Then the absurdity of his words came to him, and he laughed aloud.
"Well, ravens have only two legs. Rather horrible, though, to shoot at a man. Well, I don't want to, but if they come and attack us, I'll shoot, that I will. What are those great birds flying to and fro for? and, yes, now they're going round and round. I know: a young lamb must have gone over the cliff, and be bleating on one of the ledges because it cannot get up. Poor little wretch! They'll pick its eyes out. I'll go and see. Better get a crossbow first. Might get a shot at one of the ravens.—Bother! it's such a way to go and fetch it; and if I did, I'll be bound to say it would want a new string, and it would take ever so long to get ready. Bother! it's hot, and I shan't go. Perhaps there isn't a lamb there, after all. Fancy."
He rested his head upon his hand, and watched the far-off ravens, becoming more and more convinced that a lamb had gone over.
"Then why don't they go at it?" he muttered. "Perhaps it's a sheep, and they're afraid to attack. Must be something there, or they wouldn't keep on flying to and fro like that. Well; bother! I don't care. Sheep and lambs ought to know better."
He tried to take his thoughts back to the castle and its defensive powers, if the Edens, strengthened by the gang of mercenaries, should attack them, but it was too hard work to think of the imaginary, when the real was before him in the shape of a pair of great black ravens, flying round and round, and showing plainly against the great grey crags, threatening from moment to moment to attack something down below.
"Here, I must go and see what there is to make them fly about like that," said the lad to himself, at last, his curiosity getting the better of his laziness; and, springing up, he began to descend the slope, making a circuit, so as to reach the high cliff, away from the precipice, and ascend where he could do so, unseen by the birds.
But before he was half-way down, he caught sight of the two men coming in his direction rapidly; and as soon as they caught sight of him, they began to gesticulate, beckoning, waving their caps, and generally indicating that he was to hurry to their side.
"Oh, you idle beauties!" muttered Ralph. "I should like to give you a lesson. Spoiled by father's indulgence, you do just as you like. I'm to run to you, am I? Come here, you lazy dogs!"
He waved his hand to them in turn, but instead of coming on, they stopped short, and pointed back toward the highest part of the cliff.
"Come here!" roared Ralph, though he knew that they were quite out of hearing. "You won't come, won't you? Oh, don't I wish I was behind you with my riding-boots on! I'd give you such a kicking, or use the spurs. Come here!" he roared. "I want to send one of them for a crossbow. Well, I don't like doing it, my fine fellows, but if you won't move, I must. One of you will have to go, though, and walk all the farther. That's it. I'm right," he continued to himself, as he saw the men keep on pointing upwards. "Why, what's the matter with them? Dancing about like that, and slapping their legs. Stop a moment: went up the side gap to chip out stones for Minnie. Why—yes—no—oh! hang the ravens! they've hit upon a vein of rich lead, and we shall be as rich as the Edens."
Ralph set off at a trot down the slope, and this seemed to have an effect upon the two men, who now began to run, with the result that they were bound to meet at the bottom of the hollow between the two eminences.
"Come on, Master Ralph!" roared Nick Garth, as they came within hearing.
"What is it? Found lead?"
"Lead, sir, no, better than that. There's a raven's nest over the other side yonder."
"Bah! What of that?" cried the lad breathlessly. "Here, Ram, go back to the castle, and get me a good crossbow and some bolts."
"Going to shoot 'em, master?" cried Nick excitedly. "Well done, you!"
"If I can hit them," said the lad. "What have they found there—a lamb?"
"Lamb?" cried Nick. "Hor, hor, hoh! You are a rum one, sir. Lamb, eh? I call un a wolf cub."
"Wolf cub? Oh!" cried Ralph excitedly; and the disappointment about the lead was forgotten, the crossbow too.
"Come on, sir, this way. Right atop, and you'll be able to look down on un just above the big birds' nest. He was after the young birds."
"Then that accounts for the ravens flying about so."
"Yes, sir, that's it. We was getting close to the stone quarry, when Ram, he says: 'What's them there birds scrawking about like that there for?' he says."
"Summut arter the young uns," I says: "and we went to where we could look, and there was a young wolf cub, getting slowly down. Let's fetch the young squire," I says; "and we come after you, for I thought you'd like to have the killing on him."
"Yes, of course, Nick; but I have no bow. I can't reach him with my sword, can I?"
"Tchah! you'd want a lot o' pikes tied together, and then you wouldn't do it. I'll show you. There's plenty of big bits o' stone up yonder, and you can drop 'em on his head, and send him down into the water."
"Yes," cried Ralph breathlessly, as he climbed the steep ascent; "but I should like to catch him alive, and keep him in a cage."
"Would you, sir? Well, that wouldn't be amiss. Sir Morton would like to see him, and you could tease him. Down in one o' the dungeons would be the place, till you got tired on him, and you could kill him then."
"Yes, but to think of his being on the cliff here!"
"Ay, it do seem a game," said the man, chuckling, and showing some ugly yellow teeth.
As they reached about half-way up, they caught sight of one of the ravens, shooting high above the top of the cliff, and instead of darting away at their approach, it only made a circle round, and then descended like an arrow.
"Tackling on him," cried Ram Jennings.
"Ay, and there goes the other," cried Nick. "Come on, master, or they'll finish him off before you can get there. Real wild, they birds is, because he's meddling with their booblins. 'Bout half-fledged, that's what they be."
"Make haste, then," cried Ralph; and as they hurried on as fast as the steep ascent would allow, they saw the ravens rise and stoop, again and again. Then only one reappeared, and a few moments later, neither.
"We shall be too late," cried Ralph excitedly. "They must have killed him, and are now tearing his eyes out."
"And sarve him right," cried Nick savagely. "What does he do on our cliff, a-maddling wi' our birds?"
"But it would be such a pity not to take him alive, Nick," panted Ralph breathlessly.
"How were you going to catch him alive?" growled the man. "Wouldn't catch us going down to fight un, and you wouldn't like to crawl down there."
"Get a rope with a loop, noose him, and drag him up," cried Ralph.
"Eh? Hear him, Ram? Who'd ha' thought of that? Comes o' larning, that does, and going away to school. You'd never ha' thought on it, lad."
"Nay, I shouldn't ha' thought o' that," said Ram heavily; "but I've been thinking o' somethin' else."
"What?" said Ralph, as they were mounting the last fifty feet of the steep slope.
"As like enough he's nipped they two birds, and we'd best look out, or he'll come sudden-like over the edge there, and run for it."
"Forward, then, quick!" cried Ralph; and pressing on, he threw himself on his breast, and crawled the last few feet, so as to thrust his head over the edge and gaze down, to see the so-called wolf's cub sheathe his sword, and prepare to get the young ravens out of their nesting recess in the face of the cliff.
THE YOUNG ENEMIES.
Eden recovered his presence of mind on the instant, and looking coolly up at Nick Garth, who had shouted at him so insolently, he replied haughtily: "What is it to you, sir? Be off!"
Then, entirely ignoring Ralph, who was looking down, breathless with rage and exertion, he carefully withdrew the egg from the nest, in spite of the pecking of the young ravens, and transferred it to the lining of his cap.
After this he took off his kerchief, and began to twist it up tightly to make an apology for a line with which to tie together the young ravens' legs.
The two men on either side of Ralph looked at him, as if wondering what he would say.
"Now, then, it's of no use to peck: out you come, my fine fellows. Quiet, or I'll wring your necks."
As Mark spoke, his right hand was in the nest, feeling about so as to get four legs together in his grasp, but this took some little time, and a great deal of fluttering and squealing accompanied the act. But as he worked, Mark thought hard, and of something else beside ravens. How was he to get out of this unpleasant fix, being as he was quite at his enemy's mercy? But all the same, with assumed nonchalance, he drew out the fluttering ravens, loosened his hold of the shrub with his left hand, and trusted to his powers of retaining his balance, in spite of the birds' struggles, while in the coolest way possible he transferred the legs from his right hand to his left, and proceeded to tie them tightly.
"There you are," he said. "I think that's safe."
Then, to Ralph's astonishment, the lad began to hum over his song again about the ravens as, completely ignoring those above, he took hold of the bush again, and leaned forward to gaze down into the dizzy depths as if in search of an easy path, but really to try and make out, in his despair, what would be his chance of escape if he suddenly rose to his feet and boldly jumped outward. Would he clear all the trees and come down into the river? And if the last, would it be deep enough to save him from injury at the bottom?
Where he had crossed was only ankle deep, but there was a broad, still patch, close up under the cliff, for he had noticed it as he came; but whether he could reach it in a bold leap, and whether it would be deep enough to save him from harm, he could not tell; but he was afraid that if he missed it he would be broken upon the pieces of rock which had fallen from above.
That way of escape was too desperate, and the more repellent from the fact that the beech-trees below prevented him from seeing what awaited him.
He busied himself in pretending to examine the knot he had made about the birds' legs, and then, raising his sword-belt, he passed one young raven inside, leaving the other out, so that they hung from his back, not in a very comfortable position for them, but where they would not be hurt. All the time though the lad was scanning the rocky face, first to right then to left, to seek for a way by which he could climb down, escape upwards being impossible; and he had quickly come to the conclusion that if unmolested he could manage, by taking his time, to get down in safety.
He had just decided this when Ralph, who had remained perfectly silent, exclaimed abruptly, "Now then, come up."
Mark took not the slightest notice, and the order was repeated.
"Hear what the young master says?" growled Nick. "Come up!"
"Are you speaking to me, fellow?" cried Mark angrily. "Be off, I tell you, before I come up and chastise you."
"Going to stand this, Master Ralph?" growled the man. "Shall I heave a bit o' stone down upon him, and knock him off?"
