Hugo smiled, for the big serving-man had spoken with the faith of a child.
Their noon rest taken, they went on again toward the south and came by nightfall to what Humphrey decided to be a suitable place to pass the night. "I mean not," he said, "that the place would please me were we out of the fen. But being in the fen, why, there be worse places than this to be found; for it is not a bog nor a slough, and there be reeds in plenty near by."
"Do we make a fire?" asked Hugo, mindful of their experience in the Isle of Axholme.
"Yea," answered the serving-man. "If we make the fire perchance some evil person seeth us, perchance not. If we make not the fire, the chill of the fen doth get into our bones. Seest thou how the mist arises? And we be not like the holy hermits of these haunts to withstand chill and vapors."
Hugo looked at him in surprise. "How knowest thou of holy hermits?" he asked.
"I did even learn of them in Lincoln. It was the canon's servant who did tell me of St. Guthlac and St. Godric. He did know more of the holy hermits than of his master's service, I warrant thee. And that is an evil knowledge for a servant that bids him talk to the neglect of his master's good."
The fire alight, the two lay down, Hugo to fall asleep and Humphrey to rise at intervals through the night and throw on reeds that so the fen mists might work no harm to the boy, to whom he was now as devotedly attached as ever he was to Josceline. The morning's breakfast was from the packs which Humphrey acknowledged were too full for prudent carrying; and by the time Walter Skinner arose at the Swan they were off again, still southward. They were now nearer the coast, and a great fen eagle flew screaming over their heads. "To dream that eagles do fly over your head doth betoken evil fortune," remarked Humphrey, gravely. "But I think we need not fear those eagles which do not fly in dreams."
And now in the yard of the Swan all was astir. Elfric had taken Black Dick out and gently exercised him so that his spring-halt need not be at once apparent, and there was no little anxiety on the part of the host to get rid of his guest expeditiously. The spy, however, with his usual dulness, did not perceive it, but took all this effusive service as his rightful due. "I will requite thee later, worthy host," he said grandly. "I will not fail to set thee before the king in the light of a trusty innkeeper." With this farewell he rode pompously out of the yard and slowly down the hill street to the river, and so passed out of the town. And, being out, he paused to consider his course.
"Shall I go to the fen in pursuit of them, or shall I go down Nottingham way?" he said. "I will go Nottingham way. I will be no more planted in mire like a rush. Nay, verily. Not to find all the young lords and Saxon serving-men in creation. I serve the king; and will go not into bogs and fens suitable for Saxon outcasts and no others. And if they be wise they will do the same."
Having come to this decision, he put spurs to Black Dick and was off southwest, while slowly Hugo and Humphrey journeyed on southeast. Presently the horse began to heave. "Why, where is thy speed of yesterday, Black Tom?" cried Walter Skinner. "Thou didst not heave when I clung round thy neck on the way to Lincoln town." He gave the bridle a sharp jerk, suddenly turning the horse which now began to show the spring-halt with which he was afflicted. "Why, what sort of a dance is this?" cried Walter Skinner. "Thou art a strange beast. Verily, thou art like some people—one thing yesterday and another to-day. I can say this for thee—thou wert black yesterday, and thou art still black to-day."
He had not gone far when he came up with a man riding slowly along, and decided to take him into his confidence so far as to ask if he had seen those he sought. Accordingly he crowded Black Dick close alongside of the stranger's horse, and, giving him a meaning glance, said, "Hast thou seen a young lord this morn?"
The stranger looked astonished, as well he might.
"Ay," said Walter Skinner, much gratified. "I said a young lord. Mayhap thou art not used to consort with such, but a young lord is not much more to me than his Saxon serving-man. And that remindeth me—hast seen the serving-man also?"
"Nay," answered the stranger, mildly. "I have seen neither."
"And that is strange, too," said Walter Skinner. "Why, bethink thee, man! Thou must have seen them. They did leave Lincoln but yester morn. And if they came not this way, which way did they go? Answer me truly, for I warn thee, I serve the king."
The stranger reaffirming that he had seen neither the young lord nor his serving-man, Walter Skinner was obliged to be content. "They be as slippery as eels," he cried. "And that remindeth me, I did eat eels for breakfast at the Swan this morn."
Then, without a word of leave-taking, he rode off, Black Dick doing his afflicted best, and Walter Skinner wondering how he could have been so mistaken in the animal. "The thief that stole him did well to be rid of him," he said. "And that he should put him off on me is but another indignity I have suffered on this chase. The king hath ever a lengthening score to pay, and nothing but a dukedom will content me. And why should I not be a duke? Let Richard Wood say what he likes, worse men than I have been dukes. Ay, and more basely born."
By noon he had come to Newark. "And here will I pause and search the town for them," he said. "If they know not of them, why, their ignorance is criminal. A loyal subject should know what concerneth his king. And it concerneth the king that these two be found."
Now it chanced that the king was then at Newark and about to set off for Clipstone Palace. Which, when Walter Skinner heard, he declared proudly, "I will have speech of him."
"Thou have speech of him!" exclaimed an attendant. "Thou art mad."
"Nay, verily, I am not mad. Am I not Walter Skinner, hired by the king's minister to bide in a high tree that overlooketh De Aldithely castle? I tell thee, I will see the king." And, the party now approaching, he broke through all restraint and rode close up beside the king. "May it please thy Majesty," he began, "there be those that do keep me back from speech with thee. Ay, even though I do tell them that I serve thee."
The king looked at him, laughed rudely, and motioned one of his attendants to remove him. But the little man waved the attendant off, and cried out so that all might hear, "Didst not thy minister hire me to bide in the tall tree that overlooketh De Aldithely Castle?"
At the mention of the name De Aldithely the king paused, and seemed to listen. Seeing which, Walter Skinner went on: "And, when all the rest were gone to York, did I not see the young lord and his Saxon serving-man ride forth? And did I not give chase? And do I not now seek them on this wind-broken and spring-halt horse as best I may?"
The king beckoned the little man nearer.
"Where hast thou sought?" he asked.
"In the wood, in the swamp, and in the town," was the proud answer. "I be not like Richard Wood, who did set out to help me. For I have come up with them three several times, and he not once."
The king turned to one of his attendants. "Take thou the madman into custody," he said. "We will presently send to De Aldithely castle to see if these things be so."
Richard Wood and his men had searched the forest of Sherwood thoroughly enough to lead them to conclude that those they sought had taken another route. And on this, the tenth day of his chase, Richard Wood said decidedly: "We try the fen now to the east. They be not spirits to vanish in the air. Here in this wood they are not, nor do I think they would bide in any town. Therefore in the fen they must be." Thereupon, leaving the forest, they rode southeast by the way of Grantham, and so on into the fen country, striking it a few miles from where Hugo and Humphrey were making their camp for the night, almost within sight of Peterborough. The two were quite cheerful, and entirely unsuspicious that danger might be nearer to them than usual.
"Thinkest thou to stop at Peterborough?" asked Humphrey.
"Nay," replied Hugo; "there is no need."
"And yet," urged Humphrey, "a good lodging, were it but for one night, were a happy change from the fens. Who is the canon that is thine uncle's friend at Peterborough?"
"Canon Thurstan," replied Hugo.
"In the Canon Thurstan's house—" began Humphrey.
"But the canon hath no house," interrupted Hugo, with a smile.
"And how is that?" demanded Humphrey, with a puzzled air.
"It happeneth because this cathedral is on another foundation, and the canons here be regular and not secular, as they be in Lincoln."
Humphrey reflected. "I understand not," he said at length.
"At Peterborough the canons live all together in one house," explained Hugo. "Were we to go there we should be taken to the hospitium, where we should be lodged."
"And there see the Canon Thurstan?"
Again Humphrey reflected. Then he said: "The ways of priests be many. Mayhap I had known more of them, but in my forty years I have had to do with other matters, like serving my lord and lady in troublous times. The priest at the castle I did know, but not much of the ways of priests in priests' houses. And now cometh the evening mist right early. I will but make up the fire and then lead away the horses."
The fire made, although it was not dark, Humphrey departed, leaving Hugo to feed it. This the boy did generously, for he felt chilled. The smoke did not rise high and the odor of it penetrated to some distance.
In a little while Humphrey returned laden with a new supply of fuel partly green and partly dry. He then spread out their evening meal, and gave Fleetfoot his supper. And, all these things accomplished and the supper eaten, he announced his intention to go again for fuel.
"Have we not here enough?" asked Hugo. "Thou knowest we journey on in the morning."
"Mayhap," answered Humphrey. "I like not the look of this mist. My grandsire hath told me of a mist that lay like a winding-sheet on everything for two days, and this seemeth to me to be of that kind. It were not wise to stir, mayhap, to-morrow morn."
"Lest we encounter the other spy?" laughed Hugo.
"Jest not, dear lad," replied Humphrey, soberly. "We may not know how or whence danger cometh."
"And dost thou fear, then?" asked Hugo.
"Nay, I fear not. I cannot say I fear. But this moment a feeling hath come to me which I had not before. I will away for more fuel."
"I go with thee," said Hugo.
"Ay, lad, come," was the reply.
Two trips they made, each time returning heavily laden, and then Hugo laughingly said, "Surely we have enough, even if the mist last two days, for we had good store before thou didst look upon the mist with suspicion."
