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- THE LADY OF BLOSSHOLME - 6/52 -
of his sword, so that this man, too, fell down and lay in the snow, moving feebly.
The rest, thinking this greeting too warm for them, swung round and vanished again among the thorns.
"Now ride for it," said Jeffrey.
"I cannot," answered Sir John. "One of those knaves has hurt my mare," and he pointed to blood that ran from a great gash in the beast's foreleg, which it held up piteously.
"Take mine," said Jeffrey; "I'll dodge them afoot."
"Never, man! To the willows; we will hold our own there;" and, springing from the wounded beast, which tried to hobble after them, but could not, for its sinews were cut, he ran to the shelter of the trees, followed by Jeffrey on his horse.
"Who are these rogues?" he asked.
"The Abbot's men-at-arms," answered Jeffrey. "I saw the face of him I spitted."
Now Sir John's jaw dropped.
"Then we are sped, friend, for they dare not let us go. Cicely dreams well."
As he spoke an arrow whistled by them.
"Jeffrey," he went on, "I have papers on me that should not be lost, for with them might go my girl's heritage. Take them," and he thrust a packet into his hand, "and this purse also. There's plenty in it. Away --anywhere, and lie hid out of reach a while, or they'll still your tongue. Then I charge you on your soul, come back with help and hang that knave Abbot--for your Lady's sake, Jeffrey. She'll reward you, and so will God above."
The man thrust away purse and deeds in some deep pocket.
"How can I leave you to be butchered?" he muttered, grinding his teeth.
As the words left his lips he heard his master utter a gurgling sound, and saw that an arrow, shot from behind, had pierced him through the throat; saw, too, he who was skilled in war, that the wound was mortal. Then he hesitated no longer.
"Christ rest you!" he said. "I'll do your bidding or die;" and, turning his horse, he drove the rowels into its sides, causing it to bound away like a deer.
For a moment the stricken Sir John watched him go. Then he ran out of his cover, shaking his sword above his head--ran into the open moonlight to draw the arrows. They came fast enough, but ere ever he fell, for that steel shirt of his was strong, Jeffrey, lying low on his horse's neck, was safe away, and though the murderers followed hard they never caught him.
Nor, though they searched for days, could they find him at Shefton or elsewhere, for Jeffrey, who knew that all roads were blocked, and who dared not venture home, doubling like a hare across country, had won down to the water, where a ship lay foreign bound, and by dawn was on the sea.
About noon of the day after that upon which Sir John had come to his death, Cicely Foterell sat at her meal in Shefton Hall. Not much of the rough midwinter fare passed her lips, for she was ill at ease. The man she loved had been dismissed from her because his fortunes were on the wane, and her father had gone upon a journey which she felt, rather than knew, to be very dangerous. The great old hall was lonesome, also, for a young girl who had no comrades near. Sitting there in the big room, she bethought her how different it had been in her childhood, before some foul sickness, of which she knew not the name or nature, had swept away her mother, her two brothers, and her sister all in a single week, leaving her untouched. Then there were merry voices about the house where now was silence, and she alone, with naught bout a spaniel dog for company. Also most of the men were away with the wains laden with the year's clip of wool, which her father had held until the price had heightened, nor in this snow would they be back for another week, or perhaps longer.
Oh! her heart was heavy as the winter clouds without, and young and fair as she might be, almost she wished that she had gone when her brothers went, and found her peace.
To cheer her spirits she drank from a cup of spiced ale, that the manservant had placed beside her covered with a napkin, and was glad of its warmth and comfort. Just then the door opened, and her foster- mother, Mrs. Stower, entered. She was still a handsome woman in her prime, for her husband had been carried off by a fever when she was but nineteen, and her baby with him, whereon she had been brought to the Hall to nurse Cicely, whose mother was very ill after her birth. Moreover, she was tall and dark, with black and flashing eyes, for her father had been a Spaniard of gentle birth, and, it was said, gypsy blood ran in her mother's veins.
There were but two people in the world for whom Emlyn Stower cared-- Cicely, her foster-child, and a certain playmate of hers, one Thomas Bolle, now a lay-brother at the Abbey who had charge of the cattle. The tale was that in their early youth he had courted her, not against her will, and that when, after her parents' tragic deaths, as a ward of the former Abbot of Blossholme, she was married to her husband, not with her will, this Thomas put on the robe of a monk of the lowest degree, being but a yeoman of good stock though of little learning.
Something in the woman's manner attracted Cicely's attention, and gave a hint of tragedy. She paused at the door, fumbling with its latch, which was not her way, then turned and stood upright against it, like a picture in its frame.
"What is it, Nurse?" asked Cicely in a shaken voice. "From your look you bear tidings."
Emlyn Stower walked forward, rested one hand upon the oak table and answered--
"Aye, evil tidings if they be true. Prepare your heart, my sweet."
"Quick with them, Emlyn," gasped Cicely. "Who is dead? Christopher?"
She shook her head, and Cicely sighed in relief, adding--
"Who, then? Oh! was that dream true?"
"Aye, dear; you are an orphan."
The girl's head fell forward. Then she lifted it, and asked--
"Who told you? Give me all the truth or I shall die."
"A friend of mine who has to do with the Abbey yonder; ask not his name."
"I know it, Emlyn; Thomas Bolle," she whispered back.
"A friend of mine," repeated the tall, dark woman, "told me that Sir John Foterell, your sire, was murdered last night in the forest by a gang of armed men, of whom he slew two."
"From the Abbey?" queried Cicely in the same whisper.
"Who knows? I think it. They say that the arrow in his throat was such as they make there. Jeffrey Stokes was hunted, but escaped on to some ship that had her anchor up."
"I'll have his life for it, the coward!" exclaimed Cicely.
"Blame him not yet. He met another friend of mine, and sent a message. It was that he did but obey his master's last orders, and, as he had seen too much and to linger here was certain death, if he lived, he would return from over-seas with the papers when the times are safer. He prayed that you would not doubt him."
"The papers! What papers, Emlyn?"
She shrugged her broad shoulders.
"How should I know? Doubtless some that your father was taking to London and did not desire to lose. His iron chest stands open in his chamber."
Now poor Cicely remembered that her father had spoken of certain "deeds" which he must take with him, and began to sob.
"Weep not, darling," said her foster-mother, smoothing Cicely's brown hair with her strong hand. "These things are decreed of God, and done with. Now you must look to yourself. Your father is gone, but one remains."
Cicely lifted her tear-stained face.
"Yes, I have you," she said.
"Me!" she answered, with a quick smile. "Nay, of what use am I? Your nursing days are over. What did you tell me your father said to you before he rode--about Sir Christopher? Hush! there's no time to talk; you must away to Cranwell Towers."
"Why?" asked Cicely. "He cannot bring my father back to life, and it would be thought strange indeed that at such a time I should visit a man in his own house. Send and tell him the tidings. I bide here to bury my father, and," she added proudly, "to avenge him."
"If so, sweet, you bide here to be buried yourself in yonder Nunnery. Hark, I have not told you all my news. The Abbot Maldon claims the Blossholme lands under some trick of law. It was as to them that your father quarrelled with him the other night; and with the land goes your wardship, as once mine went under this monk's charter. Before sunset the Abbot rides here with his men-at-arms to take them, and to set you for safe-keeping in the Nunnery, where you will find a husband called Holy Church."
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