heart and quick of tongue, who sat on the steps or beneath the porticoes of their houses gasping for air, and the passers-by on the rivas or footwalks that bordered the canals. At a sign from David the boat turned inward and grated against the steps of a marble quay. He paid the boatman, who seemed to have no energy left to dispute the fare, telling him in the same low voice that if he cared to wait he might perhaps row them back within an hour or so. Then they climbed steps and entered a narrow street where there was no canal, on either side of which stood tall houses or dark frowning gateways.
Just as they stepped into the shadow of this street they heard the prow of another boat grate against the marble steps behind them and caught the faint sound of talk, apparently between their rower and others in the second boat.
"Forward, Sir Hugh," said Day a little nervously. "This part of Venice has no good name, for many wicked deeds are done here, but soon we shall be through it."
So they stepped out briskly, and when they were about half-way down the street heard other steps behind them. They turned and looked back through the gloom, whereon the sound of the following steps died away. They pushed on again, and so, unless the echo deceived them, did those quick, stealthy steps. Then, as though by common consent, though no one gave the word, they broke into a run and gained the end of the street, which they now saw led into a large open space lit by the light of the great moon, that broke suddenly through the veil of cloud or mist. Again, as though by common consent, they wheeled round, Hugh drawing his sword, and perceived emerging from the street six or seven cloaked fellows, who, on catching sight of the flash of steel, halted and melted back into the gloom.
"Who follow us so fast?" asked Hugh.
"Thieves, I think," answered David, even more nervously than before, adding, "but if so, we are safe from them here."
"Yes, sure enough," said Grey Dick, "for I can shoot by moonlight," and, drawing the black bow from its case, which he threw to the lad to carry, he strung it, after which they saw no more of their pursuers.
Having waited a while, they began to examine the spot where they found themselves, which Day told them was that Place of Arms where they must fight on the morrow. It was large and level, having been used as a drilling ground for generations. Perhaps it measured four hundred yards square, and almost in the centre of it rose a stand of painted timber roofed with canvas, and ornamented with gilded flagstaffs, from which hung banners. On this stand, David said, the Doge and nobles would take their seats to see the fray, for in front of it the charging knights must meet.
They walked up and down the course taking note of everything, and especially of how the sun would shine upon them and the foothold of the soil, which appeared to be formed of fine, trodden sand.
"I ask no better ground to fight on," said Hugh at length, "though it is strange to think," he added with a sigh, "that here within a dozen hours or so two men must bid the world farewell."
"Ay," answered Dick, who alone seemed untouched by the melancholy of that night. "Here will die the knave with three names and the big fool of a half-bred Swiss, and descend to greet their ancestors in a place that is even hotter than this Venice, with but a sorry tale to tell them. By St. George! I wish it were nine of the clock to-morrow."
"Brag not, Dick," said Hugh with a sad smile, "for war is an uncertain game, and who knows which of us will be talking with his ancestors and praying the mercy of his Maker by this time to-morrow night?"
Then, having learned all they could, they walked across the ground to the quay that bordered it on the seaward side. Here, as they guessed from the stone pillars to which ships were made fast, was one of the harbours of Venice, although as it happened none lay at that quay this night. Yet, as they looked they saw one coming in, watched curiously by groups of men gathered on the wall.
"Never knew I vessel make harbour in such a fashion," exclaimed Dick presently. "See! she sails stern first."
Hugh studied her and saw that she was a great, decked galley of many oars, such as the Venetians used in trading to the East, high-bowed and pooped. But the strange thing was that none worked these oars, which, although they were lashed, swung to and fro aimlessly, some yet whole and some with their blades broken off and their shafts bundles of jagged splinters. Certain sails were still set on the ship's mast, in tatters for the most part, though a few remained sound, and it was by these that she moved, for with the moonrise a faint wind had sprung up. Lastly, she showed no light at peak or poop, and no sound of officer's command or of boatswain's whistle came from her deck. Only slowly and yet as though of set purpose she drifted in toward the quay.
Those who watched her, sailors such as ever linger about harbours seeking their bread from the waters, though among these were mingled people from the town who had come to this open place to escape the heat, began to talk together affrightedly, but always in the dread whisper that was the voice of this fearful knight. Yes, even the hoarse-throated sailormen whispered like a dying woman.
"She's no ship," said one, "she's the wraith of a ship. When I was a lad I saw such a craft in the Indian seas, and afterward we foundered, and I and the cook's mate alone were saved."
"Pshaw!" answered another, "she's a ship right enough. Look at the weed and barnacles on her sides when she heaves. Only where in Christ's name are her crew?"
"Yes," said a third, "and how could she win through all the secret channels without a pilot?"
"What use would be a pilot," said a fourth, "if there are none to work the rudder and shift the sails? Do I not know, who am of the trade?"
"At least she is coming straight to the quay," exclaimed a fifth, "though what sends her Satan alone knows, for the tide is slack and this wind would scarce move a sponge boat. Stand by with the hawser, or she'll swing round and stave herself against the pier."
So they talked, and all the while the great galley drifted onward with a slow, majestic motion, her decks hid in shadow, for a sail cut off the light of the low moon from them. Presently, too, even this was gone, for the veil of cloud crept again over the moon's face, obscuring everything.
Then of a sudden a meteor blazed out in the sky, such a meteor as no living man had ever seen in Venice, for the size of it was that of the sun. It seemed to rise out of the ocean to the east and to travel very slowly across the whole arc of the firmament till at last it burst with a terrible noise over the city and vanished. While it shone, the light it gave was that of mid-day, only pale blue in colour, turning all it touched to a livid and unnatural white.
It showed the placid sea and fish leaping on its silver face half-a-mile or more away. It showed the distant land with every rock and house and bush. It showed the wharf and the watchers on it; among them Hugh noted a man embracing his sweetheart, as he thought under cover of the cloud. But most of all it showed that galley down to her last rope and even the lines of caulking on her deck. Oh, and now they saw the rowers, for they lay in heaps about the oars. Some of them even hung over these limply, moving to and fro as they swung, while others were stretched upon the benches as though they slept. They were dead—all dead; the wind following the meteor and blowing straight on shore told them that they were certainly all dead. Three hundred men and more upon that great ship, and all dead!
Nay, not all, for now on the high poop stood a single figure who seemed to wear a strange red head-dress, and about his shoulders a black robe. Straight and silent he stood, a very fearful figure, and in his hand a coil of rope. The sight of him sent those watchers mad. They ceased from their whisperings, they raved aloud.
"It is Satan!" they shouted, "Satan, who comes to drag the folk of Venice down to hell. Kill him ere he lands. Kill him!"
Even Grey Dick went mad like a dog when he meets a ghost. His pale hair rose upon his head, his cold, quiet eyes started. He set an arrow on the string of the black bow, drew it to his ear and loosed at the figure on the poop. But that arrow never left the string; it shattered to flinders where it was and fell tinkling to the marble floor. Only the barb of it turned and wounded Grey Dick in the chin, yes, and stuck there for a while, for his right arm was numbed so that he could not lift his hand to pull it forth.
