“Why, marry, so am I in haste. My will is your horse, sir. Oh, I’m no robber. I’ll pay you for it, and handsomely. But have it I must. ‘Twill be no great discomfort for you to walk to Norwich. You may do it in an hour.”
“My horse, sir, is not for sale,” was Kenneth’s brief answer. “Give you good night.”
“Hold, man! Blood and hell, stop! If you’ll not sell the worthless beast to serve a gentleman, I’ll shoot it under you. Make your choice.”
Kenneth caught the gleam of a pistol-barrel pointed at him from the hedge, and he shivered. What was he to do? Every instant was precious to him. As in a flash it came to him that perchance Sir Crispin also rode to London, and that it was expected of him to arrive there first if he were to be in time. Swiftly he weighed the odds in his mind, and took the determination to dash past Sir Crispin, risking his aim and trusting to the dark to befriend him.
But even as he determined thus, what moon there was became unveiled, and the light of it fell upon his face, which was turned towards Galliard. An exclamation of surprise escaped Sir Crispin.
“‘Slife, Master Stewart, I knew not your voice. Whither do you ride?”
“What is it to you? Have you not wrought enough of evil for me? Am I never to be rid of you? Castle Marleigh,” he added, with well-feigned anger, “has closed its doors upon me. What does it signify to you whither I ride? Suffer me leastways to pass unmolested, and to leave you.”
Kenneth’s passionate reproaches cut Galliard keenly. He held himself at that moment a very knave for having dragged this boy into his work of vengeance, and thereby cast a blight upon his life. He sought for words wherein to give expression to something of what he felt, then realizing how futile and effete all words must prove, he waved his hand in the direction of the road.
“Go, Master Stewart,” he muttered. “Your way is clear.”
And Kenneth, waiting for no second invitation, rode on and left him. He rode with gratitude in his heart to the Providence that had caused him so easily to overcome an obstacle that at first he had held impassable. Stronger grew in his mind the conviction that to fulfil the mission Joseph required of him, he must reach London before Sir Crispin. The knowledge that he was ahead of him, and that he must derive an ample start from Galliard’s mishap, warmed him like wine.
His mind thus relieved from its weight of anxiety, he little recked fatigue, and such excellent use did he make of his horse that he reached Newmarket on it an hour before the morrow’s moon.
An hour he rested there, and broke his fast. Then on a fresh horse – a powerful and willing animal he set out once more.
By half-past two he was at Newport. But so hard had he ridden that man and beast alike were in a lather of sweat, and whilst he himself felt sick and tired, the horse was utterly unfit to bear him farther. For half an hour he rested there, and made a meal whose chief constituent was brandy. Then on a third horse he started upon the last stage of his journey.
The wind was damp and penetrating; the roads veritable morasses of mud, and overhead gloomy banks of dark, grey clouds moved sluggishly, the light that was filtered through them giving the landscape a bleak and dreary aspect. In his jaded condition Kenneth soon became a prey to the depression of it. His lightness of heart of some dozen hours ago was now all gone, and not even the knowledge that his mission was well-nigh accomplished sufficed to cheer him. To add to his discomfort a fine rain set in towards four o’clock, and when a couple of hours later he clattered along the road cut through a wooded slope in the direction of Waltham, he was become a very limp and lifeless individual.
He noticed not the horsemen moving cautiously among the closely-set trees on either side of the road. It was growing prematurely dark, and objects were none too distinct. And thus it befell that when from the reverie of dejection into which he had fallen he was suddenly aroused by the thud of hoofs, he looked up to find two mounted men barring the road some ten yards in front of him. Their attitude was unmistakable, and it crossed poor Kenneth’s mind that he was beset by robbers. But a second glance showed him their red cloaks and military steel caps, and he knew them for soldiers of the Commonwealth.
Hearing the beat of hoofs behind him, he looked over his shoulder to see four other troopers closing rapidly down upon him. Clearly he was the object of their attention. He had been a fool not to have perceived this earlier, and his heart misgave him, for all that had he paused to think he must have realized that he had naught to fear, and that in this some mistake must lie.
“Halt!” thundered the deep voice of the sergeant, who, with a trooper, held the road in front.
Kenneth drew up within a yard of them, conscious that the man’s dark eyes were scanning him sharply from beneath his morion.
“Who are you, sir?” the bass voice demanded.
Alas for the vanity of poor human mites! Even Kenneth, who never yet had achieved aught for the cause he served, grew of a sudden chill to think that perchance this sergeant might recognize his name for one that he had heard before associated with deeds performed on the King’s behalf.
For a second he hesitated; then:
“Blount,” he stammered, “Jasper Blount.”
He little thought how that fruit of his vanity was to prove his undoing thereafter.
“Verily,” sneered the sergeant, “it almost seemed you had forgotten it.” And from that sneer Kenneth gathered with fresh dread that the fellow mistrusted him.
“Whence are you, Master Blount?”
Again Kenneth hesitated. Then recalling Ashburn’s high favour with the Parliament, and seeing that it could but advance his cause to state the true sum of his journey:
“From Castle Marleigh,” he replied.
“Verily, sir, you seem yet in some doubt. Whither do you go?”
“On what errand?” The sergeant’s questions fell swift as sword-strokes.
“With letters for Colonel Pride.”
The reply, delivered more boldly than Kenneth had spoken hitherto, was not without its effect.
“From whom are these letters?”
“From Mr. Joseph Ashburn, of Castle Marleigh.”
With trembling fingers Kenneth complied. This the sergeant observed as he took the package.
“What ails you, man?” quoth he.
“Naught, sir ’tis the cold.”
The sergeant scanned the package and its seal. In a measure it was a passport, and he was forced to the conclusion that this man was indeed the messenger he represented himself. Certainly he had not the air nor the bearing of him for whom they waited, nor did the sergeant think that their quarry would have armed himself with a dummy package against such a strait. And yet the sergeant was not master after all, and did he let this fellow pursue his journey, he might reap trouble for it hereafter; whilst likewise if he detained him, Colonel Pride, he knew, was not an over-patient man. He was still debating what course to take, and had turned to his companion with the muttered question: “What think you, Peter?” when by his precipitancy Kenneth ruined his slender chance of being permitted to depart.
“I pray you, sir, now that you know my errand, suffer me to pass on.”
There was an eager tremor in his voice that the sergeant mistook for fear. He noted it, and remembering the boy’s hesitancy in answering his earlier questions, he decided upon his course of action.
“We shall not delay your journey, sir,” he answered, eyeing Kenneth sharply, “and as your way must lie through Waltham, I will but ask you to suffer us to ride with you thus far, so that there you may answer any questions our captain may have to ask ere you proceed.”
“But, sir – “
“No more, master courier,” snarled the sergeant. Then, beckoning a trooper to his side, he whispered an order in his ear.
As the man withdrew they wheeled their horses, and at a sharp word of command Kenneth rode on towards Waltham between the sergeant and a trooper.
THE CONVERTED HOGAN
Night black and impenetrable had set in ere Kenneth and his escort clattered over the greasy stones of Waltham’s High Street, and drew up in front of the Crusader Inn.
The door stood wide and hospitable, and a warm shaft of light fell from it and set a glitter upon the wet street. Avoiding the common-room, the sergeant led Kenneth through the inn-yard, and into the hostelry by a side entrance. He urged the youth along a dimly-lighted passage. On a door at the end of this he knocked, then, lifting the latch, he ushered Kenneth into a roomy, oak-panelled chamber.
At the far end a huge fire burnt cheerfully, and with his back to it, his feet planted wide apart upon the hearth, stood a powerfully built man of medium height, whose youthful face and uprightness of carriage assorted ill with the grey of his hair, pronouncing that greyness premature. He seemed all clad in leather, for where his jerkin stopped his boots began. A cuirass and feathered headpiece lay in a corner, whilst on the table Kenneth espied a broad-brimmed hat, a huge sword, and a brace of pistols.
As the boy’s eyes came back to the burly figure on the hearth, he was puzzled by a familiar, intangible something in the fellow’s face.
He was racking his mind to recall where last he had seen it, when with slightly elevated eyebrows and a look of recognition in his somewhat prominent blue eyes
“Soul of my body,” exclaimed the man in surprise, “Master Stewart, as I live.”
“Stuart!” cried both sergeant and trooper in a gasp, starting forward to scan their prisoner’s face.
At that the burly captain broke into a laugh.
“Not the young man Charles Stuart,” said he; “no, no. Your captive is none so precious. It is only Master Kenneth Stewart, of Bailienochy.”
“Then it is not even our man,” grumbled the soldier.
“But Stewart is not the name he gave,” cried the sergeant. “Jasper Blount he told me he was called. It seems that after all we have captured a malignant, and that I was well advised to bring him to you.”
The captain made a gesture of disdain. In that moment Kenneth recognized him. He was Harry Hogan – the man whose life Galliard had saved in Penrith.
“Bah, a worthless capture, Beddoes,” he said.
“I know not that,” retorted the sergeant. “He carries papers which he states are from Joseph Ashburn, of Castle Marleigh, to Colonel Pride. Colonel Pride’s name is on the package, but may not that be a subterfuge? Why else did he say he was called Blount?”
