Hand to Hand
A FTER the first excitement of meeting, discussing, and deciding had passed, Myles began to feel the weight of the load he had so boldly taken upon himself. He began to reckon what a serious thing it was for him to stand as a single champion against the tyranny that had grown so strong through years of custom. Had he let himself do so, he might almost have repented, but it was too late now for repentance. He had laid his hand to the plough, and he must drive the furrow.
Somehow the news of impending battle had leaked out among the rest of the body of squires, and a buzz of suppressed excitement hummed through the dormitory that evening. The bachelors, to whom, no doubt, vague rumors had been blown, looked lowering, and talked together in low voices, standing apart in a group. Some of them made a rather marked show of secreting knives in the straw of their beds, and no doubt it had its effect upon more than one young heart that secretly thrilled at the sight of the shining blades. However, all was undisturbed that evening. The lights were put out, and the lads retired with more than usual quietness, only for the murmur of whispering.
All night Myles's sleep was more or less disturbed by dreams in which he was now conquering, now being conquered, and before the day had fairly broken he was awake. He lay upon his cot, keying himself up for the encounter which he had set upon himself to face, and it would not be the truth to say that the sight of those knives hidden in the straw the night before had made no impression upon him. By-and-by he knew the others were beginning to awake, for he heard them softly stirring, and as the light grew broad and strong, saw them arise, one by one, and begin dressing in the gray morning. Then he himself arose and put on his doublet and hose, strapping his belt tightly about his waist; then he sat down on the side of his cot.
Presently that happened for which he was waiting; two of the younger squires started to bring the bachelors' morning supply of water. As they crossed the room Myles called to them in a loud voice—a little uneven, perhaps:
"Stop! We draw no more water for any one in this house, saving only for ourselves. Set ye down those buckets, and go back to your places!"
The two lads stopped, half turned, and then stood still, holding the three buckets undecidedly.
In a moment all was uproar and confusion, for by this time every one of the lads had arisen, some sitting on the edge of their beds, some nearly, others quite dressed. A half-dozen of the Knights of the Rose came over to where Myles stood, gathering in a body behind him, and the others followed, one after another.
The bachelors were hardly prepared for such prompt and vigorous action.
"What is to do?" cried one of them, who stood near the two lads with the buckets. "Why fetch ye not the water?"
"Falworth says we shall not fetch it," answered one of the lads, a boy by the name of Gosse.
"What mean ye by that, Falworth?" the young man called to Myles.
Myles's heart was beating thickly and heavily within him, but nevertheless he spoke up boldly enough. "I mean," said he, "that from henceforth ye shall fetch and carry for yourselves."
"Look'ee, Blunt," called the bachelor; "here is Falworth says they squires will fetch no more water for us."
The head bachelor had heard all that had passed, and was even then hastily slipping on his doublet and hose. "Now, then, Falworth," said he at last, striding forward, "what is to do? Ye will fetch no more water, eh? By 'r Lady, I will know the reason why."
He was still advancing towards Myles, with two or three of the older bachelors at his heels, when Gascoyne spoke.
"Thou hadst best stand back, Blunt," said he, "else thou mayst be hurt. We will not have ye bang Falworth again as ye once did, so stand thou back!"
Blunt stopped short and looked upon the lads standing behind Myles, some of them with faces a trifle pale perhaps, but all grim and determined looking enough. Then he turned upon his heel suddenly, and walked back to the far end of the dormitory, where the bachelors were presently clustered together. A few words passed between them, and then the thirteen began at once arming themselves, some with wooden clogs, and some with the knives which they had so openly concealed the night before. At the sign of imminent battle, all those not actively interested scuttled away to right and left, climbing up on the benches and cots, and leaving a free field to the combatants. The next moment would have brought bloodshed.
Now Myles, thanks to the training of the Crosbey-Dale smith, felt tolerably sure that in a wrestling bout he was a match—perhaps more than a match—for any one of the body of squires, and he had determined, if possible, to bring the battle to a single-handed encounter upon that footing. Accordingly he suddenly stepped forward before the others.
"Look'ee, fellow," he called to Blunt, "thou art he who struck me whilst I was down some while since. Wilt thou let this quarrel stand between thee and me, and meet me man to man without weapon? See, I throw me down mine own, and will meet thee with bare hands." And as he spoke, he tossed the clog he held in his hand back upon the cot.
"So be it," said Blunt, with great readiness, tossing down a similar weapon which he himself held.
"Do not go, Myles," cried Gascoyne, "he is a villain and a traitor, and would betray thee to thy death. I saw him when he first gat from bed hide a knife in his doublet."
