"Thou wilt be caught," objected Hugo, nervously.
"Not I," returned Humphrey, easily. "I fear not the spy to-night. If he heareth aught, he will think another hedgehog about to drop upon him. Come thou with me and see."
Hugo obediently rose from the couch of boughs where he had thrown himself, and took the thong of willow from Humphrey's hand to lead Fleetfoot. The serving-man was right. So far as Walter Skinner was concerned they had no more to fear that night. His face was lacerated; and by the time Hugo and Humphrey started from the thicket he had discovered the loss of his horse. It had been better for him if his drinking-horn, from which he now took copious draughts, had been lost also.
"The kind of fortune that is with him, I should not wish to be with me," observed Humphrey, when they had returned safely to the thicket. "I will now to sleep and see what sort of a dream cometh."
Much cheered in spirit, Hugo also lay down to sleep. His courage came back, and he felt that let the journey take as long as it would he was equal to it.
The moon had now risen, and by its light Richard Wood, the other spy, and his borrowed men-at-arms came riding through one of the glades of the forest southward to the vale. Richard Wood had not the overweening vanity of Walter Skinner; he had not taken his borrowed men-at-arms into his confidence concerning the king's plans in order to make it appear that he stood high in counsel; neither had he revealed the name of the lad they sought. The men-at-arms had, therefore, all three remained with him, and were as eager as he on the chase. They were pushing on now to the vale to camp for the night, because they could find there both grass and water. And, in the same spot where Walter Skinner had slept before, they came upon a figure reclining in full sight in the moonlight.
"There lieth one of them," said a man-at-arms, "but I see not the other."
"Thou mayest be sure the other is not far off," observed the second.
"Thou shalt see how quickly I will awake him out of sleep," cried the third, as he spurred his horse toward him and pricked him sharply with the point of his lance.
"Ugh!" grunted the half-drunken Walter Skinner. "But I have had enough of hedgehogs for one night." And he sat up sleepily.
"And is it thou, Walter Skinner?" exclaimed Richard Wood.
"Why, who should it be?" answered Walter Skinner, peevishly.
"Thou art a brave pursuer!" said Richard Wood. "Where be thy men-at-arms? and where is thy horse?"
"My men-at-arms are returned to their master," replied Walter Skinner, while those of Richard Wood drew near to learn the whereabouts of their companions. "As for my horse, I wot not what is become of him."
"And wherefore did thy men-at-arms play thee false?" demanded Richard Wood.
"Softly!" replied Walter Skinner, his small, cracked voice more cracked than usual. "Ask me not so many questions if thou wouldst not see me dead before thee."
Richard Wood regarded him sternly. "Thou must be moonstruck," he said at length. "When ever heard any one of a man dying of the questions asked of him?"
"Thou mistakest my meaning," returned Walter Skinner, a trace of his pomposity returning. "Thou askest me questions. If I answer thee false, I lie. If I answer thee true, I die. And truly, death were not much worse than this lacerated face of mine."
"Why, how now!" demanded Richard Wood. "How camest thy face lacerated?"
"One Master Hedgehog of this forest hath paid me his attentions too closely."
For a moment Richard Wood was silent. Then he said: "Answer me truly. It behooveth me to know the truth in this matter. Why did thy men-at-arms leave thee?"
"I did but let fall the king's purpose toward the young lord, and name his father, De Aldithely, and they fell off from me as I had been myself a murderer. Bade me uphold their lying speech that I had no need of their services on pain of death, and so left me."
And now one of the men-at-arms spoke. "We be not knaves," he said. "We had not thought to lead the youth to death, but to honorable captivity for a brief while. Nor did we know the lad ye seek was son to De Aldithely. Wherefore we also leave ye, and if ye say why, your lives shall answer for it. We have no mind to be marks for the king's vengeance. He that would crush the Archdeacon of Norwich with a cope of lead will have no mercy on a man-at-arms that thwarted him. Wherefore, say why we left ye, if ye think best." And, riding a little way off, all three encamped by themselves for the night.
"It seemeth that the best way to earn hatred and contempt is to serve this King John," remarked Richard Wood, thoughtfully.
"Ay, and the attention of hedgehogs also," returned Walter Skinner, thickly. "And the loss of horse and food, and the loss of the quarry also, if we strike not the trail again. And though we have not the service of the men-at-arms, be sure we shall pay for it as if we had it to their master. I would I had a troop of mercenaries to rent out. It were easier than such scouring of the country as this. Moreover we do exceed our office. The king said not to me, 'Walter Skinner, scour the country.' Nay, the king said naught to me on the matter. 'Twas his favorite, Sir Thomas De Lany, that bade me watch the castle from the tree; and there might I be now in comfort, if this hare-brained youth had not run away. He should have stayed at the castle till the coming of Robert Sadler and the troop. My face had not been thus lacerated had the youth known his duty and done it."
"Why, how makest thou all this?" demanded Richard Wood, contemptuously. "The king careth not whose hand delivereth the youth, so that he be delivered. That we have not already caught him is the fault of thyself alone. Hadst thou but held thy tongue, we had had with us to-night six men-at-arms, and had, erelong, run down the game. In the morning I go to Hubert le Falconer and hire from him six more—three for thee, and three for me. Then do thou be silent as to the king's purpose, and this mischief of thy making may be repaired. Thou mayest look as if thou wert bursting with wisdom, if it please thee, but see that thou give no enlightening word to thy followers."
"Ay, thou mayest lay the burden of all mishaps on me," returned Walter Skinner, pettishly. "But I promise not that I will speak no word, if it seemeth to me best to speak. It is not every one in the king's employ. Not every one is out scouring the country for a lord's son. And if one may not speak of his honors, why hath he them?"
"Honors!" exclaimed Richard Wood, with contempt. "There be few would call such work as thine an honor. To skulk, to spy, to trap another to his destruction, why, that is what most call knaves' work, and he who doth it is despised. Yea, even though he do it for a king."
"Thy loss doth set but sourly on thy stomach, Richard Wood," said Walter Skinner, stubbornly. "It is an honor to serve the king. Ay, even though he be a bad one like this. And, I say, if one is not to speak of honors, why hath he them?"
"For other people to see, varlet. What others see of thy honors, as thou callest them, they can mayhap endure. But when thou pratest of thy honors, thou dost but enrage them. Wilt thou give me thy word to be silent?"
"Nay, that will I not," retorted Walter Skinner. "I be as good a man as thou, and not a bear in leading. When I will to speak, I speak; whether it be of the king's matters or my own."
"Thou hast said," returned Richard Wood, rising. "In the morning I hire three men-at-arms from Hubert le Falconer for myself. Pursue thou the chase as seemeth thee best. We hunt no more in company."
With the first morning light the men-at-arms mounted their horses and rode toward Doncaster, Richard Wood rode north to seek his needed men-at-arms from Hubert le Falconer, and only Walter Skinner was left horseless and breakfastless in the vale. He had no mind to remain there in that condition, and so betook himself to the nearest priory, confident that, in the king's name, he could there procure both food and a horse, and perhaps a leech to ease his wounded face.
Hugo and Humphrey were also early astir, the serving-man performing his morning tasks with such a particularly cheerful air that Hugo smiled and inquired, "Hadst thou a dream last night?"
"Ay," answered Humphrey, in triumph. "I say not with that little spy, 'Aha, Fortune! thou art with me,' and then go out to meet a hedgehog. But this I say, that I did dream of bees and of following them, which betokeneth gain or profit. And therefore go we not toward Doncaster."
"Why not toward Doncaster down this Brockadale?" asked Hugo.
"The vale is well enough," replied Humphrey, "but it extendeth only two miles after all. We must make haste to-day. I do remember that two spies did pursue us at the beginning. It may be that the other hath neither lost his horse nor met a hedgehog to discourage him. And, moreover, what is to hinder him from having three men-at-arms to his help like his fellow? Nay, Hugo, we go not through the vale, but make we what haste we may through short cuts and little used paths."
"And whither do we go?" asked Hugo.
"I will tell thee that we seek the marshy Isle of Axholme to the east of the river Don. There will be room therein for us to hide away, and there no king's men will look for us moreover."
"Why?" asked Hugo.
"Why, lad?" repeated Humphrey. "Why, because they will not. Will a king's man trust himself in such a boggy place? Nay. Moreover, I fell in with this one that hath so lately followed us at Ferrybridge, which is a sure sign that we should meet the other at Doncaster."
"But—" began Hugo.
"I tell thee," interrupted Humphrey, "I did dream of bees and of following them. We go straight to this Isle of Axholme. Vex me no more."
Hugo opened his mouth to remonstrate still further, but, happening to remember his determination not to oppose Humphrey except through necessity, he closed it again. Seeing which, Humphrey regarded him approvingly, and even went to the length of expressing his approbation in words.
"Thou art learning to keep thyself under," he said. "Thou hast but just opened thy mouth to speak and shut it again with thy words unsaid. When one hath no knack at dreams to help him on, the best thing for him is the power to shut his mouth. An open mouth maketh naught but trouble. Thou didst wish to see more of the vale, and so thou shalt. Thou shalt see so much of it as thou canst while the horses and hound drink their fill before starting."
The Isle of Axholme, to which Humphrey was determined to go, was a marshy tract of ground in the northwest part of what is now Lincolnshire, and its eastern boundary was the Trent River. It was some eighteen miles long from north to south, and some five miles wide from east to west. On its north side was the wide mouth of the Ouse; the river Idle was south of it, and west of it was the Don. In the time of the Romans there had been a forest here which they had cut down, and the low, level land afterward became a marsh. At this time few trees were to be found there. But there were thickets of underbrush and patches of rank grass, as well as pools and boggy places; and Humphrey was right in thinking the place comparatively safe from pursuit. Especially so as the pursuers would naturally think that the young lord Josceline would push on as rapidly as possible, that he might get across to France to join his father.
"I go no more where the crowd goeth," declared Humphrey, when they were on their way. "How many, thinkest thou, of all that be abroad in these parts pass through Doncaster? Why, near all. We need not to show ourselves further to draw pursuit. This is now the fourth day since we set out, and my lady and Josceline must be well along in their journey. I would I knew the doings of William Lorimer at the castle. He is a brave man and a true, though he would never tell me his plans that he might take my counsel. He ever made naught of dreams and spake lightly of omens. I hope he may not fare the worse for it."
