A FEW miles short of Canterbury I brought the sorrel to a stand, partly because he was no credit to his post-house, but dead weary already, and partly because here was a nook that long ago had won my fancy. It was a deep cup, with pastures and woodlands for its sides, and a nice space of cultivated fields at the bottom, where also was a prosperous farmhouse.
The sky was blue, save for one great tumble of white cloud to the south; and, despite the lateness of the season, I thought the place looked as well as ever it had. It was very English, very homely. Had the farmer been visible I should have enjoyed to ask him how he had done with his harvesting and his autumn ale, and whether he found the flat over-moist for his grain of a wet summer. The height of the slopes gave an air of complete seclusion to the scene; and perchance it was this that attracted me as much as anything, since a liking for seclusion was grown to be a second nature with me.
A dusty tradesman on a jaded hack I was, this October afternoon of 1696, near to the finish of the eighth secret visit I had made to England since the winter of 1690, for the purpose of trying what I could do in the matter of flinging the Prince of Orange off the throne, and putting back King James thereon. Seven times I had returned to France unscathed and unpursued, and with some promising business accomplished, so that our little court there was wont to call my good fortune marvellous. None deemed it so marvellous as did I myself, however, who alone knew of a certain weak spot in me, very liable to cause disaster.
Often I thought on this weakness with self-reproach; sometimes with keen shame, as when my poor king at St. Germain would lay his hand on me—a hand become tremulous from the sorrows of exile—and declare I was the most proven, trusty friend that ever heartened his Sovereign in adversity.
Not that I had swerved a hair in my faithfulness to him whom his people had used so ill. No, indeed! But always during my last hours in England I would run a risk I should not have. Coming coastward, with letters in my keeping that were much more to be guarded than my life, since their discovery would peril the lives of the writers, I yet, for my own ends, took a flirt with danger. I could not resist to, though all I ever gained was a smart of freshly stirred sadness, which made it truly difficult for me to come with the bright mien I wished into the presence chamber of St. Germain, where was mournfulness enough and to spare.
RUTH, my wife, was the reason of the weak spot in me.
I had been contemplating the farm scarce a minute, when she was vivid in my thoughts again.
We were wedded in ’86, and surpassingly happy for two years—that is, until the Prince of Orange came. Then all the Whig spirit in her, all the hatred of the king and of his late brother’s memory, which her malcontent family had fostered in her, broke forth. I had known of this defection when I wooed her, had known even that she pondered vengefully on the death of her cousin for treason in ’85; but, seeing her so tender to me, and she but a child still, I had thought to chide and coax her from these ways.
With my utmost wit I strove to do this now. I failed, and that was but a small part of my discomfiture. To my bitter astonishment she was suddenly changed towards me by the turn of the times, carried to wild excitement by the triumph of her side. I heard her, who was so dear to me, reprove me because I turned not false traitor, call me traitor to her and to all right-minded folk, upbraid me with cruel gibes or angry tears, and at length vow steadily that she hated me as much as the king, there being nought to choose betwixt us. When his Majesty was escaped over to France, and I was on the point of joining him, I entreated her—how I entreated her!—to bear with me and come with me; for I could not harden my heart to bring her away by force. But, in the hottest anger yet, she bade me go alone, and not think to see her more, since my wilfulness had divorced us beyond mending.
On my first return to England I learnt that she was dwelling at my house of Shepherdsholme in Kent, which her kinsman Lord Somers had separated by some argument of the law from the rest of my confiscated property, and given to her as her own right. This house, by strange fate, I had never seen, his Majesty having made me a birthday gift of it on the very day of the Hollander Prince’s landing, which gave me something else to think on. But I knew where it lay—and that not above six miles from the beach whence I should ship to France—and I was sure that no servant of mine who might be there would betray me. So on the night of my embarkation (a job needing darkness), I rode aside to it; and, my knocking being answered by a stranger servant, begged that my wife would see a Mr. Phipps. And presently she came to me in the small room where I waited alone.
For a moment she was softened, even letting me kiss her, and asking with some awe how durst I venture into England. Yet anon, when she had it from me that I was persuading men back to the king, she stood aloof from me in a mood that most quickly became a storm of rage. Beginning with a taunt ill-suited to her sweet lips, namely, that “the lanthorn-jawed old bigot over the water (his Gracious Majesty) would fool me to the block,” she added that such would serve me justly and be best for the nation, as I was bent to enslave and ruin it. Then, breathing fast, she cried that, as she lived! I should not ruin it—that she saw her duty—that her serving-men should take hold of me and carry me to the magistrate. And she spoke with such a quivering of her body and such a marked danger-light in her eyes, that forthwith I made for the door of the chamber, getting at my pistols in belief that I should have to fight a way to my horse, and at the same time feeling dumbfounded that this could be my Ruth, that was used to lean fondly on my bosom and show me all the love in her eyes.
But ere I was at the threshold she was sunk down and weeping agonizedly. So I turned back, remaining with her an hour, which was all the time I could spare. For a while she was contrite. Then her manner grew very cold; and, going with me to the hall to let me forth, she would neither kiss me nor wish me to come again; and before my foot was in the stirrup she shut the door. I heard her turn the lock at once, as if she were well rid of me and glad she could bar me out. I was to hear that prompt locking many times, and the echo of it would go with me to France, keeping my heart desolate until I was preparing to cross to England again.
NOW, as I have said, I was completing my eighth venture. I had spent two months in London, chiefly tampering with affairs of the fleet, which at least should have had grateful recollections of the King; and I had stifled indoors for a week at a stretch, and gone a-visiting ministers by their cellar stairs with seacoal and stubble on my cheeks. But here in the pure breeze of Kent I showed my own face, passing along in the character by which I was become known commonly, that of Mr. Phipps, a merchant out of the north country—in a plain coat and plainer peruke; and my sword strapped to the little trunk behind my saddle in so useless and simpleminded a fashion that none dreamed how ready lay a pistol in either pocket of Mr. Phipps’s skirts. And none save a highway thief was like to find out.
