"No, no, he will not betray us," said several voices; "he has pledged himself not to disclose our names; and when his word is once given, it is sure."
"But," said Sir John Fenwick, "he straight-forwardly said that he would frustrate our scheme, and in so doing, it is a thousand chances to one that he causes the whole to be discovered."
"Then the way," exclaimed Sir George Barkley, "the only way is to proceed in the business at once. This letter to Hubbard is what he goes upon; he has no suspicion of our being ready to accomplish the thing at once. Let us then take him by surprise; and while he is waiting to see what April will produce, let us, I say, within this very week, execute boldly that which we have boldly undertaken. We can easily have sharp spies kept constantly watching this good friend of ours in the green doublet, who seems to fancy himself a second-hand sort of Robin Hood. Half of his people are mine already, and the other half will be so soon. Let the thing be done before the year be a week older; and let us to-morrow night meet at Mrs. Mountjoy's in St. James's-street, and send over to hurry the preparations in France. Gentlemen, it is time for action. Here several months have slipped by, and nothing is done. It is high time to do something, lest men should say we promised much and performed little."
Gradually all those who were present came round to the opinion of Sir George Barkley, and everything was arranged as he had proposed it. Some farther time was then spent in desultory conversation; and it seemed as if every one lingered, under the idea that they were all to go away together. Sir George Barkley, however, and Fenwick, seemed somewhat uneasy, and whispered together for a moment or two; and at length the latter said, "It may be better, gentlemen, for us to go away by two or three at a time. You, Parkyns, with Sir John Friend, had better take along the upper road; three others can take the low road by the waterside; and Sir George with Charnock and myself will wait here till you are safely on your way."
This proposal was instantly agreed to; but still some of the gentlemen lingered, evidently to the discomposure of Sir George Barkley, who at length gave them another hint that it was time to depart.
"By Heaven!" he exclaimed, as soon as they were all gone, "I thought they would have hung drivelling on here till the boat came down. The tide served at ten o'clock, and before one they must be off the end of the garden. How far is it from Erith?"
"Oh, certainly not four hours' sail," answered Charnock. "But had I not better now write the letter we talked of to the Duke? I can conceal my own hand well enough, and then if Fenwick is asked anything about it, he can swear most positively that it is not his writing."
"Oh! I care nothing about it," replied Fenwick. "The foolish old man cannot betray me without betraying himself; and you will see he will soon come round. In the meantime, however, I will go down and talk to old Plessis about the ship. I should think it could be got ready two days sooner easily; and as this that we have in view is a great object, we must not mind paying a few pounds for speed."
Thus saying, he left the room; and Charnock, taking paper out of a drawer, proceeded to write a letter according to the suggestions of Sir George Barkley. Presently after, there was a sound of several voices speaking, which apparently proceeded from some persons approaching the front of the house. Both Sir George Barkley and Charnock started up, the first exclaiming, "Hark! there they are!"
"Yes," exclaimed Charnock, "there's a woman's voice, sure enough! Why the devil don't they stop her talking so loud?"
"You write out the letter, Charnock," said Sir George. "I must go down and see that all is right."
Charnock nodded his head, and the other left the room.
When Wilton Brown reached the house of the Earl of Byerdale, he found that nobleman, the Duke of Gaveston, and Lord Sherbrooke, sitting together in the most amicable manner that it is possible to conceive. The countenance of the Duke was certainly very much distressed and agitated; but making allowance for the different characters of the two men, Lord Byerdale himself did not seem to be less distressed. Lord Sherbrooke, too, was looking very grave, and was thoughtfully scribbling unmeaning lines with a pen and ink on some quires of paper before him.
"Oh, Mr. Brown, I am very glad to see you," exclaimed the Duke.
"My dear Wilton," said the Earl, addressing him by a title which he had never given him in his life before, "we are particularly in need of your advice and assistance. I know not whether Sherbrooke, in his note, told you the event that has occurred."
"He did so, to my great grief and surprise, my lord," replied Wilton. "How I can be of any assistance I do not know; but I need not say that I will do anything on earth that I can to aid my lord duke and your lordship."
"The truth is," replied Lord Byerdale, "that I am as greatly concerned as his grace: it having happened most unfortunately, this very morning—I am sorry, through Sherbrooke's own fault—that Lady Laura found herself compelled to break off the proposed alliance between our two families, which was one of my brightest day-dreams. The Duke knows well, indeed, that however high I may consider the honour which I had at one time in prospect, I am perfectly incapable of taking any unjustifiable means, especially of such a rash and desperate nature, to secure even an alliance such as his. But other people—the slanderous world at large—may insinuate that I have had some share in this business; and therefore it is absolutely necessary for me to use every exertion for the purpose of discovering whither the young lady has been carried. At the same time, the circumstances in which we are placed must, in a great degree, prevent Sherbrooke from taking that active part in the business which I know he could wish to do, and I therefore must cast the burden upon you, of aiding the Duke, on my part, with every exertion to trace out the whole of this mysterious business, and, if possible, to restore the young lady to her father."
The Earl spoke rapidly and eagerly, as if he feared to be interrupted, and wished, in the first instance, to give the matter that turn which seemed best to him.
"I am very anxious, too, Mr. Brown," said the Duke, "to have your assistance in this matter, for I am sure, you well know I place great confidence in you."
Wilton bowed his head, not exactly perceiving the cause of this great confidence at the moment, but still well pleased that it should be so.
"May I ask," he said, in as calm a voice as he could command, for his own heart was too much interested in the subject to suffer him to speak altogether tranquilly—"may I ask what are the particulars of this terrible affair, for Lord Sherbrooke's note was very brief? He merely told me the Lady Laura had disappeared; but he told me not where she had last been seen."
"She was last seen walking on the terrace in the garden," said the Duke, "just as it was becoming dusk. The afternoon was cold, and I thought of sending for her; but she had been a good deal agitated and anxious during the day, and I did not much like to disturb her thoughts."
"On which terrace?" demanded Wilton, eagerly.
"On the low terrace near the water," replied the Duke.
"Good God!" exclaimed Wilton, clasping his hands, "can she have fallen into the river?" and the horrible image presented to his mind made his cheek turn as pale as ashes. In a moment after, however, it became red again, for he marked the eye of the Earl upon him, while the slightest possible smile crept round the corners of that nobleman's mouth.
"My apprehensions, at first, were the same as yours, my young friend," replied the Duke. "I was busy with other things, when one of the servants came to tell me that they thought they had heard a scream, and that their young lady was not upon the terrace, though she had not returned to the house. We went down instantly with lights, for it was now dark; and my apprehensions of one terrible kind were instantly changed into others, by finding the large footmarks of men in the gravel, part of which was beaten up, as if there had been a struggle. The footsteps, also, could be traced down the stone steps of the landing-place, where my own barge lies, and there was evidently the mark of a foot, loaded with gravel, on the gunwale of the boat itself, showing that somebody had stepped upon it to get into another boat."
This intelligence greatly relieved the mind of Wilton; and at the same time, Lord Sherbrooke, who had not yet spoken a word, looked up, saying, "The Duke thinks, Wilton, that it will be better for you to go home with him, and endeavour to trace this business out from the spot itself. One of the messengers will be sent to you immediately with a warrant, under my father's hand, [Footnote: It may be as well to remark here, that much of the business which is now entirely entrusted to police magistrates was then carried on by the secretaries of state and high official persons; and a "secretary's warrant" was an instrument of very dangerous and extensive power.] to assist you in apprehending any of the participators in this business. Do you think anything can be done to-night?"
Wilton was accustomed to read his friend's countenance with some attention, and, from his whole tone and manner, he gathered that Lord Sherbrooke was somewhat anxious to bring the conference to an end.
"Perhaps something may be done to-night," he replied, "especially if no inquiry has yet been made amongst the watermen upon the river."
"None," replied the Duke, "none! To say the truth, I was so confounded and confused, that I came away here instantly—for advice and assistance," he added; but there was a pause between the words, which left his real views somewhat doubtful. The rest of the business was speedily arranged. The Duke's coach was at the door, and Wilton proceeded into the Earl's library to write a note to his own servant, containing various directions. He was followed in a minute or two by Lord Sherbrooke, who seemed looking for something in haste.
"Where are the blank warrants, Wilton?" he said: "my father will sign one at once."
As he spoke, however, he bent down his head over Wilton's shoulder, and then added, "Get away as fast as you can, or you will betray yourself to the keen eyes that are upon you. Go with the Duke, rescue the girl, and the game is before you. I, too, will exert myself to find her, but with different views, and you shall have the benefit of it."
"Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke," said Wilton, "what madness is it that you would put into my head?"
"It is in your heart already, Wilton," replied Lord Sherbrooke. "But after all, it is no madness, Wilton; for I have this very night heard my father acknowledge to the Duke that he knows who you really are; that the blood in your veins is as good as that of any one in the kingdom; and that your family is more ancient than that of the Duke himself, only that on account of some of the late troubles and changes it has been judged necessary to keep you, for a time, in the shade. Thus, you see, it is no madness—Nay, nay, collect your thoughts, Wilton.—Where are these cursed warrants? I say the game is before you.—There is my father's voice calling. He has an intuitive perception that I am spoiling his plans. Look to Sir John Fenwick, Wilton—look to Sir John Fenwick. I suspect him strongly. Hark how that patient and dignified father of mine is making the bell of the saloon knock its head against the wall! By heavens, there's his step! Fold up your note quickly! Where can these cursed warrants be?—My lord," he continued, turning to his father, who entered at that moment, "before you sent me for the warrants, you should have given me a warrant to discover and take them up, for I can neither do one nor the other."
