HAVING seen to it myself that the sentinels were posted as I had ordered, I returned to the house, and to the chair wherein I had passed most of the day. Glad enough was I to sit down again, for the pike-wound under my arm, though no longer quite so unbearable, pained me nevertheless in a dull, steady way that caused me by now to feel very weak. Old Spanton brought me some wine, and, being my family servant as well as my senior sergeant, was urgent to dress the hurt with a fresh pad, against the doctor’s next visit, which would not be until morning. Whereat I found that my humor was as sore as my body—the thought of the kindly but heavy fingers at the wound setting me to revile the poor fellow so harshly that he went forthwith from the room, forgetting to light the candles.
The open window beside me looked upon the west, and for a while I sat gazing thither, quite content to have no glare of tapers, since the closing of darkness about me, and the cool, pure hue of the sky for a space above the skyline, were, somehow, soothing to my pain. The sun was gone, and across three-fourths of the heavens was a spread of dense cloud, touched here and there with violet, but most lowering and black with night. Between the edge of it and the earth, however, was a void of clear and lovely green; and this I watched until its color was fading and the stars shone whitely in it.
The evening was very still, but not a sound of life came to me from the face of the country. I heard nothing save, in and around the house, frequent voices of my men, Shelverdene’s Regiment of Horse, and now and again the blowing or whinnying of our beasts.
At length I was disturbed from my ease by two questions which rose, well-nigh together, in my mind. Why was not Louis Stuart come to me for my night-orders? Why were the troopers yet astir, when I had bidden them lie down early, to be ready for any length of riding and skirmishing to-morrow?
I stood up and called for Spanton.
Sundry voices echoed the cry, and soon he opened my door, a lanthorn in his hand. Discovering my dark state, he walked quickly to the table, craving my pardon; and unfastened his lanthorn to light the candles therefrom.
"Where is Mr. Stuart?” I asked.
He looked up, his face strongly illumined by the flame beneath it; and there seemed to be something of apprehension in his eyes.
“I have been to his quarters, sir, but he is not yet rode in.”
“Rode in?” said I sharply. “Whither is he gone?”
“He and his corporal went to the forge—where the Scots company from Graham’s Brigade are being shod.”
I laid one hand on the table to steady myself, his words having given me such surprise and instant dread that I was turned somewhat giddy.
“Spanton, man!” I said. “How durst thou suffer him to ride out thus? Two English miles, and he gone with but a corporal. Wert thou mad as he?” I drank from the wine-cup before me, and got to my chair. I leaned back in it trembling, and knew for the first time how thoroughly my wound had sapped me. “Wert thou mad, Spanton?” I repeated.
Holding a candle aslant, with the flame stretching high and the grease sputtering down, he had observed me anxiously—afraid, I think, that I should swoon; for his relief when I was settled in the chair was very plain. Not until then did he speak.
“Under favor, sir, I heard no word of this till Mr. Stuart was an hour gone. And I hoped that your honor might be getting some sleep, so came not at once to trouble you.” He put down the candle and closed the lanthrn. “But I have mounted twenty men, and now, by your leave, I will take them and meet Mr. Stuart on his road home.” Going towards the window, he added, “’Tis not yet dark, and Mr. Stuart would be much delayed at the forge.”
He spoke as one who felt no real alarm, but he pulled hard on his gray moustache as he frowned into the dimness without.
“Shall I start forth?” he asked.
“This moment,” I said vehemently. “Leave Sergeant Kirwan here with the men—and race as fast as the ground will let you. I have Kyle Cleod in my mind.”
“Ay, your honor, I was thinking on him when I horsed the men.”
He saluted and left me; and in the briefest time there reached my ears a jingle of steel equipment and then the roll of a fairly good canter.
I SLID lower in the chair, lifted my legs on to a stool, and so waited, near to groaning aloud at Louis Stuart’s folly and my faulty care of him. Louis was seventeen years old. On my preparing to bring my regiment from Sussex to the north his mother had entrusted him to me, to be shown some soldiering. I wished rather that the lad should begin his warfare on the Continent, but she would not be dissuaded, for all my telling her what a sorry business this crushing of the men of the Covenant was like to be. Pah! and what miserable work it had proved! I shifted my feet impatiently as my thoughts flashed back over the last ten days. For no other liege than King Charles (though I risked my head for disobedience) would I have allowed Shelverdene’s Horse to charge and chase and rove after an enemy so little to my taste—religious, honest men the bulk, despite their rebel spirit, men who had been treated ill; yet with some pretty villains in their midst and some vile thieves on their skirts; and all so mixed that, when I gave no quarter to some that seemed the worst, I perhaps did learn anon that they were such as I would fain have spared.
Nevertheless there was one rogue of many crimes whose face both Louis and I had seen, and whom I meant to hang without shrift—the fellow that the countryfolk called Kyle Cleod. We had been within an inch of taking him, but he had gained a copse and dodged my troopers, crying before he vanished that Shelverdene should pay for hunting him. And thereafter he and certain others would contrive to draw near my lines at night. They fired on and wounded three of the sentinels; they shot at, but missed, Sergeant Kirwan, who had run forth in the dusk after a horse which was broken loose; and they would get clear away from the pursuits which I launched upon them. It was because of Kyle Cleod that I feared so for Louis.
I turned in the chair, my armpit throbbing nastily again, and stared down the length of the room. I had known some wretched shelters when fighting for France in the English Brigade; and I was wont to take a pleasure in the comfort of this lodging the more in that the house was not filched from a hapless owner, but lent to me by a loyal gentleman. Though the chamber had been mine only a short while, yet, with my trunk and my strongbox, my two or three books and my papers, all to be seen about, it had ere this acquired a familiar air, which would cheer me much as I rested from my repugnant employment, and wondered how long it would last.
But now I found the room changed, become utterly mournful and desolate; and I felt that if evil chanced to Louis no place on earth would ever be otherwise than desolate to me. His mother’s sorrow would haunt me.
Eighteen years ago, when I was a boy (and she soon to be wed and lost to me), I had loved her dearly; and, though I was long since quit of that mood, yet was she a sweet friend that I had liefer die than harm. In entreating me to take Louis she had told me divers reasons for her desire. The most of them were but coaxing toys, such as, that she would have him grow to be like none other captain but myself; amid them, however, was her true reason, very earnestly spoken. She knew that, for her sake, I should guard him tenderly.
And a jab from a half-pike had made me forget him!
I shut my eyes, and tried to believe that by now he was met with Spanton, and safe. Faith! not again should he play a trick of this sort. I would forbid him to go beyond my call. This very night should his bed be fetched hither and he sleep within a yard of me.
From far out in the gloom there was borne to my ear a faint sound—“plup!” Again “plup!”.... “plup!” And then no more.
In a moment I was at the window, hanging hard upon the sill by my elbow, my legs so shaking that I scarce could stand. Three pistol-shots—away towards the forge! There was warranty for the despair that sickened me. Fearing to fall, I raised my other arm to the sill, getting a bad stab from my hurt, and took a few deep breaths of the night air, now turned cool. Being somewhat revived by them, I faced round. I could stay idle no longer. I must ride forth and learn all. But when I made a pace, the room looked to jerk this way and that, and I stumbled and reeled and presently discovered myself lying sideways in a chair, with a vague belief that I had lain thus for some minutes.