Hugo made no reply. He, too, was wondering about how things were going at the castle, but he kept his thoughts to himself.
"Now I will tell thee," said Humphrey, pausing and turning in his saddle, "when thou seest me draw rein and hold up my hand, do thou stop instantly. There be many robbers in this wood, and we have them to fear as well as king's men. And hold Fleetfoot fast. Let him not escape thee."
Hugo promised to obey in these particulars, and Humphrey, for a short distance, put his horse to the trot with Hugo following close behind him. All that day they turned and wound through the forest, going fast where they dared, and at other times creeping silently along. To Hugo it seemed they must be lost; but, when darkness fell, they had reached the edge of the Isle of Axholme, and, putting the horses through the Don, were safe in its marshy wastes.
"Here be no keepers and rangers," said Humphrey, exultingly. "And here may we kill and eat what we choose, while Fleetfoot may hunt for himself. We stir not till the moon rise, and then we seek a place to sleep," he concluded, patting the wet coat of the horse he rode.
Hugo said nothing. He did not know it, but he was nervous. All day he had been on the alert, and now to stay perfectly still in this strange, silent place, not daring to stir in the darkness lest he splash into some pool, or mire in a bog; with his eyes attempting to see, when it was too dark to see anything but the glow-worms in the grass and the will-o'-the-wisp, was an added strain.
Two hours went by, and the curtain of darkness began to lift. The moonlight made visible a fringe of small trees and the shine of the water on whose bank they grew. The breeze rose and sighed and whistled through rush and reed. An owl hooted, and then Humphrey, who had been nodding on his horse's back, suddenly became very wide awake.
"Hast been here before, Hugo?" he cried cheerily.
"Nay," answered the boy, listlessly.
"No more have I," returned Humphrey. "But what of that? A man who hath proper dreams may be at home in all places. I will now seek out our resting-place, and do thou and Fleetfoot follow me." So saying, he chirruped to his patient horse and led the way carefully; for, however much Humphrey imagined he depended on dreams, he generally exercised as good judgment and care as he was able. To-night weary Hugo had forgotten that Humphrey was his servant, and, as such, bound to obey him. He felt himself nothing but a tired and homesick boy, and was glad himself to obey the faithful Saxon, while he thought regretfully of his uncle the prior, Lady De Aldithely, Josceline, and the valiant William Lorimer.
It was not Humphrey's intention to go farther that night than absolutely necessary; and a little later he dismounted and stamped his feet with satisfaction. "Here be solid ground enough and to spare for us and the horses and hound," he said, "and here will we rest."
A lone, scrubby tree was at hand, and to that Humphrey made fast the horses and dog. "No fire to-night. Thy cloak must be thy protection from the damp," he said. "But the swamp is not so damp as the king's dungeon, nor so dismal. So let us eat and sleep."
Hugo said nothing. He ate a morsel with a swelling heart, and then, in silence, lay down. He was beginning to find leading evil men a merry chase a rather unpleasant business.
In the moonlight Humphrey looked at him. "He is a good lad," he thought, "and seemeth no more to me like a stranger. I begin to see that he seemed no stranger to my lady neither. My lord will make him his page, no doubt, if he getteth safely over to France. France is a good country when a bad king ruleth at home." Then faithful Humphrey, the animals fed, himself lay down to sleep.
It was late the next morning when Hugo awoke. Humphrey had been stirring two hours; and the first thing the boy's eyes rested upon was a little fire made of bits of punky wood collected by Humphrey; and spitted above the coals were two small birds roasting.
"Ay, lad!" cried Humphrey. "Open thine eyes now, and we will to breakfast presently. What sayest thou to a peewit each? Is that not better than brawn?"
Hugo smiled and arose at once. His despondency of the night before was gone, together with his fatigue, and he looked about him with interest. To the left were reeds some twelve feet tall which fringed a pool; to the right, thick sedge that fringed another; and they seemed to be on a sort of tiny, grassy isle, though the water which divided them from the next bit of solid earth could, in some places, be stepped across. The sun shone with agreeable warmth. There were frequent whirrs of wings in the air as small flocks of game birds rose from the water and sedge near by.
"This is not the wood nor is it Brockadale; but here one may breathe a little without having his eyes looking on all sides for an enemy," said Humphrey, with satisfaction. "It is the turn of the peewits to look out. Knowest thou the peewit?"
"On the table only," answered Hugo, pleasantly.
"Ay," observed Humphrey. "Thine uncle, the prior, hath many a fat feast in the priory, I warrant thee. But here thou shalt see the peewit at home. Had we but come in April, we had had some eggs as well as birds to eat."
Humphrey had made a fresh meal cake in the embers, and the two—boy and serving-man—now sat devouring birds and cake with great appetites.
"Thou knowest the pigeon?" asked Humphrey.
"Yea," replied Hugo.
"The peewit is the size of a pigeon."
"So I should guess," remarked Hugo.
"There be those that call it the lapwing," pursued Humphrey.
"My uncle, the prior, is of the number," smiled Hugo.
"Ay, priests ever have abundance of names for everything. It cometh, no doubt, from knowing Latin and other outlandish gibberish."
Hugo smiled indulgently. His feeling toward Humphrey had, during the last day, undergone a complete change. And, though he was but a Saxon serving-man, the heart of the boy had now an affection for him. Humphrey was quick to detect it, and he too smiled.
"Had the peewit short legs like the pigeon," he continued, "and did he but want what they call the crest on the back of his head, and could you see only the back of the bird, he might be thought a pigeon, since he shineth on the back like a peacock in all colors blue and green can make when mixed together. But when he standeth on his somewhat long legs, and thou seest that his under parts be white, why, even a Frenchman would know he was no pigeon, but must be the peewit or lapwing. And I warrant thee we shall eat our fill of peewits if we remain here long."
"When thinkest thou of going?" asked Hugo, interestedly.
"Why, that I know not. I would fain have another dream. I know not how it may be with other men, but when I am right weary I dream not. Which I take as an omen not to stir till I be rested and ready to use my wits. Thou hast noticed that weariness dulleth the wits?"
"Yea," replied Hugo.
"Why, I have seen in my time many fall into grievous snares from nothing more than being weary, and so, dull of sight and hearing. But here cometh Fleetfoot sleek and satisfied. I did but turn him loose two hours ago, and I warrant thee he hath had a fine meal. I will make him fast once more, and then we go farther into the island to seek another resting-place for the night. This is too near the edge of the marsh, and too near the Don."
Mounting the horses, and with Fleetfoot once more in leash, they set out, Humphrey picking his way and Hugo following. And by mid-day they had come to what Humphrey decided was probably the best location for them on the island. It was another solid, grassy place, and was graced with three little scrub trees which gave them a leafy roof under which to lie. From the fringe of neighboring rushes the two cut enough to strew their resting-place thickly, and so protect their bodies from the damp ground. Then Humphrey dug a shallow fire-pit at the north, and, after their mid-day meal, set diligently about collecting a store of fuel. Little was to be found solid enough to cook with, and that little he stored carefully apart, reserving a great heap of dead rushes and reeds for the blaze which was to ward off the night dampness and make them comfortable. In all these labors Hugo bore his share, for the two, by tacit consent, were no longer master and man but comrades in need and danger.
In collecting the reeds they took few from their immediate neighborhood, wishing to be as protected from chance observation as possible. And they found their wanderings in search of fuel full of interest. At some distance from their camping-place they came upon a muddy shallow. And there on the bank Hugo saw his first avoset or "scooper," as Humphrey called him. The bird was resting from his labors when the two first observed him. Though the ooze was soft the bird did not sink into it. There he stood, his wide-webbed toes supporting him on the surface of the ooze, and it seemed a long way from his feet up his blue legs to his black-and-white body. But the oddest thing about him was his long, curved, and elastic bill turning up at the end. The bird had not observed them, and presently set to work scooping through the mud after worms. Then he waded out a little way into the shallow, where he did not stay long, for, catching sight of Hugo and Humphrey, he rose a little in the air and flew swiftly away. Farther on they came upon a wading crane with an unlucky snake in his mouth. And still farther away they caught sight of a mother duck swimming with her young brood upon a pool. And every now and then a frog plumped into the water. But nowhere did they discover, by sight or sound, another human being beside themselves.
When darkness fell the glow-worms shone once more, the will-o'-the-wisp danced, and the owls hooted. The fire of dead rushes and reeds, fed by the patient Humphrey, blazed brightly and shed a grateful warmth upon their sheltered resting-place under the three scrub trees. And, lying at ease upon the rushes, the hours of darkness went by till, when the moon arose, the fire had died down, Hugo slept, and Humphrey had gone in search of a favoring dream.
Near Doncaster that night camped Richard Wood with his three newly hired men-at-arms; while within the town at an inn called the Green Dragon lay Walter Skinner. He was newly equipped with a horse. "I need no men-at-arms," he said to himself, "nor will I hire them. I will catch the young lord and his serving-man with arrow and bow if I but come up with them again."
And that night, safe out of the forest of Galtus, Lady De Aldithely and her party encamped on the border of Scotland.
That night also Robert Sadler, pausing to rest on his return journey to the castle, looked often at the package he carried, and wondered what it contained.
That night also the valiant William Lorimer and his men-at-arms rested from their labors well satisfied. For, while the moat at the great gate held only its usual allowance of water, by means of the new dam they had constructed, that part of the moat near the postern was level full.
The next morning marked the beginning of the sixth day of their journey, and Humphrey rose with unimpaired cheerfulness. Once more Hugo's waking eyes beheld two peewits spitted over the coals and a meal cake baking in the embers. "I did dream of gold last night," said Humphrey, by way of a morning greeting. "Knowest thou what that betokeneth?"
"Nay," responded Hugo, pleasantly.
"It betokeneth success in thy present undertaking after first meeting with difficulties. We have met with difficulties, and what were they but the king's men? They be now behind us, and success is to be ours. But come thou to breakfast now. To-morrow morn we set forth again."
On this, their last day in the Isle of Axholme, Hugo and Humphrey took up the occupation of the day before, but with more deliberation. And they went in a different direction,—southeast, toward the Trent.
