It was that hour of night when everything seemed sinister, and simple men of good intentions all long since abed – all save Sir Richard Shelton, as simple and well-intentioned a man who ever drew sword in England, who despite the lateness of the evening had just finished stabling his horse.
This is not to say that Dick – for so we may refer to him – made a habit of nocturnal adventures. The occasion was unusual; he had been detained on a routine visit about his lands by a tangle with some outlaws of more of an oppressive character than a dashing one; and glad though he was to return home, he was in no comfortable state of mind, and his blood was high. In short, it was not a fortuitous moment for a stranger to choose to approach the Shelton household, much less one who moved with such an attempt at quiet and secrecy as the person now making their way through the woods.
Perhaps the appropriate action might have been for Dick to give a cry of “Who goes there!” and allow the intruder an opportunity to respond. But Dick, as we have said, was in a frame of mind in which he was likely to see enemies around every bush, and was not inclined to provide himself as a target for ambush a second time in one day. He thought it quite likely that one of the outlaws had followed him home; if not, it would do no lasting harm for an innocent man to explain himself from a prone position; and so he pressed himself against the side of the stable, and waited, as the mysterious figure got closer, for the opportune moment.
The opportune moment was not long in arriving – and if Dick's cry as he leaped on the stranger was not enough to wake the whole household, the shriek of his falling opponent would certainly have served to do it. Lights blazed in the windows as they grappled; the front door flung open to issue a torch-bearer, and Dick blinked triumphantly down at his captive in the flickering light.
The captive grinned back up at him. “Why, Master Dick Shelton, I'd have thought my lady Joan would have broken you of this by now – will ye never be rid of this habit on attacking damsels?”
Poor Dick, in great confusion, released his grasp as if his hands were burning; meanwhile: “No more than ye'll be rid of the habit of tormenting him,” answered the voice of Joanna, who handed her torch to the stunned Dick and came forward to clasp the other girl in her arms. “Alicia Risingham! It must be you, there's nobody else can put such terror into my poor lad.”
“Nay,” retorted Alicia, embracing her fiercely, “there you're wrong; I'm no more Alicia Risingham than you're Joanna Sedley.”
“True enough! But how now, Alicia --” Placing her hands on Alicia's soldiers, Joanna took a step back, and examined her friend's face with an intent gaze. “You come so strange; is aught the matter with my lord Hamley?”
“Why, nothing troubles him at all,” said Alicia. “My husband's dead, poor fellow!”
Joanna released her and crossed herself. “Rest his soul!”
“Was he slain in battle, then?” inquired Dick – more curious, perhaps, than sorrowful.
“Nay, he'd the fortune to be the one man of his generation to die at home of an ague.” If given the chance, Dick might have argued whether this could indeed be called a fortune; Alicia did not allow him the opportunity. “Alas, the coming of his peace harkened an end to mine. All of his relations would have charge of the remarriage of me on the one hand, and my own would have it on the other, and they have all come to my house to quarrel about it. It's the very war itself in miniature – and the long and the short of it is, they all looked to be amusing themselves so well with the argument, I thought me it would be as kind to leave them to it.”
“But then, Alicia,” said Joanna, recalling all the to-do around her own nuptials, “is there someone yourself ye would prefer rather to wed?”
Alicia's face fell briefly somber. “Joan, dear,” she answered, “methinks I'm done with husbands for the nonce; the one was well enough for a trial, and I was grieved to see him go, but some tales need no sequel. So!” She seemed to shake off her momentary melancholy, bobbed a curtsey as best she could in her men's hose, and gave them an impudent smile. “Here I come instead to your doorstep, and beg sanctuary, if ye'll have me.”
“Was there ever a question!” exclaimed Joanna, embracing her again. “Come, let's have you changed – what have ye brought with you? Nothing? Ye fool girl! Well, a kirtle of mine – kilted up, perhaps –”
“Of yours?” Alicia measured a change in heights with her hand, expressively. “I'd swim in it! Nay, Joan, for the sake of my peace, I'd not have it get about that another lady had joined the household. Instead, let me stay in breeches, and be Dick's new squire.”