The warrants were soon found, however; the Earl signed one and filled up the blanks; one of the ordinary Messengers of State was sent for, in order to follow Wilton and the Duke as soon as possible; and the young gentleman, taking his place in the carriage, was soon upon the way to Beaufort House, conversing over the events that had occurred.
What between agitation, grief, and apprehension, the Duke was all kindness and condescension towards his young companion. He seemed, indeed, to cast himself entirely upon Wilton for support and assistance; and it speedily became apparent that his suspicions also pointed in the direction of Sir John Fenwick, and the rash and violent men with whom he was engaged.
"I could explain myself on this subject," said the Duke, "to no one but you, my dear young friend, as you are the only person acquainted with the fact of my having been at that unfortunate meeting, except, indeed, the people themselves. Of course I could not say a word upon the subject to Lord Byerdale or Lord Sherbrooke; but in you I can confide, and on your judgment and activity I rely entirely for the recovery of my poor girl."
"I will do my best, my lord," replied Wilton, "and trust I shall be successful. Perhaps I may have more cause for anticipating a fortunate result than even your grace, as I have means of instantly ascertaining whether the persons to whom you have alluded have any share in this matter or not; means which I must beg leave to keep secret, but which I shall not fail to employ at once."
"Oh, I was sure," replied the Duke, "that if there was a man in England could do it, you would be the person. I know your activity and your courage too well, not to have every confidence in you."
The coachman had received orders to drive quick; and the hour of nine was just striking on the bell of an old clock at Chelsea when the carriage drove into the court-yard. Wilton sprang out after the Duke; but he did not enter the house.
"I will but go to make some inquiries," he said, "and join your grace in half an hour. I may learn something tonight, and under these circumstances it is right to lose no time. I should be well pleased, however, to have a cloak, if one of your grace's servants could bring me either a common riding cloak or a roquelaure."
One was immediately procured; and, somewhat to the surprise and admiration of the Duke, who was, as the reader may have perceived, one of those people that are expressively denominated SLOW MEN, he set off instantly to pursue his search, animated by feelings which had now acquired even a deeper interest than ever, and by hopes of the extraordinary circumstances in which he was placed proving the means of attaining an object well worth the exertion of every energy and every thought.
It was a fine frosty night, with the stars twinkling over head, but no moon, so that his way amongst the narrow lanes which surrounded Beaufort House at that time, was not very easily found. As he walked on, he heard a sharp whistle before him, but it produced nothing, though he proposed to himself to stand upon the defensive, judging from one or two little signs and symptoms which he had seen, that the Green Dragon might protect under the shadow of its wings many persons of a far more fierce and dangerous description than it had itself proved, either as an adversary of St. George, or as an inhabitant of the marshes near Wantley.
He walked on fast, and a glimmering light in the direction from which he had heard the sound proceed at length led him to the hospitable door of the Green Dragon. One sign of hospitality, indeed, it wanted. It stood not open for the entrance of every one who sought admission; and a precautionary minute or two was suffered to pass before Wilton obtained one glance of the interior.
At length, however, a small iron bolt, which prevented any impertinent intrusion into the penetralia of the Green Dragon, was drawn back, and the lusty form of the landlord made its appearance in the passage. He instantly recognised Wilton, whose person, indeed, was not very easily forgotten; and laying his finger on the side of his nose, with a look of much sagacity, he led Wilton into a little room which seemed to be his own peculiar abode.
"The Colonel is out, sir," he said, as soon as the door was closed; "and there are things going on I do not much like."
Wilton's mind, full of the thought of Lady Laura, instantly connected the landlord's words with the fact of her disappearance, but refrained from asking any direct question regarding the lady. "Indeed, landlord," he said, "I am sorry to hear that. What has happened?"
"Why, sir," answered the landlord, "nothing particular; but only I wish the Colonel was here—that is all. I do not like to see tampering with a gentleman's friends. You understand, sir—I wish the Colonel was here."
"But, landlord," said Wilton, "can he not be found? I wish he were here, too, and if you know where he is, I might seek him. I have something important to say to him."
"Bless you, sir," replied the landlord, "he's half-way to Rochester by this time. He went well nigh two hours ago, and he is not a man to lose time by the way. You'll not see him before to-morrow night, and then, may be, it will be too late. I'd tell you, sir, upon my life," he continued, "if you could find him, for he bade me always do so; but you will not meet with him on this side of Gravesend till to-morrow night, when he will most likely be at the Nag's Head in St. James's Street about the present blessed hour. I've known him a long time now, sir, and I will say I never saw such another gentleman ON THE WAY, though there is Mr. Byerly and many others that are all very gentlemanlike—but bless you, sir, they do it nothing like the Colonel, so I do not wish him to be wronged."
"Of course not," answered Wilton; "but tell me, landlord, had he heard of this unfortunate business of the lady being carried off, before he went?"
"Lord bless you, no, sir," replied the man—"I only heard of it myself an hour ago. But one of our people was talking with a waterman just above there, and he said that there was a covered barge—like a gentleman's barge—came down at a great rate, about six o'clock; and he vowed that he heard somebody moaning and crying in it; but likely that is not true, for he never said a word till after he heard of the Duke's young lady having been whipped up."
Wilton obtained easily the name and address of the waterman, and finding that there was no chance whatever of gaining any further intelligence of Green, or any means of communicating with him at an earlier period than the following night, he took his leave of the good host, and rose to depart. The landlord, however, stopped him for a moment.
"Stay a bit, Master Brown," he said. "You see, I rather think there are one or two gentlemen in the lane waiting just to talk a word with my good Lord Peterborough, who is likely to pass by; and as the Colonel told me that you were not just in that way of business yourself, you had better take the boy with you."
"No, indeed," replied Wilton, somewhat bitterly, "I am not exactly, as you say, in that way of business myself. I am being taught to rob on a larger scale."
"Oh, sir!" exclaimed the landlord, not at all understanding Wilton's allusion to his political pursuits, "all these gentlemen keep the highway a horseback too. This foot-padding is only done just for a bit of amusement, and because the Colonel is out of the way. He would be very angry if he knew it.—But I did not know you were upon the road at all, sir."
"No, no," replied Wilton, smiling, "I was only joking, my good friend. The sort of robbery I meant was aiding kings and ministers to rob and cheat each other."
"Ay, ay, sir!" said the landlord, now entering into his meaning, and taking as a good joke what Wilton had really spoken in sadness—"you should have called it miching, sir—miching on a great scale. Well, that's worse than t'other. Give me the King's Highway, I say! only I'm too fat and pursy now."
This said, he went and called a little boy well trained in bearing foaming pots from place to place, who soon conducted Wilton back in safety to the house of the Duke, and then undertook to send up the waterman with all speed. By this time the Messenger from the Earl of Byerdale had arrived; but although the good gentlemen called Messengers, in those days, exercised many of the functions of a Bow-street officer, and possessed all the keen and cunning sagacity of that two-legged race of ferrets, neither he nor Wilton could elicit any farther information from the waterman than that which had been already obtained.
"I think, sir, I think, your grace," said the Messenger, bowing low to the statesman's secretary, and still lower to the Duke, "I think that we must give the business up for tonight, for we shall make no more of it. Tomorrow morning, as early as you please, Mr. Brown, I shall be ready to go down the river with you, and I think we had better have this young man's boat, as he saw the barge which he thinks took the young lady away. Hark ye, my man," he continued, addressing the waterman, "you've seen fifty guineas, haven't you?"
"Why, never in my own hand, your honour," replied the man, with a grin.
"Well, then, you'll see them in your hand, and your own money too, if by your information we find out this young lady; so go away now, and try to discover any one of your comrades who knows something of the matter, and come with a wherry to the Duke's stairs tomorrow morning as soon as it is daylight."
"Ay, ay, we'll find her, sir, I'll bet something," said the man; and with this speech, the only consolatory one which had yet been made by any of the party, he left them. The Messenger having now done all that he thought sufficient, retired comfortably to repose, shaking from his mind at once all recollection of a business in which his heart took no part. Nothing on earth marks more distinctly that the Spirit or the Soul, with all its fine sensibilities and qualities, both of suffering and acting, is of distinct being from the mere Intellect, which is, in fact, but the soul's prime minister, than the manner in which two people of equal powers of mind will act in circumstances where the welfare of a third person, dear to the one, and not dear to the other, is concerned. A sense of what is right, some accidental duty, or mere common philanthropy, may often cause the one to exert all his powers with the utmost activity to obtain the object in view; but the moment that he has done all that seems possible, the soul tells the mind to throw off the burden for the time; and, casting away all thought of the matter, he lays himself down comfortably to sleep and forgetfulness. The other, however, in whose bosom some more deep interest exists, pursues the object also by every means that can be suggested; but when all is done, and the mind is wearied, the soul does not suffer the intellect to repose, but, still engaged in the pursuit, calls the mind to labour with anxious thought, even though that thought may be employed in vain.
