"Tut, child, this is idle talk. By now the matter is all arranged for you, and very thankful ought you to be. If Master Manners is a gentleman——"
"He is a gentleman."
"He will think no more about you, then, after he knows the facts," said Margaret sharply, and passing out of the room she left Dorothy alone to her tears, while she tried to discover the happy esquire to give him a piece of her mind.
AN UNPLEASANT NIGHT.
But justice though her dome she doe prolong, Yet at the last she will her own cause right.
When the landlord of the Cock Tavern thoughtlessly gave his prisoner into the custody of the ostler he put Edmund Wynne in the way of the only piece of good fortune which fell to his share on that unlucky day.
No sooner did the two conspirators find themselves alone than Edmund began to implore his companion to set him at liberty, offering large prospective bribes for freedom; but quickly perceiving that his keeper was inexorable, he turned his attention to the best possible provision for the safety of those who had embarked on the expedition along with him.
It was patent to both that for the meeting of Edmund's associates to take place, as had been arranged just previously, would now only involve them all in one common ruin; and arrangements were accordingly made for them to be warned of the danger their presence would incur. The conference, however, was prematurely ended by the advent of the minions of the law, who, for once in a way, were prompt in the execution of their duty, and in a very short space of time Edmund found himself securely lodged within the precincts of Fleet Market Gaol.
Little ceremony was shown him at his new resting-place, for no sooner had the outer doors of the prison closed upon him than he was rapidly dragged forward across the courtyard and thrust into a dimly-lighted, evil-smelling room, the very appearance of which, with its strongly-barred windows high up in the wall, and the massive studded door which was closed and double locked upon him almost before he had entered the room, struck a feeling of shrinking terror deeply into the prisoner's heart. He sank disconsolately down upon the cold stone bench just beside the door, and placing his elbows upon his knees, he propped his head up between his hands, and peering into the dimness bitterly bewailed his fate.
He was startled from the train of thought into which he had unconsciously fallen by hearing a sound not far from him. He raised his head and rubbed his eyes, half expecting to be confronted by a spectral visitor; but not being able to distinguish anything in the deep gloom to which his eyes were not yet accustomed, he dismissed that theory, and ascribed the noise to the rats.
"Rats, ugh!" he exclaimed, and he lowered his head down again, feeling a trifle less dejected because of the trivial interruption which had for the moment excited him, and changed his dismal channel into which his thoughts had flown.
"Who says rats?" exclaimed a voice in tremulous tones, evidently from the corner of the room.
Edmund's head was upraised in a moment. His hair stood on end, for, as he hastily glanced around, his eye lighted upon a form enshrouded in white. He was convinced that he was at last confronted by one of the ghostly fraternity, of whose existence he was a firm believer; and hastily springing from his seat, he retreated as far as he could in the opposite direction.
To his terror the figure rose up at the same time, and advancing towards him, frantically waving its arms, and repeating the words Edmund had just uttered. He was in a frenzy of despair, and rushing to the door, as the spectre had come up to him, he had made an ineffectual effort to open it, and was busily engaged in kicking its stout timbers to attract the attention of the gaolers.
All this took but a moment, but it was a terrible time to Edmund, and he found himself, in spite of his efforts, completely nonplussed by the unearthly foe beside him.
"Rats, who says rats?" piped the figure again in its shrill, thin voice. "Where are they?"
For answer Edmund turned round, and in his desperation lunged out with his foot towards his persecutor. It struck something solid, and to Edmund's intense relief the spectre limped away with a howl of pain just as the key turned in the lock outside.
A moment later the door swung slowly back upon its creaking hinges, admitting the gaoler, and, at the same time a flood of light, which disclosed to view the form of a haggard man writhing in pain upon the wooden bed, sparsely covered with straw, in the very corner of the room.
"Here's a pretty pickle," quoth the new comer, as he stood upon the threshold of the door. "Which of you made all the din? Halloa, why Peter," he added, as he stepped up to the side of the bed and gazed upon the emaciated form of an old and well-known inmate of the Hut, "what does all this portend?"
No sooner had he stepped into the room than Edmund, seeing the doorway clear, bolted out on an ill-timed venture of escape. He rushed along the passage, hotly pursued by his custodian, and ran without interruption into the yard; but here, alas, he was at bay. It was not the same yard through which he had entered so shortly before, and he could find no way of exit. It was futile to attempt anything further, and, discovering this unwelcome fact, he passively yielded himself up, and was rewarded for so doing by receiving sundry cuffs and jerks from his captors, who carried him straightway before the governor.
There are some people in the world who seem to have been born under a lucky star. Everything upon which their hands are laid at once turns into gold; all their ventures are successful, or if they have a slight mishap it is more than compensated for directly afterwards by a grand success. Fortune is never weary of smiling upon them; they are her prime favourites, and she marks her approval by heaping favours upon them in a most indiscriminate and prodigal manner. Upon others she continually frowns. All their efforts uniformly bring back a plentiful harvest of disappointment. Their labour is ever in vain, they are left to languish in misery and to repine over the illusion which tempted them with a feigned promise of success ever nearer and nearer to ruin.
Edmund was one of these last, and this was the more inexplicable both to himself and a certain number of his friends, inasmuch as he, being an astrologer, had discovered that he was born under a lucky star.
His interview with the governor was short, but decisive. The gaoler stated the case against him, adding to the facts here and there to embellish his story; and in a very short space of time he found himself manacled with heavy chains, which fastened him down to the floor of the damp cell into which he had been thrust.
At the Cock Tavern Sir George was ill at ease when he retired to rest that night. His slumber was broken, and when he slept it was only to dream of his trial on the morrow. Hobgoblins were judges, and legions of little imps bore witness against him. Old Dame Durden rose up from her grave on purpose to bear witness against him in person, and as, in his vision, he saw her stretch out her long, bony arms towards him, he felt her cold, clammy hand upon his head, and awoke to find himself in a cold perspiration.
He attempted to quieten his fears, and tried to reassure himself, and, having succeeded in some degree in doing this, he fell asleep again.
It was a vain search for rest. This time a myriad of hostile pygmies were dragging him down into a bottomless pit. They tugged, and pushed, and danced upon his helpless body, and laughed in spiteful glee as he descended further and further into the dread abyss.
He rose at cock-crow, unrefreshed both in body and mind, and, descending into the lower regions, he paced abstractedly through each tenantless room in turn.
He found it, however, a forlorn and cheerless way of killing the time. Everything seemed dead; not a sign of life was visible. The rooms were desolate, and looked the worst, while the fire grate, empty save for a few dead ashes, seemed but a picture of his own misery, and instead of yielding him even a grain of comfort, its bars, appeared to grin upon him with solid defiance. Everything seemed comfortless in the extreme, and as the melancholy train of thought into which he had fallen was in no wise cheered by this manner of proceeding, he passed into the library, which seemed least cheerless of all, and sat himself down.
Still he could not enliven himself nor shake off the gloomy feeling which had settled upon him; all around was perfectly still, and the very silence palled upon his fancy. It was, he imagined, the calm before the storm; the tempest would be raging round him soon in all its fury; and moving the empty horn cups aside—the relics of the night's carousal—he reached down a volume from the thinly-populated bookshelf, hoping to calm his excited feelings by arousing an interest which might for a time distract his attention from the forthcoming trial. It was a book of poems, and with a contemptuous "tush!" he impatiently replaced it upon its shelf, and sank down into his seat and fell into a fitful doze, only to be tormented afresh by hosts of enemies, each of whom was eager to destroy him, while he could only look on in dismay and witness his own fall.
Sir George was no light weight, and under the pressure of his body the table was gradually pushed further and further away from the bench upon the smoothly polished boards, until at length it failed to offer him any support and he was suddenly awakened by falling heavily upon the floor.
Half dazed by the fall, and still uncertain whether he were awake or asleep, the good knight rubbed his eyes and looked around. He heaved a sigh of relief to find that he was yet alive, for he had at first imagined that the furies had succeeded in encompassing his ruin. He ran his fingers through his iron-grey locks of dishevelled hair, and comprehending that he was seated upon the floor, he made an effort to rise.
As he placed his hand upon the floor it touched something which yielded to the pressure. Involuntarily he drew it back and placed himself instinctively in an attitude of defence. He hated vermin of every kind, and this he instantly resolved was a rodent of some description.
His first hurried glance showed him that he was mistaken. It was but an innocent roll of paper, and laughing at his fears, he picked it up, and placing it upon the table, regained his seat.
He turned it over, but there was no superscription on its exterior to offer any clue as to its owner, and taking it with him to the window, he pushed the lattice open and removed the shutter. The dial pointed to six, and the sun had risen. He peered closely into the roll he held in his hand, and pressing the packet slightly open, he slowly deciphered the writing. It was that of a lawyer. The first word he encountered was his own name, and brushing all scruples hastily aside, the baron burst the package open, and with little compunction sat down to peruse its contents.