“It is a sin,” said Joanna, doubtfully, “and against the law besides.” But she could not say it with any great force; wed now to a man who absently called her Jack as often as Joan, it was difficult for her to feel the error as keenly as once she had, and as she knew she ought.
Alicia heard her hesitation, and glanced over, with a sidelong smile. “I know your Dick will not object – we all know how well he fancies a lass in man's attire.”
The reddening of Dick's cheeks was unmistakable despite the dim illumination provided by the torch; but all he answered, very properly, was, “Rather, I fancy my lady Joanna in any attire!”
“Ah!” cried Alicia merrily, “lovebirds! It's enough to make one feel ill – at least, so it would do for a lad such as I, and ye would have said the same, I wager, before ye met our Joan!” And so, laughing, they progressed into the house, Alicia's victory won, though neither of the others could quite have said how; and thus began the term of Alicia's residence in the Shelton house.
Alec, she said, they should call her; and soon enough the yeomen of Dick's lands grew accustomed to the sight of the small squire trotting at Dick's heels, or following after Joanna as she went about her tasks. “Come,” laughed Joan several days after Alicia's arrival, as she sat mending by the fireplace, “if ye will be a boy, ye should think twice before coming so gladly to sit by me as I do such dull chores. People will find it strange!”
“Would you not have my company, then?”
“No,” confessed Joanna, “in truth, I'm right glad of it. I'd not thought to mind it before you came, and you know how often I wished for solitude in your uncle's house – still, it has been a queer thing, having no other woman about to talk with.” Joanna had grown up in a large household; Dick's could not but be small, and while she did not mind the lack of luxury a jot, she was not used to being so much alone.
Alicia draped herself over the back of Joanna's chair. “Well, then,” she said, comfortably, “here I will stay; and let them gossip who will!” She wrapped her arms around Joanna's shoulders, and peered over her shoulder. “Why, Joan, methinks there's a stitch gone crooked.”
“A kinder friend did never woman have, to weigh upon me and cavil at me! There,” said Joanna, undoing the error, and affecting a contrary tone, “are ye now pleased, or have ye other faults to find?”
“I'll be as good a friend to you as I may – and yet, my Joan,” said Alicia, her mouth at her ear, “there was a time that we were better friends than this!”
Joanna colored, and did not answer. Alicia sighed, and straightened again, and came around to the front of her. “May I not curl up in your lap, then, like a housecat?”
“Little ye may be, Master Alec, but not so small as that,” said Joanna, sternly; but a laugh twitched at the corner of her mouth, all the same. “If ye are set to make mischief, go ye then, find Dick, and do something that a boy would do.”
“Would ye have me make mischief with Dick, then?” returned Alicia, archly; to which Joan picked up the needle, and menaced her with it.
“Nay!” laughed Alicia, “nay, I'll be good, Lady Shelton, I'll be good!” and settled herself at Joan's knee, not unlike a housecat, in all truth; and they spoke no more that day of what had perhaps once been.
Still, Alicia had taken Joanna's warnings somewhat to heart, and the next day found her once again at Dick's heels, importuning him to teach her the use of a dagger.
After sharing several days of company with young Alec, the impudent squire, Dick could not but be somewhat easier with Dame Alicia Risingham-that-was than he had been in the past. Still, he stumbled over his words as he attempted to politely express his doubtfulness that a dagger would do miniscule Alicia any great service in the event of a serious attack.
“Nay, still, ye ought to teach me,” said Alicia. “Around you, lion-driver, even the weakest damsel is in constant danger; have I not the right to defend myself? Besides, it's a boyish enough pursuit, and our Joan tells me I lack something of a man.”
