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Chapter 31


CHAPTER VI - NIGHT IN THE WOODS (concluded):  DICK AND JOAN


The horses had by this time finished the small store of provender,
and fully breathed from their fatigues.  At Dick's command, the
fire was smothered in snow; and while his men got once more wearily
to saddle, he himself, remembering, somewhat late, true woodland
caution, chose a tall oak and nimbly clambered to the topmost fork.
Hence he could look far abroad on the moonlit and snow-paven
forest.  On the south-west, dark against the horizon, stood those
upland, heathy quarters where he and Joanna had met with the
terrifying misadventure of the leper.  And there his eye was caught
by a spot of ruddy brightness no bigger than a needle's eye.

He blamed himself sharply for his previous neglect.  Were that, as
it appeared to be, the shining of Sir Daniel's camp-fire, he should
long ago have seen and marched for it; above all, he should, for no
consideration, have announced his neighbourhood by lighting a fire
of his own.  But now he must no longer squander valuable hours.
The direct way to the uplands was about two miles in length; but it
was crossed by a very deep, precipitous dingle, impassable to
mounted men; and for the sake of speed, it seemed to Dick advisable
to desert the horses and attempt the adventure on foot.

Ten men were left to guard the horses; signals were agreed upon by
which they could communicate in case of need; and Dick set forth at
the head of the remainder, Alicia Risingham walking stoutly by his
side.

The men had freed themselves of heavy armour, and left behind their
lances; and they now marched with a very good spirit in the frozen
snow, and under the exhilarating lustre of the moon.  The descent
into the dingle, where a stream strained sobbing through the snow
and ice, was effected with silence and order; and on the further
side, being then within a short half mile of where Dick had seen
the glimmer of the fire, the party halted to breathe before the
attack.

In the vast silence of the wood, the lightest sounds were audible
from far; and Alicia, who was keen of hearing, held up her finger
warningly and stooped to listen.  All followed her example; but
besides the groans of the choked brook in the dingle close behind,
and the barking of a fox at a distance of many miles among the
forest, to Dick's acutest hearkening, not a breath was audible.

"But yet, for sure, I heard the clash of harness," whispered
Alicia.

"Madam," returned Dick, who was more afraid of that young lady than
of ten stout warriors, "I would not hint ye were mistaken; but it
might well have come from either of the camps."

"It came not thence.  It came from westward," she declared.

"It may be what it will," returned Dick; "and it must be as heaven
please.  Reck we not a jot, but push on the livelier, and put it to
the touch.  Up, friends - enough breathed."

As they advanced, the snow became more and more trampled with hoof-
marks, and it was plain that they were drawing near to the
encampment of a considerable force of mounted men.  Presently they
could see the smoke pouring from among the trees, ruddily coloured
on its lower edge and scattering bright sparks.

And here, pursuant to Dick's orders, his men began to open out,
creeping stealthily in the covert, to surround on every side the
camp of their opponents.  He himself, placing Alicia in the shelter
of a bulky oak, stole straight forth in the direction of the fire.

At last, through an opening of the wood, his eye embraced the scene
of the encampment.  The fire had been built upon a heathy hummock
of the ground, surrounded on three sides by thicket, and it now
burned very strong, roaring aloud and brandishing flames.  Around
it there sat not quite a dozen people, warmly cloaked; but though
the neighbouring snow was trampled down as by a regiment, Dick
looked in vain for any horse.  He began to have a terrible
misgiving that he was out-manoeuvred.  At the same time, in a tall
man with a steel salet, who was spreading his hands before the
blaze, he recognised his old friend and still kindly enemy, Bennet
Hatch; and in two others, sitting a little back, he made out, even
in their male disguise, Joanna Sedley and Sir Daniel's wife.

"Well," thought he to himself, "even if I lose my horses, let me
get my Joanna, and why should I complain?"

And then, from the further side of the encampment, there came a
little whistle, announcing that his men had joined, and the
investment was complete.

