Open main menu
 

CHAPTER XLVI.

A PRISONER.


Art thou he, traitor! that with treason vile
Hast slain my men in this unmanly manner,
And now triumphest in the piteous spoil
Of these poor folk; whose souls with black dishonour
And foul defame do deck thy bloody banner?
The meed whereof shall shortly be thy shame,
And wretched end which still attendeth on her.
With that himself to battle he did frame;
So did his forty yeomen which there with him came.

Spenser.

Some miles to the east of Yeovil there was a deep stream, whose precipitous banks were covered by a thick underwood that almost concealed the turbid waters, which undermined and bared the twisted and gnarled roots of the various overhanging trees or shrubs. The left side of the stream was bounded by an abrupt hill, at the foot of which was a narrow pathway; on the green acclivity flourished a beech grove, whose roots were spread in many directions to catch the soil, while their trunks, some almost horizontal, were all fantastically grown, and the fairy tracery of the foliage shed such soft, mellowed, chequered light as must incline the heart of the wanderer beneath the leafy bower to delicious musings.

Now the moon silvered the trees, and sometimes glimmered on the waters, whose murmurs contended with the wind that sung among the boughs: and was this all? A straggling moonbeam fell on something bright amid the bushes, and a deep voice cried, "Jack of the Wynd, if thou can'st not get to thicker cover, pluck darnels to cover that cursed steel cap of thine."

"Hush!" repeated another lower voice, "your bawling is worse than his head-piece; you outroar the wind. How high the moon is, and our friends not come;—he will be here before them."

"Hark! a bell!"

"Matins, by the Fiend! may he seize that double-tongued knave! I much suspect Master Frion; I know him of old."

"He cannot mar us now, though it be he who made this ambushment."

"Oh, by your leave! he has the trick of it, and could spring a mine in the broadest way; be can turn and twist, and show more faces than a die. He this morn—I know the laugh—there is mischief in't."

"But, your worship, now, what can he do?"

"Do! darken the moon; set these trees alive and dancing; do! so play the Will o' the Wisp that the king shall be on Pendennis and the duke at Greenwich, and each fancy be is within bow-shot of the other; do! ask the devil what is in his compact, for be is but the Merry Andrew of Doctor Frion. Hush!"

"It is he," said the other speaker.

A breathless pause ensued; the wind swept through the trees—another sound—its monotonous recurrence showed that it was a dashing waterfall—and yet again it grew louder.

"It is he."

"No, Gad's mercy, it comes westward—close, my merry fellows, close, and mind the word! close, for we have but half our number, and yet be may escape."

Again the scene sank into silence and darkness: such silence as is nature's own, whose voice is ever musical: such darkness as the embowering trees and vast island-clouds made, dimming and drinking up the radiance of the moon.

The stillness was broken by the tramp of horses drawing near, men's voices mingled with the clatter, and now several cavaliers entered the defile; they rode in some disorder, and so straggling, that it was probable that many of their party lagged far behind: the principal horseman had reached midway the ravine, when suddenly a tree, with all its growth of green and tangled boughs, fell right across the path; the clatter of the fall deafened the screech which accompanied it, for one rider was overthrown; it was succeeded by a flight of arrows from concealed archers. "Ride for your lives," cried Richard: but his path was crossed by six horsemen, while, starting from the coppice, a band of near forty men engaged with the van of his troop, who tried to wheel about: some escaped, most fell. With his sword drawn, the prince rushed at his foremost enemy; it was a mortal struggle for life and liberty, for hatred and revenge. Richard was the better swordsman, but his horse was blown, and half sunk upon his haunches, when pressed closely by the adversary. Richard saw bis danger, and yet bis advantage, for bis foe, over-eager to press him down, forgot the ward; he rose on his stirrups, and grasped his sword with both hands, when a blow from behind, a coward's blow, from a battle-axe, struck him; it was repeated, and he fell lifeless on the earth.

