"I heard it from a gentleman named Green," replied Wilton, "whom I met with at a tavern in St. James's-street."
"Green is a very common name," said the King.
"I do not believe that it is his real name," replied Wilton; "but what his real name is I do not know. I had not seen him often before; but he informed me of these facts, and I followed his advice and directions."
"That was rash," said the King. "You are sure you do not know his real name?"
"I cannot even guess it, sire," replied Wilton; and the King, after exchanging a mute glance with his attendant, went on,—"Well, when you had discovered the place of meeting of these conspirators, and reached it, what happened then?"
"I did not go, may it please your majesty, to discover their place of meeting, but to discover the place where Lady Laura was detained, which, when I had done, aided by a person I had got to assist me—after Arden, formerly Messenger of State, had fled from me in a most dastardly manner, in a casual rencounter with some people—smugglers, I believe—I made the master of the house and some other persons whom we found there, set the Lady Laura at liberty. I informed her of the authority that her father had given me, and she was but too glad to accept the assistance of any friend with whom she was acquainted."
"So, so; stop!" said the King. "So, then, Arden was not with you at this time?"
"No, sire," replied Wilton—"he had run away an hour before."
"That was not like a brave man," said William.
"No, indeed, sire," replied Wilton, "nor like one of your majesty's friends, for it is your enemies that generally run away."
A faint smile came upon William's countenance, and he said, "Go on. What happened next?"
"Before we could make our escape from the house," replied Wilton, "we were stopped by a large party of men, who entered; and, principally instigated by Sir John Fenwick, who was one of them, they opposed, in a violent manner, our departure."
Hitherto Wilton had been very careful of his speech, unwilling to compromise any one, and especially unwilling to mention the name of Lord Sherbrooke, the Lady Helen Oswald, or anybody else except the conspirators who had taken a part in the events of that night. Now, however, when he had to dwell principally upon the conduct of the conspirators and himself; he did so more boldly, and gave a full account of all that had been said and done till the entrance of the Duke of Berwick. He knew, or rather divined, from what had already passed, that this was in reality the point to which the examination he underwent principally tended. But yet he spoke with more ease, for, notwithstanding the danger which existed at that moment in acknowledging any communication whatsoever with Jacobites, he well knew that the conduct of the Duke of Berwick himself only required to be truly reported, to be admired by every noble and generous mind; and he felt conscious that in his own behaviour he had only acted as became an upright and an honourable heart. He detailed then, particularly, the fact of his having seen one of his opponents in the act of pointing a pistol at him over the shoulder of their principal spokesman: he mentioned his having cocked his own pistol to fire in return, and he stated that at the time he felt perfectly sure his life was about to be made a sacrifice to apprehensions of discovery on the part of the conspirators; and he then related to the King how he had seen a stranger enter and strike up the muzzle of the pistol pointed at him, at the very moment the other was in the act of firing.
"The ball," he said, "passed through the window above my head, and seeing that new assistance had come to my aid, I did not fire."
"Stay, stay!" said the King. "Let me ask you a question or two first. Did you see, in the course of all this time, the person called Sir George Barkley amongst these conspirators?"
"I saw a person, sire," replied Wilton, "whom I believed at the time to be Sir George Barkley, and have every reason to believe so still."
"And this person who came to your assistance so opportunely was not the same?" demanded the King.
"Not the least like him, sire," replied Wilton. "He was a young gentleman, of six or seven and twenty, I imagine, but certainly no more than thirty."
"What was his name?" demanded the King.
"The name he gave," replied Wilton, "was Captain Churchill."
"Go on," said William, and Wilton proceeded.
Avoiding all names as far as possible, he told briefly, but accurately, the severe and striking reprehension that the Duke of Berwick had bestowed upon Sir George Barkley and the rest of the conspirators: he dwelt upon the hatred he had displayed of the crime they were about to commit, and of the noble and upright tendency of every word that he had spoken. William's eyes glistened slightly, and a glow came up in his pale cheek, but he made no comment till Wilton seemed inclined to stop. He then bade him again go on, and made him tell all that had happened till he and Lady Laura had quitted the house, to make the best of their way to Halstow. He then said—
"Three questions. Why did you not give instant information of this conspiracy when you came to town?"
