"Although, dear Laura," he said, "although this is a blessed hope for ourselves, and also a blessed hope for your father, I cannot help saying that Lord Byerdale has acted very strangely in this business, and very ill. It may be out of regard for me; but it is a sort of regard I do not understand; and, were it not that I am sure my dear Laura has never for a moment doubted me, I should say that he in some degree compromised my honour, by making that consent a condition of your father's safety, which should only be granted to affection and esteem."
Laura coloured slightly, to think that she had even doubted for an instant: but Wilton went on, relaxing the graver look that had come over his countenance, and saying, "We must not, however, my dear Laura, refuse to take the happiness that is offered to us, unless, indeed, you should think it very, very terrible to give me this dear hand so soon; and even then I think my Laura would overcome such feelings, when they are to benefit her father."
"I do not feel it so terrible, Wilton," replied Lady Laura, "as I did ten minutes ago. If I thought that you had made the condition, it would seem so much more as if you were a stranger to me, that it might be terrible. But when I hear you speak as you do now, Wilton, I feel that I could trust myself with you anywhere, that I could go away with you at any moment, perfectly secure of my future happiness; and so I reply, Wilton, that I am not only willing, but very willing."
"We must lose no time, then, dear Laura," replied Wilton, "in making all our arrangements. I must now, indeed, have the measure of that small finger, and I must speed away to Lord Byerdale with all haste, in order to learn the means that are to be employed for your father's escape. I must inquire a little, too, into his motives, Laura, and add some reproaches for his having so compromised me."
"For Heaven's sake, do not—for Heaven's sake, do not!" cried Laura. "My father would never forgive me, if, in consequence of anything I had said, you and Lord Byerdale were to have any dispute upon the matter, and the business were to fail."
"Oh, fear not, fear not, Laura," replied Wilton, smiling at her eagerness: "there is no fear of any dispute."
"Nay, but promise me," she said—"promise me, Wilton."
"I do promise you, dear Laura," he replied, "that nothing on earth which depends upon me, for your father's liberation or escape, shall be wanting, and I promise you more, my beloved Laura, that I will not quarrel with the means, because my Laura's hand is to be mine at once."
"Well, Wilton," continued Laura, still fearful that something might make the scheme go wrong, "I trust to you, and only beg you to remember, that if this does not succeed, my father will never forgive either you or me."
Some farther conversation upon these subjects ensued, and all the arrangements of Laura and Wilton were made as far as it was possible. There were feelings in the mind of Wilton—that doubt of ultimate success, in fact, which we all feel when a prospect of bright and extraordinary happiness is suddenly presented to us, after many struggles with difficulties and dangers—which led him to linger and enjoy the present hour. But after a time, as he heard the clock chime two, and knew that every moment was now of importance, he hastened away to seek the Earl of Byerdale, and hear farther what was to be done for the escape of the Duke.
The Earl was not at home, however, nor at his office, and Wilton occupied himself for another hour in various preparations for the events that were likely to ensue. At the end of that time he returned to the Earl of Byerdale's house, and was immediately admitted.
"Well, Wilton!" exclaimed the Earl, as soon as he saw him, with a cheerful smile, in which there was, nevertheless, something sarcastic—"have I not done well for you? I think this proud Duke's stomach is brought down sufficiently."
"I am only grieved, my lord," replied Wilton, "that either the Duke or Lady Laura should have cause to think that I made it a condition she should give me her hand before I aided in her father's escape. There seemed to me something degrading in such a course."
The Earl's brow, for a moment, grew as dark as a thunder-cloud, but it passed away in a sneer, and he contented himself with saying, "Are you so proud, also, my young sir?—It matters not, however. What did the Duke say to you? He showed no reluctance, I trust. We will bring his pride down farther, if he did."
"I did not see the Duke, my lord," replied Wilton, a good deal mortified at the tone the Earl assumed—"I only saw Lady Laura."
"And what said she?" demanded the Earl. "Is she as proud as her father?"
"She showed no repugnance, my lord," replied Wilton, "to do what was necessary for her father's safety; and when she saw how much pained I was it should be thought that I would make such a condition with her, she only seemed apprehensive that such feelings might lead to any derangement of your lordship's plan."
"What?" said the Earl. "You were very indignant, indeed, I suppose, and abused me heartily for doing the very thing that is to secure you happiness, rank, station, and independence. But she conquered, no doubt. You promised to concur in my terrible scheme? Is it not so, Wilton?"
"Yes, my lord, I did," replied Wilton.
"Upon my word, you are a pretty gentleman, to make ladies sue you thus," continued the Earl, in a jeering tone. "I dare say she made you vow all sorts of things?"
"I pledged myself solemnly, my lord," replied Wilton, "to do all that depended upon me to forward your lordship's plan for the Duke's escape, and she knows me too well to entertain a doubt of my keeping that promise to the letter."
"Not my plan, not my plan, Wilton," said the Earl, in a more pleasant tone. "It must be your plan, my young friend; for I might put my head in danger, remember. It is a different thing with you, who are not yet sworn of the privy council. I will take care, also, that no harm shall happen to you. The Duke was talking of some valet that he has, whom he wishes to send out of the prison to-morrow night. Now, what I propose, in order to facilitate all your arrangements with regard to Lady Laura, is to give you an order upon the governor of the Tower to suffer you and Lady Laura, and one man-servant and one maid, to pass out any time to-morrow before twelve o'clock at night. I write a little note to the Governor at the same time, telling him that, with the consent of all parties, you and Lady Laura are to be married privately in the Tower, to-morrow evening, by the chaplain, and I have provided you with all the necessary authorizations for the chaplain. You will find them there in that paper.—My note will not at all surprise the Governor, because it has been the common talk of the town for the last two months that you were going to be married to Lady Laura, and most likely the good Governor has not heard of the Duke's whims at Somersbury. The note will therefore only serve as a reason for your wishing to go out late at night, which is contrary to rules, you know. The Governor will give orders about it to his subordinates, as he is going down to spend a day or two at Hampton Court, and testify his duty to the King. If, therefore, you go away with your attendants towards midnight, you will find nobody up who knows the Duke, and a livery jacket and badge may cover whomsoever you like. A carriage can be waiting for you on Tower Hill, and a small brig called the Skimmer is lying with papers sealed and everything prepared a little below Greenwich.—Now, Wilton," he added, "if this does not succeed in your hands, it is your fault. Do you agree to every part of this as I have laid it before you?"
"Most assuredly, my lord," replied Wilton, with eager gladness; "and I can easily show Laura now, that there is a sufficient motive for our marriage taking place so rapidly and so secretly."
"I did not think of that," said the Earl, much to Wilton's surprise. "However, I shall leave to you entirely the execution of this scheme, Wilton. You understand that my name is never to be mentioned, however, and I take it as a matter of honour, that whatever be the result, you say not one word whatsoever to inculpate me."
"None, my lord—none, upon my honour!" replied Wilton.
"Is there anything else I can do for you, Wilton?" demanded the Earl. "If not, just be good enough to copy out that letter for me against my return, for the carriage is at the door, and I must go in haste to Kensington, to see the King depart for Hampton Court. The papers are all there in that packet I have given you—the order, the note, the special licence, and everything. Is there anything more?"
"Nothing, my lord. I thank you most sincerely," replied Wilton, sitting down to copy the letter, while the Earl took up his hat and cane, and walked a step or two towards the door. The Earl paused, however, before he reached it, and then turned again towards Wilton, gazing upon him with a cold, unpleasant sort of smile.
"By the way, Wilton," he said, "I promised to tell you part of your own history, but did not intend to do it for some little time. As we are likely however to be separated for a month or two by this marriage trip of yours, there is one thing that I may as well tell you. But you must, in the first place, promise me, upon your honour as a gentleman, and by all you hold most sacred, not to reveal one word thereof to any one, till the safety of the Duke is quite secured—do you promise me in that solemn manner?"
"I do, indeed, my lord," replied Wilton, "and feel most sincerely grateful to your lordship for relieving my mind on the subject at once."
