Before she got to the door, however, which the Captain had closed behind him, the tramp of heavy boots was heard upon the stairs, and a voice calling, "Plessis! Plessis! Where the devil are you? The whole house seems to be deserted! Why, what in Satan's name is here? Here's blood all the way down the stairs! By Heaven, it wouldn't surprise me if the Orangemen had got into the house. We must take care that there isn't a trap. Give me that lamp, Cranburne. You had better have your pistols ready, gentlemen. How can we manage now?—Two of you stay and guard each corridor, while we go in here."
There seemed now to take place a low-toned conversation amongst them, and the Lady Helen, with a pale countenance, drew back towards Wilton and Laura. The Captain, on his part, unbuttoned his coat, and drew out a pistol from the belt that he wore underneath: but Wilton said, "Put it up, my good friend, put it up. Do not let us set any example of violence. Where there are nine or ten against two, it is somewhat dangerous to begin the affray. We can always have recourse to resistance at last."
"Oh, not for my sake! not for my sake!" said Lady Laura, in a low voice. "For Heaven's sake, risk not your life for me!"
"Let us keep this deep window behind us," said Wilton, speaking to his companion, "for that will give us some advantage, at all events. Draw a little behind us, dear Lady Laura. We will manage all things as gently as we can."
"Let me speak to them, Wilton," said the Lady Helen—"from one circumstance or another, I must know them almost all."
As she spoke, the large heavy latch was lifted, and the door slowly and cautiously opened.
A PAUSE of expectation, even if it be but for a minute, is sometimes the most painful thing in the world; and the heart of poor Laura at that moment, while the door was being slowly opened, and all their eyes were fixed eagerly upon it, felt as if the blood were stayed in it till it was nearly bursting. Wilton, who saw all that took place more calmly, judged by the careful opening of the door, that there was a good deal of timidity in the persons whom it hid from their view. But when it was at length opened, the sight that it presented was not well calculated to soothe any one's alarm.
In the doorway itself were three well-armed men, with each his sword drawn in his hand, while behind these again were seen the faces of several more. The countenance of the first, Sir George Barkley, which we have already described, was certainly not very prepossessing, and to the eyes of Laura, there was not one who had not the countenance of an assassin. It was evident that Sir George Barkley expected to see a much more formidable array than that presented to him and his companions, in the persons of two ladies and two armed gentlemen, for his eyes turned quickly from the right to the left round the room, to assure himself that it contained no one else. There was a momentary pause at the door; but when it was clear that very little was to be apprehended, the troop poured in with much more hasty and confident steps than those with which they had first approached.
Two or three of Sir George Barkley's party were advancing quickly to the spot where Wilton and the lady stood; but the young gentleman held up his right hand suddenly, putting his left upon one of the pistols which he carried, and saying, "Stand back, gentlemen! I do not permit men with swords drawn to come too close to me, till I know their purpose—Stand back, I say!" and he drew the pistol from his belt.
"We mean you no harm, sir," said Sir George Barkley, pausing with the rest. "But we must know who you are, and what you are doing here, and that immediately."
"Who I am, can be of no more consequence to you, sir," replied Wilton, "than who you are is to me—which, by your good leave, I would a great deal rather not know, if you will suffer me to be ignorant thereof;—and as to what I am doing here, I do not see that I am bound to explain that to anybody but the master of the house, or to some person authorized by law to inquire into such particulars."
"Mighty fine, sir," said the voice of Sir John Fenwick, as he advanced from behind—"Mighty fine! But this is a mere waste of time. In the first place, what are you doing with that lady, who, as her father's friend, I intend immediately to take under my protection."
"Her father, sir," replied Wilton, with a contemptuous smile, "judges that the lady has been somewhat too long under your careful but somewhat forcible protection already. I beg leave to give you notice, Sir John Fenwick, that I am fully authorized by the Duke of Gaveston, Lady Laura's father, by a writing under his own hand, to seek for and deliver her from those who have taken her away. I know you have been too wise and prudent to suffer yourself to be seen in this business hitherto, and if you will take my advice, you will not meddle with it now.—Stand back, sir; for as I live, I will shoot you through the head if you take one single step forward; and you know I will keep my word!"
"But there is more to be inquired into, sir," exclaimed Sir George Barkley—"there is blood—blood upon the stairs, blood—"
"Hear me, Sir George," said Lady Helen, advancing. "You know me well, and must believe what I say."
"I have the pleasure of recollecting your ladyship very well," replied Sir George; "but I thought that you and Miss Villars had sailed back for France by this time."
"Alas! Sir George," replied the lady—"poor Caroline, I fear, will not be able to be moved. She has met with a severe accident to-night, and it is her blood, poor child, that you saw upon the stairs. This gentleman has had nothing farther to do with the matter, except inasmuch as he was accidentally present, and kindly carried her upstairs to the room where she now lies."
"That alters the case," said Sir George Barkley: "but who is he? We have heard reports by the way which give us alarm. Will he pledge his honour, as a gentleman, never to mention anything he has seen this night—or, at least, not for six months?"
"On that condition," demanded Wilton, "will you give me perfect freedom of egress with this lady and the gentleman who is with me?"
"Not with the lady!" exclaimed Sir George Barkley, sharply; and at the same moment Sir John Fenwick, Rookwood, and Parkyns all surrounded the Jacobite leader, speaking eagerly, but in a low tone, and evidently remonstrating against his permitting the departure of any of the party. He seemed puzzled how to act.
"Come out here again," he said—"come out here, where we can speak more at ease. They cannot get out of this room, if we keep the door."
"Not without breaking their neck from the window," replied Rookwood.
"What is that small door there at the side?" said Sir George Barkley. "Let some one see!"
"'Tis nothing but a cupboard," said Sir John Fenwick—"I examined it the other night, for fear of eavesdroppers. There is no way out."
"I shall consider your proposal, sir," said Sir George Barkley, turning to Wilton: "stay here quietly. We wish to offer no violence to any man; we are very harmless people in our way."
A grim smile hung upon his thin lip as he spoke; and looking from time to time behind him, as if he feared the use which Wilton might make of the pistol in his hand, he left the room with his companions. The moment after, the lock of the door was heard to turn, and a heavy bar that hung beside it clattered as it was drawn across.
"A few minutes gained is a great thing," cried Wilton. "I have heard of people defending themselves long, by forming a sort of temporary barricade. A single cavalier in the time of Cromwell kept at bay a large force for several hours. In this deep window we are defended on all sides but one. Let us do what we can to guard ourselves on that also."
The furniture was scanty; but still the large table in the middle of the room, and a sideboard which stood in one corner, together with chairs and various smaller articles, were speedily formed into a little fortress, as it were, which enclosed the opening of the window in such a manner as to leave a space open towards the enemy of not more than two feet in width. Wilton exerted himself to move all these without noise, and the Captain aided him zealously; while Laura clung to Lady Helen, and hid her eyes upon her new friend's bosom, anticipating every moment the return of the other party, and the commencement of a scene of strife and bloodshed.
It is to the proceedings of those without the room, however, that we must more particularly direct our attention.
"In the name of Heaven, Sir George," exclaimed both Rookwood and Fenwick, as soon as they were on the outside of the door—"do not let them go, on any account. Our whole plan is blasted, and ourselves ruined for ever, if such a thing is to take place!"
"Why," continued Fenwick, "this youth, this Wilton Brown, is secretary to the Earl of Byerdale, a natural son of Lord Sunbury, it is supposed, brought up from his infancy in the most violent Orange principles; and he will think himself justified in breaking his word with us the moment he is out of the house, and bringing upon us the troops from Hoo. He knows me well by sight, too; and if he be let loose, I shall not consider my life worth a moment's purchase."
"Even if you could trust him," said Rookwood, "there is the other, Captain Byerly as they call him, Green's great friend, who threw the money, which Lowick offered him to quit Green, in his face. If the tidings we just now heard, that the matter has taken some wind, be true, this fellow Byerly will bring down the soldiers upon us, and swear to us anywhere."
"But what am I to do?" demanded Sir George Barkley, hesitating. "We shall have bloodshed and much noise, depend upon it."
"Leave them all, locked in, where they are," said Sir William Parkyns—"they can do no harm there. Let us ourselves, like brave and determined men, carry into execution at once the resolution we have formed. Let us turn our horses' heads towards London; meet at Turnham Green, as was proposed; and while people are seeking for us here in vain, the usurper's life will be brought to an end, and his unsteady government overthrown for ever. Everything in the country will be in confusion; our friends will be rising in all quarters;—the Duke of Berwick, I know, was at Calais yesterday;—the army can land in two days; and the advantages of our situation will all be secured by one prompt and decided blow. I say, leave them where they are. Before they can make their escape, the whole thing will be over, and we shall be safe."
"Nonsense, Sir William," cried Fenwick, "nonsense, I say. Here is Plessis, has evidently played into their hands; the man we put to guard the girl has been bribed off his post; the window itself is not so high but that an active man might easily drop from it, if he could see clearly where to light below; ere noon, to-morrow, the tidings of our assemblies would reach Kensington. William of Orange would not stir out, and the whole plan would be frustrated. We should be hunted down through the country like wild beasts, and you would be one of the first to repent the advice you have given."
"But my good friend, Fenwick," said Sir George Barkley, "all this is very well. But still you do not say what is to be done. Every one objects to the plan which is proposed by another, and yet no one proposes anything that is not full of dangers."
"For my part," said Charnock, who had hitherto scarcely spoken at all—"for my part, if you were to ask my opinion, I should say, Let us walk in—we are here eleven or twelve in all; twelve, I think—and just quietly make a circle round, and give them a pistol-shot or two. If people WILL come prying into other persons' affairs, and meddling with things they have no business to concern themselves about, they must take the consequences."
"Not in cold blood! not in cold blood!" exclaimed Rookwood.
"And the women!" said Sir John Fenwick, "Remember the women!"