Humphrey smiled. "Yea, lad," he answered, "the fuel now seemeth enough."
While he spoke a wind sprang up and the mist grew lighter. It blew harder, and the mist was gone. One might see the stars. Two hours this lasted, during which Richard Wood and his men, as if guided, rode straight for the small camp, picking their way with great good fortune and making few missteps. Then the wind died down, the mist came back enfolding everything, and the pursuers encamped where they were. But of that Hugo and Humphrey knew nothing.
It might have been two o'clock when the serving-man awoke with a shiver and rose to renew the fire. He found it quite extinguished. As he felt about in the darkness for his flint and steel he glanced anxiously toward Hugo, though he could not see him. "I know not," he muttered, "I know not. But I did dream of eagles and they did scream above our heads. Some danger draweth near, or some heavy trouble."
The fire now blazed, and the faithful serving-man saw that Hugo was still asleep, resting as easily on his couch of reeds as he could have done on the canon's bed. "It is a good lad," said Humphrey. "Were he a De Aldithely he could not be better."
Humphrey lay down no more that night. Restlessly he moved about, now replenishing the fire, and now listening for some hostile sound. But he heard nothing.
It was late in the morning when Hugo awoke. "Surely this must be thy grandsire's mist, Humphrey," he said. "It is heavy enough."
"Yea," answered Humphrey, looking up from the breakfast he was preparing. "It were best not to stir abroad to-day."
And at that moment Richard Wood was saying: "I smell smoke within half a mile of me. Ride we to see what that meaneth." Again, as if to aid him, the wind sprang up so that through the lifting mist one might easily pick his way, and Humphrey had just departed to look after the horses when Richard Wood and his men-at-arms arrived at the camp.
"Yield thee, Josceline De Aldithely!" commanded Richard Wood. "Yield thee in the king's name!" and, dismounting, he laid his hand on the astonished lad's arm.
A little later Humphrey, returning to the camp, paused in amazement, for he heard voices. He crept around a fringe of reeds and peered, but could not see clearly. He advanced further, still under cover, and then he saw.
"I did dream of eagles," he muttered, "and they did scream above our heads."
He listened, and from what he heard he learned that Hugo had not revealed himself as Hugo, but that he allowed the spy to think him to be Josceline. "Well did my lady trust in him!" exulted Humphrey. "And my lord shall know of this when we be come to France, as we shall come, though all the eagles in the fens do scream above our heads. And now I will away to the Canon Thurstan, and see of what avail is the fish on the circlet of gold."
Creeping back as silently as he could, he mounted his horse and set out for Peterborough. "May the spy and his men-at-arms be too weary to stir till I come back," he said. "And if they be not weary, may the mist come lower down and hold them. And now, horse, do thy best. Splash into pools, wade, swim, do all but stick fast till we come to Peterborough town."
The horse, thus urged, did his sagacious best, and very shortly the serving-man was knocking at the gate of the porter's lodge. Now Humphrey knew nothing of how he ought to proceed. He only knew that he was in haste and that his need was urgent. He therefore determined to employ boldness and assurance, and push his way into the canon's presence.
"Canon Thurstan!" he cried boldly, attempting to push past the porter. "Canon Thurstan, and at once! My lord demandeth it."
"Thou mayest not push in past me thus," said the porter, stopping him. "Hast thou no token to show?"
"Yea, verily," answered Humphrey, hastily taking out his pouch and producing the prior's ring. "Take this, and bid the canon see me instantly."
The porter, calling an attendant, sent the ring by him. And presently an order came bidding Humphrey come into the presence of the canon.
"Where is the prior's nephew?" asked the canon, with the ring in his hand.
"In the custody of knaves who did surprise our camp."
"Knaves, sayest thou?" said the canon. "Wherefore hast thou a camp? Wherefore lodgest thou not in towns? What doest thou wandering through the fens?"
"We be pursued," answered Humphrey.
"Pursued? and by whom? Why, who should pursue the nephew of Roger Aungerville?"
"It is a king's man, and he hath with him three men-at-arms," answered Humphrey.
"A king's man, sayest thou? Nay, then, I meddle not in the king's matters." And he made as if to hand back the ring.
"And wilt thou not, then, aid me to rescue my young master?"
"Nay," answered the canon. "I may not do such a thing except upon compulsion. The dean is now absent, and I am in his place."
Beside himself with impatience over what seemed to him needless delay, and with disappointment over what seemed to promise failure altogether, Humphrey cried out roughly: "Compulsion, sayest thou? Then, since 'tis compulsion thou lackest, compulsion thou shalt have." And he laid hands on him.
At this two servants came running in. "Ye see," said the canon, turning to them. "This is the ring of my friend, Roger Aungerville, prior of St. Wilfrid's. It bindeth me to do all in reason for his nephew. This is his nephew's servant, who hath come to me to seek my aid to rescue his young master from the clutches of a king's man and three men-at-arms. I tell him I may not do such a thing except upon compulsion, and he layeth hands upon me." And he smiled upon them whimsically.
They understood the canon and his smile, and the first said: "If thou be compelled to aid this fellow, were it not best that I call up Herebald and Bernulf also? They be two, as thou knowest, swift of foot, and long of wind, and strong of arm; and they have two good staves, moreover."
"Why," said the canon, whimsically, "it were doubtless wholly evil that I should undergo compulsion in mine own domain by a strange serving-man, and be compelled to render aid even against the king's men. Still, since I be compelled to render aid, it were good to render the best possible, and so take with ye Herebald and Bernulf; and spare not for blows, so that ye bring off the young man safe."
Then he handed the prior's ring to Humphrey, who returned it to its pouch with great satisfaction. "I will ne'er say aught against a fish," he thought, "when it surmounteth a circlet of gold and doth belong to a prior. Methinks this canon liketh not the king nor his men, or he would not be so easily compelled to go against them, and so all shall yet be well with us."
The two servants now withdrew from the canon's presence, taking Humphrey with them, and, calling up Herebald and Bernulf, all four made speed to depart with the impatient serving-man.
"If the mist hold, we have them," said the first servant, as he rode beside Humphrey. "And it be heavier now than it was two hours agone."
"Ay, if we lose not our way," was the response.
"That we cannot do with Herebald and Bernulf," was the confident answer. "They were born and bred in these fens. And because they do hate the king and all his men they will be swift on the track this morn. If the king's man come not off with a broken pate, it will be a wonder. And the same is like to be the fate of the three men-at-arms."
The mist held, and, gleaming through it, as they neared the camp, they saw the red fire. Cautiously they approached. Richard Wood and his hungry men-at-arms had been making free with the packs so liberally provided by Humphrey at Lincoln, and were now resting on the rushes, with Hugo in their midst. They were in no mood to journey farther in the dimness of the mist, and Richard Wood was putting question after question to Hugo in the hope of eliciting some information which might be valuable to him, while the men-at-arms listened. They were Le Falconer's men, and they cared nothing for the fate of De Aldithely's son.
"Where hideth away thy mother?" asked Richard Wood.
"Even in the tomb," answered Hugo, truthfully, for his mother was dead.
For a moment Richard Wood was taken aback. "I had not heard of it," he said at length. "I knew not that thy mother was dead. The king had hoped to capture her also. But it seemeth death hath been beforehand with him."
And then the four servants of the canon, who had surrounded the little group unseen, lifted their staves and struck as one man. Over rolled Richard Wood and his three men-at-arms, stunned and unconscious. Humphrey at once brought up Hugo's horse and Fleetfoot, and the rescuers departed, leaving the four unconscious men to come to themselves at their leisure.
"Thou art to return to the hospitium," said the first servant to Humphrey. "It is the canon's order. He will see this nephew of the prior's and inquire more narrowly concerning his journey. And say thou naught of this rescue to any man. We four do the canon's bidding at all times, but our tongues wag not of the matter."
"When the canon is compelled, thou doest his bidding?" asked Humphrey.
"Ay, when he is compelled. He hath those of his kin who have suffered wrong at the king's hands. Therefore is he often compelled, as thou sayest, but he sayeth naught, and so the king knoweth naught. May he be long ignorant."
The first servant now withdrew himself from Humphrey's side, and in due time, still under cover of the friendly mist which spread its curtain over the streets of the town, the little party regained the hospitium unseen. As soon as their arrival was known Hugo was summoned to the presence of the canon; and the handsome, fearless youth, as he entered the room where the canon awaited him, seemed to strike his host with surprise.
"Thou the nephew of Roger Aungerville!" he exclaimed, when they were alone. "Thou shouldst be a De Aldithely."
"I am Hugo Aungerville," answered the boy. And then, drawing nearer, he half whispered something further to the canon, who seemed to find the explanation satisfactory.
"Why dost thou skulk and hide in this manner through the fens?" asked the canon. "And why art thou pursued?"
"I personate Josceline, son of Lord De Aldithely, and so draw pursuit from him. When I am come to Lord De Aldithely in France, then I shall make myself known, if need be."
"There will be no need," said the canon, decidedly. "And now, though I am glad to have succored the nephew of my friend, the prior, I am twice glad to do a service to Lord De Aldithely. Thou hast my blessing. Go now to thy rest, even though it be day. To-morrow morn I will send thee forth, if it seem best."
