The Tavern Knight by Rafael Sabatini - HTML preview
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The Tavern Knight
On The March................................................................................................................... 3
Arcades Ambo ................................................................................................................... 9
The Letter ........................................................................................................................ 14
At The Sign Of The Mitre .............................................................................................. 16
After Worcester Field..................................................................................................... 20
Companions In Misfortune ............................................................................................ 27
The Tavern Knight's Story ............................................................................................ 33
The Twisted Bar.............................................................................................................. 41
The Bargain ..................................................................................................................... 49
The Escape....................................................................................................................... 56
The Ashburns .................................................................................................................. 60
The House That Was Roland Marleigh's...................................................................... 66
The Metamorphosis Of Kenneth ................................................................................... 70
The Heart Of Cynthia Ashburn..................................................................................... 78
Joseph's Return............................................................................................................... 85
The Reckoning................................................................................................................. 91
Joseph Drives A Bargain .............................................................................................. 100
Counter-Plot .................................................................................................................. 105
The Interrupted Journey.............................................................................................. 109
The Converted Hogan................................................................................................... 114
The Message Kenneth Bore.......................................................................................... 120
Sir Crispin's Undertaking ............................................................................................ 132
Gregory's Attrition ....................................................................................................... 136
The Wooing Of Cynthia ............................................................................................... 143
Cynthia's Flight............................................................................................................. 149
To France....................................................................................................................... 160
The Auberge Du Soleil.................................................................................................. 164
On The MarchHe whom they called the Tavern Knight laughed an evil laugh - such a laugh as might fall from the lips of Satan in a sardonic moment.
He sat within the halo of yellow light shed by two tallow candles, whose sconces were two empty bottles, and contemptuously he eyed the youth in black, standing with white face and quivering lip in a corner of the mean chamber. Then he laughed again, and in a hoarse voice, sorely suggestive of the bottle, he broke into song. He lay back in his chair, his long, spare legs outstretched, his spurs jingling to the lilt of his ditty whose burden ran:
On the lip so red of the wench that's sped His passionate kiss burns, still-O! For 'tis April time, and of love and wine Youth's way is to take its fill-O!
Down, down, derry-do!
So his cup he drains and he shakes his reins, And rides his rake-helly way-O!
She was sweet to woo and most comely, too, But that was all yesterday-O!
Down, down, derry-do!
"Eh?" The ruffler shook back the matted hair from his lean, harsh face, and a pair of eyes that of a sudden seemed ablaze glared at his companion; then the lids drooped until those eyes became two narrow slits - catlike and cunning - and again he laughed.
"Gad's life, Master Stewart, you have a temerity that should save you from grey hairs! What is't to you what ditty my fancy seizes on? 'Swounds, man, for three weary months have I curbed my moods, and worn my throat dry in praising the Lord; for three months have I been a living monument of Covenanting zeal and godliness; and now that at last I have shaken the dust of your beggarly Scotland from my heels, you - the veriest milksop that ever ran tottering from its mother's lap would chide me because, yon bottle being done, I sing to keep me from waxing sad in the contemplation of its emptiness!"
There was scorn unutterable on the lad's face as he turned aside. "When I joined Middleton's horse and accepted service under you, I held you to be at least a gentleman," was his daring rejoinder.For an instant that dangerous light gleamed again from his companion's eye. Then, as before, the lids drooped, and, as before, he laughed.
"Gentleman!" he mocked. "On my soul, that's good! And what may you know of gentlemen, Sir Scot? Think you a gentleman is a Jack Presbyter, or a droning member of your kirk committee, strutting it like a crow in the gutter? Gadswounds, boy, when I was your age, and George Villiers lived - ""Oh, have done!" broke in the youth impetuously. "Suffer me to leave you, Sir Crispin, to your bottle, your croaking, and your memories."
"Aye, go your ways, sir; you'd be sorry company for a dead man - the sorriest ever my evil star led me into. The door is yonder, and should you chance to break your saintly neck on the stairs, it is like to be well for both of us."And with that Sir Crispin Galliard lay back in his chair once more, and took up the thread of his interrupted song
But, heigh-o! she cried, at the Christmas-tide, That dead she would rather be-O!
Pale and wan she crept out of sight, and wept
Thus rudely enjoined, the lad lifted the latch and set wide the door, which opened immediately upon the street. Into the apartment stumbled a roughly clad man of huge frame. He was breathing hard, and fear was writ large upon his rugged face. An instant he paused to close the door after him, then turning to Galliard, who had risen and who stood eyeing him in astonishment -
"Hide me somewhere, Cris," he panted - his accent proclaiming his Irish origin. "My God, hide me, or I'm a dead man this night!"
"A party of Montgomery's foot is on my heels. They've raised the whole of Penrith over the affair, and if I'm taken, soul of my body, 'twill be a short shrift they'll give me. The King will serve me as poor Wrycraft was served two days ago at Kendal. Mother of Mercy!" he broke off, as his ear caught the clatter of feet and the murmur of voices from without. "Have you a hole I can creep into?""Up those stairs and into my room with you!" said Crispin shortly. "I will try to head them off. Come, man, stir yourself; they are here."
Then, as with nimble alacrity Hogan obeyed him and slipped from the room, he turned to the lad, who had been a silent spectator of what had passed. From the pocket of his threadbare doublet he drew a pack of greasy playing cards."To table," he said laconically. But the boy, comprehending what was required of him, drew back at sight of those cards as one might shrink from a thing unclean. "Never!" he began. "I'll not defile - "
"To table, fool!" thundered Crispin, with a vehemence few men could have withstood. "Is this a time for Presbyterian scruples? To table, and help a me play this game, or, by the living God, I'll - " Without completing his threat he leaned forward until Kenneth felt his hot, wine-laden breath upon his cheek. Cowed by his words, his gesture, and above all, his glance, the lad drew up a chair, mumbling in explanation - intended as an excuse to himself for his weakness - that he submitted since a man's life was at stake.
Opposite him Galliard resumed his seat with a mocking smile that made him wince. Taking up the cards, he flung a portion of them to the boy, whilst those he retained he spread fanwise in his hand as if about to play. Silently Kenneth copied his actions.
Nearer and louder grew the sounds of the approach, lights flashed before the window, and the two men, feigning to play, sat on and waited.
"Have a care, Master Stewart," growled Crispin sourly, then in a louder voice - for his quick eye had caught a glimpse of a face that watched them from the window - "I play the King of Spades!" he cried, with meaning look.
A blow was struck upon the door, and with it came the command to "Open in the King's name!" Softly Sir Crispin rapped out an oath. Then he rose, and with a last look of warning to Kenneth, he went to open. And as he had greeted Hogan he now greeted the crowd mainly of soldiers - that surged about the threshold."Sirs, why this ado? Hath the Sultan Oliver descended upon us?" In one hand he still held his cards, the other he rested upon the edge of the open door. It was a young ensign who stood forward to answer him. "One of Lord Middleton's officers hath done a man to death not half an hour agone; he is an Irishman Captain Hogan by name." "Hogan - Hogan?" repeated Crispin, after the manner of one who fumbles in his memory. "Ah, yes - an Irishman with a grey head and a hot temper. And he is dead, you say?" "Nay, he has done the killing." "That I can better understand. 'Tis not the first time, I'll be sworn." "But it will be the last, Sir Crispin."
"Like enough. The King is severe since we crossed the Border." Then in a brisker tone: "I thank you for bringing me this news," said he, "and I regret that in my poor house there be naught I can offer you wherein to drink His Majesty's health ere you proceed upon your search. Give you good night, sir." And by drawing back a pace he signified his wish to close the door and be quit of them."We thought," faltered the young officer, "that - that perchance you would assist us by - " "Assist you!" roared Crispin, with a fine assumption of anger. "Assist you take a man? Sink me, sir, I would have you know I am a soldier, not a tipstaff!" The ensign's cheeks grew crimson under the sting of that veiled insult. "There are some, Sir Crispin, that have yet another name for you."
"Like enough - when I am not by," sneered Crispin. "The world is full of foul tongues in craven heads. But, sirs, the night air is chill and you are come inopportunely, for, as you'll perceive, I was at play. Haply you'll suffer me to close the door."
"A moment, Sir Crispin. We must search this house. He is believed to have come this way."
"Satisfy yourselves?" echoed the other, in tones of deep amazement. "What better satisfaction can I afford you than my word? 'Swounds, sir jackanapes," he added, in a roar that sent the lieutenant back a pace as though he had been struck, "am I to take it that your errand is a trumped-up business to affront me? First you invite me to turn tipstaff, then you add your cursed innuendoes of what people say of me, and now you end by doubting me! You must satisfy yourself!" he thundered, waxing fiercer at every word. "Linger another moment on that threshold, and d -n me, sir, I'll give you satisfaction of another flavour! Be off!"Before that hurricane of passion the ensign recoiled, despite himself. "I will appeal to General Montgomery," he threatened.
"Appeal to the devil! Had you come hither with your errand in a seemly fashion you had found my door thrown wide in welcome, and I had received you courteously. As it is, sir, the cause for complaint is on my side, and complain I will. We shall see whether the King permits an old soldier who has followed the fortunes of his family these eighteen years to be flouted by a malapert bantam of yesterday's brood!"
The subaltern paused in dismay. Some demur there was in the gathered crowd. Then the officer fell back a pace, and consulted an elderly trooper at his elbow. The trooper was of opinion that the fugitive must have gone farther. Moreover, he could not think, from what Sir Crispin had said, that it would have been possible for Hogan to have entered the house. With this, and realizing that much trouble and possible loss of time must result from Sir Crispin's obstinacy, did they attempt to force a way into the house, and bethinking himself, also, maybe, how well this rascally ruffler stood with Lord Middleton, the ensign determined to withdraw, and to seek elsewhere.And so he took his leave with a venomous glance, and a parting threat to bring the matter to the King's ears, upon which Galliard slammed the door before he had finished. There was a curious smile on Crispin's face as he walked slowly to the table, and resumed his seat.
"Master Stewart," he whispered, as he spread his cards anew, "the comedy is not yet played out. There is a face glued to the window at this moment, and I make little doubt that for the next hour or so we shall be spied upon. That pretty fellow was born to be a thief-taker."
The boy turned a glance of sour reproof upon his companion. He had not stirred from his chair while Crispin had been at the door.
"Sh! Not so loud, sweet youth," was the answer that lost nothing of menace by being subdued. "Tomorrow, if you please, I will account to you for offending your delicate soul by suggesting a falsehood in your presence. To-night we have a man's life to save, and that, I think, is work enough. Come, Master Stewart, we are being watched. Let us resume our game."
His eye, fixed in cold command upon the boy, compelled obedience. And the lad, more out of awe of that glance than out of any desire to contribute to the saving of Hogan, mutely consented to keep up this pretence. But in his soul he rebelled. He had been reared in an atmosphere of honourable and religious bigotry. Hogan was to him a coarse ruffler; an evil man of the sword; such a man as he abhorred and accounted a disgrace to any army - particularly to an army launched upon England under the auspices of the Solemn League and Covenant.
Hogan had been guilty of an act of brutality; he had killed a man; and Kenneth deemed himself little better, since he assisted in harbouring instead of discovering him, as he held to be his duty. But 'neath the suasion of Galliard's inexorable eye he sat limp and docile, vowing to himself that on the morrow he would lay the matter before Lord Middleton, and thus not only endeavour to make amends for his present guilty silence, but rid himself also of the companionship of this ruffianly Sir Crispin, to whom no doubt a hempen justice would be meted.
Meanwhile, he sat on and left his companion's occasional sallies unanswered. In the street men stirred and lanthorns gleamed fitfully, whilst ever and anon a face surmounted by a morion would be pressed against the leaded panes of the window.Thus an hour wore itself out during which poor Hogan sat above, alone with his anxiety and unsavoury thoughts.
Towards midnight at last Sir Crispin flung down his cards and rose. It was close upon an hour and a half since Hogan's advent. In the streets the sounds had gradually died down, and peace seemed to reign again in Penrith. Yet was Sir Crispin cautious - for to be cautious and mistrustful of appearances was the lesson life had taught him."Master Stewart," said he, "it grows late, and I doubt me you would be abed. Give you good night!" The lad rose. A moment he paused, hesitating, then - "To-morrow, Sir Crispin - " he began. But Crispin cut him short. "Leave to-morrow till it dawn, my friend. Give you good night. Take one of those noisome tapers with you, and go." In sullen silence the boy took up one of the candle-bearing bottles and passed out through the door leading to the stairs.
For a moment Crispin remained standing by the table, and in that moment the expression of his face was softened. A momentary regret of his treatment of the boy stirred in him. Master Stewart might be a milksop, but Crispin accounted him leastways honest, and had a kindness for him in spite of all. He crossed to the window, and throwing it wide he leaned out, as if to breathe the cool night air, what time he hummed the refrain of `Rub-adub-dub' for the edification of any chance listeners.
For a half-hour he lingered there, and for all that he used the occasion to let his mind stray over many a theme, his eyes were alert for the least movement among the shadows of the street. Reassured at last that the house was no longer being watched, he drew back, and closed the lattice.Upstairs he found the Irishman seated in dejection upon his bed, awaiting him. "Soul of my body!" cried Hogan ruefully, "I was never nearer being afraid in my life." Crispin laughed softly for answer, and besought of him the tale of what had passed.
"Tis simple enough, faith," said Hogan coolly. "The landlord of The Angel hath a daughter maybe 'twas after her he named his inn - who owns a pair of the most seductive eyes that ever a man saw perdition in. She hath, moreover, a taste for dalliance, and my brave looks and martial trappings did for her what her bold eyes had done for me. We were becoming the sweetest friends, when, like an incarnate fiend, that loutish clown, her lover, sweeps down upon us, and, with more jealousy than wit, struck me - struck me, Harry Hogan! Soul of my body, think of it, Cris!" And he grew red with anger at the recollection. "I took him by the collar of his mean smock and flung him into the kennel - the fittest bed he ever lay in. Had he remained there it had been well for him; but the fool, accounting himself affronted, came up to demand satisfaction. I gave it him, and plague on it - he's dead!""An ugly tale," was Crispin's sour comment. "Ugly, maybe," returned Hogan, spreading out his palms, "but what choice had I? The fool came at me, bilbo in hand, and I was forced to draw.' "But not to slay, Hogan!" "Twas an accident. Sink me, it was! I sought his sword-arm; but the light was bad, and my point went through his chest instead." For a moment Crispin stood frowning, then his brow cleared, as though he had put the matter from him. "Well, well - since he's dead, there's an end to it."
"Heaven rest his soul!" muttered the Irishman, crossing himself piously. And with that he dismissed the subject of the great wrong that through folly he had wrought - the wanton destruction of a man's life, and the poisoning of a woman's with a remorse that might be everlasting.
"It will tax our wits to get you out of Penrith," said Crispin. Then, turning and looking into the Irishman's great, good-humoured face - "I am sorry you leave us, Hogan," he added.
"Not so am I," quoth Hogan with a shrug. "Such a march as this is little to my taste. Bah! Charles Stuart or Oliver Cromwell, 'tis all one to me. What care I whether King or Commonwealth prevail? Shall Harry Hogan be the better or the richer under one than under the other? Oddslife, Cris, I have trailed a pike or handled a sword in well-nigh every army in Europe. I know more of the great art of war than all the King's generals rolled into one. Think you, then, I can rest content with a miserable company of horse when plunder is forbidden, and even our beggarly pay doubtful? Whilst, should things go ill - as well they may, faith, with an army ruled by parsons - the wage will be a swift death on field or gallows, or a lingering one in the plantations, as fell to the lot of those poor wretches Noll drove into England after Dunbar. Soul of my body, it is not thus that I had looked to fare when I took service at Perth. I had looked for plunder, rich and plentiful plunder, according to the usages of warfare, as a fitting reward for a toilsome march and the perils gone through.
"Thus I know war, and for this have I followed the trade these twenty years. Instead, we have thirty thousand men, marching to battle as prim and orderly as a parcel of acolytes in a Corpus-Christi procession. 'Twas not so bad in Scotland haply because the country holds naught a man may profitably plunder - but since we have crossed the Border, 'slife, they'll hang you if you steal so much as a kiss from a wench in passing."
"Why, true," laughed Crispin, "the Second Charles hath an over-tender stomach. He will not allow that we are marching through an enemy's country; he insists that England is his kingdom, forgetting that he has yet to conquer it, and - "
"Was it not also his father's kingdom?" broke in the impetuous Hogan. "Yet times are sorely changed since we followed the fortunes of the Martyr. In those days you might help yourself to a capon, a horse, a wench, or any other trifle of the enemy's, without ever a word of censure or a question asked. Why, man, it is but two days since His Majesty had a poor devil hanged at Kendal for laying violent hands upon a pullet. Pox on it, Cris, my gorge rises at the thought! When I saw that wretch strung up, I swore to fall behind at the earliest opportunity, and to-night's affair makes this imperative.""And what may your plans be?" asked Crispin.
"War is my trade, not a diversion, as it is with Wilmot and Buckingham and the other pretty gentlemen of our train. And since the King's army is like to yield me no profit, faith, I'll turn me to the Parliament's. If I get out of Penrith with my life, I'll shave my beard and cut my hair to a comely and godly length; don a cuckoldy steeple hat and a black coat, and carry my sword to Cromwell with a line of text."Sir Crispin fell to pondering. Noting this, and imagining that he guessed aright the reason: "I take it, Cris," he put in, keenly glancing at the other, "that you are much of my mind?" "Maybe I am," replied Crispin carelessly. "Why, then," cried Hogan, "need we part company?"