For some hours after the Messenger was sound asleep, and had forgotten the whole transaction in the arms of slumber, Wilton sat conversing with the Duke, and endeavouring to draw from him even the smallest particulars of all that had taken place during the last few days, with the hope of discovering some probable cause for the event. The Duke, however, though disposed to be communicative towards Wilton on most subjects, showed a shyness of approaching anything connected with the meeting in Leadenhall-street.
It was evident, indeed, that all his suspicions turned upon Sir John Fenwick, and he admitted that a violent quarrel had occurred after the meeting; but he showed so evident an inclination to avoid entering into the subject farther, that Wilton in common delicacy could not press him. Finding it in vain to seek any more information in that quarter, Wilton at length retired to rest, but sleep came not near his eyelids. He now lay revolving all that had occurred, endeavouring to extract from the little that was really known some light, however faint, to lead to farther discovery. In the darkness of the night, imagination, too, came in, and pictured a thousand vague but horrible probabilities regarding the fate of the beautiful girl with whom he had so lately walked in sweet companionship on the very terrace from which it appeared that she had been violently taken away. Fancy had wide range to roam, both in regard to the objects of those who had carried her off, to the place whither they had borne her, and to the probability of ever recovering her or not. But Fancy stopped not there—she suggested doubts to Wilton's mind as to the fact of her having been carried off at all. The terrible apprehension that she might, by some accident, have fallen into the river returned upon him. The feet-marks upon the gravel, he thought, might very naturally have been produced by the servants in their first search; and it was not at all improbable that some one of them, thinking that his young mistress had fallen into the water, might have placed his foot upon the gunwale of the barge to lean forward for a clearer view of the river under the terrace.
As he thought of all these things, and tortured his heart with apprehensions, the conviction came upon the mind of Wilton, that, notwithstanding every difference of station, and the utter hopelessness of love in his case, Laura had become far, far dearer to him than any other being upon earth; had produced in his bosom sensations such as he had never known before; sensations which were first discovered fully in that hour of pain and anxiety, and which, alas! promised but anguish and disappointment for the years to come.
There was, nevertheless, something fascinating in the conviction, which, once admitted, he would not willingly have parted with; and it gradually led his thoughts to what Lord Sherbrooke had told him concerning his own fate and family. That information, indeed, brought him but little hope in the present case, though we should speak falsely were we to assert that it brought him no hope. The gleam was faint, and doubting that it would last, he tried voluntarily to extinguish it in his own heart. He called to mind how many there were, whose families, engaged in the late troubles during the reigns of Charles and James, had never been able to raise themselves again, but had sunk into obscurity, and died in poverty and exile. He recollected how many of them and of their children had been driven to betake themselves to the lowest, and even the most criminal courses; and he bethought him, that if he were the child of any of these, he might think himself but too fortunate in having obtained an inferior station which gave him competence at least. The cloud might never be cleared away from his fate; and he recollected, that even if it were so, there was but little if any chance of his obtaining, with every advantage, that which he had learned to desire even without hope. He knew that the Duke was a proud man, proud of his family, proud of his wealth, proud of his daughter, proud of his rank, and that he had judged it even a very great condescension to consent to a marriage between his daughter and the son of the Earl of Byerdale, a nobleman of immense wealth, vast influence, most ancient family, and one who, from his power in the counsels of his sovereign, might, in fact, be considered the prime minister of the day. He knew, I say, that the Duke had considered his consent as a very great condescension; and he had remarked that very night, that Laura's father, even in the midst of his grief and anxiety, had made the Earl feel, by his whole tone and manner, that in the opinion of the Duke of Gaveston there was a vast distinction between himself and the Earl of Byerdale. What chance was there, then, he asked himself, for one without any advantages, even were the happiest explanation to be given to the mystery of his own early history?
Thus passed the night, but before daylight on the following morning he was up and dressed; and, accompanied by the Messenger, he went down the river with two watermen; both of whom declared that they had seen the covered barge pass down at the very hour of Lady Laura's disappearance, and had heard sounds as if from the voice of a person in distress.
We shall not follow Wilton minutely on his search, as not a little of our tale remains to be told. Suffice it to say, that from Chelsea to Woolwich he made inquiries at every wharf and stairs, examined every boat in the least like that which had been seen, and spoke with every waterman whom he judged likely to give information; but all in vain. At that time almost every nobleman and gentleman in London, as well as all merchants, who possessed any ready means of access to the Thames, had each a private stairs down to the river, with his barge, which was neither more nor less than a large covered boat, somewhat resembling a Venetian gondola, but much more roomy and comfortable.
Thus the inquiries of Wilton and the Messenger occupied a considerable space of time, and the day was far spent when they turned again at Woolwich, and began to row up the stream. Wilton, on his part, felt inclined to land, and, hiring a horse, to proceed to the Duke's house with greater rapidity—but the Messenger shook his head, saying, "No, no, sir: that wont do. We must go through the same work all over again up the river. There's quite a different set of people at the water-side in the morning and in the evening. We are much more likely to hear tidings this afternoon than we were in the early part of the day."
Wilton saw the justice of the man's remark, and acquiesced readily. But he did so only to procure for himself, as it turned out, a bitter and painful addition to the apprehensions which already tormented him. In passing London bridge, one of the heavy barges used in the conveyance of merchandise was seen moored at a little distance below the bridge, and in the neighbourhood of the fall. A great number of men were in her, rolling up various ropes and grappling irons, while a personage dressed as one of the city officers appeared at their head. Ile was directing them at the moment to unmoor the barge, and bring her to one of the wharfs again; but the boatmen of Wilton's boat, without any orders, immediately rowed up to the barge, and the Messenger inquired what the officer and his comrades were about.
The officer, who seemed to know him, replied at once, "Why, Mr. Arden, we are dragging here to see if we can get hold of the boat or any of the bodies that went down last night."
"Ay, Smith," replied the Messenger, "what boat was that? I haven't heard of it."
"Why, some stupid fools," replied the officer, "dropping down the river in a barge about half-past eight last night, tried to shoot the arch at half tide, struck the pier, got broadside on at the fall, and of course capsized and went down. If it had been a wherry, the boat would have floated, but being a covered barge, and all the windows shut, she went down in a minute, and there she sticks; but we can't well tell where, though I saw the whole thing happen with my own eyes."
"Did you see who was in the barge?" demanded the Messenger.
"I saw there were three men in her," the officer replied, "but I couldn't see their faces or the colour of their clothes, for it was very dark; and if it had not been for the two great lamps at the jeweller's on the bridge, I should not have seen so much as I did. We are going home now, for we have not light to see; but we got up one of the bodies, drifted down nearly half a mile on the Southwark side there."
"Was it a man or a woman?" demanded Wilton, eagerly.
"A man, sir," replied the officer. "It turns out to be Jones, the waterman by Fulham."
Wilton did not speak for a moment, and the Messenger was struck, and silent likewise. When they recovered a little, however, they explained to the officer briefly the object of their search upon the river, and he was easily induced to continue dragging at the spot where he thought the boat had disappeared. He was unsuccessful, however; and, after labouring for about half an hour, the total failure of light compelled them to desist without any farther discovery. Wilton then landed with the Messenger; and with his brain feeling as if on fire, and a heart wrung with grief, he rode back, as soon as horses could be procured, to carry the sad tidings which he had obtained to Laura's father.
A spirit—though rather of a better kind than that which drags too many of our unfortunate countrymen into the abodes of wickedness and corruption, now called Gin Pal—es, so liberally provided for them in the metropolis—abodes licensed and patronised by the government for the temptation of the lower orders of the populace to commit and harden themselves in the great besetting vice of this country—a spirit, I say, of a better kind than this, drags me into a house of public entertainment, called the Nag's Head, in St. James's Street.
The Nag's Head, in St. James's Street!!!
Now, though nobody would be in the least surprised to have read or heard of the Nag's Head in the Borough, yet there is probably not a single reader who will see this collocation of the "Nag's Head" with "St. James's Street" without an exclamation, or at least a feeling of surprise, at it being possible there should ever have been such a thing in St. James's Street at all—that is to say, not a nag's head, either horsically or hobbyhorsically speaking, but tavernistically; for be it known to all men, that the Nag's Head here mentioned was an inn or tavern actually in the very middle of the royal and fashionable street called St. James's. One might write a whole chapter upon the variations and mutations of the names of inns, and inquire curiously whether their modification in various places and at various times depends merely upon fashion, or whether it is produced by some really existing but latent sympathy between peculiar names, as applied to inns, and particular circumstances, affecting localities, times, seasons, and national character.
Having already touched upon this subject, however, though with but a slight and allusive sentence or two, in reference to our friend the Green Dragon, and being at this moment pressed for time and room, we shall say no more upon the subject here, but enter at once into the Nag's Head, and lead the reader by the hand to the door of a certain large apartment, which, at about half-past nine o'clock, on the night we have just been speaking of, was well nigh as full as it could hold.
The people whom it contained were of various descriptions, but most of them were gentlemanly men enough in their appearance, and these were ranged round little tables in parties of five or six, or sometimes more. It cannot, indeed, be said that their occupations were particularly edifying. Dice, backgammon-boards, and cards were spread on many of the tables; punch smoked around with a very fragrant odour; and whatever might have been the nature of the conversation in general, the oaths and expletives, with which it was interlarded from time to time, spoke not very well for either the morality or the eloquence of our ancestors: for such, indeed, I must call these gentlemen, forming as they did part of the great ancestral body of a hundred and fifty years ago; though I devoutly hope and pray that none of my own immediate progenitors happened to be amongst the number there assembled. The smell of punch and other strong drink was, to the atmosphere of the place, exactly what the dissolute and swaggering air of a great number of the persons assembled there was to the natural expression of the human countenance. The noise, too, was very great; so that the ear of a new comer required to become accustomed to it before he could hear anything that was taking place.