"I hope William of Orange won't have a woman with him to-morrow," said Charnock, coolly, "or if he has, that she'll not be upon my side of the carriage; I would never let a woman stand in the way when a great deed was to be done."
"Well, for my part," said Fenwick, "I agree with Sir William Parkyns, that no time is to be lost in the execution of this business; but I agree also with Captain Rookwood, that it would be horrible to cut these men's throats in cold blood. What I propose is this, that we at once demand that they lay down their arms, and that, pledging our word of honour no evil shall happen to them, we march them down one by one to the boat, and ship them off for France. It will be an affair of three hours to get them embarked; but that will be time well bestowed. We can then proceed to the execution of our scheme at once, and in far greater safety. If they make any resistance, the consequence be upon their own head."
"But," said Sir George Barkley, "depend upon it they will not go. There is a determination in that young fellow's look which is not to be mistaken. He will submit to no power but that of the law."
"Well, then," said Sir John Fenwick, "frighten him with the law! Declare that you will take them all before a magistrate, to give an account of the blood that has been shed here. There is blood on his collar, and his face too, for I saw it; and the whole stairs is spotted with blood. Tell them that both the men must surrender and go before a magistrate. The ladies, you can say, may go where they like, and do what they like, but the men must surrender. Let half of us go down with the men, and lead or force them to the ship, while the rest bring down the two women a few minutes after."
"That is not a bad plan at all, Fenwick," said Sir George Barkley. "Let us see what can be done by it. We can but come to blows at last."
While the latter part of this conversation had been going on between Fenwick and Barkley, the Jacobite called Charnock and a dull-looking man not unlike himself, but only shorter and more broadly made, had been speaking together in a low voice behind. At first their conversation was carried on in a whisper; but at length the man said somewhat louder, "Oh, I'll do it! That's the only way to settle it. You take the one, and I'll take the other. We don't readily miss our mark either of us."
"Let Sir George begin his story," replied Charnock. "There must be some talk at first, you know. Then get quietly up behind our timid friends here, and when I give a nod, we will both fire at once."
"I understand," answered the other. "You had better see that your pistols are primed, Charnock, and that the balls are not out, for you rode at a rate down that hill which would shake almost any ball into the holster."
"I looked just now," said Charnock—"it's all right. Let us keep pretty near Sir George;" and turning round, he came nearer to Sir George Barkley, who was just finishing his conversation with Fenwick, as we have described.
While holding this long consultation, the insurgents had not been many paces from the door, and they now turned and re-entered the room. The state of defence in which Wilton and his companion had placed themselves showed a degree of determination that seemed to surprise and puzzle them a good deal; for Sir George Barkley again paused, and spoke to Sir John Fenwick, who was close behind him.
"The more reason for doing as we propose," replied Sir John to his friend's observation. "They will not resist going before a magistrate—at least, Wilton Brown will not, and we can easily manage the other."
Sir George Barkley then advanced another step, saying to Wilton, who, notwithstanding the barrier he had raised, was still quite visible as far as the waist, "We have consulted, sir, on what it is necessary to do with you, and if your own account of yourselves be true, you will readily acquiesce in our determination. If you resist it, you show that you know yourselves to be guilty of some crime, and we must deal with you accordingly."
"Pray, sir, what is your determination?" asked Wilton. "For my part, I require free permission to quit this place with this gentleman and Lady Laura Gaveston; and nothing shall prevent me from so doing at the risk of my life."
"You shall do so, sir," replied Sir George Barkley, "but you shall go before a magistrate in the first instance. Here are evident marks of violence having been committed upon the person of some one; the staircase, the vestibule, the corridors, are covered with blood; your coat, your collar, your face, are also bloody; and we feel ourselves bound, before we let you depart, to have this matter strictly inquired into."
"Oh, go before a magistrate at once," said Laura, in a low voice: "we have nothing to fear from that, and they have everything."
"Showing clearly that it is a pretence, dear lady," replied Wilton, in the same low tone. "Keep behind the barricade. I see one of those men creeping up from the door with a pistol in his hand.—Sir," he continued, addressing Sir George Barkley, "in those circumstances, the best plan for you to pursue will be to bring a magistrate here. I neither know who you are, nor what are your views; but I find this young lady, who has been carried off from her father's house, illegally brought hither, and detained. I know the house to be a suspected one; and although, as I have before said, I neither know who you are, nor what are your views, and do not by any means wish to know, yet the circumstances in which I find you are sufficiently doubtful to justify me in refusing to quit this spot, and place myself in your hands, unless every man present gives me his word of honour as a gentleman that I shall go free whithersoever I will. If, therefore, you think a magistrate requisite to inquire into this business, send for one. I think, however, that you would do much better to plight me your word at once, and let me go. I know no one but Sir John Fenwick here: therefore I can betray no one but him; and to Sir John Fenwick I pledge my word that I will not mention him."
It was evident that Sir John Fenwick put no trust in such assurances, and he was seen speaking vehemently with Sir George Barkley. At the same moment, however, a low conversation was carried on in a slow and careless sort of manner by Charnock and the other, who were just behind.
"I can't get a shot at the Captain," said Charnock, calmly. "His head is covered by that table they've set on end.—Stop a bit, stop a bit!"
"Better let me settle this young fellow first," said the other, "and then the stupid fools will be obliged to make a rush upon the Captain. When once blood is drawn, they must go on, you know."
"Very well," replied Charnock, "I don't care"—and there was the sudden click of a pistol-lock heard behind. "His eye is upon you," said Charnock. "Make haste! He is cocking his pistol!"
The man instantly raised the weapon that was in his hand, and was in the very act of firing over the shoulder of Sir George Barkley, when his arm was suddenly knocked up by a blow from behind, and the ball passed through the window, a yard and a half above Wilton's head.
Wilton instantly dropped the muzzle of his pistol, without returning the shot. But there was a cause for his so doing, which none of the conspirators themselves, who were all eagerly looking towards the spot where he stood, had yet perceived.
While Charnock and the other had been speaking, a young gentleman had suddenly entered the room, and pushing rapidly forward through the group in the doorway, he had advanced to the front and knocked up the hand of the assassin just as he was in the very act of firing. The new comer was dressed in dark-coloured clothes, and more in the French than in the English costume of that day, with a curious sort of cravat of red silk tied in a bow beneath the chin. He wore his hat, which was trimmed with feathers, and a large red bow of ribands, and in his hand he bore nothing but a small cane with an amber head, while his person displayed no arms whatever, except a small riding sword, which every gentleman wore in that day.
His figure was tall and commanding; his countenance open, noble, but somewhat stern; and there was to be remarked therein the peculiar expression which the pictures of Vandyke have handed down to us in the portraits of Charles I. It was a melancholy expression; but in Charles that melancholy seemed somewhat mingled with weakness; while on the stern brow and tightly-compressed lips of the young stranger, might be read, by the physiognomist, vigour and determination almost approaching to obstinacy.
The same, perhaps, might have been said of him which was said by the Roman sculptor when he beheld the picture of Charles, "That man will not die a natural death;" and in this instance, also, the prophecy would have been correct. But there was something that might have spoken, too, of death upon the battle-field, or in the deadly breach, or in some enterprise where daring courage needed to be supported by unshrinking pertinacity and resolution.
The sound of the pistol-shot fixed all eyes, for an instant, upon that particular point in the room towards which it had been fired; but the moment that the conspirators beheld the person who now stood amongst them, they instantly drew back in a circle. Every sword was thrust into its sheath, every hat was taken off, while, with a flashing eye and frowning brow, the young stranger turned to Sir George Barkley, exclaiming, "What is all this, sir? What is this, gentlemen? Are ye madmen? or fools? or villains?"
"Those are hard words, your grace," replied Sir George Barkley, "and hard to stomach."
"Not more than those persons deserve, sir," replied the stranger, "who betray the confidence of their King, when they know that he is powerless to punish them."
"We are serving our King, my lord duke," replied Sir John Fenwick, "and not betraying his confidence. Are we not here in arms, my Lord of Berwick, perilling our lives, prepared for any enterprise, and all on the King's behalf?"
"I say again, sir," replied the Duke of Berwick, "that those who abuse the trust reposed in them, so as to ruin their monarch's honour, his character, and his reputation, are tenfold greater traitors than those who have stripped him of his crown. There is but one excuse for your conduct, that you have acted with mistaken zeal rather than criminal intent. But you have aggravated the guilt of your plans by concealing them till the last moment, not only from your King, but from your Commander-in-chief. All here who hold commissions, or at least all but one or two, hold them under my hand as generalissimo of my father's forces. Those commissions authorize you to raise men for the service of your lawful sovereign, and to kill or take prisoner his enemies arrayed in arms against you, but to assassinate no man; and I feel heartily ashamed that any person leagued in this great cause with me, should not be able to distinguish between war and murder. However, on these subjects let us speak no more at present, for there are matters even more important to be thought of I heard of this but yesterday morning, and at the imminent peril of my life have come to England to stop such deeds. I sought you in London, Sir George Barkley, and have followed you hither; and from what I have heard, I have to tell you that your coming to England has been discovered, and that for the last four or five days a warrant has been out against you, without your knowing it. This I learned, beyond all doubt, from my Lady Middleton. There is reason, also, to believe that your whole designs are known, sirs, though it would seem all your names have not yet been obtained. My advice, therefore, is, that you instantly disperse to different parts of the country, or effect your escape to France. For you, Sir George, there is no chance but to retire to France at once, as the warrant is out."
"It most fortunately happens," said Sir George Barkley, "that a ship is on the point of sailing, and lies in the river here, under Dutch colours. Your grace will, of course, go back in her?"
"No, sir," replied the Duke—"I shall go as I came, in an open boat. But you have no time to lose, for I know that suspicion is attached to this spot. In the first place, however, tell me, what you have here. What new outrage is this that I have just seen attempted? If I had not entered at the very moment, cold and cowardly bloodshed would have taken place five minutes ago."
