"By the mass!" he cried at length, and laughed with open throat.
Matcham coloured to his neck and winced; and Dick, with an angry countenance, put his hand on the lout's shoulder.
"How now, churl!" he cried. "Fall to thy business, and leave mocking thy betters."
Hugh Ferryman grumblingly undid his boat, and shoved it a little forth into the deep water. Then Dick led in the horse, and Matcham followed.
"Ye be mortal small made, master," said Hugh, with a wide grin; "something o' the wrong model, belike. Nay, Master Shelton, I am for you," he added, getting to his oars. "A cat may look at a king. I did but take a shot of the eye at Master Matcham."
"Sirrah, no more words," said Dick. "Bend me your back."
They were by that time at the mouth of the creek, and the view opened up and down the river. Everywhere it was enclosed with islands. Clay banks were falling in, willows nodding, reeds waving, martens dipping and piping. There was no sign of man in the labyrinth of waters.
"My master," said the ferryman, keeping the boat steady with one oar, "I have a shrew guess that John-a-Fenne is on the island. He bears me a black grudge to all Sir Daniel's. How if I turned me up stream and landed you an arrow-flight above the path? Ye were best not meddle with John Fenne."
"How, then? is he of this company?" asked Dick.
"Nay, mum is the word," said Hugh. "But I would go up water, Dick. How if Master Matcham came by an arrow?" and he laughed again.
"Be it so, Hugh," answered Dick.
"Look ye, then," pursued Hugh. "Sith it shall so be, unsling me your cross-bow--so: now make it ready--good; place me a quarrel. Ay, keep it so, and look upon me grimly."
"What meaneth this?" asked Dick.
"Why, my master, if I steal you across, it must be under force or fear," replied the ferryman; "for else, if John Fenne got wind of it, he were like to prove my most distressful neighbour."
"Do these churls ride so roughly?" Dick inquired. "Do they command Sir Daniel's own ferry?"
"Nay," whispered the ferryman, winking. "Mark me! Sir Daniel shall down. His time is out. He shall down. Mum!" And he bent over his oars.
They pulled a long way up the river, turned the tail of an island, and came softly down a narrow channel next the opposite bank. Then Hugh held water in midstream.
"I must land you here among the willows," he said.
"Here is no path but willow swamps and quagmires," answered Dick.
"Master Shelton," replied Hugh, "I dare not take ye nearer down, for your own sake now. He watcheth me the ferry, lying on his bow. All that go by and owe Sir Daniel goodwill, he shooteth down like rabbits. I heard him swear it by the rood. An I had not known you of old days--ay, and from so high upward--I would 'a' let you go on; but for old days' remembrance, and because ye had this toy with you that's not fit for wounds or warfare, I did risk my two poor ears to have you over whole. Content you; I can no more, on my salvation!"
Hugh was still speaking, lying on his oars, when there came a great shout from among the willows on the island, and sounds followed as of a strong man breasting roughly through the wood.
"A murrain!" cried Hugh. "He was on the upper island all the while!" He pulled straight for shore. "Threat me with your bow, good Dick; threat me with it plain," he added. "I have tried to save your skins, save you mine!"
The boat ran into a tough thicket of willows with a crash. Matcham, pale, but steady and alert, at a sign from Dick, ran along the thwarts and leaped ashore; Dick, taking the horse by the bridle, sought to follow, but what with the animal's bulk, and what with the closeness of the thicket, both stuck fast. The horse neighed and trampled; and the boat, which was swinging in an eddy, came on and off and pitched with violence.
"It may not be, Hugh; here is no landing," cried Dick; but he still struggled valiantly with the obstinate thicket and the startled animal.
A tall man appeared upon the shore of the island, a long-bow in his hand.