"But, my lord," replied Wilton, "you seem totally to forget my humble birth and station. How—situated as I am—could I dare to ask the Duke for his daughter's hand, the only remaining child of such a house, the heiress of such immense wealth?"
"Fear not, fear not, Wilton," said the Earl, laying his hand upon his arm. "Fear not: your blood is as good as the Duke's own; your family, older and as noble."
"I have sometimes thought, my lord," replied Wilton, wishing to gain as much information as possible—"I have sometimes thought, in the utter ignorance wherein I have been left of my own history, that I am the son of one who has indeed been a father to me, Lord Sunbury,—the natural son, I mean."
"Oh no!" cried the Earl, with an air almost of indignation: "you are no relation of his whatsoever. I knew not who you were when you first came hither; but I have since discovered, and though at present I must not reveal anything farther to you, I tell you, without hesitation, to set your mind at ease, to pursue your suit towards Lady Laura, if you have really any regard for her, and to aspire to her hand. In a very few months more you shall know all."
Wilton cast down his eyes, and mused.
"This is not a little strange," he said; "but I know I may place implicit reliance on your lordship's word, and proceed in a matter where I own my heart is deeply engaged, without the risk of calling upon myself a charge of gross presumption."
"You may, you may," answered the Earl, eagerly; "and if the Duke should discover your mutual affection, and make any objection, merely refer him to me. But now let us hear more of your adventures of yesterday and last night."
Wilton would have been very well contented to muse for a few minutes over what the Earl said. Although his experience of the world was not great, yet he had a sufficient portion of good sense to supply experience in a high degree. This good sense told him, that a sudden and extraordinary change in the demeanour of any man, but more especially in that of a man both subtle and determined, was more or less to be suspected. He would fain, then, have obtained time to seek for the real motives and views of the Earl of Byerdale, in the extraordinary fit of kindness and condescension which had seized upon him; for he could almost fancy that the Earl was contriving his ruin, by engaging him in some rash endeavour to obtain the hand of Lady Laura.
Strong, however, in her love, he resolved to go on, to deal with her and with her father in all honour, and, supposing even that the Earl was endeavouring to play him false, to try whether straightforward and upright honesty, guided by a clear head, a firm heart, and a well prepared mind, might not win the game against subtilty and worldly cunning.
The Earl marked him as he mused for a minute, but saying nothing more upon the subject of his hopes, still pressed him to speak of the events of the preceding day. It was somewhat difficult for Wilton so to shape his words as not to mention Lord Sherbrooke, and not to involve himself in any such distinct account of the Jacobites and their proceedings as might lead to their arrest, and force him at some future period to become a witness against them. He succeeded tolerably well, however. He could not, and indeed he did not, think it right to conceal, that he was perfectly certain the men he met with were engaged in the most dark and dangerous designs. But he stated, at the same time, that such was merely the impression upon his mind, for that no distinct avowal of their purposes had been made in his presence, so as to justify him in charging them with treason.
"Nevertheless, my lord," he added, "I think it highly and absolutely necessary for you to take the same measures as if you knew that a general insurrection was contemplated, for I feel perfectly certain that something of the kind is in agitation."
The Earl smiled. "Now tell me, Wilton," he said, "amongst these worthy conspirators, did you see any one that was personally known to you?"
"Come, come, my young friend," said the Earl—"you must speak out. We will not make an evidence of you, I promise you; and, indeed, both the King himself and all his ministers would be very glad that these persons should get beyond sea, and relieve us of their troublesome presence, provided—mark me—provided, there does not exist the clearest and most distinct proof, not alone that they are conspiring to overthrow the present dynasty—for such conspiracies have been going on in every corner of the kingdom, and in the heart of every family, for the last ten years, so that we should only make them worse by meddling with them—but that these men are conspiring in a darker, a more dangerous, a more treasonable, or a more dishonourable manner, than has ever been clone before. I must explain this business to you, Wilton, and my views upon it. Politicians have adopted as a maxim that a plot discovered and frustrated always strengthens the hands of the existing government; but this maxim is far too general, and consequently often proves false and dangerous in application. The conditions under which the discovery and frustration of a plot do really strengthen the hands of government are peculiar. There must be circumstances attending upon the whole transaction which, when the plot is exposed, either destroy the means of future conspiracies formed upon the same basis, remove for ever the objects of the conspirators, or cause a great change in public feeling, in regard to their views and motives. If the discovery be so general, the frustration so complete, and the punishment so severe, as to raise the power and authority of the government in the eyes of the people, to awaken a wholesome fear in the disaffected, and to encourage and elevate the well disposed and the friends of the state, a very great object is certainly gained; and that which was intended to ruin a government or overthrow a dynasty, serves but to root it more firmly than before. There is another case, also, which is very applicable at the present moment. If there be something in the nature and designs of the conspiracy, so odious in its means, its character, and its objects, as to enlist against the conspirators sensations of horror, indignation, and contempt, one gains from public feeling very much more by its discovery and exposure, than even by the power of fear over the disaffected, and the elevation of triumph on the part of the well disposed. But in other circumstances, either when partial discoveries are made, when the success is not of the most absolute, general, and distinct kind, when the objects of the conspirators excite many sympathies, the errors they commit admit of easy palliation, the means they employ are noble, generous, and chivalrous, and the fate they undergo is likely to produce commiseration, the detection and crushing of them only tends to multiply and strengthen similar endeavours. With such conspiracies as these, no wise minister will ever meddle, if he can help it; the more quiet the means he can adopt to frustrate them, the better; the less he exposes them and brings them into light, the greater will be his success; for they are like the Lernwan serpent, whose heads multiplied as they were smitten off; and it is far more easy to smother them privately than to smite them in public. This is the view I myself take of the matter; this is the view the King takes of it; and you may have remarked that there has been no attempt made for many years to investigate or punish plots here and there, although we have bad the proofs that hundreds existed every year. In this instance, however, the matter is different. There is reason to believe that the present conspiracy is one of such a dark and horrible nature, as instantly to excite the indignation of the whole people, to make all the better part of the Jacobites ashamed of the deeds of their friends, and to rouse up universal feelings of loyalty throughout the land. The fact is, the thing is already discovered. Information has long been tendered to the government by various persons implicated: but acting upon the plan which we have generally pursued, such advances have been met coldly, till last night more distinct, and definite information was given by some one, who, instead of being actuated by motives of gain, or of fear, as we suspected in all other cases, came forward, it seems, from personal feelings of gratitude towards the King himself. His majesty promised this person not to bring him forward in the business at all, and has refused to give up his name, even to me. But his conviction of the truth of all that was told was so strong, that the previous informer was sent for last night at one o'clock to the palace at Kensington, to which place I also had been summoned. The whole facts, the names, the designs of everybody concerned, were then completely discovered, and I have been busying myself ever since I rose, in adopting the proper measures for arresting and punishing the persons directly implicated. Having explained to you these views, I must now put my question again. Did you see any one amongst these conspirators with whose person you were acquainted? I only ask for my own satisfaction, and on every account shall abstain from bringing your name forward, in the slightest degree."
"There was only one person, my lord," replied Wilton, who had listened with deep interest to this long detail; "there was only one person, my lord, that I had ever knowingly seen before, and that was Sir John Fenwick."
"I signed a warrant for his arrest half an hour ago," rejoined the Earl, "and there are two Messengers seeking him at this moment. I think you said you saw Sir George Barkley?"
"I cannot absolutely say that, my lord," replied Wilton; "but I certainly saw a gentleman whom I believed, and most firmly do still believe, to be him: he was a tall, thin, sinister-looking man, of a somewhat saturnine complexion, with a deep scar on his cheek."
"The same, the same," said the Earl, "undoubtedly the same. Listen, if you know any of these names;" and he read from a list—"Sir William Parkyns, Captain Rookwood, Captain Lowick, Sir John Friend, Charnock, Cranburne, the Earl of Aylesbury—"
"The Earl certainly was not there, my lord," replied Wilton; "for I know him well by sight, and I saw no one, I can assure you, whom I knew, but Sir John Fenwick."
"And this Plessis, at whose house you saw them," continued the Earl—"did he seem to be taking a share in the business with them? He is an old friend of mine, this Master Plessis; and obtains for me some of the best information that I ever get from abroad. I do not know what I should do without Plessis. He is the most useful man in the world. We must let him off, at all events; but it will be no bad thing to have a rope round his neck, either."
"I cannot say, my lord," replied Wilton, "that he took any part whatsoever in the business. In the matter of setting free Lady Laura, he showed himself more afraid of these good gentry than fond of them, and after their arrival, he ran away and hid himself."
"And yet," said the Earl, "he's a rank Jacobite, too. But that does not signify. He's an excellent creature, and the greatest rogue in Christendom. All this chocolate comes from him; there's nothing like it in Europe. Won't you take some, Wilton? I forgot to ask if you had broken your fast."—Wilton replied that he had not, and the Earl made him sit down and follow his example, of writing letters and taking his chocolate at the same time. One of the notes, however, which the Earl himself wrote, attracted his secretary's attention in some degree; for as soon as Lord Byerdale had concluded it, he rang the bell and gave it to a servant, saying, "Take that to Captain Churchill's lodgings. You know where he lives, just in Duke Street. Wait for an answer."