Hogan’s brows were of a sudden knit.
“Faith, Beddoes, you are right. Remove his sword and search him.”
Calmly Kenneth suffered them to carry out this order. Inwardly he boiled at the delay, and cursed himself for having so needlessly given the name of Blount. But for that, it was likely Hogan would have straightway dismissed him. He cheered himself with the thought that after all they would not long detain him. Their search made, and finding nothing upon him but Ashburn’s letter, surely they would release him.
But their search was very thorough. They drew off his boots, and well-nigh stripped him naked, submitting each article of his apparel to a careful examination. At length it was over, and Hogan held Ashburn’s package, turning it over in his hands with a thoughtful expression.
“Surely, sir, you will now allow me to proceed,” cried Kenneth. “I assure you the matter is of the greatest urgency, and unless I am in London by midnight I shall be too late.”
“Too late for what?” asked Hogan.
“I – I don’t know.”
“Oh?” The Irishman laughed unpleasantly. Colonel Pride and he were on anything but the best of terms. The colonel knew him for a godless soldier of fortune bound to the Parliament’s cause by no interest beyond that of gain; and, himself a zealot, Colonel Pride had with distasteful frequency shown Hogan the quality of his feelings towards him. That Hogan was not afraid of him, was because it was not in Hogan’s nature to be afraid of anyone. But he realized at least that he had cause to be, and at the present moment it occurred to him that it would be passing sweet to find a flaw in the old Puritan’s armour. If the package were harmless his having opened it was still a matter that the discharge of his duty would sanction. Thus he reasoned; and he resolved to break the seal and make himself master of the contents of that letter.
Hogan’s unpleasant laugh startled Kenneth. It suggested to him that perhaps, after all, his delay was by no means at an end; that Hogan suspected him of something – he could not think of what.
Then in a flash an idea came to him.
“May I speak to you privately for a moment, Captain Hogan?” he inquired in such a tone of importance – imperiousness, almost – that the Irishman was impressed by it. He scented disclosure.
“Faith, you may if you have aught to tell me,” and he signed to Beddoes and his companion to withdraw.
“Now, Master Hogan,” Kenneth began resolutely as soon as they were alone, “I ask you to let me go my way unmolested. Too long already has the stupidity of your followers detained me here unjustly. That I reach London by midnight is to me a matter of the gravest moment, and you shall let me.”
“Soul of my body, Mr. Stewart, what a spirit you have acquired since last we met.”
“In your place I should leave our last meeting unmentioned, master turncoat.”
The Irishman’s eyebrows shot up.
“By the Mass, young cockerel, I mislike your tone – “
“You’ll have cause to dislike it more if you detain me.” He was desperate now. “What would your saintly, crop-eared friends say if they knew as much of your past history as I do?”
“Tis a matter for conjecture,” said Hogan, humouring him.
“How think you would they welcome the story of the roystering rake and debauchee who deserted the army of King Charles because they were about to hang him for murder?”
“Ah! how, indeed?” sighed Hogan.
“What manner of reputation, think you, that for a captain of the godly army of the Commonwealth?”
“A vile one, truly,” murmured Hogan with humility.
“And now, Mr. Hogan,” he wound up loftily, “you had best return me that package, and be rid of me before I sow mischief enough to bring you a crop of hemp.”
Hogan stared at the lad’s flushed face with a look of whimsical astonishment, and for a brief spell there was silence between them. Slowly then, with his eyes still fixed upon Kenneth’s, the captain unsheathed a dagger. The boy drew back, with a sudden cry of alarm. Hogan vented a horse-laugh, and ran the blade under the seal of Ashburn’s letter.
“Be not afraid, my man of threats,” he said pleasantly. “I have no thought of hurting you – leastways, not yet.” He paused in the act of breaking the seal. “Lest you should treasure uncomfortable delusions, dear Master Stewart, let me remind you that I am an Irishman – not a fool. Do you conceive my fame to be so narrow a thing that when I left the beggarly army of King Charles for that of the Commonwealth, I did not realize how at any moment I might come face to face with someone who had heard of my old exploits, and would denounce me? You do not find me masquerading under an assumed name. I am here, sir, as Harry Hogan, a sometime dissolute follower of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Charles Stuart; an erstwhile besotted, blinded soldier in the army of the Amalekite, a whilom erring malignant, but converted by a crowning mercy into a zealous, faithful servant of Israel. There were vouchsafings and upliftings, and the devil knows what else, when this stray lamb was gathered to the fold.”
He uttered the words with a nasal intonation, and a whimsical look at Kenneth.
“Now, Mr. Stewart, tell them what you will, and they will tell you yet more in return, to show you how signally the light of grace hath been shed over me.”
He laughed again, and broke the seal. Kenneth, crestfallen and abashed, watched him, without attempting further interference. Of what avail?
“You had been better advised, young sir, had you been less hasty and anxious. It is a fatal fault of youth’s, and one of which nothing but time – if, indeed, you live – will cure you. Your anxiety touching this package determines me to open it.”
Kenneth sneered at the man’s conclusions, and, shrugging his shoulders, turned slightly aside.
“Perchance, master wiseacres, when you have read it, you will appreciate how egotism may also lead men into fatal errors. Haply, too, you will be able to afford Colonel Pride some satisfactory reason for tampering with his correspondence.”
But Hogan heard him not. He had unfolded the letter, and at the first words he beheld, a frown contracted his brows. As he read on the frown deepened, and when he had done, an oath broke from his lips. “God’s life!” he cried, then again was silent, and so stood a moment with bent head. At last he raised his eyes, and let them rest long and searchingly upon Kenneth, who now observed him in alarm.
“What – what is it?” the lad asked, with hesitancy.
But Hogan never answered. He strode past him to the door, and flung it wide.
“Beddoes!” he called. A step sounded in the passage, and the sergeant appeared. “Have you a trooper there?”
“There is Peter, who rode with me.”
“Let him look to this fellow. Tell him to set him under lock and bolt here in the inn until I shall want him, and tell him that he shall answer for him with his neck.”
Kenneth drew back in alarm.
“Sir – Captain Hogan – will you explain “
“Marry, you shall have explanations to spare before morning, else I’m a fool. But have no fear, for we intend you no hurt,” he added more softly. “Take him away, Beddoes; then return to me here.”
When Beddoes came back from consigning Kenneth into the hands of his trooper, he found Hogan seated in the leathern arm-chair, with Ashburn’s letter spread before him on the table.
“I was right in my suspicions, eh?” ventured Beddoes complacently.
“You were more than right, Beddoes, you were Heaven-inspired. It is no State matter that you have chanced upon, but one that touches a man in whom I am interested very nearly.”
The sergeant’s eyes were full of questions, but Hogan enlightened him no further.
“You will ride back to your post at once, Beddoes,” he commanded. “Should Lord Oriel fall into your hands, as we hope, you will send him to me. But you will continue to patrol the road, and demand the business of all comers. I wish one Crispin Galliard, who should pass this way ere long, detained, and brought to me. He is a tall, lank man – “
“I know him, sir,” Beddoes interrupted. “The Tavern Knight they called him in the malignant army – a rakehelly, dissolute brawler. I saw him in Worcester when he was taken after the fight.”
Hogan frowned. The righteous Beddoes knew overmuch. “That is the man,” he answered calmly. “Go now, and see that he does not ride past you. I have great and urgent need of him.”
Beddoes’ eyes were opened in surprise.
“He is possessed of valuable information,” Hogan explained. “Away with you, man.”
When alone, Harry Hogan turned his arm-chair sideways towards the fire. Then, filling himself a pipe – for in his foreign campaigning he had acquired the habit of tobacco-smoking – he stretched his sinewy legs across a second chair, and composed himself for meditation. An hour went by; the host looked in to see if the captain required anything. Another hour sped on, and the captain dozed.
He awoke with a start. The fire had burned low, and the hands of the huge clock in the corner pointed to midnight. From the passage came to him the sound of steps and angry voices.
Before Hogan could rise, the door was flung wide, and a tall, gaunt man was hustled across the threshold by two soldiers. His head was bare, and his hair wet and dishevelled. His doublet was torn and his shoulder bleeding, whilst his empty scabbard hung like a lambent tail behind him.
“We have brought him, captain,” one of the men announced.
“Aye, you crop-eared, psalm-whining cuckolds, you’ve brought me, d -n you,” growled Sir Crispin, whose eyes rolled fiercely.
As his angry glance lighted upon Hogan’s impressive face, he abruptly stemmed the flow of invective that rushed to his lips.
The Irishman rose, and looked past him at the troopers. “Leave us,” he commanded shortly.
He remained standing by the hearth until the footsteps of his men had died away, then he crossed the chamber, passed Crispin without a word, and quietly locked the door. That done, he turned a friendly smile on his tanned face – and holding out his hand:
“At last, Cris, it is mine to thank you and to repay you in some measure for the service you rendered me that night at Penrith.”
THE MESSAGE KENNETH BORE
In bewilderment Crispin took the outstretched hand of his old fellow-roysterer.
