The Tavern Knight by Rafael Sabatini - HTML preview
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The Heart Of Cynthia Ashburn
Side by side stepped that oddly assorted pair along - the maiden whose soul was as pure and fresh as the breeze that blew upon them from the sea, and the man whose life years ago had been marred by a sorrow, the quest of whose forgetfulness had led him through the mire of untold sin; the girl upon the threshold of womanhood, her life all before her and seeming to her untainted mind a joyous, wholesome business; the man midway on his ill-starred career, his every hope blighted save the one odious hope of vengeance, which made him cling to a life he had proved worthless and ugly, and that otherwise he had likely enough cast from him. And as they walked:"Sir Crispin," she ventured timidly, "you are unhappy, are you not?" Startled by her words and the tone of them, Galliard turned his head that he might observe her.
"I, unhappy?" he laughed; and it was a laugh calculated to acknowledge the fitness of her question, rather than to refute it as he intended. "Am I a clown, Cynthia, to own myself unhappy at such a season and while you honour me with your company?"She made a wry face in protest that he fenced with her. "You are happy, then?" she challenged him.
"What is happiness?" quoth he, much as Pilate may have questioned what was truth. Then before she could reply he hastened to add: "I have not been quite so happy these many years.""It is not of the present moment that I speak," she answered reprovingly, for she scented no more than a compliment in his words, "but of your life."
Now either was he imbued with a sense of modesty touching the deeds of that life of his, or else did he wisely realize that no theme could there he less suited to discourse upon with an innocent maid."Mistress Cynthia," said he as though he had not heard her question, "I would say a word to you concerning Kenneth." At that she turned upon him with a pout. "But it is concerning yourself that I would have you talk. It is not nice to disobey a lady. Besides, I have little interest in Master Stewart."
"To have little interest in a future husband augurs ill for the time when he shall come to be your husband."
"I thought that you, at least, understood me. Kenneth will never be husband of mine, Sir Crispin."
"Indeed, had you but seen the half of life that I have seen," said he unthinkingly, "it might amaze you what manner of man a maid may love - or at least may marry. Come, Cynthia, what fault do you find with him?""Why, every fault." He laughed in unbelief. "And whom are we to blame for all these faults that have turned you so against him?" "Whom?"
"Yourself, Cynthia. You use him ill, child. If his behaviour has been extravagant, you are to blame. You are severe with him, and he, in his rash endeavours to present himself in a guise that shall render him commendable in your eyes, has overstepped discretion.""Has my father bidden you to tell me this?" "Since when have I enjoyed your father's confidence to that degree? No, no, Cynthia. I plead the boy's cause to you because - I know not because of what."
"It is ill to plead without knowing why. Let us forget the valiant Kenneth. They tell me, Sir Crispin" - and she turned her glorious eyes upon him in a manner that must have witched a statue into answering her - "that in the Royal army you were known as the Tavern Knight.""They tell you truly. What of that?" "Well, what of it? Do you blush at the very thought?"
"I blush?" He blinked, and his eyes were full of humour as they met her grave - almost sorrowing glance. Then a full-hearted peal of laughter broke from him, and scared a flight of gulls from the rocks of Sheringham Hithe below.
"Oh, Cynthia! You'll kill me!" he gasped. "Picture to yourself this Crispin Galliard blushing and giggling like a schoolgirl beset by her first lover. Picture it, I say! As well and as easily might you picture old Lucifer warbling a litany for the edification of a Nonconformist parson."
Her eyes were severe in their reproach.
"It is always so with you. You laugh and jest and make a mock of everything. Such I doubt not has been your way from the commencement, and 'tis thus that you are come to this condition."Again he laughed, but this time it was in bitterness.
"Nay, sweet mistress, you are wrong - you are very wrong; it was not always thus. Time was - " He paused. "Bah! 'Tis the coward cries "time was"! Leave me the past, Cynthia. It is dead, and of the dead we should speak no ill," he jested.
"What is there in your past?" she insisted, despite his words. "What is there in it so to have warped a character that I am assured was once - is, indeed, still - of lofty and noble purpose? What is it has brought you to the level you occupy - you who were born to lead; you who - ""Have done, child. Have done," he begged.
"Nay, tell me. Let us sit here." And taking hold of his sleeve, she sat herself upon a mound, and made room for him beside her on the grass. With a half-laugh and a sigh he obeyed her, and there, on the cliff, in the glow of the September sun, he took his seat at her side.
A silence prevailed about them, emphasized rather than broken by the droning chant of a fisherman mending his nets on the beach below, the intermittent plash of the waves on the shingle, and the scream of the gulls that circled overhead. Before the eyes of his flesh was stretched a wide desert of sky and water, and before the eyes of his mind the hopeless desert of his thirty-eight years.
He was almost tempted to speak. The note of sympathy in her voice allured him, and sympathy was to him as drink to one who perishes of thirst. A passionate, indefinable longing impelled him to pour out the story that in Worcester he had related unto Kenneth, and thus to set himself better in her eyes; to have her realize indeed that if he was come so low it was more the fault of others than his own. The temptation drew him at a headlong pace, to be checked at last by the memory that those others who had brought him to so sorry a condition were her own people. The humour passed. He laughed softly, and shook his head."There is nothing that I can tell you, child. Let us rather talk of Kenneth." "I do not wish to talk of Kenneth."
"Nay, but you must. Willy-nilly must you. Think you it is only a war-worn, harddrinking, swashbuckling ruffler that can sin? Does it not also occur to you that even a frail and tender little maid may do wrong as well?"
"What wrong have I done?" she cried in consternation.
"He is mistaken in the means he adopts, that is all. In his heart his one aim is to win your esteem, and, after all, it is the sentiment that matters, not its manifestation. Why, then, are you unkind to him?"
"But I am not unkind. Or is it unkindness to let him see that I mislike his capers? Would it not be vastly more unkind to ignore them and encourage him to pursue their indulgence? I have no patience with him.""As for those capers, I am endeavouring to show you that you yourself have driven him to them." "Sir Crispin," she cried out, "you grow tiresome." "Aye," said he, "I grow tiresome. I grow tiresome because I preach of duty. Marry, it is in truth a tiresome topic." "How duty? Of what do you talk?" And a flush of incipient anger spread now on her fair cheek.
"I will be clearer," said he imperturbably. "This lad is your betrothed. He is at heart a good lad, an honourable and honest lad - at times haply over-honest and over-honourable; but let that be. To please a whim, a caprice, you set yourself to flout him, as is the way of your sex when you behold a man your utter slave. From this - being all unversed in the obliquity of woman - he conceives, poor boy, that he no longer finds favour in your eyes, and to win back this, the only thing that in the world he values, he behaves foolishly. You flout him anew, and because of it. He is as jealous with you as a hen with her brood.""Jealous?" echoed Cynthia.
"Why, yes, jealous; and so far does he go as to be jealous even of me," he cried, with infinitely derisive relish. "Think of it - he is jealous of me! Jealous of him they call the Tavern Knight!"She did think of it as he bade her. And by thinking she stumbled upon a discovery that left her breathless.
Strange how we may bear a sentiment in our hearts without so much as suspecting its existence, until suddenly a chance word shall so urge it into life that it reveals itself with unmistakable distinctness. With her the revelation began in a vague wonder at the scorn with which Crispin invested the notion that Kenneth should have cause for jealousy on his score. Was it, she asked herself, so monstrously unnatural? Then in a flash the answer came - and it was, that far from being a matter for derision, such an attitude in Kenneth lacked not for foundation.
In that moment she knew that it was because of Crispin; because of this man who spoke with such very scorn of self, that Kenneth had become in her eyes so mean and unworthy a creature. Loved him she haply never had, but leastways she had tolerated - been even flattered by - his wooing. By contrasting him now with Crispin she had grown to despise him. His weakness, his pusillanimity, his meannesses of soul, stood out in sharp relief by contrast with the masterful strength and the high spirit of Sir Crispin.
So easily may our ideals change that the very graces of face and form that a while ago had pleased her in Kenneth, seemed now effeminate attributes, well-attuned to a vacillating, purposeless mind. Far greater beauty did her eyes behold in this grimfaced soldier of fortune; the man as firm of purpose as he was upright of carriage; gloomy, proud, and reckless; still young, yet past the callow age of adolescence. Since the day of his coming to Castle Marleigh she had brought herself to look upon him as a hero stepped from the romancers' tales that in secret she had read. The mystery that seemed to envelop him; those hints at a past that was not good - but the measure of whose evil in her pure innocence she could not guess; his very melancholy, his misfortunes, and the deeds she had heard assigned to him, all had served to fire her fancy and more besides, although, until that moment, she knew it not.Subconsciously all this had long dwelt in her mind. And now of a sudden that selfderiding speech of Crispin's had made her aware of its presence and its meaning.
She loved him. That men said his life had not been nice, that he was a soldier of fortune, little better than an adventurer, a man of no worldly weight, were matters of no moment then to her. She loved him. She knew it now because he had mockingly bidden her to think whether Kenneth had cause to be jealous of him, and because upon thinking of it, she found that did Kenneth know what was in her heart, he must have more than cause.
She loved him with that rare love that will urge a woman to the last sacrifice a man may ask; a love that gives and gives, and seeks nothing in return; that impels a woman to follow the man at his bidding, be his way through the world cast in places never so rugged; cleaving to him where all besides shall have abandoned him; and, however dire his lot, asking of God no greater blessing than that of sharing it.
And to such a love as this Crispin was blind - blind to the very possibility of its existence; so blind that he laughed to scorn the idea of a puny milksop being jealous of him. And so, while she sat, her soul all mastered by her discovery, her face white. and still for very awe of it, he to whom this wealth was given, pursued the odious task of wooing her for another.
"You have observed - you must have observed this insensate jealousy," he was saying, "and how do you allay it? You do not. On the contrary, you excite it at every turn. You are exciting it now by having - and I dare swear for no other purpose - lured me to walk with you, to sit here with you and preach your duty to you. And when, through jealousy, he shall have flown to fresh absurdities, shall you regret your conduct and the fruits it has borne? Shall you pity the lad, and by kindness induce him to be wiser? No. You will mock and taunt him into yet worse displays. And through these displays, which are - though you may not have bethought you of it - of your own contriving, you will conclude that he is no fit mate for you, and there will be heart-burnings, and years hence perhaps another Tavern Knight, whose name will not be Crispin Galliard."
He stared at her, dumfounded. Had he been talking of Kenneth to her with such eloquence and such fervour, that she should calmly tell him as he paused that it was not of Kenneth she had been thinking?
"You will think of him, Cynthia?" he begged. "You will bethink you too of what I have said, and by being kinder and more indulgent with this youth you shall make him grow into a man you may take pride in. Deal fairly with him, child, and if anon you find you cannot truly love him, then tell him so. But tell him kindly and frankly, instead of using him as you are doing."She was silent a moment, and in their poignancy her feelings went very near to anger. Presently: "I would, Sir Crispin, you could hear him talk of you," said she. "He talks ill, not a doubt of it, and like enough he has good cause." "Yet you saved his life."
The words awoke Crispin, the philosopher of love, to realities. He recalled the circumstances of his saving Kenneth, and the price the boy was to pay for that service; and it suddenly came to him that it was wasted breath to plead Kenneth's cause with Cynthia, when by his own future actions he was, himself, more than likely to destroy the boy's every hope of wedding her. The irony of his attitude smote him hard, and he rose abruptly. The sun hung now a round, red globe upon the very brink of the sea. "Hereafter he may have little cause to thank me," muttered he. "Come, Mistress Cynthia, it grows late."She rose in mechanical obedience, and together they retraced their steps in silence, save for the stray word exchanged at intervals touching matters of no moment.
But he had not advocated Kenneth's cause in vain, for all that he little recked what his real argument had been, what influences he had evoked to urge her to make her peace with the lad. A melancholy listlessness of mind possessed her now. Crispin did not see, never would see, what was in her heart, and it might not be hers to show him. The life that might have signified was not to be lived, and since that was so it seemed to matter little what befell.
It was thus that when on the morrow her father returned to the subject, she showed herself tractable and docile out of her indifference, and to Gregory she appeared not averse to listen to what he had to advance in the boy's favour. Anon Kenneth's own humble pleading, allied to his contrite and sorrowful appearance, were received by her with that same indifference, as also with indifference did she allow him later to kiss her hand and assume the flattering belief that he was rehabilitated in her favour.
But pale grew Mistress Cynthia's cheeks, and sad her soul. Wistful she waxed, sighing at every turn, until it seemed to her - as haply it hath seemed to many a maid - that all her life must she waste in vain sighs over a man who gave no single thought to her.
On his side Kenneth strove hard during the days that followed to right himself in her eyes. But so headlong was he in the attempt, and so misguided, that presently he overshot his mark by dropping an unflattering word concerning Crispin, whereby he attributed to the Tavern Knight's influence and example the degenerate change that had of late been wrought in him.
Cynthia's eyes grew hard as he spoke, and had he been wise he had better served his cause by talking in another vein. But love and jealousy had so addled what poor brains the Lord had bestowed upon him, that he floundered on, unmindful of any warning that took not the blunt shape of words. At length, however, she stemmed the flow of invective that his lips poured forth."Have I not told you already, Kenneth, that it better becomes a gentleman not to slander the man to whom he owes his life? In fact, that a gentleman would scorn such an action?"
As he had protested before, so did he protest now, that what he had uttered was no slander. And in his rage and mortification at the way she used him, and for which he now bitterly upbraided her, he was very near the point of tears, like the blubbering schoolboy that at heart he was.
"And as for the debt, madam," he cried, striking the oaken table of the hall with his clenched hand, "it is a debt that shall be paid, a debt which this gentleman whom you defend would not permit me to contract until I had promised payment - aye, 'fore George!
- and with interest, for in the payment I may risk my very life."
"I see no interest in that, since you risk nothing more than what you owe him," she answered, with a disdain that brought the impending tears to his eyes. But if he lacked the manliness to restrain them, he possessed at least the shame to turn his back and hide them from her. "But tell me, sir," she added, her curiosity awakened, "if I am to judge, what was the nature of this bargain?"
He was silent for a moment, and took a turn in the hall - mastering himself to speak - his hands clasped behind his back, and his eyes bent towards the polished floor which the evening sunlight, filtered through the gules of the leaded windows, splashed here and there with a crimson stain. She sat in the great leathern chair at the head of the board, and, watching him, waited.
He was debating whether he was bound to secrecy in the matter, and in the end he resolved that he was not. Thereupon, pausing before her, he succinctly told the story Crispin had related to him that night in Worcester - the story of a great wrong, that none but a craven could have left unavenged. He added nothing to it, subtracted nothing from it, but told the tale as it had been told to him on that dreadful night, the memory of which had still power to draw a shudder from him.
Cynthia sat with parted lips and eager eyes, drinking in that touching narrative of suffering that was rather as some romancer's fabrication than a true account of what a living man had undergone. Now with sorrow and pity in her heart and countenance, now with anger and loathing, she listened until he had done, and even when he ceased speaking, and flung himself into the nearest chair, she sat on in silence for a spell.
"You dare," she cried, "to speak of that man as you do, knowing all this? Knowing what he has suffered, you dare to rail in his absence against those sins to which his misfortunes have driven him? How, think you, would it have fared with you, you fool, had you stood in the shoes of this unfortunate? Had you fallen on your craven knees, and thanked the Lord for allowing you to keep your miserable life? Had you succumbed to the blows of fate with a whine of texts upon your lips? Who are you?" she went on, rising, breathless in her wrath, which caused him to recoil in sheer affright before her. "Who are you, and what are you, that knowing what you know of this man's life, you dare to sit in judgment upon his actions and condemn them? Answer me, you fool!"
But never a word had he wherewith to meet that hail of angry, contemptuous questions. The answer that had been so ready to his lips that night at Worcester, when, in a milder form the Tavern Knight had set him the same question, he dared hot proffer now. The retort that Sir Crispin had not cause enough in the evil of others, which had wrecked his life, to risk the eternal damnation of his soul, he dared no longer utter. Glibly enough had he said to that stern man that which he dared not say now to this sterner beauty. Perhaps it was fear of her that made him dumb, perhaps that at last he knew himself for what he was by contrast with the man whose vices he had so heartily despised a while ago.
Shrinking back before her anger, he racked his shallow mind in vain for a fitting answer. But ere he had found one, a heavy step sounded in the gallery that overlooked the hall, and a moment later Gregory Ashburn descended. His face was ghastly white, and a heavy frown furrowed the space betwixt his brows.In the fleeting glance she bestowed upon her father, she remarked not the disorder of his countenance; whilst as for Kenneth, he had enough to hold his attention for the time. Gregory's advent set an awkward constraint upon them, nor had he any word to say as he came heavily up the hall.
At the lower end of the long table he paused, and resting his hand upon the board, he seemed on the point of speaking when of a sudden a sound reached him that caused him to draw a sharp breath; it was the rumble of wheels and the crack of a whip.
"It is Joseph!" he cried, in a voice the relief of which was so marked that Cynthia noticed it. And with that exclamation he flung past them, and out through the doorway to meet his brother so opportunely returned.
He reached the terrace steps as the coach pulled up, and the lean figure of Joseph Ashburn emerged from it.
"So, Gregory," he grumbled for greeting, "it was on a fool's errand you sent me, after all. That knave, your messenger, found me in London at last when I had outworn my welcome at Whitehall. But, 'swounds, man," he cried, remarking the pallor, of his brother's face, "what ails thee?""I have news for you, Joseph," answered Gregory, in a voice that shook. "It is not Cynthia?" he inquired. "Nay, for there she stands -and her pretty lover by her side. 'Slife, what a coxcomb the lad's grown." And with that he hastened forward to kiss his niece, and congratulate Kenneth upon being restored to her.
"I heard of it, lad, in London," quoth he, a leer upon his sallow face - "the story of how a fire-eater named Galliard befriended you, trussed a parson and a trooper, and dragged you out of jail a short hour before hanging-time."
Kenneth flushed. He felt the sneer in Joseph's, words like a stab. The man's tone implied that another had done for him that which he would not have dared do for himself, and Kenneth felt that this was so said in Cynthia's presence with malicious, purpose.
He was right. Partly it was Joseph's way to be spiteful and venomous whenever chance afforded him the opportunity. Partly he had been particularly soured at present by his recent discomforts, suffered in a cause wherewith he had no, sympathy - that of the union Gregory desired 'twixt Cynthia and Kenneth.
There was an evil smile on his thin lips, and his crooked eyes rested tormentingly upon the young man. A fresh taunt trembled on his viperish tongue, when Gregory plucked at the skirts of his coat, and drew him aside. They entered the chamber where they had held their last interview before Joseph had set out for news of Kenneth. With an air of mystery Gregory closed the door, then turned to face his brother. He stayed him in the act of unbuckling his sword-belt.
"Wait, Joseph!" he cried dramatically. "This is no time to disarm. Keep your sword on your thigh, man; you will need it as you never yet have needed it." He paused, took a deep breath, and hurled the news at his brother. "Roland Marleigh is here." And he sat down like a man exhausted.
Joseph did not start; he did not cry out; he did not so much as change countenance. A slight quiver of the eyelids was the only outward sign he gave of the shock that his brother's announcement had occasioned. The hand that had rested on the buckle of his sword-belt slipped quietly to his side, and he deliberately stepped up to Gregory, his eyes set searchingly upon the pale, flabby face before him. A sudden suspicion darting through his mind, he took his brother by the shoulders and shook him vigorously."Gregory, you fool, you have drunk overdeep in my absence." "I have, I have," wailed Gregory, "and, my God, 'twas he was my table-fellow, and set me the example."
"Like enough, like enough," returned Joseph, with a contemptuous laugh. "My poor Gregory, the wine has so fouled your worthless wits at last, that they conjure up phantoms to sit at the table with you. Come, man, what petticoat business is this? Bestir yourself, fool."At that Gregory caught the drift of Joseph's suspicions. "Tis you are the fool," he retorted angrily, springing to his feet, and towering above his brother.
"It was no ghost sat with me, but Roland Marleigh, himself, in the flesh, and strangely changed by time. So changed that I knew him not, nor should I know him now but for that which, not ten minutes ago, I overheard."His earnestness was too impressive, his sanity too obvious, and Joseph's suspicions were all scattered before it. He caught Gregory's wrist in a grip that made him wince, and forced him back into his seat. "Gadslife, man, what is it you mean?" he demanded through set teeth. "Tell me."
And forthwith Gregory told him of the manner of Kenneth's coming to Sheringham and to Castle Marleigh, accompanied by one Crispin Galliard, the same that had been known for his mad exploits in the late wars as "rakehelly Galliard," and that was now known to the malignants as "The Tavern Knight" for his debauched habits. Crispin's mention of Roland Marleigh on the night of his arrival now returned vividly to Gregory's mind, and he repeated it, ending with the story that that very evening he had overheard Kenneth telling Cynthia."And this Galliard, then, is none other than that pup of insolence, Roland Marleigh, grown into a dog of war?" quoth Joseph. He was calm - singularly calm for one who had heard such news.