The man went away, and business proceeded. At the end of about an hour, however, the servant returned, saying, as an excuse for his long absence, that Captain Churchill was in bed when he reached his house, and that his valet had refused to wake him.
"When he did wake, however, my lord," added the man, "he said he would not detain me to write a note, as I had been kept so long already; but would wait upon your lordship at the hour you named."
Shortly after the return of the servant, the Earl took up his papers, and prepared to proceed to Whitehall. Before he went, however, he paused opposite to the table at which Wilton was writing, and looking at him for a moment with a smile, he said,—
"You are surprised, Wilton, and have been puzzling yourself with the reason why I take so much more interest in you than I used to do. I will explain it all to you, Wilton, in one word. I did not at first know who you were. I now do, as I have before hinted; and my conduct to one whom I believed to be a natural son of the Earl of Sunbury, and who was forced upon me somewhat against my own will, was of course very different from that which I show towards a young gentleman of a high and noble family, not very distantly related to myself.—Now are you satisfied?"
And with these words he left the room. Yet, strange to say, Wilton, though not a little surprised at what he heard, knew the Earl of Byerdale, and was NOT satisfied. But at all events, the words which had passed set his mind at ease, in regard to Laura. He now felt that he was committing no breach of confidence; that he was pursuing no presumptuous suit, in seeking the object of his dearest and his brightest hopes; that though fortune might still be adverse, and such wealth might never be his, as to place him in a position equal, in that respect, to herself, yet he had every right and title to strive for her hand with the noblest of the land.
Wilton did not, indeed, entertain the vain thought that he brought with him a treasury of distinguished talents, high and noble feelings, a generous spirit, and a gallant heart—qualities which many a competitor, if not most, would want:—he did not, indeed, so argue the matter with himself; but there was in his bosom the proud consciousness of deserving well, and the still more strengthening and emboldening confidence, of loving well, truly, nobly, as Laura deserved to be loved.
Still, however, he was not satisfied with the sudden change in the Earl of Byerdale: there was something in it that roused suspicion; and he resolved to watch all that noble man's proceedings steadily and keenly, and if possible never to be off his guard for a moment.
Before the time appointed for the return of Arden, the Messenger, the Earl himself came home, bearing a smile of dark satisfaction on his countenance.
"Four or five of these gentry," he said, as he entered, "are already in custody, and one or two have been brought before the council. A man of the name of Cook, and another, seem well inclined to become approvers. If so, the matter will be easily managed. I find the rumour is spreading all over the town, with various additions and improvements, of course. I even hear that there were reports of it all yesterday, though neither the King, nor I, nor any one else, knew aught of the matter then."
"Are any of the principals caught, my lord?" demanded Wilton. "I confess, I believe that man, Sir John Fenwick, to be as great a villain as any upon earth; nor do I look upon him as a man of much courage either."
"He is not caught," replied the Earl; "but we have got one poor foolish fellow, called Sir John Friend, who has shown himself a friend to anybody but himself;" and he laughed at his own joke. "I rather suspect," he continued, "that there are a good many people not a little anxious for Fenwick's escape. With the exception of Sir George Barkley, he is undoubtedly the man of most importance amongst them. He is nearly connected, you know, with all the Howards, and was very intimate with your good friend the Duke. He is well acquainted with Lord Aylesbury, too; and I can tell you there are a good many suspicions in that quarter. There is another noble lord, Lord Montgomery, implicated; and all these good folks are suspected," and he proceeded to read a list of some twenty or thirty names. "But there is no intention of dealing harshly," he added; "and a distinction will be made between the more culpable and the less. Pray has Captain Churchill been here?"
"Not yet that I have heard of, my lord," replied Wilton; "but I fairly tell your lordship that I do not think he was the man I saw, though that was the name given."
The Earl rang the bell which stood upon the table, and when a servant appeared, demanded if Captain Churchill had been there.
The servant replied in the negative, but added that Mr. Arden was waiting. The Earl ordered him to be sent in; and the Messenger accordingly entered, bearing on his face an air of triumph and insolence which provoked Wilton's anger a good deal.
"Well, my lord," he said, not waiting for the Earl of Byerdale to speak—"I have got proof positive now, for I have been at Captain Churchill's lodgings, pumping his servants, and they tell me that he was very ill all yesterday, as, indeed, I knew he was, and in bed the greater part of the day."
"Indeed!" said the Earl. "This is strange enough! But as you say, Wilton, that you do not think it was really Captain Churchill, the name might be given merely as a nom de guerre, and the person giving it might be a very honest man, too."
Before he could conclude, one of the servants announced that Captain Churchill waited without; and in a moment after he was admitted, presenting to Wilton's eyes a person not very unlike in size and form the Duke of Berwick, and somewhat resembling him in countenance, but several years older, and somewhat darker in complexion.
He entered with a gay and smiling air, and with a grace of carriage and demeanour which was common to himself and his brother, afterwards the famous Duke of Marlborough.
"Why, my lord," he said, advancing towards Lord Byerdale, and shaking him by the hand, "I am almost alarmed at your unexpected summons, especially after all the terrible doings which I hear have taken place. Why, they tell me that the gates of Newgate have never ceased turning upon their hinges all the morning, and that the Tower itself is full."
"Not quite so bad as that," replied the Earl: "but I am sure, my dear Captain, you have nothing to fear in such a matter."
"Not that I know of," answered Churchill, "and I would have come at once when you wrote; but, to say the truth, I was up late last night, and slept till nearly noon this morning.—But, bless my soul!" he continued, turning towards Wilton—to that gentleman's utter surprise and astonishment "is not this my good friend, Mr. Wilton Brown, your lordship's secretary?" and advancing a step or two, he shook Wilton heartily by the hand.
"How is the young lady?" he continued. "I hope you got quite safe to London with your fair charge?"
The countenance of Arden, the Messenger, presented a ludicrous picture of disappointment and consternation. Wilton was certainly even more surprised than himself; but he did not suffer his face to betray any expression of wonder, though, it must be owned, he felt a strong inclination to laugh. He replied, however, calmly to Churchill's question,—
"I thank you very much, sir: she got quite safe to London. At an early hour this morning I left her with her father."
"Then, Captain Churchill," said the Earl, "you are neither more nor less than the person who rendered my young friend Wilton, here, such very good assistance last night."
Churchill made a low and complimentary bow, replying, "Oh, my lord, you are too good! The assistance that I rendered him was little enough, I can assure you. His own gallantry and good conduct did much more than I could possibly do.—But I hope and trust my good friend, Arden, the Messenger, there, is not waiting for me; for I can assure your lordship that, though I was upon a little frolic last night, which I might not very well like to have inquired into, it was certainly nothing of a Jacobitical nature, as you may well suppose, and as my good friend, Mr. Brown, here, can testify."
"I do not in the slightest degree suspect you, Churchill," replied the Earl. "The only point was to ascertain whether it was you or Sir George Barkley who was with my friend Wilton, here, last night; Arden, the Messenger, who has behaved very ill throughout the whole business, positively swearing, this morning, that Wilton was accompanied along part of the road by Sir George Barkley, the well-known traitor, and that he, Wilton, my private secretary, connived at and aided his escape."
"I can assure your lordship," replied Churchill, in a perfectly grave tone, "on my honour as a gentleman, I have the most perfect certainty, and could prove, if necessary, that the charge is entirely and totally false; that Sir George Barkley did not accompany your young friend for a single step, and that he was only accompanied by a fair lady with very bright eyes, by another gentleman whom I understand to be a certain Captain Byerly—a very respectable man, only that he rides a little hard upon the King's Highway—and by a person, of perhaps less importance and repute, named Captain Churchill."
"That is quite satisfactory, my dear sir," replied the Earl. "You hear, Mr. Arden. Be so good as to quit the room, and to remember, that from this moment you are no longer a Messenger of State."
Wilton could almost have found it in his heart to interpose, knowing all that he did know; but when he recollected the whole course of the man's bad conduct, he felt that the retribution which had fallen upon him was but just, and he left the matter to take its course. Churchill then conversed for a few minutes with the Earl, in an under tone; and as the business of the day seemed over, Wilton prepared to take his departure.
"Wait one moment, Mr. Brown," said Churchill, "and if you are going my way, I will accompany you."
"You will not fail, my dear Wilton, I trust," said the Earl, "to visit the young lady, and inquire after her health. Pray present my most devoted homage to her, and assure her that I have been most uneasy at her situation, and grieved for all that she must have undergone. I shall certainly wait upon her to-morrow. In the meantime," he added, in a lower tone, "do not entertain any apprehensions in regard to your situation. Go boldly forward, make sure of her heart, and all the rest will be rendered much more easy than you imagine. Nothing that I can do for you shall be wanting; and you have only to let me know when you have any engagement at Beaufort House, and I will find means to do without your attendance here.—I beg your pardon, Captain Churchill; I only wished to give this young gentleman a word of good advice before he left me."
