Cannot you divine, reader? When Wilton entered those gardens, we might boldly say, as we did say, that he was not in love. When he left them, we should have hesitated. He would have hesitated himself! Was not that going far upon a journey?
However, Lord Sherbrooke at length joined them; and after a moment more of cold and ceremonious leave-taking with Lady Laura, he turned, and, accompanied by Wilton, left the house.
Lady Laura remained upon the terrace, walking more rapidly than before, and with her eyes bent upon the ground. Two minutes brought Wilton to the gates of the court-yard; but oh, in those two minutes, how his heart smote him, and how his brain reeled!
"Shall I run for the horses, my lord?" cried the groom of the chambers—"Shall I go for the horses, my lord?" exclaimed one of the running footmen who was loitering in the hall.
"No," said Lord Sherbrooke—"we will walk and fetch them," and taking Wilton's arm, he sauntered quietly on from the house.
"Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke, this is all very wrong," said Wilton, the moment they were out of hearing.
"Very wrong, Solon!" exclaimed Lord Sherbrooke—"what do you mean? Heavens and earth, what a perverse generation it is! When I expected to be thanked over and over again for the kindest possible act, to be told that it is all very wrong! You ungrateful villain! I declare I have a great mind to turn round and draw my sword upon you, and cut your throat out of pure friendship. Very wrong, say you?"
"Ay, very wrong, Sherbrooke," replied Wilton. "You have placed me in an unpleasant and dangerous situation, and without giving me notice or a choice, have made me co-operate in doing what I do not think right."
"Pshaw!" cried Lord Sherbrooke—"Pshaw! At your heart, my dear Wilton, you are very much obliged to me; and if you are not the most ungrateful and the most foolish of all men upon earth, you will take the goods the gods provide you, and make the best use of time and opportunity."
"All I can say, Sherbrooke," replied Wilton, "is, that I shall never return to that house again, except for a formal visit to the Duke."
"Fine resolutions speedily broken!" exclaimed Lord Sherbrooke: and he was right.
Had Wilton Brown wanted an immediate illustration of the fragile nature of man's purposes, of how completely and thoroughly our firmest resolutions are the sport of fate and accident, it could have been furnished to him within five minutes after he left the gates of the house where he had paid an unintended visit.
Lord Sherbrooke seemed perfectly well acquainted with the house and its neighbourhood, and led the way round through a green lane at the back, which presently, in one of its most sequestered spots, offered to the eyes a somewhat large old-fashioned public-house, standing back in a small paved court: while planted before it, on the edge of the road, was a sign-post, bearing on its top the effigy of a huge green dragon.
Now, whether it be from some unperceived association in the minds of the English people between the chimerical gentleman we have lately mentioned and the patron saint of this island, who, it seems, if all tales were told, was not a bit better than the dragon that he slew; or for what other reason I know not, yet there is no doubt of the fact, that in all ages English vintners have had a particular predilection for green dragons; and that name was so commonly attached to a public-house, in those days, that it had not at all struck Wilton Brown that the Green Dragon to which Lord Sherbrooke ordered the horses to be led, was that very identical Green Dragon where his acquaintance Mr. Green had given him the rendezvous.
He might not, indeed, have heard Lord Sherbrooke's order at all; but it is still more probable, that he only did not attend to it, as all his thoughts were taken up at the moment by the discovery of what place Lord Sherbrooke had brought him to. It now, however, struck him—when he saw the Green Dragon standing in the Green Lane, precisely as it had been described by Green—that it might very likely be the identical house to which he had been directed; and on asking Lord Sherbrooke what was the name of the mansion they had just visited, the matter was placed beyond doubt by his replying, "Beaufort House. The Duke only hires it for a time."
Brown hesitated now for an instant, as to how he should act. His watch told him that it was close upon the hour to the appointment: curiosity raised her voice: the natural longing after kindred had also its influence; and if the society of Lord Sherbrooke was any impediment, that was instantly removed by the young nobleman saying, "Come, Wilton, as you are an unsociable devil, and seem out of temper, I shall leave you to ride home by yourself—The truth is," he added, after a moment's pause, "I am going upon an expedition, that the character I have given myself to my fair Lady Laura may be fully and completely established on the day that it is given.".
"Nay, Sherbrooke, nay!" cried Wilton—"I hope and trust such is not the case."
The other only laughed, and called loudly for his servants and horses.
Well disciplined to his prompt and fiery disposition, his grooms led the horses out in a moment, and the young nobleman sprang into the saddle. Before his right foot was in the stirrup, he had touched the horse with the spur, and away he went like lightning, waving his hand to Wilton with a light laugh.
Wilton's horses and groom had appeared also, but he paused before the door without mounting; and the next moment, a fat, well-looking host, as round, as well fed, and as rosy, as beef, beer, and good spirits, ever made the old English innkeeper, appeared at the door in his white night-cap and apron, and approaching the young gentleman, invited him in with what seemed a meaning look.
"Perhaps I may come in," replied Wilton, "and taste your good ale, landlord."
"Sir, the ale is both honoured and honourable," replied the host. "I can assure you many a high gentleman tastes it at the Green Dragon."
Bidding his servant lead the horse up and down before the door, Wilton slowly entered the well-sanded passage, and passed through the doorway of a room to which the landlord pointed. The moment he entered, he heard voices speaking very loud, there being nothing apparently between that and the adjoining chamber but a very thin partition of wood-work. The landlord hemmed and coughed aloud, and Wilton made his footfalls sound as heavily as possible, but all in vain: the person who was speaking went on in the same tone; and before the landlord could get out of the room again and down the passage to the door of the next chamber, which was some way farther on, Wilton distinctly heard the words, "Nonsense, Sir George! don't attempt to cajole me! I tell you, I will have nothing to do with it. To bring in foreigners is bad enough, when we are quite strong enough to do it without: but I will take no man's blood but in fair fight."
"Well!" exclaimed the other, in the same loud and vehement manner—"you know, sir, I could hang you if I liked!"
At that moment the door was evidently opened, and the landlord's voice, exclaiming, "Hush! hush!" was heard; but he could not stop the reply, which was,—
"I know that! But I could hang you, too; so that we are each pretty safe. This is that villain Charnock's doing. Tell him I will blow his brains out the first time I meet him, for spoiling, by his bloody-minded villany, one of the most hopeful plans—"
But the landlord's "Hush! hush!" was again repeated, and the voices were thenceforth moderated, though the discussion seemed still to endure some time.
Wilton's curiosity was now more excited than ever; and when the landlord brought him a foaming jug of ale, together with a long Venice glass having a wavy pearl-coloured line up the stalk, he asked the simple question, "Is Mr. Green here?"
On this the landlord put down his head, saying, in a low voice, "The Colonel will be with you directly: he expects you, sir."
"The Colonel!" thought Brown—"this is a new dignity. However, with his state and station I have little to do, if I could but discover my own."
At the end of about five minutes the conversation in the other room ceased, and in a moment or two more the door was opened, and Green made his appearance. We have so accurately described him before that we should not pause upon his appearance now, had there not been a great change in his dress, which had such an effect as to render it scarcely possible to recognise him.
Now, instead of a military-looking suit of green, he had on a long-waisted broad-cut coat of black, with jet buttons; a light-coloured periwig filled full of powder; black breeches and silk stockings, and a light black-hilted sword. In fact, he bore much more the appearance of a French lawyer of that day than anything else. The features, indeed, were there; but it was wonderful what the highly-powdered wig had done to soften the strong-marked lines of his face, and to blanch the weather-beaten appearance of his complexion.
The suit of black, too, made him look thinner and even taller than he really was; and on his first entrance into the room, Wilton certainly did not know him.
"You have come before your time," he said, "though perhaps it is as well, for I must go out as soon as it is dusk;" and as he spoke he cast himself into a chair, fixed his eyes upon some scanty embers which were smouldering in the grate, and fell into a deep and apparently painful fit of thought. His broad but heavy brow was knitted with a wrinkled frown; the muscles of his face worked from time to time; and Wilton could see the sinews of his large powerful hand, as it lay upon his knee, standing out like cords, though he uttered not a word.
After pausing for a moment or two, his companion thought it time to recall this strange acquaintance to the subject of his coming, and said, "You told me I might see some of my old friends here, Mr. Green. Let me remind you it grows late."
"Don't be impatient, my good boy," replied the other, abstractedly, at the same time rising and drinking a deep draught of the ale—"you SHALL see some of your old friends! Don't you see me?"
"Yes," replied Wilton, "you are an acquaintance, certainly, of some months, but nothing more that I know of."
"Well, well, do not be impatient, I say," answered Green "you shall see some one else, if I don't satisfy you. But you are before your time, as I said."