The king and his party rode on to Clipstone Palace. The attendant to whom the spy had been consigned hastily summoned a bailiff, to whom he made over his charge, and then galloped off to overtake the party. And Walter Skinner, hardly understanding what had come to pass, was left behind in Newark.
The king had thought to spend a week of pleasure at Clipstone, but the intelligence brought by the spy changed his plans. Of all his barons he hated Lord De Aldithely most. He would have struck at him more quickly and forcibly but for Lord De Aldithely's great popularity, and his own somewhat cowardly fear. And now here was the son escaped. And suddenly the evil temper of the king blazed forth so that his attendants, in so far as they dared, shrank from him.
The king waited not to reach Clipstone, but turning to two of his attendants he said: "Go thou, De Skirlaw, and thou, De Kellaw, to De Aldithely Castle. Put spurs to your horses and tarry not. See what is come to pass and bring me word again."
De Skirlaw and De Kellaw galloped off; and the king, shortly after coming to Clipstone, entered his private apartments and excluded the party from them.
"There is treachery somewhere," he said to himself, aloud, "and the guilty shall not escape me. Why, what is this Josceline but a boy of fourteen? And what is his mother but a woman? And do they both bid successful defiance to me, the king? I will have their castle down over their heads, and no counsels shall longer prevent me from doing it. Without the boy and his mother the father is sure aid to Louis. And where De Aldithely goeth, there goeth victory."
"Nay, not alway, my liege," responded a voice.
The king started, and turned to see one of his courtiers, more bold than the rest, who had quietly entered the chamber.
"I knew not of thy presence, De Kirkham," he said. "What sayest thou?"
"I say that victory is not alway with De Aldithely since he is a fugitive and his son a wanderer, and his castle in thy power."
"True. Thou sayest true," responded the king, after a pause. "Thou dost ever bolster up my failing courage. And I will have this silly boy, if the madman I did put in custody spake true. Yea, I will have him, though I set half England on the chase. His father is my enemy. And shall the son defy me? I will hale him to a dungeon, and so I tell thee, De Kirkham."
It was not a long ride to De Aldithely castle for those who need neither skulk nor hide, and the messengers of the king were at Selby ere nightfall. Here they determined to rest and go on the next morning. They heard no news in the town; nor did they see anything until they came to the castle itself. Birds of prey were screaming above the moat near the postern, and there was a stillness about the place that would have argued desertion if the flag had not still floated from one of the towers.
"I like not this stillness," said De Skirlaw.
"It hath a menacing air," observed De Kellaw.
A while the two waited in the outskirts of the wood near the cleared place about the castle. Then said De Skirlaw, "I go forward boldly to the bridge and summon the warder in the king's name."
"I go with thee," agreed De Kellaw.
So briskly the two rode forth from the shelter of the wood and up to the entrance, where De Skirlaw loudly wound his horn. But there was no response. He wound it again. And still there came no answer.
"Seest thou no man upon the walls?" asked De Skirlaw, scanning the heights with eyes somewhat near-sighted.
"I see no one," responded the hawk-eyed De Kellaw.
"Let us skirt the castle," proposed De Skirlaw, after a short pause.
"I am ready," responded De Kellaw.
Then together the two began their tour of examination. And the first thing they noted was the dam which William Lorimer and his men had constructed, and which the old warder had broken before he himself wandered forth from the castle, thus letting the water which had filled the rear part of the moat escape. From this point they rode back toward the entrance and, looking down into the moat, saw that it was dry. Turning again toward the postern, they noted the drawbridge there, and wondered to see it down. "The postern gate is also ajar," observed De Kellaw. The two now drew nearer and came even to the edge of the moat. They looked in, but saw only bones and armor; for kites and eagles had been at work, and nothing more remained of those who had perished there in the waters.
"Some strange thing hath happened here, and wind of it is not yet gone abroad," said De Skirlaw.
"Yea," agreed De Kellaw. "Darest thou venture across this bridge and in at the postern gate?"
"I dare," responded De Skirlaw. Dismounting, the two secured their horses by stakes driven into the earth, and then, on foot, crossed the bridge.
Inside the baileys all was deserted. The stables were empty. No footsteps but their own could be heard. No guard paced the walls. No warder kept watch. There was only silence and emptiness in the great hall, and no living creature was anywhere.
"Here be a mystery," said De Skirlaw. "I will not be the one to try to unravel it. Let us away to the king and say what we have seen."
"Ay, and brave his wrath by so doing," returned De Kellaw; "for, since he cannot lay hands on those that have disappointed him, he will lay hands on us that bring him word of the matter. To be near to the king, if thou be not a liar or a cajoler, is to stand in a dangerous place."
"Yea," answered De Skirlaw, "thou art right; but we needs must return. So let us set out."
While the king raged, Walter Skinner, left behind at Newark in charge of the bailiff, had speedily recovered his complacency.
"I have seen the king and spoken with him," he thought. "True, he did laugh right insultingly in my face, but that may be the way of kings; and even so will I laugh in the face of Richard Wood when next I see him, for he hath no hope of preferment and seeketh only his money reward. Therefore is he a base cur and fit only to be laughed to scorn."
When the scullions served him his dinner in the room where he was held prisoner, he looked upon them haughtily, and bade them mind what they did and how they did it. "For I shall not alway be served here by such as ye," he said.
"Nay, verily," replied the first scullion, "thou sayest true. Thou art more like to be served in one of the dungeons, if so be thou be served at all."
"Why, what meanest thou by that last, sirrah?" demanded the little man, strutting up and down and frowning.
"I did but mean that thou mayest shortly journey to that land where there is neither eating nor drinking," was the reply.
"Thou meanest that I may shortly die?" asked Walter Skinner, contemptuously.
"Yea," was the answer.
"Why, so must thou. So must Richard Wood. So must the king himself," said Walter Skinner. "But thou hast learned here so near the court to speak Norman fashion, and go round about the matter; and so thou speakest of journeys, and a land where there is neither eating nor drinking. Moreover, thou didst speak of dungeons. I would have thee know that they be no fit subjects of conversation in my presence. Have I not served the king? And shall I not therefore have preferment? Speak not of dungeons, and the country where there is neither eating nor drinking to me." And, seating himself, the pompous little man began to eat his dinner heartily. When he had finished, the first scullion came alone to take away the dishes.
"Thou art a very big little fool," he said, with a compassionate glance, "and so I bid thee prepare thyself for any fate. Thou must know that what thou saidst to the king did anger him. Thou didst bring him ill news, and the bearer of ill news he will punish."
Walter Skinner now showed some alarm; but he soon recovered himself. "Why, how now, sirrah?" he said. "I did not bid the young lord Josceline flee; but when he did flee I did give chase. And wherefore should I be punished for that? Had I remained in the tree near the castle, then indeed the king had had cause for anger."
The scullion still looked at him pityingly. "By thine own showing," he said, "thou art but the king's spy, hired by Sir Thomas De Lany, no doubt. Spies have not preferment when their task is done, because, though the king doth take their work, he hateth them that perform it."
And now Walter Skinner stared in bewilderment. "Thou art but a scullion," he said at last. "And how knowest thou of Sir Thomas?"
"I am not what I seem," replied the scullion. "Wert thou sound in thy wits I would have said naught to thee, because then thou wouldst not have been here; but I like not to see one infirm of intellect run into calamity."
"And dost thou say of me that I be not sound in my wits?" demanded Walter Skinner, indignantly.
"Why, thou art either unsound of wit or a knave," was the calm response. "Only fool or knave doeth dirty work for another, even though that other be the king. And now, if thou wilt escape, I will help thee to it."
"I have had great toils," said Walter Skinner, with a manner which would have been ponderous in a man twice his size. "I have met a hedgehog. I have lost two horses. I have been planted in the mire like a rush. I have now come hither on a wind-broken and spring-halt horse, for which I did pay a price to a thief. And now thou sayest that for all this which I have undergone in the service of the king I shall have not preferment but a dungeon or death."
"Yea," was the calm rejoinder, "I say it; for where is the young lord? Knowest thou?"
"Nay," answered Walter Skinner, slowly.
"That is all that the king careth for of thee. That thou hast let him escape thee is all that he will note. And thy life will, mayhap, answer for it. All will depend on the greatness of his rage."
The little man looked in fright at the scullion, whom even his inexperienced eyes could now see was no scullion as he stood there in dignity awaiting the decision of the prisoner. "I will go with thee," he said, in a tremble. "But do I go on the wind-broken and spring-halt Black Tom of Lincoln?"
"That, Black Tom of Lincoln!" cried the mysterious scullion, laughing. "Thou hast once more been made a fool of. I have many times seen Black Tom. But thou shalt not go on the beast thou camest on. I will furnish thee another, for it must seem that thou didst escape on foot. Seek no more for the young lord. Flee into hiding and remain there. Dost thou promise me so to do?"
"Yea," was the prompt answer. "I promise."
He in the disguise of the scullion smiled, and bidding Walter Skinner follow him, led the way by secret passages until they came out unseen into a small court, where stood a horse ready saddled and bridled. The little man's guide bade him mount, and, opening a small door in the wall, motioned him to ride through it and away.
