"I know not, Wilton, whether I can conquer my bad habits so much as to be up before you go. If not, I may not see you for many days, for I have leave of absence," he added, with one of his light laughs, "from my most honoured and respected parent. Should you need me, you will find me here; and I would fain have you tell me if anything of import befals you. I shall hear, however—I shall hear."
Thus saying, he left him, and at an early hour on the following day Wilton was on his way homeward. He reached London before the time at which it was usual for him to present himself at the house of Lord Byerdale; but when, after pulling off his riding dress, he went thither, he found that the Earl had already gone to Whitehall, and consequently he followed him to that place.
The statesman seemed not a little surprised to see him, and instantly questioned him in regard to his interview with the Duke. That interview was soon told by Wilton, who loved not to dwell upon the particulars, and consequently related the whole as briefly as possible.
He told enough, however, to move the Earl a good deal, but in a different manner from what might have been expected. Once or twice he coloured and frowned heavily, and then laughed loud and bitterly.
"His pride is almost more absurd than I had fancied, Wilton," he said, at length; "but to tell you the truth, I have in some degree foreseen all this, though not quite to this extent. If he had willingly consented to your marriage with his daughter, he might have saved himself, perhaps, some pain, for he must consent in the end, and it would not surprise me some day to see him suing you to the alliance that he now refuses you. His grace is certainly a very great and haughty peer, but nevertheless he may some day find you quite a fitting match for his daughter."
"I trust it may be so, my lord," replied Wilton; "but yet I see not very well how it can be so."
"You will see, you will see, Wilton," replied Lord Byerdale: "it matters not at present to talk of it. But now sit down and write me a letter to the Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire, telling him that I must beg he and the Sheriff would take prompt measures for restoring peace and security in the county. Let him know that one of the government couriers was stopped and plundered on the road last night. Luckily the bag of despatches has been found upon the highway unopened, but still the act was a most daring one. The same sort of thing has been of frequent occurrence in that county: it is evident that a large troop of these gentry of the road make that part of the world their field, and we must put a stop to it."
Wilton sat down and did as he was bid, feeling, it is true, that he could give a good deal more information upon the subject than the Earl possessed, if he thought fit to do so. This, of course, he did not choose to do; and after the letter to the Lord Lieutenant was written, the Earl allowed him to depart, saying—"Our business is somewhat light to-day, Wilton; but do not be the least afraid on account of this fair lady. The Duke's foolish pride will come down when he hears more."
Wilton departed, in a meditative mood; for notwithstanding every assurance given him, he could not but feel apprehensive, sad, and despondent. He might ask himself, in deed—for the Earl's words naturally led to such a mistaken question—"Who, then, am I? Who is it they would have me believe myself, that so proud a man should seek the alliance which he now scorns, as soon as he knows who I am?" But there seemed to him a sort of mockery in the very idea, which made him cast it from him as a vain delusion.
Though freed from ordinary business, and at liberty to go where he liked, with a thousand refined tastes which he was accustomed to gratify in his own dwelling, yet Wilton felt not the slightest inclination to turn his steps homeward on the present occasion. Music, he knew full well, was by no means calculated to soothe his mind under the first effects of bitter disappointment. Had it been but the disappointment of seeing Laura at the time he expected to do so—had circumstances compelled him to be absent from her for a week or a month longer than he had expected—had the bright dreams which he always conjured up of pleasant hours and happy days, and warm smiles and sweet words, when he proposed to go down to Somersbury, been left unrealized by the interposition of some unexpected event—the disappointment would certainly have been great; but nevertheless he might have then found a pleasure, a consolation in music, in singing the songs, in playing the airs, of which Laura was fond; in calling up from memory the joys that were denied to hope, which can never so well be done, so powerfully, as by the magic voice of song.
But now all was uncertain: his heart was too full of despondency and grief to find relief by re-awakening even the brightest memories of the past: he could not gaze upon the days gone by, like the painter or the poet looking upon some beautiful landscape, for his situation he felt to be that rather of some unhappy exile looking back upon a bright land that he loved, when quitting it, perhaps never to return. Neither could books afford him relief; for his own sorrowful feelings were now too actively present to suffer him to rove with the gay imagination of others, or to meditate on abstracted subjects with the thoughtful and the grave.
To fly from the crowds that at that time thronged the streets—to seek solitary thought—to wander on, changing his place continually—to suffer and give way to all the many strange and confused ideas and feelings of grief, and disappointment, and bitterness of heart, and burning indignation, at ill-merited scorn, and surprise and curiosity in regard to the hopes that were held out to him, and despairing rejection of those hopes, even while the voice of the never-dying prophetess of blessings was whispering in his heart that those very hopes might be true—was all that Wilton could do at that moment.
The country, however, was sooner reached in those days than it is at present; and after leaving Whitehall, he was in a few minutes in the sweet fields, with their shady rows of tall elms, which lay to the westward of St. James's-street. Here he wandered on, musing, as we have said, for several hours, with his arms crossed upon his chest, and his eyes scanning the ground. At length he turned his steps home ward, thinking that it was a weakness thus to give way; but still as he went, the same feelings and the same thoughts pursued him; and that black care, which in the days of the Latin poet sat behind the horseman, was his companion, also, by the way.
On reaching his lodgings, the door was opened by the servant of the house, and he was passing on, but the girl stopped him, saying—"There is a lady, sir, up stairs, who has been waiting for you near an hour."
"A lady!" exclaimed Wilton, with no slight surprise; for though such a visit in those days might have passed without scandal, he knew no one who was likely to call upon him, unless, indeed, it were the Lady Helen Oswald, whose interest in him seemed to be of such a kind as might well produce a visit upon any extraordinary occasion.
He mounted the stairs with a rapid step, however, for he knew that it must be something out of the common course of events which had brought her, and opening the door quickly, entered his small sitting-room. But what was his surprise to behold, seated on the opposite side of the room, and watching eagerly the door, none other but Lady Laura Gaveston herself.
Astonishment certainly was the first sensation, but joy was the second; and advancing quickly to her, he took her in his arms and held her to his heart, and kissed her cheek again and again. For several moments he asked no question. It was sufficient that she was there, pressed to his bosom, returning his affection, and whatever might be the consequences, for the tine at least he was happy. The joy that was in his countenance—the tenderness—the deep devoted love of his whole manner—gave as much happiness to Laura herself as she was capable of receiving from anything at that moment.
Her thoughts, also, for a minute or two, were all given up to love and happiness; but it was evident from the tears on her cheeks that she had been weeping bitterly ever since she had been there; and the moment that he had recovered him self a little, Wilton led her back to her seat, and placing himself beside her, still holding her hand, he said—"Dear, dear Laura! I fear that something very painful, I may say very terrible, has driven you to this step; but indeed, dear girl, you have not placed your confidence wrongly; and I shall value this dear hand only the more, should your love for me have deprived you of that wealth which you have been taught to expect. I will labour for you, dear Laura, with redoubled energy, and I fear not to obtain such a competence as may make you happy, though I can never give you that affluence which you have a right to claim."
The tears had again run over Laura's cheek; but as she returned the pressure of his hand, she replied—"Thank you, dear Wilton—thank you: I know you would willingly do all for me, but you mistake, and I think cannot have heard what has happened."
Those words instantly guided Wilton's mind back to the right point, though for a moment thought hovered round it vaguely. He recollected all that Lord Sherbrooke had said with regard to Sir John Fenwick, and the charge against the Duke, and he replied, "I had mistaken, Laura—I had mistaken. But what has happened? I have been out wander ing long in the fields, thinking of but one subject, and melancholy enough, dear girl."
"I know it, dear Wilton—oh, I know it!" she replied, leaning her head upon his shoulder; "and I, too, have passed a wretched night, thinking of you. Not that I ever feared all would not in the end go right, but I knew how miserable what had occurred would make you; and I knew how angrily my father sometimes speaks, how much more he says than he really means, and what pain he gives with out intending it. The night was miserable enough, clear Wilton; but I knew not indeed how much more miserable the morning was to be.—You have not heard, then, what has taken place?"
"I have heard nothing, dearest Laura," replied Wilton; "I have heard nothing of any consequence since I came to town: but I fear for your father, Laura; for I heard yesterday that some accusation had been brought against him by Sir John Fenwick; and though last night, in the agitation and pain of the moment, I forgot to tell him, I wrote a note, and sent it early this morning."
"He got it before eight this morning," replied Laura, "and sent to call me down in haste. I found him partly angry, partly frightened, partly suspicious, and hesitating what to do. I besought him, Wilton, to fly with all speed. I pledged my word that Wilton, however ill-treated he might have been, and however he might feel that the services which he had rendered had been undervalued, would say nothing but that which was actually true, and absolutely necessary for the safety of those he loved."
