P ERHAPS there is nothing more delightful in the romance of boyhood than the finding of some secret hiding-place whither a body may creep away from the bustle of the world's life, to nestle in quietness for an hour or two. More especially is such delightful if it happen that, by peeping from out it, one may look down upon the bustling matters of busy every-day life, while one lies snugly hidden away unseen by any, as though one were in some strange invisible world of one's own.
Such a hiding-place as would have filled the heart of almost any boy with sweet delight Myles and Gascoyne found one summer afternoon. They called it their Eyry, and the name suited well for the roosting-place of the young hawks that rested in its windy stillness, looking down upon the shifting castle life in the courts below.
Behind the north stable, a great, long, rambling building, thick-walled, and black with age, lay an older part of the castle than that peopled by the better class of life—a cluster of great thick walls, rudely but strongly built, now the dwelling-place of stable-lads and hinds, swine and poultry. From one part of these ancient walls, and fronting an inner court of the castle, arose a tall, circular, heavy-buttressed tower, considerably higher than the other buildings, and so mantled with a dense growth of aged ivy as to stand a shaft of solid green. Above its crumbling crown circled hundreds of pigeons, white and pied, clapping and clattering in noisy flight through the sunny air. Several windows, some closed with shutters, peeped here and there from out the leaves, and near the top of the pile was a row of arched openings, as though of a balcony or an airy gallery.
Myles had more than once felt an idle curiosity about this tower, and one day, as he and Gascoyne sat together, he pointed his finger and said, "What is yon place?"
"That," answered Gascoyne, looking over his shoulder—"that they call Brutus Tower, for why they do say that Brutus he built it when he came hither to Britain. I believe not the tale mine own self; ne'theless, it is marvellous ancient, and old Robin-the-Fletcher telleth me that there be stair-ways built in the wall and passage-ways, and a maze wherein a body may get lost, an he know not the way aright, and never see the blessed light of day again."
"Marry," said Myles, "those same be strange sayings. Who liveth there now?"
"No one liveth there," said Gascoyne, "saving only some of the stable villains, and that half-witted goose-herd who flung stones at us yesterday when we mocked him down in the paddock. He and his wife and those others dwell in the vaults beneath, like rabbits in any warren. No one else hath lived there since Earl Robert's day, which belike was an hundred years agone. The story goeth that Earl Robert's brother—or step-brother—was murdered there, and some men say by the Earl himself. Sin that day it hath been tight shut."
Myles stared at the tower for a while in silence. "It is a strange-seeming place from without," said he, at last, "and mayhap it may be even more strange inside. Hast ever been within, Francis?"
"Nay," said Gascoyne; "said I not it hath been fast locked since Earl Robert's day?"
"By 'r Lady," said Myles, "an I had lived here in this place so long as thou, I wot I would have been within it ere this."
"Beshrew me," said Gascoyne, "but I have never thought of such a matter." He turned and looked at the tall crown rising into the warm sunlight with a new interest, for the thought of entering it smacked pleasantly of adventure. "How wouldst thou set about getting within?" said he, presently.
"Why, look," said Myles; "seest thou not yon hole in the ivy branches? Methinks there is a window at that place. An I mistake not, it is in reach of the stable eaves. A body might come up by the fagot pile to the roof of the hen-house, and then by the long stable to the north stable, and so to that hole."
Gascoyne looked thoughtfully at the Brutus Tower, and then suddenly inquired, "Wouldst go there?"
"Aye," said Myles, briefly.
"So be it. Lead thou the way in the venture, I will follow after thee," said Gascoyne.
As Myles had said, the climbing from roof to roof was a matter easy enough to an active pair of lads like themselves; but when, by-and-by, they reached the wall of the tower itself, they found the hidden window much higher from the roof than they had judged from below—perhaps ten or twelve feet—and it was, besides, beyond the eaves and out of their reach.
Myles looked up and looked down. Above was the bushy thickness of the ivy, the branches as thick as a woman's wrist, knotted and intertwined; below was the stone pavement of a narrow inner court between two of the stable buildings.
"Methinks I can climb to yon place," said he.
"Thou'lt break thy neck an thou tryest," said Gascoyne, hastily.
"Nay," quoth Myles, "I trust not; but break or make, we get not there without trying. So here goeth for the venture."
"Thou art a hare-brained knave as ever drew breath of life," quoth Gascoyne, "and will cause me to come to grief some of these fine days. Ne'theless, an thou be Jack Fool and lead the way, go, and I will be Tom Fool and follow anon. If thy neck is worth so little, mine is worth no more."
It was indeed a perilous climb, but that special providence which guards reckless lads befriended them, as it has thousands of their kind before and since. So, by climbing from one knotted, clinging stem to another, they were presently seated snugly in the ivied niche in the window. It was barred from within by a crumbling shutter, the rusty fastening of which, after some little effort upon the part of the two, gave way, and entering the narrow opening, they found themselves in a small triangular passage-way, from which a steep flight of stone steps led down through a hollow in the massive wall to the room below.