"Well, then, Wilton," continued the Earl, "you may recollect I said to the Duke that there was as ancient and good blood in your veins as in his own or in mine. Now, Wilton, my uncle, the last Earl of Byerdale, had two other nephews besides myself, and you are the son of one of them, who, espousing the cause of the late King James, was killed at the battle of the Boyne, and all he had confiscated. Little enough it was. You are his son, I say, Wilton. Do you hear?—His natural son, by a very pretty lady called Miss Harriet Oswald!—But upon my honour I must go, or I shall miss the King."
And turning round with an air of perfect coolness and composure, the Earl quitted the room, leaving Wilton thunderstruck and overwhelmed with grief.
The whole of the Earl's dark scheme was cleared up to Wilton's eyes in a moment; and the secret of his own fate was only given to him in conjunction with an insight into that black and base transaction, of which he had been made an unwitting tool.
Horrible, most horrible to himself was the disappointment of all his hopes. The bright dreams that he had entertained, the visions of gay things which he had suffered the enchanter Imagination to call forth from the former obscurity of his fate, were all dispelled by the words that he had just heard spoken; and everything dark, and painful and agonising, was spread out around him in its stead. He was as one who, having fallen asleep in a desert, has dreamt sweet dreams, and then suddenly wakes with the rising sun, to find nothing but arid desolation around him.
Thus, painful indeed would have been his feelings if he had only had to contemplate his situation in reference to himself alone; but when he recollected how his position bore upon the Duke and Laura, the thought thereof almost drove him mad. The deceit which had been practised upon him had taught him to entertain hopes, and to pursue objects which he never would have dreamed of, had it not been for that deceit. It had made him throw open his heart to the strongest of all affections, it had made him give himself up entirely to ardent and passionate love, from which he would have fled as from his bane, had he known what was now told to him. He had been made also the instrument of basely deceiving others. He knew that the Duke would never have heard of such a thing as his marriage with Lady Laura; he, knew that in all probability he would never have admitted him into any extraordinary intimacy with his family, if he had not firmly believed that he was anything but that which he was now proved to be. He did not know, but he doubted much whether Laura, knowing her father's feelings upon such a subject, would ever have thought of him otherwise than as an ordinary acquaintance. He knew not, he could not tell, whether she herself might not upon that subject entertain the same feelings as the Duke. But what would be their sensations, what their astonishment, what their indignation, when they found that they had been so basely deceived, when they found that he had been apparently a sharer in such deceit! Would they ever believe that he had acted unwittingly, when the whole transaction was evidently to the advantage of none but himself; when he was to reap the whole of the solid benefit, and the Earl of Byerdale had only to indulge a revengeful caprice? Would anybody believe it? he asked himself: and, clasping his hands together, he stood overpowered by the feeling of having lost all hope in his own fate, of having lost her he loved for ever, and, perhaps, of having lost also her love and esteem, and the honourable name which he had hitherto borne.
For a few minutes he thus remained, as it were, utterly confounded, with no thought but the mere consciousness of so many evils, and with the cold sneering tone of the Earl of Byerdale still ringing in his ears, announcing to him plainly, that the treacherous statesman enjoyed the wound which he had inflicted upon him, almost as much as the humiliation to which he had doomed the Duke.
Wilton's mind, however, as we have endeavoured to show throughout this book, was not of a character to succumb under a sense of any evils that affected him. All the painful feelings that assailed him might, it is true, remain indelibly impressed upon his mind for long years. It was not that the effect wore out, it was only that the mind gained strength, and bore the burden that was cast upon it; and thus, in the present instance, he shook off, in a very short space of time, the thought of his sorrows themselves, to consider more clearly how he should act under them.
But new difficulties presented themselves with this consideration. He had solemnly pledged himself not to reveal what the Earl had told him till the Duke was placed in safety. He had pledged himself to Laura to throw no obstacle whatever in the way of her father's escape by the means which the Earl had proposed. Neither was there a way of evading any part of the plan as the Earl had arranged it. Otherwise he would undoubtedly have attempted to postpone the marriage till after the Duke was free, and then, having placed his own honour beyond all question, to tell Laura and her father the whole truth. But as the Earl had taken care to inform the governor of the Tower that he was to go out with Lady Laura and the attendants after his private marriage to her, there could be no pretence for his staying in the Tower after the usual hour, and making use of the Earl's order, if the marriage did not take place.
He saw that the wily politician had entangled him on all sides. He saw that he had left him scarcely a possibility of escape. He had either to commit an action which he felt would be dishonourable in the highest degree towards Laura, or to break the solemn pledge that he had made, and at the same time leave himself still under the imputation of dishonour; for he had nothing else to propose to Laura or her father but her instant marriage with himself, notwithstanding the circumstances of his birth, or the imminent risk of her father's total ruin.
"She may think," he said to himself, "and the Duke certainly will think, that I have never told this fact till the very last moment, when I have so entangled her that there was no receding. Thus I shall violate my word to the Earl, which his baseness, perhaps, would justify me in doing, but shall yet derive scarcely any benefit either to the Duke, or Laura, or myself."
It was all agony, and clasping his hands together once more, he remained gazing upon the ground in absolute despair. Which way, he asked himself, could he turn for help or advice? His mind rested for a moment on Lord Sunbury. There were many strong reasons to believe that he was in London, but incognito; but as Wilton thus thought, he recollected his pledge not to mention either the plans the Earl had laid out, or the facts concerning his own birth which had been told him. And again he was at sea, but the next moment came the thought of Lord Sherbrooke and his strange acquaintance Green: he recollected that on that very night he was to meet the Colonel; he recollected that the very object of that meeting was to be the Duke; he remembered that Green's words had been, "to apply to him in any difficulty, for that he had more power to do him a service than ever;" he recollected that the very person he was to see possessed some knowledge of his own history; and hope, out of these materials, however incoherent, strange, and unpromising they might be, contrived to elicit at least one ray of light.
"I will meet him," he thought; "I will meet him, and will do the best that I can when I do see him. I must not allude to what I have heard; but he may have power that I do not know of, he may even aid me in some other plan for the Duke's escape. I will set out as soon as it is dusk."
As he thus thought, he turned towards the door, nearly forgetting the letter which the Earl had given him to copy; but his eye chanced to fall upon it as he passed, and saying aloud, "This man shall not see how he has shaken me," he sat down, and copied it clearly and accurately. He then left the house, went home, ordered his horse, and made preparations for his journey. The sun was just touching the horizon as he put his foot in the stirrup, and he rode forward at a quick pace on the road towards Somersbury.
It was a beautiful clear evening, and many people were abroad; but for the first six miles he saw nobody but strangers, all hurrying to their several destinations for the night, travellers wending their way into the great metropolis, and carts carrying to its devouring maw the food for the next day. Between the sixth and seventh milestone, however, where the moon was just seen raising her yellow horn beside the village spire, he beheld a man mounted upon a powerful horse, riding towards him, who by his military aspect, broad shoulders, powerful frame, and erect seat upon his horse, he recognised, while still at some distance, as Green.
"Ah Wilton, my boy," cried the Colonel, as he rode up, "I am glad to see you.—You are not behind your time, but there is an impatience upon me now that made me set off early. I am glad I did, for I have not been on my horse's back for a fortnight; and there is something in poor Barbary's motion that gives me back a part of my former lightness of heart."
"I wish to Heaven that you could get it all back," replied Wilton. "But I fear when it is lost it is not to be regained—I feel that it is so, but too bitterly, at this moment."
"What you!" exclaimed the Colonel. "What is the matter, Wilton? What have you done? for a man never loses his lightness of heart for ever, but by his own act?"
"I think," said Wilton, "from what I have heard you say, that you can feel for my situation, when I tell you, that, by the entanglements of one I do not scruple to call a most accursed villain, I can neither go on with honour in the course that is before me, nor retreat without dishonour; and even if I could do either, there would still be absolute and perpetual misery for me in life."
"Who is the villain?" demanded Green, abruptly.
"The Earl of Byerdale," replied Wilton.
"Ha, ha, ha!" shouted Green aloud. "He is a cursed villain; he always was, and ever will be. But we will frustrate the Earl of Byerdale, Wilton. I tell you, that, with my right hand on his collar, the Earl of Byerdale is no more than a lackey."
"But you cannot frustrate him," replied Wilton, "so as to relieve me, unless you can find means to set the Duke of Gaveston at liberty; and even then—but it matters not. I can bear unhappiness, but not dishonour."
