The Vermilion Feather
: The Doomsman
A beach of yellow sand and a stranded log upon which sat a boy looking
steadfastly out upon the shining waters.
It was a delicious morning in early May, and the sun was at his back,
its warm rays falling upon him with affectionate caress. But the lad was
plainly oblivious of his immediate surroundings; in spirit he had
followed the leading of his eyes a league or more to the westward, where
a mass of inde
inable shadow bulked hugely upon the horizon line.
Indefinable, in that it was neither forest nor mountain nor yet an
atmospheric illusion produced by the presence of watery vapor. It did
not change in density as does the true cloud; for all of its mistiness
of outline there was an impression of solidity about its deeper shadows,
something that the wind could not lift nor the light pierce. A mystery,
and the boy devoured it with his eyes, his head bent forward and his
shoulders held tensely.
The place was a rocky point of land jutting forth into a reef-strewn
tideway. The forest came down close to the strip of beach, but there was
comparatively little underwood, and the grass, growing up to the very
roots of the trees, gave to the glade an appearance almost parklike.
There was no house in sight, not even the thin, blue curl of a smoking
hearth to proclaim the neighborhood of man. Yet the sign of human
handicraft was not wholly wanting; through the tree trunks, at perhaps a
hundred yards away, appeared the line of a timber stockade--enormous
palisades, composed of twelve-foot ash and hickory poles, set in a
double row and bound together by lengths of copper wire. It was to be
further observed that the timbers had been stripped of their bark and
the knots smoothed down so as to afford no coigne of vantage to even a
naked foot. Add, again, that the poles had been charred and sharpened at
the top, and it will be understood that the barrier was a formidable one
against any assault short of artillery.
There was no beaten road or path near the line of palisades, but,
following the curving of the shore, a forest track, already green with
the young grass that was pushing its way through last year's stubble,
stretched away to the north and south. It was hardly more than a runway
for the deer and wild cattle, but it did not give one the impression of
having been originally plotted out by these creatures, after the
immemorial fashion of their kind. An animal does not lay out his road in
sections of perfectly straight lines connected by mathematical curves,
neither does he fill up gullies nor cut through hills, when it is so
easy to go around these obstructions.
The boy, who sat and dreamed at the water's edge, was in his eighteenth
year or thereabouts, slenderly proportioned, and with well-cut features.
The delicately moulded chin, the sensitive nostril--these are the signs
of the poet, the dreamer, rather than of the man of action. And yet the
face was not altogether deficient in indications of strength. That heavy
line of eyebrow should mean something, as also the free up-fling of the
head when he sat erect; the final impression was of immaturity of
character rather than of the lack of it. From the merely superficial
stand-point, it may be added that he had brown eyes and hair (the latter
being cut square across his forehead and falling to his shoulders), a
good mouth containing the whitest of teeth, and a naturally light
complexion that was already beginning to accumulate its summer's coat of
He was dressed in a tunic or smock of brown linen, gathered at the waist
by a belt of greenish leather, with a buckle that shone like gold. His
knees were bare, but around his legs were wound spiral bands of
soft-dressed deer-hide. Buskins, secured by thongs of red leather and
soled with moose-hide, to prevent slipping, covered his feet, while his
head-dress consisted of a simple band of thin gold, worn fillet-wise.
This last, being purely ornamental, was doubtless a token of gentle
birth or of an assured social station. A short fur coat, made from the
pelt of the much-prized forest cat, lay in a careless heap at the boy's
feet. It had felt comfortable enough in the still keenness of the early
morning hour, but now that the sun was well up in the sky it had been
In his belt was stuck a long, double-edged hunting-knife, having its
wooden handle neatly bound with black waxed thread. A five-foot bow of
second-growth hickory leaned against the log beside him, but it was
unstrung, and the quiver of arrows, suspended by a strap from his
shoulders, had been allowed to shift from its proper position so that it
hung down the middle of his back and was, consequently, out of easy
hand-reach. But the youth was in no apparent fear of being surprised by
the advent of an enemy; certainly he had made no provision against such
a contingency, and the carelessness of his attitude was entirely
unaffected. It may be remarked that the arrows aforesaid were
iron-tipped instead of being simply fire-hardened, and in the feathering
of each a single plume of the scarlet tanager had been carefully
inserted. Presumably, the vermilion feather was the owner's private sign
of his work as a marksman. So far the lad's dress and accoutrements were
in entire conformity to the primeval rusticity of his surroundings.