"Surely," said Wilton, "he did not suspect me of falsifying the truth to give myself greater importance in his eyes?"
"Whatever were his suspicions, dear Wilton," replied Lady Laura, "they were too soon painfully removed; for he had scarcely given orders to have breakfast immediately, and the carriage prepared without loss of time, when two Messengers arrived with a warrant for his committal to the Tower. They treated us with all kindness," continued Lady Laura, "waited till our preparations were made, permitted me to accompany him, and have promised that to-morrow or the day after—as soon, in short, as a proper order can be made for it—I shall be permitted to be with him, and have a room near his. But oh, Wilton, you cannot imagine how my father's mind is overthrown. It seems, though I never knew it before, that he has really had some dealings with this Sir John Fenwick, and his whole reliance now appears to be upon you, Wilton."
"Oh, I trust, dearest Laura, that this charge will prove nothing," replied Wilton. "As far as I know, though he acted imprudently, there was not anything in the slightest degree criminal in his conduct. The days, I trust, are gone by when fictitious plots might be got up, and the blood of the innocent be sold for its weight of gold. It may have been judged necessary to secure his person, and yet there may not be the slightest probability of his being condemned or even tried."
"I do not know, Wilton," replied Lady Laura, sadly—"I do not know. He seems in very great terror and agitation. Are you sure he has told you all, Wilton?"
"On that subject, of course, I cannot be sure," replied Wilton. "But I do not feel at all sure, Laura, that this charge and this imprisonment may not have its origin in personal revenge. If so, perhaps we may frustrate the plotter, though we be weak and he is strong. Who was the warrant against your father signed by?—Was it—?"
"Not by Lord Byerdale," replied Laura, laying her hand upon his and gazing into his face, and thus showing Wilton that she instantly divined his suspicions.—"It was by the Duke of Shrewsbury."
"That looks ill, dearest Laura," replied Wilton, thoughtfully. "The Duke of Shrewsbury is one above all suspicion, high, noble, independent, serving the state only for the love of his country, abhorring office and the task of governing, but wise and prudent, neither to be led by any art or trickery to do what is not just, nor even to entertain base suspicions of another, without some very specious cause to give them credibility. This is strange, Laura, and I do not understand it. Did your father express a wish that you should see me, so that I may act openly in the business without offending him?"
"He not only told me to consult with you," replied Laura, "but he sent me direct from the Tower in the chair which you saw standing at the door, desiring me not to go to Beaufort House till I had seen you; to beseech you to come to him immediately, in order that he might advise with and consult you upon his situation. Indeed, he seems to have no hope in any one but in you."
Wilton mused for a minute or two.
"I do not think, my clear Laura," he said, "that the Earl of Byerdale knew anything of your father's arrest this morning when I saw him. I believe I must have done him wrong in my first suspicions. I will now, however, go to him at once, and endeavour to ascertain the precise nature of Sir John Fenwick's charge."
"Might it not be better," said Laura, anxiously, "to see my father first?"
"I must obtain an order of admission, dear Laura," replied Wilton. "What are the orders respecting your father's confinement I cannot tell, but I know that Sir John Fenwick is permitted to see no one but the ministers of the crown or somebody appointed by them. At all events, I think it will be better to converse with the Earl, and get the order at the same time. I will then hasten to your father with all speed, give him what comfort and consolation I can, and afterwards come for a few minutes to Beaufort House to see my Laura, and tell her the result—that is to say, if I may."
"If you may! dear Wilton," said Lady Laura, casting herself upon his bosom, "if you could see my poor father now with all his pride subdued, you would not ask if you may."
"But we must lose no time, dear Laura," replied Wilton. "You shall go on to Beaufort House with all speed. But where are your servants? I saw none in the hall."
"Oh, I have none with me," replied Lady Laura; "there was but one with the carriage: the others were left with orders to follow quickly to town; and I am sure in the agitation of the moment neither my father nor I thought of servants at all."
"Nay, dear Laura," replied Wilton, "my own servant shall go with you then; for after having once lost my treasure and found it again, I will not trust you with two strange chairmen such a distance, and alone."
This arrangement was soon made; and with a mind comforted and relieved, even from this short interview with him she loved, Lady Laura left him, and took her way to her solitary home.
Wilton was sincerely pained and grieved for the Duke; and the moment that he had seen Laura safely on her way towards Beaufort House, he hastened to seek the Earl of Byerdale, supposing that he had returned to his own dwelling, which was near at hand. He was still at Whitehall, however, and thither Wilton accordingly went. He was admitted immediately to the Earl's presence, and found him with a number of written letters before him, folded up and ready for the departure of the courier. Not knowing that there was anything in the mere addresses of the letters that was not intended for him to see, Wilton suffered his eye to rest upon them for a moment. The Earl hastily gathered them together, but not before Wilton had remarked that one of them was addressed to the Earl of Sunbury; and the very haste with which the statesman removed them from his sight naturally gave rise to a suspicion of something being wrong, though Wilton could form no definite idea of what was the motive for this concealment.
"Have you heard that the Duke is arrested, Wilton?" was the Earl's first question, before Wilton himself could speak.
"Yes, my lord," replied Wilton. "I have heard, and was somewhat surprised, as your lordship did not speak to me on the subject in the morning."
"I knew nothing about it," replied the Earl, "except that I thought it likely. It was his grace of Shrewsbury's doing, and I do not doubt that he was very right, for one cannot punish mean offenders and let high ones pass."
"Certainly not, my lord," replied Wilton; "but from what I know of the Duke, I should think that he was the last man on earth to do any treasonable act. I have come to ask your lordship's permission to visit him in the Tower, and to obtain an order to that effect, hoping, too, that you may tell me the particulars of the charge against him, for he is now very anxious to see me."
"Oh ho!" exclaimed the Duke. "What! is his pride come down so soon? What! in one single day does he send for the man that he maltreated the night before? Such is human pride and human weakness. Well, well, Wilton, we will not mar your young fortunes. You shall have every opportunity, and perhaps may serve the Duke; although, I very much fear," he added, in a graver tone, "from the Duke of Shrewsbury having signed the warrant, that your good friend has been led much farther into these matters than you are aware of. Make out an order to sec him, and I will sign it."
"But cannot I, my lord, obtain any information," said Wilton, as he wrote the order, "concerning the real charges against the Duke?"
"I really am not aware of them," replied Lord Byerdale. "The business has not been done through this office. I have seen Fenwick, indeed, but he only spoke generally, and seemed inclined to accuse everybody indiscriminately. However, I will send to Lord Shrewsbury, and ask all the particulars; but, by the way, Shrewsbury went out of town to-day. I must write to Vernon, his secretary, instead;" and sitting down, he wrote and despatched a note to a neighbouring ministerial office. An answer was almost immediately returned in the following terms:—
"MY LORD,-I have been honoured with your lordship's note, and beg to inform you that the charge against the Duke of Gaveston is for high treason, in having heard and connived at the projected assassination of the King in the beginning of this year, together with various other counts, such as that of levying war, holding treasonable correspondence with the enemy, and concealing the designs of traitors, &c. Your lordship's order will admit Mr. Brown immediately to the Tower, as no particular directions have been given in regard to keeping the Duke a close prisoner. His grace of Shrewsbury went out of town to Eyford at eleven this morning.— I have the honour to be, your lordship's obedient servant," &c.
"There, Wilton," said the Earl, putting over the note to his secretary, "there is all the information that I can obtain on the subject; and here, take the order, and go and see your friend the Duke. Tell him I will come and see him to-morrow, and give him what consolation you can; but yet do not act like a silly boy, and make too light of the business, for two reasons: first, because the matter is really serious—the good folks of London have an appetite for blood upon them just now, and will not be satisfied unless they see a head struck off every now and then; and next, because, if his lordship do escape the abbreviating process of Tower Hill, we shall have to bring down his pride still farther than it is, to make him give ready consent to your marriage with his daughter."
"I would rather win his consent by good services, my lord," replied Wilton, "than drive him to give it by any harsh means."
"Pshaw! you are a silly boy," replied the Earl: "there is nothing so tiresome to a man of experience as the false generosity with which young men set out in the world. Here, when you have the opportunity in your power of inducing the Duke easily to give his consent to that which is most for his own interests, for yours, and for everybody's, you would let it slip, remain miserable yourself, and see Laura made miserable too, from the mere idle fancy of not taking advantage of misfortunes which the Duke has brought upon himself; but I will consent to no such idle folly, Wilton. I am determined to take care of your interests, if you do not take care of them for yourself, and I have a right to do so, as I believe I am your nearest living relation. And now, my good youth, mark my words, and remember that I am one who will keep them to the letter. The Duke, I know, has so far committed himself as to be really criminal. How far his crime may be aggravated I do not know. If he have brought his own head to the block I cannot help it, and then all matters will be clear, for Lady Laura will be free to do as she pleases; but as his pardon for the offences he has really committed must pass through my hands, if it should be found that his errors are not of a very deep dye, I give you fair warning, that he shall not set his foot beyond the doors of the Tower till Lady Laura is your bride. Say not a word, for my determination is taken, and he shall find me somewhat firmer in my purpose than he has shown himself towards you."