"There remains no doubt of it." "And you saw this man day by day, sat with him night by night over your damned sack, and knew him not? Oddswounds, man, where were your eyes?""I may have been blind. But he is greatly changed. I would defy you, Joseph, to have recognized him." Joseph sneered, and the flash of his eyes told of the contempt wherein he held his brother's judgment and opinions. "Think not that, Gregory. I have cause enough to remember him," said Joseph, with an unpleasant laugh. Then as suddenly changing his tone for one of eager anxiety: "But the lad, Gregory, does he suspect, think you?"
"Not a whit. In that lies this fellow's diabolical cunning. Learning of Kenneth's relations with us, he seized the opportunity Fate offered him that night at Worcester, and bound the lad on oath to help him when he should demand it, without disclosing the names of those against whom he should require his services. The boy expects at any moment to be bidden to go forth with him upon his mission of revenge, little dreaming that it is here that that tragedy is to be played out.""This comes of your fine matrimonial projects for Cynthia," muttered Joseph acridly. He laughed his unpleasant laugh again, and for a spell there was silence.
"To think, Gregory," he broke out at last, "that for a fortnight he should have been beneath this roof, and you should have found no means of doing more effectively that which was done too carelessly eighteen years ago."He spoke as coldly as though the matter were a trivial one. Gregory shuddered and looked at his brother in alarm.
"What now, fool?" cried Joseph, scowling. "Are you as cowardly as you are blind? Damn me, sir, it seems well that I am returned. I'll have no Marleigh plague my old age for me." He paused a moment, then continued in a quieter voice, but one whose ring was sinister beyond words: "Tomorrow I shall find a way to draw this your dog of war to some secluded ground. I have some skill," he pursued, tapping his hilt as he spoke, "besides, you shall be there, Gregory." And he smiled darkly. "Is there no other way?" asked Gregory, in distress.
"There was," answered Joseph. "There was in Parliament. At Whitehall I met a man - one Colonel Pride - a bloodthirsty old Puritan soldier, who would give his right hand to see this Galliard hanged. Galliard, it seems, slew the fellow's son at Worcester. Had I but known," he added regretfully - "had your wits been keener, and you had discovered it and sent me word, I had found means to help Colonel Pride to his revenge. As it is" - he shrugged his shoulders - "there is not time."
"It may be - " began Gregory, then stopped abruptly with an exclamation that caused Joseph to wheel sharply round. The door had opened, and on the threshold Sir Crispin Galliard stood, deferentially, hat in hand.
Despite his anxiety, Gregory chuckled at the question. The Tavern Knight came forward. "I am Sir Crispin Galliard, at your service," said he, bowing. "I was told that the master of Marleigh was returned, and that I should find you here, and I hasten, sir, to proffer you my thanks for the generous shelter this house has given me this fortnight past."
Whilst he spoke he measured Joseph with his eyes, and his glance was as hateful as his words were civil. Joseph was lost in amazement. Little trace was there in this fellow of the Roland Marleigh he had known. Moreover, he had looked to find an older man, forgetting that Roland's age could not exceed thirty-eight. Then, again, the fading light, whilst revealing the straight, supple lines of his lank figure, softened the haggardness of the face and made him appear yet younger than the light of day would have shown him.
In an instant Joseph had recovered from his surprise, and for all that his mind misgave him tortured by a desire to learn whether Crispin was aware of their knowledge concerning him - his smile was serene, and his tones level and pleasant, as he made answer:
"Sir, you are very welcome. You have valiantly served one dear to us, and the entertainment of our poor house for as long as you may deign to honour it is but the paltriest of returns."
Sir Crispin had heard naught of what was being said as he entered the room wherein the brothers plotted against him, and he little dreamt that his identity was discovered. He had but hastened to perform that which, under ordinary circumstances, would have been a natural enough duty towards the master of the house. He had been actuated also by an impatience again to behold this Joseph Ashburn - the man who had dealt him that murderous sword-thrust eighteen years ago. He watched him attentively, and gathering from his scrutiny that here was a dangerous, subtle man, different, indeed, to his dullwitted brother, he had determined to act at once.And so when he appeared in the hall at suppertime, he came armed and booted, and equipped as for a journey.
Joseph was standing alone by the huge fire-place, his face to the burning logs, and his foot resting upon one of the andirons. Gregory and his daughter were talking together in the embrasure of a window. By the other window, across the hall, stood Kenneth, alone and disconsolate, gazing out at the drizzling rain that had begun to fall.As Galliard descended, Joseph turned his head, and his eyebrows shot up and wrinkled his forehead at beholding the knight's equipment. "How is this, Sir Crispin?" said he. "You are going a journey?"
"Too long already have I imposed myself upon the hospitality of Castle Marleigh," Crispin answered politely as he came and stood before the blazing logs. "To-night, Mr. Ashburn, I go hence."
A curious expression flitted across Joseph's face. The next moment, his brows still knit as he sought to fathom his sudden action, he was muttering the formal regrets that courtesy dictated. But Crispin had remarked that singular expression on Joseph's face - fleeting though it had been - and it flashed across his mind that Joseph knew him. And as he moved away towards Cynthia and her father, he thanked Heaven that he had taken such measures as he had thought wise and prudent for the carrying out of his resolve.
Following him with a glance, Joseph asked himself whether Crispin had discovered that he was recognized, and had determined to withdraw, leaving his vengeance for another and more propitious season. In answer - little knowing the measure of the man he dealt with - he told himself it must be so, and having arrived at that conclusion, he there and then determined that Crispin should not depart free to return and plague them when he listed. Since Galliard shrank from forcing matters to an issue, he himself would do it that very night, and thereby settle for all time his business. And so ere he sat down to sup Joseph looked to it that his sword lay at hand behind his chair at the table-head. The meal was a quiet one enough. Kenneth was sulking 'neath the fresh ill-usage - as he deemed it - that he had suffered at Cynthia's hands. Cynthia, in her turn, was grave and silent. That story of Sir Crispin's sufferings gave her much to think of, as did also his departure, and more than once did Galliard find her eyes fixed upon him with a look half of pity, half of some other feeling that he was at a loss to interpret. Gregory's big voice was little heard. The sinister glitter in his brother's eye made him apprehensive and ill at ease. For him the hour was indeed in travail and like to bring forth strange doings - but not half so much as it was for Crispin and Joseph, each bent upon forcing matters to a head ere they quitted that board. And yet but for these two the meal would have passed off in dismal silence. Joseph was at pains to keep suspicion from his guest, and with that intent he talked gaily of this and that, told of slight matters that had befallen him on his recent journey and of the doings that in London he had witnessed, investing each trifling incident with a garb of wit that rendered it entertaining.
And Galliard - actuated by the same motives grew reminiscent whenever Joseph paused and let his nimble tongue - even nimblest at a table amuse those present, or seem to amuse them, by a score of drolleries.
He drank deeply too, and this Joseph observed with satisfaction. But here again he misjudged his man. Kenneth, who ate but little, seemed also to have developed an enormous thirst, and Crispin grew at length alarmed at that ever empty goblet so often filled. He would have need of Kenneth ere the hour was out, and he rightly feared that did matters thus continue, the lad's aid was not to be reckoned with. Had Kenneth sat beside him he might have whispered a word of restraint in his eat, but the lad was on the other side of the board.
At one moment Crispin fancied that a look of intelligence passed from Joseph to Gregory, and when presently Gregory set himself to ply both him and the boy with wine, his suspicions became certainties, and he grew watchful and wary.Anon Cynthia rose. Upon the instant Galliard was also on his feet. He escorted her to the foot of the staircase, and there: "Permit me, Mistress Cynthia," said he, "to take my leave of you. In an hour or so I shall be riding away from Castle Marleigh." Her eyes sought the ground, and had he been observant of her he might have noticed that she paled slightly. "Fare you well, sir," said she in a low voice. "May happiness attend you." "Madam, I thank you. Fare you well."
He bowed low. She dropped him a slight curtsey, and ascended the stairs. Once as she reached the gallery above she turned. He had resumed his seat at table, and was in the act of filling his glass. The servants had withdrawn, and for half an hour thereafter they sat on, sipping their wine, and making conversation - while Crispin drained bumper after bumper and grew every instant more boisterous, until at length his boisterousness passed into incoherence. His eyelids drooped heavily, and his chin kept ever and anon sinking forward on to his breast.
Kenneth, flushed with wine, yet master of his wits, watched him with contempt. This was the man Cynthia preferred to him! Contempt was there also in Joseph Ashburn's eye, mingled with satisfaction. He had not looked to find the task so easy. At length he deemed the season ripe."My brother tells me that you were once acquainted with Roland Marleigh," said he. "Aye," he answered thickly. "I knew the dog - a merry, reckless soul, d -n me. 'Twas his recklessness killed him, poor devil - that and your hand, Mr. Ashburn, so the story goes." "What story?" "What story?" echoed Crispin. "The story that I heard. Do you say I lie?" And, swaying in his chair, he sought to assume an air of defiance. Joseph laughed in a fashion that made Kenneth's blood run cold. "Why, no, I don't deny it. It was in fair fight he fell. Moreover, he brought the duel upon himself."
Crispin spoke no word in answer, but rose unsteadily to his feet, so unsteadily that his chair was overset and fell with a crash behind him. For a moment he surveyed it with a drunken leer, then went lurching across the hall towards the door that led to the servants' quarters. The three men sat on, watching his antics in contempt, curiosity, and amusement. They saw him gain the heavy oaken door and close it. They heard the bolts rasp as he shot them home, and the lock click; and they saw him withdraw the key and slip it into his pocket.
The cold smile still played round Joseph's lips as Crispin turned to face them again, and on Joseph's lips did that same smile freeze as he saw him standing there, erect and firm, his drunkenness all vanished, and his eyes keen and fierce; as he heard the ring of his metallic voice:
"You lie, Joseph Ashburn. It was no fair fight. It was no duel. It was a foul, murderous stroke you dealt him in the back, thinking to butcher him as you butchered his wife and his babe. But there is a God, Master Ashburn" he went on in an ever-swelling voice, "and I lived. Like a salamander I came through the flames in which you sought to destroy all trace of your vile deed. I lived, and I, Crispin Galliard, the debauched Tavern Knight that was once Roland Marleigh, am here to demand a reckoning."
The very incarnation was he then of an avenger, as he stood towering before them, his grim face livid with the passion into which he had lashed himself as he spoke, his blazing eyes watching them in that cunning, half-closed way that was his when his mood was dangerous. And yet the only one that quailed was Kenneth, his ally, upon whom comprehension burst with stunning swiftness.
Joseph recovered quickly from the surprise of Crispin's suddenly reassumed sobriety. He understood the trick that Galliard had played upon them so that he might cut off their retreat in the only direction in which they might have sought assistance, and he cursed himself for not having foreseen it. Still, anxiety he felt none; his sword was to his hand, and Gregory was armed; at the very worst they were two calm and able men opposed to a half-intoxicated boy, and a man whom fury, he thought, must strip of half his power. Probably, indeed, the lad would side with them, despite his plighted word. Again, he had but to raise his voice, and, though the door that Crispin had fastened was a stout one,, he never doubted but that his call would penetrate it and bring his servants to his rescue.And so, a smile of cynical unconcern returned to his lips and his answer was delivered in a cold, incisive voice.
"The reckoning you have come to demand shall be paid you, sir. Rakehelly Galliard is the hero of many a reckless deed, but my judgment is much at fault if this prove not his crowning recklessness and his last one. Gadswounds, sir, are you mad to come hither single-handed to beard the lion in his den?""Rather the cur in his kennel," sneered Crispin back. "Blood and wounds, Master Joseph, think you to affright me with words?" Still Joseph smiled, deeming himself master of the situation. "Were help needed, the raising of my voice would bring it me. But it is not. We are three to one."
"You reckon wrongly. Mr. Stewart belongs to me to-night - bound by an oath that 'twould damn his soul to break, to help me when and where I may call upon him; and I call upon him now. Kenneth, draw your sword."Kenneth groaned as he stood by, clasping and unclasping his hands. "God's curse on you," he burst out. "You have tricked me, you have cheated me."
"Bear your oath in mind," was the cold answer. "If you deem yourself wronged by me, hereafter you shall have what satisfaction you demand. But first fulfil me what you have sworn. Out with your blade, man."
Still Kenneth hesitated, and but for Gregory's rash action at that critical juncture, it is possible that he would have elected to break his plighted word. But Gregory fearing that he might determine otherwise, resolved there and then to remove the chance of it. Whipping out his sword, he made a vicious pass at the lad's breast. Kenneth avoided it by leaping backwards, but in an instant Gregory had sprung after him, and seeing himself thus beset, Kenneth was forced to draw that he might protect himself.
They stood in the space between the table and that part of the hall that abutted on to the terrace; opposite to them, by the door which he had closed, stood Crispin. At the tablehead Joseph still sat cool, self-contained, even amused.
He realized the rashness of Gregory's attack upon one that might yet have been won over to their side; but he never doubted that a few passes would dispose of the lad's opposition, and he sought not to interfere. Then he saw Crispin advancing towards him slowly, his rapier naked in his hand, and he was forced to look to himself. He caught at the sword that stood behind him, and leaping to his feet he sprang forward to meet his grim antagonist. Galliard's eyes flashed out a look of joy, he raised his rapier, and their blades met.To the clash of their meeting came an echoing clash from beyond the table.
"Hold, sir!" Kenneth had cried, as Gregory bore down upon him. But Gregory's answer had been a lunge which the boy had been forced to parry. Taking that crossing of blades for a sign of opposition, Gregory thrust again more viciously. Kenneth parried narrowly, his blade pointing straight at his aggressor. He saw the opening, and both instinct and the desire to repel Gregory's onslaught drew him into attempting a riposte, which drove Gregory back until his shoulders touched the panels of the wall. Simultaneously the boy's foot struck the back of the chair which in rising Crispin had overset, and he stumbled. How it happened he scarcely knew, but as he hurtled forward his blade slid along his opponent's, and entering Gregory's right shoulder pinned him to the wainscot.
Joseph heard the tinkle of a falling blade, and assumed it to be Kenneth's. For the rest he was just then too busy to dare withdraw for a second his eyes from Crispin's. Until that hour Joseph Ashburn had accounted himself something of a swordsman, and more than a match for most masters of the weapon. But in Crispin he found a fencer of a quality such as he had never yet encountered. Every feint, every botte in his catalogue had he paraded in quick succession, yet ever with the same result - his point was foiled and put aside with ease.
Desperately he fought now, darting that point of his hither and thither in and out whenever the slightest opening offered; yet ever did it meet the gentle averting pressure of Crispin's blade. He fought on and marvelled as the seconds went by that Gregory came not to his aid. Then the sickening thought that perhaps Gregory was overcome occurred to him. In such a case he must reckon upon himself alone. He cursed the over-confidence that had led him into that ever-fatal error of underestimating his adversary. He might have known that one who had acquired Sir Crispin's fame was no ordinary man, but one accustomed to face great odds and master them. He might call for help.
He marvelled as the thought occurred to him that the clatter of their blades had not drawn his servants from their quarters. Fencing still, he raised his voice:
"Spare your breath," growled the knight. "I dare swear you'll have need of it. None will hear you, call as you will. I gave your four henchmen a flagon of wine wherein to drink to my safe journey hence. They have emptied it ere this, I make no doubt, and a single glass of it would set the hardest toper asleep for the round of the clock."
An oath was Joseph's only answer - a curse it was upon his own folly and assurance. A little while ago he had thought to have drawn so tight a net about this ruler, and here was he now taken in its very toils, well-nigh exhausted and in his enemy's power.
It occurred to him then that Crispin stayed his hand. That he fenced only on the defensive, and he wondered what might his motive be. He realized that he was mastered, and that at any moment Galliard might send home his blade. He was bathed from head to foot in a sweat that was at once of exertion and despair. A frenzy seized him. Might he not yet turn to advantage this hesitancy of Crispin's to strike the final blow?
He braced himself for a supreme effort, and turning his wrist from a simulated thrust in the first position, he doubled, and stretching out, lunged vigorously in quarte. As he lengthened his arm in the stroke there came a sudden twitch at his wrist; the weapon was twisted from his grasp, and he stood disarmed at Crispin's mercy.
A gurgling cry broke despite him from his lips, and his eyes grew wide in a sickly terror as they encountered the knight's sinister glance. Not three paces behind him was the wall, and on it, within the hand's easy reach, hung many a trophied weapon that might have served him then. But the fascination of fear was upon him, benumbing his wits and paralysing his limbs, with the thought that the next pulsation of his tumultuous heart would prove its last. The calm, unflinching courage that had been Joseph's only virtue was shattered, and his iron will that had unscrupulously held hitherto his very conscience in bondage was turned to water now that he stood face to face with death.
Eons of time it seemed to him were sped since the sword was wrenched from his hand, and still the stroke he awaited came not; still Crispin stood, sinister and silent before him, watching him with magnetic, fascinating eyes - as the snake watches the bird - eyes from which Joseph could not withdraw his own, and yet before which it seemed to him that he quaked and shrivelled.
The candles were burning low in their sconces, and the corners of that ample, gloomy hall were filled with mysterious shadows that formed a setting well attuned to the grim picture made by those two figures - the one towering stern and vengeful, the other crouching palsied and livid.
Beyond the table, and with the wounded Gregory - lying unconscious and bleeding - at his feet, stood Kenneth looking on in silence, in wonder and in some horror too.
To him also, as he watched, the seconds seemed minutes from the time when Crispin had disarmed his opponent until with a laugh - short and sudden as a stab - he dropped his sword and caught his victim by the throat.
However fierce the passion that had actuated Crispin, it had been held hitherto in strong subjection. But now at last it suddenly welled up and mastered him, causing him to cast all restraint to the winds, to abandon reason, and to give way to the lust of rage that rendered ungovernable his mood.
Like a burst of flame from embers that have been smouldering was the upleaping of his madness, transfiguring his face and transforming his whole being. A new, unconquerable strength possessed him; his pulses throbbed swiftly and madly with the quickened coursing of his blood, and his soul was filled with the cruel elation that attends a lust about to be indulged the elation of the beast about to rend its prey.
He was pervaded by the desire to wreak slowly and with his hands the destruction of his broken enemy. To have passed his sword through him would have been too swiftly done; the man would have died, and Crispin would have known nothing of his sufferings. But to take him thus by the throat; slowly to choke the life's breath out of him; to feel his desperate, writhing struggles; to be conscious of every agonized twitch of his sinews, to watch the purpling face, the swelling veins, the protruding eyes filled with the dumb horror of his agony; to hold him thus - each second becoming a distinct, appreciable division of time - and thus to take what payment he could for all the blighted years that lay behind him - this he felt would be something like revenge.
Meanwhile the shock of surprise at the unlooked-for movement had awakened again the man in Joseph. For a second even Hope knocked at his heart. He was sinewy and active, and perchance he might yet make Galliard repent that he had discarded his rapier. The knight's reason for doing so he thought he had in Crispin's contemptuous words:"Good steel were too great an honour for you, Mr. Ashburn."
And as he spoke, his lean, nervous fingers tightened about Joseph's throat in a grip that crushed the breath from him, and with it the new-born hope of proving master in his fresh combat. He had not reckoned with this galley-weaned strength of Crispin's, a strength that was a revelation to Joseph as he felt himself almost lifted from the ground, and swung this way and that, like a babe in the hands of a grown man. Vain were his struggles. His strength ebbed fast; the blood, held overlong in his head, was already obscuring his vision, when at last the grip relaxed, and his breathing was freed. As his sight cleared again he found himself back in his chair at the table-head, and beside him Sir Crispin, his left hand resting upon the board, his right grasping once more the sword, and his eyes bent mockingly and evilly upon his victim.
Kenneth, looking on, could not repress a shudder. He had known Crispin for a tempestuous man quickly moved to wrath, and he had oftentimes seen anger make terrible his face and glance. But never had he seen aught in him to rival this present frenzy; it rendered satanical the baleful glance of his eyes and the awful smile of hate and mockery with which be gazed at last upon the helpless quarry that he had waited eighteen years to bring to earth. "I would," said Crispin, in a harsh, deliberate voice, "that you had a score of lives, Master Joseph. As it is I have done what I could. Two agonies have you undergone already, and I am inclined to mercy. The end is at hand. If you have prayers to say, say them, Master Ashburn, though I doubt me it will be wasted breath - you are overripe for hell."
Joseph's teeth clicked together in a snap of determination. That sneer of Crispin's acted upon him as a blow - but as a blow that arouses the desire to retaliate rather than lays low. He braced himself for fresh resistance; not of action, for that he realized was futile, but of argument."It is murder that you do," he cried. "No; it is justice. It has been long on the way, but it has come at last." "Bethink you, Mr. Marleigh - "
"Call me not by that name," cried the other harshly, fearfully. "I have not borne it these eighteen years, and thanks to what you have made me, it is not meet that I should bear it now." There was a pause. Then Joseph spoke again with great calm and earnestness."Bethink you, Sir Crispin, of what you are about to do. It can benefit you in naught." "Oddslife, think you it cannot? Think you it will benefit me naught to see you earn at last your reward?" "You may have dearly to pay for what at best must prove a fleeting satisfaction."
