He might have dwelt in green forest,
Under the shadows green;
And have kept both him and us at rest,
Out of all trouble and teen.
It had been the policy of Richard's captors to have remained to deliver up their prisoners to a stronger force. But most of them were outlaws by profession, who held the king's men in instinctive horror: these were the first to fly; the panic spread; those who had no cause to fear fled because they saw others do so. In a moment the sward was cleared of all save the prisoners, who hastily bridled their horses, and followed York down a narrow path into a glen, in an opposite direction from the approaching troop. With what speed they might they made their way through the forest, penetrating its depths, till they got completely entangled in its intricacies. They proceeded for several hours, but their jaded horses one by one foundered: they were in the most savage part of the wood: there was no beginning nor end to the prospect of knotted trunks, which lifted their vast leafy burthen into the air; here was safety and needful repose. Richard, animated to a sudden effort, could now hardly keep his seat: the state of their animals was imperative for a halt; so here, in a wild brake, they alighted near a running brook; and here O'Water slew a buck, while Astley and Skelton unbridled their horses, and all set about preparing a most needful repast. Evening stole upon them before it was concluded; the slant sun-beams lay in golden glory on the twisted ivy-grown trunks, and bathed the higher foliage in radiance. By the time their appetites were satisfied, Heron and Skelton were discovered to be in a sound sleep; it were as well to follow their example; neither men nor horses could proceed without repose; darkness also afforded best safety for travelling. It was agreed that they should pursue their way at midnight; and so, stretched on the grassy soil, peace and the beauty of nature around them, each gave himself up to a slumber which, at that extremity of fatigue, needed no courting.
All slept, save the prince; he lay in a state of feverish disquietude, looking at the sky through the leafy tracery overhead, till night massed and confused every object. Darkest thoughts thronged his mind; loss of honour, desertion of friends, the fate of his poor men: he was to have devoted himself to them, but a stream, driven by a thundering avalanche from its course, had as much power as he to oppose the circumstances that had brought him from his camp near Taunton, to this secluded spot. For an interval he gave himself up to a tumult of miserable ideas, till from the grim troop some assumed a milder aspect, some a brighter hue; and, after long and painful consideration, he arranged such a plan as promised at least to vindicate his own name, and to save the lives of his adherents. Calmed by these thoughts, soothed to repose by the gentle influence of a south wind, and the sweet monotony of rustling leaves and running-water, he sank at last into a dreamless sleep.
A whispering of voices was the first thing that struck his wakening sense: it was quite dark. "Is Master O'Water come back?" asked Heron.
"I am here," replied the Irishman.
"Hast discovered aught?"
"That the night is dark, and the forest wide," replied O'Water; "had we a planet to guide us we might hope to reach its skirts. We are worse off than the Spanish Admiral on the western sea, for the compass was a star without a cloud to him."
"Saint Mary save us!" said, or rather whined poor Skelton, "our fortunes are slit from top to toe, and no patch-work will make them whole."
"There is hope at the mouth of a culverin," said O'Water, "or at the foot of the gallows, so that a man be true to himself. I have weathered a worse day, when the Macarthys swore to revenge themselves on the Roches."
"And by our Lady's grace," interrupted Richard, "shall again, worthy mayor. My good fellows, fear nothing, I will save you; the ocean cannot be many miles off, for the sun set at our right hand, and blinded our eyes through the day; the wind by its mildness is southerly; we will face it. When once we reach the seaside, the shore of the free, wide ocean, Tudor's power stops short, and ye are safe; of myself there will then be time to think. Say, shall we proceed now, or give another hour to repose?"