Sickness, and faintness, and throbbing pain were the first tokens of life that visited his still failing sense; sight and the power of motion seemed to have deserted him, but memory reviving told him that he was a prisoner. Moments were stretched to ages while he strove to collect his sensations; still it was night; the view of fields and uplands and of the varied moon-lit sky grew upon his languid senses; he was still on horseback, bound to the animal, and supported on either side by men. As his movements communicated his returning strength, one of these fellows rode to impart the tidings to their leader, while the other stayed to guide his horse; the word "gallop!" was called aloud, and he was urged along at full speed, while the sudden motion almost threw him back into his swoon.

Dawn, which at first seemed to add to the dimness and indistinctness of the landscape, struggling through the clouds, and paling the moon, slowly stole upon them. The prince became sufficiently alive to make observations; he and his fellow-prisoners were five in number only, their guards were ten; foremost among them was one whom, in whatever guise, he could not mistake. Each feeling in Richard's heart stimulated him to abhor that man, yet he pitied him more. Gallant, bold Robin, the frolicksome page, the merry-witted sharer of a thousand pleasures. Time, thou art a thief; how base a thief—when thou stealest not only our friends, our youth, our hopes, but, besides, our innocence; giving us in the place of light-hearted confidence—guile, distrust, the consciousness of evil deeds. In these thoughts, Richard drew the colouring of the picture, from the fresh and vivid tints that painted his own soul. Clifford's breast had perhaps never been free from the cares of guilt: he had desired honour; he had loved renown; but the early development of passion and of talent had rendered him, even in boyhood, less single-hearted than Richard now.

Clifford was triumphant; he possessed Monina's beloved—the cause of his disgrace—bound, a prisoner, and wounded. Why then did pain distort his features, and passion flush his brow? No triumph laughed in his eye, or sat upon his lip. He hated the prince; but he hated and despised himself. He played a dastardly and a villain's part; and shame awaited even success. The notoriety and infamy that attended on him (exaggerated as those things usually are, in his own eyes), made him fear to meet, in the neighbouring villages or towns, any noble cavalier who might recognise him; even if he saw a party of horsemen on the road he turned out of it, and thus got entangled among by-paths in an unfrequented part of the country. They continued the same fast career for several hours, till they entered a wild dark forest, where the interminable branches of the old oaks met high-arched over-head, and the paths were beset with fern and underwood. The road they took was at first a clear and open glade, but it quickly narrowed, and branched off in various directions; they followed one of its windings till it abruptly closed: the leader then reined in, and Clifford's voice was heard. Years had elapsed since it had met Richard's ear; the mere, as it were, abstract idea of Clifford was mingled with crime and hate; his voice, his manner, his look were associated with protestations of fidelity; or, dearer still, the intercourse of friendship and youthful gaiety; no wonder that it seemed a voice from the grave to betrayed York. "Halloo!" cried Clifford, "Clim of the Lyn, my merry man, thou art to track us through the New Forest to Southampton."

"Please your knightship," said a shaggy-headed fellow, "our way is clear, I am at home now: but, by Saint George, we must halt; a thirty miles' ride since matins, his fast unbroken, would have made Robin Hood a laggard."

"What would you eat here?" cried Clifford; "a stoup of canary and beef were blessings for the nonce; but we must get out of this accursed wilderness into more Christian neighbourhood before we find our hostelry."

Clim of the Lyn grinned. "To a poor forester," said he, "the green-wood is a royal inn; vert and venison, your worship, sound more savoury than four smoky walls, and a platter of beef brought in mine host's left hand, while his right already says—'Pay!'"

"They would feed me with mine own venison in way of courtesy, even as the Lion Heart, my namesake and ancestor, was feasted of old; mine—each acre, each rood, and every noble stag that pastures thereon; but I am not so free as they; and, mine though this wild wood be, I must thank an outlaw ere I dine upon my own."

