Even Dick became dead-white and closed his eyes, as if by the mere sight he might become infected. But soon the bell sounded, and this time, without any farther hesitation, the leper crossed the remainder of the little heath and disappeared into the covert of the woods.
"He saw us," said Matcham. "I could swear it!"
"Tut!" returned Dick, recovering some sparks of courage. "He but heard us. He was in fear, poor soul! An ye were blind, and walked in a perpetual night, ye would start yourself, if ever a twig rustled or a bird cried 'Peep.'"
"Dick, good Dick, he saw us," repeated Matcham. "When a man hearkeneth, he doth not as this man; he doth otherwise, Dick. This was seeing; it was not hearing. He means foully. Hark, else, if his bell be not stopped!"
Such was the case. The bell rang no longer.
"Nay," said Dick, "I like not that. Nay," he cried again, "I like that little. What may this betoken? Let us go, by the mass!"
"He hath gone east," added Matcham. "Good Dick, let us go westward straight; I shall not breathe till I have my back turned upon that leper."
"Jack, y' are too cowardly," replied Dick. "We shall go fair for Holywood, or as fair, at least, as I can guide you, and that will be due north."
They were afoot at once, passed the stream upon some stepping- stones, and began to mount on the other side, which was steeper, towards the margin of the wood. The ground became very uneven, full of knolls and hollows; trees grew scattered or in clumps. it became difficult to choose a path, and the lads somewhat wandered. They were weary, besides, with yesterday's exertions and the lack of food, and they moved but heavily and dragged their feet among the sand.
Presently, coming to the top of a knoll, they were aware of the leper, some hundred feet in front of them, crossing the line of their march by a hollow. His bell was silent, his staff no longer tapped the ground, and he went before him with the swift and assured footsteps of a man who sees. Next moment he had disappeared into a little thicket.
The lads, at the first glimpse, had crouched behind a tuft of gorse; there they lay, horror-struck.
"Certain, he pursueth us," said Dick--"certain! He held the clapper of his bell in one hand, saw ye? that it should not sound. Now may the saints aid and guide us, for I have no strength to combat pestilence!"
"What maketh he?" cried Matcham. "What doth he want? Who ever heard the like, that a leper, out of mere malice, should pursue unfortunates? Hath he not his bell to that very end, that people may avoid him? Dick, there is below this something deeper."
"Nay, I care not," moaned Dick; "the strength is gone out of me; my legs are like water. The saints be mine assistance!"
"Would ye lie there idle?" cried Matcham. "Let us back into the open. We have the better chance; he cannot steal upon us unawares."
"Not I," said Dick. "My time is come, and peradventure he may pass us by."
"Bend me, then, your bow!" cried the other. "What! will ye be a man?"
Dick crossed himself. "Would ye have me shoot upon a leper?" he cried. "The hand would fail me. Nay, now," he added--"nay, now, let be! With sound men I will fight, but not with ghosts and lepers. Which this is, I wot not. One or other, Heaven be our protection!"
"Now," said Matcham, "if this be man's courage, what a poor thing is man! But sith ye will do naught, let us lie close."
Then came a single, broken jangle on the bell.
"He hath missed his hold upon the clapper," whispered Matcham. "Saints! how near he is!"
But Dick answered never a word; his teeth were near chattering.
Soon they saw a piece of the white robe between some bushes; then the leper's head was thrust forth from behind a trunk, and he seemed narrowly to scan the neighbourhood before he once again withdrew. To their stretched senses, the whole bush appeared alive with rustlings and the creak of twigs; and they heard the beating of each other's heart.
Suddenly, with a cry, the leper sprang into the open close by, and ran straight upon the lads.