"It must, indeed," answered Wilton; "for I have no time to stop for explanations or anything else; and if you hesitate, I must instantly send for another messenger."
"Oh, I shall not hesitate, sir," replied the Messenger; "but you must take all the burden of the business on yourself. I shall do exactly as you order me, neither more nor less; so that if there comes blame anywhere, it must rest at your door."
"Come. come, Arden," said Wilton, seeing that he was likely to have a lukewarm companion where a very ardent and energetic one was much wanted, "you must exert yourself now as usual, and I am sure you will do so. Let us get to our horses as fast as possible."
Wilton tried to soothe the Messenger out of his ill-humour as they rode along, but he did not succeed in any great degree. The man remained sullen; being one of those who like, when clothed with a little brief authority, to rule all around them rather than be directed by any. So long as he had conducted the search himself, it had been pleasant enough to him to have one of the minister's secretaries with him, following his suggestions, listening to his advice, and showing deference to his experience; but when the young gentleman took the business into his own hands, conducted the whole proceedings, and did not make him acquainted even with all the particulars, his vanity was mortified, and he resolved to assist as little as possible, though he could not refuse to act according to the directions which he received. This determination was so evident, that, before they had reached Gravesend, Wilton felt cause to regret that he had not put his threat in execution, and sent for another messenger. His companion's horse must needs be spared, though he was strong, quick, and needed nothing but the spur; he must be fed here, he must be watered there; and the young gentleman began to fear that delays which were evidently made on purpose, might cause them to be late ere they arrived at the place of their destination. He had remarked, however, that the Messenger was somewhat proud of the beast that carried him, and he thought it in no degree wrong to make use of a stratagem in order to hurry his follower's pace.
After looking at the horse for some time with a marking and critical eye, he said, "That is a fine, powerful horse of yours, Mr. Arden. It is a pity he's so heavy in the shoulder."
"Heavy in the shoulder, Mr. Brown!" said Arden—"I don't think he can be called that, sir, any how; for a really strong, serviceable horse, he's as free in the shoulder as any horse in England."
"I did not exactly mean," replied Wilton, "to say that he was heavy; I only meant that he could not be a speedy horse with that shoulder."
"I don't know that, sir; I can't say that," replied the Messenger, evidently much piqued: "you reckon your horse a swift horse, I should think, Mr. Brown, and yet I'll bet you money, that at any pace you like, for a couple of miles, mine wont be a yard behind."
"Oh, trotting will do, trotting will do," replied Wilton—"there's no such made horse as mine in England. Let him once get to his full pace, and he will out-trot any horse I ever saw."
"Well, sir," replied his companion, "let us put to our spurs and see."
"With all my heart," answered Wilton, and away they accordingly went, trotting as hard as they could go for the next four or five miles. Nevertheless, although the scheme was so far successful, Wilton and the Messenger did not reach the village of High Halstow above an hour before sunset. The horses were by this time tired, and the riders somewhat hungry. Provisions were procured in haste to satisfy the appetite of the travellers, and the horses, too, were fed. It was some time, however, before the tired animals would take their food, and Wilton and his companion at length determined to proceed on foot. Before they did so, as both were perfectly ignorant of the way, application was made to the host for directions, and the reply, "Why, there are three roads you can take!" somewhat puzzled the inquirers, especially when it was followed by a demand of where they were going exactly.
"When I know that," said the landlord, "I shall be able to tell you which is the best road."
"Why, I asked the way to Cowley Castle," said Wilton, both embarrassed and annoyed; for the Messenger stood coolly by, without any attempt to aid him, and, in truth, enjoying a little difficulty.
"But you are not going to Cowley Castle at this time of night," said the man: "why, the only house there is the great house, and that is empty."
"My good friend," said Wilton, "I suppose the next question you will ask me is, what is my business there? I ask you the way to Cowley Castle, and pray, if you can, give me a straightforward answer."
"I beg your pardon, sir," replied the man, with a determined air—"I have given you a straightforward answer. There are three roads, all of them very good ones, and there is, besides, a footpath."
As he spoke, he stared into Wilton's face with a look half dogged, half jocular; but in the end, he added,—
"Come, come, sir—you might as well tell me the matter at once. If you are going to Master Plessis's—the mountseer, as we call him here—I'll put you upon your road in a minute: I mean the gentleman that, folks think, has some dealings with France."
It struck Wilton, instantly, that this gentleman, who was supposed to have dealings with France, must have something to do with the detention of Laura, and he therefore replied, "Perhaps it may be as you suppose, my good friend. At all events, put me upon the principal horse-road towards Cowley Castle."
"Well, sir, well," replied the host, "you have nothing to do but to turn to the right when you go out of the door, and then you will find a road to the left; then take the first road to the right, which will lead you straight down to Cowley Church. Now, if you're going to Master Plessis's, you had better not go farther than that."
"That way will not be difficult to find," replied Wilton; and followed by the Messenger, he quitted the little inn, or rather public-house, for it was no better, and traced accurately the road the landlord had pointed out.
"He had better go no farther than Cowley Church, indeed," said a man who was sitting in the bar, as soon as he was gone; "for if he be going to Master Plessis's, he'll be half a mile beyond the turning by that time."
"Jenkin, Jenkin!" cried the landlord, not minding what his guest said, but addressing a boy who was cleaning some pewter stoups in a kitchen at the end of the passage—"come here, my man. Run down by the lanes as fast as you can go, and tell Master Plessis that there are two gentlemen coming to his house, whose looks I don't like at all. One is a state messenger, if I'm not much mistaken. I've seen his face before, I'm sure enough, and I think it was when Evans the coiner was taken up at Stroud. You can get there half an hour before them, if you run away straight by the lanes."
The boy lost not a moment, very sure that any one who brought Monsieur Plessis intelligence of importance would get something at least for his pains.
In the meantime, Wilton and his companion walked on. The sky was clear above, but it had already become very dark, and a doubt occurred, both at the first and second turning, as to whether they were right. Wilton and the Messenger had furnished themselves with pistols, besides their swords; and the young gentleman paused for a moment to ascertain that the priming had not fallen out; but nothing would induce the Messenger to do so likewise; for his sullen mood had seized upon him again more strongly than ever, and he merely replied that his pistols would do very well, and that it would be lucky if Mr. Brown were as sure of his way as he was of his pistols.
"I should like you to give me my orders, Mr. Brown," he added, in the same dogged tone, "for I am always glad to know beforehand what it is I am to do, that I may be ready to do it."
"I shall of course give orders," replied Wilton, somewhat sharply, "when they are required, Mr. Arden. At the present moment, however, I have only to tell you that I expect every minute to meet a person who will lead us to the house where Lady Laura is detained. At that house, we shall have to encounter, I understand, a number of persons whose interest and design is to carry her off, probably to the coast of France. I intend to demand her in a peaceable and tranquil manner, and in case they refuse to give her up, must act according to circumstances. I expect your support on all the legal points of the case, such as the due notice of our authority, et cetera; and, in case it should become necessary or prudent either to menace or to use force, I will tell you at the time."
The Messenger made no reply, but sunk again into sullen silence; and Wilton clearly saw that little help, and indeed little advantage, was to be derived from the presence of his self-sufficient attendant, except in as much as the appearance of such a person in his company was likely to produce a moral effect upon those to whom he might be opposed. Messengers of state were in those days very awful people, and employed in general in the arrest of such criminals as were very unlikely to escape the axe if taken. Yet it seldom if ever happened that any resistance was offered to them; and we are told that at the appearance of a single individual of this redoubted species, it often happened three or four traitors, murderers, spies, or pirates, whose fate if taken was perfectly certain, would seem to give up all hope, and surrendering without resistance, would suffer themselves to be led quietly to the shambles.
Thus if Arden did but his mere duty, Wilton knew that the effect of his presence would be great; but as he walked on, he began to entertain new apprehensions. For nearly two miles, no one appeared to guide them to the place of their destination; at length a church, with some cottages gathered round it, announced that they had reached the little hamlet of Cowley, where, as several roads and paths branched off in different directions, he found it advisable to follow the counsel of the landlord, and not go any farther.
He consequently turned back again; but a thin white fog was now beginning to come on—a visitation to which that part of the country near the junction of the Thames and the Medway is very often subject. The cloud rolled forward, and Wilton and the Messenger advanced directly into it; so that at length the hedge could only be distinguished on one side of the road, and beyond it, on either side, nothing could be seen farther than the distance of five or six yards.