Bennet, at the sound, started to his feet; but ere he had time to
spring upon his arms, Dick hailed him.

"Bennet," he said - "Bennet, old friend, yield ye.  Ye will but
spill men's lives in vain, if ye resist."

"'Tis Master Shelton, by St. Barbary!" cried Hatch.  "Yield me?  Ye
ask much.  What force have ye?"

"I tell you, Bennet, ye are both outnumbered and begirt," said
Dick.  "Caesar and Charlemagne would cry for quarter.  I have two
score men at my whistle, and with one shoot of arrows I could
answer for you all."

"Master Dick," said Bennet, "it goes against my heart; but I must
do my duty.  The saints help you!"  And therewith he raised a
little tucket to his mouth and wound a rousing call.

Then followed a moment of confusion; for while Dick, fearing for
the ladies, still hesitated to give the word to shoot, Hatch's
little band sprang to their weapons and formed back to back as for
a fierce resistance.  In the hurry of their change of place, Joanna
sprang from her seat and ran like an arrow to her lover's side.

"Here, Dick!" she cried, as she clasped his hand in hers.

But Dick still stood irresolute; he was yet young to the more
deplorable necessities of war, and the thought of old Lady Brackley
checked the command upon his tongue.  His own men became restive.
Some of them cried on him by name; others, of their own accord,
began to shoot; and at the first discharge poor Bennet bit the
dust.  Then Dick awoke.

"On!" he cried.  "Shoot, boys, and keep to cover.  England and
York!"

But just then the dull beat of many horses on the snow suddenly
arose in the hollow ear of the night, and, with incredible
swiftness, drew nearer and swelled louder.  At the same time,
answering tuckets repeated and repeated Hatch's call.

"Rally, rally!" cried Dick.  "Rally upon me!  Rally for your
lives!"

But his men - afoot, scattered, taken in the hour when they had
counted on an easy triumph - began instead to give ground
severally, and either stood wavering or dispersed into the
thickets.  And when the first of the horsemen came charging through
the open avenues and fiercely riding their steeds into the
underwood, a few stragglers were overthrown or speared among the
brush, but the bulk of Dick's command had simply melted at the
rumour of their coming.

Dick stood for a moment, bitterly recognising the fruits of his
precipitate and unwise valour.  Sir Daniel had seen the fire; he
had moved out with his main force, whether to attack his pursuers
or to take them in the rear if they should venture the assault.
His had been throughout the part of a sagacious captain; Dick's the
conduct of an eager boy.  And here was the young knight, his
sweetheart, indeed, holding him tightly by the hand, but otherwise
alone, his whole command of men and horses dispersed in the night
and the wide forest, like a paper of pins in a bay barn.

"The saints enlighten me!" he thought.  "It is well I was knighted
for this morning's matter; this doth me little honour."

And thereupon, still holding Joanna, he began to run.

The silence of the night was now shattered by the shouts of the men
of Tunstall, as they galloped hither and thither, hunting
fugitives; and Dick broke boldly through the underwood and ran
straight before him like a deer.  The silver clearness of the moon
upon the open snow increased, by contrast, the obscurity of the
thickets; and the extreme dispersion of the vanquished led the
pursuers into wildly divergent paths.  Hence, in but a little
while, Dick and Joanna paused, in a close covert, and heard the
sounds of the pursuit, scattering abroad, indeed, in all
directions, but yet fainting already in the distance.

"An I had but kept a reserve of them together," Dick cried,
bitterly, "I could have turned the tables yet!  Well, we live and
learn; next time it shall go better, by the rood."

"Nay, Dick," said Joanna, "what matters it?  Here we are together
once again."

He looked at her, and there she was - John Matcham, as of yore, in
hose and doublet.  But now he knew her; now, even in that ungainly
dress, she smiled upon him, bright with love; and his heart was
transported with joy.

