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    Chapter V. How I Came to Conisby Shene

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    It being yet full early for my purpose I took to the woods, and presently chancing upon a little stream that bubbled pleasantly 'mid shady willows, I sat myself down within this greeny bower and fell to watching the hurrying waters of this brook and hearkening to its drowsy murmur. And lying thus, with the good green world around me, the sunny air blithe with the mellow piping of birds and the soft wind rustling the leaves about me-- what must I have in mind but bloodshed and the destruction of my enemy, insomuch that reaching a stone from the brook I drew the knife from my girdle and set about straightening the blade thereof.

    I was thus employed when all at once the leaves on the opposite side of the brook were parted and a girl-child appeared. For a long moment we eyed each other across the brook, then all at once her pretty lips curved to a smile.

    "Little maid," says I, furtively thrusting the knife into my belt, "art not afraid of me then?"

    "Nay!" she answered, smiling yet and shaking her golden head.

    "And why?"

    "I do like your eyes, big man, kind eyes they be!"

    "Are they?" says I, glancing from her smiling innocence into the brook.

    "Aye, and your voice--I do like that too--'tis low and soft--like father's."

    "And who's your father?"

    "He be th' blacksmith."

    "How old are you?"

    "Seven, an' a big maid I be. Will 'ee aid me 'cross t'brook, now?"

    So I lifted her over and there we sat, side by side, she laughing and talking and I hearkening to her childish prattle with marvellous great pleasure. Presently I ventured to touch her soft cheek, to stroke her curls, and finding she took this not amiss, summoned courage to stoop and kiss her.

    How long we had sat thus I know not, when I was aroused by a shrill, harsh voice and turning, beheld a bony woman who peered at us through the leaves.

    "Susan Ann!" she cried. "O you Susan, come away! Come quick or I'll run for your mother."

    "The child is safe enough!" says I, frowning, but clasping the small damsel closer within my arm.

    "Safe?" cries the woman, turning on me in fury. "Safe--aye, for sooth, wi' a great, ill rogue the like o' you! Loose her--loose her or I'll scream and rouse the village on ye for a wild gipsy wastrel that ye are!" And here the old harridan railed at me until the child whimpered for fear and even I blenched before the woman's fierce aspect and shrewish tongue. Then, while she loaded me with abuse, a ceaseless torrent (and no lack of breath), I kissed the little maid's tear-wetted cheek and, setting her back across the brook, stood to watch until the child and woman were lost to my sight. Then I sat down, scowling at the hurrying water, chin on fist, for my black humour, banished awhile by the child's innocent faith in me, was returned and therewith an added bitterness. Scowling yet, I plucked forth my knife and seizing my staff, set to trim and shape it to a formidable weapon; and as I worked I cursed this woman deep and oft, yet (even so) knew she had the right on't, for truly I was a rogue, an outcast of unlovely look and unlovely ways, a desperate fellow unfit for the company of decent folk, much less an innocent child; and yet, remembering those fearless child-eyes, the kiss of those pure child-lips I sighed amain betwixt my muttered cursings.

    At last, having trimmed my bludgeon to a nicety, I laid it by, and sat brooding, the knife betwixt my knees; now a beam of sun falling athwart the leaves lit upon the broad blade of the knife and made of it a glory. And beholding this and the hand that grasped it, I took pleasure to heed how strong and sinewy were my fingers and how the muscles bulged beneath the brown skin of my forearm; and turning the glittering steel this way and that I fell to joyous thought of my enemy and of my vengeance, now so near.

    "To-night!" says I to myself, "Death ever cometh with more terrors in the dark! To-night!" But now, little by little, my joy gave place to anger that the night must be so long a-coming; and, glancing up, I cursed the sun that it must needs shine and the gladsome day that it was not grim night. And presently to anger was added a growing fear lest mine enemy might (by some hap) elude me at the eleventh hour--might, even now, be slipping from my reach. Now at this a sweat brake out on me, and leaping to my feet I was minded to seek him out and end the matter there and then. "Why wait for to-night?" I asked myself. "Surely in the gladsome light of day Death findeth an added bitterness. Why wait for night, then?"

    So I stood awhile debating within myself, then, catching up my knotted bludgeon, I set off along the stream incontinent, following a path I had trodden many a time when but a lad; a path that led on through mazy thickets, shady dells and green coppices dappled with sunlight and glad with the trilling melody of birds; but ever as I went, before my eyes was a man who twisted in my grasp and died, over and over again, and in my ears the sounds of his agony. And ever as I went trees reached out arms as if to stay me and bushes stretched forth little, thorny fingers that caught my garments as if to hinder me from my purpose. But I brushed them aside with my scarred arms or beat them down with my heavy staff, o'er-leaping hedge and ditch and fallen tree until I reached the highway, and even as I came there a distant clock chimed the hour of ten. I quickened my pace, twirling my staff as I went, so that the two or three wayfarers I chanced to meet drew from my neighbourhood and eyed me mightily askance. Having gone thus some mile or so, I came to a wall that bordered the road, a high and mossy wall, and following this, to a pair of gates set well back from the highway, with pillars of stone each surmounted by a couchant leopard carved in the stone. Now these gates were of iron, very lofty and strong and fast shut, but besides these was a smaller gate or postern of wood hard by the gatehouse where stood a lusty fellow in fair livery, picking his teeth with a straw and staring at the square toes of his shoes. Hearing me approach he glanced up and, frowning, shook his head and waved me away.