He had scarcely spoken, when the door of the little room opened once more, and a woman apparently of no very high class, and considerably advanced in years, so as to be somewhat decrepit, came in. She was dressed in a large grey cloak of common serge, with a stick in her hand, and mittens on her hands, while over her head was a large black wimple or hood, which covered a great part of her face.
The moment Green saw her, he crossed over, and said in a low but not inaudible voice, "Not a word, till all this business is over! They will ruin the cause and themselves, and all that are engaged with them, by committing all sorts of crimes. It will plunge him into the greatest dangers, if you say a word."
Much of what he said was heard by Brown; and in the meantime Green aided the woman to disembarrass herself of her hood and cloak, taking the staff out of her hand, and at the same time turning the key of the door. The moment that he did so, his female companion drew herself up; the appearance of bowed decrepitude vanished; and she stood before Brown a tall graceful woman, apparently scarcely forty years of age, with a countenance still beautiful, and a demeanour which left no doubt of the society with which at one time she must have mingled.
Of Wilton himself the lady had as yet had but once glance, as she first entered the room; for, ever since, Green had stood between them so that she could not see. When she did behold him fully, however, she gazed upon him earnestly, clasping her hands, and exclaiming, "Is it—is it possible?"
The next moment her feelings seemed to overpower her—"Oh yes, yes," she cried, advancing "it is he himself—the same dear, blessed likeness of the dead!" and casting her arms round the young gentleman's neck, she wept long and profusely on his bosom.
Wilton was surprised and agitated, as may well be conceived. He was not sufficiently ignorant of the world not to know that there are a thousand tricks and artifices daily practised, which assume such appearances as the scene now performing before him displayed. He might, indeed, have entertained suspicions of all sorts of transformations and disguises; but there was an earnestness, a truth, in the lady's manner that was in itself convincing, and there was something more, also—there was a most extraordinary resemblance in her whole face and person to the picture which we have before mentioned in the house of the Earl of Sunbury. The features were the same, the height, the figure: the eyes were the same colour, there was the same peculiar expression about the mouth, and the only difference seemed to be the difference of age. The picture represented a girl of eighteen or nineteen: the person who stood beside him must have seen well nigh forty summers.
Though the likeness was complete, there was a certain difference. Have we not all beheld a beautiful scene spread out in the morning light, full of radiance, and sparkling, and glorious sunshine? and have we not seen a grey cloud creep over the sky, leaving the landscape the sauce, but taking from it the resplendent beams in which it shone at first? So did it seem with her. All appeared the same as in the bright being whom the painter had depicted in her gay day of youth; but that Time had since brought, as it were, a grey shadow over the loveliness which it could not take away.
All these things took from Wilton every doubt; and after he had suffered the lady for a moment to give way to her feelings without a word: even throwing his arm slightly round her, and pressing her towards him, he said, "Are you—are you my mother?"
"Alas! no, my dear boy," she replied, raising her head and wiping away the tears, while the colour rose slightly in her cheek. "I am not your mother, but one who has loved you scarcely less than ever mother loved her son; one who nursed and fondled you in infancy; one who has now come from another land but for the sake of seeing you, and of holding once more to her heart the nursling of other years, even more sad and terrible than these."
"From another land!" said Wilton, thoughtfully, while through the dim and misty vista of the past, strange figures seemed to move before his eyes, as if suddenly called up out of the darkness of oblivion by some enchanter's voice. "Another land!" he said, thoughtfully—"Your face and your voice seem to wake strange memories. I think, I remember having been with you in another land, and I recollect—surely I recollect, a pretty cottage with a rose-tree at the door—a rose-tree in full bloom; and tying the knot of an officer's scarf, and his holding me long to his heart, and blessing me again and again—"
"Before he went to battle!" said the lady, "before he went to death!" Her voice became choked in suffocating sobs, and she wept again long and bitterly.
"Nay, but tell me more," said Wilton—"in pity, tell me more. Do I not surely recollect his face, too?" and he pointed to Green, "and the sparkling sea-shore? and sailing long upon the ocean? Tell me more, oh, tell me more!"
"I must not yet, Wilton," she replied—"I must not yet. They tell me it is dangerous, and I believe it is. Struggles must soon take place, changes must inevitably ensue, and I would not—no, not for all the world, I would not that your young life should be plunged into those terrible contentions, which have swallowed up, as a dark whirlpool, the existence of so many of your race. If our hopes be true, the way to fortune and rank will be open to you at once: or there is no such a thing as gratitude in the world. If not, you will have the means of living in quiet and tranquillity, and if you will, of struggling for higher things; for within six months the whole shall be told to you. Ask me not! ask me not!" she added, seeing him about to speak—"I have promised in this matter to be guided by others, and I must say no more."
"But who is he?" continued Wilton, pointing to Green. The lady looked first at him, and then at their companion, with a faint, even a melancholy, smile.
"He is one," she replied, "whom you must trust, for he has ever guided others better and more successfully than he has guided himself. He is one who has every title to direct you."
"This is all very strange," said Wilton, "and it is painful, too. You do not know—you cannot tell, how painful it is to live, as it were, in a dark cloud, knowing nothing either of the future or the past."
The lady looked down sadly upon the ground.
"There are, sometimes," she said, "certainties which are far more terrible than doubts. Be contented, Wilton, till you hear more: when you do hear more, you will hear much painful matter; you will have much to undergo, and you will need courage, determination, and strength of mind. In the meanwhile, as from your earliest years, careful, anxious, zealous, eyes have watched over you, marked your every movement, traced your every step, even while you thought yourself abandoned, forgotten, and neglected: so shall it be till the whole is explained to you. Thenceforth you will rule your own conduct, judge, determine, and act for yourself. We know, we are sure, that you will act nobly, uprightly, and well in the meanwhile, and that you will do no deed which at a future period may not befit any station and any race to acknowledge."
Wilton mused deeply for several moments, and then raising his eyes to the lady's face, he demanded, in a low tone—
"Answer me only one question more. Am I the son of Lord Sunbury?"
The blood rushed violently up into the lady's countenance.
"Lord Sunbury was never married," she exclaimed—"was he?"
"I know not," replied Wilton—"all I ask is, am I his son? I ask it, because he has shown me generous kindness, care, and consideration; and at times I have seen him gazing in my face, when he thought I did not remark it, as if there were some deeper feelings in his bosom than mere friendship. Yet I cannot say that he has ever taught me to look upon myself as his son."
"Your imagination is only leading you into a labyrinth, Wilton," replied the personage calling himself Green, "from which you will find it difficult to extricate yourself. Be contented with what you know, and ask no more."
"I much wish, and I do entreat," replied Wilton, "that you would give me an answer to the question I have asked. There might be circumstances—indeed, I may say, that circumstances are very likely to occur, in which it would be absolutely necessary for me to know what claim I have upon the Earl of Sunbury. I have never yet asked him for anything of importance; but I foresee that the time may soon come when I may have to demand of him what I would not venture to demand, did I consider myself but the claimless child of his bounty."
The lady looked at Green, and Green at her, and they paused for several minutes. At length she answered, "I will give you a claim upon Lord Sunbury;" and she took from her finger a large ring, such as were commonly worn in those days, presenting on one side a shield of black enamel surrounded with brilliants, and in the centre a cipher, formed also of small diamonds. "Keep this," said the lady, "till all is explained to you, Wilton, and then return it to me. Should the Earl's assistance be required in anything of vital importance, show him that ring, if he be in England, or if he be abroad, tell him that you possess it, and beseech him by all the thoughts which that may call up in his mind, to aid you to the utmost of his power.—I think he will not fail you."
Wilton was about to answer; and though it was now growing dusk, he might have lingered on much longer, striving to gain more information, but at that moment there came a sound of many feet at the passage, and the voice of some one speaking apparently to the landlord, and demanding,—"Who the devil's horses are those walking up and down there?"
Almost at the same time, a hand was laid upon the latch of the door, and it would have been thrown open, had not Green previously taken the precaution of locking it. He now partially opened it, however, and spoke a few words to those without.
"Go into the next room," he said; "go into the next room—I will be with you directly." He then closed the door again, and turning to Wilton, took him by the arm, saying, "Now mount your horse, and be gone instantly: your time for staying here is over; make the best of your way home, without delay; and only remember, that whenever we meet in future, you do not appear to know me, unless I speak to you. Should you want advice, direction, and assistance—and remember, that though poor and powerless as I seem, I may know more, and be able to do far more, than you imagine—ask for me here; or the first time you see me, lay your finger upon that ring which she has given you, and I will find means to learn your wishes, and to promote them instantly—Now you must go at once."
Wilton saw that the attempt to learn more, at that moment, would be vain: but before he departed, he took the lady by the hand, bidding her adieu, and saying, "At all events, I have one consolation. Since I came here, I feel less lonely in the world; I feel that there are some to whom I am dear; and yet I would fain ask you one thing more. It is, how, when I think of you, I shall name you in my thoughts. Your image will be frequently before me; the affection which you have shown me, the words you have spoken, will never be forgotten. But there is a pleasure in connecting all those remembrances with a name. It seems to render them definite; to give them a habitation in the heart for ever."