Dick found himself torn; for all his doubts, when looking at her, he saw a lad in doublet and hose, and in his heart he could not find it fitting that any person wearing hose should not know the use of a dagger. “Well,” he said, “I suppose it can do no harm, and may even do some good in these troubled times –”
“-- or against you, should ye once again attack me,” said Alicia, who was not one to let a jest go when it had thus far proved rewarding.
“-- for no one will expect a whit of violence from such a poorly-grown speck of a boy,” snapped Dick, and then grew flustered once more, as Alicia laughed.
“Good, good! Ye must give back what ye get from me, Sir Shelton, or the match is too easily won. Here! This is my husband's dagger; I brought it with me here, but in truth, I was afeared to draw it, not knowing well how to use it.”
“It is somewhat too large for you,” said Dick, inspecting it, “but so, I fear, would any –”
“Ah! Another hit!” cried Alicia.
“Nay, I did not mean it so!” protested Dick.
“Ye have insulted me upon a very low matter -- draw, upon your honor!” Alicia grabbed back her dagger, making a great production of brandishing it in what she deemed to be a formidable stance; but Dick, looking upon her, only shook his head, with what it must be said was somewhat of a patronizing air.
“That stiffness in your knees, Master Alec, would be enough in itself to lose you the battle. Ye stand like a tree.”
“From a speck to a tree,” said Alicia. “Well, well, I have grown somewhat; say on.”
“If ye would strike shrewd strokes, ye must not plant yourself so – you must be on the ready always to move quicker than the other fellow” He came to the side of her, then knelt to place his hands on first one knee, then the other, showing how they should bend. “A dagger's a cruel weapon, and a fight is only something of a race, my boy –” for in truth, Dick had clean forgotten for the moment that Alicia was no boy at all, and spoke to her now in the same words as his own fighting masters had spoken to him – “as to which of you will slay the other first.”
“Is it so?” Alicia regarded the dagger in her hand with something less of a merry look. “And how then, Master Shelton, if I would not slay him, but wished only that he should not slay me?”
Recalled to himself, Dick loosed his grip on Alicia's knee and came back to his feet. He stood with his hands hanging, as if he knew not where to put them. “That is not the way I was taught to fight,” he answered, “nor anybody I know; I do not know if there is an answer in this world.”
Alicia sighed, then, and turned the dagger in her hand, and offered it to Dick, hilt-first. “Though I still will claim the soundness of my argument,” she said, “methinks I should perhaps begin my studies with some manly pursuit that has not murder as its end. Can ye think on any, Dick?”
Dick took the dagger; relief and unease were in his face intermixed into a sort of furrowed confusion. “Well,” he offered, “let us back to the house for the noontime meal, and I'll consider the question.” They swung into step, and Dick scratched his head, but as they stepped into the hall and his eye fell on Joanna, his face cleared. “And here I've clean forgotten the most admirable accomplishment I can think on – here, if ye'd be more of a man, it's Jack ye should apply to after all, for –
“If it's the swimming again, I've said I would teach you! I've tried,” said Joanna, appealing to Alicia. “How I've tried! It's plain folly, my boy, for you to lack the skill; for think on it, Alec, a fellow like this, who may be at any moment stealing boats, playing the pirate or finding himself tossed into a river –”
“Nay, Jack!” protested Dick, indignant. “Ye wrong me, Jack, ye do! I was only a stripling then, but I'm through with rash acts now, by God – have I not become something wiser than I was?”
Joanna sent Alicia a speaking look that told her not to believe a word of it.
“Well, then, here's the answer for us,” said Alicia, settling down at the table. “The weather is hot enough; after the repast we'll go out to the river all three, and our Joanna shall instruct us both in the manly art of swimming. Come, now --” when Dick looked likely to protest – “between myself and your lady, we'll haul you out before you should have a chance to drown; come, Sir Shelton, ye would not show yourself a coward in front of your squire!”