The Messenger lingered somewhat behind, muttering, "This is pleasant;" but ere long, as they were approaching the top of a narrow lane which Wilton had before remarked, as they passed, he thought he heard people speaking at a distance, and stopped to listen. The tones were those of a male and a female voice conversing evidently with eagerness, though with slow and measured words and long pauses. Wilton thought that the sound of one voice was familiar to him, though the speaker was at such a distance that he could not catch any of the words.
Not doubting at all, however, that one of the interlocutors was the person who was to guide him on his way, Wilton paused, determined to wait till they came up.
A loud "So be it then!" was at length uttered; and the next moment steps were heard advancing rapidly towards him, and the figure of a man made its appearance through the mist, first like one of the fabled shades upon the dim shores of the gloomy river, but growing into solidity as it came near.
For the right understanding of all that is to follow—strange as it may appear to the reader, we are only just at the beginning of the story—it may be necessary to go back to the house of Monsieur Plessis, and to trace the events of the past day, till we have brought them exactly down to that precise time Wilton was walking, as we have described, with a mist around him both moral and physical, upon the road between High Halstow and Cowley. We must even go beyond that, and introduce the reader into a lady's bedchamber, on the morning of that day, as she was dressing herself after the night's repose; though, indeed, repose it could scarcely be called, for those bright eyes had closed but for a short period during the darkness, and anxiety and grief had been the companions of her pillow. Yet it is not Lady Laura of whom we speak, but of that gentle-looking and beautiful lady whom we have described as sitting in the saloon of Plessis's house, shortly before the conspirators assembled there.
Without any of the aids of dress or ornament, she was certainly a very beautiful being, and as, sitting before the glass, she drew out with her taper fingers the glossy curls of her rich dark hair, nothing could be more graceful than the attitudes into which the whole form was cast. Often as she did so, she would pause and meditate, leaning her head upon her hand for a moment or two. Sometimes she would raise her eyes imploringly towards Heaven, and once those eyes became full of tears. She wiped them away hastily, however, as if angry with herself for giving way, and then proceeded eagerly with the task of the toilet.
While she was thus engaged, some one knocked at the door, which she unlocked, and the next instant, another lady, to whom the reader has been already introduced, entered the chamber. It was the same person whom we have called the Lady Helen, in her interview with Wilton Brown; and there was still in the expression of her countenance that same look of tender melancholy which is generally left upon the face by long grief acting upon an amiable heart. It was, indeed, less the expression of a settled gloom on her own part, than of sympathy with the sorrows of others, rendered more active by sorrows endured herself. On the present occasion she had a note in her hand, which she held out towards the fair girl whom she had interrupted at her toilet, saying, with a faint smile, "There, Caroline—I hope it may bring you good news, dear girl." The other took it eagerly, and broke the seal, with hands that trembled so much that they almost let the paper drop.
"Oh, Lady Helen," cried the younger lady, while the colour came and went in her cheek, and her eyes sparkled, and then again nearly overflowed, "we must, indeed, we must stay over to-day. He says he will come down to see me this afternoon. Indeed we must stay; for it is my last chance, Helen dear, my last chance of happiness in life."
"We will stay, of course, Caroline," replied the other; "but I trust, my poor girl, that if you see him, you will act both wisely and firmly. Let him not move you to yield any farther than you have done; left him not move you, my sweet Caroline, to remain in a degrading and painful state of doubt. Act firmly, and as you proposed but yesterday, in order, at least, if you do no more, not to be, as it were, an accomplice in his ill-treatment of yourself."
"Oh no!" replied the other—"oh no! Fear not, dear lady, that I will deal with him otherwise than firmly. But yet you know he is my husband, Helen, and I cannot refuse to obey his will, except where he requires of me a breach of higher duties."
"Ay," replied the Lady Helen. "When he claims you openly as his wife, Caroline, then he has a right to command, and no one can blame you for obeying; but he must not take the whole advantage of his situation as your husband, without giving you the name and station, or suffering you to assume the character of his wife. Let him now do you justice in these respects, or else, dear Caroline, leave him! fly from him! strive to forget him! Look upon yourself as widowed, and try to bear your sorrow as an infliction from the hand of Heaven, for having committed this action without your father's knowledge and consent."
"Oh, Helen!" replied the other, mournfully, "you know my father was upon the bed of death; you know that Henry was obliged to depart in three weeks; you know that I loved him, and that if I had parted with him then, without giving him the hand I had promised, it might have been years before I saw him again; for then I should have had no title to seek him as his wife, and the ports of France were not likely to be opened to him again. Would you have had me agitate my father at that moment? Could I refuse to be his, under such circumstances, when I believed every word that he said, when I thought that if he departed without being my husband, I might not behold him for many years to come?"
"Forgive me for glancing at the past, poor child," replied her friend—"I meant not to imply a reproach, Caroline; but all I wish is to counsel you to firmness. Let not love get the better of your judgment. But tell him your determination at once, and abide by it when it is told. If you would ever obtain justice for yourself, Caroline, now is the moment. He himself will love and respect you more for it hereafter. He assigns no reason for farther delay; and his letters, hitherto, have certainly suggested no motives which could lead either your judgment or your affection to consent to that which is degrading to yourself. I have seen enough of these things, Caroline, and I know that they always end in misery."
"Misery!" replied the younger lady, "alas! Helen, what have I to expect but misery? Oh, Helen, it is not that he does not openly acknowledge our marriage, and forbids me to proclaim it—it is not that which makes me unhappy. Heaven knows, were that all, I could willingly go on without the acknowledgment. I could shut myself from the day, devote myself to him alone, forswear rank, and station, and the pleasures of affluence, for nothing but his love; so long that, knowing I myself was virtuous, I also knew that he continued to love me well. It is not that, Helen, it is not that; but all which I have heard assures me, that notwithstanding every vow of amendment, of changed life, of constant affection towards me, he is faithless to me in a thousand instances; that his wish of longer concealment proceeds, not from necessity, but from a libertine spirit; in short, Helen, that I have been for a week the creature of his pleasure, but that he never really loved me; that his heart rested with me for an hour, and has now gone on to others."
As she spoke, she sank again into her chair, and clasping her hands together as they rested on her knee, fixed her eyes upon the ground during a moment or two of bitter thought.
The other lady advanced toward her, and after gazing at her for a minute, she kissed her beautiful brow affectionately, saying, "Nevertheless, Caroline, he does love you. He is a libertine by habit, Caroline, I trust not a libertine in heart; and I see in every line that he writes to you that he loves you still, and always will love you. It is my belief, dear Caroline, that if you behave well to him now, firmly, though kindly, gently, though decidedly; if you yield nothing, either to love, or importunity, or remonstrance, but tell him that you now bid him farewell for ever if he so chooses it, and that you will never either see him, or hear from him, or write to him, till he comes openly as your husband, and gives you the same vows and assurance of future affection and good conduct that he did at first—it is my firm conviction, I say, that the love for you which I see is still strong within him, the only good thing perhaps in his heart, will bring him back to you at last. Passion may lead him astray, folly may get the better of reason, evil habits may rule him for a time; but the memory of your sweetness, and your beauty, and your firmness, and your gentleness, will come back upon his mind, even in the society of the gay, the light, and the profligate, and will seem like a diamond beside false stones."
"Hush, hush, hush!" said the younger lady, blushing deeply—"I must not hear such praises, Helen: praises that I do not deserve."
"Nay, my dear child, I speak but what I mean," replied the Lady Helen—"I say that the recollection of you and your young fresh beauty, and your generous mind, will return to his remembrance, my Caroline, at all times and in all circumstances, even the most opposite: in the midst of various enjoyments, in the heated revel, and in the idle pageant; when lonely in his chamber, when suffering distress, or pain, or illness; amidst the reverses and the strife, as well as in the prosperity and the vanities, of the world, he will remember you and love you still. That memory will be to him as a sweet tune that we have loved in our youth, the recollection of which brings with it always visions of the only joys that we have known without alloy. But still, remember, Caroline, that the condition on which this is to be obtained, the condition on which his recollection of you is to be, as it were, a precious antidote to the evils of his heart, is, that you now act towards him with firmness and with dignity."
"But suppose, dear lady," said the other, "that he were to ask me to remain with him, still concealing our marriage. Nay, look not terrified—I am not going to do it. I have told you how I am going to act, and, on my honour, I will keep to my determination. I only ask you what you think would then be the consequences?"