It took the knight, who was no fluent scholar, some considerable time to read it through, and when, after the exercise of much patience, he had reached the end, the legal terms, which were so profusely employed, so baffled his simple understanding that he had decidedly failed to grasp its true intent. Of one thing, however, and only one, was he perfectly sure, and that was that he had come across the name of Mary Burden and Nathan Grene several times in close connection with his own; but what heightened his surprise and added to his discomfiture was that the name of Sir Ronald Bury also appeared.
In this predicament he bethought himself of seeking aid to unravel the mystery, and he hastened up to arouse his companion.
Sir Thomas was dressed, and he met the baron at the top of the stairs—much to their mutual surprise.
"Good morrow, Thomas," exclaimed the baron, "I had come to awaken thee; see here!" and holding up the document he had discovered, he dragged the heir to the Derby estates downstairs without uttering another word or allowing any time for explanations.
"Read that," he said, as soon as they were seated.
Sir Thomas took the roll from the other's hand, and after a superficial scrutiny he was soon deeply engrossed in carrying out the command, while Sir George leaned his elbows upon the table and carefully studied the changing emotions which followed each other in rapid succession upon the young man's face.
Sir Thomas Stanley read it through twice, and then carefully folding it up, he gave the baron a prolonged inquiring look.
"Well," exclaimed Sir George, "you have read it?"
"Is it important?"
"Assuredly it is. What have you done in the matter?"
"Naught, save that I have shown it thee."
"Is that all, Sir George?"
"All! yes. Why?"
"It is valuable; where did you get it?"
"I found it upon the floor under the table. What is it, though?"
"Show me your summons first. You have discovered information, I believe, which will tide you safely over the trial."
"Eh!" ejaculated the old knight, dropping the bulky summons upon the table; "found what?"
Sir Thomas returned no answer to the query, for, leaving his companion to grasp the importance of the words he had just uttered, he spread out the two documents side by side upon the table and busied himself in comparing them together.
SIR GEORGE AT WESTMINSTER.
Go, let the treacherous throw their darts And sore the good malign Perjure their conscience, stain their hearts, To gain their foul design. Yet shall right triumph at the end; And virtue fortune shall defend.
For some time the two noblemen sat in silence, but at length Sir Thomas Stanley looked up and gave the baron some very pleasant news.
"You are safe," he said. "You need no longer fear this Nathan Grene, nor Sir Ronald Bury, nor anybody else for the matter of that; you are perfectly safe."
Sir George Vernon simply opened his eyes and his mouth wide in sheer surprise, and seeing that he made no attempt to speak, Sir Thomas proceeded.
"This is a letter from Grene's own counsel. It is of the utmost importance. Nathan Grene must have been here yesterday."
"What! at the inn here? This very inn?"
"Aye! and in this very room. Here is his signature, dated yesterday. Maybe he is above even now."
"Like enough," said the baron fiercely, and he looked as if he would like to search each separate chamber in the house there and then.
"Listen," said Stanley, "this is what the lawyer says: 'I am doubtful if, after all, the prosecution will not fall through. The summons was issued by your direction against "The King of the Peak," whereas it ought to have read "Sir George Vernon." Warder, who, I hear, is the agent of the Vernon family, will surely recognise this, and if the baron refuses to answer the title contained in the summons, then our case will fall to the ground. We must hope for the best, as we can do no more. It is too late to rectify the error now.'"
"Here," said Sir Thomas, looking up, "the counsellor stops; but our friend Grene has added a few notes of his own, evidently directions to some of his friends."
"Go on, then," commanded Sir George impetuously.
"'We must get Warder out of the way till the trial is over,' he writes. 'The ostler here, who brings this message to thee, is in our confidence, and may be trusted. Meet as arranged to-night. If we fail at the trial we will have our revenge elsewhere. I am in danger, and may not meet you yet, but follow Sir Ronald and he will reward you.'"
He stopped reading, for while they had been thus together the household had become astir, and it was evident that someone was about to enter the room in which they were seated.
His conjecture was right, for barely had he paused ere the door was pushed open, and the ostler stepped quickly in, startled indeed to find the library already occupied. He started to retire, but the baron called him back.
"Come hither, sirrah," he cried, regardless of his friend's wiser counsel to desist.
Hugh unwillingly returned.
"Do you know that?" Sir George exclaimed, holding up the packet he had discovered.
Hugh had come purposely to seek it, but deeming it unwise to admit the fact, he boldly answered in the negative. "That will do," said the younger knight quietly; "you can depart."
Again he started to go, but again Sir George called him back.
"Read it," he said peremptorily, and he thrust the parchment into the ostler's hands.
"I cannot read," he replied; but suddenly bethinking himself that he was implicated by the written evidence, he quickly changed his mind, and eagerly snatching the document from the baron, he hastened out of the room and turned the lock sharply upon the wonder-stricken knights.
No time was to be lost; Hugh knew their knocking would soon be heard, and that before long they would be released, when there would be hue and cry after him; so, rapidly catching up a few of his own things—and he had few of his own handy enough to take—and adding a few convenient valuables belonging to his master to pay for his services, he quickly passed out of the house and sped on his way to join the confederates of Edmund Wynne.
Edmund, too, had passed a sleepless night. At first he had attempted to burst his chains asunder, but soon realising the utter uselessness of such conduct, and being also covered with bruises, he desisted and passed the next hour in calling out for relief. No relief came; only the mice and the insects heard his cries, and the former affrighted, sought seclusion in their holes, leaving the latter to survey in silent surprise the new comer who had intruded upon their privacy.
Wearied out, he gave over shouting at last, and lay upon the floor of his damp cell, tossing uneasily about from side to side. The sun set; the dark night came and went; the morning sun arose, and yet he knew it not. It was too dark for him to see anything, for even no ray of light found its way inside to gladden the heart of the prisoner. He was altogether shut off from the world; he was, for the time being, to all intents and purposes, buried alive.
At length, after a night of abject misery, which seemed as if it never would end, he heard the key turned in the lock, and in another moment the gaoler entered. He fastened Edmund's hands securely behind his back, and unlocking the fetters he bade him follow him to the court.
The landlord of the Cock Tavern was already there, much enraged at the loss of his property and the conduct of his servant, which he laid to the charge of the prisoner. In a very short space of time Edmund Wynne was convicted as a vagabond, and he listened akin to relief as the Judge sentenced him to be kept in the stocks for the rest of the day and threatened him with a whipping in the pillory if he were brought before him on a second occasion. Much to the annoyance of the innkeeper, the attempt to connect the prisoner with the loss of his property and the ostler's flight entirely broke down; and disgusted with everybody and everything, the good man returned to the tavern to smile with counterfeited pleasure at his customers, and to vent his rage upon the servants who were left him.
The loss of the paper somewhat disconcerted Sir George Vernon, and after the disappearance of the ostler he sat for a minute or two quite dumbfounded, gazing in speechless surprise at the closed door. His companion was a man of action, however, and undaunted by finding the door locked, he hastened to the window, and would have attempted an exit there had it not been that the windows were too narrow for such a procedure.
Baffled again, but in nowise disheartened, he began to thunder at the door, and with the assistance of Sir George Vernon he soon made noise enough to attract attention.
The first to hear them was the chambermaid, and she, very naturally suspecting that thieves were in the room, ran out into the yard and intimated as much, at the top of her voice, to all the neighbours.
Meanwhile the knocking continued, and was, if anything, more vigorous than before. Startled by such an unusual din, the worthy Boniface awoke from his slumbers, and, in no very enviable frame of mind, set off, poker in hand, to summon aid. Help soon came, and, armed with pokers, brooms, and pitchforks, the door was quickly broken open and the gallant company rushed in, knocking Sir George over as they entered.
In the pause that followed the first rush the mistake was discovered, and the situation was explained. The landlord was profuse in his apologies, the more so as he caught the look of anger in the baron's eye, but peace being quickly made, he rewarded his followers and sallied out to discover the whereabouts of his delinquent servant, breathing out dire threatenings against him. He searched in vain, and after a thorough examination, returned in ill mood to partake of the first meal of the day, and to discover the extent of his losses ere he proceeded to appear against the unfortunate Edmund Wynne.
As the baron and Sir Thomas rode together to Westminster a few hours later, it was with spirits considerably higher than they could have expected four-and-twenty hours earlier. Sir George had resumed his haughty bearing, but he was, in truth, though he would never have confessed it, more than a trifle nervous. At last the great Justice Hall was reached, and, with a parting injunction not to answer to the challenge, Sir Thomas separated from him, passing in by one door while the baron entered by another.