"Call me Helen," replied the lady, quickly. "Where I now dwell they call me the Lady Helen. I must not add any more; and now adieu, for it is time that both you and I should leave this place."
Green once more urged him to depart; and Brown, with his curiosity not satisfied, but even more excited than ever, quitted the house, mounted his horse, and rode away slowly towards his own dwelling, meditating as he went.
"Onward! onward!" cries the voice of youth; whether it may be that the days are bright, passing in joy and tranquillity, and we can say with the greatest French poet of the present day—ay, the greatest, however it may seem—Beranger,
"Sur une onde tranquille, Voguant soir et matin, Ma nacelle est docile Au souffle du destin. La voile s'enfie-t-elle, J'abandonne le bord. (O doux zephir, sois-moi fidele!) Eh! vogue, ma nacelle; Nous trouverons un port"—
or whether the morning is overcast with clouds and storms, still "Onward! onward!" is the cry, either in the hope of gaining new joys, or to escape the sorrows that surround us. It is for age to stretch back the longing arms towards the Past: the fate of youth is to bound forward to meet the Future.
Wilton reached his home, and bending down his head upon his hands, passed more than an hour in troublous meditation. All was confused and turbid. The stream of thought was like a mountain torrent, suddenly swelled by rains, overflowing its banks, knowing no restraint, no longer clear and bright, but dark and foaming and whirling in rapid and uncertain eddies round every object that it touched upon. The scene at Beaufort House, the thought of Laura, and all that had been said there, mingled strangely and wildly with everything that had taken place afterwards, and nothing seemed certain, but all confused, and indistinct, and vague. But still there came a cry from the bottom of his heart: the cry of "Onward! onward! onward! towards the fated future!"
Nor was that cry the less vehement or less importunate because lie had no power whatsoever to advance or retard the coming events by a single hour: nor had it less influence because—unlike most men, who generally have some lamp, however dim, to give them light into the dark caverns of the future—he had not even one faint ray of probability to show him what was before his footsteps.
On the contrary, the yearning to reach that future, to pass on through that darkness to some brighter place beyond, was all the more strong and urgent. In short, excited imagination had produced some hope, without the slightest probability to foster it. He had even been told that he was to expect information of a painful kind. Not one word had been said to give him the expectation of a bright destiny: and yet there was something so sweet, so happy, in having found any one whose tenderness had been bestowed upon his infant years, and whose affection had remained unchanged by time and absence, that hope—as hope always is—was born of happiness; and though that hope was wild, uncertain, and unfounded, it made the natural eagerness of youth all the more eager.
When he lay down to rest he slept not, but still many a vision floated before his waking eyes, and thought made the night seem short. On the following morning he was early up and dressed; but by seven o'clock a note was put into his hand, in a writing which he did not know. On opening it, however, he found it to contain a request, couched in the most courteous terms, from the Duke of Gaveston, that he would call upon him immediately, and before he went to the house of Lord Byerdale. There was scarcely time to do so; but he instantly ordered his horse, and galloped to Beaufort House as fast as possible. He was ushered immediately into a small saloon, and thence into the dressing-room of the Duke, whom he found in a state of considerable agitation, and evidently embarrassed even in explaining to him what he wanted.
"I have sent for you, Mr. Brown," he said,—"I have sent for you to speak on a matter that may be of great consequence:—not that I know that it will be—not that I have heard anything—for I would not hear, after I found out what was the great object; but—but—"
Wilton was inclined to imagine that some unexpected obstacles had occurred in regard to the proposed alliance between the families of the Duke and of the Earl of Byerdale, and he certainly felt no inclination to aid in removing those obstacles. He replied, therefore, coldly enough, "If there is anything in which I can serve your grace, I am sure it will give me much pleasure to do so."
His coldness, however, only seemed to increase the Duke's eagerness and also his agitation.
"You can, indeed, Mr. Brown," he said, "render me the very greatest service, and I'm sure you are an honourable and an upright man, and will not refuse me. If you had explained yourself more clearly the night before last, I am sure I would have taken your advice at once, and would not have gone at all; but, as it is, I stayed not a moment longer than I could help, and have now broken with Fenwick and Barklay for ever. They vow that I am pledged to their cause, and must take a part, but they will find themselves mistaken."
Wilton now found that the good nobleman's fancy had misled him, and that his agitation arose from something that had taken place at the meeting at the Old King's Head, in regard to which he certainly knew nothing, nor indeed wished to know anything. He replied, however, somewhat more warmly,—
"In regard to these transactions, my lord duke, I know nothing, as I before informed you: but if you will tell me how I can serve you, I will do it with pleasure."
"I was sure you would, Mr. Brown, I was sure you would," said the Duke. "You can do me the greatest service, my dear young friend, by promising me positively upon your word of honour never to mention to any one that I went to this meeting at the Old King's Head, or, in fact, that I knew anything about it. I especially could wish that it be not mentioned to the Earl of Byerdale; for I know that he is a very fierce and vindictive man, and I do not wish to put myself in his power, just at present, above all times. Nobody on earth knows it but you and the people engaged in the affair, whose mouths are stopped, of course. We left the carriage on this side of Paul's, and I sent the two running footmen different ways, so that, if you give me your honour, I am quite safe."
"I give you my honour, most assuredly, my lord duke," replied Wilton, "that I will never, under any circumstances, or at any time, mention one word of that which has taken place between us on the subject. Rest perfectly sure of that. Indeed, I know nothing; I therefore have nothing to tell. But, at all events, I will utter not one word."
"Thank you, thank you!" cried the Duke, grasping his hand with joy and enthusiasm—"thank you, thank you a thousand times, my dear young friend!" and in the excitement of the moment, in his dressing-gown and slippers as he was, he led Wilton out to the room where his daughter was seated, and without any explanation informed her that he, Wilton, was one of his best and dearest friends. He then rushed back again to conclude the little that wanted to the labours of his toilet, leaving Wilton alone with her at the breakfast-table.
"Oh, Mr. Brown," exclaimed Laura, with her face glowing with eagerness, "I hope and trust that you have settled this business, for I have been most anxious ever since last night. Sir John Fenwick behaved so ill, and quitted the house in such fury, and that dark-looking man who accompanied him back, used such threatening language towards my father, that indeed—indeed, I feared for the consequences this morning."
Wilton evidently saw that her fears pointed in any direction but the right one, and that she apprehended some hostile rencontre between her father and the two rash Jacobites with whom he had suffered himself to be entangled. Knowing, however, that it could be anything but the desire of such men to call public attention to their proceedings, he did not scruple to give her every assurance that no duel, or angry collision of any kind, was likely, to take place: at which news her face glowed with pleasure, and her lips flowed with many an expression of gratitude, although he assured hex again and again that he had done nothing on earth to merit her thanks.
The smiles were very beautiful, however, and very grateful to his heart; but he found that every moment was adding to feelings which it was madness to indulge; and, therefore, as soon as the Duke had returned, he took his leave, and turned his steps homeward. He knew, indeed, that he should have to encounter the same pleasant danger again that very afternoon; that he should have to see her, to be in the same room, to sit at the same table with her, to speak to her, even though it were but for a moment; but then it would be all under restraint; the eyes of the many would be upon them; there would be no open communication, no speaking the real feelings of the heart, no freedom from the dull routine of society.
He was perhaps five minutes behind his time, but the Earl was all complaisance: the arrangements that he had made for his son; the unexpected facility with which Lord Sherbrooke had apparently entered into those arrangements; the political importance of the alliance with the Duke; the immense accession of wealth to his family; the aspect of public affairs, were all sufficient to mellow down a demeanour which, to his inferiors at least, was generally harsh and proud. But yet Wilton could not help believing that there was a peculiar expression in the Earl's countenance when that nobleman's eyes turned upon him; that there was a smile which was not a smile of benignity, that there was a courtesy which was not of the heart. Why or wherefore Wilton could hardly tell, but he fancied that the Earl's conduct was what it might be towards a person who had suddenly fallen completely into his power, and whom he intended to use as a tool in any way that he might think fit. He pictured to his own imagination the Earl bidding his victim perform some action the most revolting to his feelings in the sweetest tone possible; the victim beginning to resist; the cold blooded politician calmly showing his power, and exercising it with bitter civility.
However, the courtesy lasted all day: there was nothing said to confirm Wilton in this fancy; and when he took leave, the Earl reminded him of the dinner hour, adding, "Be punctual, be punctual, Mr. Brown. We shall dine exactly at the hour; and my cook is a virago, you know."
