HIS MAJESTY’S WELL-BELOVED
Author of “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” etc.
CHAPTER EIGHT The Lion’s Wrath I
HIS Majesty the King was, of course, inaccessible to such as I. And the time was short. Did I say that the hour was even then after six? The streets were very dark, for overhead the sky was overcast, and as I walked rapidly down the Lane to the Temple Stairs, a thin, penetrating drizzle began to fall.
My first thought had been to take boat to Westminster and to go to the house of Mr. Betterton in Tothill Street, there to consult with him as to what would be my best course to pursue.
But I feel sure that You, dear Mistress, will understand me when I say, that I felt a certain pride in keeping my present Project to myself.
I was not egotistical enough to persuade myself that love of Country and loyalty to my King were the sole motive powers of my Resolve.
My innermost Heart, my Conscience perhaps, told me that an ugly Desire for Revenge had helped to stimulate my patriotic Ardour. I had realized that it lay in my power to avenge upon an impious Malapert the hideous Outrage which he had penetrated against
the Man whom I loved best in all the world.
I had realized, in fact, that I could become the instrument of Mr. Betterton’s Revenge.
That my Denunciation of the abominable Conspiracy would involve the Disgrace—probably the Death—of others who were nothing to me, I did not pause to consider. They were all Traitors, anyhow! and all of them deserving of punishment.
So on the whole, I decided to act for myself. When I had seen the Countess of Castlemaine and had put her on her guard, I would go to Mr. Betterton and tell him what I had done.
I beg you to believe, hawever, dear Mistress, that no thought of any reward had entered my mind, other than a word of Appreciation from my Friend.
I HAD, as perhaps you know, a slight acquaintance with Mistress Floid, who is one of my Lady Castlemaine’s tirewomen. Through her, I obtained speech with her Ladyship.
It was not very difficult. I sent in the two Documents through Mistress Floid’s hands. Five minutes later I was told that my Lady desired speech with me.
Of my interview with her Ladyship I have only a confused memory. I know that she asked many questions and listened to my stammering Replies with obvious impatience; but I have only a very vague recollection of her flashing Eyes, of her Face, flaming with anger, of her jewelled Hand clutching the documents which I had brought, and of the torrent of vituperative abuse which she poured upon the Traitors, who she vowed would pay with their lives for their Infamy. I know that, in the end, I was allowed to kiss her hand and that she thanked me in her own Name and that of His Majesty for my Loyalty and my Discretion.
I went out of the room and out of the house like a Man in a dream. A whirl of conflicting Emotions was rending my heart and my brain, until sheer physical nausea caused me nigh to swoon.
Truly it was a terrible Experience for a simpleminded Clerk to go through, and it is a marvel to me that my brain did not give way under the Strain.
But my instinct—like that of a faithful dog seeking shelter—led me to the lodgings of Mr. Betterton in Tothill Street, the very house in which his father had lived before him.
He had not yet returned from the Theatre, where he was at Rehearsal; but his Servant knew me well and allowed me to go up into the parlour and to lie down upon the sofa for a moment’s rest.
It was then nearing seven, and I knew that Mr. Betterton would soon be coming home. I now felt infinitely weary: numbness of body and brain had followed the conflicting Emotions of the past hours, and I was only conscious of an overwhelming desire to rest.
I closed my eyes. The place was warm and still; a veritable Haven of Quietude. And it was the place where dwelt the Man for whose sake I had just done so much. For awhile I watched the play of the firelight upon the various articles of furniture in the room; but soon a pleasing Torpor invaded my tired Brain, and I fell asleep.
npHE sound of Voices upon the landing outside, the opening and closing of one door and then another, recalled me to myself. The familiar sound of my Friend’s footsteps gave me an infinity of Pleasure.
The next moment Mr. Betterton came into the room. He was preceded by his Servant, who brought in a couple of Candles which he placed upon the table. Apparently he had said nothing to his Master about my presence here, for Mr. Betterton seemed vastly surprised when he saw me. I had just jumped to my
SYNOPSIS.—This is the story of Thomas Betterton, a famous actor, and Joyce Saunderson, as told by John Honeywood, clerk to Theophilus Baggs, a lawyer. Betterton is infatuated with Lady Barbara Wychwoode. His attentions to her are resented by her brother, and by Lord Stour, her lover, and they hire some ruffians to make a dastardly attack on him. They refuse to accept Betterton’s challenge to a duel, considering him as beneath their notice. Baggs, Stour and Lord Douglas Wychwoode are engaged in a plot to seize and dethrone King Charles II., and Honeywood is ordered to make copies of a treasonable document in connection with the plot. To avenge Betterton Honeywood decides to disclose the plot to Lady Caatlemaine.
feet when I heard him entering the room, and I suppose that I must have looked somewhat wild and dishevelled, for he expressed great astonishment at my Appearance. Astonishment, and also Pleasure.
