have sent whither I am going to-morrow. The affair was like to have cost me my life, but by another of those miracles which have prolonged it, I was sent instead to the galleys on the Mediterranean. It was only wanting that, after all that already I had endured, I should become a galley-slave!
“For twelve long years I toiled at an oar, and waited. If I lived I would return to England; and if I returned, woe unto those that had wrecked my life – my body and my soul. I did live, and I did return. The Civil War had broken out, and I came to throw my sword into the balance on the King’s side: I came, too, to be avenged, but that would wait.
“Meanwhile, the score had grown heavier. I went home to find the castle in usurping hands – in the hands of my enemies. My father was dead; he died a few months after I had gone to France; and those murderers had advanced a claim that through my marriage with their cousin, since dead, and through my own death, there being no next of kin, they were the heirs-at-law. The Parliament allowed their claim, and they were installed. But when I came they were away, following the fortunes of the Parliament that had served them so well. And so I determined to let my vengeance wait until the war were ended and the Parliament destroyed. In a hundred engagements did I distinguish myself by my recklessness even as at other seasons I distinguished myself by my debaucheries.
“Ah, Kenneth, you have been hard upon me for my vices, for my abuses of the cup, and all the rest. But can you be hard upon me still, knowing what I had suffered, and what a weight of misery I bore with me? I, whose life was wrecked beyond salvation; who only lived that I might slit the throats of those that had so irreparably wronged me. Think you still that it was so vicious a thing, so unpardonable an offence to seek the blessed nepenthe of the wine-cup, the heavenly forgetfulness that its abuses brought me? Is it strange that I became known as the wildest tantivy boy that rode with the King? What else had I?”
“In all truth your trials were sore,” said the lad in a voice that contained a note of sympathy. And yet there was a certain restraint that caught the Tavern Knight’s ear. He turned his head and bent his eyes in the lad’s direction, but it was quite dark by now, and he failed to make out his companion’s face.
“My tale is told, Kenneth. The rest you can guess. The King did not prevail and I was forced to fly from England with those others who escaped from the butchers that had made a martyr of Charles. I took service in France under the great Conde, and I saw some mighty battles. At length came the council of Breda and the invitation to Charles the Second to receive the crown of Scotland. I set out again to follow his fortunes as I had followed his father’s, realizing that by so doing I followed my own, and that did he prevail I should have the redress and vengeance so long awaited. To-day has dashed my last hope; to-morrow at this hour it will not signify. And yet much would I give to have my fingers on the throats of those two hounds before the hangman’s close around my own.”
There was a spell of silence as the two men sat, both breathing heavily in the gloom that enveloped them. At length:
“You have heard my story, Kenneth,” said Crispin.
“I have heard, Sir Crispin, and God knows I pity you.”
That was all, and Galliard felt that it was not enough. He had lacerated his soul with those grim memories to earn a yet kinder word. He had looked even to hear the lad suing for pardon for the harsh opinions wherein he had held him. Strange was this yearning of his for the boy’s sympathy. He who for twenty years had gone unloving and unloved, sought now in his extremity affection from a fellow-man.
And so in the gloom he waited for a kinder word that came not; then – so urgent was his need – he set himself to beg it.
“Can you not understand now, Kenneth, how I came to fall so low? Can you not understand this dissoluteness of mine, which led them to dub me the Tavern Knight after the King conferred upon me the honour of knighthood for that stand of mine in Fifeshire? You must understand, Kenneth,” he insisted almost piteously, “and knowing all, you must judge me more mercifully than hitherto.”
“It is not mine to judge, Sir Crispin. I pity you with all my heart,” the lad replied, not ungently.
Still the knight was dissatisfied. “Yours it is to judge as every man may judge his fellowman. You mean it is not yours to sentence. But if yours it were, Kenneth, what then?”
The lad paused a moment ere he answered. His bigoted Presbyterian training was strong within him, and although, as he said, he pitied Galliard, yet to him whose mind was stuffed with life’s precepts, and who knew naught of the trials it brings to some and the temptations to which they were not human did they not succumb – it seemed that vice was not to be excused by misfortune. Out of mercy then he paused, and for a moment he had it even in his mind to cheer his fellow-captive with a lie. Then, remembering that he was to die upon the morrow, and that at such a time it was not well to risk the perdition of his soul by an untruth, however merciful, he answered slowly:
“Were I to judge you, since you ask me, sir, I should be merciful because of your misfortunes. And yet, Sir Crispin, your profligacy and the evil you have wrought in life must weigh heavily against you.” Had this immaculate bigot, this churlish milksop been as candid with himself as he was with Crispin, he must have recognized that it was mainly Crispin’s offences towards himself that his mind now dwelt on in=deeper rancour than became one so well acquainted with the Lord’s Prayer.
“You had not cause enough,” he added impressively, “to defile your soul and risk its eternal damnation because the evil of others had wrecked your life.”
Crispin drew breath with the sharp hiss of one in pain, and for a moment after all was still. Then a bitter laugh broke from him.
“Bravely answered, reverend sir,” he cried with biting scorn. “I marvel only that you left your pulpit to gird on a sword; that you doffed your cassock to don a cuirass. Here is a text for you who deal in texts, my brave Jack Presbyter – “Judge you your neighbour as you would yourself be judged; be merciful as you would hope for mercy.” Chew you the cud of that until the hangman’s coming in the morning. Good night to you.”
And throwing himself back upon the bed, Crispin sought comfort in sleep. His limbs were heavy and his heart was sick.
“You misapprehend me, Sir Crispin,” cried the lad, stung almost to shame by Galliard’s reproach, and also mayhap into some fear that hereafter he should find little mercy for his own lack of it towards a poor fellow-sinner. “I spoke not as I would judge, but as the Church teaches.”
“If the Church teaches no better I rejoice that I was no churchman,” grunted Crispin.
“For myself,” the lad pursued, heeding not the irreverent interruption, “as I have said, I pity you with all my heart. More than that, so deeply do I feel, so great a loathing and indignation has your story sown in my heart, that were our liberty now restored us I would willingly join hands with you in wreaking vengeance on these evildoers.”
Sir Crispin laughed. He judged the tone rather than the words, and it rang hollow.
“Where are your wits, O casuist?” he cried mockingly. “Where are your doctrines? ‘Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord!’ Pah!”
And with that final ejaculation, pregnant with contempt and bitterness, he composed himself to sleep.
He was accursed he told himself. He must die alone, as he had lived.
THE TWISTED BAR
Nature asserted herself, and, despite his condition, Crispin slept. Kenneth sat huddled on his chair, and in awe and amazement he listened to his companion’s regular breathing. He had not Galliard’s nerves nor Galliard’s indifference to death, so that neither could he follow his example, nor yet so much as realize how one should slumber upon the very brink of eternity.
For a moment his wonder stood perilously near to admiration; then his religious training swayed him, and his righteousness almost drew from him a contempt of this man’s apathy. There was much of the Pharisee’s attitude towards the publican in his mood.
Anon that regular breathing grew irritating to him; it drew so marked a contrast ‘twixt Crispin’s frame of mind and his own. Whilst Crispin had related his story, the interest it awakened had served to banish the spectre of fear which the thought of the morrow conjured up. Now that Crispin was silent and asleep, that spectre returned, and the lad grew numb and sick with the horror of his position.
Thought followed thought as he sat huddled there with sunken head and hands clasped tight between his knees, and they were mostly of his dull uneventful days in Scotland, and ever and anon of Cynthia, his beloved. Would she hear of his end? Would she weep for him? – as though it mattered! And every train of thought that he embarked upon brought him to the same issue – to-morrow! Shuddering he would clench his hands still tighter, and the perspiration would stand’ out in beads upon his callow brow.
At length he flung himself upon his knees to address not so much a prayer as a maudlin grievance to his Creator. He felt himself a craven – doubly so by virtue of the peaceful breathing of that sinner he despised – and he told himself that it was not in fear a gentleman should meet his end.
“But I shall be brave to-morrow. I shall be brave,” he muttered, and knew not that it was vanity begat the thought, and vanity that might uphold him on the morrow when there were others by, however broken might be his spirit now.
Meanwhile Crispin slept. When he awakened the light of a lanthorn was on his face, and holding it stood beside him a tall black figure in a cloak and a slouched hat whose broad brim left the features unrevealed.
Still half asleep, and blinking like an owl, he sat up.
“I have always held burnt sack to be well enough, but – “
He stopped short, fully awake at last, and, suddenly remembering his condition and thinking they were come for him, he drew a sharp breath and in a voice as indifferent as he could make it:
“What’s o’clock?” he asked.
“Past midnight, miserable wretch,” was the answer delivered in a deep droning voice. “Hast entered upon thy last day of life – a day whose sun thou’lt never see. But five hours more are left thee.”
“And it is to tell me this that you have awakened me?” demanded Galliard in such a voice that he of the cloak recoiled a step, as if he thought a blow must follow. “Out on you for an unmannerly cur to break upon a gentleman’s repose.”
