Chapter 1. THE HOUSE BY THE SHORE
Months had passed away since Richard Shelton made his escape from the hands of his guardian. These months had been eventful for England. The party of Lancaster, which was then in the very article of death, had once more raised its head. The Yorkists defeated and dispersed, their leader butchered on the field, it seemed,—for a very brief season in the winter following upon the events already recorded, as if the House of Lancaster had finally triumphed over its foes.
The small town of Shoreby-on-the-Till was full of the Lancastrian nobles of the neighbourhood. Earl Risingham was there, with three hundred men-at-arms; Lord Shoreby, with two hundred; Sir Daniel himself, high in favour and once more growing rich on confiscations, lay in a house of his own, on the main street, with three-score men. The world had changed indeed.
It was a black, bitter cold evening in the first week of January, with a hard frost, a high wind, and every likelihood of snow before the morning.
In an obscure alehouse in a by-street near the harbour, three or four men sat drinking ale and eating a hasty mess of eggs. They were all likely, lusty, weather-beaten fellows, hard of hand, bold of eye; and though they wore plain tabards, like country ploughmen, even a drunken soldier might have looked twice before he sought a quarrel in such company.
A little apart before the huge fire sat a younger man, almost a boy, dressed in much the same fashion, though it was easy to see by his looks that he was better born, and might have worn a sword, had the time suited.
“Nay,” said one of the men at the table, “I like it not. Ill will come of it. This is no place for jolly fellows. A jolly fellow loveth open country, good cover, and scarce foes; but here we are shut in a town, girt about with enemies; and, for the bull’s-eye of misfortune, see if it snow not ere the morning.”
“’Tis for Master Shelton there,” said another, nodding his head towards the lad before the fire.
“I will do much for Master Shelton,” returned the first; “but to come to the gallows for any man—nay, brothers, not that!”
The door of the inn opened, and another man entered hastily and approached the youth before the fire.
“Master Shelton,” he said, “Sir Daniel goeth forth with a pair of links and four archers.”
Dick (for this was our young friend) rose instantly to his feet.
“Lawless,” he said, “ye will take John Capper’s watch. Greensheve, follow with me. Capper, lead forward. We will follow him this time, an he go to York.”
The next moment they were outside in the dark street, and Capper, the man who had just come, pointed to where two torches flared in the wind at a little distance.
The town was already sound asleep; no one moved upon the streets, and there was nothing easier than to follow the party without observation. The two link-bearers went first; next followed a single man, whose long cloak blew about him in the wind; and the rear was brought up by the four archers, each with his bow upon his arm. They moved at a brisk walk, threading the intricate lanes and drawing nearer to the shore.
“He hath gone each night in this direction?” asked Dick, in a whisper.
“This is the third night running, Master Shelton,” returned Capper, “and still at the same hour and with the same small following, as though his end were secret.”
Sir Daniel and his six men were now come to the outskirts of the country. Shoreby was an open town, and though the Lancastrian lords who lay there kept a strong guard on the main roads, it was still possible to enter or depart unseen by any of the lesser streets or across the open country.
The lane which Sir Daniel had been following came to an abrupt end. Before him there was a stretch of rough down, and the noise of the sea-surf was audible upon one hand. There were no guards in the neighbourhood, nor any light in that quarter of the town.
Dick and his two outlaws drew a little closer to the object of their chase, and presently, as they came forth from between the houses and could see a little farther upon either hand, they were aware of another torch drawing near from another direction.
“Hey,” said Dick, “I smell treason.”
Meanwhile, Sir Daniel had come to a full halt. The torches were stuck into the sand, and the men lay down, as if to await the arrival of the other party.
This drew near at a good rate. It consisted of four men only—a pair of archers, a varlet with a link, and a cloaked gentleman walking in their midst.
“Is it you, my lord?” cried Sir Daniel.
“It is I, indeed; and if ever true knight gave proof I am that man,” replied the leader of the second troop; “for who would not rather face giants, sorcerers, or pagans, than this pinching cold?”
“My lord,” returned Sir Daniel, “beauty will be the more beholden, misdoubt it not. But shall we forth? for the sooner ye have seen my merchandise, the sooner shall we both get home.”
“But why keep ye her here, good knight?” inquired the other. “An she be so young, and so fair, and so wealthy, why do ye not bring her forth among her mates? Ye would soon make her a good marriage, and no need to freeze your fingers and risk arrow-shots by going abroad at such untimely seasons in the dark.”
“I have told you, my lord,” replied Sir Daniel, “the reason thereof concerneth me only. Neither do I purpose to explain it farther. Suffice it, that if ye be weary of your old gossip, Daniel Brackley, publish it abroad that y’ are to wed Joanna Sedley, and I give you my word ye will be quit of him right soon. Ye will find him with an arrow in his back.”
Meantime the two gentlemen were walking briskly forward over the down; the three torches going before them, stooping against the wind and scattering clouds of smoke and tufts of flame, and the rear brought up by the six archers.
Close upon the heels of these, Dick followed. He had, of course, heard no word of this conversation; but he had recognised in the second of the speakers old Lord Shoreby himself, a man of an infamous reputation, whom even Sir Daniel affected, in public, to condemn.
Presently they came close down upon the beach. The air smelt salt; the noise of the surf increased; and here, in a large walled garden, there stood a small house of two storeys, with stables and other offices.
The foremost torch-bearer unlocked a door in the wall, and after the whole party had passed into the garden, again closed and locked it on the other side.