The Duke's eyes were fixed upon Wilton as he spoke; and that gentleman, now seeing and understanding whom he had to deal with, put back the pistol into his belt, and advanced, saying,—
"My lord, it is probable I owe my life to your inter-position; and to you the circumstances in which I am placed will be explained in a moment. In your honour and integrity, I have confidence; but the murderous purpose which you have just disappointed shows how well I was justified in doubting the intentions of the men by whom I was but now surrounded."
"Had you given them no offence, sir?" demanded the Duke of Berwick. "I can scarcely suppose that so dark and sanguinary an act would have been attempted had you not given some cause. I saw the pistol levelled over Sir George Barkley's shoulder, while he seemed speaking to you. That I considered a most unfair act, and stopped it. But you must surely have done something to provoke such deeds.—Good heavens! the Lady Helen Oswald!" he continued, as the elder lady advanced, with Laura clinging to her. "Madam, I fully thought you were at St. Germain.—Can you tell us anything of this strange affair?"
"But too much, my lord," replied the lady, speaking eagerly, "but too much for the honour of these men, who have thought fit to violate every principle of justice and humanity. This young lady beside me has been dragged from her father's house by the orders of some of these gentlemen here present, beyond all doubt. This young gentleman has traced her hither, legally authorized to carry her back to her father; and although he plighted his honour, and I pledged my word for him, that he would do nothing and say nothing to compromise any of the persons here present, they not only refused to let him depart, but have, as you saw yourself, most treacherously attempted to take his life while they were affecting to parley with him."
"Madam," said the Duke of Berwick, in a sorrowful tone, "I am deeply grieved and pained by all that has occurred. I confess I never felt despondency till I discovered that persons, pretending to be my father's friends, have made his cause the pretext for committing crimes and acts like these. I have already heard this young lady's story. All London is ringing with it; and the Earl of Aylesbury gave me this morning, what is probably the real explanation of the whole business. We will not enter upon it now, for there is no time to be spared. I feel and know—and I say it with bitter regret—that the deeds which these gentlemen have done, and the schemes which they have formed, will do more to injure the cause of their legitimate sovereign than the loss of twenty pitched battles. Sir George Barkley, I beg you would make no reply. Provide for your safety, sir. Your long services and sufferings are sufficient to make some atonement; and I will take care to conceal from the ears of the King, as far as possible, how you have misused his authority. Sir John Fenwick and the rest of you gentlemen must act as you think fit in regard to remaining in England, or going to the Continent. But I am inclined to recommend to you the latter, as the safest expedient. You will leave me to deal with this gentleman and his friends; for I need not tell you that I shall suffer no farther injury or insult to be offered to them. As to the personage who actually fired the pistol, I have merely to tell him, that should I ever meet with him in circumstances where I have the power to act, I will undoubtedly punish him for his conduct this night."
The conspirators whispered for a moment amongst themselves; and at length Sir William Parkyns took a step forward, saying, "Are we to understand your grace that you will give us no assistance from the French forces under your command?"
"You are so to understand me," replied the Duke of Berwick, sternly: "I will not, sir, allude distinctly to the schemes that you have formed. But you are all well aware of them; and I tell you that I will give no aid, support, or countenance whatsoever, either to such schemes or to the men who have formed them. At the same time, let me say, that had there been—instead of such schemes—a general rising against the usurper—ay, or even a partial rising—nay, had I found twenty gentlemen in arms who needed my help in the straightforward, honest, upright intent of re-seating their sovereign on his lawful throne, I would not have hesitated for a moment to land the troops under my command, and to have made a last determined stand for honour and my father's rights. As it is, gentlemen, I have nothing farther to say, but take care of yourselves. I shall remain here for a couple of hours, and then return with all speed to France."
"But does not your grace run a great risk," said Sir George Barkley, "in remaining so long?"
"I fear no risk, sir," said the Duke of Berwick, "in a righteous cause; and I do not wish that any man should say I was amongst the first to fly after I had warned others. You have all time, gentlemen, if you make use of it wisely. Some, I see, are taking advantage of my caution already. Sir George, you had better not be left behind in the race. You say there is a ship in the river—get to her, and be gone with all speed."
"But the captain will not sail without the Lady Helen," said the conspirator, with some hesitation: "she, it seems, has hired the vessel, and he refused this morning to go without her."
"That shall be no impediment," said the lady. "You may tell the captain that I set him free from his engagement, and I will give an order to his grace that the money may be paid which is the man's due. I told you before, Miss Villars had met with a severe accident, and I can neither quit her in such circumstances, nor go till she has recovered."
"Will you be kind enough, madam," replied Sir George, who always had thoughts for his own safety, "to write what you have said in these tablets? Here is a pencil."
The lady took the tablets and wrote; and while she did so, two or three, more of the conspirators dropped quietly out of the room. The Duke of Berwick at the same time advanced, and said a few kindly words to Lady Laura, and spoke for a moment to Wilton, with a familiar smile, in regard to the risk he had run.
"To tell the truth," he said, "I was almost afraid that I should myself meet with a shot between you; for I saw you had your pistol cocked in your hand, and expected that the next fire would have been upon your side."
"I saw you knock his arm up, sir," replied Wilton; "and though I was not aware of the name of the person who entered, I was not a little rejoiced to see, at least, one man of honour amongst them."
"Alas! sir," replied the Duke, in a lower tone, "they are all, more or less, men of honour; but you must remember that there is a fanaticism in politics as well as in religion, and men will think that a great end will justify any intermediate means. An oak, planted in the sand, sir, is as soon blown down as any other tree; and it is not every heart that is firm and strong enough constantly to support the honour that is originally implanted in it against the furious blasts of passion, interest, or ambition. You must remember, too, that those who are called Jacobites in this country have been hunted somewhat like wolves and wild beasts; and nothing drives zeal into fanaticism so soon as persecution."
"My lord, I am now ready to depart," said Sir George Barkley, approaching, "and doubt not to be able to make my views and motives good to my royal master."
"There is none, sir, who will abhor your views so much," replied the Duke of Berwick, proudly, "though he may applaud your motives. But you linger, Sir George. Can I do anything for you, or for those other gentlemen by the door?"
"Nothing, your grace," replied Sir George Barkley; "but we would fain see you provide for your own safety."
"Oh, no fear, no fear," replied the Duke. "Gentlemen, good night. I trust to hear, when in another land, that this bad affair has ended without evil consequences to yourselves. To the cause of your sovereign it may be a great detriment; but I pray God that no whisper of the matter may get abroad so as to affect his honour or bring suspicion on his name. Once more, good night!"
Sir George Barkley bowed his head, and followed by three others, who had still lingered, quitted the room.
There came a pause after the conspirators were gone, and the Duke of Berwick gazed down upon the floor for a moment or two, as if thinking of what was next to be done.
"I shall be obliged to stop," he said at length, "for an hour or so, till my horses can feed, for they want refreshment sadly. To say the truth, I want some myself, if I can obtain it. I must go down to the stable, and see; for though that is not exactly the place to procure food for a man, yet, in all probability, I shall get it nowhere else. I found the good master of the house, indeed, who is an old acquaintance of mine, hid in the farthest nook of his own stable, terrified out of his life, and assuring me that there would certainly be bloodshed up stairs."
"I will go down and look for him, your grace," replied Captain Byerly, coming more forward than he had hitherto done. "You will find no lack of provisions, depend upon it, in Monsieur Plessis's house."
"One moment, sir," said the Duke, stopping him as he was going: "have I not seen your face before?"
"Long ago, sir, long ago," replied the Captain. "I had the honour of commanding a troop, sir, in your regiment, during all that sad business in Ireland—Byerly is my name."
"I remember you well, sir," said the Duke, "and your good services. Should we meet in France, I may be able to repay them—especially if your views are still of a military kind."
Byerly bowed his head, without reply, but looked much gratified; and while lie proceeded to look for Plessis, the Duke once more turned to the Lady Helen.
"I am sorry," he said, "to hear, from your account, madam, that an accident has happened to Miss Villars. I have been so long absent from St. Germain myself, that it is not very long since I heard of her father's death. May I inquire if she is seriously hurt? for I should apprehend that, after what has occurred, persons holding our opinions would run considerable risks in this country, and be subjected to a persecution even more severe than heretofore."
The Lady Helen replied simply that her young friend was seriously hurt, and could not be removed; but she avoided carefully all reference to the nature of the injury she had received. The Duke then turned the conversation to indifferent subjects, spoke cheerfully and gaily with Lady Laura and Wilton, and showed that calm sort of equanimity in circumstances of danger and difficulty which is partly a gift of nature, and partly an acquisition wrung from many perils and evils endured. Ere long, Byerly returned with Plessis, and food and wine were speedily procured. The tables were set in order, and the Duke remained for about a quarter of an hour refreshing himself; while Wilton and the two ladies continued to converse with him, delaying their departure at his request, lest any of the more unscrupulous conspirators should still be lingering in the neighbourhood.
Plessis, however, was evidently uneasy; and he did not scruple at length to express his fear, that amongst all the events of that night, something might have happened to call the attention of the world at large upon what was going on in his dwelling.
Wilton's apprehensions, in regard to the Duke, were somewhat of the same nature; for he remembered that Arden, the Messenger, whom he now knew to be a thorough coward, had fled at the beginning of the whole business, and would most likely return accompanied by as large a force as he could raise in the neighbourhood.
These fears he failed not to communicate to the Duke of Berwick; but that nobleman looked up with a gay smile, replying, "My good sir, my horse can go no farther. I rode one to death yesterday, and this one, which I bought in London, is already knocked up: if I must be caught like a rat in a rat-trap, as well here as anywhere."
"But will it not be better," said Wilton, "to accompany me and the Lady Laura to High Halstow, where you can instantly procure a horse? We must proceed thither on foot. I suppose you are not likely to be known in this part of the country, and my being with you may shield you from some danger."