"My liege, the king," he said, as he watched the spy making all speed on his way, "thou wilt learn nothing of the flight of Josceline De Aldithely from thy late prisoner. And may confusion wait on all thy plans."
Walter Skinner had been gone over night, and the second day of his flight was well begun when the king, impatient over the slowness of De Skirlaw and De Kellaw, sent from Clipstone to Newark to have the spy brought before him. In haste the bailiff went to the room where he had placed him, and no prisoner was there. No prisoner was anywhere in the castle or in the town, as the frightened officer discovered after a diligent search. Only the afflicted horse upon which he had arrived remained in one of the stables. And with this word the unfortunate officer hastened on his way to the king. Near the gate, as he went out of Newark, he met one of the courtiers who bore a strong resemblance to him who had, in the guise of a scullion, set Walter Skinner at liberty. "Thou art frightened, worthy bailiff," he said. "But do thou only put a brave front on it and all may yet go well. Be careful to say and ever repeat that the man was mad, and not only mad, but cunning, and so hath made off, leaving his horse behind him."
The bailiff responded with a grateful look. "Thou art ever kind, my lord," he said. "And mayhap the man is dead. If he knew not the way, he may be dead, or caught by robbers. I will say that he may be dead also, and I hope he may be."
On the morning when Hugo and Humphrey were to start, the canon summoned them to his presence, and his face was grave. "I have but now learned," he said, "that the king is at Clipstone Palace. When the knaves thou didst leave stunned in the fen discover it also, they will at once repair thither, and that maketh a new complication of troubles. Let us consult together. I include the serving-man because he is such a valiant compeller." And the canon, forgetting his gravity, laughed heartily. And again he laughed. Then he grew grave again. "Pardon me," he said to Hugo; "but one may laugh so seldom in these troublous times. And erstwhile I was fond of laughing, and glad to have a merry heart. Now merry hearts be few in England, for they who have not already grief, have anxiety and dread for their portion." He paused and then went on: "The same hand that did send me news of the king's neighborhood did add something more thereto. A fierce little swaggering, strutting man did come upon the king at Newark and did tell him that Josceline, meaning thee, had fled, and that he had been pursuing thee. Didst thou know of it?"
"Yea," replied Hugo, with a smile. Then turning to the serving-man he said, "Humphrey, since the canon loveth to be merry, tell thou him of the hedgehog and the Isle of Axholme."
Humphrey did as he was requested, and was amply rewarded by the appreciation of his listener. "I see thou art worth a troop, my good Humphrey," he said, when the serving-man had finished. "Lady De Aldithely did well to trust thee with this lad. But now to my news once more. The king, in his wrath, will scour the country roundabout, and thou mayest not escape from him as thou didst from thine other pursuers. What dost thou elect to do?" And he looked at Hugo.
Hugo considered, and as he considered he grew pale. "I know not," he said at last. "It seemeth not safe to move."
"True," returned the canon. "Nor is it safe to remain here. The king respecteth no religious foundation. And when these stunned knaves in the fen make report to him, it will be known that thou wert seen close to Peterborough, and not an inch of the town will be left unsearched. I would my friend at Newark—but nay, I must not speak of that."
There was a brief silence, and Humphrey's was the most anxious face in the room. Not for himself did he feel anxiety, but for Hugo. If the canon hardly knew what to do, how could he hope to succeed in protecting the lad?
The canon was the first to speak. "If it can be done," he said, "the knaves in the fen must be kept from the king. I will have in to our conference Herebald and Bernulf." And rising, he summoned them.
They came in very promptly, and stood with cheerful faces before their master. "I know thee, Herebald; I know thee, Bernulf," said the canon, shaking his head at them in pretended reproof. "Ye be sad knaves both. What! would ye leave the monastery and go forth into the fen on ponies and armed with your staves? And would ye seek out once more the knaves ye did stun, and try to lead them astray, even down into the Broads? And all to keep them from the king?"
The two servants grinned.
"And would ye make believe to be on the trail of Hugo and Humphrey here? And would ye lead them far from the trail? I see that ye would, knaves that ye are. I have discovered ye. And there is no restraining ye when once ye have set your minds upon a thing. Therefore get ye gone to the fen. No man can say that I did send ye thither. And here be coins for ye both, which, no doubt, ye will deserve later, if not now."
The two joyfully withdrew and shortly afterward were in the streets of the town jogging slowly along as if bent on a most unwelcome journey. "See the Saxon sluggards!" commented a bystander. "Naught do they do but eat, unless compelled."
But once outside the town, the ponies were put to a good pace as the two hastened eagerly into the fen to trace, if they might, Richard Wood and his men-at-arms. The camp where they had come up with them before was deserted, and Herebald and Bernulf now had for their task the discovery of the direction the party had taken. Had they not been fen-men they might not have succeeded. But by night they felt that they were really on their trail. They had passed Peterborough and continued on to the south, evidently going slowly, as became broken heads; and Herebald and Bernulf came up with them by the side of Whittlesea Mere early on the following day. As they came into view Richard Wood evidently regarded the two Saxons with suspicion; but the men-at-arms looked at them with nothing but indifference.
Herebald and Bernulf appeared not to notice; but, withdrawing to a little distance, seemed to confer together and examine narrowly the leaves and twigs and rushes to see if they were bent or broken by the passage of a recent traveller. As they went earnestly about on all sides of the camp at the Mere, and keeping ever in sight of it, the curiosity of Richard Wood overcame his suspicion, and he beckoned them to approach. His summons they at first seemed inclined to disregard, but, as he continued beckoning, they at last went toward him with apparent reluctance.
"What seek ye?" demanded Richard Wood.
The two Saxons kept silence, but exchanged a crafty look, as if to say that they were not to be caught so easily.
"What seek ye?" repeated the spy.
"Hast thou seen aught of two runaways?" asked Herebald, gruffly. "Even a young lord who hath to his serving-man a Saxon?"
Then Richard Wood himself looked crafty. He did not like finding other pursuers so near him who might claim part of the reward, at least, when the search was successfully ended. But reflection came to his aid and told him that these Saxons were ignorant hinds who might be made useful on the search, and afterward cheated of their share of the reward. So he said, "Ye be fen-men, I know, or ye would not look so narrowly for a trail nor would ye find it. Which way do ye go?" And he looked at them keenly.
"Through the Broads toward Yarmouth," answered Herebald, slowly, after a short pause, and speaking in a surly tone.
"And wherefore?" demanded Richard Wood.
"There is shipping to be got to France from thence, is there not?"
"Yea, verily," cried Richard Wood. "It had not before entered my mind. Thinkest thou they have gone thither?"
Herebald frowned. "Thou art too ready with thy questions," he growled. "But this I will say, we go thither."
"Then we go with thee," said Richard Wood, firmly. "The way is open to us as well as to thee, and thou mayest not gainsay it."
"Oh, ay," returned Herebald, indifferently.
All that day Richard Wood kept a sharp eye on his new acquaintances. "Watch them narrowly," he said to his men. "They will seek to make this catch without us and so obtain the reward. Therefore all that ye see them do, do ye likewise, and I will also do the same."
Herebald and Bernulf saw and understood, and laughed together unseen. "They have not good wit, or they would not be so led by us when we be strangers," observed Herebald.
"It is ever thus with knaves," said Bernulf. "Though they seem sharp, there is a place where they be dull, and an honest man can often find it, and so outwit them."
Then they turned back to Richard Wood and his companions. "Go ye slowly and softly," growled Herebald. "Ye go lunging and splashing so that ye may be heard a long way off. Moreover, ye have scared up all the water-fowl hereabouts, and they go screaming over our heads. What think ye? If there be travellers near will they not hide close in the reeds till ye and your noise be past?"
At this rebuke Richard Wood drew rein suddenly and gazed sharply about him on all sides. Then he said, "Your caution shall be obeyed." And he gave the command to his followers to be careful.
Herebald now returned to the side of Bernulf, and the two, gazing with mirthful eyes into each other's faces, separated themselves a little distance and pretended to examine the way narrowly. It was not for nothing that they had served the merry Canon Thurstan for seven years.
That night, when all the camp was still, Bernulf slipped quietly forth in the darkness. He was gone three hours, and in that time he blazed such a trail as a madman might have taken. A bit of every fringe of rush or reed he came to he broke; and he stamped with his foot in the slimy mud on the edges of ponds and pools. "These fools," said he, "know naught of the fens or the Broads, and they will believe all that they see; for the broken bits and the footprints will speak to them of the young lord and his serving-man, and they will listen and hasten on. It is easy to lead a fool a chase."
The next morning Richard Wood was early awake, and, while all the rest were apparently asleep, he, in his turn, stole forth to look about him. "I trust not these knave Saxons entirely," he said to himself. "Though we all ride together now, they will seek to outwit us at the end, and gain the reward for themselves."
He had not gone far when he came upon the evidences of a recent passage along that way, and, in great excitement, he returned to the camp and roused up his followers, and, incidentally, the two Saxons. "Lie not here sleeping," he said, "when we be close on the trail. Let us be off speedily!" His men rose eagerly, and the Saxons also seemed to be stirred up at his words. And very soon, after half a breakfast, they all mounted and rode off, Richard Wood keeping in the advance. Soon he struck the trail blazed the night before by Bernulf, and eagerly he followed it, though he was obliged to do so slowly; for the trail went on ahead for three miles, then doubled, then zigzagged, then went straight east three miles, and bent round till it went due west again.
