There was unconscious prophecy in his words. I was to see him but the once more, and then the proud, gallant gentleman, now so full of energy, was lying on his deathbed struck out of life by a foul blow.
THE SHADOW FALLS
It would appear that Sir Robert went direct from the prison to the club room at White's. He was observed to be gloomy, preoccupied, his manner not a little perturbed. The usual light smile was completely clouded under a gravity foreign to his nature. One may guess that he was in no humour to carry coals. In a distant corner of the room he seated himself and fell to frowning at the table on which his elbow rested. At no time was he a man upon whom one would be likely to foist his company undesired, for he had at command on occasion a hauteur and an aloofness that challenged respect even from the most inconsiderate.
We must suppose that he was moved out of his usual indifference, that some long-dormant spring of nobility was quickened to a renewed life, that a girl's truth and purity, refining his selfish passion, had bitten deep into the man's callous worldliness. For long he sat in a sombre silence with his head leaning on his hand, his keen mind busy with the problem—so I shall always believe—as to how he might even yet save me from the gallows.
By some strange hap it chanced that Sir James Craven, excited with drink, the bile of his saturnine temper stirred to malignity by heavy losses at cards, alighted from his four in hand at White's shortly after Volney. Craven's affairs had gone from bad to worse very rapidly of late. He had been playing the races heavily and ruin stared the man in the face. More than suspected of dubious play at cards, it had been scarce a week since the stewards of a leading racetrack had expelled him for running crosses. Any day a debtor's prison might close on him. Within the hour, as was afterward learned, his former companion Frederick Prince of Wales had given him the cut direct on the Mall. Plainly his star was on the decline, and he raged in a futile passion of hatred against the world. Need it be said that of all men he most hated his supplanter in the Prince of Wales' good-will, Sir Robert Volney.
To Volney then, sitting gloomily in his distant solitude, came Craven with murder in his heart and a bitter jest on his lips. At the other side of the table he found a seat and glared across at his rival out of a passion-contorted face. Sir Robert looked past him coldly, negligently, as if he had not been there, and rising from his seat moved to the other side of the room. In the manner of his doing it there was something indescribably insulting; so it seemed to Topham Beauclerc, who retailed to me the story later.
Craven's evil glance followed Volney, rage in his bloodshot eyes. If a look could kill, the elegant macaroni had been a dead man then. It is to be guessed that Craven struggled with his temper and found himself not strong enough to put a curb upon it; that his heady stress of passion swept away his fear of Volney's sword. At all events there he sat glowering blackly on the man at whose charge he chose to lay all his misfortunes, what time he gulped down like water glass after glass of brandy. Presently he got to his feet and followed Sir Robert, still dallying no doubt with the fascinating temptation of fixing a quarrel upon his rival and killing him. To do him justice Volney endeavoured to avoid an open rupture with the man. He appeared buried in the paper he was reading.
"What news?" asked Craven abruptly.
For answer the other laid down the paper, so that Sir James could pick it up if he chose.
"I see your old rival Montagu is to dance on air to-morrow. 'Gad, you'll have it all your own way with the wench then," continued Craven boisterously, the liquor fast mounting to his head.
Volney's eyes grew steelly. He would have left, but the burly purple-faced baronet cut off his retreat.
"Damme, will you drink with me, or will you play with me, Volney?"
"Thanks, but I never drink nor play at this time of day, Sir James. If it will not inconvenience you to let me pass——"
With a foolish laugh, beside himself with rage and drink, Craven flung him back into his chair. "'Sdeath, don't be in such a hurry! I want to talk to you about— Devil take it, what is it I want to talk about?— Oh, yes! That pink and white baggage of yours. Stap me, the one look ravished me! Pity you let a slip of a lad like Montagu oust you."
"That subject is one which we will not discuss, Sir James," said Volney quietly. "It is not to be mentioned in my presence."
"The devil it isn't. I'm not in the habit of asking what I may talk about. As for this mistress of yours——"
Sir Robert rose and stood very straight. "I have the honour to inform you that you are talking of a lady who is as pure as the driven snow."
Buck Craven stared. "After Sir Robert Volney has pursued her a year?" he asked with venomous spleen, his noisy laugh echoing through the room.
I can imagine how the fellow said it, with what a devilish concentration of malice. He had the most irritating manner of any man in England; I never heard him speak without wanting to dash my fist in his sneering face.
"That is what I tell you. I repeat that the subject is not a matter for discussion between us."
Craven might have read a warning in the studied gentleness of Volney's cold manner, but he was by this time far beyond reck. By common consent the eyes of every man in the room were turned on these two, and Craven's vanity sunned itself at holding once more the centre of the stage.
"And after the trull has gadded about the country with young Montagu in all manner of disguises?" he continued.
