A Meeting of His Creditors
IN a time, when the spring had set in, Eustace Blount grew tired of fleecing country gentlemen in the noisy city taverns, and his soul longed mightily for the sound of running water and the sight of green trees rustling in the wind beneath masses of color. So he called for his riding boots and his horse, and rode far into the depths of Epping Forest.
On a mossy bank by the side of a gurgling brook he threw himself down and drank in eagerly the beauty of the growing life around. For though he was an accomplished villain he was but a young one, and his soul still reveled in nature's joy and sorrow. He lay in a sunny opening in the heart of the forest. All around him dense thickets hemmed him in, and seemed to emphasize the solitude.
Far above the deep blue sky stretched away down to the corners of the earth, dashed only by a few fleecy, wavelike clouds between him and the sun. He watched the clouds grow longer and thinner as if drawn out by some invisible hands, until at last they disappeared, and the early summer sun heat pleasantly down on him. The sensuous delight of it all tilled him with unwonted pleasure. It was a dream of peace, and London with its tumultuous passions and brawling discords seemed very far away and unreal; only this was vital.
For the time he hated the life he had been living and the pleasures that had turned to gall and wormwood in his month. The simple delights of his boyhood in Warwickshire—to roam the fields and fish and hunt, the life in the country manors that had been closed to him since he had chosen his way of life; the esteem of his peers, rough soldiers whom he had scorned when they warned him from his follies; these were the things most to be desired.
But there was no turning back now. He had chosen his course and he must follow it to the bitter end, wherever it might lead him. He was not yet twenty-four, but already several homes had cause to curse his fatal beauty which wooed women to their undoing, and his never-failing skill with the cards and the sword, which made strong men as children in his hands. Throughout the length and breadth of England he was a marked man; only the poor liked him for his open, generous hand; praised him for his kindly heart, and idolized his courage.
With an effort he shook off the gloomy thoughts that had fastened on him, and turned with the joyous abandon of a boy to the present. For with all his knowledge of the seamy side of life he was but a boy. Face down, he lay on the moss and nibbled at the tiny blades of grass.
A crackling in the bushes roused him, and he rolled over lazily till he rested on an elbow. Out of the thicket came a man. He wore the shoes of undressed deer-skin, the tight-fitting hose and the leather tunic of the period—all somewhat frayed. Round his neck was a heavy gold link chain, so long that it was doubled. Without the chain he might have been a franklin; with it he could only be an outlaw.
He stood over Blount for a moment without saying anything, looking insolently down at him the while. It was Blount who broke the silence.
"You will know me again, friend," he said, giving him look for look, but not deigning to rise.
"Yes; I will know you again, my perfumed popinjay."
Now, Blount was no common tavern brawler, so he let the words pass. Besides, it pleased him to assume at times an incognito, taking the character of a powdered court dandy. His looks were in keeping with it. Dressed in the height of fashion, scented and patched, with the pink cheeks of a lady's maid gallant, he looked the beau ideal of a courtier.
"Belike ye have business with me" he answered mildly, for the man showed no signs of departing.
"Belike I have. You are to come with me."
"I am to come with you? Where?" repeated Blount in surprise.
"It matters not where."
"And if I do not care to come? For to tell truth, friend, you have a parlous smell of garlic, which doth offend my nostrils."
The outlaw raised his hand, and all round them from the dense thicket came the sound of men laughing. But no man could Blount see.
"I think you will come," said the outlaw sneeringly. He made the mistake of believing the other was afraid, because he did not bluster. Eustace Blount still lay on the ground, resting on an elbow and smiling back at the other man. If the outlaw had but known it, he was nearer death than he had been for many a day. Behind the smiling mask Blount played the part of destiny.
"Well are you coming?" asked the outlaw impatiently.
Blount got to his feet lazily and brushed some grains of yellow pollen with a scented kerchief from the blue satin lining of his doublet, before he said:
"My unwashed friend, I come, impelled thereto by my other unwashed friends in the gorse; but, I pray you, in future to abstain from garlic. Almost it makes me faint to have you near. And it please you I will take the windward side."
"Shall have to blindfold you."
Another man might have objected. Blount merely shrugged his shoulders. He had been weary for an adventure. Here was one ready made to his hand. He produced a kerchief, and the outlaw bound it over his eyes. As they passed through the woods, Blount could tell from the rustling in the bushes that they were being watched. It did not alarm him in the least. He had but to disclose his name and they would let him go. There were no outlaws in England who would interfere with Eustace Blount. Their trades were too near alike. But he wanted to see the game out first.
They went some distance before they passed down some rude stone steps, and forward for a short distance. Here the bandage was whipped off, after his sword had been removed. For a moment he saw nothing distinctly, but he heard a mocking voice say:
"Welcome, Eustace Blount, most heartily welcome. So far as in us lies you shall have a fitting reception."
