Hugh and Dick saw the face and knew it for that of the priest who had accompanied Acour to England. It was he who had drugged Red Eve and read the mass of marriage over her while she was drugged.
“Who are you?” asked Murgh in his light, cold voice. “By your shaven head a priest, I think—one who serves some God of love and mercy. And yet you come upon this ill errand as a captain of assassins. Why do you seek to do murder, O priest of the God of mercy?”
Now some power seemed to drag the answer from Father Nicholas.
“Because I must,” he said. “I have sold myself and must pay the price. Step leads to step, and he who runs may not stop upon them.”
“No, priest Nicholas, since ever they grow more narrow and more steep. Yet at the foot of them is the dark abyss, and, Murderer Nicholas, you have reached the last of all your steps. Look at me!” and with one hand he threw back the hood.
Next instant they saw Nicholas rush staggering down the street, screaming with terror as he went. Then, as all the bravoes had gone, they continued their march, filled with reflections, till they came to the little landing-stage where they had left the boat. It was still there though the boatman had gone.
“Let us borrow this boat,” said Murgh. “As from my study of the map I know these water-paths, I will be steersman and that tongue-tied lad shall row and tell me if I go wrong. First I will take you to the house where I think you said you lodged, and thence go to seek friends of my own in this city who will show me hospitality.”
They glided on down the long canals in utter silence that was broken only by the soft dipping of the oars. The night was somewhat cooler now, for the bursting of the great meteor seemed to have cleared the air. Or perhaps the gentle breeze that had sprung up, blowing from the open sea, tempered its stifling heat.
So it came about that although it grew late many people were gathered on the rivas or on the balconies of the fine houses which they passed, for the most part doubtless discussing the travelling star that had been seen in the sky. Or perhaps they had already heard rumours of the strange visitor who had come to Venice, although, however fast such news may fly, this seemed scarcely probable. At the least there they were, men and women, talking earnestly together, and about them the three Englishmen noted a strange thing.
As their boat slipped by, some influence seemed to pass from it to the minds of all these people. Their talk died out, and was succeeded by a morne and heavy silence. They looked at it as though wondering why a sight so usual should draw their eyes. Then after a few irresolute moments the groups on the footpaths separated and went their ways without bidding each other good night. As they went many of them made the sign with their fingers that these Italians believed could avert evil, which gave them the appearance of all pointing at the boat or its occupants. Those in the balconies also did the same thing and disappeared through the open window-places.
More than any of the wonderful things that he had done, perhaps, this effect of the Eastern stranger’s presence struck terror and foreboding to Hugh’s heart.
At length they came to the end of that little street where they had hired the boat, for, although none had told him the way, thither their dread steersman brought them without fault. The lad David laid down his oars and mounted the steps that led to the street, which was quite deserted, even the bordering houses being in darkness.
“Hugh de Cressi and Richard the Fatherless,” said Murgh, “you have seen wonderful things this night and made a strange friend, as you may think by chance, although truly in all the wide universe there is no room for such a thing as chance. Now my counsel to you and your companion is that you speak no word of these matters lest you should be set upon as wizards. We part, but we shall meet again twice more, and after many years a third time, but that third meeting do not seek, for it will be when the last grains of sand are running from the glass. Also you may see me at other times, but if so, unless I speak to you, do not speak to me. Now go your ways, fearing nothing. However great may seem your peril, I say to you—fear nothing. Soon you will hear ill things spoken of me, yet”—and here a touch of human wistfulness came into his inhuman voice—”I pray you believe them not. When I am named Murgh the Fiend and Murgh the Sword, then think of me as Murgh the Helper. What I do is decreed by That which is greater than I, and if you could understand it, leads by terrible ways to a goal of good, as all things do. Richard the Archer, I will answer the riddle that you asked yourself upon the ship at Calais. The Strength which made your black bow an instrument of doom made you who loose its shafts and me who can outshoot you far. As the arrow travels whither it is sent, and there does its appointed work, so do you travel and so do I, and many another thing, seen and unseen; and therefore I told you truly that although we differ in degree, yet we are one. Yes, even Murgh the Eating Fire, Murgh the Gate, and that bent wand of yours are one in the Hand that shaped and holds us both.”
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