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THE WITCH'S COTTAGE.
Richard was met on the threshold by mistress Rees, in the same old- fashioned dress, all but the hat, which I have already described. On her head she wore a widow's cap, with large crown, thick frill, and black ribbon encircling it between them. She welcomed him with the kindness almost of an old nurse, and led the way to the one chair in the room--beside the hearth, where a fire of peat was smouldering rather than burning beneath the griddle, on which she was cooking oat-cake. The cottage was clean and tidy. From the smoky rafters hung many bunches of dried herbs, which she used partly for medicines, partly for charms.
To herself, the line dividing these uses was not very clearly discernible.
'I am in trouble, mistress Rees,' said Richard, as he seated himself.
'Most men do be in trouble most times, master Heywood,' returned the old woman. 'Dost find thou hast taken the wrong part, eh?--There be no need to tell what aileth thee. 'Tis a bit easier to cast off a maiden than to forget her--eh?'
'No, mistress Rees. I came not to trouble thee concerning what is past and gone,' said Richard with a sigh. 'It is a taste of thy knowledge I want rather than of thy skill.'
'What skill I have is honest,' said the old woman.
'Far be it from thee to say otherwise, mother Rees. But I need it not now. Tell me, hast thou not been once and again within the great gates of Raglan castle?'
'Yes, my son--oftener than I can tell thee,' answered the old woman. 'It is but a se'night agone that I sat a talking with my son Thomas Rees in the chimney corner of Raglan kitchen, after the supper was served and the cook at rest. It was there my lad was turnspit once upon a time, for as great a man as he is now with my lord and all the household. Those were hard times after my good man left me, master Heywood. But the cream will to the top, and there is my son now--who but he in kitchen and hall? Well, of all places in the mortal world, that Raglan passes!'
'They tell strange things of the stables there, mistress Rees: know you aught of them?'
'Strange things, master? They tell nought but good of the stables that tell the truth. As to the armoury, now--well it is not for such as mother Rees to tell tales out of school.'
'What I heard, and wanted to ask thee about, mother, was that they are under ground. Thinkest thou horses can fare well under ground? Thou knowest a horse as well as a dog, mother.'
Ere she replied, the old woman took her cake from the griddle, and laid it on a wooden platter, then caught up a three-legged stool, set it down by Richard, seated herself at his knee, and assumed the look of mystery wherewith she was in the habit of garnishing every bit of knowledge, real or fancied, which it pleased her to communicate.
'Hear me, and hold thy peace, master Richard Heywood,' she said. 'As good horses as ever stamped in Redware stables go down into Raglan vaults; but yet they eat their oats and their barley, and when they lift their heads they look out to the ends of the world. Whether it be by the skill of the mason or of such as the hidden art of my lord Herbert knows best how to compel, let them say that list to make foes where it were safer to have friends. But this I am free to tell thee--that in the pitched court, betwixt the antechamber to my lord's parlour that hath its windows to the moat, and the great bay window of the hall that looks into that court, there goeth a descent, as it seemeth of stairs only; but to him that knoweth how to pull a certain tricker, as of an harquebus or musquetoon, the whole thing turneth around, and straightway from a stair passeth into an easy matter of a sloping way by the which horses go up and down. And Thomas he telleth me also that at the further end of the vaults to which it leads, the which vaults pass under the marquis's oak parlour, and under all the breadth of the fountain court, as they do call the other court of the castle, thou wilt come to a great iron door in the foundations of one of the towers, in which my lord hath contrived stabling for a hundred and more horses, and that, mark my words, my son, not in any vault or underground dungeon, but in the uppermost chamber of all.'
'And how do they get up there, mother?' asked Richard, who listened with all his ears.
