Read CHAPTER V - IN PERIL of In the Wars of the Roses A Story for the Young, free online book, by Evelyn Everett-Green, on ReadCentral.com.

“Edward, I am glad to see you back.  Where have you been these many hours?  I have been watching and waiting, hoping you would come before nightfall.  I am very anxious.  I much fear that we are suspected ­spied upon.”

“Nay, now, what makes you think that?” asked young Edward, as he let himself be drawn within the small attic bedchamber in the river-side inn, which he and his comrade had shared ever since they had arrived in London; now some three weeks back.  Paul had closed the door before he began to speak, and now stood with his back against it, his face looking pale and anxious in the fading light of the winter’s day.

“What makes me think it?  Why, more things than one; but mainly the fact that the peddler we bought our clothes of is here.”

Edward smiled and laid a hand on Paul’s shoulder.

He was growing used to the anxieties of his elder comrade, who deeply felt his responsibility in having the heir of England under his care, and had begun to treat his words of warning with some lightness.

“And why should not the old man be here?  The world is as free to him as it is to us.  Rather I should have looked upon him as a friend.  For did he not eat at the same board with us, and share the hospitality of the same roof?”

“Yes, yes,” answered Paul quickly; “but so do all men of his calling.  They are always welcome wherever they appear.  But I will tell you why I misdoubt this man.  He first came in whilst we of the house were sitting at dinner, and his eye roved round the room till it fell upon me, and I saw in it then a gleam of recognition which I did not like.  He went out then, and anon returned with a great bearded fellow of sinister aspect.  And I was certain that he pointed me out to him; for though I would not raise my eyes, or seem to notice, I knew that they whispered together, and that this other man’s black eyes were fixed full on my face.”

“That might well be,” answered Edward lightly, “you are a right goodly youth, made to find favour in all eyes.”

But Paul proceeded without heeding the interruption.

“Presently the peddler shuffled round the table, and took the vacant seat beside me ­the seat that should have been yours, Edward.  He pretended that he had only just recognized me, and began to talk in friendly fashion enough.  He asked after you; but I said we had little companionship now ­that you had your own concerns to attend to in the city, and that we might part company at any time.  I would have disclaimed you altogether, save that those at the inn could have told him that I had a brother or comrade with me.  He kept his eye warily on me the whole time.  I know that he was on the watch for news of you.”

“And wherefore not?  Methinks you are over fearful, good Paul.”

“Nay, Edward, think but a moment ­What care would any feel for news of you did they not suspect something?  Who cares whither I go or what I do?  If you were but the obscure stranger you pass for, who would trouble to heed whither your steps were bent or how your time was passed?  As you came in just now, did any man see you pass the threshold?”

“Nay, I know not.  I was heeding little in the street.  It was dark enough in the narrow alley, darker than it is up here; but ­”

“Wait, Edward, answer me one question yet.  Is it possible that the peddler can have any clue by which he may know you?  Did you betray aught to him that evening when you bartered with him for your suit of clothes?  How did you pay him?  Was it in French gold?”

“Nay, I paid him no money at all.  I gave him a pearl clasp which I had, and he furnished me with funds for the journey to London.  I made a villainous bad bargain, it seems.  The other jewels I have disposed of in London I have got far better price for.

“Now, Paul, why look you so troubled and wan?  Have you yet another lecture in store for your luckless comrade?”

“O Edward, Edward,” cried Paul in anxious tones, “is it really so?  Have you been mad enough to sell jewels which may be known and traced?  Did I not tell you from the very first that I had money enough for both?  You should not have done it.  And why, if done it must be, did you not tell me, and let me do the trafficking?”

Edward smiled as he laid his hand upon his comrade’s shoulder.

“Good Paul, did you think that I would trade upon your love, to filch from you the remains of that poor fortune which is all you have left of the world’s goods?  I knew how readily your all would have been laid at my feet; but it was not for me to accept the sacrifice when I had means of raising money myself.  And what danger can there be?  My mother’s jewels can scarce be known here.  I fear your courage is but a sorry thing, you are so prone to idle fears and gloomy portents.”

“Heaven grant I may be deceived; But the pearl clasp of which you speak ­tell me what it was like.”

“Why, a fine pearl set in a clasp of chased gold with an eagle in relief, the claws forming the catch of the clasp.  My royal mother had a pair of them once; what befell the other I remember not.  It was lost, I have heard her say, long years ago.”

Paul clasped his hands closely together.

“Edward,” he said, “it was just such a clasp as that which fastened the jewelled collar of the little Prince of Wales on the day when he, in play, fastened that collar about my neck, which collar fell a prey to certain robbers who carried off the humble knight’s son in mistake for the prince.

