Reaching the pair, this strange fellow dropped to his knee and raised his cap to Eve, the great lady of the Claverings—Red Eve, as they called her through that country-side. Then he spoke, in a low, husky voice:
“They’re coming, master! You and your mistress must to earth unless you mean to face them in the open,” and the pale eyes glittered as he tapped his great black bow.
“Who are coming, Dick? Be plain, man!”
“Sir John Clavering, my lady’s father; young John, my lady’s brother; the fine French lord who wears a white swan for a crest; three of the knights, his companions; and six—no seven—men-at-arms. Also from the other side the grieve, Thomas of Kessland, and with him his marsh men and verderers.”
“And what are they coming for?” he asked again. “Have they hounds, and hawk on wrist?”
“Nay, but they have swords and knife on thigh,” and he let his pale eyes fall on Eve.
“Oh, have done!” she broke in. “They come to take me, and I’ll not be taken! They come to kill you, and I’ll not see you slain and live. I had words with my father this morning about the Frenchman and, I fear, let out the truth. He told me then that ere the Dunwich roses bloomed again she who loved you would have naught but bones to kiss. Dick, you know the fen; where can we hide till nightfall?”
“Follow me,” said the man, “and keep low!”
Plunging into the dense brake of reeds, through which he glided like a polecat, Dick led them over ground whereon, save in times of hard frost, no man could tread, heading toward the river bank. For two hundred paces or more they went thus, till, quite near to the lip of the stream, they came to a patch of reeds higher and thicker than the rest, in the centre of which was a little mound hid in a tangle of scrub and rushes. Once, perhaps, a hundred or a thousand years before, some old marsh dweller had lived upon this mound, or been buried in it. At any rate, on its southern side, hidden by reeds and a withered willow, was a cavity of which the mouth could not be seen that might have been a chamber for the living or the dead.
Thrusting aside the growths that masked it, Dick bade them enter and lie still.
“None will find us here,” he said as he lifted up the reeds behind them, “unless they chance to have hounds, which I did not see. Hist! be still; they come!”
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The Fight by the River
FOR a while Hugh and Eve heard nothing, but Grey Dick’s ears were sharper than theirs, quick as these might be. About half a minute later, however, they caught the sound of horses’ hoofs ringing on the hard earth, followed by that of voices and the crackle of breaking reeds.
Two of the speakers appeared and pulled up their horses near by in a dry hollow that lay between them and the river bank. Peeping between the reeds that grew about the mouth of the earth-dwelling, Eve saw them.
“My father and the Frenchman,” she whispered. “Look!” And she slid back a little so that Hugh might see.
Peering through the stems of the undergrowth, set as it were in a little frame against the red and ominous sky, the eyes of Hugh de Cressi fell upon Sir Edmund Acour, a gallant, even a splendid-looking knight—that was his first impression of him. Broad shouldered, graceful, in age neither young nor old, clean featured, quick eyed, with a mobile mouth and a little, square-cut beard, soft and languid voiced, black haired, richly dressed in a fur robe, and mounted on a fine black horse, such was the man.
Staring at Acour, and remembering that he, too, loved Red Eve, Hugh grew suddenly ashamed. How could a mere merchant compare himself with this magnificent lord, this high-bred, many-titled favourite of courts and of fortune? How could he rival him, he who had never yet travelled a hundred miles from the place where he was born, save once, when he sailed on a trading voyage to Calais? As well might a hooded crow try to match a peregrine that swooped to snatch away the dove from beneath its claws. Yes, he, Hugh, was the grey crow, Eve was the dove whom he had captured, and yonder shifty-eyed Count was the fleet, fierce peregrine who soon would tear out his heart and bear the quarry far away. Hugh shivered a little as the thought struck him, not with fear for himself, but at the dread of that great and close bereavement.
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