"I suppose your lordship means," replied Wilton, "till he has given his consent to the marriage. The Duke is too honourable a man to revoke it when once it is granted."
"No, by Heaven!" answered Lord Byerdale: "she shall be yours, fully, irrevocably your wife, ere he sets his foot forth. There are such things, I tell you, Wilton, as quarrels about marriage-settlements. I will have none of that. I will be a better friend to you than you would be to yourself. However, on second thoughts, say nothing about it to the Duke. I will take it all upon myself, which will spare you pain. You shall see that the proposal will come from the Duke himself."
Wilton smiled; and we cannot think that he was much to blame if there was some pleasure mingled in his feelings at the thought of soon and easily obtaining her he loved, even though he experienced repugnance to the means which the Earl proposed to employ. He resolved, therefore, to let the matter take its course, feeling very sure that the result of the Duke's present situation would be much affected, and his liberation greatly facilitated, by suffering the Earl to manage the matter in his own way.
He took the order, then, and proceeded at once to the Tower, where, through walls, and palisades, and courts, he was led to that part of the building reserved for the confinement of state prisoners. There was nothing very formidable or very gloomy in the appearance of the rooms and corridors through which he passed; but the sentry at the gates, the locked doors, the turning of keys, announced that he was in a place from which ever-smiling liberty was excluded; and the very first aspect of the Duke, when his young friend was admitted to the apartments assigned to that nobleman, showed how deeply he felt the loss of freedom. In the few hours that had passed since Wilton last saw him, he lead turned very pale; and though still slightly lame, he was walking up and down the room with hasty and irregular steps. The sound of the opening door made him start and turn round with a look of nervous apprehension; and when he beheld the countenance that presented itself, his face, indeed, lighted up with a smile, but that smile was so mingled with an expression of melancholy and agitation, that it seemed as if he were about to burst into tears.
"This is very kind of you, indeed, Wilton!" he exclaimed, stretching out his hand towards him: "pray let us forget all that took place last night. Indeed, your kindness in coming now must make a very great difference in my feelings towards you: not only that, indeed, but your note, which reached me early this morning, and which had already made such a difference, that I should certainly have sent for you to talk over all matters more calmly, if this terrible misfortune had not happened to me."
Was the Duke endeavouring to deceive Wilton?—No, indeed, he was not! Though there can be scarcely a doubt that, had he not been very much brought down by fear and anxiety, he would not have sent for Wilton at all. The truth was, he had first deceived himself, and at that moment he firmly believed that he would have done everything that was kind and considerate towards Wilton and his daughter, even had he not been arrested.
"We will not think of any of these things, your grace," replied Wilton. "I need not tell you that I was both overjoyed to see Lady Laura, and terribly grieved to hear the cause of her coming. As soon as I had heard from her your grace's situation and wishes, I sent my servant to accompany her to Beaufort House."
"Ay," said the Duke, interrupting him, "in the agitation of the moment, poor girl, I forgot to send any one with her I kept my man here. But what then, Wilton, what then?-You are always kind and considerate.—What did you do then?"
"I went immediately to Lord Byerdale," replied Wilton, "who seemed just to have heard of your arrest. From him I obtained an order to see you; and he was kind enough also to write to his grace of Shrewsbury's secretary to know upon what charge you had been arrested."
"Ay, that is the point! that is the point!" exclaimed the Duke, eagerly. "When we hear what is the charge, we can better judge what danger there is; in short, how one is situated altogether."
"Why, I grieve to say, my lord," replied Wilton, "that the charge is heavy."
"Good God!" exclaimed the Duke, "what is it, Wilton, what is it? Do not keep me in suspense, but tell me quickly. What does the villain charge me with? He first spoke upon the subject to me, and he knows that I am as innocent as the child unborn."
"It would seem, your grace," replied Wilton, "that he levels charges at many persons most likely as innocent as you are; and that he wishes to save his own life by endangering the lives of other people. He charges you with neither more nor less than high treason, for having been cognisant of, if not consenting to, the plan for assassinating the King—"
"I never consented to such a thing!" exclaimed the Duke, interrupting him. "I abhorred the very idea. I never heard of it—I—I—I never heard it distinctly proposed. Some one, indeed, said it would be better; but there was no distinct proposal of the kind; and I went away directly, saying, that I would have no farther part in their counsels."
Wilton's countenance fell at hearing this admission; for he now for the first time saw fully how terrible was the situation in which the Duke had placed himself. That nobleman, then, had, in fact, heard and had concealed the design against the King's life. The simple law of high treason, therefore, held him completely within its grasp. That law declared a person concealing treason to be as guilty as the actual deviser or perpetrator thereof, and doomed them to the same penalty. There was no hope, there was no resource, but in the clemency of the government; and the words used by Lord Byerdale rang in Wilton's ears, in regard to the bloody appetite of the times for executions. He turned very pale, then, and remained silent for a moment or two, while the Duke clasped his hands, and gazed in his face.
"For Heaven's sake, my lord," he said, at length, "withhold such admission from anybody else, for I fear very much a bad use might be made of it."
"I see that you think that the case goes ill with me," said the Duke. "But I give you my word of honour, my dear Wilton, that the moment I heard of the designs of these men I left the place in indignation."
"It is necessary, my lord," replied Wilton, "that your grace should know how you stand; and I fear very much that if this business can be proved at all, the best view of the case that can be taken will be, that you have committed misprision of treason, which may subject you to long imprisonment and forfeiture. If the government deals leniently with you, such may be the case; but if the strict law be urged, I fear that your having gone to this meeting at all, and consented to designs against the government of the King, and afterwards concealing the plans for introducing foreign forces, and for compassing the death of the King, must be considered by the peers as nothing short of paramount treason itself. Let me beseech you, therefore, my lord, to be most careful and guarded in your speech; to content yourself with simply denying all treasonable intentions, and to leave me, and any other friends whom you may think fit to employ, to endeavour, by using all extraordinary means, to save you even from the pain and risk of trial. Our greatest hope and the greatest security for you, is the fact—which is so generally reported that I fancy it must be true—that Sir John Fenwick has charged a number of persons in the highest stations, and some even near to the King's person and counsels. It will be for every one's interest, therefore, to cast discredit upon all his accusations, and amongst the rest, perhaps, this also may fall to the ground."
"Could you not see him, Wilton, could you not see him?" demanded the Duke, eagerly. "Perhaps he might be persuaded to mitigate his charge; to withdraw it; or to add some account of the abhorrence I expressed at the plans and purposes I heard."
"I see no way by which I could gain admittance, my lord," replied Wilton. "He is a close prisoner in Newgate. I know no one who even is acquainted with him; and I believe none but his wife and various members of the government are admitted to see him alone. However, I will do my best, my lord, and if I can gain admission, I will."
The Duke cast himself in deep despondency into a chair, and mused for several minutes without reply, seeing evidently, from Wilton's words and manner, that he thought his case a desperate one. After a moment, however, a momentary ray of hope crossed his countenance again.
"Cannot you see the Lady Mary Fenwick?" he said. "She could surely gain you admission to her husband. She is a distant relation of my own, too, for my grandfather married Lady Carlisle's aunt. Beseech her, Wilton, to gain you admittance; and try also—try, by all means—to make her use her influence with her husband in my behalf. Perhaps at her entreaty he would modify the charge, or retract a part of it. It can do him no good—it may ruin me."
"I will do my best, my lord," replied Wilton, "and in the meantime my Lord of Byerdale desired me to tell your grace that he would visit you to-morrow. He comes, indeed, merely as a friend; but I would beg your grace to remember that he is also a minister of the crown, bound by his office to give intimation of everything affecting the welfare of the state."
"Oh, I will be careful, I will be careful!" replied the Duke. "But can you think of nothing else, Wilton? can we fall upon no means? Would to Heaven I had always taken your advice! I should not now be here. Should I ever escape, you will find me a different being, Wilton. I will not forget your kindness, nor be ungrateful for it;" and he fell into a somewhat sad and feeble commentary upon his own conduct, briefly expressing regret for what he had done, partly alleging excuses for it, but still evidently speaking under the overpowering influence of fear; while pride, that weakest and most enfeebling of all evil passions, gave him no support under affliction, no strength and vigour in the moment of danger. In his heart Wilton could not respect him; but still he had nourished in his bosom feelings of affectionate regard towards him: he knew that Laura's happiness was not to be separated from her father's safety, and he resolved once more to exert every energy of mind and body in the service of the Duke.