"The young lord is lost," declared Richard Wood, positively, "else would he never ride such a crazy track as this."
At last, when it was too late to travel further that day, the track turned eastward again, and the party went into camp for the night about one mile from where they had camped the night before. But to Richard Wood it seemed that they must be at least ten miles advanced on their way, for, to him, all the marsh looked the same.
"Did I not do well, Herebald?" asked Bernulf. "Here have we kept them busy in the marsh for a whole day, and that giveth the lad with the canon so much the better a start."
"Yea," said Herebald. "To-night rest thou, and I will start the trail for them to-morrow."
Accordingly, as soon as the weary Richard Wood and his men had sunk into a heavy sleep, which they did almost as soon as they lay down, Herebald set out. He was extremely swift of foot and knew the region well. He was gone four hours. "The knave king's man and his followers will sleep soundly to-morrow night also if they follow my trail," he said, when he had returned and lay down.
The next morning a late awakening of the men gave a late start. The enthusiasm of the day before was gone; but it came back when Richard Wood, riding in advance, struck the trail once more. This was more difficult to follow than the one of the day before. It led through places where the party almost mired, but not quite; through places where the horses splashed heavily along, scaring the water-fowl up in all directions; through patches of reeds; through tangles of tough grass; through shallow water; through deep water; and ever on with few seeming deviations. But the course was much slower than that of the day before, and that had been slow enough.
Night came and the fagged party in disappointment once more lay down.
"Thou hast done well, Herebald," said Bernulf. "To-night it is my turn. But think ye not it were better now to lead straight on to Yarmouth?"
"Yea," answered Herebald.
"It seemeth to me that it were best to put them there to search the town. What thinkest thou?"
"Even as thou thinkest," returned Herebald, grinning.
"And then," continued Bernulf, "methinks it would be seemly to entice them aboard a fishing-vessel and ship them off for France, and so be rid of them."
"Yea," agreed Herebald. "I would all the knaves in England were shipped off to France, and it were a good beginning to ship these four."
Another morning dawned, and slowly and heavily the men arose. Such weary days followed by nights spent in the marsh had sapped their energy. For the first time the men-at-arms looked sullen, and one went to Richard Wood and spoke for all. "We be neither fish nor water-fowl," he said, "to spend our days in the marsh. We go this one day more with thee; then, if we come not out of the marsh and into the town of Yarmouth, we leave thee and return to our master."
The heavy-eyed Richard Wood counselled patience. "Would ye have these Saxon knaves get the better of us just when the quarry is all but run to earth? They be not so weary as we, and a plague upon their endurance. If ye stand not by me, the game is lost."
But the man-at-arms answered sullenly: "I have said. Lead us out of this vile marsh."
"And now," said the canon, when Herebald and Bernulf had gone, "thou mayest remain no longer here. It is too near the king, and moreover, delay taketh thee not forward toward France. Since thou knowest not what to do, Hugo, I will plan for thee. And first, thou must leave here with me thy dog, Fleetfoot."
Hugo opened his mouth to object, seeing which the canon at once continued, "Nay, do not speak. It must be done. Thee I can disguise and thy man Humphrey I can disguise, but what disguise availeth for thy dog? To take Fleetfoot is to endanger thy life unnecessarily. Shouldst thou take him, even if thou didst win safely through, which is a very doubtful thing, thou wouldst find him but an unwelcome encumbrance to Lord De Aldithely. Leave the dog, therefore, with me, and I will care for him."
Hugo reflected. Then he looked up into the canon's face, and he saw that, though he might have a merry heart, he had also a determined will. He yielded, therefore, and consented to leave Fleetfoot behind. At this decision the canon smiled well satisfied, and Humphrey's face also showed the relief he felt at being rid of the dog's company.
"And next," continued the canon, "I counsel thee to go no more through the fens, for there will they seek for thee. Thou hast gone skulking and hiding so far on thy course, and they that pursue thee will be too dull to think that thou mayest change. The time is come for thee to proceed boldly and on the highway. I will send thee first to Oundle, which lieth southwest from hence, and with a token I will procure thee safe lodging there. From thence I can do no more for thee till thou come to St. Albans, twenty miles away from London. But from Oundle thou must take thy course still southwest till thou come to the Watling Street. Then follow that southeast down to St. Albans. And in this jaunt Humphrey must lead, and thou must follow; for I shall make of Humphrey a priest, and of thee a novice."
He ceased, and there was no reply to what he had said. Both Hugo and Humphrey would have preferred to ride clad as they were, and to choose their own route and stopping-places. But they were sensible of how much they already owed the canon, and dangers were now so thick about them that they feared to refuse to do as he bade them. Therefore they permitted themselves to be properly robed, and took meekly the instructions he gave them as to their speech and manner of behaviour.
"This I do not for thee only, but for my friend, Roger Aungerville, and for the brave Lord De Aldithely," he said in parting from them. "Forget not to call me to their minds when thou dost meet them, and say that I be ever ready to serve them as best I may."
Hugo promised, and thanked the canon on the part of himself and Humphrey for the cheer and aid they had received at his hands; and, with a heavy heart, rode away behind the serving-man, who was now turned into a priest. He thought not on the dangers of the way, but on Fleetfoot, left at Peterborough.
"Fret not, dear lad," said Humphrey. "In the king's dungeon there would be no room for Fleetfoot, and mayhap he would be put to death. Now is he in good hands, even in the merry-hearted canon's hands, and no evil will befall him. He hath such a care to please thine uncle and my lord that he will look well to thy dog."
By nightfall the two were safely lodged at Oundle.
"Ye be safe," said the priest of the parish when he had received them. "Here will no man seek for ye this night, and, on the morrow, ye shall speed away. I may not suffer ye to tarry longer."
Meanwhile the unlucky bailiff had proceeded to Clipstone with the news that Walter Skinner was fled, and no man knew what had become of him. He had just delivered it and the king was still in his rage when De Skirlaw and De Kellaw arrived. "Admit them," he gave order. "I will hear what hath come to pass there. Mayhap the castle hath stolen away, even as this prisoner hath done."
As De Skirlaw and De Kellaw entered, the king, scanning their faces, read that they bore him no welcome news, and his rage broke out afresh. "What land is this that I be king of?" he exclaimed. "A land of rebels and disobedience. A land of dull skies and duller fortunes. What saw ye that ye come before me with glum faces and serious looks? Speak, if ye can. Is the castle gone?"
"Nay, Your Majesty," said De Skirlaw. "The castle we found, but—"
"Ye mean that the prisoner spake true," burst out the king, "and that the young lord is escaped?"
"Yea," answered De Skirlaw. "No human being inhabiteth the castle. And in the moat at the rear kites and eagles have fed."
"What mean ye? What hath chanced there?"
"Your Majesty, no man knoweth," was the answer.
"But there be only bones and armor in the dry moat, and no living thing in the castle."
For a little the king stared straight before him. Then he said, "Bring the rascal bailiff before me."
With haste the unhappy officer was brought.
"Wretch!" broke out the king. "Go find me the prisoner that thou hast let escape thee. If thou find him not, thy life shall answer for it." In great fear the bailiff retired from the royal presence, and the king went on as if to himself: "Mayhap he knew what hath chanced. Mayhap he knoweth now the whereabouts of the young lord."
As the bailiff reentered Newark he met again the courtier by the gate. "What news, worthy bailiff?" he asked.
"Why, this," answered the bailiff, in despair. "The prisoner must be found or my life is forfeit. And I know not where to look."
The courtier kept silence for a few moments. "The prisoner must not be found," he thought, "or mayhap the young lord, Josceline De Aldithely, will be undone; and for the friendship I do bear his father, this may not be. But neither must the worthy bailiff die." Then he spoke.
"Worthy bailiff," he said, "what is done cannot be undone. The prisoner is gone, no man knoweth whither. Thy only hope is in flight. And to that, seeing thou art a worthy man, I will help thee. Go thou apparently to seek for the prisoner, but flee for thy life, and tell me not where. Thou knowest a place of safety, I warrant thee."
"Yea," replied the bailiff, after a little thought, "I know."
"Proceed, then, with thine helpers to the search for the prisoner; contrive shortly to give them the slip, and thou art saved. I will do what I can in baffling pursuit of thee. For this our king is, as thou knowest, a tyrant who, though he greatly feareth death for himself, doth not hesitate to measure it out to us his subjects. Therefore are we bound to help each other. When thou canst protect another, do so; and so farewell." Speaking in these general terms he not only gained from the bailiff a belief in his own benevolence, but effectually concealed from him the real reason of his helping him, which was to protect, so far as possible, the young Josceline De Aldithely.
"It is well for a lad when his father hath many friends," mused the courtier. "For then, even the malice and hatred of the king may be foiled. I will now away to Clipstone and see what passeth there." And, summoning two attendants, he set out.
Upon arriving, he found but a gloomy air about the place. The king's rage was not yet spent and no man knew upon whom he would take occasion to visit his displeasure. But the courtier who, in the guise of a scullion, had himself set the prisoner free, moved calmly about, and alone of all seemed to feel no anxiety. Toward nightfall the word was whispered about that, on the morrow, the king would himself proceed with a party to De Aldithely castle.
