“Hast ever shown mercy to any man—speak me true!”
“Alack!—no, master! And yet—”
“How then shall ye expect mercy? Thou hast burnt and hanged and ravished the defenceless, so now shall be an end of it for thee, yet—O mark me this, thy name shall live on accursed in memory long after thou’rt but poor dust.”
“Aye, there be many alive to curse Black Roger living, and many dead to curse me when I’m dead; poor Roger’s soul shall find small mercy hereafter, methinks—ha, I never thought on this!”
“Thou had’st a mother—”
“Aye, but they burned her for a witch when I was but a lad. As for me, ’tis true I’ve hanged men, yet I was my lord’s chief verderer and did but as my lord commanded.”
“A man hath choice of good or evil.”
“Aye. So now, an I must die—I must, but O master, say a prayer for me— my sins lie very heavy—”
But Beltane, trembling, pulled upon the rope and swung Black Roger writhing in mid-air; then, of a sudden, loosing the rope, the forester fell and, while he lay gasping, Beltane stooped and loosed the rope from his neck.
“What now?” groaned the forester, wild-eyed, “Sweet Jesu—ah, torture me not!”
“Take back thy life,” said Beltane, “and I pray God that henceforth thou shalt make of it better use, and live to aid thy fellows, so shall they, mayhap, some day come to bless thy memory.”
Then Black Roger, coming feebly to his knees, looked about him as one that wakes upon a new world, and lifted wide eyes from green earth to cloudless sky.
“To live!” quoth he, “to live!” And so, with sudden gesture, stooped his head to hide his face ’neath twitching fingers.
Hereupon Beltane smiled, gentle-eyed, yet spake not, and, turning, caught up his staff and went softly upon his way, leaving Black Roger the forester yet upon his knees.
HOW BELTANE MADE COMRADE ONE BLACK ROGER THAT WAS A HANGMAN
The sun was low what time Beltane came to a shrine that stood beside the way, where was a grot built by some pious soul for the rest and refreshment of wearied travellers; and here also was a crystal spring the which, bubbling up, fell with a musical plash into the basin hollowed within the rock by those same kindly hands. Here Beltane stayed and, when he had drunk his fill, laid him down in the grateful shade and setting his cloak beneath his head, despite his hunger, presently fell asleep. When he awoke the sun was down and the world was become a place of mystery and glooming shadow; a bird called plaintively afar off in the dusk, the spring bubbled softly near by, but save for this a deep silence brooded over all things; above the gloom of the trees the sky was clear, where bats wheeled and hovered, and beyond the purple upland an orbed moon was rising.
Now as Beltane breathed the cool, sweet air of evening and looked about him drowsily, he suddenly espied a shadow within the shadows, a dim figure—yet formidable and full of menace, and he started up, weapon in fist, whereupon the threatening figure stirred and spake: