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THE BLACK ARROW

BY

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON





CHAPTER VII--THE HOODED FACE



They awoke in the grey of the morning; the birds were not yet in
full song, but twittered here and there among the woods; the sun
was not yet up, but the eastern sky was barred with solemn colours.
Half starved and over-weary as they were, they lay without moving,
sunk in a delightful lassitude. And as they thus lay, the clang of
a bell fell suddenly upon their ears.

"A bell!" said Dick, sitting up. "Can we be, then, so near to
Holywood?"

A little after, the bell clanged again, but this time somewhat
nearer hand; and from that time forth, and still drawing nearer and
nearer, it continued to sound brokenly abroad in the silence of the
morning.

"Nay, what should this betoken?" said Dick, who was now broad
awake.

"It is some one walking," returned Matcham, and "the bell tolleth
ever as he moves."

"I see that well," said Dick. "But wherefore? What maketh he in
Tunstall Woods? Jack," he added, "laugh at me an ye will, but I
like not the hollow sound of it."

"Nay," said Matcham, with a shiver, "it hath a doleful note. An
the day were not come" -

But just then the bell, quickening its pace, began to ring thick
and hurried, and then it gave a single hammering jangle, and was
silent for a space.

"It is as though the bearer had run for a pater-noster while, and
then leaped the river," Dick observed.

"And now beginneth he again to pace soberly forward," added
Matcham.

"Nay," returned Dick--"nay, not so soberly, Jack. 'Tis a man that
walketh you right speedily. 'Tis a man in some fear of his life,
or about some hurried business. See ye not how swift the beating
draweth near?"

"It is now close by," said Matcham.

They were now on the edge of the pit; and as the pit itself was on
a certain eminence, they commanded a view over the greater
proportion of the clearing, up to the thick woods that closed it
in.

The daylight, which was very clear and grey, showed them a riband
of white footpath wandering among the gorse. It passed some
hundred yards from the pit, and ran the whole length of the
clearing, east and west. By the line of its course, Dick judged it
should lead more or less directly to the Moat House.

Upon this path, stepping forth from the margin of the wood, a white
figure now appeared. It paused a little, and seemed to look about;
and then, at a slow pace, and bent almost double, it began to draw
near across the heath. At every step the bell clanked. Face, it
had none; a white hood, not even pierced with eye-holes, veiled the
head; and as the creature moved, it seemed to feel its way with the
tapping of a stick. Fear fell upon the lads, as cold as death.

"A leper!" said Dick, hoarsely.

"His touch is death," said Matcham. "Let us run."

"Not so," returned Dick. "See ye not?--he is stone blind. He
guideth him with a staff. Let us lie still; the wind bloweth
towards the path, and he will go by and hurt us not. Alas, poor
soul, and we should rather pity him!"

"I will pity him when he is by," replied Matcham.

The blind leper was now about halfway towards them, and just then
the sun rose and shone full on his veiled face. He had been a tall
man before he was bowed by his disgusting sickness, and even now he
walked with a vigorous step. The dismal beating of his bell, the
pattering of the stick, the eyeless screen before his countenance,
and the knowledge that he was not only doomed to death and
suffering, but shut out for ever from the touch of his fellow-men,
filled the lads' bosoms with dismay; and at every step that brought
him nearer, their courage and strength seemed to desert them.

As he came about level with the pit, he paused, and turned his face
full upon the lads.

"Mary be my shield! He sees us!" said Matcham, faintly.

"Hush!" whispered Dick. "He doth but hearken. He is blind, fool!"

The leper looked or listened, whichever he was really doing, for
some seconds. Then he began to move on again, but presently paused
once more, and again turned and seemed to gaze upon the lads. Even
Dick became dead-white and closed his eyes, as if by the mere sight
he might become infected. But soon the bell sounded, and this
time, without any farther hesitation, the leper crossed the
remainder of the little heath and disappeared into the covert of
the woods.

"He saw us," said Matcham. "I could swear it!"

"Tut!" returned Dick, recovering some sparks of courage. "He but
heard us. He was in fear, poor soul! An ye were blind, and walked
in a perpetual night, ye would start yourself, if ever a twig
rustled or a bird cried 'Peep.'"

"Dick, good Dick, he saw us," repeated Matcham. "When a man
hearkeneth, he doth not as this man; he doth otherwise, Dick. This
was seeing; it was not hearing. He means foully. Hark, else, if
his bell be not stopped!"

Such was the case. The bell rang no longer.

"Nay," said Dick, "I like not that. Nay," he cried again, "I like
that little. What may this betoken? Let us go, by the mass!"

"He hath gone east," added Matcham. "Good Dick, let us go westward
straight; I shall not breathe till I have my back turned upon that
leper."

"Jack, y' are too cowardly," replied Dick. "We shall go fair for
Holywood, or as fair, at least, as I can guide you, and that will
be due north."