"And I only waited till he was ready, my lord," replied Churchill, "to take my leave of your lordship, wishing you full success in dealing with the nest of vagabonds you have got hold of."
Thus saying, he took his leave, and quitting the house together with Wilton, put his arm through his, and walked on as familiarly as if they had been old acquaintances.
It may be made a question of very great doubt, whether the faculty—and it is indisputably a faculty of the mind in its first freshness—the faculty of wondering at anything extraordinary, or out of the common course of our knowledge, is or is not productive of advantage as well as pleasure to us. But there can be no question whatsoever, that very great advantages are attached to the power of concealing our wonder. Nothing, indeed, should surprise us in life, for we are surrounded by daily miracles; nothing should surprise, because the combination of means in the hand of Almighty Power must be infinite; and to permit our wonder to appear at anything, is but to confess ourselves inexperienced, or unobserving, or thoughtless; and yet with all that, it is a very pleasant sensation.
Wilton Brown, from his commerce with the world, and especially from the somewhat bard lessons which he had received in the house of the Earl of Byerdale, had been taught, in communicating with persons unknown and indifferent to him, to put a strong restraint upon the expression of his feelings. On the present occasion, not having the slightest knowledge or conception of Captain Churchill's character, he walked on beside him, as their way seemed to lie together, without the slightest inquiry or expression of surprise in regard to what had taken place; and Captain Churchill was almost inclined to believe that his young companion was dull, apathetic, and insensible, although he had good reason to know the contrary. The silence, however, did somewhat annoy him; for he was not without a certain share of good-humoured vanity; and he thought, and thought justly, that he had acted his part to admiration. He resolved, therefore, to say nothing upon the subject either, as far as he could avoid it; and thus, strange to say, after the extraordinary scene which had taken place, the two people who had borne a part therein had got as far as the door of Captain Churchill's house in Duke-street, without interchanging a word upon the subject. There, however, Wilton was about to take his leave; but Churchill stopped him, saying,—
"Do me the favour of coming in for a moment or two, Mr. Brown. I have something which I wish to give you."
Wilton followed him up stairs, with merely some reply in the common course of civility; and Churchill, opening a cabinet in the drawing-room, took out a handsome diamond ring, saying, "I have received a commission this morning from a near relation of mine, who considers that he owes his life to you, to beg your acceptance of this little token, to remember him by when you look upon it. He sent it to me by a messenger at the moment that he was embarking for France, together with a letter of instructions as to how he wished me to act in case of there being any question regarding the transactions of last night."
"I saw," replied Wilton, "that you must have got information some way; but in whatever way you did get that information, you certainly played your part as admirably as it was possible to conceive. I fear I did not play mine quite so well, for I was taken by surprise."
"Oh, quite well enough, quite well enough," replied Captain Churchill. "To say the truth, my task was somewhat of a delicate one, for in these days one might easily involve one's self in imputations difficult to be got rid of again. My family have chosen our parts so strongly and decidedly, that my young relation did not venture to see me when he was in London; not, indeed, from any fear of my betraying him, for that, of course, was out of the question,—but rather from the apprehension of committing me. He trusted me with this other matter, however, probably not knowing, first, that I was ill, and had been in bed all yesterday, and, next, that this diabolical plot for assassinating the King and admitting the enemy into the heart of the land has been discovered. The letter came about an hour after Lord Byerdale's, and just in time to save me from denying that I was out of my own house all yesterday. But you do not take the ring, Mr. Brown: pray accept it as a mere token of gratitude and esteem on the part of the Duke. His esteem, I can assure you, is worth having."
"I doubt it not in the least, my dear sir," replied Wilton; "but yet I must beg to decline his gift: in the first place, because I am entitled to no gratitude; and in the next, because the Duke must be considered as an enemy of the government I serve. He certainly saved my life; for I do not suppose the man who was in the act of firing at me would have missed his mark, if his hand had not been knocked up. After that I could not, of course, suffer the Duke to be arrested by my side, if I could help it, and therefore I did what I could to assist him, but that was little."
Churchill endeavoured, by various arguments, to persuade his young companion to receive the ring; but Wilton would not suffer himself to be moved upon the subject; and had, at all events, the satisfaction of hearing Churchill himself acknowledge, as he was taking his leave, "Well, after all, I believe you are right."
Their conference was not very long; for it may be easily imagined, that one of the party, at least, was anxious to proceed on his way in another direction; and leaving Captain Churchill as soon as he decently could, Wilton returned to his house, changed his dress, and entered one of those vehicles called hackney coaches, which, in the days of King William III, were as rumbling and crazy, and even more slow, than at present.
Before he reached Beaufort House, Wilton's patience was well nigh exhausted; but if we may tell the truth, there was one as impatient. as himself. When they had arrived that morning at Beaufort House, Laura's thoughts had been divided. Her anxiety to see her father, to tell him she was safe, to give joy to the heart of one she loved with the fullest feelings of filial affection, had a strong share in all her sensations; but that was over, and her mind turned to Wilton again. In telling her father all that had occurred, in recounting everything that Wilton had done, in hearing from the Duke himself all her lover's exertions and anxiety, till he obtained some clue to the place where she was detained, vivid images were continually brought up before her mind of things that were most sweet to contemplate. When she retired to her own chamber, although she strove, at her father's request, to obtain sleep, those sweet but agitating images followed her still, and every word, and tone, and look of him she loved, returned to her memory, and banished slumber altogether from her pillow.
On whatever part of his conduct memory rested, to the eyes of affection it seemed all that could be desired. If she thought of him standing boldly in the presence of superior numbers—calm, cool, unintimidated, decided; or if she recalled his conduct to the Duke of Berwick, generously risking all rather than not repay that nobleman's gallant interposition in his favour by similar efforts in his behalf; or if she recollected his behaviour to herself; when alone under his care and guidance, the tenderness, the gentleness, the delicate forbearance, the consideration for all her feelings, and for every difficult point of her situation which he had displayed—each part of his behaviour seemed to her partial eyes all that she could have dreamed of excellent and good, and each part stood out in bright apposition with the other; the gentle kindness contrasting strongly with the firm and courageous determination; the generous and unhesitating protection of an upright and gallant enemy, seeming but the more bright from his calm and prudent bearing towards a body of low-minded and ill-designing traitors.
Thus, during the time that she remained alone, her thoughts were all of him, and those thoughts were all sweet. Gratitude, it is true, might derive a great portion of its brightness from love: but Laura fancied that she had not said half enough in return for all that he had done in her behalf: she fancied that she had scarcely spoken her thanks sufficiently warmly, and she longed to see him again, to talk over all that had taken place, to assure him of her deep, deep gratitude, and, perhaps—though she did not acknowledge that purpose to her own heart—to assure him also still more fully of her unchanging affection. Laura had never felt, even in the least degree, what love is before. She was not one of the many who trifle away their heart's brightest affections piece by piece. She had given her love all at once, and the sensation was the more overpowering.
At length, then, as the hour approached when she supposed he might be likely to return, she rose and dressed herself, and perhaps that day she thought more of her beauty than she had ever done before in life; but it was not with any vain pleasure; for she thought of it only inasmuch as it might please another whom she loved. We can all surely remember how, when in the days of our childhood we have had some present to give to a dear friend, we have looked at it and considered it, and fancied it even more valuable and delightful than it really was, with the bright hope of its appearing so to the person for whom it was destined. Thus with her toilet, Laura let her maid take as much pains as she would; and when she saw in the glass as lovely a face and form as that instrument of vanity ever reflected, and could not help acknowledging that it was so, she smiled with a pleasure that she had never felt before, to think that beauty also was a part of the dowry of bright things which she was to bring to him she loved.
Though the maid was somewhat longer with her mistress's toilet than usual, delaying it for a little, perhaps, with a view of obtaining farther information than Lady Laura was inclined to give her, upon all the events of the two or three days preceding, yet Laura was down in the saloon some time before the dinner-hour, and she looked not a little anxiously for the coming of Wilton. She was not inclined to chide him for delay, for she knew that it would be no fault of his if he were not there early. The Duke, not knowing that she had risen, had gone out; but he, too, had left her heart happy in the morning when they parted, by answering her, when she told him of the invitation she had given, with such encomiums of her deliverer, of his manner, of his character, of his person, and of his mind, that Laura was almost tempted into hopes more bright than the reality.
Notwithstanding all delays Wilton did at length arrive, and that, too, before the Duke returned, so that Laura had time to tell him how happy her father's praises of him had made her, and to insinuate hopes, though she did not venture absolutely to express them. Her words, and her manner, and her look, in consequence of all that had been passing in her mind during the morning, were more warm, more tender than they had even been before; and who could blame Wilton, or say that he presumed, if he, too, gave way somewhat more to the warm and passionate love of his own heart, than he had dared to venture during their preceding intercourse?
Laura did not blame him. She blushed, indeed, as he pressed her to his heart, though he was the man whom she loved best on earth; but yet, though she blushed, she felt no wrong: she felt, on the contrary, the same pure and endearing affection towards him that he felt for her, and knew that gentle pressure to be but an expression, on his part, of the same high, holy, and noble love with which she could have clung to his bosom in any moment of danger, difficulty or distress.