Wilton did not fail to be to the moment, and he, the Earl, and Lord Sherbrooke, were some time in the great saloon before the guests began to arrive. At length the large heavy coaches of those days began to roll into the court-yard, and one after another many a distinguished man and many a celebrated beauty of the age appeared. Still, however, the Earl evidently looked upon the Duke and his daughter as the principal guests, and waited in anxious expectation for their coming.
They arrived later than any one, Laura herself looking grave, if not sad, the Duke evidently embarrassed and not at ease. Nor did the particular attentions paid by the Earl to both remove in any degree the sadness of the one or the embarrassment of the other. This was so marked that the Earl soon felt it; and though the sort of determined calmness of his manner, and habitual self-command, prevented him from showing the least uneasiness, yet, from a particular glance of his eye and momentary quiver of his lip, Wilton divined that he was angry and irritable.
It must be admitted, also, that Lord Sherbrooke did not take the means to put his father more at ease. To Lady Laura he paid no attention whatsoever, devoted himself during the greater part of the evening to a beautiful woman of not the most pure and unsullied character in the world, and showed himself disposed to flirt with everybody, except the very person to whom his father wished him to pay court. The dinner party was followed by an entertainment in the evening; and still the same scene went on; till at length the Earl came round to Wilton, and said, in a low voice, "I wish, my dear young gentleman, you would try your influence upon Sherbrooke."
The Earl was going on, but Wilton rose immediately, saying, "I understand you, my lord," and approaching the place where Lord Sherbrooke was seated, he waited till the laughter which was going on around him was over, and then said in a low voice, "For pity's sake, Sherbrooke, and for decency's sake, do pay some attention to the Duke and his daughter; remember, they are new guests of your father's, and merit, at all events, some respect."
The young Lord looked up in his friend's countenance with a malicious smile, replying, "They do, my dear Wilton, they do! and you see I keep at a respectful distance. But I will do anything to please."
He accordingly rose from his seat, and Wilton saw him first approach the Duke, speak a few words to him, and then take a seat beside Lady Laura. Her air was evidently cold and reserved, but what passed more, Wilton, of course, did not know. The young lord, however, seemed suddenly struck by something that she said, turned quickly towards her, and made a rejoinder; she answered, apparently, with perfect calmness. But the instant after, Lord Sherbrooke rose from his chair, made her a low bow, and was crossing the room. His father, however, met him half-way, and they spoke for a moment or two. The Earl's cheek became very red, and his brow contracted; but Lord Sherbrooke passed quietly on, and came up to where Wilton stood.
"She has just told me what she thinks of my character, Wilton," said the young nobleman, "and I have transmitted the same to my father, who must settle the matter with the Duke as he likes."
"The Earl's plans are certainly in a prosperous condition," thought Wilton; and though he could not, of course, approve of the unceremonious means which Lord Sherbrooke took to defeat his father's intentions, and to cast the burden of refusal on Lady Laura, yet he could not grieve, it must be admitted, that she should determining for herself.
During the whole evening her conduct towards Wilton Brown had been exactly what he had expected—kind, gentle, and courteous. She evidently treated him more as a friend than any one else in the room; and though he purposely spoke to her but seldom, and then merely with the terms of formal respect, yet whenever he did approach her, she greeted him with a smile, which showed that his society was not at all unpleasant to her.
To the eyes of Wilton it was very evident that Lord Byerdale was extremely irritated by what he had heard. No one else perceived it, however, for, as was usual with him, the irritation of the moment, though likely to produce very serious effects at an after period, clothed itself for the time in additional smiles and stately courtesies, only appearing now and then in an additional drop of sarcastic bitterness mingling with all the civil things that he said. As usual, also, he was peculiarly soft and reverential in his manner towards those with whom he was most angry, and the Duke and Lady Laura were more the objects of his particular attention than ever. He sat beside her; he talked to her; he paid her that marked attention which his son had neglected to offer; and at length, when the Duke proposed to retire, he himself handed her to the carriage, paying her some well turned compliment at every step, and relieving his heart of its bitterness by some stinging sneer at the rest of womankind.
Thus passed over the evening; and Wilton, it must be acknowledged with a mind more at ease on account of the decided part that Lady Laura seemed to have taken, slept soundly and dreamt happily, though he still resolved, sooner or later, to crush feelings which could only end in misery.
On the following morning he went to the house of Lord Byerdale at the usual hour, and proceeded at once to the cabinet of the Earl. It was already occupied by that nobleman and his son, however; and though there were no loud words spoken, no angry tones audible, yet there were sufficient indications of angry feeling, at least on the part of the Earl, to make Wilton immediately pause and draw back a step.
"Come in, come in," said the Earl—"you know all this affair, and I believe have done what you could to make this young man reasonable."
Wilton accordingly entered the room, and Lord Byerdale again turned to his son, laying his finger upon the letter before him. "I repeat, Sherbrooke," he said, "that you yourself have done all this. I did not ask you, sir, to be virtuous, I did not ask you to be temperate, I did not bid you cast away the dice or abandon drunkenness and revelling, or turn off three or four of your mistresses, or to give over going to the resort of every sort of vice in the metropolis. I asked you none of these things, because it would be hard and ungenerous to require a man to do what his nature and habits render perfectly impossible. I turn to his vomit again, or the sow to refrain from wallowing in the mire."
"Savoury similes, my lord," said Lord Sherbrooke—"most worthy of Solomon and your lordship. May I ask what it is you did demand then?"
"That you should assume a virtue if you had it not," replied Lord Byerdale; "that you should put a certain cloak of decency over your vices, and that you should at least be commonly courteous to the person selected for your future wife: especially when I pointed out to you the immense, the inconceivable advantages of such an alliance not only to you but to me."
"Well, but, my dear father," said Lord Sherbrooke, "I will grant all that you say. It is altogether my fault; I have behaved very stupidly, very wildly, very rudely, very viciously. But there is no reason that you should be so angry with the young lady, or with my good lord duke."
"Ay, sir! think you so?" said the Earl—"you are mighty wise in your own conceit. You have had your share, certainly; but I do not avenge myself on my own son. They have had their share, however, too. Their pride, their would-be importance, their insufferable arrogance, which makes them think that kings or princes are not too good for her—these have all had no light share; and if I live for six months I will bring that pride down to the very lowest pitch. I will degrade her till she thinks herself a servant wench."
Wilton certainly did feel his blood boil, but he knew that he had neither any right nor any power to interfere; and he turned to some papers that were upon the tables, and hid the expression which his thoughts might communicate to his countenance, by apparent attention to something else.
Some more words passed between the father and son, but they were few. Lord Sherbrooke, upon the whole, behaved better than Wilton could have expected. He neither treated the subject lightly and jocularly as he was accustomed to do in most cases, nor bitterly and sarcastically, which his father's evident want of principle in the whole business gave him but too fair an opportunity of doing. He acknowledged fairly and straight-forwardly his errors and his vices; and all that he said in regard to the offence he had given his father was, that he imagined he could not in honour suffer Lady Laura to decide without letting her know the character at least of the man who was proposed for her husband.
"Well, sir," replied his father, sharply, "you have convinced her of your character very soon. Mine, she may be longer in finding out; but she shall not fail to be made equally well aware of it in the end."
Thus saying, he turned and quitted the room, giving some casual directions to Wilton as he passed.
"Well, that business is so far done and over," exclaimed Lord Sherbrooke, as soon as his father was gone; "and, as it is pleasant, my dear Wilton, to do a good action now and then, by way of a change, you and I must enter into a conspiracy together, to prevent my worthy, subtle, and revengeful father from executing a this poor girl, who has only done her duty to herself, and to me, and to her father."
"I trust," replied Wilton, "that the Earl's threat was but one of those bursts of disappointment which will pass away with time. I cannot imagine that, after a little consideration, he will have any inclination really to injure either the Duke or his daughter; nor, indeed, do I see that he could have the means either."
Lord Sherbrooke shook his head with a gloomy air, and answered, "He will make them, Wilton—he will make the means; and as to inclination, you do not know him as well as I do. He will not forget what has occurred this day, as long as he remembers how to write his own name. This same goodly desire of revenge is henceforth a part of his nature, and nothing will ever remove it, unless self-interest or ambition be brought into action against it."
"But what sort of revenge think you he will seek?" demanded Wilton—"situated as the Duke is, I see no opportunity that your father can have of injuring him."
"Heaven only knows," replied Lord Sherbrooke. "The fire will go on smouldering for months, perhaps for years, but it will not go out. He said, just before you came in, that because she had refused to marry me, he would make her marry a footman; and, as I really believe his lordship is occasionally endowed with superhuman powers of executing what he thinks fit, it would not surprise me at all to see my Lady Laura led to the altar by John Noakes, our porter's son, dressed up for the occasion as a foreign prince."
"I do not fear that," replied Wilton with a smile; "I should rather apprehend that he may entangle the good Duke, who does not seem overburdened with sense, in some of these sad plots which are daily taking place. Should we find out that such is the case, we may indeed aid in preventing it."
