Naps cast off his ragged cloak and revealed a very respectable suit of brown frieze and leather. He bobbed on his knee before Peter, looking like some king of the gnomes with his domed skull, his mahogany cheeks, and his wisp of white beard. He took the young man’s right hand, and laid it on the crown of his own head and on his heart, mumbling all the while a thing like a paternoster. He took a water-jug which stood on the floor, and sprinkled some drops on his palm. He picked a half-burned stick from the fire, and quenched the glowing end with his wet fingers. Last, he plucked a knife from his belt, and drew the edge over the back of one thumb so that a drop of blood spurted. What he had done to his own left hand, he did to Peter’s right.
"I swear you the beggar’s oath of fealty, sire," he said, and the whipjack had a sudden hierarchic dignity. "The oath by water and fire and cold steel and common blood. Whenever your call sounds, the beggars will rise around ye like an autumn mist out of every corner of England."
Then his eyes became anxious.
"We be all true men here?" he asked. "The reverend father?"
"Be comforted, John," said Darking. "’Twas he that had the bringing up of my lord. He knew his secret first of any."
The whipjack’s humour changed, and he was again the jovial ruffian. He got himself some food, and made himself a bed of straw by Darking’s side.
"What brings this high and mighty company to Little Greece? Few, save ourselves, come here, unless the King’s law be troublesome."
"’Tis the King’s law troubles us," said Darking. "My lord has his own business about the land, and for the moment must lie as close as a badger in snow. But some nights ago there was trouble at the Holt about the setting free of a gospeller, who was captive to his grace of Lincoln, and through a trick the deed was blamed on my lord. This day we come again into this countryside to find the cry still out and the Fettiplace hounds hot on the scent. Wherefore we seek refuge in a place which no Swinbrook man dare enter."
Naps laughed long and loud. "Behold the foppery of the world!" he shouted. "He that will soon be the first man in England is at the mercy of a loutish esquire who thinks to curry favour with Law. The good Tobias, a pillar of Holy Church, is privy to an offence against that Church, and must needs go into hiding. And these two great ones seek shelter from old John Naps, who all his days has had little favour from Church and none at all from Law.... But the cream of the jest ye have yet to hear."
He lowered his voice.
"There is another seeking sanctuary. He knows the road hither, and may be here any moment, and his need is greater than yours, for he is the guilty man. Ye have heard, maybe, of the young lord of Boarstall, him they call Simon Rede, him that has been fighting overseas ever since his beard sprouted. It seems he has took up with the thing Gospel — though what this Gospel be I know not — some say ’tis a fetter to bind the poor and others a club to beat the rich. ’Twas he that freed the gospeller at the Holt, and hid him for the time in a place which I know but will not tell. This day he returned to put the man in still safer hiding, and get my help on the job, for Boarstall has ever been a kindly door to wandering men. Nay, Solomon, fear not. He is not one of us, as you are — as this lord is. He has not the Word. Well, he succeeded, and the gospeller, a sour, starveling fellow with no stomach for ale, was hid away as snug as a flea in a blanket. But Esquire Fettiplace’s long nose was smelling out the business, and, if he came on the scent of my lord here, he comes plump and fairly on the footprints of Master Rede. Wherefore these last hours the said Master Rede has been hard put to it to shake off the hounds. With my aid he has done it, for he doubled back in the forest, and I sent one of my lads on a horse to draw the hunt towards the Glyme, so that by this time the Fettiplace dogs are giving idle tongue in Wootton or Glympton. And Master Simon will presently be here, if he remembers my guiding and does not fall into Borney marl-pit or drown in Capperton mere. He will be a weary man, sore in need of bed and supper...."
Darking looked grave.
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