Gradually, however, as habit reconciled the visitor to the din, the oaths and objurgations, together with the words "cheat, liar, knave," &c. &c., separated themselves from the rest of the conversation, and swam like a sort of scum upon the top of the buzz. Though all were met there for enjoyment, too, it is worthy of remark, that many of the countenances around bore strong marks of fierce and angry passions, disappointment, hatred, revenge; and many a flushed cheek and flashing eye told the often-told tale, that in the amusements which man devises for himself he is almost always sure to mingle a sufficient quantity of vice to bring forth a plentiful return of sorrow.
While all this was proceeding in full current, the door, which opened with a weight and pulley, rattled and squeaked as it was cast back, and our often-mentioned friend Green—or the Colonel, as he was called—entered the room. Giving a casual glance around him, he proceeded to the other end of the saloon, where there was a small table vacant, and called in a loud but slow voice for a pint of claret. Whether this was his habit, or whether it was merely an accidental compliance with the tavern etiquette of taking something in the house which we visit, the claret was brought to him instantly, as if it had been ready prepared, together with a large glass of the kind now called a tumbler, and a single biscuit.
Green took no notice of any one in the room, for some minutes, but ate the biscuit and drank the claret in two drafts of half a pint at a time. When this was done, he gazed round him gravely and thoughtfully; after which he walked up to one of the tables where some people were playing at hazard, and spoke a word or two across it to the man who was holding the dice-box. The man looked up with a frank smile, and for his only reply nodded his head, saying, "In five minutes, Colonel."
Green then went on to the next table, and spoke in the same low voice to a person on the left-hand side, but the man looked down doggedly, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "I can't leave my game now, Colonel. If you had told me half an hour ago, it might have been different."
"Oh! you are very busy in your game, are you?" said Green. "And so I suppose are you," he added, turning to another who was sitting at the same table.
That man answered also in the same tone; and Green, muttering to himself "Very well!" went on to two more tables at little distances from each other, from one of which only, he received a nod in answer to what he said, with the words, "Directly, Colonel—directly."
He was just going on to another, when the door again opened, and a tall, graceful young man, APPARENTLY of one or two and twenty years of age, entered the room, and advanced towards the table which Green had left vacant. His whole manner and appearance was totally different from that of the persons by whom the room had been previously tenanted, and a number of inquiring eyes were naturally turned towards him. Green looked him full in the face without taking the slightest notice; nor did the stranger show any sign of remarking him, except by brushing against him as he passed, and then turning round and begging his pardon, while at the same time he laid the finger of his right hand upon a diamond ring which he wore upon the little finger of the left. He then advanced straight to the vacant table, as we have said, and sat down, looking towards a drawer who stood at the other end of the room, and saying—
"Bring me some claret."
At the same moment, Green advanced to the table, and bowing his head with the air and grace of a distinguished gentleman, said—
"I beg your pardon, sir, for saying that this is my table; but there is perfectly room at it for us both, and if you will permit me the honour, I will join you in your wine. Shall we say a bottle of good Burgundy, which will be better than cold claret on this chilly night?"
"With all my heart," replied Wilton Brown, for we need hardly tell the reader that it was he who had last entered the room at the Nag's Head; and Green, turning to the drawer, said, "This gentleman and I will take a bottle of Burgundy. Let it be that which the landlord knows of."
"I understand, sir—I understand," replied the drawer, "last Monday night's;" and Wilton and his companion were soon busily discussing their wine, and talking together, upon various indifferent things, in a voice which could be heard at the neighbouring tables. Green spoke with ease and grace, and had altogether so much the tone of a well-bred man of the world, that he might have passed for such in the highest society in the realm. Wilton found the task a more difficult one, for his mind was eagerly bent upon other subjects. He laboured to play his part to the best, however; and Green, laughing, showed him how to drink his wine out of goblets, as he called it; so that the matter was brought to a conclusion sooner than he had ventured to hope.
As the bottle drew to its close, Green took an opportunity of saying, in a low voice, "Come with me when I go out."
Wilton answered in the same tone, "Must you not make some excuse?"
"Oh, I will show you one—I will show you one!" exclaimed Green, aloud—"if you have never seen one, I will show you one within five minutes from this time. I have but to speak a word to some of my friends at these different tables, and then you shall come with me."
This was heard all through the room; and Wilton seeing that the excuse was already made, said no more, but, "Very well, I am ready when you like."
Green then rose, and went round those to whom he had before spoken, addressing each of them again in the same order.
"I will meet you, Harry," he said to the first, who had so readily made an affirmative answer, "in three quarters of an hour. Don't be longer, my good fellow, if you can help it. Master Williamson," he added, when he came up to the other, speaking in as low a tone as possible, "I think you would have given up your game at cards, if you had known what I had to tell you and Davis there, opposite."
There was something dark and meaning in Green's look as he spoke, a knitting of the brows, a drawing together of the eyelids, and a tight shutting of the mouth between every three or four words, which made the man turn a little white.
"Why, what is the matter, Colonel?" he said, in a much civiler tone than before. "Cannot you tell me now?"
"Oh, yes," replied Green, in the same low tone, "I can tell you now, if you like. It is no great matter: only that there are warrants out against you and Davis; and against Ingram there at the other table, for robbing the Earl of Peterborough last night in the Green Lane, behind Beaufort House. They have got hold of Jimmy Law, poor fellow, already, and he will be hanged to a certainty. It was discovered who you all were by Harry Brown, who was one of your party when you went, without my knowledge, to do business between Gravesend and Rochester. He's one of my Lord Peterborough's led captains now, and was in the carriage with him, though you didn't see him to know him. He gave all your names, and they have sent down to the Green Dragon after you, and have also people on the Rochester road. Tell Davis, and I will tell Ingram; for it is better you should all get out of the way for awhile."
This was said in so low a tone, that none of those around could hear distinctly; but the worthy gentleman to whom the words were addressed did not seem near so cautious as the Colonel; for, after having suffered his eyes and his mouth to expand gradually with a look of increasing horror at every word, he started up from the table as Green concluded, exclaiming, "By—!" and dashed the cards down upon the board before him, scattering one half of them over the floor. Green gave him one momentary look of sovereign contempt, and then proceeded to the opposite table, where he told the same story to the personage named Ingram, whose attention had been called by the vehement excitement of his comrade. The effect now produced seemed fully as deep, though not quite so demonstrative; for Master Ingram sat in profound silence at the table for at least five minutes, with his face assuming various hues of purple and green, as he revolved the matter in his own mind.
It is probable, that very seldom any three men, except three sailors, have ever thought so much of a rope at the same moment; and before Green could finish his tour round the room and rejoin Wilton, those to whom he had spoken were all hastening up St. James's Street as fast as they could go. Green returned to the table where he had been seated, called the drawer to receive the money for the Burgundy, and then bowing his head to Wilton, with somewhat of a stiff' air, he said, "Now, sir, if you please, I am ready to show you the way; and as I have not much time-"
"I am quite ready," replied Wilton; and turning to the door, he and Green left the house together, while those who remained behind, immediately they were gone, gathered into two or three little knots, discussing the scene which had just taken place.
In the meantime, Green led Wilton into St. James's Square, the centre of which was not at that time enclosed, as now, by iron railings; and walking to and fro there, he demanded eagerly what was the matter, and heard with surprise all that his young companion had to tell him of the sudden disappearance of the Duke's daughter, of which he had previously received no intelligence.
We need not recapitulate the whole of Wilton's account to the reader; but will only add, to that which is already known, one fact of some importance with which the young gentleman concluded the detail of his inquiries during that very day.
"When I arrived at Beaufort House," he said, "fully and painfully impressed with the notion that this poor young lady was drowned, I was met by the Duke at the very door of his library with a letter in his hand. His eyes were full of tears of joy, for the news of a boat having been lost had, by this time, reached him; and the letter, which was dated from a distant part of the country, informed him of his daughter's safety, in these words:-'Lady Laura Gaveston will be restored to Beaufort House as soon as her father can make up his mind to behave with spirit and patriotism, and follow out the only plans which can save his country. This must be done by actions, not by words; but a positive engagement under his hand will be considered sufficient. In the meantime, she remains a hostage for his good faith.' At the bottom was written, in a hand which he says is that of Lady Laura herself—'My dear father, I am well; but this is all they will let me write.'"
"Whence was it dated?" demanded Green sharply.
"Newbury," replied Wilton; "and the letter was brought by a person who spoke with a foreign accent."
"This is strange," said Green: "I should think it was some of that troop of—I know not well whether to call them villains or madmen. I should think some of them had done this, were it not that I had seen them all—I may say all the principal ones—last night, and they certainly had not a woman with them then."
"The Duke's suspicions turn principally upon Sir John Fenwick," said Wilton.
"It could not well be him," replied Green: "he was there, and none but men with him. It is very strange! I wish I could see that letter. Perhaps I might recognise the hand."
"That is evidently feigned," answered Wilton; "but I should think the date of Newbury must be false, too."