Judge, then, of the reasonable surprise which the observer might feel at
discovering that the object in the boy's hand was nothing less
incongruous than a pair of binocular glasses, an exquisitely finished
example of the highest art of the optician. One of the eye-piece lenses
had been lost or broken, for, as the youth raised the glasses to sweep
again the distant sea-line, he covered the left-hand cylinder with a
flat, oblong object--a printed book. Its title, indeed, could be clearly
read as, a moment after, it lay partly open upon his knee--A Child's
History of the United States--and across the top of the page had been
neatly written in charcoal ink, "Constans, Son of Gavan at the Greenwood
Mechanically, the boy began turning the leaves, stopping finally at a
page upon which was a picture of the lower part of New York City as seen
from the bay. Long and earnestly he studied it, looking up occasionally
as though he would find its visible presentment in that dark blur on the
horizon line. "It must be," he muttered, with a quick intake of his
breath. "The Forgotten City and Doom the Forbidden--one and the same.
Well, and what then?" and again he fell upon his dreaming.
For the best part of an hour the boy had sat almost motionless, looking
out across the water. Then, suddenly, he turned his head; his ear had
caught a suspicious sound, perhaps the dip of an oar-blade. Thrusting
the field-glass and book into his bosom, he drew the bow towards him and
listened. All was still, except for the chatter of a blue-jay, and after
a moment or so his attention again relaxed. But his eyes, instead of
losing themselves in the distance as before, remained fixed upon the
sand at his feet. Fortunately so, or he must have failed to notice the
long shadow that hung poised for an instant above his right shoulder and
then darted downward, menacing, deadly.
An infinitesimal fraction of a second, yet within that brief space
Constans had contrived to fling himself, bodily, forward and sideways
from his seat. The spear-shaft grazed his shoulder and the blade buried
itself in the sand. The treacherous assailant, overbalanced by the force
of his thrust, toppled over the log and fell heavily, ignominiously, at
the boy's side. In the indefinite background some one laughed
Constans was up and out upon the forest track before his clumsy opponent
had begun to recover his breath. It was almost too easy, and then he all
but cannoned plump into a horseman who sat carelessly in his saddle,
half hidden by the bole of a thousand-year oak. The cavalier, gathering
up his reins, called upon the fugitive to stop, but Constans, without
once looking behind, ran on, actuated by the ultimate instinct of a
hunted animal, zigzagging as much as he dared, and glancing from side to
side for a way of escape.
But none offered. On the right ran the wall of the stockade,
impenetrable and unscalable, and it was a long two miles to the north
gate. On the left was the water and behind him the enemy. A few hundred
yards and he must inevitably be brought to a standstill, breathless and
defenceless. Yet he kept on; there was nothing else to do.
The horseman followed, putting his big blood-bay into a leisurely
hand-gallop. A sword-thrust would settle the business quite as
effectually as a shot from his cross-bow, and he would not be obliged to
risk the loss of a bolt, a consideration of importance in this latter
age when good artisan work is scarce and correspondingly precious.
Constans could run, and he was sound of wind and limb. Yet, as the
thunder of hoofs grew louder, he realized that his chance was of a
desperate smallness. If only he could gain a dozen seconds in which to
string his bow and fit an arrow.
But he could not make or save those longed-for moments; already he had
lost a good part of his original advantage, and the horseman was barely
sixty yards behind. His head felt as though it were about to split in
two; a cloud, shot with crimson stars, swam before his eyes.
The track swung suddenly to the right, in a sharp curve, and Constans's
heart bounded wildly; he had forgotten how close he must be to the
crossing of the Swiftwater. Now the rotting and worm-eaten timbers of
the open trestle-work were under his feet; mechanically, he avoided the
numerous gaps, where a misstep meant destruction, and so at last gained
the farther bank and sank down panting on the short, crisp sward.