"Not a fleeting one, Joseph," he laughed. "But one the memory of which shall send me rejoicing through what years or days of life be left me. A satisfaction that for eighteen years I have been waiting to experience; though the moment after it be mine find me stark and cold."
"Sir Crispin, you are in enmity with the Parliament - an outlaw almost. I have some influence much influence. By exerting it - "
"Have done, sir!" cried Crispin angrily. "You talk in vain. What to me is life, or aught that life can give? If I have so long endured the burden of it, it has been so that I might draw from it this hour. Do you think there is any bribe you could offer would turn me from my purpose?"
"Truss him up,, Kenneth," he commanded, pointing to the recumbent figure. "How? Do you hesitate? Now, as God lives, I'll be obeyed; or you shall have an unpleasant reminder of the oath you swore me!"With a look of loathing the lad dropped on his knees to do as he was bidden. Then of a sudden: "I have not the means," he announced. "Fool, does he not wear a sword-belt and a sash? Come, attend to it!"
"Why do you force me to do this?" the lad still protested passionately. "You have tricked and cheated me, yet I have kept my oath and rendered you the assistance you required. They are in your power now, can you not do the rest yourself?"
"On my soul, Master Stewart, I am over-patient with you! Are we to wrangle at every step before you'll take it? I will have your assistance through this matter as you swore to give it. Come, truss me that fellow, and have done with words."
His fierceness overthrew the boy's outburst of resistance. Kenneth had wit enough to see that his mood was not one to brook much opposition, and so, with an oath and a groan, he went to work to pinion Gregory.
Then Joseph spoke again. "Weigh well this act of yours, Sir Crispin," he cried. "You are still young; much of life lies yet before you. Do not wantonly destroy it by an act that cannot repair the past.""But it can avenge it, Joseph. As for my life, you destroyed it years ago. The future has naught to offer me; the present has this." And he drew back his sword to strike.
Joseph Drives A Bargain
A new terror leapt into Joseph's eyes at that movement of Crispin's, and for the third time that night did he taste the agony that is Death's forerunner. Yet Galliard delayed the stroke. He held his sword poised, the point aimed at Joseph's breast, and holding, he watched him, marking each phase of the terror reflected upon his livid countenance. He was loth to strike, for to strike would mean to end this exquisite torture of horror to which he was subjecting him.
Broken Joseph had been before and passive; now of a sudden he grew violent again, but in a different way. He flung himself upon his knees before Sir Crispin, and passionately he pleaded for the sparing of his miserable life.
Crispin looked on with an eye both of scorn and of cold relish. It was thus he wished to see him, broken and agonized, suffering thus something of all that which he himself had suffered through despair in the years that were sped. With satisfaction then he watched his victim's agony; he watched it too with scorn and some loathing - for a craven was in his eyes an ugly sight, and Joseph in that moment was truly become as vile a coward as ever man beheld. His parchment-like face was grey and mottled, his brow bedewed with sweat; his lips were blue and quivering, his eyes bloodshot and almost threatening tears.
In the silence of one who waits stood Crispin, listening, calm and unmoved, as though he heard not, until Joseph's whining prayers culminated in an offer to make reparation. Then Crispin broke in at length with an impatient gesture."What reparation can you make, you murderer? Can you restore to me the wife and child you butchered eighteen years ago?" "I can restore your child at least," returned the other. "I can and will restore him to you if you but stay your hand. That and much more will I do to repair the past."
Unconsciously Crispin lowered his sword-arm, and for a full minute he stood and stared at Joseph. His jaw was fallen and the grim firmness all gone from his face, and replaced by amazement, then unbelief followed by inquiry; then unbelief again. The pallor of his cheeks seemed to intensify. At last, however, he broke into a hard laugh."What lie is this you offer me? Zounds, man, are you not afraid?" "It is no lie," Joseph cried, in accents so earnest that some of the unbelief passed again from Galliard's face. "It is the truth-God's truth. Your son lives."
"Hell-hound, it is a lie! On that fell night, as I swooned under your cowardly thrust, I heard you calling to your brother to slit the squalling bastard's throat. Those were your very words, Master Joseph."
"I own I bade him do it, but I was not obeyed. He swore we should give the babe a chance of life. It should never know whose son it was, he said, and I agreed. We took the boy away. He has lived and thrived."
"I swear that what I have told you is true. I swear it by the cross of our Redeemer!" he protested, with a solemnity that was not without effect upon Crispin. Nevertheless, he sneered."I ask for proofs, man, not oaths. What proofs can you afford me?" "There are the man and the woman whom the lad was reared by." "And where shall I find them?"
Joseph opened his lips to answer, then closed them again. In his eagerness he had almost parted with the information which he now proposed to make the price of his life. He regained confidence at Crispin's tone and questions, gathering from both that the knight was willing to believe if proof were set before him. He rose to his feet, and when next he spoke his voice had won back much of its habitual calm deliberateness.
"That," said he, "I will tell you when you have promised to go hence, leaving Gregory and me unharmed. I will supply you with what money you may need, and I will give you a letter to those people, so couched that what they tell you by virtue of it shall be a corroboration of my words."
His elbow resting upon the table, and his hand to his brow so that it shaded his eyes, sat Crispin long in thought, swayed by emotions and doubts, the like of which he had never yet known in the whole of his chequered life. Was Joseph lying to him?
That was the question that repeatedly arose, and oddly enough, for all his mistrust of the man, he was inclined to account true the ring of his words. Joseph watched him with much anxiety and some hope.At length Crispin withdrew his hands from eyes that were grown haggard, and rose. "Let us see the letter that you will write," said he. "There you have pen, ink, and paper. Write." "You promise?" asked Joseph. "I will tell you when you have written." In a hand that shook somewhat, Joseph wrote a few lines, then handed Crispin the sheet, whereon he read:
The bearer of this is Sir Crispin Galliard, who is intimately interested in the matter that lies betwixt us, and whom I pray you answer fully and accurately the questions he may put you in that connexion."I understand," said Crispin slowly. "Yes, it will serve. Now the superscription." And he returned the paper. Ashburn was himself again by now. He realized the advantage he had gained, and he would not easily relinquish it. "I shall add the superscription," said he calmly, "when you swear to depart without further molesting us." Crispin paused a moment, weighing the position well in his mind. If Joseph lied to him now, he would find means to return, he told himself, and so he took the oath demanded.
Joseph dipped his pen, and paused meditatively to watch a drop of ink, wherewith it was overladen, fall back into the horn. The briefest of pauses was it, yet it was not the accident it appeared to be. Hitherto Joseph had been as sincere as he had been earnest, intent alone upon saving his life at all costs, and forgetting in his fear of the present the dangers that the future might hold for him were Crispin Galliard still at large. But in that second of dipping his quill, assured that the peril of the moment was overcome, and that Crispin would go forth as he said, the devil whispered in his ear a cunning and vile suggestion. As he watched the drop of ink roll from his pen-point, he remembered that in London there dwelt at the sign of the Anchor, in Thames Street, one Colonel Pride, whose son this Galliard had slain, and who, did he once lay hands upon him, was not like to let him go again. In a second was the thought conceived and the determination taken, and as he folded the letter and set upon it the superscription, Joseph felt that he could have cried out in his exultation at the cunning manner in which he was outwitting his enemy.Crispin took the package, and read thereon: This is to Mr. Henry Lane, at the sign of the Anchor, Thames Street, London.
The name was a fictitious one - one that Joseph had set down upon the spur of the moment, his intention being to send a messenger that should outstrip Sir Crispin, and warn Colonel Pride of his coming.
"It is well," was Crispin's only comment. He, too, was grown calm again and fully master of himself. He placed the letter carefully within the breast of his doublet. "If you have lied to me, if this is but a shift to win your miserable life, rest assured, Master Ashburn, that you have but put off the day for a very little while."It was on Joseph's lips to answer that none of us are immortal, but he bethought him that the pleasantry might be ill-timed, and bowed in silence. Galliard took his hat and cloak from the chair on which he had placed them upon descending that evening. Then he turned again to Joseph.
"You spoke of money a moment ago," he said, in the tones of one demanding what is his own the tones of a gentleman speaking to his steward. "I will take two hundred Caroluses. More I cannot carry in comfort."
Joseph gasped at the amount. For a second it even entered his mind to resist the demand. Then he remembered that there was a brace of pistols in his study; if he could get those he would settle matters there and then without the aid of Colonel Pride."I will fetch the money," said he, betraying his purpose by his alacrity. "By your leave, Master Ashburn, I will come with you." Joseph's eyes flashed him a quick look of baffled hate. "As you will," said he, with an ill grace. As they passed out, Crispin turned to Kenneth. "Remember, sir, you are still in my service. See that you keep good watch."
Kenneth bent his head without replying. But Master Gregory required little watching. He lay a helpless, half-swooning heap upon the floor, which he had smeared with the blood oozing from his wounded shoulder. Even were he untrussed, there was little to be feared from him.
During the brief while they were alone together, Kenneth did not so much as attempt to speak to him. He sat himself down upon the nearest chair, and with his chin in his hands and his elbows on his knees he pondered over the miserable predicament into which Sir Crispin had got him, and more bitter than ever it had been was his enmity at that moment towards the knight. That Galliard should be upon the eve of finding his son, and a sequel to the story he had heard from him that night in Worcester, was to Kenneth a thing of no interest or moment. Galliard had ruined him with these Ashburns. He could never now hope to win the hand of Cynthia, to achieve which he had been willing to turn both fool and knave - aye, had turned both. There was naught left him but to return him to the paltry Scottish estate of his fathers, there to meet the sneers of those who no doubt had heard that he was gone South to marry a great English heiress.
That at such a season he could think of this but serves to prove the shallow nature of his feelings. A love was his that had gain and vanity for its foundation - in fact, it was no love at all. For what he accounted love for Cynthia was but the love of himself, which through Cynthia he sought to indulge.
He cursed the ill-luck that had brought Crispin into his life. He cursed Crispin for the evil he had suffered from him, forgetting that but for Crispin he would have been carrion a month ago and more.Deep at his bitter musings was he when the door opened again to admit Joseph, followed by Galliard. The knight came across the hall and stooped to look at Gregory.
"You may untruss him, Kenneth, when I am gone," said he. "And in a quarter of an hour from now you are released from your oath to me. Fare you well," he added with unusual gentleness, and turning a glance that was almost regretful upon the lad. "We are not like to meet again, but should we, I trust it may be in happier times. If I have harmed you in this business, remember that my need was great. Fare you well." And he held out his hand."Take yourself to hell, sir!" answered Kenneth, turning his back upon him. The ghost of an evil smile played round Joseph Ashburn's lips as he watched them.
So soon as Sir Crispin had taken his departure, and whilst yet the beat of his horse's hoofs was to be distinguished above the driving storm of rain and wind without, Joseph hastened across the hall to the servants' quarters. There he found his four grooms slumbering deeply, their faces white and clammy, and their limbs twisted into odd, helpless attitudes. Vainly did he rain down upon them kicks and curses; arouse them he could not from the stupor in whose thrall they lay.
And so, seizing a lanthorn, he passed out to the stables, whence Crispin had lately taken his best nag, and with his own hands he saddled a horse. His lips were screwed into a curious smile - a smile that still lingered upon them when presently he retraced his steps to the room where his brother sat with Kenneth.In his absence the lad had dressed Gregory's wound; he had induced him to take a little wine, and had set him upon a chair, in which he now lay back, white and exhausted. "The quarter of an hour is passed, sir," said Joseph coldly, as he entered. Kenneth made no sign that he heard. He sat on like a man in a dream. His eyes that saw nothing were bent upon Gregory's pale, flabby face. "The quarter of an hour is passed, sir," Joseph repeated in a louder voice. Kenneth looked up, then rose and sighed, passing his hand wearily across his forehead. "I understand, sir," he replied in a low voice. "You mean that I must go?" Joseph waited a moment before replying. Then:
"It is past midnight," he said slowly, "and the weather is wild. You may lie here until morning, if you are so minded. But go you must then," he added sternly. "I need scarce say, sir, that you must have no speech with Mistress Cynthia, nor that never again must you set foot within Castle Marleigh.""I understand, sir; I understand. But you deal hardly with me." Joseph raised his eyebrows in questioning surprise.
"I was the victim of my oath, given when I knew not against whom my hand was to be lifted. Oh, sir, am I to suffer all my life for a fault that was not my own? You, Master Gregory," he cried, turning passionately to Cynthia's father, "you are perchance more merciful? You understand my position - how I was forced into it."
Gregory opened his heavy eyes. "A plague on you, Master Stewart," he groaned. "I understand that you have given me a wound that will take a month to heal.""It was an accident, sir. I swear it was an accident!" "To swear this and that appears to be your chief diversion in life," growled Gregory for answer. "You had best go; we are not likely to listen to excuses." "Did you rather suggest a remedy," Joseph put in quietly, "we might hear you." Kenneth swung round and faced him, hope brightening his eyes. "What remedy is there? How can I undo what I have done? Show me but the way, and I'll follow it, no matter where it leads!" Such protestations had Joseph looked to hear, and he was hard put to it to dissemble his satisfaction. For a while he was silent, making pretence to ponder. At length:
"Kenneth," he said, "you may in some measure repair the evil you have done, and if you are ready to undergo some slight discomfort, I shall be willing on my side to forget this night.""Tell me how, sir, and whatever the cost I will perform it!"
He gave no thought to the fact that Crispin's grievance against the Ashburns was wellfounded; that they had wrecked his life even as they had sought to destroy it; even as eighteen years ago they had destroyed his wife's. His only thought was Cynthia; his only wish was to possess her. Besides that, justice and honour itself were of small account."It is but a slight matter," answered Joseph. "A matter that I might entrust to one of my grooms." That whilst his grooms lay drugged the matter was so pressing that his messenger must set out that very night, Joseph did not think of adding. "I would, sir," answered the boy, "that the task were great and difficult."
"Yes, yes," answered Joseph with biting sarcasm, "we are acquainted with both your courage and your resource." He sat silent and thoughtful for some moments, then with a sudden sharp glance at the lad:"You shall have this chance of setting yourself right with us," he said. Then abruptly he added.
"Go make ready for a journey. You must set out within the hour for London. Take what you may require and arm yourself; then return to me here."
Gregory, who, despite his sluggish wits, divined - partly, at least - what was afoot, made shift to speak. But his brother silenced him with a glance.
"Make doubly sure of that ruffian," answered Joseph coldly. "Colonel Pride might be absent when he arrives, and he might learn that none of the name of Lane dwells at the Anchor in Thames Street. It would be fatal to awaken his suspicions and bring him back to us.""But surely Richard or Stephen might carry your errand?"
"They might were they not so drugged that they cannot be aroused. I might even go myself, but it is better so." He laughed softly. "There is even comedy in it. Kenneth shall outride our bloodthirsty knight to warn Pride of his coming, and when he comes he will walk into the hands of the hangman. It will be a surprise for him. For the rest I shall keep my promise concerning his son. He shall have news of him from Pride - but when too late to be of service."Gregory shuddered. "Fore God, Joseph, 'tis a foul thing you do," he cried. "Sooner would I never set eyes on the lad again. Let him go his ways as you intended."
"I never did intend it. What trustier messenger could I find now that I have lent him zest by fright? To win Cynthia, we may rely upon him safely to do that in which another might fail.""Joseph, you will roast in hell for it." Joseph laughed him to scorn. "To bed with you, you canting hypocrite; your wound makes you light-headed." It was a half-hour ere Kenneth returned, booted, cloaked, and ready for his journey. He found Joseph alone, busily writing, and in obedience to a sign he sat him down to wait.
A few minutes passed, then, with a final scratch and splutter Joseph flung down his pen. With the sandbox tilted in the air, like a dicer about to make his throw, he looked at the lad."You will spare neither whip nor spur until you arrive in London, Master Kenneth. You must ride night and day; the matter is of the greatest urgency." Kenneth nodded that he understood, and Joseph sprinkled the sand over the written page.
"I know not when you should reach London so that you may be in time, but," he continued, and as he spoke he creased the paper and poured the superfluous sand back into the box, "I should say that by midnight to-morrow your message should be delivered. Aye," he continued, in answer to the lad's gasp of surprise, "it is hard riding, I know, but if you would win Cynthia you must do it. Spare neither money nor horseflesh, and keep to the saddle until you are in Thames Street."He folded the letter, sealed it, and wrote the superscription: "This to Colonel Pride, at the sign of the Anchor in Thames Street." He rose and handed the package to Kenneth, to whom the superscription meant nothing, since he had not seen that borne by the letter which Crispin had received.
"You will deliver this intact, and with your own hands, to Colonel Pride in person - none other. Should he be absent from Thames Street upon your arrival, seek him out instantly, wherever he may be, and give him this. Upon your faithful observance of these conditions remember that your future depends. If you are in time, as indeed I trust and think you will be, you may account yourself Cynthia's husband. Fail and - well, you need not return here.""I shall not fail, sir," cried Kenneth. "What man can do to accomplish the journey within twenty-four hours, I will do." He would have stopped to thank Joseph for the signal favour of this chance of rehabilitation, but Joseph cut him short.
"Take this purse," he cried impatiently. "You will find a horse ready saddled in the stables. Ride it hard. It will bear you to Norton at least. There get you a fresh one, and when that is done, another. Now be off."
The Interrupted Journey
When the Tavern Knight left the gates of Marleigh Park behind him on that wild October night, he drove deep the rowels of his spurs, and set his horse at a perilous gallop along the road to Norwich. The action was of instinct rather than of thought. In the turbulent sea of his mind, one clear current there was, and one only - the knowledge that he was bound for London for news of this son of his whom Joseph told him lived. He paused not even to speculate what manner of man his child was grown, nor yet what walk of life he had been reared to tread. He lived: he was somewhere in the world; that for the time sufficed him. The Ashburns had not, it seemed, destroyed quite everything that made his life worth enduring - the life that so often and so wantonly he had exposed.
His son lived, and in London he should have news of him. To London then must he get himself with all dispatch, and he swore to take no rest until he reached it. And with that firm resolve to urge him, he ploughed his horse's flanks, and sped on through the night. The rain beat in his face, yet he scarce remarked it, as again more by instinct than by reason - he buried his face to the eyes in the folds of his cloak.
Later the rain ceased, and clearer grew the line of light betwixt the hedgerows, by which his horse had steered its desperate career. Fitfully a crescent moon peered out from among the wind-driven clouds. The poor ruffler was fallen into meditation, and noted not that his nag did no more than amble. He roused himself of a sudden when half-way down a gentle slope some five miles from Norwich, and out of temper at discovering the sluggishness of the pace, he again gave the horse a taste of the spurs. The action was fatal. The incline was become a bed of sodden clay, and he had not noticed with what misgivings his horse pursued the treacherous footing. The sting of the spur made the animal bound forward, and the next instant a raucous oath broke from Crispin as the nag floundered and dropped on its knees. Like a stone from a catapult Galliard flew over its head and rolled down the few remaining yards of the slope into a very lake of slimy water at the bottom.
Down this same hill, some twenty minutes later, came Kenneth Stewart with infinite precaution. He was in haste - a haste more desperate far than even Crispin's. But his character held none of Galliard's recklessness, nor were his wits fogged by such news as Crispin had heard that night. He realized that to be swift he must be cautious in his nightriding. And so, carefully he came, with a firm hand on the reins, yet leaving it to his horse to find safe footing.
He had reached the level ground in safety, and was about to put his nag to a smarter pace, when of a sudden from the darkness of the hedge he was hailed by a harsh, metallic voice, the sound of which sent a tremor through him.
"Sir, you are choicely met, whoever you may be. I have suffered a mischance down that cursed hill, and my horse has gone lame."
Kenneth kept his cloak over his mouth, trusting that the muffling would sufficiently disguise his accents as he made answer.
"Why, marry, so am I in haste. My will is your horse, sir. Oh, I'm no robber. I'll pay you for it, and handsomely. But have it I must. 'Twill be no great discomfort for you to walk to Norwich. You may do it in an hour.""My horse, sir, is not for sale," was Kenneth's brief answer. "Give you good night." "Hold, man! Blood and hell, stop! If you'll not sell the worthless beast to serve a gentleman, I'll shoot it under you. Make your choice."
Kenneth caught the gleam of a pistol-barrel pointed at him from the hedge, and he shivered. What was he to do? Every instant was precious to him. As in a flash it came to him that perchance Sir Crispin also rode to London, and that it was expected of him to arrive there first if he were to be in time. Swiftly he weighed the odds in his mind, and took the determination to dash past Sir Crispin, risking his aim and trusting to the dark to befriend him.
But even as he determined thus, what moon there was became unveiled, and the light of it fell upon his face, which was turned towards Galliard. An exclamation of surprise escaped Sir Crispin."'Slife, Master Stewart, I knew not your voice. Whither do you ride?"
"What is it to you? Have you not wrought enough of evil for me? Am I never to be rid of you? Castle Marleigh," he added, with well-feigned anger, "has closed its doors upon me. What does it signify to you whither I ride? Suffer me leastways to pass unmolested, and to leave you."