“Why, friend Honeywood!” he exclaimed, and came to greet me with both hands outstretched. “What favourable Wind hath blown you to this port?”
He looked tired and ,ery much aged, mechought. He, a young Man, then in the prime of Life, looked harassed and weary; all the Elasticity seemed to have gone out of his Movements, all the Springiness from his Footstep. He sat down and rested his elbows on his knees, clasped his slender hands together and stared moodily into the fire.
I watched him for awhile. His clear-cut Profile was outlined like an Italian Cameo against the dark angle of the room; the firelight gave a strange glow to his expressive Eyes and to the sensitive Mouth with the firm lips pressed closely together, as if they would hold some Secret which was even then threatening to escape.
That look of dark and introspective Brooding sat more apparent now than ever upon his mobile face, and I marvelled if the News which I was about to impart would tend to dissipate that reckless, searching glance, which seemed for ever to be probing into the future decrees of Fate.
“I have come to tell you news, Sir,” I said after awhile.
He started as from a Reverie, and said half-absently :
“News? What news, friend? Good, I hope.”
“Yes,” I replied very quietly, even though I felt that my heart wras beating fast within my breast with excitement. “Good news of the Man You Hate.”
He made no reply for the moment, and even by the dim, uncertain light of the fire I could see the quick change in his face. I cannot explain it exactly, but it seemed as if something Evil had swept over it, changing every noble line into something that was almost repellent.
My heart beat faster still. I wTas beginning to feel afraid and a queer, choking Sensation gripped me by the throat and silenced the Words which were struggling to come to my lips.
“Well?” queried Mr. Betterton a second or two later, in a calm, dull, unemotional Voice. “What is thy news, friend Honeywrood?”
“There is a plot,” I replied, still speaking with an effort, “against His Majesty and the Countess of Castlemaine.”
“I knew that,” he rejoined. “’Tis no news. There is more than one plot, in fact, against the King and the Castlemaine. You surely haven’t come out on this wret night,” he added w’ith a mirthless laugh, “in order to tell me that!”
A FTER all that I had gone through, after my tussle ^ with my conscience and my fight against myself,
I felt nettled by his flippant tone.
“I know not,” I said firmly, “if there is more than one plot against His Majesty the King. But I do know that here is one which aims at striking at his sacred Person to-night.”
“That also is possible,” he retorted, wfith still that same air of flippant Carelessness. “But even so, I do not see, my dear Friend, what You can do in the matter.” “I can denounce the Plot,” I riposted warmly, “and help to save the life of His Majesty the King.”
“So you can, my dear Honeywood,” he said with a smile, amused at my vehemence. “So you can: And
upon the King’s gratitude you may lay the foundations of vour future Fortune.”
“I w'as not thinking of a Fortune,” I retorted gruffly; “only of Revenge.”
At this he looked up suddenly, leaned forward and in the firelight tried to read my face.
“Revenge?” he queried curtly. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” I replied earnestly, “that the Plot of which I speak is real, tangible and damnable. That a set of young Gallants have arranged between themselves to waylay His Majesty the King this night in the house of the Countess of Castlemaine, to kidnap his sacred Person, force him to abdicate, then proclaim the Duke of Monmouth King and. the Prince of Orange Regent of the Realm.”
“How do you know all this, Honeywood?” Mr. Betterton rejoined quietly, dragged, meseemed, out of ¿lis former Cynicism by the earnestness of my manner.
“I was one of the first to know of it,” I replied, “because on a certain day in September I was employed in copying the Manifesto wherewith that pack of Traitors hoped to rally distant Friends around their Standard. For awhile I heard nothing more of the Affair, thought the whole thing had sizzled out like a fire devoid of fuel ; until to-day, when the Conspirators once more met in the House of Mr. Theophilus Baggs and arranged to carry their execrable Project through to-night. Careless of my presence, they planned and discussed their Affairs in my hearing. They thought, I suppose, that I, like Mr. Baggs, was one of their Gang.”
Gradually, while I spoke, I could see the dawn of Comprehension illumining Mr. Betterton’s face. He still was silent, and let me speak on to the end. He was once more gazing into the fire; his arms were resting on his knees, but his hands were beating one against the other, fi3t to palm, with a violent, intermittent Gesture, which proclaimed his growing Impatience.
