Red Eve by H. Rider Haggard

“Whither shall we go?” asked Dick, mopping his brow. “Guards stand at the door and, I doubt, will not let us pass.”

“I wish to see the place where we are to fight tomorrow,” answered Hugh, “so as to form my judgment of it, if only we may come there.”

At this moment an English lad of Sir Geoffrey’s household chanced to pass by, having come to ask as to the feeding of the horse which Hugh should ride. Dick caught him by the arm and asked whether he could get them out of the house secretly, so that the Guards would not see them, and conduct them to the spot called the Place of Arms, where they understood they were to fight.

The lad, whose name was David Day, replied somewhat doubtfully that he could do so by a back door near the kitchen, and guide them also, but that they must protect him from the anger of Sir Geoffrey. This Hugh promised to do. So presently they started, carrying their weapons, but wearing no mail because of the intense heat, although Dick reminded his master how they had been told that they should not venture forth without body armour.

“I have a sword and you have bow and axe,” answered Hugh, “so we’ll risk it. In leather-lined mail we should surely melt.”

So they put on some light cloaks made of black silk, with hoods to them, such as the Venetians wore at their masques, for David knew where these were to be found. Slipping out quite unobserved by the kitchen door into a little courtyard, they passed into an unlighted back street through a postern gate whereof the lad had the key. At the end of the street they came to a canal, where David, who talked Italian perfectly, hailed o a boat, into which they entered without exciting remark. For this sharp youth pointed to their cloaks and told the boatman that they were gallants engaged upon some amorous adventure.

On they rowed down the silent lanes of water, through the slumbrous city of palaces, turning here, turning there, till soon they lost all knowledge of the direction in which they headed. At length David whispered to them that they drew near the place where they must land. Everybody seemed to speak in a whisper that heavy night, even the folk, generally so light of heart and quick of tongue, who sat on the steps or beneath the porticoes of their houses gasping for air, and the passers-by on the rivas or footwalks that bordered the canals. At a sign from David the boat turned inward and grated against the steps of a marble quay. He paid the boatman, who seemed to have no energy left to dispute the fare, telling him in the same low voice that if he cared to wait he might perhaps row them back within an hour or so. Then they climbed steps and entered a narrow street where there was no canal, on either side of which stood tall houses or dark frowning gateways.

Just as they stepped into the shadow of this street they heard the prow of another boat grate against the marble steps behind them and caught the faint sound of talk, apparently between their rower and others in the second boat.

“Forward, Sir Hugh,” said Day a little nervously. “This part of Venice has no good name, for many wicked deeds are done here, but soon we shall be through it.”

So they stepped out briskly, and when they were about half-way down the street heard other steps behind them. They turned and looked back through the gloom, whereon the sound of the following steps died away. They pushed on again, and so, unless the echo deceived them, did those quick, stealthy steps. Then, as though by common consent, though no one gave the word, they broke into a run and gained the end of the street, which they now saw led into a large open space lit by the light of the great moon, that broke suddenly through the veil of cloud or mist. Again, as though by common consent, they wheeled around, Hugh drawing his sword, and perceived emerging from the street six or seven cloaked fellows, who, on catching sight of the flash of steel, halted and melted back into the gloom.

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Categories: Haggard, H. Rider