"You lie, you hound!"
Sir James sputtered in a speechless paroxysm of passion, found words at last and poured them out in a turbid torrent of invective. He let fall the word baggage again, and presently, growing more plain, a word that is not to be spoken of an honest woman. Volney, eyeing him disdainfully, the man's coarse bulk, his purple cheeks and fishy eyes, played with his wine goblet, white fingers twisting at the stem; then, when the measure of the fellow's offense was full, put a period to his foul eloquence.
Full in the mouth the goblet struck him. Blood spurted from his lips, and a shower of broken glass shivered to the ground. Craven leaped across the table at his enemy in a blind fury; restrained by the united efforts of half a dozen club members, the struggling madman still foamed to get at his rival's throat—that rival whose disdainful eyes seemed to count him but a mad dog impotent to bite.
"You would not drink with me; you would not play with me; but, by God, you will have to fight with me," he cried at last.
"When you please."
"Always I have hated you, wanted always to kill you, now I shall do it," he screamed.
Volney turned on his heel and beckoned to Beauclerc.
"Will you act for me, Topham?" he asked; and when the other assented, added: "Arrange the affair to come off as soon as possible. I want to have done with the thing at once."
They fought within the hour in the Field of the Forty Footsteps. The one was like fire, the other ice. They were both fine swordsmen, but there was no man in England could stand against Volney at his best, and those who were present have put it on record that Sir Robert's skill was this day at high water mark. He fought quite without passion, watching with cool alertness for his chance to kill. His opponent's breath came short, his thrusts grew wild, the mad rage of the man began to give way to a no less mad despair. Every feint he found anticipated, every stroke parried; and still his enemy held to the defensive with a deadly cold watchfulness that struck chill to the heart of the fearful bully. We are to conceive that Craven tasted the bitterness of death, that in the cold passionless face opposite to him he read his doom, and that in the horrible agony of terror that sweated him he forgot the traditions of his class and the training of a lifetime. He stumbled, and when Sir Robert held his hand, waiting point groundward with splendid carelessness for his opponent to rise, Craven flung himself forward on his knees and thrust low at him. The blade went home through the lower vitals.
Volney stood looking at him a moment with a face of infinite contempt, than sank back into the arms of Beauclerc.
While the surgeon was examining the wound Craven stole forward guiltily to the outskirts of the little group which surrounded the wounded man. His horror-stricken eyes peered out of a face like chalk. The man's own second had just turned his back on him, and he was already realizing that the foul stroke had written on his forehead the brand of Cain, had made him an outcast and a pariah on the face of the earth.
The eyes of Volney and his murderer met, those of the dying man full of scorn. Craven's glance fell before that steady look. He muttered a hope that the wound was but slight; then, in torture, burst out: "'Twas a slip. By Heaven, it was, Volney! I would to God it were undone."
"'To every coward safety, and afterward his evil hour,'" quoted Volney with cold disdain.
The murderer turned away with a sobbing oath, mounted his horse and rode for the coast to begin his lifetime of exile, penury, and execration.
"Do I get my passport?" asked Sir Robert of the surgeon.
The latter began to talk a jargon of medical terms, but Volney cut him short.
"Enough! I understand," he said quietly. "Get me to my rooms and send at once for the Prince of Wales. Beauclerc, may I trouble you to call on Cumberland and get from him an order to bring young Montagu to my place from the prison? And will you send my man Watkins for a lawyer? Oh, and one more commission—a messenger to beg of Miss Macleod her attendance. In case she demurs, make it plain to her that I am a dying man. Faith, Topham, you'll be glad I do not die often. I fear I am an unconscionable nuisance at it."
Topham Beauclerc drove straight to the residence of the Duke of Cumberland. He found the Duke at home, explained the situation in a few words, and presently the pair of them called on the Duke of Newcastle and secured his counter-signature for taking me temporarily from the New Prison. Dusk was falling when Beauclerc and the prison guards led me to Volney's bedroom. At the first glance I saw plainly that he was not long for this world. He lay propped on an attendant's arm, the beautiful eyes serene, an inscrutable smile on the colourless lips. Beside him sat Aileen, her hand in his, and on the other side of the bed the Duke of Cumberland and Malcolm. When he saw me his eyes brightened.
"On time, Kenneth. Thanks for coming."
Beauclerc had told me the story, and I went forward with misty eyes. He looked at me smiling.
"On my soul I believe you are sorry, Montagu. Yes, I have my quietus. The fellow struck foul. My own fault! I always knew him for a scoundrel. I had him beaten; but 'tis better so perhaps. After all I shall cross the river before you, Kenneth." Then abruptly to an attendant who entered the room, "Has the Prince come yet?"
"But this moment, sir."
The Prince of Wales entered the room, and Volney gave him his old winsome smile.