They were afoot at once, passed the stream upon some stepping-
stones, and began to mount on the other side, which was steeper,
towards the margin of the wood. The ground became very uneven,
full of knolls and hollows; trees grew scattered or in clumps. it
became difficult to choose a path, and the lads somewhat wandered.
They were weary, besides, with yesterday's exertions and the lack
of food, and they moved but heavily and dragged their feet among
the sand.

Presently, coming to the top of a knoll, they were aware of the
leper, some hundred feet in front of them, crossing the line of
their march by a hollow. His bell was silent, his staff no longer
tapped the ground, and he went before him with the swift and
assured footsteps of a man who sees. Next moment he had
disappeared into a little thicket.

The lads, at the first glimpse, had crouched behind a tuft of
gorse; there they lay, horror-struck.

"Certain, he pursueth us," said Dick--"certain! He held the
clapper of his bell in one hand, saw ye? that it should not sound.
Now may the saints aid and guide us, for I have no strength to
combat pestilence!"

"What maketh he?" cried Matcham. "What doth he want? Who ever
heard the like, that a leper, out of mere malice, should pursue
unfortunates? Hath he not his bell to that very end, that people
may avoid him? Dick, there is below this something deeper."

"Nay, I care not," moaned Dick; "the strength is gone out of me; my
legs are like water. The saints be mine assistance!"

"Would ye lie there idle?" cried Matcham. "Let us back into the
open. We have the better chance; he cannot steal upon us
unawares."

"Not I," said Dick. "My time is come, and peradventure he may pass
us by."

"Bend me, then, your bow!" cried the other. "What! will ye be a
man?"

Dick crossed himself. "Would ye have me shoot upon a leper?" he
cried. "The hand would fail me. Nay, now," he added--"nay, now,
let be! With sound men I will fight, but not with ghosts and
lepers. Which this is, I wot not. One or other, Heaven be our
protection!"

"Now," said Matcham, "if this be man's courage, what a poor thing
is man! But sith ye will do naught, let us lie close."

Then came a single, broken jangle on the bell.

"He hath missed his hold upon the clapper," whispered Matcham.
"Saints! how near he is!"

But Dick answered never a word; his teeth were near chattering.

Soon they saw a piece of the white robe between some bushes; then
the leper's head was thrust forth from behind a trunk, and he
seemed narrowly to scan the neighbourhood before he once again
withdrew. To their stretched senses, the whole bush appeared alive
with rustlings and the creak of twigs; and they heard the beating
of each other's heart.

Suddenly, with a cry, the leper sprang into the open close by, and
ran straight upon the lads. They, shrieking aloud, separated and
began to run different ways. But their horrible enemy fastened
upon Matcham, ran him swiftly down, and had him almost instantly a
prisoner. The lad gave one scream that echoed high and far over
the forest, he had one spasm of struggling, and then all his limbs
relaxed, and he fell limp into his captor's arms.

Dick heard the cry and turned. He saw Matcham fall; and on the
instant his spirit and his strength revived; With a cry of pity and
anger, he unslung and bent his arblast. But ere he had time to
shoot, the leper held up his hand.

"Hold your shot, Dickon!" cried a familiar voice. "Hold your shot,
mad wag! Know ye not a friend?"

And then laying down Matcham on the turf, he undid the hood from
off his face, and disclosed the features of Sir Daniel Brackley.

"Sir Daniel!" cried Dick.

"Ay, by the mass, Sir Daniel!" returned the knight. "Would ye
shoot upon your guardian, rogue? But here is this"--And there he
broke off, and pointing to Matcham, asked: "How call ye him,
Dick?"

"Nay," said Dick, "I call him Master Matcham. Know ye him not? He
said ye knew him!"

"Ay," replied Sir Daniel, "I know the lad;" and he chuckled. "But
he has fainted; and, by my sooth, he might have had less to faint
for! Hey, Dick? Did I put the fear of death upon you?"

"Indeed, Sir Daniel, ye did that," said Dick, and sighed again at
the mere recollection. "Nay, sir, saving your respect, I had as
lief 'a' met the devil in person; and to speak truth, I am yet all
a-quake. But what made ye, sir, in such a guise?"

Sir Daniel's brow grew suddenly black with anger.

"What made I?" he said. "Ye do well to mind me of it! What? I
skulked for my poor life in my own wood of Tunstall, Dick. We were
ill sped at the battle; we but got there to be swept among the
rout. Where be all my good men-at-arms? Dick, by the mass, I know
not! We were swept down; the shot fell thick among us; I have not
seen one man in my own colours since I saw three fall. For myself,
I came sound to Shoreby, and being mindful of the Black Arrow, got
me this gown and bell, and came softly by the path for the Moat
House. There is no disguise to be compared with it; the jingle of
this bell would scare me the stoutest outlaw in the forest; they
would all turn pale to hear it. At length I came by you and
Matcham. I could see but evilly through this same hood, and was
not sure of you, being chiefly, and for many a good cause,
astonished at the finding you together. Moreover, in the open,
where I had to go slowly and tap with my staff, I feared to
disclose myself. But see," he added, "this poor shrew begins a
little to revive. A little good canary will comfort me the heart
of it."