For about half an hour more their conversation was protracted in the same strain, and then Wilton took his leave, telling the prisoner that he feared he should not be able to visit him on the following day. The Duke pressed him much to do so; but when he heard that every spare moment of Wilton's time was to be devoted to his service, he readily agreed, for that object, to lose the consolation of seeing him.
According to his promise, Wilton sped as fast as possible to Beaufort House; and though the brief conversation which ensued between him and Laura was mingled with much that was sad, yet the very fact of being together—of pouring out every thought of the heart to each other—of consulting with each other upon the welfare of one who was now an object of the deepest interest to both—was in itself a happiness, to Wilton powerful and intense; to Laura, sweet, soothing, and supporting. During the short time that Wilton stayed, the conversation turned entirely upon the Duke. At that moment, and with but little cheering hope to give, Wilton could not mingle the subject of his own feelings with the sadder ones which brought him thither. Love, indeed, pervaded every word he spoke; love, indeed, gave its colouring to all his feelings and to all his thoughts; but that very love was of a kind which prevented him from making it the subject of discourse at such an hour as that. Nor was his visit long, for it was now dark; and after one whole day, which he knew had been spent in anxiety, care, and fatigue, and after a night which he likewise knew had gone by in sorrow and anguish, he felt that Laura would require repose, and hoped, though but faintly, that she would obtain it.
He left her, then, in less than an hour, and took his way homeward, meditating over what might be done for the Duke, but seeing no hope, no chance, but in the exertions of the Earl of Byerdale, or the merciful interposition of the Duke of Shrewsbury. He was not without hope that the Earl would exert himself; though when he asked his own mind the question, "Upon what motives, and to what effect, will the Earl exert himself?" he was obliged to pause in doubt—ay, and in suspicion. He could not divest his own heart of a conviction that the Earl was acting insincerely; that there was some object in view which it was impossible for him to divine; some purpose more than mere kindness to a relation whom he had never known or acknowledged for so many years of their mutual life.
It was the ninth hour of the evening on the following day when a carriage stopped at the gates of Newgate, and a lady got out and entered the prison. It was by this time dark, for the year was already beginning to show a slight diminution in the length of the days; and there were few people just at that moment in the streets to remark that she left a male companion behind her in the vehicle, who, with his arms crossed upon his chest, and his eyes bent thoughtfully upon the other side of the carriage, remained buried in deep and seemingly gloomy meditation.
After the lapse of about ten minutes the lady returned, and said, "You may come; but the governor says your visit must not be long, and on no account must be mentioned." [Footnote: It is an undoubted historical fact, that more persons visited and conversed long with Fenwick in prison than the court was at all aware of.]
Wilton instantly stepped out of the carriage as Lady Mary Fenwick spoke, and followed her into the prison. A turnkey was in waiting with a light, and led them round the outer court and through one or two dark and narrow passages to the cell in which Sir John Fenwick was confined. There was another turnkey waiting without; and Wilton, being admitted, found the wretched man whose crimes had brought him thither, and whose cowardly treachery was even then preparing to make his end disgraceful, sitting pale, haggard, and worn, with his elbow resting on the small table in the middle of the cell, and his anxious eye fixed upon that door from which he was never more to go forth but to trial, to shame, and to death.
Lady Mary Fenwick, his unfortunate wife, whose eager and strenuous exertions in her husband's behalf were sufficient to atone in some degree for the error of countenancing those calumnies by which he hoped to escape his well-deserved fate, accompanied or rather followed Wilton into the cell; and as she did so, remarking the haggard glance with which Sir John regarded the visitor, she held up her finger with a meaning look, as if to entreat him to assume more calmness, at least in his demeanour.
Sir John Fenwick made an effort to do so; and, with one of those painful smiles wherewith wretchedness often attempts to cover its own misery, he said, "Good evening, Mr. Brown. This is a poor place for me to receive you in. I could have done better, if you had honoured me by a visit in Northumberland."
"I grieve much, Sir John, to see you in it," replied Wilton, "and trust that you may be enabled to free yourself speedily."
A look of anguish came over Sir John Fenwick's countenance; but Wilton went on, saying, "When last we met, Sir John, it was not, perhaps, on the best of terms, and I certainly thought that you treated me ill; but let all that be forgotten in the present circumstances."
"Do you mean," asked Sir John Fenwick, with a cynical look, "that we are both to forget it, or that I am to forget the whole business, and you to recollect it at my trial for the benefit of my accusers?"
"I meant for us both, of course, to forget it," replied Wilton; "or, rather, I should say, I meant merely that we should forget all feelings of enmity; for to see you here deprives me of all such sensations towards you."
"Ay, sir," said Sir John Fenwick, eagerly. "But let us keep to the other point, if you please. Do you intend to forget our former meeting, or to give evidence in regard to it?"
Wilton paused, and thought for a moment; and then a sudden idea struck him that that very interview to which Fenwick alluded might, perhaps, prove the means of making him modify his charge against the Duke.
"I cannot, of course," he said, "promise you, Sir John Fenwick, not to give evidence against you, if I am called upon, for you know that I can be compelled to do so; but I do not see that my evidence could do you the slightest harm in regard to your trial for treason, as I heard you utter no treasonable sentiments, and saw you perform no treasonable act."
"True, true!" cried Sir John Fenwick, gladly. "True, you can have nothing to say."
"So shall I tell any one who asks me," said Wilton. "I can give no pertinent evidence whatsoever, and therefore can easily keep out of court—unless, indeed," he added, with particular emphasis, "the charges which you have brought against the Duke of Gaveston should compel me to come forward as one of his witnesses, especially as his trial is likely to take place before your own."
"But how can that affect me?" demanded Sir John Fenwick, looking sharply in his face. "How can the Duke's trial have any effect upon mine?"
"Merely by bringing forward my evidence," replied Wilton.
"But how, why, wherefore?" said Sir John Fenwick, eagerly. "You have yourself admitted that you saw nothing, heard nothing at all treasonable—you cannot dally with a man whose life is in jeopardy. What evidence can you give with regard to the Duke that can at all affect me?"
"Only in this way," answered Wilton. "The Duke must be tried upon your accusation. He will call me to prove that you and he were at enmity together, and that therefore your charge is likely to be a calumny. He will also call me to prove that it was both my opinion and his, expressed to each other at the very time, that you carried off his daughter for the purpose of forcing him into a plot against the state, or at all events to prevent his revealing what he knew of your proceedings, from the fear of some injury happening to his child. I shall then have to prove that I found her absolutely in your power: that you refused to give her up at my request; that you were at that time in company with and acting in concert with various persons, five or six of whom have since been executed; that from amongst you a shot was fired at me, showing that the Duke's apprehensions regarding his daughter were well founded; and I shall also have to declare, that before the Duke could have any assurance of his daughter's safety, the conspiracy was itself discovered, so that he had no time or opportunity to reveal the plot, unless at a period when his so doing might have endangered, perhaps, the life of Lady Laura. All this, my good sir, I shall have to prove, if the Duke's trial is forced on. To sum the matter up, it must be shown upon that trial that you and the Duke were at bitter enmity, and that therefore your charge is likely to be malicious; that you carried off his daughter as a sort of hostage; and that he was under reasonable apprehensions on her account, in case he should tell what he knew of the conspiracy; that I found you associating intimately with all the condemned traitors the very day before the arrest of some of them, and that the Duke did not recover his daughter by my means, till the plot itself was discovered. Now you will judge, Sir John, how this may affect your own trial. I warn you of the matter, because I have a promise, a positive promise, that I shall not be brought forward to give evidence in this business without my own consent; but once having proffered my testimony in favour of the Duke, I cannot refuse it, should any link in the chain of evidence be wanting against you which I can supply."
Sir John Fenwick had listened to every word that Wilton said in bitter silence; and when he had done, he gnashed his teeth one against the other, saying, with a look of hatred, "You should have been a lawyer, young sir, you should have been a lawyer. You have missed your vocation."
"Lawyers, Sir John Fenwick," replied Wilton, "are often, even against their will, obliged to support falsehood; but I merely tell you the truth. You have brought a charge against the Duke, as far as I can understand, of which he is virtually innocent, to all intents and purposes—"
"Who told you I had brought a charge against him at all?" demanded Sir John Fenwick. "Who told you what that charge was? It must be all guess-work, upon your part. Depend upon it, if I have brought a charge at all, it is one that I can prove."
"I may have been mistaken," replied Wilton, "and I hope I am, Sir John. I hope that you have brought no charge, and that if you have, it is not of the nature that I supposed; for as I have shown you, it would be most unwise and imprudent of you so to do. You would not injure the Duke in any other way than by a long imprisonment, and you would, in all probability, insure your own condemnation, while you were uselessly attempting to do evil to another. At all events, Sir John, you must not take it ill of me that I point this out to you, and if you will take the warning I have given, it may be of great benefit to you."