“Oddslife,” he growled, “if to have me waylaid, dragged from my horse and wounded by those sons of dogs, your myrmidons, be your manner of expressing gratitude, I’d as lief you had let me go unthanked.”
“And yet, Cris, I dare swear you’ll thank me before another hour is sped. Ough, man, how cold you are! There’s a bottle of strong waters yonder – “
Then, without completing his sentence, Hogan had seized the black jack and poured half a glass of its contents, which he handed Crispin.
“Drink, man,” he said briefly, and Crispin, nothing loath, obeyed him.
Next Hogan drew the torn and sodden doublet from his guest’s back, pushed a chair over to the table, and bade him sit. Again, nothing loath, Crispin did as he was bidden. He was stiff from long riding, and so with a sigh of satisfaction he settled himself down and stretched out his long legs.
Hogan slowly took the seat opposite to him, and coughed. He was at a loss how to open the parlous subject, how to communicate to Crispin the amazing news upon which he had stumbled.
“Slife’ Hogan,” laughed Crispin dreamily, “I little thought it was to you those crop-ears carried me with such violence. I little thought, indeed, ever to see you again. But you have prospered, you knave, since that night you left Penrith.”
And he turned his head the better to survey the Irishman.
“Aye, I have prospered,” Hogan assented. “My life is a sort of parable of the fatted son and the prodigal calf. They tell me there is greater joy in heaven over the repentance of a sinner than – than – Plague on it! How does it go?”
“Than over the downfall of a saint?” suggested Crispin.
“I’ll swear that’s not the text, but any of my troopers could quote it you; every man of them is an incarnate Church militant.” He paused, and Crispin laughed softly. Then abruptly: “And so you were riding to London?” said he.
“How know you that?”
“Faith, I know more – much more. I can even tell you to what house you rode, and on what errand. You were for the sign of the Anchor in Thames Street, for news of your son, whom Joseph Ashburn hath told you lives.”
Crispin sat bolt upright, a look of mingled wonder and suspicion on his face.
“You are well informed, you gentlemen of the Parliament,” he said.
“On the matter of your errand,” the Irishman returned quietly, “I am much better informed than are you. Shall I tell you who lives at the sign of the Anchor – not whom you have been told lives there, but who really does occupy the house?” Hogan paused a second as though awaiting some reply; then softly he answered his own question: “Colonel Pride.” And he sat back to await results.
There were none. For the moment the name awoke no recollections, conveyed no meaning to Crispin.
“Who may Colonel Pride be?” he asked, after a pause.
Hogan was visibly disappointed.
“A certain powerful and vindictive member of the Rump, whose son you killed at Worcester.”
This time the shaft went home. Galliard sprang out of the chair, his brows darkening, and his cheeks pale beyond their wont.
“Zounds, Hogan, do you mean that Joseph Ashburn was betraying me into this man’s hands?”
“You have said it.”
“But – “
Crispin stopped short. The pallor of his face increased; it became ashen, and his eyes glittered as though a fever consumed him. He sank back into his chair, and setting both hands upon the table before him, he looked straight at Hogan.
“But my son, Hogan, my son?” he pleaded, and his voice was broken as no man had heard it yet. “Oh, God in heaven!” he cried in a sudden frenzy. “What hell’s work is this?”
Behind his blue lips his teeth were chattering now. His hands shook as he held them, still clenched, before him. Then, in a dull, concentrated voice:
“Hogan,” he vowed, “I’ll kill him for it. Fool, blind, pitiful fool that I am.”
Then – his face distorted by passion – he broke into a torrent of imprecations that was at length stemmed by Hogan.
“Wait, Cris,” said he, laying his hand upon the other’s arm. “It is not all false. Joseph Ashburn sought, it is true, to betray you into the hands of Colonel Pride, sending you to the sign of the Anchor with the assurance that there you should have news of your son. That was false; yet not all false. Your son does live, and at the sign of the Anchor it is likely you would have had the news of him you sought. But that news would have come when too late to have been of value to you.”
Crispin tried to speak, but failed. Then, mastering himself by an effort, and in a voice that was oddly shaken:
“Hogan,” he cried, “you are torturing me! What is the sum of your knowledge?”
At last the Irishman produced Ashburn’s letter to Colonel Pride.
“My men,” said he, “are patrolling the roads in wait for a malignant that has incurred the Parliament’s displeasure. We have news that he is making for Harwich, where a vessel lies waiting to carry him to France, and we expect that he will ride this way. Three hours ago a young man unable clearly to account for himself rode into our net, and was brought to me. He was the bearer of a letter to Colonel Pride from Joseph Ashburn. He had given my sergeant a wrong name, and betrayed such anxiety to be gone that I deemed his errand a suspicious one, and broke the seal of that letter. You may thank God, Galliard, every night of your life that I did so.”
“Was this youth Kenneth Stewart?” asked Crispin.
“You have guessed it.”
“D -n the lad,” he began furiously. Then repressing himself, he sighed, and in an altered tone, “No, no,” said he. “I have grievously wronged him! have wrecked his life – or at least he thinks so now. I can hardly blame him for seeking to be quits with me.”
“The lad,” returned Hogan, “must be himself a dupe. He can have had no suspicion of the message he carried. Let me read it to you; it will make all clear.”
Hogan drew a taper nearer, and spreading the paper upon the table, he smoothed it out, and read:
The bearer of the present should, if he rides well, outstrip another messenger I have dispatched to you upon a fool’s errand, with a letter addressed to one Mr. Lane at the sign of the Anchor. The bearer of that is none other than the notorious malignant, Sir Crispin Galliard, by whose hand your son was slain under your very eyes at Worcester, whose capture I know that you warmly desire and with whom I doubt not you will know how to deal. To us he has been a source of no little molestation; his liberty, in fact, is a perpetual menace to our lives. For some eighteen years this Galliard has believed dead a son that my cousin bore him. News of this son, whom I have just informed him lives – as indeed he does – is the bait wherewith I have lured him to your address. Forewarned by the present, I make no doubt you will prepare to receive him fittingly. But ere that justice he escaped at Worcester be meted out to him at Tyburn or on Tower Hill, I would have you give him that news touching his son which I am sending him to you to receive. Inform him, sir, that his son, Jocelyn Marleigh …
Hogan paused, and shot a furtive glance at Galliard. The knight was leaning forward now, his eyes strained, his forehead beaded with perspiration, and his breathing heavy.
“Read on,” he begged hoarsely.
His son, Jocelyn Marleigh, is the bearer of this letter, the man whom he has injured and who detests him, the youth with whom he has, by a curious chance, been in much close association, and whom he has known as Kenneth Stewart.
“God!” gasped Crispin. Then with sudden vigour, “Oh, ’tis a lie,” he cried, “a fresh invention of that lying brain to torture me.”
Hogan held up his hand.
“There is a little more,” he said, and continued:
Should he doubt this, bid him look closely into the lad’s face, and ask him, after he has scrutinized it, what image it evokes. Should he still doubt thereafter, thinking the likeness to which he has been singularly blind to be no more than accidental, bid them strip the lad’s right foot. It bears a mark that I think should convince him. For the rest, honoured sir, I beg you to keep all information touching his parentage from the boy himself, wherein I have weighty ends to serve. Within a few days of your receipt of this letter, I look to have the honour of waiting upon you. In the meanwhile, honoured sir, believe that while I am, I am your obedient servant,
Across the narrow table the two men’s glances met – Hogan’s full of concern and pity, Crispin’s charged with amazement and horror. A little while they sat thus, then Crispin rose slowly to his feet, and with steps uncertain as a drunkard’s he crossed to the window. He pushed it open, and let the icy wind upon his face and head, unconscious of its sting. Moments passed, during which the knight went over the last few months of his turbulent life since his first meeting at Perth with Kenneth Stewart. He recalled how strangely and unaccountably he had been drawn to the boy when first he beheld him in the castle yard, and how, owing to a feeling for which he could not account, since the lad’s character had little that might commend him to such a man as Crispin, he had contrived that Kenneth should serve in his company.
He recalled how at first – aye, and often afterwards even – he had sought to win the boy’s affection, despite the fact that there was naught in the boy that he truly admired, and much that he despised. Was it possible that these his feelings were dictated by Nature to his unconscious mind? It must indeed be so, and the written words of Joseph Ashburn to Colonel Pride were true. Kenneth was indeed his son; the conviction was upon him. He conjured up the lad’s face, and a cry of discovery escaped him. How blind he had been not to have seen before the likeness of Alice – his poor, butchered girl-wife of eighteen years ago. How dull never before to have realized that that likeness it was had drawn him to the boy.
He was calm by now, and in his calm he sought to analyse his thoughts, and he was shocked to find that they were not joyous. He yearned – as he had yearned that night in Worcester – for the lad’s affection, and yet, for all his yearning, he realized that with the conviction that Kenneth was his offspring came a dull sense of disappointment. He was not such a son as the rakehelly knight would have had him. Swiftly he put the thought from him. The craven hands that had reared the lad had warped his nature; he would guide it henceforth; he would straighten it out into a nobler shape.
