Book II - The Moat House - Chapter II - The Two Oaths
Sir Daniel was in the hall; there he paced angrily before the fire, awaiting Dick's arrival. None was by except Sir Oliver, and he sat discreetly backward, thumbing and muttering over his breviary.
"Y' have sent for me, Sir Daniel?" said young Shelton.
"I have sent for you, indeed," replied the knight. "For what cometh to mine ears? Have I been to you so heavy a guardian that ye make haste to credit ill of me? Or sith that ye see me, for the nonce, some worsted, do ye think to quit my party? By the mass, your father was not so! Those he was near, those he stood by, come wind or weather. But you, Dick, y' are a fair-day friend, it seemeth, and now seek to clear yourself of your allegiance."
"An't please you, Sir Daniel, not so," returned Dick, firmly. "I am grateful and faithful, where gratitude and faith are due. And before more is said, I thank you, and I thank Sir Oliver; y' have great claims upon me both--none can have more; I were a hound if I forgot them."
"It is well," said Sir Daniel; and then, rising into anger: "Gratitude and faith are words, Dick Shelton," he continued; "but I look to deeds. In this hour of my peril, when my name is attainted, when my lands are forfeit, when this wood is full of men that hunger and thirst for my destruction, what doth gratitude? what doth faith? I have but a little company remaining; is it grateful or faithful to poison me their hearts with your insidious whisperings? Save me from such gratitude! But, come, now, what is it ye wish? Speak; we are here to answer. If ye have aught against me, stand forth and say it."
"Sir," replied Dick, "my father fell when I was yet a child. It hath come to mine ears that he was foully done by. It hath come to mine ears--for I will not dissemble--that ye had a hand in his undoing. And in all verity, I shall not be at peace in mine own mind, nor very clear to help you, till I have certain resolution of these doubts."
Sir Daniel sat down in a deep settle. He took his chin in his hand and looked at Dick fixedly.
"And ye think I would be guardian to the man's son that I had murdered?" he asked.
"Nay," said Dick, "pardon me if I answer churlishly; but indeed ye know right well a wardship is most profitable. All these years have ye not enjoyed my revenues, and led my men? Have ye not still my marriage? I wot not what it may be worth--it is worth something. Pardon me again; but if ye were base enough to slay a man under trust, here were, perhaps, reasons enough to move you to the lesser baseness."
"When I was lad of your years," returned Sir Daniel, sternly, "my mind had not so turned upon suspicions. And Sir Oliver here," he added, "why should he, a priest, be guilty of this act?"
"Nay, Sir Daniel," said Dick, "but where the master biddeth there will the dog go. It is well known this priest is but your instrument. I speak very freely; the time is not for courtesies. Even as I speak, so would I be answered. And answer get I none! Ye but put more questions. I rede ye be ware, Sir Daniel; for in this way ye will but nourish and not satisfy my doubts."
"I will answer you fairly, Master Richard," said the knight. "Were I to pretend ye have not stirred my wrath, I were no honest man. But I will be just even in anger. Come to me with these words when y' are grown and come to man's estate, and I am no longer your guardian, and so helpless to resent them. Come to me then, and I will answer you as ye merit, with a buffet in the mouth. Till then ye have two courses: either swallow me down these insults, keep a silent tongue, and fight in the meanwhile for the man that fed and fought for your infancy; or else--the door standeth open, the woods are full of mine enemies--go."
The spirit with which these words were uttered, the looks with which they were accompanied, staggered Dick; and yet he could not but observe that he had got no answer.
"I desire nothing more earnestly, Sir Daniel, than to believe you," he replied. "Assure me ye are free from this."
"Will ye take my word of honour, Dick?" inquired the knight.
"That would I," answered the lad.
"I give it you," returned Sir Daniel. "Upon my word of honour, upon the eternal welfare of my spirit, and as I shall answer for my deeds hereafter, I had no hand nor portion in your father's death."
He extended his hand, and Dick took it eagerly. Neither of them observed the priest, who, at the pronunciation of that solemn and false oath, had half arisen from his seat in an agony of horror and remorse.