At length the Duke made his appearance; and eagerly grasped Wilton's hand in both his own, thanking him a thousand and a thousand times for restoring to him his beloved child, and telling him that no words or deeds could ever express his gratitude. Indeed, so much more eager, so much more demonstrative, was his whole demeanour, than that of his daughter, that he blamed Laura for coldness in expressing what she felt only too warmly for words; and until dinner was announced, he continued talking over all that had occurred, and inquiring again and again into each particular.
As they went into the dining-room, however, he made a sign to his daughter, whom he had cautioned before, and whispered to Wilton, "Of course, we must not talk of these things before the servants."
All that had passed placed Wilton now in a far different situation with the Duke and his daughter from that in which he had ever stood before. His mind was perfectly at ease with them, and the relief had its natural effect on his conversation: all the treasures of his mind, all the high feelings of his heart, he knew might be displayed fearlessly. He did not, indeed, seek to bring those treasured feelings forward; he did not strive to shine, as it is called, for that striving must in itself always give a want of ease. But poor, indeed, must be the mind, dull and slow the imagination, which, out of the ordinary things of life—ay! even out of the every-day conversation of beings inferior to itself—does not naturally and easily derive immense, unfathomable currents of thought, combinations of fancy, of feeling, and of reflection, which only want the licence of the will to flow on and sparkle as they go. It is, that the Will refuses that licence when we are with those that we despise or dislike: it is, that we voluntarily shut the flood-gates, and will not allow the streams to rush forth. But with Wilton it was very, very different now: he was in the presence of one whose eye was sunshine to him, whose mind was of an equal tone with his own; and there was besides in his bosom that strong passion in its strongest form which gives to everything it mingles with its own depth, and intensity, and power—which, like a mountain torrent, suddenly poured into the bed of some summer rivulet, changes it at once in force, in speed, in depth—that passion which has made dumb men eloquent, and cowards brave.
Thus, though the conversation began with ordinary subjects, touched but upon matters of taste and amusement, and approached deeper feelings only as a deviation from its regular course, yet at every turn it took, Wilton's mind displayed its richness and its power; till the Duke, who had considerable taste and natural feeling, as well as high cultivation of mind, looked with surprise and admiration towards his daughter; and every now and then Laura herself, almost breathless with mingled feelings of pleasure, pride, and affection, turned her eyes upon her father, and marked his sensations with a happy smile.
And yet it was all so natural, so easy, so unaffected, that one felt there was neither effort nor presumption. There was nothing of what the vulgar mass of common society call eloquence about it; but there was the true eloquence, which by a single touch wakes the sound that we desire to produce in the heart of another: which by one bright instantaneous flash lights up, to the perception of every one around, each point that we wish them to behold. Eloquence consists not in many words, but in few words: the thoughts, the associations, the images, may be many, but the acme of eloquence is in the rapidity of their expression.
Wilton, then, did not in any degree presume. He discoursed upon nothing; he did not even attempt to lead. The Duke led the conversation, and he followed: but it was like that famous entry of the Roman emperor, where an eagle was seen hovering round and round his head: the royal bird followed, indeed, the monarch; but in his flight took ten times a wider scope: the people hailed with loud gratulations the approach of Caesar, but in the attendant bird they recognised Jove. The Duke, however, who had taste, as we have said, and feeling, and who, in regard to conversational powers, was not a vain roan, was delighted with his guest, and laid himself out to lead Wilton on towards subjects on which he thought he would shine: but there was one very extraordinary thing in the history of that afternoon. There was not a servant in the hall—no, neither the laced and ribanded lackey lately hired in London, the old blue bottles from the country mansion, the stately butler and his understrapper of the cellaret, nor the Duke's own French gentleman, who stood very close to his master's elbow during the whole of dinner time—there was not one that did not clearly and perfectly perceive that their young lady was in love with her hand some deliverer, and did not comment upon it in their several spheres, when they quitted the room. Every one felt positive that the matter was all arranged, and the wedding was soon to take place; and, to say the truth, so much had Wilton in general won upon their esteem by one means or another, that the only objection urged against him, in the various councils which were held upon the subject, was, that his name was Brown, that he had not a vis-a-vis, and that he kept only two horses.
The two or three last sentences, it must be owned, are lamentable digressions; for we have not yet stated what the extraordinary thing was. It was not in the least degree extraordinary that the servants should all find out the secret of Laura's heart; for her eyes told it every time that she looked at Wilton; but it is very extraordinary, indeed, that her father should never find it out, when every one else that was present did. Is it that there is a magic haze which surrounds love, that can never be penetrated by the eyes of parents or guardians, till some particular allotted moment is arrived? I cannot tell; so, however, has it always proved, and so in all probability it ever will.
Such was the case with the Duke at the present moment. Although there was every opportunity for his daughter and Wilton falling in love with each other; although there was every reasonable cause thereunto them moving—youth, and beauty, and warm hearts, and gratitude, and interesting situations: although there was every probability that time, place, and circumstance could afford; although there was every indication, sign, symptom, and appearance, that it was absolutely the case at that very moment, yet the Duke saw nothing of it, did not believe it existed, did not imagine that it was likely ever to exist, and was quite prepared to be astonished, surprised, and mortified, at whatever period the fact, by the will of fate, should be forced upon his understanding.
Such was the state of all parties at the time when Laura rose from the table, and left her father and Wilton alone. Now the bad custom of men sitting together and drinking immense and detrimental quantities of various kinds of wine, was at that time at its very acme; so much so, indeed, that there is more than one recorded instance, in the years 1695 and 1696, of gentlemen—yes, reader; actually gentlemen, that is to say, persons who had had every advantage of birth, for time, and education—killing themselves with intoxication, exactly in the manner which a noble but most unhappy bard of our own days has described, in—
—"the Irish peer Who kill'd himself for love, with wine, last year."
On this subject, however, we shall not dwell, as we may be fated, perhaps, in the very beginning of the next chapter, to touch upon some of the other peculiar habits of those days.
Now neither Wilton nor the Duke were at all addicted to the vice we have mentioned; and Wilton had certainly much stronger attractions in another room of that house than any that the Duke's cellar could afford him. The Duke, too, had small inclination usually to sit long at table; but on the pre sent occasion he had an object in detaining his young friend in the dining-room after Lady Laura had departed. Wilton's eyes saw him turn towards him several times, while the servants were busy about the table, and had, indeed, even during dinner, remarked a certain sort of restlessness, which he attributed, and rightly, to an anxiety regarding the plots of the Jacobites, in which the peer had so nearly involved himself.
At length, when the room was cleared and the door closed, the Duke drew round his chair towards the fire, begging his young friend to do the same, and mingling the matter of alarm even with his invitation to the first glass of wine, "My dear Wilton," he said—"you must permit me to call you so, for I can now look upon you as little less than a son—I wish you to give me a fuller account of all this business than poor Laura can, for there is news current about the town to-day which somewhat alarms me, though I do not think there is any need of alarm either. But surely, Wilton, they could not bring me in as at all accessory to a plot which I would have nothing to do with."
"Oh no, my lord, I should think not," replied Wilton, without much consideration. "I know it is the wish of the government only to punish the chief offenders."
"Then you think it is really all discovered, as they say?" demanded the Duke.
"I know it is," replied Wilton. "Several of the conspirators are already in custody, and warrants are issued, I understand, against the rest. As far as I can judge, two or three will turn King's evidence, and the rest will be executed."
"Good God!" exclaimed the Duke. "I heard something of the business when I was out, but scarcely gave it credit. It seemed so suddenly discovered."
"I believe the government have had the clue in their hands for some time," replied Wilton, "but have only availed themselves of it lately."
"Have you heard any one named, Wilton?" demanded the Duke again; "any of those who are taken, or any of those who are suspected?"
"Sir John Friend has been arrested this morning," replied Wilton; "a person named Cranburne, and another called Rookwood. I heard the names of those who are suspected also read over."
"Then I adjure you, my dear young friend," cried the Duke, starting up, and grasping his hand in great agitation—"I adjure you, by all the regard that exists between us, and all that you have done for me and my poor child, to tell me if my name was amongst the rest."
"No, it certainly was not," replied Wilton; and as he spoke, the Duke suffered himself to sink back into his chair again, with a long and relieved sigh.
The moment Wilton had uttered his reply, however, he recollected that there was one name in the list at which Lord Byerdale had hesitated; and he then feared that he might be leading the Duke into error. Knowing, however, that Laura's father had been but at one of the meetings of the conspirators, and being perfectly sure, that, startled and dismayed by what he had heard of their plans, he had instantly withdrawn from all association with them, he did not doubt that no serious danger could exist in his case, and therefore thought it unnecessary to agitate his mind, by suggesting the doubt which had suddenly come into his own.