Kenneth's passionate reproaches cut Galliard keenly. He held himself at that moment a very knave for having dragged this boy into his work of vengeance, and thereby cast a blight upon his life. He sought for words wherein to give expression to something of what he felt, then realizing how futile and effete all words must prove, he waved his hand in the direction of the road."Go, Master Stewart," he muttered. "Your way is clear."
And Kenneth, waiting for no second invitation, rode on and left him. He rode with gratitude in his heart to the Providence that had caused him so easily to overcome an obstacle that at first he had held impassable. Stronger grew in his mind the conviction that to fulfil the mission Joseph required of him, he must reach London before Sir Crispin. The knowledge that he was ahead of him, and that he must derive an ample start from Galliard's mishap, warmed him like wine.
His mind thus relieved from its weight of anxiety, he little recked fatigue, and such excellent use did he make of his horse that he reached Newmarket on it an hour before the morrow's moon.
By half-past two he was at Newport. But so hard had he ridden that man and beast alike were in a lather of sweat, and whilst he himself felt sick and tired, the horse was utterly unfit to bear him farther. For half an hour he rested there, and made a meal whose chief constituent was brandy. Then on a third horse he started upon the last stage of his journey.
The wind was damp and penetrating; the roads veritable morasses of mud, and overhead gloomy banks of dark, grey clouds moved sluggishly, the light that was filtered through them giving the landscape a bleak and dreary aspect. In his jaded condition Kenneth soon became a prey to the depression of it. His lightness of heart of some dozen hours ago was now all gone, and not even the knowledge that his mission was well-nigh accomplished sufficed to cheer him. To add to his discomfort a fine rain set in towards four o'clock, and when a couple of hours later he clattered along the road cut through a wooded slope in the direction of Waltham, he was become a very limp and lifeless individual.
He noticed not the horsemen moving cautiously among the closely-set trees on either side of the road. It was growing prematurely dark, and objects were none too distinct. And thus it befell that when from the reverie of dejection into which he had fallen he was suddenly aroused by the thud of hoofs, he looked up to find two mounted men barring the road some ten yards in front of him. Their attitude was unmistakable, and it crossed poor Kenneth's mind that he was beset by robbers. But a second glance showed him their red cloaks and military steel caps, and he knew them for soldiers of the Commonwealth.
Hearing the beat of hoofs behind him, he looked over his shoulder to see four other troopers closing rapidly down upon him. Clearly he was the object of their attention. He had been a fool not to have perceived this earlier, and his heart misgave him, for all that had he paused to think he must have realized that he had naught to fear, and that in this some mistake must lie."Halt!" thundered the deep voice of the sergeant, who, with a trooper, held the road in front. Kenneth drew up within a yard of them, conscious that the man's dark eyes were scanning him sharply from beneath his morion. "Who are you, sir?" the bass voice demanded.
Alas for the vanity of poor human mites! Even Kenneth, who never yet had achieved aught for the cause he served, grew of a sudden chill to think that perchance this sergeant might recognize his name for one that he had heard before associated with deeds performed on the King's behalf.For a second he hesitated; then: "Blount," he stammered, "Jasper Blount." He little thought how that fruit of his vanity was to prove his undoing thereafter. "Verily," sneered the sergeant, "it almost seemed you had forgotten it." And from that sneer Kenneth gathered with fresh dread that the fellow mistrusted him. "Whence are you, Master Blount?" Again Kenneth hesitated. Then recalling Ashburn's high favour with the Parliament, and seeing that it could but advance his cause to state the true sum of his journey: "From Castle Marleigh," he replied. "Verily, sir, you seem yet in some doubt. Whither do you go?" "To London." "On what errand?" The sergeant's questions fell swift as sword-strokes. "With letters for Colonel Pride." The reply, delivered more boldly than Kenneth had spoken hitherto, was not without its effect. "From whom are these letters?" "From Mr. Joseph Ashburn, of Castle Marleigh." "Produce them." With trembling fingers Kenneth complied. This the sergeant observed as he took the package. "What ails you, man?" quoth he. "Naught, sir 'tis the cold."
The sergeant scanned the package and its seal. In a measure it was a passport, and he was forced to the conclusion that this man was indeed the messenger he represented himself. Certainly he had not the air nor the bearing of him for whom they waited, nor did the sergeant think that their quarry would have armed himself with a dummy package against such a strait. And yet the sergeant was not master after all, and did he let this fellow pursue his journey, he might reap trouble for it hereafter; whilst likewise if he detained him, Colonel Pride, he knew, was not an over-patient man. He was still debating what course to take, and had turned to his companion with the muttered question: "What think you, Peter?" when by his precipitancy Kenneth ruined his slender chance of being permitted to depart."I pray you, sir, now that you know my errand, suffer me to pass on."
There was an eager tremor in his voice that the sergeant mistook for fear. He noted it, and remembering the boy's hesitancy in answering his earlier questions, he decided upon his course of action.
"We shall not delay your journey, sir," he answered, eyeing Kenneth sharply, "and as your way must lie through Waltham, I will but ask you to suffer us to ride with you thus far, so that there you may answer any questions our captain may have to ask ere you proceed.""But, sir - " "No more, master courier," snarled the sergeant. Then, beckoning a trooper to his side, he whispered an order in his ear. As the man withdrew they wheeled their horses, and at a sharp word of command Kenneth rode on towards Waltham between the sergeant and a trooper.
The Converted HoganNight black and impenetrable had set in ere Kenneth and his escort clattered over the greasy stones of Waltham's High Street, and drew up in front of the Crusader Inn.
The door stood wide and hospitable, and a warm shaft of light fell from it and set a glitter upon the wet street. Avoiding the common-room, the sergeant led Kenneth through the inn-yard, and into the hostelry by a side entrance. He urged the youth along a dimlylighted passage. On a door at the end of this he knocked, then, lifting the latch, he ushered Kenneth into a roomy, oak-panelled chamber.
At the far end a huge fire burnt cheerfully, and with his back to it, his feet planted wide apart upon the hearth, stood a powerfully built man of medium height, whose youthful face and uprightness of carriage assorted ill with the grey of his hair, pronouncing that greyness premature. He seemed all clad in leather, for where his jerkin stopped his boots began. A cuirass and feathered headpiece lay in a corner, whilst on the table Kenneth espied a broad-brimmed hat, a huge sword, and a brace of pistols.As the boy's eyes came back to the burly figure on the hearth, he was puzzled by a familiar, intangible something in the fellow's face. He was racking his mind to recall where last he had seen it, when with slightly elevated eyebrows and a look of recognition in his somewhat prominent blue eyes "Soul of my body," exclaimed the man in surprise, "Master Stewart, as I live." "Stuart!" cried both sergeant and trooper in a gasp, starting forward to scan their prisoner's face. At that the burly captain broke into a laugh. "Not the young man Charles Stuart," said he; "no, no. Your captive is none so precious. It is only Master Kenneth Stewart, of Bailienochy." "Then it is not even our man," grumbled the soldier.
"But Stewart is not the name he gave," cried the sergeant. "Jasper Blount he told me he was called. It seems that after all we have captured a malignant, and that I was well advised to bring him to you."The captain made a gesture of disdain. In that moment Kenneth recognized him. He was Harry Hogan - the man whose life Galliard had saved in Penrith.
"Bah, a worthless capture, Beddoes," he said. "I know not that," retorted the sergeant. "He carries papers which he states are from Joseph Ashburn, of Castle Marleigh, to Colonel Pride. Colonel Pride's name is on the package, but may not that be a subterfuge? Why else did he say he was called Blount?"Hogan's brows were of a sudden knit. "Faith, Beddoes, you are right. Remove his sword and search him."
Calmly Kenneth suffered them to carry out this order. Inwardly he boiled at the delay, and cursed himself for having so needlessly given the name of Blount. But for that, it was likely Hogan would have straightway dismissed him. He cheered himself with the thought that after all they would not long detain him. Their search made, and finding nothing upon him but Ashburn's letter, surely they would release him.
But their search was very thorough. They drew off his boots, and well-nigh stripped him naked, submitting each article of his apparel to a careful examination. At length it was over, and Hogan held Ashburn's package, turning it over in his hands with a thoughtful expression."Surely, sir, you will now allow me to proceed," cried Kenneth. "I assure you the matter is of the greatest urgency, and unless I am in London by midnight I shall be too late." "Too late for what?" asked Hogan. "I - I don't know."
"Oh?" The Irishman laughed unpleasantly. Colonel Pride and he were on anything but the best of terms. The colonel knew him for a godless soldier of fortune bound to the Parliament's cause by no interest beyond that of gain; and, himself a zealot, Colonel Pride had with distasteful frequency shown Hogan the quality of his feelings towards him. That Hogan was not afraid of him, was because it was not in Hogan's nature to be afraid of anyone. But he realized at least that he had cause to be, and at the present moment it occurred to him that it would be passing sweet to find a flaw in the old Puritan's armour. If the package were harmless his having opened it was still a matter that the discharge of his duty would sanction. Thus he reasoned; and he resolved to break the seal and make himself master of the contents of that letter.
Hogan's unpleasant laugh startled Kenneth. It suggested to him that perhaps, after all, his delay was by no means at an end; that Hogan suspected him of something - he could not think of what.Then in a flash an idea came to him.
"May I speak to you privately for a moment, Captain Hogan?" he inquired in such a tone of importance - imperiousness, almost - that the Irishman was impressed by it. He scented disclosure.
"Faith, you may if you have aught to tell me," and he signed to Beddoes and his companion to withdraw.
"Now, Master Hogan," Kenneth began resolutely as soon as they were alone, "I ask you to let me go my way unmolested. Too long already has the stupidity of your followers detained me here unjustly. That I reach London by midnight is to me a matter of the gravest moment, and you shall let me.""Soul of my body, Mr. Stewart, what a spirit you have acquired since last we met." "In your place I should leave our last meeting unmentioned, master turncoat." The Irishman's eyebrows shot up. "By the Mass, young cockerel, I mislike your tone - "
"You'll have cause to dislike it more if you detain me." He was desperate now. "What would your saintly, crop-eared friends say if they knew as much of your past history as I do?""Tis a matter for conjecture," said Hogan, humouring him. "How think you would they welcome the story of the roystering rake and debauchee who deserted the army of King Charles because they were about to hang him for murder?" "Ah! how, indeed?" sighed Hogan. "What manner of reputation, think you, that for a captain of the godly army of the Commonwealth?" "A vile one, truly," murmured Hogan with humility. "And now, Mr. Hogan," he wound up loftily, "you had best return me that package, and be rid of me before I sow mischief enough to bring you a crop of hemp."
Hogan stared at the lad's flushed face with a look of whimsical astonishment, and for a brief spell there was silence between them. Slowly then, with his eyes still fixed upon Kenneth's, the captain unsheathed a dagger. The boy drew back, with a sudden cry of alarm. Hogan vented a horse-laugh, and ran the blade under the seal of Ashburn's letter.
"Be not afraid, my man of threats," he said pleasantly. "I have no thought of hurting you - leastways, not yet." He paused in the act of breaking the seal. "Lest you should treasure uncomfortable delusions, dear Master Stewart, let me remind you that I am an Irishman - not a fool. Do you conceive my fame to be so narrow a thing that when I left the beggarly army of King Charles for that of the Commonwealth, I did not realize how at any moment I might come face to face with someone who had heard of my old exploits, and would denounce me? You do not find me masquerading under an assumed name. I am here, sir, as Harry Hogan, a sometime dissolute follower of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Charles Stuart; an erstwhile besotted, blinded soldier in the army of the Amalekite, a whilom erring malignant, but converted by a crowning mercy into a zealous, faithful servant of Israel. There were vouchsafings and upliftings, and the devil knows what else, when this stray lamb was gathered to the fold."He uttered the words with a nasal intonation, and a whimsical look at Kenneth. "Now, Mr. Stewart, tell them what you will, and they will tell you yet more in return, to show you how signally the light of grace hath been shed over me." He laughed again, and broke the seal. Kenneth, crestfallen and abashed, watched him, without attempting further interference. Of what avail?
"You had been better advised, young sir, had you been less hasty and anxious. It is a fatal fault of youth's, and one of which nothing but time - if, indeed, you live - will cure you. Your anxiety touching this package determines me to open it."Kenneth sneered at the man's conclusions, and, shrugging his shoulders, turned slightly aside.
"Perchance, master wiseacres, when you have read it, you will appreciate how egotism may also lead men into fatal errors. Haply, too, you will be able to afford Colonel Pride some satisfactory reason for tampering with his correspondence."
But Hogan heard him not. He had unfolded the letter, and at the first words he beheld, a frown contracted his brows. As he read on the frown deepened, and when he had done, an oath broke from his lips. "God's life!" he cried, then again was silent, and so stood a moment with bent head. At last he raised his eyes, and let them rest long and searchingly upon Kenneth, who now observed him in alarm."What - what is it?" the lad asked, with hesitancy. But Hogan never answered. He strode past him to the door, and flung it wide. "Beddoes!" he called. A step sounded in the passage, and the sergeant appeared. "Have you a trooper there?" "There is Peter, who rode with me." "Let him look to this fellow. Tell him to set him under lock and bolt here in the inn until I shall want him, and tell him that he shall answer for him with his neck." Kenneth drew back in alarm. "Sir - Captain Hogan - will you explain "
"Marry, you shall have explanations to spare before morning, else I'm a fool. But have no fear, for we intend you no hurt," he added more softly. "Take him away, Beddoes; then return to me here."
When Beddoes came back from consigning Kenneth into the hands of his trooper, he found Hogan seated in the leathern arm-chair, with Ashburn's letter spread before him on the table."I was right in my suspicions, eh?" ventured Beddoes complacently.
"You were more than right, Beddoes, you were Heaven-inspired. It is no State matter that you have chanced upon, but one that touches a man in whom I am interested very nearly."The sergeant's eyes were full of questions, but Hogan enlightened him no further.
"You will ride back to your post at once, Beddoes," he commanded. "Should Lord Oriel fall into your hands, as we hope, you will send him to me. But you will continue to patrol the road, and demand the business of all comers. I wish one Crispin Galliard, who should pass this way ere long, detained, and brought to me. He is a tall, lank man - "
"I know him, sir," Beddoes interrupted. "The Tavern Knight they called him in the malignant army - a rakehelly, dissolute brawler. I saw him in Worcester when he was taken after the fight."
Hogan frowned. The righteous Beddoes knew overmuch. "That is the man," he answered calmly. "Go now, and see that he does not ride past you. I have great and urgent need of him."Beddoes' eyes were opened in surprise. "He is possessed of valuable information," Hogan explained. "Away with you, man."
When alone, Harry Hogan turned his arm-chair sideways towards the fire. Then, filling himself a pipe - for in his foreign campaigning he had acquired the habit of tobaccosmoking - he stretched his sinewy legs across a second chair, and composed himself for meditation. An hour went by; the host looked in to see if the captain required anything. Another hour sped on, and the captain dozed.
He awoke with a start. The fire had burned low, and the hands of the huge clock in the corner pointed to midnight. From the passage came to him the sound of steps and angry voices.
Before Hogan could rise, the door was flung wide, and a tall, gaunt man was hustled across the threshold by two soldiers. His head was bare, and his hair wet and dishevelled. His doublet was torn and his shoulder bleeding, whilst his empty scabbard hung like a lambent tail behind him.
He remained standing by the hearth until the footsteps of his men had died away, then he crossed the chamber, passed Crispin without a word, and quietly locked the door. That done, he turned a friendly smile on his tanned face - and holding out his hand:"At last, Cris, it is mine to thank you and to repay you in some measure for the service you rendered me that night at Penrith."
The Message Kenneth BoreIn bewilderment Crispin took the outstretched hand of his old fellow-roysterer.
"Oddslife," he growled, "if to have me waylaid, dragged from my horse and wounded by those sons of dogs, your myrmidons, be your manner of expressing gratitude, I'd as lief you had let me go unthanked.""And yet, Cris, I dare swear you'll thank me before another hour is sped. Ough, man, how cold you are! There's a bottle of strong waters yonder - " Then, without completing his sentence, Hogan had seized the black jack and poured half a glass of its contents, which he handed Crispin. "Drink, man," he said briefly, and Crispin, nothing loath, obeyed him.
Next Hogan drew the torn and sodden doublet from his guest's back, pushed a chair over to the table, and bade him sit. Again, nothing loath, Crispin did as he was bidden. He was stiff from long riding, and so with a sigh of satisfaction he settled himself down and stretched out his long legs.
Hogan slowly took the seat opposite to him, and coughed. He was at a loss how to open the parlous subject, how to communicate to Crispin the amazing news upon which he had stumbled.
"Slife' Hogan," laughed Crispin dreamily, "I little thought it was to you those crop-ears carried me with such violence. I little thought, indeed, ever to see you again. But you have prospered, you knave, since that night you left Penrith."And he turned his head the better to survey the Irishman.
"Aye, I have prospered," Hogan assented. "My life is a sort of parable of the fatted son and the prodigal calf. They tell me there is greater joy in heaven over the repentance of a sinner than - than - Plague on it! How does it go?""Than over the downfall of a saint?" suggested Crispin.
"I'll swear that's not the text, but any of my troopers could quote it you; every man of them is an incarnate Church militant." He paused, and Crispin laughed softly. Then abruptly: "And so you were riding to London?" said he.
"How know you that?" "Faith, I know more - much more. I can even tell you to what house you rode, and on what errand. You were for the sign of the Anchor in Thames Street, for news of your son, whom Joseph Ashburn hath told you lives."Crispin sat bolt upright, a look of mingled wonder and suspicion on his face. "You are well informed, you gentlemen of the Parliament," he said.
"On the matter of your errand," the Irishman returned quietly, "I am much better informed than are you. Shall I tell you who lives at the sign of the Anchor - not whom you have been told lives there, but who really does occupy the house?" Hogan paused a second as though awaiting some reply; then softly he answered his own question: "Colonel Pride." And he sat back to await results.There were none. For the moment the name awoke no recollections, conveyed no meaning to Crispin. "Who may Colonel Pride be?" he asked, after a pause. Hogan was visibly disappointed. "A certain powerful and vindictive member of the Rump, whose son you killed at Worcester." This time the shaft went home. Galliard sprang out of the chair, his brows darkening, and his cheeks pale beyond their wont. "Zounds, Hogan, do you mean that Joseph Ashburn was betraying me into this man's hands?" "You have said it." "But - "
Crispin stopped short. The pallor of his face increased; it became ashen, and his eyes glittered as though a fever consumed him. He sank back into his chair, and setting both hands upon the table before him, he looked straight at Hogan."But my son, Hogan, my son?" he pleaded, and his voice was broken as no man had heard it yet. "Oh, God in heaven!" he cried in a sudden frenzy. "What hell's work is this?" Behind his blue lips his teeth were chattering now. His hands shook as he held them, still clenched, before him. Then, in a dull, concentrated voice:
"Hogan," he vowed, "I'll kill him for it. Fool, blind, pitiful fool that I am." Then - his face distorted by passion - he broke into a torrent of imprecations that was at length stemmed by Hogan.
"Wait, Cris," said he, laying his hand upon the other's arm. "It is not all false. Joseph Ashburn sought, it is true, to betray you into the hands of Colonel Pride, sending you to the sign of the Anchor with the assurance that there you should have news of your son. That was false; yet not all false. Your son does live, and at the sign of the Anchor it is likely you would have had the news of him you sought. But that news would have come when too late to have been of value to you."Crispin tried to speak, but failed. Then, mastering himself by an effort, and in a voice that was oddly shaken: "Hogan," he cried, "you are torturing me! What is the sum of your knowledge?" At last the Irishman produced Ashburn's letter to Colonel Pride.
"My men," said he, "are patrolling the roads in wait for a malignant that has incurred the Parliament's displeasure. We have news that he is making for Harwich, where a vessel lies waiting to carry him to France, and we expect that he will ride this way. Three hours ago a young man unable clearly to account for himself rode into our net, and was brought to me. He was the bearer of a letter to Colonel Pride from Joseph Ashburn. He had given my sergeant a wrong name, and betrayed such anxiety to be gone that I deemed his errand a suspicious one, and broke the seal of that letter. You may thank God, Galliard, every night of your life that I did so.""Was this youth Kenneth Stewart?" asked Crispin. "You have guessed it."
"D -n the lad," he began furiously. Then repressing himself, he sighed, and in an altered tone, "No, no," said he. "I have grievously wronged him! have wrecked his life - or at least he thinks so now. I can hardly blame him for seeking to be quits with me.""The lad," returned Hogan, "must be himself a dupe. He can have had no suspicion of the message he carried. Let me read it to you; it will make all clear." Hogan drew a taper nearer, and spreading the paper upon the table, he smoothed it out, and read: HONOURED SIR,
The bearer of the present should, if he rides well, outstrip another messenger I have dispatched to you upon a fool's errand, with a letter addressed to one Mr. Lane at the sign of the Anchor. The bearer of that is none other than the notorious malignant, Sir Crispin Galliard, by whose hand your son was slain under your very eyes at Worcester, whose capture I know that you warmly desire and with whom I doubt not you will know how to deal. To us he has been a source of no little molestation; his liberty, in fact, is a perpetual menace to our lives. For some eighteen years this Galliard has believed dead a son that my cousin bore him. News of this son, whom I have just informed him lives - as indeed he does - is the bait wherewith I have lured him to your address. Forewarned by the present, I make no doubt you will prepare to receive him fittingly. But ere that justice he escaped at Worcester be meted out to him at Tyburn or on Tower Hill, I would have you give him that news touching his son which I am sending him to you to receive. Inform him, sir, that his son, Jocelyn Marleigh ...Hogan paused, and shot a furtive glance at Galliard. The knight was leaning forward now, his eyes strained, his forehead beaded with perspiration, and his breathing heavy. "Read on," he begged hoarsely.
