"Humph, they go off with the honours." Mr. Hadley shrugged, and held out his arm in front of Sir John, who was plunging after them.
"Be hanged to you. What did the rogue mean, telling me I was old?"
"Why, he meant that a man who is too old to fight should be civil."
"Too old?" Sir John fumed. "Burn him for a coward."
"I think not," says Mr. Hadley. "But for the rest—God be with you. My lady—sincerely your servant."
My lady was now weeping. "You never loved him," she complained. "You were never his friend," and she became speechless.
The two men looked at each other. "Well, Charles, we'll to horse," Sir John concluded. "Servant, ma'am." They left her in the scented embraces of Arabella.
To Harry as he went out came the butler, who, with something of a furtive manner, produced and gave him a letter. Harry looked at the writing and thrust it into his coat. Alison saw and took no notice.
They walked on for some way before silence was broken. Then Harry said: "Well, madame wife, so you feel you've been bit."
"Who—I? What do you know of what I feel?"
"Oh, I can tell hot from cold. I know when you are thinking you ought to have thought twice. Egad, I agree with you. You've been badly bit. Here you were told that I was just off out of the country; that you must catch me at once if you wanted to catch me; that if you took me you would soon have me off your hands. And now we're tied up, you find I'm not going at all. I vow it's disheartening. But if you'll believe me, I did honestly believe my old rogue of a father. I did think he meant to take me."
"And now you can't be comforted because you have to stay with me. Oh, Harry, you're a gloomy fellow to own a new wife. But why did the good man take Geoffrey when he might have had you? I should have thought he knew a goose when he saw one."
"I can't tell. I never saw much meaning in the old gentleman."
"You might as well look at his letter."
Harry stared. "How did you know that was his?"
"You like doing things mysteriously, the family of Boyce."
The letter said this:
"MR. HARRY,—I flatter myself that you will be offended. But 'tis all for your good. When I came after you I did not know that you were so clever a fellow. No more did I expect that I should have to like you. But since I do, I prefer that I should do without you. And since you have some of my wits, you may very well do without me. But I believe you will do the better without friend Geoffrey. Therefore I take him, who will indeed do my business much more sincerely than your worthy self. With the dear fellow safe out of the way, I count upon you to push on bravely with Mrs. Alison. You'll not find two such chances in one life. If you were master of her you could promise yourself anything in decent reason you please to want. For all your wits you are not the man to make his own way out of nothing. So don't be haughty. Why should you? It's a mighty pretty thing, Harry, and (trust an old fellow who hath made some use of the sex in his day) as tender as you may hope for in an heiress. She has looked your way already, and in her pique at the good Geoffrey deserting her, you'll find her warmer for you. If you don't make her warm enough for wiving, you're an oaf, which is not in my blood—nor your mother's, to be honest. Nor if I was young again and played your hand, I wouldn't let her grow cold when I had her safe.... So be a man, and I give you my blessing.
Harry held it out to Alison. "We're a noble family—the family of Boyce," said he.
But Alison read it without a blush or a sneer, and when she gave it back she was laughing. "Oh, he's more cunning than any beast of the field! Oh, he knows the world! Poor, dear fellow."
"Oh Lud, yes, he's a fool for his wisdom. But he's my father."
"Well, sir?" Harry scowled at the ground. "Oh, what does he matter? Harry, what does anything matter to-day—or to-morrow, or to-morrow's to-morrow?"
"I had no guess of all this." Harry crushed the paper. "You believe that?"
"Oh, silly, silly."
"You're still content?"
"Not yet," Alison said.
SPECTATORS OF PARADISE
In the old house on the hill Mrs. Weston sat alone. She was looking out of the oriel window at a garden of wintry emptiness and wind swept. The westerly gale roared and moaned, the heavy earth was sodden and beaten into hollows and pools through which broke tiny pale points of snowdrops. Away beyond the first terrace of lawn the roses bowed and tossed wild arms. A silvery gleam of sunlight fell on the turf, glistened, and was gone. Mrs. Weston sat with her hands in her lap and her needle at rest in a half-worked piece of linen. A veil of languor had fallen upon the wistfulness of her face. Her bosom hardly stirred. The sound of the opening door broke her dream, and she picked up her work and began to sew eagerly. It was Susan Burford who came in, royally neat in her riding-habit, for all the storm. She walked in her leisurely, spacious fashion to Mrs. Weston, who started and stood up, laughing nervously. "Indeed Alison will be pleased. You are kind. I know she has been longing to see you."
Susan laughed and, a large young goddess of health, stooped to kiss the worn face. "You always talk about somebody else. Are you pleased?"
"My dear!" Mrs. Weston protested. "You know I am."
"We match very well. You never want to talk, and I never have anything to say." Susan sat down, and for some time the only sound was from Mrs. Weston's needle. At last, "You are still here, then," Susan said.
"My dear! Why not, indeed?"
"Oh. But you would always stay by Alison if she needed you."
"Why, she never has needed me. And now less than ever."
"Oh." Susan considered that. "And is he kind to you?"
Mrs. Weston flushed. "Indeed he has been very good to me."
"That is all I wanted to ask you," said Susan, and again there was silence.
After a little while Mrs. Weston dropped her sewing and looked anxiously at Susan. "Have you ever seen him?"
"Only his back. He used to keep in the corners at Tetherdown."
"I suppose people—talk about him."
"I don't listen," said Susan, "People are always in such a hurry. I can't keep up."
"I suppose you think Alison was in a great hurry."
"Only Alison knows about that."
"Yes." Mrs. Weston looked at her with affectionate admiration, as though she had been endowed with rare understanding of the human heart. "Do you know you are the only one of the people Alison liked who has come here—since?"
"Oh." (Susan's favourite eloquent reply.) "I don't mind about people."
"He doesn't mind at all. She doesn't mind yet."
"What is that you are working?" said Susan.
"But indeed they are most perfectly happy," said Mrs. Weston, in a hurry.
"Is it for a tucker?" said Susan.
In a greater hurry, Mrs. Weston began to explain. She was still at it when Alison and Harry came back.
They too had been riding. The storm had granted Alison none of Susan's majestic neatness. She looked a wild creature of the hills, her wet habit clinging about her, black ringlets broken loose curling about her, brown eyes fierce with life, and all the dainty colours of her face very clear and bright. She saw Susan and cried out, "Oh, my child, I love you."
Susan rose leisurely to her majestic height and smiled down upon her. "I think you are the loveliest thing that ever was made," said she. Alison laughed, and they kissed.
"I am quite of your mind, ma'am," said Harry. "Or I was," he made Susan a bow, "till this moment."
"I was going to ask her if she was happy, sir," Susan said. "I shan't ask her." She held out her hand.
"But I want you to ask me a thousand things." Alison put an arm round her, "Come away, come. At least I am going to tell you"—she shot a wicked glance at Harry—"everything." Off they went.
"What's this mean, ma'am?" Harry stood over Mrs. Weston. "Is our wise Sir John sending to spy out the land?"
"I wish you would not talk so." Mrs. Weston shivered. "It is like your father. Oh, sure, you have no need to be suspicious of every one."
"Suspicious? Faith, I don't trouble myself." Harry laughed. "All the world may go hang for me. But you'll not expect me to believe in it."
"I think you need fear no one's ill will. You are fortunate enough now."
"Miraculously beyond my deserts, ma'am. As you say. But there's the wisdom of twenty years' shabbiness in me. And I wonder if the good Sir John wants to be meddling."
"You need not be shabby now."
"Lord, I bear him no malice. For he can do nought. Only I would not have him plague Alison."
At last Mrs. Weston smiled upon him. "Aye, you are very careful of her."
"I vow I would not so insult her." Harry laughed.
"But you need not be afraid. Susan is here for herself. She is like that. She is the most independent woman ever I knew. She has come because she loves Alison."
"Why, then, I love her. And egad it will be easy. She's a splendid piece."
Mrs. Weston gave him an anxious glance. "She is very loyal," said she, with some emphasis.
"It's a virtue. To be sure it's a virtue of the stupid." Harry cocked a teasing eye at her. "And I—well, ma'am, you wouldn't call me stupid."
"I don't think it clever to jeer at what's good—and true—and noble."
"Egad, ma'am, you are very parental!" Harry grinned. "You will be talking to me like a mother—and a stern mother, I protest."
"Am I stern?" Mrs. Weston looked at him with eyes penitent and tender.
"Only to yourself, I think. Lud, ma'am, why take me to heart?"
"What now, Harry?" Alison and Susan close linked came back again. "Whose heart are you taking?"
"Why, madame's," said Harry, with a flourish. "You see, ma'am," he turned to Susan, "I've a gift for making folks cry."
"Oh. Like an onion," says she, in her slow, grave fashion.
"Susan dear! How perfect," Alison laughed. "Now I know why I am growing tired of him. A little, you know, was piquant. But a whole onion to myself—God help us!"
"Yet your onion goes well with a goose," Harry said.
"Alack, Harry, but there's nothing sage about you and me."
"Oh, fie! See there she sits, our domestic sage"—he waved at Mrs. Weston.
"To be sure we couldn't do without her." Alison caressed the grey hair.
"I must be riding, Alison," Susan said.
Alison began to protest affectionate hospitality. Harry shook his head. "I have warned you of this, Alison. We are too conjugal. It embarasses the polite."
"I am not embarassed," said Susan, with her placid gravity. "I want to come again."
"By the fifth or sixth time, ma'am, I may feel that I am forgiven."
"I have nothing to forgive you, Mr. Boyce."
"Then you can do it the more heartily." Harry smiled and held out his hand.
"Oh." There was a faint shadow of a blush. "I did not think I should like you." She turned. "I beg your pardon, Alison."
"I beg, ma'am, you'll come teach my wife to be kind. She also is frank. But for kindness—well, we are all sinners."
"There it is, Mr. Boyce," said Susan, holding out her hand.
And when she was gone. "Now, why did I not marry her first?" said Harry pensively.
"Because she would never have married you, child. Being of those who like the man to ask."
As Susan rode down the north slope of the hill, she was met by Mr. Hadley, gaunt upon a white horse, like death in the Revelation. The comparison did not occur to Susan, who had a fresh mind, but she did think white unbecoming to Mr. Hadley, and said, gurgling, "Where did you find that horse? Or why did you find it?"
"He was a bad debt. But he has a great soul. And don't prevaricate, Susan. Where have you been?" Mr. Hadley bent his sardonic brows.
"To gossip with Alison."
"Odso, I guessed you would turn traitor."
"No. I haven't turned at all, Mr. Hadley."
