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Chapter 27


CHAPTER II - THE BATTLE OF SHOREBY


The whole distance to be crossed was not above a quarter of a mile.
But they had no sooner debauched beyond the cover of the trees than
they were aware of people fleeing and screaming in the snowy
meadows upon either hand.  Almost at the same moment a great rumour
began to arise, and spread and grow continually louder in the town;
and they were not yet halfway to the nearest house before the bells
began to ring backward from the steeple.

The young duke ground his teeth together.  By these so early
signals of alarm he feared to find his enemies prepared; and if he
failed to gain a footing in the town, he knew that his small party
would soon be broken and exterminated in the open.

In the town, however, the Lancastrians were far from being in so
good a posture.  It was as Dick had said.  The night-guard had
already doffed their harness; the rest were still hanging -
unlatched, unbraced, all unprepared for battle - about their
quarters; and in the whole of Shoreby there were not, perhaps,
fifty men full armed, or fifty chargers ready to be mounted.

The beating of the bells, the terrifying summons of men who ran
about the streets crying and beating upon the doors, aroused in an
incredibly short space at least two score out of that half hundred.
These got speedily to horse, and, the alarm still flying wild and
contrary, galloped in different directions.

Thus it befell that, when Richard of Gloucester reached the first
house of Shoreby, he was met in the mouth of the street by a mere
handful of lances, whom he swept before his onset as the storm
chases the bark.

A hundred paces into the town, Dick Shelton touched the duke's arm;
the duke, in answer, gathered his reins, put the shrill trumpet to
his mouth, and blowing a concerted point, turned to the right hand
out of the direct advance.  Swerving like a single rider, his whole
command turned after him, and, still at the full gallop of the
chargers, swept up the narrow bye-street.  Only the last score of
riders drew rein and faced about in the entrance; the footmen, whom
they carried behind them, leapt at the same instant to the earth,
and began, some to bend their bows, and others to break into and
secure the houses upon either hand.

Surprised at this sudden change of direction, and daunted by the
firm front of the rear-guard, the few Lancastrians, after a
momentary consultation, turned and rode farther into town to seek
for reinforcements.

The quarter of the town upon which, by the advice of Dick, Richard
of Gloucester had now seized, consisted of five small streets of
poor and ill-inhabited houses, occupying a very gentle eminence,
and lying open towards the back.

The five streets being each secured by a good guard, the reserve
would thus occupy the centre, out of shot, and yet ready to carry
aid wherever it was needed.

Such was the poorness of the neighbourhood that none of the
Lancastrian lords, and but few of their retainers, had been lodged
therein; and the inhabitants, with one accord, deserted their
houses and fled, squalling, along the streets or over garden walls.

In the centre, where the five ways all met, a somewhat ill-favoured
alehouse displayed the sign of the Chequers; and here the Duke of
Gloucester chose his headquarters for the day.

To Dick he assigned the guard of one of the five streets.

"Go," he said, "win your spurs.  Win glory for me:  one Richard for
another.  I tell you, if I rise, ye shall rise by the same ladder.
Go," he added, shaking him by the hand.

But, as soon as Dick was gone, he turned to a little shabby archer
at his elbow.

"Go, Dutton, and that right speedily," he added.  "Follow that lad.
If ye find him faithful, ye answer for his safety, a head for a
head.  Woe unto you, if ye return without him!  But if he be
faithless - or, for one instant, ye misdoubt him - stab him from
behind."

In the meanwhile Dick hastened to secure his post.  The street he
had to guard was very narrow, and closely lined with houses, which
projected and overhung the roadway; but narrow and dark as it was,
since it opened upon the market-place of the town, the main issue
of the battle would probably fall to be decided on that spot.

The market-place was full of townspeople fleeing in disorder; but
there was as yet no sign of any foeman ready to attack, and Dick
judged he had some time before him to make ready his defence.

The two houses at the end stood deserted, with open doors, as the
inhabitants had left them in their flight, and from these he had
the furniture hastily tossed forth and piled into a barrier in the
entry of the lane.  A hundred men were placed at his disposal, and
of these he threw the more part into the houses, where they might
lie in shelter and deliver their arrows from the windows.  With the
rest, under his own immediate eye, he lined the barricade.

Meanwhile the utmost uproar and confusion had continued to prevail
throughout the town; and what with the hurried clashing of bells,
the sounding of trumpets, the swift movement of bodies of horse,
the cries of the commanders, and the shrieks of women, the noise
was almost deafening to the ear.  Presently, little by little, the
tumult began to subside; and soon after, files of men in armour and
bodies of archers began to assemble and form in line of battle in
the market-place.

A large portion of this body were in murrey and blue, and in the
mounted knight who ordered their array Dick recognised Sir Daniel
Brackley.

Then there befell a long pause, which was followed by the almost
simultaneous sounding of four trumpets from four different quarters
of the town.  A fifth rang in answer from the market-place, and at
the same moment the files began to move, and a shower of arrows
rattled about the barricade, and sounded like blows upon the walls
of the two flanking houses.

The attack had begun, by a common signal, on all the five issues of
the quarter.  Gloucester was beleaguered upon every side; and Dick
judged, if he would make good his post, he must rely entirely on
the hundred men of his command.

Seven volleys of arrows followed one upon the other, and in the
very thick of the discharges Dick was touched from behind upon the
arm, and found a page holding out to him a leathern jack,
strengthened with bright plates of mail.