"Truly, I have shot at the Fiend and hit that at which I did not aim," muttered Grey Dick, and sat himself down on a post of the quay to consider the matter. Only, as it seemed to him, he who stood on the poop of the ship not ten yards away smiled a little.
Unheeding of the clamour, this man upon the poop suddenly lifted the coil of rope and threw it shoreward. It was a thick and heavy rope, with a noose at its end, so heavy that none would have believed that one mortal could handle it. Yet it shot from him till it stood out stiff as an iron bar. Yes, and the noose fell over one of the stone posts on the quay, and caught there. Now the rope grew straighter still, stretching and groaning like a thing in pain as it took the weight of the great, drifting ship. She stayed; she swung round slowly and ranged herself broadside on against the quay as a berthed ship does. Then down the ladder on her side came the Man. Deliberately he set his white-sandalled feet upon the quay, advanced a few paces into the full light of the bright moon and stood still as though to suffer himself to be seen of every eye.
Truly he was worth the seeing. Hugh noted his garments first, and particularly the head-dress, which caught his glance and held it, for never had he known such a one before. It was a cap fitting tight to the skull, only running across the crown of it was a stiff raised ridge, of leather perhaps, jagged and pointed something like the comb of a cock. This comb, of brilliant red, was surmounted at its highest point by a ball of black of the size of a small apple. The cap itself was yellow, except its lowest band, which stood out from it and was also black. In the centre of this band upon the forehead glowed a stone like a ruby.
Such was the head-dress. The broad shoulders beneath were covered with a cape of long and glossy fur blacker than coal, on to either shoulder of which drooped ear-rings made of rings of green stone which afterward Hugh came to know was jade. The cape of fur, which hung down to the knees and was set over a kind of surplice of yellow silk, was open in front, revealing its wearer's naked bosom that was clothed only with row upon row of round gems of the size of a hazel nut. These like the fur were black, but shone with a strange and lustrous sheen. The man's thick arms were naked, but on his hands he wore white leather gloves made without division like a sock, as though to match the white sandals on his feet.
This was the Man's attire. Now for him who wore it. He was tall, but not taller than are many other men; he was broad, but not broader than many other men, and yet he looked stronger than all the men in the world. On his brow, which was prominent, smooth black hair parted in the middle was plastered back as that of women sometimes is, making hard lines against the yellow skin below. He had very thin eyebrows that ran upward on either side of a bow-shaped wrinkle in the centre of his forehead. The eyes beneath were small and pale—paler even than those of Grey Dick—yet their glance was like the points of thrusting swords. With those little eyes alone he seemed to smile, for the rest of his countenance did not move. The nose was long and broad at the end with wide spreading nostrils and a deep furrow on either side. The mouth was thin-lipped and turned downward at the corners, and the chin was like a piece of iron, quite hairless, and lean as that of a man long dead.
There he stood like some wild vision of a dream, smiling with those small unblinking eyes that seemed to take in all present one by one. There he stood in the moonlit silence, for the mob was quiet enough now for a little while, that yet was not silence because of a soughing noise which seemed to proceed from the air about his head.
Then suddenly the tumult broke out again with its cries of "Kill the devil! Tear the wizard to pieces! Death is behind him! He brings death! Kill, kill, kill!"
A score of knives flashed in the air, only this time Grey Dick set no arrow on his string. Their holders ran forward; then the Man lifted his hand, in which was no weapon, and they stopped.
Now he spoke in a low voice so cold that, to Hugh's excited fancy, the words seemed to tinkle like falling ice as one by one they came from his lips. He spoke in Italian—perfect Italian of Venice—and young Day, whose teeth where chattering with fear, translated his words.
"Is this your welcome to a stranger," he said, "the companions of whose voyage have unhappily met with misfortune?" Here with a faint motion of his fingerless glove he indicated the dead who lay all about the decks of that fatal ship. "Would you, men of Venice, kill a poor, unarmed stranger who has travelled to visit you from the farthest East and seen much sorrow on his way?"
"Ay, we would, sorcerer!" shouted one. "Our brothers were in that ship, which we know, and you have murdered them."
"How did you learn Italian in the farthest East?" asked another.
Then for the second time, like hounds closing in on a stag at bay, they sprang toward him with their poised knives.
Again he lifted his hand, again the semi-circle halted as though it must, and again he spoke.
"Are there none here who will befriend a stranger in a strange land? None who are ashamed to see a poor, unarmed stranger from the East done to death by these wolves who call themselves children of the white Christ of Mercy?"
Now Hugh touched Dick upon the shoulder.
"Rise and come," he said, "it is our fate"; and Dick obeyed.
Only after he had translated the Man's words, David fell down flat upon the quay and lay there.
They stepped to the yellow-capped Man and stood on each side of him, Hugh drawing his sword and Dick the battle-axe that he carried beneath his robe of silk.
"We will," said Hugh shortly, in English.
"Now there are three of us," went on the Man. "The stranger from the East has found defenders from the West. On, defenders, for I do not fight thus," and he folded his arms across his broad breast and smiled with the awful eyes.
Hugh and Dick knew no Italian, yet they both of them understood, and with a shout leaped forward toward those hungry knives. But their holders never waited for them. Some sudden panic seized them all, so that they turned and ran—ran straight across the wide Place of Arms and vanished into the network of narrow streets by which it was surrounded.
Hugh and Dick came back. Something seemed to call them back, although no blow had been struck. The Man stood where they had left him, staring at nothing in particular. Apparently he was engaged in meditation.
"Thanking his gods because they have saved him from sudden death," muttered Grey Dick. "If he's got any gods!" he added doubtfully.
Now the three, or rather the four of them, for David Day had recovered, and once more stood upon his feet from time to time glancing at the stranger's costume with a frightened eye, were left alone upon the great place with no company save the shipful of dead behind them and the wild, white moon above. The silence that, save for the soughing sound for which they could not account, was intense, oppressed them, as also did the heat.
Grey Dick coughed, but the Man took no notice. Then he dropped his axe with a clatter on the marble flooring of the quay and picked it up again, but still the Man took no notice. Evidently his Eastern imperturbability was not to be disturbed by such trifles. What was worse, or so thought Dick, his master Hugh had fallen into a very similar mood. He stood there staring at the Man, while the Man stared over or through him—at nothing in particular.
Grey Dick felt aggrieved. An arrow had burst to pieces unaccountably in his bow, numbing his arm and wounding him on the chin, and now he was outpaced at his own game of cold silence. He grew angry and dug David in the ribs with his elbow.
"Tell that foreigner," he said, "that my master and I have saved his life. Those Italian cut-throats have run away, and if he is a gentleman he should say 'thank you.'"
David hesitated, whereon Dick gave him another dig, harder than the first, and asked if he heard what he said. Then David obeyed, addressing the Man as "Most Illustrious" as though he were the Doge, and ending his speech with a humble apology in case he should have interrupted his pious thanksgiving.