"Set the Duke at liberty!" said Green, thoughtfully. "He ought to have been at liberty already. He has committed no crime, but only folly. He has been stupid, not wicked; and besides, I had heard—but that may be a mistake. Let us ride on, Wilton," he continued, turning his horse; "and as we go, tell me gill that has happened."
"Alas!" replied Wilton, riding on beside him, "that is of all things what I cannot and must not do. If I could speak, if I could open my mouth to any one on the subject, one half of my difficulties, one half of my grief; would be relieved at once. But that I am pledged and bound not to do, in a manner which leaves me no relief, which affords me no means of escape."
"Well, then, Wilton," said his companion, "I know there are situations in which, to aid a friend at all, we must aid him upon his own showing, and without inquiry. We must do what he asks us to do without explanation, or sacrifice his service to our pride. Such shall not be the case with me. I will do what I can to serve you, even to the last, altogether without explanation. Let me ask you, however, one or two questions."
"I will answer them, if I can," replied Wilton. "But remember always, there is much that I am pledged not to reveal at present."
"They will be very easily answered, my boy," replied Green. "Have you seen the Earl of Sunbury?"
"I have not," replied Wilton, "though I believe he is in England. To him I should have applied, certainly, if I had been able to explain to him, in any degree, my situation."
"He is in England," replied Green: "I saw him two days ago; but I leave him to smart for a time under the consequences of an imprudence he has committed. In the next place, I have but the one general question to put,—What can I do for you?"
"I know not, indeed," replied Wilton, "though I sought you with a vague hope, that you might be able to do something. But the only thing that could in any degree relieve me would be, either to effect the escape of the Duke from the Tower—"
"That is impossible!" said Green, "utterly impossible! What was the alternative?"
"To obtain from the King a warrant for his liberation," said Wilton, in a despairing tone, "which is impossible also; for how can I expect you to do what neither Vernon nor the Duke of Shrewsbury has been able to accomplish? The King's only answer to all applications is, that he has spoken to the Earl of Byerdale; and in the Earl of Byerdale we have no hope. So that is out of the question."
"Not so much as you imagine, Wilton," replied Green. "I will do it if it is to be done, though I would fain have avoided the act which I must now perform. Come to me on Monday, Wilton, here upon this road where we now ride, and I think I will put the order in your hand."
"Alas!" replied Wilton, "Monday will not do. The liberation must be for to-morrow night to answer the intended purpose. I have lately thought to do the bold, and perhaps the rash, act of going to the King myself—telling him all I know—and beseeching him to set the Duke at liberty. He even told me once, that I had done him good service, and that he would favour me. But, alas! kings forget such words as soon as spoken."
"He has a long memory, this William," replied Green; "but you shall go with me, Wilton. If it must be to-morrow, to-morrow it shall be. Meet me then at twelve o'clock exactly, at the little inn by the water, called the Swan, near Kingston Bridge. I will be there waiting for you. It is a likely hour to find the King after he comes from chapel; but I will apply beforehand both in your name and in mine; for I heard some time ago, from Harry Sherbrooke, that you had won such praises from William as he seldom bestows on any one."
"At twelve to-morrow!" said Wilton, thoughtfully. "I was to have been at the Tower at twelve to-morrow. But it matters not. That engagement I at least may break without losing my honour, or wounding her heart. But tell me, tell me, Green, is there any hope, is there any chance of our being successful?"
"There is great hope, there is great chance," replied Green. "I will not, indeed, say that it is by any means sure; for what is there we can rely upon on earth? Have I not seen everything break down beneath me like mere reeds, and shall I now put my faith in any man? But still, Wilton, I will ask this thing. I will see William of Orange—I will call him King at once—for King he is in fact; and far more kingly in his courage and his nature than the weak man who never will wear the crown of these realms again. We will both urge our petition to the throne; and even if he have forgotten the last words that he said to me, those which you have to speak perhaps may prove sufficient. He is not a cruel or a bloody-minded man; and I do believe he forgets his enmities more easily than he does his friendships. If we could have said the same of the race of Stuart, the crown of England would never have rested on the brow of the Prince of Orange. I thought to have led you to other scenes and other conferences to-night," he added, "but this matter changes all, and we will now part. I will to my task, and prepare the way for to-morrow. You to yours; but fail not, Wilton, fail not. Be rather before than after the hour."
"I will not fail," replied Wilton; and after this short conference, he turned his rein and rode back to London.
As he went, he meditated on the hopes which his conference with Green had raised up again; but the brightness of those hopes faded away beneath the light of thought. Yet, though such was the case, the determination remained, and grew firmer and stronger, perhaps from the want of any very great expectation. He determined to appeal to the King, as the last act in his power; to do so firmly and resolutely; and if the King refused his petition, and gave him no reason to hope, to apply, as the next greatest favour, for a memorandum in writing of his having so appealed, in order that he might prove to Laura and her father that he had done all in his power to give the Duke an opportunity of rejecting that means of escape, which could only be obtained by uniting his daughter to one, from whom, in any other circumstances, he would have withheld her.
"It is strange," he said to himself, "it is strange and sad, that I can scarcely move a step in any way without the risk of dishonour; and that the only means to avoid it requires every exertion to deprive myself of peace, and happiness, and love for ever."
Thus he thought as he went along; and imagination pictured his next parting from her he loved, and all that was to follow it—the grief that she would suffer as well as himself—the long dreary lapse of sad and cheerless hours that was to fill up the remainder of existence for him, with all happy hopes at an end, and fortune, station, love, gone away like visions of the night.
Early on the ensuing morning, he despatched a note to the Tower, telling Laura that business, affecting her father's safety, would keep him away from her at the hour he had promised to visit her. He would be with her, he said, at all events before nightfall; and he added every term of love and affection that his heart suggested; but at the same time he could not prevent a tone of sadness spreading through his letter, which communicated to Laura a fear lest her father's hopes of escape should be frustrated.
By eleven o'clock Wilton was at the door of the small inn named for the meeting; and two handsome horses which were standing there, held by a servant, announced that Green had arrived before him. On going in, he found his strange friend far more splendidly dressed than he had ever seen him, apparently waiting for his coming. His fine person told to much advantage, his upright carriage and somewhat proud and stern demeanour, the grave and thoughtful look of his eye, all gave him the appearance of one of high mind and high station, accustomed to action and command. A certain sort of gay and dissipated look, which he had previously borne, was altogether gone: within the last few months he had become paler and thinner, and his countenance had assumed an air of gloom which did not even leave it when he laughed.
As Wilton now advanced towards him, he could not but feel that there was something dignified and imposing in his aspect; and yet it caused him a strange sensation, to think that he was going into the King's presence in company with a man whom he had actually first met upon the King's Highway.
"I am glad you have come early, Wilton," said Green. "The King returns from the chapel at a quarter past twelve, and expects us to be in waiting at that hour, when he will see us. This is no slight favour, I find, Wilton," he added, "for the palace is full of courtiers, all eager and pressing for royal attention. Let us go immediately, then, and ride slowly up to the palace."
They mounted their horses accordingly, and rode on, speaking a few words from time to time, but not, indeed, absolutely conversing, for both were far too thoughtful, and too much impressed with the importance of the act they were about to perform, to leave the tongue free and unfettered.
On their arrival at the palace, they found that the King had not yet returned from the chapel; but on being asked whether they came by appointment or not, and giving their names, they were admitted into a waiting-room where two or three other people were already assembled. The moments passed slowly, and it seemed as if the King would never return.
At length, however, a distant flourish of drums and trumpets was heard, together with the sounds of many people passing to and fro in the courts and passages. Buzzing conversation, manifold footfalls, gay laughter, announced that the morning service was over, and the congregation of the royal chapel dispersed.
In the royal closet, at the palace of Hampton Court, stood King William III. leaning against a gilt railing, placed round some ornamental objects, near one of the windows. The famous Lord Keeper Somers stood beside him, while, at a little distance behind appeared Keppel, Lord Albemarle, and before him, a tall, fine-looking man, somewhat past the middle age, slight, but dignified in his person, and with an air of ease and grace in his whole position and demeanour, which bespoke long familiarity with courts. William gazed at him with a smile, and heard him speak evidently with pleasure.