Then suddenly he raised his head, looked me once more straight in the eyes, and said slowly, reiterating some of my words :
“The Conspirators met in the house of Mr. Theophilus Baggs—then— he—”
“My Lord Stour,” I said, deliberately measuring my words, “is up to his neck in the damnable Conspiracy.”
Still his searching gaze was fixed upon me; and now he put out his hand and clutched my forearm. But he did not speak.
“I was burning with rage,” I said,
“at the insult put upon you by my Lord Stour .... I longed to be revenged ____”
His clutch upon my arm tightened till it felt like a Vice of Steel, and his Voice came to my ear hoarse and almost unrecognizable.
“Honeywood,” he murmured, “what do You mean? What have You done?”
I tried to return his gaze, but it seemed to sear my very Soul. Terror held me now. I scarce could speak.
My Voice carne out in a husky whisper.
“I had a copy of the Manifesto,” I said, “and I knew the names of the Conspirators. I wrote these out and placed them with the Manifesto in the hands of my Lady Castlemaine.”
I~\EAR Mistress, you know the beautiful picture by the great Italian artist Michael Angelo which represents Jove hurling his thunderbolt at some puny human Creature who hath dared to defy him. The flash of Anger expressed by the Artist in the mighty god’s eyes is truly terrifying. Well! that same expression of unbounded and prodigious Wrath flashed out in one instant from the great Actor’s eyes. He jumped to his feet, towered above me like some Giant whom I, in my presumption, had dared to defy.
The flickering candle light warring with the fireglow and its play of ruddy Lights and deep phantasmagoric Shadows, lent size and weirdness to Mr. Betterton’s figure and enhanced the dignity of magnitude of his Presence. His lips were working, and I could see that he had the greatest difficulty in forcing himself to speak coherently.
“You have done that?” he stammered. “You ....?”
“To avenge the deadly insult—” I murmured, frightened to death now by his violence.
“Silence, you fool!” he riposted hoarsely. “Is it given to the Mouse to avenge the hurt done to the Lion?”
I guessed how deeply he was moved by these Words which he spoke, more even than by his Attitude. Never, had he been in his normal frame of mind, would he have said them, knowing how their cruel intent would hurt and wound me.
He was angry with me. Very angry. And I, as yet, was too ignorant, too unsophisticated, to know in what way I had injured him. God knows it had been done unwittingly. And I could not understand what went on in that noble and obviously tortured Brain. I could only sit there and gaze upon him in helpless Bewilderment, as he now started to pace up and down the narrow room in very truth like a caged Lion that hath been teased till it can endure the irritation no longer.
“You are angry with me?” I contrived to stammer at last; and indeed I found much difficulty in keeping the tears which were welling up to mine eyes.
But my timid query only appeared to have the effect of bringing his Exasperation to its highest pitch. He did in truth turn on me as if he were ready to strike me, and I slid down on my Knees, for I felt now really frightened, as his fine voice smote mine ears in thunderous Accents of unbridled Wrath.
“Angry?” he exclaimed. “Angry .... ? I ... .”
Then he paused abruptly, for he had caught sight of me, kneeling there, an humble and, I doubt not, a
pathetic Figure; and, as you know, Mr. Betterton’s heart is ever full of pity for the Lowly and the Weak. By the flickering candle light I could distinguish his noble Features, a moment ago almost distorted with Passion, but now, all of a sudden, illumined by tender Sympathy.
He pulled himself together. I almost could see the Effort of Will wrehewith he curbed that turbulent Passion which had threatened to overmaster him. He passed his hand once or twice across his brow, as if he strode to chase away, by sheer physical Force, the last vestige of his own Anger.
“No—no—” he murmured gently, bent down to me and helped me to my feet. “No, my dear Friend; I am not angry with You .... I—I forgot myself just now .... something seemed to snap in my Brain when you told me that .... When you told me that—” he reiterated slowly; then threw back his head and broke into a laugh. Oh ! such a laugh as I never wish to h°ar again. It was not only mirthless, but the Sound of it did rend my heart until the tears came back to mine eyes; but this time through an overwhelming feeling of Pity.
And yet I did not understand. Neither his Anger nor his obvious Despair were clear to my Comprehension. I hoped he would soon explain, feeling that if he spoke of it, it would ease his heartache. Mine was almost unendurable. I felt that I could cry like a child, Remorse warring with Anxiety in my heart.