There was a sudden eagerness in his tone, born of the admiration in which this rough soldier of fortune held one whom he accounted his better in that same harsh trade. But Galliard answered coldly:"You forget, Harry." "Not so! Surely on Cromwell's side your object - "
"T'sh! I have well considered. My fortunes are bound up with the King's. In his victory alone lies profit for me; not the profit of pillage, Hogan, but the profit of those broad lands that for nigh upon twenty years have been in usurping hands. The profit I look for, Hogan, is my restoration to Castle Marleigh, and of this my only hope lies in the restoration of King Charles. If the King doth not prevail - which God forfend! - why, then, I can but die. I shall have naught left to hope for from life. So you see, good Hogan," he ended with a regretful smile, "my going with you is not to be dreamed of."
Still the Irishman urged him, and a good half-hour did he devote to it, but in vain. Realizing at last the futility of his endeavours, he sighed and moved uneasily in his chair, whilst the broad, tanned face was clouded with regret. Crispin saw this, and approaching him, he laid a hand upon his shoulder."I had counted upon your help to clear the Ashburns from Castle Marleigh and to aid me in my grim work when the time is ripe. But if you go - "
"Faith, I may aid you yet. Who shall say?" Then of a sudden there crept into the voice of this hardened pike-trader a note of soft concern. "Think you there be danger to yourself in remaining?" he inquired."Danger? To me?" echoed Crispin. "Aye - for having harboured me. That whelp of Montgomery's Foot suspects you." "Suspects? Am I a man of straw to be overset by a breath of suspicion?" "There is your lieutenant, Kenneth Stewart."
"Who has been a party to your escape, and whose only course is therefore silence, lest he set a noose about his own neck. Come, Harry," he added, briskly, changing his manner, "the night wears on, and we have your safety to think of."Hogan rose with a sigh. "Give me a horse," said he, "and by God's grace tomorrow shall find me in Cromwell's camp. Heaven prosper and reward you, Cris." "We must find you clothes more fitting than these - a coat more staid and better attuned to the Puritan part you are to play." "Where have you such a coat?" "My lieutenant has. He affects the godly black, from a habit taken in that Presbyterian Scotland of his." "But I am twice his bulk!" "Better a tight coat to your back than a tight rope to your neck, Harry. Wait."
Taking a taper, he left the room, to return a moment later with the coat that Kenneth had worn that day, and which he had abstracted from the sleeping lad's chamber. "Off with your doublet," he commanded, and as he spoke he set himself to empty the pocket of Kenneth's garment; a handkerchief and a few papers he found in them, and these he tossed carelessly on the bed. Next he assisted the Irishman to struggle into the stolen coat.
"May the Lord forgive my sins," groaned Hogan, as he felt the cloth straining upon his back and cramping his limbs. "May He forgive me, and see me safely out of Penrith and into Cromwell's camp, and never again will I resent the resentment of a clown whose sweetheart I have made too free with.""Pluck that feather from your hat," said Crispin. Hogan obeyed him with a sigh. "Truly it is written in Scripture that man in his time plays many parts. Who would have thought to see Harry Hogan playing the Puritan?"
"Unless you improve your acquaintance with Scripture you are not like to play it long," laughed Crispin, as he surveyed him. "There, man, you'll do well enough. Your coat is somewhat tight in the back, somewhat short in the skirt; but neither so tight nor so short but that it may be preferred to a winding-sheet, and that is the alternative, Harry."
Hogan replied by roundly cursing the coat and his own lucklessness. That done - and in no measured terms - he pronounced himself ready to set out, whereupon Crispin led the way below once more, and out into a hut that did service as a stable.
By the light of a lanthorn he saddled one of the two nags that stood there, and led it into the yard. Opening the door that abutted on to a field beyond, he bade Hogan mount. He held his stirrup for him, and cutting short the Irishman's voluble expressions of gratitude, he gave him "God speed," and urged him to use all dispatch in setting as great a distance as possible betwixt himself and Penrith before the dawn.
It was with a countenance sadly dejected that Crispin returned to his chamber and sate himself wearily upon the bed. With elbows on his knees and chin in his palms he stared straight before him, the usual steely brightness of his grey eyes dulled by the despondency that sat upon his face and drew deep furrows down his fine brow.
With a sigh he rose at last and idly fingered the papers he had taken from the pocket of Kenneth's coat. As he did so his glance was arrested by the signature at the foot of one. "Gregory Ashburn" was the name he read.
Ashen grew his cheeks as his eyes fastened upon that name, whilst the hand, to which no peril ever brought a tremor, shook now like an aspen. Feverishly he spread the letter on his knee, and with a glance, from dull that it had been, grown of a sudden fierce and cruel, he read the contents.DEAR KENNETH,
Again I write in the hope that I may prevail upon you to quit Scotland and your attachment to a king, whose fortunes prosper not, nor can prosper. Cynthia is pining, and if you tarry longer from Castle Marleigh she must perforce think you but a laggard lover. Than this I have no more powerful argument wherewith to draw you from Perth to Sheringham, but this I think should prevail where others have failed me. We await you then, and whilst we wait we daily drink your health. Cynthia commends herself to your memory as doth my brother, and soon we hope to welcome you at Castle Marleigh. Believe, my dear Kenneth, that whilst I am, I am yours in affection.GREGORY ASHBURN Twice Crispin read the letter through. Then with set teeth and straining eyes he sat lost in thought.
Here indeed was a strange chance! This boy whom he had met at Perth, and enrolled in his company, was a friend of Ashburn's - the lover of Cynthia. Who might this Cynthia be?
Long and deep were his ponderings upon the unfathomable ways of Fate - for Fate he now believed was here at work to help him, revealing herself by means of this sign even at the very moment when he decried his luck. In memory he reviewed his meeting with the lad in the yard of Perth Castle a fortnight ago. Something in the boy's bearing, in his air, had caught Crispin's eye. He had looked him over, then approached, and bluntly asked his name and on what business he was come there. The youth had answered him civilly enough that he was Kenneth Stewart of Bailienochy, and that he was come to offer his sword to the King. Thereupon he had interested himself in the lad's behalf and had gained him a lieutenancy in his own company. Why he was attracted to a youth on whom never before had he set eyes was a matter that puzzled him not a little. Now he held, he thought, the explanation of it. It was the way of Fate.
This boy was sent into his life by a Heaven that at last showed compassion for the deep wrongs he had suffered; sent him as a key wherewith, should the need occur, to open him the gates of Castle Marleigh.
In long strides he paced the chamber, turning the matter over in his mind. Aye, he would use the lad should the need arise. Why scruple? Had he ever received aught but disdain and scorn at the hands of Kenneth.
Day was breaking ere he sought his bed, and already the sun was up when at length he fell into a troubled sleep, vowing that he would mend his wild ways and seek to gain the boy's favour against the time when he might have need of him.
When later he restored the papers to Kenneth, explaining to what use he had put the coat, he refrained from questioning him concerning Gregory Ashburn. The docility of his mood on that occasion came as a surprise to Kenneth, who set it down to Sir Crispin's desire to conciliate him into silence touching the harbouring of Hogan. In that same connexion Crispin showed him calmly and clearly that he could not now inform without involving himself to an equally dangerous extent. And partly through the fear of this, partly won over by Crispin's persuasions, the lad determined to hold his peace.
Nor had he cause to regret it thereafter, for throughout that tedious march he found his roystering companion singularly meek and kindly. Indeed he seemed a different man. His old swagger and roaring bluster disappeared; he drank less, diced less, blasphemed less, and stormed less than in the old days before the halt at Penrith; but rode, a silent, thoughtful figure, so self-contained and of so godly a mien as would have rejoiced the heart of the sourest Puritan. The wild tantivy boy had vanished, and the sobriquet of "Tavern Knight" was fast becoming a misnomer.
Kenneth felt drawn more towards him, deeming him a penitent that had seen at last the error of his ways. And thus things prevailed until the almost triumphal entry into the city of Worcester on the twenty-third of August.
At The Sign Of The Mitre
For a week after the coming of the King to Worcester, Crispin's relations with Kenneth steadily improved. By an evil chance, however, there befell on the eve of the battle that which renewed with heightened intensity the enmity which the lad had fostered for him, but which lately he had almost overcome.The scene of this happening - leastways of that which led to it - was The Mitre Inn, in the High Street of Worcester.
In the common-room one day sat as merry a company of carousers as ever gladdened the soul of an old tantivy boy. Youthful ensigns of Lesley's Scottish horse - caring never a fig for the Solemn League and Covenant - rubbed shoulders with beribboned Cavaliers of Lord Talbot's company; gay young lairds of Pitscottie's Highlanders, unmindful of the Kirk's harsh commandments of sobriety, sat cheek by jowl with rakehelly officers of Dalzell's Brigade, and pledged the King in many a stoup of canary and many a can of stout March ale.
On every hand spirits ran high and laughter filled the chamber, the mirth of some having its source in a neighbour's quip, that of others having no source at all save in the wine they had taken.
At one table sat a gentleman of the name of Faversham, who had ridden on the previous night in that ill-fated camisado that should have resulted in the capture of Cromwell at Spetchley, but which, owing to a betrayal - when was a Stuart not betrayed and sold? - miscarried. He was relating to the group about him the details of that disaster.
"Oddslife, gentlemen," he was exclaiming, "I tell you that, but for that roaring dog, Sir Crispin Galliard, the whole of Middleton's regiment had been cut to pieces. There we stood on Red Hill, trapped as ever fish in a net, with the whole of Lilburne's men rising out of the ground to enclose and destroy us. A living wall of steel it was, and on every hand the call to surrender. There was dismay in my heart, as I'll swear there was dismay in the heart of every man of us, and I make little doubt, gentlemen, that with but scant pressing we had thrown down our arms, so disheartened were we by that ambush. Then of a sudden there arose above the clatter of steel and Puritan cries, a loud, clear, defiant shout of "Hey for Cavaliers!"
"I turned, and there in his stirrups stood that madman Galliard, waving his sword and holding his company together with the power of his will, his courage, and his voice. The sight of him was like wine to our blood. "Into them, gentlemen; follow me!" he roared. And then, with a hurricane of oaths, he hurled his company against the pike-men. The blow was irresistible, and above the din of it came that voice of his again: "Up, Cavaliers! Slash the cuckolds to ribbons, gentlemen!" The cropears gave way, and like a river that has burst its dam, we poured through the opening in their ranks and headed back for Worcester."
There was a roar of voices as Faversham ended, and around that table "The Tavern Knight" was for some minutes the only toast.
Meanwhile half a dozen merry-makers at a table hard by, having drunk themselves out of all sense of fitness, were occupied in baiting a pale-faced lad, sombrely attired, who seemed sadly out of place in that wild company - indeed, he had been better advised to have avoided it.
The matter had been set afoot by a pleasantry of Ensign Tyler's, of Massey's dragoons, with a playful allusion to a letter in a feminine hand which Kenneth had let fall, and which Tyler had restored to him. Quip had followed quip until in their jests they transcended all bounds. Livid with passion and unable to endure more, Kenneth had sprung up."Damnation!" he blazed, bringing his clenched hand down upon the table. "One more of your foul jests and he that utters it shall answer to me!"
The suddenness of his action and the fierceness of his tone and gesture - a fierceness so grotesquely ill-attuned to his slender frame and clerkly attire left the company for a moment speechless with amazement. Then a mighty burst of laughter greeted him, above which sounded the shrill voice of Tyler, who held his sides, and down whose crimson cheeks two tears of mirth were trickling."Oh, fie, fie, good Master Stewart!" he gasped. "What think you would the reverend elders say to this bellicose attitude and this profane tongue of yours?"
"And what think you would the King say to this drunken poltroonery of yours?" was the hot unguarded answer. "Poltroonery, I say," he repeated, embracing the whole company in his glance.
The laughter died down as Kenneth's insult penetrated their befuddled minds. An instant's lull there was, like the lull in nature that precedes a clap of thunder. Then, as with one accord, a dozen of them bore down upon him.
It was a vile thing they did, perhaps; but then they had drunk deep, and Kenneth Stewart counted no friend amongst them. In an instant they had him, kicking and biting, on the floor; his doublet was torn rudely open, and from his breast Tyler plucked the letter whose existence had led to this shameless scene.But ere he could so much as unfold it, a voice rang harsh and imperative: "Hold!"
Pausing, they turned to confront a tall, gaunt man in a leather jerkin and a broad hat decked by goose-quill, who came slowly forward.
"The Tavern Knight," cried one, and the shout of "A rouse for the hero of Red Hill!" was taken up on every hand. For despite his sour visage and ungracious ways there was not a roysterer in the Royal army to whom he was not dear.
Taken aback, Tyler hesitated for a second, whilst Crispin waited with hand outstretched. Vainly did he look round for sign or word of help or counsel. None was afforded him by his fellow-revellers, who one and all hung back in silence.
Seeing himself thus unsupported, and far from wishing to try conclusions with Galliard, Tyler with an ill grace surrendered the paper; and, with a pleasant bow and a word of thanks, delivered with never so slight a saturnine smile, Crispin turned on his heel and left the tavern as abruptly as he had entered it.
The din it was that had attracted him as he passed by on his way to the Episcopal Palace where a part of his company was on guard duty. Thither he now pursued his way, bearing with him the letter which so opportunely he had become possessed of, and which he hoped might throw further light upon Kenneth's relations with the Ashburns.But as he reached the palace there was a quick step behind him. and a hand fell upon his arm. He turned. "Ah, 'tis you, Kenneth," he muttered, and would have passed on, but the boy's hand took him by the sleeve. "Sir Crispin," said he, "I came to thank you." "I have done nothing to deserve your thanks. Give you good evening." And he made shift to mount the steps when again Kenneth detained him. "You are forgetting the letter, Sir Crispin," he ventured, and he held out his hand to receive it.
Galliard saw the gesture, and for a moment it crossed his mind in self-reproach that the part he chose to play was that of a bully. A second he hesitated. Should he surrender the letter unread, and fight on without the aid of the information it might bring him? Then the thought of Ashburn and of his own deep wrongs that cried out for vengeance, overcame and stifled the generous impulse. His manner grew yet more frozen as he made answer:
"There has been too much ado about this letter to warrant my so lightly parting with it. First I will satisfy myself that I have been no unconscious abettor of treason. You shall have your letter tomorrow, Master Stewart."
"Treason!" echoed Kenneth. And before that cold rebuff of Crispin's his mood changed from conciliatory to resentful - resentful towards the fates that made him this man's debtor.
"I assure you, on my honour," said he, mastering his feelings, "that this is but a letter from the lady I hope to make my wife. Assuredly, sir, you will not now insist upon reading it.""Assuredly I shall." "But, sir - " "Master Stewart, I am resolved, and were you to talk from now till doomsday, you would not turn me from my purpose. So good night to you." "Sir Crispin," cried the boy, his voice quavering with passion, "while I live you shall not read that letter!" "Hoity-toity, sir! What words! What heroics! And yet you would have me believe this paper innocent?"
"As innocent as the hand that penned it, and if I so oppose your reading it, it is because thus much I owe her. Believe me, sir," he added, his accents returning to a beseeching key, "when again I swear that it is no more than such a letter any maid may write her lover. I thought that you had understood all this when you rescued me from those bullies at The Mitre. I thought that what you did was a noble and generous deed. Instead - " The lad paused."Continue, sir," Galliard requested coldly. "Instead?" "There can be no instead, Sir Crispin. You will not mar so good an action now. You will give me my letter, will you not?"
Callous though he was, Crispin winced. The breeding of earlier days - so sadly warped, alas! - cried out within him against the lie that he was acting by pretending to suspect treason in that woman's pothooks. Instincts of gentility and generosity long dead took life again, resuscitated by that call of conscience. He was conquered.
"There, take your letter, boy, and plague me no more," he growled, as he held it out to Kenneth. And without waiting for reply or acknowledgment, he turned on his heel, and entered the palace. But he had yielded overlate to leave a good impression and, as Kenneth turned away, it was with a curse upon Galliard, for whom his detestation seemed to increase at every step.
After Worcester Field
The morn of the third of September - that date so propitious to Cromwell, so disastrous to Charles - found Crispin the centre of a company of gentlemen in battle-harness, assembled at The Mitre Inn. For a toast he gave them "The damnation of all crop-ears.""Sirs," quoth he, "a fair beginning to a fair day. God send the evening find us as merry."
It was not to be his good fortune, however, to be in the earlier work of the day. Until afternoon he was kept within the walls of Worcester, chafing to be where hard knocks were being dealt - with Montgomery at Powick Bridge, or with Pittscottie on Bunn's Hill. But he was forced to hold his mood in curb, and wait until Charles and his advisers should elect to make the general attack.
It came at last, and with it came the disastrous news that Montgomery was routed, and Pittscottie in full retreat, whilst Dalzell had surrendered, and Keith was taken. Then was it that the main body of the Royal army formed up at the Sidbury Gate, and Crispin found himself in the centre, which was commanded by the King in person. In the brilliant charge that followed there was no more conspicuous figure, no voice rang louder in encouragement to the men. For the first time that day Cromwell's Ironsides gave back before the Royalists, who in that fierce, irresistible charge, swept all before them until they had reached the battery on Perry Wood, and driven the Roundheads from it hell-toleather.It was a glorious moment, a moment in which the fortunes of the day hung in the balance; the turn of the tide it seemed to them at last.
Crispin was among the first to reach the guns, and with a great shout of "Hurrah for Cavaliers!" he had cut down two gunners that yet lingered. His cry lacked not an echo, and a deafening cheer broke upon the clamorous air as the Royalists found themselves masters of the position. Up the hill on either side pressed the Duke of Hamilton and the Earl of Derby to support the King. It but remained for Lesley's Scottish horse to follow and complete the rout of the Parliamentarian forces. Had they moved at that supreme moment who shall say what had been the issue of Worcester field? But they never stirred, and the Royalists waiting on Perry Wood cursed Lesley for a foul traitor who had sold his King.With bitterness did they then realize that their great effort was to be barren, their gallant charge in vain. Unsupported, their position grew fast untenable.