"By no means a bad plan," said the Duke, starting up—"let us go at once! When anything feasible is proposed, we should lose no time in executing it."
Wilton was ready to depart, and Lady Laura was eager to do so. Every moment, indeed, of their stay made her feel fresh apprehensions lest that night should not be destined to close without some more painful event still, than those which she had already witnessed.
She turned, however, to the Lady Helen before she went, and with the peculiar sort of quiet grace which distinguished her, approached her gently and kissed her cheek, saying, "I can never thank you sufficiently, dear lady, for the kindness you have shown me, or the deliverance which I owe, in the first place, to you; and I thank you for the kindness you have shown me here, as much as for my deliverance: for if it had not been for the comfort it gave me, I do believe I should have sunk under the sorrow, and agitation, and terror, which I felt when I was first brought hither. I hope and believe, however, that I do not leave you here never to see you again."
Lady Helen smiled, and laid her hand gently upon Wilton's arm.
"There is a link between him and me, lady," she said, "which can never be broken; and I shall often, I hope, hear of your welfare from him, for I trust that you will see him not infrequently."
Lady Laura blushed slightly, but she was not one to suffer any fine or noble feeling of the heart to be checked by such a thing as false shame.
"I trust I shall," she answered, raising her eyes to Wilton's face—" I trust I shall see him often, very often; and I shall never see him, certainly, without feelings of pleasure and gratitude. You do not know that this is the second time he has delivered me from great danger."
The Duke of Berwick smiled, not, indeed, at Lady Laura's words, but at the blush that came deeper and deeper into her cheek as she spoke. He made no observation, however, but changed the conversation by addressing Wilton, "Wherever I am to procure a horse under your good guidance, my dear sir," he said, "I must, I believe, take another name than my own; for though Berwick and London are very distant places, yet there might be compulsory means found of bringing them unpleasantly together. You must call me, therefore, Captain Churchill, if you please;—a name," he added, with a sigh, "which, very likely, the gentleman who now fills the throne of England might be very well inclined to bestow upon me himself. Lady Helen, I wish you good night, and take my leave. Master Plessis, I leave the horse with you: he never was worth ten pounds, and now he's not worth five; so you may sell him to pay for my entertainment."
Bowing to the very ground from various feelings of respect, French, English, and Jacobite, Plessis took a candle and lighted the Duke down stairs, while Wilton followed, accompanied by Laura and Captain Byerly. The outer door was then opened, and the whole party issued forth into the field which surrounded the house, finding themselves suddenly in the utter darkness of a moonless, starless, somewhat foggy night.
From the little stone esplanade, which we have mentioned, lay a winding road up to the gate in the walls, and along that Wilton and his companion turned their steps, keeping silence as they went, with the listening ear bent eagerly to catch a sound. It was not, indeed, a sense of general apprehension only which made Wilton listen so attentively, for, in truth, he had fancied at the very moment when they were issuing forth from the house, that he had heard a low murmur as if of people talking at some distance.
The same sound had met the ears of the Duke of Berwick, and had produced the same effect; but nothing farther was heard till they reached the gate, and Wilton's hand was stretched out to open it; when suddenly a loud "Who goes there?" was pronounced on the opposite side of the gate, and half-a-dozen men, who had been lying in the inside of the wall, surrounded the party on all sides.
Several persons now spoke at once. "Who goes there?" cried one voice again; but at the same time another exclaimed, "Call up the Messenger, call up the Messenger from the other gate."
These last words gave Wilton some satisfaction, though they were by no means pleasant to the ears of the Duke of Berwick.
The former, however, replied to the challenge, "A friend!" and instantly added, "God save King William!"
"God save King William!" cried one of the voices: "you cry that on compulsion, I've a notion. Pray, who are you that cry 'God save King William'?"
"My name, sir, is Wilton Brown," replied the young gentleman, "private secretary to the Earl of Byerdale. Where is the Messenger who came down with me? Be so good as to call him up immediately."
"Oh! you are the young gentleman who came down with the Messenger, are you?" said one of the others: "he was in a great taking lest you should be murdered."
"It was not his fault," replied Brown, somewhat bitterly, "that I was not murdered; and if it had not been for Captain Churchill and this other gentleman, who came to my assistance at the risk of their lives, I certainly should have been assassinated by the troop of Jacobites and smugglers amongst whom I fell."
The Duke of Berwick could not refrain from a low laugh at the description given of the persons whom they had just seen; but Wilton spoke loud again, in order to cover the somewhat ill-timed merriment of his companion, asking of the person who had replied, "Pray, who are you, sir?"
"I am head constable of High Halstow," replied the man, "and I remained here with our party, while Master Arden and the rest, with the soldiers from Hoo, went round to the other gate."
"Why did not the cowardly rascal go in by this gate himself," demanded Wilton, "instead of putting you, my friend, at the post of danger?"
"Ay, it was shabby enough of him," replied the man; "but I don't fear anything; not I."
"I'm afraid, my good fellows, it is too late," replied Wilton. "All the gang have got off near an hour ago. If that stupid Messenger had known what he was about, this affair would have had a different result; but he ran away at the first shot that was fired—Have you sent for him?" he continued, after a moment's pause.
"Oh yes, sir, we've sent for him," said the man, "though it's not much use, if they are all gone, sir."
"Oh yes," replied Wilton, "you may as well make a good search amongst the grounds and in the hedges. It will say something for your activity, at all events. I shall go on to Halstow, but I wish one or two of you would just show us the way, and when Arden comes up, tell him to come after me immediately. I have a great mind to put him under arrest, and send him up to the Earl, for his bad conduct."
The tone in which Wilton spoke, and the very idea of his arresting the arrestor of all men, and sending up the Messenger of State as a common prisoner to London, proved so impressive with the personages he addressed, that they made not the slightest opposition to his purpose of proceeding, but sent one of their number to show him the way.
Accompanied, therefore, by Lady Laura, the Duke of Berwick, and Captain Byerly, Wilton proceeded as fast as possible up the lane. When they had gone about a hundred yards, however, he said, "Captain Churchill, will you have the kindness to give the lady your arm? I will follow you somewhat more slowly, for I want to speak a few words to this fellow Arden.—He must not see you, if it can be avoided," he added, in a low tone; "and I think I hear him coming."
It was indeed as Wilton imagined. Arden had come round with all speed, and joined the head constable of High Halstow, demanding eagerly, "Where is Mr. Brown?"
"He is gone on," replied the constable, "with the other gentlemen; and a mighty passion he is in, too, at you, Mr. Arden. He vows that you left him to be murdered, and that he would have been murdered too, if it had not been for that Captain Churchill that is with him."
"Captain Churchill!" cried the Messenger—"Captain Churchill! Why, Captain Churchill was sick in bed yesterday morning, to my certain knowledge!"
After a moment's thought, however, he concluded that the person who chose to assume that name might be Lord Sherbrooke, and he asked, "What sort of a man was he? Was he a slight young gentleman, about my height?"
"Oh bless you, no," replied the constable. "There wasn't one of them that was not three or four inches taller than you."
"Captain Churchill!" said the Messenger—"Captain Churchill!" and he added, in a lower voice, "I'll bet my life this is some d—-d Jacobite, who has imposed himself upon this foolish boy for Captain Churchill. I'll be after them, and see."
Thus saying, he set off at full speed after Wilton and his party, and reached them within a minute after that gentleman had dropped behind.
"Is that you, Mr. Arden?" demanded Wilton, as he came up. "Stop a moment, I wish to speak to you."
"And I wish to go on, and see who you've got there, sir," said Arden, in a somewhat saucy tone, at the same time endeavouring to pass Wilton.
"Stop, sir!" cried the young gentleman, catching him by the collar. "Do you mean to say, that you will now disobey my orders, after having left me to provide for my own security, with the dastardly cowardice that you have displayed? Did not the Earl direct you to obey me in everything?"
"I will answer it all to the Earl," replied the man, in an insolent tone. "If he chooses to put me under a boy, I do not choose to be collared by one. Let me go, Mr. Brown, I say."
"I order you, sir," said Brown, without loosing his hold, "to go instantly back, and aid the people in searching the grounds of that house!—now, let me see if you will disobey!"
"I will search here first, though," said the man. "By, I believe that's Sir George Barkley, on before there. He's known to be in England. Let me go, Mr. Brown, I say, or worse will come of it!" and he put his hand to his belt, as if seeking for a pistol.
Without another word, Wilton instantly knocked him down with one blow of his clenched fist, and at the same moment he called out aloud, "Captain Byerly! and you constable, who are showing the way—come back here, and take this man into custody, and bear witness that he refuses to search for the Jacobites in the way I order him. Constable, I shall want you to take him to town in custody this night. I will show you my warrant for what I do when we get to the inn."
The two persons whom he addressed came back instantly at his call; and when the Messenger rose—considerably crest-fallen from Wilton's sudden application to measures which he had not expected—he found himself collared by two strong men, and led along unwillingly upon the road he had before been treading.
"Do not let him chatter, Captain," Wilton whispered to Captain Byerly, as he passed on; and then immediately walking forward, he joined the Duke and the Lady Laura. Byerly, who understood what he was about, kept the Messenger at some distance behind; but, nevertheless, some sharp words passing between them reached Wilton's ear during the first quarter of an hour of their journey; then came a dogged silence; but at length the voice of Byerly was again heard, exclaiming, "Mr. Brown, Mr. Arden says, that, if you will overlook what has passed, he will go back, and do as you order."
"I shall certainly not look over the business," replied Brown, aloud, "unless he promises not only to obey my orders at present, but also to make a full apology to me to-morrow."
"He says he will do what you please, sir," replied Byerly; and Wilton turning back, heard the sullen apologies of the Messenger.