The Man seemed to awake. Taking no notice of Day, he addressed himself to Dick, speaking in English and using just that dialect of it to which he, Dick, had been accustomed from his childhood in the neighbourhood of Dunwich. Not even the familiar Suffolk whine was forgotten.
"You and your master have saved my life, have you?" he said. "Well, neighbour, why did you try to save my life by shooting at me with that great black bow of yours, which I see is made of Eastern woods?" He stared at the case in which it was now again hidden as though tanned leather were no obstacle to his sight; then went on: "Do not answer: I will tell you why. You shot at me because you were afraid of me, and fear is ever cruel, is it not? Only something happened to your arrow, something that has never happened to any arrow of yours before. Oh, yes, you have saved me from the Italian cut-throats, and being a gentleman I thank you very much. Only why did the arrow burst in your bow?" and he smiled with those dreadful eyes of his.
Now, feeling overwhelmed for the second time that night, Grey Dick sat himself down upon a quay post. It was clear to him that to argue with this person in a yellow cap who talked Suffolk so well was quite useless. Why, then, waste breath which was probably his last?
Everybody seemed to be falling into meditation again, when the Man, shifting his head slowly, began to consider Hugh.
"What is your name and which is your country, O my second saviour?" he asked, still speaking in English. Only now the English was of a different and more refined sort to that which he had used when he addressed Dick; such English, for instance, as came from the lips of Sir Geoffrey Carleon or from those of the lords of Edward's Court.
"I am Sir Hugh de Cressi of Dunwich, in the county of Suffolk, in England," answered Hugh slowly.
"England. I have heard of England, and Dunwich; I have heard of Dunwich. Indeed, I travel thither, having an appointment with an old friend in that town."
Now a light came into Hugh's bewildered face, but he said nothing.
"I seem to have touched some chord of recollection in your mind, O my saviour of Dunwich," said the Man. "Look at me and tell me, who am I?"
Hugh looked, and shook his head.
"I never saw you before, nor any one at all like you," he answered.
"No, no; you never saw me, though I have been very near to you once or twice. Yet, your pardon, look again."
Hugh obeyed, and this time, for a second only, perceived that the Man's head was surrounded by a multitude of doves. Two endless lines of doves, one line black and the other line white, stretched from his right shoulder and from his left shoulder, till miles away they melted into the lofty gloom of the sky that was full of the soughing sound of their wings.
Now he knew, and for the first time in his life fell upon his knees to a man, or to what bore the semblance of man.
"You are named Murgh, Gate of the Gods," he said. "Murgh, whom old Sir Andrew saw in that courtyard over which the iron dragons watch in the country called Cathay, that courtyard with the pool of water and the many doors."
"Ay," answered the Man in a new voice, a great voice that seemed to fill the air like the mutter of distant thunder. "I am Murgh, Gateway of the Gods, and since you have striven to defend Murgh, he who is the friend of all men, although they know it not, will above all be your friend and the friend of those you love."
He stretched out his long arms and laid his white-gloved hands for an instant, one of them upon Hugh's head and one on the shoulder of Grey Dick, who sat upon the pillar of stone.
Hugh muttered, "I thank you," not knowing what else to say. But in his heart he wondered what kind of friendship this mighty and awful being would show to him and his. Perhaps he might hold that the truest kindness would be to remove him and them from the miseries of a sinful world.
If Murgh read his thoughts he only answered them with that smile of his cold eyes which was more awful than the frown of any mortal man. Turning his head slowly he began to contemplate Dick sitting on his stone.
"If I had a son," he said, "by that face of yours you might be he."
"Perchance," answered Dick, "since I never knew for certain who my father was. Only I have always heard that Life begets, not Death."
"Death! You honour me with a great name. Well, life and death are one, and you and I are one with the moon and the stars above us, and many other things and beings that you cannot see. Therefore the begetter and the begotten are one in the Hand that holds them all."
"Ay," answered Dick, "and so my bow and I are one: I've often thought it. Only you nearly made me one with my own arrow, which is closer kinship than I seek," and he touched the cut upon his chin. "Since you are so wise, my father, or my son, tell me, what is this Hand that holds them all?"
"Gladly. Only if I do, first I must ask you to die, then—say in a minute or two—you shall know."
Dick peered at him doubtfully, and said:
"If that be so, I think I'll wait for the answer, which I am sure to learn soon or late."
"Ah! Many men have thought the same, and you have sent some to seek it, have you not, being so good an archer. For instance, that was a long shaft you shot before Crecy fray at the filthy fool who mocked your English host. Doubtless now he knows the answer to your riddle."
"Who told you of that?" asked Dick, springing up.
"A friend of mine who was in the battle. He said also that your name was Richard the Archer."
"A friend! I believe that you were there yourself, as, if you are Death, you may well have been."
"Perhaps you are right, Richard. Have I not just told you that we all are one; yes, even the slayer and the slain. Therefore, if my friend—did you call him Death?—was there, I was there, if you were there I was there and it was my hand that drew yonder great black bow of yours and my eye that guided the straight shaft which laid the foulmouthed jester low. Why, did you not say as much yourself when your master here bade farewell to his father in the ship at Calais? What were the words? Oh, I remember them. You wondered how One I may not name," and he bowed his solemn head, "came to make that black bow and yours and you 'the death that draw it.'"
Now at length Grey Dick's courage gave out.
"Of no man upon earth am I afraid," he said. "But from you, O god or devil, who read the secret hearts of men and hear their secret words, my blood flows backward as it did when first my eyes fell on you. You would kill me because I dared to shoot at you. Well, kill, but do not torture. It is unworthy of a knight, even if he took his accolade in hell," and he placed his hands before his eyes and stood before him with bent head waiting for the end.
"Why give me such high names, Richard the Fatherless, when you have heard two humbler ones? Call me Murgh, as do my friends. Or call me 'The Gate,' as do those who as yet know me less well. But talk not of gods or devils, lest suddenly one of them should answer you. Nay, man, have no fear. Those who seek Death he often flees, as I think he flees from you to-night. Yet let us see if we cannot send a longer shaft, you and I, than that which we loosed on Crecy field. Give me the bow."
Dick, although he had never suffered living man to shoot with it before, handed him the black bow, and with it a war shaft, which he drew from his quiver.
"Tell me, Archer Dick, have you any enemy in this town of Venice? Because if so we might try a shot at him."
"One or two, Gate Murgh," answered Dick, "Still whatever your half of me may do, my bit of you does not love to strike down men by magic in the dark."
"Well said and better thought. Then bethink you of something that belongs to an enemy which will serve as well for a test of shooting. Ah! I thank you, well thought again. Yes, I see the mark, though 'tis far, is it not? Now set your mind on it. But stay! First, will you know this arrow again?"
"Surely," answered Dick, "I made it myself. Moreover, though two of the feathers are black, the third is white with four black spots and a little splash of brown. Look on it, Sir Hugh; it cannot be mistook."
Hugh looked and nodded; speak he could not for the life of him.
Then Murgh began to play a little with the bow, and oh! strange and dreadful was the music that came from its string beneath the touch of his gloved fingers. It sang like a harp and wailed like a woman, so fearfully indeed that the lad Day, who all this while stood by aghast, stopped his ears with his fingers, and Hugh groaned. Then this awful archer swiftly set the arrow on the string.