Though Ruth had such a large share of my thoughts as I lingered by the farm, I yet received some profound satisfaction from considering how deftly I always avoided the notice of the authorities. For many weeks past I had been busy under their noses, daring more than ever before; yet I had left London at the hour t wished, and now was safe beyond their sight, unsuspected,
I patted the sorrel’s neck and laughed aloud, gaily.
Had I not warranty for gladness? There were signatures of huge value written against certain of the letters in my breast. Two of them the King himself—though in one of those excitable, sanguine humors which on occasions relieved his despair—had declared I should not get. And I was going to see Ruth this evening.
Though I could hope for nothing but to part from her presently with the wretchedest pain, none the less, as ever was the case, I was almost beside myself at the prospect of standing before her, of taking her hand, perhaps, if she were very merciful, of putting my arms for an instant around her.
She was at home. I had been careful to discover that. Not again, since an unforgettable night three years before when, reaching Shepherdsholme, I was told she was in London, had I laid myself open for a disappointment so terrible. Yes, she was at home—yet far from expecting me. For, though I held myself despicable for it, never did I let her know I was in England till I was in the act to leave, just half-an-hour’s night-galloping from my sloop; I could not forget the danger that once had shone in her eyes and (what was yet more ominous) would often again have shone, it seemed to me, had she not veiled it.
My reverie taking this color, I lost the mood for laughter. I was accustomed to Ruth and my letters agreeing ill in my mind, but now of a sudden they clashed so violently as to nauseate me. These vital signatures, which I had enticed only by the most vehement assurance of my wariness, the most solemn pledging of my honor! Whither was I carrying them!
I felt my hand clench on the rein and my face go hot. But one thing was certain, I could not force myself from England without a sight of Ruth. Ruth!—two years my mate, then these eight long years so harsh a stranger that it was past belief she was ever my lover. Ah, well, she was the lover of no one else! There was true solace for me in that; and I hoped she knew it was the same with me, despite her several fleers that she would wager some French damozel had took me from her.
Recalling this unreasonable logic, I smiled, so varying was my temper, thanks to her, this afternoon. Then, with a last glance round the valley, I roused the sorrel and set him trotting towards Canterbury and the “Blue Stag” post-house.
THE road was good and his step more willing, and soon the steady “click-clock” of his hoofs got me to whistling and humming softly; for, whatever might be the quality of my thoughts, a kind of careless elation would ever take me at intervals when my horse was beating a measure through a fair countryside. Thus I played with lilts and snatches; and I am afraid that to more than one air I idly fitted some words of compliment to “Mr. Phipps of ‘The Old Firm’” and his skilful methods of business, since I exulted in my work.
The “Blue Stag,” a quiet house that suited me, I usually found empty of any traveler of substance. To-day, however, when I walked into the room where I was wont to eat a meal, I came upon an occupant—a large, stout man sitting before two bottles of wine, his riding-cloak thrown back somewhat, showing a rich blue suit. He stared across the bottles at me in plain annoyance, then shifted his gaze to the bar of the door as if wondering why he had forgot to fasten it. Finally, with a sigh, he folded a letter he had been reading and seemed to resign himself to the intrusion of mean company, though he could not suppress a discourteous greeting as he surveyed the dust on me.
“My man,” said he, “are you that blackguard express from London that has hired all the horses and drove me to find one at this pothouse? But I am before you here. The chestnut in the shed is mine. Touch her, and you shall suffer, whoever your master be.” And he eyed me very grimly as he sat back, a trifle puffed from his speech.
But I heeded not his words, for I knew him instantly, and all my business faculties were alert. Here was a fine piece of luck in my path—an old rustic Tory of uncommon influence, who had meanly gone over to the Prince of Orange, and ever after had seemed to regret it and to balance unsteadily between him and King James. But, having wide estates and a selfish, timid mind, he could be induced neither to sent word to St. Germain nor to receive an envoy therefrom, though it was often bruited he was about to do both.
I shut the door and sat down in the windowseat.
“To-day is liker summer than October,” I said. “A queer whim of the weather, Sir Jacob Bristowe.”
I saw that he was surprised at my telling him his name, and also resentful of my familiar manner.
“I know most faces in these parts,” said he, “but not yours. Who are you?” Which was what I wanted.
“My name is Phipps,” said I; “and my trade might be worth your hearing.”
He put forth his lip with contemptuous indifference, and poured wine into his glass. “What is it?”
I stood up and walked to his table, looking at him very gravely. “Declare in all honor that you will put me from your memory if we agree not to trade, and I will tell you,” I said; “not otherwise.”
Whereupon his ill-humor was jolted afresh. “Trade!” he said, gaping at me and flushing with spleen, and attempting to glare me out of countenance. “I trade with a chance pedlar fellow that—" Then, perceiving no anger in my eyes, but rather mirth, he broke off, very puzzled. “Is it the wine-running?” he asked.
“First,” I replied, “it is the vowed word of Sir Jacob Bristowe.”
He frowned me over from top to toe, and, getting no cringe out of me, muttered something anent “a brazen rogue.”
Whereat he got his cringe in sooth, I bending quickly to hide my merriment.
“Perhaps I could do with a few casks,” he said cautiously, “if you were a safe man. Um, ye-es, I give you my word of honor.”
Though his honor was certainly not of the best, this sufficed for me now. I sat down by him, laying aside my hat, which, though that was not my intent, soothed his dignity enormously.
“You are a trader?” said he, quite amiable.
“A merchant,” I replied. “I am in England representing ‘The Old Firm’,” I waved my hand Channel-ward.