Then suddenly Mr. Betterton came close to me, sat down on the sofa beside me and said, with a Recrudescence of his former Vehemence:
“Friend Honeywood, you must go straightway back to my Lady Castlemaine.”
“Yes,” I replied meekly, for I was ready to do anything that he desired.
“Either to my Lady Castlemaine,” he went on, his voice trembling with agitation, “or to her menial first, but ultimately to my Lady Castlemaine. Go on your hands and knees, Honeywood ; crawl, supplicate, lick the dust, swear that the Conspiracy had no existence save in your own disordered brain .... that the Manifesto is a forgery .... the list of Conspirators a factitious one . . . . swear above all that my Lord Stour had no part in the murderous Plot—” I would, dear lady, that mine was the pen of a ready Writer, so that I might give you a clear idea of Mr. Betterton’s strange aspect at that moment. His face was close to mine, yet he did not seem like himself. You know how serene and calm is the Glance of his Eyes as a rule. Well! just then they were strangely luminous and restless; there was a glitter in them, a weird, pale Light that I cannot describe, but which struck me as coming from a Brain that, for the moment, was almost bereft of Reason.
That he was not thinking coherently was obvious to me from what he said. I, who was ready and prepared to do anything that might atone for the Injury, as yet inexplicable, which I had so unwittingly done to him, felt, nevertheless, the entire Futility of his Suggestion. Indeed, was it likely that my Lady Castlemaine’s Suspicions, once aroused, couid so easily be allayed? Whatever I told her now, she would of a surety warn the King—had done so, no doubt, already. Measures would be taken—had already been taken— to trap the infamous Plotters, to catch them red-handed in the Act; if indeed they were guilty. Nay! I could not very well imagine how such great Personages would act under the Circumstances that had come about. But this much I did know: that not one of them would be swayed by the Vagaries of a puny Clerk, who had taken it upon himself to denounce a number of noble Gentlemen for Treason one moment and endeavoured to exonerato them the next. So I could only shako my head and murmur:
“Alas, Sir! all that now would be too late.”
' He looked at me searchingly for a second or two. The Btrange glitter died out from his eyeB, and he gave a deep sigh of weariness and of disappointment. “Aye!” he said. “True! true! It is all too late!” Imagine, dear Mistress, how puzzled I was. What would You have thought of it all, yourself, had your sweet spirit been present then at that hour, when a truly good, yet deeply injured Man bared his Soul before his Friend?
Just for a second or two the Suspicion flashed through my mind that Mr. Betterton himself was in some secret and unaccountable manner mixed up with the abominable Conspiracy. But almost at once my saner Judgment rejected this villainous Suggestion; for of a truth it had no foundation save in Foolishness engendered by a bewildered brain. In truth, I had never seen Mr. Betterton in the Company of any of those Traitors whose names were indelibly graven upon the tablets of my Memory, save on that one occasion—that unforgettable afternoon in September, when he entered the house of Mr. Theophilus Baggs at the hour when Lord Douglas Wychwoode had just entrusted his Manifesto to me. What was said then and what happened afterwards should, God help me! have convinced me that no sort of intimate Connection, political or otherwise, could ever exist between my Lord Stour, Lord Douglas Wychwoode or their Friends, and Mr. Betterton.
EVEN while all these Thoughts and Conjectures were coursing through my brain, my innermost Consciousness kept my Attention fixed upon my friend.
He had once more resumed his restless pacing up and down the narrow room. His slender hands were closely linked together behind his back, and at times he strode quite close to me, so close that the skirts of his fashionably cut coat brushed against my knee. From time to time disconnected Phrases came to his lips, he was talking to himself, a thing which I had never known him do before.
“I, who wished to return Taunt for Taunt and Infamy for Infamy!” he said at one time. And at another: “To-day . . . in
a few hours perhaps, that young Coxcomb will be in the Tower .... and then the Scaffold!”
I listened as attentively as I could, without seeming to do so, thinking that, if I only caught more of these confused Mutterings, the Puzzle, such as it was, would become more clear to me. Picture the two of us then, dear Mistress, in the semi-darkness, with only fitful candle light to bring into occasional bold relief the fine Figure of the great Actor pacing up and down like a restless and tortured Beast; and mine own meagre Form cowering in an angle of the sofa, straining mixxe ears to catch every syllable that came from my Friend’s lips, and mine eyes to note every Change of his Countenance.
“She will think ’twas I who spied upon him,” heard him say quite distinctly through his clenched teeth. “I who betrayed him, her Friends, her Brother.
“He will die a martyr to the cause she loves,” he murmured a few moments later. “A Hero to his Friends—to her a demigod whose Memory she will worship.”