"Sweetheart," he said, "if ye forgive this blunderer, what care I?
Make we direct for Holywood; there lieth your good guardian and my
better friend, Lord Foxham.  There shall we be wed; and whether
poor or wealthy, famous or unknown, what, matters it?  This day,
dear love, I won my spurs; I was commended by great men for my
valour; I thought myself the goodliest man of war in all broad
England.  Then, first, I fell out of my favour with the great; and
now have I been well thrashed, and clean lost my soldiers.  There
was a downfall for conceit!  But, dear, I care not - dear, if ye
still love me and will wed, I would have my knighthood done away,
and mind it not a jot."

"My Dick!" she cried.  "And did they knight you?"

"Ay, dear, ye are my lady now," he answered, fondly; "or ye shall,
ere noon to-morrow - will ye not?"

"That will I, Dick, with a glad heart," she answered.

"Ay, sir?  Methought ye were to be a monk!" said a voice in their
ears.

"Alicia!" cried Joanna.

"Even so," replied the young lady, coming forward.  "Alicia, whom
ye left for dead, and whom your lion-driver found, and brought to
life again, and, by my sooth, made love to, if ye want to know!"

"I'll not believe it," cried Joanna.  "Dick!"

"Dick!" mimicked Alicia.  "Dick, indeed!  Ay, fair sir, and ye
desert poor damsels in distress," she continued, turning to the
young knight.  "Ye leave them planted behind oaks.  But they say
true - the age of chivalry is dead."

"Madam," cried Dick, in despair, "upon my soul I had forgotten you
outright.  Madam, ye must try to pardon me.  Ye see, I had new
found Joanna!"

"I did not suppose that ye had done it o' purpose," she retorted.
"But I will be cruelly avenged.  I will tell a secret to my Lady
Shelton - she that is to be," she added, curtseying.  "Joanna," she
continued, "I believe, upon my soul, your sweetheart is a bold
fellow in a fight, but he is, let me tell you plainly, the softest-
hearted simpleton in England.  Go to - ye may do your pleasure with
him!  And now, fool children, first kiss me, either one of you, for
luck and kindness; and then kiss each other just one minute by the
glass, and not one second longer; and then let us all three set
forth for Holywood as fast as we can stir; for these woods,
methinks, are full of peril and exceeding cold."

"But did my Dick make love to you?" asked Joanna, clinging to her
sweetheart's side.

"Nay, fool girl," returned Alicia; "it was I made love to him.  I
offered to marry him, indeed; but he bade me go marry with my
likes.  These were his words.  Nay, that I will say:  he is more
plain than pleasant.  But now, children, for the sake of sense, set
forward.  Shall we go once more over the dingle, or push straight
for Holywood?"

"Why," said Dick, "I would like dearly to get upon a horse; for I
have been sore mauled and beaten, one way and another, these last
days, and my poor body is one bruise.  But how think ye?  If the
men, upon the alarm of the fighting, had fled away, we should have
gone about for nothing.  'Tis but some three short miles to
Holywood direct; the bell hath not beat nine; the snow is pretty
firm to walk upon, the moon clear; how if we went even as we are?"

"Agreed," cried Alicia; but Joanna only pressed upon Dick's arm.

Forth, then, they went, through open leafless groves and down snow-
clad alleys, under the white face of the winter moon; Dick and
Joanna walking hand in hand and in a heaven of pleasure; and their
light-minded companion, her own bereavements heartily forgotten,
followed a pace or two behind, now rallying them upon their
silence, and now drawing happy pictures of their future and united
lives.

Still, indeed, in the distance of the wood, the riders of Tunstall
might be heard urging their pursuit; and from time to time cries or
the clash of steel announced the shock of enemies.  But in these
young folk, bred among the alarms of war, and fresh from such a
multiplicity of dangers, neither fear nor pity could be lightly
wakened.  Content to find the sounds still drawing farther and
farther away, they gave up their hearts to the enjoyment of the
hour, walking already, as Alicia put it, in a wedding procession;
and neither the rude solitude of the forest, nor the cold of the
freezing night, had any force to shadow or distract their
happiness.