'Why, they go round and round, and ever the rounder the higher, as a fly might crawl up a corkscrew. And there is a stair also in the same screw, as it were, my Thomas do tell me, by which the people of the house do go up and down, and know nothing of the way for the horses within, neither of the stalls at the top of the tower, where they stand and see the country. Yet do they often marvel at the sounds of their hoofs, and their harness, and their cries, and their chumping of their corn. And that is how Raglan can send forth so many horseman for the use of the king. But alack, master Heywood! is it for a wise woman like myself to forget that thou art of the other part, and that these are secrets of state which scarce another in the castle but my son Thomas knoweth aught concerning! What will become of me that I have told them to a Heywood, being, as is well known, myself no more of a royalist than another?'
And she regarded him a little anxiously.
'What should it signify, mother,'' said Richard, 'so long as neither you nor I believe a word of it? Horses go up a tower to bed forsooth! Yet for the matter of that, I will engage to ride my mare up any corkscrew wide enough to turn her forelock and tail in--ay, and down again too, which is another business with most horses. But come now, mother Rees, confess this all a fable of thine own contriving to make a mock of a farm-bred lad like me.'
'In good sooth, master Heywood,' answered the old woman, 'I tell the tale as 'twas told to me. I avouch it not for certain, knowing that my son Thomas hath a seething brain and loveth a joke passing well, nor heedeth greatly upon whom he putteth it, whether his master or his mother; but for the stair by the great hall window, that stair have I seen with mine own eyes, though for the horses to come and go thereby, that truly have I not seen. And for the rest I only say it may well be, for there is nothing of it all which the wise man, my lord Herbert, could not with a word--and that a light one for him to speak, though truly another might be torn to pieces in saying it.'
'I would I might see the place!' murmured Richard.
'An' it were not thou art such a--! But it boots not talking, master Heywood. Thou art too well known for a puritan--roundhead they call thee; and thou hast given them and theirs too many hard knocks, my son, to look they should be willing to let thee gaze on the wonders of their great house. Else, being that I am a friend to thee and thine, I would gladly--. But, as I say, it boots nothing--although I have a son, who being more of the king's part than I am--.'
'Hast thou not then art enough, mother, to set me within Raglan walls for an hour or two after midnight? I ask no more,' said Richard, who, although he was but leading the way to quite another proposal, nor desired aid of art black or white, yet could not help a little tremor at making the bare suggestion of the unhallowed idea.
'An' I had, I dared not use it,' answered the old woman; 'for is not my lord Herbert there? Were it not for him--well--. But I dare not, as I say, for his art is stronger than mine, and from his knowledge I could hide nothing. And I dare not for thy sake either, my young master. Once inside those walls of stone, those gates of oak, and those portcullises of iron, and thou comes not out alive again, I warrant thee.'
'I should like to try once, though,' said Richard. 'Couldst thou not disguise me, mother Rees, and send me with a message to thy son?'
'I tell thee, young master, I dare not,' answered the old woman, with utmost solemnity. 'And if I did, thy speech would presently bewray thee.'
'I would then I knew that part of the wall a man might scramble over in the dark,' said Richard.
'Thinks thou my lord marquis hath been fortifying his castle for two years that a young Heywood, even if he be one of the godly, and have long legs to boot, should make a vaulting horse of it? I know but one knows the way over Raglan walls, and thou wilt hardly persuade him to tell thee,' said mother Rees, with a grim chuckle.
As she spoke she rose, and went towards her sleeping chamber. Then first Richard became aware that for some time he had been hearing a scratching and whining. She opened the door, and out ran a wretched-looking dog, huge and gaunt, with the red marks of recent wounds all over his body, and his neck swathed in a discoloured bandage. He went straight to Richard, and began fawning upon him and licking his hands. Miserable and most disreputable as he looked, he recognised in him Dorothy's mastiff.
'My poor Marquis!' he said, 'what evil hath then befallen thee? What would thy mistress say to see thee thus?'
Marquis whined and wagged his tail as if he understood every word he said, and Richard was stung to the heart at the sight of his apparently forlorn condition.
'Hath thy mistress then forsaken thee too, Marquis?' he said, and from fellow-feeling could have taken the dog in his arms.
'I think not so,' said mistress Rees. 'He hath been with her in the castle ever since she went there.'