"She has declared war on us. Your dear father fizzes and fumes like a grenade all day. And you go gossip with her. It's flat treason, miss. Come, did you tell Sir John you were going?"
"No. But he would guess. He is so clever about me. Like you."
"Humph. If he guesses you're a woman, it's all he does. And, damme, I suppose it's enough. So your curious sex bade you go and pry. Well, and what did you see in Mr. Harry Boyce?"
"I suppose you are scolding me," said Susan placidly.
"With all my heart."
"Oh. Why do you ride that horse?"
"Damme, miss, don't wriggle. You had no business at Highgate!"
"He looks as if he had the gout."
Mr. Hadley grinned. "But as you went, let's hear what you saw."
"I always loved Alison."
"Your business is to love your father, Susan—till some other man asks you."
"I love her better now. She is so happy."
"Damn her impudence," said Mr. Hadley.
"Why did you lose your temper with her?"
"I never lose my temper with any one but you."
"Well. You made my father lose his."
"Ods life, Susan, don't you know it's a man's right to tell women how they ought to live? Dear Alison wouldn't listen."
Susan laughed. "She has made you look very foolish."
"If she has I'll forgive her."
"Oh. You do then," said Susan.
"On your honour, miss, what did you think of Mr. Harry Boyce?"
"I wondered Alison should love him."
"Ods life, yes. But what's this you're saying?"
"He is so quiet and simple."
"Simple! Damme, the fellow's an incarnate mask."
"Oh. I think I know all about him. I never thought I knew all about Alison. She wants so much."
"And she hasn't got all she wants, eh?"
"Yes, I believe," said Susan, after a moment.
"Pray God you're right."
"Oh. I like to hear you say that. You have been so"—for once her placid words stumbled—"so sordid about this."
"Damme, Susan, don't be a saint." Mr. Hadley grinned. "They die virgins."
It was a time of wild plots. The long war of Marlborough had left England impregnably triumphant, and France ambitious of nothing but peace. No fear remained that foreign arms would carry James, the Pretender by right divine, to his sister's throne. Who should reign when Anne's growing weakness ended in death was for England alone to decide, and English law gave the succession to Prince George of Hanover. But there was a party, or at least the leaders of a party, who saw more profit to themselves in importing the Pretender.
Harley and Bolingbroke, they had thrust out of the Queen's confidence and the government the friends of Hanover. They had undermined the authority of Marlborough at home and abroad, and were now ready, honourably or dishonourably, to put an end to the war which made him necessary. If he were dispatched into ignominy or exile, there could be no one strong enough, they believed, to prevent them driving England the way they chose. What that way would be no one clearly knew, themselves, perhaps, least of all. But together and singly they set going many strange secret schemes which were to make a new king, a new England, and new magnificence for themselves, singly or together. All which the mass of England watched with shrewd, incurious eyes. It could not long be a secret that plots were afoot. To shoulder out of power all who were committed friends of the lawful order was a confession of designs against it. As if that were not enough, Bolingbroke and Harley so managed their business that everything they did was wrapped in a mist of trickery and intrigue. And yet, though they were vastly mysterious over what could have borne the light without much shame, they contrived to let the agents of their deeper treachery blunder into notice and fill the air with rumours of untimely truth. Still England gave no sign.
"Under which King"—Hanoverian or Pretender—perhaps there were few in England who cared. If the Pretender was bred French and a Papist, Prince George was a German born. Some of those who had joined heartily in driving out his father began to put it about that the son would be a better king for that lesson. George of Hanover had the right of law, but the Parliament of to-morrow might undo what the Parliament of yesterday had done. Who could be ardent for the right of an unknown foreigner over England? And few were ardent, but there were many who, caring nothing for Pretender or Hanoverian, had a solid resolution that England should not be torn in the cause of either. Whatever was done, must be done quietly and in good order. Since it seemed that the Hanoverian had no need to change anything in law or State or Church, best that he should be king. As for the devious politics, the tricks, and the mystery of Harley and Bolingbroke, they were of no account to plain men.
There was yet another party not content to watch and wait till the plotters lost themselves in their own mysteries. The men whom Harley and Bolingbroke had driven from power had no mind to submit to impotence. They well knew what they wanted: the Hanoverian, the lawful, limited king upon the throne and themselves as his ministers. They were not delicate about the means they used. Since there were treason and plots, they too turned their hands to plotting and with a vigour and ruthless resolution of which the other camp was innocent.
So the wise and eminent were busy while Harry Boyce and his Alison made trial of their marriage. Harry lived in a dream of bewildered happiness. He had counted on nothing but the need of his passion, hoped for nothing but its ecstasy in her beauty, and at its wildest the strain of gloom in him had bade him dread what lay beyond. She gave him a miracle of mad delight. A new force of life was born in him while he enjoyed her joy. It was a discovery of intoxicating power that he could wake that rare, consummate creature to such eager exultation as his own. In those wonderful hours it seemed that they passed out of themselves into a world where every part of their being was one and in the happiness of unbounded strength. So passion and she kept faith with him and something more. But the miracle of passion in her arms had less enchantment than the joy of the quiet hours. It was with this that she bewildered him. Before she yielded to him, he would have jeered at the hope that she might bring the gift of peace in her bosom. As the first days of marriage passed he learnt that all his placid loneliness had been the mere endurance of hunger. He had stayed himself with the husk of life. She satisfied him with the fruit. For she too could be calm, delighting in the little daily things, utterly happy with nonsense. To share all that with her was to find in it a strange, lulling enchantment of content.
His fortune seemed too good to be real. For he possessed all that ever fancy had pretended was worth coveting: his life was a perfect happiness. No doubts from within, no troubles from without, had power to assail him. All the old, reasonable, practical fears were become ludicrous cowardice, only remembered for Alison to tease with. As for other people, and what they said and thought and did, some folks were kind and were welcome, no folks were of account. He and she deliciously sufficed themselves. And there was no dread of change, save in age and death, infinitely distant and insignificant—no matter but to glorify the power of life. Sometimes he was aware that the wonder of passion must grow faint and fail, but he saw nothing which could take from him the quiet, exquisite, daily joys. Was it real, or a charmed dream, this perfect fortune of content? Indeed, nothing was real in those days but the delight in being with her.
Alison had her share. He did not deceive himself. She had her ecstasies and her exultations, she thought herself even madder than he was. And in these days, perhaps, her passion was deeper and stronger than his. She was satisfied, she felt herself accomplished, and gloried in her new power with a more profound, a more secret delight than his. She had given him eagerly all that she had, and in the giving found herself more than ever her own. For all the union, the deepest, truest self in her stood aloof in a mystery. It was not of her will, for she desired to deny him nothing. She did not reckon him weak in failing to take all of her. This must needs be the way of life. No man's passion could be stronger than his. Doubtless he too had his secret soul apart. And indeed it was glorious not to lose self in love, to stay always, through the ecstasies, aloof, to give always anew of will and choice—never to merge helpless in some unknown double being and become only half a body, half a soul, capitulating always to the rest, to the other.
This self-glorious pride of hers gave her for a while that zest in all the trivial common things which made her a companion so delightful to Harry's temper. But she enjoyed them in a spirit different from his. All the bread-and-butter business of living was to him delightful in itself and for itself. He was born to want no better bread than is made of wheat. She played with it, made a dainty mock of it, amused herself with it, and at the back of her mind despised it.
So they lived, and you imagine Mrs. Weston's dim, wistful eyes watching them with a great tenderness. For she understood them no better than they themselves.
It was Alison who first grew tired. Not of love or passion, but of the trivialities and the quiet life at Highgate. She had ambitions, or thought she had. It had been just rediscovered that women could be leaders in the world—at least in politics and the tricks of statecraft. Women were the fiercest partisans and their voices powerful in the warring parties. It was a woman, his termagant duchess, who had given Marlborough his ascendancy in England, made him dominate all Europe. It was a clever woman who had contrived Marlborough's downfall and given his enemies the government of England. It was a woman—another duchess—who beat Swift. You need not suspect Alison, who had some humour, of imagining Harry Boyce a Marlborough. But he did believe him able to make a noise in the world, and coveted much the sensation of owning him while the world listened. She did not see herself controlling queens and kings and parties, but she was well aware of her beauty and its power, and had a mind to use it widely. She was hungry for excitement.
So Mrs. Alison determined to set her man upon a larger, busier stage. The decree went forth that old Tom Lambourne's house in the Lincoln's Inn Fields was again to be inhabited. Harry was asked for his advice afterwards. Perhaps he would have been wiser if he had begun their first quarrel then. But he was enjoying her too much to deny her her ways or her whims, and he only laughed at her. He was not pleased, to be sure. He had a taste, which cannot have come from his father, for copse and field. He never found anything in the town which was worth the living in other folk's smoke. He disliked crowds and in particular crowds of fine ladies and gentlemen. So with some horror he saw before him a vista of polite splendours, and said so.
"Oh Lud, sir," says she, "if I had wanted to sleep my life away I should not have married you. And if you wanted to sleep out yours you should not have married me."
"I was born for innocence and green fields. You'll make me a bull in a china shop."
"I'll love you the better, child. Faith, Harry, I would be very glad to have you break something."
"Madame's heart, par exemple?"
"That would be an adventure."
So you find them arrived in the Lincoln's Inn Fields as the first step to the conquest of the world. The world was not as excited as Alison thought fit. Her father, old Tom Lambourne, had commanded reverence in the City and some respect even as far west as St. James's by sheer weight of wealth. A rare capacity for living hard had won him an army of diverse friends. But neither his business nor his pleasures provided him with many who could be bequeathed to his daughter. Her mother, born a baker's daughter in Shoe Lane, having died in giving Alison birth, had left her nothing besides her admirable body but some grumbling objects of charity. It remained for Alison to make her own way in the world of fine ladies and gentlemen. Since she was by certain fame an heiress of great possessions, her way might have been easy if she had not found herself a husband. The taint of the city, if she had borne herself humbly, need not have made her quite intolerable to people of birth. But since her money was already married she could only be reckoned as a city goodwife; pretty enough, indeed, to be game for fine gentlemen, but to fine ladies a nobody.
Folks were slow in coming to the grand house in Lincoln's Inn Fields; slower still, if they had houses of elegance, to ask Mrs. Alison back. It suited Harry very well. He would, as his wife complained, go mooning across the fields to Islington almost as happily as through the woods at Highgate. His books had almost as good a savour in town as in the country. When she dragged him to hear Nicolini or Wilks or the Bracegirdle, he could console himself by gentle jeering over the fact that in a playhouse where everybody knew everybody not a creature had a bow for him or her. Of course she smarted. Day by day he chose to affect astonishment over her failures, believing with infatuated content that he was slowly driving her back to the country and sanity, though he was but driving her away from him. And she, choosing to feel humiliated, blamed him for the shame of it.