And I had! For horses were stamping and voices mingling loudly under the window, and heavy steps were at my door.
“Louis!” I cried.
THE door was flung open. I saw not Louis, but I saw a face I was so unprepared for that I stared at it in complete bewilderment, giving heed to nothing else. It was the face of a child, a maid of nine or ten; a most pretty chit, with great blue eyes and tossed-about hair that was between chestnut and gold. Her head was thrown back and her little teeth were clenched angrily; and she caught at the doorpost as if to stay herself from coming farther. And then I saw that Spanton’s arm was about her and he was half-carrying, half-pushing, her to me. A yard from me he allowed her to find her feet, and released her
But immediately another’s hand darted forth and gripped her shoulder. Raising my eyes to find who held her, I perceived Raylish, the corporal who had ridden to the forge with Louis. He was bare-headed, with the bright-red patch of a fresh wound in his hair, and with his left eye closed and (from the blood about it) badly harmed. He appeared not to heed his injuries. His mien was full of excitement and rage; and in the faces of the two troopers who were behind him I saw the same blending.
As for the child, whose cheeks, I now noted, were wet from tears—she stood looking at me with her teeth still clenched and her color radiantly high. Despite that she breathed as though on the point to break into sobs, despite the fright which I could read behind her helpless, indignant anger, she strove to show me nothing except anger. The words of my old first commander, anent noble courage in children being a sure proof of gentle birth, crossing my mind, I said to myself that this slip of a girl whom my men had for some purpose seized was no mean fellow’s daughter.
I spoke to Spanton. “Mr. Stuart?” I asked; and, notwithstanding that recollected homily on courage, and the example before me, that should have shamed any man from cowardice, I flinched in dread of what he should say.
"Taken off by Kyle Cleod—to be flogged and hanged, so Raylish heard Kyle shout when he and his thieves sprang on them. Taken off—” He pointed to the child. "And she knows whither, this whelp of evil. We might save him, and she will not tell! Ah, would I not have laid into her with a stirrup, but she is softly dressed, so I feared who she might be. Ask her, sir. I deemed she would tell you.” He bent over the maid. “Hearken,” he said, menacingly, “this is his worship the colonel, the Right Honorable Sir Edmund Shelverdene. And you answer not, he can kill you.”
“Cease that!” I said, getting up. “Was Mr. Stuart taken some fifteen minutes since, when three shots were fired?”
“Ay; and within three minutes we were at the place. They heard us bearing down, and fled off with him—tarried not to finish Raylish, who was in the ditch, stunned.”
“They had three, or more like two, minutes’ start of you?”
“Ay, your honor, but on ponies over quiet turf, and the night fallen thick of a sudden.” ’
“What did you?”
“Sent three pursuits, six men each—one party riverward, one the opposite way, and one on down the road, lest they swerved back to it; and two men stayed by me and Corporal Raylish.”
“She was there, sir,” cried the corporal, and he swung the girl nearer me. “She was there, stood by the road-edge with a lanthorn; and when I lay in the ditch I was not so senseless but I heard her speak to them, and them answer as they moved off, but all so Scotly said I could not know the meaning.”
I motioned his hand from her and set mine gently where it had been. “You understand English, child?” I asked. “You are not of the highlands?”
She held her head stiffly in wilful silence, her eyes averted. Then her teeth relaxed, but only to bite her nether lip.
“She speaks it well as I,” said Spanton.
At that she let her lip go free. “I am English,” she said, softly but clearly. “My father is Mr. Denis Irby, that will sore punish you for stealing me.”
The name made plain to me whence came her spirit. Well I knew Denis Irby by repute—a stubborn, fearless man of old family, a supporter of Lord Shaftesbury, and exceeding bitter in Parliament against the King. He was possessed of land on either side of the Border, and having a house not far from this very one, wherein some English officers were lodged, had hastened thither, it was reported, with great truculence, “to see that no harm was done to his goods,” the authorities, though little pleased at one so disaffected being in the midst of the troubles, not caring to gainsay him.
All this, however, but flashed into and from my mind. I had no thoughts to spare for Denis Irby. I turned the child slightly, wishing to judge her truthfulness by her eyes while I further questioned her, but she would not lift them above my sash.
“Did Kyle Cleod’s men—they that fought with the young officer—tell you to what place they were carrying him?” I asked, having no belief that they would do so aimless a thing.
She hesitated, and then: “I heard them say among themselves. Therefore Kyle Cleod bade me run aside from Shelverdene’s soldiers, and to tell no word to them, if they caught me.” Without warning she fixed her eyes on mine, fixed them defiantly. “I will tell no word,” she said.
HER knowledge brought a cry to my lips. Scant hope did the parties that had been despatched to search blindly give me. But here verily was the chance to snatch Louis from death.
“Mount a dozen men,” I said to Spanton; and in the stress of my mind I shook the child roughly. “You knew,” I said. "You knew, and would not tell my men, though you could have saved this poor young gentleman! Tell me now—now!”
She jerked herself from me, and stood putting back the edge of her gown to her throat, whence I had dragged it. Her eyes filled with tears, yet shone furiously at me. “I will not tell,” she said, her voice gasping, because of her sobs, but rising shrill. “I would not save a Shelverdene bully. I wish him dead.”
There was an oath from Raylish, the corporal who started forward, casting up his hand to strike her.
“Stand off!” I commanded, throwing out my arm. And on his obeying, with a gulp of consternation at having almost struck me by mischance, I reproved him not for his unruliness, being aware of the deep affection he had for Louis. “Child,” I said, “you must tell; for my soldiers have never harmed you, save to bring you here.”
“They—you—” Her breast heaved desperately as she fought for her voice.—“You hanged Jim, that was Edith’s father—she whose cottage I ran from my bed to, this night; for she is ill of sorrow. You hanged innocent Jim—Shelverdene beast!” She was beside herself now, her teeth clicking, her hands tight-gripped, and I thought she would leap at me. But, after another straining of her breast, she suddenly fell calmer, and, for all her tears, was more coolly taunting than I should ever have credited of a child. “And you think to hang Kyle Cleod.... Ah, no, he was Jim’s friend, and he gave me my six birds.... Ah, no,” she said again, linking her hands behind her, and regarding me with a marvellous grown-up demeanour. “For I will tell nothing—nothing. I am no poor Covenant girl that you dare beat, Shelverdene coward! My father will put his boot on your neck.”
“Sweetheart,” I said, “you have well scolded me. Now forgive, and say where is my friend. Look you, I will spare Kyle Cleod. Ay, in troth I will.”
I meant my words; and I was sure the pleading of my tone must touch her. Eagerly I waited for her reply, conscious that Raylish and the two troopers, leaning forward, were rigid in their expectancy. She was also still, her head a little drooped. For seconds nothing moved in the room save (door and window being open) the candle flames and our shadows jumping up and down the wall. And then she shook her head.
That sign, which declared that with her utmost will she would resist me and ensure that Louis should die, was more than I could endure. Spanton’s coming with her had rallied my strength for a time; but in those moments of suspense, I had felt it slip from me and my wound fluttering and pulsing as though a barb were writhing in it. I intended that when she answered saying where Louis was, I would immediately go to my chair. Then her refusal, firm as a stone fence, rallied me again—and more.
