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THE BLACK ARROW

BY

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON





CHAPTER II--IN THE FEN



It was near six in the May morning when Dick began to ride down
into the fen upon his homeward way. The sky was all blue; the
jolly wind blew loud and steady; the windmill-sails were spinning;
and the willows over all the fen rippling and whitening like a
field of corn. He had been all night in the saddle, but his heart
was good and his body sound, and he rode right merrily.

The path went down and down into the marsh, till he lost sight of
all the neighbouring landmarks but Kettley windmill on the knoll
behind him, and the extreme top of Tunstall Forest far before. On
either hand there were great fields of blowing reeds and willows,
pools of water shaking in the wind, and treacherous bogs, as green
as emerald, to tempt and to betray the traveller. The path lay
almost straight through the morass. It was already very ancient;
its foundation had been laid by Roman soldiery; in the lapse of
ages much of it had sunk, and every here and there, for a few
hundred yards, it lay submerged below the stagnant waters of the
fen.

About a mile from Kettley, Dick came to one such break in the plain
line of causeway, where the reeds and willows grew dispersedly like
little islands and confused the eye. The gap, besides, was more
than usually long; it was a place where any stranger might come
readily to mischief; and Dick bethought him, with something like a
pang, of the lad whom he had so imperfectly directed. As for
himself, one look backward to where the windmill sails were turning
black against the blue of heaven--one look forward to the high
ground of Tunstall Forest, and he was sufficiently directed and
held straight on, the water washing to his horse's knees, as safe
as on a highway.

Half-way across, and when he had already sighted the path rising
high and dry upon the farther side, he was aware of a great
splashing on his right, and saw a grey horse, sunk to its belly in
the mud, and still spasmodically struggling. Instantly, as though
it had divined the neighbourhood of help, the poor beast began to
neigh most piercingly. It rolled, meanwhile, a blood-shot eye,
insane with terror; and as it sprawled wallowing in the quag,
clouds of stinging insects rose and buzzed about it in the air.

"Alack!" thought Dick, "can the poor lad have perished? There is
his horse, for certain--a brave grey! Nay, comrade, if thou criest
to me so piteously, I will do all man can to help thee. Shalt not
lie there to drown by inches!"

And he made ready his crossbow, and put a quarrel through the
creature's head.

Dick rode on after this act of rugged mercy, somewhat sobered in
spirit, and looking closely about him for any sign of his less
happy predecessor in the way. "I would I had dared to tell him
further," he thought; "for I fear he has miscarried in the slough."

And just as he was so thinking, a voice cried upon his name from
the causeway side, and, looking over his shoulder, he saw the lad's
face peering from a clump of reeds.

"Are ye there?" he said, reining in. "Ye lay so close among the
reeds that I had passed you by. I saw your horse bemired, and put
him from his agony; which, by my sooth! an ye had been a more
merciful rider, ye had done yourself. But come forth out of your
hiding. Here be none to trouble you."

"Nay, good boy, I have no arms, nor skill to use them if I had,"
replied the other, stepping forth upon the pathway.

"Why call me 'boy'?" cried Dick. "Y' are not, I trow, the elder of
us twain."

"Good Master Shelton," said the other, "prithee forgive me. I have
none the least intention to offend. Rather I would in every way
beseech your gentleness and favour, for I am now worse bested than
ever, having lost my way, my cloak, and my poor horse. To have a
riding-rod and spurs, and never a horse to sit upon! And before
all," he added, looking ruefully upon his clothes--"before all, to
be so sorrily besmirched!"

"Tut!" cried Dick. "Would ye mind a ducking? Blood of wound or
dust of travel--that's a man's adornment."

"Nay, then, I like him better plain," observed the lad. "But,
prithee, how shall I do? Prithee, good Master Richard, help me
with your good counsel. If I come not safe to Holywood, I am
undone."

"Nay," said Dick, dismounting, "I will give more than counsel.
Take my horse, and I will run awhile, and when I am weary we shall
change again, that so, riding and running, both may go the
speedier."

So the change was made, and they went forward as briskly as they
durst on the uneven causeway, Dick with his hand upon the other's
knee.

"How call ye your name?" asked Dick.

"Call me John Matcham," replied the lad.

"And what make ye to Holywood?" Dick continued.

"I seek sanctuary from a man that would oppress me," was the
answer. "The good Abbot of Holywood is a strong pillar to the
weak."

"And how came ye with Sir Daniel, Master Matcham?" pursued Dick.

"Nay," cried the other, "by the abuse of force! He hath taken me
by violence from my own place; dressed me in these weeds; ridden
with me till my heart was sick; gibed me till I could 'a' wept; and
when certain of my friends pursued, thinking to have me back, claps
me in the rear to stand their shot! I was even grazed in the right
foot, and walk but lamely. Nay, there shall come a day between us;
he shall smart for all!"

