Master Humphrey s Clock
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night?' said Will.
'It is,' replied the woman sternly; and pointing, as she spoke,
towards her companion, 'she mourns a husband, and I a brother.
Even the bloody law that wreaks its vengeance on the dead does not
make that a crime, and if it did 'twould be alike to us who are
past its fear or favour.'
Will glanced at the two females, and could barely discern that the
one whom he addressed was much the elder, and that the other was
young and of a slight figure. Both were deadly pale, their
garments wet and worn, their hair dishevelled and streaming in the
wind, themselves bowed down with grief and misery; their whole
appearance most dejected, wretched, and forlorn. A sight so
different from any he had expected to encounter touched him to the
quick, and all idea of anything but their pitiable condition
vanished before it.
'I am a rough, blunt yeoman,' said Will. 'Why I came here is told
in a word; you have been overheard at a distance in the silence of
the night, and I have undertaken a watch for hags or spirits. I
came here expecting an adventure, and prepared to go through with
any. If there be aught that I can do to help or aid you, name it,
and on the faith of a man who can be secret and trusty, I will
stand by you to the death.'
'How comes this gibbet to be empty?' asked the elder female.
'I swear to you,' replied Will, 'that I know as little as yourself.
But this I know, that when I came here an hour ago or so, it was as
it is now; and if, as I gather from your question, it was not so
last night, sure I am that it has been secretly disturbed without
the knowledge of the folks in yonder town. Bethink you, therefore,
whether you have no friends in league with you or with him on whom
the law has done its worst, by whom these sad remains have been
removed for burial.'
The women spoke together, and Will retired a pace or two while they
conversed apart. He could hear them sob and moan, and saw that
they wrung their hands in fruitless agony. He could make out
little that they said, but between whiles he gathered enough to
assure him that his suggestion was not very wide of the mark, and
that they not only suspected by whom the body had been removed, but
also whither it had been conveyed. When they had been in
conversation a long time, they turned towards him once more. This
time the younger female spoke.
'You have offered us your help?'
'And given a pledge that you are still willing to redeem?'
'Yes. So far as I may, keeping all plots and conspiracies at arm's
'Follow us, friend.'
Will, whose self-possession was now quite restored, needed no
second bidding, but with his drawn sword in his hand, and his cloak
so muffled over his left arm as to serve for a kind of shield
without offering any impediment to its free action, suffered them
to lead the way. Through mud and mire, and wind and rain, they
walked in silence a full mile. At length they turned into a dark
lane, where, suddenly starting out from beneath some trees where he
had taken shelter, a man appeared, having in his charge three
saddled horses. One of these (his own apparently), in obedience to
a whisper from the women, he consigned to Will, who, seeing that
they mounted, mounted also. Then, without a word spoken, they rode
on together, leaving the attendant behind.
They made no halt nor slackened their pace until they arrived near
Putney. At a large wooden house which stood apart from any other
they alighted, and giving their horses to one who was already
waiting, passed in by a side door, and so up some narrow creaking
stairs into a small panelled chamber, where Will was left alone.
He had not been here very long, when the door was softly opened,
and there entered to him a cavalier whose face was concealed
beneath a black mask.
Will stood upon his guard, and scrutinised this figure from head to
foot. The form was that of a man pretty far advanced in life, but
of a firm and stately carriage. His dress was of a rich and costly
kind, but so soiled and disordered that it was scarcely to be
recognised for one of those gorgeous suits which the expensive
taste and fashion of the time prescribed for men of any rank or
He was booted and spurred, and bore about him even as many tokens
of the state of the roads as Will himself. All this he noted,
while the eyes behind the mask regarded him with equal attention.
This survey over, the cavalier broke silence.
'Thou'rt young and bold, and wouldst be richer than thou art?'
'The two first I am,' returned Will. 'The last I have scarcely
thought of. But be it so. Say that I would be richer than I am;
'The way lies before thee now,' replied the Mask.
'Show it me.'
'First let me inform thee, that thou wert brought here to-night
lest thou shouldst too soon have told thy tale to those who placed
thee on the watch.'
