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- The Splendid Spur - 17/44 -

seem'd trying to cover a big wound that gaped in his chest: the other, as my head rose over the ladder, he stretch'd out with all the fingers spread. And this was his last effort. As I stumbled up, his fingers clos'd in a spasm of pain; his hands dropp'd, and the body tumbled back on the bed, where it lay with the legs dangling.

The poor lad must have been stabb'd as he lay asleep. For by the bedside I found his clothes neatly folded and without a speck of blood. They were clean, though coarse; so thinking they would serve for Delia, I took them, albeit with some scruples at robbing the dead, and covering the body with a sheet, made my way downstairs.

[Illustration: "Oh, Jack--they do not fit at all!"--Page 121.]

Here, on a high shelf at the foot of the ladder, I discover'd a couple of loaves and some milk, and also, lying hard by, a pair of shepherd's shears, which I took also, having a purpose for them. By this time, being sick enough of the place, I was glad to make all speed back to Delia.

She was still waiting among the leafless alders, and clapp'd her hands to see the two loaves under my arm.

Said I, flinging down the clothes, and munching at my share of the bread---

"Here is the boy's suit that you wish'd for."

"Oh, dear! 'tis not a very choice one." Her face fell.

"All the better for escaping notice."

"But--but I _like_ to be notic'd!"

Nevertheless, when breakfast was done, she consented to try on the clothes. I left her eyeing them doubtfully, and stroll'd away by the river's bank. In a while her voice call'd to me---

"Oh, Jack--they do not fit at all!"

"Why, 'tis admirable!" said I, returning, and scanning her. Now this was a lie: but she took me more than ever, so pretty and comical she look'd in the dress.

"And I cannot walk a bit in them!" she pouted, strutting up and down.

"Swing your arms more, and let them hang looser."

"And my hair. Oh, Jack, I have such beautiful hair!"

"It must come off," said I, pulling the shears out of my pocket.

"And look at these huge boots!"

Indeed, this was the main trouble, for I knew they would hurt her in walking: yet she made more fuss about her hair, and only gave in when I scolded her roundly. So I took the shears and clipp'd the chestnut curls, one by one, while she cried for vexation; and took occasion of her tears to smuggle the longest lock inside my doublet.

* * * * *

But, an hour after, she was laughing again, and had learned to cock the poor country lad's cap rakishly over one eye: and by evening was walking with a swagger and longing (I know) to meet with folks. For, to spare her the sight of the ruin'd cottage, I had taken her round through the fields, and by every bypath that seem'd to lead westward. 'Twas safer to journey thus; and all the way she practic'd a man's carriage and airs, and how to wink and whistle and swing a stick. And once, when she left one of her shoes in a wet ditch, she said "d--n!" as natural as life: and then--

We jump'd over a hedge, plump into an outpost of rebels, as they sat munching their supper.

They were six in all, and must have been sitting like mice: for all I know of it is this. I had climb'd the hedge first, and was helping Delia over, when out of the ground, as it seem'd, a voice shriek'd, "Run--run!--the King's men are on us!" and then, my foot slipping, down I went on to the shoulders of a thick-set man, and well-nigh broke his neck as he turn'd to look up at me.

At first, the whole six were for running, I believe. But seeing only a lad stretch'd on his face, and a second on the hedge, they thought better of it. Before I could scramble up, one pair of hands was screw'd about my neck, another at my heels, and in a trice there we were pinion'd.

"Fetch the lantern, Zacchaeus."

'Twas quickly lit, and thrust into my face; and very foolish I must have look'd. The fellows were all clad in green coats, much soil'd with mud and powder. And they grinn'd in my face till I long'd to kick them.

"Search the malignant!" cried one. "Question him," call'd out another; and forthwith began a long interrogatory concerning the movements of his Majesty's troops, from which, indeed, I learn'd much concerning the late encounter: but of course could answer nought. 'Twas only natural they should interpret this silence for obstinacy.

"March 'em off to Captain Stubbs!"

"Halloa!" shouted a pockmarked trooper, that had his hand thrust in on my breast: "bring the lantern close here. What's this?"