Lord Sherbrooke shook his head. "It is the poor girl he will aim at first, depend upon it," the young nobleman answered. "I wish to Heaven she had told me her intention of refusing me in such a formal manner; I would have shown her how to manage the matter without calling down this storm. But, instead of that, she sits down and deliberately writes him a letter, which, just in the proportion that it is honest, true, and straightforward, is the thing best calculated to excite his wrath. Yet, as if she had some idea of his character, and wished to shield her father, she takes the whole responsibility of the thing upon herself, telling him that the Duke had pressed her much upon the subject, but that she felt it would be utterly impossible to give her hand to your very humble servant. All this has, of course, brought the storm more directly upon herself, though her father will be screened thereby in no degree. I doubt not he has gone there now."
"Do you think there is any chance of an actual and open quarrel between them?" demanded Wilton.
"Not in the least," answered Lord Sherbrooke with a scoff: "my dear Wilton, you must be as blind as a mole, if you do not see that my father, though as brave as a lion, is not a man to quarrel with any one. He is a great deal too good a politician for that; he knows that in quarrelling with any one he hates, he must suffer something himself, and may suffer a good deal. No, no, he takes a better plan, and contrives to make his enemies suffer while he suffers not at all. In general, if you see him particularly civil to anybody, you may suppose that he looks upon them as an enemy, and is busy in getting them quietly into his power. Quarrel with the Duke? Oh no, a thousand to one, ere half an hour be over, he will be shaking him cordially by the hand, putting him quite at his ease, begging him to let the matter be forgotten altogether, saying that it was natural he should seek so illustrious an alliance, which, indeed, he had scarcely a right to hope for. Then he will see the lady herself, and say that he perfectly enters into her feelings, that a person so richly gifted as herself, and having already all that wealth and rank can give, has a right to consult, before all other things, the feelings of her own heart. It would not surprise me at all if he were to offer to send me abroad again, lest my presence in London, after the pretensions which have been formed, should prove, in any degree, annoying to her."
The conversation continued for some time longer in the same strain: and Wilton could not but feel that Lord Sherbrooke gave an accurate though a terrible picture of his father's character.
At length, the young nobleman rose as if to depart; but standing ere he did so before the table at which his young friend was seated, he gazed upon his face earnestly and silently for a minute or two, and then said,—
"I don't know why, Wilton, but I have a great and a strong regard for you, and I have been dreaming dreams for you, that I see you are unwilling to dream for yourself: However, you must have the same regard for me; and—even if you are not inclined, in any degree, to take advantage of what I must say is evident regard on the part of this young lady towards you—yet, for my sake, you must let me know, aid me, and assist me, if you should see any scheme forming against her happiness or peace. I am not so bad, Wilton, even as I seem to you. I am sorry for this girl—really sorry for her. I ought to have taken the burden upon my own shoulders, instead of casting it upon hers; for I could have removed all these difficulties by speaking one single word. But that word would have cost me much to speak, and I shrunk from saying it. If, however, I find that through my fault she is likely to suffer, I will speak that word, Wilton, at all risks, so you must give me help and support, at least in doing what is right."
"That I will, Sherbrooke," replied Wilton, grasping his hand, "that I will most zealously. But in regard to what you say of Lady Laura's kind feeling towards me, depend upon it you are wholly mistaken. The only reason, be you sure, why she makes any difference in her manner towards me, and towards men of higher rank than myself; is, that she knows the difference of our station and fortunes must ever prevent my entertaining any of those hopes which others might justly feel."
Before Wilton concluded, Lord Sherbrooke had cast himself into a chair; his eyes were fixed on the ground, his brow had become contracted. It was one of those moments when, as he said, his evil spirit was upon him; and seeing that such was the case, Wilton left him to his own meditations and proceeded to write the letters which the Earl had directed him to despatch.
In about half an hour, the young nobleman roused himself from his reverie, with a light laugh, apparently causeless; and without speaking another word to Wilton, quitted the room.
Wilton only saw the Earl for a few minutes during the rest of the day, and with him the statesman was so captious, irritable, and sneering, that, reading his feelings by the key his son had given, Wilton had every reason to believe himself to be in high favour. Various matters of business, however, occurred to keep him late at the Earl's house, and night had fallen when he returned to his own lodgings.
In about an hour after, however, one of the Earl's servants brought him a note in Lord Sherbrooke's handwriting, and marked "In haste." Wilton tore it open immediately, and read,—
"MY DEAR WILTON,
"My father directs me to request your immediate return. The Duke is now here. Lady Laura has been carried off, or, at all events, has disappeared; and we want your wise head to counsel, perhaps your strong hand to execute. Come directly, for we are all in agitation.
Written below, in smaller characters, and marked "Private," two lines to the following effect:—
"This business is not my father's doing. It is too coarse for his handiwork. He may, perhaps, take advantage of it, however, if he finds an opportunity. Burn this instantly."
Having now run on for some time, following almost entirely the course and history of one individual, painting none but the characters with whom he was brought into immediate contact, and making him, as it were, a lantern in the midst of our dark story, all the characters appearing in bright light as long as they were near him, and sinking back into darkness as soon as they were removed from him, we must follow our old wayward and wandering habits; and just at the moment when we have contrived to create the first little gleam of interest in the reader's breast, must leave our hero entirely to his fate, open out new scenes, introduce new personages, and devote a considerable space to matters which have APPARENTLY not the slightest connexion whatsoever with that which went before.
About thirty miles from London, towards the sea-coast, there then stood a small ancient house, built strongly of brick. It was not exactly castellated in its appearance, but yet in the days of Cromwell it had endured a short siege by a small body of the parliamentary troops, and had afforded time, by the resistance which it offered, for a small body of noblemen and gentlemen attached to the cause of King Charles to make their escape from a superior party of pursuers. It was built upon the edge of a very steep slope, so that on one side it was very much taller than the other. It was surrounded by thick trees also; and though by no means large, it had contrived to get into a small space as many odd corners as a Chinese puzzle. The walls were very thick, the windows few and small, the chimneys numerous, and the angles innumerable.
Into one of the small rooms of this house, at about eleven o'clock at night, I must now introduce the reader.
In that chamber, with her head resting on her hand, her eyes fixed upon a wood-fire that was burning before her, one small and beautiful foot stretched out towards it, while the other was concealed by the drapery of her long robe; and with the whole graceful line of her figure thrown back in the large arm-chair which she occupied—except, indeed, the head, which was bent slightly forward—sat a very lovely young woman, perhaps of two or three and twenty years of age, in meditations evidently of a somewhat melancholy cast. The hand on which her head leaned, and which was very soft, round, and fair, was covered with rings, while the other was quite free from such ornaments, with the exception of one small ring of gold upon the slender third finger. In that hand she had been holding an open letter; but, buried in meditation, she had suffered the paper to drop from her hold, and it had fallen upon the ground beside her.
We had said that she was very beautiful, but her beauty was of a different sort and character altogether from that of the lady whom we have described under the name of Lady Laura Gaveston. Her hair was of the richest, brightest, glossy black, as fine as silk, yet bending, wherever it escaped, into rich and massy curls. There was one of these which fell upon the back of her fair neck, and another upon either temple. Upon the forehead, as was then customary, the hair was divided into smaller curls, and cut much shorter, which fashion was a great disfigurement to beauty, and certainly left her less handsome than she otherwise would have appeared. Still, however, she was very, very lovely; and the fine lines of her features, the clear rich brown of her complexion, the glorious light of her large dark eyes, softened by the long thick lashes that overshadowed them, the full and rounded beauty of every limb, left it impossible even for human heart to do away what nature's cunning hand had done.
There are certainly moments in which, as every one must have remarked, a beautiful human countenance is more beautiful than at any other period, when it acquires, from some accidental circumstance, a temporary and extraordinary degree of loveliness. Sometimes it is the mere disposition of light and shade that produces this effect—the background behind it, the objects that surround it. Sometimes it is that the tone of the mind at the moment gives the peculiar expression which harmonizes best with the lines of the features and the colouring of the complexion, and which is in perfect accord with all those expectations which fine, indistinct, but sweet associations produce in our mind from every particular style of beauty that we see. Associations are, in fact, the bees of the imagination, and, wandering through all nature, may be said to distil honey from every fair object on which they light. Why does a rich and warm complexion, and a glowing cheek, call up instantly in our mind the idea of joyous health and pleasant-heartedness? Less because we have been accustomed to see that complexion attended by such qualities than because it connects itself with the idea of summer, gay summer and all its fruits and flowers, and merry sports and light amusements, and a thousand memories of happy days, and thousands upon thousands still of other things of which we have no consciousness, but which are present to sensation though not to thought, all the while that we are gazing upon a ruddy cheek, and thinking that the pleasure is derived from the white and red alone.
