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   Chapter 36 THE NIGHT-RIDE

By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 9932

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The sound of hoofs came nearer; Anthony's heart, as he crouched below the window, ready to spring up and over when the signal was given, beat in sick thumpings at the base of his throat, but with a fierce excitement and no fear. His hands clenched and unclenched. Mr. Buxton stood back a little, waiting; he must feign to be asleep at first.

Then came suddenly a sharp challenge from the sentry.

"It is Mistress Corbet," came Mary's cool high tones, "and I desire to speak with Mr. Buxton."

The man hesitated.

"You cannot," he said.

"Cannot!" she cried; "why, fellow, do you know who I am? And I have just supped with him."

There came a sudden sound from the other side of the summer-house, and both men in the room knew that the guards in the garden were listening.

"I am sorry, madam, but I have no orders."

"Then do not presume, you hound," came Mary's voice again, with a ring of anger. "Ho, there, Mr. Buxton, come to the window."

"Be ready," he whispered to Anthony.

"Stand back, madam," said the pursuivant, "or I shall call for help."

Then Mr. Buxton threw back the window.

"Who is there?" he asked coolly. ("Stand up Anthony.")

"It is I, Mr. Buxton, but this insolent dog--"

"Stand back, madam, I say," cried the voice of the guard. Then from the garden behind came running footsteps and voices; and a red light shone through the windows behind.

"Now," whispered the voice over Anthony's head sharply.

There came a loud shout from the guard, "Help there, help!"

Anthony put his hands on to the sill and lifted himself easily. The groom had slipped from his horse while Mary held the bridle, and was advancing at the guard, and there was something in his hand. The sentry, who was standing immediately under the window, now dropped his pike point forward; and as a furious rattling began at the doors on the garden side, Anthony dropped, and came down astride of the man's neck, who crashed to the ground. Then the groom was on him too.

"Leave him to me, sir. Mount."

The groom's hands were busy with something about the struggling man's neck: the shouts choked and ceased.

"You will strangle the man," said Anthony sharply.

"Nonsense," said Mary; "mount, mount. They are coming."

Anthony ran to the horse, that was beginning to scurry and plunge; threw himself across the saddle and caught the reins.

"Up?" said Mary.

"Up"; and he slung his right leg over the flank and sat up, as Mary released the bridle, and dashed off, scattering gravel.

From the direction of the church came cries and the quick rattle of a galloping horse. Anthony dashed his shoeless heels into the horse's sides and leaned forward, and in a moment more was flying down the lane after Mary. From in front came a shout of warning, with one or two screams, and then Anthony turned the corner, checking his horse slightly at the angle, saw a torch somewhere to his right, a group of scared faces, a groom and woman clinging to him on a plunging horse, and the white road; and then found himself with loose reins, and flying stirrups, thundering down the village street, with Mary on her horse not two lengths in front. The roar of the hoofs behind, and of the little shouting crowd, with the screaming woman on the horse, died behind him as the wind began to boom in his ears. Mary was looking round now, and slightly checking her horse as they neared the bottom of the long village street. In half a dozen strides Anthony came up on her right. Then the pool gleamed before them just beyond the fork of the road.

"Left!" screamed Mary through the roar of the racing air, and turned her horse off up the road that led round in a wide sweep of two miles to East Maskells and the woods beyond, and Anthony followed. He had settled down in the saddle now, and had brought his maddened horse under control; his feet were in the stirrups, but there was no lessening of the speed. They had left the last house now, and on either side the black bushes and heatherland streamed past, with the sudden gleam of water here and there under the starlight that showed the ditches and holes with which the ground on either side of the road was honeycombed.

Then Mary turned her head again, and the words came detached and sharp.

"They are after us-could not help-horses saddled."

Anthony turned his head to release one ear from the roar of the air, and heard the thundering rattle of hoofs in the distance, but even as he listened it grew fainter.

"We are gaining!" he shouted.

Mary nodded, and her teeth gleamed white in a smile.

"Ours are fresh," she screamed.