“Where is Kyle Cleod?” I shouted; and, passing one hand behind her, I caught her arm with the other, and lifted it and began to bend it cruelly, not caring how I hurt myself so long as I pained her into discovering the truth.
“Where?” I shouted again, bending harder.
HER face was upraised to me. She breathed agonisedly through her nostrils. Her lips dropped apart and she groaned; but her blue eyes, speaking to mine, told me that I might murther her, but she would not tell.
I loosed my hands from her, stepped back quivering to the nearest chair, and sank therein.
“I cannot,” I said despairingly.
“Leave that to me, your honor,” cried Raylish. But seeing him go to her, with his teeth bared, I would not have it.
’Twas then that Spanton spoke from the doorway, whither he had come from ordering the new mounting. “Sir, what of the bootkin, that the gentleman from the Council brought yesterday?”
His face was furrowed grimly, yet he winked, and I read his plan. To find her leg in the boot would surely terrorise a child, though she were Denis Irby’s wonderful daughter.
“Ay, put her to it,” I said; and I rested my brow on my hand, conjuring horrid visions of what was being done to Louis, and anon determining to grip this child and beat her raw. But my strength was finished.
The setting-down of something before me caused me to lower my hand. I looked at the boot, a device I had never seen, which appeared to me liker a clumsy, warped bucket than a boot; and I noted it was new, so that the iron garters had a dull polish and the wood smelt. Truly, it was a revolting thing. I waved it from me, and Raylish bore it some yards off, Spanton following him, holding a great wooden hammer and wedges.
I glanced towards the child. She was pale, yet not overmuch; she returned my scrutiny, and smiled—ay, smiled! Perchance she deemed there was to be no more than this show.
“I think you will meet my father in the morning,” she said.
Raylish asked if the boot should not be screwed to the floor. I answered we had no time for that. Whereupon he put a chair by it, and drew a length of rope from his pocket.
“Nay,” I said; “how can she sit and be booted, and she so small? She must be stood in it—you hold her, Spanton.... Raylish, begone and have your hurts looked to.” For I would not trust Raylish to have any handling of her; and I knew ’twould save me trouble if he were well away from the room.
"And quick, quick, Spanton!” I added. “Think on the minutes we waste.”
SPANTON laid down the mallet and the wedges, and came and took the child by her arm. She leaned from him, setting her lips; at which he swept her from the floor and carried her, hard put to, I would vow, not to whisper a word of comfort to her. But the stake was too grave for that.
He bore her to the boot, thrusting the chair aside; and then there was a pause, he and the two troopers looking from one another to me; the reason being that they knew no more surely than I the proper manner of putting to the boot.
“Haste—doff her shoe, and in,” I urged them.
Purtlin, the elder trooper, took the shoe from her left foot, slipping off the hose also, and lifting the skirt of her gown beyond her knee and tucking it beneath Spanton’s arm. She tried no struggle, and for the moment that she was held poised thus, seemed not even to stir, her arms hanging, her head against Spanton’s breast-plate, her bared leg straight down by his riding-boot, and so white and slender, with a little slim foot very pretty, and all so babyish, that to see it nauseated me with myself; and had it not been that I was imagining the voice of Louis’s mother imploring me, and that I was certain I should not go too far, I should have given up the scheme there and then.
Spanton lowered the child, and her leg was in the boot, Purtlin stooping and holding the limb by the knee, that she could not withdraw it. Stretching his free hand to the wedges, he slid one to him and slipped it in by the side of her leg, which, however, was so slight as to let the wedge drop a long way down. Whereat he took another, and placed that between her leg and the first; yet this, too, fitted hut loosely.
Something which I believed to have been told me occurred to me.
“The wedges are wrong. They should be more at the back of the leg,” I said.
“Nay, under your honor’s favor,” replied Hodgett, the second trooper, who now was holding the mallet. “For how, then, can I strike?”
Well, since he would not strike, what matter? So I let it be.
“Where is Kyle Cleod?” I said to the maid. “Now, mark thee, child—Hodgett, lift the hammer—now, mark thee, child, an’ thou sayest not this instant, thy leg shall be broke to pieces.”
She gave no answer, but set her teeth and shut her eyes; and her hand nearer me held a corner of Spanton’s coat, to help her to endure.
Averting my gaze in blank hopelessness, I allowed it to rove to the window; and the murk of the outside night wrought upon me. Somewhere therein was Louis, dead by now. And yet, it might be, not dead—able to be brought to me scantly harmed, to greet me with his quick, fond smile, if this child would but speak, this child who was striving for his death. I stood. Scarce could I keep my feet, the beating of my armpit was so poignant and so dazing. But a demon had me.
“Strike,’’ I said to Hodgett, and my tone told him this was no play.
He looked at me, astonished; and I was aware of Spanton’s face turned my way in protest.
“Strike, Hodgett,” I said.
He raised the hammer higher—and hesitated. Then his arms stiffened; he held it motionless. I felt my fury blaze. Yet some fleeting vestige of self-control enabled me to speak, not to him, but to the child, giving each of them a last chance.
“Tell me!” I cried to her, “or instantly shall this man strike with the hammer. Tell me!”
Taking no heed of my demand, she opened her eyes, trying to look up into Spanton’s face. She dragged at his sleeve.
“He doth intend it,” I heard her whisper. “Kill me, pray, pray! Get me so from Shelverdene.”
Then, despite those piteous words, my remnant of control was gone. I thrust forth a finger menacingly at Hodgett. “One blow.... Deal it!” I ordered.
“Sir—your honor!” cried Spanton. “Nay, nay!”
And Hodgett, lowering the hammer and scowling upon me, muttered he would not.
“You mutinous dogs!” I said chokingly. I went with a lurch to the chest whereon lay my pistols; and, holding one, swung round upon Hodgett. “Strike, you traitor cur,” I called, “or I shoot you for mutiny.”
For a space, giving me a look of sudden, bold hatred, the like of which I had never dreamed to see from one of my own troopers he plainly weighed his life against other things. Then, “’Tis you honor shall answer to Heaven for this, not I,” he said, and whipped aloft the hammer and smote savagely upon the inner wedge.
There was a shriek from the child, the piercingest, most echoing, most awful sound possible to hear, and her head fell on her shoulder, her senses gone.
I laid the pistol on the table and walked to, and leaned against, the window-sill, my face to the night.
“Spantoni” I said, “if I am shot in the back, I deserve it, and care not, and will forgive any that does it.”
“Your honor!” cried the voices of the three honest fellows behind me. And Hodgett added, “I bore it ill, your honor, yet I am your honor’s faithful man.”
“When she is free of the boot,” I said, “place her on my bed, Spanton, and strive to win her round with brandy, for she may die. And, Spanton—send straightway for Dr. Travers, and for her father, Mr. Denis Irby, at the house where Ensign Latour is.... Bid Mr. Irby bring his rapier or duello-pistols and a friend.... He will not want to wait for morning,” I ended bitterly.
“Ay, sir”—a wedge fell to the floore—“there, she is free now, and”—He broke off with an exclamation. "Your honor,' the wedge was on her ankle, and a splinter has drove right in. Look, your honor.”
“No, take her!” I said, staring, into the darkness.