“‘The Old Firm’?” A shadow of uneasiness crossed him.
“Ay, the trusty old firm—James & Jamieson, of St. Germain.”
“My soul!” he exclaimed, starting up like a fat, scared boy, his heavy face pale in a second. “What have I let myself in for?—Go away!” he muttered, trembling. “I will hear no more.”
“You have let yourself in for nothing,” I said. “Like you, I am prepared to forget this talk. So you will take no hurt from listening.”
I motioned to his chair, and, after hanging off a while, he sat again, emptying his glass and folding his mouth as one who meant to be immovable.
“My firm,” said I, “will be very generous in the matter of debts—heavy, black debts, mind you—which this realm owes it. It will forgive and forget every single one, hold rancour against no man, in return for a trivial sum.”
"A trivial sum?"
“Three crowns,” said I. “Trivial enough to you folk who bestowed it on a stranger. Three crowns; and all who contribute to 'this settlement of the Bill”—
“I will not see King William settled bloodily. I will not see him harmed,” he interrupted with real decision.
“I am of no plot party, sir,” I replied with a touch of stiffness. “I speak for the head of the firm. Pack your Dutchman back to Holland; that satisfies us. Now mark you—all who contribute to the payment of the three crowns will get a most handsome return for their honesty. And all wise men are contributing, for it is certain that ‘The Old Firm’ must quickly come back.”
FOR half-an-hour I urged him, pausing only while the post-keeper entered and set down a refreshment for me; and a dozen times in that half-hour I saw Sir Jacob incline this way and that. At last he jumped up again, with a weird choking sound, and, throwing a glance at the door to make sure it was closed tight, swung round on me in a veritable fury.
“Perish you!” he cried, “for this evil trade of yours.” He clenched his fist at me. “Pah! what a trade! To sneak into England and lure men from their uprightness! To bring them to ruin and death, to wither the lives of their children!”
For a moment he silenced me. Not by his rage or reasoning, but because his words were words that Ruth had spoken, and so hit me sadly. Then I recalled myself.
“Sir,” I said, “I do sneak and lure, and I risk my own life pretty badly. But it is because, until the end, I stand true to my king—the man who fought the Dutch for us, the man who loved our navy, the man who was too honest to hoodwink you, wherefore you drove him out, robbing him of his very daughters, and nigh breaking his heart.”
With which flourish I drank a beaker of wine to St. Germain and turned to my meal. From the corner of my eye I noted Sir Jacob shifting his feet and rubbing his chin with his knuckle, and very soon he was in his chair once more.
“Is he—King James, much altered in appearance?” asked he with furtive curiosity. “And what of the young gentleman, the Prince of Wales? What think you of him?”
At that I abandoned my food, and twenty minutes after I had Sir Jacob won over.
“But a letter—a letter!” he protested. “I dare not give you such, Mr. Phipps. You cannot think I would. I have no proof that you are what you say.”
With a sigh, being ever reluctant to shed the cloak of Mr. Phipps, I took my commission from my wallet. “You would recognize his Majesty’s hand?”
“That is all writ by it.” And I passed the paper to him.
He read a few lines and then his brows went up high, and, laying it on the table, he scrutinized me, at first blankly, but soon with a smile that rather drew me to him.
“My lord Viscount,” he said, uncovering and standing, and holding forth his hand. “I must ask pardon for rough words; but indeed your lordship makes a most excellent, loose, adventurous fellow.”
Whereat we both laughed and shook hands; and very calmly he got to writing his letter, though wishing first to bar the door, which I would not hear of, as being just that indiscreet move which might arouse suspicion.
But when his note was in my wallet, and I about to go, his placidness left him, and he gripped me by the arm, actually with tears springing to his eyes. “My lord,” he said pleadingly, “tell me again it will be safe—that there is no chance it shall come into any hands but the right!” His big face worked with apprehension. “You have so cajoled me, my Lord, that I know not whether I have done well or madly. And I have three daughters, quite young! For their sake you will take strict care of it?”
I patted his arm. “It is as secure as if already at; St. Germain,” I said.
“Ah,” replied he, his tone somewhat reassured. Then, mopping his forehead and cheeks hastily with a brilliant kerchief from the Indies, he added, “I am no downright brave man like you, my lord. Faith! and you are light of spirits with it all. Perchance—and I trust so—you have lost little by your loyalty?”
I thought of Ruth. “Only the world,” I said with a moody smile, setting my hat on.
THE French mare from the “Blue Stag” took me smartly out of Canterbury in the gathering twilight; and being instantly affectionate towards me, and proud of her paces, would have borne me at a gallop had I not held her. Whereupon, to give play to her sportiveness, she was pleased to shy frantically across the road at the sight of every third or fourth clump of bush we approached, to the near unshipping of Mr. Phipps’s trunk.
Between these whiles, however, she trotted faultlessly, and many a refrain I hummed, with extra zest inasmuch as I was gratified by my latest bit of work, and also inclined to welcome the salt taste of the Channel which was already in the air. For, although Sir Jacob had named me a brave man, there were occasions—such as when, newly landed, I rode into the shadows of London, or when I lay wakeful at night in my lodging there—sundry occasions on which, a sudden, nasty fear seized me that my courage and cunning were both on the point to desert me. These fits were short, but bad enough truly; and England at this time, still aring with the late silly murder plot, being no pleasant place for me, I should feel some relief to be out of it despite my hunger for Ruth.
So I sniffed the saltness eagerly, and, the wind coming from France, was assured that the sloop would be off the beach at her proper hour, nine o’clock.
After a few miles, since, alas! I durst not go to Ruth too long before the sloop was at hand to flee to. I walked the mare and my thoughts reverting to Sir Jacob and his entreaties and his tears, my falseness; in visiting Shepherdsholme with my pack of letters stung me deeper than ever before. But I must, have that sight of Ruth!