“And listen further, Edward.  Those same robbers who dogged your steps years ago are now in hiding in the fastnesses of that great Epping Forest through which we have lately journeyed.  The peddler knows them and traffics with them; that have I heard from others.  Most likely he has himself suspected something, and has gone with his clasp to consult with the chieftain, who is a sworn foe to the House of Lancaster.  And having made out that the clasps are fellows, and having their suspicions fully aroused, they have followed on our trail ­we made no secret that London was our goal ­and are seeking to get you into their power.”

Edward’s face was grave now.  It seemed as if Paul’s fears were not unfounded.

“Yet what good would come to them by that?” he questioned thoughtfully; and Paul had the answer only too ready.

“Marry, every good in the world!  Dear my lord, forgive the plain speaking of one who loves you well; but we have not lived in this great city all these weeks for nought.  You know how it is with the people of this land.  They will never be ruled long by your saintly father.  They know his strange malady, and they think him more fit for a monk’s cell than a royal throne.  Your mother ­”

“Ay, they hate her,” answered Edward mournfully.  “They cannot speak her name without all manner of insulting epithets, which have made my blood boil in my veins.”

“It is so, dear my lord; they have never loved her, and evil report will spread and gather head, You see that they would never accept her rule in your royal father’s name.  It would raise sedition and tumult at once.  The house and faction of York know this.  They know that their power would be secure were King Henry and his queen alone in the matter; but there is still one more ­the Prince of Wales, against whom no man speaks evil, even the most rancorous enemies of the House of Lancaster.  All who have seen him love him; all speak of his noble person, his graces of body and mind, his aptness to rule, his kingly qualities.

“You smile, but in truth it is so.  The nation might rally beneath the banner of such a prince; and the proud nobles of the rival king know it well, and could they get the prince into their own power, they know that victory is from that moment theirs.  Wherefore, Edward, if it be true that you are known, we must fly, and that instantly.  These lawless men will not quit the trail till they have run the quarry down, and delivered you dead or alive into the hands of the foe.  They know well the value of the prize, and they will not let it escape them.”

Edward felt the truth of these words.  Paul had been anxious and alarmed before, but never with the same cause.  He had always been fearful that the young prince might be recognized by some wayfarer, who might have chanced to see him in past days or at the French court; but he had never before made sure that this recognition had actually taken place, and the likeness between the supposed brothers, though more a likeness now in figure and colouring and expression than actually in feature, was as great a safeguard as could have been devised.

Moreover, not a rumour of any kind had come over from France reporting the escape or absence of the Prince of Wales, and it was far fetched to imagine that anybody would suspect the identity of the yellow-haired youth.  But the occurrences of this day, combined with Edward’s admission about the clasp, had roused Paul’s worst fears, and it did indeed seem as if there were some watch set upon their movements now.

He looked earnestly into the flushed face of the fair young prince, and then said thoughtfully: 

“Edward, I have a plan whereby I think you can escape this threatened danger.  Leave this house tonight ­at once, if the coast be clear ­and go as fast as your steed can take you to your royal father, and claim the protection of his state, and that of the earl your future father-in-law.  Tell all your story, and it will make of you the idol even of this wayward city of London.  All men will delight in the presence of the Prince of the Silver Swan; and methinks a happy end may be the result of the journey which seems like to end in peril and gloom.

“Good my lord, it is a joyous welcome you would receive.  It would rejoice the whole heart of the nation to have you back.”

Edward hesitated for a moment, but finally shook his head.

“Nay, Paul, I will not do that, though I grant the scheme has its attractions.  If what you say be true and my presence in this city is suspected, be sure that every alley to the palace is watched and guarded by foes who would find a speedy way of preventing my entrance there ­ay, or thine, were that tried.

“And over and above the danger, I am yearning to see the face of my sweet bride again, my gentle Anne, whom I have loved right well these many years, even whilst her father seemed our bitterest foe.  My return will be looked for ere the glad Christmas season, and if I am not missed before, I shall be then, and I would not that my good mother were kept long in anxiety as to what has befallen me.  I have been now four weeks absent.  I laid careful plans whereby a brief absence might not be discovered, but it is time I returned now.

“Moreover, my quest is done.  I have learned all and more than I came to do.  My heart is heavy within me as I think on all I have heard.  Ere I come as prince to this realm, I would fain see and have earnest speech with my mother.  There are moments when methinks it would be the wiser and happier thing to talk no more of ruling here, but rather of securing to my father liberty and honour, and such titles and estates as he can claim through his duchy of Lancaster, and letting the crown remain on the head of him who could have claimed it with a better right than we, were it not for the kingly rule of my grandsire and his sire before him.”