For answer, Ralph drew back out of sight, and the two men followed at a sign, leaving Mark alone, seated upon his perilous perch; but directly after Ralph's head reappeared, and Nick's close beside it, when Mark realised—rightly—that the other man had been sent on some mission— what, he could not tell, but in all probability to fetch more help, so as to be sure of taking him.
"Now," said Ralph sternly, "are you coming up to surrender?"
"What!" said Mark sharply; "why am I to surrender to you?"
"For trespass and robbery. This is my father's land, and those are our birds."
Mark laughed scornfully to hide his annoyance, for conscience pricked hard.
"Your land, indeed!" he cried. "Wild moorland, open to anybody; and as to the birds, are all the crows yours too?"
Ralph did not condescend to reply, but lay there looking down at the young representative of his father's rival.
"I wish you good day, Master Owner of the land, and lord of the birds of the air," said Mark mockingly. "If you had asked me civilly, I might perhaps have given you a young raven. As it is, I shall not."
"What are you going to do?" said Ralph sharply. "Wait and see," was the mocking reply. "Shan't I heave this stone down on his head, Master Ralph?" said Nick in a low tone; but the words came plainly to Mark's ear, and sent a cold chill of horror thrilling through his nerves; but he felt better the next moment, and then anger took the place of dread, for Ralph said sharply, "Put the stone down, sirrah! You know I want to take the wolf's cub alive."
"Wolf's cub!" said Mark to himself. "Never mind; I may meet him some day when it is not three to one, and then he shall find that the wolf's cub can bite."
Then, conscious that his every movement was watched, he cautiously rose to his feet, made an effort to ignore the presence of lookers-on, and began to climb sideways along the ledge, by the route he had come. Still he had no intention of going up, knowing full well that he would only be giving himself up to insult, and perhaps serious injury, taken at a disadvantage, as he felt that he must be; but calmly, and in the most sure-footed way, sidled along, with the ledge getting more and more narrow, but the hand-hold better.
In this way he passed the spot where he had lowered himself down, and reached a slight angle, by which he expected, from long experience in cliff-climbing, to be able to descend to the next.
He was quite right, and it proved to be easier than he had expected; but a looker-on would have shuddered to see the way in which the lad clung to the rough stones, where the slightest slip would have sent him down headlong for at least three hundred feet before he touched anywhere, and then bounded off again, a mere mass of shapeless flesh.
Mark knew of his danger, but it did not trouble him, for his brain was too much occupied by the presence of young Darley; and as he descended he felt a slight flush of pride in doing what he was certain his young enemy dare not attempt.
In a moment or two he was standing safely—that is, so long as he held on tightly with his fingers in the crack above—upon the next ledge, a few inches wide, and his intention had been to go on in the same direction, so as to be farther from his watchers; but he was not long in finding that this was impossible, and he had to go back till he was well beneath Ralph Darley, and saw that he must go farther still before he attempted to descend to the next rest for his feet.
"It will take a long time to get down like this," he thought; "and perhaps he'll send below to meet me at the bottom. Perhaps that is what he has already done. But never mind; I shall have done as I liked, and not obeyed his insolent orders. Let him see, too, that I'm quite at home on the rocks, and can do as I like. Wonder whether I shall get Master Rayburn's egg down safely! Not if they throw a stone down upon my head.—Now for it."
He had reached another comparatively easy place for descending from the course of blocks on which he stood, when he suddenly found himself embarrassed, not by the egg, but by the young birds, which nearly upset his equilibrium by beginning all at once to struggle and flap vigorously with their half-fledged wings.
The lad's first impulse, as he clung to the ledge, was to tear the birds from his belt and throw them down; but his spirit revolted from the cruelty of the proceeding, and his vanity helped to keep the trophies of his daring where they were.
"It would look as if I was afraid," he said to himself; and lowering one foot, he felt for a safe projection, found one, and his other foot joined the first. A few seconds later his hands were holding the ledge on which he had just been standing, but his chin was level with them, and his feet were feeling for the next ledge below, but feeling in vain.
He was disappointed, for experience had taught him that this course of stones would be about the same thickness as the others, and yet he could find no crack, not even one big enough to insert his toes.
But he was quite right; the range of stones in that stratum was just about the same thickness as the others, but the crack between them and the next in the series, the merest line, over which his feet slipped again and again, giving him the impression that they were passing over solid stone; and the birds chose this awkward moment to renew their struggling and screaming.
"You miserable little wretches," he muttered; "be quiet! Well, it might be worse. I should have been in a sad pickle if the old birds had chosen this moment to attack me."
He hung in the same position, with his chin resting on the ledge, as well as his hands, till the birds were quiet again, and then wondering whether Ralph Darley was still watching, he slowly let his muscles relax, and his body subside, till he hung at full stretch, seeking steadily the while for foot-hold, but finding none, and forced now to look down between his chest and the rock, to see how far the next ledge might be.
To his disgust, it was quite two feet lower, and it was forced upon him that unless he could climb back to the ledge upon which his hands were clasped, he must let himself drop to the resting-place below.
It was no time for hesitation, and condensing his energies upon what he knew to be a difficult task, he drew himself up by strong muscular contraction till his chin once more rested between his hands, and then grasped the bitter fact that to get up and stand upon the ledge was impossible; it was too narrow, and he could find no foot-hold to help.
Accepting the position, he let himself sink again to the full length of his arms, hung motionless for a few moments, and then, keeping himself perfectly rigid, allowed his fingers to glide over the stone, and dropped the two feet to the ledge below, perfectly upright and firm. In all probability he would have found hand-hold the next moment, but, scared anew by the rush through the air, the young ravens began to flap their wings violently, and that was sufficient to disturb the lad's equilibrium. He made a desperate effort to recover it, but one foot gave way, and he fell, scraping the edge.
Another desperate effort, and he clung to the ledge for a brief moment or two, and then a yell arose from above, as he went down a few feet and felt what seemed a violent blow against his side. The next instant his hands had closed upon the tough stem of a stunted yew, and he was hanging there, hitched in the little branches, saved from falling farther, but unable to move from the fear of tearing the shrub from its root-hold in a crack of the cliff, where there was not a trace of anything else to which he could cling.
HOW RALPH SECURED THE WOLF'S CUB.
The perspiration broke out in great drops upon Mark Eden's face; and for some minutes he hung there, expecting moment by moment that each was his last, for he knew that he could do nothing, and that he must not stir hand or foot.
And now he began to realise how mad his attempt had been. Better far that he had resigned himself to circumstances, and climbed back to the top. But even then he felt he could not have done this. It would have been like humbling himself to an enemy of his house, and a flush of pride came into his pallid cheeks as he felt that he had boldly played his part. Then a sense of misery and despair crept over him as he thought of home, of his father and sister, and their sorrow when they knew of his fate.
All that passed off, and a flush of anger and indignation made his temples throb, for he distinctly heard Nick Garth say,—
"Why not? Heave it down yourself, then, and put him out of his misery."
What else was said he could not make out; voices were in hurried converse evidently a short distance back from the edge of the cliff, and then Mark recognised Ralph's tones, as he said huskily,—
"Can you hold on?"
A bitter defiant taunt came to Mark's lips, and he cried,—
"Your doing, coward! Are you satisfied with your work?"
There was no answer, but the hurried murmur came over the edge of the cliff again, followed by what sounded like angry commands, and then all was silent for a few moments.
"Don't move," cried Ralph then. "I've sent for help. They've gone for ropes. One will be here directly. I sent for it before. Can you hold on?"
Mark made no reply, for no words would come. Hope had sprung up at the possibility of escape, for life seemed then to be very sweet, but there was a bitterness to dull the bright thought, for the lad felt that it was the hated enemy of his house who was trying to help.
Then a dull feeling of apathy, as if he had been half stunned, came over him as he hung there in a terribly cramped position, with his face pressed against the wall.
And now, as if his hearing had become sharpened, the murmur of the rushing river came up quite loudly, and the wind seemed to be gathering force, while all this was, as it were, preparatory to his falling headlong down. Then he must have lost his senses for some little time, for the next thing he heard was a voice crying out, in tones full of despair,—
"Too short, too short, Ram!"
"Ay, so it be. Good ten foot."
"Could I help him if you lowered me down?"
"Lower you down? Are you mad? I couldn't hold you; and you'd break your neck."
Mark heard every word now, for his senses had suddenly recovered their tone and something more.
Then what seemed to be another long space of time elapsed, and Ralph shouted to him,—
"This rope is too short, but there'll be another here soon."
Mark could make no reply, and he hung there, listening to the murmur of voices once more. Then the rush of the river sounded like the distant boom of thunder. There was a loud cizz, cizz, going on somewhere on the cliff face from a cricket, and the birds were singing more loudly than he ever remembered to have heard them before.
Once more his senses must have left him and come back, for he heard the voice above louder than ever, followed by Ralph shouting,—
"Can you tie the rope round you?"
Mark could not answer for some little time; then his lips parted, and he gasped out the one word,—
A sharp rustling followed, as of a rope being rapidly drawn up. Then it was lowered again; and as Mark strained his eyes round into the left corners to get a glimpse, he saw a loop swinging to and fro, and it struck him again and again; but those who lowered it, in the hope of noosing the lad and drawing him up, soon found that the bush and the sufferer's position precluded this.
"Can you push your arms through the loop, and hang on?" cried Ralph now.
"No," was the discouraging reply, for Mark fully realised the fact that if he loosened his desperate hold for a moment he must fall.
"Haul up!" shouted Ralph. "Quick!"
The rope rattled and scraped again; and then, as Mark hung there, half-insensible, he heard what sounded like quarrelling.
"You shan't go, Master Ralph. Who's to meet Sir Morton if you get a fall trying to save a thing like that?"
Even in his half-insensible state Mark felt a quiver run through him; and then he lay listening again, as if to hear what was taking place about some one else.
"Silence!" came to his ear. "How dare you, sir! Now, all of you lower me down."