"Destruction both to you and to him," replied the Lady Helen: "he would never look upon you entirely as his wife, he would never treat you entirely as such. You would dwell with him almost as a concubine.—Forgive me, but it must be spoken.—He would grow tired of your beauty, weary of your society; your virtues would be lost upon him, because he would see that firmness was not amongst them, and he would not respect you because you had not respected yourself. There is something, Caroline, in the state and dignity, if I may so call it, which surrounds a virtuous married woman, that has a great effect upon her husband, ay, and a great effect upon herself. There is not one man, Caroline, out of a million, who has genuine nobility of heart enough to stand the test of a long concealed private marriage. I never saw but one, Caroline, and I have mingled with almost every scene of human life, and seen the world with almost all its faces. However, here, there can be no cause which should justly induce you to consent to live with him under such circumstances, and there are a thousand causes to prevent you from so doing. If you were to do it, you would lose your respect for yourself, and how then could you expect that he would retain any for you?"
The conversation was some time protracted in the same tone, and nearly a whole hour was thus passed ere the younger lady was dressed and ready to accompany her friend to breakfast.
Monsieur Plessis was there to do the honours of his table, treating his fair guests not exactly as his equals, but yet behaving not at all as an Englishman, under such circumstances, could have demeaned himself He was polite, attentive, deferential; but he was still Monsieur Plessis in his own house. There can be no doubt that all he furnished them with was amply paid for; but yet he had an air of conferring a favour, and indeed felt that he did so when he received them into his dwelling at all. There was thus an air of gallantry mingled with his respectfulness, a sweet smile that bent his lips when he pressed either of them to their food, a courteous and affable look when he greeted them for the first time that clay, all of which spoke that Monsieur Plessis felt that he was laying them under an obligation, and wished to do it in the most graceful manner possible. The breakfast table was beautifully laid out, with damask linen of the finest quality, and more silver than was usually displayed at that day even in families of distinction. Both the ladies seated themselves; and Plessis was proceeding to recommend some of the most exquisite chocolate which had ever been brought from Portugal—at least so he assured them—when the elder lady interrupted its praises by saying, "Had we not better wait a little, Monsieur Plessis, for the young lady whom we saw yesterday?"
Plessis, however, put his finger on his large nose, saying, "Her breakfast will be taken to her in her chamber, Miladi. There are mysteries in all things, as you well know. Now here you are; and there are nine or ten gentlemen meet at my house every night, from whom I am obliged to hide that you are in the place at all. Here is this young lady, whom, it seems, I should have concealed from you in the same way: only I could not refuse to let you see her and speak to her yesterday, in order that you might be kind to her on board the ship; for she is to go in the ship with you, you know, and she seems quite helpless, and not accustomed to all these things. When the worthy gentlemen found that the ship was not to sail last night, they were in great embarrassment, and charged me strictly not to let her see any one till the ship sailed; and I find they have put a man to watch on both sides of the house, so that no one can go out or come in without being seen. They told me nothing about it; and that was uncivil; but, however, I must keep her to her own room; for the man that they left in the house, with my consent, to keep guard over her, watches sharply also."
The elder lady said nothing, but the colour of the younger heightened a good deal at this detail, and she started up indignantly as soon as Plessis had finished, exclaiming, "Nonsense, sir. I never heard of such a thing!—You, a man of honour and gallantry," she continued, with a gay smile, such as had once been common to her countenance, passing over it for a moment—"you, a man of honour and gallantry, Monsieur Plessis, consenting to see a lady discourteously used and maltreated in your house, and a stranger put as a spy upon you in your own dwelling. Fie! For shame! I never heard of such a thing! I shall go immediately to her, with your compliments, and ask her to come to breakfast. And let me see if this spy upon you will dare to stop me."
"Oh no, Miladi," replied Plessis, "he is not a spy upon me; but I said myself I would have nothing to do with the young lady being detained; that it was no part of my business, and should not be done by my people; that they might have the rooms at the west corner of the house if they liked, but that I would have nothing to do with it. I beseech you, dear lady," he continued, seeing Caroline moving towards the door—"I beseech you, do not meddle; for this is a very dangerous and bad business, and I fear it will end ill, Nay, nay!" and springing towards the door, he placed himself between it and the lady, bowing lowly, with his hand upon his heart, and exclaiming, "Humbly on my knees I kiss your beautiful feet, and beseech you not to meddle with this bad business."
"A very bad business, indeed," said Caroline; "and it is for that very reason that I am going to meddle, Monsieur Plessis. Do me the favour of getting out of my way. I thought you were a man of gallantry and spirit, Monsieur Plessis.—I am determined; so there is no use in opposing me."
Plessis shrugged up his shoulders, bowed his head low, and with a look which said as plainly as any look could say, "I see there is never any use of opposing a woman," he suffered the fair lady to pass out, while her friend remained sitting thoughtfully at the table.
The lady whom we have called Caroline walked quietly along one of the corridors of the house till she came to a spot where a man in the garb of a sailor was sitting on a large chest, with his elbows on his two knees, and his chin on his two hands, looking very much wearied with his watch, and swinging one of his feet backwards and forwards disconsolately. There was a door farther on, and towards it the lady walked, but found that it was locked, though the key was on the outside. The sailor personage had started up as she passed, and then gazed at her proceedings with no small surprise; but as she laid her hand upon the lock, he came forward, saying, "Ma'am, what do you want there?".
"I want," replied the lady, turning round, and looking at him from head to foot, "I merely to call this young lady to breakfast. Be so good as to open the door: the lock is rather stiff."
She spoke so completely with the tone of calm authority, that the man did not even hesitate, but opened the door wide, taking it for granted that she had some right to enter. The lady was about to go in; but suddenly a feeling of apprehension seized her, lest the man should shut the door and lock it upon her also; and pausing in the doorway, she addressed Lady Laura, who we need scarcely tell the reader was within,—"I have come to ask you," she said, "if you will go with me to breakfast."
"Oh gladly, gladly!" cried the poor girl, darting forward, and holding out her hands to her; and Caroline, drawing one fair arm through her own, led her onward to the room where she had left the Lady Helen.
The man paused and hesitated, and then followed the two ladies along the passage; but before he was near enough to hear what was said, Caroline had whispered to her companion, "It is already done: I have had an answer to my note, which went in the same packet, so that the place of your detention is now certainly known to those who will not fail to send you aid."
The bright joy that came up in the eyes of Laura might very well have betrayed to the man who guarded her, had he seen her face, that she has received more intelligence than his employers could have wished. He followed, however, at some distance, without taking any notice; and seeming to think it enough to watch her movements, and prevent her egress from the house, he seated himself again near the door of the chamber where breakfast had been prepared, while Laura and her fair companion entered the room.
They found the Lady Helen and Monsieur Plessis in eager conversation, the lady having just announced to him her intention of delaying their departure till another day; and he, who was in fact part proprietor of the vessel which was to bear them to France, and was actuated by very different views, urging her eagerly to follow her first intention of sailing that night. He made representations of all sorts of dangers and difficulties which were to arise from the delay; the two ladies were likely to be arrested; he was likely to be ruined; the master of the ship would sail without them; and in short, everything was represented as about to happen which could induce them to take their departure with all speed.
The Lady Helen, however, was resolute. She replied that, from what she had heard in London, she was convinced there was not the least chance whatsoever of their even being inquired after, and much less of their being arrested; that his ruin was only likely to be a consequence of the arrest, and therefore that was disposed of. Then again, in regard to the captain of the vessel sailing without them, she said that was improbable, inasmuch as he would thereby lose the large sum he was to receive, both for bringing them thither and taking them back.
Now, though Monsieur Plessis was, in his way, a very courageous and determined person, who in dealing with his fellow men could take his own part very vigorously, and, as we have shown, successfully, yet he was much feebler in the presence of a lady, and on the present occasion, with three to one, they certainly made him do anything they liked. The consequence was, that Laura was permitted to spend a great part of that day with the two accidental tenants of Monsieur Plessis's house; and not a little comfort, indeed, was that permission to her.
It was a moment when any society would have been a great consolation and relief. But there was in the two ladies with whom she was now associated for the time much more to interest and to please. The manners of each were of the highest tone; the person of each was highly pleasing; and when Laura turned to the Lady Helen, and marked the gentle pensiveness of her beautiful countenance, listened to the high, pure, noble words that hung upon her lips, and marked the deep feelings which existed beneath an exterior that people sometimes thought cold, the remembrance of her own mother rose up before her, and she felt a sort of clinging yearning towards a being who resembled her in so many respects.