"Why, child," says he in his supercilious way, "'tis not failing to be in the beau monde that's ridiculous, but wanting to be."
To such monitions she began not to answer back—a symptom very dangerous.
She set up a basset table. That, if anything could, must proclaim her a woman of fashion—a woman, indeed, who had a fancy to be a trifle daring. There's no doubt that Alison about this time and afterwards did want to dabble in danger. She was not her father's daughter for nothing. She encouraged high play. For herself, she enjoyed the excitement of it, having no need to care if she lost. She wanted to have about her people who affected heavy stakes, believing in the innocence of her heart that they were exhilarating company. So she made for herself a queer society, which Harry to her angry disgust defined as a mixture of sheep and wolves. There were good wives and lads from the city anxious to make a jingling show with the funds of the family counting-house, there were hungry beaux and madames from the other end of the town seeking their fortune impudently wherever it might be found.
To one of these happy parties there was introduced a Mrs. Boyce. She was a faded, handsome creature much jewelled about lean shoulders. Alison, who hardly heard her name in the rout, took no account of it and little of her. But on the next day this Mrs. Boyce came early and caught Alison alone.
She began with such a fuss about apologizing for her earliness that Alison set her down for an ill-bred, tiresome creature. She had a high voice which, like the rest of her, was a trifle faded. "I protest, ma'am, I have long desired to know you better." Alison languidly muttered something civil. "Let me make myself known first, I beg. I am the niece of Sir Gilbert Heathcote."
Alison, of course, had heard of Sir Gilly—one of the chiefs of high finance—but cared nothing about him. "I am vastly honoured, ma'am. I was only born Thomas Lambourne's daughter."
"There is no need; ma'am." A long, lean hand was waved. "I wonder if we are in some fashion connected. We are both called Mrs. Boyce. The Boyces of Oxfordshire, ma'am?"
Alison's laugh had something of a sneer in it, "Of nowhere that I know, ma'am. My husband is Mr. Harry Boyce, son of Colonel Oliver Boyce."
The lady fluttered her fan, settled herself afresh in her chair, rearranged her close-fitting lips. Alison was reminded of a hen preening itself. "I had heard so, ma'am. And my husband is Colonel Oliver Boyce."
"La, ma'am, do you mean the same?" Alison cried.
Mrs. Oliver Boyce gave a lifeless smile. "That is why I did myself the honour of giving you my confidence, ma'am. I think there are not two Colonel Oliver Boyces. The younger son of one of the Oxfordshire family."
"Oh Lud, how should I know? I never looked into the grandfathers."
"No, ma'am?" The tone was patronizing contempt. "You might have been the wiser of it. Colonel Oliver Boyce—he has taken the title lately—when I knew him he was something in the service of the Duke of Marlborough. Oh, a fine man to the eye, ma'am, and very splendid in his talk."
"Why, that's his likeness," Alison laughed. "And what then, ma'am? Have you come seeking the Colonel? He is the Lord knows where. Or is it—faith, you don't tell me Harry is your son?"
"No, ma'am. At least I was spared bearing children."
"Oh—why, give you joy if you would have it so. But how can I serve you? Maybe your Colonel is not my Colonel after all. At least he and Harry are father and son heartily enough."
"It may be so, ma'am," said the lady heavily, and here Harry came in.
Alison looked up laughing and then frowned. Harry would not ever dress fine. His wig was still unfashionably small, he wore some sombre stuff, and to her eye (as she said) looked like a mole. "Here's Mr. Boyce, ma'am. Harry, Mrs. Oliver Boyce, who is come to say that you never had father nor mother."
"Your obliged servant, ma'am." Harry opened his eyes. "Pray, has my father married again?"
"You'll find, sir, that Colonel Boyce has only been married once."
"If you please, ma'am," said Harry blandly. "Pray, are you blaming him? Or—" a gesture expressed his complete ignorance of what she was doing.
The lady seemed to force herself to laugh. "Oh, fie, sir. Sure it is not for me to blame him."
"No, ma'am?" Harry was first interrogative then acquiescent. "No, ma'am. I wonder if you could give me the Colonel's direction."
"I, sir? You are pleased to amuse yourself."
"I vow, ma'am, I was never less amused."
"Colonel Boyce was pleased to leave me five years ago. I have not forgotten it, if you have."
"Faith, this is very distressing," Harry protested in bewilderment. "But you do me injustice, ma'am. I have forgotten nothing about my father. For I never knew anything."
"As you please, sir," the lady drawled. "I was talking, by your leave, to Mrs. Boyce."
"Oh, ma'am, a hundred pardons," Harry took himself off in a hurry. His chief emotion over the lady seems to have been satisfaction that she wanted nothing to do with him. As for her story of being his father's deserted wife, he had long supposed his father capable of anything. As for the lady herself, he wrote her down a tiresome busybody and perhaps he was not far wrong.
Alison too was much of the same opinion, but it was unfortunately hampered by a natural curiosity to hear what the lady could tell about the mystery of Harry and his father. "You had something to say to me, ma'am?"
"I count it my duty, ma'am, to give you warning of Colonel Boyce."
Alison stood up. "Duty? I know nothing of your duty, ma'am. But I think it is mine not to listen to you."
"I protest, I should have said the same," the lady drawled. "I too had spirit once, child. That was before I suffered. I would I had known you earlier. And yet perhaps I may do something to save you even now."
"I cannot tell how, ma'am."
"Listen, if you please!" the lady said dramatically. "I was something of an heiress as you are and maybe something of a toast too. The worse for me. I choose to believe it was not only my money which brought Oliver Boyce upon me. He took all I could give him and very soon gave me nothing, not even common courtesy. When I began to be careful he began to be brutal. But for my family—I told you that Sir Gilbert Heathcote was my uncle—he would have stripped me of every penny. When they stepped in to save me some rag of my fortune, my good Mr. Boyce left me. I have never had a word from him since. Pray, child, take warning."
"If it is so, I am sorry for it," said Alison coldly, "I believe I hear company." She began to walk to the outer room.
Behind her, "As for your Harry Boyce," said the lady, "oh, I make no doubt he's Oliver's son, though certainly he is none of mine."
Alison made as if she did not hear, and she was spared more by the coming of some of her guests. The card tables filled. There was no more danger of being private with Mrs. Oliver Boyce. Indeed, the lady, as if she had done all she wanted, took her leave early. She was affectionate about it, for which Alison liked her none the better. Through most of that evening, amid the flutter of cards and the clatter—"Spadillio, on my life! What, it's Basto, is it? Did you hear of Mrs. Prue? She'll not show for a month. We win the Codille, ma'am. They say the Duchess and she pulled caps"—Alison was telling herself over and over that the creature was a detestable low thing who only wanted to make mischief. It should, you think, have needed no effort to believe that. But the obvious malice had power to annoy a mind already discontented. Alison could not stop wondering what the mystery was about Harry's birth and his father. Perhaps Harry knew more than the little he professed. Perhaps he was not the careless, indolent fellow he chose to seem, but something more cunning and less lofty. What if he were just such another as the woman painted his father—a fellow on the hunt for an heiress, who, once he had her and her money, cared no more about her? To be sure there was some evidence for that. Since they had come to town, he was always off by himself. If she wanted him with her, she had to plead and plague him. A proud office! Why, that very night monsieur did not please to appear at the card tables. He was too fine for her and her company. So she fretted and rubbed the poison in. And naturally, she fared ill at the card table. Her cards were bad and she made the worst of them. She was not a good loser and it was a wife much inflamed who, when her guests were gone, sought out her husband.
Harry sat with Mrs. Weston, who was at needlework and, if Alison had been able to see, looked very benign. But it was he who demanded all the wife's angry eyes. His wig was on the table beside him. He had a pipe in his mouth. He was lolling in the deeps of a chair and smiling to himself over a book. "You might be in an ale-house, you look so slovenly."
Harry grinned up at her. "Oh, madame wife hasn't been winning to-night. Tell me all about it."
"Faugh! Your pipe," Alison coughed. "For God's sake keep it to the tavern. It's enough that you reek of it without making my house reek too."
Harry gave a great sigh and put the pipe down. "We were so comfortable till you came. I am glad to see you, dear."
"I was comfortable till you came." Alison snapped.
"Pray, mother Weston," says Harry, "forgive our public caresses. We have not long been married."
Alison looked ice at him. "Weston dear, would you leave us? I have something to say to Harry." Harry opened his eyes. Mrs. Weston looked at her anxiously, bade them a nervous good-night, and hurried out.
"Harry—who was your mother?" Alison stood stern over the lolling husband.
"Egad, what's this? Have you been brooding over your bony friend? Who is she?"
"She says she is your father's wife; and says he left her."
"Well, if she is his wife, I wager he did leave her. Faith, she was made to be deserted."
"What do you know of her?"
"Nothing, by the grace of God. Why should I? If my father got drunk and married her, he would not want to talk about it when he was sober."
"I despise you when you talk so," Alison cried.
"And yet you listened to her, child."
"She says that he took all her money before he left her."
"Oh! Pray, why has she so much to say, and to you?"
"She wanted to warn me against Colonel Boyce."
"And against his son, I think. And you were so kind as to listen. Egad, ma'am, I am obliged to you. Well, now you know what to do. You have the money and I have none. Pray, lock up your purse to-night."
"You are childish," said Alison with lofty scorn. "Harry—who was your mother?"
"Oh, I thought your kind friend told you I had none. I dare say it's as true as the rest."
"You don't know?"
"I never saw her."
"She said—" Alison hesitated.
"Oh Lud, don't be squeamish now."
"She said your father had never been married except to her."
"Odso! That is what you had to tell me. I am a bastard, am I?" He laughed and turned in his chair. "Give you good-night, madame wife."
"Oh, God save you!" He took up his pipe. "I am no company for you. And, by God, you are no company for me."
She looked at him a moment, hesitated, went slowly out.
THE AFFAIR OF SIR GEORGE
The irruption of Mrs. Oliver Boyce could not easily have been foretold. That the past life of Colonel Boyce was likely to throw shadows over his son Harry might have considered, but the nature of the lady and her care and the successful opportunity of her malice were hardly to be calculated. There is less excuse for him in the affair of Sir George Anville. Given the conditions of that hasty marriage and the state into which it had brought them and the society about them, some Sir George or other was a natural consequence.