Then he paused, and added in a loud and firm voice, apostrophizing, God knows what Spirits of Hate and of Vengeance whom he had summoned :
“And that is to be my Revenge for the deadliest Insult Man ever put upon Man! .... Ha! ha! Ixa!
ha!” he laughed, with weird Incontinence. “God above us, save me from my Friends and let me deal alone with mine Eixemies!”
T JE fell back into the nearest chair and, x'esting his -*-■1 elbows on his knees, he pressed his forehead against his clenched fists. I stared at him, mute, dumbfounded. For now I understood. I knew what I had done, knew what he desired, what he had striven for and planned all these past weary weeks. His Hopes, his Desix'es, I had frustrated. I, his Friend, who would have given my Life for his welfai'e!
I had been heart-brokexx befoi'e. I was doubly so now. I slid from the sofa once more on my knees and, not daring to touch him, I just i-emained there, sobbing and moaning in helpless Dejection and Remorse:
“What can I do?—what can I do?”
He looked at me, obviously dazed. He had apparently become quite oblivious of my presence. Once more that look of tender Commiseration came into his eye=, and he said with a gently ironical smile:
“You? Poor little, feeble Mouse, who has gnawed at the Giant’s prey—what can you do? .... Why, nothing. Go back to our mutual Friend, Mr. Theophilus Baggs, and tell him to make his way—and quickly too—to some obscux'e corner of the Country, for he also is up to the neck in that damnable Conspiracy.”
This set my mind to a fresh tx'ain of thought.
“Shall I to my Lord Stour by the same token?” I asked eagerly.
“To my Lord Stour?” he queried, with a puzzled frown. “What for?”
“To warn him,” I replied. “Give him a chance of escape. I could tell him you sent me,” I added tentatively.
“No, no, my Friend,” he said drily. “We’ll uot quite
go to that length. Give him a chance of Escape?” he reiterated. “And tell him I sent You? No, No! He would only look upon my supposed Magnanimity as a sign of cringing Humility, Obsequiousness and Terror of further Reprisals. No, no, my Friend; I’ll not give the gay young Spark another chance of insxxlt.ing me . . . . But let me think .... let me think . . : : Oh, if only I had a few days before me, instead of a mere few hours! .... And if only my Lady Castlemaine . . .” He paused, and I broke in on the impulse of the moment.
“Oh, Sir! hath not the Countess of Castlemaine vowed often of late that she would grant any Favour that the great Mr. Betterton would ask of her?”
No sooner were the words out of my mouth than I regretted them. It must have been Instinct, for they seemed innocent enough at the time. My only thought in uttering them was to suggest that at Mr. Betterton’s request the Traitors should be pardoned. My Lady Castlemaine in those days held the King wholly under her Domination. And I still believed that my Friend desired nothing so much at this moment than that my Lord Stour should xxot die a Hero’s death— a Martyr to the cause which the beautiful Lady Barbara had at heart.
But since that hour, whenever I have looked back upon the Sequence of Events which followed on my impulsive Utterance, I could not help but think that Destiny had put the words into my mouth. She had need of me as her tool. What had to be, had to be. You, dear Mistress, can now judge whether Mr. Betterton is still worthy of your Love, whether he is still worthy to be taken back into your Heart. For verily my words did make the turning point in the workings of his Soul. But I should never have dared to tell You all that happened, face to face, and I desired to speak of the matter impartially. Therefore I chose tlxe medium of a pen, so that I xnight make You understand and, understanding, be ready to forgive.
CHAPTER NINE A Last Chance I
/^VF course what happened subsequently I can only tell for the most part from what Mr. Bettex'ton told me himself, and also from one or two Facts revealed to me by Mistress Pyncheon.
At tlxe moment, Mr. Betterton commended me for my Suggestion, rested his Hand with all his former affectionate manner upon ïxxy Shoulder, and said quite simply:
“I thank you, Friend, for reminding xxie of this. My Lady Castlemaine did indeed last night intimate to me that she felt ready to grant any Favour I might ask of her. Well! I will not put her Magnanimity to an over severe test. Come with me, friend Honey wood. We’ll to her Ladyship. There will be plenty of time after that to go and warn that worthy Mr. Baggs and my equally worthy Sister. I should xxot like them to end their Days upon the Scaffold. So heroic an Ending doth not seem suitable to their drabby Existence, and woxxld war with all pre-conceived dramatic Values.”