"Now think with your mind and shoot with your heart," he said in his cold voice, and, so saying, drew and loosed as though at a hazard.
Out toward Venice leaped the shaft with a rushing sound like to that of wings and, as it seemed to the watchers, light went with it, for it travelled like a beam of light. Far over the city it travelled, describing a mighty arc such as no arrow ever flew before, then sank down and vanished behind some palace tower.
"A very good bow," said the shooter, as he handed it back to Dick. "Never have I used a better, who have used thousands made of many a substance. Indeed, I think that I remember it. Did you chance to find it years ago by the seashore? Yes? Well, it was a gift of mine to a famous archer who died upon a ship. Nay, it is not strained; I can judge of the breaking strength of a bow. Whether or no I can judge of the flight of an arrow you will learn hereafter. But that this one flew fast and far cannot be doubted since—did you watchers note it?—its speed made it shine like fire. This is caused by the rubbing of the air when aught travels through it very quickly. This night you have seen a meteor glow in the same fashion, only because the air fretted it in its passage. In the East, whence I come, we produce fire just so. And now let us be going, for I have much to do to-night, and would look upon this fair Venice ere I sleep. I'll lead the way, having seen a map of the town which a traveller brought to the East. I studied it, and now it comes back to my mind. Stay, let that youth give me his garment," and he pointed to David Day, who wore a silk cloak like the others, "since my foreign dress might excite remark, as it did but now."
In a moment Day had stripped himself of his light silk-hooded gown, and in another moment it was on the person of Murgh, though how it got there, when they came to think of it afterward, none could remember. Still, the yellow and red head-dress, the coal-black silky furs, the yellow skirt, the gleaming pearls, all vanished beneath it. Nothing remained visible except the white fingerless gloves—why were they fingerless, and what lay beneath them? Hugh wondered—and the white shoes.
Forward they went across the Place of Arms, past the timber stand ornamented with banners, which Murgh stayed to contemplate for an instant, until they came to the mouth of the street up which men had followed them, apparently with evil intent.
"Sir Murgh," said Hugh, stepping forward, "you had best let me and my companion Grey Dick walk first down this place, lest you should come to harm. When we passed it a while ago we thought that we heard robbers behind us, and in Venice, as we are told, such men use knives."
"Thank you for your warning, Sir Hugh," and even beneath the shadow of the silk hood Hugh thought that he saw his eyes smile, and seeing, remembered all the folly of such talk.
"Yet I'll risk these robbers. Do you two and the lad keep behind me," he added in a sterner voice.
So they advanced down the narrow street, the man called Murgh going first, Hugh, Grey Dick and the lad following meekly behind him. As they entered its shadows a low whistle sounded, but nothing happened for a while. When they had traversed about half its length, however, men, five or six of them in all, darted out of the gloom of a gateway and rushed at them. The faint light showed that they were masked and gleamed upon the blue steel of the daggers in their hands. Two of these men struck at Murgh with their knives, while the others tried to pass him, doubtless to attack his companions, but failed. Why they failed Hugh and Dick never knew. All they saw was that Murgh stretched out his white-gloved hands, and they fell back.
The men who had struck at him fell back also, their daggers dropping to the ground, and fled away, followed by their companions, all except one whom Murgh had seized. Hugh noted that he was a tall, thin fellow, and that, unlike the rest, he had drawn no weapon, although it was at his signal that the other bravoes had rushed on. This man Murgh seemed to hold with one hand while with the other he ripped the mask off his face, turning him so that the light shone on him.
Hugh and Dick saw the face and knew it for that of the priest who had accompanied Acour to England. It was he who had drugged Red Eve and read the mass of marriage over her while she was drugged.
"Who are you?" asked Murgh in his light, cold voice. "By your shaven head a priest, I think—one who serves some God of love and mercy. And yet you come upon this ill errand as a captain of assassins. Why do you seek to do murder, O Priest of the God of mercy?"
Now some power seemed to drag the answer from Father Nicholas.
"Because I must," he said. "I have sold myself and must pay the price. Step leads to step, and he who runs may not stop upon them."
"No, priest Nicholas, since ever they grow more narrow and more steep. Yet at the foot of them is the dark abyss, and, Murderer Nicholas, you have reached the last of all your steps. Look at me!" and with one hand he threw back the hood.
Next instant they saw Nicholas rush staggering down the street, screaming with terror as he went. Then, as all the bravoes had gone, they continued their march, filled with reflections, till they came to the little landing-stage where they had left the boat. It was still there though the boatman had gone.
"Let us borrow this boat," said Murgh. "As from my study of the map I know these water-paths, I will be steersman and that tongue-tied lad shall row and tell me if I go wrong. First I will take you to the house where I think you said you lodged, and thence to go seek friends of my own in this city who will show me hospitality."
They glided on down the long canals in utter silence that was broken only by the soft dipping of the oars. The night was somewhat cooler now, for the bursting of the great meteor seemed to have cleared the air. Or perhaps the gentle breeze that had sprung up, blowing from the open sea, tempered its stifling heat.
So it came about that although it grew late many people were gathered on the rivas or on the balconies of the fine houses which they passed, for the most part doubtless discussing the travelling star that had been seen in the sky. Or perhaps they had already heard rumours of the strange visitor who had come to Venice, although, however fast such news may fly, this seemed scarcely probable. At the least there they were, men and women, talking earnestly together, and about them the three Englishmen noted a strange thing.
As their boat slipped by, some influence seemed to pass from it to the minds of all these people. Their talk died out, and was succeeded by a morne and heavy silence. They looked at it as though wondering why a sight so usual should draw their eyes. Then after a few irresolute moments the groups on the footpaths separated and went their ways without bidding each other good night. As they went many of them made the sign with their fingers that these Italians believed could avert evil, which gave them the appearance of all pointing at the boat or its occupants. Those in the balconies did the same thing and disappeared through the open window-places.
More than any of the wonderful things that he had done, perhaps, this effect of the Eastern stranger's presence struck terror and foreboding to Hugh's heart.
At length they came to the end of that little street where they had hired the boat, for, although none had told him the way, thither their dread steersman brought them without fault. The lad David laid down his oars and mounted the steps that led to the street, which was quite deserted, even the bordering houses being in darkness.
"Hugh de Cressi and Richard the Fatherless," said Murgh, "you have seen wonderful things this night and made a strange friend, as you may think by chance, although truly in all the wide universe there is no room for such a thing as chance. Now my counsel to you and your companion is that you speak no word of these matters lest you should be set upon as wizards. We part, but we shall meet again twice more, and after many years a third time, but that third meeting do not seek, for it will be when the last grains of sand are running from the glass. Also you may see me at other times, but if so, unless I speak to you, do not speak to me. Now go your ways, fearing nothing. However great may seem your peril, I say to you—fear nothing. Soon you will hear ill things spoken of me, yet"—and here a touch of human wistfulness came into his inhuman voice—"I pray you believe them not. When I am named Murgh the Fiend and Murgh the Sword, then think of me as Murgh the Helper. What I do is decreed by That which is greater than I, and if you could understand it, leads by terrible ways to a goal of good, as all things do. Richard the Archer, I will answer the riddle that you asked yourself upon the ship at Calais. The Strength which made your black bow an instrument of doom made you who loose its shafts and me who can outshoot you far. As the arrow travels whither it is sent, and there does its appointed work, so do you travel and so do I, and many another thing, seen and unseen; and therefore I told you truly that although we differ in degree, yet we are one. Yes, even Murgh the Eating Fire, Murgh the Gate, and that bent wand of yours are one in the Hand that shaped and holds us both."