There was a rustling and scraping directly after, which seemed to last a long time, before something brushed against the listener, and he quivered, for he felt that he was going. Then there was a panting noise, which came up, as it were, out of the darkness, and he was clutched tightly, hot breath came upon his cheek, and a hoarse voice yelled in his ear,—
"Got him! Haul up steadily!" and directly after, the voice became a whisper, which said,—
"Pray God the rope may not break."
Mark was conscious now of being scraped against the rock, and brushed by twigs, for what seemed to be a very long time, before he was roughly seized by more hands, and dragged heavily over the cliff edge, to be dropped upon the short grass, as a voice he had heard before cried harshly,—
"You've done it now, Master Ralph, and got your wolf cub after all."
"Yes," panted Ralph hoarsely, as Mark felt as if a cloud had suddenly rolled away from his sight, and he saw clearly that half-a-dozen men were surrounding him, and Ralph Darley, his greatest enemy, was kneeling at his side, saying softly,—
"Yes, I've got the wolf cub after all;" and then the two lads' eyes met, and gazed deeply into each other's in a curious stare.
That stare had the same effect on both lads—that of making them feel uncomfortable.
Mark Eden, as he recovered from the shock of being so near a terrible ending to his young life, felt that, surrounded as he was by enemies, he ought to spring to his feet, draw his sword, and defend himself to the last; while Ralph Darley knew that, according to all old family traditions, he ought to order his men to seize a hand and foot each, give his young enemy two or three swings, and launch him headlong off the mighty cliff, and then stand and laugh at the capers he would cut in his fall.
For people had been very savage in their revenges out in that wild part of England, shut away from the civilisation of the time by moor and mountain. Ralph knew, too, that though they were better then than in the early days of the Wars of the Roses, they were still brutal enough, and that he would gain the applause and respect of his men by giving them the order. But Mark Eden had not drawn his sword to begin cutting and thrusting; and instead of leaving the lad to hang till he fell, he, Ralph Darley, had, in opposition to his father's men, risked his own life to save that of his enemy—going down over a hundred feet, swinging at the end of a couple of ropes badly tied together.
"Seems very stupid," the two lads thought.
"What does he mean by coming here, and getting into such a horrible position—an idiot!" said Ralph to himself.
"How dare he, an insolent Darley, come down by a rope and save my life!" said Mark to himself.
Then there was an awkward pause, with the two lads scowling, and avoiding each other's gaze, and the men nudging one another, and winking knowingly. Nick Garth whispering behind his hand to Ram Jennings, that the young cocks would set up their hackles directly, whip out their spurs, and there would be a fight; and, in expectation of this, the men, six in number, now spread themselves into an arc, whose chord was the edge of the cliff, thus enclosing the pair so as to check any design on the part of the enemy to make a rush and escape.
Mark, who did not feel so breathless and numb now, sat up on the grass, and resumed his old role of ignoring his enemies, putting his hands behind him, to feel for the ravens hung from his sword-belt, taking them out from their awkward position, to find that they were limp and literally crushed. The reason for this was that when Ralph, as he swung, seized him, he had to do this from behind, clasping him round the chest, just under the arms, and then, as the rope was hauled, flinging his legs about him to help to hold, with the consequence that they formed a sort of sandwich, he and Mark being the slices of bread, and the young ravens the meat.
"Hah!" said Mark softly, as if to himself; "you two will never dig out any young lambs' eyes. Feed the fishes instead;" and, rising to his feet, he untied his kerchief from about the dead birds' legs, and gave each a swing, sending it on its first and last flight, out from the cliff edge, away into the gulf.
"Now's your time, Master Ralph," whispered Nick, "Whip out your sword, and show him how you can fight."
Ralph turned upon the man with an angry glance, and Nick shrank back into his old position with a sheepish grin, which, in conjunction with his cross eyes, did not improve his personal appearance.
Without so much as glancing at his enemies, Mark now took off his cap and smiled, for the egg he had so carefully placed in the lining was intact.
"Well done!" he said aloud. "That's for Master Rayburn at the cottage. Here, one of you fellows, take that to him, and say I sent it. I dare say he'll give you a coin for your trouble."
Ram Jennings made an awkward shoot forward, and seized the egg.
"Don't break it, clumsy," cried Mark; and then with a quick motion, he threw his cap on the grass, took a step or two back toward the edge of the cliff, and, quick as lightning, drew his sword.
"There," he cried, with a scornful look at Ralph; "seven of you to one. Come on."
A low growl from the men greeted this display, but Ralph did not stir, and Mark stood for a moment or two en garde. Then with a bitter laugh he continued: "I suppose I must surrender. You don't draw. Take my sword. My arm's wrenched, and I can't use it."
As he spoke he threw his sword at Ralph's feet; his enemy picked it up by the slight blade, and the men closed in.
This movement sent a flash of anger from their young master's eyes.
"Back," he cried hoarsely. Then taking a step or two toward Mark, and still holding the sword by the blade, he presented the hilt to his enemy. "Take your sword, sir," he said haughtily. "The Darleys are gentlemen, not cowards, to take advantage of one who is down. That is the nearest way back to Black Tor," he continued, pointing.
For a few moments Mark stood gazing at his enemy, with his face flushing to his temples; then turning haggard and pale, as a flood of mingled sensations rushed through him; shame, mortification, pride, anger against self, seemed to choke all utterance, and he could not even stir. He felt that he wanted to be brave and manly, and apologise for his words—to thank the gallant lad before him for saving his life—to make him see that he was a gentleman—to strike him and make him fight—to do something brave—despicable—to do he did not know what—before he accepted this permission to go, but he could for the moment do nothing— say nothing.
At last, with a hoarse gasp, he literally snatched at the sword, and glared at his enemy with a menacing look, as if he were about to thrust at him; and Ralph's hand darted to his own hilt, but with an angry gesture, he let it fall, and stood firm.
Then a cry, mingled of rage and shame, escaped from Mark; and he thrust his sword back into its sheath, and pushing Nick aside, as the man stood in his way, he hurried down the hill.
"Yah-h-ah!" growled Nick savagely, "you aren't going to let him off like that, master?"
Mark heard the words, and turned round.
"How dare you speak to me like that!" cried Ralph, glad of some one on whom to vent the anger he felt.
"Because Sir Morton, if he'd been here, would have had that young Eden tied neck and heels, and pitched into one of the cells. Because you're a coward, sir. There!"
"Ah-h-ah!" growled the other men in chorus, as they glared at the lad.
"Then take a coward's blow," cried Ralph; and he struck the man with all his might across the face, using the back of his hand.
There was another growl from the men, but no one spoke, and Mark Eden turned again, and strode down the hill, while the men untied and coiled up the ropes, and slowly followed their young master down the slope, and then up once more toward the Castle, Nick Garth shaking his head a good deal, and looking puzzled, and a great deal interested in the blood which he kept smudging off, first with one hand, and then with the other, from his face.
"Here," he cried at last, as Ralph disappeared through the gateway, "what's best to stop this here? I can't go with it all tied up."
"Bucket o' water from the well," said Ram Jennings, grinning. "Say, Nick, he aren't such a coward, arter all."
"No," growled Nick, after a double wipe; "and, for such a little 'un, he can hit hard."
ANOTHER TURN OF FORTUNE'S WHEEL.
Master Rayburn received the raven's addled egg, and gave Ram Jennings a groat for his trouble, and for telling him all about how it was obtained, and what followed, keeping the man, and questioning him a good deal, as he smiled and frowned over the task he began at once, that of chipping a good-sized hole in one side of the egg, and extracting its contents in a little wooden bowl of clean water.
At last, after a great deal of sniffing and shuffling about, the man said, "Done with me, Master Rayburn?"
"Yes," said the old man sharply. "Unless you can tell me any more. But why?"
"Well, master, I'm pretty hard about the smell, and it falls to me to clean out the pigsties; and when they've been left a month or two in the summer, and got pretty ripe, they aren't so nice as bean-fields in bloom, or the young missus's roses in her bit o' garden; but pigsties aren't nothing to that there egg. It's enough to pyson a black dog."
"Be off with you, then," said the old man, with a dry chuckle; and as soon as he was alone, he threw the foul water away. "Yes," he muttered, "it does smell; but that's a splendid egg, and not stained a bit."
"Hah!" he ejaculated a few minutes later. "I'd have given something to be there. Brave lads. True English, to the backbone; but with their young minds warped and spoiled by the traditions of this miserable feud. Why, it must have been grand," mused the old man, shaking his grey locks. "How I should have liked to see and hear it all! What a fight to master the inborn hatred! On both sides the evil contending with the good; and, according to that man's telling, that boy Mark did not show up well. I don't know, though! He could not help it. He had to fight the black blood in his veins that has been handed down for generations. So young Ralph saved his life, made him prisoner, and set him at liberty like a true honest gentleman; and the other had to battle with his dislike and bitterness at receiving a favour from his enemy's hands.
"Good Heavens!" he cried aloud. "Enemy's! What contemptible worms we are, to dare to nurse up such a feeling from father to son, generation after generation! Why, with them it is an hereditary disease. But who knows? Those two lads may grow up to be friends, and kill the old feud. They cannot help respecting each other after such an encounter as that. I'll try and get hold of young Darley, and then of Mark; and perhaps I may be able to—Bah! you weak-minded, meddlesome old driveller!" he cried impetuously. "You would muddle, and spoil all, when perhaps a Higher Hand is at work, as it always is, to make everything tend toward the best.
"But I should like to be present, by accident, the next time those two lads meet."
The meeting took place before many days had passed.
In the interim Ralph Darley had told his father all that had happened, and Sir Morton had frowned, and looked pleased, and frowned again.
"You think I did wrong father," said the lad.
"No, my boy; I think you behaved splendidly; but you see what a miserable race those Edens are. You do good to one of them, a boy of your own age, and he is ready to turn and rend you."