"To be sure, to be sure," replied Green—"the exact reverse most likely. They must have taken her towards the sea, not inland—Newbury!—More likely towards Rochester or Sheerness; yet I can't think there was any woman there. Yet stay a minute, Wilton," he continued, "stay a minute. I expect tidings to-night, from the very house at which I met them last night. There is a chance, a bare chance, of there being something on this matter in the letters; it is worth while to see, however. Where can I find you in ten minutes from this time ?-I saw the boy waiting near the palace when we came out."
"I will go into the Earl of Sunbury's, on that side of the square," replied Wilton, "where you see the two lights. There is nobody in it but the old housekeeper, but she knows me and will admit me."
"She knows me, too," replied Green, drily; "and I will join you there in ten minutes with any intelligence I may gain."
Green left him at once, with that peculiar sharpness and rapidity of movement which Wilton had always remarked in him from their first meeting. The young gentleman, on his part, went over to the house of the Earl of Sunbury, and telling the old housekeeper, and the girl who opened the door to him, that a gentleman would soon be there to speak with him on business, he went up to the saloon, and as soon as he was alone, raised the light that was left with him, to gaze upon the picture which we have mentioned more than once, and to compare it by the aid of memory with the lady whom he had seen but a few days before. The likeness was very strong, the height was the same, the features, examined strictly one by one, presented exactly the same lines. The complexion, indeed, in the picture, was more brilliant; and it was that, perhaps, as well as a certain roundness, which marked a difference of age; but then the expression was precisely the same—a depth, a tenderness even approaching to melancholy—in the picture, as in her whom he had seen; and though he gazed, and wondered, and wearied imagination for probabilities, he found none, but could only end by believing that, in the facts connected with that picture, lay the mystery of his fate, and of the link between him and the Earl of Sunbury.
He was still gazing, when Green was ushered into the room, and setting down the light, Wilton turned to meet him. There was a dark and heavy frown upon the countenance of him whom we have so often heard called the Colonel, as he entered: an expression of bitterness mingled with sadness; but, nevertheless, he took up the light, and walking up to the picture, gazed upon it for a minute or two, as Wilton had done.
"It is wonderfully like," he said, after pausing for a moment or two—"how beautiful she was! However, I have no time to think of such things now. I have here tidings for you, Wilton. I know not yet rightly what they are, for I caught but a glance of them; and had other things to think of bitter enough, and requiring instant attention. Here, let us look what this epistle says."
Setting down the lamp upon the table, he opened the letter and held it to the light, reading it attentively, while Wilton, who stood beside him did the same. It was written in fine small hand, and in French; but the page at which Green had opened the sheet, after a few words connected with a sentence that had gone before, went on as follows:—"I should not have sent this till we were safe across, but that circumstances have induced us to delay our departure; and you would scarcely think that it is I who have urged Caroline to remain for yet a little while: I, who some days ago was so fearful of remaining, so anxious to depart. Nor is it solely an inclination to linger near that dear boy, although I own the sight of him has been to me like the foretaste of a new existence. Bless him for me, my friend—bless him for me! But I found that the dear wild girl who is with me had neither ceased to love, nor ceased entirely to hope. In the last letter she received, mingled with reproaches for coming hither, there was every now and then a burst of tenderness and affection which made her trust, and me almost believe, that all good and honourable feeling is not extinct. She thinks that if she could see him, the better angel might gain the dominion, and I have not only counselled her to remain yet a little while, but also even to go to London should it be required. While we were talking over all these things," the letter proceeded, "just after you were gone, we heard a fresh arrival at this house, and, as I thought, a woman's voice speaking in tones of remonstrance and complaint. I have this morning learned who it is, and now write in great haste to ask you if these things are right in any cause, or if you can have anything to do with it. I will not believe it, Lennard—I will not believe it. Rash as you have been in choosing your own fate—hasty as you have been in all things connected with yourself—you would not, I am sure, countenance a thing that is cruel as well as criminal."
Green laughed bitterly. "I am forced," he said, "to bear much that I would not countenance. But look here—she goes on to say that it is the daughter of the Duke. 'Young, and beautiful, and gentle,' she says—that matches well, does it not, Wilton, ha?—I Who has been torn from her father, the Duke of Gaveston, in this daring and shameful manner, and brought hither by water with the intention, as I believe, of sending her over to France in the ship that we have hired. I have seen her twice, and spoken with her for some time, and I beseech you, if it be possible, find means of setting her free.'—Ay, but how may that be?" continued Green. "If they have got her, and risk their necks to have her, they will take care to keep her sure. They have men enough for that purpose, and they have taken care to render me nearly powerless."
"I should have thought," replied Wilton, whose joy at the discovery of where Laura really was had instantly blown up the flame of hope so brightly, that objects distant and difficult to be reached seemed by that light to be close at hand—"I should have thought, from what I have seen and what I suspect, that you could have commanded a sufficient force at any moment to set all opposition at defiance, especially when you were engaged in a lawful and generous cause."
"I should have thought so, too," replied Green, "two days ago. But times have changed, Wilton, times have changed, and, like the wind of a tropical climate, turned round in a single moment. On my soul," he continued, vehemently, "one would think that men were absolutely insane. Here a set of people, whose lives are all in my own hand, dare to tamper with my friends and comrades, to bribe them, to hire them away from me, ay, and to do it so openly that I cannot fail to see it, and that too, at the very moment when they know that I hate and abhor their proceedings, and when they have just reason to suppose that I will take means to frustrate their base and cowardly designs, and only waver between the propriety of doing so, and the wish not to give them over to the death they well deserve."
"If they have so acted," replied Wilton—"if they have shown such base ingratitude towards you, as well as designs dangerous to the country—for I will not affect to doubt or misunderstand you—why not boldly, and at once, give them up to justice? Understand me, I wish to hear nothing more of these men. I wish to be perfectly ignorant of their whole proceedings. I wish to have no information whatsoever, except my own suspicions, for if I had, I should feel myself bound immediately to cause their arrest. But from what you have said in regard to Sir John Fenwick; from what the Duke has said on various occasions; and from what I myself have remarked, I am strongly inclined to believe that there are matters going on which can but end in ruin to those engaged in them, if not in all the horrors of a civil war."
"That I should not mind—that I should not mind!" cried Green—"let us have a civil war; let every man lay his hand upon his sword and betake him to his standard. That is the true, the right, the only right way to get rid of an usurper. It has been with the very view of that civil war you talk of that I have banished myself from the station in which I was born, that I have walked by night instead of by day, and that I have kept in constant preparation, throughout the whole of the south of England, the seeds, as it were, of a future army. And now what have they done? Not only trusted the command of all things to others, but given that command to men who would do, by the basest and most dastardly means, that which I would do by open force and bold exertion: men who have mixed up crimes of the blackest die with the noblest aspirations that ever led on men of honour to the greatest deeds; who have soiled and sullied, disgraced and degraded, the cause for which I have shed my blood, ruined my fortune, and seen all the fair things of life pass away like a dream. By heavens, I could cry as if I were a girl or a baby," and he dashed away a tear from his eye which he could not restrain; "and now," he continued, "and now if I do not prevent them they will put a damning seal to all their follies and crimes, which will render that holy and noble cause horrible in the eyes of all men, which will brand it for ever with infamy and shame, and leave it blighted and loathsome, so that men will shrink from the very thought thereof."
"But why not prevent them?" cried Wilton, "why not give up such traitors and villains to justice at once?" "Why not?" replied Green; "because there are men amongst them who have fought side by side with me in the day of battle; because there are some foolish when others are wicked; because that there are many who abhor their acts as much as I do, but who would be implicated in the consequences of their crimes. These are all strong reasons, Wilton, powerful, mighty reasons, and I find now, alas I—I find now, most bitterly—that he who seeks even the best ends, in dark and tortuous ways, is sure, sooner or later, to involve himself in circumstances where he can neither act nor refuse to act, neither speak nor be silent, without a crime, a danger and a punishment. In that situation I have placed myself; and I tell you that even now, since I have entered this room, I have determined to call upon my own head those dangers, if not that fate, which the mistake I have committed well deserves. I will frustrate these men's designs. They shall not commit the act they purpose. But yet I will betray no man; I will give no man up to death. They shall not wring it from me; but they shall be sufficiently warned. Now, however, let us leave all this, and only inquire how this girl can be saved from their hands. You, Wilton, must be the person to rescue her, for I feel sure that your fate and hers are bound up together. I feel sure, too," he added with a faint smile, "that she would rather it were your hand saved her than that of any one else. I have seen you together more than once, remember. But how it is to be done is the question. My time must be given to other things, for from tidings I have received not a moment is to be lost. They have taken such means that I find there are only two whom I can trust out of very many who were with me near London. I have no time to send either into Dorsetshire or Sussex, and the people there may have been tampered with also. Besides, as we cannot call in the power of the law upon our side, it would need a number to effect our purpose."
"But I will call in the power of the law," replied Wilton. "I have a Messenger with the Secretary of State's warrant at my command; and wherever this place may be, I can in a moment raise such a force in the neighbourhood as will enable me to rescue her, and capture those who have committed so daring an outrage.
"Ay, but that is what must not be, Wilton," replied Green. "There is not one of those men whom you would capture whose head would be worth ten days' purchase, were he within the walls of Newgate or the Tower. No, no! to that I cannot consent. Her freedom must be effected somehow, but their liberty not lost. I must think over it this night. Where can I find you to-morrow morning early?"
