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- The Prince and the Page - 2/37 -
"How did you hear these tidings?" inquired the boy, changing his mood to a graver one.
"From the monk to whom you confessed a fortnight back. Did you let him know your lineage?"
"How could I do otherwise?"
"He looked like a man who would keep a secret; and yet--"
"Shame--shame to doubt the good father!"
"Nay, I do not say that I do; but I would have the secret in as few men's power as may be. Nevertheless, I thank the good brother. He called out to me as he saw me about to enter the town, that if I had any tenderness for my own life, I had best not show myself there; and he went on to tell me how the Prince was come to his hunting-lodge, with hawk and hound indeed, but for the following of men rather than bird or beast."
"And what would you have me do?"
"Be instantly on the way to the coast, ere the search begins; and there, either for love of Sir Simon the righteous or for that gilt knife of yours, we may get ferried over to the Isle of Wight, whence- -But what ails the dog! Whist, Leonillo! Hold your throat: I can hear naught but your clamour!"
The hound was in fact barking with a tremendous lion-like note; and when, on reiterated commands from his master and the outlaw, he changed it for a low continuous growling like distant thunder, a step and a rustling of the boughs became audible.
"They are upon us already!" cried the boy, snatching up and stringing his bow.
"Leave me to deal with him!" returned the outlaw. "Off to Alton: the good father will receive you to sanctuary!"
"Flee!--never!" cried the boy. "You teaching my father's son to flee!"
"Tush!--'tis but one!" said the outlaw. "He is easily dealt with; and he shall have no time to call his fellows."
So saying, the forester strode forward into the wood, where a tall figure was seen through the trees; and with uplifted quarter-staff, dealt a blow of sudden and deadly force as soon as the stranger came within its sweep, totally without warning. The power of the stroke might have felled an ox, and would have at once overthrown the new- comer, but that he was a man of unusual stature; and this being unperceived in the outlaw's haste, the blow lighted on his left shoulder instead of on his head.
"Ha, caitiff!" he exclaimed; and shortening the hunting-pole in his hand, he returned the stroke with interest, but the outlaw had already prepared himself to receive the blow on his staff. For some seconds there was a rapid exchange; and all that the boy could detect in the fierce flourish of weapons was, that his champion was at least equally matched. The height of the stranger was superior; and his movements, if less quick and violent, had an equableness that showed him a thorough master of his weapon. But ere the lad had time to cross the heather to the scene of action, the fight was over; the outlaw lay stunned and motionless on the ground, and the gigantic stranger was leaning on his hunting-pole, regarding him with a grave unmoved countenance, the fair skin of which was scarcely flushed by the exertion.
"Spare him! spare him!" cried the boy, leaping forwards. "I am the prey you seek!"
"Well met, my young Lord," was the stern reply. "You have found yourself a worthy way of life, and an honourable companion."
"Honourable indeed, if faithfulness be honour!" replied the boy. "Myself I yield, Sir; but spare him, if yet he lives!--O Adam, my only friend!" he sobbed, as kneeling over him, he raised his head, undid his collar, and parted the black locks, to seek for the mark of the blow, whence blood was fast oozing.
"He lives--he will do well enough," said the hunter. "Now, tell me, boy--what brought you here?"
"The loving fidelity of this man!" was the prompt reply:- "a Poitevin, a falconer at Kenilworth, who found me sore wounded on the field at Evesham, and ever since has tended me as never vassal tended lord; and now--now hath he indeed died for me!" and the boy, endeavouring to raise the inanimate form, dropped heavy tears on the senseless face.
"True," rigidly spoke the hunter, though there was somewhat of a quivering of the muscles of the cheek discernible amid the curls of his chestnut beard: "robbery is not the wonted service demanded of retainers."
"Poor Adam!" said the youth with a flash of spirit, "at least he never stripped the peaceful homestead and humble farmer, like the royal purveyors!"
"Ha--young rebel!" exclaimed the hunter. "Know you what you say?"