All were eager to start, slowly leading their horses through the tangled paths they could find, the quarter whence the wind blew, their only guide; morning found them toiling on, but morning diminished half their labours; and, as the birds twittered, and the east gleamed, their spirits rose to meet and conquer danger. O'Water was in his native element, that of hair-breadth escape and peril. As to Heron and Skelton, they might have flagged, but for Richard; he flattered their pride, raised their hopes, making weariness and danger a plaything and a jest. As the sun mounted in the sky, their horses showed many a sign of weariness; and in spite of a store of venison, which the careful Skelton had brought away with him, they needed refreshment; each mile lengthened to ten; each glade grew interminable in their eyes; and the wide forest seemed to possess all England in its extent. Could the prince's body have conquered his mind, the White Rose had indeed drooped; he was parched with fever, and this, preying on his brain, made him the victim of conflicting thoughts: his heart, his imagination, were in his deserted camp; even fair Katherine, awaiting tidings of him in her far retreat, had not such power to awaken anguish in his heart, as the idea of Henry's vengeance exercised on his faithful, humble friends, whose father and protector he had called himself. There was disease in the fire and rapidity with which these ideas coursed through his mind; with a strong will he overcame them, bent on accomplishing his present purpose, and rescuing these chief rebels, whose lives were most endangered, before he occupied himself with the safety of the rest.
At length, at noon, his quick ear caught a heavy, distant roar. The trees had begun to be more scattered: they reached the verge of the forest; they were too weary to congratulate each other; before them was a rising ground which bounded their view; some straggling cottages crowned the height; slowly they reached the hill-top, and there beheld stormy ocean, clipping in the circular coast with watery girdle; at a crow's flight it might be a mile distant. A few huts and a single black boat spotted in one place the else desert beach; a south wind swept the sea, and vast surges broke upon the sands; all looked bleak and deserted.
They stopped at a cottage-door, inquiring the road; they heard there was one, which went three miles about, but that the plain at their feet was intersected by wide ditches, which their fagged animals could not leap. Moreover, what hope of putting out to sea, in opposition to the big noisy waves which the wind was hurrying towards shore! It were safest and best to take a short repose in this obscure village. Heron and Skelton entered the poor inn, while Richard waited on his horse, striving to win him by caresses to taste the food he at first refused. Heron, who was warm-hearted with all his bluster, brought the prince out a flagon of excellent wine, such as by some chance—it might be a wreck—the tide had wafted from the opposite coast: Richard was too ill to drink; but, as he stood, his arm on his poor steed's neck, the creature looked wistfully up in his face, averting his mouth from the proffered grain; half-play fully his master held out to him the wide-mouthed flagon, and he drank with such eagerness, that Richard vowed he should have another bottle, and, buying the host's consent with gold, filled a large can from the wine-cask; the beast drank, and, had he been a Christian man, could not have appeared more refreshed. The prince, forgetful of his pains, was amusing himself thus, when Skelton, pale and gasping, came from the house, and voiceless through fear, laid one hand on his leader's arm, and with the other pointed: too soon the hapless fugitive saw to what he called his attention. Along the shore of the sea a moving body was perceptible, approaching towards them from west to east, which soon showed itself to be a troop of horse soldiers. Richard gave speedy order that his friends should assemble and mount, while he continued to watch the proceedings of the enemy.
They were about two hundred strong—they arrived at the huts on the beach, and the prince perceived that they were making dispositions to leave a part of their number behind. Fifty men were selected, and posted as patrol—the rest then, moved forward, still towards the east. By this time the remaining fugitives had mounted, and gathered in one spot—the villagers also were collecting—Skelton's teeth chattered—he asked an old woman if there were any sanctuary near.
"Ay, by our Lady, is there," replied the dame, "sixteen miles along the coast is the monastery of Beaulieu. A sanctuary for princes; by the same token that the Lady Margaret, Saint Henry's queen, lived safely therein spite of the wicked Yorkists, who would have taken her precious life."
Richard turned quickly round as the woman spoke and heard her words, but again his eyes were attracted to the coast. As the troop were proceeding along the sands, the little knot of horsemen perched upon the hill caught the attention of a soldier. He rode along the lines, and spoke to the commanding officer; a halt ensued, "We are lost," cried Skelton, "we are taken, Lord! Lord! will they grant us our lives?"
"These trees are tempting, and apt for hanging," said O'Water, with the air of a connoisseur.