Paul made no reply save what was expressed in a deep sigh.  His hope of the permanent restoration of the House of Lancaster had received some rude shocks during the past weeks; but he had never before heard Edward speak in this key, and he wondered if it were but the expression of a passing emotion, or the result of a deeply-seated conviction.

“I trow my mother will call me craven-hearted,” said the lad with a slight smile, after a moment’s silence, “and I myself may think differently anon.  But tonight all seems wrapped in gloom, and I would I were far away from this city, which seems to breathe hatred to all of our name and race.  Paul, we had better linger here no longer.  Let us away the route we came, so shall we soonest reach the coast; and we will pass together to the French court, and you shall see the reception which will await us there from my mother and my sweet betrothed.

“Ah, I would the day had come!  I long to see kindly faces once again.  And they will love you ever for the love you have borne to me.”

The lad’s face flushed with excitement at the bare thought, and the prospect was welcome enough to Paul, who was sick at heart, and weary with the strain of continual watchfulness; but he lowered his voice to a mere whisper as he said: 

“Hist, sweet prince! speak not so loud.  There may be spies without the very door.  We will indeed make shift to start the very first moment we may.  I shall not draw another easy breath till we are far away from here.  But think you it will be wise to go the way we came?  May not those roads be watched more closely there than elsewhere?”

“I think not so.  I think they will guess that we shall make for one of the southern ports, by which France can be the more easily reached.  If these wild robbers have left their former haunts to pursue us, we may well be safest nearest to their lair.  And we know not the country to the south, whilst this great forest seems like a friend to us; and we have sturdy friends within its sheltering aisles if we are hard pressed.  We can quicker reach the coast, too, that way than any other.  And the good brothers you have spoken of at Leighs Priory will give us shelter tomorrow night, if we cannot make shift to push on to the coast in one day.”

There seemed sound sense in the counsel thus offered by the prince, and Paul was ever ready to obey his wishes, if he saw no objection to them.  They appeared to be menaced by peril on all sides, and he would have been thankful if the prince would have thrown himself into the keeping of his kingly sire; but as he had declined to do this, and was not of the stuff to be balked of his will, the next best thing was to slip off in silence and secrecy, and Paul thought it quite probable that the route least watched and guarded might well be the one which led back through the forest again.

But it would not do to appear as if suspicious; and leaving Edward locked up in the attic chamber ­hoping that no one had observed his entrance into the inn ­he went down into the common room, where preparations for supper were going on.

There were a larger number of persons collected in the inn than usual that night, and Paul fancied that many sharp glances were fastened upon him as he entered the room.  But he kept command over his countenance well, and walked forward toward the fire with an air of easy assurance.  The peddler was sitting in the warmest corner, and pushed away his next neighbour to make room for Paul, who took the vacant seat readily.  The man very quickly led up to the subject of his companion and kinsman (laying an apparent and rather suspicious emphasis on that word), asking if he did not mean to come to supper, since he had seen him enter the inn at dusk.

Paul replied that his comrade was unwell, and that he would retire early to bed, and have something hot to take there.  He was resolved that Edward should not be exposed to the gaze of these rough men, whose faces inspired him with the greatest uneasiness.

Edward should be supposed to be sick, and that might divert attention from his movements for the time being; and, long before the morning dawned, he hoped that they might both be far away from this ill-omened spot.

“Ill!” quoth the peddler; “no doubt a colic or a chill, taken in this villainous cold weather.  I have a draught here that acts like a charm in all such cases.  If you will permit me, I will mix it for you in a stoup of hot spiced wine, and I warrant he will sleep like a dormouse all night, and wake in the morning as well as ever.”

Paul thanked the peddler, and the ingredients of the draught were called for.  He watched its preparation keenly, and noted that several meaning glances were exchanged between the peddler and his associates ­as he now believed half the men in the inn to be.  He told the landlord to prepare two trenchers to be carried upstairs, as he would sup with his friend that night; and he presently carried up the hot and steaming tankard, together with the platters of the savoury viands for which London was famous.

Edward had meantime kindled the rushlight and set light to a small fire on the hearth, for the weather was bitterly cold.  The peddler had advised Paul to partake of the hot draught also, and the landlord had not heeded his request to place a tankard of ale on the tray also:  so that if either of the youths were to drink at all, it must be of the potion concocted by the peddler.

This fact greatly increased Paul’s suspicions, which were quickly shared by Edward.