"At my own lodgings," replied Wilton, "not four streets off."
"No, no!" answered Green; "I never enter London in the day. I might risk much by doing so, and must not do it except in case of great need."
"Then let it be at Beaufort House," replied Wilton: "I sleep there to-night. But why should we not settle and determine the whole at once? Tell me but where is this place to which they have taken Lady Laura, and I will undertake to rescue her."
"You alone, Wilton?" said Green.
"Aided by none but the Messenger," replied Wilton: "armed with the force of the law, I fear not whom I encounter."
"Armed with the force of love!" answered Green, after looking at him for a moment with eyes in which affection and admiration were equally evident. "You want not the spirit of your race; and it will carry you through. If you will promise me to take none but the Messenger with you, you shall have some one to guide you to the house, and to aid you on my part. I need not tell you what you have to do. Demand the young lady's liberty simply and straightforwardly; say to all those who oppose you, that the task of investigating what have been the causes, and who the perpetrators of the outrage committed, must fall upon the Duke; that you have no authority to meddle with that part of the business. Say this, I repeat, and I doubt not that you will be fully successful. They dare not—I am sure they dare not—resist you, if you do not attempt to arrest any of their own number."
"I promise you most faithfully," replied Wilton, "to act as you have said. I will go with the Messenger and the person you send only. But where am I to meet this person? When, and how, and where, am I to find the house?"
"You would find it with difficulty," replied Green; "for it lies far off from the high road, not many miles from Rochester; and the lanes and woods about it are not arranged for the purpose of making it easily discovered. You must not, therefore, attempt to find your way alone. However, set out early to-morrow with strong fresh horses, and ride on till you come to the village of High Halstow. Should you reach that place before nightfall, remain there till it turns dusk. As it begins to become grey, ride out again, taking the way towards Cowley Castle. As you go along that road, you will find some one to show you the way. He will ask you what colour you are of. Answer him 'Brown,' but that 'Green' will do as well. I would be there myself if I could; but that, I fear, cannot be. Let me hear of you and of your success, however—though I will not doubt your success; and now, are you going back to Beaufort House? If so, I will bear you company on the way."
Wilton replied in the affirmative, and they accordingly left the house of the Earl of Sunbury. Wilton, however, had to procure his horse; and Green also was delayed, for a moment, by the same piece of business. When all was prepared, he seemed to hesitate and pause before he mounted; and while he yet remained speaking, with his foot in the stirrup, a boy ran up, saying, "I have just been down, sir, and seen him go in."
Green gave him a note which he had held in his hand during the whole conversation at Lord Sunbury's, saying, "Take him that note! Tell the servant to deliver it immediately. If Lord Sherbrooke asks who sent it, tell him it was the gentleman who wrote it, and who hopes to meet him at the appointed place." The boy ran off with the note as fast as he could go, and Wilton and his companion turned their horses' heads towards Chelsea.
What he had heard certainly did surprise Wilton a good deal; and he did not scruple to say, "You seem acquainted with every one, I think, and to have an acquaintance with many of whom I did not know you had the slightest knowledge."
"It is so," answered Green, in a grave and thoughtful tone, "and yet nothing wonderful. It is with a man like me as with nature," he added with a smile, "we both work secretly. Things seem extraordinary, strange, almost miraculous, when beheld only in their results, but when looked at near, they are found to be brought about by the simplest of all possible means. You, having lived but little in the world, and not being one half my age, yet know thousands of people in the highest ranks of life that I do not know, though I have mingled with that rank ten times as much as you have done: and I know many whom you would think the last to hold acquaintance with me in these changed times. You could go into any thronged assembly, a theatre, a ball-room, a house of parliament, and point me out, by hundreds, people with whose persons I am utterly unacquainted, and these would be the greatest men of the day.
"But I could lay my finger upon this wily statesman, or that great warrior, or the other stern philosopher, and could tell you secrets of those men's bosoms which would astonish you to hear, and make them shrink into the ground;—and yet there would be no magic in all this."
Wilton did not answer him in the same moralizing strain, but strove to obtain some farther information in regard to his proceedings proposed for the following day. But neither upon that, nor upon the subject of the note to Lord Sherbrooke, would Green speak another word, till, on arriving at the gates of Beaufort House, he said—
"Remember High Halstow."
It was night, and the large assembly of persons who had thronged the palace at Kensington during the day had taken their departure. Silence had returned after the noise and bustle of the sunshine had subsided; scarcely a sound was heard throughout the whole building, except the porter snoring in the hall. The King himself had taken his frugal supper, and was sitting alone in his cabinet with merely a page at the door; his courtiers were scattered in their different apartments; and his immediate attendants were waiting in the distant chambers where he slept, for the hour of his retiring to rest.
Such had been the state of things for some little time, when the great bell rang, and the porter started up to open the door. A gentleman on horseback appeared without, accompanied by two others, apparently servants; and the principal personage demanded, in a tone of authority, "Is the Earl of Portland in the palace?"
The porter, though not well pleased to be roused, replied, with every sort of deference to the air and manner of the visitor, saying that the Earl was in the palace, but he believed was unwell.
"I am afraid I must disturb him," said the stranger. "My business is of too much importance to his lordship to wait till to-morrow morning."
The porter then gave the speaker another look: the dress, the demeanour, the horses, the attendants, were all such as commanded respect, although he did not recollect the stranger's face. "Well, sir," he said, "if you will come in, I will have his lordship informed."
The stranger nodded his head, and turning to his followers, bade them take away the horses. "I will walk back," he said, and then following the porter, entered the palace. The janitor led him onward through some large folding doors to a room where two or three servants were sitting, into whose hands he delivered him, bidding one of them conduct him to the page in waiting. This was speedily done; and the page, on being informed of the stranger's desire, again examined him somewhat curiously, and asked his name.
"That matters not," replied the stranger. "Tell him merely that it is a gentleman to whom he rendered great service many years ago, and who has now important intelligence to give him."
"I fear, sir," replied the page, "that my Lord Portland would not like to be disturbed without some clearer information than that."
"Do as you are ordered, sir," replied the gentleman, in a tone of stern authority, which seemed not a little to surprise his hearer. "Tell Lord Portland it is a gentleman whose life he saved at the battle of the Boyne."
The page retired with the air of one who would fain have been sullen if he had dared; and the stranger remained standing with his hand upon the table in the middle of the room, the doors closed round him on all sides, and no one apparently near.
His first thought was one not often indulged in that place, though by no means an unnatural one. It was a thought, for merely expressing which, not less than twelve people were once committed to a severe and lengthened imprisonment by a king of France. "How easy would it now be," the stranger said mentally, "to kill a king, were one so minded! Now, God forbid," he added, "that even the attempt of such an act should ever stain our loyalty to our legitimate sovereign! Those Romans, those splendid but most barbarous of barbarians, were certainly the greatest cheats of their own understandings that ever lived. There was scarcely a crime, a vice, or a folly upon earth, that they did not hug to their hearts, when they had once gilded it with a glorious name."
As he thus paused, moralizing, he laid down his hat upon the table, and brushing back his grey hair from his brow, pressed his hand upon his forehead as if his head ached, and then dropping it again, mused for several minutes with his eyes fixed upon the floor. He was only roused from this deep fit of thought by the door opening suddenly. A gentleman rather below the middle height, with strong marked features, and a keen but steadfast eye, entered the room with a paper in his hand. His eyes were fixed upon the ground as he came in, and he walked with a firm but somewhat heavy step, as if his limbs did not move very easily, though he was by no means a man far advanced in life.
The stranger gazed at him for a moment with a look of inquiry, and then advanced immediately towards him, bowing with a stately air, and saying, "My Lord of Portland, since I last saw you, you are somewhat changed, but perhaps not so much as I am, and therefore I may have to recall myself to your remembrance; especially as those who confer a benefit in a moment of haste and tumult, are more likely to forget the person they obliged, than that person to forget his benefactor."
He spoke in French, as it was generally known that Lord Portland was unwilling to speak English, though he understood it.
The other heard him out in perfect silence, and without the slightest change of countenance; but looked him in the face attentively, as if endeavouring to recollect his features.
"I have seen you somewhere before," he said at length, "but where I really do not know. It must have been a long time ago. Pray what do you want?"
"It is a long time ago, my lord," replied the visitor, "and the place where we met is far distant. It was upon the banks of the Boyne, just when the battle was over."
"Oh, I think I remember now," replied the other: "did I not come up just as one of our people had got his knee upon your throat, and was going to fire his pistol into your head, because you would ask no quarter, while another was wrenching your broken sword out of your band?"
"You did," answered the stranger, "you did: you saved my life; and when I jumped up and got to a horse, you would not let them fire after me. It was not to be forgotten, my lord; but—"
At that moment the door was again thrown open, and the page re-entered the room, speaking in a somewhat harsh and authoritative tone as he came in, so as to cut across what the stranger was about to say, with "My Lord of Portland—;" but the gentleman who had entered just before waved his hand, saying, in a stern voice, "Leave the room! and wait without."
The man obeyed immediately, and the other turning to the visitor, added, "I am at this moment not very well, and extremely busy—even pressed for a moment, so that I must leave you just now. If you will sit down and write what you wish, it shall have favourable attention, or if you would rather say it, and explain it more fully by word of mouth, I will send an intimate friend of mine to you to whom you can tell what you think proper. I will hear what it is, and give every attention to it; but at this moment it is impossible for me to remain. These papers in my hand require instant reply, and I was seeking for some one to answer them when I came here."