"But I did not go on purpose to do good to him, father. I meant to catch him, tie him hand and foot, and bring him here to do what you liked with him."
"Never mind: you acted bravely; and he like a roused wolf's cub, as Nick Garth called him."
"Felt humbled," said Ralph thoughtfully.
"Yes, my boy. Well, it's all over; but don't go risking your life again for your enemies. We don't want to quarrel with them unless they force it on, and I'm afraid they are going to, for I believe Eden has enlisted that gang of ruffians in his service. I can't hear that they were seen to go away."
Mark Eden told his father too, about the incident, and Sir Edward looked very grave.
"As the lad was a Darley, matters are different," he said at last, "and I don't like your conduct over the matter, Mark. To begin with—well, to go all through the business, you did wrong."
"Yes, father," said the lad bitterly.
"It was not right for you, a young scholar, and a gentleman, to go upon their land and invite a quarrel."
"But I wanted the young ravens, father."
"Yes. And they want my lead-mine; and if young Darley comes to try and take it, I hope you'll break his neck."
"But you did not come out well, my boy," said Sir Edward irritably. "The young cub has some good in him, and he behaved splendidly."
"Yes, father; that made me feel so mad against him, and all the time I was feeling as if I would have given anything to shake hands, for he was very brave."
"Well, it would have been, if he had not been a Darley."
"And, of course, I could not shake hands and say thank you to a boy like him."
"Shake hands—an Eden with a Darley! Impossible, my boy, impossible. There, it's all over, and you must never give them the opportunity of insulting you again. That family has done us endless injury."
"And we've done them a deal, too, father."
"Yes, my boy, as much as ever we could. I mean in the old days; for I'm beginning to think that it's best to let them go their way, if they let us go ours."
"I wish they lived on the other side of the county, instead of so near. But there, promise me that you will not run foul of any of the savages again."
"Yes, father, I promise you," said the lad quietly.
"By the way, Mark, you say young Darley had half-a-dozen ruffianly fellows with him, and they wanted to stone you, and then throw you off the cliff?"
"Do you think any of them were part of the rough crew who came here with that red-faced captain?"
"I think not, father."
"I'm afraid they went to Sir Morton Darley; so we must be watchful. Let that other trouble drop now, and be careful for the future. Don't worry me now; Rugg wants to see me about the mining accounts. Keep out of mischief, and don't let me hear any more about young Darley."
Mark promised, and went out with the intention of going down the river to see old Master Rayburn, and ask him whether he had received the egg. But before he had gone far, the memories of the whole business seemed so distasteful, and he felt so much annoyed with himself, that he turned back.
"He'd make me tell him all about it, and I feel as if I couldn't," muttered the lad. "It tastes more and more bitter every time I think about it, and if Master Rayburn began to ask me questions, he'd get it all out of me, for he has such a way of doing it. I don't believe any one could tell him a lie without being found out. Of course I shouldn't tell him one. No, I won't go. He'd say that I behaved badly, and I don't want to be told, for though I wouldn't own it, I know it better than any one could tell me. Hang the Darleys! I wish there wasn't one on the face of the earth."
So, instead of going to old Master Rayburn's cottage, Mark walked back to the Black Tor, and after making up his mind to go down into the lead-mine, and chip off bits of spar, he went and talked to his sister, and told her, naturally enough, all that had passed.
Mary Eden, who was about a year older, and very like him in feature, shuddered a good deal over parts of his narration, and looked tearful and pained at the end.
"What's the matter?" he said, rather roughly; "why, you're going to cry!"
"I can't help it, Mark," she said sadly.
"Why: what makes you look like that?" said the lad irritably.
"Because—because—" she faltered.
"Well, because—because—" he cried mockingly.
"Don't be angry with me, dear. My brother Mark seems as if he behaved like a Darley, and that young Darley like my brother Mark."
"Oh!" cried the lad, jumping up in a rage; and he rushed off, in spite of an appealing cry from Mary, and went down into the mine after all, where he met Dummy Rugg, old Dan's son, and went for a ramble in the very lowest and grimmest parts, feeling as if to get away from the light of day would do him good, for his sister's words had struck very deeply into his heart.
It was a gloomy place, that mine, and opened out into strange cavernous places, eaten away by water, or by strange crackings and subsidences of the earth, in the far distant ages when the boiling springs of the volcanic regions were depositing the beds of tufa, here of immense thickness, springs which are still in evidence, but no longer to pour out waters that scald, but of a gentle lukewarm or tepid temperature, which go on depositing their suspended stone to this day, though in a feeble, sluggish manner.
Dan Rugg was Sir Edward's chief man over the mine. Not a gentleman superintendent, but a genuine miner, who gave orders, and then helped to carry them out. He had the credit of knowing more about mines than any man in the midland counties, knowledge gathered by passing quite half his life underground like a mole.
Dummy was his only child, so-called on account of his being a particularly silent, stupid-looking boy. But old Dan said he was not such a fool as he looked, and Dan was right.
Dummy hailed his young master's coming with quiet satisfaction, for Mark was almost the only being to whom he ever said much; and as soon as he saw him come to where he was at work, he walked with him to a chest, and took out a flint and steel and a good supply of home-made candles, without stopping to ask questions; and then lighting one, he handed it to Mark, and led off into the part of the mine where the men were not at work.
"Aren't you going to take a candle, Dummy?" said Mark.
"No, master; I can manage."
"I believe you can see in the dark, like a rat or an owl. Can you?"
"Not very well, Master Mark; but I can see a bit. Got used to it, I s'pose."
"Well, why are you going down there?" asked Mark.
"'Cause I thought you'd like to see the place I found while you were at school."
"Ah! Is it worth seeing?"
"Dunno. It's big."
"Been dug out?"
"Nay. It's a big split as goes up ever so far, and goes down ever so far. Chucked bits down; and they were precious long 'fore they hit bottom. There's a place over the other side too, and I clum round to it, and it goes in and in, farther than I could stop to go. Thought I'd wait till you came home."
"That's right, Dummy. We will not go to-day; but start early some morning, and take a basket and bottle with us."
"Ay, that's the way. Water's warm in there, I think."
By degrees, from old acquaintance and real liking for the dull heavy lad, who looked up to him as a kind of prince, Mark dropped into telling his adventures over the ravens, while they trudged along the black passages, with Dummy leading, Mark still carrying the candle, and the lad's huge long shadow going first of all.
The miner's son listened without a word, drinking in the broken disconnected narrative, as if not a word ought to be lost, and when it was ended, breaking out with: "Wish I'd been there."
"I wish you had, Dummy. But if you had been, what would you have done?"
"I d'know, Master Mark. I aren't good out in the daylight; but I can get along on the cliffs. I'd ha' come down to you. I should just like to ketch any one heaving stones down upon you. I wonder that young Darley didn't kill you, though, when he'd cotched you. We should ha' killed him, shouldn't us, sir?"
"Don't know, Dummy," said the lad shortly. "Let's talk about something else."
Dummy was silent; and they went on and on till Mark spoke again.
"Well," he said, "found any good bits of spar for Miss Mary?"
"Lots, sir. One big bit with two points like a shovel handle. Clear as glass."
There was another silence, and then Mark spoke again.
"What's going on?"
"Things comes in the night, and takes lambs, and fowls, and geese."
"You mean thieves."
"Nay, not like thieves, master. Old Mother Deggins saw 'em the other night, and they fluttered and made a noise—great black witches, in long petticoats and brooms. It was a noise like thunder, and a light like lightnin', she says, and it knocked her down night afore last; and she won't live in the cottage no longer, but come next to ours."
"Somebody tried to frighten her."
"P'r'aps. Frightened two of our men too. They was coming back from Gatewell over the hills; and they see a light up by Ergles, where there aren't no lights, and they crep' up to see what it was, and looked down and see a fire, with a lot of old witches in long gowns leaning over it, and boiling something in a pot; and they think it's babies."
"Why do they think that?"
"I d'know, master. Because they thought so, I think. Then, as they were looking, all at once there was a ter'ble squirty noise, and a rush like wings; and there was no fire, and nothing to see. Glad I warn't there. Wouldn't go across the moor by Ergles for anything."
"But you're not afraid to come along here in the dark."
"'Fraid, Master Mark? No: why should I be? Nothing to hurt you here."
"You're a queer fellow, Dummy," said Mark.
"Yes, master. That's what father says. I s'pose it's through being so much in the mine."
"I suppose so. But you don't mind?"
"Mind, Master Mark? I like it. Wish you was at home more, though.—I say—"
"If ever you go to fight the Darleys, take me, Master Mark."
"I shall not go to fight the Darleys, Dummy. They may come to fight us, and if they do, you shall come and help."
"Hah!" ejaculated the rough-looking boy. "I'm pretty strong now. If they come and meddle with us, do you know what I should like to do, Master Mark."
"No: hammer them, I suppose."
"Nay; I should like to drive 'em all down to the place I'm going to show you."
"Well, where is it?"
"Oh, ever so far yet. 'N'our away."
Mark whistled in surprise.
"Not tired, are you, sir?"
"Tired? No; but I didn't think you could go so far."
"Oh yes, you can, sir, if you don't mind crawling a bit now and then. You can go miles and miles where the stone's split apart. I think it's all cracks under the hills."
"On you go, then; but don't you want a candle?"
"No, sir; I can see best like this, with you holding the light behind."
Mark relapsed into silence, and his guide remained silent too, and went on and on, along passages formed by the busy miners of the past, in following the lode of lead, and along ways that were nature's work.
At last, fully an hour after Dummy had announced how far they had to go, he stopped short, took a candle, lit it, and looked smilingly at Mark, who gazed round the natural cavern in which they were, and then turned to his guide.
"Well," he said, "is this it? Not much of a place. I thought you said it went farther."