His son, Jocelyn Marleigh, is the bearer of this letter, the man whom he has injured and who detests him, the youth with whom he has, by a curious chance, been in much close association, and whom he has known as Kenneth Stewart."God!" gasped Crispin. Then with sudden vigour, "Oh, 'tis a lie," he cried, "a fresh invention of that lying brain to torture me." Hogan held up his hand. "There is a little more," he said, and continued:
Should he doubt this, bid him look closely into the lad's face, and ask him, after he has scrutinized it, what image it evokes. Should he still doubt thereafter, thinking the likeness to which he has been singularly blind to be no more than accidental, bid them strip the lad's right foot. It bears a mark that I think should convince him. For the rest, honoured sir, I beg you to keep all information touching his parentage from the boy himself, wherein I have weighty ends to serve. Within a few days of your receipt of this letter, I look to have the honour of waiting upon you. In the meanwhile, honoured sir, believe that while I am, I am your obedient servant,JOSEPH ASHBURN
Across the narrow table the two men's glances met - Hogan's full of concern and pity, Crispin's charged with amazement and horror. A little while they sat thus, then Crispin rose slowly to his feet, and with steps uncertain as a drunkard's he crossed to the window. He pushed it open, and let the icy wind upon his face and head, unconscious of its sting. Moments passed, during which the knight went over the last few months of his turbulent life since his first meeting at Perth with Kenneth Stewart. He recalled how strangely and unaccountably he had been drawn to the boy when first he beheld him in the castle yard, and how, owing to a feeling for which he could not account, since the lad's character had little that might commend him to such a man as Crispin, he had contrived that Kenneth should serve in his company.
He recalled how at first - aye, and often afterwards even - he had sought to win the boy's affection, despite the fact that there was naught in the boy that he truly admired, and much that he despised. Was it possible that these his feelings were dictated by Nature to his unconscious mind? It must indeed be so, and the written words of Joseph Ashburn to Colonel Pride were true. Kenneth was indeed his son; the conviction was upon him. He conjured up the lad's face, and a cry of discovery escaped him. How blind he had been not to have seen before the likeness of Alice - his poor, butchered girl-wife of eighteen years ago. How dull never before to have realized that that likeness it was had drawn him to the boy.
He was calm by now, and in his calm he sought to analyse his thoughts, and he was shocked to find that they were not joyous. He yearned - as he had yearned that night in Worcester - for the lad's affection, and yet, for all his yearning, he realized that with the conviction that Kenneth was his offspring came a dull sense of disappointment. He was not such a son as the rakehelly knight would have had him. Swiftly he put the thought from him. The craven hands that had reared the lad had warped his nature; he would guide it henceforth; he would straighten it out into a nobler shape.
Then he smiled bitterly to himself. What manner of man was he to train a youth to loftiness and honour? - he, a debauched ruler with a nickname for which, had he any sense of shame, he would have blushed! Again he remembered the lad's disposition towards himself; but these, he thought, he hoped, he knew that he would now be able to overcome.He closed the window, and turned to face his companion. He was himself again, and calm, for all that his face was haggard beyond its wont. "Hogan, where is the boy?" "I have detained him in the inn. Will you see him now?" "At once, Hogan. I am convinced." The Irishman crossed the chamber, and opening the door he called an order to the trooper waiting in the passage.
Some minutes they waited, standing, with no word uttered between them. At last steps sounded in the corridor, and a moment later Kenneth was rudely thrust into the room. Hogan signed to the trooper, who closed the door and withdrew.
As Kenneth entered, Crispin advanced a step and paused, his eyes devouring the lad and receiving in exchange a glance that was full of malevolence.
"I might have known, sir, that you were not far away," he exclaimed bitterly, forgetting for the moment how he had left Crispin behind him on the previous night. "I might have guessed that my detention was your work."
"Because it is your way, I know not why, to work my ruin in all things. Not satisfied with involving me in that business at Castle Marleigh, you must needs cross my path again when I am about to make amends, and so blight my last chance. My God, sir, am I never to be rid of you? What harm have I done you?"A spasm of pain, like a ripple over water, crossed the knight's swart face.
"If you but consider, Kenneth," he said, speaking very quietly, "you must see the injustice of your words. Since when has Crispin Galliard served the Parliament, that Roundhead troopers should do his bidding as you suggest? And touching that business at Sheringham you are over-hard with me. It was a compact you made, and but for which, you forget that you had been carrion these three weeks.""Would to Heaven that I had been," the boy burst out, "sooner than pay such a price for keeping my life!" "As for my presence here," Crispin continued, leaving the outburst unheeded, "it has naught to do with your detention." "You lie!"
Hogan caught his breath with a sharp hiss, and a dead silence followed. That silence struck terror into Kenneth's heart. He encountered Crispin's eye bent upon him with a look he could not fathom, and much would he now have given to recall the two words that had burst from him in the heat of his rage. He bethought him of the unscrupulous, deadly character attributed to the man to whom he had addressed them, and in his coward's fancy he saw already payment demanded. Already he pictured himself lying cold and stark in the streets of Waltham with a sword-wound through his middle. His face went grey and his lips trembled.
Then Galliard spoke at last, and the mildness of his tone filled Kenneth with a new dread. In his experience of Crispin's ways he had come to look upon mildness as the man's most dangerous phase:
"You are mistaken," Crispin said. "I spoke the truth; it is a habit of mine - haply the only gentlemanly habit left me. I repeat, I have had naught to do with your detention. I arrived here half an hour ago, as the captain will inform you, and I was conducted hither by force, having been seized by his men, even as you were seized. No," he added, with a sigh, "it was not my hand that detained you; it was the hand of Fate." Then suddenly changing his voice to a more vehement key, "Know you on what errand you rode to London?" he demanded. "To betray your father into the hands of his enemies; to deliver him up to the hangman."Kenneth's eyes grew wide; his mouth fell open, and a frown of perplexity drew his brows together. Dully, uncomprehendingly he met Sir Crispin's sad gaze. "My father," he gasped at last. "'Sdeath, sir, what is it you mean? My father has been dead these ten years. I scarce remember him." Crispin's lips moved, but no word did he utter. Then with a sudden gesture of despair he turned to Hogan, who stood apart, a silent witness. "My God, Hogan," he cried. "How shall I tell him?" In answer to the appeal, the Irishman turned to Kenneth. "You have been in error, sir, touching your parentage," quoth he bluntly. "Alan Stewart, of Bailienochy, was not your father." Kenneth looked from one to the other of them.
"Sirs, is this a jest?" he cried, reddening. Then, remarking at length the solemnity of their countenances, he stopped short. Crispin came close up to him, and placed a hand upon his shoulder. The boy shrank visibly beneath the touch, and again an expression of pain crossed the poor ruffler's face."Do you recall, Kenneth," he said slowly, almost sorrowfully, "the story that I told you that night in Worcester, when we sat waiting for dawn and the hangman?" The lad nodded vacantly.
"Do you remember the details? Do you remember I told you how, when I swooned beneath the stroke of Joseph Ashburn's sword, the last words I heard were those in which he bade his brother slit the throat of the babe in the cradle? You were, yourself, present yesternight at Castle Marleigh when Joseph Ashburn told me Gregory had been mercifully inclined; that my child had not died; that if I gave him his life he would restore him to me. You remember?"
Again Kenneth nodded. A vague, numbing fear was creeping round his heart, and his blood seemed chilled by it and stagnant. With fascinated eyes he watched the knight's face - drawn and haggard.
"It was a trap that Joseph Ashburn set for me. Yet he did not altogether lie. The child Gregory had indeed spared, and it seems from what I have learned within the last halfhour that he had entrusted his rearing to Alan Stewart, of Bailienochy, seeking afterwards
- I take it - to wed him to his daughter, so that should the King come to his own again, they should have the protection of a Marleigh who had served his King."
"You mean," the lad almost whispered, and his accents were unmistakably of horror, "you mean that I am your - Oh, God, I'll not believe it!" he cried out, with such sudden loathing and passion that Crispin recoiled as though he had been struck. A dull flush crept into his cheeks to fade upon the instant and give place to a pallor, if possible, intenser than before.
"I'll not believe it! I'll not believe it!" the boy repeated, as if seeking by that reiteration to shut out a conviction by which he was beset. "I'll not believe it!" he cried again; and now his voice had lost its passionate vehemence, and was sunk almost to a moan.
"I found it hard to believe myself," was Crispin's answer, and his voice was not free from bitterness. "But I have a proof here that seems incontestable, even had I not the proof of your face to which I have been blind these months. Blind with the eyes of my body, at least. The eyes of my soul saw and recognized you when first they fell on you in Perth. The voice of the blood ordered me then to your side, and though I heard its call, I understood not what it meant. Read this letter, boy - the letter that you were to have carried to Colonel Pride."
With his eyes still fixed in a gaze of stupefaction upon Galliard's face, Kenneth took the paper. Then slowly, involuntarily almost it seemed, he dropped his glance to it, and read. He was long in reading, as though the writing presented difficulties, and his two companions watched him the while, and waited. At last he turned the paper over, and examined seal and superscription as if suspicious that he held a forgery.
But in some subtle, mysterious way - that voice of the blood perchance to which Crispin had alluded - he felt conviction stealing down upon his soul. Mechanically he moved across to the table, and sat down. Without a word, and still holding the crumpled letter in his clenched hand, he set his elbows on the table, and, pressing his temples to his palms, he sat there dumb. Within him a very volcano raged, and its fires were fed with loathing loathing for this man whom he had ever hated, yet never as he hated him now, knowing him to be his father. It seemed as if to all the wrongs which Crispin had done him during the months of their acquaintanceship he had now added a fresh and culminating wrong by discovering this parentage.
He sat and thought, and his soul grew sick. He probed for some flaw, sought for some mistake that might have been made. And yet the more he thought, the more he dwelt upon his youth in Scotland, the more convinced was he that Crispin had told him the truth. Pre-eminent argument of conviction to him was the desire of the Ashburns that he should marry Cynthia. Oft he had marvelled that they, wealthy, and even powerful, selfish and ambitious, should have selected him, the scion of an obscure and impoverished Scottish house, as a bridegroom for their daughter. The news now before him made their motives clear; indeed, no other motive could exist, no other explanation could there be. He was the heir of Castle Marleigh, and the usurpers sought to provide against the day when another revolution might oust them and restore the rightful owners.
Some elation his shallow nature felt at realizing this, but that elation was short-lived, and dashed by the thought that this ruler, this debauchee, this drunken, swearing, roaring tavern knight was his father; dashed by the knowledge that meanwhile the Parliament was master, and that whilst matters stood so, the Ashburns could defy - could even destroy him, did they learn how much he knew; dashed by the memory that Cynthia, whom in his selfish way - out of his love for himself - he loved, vas lost to him for all time.
And here, swinging in a circle, his thoughts reverted to the cause of this - Crispin Galliard, the man who had betrayed him into yesternight's foul business and destroyed his every chance of happiness; the man whom he hated, and whom, had he possessed the courage as he was possessed by the desire, he had risen up and slain; the man that now announced himself his father.
And thinking thus, he sat on in silent, resentful vexation. He started to feel a hand upon his shoulder, and to hear the voice of Galliard evidently addressing him, yet using a name that was new to him.
"Jocelyn, my boy," the voice trembled. "You have thought, and you have realized - is it not so? I too thought, and thought brought me conviction that what that paper tells is true."
Vaguely then the boy remembered that Jocelyn was the name the letter gave him. He rose abruptly, and brushed the caressing hand from his shoulder. His voice was hard - possibly the knowledge that he had gained told him that he had nothing to fear from this man, and in that assurance his craven soul grew brave and bold and arrogant.
"I have realized naught beyond the fact that I owe you nothing but unhappiness and ruin. By a trick, by a low fraud, you enlisted me into a service that has proved my undoing. Once a cheat always a cheat. What credit in the face of that can I give this paper?" he cried, talking wildly. "To me it is incredible, nor do I wish to credit it, for though it were true, what then? What then?" he repeated, raising his voice into accents of defiance.Grief and amazement were blended in Galliard's glance, and also, maybe, some reproach.
Hogan, standing squarely upon the hearth, was beset by the desire to kick Master Kenneth, or Master Jocelyn, into the street. His lip curled into a sneer of ineffable contempt, for his shrewd eyes read to the bottom of the lad's mean soul and saw there clearly writ the confidence that emboldened him to voice that insult to the man he must know for his father. Standing there, he compared the two, marvelling deeply how they came to be father and son. A likeness he saw now between them, yet a likeness that seemed but to mark the difference. The one harsh, resolute, and manly, for all his reckless living and his misfortunes; the other mild, effeminate, hypocritical and shifty. He read it not on their countenances alone, but in every line of their figures as they stood, and in his heart he cursed himself for having been the instrument to disclose the relationship in which they stood.
The youth's insolent question was followed by a spell of silence. Crispin could not believe that he had heard aright. At last he stretched out his hands in a gesture of supplication - he who throughout his thirty-eight years of life, and despite the misfortunes that had been his, had never yet stooped to plead from any man.
"Jocelyn," he cried, and the pain in his voice must have melted a heart of steel, "you are hard. Have you forgotten the story of my miserable life, the story that I told you in Worcester? Can you not understand how suffering may destroy all that is lofty in a man; how the forgetfulness of the winecup may come to be his only consolation; the hope of vengeance his only motive for living on, withholding him from self-destruction? Can you not picture such a life, and can you not pity and forgive much of the wreck that it may make of a man once virtuous and honourable?"Pleadingly he looked into the lad's face. It remained cold and unmoved.
"I understand," he continued brokenly, "that I am not such a man as any lad might welcome for a father. But you who know what my life has been, Jocelyn, you can surely find it in your heart to pity. I had naught that was good or wholesome to live for, Jocelyn; naught to curb the evil moods that sent me along evil ways to seek forgetfulness and reparation.
"But from to-night, Jocelyn, my life in you must find a new interest, a new motive. I will abandon my old ways. For your sake, Jocelyn, I will seek again to become what I was, and you shall have no cause to blush for your father."Still the lad stood silent. "Jocelyn! My God, do I talk in vain?" cried the wretched man. "Have you no heart, no pity, boy?"
At last the youth spoke. He was not moved. The agony of this strong man, the broken pleading of one whom he had ever known arrogant and strong had no power to touch his mean, selfish mind, consumed as it was by the contemplation of his undoing - magnified a hundredfold - which this man had wrought."You have ruined my life," was all he said. "I will rebuild it, Jocelyn," cried Galliard eagerly. "I have friends in France - friends high in power who lack neither the means nor the will to aid me. You are a soldier, Jocelyn."
"As much a soldier as I'm a saint," sneered Hogan to himself. "Together we will find service in the armies of Louis," Crispin pursued. "I promise it. Service wherein you shall gain honour and renown. There we will abide until this England shakes herself out of her rebellious nightmare. Then, when the King shall come to his own, Castle Marleigh will be ours again. Trust in me, Jocelyn." Again his arms went out appealingly: "Jocelyn my son!"But the boy made no move to take the outstretched hands, gave no sign of relenting. His mind nurtured its resentment - cherished it indeed. "And Cynthia?" he asked coldly. Crispin's hands fell to his sides; they grew clenched, and his eyes lighted of a sudden.
"Forgive me, Jocelyn. I had forgotten! I understand you now. Yes, I dealt sorely with you there, and you are right to be resentful. What, after all, am I to you what can I be to you compared with her whose image fills your soul? What is aught in the world to a man, compared with the woman on whom his heart is set? Do I not know it? Have I not suffered for it?
"But mark me, Jocelyn" - and he straightened himself suddenly - "even in this, that which I have done I will undo. As I have robbed you of your mistress, so will I win her back for you. I swear it. And when that is done, when thus every harm I have caused you is repaired, then, Jocelyn, perhaps you will come to look with less repugnance upon your father, and to feel less resentment towards him.""You promise much, sir," quoth the boy, with an illrepressed sneer. "How will you accomplish it?"
Hogan grunted audibly. Crispin drew himself up, erect, lithe and supple - a figure to inspire confidence in the most despairing. He placed a hand, nervous, and strong as steel, upon the boy's shoulder, and the clutch of his fingers made Jocelyn wince.
"Low though your father be fallen," said he sternly, "he has never yet broken his word. I have pledged you mine, and to-morrow I shall set out to perform what I have promised. I shall see you ere I start. You will sleep here, will you not?"Jocelyn shrugged his shoulders. "It signifies little where I lie." Crispin smiled sadly, and sighed.
"You have no faith in me yet. But I shall earn it, or" - and his voice fell suddenly - "or rid you of a loathsome parent. Hogan, can you find him quarters?"
Hogan replied that there was the room he had already been confined in, and that he could lie in it. And deeming that there was nothing to be gained by waiting, he thereupon led the youth from the room and down the passage. At the foot of the stairs the Irishman paused in the act of descending, and raised the taper aloft so that its light might fall full upon the face of his companion.
"Were I your father," said he grimly, "I would kick you from one end of Waltham to the other by way of teaching you filial piety! And were you not his son, I would this night read you a lesson you'd never live to practise. I would set you to sleep a last long sleep in the kennels of Waltham streets. But since you are - marvellous though it seem - his offspring, and since I love him and may not therefore hurt you, I must rest content with telling you that you are the vilest thing that breathes. You despise him for a roysterer, for a man of loose ways. Let me, who have seen something of men, and who read you tonight to the very dregs of your contemptible soul, tell you that compared with you he is a very god. Come, you white-livered cur!" he ended abruptly. "I will light you to your chamber."
When presently Hogan returned to Crispin he found the Tavern Knight - that man of iron in whom none had ever seen a trace of fear or weakness seated with his arms before him on the table, and his face buried in them, sobbing like a poor, weak woman.
Sir Crispin's Undertaking
Through the long October night Crispin and Hogan sat on, and neither sought his bed. Crispin's quick wits his burst of grief once over - had been swift to fasten on a plan to accomplish that which he had undertaken.
One difficulty confronted him, and until he had mentioned it to Hogan seemed unsurmountable he had need of a ship. But in this the Irishman could assist him. He knew of a vessel then at Greenwich, whose master was in his debt, which should suit the purpose. Money, however, would be needed. But when Crispin announced that he was master of some two hundred Caroluses, Hogan, with a wave of the hand, declared the matter settled. Less than half that sum would hire the man he knew of. That determined, Crispin unfolded his project to Hogan, who laughed at the simplicity of it, for all that inwardly he cursed the risk Sir Crispin must run for the sake of one so unworthy."If the maid loves him, the thing is as good as done." "The maid does not love him; leastways, I fear not." Hogan was not surprised. "Why, then it will be difficult, well-nigh impossible." And the Irishman became grave. But Crispin laughed unpleasantly. Years and misfortune had made him cynical.
"What is the love of a maid?" quoth he derisively. "A caprice, a fancy, a thing that may be guided, overcome or compelled as the occasion shall demand. Opportunity is love's parent, Hogan, and given that, any maid may love any man. Cynthia shall love my son.""But if she prove rebellious? If she say nay to your proposals ? There are such women."
"How then? Am I not the stronger? In such a case it shall be mine to compel her, and as I find her, so shall I carry her away. It will be none so poor a vengeance on the Ashburns after all." His brow grew clouded. "But not what I had dreamed of; what I should have taken had he not cheated me. To forgo it now - after all these years of waiting - is another sacrifice I make to Jocelyn. To serve him in this matter I must proceed cautiously. Cynthia may fret and fume and stamp, but willy-nilly I shall carry her away. Once she is in France, friendless, alone, I make no doubt that she will see the convenience of loving Jocelyn - leastways of wedding him and thus shall I have more than repaired the injuries I have done him.
The Irishman's broad face was very grave; his reckless merry eye fixed Galliard with a look of sorrow, and this grey-haired, sinning soldier of fortune, who had never known a conscience, muttered softly:
"It is not a nice thing you contemplate, Cris."
Despite himself, Galliard winced, and his glance fell before Hogan's. For a moment he saw the business in its true light, and he wavered in his purpose. Then, with a short bark of laughter:"Gadso, you are sentimental, Harry!" said he, to add, more gravely: "There is my son, and in this lies the only way to his heart.". Hogan stretched a hand across the table, and set it upon Crispin's arm. "Is he worth such a stain upon your honour, Crispin?" There was a pause.
"Is it not late in the day, Hogan, for you and me to prate of honour?" asked Crispin bitterly, yet with averted gaze. "God knows my honour is as like honour as a beggar's rags are like unto a cloak of ermine. What signifies another splash, another rent in that which is tattered beyond all semblance of its original condition?""I asked you," the Irishman persisted, "whether your son was worth the sacrifice that the vile deed you contemplate entails?" Crispin shook his arm from the other's grip, and rose abruptly. He crossed to the window, and drew back the curtain.