And presently, when Cromwell had gathered his scattered Ironsides, that gallant host was driven fighting, down the hill and back to the shelter of Worcester. With the Roundheads pressing hotly upon them they gained at last the Sidbury Gate, but only to find that an overset ammunition wagon blocked the entrance. In this plight, and without attempting to move it, they faced about to make a last stand against the Puritan onslaught. Charles had flung himself from his charger and climbed the obstruction, and in this he was presently followed by others, amongst whom was Crispin.
In the High Street Galliard came upon the King, mounted on a fresh horse, addressing a Scottish regiment of foot. The soldiers had thrown down their arms and stood sullenly before him, refusing to obey his command to take them up again and help him attempt, even at that late hour, to retrieve the fortunes of the day. Crispin looked on in scorn and loathing. His passions awakened at the sight of Lesley's inaction needed but this last breath to fan it into a very blaze of wrath. And what he said to them touching themselves, their country, and the Kirk Committee that had made sheep of them, was so bitter and contemptuous that none but men in the most parlous and pitiable of conditions could have suffered it.
He was still hurling vituperations at them when Colonel Pride with a troop of Parliamentarian horse - having completely overcome the resistance at the Sidbury Gate - rode into the town. At the news of this, Crispin made a last appeal to the infantry."Afoot, you Scottish curs!" he thundered. "Would you rather be cut to pieces as you stand? Up, you dogs, and since you know not how to live, die at least without shame!"
But in vain did he rail. In sullen quiet they remained, their weapons on the ground before them. And then, as Crispin was turning away to see to his own safety, the King rode up again, and again he sought to revive the courage that was dead in those Scottish hearts. If they would not stand by him, he cried at last, let them slay him there, sooner than that he should be taken captive to perish on the scaffold.While he was still urging them, Crispin unceremoniously seized his bridle. "Will you stand here until you are taken, sire?" he cried. "Leave them, and look to your safety." Charles turned a wondering eye upon the resolute, battle-grimed face of the man that thus addressed him. A faint, sad smile parted his lips. "You are right, sir," he made answer. "Attend me." And turning about he rode down a side street with Galliard following closely in his wake.
With the intention of doffing his armour and changing his apparel, he made for the house in New Street where he had been residing. As they drew up before the door, Crispin, chancing to look over his shoulder, rapped out an oath."Hasten, sire," he exclaimed, "here is a portion of Colonel's Pride's troop."
The King looked round, and at sight of the Parliamentarians, "It is ended," he muttered despairingly. But already Crispin had sprung from his horse.
"Dismount, sire," he roared, and he assisted him so vigorously as to appear to drag him out of the saddle.
But Crispin's quick mind had already shaped a plan. Seizing the royal arm - for who in such straits would deal ceremoniously? - he thrust the King across the threshold, and, following, closed the door and shot its only bolt. But the shout set up by the Puritans announced to them that their movement had been detected.The King turned upon Sir Crispin, and in the half-light of the passage wherein they stood Galliard made out the frown that bent the royal brows. "And now?" demanded Charles, a note almost of reproach in his voice. "And now begone, sire," returned the knight. "Begone ere they come." "Begone?" echoed Charles, in amazement. "But whither, sir? Whither and how?" His last words were almost drowned in the din without, as the Roundheads pulled up before the house.
"By the back, sire," was the impatient answer. "Through door or window - as best you can. The back must overlook the Corn-Market; that is your way. But hasten - in God's name hasten! - ere they bethink them of it and cut off your retreat."As he spoke a violent blow shook the door. "Quick, Your Majesty," he implored, in a frenzy. Charles moved to depart, then paused. "But you, sir? Do you not come with me?" Crispin stamped his foot, and turned a face livid with impatience upon his King. In that moment all distinction of rank lay forgotten.
"I must remain," he answered, speaking quickly. "That crazy door will not hold for a second once a stout man sets his shoulder to it. After the door they will find me, and for your sake I trust I may prove of stouter stuff. Fare you well, sire," he ended in a softer tone. "God guard Your Majesty and send you happier days."And, bending his knee, Crispin brushed the royal hand with his hot lips.
A shower of blows clattered upon the timbers of the door, and one of its panels was splintered by a musket-shot. Charles saw it, and with a muttered word that was not caught by Crispin, he obeyed the knight, and fled.
Scarce had he disappeared down that narrow passage, when the door gave way completely and with a mighty crash fell in. Over the ruins of it sprang a young Puritanscarce more than a boy - shouting: "The Lord of Hosts!"
Behind him, in the doorway, pressed others, who cried out to him to cut down the Amalekite that stood between them and the young man Charles Stuart. But Crispin laughed grimly for answer, and kept the officer in check with his point."Back, or I cut you down," threatened the Roundhead. "I am seeking the malignant Stuart." "If by those blasphemous words you mean his sacred Majesty, learn that he is where you will never be - in God's keeping." "Presumptuous hound," stormed the lad, "giveway!" Their swords met, and for a moment they ground one against the other; then Crispin's blade darted out, swift as a lightning flash, and took his opponent in the throat. "You would have it so, rash fool," he deprecated.
The boy hurtled back into the arms of those behind, and as he fell he dropped his rapier, which rolled almost to Crispin's feet. The knight stooped, and when again he stood erect, confronting the rebels in that narrow passage, he held a sword in either hand.
There was a momentary pause in the onslaught, then to his dismay Crispin saw the barrel of a musket pointed at him over the shoulder of one of his foremost assailants. He set his teeth for what was to come, and braced himself with the hope that the King might already have made good his escape.The end was at hand, he thought, and a fitting end, since his last hope of redress was gone-destroyed by that fatal day's defeat. But of a sudden a cry rang out in a voice wherein rage and anguish were blended fearfully, and simultaneously the musket barrel was dashed aside.
"Take him alive!" was the cry of that voice. "Take him alive!" It was Colonel Pride himself, who having pushed his way forward, now beheld the bleeding body of the youth Crispin had slain. "Take him alive!" roared the old man. Then his voice changing to one of exquisite agony - "My son, my boy," he moaned.
At a glance Crispin caught the situation; but the old Puritan's grief left him unmoved.
"You must have me alive?" he laughed grimly. "Gadslife, but the honour is like to cost you dear. Well, sirs? Who will be next to court the distinction of dying by the sword of a gentleman?" he mocked them. "Come on, you sons of dogs!"
His answer was an angry growl, and straightway two men sprang forward. More than two could not attack him at once by virtue of the narrowness of the passage. Again steel clashed on steel. Crispin - lithe as a panther crouched low, and took one of their swords on each of his.
A disengage and a double he foiled with ease, then by a turn of the wrist he held for a second one opponent's blade; and before the fellow could disengage again, he had brought his right-hand sword across, and stabbed him in the neck. Simultaneously his other opponent had rushed in and thrust. It was a risk Crispin was forced to take, trusting to his armour to protect him. It did him the service he hoped from it; the trooper's sword glanced harmlessly aside, whilst the fellow himself, overbalanced by the fury of his onslaught, staggered helplessly forward. Ere he could recover, Crispin had spitted him from side to side betwixt the straps that held his back and breast together.
As the two men went down, one after the other, the watching troopers set up a shout of rage, and pressed forward in a body. But the Tavern Knight stood his ground, and his points danced dangerously before the eyes of the two foremost. Alarmed, they shouted to those behind to give them room to handle their swords; but too late. Crispin had seen the advantage, and taken it. Twice he had thrust, and another two sank bleeding to the ground.
At that there came a pause, and somewhere in the street a knot of them expostulated with Colonel Pride, and begged to be allowed to pick off that murderous malignant with their pistols. But the grief-stricken father was obdurate. He would have the Amalekite alive that he might cause him to die a hundred deaths in one.
And so two more were sent in to try conclusions with the indomitable Galliard. They went to work more warily. He on the left parried Crispin's stroke, then knocking up the knight's blade, he rushed in and seized his wrist, shouting to those behind to follow up. But even as he did so, Crispin sent back his other antagonist, howling and writhing with the pain of a transfixed sword-arm, and turned his full attention upon the foe that clung to him. Not a second did he waste in thought. To have done so would have been fatal. Instinctively he knew that whilst he shortened his blade, others would rush in; so, turning his wrist, he caught the man a crushing blow full in the face with the pommel of his disengaged sword.
Fulminated by that terrific stroke, the man reeled back into the arms of another who advanced.
Again there fell a pause. Then silently a Roundhead charged Sir Crispin with a pike. He leapt nimbly aside, and the murderous lunge shot past him; as he did so he dropped his left-hand sword and caught at the halberd. Exerting his whole strength in a mighty pull, he brought the fellow that wielded it toppling forward, and received him on his outstretched blade.
Covered with blood - the blood of others --Crispin stood before them now. He was breathing hard and sweating at every pore, but still grim and defiant. His strength, he realized, was ebbing fast. Yet he shook himself, and asked them with a gibing laugh did they not think that they had better shoot him.
The Roundheads paused again. The fight had lasted but a few moments, and already five of them were stretched upon the ground, and a sixth disabled. There was something in the Tavern Knight's attitude and terrific, blood-bespattered appearance that deterred them. From out of his powder-blackened face his eyes flashed fiercely, and a mocking diabolical smile played round the corners of his mouth. What manner of man, they asked themselves, was this who could laugh in such an extremity? Superstition quickened their alarm as they gazed upon his undaunted front, and told themselves this was no man they fought against, but the foul fiend himself."Well, sirs," he mocked them presently. "How long am I to await your pleasure?"
They snarled for answer, yet hung back until Colonel Pride's voice shook them into action. In a body they charged him now, so suddenly and violently that he was forced to give way. Cunningly did he ply his sword before them, but ineffectually. They had adopted fresh tactics, and engaging his blade they acted cautiously and defensively, advancing steadily, and compelling him to fall back.
Sir Crispin guessed their scheme at last, and vainly did he try to hold his ground; his retreat slackened perhaps, but it was still a retreat, and their defensive action gave him no opening. Vainly, yet by every trick of fence he was master of, did he seek to lure the two foremost into attacking him; stolidly they pursued the adopted plan, and steadily they impelled him backward.
At last he reached the staircase, and he realized that did he allow himself to go farther he was lost irretrievably. Yet farther was he driven; despite the strenuous efforts he put forth, until on his right there was room for a man to slip on to the stairs and take him in the flank. Twice one of his opponents essayed it, and twice did Galliard's deadly point repel him. But at the third attempt the man got through, another stepped into his place in front, and thus from two, Crispin's immediate assailants became increased to three.
He realized that the end was at hand, and wildly did he lay about him, but to no purpose. And presently, he who had gained the stairs leaped suddenly upon him sideways, and clung to his swordarm. Before he could make a move to shake himself free, the two that faced him had caught at his other arm.
Like one possessed he struggled then, for the sheer lust of striving; but they that held him gripped effectively.
Thrice they bore him struggling to the ground, and thrice he rose again and sought to shake them from him as a bull shakes off a pack of dogs. But they held fast, and again they forced him down; others sprang to their aid, and the Tavern Knight could rise no more."Disarm the dog!" cried Pride. "Disarm and truss him hand and foot." "Sirs, you need not," he answered, gasping. "I yield me. Take my sword. I'll do your bidding."
The fight was fought and lost, but it had been a great Homeric struggle, and he rejoiced almost that upon so worthy a scene of his life was the curtain to fall, and again to hope that, thanks to the stand he had made, the King should have succeeded in effecting his escape.
Companions In Misfortune
Through the streets of Worcester the Roundheads dragged Sir Crispin, and for all that he was as hard and callous a man as any that ever buckled on a cuirass, the horrors that in going he beheld caused him more than once to shudder.
The place was become a shambles, and the very kennels ran with blood. The Royalist defeat was by now complete, and Cromwell's fanatic butchers overran the town, vying to outdo one another in savage cruelty and murder. Houses were being broken into and plundered, and their inmates - resisting or unresisting; armed or unarmed; men, women and children alike were pitilessly being put to the sword. Charged was the air of Worcester with the din of that fierce massacre. The crashing of shivered timbers, as doors were beaten in, mingled with the clatter and grind of sword on sword, the crack of musket and pistol, the clank of armour, and the stamping of men and horses in that troubled hour.And above all rang out the fierce, raucous blasphemy of the slayers, and the shrieks of agony, the groans, the prayers, and curses of their victims.
All this Sir Crispin saw and heard, and in the misery of it all, he for the while forgot his own sorry condition, and left unheeded the pike-butt wherewith the Puritan at his heels was urging him along.
They paused at length in a quarter unknown to him before a tolerably large house. Its doors hung wide, and across the threshold, in and out, moved two continuous streams of officers and men.
A while Crispin and his captors stood in the spacious hall; then they ushered him roughly into one of the abutting rooms. Here he was brought face to face with a man of middle height, red and coarse of countenance and large of nose, who stood fully armed in the centre of the chamber. His head was uncovered, and on the table at his side stood the morion he had doffed. He looked up as they entered, and for a few seconds rested his glance sourly upon the lank, bold-eyed prisoner, who coldly returned his stare."Whom have we here?" he inquired at length, his scrutiny having told him nothing. "One whose offence is too heinous to have earned him a soldier's death, my lord," answered Pride.
"Therein you lie, you damned rebel!" cried Crispin. "If accuse you must, announce the truth. Tell Master Cromwell" - for he had guessed the man's identity - "that single-handed I held my own against you and a score of you curs, and that not until I had cut down seven of them was I taken. Tell him that, master psalm-singer, and let him judge whether you lied or not. Tell him, too, that you, who - "
"Have done!" cried Cromwell at length, stamping his foot. "Peace, or I'll have you gagged. Now, Colonel, let us hear your accusation."
At great length, and with endless interlarding of proverbs did Pride relate how this impious malignant had been the means of the young man, Charles Stuart, making good his escape when otherwise he must have fallen into their hands. He accused him also of the murder of his son and of four other stout, God-fearing troopers, and urged Cromwell to let him deal with the malignant as he deserved.The Lord General's answer took expression in a form that was little puritanical. Then, checking himself:
"He is the second they have brought me within ten minutes charged with the same offence," said he. "The other one is a young fool who gave Charles Stuart his horse at Saint Martin's Gate. But for him again the young man had been taken.""So he has escaped!" cried Crispin. "Now, God be praised!" Cromwell stared at him blankly for a moment, then:
"You will do well, sir," he muttered sourly, "to address the Lord on your own behalf. As for that young man of Baal, your master, rejoice not yet in his escape. By the same crowning mercy in which the Lord hath vouchsafed us victory to-day shall He also deliver the malignant youth into my hands. For your share in retarding his capture your life, sir, shall pay forfeit. You shall hang at daybreak together with that other malignant who assisted Charles at the Saint Martin's Gate.""I shall at least hang in good company," said Crispin pleasantly, "and for that, sir, I give you thanks."
"You will pass the night with that other fool," Cromwell continued, without heeding the interruption, "and I pray that you may spend it in such meditation as shall fit you for your end. Take him away.""But, my lord," exclaimed Pride, advancing. "What now?" Crispin caught not his answer, but his half-whispered words were earnest and pleading. Cromwell shook his head.
"I cannot sanction it. Let it satisfy you that he dies. I condole with you in your bereavement, but it is the fortune of war. Let the thought that your son died in a godly cause be of comfort to you. Bear in mind, Colonel Pride, that Abraham hesitated not to offer up his child to the Lord. And so, fare you well."
Colonel Pride's face worked oddly, and his eyes rested for a second upon the stern, unmoved figure of the Tavern Knight in malice and vindictiveness. Then, shrugging his shoulders in token of unwilling resignation, he withdrew, whilst Crispin was led out.
In the hall again they kept him waiting for some moments, until at length an officer came up, and bidding him follow, led the way to the guardroom. Here they stripped him of his back-and-breast, and when that was done the officer again led the way, and Crispin followed between two troopers. They made him mount three flights of stairs, and hurried him along a passage to a door by which a soldier stood mounting guard. At a word from the officer the sentry turned, and unfastening the heavy bolts, he opened the door. Roughly the officer bade Sir Crispin enter, and stood aside that he might pass.
Crispin obeyed him silently, and crossed the threshold to find himself within a mean, gloomy chamber, and to hear the heavy door closed and made fast again behind him. His stout heart sank a little as he realized that that closed door shut out to him the world for ever; but once again would he cross that threshold, and that would be the preface to the crossing of the greater threshold of eternity.
Then something stirred in one of that room's dark corners, and he started, to see that he was not alone, remembering that Cromwell had said he was to have a companion in his last hours."Who are you?" came a dull voice - a voice that was eloquent of misery.
"Master Stewart!" he exclaimed, recognizing his companion. "So it was you gave the King your horse at the Saint Martin's Gate! May Heaven reward you. Gadswounds," he added, "I had little thought to meet you again this side the grave.""Would to Heaven you had not!" was the doleful answer. "What make you here?"
"By your good leave and with your help I'll make as merry as a man may whose sands are all but run. The Lord General - whom the devil roast in his time will make a pendulum of me at daybreak, and gives me the night in which to prepare."The lad came forward into the light, and eyed Sir Crispin sorrowfully. "We are companions in misfortune, then." "Were we ever companions in aught else? Come, sir, be of better cheer. Since it is to be our last night in this poor world, let us spend it as pleasantly as may be." "Pleasantly?"