"How should I take it?" demanded Sir John Fenwick, still frowning upon him from under his bent brows. "What I have said I have said, and I shall not go back from it. There may be other witnesses, too, against the Duke, that you know not of. What think you of Smith? What think you of Cook?"
"I know not, really," replied Wilton. "In fact, I know nothing upon the subject, except that the Duke is virtually innocent of the crime with which you would charge him. You made him listen to designs which he abhorred; and because he did not betray you, you charge him with participating in them. As for the witnesses Cook and Smith, I have heard from the Earl of Byerdale that neither the one nor the other have anything to say against the Duke."
Sir John Fenwick had listened with a bitter smile to what Wilton said; but he replied almost fiercely, "You know nothing of what you are talking. Are you blind enough or foolish enough to fancy that the Earl of Byerdale is a friend of the Duke?"
"I really do not know," replied Wilton, calmly. "I suppose he is neither very much his friend nor his enemy."
"And there, too, you are mistaken," answered Sir John Fenwick: "for an envoy, you know marvellous little of the sender's situation."
"I only know," replied Wilton, "thus much, which you yourself cannot deny, that to accuse the Duke, so as to bring him to trial for this unfortunate affair, will be to produce your certain condemnation; to cut you off from all chance of hope."
Lady Mary Fenwick had hitherto stood silent a step or two behind Wilton; but now advancing a little, she said, "Indeed, Sir John, you had better think of it. It seems to me that what Mr. Brown says is reasonable, and that it would be much better so to state or modify your charge against the Duke as not to hazard his life."
"Nonsense, Lady Mary!" exclaimed Fenwick; "neither you nor be know anything of what my charges are, or in what my hopes consist. My charge against the Duke shall stand as I have given it; and you may tell him, that it is not on my evidence alone he will be condemned; so that yours, young man, will not tend much to save him."
Wilton saw that it would be useless to urge the matter any farther at that moment, though, notwithstanding the perverse determination shown by the prisoner, he was not without hope that their conversation might ultimately produce some effect upon his mind.
"Well, Sir John," he said, "I will keep you no longer from conversation with your lady. I grieve for you on every account. I grieve to see you here, I grieve for the situation in which you have placed yourself, and I still more grieve to see you struggling to deliver yourself from that situation by means which MAY PRODUCE the destruction of others, and will certainly PRODUCE your own."
"I neither want your grief, nor care for it, sir," replied the prisoner. "Good night, good night."
Wilton then turned and left him; but Lady Mary Fenwick accompanied the young gentleman into the passage, saying in a low voice, "The Earl of Byerdale has seen him twice. You will do well to be upon your guard there."
"Thank you, lady, thank you," replied Wilton. "I am upon my guard, and am most grateful for what you have done."
Thus saying, he left her: and as it was too late, at that hour, to visit the prisoner in the Tower, he turned towards his own home; but ere he reached it, he bethought him of seeking some farther information from the public reports of the day, which were only to be met with in their highest perfection in the several different resorts of wits and politicians which have become familiar to our minds in the writings of Steele and Addison. Will's and the Chocolate-house, and other places of the same kind, supplied in a very great degree the places of the Times, the Herald, the Globe, or the Courier; and though the Postman and several other papers gave a scanty share of information, yet the inner room of the St. James's Coffee-house might be considered as representing the leading article to the newspaper of the day.
To one or two of these houses, then, Wilton repaired, and found the whole town still busy with the arrest of Sir John Fenwick, and with the names of persons he was said to have accused. If the rumours were to be believed, he had brought charges of one kind or another against half the high nobility and statesmen of the land. The King's servants and most familiar friends, many who were still actually employed by him, and many who had aided to seat him on the throne, were all said to be accused of treasonable communications with the court of St. Germain; and Wilton had the satisfaction of thinking, that if there were, indeed, any safety in numbers, the Duke had that security at least.
When he had satisfied himself on this point, he returned to his own house, to meditate upon the best defence which could be set up for the noble prisoner. None, however, suggested itself better than that which he had sketched out in his conversation with Sir John Fenwick; and without loss of time he put it down in writing, in order to take the Duke's opinion upon it. There was one flaw, indeed, in the chain which he could not but see, and which he feared might be used by an enemy to the Duke's disadvantage. He could prove, that after Lady Laura had been carried away the Duke had no opportunity whatever of disclosing the plot until it was already discovered; but unfortunately, between the time of the meeting in Leadenhall-street and the period at which the conspirators so daringly bore off the lady from the terrace there had been a lapse of some time, during which her father might have made any communication to the government that he liked. There was a hope, however, that this might pass unremarked; and at all events what he proposed was the only defence that could be set up.
On the following morning, when he saw the Earl of Byerdale, he inquired if he had seen the Duke; but found that such was not the case, business being the excuse for having failed in his promise. Wilton, however, proceeded to the Tower as soon as he was free, and found Laura now sharing the apartments assigned to her father, and striving to support and comfort him, but apparently in vain. The Duke's mind was still in a terrible state of depression; and the want of all certain intelligence, the failure of the Earl of Byerdale's promise, and the absence of Wilton, had caused his anxiety apparently to increase rather than to diminish, since the first day of his imprisonment.
We must not pause upon the various interviews which succeeded, and were painful enough. Wilton had little to tell that could give the Duke any comfort. The determined adherence of Sir John Fenwick to his charge, the sort of indifference which the Earl of Byerdale displayed in regard to the prisoner's situation, neglecting to see him, though repeatedly promising to do so, all served to depress his spirits day by day, and to render him altogether insensible to the voice of comfort. Towards Wilton himself the Earl resumed a portion of his reserve and gravity; and though he still called him, "My dear Wilton," and "My dear boy," when he addressed him, he spoke to him very little upon any subject, except mere matters of business, and checked every approach to the topic on which Wilton would most willingly have entered.
On the seventh or eighth day of the Duke's imprisonment, however, Lord Sherbrooke again appeared in town; but the Earl employed Wilton constantly, during the whole of that day; so much so, indeed, that his secretary could not help believing that there was effort apparent in it, in order to prevent his holding any private communication with his friend. At length, however, he suffered him to return home, but not till nearly ten at night, by which time Lord Sherbrooke had left the house, to go to some great entertainment.
Scarcely had Wilton passed the door, when he found some one take hold of his arm, and to his surprise found the young nobleman by his side.
"I have been watching for you eagerly, Wilton," he said, "for it seems to me, that the game is going against you, and I see the faces of the cards."
"I am very anxious indeed about the Duke, if such be your meaning, Sherbrooke," replied Wilton.
"And I am so also," answered Lord Sherbrooke. "What my father intends, I do not well see; but I should think, that to make the poor man lose his head on Tower-hill would be somewhat too severe a punishment, too bitter a revenge, for Lady Laura refusing to wed so worshipful a person as I am."
"I hope and trust," replied Wilton, "that there is no chance of such a consummation."
"On my word, I do not know," replied Lord Sherbrooke. "My father, when he is hungry for anything, has a great appetite; I don't think the Duke's head would much more than dine him. However, take my advice; depend not upon him in the least; go to the Duke of Shrewsbury at once, if he be in town, and if not, to Vernon. Try to interest them in favour of the Duke; see what you can allege in his favour. The King has just returned from Holland, you know, and any application made to him now may perhaps be received graciously. Have you anything that you can state in the Duke's favour?"
Wilton recapitulated all that could be said to palliate the error which Laura's father had committed, and Lord Sherbrooke answered eagerly, "That is enough, surely that is enough. At least," he added, "it ought to be enough, and would be enough, if there were no under-influence going on. At all events, Wilton, I would go decidedly to his grace of Shrewsbury, or to Vernon, for I believe the Duke is absent. Represent all these facts, and induce him to lay them before the King. This is the best and most straightforward course, and you will speedily learn more upon the subject. But there is another thing which I have to tell you—though I put no great reliance upon the result being as effectual as we could wish—I was speaking a few nights ago with our friend the Colonel, upon the situation of the Duke, and upon your anxiety regarding him, all of which I have heard from my good rascally valet, who—considering that he is one of the greatest scoundrels that ever was unhung—is a very honest fellow in his way, and finds out everything for me, Heaven knows how, and lets me know it truly. The Colonel seemed to laugh at the idea of anything being done to the Duke, saying, 'No, no; he is safe enough.' But after a while he added, 'If Wilton have any difficulty about the business, he had better speak to me:' and then he fell into one of his long sullen fits of thought; after which he said, 'Tell him to ride out hitherward on Saturday night next, just as it is turning dark—I should like to speak with him about it.'"