He then called to his Mar. and ordei’ed a couple of Linkmen to be in readiness to guide us through the Streets, as these were far from safe for peaceful Pedestrians after dark! Then he demanded his Hat and Cloak, and a minute or so later he bade me follow him, and together we went out of the House.
Continued on page 82
His Majesty’s Well Beloved
Continued from page 40
IT was now raining heavily, and we wrapped our Cloaks tightly round our Shoulders, speeding along as fast as we could. The Streets were almost deserted and as dreary as London Streets alone can be on a November evening. Only from the closed Windows of an occasional Tavern or Coffee-House did a few rays of bright light fall across the Street, throwing a vivid bar of Brilliance across our way and turning the hundreds of Puddles into shining Reflections like so many glimmering Stars.
For the rest, wre were dependent on the Linkmen, who wralked ahead of us, swinging their Lanterns for guidance on our path. Being somewhat timid by nature, I had noted with satisfaction that they both carried stout Cudgels, for of a truth there were many Marauders about on dark nights such as this, Footpads and Highway Robbers, not to mention those bands of young Rakes, who found pleasure in “scouring” the Streets o’ nights and molesting the belated Wayfarer.
Mr. Betterton, too, carried a weighted Stick, and he was a Man whom clean, sturdy living had rendered both athletic and powerful. We were soon, both of us, wet to the skin, but Mr. Betterton appeared quite oblivious of discomfort. He walked with a quick step, and I perforce had to keep up with him as best I could.
Hi had told me before we started o ;t that he was bent for my Lady Castlemaine’s House, the rear of which looks down upon the gardens of White Hall.
I knew the way thither just as well as he did. Great was my astonishment, therefore, when having reached the bottom of King street, when we should have turned our Steps northwards, Mr. Betterton suddenly ordered the Linkmen to proceed through Palace Yard in the direction of Westminster Stairs.
I thought that he was suffering from a fit of absentmindedness, which was easily understandable on account of his agitated Frame of Mind; and presently
I called his Attention to his Mistake. He paid no heed to me, however, and continued to walk on until we were some way up Canon’s Row.
Here he called to his Linkmen to halt, and himself paused; then caught hold of my cloak and dragged me under the shelter of a great Gateway belonging to one of those noble mansions which front the river. And he said to me, in a strange and peremptory Voice, hardly raised above a whisper:
“Do you know where we are, Honeywood?”
“Yes,” I said, not a little surprised at the question. “We are at the South End of Canon’s Row. I know this part very well, having often-”
“Very well, then,” he broke in, still in the same imperious manner. “You know that we are under the gateway belonging to the town Mansion of the Earl of Stour, and that the house is some twenty yards up the fore-court.”
“I know the House,” I replied, “now you mention it.”
“Then you will go to my Lord Stour now, Honeywood,” my Friend went on.
“To warn him?” I queried eagerly, for of a truth I was struck with Admiration at this excess of magnanimity on the part of an injured man.
“No,” Mr. Betterton replied curtly. “You will go to my Lord Stour as my Friend and Intermediary. You will tell him that I sent you, because I desire to know if he hath changed his mind and if he is ready to give me Satisfaction for the Insult which he put upon me nigh on two months ago.”
I could not restrain a gasp of surprise.
“But-” I stammered.
“You are not going to play me false, Honeyvvood,” he said simply.
1 hat I swore I would not do. Indeed, he knew well enough that if he commanded me to go to the outermost Ends of the Earth on his errand, or to hold parley with the Devil on his behalf, I would have been eager and ready to do it.
But I must confess that at this moment. I would sooner have parleyed with the Devil than with the Earl of Stour. The Man whom I had denounced, you understand. I felt that the shadow' of Death—conjured by me, menacing and unevasive—would perhaps lie twixt him and me whilst I spoke with him. Yet how could I demur when my Friend besought me?—my Friend, who was gravely troubled because of me.
I promised that I would do as he wished. Whereupon he gave me full instructions. Never had so strange a task been put upon a simple-minded Proletary: for these were matters pertaining to Gentlemen. I knew less than nothing of Duels, affairs of honour, or such like; yet here was I—John Honeywood, an humble Attorney’s Clerk—sent to convey a Challenge for a Duel to a high and noble Lord, in the manner most approved by Tradition.
I was ready to swoon with fright; for, in truth, T am naught but a timid Rustic. In spite of the cold and the rain I felt a rush of hot Blood coursing up and down my Spine. But I learned my Lesson from end to end, and having mastered it, I did not waver.