Then divesting himself of the long robe which he had borrowed from the lad, he handed it to Hugh, and, taking the oars, rowed away clad in his rich, fantastic garb which now, as at first, could be seen by all. He rowed away, and for a while the three whom he had left behind heard the soughing of the innumerable wings that went ever with him, after which came silence.
Silence, but not for long, for presently from the borders of the great canal into which his skiff must enter, rose shouts of fear and rage, near by at first, then farther and farther off, till these too were lost in silence.
"Oh! Sir Hugh!" sobbed poor David Day, "who and what is that dreadful man?"
"I think his name is Death," answered Hugh solemnly, while Dick nodded his head but said nothing.
"Then we must die," went on David in his terror, "and I am not fit to die."
"I think not," said Hugh again. "Be comforted. Death has passed us by. Only be warned also and, as he bade you, say nothing of all that you have heard and seen."
"By Death himself, I'll say nothing for my life's sake," he replied faintly, for he was shaking in every limb.
Then they walked up the street to the yard door. As they went Hugh asked Dick what it was that he had in his mind as a mark for the arrow that Murgh had shot, that arrow which to his charmed sight had seemed to rush over Venice like a flake of fire.
"I'll not tell you, master," answered Dick, "lest you should think me madder than I am, which to-night would be very mad indeed. Stay, though, I'll tell David here, that he may be a witness to my folly," and he called the young man to him and spoke with him apart.
Then they unlocked the courtyard gate and entered the house by the kitchen door, as it chanced quite unobserved, for now all the servants were abed. Indeed, of that household none ever knew that they had been outside its walls this night, since no one saw them go or return, and Sir Geoffrey and his lady thought that they had retired to their chamber.
They came to the door of their room, David still with them, for the place where he slept was at the end of this same passage.
"Bide here a while," said Dick to him. "My master and I may have a word to say to you presently."
Then they lit tapers from a little Roman lamp that burned all night in the passage and entered the room. Dick walked at once to the window-place, looked and laughed a little.
"The arrow has missed," he said, "or rather," he added doubtfully, "the target is gone."
"What target?" asked Hugh wearily, for now he desired sleep more than he had ever done in all his life. Then he turned, the taper in his hand, and started back suddenly, pointing to something which hung upon his bed-post that stood opposite to the window.
"Who nails his helm upon my bed?" he said. "Is this a challenge from some knight of Venice?"
Dick stepped forward and looked.
"An omen, not a challenge, I think. Come and see for yourself," he said.
This is what Hugh saw: Fixed to the post by a shaft which pierced it and the carved olivewood from side to side, was the helm that they had stripped from the body of Sir Pierre de la Roche; the helm of Sir Edmund Acour, which Sir Pierre had worn at Crecy and Dick had tumbled out of his sack in the presence of the Doge before Cattrina's face. On his return to the house of Sir Geoffrey Carleon he had set it down in the centre of the open window-place and left it there when they went out to survey the ground where they must fight upon the morrow.
Having studied it for a moment, Dick went to the door and called to David.
"Friend," he said, standing between him and the bed, so that he could see nothing, "what was it that just now I told you was in my mind when yonder Murgh asked me at what target he should shoot with my bow on the Place of Arms?"
"A knight's helm," answered David, "which stood in the window of your room at the ambassador's house—a knight's helmet that had a swan for its crest."
"You hear?" said Dick to Hugh; "now come, both of you, and see. What is that which hangs upon the bed-post? Answer you, David, for perchance my sight is bewitched."
"A knight's helm," answered David, "bearing the crest of a floating swan and held there by an arrow which has pierced it through."
"What was the arrow like which I gave this night to one Murgh, master?" asked Dick again.
"It was a war shaft having two black feathers and the third white but chequered with four black spots and a smear of brown," answered Hugh.
"Then is that the same arrow, master, which this Murgh loosed from more than a mile away?"
Hugh examined it with care. Thrice he examined it, point and shaft and feathers. Then in a low voice he answered:
AT THE PLACE OF ARMS
Notwithstanding all that has been told, Hugh and Dick never slept more soundly than they did that night, nor was their rest broken by any dreams. At half past five in the morning—for they must be stirring early—David came to call them. He too, it seemed, had slept well. Also in the light of day the worst of his fear had left him.
"I am wondering, Sir Hugh," he said, looking at him curiously, "whether I saw certain things last night down yonder at the Place of Arms and in the boat, or whether I thought I saw them."
"Doubtless you thought you saw them, David," answered Hugh, adding with meaning, "and it is not always well to talk of things we think that we have seen."
The lad, who was sharp enough, nodded. But as he turned to hand Hugh some garment his eye fell upon the swan-crested helm that was still nailed by the long war-shaft with two black feathers and one white to the carved olivewood post of the bed.
"It must have been a mighty arm that shot this arrow, Sir Hugh," he said reflectively, "which could pierce a casque of Milan steel from side to side and a hardwood post beyond. Well for the owner of the helm that his head was not inside of it."
"Very well, and a very mighty arm, David. So mighty that I should say nothing about it for fear lest it should set another arrow upon another string and shoot again."
"God's truth, not I!" exclaimed David, "and for your comfort, sir, know that none saw us leave this house or reenter it last night."
Then Hugh and Dick clothed themselves and saw to their weapons and mail, but this they did not don as yet, fearing lest the weight of it should weary them in that great heat. Although the day was so young, this heat was terrible, more oppressive indeed than any they had yet known in Venice.
When they were ready David left them to see to the horse which de Cressi would ride in his combat with Cattrina. Hugh, as became a God-fearing knight whom Sir Andrew Arnold had instructed from childhood, crossed himself, knelt down and said his prayers, which that morning were long and earnest. Indeed he would have confessed himself also if he could, only there was no priest at hand who knew his language, Sir Geoffrey's chaplain being away. After watching him a while even Grey Dick, whose prayers were few, followed his example, kneeling in front of his bow as though it were an image that he worshipped. When they had risen again, he said:
"You grieve that there is none to shrive us, master, but I hold otherwise, since when it was told what company we kept last night absolution might be lacking. This would weigh on you if not on me, who, after what I have learned of Father Nicholas and others, love but one priest, and he far away."
"Yet it is well to have the blessings of Holy Church ere such a business as ours, Dick; that is, if it can be come by."