Dick and his men were thus excluded from any farther following, unless they should scale the wall and thus put their necks in a trap.
They sat down in a tuft of furze and waited. The red glow of the torches moved up and down and to and fro within the enclosure, as if the link bearers steadily patrolled the garden.
Twenty minutes passed, and then the whole party issued forth again upon the down; and Sir Daniel and the baron, after an elaborate salutation, separated and turned severally homeward, each with his own following of men and lights.
As soon as the sound of their steps had been swallowed by the wind, Dick got to his feet as briskly as he was able, for he was stiff and aching with the cold.
“Capper, ye will give me a back up,” he said.
They advanced, all three, to the wall; Capper stooped, and Dick, getting upon his shoulders, clambered on to the cope-stone.
“Now, Greensheve,” whispered Dick, “follow me up here; lie flat upon your face, that ye may be the less seen; and be ever ready to give me a hand if I fall foully on the other side.”
And so saying he dropped into the garden.
It was all pitch dark; there was no light in the house. The wind whistled shrill among the poor shrubs, and the surf beat upon the beach; there was no other sound. Cautiously Dick footed it forth, stumbling among bushes, and groping with his hands; and presently the crisp noise of gravel underfoot told him that he had struck upon an alley.
Here he paused, and taking his crossbow from where he kept it concealed under his long tabard, he prepared it for instant action, and went forward once more with greater resolution and assurance. The path led him straight to the group of buildings.
All seemed to be sorely dilapidated: the windows of the house were secured by crazy shutters; the stables were open and empty; there was no hay in the hay-loft, no corn in the corn-box. Any one would have supposed the place to be deserted. But Dick had good reason to think otherwise. He continued his inspection, visiting the offices, trying all the windows. At length he came round to the sea-side of the house, and there, sure enough, there burned a pale light in one of the upper windows.
He stepped back a little way, till he thought he could see the movement of a shadow on the wall of the apartment. Then he remembered that, in the stable, his groping hand had rested for a moment on a ladder, and he returned with all despatch to bring it. The ladder was very short, but yet, by standing on the topmost round, he could bring his hands as high as the iron bars of the window; and seizing these, he raised his body by main force until his eyes commanded the interior of the room.
Two persons were within; the first he readily knew to be Dame Hatch; the second, a tall and beautiful and grave young lady, in a long, embroidered dress—could that be Joanna Sedley? his old wood-companion, Jack, whom he had thought to punish with a belt?
He dropped back again to the top round of the ladder in a kind of amazement. He had never thought of his sweetheart as of so superior a being, and he was instantly taken with a feeling of diffidence. But he had little opportunity for thought. A low “Hist!” sounded from close by, and he hastened to descend the ladder.
“Who goes?” he whispered.
“Greensheve,” came the reply, in tones similarly guarded.
“What want ye?” asked Dick.
“The house is watched, Master Shelton,” returned the outlaw. “We are not alone to watch it; for even as I lay on my belly on the wall I saw men prowling in the dark, and heard them whistle softly one to the other.”
“By my sooth,” said Dick, “but this is passing strange! Were they not men of Sir Daniel’s?”
“Nay, sir, that they were not,” returned Greensheve; “for if I have eyes in my head, every man-Jack of them weareth me a white badge in his bonnet, something chequered with dark.”
“White, chequered with dark,” repeated Dick. “Faith, ’tis a badge I know not. It is none of this country’s badges. Well, an that be so, let us slip as quietly forth from this garden as we may; for here we are in an evil posture for defence. Beyond all question there are men of Sir Daniel’s in that house, and to be taken between two shots is a beggarman’s position. Take me this ladder; I must leave it where I found it.”
They returned the ladder to the stable, and groped their way to the place where they had entered.
Capper had taken Greensheve’s position on the cope, and now he leaned down his hand, and, first one and then the other, pulled them up.
Cautiously and silently, they dropped again upon the other side; nor did they dare to speak until they had returned to their old ambush in the gorse.
“Now, John Capper,” said Dick, “back with you to Shoreby, even as for your life. Bring me instantly what men ye can collect. Here shall be the rendezvous; or if the men be scattered and the day be near at hand before they muster, let the place be something farther back, and by the entering in of the town. Greensheve and I lie here to watch. Speed ye, John Capper, and the saints aid you to despatch. And now, Greensheve,” he continued, as soon as Capper had departed, “let thou and I go round about the garden in a wide circuit. I would fain see whether thine eyes betrayed thee.”
Keeping well outwards from the wall, and profiting by every height and hollow, they passed about two sides, beholding nothing. On the third side the garden wall was built close upon the beach, and to preserve the distance necessary to their purpose, they had to go some way down upon the sands. Although the tide was still pretty far out, the surf was so high, and the sands so flat, that at each breaker a great sheet of froth and water came careering over the expanse, and Dick and Greensheve made this part of their inspection wading, now to the ankles, and now as deep as to the knees, in the salt and icy waters of the German Ocean.
Suddenly, against the comparative whiteness of the garden wall, the figure of a man was seen, like a faint Chinese shadow, violently signalling with both arms. As he dropped again to the earth, another arose a little farther on and repeated the same performance. And so, like a silent watch word, these gesticulations made the round of the beleaguered garden.
“They keep good watch,” Dick whispered.
“Let us back to land, good master,” answered Greensheve. “We stand here too open; for, look ye, when the seas break heavy and white out there behind us, they shall see us plainly against the foam.”
“Ye speak sooth,” returned Dick. “Ashore with us, right speedily.”