"So it does, Master Mark. Shut your eyes while you count a hundred."
Mark obeyed, and counted his hundred aloud, opened his eyes again, and he was alone.
"Here! Where are you?" he cried; and he looked about the place, up and down, but to all appearances, he was in a cul de sac, whose walls were dotted with the fossil stems of pentacrinites, over which stalagmitic petrifaction had gradually formed, looking as if dirty water had run over the walls in places, and hardened in the course of time to stone.
"Here, Dummy! Haven't run back, have you?" shouted Mark, as it occurred to him that should the boy have played him a trick, he would have no little difficulty in getting back to the part where the men were at work.
But there was no occasion for so loud a cry; the words had hardly passed his lips when a hand holding a candle suddenly appeared against the wall in front, and upon stepping to it, he found that the sheet of stalagmite there, instead of touching the wall, was a foot away, leaving room for any one to creep up a steep slope for thirty or forty feet, and continue the way through a long crevice, whose sides looked as if they might have separated only a few hours before.
"This is the way," said Dummy, and he led on for a quarter of an hour longer, with a peculiar rushing noise growing louder, till it became a heavy dull roar, as the narrow crack through which they had passed suddenly opened out into a vast cavity which, below the ledge on which they stood, ended in gloom, and whose roof was lost in the same blackness; but the echoes of the falling water below told them that it must be far enough above their heads.
"What a horrible hole!" cried Mark.
"Yes; big," said Dummy. "Look: I climbed along there. It's easy; and then you can go right on, above where the water comes in. It's warm in here."
"Yes, warm enough."
"Shall we go any farther?"
"No, not to-day. Let's stop and look. Shall I throw down my candle?"
"No, Master Mark: it's no good. Goes out too soon. I'll light a match."
He took an old-fashioned brimstone match from his breast, lit both its pointed ends, waited till the sulphur was fluttering its blue flame, and the splint was getting well alight and blackening, and then he reached out and let it fall, to go burning brightly down and down, as if into a huge well. Then it went out, and they seemed for the moment to be in darkness.
"I don't think it's very, very deep," said Dummy quietly; "but it's all water over yonder. Seen enough, Master Mark!"
"Yes, for one day. Let's go back now."
Dummy topped the long wicks with his natural snuffers, to wit, his finger and thumb, and led the way back, after Mark had taken a final glance at the vast chasm.
"So you found this place out, Dummy?"
"Yes, Master Mark. I'm always looking for new holes when I've nothing to do and the men aren't at work."
"It's of no use: there's no lead."
"No: aren't any ore. All spar and stones like this."
"Well, we must bring hammers and find some good pieces next time we come."
"And go on along by the water, Master Mark?"
"If you like. Want to find how far it goes?"
"Yes: I want to find how far it goes, master. Perhaps it opens somewhere. I often think we must come out somewhere on the other side."
"That would be queer," said Mark thoughtfully; "but I don't think my father would be pleased. Seem like making a way for the Darleys to come in and attack us."
Dummy stopped short, and turned to stare open-mouthed at his young chief.
"What a head you've got, Master Mark," he said. "I never thought of that."
"Didn't you? Well, you see now: we don't want to find another way in."
"Yes, we do, if there is one, Master Mark, and stop it up."
Very little more was said as they went back, Mark becoming thoughtful, and too tired to care about speaking. But that night he lay in bed awake for some time, thinking about the visit to the cavernous mine, and how it honeycombed the mountainous place: then about Dummy's witches, and the fire and caldron, at the mouth of the hole by Ergles, a mighty limestone ridge about three miles away. Then after a laugh at the easy way in which the superstitious country people were alarmed, he fell asleep, to begin a troublous dream, which was mixed up in a strangely confused way with the great chasm in the mine, down which he had worked his way to get at the ravens' nest: and then he started into wakefulness, as he was falling down and down, hundreds upon hundreds of feet, to find his face wet with perspiration, and that he had been lying upon his back.
IN A WASP'S NEST.
Days had passed, and strange reports were flying about the sparsely inhabited neighbourhood. Fresh people had seen the witches in their long gowns, and it was rumoured that if any one dared to make the venture, they might be found crouching over their fire any dark, stormy night on the slope of Ergles, where nobody ever went, for it was a desolate waste, where a goat might have starved.
The tales grew like snowballs, as they passed from mouth to mouth, but for the most part they were very unsubstantial in all points save one, and that possessed substance; not only lambs, but sheep, had disappeared, and in the case of a miner and his wife, who lived some distance off, and who had been away for a week to a wedding beyond the mountains, they returned to their solitary cottage to find that it had been entered in their absence, and completely stripped of everything movable, even to the bed, while the very cabbages in the garden had been torn up and carried away.
Mark had the news from the man himself, and he carried it to his father and sister, as he had carried Dummy Rugg's rumour about the witches and their fire, which went out so suddenly on being seen.
"Humph!" said Sir Edward, smiling; "that looks as if the witches liked vegetables with their lamb and mutton. Stripped the cottage, and took the meal-tub too?"
"Everything, father," said Mark.
"Then it's time the men made a search, my boy," said Sir Edward; "we must have a robber about. There is the whole explanation of the old women's tales. Well, they will have to bestir themselves, and catch the thief."
It was on that same morning that the news reached Cliff Castle, where similar stories had floated about witches and warlocks having taken possession of the shivering hills, where the slatey rocks were always falling, and forming what the country people called screes, which, at a distance, when wet and shiny, looked in the sunshine like cascades descending from on high.
"If it comes to any of our sheep being taken, we shall have to take to a hunt, Ralph," Sir Morton had said. "The people like to have a witch or two to curdle their blood, but I'm not going to find them in sheep."
It was a glorious morning, and the lad went into the courtyard with his sister to have a look at her new fad, as Nick Garth called it, that is to say, the well-plastered pool with its surrounding of rock-work, in which various plants were beginning to flourish and reflect themselves in the crystal water with which the little pond was filled.
"Capital!" cried Ralph; "but you ought to have a few fish in it. They'd look well."
"That is just what I wanted you to say, sir," cried Minnie, clapping her hands; "and if you hadn't been such a solemn, serious brother, you would have taken your rod and line, and caught me a few."
"Well, I will," said the lad eagerly; "and some for a fry as well. The little ones will be best for you, and I'll take a tin can for them, as well as a creel."
An hour later, with a plentiful supply of caddis, caterpillars, and other tempting bait, and rod in hand, Ralph descended to the side of the stream. He was not long in following suit with old Master Rayburn as to his hose; and then stepping into the water, he began to wade upstream, where it was shallow, going on to the bank where it grew deep.
But the day was too bright and the water too clear for his task. The fish saw him, and darted away, and when his keen eyes followed them to their lair, they refused to be tempted out by any bait he threw.
"Just my luck when I come fishing," muttered Ralph, as he waded slowly on, picking his way among the stones. "There's always something wrong; either it's too hot, or it's too cold, or there's too much water, or there isn't enough, or the wind's somewhere in the wrong quarter, or I haven't got the right bait; and so sure as I was to meet old Master Rayburn, picking flowers on the bank, he'd say: 'Ah, you should have come yesterday, or last week, and then you'd have caught a fish at every throw.'
"Stupid work, fishing," he said, half-aloud, when he had waded as far as he could without getting wet, for the water had suddenly deepened and curved round out of sight, all calm and still beneath the boughs shading it on either side. "Seems very easy, though, when you watch old Rayburn. He always knows where to throw."
For the moment, he was ready to give up, but feeling that his sister would be disappointed if he went back empty-handed, he waded out, and taking a short cut across the horseshoe formed by the stream, he reached it again beyond the deeps, where it was possible to wade once more; and before entering the bubbling waters, he stood looking upward, thinking how beautiful it all was, with the flashing water gurgling and swirling round the great stones which dotted the bed. Every here and there the sides were glowing with patches of the deep golden, yellow globe-flower; a little farther on, there was a deeper spot with a patch of the great glistening leaves of the water-lily, not yet in bloom; and as he stepped down into the water, there was a flutter from a bird seated on a dead twig, and a flash of azure light gleamed over the river, as the disturbed kingfisher darted upstream, to be watched till it disappeared.
Flies danced up and down above the water, and every now and then one dropped on the surface, with its wings closed, and sailed downward like a tiny boat. Bees swept by with a humming, slumberous sound; and among the sedges at the sides, where the golden irises displayed their lovely blossoms, the thin-bodied dragon-flies, steel-blue or green, darted on transparent wing, pairs every now and then encountering fiercely with a faint rustling of wings, and battling for a few seconds, when one would dart away with the other in pursuit.
Ralph waded on, catching nothing; but the beauties of the place increased, and satisfied him so that he began to forget his mission, and paused now to listen to the soft coo of the wood-pigeon in the grove, to the quick sharp tah! of the jackdaws sailing about high up, where they nested in the bare face of the creviced cliffs. Then on and on again, in sunshine or in shade, for quite a couple of hours, fishing in a desultory way, but with not the slightest result. Then his luck turned.
He had been driven ashore several times by the deep water, but always returned to the bed of the river where it shallowed, for it was easier going than forcing his way amidst the stones, bushes, and trees at the side; and now, as he was wading up toward where the water came over a ridge in a cascade, a little shoal of half-a-dozen fish darted upward, and he followed them, with the water growing more and more shallow, till his pulses beat with satisfaction, for a little investigation showed him that he would be able to drive the slippery prey right into a broad stretch where the water was but an inch or two deep, and dotted everywhere with shoals that were nearly dry.
Fishing was out of the question in a place like that, so twisting his line round his rod, he used the latter as a walking-staff, and followed till the prey he sought were compelled to flap themselves along upon their sides; two trout on finding themselves in such straits leaping right on to one of the half-dried pebbly shoals. Here Ralph pounced upon one after the other, and transferred them to his creel, after first taking out his shoes and hose, which had been reclining there, at rest from their ordinary avocation of protecting his feet.