"Mayhap, master. But for my part I am content with that of Murgh, which he gave us, you may remember, or so I understood him. Moreover, did he not teach that he and all are but ministers of Him above? Therefore I go straight to the head of the stair," and he nodded toward the sky. "I am content to skip all those steps which are called priests and altars and popes and saints and such-like folk, living or dead. If Murgh's wisdom be true, as I think, these are but garnishings to the dish which can well be spared by the hungry soul."
"That may be," Hugh answered dubiously, for his faith in such matters was that of his time. "Yet were I you, Dick, I'd not preach that philosophy too loud lest the priests and popes should have something to say to it. The saints also, for aught I know, since I have always heard that they love not to be left out of our account with heaven."
"Well, if so," answered Dick, "I'll quote St. Murgh to them, who is a very fitting patron for an archer." Then once again he glanced at the helm and the arrow with something not unlike fear in his cold eye.
Presently they went down to the eating chamber where they had been told that breakfast would be ready for them at seven of the clock. There they found Sir Geoffrey awaiting them.
"I trust that you have slept well, Sir Hugh," he said. "You were a wise knight to go to rest so early, having before you such a trial of your strength and manhood, and, so to speak, the honour of our King upon your hands."
"Very well indeed; thank you, sir," answered Hugh. "And you?"
"Oh, ill, extremely ill. I do not know what is the matter with me or Venice either, whereof the very air seems poisoned. Feel the heat and see the haze! It is most unnatural. Moreover, although in your bed doubtless you saw it not, a great ball of fire blazed and burnt over the city last night. So bright was it that even in a darkened room each of us could see the colour of the other's eyes. Later, too, as I watched at the window, there came a thin streak of flame that seemed to alight on or about this very house. Indeed I thought I heard a sound as of iron striking upon iron, but could find no cause for it."
"Wondrous happenings, sir," said Grey Dick. "Glad am I that we were not with you, lest the sight of them should have made us fearful on this morning of combat."
"Wondrous happenings indeed, friend Richard," said Sir Geoffrey excitedly, "but you have not heard the half of them. The herald, who has just been here with the final articles of your fray signed by the Doge and Cattrina, has told me much that I can scarce believe. He says that the great galley from this port which is called Light of the East drifted up to the quay at the Place of Arms last night on her return voyage from Cyprus, filled with dead and with no living thing aboard her save the devil himself in a yellow robe and a many-hued head-dress like a cock's-comb with a red eye. He swears that this fiend landed and that the mob set on him, whereon two, some say three, other devils clad in long black gowns appeared out of the water and drove them back. Also, it seems that this same cock's-combed Satan stole a boat and rowed about the city afterward, but now none can find him, although they have got the boat."
"Then they should be well satisfied," said Hugh, "since its owner has lost nothing but the hire, which with Satan at the oars is better than might be hoped. Perhaps he was not there after all, Sir Geoffrey."
"I know not, but at least the galley Light of the East is there, for ever since the dawn they have been taking the dead out of her to bury them. Of these they say things too terrible to repeat, for no doctor can tell of what sickness they died, never having seen its like. For my part I pray it may not be catching. Were I the Doge I would have towed her out to sea and scuttled her, cargo and all. Well, well, enough of these wild tales, of which God alone knows the truth. Come, eat, if you can in this heat. We must be on the Place of Arms by half-past eight. You and the captain go thither in my own boat, Sir Hugh; your horse David Day takes on presently. Now, while you breakfast, I'll explain to you these articles, one by one, for they are writ in Italian, which you cannot read. See you forget them not. These Venetians are punctilious of such forms and ceremonies, especially when the case is that of combat to the death, which is rare among them."
The articles, which were lengthy, had been read, and the breakfast, or so much as they could eat of it, consumed. At last Hugh, accompanied by a Venetian squire of high birth sent by the Doge to bear his casque and other armour, stood in the vestibule waiting for the ambassador's barge of state. With him was Grey Dick, accompanied by no one and carrying the mail shirt in which he was to fight, like a housewife's parcel beneath his arm, although he wore bow on back, axe and dagger at side and iron cap upon his head.
Presently, while they lingered thus, out from a side-door appeared Lady Carleon, clothed in a white garment such as women wear when their dressing is half done, down which her grey hair hung dishevelled.
"I am come thus unkempt, Sir Hugh," she said, "for, not feeling well, I could not rise early, to bid you good-bye, since I am sure that we shall not meet again. However much that black-browed Doge may press it, I cannot go down yonder to see my countrymen butchered in this heat. Oh! oh!" and she pressed her hand upon her heart.
"What's the matter, madam?" asked Hugh anxiously.
"A pain in my breast, that is all, as though some one drove a dagger through me. There, there, 'tis gone."
"I thank you for your goodness, Lady Carleon," said Hugh when she was herself again; then paused, for he knew not what to add.
"Not so, Sir Hugh, not so; 'tis for your sakes in truth since you remember you never told me what you would wish done—afterward. Your possessions also—where are they to be sent? Doubtless you have money and other things of value. Be sure that they shall be sealed up. I'll see to it myself, but—how shall I dispose of them?"
"Madame, I will tell you when I return," said Hugh shortly.
"Nay, nay, Sir Hugh; pray do not return. Those who are gone had best keep gone, I think, who always have had a loathing of ghosts. Therefore, I beg you, tell me now, but do not come back shining like a saint and gibbering like a monkey at dead of night, because if you do I am sure I shall not understand, and if there is an error, who will set it straight?"
Hugh leaned against a marble pillar in the hall and looked at his hostess helplessly, while Sir Geoffrey, catching her drift at length, broke in:
"Cease such ill-omened talk, wife. Think you that it is of a kind to give brave men a stomach in a fight to the end?"
"I know not, Geoffrey, but surely 'tis better to have these matters settled, for, as you often say, death is always near us."
"Ay, madam," broke in Grey Dick, who could bear no more of it, "death is always near to all of us, and especially so in Venice just now. Therefore, I pray you tell me—in case we should live and you should die, you and all about you—whether you have any commands to give as to what should be done with your gold and articles of value, or any messages to leave for friends in England."
Then, having uttered this grim jest, Dick took his master by the arm and drew him through the door.
Afterward, for a reason that shall be told, he was sorry that it had ever passed his lips. Still in the boat Sir Geoffrey applauded him, saying that his lady's melancholy had grown beyond all bearing, and that she did little but prate to him about his will and what colour of marble he desired for his tomb.
After a journey that seemed long to Hugh, who wished to have this business over, they came to the Place of Arms. Their route there, however, was not the same which they had followed on the previous night. Leaving the short way through the low part of the town untraversed, they rowed from one of the canals into the harbour itself, where they were joined by many other boats which waited for them and so on to the quay. Hugh saw at once that the death ship, Light of the East, was gone, and incautiously said as much to Sir Geoffrey.
"Yes," he answered, "one of my rowers tells me that they have towed her to an island out at sea, since the stench from her holds was more than could be borne. But how did you know that she lay at this particular quay, Sir Hugh?"
"I thought you said so," he answered carelessly, adding, to change the subject: "Look, our fray will not lack for spectators," and he pointed to the thousands gathered upon the great tilting-ground.