"Day is breaking," said he gruffly. Then turning, and facing Hogan across the room, "I have pledged my word to Jocelyn," he said. "The way I have chosen is the only one, and I shall follow it. But if your conscience cries out against it, Hogan, I give you back your promise of assistance, and I shall shift alone. I have done so all my life."Hogan shrugged his massive shoulders, and reached out for the bottle of strong waters.
"If you are resolved, there is an end to it. My conscience shall not trouble me, and upon what aid I have promised and what more I can give, you may depend. I drink to the success of your undertaking."
Thereafter they discussed the matter of the vessel that Crispin would require, and it was arranged between them that Hogan should send a message to the skipper, bidding him come to Harwich, and there await and place himself at the command of Sir Crispin Galliard. For fifty pounds Hogan thought that he would undertake to land Sir Crispin in France. The messenger might be dispatched forthwith, and the Lady Jane should be at Harwich, two days later.
By the time they had determined upon this, the inmates of the hostelry were astir, and from the innyard came to them the noise of bustle and preparation for the day.
Presently they left the chamber where they had sat so long, and at the yard pump the Tavern Knight performed a rude morning toilet. Thereafter, on a simple fare of herrings and brown ale, they broke their fast; and ere that meal was done, Kenneth, pale and worn, with dark circles round his eyes, entered the common room, and sat moodily apart. But when later Hogan went to see to the dispatching of his messenger, Crispin rose and approached the youth.
Kenneth watched him furtively, without pausing in his meal. He had spent a very miserable night pondering over the future, which looked gloomy enough, and debating whether - forgetting and ignoring what had passed - he should return to the genteel poverty of his Scottish home, or accept the proffered service of this man who announced himself - and whom he now believed - to be his father. He had thought, but he was far from having chosen between Scotland and France, when Crispin now greeted him, not without constraint.
"Jocelyn," he said, speaking slowly, almost humbly. "In an hour's time I shall set out to return to Marleigh to fulfil my last night's promise to you. How I shall accomplish it I scarce know as yet; but accomplish it I shall. I have arranged to have a vessel awaiting me, and within three days - or four at the most - I look to cross to France, bearing your bride with me."
He paused for some reply, but none came. The boy sat on with an impassive face, his eyes glued to the table, but his mind busy enough upon that which his father was pouring into his ear. Presently Crispin continued:
"You cannot refuse to do as I suggest, Jocelyn. I shall make you the fullest amends for the harm that I have done you, if you but obey my directions. You must quit this place as soon as possible, and proceed on your way to London. There you must find a boat to carry you to France, and you will await me at the Auberge du Soleil at Calais. You are agreed, Jocelyn?"There was a slight pause, and Jocelyn took his resolution. Yet there was still a sullen look in the eyes he lifted to his father's face.
"I have little choice, sir," he made answer, "and so I must agree. If you accomplish what you promise, I own that you will have made amends, and I shall crave your pardon for my yesternight's want of faith. I shall await you at Calais."
Crispin sighed, and for a second his face hardened. It was not the answer to which he held himself entitled, and for a moment it rose to the lips of this man of fierce and sudden moods to draw back and let the son, whom at the moment he began to detest, go his own way, which assuredly would lead him to perdition. But a second's thought sufficed to quell that mood of his.
"I shall not fail you," he said coldly. "Have you money for the journey?"
The boy flushed as he remembered that little was left of what Joseph Ashburn had given him. Crispin saw the flush, and reading aright its meaning, he drew from his pocket a purse that he had been fingering, and placed it quietly upon the table. "There are fifty Caroluses in that bag. That should suffice to carry you to France. Fare you well until we meet at Calais."And without giving the boy time to utter thanks that might be unwilling, he quickly left the room. Within the hour he was in the saddle, and his horse's head was turned northwards once more. He rode through Newport some three hours later without drawing rein. By the door of the Raven Inn stood a travelling carriage, upon which he did not so much as bestow a look.
By the merest thread hangs at times the whole of a man's future life, the destinies even of men as yet unborn. So much may depend indeed upon a glance, that had not Crispin kept his eyes that morning upon the grey road before him, had he chanced to look sideways as he passed the Raven Inn at Newport, and seen the Ashburn arms displayed upon the panels of that coach, he would of a certainty have paused. And had he done so, his whole destiny would assuredly have shaped a different course from that which he was unconsciously steering.
Joseph's journey to London was occasioned by his very natural anxiety to assure himself that Crispin was caught in the toils of the net he had so cunningly baited for him, and that at Castle Marleigh he would trouble them no more. To this end he quitted Sheringham on the day after Crispin's departure.
Not a little perplexed was Cynthia at the topsy-turvydom in which that morning she had found her father's house. Kenneth was gone; he had left in the dead of night, and seemingly in haste and suddenness, since on the previous evening there had been no talk of his departing. Her father was abed with a wound that made him feverish. Their grooms were all sick, and wandered in a dazed and witless fashion about the castle, their faces deadly pale and their eyes lustreless. In the hall she had found a chaotic disorder upon descending, and one of the panels of the wainscot she saw was freshly cracked.
Slowly the idea forced itself upon her mind that there had been brawling the night before, yet was she far from surmising the motives that could have led to it. The conclusion she came to in the end was that the men had drunk deep, that in their cups they had waxed quarrelsome, and that swords had been drawn.
Of Joseph then she sought enlightenment, and Joseph lied right handsomely, like the ready-witted knave he was. A wondrously plausible story had he for her ear; a story that played cunningly upon her knowledge of the compact that existed between Kenneth and Sir Crispin.
"You may not know,' said he - full well aware that she did know - "that when Galliard saved Kenneth's life at Worcester he exacted from the lad the promise that in return Kenneth should aid him in some vengeful business he had on hand."Cynthia nodded that she understood or that she knew, and glibly Joseph pursued:
"Last night, when on the point of departing, Crispin, who had drunk over-freely, as is his custom, reminded Kenneth of his plighted word, and demanded of the boy that he should upon the instant go forth with him. Kenneth replied that the hour was overlate to be setting out upon a journey, and he requested Galliard to wait until to-day, when he would be ready to fulfil what he had promised. But Crispin retorted that Kenneth was bound by his oath to go with him when he should require it, and again he bade the boy make ready at once. Words ensued between them, the boy insisting upon waiting until to-day, and Crispin insisting upon his getting his boots and cloak and coming with him there and then. More heated grew the argument, till in the end Galliard, being put out of temper, snatched at his sword, and would assuredly have spitted the boy had not your father interposed, thereby getting himself wounded. Thereafter, in his drunken lust Sir Crispin went the length of wantonly cracking that panel with his sword by way of showing Kenneth what he had to expect unless he obeyed him. At that I intervened, and using my influence, I prevailed upon Kenneth to go with Galliard as he demanded. To this, for all his reluctance, Kenneth ended by consenting, and so they are gone."
By that most glib and specious explanation Cynthia was convinced. True, she added a question touching the amazing condition of the grooms, in reply to which Joseph afforded her a part of the truth."Sir Crispin sent them some wine, and they drank to his departure so heartily that they are not rightly sober yet." Satisfied with this explanation Cynthia repaired to her father.
Now Gregory had not agreed with Joseph what narrative they were to offer Cynthia, for it had never crossed his dull mind that the disorder of the hall and the absence of Kenneth might cause her astonishment. And so when she touched upon the matter of his wound, like the blundering fool he was, he must needs let his tongue wag upon a tale which, if no less imaginative than Joseph's, was vastly its inferior in plausibility and had yet the quality of differing from it totally in substance.
"Plague on that dog, your lover, Cynthia," he growled from the mountain of pillows that propped him. "If he should come to wed my daughter after pinning me to the wainscot of my own hall may I be for ever damned.""How?" quoth she. "Do you say that Kenneth did it?" "Aye, did he. He ran at me ere I could draw, like the coward he is, sink him, and had me through the shoulder in the twinkling of an eye." Here was something beyond her understanding. What were they concealing from her? She set her wits to the discovery and plied her father with another question. "How came you to quarrel?" "How? 'Twas - 'twas concerning you, child," replied Gregory at random, and unable to think of a likelier motive. "How, concerning me?" "Leave me, Cynthia," he groaned in despair. "Go, child. I am grievously wounded. I have the fever, girl. Go; let me sleep." "But tell me, father, what passed." "Unnatural child," whined Gregory feebly, "will you plague a sick man with questions?
Would you keep him from the sleep that may mean recovery to him?"
"Father, dear," she murmured softly, "if I thought it was as you say, I would leave you. But you know that you are but attempting to conceal something from me something that I should know, that I must know. Bethink you that it is of my lover that you have spoken."
"Well, then, since know you must," he answered, "this is what befell: we had all drunk over-deep to our shame do I confess it - and growing tenderhearted for you, and bethinking me of your professed distaste to Kenneth's suit, I told him that for all the results that were likely to attend his sojourn at Castle Marleigh, he might as well bear Crispin company in his departure. He flared up at that, and demanded of me that I should read him my riddle. Faith, I did by telling him that we were like to have snow on midsummer's day ere he 'became your husband. That speech of mine so angered him, being as he was all addled with wine and ripe for any madness, that he sprang up and drew on me there and then. The others sought to get between us, but he was over-quick, and before I could do more than rise from the table his sword was through my shoulder and into the wainscot at my back. After that it was clear he could not remain here, and I demanded that he should leave upon the instant. Himself he was nothing loath, for he realized his folly, and he misliked the gleam of Joseph's eye - which can be wondrous wicked upon occasion. Indeed, but for my intercession Joseph had laid him stark."
That both her uncle and her father had lied to her - the one cunningly, the other stupidly - she had never a doubt, and vaguely uneasy was Cynthia to learn the truth. Later that day the castle was busy with the bustle of Joseph's departure, and this again was a matter that puzzled her."Whither do you journey, uncle?" she asked of him as he was in the act of stepping out to enter the waiting carriage. "To London, sweet cousin," was his brisk reply. "I am, it seems, becoming a very vagrant in my old age. Have you commands for me?" "What is it you look to do in London?" "There, child, let that be for the present. I will tell you perhaps when I return. The door, Stephen."
She watched his departure with uneasy eyes and uneasy heart. A fear pervaded her that in all that had befallen, in all that was befalling still - what ever it might be - some evil was at work, and an evil that had Crispin for its scope. She had neither reason nor evidence from which to draw this inference. It was no more than the instinct whose voice cries out to us at times a presage of ill, and oftentimes compels our attention in a degree far higher than any evidence could command.
The fear that was in her urged her to seek what information she could on every hand, but without success. From none could she cull the merest scrap of evidence to assist her. But on the morrow she had information as prodigal as it was unlooked-for, and from the unlikeliest of sources - her father himself. Chafing at his inaction and lured into indiscretions by the subsiding of the pain of his wound, Gregory quitted his bed and came below that night to sup with his daughter. As his wont had been for years, he drank freely. That done, alive to the voice of his conscience, and seeking to drown its loud- tongued cry, he drank more freely still, so that in the end his henchman, Stephen, was forced to carry him to bed.
This Stephen had grown grey in the service of the Ashburns, and amongst much valuable knowledge that he had amassed, was a skill in dealing with wounds and a wide understanding of the ways to go about healing them. This knowledge made him realize how unwise at such a season was Gregory's debauch, and sorrowfully did he wag his head over his master's condition of stupor.
Stephen had grave fears concerning him, and these fears were realized when upon the morrow Gregory awoke on fire with the fever. They summoned a leech from Sheringham, and this cunning knave, with a view to adding importance to the cure he was come to effect, and which in reality presented no alarming difficulty, shook his head with ominous gravity, and whilst promising to do "all that his skill permitted, he spoke of a clergyman to help Gregory make his peace with God. For the leech had no cause to suspect that the whole of the Sacred College might have found the task beyond its powers.
A wild fear took Gregory in its grip. How could he die with such a load as that which he now carried upon his soul? And the leech, seeing how the matter preyed upon his patient's mind, made shift - but too late - to tranquillize him with assurances that he was not really like to die, and that he had but mentioned a parson so that Gregory in any case should be prepared.
The storm once raised, however, was not so easily to be allayed, and the conviction remained with Gregory that his sands were well-nigh run, and that the end could be but a matter of days in coming.
Realizing as he did how richly he had earned damnation, a frantic terror was upon him, and all that day he tossed and turned, now blaspheming, now praying, now weeping. His life had been indeed one protracted course of wrong-doing, and many had suffered by Gregory's evil ways - many a man and many a woman. But as the stars pale and fade when the sun mounts the sky, so too were the lesser wrongs that marked his earthly pilgrimage of sin rendered pale or blotted into insignificance by the greater wrong he had done Ronald Marleigh - a wrong which was not ended yet, but whose completion Joseph was even then working to effect. If only he could save Crispin even now in the eleventh hour; if by some means he could warn him not to repair to the sign of the Anchor in Thames Street. His disordered mind took no account of the fact that in the time that was sped since Galliard's departure, the knight should already have reached London. And so it came about that, consumed at once by the desire to make confession to whomsoever it might be, and the wish to attempt yet to avert the crowning evil of whose planning he was partly guilty inasmuch as he had tacitly consented to Joseph's schemes, Gregory called for his daughter. She came readily enough, hoping for exactly that which was about to take place, yet fearing sorely that her hopes would suffer frustration, and that she would learn nothing from her father."Cynthia," he cried, in mingled dread and sorrow, "Cynthia, my child, I am about to die."
She knew both from Stephen and from the leech that this was far from being his condition. Nevertheless her filial piety was at that moment a touching sight. She smoothed his pillows with a gentle grace that was in itself a soothing caress, even as her soft sympathetic voice was a caress. She took his hand, and spoke to him endearingly, seeking to relieve the sombre mood whose prey he was become, assuring him that the leech had told her his danger was none so imminent, and that with quiet and a little care he would be up and about again ere many days were sped. But Gregory rejected hopelessly all efforts at consolation.
"I am on my death-bed, Cynthia," he insisted, "and when I am gone I know not whom there may be to cheer and comfort your lot in life. Your lover is away on an errand of Joseph's, and it may well betide that he will never again cross the threshold of Castle Marleigh. Unnatural though I may seem, sweetheart, my dying wish is that this may be so."She looked up in some surprise. "Father, if that be all that grieves you, I can reassure you. I do not love Kenneth."
"You apprehend me amiss," said he tartly. "Do you recall the story of Sir Crispin Galliard's life that you had from Kenneth on the night of Joseph's return?" His voice shook as he put the question.
"Why, yes. I am not like to forget it, and nightly do I pray," she went on, her tongue outrunning discretion and betraying her feelings for Galliard, "that God may punish those murderers who wrecked his existence.""Hush, girl," he whispered in a quavering voice. "You know not what you say." "Indeed I do; and as there is a just God my prayer shall be answered."
"Cynthia," he wailed. His eyes were wild, and the hand that rested in hers trembled violently. "Do you know that it is against your father and your father's brother that you invoke God's vengeance?"
She had been kneeling at his bedside; but now, when he pronounced those words, she rose slowly and stood silent for a spell, her eyes seeking his with an awful look that he dared not meet. At last:
"True?" she echoed, no louder than a whisper, and her eyes grew round with horror. "True that you and my uncle are the butchers who slew their cousin, this man's wife, and sought to murder him as well - leaving him for dead? True that you are the thieves who claiming kinship by virtue of that very marriage have usurped his estates and this his castle during all these years, whilst he himself went an outcast, homeless and destitute? Is that what you ask me to believe?""Even so," he assented, with a feeble sob.
Her face was pale - white to the very lips, and her blue eyes smouldered behind the shelter of her drooping lids. She put her hand to her breast, then to her brow, pushing back the brown hair by a mechanical gesture that was pathetic in the tale of pain it told. For support she was leaning now against the wall by the head of his couch. In silence she stood so while you might count to twenty; then with a sudden vehemence revealing the passion of anger and grief that swayed her:"Why," she cried, "why in God's name do you tell me this?"
"Why?" His utterance was thick, and his eyes, that were grown dull as a snake's, stared straight before him, daring not to meet his daughter's glance. "I tell it you," he said, "because I am a dying man." And he hoped that the consideration of that momentous fact might melt her, and might by pity win her back to him - that she was lost to him he realized.
"I tell you because I am a dying man," he repeated. "I tell it you because in such an hour I fain would make confession and repent, that God may have mercy upon my soul. I tell it you, too, because the tragedy begun eighteen years ago is not yet played out, and it may yet be mine to avert the end we had prepared - Joseph and I. Thus perhaps a merciful God will place it in my power to make some reparation. Listen, child. It was against us, as you will have guessed, that Galliard enlisted Kenneth's services, and here on the night of Joseph's return he called upon the boy to fulfil him what he had sworn. The lad had no choice but to obey; indeed, I forced him to it by attacking him and compelling him to draw, which is how I came by this wound."Crispin had of a certainty killed Joseph but that your uncle bethought him of telling him that his son lived."
"He saved his life by a lie! That was worthy of him," said Cynthia scornfully. "Nay, child, he spoke the truth, and when Joseph offered to restore the boy to him, he had every intention of so doing. But in the moment of writing the superscription to the letter Crispin was to bear to those that had reared the child, Joseph bethought him of a foul scheme for Galliard's final destruction. And so he has sent him to London instead, to a house in Thames Street, where dwells one Colonel Pride, who bears Sir Crispin a heavy grudge, and into whose hands he will be thus delivered. Can aught be done, Cynthia, to arrest this - to save Sir Crispin from Joseph's snare?"
"As well might you seek to restore the breath to a dead man," she answered, and her voice was so oddly calm, so cold and bare of expression, that Gregory shuddered to hear it.
"Do not delude yourself," she added. "Sir Crispin will have reached London long ere this, and by now Joseph will be well on his way to see that there is no mistake made, and that the life you ruined hopelessly years ago is plucked at last from this unfortunate man. Merciful God! am I truly your daughter?" she cried. "Is my name indeed Ashburn, and have I been reared upon the estates that by crime you gained possession of? Estates that by crime you hold - for they are his; every stone, every stick that goes to make the place belongs to him, and now he has gone to his death by your contriving."
A moan escaped her, and she covered her face with her hands. A moment she stood rocking there - a fair, lissom plant swept by a gale of ineffable emotion. Then the breath seemed to go all out of her in one great sigh, and Gregory, who dared not look her way, heard the swish of her gown, followed by a thud as she collapsed and lay swooning on the ground.
So disturbed at that was Gregory's spirit that, forgetting his wound, his fever, and the death which he had believed impending, he leapt from his couch, and throwing wide the door, bellowed lustily for Stephen. In frightened haste came his henchman to answer the petulant summons, and in obedience to Gregory's commands he went off again as quickly in quest of Catherine - Cynthia's woman.
Between them they bore the unconscious girl to her chamber, leaving Gregory to curse himself for having been lured into a confession that it now seemed to him had been unnecessary, since in his newly found vitality he realized that death was none so near a thing as that scoundrelly fool of a leech had led him to believe.
The Wooing Of Cynthia
Cynthia's swoon was after all but brief. Upon recovering consciousness her first act was to dismiss her woman. She had need to be alone - the need of the animal that is wounded to creep into its lair and hide itself. And so alone with her sorrow she sat through that long day.
That her father's condition was grievous she knew to be untrue, so that concerning him there was not even that pity that she might have felt had she believed - as he would have had her believe that he was dying.
As she pondered the monstrous disclosure he had made, her heart hardened against him, and even as she had asked him whether indeed she was his daughter, so now she vowed to herself that she would be his daughter no longer. She would leave Castle Marleigh, never again to set eyes upon her father, and she hoped that during the little time she must yet remain there - a day, or two at most - she might be spared the ordeal of again meeting a parent for whom respect was dead, and who inspired her with just that feeling of horror she must have for any man who confessed himself a murderer and a thief.She resolved to repair to London to a sister of her mother's, where for her dead mother's sake she would find a haven extended readily. At eventide she came at last from her chamber. She had need of air, need of the balm that nature alone can offer in solitude to poor wounded human souls.
It was a mild and sunny evening, worthy rather of August than of October, and aimlessly Mistress Cynthia wandered towards the cliffs overlooking Sheringham Hithe. There she sate herself in sad dejection upon the grass, and gazed wistfully seaward, her mind straying now from the sorry theme that had held dominion in it, to the memories that very spot evoked.
It was there, sitting as she sat now, her eyes upon the shimmering waste of sea, and the gulls circling overhead, that she had awakened to the knowledge of her love for Crispin. And so to him strayed now her thoughts, and to the fate her father had sent him to; and thus back again to her father and the evil he had wrought. It is matter for conjecture whether her loathing for Gregory would have been as intense as it was, had another than Crispin Galliard been his victim.
Her life seemed at an end as she sat that October evening on the cliffs. No single interest linked her to existence; nothing, it seemed, was left her to hope for till the end should come - and no doubt it would be long in coming, for time moves slowly when we wait. Wistful she sat and thought, and every thought begat a sigh, and then of a sudden - surely her ears had tricked her, enslaved by her imagination - a crisp, metallic voice rang out close behind her."Why are we pensive, Mistress Cynthia?"