"Queer fishing," muttered the lad; "but I've caught them. Now for you."
This to the rest of the shoal, which he chased so perseveringly that he caught four more by driving them into the shallowest water, the two largest succeeding by desperate rushes in getting through the treacherous part, and disappearing in the deeps toward the cascade.
"All too big to go in the little can," thought Ralph. "Never mind; they will make a fry. Perhaps I can catch some smaller ones the same way."
He tied his shoes together by the strings, and fastened them to the strap of his creel, tucked his hose through his belt, and went ashore again, to make his way beyond the little cascade which fell musically over the rocks; and as he was going on by the dammed-up deeps, there was suddenly a rush among the sedges and rushes, followed by a splash, the lad catching sight of a long, wet, brown body, as the animal made a plunge and disappeared in deep water.
The next moment his eyes rested upon the remains of a feast, in the shape of a fine trout, half-eaten, evidently quite freshly caught.
"Better fisherman than I am," said Ralph to himself, as he searched the surface of the water to see if the otter he had disturbed would rise. But the cunning animal had reached its hole in the bank, and was not likely to return to its banquet: so Ralph went on beyond the deeps to where the river ran shallow again beneath the overhanging trees, just catching a glimpse at times of the great cliffs, whose tops often resembled the ruins of neglected towers, so regularly were they laid in fissured blocks.
Encouraged by his success, though conscious of the fact that it was the work of a poacher more than an angler, Ralph was not long in finding a suitable place for driving a few more fish. Fate favoured him in this, and in their being just of a suitable size for the little pool, and he had just secured one about six inches long, and was filling his little can with water, when he was startled by hearing a half-stifled bark uttered, as if by a dog whose muzzle was being held.
He looked sharply round, and suddenly woke to the fact that, for how long he could not tell, while he had been stalking the trout, he had been stalked in turn.
For a man suddenly appeared among the bushes on the right, looked across the river, and shouted, "Come on, now."
Three more appeared on the other side, one of whom leaped at once into the river, while simultaneously a couple of dogs were let loose, and dashed into the shallow water.
"Don't let him go back, lads," shouted the first man. "Run him up: he can't get away."
Ralph was equal to the occasion. In a sharp glance round, while snapping his rod in two where the butt was lashed to the thinner part, he saw that his retreat was cut off down the river, and that his only chance of escape was to go forward, right and left being sheer wall, twenty feet on one side, two hundred, at least, on the other. He grasped, too, the fact that the men about to attack him were evidently lead-miners, and the thought flashed upon him that he had inadvertently come higher till, after a fashion, he was occupying Mark Eden's position, trespassing upon an enemy's ground.
These thoughts were lightning-like, as he swung his rod-butt round, and brought it down heavily upon a big mongrel dog that splashed through the shallows, knocked it right over, to lie yelping and whining as it tore up water and sand, the second dog contenting itself with yapping, snarling, and making little charges, till a lucky blow caught it upon the leg, and sent it howling back.
This was sufficient for the moment, and Ralph began to retreat, with the men following him.
"There," shouted the one who seemed to be the leader. "It's of no use, so you may give in. We know you, so come out, fish and all. You haven't no right up here."
Ralph made no reply, but flushing with anger and annoyance, he hurried on over the shallows, with the men now in full pursuit, shouting, too, at the dogs, and urging them to renew their attack.
"What an idiot I have been!" muttered the lad, as he splashed on, wishing that he was on open ground, so that he could run; but wishing was in vain. He was unarmed, too, save for the stout ash-butt of his spliced rod, and he knew that it would be impossible to defend himself with that for long against four strong men, who were apparently only too eager to get hold of the heir of the rival house, and drag him before their lord. For that they were Sir Edward Eden's men the lad had not a doubt.
But Ralph had little time for thought; action was the thing, and he splashed on, glancing from right to left to find a spot where he could land and take to his heels—an impossibility there, for he soon saw that his only chance was to climb, and that chance was small.
Then, as the men followed some forty yards behind, he saw the light of hope. Not far ahead, the water looked black and still, as it glided through a narrow defile, shut in by the rocks. That meant deep water; but if he could reach that, he would have to swim, and the men probably would not dare to follow.
Already the shallows were coming to an end, the water reaching to his knees; and it was here that, encouraged and bullied into making a fresh attack, the dogs overtook him once more, and half swimming, half making leaps, they came at him, the bigger avoiding a blow, and seizing him by the left, fortunately without hurt, the animal's teeth meeting only in the padding of the short breeches of the period; but it held on, growling, and shaking its head violently, while its companion, after a deal of barking, dashed in on the right.
This time Ralph's aim was surer and quicker, the dog receiving a sharp cut across the ear from the butt of the rod, and going down at once, to begin howling, and swimming in a circle.
Rid thus of one enemy, the lad proceeded to get rid of the second by a very simple plan. Lowering his left hand, he got hold of the strap which formed the dog's collar, and in spite of its struggles and worryings, went on as fast as he could go—slowly enough, all the same— to where the water deepened; and as it reached his thigh, he bent his knees, with the natural result that as the dog held tenaciously to its mouthful of cloth and padding, its head was beneath the water.
A few seconds were sufficient to make it quit its hold, and come up choking and barking; but in obedience to the urging on of one of the men, to pluckily renew the attack.
A sharp crack from the butt knocked all the remaining courage out of its head, and it turned, howling, to swim back toward its masters.
"Here, it's no good, young Darley," yelled one of the men. "You may give up now. We've got you fast."
"And it'll be the worst for you, if you don't. We have got you now."
"Hold me tight, then," muttered the lad, with a triumphant feeling at his chances of escape beginning to make him glow.
"You mustn't go there," shouted another. "It's woundy deep, and you'll get sucked down."
"Come and be sucked down after me," muttered Ralph, as the dogs began barking again furiously, but refused to follow and attack, keeping close to the men, who were all now in the river, wading slowly, the walls having grown too precipitous for them to keep on the sides.
Ralph's progress was slow enough too, for the water had deepened till it was above his waist, and the next minute was nearly to his armpits, while the river having narrowed now to half its width, the stream though deep came faster, and grew harder to stem.
"D'you hear, youngster!" roared the leader. "You'll be drownded."
"Better that than be caught and dragged up to the Black Tor for that wretched boor, Mark Eden, to triumph over me," thought Ralph; and he pushed boldly on, forced his way a dozen yards, and then made a step, to find no bottom, and going down over his head.
"Told you so," rang in his ears, as he struck out and rose, to find himself being borne back; but a few strokes took him to the right side, where he snatched at some overhanging ferns rooted in the perpendicular wall of rock, checked himself for a few moments, and looked back, to see the four men, nearly breast-deep, a dozen yards behind, waiting for him to be swept down to their grasp.
"There, give up!" cried another, "for you're drownded. You don't know the waters here, like we do. Some o' that goes right down into the mine."
To the astonishment of the men, who did not dare to venture farther, the lad did not surrender, but looked sharply about to try and fully grasp his position and his chances of escape. Ahead the water certainly appeared deeper, for it glided on towards him, looking black, oily, and marked with sinuous lines. There was no ripple to indicate a shallow, and he could feel, from the pressure against him, that it would be impossible to stem it in swimming; while most ominous of all, right in the centre, a little way ahead, there was a spot where the water was a little depressed. It kept circling round every now and then, forming a funnel-shaped opening about a foot across, showing plainly enough that the men were right, and that a portion of the stream passed down there into some hole in the rock, to form one of the subterranean courses of which there were several in the district, as he knew both where rivulets disappeared, and also suddenly gushed out into the light of day.
Ralph grasped then at once that it would be impossible to escape by swimming against such a stream; that if he could have done so, there was the horrible risk of being sucked down into some awful chasm to instant death; that he could not climb up the wall of rock where he hung on then; and that, if he let go, he would be borne along in a few moments to the men's hands; and then, that he would be bound, and dragged away a prisoner, to his shame, and all through trying to get those unfortunate fish.
"It's of no use," he muttered despairingly, as he looked above him again, and, as he did so, saw that the men were laughing at his predicament, for, as Touchstone the clown told the shepherd, he was "in a parlous case."
But hope is a fine thing, and gives us rays of light even in the darkest places. Just when Ralph felt most despondent, it occurred to him that there was another way out of the difficulty, and he proceeded to put it in force by looking straight ahead, along the wall of rock, which ran down into the water, and there, just beyond the tuft by which he held on, and certainly within reach, was one of the perpendicular cracks which divided the stone into blocks. In an instant he had stretched out his left hand, forced it in there, drawn himself along till he could get the other hand in, and was safe so far; and to his great joy found, by a little searching, that he could find foot-hold, for the horizontal crack ran some four feet below the surface, and afforded him sufficient standing room, if he could only find something to hold on by above.
For the moment he was safe, but his object was to get along the wall, till he could find a place where he could climb the rocky side of the river; and once clear of the water, he felt that it would go hard if he could not find some way to the top, the more easily from the fact that above the steep piece of wall down into the water the trees grew so abundantly that a climber would for a certainty find plenty of help.
The men remained motionless in the water, watching in the full expectation of seeing the lad swept down to them; but he held fast, and once more reaching forward, he strained outward till he caught a tuft of grass, crept on along the submerged ledge to that, and from there gained a large patch of tough broom. Then came two or three easy movements onward, bringing the fugitive abreast of the sink, which was larger than it had appeared from below, and Ralph shuddered as he felt that any one who approached the vortex would for a certainty be dragged down.
For a few moments he clung there, the nervous thoughts of what might be if he slipped and were caught in the whirlpool being sufficient to half paralyse him; then turning angry at his feeling of cowardice, he reached boldly out again, found fresh hand-hold, and did the same again and again, till he was a dozen yards beyond the sink-hole, and had to stop and think. For the wall was smoother than ever; the stream ran stronger; the distance between the two sides being less, it looked deeper; and the next place where he could find hand-hold was apparently too far to reach.