Staring into the darkness, my teeth set, I pondered. The mare had taken me perhaps a mile farther when a most simple way out of the trouble occurred to me, one that seemed in no wise foolhardy and should have been my custom years ago. And thereafter I gave my reflections to Ruth with an easy conscience, and wondered much whether she would take the little string of rubies I had for her, or coldly push them back to me, as was the case with my last gift.
For a while I but walked the mare, to her great impatience; and though the night was so early I found it marvellous quiet. A man or two moved in the villages, but out in the blackness of the road I met with no traveler, nor heard sound of any, save that now and then far behind me I caught the tread of some pack-horses, as I took them to be from their pace being little more than my own.
At length I went atrot again, noting that the light wind was increased and gusty, though hardly enough to presage an awkward sea-crossing; and something past eight o’clock, with my heart beginning to leap beyond bounds for joy, I swung off the main road into the three-mile long lane that led to Shepherdsholme—and halfway through it I drew rein under an old tree dead of lightning, that was called “Gospel Oak” (Ruth herself had told me), and had strange writhing branches which I could discern by peering carefully.
Out of the saddle, my arm through the mare’s rein, I made a small pit in the mould beneath the tree, put my wallet therein, and covered it up—to be come for later. There it should be safe from everyone.
And now—Ruth! Ruth!
I HAD slowed my restless madame for the sharp bit of uphill work which would bring me almost to the house, and for sheer blitheness was speaking to her in French, she clattering nervously—I thought because she disliked the wind in the bushes, when, sudden as a flash, and for no cause that I could detect at the moment, old Sir Jacob’s voice whipped into my brain.
“Are you that blackguard express from London that has hired all the horses?”
The question which I had not deigned to notice at the inn returned to me as something so weighty, so sinister, so full of import to himself, that straight-away I pulled up, feeling sick in body and mind. Had I made a deadly slip by not guessing peril?
And now I knew what had roused the question. Right away on the road I had left I heard a faint, faint shouting; and between that and me a volley if hoof-beats; and—ay! on the turf to my left hand a drumming, getting louder with incredible swiftness—horses at a gallop.
“Those pack-animals are broke loose,” I said, cocking my pistols simultaneously and putting one in my breast. Holding the other I grabbed the rein and endeavored to discover the nature of the hedge on my tight. It was dangerously high, and so, to the mare’s amazement, I drove spurs into her and set her racing up the hill. Then, at the noise of crashing bushes ahead of us, I strove to wrench her in; and while she lashed and flung in wild frenzy, I heard the hedge behind us split in two places, and an instant later in a third.
“Jack is down and smashed with his lanthorn,” panted a rider; and, without pause, but his tone soaring to a yell, “Name o’ the King! Stand, Lord Sayer!”
At the hazard of firing my pistol into the sky, I wrought both hands to the rein, hauled the mare part round and goaded her at the hedge, not above four feet high here, but topped with stoutish bushes, just to be seen against the sky. We went into them, there. hanging for an instant half-over, she scrambling madly, I thrown forward ahuddle on her neck, and thinking, it is curious to recall, less of my plight than of my wallet and how lucky I was to have buried it, since there would have been no time for that from my first catching the alarm.
A heavy pistol went off in the road with a great, puffing blaze, the bullet chipping my elbow and getting me through my riding boot fair in the knee. I snatched at the pistol in my bosom, having by now lost the other, and fired back; and, this shot being returned at once, the mare gave a mighty heave, somersaulting me into the field below us and so striking me as she fell herself as to knock the senses out of me.
WHEN I was conscious again I found that I was laid flat on the road, with several lanthorns about me, and, I soon perceived, all my apparel disarrayed. My coat and tunic, boots and wig, were off; my shirt was ripped, and someone was yet busy with my stockings, which caused such torment to my knee that, had he not suddenly desisted, I should have swooned. As it was, he left me with the road seeming to billow like the sea and a horrid rushing in my brain.
I did not speak, but presently, feeling a trifle steadier, I listened very eagerly, for there was an angry discord among those around me, which certainly meant nothing to my disadvantage.
“Your fellows were under my orders,” said a well-bred voice. “Had he carried enough treason to damn himself ten times over, it were no excuse for them. Whereas now—Look you!” He spoke in a new direction and his words were high and menacing. “Look you! my bullies. You shall remember breaking of my commands as long as you live, which will be till the next assize if his lordship dies. This is going to be jail for the lot of you to-morrow, you mutinous knaves.”
“So please your worship,” answered one, after a second of complete silence, “the gentleman would ha’ been away across country if Joe Hayward and me hadna’ loosed our sneezers. We were trying for the horse.”
“His worship” reviled Joe Hayward and the speaker with a score of baleful epithets, renewing his promise of jail; and then, appearing to have turned his back on them, addressed the person to whom he had spoken before.
“I am put in a pretty mess,, Mr. Dawson, by you and your rascals. I did think I made plain what the Council directed—no harm to Lord Sayer, but to stop him on the coast and capture any boat crew that should row in to him. Pest! why did not they take him when they spotted him in London last week?”
The speaker’s heel ground impatiently. “I say again, the boat was moonshine. He was riding to see his wife, sir; not making for France. That should be clear even to you, seeing he lies at her gate with nought in his pocket but some jewels for her.”
“I believe he has cast away his papers,” was the answer, obstinately made. “And, come daylight, I will have my lads search every rut and cranny of this lane.”
“Come daylight, you will have your lads in prison, as true as I am a magistrate—for landing me with this murderous business.” His heel began to grind again. “Hey! Brown, get you off also for a surgeon. Try Sandwich—back to the big road, then left. Whoa! give me that flask again first.”
And then he came and bent over me so that, although my stupor was returning quickly, I recognized his face. He was Mr. Francis Orlebars, of Greenwich, with whom I had been friendly in the old days. He caught the gleam of sense in my eyes, and forthwith dropped on his knee, raising my head.