THEY went away, and I endeavored to force my mind from what I had done, and to mourn undistracted for Louis. Presently I caught the drumming of hoofs—the first of the search-parties returning. For a while it sounded no nearer; then of a sudden it was very close. I was descried against the light of the room, and from the midst of the advance there rang out the voice of Louis, excited, gay, and eager to reassure me:
“Sir! Sir! Ho, sir!”
I bent forward; and into the illumined space beneath the window rode the band, and drew rein—half-a-dozen troopers, and, sitting behind one of them; Louis, hatless, and clad, above the belt, only in his coat, as I perceived from its gaping open and showing his bare body. None the less he waved his hand in bright-spirited salutation with just that fond smile which I had recalled, believing ’twould never again greet me.
With devout thankfulness I cried his name, repeating it two or three times. Then, to screen my emotion, I said abruptly to the men, “This rescue was well done by you boys.” For, from the prompt advantage which several took of the light to examine themselves and their mounts for trivial wounds, I could tell it had been a rescue with plying sword.
"Ay, sir, indeed 'twas well done,” said Louis. “There shall be a purse of guineas for these lads and for Spanton, who sent them scouring—and the best corn we have for two other of my helpers, that I think will trot hither presently, Raylish’s horse and mine.” He laughed merrily. “Sir, in truth the discovery of me was strange.... And none too soon,” he added, suddenly graver.
He took a deep breath, and poured forth the tale. “Kyle Cleod brought me to a hollow by the river. He muffled my mouth, stripped my shoulders, and tied me to a tree to beat me ere he hanged me—all this without a spark of light, for fear that I should betray him. He gave me one lash—” Louis grimaced—“and then was there a galloping on the turf. I knew ’twas my grey following me, with Raylish’s horse. They were smarted by pistol balls in the attack, and broke away when we were forced from the saddle.
“Kyle guessed the beasts were ours, and spoke a quick order to his fellows—not to shoot, I deem. But one on the edge of the dell loosed his pistol. These fine lads saw the flash, and were upon us like the very wind. They cut down four of the enemy—though Kyle slipped them again.... Four, sir, of those pests.” Louis’s voice became wheedling, in anticipation of the talk I should have with him when we were alone. “So there is nothing to regret, eh, sir?”
“Dismount. Come hither,” I said harshly.
I faced round to the empty room, and moved a few steps. Nothing to regret! The little maid seemed yet to stand before me, so pretty, so intrepid, so hopelessly in my power.
I caught at my lips, but a sob broke from them before I contrived to steady myself to receive Louis.
NIGHT was fallen, and a mist about us, when the schooner dropped a small anchor to hold her from drifting too much in. The last breath of wind and the flow of the tide had brought us to the very place we sought, as we knew from having seen the lights of Hastings ere the mist thickened. We were midway ’twixt there and Beachy Head, a quarter-mile off the lonely coast (the schooner drawing but shallowly), and arrived upon the hour when we were first to be expected. So it was with extreme satisfaction that I prepared to land, although I should do this in the guise of an invader of my country; for which circumstance the usurping Prince of Orange was to blame, he now holding the English throne, and King James, and such true men as could get to him, holding Ireland, where His Majesty was like to have a hard fight, the greater part of the Hollander prince’s army being gone thither, and the prince himself just passed over to join him.
A hope that I might give this prince a counter-stroke which would spin the crown from his head had led me here to the Sussex shore. The design was of my own planning, but, of course, entered upon with His Majesty’s approval and aid; and I cherished it lovingly, not only for what success would mean to His Majesty, but, since I was no more unselfish than other men, for what it would mean to me—a dukedom and a pension, and my name graved large in history. Sussex was my native part, where I was wont to have uncommon influence, and wherefrom, in the old days, I had raised Shelverdene’s Regiment of Horse—merged with the main cavalry on my retirement in ’81, and long since lost sight of. I was come now to raise, not a regiment, but the county, ay, and all South England, for the King; which, if my influence still held, to give me a nucleus in Sussex, I believed I should verily do.
For this grand enterprise I was accompanied by no force—forty-two soldiers were my strength. Success would depend, under Providence, upon the welcome I received, not upon the numbers I landed with. His Majesty had offered me a full regiment, which he could ill afford to spare, and I had refused it. If my welcome were good I should get recruits by the hundred; if it were bad I and one regiment could accomplish nothing, and, in all Iikelihood, would die forthwith, every man us.
But, in troth, I had no foreboding of disaster. I had plotted the affair most subtly, using the discreetest messengers to arrange a tryst with certain reliable Sussex friends, who declared my reception would be wholly favorable; and I had sailed not from Waterford until the Prince of Orange was sailed to Ireland, when, I presaged, the attention of the English government would be directed thither.
To-night a score of my friends should be on the shore yonder, with a drove of horses for the forming of our cavalry, and for transporting the armament I had brought—two fine brass field-pieces, a demi-cannon, ten barrels of powder, and above two hundred carbines and muskets. And other trustworthy persons should be forgathering, with every available weapon and horse, at divers points within a small radius, prepared to join me so soon as they were advertised I was here; so that, when morning broke, there would be a little army drawn up, for loyal men to haste to.
The cargo of ordnance and munitions was to go ashore after us. Leaving my ensign and two gunners to watch to its careful lowering into the boats, and bidding the shipmaster sound his bell frequently to guide the boats as they returned to him in the mist, I climbed down to one of these, of which there were three now floating on the water, laden with my company. The sea was quite smooth, though there was a gentle wash of it against the beach, which told us how to head; and, despite the momentous hours that lay before me, I discovered enjoyment in being rowed over the placid surface. I drew long breaths of the air of Sussex, and thought on the pleasure it would be to see the green plain of Pevensey marsh and the rampart of South Downs hills in the early, shimmering sunlight of to-morrow.
Because of the mist the schooner’s lamps could not be marked from the shore; therefore, when our prows stopped at the shingle (no hail having greeted the noise of our oars), I ordered some one to give the whistle, which he did several times, very loud and clear. But, though we sat still for a space listening, we heard nothing in reply.
There was a touch of ill-omen about the silence, and even a touch of chill at my heart as I wondered whether an incredible thing could occur—my attempt fail weakly in its very beginning, through some strange error. But at once I threw off this humor.
“Out,” I cried to my fellows.
Then I sent back the boats, which, voyaging to and fro for an hour, brought the equipment; and this I had borne to a grass bank by the top of the beach. After which, allowing my men to drop down and rest, I stood with ears astrain, not daring to believe but that soon I should hear the reinforcements. Two or three times I gave a start of blithe relief, certain that I had distinguished many soft footfalls; yet a second later they were not to be detected.
“You have no doubt this is the place, Sir Edmund?” asked Nayford, the ensign, quitting the demi-cannon, whereon he had long sat alert, to join me.
“None,” I answered. “Below us is the path by which they were to come, and thirty yards from us the cross-path by which they were to halt.... No, ’tis the fog delays them, or another trifling matter.
Ay,” said he, and remained with me, breathing a dance-tune; but soon recollected himself and craved pardon for his easiness, saying the sea-murmur had beguiled him.
A further ten minutes were passed, when I threw up my hand and snapped my fingers; he, in the same instant exclaiming, "There!"