'I thought as much when I followed,' said Will. 'But I am no blab,
'Good,' returned the Mask. 'Now listen. He who was to have
executed the enterprise of burying that body, which, as thou hast
suspected, was taken down to-night, has left us in our need.'
Will nodded, and thought within himself that if the Mask were to
attempt to play any tricks, the first eyelet-hole on the left-hand
side of his doublet, counting from the buttons up the front, would
be a very good place in which to pink him neatly.
'Thou art here, and the emergency is desperate. I propose his task
to thee. Convey the body (now coffined in this house), by means
that I shall show, to the Church of St. Dunstan in London to-morrow
night, and thy service shall be richly paid. Thou'rt about to ask
whose corpse it is. Seek not to know. I warn thee, seek not to
know. Felons hang in chains on every moor and heath. Believe, as
others do, that this was one, and ask no further. The murders of
state policy, its victims or avengers, had best remain unknown to
such as thee.'
'The mystery of this service,' said Will, 'bespeaks its danger.
What is the reward?'
'One hundred golden unities,' replied the cavalier. 'The danger to
one who cannot be recognised as the friend of a fallen cause is not
great, but there is some hazard to be run. Decide between that and
'What if I refuse?' said Will.
'Depart in peace, in God's name,' returned the Mask in a melancholy
tone, 'and keep our secret, remembering that those who brought thee
here were crushed and stricken women, and that those who bade thee
go free could have had thy life with one word, and no man the
Men were readier to undertake desperate adventures in those times
than they are now. In this case the temptation was great, and the
punishment, even in case of detection, was not likely to be very
severe, as Will came of a loyal stock, and his uncle was in good
repute, and a passable tale to account for his possession of the
body and his ignorance of the identity might be easily devised.
The cavalier explained that a coveted cart had been prepared for
the purpose; that the time of departure could be arranged so that
he should reach London Bridge at dusk, and proceed through the City
after the day had closed in; that people would be ready at his
journey's end to place the coffin in a vault without a minute's
delay; that officious inquirers in the streets would be easily
repelled by the tale that he was carrying for interment the corpse
of one who had died of the plague; and in short showed him every
reason why he should succeed, and none why he should fail. After a
time they were joined by another gentleman, masked like the first,
who added new arguments to those which had been already urged; the
wretched wife, too, added her tears and prayers to their calmer
representations; and in the end, Will, moved by compassion and
good-nature, by a love of the marvellous, by a mischievous
anticipation of the terrors of the Kingston people when he should
be missing next day, and finally, by the prospect of gain, took
upon himself the task, and devoted all his energies to its
The following night, when it was quite dark, the hollow echoes of
old London Bridge responded to the rumbling of the cart which
contained the ghastly load, the object of Will Marks' care.
Sufficiently disguised to attract no attention by his garb, Will
walked at the horse's head, as unconcerned as a man could be who
was sensible that he had now arrived at the most dangerous part of
his undertaking, but full of boldness and confidence.
It was now eight o'clock. After nine, none could walk the streets
without danger of their lives, and even at this hour, robberies and
murder were of no uncommon occurrence. The shops upon the bridge
were all closed; the low wooden arches thrown across the way were
like so many black pits, in every one of which ill-favoured fellows
lurked in knots of three or four; some standing upright against the
wall, lying in wait; others skulking in gateways, and thrusting out
their uncombed heads and scowling eyes: others crossing and
recrossing, and constantly jostling both horse and man to provoke a
quarrel; others stealing away and summoning their companions in a
low whistle. Once, even in that short passage, there was the noise
of scuffling and the clash of swords behind him, but Will, who knew
the City and its ways, kept straight on and scarcely turned his
The streets being unpaved, the rain of the night before had
converted them into a perfect quagmire, which the splashing water-
spouts from the gables, and the filth and offal cast from the
different houses, swelled in no small degree. These odious matters
being left to putrefy in the close and heavy air, emitted an
insupportable stench, to which every court and passage poured forth