“My dearest Sayer,” said he. “In faith I am sorry. I meant to take you myself, but your swerve from the straight road confounded the numbskulls that were my patrol parties and brought them ramping after you—nay, drink.” But I could not, and he stooped closer. “Sayer, the knee is the worst?” he asked, anxiously. “You are not crushed—broke inside?”
The sweat was now running all over my face, and I heard his words but as sounds swaying up and down giddily. “I know not,” I struggled to say, “but—in case—carry me to my lady.”
I saw blackness sliding over me as a lid, and well I remember with what agony I tried, in the last blind moment of consciousness, to cry on Ruth to come to me.
I WON round again, my brow and mouth very aromatic from strong waters, in a large room bright with fire and candles. It was strange to me, but as I moved my head I got a little fragrance from the pillow of the bed whereon I lay, which was the sweetest fragrance in the world. And, in wonder, I thanked Heaven for this joy in my trouble, that Ruth deemed me not too much of a shifty plotter and a stranger to be laid on her own bed, which I could have sworn she would have. I looked for her, yet saw only a maid-servant at the end of the chamber, and Orlebars, who, noting me stir, motioned out the woman and stepped across to me.
“Your wife is coming,” he said, after a question as to how I felt, “and soon the surgeons will be here, I trust. I have bound your knee and arm, and looked to the rest of you. You are all bruised, but I believe the knee is the only breakage.”
I lifted my left hand, the other arm being gone stiff, and we made a long grip of it, while I thanked him.
“I shall take my people to the village yonder,” said he; “for I am too sick of this affair to intrude on you and my lady. But you are under my arrest, and I must have your pledge that you will not contrive to—forgive the word, Sayer, to escape.”
I hesitated. Should I barter every remnant hope of freedom, perchance of life, for a few unwatched hours? Yes, I had no other choice.
“I pledge myself,” I said, wondrously relieved at his going. Then, aware how ungenerous he must consider me that I did not press him to stay, I added, sincerely, “You have proven kind, indeed, Orlebars.”
“He stared down at me, twisting the end of his peruke, and wearing the pleasant expression of old acquaintance. “We found no treason on you,” he said, “so think not of danger to your neck, which might easily have been, despite your peerage. I fear, from rumor, it may be the Tower, though. Yet I fain would leave you cheery.” He debated within himself. “Sayer, let me have your plighted word on another matter. Came you to England for none other purpose than to visit my lady? Tell me that, and I will see if I can end the process.”
I was tempted hard. To remove his very suspicion for the night, he appearing to know nothing of my work in London, would be of extreme use to me. In sooth, I was tempted. Howbeit, I shook my head.
“Betwixt you and me,” I answered, “there was something else.”
He frowned uneasily, and then, with a sigh and a smile, “So be it. Every man for his own king.” He touched my hand. “Good-bye; your wife is come."
HE drew aside, and, making his bow towards the door, walked thither. I heard him speaking on the threshold, and presently the door was shut and Ruth came quietly down the room. With not a glance at me, whose heart started to leap again so that it seemed my whole body shook, she stopped and remained side-face to me, looking at the curtain over the window as one in profoundest meditation, her hands striving a little with one another. She was pale, but otherwise little different from the day I first saw her—a very naiad in her slim youthfulness and beauty—for the desolate years which had brought my age to forty-one had brought her to but six-and-twenty.
She deliberated, her hands ceasing after a while to strive and becoming clasped, rigid as stone hands. I thought. Then, suddenly, she cast them apart, with a long breath like a sob, as if she regretfully abandoned something; which made my perplexity complete, until she turned—and then I saw in her face that by a miracle it was the Prince of Orange and his party that were gone by the board with her.
My rapture at that instant was such as I had never imagined could be; but, my conscience telling me it was selfish withal, she being plainly in grave distress for me, I made to raise myself, to show her I was not near dead yet. Thus far, with my swoonings and with my mind planning industriously and none too clear, I had most the while been numb, as it were, to bodily pain. Now, having lifted my shoulders an inch, I dropped back, crying out loud, ready to believe that swords were passing through me.
She ran forward, picking up a cup from a chest, and would have urged me to drink, but her lips were quivering rapidly.
“I am all right, sweetheart,” I whispered. Whereupon she put the cup away. Then, leaning over and setting her hands on either side of me, she came down low with supreme care not to press me—and rested her lips on mine; holding them there for long intervals, between which she would hold back her head a space, with a moan, her blue eyes as dark as night and aswim with tears, and seeming to entreat me to read her soul.
I got my well arm around her, calling her by all the dear names which she had not let me speak in these late years; and anon she swayed over in it and sank beside me; and her sobs, which had begun to shake her, changed to a steady weeping against my cheek. I suppose I wept myself, for it was with but a quavering voice that I applied myself to soothing her—no easy matter.
“Dick! Dick!” was all she would murmur for a while—“Dick!” And then would be flows of words scarcely to be heard, yet beyond my power to stop. “I was your cruel wife—the cruelest wife that ever has been.... King James was your friend.... I should have remembered that and forgot poor Cousin Luke.... I think some demon took my mind, for I never but loved thee, my own.... Oh, Dick, when I took this house that was filched from you, it was not solely for want of a roof, but to save something for you and me.... They offered me Sayerston or Sayer House. I were best to have chosen from those, but I could endure none except this.... You had not lived here, so I believed you would not haunt it.... But you did, my heart!.... Think you I slept those nights when you had ridden to your ship?
“My dearest, I meant to be hard and hard and pitiless till at last you should bend and wear orange. I knew you loved me. Ay, I knew you would not seek another woman.... Oh, cruel! cruel I was!.... I dreamed so pleasedly of your bending, of my game won.... And, then, when they came with you to-night!” She broke into frenzied sobs, shuddering piteously. “To-night I believed that God had rended me for never thinking how—how death could stop my game! Dick! Dick! you will not die?”