"Well, my lord," he said, "I am very glad of the news you give me. With the assistance of yourself, and my Lord Keeper here, together with that of our good friend the Duke of Shrewsbury, I doubt not now my affairs will go well. I am happy to see your health so well restored, my lord; for you know my friendship for you well enough, to be aware, that I was seriously afflicted at your illness, for your own sake, as well as because it deprived me of the counsel and assistance of one, who, as I thought he would, has proved himself the only person sufficiently loved by all men, to reconcile the breaches between some of my best friends."
"Most grateful I am, sir," replied the Earl of Sunbury, to this unusually long speech, "that Heaven has made me an instrument for that purpose, and I can never sufficiently express my gratitude, for your not being angry at my long absence from your majesty's service. The arrangements thus being made, sire, I will humbly take my leave, begging your majesty not to forget the interests of my young friend, according to your gracious promise."
"I will not forget, I will not forget," replied the King. "When do you publicly announce your return, my lord?"
"I think it would be better not, sire," replied the Earl, "till after we have notified the arrangements to the three gentlemen who retire."
The King smiled. "That can be done to-morrow, my lord," he said; "and I cannot but say, that the sooner it is done the better, for my service has already suffered."
"That disagreeable task will of course fall on my Lord Keeper," said Lord Sunbury, looking to Somers with a smile.
"I shall do it without ceremony, my lord," replied Lord Somers. "It will be a mere matter of form; and if we could have found a position suitable to my Lord Wharton, I should say that we have constructed the most harmonious administration that I have seen since the glorious Revolution."
The King's brow grew somewhat dark at the name of Lord Wharton; and the Earl of Sunbury making a sign to the Lord Keeper to avoid that topic, took his leave of the King, saying, "I think I have your majesty's permission to retire through your private apartments."
As he was opening a door, a little to the King's right hand, however, he was met by the Earl of Portland, who greeted him with a well-pleased smile, and then passed on towards the King, of whom Lord Somers was taking leave at the same moment.
"May it please your majesty," said the Earl of Portland, as soon as the Lords Sunbury and Somers had departed, "the young gentleman whom you were once pleased to see concerning the Duke of Berwick's coming to England, is now here, together with another gentleman calling himself Green, whom your majesty also, I understand—"
"Yes, yes," said the King, "I will see him. I promised to see him."
"You told me also, sire," replied Lord Portland, "if ever this other gentleman applied, you would also see him. Mr. Wilton Brown, I mean."
"I will see him too," said the King. "I will see them together. Let them be called, Bentinck."
Lord Portland went to the door, and gave the necessary orders, and in a moment or two after, Wilton and his companion stood in the presence of the King.
As they entered, Lord Albemarle said a few words to William, in a low tone, to which William replied, "No, no, I will tell you if it be necessary.—Now, gentlemen," he said, "I understood, from the note received this morning by my Lord of Albemarle, that you requested an audience together, which as I had promised to each separately, I have given. Is your business the same or different?"
"It is the same, sire," replied Green at once. "But I will beg this young gentleman to urge what he has to say in the first place."
The King nodded his head to Wilton to proceed; adding, "I have little time this morning, and you may be brief; for if your business be what I think, it has been opened to me by a friend of yours, and you will hear more from me or him on Tuesday."
"If your majesty refers to the Duke of Shrewsbury," said Wilton, "I have not the honour of his acquaintance; but he promised, I know, to urge upon your majesty's clemency the case of the Duke of Gaveston, in regard to which I have now ventured to approach you."
"We are mistaking each other," said the King. "I thought you meant something else. What about the Duke?"
"When your majesty was last pleased to receive me," replied Wilton, "I had the honour of recounting to you how I had been employed by his grace to set free his daughter who had been carried away by Sir John Fenwick and other Jacobites. I explained to your majesty at that time that this daring act had been committed by those Jacobites in consequence of a quarrel between the Duke and Sir John Fenwick, which quarrel was occasioned by the Duke indignantly refusing to take part in the infamous conspiracy against your majesty. Since then, Sir John Fenwick has been arrested, and has charged the Duke with being a party to that conspiracy. He has done this entirely and evidently out of revenge, and as far as my testimony goes, I can distinctly show your majesty, that after his daughter was carried away, the Duke had no opportunity whatsoever of revealing what he knew of the conspiracy without endangering her safety till after the whole was discovered, for on the morning of her return to town, after being set free, the warrants against the conspirators were already issued."
"You told me all this before, I think," said the King, with somewhat of a heavy brow and impatient air. "Where is the Duke now?"
"He is in the Tower, sire," replied Wilton, "a prisoner of state, upon this charge of Sir John Fenwick's, and I am bold to approach your majesty to beseech you to take his case into consideration."
The King's brow had by this time grown very dark, and turning to Lord Portland, he said, "This is another, you see, Bentinck."
"I beseech your majesty," continued Wilton, as soon as the King paused, "I beseech you to hear my petition, and to grant it. It is a case in which I am deeply interested. You were pleased to say that I had conducted myself well, you were pleased to promise me your gracious favour, and I beseech you now to extend it to me so far, as at my petition to show clemency to a nobleman who, perhaps, may have acted foolishly in suffering his ears to be guilty of hearing some evil designs against you, but who testified throughout the most indignant horror at the purposes of these conspirators, who has been punished severely already by the temporary loss of his child, by the most terrible anxiety about her, and by long imprisonment in the Tower, where he now lies, withering under a sense of your majesty's displeasure. Let me entreat your majesty to grant me this petition," and advancing a step, Wilton knelt at the King's feet.
"Why, I thought, young gentleman," replied William, "that before this time you were married to the pretty heiress."
"Oh no, sire," replied Wilton, with a sad smile, "that is entirely out of the question. Such a report got abroad in the world, but I have neither station, fortune, rank, nor any other advantage to entitle me to such a hope."
"And you, Colonel," said the King, turning towards Green, "is this the object of your coming also?"
"It is, sire," answered Green, advancing. "But first of all permit me to do an act that I have never done before, and kissing your majesty's hand, to acknowledge that I feel you are and will be King of England. May I add more, that you are worthy of being so."
The King was evidently pleased and struck. "I am glad to see," he answered, holding out his hand to Green, "that we have reclaimed one Jacobite."
"Sire," answered Green, kissing the King's hand, but without rising, "my affections are not easily changed, and may remain with another house; but it were folly to deny any longer your sovereignty, and," he added, the moment after, "it would be treachery henceforth to do anything against it.—And now, sire," he continued, "let me urge most earnestly this young gentleman's petition, and let it be at my suit that the Duke's liberation is granted. Wilton here may have many petitions yet to present to your majesty on his own account. I shall never have any; and as your majesty told me to claim a boon at your hands, and promised to grant me anything that was not unreasonable, I beseech you to grant me, as not an unreasonable request, the full pardon and liberation of a man who this young gentleman, and I, and Sir John Fenwick, and I think your majesty too, well know would as soon have attempted anything against your majesty's life as he would have sacrificed his own. This is the boon I crave, this is the petition I have to present, and I hope and trust that you will grant my request."
"And have you nothing else, Colonel, to demand on your own account?" said the King, gravely.
"Nothing, sire," replied Green: "I make this my only request."
"What!" said the King, after giving a glance as playful, perhaps, as any glance could be upon the countenance of William III. "Is this the only request? I have seen in English history, since it became my duty to study it, a number of precedents of general pardons, granted under the great seal, by monarchs my predecessors, to certain of their subjects who have done some good service, for all crimes, misdemeanours, felonies, et cetera, committed in times previous. Now, sir, from a few things I have heard, it has struck me that such a patent would be not at all inexpedient in your own case, and I expected you to ask it."
"I have not, and I do not ask it, sire," replied Green, in the same grave tone with which he had previously spoken. "I may have done many things that are wrong, sire, but I have neither injured, insulted, nor offended any one whom I knew to be a true subject of the Prince I considered my lawful King. Possessing still his commission, I believed myself at liberty to levy upon those who were avowedly his enemies, the rents of that property whereof they had deprived me fighting in his cause.—Sire, I may have been wrong in my view, and I believe I have been so. I speak not in my own justification, therefore. My head is at your feet if you choose to take it: death has no terrors for me; life has no charms. I stay as long as God wills it: when he calls me hence, it matters little what way I take my departure. My request, sire, is for the liberation of the Duke, who, believe me, is perfectly innocent; and I earnestly entreat your majesty not to keep him longer within the walls of a prison, which to the heart of an Englishman is worse than death itself."