"Twill clearly be difficult," answered Crispin, with a laugh. "Were we in Christian hands they'd not deny us a black jack over which to relish our last jest, and to warm us against the night air, which must be chill in this garret. But these crop-ears ..." He paused to peer into the pitcher on the table. "Water! Pah! A scurvy lot, these psalm-mongers!""Merciful Heaven! Have you no thought for your end?"
"Every thought, good youth, every thought, and I would fain prepare me for the morning's dance in a more jovial and hearty fashion than Old Noll will afford me - damn him!"
Kenneth drew back in horror. His old dislike for Crispin was all aroused by this indecent flippancy at such a time. Just then the thought of spending the night in his company almost effaced the horror of the gallows whereof he had been a prey.
Noting the movement, Crispin laughed disdainfully, and walked towards the window. It was a small opening, by which two iron bars, set crosswise, defied escape. Moreover, as Crispin looked out, he realized that a more effective barrier lay in the height of the window itself. The house overlooked the river on that side; it was built upon an embankment some thirty feet high; around this, at the base of the edifice, and some forty feet below the window, ran a narrow pathway protected by an iron railing. But so narrow was it, that had a man sprung from the casement of Crispin's prison, it was odds he would have fallen into the river some seventy feet below. Crispin turned away with a sigh. He had approached the window almost in hope; he quitted it in absolute despair."Ah, well," said he, "we will hang, and there's the end of it."
Kenneth had resumed his seat in the corner, and, wrapped in his cloak, he sat steeped in meditation, his comely young face seared with lines of pain. As Crispin looked upon him then, his heart softened and went out to the lad - went out as it had done on the night when first he had beheld him in the courtyard of Perth Castle.
He recalled the details of that meeting; he remembered the sympathy that had drawn him to the boy, and how Kenneth had at first appeared to reciprocate that feeling, until he came to know him for the rakehelly, godless ruffler that he was. He thought of the gulf that gradually had opened up between them. The lad was righteous and God-fearing, truthful and sober, filled with stern ideals by which he sought to shape his life. He had taxed Crispin with his dissoluteness, and Crispin, despising him for a milksop, had returned to his disgust with mockery, and had found a fiendish pleasure in arousing that disgust at every turn.
To-night, as Crispin eyed the youth, and remembered that at dawn he was to die in his company, he realized that he had used him ill, that his behaviour towards him had been that of the dissolute ruffler he was become, rather than of the gentleman he had once accounted himself.
"Kenneth," he said at length, and his voice bore so unusually mild a ring that the lad looked up in surprise. "I have heard tell that it is no uncommon thing for men upon the threshold of eternity to seek to repair some of the evil they may have done in life."
Kenneth shuddered. Crispin's words reminded him again of his approaching end. The ruffler paused a moment, as if awaiting a reply or a word of encouragement. Then, as none came, he continued:
"I am not one of your repentant sinners, Kenneth. I have lived my life - God, what a life!
- and as I have lived I shall die, unflinching and unchanged. Dare one to presume that a few hours spent in whining prayers shall atone for years of reckless dissoluteness? "Tis a doctrine of cravens, who, having lacked in life the strength to live as conscience bade them, lack in death the courage to stand by that life's deeds. I am no such traitor to myself. If my life has been vile my temptations have been sore, and the rest is in God's hands. But in my course I have sinned against many men; many a tall fellow's life have I wantonly wrecked; some, indeed, I have even taken in wantonness or anger. They are not by, nor, were they, could I now make amends. But you at least are here, and what little reparation may lie in asking pardon I can make. When I first saw you at Perth it was my wish to make you my friend - a feeling I have not had these twenty years towards any man. I failed. How else could it have been? The dove may not nest with the carrion bird."
"Say no more, sir," cried Kenneth, genuinely moved, and still more amazed by this curious humility in one whom he had never known other than arrogant and mocking. "I beseech you, say no more. For what trifling wrongs you may have done me I forgive you as freely as I would be forgiven. Is it not written that it shall be so?" And he held out his hand.
"A little more I must say, Kenneth," answered the other, leaving the outstretched hand unheeded. "The feeling that was born in me towards you at Perth Castle is on me again. I seek not to account for it. Perchance it springs from my recognition of the difference betwixt us; perchance I see in you a reflection of what once I was myself - honourable and true. But let that be. The sun is setting over yonder, and you and I will behold it no more. That to me is a small thing. I am weary. Hope is dead; and when that is dead what does it signify that the body die also? Yet in these last hours that we shall spend together I would at least have your esteem. I would have you forget my past harshness and the wrongs that I may have done you down to that miserable affair of your sweetheart's letter, yesterday. I would have you realize that if I am vile, I am but such as a vile world hath made me. And tomorrow when we go forth together, I would have you see in me at least a man in whose company you are not ashamed to die."
Again the lad shuddered. "Shall I tell you my story, Kenneth? I have a strong desire to go over this poor life of mine again in memory, and by giving my thoughts utterance it may be that they will take more vivid shape. For the rest my tale may wile away a little of the time that's left, and when you have heard me you shall judge me, Kenneth. What say you?"
Despite the parlous condition whereunto the fear of the morrow had reduced him, this new tone of Galliard's so wrought upon him then that he was almost eager in his request that Sir Crispin should unfold his story. And this the Tavern Knight then set himself to do.
The Tavern Knight's Story
Sir Crispin walked from the window by which he had been standing, to the rough bed, and flung himself full length upon it. The only chair that dismal room contained was occupied by Kenneth. Galliard heaved a sigh of physical satisfaction.
"Fore George, I knew not I was so tired," he murmured. And with that he lapsed for some moments into silence, his brows contracted in the frown of one who collects his thoughts. At length he began, speaking in calm, unemotional tones that held perchance deeper pathos than a more passionate utterance could have endowed them with:
"Long ago - twenty years ago - I was, as I have said, an honourable lad, to whom the world was a fair garden, a place of rosebuds, fragrant with hope. Those, Kenneth, were my illusions. They are the illusions of youth; they are youth itself, for when our illusions are gone we are no longer young no matter what years we count. Keep your illusions, Kenneth; treasure them, hoard them jealously for as long as you may.""I dare swear, sir," answered the lad, with bitter humour, "that such illusions as I have I shall treasure all my life. You forget, Sir Crispin."
"'Slife, I had indeed forgotten. For the moment I had gone back twenty years, and tomorrow was none so near." He laughed softly, as though his lapse of memory amused him. Then he resumed:
"I was the only son, Kenneth, of the noblest gentleman that ever lived - the heir to an ancient, honoured name, and to a castle as proud and lands as fair and broad as any in England.
"They lie who say that from the dawn we may foretell the day. Never was there a brighter dawn than that of my life; never a day so wasted; never an evening so dark. But let that be.
"Our lands were touched upon the northern side by those of a house with which we had been at feud for two hundred years and more. Puritans they were, stern and haughty in their ungodly righteousness. They held us dissolute because we enjoyed the life that God had given us, and there I am told the hatred first began.
"When I was a lad of your years, Kenneth, the hall - ours was the castle, theirs the hall was occupied by two young sparks who made little shift to keep up the pious reputation of their house. They dwelt there with their mother - a woman too weak to check their ways, and holding, mayhap, herself, views not altogether puritanical. They discarded the sober black their forbears had worn for generations, and donned gay Cavalier garments. They let their love-locks grow; set plumes in their castors and jewels in their ears; they drank deep, ruffled it with the boldest and decked their utterance with great oaths - for to none doth blasphemy come more readily than to lips that in youth have been overmuch shaped in unwilling prayer.
"Me they avoided as they would a plague, and when at times we met, our salutations were grave as those of, men on the point of crossing swords. I despised them for their coarse, ruffling apostasy more than ever my father had despised their father for a bigot, and they guessing or knowing by instinct what was in my mind held me in deeper rancour even than their ancestors had done mine. And more galling still and yet a sharper spur to their hatred did those whelps find in the realization that all the countryside held, as it had held for ages, us to be their betters. A hard blow to their pride was that, but their revenge was not long in coming.
"It chanced they had a cousin - a maid as sweet and fair and pure as they were hideous and foul. We met in the meads - she and I. Spring was the time - God! It seems but yesterday! - and each in our bearing towards the other forgot the traditions of the names we bore. And as at first we had met by chance, so did we meet later by contrivance, not once or twice, but many times. God, how sweet she was! How sweet was all the world! How sweet it was to live and to be young! We loved. How else could it have been? What to us were traditions, what to us the hatred that for centuries had held our families asunder? In us it lay to set aside all that.
"And so I sought my father. He cursed me at first for an unnatural son who left unheeded the dictates of our blood. But anon, when on my knees I had urged my cause with all the eloquent fervour that is but of youth - youth that loves - my father cursed no more. His thoughts went back maybe to the days of his own youth, and he bade me rise and go awooing as I listed. Nay, more than that he did. The first of our name was he out of ten generations to set foot across the threshold of the hall; he went on my behalf to sue for their cousin's hand.
"Then was their hour. To them that had been taught the humiliating lesson that we were their betters, one of us came suing. They from whom the countryside looked for silence when one of us spoke, had it in their hands at length to say us nay. And they said it. What answer my father made them, Kenneth, I know not, but very white was his face when I met him on the castle steps on his return. In burning words he told me of the insult they had put upon him, then silently he pointed to the Toledo that two years before he had brought me out of Spain, and left me. But I had understood. Softly I unsheathed that virgin blade and read the Spanish inscription, that through my tears of rage and shame seemed blurred; a proud inscription was it, instinct with the punctilio of proud Spain "Draw me not without motive, sheathe me not without honour." Motive there was and to spare; honour I swore there should be; and with that oath, and that brave sword girt to me, I set out to my first combat."
Sir Crispin paused and a sigh escaped him, followed by a laugh of bitterness. "I lost that sword years ago," said he musingly. "The sword and I have been close friends in life, but my companion has been a blade of coarser make, carrying no inscriptions to prick at a man's conscience and make a craven of him."He laughed again, and again he fell a-musing, till Kenneth's voice aroused him. "Your story, sir."
Twilight shadows were gathering in their garret, and as he turned his face towards the youth, he was unable to make out his features; but his tone had been eager, and Crispin noted that he sat with head bent forward and that his eyes shone feverishly.
"It interests you, eh? Ah, well - hot foot I went to the hall, and with burning words I called upon those dogs to render satisfaction for the dishonour they had put upon my house. Will you believe, Kenneth, that they denied me? They sheltered their craven lives behind a shield of mock valour. They would not fight a boy, they said, and bade me get my beard grown when haply they would give ear to my grievance.
"And so, a shame and rage a hundredfold more bitter than that which I had borne thither did I carry thence. My father bade me treasure up the memory of it against the time when my riper years should compel them to attend me, and this, by my every hope of heaven, I swore to do. He bade me further efface for ever from my mind all thought or hope of union with their cousin, and though I made him no answer at the time, yet in my heart I promised to obey him in that, too. But I was young - scarce twenty. A week without sight of my mistress and I grew sick with despair. Then at length I came upon her, pale and tearful, one evening, and in an agony of passion and hopelessness I flung myself at her feet, and implored her to keep true to me and wait, and she, poor maid, to her undoing swore that she would. You are yourself a lover, Kenneth, and you may guess something of the impatience that anon beset me. How could I wait? I asked her this.
"Some fifty miles from the castle there was a little farm, in the very heart of the country, which had been left me by a sister of my mother's. Thither I now implored her to repair with me. I would find a priest to wed us, and there we should live a while in happiness, in solitude, and in love. An alluring picture did I draw with all a lover's cunning, and to the charms of it she fell a victim. We fled three days later.
"We were wed in the village that pays allegiance to the castle, and thereafter we travelled swiftly and undisturbed to that little homestead. There in solitude, with but two servants - a man and a maid whom I could trust - we lived and loved, and for a season, brief as all happiness is doomed to be, we were happy. Her cousins had no knowledge of that farm of mine, and though they searched the country for many a mile around, they searched in vain. My father knew - as I learned afterwards - but deeming that what was done might not be undone, he held his peace. In the following spring a babe was born to us, and our bliss made heaven of that cottage.
"Twas a month or so after the birth of our child that the blow descended. I was away, enjoying alone the pleasures of the chase; my man was gone a journey to the nearest town, whence he would not return until the morrow. Oft have I cursed the folly that led me to take my gun and go forth into the woods, leaving no protector for my wife but one weak woman.
"I returned earlier than I had thought to do, led mayhap by some angel that sought to have me back in time. But I came too late. At my gate I found two freshly ridden horses tethered, and it was with a dull foreboding in my heart that I sprang through the open door. Within - O God, the anguish of it! - stretched on the floor I beheld my love, a gaping sword-wound in her side, and the ground all bloody about her. For a moment I stood dumb in the spell of that horror, then a movement beyond, against the wall, aroused me, and I beheld her murderers cowering there, one with a naked sword in his hand.
"In that fell hour, Kenneth, my whole nature changed, and one who had ever been gentle was transformed into the violent, passionate man that you have known. As my eye encountered then her cousins, my blood seemed on the instant curdled in my veins; my teeth were set hard; my nerves and sinews knotted; my hands instinctively shifted to the barrel of my fowling-piece and clutched it with the fierceness that was in me - the fierceness of the beast about to spring upon those that have brought it to bay.
"For a moment I stood swaying there, my eyes upon them, and holding their craven glances fascinated. Then with a roar I leapt forward, the stock of my fowling-piece swung high above my head. And, as God lives, Kenneth, I had sent them straight to hell ere they could have raised a hand or made a cry to stay me. But as I sprang my foot slipped in the blood of my beloved, and in my fall I came close to her where she lay. The fowling-piece had escaped my grasp and crashed against the wall.
"I scarce knew what I did, but as I lay beside her it came to me that I did not wish to rise again - that already I had lived overlong. It came to me that, seeing me fallen, haply those cowards would seize the chance to make an end of me as I lay. I wished it so in that moment's frenzy, for I made no attempt to rise or to defend myself; instead I set my arms about my poor murdered love, and against her cold cheek I set my face that was wellnigh as cold.
"And thus I lay, nor did they keep me long. A sword was passed through me from back to breast, whilst he who did it cursed me with a foul oath. The room grew dim; methought it swayed and that the walls were tottering; there was a buzz of sound in my ears, then a piercing cry in a baby voice. At the sound of it I vaguely wished for the strength to rise. As in the distance, I heard one of those butchers cry, "Haste, man; slit me that squalling bastard's throat!" And then I must have swooned."Kenneth shuddered.
"My God, how horrible!" he cried. "But you were avenged, Sir Crispin," he added eagerly; "you were avenged?"
"When I regained consciousness," Crispin continued, as if he had not heard Kenneth's exclamation, "the cottage was in flames, set alight by them to burn the evidence of their foul deed. What I did I know not. I have tried to urge my memory along from the point of my awakening, but in vain. By what miracle I crawled forth, I cannot tell; but in the morning I was found by my man lying prone in the garden, half a dozen paces from the blackened ruins of the cottage, as near death as man may go and live.
"God willed that I should not die, but it was close upon a year before I was restored to any semblance of my former self, and then I was so changed that I was hardly to be recognized as that same joyous, vigorous lad, who had set out, fowling-piece on shoulder, one fine morning a year agone. There was grey in my hair, as much as there is now, though I was but twenty-one; my face was seared and marked as that of a man who had lived twice my years. It was to my faithful servant that I owed my life, though I ask myself to-night whether I have cause for gratitude towards him on that score.
"So soon as I had regained sufficient strength, I went secretly home, wishing that men might continue to believe me dead. My father I found much aged by grief, but he was kind and tender with me beyond all words. From him I had it that our enemies were gone to France; it would seem they had thought it better to remain absent for a while. He had learnt that they were in Paris, and hither I determined forthwith to follow them. Vainly did my father remonstrate with me; vainly did he urge me rather: to bear my story to the King at Whitehall and seek. for justice. I had been well advised had I obeyed this counsel, but I burned to take my vengeance with my own hands, and with this purpose I repaired to France.
"Two nights after my arrival in Paris it was my, ill-fortune to be embroiled in a roughand-tumble in the streets, and by an ill-chance I killed a man - the first was he of several that I have sent whither I am going to-morrow. The affair was like to have cost me my life, but by another of those miracles which have prolonged it, I was sent instead to the galleys on the Mediterranean. It was only wanting that, after all that already I had endured, I should become a galley-slave!
"For twelve long years I toiled at an oar, and waited. If I lived I would return to England; and if I returned, woe unto those that had wrecked my life - my body and my soul. I did live, and I did return. The Civil War had broken out, and I came to throw my sword into the balance on the King's side: I came, too, to be avenged, but that would wait.
"Meanwhile, the score had grown heavier. I went home to find the castle in usurping hands - in the hands of my enemies. My father was dead; he died a few months after I had gone to France; and those murderers had advanced a claim that through my marriage with their cousin, since dead, and through my own death, there being no next of kin, they were the heirs-at-law. The Parliament allowed their claim, and they were installed. But when I came they were away, following the fortunes of the Parliament that had served them so well. And so I determined to let my vengeance wait until the war were ended and the Parliament destroyed. In a hundred engagements did I distinguish myself by my recklessness even as at other seasons I distinguished myself by my debaucheries. "Ah, Kenneth, you have been hard upon me for my vices, for my abuses of the cup, and all the rest. But can you be hard upon me still, knowing what I had suffered, and what a weight of misery I bore with me? I, whose life was wrecked beyond salvation; who only lived that I might slit the throats of those that had so irreparably wronged me. Think you still that it was so vicious a thing, so unpardonable an offence to seek the blessed nepenthe of the wine-cup, the heavenly forgetfulness that its abuses brought me? Is it strange that I became known as the wildest tantivy boy that rode with the King? What else had I?"