Sir George's nervous temperament was severely tried upon this occasion, for he had a considerable time to wait, and he found no better plan of whiling it away than that of impatiently pacing up and down in the little room allotted to him; and he imagined himself suffering all sorts of horrible tortures.
At last his turn came. The door opened; his name was called; and composing himself as well as he was able, he stepped into the crowded hall with considerable dignity, accompanied by a pompous member of the Court, and at once became the cynosure of all eyes.
He stood impassively, casting his eyes around in search of Sir Thomas Stanley, and curious to recognise as many as he could among the motley crowd which had come to see him tried. During the time the charge was being read, and just as he had discovered his companion in the throng straight before him, he was challenged by the Clerk of the Crown to plead.
"King of the Peak," cried the officer of the law, "hold up thine hand. Thou art accused of the murder of Mary Durden, spinster. Art thou guilty or art thou not guilty?"
Instinctively he held up his hand as directed, and in a bold and fearless voice which echoed along the passages answered, "Not guilty."
As soon as he had uttered the words he remembered that he had done wrong, but it was too late to recall it now, and filled with no pleasant forebodings by learning that the one who had just stepped out of the place in which he had stood had been committed to the Tower, he watched the swearing-in of the jury with stolid indifference.
It was soon evident that something was wrong somewhere. The minions of the court rushed hither and thither in the utmost haste; messages passed from the Judge to the clerks who sat at the table below; and by-and-bye the fact leaked out that neither the prosecutor nor the witnesses were in attendance.
"Nathan Grene," called the clerk, "stand forth." There was no answer.
"Nathan Grene," he repeated in a louder voice, "come forward and accuse this man."
The cry was taken up both inside the hall and without; but still no Nathan Grene appeared, nor was he likely to, for at that time he was sitting securely in the stocks; the sport of every passer-by, and the delight of some little mischievous urchins, who were amusing themselves by pulling his hair and sprinkling him with dirty water, while he was powerless to defend himself in any way.
"Nathan Grene," exclaimed the Judge in tones of awful dignity, "you are called upon to support the charge of murder against the King of the Peak; a charge made by yourself. This is the last time thou wilt be summoned to answer, and unless you now appear, or afterwards show good, full, and sufficient cause for thine absence, the law shall turn its course on thee."
The long silence which followed this speech was broken only by the Judge, who rose again from his seat, and turning to Sir George told him he was free; and amid the congratulations of his friends and the concealed disappointment of his enemies, he passed triumphantly out of the hall which had proved so fatal to so many of the nobility before him, as it has also done since.
A NIGHT ADVENTURE.
But whatsoe'er his crime, than such a cave A worse imprisonment he could not have. * * * * * But here a roaring torrent bids you stand. Forcing you climb a rock on the right hand, Which, hanging penthouse-like, does overlook The dreadful channel of the rapid brook. Over this dangerous precipice you crawl, Lost if you slip, for if you slip you fall.
WONDERS OF THE PEAK, 1725.
Elated by their success, the two noblemen at once left London and hastened on towards Haddon, and leaving the city behind them with few regrets, they arrived at Derby late in the afternoon of the day following the trial.
It was Sir Thomas Stanley's time to be impatient now He was anxious to behold Margaret again, and leaving the baron behind him to settle a few matters of business he rode off upon a fresh horse to carry the good news to the Hall, and to herald the approach of the knight.
John Manners was keeping Dorothy company on the top of the Eagle Tower when Sir Thomas appeared in sight. A "look out" had been on the watch for the last three days, waiting to announce the approach of the expected messenger from London, and each night a beacon fire had been lighted, that in the darkness he might not pass by. But no messenger came, and anxiety was beginning to make itself apparent on more faces than one when the two lovers espied the fast-approaching rider, and proclaimed the news to the household below.
Margaret soon joined them company. She was burning with impatience to read the long-expected missive and she eagerly watched the horseman draw nearer who was bringing her tidings from her betrothed.
"See Meg," exclaimed the overjoyed Dorothy, "thither he comes!" and she pointed to a cloud of dust in the far distance, in the midst of which might be seen every now and again the indistinct form of a horse and its rider.
"Maybe he will pass by," exclaimed Manners.
"Not he!" scornfully replied Margaret, "he will none pass by. None other than a messenger to Haddon would ride like that. The steed is hard put to it; surely it is near its journey's end."
"Well, we shall soon see," interposed Doll, "he is making good speed."
It was as Dorothy said. Even while they had been talking, the rider had considerably lessened the distance which separated him from the Hall, and, had it not been for the dim twilight which was then slowly deepening, they would have been enabled to distinguish more than they had already done.
"He rides well," said Margaret, more to herself than to either of the others. "Methinks I know that ride."
"'Tis like Crowleigh's," said Manners.
"But Sir Everard is with Father Philip. It cannot be him," returned Dorothy.
"There is but one man who bestrides a saddle in such a fashion," exclaimed Margaret, as she carefully scanned the horseman. "But no! it cannot be so. I thought it was Sir——"
"Sir Thomas Stanley," exclaimed Dorothy, taking the words out of her sister's mouth.
"I thought it was he," she confessed; "and see," she added, raising her voice, "it is Sir Thomas; I thought it was," and she left the lovers as she had found them, and hastened down, greatly excited, to meet her own beloved, and not without some feelings of dismay at seeing him return alone.
Leaving the succeeding scene to be imagined rather than described, we will hark back to Sir George at Derby.
He accomplished his business more expeditiously than he had anticipated, and in a very brief space of time started out of the town, hoping with a hope soon to be dispelled that he might, perchance, overtake Sir Thomas.
Without a halt he arrived at Matlock at just about the same time as his companion reached Haddon, and reining up his steed at the village inn close by the churchyard, he alighted for a short rest and some refreshment ere he finished what remained of his journey.
He was well known here, and his peremptory commands were obeyed with the utmost alacrity.
His first enquiry was about Sir Thomas Stanley, and he learned to his satisfaction that he had passed safely through there a good hour or so before.
"In good sooth, your lordship is surely going no further to-night," exclaimed the host, as Sir George made the preliminary preparation for resuming his journey.
"Tut, man, why not? Of course I shall."
"Your horse is stabled," responded the landlord; "surely you will not attempt to ride further to-night."
"My horse stabled," thundered the baron, "I said not so; 'tis fresh from Derby. Out with it, man, and let me away."
The horse was quickly unstabled, and brought round to the tavern door, but the innkeeper was loth to let the good knight depart. It was a thing he would not do for a trifle, and he feared for the safety of the baron.
"The roads are very bad," he exclaimed, as they stepped into the little passage together, "and it will be dark ere you reach the Hall, my lord. Had you not better change your mind?"
The knight declined the request in the most emphatic manner, and placed his foot upon the stirrup to mount.
"There be many rogues and footpads in the neighbourhood of late, and especially to-day," pursued the other. "I have had as ill-looking a crew in my house to-day as I ever clapt eyes upon; I am sure they bode no good."
Nothing, however, could persuade Sir George to stay, and seeing that his guest was obdurate, the host continued,
"Stay awhile, Sir George, an' thou wilt, thou shalt at least have a man of mine to accompany thee. The neighbourhood is full of knaves of late, and I like it not that thou should'st go alone."
But the offer was lightly refused; and fearing nothing for his own safety, the old knight spurred his horse forward, and in a few moments was lost to sight in the fast-settling gloom.
Little time as he and Sir Thomas had lost in leaving London, and quick as they had been in reaching Derby, there had yet been those who had been more expeditious than they.
Upon the receipt of the unwelcome news which the ostler had brought to them, Edmund Wynne's confederates at once departed from the city, and under the leadership of Sir Ronald Bury hastened on, with few rests, to the wilds of Derbyshire, to perform the deed, still enshrouded in mystery, which they had been hired, if necessary, to perform.
Blissfully unconscious of the trap into which he was rushing, and wholly contemptuous of the idea of being benighted, the lord of Haddon rode fearlessly on. The way was dark to be sure, but he knew it well, and what added to his confidence was the fact that he was right in the very heart of his own possessions.
He had barely ridden a couple of furlongs, though, before his horse became restive, and in response to a free application of both whip and spur only pricked up its ears and advanced in a more unsatisfactory manner than before.
Still suspecting nothing, the baron applied the whip more vigorously. He perceived, clearly enough, that his charger was frightened at something or other, and to inspire it with a little of his own courage he started to whistle a lively tune which he had heard Dorothy play upon the spinet till he got it well by heart.
The tune was never finished, for barely had he begun it when the branch of a tree, which was hurled at him from the side of the road, completely unhorsed him and sent him rolling into the ditch on the other side.
Before he could rise or place himself in any posture of defence he was roughly seized, and in spite of his struggles was carried away as helpless as a child, whilst to aggravate his position his eyes were tightly blindfolded.