Thus thought Richard; and at that moment, with his limbs aching through their bondage, and with throbbing temples, liberty in the free forest seemed worth more than a kingdom. The bright sun was high—the sky serene—the merry birds were carolling in the brake—the forest basked in noon-day, while the party wound along the shady path beneath. The languid frame of York revived; at first to pain alone, for memory was serpent-fanged. What bird-lime was this to ensnare the royal eagle! but soon Despair, which had flapped her harpy wings across his face, blinding him, fled away; Hope awoke, and in her train, schemes of escape, freedom, and a renewal of the struggle.

Meanwhile they threaded many a green pathway, and, after another hour's ride, arrived at the opening of a wide grassy dell; a deer, "a stag of ten," leaped from his ferny bed and bounded away; a herd of timid fawns, just visible in the distance, hurried into the thicket; while many a bird flew from the near sprays. Hero the party halted; first they unbitted their steeds, and then dismounted the prisoners, binding them for security's sake to a tree. Richard was spared this degradation, for still he was a prince in Clifford's eyes; and his extreme physical weakness, caused by his blow, made even the close watching him superfluous. He was lifted from his horse, and placed upon the turf, and there left. While some of his guards went to seek and slay their repast, others led their animals to a brook which murmured near; all were variously and busily employed. Clifford alone remained; he called for water; evidently he was more weary than he chose to own; he took off his casque: his features were ghastly: there was a red streak upon his brow, which was knit as if to endurance, and his lips were white and quivering. Never had crime visited with such torment ill-fated man; he looked a Cain after the murder; the Abel he had killed was his own fair fame—the ancestral honour of his race. How changed from when Richard last saw him, but two years before; his hair was nearly grey, his eyes hollow, his cheeks fallen in; yet, though thin to emaciation, he had lost that delicacy and elegance of feature that had characterized him. Almost without reflection, forgetting his own position in painful compassion, the prince exclaimed, "Thou art an unhappy man. Sir Robert?" The knight replied with a ghastly smile, which he meant to be disdainful. "But now," continued Richard, "while thy visor screened thy face, I was on the point of taunting thee as a coward, of defying thee to mortal combat; but thou art miserable, and broken-hearted, and no match for me."

Clifford's eyes glared, his hand was upon his sword's hilt: he recollected himself, replying, " You cannot provoke me, sir, you are my prisoner."

"Thy victim, Robin; though once saved by thee: but that is past, and there is no return. The blood of Stanley, and of a hundred other martyrs, rolls between us: I conquer my own nature, when even for a moment I look upon their murderer."

The weakness of the prince gave a melancholy softness to his voice and manner; the deep pity he felt for his fallen friend imparted a seraphic expression to his clear open countenance. Clifford writhed with pain. Clifford, who, though not quick to feel for others, was all sense and sensitiveness for himself: and how often in the world do we see sensibility attributed to individuals, whose show of feeling arises from excessive susceptibility to their own sorrows and injuries! Clifford wished to answer——to go away—he was spell-bound; his cowering look first animated Richard to an effort, which a moment before he would have ridiculed. "Wherefore," said he, "have you earned all men's hate, and your own to boot? Are you more honoured and loved than in Brussels? Scorn tracks you in your new career, and worst of all, you despise yourself."

"By St. Sathanas and his brood!" fiercely burst from the knight. Then he bit his lip, and was silent.

"Yet, Clifford, son of a noble father, spare yourself this crowning sin. I have heard from travelled men, that in Heathenesse the unbaptized miscreant is true to him whose hospitality he has shared. There was a time when my eyes brightened when I saw you; when the name of Robin was a benediction to be. You have changed it for the direst curse. Yours are no common crimes. Foremost in the chronicles, your name will stand as a type and symbol of ingratitude and treason, written with the blood of Fitzwater and Stanley. But this is not all. The young and defenceless you destroy: you have stood with uplifted dagger over the couch of a sleeping man."

Clifford had fostered the belief that this vilest act of his life, to which he had been driven rather by fierce revenge than hope of reward, was a secret. A moment before he had advanced with hasty and furious glances towards his enemy. Scarcely had the words passed York's lips, than a kind of paralysis came over him. His knees knocked together: his arms fell nerveless to his side.