"May it please your majesty," replied Wilton, "I found immediately on my arrival that the conspiracy was discovered, and warrants issued against the conspirators. Nothing, therefore, remained for me to do, but to explain to Lord Byerdale the facts, which I did."
"If your majesty remembers," said the gentleman on the King's left, mingling in the conversation for the first time, "Lord Byerdale said so."
"Secondly," said the King, "Is it true that this gentleman who came to your assistance went with you, and under your protection, to the inn at Halstow, and thence, by your connivance, effected his escape?"
The King's brow was somewhat dark and ominous, and his tone stern, as he pronounced these words: but Wilton could not evade the question so put without telling a lie, and he consequently replied at once, "Sire, he did."
"Now for the third question," said the King,—"What was his real name?"
Wilton hesitated. He believed he had done right in every respect; that he had done what he was bound to do in honour; that he had done what was in reality the best for the King's own service; but yet he knew not by any means how this act might be looked upon. The minds of all men were excited, at that moment, to a pitch of indignation against the whole Jacobite faction, which made the slightest connivance with any of their practices, the slightest favour shown to any of their number, a high crime in the eyes of every one. But Wilton knew that he was, moreover, actually and absolutely punishable by law as a traitor for what he had done: what he was called upon to confess was, in the strict letter of the law, quite sufficient to send him to the Tower, and to bring his neck under the axe; for in treason all are principals, and he had aided and abetted one marked as a traitor. But, nevertheless, though he hesitated for a moment whether he should speak at all, yet he had resolved to do so, and of course to do so truly, when the King, seeing him pause, and mistaking the motives, added,—
"You had better tell the truth, sir. Captain Churchill has confessed, that though out of consideration for you he had admitted that he was present on this occasion, yet that in reality he had never quitted his house during the whole of the day in question."
"Sire," replied Wilton, looking him full in the face, with a calm, but not disrespectful air, "your majesty may have seen by my answers hitherto that whatever I do say will be the truth, plain and undisguised. I only hesitated whether I should not beg your majesty to excuse my answering at all, as you know by the laws of England no man can be forced to criminate himself; but as I acted in a manner that became a man of honour, and also in a manner which I believed at the time to be fitted to promote your majesty's interests, and to be in every respect such as you yourself could wish, I will answer the question, though, perhaps, my answer might in some circumstances be used against myself."
The slightest possible shade of displeasure had come over the King's countenance, when Wilton expressed a doubt as to answering the question at all; but whether it was from his natural command over his features, the coldness of a phlegmatic constitution, or that he really was not seriously angry, the cloud upon his brow was certainly not a hundredth part so heavy as it would probably have been with any other sovereign in Europe. He contented himself, then, when Wilton had come to the end of the sentence, by merely saying, with evident marks of impatience and curiosity, "Go on. What was his real name?"
"The name, sire, by which he is generally known," replied Wilton, "is the Duke of Berwick."
For once the King was moved. He started in his chair, and turning round, looked at the gentleman by his side, exclaiming, "It was not Drummond, then!"
"No, sire," replied Wilton; "although he never expressly stated his name to me, yet from all that was said by every one around, I must admit that I knew perfectly it was the Duke of Berwick. But, sire, whoever it was, he had saved my life: he had said not one word disrespectful to your Majesty's person: he had reprobated in the most severe and cutting terms those conspirators, some of whom have already bowed the head to the sword of justice; and he had stigmatized the acts they proposed to commit with scorn, contempt, and horror. All this he had done in my presence to ten or twelve armed men, whose conduct to myself, and schemes against you, showed them capable of any daring villany. These, sire, may be called my excuses for aiding a person, known to be an enemy of your crown, to escape from your dominions; but, if I may so far presume to say—it, there was a reason as well as an excuse which suggested itself to my mind at the time, and in which your majesty's interests were concerned."
The King had listened attentively: the frown had gone from his brow; and he had so far given a sign of approbation, as, when Wilton mentioned the conduct of the Duke of Berwick, to make a slight inclination of the head. When the young gentleman concluded, however, he paused in order to let him go on, always more willing that others should proceed, than say a single word to bid them do so.
"What is your reason?" he said at last, finding that nothing was added.