"What does this mean?" he shouted out in desperation; but no one deigned to answer.
"I am Sir George Vernon," he added stoutly, but if he had thought that this was information, or that his captors would be inclined to quake before this declaration of his rank and person, he was sorely mistaken, and the brief answer they returned soon convinced him on the point.
"We know it," they laughed; "we are no fools."
"Nathan Grene," he passionately shouted, "you shall rue this day." He no longer wondered now at the non-appearance of his adversary; he felt confident that the recreant smith was there, and the thought of being thus within his power goaded him into a frenzy of passion.
"Thou shalt live to rue this bitterly," he repeated, but before he could say anything further his mouth was filled with grass, and in spite of his attempts to speak he could no longer succeed in making himself heard.
How far he was being carried he knew not, nor yet did he know the way; and beyond making a few desultory attempts to disengage his nether limbs from the vice-like grasp in which they were enclosed, the baron made no further attempts to free himself.
It was quite dark before they stopped, and when his bandages were taken off he had only sufficient time to discover that they had halted at the mouth of a cave before his captors seized hold of his person and unceremoniously pushed him in, sending, after a brief consultation, one of their number after him to see that he made no effort to escape.
"Where is Nathan Grene?" inquired the outraged nobleman, as soon as he found himself at liberty; "I want to see him."
"Happen you do!" replied his keeper, who was none other than the ostler; "then, maybe, you will find him at London. You were near enough to him in the stable loft; maybe he is out of the stocks again now."
"Don't talk with him," commanded an imperious voice from the exterior, "or he will be taking you unawares."
The order was literally complied with, and to all his queries thenceforward the baron could gain no reply. At length he gave up the attempt, and watched in sullen silence his captors kindle a fire just within the cavern mouth.
He meditated a dash out, but the venture seemed to promise little hope, and seeing, after a time, that the man had fallen asleep, he proceeded to explore his prison.
It was a long cave, and there were many fissures and passages branching out on either side, but he found to his intense disgust that instead of leading out into the open they all terminated after a few yards in a solid wall of rock.
Nothing daunted by his successive disappointments, the lord of Haddon carefully wound his way round the circuitous cavern path. He found it difficult work, however, to walk in darkness in an unknown way, and he made little progress until, suddenly remembering that the ostler had charge of the tinder and flint which his associates had thrown in after kindling their fire, he stole back as quickly as he could to fetch it.
He found everything exactly as it was when he left it. The ostler was still asleep and loudly snoring; the noisy gang beyond were cooking their evening meal, and without attracting their attention he succeeded in gaining the coveted articles, and rapidly retreated with them in his possession.
He waited before obtaining a light, until a sharp bend in the cave secured his position, and then, stooping down, he struck the flint and steel together and made a torch of his cravat. He was now able to hasten forward, and fearful lest his torch should burn away ere he had effected his escape, he pushed quickly on, and soon reached the farthest end.
The cave, which had been gradually narrowing as Sir George advanced, instead of suddenly rising up into the ground above, or ending in a narrow opening, as the good knight had fervently hoped, terminated in a deep chasm, and far down below there rushed a tumultuous stream. Even as he stopped short, startled by the discovery, a stone rolled over the brink, and after a pause of several seconds' duration the forlorn explorer was suddenly recalled to a sense of his position by hearing a faint splash in the deep waters far below.
He turned round regretfully, and commenced to return, fully decided, unless he quickly discovered a way of escape, to attempt to surprise his captors by rushing through their midst, trusting to the darkness of the night to favour his escape.
He had not gone far before he discovered that his absence had been noticed. The ostler must have awaked; the echoing cavern resounded with the imprecations of his companions, and their approaching footsteps warned him that they were coming in search of him. Not a moment was to be lost, and espying a large shelving rock which jutted out from a side passage, Sir George Vernon hastily clambered up and extinguished his light. The mass of rock upon which he had taken refuge was fairly flat, and he was able to maintain his position upon it; but he soon discovered that it would not be big enough to screen him from view were the searchers to look in that direction. It was too late to think of moving now, for his pursuers were close at hand; he could even distinguish the reflection of their torches; there was only one course open for him, and that was to endeavour to squeeze through the narrow fissure at the end of the ledge on which he lay.
A squeeze and a cut or two, a tug and a stifled groan; another squeeze more violent by far than the former one, and the portly baron rolled panting through the jagged briar-covered little crevice, just as the light of the searchers illuminated the place from which he had only a moment before released himself.
Some painful moments elapsed ere he stopped rolling, and then it was not until he found himself entangled in the strong but friendly embrace of one of the tough blackberry bushes which were growing in profusion, and still continue to do so, on the hill sides of Derbyshire. He had, in fact, found out a way of escape just as he had abandoned all hope of doing so, and carefully extricating himself from his uncomfortable position, he pursued his way by Masson's shadowy heights, boiling over with rage against his ruffianly captors, and made the best of his way to the nearest inn to secure a horse to carry him home.
A DALE ABBEY HERMIT.
Far in a wild, unknown to public view, From youth to age, a reverend hermit grew; The moss his bed, the cave his humble cell, His food the fruits, his drink the crystal well; Remote from man, with God he passed his days, Prayer all his business, all his pleasure praise.
Sir George's first care upon his arrival at Haddon was to send off a number of his retainers to capture, if possible, the gang which had entrapped him; but after searching for nearly a couple of days they were obliged to return and communicate their failure to their lord. The villains had all made off and left not a clue behind them.
His next care was to calm the overwrought feelings of Lady Maude and his daughters, to whom the suspense of the last few hours had been painful in the extreme; and then after he had refreshed his inner man, he retired to seek that repose for which he was so well prepared.
Time sped on; the days soon passed into weeks, and the lovely spring had merged into a still more lovely summer. John Manners' visit had come to a close, and he was longing for an invitation for another visit and seeking to find some decent excuse for becoming a self-invited guest.
At last, much to his relief, he received the long-wished-for invitation. He and Crowleigh were invited together to one of the numerous feasts of Haddon's hospitable Hall, and De la Zouch, whose wounds were now fast healing, was wishful that a reconciliation should take place between them, and professed himself even anxious to make some advances towards his late adversary.
Without loss of time the two guests sped on their way at the appointed time, and were amongst the very first of the visitors. Disappointment, however, awaited them. Father Philip was dying. The Derby leech had done his best to restore the injured man, and although he had succeeded in prolonging the patient's life for a little while, all his efforts to save the unfortunate confessor failed, and seeing the father suddenly begin to sink, he had, the night before John Manners arrived, given up all hope of saving his life, and announced that the end was nigh at hand.
Under these circumstances mounted messengers were at once despatched to inform the invited guests that it had been found necessary to postpone the feast, and asking them to defer their visit until they should hear again from Haddon. This, in almost every other instance, had succeeded in staying the visitors; but Manners and Crowleigh had started at the break of day, and were well on their way before the messenger had found his way to stop them.
A little manoeuvring on Dorothy's part gained, to Margaret's qualified delight, an invitation for them to stay from no less a personage than the dying man himself. Father Philip had taken kindly to Crowleigh from the first, and was grateful to him for the skill and patience he had bestowed upon him on his previous visit, and he was ready enough to accede to any request, whatever it might be, that his Dorothy, his beloved Dorothy, thought well to ask.
Not a brother of the cloth could be found to take the father's place, and this loss proved exceedingly awkward to all at Haddon at this juncture.
The Reformation had come in with so much vigour; the enactments against the Roman Catholics were so stringent, that not even another priest could be found to shrive him. The pendulum of fortune had indeed swung back again with a vengeance. From one extreme the religious laws had gone to the other; and so it befell that the father, to his exceeding great regret, found himself dying with never a minister of his own persuasion near at hand.
Crowleigh again came to his relief. He had a friend, a staunch Catholic who had been expelled from Oxford University soon after Elizabeth's accession on account of his strong religious views. He had turned monk, and, during the recent pitiless times, it had frequently fallen to Sir Everard's lot to befriend him. He was at this time in hiding at no great distance from Crowleigh's estate, and the latter had sufficient confidence in his friend's willingness to come to promise Sir George Vernon that he would fetch him.
The offer was gladly accepted. Without any delay the two best horses in the stable were saddled, and within a very short space of time both horses and rider were well started on their way towards the south-western boundary of the shire.
Nicholas Bury had for two years lived the life of a hermit. In his seclusion he had become happy, and though the reverence was denied him which the early hermits had accustomed themselves to receive, yet he was at least unmolested, and thanks to Sir Everard, who ever assisted him in time of need, he was never left to want for the few necessaries of life that he required.
Sir Everard Crowleigh rode hard all the morning, and stopping on his errand but once—to partake of a light meal—he arrived at the abode of his friend as the twilight put forth its gentle mask of gloom.