"Mr. Arden," he said, "you have behaved extremely ill, well knowing, as you do know, that you were placed entirely under my orders. However, I shall pardon your conduct both upon the first occasion, and in regard to the present business, if you now do exactly as you are told. By your running away at the time you ought to have come forward to assist me, you have lost an opportunity of serving the state, in a manner which does not occur every day. In regard to the gentleman who has gone on, and whom you were foolish enough to think Sir George Barkley, I pledge you my honour that such is not the case. Sir George Barkley cannot be less than twenty years older than he is, and may be thirty."
"He's not Captain Churchill, though," replied the man, doggedly.
"Do not begin to speak impertinently again, sit!" said Wilton, in a sharp tone. "But go back, as I before ordered, with the constable: you know nothing of who that gentleman is, and my word ought to be sufficient for you, when I tell you that he has this very night not only aided me in setting free the Lady Laura, but absolutely saved my life at the risk of his own from the very gang of Jacobites in whose hands you most negligently left me. To drop this subject, however, I have one more caution to give you," he added, in a lower voice. "It is Lord Sherbrooke's wish that you should say not one syllable in regard to his share in the events of this night."
"Ay, sir, but I ought to ascertain whether he be safe or not. I know he has his wild pranks as well as most young men; but still one ought to know that he's safe."
"If my word for you is not sufficient on that score," replied Wilton, "you will find him at the house to which I directed you to go. It is now clear of all its obnoxious tenants, and I doubt not, Lord Sherbrooke will speak to you for a moment, if you wish it."
Thus saying, Wilton turned upon his heel, and walking quickly onward, soon overtook the Duke of Berwick and Lady Laura. They were now not far from High Halstow, and the rest of the way was soon accomplished. But as they passed into the door of the public-house, Captain Byerly, who came last, touched Wilton on the arm, and whispered, "Do you know that fellow is following you?"
"No, indeed," answered Wilton: "what can be done?"
"Go and speak to the master of the house," said Byerly, quickly. "I will wait here in the door, and take care he does not come in. The landlord will find means to get the Duke away by the back."
"I dare not trust him," replied Wilton, in the same low tone. "I feel sure he has betrayed me once to-night already."
"If he did," answered Byerly, hastily, "it was because he thought you on the wrong side of the question. He's a well-known man hereabouts, and you may trust him with any secrets on that side."
Wilton followed the Duke of Berwick and Laura as fast as possible, and found the landlord showing them into a small sanded parlour on the left hand, after passing a door which swung to and fro with a pulley.
"Come in here, landlord," he said, as he passed; "come in, and shut the door. Have you a horse saddled?" he continued.
"I have one that can be saddled in a minute," said the landlord, looking first at Berwick and then at Wilton.
"Have you any back way," continued Wilton, "by which this gentleman can get out of the town without going through the street?"
"Ay have I," answered the man; "through our stable, through the garden, lead the horse down the steps, and then away to Stroud. There's no missing the way."
"Well then, sir," said Wilton, grasping the Duke's hand, "this is your only chance for safety. That rascally Messenger has followed us to the door, and doubtless if there be any magistrates in the neighbourhood, or constables left in the place, we shall have them down upon us in ten minutes."
"Come with me, my lord, come with me!" cried the landlord, bursting into energy in a moment. "I know who you are well enough. But they shan't catch you here, I warrant you. Come into the stable: there's not a minute to be lost; for there's old Sir John Bulrush, and Parson Jeffreys, who's a magistrate too, drinking away up at the rectory till the people come back from Plessis's house." Berwick lingered not; but taking a quick leave of Lady Laura, and shaking Wilton's hand, he followed the landlord from the room. Laura and Wilton stood silent for a minute or two, listening to every sound, and calculating how long it might be before the horse was saddled and the Duke upon his way. Before they imagined it possible, however, the landlord returned, saying, in a low voice, but with an air of joyful triumph, "He is gone; and if they were after him this minute, the way through my garden gives him the start by half a mile."
"And now, landlord," said Wilton, "send off some one on horseback to get us a conveyance from Stroud to carry this young lady on the way to London. I suppose such a thing is not to be procured here."
"That there is not," replied the landlord; "and unless I send your horse, sir, or the Messenger's, or the Captain's, I have none to go."
"Send mine, then, send mine!" replied Wilton. "But here comes Captain Byerly himself, bringing us news, doubtless."
"No news," answered Byerly, "except that the rascal went up the street, and I followed him to the door of the parsonage. Your parson's a magistrate—isn't he, Wicks?"
The landlord gave a nod; and Byerly continued, "By Jove, I'll be off then, for I'm not fond of magistrates, and he'll be down here soon."
"You had better bid them bring down a chaise for the gentleman and lady from Stroud," said the landlord. "That will save me from sending some one on the gentleman's horse."
"No, no, landlord, no, no!" answered Byerly, "you are not up to a stratagem. Send your ostler with me on Mr. Brown's horse. We'll go clattering along the street like the devil, if we can but get off before the justices comedown, and they'll take it into their wise noddles that one of us is the gentleman who has just gone. Come, Wicks, there's no time to spare. We shall meet again, Mr. Brown; good night, good night. I shall tell the Colonel that we've done the business much more tidily than I could have expected." And without further ceremony he quitted the room.
Another pause ensued, during which but a few words passed between Wilton and Lady Laura, who sat gazing thoughtfully into the fire. Wilton stood by the window and listened, thinking he heard some distant sounds as of persons speaking, and loud tongues at the further end of the street. A minute after, however, there came the clatter of horses' feet upon the pavement of the yard; and in another instant Byerly's voice was heard, saying, "Come, put to your spurs," and two horses galloped away from the inn as hard as they could go.
IT is wonderful how scenes of danger and difficulty—it is wonderful how scenes of great excitement of any kind, indeed—draw heart to heart, and bind together, in bonds indissoluble, the beings that have passed through them side by side. They are never to be broken, those bonds; for between us and the persons with whom we have trod such paths there is established a partnership in powerful memories, out of which we can never withdraw our interest. But it is not alone that they are permanent which renders them different from all lighter ties; it is that they bring us closer, more entirely to each other; that instead of sharing the mere thoughts of what we may call the outward heart, we enter into the deepest recesses, we see all the hidden treasures, we know the feelings and the ideas that are concealed from the general eye of day, we are no longer kept in the porch, but admitted into the temple itself.
Wilton was left alone in the small parlour of the inn with Lady Laura; and as soon as he heard the horses' feet gallop away, he turned towards her with a glad smile. But when he did so, he found that her beautiful eyes were now fixed upon him with a gaze deep and intense—a gaze which showed that the whole thoughts and feelings of her heart were abstracted from everything else on earth to meditate on all that she owed to him, and on the things alone that were connected therewith.
She dropped her eyes as soon as they met his; but that one look was overpowering to the man who now certainly loved her as deeply as it is possible for man to love woman. Many a difficulty and doubt had been removed from his mind by the words which Lord Sherbrooke had spoken while affecting to seek for the warrant; and there were vague hopes of high destinies in his heart. But it must be acknowledged, that if there had been none, he would have given way, even as he did.
He advanced towards her, he took her hand in his, he pressed it between both his own, he kissed it tenderly, passionately, and more than once. Lady Laura lifted up her eyes to his face, not blushing, but very pale.
"Oh, Wilton," she said, "what do I not owe you!" and she burst into tears. The words, the look, the very tears themselves, were all more than sufficient encouragement.
"You owe me nothing, Laura," Wilton said. "Would to God that I had such an opportunity of serving you as to make me forgive in myself the rash, the wild, the foolish feelings that, in spite of every struggle and every effort, have grown up in my heart towards you, and have taken possession of me altogether. But, oh, Laura, I cannot hope that you will forgive them, I cannot forgive them myself. They can—I know they can, only produce anguish and sorrow to myself, and excite anger, perhaps indignation, in you."
"Oh no, no, no, Wilton!" she cried, eagerly, "not that, not that! neither anger, nor indignation, nor anything like it, but grief—and yet not grief either—oh no, not grief!—Some apprehension, perhaps, some anxiety both for your happiness and my own. But if you do feel all you say, as I believe and am sure you do, such feelings, so far as depends upon me, should produce you no anguish and no pain; but I must not conceal from you that I very much fear, my father would never—"
An increasing noise at the door of the house broke in upon what Laura was saying. There were cries, and loud tongues, and vociferations of many kinds; among which, one voice was heard, exclaiming, "Go round to the back door!"
Another person, apparently just under the window, shouted, "I am very sure that was not the man!" and then added, "Bring out my horse, however, bring out my horse! I'll catch them, and raise the hue and cry as I go!"
At the same time there were other voices speaking in the passage, and one loud sonorous tongue exclaiming, "Ali, Master Wicks, Master Wicks! I thought you would get yourself into a scrape one of these days, Master Wicks;" to which the low deep voice of the landlord was heard, replying—
"I have got myself into no scrape, your reverence. I don't know what you mean or what you wait.—Search? You may search any part of the house you like. I don't care! If there were twenty people here, I have nothing to do with it. I can't refuse gentlemen to put up their horses, or to give them a bowl of punch, or a mug of ale. There, sir, there's a gentleman and lady in that parlour. Pray, sir, walk in, and see whether they are Jacobites or smugglers or what riots."
As these words sounded close to them, Lady Laura sunk down again into her chair; and Wilton, drawing a little back, hesitated, for a moment, whether he should go out himself and notice what was taking place, or not. The question, however, was decided for him by the door of the room being thrown suddenly open, and the rotund person of the clergyman of the parish, bearing, in the "fair round belly with fat capon lined," the sign and symbol affixed by Shakspeare to the "Justice of Peace," entered the apartment. He gazed with some surprise upon two persons, who, notwithstanding some slight disarray in their apparel from all the events which had lately taken place, still bore the appearance of belonging to the highest class of society.
The reverend justice had entered the room with a look of pompous importance, which was diminished, but not entirely done away, by evident surprise at the appearance of Laura and Wilton. The young gentleman, however, was not particularly well pleased with the interruption, and still less with this domineering air, which he hastened to extinguish as fast as possible.