"It was this, sire," replied Wilton; "that I knew the Duke of Berwick was connected with your majesty's own family; that he was one person of high character and reputation amongst a vast number of low and infamous conspirators; that he was perfectly innocent of the dark and horrible crimes of which they were guilty; and yet, that he must be considered by the law of the land as a traitor even for setting his foot upon these shores, and must be concluded by the law and its ministers under the same punishment and condemnation as all those assassins and traitors who are now expiating their evil purposes on the scaffold. In these circumstances, sire, I judged that it would be much more agreeable to your majesty that he should escape, than that he should be taken; that you would be very much embarrassed, indeed, what to do with him, if any indiscreet person were to stop him in his flight; and that you would not disapprove of that conduct, the first motive of which, I openly confess, was gratitude towards the man who had saved my life."
"Sir, you did very right," said William, with scarcely a change of countenance. "You did very right, and I am much obliged to you."
At the same time, he held out his hand. Wilton bent his knee, and kissed it; and as he rose, William added, "I don't know what I can do for you; but if at any time you want anything, let me know, for I think you have done well—and judged well. My Lord of Portland here, on application to him, will procure you audience of me."
With those few words, which, however, from William III., conveyed a great deal of meaning, the King bowed his head to signify that Wilton's audience was over; and the young gentleman withdrew from his presence, very well satisfied with the termination of an affair, which certainly, in some hands, might have ended in evil instead of good.
Wilton Brown, on quitting the King, did not find Lord Sherbrooke where he expected; but little doubting that he should have to encounter a full torrent of wrath from the Earl of Byerdale, on account of his having concealed the fact of the Duke of Berwick's visit to England, he set spurs to his horse to meet the storm at once, and proceeded as rapidly as possible to the Earl's office at Whitehall. His expectations were destined to be disappointed, however. Lord Byerdale was all smiles, although as yet he knew nothing more than the simple fact that Captain Churchill had acknowledged his presence at a scene in which he had certainly played no part. His whole wrath seemed to turn upon Arden, the Messenger, against whom he vowed and afterwards executed, signal vengeance, prosecuting him for various acts of neglect in points of duty, and for some small peculations which the man had committed, till he reduced him to beggary and a miserable death.
He received Wilton, however, without a word of censure; listened to all that passed between him and the King, appeared delighted with the result; and although, to tell the truth, Wilton had no excuse to offer for not having communicated the facts to him before, which h-; had abstained from doing simply from utter want of confidence in the Earl, yet his lordship found an excuse himself, saying,—
"I'm sure, Wilton, I am more obliged to you even than the King must be, for not implicating me in your secret at all. I should not have known how to have acted in the least. It would have placed me in the most embarrassing situation that it is possible to conceive, and by taking the responsibility on yourself you have spared me, and, as you see, done your self no harm."
Wilton was puzzled; and though he certainly was not a suspicious man, he could not help doubting the perfect sincerity of the noble lord. All his civility, all his kindness, which was so unlike his character in general, but made his secretary doubt the more, and the more firmly resolve to watch his conduct accurately.
A few days after the events which we have just related, the Duke of Gaveston and Lady Laura left Beaufort House for the Earl's seat in Hampshire, which Lord Aylesbury had pointed out as the best suited to the occasion. It was pain ful for Wilton to part from Laura; but yet he could not divest his mind of the idea that Lord Byerdale did not mean altogether so kindly by the Duke as he professed to do, and he was not sorry the latter nobleman, now that he could do so without giving the slightest handle to suspicion, should follow the advice of Lord Aylesbury.
By this time Wilton had become really attached to the Duke; the kindness that nobleman had shown to him; the confidence he had placed in him; the leaning to his opinions which he had always displayed, would naturally have excited kindly and affectionate feelings in such a heart as Wilton's, even had the Duke not been the father of her he loved best on earth. But in the relative situation in which they now stood, he had gradually grown more and more attached to the old nobleman, and perhaps even the very weaknesses of his character made Wilton feel more like a son towards him.
To insure, therefore, his absence from scenes of political strife, to guard against his meddling with transactions which he was unfitted to guide, was a great satisfaction to Wilton, and a compensation for the loss of Laura's daily society. Another compensation, also, was found in a general invitation to come down whenever it was possible to Somersbury Court, and a pressing request, that at all events he would spend the Sunday of every week at that place. In regard to all his affairs in London, and more especially to everything that concerned Sir John Fenwick and the conspiracy, the Duke trusted implicitly to Wilton; and the constant correspondence which was thus likely to take place afforded him also the means of hearing continually of Laura.