Deepdale was an attractive spot, but it was not the natural beauty of the scene which had first attracted the eyes of Nicholas Bury so much as the facilities it offered for his purpose. Centuries before a pious Derby baker had retired to the self-same spot, and besides this hallowed memory there was the still more substantial cell to hand which the saintly old recluse had left behind him.
This, cut out of the solid rock, and situated at the summit of a deep declivity, was overgrown by a curtain of ivy, which not only screened its tenant from the wintry winds, but also hid his retreat from the gaze of the innocent passer-by. The Abbey, hard by, had been dismantled before Nicholas knew it, but it was a source of gratification to him to be so near so sacred a building, and at eventide he would wander fondly about its walls and murmur his vespers to himself.
Sir Everard paused before entering upon the solitude of his friend, and would fain have rested his weary limbs on the mossy banks of the slope, but remembering how nearly Father Philip was to death he overruled his feelings, and, brushing through the ivy covering of the doorway, he entered quietly into the sanctum of the hermit.
Nicholas was evidently deeply engaged in his devotions, for he was kneeling before the little altar of his cell, and, catching somewhat of the spirit of reverence, Everard paused upon the threshold, loth to penetrate any further. The lamp gave but a fitful flickering light, hut the devotee heeded not; and, by-and-bye, as the knight stood spellbound, the wick sputtered in the oil, and making a final effort the flame shot up for a moment with a brilliant glare and then died slowly out, leaving nothing but a fragment of smouldering wick and a sickly odour to attest its presence.
Crowleigh roused himself as it died away, and came to the resolution that it was high time to announce his presence; and failing to distinguish any signs to intimate that his friend's prayers were nearing conclusion he advanced towards him.
He had scarcely moved a step when he started back with horror. There was little enough light entered within this solitary abode, but yet there was quite enough to enable him to see curled up together upon a bed of leaves a number of snakes of different kinds. His first impulse was to rush out and escape, but bethinking himself of the defenceless position of his friend, he picked up a huge stone and let it fall upon them.
Still Nicholas did not stir, and heedless of the badger, which fiercely showed its teeth and looked as if it meditated an attack upon him, Sir Everard strode softly up to his friend's side and tapped him lightly on the shoulder.
"Nicholas," he exclaimed.
Nicholas returned no answer, and his friend stood dumbfounded. Surely that pale face and that emaciated form could not belong to the once sturdy companion, or—and he noticed that the eyes were closed; or else—and he trembled at the bare idea—Nicholas Bury must be dead!
He put out his hand and shook it gently, and he was speedily rewarded by seeing his friend open his eyes.
"Lie still, Leo," he commanded, addressing the badger.
The faithful animal, which had regarded the intruder with marked disfavour, rolled itself up again in obedience to the command, and remained in the corner watching the knight with glistening eyes.
"Nicholas," repeated Crowleigh, for he had not yet been noticed. Nicholas turned slowly round, as if his ears had not deceived him, but on seeing his friend and benefactor standing by his side, his face lighted up with pleasure, and he quickly arose.
"My good friend, Everard," he exclaimed, as he warmly shook the proffered hand, "thou art indeed a stranger here."
"Aye, I have a mission to thee," he replied.
"A mission," the hermit echoed. Art thou, then, the bearer of ill-tidings to me? Is my safety jeopardised, or what? Tell me, Everard, let me know it all. I have done no man evil that I wot of—unless in these evil days it be wrong to visit the sick and the afflicted; but I am ready for aught, even though it were instant death."
"Nay, Nicholas," returned his friend, "thou art in a gloomy strain. I am a messenger of peace; I bear good tidings to thee, not ill-news. Thou must away with me at once."
"I cannot go; but see! my lamp is out. I must light it again. You see how indifferent I am," he apologetically exclaimed, "I even fall asleep over my prayers."
"Ha! I perceive thou art over-weary; take my advice for the once, and do not rise so soon, nor pray so long."
"Ah, Everard, 'tis not that," replied the holy man; "I have not been to my poor couch since yester morning. I have been praying through the night for the speedy restoration of our holy Church."
"And see, whilst thou hast been sleeping I have saved thy life," interjected Everard; "but I must tell thee on my journey. I would have thee accompany me back to Haddon."
"My poor pets!" exclaimed the hermit sorrowfully, as he lifted up the stone; "they are all killed."
"'Tis a case of death, I fear," pursued Crowleigh, referring to the father's illness.
"I fear it is," replied the other, looking ruefully at his dead pets. "Thou hast killed my companions, Everard."
"Ugh! pretty companions, I trow," said the knight, scornfully; "but we must hasten. I will acquaint thee with the whys and wherefores as we go. Nay, never mind the lamp, thou can'st say adieu to that. Our horses are tethered to a tree below, and thou must shrive a friend who is at death's door—a priest. I have ridden throughout the livelong day to fetch thee. Art thou ready now?"
"What, so soon? This is sudden indeed."
"Aye, man, so soon. Death tarries for no man, and, beshrew me, it will not tarry for us either."
"I must take Leo, then."
"Very well, pick him up, but let us be off I pray."
"This is too sudden, Everard, indeed it is. I have many sick to visit, and I would fain go to the monastery just once again, to bid——"
"There must be no buts about it, Nicholas," returned his friend quickly, "the father is dying, and the baron expects you."
"Give me but an hour, then I will go with thee. 'Tis sad to break away from a spot hallowed by so many sacred memories, and at so short warning, too. I am loth to go, Everard, even now. There is no other spot on earth like this to me."
"'Tis a cold and cheerless home, truly," exclaimed the knight, sympathetically, "and I will find thee a far better one, Nicholas. See, I will give thee half-an-hour, and then you must bid adieu to this place or I must return alone and leave thee."
Nicholas submitted to the decision of his friend, and in less than the stipulated time they had both turned their backs upon the hospitable shelter which had been a home to the monk when every door seemed shut against him, and were on their way to Haddon.
THE CHAMBER OF DEATH.
Child, if it were thine error or thy crime, I care no longer, being all unblest; Wed whom thou wilt; but I am sick of time. And I desire to rest.
Haddon Hall was sighted by the two travellers just before mid-day, and long before they reached it Manners had been despatched in great haste to hasten them forward with the news that the poor father was almost at his last gasp.
They needed not the urging, for they had ridden hard, almost without a rest, and not only was Nicholas thoroughly wearied out by the unusual exertion of riding but the horses were sorely jaded too.
In a few minutes they all three rode up to the doorway together, and leaving their steeds to Manners, Sir Everard Crowleigh took the priest to the sick man's chamber.
Father Philip was reclining upon the well-cushioned couch when they entered. His eyes were closed, but he was not asleep; he had not enjoyed the luxury of a sleep for days past, and the haggard expression of his face, and the twitching muscles of his body, foretold only too truly that the end of the father was not very far away.
The sick man knew it, and was willing to escape from his agony as soon as he had received the proper consolation and preparation of his religion. His only fear was that he would not linger long enough to receive it, but that he might his lips were even then moving in prayer.
Dorothy was sitting by his bedside, and as Nicholas Bury stepped gently forward she silently arose, and, with a heart too full to permit her to speak, she offered him her hand as a token of welcome, and led him up to the chair upon which she had just been sitting.
Her courtesy was acknowledged by a most profound bow, but, refusing the seat she proffered him, Nicholas reached another for himself and sat down upon it by the side of the maiden.
It was a long time since Nicholas had witnessed so much magnificence gathered together in one room, and tired by his long ride and soothed by the grateful odour of the incense which filled the room, and also struck by a feeling of reverential awe by the solemnity of the whole scene, which readily appealed to his religious instincts, he remembered nothing of what had just transpired, but leaned his head upon his hand and fell into a reverie, such as he had allowed himself to indulge in when alone in his solitary Deepdale cell.
"He is not asleep," said Dorothy, stretching forward and laying her hand upon his arm. "He has been waiting long for thee."
Her voice startled Nicholas, who had become sublimely unconscious of his surroundings; and incoherently murmuring some remark, maybe the conclusion of one of his prayers, he turned round and fixed his gaze upon the form of the dying man.
"Reverend father," he exclaimed in a subdued and quiet voice, "I am here to aid thee."
Father Philip turned himself round with difficulty and faced the speaker.
"Dorothy," he called.
"I am here, father," she replied, "I have never left thee."
"Take it away from my eyes, child," he commanded.
Father Philip never called her child except on rare occasions when her conduct displeased him, and she would have felt hurt at the appellation now had it not been for the unusual circumstances of the case. She looked inquiringly at him to fathom his meaning, but, seeing nothing to remove, she would have asked him what it was he meant, had he not interrupted her.
"Take it away, Dorothy," he repeated, "I cannot see."