The ugly quarrel which Mrs. Oliver Boyce had made for them was never composed. When they met again in the morning they were coldly and haughtily civil, and so they chose to remain. Mrs. Weston, not being blind, saw that something was amiss and tried with blundering motherly affection to push them back into one another's arms. She hardened, as is usual, their hostility. Each was mortally afraid of weakening, each suspected the other at once of softness and of guile and so held aloof and fed upon scorn. They had both enough of that pride of sex which gives one pleasure in the sufferings of the other. And of course the quarrel was poisoned with a sordid taint. The colder, the haughtier Harry was, the more Alison inclined to believe that he had wanted nothing of her but her money. The haughtier, the colder Alison was, the more Harry raged against her for a mean creature who desired to make him feel his dependence upon her money bags.
In himself Sir George Anville was of no importance. If Harry had been comfortable he could never have taken the trouble to be angry over the man. It is certain that Alison never thought him worth any thought of hers, still less worth one finger's surrender. And yet Sir George contrived to be disastrous to the pair of them.
That was not, as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu said of him in another matter, altogether his fault. "The fool has excuses," quoth she, "which others have not. He is so great a fool that you hardly believe his folly is but folly." Sir George was a man born without impulse or capacity for anything. Lady Mary, who was fond of using him for her wit, made a grammarian's jest on him, "The creature's an anomaly: active in form, passive in meaning." He was bred in a society which made it a fashion to be vicious. He affected to follow the fashion. If vice must needs be something active, or at least, something of the will, Sir George Anville must escape punishment. But he was to a wholesome taste more offensive than sinners who did more damage. It was Harry's worst blunder in the affair that he treated Alison as if she did not feel that.
Sir George knew no other way of passing his life than in dangling about women. He was generally tolerated as a butt, and being impervious to contempt, supposed that his fascinations procured him immunity. He did—it must be reckoned the first of his two accomplishments—he did know a pretty woman from a plain one, and therefore as soon as he knew Alison much resorted to her. His other accomplishment was to dress well. He was lean and had an air of languor which was not affected, but a natural lack of vigour. It may be believed that Alison tolerated him because he made a not disagreeable decoration to her rooms. But at this era she was cynical, and perhaps told herself that Sir George was as good a man as another.
He began to come at hours when she could be found alone and was sometimes admitted. So Harry caught him once or twice, was ironically obsequious to him (which Sir George took for solemn earnest), and afterwards amused himself by congratulating Mrs. Alison on the power of her charms. "Odds fish, I can't tell where you'll stop, ma'am. You'll have a corpse on his knees to you yet. Maybe the corpse of a lord. I vow I'm proud of you." Which was not likely to get the door shut on Sir George.
So that dangling gentleman became convinced that Alison was yielding to his embraces. He was, in a limp way, gratified. A devilish fine woman to be sure. She might be a trifle exhausting to a man of ton. But what would you? Women were greedy and must be satisfied with what one could spare them. And it was pleasant to see the pretty creatures pining. He would lure madame on with a few tit-bits. In this kindly mood he went to her on a wet April day when Alison was fretting for a wild walk or a wilder ride in wind and rain. But even to herself she would not confess that she was tired of the town. It would have assimilated her to Harry.
Sir George sat himself down by Alison's side, simpered at her, sniffed, put his thin hands on his thin knees and ogled them. Alison held out to him a cup of tea. He arranged his rings before he took it and then again simpered at her. After some humming and hawing, "D'ye go to the play to-night, ma'am?" he drawled.
"What play is it?"
"Ah—some curst play or other," said Sir George; and exhausted by that effort relapsed for a while into silence.
Alison did not help him out. It is possible that she was wondering how a creature so vapid could go on existing. She looked Sir George over with an odd, close inspection. Sir George, who had some perceptions, became aware of it and according to his nature misunderstood it. He sniffed again, and "Pray, ma'am, what perfume do you use?" Alison stared at him. "I am delicate in such things," said he, and smelt his own handkerchief.
Alison hesitated between disgust and amusement. To be sure the creature was such a fool that it was not fair to think of him save as a buffoon. So unfortunately she chose amusement. "Oh, I vow, Sir George, your delicacy is rare," she laughed.
The poor creature took it for a compliment. He leered at her: "But you are exquisite, my Indamora."
"It's an amorous lady in a play," Sir George explained. "Pretty creature," he patted Alison's arm, and leaned upon her to kiss her neck.
She was so surprised that his lips had almost time to reach her. "Lord, sir, are you mad?" she cried, as she thrust him off.
"Pretty creature," Sir George giggled, and clung to her.
"Your carriage is at the door, Sir George." Harry stood over them. His face was as much a mask as ever, his voice placid.
Alison started up and stood to face him with a lowering brow. He did not appear to see her. Sir George shook down his ruffles. "Carriage? What d'ye mean?" says he. "I ha' had no carriage this year. I came in a hackney coach."
Harry turned away from him and opened the door.
"Eh? Oh, stap me!" Sir George giggled and got on to his feet, "Madame, your eternally devoted." He went out with a strut, waving his scented handkerchief in the direction of Harry.
Then Alison spoke. Her eyes were furious. "You—oh, you boor! How dare you?"
"Egad, that's very good!" Harry laughed.
She beat her foot on the floor. "Oh, you are not to be borne! To make a noise of it! To make a scandal of me and that—that creature!"
"To be sure, I came untimely. Well, ma'am, if you wanted to be quiet about it, I had rather it made a noise."
"My God!" she was white. "You dare say that to me! Be careful, Harry."
"Pray, ma'am, no heroics."
"I warn you, there are things I'll not bear."
"Is it possible?" Harry sneered.
She swept past him and away.
RETURN OF MR. WAVERTON
It seems that, years afterwards, Harry and Alison were afflicted with a dreary and remorseful wonder at these wars. Both, as they grew older, had something of a turn for moralising, and in their copious letters to their several children is evidence of much penitence and puzzling over the disasters of their youth. Each plainly took all the blame. Each is eloquent about the sins of pride and hardness. Harry preaches the duty of trust; Alison the folly of easy intimacies. Both of them, in those latter days when they could calmly estimate what they had lost, still wondered with a gloomy scorn how they had come to let the ugly, ridiculous affair of Sir George set them against each other. You find them both trying to recall (or guess) what exactly it was that, in the time of crisis, they felt and believed.
When it was all part of their history, Harry could hardly persuade himself that ever he had fancied Alison untrue, even disloyal; or Alison believe that she had stormed against him for driving out of the house a man who had been impudent to her. Yet it is not to be doubted that Harry did let suspicions of her honesty poison him. He could not, at the worst of his anger, believe that she would play false with such a husk of a fop; but he told himself that she wanted to make the fellow into a waiting gentleman, a servant, and a toy at once—a thing more nauseous than a lover. And Alison, though at the back of her brain she was aware that Harry had excuse for what he had done, raged the more against him for the intolerable things he had said. His suspicions made her despise him. For his assumption of authority she hated him.
There were almost from the first the usual sage and kindly friends to tell them that it was all a misunderstanding, that they had only to be frank with each other and commonly reasonable and there would be no quarrel left. But it is doubtful whether this sagacious advice could have done them much good if they had taken it. "Talk things over like rational creatures," was (as usual) the prescription. But if they had really been rational, they would only have come to the conclusion that they ought not to be married. The force of their passion, to be sure, was real enough and still moved in them. To hold them together they had nothing else. There was no consciousness of other need, no longing for a common life, no desire to help or give. If they had been most calmly wise and wisely calm in a dozen conversations, they would but have made this all the clearer.
Still it is true, as the sagacious friends guessed, that they did not try to compose the quarrel. Each was by far too proud. Harry was pleased to consider that he had done his duty by a flighty wife, and would take no more account of her unless she were penitent—or provoked him again. Alison, reckoning herself meanly insulted, was resolved that he could never again be more than an unwelcome guest in her house. They were, to be sure, ridiculous. In private they avoided each other. In public they continued to meet, for each was too proud to confess to the world the failure of their marriage. You imagine how poor Mrs. Weston enjoyed life in an icy atmosphere, the temperature of which she was not permitted to notice.
Such were their relations when the final blow fell upon them. They dined late in the Lincoln Inn Fields. It was as much as six o'clock and they were still at table—as jovial as usual. The butler came to Alison with an elaborate whispering. "Pray him come up," she said aloud, and looked defiance down the table at Harry. "It is Mr. Waverton."
"Lord, Lord, is he still alive?" Harry grinned. "That's heroic."
"Back from France? Is Colonel Boyce come back?" Mrs. Weston cried.
"I know nothing of Colonel Boyce," said Alison coldly.
"You couldn't please him better," Harry laughed. "Dear Geoffrey! I wonder if he knows anything? Well I It would be a new experience."
Mr. Waverton came. He was more stately than ever—browner also, but not changed otherwise. His large and handsome face affected all the old melancholy.
"Oh, Mr. Waverton!" Harry grinned. "You do honour me. Pray let me present you to my poor wife."
Geoffrey took no notice of him. "Madame, your obedient," he bowed to Alison. "I beg leave to have some speech with you."
"There's still some dinner. Draw up a chair," said Harry.
"I did not come to dine, sir."
"Oh, that's a sad stomach of yours. A glass of wine, then?"
"I do not take wine with you, Mr. Boyce."
"I wonder if you have made a mistake. For you have come into my house."
"I will answer for all my mistakes, sir, with hearty goodwill."
"Egad, you'll be busy."
"Oh, be silent!" Alison cried. "You are welcome, Mr. Waverton. How can I serve you?"
"I understand the gentleman's desire to hurry me into a quarrel, ma'am. Be sure that I shall not permit it." Harry laughed disagreeably. "It's very well, sir. But I choose first that you should listen to what I have to say."
"Listen I Oh Lud, is it a poem?"
Mr. Waverton flushed. "You are impertinent, sir. It shall not serve you. I intend that madame shall know the truth of your father's treachery and yours."
Harry stood up. "Are we to stay for more of this, ma'am?"
"I shall stay," Alison said.
"You remark the gentleman's impatience to silence me, ma'am. I promise you that I shall tell you nothing which he or any man can deny."
"It's a dull tale, then," Harry muttered.
"I think it will excite you enough, ma'am. You are advised that I went to France with Colonel Boyce. The office which he offered me was to negotiate with Prince James. This I undertook readily, for to his party my family hath ever had an inclination, nay, an affection, and I saw in the affair duties of honour and moment."
"To the greater glory of Geoffrey, first Duke of Waverton, whom God preserve," quoth Harry.