Then the power of vision came back to him, as his eyes became accustomed to the light. A man was bowing before him with mock humility, the uncontrollable light of triumph leaping in his eyes. Blount gave a start, for the man was his bitter enemy—one Dawson, by name—and he knew he had been trapped to his death. Then he set himself to play the game out without a sign of fear.
His cool eyes swept the room and took in every detail. It was a long, low cellar with a fireplace at one end. From the smoke-blackened rafters hung hams and haunches of dried beef. Everywhere were scattered clothes, cooking utensils, riding-gear and other litter. Plainly it was the living-room of the outlaws.
In the room were two other men besides Dawson. Sir Roger Chisholm was one of them. He was a tall, dark man, with piercing eyes which looked out from under bushy eyebrows. Blount had killed his brother a year before in a duel. The other was a very young man, unknown to Blount. Eustace looked from one to another with cool insolence, then said:
"A meeting of my creditors, I presume."
"Well, yes; some of them. We shall have to represent the others," chuckled Dawson.
"And my debts—are they large?" asked Blount with gay insouciance.
"To two of us, at least, you owe a life each—to me and to Oaksdale," said Sir Roger gravely.
"I regret I cannot pay the debt in full. I have only one life, but such as it is——" he stopped and shrugged his shoulders.
"Such as it is we exact it!" cried Oaksdale fiercely.
Blount turned and eyed him languidly from head to foot. There was not two years to choose between their ages. Yet the debonair young gambler made the other feel boyish and crude.
"And what has this babe to do with the matter?" he asked at last.
"I shall tell you!" cried Oaksdale hotly, smarting under the cool contempt of the other. "Do you remember the Woods of Kilnmore, and the devil's deed you did there? She was my sister. Afterward you left my brother with a sword thrust in his chest. To-day you pay!"
"Most happy, I am sure," drawled the young villain, with a careless wave of his hand. "I had forgotten the episode; but your eloquence has recalled it to my mind. Did he die?"
"He died; and his blood cries to heaven for vengeance. By God! it shall cry no longer, for your time has come. You shall taste the cup you brewed for others!" screamed Oaksdale, lashed to a fury by the seeming indifference of the other.
"Ah! And you have elected yourself an avenging angel—a representative of heaven," retorted Blount smilingly. "Dawson, I suppose, stands for his Satanic Majesty. May I ask whose delegate you are, Sir Roger? The chief places seem taken."
"Sneer on, Eustace Blount," replied Chisholm sternly. "You will die as you have lived, with a sneer on your lips. Yet, I warn you, if you ever pray, now is the time. In half an hour it will be too late."
The young gambler took his pouncet box from his pocket and offered it to the others. All refused it. He took a pinch then replaced it in his pocket.
"Ah! you do not indulge. Perhaps 'tis best, and yet sweet spices taken in moderation—mind, I say in moderation, Sir Roger—are a most excellent tonic. I could take you to a shop in London——"
"Have done with this fooling!" cried Chisholm sternly. "I warn you, by my brother's murdered soul, that you are very near to death."
"In the midst of life we are in death," quoted the young reprobate jauntily.
"Then realize it, and listen to my story. I had one brother—we were all that were left of an ancient family. Our father had been killed in the French Wars, while Henry VI. was yet King. I was the elder brother, and I loved Gerald with the love of father, mother and brother all in one. How I watched over him, cared for him and taught him a man like you could not understand. We were all in all to each other. Then a stranger came in between us. He was a court gallant, and his handsome face and gay humors fascinated Gerald. Well they might, for he had the face and figure of a young god—and the heart of a devil."
Blount acknowledged the compliment with a bow.
"God knows, I tried to save the boy. Perhaps I was too impatient. At any case, bit by bit the stranger led him into the wildest follies. I could only stand aside and watch his ruin. At the last Gerald came to his senses and resolved to break with his false friend. He taxed him with the evil work he had done, but the other only laughed at him. When the boy in rage struck him he led him out of the gambling house into the sunlight and killed him. Men call it a duel, but it was murder—neither more nor less. Gerald had no chance, and both of them knew it."
"He should have thought of that before he struck me, for I was drunk with wine. Yet, as I live, I loved Gerald. I would have given my hand—yes, my life—if it could have undone the deed," answered Blount in a low voice.
As if by accident Dawson hummed these words softly:
"When the Devil lay sick the Devil a monk would be,
When the Devil got well the devil a monk was he."
"You lie, Dawson, as you usually do," said Blount calmly. "I am not talking for my life, and you know it."
"I waited for a time," continued Chisholm, "in the hope that you might change your manner of life. But you go from bad to worse. I dare not let you live. It has been given me to slay you. Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad."
