THE BICKER IN THE SNOW
Then, seeing Walter Gordon both agitated and uncertain which way to turn, I took out of his shaking hands the poor mishandled head, wrapping it in my plaid, and so led the way down the Canongate towards the kirkyard of the Chapel of Holyroodhouse, where it seemed to me most safe to bury the Thing that had fallen in such marvellous fashion at our feet that night.
The place I knew well enough. I had often meditated there upon the poor estate of our house. It was half ruinous, and I looked to meet with no man within the precincts on such a night. But short, deceiving, and ostrich-blind are all our hopes, for by going that way I brought us into the greatest danger we could possibly have been in.
For, as we came by the side port of Holyroodhouse, and took the left wynd which leads to the kirkyard, it seemed that I heard the sound of footsteps coming after me. It was still a night of snow, but the blast of flakes was wearing thinner and the wind less gusty. The moon was wading among great white-edged wreaths as though the snows had been driven right up to heaven and were clogging the skies.
It was I who led, for my cousin, Wat Gordon, being stopped dead in his heart's desire, like a dog quivering for the leap that suddenly gets his death-wound, now went forward as one blind, and staggered even in the plain places. Also, it was well that I must guide him, for thus I was kept from thinking of the horrid burden I carried.
We were at the angle of the wall, and going slowly down among the cumbering heaps of rubbish by the dyke-side, when I certainly heard, through the soughing of the wind, and the soft swirl of the snow-flakes, the quick trampling of footsteps behind us. It seemed to me that they came from the direction of the Queen's Bathhouse, by which, as I now minded, my Lord Wellwood had built his new house.
I turned in my tracks, and saw half a dozen of fellows running towards us with their swords drawn; and one who seemed short of stature and ill at the running, following after them. Then I pulled quickly at Walter's sleeve, and said:
‘Get you to a good posture of defence, or we are both dead men. See behind you!’
At this he turned and looked, and the sight seemed wonderfully to steady him. He seemed to come to himself with a kind of joy. I heard him sigh as one that casts off a heavy back-burden. For blows were ever mightily refreshing to Wat Gordon's spirits, even as water of Cologne is to a mim-mouthed, spoiled beauty of the court.
As for me, I had no joy in blows, and little skill in them, so that my delight was small. Indeed, I felt the lump rise in my throat, and my mouth dried with fear. So that I could hardly keep the tears from running, being heartily sorry for myself because I should never see bonny Earlstoun and my mother again, or anyone else in the pleasant south country—and all on a business that I had no concern with, being only some night-hawk trokings of Wat Gordon's.
But even as he glanced about him, Lochinvar saw where we could best engage them; for in such things he had the captain's eye, swift and inevitable. It was at the angle of the wall, in which is a wide archway that leads into the enclosure of the Palace. The snow had drifted round this arch a great sweep of rounded wreaths, and glistened smoothly white in the moonbeams, but the paved gateway itself was blown clear. Wat thrust me behind him, and, throwing down his cloak, cleared his sword arm with a long sobbing intake of breath, which, having a certain great content in it, was curious to hear.
I stood behind him in the dark of the archway, and there I first laid down my ghastly burden in the corner, wrapping it in my cloak. I made my pistols ready, and also loosened in my belt a broad Italian dagger, shaped like a leaf, wherewith I meant to stick and thrust if any should attempt to run in while I was standing on guard. Between me and the light I could see Walter Gordon, armed in the German fashion, with his rapier in one hand and his dagger in the other. Suddenly, through the hush of waiting, came running footsteps; and men's figures darkened the moonlight on the snow before the arch.
‘Clash!’ went the rapiers, and I could catch the glitter of the fire as it flew from their first onset. Walter poised himself on his feet with a quick alternate balancing movement, keeping his head low between his shoulders, and his rapier point far out. He was in the dark, and those about the mouth of the arch could not well see at what they were striking, whereas he had them clear against the grey of the moonlit sky.
Steel had not stricken on steel three times when, swift as the flash of the lightning when it shines from east to west, I saw Wat's long rapier dart out, and a man fell forward towards him, clinking on the stones with the jingle of concealed armour. Yet, armour or no, our Wat's rapier had found its way within. Wat spurned the fellow with his foot, lest in falling he should grip to pull him down, which was a common trick of the time, and indeed sometimes resorted to without a wound. But the dark wet stain his body left on the cobble-stones as it turned, told us that he was sped surely enough.
In a moment the others had come up, and the whole archway seemed full of the flicker of flashing swords. Wat's long arm wavered here and there, keeping them all at bay. I could have cried the slogan for pride in him. This was the incomparable sworder indeed, and John Varlet, that misbegotten rogue, had not taught him in vain.
‘Let off!’ he cried to me, never taking his eyes from his foes. ‘Ease me a little to the right. They are over heavy for my iron on that hand.’
So with that, even as I was bidden, and because there was nothing else I could do, I struck with my broad Italian dagger at a surly visage that came cornerwise between me and the sky, and tumbled a tall fellow out of an angle of the gateway on the top of the first, kicking like a rabbit. The rest were a little dashed by the fall of these two. Still there were four of them, and one great loon determinedly set his head down, and wrapping his cloak on his arm, he rushed at my cousin, almost overbearing him for the moment. He broke within Wat's guard, and the swords of the rogue's companions had been in his heart, but just then Lochinvar gave them another taste of his quality. Lightly leaping to the side just out of the measure of the varlet's thrust, and reaching sideways, he struck the man heavily on the shoulder with the dagger in his left hand, panting with the force of the blow, so that he fell down like the dead. At the same moment Wat leaned far forward, engaging all the points of the other swords with his rapier.
They gave back at the quick unexpected attack, and the points of their swords rose, as it seemed, for no more than a second. But in that pulse-beat Wat's rapier shot out straight and low, and yet another clapped his hand upon his body and cried an oath, ere he too fell forward upon his dead companions. At this the little man, who had stood all the while in the background, took heart of grace and came forward, and I could see the hilt of the steel-pistol in his hand. He crouched low upon his hams, trying to get a sighting shot at us. But I had him clear in the moonbeam, like a pullet on a dyke; and just when I saw his forefinger twitch on the hammer-pull, I dropped him with a bullet fair in the shoulder, which effectually spoilt his aim, and tumbled him beside the others.
Then the remaining two threw down their tools and ran, whatever they were fit, in the direction of the town.
Whereat Walter Gordon with much philosophy straiked his sword on the lapel of one of the dead men's coats, bent its point to the pavement to try its soundness, and returned it to its velvet sheath. Then he solemnly turned and took me by the hand.
‘You are a man, Cousin William,’ he said.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.