"Poor brother," exclaimed Nicholas, noticing the discomfiture. "I fear me thou art blind. There is naught to take away, save the film from off thine eyes."
"Brother, did you say?" asked the dying man. "Did you say brother; are you then the priest? Praise be to God; I shall die easy now," and he buried his face in the pillow and wept for joy.
"Let him lie as he is," whispered Nicholas; "he will be far easier so. Poor man, he is indeed at the portals of death."
"The leech said so," replied the heart-broken Dorothy, and then for a long time they sat motionless, watching with intense earnestness each movement of the dying man.
The good father wept unrestrainedly. His whole frame quivered with emotion as the sobs escaped his breast; until, after a time, the sounds gradually and yet perceptibly grew weaker and fainter, and finally died away altogether.
"He is dead!" sobbed Dorothy, after a long pause.
"Nay, see," replied her companion, "his bosom heaves, but the end is very near. May my last hour be as calm as this," he added earnestly, as he gazed as the father.
"Amen, so be it, Nicholas Bury," said a voice from the region of the doorway.
The monk started at the sound of his name, but did not move; the tapers were burning before the altar, and the curtain was drawn, and he failed to distinguish the features of the visitor.
Dorothy, even through her ears, noticed that he was startled and discomposed, and she hastened to reassure him.
"No harm, no harm, good father; 'tis but Master John Manners," she said.
"You have not forgotten me, surely?" inquired Manners, stepping forward, and throwing the light upon his face.
The priest gave a start of surprise as he recognised the visage of the new comer.
"Forgotten a Rutland?" he exclaimed. "No, never! Right glad am I to meet with thee again, but hush! This is the chamber of death. I will see thee afterwards. The father moves, see."
Father Philip endeavoured to turn himself over, but he was too weak to succeed, and he fell back exhausted.
"Oh, dear," he groaned, "I am a sinful man."
"So are we all, brother," returned Nicholas. "The best of us are very sinful."
Doll stood up and leaned over the bed.
"Give me your hand, my daughter."
She placed her hands between the thin hands which the father held out feebly to her, while the hot tears trickled down her face and fell in rapid succession upon the quilted coverlid beneath.
"Will you kiss me, Doll?" he asked. "I shall never ask aught of thee again. Tell the baron," he slowly continued, addressing the priest now, "tell him that I blessed her and told her yes."
Dorothy bent down thoroughly heartbroken, and kissed the marble-like forehead, dropping as she did a shower of tears upon his face.
"What is that, the holy water?" he asked, placing his finger upon one of the drops.
"I could not help it, father," she sobbed aloud, "indeed I could not. They are tears, but I will wipe them off."
"God bless thee, Doll, thou hast a tender heart. Nay, nay, leave them on I beseech thee, they shall be thy last gift to the old man; I will take them with me into my grave."
He paused, but Dorothy could not speak. She covered her face with her hands and wept on.
"May the Blessed Virgin ever be your friend," he continued, resting his hand upon her head, "and may the saints protect thee. I have naught to give thee, Doll, but thou shalt have my blessing. God bless thee, Doll, God bless thee and thy lover," and he sank back upon the bed completely exhausted.
They sat motionless by his side for some minutes, only Dorothy's sobs and the sick man's broken sighs breaking upon the silence, until at last Manners advanced, and taking the hand of his betrothed, led her unresistingly out into the garden.
Nicholas sat, after their departure, until well into the night, watching by the bedside, before Father Philip opened his eyes again. Many inquirers had visited the room, but they had departed again, and, though they knew it not, they had looked for the last time upon the familiar form of the confessor, ere he breathed his last.
As the morrow dawned the old man passed away, happy, inasmuch as Nicholas had afforded him the last rites of his religion. As the twilight descended the chapel bell rung out upon the stillness of the eventide. It was the Sabbath, but amid the sorrow and the gloom which reigned around, this fact had been well-nigh forgotten.
The summer breeze carried the sound a long way along the dale. It had not been heard since the day of Father Philip's accident, and its sound had been sorely missed.
But now it was no longer the herald of peace, nor the token of joy, for the villagers knew full well that it was tolling the knell of the departed priest, and their hearts were heavy with sorrow for the friend they knew had just passed away.
The chapel was open. It was free for the once to as many as could enter, and there were few around who did not wish to show respect to the man who had surely, in one way or another, proved himself their friend.
The limited number that the chapel could accommodate took their places long before the vesper bell stopped ringing, and when Sir George came in, bringing in with him the Lady Maude, and followed by his daughters and the two guests, there was a large concourse of disappointed worshippers outside who were bent on remaining as near the sacred edifice as they might get. Though they were denied admittance, they would hear the solemn chant as it sounded through the open windows, and they felt that they would fall under the same sacred influence as those who were inside; and whilst these latter were favoured by the hallowing influences of the sanctuary, they were compensated for this by the rustling of the leaves, which seemed to moan in sympathy with them as the wind swept gently by.
Of all who mourned the loss of the father—and there were many who regretted that he was taken from their midst—none was more sincere in her grief than Dorothy, and none apparently was so little affected by the loss as Margaret.
This maiden had watched the growing familiarity of the intercourse between her sister and John Manners with no friendly eyes. She had perceived that it was necessary to take action at once in the matter, and at her express command her lover was even now on a mission to his brother to secure the double alliance between the two houses of Vernon and Stanley, upon which she and Lady Vernon had set their minds.
The absence of Sir Thomas had intensified her feelings in the matter, and seeing Manners leading Dorothy out of the sick man's chamber with his arm interlinked with hers, it had goaded her to such a frenzy that, regardless of the inopportunity of the time, she had proceeded straightway to Sir George and Lady Maude and had laid the matter before them in a most unfavourable light.
And now, as the impressive requiem was about to be sung—a dirge full of soul-stirring reflections and sacred grandeur—Margaret's head was full of bitterness, and she failed to respond to the sympathetic sublimity of the service, or to notice its serene beauty either. To her it was nothing more than a tiresome form; her interest was centred on Dorothy alone, and she heartily condemned herself for not arranging that. Dorothy should not sit beside the esquire. It was a dreary and unpleasant time to her, and when she raised her eyes from her sister it was only impatiently to watch the deepening shades of the approaching night as they registered themselves upon the glass-panes at her side. The windows gradually became more and more difficult to see through; each time she looked it had grown a shade darker, until at length the pure glass had changed, to her unmitigated satisfaction, in hue from clear transparency to green, and from that to black.
At length the service was over. She hailed its conclusion with a sigh of relief, mentally promising the new confessor but a small portion of her favour if he were always as long-winded as he had been on this occasion; and she anxiously awaited the moment when Sir George would rise from his knees and lead the way out, so that she might carry Dorothy off in safety.
The time came in due course. The baron rose; the others followed his example, and as Lady Maude, less haughty than usual, led the way out of the chapel, Margaret eagerly caught hold of her sister and led her away in silence across the courtyard and into the hall.
"THE COURSE OF TRUE LOVE."
'Twere wild to hope for her, you say, I've torn and cast those words away, Surely there's hope! For life 'tis well Love without hope's impossible.
Father Philip had lain under the sod but one sunset before the fruits of Margaret's intriguing began to make themselves apparent.
It was with a secret sense of misgiving that Manners received an invitation, which he readily construed into a command, to attend the baron in his private room, and it was with a fluttering heart that he prepared himself to meet Dorothy's father. Nor were his forebodings set at rest or in anywise lightened by the first view he got of the baron.
Sir George was pacing up and down the room, but hearing the door open he stopped suddenly, and when Manners entered he saw upon the knight's face a look which at once struck a chill to his heart.
"Sit down, Manners, sit down," said the baron curtly.
He was nervous and excited, and as Manners obeyed the injunction he clearly perceived this fact, and it afforded him a little satisfaction.
"You wished to see me?" he exclaimed, breaking the awkward silence which ensued after he had sat down.
"Eh, yes, I did."
Another long pause followed, which was painful alike to both.
The baron's agitation increased, and it did not need any great exercise of shrewdness to guess the cause. The lover guessed it intuitively, and deftly altered the topic which was just about to be broached.
"Poor Father Philip is gone," he exclaimed in a sympathetic tone.
"Ye-e-s," slowly assented the baron.
"And you miss him, I perceive," pursued the esquire tremulously.
"Very true, but—"
"And I hear Nicholas Bury is about to depart," hazarded Manners, interrupting the baron.
"Eh! what?" exclaimed Sir George. "Father Nicholas going?"
"He has informed Everard so."
"No, he must stay," returned the knight, banishing the wrinkles that had contracted his brow; "of course he must stay."
He was clearly off his guard now, and Manners breathed easier again; for, thanks to the efforts of Dorothy and Crowleigh, as well as to his own perceptions, he was by no means ignorant of the conspiracy of which he was the victim, and he wished to procrastinate the inevitable interview until a more favourable time presented itself for the purpose.