"I am sufficiently an Englishman to feel that," replied the King.— "Your own free pardon for all offences up to this time we give, or rather promise you, should it be needed, without your asking it. Mark the King's words, gentlemen. In regard to the liberation of the Duke, demanded of us, as you have demanded it; that is, as the only request of a person who has rendered us most important service, and to whom we have pledged our word to concede some boon, we would grant it also, but—"
"Oh, sire!" exclaimed Green, "let your clemency blot out that but."
"Hear me, hear me," said the King, relapsing into his usual tone; "I would willingly grant you the Duke's liberation as the boon which you require, and which I promised; but that I granted the order for his liberation some four days ago, not even demanding bail for his appearance, but perfectly satisfied of his innocence. I ordered also such steps to be taken, that a nolle prosequi might be entered, so as to put his mind fully at rest. I told the Earl of Byerdale the day before yesterday, that I had done this at the request of the Duke of Shrewsbury, and I bade him take the warrant, which, signed by myself, and countersigned by Mr. Secretary Trumbull, was then lying in the hands of the clerk. It is either in the clerk's hands still, or in those of Lord Byerdale. But that lord has committed a most grievous offence in suffering any of my subjects to remain in a prison when the order was signed for their liberation."
"May it please your majesty," said Keppel, stepping forward, "I questioned the clerk this morning, as I passed, knowing what your majesty had done, and hearing, to my surprise, from my Lord Pembroke, that the Duke was still in prison. The clerk tells me that he had still the warrant, Lord Byerdale seeming to have forgotten it entirely."
"He has forgotten too many things," said the King, "and yet his memory is good when he pleases. Fetch me the warrant, Arnold. Colonel, I grant this warrant, you see, not to you. You must think of some other boon at another time. Young gentleman, I have been requested; by a true friend of yours and mine, to hear your petition upon various points, and to do something for you. I can hear no more petitions to-day, however, but perhaps you may find a kinder ear to listen to you; and as to doing anything for you," he continued, as he saw Keppel return with a paper in his hand—"as to doing anything for you, the best thing I can do is to send you to the Tower. There, take the warrant, and either get into a boat or on your horse', back, and bear the good tidings to the Duke yourself."
As he spoke, the King gave the paper into Wilton's hand, and turned partly round to the Earl of Portland with a smile; then looked round again calmly, and, by a grave inclination of the head, signified to Wilton and his companion that their audience was at an end.
As soon as they were in the lobby, Green grasped his young friend's hand eagerly in his own, demanding, "Now, Wilton, are you happy?"
"Most miserable!" replied Wilton. "This paper is indeed the greatest relief to me, because it puts me beyond all chance of dishonour. No one can impute to me now that I have done wrong, or violated my word, even by a breath; but still I am most unhappy, and the very act that I am going to do seals my unhappiness."
"Such things may well be," replied Green, "I know it from bitter experience. But how it can be so, Wilton, in your case, I cannot tell."
Wilton shook his head sorrowfully. "I cannot stay to explain all now," he said, "for I must hasten to the Duke, and not leave his mind in doubt and fear for a moment. But in going thither, I go to see her I love for the last time. The metropolis will henceforth be hateful to me, and I shall fly from it as speedily as possible. I feel that I cannot live in it after that hope is at an end. I shall apply for a commission in the army, and seek what fate may send me in some more active life; but before I go, probably this very night, if you will give me shelter, I will seek you and the Lady Helen, to both of whom I have much, very much to say. I shall find you at Lord Sherbrooke's cottage, where I last saw you? There I will explain everything. And now farewell."
Thus saying, he shook Green's hand, mounted his horse, and at a very rapid pace spurred on towards London by all the shortest roads that he could discover.
The Duke's dinner in the Tower was over. He had been much agitated all day, and Laura had been agitated also, but she had concealed her emotions, in order not to increase those of her father. It was, as we have said, Sunday, and the service of the church had occupied some part of that long day's passing; but the rest had gone by very slowly, especially as the only two events which occurred to break or diversify the time told that there were other persons busy without, in matters regarding which neither Laura nor her father could take the slightest part, but which affected the future fate of both in the highest degree. Those two incidents were the arrival of Wilton's note, which we have already mentioned, and a visit from the chaplain of the Tower, to tell the Duke and Lady Laura that he had received directions and the proper authorization (few of those things were needed, indeed, in those days) to perform the ceremony of marriage between her and Wilton at any hour that she chose to name. A considerable time passed after this visit, and yet Wilton did not appear. The Duke began to look towards Laura with anxious eyes, and once he said, "I hope, Laura, you neither did nor said anything yesterday to make Wilton act coldly or unwillingly in this business?"
"Indeed, my dear father, I did not," replied Lady Laura, "and he promised me firmly to do everything in his power. Something has detained him; but depend upon it there is no cause either to fear or to doubt."
Such assurances, for a time, seemed to soothe the Duke, and put his mind more at ease; but as time passed, and still Wilton did not appear, his anxiety returned again; he would walk up and down the room; he would gaze out of the window; he would east himself into a chair with a deep sigh; and though he said nothing more, Laura, was bitterly grieved on his account, and began to share his anxiety for the result. At length a distant door was heard to open, then came the sound of the well-known step in the ante-room, making Laura's heart beat, and the Duke smile; but there was nothing joyful in the tread of that step: it was slow and thoughtful; and after the hand was placed upon the lock of the door, there was still a pause, which, though in reality very brief, seemed long to the prisoner and his daughter. At length, however, the door opened, and Wilton himself entered the room. There came a smile, too, upon his lip, but Laura could not but see that smile was a very sad one.
"We have been waiting for you most anxiously, my dear Wilton," said the Duke: "we have fancied all manner of things, all sorts of difficulties and obstacles; for I well knew that nothing but matters of absolute necessity would keep you from the side of your dear bride at this moment."
"But you still look sad, Wilton," said Lady Laura, holding out her hand to him. "Let us hear, Wilton, let us hear all at once, dear Wilton. Has anything happened to derange our plans, or prevent my father's escape?"
Wilton kissed her hand affectionately, replying, "Fear not on that account, dear Laura; fear not on that account. Your father is no longer a prisoner.—My lord duke, there is the warrant for your liberation, signed by the King's own hand, and properly countersigned."
The Duke clasped his hands together, and looked up to heaven with eyes full of thankfulness, and Laura's joy also burst forth in tears. But she saw that Wilton remained sad and cold; and mistaking the cause, she turned quickly to her father, saying, "Oh, my dear father, in this moment of joy, make him who has given us so much happiness happy also. Tell him, tell him, my dear father, that you will not, that you cannot think of refusing him your child after all that he has done for us."
"No, no, Laura," cried the Duke: "you shall be his—"
But Wilton interrupted him; and throwing his arms round Lady Laura, pressed her for a moment to his heart, took one long ardent kiss, and then turning to the Duke, said, "Pardon me, my lord duke!—It is the last! Nay, do not interrupt me, for I have a task to perform which requires all the firmness I can find to accomplish it. On seeing Lord Byerdale yesterday, he told me of the whole arrangements which he had made with you, and of the plan for your escape he showed me that, according to the note which he had written to the governor of the Tower, concerning the marriage between your daughter and myself, your escape could not be effected till the ceremony had taken place, as it was assigned as the cause for our leaving the Tower so late at night. He made me pledge myself not to disclose his part in the scheme to any one; and he then said that he would tell me the secret of my birth, if I would plight my honour not to reveal it till after your safety was secure. I pledged myself, and he told me all. I now found, my lord, that you and I had both been most shamefully deceived—deceived for the purpose, I do believe, of revenging on you and Lady Laura her former rejection of Lord Sherbrooke by driving her to marry a person altogether inferior to herself in station. You will see that he had placed me in the most difficult of all positions. If I carried out his plan of escape, I knowingly made use of his deceit to gain for myself the greatest earthly happiness. If I revealed to you what he told me, I broke my pledged word, and at the same time gave you no choice, but either unwillingly to give me your daughter's hand, or to remain, and risk the chance of longer imprisonment and trial. If I held off and disappointed you in your escape, I again broke my word to Lady Laura. You may conceive the agony of my mind during last night. There was but one hope of my being able to escape dishonour, though it was a very slight one. I determined to go to the King himself. I engaged a gentleman to go with me, who has some influence; and this morning we presented ourselves at Hampton Court, His Majesty was graciously pleased to receive us: he treated me with all kindness, and gave me the warrant for your liberation to bring hither. That warrant was already signed; for the Duke of Shrewsbury had kept his word with me, and applied for it earnestly and successfully. The Earl of Byerdale knew that it was prepared, so that he was quite safe in permitting your escape. I have now nothing further to do, my lord, than to wish you joy of your liberation, and to bid you adieu for ever."