"What I have to say," answered the stranger, "requires also instant attention; that is to say, it must be told to your lordship before to-morrow morning, and I will therefore, if you will permit me, remain here till you are ready to hear. When once told to you, the burden of it will be off my shoulders."
"I could have wished to have gone to bed," replied the other, with a faint smile, "without any farther burden upon mine. But if it so please you to wait, do it; but I fear I shall be long."
The visitor, however, signified his acquiescence by bowing his head; and the other left him without saying anything more.
"Somewhat of the insolence of office!" he said to himself, as his acquaintance quitted the room: "however, I must not forget the obligation;" and seating himself, he fell into deep thought, which seemed of a painful kind; for the muscles of his face moved with the emotions of his mind, and one or two half-uttered words escaped him. At length, he seemed weary of his own thoughts, and turning round as if to look for some occupation for his thoughts, he said, "It matters not!"
There were no books in the room, nor any pictures; there was nothing that could attract the eye or amuse the mind, except the beautiful forms of some of the gilded panel-frames, and the spots of the carpet beneath his feet. The visitor began to grow weary, and to think that Lord Portland was very long in returning.
At length, however, when he had been there about half an hour, a somewhat younger man entered, splendidly dressed according to the costume of the day, and advancing directly towards the stranger, he said in very good English—
"My name is Keppel, sir, and I am directed to say that Lord Portland will really be hardly able to see you to-night, as he is anything but well; but as it would appear that what you have to say is important, I wish to know whether it is important to the King or to the Earl himself. If to the latter, the Earl will see you at two o'clock to-morrow; if to the King, I am directed to request that you would communicate it to me, by whom it shall be most faithfully reported, both to Lord Portland and to the King himself."
"Sir," replied the stranger, "the motive of my coming is on no private business. It is on business of importance to the state generally—of the very utmost importance. I had wished to communicate it to Lord Portland, because that gentleman once performed an act of great kindness and generosity towards me, and I wished to give him the means of rendering a great service to his master."
"The King and Lord Portland are both indebted to you, sir," replied Keppel, better known as the Earl of Albemarle, with a grave smile; "but in those circumstances, as the greatest favour to all parties, you will be pleased to communicate anything you have to say to me. From your whole tone and demeanour, I am perfectly sure that what you have to say is none of the unimportant things with which we are too often troubled here; and I may therefore confidently add, that, after you have given me a knowledge of the business, either the King or Lord Portland, as you may think fit, will see you to-morrow."
"Well, sir," replied the visitor, "I have no right to stand on ceremony, especially at such a moment as this. What I have to say would have been much more easily said to Lord Portland himself, as he knows under what circumstances we met, knows probably who I am, and would make allowances for my peculiar views. YOU may think it next to high treason for me to call that Personage, who was not long ago William Prince of Orange, by any other name than King of England"
"Oh no! oh no!" said Keppel with a smile—"names are but names, my good sir; and in this boisterous land of England we are accustomed to see things stripped of all ornaments. The difficulty you mention is easily obviated, by calling him of whom you just have spoken, 'The High Personage.'"
"Names, indeed, are nothing," said the other with a smile. "What I have got to say, sir, is this, that I have undoubted reason to know that the life of the High Personage we refer to is in hourly danger; that there are persons in this realm who have not only designed to kill him, but have laid with skill and accuracy their schemes for effecting that purpose. I have heard that he is very apt—for I have never seen the royal hunt—to go out to the chase nearly alone, or rather, I should say, very slightly attended; and I came to tell Lord Portland that if this were continued, that High Personage's life could not be counted upon from day to day. Let him be well guarded; let there be always some one near him as he rides; and, as far as possible, let some of his guards be ready to escort him home on his return."
"Your information," said Keppel, "is certainly very important, and the precaution you recommend wise and judicious; but yet I fear you must give us some more information to render it at all efficient—I say this, not at all from doubting you, but because we have had, especially of late, so many false reports of plots which never existed, that the King has become careless and somewhat rash. Nor would it be possible for either Lord Portland or myself to persuade him to take any precautions unless we had some more definite information. If you know that such a plot really exists, you must also know the names of those who laid it."
"But those names I will never give up," replied the other: "it is quite sufficient for me, sir, to satisfy my own heart and my own conscience, that I have given a full and timely warning of what is likely to ensue. It matters not to me whether that warning be taken or not; I have done what is right; I will tell no more. Lord Portland knows that I am neither a, coward, nor a low born man. I expect not—I ask not for favour, immunity, reward, or even thanks. All I do ask is, in the words of the poet, 'that Caesar would be a friend to Caesar.'"
"But you are doubtless aware," answered Keppel, after a pause, "that by concealing the names, and in any degree the purposes of persons guilty of high treason, you bring yourself under the same condemnation."
"I both know the fact, sir," replied the other, "and I knew before I came that it might be urged against me here; but I did not think that Lord Portland would urge it. However that may be, I came fully prepared to do what I think right, and as nothing, not even the cause to which I am most attached, would induce me to become an assassin or to wink at cold-blooded murder, so, sir, nothing on earth will induce me to betray others to the death which I do not fear myself. At all events, the truth of what I have told may be positively relied upon; and that I ask no reward or recompence of any kind, may well be received to show that the warning I have given is not vain."
Keppel again mused for a moment or two, and then said, "Well, sir, I must not urge you by any harsh menace, nor was such my intention in what I said. But there are other considerations which should induce you to tell me more than you have told. One is, the safety of the Great Personage we have mentioned himself. It is scarcely possible for him to guard against the evil you apprehend in the manner you propose. He is by far too fearless a man, as you well know, to shut himself up within the walls of his palace, or even to conceal himself in his carriage. If he rides out, he cannot always be surrounded by guards, nor can he have a troop galloping after him through the hunting field."
"Sir," replied the stranger, "to you and to his other friends and attendants I must leave the guardianship of his person—I neither know him nor his habits. I have done what I conceive to be my duty; I have done it to the extreme limit of what I judge right; and neither fear nor favour will make me go one step farther."
"These scruples are very extraordinary," replied Keppel—"indeed, I cannot understand them: but at all events I must beg you to remain a little, while I go and speak to Lord Portland upon the subject. Perhaps, if the King himself were to hear you, you might say more."
"I should say no more to the Personage you mention," replied the other, "than I should to Lord Portland—for to the one I am obliged, to the other, not."
"Well, wait a few minutes," replied Keppel, and quitted the room.
The other remained standing where the courtier had left him, though the thought crossed his mind, "My errand is now done. Why should I remain any longer? I should risk less by going now than by lingering."
But still be stayed; and in two minutes, or perhaps less, the door again opened, giving admission, not to Keppel, but to the elder personage with whom he had spoken before. Advancing into the middle of the room, he leaned upon the table, near which the other was standing, and said—
"Monsieur Keppel has told me all that you have said, and, moreover, what you have refused to say. First, let me tell you that I am much obliged to you for the intelligence you have brought; and next, let me exhort you to make it more full and complete to render it effectual."
"I have made it as complete, my lord," replied his visitor, "as it is possible for me to do without betraying men who were once my friends, and who have only lost my friendship by such schemes as these. I must not say any more even at your request; for I must not take from you the power of saying, that you saved the life of a man of honour. You must contrive means to secure the Great Personage we speak of, and I doubt not you will be able to do so. I had but one object in coming here, my lord, and that object was not a personal one; it was to tell you of the danger, and thereby enable you to guard against it; it was to tell you, that a body of rash and criminal men have conspired together, to assassinate a Personage who stands in the way of their schemes."
"Are there many of them?" demanded his companion.
"A great many," he replied—"enough to render their object perfectly secure, if means be not taken to frustrate it."
"But," said the other, "the men must be mad, for many of them must be taken and executed very soon."
"True," answered his visitor, "if we were to suppose the country would remain quiet all the while. But assassination might only be the prelude to insurrection and to civil war, and to the restoration of our old monarchs to the throne."
"Such was the purpose, was it?" replied his companion.
"Assassination is a pitiful help, and has never yet been called in to aid a great or good cause."
"Ay, my lord," replied his informant; "but in this instance it is a base adjunct affixed to the general scheme of insurrection by a few bloody-minded men, without the knowledge of thousands who would have joined the rising, and without the knowledge, I am sure, of King James himself."
"I really do not see," said the other, "what should have caused such hatred against the person they aim at—the post of King of England is no bed of roses; and a thousand, a thousand-fold happier was he, as Stadtholder of Holland, governing a willing people and fighting the battles of freedom throughout the world, than monarch of this great kingdom, left without a moment's peace, by divisions and factions in the mass of the nation, which called him to the throne, and seeing union nowhere but in that small minority of the people who oppose his authority, and even attempt his life. His is no happy fate."
"Sir, there are some men," replied the other, "in whom certain humours and desires are so strong, that the gratification thereof is worth the whole of the rest of a life's happiness, and gratified ambition may be sufficient in this case to compensate for the sacrifice of peace. I mean not to speak one word against the master that you serve. He has, as you say, fought the battles of liberty for many years: he is a brave and gallant soldier, too, as ever lived: I doubt not he is a kind friend and a good master"
"Stay, stay," replied the other, holding up his hand "before you go farther, let me tell you that you are under a mistake. I am the personage of whom you speak—I am the King. When I prevented the soldiers from killing you, Bentinek was near me. He is taller than I am: the Dutch guards saw him before me, and shouted his name, which led to your error."
