THE TRAGEDY OF THE MANOR-HOUSE
At midnight all was over, and we sat in the presence of four corpses. We covered them with such rags as we could find, and started away, fastening the door behind us. Their home must be these people's grave, for they could not have Christian burial, or be admitted to consecrated ground. They were as dogs, wild beasts, lepers, and no soul that valued its hope of eternal life would throw it away by meddling in any sort with these rebuked and smitten outcasts.
We had not moved four steps when I caught a sound as of footsteps upon gravel. My heart flew to my throat. We must not be seen coming from that house. I plucked at the king's robe and we drew back and took shelter behind the corner of the cabin.
"Now we are safe," I said, "but it was a close call — so to speak. If the night had been lighter he might have seen us, no doubt, he seemed to be so near."
"Mayhap it is but a beast and not a man at all."
"True. But man or beast, it will be wise to stay here a minute and let it get by and out of the way."
"Hark! It cometh hither."
True again. The step was coming toward us — straight toward the hut. It must be a beast, then, and we might as well have saved our trepidation. I was going to step out, but the king laid his hand upon my arm. There was a moment of silence, then we heard a soft knock on the cabin door. It made me shiver. Presently the knock was repeated, and then we heard these words in a guarded voice:
"Mother! Father! Open — we have got free, and we bring news to pale your cheeks but glad your hearts; and we may not tarry, but must fly! And — but they answer not. Mother! father! — "
I drew the king toward the other end of the hut and whispered:
"Come — now we can get to the road."
The king hesitated, was going to demur; but just then we heard the door give way, and knew that those desolate men were in the presence of their dead.
"Come, my liege! in a moment they will strike a light, and then will follow that which it would break your heart to hear."
He did not hesitate this time. The moment we were in the road I ran; and after a moment he threw dignity aside and followed. I did not want to think of what was happening in the hut — I couldn't bear it; I wanted to drive it out of my mind; so I struck into the first subject that lay under that one in my mind:
"I have had the disease those people died of, and so have nothing to fear; but if you have not had it also — "
He broke in upon me to say he was in trouble, and it was his conscience that was troubling him:
"These young men have got free, they say — but how ? It is not likely that their lord hath set them free."
"Oh, no, I make no doubt they escaped."
"That is my trouble; I have a fear that this is so, and your suspicion doth confirm it, you having the same fear."
"I should not call it by that name though. I do suspect that they escaped, but if they did, I am not sorry, certainly."
"I am not sorry, I think — but — "
"What is it? What is there for one to be troubled about?"
"If they did escape, then are we bound in duty to lay hands upon them and deliver them again to their lord; for it is not seemly that one of his quality should suffer a so insolent and high-handed outrage from persons of their base degree."
There it was again. He could see only one side of it. He was born so, educated so, his veins were full of ancestral blood that was rotten with this sort of unconscious brutality, brought down by inheritance from a long procession of hearts that had each done its share toward poisoning the stream. To imprison these men without proof, and starve their kindred, was no harm, for they were merely peasants and subject to the will and pleasure of their lord, no matter what fearful form it might take; but for these men to break out of unjust captivity was insult and outrage, and a thing not to be countenanced by any conscientious person who knew his duty to his sacred caste.
I worked more than half an hour before I got him to change the subject — and even then an outside matter did it for me. This was a something which caught our eyes as we struck the summit of a small hill — a red glow, a good way off.
"That's a fire," said I.
Fires interested me considerably, because I was getting a good deal of an insurance business started, and was also training some horses and building some steam fire-engines, with an eye to a paid fire department by and by. The priests opposed both my fire and life insurance, on the ground that it was an insolent attempt to hinder the decrees of God; and if you pointed out that they did not hinder the decrees in the least, but only modified the hard consequences of them if you took out policies and had luck, they retorted that that was gambling against the decrees of God, and was just as bad. So they managed to damage those industries more or less, but I got even on my Accident business. As a rule, a knight is a lummox, and some times even a labrick, and hence open to pretty poor arguments when they come glibly from a superstition-monger, but even he could see the practical side of a thing once in a while; and so of late you couldn't clean up a tournament and pile the result without finding one of my accident-tickets in every helmet.
We stood there awhile, in the thick darkness and stillness, looking toward the red blur in the distance, and trying to make out the meaning of a far-away murmur that rose and fell fitfully on the night. Sometimes it swelled up and for a moment seemed less remote; but when we were hopefully expecting it to betray its cause and nature, it dulled and sank again, carrying its mystery with it. We started down the hill in its direction, and the winding road plunged us at once into almost solid darkness — darkness that was packed and crammed in between two tall forest walls. We groped along down for half a mile, perhaps, that murmur growing more and more distinct all the time. The coming storm threatening more and more, with now and then a little shiver of wind, a faint show of lightning, and dull grumblings of distant thunder. I was in the lead. I ran against something — a soft heavy something which gave, slightly, to the impulse of my weight; at the same moment the lightning glared out, and within a foot of my face was the writhing face of a man who was hanging from the limb of a tree! That is, it seemed to be writhing, but it was not. It was a grewsome sight. Straightway there was an ear-splitting explosion of thunder, and the bottom of heaven fell out; the rain poured down in a deluge. No matter, we must try to cut this man down, on the chance that there might be life in him yet, mustn't we? The lightning came quick and sharp now, and the place was alternately noonday and midnight. One moment the man would be hanging before me in an intense light, and the next he was blotted out again in the darkness. I told the king we must cut him down. The king at once objected.
"If he hanged himself, he was willing to lose him property to his lord; so let him be. If others hanged him, belike they had the right — let him hang."
"But — "
"But me no buts, but even leave him as he is. And for yet another reason. When the lightning cometh again — there, look abroad."
Two others hanging, within fifty yards of us!
"It is not weather meet for doing useless courtesies unto dead folk. They are past thanking you. Come — it is unprofitable to tarry here."