Read CHAPTER XV - AWAY TO THE FOREST. of Tom Tufton Travels, free online book, by Evelyn Everett-Green, on ReadCentral.com.

Tom found no trouble in escaping from the house of the perruquier by the way suggested by Rosamund; and once in the dusky streets, he made good use of his long legs to carry him out of the vicinity of danger.

He knew now that there must be a warrant out against him, and that London was no place for him ­that he must fly somewhere beyond the reach of pursuit.  He remembered Lord Claud’s promise about the trusty mare, Nell Gwynne.  Well, he would go once more to this strange friend of his, and see how he would stand by him in danger’s hour.

Tom’s blood was up.  He felt like a man goaded into recklessness and crime by the action of others.  If they would not let him live as a peaceable citizen ­well, he would give them something to remember him by!

Quickly he made his way along, running like a hare when the street was empty, but always observing caution, and only striding along like a man in haste when there were passers by to note him.  He felt sure that Rosamund’s quick wits would do much to gain time and give him a start; and, sure enough, he reached the stable yard where Lord Claud’s horses were kept without a sign or sound of pursuit.

As luck would have it, there was the master himself standing in the yard talking to his headman.

Tom strode straight up to him with a strange gleam in his eyes, for he knew not even now whether this man were friend or foe.

“I am come for the mare,” he said briefly; “you remember your promise?”

Lord Claud gave him a swift, keen glance, as though he heard a new note in Tom’s voice.

“I do.  I will not fail you,” he said very quietly.

Then to the man standing by, “Bring out Nell Gwynne.  You have your instructions.  See that nothing is forgotten.”

The man vanished into the dark stable.  Lord Claud turned to Tom.

“What has befallen?”

“There is a warrant out against me.  They would have taken me in Master Cale’s house half an hour back, but for the shrewdness and quick wit of his daughter.  This is no place for me.  My head is in danger.  I must forth with all speed; but whither?”

“I should take to the forest, Tom.  Captain Jack will welcome you gladly,” said Lord Claud, as calmly as though discussing some indifferent project.  “It is just the life for you.  You will make a great name there.  And that you will never do, my friend, in the gay world of London.”

“I have thought of that,” said Tom between his shut teeth; “but it means the life of an outlaw ­and a death on the gallows, perchance, to end it!”

“Pooh, nonsense! not for a fine strapping young fellow of your thews and your wits!  It means a few gay years of excitement and peril, a little influence in high places, which can always be bought with gold, and a free pardon and a return home.  Leave that part of the business to me.  I have played the game often enough to understand the moves.  Meantime, you will be free and safe there.  Elsewhere, the gates of a prison may yawn for you at any moment.”

Tom shivered in spite of the warm night air.

“Death rather than that!  But is it the only way?  I had thought the secret service might find me some task.”

Lord Claud shook his head slightly.

“In time, perhaps, in time; but you are too sorely beset at this moment for that.  We will talk of that later.  Now you must away with all speed.  My house will be watched next.  Indeed, I have had some ill-looking fellows asking questions and hanging round already.  To the forest with you, good Tom, to the forest.  That is the only safe place for you now.  If you fled to Gablehurst, you would only bring sorrow and shame on all who love you.  Lucky for you your mother still reigns there.  Leave it to me to set her mind, and that of your sister, at rest concerning you.  But you must to the forest, my good comrade, and to the free and merry life there.  Egad!  I could wish that I were going with you myself!  Indeed, I may perchance join you there ere long.  But we must not vanish together, Tom.  We must use caution and circumspection.”

Tom set his teeth, and a fierce wave swept over him, half of rage, yet half of joy.  The longing for freedom, struggle, adventure, was strong upon him.  The restraint of the city, the bare thought of captivity, put wild thoughts into heart and brain; but the sense of having been betrayed ­made a tool of ­befooled by this handsome, imperious man beside him, set his blood boiling in his veins.

