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    Chapter I. Of What Befell on Pembury Hill

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    It was a night of tempest with rain and wind, a great wild wind that shouted mightily near and far, filling the world with halloo; while, ever and anon, thunder crashed and lightning flamed athwart the muddy road that wound steeply up betwixt grassy banks topped by swaying trees. Broken twigs, whirling down the wind, smote me in the dark, fallen branches reached out arms that grappled me unseen, but I held on steadfastly, since every stride carried me nearer to vengeance, that vengeance for the which I prayed and lived. So with bared head lifted exulting to the tempest and grasping the stout hedge-stake that served me for staff, I climbed the long ascent of Pembury Hill.

    Reaching the summit at last I must needs stay awhile to catch my breath and shelter me as well as I might 'neath the weather bank, for upon this eminence the rain lashed and the wind smote me with a fury redoubled.

    And now, as I stood amid that howling darkness, my back propped by the bank, my face lifted to the tempest, I was aware of a strange sound, very shrill and fitful, that reached me 'twixt the booming wind-gusts, a sound that came and went, now loud and clear, anon faint and remote, and I wondered what it might be. Then the rushing dark was split asunder by a jagged lightning- flash, and I saw. Stark against the glare rose black shaft and crossbeam, wherefrom swung a creaking shape of rusty chains and iron bands that held together something shrivelled and black and wet with rain, a grisly thing that leapt on the buffeting wind, that strove and jerked as it would fain break free and hurl itself down upon me.

    Now hearkening to the dismal creak of this chained thing, I fell to meditation. This awful shape (thought I) had been a man once, hale and strong,--even as I, but this man had contravened the law (even as I purposed to do) and he had died a rogue's death and so hung, rotting, in his chains, even as this my own body might do some day. And, hearkening to the shrill wail of his fetters, my flesh crept with loathing and I shivered. But the fit passed, and in my vain pride I smote my staff into the mud at my feet and vowed within myself that nought should baulk me of my just vengeance, come what might; as my father had suffered death untimely and hard, so should die the enemy of my race; for the anguish he had made me endure so should he know anguish. I bethought me how long and deadly had been this feud of ours, handed down from one generation to another, a dark, blood- smirched record of bitter wrongs bitterly avenged. "To hate like a Brandon and revenge like a Conisby!" This had been a saying in our south country upon a time; and now--he was the last of his race as I was the last of mine, and I had come back out of hell that this saying might be fulfilled. Soon--ha, yes, in a few short hours the feud should be ended once and for all and the house of Conisby avenged to the uttermost. Thinking thus, I heeded no more the raving tempest around me until, roused by the plunge and rattle of the gibbet-chains, I raised my head and shaking my staff up at that black and shrivelled thing, I laughed loud and fierce, and, even as I did so, there leapt a great blaze of crackling flame and thereafter a thunder-clap that seemed to shake the very earth and smite the roaring wind to awed silence; and in this silence, I heard a whisper:

    "O mercy of God!"

    Somewhere in the darkness hard by a woman had cried. Instinctively I turned thitherward, searching the night vainly until the lightning flared again and I beheld a cloaked and hooded figure huddled miserably against the bank of the road, and, as darkness came, I spoke:

    "Woman, doth the gibbet fright you, or is't I? If 'tis the gibbet go hence, if 'tis I rest assured."

    "Who are you?" said a breathless voice.

    "One of no more account than the poor thing that danceth aloft in his chains and for you as harmless."

    And now she was beside me, a dark, wind-blown shape, and above the howling tempest her voice reached me in passionate pleading:

    "Sir--sir, will you aid one in sore danger and distress?"

    "Yourself?" I questioned.

    "Nay--indeed nay," she panted, "'tis Marjorie, my poor, poor brave Marjorie. They stopped my coach--drunken men. I know not what came of Gregory and I leapt out and escaped them in the dark, but Marjorie--they carried her off--there is a light down the lane yonder. I followed and saw--O sir, you will save Marjorie--you are a man--"

    A hand was upon my ragged sleeve, a hand that gripped and shook at me in desperate supplication--"You will save her from--from worse than death? Speak--speak!"