“I come,” returned the other in his droning voice, “to call upon thee to repent.”
“Plague me not,” answered Crispin, with a yawn. “I would sleep.”
“Soundly enough shalt thou sleep in a few hours’ time. Bethink thee, miserable sinner, of thy soul.”
“Sir,” cried the Tavern Knight, “I am a man of marvellous short endurance. But mark you this your ways to heaven are not my ways. Indeed, if heaven be peopled by such croaking things as you, I shall be thankful to escape it. So go, my friend, ere I become discourteous.”
The minister stood in silence for a moment; then setting his lanthorn upon the table, he raised his hands and eyes towards the low ceiling of the chamber.
“Vouchsafe, O Lord,” he prayed, “to touch yet the callous heart of this obdurate, incorrigible sinner, this wicked, perjured and blasphemous malignant, whose – “
He got no further. Crispin was upon his feet, his harsh countenance thrust into the very face of the minister; his eyes ablaze.
“Out!” he thundered, pointing to the door. “Out! Begone! I would not be guilty at the end of my life of striking a man in petticoats. But go whilst I can bethink me of it! Go – take your prayers to hell.”
The minister fell back before that blaze of passion. For a second he appeared to hesitate, then he turned towards Kenneth, who stood behind in silence. But the lad’s Presbyterian rearing had taught him to hate a sectarian as he would a papist or as he would the devil, and he did no more than echo Galliard’s words – though in a gentler key.
“I pray you go,” he said. “But if you would perform an act of charity, leave your lanthorn. It will be dark enough hereafter.”
The minister looked keenly at the boy, and won over by the humility of his tone, he set the lanthorn on the table. Then moving towards the door, he stopped and addressed himself to Crispin.
“I go since you oppose with violence my ministrations. But I shall pray for you, and I will return anon, when perchance your heart shall be softened by the near imminence of your end.”
“Sir,” quoth Crispin wearily, “you would outtalk a woman.”
“I’ve done, I’ve done,” he cried in trepidation, making shift to depart. On the threshold he paused again. “I leave you the lanthorn,” he said. “May it light you to a godlier frame of mind. I shall return at daybreak.” And with that he went.
Crispin yawned noisily when he was gone, and stretched himself. Then pointing to the pallet:
“Come, lad, ’tis your turn,” said he.
Kenneth shivered. “I could not sleep,” he cried. “I could not.”
“As you will.” And shrugging his shoulders, Crispin sat down on the edge of the bed.
“For cold comforters commend me to these cropeared cuckolds,” he grumbled. “They are all thought for a man’s soul, but for his body they care nothing. Here am I who for the last ten hours have had neither meat nor drink. Not that I mind the meat so much, but, ‘slife, my throat is dry as one of their sermons, and I would cheerfully give four of my five hours of life for a posset of sack. A paltry lot are they, Kenneth, holding that because a man must die at dawn he need not sup to-night. Heigho! Some liar hath said that he who sleeps dines, and if I sleep perchance I shall forget my thirst.”
He stretched himself upon the bed, and presently he slept again.
It was Kenneth who next awakened him. He opened his eyes to find the lad shivering as with an ague. His face was ashen.
“Now, what’s amiss? Oddslife, what ails you?” he cried.
“Is there no way, Sir Crispin? Is there naught you can do?” wailed the youth.
Instantly Galliard sat up.
“Poor lad, does the thought of the rope affright you?”
Kenneth bowed his head in silence.
“Tis a scurvy death, I own. Look you, Kenneth, there is a dagger in my boot. If you would rather have cold steel, ’tis done. It is the last service I may render you, and I’ll be as gentle as a mistress. Just there, over the heart, and you’ll know no more until you are in Paradise.”
Turning down the leather of his right boot, he thrust his hand down the side of his leg. But Kenneth sprang back with a cry.
“No, no,” he cried, covering his face with his hands. “Not that! You don’t understand. It is death itself I would cheat. What odds to exchange one form for another? Is there no way out of this? Is there no way, Sir Crispin?” he demanded with clenched hands.
“The approach of death makes you maudlin, sir,” quoth the other, in whom this pitiful show of fear produced a profound disgust. “Is there no way; say you? There is the window, but ’tis seventy feet above the river; and there is the door, but it is locked, and there is a sentry on the other side.”
“I might have known it. I might have known that you would mock me. What is death to you, to whom life offers nothing? For you the prospect of it has no terrors. But for me – bethink you, sir, I am scarce eighteen years of age,” he added brokenly, “and life was full of promise for me. O God, pity me!”
“True, lad, true,” the knight returned in softened tones. “I had forgotten that death is not to you the blessed release that it is to me. And yet, and yet,” he mused, “do I not die leaving a task unfulfilled – a task of vengeance? And by my soul, I know no greater spur to make a man cling to life. Ah,” he sighed wistfully, “if indeed I could find a way.”
“Think, Sir Crispin, think,” cried the boy feverishly.
“To what purpose? There is the window. But even if the bars were moved, which I see no manner of accomplishing, the drop to the river is seventy feet at least. I measured it with my eyes when first we entered here. We have no rope. Your cloak rent in two and the pieces tied together would scarce yield us ten feet. Would you care to jump the remaining sixty?”
At the very thought of it the lad trembled, noting which Sir Crispin laughed softly.
“There. And yet, boy, it would be taking a risk which if successful would mean life – if otherwise, a speedier end than even the rope will afford you. Oddslife,” he cried, suddenly springing to his feet, and seizing the lanthorn. “Let us look at these bars.”
He stepped across to the window, and held the light so that its rays fell full upon the base of the vertical iron that barred the square.
“It is much worn by rust, Kenneth,” he muttered. “The removal of this single piece of iron,” and he touched the lower arm of the cross, “should afford us passage. Who knows? Hum!”
He walked back to the table and set the lanthorn down. In a tremble, Kenneth watched his every movement, but spoke no word.
“He who throws a main,” said Galliard, “must set a stake upon the board. I set my life – a stake that is already forfeit – and I throw for liberty. If I win, I win all; if I lose, I lose naught. ‘Slife, I have thrown many a main with Fate, but never one wherein the odds were more generous. Come, Kenneth, it is the only way, and we will attempt it if we can but move the bar.”
“You mean to leap?” gasped the lad.
“Into the river. It is the only way.”
“O God, I dare not. It is a fearsome drop.”
“Longer, I confess, than they’ll give you in an hour’s time, if you remain; but it may lead elsewhere.”
The boy’s mouth was parched. His eyes burned in their, sockets, and yet his limbs shook with cold – but not the cold of that September night.
“I’ll try it,” he muttered with a gulp. Then suddenly clutching Galliard’s arm, he pointed to the window.
“What ails you now?” quoth Crispin testily.
“The dawn, Sir Crispin. The dawn.”
Crispin looked, and there, like a gash in the blackness of the heavens, he beheld a streak of grey.
“Quick, Sir Crispin; there is no time to lose. The minister said he would return at daybreak.”
“Let him come,” answered Galliard grimly, as he moved towards the casement.
He gripped the lower bar with his lean, sinewy hands, and setting his knee against the masonry beneath it, he exerted the whole of his huge strength – that awful strength acquired during those years of toil as a galley-slave, which even his debaucheries had not undermined. He felt his sinews straining until it seemed that they must crack; the sweat stood out upon his brow; his breathing grew stertorous.
“It gives,” he panted at last. “It gives.”
He paused in his efforts, and withdrew his hands.
“I must breathe a while. One other effort such as that, and it is done. ‘Fore George,” he laughed, “it is the first time water has stood my friend, for the rains have sadly rusted that iron.”
Without, their sentry was pacing before the door; his steps came nearer, passed, and receded; turned, came nigh again, and again passed on. As once more they grew faint, Crispin seized the bar and renewed his attempt. This time it was easier. Gradually it ceded to the strain Galliard set upon it.
Nearer came the sentry’s footsteps, but they went unheeded by him who toiled, and by him who watched with bated breath and beating heart. He felt it giving – giving – giving. Crack!
With a report that rang through the room like a pistol shot, it broke off in its socket. Both men caught their breath, , and stood for a second crouching, with straining ears. The sentry had stopped at their door.
Galliard was a man of quick action, swift to think, and as swift to execute the thought. To thrust Kenneth into a corner, to extinguish the light, and to fling himself upon the bed was all the work of an instant.
The key grated in the lock, and Crispin answered it with a resounding snore. The door opened, and on the threshold stood the Roundhead trooper, holding aloft a lanthorn whose rays were flashed back by his polished cuirass. He beheld Crispin on the bed with closed eyes and open mouth, and he heard his reassuring and melodious snore. He saw Kenneth seated peacefully upon the floor, with his back against the wall, and for a moment he was puzzled.
“Heard you aught?” he asked.
“Aye,” answered Kenneth, in a strangled voice, “I heard something like a shot out there.”
The gesture with which he accompanied the words was fatal. Instinctively he had jerked his thumb towards the window, thereby drawing the soldier’s eyes in that direction. The fellow’s glance fell upon the twisted bar, and a sharp exclamation of surprise escaped him.