At that moment Nell Gwynne was led out, making sparks fly from her feet as she plunged in passing beneath the doorway.  She looked in perfect condition ­sleek, mettlesome, strong, and beautiful.  Tom’s heart leaped at the sight of the splendid creature, who turned a responsive head at the sound of his voice, and dropped her velvet nose into his hand.

“She is yours, Tom, from this moment,” said Lord Claud, signing away the servant, and himself holding her head; “take her as the gift of one who is neither so indifferent nor so callous as you may think.  Here is a purse of gold, too, Tom ­all your own, my lad, so shrink not from taking it.  Tom, whatever be the end of this friendship betwixt us, believe that I have loved you.  It is my luckless lot to bring misfortune at times to those who consort with me; yet methinks they have their fierce tastes of joy, too.  Tom, I shall not forget you.  I shall hear of you.  I shall sometimes see you; and I shall be your friend, whether or not you believe it now.  You shall not always need to dwell in the forest.  You shall return thence with fame and fortune secure.

“But, for the present, farewell.  Captain Jack will give you welcome.  He will be looking to see you.  He will welcome you gladly.  You will find it no such bad life, believe me.  But delay not longer.  Be off!”

Tom was in the saddle, and the mare reared beneath him with a snort of glad anticipation.  She had done no work this many a day, being kept in readiness for Tom’s use, with only the needful modicum of exercise up and down within hail of her stable.

Lord Claud stretched out his hand, and Tom put his within it.  After all, he loved this man in spite of all his faults and follies, and the strange reputation which clave to him.  He might be false, but Tom had trusted him, and he desired to trust him to the end.

Then he rode forth in the soft summer darkness, turning the mare’s head westward at first, to get clear of the streets and houses, and only heading her north and then east as he made a wide circuit of the city.

To ride through it would have been to court capture; and even as it was, as he sprang forward upon the better road which lay straight for the forest to the northeast, he had a suspicion of being followed, although he could see nothing as he looked back.

The mare bounded beneath him with great, elastic strides.  He could afford to laugh pursuit to scorn.  Perhaps this confidence made him careless, for he noted not two motionless figures, lying as it were in ambush, one on either side of the road in front, just where a clump of great trees threw a deep shadow across the road.  He had thought of foes following behind; but he had not thought of their forestalling his movements and waiting for him in advance.

The mare saw them first, and swerved violently.  That swerve most likely saved her life, if not Tom’s, for at that identical moment two shots rang out, and Bully Bullen with a shout of triumph sprang forward, certain that his bullet had found its billet, and that Tom was in his power at last.

The fire long smouldering in Tom’s breast burst out now into a fierce flame.  His eyes blazed.  A smothered imprecation broke from his lips.  He drew the pistol from his belt, and fired full at the fellow who had sought to seize the mare’s rein.

He might almost have spared his fire, for Nell Gwynne would have dashed out his brains with her forefeet had he not fallen with a groan, a lifeless corpse.  The other man, who had seemed about to rush forward, too, now started back in terror and dismay.  Sheltering himself behind a tree, he yelled out in a voice of trembling fury: 

“You shall swing for this, Tom Tufton! you shall feel the halter about your neck right soon!  The highway robber who is a murderer to boot will never escape the arm of the law!  I will bring you to the gallows ere I have done with you!”

Tom knew the voice, and turned the mare’s head towards the fellow, who, however, decamped so quickly amongst the trees that it was hopeless to try and follow on horseback.  Moreover, Tom did not know that he was not also pursued from behind; and if so, he must gain the friendly shelter of the forest ere his enemies came up.

True, he had but slain this fellow in self-defence.  He had been well-nigh the victim himself.  But the crime thus forced upon him seemed to cut the last cable which bound him to the life of the past.  They might not be able to prove upon him the robbery of the gold, but at least one witness had seen him shoot down Bully Bullen, and would doubtless swear that there had been no provocation beyond that of seeking to take into custody a man upon whose head a reward had been set.