"In all truth your trials were sore," said the lad in a voice that contained a note of sympathy. And yet there was a certain restraint that caught the Tavern Knight's ear. He turned his head and bent his eyes in the lad's direction, but it was quite dark by now, and he failed to make out his companion's face.
"My tale is told, Kenneth. The rest you can guess. The King did not prevail and I was forced to fly from England with those others who escaped from the butchers that had made a martyr of Charles. I took service in France under the great Conde, and I saw some mighty battles. At length came the council of Breda and the invitation to Charles the Second to receive the crown of Scotland. I set out again to follow his fortunes as I had followed his father's, realizing that by so doing I followed my own, and that did he prevail I should have the redress and vengeance so long awaited. To-day has dashed my last hope; to-morrow at this hour it will not signify. And yet much would I give to have my fingers on the throats of those two hounds before the hangman's close around my own."There was a spell of silence as the two men sat, both breathing heavily in the gloom that enveloped them. At length: "You have heard my story, Kenneth," said Crispin. "I have heard, Sir Crispin, and God knows I pity you."
That was all, and Galliard felt that it was not enough. He had lacerated his soul with those grim memories to earn a yet kinder word. He had looked even to hear the lad suing for pardon for the harsh opinions wherein he had held him. Strange was this yearning of his for the boy's sympathy. He who for twenty years had gone unloving and unloved, sought now in his extremity affection from a fellow-man.And so in the gloom he waited for a kinder word that came not; then - so urgent was his need - he set himself to beg it.
"Can you not understand now, Kenneth, how I came to fall so low? Can you not understand this dissoluteness of mine, which led them to dub me the Tavern Knight after the King conferred upon me the honour of knighthood for that stand of mine in Fifeshire? You must understand, Kenneth," he insisted almost piteously, "and knowing all, you must judge me more mercifully than hitherto."
"It is not mine to judge, Sir Crispin. I pity you with all my heart," the lad replied, not ungently.
Still the knight was dissatisfied. "Yours it is to judge as every man may judge his fellowman. You mean it is not yours to sentence. But if yours it were, Kenneth, what then?"
The lad paused a moment ere he answered. His bigoted Presbyterian training was strong within him, and although, as he said, he pitied Galliard, yet to him whose mind was stuffed with life's precepts, and who knew naught of the trials it brings to some and the temptations to which they were not human did they not succumb - it seemed that vice was not to be excused by misfortune. Out of mercy then he paused, and for a moment he had it even in his mind to cheer his fellow-captive with a lie. Then, remembering that he was to die upon the morrow, and that at such a time it was not well to risk the perdition of his soul by an untruth, however merciful, he answered slowly:
"Were I to judge you, since you ask me, sir, I should be merciful because of your misfortunes. And yet, Sir Crispin, your profligacy and the evil you have wrought in life must weigh heavily against you." Had this immaculate bigot, this churlish milksop been as candid with himself as he was with Crispin, he must have recognized that it was mainly Crispin's offences towards himself that his mind now dwelt on in=deeper rancour than became one so well acquainted with the Lord's Prayer."You had not cause enough," he added impressively, "to defile your soul and risk its eternal damnation because the evil of others had wrecked your life." Crispin drew breath with the sharp hiss of one in pain, and for a moment after all was still. Then a bitter laugh broke from him.
"Bravely answered, reverend sir," he cried with biting scorn. "I marvel only that you left your pulpit to gird on a sword; that you doffed your cassock to don a cuirass. Here is a text for you who deal in texts, my brave Jack Presbyter - "Judge you your neighbour as you would yourself be judged; be merciful as you would hope for mercy." Chew you the cud of that until the hangman's coming in the morning. Good night to you."And throwing himself back upon the bed, Crispin sought comfort in sleep. His limbs were heavy and his heart was sick.
"You misapprehend me, Sir Crispin," cried the lad, stung almost to shame by Galliard's reproach, and also mayhap into some fear that hereafter he should find little mercy for his own lack of it towards a poor fellow-sinner. "I spoke not as I would judge, but as the Church teaches."
"If the Church teaches no better I rejoice that I was no churchman," grunted Crispin. "For myself," the lad pursued, heeding not the irreverent interruption, "as I have said, I pity you with all my heart. More than that, so deeply do I feel, so great a loathing and indignation has your story sown in my heart, that were our liberty now restored us I would willingly join hands with you in wreaking vengeance on these evildoers."Sir Crispin laughed. He judged the tone rather than the words, and it rang hollow. "Where are your wits, O casuist?" he cried mockingly. "Where are your doctrines? 'Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord!' Pah!" And with that final ejaculation, pregnant with contempt and bitterness, he composed himself to sleep. He was accursed he told himself. He must die alone, as he had lived.
The Twisted Bar
Nature asserted herself, and, despite his condition, Crispin slept. Kenneth sat huddled on his chair, and in awe and amazement he listened to his companion's regular breathing. He had not Galliard's nerves nor Galliard's indifference to death, so that neither could he follow his example, nor yet so much as realize how one should slumber upon the very brink of eternity.
For a moment his wonder stood perilously near to admiration; then his religious training swayed him, and his righteousness almost drew from him a contempt of this man's apathy. There was much of the Pharisee's attitude towards the publican in his mood.
Anon that regular breathing grew irritating to him; it drew so marked a contrast 'twixt Crispin's frame of mind and his own. Whilst Crispin had related his story, the interest it awakened had served to banish the spectre of fear which the thought of the morrow conjured up. Now that Crispin was silent and asleep, that spectre returned, and the lad grew numb and sick with the horror of his position.
Thought followed thought as he sat huddled there with sunken head and hands clasped tight between his knees, and they were mostly of his dull uneventful days in Scotland, and ever and anon of Cynthia, his beloved. Would she hear of his end? Would she weep for him? - as though it mattered! And every train of thought that he embarked upon brought him to the same issue - to-morrow! Shuddering he would clench his hands still tighter, and the perspiration would stand' out in beads upon his callow brow.
At length he flung himself upon his knees to address not so much a prayer as a maudlin grievance to his Creator. He felt himself a craven - doubly so by virtue of the peaceful breathing of that sinner he despised - and he told himself that it was not in fear a gentleman should meet his end.
"But I shall be brave to-morrow. I shall be brave," he muttered, and knew not that it was vanity begat the thought, and vanity that might uphold him on the morrow when there were others by, however broken might be his spirit now.
Meanwhile Crispin slept. When he awakened the light of a lanthorn was on his face, and holding it stood beside him a tall black figure in a cloak and a slouched hat whose broad brim left the features unrevealed.Still half asleep, and blinking like an owl, he sat up. "I have always held burnt sack to be well enough, but - "
He stopped short, fully awake at last, and, suddenly remembering his condition and thinking they were come for him, he drew a sharp breath and in a voice as indifferent as he could make it:
"What's o'clock?" he asked.
"Past midnight, miserable wretch," was the answer delivered in a deep droning voice. "Hast entered upon thy last day of life - a day whose sun thou'lt never see. But five hours more are left thee."
"And it is to tell me this that you have awakened me?" demanded Galliard in such a voice that he of the cloak recoiled a step, as if he thought a blow must follow. "Out on you for an unmannerly cur to break upon a gentleman's repose.""I come," returned the other in his droning voice, "to call upon thee to repent." "Plague me not," answered Crispin, with a yawn. "I would sleep." "Soundly enough shalt thou sleep in a few hours' time. Bethink thee, miserable sinner, of thy soul."
"Sir," cried the Tavern Knight, "I am a man of marvellous short endurance. But mark you this your ways to heaven are not my ways. Indeed, if heaven be peopled by such croaking things as you, I shall be thankful to escape it. So go, my friend, ere I become discourteous."The minister stood in silence for a moment; then setting his lanthorn upon the table, he raised his hands and eyes towards the low ceiling of the chamber. "Vouchsafe, O Lord," he prayed, "to touch yet the callous heart of this obdurate, incorrigible sinner, this wicked, perjured and blasphemous malignant, whose - " He got no further. Crispin was upon his feet, his harsh countenance thrust into the very face of the minister; his eyes ablaze.
"Out!" he thundered, pointing to the door. "Out! Begone! I would not be guilty at the end of my life of striking a man in petticoats. But go whilst I can bethink me of it! Go - take your prayers to hell."
The minister fell back before that blaze of passion. For a second he appeared to hesitate, then he turned towards Kenneth, who stood behind in silence. But the lad's Presbyterian rearing had taught him to hate a sectarian as he would a papist or as he would the devil, and he did no more than echo Galliard's words - though in a gentler key."I pray you go," he said. "But if you would perform an act of charity, leave your lanthorn. It will be dark enough hereafter."
The minister looked keenly at the boy, and won over by the humility of his tone, he set the lanthorn on the table. Then moving towards the door, he stopped and addressed himself to Crispin.
"I go since you oppose with violence my ministrations. But I shall pray for you, and I will return anon, when perchance your heart shall be softened by the near imminence of your end."
"I've done, I've done," he cried in trepidation, making shift to depart. On the threshold he paused again. "I leave you the lanthorn," he said. "May it light you to a godlier frame of mind. I shall return at daybreak." And with that he went.Crispin yawned noisily when he was gone, and stretched himself. Then pointing to the pallet: "Come, lad, 'tis your turn," said he. Kenneth shivered. "I could not sleep," he cried. "I could not." "As you will." And shrugging his shoulders, Crispin sat down on the edge of the bed.
"For cold comforters commend me to these cropeared cuckolds," he grumbled. "They are all thought for a man's soul, but for his body they care nothing. Here am I who for the last ten hours have had neither meat nor drink. Not that I mind the meat so much, but, 'slife, my throat is dry as one of their sermons, and I would cheerfully give four of my five hours of life for a posset of sack. A paltry lot are they, Kenneth, holding that because a man must die at dawn he need not sup to-night. Heigho! Some liar hath said that he who sleeps dines, and if I sleep perchance I shall forget my thirst."He stretched himself upon the bed, and presently he slept again. It was Kenneth who next awakened him. He opened his eyes to find the lad shivering as with an ague. His face was ashen. "Now, what's amiss? Oddslife, what ails you?" he cried. "Is there no way, Sir Crispin? Is there naught you can do?" wailed the youth. Instantly Galliard sat up. "Poor lad, does the thought of the rope affright you?" Kenneth bowed his head in silence.
"Tis a scurvy death, I own. Look you, Kenneth, there is a dagger in my boot. If you would rather have cold steel, 'tis done. It is the last service I may render you, and I'll be as gentle as a mistress. Just there, over the heart, and you'll know no more until you are in Paradise."
Turning down the leather of his right boot, he thrust his hand down the side of his leg. But Kenneth sprang back with a cry.
"No, no," he cried, covering his face with his hands. "Not that! You don't understand. It is death itself I would cheat. What odds to exchange one form for another? Is there no way out of this? Is there no way, Sir Crispin?" he demanded with clenched hands.
"The approach of death makes you maudlin, sir," quoth the other, in whom this pitiful show of fear produced a profound disgust. "Is there no way; say you? There is the window, but 'tis seventy feet above the river; and there is the door, but it is locked, and there is a sentry on the other side."
"I might have known it. I might have known that you would mock me. What is death to you, to whom life offers nothing? For you the prospect of it has no terrors. But for me - bethink you, sir, I am scarce eighteen years of age," he added brokenly, "and life was full of promise for me. O God, pity me!"
"True, lad, true," the knight returned in softened tones. "I had forgotten that death is not to you the blessed release that it is to me. And yet, and yet," he mused, "do I not die leaving a task unfulfilled - a task of vengeance? And by my soul, I know no greater spur to make a man cling to life. Ah," he sighed wistfully, "if indeed I could find a way.""Think, Sir Crispin, think," cried the boy feverishly.
"To what purpose? There is the window. But even if the bars were moved, which I see no manner of accomplishing, the drop to the river is seventy feet at least. I measured it with my eyes when first we entered here. We have no rope. Your cloak rent in two and the pieces tied together would scarce yield us ten feet. Would you care to jump the remaining sixty?"At the very thought of it the lad trembled, noting which Sir Crispin laughed softly.
"There. And yet, boy, it would be taking a risk which if successful would mean life - if otherwise, a speedier end than even the rope will afford you. Oddslife," he cried, suddenly springing to his feet, and seizing the lanthorn. "Let us look at these bars."He stepped across to the window, and held the light so that its rays fell full upon the base of the vertical iron that barred the square.
"It is much worn by rust, Kenneth," he muttered. "The removal of this single piece of iron," and he touched the lower arm of the cross, "should afford us passage. Who knows? Hum!"
He walked back to the table and set the lanthorn down. In a tremble, Kenneth watched his every movement, but spoke no word.
"He who throws a main," said Galliard, "must set a stake upon the board. I set my life - a stake that is already forfeit - and I throw for liberty. If I win, I win all; if I lose, I lose naught. 'Slife, I have thrown many a main with Fate, but never one wherein the odds were more generous. Come, Kenneth, it is the only way, and we will attempt it if we can but move the bar."
He gripped the lower bar with his lean, sinewy hands, and setting his knee against the masonry beneath it, he exerted the whole of his huge strength - that awful strength acquired during those years of toil as a galley-slave, which even his debaucheries had not undermined. He felt his sinews straining until it seemed that they must crack; the sweat stood out upon his brow; his breathing grew stertorous."It gives," he panted at last. "It gives." He paused in his efforts, and withdrew his hands.
"I must breathe a while. One other effort such as that, and it is done. 'Fore George," he laughed, "it is the first time water has stood my friend, for the rains have sadly rusted that iron."
Without, their sentry was pacing before the door; his steps came nearer, passed, and receded; turned, came nigh again, and again passed on. As once more they grew faint, Crispin seized the bar and renewed his attempt. This time it was easier. Gradually it ceded to the strain Galliard set upon it.
Nearer came the sentry's footsteps, but they went unheeded by him who toiled, and by him who watched with bated breath and beating heart. He felt it giving - giving - giving. Crack!
With a report that rang through the room like a pistol shot, it broke off in its socket. Both men caught their breath, , and stood for a second crouching, with straining ears. The sentry had stopped at their door.
Galliard was a man of quick action, swift to think, and as swift to execute the thought. To thrust Kenneth into a corner, to extinguish the light, and to fling himself upon the bed was all the work of an instant.
The key grated in the lock, and Crispin answered it with a resounding snore. The door opened, and on the threshold stood the Roundhead trooper, holding aloft a lanthorn whose rays were flashed back by his polished cuirass. He beheld Crispin on the bed with closed eyes and open mouth, and he heard his reassuring and melodious snore. He saw Kenneth seated peacefully upon the floor, with his back against the wall, and for a moment he was puzzled."Heard you aught?" he asked. "Aye," answered Kenneth, in a strangled voice, "I heard something like a shot out there."
The gesture with which he accompanied the words was fatal. Instinctively he had jerked his thumb towards the window, thereby drawing the soldier's eyes in that direction. The fellow's glance fell upon the twisted bar, and a sharp exclamation of surprise escaped him.
Had he been aught but a fool he must have guessed at once how it came so, and having guessed it, he must have thought twice ere he ventured within reach of a man who could so handle iron. But he was a slow-reasoning clod, and so far, thought had not yet taken the place of surprise. He stepped into, the chamber and across to the window, that he might more closely view that broken bar.
With eyes that were full of terror and despair, Kenneth watched him; their last hope had failed them. Then, as he looked, it seemed to him that in one great leap from his recumbent position on the bed, Crispin had fallen upon the soldier.
The lanthorn was dashed from the fellow's hand, and rolled to Kenneth's feet. The fellow had begun' a cry, which broke off suddenly into a gurgle as Galliard's fingers closed about his windpipe. He was a big fellow, and in his mad struggles he carried: Crispin hither and thither about the room. Together: they hurtled against the table, which would have: gone crashing over had not Kenneth caught it and drawn it softly to the wall.
Both men were now upon the bed. Crispin had guessed the soldier's intent to fling himself upon the ground so that the ring of his armour might be heard, and perchance bring others to his aid. To avoid this, Galliard had swung him towards the bed, and hurled him on to it. There he pinned him with his knee, and with his fingers he gripped the Roundhead's throat, pressing the apple inwards with his thumb."The door, Kenneth!" he commanded, in a whisper. "Close the door!"
Vain were the trooper's struggles to free himself from that. throttling grip. Already his efforts grew his face was purple; his veins stood out in ropes upon his brow till they seemed upon the point of bursting; his eyes protruded like a lobster's and there was a horrible grin upon his mouth; still his heels beat the bed, and still he struggled. With his fingers he plucked madly at the throttling hands on his neck, and tore at them with his nails until the blood streamed from them. Still Galliard held him firmly, and with a smile
- a diabolical smile it seemed to the poor, half-strangled wretch - he gazed upon his choking victim.
The footsteps halted. Kenneth crawled softly to his post. The soldier's struggles grew of a sudden still, and Crispin released his throat at last. Then calmly drawing the fellow's dagger, he felt for the straps of his cuirass, and these he proceeded to cut. As he did so the door was opened.
By the light of the lamp burning in the passage they beheld silhouetted upon the threshold a black figure crowned by a steeple hat. Then the droning voice of the Puritan minister greeted them.
"Your hour is at hand!" he announced. "Is it time?" asked Galliard from the bed. And as he put the question he softly thrust aside the trooper's breastplate, and set his hand to the fellow's heart. It still beat faintly."In another hour they will come for you," answered the minister. And Crispin marvelled anxiously what Kenneth was about. "Repent then, miserable sinners, whilst yet - " He broke off abruptly, awaking out of his religious zeal to a sense of strangeness at the darkness and the absence of the sentry, which hitherto he had not remarked. "What hath - " he began. Then Galliard heard a gasp, followed by the noise of a fall, and two struggling men came rolling across the chamber floor. "Bravely done, boy!" he cried, almost mirthfully. "Cling to him, Kenneth; cling to him a second yet!"