"I did not, I will avow, foresee that the thing was but a trick to take me away from my house and out of the country. Though I may regret, ma'am"—he bowed magnificently to Alison—"I do not even now blame myself for my blindness, for I have ever accounted it unworthy of a man of honour to fear treachery in his servants"—he glared at Harry—"or weakness—ah—weakness in those to whom he gives his devotion"—he made melancholy eyes at Alison. "No more of that. In fine, I did not suspect that a fellow who was taking wages from my hand had plotted to rob me of what was my dearest hope, or that another—another—would surrender herself a prey to his crafty greed."
"Damme, it is a poem after all," Harry groaned.
"You said you had something to tell me, sir," said Alison coldly.
"Nay, ma'am, be patient. I give you no reproaches. But what is, is. If it irks you that I remind you of it, do not give the blame to me."
"I shall blame you for being tedious, by your leave." Alison yawned.
"Wait till all's told. Well, ma'am, I left Tetherdown with Colonel Boyce, and we rode posthaste to Newhaven. He was there joined by some half-dozen fellows, low fellows to my eye. This much surprised me, and I took occasion to tell him so, for he had given out that his was a very secret errand of Marlborough's privy policy, into which he would admit none but me. He made out that these fellows were but messengers and escort, and I permitted myself to be satisfied, though I remarked that he was on familiar terms with them. But that gave me little concern, for I had from the first remarked in Colonel Boyce a coarse habit of intimacy with the vulgar."
"Aye, aye, you and he took to each other famously," says Harry.
"Lud, sir, must you be so wordy?" Alison cried.
"You will find that every word has its import, ma'am. From some of these fellows Colonel Boyce learnt that there was a warrant out against him for treasonable practices with the Pretender. This affected him to great indignation, in which, as I frankly told him, I found matter for bewilderment. Since he was, as he professed, about to deal with the Pretender, it was but fair that the Government should arraign him on that charge. Over which he was pleased to laugh at me, and then, to explain his mirth, averred that the Government, and in particular Mr. Secretary St. John, was much more Jacobite than he, and so had no title to meddle with him. Then he said that what irked him was that they should have heard of his dealings with France, which must be done secretly or fail. So we went in a hurry aboard the schooner which was ready for him, and crossed to Dieppe, landing by night beyond the town. I make no doubt from his adroitness that Colonel Boyce hath done business in France before, but of what kind I leave you to guess when you have heard all. We were well furnished with horses and upon the road to Paris before noon. He gave out to some officers which questioned him that we were of Prince James's service upon our way to St. Germain. We rode to Pontoise, and there, as it had been planned from the first, Colonel Boyce stayed while I rode on to the Prince. He dared not, as he said, go himself to Paris, for fear that some of the French officers should recognize him as Marlborough's man and denounce him for a spy. Therefore was I to go with letters to the Prince, and messages which should persuade him to ride out to Pontoise and come to business with Colonel Boyce. I went on then alone, save that Colonel Boyce gave me one of his fellows to be my guide and servant, and he stayed with the rest at Pontoise. Thus far, I beg you remark, I had no cause to apprehend treachery. Upon the face, the scheme was fair enough, and all had been done even as Colonel Boyce proposed to me in England. I will maintain myself honourably free of any blame in the affair against any man whomsoever."
"God bless you," said Harry heartily.
Mr. Waverton visibly laboured with a repartee.
"Oh, sir, a prayer from you is a rare honour," he said at length. "You're to understand, ma'am, that I was furnished with letters of credence from certain of the Jacobite agents in England—John Rogers and Mrs. White, I remember. How they were come by, I cannot now tell, though I may guess, for it is plain that there was no stint of money in the affair. So I came easily to speech with the Prince and his secretary, my Lord Middleton. And I will ever maintain that His Royal Highness is altogether such as a prince should be. Being of a dark complexion and a melancholy dignity, there is in him no lightness of thought or word. To me he was, I profess, very flattering, showing me courtesies beyond my rights or expectations. He received me, in a word, most favourably, and being influenced, as I regret I cannot doubt, by my person and address, was easily inclined to ride out to Pontoise. Only my Lord Middleton made difficulties. He is of a sardonic turn, and permits his wit to outrun his civility. He set me questions in a fashion which my honour could not brook. Yet I can relate that in the end I prevailed over my Lord Middleton's jealousy. For he said to the Prince: 'Enfin, sir, I can tell no reason why you should not go see this Colonel if you choose. If there were any guile in the business, faith, they would never have trusted it to this fellow!'
"So the thing was agreed. In the morning we rode for Pontoise, the Prince, my Lord Middleton, myself. His Royal Highness was pleased to limit himself to one servant. The man with whom Colonel Boyce had provided me went on to carry advice of our coming. We came to Pontoise towards evening. Colonel Boyce had put up at the Lion d'Or. He was waiting for us in the courtyard and received us, as I thought, something shortly, hurrying us into the house. But once inside, he made ceremony enough, with endless speeches about the condescension of His Royal Highness. All this too obsequious, in a boorish taste, so that the Prince bade him have done and come to business. Therewith Colonel Boyce was as full of apologies as he had been of servilities. I vow I never heard him so copious as that night.
"He took us, you are to understand, to an upper room. And what first moved my suspicion was that he bade me be gone. Then my Lord Middleton countered him with, 'I believe, sir, the gentleman had best stay.' Immediately Colonel Boyce was all smiles over his blunder, and we sat down about the table in that upper room and came to the substance of his negotiation. He kept, I'll allow, to the purposes which, from the first, he had pretended to me: whether Prince James, if assured of support from Marlborough and his friends, would choose to avow himself Protestant; but he made so many conditions over it, he was so vague and wary that 'twas hard to tell what he would be at. When my Lord Middleton tried to pin him to something plain and certain he would ever evade, till it began to grow late and the Prince talked of supper and bed. This Colonel Boyce took up very heartily, and was indeed giving his orders when there came a noise in the courtyard and he ran to the window and looked out.
"My Lord Middleton was behind him, with a 'What's your anxiety, sir?'
"'Why, my lord, I would not have these roysterers break upon the Prince's incognito. Pray, sir, this way and you'll be secure'; he points to an inner door.
"'I believe we are as safe here, sir,' says my Lord Middleton.
"'Egad, sir, come away,' says Colonel Boyce; and he was in fact dragging the Prince across the room when the door bursts open and in comes a stranger, a little man. He flung himself across the room upon Colonel Boyce, making some play with a pistol. There was some grappling and wrestling. I recall that they gasped and breathed hard. But it's odd, I believe, that there was no word spoken. Then Colonel Boyce freed himself and bolted through that inner door. The stranger fired a shot after him, and while we were all deaf and sneezing with it and utterly amazed he turns on us. 'That's a miss,' says he. 'Please God they'll bag him below. Eh, Charles,' he wags his head at my Lord Middleton, 'I thought you had more sense,'
"'Damme,' says my lord, 'it's Hector McBean. And prithee what's all this ruffling, Mac?'
"'Why, you have let His Majesty walk into a stinking trap. That fellow Boyce, he hath been Marlborough's spy, Sunderland's spy, the devil's spy this twenty year.'
"'Why, I thought he had something the smack of it,' says my lord. 'And yet—'
"'Who's this now?' Captain McBean turned on me. 'Yours or his?'
"'His ambassador in fact,' My lord looked me over and took snuff. 'You won't tell me that hath any guile in it. Prithee, what is it you have against the man Boyce?'
"'Eh, did ye see him run?' says Captain McBean. 'A man's not in that hurry if he hath a good conscience. If ye'll please to have him up, maybe we'll hear a tale.'
"But as he spoke there came into the room a French officer of dragoons, who, saluting the Prince, asked Captain McBean if he had found his rogue. On which 'Have I found him?' Captain McBean cries out, 'Eh, sir, did he not run into your arms?' But it appeared that Colonel Boyce had not been caught, and they determined at last that he must have made his way out by a door at the back of the inn and won clear away. But I am sorry to tell you, ma'am, that he hath not yet been found. For if they catch him in France, he may count on a hanging."
"Pray, sir, how did you dodge the rope?" Harry said. "Did you talk them to death, your Pretender and his tail?"
"You're too eloquent for me, Mr. Waverton," Alison yawned. "I can't tell what you want to say. What is this mighty crime which you and Colonel Boyce were compassing?"
"Sneers become you ill, ma'am," says Mr. Waverton magnificently. "I repudiate any charge whatsoever; and tell my story my own way. Some hot words passed between Captain McBean and the Frenchman, each blaming the other for Colonel Boyce's escape. Then Captain McBean says 'The fellows that were drinking in the tap, I suppose you've let them dodge you too? No? Well, that's a wonder. Tie this rogue up with them and have them in guard.' So he mocked at me, but the Prince brought him up roundly.
"'You go too fast for me, my good captain,' quoth he. 'What's your charge against the gentleman?—who is to my mind a very simple gentleman.' So His Royal Highness was pleased to honour me."
"Egad, he was right, Waverton," Harry laughed.
"I think I know how to value your fair words now, sir," says Mr. Waverton grandly. "Be pleased to spare them. Upon that, as I was saying, Captain McBean lost command of himself and was grossly violent. Roaring that I was none the less a knave because I was so natural a fool, and the like empty insolence. Accusing me of being art and part in a vile plot with Colonel Boyce to kidnap and murder His Royal Highness."
"Now we have it," Alison murmured and looked at Harry strangely.
"Aye, ma'am. Now, perhaps (though late enough) your eyes are opened," said Mr. Waverton with relish. "Well, I let the man run on. He was indeed not to be stopped. A rude, vehement fellow. When he was exhausted, I addressed His Royal Highness."
"Lack a day, I believe you," says Harry.
"I made it clear to him, sir, that my birth and position must warrant me innocent of any treachery, and though I might well disdain to answer these reckless charges I owed it to myself to remark to His Royal Highness that, but for my desire to serve him, I had never meddled in the affair. So that when I had done, my Lord Middleton says, laughing, 'Egad, sir, it seems you owe this fine gentleman thanks for his kindly condescension to you'; and the Prince was pleased to answer, 'We are too small for his notice, faith. But is he finished yet?' Then I bowed to His Royal Highness and sat down, well enough pleased, as you may believe.
"But this Captain McBean called out in his rude fashion, 'Eh, sir, he may e'en be the booby he pretends. The better decoy, I allow. But by your leave, we'll look into it more narrowly. Would Your Majesty please to permit me have up the other rogues?'
"This, in a word, they did, and Captain McBean and my Lord Middleton (who is to my mind something more of the attorney than becomes a man of rank) questioning the fellows shrewdly, it was made put—I crave your attention, madam—it was made out that Colonel Boyce had undertaken for the service of the Hanoverian junto here to kidnap or kill Prince James. And the plan was to bring the Prince out to Pontoise and so drag out affairs that he passed the night there. Then in the night they were to invade his room and command him to follow them. They pretended indeed that they meant only to carry him off. But 'tis not to be doubted that they looked for resistance and a bloody issue to the affair. So, ma'am, here is the trade of the family of Boyce—to procure murder, and the murder of a prince of the blood royal, of our lawful king. I give you joy of the name you bear."