With the younger lady, too, she had many a thought and many a feeling in common. Caroline was a few years older than herself, and evidently more acquainted with the world; but there were deep strong feelings apparent in every word she uttered—a thoughtfulness (if we may so express ourselves) which blended with an air of carelessness—a depth to be seen even through occasional lightness, which was only like a profound river rippled by a rapid breeze. Each had subjects for thought; each had more or less matter for grief or apprehension; but each found relief in the society of the other; and the day passed over more happily than Laura could have imagined it would have done in such circumstances.
Towards evening, indeed, she became anxious and apprehensive, for no attempt to deliver her had, apparently, been made, and she had been warned that she was to embark for France that night. From this apprehension, however, the Lady Helen speedily relieved her, by assuring her that there was no other ship to convey her but that which was hired to take herself and her young friend to France, and that they had determined upon putting off their departure till the succeeding night.
About the same hour, however, Caroline became uneasy and agitated. She rose often; she looked often at her watch; she gazed out froth the window; she turned her eyes to the sky; and in the end she retired for a time to her own chamber, and returned shortly after, dressed for going out, with a short black cloak, richly trimmed, cast over her shoulders, and a silk hood, stiffened with whalebone and deeply fringed with lace, covering her head and the greatest part of her face.
"Who are you going to take with you, my dear child, to show you the way?" said the Lady Helen.
"No one, sweet lady," replied the other. "While you were away from me in London I had plenty of opportunity to explore every path round this house, and the place is so distinctly marked, that neither he nor I can mistake it."
Lady Helen looked in her face for a moment with an expression somewhat sad as well as inquiring; and her beautiful companion, as if comprehending at once what she meant, advanced quietly towards her, knelt on the footstool at her feet, and putting her two hands in hers, she said, "I promise you most solemnly, dearest lady—most solemnly and firmly do I promise, not to suffer myself to be shaken in any one of the resolutions which I have taken with your advice."
"Thank you, my child, thank you," cried the elder lady, "thank you for giving me the prospect, Caroline, of seeing you ultimately happy. But oh, do not be late, my sweet child. Return to us soon. The country is in a distracted state—the hour is very late. You see it is already growing dusk."
"I will return as soon as I can," replied Caroline, and left the room.
The man who was still on watch in the passage looked at her attentively, but said nothing; and Plessis, who was at the door speaking to two ship-boys, said merely, "It is very cold and very late, madame. I wonder you don't get cold with such late walks."
She made no reply, but went on: and taking one or two turns through the tortuous lanes in the neighbourhood, arrived at a spot where a small obelisk, of no very graceful form or great dimensions, planted in the middle of the road, marked the boundary of four distinct parishes. She paused there for a moment, and leaned upon the landmark, as if from fatigue, weakness, or agitation. The light was now dim, but it was not yet dark; and in a moment or two she saw a figure appear suddenly in the lane before her.
It advanced rapidly towards her, and she pressed her hand tight upon her heart. One might have heard it throbbing. The gentleman came on with a pace like lightning, and held out his hand towards her. She gave him her hand, but turned away her head; and after gazing on her for a moment, he drew her gently to his bosom, saying, "One kiss at least, my Caroline."
She did not refuse it, and he pressed her warmly to his heart. There was a moment's silence, and then his arms relaxed their hold, and he exclaimed, "Oh Heaven!"
He then drew her arm within his, and walked on with her.
"Oh, Caroline," he said at length, "would that you did know how I love you!"
"If I did know, Sherbrooke," she replied, "that you really did love me, it would make me far, far happier than I am. But how can I believe it, Sherbrooke? how can I believe it?"
"Is it," he demanded, "is it because I have asked you to conceal our marriage a little longer? Is it for that reason that you doubt my love? Is it for that reason that you have come over to England, risking all and everything, affecting my fate in ways that you have no idea of? Is it for this, Caroline?"
There was a pause for several minutes, and at length she answered,—
"Not entirely. There may have been many reasons, Sherbrooke, joined therewith. There were many that I stated in my letters to you. There were others that you might have imagined. Was it unnatural that I should wish to see my husband? Was it unnatural I should believe that he would be glad to see me? As I told you, the circumstances were changed; my father was dead; I had none to protect me in France; the Lady Helen was coming to England. When she was gone, I was left quite alone. But oh, Sherbrooke, tell me, tell me, what cause have I had to believe that you love me? Have you not neglected me? Have you not forgotten me? Have you not——"
"Never, never, Caroline!" he cried, vehemently—"in my wildest follies, in my rashest acts, I have thought of you and loved you. I have remembered you with affection, and with grief, and with tenderness. Memory, sad memory, has come upon me in the midst of the maddest efforts for gaiety, and cast me into a fit of deep, anxious, sorrowful, repentant, remorseful thought, which I could not shake off: it seemed as if some vengeful spirit seized upon me for its prey, and dinned in my ears the name of love and Caroline, till my heart was nearly broken."
"And the moment after," she said, "what was it, Sherbrooke, that you did? Did you sit down and write to Caroline, to her who was giving every thought to you? or did you fly to the side of some gay coquette, to dissipate such painful thoughts in her society? or did you fly to worse, Sherbrooke?"
He was silent. "Sherbrooke," she added, after a time, "I wish not to reproach you. All I wish is to justify myself, and the firm unchangeable resolution which I have been obliged to take. I have always tried to close my ears against everything that might make me think less highly of him I love. But tales would reach me—tales most painful to hear; and at length I was told that you were absolutely on the eve of wedding another."
"They told you false!" exclaimed Lord Sherbrooke, wildly and vehemently—"whoever said so, lied. I have been culpable, and am culpable, Caroline; but not to that extent. I never dreamed of wedding her. Did I not know it could not be? But you speak of your resolutions. Let me know what they are at once! To declare all, I suppose! Publicly to produce the proofs of our marriage! To announce to my father, already exasperated against me, that in this, too, I have offended him! To call down, even upon your own head, the revenge of a man who has never yet, in life, gone without it! To tell all—all, in short?"
"No, no, no, Sherbrooke!" she said—"I am going to do none of all these things. Angry and thwarted, you do not do that justice to your wife which you ought. You speak, Sherbrooke, as if you did not know me. I will do none of these things. You do not choose to acknowledge me as your wife. You are angry at my having come to England. I will not announce our marriage till the last moment. I will not publish it till my dying hour, unless I be driven to it by some terrible circumstance. I will return to France. I will live as the widow of a man that I have loved. But I will never see you more, Sherbrooke; I will never hear from you more; I will never write to you more; till you come openly and straightforwardly to claim me as your wife in the face of all the world. Whenever you declare me to be your wife, I will do all the duties of a wife: I will be obedient to your will, not alone from duty but from love; but till you do acknowledge me as your wife, you can plead no title to such submission."
"Ah, Caroline," replied Lord Sherbrooke, "you speak well and wisely, but coldly too. You can easily resign the man that you once loved. It costs you but little to give him over to his own course; to afford him no solace, no consolation, no advice; to deprive him of that communication, which, distant as it was, might have saved him from many an error. It costs you nothing to pronounce such words as you have spoken, and to sever our fate for ever."
"It is you that sever it," she replied, in a sad and reproachful tone. "Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke, you do me wrong—you know you do me wrong—Oh, how great wrong! Do you think I have shed no tears? Do you think my heart has not been wrung? Do you think my hours have not passed in anguish, my days in sadness, and my nights in weeping? Oh, Sherbrooke, since you left me, what has been my fate? To watch for some weeks the death-bed of a father, from whose mind the light had already departed; to sorrow over his tomb; to watch the long days for the coming of my husband—of the husband whom all had doubted, all had condemned, but my own weak heart, whose vows of amendment I had believed, to whose entreaties I had yielded, even to that rashest of all acts, a secret marriage; to find him delay his coming from day to day, and to see the sun that rose upon me in solitary sadness go down in grief; to lose the hope that cheered me; to look for his letters as the next boon; to read them and to weep over them; to remain in exile, not only from my native land, but also from him to whom I had given every feeling of my heart, to whom I had yielded all that a virtuous woman can yield; to remain in a strange court, to which I had no longer any tie, in which I had no longer any protector; and every time I heard his name mentioned, to hear it connected with some tale of scandal, or stigmatized for some new act of vice; and worse, worse than all, Sherbrooke, to be sought, idly sought, by men that I despised, or hated, or was indifferent to, and forbade to say the words which would have ended their pursuit at once, 'I am already a wife.' Sherbrooke, you have given me months and months of misery already. I weep not now, even with the thought of parting from you for ever; but it is, I believe, that the fountain of my tears is dried up and exhausted. Oh, Sherbrooke, when first I knew you, who was so blithe and joyous as myself? and now, what have you made me?"
