Since it was a ruffling gallant Cynthia required, he swore that a ruffling gallant should she find him; nor had he wit enough to see that his ribbons, his fopperies, and his capers served but to make him ridiculous in her eyes. He did indeed perceive, however, that in spite of this wondrous transformation, he made no progress in her favour.
“What signify these fripperies?” she asked him, one day, “any more than did your coat of decent black? Are these also outward symbols?”
“You may take them for such, madam,” he answered sulkily. “You liked me not as I was – “
“And I like you less as you are,” she broke in.
“Cynthia, you mock me,” he cried angrily.
“Now, Heaven forbid! I do but mark the change,” she answered airily. “These scented clothes are but a masquerade, even as your coat of black and your cant were a masquerade. Then you simulated godliness; now you simulate Heaven knows what. But now, as then, it is no more than a simulation, a pretence of something that you are not.”
He left her in a pet, and went in search of Gregory, into whose ear he poured the story of his woes that had their source in Cynthia’s unkindness. From this resulted a stormy interview ‘twixt Cynthia and her father, in which Cynthia at last declared that she would not be wedded to a fop.
Gregory shrugged his shoulders and laughed cynically, replying that it was the way of young men to be fools, and that through folly lay the road to wisdom.
“Be that as it may,” she answered him with spirit, “this folly transcends all bounds. Master Stewart may return to his Scottish heather; at Castle Marleigh he is wasting time.”
“Cynthia!” he cried.
“Father,” she pleaded, “why be angry? You would not have me marry against the inclinations of my heart? You would not have me wedded to a man whom I despise?”
“By what right do you despise him?” he demanded, his brow dark.
“By the right of the freedom of my thoughts – the only freedom that a woman knows. For the rest it seems she is but a chattel; of no more consideration to a man than his ox or his ass with which the Scriptures rank her – a thing to be given or taken, bought or sold, as others shall decree.”
“Child, child, what know you of these things?” he cried. “You are overwrought, sweetheart.” And with the promise to wait until a calmer frame of mind in her should be more propitious to what he wished to say further on this score, he left her.
She went out of doors in quest of solitude among the naked trees of the park; instead she found Sir Crispin, seated deep in thought upon a fallen trunk.
Through the trees she espied him as she approached, whilst the rustle of her gown announced to him her coming. He rose as she drew nigh, and, doffing his hat, made shift to pass on.
“Sir Crispin,” she called, detaining him. He turned.
“Your servant, Mistress Cynthia.”
“Are you afraid of me, Sir Crispin?”
“Beauty, madam, is wont to inspire courage rather than fear,” he answered, with a smile.
“That, sir, is an evasion, not an answer.”
“If read aright, Mistress Cynthia, it is also an answer.”
“That you do not fear me?”
“It is not a habit of mine.”
“Why, then, have you avoided me these three days past?”
Despite himself Crispin felt his breath quickening – quickening with a pleasure that he sought not to account for – at the thought that she should have marked his absence from her side.
“Because perhaps if I did not,” he answered slowly, “you might come to avoid me. I am a proud man, Mistress Cynthia.”
“Satan, sir, was proud, but his pride led him to perdition.”
“So indeed may mine,” he answered readily, “since it leads me from you.”
“Nay, sir,” she laughed, “you go from me willingly enough.”
“Not willingly, Cynthia. Oh, not willingly,” he began. Then of a sudden he checked his tongue, and asked himself what he was saying. With a half-laugh and a courtier manner, he continued, “Of two evils, madam, we must choose the lesser one.”
“Madam,” she echoed, disregarding all else that he had said. “It is an ugly word, and but a moment back you called me Cynthia “
“Twas a liberty that methought my grey hairs warranted, and for which you should have reproved me.”
“You have not grey hairs enough to warrant it, Sir Crispin,” she answered archly. “But what if even so I account it no liberty?”
The heavy lids were lifted from her eyes, and as their glance, frank and kindly, met his, he trembled. Then, with a polite smile, he bowed.
“I thank you for the honour.”
For a moment she looked at him in a puzzled way, then moved past him, and as he stood, stiffly erect, watching her graceful figure, he thought that she was about to leave him, and was glad of it. But ere she had taken half a dozen steps:
“Sir Crispin,” said she, looking back at him over her shoulder, “I am walking to the cliffs.”