He knew, indeed, that any alarm which the Duke might feel, would but make Laura's father lean more entirely day by day upon him, who, with the exception of the conspirators themselves, was the only person who possessed the dangerous secret which caused him so much agitation. But Wilton was not a man to consider his own interests in any such matter, and he determined, after a moment's consideration, to say nothing of the doubts which had just arisen. A pause had ensued, however, for the Duke, busied with his own feelings, had suffered his thoughts to run back into the past; and, as is the case with every human being whose mind dwells upon the acts that are irrevocable, he found matter for sorrow and regret. After about five minutes' silence, during which they both continued to gaze thoughtfully into the fire, the Duke returned to the matter before them by saying—
"I wish to heavens, my dear young friend, I had taken your advice, and not gone to this meeting at all; or that you had given me a fuller intimation of what was intended."
"I could not, indeed, my lord," replied Wilton, "for I had no fuller knowledge myself; I only conveyed to you a message I had received."
The Duke shook his head doubtingly. "Oh! Wilton, Wilton!" he said, "you are training for a statesman! You have much better information of all these things than you will suffer to appear. Did you not warn me of this before any one else knew anything of it? Did you not in a very short time find out where Laura was when nobody else could?"
It was in vain that Wilton denied any superior knowledge. The Duke had so completely made up his mind that his young friend had been in possession of all the secret information obtained by the ministers, and, indeed, of more and earlier information than they had possessed, that nothing would remove the impression from his mind; and when he at length rose, finding that Wilton would drink no more wine, he said—
"Well, Wilton, remember, I depend entirely upon you, with the fullest and most implicit confidence. No one possesses my secret but you, and one or two of these men, who will have enough to do in thinking of themselves without implicating others, I trust. Most of those who were present—for the meeting was very large—did not know who I was, and the rest who did know, must know also very well, that I strenuously objected to their whole proceedings, and quitted them as soon as I discovered what were their real objects. A word said upon the subject, however, might ruin me; for rank and fortune in this world, Wilton, though they bear their own inconveniences with them, are always objects of envy to those who do not possess them; and malice as surely treads upon the steps of envy as night follows day. I trust to you, as I have said, entirely, and I trust to you even with the more confidence, because I find that you have been wise and prudent enough not even to communicate to Laura the fact of my having attended any of these meetings at all. While all this is taking place, however, my dear Wilton—as of course the matter will be a very agitating one to me, when the trials come on (for fear any of the traitors should name me)—let me see you frequently, constantly, every day, if you can, and bring me what tidings you can gain of all that passes."
Wilton easily promised to do that which the Duke desired, in this respect at least, and they then joined her he loved, with whom he passed one of those calm, sweet evenings, the tranquil happiness of which admits of no description.
Amongst all the curious changes that have taken place in the world—by which expression I mean, upon the world, for the great round ball on which we roll through space is the only part of the whole that remains but little altered—amongst all the changes, then, which have taken place in the world, moral, political, and social, there has been none more extraordinary, perhaps, than the rise, progress, extension, and dominion of that strong power called Decorum. I have heard it asserted by a very clever man, that there was nothing of the kind known in England before the commencement of the reign of George III., and that decorum was, in fact, a mere decent cloak to cover the nakedness of vice. I think he was mistaken: the word was known long before; and there has been at all times a feeling of decorum in the English nation, which has shown itself in gradually rooting out from the ordinary commerce of society everything that is coarse in expression, or doubtful in conduct. The natural tendency of this is to mark more strongly the limits of the realms of vice and virtue; and vice, as a matter of course, in order to obviate the detrimental effect which such a clear definition of her boundaries must produce, loses no opportunity of travelling over into the marches or debateable land which is left under the warden ship of decorum.
The name was not, perhaps, applied as now it is, in former years, but still the spirit existed, as may be seen by any one who takes up and reads the works of one of our purest but coldest of writers, Addison, who, about the time of the peace, which took place in the beginning of the eighteenth century, laments the loss of much of the delicacy (or, in other terns, decorum) of English society which was likely to ensue from a free intercourse with France. It must, indeed, be admitted that at that period the reign of decorum had not made nearly so great a progress as it has at present. It was then a constitutional monarchy, where it is now a despotism, but was probably not a bit less powerful from being decidedly more free. People in those days did certainly speak of things that we now speak not of at all. They called things by their plain straightforward names, for which we have since invented terms perhaps less definite and not more decent. But people of refined minds and tastes were refined then as now, and loved and cultivated all those amenities, graces, and proprieties, which form not alone the greatest safeguards, but also the greatest charms of human existence. Perhaps the difference was more in the thoughts than in the expressions, and that the refined of those days bound themselves to think more purely in the first place, so that there was less need of guarding their words so strictly.
We shall not pause to investigate whether it was that greater purity of thought, or any other cause, which produced a far more extensive liberty of action, especially in the female part of society, than that which is admitted at present. It is certain, however, that it was so, and that there was something in virtue and innocence which in those days was a very strong safeguard against the attacks of scandal, calumny, and malice. In the present day, even the servants of virtue are found to be the absolute slaves of decorum; but in those days, so long as they obeyed the high commands of their rightful mistress, they had but little occasion to apprehend that the scourge of calumny, or the fear thereof, would drive them continually back into one narrow and beaten path.
It is, indeed, the greatest satire upon human nature which the world has ever produced, that acts perfectly innocent, high, and pure as God's holy light, cannot be permitted to persons even of tried virtue, simply because they would afford the opportunity of doing ill. It is, in fact, to say, that no one is to be trusted; that there is nothing which keeps man or woman virtuous but want of opportunity. It is a terrible satire; it is more than a satire; it is a foul libel, aimed by the vicious against those who are better than themselves.
Such things did not exist in the days whereof I write, or existed in a very, very small degree. It is true, from time to time, a woman's reputation might suffer falsely; but it was in general from her having approached very near the confines of evil, and the punishment that ensued, though perhaps even then disproportioned to the fault, had no tendency whatever to diminish the innocent liberty of others. We find from all the writers who painted the manners of those days—Addison, Swift, Steele, and others—that a lady, especially an unmarried lady, feared no risk to her reputation in going hither or thither, either perfectly alone, or with any friend with whom she was known to be intimate. She might venture upon an excursion into the country, a party of pleasure, nay, a journey itself in many instances, with any gentleman of honour and reputation, without either friends or enemies casting an imputation upon her character, or the world immediately giving her over to him in marriage.
It was left indeed to her own judgment whom she would choose for her companion, and the most innocent girl might have gone anywhere unreproved with a man of known honour and virtue, who would have ruined her own character had she placed herself in the power of a Rochester or a Bucking ham. These were rational boundaries; but perhaps the liberty of those days went somewhat beyond even that. In the early part of the eighteenth century, many of the habits of the Continent were introduced into England at a time that continental society was so corrupt as to require licence instead of liberty, and so far from attending to propriety, to give way to indecency itself. It became common in the highest circles of society for ladies, married and single alike, to dispense almost entirely with a female attendant, and following that most indecent and beastly of all continental habits, to permit all the offices of a waiting woman to be performed for them by men. The visits of male acquaintances were continually received in their bed-rooms, and that, also, before they had risen in the morning. This, perhaps, was too much, though certainly far less indecent than the other most revolting of all immodest practices which I have just mentioned. Others, again, admitted no visitors further than their dressing-room, and thought themselves very scrupulous; but there were others, as there must be at all times, who, with feelings of true modesty and perfect delicacy, hesitated not to use all proper and rational liberty, yet shrunk instinctively from the least coarseness of thought or language, and never yielded to aught that was immodest in custom or demeanour.
Of these was Lady Laura Gaveston; and though she had no fear of becoming the talk of the town, or losing the slightest particle of a bright and pure reputation, by treating one who had rendered her important services in all respects as she would a brother, by being seen with him often and often alone, by showing herself with him in public places, or by any other act of the kind that her heart prompted her to, she in no way gave in to the evil practices which the English had learned from their continental neighbours, and, indeed, never thought or reasoned upon the subject, feeling that decency as well as morality is a matter of sentiment and not of custom.
The peculiar situation in which the Duke and Wilton were placed towards each other; the Duke's repeated entreaties that Wilton would see him every day, if possible; the intimacy that had arisen from services rendered and received, produced that constant and continual intercourse which was necessary to the happiness of two people who loved as Wilton and Laura did; not a day passed without their seeing each other, scarcely a day passed without their being alone together, sometimes even for hours; and every moment that they thus spent in each other's society increased their feelings of love and tenderness for each other, their hopes, their confidence, their esteem.
Not a secret of Laura's bosom was now concealed from him she loved, not a thought, not a feeling. She delighted to tell him all: with whatever subject her mind was employed, with whatever bright thing her fancy sported, Wilton was always made the sharer; and it was the same with him. The course that their thoughts pursued was certainly not always alike, but they generally arrived at the same conclusion, she by a longer and a softer way, he by a more rapid, vigorous, and direct one. It was like the passing of a hill by two different roads; the one, for the bold climber, over the steepest brow; the other, for gentler steps, more easy round the side.
In the meantime, the Duke proceeded with his young friend even as he had commenced. He treated him as his most intimate and dearest confidant; he gradually went on to consult and trust him, not alone with regard to the immediate subject of his situation, as affected by the conspiracy, but upon a thousand other matters; and as Wilton's advice, clear-sighted and vigorous, was always judicious, and generally successful, the Duke, one of whose greatest weaknesses was the habit of putting his own judgment under the guidance of others, learned to lean upon his young companion, as he had at first done upon his wife, and then upon his daughter.
