Chapter 28


The passage for the overflow of the water of the moat was under the sunk walk which, reaching from the gate of the stone court round to the gate of the fountain court, enclosed the keep and its moat, looping them on as it were to the side of the double quadrangle of the castle. The only way out of this passage, at whose entrance Richard now found himself, was into the moat. As quietly therefore as he could, he got through the opening and into the water, amongst the lilies, where, much impeded by their tangling roots, which caused him many a submergence, but with a moon in her second quarter over his head to light him, he swam gently along. As he looked up from the water, however, to the huge crag-like tower over his head, the soft moonlight smoothing the rigour but bringing out all the wasteness of the grim blank, it seemed a hopeless attempt he had undertaken. Not the less did he keep his eye on the tower-side of the moat, and had not swum far before he caught sight of the little stair, which, enclosed in one of the six small round bastions encircling it, led up from the moat to the walk immediately around the citadel. The foot of this stair was, strangely enough, one of the only two points in the defence of the moat not absolutely commanded from either one or the other of the two gates of the castle. The top of the stair, however, was visible from one extreme point over the western gate, and the moment Richard, finding the small thick iron-studded door open, put his head out of the bastion, he caught sight of a warder far away, against the moonlit sky. All of the castle except the spot where that man stood, was hidden by the near bulk of the keep. He drew back, and sat down on the top of the stair--to think and let the water run from his clothes. When he issued, it was again on all-fours. He had, however, only to creep an inch or two to the right to be covered by one of the angles of the tower. But this shelter was merely momentary, for he must go round the tower in search of some way to reach the courts beyond; and no sooner had he passed the next angle than he found himself within sight of one of the towers of the main entrance. Dropping once more on his hands and knees he crept slowly along, as close as he could squeeze to the root of the wall, and when he rounded the next angle, was in the shadow of the keep, while he had but to cross the walk to be covered by the parapet on the edge of the moat. This he did, and having crept round the curve of the next bastion, was just beginning to fear lest he should find only a lifted drawbridge, and have to take to the water again, when he came to the stone bridge. It was well for him that Dorothy and Caspar had now omitted the setting of their water-trap, otherwise he would have entered the fountain court in a manner unfavourable to his project. As it was, he got over in safety, never ceasing his slow crawl until he found himself in the archway. Here he stood up, straightened his limbs, went through a few gymnastics, as silent as energetic, to send the blood through his chilled veins, and the next moment was again on the move. Peering from the mouth of the archway, he saw to his left the fountain court, with the gleaming head of the great horse rising out of the sea of shadow into the moonlight, and knew where he was. Next he discovered close to him on his right an open door into a dim space, and knew that he was looking into the great hall. Opposite the door glimmered the large bay window of which Mrs. Rees had spoken. There was now a point to be ascertained ere he could determine at which of the two gates he should attempt his exit--a question which, up to the said point, he had thoroughly considered on his way. The stables opened upon the pitched court, and in that court was the main entrance: naturally that was the one to be used. But in front of it was a great flight of steps, the whole depth of the ditch, with the marble gate at the foot of them; and not knowing the carriageway, he feared both suspicion and loss of time, where a single moment might be all that divided failure from success. Also at this gate were a double portcullis and drawbridge, the working of whose machinery took time, and of all things a quick execution was essential, seeing that at any moment sleeping suspicion might awake, and find enough to keep her so. At the other gate there was but one portcullis and no drawbridge, while from it he perfectly knew the way to the brick gate. Clearly this was the preferable for his attempt. There was but one point to cast in the other scale--namely, that, if old Eccles were still the warder of it, there would be danger of his recognition in respect both of himself and his mare. But, on the other hand, he thought he could turn to account his knowledge of the fact that the marquis's room was over it. So here the scale had settled to rebound no more--except indeed he should now discover any difficulty in passing from the stone court in which lay the MOUTH of the stables, to the fountain court in which stood the preferable gate. This question he must now settle, for once on horseback there must be no deliberation. One way at least there must be--through the hall: the hall must be accessible from both courts. He pulled off his shoes, and stepped softly in. Through the high window immediately over the huge fireplace, a little moonlight fell on the northern gable-wall, turning the minstrels' gallery into an aerial bridge to some strange region of loveliness, and in the shadow under it he found at once the door he sought, standing open but dark under a deep porch. Issuing and gliding along by the side of the hall and round the great bay window, he came to the stair indicated by Mrs. Rees, and descending a little way, stood and listened: plainly enough to his practised ear, what the old woman had represented as the underground passage to the airiest of stables, was itself full of horses. To go down amongst these in the dark, and in ignorance of the construction of the stable, was somewhat perilous; but he had not come there to avoid risk. Step by step he stole softly down, and, arrived at the bottom, seated himself on the last--to wait until his eyes should get so far accustomed to the darkness as to distinguish the poor difference between the faint dusk sinking down the stair and the absolute murk. A little further on, he could descry two or three grated openings into the fountain court, but by them nothing could enter beyond the faintest reflection of moonlight from the windows between the grand staircase and the bell tower. As soon as his eyes had grown capable of using what light there was, which however was scarcely sufficient to render him the smallest service, Richard began to whistle, very softly, a certain tune well known to Lady, one he always whistled when he fed or curried her himself. He had not got more than half through it, when a low drowsy whinny made reply from the depths of the darkness before him, and the heart of Richard leaped in his bosom for joy. He ceased a moment, then whistled again. Again came the response, but this time, although still soft and low, free from all the woolliness of sleep. Once more he whistled, and once more came the answer. Certain at length of the direction, he dropped on his hands and knees, and crawled carefully along for a few yards, then stopped, whistled again, and listened. After a few more calls and responses, he found himself at Lady's heels, which had begun to move restlessly. He crept into the stall beside her, spoke to her in a whisper, got upon his feet, caressed her, told her to be quiet, and, pulling her buff shoes from his pockets, drew them over her hoofs, and tied them securely about her pasterns. Then with one stroke of his knife he cut her halter, hitched the end round her neck, and telling her to follow him, walked softly through the stable and up the stair. She followed like a cat, though not without some noise, to whose echoes Richard's bosom seemed the beaten drum. The moment her back was level, he flung himself upon it, and rode straight through the porch and into the hall. But here at length he was overtaken by the consequences of having an ally unequal to the emergency. Marquis, who had doubtless been occupied with his friends in the stable yard, came bounding up into the court just as Richard threw himself on the back of his mare. At the sight of Lady, whom he knew so well, with her master on her back, a vision of older and happier times, the poor animal forgot himself utterly, rushed through the hall like a whirlwind, and burst into a tempest of barking in the middle of the fountain court--whether to rouse his mistress, or but to relieve his own heart, matters little to my tale. There was not a moment to lose, and Richard rode out of the hall and made for the gate.