"Where did he come from?" continued the baron, drifting innocently farther and farther away from the purpose of the interview.
"Am I to trust thee with his secret then?" asked the lover.
"Of course, let me know all. I shall protect him, come what will."
"Then he is Sir Ronald Bury's brother."
"He is a better man than his brother, then," exclaimed Sir George, when he had overcome his astonishment. "Did Sir Everard fetch him from Nottingham?"
"Nay, from Dale Abbey."
"Ha!" ejaculated the baron, "say you so? The abbey is dismantled, and methought I knew every Catholic in the shire."
"Then, Sir George, you forgot the hermitage," was the prompt reply.
Sir George had just caught sight of his good lady through the open lattice window, and as he saw her wending her way quickly along the path it painfully recalled him to a sense of his position.
"I sent for thee," he said suddenly, changing the conversation and knitting his brow, "because I wished to see thee on a matter of much importance."
"I am honoured by your confidence," promptly returned the esquire, making a gallant effort to escape the subject, "but pray on no account tell either Everard or Nicholas that it was I who gave the information. I was charged to tell no man, by my honour."
Unluckily, Lady Vernon passed the door just as he was speaking, and the sound of her footsteps kept the subject too well in the baron's mind for him to wander from it again.
"About Dorothy," he explained, ignoring the last remark.
Manners was nonplussed; he attempted no rejoinder, and the baron paced the room again in great perturbation. At length he stopped.
"'Tis an awkward piece of business," he said, "and I had much rather it had not fallen so; but I suppose it must be done."
Still Manners vouchsafed no reply, and his silence added to the baron's discomfiture.
For a long time neither of them spoke. The baron wiped the perspiration from his brow and tried to frame together the words which proved so troublesome to utter, while Manners sat, ill at ease, waiting to hear the worst.
"Most young men fall in love," exclaimed the knight at length. He jerked the words out rather than spoke them, but they were at least uttered, and feeling that he had broken the ice he heaved a sigh of relief.
"I did so myself," he innocently rambled on, "more than once." He had almost said "and once too many," but he paused with the words upon his lips, and the recollection that Lady Maude might not be far away decided him to leave the remark unexpressed.
"I have done so, too, once and for ever," exclaimed Manners, mustering up courage enough to break into the subject at a stroke. He felt that it must all come out now, and the sooner it was over the better pleased would he be; therefore he plunged headlong into it, hoping, perchance, to fire the baron with a little of the same enthusiasm with which he was himself possessed.
"It has been my good fortune," he continued boldly, "to fall deeply in love with your daughter, your Dorothy—and she has not spurned me."
"No, Doll is a rare girl, a bonnie girl, and a good one, too. I love her better than I love myself, and forsooth, young man, we value ourselves at no sorry figure neither."
"I wonder whoever saw her that did not love her," said the deeply-smitten swain sententiously.
They were both engaged in conversation now in common sympathy, and the eyes of the old knight sparkled with joy as he thought of his darling and her many charms.
"She is the light of my life," he replied. "See, there she goes, with her bewitching grace," and he caught hold of Manners and drew him into the recess of the oriel window and pointed out where Dorothy and her sister were talking together on the green.
"Margaret is to wed Sir Thomas Stanley this autumn, I hear," ventured the esquire.
"Yes—and Dorothy is to be wedded this winter also," replied the baron as he heard the partner of his joys pass again outside the door.
"This winter!" echoed Manners in blank dismay. "Dorothy to be wedded this winter! To whom, I pray?"
"To Sir Edward Stanley."
Manners staggered back against the wall as though he had been smitten by some invisible hand. His face blanched, his lips quivered, and he gasped for very breath. This was news indeed, far beyond his worst anticipations, and he was almost crushed by the blow.
The baron watched him with a feeling akin to dismay. He hated his unpleasant task, and half regretted the promise he had made Sir Thomas Stanley. He pitied the unfortunate esquire who stood before him, and sincerely blamed himself for accepting the business, and the dame for thrusting it upon him.
Manners soon rallied, much to Sir George's relief; and the two sat down together at the little table. The baron, tried to express his sympathy with him in his great disappointment which had just come upon him, but his words were clumsy, and afforded no relief.
"It is not yet quite decided upon, is it?" asked the young man.
"We expect Sir Edward now at any time," the knight replied.
"But, Sir George, Dorothy has plighted her troth to me."
"Ah, we know it; Margaret has told us of it. 'Twas a foolish thing to do."
"And Father Philip blessed the match," pursued Manners.
"But she has been promised to Edward Stanley," was the quiet reply, "and a Vernon's promise is never broken, never."
The two remained silent awhile. Sir George had made wonderful progress with his mission of late—a fact due to the knowledge that Lady Vernon was standing just outside the door; and before either of them spoke again she entered the room, and making a formal courtesy to the visitor, she advanced to her husband's side.
"You have told Master Manners, I suppose?" she inquired in a harsh, unfeeling voice that stabbed the lover's heart by every word.
"Yes, my dear," he replied, looking as if he were ashamed of the whole business, "I have told him all."
"But surely you cannot understand Dorothy's feelings in the——"
"Dorothy will do as we desire," interrupted Lady Maude, severely.
"Do you really love your daughter, Sir George?" asked Manners, in desperation. "Then I conjure you by all the affection towards her you possess, that in this, matter you consult her happiness. I cannot live without her, and she will fade away like a tender flower if you baulk her choice."
"Do I love her?" repeated Sir George, impatiently. "Aye, that I do; am I not her father?"
"Hush, Sir George," interrupted Lady Vernon, "Master Manners is outrageous. I will talk with him, and you can depart an you wish it."
Nothing loth, Sir George turned to go; glad to wash his hands of the whole affair, and feeling thoroughly ashamed that it had ever fallen to his lot to treat a guest in so inhospitable a fashion.
"I am sorry, Master Manners," continued the dame, as she watched the retreating figure of her lord, "that Sir George has played his part so ill. It had been kinder on his part had he introduced the subject in another way, but he is ill-fitted for matters of business."
Manners had heard the rustle of her gown outside the door some time before Lady Vernon had entered, and he shrewdly suspected that she had been listening to the conversation. The manner in which she re-opened the subject at once convinced him that his conjecture was right, and knowing the integrity of the baron he was ready to defend him.
"Sir George meant well enough," he said.
"Come now, Master Manners, that was bravely said," replied the lady. "He has a kind heart, but it is apt to be too kind at times, and then I have to go over it all again; you understand?"
"Perfectly, but Lady Vernon——"
"And you will perceive that we are within our rights in disposing of Dorothy as we wish," she continued. "Of course, she will consent to it in time."
"Never," returned Manners, stoutly.
"You are but a youth, therefore you are bold, but mark my words, young man, you will have less faith and more caution as your years come on."
"Will you accept Dorothy's choice?" asked Manners bluntly, disregarding the last remark.
"Do you suppose, Master Manners," replied Lady Vernon, "that Dorothy will withstand us? We are all agreed in the matter."
"All except Dorothy, maybe."
"And she will soon——"
"I tell you never!" he replied hotly.
Lady Vernon laughed; a light, incredulous sort of laugh, which only tended to enstrange them farther still.
"There are considerations of which you appear to be ignorant, sir," she replied, "but I am not willing to wound your feelings."
"That may be, and yet, perchance, there may be somewhat to be said on the other side," he calmly rejoined.
Lady Vernon fixed her eyes upon him, astounded at his presumption, but instead of crushing him under an avalanche of her wrath, she restrained herself, and broke into another superficial burst of laughter.
"Pooh," she said, "you are simply an esquire, and he is a knight."
"And he a knight," echoed Dorothy's lover, scornfully. "As if he were aught the better for that."
"A knight is a knight," replied the lady stiffly; "and he is the son of an earl."
"And I, by the favour of fortune, am the nephew of an earl; and, moreover, Dorothy and I have plighted our troth together."
"Then you were over bold."
"I might accept your decision for myself, Lady Vernon," he said; "indeed, I had done so ere now, but Dorothy's happiness is at stake as well as mine."
"You accept it perforce, then?"
"Nay, I will abide by Dorothy's decision alone. She shall have the ruling of it, and I know what she will say."
"I must be plain with you, Master Manners," said Lady Maude, with considerable asperity. "It can never, no, never be as you desire. We have other designs for Dorothy than that she should marry a soldier of fortune. Her portion," she continued, curling her lips in scorn, "is a half of the whole estate of Haddon, which, you must admit, is no small dowry; and what have you to set against that? Your lands would not maintain yourself alone," and, having delivered herself thus, she cast a triumphant glance upon the young man who stood before her.
"I may win renown," he quickly replied.