Joanna was hearty in her endorsement of the scheme, and Dick, though reluctant, could not discover any reason sufficient to object. They set off as soon as the meal was over, walking the half-mile to the river – whereupon Joanna and Dick discovered an oversight in their planning. They looked at the river, and then at each other, and then at Alicia; in Dick's face there was consternation, in Joanna's a dawning suspicion.
“Well!” said Alicia, as if oblivious, “a man does not swim in his tunic, does he?” And without another word, she pulled her dublet over her head.
“Alicia!” cried Joanna, in a half-strangled tone, and Dick looked to be in danger of an apoplexy.
“Hush,” laughed Alicia, “there's naught amiss; Joanna, we were maids together of old; and as for your Dick, why, who ever heard of a knight that could not bathe with his squire?”
“Ye cavil, Alicia Risingham,” said Joanna, as sternly as she could, though her cheeks glowed red as an apple. “Ye know full well ye are no true squire to Dick, and as for ourselves, we're maids no longer –”
“Indeed, we are not,” agreed Alicia, and the look she sent Joanna so speaking that Lady Shelton became well-nigh as speechless as her husband. And who can say what might have happened, in the silence that followed – had it not been broken by the sound of hoofbeats, many of them, and not far off.
In happier times for England, perhaps, Dick would not have put his hand so quickly on his dagger, nor Joanna looked so pale. Alicia, with a silent sigh, reached again for her doublet. The sound of the hoofbeats faded, but that was little reassurance; they had been heading in the direction of the Shelton house.
“No one was expected,” murmured Joanna.
“Outlaws,” said Dick, grim.
Alicia, unusually quiet, spoke not at all; and Dick led them on their careful, silent way back through the forest to the house. Once, halfway through, he turned abruptly to Joanna and spoke. “If the place is torched, with all we own –”
“Then I'll be right glad it's away we were,” Joanna answered, steady, “and all I value safe.”
Dick gave a slow nod, and continued on; but as it happened, the house was not torched, and all looked very much as it had before they left not an hour before, save the convoy of men stationed in front of it. “They have not even posted a sentry,” Dick muttered, and signaled to Joanna and Alicia to stay back in the trees, while he approached closer; but before he could act on his aims, the man in front turned, and Dick's brow furrowed.
“What does Lord Hamley here in such force? He's an honorable man, an ally, methought –”
And then, as memory of the recent past caught up with him, he turned to stare at Alicia, as Joanna was already doing -- for in addition to all that Dick had said of Lord Hamley, he was clearly and most decidedly not dead.
Before he could say a word, Alicia heaved another sigh, and strode out of the cover of trees. “Lord Hamley!” she called out, as Dick and Joanna made haste to follow.
The men under Lord Hamley's command turned to see what youth it was who addressed him so boldly. None showed recognition, save for Lord Hamley himself, who blinked, and then blinked again; the first marked puzzlement, the second a slow anger.
“Alicia,” he said.
“Nay,” returned Alicia, with a well-feigned lack of guile, “you're mistaken. There's none here but my lord, my lady and myself. I know you, for I've seen you – ye are a great man, a soldier. But as for me, I'm naught but the lad Alec, my lord Shelton's squire; ye know me not.”
“It's an ill time for jesting.” Lord Hamley had the air of a man who was making an effort to hold in his temper. “A week I've sought for you all about; I feared me that some grave ill had befallen you, and now –”
“Well, if it's your lady you're seeking,” said Alicia, turning solemn, “it's indeed grave news I have. The lady Alicia Hamley is dead.” Joanna and Dick looked at each other; it seemed to them they had heard this scene played before. “Think you,” she went on, “on the battles that have passed in these months, St. Alban's and Mortimer's Cross -- and now cruel Towton, which left the weapons of those who fought for York well stained with the blood of her kin. After learning of this, is it any wonder that she should have died of a broken heart?”
Lord Hamley eyed her askance. “Somewhat a wonder, yes.”