“Sergeant, order your men,” I said; and when that was done, in two ranks, and the bustle thereof was ceased, very numerous steps were to be heard on the path and on the beach itself.
“Some are on the shingle to our left, sir, also,” said Nayford.
“Yes,” said I merrily. “They are coming in well.” I raised my voice, speaking to the men. “Now, ye boys, we shall give a sharp twist to history.”
TO MY dumbfounding, to the utter bewilderment of us all, there ran through the mist a trailing, woman’s laugh—sweet beyond telling, mocking beyond description; and anon it changed to words:
Write it in the History Book,
“Shelverdene and all are took.”
Once more the voice was laughter, joyous, derisive laughter; and then, again:
Write it in the History Book,
“Shelverdene and all are took,
Brought to London from the shores,
Hanged and drawn and cut in fours.”
“Madam,” I said, “I beseech you haste into shelter, or you will say no more such pretty poetry; for ‘Shelverdene and all’ are going to shoot.”
Then I spoke towards the chiefest trampling of feet—many scores of them, and almost upon us.
“We are for King James,” I said. “Are you folk for the Dutch gentleman?”
‘"Sir Edmund Shelverdene and those with you, put down your arms, and then let no man move from where he stands.”
“Oh, nay,” I said; “I think we shall fight for it.”
I turned to my troop, whereof the front rank, though not a yard from me, was scarce to be discerned. A device was in my brain to order a retreat at full speed to a distance of fifty paces. Then should every man face about again and crouch or lie flat, and fire his carbine in the direction of the powder-barrels, which by that time our enemies would have reached. I hoped that a fortunate shot, discharging the powder, would cast a fair part of the foe skyward, and afford me a chance of victory yet, if my men were not too stunned to charge upon the remnant ere they recovered from the shock; and the crushing despair which had fallen on me went, and my spirit surged buoyantly as I imagined this triumph.
But, alas! before I had given two words of command, a quick, dull flicker lit the visages of my soldiers, and the enemy’s muskets deafened our ears. A few of our carbines answered, and we were at grips, striking and being stricken blindly, and we driven backward on a run from weight of odds.
The scuffle lasted little above a minute; for, as I learned after, there were two hundred and fifty against us—one hundred regulars of the Royal Fusiliers, and the rest volunteers from traitorous parts of the country.
At the commencement, springing round when the volley sounded, I fired both my pistols and hurled them after the bullets. Then, shouting to my boys to keep close to me, and we would burst a road through to Hastings, I drove into the mist, my sword levelled, so that it would spit anything save armour it came against. I got a fellow who wore no plate, probably a Fusilier, and, whipping the blade forth from him, pierced another while I was being flung back. A third, using a clubbed musket, by the feel of the stroke, knocked the sword from my hand. I hit at him with my fist, giving a shiver as I did so, for a wild bayonet thrust had grazed my cheek, an inch from the eye. My fist landed, but he who received it caught my arm, and, a side rush sweeping us to the edge of the fight, we grappled closely and fell, and presently were left to battle undisturbed on the grass, I having him by the throat so that he could in no wise summon help. And soon, my knee touching a big flint stone, I slipped down a hand for it, and thus beat him.
I ROSE and straightened my peruke, and paused to recover some breath ere rushing back to the melee; and then I realised it was over. The beach was loud with voices, but they were calm, saying such things as, “How many prisoners, lieutenant?” “Here is a wounded one of them, sir.”
I clenched my hands, and in this grievous moment hot tears crept down my cheeks. Here was the end of Shelverdene’s Plot, that had promised so much, and the end of the brave boys who had been trusted to me.
At first I was going forward to surrender myself. If that would have brought me death swiftly, I would have. But the sombre prospect of cell and trial and scaffold, withheld me. For a short time I tarried, hearing the schooner busy with her gear, and surmising whether she could get away with this lack of wind. Then, shrugging my shoulders, I walked inland, wishing I knew how many of my friends were betrayed and whether any could shelter me.
I followed no path, but made for the centre of the marshland. Ever and anon, since I could not see on what I was setting my foot, I tripped over tufts of rushes or sank knee-deep in a bed of swamp; and at length, though advancing so warily that I slid either foot onward, rather than stepped, because I was come to where there were many water-dikes, I dropped clean into one of these, managing to fall erect, but having the water sousing round my neck. A little while later I splashed into a second, in the very same manner. Climbing from this, I threw into it my heavy back-and-breast plates, trusting thus to prolong my strength. But some two hours from leaving the beach, having lost my bearings, and being too shaken by my falls and too hampered by my wet clothes to struggle further, I sank upon the ground.
For a minute thereafter I lay on my elbow thinking of the countless happy hours I had passed on the marsh, in youth, in maturer years, always with the future bright and never hinting that one night I should return, a wrecked, discredited fugitive, in my forty-eighth year.
Then I rolled over on my side, stretched out my legs with a great sigh, and slept,
WHEN I awoke I believed for a space that it was the sound of a cannon which had roused me. For, sitting up and finding the part of the sea in front of me so adance and aglitter with sunlight that my eyes could not endure it, I looked westward and saw a ball of white smoke rising from a warship, which was heeling off round Beachy Head—in pursuit of the schooner, I did not doubt. But then I heard a human sound, a low, rapturous murmur; and, turning my head another inch and glancing up, I discovered, leaning forward betwixt me and the sky, and framed in a great, broad-leaved, furry black hat, with dewdrops from some shaken bush hanging to the brim, a lady’s face—high above me because she stood on a bank.
The face was, maybe, a shade thin, but gay with the color of health, and pretty indeed. The hair, blown about and between chestnut and gold, and the big blue eyes, seemed to stir in me a memory of some one I once had seen or dreamed of, but I could not recall whom. The eyes were shining—ay, and the lips were laughing, with such a strange, exultant welcome that I was sadly puzzled. My gaze fell to the lady’s throat, finely moulded, and bare, from the flat setting of her lace collar; and then it fell upon other particulars. Her cloak was cast back, and beneath her left arm was a crutch. In her right hand was a long, polished pistol, hanging apparently in carelessness, yet, it seemed to me, held very ready. I looked down the length of her slender crutch and saw the foot it aided, a narrow foot, comely still, but with the heel clear of the ground and the toe pointing straightly to the turf in a way most pitiful to see. Then I knew her.
I was surprised I had not known her instantly, for, though I had not seen her for eleven years—and she a child then—she had dwelt very constantly in my thoughts until some two years past, when her implacable spirit had caused me to put her from my mind.
Denis Irby’s daughter.... In the moment of recognition there rose before me, not one, but many remembrances, like clear pictures, of which I seemed to read all details during that brief moment—an inexplicable thing. I recalled the first wretched weeks I passed in London on my return from Scotland, when I had to endure the news that the child I had shamefully booted was lamed for life; and the staunchness of my friends exasperated rather than comforted me, so that I did fight with Colonel Loomer for his saying I had rightly served the girl. I recalled my frequent entreatings of Denis Irby that he would bring me to her—and his cold denying me. I recalled how, on realising she was growing to womanhood, I sent her year by year on her birthday, which I had learned the date of, a letter—conjuring her to receive me, to offer me some chance of making a little amends; bidding her know that my sword, my influence, my all, save my Faith and my Allegiance, were hers to be done with as she listed. Every of which letters was despatched back to me with no word, but with the stroke of a pen drawn contemptuously across the page.
