Red Eve by H. Rider Haggard

“The jest is done, master, and now for good earnest, since ’tis your turn. The Saints save me such another cow hunt in this hell’s heat. Had I killed him at once I should be cooler now, but it came into my mind to let the hound live. Indeed, to speak truth, I thought that I heard the voice of Murgh behind me, saying, ‘Spare,’ and knew that I must obey.”

“I hope he will say nothing of the sort to me presently,” answered Hugh, “if he is here, which I doubt. Why, what is it now? Those gold-coated marshals are talking again.”

Talking they were, evidently at the instance of Cattrina, or his counsellors, who had raised some new objections, which Sir Geoffrey stepped forward to explain to them. But Hugh would not even hear him out.

“Tell the man and all whom it may concern,” he said in an angry voice, “that I am ready to fight him as he will, on horse or on foot, with lance or sword or axe or dagger, or any or all of them, in mail or without it; or, if it pleases him, stripped to the shirt. Only let him settle swiftly, since unless the sweat runs into my eyes and dims them, it seems to me that night is coming before it is noon.”

“You are right,” answered Sir Geoffrey, “this gathering gloom is ominous and fearful. I think that some awesome tempest must be about to burst. Also it seems to me that Cattrina has no stomach for this fray, else he would not raise so many points of martial law and custom.”

Then wiping his brow with a silken handkerchief he returned to deliver the message.

Now Hugh and Dick, watching, saw that Cattrina and those who advised him could find no further loophole for argument. They saw, moreover, that the Doge grew angry, for he rose in his seat, throwing off his velvet robe of office, of which it appeared that he could no longer bear the weight, and spoke in a hard voice to Cattrina and his squires. Next, once more the titles of the combatants were read, and their cause of combat, and while this went on Hugh bade Dick bind about his right arm a certain red ribbon that Eve had given him, saying that he wished to fight wearing his lady’s favour.

Dick obeyed, muttering that he thought such humours foolish and that a knight might as well wear a woman’s petticoat as her ribbon. By now, so dim had the light grown, he could scarce see to tie the knot.

Indeed, the weather was very strange.

From the dark, lowering sky above a palpable blackness sank downward as though the clouds themselves were falling of their own weight, while from the sea great rolls of vapour came sweeping in like waves. Also this sea itself had found a voice, for, although it was so calm, it moaned like a world in pain. The great multitude began to murmur, and their faces, lifted upward toward the sky, grew ghastly white. Fear, they knew not of what, had got hold of them. A voice cried shrilly:

“Let them fight and have done. We would get home ere the tempest bursts.”

The first trumpet blew and the horses of the knights, which whinnied uneasily, were led to their stations. The second trumpet blew and the knights laid their lances in rest. Then ere the third trumpet could sound, suddenly the darkness of midnight swallowed all the scene.

Dick groped his way to Hugh’s side. “Bide where you are,” he said, “the end of the world is here; let us meet it like men and together.”

“Ay,” answered Hugh, and his voice rang hollow through his closed visor, “without doubt it is the end of the world, and Murgh, the Minister, has been sent to open the doors of heaven and hell. God have mercy on us all!”

So they stayed there, hearkening to the groans and prayers of the terrified multitude about them, Dick holding the bridle of the horse, which shook from head to foot, but never stirred. For some minutes they remained thus, till suddenly the sky began to lighten, but with no natural light. The colour of it, of the earth beneath and of the air between was a deep, terrible red, that caused all things to seem as though they were dyed in blood. Lighter and lighter and redder and redder it grew, the long stand and the pavilions became visible, and after them the dense, deep ring of spectators. Many of these were kneeling, while others, who could find no space to kneel, held their hands upstretched toward heaven, or beat their breasts and wept in the emotional fashion of the country.

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Categories: Haggard, H. Rider