"Stay, stay!" said the Duke, much moved. "Let me hear more, Wilton."
But Wilton had already turned to Lady Laura and taken her hand.
"Oh, Laura," he said, "if I have been deceived into making you unhappy as well as myself, forgive me. You know, you well know, that I would give every earthly good to obtain this dear hand; that I would sacrifice anything on earth for that object, but honour, truth, and integrity. Laura, I feel you can never be mine; try to forget what has been; while I seek in distant lands, not forgetfulness, if it come not accompanied by death, but the occupation of the battlefield, and the hope of a speedy and not inglorious termination to suffering. Farewell—once more, farewell!"
"Stay, stay!" said the Duke—"stay, Wilton! What was it the Earl told you? He said that you had as good blood in your veins as his own. He said you were even related to himself. What did he tell you?"
The blood mounted into Wilton's cheek. "He told me, my lord," he said, "that I was the natural son of his cousin."
And feeling that he could bear no more, he turned abruptly and quitted the apartment.
As he did so, Lady Laura sank at her father's feet, and clasped his knees. "Oh, my father," she said, "do not, do not make me miserable for ever. Think of your child's happiness before any considerations of pride; think of the noble conduct of him who has just left us; and ask yourself if I can cease to love him while I have life."
"Never, Laura, never!" said the Duke, sternly. "Had it been anything else but that, I might have yielded; but it cannot be! Never, my child, never!—So urge me not!—I would rather see you in your grave!"
Those rash and shameful words, which the basest and most unholy pride has too often in this world wrung from a parent's lips towards a child, had been scarcely uttered by the Duke, when he felt his daughter's arms relax their hold of his knees, her weight press heavily upon him, and the next instant she lay senseless on the ground.
For an instant, the consciousness of the unchristian words he had uttered smote his heart with fear; fear lest the retributive hand of Heaven should have punished his pride, even in the moment of offence, by taking away the child whose happiness he was preparing to sacrifice, and of whose death he had made light.
He called loudly for help, and his servant and Lady Laura's maid were soon in the room. They raised her head with cushions; they brought water; they called for farther assistance; and though it soon became evident that Laura had only fainted, it was long before the slightest symptom of returning consciousness appeared. The Duke, the servants, and some attendants of the governor of the Tower, were still gathered round her, and her eyes were just opening and looking faintly up, when another person was suddenly added to the group, and a mild, fine-toned voice said, in the ear of the Duke,—
"Good God! my lord duke, what has happened? Had you not better send for Millington or Garth?"
"She is better, she is better," said the Duke, rising; "she is coming to herself again.—Good Heaven! my Lord of Sunbury, is it you? This is an unexpected pleasure."
"I cannot say," replied Lord Sunbury, "that it is an unexpected pleasure to me, my lord; for though I would rather see your grace in any other place, and heard this morning at Hampton Court that the order for your liberation was signed, yet I heard just now that you were still in the Tower; and, to say the truth, I expected to find my young friend Wilton with you. Let us attend to the lady, however," he added, seeing that his allusion to Wilton made the Duke turn a little red, and divining, perhaps, that Lady Laura's illness was in some way connected with the absence of his young friend, "she is growing better."
And kindly kneeling down beside her, he took her hand in his, saying in a tender and paternal tone, "I hope you are better, my dear young lady. Nay, nay," he added, in a lower voice, "be comforted; all will go well, depend upon it:—you are better now; you are better, I see." And then perceiving that only having seen him once before, Lady Laura did not recollect him, he added his own name, saying, "Lord Sunbury, my dear, the father, by love and by adoption, of a dear friend of yours."
The allusion to Wilton immediately produced its effect upon Lady Laura, and she burst into tears; but seeing Lord Sunbury about to rise, she clung to his hand, saying, "Do not leave me—do not leave me. I shall be better in a minute. I will send him a message by you."
"I will not, indeed, leave you," replied Lord Sunbury; "but I think we do not need all these people present just now. Your father and I and your woman will be enough."
According to his suggestion, the room was cleared, the windows were all thrown open, and in about half an hour Lady Laura had sufficiently recovered herself to sit up and speak with ease. Lord Sunbury bad avoided returning to the subject of Wilton, till he fancied that she could bear it, knowing that it might be more painful to her, even to hear him conversing with her father upon such a topic, than to take part in the discussion herself. At length, however, he said,—
"Now this fair lady is tolerably well again, let me ask your grace where I can find my young friend, Wilton Brown. I was told at his lodgings that he had come on with all speed to the Tower, merely getting a fresh horse as he passed."
"He was here not long ago, my lord," replied the Duke, coldly. "He was kind enough to bring me from Hampton Court the warrant for my enlargement. He went away in some haste and in some sorrow, not from anything I said, my lord, but from what his own good sense showed him must be the consequence of some discoveries which he had made regarding his own birth. I must say he has in the business behaved most honourably, and, at the same time, most sensibly; and anything on earth that I can reasonably do to testify my gratitude to him for all the services he has rendered me and mine, I will willingly do it, should it cost me one half of my estates."
Lady Laura had covered her eyes with her hands, but the tears trickled through her fingers in spite of all she could do to restrain them. Lord Sunbury, too, was a good deal agitated, and showed it more than might have been expected in a man so calm and deliberate as himself. He even rose from his chair, and walked twice across the room, before he replied.
"My lord duke," he said, at length, "from what you say, I fear that both Wilton and your grace have acted hastily; and I am pained at it the more, because I believe that I myself am in some degree the cause of all the misery that he now feels, and of all the grief which I can clearly see is in the breast of this dear young lady. I have done Wilton wrong, my lord, by a want of proper precaution and care—most unintentionally and unknowingly; but still I have done him wrong, which I fear may be irreparable. I must see, and endeavour, as far as it is in my power, to remedy what has gone amiss; but whether I can, or whether I cannot do so, I have determined to atone for my fault in the only way that it is possible. The last heir in my family entail is lately dead: my estates are at my own disposal. I have notified to the King this day, that I have adopted Wilton Brown as my son and heir; and his Majesty has been graciously pleased to promise that a patent shall pass under the great seal, conveying to him my titles and honours at my death. This is all that I know with certainty can be done at present; but there may be more done hereafter, in regard to which I will not enter at present; and oh! my lord," he continued, seeing the Duke cast down his eyes in cold silence, "for my sake, for Wilton's sake, for this young lady's sake, at all events suspend your decision till we can see farther in this matter."
The Duke raised his eyes to his daughter's face, and yielded, though but in a faint degree, to her imploring look.
"I will suspend my decision, my lord, at your request," he replied, "if it will give you any pleasure. But Laura knows my opinion, and—"
"Nay, nay," said the Earl, "we will say no more upon the subject then, at present, my lord: But as your grace has the order for your liberation, and there can be no great pleasure in staying in this place, perhaps your grace and Lady Laura will get into my carriage, which is now in the court; and while your servants clear your apartments, and proceed to make preparations at Beaufort House, I trust you will take your supper at my poor dwelling. There I may have an opportunity, my lord," he added, turning with a graceful bow to the Duke, "of telling you, who are a politician, some great political changes that are taking place, though I fear, that as I expect no guests of any kind, and have hitherto preserved a strict incognito, I shall have no way of entertaining this fair lady for the evening."