"I reck not," replied the boy: "you have slain my father and my brothers, and now you have slain my last and only friend. Do as you will with me--only for my mother's sake, let it not be a shameful death; and let my sister Eleanor have my poor Leonillo. And let me, too, leave this gold with the priest of Alton, that my true-hearted loving Adam may have fit burial and masses."
"I tell thee, boy, he is in no more need of a burial than thou or I. I touched him warily. Here--his face more to the air."
And the stranger bent down, and with his powerful strength lifted the heavy form of Adam, so that the boy could better support him. Then taking some wine from the hunting-flask slung to his own shoulder, he applied some drops to the bruise. The smart produced signs of life, and the hunter put his flask into the boy's hand, saying, "Give him a draught, and then--" he put his finger to his own lips, and stood somewhat apart.
Adam opened his eyes, and made some inarticulate murmurs; then, the liquor being held to his lips, he drank, and with fresh vigour raised himself.
"The boy!--where is he? What has chanced? Is it you, Sir? Where is the rogue? Fled, the villain? We shall have the Prince upon us next! I must after him, and cut his story short! Your hand, Sir!"
"Nay, Adam--your hurt!"
"A broken head! Tush, 'tis naught! Here, your hand! Canst not lend a hand to help a man up in your own service?" he added testily, as stiff and dizzy he sat up and tried to rise. "You might have sent an arrow to stop his traitorous tongue; but there is no help in you!" he added, provoked at seeing a certain embarrassment about the youth. "Desert me at this pinch! It is not like his father's son!" and he was sinking back, when at sight of the hunter he stumbled eagerly to his feet, but only to stagger against a tree.
"You are my prisoner!" said the calm deep voice.
"Well and good," said Adam surlily. "But let the lad go free: he is a yeoman's son, who came but to bear me company."
"And learn thy trade? Goodly lessons in falling unawares on the King's huntsmen, and sending arrows after them! Fair breeding, in sooth!" repeated the stranger, standing with his arms crossed upon his mighty breadth of chest, and looking at Adam with a still, grave, commanding blue eye, that seemed to pierce him and hold him down, as it were, and a countenance whose youthfulness and perfect regularity of feature did but enhance its exceeding severity of expression. "You know the meed of robbery and murder?"
"A halter and a bough," said Adam readily. "Well and good; but I tell thee that concerns not the boy--since," he added bitterly, "he is too meek and tender so much as to lift a hand in his own cause! He has never crossed the laws."
"I understand you, friend," said the hunter: "he is a valued charge- -maybe the son of one of the traitor barons. Take my advice--yield him to the King's justice, and secure your own pardon."
"Out, miscreant!" shouted Adam; and was about to spring at him again, but the powerful arm collared him, and he recognized at once that he was like a child in that grasp. He ground his teeth with rage and muttered, "That a fellow with such thews should give such dastardly counsel, and HE yonder not lift a finger to aid!"
"Wilt follow me," composedly demanded the stranger, "with hands free? or must I bind them?"
"Follow?" replied Adam, ruefully looking at the boy with eyes full of reproach--"ay, follow to any gallows thou wilt--and the nearest tree were the best! Come on!"
"I have no warrant," returned the grave hunter.
"Tush! what warrant is needed for hanging a well-known outlaw--made so by the Prince's tender mercies? The Prince will thank thee, man, for ridding the realm of the robber who fell on the treasurer bearing the bags from Leicester!"
And meanwhile, with uncouth cunning, Adam was striving to telegraph by winks and gestures to the boy who had so grievously disappointed him, that the moment of his own summary execution would be an excellent one for his companion's escape.
But the eye, so steady yet so quick under its somewhat drooping eyelid, detected the simple stratagem.
"I trow the Prince might thank me more for bringing in this charge of thine."
"Small thanks, I trow, for laying hands on a poor orphan--the son of a Poitevin man-at-arms--that I kept with me for love of his father, though he is fitter for a convent than the green wood!" added Adam, with the same sound of keen reproach and disappointment in his voice.
"That shall we learn at Guildford," replied the stranger. "There are means of teaching a man to speak."
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