IEAVING Mr. Betterton under the shelter of the Gateway, I boldly crossed the Fore-court and mounted the couple of Steps which led up to the front Door of the Mansion. The forecourt and the front of the House were very dark, and I was not a little afraid of night Prowlers, who they do say haunt the immediate purlieus of these stately Abodes of the Nobility, ready to fail upon any belated Visitor who might be foolish enough to venture out alone.
Indeed, everything around me was so still and seemed so desolate that an access of Fear seized me, whilst I vainly tried to grope for the Bell-handle in the darkness. I very nearly gave way to my Cowardice then and there, and would have run back to my Friend or called out to the Linkmen for their company, only that at the very moment my Hand came in contact with the iron Bell pull and fastened itself instinctively upon it.
Whereupon the clang of the Bell broke the solemn Silence which reigned around.
I HAD grave difficulty in obtaining access to my Lord Stour, his Servant telling me in the first instance that his Lordship was not at home, and in the second that he was in any event too busy to receive Visitors at this hour. But I have oft been told that I possess the Obstinacy of the Weak, and I was determined that, having come so far, I would not return to Mr. Betterton without having accomplished mine Errand. So, seeing that the Servant with the Officiousness and Insolence of his kind was about to slam the Door in my Face, an inspiration seized me, and taking on a haughty air, I stepped boldly across the Threshold and then commanded the Menial to go to his Lordship at once and announce the visit of Mr. Theophilus Baggs’ Clerk on a matter of the utmost urgency.
I suppose that now I looked both determined and fierce, and after a good deal of hem-ming and haw-ing, the Variet apparently felt that non-compliance with my Desire might bring contumely upon himself; so he went, leaving me most unceremoniously to cool my Heels in the Hali, and returned but a very few minutes later looking distinctly crestfallen and not a little astonished.
His Lordship would see me at once, he announced. Then bade me follow him up the Stairs.
To say that my Heart was beating furiously within my breast would be but a bald statement of my frame of mind. I fully expected that his Lordship, directly he knew that it was not Mr. Baggs who had sent me, would have me ignominiously turned out of the House. However, I was not given much time to indulge in my Conjectures and my Fears, for presently I was ushered inte a large room, dimly lighted by a couple of wax candles and the walls of which, I noticed, were entirely lined with books.
After the menial had closed the door behind me, a voice bade me curtly to come forward and state my errand. Then I saw that my Lord Stour was not alone. He was sitting in a Chair in front of the fire, and opposite to him sat the beautiful Lady Barbara, whilst standing in front of the Hearth, with legs apart and hands thrust in the pockets of his breeches, was Lord Douglas Wychwoode.
What courage was left in me now went down into my shoes. I felt like a Man faced with three Enemies where he had only expected to meet one. My throat felt very dry and my tongue seemed to cleave to my palate. Nevertheless, in response to a reiterated curt Command to state mine Errand, I did so unfalteringly.
“Mr. Thomas Betterton, one of His Majesty’s Well Beloved Servants,” I said, “hath sent me to his Lordship the Earl of Stour.”
My words were greeted with an angry Oath from Lord Douglas, an ironical laugh from my Lord Stour and a strange little gasp, half of terror, wholly of surprise, from Lady Barbara.
“Methought you came from Mr. Baggs,” my Lord Stour remarked haughtily. “So at least you gave my Servant to understand, else you would not have been admitted.”
“Your Lordship’s Servant misunderstood me,” rejoined quite quietly. “I. gave my name as Clerk to Mr. Baggs; but my errand concerns Mr. Thomas Betterton, and he honours me with his friendship.”
“And as Mr. Betterton’s affairs do
not concern me in any way-” his
Lordship began coldly, and would no doubt have dismissed me then and there, but that the Lady Barbara interposed gently yet with great firmness.
“I pray you, my Lord,” she said, “do not be over-hasty. We might at least listen to what Mr. Betterton’s messenger has to say.”
“Yes,” added Lord Douglas in his habitual brusque manner. “Let us hear what the follow wants.”
THIS was not encouraging, you will admit; but, like many over-timid People, there are times when I am conscious of unwonted Calm and Determination. So even now I confronted these two supercilious Gentlemen with as much dignity as I could command, and said, addressing myself directly to the Earl of Stour:
“Mr. Betterton hath sent me to You, my Lord, to demand satisfaction for the abominable outrage which You perpetrated upon his person nigh on two months ago.”
Lord Stour shrugged his shoulders and riposted coldly:
“That tune is stale, my man. Mr. —
er-Betterton has had mine answer.”