He was much moved, and was about to speak; but she held up her hand beseechingly, and said, "Let me go on—let me go on. You said it costs me little to act as I proposed to act. Think, Sherbrooke, think what it does really cost me. Even were I all selfishness, how bitter is the part that I have assigned myself to play! To pass my time in solitude, without the pleasures of youth and gaiety; debarring myself from all the advantages of an unmarried woman, yet without the name, the blessings, the station, the dignity, of a wife; voluntarily depriving myself of every sort of consolation, relinquishing even hope. But if I am not altogether selfish, Sherbrooke—and you have no cause to say I am so—if, as you know too well, there is deep, and permanent, and pure and true affection for you at the bottom of my heart, judge what the after-hours of life will be, judge what a long dreary lapse lies before me, between the present instant and the grave."
Sherbrooke was moved, and again and again he assured her that he loved her more than any other being upon earth; and the conversation continued for nearly half an hour longer. He begged her to stay with him in England, still concealing their marriage; he pressed her in every way to break her resolution; he urged her, if it were but for one week, to remain with him, in order to see whether he could not make arrangements to render their marriage public. But she remembered her resolution, and held to it firmly, and even rejected that last proposal, fearing consequences equally dangerous to herself and to him. Opposition began to make him angry; he entered not into her reasons; he saw not the strength of her motives; he spoke some harsh and unkind words, which caused her to weep, and then again he was grieved at having pained her, and kissed the tears away, and urged and argued again. Still she remained firm, however, and again he became irritated.
At the end of half an hour, both Caroline and her husband heard the sound of feet approaching them on both sides; and though it seemed that the people who were coming from the direction of Plessis's house walked lightly and with caution, yet there were evidently many of them, and Caroline became alarmed for her husband.
"The people are coming from the house, Sherbrooke," she cried—"they must not, oh, they must not find you here!"
"Why not?" he demanded, sharply.
"Oh, because they are a dangerous and a desperate set," she said—"bent, I am sure, from what I have heard, upon bloody and terrible schemes. Me they will let pass, but I fear for you—the very name of your father would be sufficient to destroy you, with them. We must part, indeed we must part!"
"And can you, Caroline," he demanded, still lingering, but speaking in a bitter and irritated tone, angry alike with himself, and her, and with the interruption—"can you hold to your cold and cruel resolution, now?"
"I can, I must, Sherbrooke," she replied,—"nothing shall shake me."
"Well, then, be it so!" he answered sharply; and turning away, walked rapidly up the lane.
Caroline stood, for a single instant, on the spot where he left her; but then all the feelings with which she had struggled during the whole of that painful conversation with her husband, seemed to break loose upon her at once, and over-power her. Her head grew giddy, a weary faintness seemed to come over her heart, and she sank, unconscious, on the ground.
The next moment six or seven men came quickly up.
"Here's a woman murdered!" cried one—"and the fellow that did it is off up the lane."
A few hasty exclamations of surprise and pity followed, and then another man exclaimed, in a hasty and impatient tone, "Take her up in your arms, Jim, and bring her along. Perhaps we may find this Messenger the boy talked of, and the murderer together; but let us make haste, or we shall lose both."
"Mind," said another, speaking almost at the same time, "don't knock the Messenger's brains out. We will just take and plant him in the marsh, tie his arms, and put him up to the arm-pits. The boys will find him there, when they come to drive back the cattle.—The lady don't seem quite dead, I think."
"Bring her along! bring her along!" cried another voice—"we shall miss all, if you are so slow;" and thus speaking, the leader of the party quickened his pace, while the others, having raised the lady from the ground, bore her onward towards the end of the lane.
We have said that Wilton Brown paused and gazed through the mist at the figure of a man advancing towards him, and to the reader it need not be told who the person was that thus came forward. To Wilton, however, the conviction was brought more slowly; for though he had heard the sound of a familiar voice, yet it seemed so improbable that voice should be the voice of Lord Sherbrooke, that the idea never struck him, till the figure became so distinct as not to leave a doubt.
"Good God, Sherbrooke!" he exclaimed, advancing towards him at length—"can it be you?"
"And I may well ask, Wilton, if it be you," said Lord Sherbrooke, in a tone so sharp and angry, so unlike his usual voice and manner of speaking, that Wilton drew back astonished, imagining that he had given his friend some unknown offence. But Lord Sherbrooke grasped his arm, exclaiming, "Hark! There they are! They are close upon us, Wilton! I have fallen in with a nest of Jacobites, I fancy, ready for an outbreak, and they are after me. Have you any arms?"
"Here are plenty of pistols, my lord," said the Messenger, who knew him.
"Ah, Arden, is that you?" he exclaimed. "Give me a pistol!" and he took one from the Messenger's hand. "Here are three of us now, Wilton," he exclaimed, with a laugh, "and one of us a Messenger: enough surely for any dozen Jacobites in England."
There was something wild, hasty, and strange in Lord Sherbrooke's manner, which startled and alarmed Wilton a good deal.
"For Heaven's sake, Sherbrooke," he said, "do nothing rashly. Let us see who they are before you act."
"Oh, I will do nothing rash," replied Sherbrooke. "But here they come! just like Jacobites, gabbling at every step. Who goes there, my masters?" he exclaimed, at the same moment. "Don't advance, don't advance! We are armed! The first man that advances, I shoot upon the spot!"
"Those are the men! those are the men!" cried a loud voice from the other party, who were now seen coming up in a mass. "Rush upon them! Rush upon them, and tie the Messenger!"
"Oh, oh!" cried Arden. "They have found me out, have they! Stand by me, my lord! Stand by me, Mr. Brown! They are rushing on!"
"Then here's for the midst of them!" cried Lord Sherbrooke; and instantly levelling his pistol, he fired, though Wilton was in the very act of holding forth his hand to stop him.
The moment the fatal flash had taken place, there was a reel back amongst the advancing party, though they were at several yards' distance when the pistol was fired. A confusion, a gathering together, a murmur, succeeded; and while Lord Sherbrooke was in the very act of exclaiming, "Give me another pistol, Arden!" there was heard, from amongst the party who had been approaching, a loud voice, exclaiming, "By, he has shot the lady!—and she was only fainting, after all. See how the blood flows!"
The words were perfectly distinct. Lord Sherbrooke's hand, which had just seized the other pistol that the Messenger had held out to him, suddenly let it drop upon the ground. It was not possible to see the expression of his face fully, for his head was turned away; but Wilton felt him grasp his arm, as if for support, trembling in every limb.
"Good God! What have you done, Sherbrooke?" exclaimed his friend.
"I have killed her! I have killed her!" cried Lord Sherbrooke, gasping for breath—"I have killed the dear unfortunate girl!" and letting go Wilton's arm, he rushed forward at once into the midst of the other party, exclaiming, "Stand back! Let me forward! She is my wife! Stand out of my way! How, in the name of Heaven, did she—"
He left off, without concluding; and nobody answered. But the tone of bitter grief and agony in which Lord Sherbrooke spoke was not to be mistaken: there was in it the overpowering energy of passionate grief; and everybody made way for him. In a moment he bad snatched the form of the unhappy lady from the man who held her in his arms, and supporting her himself, partly on his knee, partly on his bosom, he kissed her again and again vehemently, eagerly, we may almost say frantically, exclaiming, "And I have killed thee, my Caroline! I have killed thee, my beloved, my wife, my own dear wife! I have killed thee, noble, and true, and kind! Oh, open your eyes, dear one, open your eyes and gaze upon me for a minute! She is living, she is living!" he added wildly—"she does open her eyes!—Quick, some one call a surgeon!—A hundred guineas to the first who brings me a surgeon!—God of Heaven! how has this happened?—Oh yes, she is living, she is reviving!—Wilton, for pity's sake, for mercy's sake, help me!"