And I recalled the springtime morning in '88 when, Denis Irby being under much suspicion, Louis Stuart (a captain by then) had been sent with others to seize his papers. I was lodged in Whitehall. At the first bruit of what was afoot I went to His Majesty, and craved his sanction to accompany the party. Whereupon King James’s worn face had relaxed a jot, and a kindly satire gleamed in his mournful, heavy eyes.
"In the interests of the Crown or of the suspect, Ned?” asked he. Then, seeing me frankly troubled for an answer, he bade me go with Louis, adding graciously that he was assured which person, of those that went to Mr. Irby’s house, would watch most tenderly over the King’s safety.
Denis Irby was from home; and his daughter, on learning of my arrival, had hurriedly withdrawn (so I was told) to some chamber of her own. Feeling her presence in every room we entered, I kept with Louis and Sir F. Pochin, a magistrate, and scanned such documents as they found—with no intent, of course, to destroy aught, but to prime myself for defending Irby, should that prove necessary.
We discovered no treason. But from a little box in a music-room—a box that had been very carefully locked, Louis took something, which, after a glance, he gave to me, with a whimsical look.
It was an engraving of myself, bought from some print-seller. Below my delineation was the customary jumbled flourish of printed words: “The Most Honorable Sir Edmund Dene Shelverdene, Bt.; One of His Majesty’s Lords-Lieutenant," and thus onward. But there was another inscription, done very daintily and womanly with a quill—writ privily to my image; yet I could not resist reading it:
"Able, brave, high-natured—men say thou art; blindly loyal to the King, clement when thy foe is weak, ruthless when strong. QUOTHA! how fair a character. And thy brow doth bear it out!
"But I know thy clemency, do I not? Was I thy strong foe, thou arch-tormentor, that sent me to limp through life, and smoothly asked my pardon? I know thy clemency. And be thy other virtues true or false, one day, through me, thy mouth shall lie in the dust."
I noted something, and held the print up to the light; and I could not but smile wearily to observe a group of holes, pierced in my breast by a vengeful needle. I replaced the print in the box, which held nothing more save silks and sewing-work. Anon, hearing Louis ask Pochin whether he would have the chamber searched wherein the lady was, I bade them pass a message to her by one of her own servants, inquiring if she had any of her father’s papers there—saying I would vouch for the honor of her reply. Which being done, and the servant carrying more than the message, she returned answer that she had no writing in the room, yet would wish the gentlemen below to come and prove that for themselves, if they brought not with them the fellow who had so insolently presumed to vouch for her honor.
SUCH were the remembrances that had me spell-bound, until the lady softly spoke, bringing me to realise that she and I, with the fragrant marshland around us and the azure sky overhead, were come together in no vision of the past, but in a present circumstance which was evidently as diverting to her as ’twas like to prove ill for me.
"Shelverdene!” she whispered in delight. “It is you, as I thought from my telescope.”
“Denis Irby’s daughter,” I said, shifting a trifle, to face her squarely, and clasping my hands about one knee. “Why would you never meet me?” I asked.
Her head drooped teasingly to one side. She smiled on, but her eyes had a deadly fierceness which she made no endeavor to hide. “What meeting could compare with this?” she asked. "Behold the great captain, fallen and a runaway. King James’s Hope, set on the ground, with muddied peruke and lost cravat—and—and blood on his cheek.” There was a hint of faltering in her voice, of waning smile, when she japed at my blood. But, “Great captain,” she taunted, her smile back again, “may I have the aid of your sword, of your mighty influence?”
Then, indeed, her smile faded; and, turning her face from me, she laid the wrist of her hand, which held the pistol, athwart her forehead, as though disquieted. And I heard her murmur, “Am I cruel as he?”
Recollecting she was off her guard, she turned again, veering the pistol towards me as she lowered it; yet, most strangely, something of gentleness was about her.
“I will not be paltry with the truth,” she said. “Thou wert a captain, and a power, and a sure blade, that wished to serve me.” Therewith, however, she raised her chin suddenly, with a motion of impatience, of stress. “Oh, what things do I speak! I think I am all bewildered with gladness, to see thee stricken utterly, and the headsman waiting for thee.... You planned to serve me, to soften me!” Had she deliberately lashed it, her temper could not have leapt more hotly. “Me!” she cried. “That you tortured and maimed, you very fiend.... It was my part, not yours, to say how you should pay for your black villainy.”
And then in a breath, as a short while before, she was teasing, smiling, deadly withal.
“You have paid somewhat already, Shelverdene?”
“Two duellos with your father, and a fine of two thousand pounds in the King’s Courts.”
“Two more duellos in Dublin,” said she.
"So!” I cried; “were you responsible for those?”
She nodded. “I ever intended to take the matter in my own hands. I was in no haste; but when you quitted England I deemed I were best begin. I sent two of my friends to kill you, but your sword was overmasterly. Last month I sent another."
“He sought me not.”
“Nay, he did far better. He chanced upon, and discovered to me, Shelverdene’s most wicked design against England.”
“You!” I gasped. “You!”
“I am to be thanked for the foiling of it. I bade my friend no more think to fight you, but to cozen you and your brother-plotters; and so we learnt all, which my father disclosed to the government. Thus was I privileged to be with them that awaited you last night.... Are you not sorry you adjured me to shelter from the bullets, Shelverdene?”
IN HER mien now were the completest mockery and triumph; and, her hat being high-crowned, so that it reminded me of a witch’s hat, she made, to my thinking, a picture of a beautiful, cruel witch. Yet, because she moved slightly, showing me how her foot dragged, I had no wish to upbraid her save on one point.
“Madame,” I said, “I am glad you escaped harm, for there is great justice in all you have done to me. But I blame you for the slaying of the poor lads that were with me.”
“You slew them. You would not suffer them to yield. Also, came they not hither to slay others?” Her eyes flashed indignantly.
I answered no word, having scant inclination to argue. For a space I stared down at my clasped hands. Yet I could perceive a movement she made, a gesturing outward of her pistol-hand from her side, and its sinking back; the movement (no threat to me) so telling of troubled thoughts that I looked up astonished—to find that trouble was in her face, though forthwith it was changed to composure.
“All I have done to you, Shelverdene?” she said, taking up the phrase I had used. “That were stingy payment to me. What I shall do will be better.” With a sudden action she aimed the pistol at my head. “Have you any arm?”
I raised my eyebrows. I think I smiled at this menace.
“Not a penknife,” I replied.
She let the pistol hang by her side again. “Then my purpose is very easy to carry out. I am lodged at a farmhouse, a mile from here, where are stout herdsmen that will bind you in readiness for the soldiers. I bade not any come with me when I spied you, for I desired that we should speak privily.” She gave a gentle sigh of contentment, her head falling anew to one side. “Shelverdene, I shall feel paid in a week or two, when you are on the scaffold-boards; nothing can save you from them.
“Nothing in the world, madame, except your foolishness to bring no men. I shall not go to the farm.”
“Then I will shoot you.”