"Thou liest!" said Blunt. "I swear, by my faith, I be barehanded as ye see me! Thy friend accuses me, Myles Falworth, because he knoweth thou art afraid of me."
"There thou liest most vilely!" exclaimed Myles. "Swear that thou hast no knife, and I will meet thee."
"Hast thou not heard me say that I have no knife?" said Blunt. "What more wouldst thou have?"
"Then I will meet thee half-way," said Myles.
Gascoyne caught him by the sleeve, and would have withheld him, assuring him that he had seen the bachelor conceal a knife. But Myles, hot for the fight, broke away from his friend without listening to him.
As the two advanced steadily towards one another a breathless silence fell upon the dormitory in sharp contrast to the uproar and confusion that had filled it a moment before. The lads, standing some upon benches, some upon beds, all watched with breathless interest the meeting of the two champions.
As they approached one another they stopped and stood for a moment a little apart, glaring the one upon the other. They seemed ill enough matched; Blunt was fully half a head taller than Myles, and was thick-set and close-knit in young manhood. Nothing but Myles's undaunted pluck could have led him to dare to face an enemy so much older and stouter than himself.
The pause was only for a moment. They who looked saw Blunt slide his hand furtively towards his bosom. Myles saw too, and in the flash of an instant knew what the gesture meant, and sprang upon the other before the hand could grasp what it sought. As he clutched his enemy he felt what he had in that instant expected to feel—the handle of a dagger. The next moment he cried, in a loud voice:
"Oh, thou villain! Help, Gascoyne! He hath a knife under his doublet!"
In answer to his cry for help, Myles's friends started to his aid. But the bachelors shouted, "Stand back and let them fight it out alone, else we will knife ye too." And as they spoke, some of them leaped from the benches whereon they stood, drawing their knives and flourishing them.
For just a few seconds Myles's friends stood cowed, and in those few seconds the fight came to an end with a suddenness unexpected to all.
A struggle fierce and silent followed between the two; Blunt striving to draw his knife, and Myles, with the energy of despair, holding him tightly by the wrist. It was in vain the elder lad writhed and twisted; he was strong enough to overbear Myles, but still was not able to clutch the haft of his knife.
"Thou shalt not draw it!" gasped Myles at last. "Thou shalt not stab me!"
Then again some of his friends started forward to his aid, but they were not needed, for before they came, the fight was over.
Blunt, finding that he was not able to draw the weapon, suddenly ceased his endeavors, and flung his arms around Myles, trying to bear him down upon the ground, and in that moment his battle was lost.
In an instant—so quick, so sudden, so unexpected that no one could see how it happened—his feet were whirled away from under him, he spun with flying arms across Myles's loins, and pitched with a thud upon the stone pavement, where he lay still, motionless, while Myles, his face white with passion and his eyes gleaming, stood glaring around like a young wild-boar beset by the dogs.
The next moment the silence was broken, and the uproar broke forth with redoubled violence. The bachelors, leaping from the benches, came hurrying forward on one side, and Myles's friends from the other.
"Thou shalt smart for this, Falworth," said one of the older lads. "Belike thou hast slain him!"
Myles turned upon the speaker like a flash, and with such a passion of fury in his face that the other, a fellow nearly a head taller than he, shrank back, cowed in spite of himself. Then Gascoyne came and laid his hand on his friend's shoulder.
"Who touches me?" cried Myles, hoarsely, turning sharply upon him; and then, seeing who it was, "Oh, Francis, they would ha' killed me!"
"Come away, Myles," said Gascoyne; "thou knowest not what thou doest; thou art mad; come away. What if thou hadst killed him?"
The words called Myles somewhat to himself. "I care not!" said he, but sullenly and not passionately, and then he suffered Gascoyne and Wilkes to lead him away.
Meantime Blunt's friends had turned him over, and, after feeling his temples, his wrist, and his heart, bore him away to a bench at the far end of the room. There they fell to chafing his hands and sprinkling water in his face, a crowd of the others gathering about. Blunt was hidden from Myles by those who stood around, and the lad listened to the broken talk that filled the room with its confusion, his anxiety growing keener as he became cooler. But at last, with a heartfelt joy, he gathered from the confused buzz of words that the other lad had opened his eyes and, after a while, he saw him sit up, leaning his head upon the shoulder of one of his fellow-bachelors, white and faint and sick as death.
"Thank Heaven that thou didst not kill him!" said Edmund Wilkes, who had been standing with the crowd looking on at the efforts of Blunt's friends to revive him, and who had now come and sat down upon the bed not far from Myles.
"Aye," said Myles, gruffly, "I do thank Heaven for that."