CHAPTER VII--THE HOODED FACE
They awoke in the grey of the morning; the birds were not yet in full song, but twittered here and there among the woods; the sun was not yet up, but the eastern sky was barred with solemn colours. Half starved and over-weary as they were, they lay without moving, sunk in a delightful lassitude. And as they thus lay, the clang of a bell fell suddenly upon their ears.
"A bell!" said Dick, sitting up. "Can we be, then, so near to Holywood?"
A little after, the bell clanged again, but this time somewhat nearer hand; and from that time forth, and still drawing nearer and nearer, it continued to sound brokenly abroad in the silence of the morning.
"Nay, what should this betoken?" said Dick, who was now broad awake.
"It is some one walking," returned Matcham, and "the bell tolleth ever as he moves."
"I see that well," said Dick. "But wherefore? What maketh he in Tunstall Woods? Jack," he added, "laugh at me an ye will, but I like not the hollow sound of it."
"Nay," said Matcham, with a shiver, "it hath a doleful note. An the day were not come" -
But just then the bell, quickening its pace, began to ring thick and hurried, and then it gave a single hammering jangle, and was silent for a space.
"It is as though the bearer had run for a pater-noster while, and then leaped the river," Dick observed.
"And now beginneth he again to pace soberly forward," added Matcham.
"Nay," returned Dick--"nay, not so soberly, Jack. 'Tis a man that walketh you right speedily. 'Tis a man in some fear of his life, or about some hurried business. See ye not how swift the beating draweth near?"
"It is now close by," said Matcham.
They were now on the edge of the pit; and as the pit itself was on a certain eminence, they commanded a view over the greater proportion of the clearing, up to the thick woods that closed it in.
The daylight, which was very clear and grey, showed them a riband of white footpath wandering among the gorse. It passed some hundred yards from the pit, and ran the whole length of the clearing, east and west. By the line of its course, Dick judged it should lead more or less directly to the Moat House.
Upon this path, stepping forth from the margin of the wood, a white figure now appeared. It paused a little, and seemed to look about; and then, at a slow pace, and bent almost double, it began to draw near across the heath. At every step the bell clanked. Face, it had none; a white hood, not even pierced with eye-holes, veiled the head; and as the creature moved, it seemed to feel its way with the tapping of a stick. Fear fell upon the lads, as cold as death.
"A leper!" said Dick, hoarsely.
"His touch is death," said Matcham. "Let us run."
"Not so," returned Dick. "See ye not?--he is stone blind. He guideth him with a staff. Let us lie still; the wind bloweth towards the path, and he will go by and hurt us not. Alas, poor soul, and we should rather pity him!"
"I will pity him when he is by," replied Matcham.
The blind leper was now about halfway towards them, and just then the sun rose and shone full on his veiled face. He had been a tall man before he was bowed by his disgusting sickness, and even now he walked with a vigorous step. The dismal beating of his bell, the pattering of the stick, the eyeless screen before his countenance, and the knowledge that he was not only doomed to death and suffering, but shut out for ever from the touch of his fellow-men, filled the lads' bosoms with dismay; and at every step that brought him nearer, their courage and strength seemed to desert them.
As he came about level with the pit, he paused, and turned his face full upon the lads.
"Mary be my shield! He sees us!" said Matcham, faintly.
"Hush!" whispered Dick. "He doth but hearken. He is blind, fool!"
The leper looked or listened, whichever he was really doing, for some seconds. Then he began to move on again, but presently paused once more, and again turned and seemed to gaze upon the lads.