The various changes and events of the day, as they kept the Duke's mind in a state of frequent suspense and anxiety, made him more often recur to Wilton than otherwise would have been the case. London was filled with rumours of every kind regarding the discovery of the plot, and the persons implicated. The report of Lady Laura's having been carried off by the Jacobites, for the purpose of inducing her father to join in their schemes, spread far and wide, and filled Beaufort House, during a great part of the morning, with a crowd of visitors, all anxious to hear the facts, and to retail them with what colouring they thought fit.
Some argued, that though the Duke had always been thought somewhat of a Jacobite, at least he had now proved his adherence to the existing dynasty, beyond all manner of dispute, by what he and his daughter had suffered from their resistance to the Jacobites. Others, again, curled the malicious lip, and declared that the Duke must have given the conspirators some encouragement, or they would never have ventured upon such deeds. All, however, to the Duke himself, affected to look upon him and his family as marked by the enmity of the other faction; and he, on his part, perhaps, did feel his importance in a little degree increased by the sort of notoriety which he had acquired.
If there was any pleasure in this—and when is not in creased importance pleasurable?—it was speedily brought to an end, as soon as the trials of the conspirators began, and intelligence of more and more traitors being arrested in different parts, and increased rumours of the number suspected, or actually implicated, reaching the ears of the Duke. Persons who one day appeared perfectly free and stainless, were the next marked out as having a share in the conspiracy. Fear fell upon all men: the times of Titus Oates and his famous plot presented themselves to everybody's imagination, and the Duke's head lay more and more uneasy on his pillow every night.
Sir John Fenwick, however, was not yet taken: Sir William Parkyns and Sir John Friend died with firmness and with honour, compromising no man. Sir George Barkley had escaped; the Earl of Aylesbury, though implicated by the testimony of several witnesses in the lesser offences of the conspiracy, was not arrested; and not a word had yet been spoken of the Duke's name.
It was about this period, however, that Laura's father suddenly received a note from Lord Aylesbury to the following effect:—
"Your grace and I being somewhat similarly situated in several respects, I think fit to give you intimation of my views at the present moment. While gentlemen, and men of honour, were the only individuals made to suffer in consequence of the late lamentable events, people, who knew themselves to be innocent of any bloody or treasonable designs, might feel themselves tolerably safe, even though they were well acquainted with some of the persons accused. I hear now, however, that there is a certain Rookwood, together with men named Cranburne, Lowick, Knightly, and others, some of them small gentry of no repute, and others merely vulgar and inferior persons, who are about to be brought to immediate trial; and I have it from a sure hand, that some of these persons, for the purpose of saving their own miserable lives, intend to charge men of much higher rank than themselves with crimes of which they never had any thought, simply because they were acquainted with some of the unfortunate gentlemen by whom these evil and foolish things were designed. Such being the case, and knowing myself to be somewhat obnoxious to many persons in power, I have determined to remove from London for the time, that my presence may not excite attention, and perhaps call upon my head an accusation which may be levelled at any other if I should not be here. I by no means purpose to quit the kingdom, and would rather, indeed, surrender myself, and endeavour to prove my innocence, even against the torrent of prejudice, and all the wild and raging outcry which this business has produced, both in the parliament and in the nation. At the same time, I think it best to inform you of these facts, as an old friend, well knowing that your grace has a house ready to receive you in Hampshire, within thirty-five miles of the city of London, in case your presence should be wanted, and about the same distance from the sea-coast. I will beg your grace to read this, and then instantly to burn it, believing that it comes with a very good intent, from "Your humble servant, "AYLESBURY."
This letter once more excited all the apprehensions of the Duke, who well knew that Lord Aylesbury would never have written such an epistle without intending to imply much more than he directly said.
His recourse was immediately to Wilton, who was engaged to dine with him on that day, together with a large party. As Wilton's engagements, however, were always made with a proviso, that his official duties under the Earl of Byerdale permitted his fulfilling them, the Duke sent off a special messenger with a note beseeching him not to fail. The dinner hour, however, arrived; the various guests made their appearance; the cook began to fret, and to declare to his understrappers that the Duke always spoilt the dinner; but Wilton had not yet come, and the Duke was anxious, if but to obtain five words with him.
At length, however, the young gentleman arrived; and it was not a little to the surprise of all the guests, and to the indignation of some, that they saw who was the person for whom the meal had been delayed. Wilton, though always well dressed, and in any circumstances bearing the aspect of a gentleman, had evidently made his toilet hastily and imperfectly; and notwithstanding the distance he had come, bore about his person distinct traces of heat and excitement.
"I have not failed to obey your summons, my lord," he said, following the Duke into the opening of one of the windows, "though it was scarcely possible for me to do so. But I have much that I wish to say to you."
"And I to you," replied the Duke; and he told him the contents of the letter he had received from Lord Aylesbury that morning.
"The Earl says true, my lord," replied Wilton. "But I have this very day seen Cook myself—I mean Peter Cook, the person that it is supposed will be permitted to turn king's evidence. He did certainly slightly glance at your grace; but I believe that the orders of Lord Byerdale will prevent him from implicating any persons but those who were actually engaged in the worst designs of the conspirators."
"Had I not better go into the country at once?" demanded the Duke, eagerly.
"Far from it, far from it, my lord," replied Wilton: "the way, of all others, I should think, to cause yourself to be arrested. On the contrary, if you would take my advice, you would immediately sit down and write a note to Lord Byerdale, saying that I had told you—for he did not forbid me to mention it—that Cook had made some allusion to you. Tell him that it was, and is, your intention to go out of town within a few days, but that knowing your own innocence of every design against the government, you will put off your journey, or even surrender yourself at the Tower, should he judge, from any information that he possesses, that even a shade of suspicion is likely to be cast upon you by any of the persons about to be tried. I will answer for the success, if your grace follows my advice. A bold step of this kind disarms suspicion. Lord Byerdale will, in all probability, intimate to Cook, that nothing at all is to be said in regard to you, feeling sure that you are innocent of any great offence; whereas, if the charge were once brought forward, the set of low-minded villains concerned in this business might think it absolutely necessary to work it up into a serious affair, from which your grace would find a difficulty in extricating yourself."
"You are right, Wilton, you are right," replied the Duke: "I see you are right, although I judged it hazardous at first. You shall see what confidence I have in you. I will write the letter directly;" and he turned away with him from the window.
Laura had watched the conference with some anxiety, and the Duke's guests with some surprise; but when the Duke ended by saying aloud, "I fear I must beg your pardon, ladies, for two minutes, but I must write a short note of immediate importance; Wilton, my dear young friend, be kind enough to order dinner, and help Laura to entertain my friends here till I return, which will be before they have covered the table," every one looked in the face of the other; and they all mentally said, "The matter is clearly settled, and the hand of this rich and beautiful heiress is promised to an unknown man of no rank whatever."
Knowing the feelings that were in his own heart, being quite sure of the interpretation that would be put upon the Duke's words, and yet having some doubts still whether the Duke himself had the slightest intention of giving them such a meaning, Wilton cast down his eyes and coloured slightly. But Laura, to whom those words were anything but painful—though she blushed a little too, which but confirmed the opinion of those who remarked it—could not restrain altogether the smile of pleasure that played upon her lips, as she turned her happy eyes for a moment to the countenance of the man she loved.
There was not an old lady or gentleman, of high rank, in the room, possessed of a marriageable son, who would not at that moment have willingly raised Wilton to the final elevation of Haman, by the same process which that envious person underwent; and yet it is wonderful how courteous and cordial, and even affectionate, they all were towards the young gentleman whom, for the time, they mortally hated. Wilton felt himself awkwardly situated for the next few minutes, not choosing fully to assume the position in which the Duke's words had placed him. He well knew that if he did enact to the full the part of that nobleman's representative, every one would charge him with gross and shameful presumption, and would most likely talk of it, each in his separate circle, during the whole of the following day.
He was soon relieved, however, by the return of the Duke, who had sent the letter, but who continued evidently anxious and thoughtful during the whole of dinner. Wilton was also a little disturbed, and showed himself rather silent and retiring than otherwise. But before dinner was over—for such meals were long protracted in those days—one of the servants brought a note to the Duke, who, begging pardon for so far violating all proprieties, opened, read it, and, while the cloud vanished from his countenance, placed it on the salver again, saying to the servant, "Take that to Mr. Brown."
The note was in the hand of Lord Byerdale, and to the following effect:—
"MY DEAR LORD DUKE, "Your grace's attachment to the government is far too well known to be affected by anything that such a person as Peter Cook could say. I permitted our dear young friend Wilton to tell you what the man had mentioned, more as a mark of our full confidence than anything else. But I doubt not that he will forbear to repeat the calumny in court; and if he does, it will receive no attention. Go out of town, then, whenever you think fit, and to whatsoever place you please, feeling quite sure that in Wilton you have a strenuous advocate, and a sincere friend in "Your grace's most humble and "most obedient servant, "BYERDALE."