Then he smiled bitterly to himself. What manner of man was he to train a youth to loftiness and honour? – he, a debauched ruler with a nickname for which, had he any sense of shame, he would have blushed! Again he remembered the lad’s disposition towards himself; but these, he thought, he hoped, he knew that he would now be able to overcome.
He closed the window, and turned to face his companion. He was himself again, and calm, for all that his face was haggard beyond its wont.
“Hogan, where is the boy?”
“I have detained him in the inn. Will you see him now?”
“At once, Hogan. I am convinced.”
The Irishman crossed the chamber, and opening the door he called an order to the trooper waiting in the passage.
Some minutes they waited, standing, with no word uttered between them. At last steps sounded in the corridor, and a moment later Kenneth was rudely thrust into the room. Hogan signed to the trooper, who closed the door and withdrew.
As Kenneth entered, Crispin advanced a step and paused, his eyes devouring the lad and receiving in exchange a glance that was full of malevolence.
“I might have known, sir, that you were not far away,” he exclaimed bitterly, forgetting for the moment how he had left Crispin behind him on the previous night. “I might have guessed that my detention was your work.”
“Why so?” asked Crispin quietly, his eyes ever scanning the lad’s face with a pathetic look.
“Because it is your way, I know not why, to work my ruin in all things. Not satisfied with involving me in that business at Castle Marleigh, you must needs cross my path again when I am about to make amends, and so blight my last chance. My God, sir, am I never to be rid of you? What harm have I done you?”
A spasm of pain, like a ripple over water, crossed the knight’s swart face.
“If you but consider, Kenneth,” he said, speaking very quietly, “you must see the injustice of your words. Since when has Crispin Galliard served the Parliament, that Roundhead troopers should do his bidding as you suggest? And touching that business at Sheringham you are over-hard with me. It was a compact you made, and but for which, you forget that you had been carrion these three weeks.”
“Would to Heaven that I had been,” the boy burst out, “sooner than pay such a price for keeping my life!”
“As for my presence here,” Crispin continued, leaving the outburst unheeded, “it has naught to do with your detention.”
Hogan caught his breath with a sharp hiss, and a dead silence followed. That silence struck terror into Kenneth’s heart. He encountered Crispin’s eye bent upon him with a look he could not fathom, and much would he now have given to recall the two words that had burst from him in the heat of his rage. He bethought him of the unscrupulous, deadly character attributed to the man to whom he had addressed them, and in his coward’s fancy he saw already payment demanded. Already he pictured himself lying cold and stark in the streets of Waltham with a sword-wound through his middle. His face went grey and his lips trembled.
Then Galliard spoke at last, and the mildness of his tone filled Kenneth with a new dread. In his experience of Crispin’s ways he had come to look upon mildness as the man’s most dangerous phase:
“You are mistaken,” Crispin said. “I spoke the truth; it is a habit of mine – haply the only gentlemanly habit left me. I repeat, I have had naught to do with your detention. I arrived here half an hour ago, as the captain will inform you, and I was conducted hither by force, having been seized by his men, even as you were seized. No,” he added, with a sigh, “it was not my hand that detained you; it was the hand of Fate.” Then suddenly changing his voice to a more vehement key, “Know you on what errand you rode to London?” he demanded. “To betray your father into the hands of his enemies; to deliver him up to the hangman.”
Kenneth’s eyes grew wide; his mouth fell open, and a frown of perplexity drew his brows together. Dully, uncomprehendingly he met Sir Crispin’s sad gaze.
“My father,” he gasped at last. “‘Sdeath, sir, what is it you mean? My father has been dead these ten years. I scarce remember him.”
Crispin’s lips moved, but no word did he utter. Then with a sudden gesture of despair he turned to Hogan, who stood apart, a silent witness.
“My God, Hogan,” he cried. “How shall I tell him?”
In answer to the appeal, the Irishman turned to Kenneth.
“You have been in error, sir, touching your parentage,” quoth he bluntly. “Alan Stewart, of Bailienochy, was not your father.”
Kenneth looked from one to the other of them.
“Sirs, is this a jest?” he cried, reddening. Then, remarking at length the solemnity of their countenances, he stopped short. Crispin came close up to him, and placed a hand upon his shoulder. The boy shrank visibly beneath the touch, and again an expression of pain crossed the poor ruffler’s face.
“Do you recall, Kenneth,” he said slowly, almost sorrowfully, “the story that I told you that night in Worcester, when we sat waiting for dawn and the hangman?”
The lad nodded vacantly.
“Do you remember the details? Do you remember I told you how, when I swooned beneath the stroke of Joseph Ashburn’s sword, the last words I heard were those in which he bade his brother slit the throat of the babe in the cradle? You were, yourself, present yesternight at Castle Marleigh when Joseph Ashburn told me Gregory had been mercifully inclined; that my child had not died; that if I gave him his life he would restore him to me. You remember?”
Again Kenneth nodded. A vague, numbing fear was creeping round his heart, and his blood seemed chilled by it and stagnant. With fascinated eyes he watched the knight’s face – drawn and haggard.
“It was a trap that Joseph Ashburn set for me. Yet he did not altogether lie. The child Gregory had indeed spared, and it seems from what I have learned within the last half-hour that he had entrusted his rearing to Alan Stewart, of Bailienochy, seeking afterwards – I take it – to wed him to his daughter, so that should the King come to his own again, they should have the protection of a Marleigh who had served his King.”
“You mean,” the lad almost whispered, and his accents were unmistakably of horror, “you mean that I am your – Oh, God, I’ll not believe it!” he cried out, with such sudden loathing and passion that Crispin recoiled as though he had been struck. A dull flush crept into his cheeks to fade upon the instant and give place to a pallor, if possible, intenser than before.
“I’ll not believe it! I’ll not believe it!” the boy repeated, as if seeking by that reiteration to shut out a conviction by which he was beset. “I’ll not believe it!” he cried again; and now his voice had lost its passionate vehemence, and was sunk almost to a moan.
“I found it hard to believe myself,” was Crispin’s answer, and his voice was not free from bitterness. “But I have a proof here that seems incontestable, even had I not the proof of your face to which I have been blind these months. Blind with the eyes of my body, at least. The eyes of my soul saw and recognized you when first they fell on you in Perth. The voice of the blood ordered me then to your side, and though I heard its call, I understood not what it meant. Read this letter, boy – the letter that you were to have carried to Colonel Pride.”
With his eyes still fixed in a gaze of stupefaction upon Galliard’s face, Kenneth took the paper. Then slowly, involuntarily almost it seemed, he dropped his glance to it, and read. He was long in reading, as though the writing presented difficulties, and his two companions watched him the while, and waited. At last he turned the paper over, and examined seal and superscription as if suspicious that he held a forgery.
But in some subtle, mysterious way – that voice of the blood perchance to which Crispin had alluded – he felt conviction stealing down upon his soul. Mechanically he moved across to the table, and sat down. Without a word, and still holding the crumpled letter in his clenched hand, he set his elbows on the table, and, pressing his temples to his palms, he sat there dumb. Within him a very volcano raged, and its fires were fed with loathing – loathing for this man whom he had ever hated, yet never as he hated him now, knowing him to be his father. It seemed as if to all the wrongs which Crispin had done him during the months of their acquaintanceship he had now added a fresh and culminating wrong by discovering this parentage.
He sat and thought, and his soul grew sick. He probed for some flaw, sought for some mistake that might have been made. And yet the more he thought, the more he dwelt upon his youth in Scotland, the more convinced was he that Crispin had told him the truth. Pre-eminent argument of conviction to him was the desire of the Ashburns that he should marry Cynthia. Oft he had marvelled that they, wealthy, and even powerful, selfish and ambitious, should have selected him, the scion of an obscure and impoverished Scottish house, as a bridegroom for their daughter. The news now before him made their motives clear; indeed, no other motive could exist, no other explanation could there be. He was the heir of Castle Marleigh, and the usurpers sought to provide against the day when another revolution might oust them and restore the rightful owners.
Some elation his shallow nature felt at realizing this, but that elation was short-lived, and dashed by the thought that this ruler, this debauchee, this drunken, swearing, roaring tavern knight was his father; dashed by the knowledge that meanwhile the Parliament was master, and that whilst matters stood so, the Ashburns could defy – could even destroy him, did they learn how much he knew; dashed by the memory that Cynthia, whom in his selfish way – out of his love for himself – he loved, vas lost to him for all time.
And here, swinging in a circle, his thoughts reverted to the cause of this – Crispin Galliard, the man who had betrayed him into yesternight’s foul business and destroyed his every chance of happiness; the man whom he hated, and whom, had he possessed the courage as he was possessed by the desire, he had risen up and slain; the man that now announced himself his father.
And thinking thus, he sat on in silent, resentful vexation. He started to feel a hand upon his shoulder, and to hear the voice of Galliard evidently addressing him, yet using a name that was new to him.
“Jocelyn, my boy,” the voice trembled. “You have thought, and you have realized – is it not so? I too thought, and thought brought me conviction that what that paper tells is true.”