"It is this way we journey on the morrow with the horses," remarked Humphrey. "It is as well to see what the way is like while we gather our store of reeds and rushes. For I did dream of gold, which betokeneth success in our present undertaking, and success ever resteth on good care and good judgment. And so let us see where the solid places be and where the bogs lie. And do thou note well the course so that we may run it with safety and speed if need be. And we will not gather the reeds and rushes till we return."
"Meanest thou to walk to the Trent, then, to-day, and back again?" questioned Hugo. And by this time he had so far forgotten the difference in their stations that there was respect in his tone, which Humphrey was quick to notice.
"Yea, lad," answered the serving-man, kindly. "It is only a few miles. It is not well to risk miring the horses when I did dream of gold last night."
Hugo smiled. He was beginning to see that, while the superstition of the age, and particularly of his condition, had, to a certain extent, a hold on Humphrey, his course was really directed by sturdy common-sense; and he wondered no more at Lady De Aldithely's trust in him.
The two were well on their way, and Richard Wood and his men-at-arms were scouring the forest near Doncaster, when Walter Skinner walked out to the stables of the Green Dragon to see to his horse. His face was still painful, and he desired to vent some of his spleen on the unlucky groom, whoever he might be, who had his horse in charge. He found the horse tied to a ring in the stable wall, and the groom having a sorry time of it, since every time the groom touched him with comb or brush the animal backed, or turned, or laid back his ears and snapped with his teeth. For the monks at the priory had furnished the king's man, on his compulsion, with the worst horse in their stables.
"Here be a beast fit for the Evil One and for nobody else," grumbled the sorely tried groom. "I am like to be killed for my pains in trying to smooth his coat for him."
The groom was a tall, overgrown fellow of nineteen, with a vacant face and an ever-running tongue. He now stood stock still upon the approach of Walter Skinner and gazed at him. He would have done the same if any creature possessed of the power of locomotion had come into his view. But of that Walter Skinner was ignorant. To him the gaze of the groom seemed honor and respect toward himself, and even, perhaps, awe. And he was at once mollified.
"My horse is a beast of mettle," he observed complacently when the groom had returned to his work.
"Ay, and I would that his master, the Evil One, had the grooming of him," was the retort.
"Why, how now, sirrah! Dost thou slander the horse which is a gift from Mother Church to the king's work? Thou art a knave, and no doubt art but unfit for thy task this morn through over-late carousing last night."
"Thou mayest call it carousing, if thou wilt," said the groom, sulkily. "I did come from Gainsborough yesterday. And in the dark, as I did come, I saw a flaming fire in the Isle of Axholme."
"And what meanest thou to tell me of that?" demanded Walter Skinner, sternly. "Thou wert no doubt so drunk that a will-o'-the-wisp in that boggy place did seem to thee even as a flaming fire. Why dost thou not stand to my horse and get down with him? He hath already backed and turned a matter of some miles."
The groom stopped and looked at him indignantly. "I may be but a groom," he said, "but the Isle of Axholme I know from a child, every bog in it. And I did go to the fire, which was a bit out of my way, but, being my only pleasure on the journey, I did take it. And there on the rushes lay a young lord, and his serving-man did feed the fire with reeds."
"Thou didst see that?" cried Walter Skinner, in great excitement. "Make haste with the beast, sirrah. Here is a coin for thee, good groom. I do now see thou wert never drunken in thy life. Make haste with the horse."
The groom stared at him foolishly. "Why, who could make haste with such a beast?" he said at length.
"Then stay not to finish thy work," cried Walter Skinner, impatiently. "Bring saddle and bridle. I must away instantly. But do thou first describe to me the place where thou didst see the fire."
"The place," said the groom, deliberately, while he examined the coin Walter Skinner had given him. "Thou dost go till thou comest to it. A turn here and a turn there mayhap thou must make, and thou wilt find it a little solid place with three scrub trees upon it. It is a matter of a short distance from the south end of the Isle, and thou wilt not fail to know it when thou seest it."
With this not over-clear direction Walter Skinner was obliged to be content. Bidding the groom to bring the horse to the door of the inn at once, he hurried away, paid his reckoning, examined carefully the string of his bow, and looked over his store of arrows. "And now, Josceline, son of Lord De Aldithely," he said, "my arrow will bid thee halt this time, and not my voice. And thou, Richard Wood, who didst say, 'We hunt no more in company,' what wouldst thou give to know of this place in the Isle of Axholme? And thou mayst have thy men-at-arms to bear thee company, and to pay for when thou art done with them. They cost thee more than a bow and some arrows cost me, nor will they do thee one half the good."
So thinking he bestrode the vicious beast which backed and plunged about the inn yard, and from which the grooms and the watching maids fled in all directions. Walter Skinner, however, was not to be unseated, and, the horse being headed in the right direction, his next plunge carried him out of the yard and fairly started him on his way, the spur of his rider giving him no permission to halt for a moment.
"And now," thought Walter Skinner, when he had crossed the Don and was free of the town, "what said the knave groom? I must go till I come to it. Ay, and who knoweth when that shall be, and who knoweth the way in this pitfall of bogs? Three scrub trees, saith he, and all together on one little solid place. I would I might see three little scrub trees."
His horse had been over the Isle before and, being given his head, began to pick his way so cleverly that Walter Skinner was still further elated. He sat up pompously and pictured himself a courtier at the palace as a reward for this day's work. "For I lean not to golden rewards alone," he said. "No doubt it can be managed that from this day I begin to rise. The king hath advanced baser men than I, let Richard Wood think as he will in the matter."
And now he descried the three little scrub trees; but he saw not the horses, they having been taken to another islet for pasture; nor Fleetfoot, who had gone with Hugo and Humphrey.
"The knave groom spake true," said Walter Skinner, with satisfaction. "There be the rushes on which they lie, and there the ashes of the fire. I will seek out a convenient hiding-place in the reeds, and to-night, when the fire blazeth bright, then shall my arrows sing."
So saying he sought a place of concealment for himself and his horse, and, having found it, and tied the horse securely, he lay down well satisfied.
Hugo and Humphrey did not return till toward evening. They had caught some fish in the Trent and roasted them on the coals for their dinner, and afterward had come leisurely back, enjoying the scenes and sights of the marsh.
From his covert Walter Skinner saw them come, each leading a horse which he had stopped to get from the islet pasture, while Fleetfoot lagged behind on a little hunting expedition of his own. The spy drew his bow and sighted. "Yea," he said to himself, "no doubt I can do it. And what is an arrow wound more or less when one would win the favor of the king? The lad or his servant may die of it. But what is death? It is e'en what every man sooner or later must meet. And it is the king's favor I will have, come what may to these runaways." Then he laid down the bow and arrow and took a long drink from his horn. "When the flames shoot high and they be in the strong light of the blaze, then will I shoot," he said. "And it is their own fault if they be hit. They should have remained in the castle where Robert Sadler arriveth this same night."
Hugo and Humphrey had not before been on such thoroughly amicable terms as they were to-night. The boy, so much like his young master, had, unconsciously to Humphrey, won his way into the heart of the serving-man; while Hugo had learned in their few days' companionship to feel toward Humphrey as his faithfulness deserved. So, while the fire blazed up and all remained in darkness outside of its circle, Humphrey entertained Hugo with tales of his early life, to which the boy listened with appreciation. "Ay, lad," said Humphrey, when half an hour had gone by and he paused in his story to look at him with approval, "thou hast the ears of my lady herself, who is ever ready to listen to what I would say."
And then came a whistling arrow, shot by an unsteady, drunken hand, and another, and another, none of which wounded either boy or man, since Hugo was still defended by his shirt of mail, and Humphrey wore a stout gambeson.
Instantly Humphrey started up and, snatching a great bunch of long, flaming reeds to serve him for a light, ran in the direction whence the arrows had come. Hugo, catching up an armful of reeds yet unlighted to serve when those Humphrey carried should burn out, hurried after him. Soon they had found the covert and the spy, and, tossing his torch to Hugo, the serving-man rushed at him.
"And wouldst thou slay my dear lad?" he cried. "Thou snipe!"
"Stand back!" sputtered the spy. "Lay not thy hands upon me. I serve the king."
"Ay, and thou shalt find what it is to serve the king," cried Humphrey, seizing him by the shoulders and dragging him along. "Yon is his horse," he said, turning to Hugo. "Cut him loose."
The boy obeyed and, with a snort, the animal was off.
"Thou shalt be well punished for this deed," threatened the spy. "The steed was the gift of the prior of St. Edmund's."
"Talk not of punishment," cried the enraged Humphrey; "thou who wouldst slay my dear lad. Lead to the right, lad!" he cried. "I do know a miry pool. It will not suck him down, but it will cause him some labor to get out of it."
Hugo, bearing the torch, obeyed, and shortly they had reached the pool which Humphrey had discovered the day before. Grasping his shoulders yet more firmly, and fairly lifting the little spy from his feet, the stalwart Humphrey set him down with a thud in the sticky mud. "There thou mayest stand like a reed or a rush," he said. "I would thou wert as worthy as either."
A moment the spy stood there in water up to his knees while Hugo and Humphrey, by the light of the ever-renewed torch of reeds, watched him. Then he began to try to extricate himself. But when he pulled one foot loose, it was only to set the other more securely in the mud.
"Ay, lad," observed Humphrey, with satisfaction. "He danceth very well, but somewhat slowly. Leave we him to his pleasure while we go seek for his bow and arrows. It were not well that he should shoot at us again."
"Thou villain!" cried the half-drunken Walter Skinner; "when I am a lord in His Majesty's service thou shalt hear of this night's work."
"Ay, Sir Stick-in-the-Mud," responded Humphrey, indifferently. "When that day cometh I am content to hear of it." Then he led the way back to Walter Skinner's hiding-place, while Hugo followed. And there they found the bow, which was of yew with a silken string. And with it was a goodly store of ash arrows tipped with steel and winged with goose feathers.
"We be not thieves, lad," said Humphrey, "else might we add these to our store." So saying, he broke the arrows and flung them away, cut the bow-string in pieces, and flung the bow far from him into the water. "Had these been in a steady hand," he said, "it might now be ill with us. Perchance the spy doth not now cry out, 'Aha, Fortune! thou art with me.' And now let us back to our couch of rushes, there to wait till the moon rise, which will be some three hours. And rest we in darkness. We may not have more fire to make us targets, perchance, for the other spy."