“I trust you will, for you have so ruined me, I shall be grateful for a pistol ball.” I held my eyes on hers to let her read from them I was not fibbing; and in an instant her prettiness and her lamed condition stirred me most deeply, and I was forced to add, “Verily, child, I think I want to die by your hand, if that will end the debt between us. This sight of you hath made me more than ever wish to end it. And to be shot by you, out here in the country sunshine, will be a sweeter way to die than I had hoped for.”
She searched my eyes intently, deeming, I imagined, that I had descended to craven flattery on the chance of coaxing mercy from her. Finding that I was calmly in earnest, she could not keep a flicker of surprise from her own eyes. I saw them soften eloquently for a bare second, and a darker color in her cheeks. But then she gibed, as though she had fathomed me wrongly.
“Nay, Shelverdene; thou wilt not cajole me at last with sneakish words and a good-looking face." She bent more towards me, and her lips actually quivered fast from an access of anger. “Ay, of a surety, thou art good-looking, though older than my father.... Good-looking!” Her voice rose vibrantly, and she held her maimed foot forth an inch for me to note. “Good-looking—limber. And see what thou hast made of me, that was but a child in thy power, and, for love of Holy Gospel should have been spared.... Dost thou dream I shall have pity? Nay, Shelverdene, nor pity enough to kill thee. I shall shoot through thy knee or hip; and thou wilt not crawl far while I am gone for the herdsmen—I warrant me thou wilt not.”
She rested with greater dependence on her crutch, breathing quickly from her speech. Lifting her pistol, she surveyed carefully the priming and the cocked hammer, yet with the corner of an eye on me. Anon: “I must be closer for delicate shooting,” she said; and, moving a few yards, to where the bank sloped gradually to my level, but having always that comer of an eye on me, she picked her way down in a mode both graceful and sad to watch, and came right to me.
“It is true you have no weapon?” she asked.
“What odds if I had?” I said sullenly. “I put you to the question that I might save a lad’s life. I would not hurt your finger-tip to save my life.”
“More cunning words.” Her mouth rippled tauntingly. “You hope still I may prove a fool—eh, Shelverdene? Well, I think you have no weapon; and so"—she looked longingly at the side of the bank just opposite to us, which was well nigh perpendicular to the flat turf—“and so I am very safe to sit.—A crutch is a weary thing in marshland.... No!” she cried, as I would have risen to aid her. “I will not take courtesy from you, that I mean shall perish like a dog.”
SKILFULLY she lowered herself, and.... sat with her back against the bank, laying the crutch to one side of her, and resting the long, polished pistol on the other, but never ceasing to hold this. The sun had begun to pour hotly on the bank. She took off her great heavy witch’s hat, shook out the curls she had freed, and leaned her head lazily amid the grass.
I had a queer thrill of pleasure at perceiving how fair was her brow, and how enhanced her hair when uncovered. She discerned my thoughts.
“Yes,” she said derisively, “despite my foot I lack not wooers, for all that you spoiled twain in Dublin.... I am told you are not wed, wondrous, quick-handed swordsman.”
“’Tis so,” I answered.
“I am pleased. I had liefer not bring sorrow to a woman—or a child.... Holal How cometh Master Swift-hand by an old rapier scar on the throat?”
“By the finest blade that was in Britain—one Colonel Loomer,” said I thoughtlessly.
Her eyelashes fell. She gave an uneasy sigh. “I know why you fought. Lackaday! that I do know.... Yet, not that—nothing—shall put me from my purpose.”
“Regarding this purpose, madame,” I said; “I will not suffer to be carried to prison. Be resigned to that. You say you will but wound me.” I smiled tauntingly in my turn. “I shall find means to be dead ere you come back.”
She lifted her lashes, meeting smile with smile.
“Very brave. But I deem you will do as I bid when I point my pistol at your knee, which shall be in a minute, when I am rested.”
Her tone rang with confidence. Well I knew, though, that my will would be stronger than hers in this matter; and, perchance with some disdain, I diverted my gaze from her, and contemplated steadily the grass beside her cheek.
The bank was parched, and the long grass, in contrast to the herbage round about, already much browned. I was conscious of a half-hid hole a yard to the right of her; and presently my attention was caught by an unaccountable pattern showing through the grass between the hole and her. It was a dark, zig-zag ribbon, edged with a length of dark blotches. Of a sudden all moved undulatingly, with a gloss as of oil now visible around them and I saw rise, within a hand’s-breadth of the white throat before me, the head of a snake.
I swayed forward on to my toes. “Do not shoot!” I whispered; and, leaping with my whole strength, I fell across my captor. My knee snapped the crutch; the long pistol, jabbed like lightning against my midriff, slid as it was fired, and, I was sure, blew a hole to put one’s head through in the back of my coat; but the only happening which interested me was that I had the serpent’s head safe in my palm, and was crushing it finely, the beast squirming and like a steel spring to feel.
Denis Irby’s daughter, her face close to mine and her rage frenzied, wrenched the pistol from between us and struck my cheek-bone savagely with it, holding me with her left hand. She swung the pistol to let me have a rare buffet—and the lashing body of the snake touched her wrist. She looked, screamed in horror, and released me.
Whereat I jumped up, set one boot on the snake, freed his head, and stamped the life out of him. Then, turning to the girl, I saw her sitting with the whitest face; watching the still moving snake.
“MADAME,” I said, “will you not let me charge the pistol, for fear I shall escape?"
“The poison-adder,” she muttered quaveringly, “such as killed the ploughman last Tuesday.” And then she looked at me. “Your hand? You held it!”
I had been groping round my back for powder-sparks. Now I glanced at my palm. There was a hurt spot, pinched and nicked, which reminded me of a squeeze from a gun-hammer.
She saw. “And you have no knife,” she cried. "Nor I!” She stooped and ripped a silver buckle from her shoe, and held it forth. “It is sharp. Slash, tear, make the blood pour.”
I moved a few paces from her, to where a pool was, and—though only to soothe her, since a dose of snake-venom offered an excellent escape out of my troubles—tore and gashed my palm deeply, bathing it also.
“Suck, suck,” she cried. "Oh, harder! Come hither, that I may try.”
“Nay, indeed,” I answered—several times, for she persisted.
But anon, turning to her after I had rinsed my mouth, I found her coming towards me on her hands and knees. For a second I was amazed. Then I understood—her crutch was broke.
“Madame,” I said, “will you be pitiful in one thing, and let me not see this?.... Madame!” I pleaded, and stopped, too disordered to say more.
“I think you are bled enough,” she said, kneeling and then sitting back on her heels in a fashion which told me that the maimed foot had no suffering in it. She took a handkerchief from her breast. “Have you one?” she asked.
I shook my head, having lost mine on the beach, where, together with my neckbands, my ruffles had been torn off.
She looked down at her collar, doubling her chin into her throat in an attitude that was most alluring. Then she untied the cord of the collar and drew it off.
“Suck again,” she said; “give the wounds another wash, then come hither to me.”
And I stood by her, perceiving with content that her color was all returned, while she bound my hand with the collar and the kerchief. That done, with no hurry, even pensively, I thought, she glanced up at me with a glorious smile, her eyes bereft of any shadow of dislike.
“Sir Edmund Shelverdene, this makes a great difference.”
“You have forgiven me a little of my wrong, madame?” I asked, my voice trembling with eagerness.