"Ah," cried Dick, "ye must find it in your great-heartedness to pardon me! I was a churl, indeed, to doubt of you. But ye have my hand upon it; I will doubt no more."
"Nay, Dick," replied Sir Daniel, "y' are forgiven. Ye know not the world and its calumnious nature."
"I was the more to blame," added Dick, "in that the rogues pointed, not directly at yourself, but at Sir Oliver."
As he spoke, he turned towards the priest, and paused in the middle of the last word. This tall, ruddy, corpulent, high-stepping man had fallen, you might say, to pieces; his colour was gone, his limbs were relaxed, his lips stammered prayers; and now, when Dick's eyes were fixed upon him suddenly, he cried out aloud, like some wild animal, and buried his face in his hands.
Sir Daniel was by him in two strides, and shook him fiercely by the shoulder. At the same moment Dick's suspicions reawakened.
"Nay," he said, "Sir Oliver may swear also. 'Twas him they accused."
"He shall swear," said the knight.
Sir Oliver speechlessly waved his arms.
"Ay, by the mass! but ye shall swear," cried Sir Daniel, beside himself with fury. "Here, upon this book, ye shall swear," he continued, picking up the breviary, which had fallen to the ground. "What! Ye make me doubt you! Swear, I say; swear!"
But the priest was still incapable of speech. His terror of Sir Daniel, his terror of perjury, risen to about an equal height, strangled him.
And just then, through the high, stained-glass window of the hall, a black arrow crashed, and struck, and stuck quivering, in the midst of the long table.
Sir Oliver, with a loud scream, fell fainting on the rushes; while the knight, followed by Dick, dashed into the court and up the nearest corkscrew stair to the battlements. The sentries were all on the alert. The sun shone quietly on green lawns dotted with trees, and on the wooded hills of the forest which enclosed the view. There was no sign of a besieger.
"Whence came that shot?" asked the knight.
"From yonder clump, Sir Daniel," returned a sentinel.
The knight stood a little, musing. Then he turned to Dick. "Dick," he said, "keep me an eye upon these men; I leave you in charge here. As for the priest, he shall clear himself, or I will know the reason why. I do almost begin to share in your suspicions. He shall swear, trust me, or we shall prove him guilty."
Dick answered somewhat coldly, and the knight, giving him a piercing glance, hurriedly returned to the hall. His first glance was for the arrow. It was the first of these missiles he had seen, and as he turned it to and fro, the dark hue of it touched him with some fear. Again there was some writing: one word--"Earthed."
"Ay," he broke out, "they know I am home, then. Earthed! Ay, but there is not a dog among them fit to dig me out."
Sir Oliver had come to himself, and now scrambled to his feet.
"Alack, Sir Daniel!" he moaned, "y' 'ave sworn a dread oath; y' are doomed to the end of time."
"Ay," returned the knight, "I have sworn an oath, indeed, thou chucklehead; but thyself shalt swear a greater. It shall be on the blessed cross of Holywood. Look to it; get the words ready. It shall be sworn to-night."
"Now, may Heaven lighten you!" replied the priest; "may Heaven incline your heart from this iniquity!"
"Look you, my good father," said Sir Daniel, "if y' are for piety, I say no more; ye begin late, that is all. But if y' are in any sense bent upon wisdom, hear me. This lad beginneth to irk me like a wasp. I have a need for him, for I would sell his marriage. But I tell you, in all plainness, if that he continue to weary me, he shall go join his father. I give orders now to change him to the chamber above the chapel. If that ye can swear your innocency with a good, solid oath and an assured countenance, it is well; the lad will be at peace a little, and I will spare him. If that ye stammer or blench, or anyways boggle at the swearing, he will not believe you; and by the mass, he shall die. There is for your thinking on."
"The chamber above the chapel!" gasped the priest.
"That same," replied the knight. "So if ye desire to save him, save him; and if ye desire not, prithee, go to, and let me be at peace! For an I had been a hasty man, I would already have put my sword through you, for your intolerable cowardice and folly. Have ye chosen? Say!"