In silence the two lay down on the rushes, Hugo full of excitement and nervously listening for the whistle of another arrow. And, much to the boy's astonishment, in five minutes the faithful Humphrey was sound asleep.
He continued to sleep until the beams of the rising moon struck him full in the face, when he awoke. "Hast slept, lad?" he asked.
"Nay," replied Hugo.
"Thou shouldst have done so. Perchance the time cometh shortly when we dare not sleep; for I did dream of being taken by the constable, which signifieth want of wit, and so I know not what to do. But we may not bide here. On we must go, and make the best of what wit we have." He rose from the rushes and, followed by Hugo, went to the horses and put Fleetfoot once more in leash. Then, each having mounted, he led the way toward the track they had marked out the day before.
"If the spy be not too lazy, he will doubtless be free of the miry pool in the morning," observed Humphrey. "And he might as well have dreamed of being taken by the constable, for if he lacketh not the wit to keep him from a worse case, I know not the measure of a man's mind. And that should I know, having observed not only my lord, but the valiant William Lorimer also."
It was the afternoon of this same day in which Walter Skinner had ventured into the wilds of the Isle of Axholme, there to try to catch Hugo and Humphrey. At the same time Robert Sadler was galloping on his way from the town of Chester to the castle, eager to meet the troop, for his journey was now almost accomplished. Sir Thomas De Lany had promised him his reward,—a certain sum of money; he had also promised the troop he had borrowed to help him a reward in addition to the sum he was to pay to their master, even a share of the plunder of the castle. Robert Sadler knew this, and he had quite decided that the package he carried would properly fall to him when her ladyship should be left without a son and without treasure. He therefore had bestowed it carefully out of sight of the king's spies and their borrowed troop, whom he was now expecting to meet. He had said nothing about the presence of Hugo at the castle and his great resemblance to Josceline; for he was of a mind to deliver up Hugo and keep back Josceline, since, by so doing, he might have hope of winning another reward from the king in addition to the one he should receive from Sir Thomas.
"It is a long head that I have," he said to himself with pride. "And these knave spies shall find it not so easy to come to the bottom of my mind. They think I am but Irish, and so to be despised. And what be they but English? They shall find I will know how to have the better of them."
The sun was within half an hour of setting when he drew rein at the oak which was the scene of their appointed meeting. If he had been eager, the others had been no less so, and at once Sir Thomas and one of his aids advanced to meet him, while, at a short distance, halted the troop of men-at-arms.
"Have ye the troop? And is all well?" asked Robert Sadler, his wide mouth stretched in a treacherous smile.
"Yea," responded Sir Thomas.
"Walter Skinner and Richard Wood—do they still keep watch from the tree?" asked Robert Sadler, smiling still more widely.
"Why, what is that to thee?" demanded Sir Thomas, haughtily. "It is we who do the king's business. Thou doest but ours."
"Ay," answered Robert Sadler, with feigned humility; "I do but yours."
"Thou sayest well. But think not to pry into the king's business as thou dost into the affairs at the castle. From thine own showing thou must have been a great meddler there."
"And how could I have done thy business there if I had not meddled, as thou callst it?"
"I say not that thou couldst," returned Sir Thomas. "I do but warn thee not to meddle with us. And now, where is the package?"
"Package? Package?" mumbled Robert Sadler, in apparent bewilderment.
"The package, sirrah, thou wert to deliver from Chester to her ladyship. Hast forgotten the purpose of thy journey?"
"Oh, ay, the package!" returned Robert Sadler, uneasily. "I am like to be berated by her ladyship for returning without it."
"We would not have thee so berated," said the aid, speaking for the first time. "And so I come to thine help." And he reached beneath the short cloak of Robert Sadler and drew forth the package.
"I pray thee, return it to me," said Robert Sadler, humbly. "Without it I am undone."
"Do thou but parley as thou saidst with the warder on the bridge, and thou wilt find there will be no upbraiding from her ladyship to cause thee alarm," returned the aid.
"And when wilt thou pay me the sum of money?" asked Robert Sadler, anxiously, not liking either his reception or his subsequent treatment at the hands of Sir Thomas's aid.
"And what is that to thee?" demanded Sir Thomas, fiercely. "If I withhold the sum altogether it is no more than what hath been done by mightier men than I. Do thou parley on the bridge as thou saidst, or thy head shall answer for it. Ride on now before us. We will await our opportunity in the edge of the wood."
"Thou didst not speak so to me," said the traitor, "when thou wouldst have me do this deed. It was then, 'Good Robert Sadler,' and 'I will reward thee well.' Naught didst thou say of my head answering my failure to obey thy will." Then he rode on as he had been commanded.
He now saw that he had betrayed her ladyship and her son for naught, and his dejection thereat was plainly visible. But presently he sat upright in triumph as he remembered his plan, which he had for the moment forgotten,—to betray Hugo into their hands and keep back Josceline for himself to deliver to the king. How he was to accomplish this difficult thing he did not know, but, in his ignorance, he imagined it might easily be done.
Sir Thomas and his aid were watching him. "The knave meaneth to play us false," observed the aid. "See how he sitteth and rideth in triumph."
"His head answereth for it if he doth," returned Sir Thomas, fiercely.
And now they had all arrived at the edge of the wood and the sun was down. "Set forward across the open, sirrah," commanded Sir Thomas, "and see that thou fail not in thine office."
The traitor ground his teeth in rage, but outwardly he was calm as, putting his horse to the trot, he advanced toward the great gate and wound his horn. "Now may the old warder show more than his usual caution," said Robert Sadler. "My head is likely to fall whether we get in or whether we be kept out. And it were pleasant to see these villains foiled in their desires." The old warder, obeying the instructions of William Lorimer, beyond keeping the traitor waiting a quarter of an hour, by which delay the darkness desired by William Lorimer drew so much the nearer, having answered the summons, let down the bridge with unaccustomed alacrity of motion. In accordance with the same instructions, he kept his back to the direction from which the troop were expected to come, and he seemed quite as ready to parley after the bridge was down as even Sir Thomas could have desired.
"The warder groweth doltish," observed Sir Thomas, as he prepared to set forward.
"Mayhap," answered the aid.
"What meanest thou by 'mayhap'?" demanded Sir Thomas.
But by this time the whole troop were in motion and making a rush for the bridge. They gained it; they were across it, sweeping Robert Sadler before them, and within the walls before the sluggish old warder had seemed to see what was happening. They were well across the outer court before they noticed the strange air of emptiness that seemed to have fallen on the place. They stormed into the inner court; and here, too, all was silence. And then they turned on Robert Sadler. "Art thou a double traitor?" demanded Sir Thomas.
But the vacant astonishment of Robert Sadler's face gave true answer.
"He hath been made a dupe," said the aid. "He hath been sent to Chester that the castle might be rid of him."
"Nay," returned Sir Thomas. "Thou art ever unduly suspicious." Then turning to Robert Sadler he said: "Where be the men-at-arms of the castle? Where do they hide themselves because of us? And where bideth her ladyship and her son?" Then catching sight of the open door of the stairway tower, without awaiting Robert Sadler's reply, he led the way thither and up the stair, dragging the reluctant Robert Sadler with him, and was followed by the troop.
The ladies' bower was empty. The treasure from the chests was also gone. Down the troop rushed violently, and into the great hall and out again. Everywhere silence. Darkness had now fallen, and with torches the troop of men-at-arms, led by Sir Thomas and his aid, ran about the inner court, peering into the empty stables and offices. Presently to Robert Sadler the light of a torch revealed the postern gate ajar. "They must have fled!" he cried. "See!" and he pointed to the postern gate.
"Mount and follow!" commanded Sir Thomas.
"Nay, not in the darkness," objected the aid. "Wait for the moon to rise."
"Ay, wait!" exclaimed Sir Thomas, impatiently. "I believe thou wast born with that word in thy mouth. Wouldst have them get a better start of us than they have? Dost know that they did leave the treasure chests empty, and then dost thou counsel us to wait on the tardy moon? 'Twas rich treasure they took, or report speaketh false. And every moment maketh our chance to seize it smaller."
Every man was now astride his horse, and Sir Thomas, his hand on Robert Sadler's bridle, dashed ahead. The rest followed, crowding through the narrow gate and out into the darkness on the narrow bridge. Here and there a torch gleamed, and its reflection shone full in the glassy water of the ditch. Here was no shadowy depth of a ravine, but a broad plain,—a watery plain, into which the heavily weighted horses and riders sank, rising to cry for help and catch at straws. The cries of the drowning only hurried those behind to the rescue, who, supposing their fellows in advance to be assailed, rushed headlong on to the same fate. The torches were extinguished, and none knew which way to turn to escape. So perished the whole troop, Robert Sadler going down in the grasp of Sir Thomas De Lany.
Across the moat, ready mounted to ride, were William Lorimer and the few men-at-arms left him by Lady De Aldithely on her departure. "So may it be with all traitors and thieves," said he. "And now fare we southward to France and our lord. We need not the light of the moon to show us our path."
The clatter of their horses' hoofs soon died away, and when the moon rose it shone down on the deserted castle, and on the shining water of the moat near the postern, but it shone not on horse or rider living or dead. All night William Lorimer and his little troop rode, not cautiously and shrinkingly, but boldly; and they went into camp in the early morning in Sherwood Forest, more miles away from home than Hugo and Humphrey had covered in all their journeying.
And in the swamp Walter Skinner, who had finally extricated himself from the mire, floundered about from bog to pool, and from pool to bog, vowing vengeance on Humphrey, while Hugo and the faithful serving-man, avoiding Gainsborough, pushed on toward Lincoln.
"I did dream of being taken by the constable," said Humphrey, "which betokeneth want of wit. I know not what were better to do. What sayest thou?" And he looked questioningly at Hugo.
The boy smiled. He could not help wondering if this were not the first time in his life that Humphrey had acknowledged himself at a loss what to do. A dream had caused him to doubt his own possession of sufficient wit for all purposes,—something which no amount of argument could have accomplished. But to-day Hugo felt no contempt for him. He smiled only at the one weakness which was a foil to Humphrey's many excellent qualities. And he said pleasantly, "Why, how now, Humphrey? Thou dost need another dream to restore thy courage."