For nearly ten days after the events which we have recorded in the thirtieth chapter of this volume, and while the principal part of the events were taking place of which we have just spoken, Lord Sherbrooke remained absent from London. Knowing the circumstances in which he was placed, Wilton felt anxious lest the delay of his return might attract the attention of Lord Byerdale, and lead him to suspect some evil. No suspicion, however, seemed to cross the mind of the Earl, who was more accustomed than Wilton knew to find his son absent without knowing where he was, or how employed.
At length, however, one morning Lord Sherbrooke made his appearance again; and Wilton saw that he was on perfect good terms with his father, who never quarrelled with his vices, or interfered with his pursuits, when there was any veil of decency thrown over the one, or the Earl's own views were not openly opposed by the other.
When Wilton entered the room where the father and son were seated at breakfast, he found Lord Sherbrooke descanting learnedly upon the fancy of damask table-cloths and napkins. He vowed that his father was behind all the world, especially the world of France, and that it was absolutely necessary, in order to make himself like other men of station and fashion, that he should have his coronet and cipher embroidered with gold in the corners, and his arms, in the same manner, made conspicuous in the centre.
"And pray, my good son," said Lord Byerdale to him, "as your intimacy with washerwomen is doubtless as great as your intimacy with embroiderers and sempstresses, pray tell me how these gilded napkins are to be washed?"
"Washed, my lord!" exclaimed Lord Sherbrooke in a tone of horror. "Do you ever have your napkins washed? I did not know there was a statesman in Europe whose fingers were so clean as to leave his napkin in such a state that the stains could ever be taken out, after he had once used it."
"I am afraid, my dear boy," replied Lord Byerdale, "that, if you had not—as many men of sharp wit do—confounded a figure with a reality, for the purpose of playing with both, and if there were in truth such a thing as a moral napkin, what you say would be very true. But as far as I can judge, my dear Sherbrooke, yours would not bear washing any better than mine."
"It would be very presumptuous of me if it did, my dear father," replied Lord Sherbrooke, "and would argue that precept and example had done nothing for me. Come, Wilton," he added, "come in to my help, for here are father and son flinging so hard at each other, that I shall get my teeth dashed down my throat before I've done. Now tell me, did you ever see such a napkin as that in the house of a nobleman, a gentleman, or a man of taste, three states, by the way, seldom united in the same person?"
"Oh yes," replied Wilton, "often; and, to tell the truth, I think them in much better taste than if they were all covered with gold."
"Surely not for the fingers of a statesman?" said Lord Sherbrooke. "However, I abominate them; and I will instantly sit down and write to a good friend of mine in France, to smuggle me over a few dozens as a present to my respectable parent."
"A present which he will have to pay for," replied the Earl, somewhat bitterly. "My dear Sherbrooke, your presents to other people cost your father so much one way, that I beg you will make none to him, and get him into the scrape the other way also."
"Do not be alarmed, my dear and most amiable parent," replied Lord Sherbrooke: "the sweet discussion which we had some time ago, in regard to debts and expenses, has had its effect: though it is a very stupid plan of a son ever to let his father see that what he says has any effect upon him at all; but I intend to contract my expenses."
"Intentions are very excellent things, my dear Sherbrooke," replied his father. "But I am afraid we generally treat them as gardeners do celery,—cut them down as soon as they sprout above ground."
"I have let mine grow, my lord, already," replied Sherbrooke. "I last night gave an order for selling five of my horses, and now keep only two."
"And how many mistresses, Sherbrooke?" demanded his father.
"None, my lord," replied Sherbrooke.
Not a change came over Lord Byerdale's countenance; but ringing the bell which stood before him on the table, he said to the servant, "Bring me the book marked 'Ephemeris' from my dressing-room, with a pen and ink.—We will put that down," continued he; and when the servant brought the book he wrote for a moment, reading aloud as he did so, "Great annular eclipse of the sun—slight shock of an earthquake felt in Cardigan—Sherbrooke talks of contracting his expenses."
Wilton could not help smiling; but he believed and trusted, from all that he knew of Lord Sherbrooke's situation, that new motives and nobler ones than those which had ever influenced him before, produced his present resolution, and would support him in it.
The business which he had to transact with the Earl proved very brief; and after it was over, he sought Lord Sherbrooke again, with feelings of real and deep interest in all that concerned him. He found the young nobleman seated with his feet on the fire-place, and a light book in his hand, sometimes letting it drop upon his knee, and falling into a fit of thought, sometimes reading a few lines attentively, sometimes gazing upon the page, evidently without attending to its contents.
He suffered Wilton to be in the room several minutes without speaking to him; and his friend, knowing the eccentricities that occasionally took possession of him, was about to quit the room and leave him, when he started up, threw the book into the midst of the fire, and said, "Where are you going, Wilton? I will walk with you."
They issued forth together into the streets, and entering St. James's Park, took their way round by the head of the decoy towards the side of the river. While in the streets they both kept silence; but as soon as they had passed the ever-moving crowds that swarm in the thoroughfares of the great metropolis, Wilton began the conversation, by inquiring eagerly after his friend's wife.
"She is nearly well," replied Lord Sherbrooke, coldly—"out of all danger, at least. It is I that am sick, Wilton—sick at heart."
"I hope not cold at heart, Sherbrooke," replied Wilton, somewhat pained by the tone in which the other spoke. "I should think such a being as I saw with you might well warm you to constancy as well as love. I hope, Sherbrooke, those feelings I beheld excited in you have not, in this instance, evaporated as soon as in others."
Lord Sherbrooke turned and gazed in his friend's face for a moment intently, even sternly, and then replied, "Love her, Wilton? I love her better than anything in earth or in heaven! It is for her sake I am sad; and yet she is so noble, that why should I fear to bear what she will never shrink from."
"Nay, my dear Sherbrooke," replied Wilton. "The very resolution which I see you have taken to shake yourself free of the trammels of your debts ought to give you joy and confidence."
"Debts!" said Lord Sherbrooke—"debts! Do you think that it was debts I had in view when I ordered my horses to be sold, and my carriages to follow them, and kicked my Italian valet down stairs, and dismissed my mistresses, and got rid of half-a-dozen other blood-suckers?—My debts had nothing to do with it. By Heaven, Wilton, if it had been for nothing but that, I would have spent twenty thousand pounds more before the year was over; for when one has a mind to enrage one's father, or go to gaol, or anything of that kind, one had better do it for a large sum at once, in a gentleman- like way. Oh no, I have other things in my head, Wilton, that you know nothing about."
"I will not try to press into your confidence, Sherbrooke," replied Wilton, "though I think in some things I have shown myself deserving of it. But I need hardly tell you, that if I can serve you, I am always most willing to do so, and you need but command me."
"Alas! my dear Wilton," replied Lord Sherbrooke—"this is a matter in which you can do nothing. It is like one man trying to lift Paul's church upon his back, and another coming tip and offering to help him. If I did what was right, and according to the best prescribed practice, I should repay your kind wishes and offers by turning round and cutting your throat."
"Nay, nay, my dear Sherbrooke," replied Wilton, "you are in one of your misanthropical fits, and carry it even further than ordinary. The world is bad enough, but not so bad as to present us with many instances of people cutting each other's throats as a reward for offers of service."
"You are very wise, Wilton," replied Lord Sherbrooke, "but nevertheless you will find out that at present I am right and you are wrong. However, let us talk of something else;" and he dashed off at once into a wild gay strain of merriment, as unaccountable as the grave and gloomy tone with which he had entered into the conversation.
This morning's interview formed the type of Lord Sherbrooke's conduct during the whole time of his stay in town. Continual fluctuations, not only in his own spirits, but in his demeanour towards Wilton himself; evidently showed his friend that he was agitated internally by some great grief or terrible anxiety. Indeed, from time to time, his words suffered it to appear, though not, perhaps, in the same manner that the words of other men would have done in similar circumstances. The only thing in which he seemed to take pleasure was in attending the trials of the various conspirators; and when any of them displayed any fear or want of firmness, he found therein a vast source of merriment, and would come home laughing to Wilton, and telling him how the beggarly wretch had showed his pale fright at the block and axe.
"That villain Knightly," he said, one day, "who was as deep or deeper in the plot than any of the others, and surveyed the ground for the King's assassination, came into court the colour of an old woman's green calamanco petticoat, gaping and trembling in every limb like a boar's head in aspic jelly; and Heaven knows that I, who stood looking and laughing at him, would have taken his place for a dollar."
The perfect conviction that some very serious cause existed for this despondency induced Wilton to deviate from the line of conduct he had laid down for himself, and to urge Lord Sherbrooke at various times to make him acquainted with the particulars of his situation, and to give him the opportunity of assisting him if possible. Lord Sherbrooke resisted pertinaciously. He sometimes answered his friend kindly and feelingly, sometimes sullenly, sometimes angrily. But he never yielded; and on one occasion he expressed himself so harshly and ungratefully, that Wilton turned round and left him in the park. They were on horseback at the time; and Lord Sherbrooke rode on a little way, without taking the slightest notice of his companion's departure. He then suddenly turned his horse, however, and galloping after him at full speed, he held out his hand to him, saying, "Wilton, you must either fight me or forgive me, for this state must not last five minutes."