"No, no, all Venice will be there, for these people love a show, especially if there be death in it."
"Mayhap they will see more of him than they wish before all is done," muttered Grey Dick, pausing from the task of whetting his axe's edge with a little stone which he carried in his pouch. Then he replaced the axe in its hanger, and, drawing Hugh's sword from its sheath, began to give some final touches to its razor edge, saying: "Father Sir Andrew Arnold blessed it, which should be enough, but Milan steel is hard and his old battle blade will bite none the worse for an extra sharpening. Go for his throat, master, go for his throat, the mail is always thinnest there."
"God above us, what a grim man!" exclaimed Sir Geoffrey, and so thought all in that boat and in those around them. At least they looked at Dick askance as he whetted and whetted, and then, plucking out one of the pale hairs from his head, drew it along the edge of the steel, which severed it in twain.
"There! That'll do," said Grey Dick cheerfully, as he returned the long sword to its sheath, "and God help this Cattrina, I say, for he comes to his last battle. That is, unless he runs away," he added after reflection.
Now they landed and were received by heralds blowing trumpets, and conducted through a great multitude of people with much pomp and ceremony to a pavilion which had been pitched for them, where they must arm and make ready.
This then they did, helped or hindered by bowing squires whose language they could not understand.
At length, when it lacked but a quarter to the hour of nine, David Day led Hugh's horse into the wide entrance of the pavilion, where they examined its armour, bridle, selle and trappings.
"The beast sweats already," said Hugh, "and so do I, who, to tell truth, dread this heat more than Cattrina's sword. Pray that they get to the business quickly, or I shall melt like butter on a hot plate."
Then his lance was given to him, a lance that was sharp and strong. When they had been tested by them both, Hugh mounted the grey and at the agreed signal of a single blast upon a trumpet, walked it slowly from the pavilion, Dick going at his side on foot.
At their coming a shout went up from the assembled thousands, for in truth it seemed, as Sir Geoffrey had said, as though all the folk in Venice were gathered on that place. When they had finished shouting the people began to criticise, finding much in the appearance of this pair that moved their ready wit. Indeed there was little show about them, for Hugh's plain armour, which lacked all ornament or inlay, was worn with war and travel, and his horse came along as soberly as if it were going out to plough. Nor was there anything fine about the apparel of Grey Dick, who wore a loose chain shirt much out of fashion—it was that which Sir Andrew had given to Hugh—an iron cap with ear-pieces, and leather buskins on his legs. In his hand was his axe, heavy but not over large; at his side hung a great knife, and on his back was the long black bow and a quiver of arrows.
Thus arrayed, taking no heed of the jests and chatter of the multitude, they were led to the front of the bedecked timber stand which they had seen on the previous night. In the centre of this stand, occupying a kind of tribune, sat the Doge Dandolo in state, and with him many nobles and captains, while to right and left the whole length of the course, for the stand was very long, were packed a countless number of the best-born men and women in Venice. These, however, were but a tithe of the spectators, who encircled the Place of Arms in one serried horde which was kept back by a line of soldiers.
Arriving in front of the Doge's tribune, the pair halted and saluted him, whereon he and his escort rose and saluted them in turn. Then another trumpet blew and from a second pavilion at the other end of the course appeared Cattrina, wearing a splendid suit of white armour, damascened in gold, with a silver swan upon the helm and a swan painted on his shield.
"Very fine, isn't it?" said Grey Dick to his master, "only this time I hope he's inside the steel. Ask to see his face before you fight, master."
On came Cattrina on a noble black horse, which pawed and caracoled notwithstanding the heat, while after him strode a gigantic figure also clad from top to toe in white mail, who fiercely brandished a long-handled battle-axe.
"Ambrosio!" said Dick. "Now I ought to feel as much afraid as though that fellow wore a yellow cap and fur cape and pearls like another warrior whom we met last night. Yet, to speak the truth, I believe he has the fainter heart of the two. Also if he swings that chopper about so much he'll grow tired."
To the multitude, however, the gallant appearance of this pair, whom they looked on as the champions of Venice against foreigners, appealed not a little. Amidst clapping of hands and "evvivas!" they advanced to the Doge's tribune and there made their salutations, which the Illustrious acknowledged as he had those of the Englishmen.
Then the heralds intervened and again all the articles of combat were read and translated, although to these, of which they were weary, Hugh and Dick listened little. Next they were asked if they had any objections to make and with one voice answered, "None." But on the same question being put to their adversaries, the Swiss, Ambrosio, said that he with whom he must fight appeared to be armed with a bow, which was against the articles. Thereon Dick handed the bow and quiver to David, bidding him guard them until he asked for them again as he would his own life. In the event of his death, however, David was to give them to Sir Hugh, or if they both should die, to his own master, Sir Geoffrey. All of these things David promised to do.
Next followed a long discussion as to whether the four of them were to fight in pairs, Cattrina and Ambrosio against Hugh and Dick simultaneously, or whether Ambrosio was to fight alone with Dick, and Cattrina with Hugh. Upon Cattrina and Ambrosio being asked their wishes, the former said that he desired to fight alone, as he feared lest the English archer, if he overcame Ambrosio, should turn on him also, or perhaps hamstring his horse.
Then the Englishmen were asked what they wished, and replied that they did not care how it was arranged, being ready to fight either together or separately, as the Doge might decree.
The end of it was that after long consultations with sundry experts in such matters, the Most Illustrious decided that the Captains Ambrosio and Richard the Archer should first engage on foot, and when that business was settled the two knights should take their place in the arena.
So the end of it was that more than half an hour after the combat should have begun, Dick and the gigantic Ambrosio found themselves standing face to face waiting for the signal to engage, the Swiss shouting threats and defiance and Grey Dick grinning and watching him out of his half-shut eyes.
At length it came in the shape of a single blast upon a trumpet. Now seeing that Dick stood quite still, not even raising his axe, the Swiss advanced and struck a mighty blow at him, which Dick avoided by stepping aside. Recovering himself, again Ambrosio struck. This blow Dick caught upon his shield, then, as though he were afraid, began to retreat, slowly at first, but afterward faster till his walk broke into a run.
At this sight all that mighty audience set up a hooting. "Coward! Dog! Pig of an Englishman!" they yelled; and the louder they yelled the more quickly did Grey Dick run, till at last even Hugh grew puzzled wondering what was in his mind and hoping that he would change it soon. So the audience hooted, and Grey Dick ran and the giant Swiss lumbered along after him, bellowing triumphantly and brandishing his battle-axe, which, it was noted, never seemed to be quite long enough to reach his flying foe.
When this had gone on for two or three minutes, Grey Dick stumbled and fell. The Swiss, who was following fast, likewise tripped and fell over him heavily, whereon the multitude shouted:
"Foul play! A dirty, foreign trick!"
In an instant Dick was up again, and had leapt upon the prostrate Swiss, as all thought, to kill him. But instead the only thing he did was to get behind him and kick him with his foot until he also rose. Thereat some laughed, but others, who had bets upon their champion, groaned.