There was a catch in her breath as she turned her head. Her cheeks took fire, and for a second were aflame. Then they went deadly white, and it seemed that time and life and the very world had paused in its relentless progress towards eternity. For there stood the object of her thoughts and sighs, sudden and unexpected, as though the earth had cast him up on to her surface.
His thin lips were parted in a smile that softened wondrously the harshness of his face, and his eyes seemed then to her alight with kindness. A moment's pause there was, during which she sought her voice, and when she had found it, all that she could falter was:"Sir, how came you here? They told me that you rode to London." "Why, so I did. But on the road I chanced to halt, and having halted I discovered reason why I should return." He had discovered a reason. She asked herself breathlessly what might that reason be, and finding herself no answer to the question, she put it next to him. He drew near to her before replying. "May I sit with you awhile, Cynthia?"
She moved aside to make room for him, as though the broad cliff had been a narrow ledge, and with the sigh of a weary man finding a resting-place at last, he sank down beside her.
There was a tenderness in his voice that set her pulses stirring wildly. Did she guess aright the reason that had caused him to break his journey and return? That he had done so - no matter what the reason - she thanked God from her inmost heart, as for a miracle that had saved him from the doom awaiting him in London town."Am I presumptuous, child, to think that haply the meditation in which I found you rapt was for one, unworthy though he be, who went hence but some few days since?"
The ambiguous question drove every thought from her mind, filling it to overflowing with the supreme good of his presence, and the frantic hope that she had read aright the reason of it.
"Have I conjectured rightly?" he asked, since she kept silence. "Mayhap you have," she whispered in return, and then, marvelling at her boldness, blushed. He glanced sharply at her from narrowing eyes. It was not the answer he had looked to hear.
As a father might have done he took the slender hand that rested upon the grass beside him, and she, poor child, mistaking the promptings of that action, suffered it to lie in his strong grasp. With averted head she gazed upon the sea below, until a mist of tears rose up to blot it out. The breeze seemed full of melody and gladness. God was very good to her, and sent her in her hour of need this great consolation - a consolation indeed that must have served to efface whatever sorrow could have beset her."Why then, sweet lady, is my task that I had feared to find all fraught with difficulty, grown easy indeed." And hearing him pause: "What task is that, Sir Crispin?" she asked, intent on helping him.
He did not reply at once. He found it difficult to devise an answer. To tell her brutally that he was come to bear her away, willing or unwilling, on behalf of another, was not easy. Indeed, it was impossible, and he was glad that inclinations in her which he had little dreamt of, put the necessity aside.
"My task, Mistress Cynthia, is to bear you hence. To ask you to resign this peaceful life, this quiet home in a little corner of the world, and to go forth to bear life's hardships with one who, whatever be his shortcomings, has the all-redeeming virtue of loving you beyond aught else in life."
He gazed intently at her as he spoke, and her eyes fell before his glance. He noted the warm, red blood suffusing her cheeks, her brow, her very neck; and he could have laughed aloud for joy at finding so simple that which he had feared would prove so hard. Some pity, too, crept unaccountably into his stern heart, fathered by the little faith which in his inmost soul he reposed in Jocelyn. And where, had she resisted him, he would have grown harsh and violent, her acquiescence struck the weapons from his hands, and he caught himself well-nigh warning her against accompanying him."It is much to ask," he said. "But love is selfish, and love asks much." "No, no," she protested softly, "it is not much to ask. Rather is it much to offer." At that he was aghast. Yet he continued:
"Bethink you, Mistress Cynthia, I have ridden back to Sheringham to ask you to come with me into France, where my son awaits us?"
He forgot for the moment that she was in ignorance of his relationship to him he looked upon as her lover, whilst she gave this mention of his son, of whose existence she had already heard from her; father, little thought at that moment. The hour was too full of other things that touched her more nearly.
"I ask you to abandon the ease and peace of Sheringham for a life as a soldier's bride that may be rough and precarious for a while, though, truth to tell, I have some influence at the Luxembourg, and friends upon whose assistance I can safely count, to find your husband honourable employment, and set him on the road to more. And how, guided by so sweet a saint, can he but mount to fame and honour?"She spoke no word, but the hand resting in his entwined his fingers in an answering pressure.
"Dare I then ask so much?" cried he. And as if the ambiguity which had marked his speech were not enough, he must needs, as he put this question, bend in his eagerness towards her until her brown tresses touched his swart cheek. Was it then strange that the eagerness wherewith he urged another's suit should have been by her interpreted as her heart would have had it?She set her hands upon his shoulders, and meeting his eager gaze with the frank glance of the maid who, out of trust, is fearless in her surrender: "Throughout my life I shall thank God that you have dared it," she made answer softly.
A strange reply he deemed it, yet, pondering, he took her meaning to be that since Jocelyn had lacked the courage to woo boldly, she was glad that he had sent an ambassador less timid.A pause followed, and for a spell they sat silent, he thinking of how to frame his next words; she happy and content to sit beside him without speech.
She marvelled somewhat at the strangeness of his wooing, which was like unto no wooing her romancer's tales had told her of, but then she reflected how unlike he was to other men, and therein she saw the explanation.
"I wish," he mused, "that matters were easier; that it might be mine to boldly sue your hand from your father, but it may not be. Even had events not fallen out as they have done, it had been difficult; as it is, it is impossible."Again his meaning was obscure, and when he spoke of suing for her hand from her father, he did not think of adding that he would have sued it for his son.
"I have no father," she replied. "This very day have I disowned him." And observing the inquiry with which his eyes were of a sudden charged: "Would you have me own a thief, a murderer, my father?" she demanded, with a fierceness of defiant shame. "You know, then?" he ejaculated.
"Yes," she answered sorrowfully, "I know all there is to be known. I learnt it all this morning. All day have I pondered it in my shame to end in the resolve to leave Sheringham. I had intended going to London to my mother's sister. You are very opportunely come." She smiled up at him through the tears that were glistening in her eyes. "You come even as I was despairing - nay, when already I had despaired."
Sir Crispin was no longer puzzled by the readiness of her acquiescence. Here was the explanation of it. Forced by the honesty of her pure soul to abandon the house of a father she knew at last for what he was, the refuge Crispin now offered her was very welcome. She had determined before he came to quit Castle Marleigh, and timely indeed was his offer of the means of escape from a life that was grown impossible. A great pity filled his heart. She was selling herself, he thought; accepting the proposal which, on his son's behalf, he made, and from which at any other season, he feared, she would have shrunk in detestation.
That pity was reflected on his countenance now, and noting its solemnity, and misconstruing it, she laughed outright, despite herself. He did not ask her why she laughed, he did not notice it; his thoughts were busy already upon another matter.
When next he spoke, it was to describe to her the hollow of the road where on the night of his departure from the castle he had been flung from his horse. She knew the spot, she told him, and there at dusk upon the following day she would come to him. Her woman must accompany her, and for all that he feared such an addition to the party might retard their flight, yet he could not gainsay her resolution. Her uncle, he learnt from her, was absent from Sheringham; he had set out four days ago for London. For her father she would leave a letter, and in this matter Crispin urged her to observe circumspection, giving no indication of the direction of her journey.
In all he said, now that matters were arranged he was calm, practical, and unloverlike, and for all that she would he had been less self-possessed, her faith in him caused her, upon reflection, even to admire this which she conceived to be restraint. Yet, when at parting he did no more than courteously bend before her, and kiss her hand as any simpering gallant might have done, she was all but vexed, and not to be outdone in coldness, she grew frigid. But it was lost upon him. He had not a lover's discernment, quickened by anxious eyes that watch for each flitting change upon his mistress's face.
They parted thus, and into the heart of Mistress Cynthia there crept that night a doubt that banished sleep. Was she wise in entrusting herself so utterly to a man of whom she knew but little, and that learnt from rumours which had not been good? But scarcely was it because of that that doubts assailed her. Rather was it because of his cool deliberateness which argued not the great love wherewith she fain would fancy him inspired.
For consolation she recalled a line that had it great fires were soon burnt out, and she sought to reassure herself that the flame of his love, if not all-consuming, would at least burn bright and steadfastly until the end of life. And so she fell asleep, betwixt hope and fear, yet no longer with any hesitancy touching the morrow's course.
In the morning she took her woman into her confidence, and scared her with it out of what little sense the creature owned. Yet to such purpose did she talk, that when that evening, as Crispin waited by the coach he had taken, in the hollow of the road, he saw approaching him a portly, middle-aged dame with a valise. This was Cynthia's woman, and Cynthia herself was not long in following, muffled in a long, black cloak.He greeted her warmly - affectionately almost yet with none of the rapture to which she held herself entitled as some little recompense for all that on his behalf she left behind. Urbanely he handed her into the coach, and, after her, her woman. Then seeing that he made shift to close the door: "How is this?" she cried. "Do you not ride with us?" He pointed to a saddled horse standing by the roadside, and which she had not noticed. "It will be better so. You will be at more comfort in the carriage without me. Moreover, it will travel the lighter and the swifter, and speed will prove our best friend."
He closed the door, and stepped back with a word of command to the driver. The whip cracked, and Cynthia flung herself back almost in a pet. What manner of lover, she asked herself, was thin and what manner of woman she, to let herself be borne away by one who made so little use of the arts and wiles of sweet persuasion? To carry her off, and yet not so much as sit beside her, was worthy only of a man who described such a journey as tedious. She marvelled greatly at it, yet more she marvelled at herself that she did not abandon this mad undertaking.The coach moved on and the flight from Sheringham was begun.
Throughout the night they went rumbling on their way at a pace whose sluggishness elicited many an oath from Crispin as he rode a few yards in the rear, ever watchful of the possibility of pursuit. But there was none, nor none need he have feared, since whilst he rode through the cold night, Gregory Ashburn slept as peacefully as a man may with the fever and an evil conscience, and imagined his dutiful daughter safely abed.
With the first streaks of steely light came a thin rain to heighten Crispin's discomfort, for of late he had been overmuch in the saddle, and strong though he was, he was yet flesh and blood, and subject to its ills. Towards ten o'clock they passed through Denham. When they were clear of it Cynthia put her head from the window. She had slept well, and her mood was lighter and happier. As Crispin rode a yard or so behind, he caught sight of her fresh, smiling face, and it affected him curiously. The tenderness that two days ago had been his as he talked to her upon the cliffs was again upon him, and the thought that anon she would be linked to him by the ties of relationship, was pleasurable. She gave him good morrow prettily, and he, spurring his horse to the carriage door, was solicitous to know of her comfort. Nor did he again fall behind until Stafford was reached at noon. Here, at the sign of the Suffolk Arms, he called a halt, and they broke their fast on the best the house could give them.Cynthia was gay, and so indeed was Crispin, yet she noted in him that coolness which she accounted restraint, and gradually her spirits sank again before it.
To Crispin's chagrin there were no horses to be had. Someone in great haste had ridden through before them, and taken what relays the hostelry could give, leaving four jaded beasts in the stable. It seemed, indeed, that they must remain there until the morrow, and in coming to that conclusion, Sir Crispin's temper suffered sorely."Why need it put you so about," cried Cynthia, in arch reproach, "since I am with you?" "Blood and fire, madam," roared Galliard, "it is precisely for that reason that I am exercised. What if your father came upon us here?" "My father, sir, is abed with a sword-wound and a fever," she replied, and he remembered then how Kenneth had spitted Gregory through the shoulder.
"Still," he returned, "he will have discovered your flight, and I dare swear we shall have his myrmidons upon our heels. Should they come up with us we shall hardly find them more gentle than he would be."
She paled at that, and for a second there was silence. Then her hand stole forth upon his arm, and she looked at him with tightened lips and a defiant air.
"What, indeed, if they do? Are you not with me?" A king had praised his daring, and for his valour had dubbed him knight upon a field of stricken battle; yet the honour of it had not brought him the elation those words - expressive of her utter faith in him and his prowess - begat in his heart. Upon the instant the delay ceased to fret him.
It was the nearest he had gone to a passionate speech since they had left Sheringham, and it pleased her; yet in uttering it he had stood a full two yards away, and in that she had taken no pleasure.
Bidding her remain and get what rest she might, he left her, and she, following his straight, lank figure - so eloquent of strength - and the familiar poise of his left hand upon the pummel of his sword, felt proud indeed that he belonged to her, and secure in his protection. She sat herself at the window when he was gone, and whilst she awaited his return, she hummed a gay measure softly to herself. Her eyes were bright, and there was a flush upon her cheeks. Not even in the wet, greasy street could she find any unsightliness that afternoon. But as she waited, and the minutes grew to hours, that flush faded, and the sparkle died gradually from her eyes. The measure that she had hummed was silenced, and her shapely mouth took on a pout of impatience, which anon grew into a tighter mould, as he continued absent.
A frown drew her brows together, and Mistress Cynthia's thoughts were much as they had been the night before she left Castle Marleigh. Where was he? Why came he not? She took up a book of plays that lay upon the table, and sought to while away the time by reading. The afternoon faded into dusk, and still he did not come. Her woman appeared, to ask whether she should call for lights and at that Cynthia became almost violent"Where is Sir Crispin?" she demanded. And to the dame's quavering answer that she knew not, she angrily bade her go ascertain.
In a pet, Cynthia paced the chamber whilst Catherine was gone upon that errand. Did this man account her a toy to while away the hours for which he could find no more profitable diversion, and to leave her to die of ennui when aught else offered? Was it a small thing that he had asked of her, to go with him into a strange land, that he should show himself so little sensible of the honour done him?
With such questions did she plague herself, and finding them either unanswerable, or answerable only by affirmatives, she had well-nigh resolved upon leaving the inn, and making her way back to London to seek out her aunt, when the door opened and her woman reappeared."Well?" cried Cynthia, seeing her alone. "Where is Sir Crispin?" "Below, madam." "Below?" echoed she. "And what, pray, doth he below?" "He is at dice with a gentleman from London."
In the dim light of the October twilight the woman saw not the sudden pallor of her mistress's cheeks, but she heard the gasp of pain that was almost a cry. In her mortification, Cynthia could have wept had she given way to her feelings. The man who had induced her to elope with him sat at dice with a gentleman from London! Oh, it was monstrous! At the thought of it she broke into a laugh that appalled her tiring-woman; then mastering her hysteria, she took a sudden determination."Call me the host," she cried, and the frightened Catherine obeyed her at a run. When the landlord came, bearing lights, and bending his aged back obsequiously: "Have you a pillion?" she asked abruptly. "Well, fool, why do you stare? Have you a pillion?" "I have, madam." "And a knave to ride with me, and a couple more as escort?" "I might procure them, but - " "How soon?" "Within half an hour, but - " "Then go see to it," she broke in, her foot beating the ground impatiently. "But, madam - " "Go, go, go!" she cried, her voice rising at each utterance of that imperative. "But, madam," the host persisted despairingly, and speaking quickly so that he might get the words out, "I have no horses fit to travel ten miles."
"I need to go but five," she retorted quickly, her only thought being to get the beasts, no matter what their condition. "Now, go, and come not back until all is ready. Use dispatch and I will pay you well, and above all, not a word to the gentleman who came hither with me."
The sorely-puzzled host withdrew to do her bidding, won to it by her promise of good payment.
Alone she sat for half an hour, vainly fostering the hope that ere the landlord returned to announce the conclusion of his preparations, Crispin might have remembered her and come. But he did not appear, and in her solitude this poor little maid was very miserable, and shed some tears that had still more of anger than sorrow in their source. At length the landlord came. She summoned her woman, and bade her follow by post on the morrow. The landlord she rewarded with a ring worth twenty times the value of the service, and was led by him through a side door into the innyard.
Here she found three horses, one equipped with the pillion on which she was to ride behind a burly stableboy. The other two were mounted by a couple of stalwart and wellarmed men, one of whom carried a funnel-mouthed musketoon with a swagger that promised prodigies of valour.Wrapped in her cloak, she mounted behind the stable-boy, and bade him set out and take the road to Denham. Her dream was at an end.
Master Quinn, the landlord, watched her departure with eyes that were charged with doubt and concern. As he made fast the door of the stableyard after she had passed out, he ominously shook his hoary head and muttered to himself humble, hostelry-flavoured philosophies touching the strange ways of men with women, and the stranger ways of women with men. Then, taking up his lanthorn, he slowly retraced his steps to the buttery where his wife was awaiting him.
With sleeves rolled high above her pink and deeply-dimpled elbows stood Mistress Quinn at work upon the fashioning of a pastry, when her husband entered and set down his lanthorn with a sigh.
"To be so plagued," he growled. "To be browbeaten by a slip of a wench - a fine gentleman's baggage with the airs and vapours of a lady of quality. Am I not a fool to have endured it?""Certainly you are a fool," his wife agreed, kneading diligently, "whatever you may have endured. What now?" His fat face was puckered into a thousand wrinkles. His little eyes gazed at her with longsuffering malice.
"You are my wife," he answered pregnantly, as who would say: Thus is my folly clearly proven! and seeing that the assertion was not one that admitted of dispute, Mistress Quinn was silent."Oh, 'tis ill done!" he broke out a moment later. "Shame on me for it; it is ill done!" "If you have done it 'tis sure to be ill done, and shame on you in good sooth - but for what?" put in his wife. "For sending those poor jaded beasts upon the road." "What beasts?" "What beasts? Do I keep turtles? My horses, woman." "And whither have you sent them?" "To Denham with the baggage that came hither this morning in the company of that very fierce gentleman who was in such a pet because we had no horses." "Where is he?" inquired the hostess. "At dice with those other gallants from town." "At dice quotha? And she's gone, you say?" asked Mrs. Quinn, pausing in her labours squarely to face her husband. "Aye," said he. "Stupid!" rejoined his docile spouse, vexed by his laconic assent. "Do you mean she has run away?" "Tis what anyone might take from what I have told you," he answered sweetly. "And you have lent her horses and helped her to get away, and you leave her husband at play in there?" "You have seen her marriage lines, I make no doubt," he sneered irrelevantly. "You dolt! If the gentleman horsewhips you, you will have richly earned it."
"Eh? What?" gasped he, and his rubicund cheeks lost something of their high colour, for here was a possibility that had not entered into his calculations. But Mistress Quinn stayed not to answer him. Already she was making for the door, wiping the dough from her hands on to her apron as she went. A suspicion of her purpose flashed through her husband's mind."What would you do?" he inquired nervously. "Tell the gentleman what has taken place."
"Nay," he cried, resolutely barring her way. "Nay. That you shall not. Would you - would you ruin me?"
She gave him a look of contempt, and dodging his grasp she gained the door and was half-way down the passage towards the common room before he had overtaken her and caught her round the middle.
"You shall not go," he swore. "Come back and leave the gentleman to make the discovery for himself. I dare swear it will not afflict him overmuch. He has abandoned her sorely since they came; not a doubt of it but that he is weary of her. At least he need not know I lent her horses. Let him think she fled a-foot, when he discovers her departure."
"I will go," she answered stubbornly, dragging him with her a yard or two nearer the door. "The gentleman shall be warned. Is a woman to run away from her husband in my house, and the husband never be warned of it?""I promised her," he began. "What care I for your promises?" she asked. "I will tell him, so that he may yet go after her and bring her back." "You shall not," he insisted, gripping her more closely. But at that moment a delicately mocking voice greeted their ears.
"Marry, 'tis vastly diverting to hear you," it said. They looked round, to find one of the party of town sparks that had halted at the inn standing arms akimbo in the narrow passage, clearly waiting for them to make room. "A touching sight, sir," said he sardonically to the landlord. "A wondrous touching sight to behold a man of your years playing the turtle-dove to his good wife like the merest fledgeling. It grieves me to intrude myself so harshly upon your cooing, though if you'll but let me pass you may resume your chaste embrace without uneasiness, for I give you my word I'll never look behind me."
Abashed, the landlord and his dame fell apart. Then, ere the gentleman could pass her, Mistress Quinn, like a true opportunist, sped swiftly down the passage and into the common room before her husband could again detain her.
Now, within the common room of the Suffolk Arms Sir Crispin sat face to face with a very pretty fellow, all musk and ribbons, and surrounded by some half-dozen gentlemen on their way to London who had halted to rest at Stafford.
The pretty gentleman swore lustily, affected a monstrous wicked look, assured that he was impressing all who stood about with some conceit of the rakehelly ways he pursued in town.
A game started with crowns to while away the tedium of the enforced sojourn at the inn had grown to monstrous proportions. Fortune had favoured the youth at first, but as the stakes grew her favours to him diminished, and at the moment that Cynthia rode out of the inn-yard, Mr. Harry Foster flung his last gold piece with an oath upon the table.
Before Crispin could reply, the door leading to the interior of the inn was flung open, and Mrs. Quinn, breathless with exertion and excitement, came scurrying across the room. In the doorway stood the host in hesitancy and fear. Bending to Crispin's ear, Mrs. Quinn delivered her message in a whisper that was heard by most of those who were about."Gone!" cried Crispin in consternation. The woman pointed to her husband, and Crispin, understanding from this that she referred him to the host, called to him. "What know you, landlord?" he shouted. "Come hither, and tell me whither is she gone!" "I know not," replied the quaking host, adding the particulars of Cynthia's departure, and the information that the lady seemed in great anger.