Vaguely then the boy remembered that Jocelyn was the name the letter gave him. He rose abruptly, and brushed the caressing hand from his shoulder. His voice was hard – possibly the knowledge that he had gained told him that he had nothing to fear from this man, and in that assurance his craven soul grew brave and bold and arrogant.
“I have realized naught beyond the fact that I owe you nothing but unhappiness and ruin. By a trick, by a low fraud, you enlisted me into a service that has proved my undoing. Once a cheat always a cheat. What credit in the face of that can I give this paper?” he cried, talking wildly. “To me it is incredible, nor do I wish to credit it, for though it were true, what then? What then?” he repeated, raising his voice into accents of defiance.
Grief and amazement were blended in Galliard’s glance, and also, maybe, some reproach.
Hogan, standing squarely upon the hearth, was beset by the desire to kick Master Kenneth, or Master Jocelyn, into the street. His lip curled into a sneer of ineffable contempt, for his shrewd eyes read to the bottom of the lad’s mean soul and saw there clearly writ the confidence that emboldened him to voice that insult to the man he must know for his father. Standing there, he compared the two, marvelling deeply how they came to be father and son. A likeness he saw now between them, yet a likeness that seemed but to mark the difference. The one harsh, resolute, and manly, for all his reckless living and his misfortunes; the other mild, effeminate, hypocritical and shifty. He read it not on their countenances alone, but in every line of their figures as they stood, and in his heart he cursed himself for having been the instrument to disclose the relationship in which they stood.
The youth’s insolent question was followed by a spell of silence. Crispin could not believe that he had heard aright. At last he stretched out his hands in a gesture of supplication – he who throughout his thirty-eight years of life, and despite the misfortunes that had been his, had never yet stooped to plead from any man.
“Jocelyn,” he cried, and the pain in his voice must have melted a heart of steel, “you are hard. Have you forgotten the story of my miserable life, the story that I told you in Worcester? Can you not understand how suffering may destroy all that is lofty in a man; how the forgetfulness of the winecup may come to be his only consolation; the hope of vengeance his only motive for living on, withholding him from self-destruction? Can you not picture such a life, and can you not pity and forgive much of the wreck that it may make of a man once virtuous and honourable?”
Pleadingly he looked into the lad’s face. It remained cold and unmoved.
“I understand,” he continued brokenly, “that I am not such a man as any lad might welcome for a father. But you who know what my life has been, Jocelyn, you can surely find it in your heart to pity. I had naught that was good or wholesome to live for, Jocelyn; naught to curb the evil moods that sent me along evil ways to seek forgetfulness and reparation.
“But from to-night, Jocelyn, my life in you must find a new interest, a new motive. I will abandon my old ways. For your sake, Jocelyn, I will seek again to become what I was, and you shall have no cause to blush for your father.”
Still the lad stood silent.
“Jocelyn! My God, do I talk in vain?” cried the wretched man. “Have you no heart, no pity, boy?”
At last the youth spoke. He was not moved. The agony of this strong man, the broken pleading of one whom he had ever known arrogant and strong had no power to touch his mean, selfish mind, consumed as it was by the contemplation of his undoing – magnified a hundredfold – which this man had wrought.
“You have ruined my life,” was all he said.
“I will rebuild it, Jocelyn,” cried Galliard eagerly. “I have friends in France – friends high in power who lack neither the means nor the will to aid me. You are a soldier, Jocelyn.”
“As much a soldier as I’m a saint,” sneered Hogan to himself.
“Together we will find service in the armies of Louis,” Crispin pursued. “I promise it. Service wherein you shall gain honour and renown. There we will abide until this England shakes herself out of her rebellious nightmare. Then, when the King shall come to his own, Castle Marleigh will be ours again. Trust in me, Jocelyn.” Again his arms went out appealingly: “Jocelyn my son!”
But the boy made no move to take the outstretched hands, gave no sign of relenting. His mind nurtured its resentment – cherished it indeed.
“And Cynthia?” he asked coldly.
Crispin’s hands fell to his sides; they grew clenched, and his eyes lighted of a sudden.
“Forgive me, Jocelyn. I had forgotten! I understand you now. Yes, I dealt sorely with you there, and you are right to be resentful. What, after all, am I to you what can I be to you compared with her whose image fills your soul? What is aught in the world to a man, compared with the woman on whom his heart is set? Do I not know it? Have I not suffered for it?
“But mark me, Jocelyn” – and he straightened himself suddenly – “even in this, that which I have done I will undo. As I have robbed you of your mistress, so will I win her back for you. I swear it. And when that is done, when thus every harm I have caused you is repaired, then, Jocelyn, perhaps you will come to look with less repugnance upon your father, and to feel less resentment towards him.”
“You promise much, sir,” quoth the boy, with an illrepressed sneer. “How will you accomplish it?”
Hogan grunted audibly. Crispin drew himself up, erect, lithe and supple – a figure to inspire confidence in the most despairing. He placed a hand, nervous, and strong as steel, upon the boy’s shoulder, and the clutch of his fingers made Jocelyn wince.
“Low though your father be fallen,” said he sternly, “he has never yet broken his word. I have pledged you mine, and to-morrow I shall set out to perform what I have promised. I shall see you ere I start. You will sleep here, will you not?”
Jocelyn shrugged his shoulders.
“It signifies little where I lie.”
Crispin smiled sadly, and sighed.
“You have no faith in me yet. But I shall earn it, or” – and his voice fell suddenly – “or rid you of a loathsome parent. Hogan, can you find him quarters?”
Hogan replied that there was the room he had already been confined in, and that he could lie in it. And deeming that there was nothing to be gained by waiting, he thereupon led the youth from the room and down the passage. At the foot of the stairs the Irishman paused in the act of descending, and raised the taper aloft so that its light might fall full upon the face of his companion.
“Were I your father,” said he grimly, “I would kick you from one end of Waltham to the other by way of teaching you filial piety! And were you not his son, I would this night read you a lesson you’d never live to practise. I would set you to sleep a last long sleep in the kennels of Waltham streets. But since you are – marvellous though it seem – his offspring, and since I love him and may not therefore hurt you, I must rest content with telling you that you are the vilest thing that breathes. You despise him for a roysterer, for a man of loose ways. Let me, who have seen something of men, and who read you to-night to the very dregs of your contemptible soul, tell you that compared with you he is a very god. Come, you white-livered cur!” he ended abruptly. “I will light you to your chamber.”
When presently Hogan returned to Crispin he found the Tavern Knight – that man of iron in whom none had ever seen a trace of fear or weakness seated with his arms before him on the table, and his face buried in them, sobbing like a poor, weak woman.
SIR CRISPIN’S UNDERTAKING
Through the long October night Crispin and Hogan sat on, and neither sought his bed. Crispin’s quick wits his burst of grief once over – had been swift to fasten on a plan to accomplish that which he had undertaken.
One difficulty confronted him, and until he had mentioned it to Hogan seemed unsurmountable he had need of a ship. But in this the Irishman could assist him. He knew of a vessel then at Greenwich, whose master was in his debt, which should suit the purpose. Money, however, would be needed. But when Crispin announced that he was master of some two hundred Caroluses, Hogan, with a wave of the hand, declared the matter settled. Less than half that sum would hire the man he knew of. That determined, Crispin unfolded his project to Hogan, who laughed at the simplicity of it, for all that inwardly he cursed the risk Sir Crispin must run for the sake of one so unworthy.
“If the maid loves him, the thing is as good as done.”
“The maid does not love him; leastways, I fear not.”
Hogan was not surprised.
“Why, then it will be difficult, well-nigh impossible.” And the Irishman became grave.
But Crispin laughed unpleasantly. Years and misfortune had made him cynical.
“What is the love of a maid?” quoth he derisively. “A caprice, a fancy, a thing that may be guided, overcome or compelled as the occasion shall demand. Opportunity is love’s parent, Hogan, and given that, any maid may love any man. Cynthia shall love my son.”
“But if she prove rebellious? If she say nay to your proposals ? There are such women.”
“How then? Am I not the stronger? In such a case it shall be mine to compel her, and as I find her, so shall I carry her away. It will be none so poor a vengeance on the Ashburns after all.” His brow grew clouded. “But not what I had dreamed of; what I should have taken had he not cheated me. To forgo it now – after all these years of waiting – is another sacrifice I make to Jocelyn. To serve him in this matter I must proceed cautiously. Cynthia may fret and fume and stamp, but willy-nilly I shall carry her away. Once she is in France, friendless, alone, I make no doubt that she will see the convenience of loving Jocelyn – leastways of wedding him and thus shall I have more than repaired the injuries I have done him.
The Irishman’s broad face was very grave; his reckless merry eye fixed Galliard with a look of sorrow, and this grey-haired, sinning soldier of fortune, who had never known a conscience, muttered softly:
“It is not a nice thing you contemplate, Cris.”
Despite himself, Galliard winced, and his glance fell before Hogan’s. For a moment he saw the business in its true light, and he wavered in his purpose. Then, with a short bark of laughter:
“Gadso, you are sentimental, Harry!” said he, to add, more gravely: “There is my son, and in this lies the only way to his heart.”.