He was not long without seeing her again, however; for it was evident that Lord Byerdale had determined to give his secretary every sort of opportunity of pursuing his suit with the daughter of the Duke.
"Did you not tell me, Wilton," he said one day, "that your good friend the Duke of Gaveston had invited you to come down and stay with him at Somersbury?"
"He has invited me repeatedly, my lord," replied Wilton, "and in a letter I received yesterday, pressed his request again; but seeing you so overwhelmed with business, I did not like to be absent for any length of time. I should have gone down, indeed, as I had promised, on Saturday last, to have come up on Monday morning again; but if you remember, on Saturday you were occupied till nearly twelve at night with all this business of Cook."
"Who, by the way, you see, Wilton, has said nothing against your friend," said the Earl.
"So I see, indeed, my lord," replied Wilton. "What will be done with the man?"
"Oh, we shall keep the matter over his head," said the Earl, "and make use of him as an evidence. But to return to your visit to the Duke—I can very well spare you for the next week, if you like to go down on Monday; and now that I know your arrangements, will contrive that you shall always have your Saturday evenings and Monday mornings, so as to be able to go down and return on those days, till you become his grace's son-in-law, though I am afraid fair Lady Laura will think you but a cold lover."
Wilton smiled, well knowing that there was no such danger. The Earl's offer, however, was too tempting to be resisted, and accordingly he lost no time in bearing down, in person, to Somersbury Court the happy intelligence that Cook, who was to be the conspirator most feared, it seemed, had said nothing at his trial to inculpate the Duke.
His journey, as was not uncommon in those days, was performed on horseback with a servant charged with his valise behind him, and it was late in the day before he reached Somersbury; but it was a bright evening in May; the world was all clad in young green; the calm rich purple of the sunset spread over the whole scene; and as Wilton rode down a winding yellow road, amidst rich woods and gentle slopes of land, into the fine old park that surrounded the mansion, he could see enough to show him that all the picturesque beauty, which was far more congenial to his heart and his feelings than even the finest works of art, was there in store for him on the morrow.
On his arrival, he found the Duke delighted to receive him, though somewhat suffering from a slight attack of gout. He was more delighted still, however, when he heard the news his young friend brought; and when, after a few moments, Laura joined him and the Duke, her eyes sparkled with double brightness, both from the feelings of her own heart at meeting again the man she loved best on earth, and from the pleasure that she saw on her father's countenance, which told her in a moment that all the news Wilton had brought was favourable.
The result to the Duke, however, was not so satisfactory as it might have been. In the joy of his heart he gave way somewhat more to his appetite at supper than was prudent, ate all those things that Sir George Millington, his good physician, forbade him to eat, and drank two or three glasses of wine more than his usual portion. At the time, all this seemed to do him no harm, and he spoke somewhat crossly to his own servant who reminded him of the physician's regulations. He even shook his finger playfully at Laura for her grave looks upon the occasion, and during the rest of the evening was as gay as gay could be. The consequence, however, was, that about a quarter of an hour after Wilton had descended to the breakfast-room on the following morning, Laura came down alone.
"I am sorry to say, Wilton," she said, with a slight smile, "that my dear father has greatly increased his pain by exceeding a little last night. He has scarcely slept at all, I find, and begs you will excuse him till dinner-time. He leaves me to entertain you, Wilton. Do you think I can do it?"
Wilton's answer was easily found; and Laura passed the whole morning with him alone.
Certainly neither of the two would have purchased the pleasure at the expense of the Duke's suffering; but yet that pleasure of being alone together was, indeed, intense and bright. They were both very young, both fitted for high enjoyment, both loving as ardently and deeply as it is possible for human beings to love. Through the rich and beautiful woods of the park, over the sunny lawns and grassy savannas—where the wild deer, nested in the tall fern, raising its dark eyes and antlered head to gaze above the feathery green at the passers by—Wilton and Laura wandered on, pouring forth the tale of affection into each other's hearts, gazing in each other's eyes, and seeming, through that clear window lighted up with life, to see into the deepest chambers of each other's bosom, and there behold a treasury of joy and mutual tenderness for years to come.