Humphrey eyed him doubtfully. "Dost think so, lad?" he said. "Mayhap thou art right. But I go not in the lead till I have it. Wit is not the same at all times. Perchance something hath damaged mine for the time. Do thou lead till I recover it; for thou art no more a stranger to me as when we started."
"Nor thou to me, good Humphrey," replied Hugo, with an affectionate smile. "And I say, let us on with all courage to Lincoln."
"And why, lad?" asked Humphrey. "Because thou wouldst see the place, even as I would see Ferrybridge a while back?"
"Partly," laughed Hugo. "And partly because it lieth very well in our way."
"Hast ever been there?" asked Humphrey, anxiously.
"Nay, but mine uncle, the prior, hath often been. And I know the place by report. We come to it by the north. Came we from the south, we could see it some twenty miles off, because the country lieth flat around it, and the city is set on a hill. Why, surely thou dost know the place. It was a city under the Danes."
"Yea, I have heard of it from my grandsire," acknowledged Humphrey; "but I know not if king's men be like to flourish there. For us that is the principal thing."
Hugo laughed. "Ah, my brave Humphrey," he said, "why shouldst thou fear king's men? Thou who canst lift up a king's man by the shoulders and plant him like a rush in the miry pool!"
At this Humphrey smiled slightly himself. "Well, lad," he said presently, "I will not gainsay thee. Go we to Lincoln, and may good come of it. But we stay not long?"
"Why, that," answered Hugo, "is what no man can tell. We must be cautious."
"Ay, lad," assented Humphrey, approvingly.
"Thou knowest of Bishop Hugh of Avalon?" inquired Hugo, chatting of whatever came to his mind in the hope to bring back Humphrey's confidence in himself.
"Nay, lad," returned the serving-man. "I know no more of bishops than thou of hedgehogs and other creatures of the wood."
"This was a bishop, I have heard mine uncle say, that loved the birds. He hath now been nine years dead, and another man is, in his stead, bishop of Lincoln. But in his time he had many feathered pets, and one a swan, so hath mine uncle said. And also, he never feared to face the king."
"Sayest thou so, lad?" responded Humphrey, with some degree of interest. "Mayhap his spirit still may linger in the place, and so king's men not flourish there. We will on to see."
So in due time they came to the town, and entered through its old Roman gate, and, looking down the long hill on the top of which they stood, saw the city of Lincoln, which, when William the Conqueror came, had eleven hundred and fifty houses.
"It is a great place," remarked Humphrey, "and maketh a goodly show."
In vain Richard Wood and his men had scoured the forest near Doncaster. They found no trace of those they sought. "Did I believe, like some, in witchcraft," declared Richard Wood, "so should I say there was witchcraft in their escape. Why, what should a Saxon serving-man and a boy of fourteen know, that they should foil good men on a chase?"
"Ay," responded one of his men-at-arms, "but thou seest they have done it. In this forest they are not. Mayhap they lie close in the town of Doncaster."
Richard Wood looked at him reflectively. "I had not thought on that," he said. "Mayhap thou art right. Go we into the town and see. We need rest, and bite, and sup, and the beasts also need the same."
So the weary four entered the town of Doncaster and drew rein before the Green Dragon Inn. And one of the grooms who took the horses was the same vacant-faced, foolish fellow who had received the coin from Walter Skinner. "Here be more king's men," he said to himself, "and mayhap another coin for me. I will send them also to the Isle of Axholme, where I judge sorrow hath met the other king's man, since the horseshoe had of the Evil One did come galloping back without a rider." And he smiled ingratiatingly at Richard Wood, who took no notice of him. Whereat, somewhat crestfallen, he was fain to lead the horse away, the others having been already taken care of by other grooms who had no thought of the Isle of Axholme, and no hopeful expectation of coins.
The morning that saw Hugo and Humphrey far on their way to Lincoln saw Richard Wood rise refreshed at the Green Dragon with his determination to continue the chase well renewed. And that same morning it had occurred to the vacant-faced groom that he must speak now or never if he expected any reward for his speech. So the instant Richard Wood appeared in the inn yard he sidled up to him and began, at the same time knocking his grooming tools, which he still held in his hands, nervously together, an accompaniment to his speech, which seemed to surprise the spy. "I did come from Gainsborough two nights agone," he said.
"That is naught to me, varlet," interrupted Richard Wood. "Get thee back to thy grooming."
"Yea, verily," insisted the groom; "but it is somewhat to thee," and he knocked the tools together in his hands at a great rate. "I did come by the Isle of Axholme. And the other king's man did accuse me of drunkenness and revellings when I did begin to have speech with him of the matter, but he did change his mind, and give me a coin. Do thou but the same and thou also mayest hear what I did see."
Richard Wood regarded him attentively. "Speak truth," he said, "and say that I would hear, and thou shalt have two coins."
The vacant-faced groom grinned a broad and foolish grin. "Said I not," he cried joyfully, "that thou wert a better man than the other? For he was but small and fierce and hath met sorrow, or his horse had not come back riderless."
Richard Wood smiled contemptuously at this reference to Walter Skinner. Then he said: "Thou didst come by the Isle of Axholme. What sawest thou there?"
"Why, thou canst talk like an advocate," said the foolish groom, who had never seen an advocate in his life. "Ay," he continued, "he that giveth two coins is ever a better master than he that giveth one. And I did see a young lord and his serving-man lie on a bed of rushes; and ever and anon the serving-man did rise to feed the blazing fire of reeds; and it was the fire I first did see, and, going to the fire, I did see them."
"The Isle of Axholme lieth eighteen miles long and five in breadth," said Richard Wood. "Where didst thou see them?" and he held up three coins.
"Toward the south end on a little solid place which hath on it three scrubby trees. There did they lie." And the groom left off speaking to eye the money in ecstasy, for not often did such wealth come his way.
Richard Wood tossed him the coins. "Make haste with the horses," he said. "Hast thou no other marks to know the place?"
"Why, nay," answered the groom, regretfully. "But thou wilt surely know it when thou comest to it," and he smiled broadly.
Ten minutes later the party was off, and, crossing the Don at the town, found themselves in the Isle of Axholme. And then Richard Wood paused to give his men instructions. "Here do we need caution," he said. "This fellow is not easily to be caught, for I make naught of the young lord. He is doubtless some trusty retainer sent with the lad by her ladyship because he hath wit to hide and double on his track and so baffle pursuit. But he hath not yet reached port to set sail for France, and mayhap he will not. It remaineth now for us to hide and creep among the rushes and reeds and scrubby trees, and so come up with him unseen."
The men-at-arms listened respectfully, and the party separating themselves so that each man rode alone at a little distance from his fellows, they took the same general direction, and so advanced slowly and carefully, taking advantage of every bit of cover in their way, and often pausing to listen. They had proceeded in this manner some two hours when Richard Wood saw the three scrub trees, and, waving the signal to his men, the advance was made with renewed caution. At last all were near enough to see the couch of rushes and the ashes of the fire, but they saw nothing of serving-man or boy, who by this time had reached Lincoln. Silently, at a signal from Richard Wood, the party drew together. "Ye see," said he, pointing to the place, "that they be not here. Either they be gone roaming about for the day in search of food, or they be gone altogether. We may not know of a surety till evening when, if they be not altogether gone, they will return. If they be gone, we have lost a day and given them an added start of us. Wherefore I counsel that we pursue the search warily through the Isle in the hope that we come up with them. What say ye?"
"We say well," responded the men.
The party now separated again, and, going even more slowly than before through the silent Isle, sought to be as noiseless as possible. But every now and then some horse splashed suddenly and heavily into a pool, or scrambling out of the water crunched and broke the reeds and scared the water-fowl, which rose shrieking and flew noisily away. At such mishaps Richard Wood restrained his impatience as well as he was able, knowing that they were unavoidable and that his men were faithful. Thus another hour went by and there was no trace of the fugitives. They were now going due northwest, and a half-hour later one of the men-at-arms gave the signal. Silently Richard Wood approached him. "I did see one of them," said the man in a low tone. "He lieth beneath a tree beyond this fringe of reeds on the next solid place."
And now Richard Wood was all excitement. "Which was it?" he asked; "the young lord or the serving-man?"
"Why, thou knowest I did never see either," replied the man, "and I could not draw very near. But the person I did see did seem too small to be the stout Saxon serving-man of whom thou hast spoken."
Without a word, but with his face expressing great triumph, Richard Wood waved to the others to approach, which they did slowly and with care. Having come up with him, he communicated to them the news he had received, and, bidding them scatter in such a manner as to surround the little place on which the fortunate man-at-arms had discovered the man or boy lying, he waited with such patience as he could muster until the time had elapsed necessary for the carrying out of his commands, and then advanced to capture the young lord with his own hands. And what was his disgust, when he came up with the sleeper under the tree, to find Walter Skinner.
"And is it thou, Walter Skinner?" he demanded when he had roused him. "And what doest thou here?"
"Ay, Richard Wood, it is I. And what I do here is no concern of thine. Here have I been a day and a night and this second day. Little have I had to eat, and my drinking-horn is but now empty. And I have been planted in a miry pool. And I have lost my horse and my way also; and have floundered into more bogs and out of them than can be found in all Robert Sadler's Ireland. Were I king, I would have no Isle of Axholme in all my dominions. Could I do no better, I would pull down the hill of Lincoln and cart it hither to fill these vile water-holes. Do but see my doublet and hose. Were I called suddenly to the palace would not the king and the court despise me as a drunken ruffler from some revel-rout that had fallen from his horse? When all the blame is to be laid on this Isle of Axholme, which ought, by right, to belong to France, since it is full of frogs."
"Thou art crazed, as thou always art when thou drinkest," said Richard Wood, coldly.
"Dost thou say I have been drinking?" demanded Walter Skinner, starting up.
"Yea, I say it. Thou sayest it also. For thou didst say thy drinking-horn was but now empty."
"Yea, verily," answered Walter Skinner. "If thou be a true man do but fill it for me again. Or lead me from this vile place, where one heareth naught but the squawk of birds and the croak of frogs. I would fain see the Green Dragon and the idiot groom that did send me here. I warrant thee I will crack his pate for him."
"Where is thy horse?" asked Richard Wood.
"Ay, where is he? Who but that vile serving-man did bid the young lord cut him loose?"