    "Lead on!" quoth I, answering this compelling voice. The griping fingers slipped down and clasped my hand in the dark, and with never another word she led me away unseeing and unseen until we came where we were more sheltered from rain and wind; and now I took occasion to notice that the hand that gripped mine so masterfully was small and soft, so that what with this and her voice and speech I judged her one of condition. But my curiosity went no further nor did I question her, for in my world was no place for women. So she led me on at haste despite the dark-- like one that was sure of her whereabouts--until I suddenly espied a dim light that shone out from the open lattice of what I judged to be a small hedge-tavern. Here my companion halted suddenly and pointed to the light.

    "Go!" she whispered. "Go--nay, first take this!" and she thrust a small pistol into my hand. "Haste!" she panted, "O haste--and I do pray God shield and bless you." Then with never a word I left her and strode towards the beam of light.

    Being come nigh the casement I paused to cock the weapon and to glance at the priming, then, creeping to the open lattice, I looked into the room.

    Three men scowled at each other across a table--desperate-looking fellows, scarred and ill-featured, with clothes that smacked of the sea; behind them in a corner crouched a maid, comely of seeming but pallid of cheek and with cloak torn by rough hands, and, as she crouched, her wide eyes stared at the dice-box that one of the men was shaking vigorously--a tall, hairy fellow this, with great rings in his ears; thus stood he rattling the dice and smiling while his companions cursed him hoarsely.

    With a twist of the hand the hairy man made his throw, and as the three evil heads stooped above the dice, I clambered through the window, levelled pistol in one hand, heavy staff in the other.

    "What d'ye set?" quoth I. The three sprang apart and stared at me quite chapfallen.

    "What's to do?" growled one.

    "First your barking-irons--lay them here on the table and quick's the word!" One after another they drew the weapons from their belts, and one by one I tossed them through the window.

    "What!" quoth one, a lank rogue with a patch over one eye and winking the other jovial-wise, "How now, mate o' mine, shall dog bite dog then?"

    "Aye," says I, "and with a will!"

    "Nay, nay, shipmate," quoth another, a plump, small man with round, bright eyes and but one ear, "easy now--easy. We be three lorn mariners d'ye see--jolly dogs, bully boys, shipmate--a little fun wi' a pretty lass--nought to harm d'ye see, sink me! Join us and welcome, says I, share and share alike O!"

    "Aye, I'll join you," quoth I, "but first--you wi' the rings-- open the door!" Here the hairy fellow growled an oath and reached for an empty tankard, and thereupon got the end of my staff driven shrewdly into his midriff so that he sank to the floor and lay gasping.

    "Nay now, shipmate," quoth the plump man in wheedling tone but round eyes snapping, "here's lubberly manners, sink and scuttle me--"

    "Open the door!" says I.

    "Heartily--heartily!" says he, his eye upon my cudgel, and edging to the door, drew the bolts and set it wide.

    "Woman," quoth I, "run!"

    With never a word the maid sprang erect, caught her torn cloak about her and, speeding across the room, was gone; whereupon the lank fellow sat him down and fell a-cursing viciously in Spanish and English, the plump man clicked his teeth and grinned, while 'Rings,' leaning against the wall, clasped his belly and groaned.

    "Well so, my bully roarer, and what now?" demanded the plump man, softly.

    "Why now," says I, "'twas share and share alike, I mind--"

    "Aye, but she's off, slipped her moorings d'ye see, my good lad, and be damned t' ye wi' all my heart," said the little plump man, smiling, but with the devil peeping through his narrowed lids.

    "Look'ee," says I, laying a groat upon the table, "there's my all--come turn out your pockets--"

    "Pockets!" murmured the plump man, "Lord love me, what's this? Here's us cheated of a bit of daintiness, here's Abner wi' all the wind knocked out o' him and now here's you for thieving and robbing three poor lorn sailor-men as never raised hand agin ye-- shame, shipmate."