Had he been aught but a fool he must have guessed at once how it came so, and having guessed it, he must have thought twice ere he ventured within reach of a man who could so handle iron. But he was a slow-reasoning clod, and so far, thought had not yet taken the place of surprise. He stepped into, the chamber and across to the window, that he might more closely view that broken bar.
With eyes that were full of terror and despair, Kenneth watched him; their last hope had failed them. Then, as he looked, it seemed to him that in one great leap from his recumbent position on the bed, Crispin had fallen upon the soldier.
The lanthorn was dashed from the fellow’s hand, and rolled to Kenneth’s feet. The fellow had begun’ a cry, which broke off suddenly into a gurgle as Galliard’s fingers closed about his windpipe. He was a big fellow, and in his mad struggles he carried: Crispin hither and thither about the room. Together: they hurtled against the table, which would have: gone crashing over had not Kenneth caught it and drawn it softly to the wall.
Both men were now upon the bed. Crispin had guessed the soldier’s intent to fling himself upon the ground so that the ring of his armour might be heard, and perchance bring others to his aid. To avoid this, Galliard had swung him towards the bed, and hurled him on to it. There he pinned him with his knee, and with his fingers he gripped the Roundhead’s throat, pressing the apple inwards with his thumb.
“The door, Kenneth!” he commanded, in a whisper. “Close the door!”
Vain were the trooper’s struggles to free himself from that. throttling grip. Already his efforts grew his face was purple; his veins stood out in ropes upon his brow till they seemed upon the point of bursting; his eyes protruded like a lobster’s and there was a horrible grin upon his mouth; still his heels beat the bed, and still he struggled. With his fingers he plucked madly at the throttling hands on his neck, and tore at them with his nails until the blood streamed from them. Still Galliard held him firmly, and with a smile – a diabolical smile it seemed to the poor, half-strangled wretch – he gazed upon his choking victim.
“Someone comes!” gasped Kenneth suddenly. “Someone comes, Sir Crispin!” he repeated, shaking his hands in a frenzy.
Galliard listened. Steps were approaching. The soldier heard them also, and renewed his efforts. Then Crispin spoke.
“Why stand you there like a fool?” he growled. “Quench the light – stay, we may want it! Cast your cloak over it! Quick, man, quick!”
The steps came nearer. The lad had obeyed him, and they were in darkness.
“Stand by the door,” whispered Crispin. “Fall upon him as he enters, and see that no cry escapes him. Take him by the throat, and as you love your life, do not let him get away.”
The footsteps halted. Kenneth crawled softly to his post. The soldier’s struggles grew of a sudden still, and Crispin released his throat at last. Then calmly drawing the fellow’s dagger, he felt for the straps of his cuirass, and these he proceeded to cut. As he did so the door was opened.
By the light of the lamp burning in the passage they beheld silhouetted upon the threshold a black figure crowned by a steeple hat. Then the droning voice of the Puritan minister greeted them.
“Your hour is at hand!” he announced.
“Is it time?” asked Galliard from the bed. And as he put the question he softly thrust aside the trooper’s breastplate, and set his hand to the fellow’s heart. It still beat faintly.
“In another hour they will come for you,” answered the minister. And Crispin marvelled anxiously what Kenneth was about. “Repent then, miserable sinners, whilst yet – “
He broke off abruptly, awaking out of his religious zeal to a sense of strangeness at the darkness and the absence of the sentry, which hitherto he had not remarked.
“What hath – ” he began. Then Galliard heard a gasp, followed by the noise of a fall, and two struggling men came rolling across the chamber floor.
“Bravely done, boy!” he cried, almost mirthfully. “Cling to him, Kenneth; cling to him a second yet!”
He leapt from the bed, and guided by the faint light coming through the door, he sprang across the intervening space and softly closed it. Then he groped his way along the wall to the spot where he had seen the lanthorn stand when Kenneth had flung his cloak over it. As he went, the two striving men came up against him.
“Hold fast, lad,” he cried, encouraging Kenneth, “hold him yet a moment, and I will relieve you!”
He reached the lanthorn at last, and pulling aside the cloak, he lifted the light and set it upon the table.
By the lanthorn’s yellow glare Crispin beheld the two men-a mass of writhing bodies and a bunch of waving legs – upon the ground. Kenneth, who was uppermost, clung purposefully to the parson’s throat. The faces of both were alike distorted, but whilst the lad’s breath came in gasping hisses, the other’s came not at all.
Going over to the bed, Crispin drew the unconscious trooper’s tuck-sword. He paused for a moment to bend over the man’s face; his breath came faintly, and Crispin knew that ere many moments were sped he would regain consciousness. He smiled grimly to see how well he had performed his work of suffocation without yet utterly destroying life.
Sword in hand, he returned to Kenneth and the parson. The Puritan’s struggles were already becoming mere spasmodic twitchings; his face was as ghastly as the trooper’s had been a while ago.
“Release him, Kenneth,” said Crispin shortly.
“He struggles still.”
“Release him, I say,” Galliard repeated, and stooping he caught the lad’s wrist and compelled him to abandon his hold.
“He will cry out,” exclaimed Kenneth, in apprehension.
“Not he,” laughed Crispin. “Leastways, not yet awhile. Observe the wretch.”
With mouth wide agape, the minister lay gasping like a fish newly taken from the water. Even now that his throat was free he appeared to struggle for a moment before he could draw breath. Then he took it in panting gulps until it seemed that he must choke in his gluttony of air.
“Fore George,” quoth Crispin, “I was no more than in time. Another second, and we should have had him, too, unconscious. There, he is recovering.”
The blood was receding from the swollen veins of the parson’s head, and his cheeks were paling to their normal hue. Anon they went yet paler than their wont, as Galliard rested the point of his sword against the fellow’s neck.
“Make sound or movement,” said Crispin coldly, “and I’ll pin you to the floor like a beetle. Obey me, and no harm shall come to you.”
“I will obey you,” the fellow answered, in a wheezing whisper. “I swear I will. But of your charity, good sir, I beseech you remove your sword. Your hand might slip, sir,” he whined, a wild terror in his eyes.
Where now was the deep bass of his whilom accents? Where now the grotesque majesty of his bearing, and the impressive gestures that erstwhile had accompanied his words of denunciation?
“Your hand might slip, sir,” he whined again.
“It might – and, by Gad, it shall if I hear more from you. So that you are discreet and obedient, have no fear of my hand.” Then, still keeping his eye upon the fellow: “Kenneth,” he said, “attend to the crop-ear yonder, he will be recovering. Truss him with the bedclothes, and gag him with his scarf. See to it, Kenneth, and do it well, but leave his nostrils free that he may breathe.”
Kenneth carried out Galliard’s orders swiftly and effectively, what time Crispin remained standing over the recumbent minister. At length, when Kenneth announced that it was done, he bade the Puritan rise.
“But have a care,” he added, “or you shall taste the joys of the Paradise you preach of. Come, sir parson; afoot!”
A prey to a fear that compelled unquestioning obedience, the fellow rose with alacrity.
“Stand there, sir. So,” commanded Crispin, his point within an inch of the man’s Geneva bands. “Take your kerchief, Kenneth, and pinion his wrists behind him.”
That done, Crispin bade the lad unbuckle and remove the parson’s belt. Next he ordered that man of texts to be seated upon their only chair, and with that same belt he commanded Kenneth to strap him to it. When at length the Puritan was safely bound, Crispin lowered his rapier, and seated himself upon the table edge beside him.
“Now, sir parson,” quoth he, “let us talk a while. At your first outcry I shall hurry you into that future world whither it is your mission to guide the souls of others. Maybe you’ll find it a better world to preach of than to inhabit, and so, for your own sake, I make no doubt you will obey me. To your honour, to your good sense and a parson’s natural horror of a lie, I look for truth in answer to what questions I may set you. Should I find you deceiving me, sir, I shall see that your falsehood overtakes you.” And eloquently raising his blade, he intimated the exact course he would adopt. “Now, sir, attend to me. How soon are our friends likely to discover this topsy-turvydom?”
“When they come for you,” answered the parson meekly.
“And how soon, O prophet, will they come?”
“In an hour’s time, or thereabout,” replied the Puritan, glancing towards the window as he spoke. Galliard followed his glance, and observed that the light was growing perceptibly stronger.
“Aye,” he commented, “in an hour’s time there should be light enough to hang us by. Is there no chance of anyone coming sooner?”
“None that I can imagine. The only other occupants of the house are a party of half a dozen troopers in the guardroom below.”
“Where is the Lord General?”
“Away – I know not where. But he will be here at sunrise.”
“And the sentry that was at our door – is he not to a changed ‘twixt this and hanging-time?”
“I cannot say for sure, but I think not. The guard was relieved just before I came.”
“And the men in the guardroom – answer me truthfully, O Elijah – what manner of watch are they keeping?”