Now the Swiss, having lost his shield in his fall, rushed at Dick, grasping his axe with both hands. As before, the Englishman avoided the blow, but for the first time he struck back, catching the giant on the shoulder though not very heavily. Then with a shout of "St. George and England!" he went in at him.
Hither and thither sprang Dick, now out of reach of the axe of the Swiss and now beneath his guard. But ever as he sprang he delivered blow upon blow, each harder than the last, till there appeared scars and rents in the fine white mail. Soon it became clear that the great Swiss was overmatched and spent. He breathed heavily, his strokes grew wild, he over-balanced, recovered himself, and at last in his turn began to fly in good earnest.
Now after him went Dick, battering at his back, but, as all might see, with the flat of his axe, not with its edge. Yes, he was beating him as a man might beat a carpet, beating him till he roared with pain.
"Fight, Ambrosio, fight! Don't fly!" shouted the crowd, and he tried to wheel round, only to be knocked prostrate by a single blow upon the head which the Englishman delivered with the hammer-like back of his axe.
Then Dick was seen to kneel upon him and cut the lashings of his helmet with his dagger, doubtless to give the coup de grace, or so they thought.
"Our man is murdered!" yelled the common people, while those of the better sort remained shamed and silent.
Dick rose, and they groaned, thinking that all was done. But lo! stooping down he helped the breathless Swiss, whom he had disarmed, to his feet. Then, taking him by the nape of the neck, which was easy, as his helmet was off, with one hand, while in the other he held his bared knife, Dick thrust him before him till they reached the tribune of the Doge.
"Be pleased to tell the Illustrious," he said, to Sir Geoffrey, "that this braggart having surrendered, I spared his life and now return him to his brother the Page quite unharmed, since I did not wish to wound one who was in my power from the first. Only when he gets home I pray that he will look at his back in a glass and judge which of us it is that has been 'beaten to a pulp.' Let him return thanks also to his patron saint, who put pity in my heart, so that I did not cut him into collops, as I promised. For know, sir, that when I walked out yonder it was my purpose to hew off his hands and shorten him at the knees. Stay—one word more. If yonder boaster has more brothers who really wish to fight, I'll take them one by one and swear to them that this time I'll not give back a step unless I'm carried."
"Do you indeed yield and accept the Englishman's mercy?" asked the Doge in a stern voice.
The poor Ambrosio, making no answer, blundered forward among the crowd and there vanished, and this was the last that Dick ever saw or heard of him. But, although he waited there a while, feeling the edge of his axe and glaring about him, none of the captain's companions came forward to accept his challenge.
At length, with a shrug of his shoulders, Dick turned. Having taken his bow and quiver from David, who could not conceal his indecent joy at the utter humiliation of Ambrosio, whom he hated with a truly British hate, he walked slowly to where Hugh sat upon his horse.
"The jest is done, master, and now for good earnest, since 'tis your turn. The Saints save me such another cow hunt in this hell's heat. Had I killed him at once I should be cooler now, but it came into my mind to let the hound live. Indeed, to speak truth, I thought that I heard the voice of Murgh behind me, saying, 'Spare,' and knew that I must obey."
"I hope he will say nothing of the sort to me presently," answered Hugh, "if he is here, which I doubt. Why, what is it now? Those gold-coated marshals are talking again."
Talking they were, evidently at the instance of Cattrina, or his counsellors, who had raised some new objections, which Sir Geoffrey stepped forward to explain to them. But Hugh would not even hear him out.
"Tell the man and all whom it may concern," he said in an angry voice, "that I am ready to fight him as he will, on horse or on foot, with lance or sword or axe or dagger, or any or all of them, in mail or without it; or, if it pleases him, stripped to the shirt. Only let him settle swiftly, since unless the sweat runs into my eyes and dims them, it seems to me that night is coming before it is noon."
"You are right," answered Sir Geoffrey, "this gathering gloom is ominous and fearful. I think that some awesome tempest must be about to burst. Also it seems to me that Cattrina has no stomach for this fray, else he would not raise so many points of martial law and custom."
Then wiping his brow with a silken handkerchief he returned to deliver the message.
Now Hugh and Dick, watching, saw that Cattrina and those who advised him could find no further loophole for argument. They saw, moreover, that the Doge grew angry, for he rose in his seat, throwing off his velvet robe of office, of which it appeared that he could no longer bear the weight, and spoke in a hard voice to Cattrina and his squires. Next, once more the titles of the combatants were read, and their cause of combat, and while this went on Hugh bade Dick bind about his right arm a certain red ribbon that Eve had given him, saying that he wished to fight wearing his lady's favour.
Dick obeyed, muttering that he thought such humours foolish and that a knight might as well wear a woman's petticoat as her ribbon. By now, so dim had the light grown, he could scarce see to tie the knot.
Indeed, the weather was very strange.
From the dark, lowering sky above a palpable blackness sank downward as though the clouds themselves were falling of their own weight, while from the sea great rolls of vapour came sweeping in like waves. Also this sea itself had found a voice, for, although it was so calm, it moaned like a world in pain. The great multitude began to murmur, and their faces, lifted upward toward the sky, grew ghastly white. Fear, they knew not of what, had got hold of them. A voice cried shrilly:
"Let them fight and have done. We would get home ere the tempest bursts."
The first trumpet blew and the horses of the knights, which whinnied uneasily, were led to their stations. The second trumpet blew and the knights laid their lances in rest. Then ere the third trumpet could sound, suddenly the darkness of midnight swallowed all the scene.
Dick groped his way to Hugh's side. "Bide where you are," he said, "the end of the world is here; let us meet it like men and together."
"Ay," answered Hugh, and his voice rang hollow through his closed visor, "without doubt it is the end of the world, and Murgh, the Minister, has been sent to open the doors of heaven and hell. God have mercy on us all!"
So they stayed there, hearkening to the groans and prayers of the terrified multitude about them, Dick holding the bridle of the horse, which shook from head to foot, but never stirred. For some minutes they remained thus, till suddenly the sky began to lighten, but with no natural light. The colour of it, of the earth beneath and of the air between was a deep, terrible red, that caused all things to seem as though they were dyed in blood. Lighter and lighter and redder and redder it grew, the long stand and the pavilions became visible, and after them the dense, deep ring of spectators. Many of these were kneeling, while others, who could find no space to kneel, held their hands upstretched toward heaven, or beat their breasts and wept in the emotional fashion of the country.
Yet not on them were the eyes of Hugh and Grey Dick fixed, but rather on a single figure which stood quite alone in the midst of that great arena where Cattrina and his horse should have been, where they had been indeed but a little while before. The figure was clothed in a red and yellow cap shaped like a cock's-comb, in black furs, a yellow robe and white gloves and sandals. Yonder it stood, fantastic, fearful, its bare and brawny arms crossed upon its breast, its head bowed as though it contemplated the ground. There was not an eye of all the tens of thousands of those who were present that did not see it; there was not a voice that did not break into a yell of terror and hate, till the earth shook with such a sound as might reverberate through the choked abyss of hell.