"Thou dreamest," said Richard Wood, incredulously. "Would a serving-man forget his station and bid his master do a task?"
"Ay, would he, if he were this serving-man. I tell thee he would bid the king himself do a task if he chose, and, moreover, the king would obey. 'Twas he did plant me in the miry pool and say I did dance well but somewhat slowly when I did try to unplant myself, and for every foot I took up sunk the other deeper in the mire. And he did dub me 'Sir Stick-in-the-Mud,' moreover, for which I do owe him a grudge and will requite him. I will meet him one day where there be no miry pools, and then let him beware." This last he uttered with a look which was intended to be fierce, but which was only silly.
"Didst thou come after them alone with no man to help thee?" asked Richard Wood, still more incredulously.
"Oh, I did have help enough," was the answer, with a crafty look. "I did have to my help a yew bow with a silken string that the king himself need not despise, and a great store of arrows, moreover. And I did hide and bide my time until the darkness of night came and the fire blazed high. And then I did let my arrows fly. And what did the serving-man? He did catch up the very fire and rush upon me. And later he did break my arrows and cut my bow-string, and fling my bow into the water, and then departed, I know not where."
"Thou art but a sorry fool," declared Richard Wood, after some thought. "And yet I cannot find it in my heart to leave thee here. Mount up behind me, and at Gainsborough I will set thee down. There canst thou shift for thyself, and chase or forbear to chase as thou choosest."
"Ay, thou sayest truly," said the half-drunken Walter Skinner. "And should I now forbear to chase, a dukedom would no more than reward me for the perils I have seen. First in the lofty tree watching the castle; and thou knowest that now, when, from the interdict, no bells may ring to disperse the tempests, I might have died from the lightning stroke, not once but many times. For there might have been a tempest and lightning every day, and no thanks to the king that there was not. Then, too, I did encounter perils from the boughs which might have broken and did not. And wherefore did they not? Because they were too tough and sound. And this, too, moreover, was no thanks to the king. And two horses have I lost,—one mine own and one the gift of the prior of St. Edmund's. And did the prior wish to give me the beast? Nay, he did not, and would have refused it if he had dared. He made as if he gave it because of the king, but he did not. He feared before me, as well he might. For I had met a hedgehog, and when a man is in such a case he is in no mind to have a horse refused him by a fat prior. And all this also was no thanks to the king. And then I did meet that varlet of a groom at the Green Dragon, and he did send me here. And here have I met such misfortunes as would last a man his lifetime."
To all this Richard Wood had lent but half an ear, being occupied in turning over in his mind the fact that Hugo and Humphrey had been in the Isle and had gone, and trying to decide what was best to do. He now looked at him. "Mount up behind me and cease thy prating," he said. Then turning to the men-at-arms he continued: "We go hence to Gainsborough. From thence down to Sherwood Forest. It seemeth this serving man loveth woods and wilds. Therefore it were waste of time to seek for him in towns and beaten ways."
All the while he was speaking Walter Skinner, with many groans, was trying to mount behind his old companion; but, on account of the horse shying his objections to such a proceeding, and the drunken clumsiness of Walter Skinner himself, nothing had been accomplished. Richard Wood therefore called on one of the men-at-arms to dismount and hoist him up; which he did much as if the fierce little spy had been a bag of meal, and much to Walter Skinner's discomfort, who suddenly found himself heavily seated with one leg doubled up under him and with a bumped face where he had struck against Richard Wood's shoulder. He soon righted himself, however, and, clinging to his old friend, rode away to Gainsborough.
As Hugo and Humphrey with Fleetfoot in leash looked about them from the backs of their horses, it suddenly occurred to the prudent serving-man that to go to an inn was not the safest thing in the world for them to do. "Thou art like our young lord Josceline, and Josceline is like his father," said Humphrey. "And though they be few who would aid the king against my lord now fled away to France, still there be a few unprincipled knaves in every place. And though Lincoln had no longer ago than nine years the good Hugh thou didst speak of for its bishop, still, if some knave abiding here should look upon thee and say, 'Behold the son of De Aldithely! I will take him!' it might go ill with thee. Wherefore I know not what were best to do. We be now come here, and have no place to lay our heads. The woods and the fens be safer."
Then Hugo smiled. "Thou speakest not of thyself, Humphrey," he said. "How if some knave abiding here should think to take not only the son of De Aldithely, but his brave serving-man also? Thou art more careful of me than of thyself, and I shall call it to mind one day."
"Ay, lad," said Humphrey, smiling in his turn. "Thou art as brave as any De Aldithely thyself. For who but the brave taketh time to think of another, and he only a serving-man, when himself is in danger? But all this talk procureth us no safe place to lie, and methinks already there be some in the streets that gape upon us."
"No more than idlers ever do," responded Hugo, with assurance. "We be two strangers, and Fleetfoot, moreover, is a fine hound and worth the looking at."
"Ay," said Humphrey, regretfully. "The hound is yet likely to get us into trouble. But whither do we go? I would fain be out of the sight of these gazers."
"Not to an inn, good Humphrey. I have here a ring from mine uncle, the prior, which, when I show it at certain places, will procure us lodging, and Lincoln is one of them. We go not down the hill toward the river. Our place is here near the cathedral in the house of the canon Richard Durdent."
Humphrey smiled. "It is good that thou hast for thine uncle a prior," he said.
"Ay," responded Hugo. "He is a kind uncle. Where I show his ring I get not only lodging, but certain moneys to help me on my way. He thought it not best that I should travel far with much gold about me, wherefore he hath made these arrangements. He knoweth the canon Durdent of old."
"I would see this ring," said Humphrey, curiously.
"And so thou shalt," promised Hugo, "when we be safely lodged."
"How far reacheth the ring?" inquired Humphrey.
"Even to France," was the reply.
"Then I would that thou wouldst trust it in my keeping," said Humphrey, earnestly.
The boy looked at him; once more he beheld him rushing upon the spy in the Isle of Axholme; once more heard his indignant cry, "And wouldst thou slay my dear lad?" His eyes shone, but all he said was, "I will trust thee with the custody of the ring, Humphrey, save at such times as I must have it to show."
The serving-man smiled well pleased, though he said nothing; for there was no time for words, since they had already come to the door of the house they sought.
"The ring is a powerful one," said Humphrey, when they had been well received and lodged. "I would fain see it."
Hugo smiled and handed it to him. The serving-man took it in his large hand and regarded it narrowly. "After all it is but a carved fish on a red stone," he said.
"Thou dost not ask what it betokeneth?"
Humphrey glanced up quickly. "Thou canst make merry over my dreams," he said, "and what they betoken. And here thou comest with a circlet of gold crowned with a red stone having the likeness of a fish on it. And thou sayest it betokeneth somewhat. Thou mayest no more deride my dreams."
"Nay, nay, my good Humphrey," laughed the boy. "Thou shalt have thy dreams if thou wilt. But my uncle's priory is dedicated to St. Wilfrid, who taught the Sussex people to catch all fish, when before they knew only how to catch eels. Therefore my uncle putteth a fish on the ring, that whosoever of his friends that seeth it may know it is the ring of Roger Aungerville, prior of St. Wilfrid's."
"So doth the fish of thine uncle give us lodging and safety," observed Humphrey, thoughtfully. "It is a good ring. I will hold it with all care." And he drew forth the small pouch of gold pieces which Lady De Aldithely had given him, and put the ring carefully inside it. "It hangeth about my neck, thou seest," he said, as he replaced the pouch, "and no man may take it unless he first taketh my head."
"Or disableth thee with an arrow or a sword thrust," said Hugo.
"Ay," answered Humphrey, gravely. "I had not spoken of arrows and sword thrusts. I have the hope that we may meet with neither. And though the way is long when one must creep and hide and crawl, and go to the south one day, to the southwest another, and the southeast another, yet the end cometh at last, and I have hope it be a good end. And now I ask thee how long we bide and whence go we from here? Doth the ring decide?"
"Nay," replied Hugo. "Thou shalt have thy share of the making of plans. But I would fain learn what we may of the region round about, and of the safety or danger it holdeth for us ere we sally forth."
"Why, now," said Humphrey, approvingly, "thou art learning craft. For who but a fool would be careless of danger? Thou art like my lord, who knoweth when to strike and when to flee. And for that it is that his men follow him madly in battle. For, if there be risk, they do know it to be necessary risk, with a certain gain to be obtained at the end of it, if all go well. But if there be no gain in view, my lord leadeth them not into unnecessary danger, and so it is that he is a power and the king hateth him. Thou doest well to look ahead of thee, for there is no gain to be had from lying in the king's dungeon, but mayhap thou shalt lose thy head also, as well as thy liberty. But what doest thou now?"
"Why, I fain would sleep, having had no rest in the night. But the canon knoweth naught of that, nor may I tell him. He must be busy till even, and so he sendeth me to view the cathedral; and thou mayest go with me."
To this Humphrey made no reply, but followed his young master in silence.
The verger who took them in charge was an ancient man called Paulinus of Mansfield, having been born in that place. And he soon saw that what he had to show of the unfinished cathedral was lost on the heavy-lidded boy who was half asleep, and upon the Saxon serving-man, who felt no interest in such matters. Wherefore when he came from the chapter-house into the cloisters he, being old and feeble, was fain to sit down on a stone bench and rest; and he motioned Hugo to a seat beside him.
Humphrey had the idea that, at all times and in all places, wisdom was with the aged. Besides, the old verger reminded him, in certain particulars, of his own grandsire, who was a great talker and who knew more of all matters concerning the countryside than half a dozen other men.
And he now cast such an expressive glance upon Hugo and gave such a meaning nod toward Paulinus, that the boy must perforce have understood, even if he had not added in a tone too low to catch the somewhat deaf ears of the old man, "Ask him what thou wouldest know."
At once Hugo threw off his drowsiness and, in the most pleasing manner he could summon, requested to be informed of the surrounding district.
"It is easy to see thou art a stranger," said the gratified old man. "And thou wouldest know the region round about Lincoln?" he repeated. "Thou hast come to him who can tell thee of it, for I was born and brought up in these parts. It is truly a noble region on all sides save the east, where lieth the fen country. For here cometh the king frequently to take his pleasure. And that is oft pleasure to him which would be none to gentler minds."