The morrow came and at an early hour there was everywhere bustle and confusion, for all that the royal party would need for their brief absence from Clipstone must be taken with them: food, dishes, bedding, and servants.
At length all was ready and the train set out. It was a gloomy ride, for the king's temper was not yet recovered and no man ventured to say aught in his presence.
Leaving the baggage and servants far in the rear, the impatient king with his attendants rode on and on until they came to Cawood castle beyond Selby and but a few miles distant from De Aldithely castle. Here the king stopped for the night, and the servants and baggage not having yet come up, his temper was not improved by the lack of their service. It was a great castle to which he had come, being one of the largest and strongest in the north of England.
"And Cawood shall have no more for a neighbor the castle of De Aldithely," said the king the next morning, when, after a somewhat uncomfortable night owing to the late arrival of the servants, he rode forth from its gate on his way to the home of the great and popular baron.
Artisans from Selby who had been sent by the king's order, were already on their way thither also. And these having risen very early and made good speed, John found already arrived when he himself appeared. But no one had ventured to set foot within the walls without the royal word.
As John drew near, he looked upon the castle in scowling silence. Still in silence he rode to the edge of the moat and looked down. And there he saw the armor and the bones as De Skirlaw had said. An attendant now spoke to him, and he nodded his head in assent. At once three of the artisans were hurried across the postern bridge and through the gate with instructions to hasten to the front entrance and let down the bridge and open the great gate for the king.
Still speaking no word the monarch rode to the great gate, crossed the bridge, and entered, and once within the outer bailey, looked about him. He rode into the inner bailey, and, dismounting, began a personal examination of the castle; and as he proceeded his frown grew blacker and blacker, for everywhere he saw evidences of premeditated and deliberate flight. The treasure chests were empty, and everything of value removed.
At last he spoke. "What hath chanced here I know not," he said. "But this I know, these traitor walls shall stand no longer. Bid the artisans in to begin their destruction." Then turning to De Skirlaw he added: "Go thou to the moat and examine the armor. See, if thou canst, to what troop it belongeth."
But before De Skirlaw could execute this commission there appeared upon the scene two men-at-arms from Hubert le Falconer, in search of certain of their companions, and they were at once brought before the king. To him they related how, for a certain sum, a certain knight in the service of the king had hired them to assist him in entering the castle, through the treachery of one Robert Sadler, and in carrying off the young lord, Josceline De Aldithely, to the direct custody of the king.
"And this knight was—" interrupted John.
"Sir Thomas De Lany," said the man-at-arms.
"Came thy companions to the castle here?" demanded the king.
"Yea, Your Majesty, some ten days now agone. My master having need of them hath sent us to call them to him again."
"It is a call they will not answer," said John. "Nor will the brave knight, Sir Thomas De Lany, answer to my call. De Kirkham, take these men-at-arms to view the moat by the postern. Now know we who sleep there. Could we but know the whereabouts of the wife of this traitor, De Aldithely, and the whereabouts of his son, we were better satisfied. And now depart we from this place. Raze the walls. Let not one stone remain upon another.
"And thou, De Skirlaw, and thou, De Kellaw, haste ye both to Newark and see if the rascal bailiff hath yet found the prisoner. He can speak if he will, and he must be found."
With feigned zeal the two set out, but, once beyond the view of the king, their fiery pace lagged to a slow one as they rode toward Selby, where they were determined to halt for a night's rest. "I care not if the prisoner be not found," said De Kellaw. "I be tired of this tyranny; this imprisoning and slaying of children taken as hostages from their fathers; this razing of castles. John will not be king forever, and it behooveth us not to make ourselves odious to all men by helping him to his desires too much. I haste not on this enterprise, and so I tell thee."
"Nor I neither," declared De Skirlaw.
The king now set out on his return to Cawood, from whence, on the morrow, he would go on to Clipstone again.
"Yea, and I will go even to Newark," he said to himself as he rode along. "I will be at hand to put heart into this search, which seemeth to lag. But have the prisoner I will; and when I have found him, I will open his mouth for him to some purpose."
To the great joy of Richard Wood, the way seemed to lead across the wide, flat, marshy country straight in the direction of Yarmouth. "If the young lord and his serving-man be as weary of the marsh as I and my companions be," he said, "they have gone directly out of it to Yarmouth, and there shall we catch them."
But though the way seemed not to deviate in direction, that of the day before was easy in comparison with it.
"Were I but journeying through this vile stretch of country I could pick a better course," grumbled Richard Wood as he went forward. "But being on chase of these two, I must even be content to follow. Behold me now when the day is but half gone, slopped with water and besplashed with mud till no man may know the color of my garments. It must be that the young lord hath small wit to take such a course. Or mayhap he looketh more behind him than before as he rideth, fearing pursuit."
And now they were come to the Yare; and it seemed that they would be obliged to swim across it. "Never swam I in my life," declared Richard Wood, "and I will not now begin."
"Canst thou not swim on thy horse's back?" demanded one of the men-at-arms, impatiently.
"Ay; but how if the beast goeth down in the stream?" said Richard Wood. "I tell thee, I fear water."
Then came one of the Saxons to the rescue. "Near here dwelleth a fen-man," he said, "and he hath a boat. I will e'en call him to take thee over, and thou canst let thy horse swim."
Upon hearing this all three of the weary men-at-arms clamored for places in the boat which Herebald, after a conference with Bernulf, promised them.
"Hearest thou not, Herebald," said Bernulf, "that the king's man feareth the water? We must put him and his men across softly and bolster up their valor, else shall we fail to entice them aboard the fishing-vessel, and so fail to ship them off to France; and thus England is so much the worse off by having still here the vile knaves."
"Yea, Bernulf, thou art right," was the answer. "And surely we have led them through toils enough, for they be weary to fainting. This it is for a vile spy to go round the country with some lumbering men-at-arms, seeking to entrap a poor young lad to his destruction."
"Yea," replied Bernulf; "but thou hast left out one thing. Thou shouldst have said, 'This it is when two Saxons get him and them in the toils.' They had not been one-half so weary without us. Do but remember that."
"Ay," agreed Herebald. "I do think we have some blame for their aching bones; but they can rest when they be tossing on that good old North Sea, for I promise them it will take more than a load of herring to hold the ship steady."
All this time Richard Wood and his men were impatiently waiting. "Why tarry ye so long?" called the spy in a loud voice, as he looked in their direction.
"We did but talk of what 'twere best to do and a few other matters," replied Herebald, advancing. "And we think we may promise places to ye all in the boat. Run, Bernulf; make speed and bring the man and his boat."
Away went Bernulf, leaping lightly across a pool here, picking his way skilfully over long grass and among reeds there, to the amazement of Richard Wood, who watched. "I would my horse had but the nimbleness and speed of the knave's legs," he said. "But our toils be almost over, and so I complain not. I make no doubt we lay hold of the young lord and the serving-man in Yarmouth."
At this Herebald looked sceptical.
"What meanest thou by that look?" asked Richard Wood.
"Why, nothing," returned Herebald. "Only I did call to mind that there be many fishing-vessels in the harbor."
"And what hath that to do with it?" asked Richard Wood.
"And through the North Sea one may go to France."
"Why, thou didst say that long ago when we were toiling through the marsh. Thinkest thou I shall forget to search the ships when I have searched the town? I forget not so easily, I promise thee."
The fen-man seemed not to be readily persuaded to bring his boat, for an hour elapsed before he was seen rowing toward them with Bernulf lolling lazily in the stern.
At last he reached the little party, and Richard Wood and his men were safely embarked. Then the two Saxons, mounting their ponies, directed them into the stream, and they were off, the fen-man glancing curiously every now and then at his passengers. He made no remarks, however, but managed his boat so skilfully that Richard Wood hardly realized that he was on the water, and, in due time, found himself set ashore with his men on the other side.
"And yonder be Yarmouth," said Herebald, cheerfully. "We come to it surely by set of sun."
There was no more marks of passage before them, and Richard Wood, picking his own path, travelled more easily than he had before, and had also to help him an enlarged appreciation of his own powers, to which he speedily added a large increase of hope that now the end of his troubles had come. He therefore went forward with renewed animation, and when, at set of sun, he stopped before a little Yarmouth inn, he was well satisfied with himself.
"Do ye also lodge here?" he asked the Saxons.
Herebald affected to be uncertain.
"Surely it were better that ye do so," urged Richard Wood, "that we may search the town and the ships together on the morrow."
"Nay," put in Bernulf. "We lodge not here. I do know a cheaper place; and we be not Normans that we have money to waste."
Richard Wood frowned. "Speak not against the Normans," he said. "The king is a Norman."
"Oh, ay," answered Bernulf, indifferently. And then he added with determination in his tone, "We lodge not here."
Herebald now drew Richard Wood aside.
"Heed him not," he said, "lest he turn surly on our hands and get us into trouble. I will go with him elsewhere to lodge, and to-morrow morn will I bring him back to help thee on thy search."
"Thou art not so sad a knave as he," returned Richard Wood, "and I thank thee. See that ye both come, and that right early."