He leapt from the bed, and guided by the faint light coming through the door, he sprang across the intervening space and softly closed it. Then he groped his way along the wall to the spot where he had seen the lanthorn stand when Kenneth had flung his cloak over it. As he went, the two striving men came up against him."Hold fast, lad," he cried, encouraging Kenneth, "hold him yet a moment, and I will relieve you!" He reached the lanthorn at last, and pulling aside the cloak, he lifted the light and set it upon the table.
By the lanthorn's yellow glare Crispin beheld the two men-a mass of writhing bodies and a bunch of waving legs - upon the ground. Kenneth, who was uppermost, clung purposefully to the parson's throat. The faces of both were alike distorted, but whilst the lad's breath came in gasping hisses, the other's came not at all.
Going over to the bed, Crispin drew the unconscious trooper's tuck-sword. He paused for a moment to bend over the man's face; his breath came faintly, and Crispin knew that ere many moments were sped he would regain consciousness. He smiled grimly to see how well he had performed his work of suffocation without yet utterly destroying life.
Sword in hand, he returned to Kenneth and the parson. The Puritan's struggles were already becoming mere spasmodic twitchings; his face was as ghastly as the trooper's had been a while ago."Release him, Kenneth," said Crispin shortly. "He struggles still." "Release him, I say," Galliard repeated, and stooping he caught the lad's wrist and compelled him to abandon his hold. "He will cry out," exclaimed Kenneth, in apprehension. "Not he," laughed Crispin. "Leastways, not yet awhile. Observe the wretch."
With mouth wide agape, the minister lay gasping like a fish newly taken from the water. Even now that his throat was free he appeared to struggle for a moment before he could draw breath. Then he took it in panting gulps until it seemed that he must choke in his gluttony of air."Fore George," quoth Crispin, "I was no more than in time. Another second, and we should have had him, too, unconscious. There, he is recovering."
The blood was receding from the swollen veins of the parson's head, and his cheeks were paling to their normal hue. Anon they went yet paler than their wont, as Galliard rested the point of his sword against the fellow's neck."Make sound or movement," said Crispin coldly, "and I'll pin you to the floor like a beetle. Obey me, and no harm shall come to you."
"I will obey you," the fellow answered, in a wheezing whisper. "I swear I will. But of your charity, good sir, I beseech you remove your sword. Your hand might slip, sir," he whined, a wild terror in his eyes.
Where now was the deep bass of his whilom accents? Where now the grotesque majesty of his bearing, and the impressive gestures that erstwhile had accompanied his words of denunciation?
"It might - and, by Gad, it shall if I hear more from you. So that you are discreet and obedient, have no fear of my hand." Then, still keeping his eye upon the fellow: "Kenneth," he said, "attend to the crop-ear yonder, he will be recovering. Truss him with the bedclothes, and gag him with his scarf. See to it, Kenneth, and do it well, but leave his nostrils free that he may breathe."
Kenneth carried out Galliard's orders swiftly and effectively, what time Crispin remained standing over the recumbent minister. At length, when Kenneth announced that it was done, he bade the Puritan rise."But have a care," he added, "or you shall taste the joys of the Paradise you preach of. Come, sir parson; afoot!" A prey to a fear that compelled unquestioning obedience, the fellow rose with alacrity. "Stand there, sir. So," commanded Crispin, his point within an inch of the man's Geneva bands. "Take your kerchief, Kenneth, and pinion his wrists behind him."
That done, Crispin bade the lad unbuckle and remove the parson's belt. Next he ordered that man of texts to be seated upon their only chair, and with that same belt he commanded Kenneth to strap him to it. When at length the Puritan was safely bound, Crispin lowered his rapier, and seated himself upon the table edge beside him.
"Now, sir parson," quoth he, "let us talk a while. At your first outcry I shall hurry you into that future world whither it is your mission to guide the souls of others. Maybe you'll find it a better world to preach of than to inhabit, and so, for your own sake, I make no doubt you will obey me. To your honour, to your good sense and a parson's natural horror of a lie, I look for truth in answer to what questions I may set you. Should I find you deceiving me, sir, I shall see that your falsehood overtakes you." And eloquently raising his blade, he intimated the exact course he would adopt. "Now, sir, attend to me. How soon are our friends likely to discover this topsy-turvydom?""When they come for you," answered the parson meekly. "And how soon, O prophet, will they come?"
"In an hour's time, or thereabout," replied the Puritan, glancing towards the window as he spoke. Galliard followed his glance, and observed that the light was growing perceptibly stronger.
"Aye," he commented, "in an hour's time there should be light enough to hang us by. Is there no chance of anyone coming sooner?"
When Kenneth had removed the Puritan's girdle, a small Bible - such as men of his calling were wont to carry - had dropped out. This Kenneth had placed upon the table. Galliard now took it up, and, holding it before the Puritan's eyes, he watched him narrowly the while."Will you swear by this book that you have answered nothing but the truth?" Without a moment's hesitation the parson pledged his oath, that, to the best of his belief, he had answered accurately. "That is well, sir. And now, though it grieve me to cause you some slight discomfort, I must ensure your silence, my friend." And, placing his sword upon the table, he passed behind the Puritan, and taking the man's own scarf, he effectively gagged him with it.
"Now, Kenneth," said he, turning to the lad. Then he stopped abruptly as if smitten by a sudden thought. Presently - "Kenneth," he continued in a different tone, "a while ago I mind me you said that were your liberty restored you, you would join hands with me in punishing the evildoers who wrecked my life.""I did, Sir Crispin."
For a moment the knight paused. It was a vile thing that he was about to do, he told himself, and as he realized how vile, his impulse was to say no more; to abandon the suddenly formed project and to trust to his own unaided wits and hands. But as again he thought of the vast use this lad would be to him - this lad who was the betrothed of Cynthia Ashburn - he saw that the matter was not one hastily to be judged and dismissed. Carefully he weighed it in the balance of his mind. On the one hand was the knowledge that did they succeed in making good their escape, Kenneth would naturally fly for shelter to his friends the Ashburns - the usurpers of Castle Marleigh. What then more natural than his taking with him the man who had helped him to escape, and who shared his own danger of recapture? And with so plausible a motive for admission to Castle Marleigh, how easy would not his vengeance become? He might at first wean himself into their good graces, and afterwards -Before his mental eyes there unfolded itself the vista of a great revenge; one that should be worthy of him, and commensurate with the foul deed that called for it.
In the other scale the treacherous flavour of this method weighed heavily. He proposed to bind the lad to a promise, the shape of whose fulfilment he would withhold - a promise the lad would readily give, and yet, one that he must sooner die than enter into, did he but know what manner of fulfilment would be exacted. It amounted to betraying the lad into a betrayal of his friends - the people of his future wife. Whatever the issue for Crispin, 'twas odds Kenneth's prospect of wedding this Cynthia would be blighted for all time by the action into which Galliard proposed to thrust him all unconscious.
So stood the case in Galliard's mind, and the scales fell now on one side, now on the other. But against his scruples rose the memory of the treatment which the lad had meted out to him that night; the harshness of the boy's judgment; the irrevocable contempt wherein he had clearly seen that he was held by this fatuous milksop. All this aroused his rancour now, and steeled his heart against the voice of honour. What was this boy to him, he asked himself, that he should forego for him the accomplishing of his designs? How had this lad earned any consideration from him? What did he owe him? Naught! Still, he would not decide in haste.
It was characteristic of the man whom Kenneth held to be destitute of all honourable principles, to stand thus in the midst of perils, when every second that sped lessened their chances of escape, turning over in his mind calmly and collectedly a point of conduct. It was in his passions only that Crispin was ungovernable, in violence only that he was swift - in all things else was he deliberate.
Of this Kenneth had now a proof that set him quaking with impatient fear. Anxiously, his hands clenched and his face pale, he watched his companion, who stood with brows knit in thought, and his grey eyes staring at the ground. At length he could brook that, to him, incomprehensible and mad delay no longer."Sir Crispin," he whispered, plucking at his sleeve; "Sir Crispin."
The knight flashed him a glance that was almost of anger. Then the fire died out of his eyes; he sighed and spoke. In that second's glance he had seen the lad's face; the fear and impatience written on it had disgusted him, and caused the scales to fall suddenly and definitely against the boy."I was thinking how it might be accomplished," he said. "There is but one way," cried the lad. "On the contrary, there are two, and I wish to choose carefully." "If you delay your choice much longer, none will be left you," cried Kenneth impatiently. Noting the lad's growing fears, and resolved now upon his course, Galliard set himself to play upon them until terror should render the boy as wax in his hands.
"There speaks your callow inexperience," said he, with a pitying smile. "When you shall have lived as long as I have done, and endured as much; when you shall have set your wits to the saving of your life as often as have I - you will have learnt that haste is fatal to all enterprises. Failure means the forfeiture of something; tonight it would mean the forfeiture of our lives, and it were a pity to let such good efforts as these" - and with a wave of the hand he indicated their two captors - "go wasted.""Sir," exclaimed Kenneth, well-nigh beside himself, "if you come not with me, I go alone!" "Whither?" asked Crispin dryly. "Out of this." Galliard bowed slightly. "Fare you well, sir. I'll not detain you. Your way is clear, and it is for you to choose between the door and the window."
And with that Crispin turned his back upon his companion and crossed to the bed, where the trooper lay glaring in mute anger. He stooped, and unbuckling the soldier's swordbelt
- to which the scabbard was attached - he girt himself with it. Without raising his eyes, and keeping his back to Kenneth, who stood between him and the door, he went next to the table, and, taking up the sword that he had left there, he restored it to the sheath. As the hilt clicked against the mouth of the scabbard:
"Not so fast, Kenneth. The promise that I shall ask of you is not to be so lightly given. If we escape I may fairly claim to have saved your life, 'twixt what I have done and what I may yet do. Is it not so?""Oh, I acknowledge it!" "Then, sir, in payment I shall expect your aid hereafter to help me in that which I must accomplish, that which the hope of accomplishing is the only spur to my own escape." "You have my promise!" cried the lad. "Do not give it lightly, Kenneth," said Crispin gravely. "It may cause you much discomfort, and may be fraught with danger even to your life." "I promise." Galliard bowed his head; then, turning, he took the Bible from the table.
"With your hand upon this book, by your honour, your faith, and your every hope of salvation, swear that if I bear you alive out of this house you will devote yourself to me and to my task of vengeance until it shall be accomplished or until I perish; swear that you will set aside all personal matters and inclinations of your own, to serve me when I shall call upon you. Swear that, and, in return, I will give my life if need be to save yours to-night, in which case you will be released from your oath without more ado."
The lad paused a moment. Crispin was so impressive, the oath he imposed so solemn, that for an instant the boy hesitated. His cautious, timid nature whispered to him that perchance he should know more of this matter ere he bound himself so irrevocably. But Crispin, noting the hesitation, stifled it by appealing to the lad's fears.
"Resolve yourself," he exclaimed abruptly. "It grows light, and the time for haste is come."
"I swear!" answered Kenneth, overcome by his impatience. "I swear, by my honour, my faith, and my every hope of heaven to lend you my aid, when and how you may demand it, until your task be accomplished."
"You shall not find me wanting in my part of the bargain," he muttered, as he took up the soldier's cloak and hat. "Come, take that parson's steeple hat and his cloak, and let us be going."
He crossed to the door, and opening it he peered down the passage. A moment he stood listening. All was still. Then he turned again. In the chamber the steely light of the breaking day was rendering more yellow still the lanthorn's yellow flame.
"Fare you well, sir parson," he said. "Forgive me the discomfort I have been forced to put upon you, and pray for the success of our escape. Commend me to Oliver of the ruby nose. Fare you well, sir. Come, Kenneth."He held the door for the lad to pass out. As they stood in the dimly lighted passage he closed it softly after them, and turned the key in the lock. "Come," he said again, and led the way to the stairs, Kenneth tiptoeing after him with wildly beating heart.
Treading softly, and with ears straining for the slightest sound, the two men descended to the first floor of the house. They heard nothing to alarm them as they crept down, and not until they paused on the first landing to reconnoitre did they even catch the murmur of voices issuing from the guardroom below. So muffled was the sound that Crispin guessed how matters stood even before he had looked over the balusters into the hall beneath. The faint grey of the dawn was the only light that penetrated the gloom of that pit."The Fates are kind, Kenneth," he whispered. "Those fools sit with closed doors. Come." But Kenneth laid his hand upon Galliard's sleeve. "What if the door should open as we pass?" "Someone will die," muttered Crispin back. "But pray God that it may not. We must run the risk." "Is there no other way?" "Why, yes," returned Galliard sardonically, "we can linger here until we are taken. But, oddslife, I'm not so minded. Come." And as he spoke he drew the lad along.
His foot was upon the topmost stair of the flight, when of a sudden the stillness of the house was broken by a loud knock upon the street door. Instantly - as though they had been awaiting it there was a stir of feet below and the bang of an overturned chair; then a shaft of yellow light fell athwart the darkness of the hall as the guardroom door was opened."Back!" growled Galliard. "Back, man!"
They were but in time. Peering over the balusters they saw two troopers pass out of the guardroom, and cross the hall to the door. A bolt was drawn and a chain rattled, then followed the creak of hinges, and on the stone flags rang the footsteps and the jingling of spurs of those that entered."Is all well?" came a voice, which Crispin recognized as Colonel Pride's, followed by an affirmative reply from one of the soldiers. "Hath a minister visited the malignants?"
"Master Toneleigh is with them even now." In the hall Crispin could now make out the figures of Colonel Pride and of three men who came with him. But he had scant leisure to survey them, for the colonel was in haste.
"Come, sirs," he heard him say, "light me to their garret. I would see them - leastways, one of them, before he dies. They are to hang where the Moabites hanged Gives yesterday. Had I my way ... But, there lead on, fellow."
"Oh, God!" gasped Kenneth, as the soldier set foot upon the stairs. Under his breath Crispin swore a terrific oath. For an instant it seemed to him there was naught left but to stand there and await recapture. Through his mind it flashed that they were five, and he but one; for his companion was unarmed.
With that swiftness which thought alone can compass did he weigh the odds, and judge his chances. He realized how desperate they were did he remain, and even as he thought he glanced sharply round.
Dim indeed was the light, but his sight was keen, and quickened by the imminence of danger. Partly his eyes and partly his instinct told him that not six paces behind him there must be a door, and if Heaven pleased it should be unlocked, behind it they must look for shelter. It even crossed his mind in that second of crowding, galloping thought, that perchance the room might be occupied. That was a risk he must take - the lesser risk of the two, the choice of one of which was forced upon him. He had determined all this ere the soldier's foot was upon the third step of the staircase, and before the colonel had commenced the ascent. Kenneth stood palsied with fear, gazing like one fascinated at the approaching peril.Then upon his ear fell the fierce whisper: "Come with me, and tread lightly as you love your life."
In three long strides, and by steps that were softer than a cat's, Crispin crossed to the door which he had rather guessed than seen. He ran his hand along until he caught the latch. Softly he tried it; it gave, and the door opened. Kenneth was by then beside him. He paused to look back.
On the opposite wall the light of the trooper's lanthorn fell brightly. Another moment and the fellow would have reached and turned the corner of the stairs, and his light must reveal them to him. But ere that instant was passed Crispin had drawn his companion through, and closed the door as softly as he had opened it. The chamber was untenanted and almost bare of furniture, at which discovery Crispin breathed more freely.
They stood there, and heard the ascending footsteps, and the clank-clank of a sword against the stair-rail. A bar of yellow light came under the door that sheltered them. Stronger it grew and farther it crept along the floor; then stopped and receded again, as he who bore the lanthorn turned and began to climb to the second floor. An instant later and the light had vanished, eclipsed by those who followed in the fellow's wake. "The window, Sir Crispin," cried Kenneth, in an excited whisper - "the window!""No," answered Crispin calmly. "The drop is a long one, and we should but light in the streets, and be little better than we are here. Wait."
He listened. The footsteps had turned the corner leading to the floor above. He opened the door, partly at first, then wide. For an instant he stood listening again. The steps were well overhead by now; soon they would mount the last flight, and then discovery must be swift to follow.
"Now," was all Crispin said, and, drawing his sword he led the way swiftly, yet cautiously, to the stairs once more. In passing he glanced over the rails. The guardroom door stood ajar, and he caught the murmurs of subdued conversation. But he did not pause. Had the door stood wide he would not have paused then. There was not a second to be lost; to wait was to increase the already overwhelming danger. Cautiously, and leaning well upon the stout baluster, he began the descent. Kenneth followed him mechanically, with white face and a feeling of suffocation in his throat.
They gained the corner, and turning, they began what was truly the perilous part of their journey. Not more than a dozen steps were there; but at the bottom stood the guardroom door, and through the chink of its opening a shaft of light fell upon the nethermost step. Once a stair creaked, and to their quickened senses it sounded like a pistol-shot. As loud to Crispin sounded the indrawn breath of apprehension from Kenneth that followed it. He had almost paused to curse the lad when, thinking him of how time pressed, he went on.
Within three steps of the bottom were they, and they could almost distinguish what was being said in the room, when Crispin stopped, and turning his head to attract Kenneth's attention, he pointed straight across the hall to a dimly visible door. It was that of the chamber wherein he had been brought before Cromwell. Its position had occurred to him some moments before, and he had determined then upon going that way.