In the midst of that beautiful scene their love seemed in its proper place—everything appeared to harmonize with it—whereas, in the crowded city, all had jarred. Here the voices of the birds poured forth the sweetest harmony upon their ear as they went by; everything that the eye rested upon spoke softness, and peace, and beauty, and happy days; everything refreshed the sight and made the bosom expand; everything breathed of joy or imaged tranquillity.
The words, too, the words of affection, seemed more easily to find utterance; all the objects around suggested that imagery which passion, and tenderness, and imagination, can revel in at ease; the fanciful clouds, as they flitted over the sky, the waving branches of the woods, the gay sparkling of the bright stream, the wide-extending prospect here and there, with the hills, only appearing warmer and more glowing still, as the eye traced them into the distance—all furnished to fancy some new means of shadowing forth bright hopes, and wishes, and purposes. Each was an enthusiastic admirer of nature; each had often and often stood, and pondered and gazed, and admired scenes of similar loveliness; each, too, had felt deep and ardent affection for the other in other places; and each had believed that nothing could exceed the joy that they experienced in their occasional solitary interviews; but neither had ever before known the same sensations of delight in the beautiful aspect of unrivalled nature, neither had tasted the joy which two hearts that love each other can feel in pouring forth their thoughts together in scenes that both are worthy to admire.
Nature had acquired tenfold charms to their eyes; and the secret of it was, that the spirit of love within their hearts pervaded and brightened it all. Love itself seemed to have gained an intensity and brightness in those scenes that it had never known before, because the great spirit of nature, the inspiring, the expanding genius of the scene, answered the spirit within their hearts, and seemed to witness and applaud their affection.
Oh, how happily the hours went by in those sweet words and caresses, innocent but dear! oh, how glad, how unlike the world's joys in general, were the feelings in each of those young hearts, while they wandered on alone, with none but love and nature for their companions on the way! On that first day, at least to Laura, the feeling was altogether overpowering: she might have had a faint and misty dream that such things could exist, but nothing more; but now that she felt them, they seemed to absorb every other sensation for the time, to make her heart beat as it had never beat before, to cast her thoughts into strange but bright confusion, so that when she returned with Wilton, and found that her father had come down, she ran to her own room, to pause for a few moments, and to collect her ideas into some sort of order once more.
Day after day, during Wilton's stay, the same bright round of happy hours succeeded. During the whole of the first part of his sojourn, the Duke was unable to go out, and Wilton and Lady Laura were left very much alone. Wilton felt no hesitation in regard to his conduct. He could not believe, he scarcely even feared, that the Duke was blind to the mutual love which existed between Laura and himself; and he only waited till his own fate was cleared up, to speak to her father upon the subject openly.
Thus passed his visit; and we could pause upon it long, could paint many a scene of sweet and sunshiny happiness, warm, and soft, and beautiful, like the pictures of Claude de Lorraine: but we have other things to do, and scenes far less joyous to dwell upon. The time of his stay at length expired, and of course seemed all the more brief for being happy.
If the sojourn of Wilton at Somersbury Court had given pleasure to Laura, it gave scarcely less to the Duke himself, though in a different way; and when his young visitor was gone, he felt a want and a vacancy which made the days seem tedious. Thus, shortly after Wilton's arrival in town, he received a letter from the Duke, begging him not to forget his promise of another speedy visit of longer duration, nor neglect the opportunity of each week's close to spend at least one day with him and Laura. The origin of these feelings towards his young friend was certainly to be traced to the somewhat forced confidence which he had been obliged to place in him, in regard to Sir John Fenwick; but the feelings survived the cause; and during six weeks which followed, although Sir John Fenwick was universally supposed to have made his escape from England, and the Duke felt himself quite safe, Wilton experienced no change of manner, but was greeted with gladness and smiles whenever he presented himself.
On every occasion, too, the Earl of Byerdale showed him self as kind as it was possible for him to be; and in one instance, in the middle of the year, spoke to him more seriously than usual, in regard to his marriage with Lady Laura. The tone he took was considerate and thoughtful, and Wilton found that he could no longer give a vague reply upon the subject.