"I will not fail," replied Wilton; "for there is something about that man that interests, nay, attaches me, in spite of all I know and all I guess concerning his desperate habits. It is evident that he has had a high education, and possesses a noble heart; in fact, that he was fitted for better things than the criminal and disgraceful course he has pursued."
"Hush, hush!" cried Lord Sherbrooke, laughing; "speak more respectfully of the worthy Colonel, I beg. You are not aware that he is a near relation of mine."
Wilton started, and turned round as if he would have gazed in his companion's face, but the darkness of the night prevented him from well seeing what was passing there. As he recalled, however, his first interview with Green, his look, his manner, and the jesting tone in which he sometimes spoke, he could not but acknowledge that there was something in the whole resembling Lord Sherbrooke not a little, although Green was a much taller and more powerful man.
"This is strange enough, Sherbrooke," he replied, "if you are not joking; and, indeed, I think you are not, for there is a certain likeness between you and him, though more in the manner than in the person."
"It is quite true," replied Lord Sherbrooke; "he is a near relation. But, however, in regard to the Duke, I see not how he can help you, though he certainly does very wonderful things sometimes, which nobody expects or can account for. I would hear all he has to say, then; but at the same time, Wilton, I would not neglect the other business with Vernon, for, you see, the Colonel names Saturday. This is Monday, and before that time the Duke's head may be upon a pole, for aught we know. They make short work with trials and executions in these days."
"I will not fail," answered Wilton, "I will not fail. In such a case as this it is scarcely possible to do too much, and very possible to do too little. I trust your father will not detain me the whole day to-morrow."
"Oh no!" replied Lord Sherbrooke: "I am going to remove the cause, Wilton. As soon as ever I arrived last night, I perceived that the Earl was delicately working at some grand scheme regarding the Duke, and I very soon perceived, too, that he was determined you and I should not have an opportunity of talking the matter over, for fear we should spoil proceedings. I was obliged to watch my opportunity to-night with great nicety, but to-morrow I go back, that is to say, if my sweet Caroline is ready to go with me, for I am the most obedient and loving of husbands, as all reformed rakes are, you know, Wilton."
"But is the lady in town, and at your father's?" demanded Wilton, with surprise.
"She is in town, dearly beloved," replied Lord Sherbrooke, "but certainly not at my father's; and now, Wilton, ask me no more upon the subject, for, between you and me, I know little or nothing more myself. I know not what brings her into London; who she comes to see here, or who the note was from that called her so suddenly up to this great den of iniquity. It is a very horrible thing, Wilton, a very horrible thing, indeed," he continued, in the same jesting tone, "that any woman should have secrets from her husband. I have heard many matrons say so, and I believe them from my whole heart; but I've heard the same matrons say that there should be perfect reciprocity, which, perhaps, might mean that the wife and the husband were to have no secrets from each other, which, I am afraid, in my case, would never do, so I am fain to let her have this secret of her own, especially as she promises to tell me what it is in a few days. Reciprocity is a fine thing, Wilton; but it is wonderful what a number of different sorts of reciprocity there are in this world. Look there. Do you know there is something that puzzles me about that house."
"Why, that is Lord Sunbury's," replied Wilton; "but there are lights up in the drawing-room apparently."
"Ay, that's one part of the story that puzzles me," said Lord Sherbrooke. "I think the old housekeeper must be giving a drum. My valet tells me that on Saturday morning last there was a hackney coach stopped at that house, and two men went into it: one seemed a gentleman wrapped in a long cloak, the other looked like a valet, and stayed to get a number of packages out of the coach. Now I cannot suspect that same old housekeeper, who, as far as I recollect, is much like one of the daughters of Erebus and Nox, of carrying on an amorous correspondence with any gentleman; and it is somewhat strange that she should have lent the use of her master's house, either for love or money. I should not wonder if the Earl himself had come to London before his baggage."
"I should think not," replied Wilton; "I should certainly think not. I had a letter from him not long ago, dated from Paris, and I think he certainly would have written to inform me if he had been coming."
"I am not so sure of that, by any means, Wilton," replied his friend. "I can tell you, that two or three things have happened to his good lordship lately, which, with all his kindness and benevolence, might make him wish to see two or three other people before he saw you. There is a report even now busy about town that he is corresponding from Paris privately and directly with the King, and that his arrival in England will be followed by a change of ministry, if he will consent to take office again, which seems to be very doubtful."
These tidings interested Wilton not a little; and perhaps he felt a curiosity to ascertain whether Lord Sherbrooke's suspicion was or was not correct. His mind, however, was too high and delicate to admit of his taking any steps for that purpose, and after some more conversation on the same subject, he and his friend parted.
On the following morning Wilton had an opportunity of visiting the Duke of Shrewsbury's office, and found Mr. Vernon disengaged. To him he communicated all that he had to say in defence of the Duke, and found Vernon mild in his manners and expressions, but naturally cautious in either promising anything or in giving any information. He heard all that Wilton had to say, however, and assured him that he would lay the statement he made before the King on the ensuing morning, adding, that if he would call upon him in the course of the next day he would tell him the result. He smiled when Wilton requested him to keep his visit and its object secret, and nodded his head, merely replying, "I understand."
On the following day Wilton did not fail to visit him again, and waited for nearly an hour till he was ready to receive him.
"I am sorry," said Vernon, when he did admit him, "that I cannot give you greater satisfaction, Mr. Brown; but the King's reply, upon my application, was, that he had already spoken with the Earl of Byerdale on the subject. However, it may be some comfort to you to know that his grace of Shrewsbury takes an interest in the situation of the Duke, and has himself written to the King upon the subject."
It was about the hour of noon, and the day was dull and oppressive. Though the apartments assigned to the Duke were high up, and in themselves anything but gloomy, yet no cheering ray of sunshine had visited them, and the air, which was extremely warm, seemed loaded with vapour. The spirits of the prisoner were depressed in proportion, and since the first hour of his imprisonment he had never, perhaps, felt so much as at that moment, all the leaden weight of dull captivity, the anguish of uncertainty, and the delay of hope, which, ever from the time of the prophet king down to the present day, has made the heart sick and the soul weary. It was in vain that his daughter, with the tenderest, the kindest, the most assiduous care, strove to raise his expectations or support his resolution; it was in vain that she strove to wean his thoughts away from his own painful situation by music, or by reading, or by conversation. Grief, like the dull adder, stops its ear that it may not hear the song of the charmer; and while she sang to him or played to him upon the lute, at that time an instrument still extremely common in England, or read to him from the books which she thought best calculated to attract his attention, she could see by the vacant eye that sometimes filled with tears, and the lips that from time to time murmured a word or two of impatience and complaint, that his thoughts were all still bent either upon the sad subject of his captivity, or upon the apprehension of what the future might bring.
At the hour of noon, then, the servant whom the Duke had chosen to wait upon him, and who was freely admitted to the prison, as well as a maid to attend upon the Lady Laura, entered the apartment in which the Duke sat, and announced that the Earl of Byerdale was in the antechamber. The Duke started up with an expression of joy, ordering him to be admitted instantly; and the Earl entered, assuming even an unusual parade of dignity in his step, and contriving to make his countenance look more than commonly severe and sneering, even though there was a marked smile upon it, as if he would imply that no slight pleasure attended his visit to the Duke.
"My dear lord," he said, "I really have to apologize for not having waited upon you before, but it has been quite impossible. Since the King's return I have been called upon daily to attend his majesty, besides having all the usual routine of my office to go through; otherwise I can assure your grace that I should have been with you long ago, as both duty and inclination would have prompted me to wait upon you. I am happy to see you so comfortably lodged here. I was afraid that, considering the circumstances, they might have judged it right to debar you of some indulgences; but my lord the governor is a good-hearted, kindly man.—Lady Laura, how are you? I hope you are quite well. I grieve, indeed, to see you and your father in this place; but alas! I had no power to prevent it, and indeed, I fear, I have very little power to serve you now."
"From your lordship's words," said the Duke, after having habitually performed the civilities of the apartment—"from your lordship's words, I fear that you take a bad view of the case, and do not anticipate my speedy deliverance."
"Oh, you know," answered the Earl, "that the trial must take place before we can at all judge what the King's mercy may incline him to do; but I fear, my lord, I fear that a strong prejudice prevails against your grace. The King, as well may be, is terribly indignant at all persons concerned with this plot."
"He may well be, indeed," said the Duke; "for nothing ever made me more indignant than when I first heard of the purposed assassination and invasion myself. With that I had nothing on earth to do. I should have hoped that his majesty's indignation on other points would have subsided by this time, and that clemency would have resumed her sway towards those who may have acted imprudently but not criminally."