He touched the mare with the spurs, and set her head straight for the forest.  The late moon was beginning to silver the world about him; Tom saw the ground gliding ghostlike beneath him as the noble creature sprang forward.

“Away to the forest! away to the forest!” seemed the tune beaten out by the rhythm of her flying feet.  No fear from pursuit now!  Tom sang and shouted in the strange tumult of his feelings, as he galloped through the soft, scented night.

Lord Claud had been right.  The forest was the place for him.  He had tried the life of the rustic, the life of the town exquisite; and both had palled upon him.  The clash of arms, the peril of the road, adventure, battle, pursuit, victory ­these things held him in thrall.  These things meant life to him.

Better that he should not see mother or sister again at present.  Better that Lord Claud should tell them some smooth tale, which would set their minds at rest for a while.  Later, perhaps, when the hue and cry for him was over, he would seek the shore, would find his way to other lands, and by the power of his good right arm would win himself a name amidst the din of battle.

The future seemed to unfold itself before him in glowing colours.  Life held so many golden possibilities even yet.  What might not a man accomplish who had a purse of gold in his belt, a noble horse beneath him, a trusty sword at his side?

Visions rose before his eyes of the things he would accomplish, the fame he would acquire, the return home he would finally make with laurels round his brow!  Even here in the forest he would be no common freebooter.  He would show himself merciful to the poor and oppressed; he would only take toll of the sleek and the fat, whose wealth was doubtless as ill-gotten as that of those whose lives he had watched of late.

“Men shall pay toll to Tom Tufton!” he cried, waving his sword above his head in a fierce gesture of triumph; “but the poor and the needy shall bless his name, and the oppressed shall find a haven of refuge with him!”

By which it may be seen that Master Tom’s self confidence was in no way diminished by the vicissitudes through which he had passed, and that he was looking forward once again to playing a leading part in some new drama of life.

The border of the great forest loomed up before him.  It looked dark and solemn beneath the shade of the trees.  Tom drew rein, and looked keenly to right and left, for he knew that The Three Ravens inn could not be far away.

“Who goes there?” asked a voice which Tom’s quick ear recognized instantly; and he cried out in tones of eager welcome: 

“It is I, Tom Tufton ­and you are Captain Jack!”

There was a movement of the brushwood, and a horseman stepped out, the horse having given an eager whinny at the sound of Tom’s voice.

“It is Wildfire!” cried Tom, bending over to pat the sleek neck of his old favourite.  “Well, good fellow, have you had a luckier career than your old master?  And yet I scarce can say I wish it undone.  I have tasted life; I have had my glorious days.

“Captain Jack, I am come to you for shelter.  There is a price on my head.  I am outlawed in effect if not in reality.”

“I have heard it.  I expected you,” answered Captain Jack in the friendly fashion in which he had spoken before to Tom.  “I have had news from Lord Claud.  It is not the first time he has sent his pupils to me.”

“Have I been his pupil?” asked Tom with a half laugh; “in sooth, methinks I have been rather his dupe!”

“A little of both,” was the answer.  “But we must all pay the penalty of friendship with great men.  Yet I think the price is worth the paying.  And now, Tom, if that grand horse of yours is as little weary as she looks, let us forth together to some place where none may follow us.  And let me tell you that it is not to every one Lord Claud would present his favourite mare, trained like a human creature for her trade.”

“You know her?” asked Tom eagerly.

“Nell Gwynne and I have been acquainted this many a day.  There be some of her fierce tricks that have been learned from my hand.  I have been teaching the same to Wildfire and Wildgoose.  We shall not be taken or overcome through lack of good beasts to bear us, Tom.”

“You have Wildgoose, too?”

“Yes, I sent after him shortly.  He was too grand a beast to be wasted upon a varlet of a serving man.  If you have more of the same stock at home, Tom, we might make shift to get at them anon; but for the present we are well enough mounted.”

They rode side by side through the forest tracks, Nell Gwynne and Wildfire making acquaintance with apparent mutual satisfaction as they stepped pace for pace together, their riders talking in quiet fashion over their heads.