Herebald reiterated his promise to do so, and then went away with Bernulf, while Richard Wood followed his men into the bar, where they were already drinking.
"What meanest thou, Bernulf? Why wouldst thou not lodge here?" asked Herebald as they rode along.
"Why, this, Herebald," was the answer. "We have much to do ere we go to rest. We must find the ship that is loaded and ready to weigh anchor to-morrow toward noon when the wind and tide will serve. And we must bespeak the help of the captain to get these knaves aboard."
"True, Bernulf," responded Herebald. "Thou hast a wit that would match with the canon's."
"Yea, I be not so dull as some Normans, though I be counted but a slow-witted Saxon," returned Bernulf, with complacency. "And now let us first to our supper and the putting away of the ponies, and then do we take boat and visit the ships."
They found an inn suited to their tastes in one of the Rows, and before the dark had really come down over the harbor they were out on a tour of the ships. The tour, however, was destined to be a short one, since the second ship they visited proved to have among her sailors two men that they knew. And, moreover, they discovered the captain to be one Eric, whose mother was cousin to Bernulf's father.
"Here have we luck," said Bernulf. "To Eric may I speak freely."
"Yea, verily," answered Herebald. "And she is loaded with herring also and saileth on the morrow toward noon. Go, then, and speak freely, as thou sayest."
Bernulf did so; and the Captain Eric entered heartily into his plans as Bernulf laid them before him. "The loons!" he exclaimed with a hearty laugh, as he heard of the journey through the fens. "The witless geese! And thou hast not once told them that the young lord and his serving-man came in this direction?"
"Nay, not once. We did but break branches, and make tracks on the edges of the pools, and ruffle the long grass, and they did read for themselves that those they sought were just ahead of them. We have hope that the young lord be, by this time, well and safely sped on his journey."
"Ay, and by to-morrow at this time will his pursuers be upon their journey," said Eric. "I am to refuse to let them come aboard, sayest thou, until they demand permission in the king's name? And then the moment they be down the companionway I am to hoist the anchor and be off?"
"Yea," answered Bernulf, "that is it."
"So be it," returned Eric. "And it is a small thing to do for a kinsman also moreover."
"And now go we ashore," said Bernulf. "To-morrow morn we aid the king's spy to search the town. He will have a merry run up and down the Rows, he and his men." And, with a hearty farewell to the skipper, Herebald and Bernulf climbed down the side of the vessel to their little boat gently rocking alongside.
"The business in hand hath an early end when luck goeth with a man," observed Bernulf, with satisfaction.
"Yea," responded Herebald. "And luck most often goeth with the man that hath good wit of his own."
Their strong arms made light of the short distance they had to row, and they were soon back at the little inn and at rest.
As for Richard Wood, weary as he was, he was long in finding sleep. For ever he would be wondering in which part of the little town it were best to begin the search. And how it were best to conduct it so that no outsider could manage to claim part of the reward when the runaways were captured. At last, undecided, he fell asleep, and Herebald and Bernulf were awaiting him when he awoke rather late in the morning. In haste he and his men ate their breakfast, and in still greater haste they set off on the search, only to be brought to a standstill before it was well begun; for there fronting the sea were one hundred and forty-five little narrow streets called the Rows, and their combined length made a distance of seven miles.
"This be a foolish way to build a town," grumbled Richard Wood, "and none but Saxons would have done it. Why, here be a street only two feet wide at one end of it. And up and down one hundred and forty-five streets we must chase, to say nothing of looking in the better parts of the town."
"Thou hast well said," observed Herebald, gravely. "It is not an easy thing, this search. But where dost thou begin? And how wilt thou go about it?"
"Why, why," stammered Richard Wood, "I did never search a town before, and that is but the truth."
"Were it not best to proceed boldly?" asked Herebald, slyly.
"Boldly, sayest thou? And what meanest thou by boldly?"
"Why, by boldly, I mean boldly. Surely thou knowest what boldly is? Walk into the house with a 'by your leave,' which is, after all, no leave, since it is done without leave; there look through all, and then out and away again into the next house, or the next but one, as it pleaseth thee."
Richard Wood looked at him in displeasure. "It is easy to see thou art but a Saxon churl," he said. "And moreover, where is thy sense of time? This day were gone; ay, and the next before we had entered every house in one hundred and forty-five little streets."
"Ay, thou art right. Perchance it were better not to take so much time, for there be the ships, and some of them do sail to-day."
"To-day!" exclaimed Richard Wood, in alarm. "And when?"
"Toward noon," was the reply; "for then wind and tide will serve."
A look of resolution came over the face of Richard Wood. He turned to his men-at-arms.
"Take each of thee a street," he said, "and I will take another. Search as well and thoroughly as ye can for one hour, and then come to this point to go with me to the ships. We have had many toils to catch them. They must not escape us now."
"And what do we?" asked Herebald.
Now Richard Wood was quite determined that the Saxons should not share in the reward, so he answered: "Stand ye here, and watch all who pass. Let none escape ye."
"That were an easy task," growled Bernulf. "But why may we not also take each man his street, and knock and 'by-your-leave' with the rest of ye? It is because we be Saxons that ye put this slight upon us." And he affected to be greatly displeased.
"Peace, man!" said Richard Wood, more pacifically. "It is true ye be Saxons, but that is by the will of heaven. And ye be in nowise to blame therefor. So should ye bear with patience the lot of Saxons."
"Which is to wait on Normans, as ye would say," retorted Bernulf, scornfully. "But we bide here, as thou hast said."
"The hinds be jealous," said Richard Wood, as he hastened up the little street he had chosen, looking narrowly about him for the house, in his judgment, most likely to be the hiding-place of the runaways. About half-way up the street he espied it, but when, in the king's name, he entered, he found nothing to reward him for his pains. Wherever he stopped he fared no better, and he was fain to believe, at last, the asseverations of the inhabitants that there were not only no runaways in that street, but that none were to be found in all Yarmouth,—a town which, according to them, was a most proper place, where those who could not give a good account of themselves never ventured. Unless, indeed, it might be a few Frenchmen now and then, and, as they told him with much garrulity, every Englishman knew what to expect from the French. And then they asked him if those he sought were French. And when he said that they were not, they began at the beginning and went all over the subject again, telling him what a discreet and proper place Yarmouth was, and how none such as he was seeking ever ventured there, until he was like to go distracted, and had not completed the search of even that one little Row when the hour was up, and he hastened to the place appointed to meet his men-at-arms. He found that his experience had been theirs, and, in his disappointment and disgust, he said some harsh things about Yarmouth tongues, which he estimated as entirely too nimble.
The two Saxons heard his comments with covert smiles, and followed along toward the ships.
That morning the ship of Eric had slightly changed her position, and Bernulf so managed that, when the small row-boat he was bidden to hire was about to put off from land, Eric's ship would naturally be the first one boarded.
"Do we go with thee?" asked Herebald.
"Nay," answered Richard Wood. "Here be two men who will row for us. Do ye stay where ye be and watch."
Then they all climbed into the small row-boat and were pulled away toward Eric's ship.
"Ay, we will watch," said Herebald to Bernulf.
A little later the boat went alongside, and the spy and his men-at-arms climbed heavily and clumsily aboard, after a brief parley with skipper Eric, in which he had at first refused them permission to do so.
"They be here!" exulted Richard Wood in his thought, "else why should we be forbidden to come aboard?"
"What seek ye?" demanded the skipper, in a gruff tone when they were safely on deck.
"Two runaways," answered Richard Wood, loudly, for already the anchor was being lifted.
"There be no runaways here," returned the skipper, positively.
"We will see, we will see," returned Richard Wood. And laying firm hold of the rail he lunged down the steep companionway, followed by his men-at-arms and one of the seamen, whom the captain by a nod of his head bade to follow them. Once down, they gazed about them and knew not which way to turn.
"Where is the captain?" said Richard Wood, sternly. "Bid him come down and show us all parts of the ship at once."
"Skipper may not come. He is busy," answered the seaman. "But I can show thee. Thou wilt see all?"
Then the seaman very obligingly began to do as he was bid. There was very little to see in the close quarters; but he, being loquacious, was a long time in showing it, and more than half an hour had elapsed before Richard Wood was thoroughly persuaded that there was nobody secreted on board. And all this time, in his eagerness, he had not noticed that the ship was moving. He now turned to the companionway.
"What motion is this?" he asked, turning pale. "Hath the ship gone adrift from her moorings?"
"Nay," answered the seaman; "the ship is not gone adrift."
Laying fast hold on the rail, the spy managed to climb up to the deck. He looked about him, but no row-boat was alongside. He then turned to the skipper.
"Surely we be gone adrift from our moorings," he said.
"Nay," answered the skipper, calmly. "I did forbid thee to come aboard, but thou wouldst come. Now are we under sail."
The priest of the parish at Oundle had Hugo and Humphrey up and off betimes the next morning, as he had said. "It must be he liketh not our company over well," observed Humphrey, as they jogged on after a very brief and hasty leave-taking.
"Perhaps he taketh thee for a wolf in sheep's clothing," said Hugo, with a meaning glance at the priest's habit in which the stalwart Humphrey was engulfed.