When the expression is perfectly suited to the style of beauty, it is natural to suppose that it will add to the charm; but there is a case where the cause of the increase is not so easily discovered—I mean when the mind gives to the countenance a temporary-expression totally opposed to the style of beauty itself. Yet this is sometimes the case: for how often do we see high and majestic features soften into playful smiles, and seem to gain another grace. In the lady we have mentioned, the whole style of the countenance and of the form gave the idea of joyous gaiety, of happy, nay, exuberant life and cheerfulness; but the expression was now all sad; and from the contrast—which produced deeper associations than perfect harmony would have called forth—her beauty itself was heightened. It was like some gay and splendid scene by moonlight.
She had remained in this meditating attitude for some time, when the door quietly opened, and a personage entered the room, of whom we must say a few words, though he is not destined to play any very prominent part in our tale. Monsieur Plessis was a Frenchman, a soi-disant Protestant. One thing, at all events, is certain, that his father had been so, and had been expelled from France many years before by persecution. The gentleman before us exercised many trades, by which, perhaps, he had not acquired so much wealth as his father had by one. His father's calling had been that of cook and major domo to a fat, rich, gluttonous, careless English peer; and as he employed his leisure time in distilling various simples, he had classed his noble patron under that head, and distilled from him what he himself would jocosely have called "Golden Water."
Amongst the various trades which, as we have said, were carried on by the son, was smuggling, under which were included the conveyance of contraband men, women, and children, as well as other sorts of merchandise; swindling a little, when occasion presented itself; clipping the golden coin of the kingdom, which at that time was a great resource to unfortunate gentlemen; not exactly forging exchequer tallies, and other securities of the same kind, but aiding by a certain dexterity of engraving in the forging, which he did not choose actually to commit; and over and above all these several occupations, callings, and employments, he was one of the best reputed spies which the French court had in England, as well as the most industrious agent which England had in obtaining intelligence from France. In fact, he sold each country to the other with the greatest possible complaisance. The great staple of the intelligence that he gave to both was false; but he took care to mingle a sufficient portion of truth with what he told, to acquire a considerable degree of reputation. He was, indeed, much too well versed in the practices of coiners, not to know that a bad piece of money is best passed off between two good ones; and though he was a sort of bonding warehouse, where an immense quantity of manufactured intelligence lay till it was wanted, yet he had means of obtaining better information, which he did not fail to make use of when he judged it needful.
Strange, however, are the perversities of human character: this practical betrayer of trust was not without certain good points in his character. The cheating a king or a statesman had a touch of grandeur in it, which suited his magnificent ideas; a little robbery on the King's Highway seemed to him somewhat chivalrous; and he could admire those who did it, though he did not meddle with the business himself: but there was a certain class of persons whom he would as soon have cheated, betrayed, or deceived, even to keep himself in practice, which he considered one of the most legitimate excuses for anything he liked to do, as he would have cut his hand off. These were the poor French emigrants in England, and the unfortunate adherents of the House of Stuart in France.
As is now well known, though it was only suspected at the time, thousands of these men were daily coming and going between France and Britain, in the very midst of the war; and they were always sure to find at the house of Plessis kind and civil treatment, perfect security, and the most accurate intelligence which could be procured of all that was taking place.
In cases of danger he had a thousand ways of secreting them or favouring their escape. If ever, as was frequently the case, they wished to communicate with some kind friend, who was willing to relieve them, or to frighten some timid enemy upon whom they had some hold, Plessis could generally find them the means; and in cases where some one in danger required to be brought off speedily and secretly, Plessis had often been known to spend very large sums, and risk even life itself, rather than suffer an enterprise to fail in which he had taken a part.
The Duke of Shrewsbury and Trumbull, while they were secretaries of state, employed Plessis actively, and overlooked not a few little peccadilloes for the sake of the intelligence they obtained; and Torcy, though he had been known to vow more than once that he would hang him if he set his foot in France, held two or three long conferences with him at Versailles, and dismissed him with a present of several thousand livres.
His apparel was very peculiar, as he generally wore above his ordinary dress a large long waisted red coat, hooked round his neck at the collar, somewhat in the manner of a cloak, without his arms being thrust into the sleeves; his shoes were very high in the instep, and buckled with a small buckle over the front; but as he was a little man, and of a somewhat aspiring disposition, the heels of those shoes were enormously high, sufficient to raise him nearly two inches from the ground, and make his foot in external appearance very like that of a calf or a Chinese lady. Indeed, in body and in mind likewise, he was upon tiptoes the whole day long.
His entrance into the room where the lady was, roused her at once from the reverie into which she had fallen; and taking up the letter from the ground, she turned to see who it was that came in.
"Madam," he said, speaking in French, which, be it remarked, was the language used between them during the whole conversation, "were it not better for you to retire to rest? You spoil your complexion, you impair your beauty, by these long vigils."
"Beauty!" she said, with something of a scoff. "But why should I retire, as you call it, to rest, Plessis? You mean to say, retire to think more deeply still, in darkness as well as in solitude."
"Madam," replied Plessis, "you take these things too heavily. But the truth is, I have a fair company coming here, by whom you might not well like to be seen. Far be it from me, if you think otherwise, to disturb you in possession of the apartments. But they come here at midnight to consult, it would seem, upon business of importance; whereof I know nothing, indeed, but which I know requires secrecy and care."
"Business of importance!" said the lady, somewhat scornfully—"to seat a bigoted dotard on the throne of England! That is what they come to consult about. Are they not some of those whom I saw yesterday morning from the window? that dark Sir George Barkley, who used to walk through the halls of St. Germain's, in gloomy silence, till the profane courtiers called him the shadow of the cloud? and that sanguinary Charnock, whom I once heard conferring with the banished queen, and vowing that there was no way but one of dealing with usurpers, and that was by the dagger? If these are your guests, Plessis, I know the business that they come for full well."
"I neither know, beautiful lady," replied Plessis, "nor do I seek to know. So pray tell me nothing thereof. Many a grown man in his day has been hanged for knowing too much, and nobody but a schoolboy was ever punished for knowing too little. These gentlemen come about their own business. I meddle not with it; and I must not shame my hospitality so much as to say, 'Good gentlemen, you shall not meet at my house!'"
"You are a wise and prudent man, Plessis," replied the lady: "bid the girl take a light to my chamber; I will go there and muse—not that I fear their seeing me; but the Lady Helen, perhaps, might wish it otherwise."
With a bow down to the very ground, Plessis retired, and the lady paused for a minute or two longer, leaning upon a small table in the middle of the room, and apparently thinking over what had passed.
"It is a strange thing," she said to herself, after a moment, "a most strange thing, that the customs of the world, and what we call honour, so often requires us to do those things that every principle of right and justice, truth and religion, commands us not to do. God's word tells us not to murder, yet men daily do it, and women think them all the nobler for trading in blood. If we violate the law, and do what is really wicked, we risk punishment on earth, and incur punishment hereafter; yet if we do strictly what honesty and justice tells us, in all cases, how many instances would be found, where men would shun us, and where our own hearts would condemn us also. Here I have it in my power to stop the effusion of much blood, to prevent the commission of many crimes, to strangle, perhaps, a civil war in its birth, merely by discovering the presence of these men in a land from which they are exiled—I have it in my power thereby to spare even themselves from evil acts and certain punishment: and yet my lips must be sealed, lest men should say I dealt treacherously with them. 'Tis a hard-dealing world, and I have suffered too much already by despising it, to despise it any more."
As she thus came to the conclusion, which every woman, perhaps, will come to sooner or later, she turned and left the room; and while her foot was still upon the staircase, there came a sound of many horses' feet from the small paved esplanade in front of the house.
"Ay, there they are," murmured the lady in a low voice—"the men who would use any treacherous art whatever to accomplish their own purpose, and who would yet call any one traitor who divulged their schemes. Would to God that Helen would come back! I am weary of all this, and sick at heart, as well I may be."
A sound in the hall below made her quicken her footsteps; and in two or three minutes more the room she had just quitted was occupied by five or six tenants of a very different character and appearance from herself.
The first person that entered the room after the lady quitted it was Monsieur Plessis himself, who, with a light in his hand, came quickly on before the rest, and gave a rapid glance round, as if to insure that no little articles belonging to its last tenant remained scattered about, to betray the fact of her dwelling in his house.
He was followed soon after by a tall, thin, gloomy-looking personage, dressed in dark clothing, and somewhat heavily armed, for a period of internal peace. His complexion was saturnine, his features sharp and angular, his eyes keen and sunk deep under the overhanging brows; and across one cheek, not far below the eye, was a deep gash, which drew down the inner corners of the eyelid, and gave a still more sinister expression to the countenance than it originally possessed. He was followed by two others, both of whom were much younger men than himself. One was gaily dressed, and had a fat and somewhat heavy countenance, which indeed seemed unmeaning, till suddenly a quick fierce glance of the eye and a movement of the large massy lower jaw, like that which is seen in the jaws of a dog eager to bite, showed that under that dull exterior there were passions strong and quick, and a spirit not so slow and heavy as a casual observer might imagine.