“Alas, sir, they have drunk enough this night to put a rakehelly Cavalier to shame. I was but exhorting them.”
When Kenneth had removed the Puritan’s girdle, a small Bible – such as men of his calling were wont to carry – had dropped out. This Kenneth had placed upon the table. Galliard now took it up, and, holding it before the Puritan’s eyes, he watched him narrowly the while.
“Will you swear by this book that you have answered nothing but the truth?”
Without a moment’s hesitation the parson pledged his oath, that, to the best of his belief, he had answered accurately.
“That is well, sir. And now, though it grieve me to cause you some slight discomfort, I must ensure your silence, my friend.”
And, placing his sword upon the table, he passed behind the Puritan, and taking the man’s own scarf, he effectively gagged him with it.
“Now, Kenneth,” said he, turning to the lad. Then he stopped abruptly as if smitten by a sudden thought. Presently – “Kenneth,” he continued in a different tone, “a while ago I mind me you said that were your liberty restored you, you would join hands with me in punishing the evildoers who wrecked my life.”
“I did, Sir Crispin.”
For a moment the knight paused. It was a vile thing that he was about to do, he told himself, and as he realized how vile, his impulse was to say no more; to abandon the suddenly formed project and to trust to his own unaided wits and hands. But as again he thought of the vast use this lad would be to him – this lad who was the betrothed of Cynthia Ashburn – he saw that the matter was not one hastily to be judged and dismissed. Carefully he weighed it in the balance of his mind. On the one hand was the knowledge that did they succeed in making good their escape, Kenneth would naturally fly for shelter to his friends the Ashburns – the usurpers of Castle Marleigh. What then more natural than his taking with him the man who had helped him to escape, and who shared his own danger of recapture? And with so plausible a motive for admission to Castle Marleigh, how easy would not his vengeance become? He might at first wean himself into their good graces, and afterwards –
Before his mental eyes there unfolded itself the vista of a great revenge; one that should be worthy of him, and commensurate with the foul deed that called for it.
In the other scale the treacherous flavour of this method weighed heavily. He proposed to bind the lad to a promise, the shape of whose fulfilment he would withhold – a promise the lad would readily give, and yet, one that he must sooner die than enter into, did he but know what manner of fulfilment would be exacted. It amounted to betraying the lad into a betrayal of his friends – the people of his future wife. Whatever the issue for Crispin, ’twas odds Kenneth’s prospect of wedding this Cynthia would be blighted for all time by the action into which Galliard proposed to thrust him all unconscious.
So stood the case in Galliard’s mind, and the scales fell now on one side, now on the other. But against his scruples rose the memory of the treatment which the lad had meted out to him that night; the harshness of the boy’s judgment; the irrevocable contempt wherein he had clearly seen that he was held by this fatuous milksop. All this aroused his rancour now, and steeled his heart against the voice of honour. What was this boy to him, he asked himself, that he should forego for him the accomplishing of his designs? How had this lad earned any consideration from him? What did he owe him? Naught! Still, he would not decide in haste.
It was characteristic of the man whom Kenneth held to be destitute of all honourable principles, to stand thus in the midst of perils, when every second that sped lessened their chances of escape, turning over in his mind calmly and collectedly a point of conduct. It was in his passions only that Crispin was ungovernable, in violence only that he was swift – in all things else was he deliberate.
Of this Kenneth had now a proof that set him quaking with impatient fear. Anxiously, his hands clenched and his face pale, he watched his companion, who stood with brows knit in thought, and his grey eyes staring at the ground. At length he could brook that, to him, incomprehensible and mad delay no longer.
“Sir Crispin,” he whispered, plucking at his sleeve; “Sir Crispin.”
The knight flashed him a glance that was almost of anger. Then the fire died out of his eyes; he sighed and spoke. In that second’s glance he had seen the lad’s face; the fear and impatience written on it had disgusted him, and caused the scales to fall suddenly and definitely against the boy.
“I was thinking how it might be accomplished,” he said.
“There is but one way,” cried the lad.
“On the contrary, there are two, and I wish to choose carefully.”
“If you delay your choice much longer, none will be left you,” cried Kenneth impatiently.
Noting the lad’s growing fears, and resolved now upon his course, Galliard set himself to play upon them until terror should render the boy as wax in his hands.
“There speaks your callow inexperience,” said he, with a pitying smile. “When you shall have lived as long as I have done, and endured as much; when you shall have set your wits to the saving of your life as often as have I – you will have learnt that haste is fatal to all enterprises. Failure means the forfeiture of something; tonight it would mean the forfeiture of our lives, and it were a pity to let such good efforts as these” – and with a wave of the hand he indicated their two captors – “go wasted.”
“Sir,” exclaimed Kenneth, well-nigh beside himself, “if you come not with me, I go alone!”
“Whither?” asked Crispin dryly.
“Out of this.”
Galliard bowed slightly.
“Fare you well, sir. I’ll not detain you. Your way is clear, and it is for you to choose between the door and the window.”
And with that Crispin turned his back upon his companion and crossed to the bed, where the trooper lay glaring in mute anger. He stooped, and unbuckling the soldier’s swordbelt – to which the scabbard was attached – he girt himself with it. Without raising his eyes, and keeping his back to Kenneth, who stood between him and the door, he went next to the table, and, taking up the sword that he had left there, he restored it to the sheath. As the hilt clicked against the mouth of the scabbard:
“Come, Sir Crispin!” cried the lad. “Are you ready?”
Galliard wheeled sharply round.
“How? Not gone yet?” said he sardonically.
“I dare not,” the lad confessed. “I dare not go alone.”
Galliard laughed softly; then suddenly waxed grave.
“Ere we go, Master Kenneth, I would again remind you of your assurance that were we to regain our liberty you would aid me in the task of vengeance that lies before me.”
“Once already have I answered you that it is so.”
“And pray, are you still of the same mind?”
“I am, I am! Anything, Sir Crispin; anything so that you come away!”
“Not so fast, Kenneth. The promise that I shall ask of you is not to be so lightly given. If we escape I may fairly claim to have saved your life, ‘twixt what I have done and what I may yet do. Is it not so?”
“Oh, I acknowledge it!”
“Then, sir, in payment I shall expect your aid hereafter to help me in that which I must accomplish, that which the hope of accomplishing is the only spur to my own escape.”
“You have my promise!” cried the lad.
“Do not give it lightly, Kenneth,” said Crispin gravely. “It may cause you much discomfort, and may be fraught with danger even to your life.”
Galliard bowed his head; then, turning, he took the Bible from the table.
“With your hand upon this book, by your honour, your faith, and your every hope of salvation, swear that if I bear you alive out of this house you will devote yourself to me and to my task of vengeance until it shall be accomplished or until I perish; swear that you will set aside all personal matters and inclinations of your own, to serve me when I shall call upon you. Swear that, and, in return, I will give my life if need be to save yours to-night, in which case you will be released from your oath without more ado.”
The lad paused a moment. Crispin was so impressive, the oath he imposed so solemn, that for an instant the boy hesitated. His cautious, timid nature whispered to him that perchance he should know more of this matter ere he bound himself so irrevocably. But Crispin, noting the hesitation, stifled it by appealing to the lad’s fears.
“Resolve yourself,” he exclaimed abruptly. “It grows light, and the time for haste is come.”
“I swear!” answered Kenneth, overcome by his impatience. “I swear, by my honour, my faith, and my every hope of heaven to lend you my aid, when and how you may demand it, until your task be accomplished.”
Crispin took the Bible from the boy’s hands, and replaced it on the table. His lips were pressed tight, and he avoided the lad’s eyes.
“You shall not find me wanting in my part of the bargain,” he muttered, as he took up the soldier’s cloak and hat. “Come, take that parson’s steeple hat and his cloak, and let us be going.”
He crossed to the door, and opening it he peered down the passage. A moment he stood listening. All was still. Then he turned again. In the chamber the steely light of the breaking day was rendering more yellow still the lanthorn’s yellow flame.
“Fare you well, sir parson,” he said. “Forgive me the discomfort I have been forced to put upon you, and pray for the success of our escape. Commend me to Oliver of the ruby nose. Fare you well, sir. Come, Kenneth.”
He held the door for the lad to pass out. As they stood in the dimly lighted passage he closed it softly after them, and turned the key in the lock.
“Come,” he said again, and led the way to the stairs, Kenneth tiptoeing after him with wildly beating heart.
Treading softly, and with ears straining for the slightest sound, the two men descended to the first floor of the house. They heard nothing to alarm them as they crept down, and not until they paused on the first landing to reconnoitre did they even catch the murmur of voices issuing from the guardroom below. So muffled was the sound that Crispin guessed how matters stood even before he had looked over the balusters into the hall beneath. The faint grey of the dawn was the only light that penetrated the gloom of that pit.
“The Fates are kind, Kenneth,” he whispered. “Those fools sit with closed doors. Come.”
But Kenneth laid his hand upon Galliard’s sleeve. “What if the door should open as we pass?”