At length, from a rising hill, they looked below them on the dell
of Holywood.  The great windows of the forest abbey shone with
torch and candle; its high pinnacles and spires arose very clear
and silent, and the gold rood upon the topmost summit glittered
brightly in the moon.  All about it, in the open glade, camp-fires
were burning, and the ground was thick with huts; and across the
midst of the picture the frozen river curved.

"By the mass," said Richard, "there are Lord Foxham's fellows still
encamped.  The messenger hath certainly miscarried.  Well, then, so
better.  We have power at hand to face Sir Daniel."

But if Lord Foxham's men still lay encamped in the long holm at
Holywood, it was from a different reason from the one supposed by
Dick.  They had marched, indeed, for Shoreby; but ere they were
half way thither, a second messenger met them, and bade them return
to their morning's camp, to bar the road against Lancastrian
fugitives, and to be so much nearer to the main army of York.  For
Richard of Gloucester, having finished the battle and stamped out
his foes in that district, was already on the march to rejoin his
brother; and not long after the return of my Lord Foxham's
retainers, Crookback himself drew rein before the abbey door.  It
was in honour of this august visitor that the windows shone with
lights; and at the hour of Dick's arrival with his sweetheart and
her friend, the whole ducal party was being entertained in the
refectory with the splendour of that powerful and luxurious
monastery.

Dick, not quite with his good will, was brought before them.
Gloucester, sick with fatigue, sat leaning upon one hand his white
and terrifying countenance; Lord Foxham, half recovered from his
wound, was in a place of honour on his left.

"How, sir?" asked Richard.  "Have ye brought me Sir Daniel's head?"

"My lord duke," replied Dick, stoutly enough, but with a qualm at
heart, "I have not even the good fortune to return with my command.
I have been, so please your grace, well beaten."

Gloucester looked upon him with a formidable frown.

"I gave you fifty lances, (3) sir," he said.

"My lord duke, I had but fifty men-at-arms," replied the young
knight.

"How is this?" said Gloucester.  "He did ask me fifty lances."

"May it please your grace," replied Catesby, smoothly, "for a
pursuit we gave him but the horsemen."

"It is well," replied Richard, adding, "Shelton, ye may go."

"Stay!" said Lord Foxham.  "This young man likewise had a charge
from me.  It may be he hath better sped.  Say, Master Shelton, have
ye found the maid?"

"I praise the saints, my lord," said Dick, "she is in this house."

"Is it even so?  Well, then, my lord the duke," resumed Lord
Foxham, "with your good will, to-morrow, before the army march, I
do propose a marriage.  This young squire - "

"Young knight," interrupted Catesby.

"Say ye so, Sir William?" cried Lord Foxham.

"I did myself, and for good service, dub him knight," said
Gloucester.  "He hath twice manfully served me.  It is not valour
of hands, it is a man's mind of iron, that he lacks.  He will not
rise, Lord Foxham.  'Tis a fellow that will fight indeed bravely in
a mellay, but hath a capon's heart.  Howbeit, if he is to marry,
marry him in the name of Mary, and be done!"

"Nay, he is a brave lad - I know it," said Lord Foxham.  "Content
ye, then, Sir Richard.  I have compounded this affair with Master
Hamley, and to-morrow ye shall wed."

Whereupon Dick judged it prudent to withdraw; but he was not yet
clear of the refectory, when a man, but newly alighted at the gate,
came running four stairs at a bound, and, brushing through the
abbey servants, threw himself on one knee before the duke.

"Victory, my lord," he cried.

And before Dick had got to the chamber set apart for him as Lord
Foxham's guest, the troops in the holm were cheering around their
fires; for upon that same day, not twenty miles away, a second
crushing blow had been dealt to the power of Lancaster.


Robert Louis Stevenson