The effect of these words upon the other can hardly be imagined. He turned pale—he turned red; but he yielded to the first impulse both of gratitude and respect, and without taking time to think or hesitate, he bent his knee and kissed the King's hand.
"Rise, rise!" said William—"I ask nothing of you, sir, but to speak to me as you would have done if I had really been Lord Portland. I could not let you go on without explanation, for you had said all that could be pleasant to a king's ears to hear; and you seemed about to say those things which you might not have been well pleased to remember, when you discovered my real situation."
"I thank you, sir, most deeply," replied the other, "for that act of kindness, as well as for that which went before. I have hitherto, as I need scarcely say, been a strenuous and eager supporter of King James. I have served him with all my ability, and had he at any time returned to this country, would have served him with my sword. That sword, sir, however, can never now be drawn against the man who has saved my life; and, indeed, though I have known many changes and chances, yet I remember no one moment of joy and satisfaction greater than this, when I think that, spontaneously, I have refused to take a share in criminal designs against my benefactor, though I knew him not to be so, and have revealed the schemes against his life, who generously spared my own."
"I intended," said the King, "in the character of Lord Portland, to press you to farther explanations; but now that you know who I am, I may feel a greater difficulty in so doing. I must leave it to yourself, then, to tell me all that you may think necessary for my safety."
The other put his hand to his head, and for a few minutes seemed embarrassed and pained. "The discovery, sir," he said, at length, "alters my situation also; and yet I pray and beseech you, do not press me to perform an act that is base and dishonourable; grant me but one or two conditions, and I will go to the very verge of what I ought to do, towards you."
"I will press you to nothing, sir," replied William; "what are the conditions?"
"First," replied the other, "that I may not be asked to name any names; secondly, that I may never be called upon to give any evidence upon this subject in a court of justice."
"The names, of course, are important," said William, "as by having them we are placed most upon our guard. However, you have come voluntarily to render me a service, and I will not press hard upon you. The conditions you ask shall be granted. The names shall not be required of you, and you shall not be called upon to give evidence. Call in Keppel! Arnold!" he added, raising his voice; and immediately the door was opened, and Keppel entered, bowing low as he did so.
"I have promised this gentleman two things, Keppel," said the King. "First, that he shall not be pressed to give up the names of the conspirators; and, secondly, that he shall not be called upon to give evidence against them."
"Your majesty is very gracious," replied Keppel: "without the names of the persons, I scarcely think—"
William made a sign with his hand, saying, "That is decided. Now, sir, what more have you to add?"
"Merely this, sir," replied the other: "it is not much, indeed, but it will enable you to take greater measures for your safety. The design to assassinate you has existed some time, but the period for putting it in execution was formerly fixed for the month of April. My opposition to the bloody design, and to the purpose of bringing French troops into Great Britain, has deranged all the plans of these base men. I had fancied that such opposition, and the falling away of many others on whom the assassins counted, would have induced them to abandon the whole design. Last night, however, I received intelligence that, instead of so doing, their purpose was but strengthened, and their design only hastened; that instead of April, the assassination was to take place whenever it could be accomplished; that even tomorrow, when it is believed you dine with the Lord Romney, if it were found possible absolutely to surround the house so as to prevent escape, the deed was to be attempted there; or as you went; or as you came back. If none of these occasions suited, you were to be assailed the first time that you went out to hunt; and dresses such as those worn by many of your attendants in the chase are already ordered for the purpose of facilitating the execution of the murder, and the escape of the assassins. It has been calculated, I find, that on the night of next Saturday you are likely to pass across Turnham Green towards ten o'clock, and that is one of the occasions which is to be made use of, if others fail."
William looked at Lord Albemarle, and Albemarle at the King; but the latter remained silent for a minute or two, as if to give his informant time to go on. The other, however, added nothing more; and the King, after this long pause, said, "I must not conceal from you, sir, that we have heard something of this matter, and may probably soon have farther tidings."
"It is high time, sir," replied the other, "that you should have farther tidings, for the first attempt will certainly be to-morrow night."
"Perhaps we have acted somewhat rashly," said Keppel; "but to say truth, there have been so many reports of plots, that we thought it but right to discourage the matter; his Majesty justly observing, that if he were to give attention to everything of the kind, he would have nothing to do but to examine into the truth of stories composed for the purpose of obtaining rewards. We therefore gave this matter not so much attention as it would seem to require."
"It requires every attention, sir," replied their visitor; "and from whomsoever you may have obtained the information, if possible, obtain more from him immediately. If he tell you what I have told, he tells you truth; and if so, it is probable that any farther information he may give will be true likewise. Did I know his name, perhaps I could say more."
"Suppose his name were Johnstone?" said the King.
"I know of none such," replied the other, "who could give you much information. There are many persons, whom men call Jacobites, of that name, and many very gallant gentlemen who would sooner die than become assassins. But none that I know of, in this business."
"What would you say, then," the King continued, "to the name of Williamson, or Carter, or Porter?"
"Porter!" replied the other, gazing in the King's face—"Porter!—I believe, sir," he added, "you are too generous to attempt to wring from me the names of persons connected with this business in any underhand manner; and therefore I reply to you straightforwardly, that if Captain Porter should give you any information upon this matter consistent with the tidings that I have given, or in explanation thereof, you may believe him. He is not a gentleman I either very much respect or esteem; but I do not believe that he is one who would willingly take a part in assassination, or who would falsify the truth knowingly."
"Sir, you confirm my good opinion of you," replied the King: "we have intimation of some of these proceedings from Porter, and have had intimation from other quarters also, but none such as could be relied upon till the information that you have given us to-night. Porter's, indeed, might have proved more satisfactory; but he does not bear a good reputation, and it was judged better to discourage the thing altogether. He shall now be heard, and very likely the whole will be explained. On the complete discovery of the plot, I need hardly say that any reward within reason which you may require shall be given you."
The stranger waved his hand somewhat indignantly. "There was a man found, sir," he said, "to sell the blood of Christ himself for thirty pieces of silver; and therefore it can scarcely be considered as insulting to any of the sons of men to suppose that they would follow that example. I, however, do not trade in such things, and I require no reward whatsoever for that which I have done. I trust and see now that it will prove effectual, and I am perfectly satisfied. If these men fall into your hands by other means than mine, and incur the punishment they have justly deserved, I have not a word to say for them, but I have only to beseech you, sir, to separate the innocent from the guilty; to be careful—oh! most careful, in a moment of excitement and just indignation—not to confound the two, and to make a just distinction between fair and open enemies of your government, and base and treacherous assassins."
"I shall strive to do so, sir," answered the King, "and would always rather lean towards mercy than cruelty. And now, as it grows late, I would fain know your name, and would gladly see you again."
"My name, sir," replied the other, "must either be kept secret, or revealed to your Majesty alone. I have long been a nameless man, having lost all, and spent all, in behalf of that family opposed to your dynasty."
"Who have, doubtless, shown you no gratitude," said William.
"They have had no means, sir," replied the Jacobite, "and I have made no demand upon them."
"It is but right, however," said the King, changing the subject, "that I should know your name. When I inquired who you were when we last met—the only time, indeed, we have met, till now—they gave me a name which I now see must have been a mistaken one. Do you object to give it before this gentleman?"
"To give my real name, sir," replied the other, "I do. But I have no objection to give it to you yourself in private."
"Leave us, Arnold," said the King; and Lord Albemarle immediately quitted the presence.
The day which we have just seen terminate at Kensington we must now conduct to a close in another quarter, where events very nearly as much affecting the peace and safety of this realm, and far more affecting the peace of various personages mentioned in this history than the events which took place at the palace, were going on at the same time. It was a bright, clear, frosty day, with everything sparkling in the sunshine, the last dry leaves of the preceding year still lingering in many places on the branches of the trees, and clothing the form of nature in the russet livery of decay.
Wilton Brown was up long before daylight, and ready to set out by the first streak of dawn in the east. Not having seen the Duke on the preceding night—as that nobleman, worn with anxiety and grief, had fallen ill and retired to seek repose—he sat down and wrote him a note, while waiting for the Messenger, informing him that he had obtained information concerning Lady Laura's situation, and doubted not to be enabled to set her free in the course of the following day. The Messenger was somewhat later up than himself, and Wilton sent twice to hasten his movements. When he did appear, he had to be informed of the young gentleman's purposes, and of the information he had obtained the night before; and this information Wilton could of course communicate only in part. When told in this mysterious manner, however, and warned that there might be some danger in the enterprise which they were about to undertake, he seemed to hesitate, as if he did not at all approve of the affair. As soon as Wilton remarked this, he said, in a stern tone, "Now, Mr. Arden, are you or are you not willing to go through this business with me? If you are not, let me know at once, that I may send for another messenger who has more determination and spirit."
"That you wont easily find," replied the Messenger, a good deal hurt. "It was not at any danger that I hesitated at all, for I never have in my life, and I wont begin now, when I dare say there is not half so much danger as in things that I do every day.—Did not I apprehend Tom Lambton, who fired two pistols at my head? No, no, it is not danger; but what I thought was, that the Earl very likely might not like any of these bargains about not taking up the folks that we find there, and all that. However, as he told me to obey your orders in everything, I suppose that must be sufficient."