“A serpent would have bit me in the throat,” she said, “me that meant to have you die. You saw. You knew it must rescue you. You knew I should shoot. But, to save me, you risked my pistol and put your bare hand on the snake. Verily, Sir Edmund”—with a reviving of mockery, but this very sweet now—“verily, it were unthinkable I should forgive.”
She lifted her hands to me, and swift was I to clasp them and to rest my lips on one. Then quietly she said, “Your left hand was the nigher to the snake; but wise were you, and ’twas your sword hand, your fast hand, you drove athwart me with such speed I could not see it. Your sword hand, that did reproach and wring me in my—my dreams to slay you, so that I jeered it viciously to-day.”
“Reproach—wring?” I asked, raising my eyes to look at her.
“My father—dear, gallant man, is yet no Shelverdene or Loomer with the sword. Did not your hand twice spare him?”
“If so, child,”—for I would not lie to her—“methinks his death is the only suffering in all the world I have not given you."
And picturing the long, piteous contest in her soul which her words had told of, I kept her hands, watching her eyes grow ever sweeter as they widened slowly, bidding me perceive how fully I was pardoned. Ay, I kept her hands for a minute. Then, when they were leaving me, I asked with a sigh: “Have you a charge for your pistol? ’Twould be of use to me.”
“No.” She regarded me questioningly, uneasily, her fingers stayed by my words.
“Little matter,” I said, and kissed her hand again. “Since you forgive, I am happy, and the scaffold will not force me to be otherwise.”
She shook my hands reprovingly. “Why talk of scaffold? Is not that forgot between us?”
“I saw soldiers searching for me, as I washed my hand,” I replied. “Perchance, they heard not the pistol; yet I can in no wise escape.”
Her fingers tightened sharply round mine. “Aid me to rise,” she said; and when she was risen she added: “Will you hold me? I cannot stand very surely alone."
I gently steadied her by her arms, and strange it was to be holding her thus, near to me—strange, delightful; but the remorse of it! “Oh, child,” I said. “If I could have lived! If you would have let me woo you!—for in this half-hour I have come to love you madly and for ever!.... Child, if I could have been your husband, to pass my life in serving you tenderly, in striving to make amends!” I laughed sadly. “Faith! The power that would have been yours! For did ever we differ on a question, you should need but to bid me hold you, but to point to your crutch, and straightway I should think as you.”
“Come,” she said, “you are very careless of your peril. Now is not to woo, but to do.” And yet, with a soft, caressing gesture, she raised her hand and touched the bruise which the pistol had left on my cheek. “You must carry me to the farm,” she said. “Have you strength? You look so weary.”
“Strength to carry you anywhither,” I answered, lifting her in my arms, “if the soldiers hinder me not. But assuredly they will.”
I moved a pace, and stopped, observing her hat and pistol lying on the grass.
“Leave them,” she said; “I want to bring you quick to Elphick’s farm.”
"Simon Elphick’s?” I asked, walking forth past the bank with her; and, on her nodding, I said, “I think he would be friendly to me.”
“I know,” she replied, “from his bearing when I spoke ill of you. And my father will be your friend when he learns of this morning. I must instantly send to London for him.” She shifted, and slipped her arm over my shoulder, saying that thus would she less burthen me; and continued, “No soldiers are at the farm. ’Twill be a marvel if Elphick, and my father and I—your known enemies—cannot hide you securely there and put you over the sea.”
Her face lit with confidence; and my arms tightened about her as I looked on it, telling her of my gratitude. But I was sure she would have no chance to help me.
OUR straight path to the farm lay clear, but on starting I had noted, a half-mile to one side of it, the heads of soldiers, in the midst of some bushes they were beating for me. For a while, however, I gazed on her, unheeding the fellows. I should see enough of them anon, but never more in life see these lips and eyes.
When I looked up, the soldiers were withdrawn from the bushes, their faces being toward us, so far as I could discover, for they were a good distance off. Then suddenly they hurried to intercept us. By their scarlet-and-yellow "night-caps” and the form of their like-colored coats, I could tell they were Fusiliers, whom the government, perhaps for money-saving, had kept in their uniforms of King James.
I bent again over her I bore.
“I shall not get to the farm,” I said. “There are soldiers running to cut me off.”
She turned her head quickly to see.
“I believe you will get to the farm,” she replied quietly. “Wait, I will stand for a little, that you may take ease; for you must not put me down when they are near.... Nay, face not to them, though they be so far.” She stood between my hands, fingering a loose button of my sleeve “I suppose,” she said, with a touch of pride that I durst not deem I was the reason of, “I suppose that most soldiers know Colonel Shelverdene’s face?”
“I can vouch for those Fusiliers,” I answered. “I saw much of them two years ago, when I took a command again on troubles threatening the King. Ay, since they seek me, they will recall my face."
“’Tis well I have a plan,” she said. She began to pull off her cloak. “You must wear this, to cover the hole I have shot through your coat; else will the soldiers think it was done last night on the beach.”
Together we got the cloak about me, and she fell silent, leaning once or twice to peer past me to find how near were the soldiers.
“Lift me,” she bade at length—with a tiny gasp and a hot flushing of her cheeks that I could not account for.
“Sir Edmund,” she said, as I obeyed—and her arm closed round my neck; “to hide your face, yet give them no suspicion, I—I shall play your lover—your bold, horrid lover.” She met my eyes imploringly, rapid, nervous twitchings at her nostrils. “Sir Edmund, you will know it is all make-believe?” She glanced towards the Fusiliers, and threw her other arm round my neck. “Sink your head,” she whispered. “Do all I say; and when you cannot see I will guide you.”
She had contrived to press my peruke partly across my face, which, moreover, was now in her hair, so that I could use but one eye. That showed me the soldiers standing prepared for our coming, their officer taking a pace in our direction.
He was some hundred yards away, when the arms about me drew my head right down. The cheek of Denis Irby’s daughter lay against my peruke, and my face was held hard upon her bare neck.
“Make-believe,” she reminded me tremulously; “for who shall look for Shelverdene’s face on my breast?”
And then, her arm and shoulder rising to guard me more, she began to carol and to laugh, and to direct me by calling, “Straight forward—to the right—to the right,” her tones thrilling against my mouth, of which the lips were folded, and clenched by my teeth, for I must have kissed the place whereon it was pressed, had I not fought my hardest to be guiltless of such dishonor.
I felt the racing beat of her heart, yet her voice had only cool laughter in it when presently she cried:
“Captain Grey, I broke my crutch; but he who is to wed me came and found me.” I heard a man reply, saying envious things of me.
“To the left straight—my blind horse,” she cried; and we were through.
I had a week for wooing her, but, in some marvellous wise, she was back in my arms as my promised wife ere half that time was passed; and on the night that Denis Irby was to lead me to the fishing-galliot which would sail me over to France, I kept him many minutes waiting for me at the gate of the farm. His daughter’s voice and mine had bidden him believe the delay was for stuffing my pockets with sandwiches and a brandy-flask. Doubtless he believed no such tale, and, maybe, he smiled—little guessing what relentless importuning of him was being hatched in the porch of the house. For there, the dear lips which spoke against mine were urging, “Beg him let me follow thee soon. Beg him! beg him!” And mine were replying, “Three miles to the galliot, sweetheart! And I will din his ears at every step.”