"Not yet, not yet, I fear, my lord," replied the Earl; "six months, or a year longer, indeed, would have made all the difference. If your grace had but taken the advice and warning given you by my wise and virtuous young friend, Wilton, and made your escape at once to Flanders, or any neutral ground. I am sure I gave you opportunity enough."
"But, my lord," replied the Duke, "Wilton never gave me any warning till the very morning that I was arrested. It is true, indeed," he added, recollecting the circumstances, "poor Wilton and I unfortunately had a little quarrel on the preceding night, and he left me very much offended, I believe, and hurt, as I dare say he told you, my lord."
"Oh, he told me nothing, your grace," replied Lord Byerdale. "Wilton, knowing my feeling on the subject, very wisely acted as he knew I should like, or, at least, INTENDED TO ACT as he knew I should like, without saying anything to me upon the subject. I might very well remain somewhat wilfully ignorant of what was going on, but I must not openly connive, you know.—Then it was not really," he continued, "that your grace refused to go?"
"Oh, not in the least, not in the least!" replied the Duke. "I received his note early on the next morning, after he left me, and was consulting with my dear child here as to the necessary arrangements for going, when the Messengers arrived."
"Most unfortunate, indeed," said the Earl. "I had concluded, judging from your letter to me on the preceding day, that your grace that afternoon, notwithstanding all I had said regarding the young gentleman's family, refused him the honour to which he aspired, and would not follow the advice he gave."
Lady Laura rose, and moved towards one of the windows; and her father, with his colour a little heightened, and his manner somewhat agitated, replied, but in a low tone, "I did indeed refuse him Laura's hand, and, I am afraid, somewhat harshly and angrily; but I never refused to take his advice or warning."
"Ay, but the two subjects are so mingled up together," said the Earl, "that the one may be considered to imply the other."
"I see not how, my lord, I see not how they are so mingled," said the Duke.
"Ay, it may be difficult to explain," answered the Earl, "and I cannot do it myself; but so it is. It might not indeed be too late now, if it were not for this unfortunate prejudice of yourself or Lady Laura against my young friend, who, I must say, has served you both well."
"How not too late, my lord?" demanded the Duke, eagerly: "all prejudices may be removed, you know; and if there were any prejudice, it was mine."
"Still it would be an obstacle," answered the Earl; "and the whole matter would of course be rendered much more difficult now. There might be still more prejudices to be overcome at present.—May I ask," he added, abruptly, "if you have still got the note which Wilton sent you?"
"No," answered the Duke, "no. I destroyed it immediately, out of regard for his safety."
"It was a wise precaution," answered the Earl, "but unnecessary in his case. He has friends who will manage to justify whatever he does of that kind. Humble as he is in all his deportment, he can do many things that I could not venture to do. I have heard the King himself say, in presence of one half of his council, that he is under great personal obligations to Wilton Brown."
"Indeed!" exclaimed the Duke; "but may I request your lordship to inform me what it was you meant just now? You said it might not be yet too late."
"I fear, my lord, I must not talk to your grace on the subject," said the Earl; "there might be conditions you would not comply with. You might not like even the idea of flying from prison at all."
"I do not see why, my lord," exclaimed the Duke, "I really do not see why. But pray, may I ask what are the conditions?"
"Nay, I make neither any suggestions nor conditions," replied the Earl, who saw that the Duke was fully worked up to the pitch he wished, "I only spoke of such a thing as escape being very possible, if Wilton chose to arrange it; and then of course the conditions he might require for his services struck my mind."
"Why as yet, my lord," answered the Duke, "our noble young friend has not even named any condition as the price of his services."
"Perhaps, your grace," replied the Earl, "he may have become wiser by experience. If I have understood you both right, his hopes were disappointed, and hopes which he imagined he entertained with great reason."
"No, my lord, no!" cried the Duke. "He had no reason for entertaining such hopes. I cannot admit for a moment that I gave him any cause for such expectations."
"Nay, then, my lord duke," replied the Earl, with an offended look, "if such be your view of a case which everybody in London sees differently, the more reason why Wilton should make sure of what grounds he stands upon before he acts further in this business. However, I have nothing to do with the affair farther than as his sincere friend, and as having the honour of being his distant relation, which of course makes me resolute in saying that I will not see his feelings sported with and his happiness destroyed. Therefore, your grace, as we shan't agree, I see, upon these matters, I will humbly take my leave of you." And he rose, as if to depart.
"Nay, nay, my lord—you are too hasty," replied the Duke. "I beseech you, do not leave me in this way. I may in former instances have given Wilton hopes without intending it; but the matter is very much altered now, when he has done so much more for me in every way. I do not scruple at all to say that those objections are removed."
"Perhaps, my lord," said the Earl, sitting down again, and speaking in a low voice, "we had better discuss the matter in private. Could I not speak to you apart for a moment or two? Suppose we go into the anteroom."
"Nay, nay," said the Duke, "Laura will leave us.—Go to your room, my love," he added, raising his voice. "I would fain have a few minutes conversation with my noble friend alone."
"Very wrong of you, Lord Byerdale," she said, with a smile, as she walked towards the door, "to turn me out of the room in this way."
Lord Byerdale smiled, and bowed, and apologized, all with an air of courtier-like mockery. The moment she was gone, however, he turned to the Duke, saying, "Now, my lord duke, we are alone, and I will beg your grace to give me your honour that no part of our present conversation transpires in any circumstances. I can then hold much more free communication with you. I can lay before you what is possible, and what is probable, and you can choose whatever path you like."
"Most solemnly I pledge my honour," replied the Duke, "and I can assure your lordship that I fully appreciate Mr. Brown's merits and his services to me. He has not only talents and genius, but a princely person and most distinguished manners, and I could not have the slightest objection, as soon as his birth is clearly ascertained and acknowledged—"
"My lord duke," replied the Earl, interrupting him, "I fear your lordship is somewhat deceiving yourself as to your own situation and his. Wilton, I tell you, can easily find the means of effecting your escape from this prison, and can insure your safe arrival in any continental port you may think fit to name. I do not mean to say that I must not shut my eyes; but for his sake and for yours I am very willing to do so, if I see his happiness made sure thereby."
The Duke's eyes sparkled with joy and hope, and the Earl went on.
"Your situation, my lord, at the present moment, you see, is a very unfortunate one, or such a step would in no degree be advisable. But at this period, when the passions of the people and the indignation of the King are both excited to the highest pitch; when there is, as I may call it, an appetite for blood afloat; when the three witnesses, Sir John Fenwick, Smith, and Cook, to say nothing of the corroborative evidence of Goodman, establish beyond doubt that you were accessorily, though perhaps not actively, guilty of high treason—at this period, I say, there can be little doubt that if you were brought to trial—that is, in the course of next week, as I have heard it rumoured—the result would be fatal, such, in short, as we should all deplore."
The Duke listened, with a face as white as a sheet, but only replied, in a tremulous tone, "But the escape, my lord! the escape!"
"Is quite possible and quite sure," replied the Earl. "I must shut my eyes, as I have said, and Wilton must act energetically; but I cannot either shut my eyes or suffer him to do so, except upon the following precise condition, which is indeed absolutely necessary to success. It is, that the Lady Laura, your daughter, be his wife before you set your foot from without these walls."
"But, good heavens, my lord!" exclaimed the Duke—"how is that possible? I believe that Laura would do anything to save her father's life; but she is not prepared for such a thing. Then the marriage must be celebrated with unbecoming haste. No, my lord, oh no! This is quite impossible. I am very willing to promise that I will give my consent to their marriage afterwards; but for their marriage to take place before we go is quite impossible—especially while I am a prisoner in the Tower of London—quite impossible!"
"I am sorry your grace thinks so," replied the Earl, drily; "for under those circumstances I fear that your escape from the Tower will be found impossible also."
A momentary spirit of resistance was raised in the Duke's breast by feelings of indignation, and he tried for an instant to persuade himself that his case might not be so desperate as the Earl depicted it; that in some points of view it might be better to remain and stand his trial, and that the King's mercy would very likely be obtained even if he were condemned. But that spirit died away in a moment, and the more rapidly, because the Earl of Byerdale employed not the slightest argument to induce him to follow the plan proposed.
"My lord, this is a very painful case," he said, "a very painful case, indeed."
"It is, Duke," replied the Earl, "it is a painful case; a choice of difficulties, which none can decide but yourself. Pray do not let anything that I can say affect you. I thought it right, as an old friend, to lay before you a means of saving yourself; and no one can judge whether that means be too painful to you to be adopted, as nobody can tell at what rate you value life. But you will remember, also, that forfeiture accompanies the sentence of death in matters of high treason, and that Lady Laura will therefore be left in a painful situation."
"Nay, my lord, nay," said the Duke, "if it must come to that, of course I must consent to any terms, rather than sacrifice everything. But I did not think Wilton would have proposed such conditions to me."