"Pray, sir, what do you want?" he demanded, addressing the magistrate, "and who are you?"
"Nay, sir," answered the reverend gentleman, "what I want is, to know who you are. I have here information that there is in this house a notorious Jacobite malefactor, returned from beyond seas, contrary to law, named Sir George Barkley. I am a magistrate for the county, sir, and I have information, I say."
"Upon oath, sir?" demanded Wilton.
"No, sir, not upon oath, not upon oath," replied the clergyman, "but what is quite as good, upon the word of a Messenger of State, sir—of Mr. Arden, the Council Messenger, sir."
"Landlord!" exclaimed Wilton, seeing the face of Wicks amongst several others at the door, "be so good as to bring Mr. Arden, the Messenger, here. Bring him by the collar, if he does not come willingly. I will be answerable for the consequences."
The magistrate looked astounded; but the landlord came forward with a grin and a low bow, saying, "The gentleman has mounted his horse, sir, and ridden after those other two gentlemen who went away a quarter of an hour ago; but, Lord bless you, sir," he added, with a sly look, "he'll never catch them. Why, his horse is quite lame."
"The fact is," replied Wilton, "this man Arden did not choose to come in here, as he well knew I should certainly send him to London in custody, to answer for his bad conduct this night.—Sir, I beg to inform you, that I am private secretary to the Earl of Byerdale; and that this young lady, the daughter of the Duke of Gaveston, having been carried off from the terrace near his house by agents, it is supposed, of the late King James II., for the purpose of drawing over her father to support that faction, the Duke, who is pleased to repose some trust in me, authorized me, by this paper under his hand, to search for and deliver the lady, while at the same time the Earl of Byerdale intrusted me with this warrant for the purposes herein mentioned, and put this man Arden, the Messenger, under my direction and control. At the very first sight of danger the Messenger ran away, and by so doing left me with every chance of my being murdered by a gang of evil-disposed persons in this neighbourhood. On his return with a large body of constables and some military to the house of a person who is named Plessis, I understand, he refused to obey the orders I gave him, and followed me hither, alleging that one of two gentlemen who had come to my assistance, and to whom I owe my own life and the liberation of this lady, was the well-known personage called Sir George Barkley. Those gentlemen both departed, as soon as they saw us in safety, and I am ready to swear that neither of them was Sir George Barkley; the person this Messenger mistook for him being a young gentleman of four or five and twenty years of age."
"Phoo!" cried the magistrate, with a long sort of whistling sound—"Sir George Barkley is a man of fifty, with a great gash on his cheek. I remember him very well, when—"
But then seeming to recollect himself, he paused abruptly, adding, "But pray, who was this young gentleman who so came to your assistance, sir?"
"I never saw him in my life before," replied Wilton, "and the name he gave himself was Captain Churchill."
"To be sure, to be sure!" cried the clergyman; "a younger brother of my Lord of Marlborough's."
"Some relation of the Marlborough family, I believe," replied Wilton, dryly. "However, I do not know the Earl's brother myself, nor am I aware whether there is any other Captain Churchill or not; but this was a young gentleman, evidently under thirty, and consequently he could not be Sir George Barkley."
"I have searched the house high and low," said the voice of another stout gentleman, who now pushed his way into the room; "and I can find nothing but a sick cat up in the garret."
"Ay, ay, Brother Bulrush, ay, ay!" replied the clergyman; "ay, ay, it is all explained. It is all that Messenger's fault, and he has now run away again. This worshipful young gentleman is secretary to the Earl of Byerdale, the great minister; and I'm sure we are both very sorry to have given him any trouble."
"You have given me no trouble at all, gentlemen," replied Wilton, "and I have only to beg that if the Messenger return after I am gone, you will send him up to town tomorrow morning in the custody of a constable. I shall not fail to report to Lord Byerdale your activity and zeal upon the present occasion; which, indeed, may be of some service, as I am sorry to say, that serious remonstrances have been made regarding this part of the country, it being intimated, that smuggling, coining, and even treasonable meetings and assemblies, are more common here than in any other part of Kent."
"Indeed, sir," replied one of the justices, somewhat alarmed, "indeed, it is not our fault. They are an unruly set, they are a most unruly set. We do the best we may, but cannot manage them.—But, sir, the young lady looks fatigued and tired. Had she not better come up to the parsonage, and rest there this night. She shall have a good warm bed, and Mrs. Jeffreys, who is a motherly sort of woman, will be quite delighted to take care of her ladyship."
"Or Lady Bulrush either, I am sure," said the other magistrate. "The manor-house is but half a mile."
Wilton turned to Laura, to inquire what she thought fit to do; but the young lady, not very much prepossessed in favour either of the motherly sort of clergyman's wife, or the more elevated Lady Bulrush, by the appearance and manners of their marital representatives, leaned both her hands upon Wilton's arm, feeling implicit confidence in him alone, and security with him only; and, raising her eyes imploringly to his face, she said in a low voice, "Indeed, indeed, Wilton, I would rather not—I would rather go home to Beaufort House at once, to relieve my poor father's anxiety."
"In truth," he replied, in the same tone, "I cannot but think it would be better for you to obtain a night's rest, if you can, rather than to take a long journey after such terrible agitation as you have undergone."
"Do not ask me—nay, do not ask me," she said; and then turning to the magistrates, who were conferring together, and settling in their own mind that a match was undoubtedly to take place between the Lady Laura and the Earl of Byerdale's secretary, she added, "I am very anxious to return to my father, gentlemen, and as a carriage has been already sent for from Stroud, I would certainly prefer going on to-night. I will very gratefully," she added—her apprehensions of some new dangers occurring at the little public-house coming back upon her mind—"I will very gratefully accept the shelter of the parsonage, till the carriage arrives from Stroud, if by so doing I shall not keep the lady up beyond her usual hour."
"Oh, not at all, madam, not at all," replied the clergyman: "Mrs. Jeffreys will be delighted to see you.—Let us lose no time.—Wicks, when the carriage comes, send it up to my house.—Ma'am, I will show your ladyship the way."
Laura, however, still clung to Wilton's arm, as her best support; and following the clergyman together, they proceeded to the parsonage, escorted by a number of footmen, farming servants, and people collected in haste, who had come to the examination of Wicks's house. On their arrival, they were ushered into a tall dining-room with carved panels, the atmosphere of which was strongly imbued with the mingled odour of punch and tobacco, an unsavoury but at that time very ordinary perfume in the dining-room of almost every country gentleman. The mistress of the mansion, however, proved, in point of manners and appearance, considerably superior to her lord and master, and did all that she could in a very kind and delicate manner to render the beautiful girl, cast for the time on her hospitality, as comfortable as the circumstances would admit.
It is not to be denied, indeed, that both Wilton and Laura could at that time have very well spared the presence of any other persons, for there were feelings in the hearts of both which eagerly longed for voice. There was much to be told; there was much to be explained; there was much to be determined between them. There was, indeed, the consciousness of mutual love, which is no slight blessing and comfort, under any circumstances; but that very consciousness produced the longing thirst for farther communion which nothing but love can give.
When all has been said, indeed—when the whole heart has been poured forth—when the first intense feelings of a new passion have worn away, or, having grown familiar to our bosoms, surprise us no longer, we can better bear the presence of others; for a look, an occasional word, even a tone, will convey to the mind of those we love, all that we could wish to say. But when love is fresh, and every feeling produced thereby is new and wonderful to our hearts; when we make hourly discoveries of new sensations in our own bosoms, and neither know how to express them, nor how to conceal them, the presence of others—cold, indifferent, strange—is no slight punishment and privation.
Laura endeavoured, as far as possible, to keep down such feelings, but yet she could not drive them from her bosom. The minutes seemed long, tedious, and heavy: from time to time she would fall into a fit of musing; from time to time she would answer wide from the question; but it fortunately so happened, that the events which had lately occurred, and her anxiety to rejoin her father, were causes sufficient to account for greater inequalities of conduct than these.
In the meantime, Wilton was subjected to the same, or even greater pain, from the impossibility of saying all that he could have wished to say; and he had, moreover, to contend both against the civility of his landlord, individually, and the curiosity of the two magistrates, conjointly, who did not fail, during the time that he remained, both to press hire to eat and drink, in spite of all denials and remonstrances, and to torment him with questions, many of them frivolous in the extreme, not only concerning the events in which he had been lately engaged, but also in regard to everything that was taking place in London.
Nearly two hours passed in this unpleasant manner; but at length the joyful sound of carriage-wheels announced that the man who had been sent to Stroud had returned. Laura was eager to set out; but the motherly care of good Mrs. Jeffreys detained her for some time longer, by insisting upon wrapping her warmly up in cloaks, and mantles, and hoods, to guard against the cold of the wintry night.
At length all was ready; and Wilton led her down to the carriage, which it seems had been procured with difficulty; the machines called post-chaises being not so common in those days as they became within fifty years afterwards. The two magistrates stood bowing low to the young lady as she entered the tall, long-backed, but really not uncomfortable vehicle. The landlord of the inn, too, and his ostler, were there; and Wilton failed not to pay them liberally for the services they had rendered. He then briefly gave his own address, and that of the Duke to his reverend entertainer, and entered the carriage beside the Lady Laura, with a heart beating high with the hope and expectation of saying all and hearing all that the voice of love could speak.
For once—perhaps the only time that ever such a thing happened in this world—hope and expectation were not disappointed. Wilton seated himself by the side of Laura, the postilion cracked his whip, which was then as common in England as it is now in France, the horses went forward, and the wheels rolling through the little street of High Halstow, were soon upon the road to Stroud.