Wilton Brown had followed Lord Sherbrooke rapidly; for a sudden apprehension had crossed his mind immediately the words were pronounced, "He has shot the lady," lest by some accident Lady Laura had fallen into the hands of the people who were approaching, and that she it was who had been wounded or killed by the rash act of his friend. The moment he came up, however, he perceived that the lady's face was unknown to him, and he saw also that the men who stood round, deprived of all power and activity by a horrible event, which they only vaguely comprehended, were anything but the persons he had expected to see. They seemed to be almost all common sailors; and though they were in general evidently Englishmen, they were habited more in the fashion of the Dutch seamen of that day. They were well armed, it is true, but still they bore not the slightest appearance of being connected with Sir John Fenwick and the party to which lie was attached; and the horror and consternation which seemed to have taken possession of them all, at the injury which had been inflicted on the unhappy lady, showed that they were anything but feelingless or hardened.
One rapid glance over the scene before his eyes had shown Wilton this; and he now stood beside Lord Sherbrooke, gazing with painful interest on a picture, the full horror of which he divined better than the others who surrounded them.
Almost as Lord Sherbrooke spoke, however, and before Wilton could reply, the lady made a slight movement of her hand, and raised her head. Her eyes were open, and she turned to Lord Sherbrooke, gazing on his face for a moment, as if to be certain who he was.
"Oh, Sherbrooke," she said at length, in a faint voice, "fly, fly!—I was very foolish to faint.—I am better now. The men will be upon you in a minute—Oh Heaven, they are all round us! Oh how weak it was to faint and keep you here till they have taken you.—I am better now," she said, in answer to a whispered inquiry of Lord Sherbrooke, as he pressed her to his heart. "But I must have hurt my shoulder in falling, for it pains me very much." And putting her hand towards it, she drew it suddenly away, exclaiming, "Good Heaven, it is blood!"
"Yes, dearest—yes, beloved," replied Lord Sherbrooke—"it is blood—blood shed by your husband's hand; but oh, inadvertently, clear girl. I rashly fired amongst the men that were pursuing me, and have killed the only woman that I ever loved!" And he struck his hand vehemently against his forehead, with a gesture of despair that could not be mistaken.
"Come, come, young gentleman," said a man who seemed the leader of the bluff sailors around him, "don't take on so. Some one has gone for a surgeon. There's a clever one at Halstow, I know, and mayhap the young lady is not so much hurt. At all events, you did not do it to hurt her, that's clear enough; and I rather fancy we've all been in a mistake together. For if you were flying from people looking out to take you, you were not the goods we were after—for we were looking for people that were coming to take us.
"They came down and said that a gentleman had come down with a Messenger to look after our little traffic, and have some of us up for it. Now we intended to plant the Messenger in the bog till we had got all things ready and the ship off, and it was him and his people we were after. But come along—bring down the lady to Master Plessis's. She will be taken good care of there, I warrant you. Here, Jack Vanoorst!—you're a bit of a surgeon yourself, for you doctored my head when the Frenchman broke my crown one day. See if you can't stop the blood, at least till we get the lady to old Plessis's, and the surgeon comes."
A broad-built elderly man advanced, and, with whatever materials could be obtained upon the spot, made a sort of bandage and compress by the dim light, and applied it dexterously enough, while Caroline lay with her head upon her husband's bosom, and her hand clasped in his.
Sherbrooke looked down in her face while this was done with agony depicted in his countenance; nor was that agony rendered the less by seeing a faint look of happiness come over her face as she thus rested, and by feeling her hand press gently upon his. It all seemed to say, "I could willingly die thus."
When the bandage had been applied, Lord Sherbrooke, though he shook in every limb with agitation and anxiety, took her in his arms and raised her, saying to the men, "Now show me the way."
But that way was long. The young nobleman put forth his strength too much at first in the effort to carry her quickly, and after bearing her on for about a mile, he paused and faltered.
"Let one of our people carry her," said the captain of the vessel, which was lying in the river at no great distance from Plessis's house—"there is near a mile to go yet."
Lord Sherbrooke turned and looked round. Wilton was close by his side.
"Wilton," he said, "Wilton, you take her. With the exception of herself, you are my best friend. Gently, oh gently! She is my wife, Wilton, and I know you will not mind the burden."
"Pardon me, lady," said Wilton, as he took her gently out of Lord Sherbrooke's arms, and she raised her head with a faint look of inquiry; "it is your husband's sincere friend, and I will bear you as carefully as if I were your brother."
She made no opposition; but no answer, only stretching forth her left arm, which was the unwounded one, to Lord Sherbrooke: she let her hand rest in his, as if she wished him to retain it; and Wilton remarked, but not displeased, that she suffered not her head to rest upon his bosom, as it had done upon that of his friend.
Considerably taller, and altogether of a more powerful frame than Lord Sherbrooke, he bore her with greater ease; but still anxiety made it seem an age till a glimmering light was seen through the trees at no great distance.
Lord Sherbrooke was then in the act of proposing to carry her again; but the good sailor who had spoken before interfered, saying, "No, no, let him carry her. It will only hurt her to change so. There's the house close by, and he's stronger than you are; and not knocked down with fright, you see, either, as you are, naturally enough.—Run on, boy, run on," he continued, somewhat sharply, to a lad who was with them—"run on, and tell old Plessis to get down a mattress to carry the lady up in."
The boy sped away to execute this kind and prudent order; and in a few minutes more, the whole party stood upon the little stone esplanade before the dwelling of Monsieur Plessis. That worthy personage himself was down, and already in a state of great anxiety and tribulation, being one of those who have an excessive dislike to anything which may bring upon them too much notice of any kind.
The mattress, too, had been brought down, but when Wilton gazed through the door, he turned quickly to his friend, saying, "I had better carry her up at once, Sherhrooke. I can do it easily, and it will save her the pain of changing her position more than once."
Without waiting for any one's consent, he accordingly began to mount the staircase, and had just reached the balustrade of the little sort of square vestibule at top, when the door of an opposite room opened, and the Lady Helen stood before him.
To Wilton, who knew nothing of all the secrets of Plessis's house, which the reader is already informed of, the sight was like that of an apparition; and to the Lady Helen herself, the sight of Wilton bearing Caroline in his arms, while the light of the lamp that Plessis carried before them shone upon the pale but still beautiful countenance of the poor girl, and showed her dress and that of Wilton both thickly stained and spotted with blood, was not less astounding.
"Oh, Wilton, Wilton," she cried—"what is this?—Caroline, my sweet Caroline, for Heaven's sake speak!—for Heaven's sake look at me!"
The next moment, however, her eyes fell upon Lord Sherbrooke; his countenance also as pale as death, his coat, and collar, and face also bloody.
"Oh young man, young man," she cried, "is it you that have done this?"
"Yes, Lady Helen," he answered, rather bitterly—"yes, after nearly killing her in another way, it is I who have shed her blood. But the first was the criminal act, not the last. The shot was unintentional: the wounds given by my words were the guilty ones."
"No, no, Sherbrooke!" said Caroline, raising her head faintly, and again stretching out her hand towards him—"No, no, dear Henry. You love me; that is enough!"
She could speak no more; and Plessis, whose senses were in a state of greater precision than those of any other person, exclaimed, eagerly, "Don't stand here talking about it, but carry the lady to her bedchamber.—This way, young gentleman; this way, this way!"
And passing by, he led onward to the room in which the unfortunate lady had received her husband's note that very morning. Wilton laid her gently on the bed; and closing her eyes for a moment, she gave a slight shudder, either with chilliness or pain. But a movement in the apartment caused her to look round again, and she said, eagerly, "Do not leave me, Sherbrooke! Do not leave me, my husband. You must stay with me NOW."
"Leave you, my Caroline!" he said, "oh no! I will never leave you more! I must atone for what I have done. Only promise me, promise me, Caroline, to live, to forgive, and to bless me."
"I do forgive you, I do bless you, Sherbrooke," she answered.
Before he could reply, a gentleman habited in a riding dress, and a large red roquelaure, entered the room hastily, threw off his hat and cloak, and advanced at once with a somewhat rough air to the bedside.
"What is this?" he said, quickly, but not in an ungentle tone. "Where is the lady hurt?—Bring me linen and water.—You may give her a little wine too.—She is faint from loss of blood;" and advancing to the bedside, he took Caroline's hand kindly in his own, saying, "Do not be alarmed, my dear. These things happen every day in battle; and women get well better than soldiers, for they are more patient and resigned. I see where the wound is. Do not be afraid;" and he put his hand upon her shoulder, running it round on both sides. The moment he had done so, he looked about him with a bright and beaming smile upon his lip, and the colour coming somewhat up into his cheek.
"She will do well," he said—"let no one alarm themselves: the ball has passed upon the right of the artery, and I feel it just above the scapula. She will do well!"