"Would ye shoot at the moon with a hand-gun?" said Dick. "'Tis a
valiant knight, and hath a hand of iron. An he guessed I had made
or meddled with your flight, it would go sore with me."

"Ay, poor boy," returned the other, "y' are his ward, I know it.
By the same token, so am I, or so he saith; or else he hath bought
my marriage--I wot not rightly which; but it is some handle to
oppress me by."

"Boy again!" said Dick.

"Nay, then, shall I call you girl, good Richard?" asked Matcham.

"Never a girl for me," returned Dick. "I do abjure the crew of
them!"

"Ye speak boyishly," said the other. "Ye think more of them than
ye pretend."

"Not I," said Dick, stoutly. "They come not in my mind. A plague
of them, say I! Give me to hunt and to fight and to feast, and to
live with jolly foresters. I never heard of a maid yet that was
for any service, save one only; and she, poor shrew, was burned for
a witch and the wearing of men's clothes in spite of nature."

Master Matcham crossed himself with fervour, and appeared to pray.

"What make ye?" Dick inquired.

"I pray for her spirit," answered the other, with a somewhat
troubled voice.

"For a witch's spirit?" Dick cried. "But pray for her, an ye list;
she was the best wench in Europe, was this Joan of Arc. Old
Appleyard the archer ran from her, he said, as if she had been
Mahoun. Nay, she was a brave wench."

"Well, but, good Master Richard," resumed Matcham, "an ye like
maids so little, y' are no true natural man; for God made them
twain by intention, and brought true love into the world, to be
man's hope and woman's comfort."

"Faugh!" said Dick. "Y' are a milk-sopping baby, so to harp on
women. An ye think I be no true man, get down upon the path, and
whether at fists, back-sword, or bow and arrow, I will prove my
manhood on your body."

"Nay, I am no fighter," said Matcham, eagerly. "I mean no tittle
of offence. I meant but pleasantry. And if I talk of women, it is
because I heard ye were to marry."

"I to marry!" Dick exclaimed. "Well, it is the first I hear of it.
And with whom was I to marry?"

"One Joan Sedley," replied Matcham, colouring. "It was Sir
Daniel's doing; he hath money to gain upon both sides; and, indeed,
I have heard the poor wench bemoaning herself pitifully of the
match. It seems she is of your mind, or else distasted to the
bridegroom."

"Well! marriage is like death, it comes to all," said Dick, with
resignation. "And she bemoaned herself? I pray ye now, see there
how shuttle-witted are these girls: to bemoan herself before that
she had seen me! Do I bemoan myself? Not I. An I be to marry, I
will marry dry-eyed! But if ye know her, prithee, of what favour
is she? fair or foul? And is she shrewish or pleasant?"

"Nay, what matters it?" said Matcham. "An y' are to marry, ye can
but marry. What matters foul or fair? These be but toys. Y' are
no milksop, Master Richard; ye will wed with dry eyes, anyhow."

"It is well said," replied Shelton. "Little I reck."

"Your lady wife is like to have a pleasant lord," said Matcham.

"She shall have the lord Heaven made her for," returned Dick. "It
trow there be worse as well as better."

"Ah, the poor wench!" cried the other.

"And why so poor?" asked Dick.

"To wed a man of wood," replied his companion. "O me, for a wooden
husband!"

"I think I be a man of wood, indeed," said Dick, "to trudge afoot
the while you ride my horse; but it is good wood, I trow."

"Good Dick, forgive me," cried the other. "Nay, y' are the best
heart in England; I but laughed. Forgive me now, sweet Dick."

"Nay, no fool words," returned Dick, a little embarrassed by his
companion's warmth. "No harm is done. I am not touchy, praise the
saints."

And at that moment the wind, which was blowing straight behind them
as they went, brought them the rough flourish of Sir Daniel's
trumpeter.

"Hark!" said Dick, "the tucket soundeth."

"Ay," said Matcham, "they have found my flight, and now I am
unhorsed!" and he became pale as death.

"Nay, what cheer!" returned Dick. "Y' have a long start, and we
are near the ferry. And it is I, methinks, that am unhorsed."

"Alack, I shall be taken!" cried the fugitive. "Dick, kind Dick,
beseech ye help me but a little!"

"Why, now, what aileth thee?" said Dick. "Methinks I help you very
patently. But my heart is sorry for so spiritless a fellow! And
see ye here, John Matcham--sith John Matcham is your name--I,
Richard Shelton, tide what betideth, come what may, will see you
safe in Holywood. The saints so do to me again if I default you.
Come, pick me up a good heart, Sir White-face. The way betters
here; spur me the horse. Go faster! faster! Nay, mind not for me;
I can run like a deer."

So, with the horse trotting hard, and Dick running easily
alongside, they crossed the remainder of the fen, and came out upon
the banks of the river by the ferryman's hut.

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