Alison bent her head. "You may well be proud of your part, Mr. Waverton."
"They let you go, did they?" says Harry; "your captain and your lord and your prince?"
"Let me go, sir? There is nothing against me. I defy your impudence. Nay, I thank you, I thank you. You lead me gracefully to the end of my story."
"Good God! It has an end!"
"When these rogues were questioned about me, not a man of them could pretend to have anything against me. They openly confessed that Colonel Boyce had warned them that I must be kept in innocence of the affair lest I should thwart it. For he said that he had brought me into it to show a good face to the Prince as one beyond suspicion of treachery. Nay and moreover—and here's my last word to you, ma'am—he avowed that he chose me because he wanted me out of England where I stood between his own son and a pretty heiress. At which, as I remember, my Lord Middleton chose to be amused."
"Damme, I like that man," says Harry.
"So, ma'am," Mr. Waverton tossed his head. "Here you have it. I am drawn into a murderous, vile, base treason that I may be kept out of the way while Mr. Boyce prosecutes his designs upon you. I give you joy of the loyal fidelity which yielded to him. I leave you to enjoy him with what appetite you may."
He made a majestic bow, he turned and was gone.
Harry and Alison were left staring at each other.
From behind came a small strained voice: "Colonel Boyce—he—he is safe, then?" It was Mrs. Weston.
The two turned with a start, surprised by her existence.
Harry laughed. "Oh aye, he is safe. He would be."
Mrs. Weston rose slowly and then made a rush for the door.
The husband and wife were left alone.
HARRY IS DISMISSED
Alison turned and stared into the fire. Harry filled himself a glass of port and drank it and laughed. She looked round at him. "Faith, Mr. Waverton is mighty good entertainment," he explained.
"Is that all you want to say?"
Harry would not be awed by that ominous voice. "Oh Lud, how could I dare talk after him? Our poetic orator!" He made flourishes in the air after Mr. Waverton's manner. "Nay, but I would give my new wig to have been in that upper chamber at Pontoise. Dear Geoffrey on his defence booming noble periods—and the Prince, poor gentleman, with his fingers in his ears! If dear Geoffrey was telling the truth. I wonder."
"Oh, is that what you'll pretend?"
"Pretend? I pretend nothing, ma'am. Why, to be sure, our Geoffrey always means to tell the truth—having, God bless him, no imagination. But you'll remark what when he tells a tale, it's Mr. Waverton has always the beau role. He sees the world like that, dear lad. So I should be glad to hear the Caledonian gentleman's notion of what happened."
"I see. You'll make that your defence. Geoffrey imagined it all."
"Egad, ma'am, you may lower your tone. I have nothing to defend, nor are you set in judgment."
Alison started up. "Do you suppose all this is to make no change?" she cried.
"You're a splendid creature, by heaven," says Harry, tilting his chair back and watching her with a little epicurean smile, the proud vigour of her, the blood in her cheeks, the flash of her eyes, and the sweep of the white arm.
"I could hate you for that," she said, and her lips set.
"Yes. I think you're in a fair way to it," says Harry. "I wonder if you know why."
"Because I have come to despise you," she cried sharply.
"You will be solemn, will you?" says Harry. "Much good may it do you. And so, egad, have at you heartily. For you have said things which both of us will find it hard to forget."
"Oh, you can feel that?"
"Look 'e, ma'am, if we are to be in earnest, we had best not snap at each other like a pair of puppies. Now, what's happened?"
"You have to ask that? My God, if you have to ask, there's no use in words between you and me."
"Oh Lud, don't be mystical. Mr. Waverton comes here to do his poor possible to make mischief between us. I suppose you saw that. He tells us that he went blundering with my father into a muddle of a plot."
"He tells us that your father planned a vile base murder and sought to make him, a man of honour, part in it. Pray, sir, is that not infamous?"
"Egad, if you haven't caught his style! You believe all that, do you?"
"We shall go far to-night, I think," Harry shrugged. "And shall I tell you why you believe it, ma'am? It's because you are looking about to find matter for blackening me."
Alison hesitated a moment. "You cannot deny it. It is proved. Your father would not stay to face them."
"Face a pistol and a furious Scot? Well, I never said he was a hero."
"Do you pretend it was only a fight he feared? Do you dare tell me it was an honest, honourable plan? Nay, come, let me see if there's anything you think shameful."
Harry shrugged. "I know my father not much better than you do, ma'am. I never thought him a Bayard. Some plot there was, I think, and these political plots are all dirty enough. But, Lord, who is clean of them? And I'm not ready to write my father off a murderer because Mr. Waverton went blundering into a business which, on his own confession, he does not understand."
"He went in your place. You should have gone with your father."
"Should have gone? D'ye wish I had, ma'am?"
Harry started up. "Oh, say it out. I knew we should go far to-night."
They stood close, fronting each other fiercely. "My God, is it strange if I wish you had gone? Your father is a base wretch who should be on the gallows, and I am to be his son's wife and bear the name, and the while he goes bragging that he took Geoffrey Waverton off so that you should be free to come at me."
"Aye, that. To be sure, that rankles. But you have known it long. I showed you the letter he left me which said he had taken Geoffrey out of my way and bade me snatch my chance of you. And you made light of that, ma'am. Oh, it was a base thing, if you will, but you know well enough it went for nought. We had done our work before. By God, Alison, Geoffrey there or Geoffrey here, you would have come to me."
"Ah!" It was like a cry of pain. "You brag of it. I forced myself on you, I suppose." Harry exclaimed something, made a gesture. "Oh yes, you were all cold virtue and chastity and honour, and I—what was I?" She shuddered and drew back from him. "Yes, you would turn on me. You would taunt me with that."
"Egad, you're in a frenzy," says Harry. "You cry aloud and cut yourself with knives. You will be hurting yourself."
"I loathe you for that calm way of yours," she cried. "You mock me till I am mad, and then you please to be grave and lofty. You—I took you out of the gutter."
"What now, ma'am?" Harry stiffened.
"It's all a mask!" she cried. "Nothing of you shows in your voice or your face—your face, bah, it's always the same, when you kiss and when you strike. A mask! You're always in a mask. That's how you took me. I was a fool, and thought there must be something fine behind it." She laughed. "You were clever enough. You knew the trick and the mystery of it would take a woman. A mask! Yes, faith, that is the wear for a highwayman. I remember how Charles Hadley used to laugh at your 'Curst stand-and-deliver stare.' I liked it, I liked the challenge of it. But he knew you better. That's your trade, the highwayman, faith, the highwayman! You trick us all and prey upon us, as you dare. So you marked me down, who was rich and a girl, and you have caught me, and you have rifled me, and, for what you care I may now go hang. I ask you for my pride again, my honour, and you mock at me. Oh, I am ashamed for a fool and worse, and you know it, God help me, but you—you—"
Harry shrugged. "I suppose we have come to the end now," he said coolly. "Well, ma'am, to be sure we married in haste, and it seems we have both come to repentance. As for wrong that I have done you—why, I can't make you a maid again, and, if you please, more's the pity. My apologies and regrets. For the rest, all of your money that hath been spent on me will go in a small purse, and, I promise you, you shall spend no more. So you may sleep sound, and I wish you good night."
She watched him cross the room, and, as he was opening the door, cried out, "What do you mean?"
He turned. "Why, would you still be talking?" Their eyes met in defiance. "You can go," she said.
"I have had the honour to tell you so," he said, and was gone.
ALISON FINDS FRIENDS
It was on the second day after that Susan Burford and Mr. Hadley rode in to the Lincoln's Inn Fields. They found Alison and Mrs. Weston together, and both sewing—a fact which failed to interest Mr. Hadley, but surprised Susan, who knew Alison, without a taste for needlework.
"My dear," says Susan, embracing Alison physically and spiritually in her large, buxom, genial way.
"You have been a long time finding me," says Alison and put her off. "I suppose I know why you kindly come to me now."
"B-r-r-r-r!" Mr. Hadley made the sound of one who comes into a cold draught. "The truth is, Susan has been so busy improving herself that she has had no time for her friends. In fine, she has been trying to make herself worthy the honour of my affections and large enough to support the burden of my dignity. I don't say she satisfies me, but she does her best." He propelled Susan forward with his one hand. "'A poor thing, ma'am, but mine own.'"
"Oh, he is amusing himself, you see," says Susan, in her leisurely fashion.
"Damme, Susan, you're so mighty innocent that sometimes I believe you are innocent."
"But you have known me so long," Susan protested.
Alison stood up with an air of ceremony. Her pale face constrained itself at last to smile at them. "My dear, I wish you may be very happy," says she, and gave Susan a matronly kiss. "Mr. Hadley, you're a fortunate man." She put out a stately hand.
Having bowed over it. "B-r-r-r," says Mr. Hadley.
"Damn these east winds. Susan, you're a plague with your affections. You will have me talk about you, and I can't make you interesting, I hope, ma'am, we find Mr. Boyce well?"
Alison drew back. "Why do you ask that? You have seen Mr. Waverton, of course."
Mrs. Weston put down her work and folded her hands upon it.
"Why, yes, I have seen Geoffrey; and what's worse, heard him. I hope he did not plague you too long."
"Pray, Mr. Hadley, don't be ironical. You can spare me that. Mr. Waverton told us his story the night before last. Thereupon Mr. Boyce and I parted company. He left my house immediately and I do not know where he is."
Mr. Hadley distinguished himself by containing an oath. Susan said, "Oh, my dear," in that slow, calm way which might mean anything.
It was Mrs. Weston who cried out, "Alison, you never told me."
"You asked once or twice where he was, and I told you I did not know. What does it matter?"
"You quarrelled with him?"
"Because of what this Mr. Waverton said?"
"Do you think it could make no difference?"
Mrs. Weston clasped her hands and swayed in her chair.
"Alison; we had no guess of this. I am sorry. I am so sorry," Susan said.
"There is no need." Alison held her head high.
"If we have, in some sort, forced your confidence, I beg you believe, ma'am, it was not meant," So Mr. Hadley in the grand style. "For I protest it never came into my head that Geoffrey would make mischief between you and Mr. Boyce."
"You say that?" Alison stared at him. "Oh, you mean I was so besotted with him."