'Poor fellow, how thou art torn!' said Richard. 'What animal of thine own size could have brought thee into such a plight? Or can it be that thou hast found a bigger? But that thou hast beaten him I am well assured.'
Marquis wagged an affirmative.
'Fangs of biggest dog in Gwent never tore him like that, master Heywood. Heark'ee now. He cannot tell his tale, so I must tell thee all I know of the matter. I was over to Raglan village three nights agone, to get me a bottle of strong waters from mine host of the White Horse, for the distilling of certain of my herbs good for inward disorders, when he told me that about an hour before there had come from the way of the castle all of a sudden the most terrible noise that ever human ears were pierced withal, as if every devil in hell of dog or cat kind had broken loose, and fierce battle was waging between them in the Yellow Tower. I said little, but had my own fears for my lord Herbert, and came home sad and slow and went to bed. Now what should wake me the next morning, just as daylight broke the neck of the darkness, but a pitiful whining and obstinate scratching at my door! And who should it be but that same lovely little lapdog of my young mistress now standing by thy knee! But had thou seen him then, master Richard! It was the devil's hackles he had been through! Such a torn dishclout of a dog thou never did see! I understood it all in a moment. He had made one in the fight, and whether he had had the better or the worse of it, like a wise dog as he always was, he knew where to find what would serve his turn, and so when the house was quiet, off he came to old mother Rees to be plaistered and physicked. But what perplexes my old brain is, how, at that hour of the night, for to reach my door when he did, and him hardly able to stand when I let him in, it must have been dead night when he left--it do perplex me, I say, to think how at that time of the night he got out of that prison, watched as it is both night and day by them that sleep not.'
'He couldn't have come over the wall?' suggested Richard.
'Had thou seen him--thou would not make that the question.'
'Then he must have come through or under it; there are but three ways,' said Richard to himself. 'He's a big dog,' he added aloud, regarding him thoughtfully as he patted his sullen affectionate head. 'He's a big dog,' he repeated.
'I think a'most he be the biggest dog I ever saw,' assented mistress Rees.
'I would I were less about the shoulders,' said Richard.
'Who ever heard a man worth his mess of pottage wish him such a wish as that, master Heywood! What would mistress Dorothy say to hear thee? I warrant me she findeth no fault with the breadth of thy shoulders.'
'I am less in the compass than I was before the last fight,' he went on, without heeding his hostess, and as if he talked to the dog, who stood with his chin on his knee, looking up in his face. 'Where thou, Marquis, canst walk, I doubt not to creep; but if thou must creep, what then is left for me? Yet how couldst thou creep with such wounds in thy throat and belly, my poor Marquis?'
The dog whined, and moved all his feet, one after the other, but without taking his chin off Richard's knee.
'Hast seen thy mistress, little Dick, Marquis?' asked Richard.
Again the dog whined, moved his feet, and turned his head towards the door. But whether it was that he understood the question, or only that he recognised the name of his friend, who could tell?
'Will thou take me to Dick, Marquis?'
The dog turned and walked to the door, then stood and looked back, as if waiting for Richard to open it and follow him.
'No, Marquis, we must not go before night,' said Richard.
The dog returned slowly to his knee, and again laid his chin upon it.
'What will the dog do next, thinkest thou, mother--when he finds himself well again, I mean? Will he run from thee?' said Richard.
'He would be like neither dog nor man I ever knew, did he not.' returned the old woman. 'He will for sure go back where he got his hurts--to revenge them if he may, for that is the custom also with both dogs and men.'
'Couldst thou make sure of him that he run not away till I come again at night, mother?'
'Certain I can, my son. I will shut him up whence he will not break so long as he hears me nigh him.'
'Do so then an' thou lovest me, mother Rees, and I will be here with the first of the darkness.'
'An' I love thee, master Richard? Nay, but I do love thy good face and thy true words, be thou puritan or roundhead, or fanatic, or what evil name soever the wicked fashion of the times granteth to men to call thee.'