"And thee for the cub, dear lad," retorted Humphrey. "But it may be after all that he looketh but to his own safety, and desireth not to fall into disgrace with the king by harboring us. But hark! Let us withdraw ourselves into the wood. Here come travellers this way. And I cannot feel safe in the priest's garb. The wood, methinks, were a better protection."
With the celerity of practice the two concealed themselves in the wood in such a position that they could see the path. And presently there came into view a small party of knights on their way northward.
"They look not so dangerous," commented Hugo.
"Nay," agreed Humphrey. "I would liefer see them than king's spies. But bide we here a bit and see if more will come."
It was very still in the wood that morning and a little sound seemed a great one. So the two, while they waited, talked together in low tones. "The merry-hearted canon is in most things wise, I do suppose," observed Humphrey. "But I feel not like a priest though I wear his garb. And I fear to do something which will betray me to be but the Saxon serving-man which I am. Still, I must wear it?" And he looked inquiringly at Hugo.
"Yea," replied the boy. "The land is so full of priests that few scan them closely. And, moreover, there be Saxons among them. He was born but a Saxon serf who was the great pope Adrian IV."
"Sayest thou so?" said Humphrey. "I will e'en take courage and wear the priest's garb as well as I can. I suppose thou knowest all this from thine uncle, the prior?"
"Yea," answered Hugo, with a smile.
A while there was silence, while both listened. Then Humphrey said, "But I like not the canon's plan that we go to St. Albans."
"And wherefore?" asked Hugo.
"That I cannot tell. I do but know that I like it not. It were better to go straight to London. So think I, and so do I say."
Hugo reflected. He knew that the way was not particularly safe for them anywhere. "If it should be discovered that we have been at Peterborough," he said at length.
"Yea, lad," broke in Humphrey. "I had not thought of that. But would they not straight seek for us at St. Albans, where the merry-hearted canon hath sent us? And neither did I like the parish priest at Oundle. He did speed us too gladly. And he knoweth that we go to St. Albans."
"Thou mayest be right, Humphrey," said Hugo. "It will doubtless cost the monks at St. Albans small grief if they do not see us. We will go to London as thou sayest."
Humphrey regarded him approvingly. "It is easy to see that thou art far from being a fool," he said. "Hiding and skulking through wood and fen are making thee wary."
The two now resumed their journey, and Humphrey asked, "Hast ever been on this Watling Street?"
"Nay," replied Hugo. "I was bred up, as thou knowest, by mine uncle, the prior, and all my travels have been by ear. What I did hear him speak of I know, but not much else."
"And he did never speak of the Watling Street?"
"Yea, he hath oft spoken of it. But it is a long road, and here in England since the time of the Romans. I know that it goeth to London."
"Then we go to St. Albans after all?"
"Why, St. Albans lieth on the Watling Street. So said the Canon Thurstan. But we need not stop long there."
"Unless we be stopped," said Humphrey. "I would we need not go nigh the place." He now halted and looked about him carefully. "Said the priest at Oundle where we should first come to the Watling Street?" he asked. "Nay," replied Hugo. "He did say only, 'Go till thou come to it,' even as the Canon Thurstan said."
"I hope we be on the right way," observed Humphrey. "I would fain find not only the Watling Street, but a town and an inn also. For the breakfast of the priest at Oundle was more of a fast than a feast."
They were now traversing an undulating country and going in a southerly direction.
"We may not ask our way," said Humphrey, decidedly. "It is as much as I can do to wear the priest's garb and speak when I be spoken to. Were I to speak of myself, it would speedily be known that I was no priest, for I have not the mind of a priest."
Hugo smiled. He had already learned that, although one might turn the mind of Humphrey for a little from its accustomed track, yet it speedily turned back. He had taken a little courage at the mention of the Saxon pope, Adrian IV, but now he was as fearful as ever.
"I wear this garb only till we be through London," resumed Humphrey. "The Canon Thurstan bid me wear it only so far. He said naught of what should be done later. And once we leave London I will be again Humphrey the serving-man, and no make-believe priest. I like not make-believes."
Hugo smiled again. "How likest thou my being a make-believe Josceline, and no Hugo?" he asked.
"That be a different matter," was the decided answer. "Thou hast saved our young lord's life, and thou art a brave lad. But I would rather skulk and hide in the fen than in the priest's garb. How likest thou to be a novice?"
"Why, very well," replied Hugo, "so that it serve my turn and help me on my way in safety. I should have been a true novice had I heeded my uncle. But, as thou knowest, I will be a knight."
"Ay, and a bold one thou wilt be," was the response; "as bold as our lord who is in France."
All day they held slowly on their way, and, though they frequently met other travellers, they attracted no more attention than an occasional curious glance. And toward sundown they came to the town of Dunstable.
"Now," cried Humphrey, joyfully, "here be a town. Let us make haste to enter before the curfew and find an inn. We have had a long fast."
"Shall we not rather go to the priory?" asked Hugo.
"Nay, verily," answered Humphrey. "I go to no priory to-night. I will go to an inn, and I will have there a mighty supper, and a good bed, and no priestly duties to perform. I know not how to perform them if I would. And I proclaim to no man that we be counterfeits. And moreover, the priests here may be even as the parish priest of Oundle. Mayhap he will not set the pursuers on our track, but I trust him not. I trust no man who sendeth forth travellers with such a breakfast." So saying, he rode boldly down the main street which he had entered till he came to where it intersected another main street at right angles. There he stopped. "Here be inns in plenty," he said. "It must be this town is on the Watling Street." And he questioned the groom who came to take their tired horses.
"Yea," answered the groom. "This be the town of Dunstable. And here it is that the Watling Street crosseth the Icknield Street."
"Pax vobiscum," said Humphrey. "I will in to the fire and my supper. Do thou care well for the beasts." And, followed by Hugo, he strode off with a gait which was not often seen on a priest.
The inn which Humphrey had chosen displayed the sign of the Shorn Lamb, and was one of the smallest in the neighborhood; it made its patrons at home in its large kitchen while they waited for the meal to be served. There was but one other guest in the room when Hugo and Humphrey entered, and the moment the faithful serving-man saw him he was grateful for his priest's garb; for the fierce little man who was giving orders in a peremptory manner was none other than Walter Skinner.
In great fear he had fled from Newark at the instance of the courtier, but his courage, after three days of wandering, had returned to him; for his hope of one day being a duke died hard. "Though I be the king's spy no longer," he had said to himself, "I have been the king's spy. Therefore I have had a certain measure of preferment and may hope for more." And in this humor he had come into Dunstable by way of the Icknield Street, and by chance had chosen the very inn Humphrey had selected. That he had fled from Newark and was no longer in pursuit of them Humphrey did not know; and he, accordingly, withdrew deeper into the concealment of his hood, while Hugo did the same.
As for Walter Skinner, he looked at them with contempt. "Here cometh a beggarly priest and a novice," he thought, "to keep company at the table with me. I will none of it." And he said haughtily to the innkeeper: "Worthy host, I have no liking to priests. Seat them not at the table with me. Give me thy company, if it please thee, but serve the priest and his novice elsewhere."
The innkeeper happened to be in a surly humor. Certain affairs had gone contrary and vexed him. Therefore he made answer: "I keep but one table. There may ye all feed or ye may look elsewhere. There be other inns." And he added slowly and impressively, "They—be—all—full—also."
"Why, here be a circumstance!" cried Walter Skinner. "The inns of this town be full, sayest thou? Why, all the inns in London be not full, I warrant thee. And why should they be full here in this bit of a town, with one street running this way, and one another way, like a cross? I would have thee to know that I have been servant to the king, and am used to be served accordingly."
"And what service hast thou done the king?" demanded the surly innkeeper, unbelievingly.
"I did watch from the top of the high tree the De Aldithely castle," was the boastingly given answer. "I did see the young lord and his serving-man flee through the postern and enter the wood." He was about to rehearse all the particulars of his pursuit of the runaways when the innkeeper interrupted him.
"Thou must, then," said he, "be the spy for whom the king is looking, and I will give thee to him."
"Nay, nay," said Walter Skinner, his fierceness all gone as he suddenly remembered the warning given him in Newark by the courtier who had set him free. "That thou mayest not do. I do journey toward the south. Thou mayest not delay me."
"I could if I would," returned the innkeeper, his surly mood vanishing as he saw before him the opportunity of enjoying himself by tormenting somebody. "But thou art such a sprat of a man that my compassion forbids me. The king looketh for thee to hear thee tell what thou knowest of the whereabouts of the young lord and his companion. If thou canst not tell, he will have thy head; so hath he sworn. For he is in an evil rage, and heads are as nothing to him when he rageth, as thou knowest. He searcheth also for the bailiff who had thee in charge and let thee escape. I warrant thee the bailiff hath a wit too sound to go proclaiming how he was some great man, even a bailiff in the town of Newark."
All this was lost on Walter Skinner, however, who grasped but one thought, that he was in danger, and had but one anxiety, how to escape it. He turned now with some degree of humility to Humphrey.
"What!" said the innkeeper. "Dost thou turn to the beggarly priest whom thou erstwhile didst despise? But it shall not avail thee. It is with me that thou must deal. Knowest thou that I might lose my head for harboring thee, if I give thee not up? But I will hide thee, my little sprat, so that the king himself would not know thee. Come with me."