"I need not say to your lordship," he said, "how grateful I feel to you in this business; but I really can tell you no more than you see. I am received by the Duke and Lady Laura, upon all occasions, with the greatest kindness and every testimony of regard. I am received, indeed, when no one else is received, and I have every reason to believe that the Duke regards me almost as a son; but of course I cannot presume, so long as I can give no information of who I am, what is my family, what are the circumstances and history of my birth, to seek the Duke's approbation to my marriage with his daughter. Fortuneless and portionless as I must be, the proposal may seem presumptuous enough at any time; and though the legend told us, my lord, to 'be bold, and bold, and everywhere be bold,' it told us also to 'be not too bold.'"
"You are right, you are right, Wilton," replied the Earl. "But leave it to me: I myself will write to the Duke upon the subject, and doubt not shall find means to satisfy him, though I cannot flatter you, Wilton—and I tell you so at once—I cannot flatter you with the idea of any unexpected wealth. Your blood is your only possession; but that is enough. I will write myself in a few days."
"I trust, my lord, you will not do so immediately," replied Wilton. "You were kind enough to promise me explanations regarding my birth. Others have done so, too." (The Earl started.) "Lord Sunbury," continued Wilton, "promised me the same explanation, and to give me the papers which he possesses regarding me, even before the present period; but he returns in September or October, and then they will of course be mine."
"Ha!" said the Earl, musing. "Ha! does he? But why does he not send you over the papers? he is no farther off than Paris now; for I know he obtained a passport the other day, and promised to look into the negotiations which are going on for peace."
"I fancy, my lord," replied Wilton, "that in the distracted state of both countries he fears to send over the papers by any ordinary messenger."
"Oh, but from time to time there are council messengers," replied the Earl. "There is not a petit maitre in the whole land who does not contrive, notwithstanding the war, to get over his embroidery from France, nor any old lady to furnish herself with bon-bons."
"I suppose he thinks, too," replied Wilton, "that, as he is coming so soon, it is scarcely worth while, and, perhaps, the papers may need explanations from his own mouth."
"Ah! but the papers, the papers, are the most important," replied the Earl, thoughtfully. "In September or October does he come? Well, I will tell you all before that my self, Wilton. I thought I should have been able to do it ere now; but there is one link in the chain incomplete, and before I say anything, it must be rendered perfect. However, things are happening every day which no one anticipates; and though I do not expect the paper that I mentioned for a fortnight, it may come to-morrow, perhaps."
About ten days after this period, Wilton, as he went to the house of the Earl of Byerdale, remarked all those external signs and symptoms of agitation amongst the people, which may always be seen more or less by an observing eye, when any event of importance takes place in a great city. They were, perhaps, more apparent than usual on the present occasion; for in the short distance he had to go he saw two hawkers of halfpenny sheets bawling down unintelligible tidings to maids in the areas, and two or three groups gathered together in the sunshiny morning at the corners of the streets.
When he reached the Earl's house, he found him more excited than he usually suffered himself to be, and holding up a letter, he exclaimed,—
"Here's an account of this great event of the day, which of course you heard as you came here. This is a proof how things are brought about unexpectedly. Not a man in England, statesman or mechanic, could have imagined, for the last six weeks, that this dark, cold-blooded plotter, Sir John Fenwick, had failed to effect his escape."
"And has he not?" exclaimed Wilton, eagerly. "Is he in England? Has he been found?"
"He has not escaped," replied the Earl, dryly. "He is in England; and he is at the present moment safe in Newgate. Some spies or other officers of the Duke of Shrewsbury dis covered him lingering about in Kent and Sussex, and he has since been apprehended, in attempting to escape into France."
"This is indeed great intelligence," replied Wilton. "I suppose there is no chance whatever of his being acquitted."
"None," answered the Earl; "none whatever, if they manage the matter rightly, though he is more subtle than all the rest of the men put together. It seems likely that the whole business will fall upon me, and I shall see him in a few days; for he already talks of giving information against great persons, on condition that his life be spared."
Wilton concealed any curiosity he might feel as well as he could, and went on with the usual occupations of the day, not remarking as anything particular, that the Earl wrote a long and seemingly tedious letter, and gave it to one of the porters, with orders to send it off by a special messenger.