Mr. Hadley relapsed to his ordinary manner. "Damme, d'ye think we came for nothing but to jeer at you? I promise you we have pleasanter matter to hand. Neither to jeer at you, nor to meddle with you, Alison, but friendly. So take us friendly in God's name. If you will go about to find a sneer in every word, why, a sneer you'll find, but not of my making. We bring you nothing but goodwill, and want nothing more of you. But if we irk you, why, let us go and we'll see you again in good time."
"That's a pretty speech to begin with an oath," Alison said, through the flicker of a smile. "And, faith, I should be slow to take offence at you. For we quarrelled before, because you were at pains to warn me. Well, sir, I humble myself before your wisdom."
There was a pause. "Oh. Now we are all ill at ease," says Susan.
"Odso, ma'am, it's not fair," Mr. Hadley cried. "I am not here to say, 'I told you so,' I am not so proud of it. Well, damme, I have no temptation to be meddling in your affairs. But I think you will have to know. It is with Mr. Waverton I have fallen out now."
"With Mr. Waverton?" Alison repeated. "What is there between you and him?"
"I believe he had the impertinence to expect my sympathetic admiration. While I was thinking him a low fellow. Which I took occasion to tell him. Without result." Mr. Hadley shrugged. "But I believe he did not feel it. It's a thick hide."
"And what was your difference?"
"Why, this precious story of his."
There was some little time of silence. "You don't believe it," Alison said slowly. "Come, you must say more than that."
"I profess, ma'am, I have no will to say anything. Whatever I say, I'll be impertinent."
"Oh. Shall we mark it in you?" Susan said.
"Well, sir, you were not always so shy of scolding me," says Alison, and again with a faint smile.
"Scold you! God warn us, I have no commission. I can tell you what I thought of Waverton and his tale. Did I believe it? Ods fish, I never remember believing Geoffrey. If he had to tell you two and two was four, he would pretend that his genius first discovered it. So I don't know what happened at Pontoise. Likely the old Colonel did mix him up in some plot which some other fellows smoked. Maybe it was even such as Geoffrey said, kidnapping and murder to follow. These plots, they grow nastier and nastier the longer they are afoot. And Colonel Boyce—well, by your leave, I don't think him delicate. But for the rest of it, I'll wager that's Geoffrey's sprightly invention. You know very well, ma'am, I have no kindness for your Mr. Boyce. But, damme, he never thought of tricking Geoffrey out of the way to give himself a free hand with you. And it's a low trick in Geoffrey to go about with that tale."
"Oh! But he is stupid," Susan said.
"What if Colonel Boyce thought of the trick?" says Alison.
"Egad, Mr. Boyce is unfortunate in his father. Maybe he knows that as well as we. But—damme, ma'am, you will have it—I believe there was not much trick in his affair with you."
"I believe you once warned me of his tricks," Alison said coldly. "It's no matter now. I tease you with my affairs."
"If I can serve you, I'm heartily at your command."
"Oh, you have worked hard to make the best of a bad business. But I can do that for myself, and I like my own way of it."
Mr. Hadley bowed.
"Oh! Let us go home," Susan said.
Alison looked at her in some surprise, and, as she stood up, came quickly to kiss her. "Have I been rude?" she whispered.
"That would be no matter," Susan said, "You choose to be angry with me?" Alison stiffened.
"Oh! One isn't angry. One is sorry," Susan said.
Alison let her go, and Mr. Hadley, ceremonious but with visible relief, went after her.
Then Mrs. Weston said suddenly, quickly, "Where is he?"
"He?" Alison chose to be slow. "Mr. Boyce? I have no notion."
"You drove him out?"
"I could not endure him longer. Or he could endure me no longer. He went heartily enough. I think we were both glad it was over."
"You taunted him till he had to go?"
"Weston, dear!" Alison laughed at the sudden fierceness of the meek. "What's the matter?"
"I have heard you mocking him."
"Maybe. We both have sharp enough tongues."
"You used to jeer at him for being poor."
"Good lack, are you calling me to account, ma'am?"
"Yes, you may well be ashamed! Where is he?"
"Ashamed? What do you mean, Weston? What is the man to you?"
"I am his mother," Mrs. Weston said.
"You!... You! Oh, but this is mad!"
"I am not mad."
"But, Weston, dear, you knew nothing about him till he came; nor he of you. How could he be your son?"
"I had never seen him since he was a baby. I was not married."
"That is why you would not tell me? Oh, Weston, dear!"
"I did not mean to tell you now. I knew it would hurt him with you. But I suppose it's no matter now. But these are my affairs, not yours."
"You need not pity me."
"What am I to say?" Alison held out her arms.
"You have nothing to say now. You are not his wife now. You have never been anything but a bad wife." She gathered up her work with unsteady hands and turned away.
"Where are you going?"
"I am going out of your house. Away from you."
"But, Weston—not now, not to-night. Where can you go? What can you do?"
"I can do well enough without you, as he can.... Why don't you tell me that I have been living on your money? You told him so often enough."
"Oh ... you're cruel," Alison said.
"What does it matter? You'll not be hurt. You are too hard." She hurried to the door.
"Ah, don't go like this," Alison cried. "Weston, let's part kindly. I could not know. I have done nothing against you." Mrs. Weston laughed. "Stay a moment at least. I want to know. Harry's father—is Colonel Boyce—?"
"Yes, there it is. That is all you want—to pry into all the story. It is nothing to you. He is nothing to you now."
The door closed behind her.
RETURN OF CAPTAIN McBEAN
Harry was not gone far. In Long Acre stood a tavern calling itself 'The Hand of Pork.' This had always tempted Harry, whose tastes were of the people. While still a domesticated husband, he had tried its ale with satisfaction. When he left Alison it was to 'The Hand of Pork' that he brought his small, battered box.
He had a few guineas in his pocket, and made a wry face over them. "Ill-gotten gains," says he, for some were the scraped savings of Geoffrey Waverton's tutor and some the pocket money of Alison's husband. But he was in no case to be delicate. Beef and bread had to be paid for, and, in fact, his scruples were little more than a joke. It is not to be concealed that in minor things Harry Boyce was not nicely honest. If you can imagine him seriously arguing over that money—a thing impossible—he would have said that the guineas were of consequence to him and none to Geoffrey and Alison, that whether he had dealt honestly by them or not, it would not better his case to pay them back a few shillings. You have seen that he had qualms of conscience over the rights of Geoffrey's service and Alison's arms. But the ugly, awkward details gave him no trouble. He may, if you please, have swallowed a camel or so, but he never strained at a gnat.
Now that he was done with Geoffrey and Alison, both, his first feeling was comfort. It was a huge relief to be his own man again. He told himself indeed that he was mighty grateful to Geoffrey for bringing on the final explosion. For one thing, it wiped off all Geoffrey's score. If Master Geoffrey had been treated shabbily, Master Geoffrey had played a shabby trick. They could call quits—a pleasant sensation. It would have been awkward if Geoffrey had chosen to be magnanimous nobility. But he was never intelligent, the poor Geoffrey.
He had done his best to be damaging, bless him, and in all ways had been a benefactor. For, in fact, it was a great relief to be done with Alison. What with her fretful discontent, her rages, her industrious hate, she had made herself intolerable. I do not suppose that he forgot, even in the heat of the divorce, the exquisite pleasure which for a while she had given him. I think he was always ready to acknowledge that to himself, for it is certain that he bore her no malice, and if he blamed her for their catastrophe, blamed himself as much. He might make the most or more of all the taunts, of her zeal to find occasions for despising him. He forgot nothing and forgave her nothing; he wrote her down a cruel enemy. But he did not pay her back with equal hate; he dismissed all the warfare and the wounds with a shrug of sagacious cynicism.
She hated him? She had the right, she was his wife. And perhaps she was in the right too. He must fairly be reckoned a very poor match for her beauty and her wealth and her not insignificant brains. After all, he was essentially a nobody—a nobody in every department, body, mind, and soul. She might even claim that she had been cheated, for if she ought to have known that she was marrying a nobody, she could not guess that he had a bar-sinister or a disreputable father. Certainly Madame Alison could plead something of a case.
You are not to suppose Harry in an ecstasy of meek devotion. He was quite sure that she had behaved to him very badly. He admitted no excuse for her eagerness to hurt him as soon as she was tired of him. She might hate him; but after all there were obligations of courtesy, of decency, of womanhood, and her venomous temper had broken them all. He was well rid of her. In fine, she and he could call quits as well as he and Geoffrey. There was no occasion to rage against her. She had treated him badly, but, first, he had brought her into an awkward mess. Faith, she ought not to have hurried into a marriage for passion if passion was so soon to sate her. But then, what man would blame a woman for marrying for passion? Not the man she married, who might rather humble himself because he had not been able to keep her passion alive. Well, it was over, and since it was over, nothing for it but to part. God be with her! She had given him his hour. And he—why, at least she had lived with him moments she would not forget. A glorious woman. It is probable that in these first hours of their parting he began to love her.
So much for his emotions. But you will not suppose that Harry Boyce was wholly occupied with emotions. He could not indeed afford it. He had to make some provision for keeping alive. Perhaps you will be surprised to hear that he had a friend or two. There was an usher at Westminster, and a hack writer of Lintot's in Little Britain. He did not propose to live on them, who had hardly enough to feed themselves. But he looked for them to put him in the way of some pittance, and they did. The usher had news that, after Ascension-Day, Westminster would be wanting a writing master, for the man in possession hoped by then to marry the dean's cook and set up an ale-house. The author procured a commission to write two lampoons and a pamphlet against French wines. In the intervals of this occupation, Harry looked for his father.
It would be hard to guess—Harry himself could not have told—what he hoped to gain by that. He wanted, of course, to find out the truth of the mission to France. Whether his father was likely to tell it, he could not make up his mind. What he would do with the truth if ever he learnt it, he did not know in the least. Suppose the best event: suppose his father could declare excellent intentions and Geoffrey a liar. Harry imagined himself going to Alison with the news and demanding to be taken on again. A nightmare joke.
Yet to come at the truth seemed the most important task in life. The first step, though you think it impossibly difficult, did not dismay him. He had no doubt of discovering his father. That Colonel Boyce should have been killed or even caught was incredible. He was not the man so to oblige his enemies. It was incredible, too, that he would go long into hiding. Away from the importance of bustle and intrigue he could not exist. Therefore he would certainly come back to London: therefore sooner or later he would be found at one of the coffee-houses favoured by the brisk fellows in the underworld of politics—at Tom's, or the British, or Diggory's by the Seven Dials. He might be heard of among the fire-eating Jacobites of Sam's. There were not so many likely places, but Harry laid down more pennies than he could spare at the bars, and all in vain.
