‘Forbear, Saxon, forbear!’ I cried angrily. ‘What would our host say, should he come upon you?’
‘Nay, then, he should not keep such things beneath his roof. With a chisel or a dagger now, this might be prized open.’
‘By Heaven!’ I whispered, ‘if you should attempt it I shall lay you on your back.’
‘Well, well, young Anak! it was but a passing fancy to see the treasure again. Now, if he were but well favoured to the King, this would be fair prize of war. Marked ye not that he claimed to have been the last Royalist who drew sword in England? and he confessed that he had been proscribed as a malignant. Your father, godly as he is, would have little compunction in despoiling such an Amalekite. Besides, bethink you, he can make more as easily as your good mother maketh cranberry dumplings.’
‘Enough said!’ I answered sternly. ‘It will not bear discussion. Get ye to your couch, lest I summon our host and tell him what manner of man he hath entertained.’
With many grumbles Saxon consented at last to curl his long limbs up upon a mat, whilst I lay by his side and remained awake until the mellow light of morning streamed through the chinks between the ill-covered rafters. Truth to tell, I feared to sleep, lest the freebooting habits of the soldier of fortune should be too strong for him, and he should disgrace us in the eyes of our kindly and generous entertainer. At last, however, his long-drawn breathing assured me that he was asleep, and I was able to settle down to a few hours of welcome rest.
Chapter XII. Of certain Passages upon the Moor
In the morning, after a breakfast furnished by the remains of our supper, we looked to our horses and prepared for our departure. Ere we could mount, however, our kindly host came running out to us with a load of armour in his arms.
‘Come hither,’ said he, beckoning to Reuben. ‘It is not meet, lad, that you should go bare-breasted against the enemy when your comrades are girt with steel. I have here mine own old breastplate and head-piece, which should, methinks, fit you, for if you have more flesh than I, I am a larger framework of a man. Ah, said I not so! Were’t measured for you by Silas Thomson, the court armourer, it could not grip better. Now on with the head-piece. A close fit again. You are now a cavalier whom Monmouth or any other leader might be proud to see ride beneath his banner.’
Both helmet and body-plates were of the finest Milan steel, richly inlaid with silver and with gold, and carved all over in rare and curious devices. So stern and soldierly was the effect, that the ruddy, kindly visage of our friend staring out of such a panoply had an ill-matched and somewhat ludicrous appearance.
‘Nay, nay,’ cried the old cavalier, seeing a smile upon our features, ‘it is but right that so precious a jewel as a faithful heart should have a fitting casket to protect it.’
‘I am truly beholden to you, sir,’ said Reuben; ‘I can scarce find words to express my thanks. Holy mother! I have a mind to ride straight back to Havant, to show them how stout a man-at-arms hath been reared amongst them.’
‘It is steel of proof,’ Sir Jacob remarked; ‘a pistol-bullet might glance from it. And you,’ he continued, turning to me, ‘here is a small gift by which you shall remember this meeting. I did observe that you did cast a wistful eye upon my bookshelf. It is Plutarch’s lives of the ancient worthies, done into English by the ingenious Mr. Latimer. Carry this volume with you, and shape your life after the example of the giant men whose deeds are here set forth. In your saddle-bag I place a small but weighty packet, which I desire you to hand over to Monmouth upon the day of your arrival in his camp. As to you, sir,’ addressing Decimus Saxon, ‘here is a slug of virgin gold for you, which may fashion into a pin or such like ornament. You may wear it with a quiet conscience, for it is fairly given to you and not filched from your entertainer whilst he slept.’
Saxon and I shot a sharp glance of surprise at each other at this speech, which showed that our words of the night before were not unknown to him. Sir Jacob, however, showed no signs of anger, but proceeded to point out our road and to advise us as to our journey.
‘You must follow this sheep-track until you come on another and broader pathway which makes for the West,’ said he. ‘It is little used, and there is small chance of your falling in with any of your enemies upon it. This path will lead you between the villages of Fovant and Hindon, and soon to Mere, which is no great distance from Bruton, upon the Somersetshire border.’
Thanking our venerable host for his great kindness towards us we gave rein to our horses, and left him once more to the strange solitary existence in which we had found him. So artfully had the site of his cottage been chosen, that when we looked back to give him a last greeting both he and his dwelling had disappeared already from our view, nor could we, among the many mounds and hollows, determine where the cottage lay which had given us such welcome shelter. In front of us and on either side the great uneven dun-coloured plain stretched away to the horizon, without a break in its barren gorse-covered surface. Over the whole expanse there was no sign of life, save for an occasional rabbit which whisked into its burrow on hearing our approach, or a few thin and hungry sheep, who could scarce sustain life by feeding on the coarse and wiry grass which sprang from the unfruitful soil.
The pathway was so narrow that only one of us could ride upon it at a time, but we presently abandoned it altogether, using it simply as a guide, and galloping along side by side over the rolling plain. We were all silent, Reuben meditating upon his new corslet, as I could see from his frequent glances at it; while Saxon, with his eyes half closed, was brooding over some matter of his own. For my own part, my thoughts ran upon the ignominy of the old soldier’s designs upon the gold chest, and the additional shame which rose from the knowledge that our host had in some way divined his intention. No good could come of an alliance with a man so devoid of all feelings of honour or of gratitude. So strongly did I feel upon it that I at last broke the silence by pointing to a cross path, which turned away from the one which we were pursuing, and recommending him to follow it, since he had proved that he was no fit company for honest men.
‘By the living rood!’ he cried, laying his hand upon the hilt of his rapier,’ have you taken leave of your senses? These are words such as no honourable cavaliero can abide.’
‘They are none the less words of truth,’ I answered.
His blade flashed out in an instant, while his mare bounded twice her length under the sharp dig of his spurs.
‘We have here,’ he cried, reining her round, with his fierce lean face all of a quiver with passion, ‘an excellent level stretch on which to discuss the matter. Out with your bilbo and maintain your words.’
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