"Hard hit, your Highness!"
"I trust it is not so bad as they say, Robert."
"Bad or good, as one looks at it, but this night I go wandering into the great unknown. Enough of this. I sent for you, Fritz, to ask my last favour."
The face of the stolid Dutchman was all broken with emotion.
"'Tis yours, Robert, if the thing is mine to grant."
"I want Montagu spared. You must get his pardon before I die, else I shall not pass easy in mind. This one wrong I must right before the end. 'Twas I drove him to rebellion. You will get him pardoned and see to it that his estates are not confiscated?"
"I promise to do my best. It shall be attended to."
"This very hour if it can be arranged."
"And you, Cumberland, will do your share."
The Duke nodded, frowning to hide his emotion.
Volney fell back on the pillows. "Good! Where is the priest?"
A vicar of the Church of England came forward to offer the usual ministrations to the dying. Volney listened for a minute or two with closed eyes, then interrupted gently.
"Thank you. That will suffice. I'll never insult my Maker by fawning for pardon in the fag hour of a misspent life."
"The mercy of God is without limits——"
"I hope so. That I shall know better than you within the space of four-and-twenty hours. I'm afraid you mistake your mission here. You came to marry Antony, not to bury Caesar." Then, turning to me, he said with a flare of his old reckless wit: "Any time this six weeks you've been qualifying for the noose. If you're quite ready we'll have the obsequies to-night."
He put Aileen's hand in mine. The vicar married us, the Prince of Wales giving away the bride. Aileen's pale face was shot with a faint flush, a splash of pink in either alabaster cheek. When the priest had made us man and wife she, who had just married me, leaned forward impulsively and kissed our former enemy on the forehead. The humorous gleam came back to his dulling eyes.
"Only one, Montagu. I dare say you can spare that. The rest are for a better man. Don't cry, Aileen. 'Fore Heaven, 'tis a good quittance for you."
He looked at the soft warmth and glow of her, now quickened to throbbing life, drew a long breath, then smiled and sighed again, her lover even to the last.
A long silence fell, which Sir Robert broke by saying with a smile, "In case Selwyn calls show him up. If I am still alive I'll want to see him, and if I'm dead he'll want to see me. 'Twill interest him vastly."
Once more only he spoke. "The shadow falls," he said to Aileen, and presently dozed fitfully; so slipped gradually into the deeper sleep from which there is no awakening this side of the tomb. Thus he passed quietly to the great beyond, an unfearing cynic to the last hour of his life.
My pardon came next day, duly signed and sealed, with the customary rider to it that I must renounce the Stuarts, and swear allegiance to King George. I am no hero of romance, but a plain Englishman, a prosaic lover of roast beef and old claret, of farming and of fox-hunting. Our cause was dead, and might as well be buried. Not to make long of the matter, I took the oath without scruple. To my pardon there was one other proviso: that I must live on my estate until further notice. If at any time I were found ten miles from Montagu Grange, the pardon was to be void.
Aileen and I moved to our appointed home at once. It may be believed that our hearts were full of the most tender joy and love, for I had been snatched from the jaws of death into the very sunshine of life. We had but one cloud to mar the bright light—the death of many a dear friend, and most of all, of that friendly enemy who had given his life for her good name. Moralists point out to me that he was a great sinner. I care not if it be so. Let others condemn him; I do not. Rather I cherish the memory of a gallant, faultful gentleman whose life found wrong expression. There be some to whom are given inheritance of evil nature. Then how dare we, who know not the measure of their temptation, make ourselves judges of their sin?
At the Grange we found awaiting us an unexpected visitor, a red-haired, laughing Highlander, who, though in hiding, was as full of merriment as a schoolboy home for the holidays. To Cloe he made most ardent love, and when, at last, Donald Roy slipped across the waters to St. Germains, he carried with him a promise that was redeemed after the general amnesty was passed.
Six weeks after my pardon Malcolm Macleod and Miss Flora Macdonald stopped at the Grange for a short visit with us. They were on their way north, having been at length released without a trial, since the passion for blood was now spent.
"We three, with Captain Donald Roy and Tony Creagh, came to London to be hangit," smiled Major Macleod as they were about to resume their journey. "Twa-three times the rope tightened around the gullets of some of us, yet in the end we all win free. You and Tony have already embraced the other noose; Donald is in a geyan ill way, writing Latin verses to his lady's eyes; and as for me,"—he smiled boldly at his companion—"I ride to the land of heather side by side with Miss Flora Macdonald."
Here I drop the quill, for my tale is told. For me, life is full of many quiet interests and much happiness, but even now there grips me at times a longing for those mad wild days, when death hung on a hair's breadth, and the glamour of romance beckoned the feathered foot of youth.