"Quite so," assented Blount with a stifled yawn. "Else I had not come so acquiescently like a lamb to the slaughter."
"Or a tiger to the trap," suggested Dawson.
"Do we not hear your charge also, good, honest Dawson?" asked Blount.
"No, I shall not talk, but act."
"In the meantime let me bring the charge for you against the prisoner at the bar. There was a boy in one of the Midland counties came into a good property. He was wild, and a hoard of bloodsuckers fastened on him, chief of whom was one Dawson. They taught him all of vice he did not know, and made him a byword in the country. There was no excess they did not plunge him into, while they hugged themselves with glee as they fattened on his follies. The houses of his friends were closed to him. He met only cold looks and averted faces. In revenge he made love to the daughters of the gentlemen round and fought their sons. He had but one virtue. He followed that thing men call Honor. At last this Dawson proposed something worse than usual—something that a gentleman could not do. With the flat of his sword he thrashed him till he could not stand and drove him from his doors. He tried to reform, but none would give him credit for it, and in self-defense he went back to his evil courses. The man Dawson bided his time—and it seems that it has come to-day. For one of my few good deeds I give my life. The moral is: Be consistent in evil. Note, Babe, here is Dawson with never a good deed to his credit in a long life. Yet he prospers. Beware of doing good. That is the story in short."
"You have not ended it," said Dawson with an evil smile.
"Oh, you are going to do that," replied Blount lightly. "It will be my one good deed that may take me to paradise."
Then Blount turned to Sir Roger. "The charge has been made, the prisoner sentenced, naught remains but the execution. I am ready."
To Chisholm it was a matter of simple justice that Blount should expiate his crimes; yet, since he was a gallant soldier, it grated on him that a man like Dawson should be mixed up in it. Even now, he thought, perhaps it would be better to fight Blount and take the chance of killing him.
But Dawson had no scruples. He blew a whistle that hung round his neck, and the outlaws poured into the room. Blount was led into the open air. Scarce a score of yards away he saw his horse tied to a tree. As well it might have been a mile away. He could not reach it.
"Farewell, Eustace Blount. A pleasant journey to you," said Dawson with a malignant grin.
"Who did you say he was?" asked one of the outlaws.
It does not matter who I said he was. You are not paid to ask questions," retorted Dawson sharply.
"Yet I ask them. If this be Eustace Blount——"
"I am Eustace Blount," said the prisoner, a great hope springing up in his heart.
"Then there will be no hanging to-day, eh, comrades? We do not hang our friends," said the man hardily, turning loose of Blount's arm. A chorus of approval greeted the man's remark. Blount knew he could reach his horse, but he made no move.
"I fear—I much fear that you will spoil good Dawson's pious plans," he said coolly, laughing at the latter's sudden discomfiture.
"No, by Saint Crispian!" cried Oaksdale, running at him, sword in hand, mad with the thought that his victim was about to escape him. Blount faced him scornfully, without giving an inch. Sir Roger Chisholm flung himself between them.
"I know not why it is, but I cannot see him killed without a chance. Heaven knows you deserve death, Eustace Blount—but I am no butcher. Bring his sword."
"You really take too much trouble on my behalf, Sir Roger," drawled Eustace. Then, as his sword was handed him: "Is it to be a fight?"
Sir Roger was flinging his doublet off, and did not answer.
"I am a more experienced swordsman than you," continued Blount warningly.
"I know you are, but the men whom you have murdered are fighting against you to-day. God will not let you win."
Blount frowned. He did not want to fight at all, far less fight a man whom he knew he could kill. A happy solution of the difficulty occurred to him.
"Without question I am a more skilful swordsman. I will fight you and Dawson together. Twill be more fair. If one falls the boy can take his place."
"I do not fight at odds. On guard," answered Chisholm coldly.
"Sir Roger, I do not want——"
"On guard, sir," retorted the knight, lunging forward at him. Blount parried. Then the lust of battle came into his eye, and he set himself to win.
Chisholm was no match for his opponent at sword-play. He had against him the coolest head and the surest hand in England. The result was never in doubt. In three minutes Sir Roger lay on the ground with the blood welling out of a wound in his side.
"He will not die," said Blount indifferently, as he stood panting over him. "I struck low on purpose; but I call you all to witness that this fight was none of my seeking. Out of doubt I had to wound to keep Dawson's fond hopes from being realized."
Oaksdale looked sullenly at him, his face distorted with rage. He would have liked to take up the quarrel, but the object lesson had impressed him, and he dared not. Dawson was white with the fear that his turn was coming next. But Blount ignored them both. The debonair young dare-devil looked gravely at the wounded man a moment, then turned on his heel and sauntered to his horse.
- Written for Short Stories. Illustrations by Reginald P. Ward.