The cavalier reined in at the beginning of the trestle; he looked
doubtfully at the ford above the bridge; but the Swiftwater was in
spring flood, and, was the chase worth a wetting?
Evidently not, for, with a shrug of his shoulders, the horseman threw
one leg across the saddle-pommel and sat there, very much at his ease,
while he proceeded to roll himself a cigarette from coarse, black
tobacco and a leaf of dampened corn-husk.
Constans felt his face flush hotly as he noted the contempt implied in
his enemy's well-played indifference. Already he had put his bow in
order; now he stood up and, with some ostentation, proceeded to fit an
arrow to the string. The cavalier looked at these preparations with
entire calmness and busied himself again with his flint and steel.
"It would be murder," muttered Constans, irritably, and lowered his
hand. Then, moved by sudden impulse, he took aim anew and with more than
ordinary care. The arrow sung through the air and transfixed the fleshy
part of the cavalier's bridle-arm. The horse, whose withers had been
grazed by the shaft, started to rear, but his rider neither moved nor
changed color. Quieting the frightened animal with a reassuring word,
he deftly caught the tinder spark at the tip of his cigarette and drew
in a deep inhalation of the smoke. Then, with the utmost coolness, he
proceeded to snap the arrow-shaft in twain and draw out the barb,
Constans yielding him grudging admiration, for it was all very perfectly
"Here is a man," thought Constans, and looked him over carefully.
And truly the cavalier made a gallant figure, dressed as he was in the
bravest raiment that the eyes of Constans had ever yet beheld. For his
close-fitting suit was of claret-colored velvet with gilt buttons, while
his throat-gear was a wonderfully fine lace jabot, with a great red
jewel fastened in the knot. A soft hat, trimmed with gold lace and an
ostrich-feather, covered his dark curls, while yellow gauntlets and high
riding-boots of polished leather completed his outward attire. Not an
unpleasing picture as he sat there in the sunshine astride the big
blood-bay, but Constans, looking upon him, knew that neither now nor
hereafter could there be any verity of peace between them. There is such
a thing as hate at first sight even as there is love.
The horseman had retained the feathered end of the arrow-shaft, and he
proceeded to examine it with an appearance of polite interest.
"Your private token, young sir?" he inquired, indicating the single
feather of scarlet. His voice was pitched in an affectedly high key, his
manner languidly ceremonious. Constans could only bow stiffly in the
"Ah, yes; it is one not to be easily forgotten. I, too, have my
sign-manual, and I should have been glad to have exchanged with you."
Again Constans bowed. He wanted to say something, but the words would
not come. The cavalier smiled.
"But there may be another opportunity later on," he continued. "At
least, we may hope so." He bowed, lifting his plumed hat. "To our future
acquaintance." He turned his horse's head to the southward, and rode
away at a slow canter without once looking back.
Constans watched the ostrich-crest as it rose and fell, until it was
lost to sight among the tree-trunks. Then, drawing his belt tight, he
started on a dog-trot in the contrary direction; the barrier, admitting
him to the protection of the stockade, was still some distance away, and
he must reach it without delay and give the warning. But, even as he
ran, he heard the tolling of a bell; it was the alarm that the Doomsmen
were abroad. Now, indeed, he must make haste or he would find the
barrier closed against himself.
Ten minutes later he stood before the northern entrance of the Greenwood
Keep. Already the warders were fitting into place the gates of
iron-studded oak, but they recognized the voice of their lord's son and
allowed him to squeeze his way through. Guyder Touchett, the burly
captain of the watch, clapped him familiarly on the back.
"Your legs have saved your skin, master. God's life! but you flashed
through the cover like a cock-grouse going down the wind. Yet I trembled
lest a cross-bow bolt might be following even faster."
"They have come--the Doomsmen?" panted Constans.
"Garth, the swineherd, reported their landing at the Golden Cove an
hour before sunup. Three war-galleys, which means twice that score of
"Some mischance of wind or tide," said Constans, thoughtfully. "I
noticed that the water in the Gut was rougher than is usual at dawn."