At this Hugo turned startled eyes on Humphrey, who stood at a little distance, but who did not appear to notice his look.
"Hast ever seen the king?" inquired Paulinus.
"Nay," replied Hugo.
"Nor need thou wish so to do," returned the aged Paulinus. "I speak to thee in confidence, for surely thou art a worthy youth or thou wouldest not be guest to the Canon Durdent. The king is the youngest and the worst son of the wicked Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, who is now, by the mercy of God, dead. I could tell thee tales of the king's cruelty that would affright thee, but I will not. He loveth to hunt in the Forest of Sherwood, and therefore hath he castles and lodges hereabout, which he doth frequent as it pleaseth him. And he hath ever had a liking for that castle at Newark which our bishop of Lincoln, Alexander the Magnificent, did build. I could tell thee tales of the dungeons there—knowest thou what they be like?" And he paused and looked at Hugo, who was somewhat pale, for the word "dungeon" had come to have a fearsome meaning to him.
"Nay," answered the boy, "I know not."
"Thou goest in the castle through a passage to the northwest corner, where is a door which is guarded. Here is the solid rock; and inside that door be two dungeons scooped out of it. No stair descendeth to them. Those who occupy them at the king's will are lowered into them by a rope, and there is no chance by which they may escape. There they abide in darkness, and no skill, or cunning, or bravery can avail them so that they may escape." The old man paused.
Presently Hugo asked, "And where lieth this castle from here?"
"It lieth to the southwest, less than a score of miles away."
Hugo said nothing, and, after a short silence, Paulinus began again: "If thou shouldest journey hence a little south of west, then wouldest thou come to Clipstone Palace, which lieth not far from Mansfield, where I was born. Here the king doth sometimes frequent, and from thence he goeth to hunt in the forest. But better men than he have frequented it when his father, King Henry, and his brother, King Richard, did sojourn there. Thinkest thou to journey that way?"
"Nay," replied Hugo. "Methinks our way lieth not toward Clipstone."
"Mayhap it were better to journey by Newark, where be the dungeons I have told thee of; and so, when thou hast viewed that castle, journey on southward to Nottingham, where the king hath another castle which oft holdeth many prisoners. He keepeth there certain children, the hostages he demandeth of their fathers. And no man knoweth when they will die, for that is a matter of the king's pleasure."
The old verger now seemed to fall into a reverie, in which he remained so long that Hugo rose from the stone bench, thus rousing him. Slowly he raised himself from his seat, having apparently forgotten all that he had just been saying, and conducted them to the entrance, where he bade them adieu.
"I fear to bide here longer," said Humphrey, as they returned to the canon's house. "Let us away to the fens on the east of this place, and, through their wilds, make our way southward."
Hugo reflected. Then he answered, "Thou art right, Humphrey. It were not best to journey so near the king's castles and dungeons. We will away to-morrow morn to the fens."
This, however, they were unable to do. The canon desired not to part with his friend's nephew so soon. Seeing which, Humphrey consoled himself for the delay by buying ample stores of provisions, with which he so loaded the horses that the canon wondered. "There be towns all the way from hence to London, and inns in all the towns," he said. "Thou mayest journey without that packhorse load."
But Humphrey was obstinate. "The goods be bought," he said stubbornly.
The canon who knew not that they intended to travel through the fens and avoid the towns, looked pityingly at Hugo. "I see thou hast a master in thy man," he observed. "I wonder thine Uncle Roger did not choose for thee a more obedient servant."
It was on the tip of the boy's tongue to tell him that his uncle's prudence had furnished him with no servant at all. But, at a warning glance from Humphrey, he kept silence. And then, with the blessing of the canon, they set out down the hill through the narrow street toward the river, which they crossed and found themselves outside the town.
Having deposited Walter Skinner before the door of the Lion in Gainsborough, Richard Wood and his men set off for Sherwood Forest in the strong hope of coming up with the runaways they sought. And, in nowise cast down by his recent discouraging experiences, Walter Skinner held his head high and looked around him fiercely, as of yore. His doublet and hose besplashed with mud and torn by briers seemed not to give him any concern; neither did the condition of his shoes, which were foul with the slimy mud of the swamp.
"I will have breakfast, sirrah, and that immediately," he said to the waiter when he had entered the inn.
The waiter eyed him doubtfully.
"Make haste. I command thee to it. Dally not with me. I serve the king," said the fierce little man, loftily.
"Thy service hath taken thee in strange paths," observed the innkeeper, who had drawn near.
"Not so strange as thine will take thee in if thou delay me," retorted Walter Skinner, haughtily.
There was in the bar a strange man of a crafty and evil face, and he now drew near the imperious little spy, and humbly besought the honor of taking his breakfast in Walter Skinner's company.
"And so thou shalt," said the spy, condescendingly. "And mayhap, since I have lost my horse, thou canst direct me where I can find another. I have no time to go harrying a prior for one."
The landlord now led the way obsequiously, and soon the strange pair were seated in one of the several private rooms of the inn, with the promise that breakfast should be served to them at once.
Then said the stranger: "As to the matter of a horse, I have at this moment one by me which I would fain dispose of. He is not gentle enough to my liking."
"I care not for gentleness in a horse," declared Walter Skinner. "I warrant thee I can ride the beast whether he be gentle or not."
"Thou lookest a bold rider," observed the stranger, craftily.
"He that doeth the king's business hath need to be a bold rider," returned Walter Skinner, with a look which was intended to convey the information that he could unfold mysteries were he so disposed.
"Thou art high in the king's counsels, then?" asked the stranger, with a covert smile.
"Not so high but I shall be higher when I have finished the business in hand," returned Walter Skinner, patronizingly. The breakfast being now brought he said no more, but ate like a starving man, and with a very unfavorable memory of his late meals of wild berries in the swamp. The crafty-eyed stranger ate more sparingly, and seemed to be mentally measuring the fierce little man opposite him. At last he asked, "And whence goest thou from here?"
"What is that to thee?" demanded Walter Skinner. "Wouldst thou pry into the king's business? Reach me the bottle."
The stranger obeyed, and after taking a long drink Walter Skinner said: "I will now tell thee what I would not tell to every man. First, from here I go to the Green Dragon at Doncaster, there to crack the pate of the groom that did send me into the Isle of Axholme, where I did have all sorts of contumely heaped upon me. And after that I shall pursue my course or not, as it pleaseth me. Richard Wood did give me permission so to do. Knowest thou Richard Wood?"
"Nay," answered the stranger.
"He is well enough in his place, and that is in the high tree overlooking the castle. But when he will ride abroad with men-at-arms behind him to obey his word, then he thinketh that he may tell me also, his old friend, what I may and may not do. He hath even bid me cease prating. What thinkest thou of such a man?"
"Why, he must be a bold man that would bid thee cease prating," replied the stranger.
Walter Skinner took another drink and then looked long and earnestly at him. "Thou art a man of reason," he said; "yea, and of wisdom, moreover. And come, now, show me thy ungentle horse. I promise thee I will back him or—or—" He did not finish his sentence, and the two went out to the inn yard, where stood a horse which did not seem to be particularly vicious. And the animal was soon in the possession of the spy for a very fair sum in exchange.
"I will but fix his bridle for thee," said the man, "while thou payest the reckoning, and then mayest thou ride with speed and safety. I may not stay to see thee go, for I must instantly depart."
"Ay, thou hast a hard master, no doubt," observed Walter Skinner, with a shake of the head.
"Necessity is my master," said the stranger.
"Ay, ay, no doubt," returned Walter Skinner, going toward the bar. "Necessity is not mine, however."
A half-hour later, when the spy was ready to set out, the stranger had disappeared. But he did not miss him, for the landlord himself had come out into the yard to see him off, while all the grooms stood about, and two or three maids looked on.
"Good people, give back," said Walter Skinner, grandly. "Block not the way of the king's man. Ye mean well and kindly, no doubt, but I would have ye withdraw yourselves a little space."
By the help of a groom he was mounted, and a moment later he was out of the inn yard. But now a strange thing happened. He was no sooner out of the town than the horse refused to be controlled. In vain the little spy tried to head him toward Doncaster. The stranger had removed the bit, putting in its place a wisp of straw, which the horse quickly chewed to pieces, and then, with a shake of the head, he galloped off to the south.
"Thou beast!" cried the spy. "What meanest thou? Thou art held in by bit and bridle. Dost not know it?"
It seemed that the horse did not, for he went on at a faster pace.
"Thou art worse than the prior's horse!" cried Walter Skinner, dropping the reins and clinging round the animal's neck. "I would I had the stranger that did sell thee to me! I would crack his pate also, even as I will the pate of the groom at the Green Dragon."
Giving no heed to the remonstrances of his rider or the unevenness of the road, the horse kept on until he entered the gates of Lincoln, and stopped before the Swan with a loud and joyous neigh.
At the sound two grooms ran out. "Here he be!" cried one. "Here be Black Tom that was stole but two nights agone," cried the other; while in great amazement Walter Skinner sat up and gazed from one to the other.
"What meanest thou, sirrah?" he demanded of the second groom. "Sayest thou a horse is stolen when I did pay good money for him but this morning? And, moreover, who would steal such a beast that will mind not the bridle and only runs his course the faster for the spur?"
"Ay, thou knewest not that he was stolen, no doubt," retorted the second groom, sarcastically. "But here cometh master, who will soon pull thee down from thy high perch, thou little minute of a dirty man. Thou hast slept in the swamp over night, I do be bound, and now comest to brave it out, seeing thou canst not make way with the horse."
"I would have thee know, villain, that I serve the king, and did buy the horse in Gainsborough this morn to replace the one which the young lord did cut loose. And whether I did sleep in the swamp or in a duke's chamber is naught to thee or to thy master. I have been so shaken up this morn over thy rough roads and by thy vile beast of a horse that thou and thy master shall pay for it. What! is the servant of the king to be sent into the Isle of Axholme by an idiot groom at the Green Dragon? And, being there, is he to be planted in the mire like a rush by a Saxon serving-man? And is his horse to be cut loose by the young lord at the word of that same Saxon serving-man? And is he to be carried behind Richard Wood to Gainsborough? And is he there to buy a black horse from a vile stranger? And is he to be run away with to this place when he would fain go elsewhere about his master's business, which is to catch this young lord and the Saxon serving-man? And then is he to be looked at as if he were a thief? Thou shalt repent, and so I tell thee; yea, in sackcloth and ashes. And if thou canst find no sackcloth, then thou shalt have a double portion of ashes, ye knaves, and so I promise you."