Laura shook her head with a melancholy air, but made no reply. The Duke, however, was taken with the bait of political news, and accepted the invitation, merely saying, "I take it for granted, my lord, that Mr. Brown is not at your house."
"As far as I know," replied Lord Sunbury, "he is not aware of my being in England. I came to seek him here, wishing to tell him various matters; but up to this time, I have neither written to him, nor heard from him, since I have been in this country. And now, my lord," he continued, taking up the warrant from the table, "you had better let me go and speak with the Governor's deputy here, concerning this paper, and in five minutes I will be back, to conduct you, at liberty, to my house."
Thus saying, he left them; and Lady Laura, certainly calmed and comforted by his kindly manner, and the hopeful tone in which he spoke, prepared with pleasure to go with him. Her father mentioned Wilton's name no more; but gave some orders to his servant and, by the time that they were ready to go, Lord Sunbury had returned with the Lieutenant of the Governor, announcing that the gates of the Tower were open to the Duke. The Earl then offered his hand to the fair girl, and led her down to his carriage, saying in a low tone as they went, "Fear not, my dear young lady; we shall find means to soften your father in time."
After a long and tedious drive through the dull streets of London, the carriage of the Earl of Sunbury stopped at the door of his house in St. James's Square. None of his servants appeared yet in livery, and the man who opened the door was his own valet. He seemed not a little astonished at the sight of a lady and gentleman with his master; and the Earl was as much surprised to hear loud voices from the large dining-room on his left hand.
The Duke and Lady Laura, however, entered, and were passing on; but the valet, as soon as he had closed the door, advanced and whispered a few words to the Earl.
The Earl questioned him again in the same tone, put his hand for a moment to his forehead, and then said, addressing the Duke, "There are some persons up stairs, my lord duke, that we would rather you did not see at this moment. I will speak to them for an instant, and be down with you directly, if you will go into the dining-room. You will there, I understand, find Lord Byerdale and his son, the latter of whom, it seems, has come hither for my support and advice, and has been followed by his father."
"But, my lord, my lord," said the Duke, "after Lord Byerdale's conduct to myself—"
"Enter into no dispute with him till I come, my dear duke," said the Earl—"I will be with you in one minute; and his lordship of Byerdale will have quite sufficient to settle with me, to give occupation to his thoughts for the rest of the evening. You may chance to see triumphant villany rebuked—I wanted to have escaped the matter; but since he has presumed to come into my house, I must take the task upon myself."
The tone in which he spoke, and the expectation of what was to follow, fixed the Duke's determination at once; and drawing the arm of Lady Laura within his own, he followed the servant, who now threw open the door to which Lord Sunbury pointed, and entered the dining-room, while the Earl himself ascended the stairs.
A scene curious but yet painful presented itself to the eyes of Lady Laura and her father on entering the dining-room of Lord Sunbury's house. On the side of the room opposite to the door stood Lord Sherbrooke, with his arms folded on his chest, his brow contracted, his teeth firmly shut, his lips drawn close, and every feature but the bright and flashing eye betokening a strong and vigorous struggle to command the passions which were busy in his bosom. Seated at the table, on which the young nobleman had laid down his sword, was his beautiful wife, with her eyes buried in her hands, and no part of her face to be seen but a portion of the cheek as pale as ashes, and the small delicate ear glowing like fire. The sun was far to the westward, and streaming in across the open space of the square, poured through the window upon her beautiful form, which, even under the pressure of deep grief, fell naturally into lines of the most perfect grace.
But the same evening light poured across also, and streamed full upon the face and form of the Earl of Byerdale, who seemed to have totally forgotten, in excess of rage, the calm command over himself which he usually exercised even in moments of the greatest excitement. His lip was quivering, his brow was contracted, his eye was rolling with strong passion, his hand was clenched; and at the moment that Laura and the Duke went round the table from the door towards the side of the room on which were Lord Sherbrooke and his wife, the Earl was shaking his clenched hand at his son, accompanying by that gesture of wrath the most terrible denunciations upon his head.
"Yes, sir, yes!" he exclaimed. "I tell you my curse is upon you! I divorce myself from your mother's memory! I cast you off, and abandon you for ever! Think not that I will have pity upon you, when I see your open-mouthed creditors swallowing you up living, and dooming you to a prison for life. May an eternal curse fall upon me, if ever I relieve you with a shilling even to buy you bread! See if the man in whose house you have sought shelter—see if this Earl of Sunbury, with whom, doubtless, you have been plotting your father's destruction—see if this undermining politician, this diplomatic mole, will give you means to pay your debts, or furnish you with bread to feed yourself and your pretty companion there! No, sir, no! Lead forth, to the beggary to which you have brought her, the beggarly offspring of that runagate Jacobite! Lead her forth, and with a train of babies at your heels, sing French ballads in the streets to gain yourself subsistence.—You thought that I had no clue to your proceedings. I fancied she was your mistress, and that mattered little, for it is the only thing fitted for the beggarly exile's daughter. But since she is your wife, look to it to provide for her yourself!"
He must have heard somebody enter the room, but he turned not the least in that direction, carried away by the awful whirlwind of his fury. He was even still going on, without looking round; but it was a woman's voice, the voice of a gentle, but noble-hearted woman that stopped him. Lady Laura, the moment she entered the room, recognised in the bending form of her who sat weeping and trembling at the table, one who had been kind to her in danger and in terror, and the first impulse was to go to her support. But when she heard the insulting and gross words of the Earl of Byerdale, her spirit rose, her heart swelled with indignation, and with courage, which she might not have possessed in her own case, she turned full upon him, exclaiming,—
"For shame, Earl of Byerdale!—for shame! This to a woman in a woman's presence! If you have forgotten that you are a gentleman, have you forgotten that you are a man?" And going quickly forward, she threw her arm round the neck of the weeping girl, exclaiming, "Look up, dear Caroline: look up, sweet lady! You are not without support! A friend is near you!"
Lady Sherbrooke looked up, saw who it was, and instantly cast herself upon her bosom.
The Earl of Byerdale turned his eyes from Laura to the Duke, evidently confounded and surprised, and put his hand upon his brow, as if to collect his thoughts. The next minute, however, he said, with a sneering air, "Ha, pretty lady, is that you? Ha, my lord duke, have you escaped from the Tower? You are somewhat early in your proceedings! Why, it wants half an hour of night! But doubtless the impatient bridegroom was eager to have all complete, and I have now to congratulate my Lady Laura Brown upon her father's sudden enfranchisement, and her marriage with my dear cousin's natural child. Ma'am, I am your most obedient, humble servant. Duke, I congratulate you upon the noble alliance you have formed. You come well, you come happily, to witness me curse that base and degenerate boy. But it is a pity you did not bring the happy bridegroom, Mr. Brown, that we might have two fine specimens of noble alliances in one room."
"You are mistaken, sir," said the Duke furiously; "you are mistaken, sir. Your villany is discovered; your base treachery has been told by a man who was too honourable to take advantage of it, even for his own happiness."
"Then, my lord duke," replied the Earl of Byerdale, "he is as great a liar in this instance as you have proved yourself a fool in every one; for he plighted me his word not to reveal anything till your safety was secure."
"It is you, sir, are the liar!" replied the Duke, forgetting everything in his anger, which was now raised to the highest pitch. "It is you, sir, who are the liar, as you have been the knave throughout, and may now prove to be the fool too!"
"Hush, hush!" exclaimed the voice of Lord Sherbrooke, raised to a loud tone. "Remember, my lord duke, that he is still my father!"
"Sir!" exclaimed the Earl, turning first upon his son, "I am your father no longer! For you, duke, I see how the matter has gone with this vile and treacherous knave whom I have fostered! But as sure as I am Earl of Byerdale—"
"You are so no longer!" said a voice beside him, and at the same moment a strong muscular hand was laid upon his shoulder, with a grasp that he could not shake off:
The Earl turned fiercely round, and laid his hand upon his sword; but his eyes lighted instantly on the fine stern countenance of Colonel Green, who keeping his grasp firmly upon the shoulder of the other, bent his dark eyes full upon his face.