"Nor does he, my lord," replied the Earl: "he is totally ignorant of the whole matter. He has never, even, that I know of, contemplated your escape as possible. One word from me, however, whispered in his ear, will open his eyes in a minute. But, my lord, it must be upon the condition that I mention. Wilton's father-in-law may go forth from this prison before twelve to-morrow night, but no other prisoner within it shall, or indeed can."
"Well, my lord, well," replied the Duke, somewhat impatiently, "I will throw no obstacle in the way. Laura and Wilton must settle it between them. But I do not see how the matter can be managed here in a prison."
"Oh, that is easily arranged," replied the Earl—"nothing can be more easy. There is a chaplain to the Tower, you know. The place has its own privileges likewise, and all the rest shall be done by me. Am I to understand your grace, that you consider yourself pledged upon this subject?"
The Duke thought for a moment, and the images of the trial by his peers, the block and the axe, came up before his sight, making the private marriage of his daughter with Wilton, and the escape to France or Flanders, appear bright in the comparison.
"Well, my lord, well," he said, "I not only pledge myself, but pledge myself willingly. I always liked Wilton, I always esteemed him highly; and I suppose he would have had Laura at last, if he did not have her now."
"I congratulate you on your approaching freedom, Duke," said the Earl, "and as to the rest, I have told you perfectly true, in saying that it is not Wilton who makes any conditions with you. He knows nothing of the matter, and is as eager to set you at liberty without any terms at all, as you could be yourself to obtain it. You had better, therefore, let me speak with him on the subject altogether. Should he come here before he sees me, only tell him that the marriage is to take place to-morrow evening, that it is all settled between you and me, and that as to the means of setting you free, he must talk with me upon the subject. You must then furnish him with your consent to the immediate marriage under your own hand. After that is done, he and I will arrange all the rest."
The Duke acquiesced in all that was proposed to him, having once given his consent to the only step which was repugnant to him to take. Nay more, that point being overcome, and his mind elevated by the hope of escape, he even went before Lord Byerdale in suggesting arrangements which would facilitate the whole business.
"I will tell Laura after you are gone, my lord," he said, "and her consent will be easily obtained, I am sure, both because I know she would do anything to save my life, and because I shrewdly believe—indeed she has not scrupled to admit—that she loves this young man already. I will manage all that with her, and then I will leave her and Wilton, and Wilton and your lordship, to make all the rest of the arrangements."
"Do so, do so," said the Earl, rising, "and I will not fail, my lord, as soon as you are safe, to use every influence in my power for the purpose of obtaining your pardon, which will be much more easily gained when you are beyond the power of the English law, than while you are actually within its gripe."
The Earl was now about to take his departure, and some more ceremonious words passed between him and the Duke, in regard to their leave-taking. Just as the Earl had reached the door, however, a sudden apprehension seemed to seize the prisoner, who exclaimed, "Stay, my good lord, stay, one moment more! Of course your lordship is upon honour with me, as I am with you? There is no possibility, no probability, of my escape being prevented after my daughter's hand is given?"
Nothing more mortified the Earl of Byerdale than to find, that, notwithstanding all his skill, there was still a something of insincerity penetrated through the veil he cast over his conduct, and made many persons, even the most easily deceived, doubtful of his professions and advances.
"I trust your grace does not suspect me of treachery," he said, in a sharp and offended tone.
"Not in the least, not in the least, my lord," replied the Duke; "but I understood your lordship to say, that my escape by the means proposed would be rendered quite certain, and I wish to ascertain whether I had not mistaken you."
"Not in the slightest degree, my lord duke," replied the Earl. "I pledge you my honour, that under the proposed arrangements you shall be beyond the doors of this prison, and at perfect liberty, before the dawn of day on Monday morning. I pledge myself to you in every respect, and if it be not so, I will be ready to take your place. Does this satisfy you?"
"Quite, quite," answered the Duke. "I could desire nothing more." And the Earl, with a formal bow, opened the door and left him.
As soon as the Earl of Byerdale was gone, the Duke called Laura from her room, and told her what had been proposed. "Laura," he said, as he concluded, "you do not answer me: but I took upon me to reply at once, that you would be well pleased to lay aside pride and every other feeling of the kind, to save your father from this torturing suspense—to save perhaps his life itself."
Laura's cheeks had not regained their natural colour since the first words respecting such a sudden marriage were spoken to her. That her father had consented to her union with Wilton was of course most joyful; but the early period fixed for such an important, such an overwhelming change in her condition, was startling; and to think that Wilton could have made it the condition of his using all his exertions in her father's cause would have been painful—terrible, if she could have believed it. We must not, indeed, say, that even if it had been really so, she would have hesitated to give him her hand, not only for her father's sake, but because she loved him, because, as we have said before, she already looked upon herself as plighted to him beyond all recall. She would have tried to fancy that he had good motives which she did not know; she would have tried, in short, to find any palliation for such conduct; but still it would have been very painful to her—still it might, in a degree, have shaken her confidence in high and upright generosity of feeling, it might have made her doubt whether, in all respects, she had found a heart perfectly responsive to her own.
"My dear father," she replied, gazing tenderly upon him, and laying her two hands on his, with a faint smile, "what is there that I would not do for such objects as you mention, were it ten thousand times more than marrying the man I love best, even with such terrible suddenness.—It is very sudden, indeed, I must say; and I do wonder that Wilton required it."
"Why, my dear Laura," replied the Duke, "it was not exactly Wilton himself. It was Lord Byerdale took it all on his own shoulders: but of course Wilton prompted it; and in such circumstances as these I could not hesitate to consent."
Lady Laura looked down while her father spoke; and when her first agitation was over, she could not but think, that perhaps, considering her father's character, Wilton was right; and that the means he had taken, though apparently ungenerous, were the only ones to secure her own happiness and his, and her father's safety also. The next instant, however, as she recollected a thousand different traits in her lover's conduct, and combined those recollections with what her father said concerning Lord Byerdale, she became convinced that Wilton had not made such conditions, and that rather than have made them he would have risked everything, even if the Duke were certain to deny him her hand the moment after his liberation.
"I do not think, my dear father," she replied, as this conviction came strong upon her—"I do not think that Wilton did prompt the Earl of Byerdale. I do not think he would make such conditions, on any account."
"Well, it does not matter, my dear Laura," replied her father, whose mind was totally taken up with his own escape. "It comes to the same thing. The Earl has made them, if Wilton has not, and I have pledged my word for your consent. But hark, Laura, I hear Wilton's step in the outer room. I will leave you two together to make all your arrangements, and to enter into every explanation," and he turned hurriedly towards the door which led to his bedroom.
Ere he reached it, however, he paused for a moment, with a sudden fear coming over him that Laura might by some means put an end to all the plans on which he founded his hopes of liberty.
"Laura," he said, "Laura—for heaven's sake show no repugnance, my dear child. Remember, your father's safety depends upon it." And turning away, he entered his bedroom just as Wilton opened the opposite door.
Laura gazed upon her lover, as he came in; and asked herself, while she marked that noble and open countenance, "Is it possible he could make any unworthy condition?"
Wilton's face was grave, and even sad, for he had again applied to Vernon, and received a still less satisfactory reply than before; but he was glad to find Laura alone, for this was the first time that he had obtained any opportunity of seeing her in private, since she had been permitted to join her father in the Tower. His greeting, then, was as tender and as affectionate as the circumstances in which they stood towards each other might warrant; but he did not forget, even then, that subject which he knew was of the deepest interest to her —her father's situation.
"Oh, dearest Laura," he said, "I have longed to speak with you for a few minutes alone, and yet, now that I have the opportunity, I have nothing but sad subjects to entertain you with."
His words confirmed Laura's confidence in his generosity. She saw clearly that he knew not what had been proposed by the Earl; the very conviction gave her joy, and she replied, looking up playfully and affectionately in his face,—
"I thought, Wilton, that you had come to measure my finger for the ring," and she held out her small fair hand towards him.
"Oh, would to Heaven, dear Laura," he answered, pressing the hand that she had given to his lips—"would to Heaven, that we had arrived at that point!—But, Laura, you are smiling still. You have heard some good news: your father is pardoned: is it not so?"
"No, Wilton, no," she said, "not quite such good news as that. But still the news I have heard is good news; but it is odd enough, Wilton, that I should have to tell it to you; and yet I am glad that it is so."
She then detailed to him all that had occurred, as far as she had learned it from her father. Wilton listened with surprise and astonishment; but, though at the joyful tidings of the Duke's consent, and at the prospect of her so soon becoming his irrevocably, he could not restrain his joy, but clasped her in rapture to his heart, yet there was a feeling of indignation, ay, and of doubt and suspicion also, in regard to Lord Byerdale's conduct, and his purposes, which mingled strangely with his satisfaction.