“Since then, my Lord,” I insisted firmly, “time hath no doubt brought saner reflection. Mr. Betterton’s Fame and his genius have raised him to a level far above that conferred by mere Birth.”
“Have made a Gentleman of him, you mean?” Lord Stour rejoined with a sarcastic curl of the lip.
“More noble far than any Gentleman in the land,” I retorted proudly.
He gave a harsh laugh.
“In that case, my man,” he said tartly, “you can inform your worthy Friend that two hundred years hence my Descendants might fight him on a comparatively equal footing. But until then,” he added firmly and conclusively, “I must repeat for the last time what I have already told Mr. —
erBetterton: the Earl of Stour
cannot cross Swords with a Mountebank.”
“Take care, my Lord, take care-!”
The Exclamation had burst quite involuntarily from my lips. The next moment I felt ashamed to have uttered it, for my Lord Stour looked me up and down as he would an importunate Menial, and Lord Douglas Wychwoode strode towards me and pointed to the Door.
“Get out!” he commanded curtly. There was nothing more to be done— nothing more to be said, if I desired to retain one last shred of Dignity both for myself and for the great Artist who
—in my person this time—had once again been so profoundly humiliated.
My wet cloak I had left down in the Hall, but I still held my hat in my Hands. I now bowed with as much grace as I could muster. Lord Douglass still pointed a peremptory finger towards the Door, making it clear that I was not going of mine own accord, like the Intermediary of any Gentleman might be, but that I was being kicked out like some insolent Varlet.
Oh! the Shame of it! The Shame!
My ears were tingling, my temples throbbing. A crimson veil, thrust before mine eyes by invisible Hands, caused my footsteps to falter. Oh; if only I had had the strength, I should even then have turned upon those aristocratic Miscreants and with my hands upon their throats have forced them to eat their impious Words.
But even as I crossed the Threshold of that Room where I had suffered such bitter humiliation, I heard loud and mocking laughter behind me, and words such as: “Insolence!” “Mountebank!” “Rogue and Vagabond!” still reached mine Ears.
I suppose that the door did not close quite fully behind me, for even as I crossed the landing meseemed that I heard Lady Barbara’s voice raised in a kind of terrified Appeal.
“Would to God, my dear Lord,” she appeared to plead with passionate earnestness, “you had not incurred the enmity of that Man. Ever since that awful day I have felt as if you were encompassed by spirits of Hate and of Vengeance which threaten our Happiness.”
Her Voice broke in a sob. And, indeed, I found it in my heart to pity her, for she seemed deeply grieved. I still could hear him—her Lover and mine Enemy, since he was the Enemy of my Friend—trying to laugh away her fears.
‘Nay, sweetheart,” he was saying tenderly. “A Man like that can do us no harm. Mine own Conscience is clear —my Life honourable—and to-night will see the triumph of your cause, to which I have given willing help. That Man’s malice cannot touch me, any more than the snarling of a toothless cur. So do not waste these precious moments, my Beloved, by thinking of him.”
After which the Door behind me was closed to, and I heard nothing more. I hurried down the Stairs, snatched up my cloak and hurried out of the House.
Never should I have believed that a human Heart could contain so much hatred as mine held for my Lord Stour at that moment.
I FOUND Mr. Betterton waiting for me under the Gateway where I had left him a quarter of an hour ago.
As soon as he heard my Footsteps upon the uneven pavement of the Forecourt, he came forward to meet me, took hold of my cloak and dragged me back into shelter.
He only said the one word: “Well?”
but it is not in my power, dear Mistress, to render adequately all that there was of Anxiety, Impatience and of Passion in that one brief query.
I suppose that I hesitated. Of a truth the Message which I was bringing was choking me. And he who is so sensitive, so understanding, learned everything, and at once, from my Silence.
“He hath refused?” he said simply. I nodded.
“He will not fight me?”
And my Silence gave reply. A curious, hoarse Cry, like that of a wounded Animal, escaped his throat and for a moment we were both silent—so silent that the patter of the Rain appeared like some thunderous noise and the divers sounds of the great City wrapped in .the cloak of Evening came to us with sharp and eerie distinctness. Far away, a dog barked; some belated Chairman called “Make room there!”; a couple of Watchmen passed close by, clinking their Halberts against the ground, and from one of the noble Mansions nigh to us there came the sound of revelry and of laughter.
I felt like in a dream, conscious only that the Finder of Destiny was pointing to the Dial of a Clock, and that I was H here to count the seconds and the ni.nutes until that ghostly finger had completed its task and registered the final Hour when the decrees of Fate would inevitably be fulfilled.
To be Continued