Hogan stretched a hand across the table, and set it upon Crispin’s arm.
“Is he worth such a stain upon your honour, Crispin?”
There was a pause.
“Is it not late in the day, Hogan, for you and me to prate of honour?” asked Crispin bitterly, yet with averted gaze. “God knows my honour is as like honour as a beggar’s rags are like unto a cloak of ermine. What signifies another splash, another rent in that which is tattered beyond all semblance of its original condition?”
“I asked you,” the Irishman persisted, “whether your son was worth the sacrifice that the vile deed you contemplate entails?”
Crispin shook his arm from the other’s grip, and rose abruptly. He crossed to the window, and drew back the curtain.
“Day is breaking,” said he gruffly. Then turning, and facing Hogan across the room, “I have pledged my word to Jocelyn,” he said. “The way I have chosen is the only one, and I shall follow it. But if your conscience cries out against it, Hogan, I give you back your promise of assistance, and I shall shift alone. I have done so all my life.”
Hogan shrugged his massive shoulders, and reached out for the bottle of strong waters.
“If you are resolved, there is an end to it. My conscience shall not trouble me, and upon what aid I have promised and what more I can give, you may depend. I drink to the success of your undertaking.”
Thereafter they discussed the matter of the vessel that Crispin would require, and it was arranged between them that Hogan should send a message to the skipper, bidding him come to Harwich, and there await and place himself at the command of Sir Crispin Galliard. For fifty pounds Hogan thought that he would undertake to land Sir Crispin in France. The messenger might be dispatched forthwith, and the Lady Jane should be at Harwich, two days later.
By the time they had determined upon this, the inmates of the hostelry were astir, and from the innyard came to them the noise of bustle and preparation for the day.
Presently they left the chamber where they had sat so long, and at the yard pump the Tavern Knight performed a rude morning toilet. Thereafter, on a simple fare of herrings and brown ale, they broke their fast; and ere that meal was done, Kenneth, pale and worn, with dark circles round his eyes, entered the common room, and sat moodily apart. But when later Hogan went to see to the dispatching of his messenger, Crispin rose and approached the youth.
Kenneth watched him furtively, without pausing in his meal. He had spent a very miserable night pondering over the future, which looked gloomy enough, and debating whether – forgetting and ignoring what had passed – he should return to the genteel poverty of his Scottish home, or accept the proffered service of this man who announced himself – and whom he now believed – to be his father. He had thought, but he was far from having chosen between Scotland and France, when Crispin now greeted him, not without constraint.
“Jocelyn,” he said, speaking slowly, almost humbly. “In an hour’s time I shall set out to return to Marleigh to fulfil my last night’s promise to you. How I shall accomplish it I scarce know as yet; but accomplish it I shall. I have arranged to have a vessel awaiting me, and within three days – or four at the most – I look to cross to France, bearing your bride with me.”
He paused for some reply, but none came. The boy sat on with an impassive face, his eyes glued to the table, but his mind busy enough upon that which his father was pouring into his ear. Presently Crispin continued:
“You cannot refuse to do as I suggest, Jocelyn. I shall make you the fullest amends for the harm that I have done you, if you but obey my directions. You must quit this place as soon as possible, and proceed on your way to London. There you must find a boat to carry you to France, and you will await me at the Auberge du Soleil at Calais. You are agreed, Jocelyn?”
There was a slight pause, and Jocelyn took his resolution. Yet there was still a sullen look in the eyes he lifted to his father’s face.
“I have little choice, sir,” he made answer, “and so I must agree. If you accomplish what you promise, I own that you will have made amends, and I shall crave your pardon for my yesternight’s want of faith. I shall await you at Calais.”
Crispin sighed, and for a second his face hardened. It was not the answer to which he held himself entitled, and for a moment it rose to the lips of this man of fierce and sudden moods to draw back and let the son, whom at the moment he began to detest, go his own way, which assuredly would lead him to perdition. But a second’s thought sufficed to quell that mood of his.
“I shall not fail you,” he said coldly. “Have you money for the journey?”
The boy flushed as he remembered that little was left of what Joseph Ashburn had given him. Crispin saw the flush, and reading aright its meaning, he drew from his pocket a purse that he had been fingering, and placed it quietly upon the table. “There are fifty Caroluses in that bag. That should suffice to carry you to France. Fare you well until we meet at Calais.”
And without giving the boy time to utter thanks that might be unwilling, he quickly left the room.
Within the hour he was in the saddle, and his horse’s head was turned northwards once more.
He rode through Newport some three hours later without drawing rein. By the door of the Raven Inn stood a travelling carriage, upon which he did not so much as bestow a look.
By the merest thread hangs at times the whole of a man’s future life, the destinies even of men as yet unborn. So much may depend indeed upon a glance, that had not Crispin kept his eyes that morning upon the grey road before him, had he chanced to look sideways as he passed the Raven Inn at Newport, and seen the Ashburn arms displayed upon the panels of that coach, he would of a certainty have paused. And had he done so, his whole destiny would assuredly have shaped a different course from that which he was unconsciously steering.
Joseph’s journey to London was occasioned by his very natural anxiety to assure himself that Crispin was caught in the toils of the net he had so cunningly baited for him, and that at Castle Marleigh he would trouble them no more. To this end he quitted Sheringham on the day after Crispin’s departure.
Not a little perplexed was Cynthia at the topsy-turvydom in which that morning she had found her father’s house. Kenneth was gone; he had left in the dead of night, and seemingly in haste and suddenness, since on the previous evening there had been no talk of his departing. Her father was abed with a wound that made him feverish. Their grooms were all sick, and wandered in a dazed and witless fashion about the castle, their faces deadly pale and their eyes lustreless. In the hall she had found a chaotic disorder upon descending, and one of the panels of the wainscot she saw was freshly cracked.
Slowly the idea forced itself upon her mind that there had been brawling the night before, yet was she far from surmising the motives that could have led to it. The conclusion she came to in the end was that the men had drunk deep, that in their cups they had waxed quarrelsome, and that swords had been drawn.
Of Joseph then she sought enlightenment, and Joseph lied right handsomely, like the ready-witted knave he was. A wondrously plausible story had he for her ear; a story that played cunningly upon her knowledge of the compact that existed between Kenneth and Sir Crispin.
“You may not know,’ said he – full well aware that she did know – “that when Galliard saved Kenneth’s life at Worcester he exacted from the lad the promise that in return Kenneth should aid him in some vengeful business he had on hand.”
Cynthia nodded that she understood or that she knew, and glibly Joseph pursued:
“Last night, when on the point of departing, Crispin, who had drunk over-freely, as is his custom, reminded Kenneth of his plighted word, and demanded of the boy that he should upon the instant go forth with him. Kenneth replied that the hour was overlate to be setting out upon a journey, and he requested Galliard to wait until to-day, when he would be ready to fulfil what he had promised. But Crispin retorted that Kenneth was bound by his oath to go with him when he should require it, and again he bade the boy make ready at once. Words ensued between them, the boy insisting upon waiting until to-day, and Crispin insisting upon his getting his boots and cloak and coming with him there and then. More heated grew the argument, till in the end Galliard, being put out of temper, snatched at his sword, and would assuredly have spitted the boy had not your father interposed, thereby getting himself wounded. Thereafter, in his drunken lust Sir Crispin went the length of wantonly cracking that panel with his sword by way of showing Kenneth what he had to expect unless he obeyed him. At that I intervened, and using my influence, I prevailed upon Kenneth to go with Galliard as he demanded. To this, for all his reluctance, Kenneth ended by consenting, and so they are gone.”
By that most glib and specious explanation Cynthia was convinced. True, she added a question touching the amazing condition of the grooms, in reply to which Joseph afforded her a part of the truth.
“Sir Crispin sent them some wine, and they drank to his departure so heartily that they are not rightly sober yet.”
Satisfied with this explanation Cynthia repaired to her father.
Now Gregory had not agreed with Joseph what narrative they were to offer Cynthia, for it had never crossed his dull mind that the disorder of the hall and the absence of Kenneth might cause her astonishment. And so when she touched upon the matter of his wound, like the blundering fool he was, he must needs let his tongue wag upon a tale which, if no less imaginative than Joseph’s, was vastly its inferior in plausibility and had yet the quality of differing from it totally in substance.
“Plague on that dog, your lover, Cynthia,” he growled from the mountain of pillows that propped him. “If he should come to wed my daughter after pinning me to the wainscot of my own hall may I be for ever damned.”
“How?” quoth she. “Do you say that Kenneth did it?”
“Aye, did he. He ran at me ere I could draw, like the coward he is, sink him, and had me through the shoulder in the twinkling of an eye.”
Here was something beyond her understanding. What were they concealing from her? She set her wits to the discovery and plied her father with another question.
“How came you to quarrel?”
“How? ‘Twas – ’twas concerning you, child,” replied Gregory at random, and unable to think of a likelier motive.
“How, concerning me?”
“Leave me, Cynthia,” he groaned in despair. “Go, child. I am grievously wounded. I have the fever, girl. Go; let me sleep.”
“But tell me, father, what passed.”
