He grunted, and we scuffled briefly, but he was so winded by my assault upon him, that he had little ability to resist. The dark street burst into life. Windows opened, and there was shouting. Apparently someone was running while carrying a lantern, splashes of light jerking against the pavement and stone walls.
“What’s this!” cried a man, grabbing me savagely by my collar. “What have you done?”
Eerie shadows bobbed against the wall at my right. I looked up at the man. He was blowing hard and his eyes shown wide; light from his lantern played on his fleshy cheeks. He held his light aloft.
“I-I’ve done nothing,” I said. “But this rogue fired a pistol at my master.”
What happened next nearly turned my heart to stone. The body of the assassin under me convulsed; he struggled, and he made to turn. In the flickering illumination of the lantern, I saw his face. I knew this face.
“Alexander?” I gasped.
Alexander. There could be no mistake. It was he.
I recoiled from him as If he had plague. Wrenching myself free of the man with the lantern, I rose to my feet. Looking down at Alexander, I felt myself torn between wanting to snatch up his pistol and shoot him through his miserable head and turning and getting forever clear of such a pestilence.
“Do not let him escape!” I cried, my voice like gravel.
I staggered across the street and pounded upon the door till my fists were bloodied. “Master Knox! Open to me! Margaret! Does he live? Open the door!”
At last I heard the fiddling of the latch. Her face was ashen, and she had wee Elizabeth on her hip, the child weeping like a prophet.
“Does he live?” I cried.
“H-he lives,” she said, a tremor in her voice. “He lives.”
Taking the treads three at a time, I ran up the stairs. The lead ball had shattered the window, and shards of glass littered the floor. On the table, a candlestick had been knocked over. Flames had been extinguished, but there was splattered wax already hardening where it had spilled on the table.
From the shadows next to the broken window, John Knox spoke. “I was not sitting in my usual place,” he said. He was looking out on the excited crowd talking all at once on the street below.
“You are unhurt, then?” I asked.
“Aye,” he said. “But had I been seated here, as is my custom—” he broke off, placing a finger through a bullet hole blown through the chair. “I would, indeed, be in bit of a mangled condition.”
Sighting from the broken window and the hole in the chair, I envisioned the flight of the ball. I went to the table and picked up the candlestick. The lead ball, or what remained of it, was imbedded into its filigree.
“God be praised,” I said, and meant it.
“You were on the street?” asked Margaret, who had joined us. She swayed and cooed gently to calm the bairn.
“Aye,” I said. “I’d been with the widow Murray; she expired about dusk.”
“Poor dear,” she said. “But it must have been you, then, who battled the gunman to the pavement.”
I felt the warmth rising in my cheeks. “I did nothing,” I said shortly.
“Och, nothing,” she said, handing her husband the baby and squaring herself before me. “What I saw with my own eyes tells another tale,” she said, blowing a wisp of hair from her face and placing her hands deliberately on her hips. “Och, you must’ve hurled yourself on the murderer like a madman.”
“I must away,” I said. I fear I spoke all too curtly. “My father will wonder what has kept me.”
“And who was the rogue?” this from Margaret.
I hesitated. They stood awaiting my reply. Would it not break Master Knox’s heart to know that one of his own had attempted to end his life so? Would it not?
I attempted to speak. But I could find no words. I turned and bolted from the house.
“Have a care,” said John Knox, his face blanching with pain, “for my decaying carcass.”
It was Sunday, November 9, 1572. Several months had elapsed since the attempt on his life, and his health had deteriorated rapidly in those months.
Richard Ballantyne, John Craig, and two other men, and myself, had rigged a chair to carry him in. It was a foul dreich morning, with gusts of wind sending the rain in slanting fury upon us like waves of drenching specters. His old malady was on him in force; his ashen face winced as we hoisted him in the improvised chair.
“It’s dumping auld wives and pike staves,” said John Craig, breathing heavily with the effort of carrying him. “You ought not to be out in it.” Come weather and decaying carcass, I knew that nothing would deter John Knox; he was determined to preach that day.