An audible "Thank God!" burst from every lip around; and Caroline herself, at the sudden change, from the apprehension of death to the hope of life, burst into silent tears.
"What are all these men doing here?" demanded the good surgeon, turning bluffly round. "Leave none but the women with me, and not too many of them."
The sailors began to move away at this command, and Wilton followed; but Lord Sherbrooke kept his place, saying, "I must remain!"
"And why should you remain, sir?" demanded the surgeon. "Who are you?"
"I am her husband, sir," replied Lord Sherbrooke, firmly and distinctly.
"Oh, sir, that makes a very great difference," replied the surgeon. "I make you a very low bow, and have nothing to say; only I hope you will behave quietly and rationally, and talk as little as possible."
"I will do everything, sir," replied Lord Sherbrooke, with a somewhat stately look—"I will do everything that may tend to promote the recovery of one I love so well."
At this moment, Wilton was in the doorway: but the Lady Helen laid her hand upon his arm, saying, "Wait for me in the neighbouring room, Wilton. I must speak with you before you go."
Wilton promised to remain, and quitted the chamber. He found at the top of the stairs the greater part of the sailors whom he had seen before, and with them Plessis himself and another man.
The sailors were talking with Plessis vehemently; and Wilton soon found that the worthy Frenchman was using all his powers of vituperation in various tongues—French and English, with a word or two of Dutch every now and then, and some quaint specimens of Portuguese—to express his indignation at the sailors for the unlucky business in which they had engaged.
The master of the vessel was defending himself stoutly, saying, "Why, didn't I meet the boy from the Blackamoor's Head at the very door of the place here? and didn't he tell me that there was a man coming down with a Messenger of State to seize the ship and the cargo, and you, and I, and every one else?"
"Poo! nonsense, nonsense!" cried Plessis: "all stuff and exaggeration. No Messenger, I dare say, at all. So be off, all of you, as fast as you can go; and get out of the way, for fear of any inquiries being made."
"Why here's the young gentleman himself!" cried the master: "he don't look like a Messenger, sure enough. But there was another man that ran away, he may have been the Messenger."
The man looked to Wilton as he spoke, who instantly replied, "You are right, sir. He was a Messenger; but neither he nor I came hither about anything referring to you. Indeed, neither of us even knew of your existence before we saw you."
At that moment, the stranger who was standing beside Plessis, and who was very different from the sailors in appearance, stepped forward to Wilton, and said in a low tone, "May I, sir, ask your name?"
The countersign that Green had given him immediately returned to Wilton's memory, and he replied, "My name is Brown, sir, but it might as well have been Green."
"Oh no, sir," replied the stranger, in the same tone, "every man should keep his right name, and be in his right place, which is the case with yourself in both respects at present;" and turning to Plessis, he said, "This is a friend of the Colonel's, Plessis. He sent me down to meet him and bring him here, because he could not come himself."
"Oh, oh!" said Plessis, looking wise, "that's all right, then. I saw that he spoke to the Lady Helen. Take him into the saloon, Captain, and I'll come to you in a minute, as soon as I've got the house clear, and everything quiet again. I expect some gentlemen to meet here to-night, to take their bowl of punch, you know."
"This way, sir," said the person whom the Frenchman had called Captain, turning to Wilton, and leading him on into the large room, which was now quite vacant. The moment that he was there, and the door closed, the stranger came close up to him, saying, "Where is the Messenger? Had you not a Messenger with you? I waited on the road for you three-quarters of an hour."
"I rather think," replied Wilton, "that I was misdirected by the landlord of the inn, and a series of unhappy mistakes has been the consequence."
"Which are not over yet," exclaimed the other; "for here are we, only two men, with very likely a dozen or two against us, with no power or authority to take the lady from out of their hands, and with nothing but our swords and pistols."
"Oh no!" answered Wilton—"you mistake. I have sufficient authority both from her father and from the Secretary of State."
"Ay, but not like the face of a Messenger!" replied the other—"that is the best authority in the world with people like these. By Heaven, the only way that we can act is to make a bold push for it at once, to get hold of the young lady, and carry her off before these men arrive. Plessis is sending away all the sailors: he'll not try much to oppose us himself. There is one man, I see, at the end of the other corridor, but we can surely manage him; and very likely we may get the start of the others by an hour or so."
"Let us lose not a moment," answered Wilton. "I will send for the Lady Helen, who may give us more information."
"Let me go and get it from Plessis himself," replied the man "I will be back in a minute. I know how to deal with the rogue of a Frenchman better than you do. If he comes back with me, take a high tone with him; determination is everything."
Thus saying, he quitted the room, and for about five minutes Wilton remained alone meditating over what had passed, if that could be called meditating, which was nothing but a confused series of indistinct images, all out of their proper form and order.
THE first person that entered the room was the Lady Helen, who came forward towards her young friend with her eyes sparkling and a smile upon her lips.
"Oh, my dear boy," she cried, "this has been a terrible night, but she is better: there is every hope of her doing well. The ball has been extracted in a moment, the bleeding has ceased, and the comfort of her husband's love will be more to her—far more to her, than the best balm physician or surgeon could give. But now tell me, Wilton, what brings you here? Did you come with this gay gallant, or have you—though I trust and believe that you have not—have you taken any part in the wild schemes of these rash, intemperate, and vicious men?"
"I am taking part in no schemes, dear lady," replied Wilton. "I only come here to frustrate evil purposes. I came furnished with authority, and accompanied by a Messenger of State, to deliver Lady Laura Gaveston, who, I understand, is at this very moment in this house."
"That is most strange," said the Lady Helen—"I wrote to—to him who—who—whom you saw me with; in short, to tell him that they had brought the poor girl here, never thinking that you, my boy—"
"It was the person you speak of," interrupted Wilton, "who told me of her being here. One of his people is in the house with me at this present moment; but the Messenger has fled in the late affray. I understand that a number of the men who brought her hither are to be here to-night: we shall be then but two against many, if we delay; and it is absolutely necessary that we should find out where the lady is, and carry her off at once."
"Oh! I will find her in a moment," replied the Lady Helen. "But I know not whether they will suffer her to pass out of her chamber."
At that moment, however, Plessis, and the personage whom he called Captain, entered the room in eager conversation.
"It will be ruin and destruction to me," cried Plessis—"I cannot permit it! I cannot hear of it! nor can you manage it. There are three men here, one in the house, and one at each gate. You are only two."
"But we are two men together, and two strong men, too," replied the Captain, "and they are all separate. So I tell you we will do it."
"Oh, if you choose to use force, you may," replied Plessis; "but the consequence be upon your own head."
"Come, come, Plessis," replied the other—"you know you don't like a noise and a piece of work more than any one else. Do the matter cunningly, man, as you are accustomed to do. Get the fellow in the hall, there, down quietly out of the passage into the brandy cellar—I will follow him and lock him in. When that's done, all the rest is easy."
Plessis smiled at a trick exactly suited to his taste; but he hesitated, nevertheless, at putting it in execution, lest the fact of his having taken any part therein should come to the knowledge of men, from whom, at different times, he derived considerable advantage. Present evils, however, are always more formidable than distant ones, and Wilton bethought him of trying what a little intimidation would do with the good Frenchman.
"Listen to me, sir," he said, in a stern tone. "Instantly do what you are told, or take the consequences. Here is my authority from the Secretary of State, to demand the person of this young lady from the hands of any one with whom I may find her. A Messenger came down with me to High Halstow, with a warrant for the arrest of any person who may be found detaining her. It is, however, my wish to do all things quietly, if you will allow me. The Duke, her father, does not desire the business to be conducted with harshness—"
"A duke!" exclaimed Plessis, opening his eyes with astonishment. "A duke and peer! Why, they only told me that she was the daughter of some turncoat, who would betray them, they feared, if they had not his daughter in pawn."
"They deceived you!" replied Wilton—"she is the daughter of the Duke of Gaveston. But I have no time to discuss such points with you. Instantly do what you are told. Get the man out of the way quietly; give the lady up into my hands, as you are hereby formally required to do, or I immediately quit the house, raise the hue and cry, and in less than an hour this place shall be surrounded by a hundred men."
Plessis hesitated no longer. "Force majeure!" he cried. "Force majeure! No one can resist that. What am I to do? I will act exactly according to your bidding. You are witness, madam, that I yield to compulsion."
"Yes, Monsieur Plessis," replied the Lady Helen, "lawful compulsion."
