The Nest of the Sparrowhawk by Baroness Orczy - HTML preview

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VIII. Secret Service

Master Hymn-of-Praise Busy was excessively perturbed. Matters at the Court were taking a curious turn. That something of unusual moment had happened within the last few days he was thoroughly convinced, and still having it in his mind that he was especially qualified for the lucrative appointments in my Lord Protector's secret service--he thought this an excellent opportunity for perfecting himself in the art of investigation, shrewdly conducted, which he understood to be most essential for the due fulfillment of such appointments.
Thus we see him some few days later on a late afternoon, with back bent nearly double, eyes fixed steadily on the ground and his face a perfect mirror of thoughtful concentration within, slowly walking along the tiny footpath which wound in and out the groups of majestic elms in the park.
Musing and meditating, at times uttering strange and enigmatical exclamations, he reached the confines of the private grounds, the spot where the surrounding wall gave place to a low iron gate, where the disused pavilion stood out gray and forlorn-looking in the midst of the soft green of the trees, and where through the woods beyond the gate, could just be perceived the tiny light which issued from the blacksmith's cottage, the most outlying one in the village of Acol. Master Hymn-of-Praise leaned thoughtfully against the ivy-covered wall. His eyes, roaming, searching, restless, pried all around him.
"Footprints!" he mused, "footprints which of a surety must mean that human foot hath lately trod this moss. Footprints moreover, which lead up the steps to the door of that pavilion, wherein to my certain knowledge, no one hath had access of late."
Something, of course, was going on at Acol Court, that strange and inexplicable something which he had tried to convey by covert suggestion to Mistress Charity's female--therefore inferior--brain.
Sir Marmaduke's temper was more sour and ill even than of yore, and there was still an unpleasant sensation in the lumbar regions of Master Busy's spine, whenever he sat down, which recalled a somewhat vigorous outburst of his master's ill-humor.
Mistress de Chavasse went about the house like a country wench frightened by a ghost, and Mistress Charity averred that she seldom went to bed now before midnight. Certain it is that Master Busy himself had met the lady wandering about the house candle in hand at an hour when all respectable folk should be abed, and when she almost fell up against Hymn-of-Praise in the dark she gave a frightened scream as if she had suddenly come face to face with the devil. Then there was her young ladyship.
She was neither ill-tempered nor yet under the ban of fear, but Master Busy vowed unto himself that she was suffering from ill-concealed melancholy, from some hidden secret or wild romance. She seldom laughed, she had spoken with discourtesy and impatience to Squire Pyncheon, who rode over the other day on purpose to bring her a bunch of sweet marjoram which grew in great profusion in his mother's garden: she markedly avoided the company of her guardian, and wandered about the park alone, at all hours of the day--a proceeding which in a young lady of her rank was quite unseemly.
All these facts neatly docketed in Master Busy's orderly brain, disturbed him not a little. He had not yet made up his mind as to the nature of the mystery which was surrounding the Court and its inmates, but vaguely he thought of abductions and elopements, which the presence of the richest heiress in the South of England in the house of the poorest squire in the whole country, more than foreshadowed. This lonely, somewhat eerie corner of the park appeared to be the center around which all the mysterious happenings revolved, and Master Hymn-of-Praise had found his way hither on this fine July afternoon, because he had distinct hopes of finding out something definite, certain facts which he then could place before Squire Boatfield who was major-general of the district, and who would then, doubtless, commend him for his ability and shrewdness in forestalling what might prove to be a terrible crime.
The days were getting shorter now; it was little more than eight o'clock and already the shades of evening were drawing closely in: the last rays of the setting sun had long disappeared in a glowing haze of gold, and the fantastic branches of the old elms, intertwined with the parasitic ivy looked grim and threatening, silhouetted against the lurid after glow. Master Busy liked neither the solitude, nor yet the silence of the woods; he had just caught sight of a bat circling over the dilapidated roof of the pavilion, and he hated bats. Though he belonged to a community which denied the angels and ignored the saints, he had a firm belief in the existence of a tangible devil, and somehow he could not dissociate his ideas of hell and of evil spirits from those which related to the mysterious flutterings of bats.
Moreover he thought that his duties in connection with the science of secret investigation, had been sufficiently fulfilled for the day, and he prepared to wend his way back to the house, when the sound of voices, once more aroused his somnolent attention.
"Someone," he murmured within himself, "the heiress and the abductor mayhap." This might prove the opportunity of his life, the chance which would place him within the immediate notice of the major-general, perhaps of His Highness the Protector himself. He felt that to vacate his post of observation at this moment would be unworthy the moral discipline which an incipient servant of the Commonwealth should impose upon himself.