"O, man!" continued York, "arouse thy sleeping faculties. Bid the fiend who tortures thee avaunt! Even now, at the word, he feels his power over thy miserable soul waver. By Him who died on the Cross, I conjure him to leave thee. Say thou 'amen' to my adjuration, and he departs. Cast off the huge burthen of guilt: deliver thy soul into the care of holy men. As thy first act, depart this spot: leave me. It is I who command—Richard of York, thy sovereign. Begone; or kneeling at my feet, seek the grace thou hast so dearly forfeited."

For a moment it almost seemed as if the wretched man were about to obey; but at the moment his groom came from the spring, where he had been watering his horse. The sight of another human being, to witness his degradation, awoke him to frenzy. He called aloud, "How now, sirrah! Why, unbit Dragon? Bring him here. I must begone."

"He can't carry your honour a mile," said the fellow.

"A miracle," cried Richard; "you repent, Sir Robert."

"As Lucifer in hell! Look to the prisoner." Clifford vaulted on his horse: his head was bare, his eyes wild and bloodshot. Clapping spurs to the jaded animal's side, he put him to his speed, and was gone.

"His fit is on him!" cried his attendant, "and what are we to do? He rides a race with the fiend, leaving us to do both their works." More whisperingly he muttered, "Hold Duke Richard in bonds against his will may I not. He gave me gold in Flanders; he is a king's son and a belted knight, and I a poor servitor."

Richard had conceived a faint hope of working on Clifford's manifest remorse, and enlisting him again under the banner of the White Rose. His wonder was great when he saw him flying through the forest with uncovered head and dishevelled hair; the bridle of his horse in the groom's hand, while the wearied animal, spurred to speed, threw up his head, snorting with fear. Not a moment was to be lost, the prince flew to his comrades in captivity. Already Heron and O'Water had their bonds cut by the sword of which he possessed himself. Heron, in whose two arms lay his chief strength, and O'Water, at home in a fray, fired with the desire of liberty and life, got speedy hold of battle-axes, and stood at bay. Skelton, the next made free, began to run; but finding his flight was solitary, he secured a bow and arrows, and betook himself to a short, sure aim from behind a tree, while he offered up another sigh to the memory of Trereife. Astley threw himself foremost before his master, unarmed. The weapons of their guard were chiefly in a heap, and these, defended by the enfranchised prisoners, were useless to them. Headed by Clifford's groom, who stood in salutary awe of shedding royal blood, a parley commenced. He entreated Richard to submit; he told him that the whole country was in arms against him, his way back to his army beset, the sea-coasts strictly guarded. What then could he do?

"Die, in arms and at liberty. Stand back, sirs; what would you do with me? Your guilty captain has deserted you; is there one of your number who will raise his accursed weapon against a king and a knight?"

Clym of the Lyn, and another outlawed forester (Clifford in mustering a troop had gathered together all manner of wild companions), now appeared dragging in a fat buck. Clym grinned when he saw the altered state of things: "Come, my men," he said, "it is not for us to fight King Henry's battles; the more majesties there be in England, the merrier for us, I trow; and the wider and freer the range of the king of the New Forest. Pat up your rapiers, and let us feast like brethren; ye may fall to with your weapons afterwards. Or, if it please your grace to trust to me, I will lead you where none of the king's men will follow."

"Wilt thou guide me back to Taunton?" asked the prince.

"Not for my cap full of rose nobles," replied the outlaw; "the way is beset: and trust me your worship's men are scattered far and wide ere this. You are a tall fellow, and I should ill like to see you in their gripe. Be one of us; you shall be king of the Greenwood-shade; and a merrier, freer monarch than he who lives at Westminster."

"Hark!" the word, spoken in a voice of alarm, made the party all ear. There was a distant tramp—every now and then a breaking of bushes—and a whole herd of deer came bounding up the glade in flight. A forester who had rambled further than the rest, rushed back, saying, "Sixty yeomen of the royal guard! They are coming hitherward. Sir Harry de Vere leads them—I know his bright bay horse."

"Away!"