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Troy Town







From: The Doomsman

Constans awoke just as the footsteps died away; he listened, but again
the stillness was profound. He felt his way to the secret door; the
wainscot screen stood ajar. It was plain that some one had come to the
Rat's-Hole only to discover that the key of the outside door was
missing. Constans realized that he, too, had missed something--his
chance to get to the bottom of the mystery. Shame on such a sentinel!

Without any definite plan of action, Constans made his way to the lower
hall. The moonbeams were pouring a flood of light through the east
windows and he could see plainly. The peddler's couch was empty, save
for his gabardine of gray and the false hair that had served him for a
beard. There were two figures dimly visible in the obscurity of the
vaulted entrance to the water gate. They were working at the clumsy
fastenings of the doors. As Constans ran up he recognized his sister
Issa and the man who called himself Quinton Edge.

Without a word Constans seized the girl by the arm and swung her behind
him. He struck at the Doomsman with his hunting-knife, but the latter
caught his wrist with the grip of a wolf-trap. Yet even at that moment
of stress Quinton Edge's voice preserved its soft, mincing inflections;
the man wore his irritating affectations of speech as jauntily as he did
the ostrich plumes in his cap.

"A brave ruffling of feathers--but gently, gently boy, you are
frightening the lady. She goes with me of her full consent. Is it not
so, sweetheart?"

"You lie!" said the boy, thickly.

The man laughed. "I tell you," he went on, "that the girl is mine by her
own choice, and you have only to stand aside quietly to save the house
and your own skin. But softly now; you are tearing the lace of my
sleeve. A plague on your clumsy fingers!"

With a wrench Constans twisted himself free and turned to face his
sister. "Issa!" he implored.

But she, with eyes like rain-washed stars, only looked beyond him to
where Quinton Edge stood, softly smiling and holding out his womanish
white hands. She would have rejoined him, but once again Constans forced
her back. The dangling rope of the alarm-bell grazed his hand; he
clutched at it, and a clang re-echoed through the court-yard, rousing
the recreant warders from their slumbers. In that same instant Quinton
Edge blew his whistle.

The Doomsmen must have already crossed the moat and been close up to the
water gate, for the response to their leader's call was immediate.
Quinton Edge had just time to remove the last of the bars securing the
barrier when the night-watch streamed out tumultuously from their
quarters under the arch, and he was obliged to retreat into the
court-yard. But already the outlaws had forced apart the wooden leaves
of the water gate; now they filled the vaulted passageway, and by sheer
impact of superior weight began to drive back the bewildered and
disorganized defenders. Friend and foe together, the mass surged into
the quadrangle, a blind, indefinite cluster of struggling men, like to a
swarm of hiving bees.

The storm had blown over, but the moon was every now and then obscured
by masses of scurrying cloud-wrack, and in these periods of
semi-darkness Doomsman and Stockader were hardly to be told apart. So
closely packed was the scrimmage that the use of any missile weapon was
impossible. The dagger and the night-stick (the latter a stout truncheon
weighted with lead) were doing the work, and effectively, too. And in
that press a man might be struck and die upon his feet, the corpse being
stayed from falling through its juxtaposition to the bodies of the
living.

The men of the keep, now that they had recovered from their first
discomfiture, rallied manfully. So stubborn and bitter raged the
struggle that there was not a sound to be heard outside the noise of
scuffling feet and the thud of blows. A man when hard beset for his life
has no breath to spare for either oath of despair or shout of triumph.
But not for long were the scales to swing so evenly; presently the ranks
of the Stockaders yielded again to the pressure and broke into separate
groups. Then were to be heard the groans of the wounded and dying; then
for the first time the yell of the Doomsmen broke forth, ear-piercing in
its exultancy.

Constans had managed to reach the shelter of the Great House, half
dragging, half carrying the fainting form of his sister. Already Sir
Gavan, with Tennant and the house-servants, were under arms and making
what preparations they could for the final stand. A hopeless task it
seemed, for the outlaws were now in full possession of the rest of the
keep. The retainers occupying the general quarters in the south barracks
had fallen easy victims. Surprised, out-numbered, and poorly armed, they
had been quickly cut down as they reached the court-yard, and active
resistance to the invaders was at an end.