Still, it was his only chance, and taking fast hold with his right, and somehow thinking the while of Mark's passage along the surface of the High Cliff, he reached out farther and farther, pressing his breast against the rock, edging his feet along, and then stopping at his fullest stretch, to find the little root of ivy he aimed at grasping still six or seven inches away.
The dead silence preserved by the men below was broken by the barking of one of the dogs. Then all was still again, and Ralph felt that his only chance was to steady himself for a moment with his feet, loosen his hold with his right hand, and let himself glide along the face of the rock forward till his left touched the ivy, and then hold on.
If he missed catching hold—?
"I mustn't think of such a thing," he muttered; and he at once put his plan into action, letting himself glide forward.
As a scholar, fresh from a big school, he ought to have been more mathematically correct, and known that in describing the arc of a circle his left hand would go lower; but he did not stop to think. The consequence was that as his fingers glided over the rough stone, they passed a few inches beneath the tough stem he sought to grasp, and once in motion, he could not stop himself. He clutched at the stone with his right hand, and his nails scratched over it, as he vainly strove to find a prominence or crevice to check him; but all in vain; the pressure of the running water on the lower part of his body helped to destroy his balance, and with a faint cry, he went headlong into the gliding stream, the men simultaneously giving vent to a yell, half of horror, half of satisfaction.
"The sink-hole! Shall I be sucked down?" was the thought that flashed across the lad's brain, like a lurid light, as he went under; then he struck out vigorously for the side, and as he rose to the surface saw that he was being drawn toward the hole where it gaped horribly, and closed, and gaped again, a few yards away.
If any boy who reads this cannot swim, let him feel that he is sinning against himself, and neglecting a great duty, till he can plunge without a trace of nervousness into deep water, and make his way upon the surface easily and well. Fortunately for Ralph Darley, he was quite at home in the water, and the strong firm strokes he took were sufficient to carry him well in toward the side, so that he passed the little whirlpool where its force was weakest; and as the men below closed together, and waded a couple of steps to meet him, they had the mortification of seeing him clinging to the wall of rock, half-a-dozen yards above them, and then creeping forward again, step by step, till he reached the point from which he had been swept, and held on there once more.
Here, as they watched him curiously, they saw that he remained motionless, as if thinking what to do next, as was the case; and coming to the conclusion that he must manage somehow to grasp that tuft of ivy, he tried again, with the dread of the consequences the less from the experience he had gone through.
Coming to the conclusion that the only way was to raise himself upon his toes at the last moment, and jerk himself forward, he drew in a deep breath, reached out to the utmost, but raised his left hand more, then loosened his grasp with his right, and when he thought the moment had come, gave a slight bound.
That did it. He caught at the ivy, his fingers closed upon it tightly, and he tried hard to keep his feet upon the ledge below water. But this effort failed, his balance was gone, his feet glided from the ledge, and he swung round, holding on to the ivy, which seemed to be giving way at its roots.
But as Ralph fell, his hand slipped quite a foot down the ivy, and the water took a good deal of his weight, so that, though the strain upon the feeble growth was great, it remained firm enough to hold him; and he hung half in, half out of the water for some time, afraid to stir, but all the time energetically using his eyes, to seek for a way out of his perilous position.
He was not long in coming to a decision. Above the ivy there was one of the cracks, and he saw that if he could reach that, he could climb to the one above, and from there gain the roots of a gnarled hawthorn, whose seed had been dropped in a fissure by a bird generations back, the dryness of the position and want of root-food keeping the tree stunted and dwarfed. Once up there, another ten or twelve feet would take him to the top of the lower wall, and then he felt that it would go hard if he could not climb and hide, or escape up the cliff; so he set to at once to try.
RALPH GETS TIT FOR TAT.
Ralph Darley's first step was to get his right hand beside his left, and his feet once more upon the ledge, but the ivy gave way a little more at this movement, and he paused. But not for long. Another danger was at hand.
Moved by the boldness of the lad's efforts to escape, and in dread lest he might be successful, the leader of the four men, after a short consultation with the others, who tried to dissuade him, began to wade cautiously forward till the water grew too deep for him, and then creeping sidewise, he climbed on to the smooth wall, and began to imitate the course taken by Ralph; but before he had gone many yards, one of his companions shouted:
"You'll go down, and be swep' away, and sucked in."
This checked him and made him hesitate, but rousing his courage again, he once more began to edge along the shelf below the surface, and this spurred the fugitive on to make another effort.
This time he caught at the ivy, which gave way a little more, but still held, and by moving cautiously, Ralph managed to get his feet upon the ledge. The next minute he had found another prominence below water, raised his foot to it, and caught at a rough bit of the stone above the ivy, stood firm, drew himself a little higher, and by a quick scramble, got a foot now on the ivy stem and his hands in the crack above, just as the growth yielded to his foot, dropped into the stream, and was swept away, leaving the lad hanging by his cramped fingers.
But though the ivy was gone, the crevice in which it had grown remained, and in another few seconds Ralph's toes were in it, and the weight off his hands.
He rested, and looked down-stream, to see that the man was steadily approaching, but the lad felt safe now. The ivy was gone, and the enemy could not possibly get farther along the ledge than the spot from whence he had slipped.
Cheered by this, Ralph began to climb again, finding the task easier, and the next minute he had hold of the tough stem of the hawthorn; and heedless of the thorns, dragged himself up into it, stood upright, reached another good, strong hand-hold, and then stepped right up on to a broad shelf of grass-grown limestone. The men uttered a fierce shout, and their leader, seeing now that his task was hopeless, began to retire and join his companions.
Ralph watched him for a few moments, and then began to climb again, finding this part of the slope easy, for great pieces of stone were piled up, and made fast by the bushes which grew amongst them, hiding the fugitive from the sight of those below, and raising his hopes as he found how easily he could get up. Twice over he heard shouts and their echoes from the opposite side, but he was too busy to heed them, and soon felt confident enough to sit down in a niche, half-way up the cliff, and rest for a few minutes.
"Horribly wet," he said to himself; "fishing-rod broken and lost, fish-can gone, and—ah! I did not expect that," for he found that shoes, hose, and creel were safe. "Glad I shall take the fish home after all."
He listened: all was still. Then he peered down, but he could see nothing save the bushes and trees on the other side; even the river was invisible from where he sat; and getting his breath now after his exertions, he turned, and began to look upward.
Ralph was born somewhere about three miles from where he sat, but he had inadvertently wandered into a part that was perfectly unfamiliar to him, the feud between the two families having resulted in its being considered dangerous for either side to intrude within the portion of the rugged mountainous land belonging to the other.
Still, the lad had some notion of the bearings of the cliff hills from seeing them at a distance, and he rapidly came to a conclusion as to which would be the best course for him to take to avoid the occupants of the Black Tor; but when any one is flurried he is liable to make mistakes, and much more likely when deep in a tangle of pathless wood, and listening for the steps of those who are seeking to make him a prisoner.
According to Ralph's calculations, the narrow gap which led eastward to the edge of the huge hollow in which the narrow, roughly conical mass of limestone rose crowned with the Eden Castle, lay away to his left; and as he had in climbing kept on bearing to the right, he was perfectly certain that he had passed right over the men in the river. He felt, therefore, that he had nothing to do but keep steadily on in the same course, always mounting higher at every opportunity of doing so unseen, until close to the top, when he could keep along the edge unseen till well on his way homeward, and then take to the open downs above.
The silence below was encouraging, and in spite of being compelled often to creep beneath the bushes, and here and there descend to avoid some perpendicular piece of rock, he got on, so that he grew more and more satisfied that he had escaped, and had nothing to do but persevere, and be well out of what had promised to be a very awkward predicament. His clothes clung to his back, and his legs were terribly scratched, while one of his feet was bleeding; but that was a trifle which he hardly regarded.
Just before him was a steeper bit than usual, and he hesitated about trying to climb it; but the way up or down seemed to promise no better, so taking advantage of the dense cover afforded by the trees, he steadily attacked the awkward precipice, the dwarf trees helped him with their gnarled trunks, and he mastered the ascent, found himself higher up than he had expected, crawled a step or two farther, and arrived the next minute at the brink of a deep chasm, while to the left, not a couple of hundred yards away, rose the castle-crowned Black Tor.
He shrank back the next instant, and a feeling of confusion came over him. He could hardly understand how it was, but directly after it was forced upon his understanding that he had been quite wrong in his bearings; that when he began to climb, the Black Tor lay to his right instead of his left, and that, instead of going into safety, he had been making straight for the most dangerous place.
To go on was impossible, for the cliff beneath him was overhanging; to go to the left was equally vain; and to descend or return was in all probability to walk right into the arms of his pursuers.
Once more he cautiously advanced his head between the bushes to look out, but the prospect was not encouraging. There, fifty or sixty feet away, was the fellow cliff to that upon which he lay, split apart by some terrible convulsion of nature; and once there he could have made for home, but there was no way of passing the opening save by descending right to the river's bank, and he felt pretty certain that he could not do this without being seen.
Still it was the only course, and his choice was open to him—to lie in hiding till the darkness came, many hours later, or boldly descend.
To lie there in the shadow with his wet clothes clinging to him was not a pleasant prospect, but it seemed the only one feasible under the circumstances; and he concluded that this was what he would do, wishing the while that he dared go and lie right out in the sunshine.
He had hardly thought this, when a hot thrill ran through him, for from somewhere below there came the sharp bark of a dog, and a voice rose cheering the animal on, and then shouted: "Close in, all of you: he's up here somewhere. Dog's got his scent."