“Unnatural child,” whined Gregory feebly, “will you plague a sick man with questions? Would you keep him from the sleep that may mean recovery to him?”
“Father, dear,” she murmured softly, “if I thought it was as you say, I would leave you. But you know that you are but attempting to conceal something from me something that I should know, that I must know. Bethink you that it is of my lover that you have spoken.”
By a stupendous effort Gregory shaped a story that to him seemed likely.
“Well, then, since know you must,” he answered, “this is what befell: we had all drunk over-deep to our shame do I confess it – and growing tenderhearted for you, and bethinking me of your professed distaste to Kenneth’s suit, I told him that for all the results that were likely to attend his sojourn at Castle Marleigh, he might as well bear Crispin company in his departure. He flared up at that, and demanded of me that I should read him my riddle. Faith, I did by telling him that we were like to have snow on midsummer’s day ere he ‘became your husband. That speech of mine so angered him, being as he was all addled with wine and ripe for any madness, that he sprang up and drew on me there and then. The others sought to get between us, but he was over-quick, and before I could do more than rise from the table his sword was through my shoulder and into the wainscot at my back. After that it was clear he could not remain here, and I demanded that he should leave upon the instant. Himself he was nothing loath, for he realized his folly, and he misliked the gleam of Joseph’s eye – which can be wondrous wicked upon occasion. Indeed, but for my intercession Joseph had laid him stark.”
That both her uncle and her father had lied to her – the one cunningly, the other stupidly – she had never a doubt, and vaguely uneasy was Cynthia to learn the truth. Later that day the castle was busy with the bustle of Joseph’s departure, and this again was a matter that puzzled her.
“Whither do you journey, uncle?” she asked of him as he was in the act of stepping out to enter the waiting carriage.
“To London, sweet cousin,” was his brisk reply. “I am, it seems, becoming a very vagrant in my old age. Have you commands for me?”
“What is it you look to do in London?”
“There, child, let that be for the present. I will tell you perhaps when I return. The door, Stephen.”
She watched his departure with uneasy eyes and uneasy heart. A fear pervaded her that in all that had befallen, in all that was befalling still – what ever it might be – some evil was at work, and an evil that had Crispin for its scope. She had neither reason nor evidence from which to draw this inference. It was no more than the instinct whose voice cries out to us at times a presage of ill, and oftentimes compels our attention in a degree far higher than any evidence could command.
The fear that was in her urged her to seek what information she could on every hand, but without success. From none could she cull the merest scrap of evidence to assist her.
But on the morrow she had information as prodigal as it was unlooked-for, and from the unlikeliest of sources – her father himself. Chafing at his inaction and lured into indiscretions by the subsiding of the pain of his wound, Gregory quitted his bed and came below that night to sup with his daughter. As his wont had been for years, he drank freely. That done, alive to the voice of his conscience, and seeking to drown its loud- tongued cry, he drank more freely still, so that in the end his henchman, Stephen, was forced to carry him to bed.
This Stephen had grown grey in the service of the Ashburns, and amongst much valuable knowledge that he had amassed, was a skill in dealing with wounds and a wide understanding of the ways to go about healing them. This knowledge made him realize how unwise at such a season was Gregory’s debauch, and sorrowfully did he wag his head over his master’s condition of stupor.
Stephen had grave fears concerning him, and these fears were realized when upon the morrow Gregory awoke on fire with the fever. They summoned a leech from Sheringham, and this cunning knave, with a view to adding importance to the cure he was come to effect, and which in reality presented no alarming difficulty, shook his head with ominous gravity, and whilst promising to do “all that his skill permitted, he spoke of a clergyman to help Gregory make his peace with God. For the leech had no cause to suspect that the whole of the Sacred College might have found the task beyond its powers.
A wild fear took Gregory in its grip. How could he die with such a load as that which he now carried upon his soul? And the leech, seeing how the matter preyed upon his patient’s mind, made shift – but too late – to tranquillize him with assurances that he was not really like to die, and that he had but mentioned a parson so that Gregory in any case should be prepared.
The storm once raised, however, was not so easily to be allayed, and the conviction remained with Gregory that his sands were well-nigh run, and that the end could be but a matter of days in coming.
Realizing as he did how richly he had earned damnation, a frantic terror was upon him, and all that day he tossed and turned, now blaspheming, now praying, now weeping. His life had been indeed one protracted course of wrong-doing, and many had suffered by Gregory’s evil ways – many a man and many a woman. But as the stars pale and fade when the sun mounts the sky, so too were the lesser wrongs that marked his earthly pilgrimage of sin rendered pale or blotted into insignificance by the greater wrong he had done Ronald Marleigh – a wrong which was not ended yet, but whose completion Joseph was even then working to effect. If only he could save Crispin even now in the eleventh hour; if by some means he could warn him not to repair to the sign of the Anchor in Thames Street. His disordered mind took no account of the fact that in the time that was sped since Galliard’s departure, the knight should already have reached London.
And so it came about that, consumed at once by the desire to make confession to whomsoever it might be, and the wish to attempt yet to avert the crowning evil of whose planning he was partly guilty inasmuch as he had tacitly consented to Joseph’s schemes, Gregory called for his daughter. She came readily enough, hoping for exactly that which was about to take place, yet fearing sorely that her hopes would suffer frustration, and that she would learn nothing from her father.
“Cynthia,” he cried, in mingled dread and sorrow, “Cynthia, my child, I am about to die.”
She knew both from Stephen and from the leech that this was far from being his condition. Nevertheless her filial piety was at that moment a touching sight. She smoothed his pillows with a gentle grace that was in itself a soothing caress, even as her soft sympathetic voice was a caress. She took his hand, and spoke to him endearingly, seeking to relieve the sombre mood whose prey he was become, assuring him that the leech had told her his danger was none so imminent, and that with quiet and a little care he would be up and about again ere many days were sped. But Gregory rejected hopelessly all efforts at consolation.
“I am on my death-bed, Cynthia,” he insisted, “and when I am gone I know not whom there may be to cheer and comfort your lot in life. Your lover is away on an errand of Joseph’s, and it may well betide that he will never again cross the threshold of Castle Marleigh. Unnatural though I may seem, sweetheart, my dying wish is that this may be so.”
She looked up in some surprise.
“Father, if that be all that grieves you, I can reassure you. I do not love Kenneth.”
“You apprehend me amiss,” said he tartly. “Do you recall the story of Sir Crispin Galliard’s life that you had from Kenneth on the night of Joseph’s return?” His voice shook as he put the question.
“Why, yes. I am not like to forget it, and nightly do I pray,” she went on, her tongue outrunning discretion and betraying her feelings for Galliard, “that God may punish those murderers who wrecked his existence.”
“Hush, girl,” he whispered in a quavering voice. “You know not what you say.”
“Indeed I do; and as there is a just God my prayer shall be answered.”
“Cynthia,” he wailed. His eyes were wild, and the hand that rested in hers trembled violently. “Do you know that it is against your father and your father’s brother that you invoke God’s vengeance?”
She had been kneeling at his bedside; but now, when he pronounced those words, she rose slowly and stood silent for a spell, her eyes seeking his with an awful look that he dared not meet. At last:
“Oh, you rave,” she protested, “it is the fever.”
“Nay, child, my mind is clear, and what I have said is true.”
“True?” she echoed, no louder than a whisper, and her eyes grew round with horror. “True that you and my uncle are the butchers who slew their cousin, this man’s wife, and sought to murder him as well – leaving him for dead? True that you are the thieves who claiming kinship by virtue of that very marriage have usurped his estates and this his castle during all these years, whilst he himself went an outcast, homeless and destitute? Is that what you ask me to believe?”
“Even so,” he assented, with a feeble sob.
Her face was pale – white to the very lips, and her blue eyes smouldered behind the shelter of her drooping lids. She put her hand to her breast, then to her brow, pushing back the brown hair by a mechanical gesture that was pathetic in the tale of pain it told. For support she was leaning now against the wall by the head of his couch. In silence she stood so while you might count to twenty; then with a sudden vehemence revealing the passion of anger and grief that swayed her:
“Why,” she cried, “why in God’s name do you tell me this?”
“Why?” His utterance was thick, and his eyes, that were grown dull as a snake’s, stared straight before him, daring not to meet his daughter’s glance. “I tell it you,” he said, “because I am a dying man.” And he hoped that the consideration of that momentous fact might melt her, and might by pity win her back to him – that she was lost to him he realized.
“I tell you because I am a dying man,” he repeated. “I tell it you because in such an hour I fain would make confession and repent, that God may have mercy upon my soul. I tell it you, too, because the tragedy begun eighteen years ago is not yet played out, and it may yet be mine to avert the end we had prepared – Joseph and I. Thus perhaps a merciful God will place it in my power to make some reparation. Listen, child. It was against us, as you will have guessed, that Galliard enlisted Kenneth’s services, and here on the night of Joseph’s return he called upon the boy to fulfil him what he had sworn. The lad had no choice but to obey; indeed, I forced him to it by attacking him and compelling him to draw, which is how I came by this wound.
“Crispin had of a certainty killed Joseph but that your uncle bethought him of telling him that his son lived.”