The lad followed the indication of his finger, and signified by a nod that he understood. Another step Galliard descended; then from the guardroom came a loud yawn, to send the boy cowering against the wall. It was followed by the sound of someone rising; a chair grated upon the floor, and there was a movement of feet within the chamber. Had Kenneth been alone, of a certainty terror would have frozen him to the wall.
But the calm, unmovable Crispin proceeded as if naught had chanced; he argued that even if he who had risen were coming towards the door, there was nothing to be gained by standing still. Their only chance lay now in passing before it might be opened.
They that walk through perils in a brave man's company cannot but gain confidence from the calm of his demeanour. So was it now with Kenneth. The steady onward march of that tall, lank figure before him drew him irresistibly after it despite his tremors. And well it was for him that this was so. They gained the bottom of the staircase at length; they stood beside the door of the guardroom, they passed it in safety. Then slowly - painfully slowly - to avoid their steps from ringing upon the stone floor, they crept across towards the door that meant safety to Sir Crispin. Slowly, step by step, they moved, and with every stride Crispin looked behind him, prepared to rush the moment he had sign they were discovered. But it was not needed. In silence and in safety they were permitted to reach the door. To Crispin's joy it was unfastened. Quietly he opened it, then with calm gallantry he motioned to his companion to go first, holding it for him as he passed in, and keeping watch with eye and ear the while.
Scarce had Kenneth entered the chamber when from above came the sound of loud and excited voices, announcing to them that their flight was at last discovered. It was responded to by a rush of feet in the guardroom, and Crispin had but time to dart in after his companion and close the door ere the troopers poured out into the hall and up the stairs, with confused shouts that something must be amiss.Within the room that sheltered him Crispin chuckled, as he ran his hand along the edge of the door until he found the bolt, and softly shot it home.
"'Slife," he muttered, "'twas a close thing! Aye, shout, you cuckolds," he went on. "Yell yourselves hoarse as the crows you are! You'll hang us where Gives are hanged, will you?"Kenneth tugged at the skirts of his doublet. "What now?" he inquired. "Now," said Crispin, "we'll leave by the window, if it please you."
They crossed the room, and a moment or two later they had dropped on to the narrow railed pathway overlooking the river, which Crispin had observed from their prison window the evening before. He had observed, too, that a small boat was moored at some steps about a hundred yards farther down the stream, and towards that spot he now sped along the footpath, followed closely by Kenneth. The path sloped in that direction, so that by the time the spot was reached the water flowed not more than six feet or so beneath them. Half a dozen steps took them down this to the moorings of that boat, which fortunately had not been removed.
"Get in, Kenneth," Crispin commanded. "There, I'll take the oars, and I'll keep under shelter of the bank lest those blunderers should bethink them of looking out of our prison window. Oddswounds, Kenneth, I am hungry as a wolf, and as dry - ough, as dry as Dives when he begged for a sup of water. Heaven send we come upon some good malignant homestead ere we go far, where a Christian may find a meal and a stoup of ale. 'Tis a miracle I had strength enough to crawl downstairs. Swounds, but an empty stomach is a craven comrade in a desperate enterprise. Hey! Have a care, boy. Now, sink me if this milksop hasn't fainted!"
The AshburnsGregory Ashburn pushed back his chair and made shift to rise from the table at which he and his brother had but dined.
He was a tall, heavily built man, with a coarse, florid countenance set in a frame of reddish hair that hung straight and limp. In the colour of their hair lay the only point of resemblance between the brothers. For the rest Joseph was spare and of middle weight, pale of face, thin-lipped, and owning a cunning expression that was rendered very evil by virtue of the slight cast in his colourless eyes.In earlier life Gregory had not been unhandsome; debauchery and sloth had puffed and coarsened him. Joseph, on the other hand, had never been aught but ill-favoured. "Tis a week since Worcester field was fought," grumbled Gregory, looking lazily sideways at the mullioned windows as he spoke, "and never a word from the lad." Joseph shrugged his narrow shoulders and sneered. It was Joseph's habit to sneer when he spoke, and his words were wont to fit the sneer. "Doth the lack of news trouble you?" he asked, glancing across the table at his brother. Gregory rose without meeting that glance. "Truth to tell it does trouble me," he muttered. "And yet," quoth Joseph, "tis a natural thing enough. When battles are fought it is not uncommon for men to die." Gregory crossed slowly to the window, and stared out at the trees of the park which autumn was fast stripping. "If he were among the fallen - if he were dead then indeed the matter would be at an end." "Aye, and well ended." "You forget Cynthia," Gregory reproved him. "Forget her? Not I, man. Listen." And he jerked his thumb in the direction of the wainscot. To the two men in that rich chamber of Castle Marleigh was borne the sound - softened by distance of a girlish voice merrily singing. Joseph laughed a cackle of contempt. "Is that the song of a maid whose lover comes not back from the wars?" he asked. "But bethink you, Joseph, the child suspects not the possibility of his having fallen."
"Gadswounds, sir, did your daughter give the fellow a thought she must be anxious. A week yesterday since the battle, and no word from him. I dare swear, Gregory, there's little in that to warrant his mistress singing.""Cynthia is young - a child. She reasons not as you and I, nor seeks to account for his absence." "Troubles not to account for it," Joseph amended. "Be that as it may," returned Gregory irritably, "I would I knew." "That which we do not know we may sometimes infer. I infer him to be dead, and there's the end of it." "What if he should not be?" "Then, my good fool, he would be here." "It is unlike you, Joseph, to argue so loosely. What if he should be a prisoner?" "Why, then, the plantations will do that which the battle hath left undone. So that, dead or captive, you see it is all one."
And, lifting his glass to the light, he closed one eye, the better to survey with the other the rich colour of the wine. Not that Joseph was curious touching that colour, but he was a juggler in gestures, and at that moment he could think of no other whereby he might so naturally convey the utter indifference of his feelings in the matter."Joseph, you are wrong," said Gregory, turning his back upon the window and facing his brother. "It is not all one. What if he return some day?"
"Oh, what if - what if - what if!" cried Joseph testily. "Gregory, what a casuist you might have been had not nature made you a villain! You are as full of "what if s" as an egg of meat. Well what if some day he should return? I fling your question back - what if?""God only knows."
"Then leave it to Him," was the flippant answer; and Joseph drained his glass. "Nay, brother, 'twere too great a risk. I must and I will know whether Kenneth were slain or not. If he is a prisoner, then we must exert ourselves to win his freedom.""Plague take it," Joseph burst out. "Why all this ado? Why did you ever loose that graceless whelp from his Scottish moor?" Gregory sighed with an air of resigned patience.
"I have more reasons than one," he answered slowly. "If you need that I recite them to you, I pity your wits. Look you, Joseph, you have more influence with Cromwell; more - far more - than have I, and if you are minded to do so, you can serve me in this.""I wait but to learn how." "Then go to Cromwell, at Windsor or wherever he may be, and seek to learn from him if Kenneth is a prisoner. If he is not, then clearly he is dead." Joseph made a gesture of impatience. "Can you not leave Fate alone?" "Think you I have no conscience, Joseph?" cried the other with sudden vigour. "Pish! you are womanish." "Nay, Joseph, I am old. I am in the autumn of my days, and I would see these two wed before I die." "And are damned for a croaking, maudlin' craven," added Joseph. "Pah! You make me sick." There was a moment's silence, during which the brothers eyed each other, Gregory with a sternness before which Joseph's mocking eye was forced at length to fall. "Joseph, you shall go to the Lord General." "Well," said Joseph weakly, "we will say that I go. But if Kenneth be a prisoner, what then?" "You must beg his liberty from Cromwell. He will not refuse you." "Will he not? I am none so confident."
"But you can make the attempt, and leastways we shall have some definite knowledge of what has befallen the boy."
"The which definite knowledge seems to me none so necessary. Moreover, Gregory, bethink you; there has been a change, and the wind carries an edge that will arouse every devil of rheumatism in my bones. I am not a lad, Gregory, and travelling at this season is no small matter for a man of fifty."
Joseph fell a-pondering. He knew Gregory to be a man of fixed ideas, and he bethought him that were he now to refuse he would be hourly plagued by Gregory's speculations touching the boy's fate and recriminations touching his own selfishness. On the other hand, however, the journey daunted him. He was not a man to sacrifice his creature comforts, and to be asked to sacrifice them to a mere whim, a shadow, added weight to his inclination to refuse the undertaking."Since you have the matter so much at heart," said he at length, "does it not occur to you that you could plead with greater fervour, and be the likelier to succeed?"
"You know that Cromwell will lend a more willing ear to you than to me - perchance because you know so well upon occasion how to weave your stock of texts into your discourse," he added with a sneer. "Will you go, Joseph?""Bethink you that we know not where he is. I may have to wander for weeks o'er the face of England." "Will you go?" Gregory repeated. "Oh, a pox on it," broke out Joseph, rising suddenly. "I'll go since naught else will quiet you. I'll start to-morrow." "Joseph, I am grateful. I shall be more grateful yet if you will start to-day." "No, sink me, no." "Yes, sink me, yes," returned Gregory. "You must, Joseph." Joseph spoke of the wind again; the sky, he urged, was heavy with rain. "What signifies a day?" he whined. But Gregory stood his ground until almost out of self-protection the other consented to do his bidding and set out as soon as he could make ready.
This being determined, Joseph left his brother, and cursing Master Stewart for the amount of discomfort which he was about to endure on his behoof, he went to prepare for the journey.
Gregory lingered still in the chamber where they had dined, and sat staring moodily before him at the table-linen. Anon, with a half-laugh of contempt, he filled a glass of muscadine, and drained it. As he set down the glass the door opened, and on the threshold stood a very dainty girl, whose age could not be more than twenty. Gregory looked on the fresh, oval face, with its wealth of brown hair crowning the low, broad forehead, and told himself that in his daughter he had just cause for pride. He looked again, and told himself that his brother was right; she had not the air of a maid whose lover returns not from the wars. Her lips were smiling, and the eyes - low-lidded and blue as the heavens - were bright with mirth.
The mirth faded from her eyes, and they took on a grave expression that added to their charm. But Gregory had looked for fear, leastways deep concern, and in this he was disappointed."What of him, father?" she asked, approaching. "Naught, and that's the rub. It is time we had news, and as none comes, your uncle goes to seek it." "Think you that ill can have befallen him?" Gregory was silent a moment, weighing his answer. Then
"We hope not, sweetheart," said he. "He may be a prisoner. We last had news of him from Worcester, and 'tis a week and more since the battle was fought there. Should he be a captive, your uncle has sufficient influence to obtain his enlargement."Cynthia sighed, and moved towards the window. "Poor Kenneth," she murmured gently. "He may be wounded."
"We shall soon learn," he answered. His disappointment grew keener; where he had looked for grief he found no more than an expression of pitying concern. Nor was his disappointment lessened when, after a spell of thoughtful silence, she began to comment upon the condition of the trees in the park below. Gregory had it in his mind to chide her for this lack of interest in the fate of her intended husband, but he let the impulse pass unheeded. After all, if Kenneth lived she should marry him. Hitherto she had been docile and willing enough to be guided by him; she had even displayed a kindness for Kenneth; no doubt she would do so again when Joseph returned with him - unless he were among the Worcester slain, in which case, perhaps, it would prove best that his fate was not to cause her any prostration of grief."The sky is heavy, father," said Cynthia from the window. "Poor uncle! He will have rough weather for his journey."
"I rejoice that someone wastes pity on poor uncle," growled Joseph, who re-entered, "this uncle whom your father drives out of doors in all weathers to look for his daughter's truant lover."Cynthia smiled upon him. "It is heroic of you, uncle." "There, there," he grumbled, "I shall do my best to find the laggard, lest those pretty eyes should weep away their beauty." Gregory's glance reproved this sneer of Joseph's, whereupon Joseph drew close to him: "Broken-hearted, is she not?" he muttered, to which Gregory returned no answer. An hour later, as Joseph climbed into his saddle, he turned to his brother again, and directing his eyes upon the girl, who stood patting the glossy neck of his nag: "Come, now," said he, "you see that matters are as I said." "And yet," replied Gregory sternly, "I hope to see you return with the boy. It will be better so." Joseph shrugged his shoulders contemptuously. Then, taking leave of his brother and his niece, he rode out with two grooms at his heels, and took the road South.
The House That Was Roland Marleigh's
It was high noon next day, and Gregory Ashburn was taking the air upon the noble terrace of Castle Marleigh, when the beat of hoofs, rapidly approaching up the avenue, arrested his attention. He stopped in his walk, and, turning, sought to discover who came. His first thought was of his brother; his second, of Kenneth. Through the half-denuded trees he made out two mounted figures, riding side by side; and from the fact of there being two, he adduced that this could not be Joseph returning.
Even as he waited he was joined by Cynthia, who took her stand beside him, and voiced the inquiry that was in his mind. But her father could no more than answer that he hoped it might be Kenneth.
Then the horsemen passed from behind the screen of trees and came into the clearing before the terrace, and unto the waiting glances of Ashburn and his daughter was revealed a curiously bedraggled and ill-assorted pair. The one riding slightly in advance looked like a Puritan of the meaner sort, in his battered steeple-hat and cloak of rusty black. The other was closely wrapped in a red mantle, uptilted behind by a sword of prodigious length, and for all that his broad, grey hat was unadorned by any feather, it was set at a rakish, ruffling, damn-me angle that pronounced him no likely comrade for the piously clad youth beside him.
But beneath that brave red cloak - alack! - as was presently seen when they dismounted, that gentleman was in a sorry plight. He wore a leather jerkin, so cut and soiled that any groom might have disdained it; a pair of green breeches, frayed to their utmost; and coarse boots of untanned leather, adorned by rusty spurs.
On the terrace Gregory paused a moment to call his groom to attend the new-comers, then he passed down the steps to greet Kenneth with boisterous effusion. Behind him, slow and stately as a woman of twice her years, came Cynthia. Calm was her greeting of her lover, contained in courteous expressions of pleasure at beholding him safe, and suffering him to kiss her hand.
In the background, his sable locks uncovered out of deference to the lady, stood Sir Crispin, his face pale and haggard, his lips parted, and his grey eyes burning as they fell again, after the lapse of years, upon the stones of this his home - the castle to which he was now come, hat in hand, to beg for shelter.Gregory was speaking, his hands resting upon Kenneth's shoulder.
"We have been much exercised concerning you, lad," he was saying. "We almost feared the worst, and yesterday Joseph left us to seek news of you at Cromwell's hands. Where have you tarried?"
"Anon, sir; you shall learn anon. The story is a long one." "True; you will be tired, and perchance you would first rest a while. Cynthia will see to it. But what scarecrow have you there? What tatterdemalion is this?" he cried, pointing to Galliard. He had imagined him a servant, but the dull flush that overspread Sir Crispin's face told him of his error."I would have you know, sir," Crispin began, with some heat, when Kenneth interrupted him.
"Tis to this gentleman, sir, that I owe my presence here. He was my fellow-prisoner, and but for his quick wit and stout arm I should be stiff by now. Anon, sir, you shall hear the story of it, and I dare swear it will divert you. This gentleman is Sir Crispin Galliard, lately a captain of horse with whom I served in Middleton's Brigade."
Crispin bowed low, conscious of the keen scrutiny in which Gregory's eyes were bent upon him. In his heart there arose a fear that, haply after all, the years that were sped had not wrought sufficient change in him.
"Sir Crispin Galliard," Ashburn was saying, after the manner of one who is searching his memory. "Galliard, Galliard - not he whom they called "Rakehelly Galliard," and who gave us such trouble in the late King's time?"Crispin breathed once more. Ashburn's scrutiny was explained. "The same, sir," he answered, with a smile and a fresh bow. "Your servant, sir; and yours, madam."
Cynthia looked with interest at the lank, soldierly figure. She, too, had heard - as who had not? - wild stories of this man's achievements. But of no feat of his had she been told that could rival that of his escape from Worcester; and when, that same evening, Kenneth related it, as they supped, her low-lidded eyes grew very wide, and as they fell on Crispin, admiration had taken now the place of interest.
Romance swayed as great a portion of her heart as it does of most women's. She loved the poets and their songs of great deeds; and here was one who, in the light of that which they related of him, was like an incarnation of some hero out of a romancer's ballad.
Kenneth she never yet had held in over high esteem; but of a sudden, in the presence of this harsh-featured dog of war, this grim, fierce-eyed ruffler, he seemed to fade, despite his comeliness of face and form, into a poor and puny insignificance. And when, presently, he unwisely related how, when in the boat he had fainted, the maiden laughed outright for very scorn.
At this plain expression of contempt, her father shot her a quick, uneasy glance. Kenneth stopped short, bringing his narrative abruptly to a close. Reproachfully he looked at her, turning first red, then white, as anger chased annoyance through his soul. Galliard looked on with quiet relish; her laugh had contained that which for days he had carried in his heart. He drained his bumper slowly, and made no attempt to relieve the awkward silence that sat upon the company.Truth to tell, there was emotion enough in the soul of him who was wont to be the life of every board he sat at to hold him silent and even moody.
Here, after eighteen years, was he again in his ancestral home of Marleigh. But how was he returned? As one who came under a feigned name, to seek from usurping hands a shelter 'neath his own roof; a beggar of that from others which it should have been his to grant or to deny those others. As an avenger he came. For justice he came, and armed with retribution; the flame of a hate unspeakable burning in his heart, and demanding the lives - no less - of those that had destroyed him and his. Yet was he forced to sit a mendicant almost at that board whose head was his by every right; forced to sit and curb his mood, giving no outward sign of the volcano that boiled and raged within his soul as his eye fell upon the florid, smiling face and portly, well-fed frame of Gregory Ashburn. For the time was not yet. He must wait; wait until Joseph's return, so that he might spend his vengeance upon both together.