There was a silent pause between Wilton and Laura for some minutes, neither of them could very well tell why; for both of them had been most anxious for the opportunity, and both of them had been not a little grieved that their former conversation had been interrupted. The truth is, however, that very interruption had rendered the conversation difficult to renew; for love—sometimes the most impudent of all powers—is at other times the most shy and bashful. Wilton, however, found that he must not let the silence go on much longer, and he gently took Laura's hand in his, saying, perhaps somewhat abruptly—
"Dear Laura, everything that we have to say to each other, must be said now."
"Oh, Wilton!—" was her only reply; but she left her hand in his, and he went on.
"You had just spoken, when we were interrupted," he said, "words that made me very, very happy, though they were coupled with expressions of fear and apprehension. I have nothing to tell you, dear Laura, that can altogether remove those fears and apprehensions, but I can say something, perhaps, that may mitigate them. You are not aware of the circumstances in which I have had the happiness of seeking you and finding you this night; but you doubtless heard me mention, that it was your father who intrusted me with the search; and surely, dear Laura, that must show no slight trust and confidence on his part—may I add, no slight regard."
"Oh, I am sure he feels that for you," replied Laura, "quite sure! but yet such a trust shows, indeed, far more regard than I knew he entertained, and that gives me some degree of hope. Still, I cannot judge, Wilton, unless I had seen the manner in which my father did it. You must tell me all that has been done and said in this unfortunate business: you must tell me everything that has occurred. Will you?—and I will tell you, upon my word, exactly what the impression is that it all makes upon my mind."
Wilton had not spoken of their love; Laura had not mentioned the subject either; but they had done fully as much, they had referred to it as a thing known and acknowledged. Wilton had recalled words that had made him very happy, and Laura had spoken of hopes which could only apply to her union with himself.
He now, however, told her all that had occurred, briefly though clearly. He dwelt not, indeed, on his own feelings during the painful events lately past; but the few words that he did speak on that subject were of such a kind as to show Laura instantly the distress and anxiety which her disappearance had caused him, the agony that he had suffered when he thought that she was lost to him for ever. The whole of her father's conduct, as displayed by Wilton, seemed to her strange and unaccountable; and well it might do so! for her lover told her the terrible state of mind in which the Duke had been at first, and yet he did not think fit to explain, in any degree, the causes which he felt sure had prevented her father from joining in the search himself. Notwithstanding all that had taken place in the presence of Laura, he judged it far better to avoid any mention of the unfortunate hold which Sir John Fenwick had obtained over the Duke, by drawing him in to take a share, however small, in the great Jacobite conspiracy of the day.
Laura, then, was greatly surprised at all she heard; and that Wilton should be employed in the affair seemed to her not the least strange part of the whole business. An expression of this surprise, however, induced Wilton to add, what he still in some degree feared, and had long hesitated to say.
"I do not, indeed, believe, dear Laura," he said, "that your father would have trusted me so entirely in this business, if it had not been for some words concerning myself which were spoken to him by Lord Byerdale when I was not present. They were repeated to me afterwards by Sherbrooke, and were to the effect, that although, in consequence of some of the late unfortunate disturbances in the country—the rebellions, the revolutions, the changes of dynasties that have happened within the last twenty years—it was necessary to conceal my birth and station, yet my blood was as pure and ancient as that of your father himself. This, I think, made a change in all his feelings towards me."
Wilton felt the small rounded fingers of Laura's hand rest, for a single instant, more heavily in his own, while she drew a deep long breath, as if a weight had been taken from her bosom.
"Oh, Wilton!" she said, "it makes all the difference in his views. It will make all the difference in our fate. You know that it would make none to me; that the man I loved would be loved under any circumstances of fortune or station, but with him it is the first, the greatest consideration. There may be difficulties still; there may be opposition; for, as you know, I am an only child, and my father thinks that nothing can equal what I have a right to expect; but still that opposition will vanish when he sees that my happiness is concerned, if the great and predominant prejudice of his education is not arrayed against us. Oh! Wilton, Wilton, your words have made me very happy."
Her words certainly made Wilton happy in return;—indeed, most happy. His fate had suddenly brightened from all that was dark and cheerless, from a situation in which the sweet, early dream of love itself but rendered everything that was sombre, painful, and distressing in his course, more gloomy, more bitter, more full of despair, it had changed, to the possession and the hope of all that the most sanguine imagination could have pictured of glad, and joyful, and happy, to the prospect of wealth and station, to the hope of obtaining the being that he loved best on earth, and to the certainty of possessing her early, her first, her warm, her full affection.
Had Wilton given way to what he felt at that moment, he would have clasped her to his heart and sealed the covenant of their love on the sweet lips that gave him such assurance of happiness. But he remembered that she was there alone with him, in full confidence, under the safeguard of all his best feelings, and he would not for the world have done one thing that in open day could have called the colour into her cheek. He loved her deeply, fully, and nobly, and though, under other circumstances, he might scarcely have hesitated, he now forebore. But again and again he pressed his lips upon her hand, and thanked her again and again for all that she had said, and for all the hopes and glad tidings that her words implied.
Their conversation then turned to love, and to their feelings towards each other. How could it be helped? And Wilton told her all; how the passion had grown upon him, how he had struggled hard against it, how not even despair itself had been able to crush it; how it had gone on and increased in spite of himself; how intense, how ardent it had become. He could not tell her exactly, at least he would not, what he had felt on her account, when he believed that she was likely to become the bride of Lord Sherbrooke; but he told her fully, ay, and eloquently, what agony of mind he had endured when he thought of seeing her give her hand to any other man, without affording him an apparent chance of even making an effort for himself. In short, he gave her the whole picture of his personal feelings; and there is no woman that is not gratified at seeing such a picture displayed, when she is herself the object. But to a mind such as that of Lady Laura, and to feelings such as were in her bosom, the tale offered higher and nobler sources of delight. The love, the deep love, which she felt, and which was now acknowledged to her own heart, required every such assurance of full and ample return as his words afforded, to render it confident and happy. But from the display of his feelings which he now made, she felt, she saw, she knew that she was loved as she could wish to be—loved as fully, as intensely, as deeply, as she herself loved—loved with all those feelings, high, and bright, and sweet, which assured her beyond all question that the affection which she had inspired would be permanent as well as ardent.
Wilton won her, too, to speak upon the same subject as himself, though, of course, he could not expect her to dwell upon what she felt in the same manner. There was a great difference: on the one hand, all the sensations of his heart towards her were boldly avowed and minutely detailed; the history of his love was told in language straightforward, eager, and powerful. The love of her bosom, on the contrary, was shadowed forth rather than spoken, admitted rather than told, her feelings were referred to, but not depicted.
"You make me glad, Wilton," she said, "by telling me all this, for I almost feared—and was teasing my own heart about it at the rectory, lest I should have done the unwomanly thing of loving first—I will not call it, being too easily won; for I should certainly despise the woman who thought anything necessary to win her, when once she really loved, further than the conviction of her lover's sincerity, and honour, and nobility of spirit. But yet I thought, that even you might somewhat despise me, if you found that I had loved you before you loved me. And yet, Wilton," she added, after a momentary pause, "I cannot help thinking that even if it had been so, I should have been more pardonable than many people, on account of the very great services you have rendered me at various times, and the perils you have encountered in my behalf. How could I help loving a man who has twice risked his life for me?"
"Oh, dear Laura," replied Wilton, "those services have been very small ones, and not worthy of your naming. I certainly did strive to conceal my love," he continued; "but I believe that, let us struggle against our feelings as we will, there are always some signs and tokens which show to the eyes of those we love—if there be any sympathy between their hearts and ours—that which is passing in regard to themselves within the most secret places of our bosom. There is a cabalistic language in love, Laura—unknown to any but those who really do love, but learnt in a moment, when the mighty secret is communicated to our hearts. We speak it to each other without knowing it, dear Laura, and we are understood, without an effort, if there be sympathy between us."
In such conversation wore the night away, as the carriage wended slowly onward. Two changes of horses were required to carry Laura and her lover back to the metropolis, and bells had to be rung, ostlers and postilions wakened, horses brought slowly forth, and many another tedious process to be gone through, which had brought the night nearly to a close, before the carriage crossed the wide extent of Blackheath, and passed through a small part of the town of Greenwich, which had then never dreamt of the ambitious project that it has since achieved, of climbing up that long and heavy hill.
Wilton and Laura had sufficient matter for conversation during the whole way: for when they had said all that could be said of the present and the past, there still remained the future to be considered; and Laura entreated her lover by no precipitate eagerness to call down upon them opposition, which, if it showed itself of a vehement kind at first, might only strengthen, instead of diminishing with time. She besought him to let everything proceed as it had hitherto done, till his own fate was fully ascertained, and any doubt of his birth and station in society was entirely removed.
"Till that is the case," she said, "to make any display of our feelings towards each other might only bring great pain upon us both. My father might require me not to see you, might positively forbid our thinking of each other; whereas, were all difficulties on that one point removed, he might only express a regret that fortune had not been more favourable to you, or require a delay, to make him certain of our sincere and permanent attachment. After that point is made clear, let us be open as the day with him. In the meanwhile, he must receive you as a friend who has rendered him the greatest and deepest of services; and I shall ever receive you, Wilton, I need not tell you, as the only dear and valued friend that I possess."
"But suppose, dear Laura," said Wilton, "suppose I were to see you pressed to marry some one else; suppose I were to see some suitor in every respect qualified to hope for and expect your hand—"
"You do not doubt me, Wilton?" said Lady Laura.
"Oh no!" he replied. "Not for a moment, Laura. But it would be very painful."
"It would be so to us both," she replied; "but I would take care that the pain should soon be brought to an end. Depend upon it, Wilton, it will be better as I say; let us not, in order to avoid uncertain pains and dangers, run into certain ones."
Wilton at once yielded to her views, and promised to be entirely guided by her opinion.