The whole countenance and appearance of him whom we have called the Earl of Byerdale became like a withered flower. The colour forsook his cheeks and his lips; he grew pale, he grew livid; his proud head sunk, his knees bent, he trembled in every limb; and when Green, at length, pushed him from him, saying in a loud tone and with a stern brow, "Get thee from me, Harry Sherbrooke!" he sank into a chair, unable to speak, or move, or support himself.
In the meantime, his son had cast his eyes upon the ground, and remained looking downwards with a look of pain, but not surprise; while treading close upon the steps of Colonel Green appeared Wilton Brown with the Lady Helen Oswald clinging to rather than leaning on his arm, and the Earl of Sunbury on her right hand.
Those who were most surprised in the room were certainly the Duke and Lady Laura, for they had been suddenly made witnesses to a strange scene without having any key to the feelings, the motives, or the actions of the performers therein; and the Duke gazed with quite sufficient wonder upon all he saw, to drown and overcome all feelings of anger at beholding Wilton so unexpectedly in the house of the Earl of Sunbury.
For a moment or two after the stern gesture of Green, there was silence, as if every one else were too much afraid or too much surprised to speak; and he also continued for a short space gazing sternly upon the man before him, as if his mind laboured with all that he had to say. It was not, however, to the person whom his presence seemed entirely to have blasted, that he next addressed himself.
"My Lord of Sunbury," he said, "you see this man before me, and you also mark bow terrible to him is this sudden meeting with one whom he has deemed long dead. When last we met, I left him on the shores of Ireland after the battle of the Boyne, in which I took part and he did not. The ship in which I was supposed to have sailed was wrecked at sea, and every soul therein perished. But I had marked this man's eagerness to make me quit my native land, in which I had great duties to perform, and I never went to the vessel, in which if I had gone, I should have met a watery grave. During the time that has since passed, he has enjoyed wealth that belonged not to him, a title to which he had no claim. He has raised himself to power and to station, and he has abused his power and disgraced his station, till his King is weary of him, and his country can endure him no longer. In the meanwhile, I have waited my time; I have watched all his movements; I have heard of all the inquiries he has set on foot to prove my death, and all the investigations he instituted, when he found that the boy who was with me had been set on shore again. I have given him full scope and licence to act as he chose; but I have come at length, to wrest from him that which is not his, and to strip him of a rank to which he has no claim.—Have you anything to say, Harry Sherbrooke?" he continued, fixing his eye upon him. "Have you anything to say against that which I advance?"
While he had been speaking, the other had evidently been making a struggle to resume his composure and command over himself, and he now gazed upon him with a fierce and vindictive look, but without attempting to rise.
"I will not deny, Lennard Sherbrooke," he replied, "that I know you; I will not even deny that I know you to be Earl of Byerdale. But I know you also to be a proclaimed traitor and outlaw, having borne arms against the lawful sovereign of these realms, subjected by just decree to forfeiture and attainder; and I call upon every one here present to aid me in arresting you, and you to surrender yourself, to take your trial according to law!" "Weak man, give over!" replied the Colonel. "All your schemes are frustrated, all your base designs are vain. You writhe under my heel, like a crushed adder, but, serpent, I tell you, you bite upon a file. First, for myself, I am not a proclaimed traitor; but, pleading the King's full pardon for everything in which I may have offended, I claim all that is mine own, my rights, my privileges, my long forgotten name, even to the small pittance of inheritance, which, in your vast accessions of property, you did not even scruple to grasp at, and which has certainly mightily recovered itself under your careful and parsimonious hand. But, nevertheless, though I claim all that is my own, I claim neither the title nor the estates of Byerdale. Wilton, my boy, stand forward, and let any one who ever saw or knew your gallant and noble father, and your mother, who is now a saint in heaven, say if they do not see in you a blended image of the two."
"He was his natural child! he was his natural child!" cried Henry Sherbrooke, starting up from his seat. "I ascertained it beyond a doubt! I have proof! I have proof!"
"Again, false man?—Again?" said Lennard Sherbrooke.
"Cannot shame keep you silent? You have no proof! You can have no proof!—You found no proof of the marriage—granted; because care was taken that you should not. But I have proof sufficient, sir. This lady, whom I must call in this land Mistress Helen Oswald, though the late King bestowed upon her father and herself a rank higher than that to which she now lays claim, was present at the private marriage of her sister to my brother, by a Protestant clergyman, before Sir Harry Oswald ever quitted England. There is also the woman servant, who was present likewise, still living and ready to be produced; and if more be wanting, here is the certificate of the clergyman himself, signed in due form, together with my brother's solemn attestation of his marriage, given before he went to the fatal battle in which he fell. To possess yourself of these papers, of the existence of which you yourself must have entertained some suspicions, you used unjustifiable arts towards this noble Earl of Sunbury, which were specious enough even to deceive his wisdom; but I obtained information of the facts, and frustrated your devices."
"Ay," said Harry Sherbrooke, "through my worthy son, doubtless, through my worthy son, who, beyond all question, used his leisure hours in reading, privately, his father's letters and despatches, for the great purpose of making that father a beggar!"
"I call Heaven to witness!" exclaimed the young gentleman, clasping his hands together eagerly. But Lord Sunbury interposed.
"No, sir," he said, "your son needed no such arts to learn that fact, at least; for even before I sent over the papers to you which you demanded, I wrote to your son, telling him the facts, in order to guard against their misapplication. Unfortunate circumstances prevented his receiving my letter in time to answer me, which would have stopped me from sending them. He communicated the fact, however, to Colonel Sherbrooke, and the result has been their preservation."
The unfortunate man was about to speak again; but Lord Sunbury waved his hand mildly, saying, "Indeed, my good sir, it would be better to utter no more of such words as we have already heard from you. Should you be inclined to contest rights and claims which do not admit of a doubt, it must be in another place and not here. You will remember, however, that were you even to succeed in shaking the legitimacy of my young friend, the Earl of Byerdale here present, which cannot by any possibility be done, you would but convey the title and estates to his uncle, Colonel Sherbrooke, to whose consummate prudence, in favour of his nephew, it is now owing that these estates, having been suffered to rest for so many years in your hands, no forfeiture has taken place, which must have been the case if he had claimed them for his nephew before this period. Whatever be the result, you lose them altogether. But I am happy that it is in my power," he added, advancing towards him whom we have hitherto called Lord Sherbrooke, "to say that this reverse will not sink your family in point of fortune so much as might, be imagined. That, sir, is spared to you, by your son's marriage with this young lady."
Caroline started up eagerly from the table, gazing with wild and joyful eyes in the face of Lord Sunbury, and exclaiming, "Have you, have you accomplished it?"
"Yes, my dear young lady, I have," replied Lord Sunbury.
"The King, in consideration of the old friendship which subsisted between your father and himself, in youthful days, before political strifes divided them, has granted that the estate yet unappropriated shall be restored to you, on two conditions, one of which is already fulfilled—your marriage with an English Protestant gentleman, and the other, which doubtless you will fulfil, residence in this country, and obedience to the laws. He told me to inform you that he was not a man to strip the orphan. You will thus have competence, happy, liberal competence."
Her husband pressed Caroline to his bosom for a moment. But he then walked round the table, approached his father, and kissed his hand, saying, in a low voice, "My lord, let a repentant son be at least happy in sharing all with his father."
For once in his life his father was overcome, and bending down his head upon son's neck, he wept.
Lord Sunbury gazed around him for a moment; but then turning to Lady Helen Oswald, he said, "I have much to say to you, but it must be in private. Nevertheless, even now, let me say that your motives have been explained to me; that I understand them; that she who could sacrifice her heart's best affections to a parent in exile, in poverty, in sickness, and in sorrow, has a greater claim than ever upon the heart of every noble man. You have, of old, deeper claims on mine, and by the ring upon this finger, by the state of solitude in which my life has been passed, you may judge that those claims have not been forgotten—Helen?" he added, taking her hand in his.
The Lady Helen turned her head away, with a cheek that was glowing deeply; but her hand was not withdrawn, and the fingers clasped upon those of Lord Sunbury.
The Earl smiled brightly. "And now, my lord duke," he said, "I besought your lordship about an hour ago to suspend your decision upon a point of great importance. Did I do right?"
"My lord," answered the Duke, gaily, "I hope I am not too quick this time; but my decision is already made. Wilton, my dear boy, take her—take her—I give her to you with my whole heart!"