    "Od rot your bones!" snarled the one-eyed man and spat towards me, whereat I raised my staff and he, lifting an arm, took the blow on his elbow-joint and writhed, cursing; but while I laughed at the fellow's contortions, the plump man sprang (marvellous nimble) and dashed out the light and, as I stepped from before the window, I heard the lattice go with a crash of glass. Followed a long, tense moment wherein we all (as I judge) held our breath, for though the storm yet roared beyond the shattered casement, within was a comparative quiet. Thus, as I stood in the dark listening for some rustle, some stealthy creeping step to guide my next blow, I thrust away my pistol and changing my staff to my right hand, drew forth the broad-bladed sailor's knife I carried, and so waited mighty eager and alert, but heard only the far-off booming of the wind. Then a floorboard creaked faintly to my left, and turning short, I whirled my staff, felt it strike home and heard a fierce cry and the uneven tread of staggering feet.

    "Fight, rogues!" cried I. "Here's meat and drink to me--fight!" and setting my back to the wall I waited for their rush. Instead I heard a hoarse whispering, lost all at once in a woman's shrill scream out beyond the casement, and thereafter a loud voice that hailed:

    "House ho! House ahoy! Light ho! Show a glim, ye drunken dogs!" and here followed a rush of roaring sea-oaths, drowned in a scream, louder, wilder than before. Then, while this distressful cry yet thrilled upon the air, pandemonium broke loose about me, shouts, cries and a rush and trample of feet; the table went over with a crash and the darkness about me rained blows. But as they struck random and fierce, so struck I and (as I do think) made right goodly play with my hedge-stake until, caught by a chance blow, I staggered, tripped and, falling headlong, found myself rolling upon sodden grass outside the shattered window. For a moment I lay half-dazed and found in the wind and rain vasty comfort and refreshment.

    Then in the pitchy gloom hard by I heard that which brought me to my feet--an evil scuffling, a close and desperate struggling--a man's hoarse laugh and a woman's pitiful pleading and sobbing. I had lost my staff, but I yet grasped my knife, and with this held point upwards and my left hand outstretched before me, I crept forward guided by these sounds. My fingers came upon hair, a woman's long, soft tresses, and I remember marvelling at the silky feel of them; from these my hand slipped to her waist and found there an arm that grasped her close, then, drawing back my hand, I smote with my knife well beneath this arm and drove in the stout blade twice. The fellow grunted and, loosing the maid, leapt full at me, but I met him with clenched fist and he went down headlong, and I, crouched above him and feeling him struggle to his knees, kicked him back into the mud and thereafter leapt on him with both feet as I had been wont to do when fighting my fellow-slaves in some lazarette; then, seeing he stirred no more, I left him, doubting nothing I had done his business. Yet as I went I felt myself shiver, for though I had been compelled to fight the naked wretches who had been my fellow-slaves, I had killed no man as yet.

    Thus as I went, chancing to stumble against a tree, I leaned there awhile; and now remembering those two blows under the armpit, what with this stabbing and my fall and lack of food, for I had eaten but once that day, I grew faint and sick. But as I leaned there, out of the gloom came a hand that fumbled timidly my bowed head, my arm, my hand.

    "Sir--are you hurt?" questioned a voice, and here once again I was struck by the strange, vital quality of this voice, its bell- like depth and sweetness.

    "No whit!" says I. Now as I spoke it chanced she touched the knife in my grasp and I felt her shiver a little.

    "Did you--O sir--did you--kill him?"

    "And wherefore no?" I questioned. "And why call me 'sir'?"

    "You do speak as one of gentle birth."

    "And go like the beggar I am--in rags. I am no 'sir.'"

    "How may I call you?"

    "Call me rogue, thief, murderer--what ye will, 'tis all one. But as for you," quoth I, lifting my head, "'tis time you were gone-- see yonder!" and I pointed where a light winked through the trees, a light that danced to and fro, coming slowly nearer until it stopped all at once, then rose a shout answered by other shouts and a roar of dismayed blasphemy. At this my companion pressed nearer so that I felt her shiver again.

    "Let us be gone!" she whispered. "Marjorie, come, child, let us haste." So we went on together at speed, and ever as we went that small, soft hand was upon the hand that held the knife. So we sped on through the dark, these two maids and I, unseeing and unseen, speaking little by reason of our haste.

    Presently the rain ceased, the wind abated its rage and the thunder pealed faint with distance, while ever and anon the gloom gave place to a vague light, where, beyond the flying cloud- wrack, a faint moon peeped.