"Like enough," assented Touchett. "These night-birds are not often seen
in a blue sky, and luckily so, for the safety of your father's ricks and
byres. After all, there is no certainty in the matter; Garth is stupid
enough betimes for one of his own boars, and there was a
christening-party at the barracks last night. You know what that
means--the can clinking until the tap runs dry."
"Yet you say he saw----"
Guyder Touchett shrugged his shoulders. "Anything you like. When the ale
is in the eye there are stranger things than gray cats to be discovered
at the half-dawn. In my opinion, Garth is a fool and a liar."
"And, as usual, your opinion is wrong," retorted Constans, "for the Gray
Men are really here. But I cannot wait; I must speak with Sir Gavan
"You will find him at the water gate," bawled Touchett, as the boy ran
Constans sped rapidly up the green slope leading to the house a quarter
of a mile away. As he ran, he mentally rehearsed the story of his late
adventure. Surely, now, Sir Gavan would permit him to bear a man's part
in the impending crisis. Had he not already drawn hostile blood--the
Sir Gavan awaited his son at the water gate, his ruddy countenance
streaked with an unwonted pallor and his gray eyes dark with trouble.
"Where is your sister?" he asked, abruptly, as Constans ran up.
The boy stared. "She did not go out with me, sir. Do you mean that
"Hush! or your mother will overhear. Come this way." And Sir Gavan
preceded his son into the guard-room on the left of the vaulted
entrance, walking heavily, as one who bears an unaccustomed burden upon
his shoulders. Yet when he spoke again his voice had its accustomed
"No one has seen her since ten of the sundial. It is now noon, and the
alarm-bell has been ringing this half-hour."
Constans felt something tighten at his own throat. "You have searched
the enclosure?" he faltered.
"Every nook and corner," returned Sir Gavan. "Tennant, with a dozen men,
is now beating the upper plantations."
Constans thought guiltily of that cleverly concealed gap in the
palisades just beyond the intake of the Ochre brook. He and Issa had
shared it between them as a precious secret, and he had used it this
very morning as a short cut to the water-side. Tennant, their elder
brother, was not aware of its existence, but then Tennant was a prig,
and not to be trusted in truly momentous affairs.
There was his father's wrath. Constans turned sick at the thought of
arousing it. No; he could not tell him.
"I don't know," he said, vaguely.
Sir Gavan looked at him searchingly, then turned and strode out of the
Constans felt his cheeks grow hot. Why had he not told all the truth?
He was a coward, a liar, in all but the actual word. He sat down on a
bench and buried his face in his hands; then the recurring thought of
Issa and of her peril stung him to his feet. Where had Sir Gavan gone?
Constans made his way, hesitatingly, into the court-yard of the keep. He
found it thronged with men, his father's retainers and servants. The
archers were busy putting new strings to their bows; the spearmen were
testing, with grave eagerness, the stout ash of their weapons, or
perchance whetting an edge on the broad blades. Half a dozen of the
younger men were engaged in covering the roof of the main and out
buildings with horse-hides soaked in water, as a protection against
burning arrows; others were driving the protesting cattle into the byres
and sacking up a quantity of newly threshed grain that lay upon the
flailing floor; everywhere the noise of shouting men and of hurrying
Sir Gavan was not to be seen, and Constans, after inquiring for him
through a fruitless quarter of an hour, entered the main house and
sought the fighting platform on its roof. Why had no lookout been
stationed here? Surely an oversight. He gazed eagerly about him.
Directly to the right of the house lay the home paddock, stretching away
some two hundred yards to the edge of a white-birch plantation. The
Ochre brook bounded it on one side, and the current had scoured out for
itself an ever-deepening channel in the soft, alluvial soil. A clump of
alders, just bursting into leaf, masked the bed of the stream at one
particular point, where the bank rose into a miniature bluff. Constans,
from his elevated position, was enabled to overlook this point, and so
to make out the figure of a mounted man behind the alder screen, his
horse standing belly deep in the water. It was the cavalier of the
ostrich-feathers; and then, through the white trunks of the birches, he
caught the flutter of a woman's gown. Constans tried to shout, to call
out, but the vocal chords refused to relax, the sounds rattled in his