“Someone will die,” muttered Crispin back. “But pray God that it may not. We must run the risk.”
“Is there no other way?”
“Why, yes,” returned Galliard sardonically, “we can linger here until we are taken. But, oddslife, I’m not so minded. Come.”
And as he spoke he drew the lad along.
His foot was upon the topmost stair of the flight, when of a sudden the stillness of the house was broken by a loud knock upon the street door. Instantly – as though they had been awaiting it there was a stir of feet below and the bang of an overturned chair; then a shaft of yellow light fell athwart the darkness of the hall as the guardroom door was opened.
“Back!” growled Galliard. “Back, man!”
They were but in time. Peering over the balusters they saw two troopers pass out of the guardroom, and cross the hall to the door. A bolt was drawn and a chain rattled, then followed the creak of hinges, and on the stone flags rang the footsteps and the jingling of spurs of those that entered.
“Is all well?” came a voice, which Crispin recognized as Colonel Pride’s, followed by an affirmative reply from one of the soldiers.
“Hath a minister visited the malignants?”
“Master Toneleigh is with them even now.”
In the hall Crispin could now make out the figures of Colonel Pride and of three men who came with him. But he had scant leisure to survey them, for the colonel was in haste.
“Come, sirs,” he heard him say, “light me to their garret. I would see them – leastways, one of them, before he dies. They are to hang where the Moabites hanged Gives yesterday. Had I my way … But, there lead on, fellow.”
“Oh, God!” gasped Kenneth, as the soldier set foot upon the stairs. Under his breath Crispin swore a terrific oath. For an instant it seemed to him there was naught left but to stand there and await recapture. Through his mind it flashed that they were five, and he but one; for his companion was unarmed.
With that swiftness which thought alone can compass did he weigh the odds, and judge his chances. He realized how desperate they were did he remain, and even as he thought he glanced sharply round.
Dim indeed was the light, but his sight was keen, and quickened by the imminence of danger. Partly his eyes and partly his instinct told him that not six paces behind him there must be a door, and if Heaven pleased it should be unlocked, behind it they must look for shelter. It even crossed his mind in that second of crowding, galloping thought, that perchance the room might be occupied. That was a risk he must take – the lesser risk of the two, the choice of one of which was forced upon him. He had determined all this ere the soldier’s foot was upon the third step of the staircase, and before the colonel had commenced the ascent. Kenneth stood palsied with fear, gazing like one fascinated at the approaching peril.
Then upon his ear fell the fierce whisper: “Come with me, and tread lightly as you love your life.”
In three long strides, and by steps that were softer than a cat’s, Crispin crossed to the door which he had rather guessed than seen. He ran his hand along until he caught the latch. Softly he tried it; it gave, and the door opened. Kenneth was by then beside him. He paused to look back.
On the opposite wall the light of the trooper’s lanthorn fell brightly. Another moment and the fellow would have reached and turned the corner of the stairs, and his light must reveal them to him. But ere that instant was passed Crispin had drawn his companion through, and closed the door as softly as he had opened it. The chamber was untenanted and almost bare of furniture, at which discovery Crispin breathed more freely.
They stood there, and heard the ascending footsteps, and the clank-clank of a sword against the stair-rail. A bar of yellow light came under the door that sheltered them. Stronger it grew and farther it crept along the floor; then stopped and receded again, as he who bore the lanthorn turned and began to climb to the second floor. An instant later and the light had vanished, eclipsed by those who followed in the fellow’s wake.
“The window, Sir Crispin,” cried Kenneth, in an excited whisper – “the window!”
“No,” answered Crispin calmly. “The drop is a long one, and we should but light in the streets, and be little better than we are here. Wait.”
He listened. The footsteps had turned the corner leading to the floor above. He opened the door, partly at first, then wide. For an instant he stood listening again. The steps were well overhead by now; soon they would mount the last flight, and then discovery must be swift to follow.
“Now,” was all Crispin said, and, drawing his sword he led the way swiftly, yet cautiously, to the stairs once more. In passing he glanced over the rails. The guardroom door stood ajar, and he caught the murmurs of subdued conversation. But he did not pause. Had the door stood wide he would not have paused then. There was not a second to be lost; to wait was to increase the already overwhelming danger. Cautiously, and leaning well upon the stout baluster, he began the descent. Kenneth followed him mechanically, with white face and a feeling of suffocation in his throat.
They gained the corner, and turning, they began what was truly the perilous part of their journey. Not more than a dozen steps were there; but at the bottom stood the guardroom door, and through the chink of its opening a shaft of light fell upon the nethermost step. Once a stair creaked, and to their quickened senses it sounded like a pistol-shot. As loud to Crispin sounded the indrawn breath of apprehension from Kenneth that followed it. He had almost paused to curse the lad when, thinking him of how time pressed, he went on.
Within three steps of the bottom were they, and they could almost distinguish what was being said in the room, when Crispin stopped, and turning his head to attract Kenneth’s attention, he pointed straight across the hall to a dimly visible door. It was that of the chamber wherein he had been brought before Cromwell. Its position had occurred to him some moments before, and he had determined then upon going that way.
The lad followed the indication of his finger, and signified by a nod that he understood. Another step Galliard descended; then from the guardroom came a loud yawn, to send the boy cowering against the wall. It was followed by the sound of someone rising; a chair grated upon the floor, and there was a movement of feet within the chamber. Had Kenneth been alone, of a certainty terror would have frozen him to the wall.
But the calm, unmovable Crispin proceeded as if naught had chanced; he argued that even if he who had risen were coming towards the door, there was nothing to be gained by standing still. Their only chance lay now in passing before it might be opened.
They that walk through perils in a brave man’s company cannot but gain confidence from the calm of his demeanour. So was it now with Kenneth. The steady onward march of that tall, lank figure before him drew him irresistibly after it despite his tremors. And well it was for him that this was so. They gained the bottom of the staircase at length; they stood beside the door of the guardroom, they passed it in safety. Then slowly – painfully slowly – to avoid their steps from ringing upon the stone floor, they crept across towards the door that meant safety to Sir Crispin. Slowly, step by step, they moved, and with every stride Crispin looked behind him, prepared to rush the moment he had sign they were discovered. But it was not needed. In silence and in safety they were permitted to reach the door. To Crispin’s joy it was unfastened. Quietly he opened it, then with calm gallantry he motioned to his companion to go first, holding it for him as he passed in, and keeping watch with eye and ear the while.
Scarce had Kenneth entered the chamber when from above came the sound of loud and excited voices, announcing to them that their flight was at last discovered. It was responded to by a rush of feet in the guardroom, and Crispin had but time to dart in after his companion and close the door ere the troopers poured out into the hall and up the stairs, with confused shouts that something must be amiss.
Within the room that sheltered him Crispin chuckled, as he ran his hand along the edge of the door until he found the bolt, and softly shot it home.
“‘Slife,” he muttered, “’twas a close thing! Aye, shout, you cuckolds,” he went on. “Yell yourselves hoarse as the crows you are! You’ll hang us where Gives are hanged, will you?”
Kenneth tugged at the skirts of his doublet. “What now?” he inquired.
“Now,” said Crispin, “we’ll leave by the window, if it please you.”
They crossed the room, and a moment or two later they had dropped on to the narrow railed pathway overlooking the river, which Crispin had observed from their prison window the evening before. He had observed, too, that a small boat was moored at some steps about a hundred yards farther down the stream, and towards that spot he now sped along the footpath, followed closely by Kenneth. The path sloped in that direction, so that by the time the spot was reached the water flowed not more than six feet or so beneath them. Half a dozen steps took them down this to the moorings of that boat, which fortunately had not been removed.
“Get in, Kenneth,” Crispin commanded. “There, I’ll take the oars, and I’ll keep under shelter of the bank lest those blunderers should bethink them of looking out of our prison window. Oddswounds, Kenneth, I am hungry as a wolf, and as dry – ough, as dry as Dives when he begged for a sup of water. Heaven send we come upon some good malignant homestead ere we go far, where a Christian may find a meal and a stoup of ale. ‘Tis a miracle I had strength enough to crawl downstairs. Swounds, but an empty stomach is a craven comrade in a desperate enterprise. Hey! Have a care, boy. Now, sink me if this milksop hasn’t fainted!”
Gregory Ashburn pushed back his chair and made shift to rise from the table at which he and his brother had but dined.
He was a tall, heavily built man, with a coarse, florid countenance set in a frame of reddish hair that hung straight and limp. In the colour of their hair lay the only point of resemblance between the brothers. For the rest Joseph was spare and of middle weight, pale of face, thin-lipped, and owning a cunning expression that was rendered very evil by virtue of the slight cast in his colourless eyes.
In earlier life Gregory had not been unhandsome; debauchery and sloth had puffed and coarsened him. Joseph, on the other hand, had never been aught but ill-favoured.
“Tis a week since Worcester field was fought,” grumbled Gregory, looking lazily sideways at the mullioned windows as he spoke, “and never a word from the lad.”