'Twas, alas! the King's letter: and I bit my lip while they cluster'd round, turning the lantern's yellow glare upon the superscription.

"Lads, there's promotion in this!" shouted the thick-set man I had tumbled on (who, it seem'd, was the sergeant in the troop): "hand me the letter, there! Zacchaeus Martin and Tom Pine--you two bide here on duty: t'other three fall in about the prisoners--quick march!' The wicked have digged a pit--'"

The rogue ended up with a tag from the Psalmist.

We were march'd down the road for a mile or more, till we heard a loud bawling, as of a man in much bodily pain, and soon came to a small village, where, under a tavern lamp, by the door, was a man perch'd up on a tub, and shouting forth portions of the Scripture to some twenty or more green-coats assembled round. Our conductor pushed past these, and enter'd the tavern. At a door to the left in the passage he halted, and knocking once, thrust us inside.

The room was bare and lit very dimly by two tallow candles, set in bottles. Between these, on a deal table, lay a map outspread, and over it a man was bending, who look'd up sharply at our entrance.

He was thin, with a blue nose, and wore a green uniform like the rest: only his carriage proved him a man of authority.

This Captain Stubbs listened, you may be sure, with a bright'ning eye to the sergeant's story; and at the close fix'd an inquisitive gaze on the pair of us, turning the King's letter over and over in his hands.

"How came this in your possession?" he ask'd at length.

"That," said I, "I must decline to tell."

He hesitated a moment; then, re-seating himself, broke the seal, spread the letter upon the map, and read it slowly through. For the first time I began heartily to hope that the paper contain'd nothing of moment. But the man's face was no index of this. He read it through twice, folded it away in his breast, and turn'd to the sergeant--

"To-morrow at six in the morning we continue our march. Meanwhile keep these fellows secure. I look to you for this."

The sergeant saluted and we were led out. That night we pass'd in handcuffs, huddled with fifty soldiers in a hayloft of the inn and hearkening to their curious talk, that was half composed of Holy Writ and half of gibes at our expense. They were beaten men and, like all such, found comfort in deriding the greater misfortunes of others.

Before daylight the bugles began to sound, and we were led down to the green before the tavern door, where already were close upon five hundred gather'd, that had been billeted about the village and were now forming in order of march--a soil'd, batter'd crew, with torn ensigns and little heart in their movements. The sky began a cold drizzle as we set out, and through this saddening whether we trudged all day, Delia and I being kept well apart, she with the vanguard and I in the rear, seeing only the winding column, the dejected heads bobbing in front as they bent to the slanting rain, the cottagers that came out to stare as we pass'd; and hearing but the hoarse words of command, the low mutterings of the men, and always the monotonous _tramp-tramp_ through the slush and mire of the roads.

'Tis like a bad dream to me, and I will not dwell on it. That night we pass'd at Chippenham--a small market town--and on the morrow went tramping again through worse weather, but always amid the same sights and sounds. There were moments when I thought to go mad, wrenching at my cords till my wrists bled, yet with no hope to escape. But in time, by good luck, my wits grew deaden'd to it all, and I march'd on with the rest to a kind of lugubrious singsong that my brain supplied. For hours I went thus, counting my steps, missing my reckoning, and beginning again.

Daylight was failing when the towers of Bristol grew clear out of the leaden mist in front; and by five o'clock we halted outside the walls and beside the ditch of the castle, waiting for the drawbridge to be let down. Already a great crowd had gather'd about us, of those who had come out to learn news of the defeat, which, the day before some fugitives had carried to Bristol. To their questions, as to all else, I listen'd like a man in a trance: and recall this only--that first I was shivering out in the rain and soon after was standing beside Delia, under guard of a dozen soldiers, and shaking with cold, beneath a gateway that led between the two wards of the castle. And there, for an hour at least, we kick'd our heels, until from the inner ward Captain Stubbs came striding and commanded us to follow.

Across the court we went in the rain, through a vaulted passage, and

The Splendid Spur - 17/44

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