Striving to smother a sense of terror, or to disguise it even to himself under the mask of officiousness, he looked about for a hiding-place--a post of observation as he called it.
A tree with invitingly forked branches seemed to be peculiarly adapted to his needs. Hymn-of-Praise was neither very young nor very agile, but dreams of coming notoriety lent nimbleness to his limbs.
By the time that the voices drew nearer, the sober butler of Acol Court was installed astride an elm bough, hidden by the dense foliage and by the leaf-laden strands of ivy, enfolded by the fast gathering shadows of evening, supremely uncomfortable physically, none too secure on his perch, yet proud and satisfied in the consciousness of fulfilled duty.
The next moment he caught sight of Mistress Charity--Mistress Charity so please you, who had plighted her troth to him, walking arm in arm with Master Courage Toogood, as impudent, insolent and debauched a young jackanapes as ever defaced the forests of Thanet.
"Mistress, fair mistress," he was sighing, and murmuring in her ear, "the most beautiful and gracious thing on God's earth, when I hold you pressed thus against my beating heart ..."
Apparently his feelings were too deep to be expressed in the words of his own vocabulary, for he paused a while, sighed audibly, and then asked anxiously: "You do hear my heart beating, mistress, do you not?"
She blushed, for she was naught but a female baggage, and though Master Busy's impassioned protestations of less than half an hour ago, must be still ringing in her ears, she declared emphatically that she could hear the throbbing of that young vermin's heart.
Master Busy up aloft was quite sure that what she heard was a few sheep and cattle of Sir Marmaduke's who were out to grass in a field close by, and had been scared into a canter.
What went on for the next moment or two the saintly man on the elm tree branch could not rightly perceive, but the next words from Mistress Charity's lips sent a thrill of indignation through his heart.
"Oh! Master Courage," she said with a little cry, "you must not squeeze me so! I vow you have taken the breath out of my body! The Lord love you, child! think you I can stay here all this while and listen to your nonsense?"
"Just one minute longer, fair mistress," entreated the young reprobate, "the moon is not yet up, the birds have gone to their nests for sleep, will ye not tarry a while here with me? That old fool Busy will never know!"
It is a fact that at this juncture the saintly man well-nigh fell off his perch, and when Master Courage, amidst many coy shrieks from the fickle female, managed to drag her down beside him, upon the carpet of moss immediately beneath the very tree whereon Hymn-of-Praise was holding watch, the unfortunate man had need of all his strength of mind and of purpose not to jump down with both feet upon the lying face of that young limb of Satan.
But he felt that the discovery of his somewhat undignified position by these two evil-doers would not at this moment be quite opportune, so he endeavored to maintain his equilibrium at the cost of supreme discomfort, and the loud cracking of the branch on which he was perched.
Mistress Charity gave a cry of terror.
"What was that?"
"Nothing, nothing, mistress, I swear," rejoined Courage reassuringly, "there are always noises in old elm trees, the ivy hangs heavy and ..."
"I have heard it said of late that the pavilion is haunted," she murmured under her breath.
"No! not haunted, mistress! I vow 'tis but the crackling of loose branches, and there is that which I would whisper in your ear ..."
But before Master Courage had the time to indulge in this, the desire of his heart, something fell upon the top of his lean head which certainly never grew on the elm tree overhead. Having struck his lanky hair the object fell straight into his lap. It was a button. An ordinary, brown, innocent enough looking button. But still a button. Master Courage took it in his hand and examined it carefully, turning it over once or twice. The little thing certainly wore a familiar air. Master Courage of a truth had seen such an one before.
"That thing never grew up there, master," said Mistress Charity in an agitated whisper.
"No!" he rejoined emphatically, "nor yet doth a button form part of the habiliments of a ghost."
But not a sound came from above: and though Courage and Charity peered upwards with ever-increasing anxiety, the fast gathering darkness effectually hid the mystery which lurked within that elm.
"I vow that there's something up there, mistress," said the youth with sudden determination.
"Could it be bats, master?" she queried with a shudder.
"Nay! but bats do not wear buttons," he replied sententiously. "Yet of a surety, I mean to make an investigation of the affair as that old fool Hymn-of-Praise would say."
Whereupon, heedless of Mistress Charity's ever-growing agitation, he ran towards the boundary wall of the park, and vaulted the low gate with an agile jump even as she uttered a pathetic appeal to him not to leave her alone in the dark.
Fear had rooted the girl to the spot. She dared not move away, fearful lest her running might entice that mysterious owner of the brown button to hurry in her track. Yet she would have loved to follow Master Courage, and to put at least a gate and wall between herself and those terrible elms.