"It is from my Lord of Gloucester," said the page.  "He hath
observed, Sir Richard, that ye went unarmed."

Dick, with a glow at his heart at being so addressed, got to his
feet and, with the assistance of the page, donned the defensive
coat.  Even as he did so, two arrows rattled harmlessly upon the
plates, and a third struck down the page, mortally wounded, at his
feet.

Meantime the whole body of the enemy had been steadily drawing
nearer across the market-place; and by this time were so close at
hand that Dick gave the order to return their shot.  Immediately,
from behind the barrier and from the windows of the houses, a
counterblast of arrows sped, carrying death.  But the Lancastrians,
as if they had but waited for a signal, shouted loudly in answer;
and began to close at a run upon the barrier, the horsemen still
hanging back, with visors lowered.

Then followed an obstinate and deadly struggle, hand to hand.  The
assailants, wielding their falchions with one hand, strove with the
other to drag down the structure of the barricade.  On the other
side, the parts were reversed; and the defenders exposed themselves
like madmen to protect their rampart.  So for some minutes the
contest raged almost in silence, friend and foe falling one upon
another.  But it is always the easier to destroy; and when a single
note upon the tucket recalled the attacking party from this
desperate service, much of the barricade had been removed
piecemeal, and the whole fabric had sunk to half its height, and
tottered to a general fall.

And now the footmen in the market-place fell back, at a run, on
every side.  The horsemen, who had been standing in a line two
deep, wheeled suddenly, and made their flank into their front; and
as swift as a striking adder, the long, steel-clad column was
launched upon the ruinous barricade.

Of the first two horsemen, one fell, rider and steed, and was
ridden down by his companions.  The second leaped clean upon the
summit of the rampart, transpiercing an archer with his lance.
Almost in the same instant he was dragged from the saddle and his
horse despatched.

And then the full weight and impetus of the charge burst upon and
scattered the defenders.  The men-at-arms, surmounting their fallen
comrades, and carried onward by the fury of their onslaught, dashed
through Dick's broken line and poured thundering up the lane
beyond, as a stream bestrides and pours across a broken dam.

Yet was the fight not over.  Still, in the narrow jaws of the
entrance, Dick and a few survivors plied their bills like woodmen;
and already, across the width of the passage, there had been formed
a second, a higher, and a more effectual rampart of fallen men and
disembowelled horses, lashing in the agonies of death.

Baffled by this fresh obstacle, the remainder of the cavalry fell
back; and as, at the sight of this movement, the flight of arrows
redoubled from the casements of the houses, their retreat had, for
a moment, almost degenerated into flight.

Almost at the same time, those who had crossed the barricade and
charged farther up the street, being met before the door of the
Chequers by the formidable hunchback and the whole reserve of the
Yorkists, began to come scattering backward, in the excess of
disarray and terror.

Dick and his fellows faced about, fresh men poured out of the
houses; a cruel blast of arrows met the fugitives full in the face,
while Gloucester was already riding down their rear; in the inside
of a minute and a half there was no living Lancastrian in the
street.

Then, and not till then, did Dick hold up his reeking blade and
give the word to cheer.

Meanwhile Gloucester dismounted from his horse and came forward to
inspect the post.  His face was as pale as linen; but his eyes
shone in his head like some strange jewel, and his voice, when he
spoke, was hoarse and broken with the exultation of battle and
success.  He looked at the rampart, which neither friend nor foe
could now approach without precaution, so fiercely did the horses
struggle in the throes of death, and at the sight of that great
carnage he smiled upon one side.

"Despatch these horses," he said; "they keep you from your vantage.
Richard Shelton," he added, "ye have pleased me.  Kneel."

The Lancastrians had already resumed their archery, and the shafts
fell thick in the mouth of the street; but the duke, minding them
not at all, deliberately drew his sword and dubbed Richard a knight
upon the spot.

"And now, Sir Richard," he continued, "if that ye see Lord
Risingham, send me an express upon the instant.  Were it your last
man, let me hear of it incontinently.  I had rather venture the
post than lose my stroke at him.  For mark me, all of ye," he
added, raising his voice, "if Earl Risingham fall by another hand
than mine, I shall count this victory a defeat."

"My lord duke," said one of his attendants, "is your grace not
weary of exposing his dear life unneedfully?  Why tarry we here?"

"Catesby," returned the duke, "here is the battle, not elsewhere.
The rest are but feigned onslaughts.  Here must we vanquish.  And
for the exposure - if ye were an ugly hunchback, and the children
gecked at you upon the street, ye would count your body cheaper,
and an hour of glory worth a life.  Howbeit, if ye will, let us
ride on and visit the other posts.  Sir Richard here, my namesake,
he shall still hold this entry, where he wadeth to the ankles in
hot blood.  Him can we trust.  But mark it, Sir Richard, ye are not
yet done.  The worst is yet to ward.  Sleep not."

He came right up to young Shelton, looking him hard in the eyes,
and taking his hand in both of his, gave it so extreme a squeeze
that the blood had nearly spurted.  Dick quailed before his eyes.
The insane excitement, the courage, and the cruelty that he read
therein filled him with dismay about the future.  This young duke's
was indeed a gallant spirit, to ride foremost in the ranks of war;
but after the battle, in the days of peace and in the circle of his
trusted friends, that mind, it was to be dreaded, would continue to
bring forth the fruits of death.


Robert Louis Stevenson