“Die! Not from this bit of winging, sweetheart.” And at length I managed to comfort her, that paroxysm proving the last of her weeping.
FOR a quarter of an hour Ruth rested by me in the same posture, speaking not much, yet her very breathing telling of happiness and tender compassion. And such was my own happiness that no shadow fell on it from what I could not but heed—namely, that a great pain was growing between my chest and my back, and the room was misty, with now and again faces of those I knew floating about it—the King’s, Middleton’s, Melfort’s. “The whole Court of St. Germain soon,” I said aloud.
Ruth started up; her hand, feeling cold as ice, touched my forehead; she slipped from me, standing very frightened.
“Dick, you are so fevered! Why do not the surgeons come! What can I do? Shall I send for Mr. Orlebars?”
Whereupon my brain cleared like magic, and an intense dismay seized me as I thought on my helpless state and on what, helpless or not, I had to do, which affair I had in my recent ecstasy quite forgot. I essayed again, and desperately, to rise, but the agony beat me at once.
“Ruth,” I said, “I must get to horse for an hour. I will come back—I promised Orlebars—but I must get to horse. You will lend me one? Dear, lift me.”
She took my hand, smiling, yet her tears like to show afresh. “You are all fevered, sweetheart. You know you cannot sit a horse, nor do you want to. You will lie still and let me have care of you—”
“A horse,” I said, “and a servant, a trusty man to hold me in the saddle. Was my coat brought in? Dearest, have you a servant that will be true to me for your sake?”
“Nay, rest you, my love,” she answered, fondling my hand in entreaty; and from her woeful, terrified look, I saw she thought my mind wandering.
“Ruth,” I said, and clasped one of her slender wrists reassuringly, “listen. My old pate is clear as clear, but there is something I must do at once if I would keep it safe, and the heads of the others safe. They discovered no letters on me, but that was because I hid a pack in the hedge, a mighty dangerous pack—”
“Ah-h! you beat them,” she exclaimed, with relief at my sensible condition, and with also a lurking note of admiration in her voice. “You heard them in time!”
“Ay, I heard them,” said I, very determined to let it go at that; “but they will find the packet when they search in daylight; they will see the fresh-dug soil. I must fetch it now, and I must get to the sloop from France to send it across, and to warn three of my friends that will land from her and go to London that certain houses are like to be watched now I am caught. So, you see, my heart. I dare not tarry; and I must have your aid if you will be so merciful to my friends and me. Lift me, dear one, lift me.”
“No, no, no,” she answered, moving her head sorrowfully, and softly stroking my brow. “How were it possible? Oh, Dick, they have broke your leg and you are hurt a dozen ways. You know you cannot stir, and would die on a horse did one get you there.”
“Lift,” I pleaded.
She gave a quick sigh, and began to pass her hands under me; and presently, having raised me a trifle, so that my face was against her dear breast, she paused and kissed my head. And then she raised me a trifle more, whereat I gasped and gurgled, and protested not as she laid me back.
“Mr. Phipps! Mr. Phipps!” I muttered. I gazed in misery at her. “Ruth, Mr. Phipps is spun—discredited—clean doomed!”
I stiffened my jaw, and pictured what a rare to-do there was going to be, ending with the scaffold for some of the smaller men I had netted, and, I half expected, for myself, as a noteworthy example. Well, I wished it so, if the little fellows were to suffer through me. At any rate, I should have my Ruth for a few days here at Shepherdsholme.
A MIST was now between her and me, and faces were appearing and drifting and vanishing, but this time queer and horrid ones more like to masks than human features, save that there was old Sir Jacob, with his rich-colored kerchief.... I felt a cup at my mouth and drank deep, and soon I saw Ruth distinctly and the chamber bright lit once more.
“I have Colbran,” she was saying; “he that was my grandfather’s horse jockey and is the faithfullest old man that can be. He shall go for your letters and—and—” She paused, and, the drained cup in her hand, made that same gesture which she had made when just come to the room—that gesture of abandoning—but smiling down on me now, though a shade wistfully. “And he shall deliver them to the ship, if that must be, and do all your bidding.”
“My sweet, generous heart!” I said, and for a while could speak no word more, what with thinking how much it must cost her to place herself thus against her party, and with rallying my wits to examine the hope which her offer awaked in me. It was no empty hope. A faithful man might well do all that I had purposed. If he were brave and crafty to boot, the odds were really in favor of his succeeding.
I caught Ruth’s hand that bore the cup. “Yes, yes,” I said, “lend me your Colbran. Dear, you are giving men their lives to-night. Bring Colbran quickly to speak with me.” Then as she would have sped away, I held her. “It will he a perilous errand,” I said. “There may be fellows even now searching in the lane where the letters are, and others seeking the sloop. Is Colbran more than faithful? Is he subtle, stouthearted? The sort to fool a questioner, to risk a pistol ball? I shall be easier for knowing that.”
“I can trust no other man in this,” she answered. “Indeed, he is very worthy of trust—but—.” The fingers of her free hand stole to the back of mine and there played softly. Her face grew thoughtful, troubled. “But he is old and maybe something failed in spirit—and he is not cunning. Ah me, I wish—.”
“Nay, dear, I am most content,” said I.
“But not I.” She gently took my hand from her and laid away the cup, doing this simple thing with pensiveness. And then she looked up, her lips apart with excitement and her eyes shining. “I myself will go. I will have a pillion saddle behind Colbran."
“Never!” I cried vehemently. “You shall not be mixed up with this.”
With a smile and with a sign of the hand that she would not listen to me, she threw back the lid of one of her chests, and brought therefrom a long brown cloak having a hood.