Now the attack was turned directly upon the entrance to the Great House,
and Sir Gavan, with his handful of followers, waited on the threshold
for the inevitable issue. Already the ponderous door of iron-banded oak
was groaning and splintering under the hail of blows. And in the
forefront, with a laugh upon his lips, hewed Quinton Edge.

The barrier was down at last and the wolves were free to fall upon their
quarry. A score of men, all told, against a hundred; the outcome was
hardly doubtful. Yet it was not Gavan of the Greenwood Keep who held up
his hand in sign of parley, but the Doomsman, Quinton Edge.

"The maiden Issa," he said, speaking with a smooth insolence that made
Constans set his teeth. "Give her safely to my hand and your goods and
your lives shall go free of further damage. A cheap bargain; but speak
quickly, old man, these hounds of mine are not to be held in leash for
long."

The partisans on either side had fallen back, leaving the two leaders
face to face. Sir Gavan plucked twice at his throat, where the veins
stood out like cords, constricting the vocal passages so that he
stuttered thickly as he spoke.

"This--this gallows-scape!" he stammered. "This burner of peasants'
hayricks, this pitiful plunderer of hen-roosts and cattle byres! If it
were a man, now--to nail the insult to his lips----"

"We lose time," interrupted the Doomsman. "I have named my price."

"The price--ah, yes, the price. Tennant, Constans, you heard what he
said. But where is my child? Let the girl stand forth; she is her
father's daughter, and she shall answer for herself."

"I will abide by it," said Quinton Edge, with cool confidence.

The half-circle opened and Issa stood before them; a mere child she
looked in her simple slip of white and with her fair hair all unbound. A
vague terror seized upon Sir Gavan. What was this question that he was
about to ask of his daughter? Could there be other than the one answer?
How quietly she stood there and waited. Yes, and they were all waiting
upon him; he must speak.

"Issa!"

It seemed to him that he had shouted aloud; then he realized that he had
not spoken at all. "Issa!" he said, again, and she turned towards him.

"This man; he is not known to you. How could it be?"

"Yet it is the truth, my father," answered the girl, steadily. "It is
just a month ago that chance set us face to face--one day when I rode
alone in the green drive."

"And thereafter?"

"Once he came to the walled garden, adventuring the thousand chances of
discovery. Yet how he managed to cross the stockade-line I know not,
for I was frightened, and begged him to leave me. And this he did most
courteously, only swearing that he would again return."

"The third time?"

"That was the day--the day of the first May-bloom--the Ochre brook and
the Doomsmen----" The girl's voice faltered.

"Yet never a word to me or to your mother?"

"It was not my secret," she answered, bravely; and upon that Quinton
Edge himself took up the word.

"The blame is mine, since I used the peril in which I stood to set a
seal upon her lips. A true and loyal maid is your daughter, and it was
only after she had twice said me nay that I resolved to take without the
asking. So I came that day which we both remember, and waited under the
alder bushes, and once again I missed my cast. Yet was the quest not
altogether fruitless, for I carried away this token from my lady's
hostile garden."

He drew a faded spray of the May-bloom from his doublet and touched it
lightly to his lips.

"What gentleman could refuse to redeem so dear a pledge? You have seen
how I took head in hand and sat me down under your own roof-tree, my
good Gavan of the keep. Faith, it was an even chance on which side the
platter would fall, but this time the luck was mine. We should have been
leagues away in the sun's eye by now, only that a peevish boy would have
his way."

"And this--this is also true?" said Sir Gavan, and it seemed that the
preceding silence had been very long.

"It is true." She had answered quietly, almost mechanically, but the
heart of the Lady Rayne thrilled to the new note in her child's voice.

"Issa!" she cried, softly, and fell to weeping, not as a mother for her
daughter but as one woman who sorrows for another.