At the bottom of the steps was a heavy oaken door, which stood ajar, hanging upon a single rusty hinge, and from the room within a dull, gray light glimmered faintly. Myles pushed the door farther open; it creaked and grated horribly on its rusty hinge, and, as in instant answer to the discordant shriek, came a faint piping squeaking, a rustling and a pattering of soft footsteps.
"The ghosts!" cried Gascoyne, in a quavering whisper, and for a moment Myles felt the chill of goose-flesh creep up and down his spine. But the next moment he laughed.
"Nay," said he, "they be rats. Look at yon fellow, Francis! Be'st as big as Mother Joan's kitten. Give me that stone." He flung it at the rat, and it flew clattering across the floor. There was another pattering rustle of hundreds of feet, and then a breathless silence.
The boys stood looking around them, and a strange enough sight it was. The room was a perfect circle of about twenty feet across, and was piled high with an indistinguishable mass of lumber—rude tables, ruder chairs, ancient chests, bits and remnants of cloth and sacking and leather, old helmets and pieces of armor of a by-gone time, broken spears and pole-axes, pots and pans and kitchen furniture of all sorts and kinds.
A straight beam of sunlight fell through a broken shutter like a bar of gold, and fell upon the floor in a long streak of dazzling light that illuminated the whole room with a yellow glow.
"By 'r Lady!" said Gascoyne at last, in a hushed voice, "here is Father Time's garret for sure. Didst ever see the like, Myles? Look at yon arbalist; sure Brutus himself used such an one!"
"Nay," said Myles; "but look at this saddle. Marry, here be'st a rat's nest in it."
Clouds of dust rose as they rummaged among the mouldering mass, setting them coughing and sneezing. Now and then a great gray rat would shoot out beneath their very feet, and disappear, like a sudden shadow, into some hole or cranny in the wall.
"Come," said Myles at last, brushing the dust from his jacket, "an we tarry here longer we will have chance to see no other sights; the sun is falling low."
An arched stair-way upon the opposite side of the room from which they had entered wound upward through the wall, the stone steps being lighted by narrow slits of windows cut through the massive masonry. Above the room they had just left was another of the same shape and size, but with an oak floor, sagging and rising into hollows and hills, where the joist had rotted away beneath. It was bare and empty, and not even a rat was to be seen. Above was another room; above that, another; all the passages and stair-ways which connected the one story with the other being built in the wall, which was, where solid, perhaps fifteen feet thick.
From the third floor a straight flight of steps led upward to a closed door, from the other side of which shone the dazzling brightness of sunlight, and whence came a strange noise—a soft rustling, a melodious murmur. The boys put their shoulders against the door, which was fastened, and pushed with might and main—once, twice; suddenly the lock gave way, and out they pitched headlong into a blaze of sunlight. A deafening clapping and uproar sounded in their ears, and scores of pigeons, suddenly disturbed, rose in stormy flight.
They sat up and looked around them in silent wonder. They were in a bower of leafy green. It was the top story of the tower, the roof of which had crumbled and toppled in, leaving it open to the sky, with only here and there a slanting beam or two supporting a portion of the tiled roof, affording shelter for the nests of the pigeons crowded closely together. Over everything the ivy had grown in a mantling sheet—a net-work of shimmering green, through which the sunlight fell flickering.
"This passeth wonder," said Gascoyne, at last breaking the silence.
"Aye," said Myles, "I did never see the like in all my life." Then, "Look, yonder is a room beyond; let us see what it is, Francis."
Entering an arched door-way, the two found themselves in a beautiful little vaulted chapel, about eighteen feet long and twelve or fifteen wide. It comprised the crown of one of the large massive buttresses, and from it opened the row of arched windows which could be seen from below through the green shimmering of the ivy leaves. The boys pushed aside the trailing tendrils and looked out and down. The whole castle lay spread below them, with the busy people unconsciously intent upon the matters of their daily work. They could see the gardener, with bowed back, patiently working among the flowers in the garden, the stable-boys below grooming the horses, a bevy of ladies in the privy garden playing at shuttlecock with battledoors of wood, a group of gentlemen walking up and down in front of the Earl's house. They could see the household servants hurrying hither and thither, two little scullions at fisticuffs, and a kitchen girl standing in the door-way scratching her frowzy head.
It was all like a puppetshow of real life, each acting unconsciously a part in the play. The cool wind came in through the rustling leaves and fanned their cheeks, hot with the climb up the winding stair-way.
"We will call it our Eyry," said Gascoyne, "and we will be the hawks that live here." And that was how it got its name.
The next day Myles had the armorer make him a score of large spikes, which he and Gascoyne drove between the ivy branches and into the cement of the wall, and so made a safe passage-way by which to reach the window niche in the wall.