“For thee I will be mixed with it,” she said.
“Not for me, not for the king, no! not for anyone,” I answered. Forgetful, I tried to start up; then lay groaning from the attempt, she coming and soothing me wonderfully. “Hark you, my life,” I said gazing up at her. “I tell you there may be searchings and spyings outside; and nowadays the country is pretty mad against us, and the men that winged me to-night are madder than the rest, deeming I cheated them of the letters. They might question you roughly, touch you roughly—damn them; might even fire on you if you stopped not when bidden, despite that Orlebars has threatened their necks for shooting me.... If you were killed for me!”
That thought was past bearing. “Ruth!” I shrieked. “Ruth, hold me. Make me feel you are alive! I believe they have slain you!”
“Sweetheart, you are so ill and distraught,” said she, with utter pity, when she calmed me. “There is nought to fear. I shall stop if called on. Wherefore not, pray? I shall be but going to a surgeon, to several surgeons, if need be, going myself to beseech them haste to you with all speed.”
“Mistress Phipps!” I said, and was aware of my lips wavering into a smile. “But you shall not go, Mistress Phipps.”
“Yes, and quickly,” replied she, “lest, the surgeons come ere I leave, and so my excuse be the weaker. Tell me, Dick, I may go.”
I ROCKED my head in refusal; but as she had said, I was ill, and my mental strength was running almost as low as my bodily. I fought against her will, but in a minute or two she had me conquered. Whereat she kissed me with a little pretence of glee, and stood back to put her cloak about her shoulders.
“Where are the letters?”
“In a leathern wallet that is in the fork of two big roots of the ‘Gospel Oak.’ The two greatest roots, I should say. It is under an inch of earth.”
“I must take it—whither?”
“Know you a patch of beach named ‘Thane’s Strand?’ ”
“Why, verily! And a swift road to it."
“A sloop will be off there at nine and wait for me until midnight, her rowboat within hail of the shore—.”
Something came to me, giving me such consternation that for the first time I realized how intense my hope had been that the matter would be finished satisfactorily. “Dear!” I cried, “what hour is it?”
And as she went to a table that was glittering with her scent-phials and nick-nacks, amid which, I guessed, her timekeeper lay, I had a conviction that many hours were passed since I was waylaid.
“A quarter after ten,” said she and took some toy from amongst the others, which she held to her throat on returning to my side. It was the string of rubies that had been in my pocket. Seeing my eyes on them, she kissed them very simply. “I will wear them as soon as I am returned,” she said. She leaned across me, and, opening a panel at the head of the bed, secreted them behind it.
“Do not go,” I urged, stretching my hand to her. “I shall lose my reason of fear for you when you are gone. Nay, I cannot endure you to go!”
“I shall be here again under two hours, dear one—and all made safe.”
I felt tears rolling along my cheeks. “I could not face those two hours,” I muttered.
“Except they meant lives, honor—so much!” said she softly. “Did not they mean all that to you, I could not face them, turning my coat so. But I deem I must. The boat will be within cry?”
“Always, unless the sea is become very rough. Then it would pull landward each hour, close on eleven, close on twelve—twelve”—a drowsy faintness commenced to steal over me— “twelve,” I said again, and added ramblingly (Ruth has told me since)—“the sloop is used to waiting for me, who was a wretch to keep her long in dangerous waters. But I had to see Ruth!”
My eyes were shut by now. Though I heard Ruth murmur endearments, I was fast slipping beyond sound of her voice, when an appealing question from her rallied me.
“When I am come to the beach—what then? What then, Dick?”
For some instants I regarded her silently, ordering my thoughts, which, after a painful effort to begin with, I did satisfactorily. “Look seaward,’’ I said, “and cry as loud as you can, ‘No more fishing to-night!’ Whereat someone will ask, ‘How many?’ and you shall say—and you had better write these to remember—‘six—three—nine—two.’ ”
“No more fishing to-night; six—three—nine—two,” she repeated, and then nodded.
“At that they should put in. But if they hang at sea, not able to account for your voice, or for Colbran’s, did he call, say at once that you are from Mr. Phipps, and that will bring them.”
“And to what man shall I give the letters?”
“Ask for Mr. Walters or Mr. Athorpe; and say also that the ‘Two Keys’ by Temple Bar, and Mr. Tarron’s house by Moorfields—ay, and the ‘Cat and Broom’ Inn at Southwark, are now certainly watched.”
She went swiftly to her table, and sweeping aside some of her trinkets, began to write, saying the words aloud that I might correct her.
“If young Peter Middleton—Middleton’s mad-headed cousin—be in the boat,” I said, when she was finished, “he will wish to organize a dash to rescue me. Straitly forbid him. It would be a fatal sally—and my word is pledged to Orlebars.”
I saw her eyes become like stars. “A litter!” she said. “They could bear you to the beach on a litter.”
“Nay, my heart, I yield not in this,” I answered. “Promise to forbid young Peter.” And, though with reluctance, she affirmed that she would.
And then, crossing to me and kissing my lips, and afterwards kissing my eyelids and saying that thus she would make me doze until the surgeons came—feigning the while to be light-hearted, yet at the last her voice caught with little sobs—she bade me good-bye and passed in haste from the chamber.
FOR a time I strained my ears to detect the hoofbeats of her horse. I heard nothing, however; and presently I lay thinking of little save the pain between my breast and back, which was much severer, and my breathing, which was hard to accomplish and would not satisfy my lungs. Then followed a period of more ease, wherein I was taken with wonder, as well I might be, at the way events had gone. In fear of Ruth, I had buried my letters, and so saved them from those whom in my self-conceit, I felt no fear of. Two hours ago I should have held myself demented to allow her to lay but finger on the wallet; now she was warden of my letters and my friends, and I had made her this with no remembrance of my many years mistrust, with no hesitation except as touching her safety.