Patient had he been for eighteen years, confident that ere he died, a just and merciful God would give him this for which he lived and waited. Yet now that the season was at hand; now upon the very eve of that for which he had so long been patient, a frenzy of impatience fretted him.
He drank deep that night, and through deep drinking his manner thawed - for in his cups it was not his to be churlish to friend or foe. Anon Cynthia withdrew; next Kenneth, who went in quest of her. Still Crispin sat on, and drank his host's health above his breath, and his perdition under it, till in the end Gregory, who never yet had found his master at the bottle, grew numb and drowsy, and sat blinking at the tapers.
Until midnight they remained at table, talking of this and that, and each understanding little of what the other said. As the last hour of night boomed out through the great hall, Gregory spoke of bed."Where do I lie to-night?" asked Crispin. "In the northern wing," answered Gregory with a hiccough. "Nay, sir, I protest," cried Galliard, struggling to his feet, and swaying somewhat as he stood. "I'll sleep in the King's chamber, none other." "The King's chamber?" echoed Gregory, and his face showed the confused struggles of his brain. "What know you of the King's chamber?" "That it faces the east and the sea, and that it is the chamber I love best."
"What can you know of it since, I take it, you have never seen it!" "Have I not?" he began, in a voice that was awful in its threatening calm. Then, recollecting himself, and shaking some of the drunkenness from him: "In the old days, when the Marleighs were masters here," he mumbled, "I was often within these walls. Roland Marleigh was my friend. The King's chamber was ever accorded me, and there, for old time's sake, I'll lay these old bones of mine to-night."
"You were Roland Marleigh's friend?" gasped Gregory. He was very white now, and there was a sheen of moisture on his face. The sound of that name had well-nigh sobered him. It was almost as if the ghost of Roland Marleigh stood before him. His knees were loosened, and he sank back into the chair from which he had but risen.
"Aye, I was his friend!" assented Crispin. "Poor Roland! He married your sister, did he not, and it was thus that, having no issue and the family being extinct, Castle Marleigh passed to you?""He married our cousin," Gregory amended. "They were an ill-fated family." "Ill-fated, indeed, an all accounts be true," returned Crispin in a maudlin voice. "Poor Roland! Well, for old time's sake, I'll sleep in the King's chamber, Master Ashburn." "You shall sleep where you list, sir," answered Gregory, and they rose. "Do you look to honour us long at Castle Marleigh, Sir Crispin?" was Gregory's last question before separating from his guest. "Nay, sir, 'tis likely I shall go hence to-morrow," answered Crispin, unmindful of what he said. "I trust not," said Gregory, in accents of relief that belied him. "A friend of Roland Marleigh's must ever be welcome in the house that was Roland Marleigh's."
"The house that was Roland Marleigh's," Crispin muttered. "Heigho! Life is precarious as the fall of a die at best an ephemeral business. To-night you say the house that was Roland Marleigh's; presently men will be saying the house that the Ashburns lived - aye, and died - in. Give you good night, Master Ashburn."He staggered off, and stumbled up the broad staircase at the head of which a servant now awaited, taper in hand, to conduct him to the chamber he demanded. Gregory followed him with a dull, frightened eye. Galliard's halting, thickly uttered words had sounded like a prophecy in his ears.
The Metamorphosis Of Kenneth
When the morrow came, however, Sir Crispin showed no signs of carrying out his proposal of the night before, and departing from Castle Marleigh. Nor, indeed, did he so much as touch upon the subject, bearing himself rather as one whose sojourn there was to be indefinite.
Gregory offered no comment upon this; through what he had done for Kenneth they were under a debt to Galliard, and whilst he was a fugitive from the Parliament's justice it would ill become Gregory to hasten his departure. Moreover, Gregory recalled little or nothing of the words that had passed between them in their cups, save a vague memory that Crispin had said that he had once known Roland Marleigh.
Kenneth was content that Galliard should lie idle, and not call upon him to go forth again to lend him the aid he had pledged himself to render when Crispin should demand it. He marvelled, as the days wore on, that Galliard should appear to have forgotten that task of his, and that he should make no shift to set about it. For the rest, however, it troubled him but little; enough preoccupation did he find in Cynthia's daily increasing coldness. Upon all the fine speeches that he made her she turned an idle ear, or if she replied at all it was but petulantly to interrupt them, to call him a man of great words and small deeds. All that he did she found ill done, and told him of it. His sober, godly garments of sombre hue afforded her the first weapon of scorn wherewith to wound him. A crow, she dubbed him; a canting, psalm-chanting hypocrite; a Scripture-monger, and every other contumelious epithet of like import that she should call to mind. He heard her in amazement."Is it for you, Cynthia," he cried out in his surprise, "the child of a God-fearing house, to mock the outward symbols of my faith?" "A faith," she laughed, "that is all outward symbols and naught besides; all texts and mournings and nose-twangings." "Cynthia!" he exclaimed, in horror.
"Go your ways, sir," she answered, half in jest, half in earnest. "What need hath a true faith of outward symbols? It is a matter that lies between your God and yourself, and it is your heart He will look at, not your coat. Why, then, without becoming more acceptable in His eyes, shall you but render yourself unsightly in the eyes of man?"
Kenneth's cheeks were flushed with anger. From the terrace where they walked he let his glance roam towards the avenue that split the park in twain. Up this at that moment, with the least suspicion of a swagger in his gait, Sir Crispin Galliard was approaching leisurely; he wore a claret-coloured doublet edged with silver lace, and a grey hat decked with a drooping red feather - which garments, together with the rest of his apparel, he had drawn from the wardrobe of Gregory Ashburn. His advent afforded Kenneth the retort he needed. Pointing him out to Cynthia:"Would you rather," he cried hotly, "have me such a man as that?" "And, pray, why not?" she taunted him. "Leastways, you would then be a man." "If, madam, a debauchee, a drunkard, a profligate, a brawler be your conception of a man, I would in faith you did not account me one." "And what, sir, would you sooner elect to be accounted?" "A gentleman, madam," he answered pompously.
"I think," said she quietly, "that you are in as little danger of becoming the one as the other. A gentleman does not slander a man behind his back, particularly when he owes that man his life. Kenneth, I am ashamed of you."
"I do not slander," he insisted hotly. "You yourself know of the drunken excess wherewith three nights ago he celebrated his coming to Castle Marleigh. Nor do I forget what I owe him, and payment is to be made in a manner you little know of. If I said of him what I did, it was but in answer to your taunts. Think you I could endure comparison with such a man as that? Know you what name the Royalists give him? They call him the Tavern Knight."She looked him over with an eye of quiet scorn.
"And how, sir, do they call you? The pulpit knight? Or is it the knight of the white feather? Mr. Stewart, you weary me. I would have a man who with a man's failings hath also a man's redeeming virtues of honesty, chivalry, and courage, and a record of brave deeds, rather than one who has nothing of the man save the coat - that outward symbol you lay such store by."His handsome, weak face was red with fury. "Since that is so, madam," he choked, "I leave you to your swaggering, ruffling Cavalier."
And, without so much as a bow, he swung round on his heel and left her. It was her turn to grow angry now, and well it was for him that he had not tarried. She dwelt with scorn upon his parting taunt, bethinking herself that in truth she had exaggerated her opinions of Galliard's merits. Her feelings towards that ungodly gentleman were rather of pity than aught else. A brave, ready-witted man she knew him for, as much from the story of his escape from Worcester as for the air that clung to him despite his swagger, and she deplored that one possessing these ennobling virtues should have fallen notwithstanding upon such evil ways as those which Crispin trod. Some day, perchance, when she should come to be better acquainted with him, she would seek to induce him to mend his course.
Such root did this thought take in her mind that soon thereafter - and without having waited for that riper acquaintance which at first she had held necessary - she sought to lead their talk into the channels of this delicate subject. But he as sedulously confined it to trivial matter whenever she approached him in this mood, fencing himself about with a wall of cold reserve that was not lightly to be overthrown. In this his conscience was at work. Cynthia was the flaw in the satisfaction he might have drawn from the contemplation of the vengeance he was there to wreak. He beheld her so pure, so sweet and fresh, that he marvelled how she came to be the daughter of Gregory Ashburn. His heart smote him at the thought of how she - the innocent - must suffer with the guilty, and at the contemplation of the sorrow which he must visit upon her. Out of this sprang a constraint when in her company, for other than stiff and formal he dared not be lest he should deem himself no better than the Iscariot.During the first days he had pent at Marleigh, he had been impatient for Joseph Ashburn's return. Now he found himself hoping each morning that Joseph might not come that day.
A courier reached Gregory from Windsor with a letter wherein his brother told him that the Lord General, not being at the castle, he was gone on to London in quest of him. And Gregory, lacking the means to inform him that the missing Kenneth was already returned, was forced to possess his soul in patience until his brother, having learnt what was to be learnt of Cromwell, should journey home.
And so the days sped on, and a week wore itself out in peace at Castle Marleigh, none dreaming of the volcano on which they stood. Each night Crispin and Gregory sat together at the board after Kenneth and Cynthia had withdrawn, and both drank deep - the one for the vice of it, the other (as he had always done) to seek forgetfulness.
He needed it now more than ever, for he feared that the consideration of Cynthia might yet unman him. Had she scorned and avoided him and having such evidences of his ways of life he marvelled that she did not - he might have allowed his considerations of her to weigh less heavily. As it was, she sought him out, nor seemed rebuffed at his efforts to evade her, and in every way she manifested a kindliness that drove him almost to the point of despair, and well-nigh to hating her.
Kenneth, knowing naught of the womanly purpose that actuated her, and seeing but the outward signs, which, with ready jealousy, he misconstrued and magnified, grew sullen and churlish to her, to Galliard, and even to Gregory.
For hours he would mope alone, nursing his jealous mood, as though in this clownish fashion matters were to be mended. Did Cynthia but speak to Crispin, he scowled; did Crispin answer her, he grit his teeth at the covert meaning wherewith his fancy invested Crispin's tones; whilst did they chance to laugh together - a contingency that fortunately for his sanity was rare - he writhed in fury. He was a man transformed, and at times there was murder in his heart. Had he been a swordsman of more than moderate skill and dared to pit himself against the Tavern Knight, blood would have been shed in Marleigh Park betwixt them.
It seemed at last as if with his insensate jealousy all the evil humours that had lain dormant in the boy were brought to the surface, to overwhelm his erstwhile virtues - if qualities that have bigotry for a parent may truly be accounted virtues.
He cast off, not abruptly, but piecemeal, those outward symbols - his sombre clothes. First 'twas his hat he exchanged for a feather-trimmed beaver of more sightly hue; then those stiff white bands that reeked of sanctity and cant for a collar of fine point; next it was his coat that took on a worldly edge of silver lace. And so, little by little, step by step, was the metamorphosis effected, until by the end of the week he came forth a very butterfly of fashion - a gallant, dazzling Cavalier. Out of a stern, forbidding Covenanter he was transformed in a few days into a most outrageous fop. He walked in an atmosphere of musk that he himself exhaled; his fair hair - that a while ago had hung so straight and limp - was now twisted into monstrous curls, a bunch of which were gathered by his right ear in a ribbon of pale blue silk.
Galliard noted the change in amazement, yet, knowing to what follies youth is driven when it woos, he accounted Cynthia responsible for it, and laughed in his sardonic way, whereat the boy would blush and scowl in one. Gregory, too, looked on and laughed, setting it down to the same cause. Even Cynthia smiled, whereat the Tavern Knight was driven to ponder.
With a courtier's raiment Kenneth put on, too, a courtier's ways; he grew mincing and affected in his speech, and he - whose utterance a while ago had been marked by a scriptural flavour - now set it off with some of Galliard's less unseemly oaths.
Since it was a ruffling gallant Cynthia required, he swore that a ruffling gallant should she find him; nor had he wit enough to see that his ribbons, his fopperies, and his capers served but to make him ridiculous in her eyes. He did indeed perceive, however, that in spite of this wondrous transformation, he made no progress in her favour."What signify these fripperies?" she asked him, one day, "any more than did your coat of decent black? Are these also outward symbols?" "You may take them for such, madam," he answered sulkily. "You liked me not as I was - " "And I like you less as you are," she broke in. "Cynthia, you mock me," he cried angrily.
"Now, Heaven forbid! I do but mark the change," she answered airily. "These scented clothes are but a masquerade, even as your coat of black and your cant were a masquerade. Then you simulated godliness; now you simulate Heaven knows what. But now, as then, it is no more than a simulation, a pretence of something that you are not."
He left her in a pet, and went in search of Gregory, into whose ear he poured the story of his woes that had their source in Cynthia's unkindness. From this resulted a stormy interview 'twixt Cynthia and her father, in which Cynthia at last declared that she would not be wedded to a fop.Gregory shrugged his shoulders and laughed cynically, replying that it was the way of young men to be fools, and that through folly lay the road to wisdom. "Be that as it may," she answered him with spirit, "this folly transcends all bounds. Master Stewart may return to his Scottish heather; at Castle Marleigh he is wasting time." "Cynthia!" he cried. "Father," she pleaded, "why be angry? You would not have me marry against the inclinations of my heart? You would not have me wedded to a man whom I despise?" "By what right do you despise him?" he demanded, his brow dark.
"By the right of the freedom of my thoughts - the only freedom that a woman knows. For the rest it seems she is but a chattel; of no more consideration to a man than his ox or his ass with which the Scriptures rank her - a thing to be given or taken, bought or sold, as others shall decree."
"Child, child, what know you of these things?" he cried. "You are overwrought, sweetheart." And with the promise to wait until a calmer frame of mind in her should be more propitious to what he wished to say further on this score, he left her.She went out of doors in quest of solitude among the naked trees of the park; instead she found Sir Crispin, seated deep in thought upon a fallen trunk.
Through the trees she espied him as she approached, whilst the rustle of her gown announced to him her coming. He rose as she drew nigh, and, doffing his hat, made shift to pass on."Sir Crispin," she called, detaining him. He turned. "Your servant, Mistress Cynthia." "Are you afraid of me, Sir Crispin?" "Beauty, madam, is wont to inspire courage rather than fear," he answered, with a smile. "That, sir, is an evasion, not an answer." "If read aright, Mistress Cynthia, it is also an answer." "That you do not fear me?" "It is not a habit of mine." "Why, then, have you avoided me these three days past?"
Despite himself Crispin felt his breath quickening - quickening with a pleasure that he sought not to account for - at the thought that she should have marked his absence from her side."Because perhaps if I did not," he answered slowly, "you might come to avoid me. I am a proud man, Mistress Cynthia." "Satan, sir, was proud, but his pride led him to perdition." "So indeed may mine," he answered readily, "since it leads me from you." "Nay, sir," she laughed, "you go from me willingly enough."
"Not willingly, Cynthia. Oh, not willingly," he began. Then of a sudden he checked his tongue, and asked himself what he was saying. With a half-laugh and a courtier manner, he continued, "Of two evils, madam, we must choose the lesser one.""Madam," she echoed, disregarding all else that he had said. "It is an ugly word, and but a moment back you called me Cynthia " "Twas a liberty that methought my grey hairs warranted, and for which you should have reproved me." "You have not grey hairs enough to warrant it, Sir Crispin," she answered archly. "But what if even so I account it no liberty?" The heavy lids were lifted from her eyes, and as their glance, frank and kindly, met his, he trembled. Then, with a polite smile, he bowed. "I thank you for the honour."
For a moment she looked at him in a puzzled way, then moved past him, and as he stood, stiffly erect, watching her graceful figure, he thought that she was about to leave him, and was glad of it. But ere she had taken half a dozen steps:
"Sir Crispin," said she, looking back at him over her shoulder, "I am walking to the cliffs."
Never was a man more plainly invited to become an escort; but he ignored it. A sad smile crept into his harsh face.
She inclined to call him a fool; yet she restrained herself. She had an impulse to go her way without him; but, then, she desired his company, and Cynthia was unused to having her desires frustrated. So finding him impervious to suggestion:"Will you not come with me?" she asked at last, point-blank. "Why, yes, if you wish it," he answered without alacrity. "You may remain, sir." Her offended tone aroused him now to the understanding that he was impolite. Contrite he stood beside her in a moment.
"With your permission, mistress, I will go with you. I am a dull fellow, and to-day I know not what mood is on me. So sorry a one that I feared I should be poor company. Still, if you'll endure me, I'll do my best to prove entertaining.""By no means," she answered coldly. "I seek not the company of dull fellows." And she was gone. He stood where she had left him, and breathed a most ungallant prayer of thanks. Next he laughed softly to himself, a laugh that was woeful with bitterness. "Fore George!" he muttered, "it is all that was wanting!"
He reseated himself upon the fallen tree, and there he set himself to reflect, and to realize that he, war-worn and callous, come to Castle Marleigh on such an errand as was his, should wax sick at the very thought of it for the sake of a chit of a maid, with a mind to make a mock and a toy of him. Into his mind there entered even the possibility of flight, forgetful of the wrongs he had suffered, abandoning the vengeance he had sworn. Then with an oath he stemmed his thoughts.
"God in heaven, am I a boy, beardless and green?" he asked himself. "Am I turned seventeen again, that to look into a pair of eyes should make me forget all things but their existence?" Then in a burst of passion: "Would to Heaven," he muttered, "they had left me stark on Worcester Field!"He rose abruptly, and set out to walk aimlessly along, until suddenly a turn in the path brought him face to face with Cynthia. She hailed him with a laugh. "Sir laggard, I knew that willy-nilly you would follow me," she cried. And he, taken aback, could not but smile in answer, and profess that she had conjectured rightly.