Besides these, there were one or two other persons whose dress denoted them of some rank and station in society, though those who had seen them in other circumstances might now have remarked that various devices had been employed to disguise their persons in some degree.
One of these, however, has been before introduced to the reader, being no other than that Sir John Fenwick whom we have more than once had occasion to mention. He was now no longer dressed with the somewhat affected neatness and coxcombry which had marked his appearance in London, but, on the contrary, was clad in garments comparatively coarse, and bore the aspect of a military man no longer in active service, and enduring some reverses. He also was heavily armed, though many of the others there present bore apparently nothing but the ordinary sword which was carried by every gentleman in that day.
The first of the personages we have mentioned approached with a slow step towards the fire, saying to Plessis as he advanced, "So the Colonel has not come, I see?"
"No, Sir George," replied Plessis with a lowly inclination of the head, "he has not arrived yet; but I had a messenger from him at noon to-day, saying that he would be here to-night."
"Ha!" exclaimed Sir George Barkley, "that is more than I expected—But he will not come, he will not come! Make us a bowl of punch, good Plessis—make us a bowl of punch—the night is very cold.—But he will not come, I feel very sure he will not come."
"I think I hear his horse's feet even now," replied Plessis—"at all events, there is some one arrived."
"Keep him some minutes down below, good Plessis," exclaimed Sir George Barkley hastily. "Run down and meet him. Make up some story, and delay him as long as possible; for I have got something to consult with these gentlemen upon before we see him."
Plessis hastened away; and as soon as the door was closed, Barkley turned to the gaily dressed man we have mentioned, saying, "Charnock, tell Sir John Friend and Captain Rookwood what we were saying as we came along; and all that has happened in London."
The dull countenance of Charnock was lighted up in a moment by one of those quick looks we have mentioned. "Listen, Parkyns, too," he said, "for you have not heard the whole."
"Be quick, be quick, Charnock," said Sir George Barkley.
"Well, thus it is then, gentlemen," said Charnock—"matters do not go so favourably as we could have wished. Sir John Fenwick, here, the most active of us all, had got the Duke of Gaveston to join us heartily, to concur in the rising, or, at all events, to hear all that we propose, with a promise of perfect secrecy; but most unfortunately, at the meeting at the Old King's Head, some one unwisely suffered it to slip out that we were to have thirty thousand French troops, forgetting that what is good to tell the lower classes and those who are timid and fearful of not having means enough, does not do to be told to the bold and high-minded, who are apt to be foolishly confident. The Duke cried out at that, and vowed that if his opinion were to have any weight, or if his co-operation was of any import, not a foreign soldier should come into the land. This was bad enough; but we might have smoothed that down, had not Lowick chanced to hint the plan for getting rid of this Prince of Orange as the first step. Thereupon both the Duke and the Earl of Aylesbury, who were present, flew out like fire; and the Duke, vowing he would hear no more, took up his hat and sword and walked away, in spite of all that could be said. The Earl, for his part, stayed the business out, saying, that he would have nothing to do with the affair, but that he remained to show us that he would not betray anything."
"That is to say," exclaimed one of the others, "that the Duke will betray all."
"Not exactly," said Sir John Fenwick, with a grim smile. "We have taken care of that, and perhaps may compel the Duke to join us whether he likes it or not, when once the matter's done. However, Sir George and I have determined that it is absolutely necessary and needful for us all to understand, that we, who take the deeper part in the matter, must keep our own counsel better for the future. Of course, we must still endeavour to enrol as many names as possible; but to all ordinary supporters we must tell nothing more, than that the general rising is to take place, and that we have the most perfect certainty of success by means which we cannot divulge."
"You will remark, gentlemen," said Sir George Barkley, "that the assistance of the French troops is to be mentioned to no one at all, without the general consent of the persons here present."
"And the execution, or putting to death, or call it what you will, of the Prince of Orange," added Charnock, "is to be told to nobody on any account whatever. We have quite sufficient hands to do it ourselves without any more help; and if you and your men will take care of the guards, I will undertake the pistoling work with my own hand."
"But the Colonel," said one of the others, "you forgot to mention about the Colonel, Charnock."
"Why, that is the worst spot in the whole business," said Sir George Barkley. "No one expected his stomach to be queasy; but by heavens he's worse than either the Duke or the Earl. He did not so much seem to dislike the idea of foreign troops—though that did not please him—but one would have thought him a madman to hear how he talked about that very necessary first step, the getting rid of the usurper. He said, not only that he would have nothing to do with it, but that it should not be done; and he used very high and threatening language even towards me—at present his Majesty's representative. He used words most injurious to us all, and which I would have resented to the death if it had not been for consideration of the high cause in which we are all here engaged."
"What did he say? What did he say?" demanded two or three voices.
"In the first instance," answered Sir George Barkley, "he would not come to the last meeting at the King's Head; and his first question, when I went to seek him, was, whether the King knew of what we were about to do? I said, certainly not; that I had a general commission, which was quite enough, and that we had not told the King of an act which was very necessary, but might not be pleasant for him to hear. With that he tossed up his head and laughed, in his way, saying that he thought so; and that the King did not know what bloody-minded villains he had got in his service.—Bloody minded villains was the word.—It is rather impudent, too, and somewhat strange, that he, of all men, should talk thus—he who, for many a year now, has lived by taking toll upon the King's Highway."
"Ay; but I insist say, Sir George," replied one of the others, "he has always been very particular. I, who have been with him now these many years, can answer for it, that in all that time he has never taken a gold piece from any one but the King's enemies, nor I either: and he vows that the King's commission which he still has, justifies him in stripping them."
"Ay, so it does," replied Sir George Barkley, "and the King's commission, too, justifies us in killing them. This gentleman only makes nice distinctions when it suits him. However, we are taking means to get all his people away from him. Byerly won't be such a stickler, no doubt, and five or six of the others we can bribe."
"Ay, but will he not betray us," said Sir William Parkyns.
"I think not," said Sir George Barkley; and unwittingly he paid the person he spoke of the highest compliment in his power, saying, "I rather fancy the same sort of humour that prevents him from going on in the business with us will keep him from betraying what he knows. But we shall soon see that; and now having said all we have to say, you had better go down, Fenwick, and see if he be come or not."
During the time that this conversation had been going on, there had been various sounds of different descriptions in the house; and when Sir John Fenwick rose and opened the door to seek the person last spoken of, he was met face to face by Monsieur Plessis, and a maid-servant, carrying an immense bowl of punch, at that time the favourite beverage of a great part of the English nation.
"Was that the Colonel?" demanded Fenwick, as soon as he beheld Plessis.
"Yes," replied the Frenchman; "but he is busy about his horses and things, and said he would be up immediately."
"Has he got anybody with him?" demanded Sir John Fenwick in a low voice, for Plessis had left the door partly open behind him.
"Only two," rejoined the other.
"Put down the punch, Plessis," said Sir George Barkley—"run down and see if you cannot stop the others from coming up with him."
Before Plessis could do as he was bid, however, the door was flung farther open, and our old acquaintance Green entered the room alone. He was dressed as upon the first occasion of his meeting with Wilton Brown, except that he had a sort of cloak cast over his other garments, and a much heavier sword by his side. Plessis, who did not seem very much to like the aspect of affairs, made his exit with all speed, and closed the door; and Green, with a firm step and a somewhat frowning brow, advanced to the table, saying, "I give you good evening, gentlemen."
Sir John Fenwick, who was nearest to him, held out his hand as to an old friend; but Green thrust his hands behind his back, and made him a low bow, saying, "I must do nothing, Sir John, that may make you believe me your comrade when I am not."
"Nay, nay, Colonel," said Sir John Fenwick, still holding out his hand to him, "at least as your friend of twenty years' standing."
"That as you please, sir," replied Green, giving him his hand coldly.
"We have requested your presence here, Colonel," said Charnock, "to speak over various matters—"
"Mr. Charnock," interrupted Green, "I have nothing to do with you. It is with this gentleman I wish to have a word or two more than we could have the other afternoon," and he walked directly up to Sir George Barkley.
"Well, sir, what is it that you want with me?" said Sir George. "I hope you have thought better of what you said that night."
"Thought, sir," answered Green, "has only served to confirm everything that I then felt. In the first place, Sir George Barkley, you have dealt with me in this business uncandidly; and if I had not had better information than that which you gave me, pretending to be a friend, I should have been smuggled into a transaction which I abhor and detest."
"How mean you, sir? How mean you? I was perfectly candid with you," said Sir George Barkley.