“We will not touch a drop of it,” he said, “although it is tempting enough this cold night.  It is either drugged or poisoned, and given us to keep us a certain prey for tonight.  Perhaps in the end it will prove our best friend; for if they think us tied by the heel, they may be less vigilant in the watch they keep upon us.”

It was not with much appetite that the comrades ate their supper, but they knew that they might need all their strength before the next hours had passed, and they ate heartily from that motive.  Their trenchers had been so liberally piled, however, that there was plenty of broken meat and bread left when they had finished, and this was first allowed to grow cold, and then packed away into one of their wallets, as it might be some considerable time before they tasted food again, save such as they had with them.

Paul made several excursions from the room to ask for this thing or that, keeping up the fiction that his comrade was sick; and each time he did so he found some person or another guarding the door ­at least watching hard by ­though apparently bent upon some private errand.  He came to the conclusion at last that their movements were most certainly spied upon, and that to attempt to escape through the house that night would be impossible.  A few cautious words (which he caught as he entered the room where the peddler and his companions were sitting) confirmed his impression that Edward was certainly suspected, if not actually identified, and that he would not be allowed to pass out of sight until suspicion was either verified or laid at rest.  He fancied, from the few words he heard, that these men were awaiting a companion who would be able absolutely to identify the prince, if it were really he, and that meantime they did not intend that either of the youths should escape their surveillance.

It was with a sinking heart that Paul returned to Edward with this news.  But peril seemed only to act like a tonic upon the nerves of the younger lad; and springing to his feet with energy and resolution, he cried with flashing eyes: 

“And so they think to make a prisoner of the eaglet of England’s royal house!  Let them try.  Let them do their worst.  They shall see that his wings are strong enough for a higher and more daring flight than they dream of; that he will not be fettered by a cage of their treacherous making!  Paul, it is not for nothing that I have lain awake long nights dreaming dreams of peril and escape.  I know how we will outwit our pursuers this very night.  Say, can yon swim, as you can do all else that a brave Englishman should?”

“Like a fish,” answered Paul, who had many a time terrified and astonished his mother by his feats in the salmon pool at home, and had never lost the skill and strength to battle with wind or wave.

“Good!  I was sure of it; and I can do the same.  Paul, come here to the window.  See you no means of escape as you look down into that dark, sullen water below?”

Paul started and looked eagerly out.  The inn, as has before been said, stood on the banks of the great river Thames.  Indeed, it was built so close to the waterside that the walls were washed by the lapping waves on the backside of the house, and the windows looked sheer down into the turbid, sullen stream.  No watch could be kept on this side, nor did it seem to be needful; for the old inn was a lofty building of its kind, and the black water lay some sixty feet below the small window of the room in which Paul and his companion lodged.  No man in his senses, it seemed, would hazard such a leap, and none but an expert swimmer would care or dare to trust himself to that swiftly-flowing flood, which might so easily sweep him to his doom.  And on a freezing December night the idea of escape in such a fashion seemed altogether madness itself.

Even Paul, menaced by a danger that might be worse than death, drew in his head with something of a shudder; but Edward had dived into a little press that stood in the room, and brought out a coil of stout, strong rope.  Paul gave a cry of surprise and pleasure.

“Some instinct warned me it might be wanted.  See here, Paul.  We can tie one end to this heavy bedstead, knotting it also around the bolt of the door, and we can glide down like two veritable shadows, and drop silently into the river:  Then we must swim to one of those small wherries which lie at anchor beside the sleeping barges.  I know exactly what course to steer for that; and once aboard, we cut her loose, and row for dear life down with the tide, till we can find some deserted spot where we can land, and thence we make our way back to the coast through the friendly forest, as we planned.”

“On foot?”

“Ay, we must leave our good steeds behind; it would be madness to seek to take them.  We are young and strong, and this frost makes walking easy.  We shall speed so well that we may chance to reach the shelter of the Priory ere night falls on us again, and then the worst of our troubles will be over.  Say, Paul, will you come with me?  Will you follow me?”

“To the death, my prince,” answered Paul with enthusiasm; yet even as he spoke a sort of shiver came over him, as though he had pronounced his own doom.  But he shook it off, and fell to upon the simple preparations to be made.

These were very simple, and consisted of rolling up into a compact bundle their outer dress and a change of under tunic, which they fastened, together with their food wallet and arms, upon their heads, in the hope that they might keep them from the water.  They slung their boots about their necks, and then, with as little clothing as possible upon them, commenced their stealthy descent down the rope, which had been firmly attached as suggested by the prince.  Edward went first, whilst Paul remained in the room to guard against surprise, and to hold the end if it slipped or gave.  But no such casualty befell; and the moment he heard the slight splash which told that the prince had reached the water, he swung himself lightly down the rope, and fell with a soft splash beside him.