Then voices answered with hails from different parts, and Ralph's next movement was to crawl forward again to the very edge of the precipice, look over, and seek for a place where he might perhaps descend.
But again he saw that it was utterly hopeless, and nerved now by his despair, he began to descend through the fringe of scrub oak and beech, close to the chasm, so as to get down to the river, where he meant to plunge in, and cross by wading or swimming to the other side.
But there is no hiding from the scent of a dog. Ralph had not gone down half-a-dozen yards before the dog gave tongue again, and kept on barking, coming nearer and nearer, and more rapidly as the scent grew hotter: while before another dozen yards were passed the lad had to seize the first block of stone he could lift, and turn at bay, for the dog had sighted him and rushed forward, as if to leap at his throat.
There is many a dog, though—perhaps taught by experience—that will face a staff, but shrink in the most timid manner from a stone; and it was so here. At the first threatening movement made by Ralph, the dog stopped short, barking furiously, and the lad glanced downward once more. But to proceed meant to turn his back upon his four-footed enemy, which would have seized him directly.
There was nothing then to be done but face it, and he prepared to hurl his missile, but, to the lad's despair, the second dog, which had been silent, now rushed up, and he had to keep them both off as he stood at bay, the new-comer being more viciously aggressive than the first.
"I can't help it: I must make a dash for freedom," thought Ralph; and, raising his stone higher, he hurled it at the bigger dog, which avoided it by bounding aside. Then turning, he dashed downward, right into the arms of a man.
There was a sharp struggle, and the latter was getting worsted, being lower down, and having to bear the shock of Ralph's weight in the bound, but the next moment unexpectedly the lad felt himself seized from behind, two more men came panting up, and, utterly mastered, he found himself upon his back, with one enemy seated upon his chest, another holding his arms outspread, and the others his legs, thoroughly spread-eagled upon the sloping rock.
"Got you now," said the leader of the little party. "You, Tom, we can manage him.—Get out, will you, dogs!—Here, take them with you. Run to the mine hut, and get some rope to tie him. Be as smart as you can. The master'll give us something decent for a job like this."
The man addressed called the dogs to him, and was unwillingly obeyed, but a few stones thrown by the rest overcame the animals' objections, and they trotted off, leaving the prisoner relapsed into a sulky silence; his captors chatted pleasantly together about his fate, banteringly telling him that for certain he would be hung over the castle wall.
Ralph paid no heed to what was said, and after a time the men grew tired of their banter, and began to wonder among themselves whether their companion would say anything to those whom he might meet.
"He'll like enough be doing it," said the leader. "I tilled him to fetch a rope, and if he does anything else, he'll hear of it from me. What we wants is to take our prisoner up proper to the master, and get our reward."
Then they began muttering in a low voice among themselves, taking care that their prisoner should not hear, as he lay upon his back, staring straight up at the blue sky, and thinking of how soon it had come upon him to be suffering Mark Eden's reverse.
At last a hail came from below, and the man panted breathlessly up to them, throwing down a coil of thin rope, with which, after turning him over upon his face, the men, in spite of his struggles, tightly and cruelly tied their prisoner's arms behind him, and then his ankles and knees. They were about to lift him up, when there was a sharp barking heard again.
"Here, you, Tom," cried the leader, who had been most savage in dragging the knots as tightly as possible, "I told you to take those dogs back."
"Well, so I did. I didn't bring 'em."
"They've come all the same," cried the other. "Well, it don't matter now. Perhaps Buzz wants a taste of these here naked legs."
The dog barked close at hand now.
"Here, you, jump up, before he has you," cried the leader brutally; and then he stared wonderingly, for there was a sharp rustling amongst the bushes, and the dog sprang out to them, closely followed by Mark Eden, who cried in wonder:
"Why, hallo: then this is what Buzz meant! Whom have you got there?"
The men drew back, and Mark stooped, as the dog barked violently, turned the prisoner over, and once more the two enemies were gazing curiously in each other's eyes.
Ralph did not flinch, but a dull feeling of despair ran through him as he saw Mark Eden's face light up, his eyes flashing, and a smile of triumph playing about his lips.
Mark did not speak for a time. Then he turned his back upon the prisoner.
"Do you know who this is?" he said to the men.
"Oh yes, Master Mark, we know him. Don't you? It's young Darley, from below there. We was having a bit of a ramble 'fore going down in the mine, and we'd got the dogs, to see if there was any chance of a rabbit pie for supper; but they didn't find one; they found his nabbs here instead. We had to hold the dogs' muzzles to keep 'em quiet till he'd got by."
"What was he doing?"
"Wading, and ketching our trout. We let him go right up to the deep water, down below where the narrows are, and we thought we'd trapped him; but somehow he managed to scramble up the side and get up here, so we set the dogs on, and they run him down. Look here, Master Mark; he'd got all these trout. Fine 'uns too."
The man opened Ralph's creel, and held it out for Mark to see, the lad nodding at the sight.
"Know'd where the good uns was."
"And what were you going to do with him?" said Mark quietly.
"We had to ketch him first," said the man, with a savagely stupid grin. "And he give us a lot o' trouble, and we thought best thing to do was to tie a stone to his neck and pitch him in one of the holes. But Tom, here, said the master wouldn't like it, and seeing he was a Darley, might like to make a sample of him, or keep him down in the mine to work. So we tied him tight, and was going to swing him between us, and carry him up to the gateway for the master to see. Then you come."
Mark made no sign of either satisfaction or anger, but stood thinking for a minute or so, before turning again to where Ralph lay gazing straight up to the sky, waiting for whatever fate might be his, and setting his teeth hard in the firm determination to die sooner than ask for mercy from the cruel young savage who stood before him with what seemed to be a malicious grin upon his face.
And as he lay, Ralph thought of his school life, and all that had passed there, and how strange it was that in the wild part of Midland England there, amongst the mountains of the Peak, people could still be so savage as to be able to follow their own wills to as great an extent as did the barons and feudal chiefs of a couple of hundred years before.
Such thoughts as these had never come to him till after he had left home for school, to find his level. Earlier in his boyhood his father had appeared to him to be chief or king of the district, with a neighbour who was a rival chief or king. He knew that King James ruled the land; but that was England, away from the Peak. There, Sir Morton Darley, knight, was head of all, and the laws of England did not seem to apply anywhere there. Then he had gradually grown more enlightened, and never more so than at the present moment, as he lay bound on the mossy stones, feeling that unless his father came with a strong enough force to rescue him, his fate might even be death. And the result? Would the law punish the Edens for the deed? He felt that they would go free. They were to a pretty good extent outlaws, and the deed would never be known beyond their district. The moors and mountains shut them in. But Sir Morton, Ralph felt, would never sit down quietly. He would for certain attack and try to punish the Edens, and the feud would grow more deadly than ever.
Thoughts like these ran through his brain as he lay there, till the silence was broken by Mark Eden, whose face plainly told of the supreme pleasure he felt in seeing his young enemy humbled thus before him.
"Well," he said at last, "are you not going to beg to be set at liberty?"
Ralph looked at him defiantly.
"No," he said.
"Want to be taken up to the Tor, and hung from the tower as a scarecrow to keep away all the other thieves?"
"What is it to you?" replied Ralph bitterly.
"You came and took our trout," said Mark, with a sneer; and he raised his foot as if tempted to plant it upon the prisoner's chest.
"Yes, I came and caught some trout: but I looked upon the river as free to me, as you thought our cliff was free to you."
"Hah!" cried Mark triumphantly; "I knew you would begin to beg for your life."
"I have not begged," said Ralph coldly. "You spoke to me and I answered."
"Ropes hurt?" said Mark, after a pause, during which he could find nothing else to say.
"Look for yourself," he said. "They don't quite cut to the bone."
"Our mine lads are strong," said Mark proudly. "Strong enough to beat your wretched set of servants if ever they dare come up here."
"So brave and strong that you are glad to hire a gang of ruffianly soldiers to help you," said Ralph scornfully.
"What? Those fellows in rags and rust? Pooh! We would not have them."
Ralph opened his eyes a little wider.
"The Edens want no paid help of that kind. We're strong enough to come and take your place whenever we like; but as you won't be there, it will not matter to you."
"No," said Ralph, who was sick with pain, and faint from the throbbing caused by his bonds.
"But it would be a pity for my father to have you hung as a scarecrow," said Mark mockingly. "I don't like to see such things about. What do you say to going down to work always in our lead-mine?"
"Nothing," said Ralph coldly.
"Better to live in the dark there, on bread and water, than to be killed."
Ralph made no reply, but gazed fixedly in the speaker's eyes.
"Better beg for your life, boy," said Mark, placing his foot now on the prisoner's chest.
"What! of you?" cried Ralph.
"Yes: I might make you my lackey, to wait upon me. That is what the Darleys should do for the Edens."
"You coward!" said Ralph, with his pale face flushing now.
"What!" cried Mark. "Oh yes, call names like a girl. Come: beg for your life."
Ralph's answer was a fierce and scornful look, which told of what he would do if his hands were free. Then for a few moments he struggled, and Mark laughed.
"No good," he said; "our men can tie knots fast enough to hold a Darley."
The men, who stood at a little distance, laughed together in their satisfaction as they eagerly waited to see what was to come. Mark did not keep them long in suspense, for his hand went to the hilt of his sword, which he half drew.
"Now," he said, "beg for your life, Darley."
"Coward!" cried Ralph, in a hoarse whisper.
"Very well," said Mark. "I gave you the chance. You were caught by our men stealing on our land, and you ought to have begged. The Darleys always were beggars and thieves; but you will not. I gave you the opportunity."
He thrust the sword back in its sheath, and let his right hand fall to his side, where a strong knife-like dagger hung by a short chain from his belt, and whipped it out of its case.
"Does for a hunting-knife," he said, with a curious laugh. "My father has killed many a stag with it. Now, are you going to beg for your life?"