"You possibly might," she replied, with another contemptuous curl of her lip, "but that is a shadow, a mere myth. Besides, you can put no value on fame; you cannot even live upon it."
"I have a true and loving heart, and a strong arm."
"Tut, man," she laughed; "so has every beggar. Prithee, now, as a matter of business, what have you to offer? Nothing."
"What! Surely you do not want to barter her away?" cried Manners. "Why talk of business?"
"Certainly not," she replied; "but it is our duty to make as good an alliance for her as we can. You ought to perceive that this is to her advantage, and if you care for her welfare as much as you would have us believe, you would help us to secure it for her, instead of placing her in a position which can only breed discontent and mischief," and without giving Manners time to reply she swept proudly out of the room and left him alone with his sorrow.
Yet even now it is good to think, While my few poor varlets grumble and drink, In my desolate hall where the fires sink; Of Dorothy sitting glorious there, In glory of gold and glory of hair, And glory of glorious face most fair; Likewise to-night I make good cheer, Because this battle draweth near, For what have I to love or fear?
W. MORRIS (adapted).
John Manners sought out Dorothy as soon as the interview was concluded, and he was fortunate enough to find her alone.
Poor Dorothy; she had long expected this meeting, and she had tried to prepare herself to face it. Her love, subjected to such a terrible strain, had come like gold out of the refining fire. It had grown stronger and better, and as she saw her lover emerge from the room she realised for the first time how much she really loved him.
The tale was soon told, and as he poured into her ears the unwelcome tidings her tender heart was lacerated by each successive word.
"And now, my own sweet Dorothy," he concluded, "you know all. I have told thee all the pitiful story. Would to God it had been a pleasant tale I had to tell thee, but alas! I have told thee but the truth."
He looked fondly into her face, and wondered how often he would be permitted to see it more. It was deadly pale, and her lips quivered again as she endeavoured to keep them tightly closed.
"John," she murmured, "in any matter but this I should obey them; but—but——" She broke down under the mental strain. It was a terrible struggle between conflicting affections, and, unable to sustain it, she would have fallen in a faint upon the ground had not the strong arms of her lover supported her.
Manners laid her gently down upon the bank and sprinkled some water upon her, for they were on the slopes of the Wye, and in a few moments she mastered her feelings and opened her eyes.
"I am dizzy," she apologetically exclaimed, as she saw the form of her beloved bending over her. "I shall be better soon."
She fulfilled her prediction quickly, and when he would have led her back into the Hall she begged him to wait.
"Nay, nay, John," she said, "the Lady Maude will soon devise a plan for separating us, but let us remain together while we may."
"But, Doll, you are ill," he exclaimed, "and I must take good care of thee."
"I should be worse were I severed from thee," she sweetly replied, "and, John, I have somewhat to tell thee."
"Speak on then, sweet one."
"You will be true to me, John, whatever happens?" she asked.
She was timid to approach the subject, and blushed deeply at the sound of her own sweet voice. She had more than half a mind to take the words back lest they should strike a single pang into his heart, but they were spoken, and before she could enter into any explanation, he had bent down and kissed her.
"My precious darling!" he passionately exclaimed. "I never could forget thee; thy name is written on my heart; I shall never cease to love thee. The saints forfend me, Doll. I were a miscreant indeed were I to play traitor to thy love."
"I shall trust you, John," she replied, bestowing upon him a look of undisguised affection; "I do trust thee; I shall be happy in thy love. Whatever trouble comes I shall be happy, because I shall know your heart is trusty and true."
"That it shall be, Doll," he cried, "a right trusty heart—though they do make thee wed Edward Stanley."
"John!" she exclaimed quickly, flushing scarlet again, "have I not given my troth to thee? They shall not force me into it. You can trust me."
"O, Doll. My love, my darling, it would break my heart to give thee up; but I must do it for the sake of thy happiness."
Poor heart, he spoke but the truth, but he spoke it as bravely as he could.
"Hush, John," Dorothy hastily broke in; "you must not say such things."
"Alas! you little know, my sweet one, to what misery you would consign yourself if you proved staunch to me," he continued. "This fragile form was not made to suffer, but to recline in ease," he added, as he gazed fondly at the graceful form of the maiden.
"I have recked the cost," she simply replied. "You do not doubt me, do you, John?" she asked, looking up into his troubled face.
"Doubt thee, no;" he replied, "but I would save thee from a host of sorrows."
Dorothy held her head down in silence, and seeing that she did not answer. Manners continued.
"I must be frank with you, Doll. The husband they have chosen thee may be an earl in time to come, and is a Derby to boot. He is rich, and mayhap he may love thee, too, and I—and I——"
"Stop, John, stop," she commanded. "Would you thus trifle with my love? I have seen in thee a noble heart, a kind heart, a loving heart. I have refused many before thee. I have just refused one lord, and I shall refuse the other. You would not so dispraise yourself but to dissuade me; but you have yet to learn the constancy of a maiden's love."
"Are you resolved?" he asked, almost choked by the feelings of joy her words had caused.
"I am," she firmly replied; "I shall brave the worst, and be happy in your love. What more can I desire?"
Manners was too much overcome to speak. He could only weakly articulate a fervent "God bless you, my love;" but if Dorothy had desired anything more to prove the intensity of his feelings, she would have found it had she looked to see it in his eyes.
While matters had been progressing thus at Haddon, Sir Henry de la Zouch had been gradually improving in health, until by now he had found himself almost as well as he had been of yore, and he had intimated that he was fast getting ready to return to Ashby Castle.
His passion for Dorothy had not abated one whit, and he was deeply mortified to find how rapidly Manners had been wooing and winning the maiden.
Yet, although his suit had been rebuffed at every point, he was not discouraged. Indeed, had his other qualities equalled his perseverance, he had richly merited a full and good reward; but, unfortunately, this was his only redeeming trait, and the baseness of that motive which prompted it poisoned that very virtue too.
He was neither dejected nor cast down, because he felt that he had within his power a mode of wooing the maiden which, were he but to use it, could not fail to insure complete success. The plan had its drawbacks, to be sure, but it was the only one at his command, and even as he lay upon the sick bed, tossing in agony from side to side, he was considering whether or no he should carry it out. When he was better he determined to put it into force upon the first opportunity, but every relapse undid his resolution, and made him pay attention to his conscience, which bade him reject the idea.
As a compromise he determined at last to ask Dorothy again for her hand, and he availed himself of an early opportunity of doing this. He used all his persuasive eloquence in vain. He pointed to his haggard face, and told her that a refusal would inevitably complete the work that Manners had begun, but she was firm; and seeing that nothing would shake her resolution, he resolved to put his plan into operation immediately upon his recovery.
It was a deeply-laid scheme, the scheme of a villain, and it revealed its author in its proper light. As he communicated his plan to his page, when the latter paid him his final visit, his face glowed with satisfaction, and he imagined the chagrin his dupes would feel when they found themselves within his power.
It was necessary, in the first place, to throw Manners off his guard, and, smarting under the humiliation of his defeat, De la Zouch determined that his victor should also come within the reach of his net; and, as he witnessed the growing familiarity which existed between his rival and Dorothy, he was more than ever determined to have vengeance upon him, and more jubilant at the prospect of attaining the consummation of his wish.
This was the motive which caused his readiness to meet Manners as a friend. He rightly judged that Manners once put off the scent, the rest would follow his example, so he appeared to accept Dorothy's refusal with a better grace, as a thing inevitable; and once face to face again with his gallant foe, nothing could exceed the extravagance of the language he employed to convince him that he regretted the follies of the past and to instil into his mind that he wished for the future to be counted as his friend.
It is a noticeable feature about villains that they almost always overreach themselves at some point or other—in story-books they always do—and to this characteristic De la Zouch proved no exception, for the very intensity of the words he chose, and the excessive flattery he employed, instead of gaining their object, aroused in John Manners' mind a feeling of suspicion of which he could in nowise dispossess himself. He would have communicated his fears to Dorothy, but he feared lest she should misjudge him and interpret it as an ebulition of jealousy, and there was none other except his friend Crowleigh in whom he could confide. Unwilling, however, to wound the susceptibilities of De la Zouch, who, after all, might have been actuated by the best of motives, he fairly met all his advances, and though he was all along mistrustful of his intentions, yet he was careful that Sir Henry should perceive no signs of it.
Lady Vernon soon gave Manners a hint that his visit to Haddon might terminate at any time he chose; but, although wounded in spirit by her words, he was in no great hurry to depart from Dorothy's side, and Sir George, eager to make amends for his dame's shortcomings, and ashamed that the traditional hospitality of his mansion should be so roughly contradicted while he was the lord of Haddon, appeared most anxious to prolong the visit, and endeavoured to make the enjoyment of his guest as complete as it could possibly be, the circumstances being duly considered.