Joseph shrugged his narrow shoulders and sneered. It was Joseph’s habit to sneer when he spoke, and his words were wont to fit the sneer.
“Doth the lack of news trouble you?” he asked, glancing across the table at his brother.
Gregory rose without meeting that glance.
“Truth to tell it does trouble me,” he muttered.
“And yet,” quoth Joseph, “tis a natural thing enough. When battles are fought it is not uncommon for men to die.”
Gregory crossed slowly to the window, and stared out at the trees of the park which autumn was fast stripping.
“If he were among the fallen – if he were dead then indeed the matter would be at an end.”
“Aye, and well ended.”
“You forget Cynthia,” Gregory reproved him.
“Forget her? Not I, man. Listen.” And he jerked his thumb in the direction of the wainscot.
To the two men in that rich chamber of Castle Marleigh was borne the sound – softened by distance of a girlish voice merrily singing.
Joseph laughed a cackle of contempt.
“Is that the song of a maid whose lover comes not back from the wars?” he asked.
“But bethink you, Joseph, the child suspects not the possibility of his having fallen.”
“Gadswounds, sir, did your daughter give the fellow a thought she must be anxious. A week yesterday since the battle, and no word from him. I dare swear, Gregory, there’s little in that to warrant his mistress singing.”
“Cynthia is young – a child. She reasons not as you and I, nor seeks to account for his absence.”
“Troubles not to account for it,” Joseph amended.
“Be that as it may,” returned Gregory irritably, “I would I knew.”
“That which we do not know we may sometimes infer. I infer him to be dead, and there’s the end of it.”
“What if he should not be?”
“Then, my good fool, he would be here.”
“It is unlike you, Joseph, to argue so loosely. What if he should be a prisoner?”
“Why, then, the plantations will do that which the battle hath left undone. So that, dead or captive, you see it is all one.”
And, lifting his glass to the light, he closed one eye, the better to survey with the other the rich colour of the wine. Not that Joseph was curious touching that colour, but he was a juggler in gestures, and at that moment he could think of no other whereby he might so naturally convey the utter indifference of his feelings in the matter.
“Joseph, you are wrong,” said Gregory, turning his back upon the window and facing his brother. “It is not all one. What if he return some day?”
“Oh, what if – what if – what if!” cried Joseph testily. “Gregory, what a casuist you might have been had not nature made you a villain! You are as full of “what if s” as an egg of meat. Well what if some day he should return? I fling your question back – what if?”
“God only knows.”
“Then leave it to Him,” was the flippant answer; and Joseph drained his glass.
“Nay, brother, ’twere too great a risk. I must and I will know whether Kenneth were slain or not. If he is a prisoner, then we must exert ourselves to win his freedom.”
“Plague take it,” Joseph burst out. “Why all this ado? Why did you ever loose that graceless whelp from his Scottish moor?”
Gregory sighed with an air of resigned patience.
“I have more reasons than one,” he answered slowly. “If you need that I recite them to you, I pity your wits. Look you, Joseph, you have more influence with Cromwell; more – far more – than have I, and if you are minded to do so, you can serve me in this.”
“I wait but to learn how.”
“Then go to Cromwell, at Windsor or wherever he may be, and seek to learn from him if Kenneth is a prisoner. If he is not, then clearly he is dead.”
Joseph made a gesture of impatience.
“Can you not leave Fate alone?”
“Think you I have no conscience, Joseph?” cried the other with sudden vigour.
“Pish! you are womanish.”
“Nay, Joseph, I am old. I am in the autumn of my days, and I would see these two wed before I die.”
“And are damned for a croaking, maudlin’ craven,” added Joseph. “Pah! You make me sick.”
There was a moment’s silence, during which the brothers eyed each other, Gregory with a sternness before which Joseph’s mocking eye was forced at length to fall.
“Joseph, you shall go to the Lord General.”
“Well,” said Joseph weakly, “we will say that I go. But if Kenneth be a prisoner, what then?”
“You must beg his liberty from Cromwell. He will not refuse you.”
“Will he not? I am none so confident.”
“But you can make the attempt, and leastways we shall have some definite knowledge of what has befallen the boy.”
“The which definite knowledge seems to me none so necessary. Moreover, Gregory, bethink you; there has been a change, and the wind carries an edge that will arouse every devil of rheumatism in my bones. I am not a lad, Gregory, and travelling at this season is no small matter for a man of fifty.”
Gregory approached the table, and leaning his hand upon it:
“Will you go?” he asked, squarely eyeing his brother.
Joseph fell a-pondering. He knew Gregory to be a man of fixed ideas, and he bethought him that were he now to refuse he would be hourly plagued by Gregory’s speculations touching the boy’s fate and recriminations touching his own selfishness. On the other hand, however, the journey daunted him. He was not a man to sacrifice his creature comforts, and to be asked to sacrifice them to a mere whim, a shadow, added weight to his inclination to refuse the undertaking.
“Since you have the matter so much at heart,” said he at length, “does it not occur to you that you could plead with greater fervour, and be the likelier to succeed?”
“You know that Cromwell will lend a more willing ear to you than to me – perchance because you know so well upon occasion how to weave your stock of texts into your discourse,” he added with a sneer. “Will you go, Joseph?”
“Bethink you that we know not where he is. I may have to wander for weeks o’er the face of England.”
“Will you go?” Gregory repeated.
“Oh, a pox on it,” broke out Joseph, rising suddenly. “I’ll go since naught else will quiet you. I’ll start to-morrow.”
“Joseph, I am grateful. I shall be more grateful yet if you will start to-day.”
“No, sink me, no.”
“Yes, sink me, yes,” returned Gregory. “You must, Joseph.”
Joseph spoke of the wind again; the sky, he urged, was heavy with rain. “What signifies a day?” he whined.
But Gregory stood his ground until almost out of self-protection the other consented to do his bidding and set out as soon as he could make ready.
This being determined, Joseph left his brother, and cursing Master Stewart for the amount of discomfort which he was about to endure on his behoof, he went to prepare for the journey.
Gregory lingered still in the chamber where they had dined, and sat staring moodily before him at the table-linen. Anon, with a half-laugh of contempt, he filled a glass of muscadine, and drained it. As he set down the glass the door opened, and on the threshold stood a very dainty girl, whose age could not be more than twenty. Gregory looked on the fresh, oval face, with its wealth of brown hair crowning the low, broad forehead, and told himself that in his daughter he had just cause for pride. He looked again, and told himself that his brother was right; she had not the air of a maid whose lover returns not from the wars. Her lips were smiling, and the eyes – low-lidded and blue as the heavens – were bright with mirth.
“Why sit you there so glum, she cried, “whilst my uncle, they tell me, is going on a journey?”
Gregory was minded to put her feelings to the test.
“Kenneth,” he replied with significant emphasis, watching her closely.
The mirth faded from her eyes, and they took on a grave expression that added to their charm. But Gregory had looked for fear, leastways deep concern, and in this he was disappointed.
“What of him, father?” she asked, approaching.
“Naught, and that’s the rub. It is time we had news, and as none comes, your uncle goes to seek it.”
“Think you that ill can have befallen him?”
Gregory was silent a moment, weighing his answer. Then
“We hope not, sweetheart,” said he. “He may be a prisoner. We last had news of him from Worcester, and ’tis a week and more since the battle was fought there. Should he be a captive, your uncle has sufficient influence to obtain his enlargement.”
Cynthia sighed, and moved towards the window.
“Poor Kenneth,” she murmured gently. “He may be wounded.”
“We shall soon learn,” he answered. His disappointment grew keener; where he had looked for grief he found no more than an expression of pitying concern. Nor was his disappointment lessened when, after a spell of thoughtful silence, she began to comment upon the condition of the trees in the park below. Gregory had it in his mind to chide her for this lack of interest in the fate of her intended husband, but he let the impulse pass unheeded. After all, if Kenneth lived she should marry him. Hitherto she had been docile and willing enough to be guided by him; she had even displayed a kindness for Kenneth; no doubt she would do so again when Joseph returned with him – unless he were among the Worcester slain, in which case, perhaps, it would prove best that his fate was not to cause her any prostration of grief.
“The sky is heavy, father,” said Cynthia from the window. “Poor uncle! He will have rough weather for his journey.”
“I rejoice that someone wastes pity on poor uncle,” growled Joseph, who re-entered, “this uncle whom your father drives out of doors in all weathers to look for his daughter’s truant lover.”
Cynthia smiled upon him.
“It is heroic of you, uncle.”
“There, there,” he grumbled, “I shall do my best to find the laggard, lest those pretty eyes should weep away their beauty.”
Gregory’s glance reproved this sneer of Joseph’s, whereupon Joseph drew close to him:
“Broken-hearted, is she not?” he muttered, to which Gregory returned no answer.
An hour later, as Joseph climbed into his saddle, he turned to his brother again, and directing his eyes upon the girl, who stood patting the glossy neck of his nag:
“Come, now,” said he, “you see that matters are as I said.”