He sat in Sam's on an afternoon chopping Greek tags with a jolly, fanatical old parson. The days were fast lengthening, and for one reason or another—the company at Sam's were not too fond of light—only a candle here and there was burning. A little man came in with a party very obsequious to him. As he walked up to the bar Harry had a glimpse of a lean, brown face. He remembered it and yet no more than faintly, and could not tell where he had seen it. It did not much engage him, and he went on with his Greek and his parson. The little man made some noise with the pretty girl behind the bar, claiming the privileges of an old friend and a good deal of liquor, and it was a little while before he was established at a table with his party. Harry chose to mouth out something Homeric and sounding. The little man stopped in the middle of lighting his pipe. "I know that roll, pardieu!" he muttered, and in a florid fashion declaimed, "Fol de rol de row," and laughed alcoholically. "Who's talking Hebrew here?"
One of his party pointed out Harry and the parson. The little man blinked through the smoky twilight. He stood up, took his candle and lurched across the room to Harry. Down under Harry's nose he put the candle with a bang. Harry jerked back and glared at him, and he, rocking a little and blinking, said thickly, "It's a filthy likeness, after all, it is."
"No, sir, there's only one of me," said Harry. "If you see two, give God the glory and go to bed."
"I'm saying, bully, I'm saying," the little man's accent became more Caledonian and he clutched at Harry's shoulder. "I'm saying, my laddie—"
"Damme, that's what I complain of."
"I'm saying I do not like your complexion. It's yellow, my jo, it's a wee rotten orange, it is so." His company, a faithful tail, shook with laughter.
"Sleep it off, sir," says Harry, with a shrug.
"What's your will? Clip it off, do ye say so? Losh, you would have a face or two to spare. Eh, but I'm doubting you know too much o' clipping. There's clippit ears, and maybe you have a pair." He twitched Harry's bob wig awry; and with singular luck reeled out of the reach of Harry's answering blow. "Ay, and there's clippit shillings and maybe ye make your filthy living by their parings and shavings. Well a well, and there's clippit wings; and I'll clip yours, my bonny goose, the night." He clutched at the wig again and tossed it into the fire.
Harry sprang up and struck at him. He flung himself backwards into the arms of his friends and with a surprising adroitness plucked out his sword. "Have at ye, my man;" he giggled and made a pass.
"Easy, Captain," says one of his company. "The boy hath no sword."
"Oh ay, 'tis the Lord that's a man of war. The devil was aye for peace. Well, what ails ye not to lend the imp a bodkin?"
The fat old keeper of the coffee-house waddled into the midst. "Sure, Captain, you don't mean it. I would need to set my lads upon you. 'Tis disorderly homicide, indeed. Ye can't mean it. Not downstairs. I'll not deny there's the elegant parlour on the first floor."
"Ye're a canting old devil, Sam," says the little man. "But I'll oblige you. Come up, my bully, and I'll show you a thing."
"Here's for you, cully." One of the company thrust upon Harry a sword.
"Oh, by your leave,"—Harry waved it oft—"I don't fight a drunken man."
"Drunk!" the little man screamed. "Ods blades, there's a naughty way to mock a gentleman. I'll school you, bully; fou or fasting, I'll school you. What, you'll not lug out, like a bonny lad should? I jaloused it. I'm thinking you would take a beating like a lamb, laddie. Well a well. I'll be blithe to rub you down with an oaken towel. Here, Patrick, give us your staff."
"Oh, I see you must be let blood." Harry shrugged. "Well, sir, do I fight the whole platoon?"
"You're peevish, do you know, you're peevish. Here, Fraser, give him your hanger. Do you second the bairn, Donald? Come, Patrick, I'll have you. There's one for you and one for me, my man, and damn all favours."
It seemed to Harry that the little man's company were something surprised at this turn, but they took it in a disciplined silence. So the party of four marched up the stairs. You will believe that Harry liked the business ill enough. He shot glances at the two chosen for seconds. There was nothing sottish about them. They were very soberly alert, they had the tan and the vigour of open-air life. They looked anything but the fit comrades for a swashbuckling tavern hero. They were as stiff as pokers, they said not a word, they showed not a sign of interest in the affair—rather like two soldiers on guard than ready seconds in a drunken brawl. Once in the upper room they made their arrangements with solemn care, locking the door, clearing a sufficient space, and setting the candles so that the light fell fairly. Harry was taken aside, helped out of his coat, asked if he needed anything, gravely advised to risk nothing and play close.
"We are at your service, Mr. O'Connor," says Donald.
"At your pleasure, Mr. Mackenzie," says the other.
Harry was set against the little man and the swords crossed. It then occurred to him that the little man was very suddenly recovered from his liquor. The blustering chatter had been cut off as soon as they started up the stairs. Since then the little man had spoken not one word. Of the unsteadiness, the blinking, the rocking to and fro, nothing remained. He had marched to his place with a formal precision. There was the same manner, a correctness exact and staccato, about this sword play.
The knave can never have been drunk, Harry said to himself as he sweated and was the more embarrassed by bewilderment. But he dared not let himself think. The little man was urgently dangerous, and Harry knew enough to know it. Harry had no pretensions to science. All he could use was the rudiments. He had kept his head at singlestick, held his own with the foil against other lads, and never before faced a point. The little man had the speed and certainty of a maitre d'armes. So Harry fought, breathing hard, every muscle aching, mind numb and dazed under the strain, expecting—hoping—every moment the thrust that would make an end.
It did not come. The ache and fever of the fight went on and on. Still the little man was masterful and precise. Still he demanded all Harry's vigour and more than all, kept him struggling desperately, beset by fear on the edge of death. Harry felt himself weakening, faltering, and still the opposing blade searched his defence sharply, still the little man was an exemplar of easy precision. And yet Harry's maladroitness always sufficed to save his skin. He was puzzled, and blundered and fumbled the more. The play grew slower and slower, and he was the more tortured, enduring many times the shame and the pain of defeat.
At last he had hit upon the truth. He was wondering in a dazed fashion why that other sword seemed always to wait on him when he made a gross mistake. Visibly, palpably, the little man's blade halted to give him time for a parry. Harry dropped his point and gasped out, "Damme, sir, you are playing with me."
"What's your will? I fight my own way. At your convenience, sir."
"The Captain's within his right, sir," says Harry's solemn second.
"Damn you, for a pack of mountebanks!" Harry cried.
"On guard, sir," says the little man.
Harry gave him an oath and dashed at him. There was a moment's wild fighting and then the little man forced it back to order. They were at the old game again, precise scientific thrust, pause, and blundering parry, when to Harry's amazement the little man's sword wavered and flew from his hand.
Through a long minute Harry stood staring at him, and he waiting unarmed for Harry's thrust. Again Harry lowered his sword. At once the little man stooped and picked up his. "Do you demand to continue, Captain?" says his second.
"You're a fool, Patrick," quoth the little man.
The impenetrable second saluted and turned to his fellow. "Another bout, if you please, Mr. Mackenzie."
"Would you grant it, sir?" says Harry's solemn Scot.
"Egad, we are all mad here," Harry wiped his brow. "Oh, play it out to hell."
The little man saluted formally and again they engaged. And now Harry was enveloped in another kind of fighting. Scientific it might be, but science far beyond his understanding. The little man's point was everywhere upon him and he thrusting blindly at the air. He might have been pinked a score times over, he was for all he knew. And then on a sudden his own point touched something. Next moment it was struck up to the ceiling. Some one called out "A hit." He saw the two seconds standing between the swords and a red scratch on the little man's cheek.
"Touche," says he with a bow. "My compliments, if you please. It's some while since a man marked me. I am glad to know you, sir. Pray, what's your name?"
"Harry Boyce, sir."
"Egad, it's wonderful!" says the little man, with a laugh which appealed to Harry. "Hector McBean, at your service." Harry stared. "Aye, aye, I'm thinking we'll explain ourselves. Will you walk, sir?"
"If you please."
Captain McBean took his arm, said over his shoulder to the two seconds "To-morrow," and marched off with him. Once they were out in the street, "So you are Colonel Noll Boyce's son," says Captain McBean with an odd look.
"He has often told me so."
"If you had not such a look of him I wouldn't believe it. Oh, pardon, monsieur, mille pardons, ma foi. I have been insolent to you in all this affair. You'll please to observe that the whole of it, and the issue, is to your honour. Will I have to say more?"
"Oh Lud, no. Pray, let's talk sense."
"I take to you marvellously, mon enfant. Well now, have you heard of me?"
"Enough to want much more."
"What, has father been talking?"
"D'ye know where he is, Captain McBean?"
"I wish I did."
"So do I. It was Mr. Waverton who told the tale. Now you know why I am eager to hear what you can say of my father or my father of you."
"Are you a good son, Mr. Boyce?"
"I pay my debts."
"There's a crooked answer. Are you in the Colonel's secrets?"
"I have no reason to think so."
"I guess he did not trust you. I guess he was right. Do you remember where you met me first?"
"I remember that I can't remember."
"And me that thought I was a beauty! Well, but you were busy. You were making mud pies with Ben."
"I have it. You were his captain on the horse. Pray, sir, what was my Benjamin's mystery?"
"I am going to trust you, Mr. Boyce. I shall not require you to trust me unless you choose. I tell you frankly I hope for it. And so—come in with you."
They turned out of the Strand into Bow Street. Captain McBean let himself into a house, and took Harry up to a room very neat and cosy. "D'ye drink usquebaugh? A pity. It's the cleanest liquor. Well, draw up." He pushed a tobacco-box across the table. "That's right Spanish. Now, mon cher, are you Jacobite or Hanoverian?"
"I never could tell."
"Oh, look you, I ask no confidences. And I make no doubt of your honour. If you had a mind to play tricks you would have tried one on me to-night. Well, I have proved you. Your pardon again. But when I saw Noll Boyce's son lurking in Sam's, how could I know he was without guile? Now there is something I must say to you. But how much I say is a question. I have no desire to embarrass you with awkward knowledge. So which is your king, mon enfant, James or George?"
"I care not a puff of smoke for either."
"So. I suppose there is something you care for. Well—you asked about Ben's mystery. It's a good beginning. The rascal should have stopped the Duke of Marlborough's coach and held it till I came up with my fellows. Instead of which he went about some private thieving. I am your debtor for giving the knave his gruel. What's Marlborough to me? It's not his dirty guineas I was after, but his papers. He was then pretending to negotiate with St. Germain. There were those of us who doubted the old villain had some black design in his head again, and it was thought that if we could turn over his private papers, we should know where to have him. It was certified that he had with him something from his agents abroad. Well, we missed him, and how deep he is dipped in this business, I know no more than you.