The day broke upon them just as they were passing through London, on their way to Beaufort House; but the night which had just passed had left them with changed feelings in many respects. It had been one of those eventful periods which come in, from time to time, like revolutions in states, to change entirely the very constitution of our whole thoughts and feelings, to give a new character and entirely new combinations to the strange microcosm within us. That great change had been effected in Laura by that which is the great first mover of a woman's destinies. She loved and had avowed her love: she was married in spirit to the man beside her, and she felt that to a heart like hers eternity itself could not dissolve the tie which had that night been voluntarily established between them. She viewed not such things as many, nay, most other women view them; she looked not on such engagements, she looked not on such affections, as things to be taken up and dropped, to be worn to-day, in the gloss of novelty, and cast away to-morrow, like a fretted garment; she judged not that it was the standing before the altar and receiving the ring upon her finger, and promising to wear out earthly existence with another human being, that constitutes the union which must join woman to the man of her heart. But she regarded the avowal of mutual love, the promise of unchanging affection, as a bond binding for ever; as, in fact, what we have called it, the marriage of the spirit: as a thing never to be done away, which no time could break, no circumstances dissolve: it was the wedding of—forever. The other, the more earthly union, might be dear in prospect to her heart, gladdening to all her hopes, mingled with a thousand bright dreams of human joy, and tenderness, and sweet domestic peace: but if circumstances had separated her the next hour from Wilton for ever, she would have felt that she was still his wife in heart, and ended life with the hope of meeting him she had ever loved, in heaven. To take such ties upon herself, then, was in her estimation no light thing; and, as we have said, the period, the short period, of that night, was sufficient to effect a great, a total change in all the thoughts and feelings of her bosom.
The change in Wilton was of a different kind, but it was also very great. It was an epoch in man's destiny. His mind was naturally manly, powerful, and decided; but he was very young. The events of that night, however, swept away everything that was youthful or light from his character for ever. He had acted with vigour, and power, and determination, amongst men older, better tried, and more experienced than himself. He had taken a decided and a prominent part in a scene of strife, and danger, and difficulty, and he had (to make use of that most significant though schoolboy phrase) "placed himself." His character had gone through the ordeal: without any previous preparation, the iron had been hardened into steel; and if any part had remained up to that moment soft or weak, the softness was done away, the weakness no longer existed.
If we were poets or fabulists, and could invest inanimate objects with all the qualities and feelings of animate ones; if, with all the magic of old AEsop, we could make pots and kettles talk, and endue barn-door fowls with the spirit of philosophy, we should be tempted to say that the great gates of Beaufort House, together with the stone Cupids on the tops of the piers, ay, and the vases of carved flowers which stood between those Cupids, turned up the nose as the antiquated, ungilt, dusty, and somewhat tattered vehicle containing the Lady Laura Gaveston and Wilton Brown rolled up.
The postboy got off his horse; Wilton descended from the vehicle, and applied his hand eagerly to the bell; and Laura, who had certainly thought no part of the journey tedious, did now think the minutes excessively long till the gates should be thrown open. In truth, the hour was still an early one; the morning cold and chilly, with a grey biting east wind, making the whole scene appear as if it were looked at through ground glass; and neither the porter nor the porter's wife had thought it expedient to venture forth from their snug bed at such an unpropitious moment. A second time Wilton applied his hand to the bell, and with more success than before, for in stays and petticoat, unlaced and half tied, forth rushed the grumbling porter's wife, with a murmured "Marry come up: people are in great haste: I wonder who is in such a hurry!"
The sight of Wilton, however, whom she had seen very lately with the Duke, but still more the sight of her young lady, instantly altered her tone and demeanour, and with a joyful swing she threw the gates wide open. The chaise was drawn round to the great doors of the house, and here a more ready entrance was gained.
"Is the Duke up?" demanded Wilton, as the servant opened the door.
"Oh yes, sir," replied the man: "he was up before day-break: but he is not out of his dressing-room yet."
Laura ran up the steps into the vestibule, to see her father, and to relieve his mind at once from all that she knew he was suffering on her account. She paused, however, for a moment at the top to see if Wilton followed; but he merely advanced a few steps, saying, "I will leave you to converse with your father; for, of course, I have very much to do; and he will be glad to spend some time with you alone, and hear all that you have to tell him."
"But you will come back," said Lady Laura, holding out her hand to him: "you will not be away long."
"Until the evening, perhaps," said Wilton, pressing that fair hand in his own: "I may have many things to do, and the Earl may also require my presence."
"Oh, but you must come to dinner—I insist," said Lady Laura. "You know I have a right to command now," she added, in a lower tone, "and therefore I will tell my father to expect you at dinner."
"I will come if I can," replied Wilton, "but—"
His sentence was interrupted, however, by the Duke's voice at the top of the stairs, exclaiming, "Surely that is Laura's voice? Laura, Laura! My child, my dear child!"
And the next moment, Lady Laura, darting on, was in her father's arms.
Wilton Brown turned away; and without waiting to press a third person upon a scene which should always be enacted between two alone, he got into the post-chaise, and bade the postilion drive him back into London, for it must be recollected that Beaufort House was out of the town. This was easily accomplished, as the reader may imagine; and having dressed himself, and removed the traces of blood and travel from his face, he hastened to the house of Lord Byerdale, to give hire an account of the success of his expedition.
The Earl had not been long up; but he had already gone to his cabinet to write letters, and take his chocolate at the same time. On entering, Wilton, without any surprise, found Arden, the Messenger, in the presence of the Earl; for the man, knowing that the situation in which he stood was a somewhat perilous one, was of course anxious to make the best of his story before the young gentleman appeared. What did very much surprise Wilton, however, was the gracious and even affectionate manner in which the Earl received him. He rose from his chair, advanced two or three steps to meet him, and shaking him warmly by the hand, exclaimed, "Welcome back, my dear Wilton. So you have been fully and gallantly successful, I find. But what is all this that Arden is telling me? He is making a terrible accusation against you here, of letting off Sir George Barkley, one of the most notorious Jacobites in Europe—a very dangerous person, indeed."
"My lord," replied Wilton, "Mr. Arden is repeating to you a falsehood which he devised last night. It is quite true, indeed, that if he had not been a most notorious coward, and run away at the first appearance of danger, there might have been a chance, though a very remote one, of our securing Sir George Barkley."
"Indeed!" exclaimed the Earl: "then you did meet with him?"
"Amongst the persons whom I had to encounter," replied Wilton, "there was a gentleman whom they called Sir George, and who, from his height, his age, and a deep scar upon his cheek, I have no earthly doubt, is Sir George Barkley: but he had been gone for an hour before this mighty brave gentleman, having collected forty or fifty people to keep his own head from harm, thought fit to come back and seek for me. The person who was with me when he did return was a tall fine-looking young man of five or six and twenty."
"Indeed!" said the Earl. "Who could that be?"
"He called himself Captain Churchill," replied Wilton. "I do not mean to say, my lord, that I believe such was his real name; for I do not: but I never saw Captain Churchill at all; and I never saw this gentleman till the moment when he came to my aid and rescued me, with the assistance of another, from the hands of as desperate a set of men as I ever met in my life, and who would certainly have murdered me had it not been for his arrival. I have a report to make to your lordship upon all Mr. Arden's proceedings, who, notwithstanding your most positive commands to obey me in all things, has refused to obey me in anything, and by the delays he has occasioned, and the obstructions he has thrown in my way, very nearly prevented me from effecting the liberation of Lady Laura at all."
"Your lordship will believe what you choose," replied Arden, in a saucy tone. "All I mean to say is, I am sure that gentleman was not Captain Churchill; and so you will find, if you inquire. Whoever he was, Mr. Brown aided his escape, and prevented me from doing my duty."
"Your duty, sir, was to obey Mr. Brown," replied the Earl, sternly; "for that I shall take care that you are punished; and if it should prove that this gentleman was really Captain Churchill, you shall be dismissed from your office. You will attend here again at two o'clock, by which time I shall have written to Captain Churchill, to know whether he was the person present or not.—Now leave the room."
Arden slunk doggedly away, seeing that Wilton's star happened to be in the ascendant. Had he known how much it was so, however, having often heard the Earl speak sharply and discourteously to the young gentleman, he would have been more surprised even than he was at the change which had taken place. The moment he was gone, and the door closed, the Earl again shook Wilton by the hand.
"You have accomplished your task most brilliantly, Wilton," he said, "and I shall take care that you reap the reward of your diligence and activity, by any effort that depends upon me; but from all that I have seen, and heard, and know, you are likely to obtain, from the very act itself, far higher recompences than any that I could bestow. You are indeed a fortunate young man."
"I am fortunate in your lordship's approbation," replied Wilton; "but I see not why you should call me so in any other respect, except, indeed, in being so fortunate as to effect this young lady's liberation."
"In that very respect," replied the Earl, with a look full of meaning. "Good heavens! my dear Wilton, are you blind? If you are so, I am not; and at your age, certainly I should not have been blind to my own advantage. You think, perhaps, that because Lady Laura has refused to marry Sherbrooke, and broken off the proposed alliance between our families, it would make me angry to find she had placed her affections anywhere else. But I tell you no, Wilton! Quite the contrary is the case. The discovery that she has done so, at once banished all the anger and indignation that I felt. If with a free heart she had so decidedly refused my son, I should have considered it as little less than an insult to my whole family, and, in fact, did consider it so till Sherbrooke himself expressed his belief that she was, and has been for some time, attached to you. His words instantly recalled to my memory all that I had remarked before, how the colour came up into her cheek whenever you approached her, how her eye brightened at every word you said. That made the matter very different. I could not expect the poor young lady to sacrifice her first affection to please me: nor could I wish her, as you may well imagine, to marry Sherbrooke, loving you. This is the reason that makes me say that you area most fortunate man; for the service that you have rendered her, the immense and important service, gives you such a claim upon her gratitude, as to make it easy for her at once to avow her attachment. It gives you an enormous claim upon the Duke, too; and I have one or two little holds upon that nobleman which he knows not of—by which, indeed, he might be not a little injured, if I were a revengeful man, but which I shall only use for your best interests."