"Oh, for Bewley,—for Bewley, let us ride!" exclaimed Skelton, longing to go, yet afraid of separating himself from his companions.
Still the prince watched the movements of the adverse party. Ten men were detached, and began to advance inland—"Oh, dear, my lord," cried Astley, "betake yourself to the forest—there are a thousand ways of baffling these men. I will meet them, and put them to fault. Hide, for my Lady's sake, ride!"
"Master Astley is a cunning gentleman," said Skelton; "our horses are a-weary, and a little craft would help us mightily."
Still Richard's eyes were fixed on the troopers—the men advanced as far as a broad, deep stream, which intersected the plain; here they hesitated; one of the best mounted leaped across, the others drew back, seeking along the steep, shelving banks for a ford, or a narrowing of the stream. The eyes of the troop on the shore were now turned upon their comrades. "Our time is come," cried Richard; "back to the forest." One step took them down the other side of the hill, hiding sea and beach and enemy from their eyes, and screening them also from observation. They soon reached the forest, and entered its shade; and then proceeded along just within its skirts. "Whither?" respectfully O'Water asked, after Skelton had for some time been muttering many a hint concerning sanctuary.
"To Beaulieu," said the prince. "We are barred out from the ocean—we are beset at land—the little island ycleped sanctuary is all that is left to ye. God speed us safely hither."
Richard's horse was lively and refreshed after his generous draught, but these of the others flagged. The prince exerted himself to keep up the spirits of all; he rallied Skelton, spoke comfort to Astley, and good hope to Heron. The sturdy apprentice of danger, flight, and trouble, O'Water, treated it all as a matter of course—even hanging, if it so chanced, was but a likely accident—the others needed more encouragement. Astley feared for his lord, even to an appearance of timidity, which, though disinterested, had a bad effect on the others. Heron complained bitterly that his dinner had been left unfinished; while the poor tailor, now fancying that he would run away from all, now fearful of solitary misadventure, kept up a garrulous harangue, of which terror was the burthen and the sum, Richard's voice was cheerful, his manner gay; but, placing his hand on Astley, it felt scorching; every moment it required more energy to throw off the clinging lethargy that fell upon him. It was again evening—a circumstance that had caused them to enter deeper into the forest; and it was to be feared they had lost their way. All were weary—all, save Richard, hungry. The breeze had died away; the air was oppressive, and more and more it felt like a load intolerable to the prince's burning brow. Night began to close in so very dark, that the horses refused to go forward. Suddenly a roaring sound arose, which was not the sea; and, but that the atmosphere was so still, the wanderers would have said that it was a fierce wind among the trees. Such must it be, for now it came nearer; like living things, the vast giants of the forest tossed their branches furiously; and entire darkness and sudden pouring rain revealed the tempest, which their leafy prison had before hidden—all was so instantaneous, that it would seem that nature was undergoing some great revulsion in her laws. The prince's horse snorted and reared, while O'Water's dashed furiously on, striking against a tree, and throwing his rider, from whose lips there escaped a shriek. What would have been the last overflowing drop in the bitter cup to a weak mind, restored Richard—lassitude and despondency vanished. In an instant he was off his horse at O'Water's side, speaking in his own cheerful, kind voice. "Waste no moment on me," cried the generous mayor. "My leg is broken—I can go no further—speed you, your highness, to the sanctuary."
This was the end of hope—the raging storm, the disabled man, dark night, and Richard's resolve not to desert his follower, all were causes of terror and of despair.
A voice in the wood was heard calling aloud; no answer could be returned; it was repeated, and Astley went forward to reconnoitre—even an enemy were help in such disaster, yet Heron and Skelton implored him to remain. Another halloo Richard answered; for he recognized Astley's voice, who in the dark could not find his way back. He came at last, accompanied by a monk—this was heaven's favour revealed; for the holy man was a hermit, and his poor cell was near: poor indeed was it, built with logs, the interstices filled with mud; a bed of dried leaves was nearly all the furniture. The hermit had gone on first, and lit a torch; as they might, they bore along poor O'Water, and placed him in his agony on the low couch. The hermit looked inquisitively on all the party, neglecting to answer Skelton, who asked for the hundredth time the distance to Beaulieu.