I imagined her out on the night-road, old Colbran the only man to guard her, and my enemies lurking thick around. I set my hand over my eyes and prayed long that she might come through unharmed. Then, a deal happier, I sank into a sort of languor, believing that soon I should doze, as Ruth had said.
But instead, my pain started afresh and my head throbbed, and after a space the walls of the room seemed to puff in and out like tapestries blown by the wind, and the old mistiness was about me. I half realized that one of Ruth’s women was come into the room, asking if I required aught, and that shortly there entered another, saying that a surgeon was passed in at the gates, but I scarce heeded them, for they were less actual to me than the faces which were drifting before me again—both St. Germain and barbaric faces now.
These began to shout upon me that I was a fool beyond matching, that Ruth had wheedled me and was gone to betray me.
I moaned at the hideousness of what she had done to me. But then I recalled her eyes, dark blue and bidding me read her soul; and in a mighty rage against the lying faces, I struck and struck at them. I found my arm held by a man, and I was not so delirious hut I guessed he was the surgeon; and straightway a dread seized me that I might rave of Ruth’s errand in his hearing.
I was endeavoring to master myself, when a pang in my knee drove all consciousness from me. Thereafter I remember nothing—save a vague discovery that some angel beloved by me, with the fresh waft of the outer night clinging to her, was close to my pillow—nothing, until I awoke as from a great sleep and, seeing daylight, and my Ruth sitting by me, whispered (my voice having no power) that verily I thanked God she was got back safely last night.
Whereupon, starting up with a soft, exceeding joyful cry, she looked at me as if hardly able to believe I had spoken; and then, whispering also, she said that the letters were safe, that she had brought them without mishap to Mr. Athorpe at “Thane’s Strand,” but I must neither talk nor listen to her more until she fetched a surgeon, who was even now below stairs—for two whole weeks were gone by since the night she did this.
ANOTHER three weeks gone, and Ruth and I were in her dining-room one afternoon that was very cold and black outside, but cosy for us by the big fire. For the ease of my leg I was on a couch; yet fully dressed, in a new suit and peruke which she had bought for me at Dover in place of poor Mr. Phipps’, spoilt in the lane. And she was playing at brewing tiny bowls of China tea, and chatting gaily to keep up both our spirits, for the hour was anxious for us. Orlebars, who had shown himself throughout a most sincere friend, finding me nearly well enough to be removed, had ridden to London some days before to make his report to the authorities, and with the intent of urging everything he could in my favor. From which much clemency, or none, might result. He had promised to be back this afternoon.
“And withal he suspects of the letters,” said Ruth, smiling into her tea-bowl. “I know it by the teasing look he gives me. Those men have told him of me and Colbran afoot at ‘Gospel Oak’—groping for a stone in Tommy’s hoof! And of our riding in from the coast. I wonder what he doth think of me!” She moved her head in mock apprehension. “I am glad he is not so outspoken as Peter Middleton.”
“Peter Middleton!” I exclaimed,. “Was he at the beach? I never asked you. Why, what had Peter to say?”
“At the very first?” She spoke in a fashion that puzzled me, and her smile changed, becoming brimful of mirth, yet most inscrutable.
“Yes,” I said. “All young Peter’s sayings amuse me.”
“At the very first—” She gazed down, her cheek coloring fast, and her voice shy, though vibrating with laughter. “At the very first—he said I was so pretty a slip I were best cross to France with him.”
“He did!” I shouted in violent anger.
“But on my telling him I deemed Lord Sayer would object, he being my husband—” She broke into ringing laughter. “Dick, his was the most plaintive, desperate apology ever made. Oh, I could but pardon him!.... Anon, though he was for rescuing you, he was not difficult to dissuade, being in no wise eager to meet you face to face.”
Then I laughed also, and gossiping thus lightly, we continued, until the trot of Orlebars’ horse sounded in the grounds.
Ruth grew white immediately. Perchance I did the same. She left her chair, coming to sit on the couch and taking my hand.
“If he has influenced them to do nothing further! If—Dick!”
That was her constant dream. But I shook my head.
“It will be either committal to the Tower or the worst—to stand trial for my head.”
“They durst not?” she said, fiercely as a child. “They durst not. Lord Sayer to the scaffold! Nay, they will be afraid. You are too big, Dick. You are too big!”
“Not so big but they will dare, if they have the evidence. Yet I think that you have spun them there.” I held her hand against my cheek, against my lips. “Oh, what matter, sweetheart! I have won more than I can lose on this venture. For these few weeks I have gained you, that my life was only a grief without.”
“For these few weeks?” she said, sinking her head down to that hand so that her lips were very near me. “For always.... Did you sometimes marvel that my name was Ruth? Verily did I. But now, my heart, I say her words, ‘Whither thou goest I will go.’.... If you are left free, take me where you list. If you are put in the Tower, I will lodge by the wall. If—if it is death for you, Dick, I think it shall be death for me—”
“Nay, sweetheart:” cried I, aghast. “Child, what are you saying?”
I turned my face to her, and we were chin to chin. Her blue eyes, darker than I had ever known them, mournful and steady, would not waver for mine.
“Yes,” said she. “I shall pray to be forgiven, and then—”
“No!” I said hoarsely, gripping her to me. “No! I forbid you. Would you make my last days torment? Would you part us for ages in the afterwards by such a sin?”
“Dick! Dick!” she entreated helplessly, with her arms around my neck. “No!”
And thus we were until Orlebars tapped on our door. Then, clasping my hand still, she sprang up, and stood very erect to see him enter.
From a London Newsletter, Dated July 15, 1697:
“A talk is that the Lord Viscount Sayer, being released Thursday was se’nnight from the Tower, is already crossed over to France with his lady, whose going thither is a great amazement to all, she being thought mightily hostile to the St. Germain party.”