Then there was silence between them again; they had reached a little hill and eased their horses up it; a heavy fringe of trees crowned it on their right, black against the stars, and a gleam of light showed the presence of a house among them. Farther and farther behind them sounded the hoofs; then they were swaying and rocking again down

the slope that led to the long flat piece of road that ended in the slope up to East Maskells. It was softer going now and darker too, as there were trees overhead; pollared willows streamed past them as they went; and twice there was a snort and a hollow thunder of hoofs as a young sleeping horse awoke and raced them a few yards in the meadows at the side. Once Anthony's horse shied at a white post, and drew in front a yard or two; and he heard for a moment under the rattle the cool gush of the stream that flowed beneath the road and the scream of a water-fowl as she burst from the reeds.

A great exultation began to fill Anthony's heart. What a ride this was, in the glorious summer night-reckless and intoxicating! What a contrast, this sweet night air streaming past him, this dear world of living things, his throbbing horse beneath him, the birds and beasts round him, and this gallant girl swaying and rejoicing too beside him! What a contrast was all this to that terrible afternoon, only a few hours away-of suspense and skulking like a rat in a sewer; in a dark, close passage underground breathing death and silence round him! An escape with the fresh air in the face and the glorious galloping music of hoofs is another matter to an escape contrived by holding the breath and fearing to move in a mean hiding-hole. And as all this flooded in upon him, incoherently but overpoweringly, he turned and laughed loud with joy.

They had nearly come to an end of the flat by now. In front of them rose the high black mass of trees where safety lay; somewhere to the right, not a quarter of a mile in front, just off the road, lay East Maskells. They would draw rein, he reflected, when they reached the outer gates, and listen; and if all was quiet behind them, Mary at least should ask for shelter. For himself, perhaps it would be safer to ride on into the woods for the present. He began to move his head as he rode to see if there were any light in the house before him; it seemed dark; but perhaps he could not see the house from here. Gradually his horse slackened a little, as the rise in the ground began, and he tossed the reins once or twice.

Then there was a sharp hiss and blow behind him; his horse snorted and leapt forward, almost unseating him, and then, still snorting with head raised and jerking, dashed at the slope. There was a cry and a loud report; he tugged at the reins, but the horse was beside himself, and he rode fifty yards before he could stop him. Even as he wrenched him into submission another horse with head up and flying stirrup and reins thundered past him and disappeared into the woods beyond the house.

Then, trembling so that he could hardly hold the reins, he urged his horse back again at a stumbling trot towards what he knew lay at the foot of the slope, and to meet the tumult that grew in nearness and intensity up the road along which he had just galloped.

There was a dark group on the pale road in front of him, twenty yards this side of the field-path that led from Stanfield Place; he took his feet from the stirrups as he got near, and in a moment more threw his right leg forward over the saddle and slipped to the ground.

He said no word but pushed away the two men, and knelt by Mary, taking her head on his knee. The men rose and stood looking down at them.

"Mary," he said, "can you hear me?"

He bent close over the white face; her hand rose to her breast, and came away dark. She was shot through the body. Then she pushed him sharply.

"Go," she whispered, "go."

"Mary," he said again, "make your confession-quickly. Stand back, you men."

They obeyed him; and he bent his ear towards the mouth he could so dimly see. There was a sob or two-a long moaning breath-and then the murmur of words, very faint and broken by gulps for breath. He noticed nothing of the hoofs that dashed up the road and stopped abruptly, and of the murmur of voices that grew round him; he only heard the gasping whisper, the words that rose one by one, with pauses and sighs, into his ear....

"Is that all?" he said, and a silence fell on all who stood round, now a complete circle about the priest and the penitent. The pale face moved slightly in assent; he could see the lips were open, and the breath was coming short and agonised.

"... In nomine Patris-his hand rose above her and moved cross-ways in the air-et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen."

Then he bent low again and looked; the bosom was still rising and falling, the shut eyes lifted once and looked at him. Then the lids fell again.

"Benedictio Dei omnipotentis, Patris et Filii et Spiritus sancti, descendat super te et maneat semper. Amen."

Then there fell a silence. A horse blew out its nostrils somewhere behind and stamped; then a man's voice cried brutally:

"Now then, is that popish mummery done yet?"

There was a murmur and stir in the group. But Anthony had risen.

"That is all," he said.

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