“And yet,” replied Gregory sternly, “I hope to see you return with the boy. It will be better so.”
Joseph shrugged his shoulders contemptuously. Then, taking leave of his brother and his niece, he rode out with two grooms at his heels, and took the road South.
THE HOUSE THAT WAS ROLAND MARLEIGH’S
It was high noon next day, and Gregory Ashburn was taking the air upon the noble terrace of Castle Marleigh, when the beat of hoofs, rapidly approaching up the avenue, arrested his attention. He stopped in his walk, and, turning, sought to discover who came. His first thought was of his brother; his second, of Kenneth. Through the half-denuded trees he made out two mounted figures, riding side by side; and from the fact of there being two, he adduced that this could not be Joseph returning.
Even as he waited he was joined by Cynthia, who took her stand beside him, and voiced the inquiry that was in his mind. But her father could no more than answer that he hoped it might be Kenneth.
Then the horsemen passed from behind the screen of trees and came into the clearing before the terrace, and unto the waiting glances of Ashburn and his daughter was revealed a curiously bedraggled and ill-assorted pair. The one riding slightly in advance looked like a Puritan of the meaner sort, in his battered steeple-hat and cloak of rusty black. The other was closely wrapped in a red mantle, uptilted behind by a sword of prodigious length, and for all that his broad, grey hat was unadorned by any feather, it was set at a rakish, ruffling, damn-me angle that pronounced him no likely comrade for the piously clad youth beside him.
But beneath that brave red cloak – alack! – as was presently seen when they dismounted, that gentleman was in a sorry plight. He wore a leather jerkin, so cut and soiled that any groom might have disdained it; a pair of green breeches, frayed to their utmost; and coarse boots of untanned leather, adorned by rusty spurs.
On the terrace Gregory paused a moment to call his groom to attend the new-comers, then he passed down the steps to greet Kenneth with boisterous effusion. Behind him, slow and stately as a woman of twice her years, came Cynthia. Calm was her greeting of her lover, contained in courteous expressions of pleasure at beholding him safe, and suffering him to kiss her hand.
In the background, his sable locks uncovered out of deference to the lady, stood Sir Crispin, his face pale and haggard, his lips parted, and his grey eyes burning as they fell again, after the lapse of years, upon the stones of this his home – the castle to which he was now come, hat in hand, to beg for shelter.
Gregory was speaking, his hands resting upon Kenneth’s shoulder.
“We have been much exercised concerning you, lad,” he was saying. “We almost feared the worst, and yesterday Joseph left us to seek news of you at Cromwell’s hands. Where have you tarried?”
“Anon, sir; you shall learn anon. The story is a long one.”
“True; you will be tired, and perchance you would first rest a while. Cynthia will see to it. But what scarecrow have you there? What tatterdemalion is this?” he cried, pointing to Galliard. He had imagined him a servant, but the dull flush that overspread Sir Crispin’s face told him of his error.
“I would have you know, sir,” Crispin began, with some heat, when Kenneth interrupted him.
“Tis to this gentleman, sir, that I owe my presence here. He was my fellow-prisoner, and but for his quick wit and stout arm I should be stiff by now. Anon, sir, you shall hear the story of it, and I dare swear it will divert you. This gentleman is Sir Crispin Galliard, lately a captain of horse with whom I served in Middleton’s Brigade.”
Crispin bowed low, conscious of the keen scrutiny in which Gregory’s eyes were bent upon him. In his heart there arose a fear that, haply after all, the years that were sped had not wrought sufficient change in him.
“Sir Crispin Galliard,” Ashburn was saying, after the manner of one who is searching his memory. “Galliard, Galliard – not he whom they called “Rakehelly Galliard,” and who gave us such trouble in the late King’s time?”
Crispin breathed once more. Ashburn’s scrutiny was explained.
“The same, sir,” he answered, with a smile and a fresh bow. “Your servant, sir; and yours, madam.”
Cynthia looked with interest at the lank, soldierly figure. She, too, had heard – as who had not? – wild stories of this man’s achievements. But of no feat of his had she been told that could rival that of his escape from Worcester; and when, that same evening, Kenneth related it, as they supped, her low-lidded eyes grew very wide, and as they fell on Crispin, admiration had taken now the place of interest.
Romance swayed as great a portion of her heart as it does of most women’s. She loved the poets and their songs of great deeds; and here was one who, in the light of that which they related of him, was like an incarnation of some hero out of a romancer’s ballad.
Kenneth she never yet had held in over high esteem; but of a sudden, in the presence of this harsh-featured dog of war, this grim, fierce-eyed ruffler, he seemed to fade, despite his comeliness of face and form, into a poor and puny insignificance. And when, presently, he unwisely related how, when in the boat he had fainted, the maiden laughed outright for very scorn.
At this plain expression of contempt, her father shot her a quick, uneasy glance. Kenneth stopped short, bringing his narrative abruptly to a close. Reproachfully he looked at her, turning first red, then white, as anger chased annoyance through his soul. Galliard looked on with quiet relish; her laugh had contained that which for days he had carried in his heart. He drained his bumper slowly, and made no attempt to relieve the awkward silence that sat upon the company.
Truth to tell, there was emotion enough in the soul of him who was wont to be the life of every board he sat at to hold him silent and even moody.
Here, after eighteen years, was he again in his ancestral home of Marleigh. But how was he returned? As one who came under a feigned name, to seek from usurping hands a shelter ‘neath his own roof; a beggar of that from others which it should have been his to grant or to deny those others. As an avenger he came. For justice he came, and armed with retribution; the flame of a hate unspeakable burning in his heart, and demanding the lives – no less – of those that had destroyed him and his. Yet was he forced to sit a mendicant almost at that board whose head was his by every right; forced to sit and curb his mood, giving no outward sign of the volcano that boiled and raged within his soul as his eye fell upon the florid, smiling face and portly, well-fed frame of Gregory Ashburn. For the time was not yet. He must wait; wait until Joseph’s return, so that he might spend his vengeance upon both together.
Patient had he been for eighteen years, confident that ere he died, a just and merciful God would give him this for which he lived and waited. Yet now that the season was at hand; now upon the very eve of that for which he had so long been patient, a frenzy of impatience fretted him.
He drank deep that night, and through deep drinking his manner thawed – for in his cups it was not his to be churlish to friend or foe. Anon Cynthia withdrew; next Kenneth, who went in quest of her. Still Crispin sat on, and drank his host’s health above his breath, and his perdition under it, till in the end Gregory, who never yet had found his master at the bottle, grew numb and drowsy, and sat blinking at the tapers.
Until midnight they remained at table, talking of this and that, and each understanding little of what the other said. As the last hour of night boomed out through the great hall, Gregory spoke of bed.
“Where do I lie to-night?” asked Crispin.
“In the northern wing,” answered Gregory with a hiccough.
“Nay, sir, I protest,” cried Galliard, struggling to his feet, and swaying somewhat as he stood. “I’ll sleep in the King’s chamber, none other.”
“The King’s chamber?” echoed Gregory, and his face showed the confused struggles of his brain. “What know you of the King’s chamber?”
“That it faces the east and the sea, and that it is the chamber I love best.”
“What can you know of it since, I take it, you have never seen it!”
“Have I not?” he began, in a voice that was awful in its threatening calm. Then, recollecting himself, and shaking some of the drunkenness from him: “In the old days, when the Marleighs were masters here,” he mumbled, “I was often within these walls. Roland Marleigh was my friend. The King’s chamber was ever accorded me, and there, for old time’s sake, I’ll lay these old bones of mine to-night.”
“You were Roland Marleigh’s friend?” gasped Gregory. He was very white now, and there was a sheen of moisture on his face. The sound of that name had well-nigh sobered him. It was almost as if the ghost of Roland Marleigh stood before him. His knees were loosened, and he sank back into the chair from which he had but risen.
“Aye, I was his friend!” assented Crispin. “Poor Roland! He married your sister, did he not, and it was thus that, having no issue and the family being extinct, Castle Marleigh passed to you?”
“He married our cousin,” Gregory amended. “They were an ill-fated family.”
“Ill-fated, indeed, an all accounts be true,” returned Crispin in a maudlin voice. “Poor Roland! Well, for old time’s sake, I’ll sleep in the King’s chamber, Master Ashburn.”
“You shall sleep where you list, sir,” answered Gregory, and they rose.
“Do you look to honour us long at Castle Marleigh, Sir Crispin?” was Gregory’s last question before separating from his guest.
“Nay, sir, ’tis likely I shall go hence to-morrow,” answered Crispin, unmindful of what he said.
“I trust not,” said Gregory, in accents of relief that belied him. “A friend of Roland Marleigh’s must ever be welcome in the house that was Roland Marleigh’s.”
“The house that was Roland Marleigh’s,” Crispin muttered. “Heigho! Life is precarious as the fall of a die at best an ephemeral business. To-night you say the house that was Roland Marleigh’s; presently men will be saying the house that the Ashburns lived – aye, and died – in. Give you good night, Master Ashburn.”