Tom told the whole story of his adventures since arriving in London in October; and hard indeed was it to believe that months and not years had rolled over his head during that time.

“Not bad, not bad!  Well done for a young cockerel!  Ah, we shall make a man of you, Tom!  It is in your blood, I can see well!”

Such were the comments of Captain Jack as he heard the tale; and Tom spoke with an unconscious pride in his own daring, which plainly betokened an undaunted spirit and a thirst after more adventure and distinction.

Angry and hot against those who had “driven him forth,” as he called it, reckless of consequences, with boundless self confidence, he was just the tool fit for the hand of Captain Jack, who patted him upon the back in a friendly fashion, and said: 

“Yes, yes, Tom, you shall learn how to take toll.  We will have another story of Tom Tufton’s Toll ere we part company.  There are good men enough amid the bands that infest these forest glades ­men suffering unjustly, men falsely accused, men who have broken from those noisome prisons, which breed disease and death, and who would sooner put a bullet through their head than return to the filth and degradation of such a life.  Ah, it is the hardness of the laws which drives men to be freebooters on the road!  The rich may fatten and batten, rob, cheat, bleed their fellows to death; but let one of us lesser men dare to lay hands upon their fat purses, full of other men’s gold, and we are branded as felons, and pay the ransom with our lives!  That is not justice.  That is not to be borne patiently.  I tell you, Tom, that I have seen enough of the injustice of the law to turn my heart to molten metal and my blood to gall.  We want fellows of your mould to wage the war and win the victory.  The day may come when you will win for yourself a great name, and shine forth upon the world admired, courted, feared ­even like Lord Claud!”

A thrill of gratified vanity ran through Tom’s frame.  He threw to the winds the last scruple of conscience.  He flung back his head and set his teeth.

“Ride on ­I follow!” he cried, in a strange, hoarse voice; “I follow unto the world’s end!”

So side by side the two men vanished into the deep gloom of the forest; and Captain Jack led his companion to one of those secret haunts of his own, where no pursuing foot had ever yet penetrated.  Tom drew a long breath as of relief, feeling that here at least he was safe.

And yet, when he sought to compose himself to rest after all the excitements of the past four-and-twenty hours, he found himself unable to sleep.  The face of his mother, loving, wistful, reproachful, seemed ever rising before him.  Was it not due to her that he should see her once again, even though he might be afterwards obliged to fly back to the forest?  Was there not a chance ­just a chance ­that his enemies might not follow him to his own home? ­might not even know where that home lay?  At least, might he not see whether he was followed before he abandoned the idea of seeing once more the mother and sister who loved him so well?

With the first light of dawn he woke up Captain Jack, and put the case to him; and the elder man sat cogitating deeply, as Tom moved about making ready the morning meal.

“Tom, lad,” he said, “you are safer here; but I understand your feelings.  A man’s first duty is to his mother if he have no wife.  And your mother is a good woman.  Squire Tufton would never have married her else.

“Listen to me, my lad.  I like you.  I would fain have you for a comrade and friend; and I fear that you will not long be left in peace at home.  But you shall do this thing.  You shall go to your mother ­”

“Ah, that is a good word!” cried Tom, now all eagerness.  “I shall at least see her once again!”

“Yes, you shall see her again; you shall make glad her heart.  But, Tom, tell her nothing of all this that has befallen you, nor of the peril in which you stand.  Let her never know, come what will, that you may be driven to take to the forest, for fear of the unjust rigour of the law and the machinations of unscrupulous foes.”

“I would gladly be spared paining her by such a tale,” said Tom quickly; “but how ­”

He paused, and Captain Jack took up the word.