"Ha, ha, ha!" exclaimed Green, laughing scornfully. "Perfectly candid! Yes, when you could not be otherwise. You told me, sir, that you wanted my assistance with ten men well armed for a service of great honour and danger; but until I put the question straightforward to you—having already obtained a knowledge of your proceedings—you did not tell me that the service you required was the cold-blooded murder of William, wrongly called King of England."
"That, sir, was to be explained to you afterwards," said Sir George Barkley.
"Afterwards!" exclaimed Green: "ay, sir, how soon afterwards? After the deed was done, ha? or after I was so far committed that I could not retract? And let me ask you, why it was that I was not to be informed till afterwards, when every other person here present knew it long before—I, who remained by the bloody waters of the Boyne when you acted as the King's running footman, and heralded him back to France? Nay, nay, you shall hear me out, sir, now. I believe not that you would ever have told me, had it not been that this intercepted letter fell into my hands, and informed me of all your proceedings, when you thought I knew them not."
And as he spoke he held the letter out before him, and struck his hand fiercely upon the paper.
The others looked round, each in his neighbour's face, with a doubtful, and disconcerted look, and Green went on before any one could answer.
"Why was all this, Sir George Barkley?" he said. "Why was this concealment? I will tell you why: because you dared not for your life propose such a thing to me, till you thought I was so far committed that I could not escape you; and if I had not asked you myself the question, I should never have heard the truth till this day."
Dark and darker shades of passion had come over the countenance of Sir George Barkley while Green had been speaking; and he, Charnock, and one of the others, during the latter part of their new companion's somewhat vituperative address, had been exchanging looks very significant and menacing. At length, however, Sir George Barkley exclaimed, "Come, come, Colonel—this language is too much. You have been asking questions and answering them yourself. We have now one or two to ask you, and we hope you will answer them as much to our satisfaction as you have answered the others to your own."
"What are your questions, sir?" demanded Green, fixing his eye upon him sternly. "Let me hear them, and if it suits me I will reply; if not, you must do without an answer."
"To one question, at least," replied Sir George Barkley, "to one question, at least, we must compel an answer!"
"Compel!" exclaimed Green, "compel!" and he took a step back towards the door.
"Look to the door, Fenwick!" exclaimed Sir George Barkley. "Parkyns, help Sir John! I should be sorry to take severe measures with you, Colonel; but before you stir a step from this room you must pledge yourself by all you hold sacred that you will not betray us."
Green heard him to an end without any further movement than the step back which he had taken, and which placed him in such a position that he could front either Barkley and the rest on the one side, or those who were at the door upon the other, without the possibility of any one coming upon him from behind without being seen. The moment the other had done, however, he shook back the cloak from his shoulders, and took from the broad horseman's girdle which girt him round the middle, a pistol, the barrel of which was fully eighteen inches long, while its counterpart appeared on the other side of the belt, in which also were two more weapons of the same kind, but of less dimensions. He leaned the muzzle calmly upon his hand for a moment, and looking tranquilly in the face of Sir John Fenwick he said, in a quiet tone, "Sir John Fenwick, you are in my way. You will do wisely to retire from the door, and take your friend with you."
"Rush upon him!" cried a man named Cranburne; and as he spoke he sprang forward himself, while Sir George Barkley and the rest came somewhat more slowly after. The pistol was in a moment transferred to Green's left hand, and with a back-handed blow of the right, which seemed in fact but a mere touch, Cranburne was laid prostrate on the ground, with his whole face and neck swimming in blood from his mouth and nose. In his fall he nearly knocked down Sir George Barkley, who took it as a signal for retreat towards the fire-place, and at the same moment Green, who had not moved a step from the spot where he stood, repeated in a louder voice, "You are in my way, Sir John Fenwick! Move from the door!" and at the same instant, in the silence which had followed the overthrow of Cranburne, the ringing sound occasioned by a pistol being suddenly cocked made itself distinctly heard.
"Move, move, Sir John Fenwick!" cried one of the others, a Captain Porter—"this is all very silly: we risk a great deal more by making a fracas here, than in trusting to the honour of a gentleman, such as the Colonel."
Sir John Fenwick did not require two recommendations to follow this suggestion, but he and Parkyns drew back simultaneously, leaving the way free for Green to go out. He advanced, in consequence, as if to take advantage of this movement; but before he quitted the room, he turned and fronted the party assembled.
"Sir George Barkley," he said, looking at him with a scornful smile, "you are, all of you, afraid of my telling what I know; but now that the way is clear, I will so far relieve you as to say, that nothing which any of you have told me shall ever pass my lips again. The knowledge that I have gained or may gain by other means is my own property, with which I shall do as I like; but there are one or two pieces of information which I carry under my doublet, and which you may not be sorry to hear. As for you. Sir George Barkley, the secret I have to reveal to you is, that you are a white-livered coward. This I shall tell to nobody but yourself—Ha, ha, ha!—because your friends know it already, and to your enemies you will never do any harm. Fenwick, you are just sufficient of a fool to get yourself into a scrape, and sufficient of a knave to drag your friends in too, in the hopes of getting out yourself. Sir William Parkyns and Sir John Friend, knights and gentlemen of good repute, with full purses and with empty heads, you are paving a golden road to the gallows. Charnock, you are a butcher; but depend upon it, you were not made to slaughter any better beast than a bullock. The rest of you, gentlemen, good night. As for you, Porter, I wish you were out of this business. You are too honest a man to be in it; but take care that you do not make a knave of yourself in trying to shake yourself free from a cloak that you should never have put on."
It may easily be conceived that this speech was not particularly palatable to any of the parties present. But Sir George Barkley was the only one who answered, and he only did it by a sneer.
"Oh! we know very well," he said, "my good Colonel, that you can turn your coat as well as any man. We have heard of certain visits to Kensington, and interviews with the usurper; and, doubtless, we shall soon see a long list of our names furnished by you, and stuck up against Whitehall."
"He who insinuates a falsehood, sir," replied Green, turning sharply upon him, "is worse than he who tells a lie, for a lie is a bolder sort of cowardice than a covered falsehood. I have never been but once to Kensington in my life, and that was to see Bentinck, Lord Portland—whom I did not see. William of Nassau I have never spoken to in my life, and never seen, that I know of, except once through a pocket-glass, upon the banks of the Boyne. All that you have said, sir, you know to be false; and as to my giving a list of your names, that you know to be false also. What I may do to prevent evil actions I do not know, and shall hold it over your heads. But of one thing you may be quite sure, that no man's name would ever be compromised by me, however much he may deserve it."
Thus saying, he turned upon his heel and quitted the room, still holding the pistol in his hand. After closing the door, he paused for an instant and meditated, then thrust the pistol back into his belt, and walked along one of the many passages of the house, with the intricacies of which he seemed perfectly well acquainted.
The scene of dismay and confusion, however, which he left behind is almost indescribable. Every person talked at once, some addressing the general number, not one of whom was attending; some speaking vehemently to another individual, who in turn was speaking as vehemently to some one else. The great majority of those present, however, seemed perfectly convinced that their late companion would betray them, or, at all events, take such measures for frustrating their schemes, as to render it perilous in the extreme to proceed in them. Sir John Friend was for giving it all up at once, and Parkyns seemed much of the same opinion. Rookwood, Fenwick, and others hesitated, but evidently leaned to the safer course.
Sir George Barkley and Charnock were the only persons who, on the contrary, maintained the necessity and the propriety of abandoning none of their intentions. To this, indeed, after great efforts, they brought back the judgment of the rest; but it required all their skill and art to accomplish that object. In regard to the general question of proceeding, they urged, at first, that they might as well go on, though cautiously, inasmuch as they were all committed to such a degree, that they could not be more so, let them do what they would. They were already amenable to the law of high treason, which was sure not to be mitigated towards them, and therefore they had nothing farther to fear but discovery. This having been conceded, and fear beginning to wear away, after a little consideration, it was easily shown to some of those present who proposed to abandon the idea of calling in foreign troops, in the hope of bringing back the Duke and the Earl of Aylesbury, with others, to their party, that their great hope of security lay in the actual presence of those foreign troops, who would, at all events, enable them to effect their escape, even if they did not insure them success in their design. The assassination was the next thing touched upon: but here Sir George Barkley argued, that what had occurred should only be considered as a motive for urging on their proceedings with the utmost rapidity.
"Let us leave it to be understood," he said, "by the great multitude of King James's loyal subjects, that the matter of aid from France is a thing yet to be considered of. In regard to the death of the usurper, whatever it may be necessary to say to others, none of us here present can doubt that it is absolutely necessary to our success. The whole of the information possessed by the man who has just left us is evidently gained from a letter which I wrote to Sir John Hubbard in the north, which has somehow unfortunately fallen into his hands. In that letter, however, I stated that the usurper's life would come to an end in April next, as we at first proposed. If the man have any design of betraying us—"