Wilton took his hand, replying, "I forgive you with all my heart, Sherbrooke, and let me once more explain that my only view, my only wish, is to be of assistance to you. I see, Sherbrooke, that you are melancholy, wretched, anxious. I wish much to do anything that I can to relieve that state of mind; and though I have no power, and very little interest, yet there do occasionally occur opportunities to me, which, as you have seen in the case of Lady Laura, afford me means of doing things which might not be expected from my situation."
"You can neither help me, nor relieve me, nor assist me in the least, Wilton," replied Lord Sherbrooke, "unless, indeed, you could entirely change beings with me; unless you become me, and I become you. But it cannot be, and I cannot even explain to you any part of my situation. Therefore ask me nothing more upon the subject, and only be contented that it is from no want of confidence in you that I hold my tongue."
"I hope and trust that it is not," replied Wilton; "but now that we are speaking upon the subject, let me still say one word more. I can conceive, from various reasons, that you may not think fit to confide in me. I am a man of your own age, with less wit, less experience, less knowledge of the world than you have—"
"You have more wit in your little finger, more knowledge of the world, and experience—Heaven knows how you got it—more common sense, ay, and uncommon sense too, than ever I shall have in my life," replied Lord Sherbrooke, hastily.
"But hear me, Sherbrooke, hear me," said Wilton—"whatever may be the cause, it does not suit you to take my advice and assistance. Now there is one person in whom you may fully rely, who will never betray your confidence, who will give you the very best advice, and I am sure will, if it be in his power, render you still more important assistance—I mean Lord Sunbury. He is now at Geneva, on his way home, waiting for passports from France. In his last letter, lie mentioned you with much interest, and desired me—"
"Good God!" cried Lord Sherbrooke, "that I should ever create any interest in anybody! However, Wilton, your suggestion is not a bad one. Perhaps you have pointed out the only man in Europe in whom I could confide with propriety, strange as that may seem. But in the first place, I must consult with others.—Have you seen your friend Green lately?"
"Not since the night before all that business in Kent," replied Wilton. "I have sought to see him, but have never been able; and I begin to apprehend that he must have taken a part in this conspiracy, different from that I imagined, and has absented himself on that account."
"Not he, not he!" replied Lord Sherbrooke; "I saw him but two days ago. But who have we here, coming up on foot? One of the King's servants, it would seem, and with him that cowardly rascal Arden. They are snaking towards us, Wilton, doubtless not recognising us. Suppose we take Master Arden, and horsewhip him out of the park."
"No, no," replied Wilton, "no such violent counsels for me, my dear Sherbrooke. The man is punished more than I wished already."
The two men directed their course at once towards Lord Sherbrooke and his companion; and as they approached, the King's servant advanced before the other, and with a respectful bow addressed Wilton, saying, "I have the King's commands, sir, to require your presence at Kensington immediately. I was even now about to seek you in St. James's Square, and then at Whitehall. But I presume Mr. Arden has informed me rightly, that you are that Mr. Brown who is private secretary to Lord Byerdale."
"The same, sir," replied Wilton. "Am I to present myself to his majesty in my riding dress?"
"His majesty's commands were for your immediate attendance, sir," replied the servant: "the council must be over by this time, and then he expects you."
"Then I will lose no time," replied Wilton, "but ride to the palace at once."
"What can be the meaning of this, Wilton?" said Lord Sherbrooke, as he put his horse into a quick pace, to keep up with that of his friend.
"On my word, I cannot tell," replied Wilton. "I trust for no evil, though I know not that any good can be in store."
"Well, I will leave you at the palace gates," replied Lord Sherbrooke, "and ride about in the neighbourhood till I see you come out. I hope it will not be in custody."
"I trust not, indeed," replied Wilton. "I know of no good reason why it should be so: but in these days of suspicion, and I must say of guilt and treason also, no one can tell who may be the next person destined for abode in Newgate."
In such speculations the two young gentlemen continued till they reached the palace, where Lord Sherbrooke turned and left his friend; and Wilton, if the truth must be confessed, with an anxious and beating heart, applied to the porter for admittance.
The moment that his name was given, he was led by a page to a small waiting room on the ground floor. The carriages which had surrounded the entrance seemed to indicate that the council was not yet over; but in a few minutes after, the sound of many feet and of various people talking was heard in the neighbouring passage; and then came the roll of carriages followed by a dead silence. To the mind of Wilton the silence continued for an exceedingly long time; but at length a voice was heard, apparently at some distance, pronouncing a name indistinctly; but Wilton imagined that it sounded like his own name.
The next instant, another voice took it up, and it was now distinctly, "Mr. Brown to the King." The door then opened, and a page appeared, saying, "Mr. Brown, the King commands your presence."
William III. was seated in a small cabinet, with a table to his right hand on which his elbow rested; an inkstand and paper were beside him; and on the other hand, a step behind, stood a gentleman of good mien, with his hand upon the back of the King's chair, in an attitude familiar, but not disrespectful. The harsh and somewhat coarse features of the monarch, which abstractedly seemed calculated to display strong passions, were in their habitual state of cold immobility; and Wilton, though he knew his person well, and had seen him often, could not derive from the King's face the slightest intimation of what was passing in his mind. There was no trace of anger, it is true; the brow was sufficiently contracted to appear thoughtful, but no more; and, at the same time, there was not one touch even of courteous affability to be seen in those rigid lines to tell that the young gentleman had been sent for upon some pleasurable occasion. Dignity, to a certain extent, there must have been in his demeanour, that sort of dignity which is communicated to the body by great powers of mind, and great decision of character—in fact, dignity divested of grace. Nobody could have taken him for a vulgar man, although his person, as far as mere lines and colouring go, might have been that of the lowest artizan; but what is more, no one could see him, however simple might be his dress, without feeling that there sat a distinguished man of some kind.
Wilton had been accustomed too much and too long to mingle with the first people in the first country of the world, to suffer himself to be much affected by any of the external pomp and circumstance of courts, or even by the vague sensations of respect with which fancy invests royalty; but he could not help feeling, as he entered the presence of William, that he was approaching a man of vast mind as well as vast power.
William looked at him quietly for several minutes, letting him approach within two steps, and gazing at him still, even after he had stopped, without uttering a single word. Wilton bowed, and then stood erect before the King, feeling a little embarrassed, it is true, but determined not to suffer his embarrassment to appear.
At length, the King addressed him in a harsh tone of voice, saying, "Well, sir, what have you to say?"
"May it please your majesty," replied Wilton, "I do not know on what subject your majesty wishes me to speak. I met one of the royal servants in the Park who commanded me to present myself here immediately, and I came hither accordingly, without waiting to inquire for what purpose."
"Oh! then you do not know?" said the King. "I thought you did know, and most likely were prepared. But it is as well as it is. I doubt not you will answer me truly. Where were you on Friday, the 22d of February last?"
"I cannot exactly say where I was, Sire," replied Wilton; "for during the greater part of that day I was continually changing my place. Having set out for a small town or village called High Halstow, in Kent, at an early hour in the day, I arrived there just before nightfall, and remained in that place or in the neighbourhood for several hours, indeed, till nearly or past midnight."
"Pray what was your business there?" demanded the King.
"I fear," replied Wilton, "I must trouble your majesty with some long details to enable you to understand the object of my going."
"Go on," was William's laconic reply; and the young gentleman proceeded to tell him, that having been employed in recovering Lady Laura from those who had carried her off, he had learned in the course of his inquiries in London that she was likely to be heard of in that neighbourhood.
"I judged it likely to be so myself, sire," continued Wilton, "because I believed her to have been carried off by some persons belonging to a party of Jacobites who were known to be caballing against the government, though to what extent was not then ascertained."
"And what made you judge," demanded the King, "that she had been carried off by these men?"
"Because, sire," replied Wilton, "the lady's father had been an acquaintance of Sir John Fenwick, one of the most notorious of the persons now implicated in the present foul plot against your majesty's life and crown. With him the Duke of Gaveston, I found, had quarrelled some time previously, and I suspected, though I had no proof thereof, that this quarrel had been occasioned by the Duke strongly differing from Sir John Fenwick in his political views, and refusing to take any part in any designs against the government."
"I am glad to hear this of the Duke, sir," replied the King. "Then it was out of revenge, you believe, they carried away the young lady?"
"Rather out of a desire to have a hold upon the Duke," replied Wilton. "I found afterwards, your majesty, that their intention was to send the young lady to France, and I judged throughout that their design was to force the Duke into an intrigue which they found he would not meddle with willingly."
William III., though he was himself of a very taciturn character, and not fond of loquacity in others, was yet fond of full explanations, always sitting in judgment, as it were, upon what was said to him, and passing sentence in his own breast. He now made Wilton go over again the particulars of Lady Laura's being taken away, though it was evident that he had heard all the facts before, and obliged him to enter into every minute detail which in any way affected the question.
When this was done, without any other comment than a look to the gentleman on his left hand, he fixed his eyes again upon Wilton, and asked,—"Now, where did you learn that these conspirators were likely to be found in Kent?"