She was just contemplating a comprehensive and vigorous attack of hysterics when she heard Master Courage's voice from the other side of the gate. "Hist! Hist, mistress! Quick!"
She gathered up what shreds of valor she possessed and ran blindly in the direction whence came the welcome voice.
"I pray you take this," said the youth, who was holding a wooden bucket out over the gate, "whilst I climb back to you."
"But what is it, master?" she asked, as--obeying him mechanically--she took the bucket from him. It was heavy, for it was filled almost to the brim with a liquid which seemed very evil-smelling.
The next moment Master Courage was standing beside her. He took the bucket from her and then walked as rapidly as he could with it back towards the elm tree.
"It will help me to dislodge the bats, mistress," he said enigmatically, speaking over his shoulder as he walked.
She followed him--excited but timorous--until together they once more reached the spot, where Master Courage's amorous declarations had been so rudely interrupted. He put the bucket down beside him, and rubbed his hands together whilst uttering certain sounds which betrayed his glee.
Then only did she notice that he was carrying under one arm a long curiouslooking instrument--round and made of tin, with a handle at one end. She looked curiously into the bucket and at the instrument.
"'Tis the tar-water used for syringing the cattle," she whispered, "ye must not touch it, master. Where did you find it?"
"Just by the wall," he rejoined. "I knew it was kept there. They wash the sheep with it to destroy the vermin in them. This is the squirt for it," he added calmly, placing the end of the instrument in the liquid, "and I will mayhap destroy the vermin which is lodged in that elm tree."
A cry of terror issuing from above froze the very blood in Mistress Charity's veins. "Stop! stop! you young limb of Satan!" came from Master Busy's nearly choking throat.
"It's evildoers or evil spirits, master," cried Mistress Charity in an agony of fear. "Whatever it be, mistress, this should destroy it!" said Master Courage philosophically, as turning the syringe upwards he squirted the whole of its contents straight into the fork of the ivy-covered branches.
There was a cry of rage, followed by a cry of terror, then Master Hymn-of-Praise Busy with a terrific clatter of breaking boughs, fell in a heap upon the soft carpet of moss.
Master Courage be it said to the eternal shame of venturesome youth, took incontinently to his heels, leaving Mistress Charity to bear the brunt of the irate saintly man's wrath.
Master Busy, we must admit had but little saintliness left in him now. Let us assume that--as he explained afterwards--he was not immediately aware of Mistress Charity's presence, and that his own sense of propriety and of decorum had been drowned in a cataract of tar water. Certain it is that a volley of oaths, which would have surprised Sir Marmaduke himself, escaped his lips. Had he not every excuse? He was dripping from head to foot, spluttering, blinded, choked and bruised.
He shook himself like a wet spaniel. Then hearing the sound of a smothered exclamation which did not seem altogether unlike a giggle, he turned round savagely and perceived the dim outline of Mistress Charity's dainty figure. "The Lord love thee, Master Hymn-of-Praise," she began, somewhat nervously, "but you have made yourself look a sight."
"And by G--d I'll make that young jackanapes look a sight ere I take my hand off him," he retorted savagely.
"But what were you ... hem! what wert thou doing up in the elm tree, friend Hymnof-Praise?" she asked demurely.
"Thee me no thou!" he said with enigmatic pompousness, followed by a distinctly vicious snarl, "Master Busy will be my name in future for a saucy wench like thee."
He turned towards the house. Mistress Charity following meekly--somewhat subdued, for Master Busy was her affianced husband, and she had no mind to mar her future, through any of young Courage's dare-devil escapades. "Thou wouldst wish to know what I was doing up in that forked tree?" he asked her with calm dignity after a while, when the hedges of the flower garden came in sight. "I was making a home for thee, according to the commands of the Lord." "Not in the elm trees of a surety, Master Busy?"
"I was making a home for thee," he repeated without heeding her flippant observation, "by rendering myself illustrious. I told thee, wench, did I not? that something was happening within the precincts of Acol Court, and that it is my duty to lie in wait and to watch. The heiress is about to be abducted, and it is my task to frustrate the evil designs of the mysterious criminal."
She looked at him in speechless amazement. He certainly looked strangely weird in the semi-darkness with his lanky hair plastered against his cheeks, his collar half torn from round his neck, the dripping, oily substance flowing in rivulets from his garments down upon the ground.
The girl had no longer any desire to laugh, and when Master Busy strode majestically across the rustic bridge, then over the garden paths to the kitchen quarter of the house, she followed him without a word, awed by his extraordinary utterances, vaguely feeling that in his dripping garments he somehow reminded her of Jonah and the whale.