At these words the innkeeper and the grooms looked at each other. And then the innkeeper said civilly that he and the grooms had meant no offence, but that the horse had certainly been stolen from the Swan two nights before. The second groom, equally desirous with his master to conciliate, pressed forward to show him how the bit had been removed by the rascal who sold the horse so that he would come straight home again.
"Which I did but now discover," said the second groom.
And the first groom, not to be outdone, said: "If thou really seekest the young lord and the Saxon serving-man we can put thee on their track, for surely they did leave here but some three hours agone."
Walter Skinner stared stupidly for a moment, while the innkeeper reproved the groom for being beforehand with him in giving the intelligence. Then the little spy sat up straighter and put on a haughtier air than ever. "Aha, Fortune!" he cried, "thou art bound to make a duke of me whether I will or not." Then turning to the innkeeper he said: "I will enter thine inn, and do thou see that dinner be promptly served. I will then procure a change of raiment. I will then sleep over night. I will then breakfast. I will then take thy Black Tom, which I did buy, and withhold him from me if thou darest. And I will then set out after the young lord and the serving-man. I have now given thee my confidence, which if thou betray thou shalt answer for it. Why, they cannot escape me. Hath Richard Wood come up with them three several times, as I now have? Nay. If he had he would have captured them, which showeth that I be the abler man of the two; for, while I have not captured them, he hath not even caught sight of them. And now make haste with the dinner."
All this time the spy had kept his seat on the horse. He now came down, and the innkeeper, without a word, led the way to a private room, while the grooms exchanged glances. "Yon be a madman," said the first, whose name was Elfric.
"Yea, or a drunken man, which is the same thing," responded the second.
"He will catch not the young lord," declared Elfric.
"I did not dream they fled as they rode down the street to the river," observed the second. "They did go slowly enough, and the young lord looked about him curiously and unafraid."
"By that thou mayest know he was a lord, and this drunken fool speaketh true," returned Elfric. "The better the blood, the less of fear; so hath my grandsire said."
Though Walter Skinner had commanded the innkeeper and the grooms to keep what he called his confidence on pain of his vengeance, what he had said flew abroad. And wherever the little spy appeared that afternoon he seemed to arouse much curiosity. "The king must be put to it for help when he employeth such a one," commented a cooper.
"Tut, man!" was the reply. "What careth the king who doeth his pleasure so it be done? It looketh not like to be done, though, with this man for the doer of it. Why, who but a fool seeing those he sought had three good hours the start of him would give them four and twenty more?"
The cooper shrugged his shoulders. "I tell thee, Peter of the forge," he said, "that I care not if the king's will be never done, for it is a bad will. Therefore the more fools like yon he setteth to do it the better."
Meanwhile the innkeeper was thinking ruefully of the guest he had on his hands. "I may not anger him," he said to Elfric, the groom.
"Nor needest thou," replied Elfric.
"Talk not to me," said the innkeeper, impatiently. "Wouldst have me lose Black Tom? For whether he did pay the thief for him or not, he most certainly did not pay me. And thou knowest the value of Black Tom."
"Yea," answered Elfric, "I know it. But why shouldst thou lose Black Tom?"
"Why? Art thou gone daft? Didst thou hear him bid me refuse him the beast if I dared? This it is to have a bad king who will set such knaves upon his business."
"If there be but one black horse in Lincoln," replied Elfric, "thou doest well to fret. But if there be Black Dick that is broken-winded and hath the spring-halt so that he be not worth more than one day's reckoning at the Swan at the most; and if he looketh tolerably fair; and if thou mayst buy him for a small sum; and if this drunken fool knoweth not one horse from another; why needst thou worry?"
The face of the innkeeper at once cleared. "The fraud is justifiable," he said. "For why should he take my Black Tom and give me naught? I do but protect myself when I give him instead Black Dick."
"Ay, and thou doest no unfriendly turn to the young lord neither. I have been to inquire, and there be those that say he is son to De Aldithely. And doubtless he fleeth away to his brave father in France. I did think he had a familiar look this morn. And when I heard, I did repent that the Swan had put this knave upon his track. But with Black Dick he cometh not up with him in a hurry."
That night Walter Skinner found the Swan a most pleasant abiding-place, where all were attentive to serve him. "Thou hast me for thy friend," he told the innkeeper as he supped with him. "Thou hast me, I say, and not Richard Wood. And I will speak a good word for thee to the king. Not now, indeed, for it were not seemly that I should introduce thy matters until I had brought mine own to a happy issue. But what sayest thou? To pursue a young lord for many miles and capture him,—single-handed,—were that not worth a dukedom? I have here this good yew bow with a silken string and a goodly store of arrows. Oh, I will capture him, if ever I come up with him. The serving-man cutteth not this silken string nor breaketh these arrows, I warrant thee."
And, clad in his new raiment, Walter Skinner sat back in his chair and gazed pompously around.
The innkeeper listened, and, supper being over, he sought Elfric, to whom he related what had passed. "I would not that a hair of the young son of De Aldithely should be harmed," he said. "And what I dare not do, that thou must perform."
"And what is that?" asked Elfric.
"Thou must fray his bow-string so it will not be true, and thou must injure his arrows likewise."
"Right willingly will I do so," promised Elfric. "If he hit any mark he aim at when I am done with the bow and arrows, then am I as great a knave as he. And the damage shall be so small that he may not see it neither."
Although there were those who had looked upon Hugo and Humphrey curiously in the streets of Lincoln, there were none sufficiently interested to observe what direction they took after they had left the town. And none saw them leave the road and betake themselves to the fens as safer for their journey. So east of the heights, which, to the east of Lincoln, extend in a southeasterly direction, they rode, picking their way as they might, and hopeful that now all enemies were thrown off their track.
"It is a weariness to be pursued so many days," said Hugo. "I would fain breathe easily once more."
"Ay, lad," returned Humphrey. "But that is what cannot be done in this world. When thou art forty years old, as I am, thou wilt see that every man hath his enemies and every bird and beast also, as we may perchance see in this wild fen country. It is good, therefore, to breathe as easily as one can and think no more about it. Knowest thou what these fens be like?"
"Nay; but mine uncle hath told me that they be vast, and that here and there half-wild people live in huts along the reedy shores; and that south lieth the goodly town of Peterborough, as well as the abbey of Crowland."
"Doth the ring avail at Peterborough?"
"Yea, if I have need; but there will be none." And he glanced with a smile at the heavily loaded horses they rode, and bethought himself of his plentiful supply of gold pieces. "What hast thou in all these bags and packs, Humphrey?" he asked.
"Why, the answer to that question is not so simple," was the reply. "I did but buy somewhat of all I saw, and did bestow it the best I could, so as to leave room for our legs on the sides of the horses. Should the spy pursue us, he would soon come up with us, for flee we could not, so loaded down. But I look not for him. No doubt he still lodgeth in the Isle of Axholme, and the other spy we have not of late heard from. If we but keep clear of beaten paths, we be safe enough. I will hope to have a dream to-night."
Hugo did not reply; he was looking about him in much enjoyment. The day chanced to be clear, and as far as he could see lay the level of the fen-lands. Here were trees, some straight, others leaning over the water; there were islands of reeds, and yonder the water shimmering on its shallow, winding way, so sluggish as to be almost stagnant. The whole region was alive with sound,—the cries of water-fowl, the songs of birds, and the croak of frogs. And when he rode along the water's brink, an occasional fin flashed out. Humphrey watched him with approval. "Ay, lad," he said, "thou wilt soon be wise in fen lore, for thou hast a heart to it. I will tell thee now that I have wherewith to fish in one of these same packs. Mine ears were not idle in the town, and I did learn that perch and red-eye and roach and bream frequent the waters of the fen."
"And didst thou ask what fish were in the fen?" asked Hugo, in alarm.
"Nay, lad, most surely not. But when I did see fish for sale I did praise their beauty, and they that had them did of themselves tell me where they did catch them. There be more ways of finding out things than by asking of questions."
They were now come to a small, grassy isle fringed with reeds. "Here do we get down," said Humphrey. "I would fain see if we do not catch some of those same fish for our dinner. And here is grass, moreover, where the horses can graze."
Slowly and carefully boy and man disengaged themselves from the baggage that almost encased them and dismounted. "If thou dost get a dream to-night, Humphrey," said Hugo, laughingly, "I hope thou wilt discover what we shall do with all this stuff."
"I dream not to find out such a thing as that," returned the serving-man, good-naturedly.
The horses were soon tied out, and the fishing-lines and hooks unpacked. Then Humphrey, going out on a fallen log which was half submerged, carefully plumbed the water to see how deep it was, while Hugo watched him in wonder. Next he took from another package some ground bait consisting of meal, and balls made of bread and grain, worked up in the hand. This he threw into the water, which was here but two feet deep. Then in a whisper he said, "All this I did learn in Lincoln." And he bade Hugo hold his line so that the bait on the hook was about an inch from the bottom.
Hugo obeyed, and in a moment was rewarded with a red-eye about a foot long. At the same time Humphrey drew out another. And before long they had half a dozen each, for the red-eye was always sure to be one of a crowd, and it was so greedy that it took the bait readily.
"No more to-day," said Humphrey, winding up his line, "for we already have more than we can eat, and I hold it sin to slay what we cannot eat. This was I taught by my grandsire, who ever said that evil was sure to befall those who did so. And I would we could put the life back into half we have taken; but they did bite so readily that we had too many suddenly. Still, if we eat naught to speak of but fish, we may make away with most and so be spared evil."
While Humphrey dressed the too numerous fish, Hugo sought sufficient fuel to cook them, and came back to find the serving-man well satisfied. "Even as I did begin to dress the fish," he said, "there came a sound of wings, and I looked up and did behold a glede. And I did cease to move; so came he nearer, and did snatch a fish. Then came another and did snatch a fish. In quietness I did wait. Then came the first glede back and did take a fish, and the second did like-wise. And, by waiting with patience, the gledes did take two more. And now we have but six fish, and no evil will befall us, for those we can eat."