    "Here's no road for the likes o' you!" said he while I was yet at some distance. "Off wi' you!" Howbeit, seeing I still advanced he clapped to the gate, and letting fall the bar, cursed me roundly through the grille.

    "I would see Sir Richard Brandon!" says I.

    "Then ye can't--nowise. So be off and be danged!"

    "Open the gate!" says I.

    "Be hanged for a murderous-looking rogue, a lousy thief, a wastrel and a hangdog knave!" says he all in a breath.

    "All true enough!" says I. "And now, open the gate!"

    "Be danged for a prigging gipsy--'A Gad! I'll have ye clapped i' the pillory for a black-visaged clapper-claw!"

    "Unbar!" says I, "Or it shall go plaguy ill wi' you when I come in."

    At this he spat upon me through the grille and chuckled. Now, glancing about, I espied a stone hard by about the bigness of a man's head and, laying by my staff, I wrenched the stone from where it lay and, raising it aloft, hove it with all my strength; whereon the gate crashed open so suddenly as to catch the fellow a buffet that laid him sprawling on his back, and as he strove to rise I pinned him down with my staff and kicked him heartily.

    "And now," says I, "up with you and bring me to your master."

    But or ever he could do aught but groan and rub his hurts, I heard the sound of approaching hoof-strokes and, turning, beheld a lady bravely mounted who galloped furiously towards us down the avenue. When almost upon us she swung her powerful beast aside and, checking him with strong wrist, sat looking down at me from the shade of her plumed hat.

    "What is this?" she demanded, and her eyes swept over me grey and wide and fearless. "Who--who are you?"

    Now at the sound of her voice so rich and wonder-sweet, I felt strangely abashed and, finding no word, turned from her to scowl down at the man I had pinned beneath my broken shoe.

    "Who are you?" she questioned again. "Speak!"

    "A rogue!" says I, keeping my head averted. "A creeper o' hedges!"

    "Ah--is't you?" said she in softer tone. "I saw you for a moment by lightning-flash near the gibbet. You are my man o' the woods, and, sir, I owe you much--very much--indeed, sir, if--"

    "I am no 'sir'!" quoth I shortly.

    "Gregory," says she, looking down on the fellow 'neath my foot. "Gregory, get up!"

    "Gregory," says I, "stir not!"

    "Sir, would you hurt my servant?" says she, knitting her slender black brows.

    "I' faith!" I nodded. "The uncivil rogue forced me to burst open the gate."

    "And why are you here? Who are you? What is your name?" cried she a little breathlessly, and I wondered at the fixed intensity of her gaze.

    "Gregory," says I, taking my foot from his middle but threatening him with my staff, "I am come for no traffic with maids, so rise up and bring me to your master."

    "Nay," groans the fellow, turning up his eyes, "'tis thing impossible, here's only my lady--"

    "And I seek your master--is he within?"

    "Nay," says Gregory, flinching beneath my staff, "as my lady shall tell 'ee--he is not here."

    "Ha!" quoth I. "That will I see for myself." But as I turned to stride up the avenue, my lady wheeled her horse, barring my way.

    "Whither go you?" she demanded, her eyes holding mine.

    "To the house for Sir Richard. I have been at some small pains to gain speech with him."

    "To what end?"

    "Why truly," I answered, leaning upon my staff and viewing her eye to eye, "'tis a matter of vital moment, aye--in a manner of speaking--'tis a matter of life and death betwixt us." Now as I stood thus I could not but be conscious of her glowing, vigorous beauty, her body's noble shape and the easy grace of her as she sat her fretting horse, swaying to his every movement. And to me, in my rags, she seemed no woman but a goddess rather, proud, immaculate and very far removed; and yet these proud lips could (mayhap) grow soft and tender, these clear eyes that met mine so fearlessly--

    The staff was wrenched from my loosened grasp and Gregory, leaping to his feet, fetched me therewith staggering blow on blow, shouting with his every stroke:

    "Ho--Peter! Roger! Will! Ho--hither, lads all! Loose the dogs--hither to me, 'a God's name!" But, though mused with blows, I rushed in blindly and, closing with the fellow, got him fairly by the throat and shook him to and fro. And now was I minded to choke him outright, but, even then, spied a cavalier who spurred his horse against me. Hereupon I dashed the breathless Gregory aside and turned to meet my new assailant, a spruce young gallant he, from curling lovelock to Spanish boots. I remember cursing savagely as his whip caught me, then, or ever he could reach me again, I sprang in beneath the head of his rearing horse and seizing the rein close by the bridle began to drag and wrench at the bit. I heard shouts and a woman's cry of fear, but I strove only the fiercer, while up and up reared the great roan horse, snorting in terror, his forelegs lashing wildly; above tossing mane the eyes of his rider glared down at me as, laughing exultant, I wrenched savagely at the bridle until, whinnying with pain and terror, the great beast, losing his balance, crashed over backwards into the dust. Leaping clear of those desperate, wild-thrashing hooves, I found myself beset by divers fellows armed with staves, who closed upon me, shouting; and above these, her eyes wide, her full, red lips close-set, my lady looked down on me and I (meeting that look) laughed, even as her fellows rushed at me:

    "Go cosset your pretty springald, wench!" But even then, dazed and half-blinded by a hail of blows, I staggered, sank to my knees, struggled up again, smiting with bare fists. A flame seemed to flash before my eyes, a taste of blood was on my tongue, and all sounds grew faint and far away as, stumbling blindly, I threw up my arms, tripped and plunged down and down into an engulfing darkness, and knew no more.
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