Richard still occupied himself with the mayor, endeavouring to discover if the limb were broken. "By your leave, your grace," said the hermit, "I am somewhat of a chirurgeon; I boast of my cures of horses, and have saved a Christian man ere now."
Scarcely did the prince remember to wonder at the title by which the unknown addressed him. By our Lady's love he besought him to attend to his friend. "Trust me," said the hermit, "I will not fail; but you, my lord, must not tarry here; the forest is beset with troops; but for night and storm, you would hardly attain Beaulieu in safety. It is but two miles distant: I will guide your highness thither; and then return to your follower. Have faith in me, my lord; I have served your royal uncle, and was enlisted under your banner last year in Kent. I made a shift to escape, and took sanctuary; but the stone walls of a monastery are little better than those of a prison; so I betook me to the woods. Oh, I beseech you, waste no time: I will return to your follower: he is safe till then."
"Direct us, and I will thank you," replied Richard; "but you shall not desert your patient even for a moment."
There was no alternative but to comply: the man gave as clear instructions as he might, and Richard again set forward with his diminished party. They were long entangled by trees; and it was now quite night: the excitement over, the prince had drooped again. Even this interval was full of peril—a tramp of steeds was heard: they drew up among the trees; a party of horsemen passed; one—could it be the voice of the subtle Frion?—said, "At the end of this glade we shall see the abbey spires. Well I know the same; for when Queen Margaret——"
This speaker was succeeded by a woman's voice: yet greater wonder, she spoke in Spanish, in unforgotten accents—Richard's heart stood still, as he heard them; but soon both voice and tramp of steeds grew faint; and his brain, becoming more and more bewildered, allowed no thought to enter, save the one fixed there even in delirium. The fugitives continued to linger in this spot until it was probable that the travellers should have arrived. True to the information they had overheard, the forest opened at the end of the glade into a leafy amphitheatre; an avenue was opposite, which led to the abbey gates, whose Gothic spires, buttresses and carved arches, rose above the tufted trees in dark masses. One end of the building was illuminated—that was the church, and the pealing organ stole mournfully on the night, sounding a Miserere; the chaunting of the monks mingled with the harmonious swell, adding that pathos, that touch of solemn, unutterable sentiment, which perhaps no music, save that of the human voice, possesses. Richard's companions were rough-suited, vulgar-minded; but they were Catholic and religious men, and were awe-struck by this voice from heaven reaching them thus in their desolation; a voice promising safety and repose to their harassed, wearied bodies.
A few steps carried them to the very spot; the bell was rung, the gate was opened, sanctuary was claimed and afforded. Skelton sprang forward; the other two hung back; but, on a sign from Richard, they also passed the sacred threshold "Farewell, my friends," he said, "a short farewell. Astley, I charge you wait for me. Sir priest, close the gate."
The word was said, the order obeyed, Richard was left alone in darkness. "Now for my task—for my poor trusty fellows. The work of murder cannot yet have begun: my life pays for all. Yet awhile bear me up, thou fainting spirit; desert not Richard's breast till his honour be redeemed!"
Vain prayer!—"I must repose," he thought; "it is of no avail to urge nature beyond herself; a few minutes, and I am strong." He dismounted, and, with a sensation of delicious relief, threw himself at his length on the wet grass, pressing the dank herbage to his fevered brow. At first he felt recovered; but in a few minutes strong spasms shot through his frame; and these yielded to a feebleness, that forced him to sink to the ground, when he endeavoured to rise: he forgot his situation, the near abbey, his friends; he forgot wherefore, but he remembered that his presence was required somewhere, and with a resolved effort he rose and staggered towards his horse—he fell. "A little sleep, and I shall be well." This was his last thought, and he lay in a state between slumber and stupor upon the earth.