He staggered off, and stumbled up the broad staircase at the head of which a servant now awaited, taper in hand, to conduct him to the chamber he demanded.
Gregory followed him with a dull, frightened eye. Galliard’s halting, thickly uttered words had sounded like a prophecy in his ears.
THE METAMORPHOSIS OF KENNETH
When the morrow came, however, Sir Crispin showed no signs of carrying out his proposal of the night before, and departing from Castle Marleigh. Nor, indeed, did he so much as touch upon the subject, bearing himself rather as one whose sojourn there was to be indefinite.
Gregory offered no comment upon this; through what he had done for Kenneth they were under a debt to Galliard, and whilst he was a fugitive from the Parliament’s justice it would ill become Gregory to hasten his departure. Moreover, Gregory recalled little or nothing of the words that had passed between them in their cups, save a vague memory that Crispin had said that he had once known Roland Marleigh.
Kenneth was content that Galliard should lie idle, and not call upon him to go forth again to lend him the aid he had pledged himself to render when Crispin should demand it. He marvelled, as the days wore on, that Galliard should appear to have forgotten that task of his, and that he should make no shift to set about it. For the rest, however, it troubled him but little; enough preoccupation did he find in Cynthia’s daily increasing coldness. Upon all the fine speeches that he made her she turned an idle ear, or if she replied at all it was but petulantly to interrupt them, to call him a man of great words and small deeds. All that he did she found ill done, and told him of it. His sober, godly garments of sombre hue afforded her the first weapon of scorn wherewith to wound him. A crow, she dubbed him; a canting, psalm-chanting hypocrite; a Scripture-monger, and every other contumelious epithet of like import that she should call to mind. He heard her in amazement.
“Is it for you, Cynthia,” he cried out in his surprise, “the child of a God-fearing house, to mock the outward symbols of my faith?”
“A faith,” she laughed, “that is all outward symbols and naught besides; all texts and mournings and nose-twangings.”
“Cynthia!” he exclaimed, in horror.
“Go your ways, sir,” she answered, half in jest, half in earnest. “What need hath a true faith of outward symbols? It is a matter that lies between your God and yourself, and it is your heart He will look at, not your coat. Why, then, without becoming more acceptable in His eyes, shall you but render yourself unsightly in the eyes of man?”
Kenneth’s cheeks were flushed with anger. From the terrace where they walked he let his glance roam towards the avenue that split the park in twain. Up this at that moment, with the least suspicion of a swagger in his gait, Sir Crispin Galliard was approaching leisurely; he wore a claret-coloured doublet edged with silver lace, and a grey hat decked with a drooping red feather – which garments, together with the rest of his apparel, he had drawn from the wardrobe of Gregory Ashburn. His advent afforded Kenneth the retort he needed. Pointing him out to Cynthia:
“Would you rather,” he cried hotly, “have me such a man as that?”
“And, pray, why not?” she taunted him. “Leastways, you would then be a man.”
“If, madam, a debauchee, a drunkard, a profligate, a brawler be your conception of a man, I would in faith you did not account me one.”
“And what, sir, would you sooner elect to be accounted?”
“A gentleman, madam,” he answered pompously.
“I think,” said she quietly, “that you are in as little danger of becoming the one as the other. A gentleman does not slander a man behind his back, particularly when he owes that man his life. Kenneth, I am ashamed of you.”
“I do not slander,” he insisted hotly. “You yourself know of the drunken excess wherewith three nights ago he celebrated his coming to Castle Marleigh. Nor do I forget what I owe him, and payment is to be made in a manner you little know of. If I said of him what I did, it was but in answer to your taunts. Think you I could endure comparison with such a man as that? Know you what name the Royalists give him? They call him the Tavern Knight.”
She looked him over with an eye of quiet scorn.
“And how, sir, do they call you? The pulpit knight? Or is it the knight of the white feather? Mr. Stewart, you weary me. I would have a man who with a man’s failings hath also a man’s redeeming virtues of honesty, chivalry, and courage, and a record of brave deeds, rather than one who has nothing of the man save the coat – that outward symbol you lay such store by.”
His handsome, weak face was red with fury.
“Since that is so, madam,” he choked, “I leave you to your swaggering, ruffling Cavalier.”
And, without so much as a bow, he swung round on his heel and left her. It was her turn to grow angry now, and well it was for him that he had not tarried. She dwelt with scorn upon his parting taunt, bethinking herself that in truth she had exaggerated her opinions of Galliard’s merits. Her feelings towards that ungodly gentleman were rather of pity than aught else. A brave, ready-witted man she knew him for, as much from the story of his escape from Worcester as for the air that clung to him despite his swagger, and she deplored that one possessing these ennobling virtues should have fallen notwithstanding upon such evil ways as those which Crispin trod. Some day, perchance, when she should come to be better acquainted with him, she would seek to induce him to mend his course.
Such root did this thought take in her mind that soon thereafter – and without having waited for that riper acquaintance which at first she had held necessary – she sought to lead their talk into the channels of this delicate subject. But he as sedulously confined it to trivial matter whenever she approached him in this mood, fencing himself about with a wall of cold reserve that was not lightly to be overthrown. In this his conscience was at work. Cynthia was the flaw in the satisfaction he might have drawn from the contemplation of the vengeance he was there to wreak. He beheld her so pure, so sweet and fresh, that he marvelled how she came to be the daughter of Gregory Ashburn. His heart smote him at the thought of how she – the innocent – must suffer with the guilty, and at the contemplation of the sorrow which he must visit upon her. Out of this sprang a constraint when in her company, for other than stiff and formal he dared not be lest he should deem himself no better than the Iscariot.
During the first days he had pent at Marleigh, he had been impatient for Joseph Ashburn’s return. Now he found himself hoping each morning that Joseph might not come that day.
A courier reached Gregory from Windsor with a letter wherein his brother told him that the Lord General, not being at the castle, he was gone on to London in quest of him. And Gregory, lacking the means to inform him that the missing Kenneth was already returned, was forced to possess his soul in patience until his brother, having learnt what was to be learnt of Cromwell, should journey home.
And so the days sped on, and a week wore itself out in peace at Castle Marleigh, none dreaming of the volcano on which they stood. Each night Crispin and Gregory sat together at the board after Kenneth and Cynthia had withdrawn, and both drank deep – the one for the vice of it, the other (as he had always done) to seek forgetfulness.
He needed it now more than ever, for he feared that the consideration of Cynthia might yet unman him. Had she scorned and avoided him and having such evidences of his ways of life he marvelled that she did not – he might have allowed his considerations of her to weigh less heavily. As it was, she sought him out, nor seemed rebuffed at his efforts to evade her, and in every way she manifested a kindliness that drove him almost to the point of despair, and well-nigh to hating her.
Kenneth, knowing naught of the womanly purpose that actuated her, and seeing but the outward signs, which, with ready jealousy, he misconstrued and magnified, grew sullen and churlish to her, to Galliard, and even to Gregory.
For hours he would mope alone, nursing his jealous mood, as though in this clownish fashion matters were to be mended. Did Cynthia but speak to Crispin, he scowled; did Crispin answer her, he grit his teeth at the covert meaning wherewith his fancy invested Crispin’s tones; whilst did they chance to laugh together – a contingency that fortunately for his sanity was rare – he writhed in fury. He was a man transformed, and at times there was murder in his heart. Had he been a swordsman of more than moderate skill and dared to pit himself against the Tavern Knight, blood would have been shed in Marleigh Park betwixt them.
It seemed at last as if with his insensate jealousy all the evil humours that had lain dormant in the boy were brought to the surface, to overwhelm his erstwhile virtues – if qualities that have bigotry for a parent may truly be accounted virtues.
He cast off, not abruptly, but piecemeal, those outward symbols – his sombre clothes. First ’twas his hat he exchanged for a feather-trimmed beaver of more sightly hue; then those stiff white bands that reeked of sanctity and cant for a collar of fine point; next it was his coat that took on a worldly edge of silver lace. And so, little by little, step by step, was the metamorphosis effected, until by the end of the week he came forth a very butterfly of fashion – a gallant, dazzling Cavalier. Out of a stern, forbidding Covenanter he was transformed in a few days into a most outrageous fop. He walked in an atmosphere of musk that he himself exhaled; his fair hair – that a while ago had hung so straight and limp – was now twisted into monstrous curls, a bunch of which were gathered by his right ear in a ribbon of pale blue silk.
Galliard noted the change in amazement, yet, knowing to what follies youth is driven when it woos, he accounted Cynthia responsible for it, and laughed in his sardonic way, whereat the boy would blush and scowl in one. Gregory, too, looked on and laughed, setting it down to the same cause. Even Cynthia smiled, whereat the Tavern Knight was driven to ponder.
With a courtier’s raiment Kenneth put on, too, a courtier’s ways; he grew mincing and affected in his speech, and he – whose utterance a while ago had been marked by a scriptural flavour – now set it off with some of Galliard’s less unseemly oaths.