“I know what you would say.  How if you have suddenly to fly again?  How if aught should come to her ears?  Now listen, Tom, and I will tell you what I will do.  I loved your father.  I vowed in my heart that if ever the day should come that I could serve him, I would do so; and therefore I will do what I can for his son.  Hear me, Tom.  I have means of knowing many things.  I can set my scouts to work.  Therefore, go you home to your mother.  I will meantime set my men to the task.  I will communicate with Lord Claud.  If peril threaten, you shall have warning.  Tell your mother that the Duke of Marlborough may have need of you again for the secret service, and that at any moment you may be forced to quit the house suddenly and secretly.  Having made her understand that, enjoy your stay at home with a free heart.  I will undertake that you have four hours’ start of any pursuing foe.  If you receive message or token from me ­or from Lord Claud ­you will know what to do.  Take your horse, set spurs in her flanks, and draw not rein till you find yourself here once more.  Note the road as you fare forth, and return by it again.  You will find safety here ­and a friend.  This do, and you shall meantime be safe.”

Captain Jack had some of Lord Claud’s power of commanding confidence; and, indeed, in this case Tom felt a greater sense of security in the promise of this highway robber than in that of his mysterious friend and leader in London.

“I will go,” he said.  “I believe you.  I take you at your word.  I will return home to my mother and sister, and rejoice their hearts.  And there will I abide till I receive your message; after which I will fly back to the forest.  Captain Jack, I have that within me which tells me that I shall come back ­that my adventures are not ended yet.  But let me once more go home to those I love, and I ask nothing more.”

“You shall go, Tom Tufton, you shall go.  A mother’s happiness and her blessing are not things to be lightly thrown away.  Go, and I will keep watch.  Till you hear from me, you are safe.”

So Tom rode away in the gray light of dawn, and quickly finding himself in familiar haunts, put spurs to his good steed, and before noon found himself close beside the village which had been his home all his life till this past adventurous year of travel.

As he went clattering up the long avenue to the house, it seemed to him as though the birds of the air must have been at work; for there was his mother standing upon the steps to receive him, whilst Rachel was running towards him with flying feet.

“O Tom, Tom, Tom! we knew it could be no one but you!  O dearest Tom, so you have come home at last!”

He swung himself from the saddle, and put his arm about his sister.

“Yes, I have come home,” he said a little huskily, “come home to see you all once more.  The old place never changes ­nor you and my mother!”

“Why should we?” asked Rachel softly.

And he kissed her again, with a strange feeling of the unreality of everything human.

The servants were flocking out by this time.  His mother’s arms were outstretched in welcome.  There was something like a sob in Tom’s throat as he felt them clasped about his neck.

“My dear, dear boy ­my only son!  Thank God that you have come safely through all threatened perils, and have come home to us again!”

Tom held her close in his arms.  He would not speak a word to dash from her those fond hopes which she so plainly cherished.  He would not speak of the peril overshadowing him, which might at any moment become imminent.

“It is good to be home, mother!” he said, and kissed her many times.

The servants raised a cheer for the young Squire.  Tom turned and smiled at them, and spoke a few words of thanks.  How familiar it all was!  How had he ever despised the love of the people round him, and of those two faithful women who loved him so truly and so well?

“Dear mother,” he said tenderly, “you are so much better to me than ever I deserve; I will try to live to be a comfort to you some day.  I have given you little but sorrow and pain as yet.”

“Nay, Tom, you have served your country, and that should satisfy a mother’s pride.  Come in, my son, and tell us your adventures.  You have seen foreign lands and fine folks since last we met.  Come and tell us all about it, as you rest and refresh yourself from your journey.”

So Tom gave one last look round at the eager faces grouped about the door, and turned into the great hall with a smile and a sigh.  It was very like a dream, this eager welcome, and these familiar sights and sounds.  The sense of insecurity which hung over him made everything seem unreal, and yet in one way dearer to him than ever before.

“Yes, this is home!” he said to himself, as be turned to follow his mother; “my travels are ended.  I have come home.  Whatever may betide in the future, I am safe at home now!”

If any reader desire to know the sequel to Tom Tufton’s story, and how he took toll on the king’s highway, that story shall be told another day.  For the present his travels had terminated, and he was beneath his own roof tree ­a sadder and a wiser man than he had sallied forth.