"Issa!" she said, again, but neither then nor thereafter did the girl
vouchsafe her mother look or word, all her soul seeming to hang upon the
will of the man who had brought this woe upon her house. There was no
need for word to pass; reading the command in her lover's eyes, she
slipped from her mother's detaining clasp and placed her hand in his.
Now, Issa was exceeding fair to look upon, and Quinton Edge's blood
stirred hotly within him. And so for once he lost his head and did a
foolish thing (only that no woman would agree that it was foolish), for
there, in the presence of all, he quickly drew her face to his and
kissed her on the lips. Then turning to his men, he made as though to
send them from the house.

But it was not to be. A keen-pointed, heavy throwing-knife hung at Sir
Gavan's side. Without a word he snatched it from the sheath, poised and
flung it with all his force at his enemy's heart, a master throw and
executed like a flash of light. Issa felt rather than saw the coming of
the missile, and with an instinctive movement contrived to interpose her
own delicate body. The steel bit deep into the white flesh, and with a
little, shuddering cry the girl sank to the floor; out leaped Quinton
Edge's sword. Constans, supporting his mother, felt her hand grow cold
in his. He laid her gently down upon a convenient settle and thanked God
that she, too, was safe.

It seemed to Constans that he was wandering in a bristling thicket of
steel points; thunderous crashes re-echoed in his ears; the red light
from the burning building eddied about his feet, a sea of blood and
flame. His father and Tennant were down, never to rise again; a few
paces in front of him Guyder Touchett headed a little knot of the
defenders, swearing furiously as he hewed and hacked. A half-dozen
against ten times their number; the issue could not be doubtful. Even as
he gazed, two of the six sunk to their knees and then fell face
downward, a dreadful sign that even a child might understand.

Now, Guyder Touchett stood alone, and about him a snarling pack of Dom
Gillian's wolves, waiting cautiously upon one another, for the Stockader
had a long sword-arm. Thereupon a man broke out of the press, signing
the prudent ones to fall back. It was Quinton Edge, and, as ever, he was
laughing, only that now his laughter sounded like to a bell that has
cracked in the ringing. The swords clashed together; then the Doomsman
dropped his point.

"You are too good a man for crows' meat," he said, shortly. "Stand clear
and save your ears; my business is with the white-faced boy behind you."

But Guyder Touchett, ruddy, full-bodied, and loving his life as well as
any man, only girded at him, saying:

"Is there, then, a deeper hell than this? I follow where my master has
gone, and you, my lord, shall show me the way."

"The more fool you," quoth Quinton Edge, and drove at him.



Again the blades engaged, and a great fear suddenly tightened at the
boy's heart. His champion had been exhausted by his previous efforts,
and now his strength was going fast. Constans saw Touchett stagger and
Quinton Edge preparing for a final stroke; he turned and ran for the
upper end of the hall--the Rat's-Hole.

The key was still in his bosom, and in a few seconds he had passed the
postern, closing and locking it behind him. Five minutes' hard running
and he was free of the stockade and at the summit of a hill that
commanded the scene which he had just left. The conflagration was
progressing with astonishing rapidity; already the Great House itself
was in flames, and dark figures could be seen issuing from the water
gate. There! the red cock was crowing from the top of the bell-tower,
and now the whole court-yard was a furnace of fire. A spark carried by
the wind fell on his naked shoulder, where it bit like a fiery serpent.
Yet he scarcely felt the smart; he stood motionless, looking upon the
wreck of his little world, the only one that he had ever known.

"So in the end he made me a coward as well," said the boy, speaking
softly to himself. "Is it that a slave must be a slave--always?"

He drew a long breath. "No, not always. But in the mean time I am to go
on living and bearing everywhere his mark--Quinton Edge's mark. Well, I
will begin by learning how to wait."

He stood irresolute for a moment longer, gazing at the scene of the
night's tragedy as though to impress it indelibly upon his memory. Then
turning his back to the east, where the faint saffron of early dawn was
now showing, he started off on a long, swinging trot that speedily
carried him down the slope and into the deeper shadow of the wood
beyond.





Next: The Bread Of Affliction

Previous: The Rat's-hole



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