    Guided by that slender hand, so soft and yet instinct with warm and vigorous life, I stumbled on through leafy ways, traversed a little wood, on and ever on until, the trees thinning, showed beyond a glimmer of the great high road. Here I stayed.

    "Madam," says I, making some ado over the unfamiliar word. "You should be safe now--and, as I do think, your road lieth yonder."

    "Pembury is but a mile hence," says she, "and there we may get horses. Come, at least this night you shall find comfort and shelter."

    "No," says I. "No--I am a thing of the roads, and well enough in hedge or rick!" and I would have turned but her hand upon my sleeve restrained me.

    "Sir," says she, "be you what you will, you are a man! Who you are I know and care not--but you have this night wrought that I shall nevermore forget and now I--we--would fain express our gratitude--"

    "Indeed and indeed!" said the maid Marjorie, speaking for the first time.

    "I want no gratitude!" says I, mighty gruff.

    "Yet shall it follow thee, for the passion of gratitude is strong and may not be denied--even by beggar so proud and arrogant!" And now, hearkening to this voice, so deep and soft and strangely sweet, I knew not if she laughed at me or no; but even as I debated this within myself, she lifted my hand, the hand that grasped the knife, and I felt the close, firm pressure of two warm, soft lips; then she had freed me and I fell back a step, striving for speech yet finding none.

    "God love me!" quoth I at last. "Why must you--do so!"

    And wherefore not?" she questioned proudly.

    "'Tis the hand of a vagrant, an outcast, a poor creeper o' ditches!" says I.

    "But a man's hand!" she answered.

    "'Tis at hand that hath slain once this night and shall slay again ere many hours be sped." Now here I heard her sigh as one that is troubled.

    "And yet," says she gently, "'tis no murderer's hand and you that are vagrant and outcast are no rogue."

    "How judge ye this, having never seen me?" I questioned.

    "In that I am a woman. For God hath armed our weakness with a gift of knowledge whereby we may oft-times know truth from falsehood, the noble from the base, 'spite all their outward seeming. So do I judge you no rogue--a strong man but very--aye, very young that, belike, hath suffered unjustly, and being so young art fierce and impatient of all things, and apt to rail bitterly 'gainst the world. Is't not so?"

    "Aye," says I, marvelling, "truly 'tis like witchcraft--mayhap you will speak me my name." At this she laughed (most wonderful to hear and vastly so to such coarse rogue as I, whose ears had long been strangers to aught but sounds of evil and foul obscenity):

    "Nay," says she, "my knowledge of you goeth no further--but--" (and here she paused to fetch a shuddering breath) "but for him you killed--that two-legged beast! You did but what I would have done for--O man, had you not come I--I should have killed him, maid though I am! See, here is the dagger I snatched from his girdle as he strove with me. O, take it--take it!" And, with a passionate gesture, she thrust the weapon into my grasp.

    "O madam--my lady!" cried her companion, "Look, yonder be lights --lanthorns aflare on the road. 'Tis Gregory as I do think, with folk come to seek for us. Shall we go meet them?"

    "Nay wait, child--first let us be sure!" So side by side we stood all three amid the dripping trees, watching the tossing lights that grew ever nearer until we might hear the voices of those that bare them, raised, ever and anon, in confused shouting.

    "Aye, 'tis Gregory!" sighed my lady after some while. "He hath raised the village and we are safe--"

    "Hark!" cried I, starting forward. "What name do they cry upon?"

    "Mine, sir!"

    "Oho, my lady!" roared the hoarse chorus. "Oho, my Lady Joan--my Lady Brandon--Brandon--Brandon!"

    "Brandon!" cried I, choking upon the word.

    "Indeed, sir--I am the Lady Joan Brandon of Shene Manor, and so long as life be mine needs must I bear within my grateful heart the memory of--"

    But, waiting for no more, I turned and sprang away into the denser gloom of the wood. And ever as I went, crashing and stumbling through the underbrush, above the noise of my headlong flight rang the hated name of the enemy I had journeyed so far to kill--"Brandon! Brandon! Brandon!"
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