"Well, Plessis, do as I bid you, at once," replied the Captain. "Get the man down into the brandy cellar, quickly!—I saw the door open as I passed—and either lock him in or let me do it."
"You are a tall man, and I am a small man," replied Plessis—"I have not the gift of turning keys, Captain. I'll send him down, however;" and taking a Venice glass from the mantelpiece, he went to the little vestibule at the top of the stairs, and called to the man who was sitting in the corridor beyond.
"Here, Harrison," he said—"I wish you'd go down and get the gentleman a glass of brandy out of the cellar. The door's open. Make haste, and don't drink any—there's a good fellow."
The tone in which Master Plassis spoke showed that he was no bad actor when well prompted. The man, who was completely deceived, came forward without the slightest hesitation, took the glass out of his hand, and went down stairs.
The moment he had passed, Plessis put in his head, and beckoned with his finger to the Captain, who ran down after the other in a moment, leaving the door open, and Plessis listening beyond, with some slight apprehension. That apprehension was increased, by hearing a word or two spoken sharply, a struggle, and the sound of glass falling and being broken. Wilton sprang out of the room to aid his companion; but at that moment there was the sound of a door banged sharply to, a key turned, and he met the Captain coming up the stairs laughing aloud.
"By Heaven, the fellow had nearly bolted," he said. "But there he is now, safe enough, and I dare say will find means to console himself with Master Plessis's brandy casks. He might have made himself quite comfortable if he hadn't dropped the glass, like a fool.—Now, Plessis," he continued, entering the room, "go for the lady as quick as lightning. Let us lose no time, but make sure of the business while we can; and I dare say, if you get yourself into any little scrape soon—as indubitably you will, for you never can expect to die unhanged—this gentleman will speak a good word for you to those who can get your neck out of the noose before it is drawn too tight. Come, make haste, man! or we may all get into trouble."
"I will go," said the Lady Helen, "I had better go. It will alarm her less, and she has been terrified and agitated too much already, poor thing."
Thus saying, she left them; but the lady returned alone in a moment after, saying, with some consternation, that the man had got the key of the door with him.
"Oh, that is nothing!" exclaimed Plessis, laughing; "I am never without my passe-partout;" and producing a key attached to a large ring, from his pocket, he gave it into the hands of the Lady Helen, who returned to her kind task once more.
Scarcely had she left the room when there came the sound of a man's step from the passage, and Plessis darted out. The footfall which he heard was that of Lord Sherbrooke, who was seeking Wilton; and as soon as the young nobleman saw him, he advanced towards him with both his hands extended, saying,—
"Oh, Wilton, dear friend, this has been a terrible night. But it is in the fiery furnace of such nights as this that hard hearts are melted and cast in a new mould. I feel that it is so with mine. But to the business that makes me seek you," he continued, in a low tone, seeing that there was another person in the room, and drawing Wilton on one side. "Listen to me! Quit this house as fast as possible. I find you are in a nest of furious Jacobites, and there may be great danger to you if found here. I remain with my poor Caroline; and far away from all the rest, have nothing to fear, although the warning that she gave was intended for me. You speed away to London as fast as possible. But remember, Wilton! remember: mention no word of this night's event to my father. He does not expect me in town for several days, and I must choose my own time and manner to give him the history of all this affair. He holds me by a chain you know not of—the chain of my heavy debts. I am at liberty but upon his sufferance, and one cold look from him to Jew or usurer would plunge me in a debtor's prison in an hour. The man who has debts he cannot pay, Wilton, is worse than any ordinary slave, for he is a slave to many masters. But I must away," he continued, in his rapid manner, "for I have left her with no one but the servant girl, and I must watch her till all danger be past."
"I trust she is better," said Wilton; "I trust there is no danger."
"They tell me not, they tell me not, Wilton," replied Lord Sherbrooke; "but now that I have been upon the very eve of losing a jewel, of which I was but too careless before, I feel all its value, and would fain hide it trembling in my heart, lest fate should snatch it from me. Say nothing of these things—remember, say nothing of them."
"But Arden, but Arden," said Wilton, as Lord Sherbrooke was turning away—"but the Messenger, Sherbrooke. May he not tell something?"
"The cowardly villain ran away so soon," replied Lord Sherbrooke, "he could hear nothing, and understand less. He is a cautious scoundrel, too, and will hold his tongue. Yet you may give him a warning, if you see him, Wilton."
"Here is the lady, sir," said Plessis, entering, and addressing Wilton. "I will go down stairs and see that all is safe below."
"He will not let the man out of the cellar?" demanded Wilton, as Plessis departed.
"I have taken care of that," replied the Captain, holding up a key; "but let us not lose time."
While these few words were passing, Lady Helen and Laura entered, the latter, pale, agitated, and trembling, less with actual apprehension than from all she had lately undergone. At that moment, she knew not with whom she was going, or what was the manner of escape proposed. All that the Lady Helen had told her was, that somebody had come to set her free, and that she must instantly prepare to depart. She had paused but for an instant, while the lady who brought her these glad tidings wrapped round her some of the garments which had been procured for her journey to France, by those who had carried her off; and all the agitation consequent upon a sudden revival of hopes that had been well nigh extinguished was still busy in her bosom, when, as we have said, she entered the room.
The first object, however, which her eye fell upon was the fine commanding form of Wilton Brown. It were scarcely fair to ask whether, in the long and weary hours of captivity, she had thought much of him. But one thing at least may be told, that with him, and with a hurried and timid examination of the feelings of her own bosom regarding him, her thoughts had been busied at the very moment when she had been dragged away from her own home. The sight of him, however, now, was both joyful and overpowering to her; the very idea of deliverance had been sufficient to agitate her, so that she shook in every limb as she entered the room; but when she saw in her deliverer the man whom, of all others, she would have chosen to protect her, manifold emotions, of a still more agitating kind, were added to all the rest. But joy—joy and increased hope—overcame all other feelings, and stretching out her hands towards him, she ran forward as he advanced to meet her, and clung with a look of deep confidence and gladness to his arm.
"Do not be frightened, do not be agitated," he said—"all will go quite well. Are you prepared to quit this place immediately?"
"Oh yes, yes, instantly!" she cried; but then her eyes turned upon Lord Sherbrooke, and the sight of him in company with Wilton seemed to cloud her happiness; for though she still looked up to Wilton's countenance with the same affectionate and confiding glance, yet there was evidently a degree of apprehension in her countenance, when, for a moment, she turned her eyes to Lord Sherbrooke. She bowed her head gracefully to him, however, and uttered some broken thanks to him and to Wilton, for coming to her deliverance.
"Pardon me, dear Lady Laura," replied Lord Sherbrooke. "I must accept no part of your thanks, for my being here is entirely accidental, and I cannot even offer to escort you on your departure. It is Wilton who has sought you bravely and perseveringly, and I doubt not you will go with him with perfect confidence."
"Anywhere, anywhere," said Lady Laura, with a tone and a look which at another moment might have called up a smile upon Lord Sherbrooke's countenance; but his own heart was also so full of deep feelings at that time, that he could not look upon them lightly enough even for a smile, when he detected them in another.
"I will go down and make sure that there is no trickery below," said the man called the Captain; "and when I call—Now! come down with the lady, Mr. Brown."
Lord Sherbrooke at the same moment took leave of them, and left the room; and Lady Laura, without quitting her position by Wilton's side, which she seemed to consider a place of sure refuge and support, held out her hand to the Lady Helen, saying, "Oh, how can I thank you, lady, for all your kindness? Had it not been for you, I should never have obtained this deliverance."
"I need no thanks, my sweet friend," replied the lady "the only things that give sunshine to the memories of a sad life are some few acts of kindness and sympathy which I have been able to perform towards others. But if you want to thank me," she added, looking with a smile upon Wilton, "thank him, Lady Laura, for he is the being dearest to me upon earth."
Lady Laura looked somewhat surprised; but Wilton held up his finger, thinking he heard their companion's call. It was not so, however, but only a quick step upon the stairs; and the next moment the Captain entered, with some marks of agitation on his countenance.
"By —-!" he said, "there seems to me to be a whole troop of horse before the house—such a clatter of iron-shod feet. I fear we have the enemy upon us, and Plessis has run to hide himself; frightened out of his wits. What can we do?"
"Come all into the lady's chamber, or into mine," said Lady Helen—"perhaps they may not think of searching for her. At all events, it gives us a chance, if we can but get across the vestibule before they come up. Quick, Wilton! come, quick!" and she was leading the way.