Never was a man more plainly invited to become an escort; but he ignored it. A sad smile crept into his harsh face.
“I shall tell Kenneth if I see him,” said he.
At that she frowned.
“But I do not want him,” she protested. “Sooner would I go alone.”
“Why, then, madam, I’ll tell nobody.”
Was ever man so dull? she asked herself.
“There is a fine view from the cliffs,” said she.
“I have always thought so,” he agreed.
She inclined to call him a fool; yet she restrained herself. She had an impulse to go her way without him; but, then, she desired his company, and Cynthia was unused to having her desires frustrated. So finding him impervious to suggestion:
“Will you not come with me?” she asked at last, point-blank.
“Why, yes, if you wish it,” he answered without alacrity.
“You may remain, sir.”
Her offended tone aroused him now to the understanding that he was impolite. Contrite he stood beside her in a moment.
“With your permission, mistress, I will go with you. I am a dull fellow, and to-day I know not what mood is on me. So sorry a one that I feared I should be poor company. Still, if you’ll endure me, I’ll do my best to prove entertaining.”
“By no means,” she answered coldly. “I seek not the company of dull fellows.” And she was gone.
He stood where she had left him, and breathed a most ungallant prayer of thanks. Next he laughed softly to himself, a laugh that was woeful with bitterness.
“Fore George!” he muttered, “it is all that was wanting!”
He reseated himself upon the fallen tree, and there he set himself to reflect, and to realize that he, war-worn and callous, come to Castle Marleigh on such an errand as was his, should wax sick at the very thought of it for the sake of a chit of a maid, with a mind to make a mock and a toy of him. Into his mind there entered even the possibility of flight, forgetful of the wrongs he had suffered, abandoning the vengeance he had sworn. Then with an oath he stemmed his thoughts.
“God in heaven, am I a boy, beardless and green?” he asked himself. “Am I turned seventeen again, that to look into a pair of eyes should make me forget all things but their existence?” Then in a burst of passion: “Would to Heaven,” he muttered, “they had left me stark on Worcester Field!”
He rose abruptly, and set out to walk aimlessly along, until suddenly a turn in the path brought him face to face with Cynthia. She hailed him with a laugh.
“Sir laggard, I knew that willy-nilly you would follow me,” she cried. And he, taken aback, could not but smile in answer, and profess that she had conjectured rightly.
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.”
“Cynthia!” he exclaimed.
“Oh, lackaday! Am I to wed a doll?” she demanded. “Is he – is he a man a maid may love, 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?”
“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, hard-drinking, 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.
“A grievous wrong to this poor lad. Can you not realize how the only desire that governs him is the laudable one of appearing favourably in your eyes?”
“That desire gives rise, then, to curious manifestations.”
“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 self-deriding 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.”
She had listened with bent head; indeed, so deeply rapt by her discovery, that she had but heard the half of what he said. Now, of a sudden, she looked up, and meeting his glance:
“Is – is it a woman’s fault that you are as you are?”
“No, it is not. But how does that concern the case of Kenneth?”
“It does not. I was but curious. I was not thinking of Kenneth.”
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.
Then of a sudden she turned a pair of flashing eyes upon the boy, and in tones charged with a scorn ineffable:
“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.
Joseph’s astonished glance played rapidly over him for a second. Then:
“Who the devil may you be?” he blurted out.
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 dull-witted 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?” 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 table-head 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:
“Ho, there! John, Stephen!”
“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 over-ripe for hell.”
“You mean to kill me,” he gasped, growing yet a shade more livid.
“Does the suspicion of it but occur to you?” laughed Crispin, “and yet twice already have I given you a foretaste of death. Think you I but jested?”
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?”
A groan from Gregory, who was regaining consciousness, drew his attention aside.
“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.”
The knight sank on to a chair as though bereft of strength. He sought to think, but thinking coherently he could not. At last:
“How shall I know that you are not lying? What proof can you advance?” he demanded hoarsely.
“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 well-founded; 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.
“Go,” Joseph said to the boy. And, without comment, Kenneth rose and left them.
“What would you do?” asked Gregory when the door had closed.
“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.”
“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 night-riding. 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.
“I am in haste, my master. What is your will?”