“He saved his life by a lie! That was worthy of him,” said Cynthia scornfully.
“Nay, child, he spoke the truth, and when Joseph offered to restore the boy to him, he had every intention of so doing. But in the moment of writing the superscription to the letter Crispin was to bear to those that had reared the child, Joseph bethought him of a foul scheme for Galliard’s final destruction. And so he has sent him to London instead, to a house in Thames Street, where dwells one Colonel Pride, who bears Sir Crispin a heavy grudge, and into whose hands he will be thus delivered. Can aught be done, Cynthia, to arrest this – to save Sir Crispin from Joseph’s snare?”
“As well might you seek to restore the breath to a dead man,” she answered, and her voice was so oddly calm, so cold and bare of expression, that Gregory shuddered to hear it.
“Do not delude yourself,” she added. “Sir Crispin will have reached London long ere this, and by now Joseph will be well on his way to see that there is no mistake made, and that the life you ruined hopelessly years ago is plucked at last from this unfortunate man. Merciful God! am I truly your daughter?” she cried. “Is my name indeed Ashburn, and have I been reared upon the estates that by crime you gained possession of? Estates that by crime you hold – for they are his; every stone, every stick that goes to make the place belongs to him, and now he has gone to his death by your contriving.”
A moan escaped her, and she covered her face with her hands. A moment she stood rocking there – a fair, lissom plant swept by a gale of ineffable emotion. Then the breath seemed to go all out of her in one great sigh, and Gregory, who dared not look her way, heard the swish of her gown, followed by a thud as she collapsed and lay swooning on the ground.
So disturbed at that was Gregory’s spirit that, forgetting his wound, his fever, and the death which he had believed impending, he leapt from his couch, and throwing wide the door, bellowed lustily for Stephen. In frightened haste came his henchman to answer the petulant summons, and in obedience to Gregory’s commands he went off again as quickly in quest of Catherine – Cynthia’s woman.
Between them they bore the unconscious girl to her chamber, leaving Gregory to curse himself for having been lured into a confession that it now seemed to him had been unnecessary, since in his newly found vitality he realized that death was none so near a thing as that scoundrelly fool of a leech had led him to believe.
THE WOOING OF CYNTHIA
Cynthia’s swoon was after all but brief. Upon recovering consciousness her first act was to dismiss her woman. She had need to be alone – the need of the animal that is wounded to creep into its lair and hide itself. And so alone with her sorrow she sat through that long day.
That her father’s condition was grievous she knew to be untrue, so that concerning him there was not even that pity that she might have felt had she believed – as he would have had her believe that he was dying.
As she pondered the monstrous disclosure he had made, her heart hardened against him, and even as she had asked him whether indeed she was his daughter, so now she vowed to herself that she would be his daughter no longer. She would leave Castle Marleigh, never again to set eyes upon her father, and she hoped that during the little time she must yet remain there – a day, or two at most – she might be spared the ordeal of again meeting a parent for whom respect was dead, and who inspired her with just that feeling of horror she must have for any man who confessed himself a murderer and a thief.
She resolved to repair to London to a sister of her mother’s, where for her dead mother’s sake she would find a haven extended readily.
At eventide she came at last from her chamber.
She had need of air, need of the balm that nature alone can offer in solitude to poor wounded human souls.
It was a mild and sunny evening, worthy rather of August than of October, and aimlessly Mistress Cynthia wandered towards the cliffs overlooking Sheringham Hithe. There she sate herself in sad dejection upon the grass, and gazed wistfully seaward, her mind straying now from the sorry theme that had held dominion in it, to the memories that very spot evoked.
It was there, sitting as she sat now, her eyes upon the shimmering waste of sea, and the gulls circling overhead, that she had awakened to the knowledge of her love for Crispin. And so to him strayed now her thoughts, and to the fate her father had sent him to; and thus back again to her father and the evil he had wrought. It is matter for conjecture whether her loathing for Gregory would have been as intense as it was, had another than Crispin Galliard been his victim.
Her life seemed at an end as she sat that October evening on the cliffs. No single interest linked her to existence; nothing, it seemed, was left her to hope for till the end should come – and no doubt it would be long in coming, for time moves slowly when we wait.
Wistful she sat and thought, and every thought begat a sigh, and then of a sudden – surely her ears had tricked her, enslaved by her imagination – a crisp, metallic voice rang out close behind her.
“Why are we pensive, Mistress Cynthia?”
There was a catch in her breath as she turned her head. Her cheeks took fire, and for a second were aflame. Then they went deadly white, and it seemed that time and life and the very world had paused in its relentless progress towards eternity. For there stood the object of her thoughts and sighs, sudden and unexpected, as though the earth had cast him up on to her surface.
His thin lips were parted in a smile that softened wondrously the harshness of his face, and his eyes seemed then to her alight with kindness. A moment’s pause there was, during which she sought her voice, and when she had found it, all that she could falter was:
“Sir, how came you here? They told me that you rode to London.”
“Why, so I did. But on the road I chanced to halt, and having halted I discovered reason why I should return.”
He had discovered a reason. She asked herself breathlessly what might that reason be, and finding herself no answer to the question, she put it next to him.
He drew near to her before replying. “May I sit with you awhile, Cynthia?”
She moved aside to make room for him, as though the broad cliff had been a narrow ledge, and with the sigh of a weary man finding a resting-place at last, he sank down beside her.
There was a tenderness in his voice that set her pulses stirring wildly. Did she guess aright the reason that had caused him to break his journey and return? That he had done so – no matter what the reason – she thanked God from her inmost heart, as for a miracle that had saved him from the doom awaiting him in London town.
“Am I presumptuous, child, to think that haply the meditation in which I found you rapt was for one, unworthy though he be, who went hence but some few days since?”
The ambiguous question drove every thought from her mind, filling it to overflowing with the supreme good of his presence, and the frantic hope that she had read aright the reason of it.
“Have I conjectured rightly?” he asked, since she kept silence.
“Mayhap you have,” she whispered in return, and then, marvelling at her boldness, blushed. He glanced sharply at her from narrowing eyes. It was not the answer he had looked to hear.
As a father might have done he took the slender hand that rested upon the grass beside him, and she, poor child, mistaking the promptings of that action, suffered it to lie in his strong grasp. With averted head she gazed upon the sea below, until a mist of tears rose up to blot it out. The breeze seemed full of melody and gladness. God was very good to her, and sent her in her hour of need this great consolation – a consolation indeed that must have served to efface whatever sorrow could have beset her.
“Why then, sweet lady, is my task that I had feared to find all fraught with difficulty, grown easy indeed.”
And hearing him pause:
“What task is that, Sir Crispin?” she asked, intent on helping him.
He did not reply at once. He found it difficult to devise an answer. To tell her brutally that he was come to bear her away, willing or unwilling, on behalf of another, was not easy. Indeed, it was impossible, and he was glad that inclinations in her which he had little dreamt of, put the necessity aside.
“My task, Mistress Cynthia, is to bear you hence. To ask you to resign this peaceful life, this quiet home in a little corner of the world, and to go forth to bear life’s hardships with one who, whatever be his shortcomings, has the all-redeeming virtue of loving you beyond aught else in life.”
He gazed intently at her as he spoke, and her eyes fell before his glance. He noted the warm, red blood suffusing her cheeks, her brow, her very neck; and he could have laughed aloud for joy at finding so simple that which he had feared would prove so hard. Some pity, too, crept unaccountably into his stern heart, fathered by the little faith which in his inmost soul he reposed in Jocelyn. And where, had she resisted him, he would have grown harsh and violent, her acquiescence struck the weapons from his hands, and he caught himself well-nigh warning her against accompanying him.
“It is much to ask,” he said. “But love is selfish, and love asks much.”
“No, no,” she protested softly, “it is not much to ask. Rather is it much to offer.”
At that he was aghast. Yet he continued:
“Bethink you, Mistress Cynthia, I have ridden back to Sheringham to ask you to come with me into France, where my son awaits us?”
He forgot for the moment that she was in ignorance of his relationship to him he looked upon as her lover, whilst she gave this mention of his son, of whose existence she had already heard from her; father, little thought at that moment. The hour was too full of other things that touched her more nearly.
“I ask you to abandon the ease and peace of Sheringham for a life as a soldier’s bride that may be rough and precarious for a while, though, truth to tell, I have some influence at the Luxembourg, and friends upon whose assistance I can safely count, to find your husband honourable employment, and set him on the road to more. And how, guided by so sweet a saint, can he but mount to fame and honour?”
She spoke no word, but the hand resting in his entwined his fingers in an answering pressure.
“Dare I then ask so much?” cried he. And as if the ambiguity which had marked his speech were not enough, he must needs, as he put this question, bend in his eagerness towards her until her brown tresses touched his swart cheek. Was it then strange that the eagerness wherewith he urged another’s suit should have been by her interpreted as her heart would have had it?
She set her hands upon his shoulders, and meeting his eager gaze with the frank glance of the maid who, out of trust, is fearless in her surrender:
“Throughout my life I shall thank God that you have dared it,” she made answer softly.