The knight, from under his long dress, produced a stout bottle, and
began to rub the temples and wet the lips of the patient, who
returned gradually to consciousness, and began to roll dim eyes
from one to another.

"What cheer, Jack!" said Dick. "It was no leper, after all; it was
Sir Daniel! See!"

"Swallow me a good draught of this," said the knight. "This will
give you manhood. Thereafter, I will give you both a meal, and we
shall all three on to Tunstall. For, Dick," he continued, laying
forth bread and meat upon the grass, "I will avow to you, in all
good conscience, it irks me sorely to be safe between four walls.
Not since I backed a horse have I been pressed so hard; peril of
life, jeopardy of land and livelihood, and to sum up, all these
losels in the wood to hunt me down. But I be not yet shent. Some
of my lads will pick me their way home. Hatch hath ten fellows;
Selden, he had six. Nay, we shall soon be strong again; and if I
can but buy my peace with my right fortunate and undeserving Lord
of York, why, Dick, we'll be a man again and go a-horseback!"

And so saying, the knight filled himself a horn of canary, and
pledged his ward in dumb show.

"Selden," Dick faltered--"Selden"-- And he paused again.

Sir Daniel put down the wine untasted.

"How!" he cried, in a changed voice. "Selden? Speak! What of
Selden?"

Dick stammered forth the tale of the ambush and the massacre.

The knight heard in silence; but as he listened, his countenance
became convulsed with rage and grief.

"Now here," he cried, "on my right hand, I swear to avenge it! If
that I fail, if that I spill not ten men's souls for each, may this
hand wither from my body! I broke this Duckworth like a rush; I
beggared him to his door; I burned the thatch above his head; I
drove him from this country; and now, cometh he back to beard me?
Nay, but, Duckworth, this time it shall go bitter hard!"

He was silent for some time, his face working.

"Eat!" he cried, suddenly. "And you here," he added to Matcham,
"swear me an oath to follow straight to the Moat House."

"I will pledge mine honour," replied Matcham.

"What make I with your honour?" cried the knight. "Swear me upon
your mother's welfare!"

Matcham gave the required oath; and Sir Daniel re-adjusted the hood
over his face, and prepared his bell and staff. To see him once
more in that appalling travesty somewhat revived the horror of his
two companions. But the knight was soon upon his feet.

"Eat with despatch," he said, "and follow me yarely to mine house."

And with that he set forth again into the woods; and presently
after the bell began to sound, numbering his steps, and the two
lads sat by their untasted meal, and heard it die slowly away up
hill into the distance.

"And so ye go to Tunstall?" Dick inquired.

"Yea, verily," said Matcham, "when needs must! I am braver behind
Sir Daniel's back than to his face."

They ate hastily, and set forth along the path through the airy
upper levels of the forest, where great beeches stood apart among
green lawns, and the birds and squirrels made merry on the boughs.
Two hours later, they began to descend upon the other side, and
already, among the tree-tops, saw before them the red walls and
roofs of Tunstall House.

"Here," said Matcham, pausing, "ye shall take your leave of your
friend Jack, whom y' are to see no more. Come, Dick, forgive him
what he did amiss, as he, for his part, cheerfully and lovingly
forgiveth you."

"And wherefore so?" asked Dick. "An we both go to Tunstall, I
shall see you yet again, I trow, and that right often."

"Ye'll never again see poor Jack Matcham," replied the other, "that
was so fearful and burthensome, and yet plucked you from the river;
ye'll not see him more, Dick, by mine honour!" He held his arms
open, and the lads embraced and kissed. "And, Dick," continued
Matcham, "my spirit bodeth ill. Y' are now to see a new Sir
Daniel; for heretofore hath all prospered in his hands exceedingly,
and fortune followed him; but now, methinks, when his fate hath
come upon him, and he runs the adventure of his life, he will prove
but a foul lord to both of us. He may be brave in battle, but he
hath the liar's eye; there is fear in his eye, Dick, and fear is as
cruel as the wolf! We go down into that house, Saint Mary guide us
forth again!"

And so they continued their descent in silence, and came out at
last before Sir Daniel's forest stronghold, where it stood, low and
shady, flanked with round towers and stained with moss and lichen,
in the lilied waters of the moat. Even as they appeared, the doors
were opened, the bridge lowered, and Sir Daniel himself, with Hatch
and the parson at his side, stood ready to receive them.

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