“It will not be,” answered Alicia, “to those who hear it told to them – which should be sufficient for the purpose.”
“Her husband returned safe,” said Lord Hamley. “I had thought me she was something fond of him.”
Alicia smiled, a little sadly. “Something fond,” she said, “indeed, she was. Still, other deaths than a husband's can weigh on a woman's heart, my lord – or so, at least, I am told.” Her voice changed some; she stood straighter, affecting a swagger. “But I myself am only Alec, a cousin of the Risingham house. Some small family resemblance I may bear, it's true, to the lady that's sadly dead. But will ye insult me again by calling me after a girl? If so, I'll have no recourse but to challenge you; and I'll warn you, I learned the use of a dagger from my lord here, who has no small renown at arms.”
Hamley looked at Alicia a long while, his face grave now, and then he looked to Dick. “Well, Sir Shelton? What say you to your – boy's speaking?”
Dick, in far over his head, looked to Joanna; Joanna looked to Alicia; then she returned her gaze to Dick, who coughed and said, “Well, my lord, I know not what to tell you, save that the lad's rudeness must be the fault of his elders.” He directed a stern glance towards Alicia, which, in truth, he did not much have to feign. “Full well I know he should not speak so to his betters! My apologies, my lord, and I'll see to it he learns the error of his ways.”
Joanna added, “We sorrow, sir, for the death of your good lady; she was a good friend to us both, and I will say a prayer each night for her soul.” And here she, too, seemed in nowise dissembling, as she directed a speaking look towards Alicia.
Lord Hamley looked among the three of them. “Will you have it so?” he asked; but seemed to require no answer, for he went on, “Very well; never let it be said I did doubt a lady's word.” He bowed to Joanna, though his eyes lingered on Alicia. “My men here, who are to be trusted, will give out the news of my lady's death to those whom it concerns. Please believe that I will sorely grieve her.”
Alicia's eyes followed him as he rode away, with all his horse behind him. Then she let out a great sigh, and turned back to Dick and Joanna, both of whom were still somewhat lost in wonderment. “A good man, my lord Hamley,” she announced, “a good man, and deserving himself of a good wife. I hope he finds happiness.”
“Well!” exclaimed Joanna, “but did he not have it with you? Did you not have it with him? Ah, Alicia! What's the moral of this mad plot? If I had known you to be so much for Lancaster that ye could not bear a York marriage – ”
Alicia shook her head; her face, for once, was earnest. “York or Lancaster, I care not a straw for it, as ye well know. But I find I cannot rejoice for my husband's sake when my kinfolk are slain by his hand. In such times, it seems, it's a fault in a woman to have too loyal a heart.”
Dick had been following this conversation with furrowed brow; now he said, “Aye, Alec, but then, have ye not come to the wrong house? It's little enough I care for Richard, but still, I'm sworn for York.”
“Sir Shelton, ye once swore penance to me for the murders of your hand; do ye feel it still, the shame of killing for a cause ye know not?”
The expression on Dick's face was answer enough; and Alicia smiled. “Then,” she said, “I have come to the right house.”
“But then,” cried Joanna, “why did ye not tell us true from the start!”
“Ah! Joanna, ye can be right over-scrupulous betimes; before ye advised me to return and do my duty as a wife, I thought me it might be as well to remind ye both on how well you do love me,” said Alicia. “The which I have done – ye'll not send me away now!” And she took Joanna by one arm, and kissed her soundly, and then did the same to Dick, and planted herself in between the two of them, with all the smugness of a housecat that has eaten its master's dinner. Dick turned a red that rivaled his lady's gown, but, seeing that Joanna allowed it, he did the same; and in truth he did not look so very loth to have such a stout-looking lad as Alec Risingham on his arm.
"Alicia Risingham," Joanna said, "ye are the wickedest wench in the world!" But her arm was around Alicia as she said it, and, laughing, she let Alicia lead them into the house.