“Ay, master, though I think you’ll find the task hard in this hive of pestilence and confusion.”
“I have heard that the plague is at work in Cattrina’s palace,” broke in David, “but when I asked whether he were there or no, none could tell me. That is not a house where you’ll be welcomed, Sir Hugh.”
“Still I will make bold to knock at his doors tomorrow,” answered Hugh. “Now let us seek what we all need—sleep.”
So on the following morning shortly after sunrise Hugh and Grey Dick, guided by David, took boat and rowed through most fearful scenes and sounds to the Palazzo Cattrina, a splendid but somewhat dilapidated building situated in a part of the city that, like itself, had seen more prosperous times. The great doors of the place set in a marble archway stood half open. Over them were cut the cognizance of the floating swan, and beneath, in letters of faded gold, the titles of Acour, de Noyon and Cattrina. No wonder they were open, since the porter’s lodge was occupied only by a grizzly corpse that lay rotting on the floor, a heavy key in its hand. The courtyard beyond was empty and so, save for a dead horse, were the stables to the right. Passing up the steps of the hall that also stood open, they entered.
Here the place was in confusion, as though those who dwelt there had left in haste. The mouldering remains of a meal lay on the broad oak table; a great dower-chest inlaid with ivory, but half filled with arms and armour, stood wide. A silver crucifix that had hung above was torn down and cast upon the floor, perchance by thieves who had found it too heavy to bear away. The earthquake had thrown over a carved cabinet and some bowls of glazed ware that stood upon it. These lay about shattered amidst shields and swords thrown from the walls, where pictures of saints or perchance of dead Cattrinas hung all awry. In short, if an army had sacked it this stately hall could scarce have seemed more ruined.
Hugh and Dick crossed it to a stairway of chestnut wood whereof every newel-post was surmounted by the crest of a swan, and searched the saloons above, where also there was wreck and ruin. Then, still mounting the stair, they came to the bed-chambers. From one of these they retreated hastily, since on entering it hundreds of flies buzzing in a corner advised them that something lay there which they did not wish to see.
“Let us be going. I grow sick,” exclaimed Hugh. But Dick, who had the ears of a fox, held up his hand and said:
“Hark! I hear a voice.”
Following the sound, he led his master down two long corridors that ended in a chapel. There, lying before the altar, they found a man clad in a filthy priest’s robe, a dying man who still had strength to cry for help or mercy, although in truth he was wasted to a skeleton, since the plague which had taken him was of the most lingering sort. Indeed, little seemed to be left of him save his rolling eyes, prominent nose and high cheekbones covered with yellow parchment that had been skin, and a stubbly growth of unshaven hair.
Dick scanned him. Dick, who never forgot a face, then stepped forward and said:
“So once more we meet in a chapel, Father Nicholas. Say, how has it fared with you since you fled through the chancel door of that at Blythburgh Manor? No, I forgot, that was not the last time we met. A man in a yellow cap ripped off your mask in a by-street near the Place of Arms one night and said something which it did not please you to hear. ”
“Water!” moaned Nicholas. “For Christ’s sake give me water!”
“Why should I give you water in payment for your midnight steel yonder in the narrow street? What kind of water was it that you gave Red Eve far away at Blythburgh town?” asked Dick in his hissing voice which sounded like that of an angry snake.
But Hugh, who could bear no more of it, ran down to the courtyard, where he had seen a pitcher standing by a well, and brought water.
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