"I have chosen," said the priest. "Heaven pardon me, I will do evil for good. I will swear for the lad's sake."
"So is it best!" said Sir Daniel. "Send for him, then, speedily. Ye shall see him alone. Yet I shall have an eye on you. I shall be here in the panel room."
The knight raised the arras and let it fall again behind him. There was the sound of a spring opening; then followed the creaking of trod stairs.
Sir Oliver, left alone, cast a timorous glance upward at the arrascovered wall, and crossed himself with every appearance of terror and contrition.
"Nay, if he is in the chapel room," the priest murmured, "were it at my soul's cost, I must save him."
Three minutes later, Dick, who had been summoned by another messenger, found Sir Oliver standing by the hall table, resolute and pale.
"Richard Shelton," he said, "ye have required an oath from me. I might complain, I might deny you; but my heart is moved toward you for the past, and I will even content you as ye choose. By the true cross of Holywood, I did not slay your father."
"Sir Oliver," returned Dick, "when first we read John Amend-All's paper, I was convinced of so much. But suffer me to put two questions. Ye did not slay him; granted. But had ye no hand in it?"
"None," said Sir Oliver. And at the same time he began to contort his face, and signal with his mouth and eyebrows, like one who desired to convey a warning, yet dared not utter a sound.
Dick regarded him in wonder; then he turned and looked all about him at the empty hall.
"What make ye?" he inquired.
"Why, naught," returned the priest, hastily smoothing his countenance. "I make naught; I do but suffer; I am sick. I--I-- prithee, Dick, I must begone. On the true cross of Holywood, I am clean innocent alike of violence or treachery. Content ye, good lad. Farewell!"
And he made his escape from the apartment with unusual alacrity.
Dick remained rooted to the spot, his eyes wandering about the room, his face a changing picture of various emotions, wonder, doubt, suspicion, and amusement. Gradually, as his mind grew clearer, suspicion took the upper hand, and was succeeded by certainty of the worst. He raised his head, and, as he did so, violently started. High upon the wall there was the figure of a savage hunter woven in the tapestry. With one hand he held a horn to his mouth; in the other he brandished a stout spear. His face was dark, for he was meant to represent an African.
Now, here was what had startled Richard Shelton. The sun had moved away from the hall windows, and at the same time the fire had blazed up high on the wide hearth, and shed a changeful glow upon the roof and hangings. In this light the figure of the black hunter had winked at him with a white eyelid.
He continued staring at the eye. The light shone upon it like a gem; it was liquid, it was alive. Again the white eyelid closed upon it for a fraction of a second, and the next moment it was gone.
There could be no mistake. The live eye that had been watching him through a hole in the tapestry was gone. The firelight no longer shone on a reflecting surface.
And instantly Dick awoke to the terrors of his position. Hatch's warning, the mute signals of the priest, this eye that had observed him from the wall, ran together in his mind. He saw he had been put upon his trial, that he had once more betrayed his suspicions, and that, short of some miracle, he was lost.
"If I cannot get me forth out of this house," he thought, "I am a dead man! And this poor Matcham, too--to what a cockatrice's nest have I not led him!"
He was still so thinking, when there came one in haste, to bid him help in changing his arms, his clothing, and his two or three books, to a new chamber.
"A new chamber?" he repeated. "Wherefore so? What chamber?"
"'Tis one above the chapel," answered the messenger.
"It hath stood long empty," said Dick, musing. "What manner of room is it?"
"Nay, a brave room," returned the man. "But yet"--lowering his voice--"they call it haunted."
"Haunted?" repeated Dick, with a chill. "I have not heard of it. Nay, then, and by whom?"
The messenger looked about him; and then, in a low whisper, "By the sacrist of St. John's," he said. "They had him there to sleep one night, and in the morning--whew!--he was gone. The devil had taken him, they said; the more betoken, he had drunk late the night before."
Dick followed the man with black forebodings.