'Hark in thine ear then, mother: I will call no names; but they of Raglan have, as I truly believe, stolen from me my Lady.'
'Nay, nay, master Richard,' interrupted mistress Rees; 'did I not tell thee with my own mouth that she went of her own free will, and in the company of the reverend sir Matthew Herbert?'
'Alas! thou goest not with me, mother Rees. I meant not mistress Dorothy. She is lost to me indeed; but so also is my poor mare, which was stolen last night from Redware stables as the watchers slept.'
'Alack-a-day!' cried goody Rees, holding up her hands in sore trouble for her friend. 'But what then dreams thou of doing? Not surely, before all the saints in heaven, will thou adventure thy body within Raglan walls? But I speak like a fool. Thou canst not.'
'This good dog,' said Richard, stroking Marquis, 'must, as thou thyself plainly seest, have found some way of leaving Raglan without the knowledge or will of its warders. Where he gat him forth, will he not get him in again? And where dog can go, man may at least endeavour to follow.--Mayhap he hath for himself scratched a way, as many dogs will.'
'But, for the love of God, master Heywood, what would thou do inside that stone cage? Thy mare, be she, as thou hast often vaunted her to me, the first for courage and wisdom and strength and fleetness of all mares created--be her fore feet like a man's hands and her heart like a woman's heart, as thou sayest, yet cannot she overleap Raglan walls; and thinks thou they will raise portcullis and open gate and drop drawbridge to let thee and her ride forth in peace? It were a fool's errand, my young master, and nowise befitting thy young wisdom.'
'What I shall do, when I am length within the walls, I cannot tell thee, mother. Nor have I ever yet known much good in forecasting. To have to think, when the hour is come, of what thou didst before resolve, instead of setting thyself to understand what is around thee, and perchance the whole matter different from what thou had imagined, is to stand like Lazarus bound hand and foot in thine own graveclothes. It will be given me to meet what comes; or if not, who will bar me from meeting what follows ?'
'Master Heywood,' cried goody Rees, drawing herself with rebuke, 'for a man that is born of a woman to talk so wisely and so foolishly both in a breath!--But,' she added, with a change of tone, 'I know better than bar the path to a Heywood. An' he will, he will. And thou hast been vilely used, my young master. I will do what I can to help thee to thine own--and no more--no more than thine own. Hark in thine ear now. But first swear to me by the holy cross, puritan as thou art, that thou wilt make no other use of what I tell thee but to free thy stolen mare. I know thou may be trusted even with the secret that would slay thine enemy. But I must have thy oath notwithstanding thereto.'
'I will not swear by the cross, which was never holy, for thereby was the Holy slain. I will not swear at all, mother Rees. I will pledge thee the word of a man who fears God, that I will in no way dishonourable make use of that which thou tellest me. An' that suffice not, I will go without thy help, trusting in God, who never made that mare to carry the enemy of the truth into the battle.'
'But what an' thou should take the staff of strife to measure thy doings withal? That may then seem honourable, done to an enemy, which thou would scorn to do to one of thine own part, even if he wronged thee.'
'Nay, mother; but I will do nothing THOU wouldst think dishonourable--that I promise thee. I will use what thou tellest me for no manner of hurt to my lord of Worcester or aught that is his. But Lady is not his, and her will I carry, if I may, from Raglan stables back to Redware.'
'I am content. Hearken then, my son. Raglan watchword for the rest of the month is--
ST. GEORGE AND ST. PATRICK!
May it stand thee in good stead.'
'I thank thee, mother, with all my heart,' said Richard, rising jubilant. 'Now shut up the dog, and let me go. One day it may lie in my power to requite thee.'
'Thou hast requited me beforehand, master Heywood. Old mother Rees never forgets. I would have done well by thee with the maiden, an' thou would but have hearkened to my words. But the day may yet come. Go now, and return with the last of the twilight. Come hither, Marquis.'
The dog obeyed, and she shut him again in her chamber.
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