"Saddle me a horse," cried Crispin, leaping to his feet, and pitching Mr. Foster's trinket upon the table as though it were a thing of no value. "Towards Denham you say they rode? Quick, man!" And as the host departed he swept the gold and the ring he had won into his pockets preparing to depart."Hoity toity!" cried Mr. Foster. "What sudden haste is this?" "I am sorry, sir, that Fortune has been unkind to you, but I must go. Circumstances have arisen which - " "D -n your circumstances!" roared Foster, get ting on his feet. "You'll not leave me thus!" "With your permission, sir, I will." "But you shall not have my permission!" "Then I shall be so unfortunate as to go without it. But I shall return." "Sir, 'tis an old legend, that!" Crispin turned about in despair. To be embroiled now might ruin everything, and by a miracle he kept his temper. He had a moment to spare while his horse was being saddled.
"Sir," he said, "if you have upon your pretty person trinkets to half the value of what I have won from you, I'll stake the whole against them on one throw, after which, no matter what the result, I take my departure. Are you agreed?"
There was a murmur of admiration from those present at the recklessness and the generosity of the proposal, and Foster was forced to accept it. Two more rings he drew forth, a diamond from the ruffles at his throat, and a pearl that he wore in his ear. The lot he set upon the board, and Crispin threw the winning cast as the host entered to say that his horse was ready.
He gathered the trinkets up, and with a polite word of regret he was gone, leaving Mr. Harry Foster to meditate upon the pledging of one of his horses to the landlord in discharge of his lodging.
And so it fell out that before Cynthia had gone six miles along the road to Denham, one of her attendants caught a rapid beat of hoofs behind them, and drew her attention to it, suggesting that they were being followed. Faster Cynthia bade them travel, but the pursuer gained upon them at every stride. Again the man drew her attention to it, and proposed that they should halt and face him who followed. The possession of the musketoon gave him confidence touching the issue. But Cynthia shuddered at the thought, and again, with promises of rich reward, urged them to go faster. Another mile they went, but every moment brought the pursuing hoof-beats nearer and nearer, until at last a hoarse challenge rang out behind them, and they knew that to go farther would be vain; within the next half-mile, ride as they might, their pursuer would be upon them. The night was moonless, yet sufficiently clear for objects to be perceived against the sky, and presently the black shadow of him who rode behind loomed up upon the road, not a hundred paces off.Despite Cynthia's orders not to fire, he of the musketoon raised his weapon under cover of the darkness and blazed at the approaching shadow.
Cynthia cried out - a shriek of dismay it was; the horses plunged, and Sir Crispin laughed aloud as he bore down upon them. He of the musketoon heard the swish of a sword being drawn, and saw the glitter of the blade in the dark. A second later there was a shock as Crispin's horse dashed into his, and a crushing blow across the forehead, which Galliard delivered with the hilt of his rapier, sent him hurtling from the saddle. His comrade clapped spurs to his horse at that and was running a race with the night wind in the direction of Denham.
Before Cynthia quite knew what had happened the seat on the pillion in front of her was empty, and she was riding back to Stafford with Crispin beside her, his hand upon the bridle of her horse."You little fool!" he said half-angrily, half-gibingly; and thereafter they rode in silence she too mortified with shame and anger to venture upon words.
That journey back to Stafford was a speedy one, and soon they stood again in the innyard out of which she had ridden but an hour ago. Avoiding the common room, Crispin ushered her through the side door by which she had quitted the house. The landlord met them in the passage, and looking at Crispin's face the pallor and fierceness of it drove him back without a word.
Together they ascended to the chamber where in solitude she had spent the day. Her feelings were those of a child caught in an act of disobedience, and she was angry with herself and her weakness that it should be so. Yet within the room she stood with bent head, never glancing at her companion, in whose eyes there was a look of blended anger and amazement as he observed her. At length in calm, level tones:"Why did you run away?" he asked. The question was to her anger as a gust of wind to a smouldering fire. She threw back her head defiantly, and fixed him with a glance as fierce as his own.
"I will tell you," she cried, and suddenly stopped short. The fire died from her eyes, and they grew wide in wonder - in fascinated wonder - to see a deep stain overspreading one side of his grey doublet, from the left shoulder downwards. Her wonder turned to horror as she realized the nature of that stain and remembered that one of her men had fired upon him.
"You are wounded?" she faltered. A sickly smile came into his face, and seemed to accentuate its pallor. He made a deprecatory gesture. Then, as if in that gesture he had expended his last grain of strength, he swayed suddenly as he stood. He made as if to reach a chair, but at the second step he stumbled, and without further warning he fell prone at her feet, his left hand upon his heart, his right outstretched straight from the shoulder. The loss of blood he had sustained, following upon the fatigue and sleeplessness that had been his of late, had demanded its due from him, man of iron though he was.
Upon the instant her anger vanished. A great fear that he was dead descended upon her, and to heighten the horror of it came the thought that he had received his death-wound through her agency. With a moan of anguish she went down upon her knees beside him. She raised his head and pillowed it in her lap, calling to him by name, as though her voice alone must suffice to bring him back to life and consciousness. Instinctively she unfastened his doublet at the neck, and sought to draw it away that she might see the nature of his hurt and staunch the wound if possible, but her strength ebbed away from her, and she abandoned her task, unable to do more than murmur his name."Crispin, Crispin, Crispin!"
She stooped and kissed the white, clammy forehead, then his lips, and as she did so a tremor ran through her, and he opened his eyes. A moment they looked dull and lifeless, then they waxed questioning.
A second ago these two had stood in anger with the width of the room betwixt them; now, in a flash, he found his head on her lap, her lips on his. How came he there? What meant it?"Crispin, Crispin," she cried, "thank God you did but swoon!"
Then the awakening of his soul came swift upon the awakening of his body. He lay there, oblivious of his wound, oblivious of his mission, oblivious of his son. He lay with senses still half dormant and comprehension dulled, but with a soul alert he lay, and was supremely happy with a happiness such as he had never known in all his ill-starred life.In a feeble voice he asked: "Why did you run away?" "Let us forget it," she answered softly. "Nay - tell me first."
"I thought - I thought - " she stammered; then, gathering courage, "I thought you did not really care, that you made a toy of me," said she. "When they told me that you sat at dice with a gentleman from London I was angry at your neglect. If you loved me, I told myself, you would not have used me so, and left me to mope alone."
For a moment Crispin let his grey eyes devour her blushing face. Then he closed them and pondered what she had said, realization breaking upon him now like a great flood. The light came to him in one blinding yet all-illuming flash. A hundred things that had puzzled him in the last two days grew of a sudden clear, and filled him with a joy unspeakable. He dared scarce believe that he was awake, and Cynthia by him - that he had indeed heard aright what she had said. How blind he had been, how nescient of himself!
Then, as his thoughts travelled on to the source of the misapprehension he remembered his son, and the memory was like an icy hand upon his temples that chilled him through and through. Lying there with eyes still closed he groaned. Happiness was within his grasp at last. Love might be his again did he but ask it, and the love of as pure and sweet a creature as ever God sent to chasten a man's life. A great tenderness possessed him. A burning temptation to cast to the winds his plighted word, to make a mock of faith, to deride honour, and to seize this woman for his own. She loved him he knew it now; he loved her - the knowledge had come as suddenly upon him. Compared with this what could his faith, his word, his honour give him? What to him, in the face of this, was that paltry fellow, his son, who had spurned him!The hardest fight he ever fought, he fought it there, lying supine upon the ground, his head in her lap. Had he fought it out with closed eyes, perchance honour and his plighted word had won the day; but he opened them, and they met Cynthia's. A while they stayed thus; the hungry glance of his grey eyes peering into the clear blue depths of hers; and in those depths his soul was drowned, his honour stifled. "Cynthia,' he cried, "God pity me, I love you!" And he swooned again.
That cry, which she but half understood, was still ringing in her ears, when the door was of a sudden flung open, and across the threshold a very daintily arrayed young gentleman stepped briskly, the expostulating landlord following close upon his heels."I tell thee, lying dog," he cried, "I saw him ride into the yard, and, "fore George, he shall give me the chance of mending my losses. Be off to your father, you Devil's natural." Cynthia looked up in alarm, whereupon that merry blood catching sight of her, halted in some confusion at what he saw. "Rat me, madam," he cried, "I did not know - I had not looked to - " He stopped, and remembering at last his manners he made her a low bow. "Your servant, madam," said he, "your servant Harry Foster." She gazed at him, her eyes full of inquiry, but said nothing, whereat the pretty gentleman plucked awkwardly at his ruffles and wished himself elsewhere. "I did not know, madam, that your husband was hurt." "He is not my husband, sir," she answered, scarce knowing what she said. "Gadso!" he ejaculated. "Yet you ran away from him?" Her cheeks grew crimson. "The door, sir, is behind you." "So, madam, is that thief the landlord," he made answer, no whit abashed. "Come hither, you bladder of fat, the gentleman is hurt."
Thus courteously summoned, the landlord shuffled forward, and Mr. Foster begged Cynthia to allow him with the fellow's aid to see to the gentleman's wound. Between them they laid Crispin on a couch, and the town spark went to work with a dexterity little to have been expected from his flippant exterior. He dressed the wound, which was in the shoulder and not in itself of a dangerous character, the loss of blood it being that had brought some gravity to the knight's condition. They propped his head upon a pillow, and presently he sighed and, opening his eyes, complained of thirst, and was manifestly surprised at seeing the coxcomb turned leech.
"I came in search of you to pursue our game," Foster explained when they had ministered to him, "and, 'fore George, I am vastly grieved to find you in this condition." "Pish, sir, my condition is none so grievous - a scratch, no more, and were my heart itself pierced the knowledge that I have gained - " He stopped short. "But there, sir," he added presently, "I am grateful beyond words for your timely ministration, and if to my debt you will add that of leaving me awhile to rest, I shall appreciate it."
His glance met Cynthia's and he smiled. The host coughed significantly, and shuffled towards the door. But Master Foster made no shift to move; but stood instead beside Galliard, though in apparent hesitation.
"I should like a word with you ere I go," he said at length. Then turning and perceiving the landlord standing by the door in an attitude of eloquent waiting: "Take yourself off," he cried to him. "Crush me, may not one gentleman say a word to another without being forced to speak into your inquisitive ears as well? You will forgive my heat, madam, but, God a"mercy, that greasy rascal tries me sorely."
"Now, sir," he resumed, when the host was gone. "I stand thus: I have lost to you to-day a sum of money which, though some might account considerable, is in itself no more than a trifle.
"I am, however, greatly exercised at the loss of certain trinkets which have to me a peculiar value, and which, to be frank, I staked in a moment of desperation. I had hoped, sir, to retrieve my losses o'er a friendly main this evening, for I have still to stake a coach and four horses - as noble a set of beasts as you'll find in England, aye rat me. Your wound, sir, renders it impossible for me to ask you to give yourself the fatigue of obliging me. I come, then, to propose that you return me those trinkets against my note of hand for the amount that was staked on them. I am well known in town, sir," he added hurriedly, "and you need have no anxiety."Crispin stopped him with a wave of the hand.
"I have none, sir, in that connexion, and I am willing to do as you suggest." He thrust his hand into his pocket, and drew forth the rings, the brooch and the ear-ring he had won. "Here, sir, are your trinkets."
"Sir," cried Mr. Foster, thrown into some confusion by Galliard's unquestioning generosity, "I am indebted to you. Rat me, sir, I am indeed. You shall have my note of hand on the instant. How much shall we say?""One moment, Mr. Foster," said Crispin, an idea suddenly occurring to him. "You mentioned horses. Are they fresh?" "As June roses." "And you are returning to London, are you not?" "I am." "When do you wish to proceed?" "To-morrow." "Why, then, sir, I have a proposal to make which will remove the need of your note of hand. Lend me your horses, sir, to reach Harwich. I wish to set out at once " "But your wound?" cried Cynthia. "You are still faint."
"Faint! Not I. I am awake and strong. My wound is no wound, for a scratch may not be given that name. So there, sweetheart." He laughed, and drawing down her head, he whispered the words: "Your father." Then turning again to Foster. "Now, sir," he continued, "there are four tolerable posthorses of mine below, on which you can follow tomorrow to Harwich, there exchanging them again for your own, which you shall find awaiting you, stabled at the Garter Inn. For this service, to me of immeasurable value, I will willingly cede those gewgaws to you.""But, rat me, sir," cried Foster in bewilderment, "tis too generous - 'pon honour it is. I can't consent to it. No, rat me, I can't." "I have told you how great a boon you will confer. Believe me, sir, to me it is worth twice, a hundred times the value of those trinkets." "You shall have my horses, sir, and my note of hand as well," said Foster firmly. "Your note of hand is of no value to me, sir. I look to leave England to-morrow, and I know not when I may return."
Thus in the end it came about that the bargain was concluded. Cynthia's maid was awakened and bidden to rise. The horses were harnessed to Crispin's coach, and Crispin, leaning upon Harry Foster's arm, descended and took his place within the carriage.
Leaving the London blood at the door of the Suffolk Arms, crushing, burning, damning and ratting himself at Crispin's magnificence, they rolled away through the night in the direction of Ipswich.
Ten o"clock in the morning beheld them at the door of the Garter Inn at Harwich. But the jolting of the coach had so hardly used Crispin that he had to be carried into the hostelry. He was much exercised touching the Lady Jane and his inability to go down to the quay in quest of her, when he was accosted by a burly, red-faced individual who bluntly asked him was he called Sir Crispin Galliard. Ere he could frame an answer the man had added that he was Thomas Jackson, master of the Lady Jane - at which piece of good news Crispin felt like to shout for joy.
But his reflection upon his present position, when at last he lay in the schooner's cabin, brought him the bitter reverse of pleasure. He had set out to bring Cynthia to his son; he had pledged his honour to accomplish it. How was he fulfilling his trust? In his despondency, during a moment when alone, he cursed the knave that had wounded him for his clumsiness in not having taken a lower aim when he fired, and thus solved him this ugly riddle of life for all time.
Vainly did he strive to console himself and endeavour to palliate the wrong he had done with the consideration that he was the man Cynthia loved, and not his son; that his son was nothing to her, and that she would never have accompanied him had she dreamt that he wooed her for another.
No. The deed was foul, and rendered fouler still by virtue of those other wrongs in whose extenuation it had been undertaken. For a moment he grew almost a coward. He was on the point of bidding Master Jackson avoid Calais and make some other port along the coast. But in a moment he had scorned the craven argument of flight, and determined that come what might he would face his son, and lay the truth before him, leaving him to judge how strong fate had been. As he lay feverish and fretful in the vessel's cabin, he came well-nigh to hating Kenneth; he remembered him only as a poor, mean creature, now a bigot, now a fop, now a psalm-monger, now a roysterer, but ever a hypocrite, ever a coward, and never such a man as he could have taken pride in presenting as his offspring.They had a fair wind, and towards evening Cynthia, who had been absent from his side a little while, came to tell him that the coast of France grew nigh.
His answer was a sigh, and when she chid him for it, he essayed a smile that was yet more melancholy. For a second he was tempted to confide in her; to tell her of the position in which he found himself and to lighten his load by sharing it with her. But this he dared not do. Cynthia must never know.
The Auberge Du Soleil
In a room of the first floor of the Auberge du Soleil, at Calais, the host inquired of Crispin if he were milord Galliard. At that question Crispin caught his breath in apprehension, and felt himself turn pale. What it portended, he guessed; and it stifled the hope that had been rising in him since his arrival, and because he had not found his son awaiting him either on the jetty or at the inn. He dared ask no questions, fearing that the reply would quench that hope, which rose despite himself, and begotten of a desire of which he was hardly conscious.He sighed before replying, and passing his brown, nervous hand across his brow, he found it moist. "My name, M. l"hote, is Crispin Galliard. What news have you for me?" "A gentleman - a countryman of milord's - has been here these three days awaiting him." For a little while Crispin sat quite still, stripped of his last rag of hope. Then suddenly bracing himself, he sprang up, despite his weakness. "Bring him to me. I will see him at once." "Tout-a-l"heure, monsieur," replied the landlord. "At the moment he is absent. He went out to take the air a couple of hours ago, and is not yet returned." "Heaven send he has walked into the sea!" Crispin broke out passionately. Then as passionately he checked himself. "No, no, my God - not that! I meant not that." "Monsieur will sup?" "At once, and let me have lights." The host withdrew, to return a moment later with a couple of lighted tapers, which he set upon the table. As he was retiring, a heavy step sounded on the stair, accompanied by the clank of a scabbard against the baluster. "Here comes milord's countryman," the landlord announced. And Crispin, looking up in apprehension, saw framed in the doorway the burly form of Harry Hogan.
He sat bolt upright, staring as though he beheld an apparition. With a sad smile, Hogan advanced, and set his hand affectionately upon Galliard's shoulder.
"Welcome to France, Crispin," said he. "If not him whom you looked to find, you have at least a loyal friend to greet you."
"I will relate the story from the very beginning," said he. "Some four hours after your departure from Waltham) my men brought in the malignant we were hunting. I dispatched my sergeant and the troop forthwith to London with the prisoner, keeping just two troopers with me. An hour or so later a coach clattered into the yard, and out of it stepped a short, lean man in black, with a very evil face and a crooked eye, who bawled out that he was Joseph Ashburn of Castle Marleigh, a friend of the Lord General's, and that he must have horses on the instant to proceed upon his journey to London. I was in the yard at the time, and hearing the full announcement I guessed what his business in London was. He entered the inn to refresh himself and I followed him. In the common room the first man his eyes lighted on was your son. He gasped at sight of him, and when he had recovered his breath he let fly as round a volley of blasphemy as ever I heard from the lips of a Puritan. When that was over, "Fool," he yells, "what make you here?" The lad stammered and grew confused. At last - "I was detained here," says he. "Detained!" thunders the other, "and by whom?" "By my father, you murdering villain!" was the hot answer.
"At that Master Ashburn grows very white and very evil-looking. "So," he says, in a playful voice, "you have learnt that, have you? Well, by God! the lesson shall profit neither you nor that rascal your father. But I'll begin with you, you cur." And with that he seizes a jug of ale that stood on the table, and empties it over the boy's face. Soul of my body! The lad showed such spirit then as I had never looked to find in him. "Outside," yells he, tugging at his sword with one hand, and pointing to the door with the other. "Outside, you hound, where I can kill you!" Ashburn laughed and cursed him, and together they flung past me into the yard. The place was empty at the moment, and there, before the clash of their blades had drawn interference, the thing was over - and Ashburn had sent his sword through Jocelyn's heart."Hogan paused, and Crispin sat very still and white, his soul in torment. "And Ashburn?" he asked presently, in a voice that was singularly hoarse and low. "What became of him? Was he not arrested?"
"No," said Hogan grimly, "he was not arrested. He was buried. Before he had wiped his blade I had stepped up to him and accused him of murdering a beardless boy. I remembered the reckoning he owed you, I remembered that he had sought to send you to your death; I saw the boy's body still warm and bleeding upon the ground, and I struck him with my knuckles on the mouth. Like the cowardly ruffian he was, he made a pass at me with his sword before I had got mine out. I avoided it narrowly, and we set to work.
"People rushed in and would have stopped us, but I cursed them so whilst I fenced, swearing to kill any man that came between us, that they held off and waited. I didn't keep them overlong. I was no raw youngster fresh from the hills of Scotland. I put the point of my sword through Joseph Ashburn's throat within a minute of our engaging.
"It was then as I stood in that shambles and looked down upon my handiwork that I recalled in what favour Master Ashburn was held by the Parliament, and I grew sick to think of what the consequences might be. To avoid them I got me there and then to horse, and rode in a straight line for Greenwich, hoping to find the Lady Jane still there. But my messenger had already sent her to Harwich for you. I was well ahead of possible pursuit, and so I pushed on to Dover, and thence I crossed, arriving here three days ago."
Crispin rose and stepped up to Hogan. "The last time you came to me after killing a man, Harry, I was of some service to you. You shall find me no less useful now. You will come to Paris with me?""But the lady?" gasped Hogan, amazed at Crispin's lack of thought for her. "I hear her step upon the stairs. Leave me now, Harry, but as you go, desire the landlord to send for a priest. The lady remains." One look of utter bewilderment did Hogan bestow upon Sir Crispin, and for once his glib, Irish tongue could shape no other words than:
"Soul of my body!" He wrung Crispin's hand, and in a state of ineffable perplexity he hurried from the room to do what was required of him.For a moment Crispin stood by the window, and looking out into the night he thanked God from his heart for his solution of the monstrous riddle that had been set him. Then the rustle of a gown drew his attention, and he swung round to find Cynthia smiling upon him from the threshold. He advanced to meet her, and setting his hands upon her shoulders, he held her at arm's length, looking down into her eyes. "Cynthia, my Cynthia!" he cried. And she, breaking past the barrier of his grasp, nestled up to him with a sigh of sweet and unalloyed content.