But oh, how cold it was in that dark water!  Hardy though the pair were, it seemed impossible to live in that fearful cold; but they struck out valiantly into midstream, and presently the exercise of swimming brought a little life into their benumbed limbs.  But glad indeed was Paul to reach the side of the little wherry which they intended to purloin, and it was all that their united efforts could do to clamber in and cut the cord which bound it to the barge.

“We must row hard, Edward,” said Paul, with chattering teeth; “it is our only chance of life.  We shall freeze to death if we cannot get some warmth into our blood.  I feel like a block of ice.”

They were too much benumbed to try and dress themselves yet, but as they rowed their hardest along the dark, still water, the life came ebbing back into their chilled limbs, and with the welcome warmth came that exultation of heart which always follows escape from deadly peril.  With more and more vigour they bent to their oars, and at last Edward spoke in a natural voice again.

“Let us float down quietly with the stream a while, Paul, whilst we don our dry garments, if indeed they are dry.  It will be better here than on shore, where we might chance to be seen and suspected.  I am glowing hot now, freezing night though it be; but I confess I should be more comfortable rid of these soaking clothes.”

So stripping off these, they found, to their great satisfaction, that the leather jerkins in which the other clothing had been wrapped had kept everything dry, and the feel of warm and sufficient clothing was grateful indeed after the icy bath they had encountered.  Their boots were wet, but that mattered little to the hardy striplings; and when, dressed and armed, they bent to their oars again, it seemed as if all their spirit and confidence had come back.

“We have made so good a start that we shall surely prosper,” cried Edward boldly.  “Our good friend the peddler will look blank enough when morning comes and they find the birds are flown.”

But Paul could not triumph quite so soon; he was still far from feeling assured of safety, and feared their escape might be quickly made known, in which case pursuit would be hot.  The best hope lay in getting into the forest, which might give them shelter, and enable them to baffle pursuit; but responsibility lay sore upon him, and he could not be quite as gay as his comrade.

The moon shone out from behind the clouds, and presently they slipped beneath the arches of the old bridge, and past the grim fortress of the Tower.  Very soon after that, they were gliding between green and lonely banks in a marshy land, and they presently effected a landing and struck northward, guiding themselves by the position of the moon.

It was a strange, desolate country they traversed, and glad enough was Paul that it was night when they had to cross this unprotected fiat land.  By day they would be visible for miles to the trained eye of a highwayman, and if pursued would fall an easy prey.  But by crossing this desolate waste at night, when not a living thing was to be seen, they might gain the dark aisles of the wood by the time the tardy dawn stole upon them, and once there Paul thought he could breathe freely again.

All through the long hours of the night the lads trudged onwards side by side.  Paul was more anxious than weary, for he had been inured to active exercise all his life, and had spent many long days stalking deer or wandering in search of game across the bleak hillsides.  But Edward, though a hardy youth by nature, and not altogether ignorant of hardship, had lived of late in the softer air of courts, and as the daylight struggled into the sky he was so weary he could scarce set one foot before another.

Yet even as Paul’s anxious glance lighted on him he smiled bravely and pointed onwards, and there before them, in the rising sunlight, lay the great black forest, stretching backwards as far as eye could see; and Edward, throwing off his exhaustion by a manful effort, redoubled his speed, until the pair stood within the encircling belt of forest land, and paused by mutual consent at the door of a woodman’s cabin.

Travellers were rare in that lone part, but the good folks of the hut were kindly and hospitable and unsuspicious.  Paul produced some small pieces of silver and asked for food and shelter for a few hours, as he and his comrade had been benighted, and had been wandering about in the darkness many hours.  The fare was very coarse and homely, but the famished lads were not disposed to find fault; and the cabin, if close, was at least warm, and, when a peat fire had been lighted, was a not altogether uncomfortable place for wanderers like themselves.

As soon as his hunger was satisfied, Edward lay down upon the floor and was soon sound asleep; but Paul had no disposition for slumber, and sat gazing into the glowing turves with earnest, anxious eyes.  The heir of England was in his care, and already probably sought in many directions by cruel and implacable foes.  Until Edward were in safety, he himself should know no peace.  And as if suddenly inspired by some new thought, he started up and went in search of the good woman of the cabin, with whom he held a long and earnest conversation.

When he came back to the other room, it was with a smile of satisfaction on his face and a queer bundle in his arms, and the old woman was looking with great wonderment at a gold piece lying on her palm, and marvelling at the strange caprice of the young and rich.