On going out afterwards, he found that the tidings of Sir John Fenwick's arrest had spread over the whole town; and the rumour, agitation, and anxiety which had been caused by the plot, and had since subsided, was, for the time, revived with more activity than ever. As no one, however, was mentioned in any of the rumours but Sir John Fenwick himself, Wilton did not think it worth while to make the mind of the Duke anxious upon the subject till he could obtain farther information; and he therefore refrained from writing, as it was now the middle of the week, and his visit was to be renewed on the Saturday following. A day passed by without the matter being any farther cleared up; but on the Friday, when Wilton visited the Earl at his own house, he found him reading his letters with a very cloudy brow, which however, grew brighter soon after he appeared.
Wilton found that some painful conversation must have taken place between the Earl and his son; for Lord Sherbrooke was seated in the opposite chair, with one of those listless and indifferent looks upon his countenance which he often assumed during grave discussions, to cover, perhaps, deeper matter within his own breast. The Earl, though a little irritable, seemed not angry; and after he had concluded the reading of his letters, he said, "I must answer all these tiresome epistles myself, Wilton: for the good people who wrote them have so contrived it, in order, I suppose, to spare you, and make me work myself. I shall not need your aid to-day, then; and, indeed, I do not see why you should not go down to Somersbury at once, if you like it; only be up at an early hour on Monday morning.—Sherbrooke, I wish you would take yourself away: it makes me angry to see you twisting that paper up into a thousand forms like a mountebank at a fair."
"Dear papa," replied Lord Sherbrooke, in a childish tone, "you ought to have given me something better to do, then. If you had taught me an honest trade, I should not have been so given to making penny whistles and cutting cockades out of foolscap paper. Nay, don't look so black, and mutter, 'Fool's cap paper, indeed!' between your teeth. I'll go, I'll go," and he accordingly quitted the room.
"Wilton," said the Earl, as soon as his son was gone, "I have one word more to say to you. When you are down at Somersbury, lose not your opportunity—confer with the Duke about your marriage at once. The political sky is darkening. No one can tell what another hour may bring. Now leave me."
Wilton obeyed, and passed through the ante-room into the hall. The moment he appeared there, however, Lord Sherbrooke darted out of the opposite room and caught him by the arm, almost overturning the fat porter in the way.
"Come hither, Wilton," he said, "come hither. I want to speak to you a moment. I want to show you a present that I've got for you."
Wilton followed him, and to his surprise found lying upon the table a pair of handsome spurs, which Lord Sherbrooke instantly put in his hand, saying, "There, Wilton! there. Use them to-night as you go to Somersbury; and, amongst other pretty things that you may have to say to the Duke, you may tell him that Sir John Fenwick has accused him of high treason. My father is going to write to him this very night, to ask him civilly to come up to town to confer with him on business of importance. You yourself may be the bait to the trap, Wilton, for aught I know. So to your horse's back and away, and have all your plans settled with the Duke before the post arrives to-morrow morning."
The earnestness of Sherbrooke's manner convinced his friend that what he said was serious and true, and thanking him eagerly, he left him, and again passed through the hall. Lord Byerdale was speaking at that moment to the porter; but he did not appear to notice Wilton, who passed on without pausing, sought his own lodgings with all speed, mounted his horse, and set out for Somersbury.
The world was in all its summer beauty, nature smiling with her brightest smiles, the glorious sunshine just departing from the sky, and glowing with double brightness in its dying hour, the woods still green and fresh, the blackbird tuning his evening song, and everything speaking peace and promising joy, as Wilton rode through the gates of Somersbury park.
When he dismounted from his horse and rang the bell, his own servant took the tired beast and led it round towards the stable with the air of one who felt himself quite at home in the Duke's house. But the attendant who opened the doors to him, and who was not the ordinary porter, bore a certain degree of sadness and gravity in his demeanour, which caused Wilton instantly to ask after the health of the Duke and Lady Laura.
"My young lady is quite well, sir," replied the servant; "but the Duke has had another bad fit of the gout in the beginning of the week—which has made him wonderfully cross," he added, lowering his voice and giving a marked look in Wilton's face, which made the young gentleman feel that he intended his words as a sort of warning.
"I am afraid," thought Wilton, "what I have to tell him will not diminish his crossness."
But he said nothing aloud, and followed the servant to wards the Duke's own particular sitting room. He found that nobleman alone, with his foot upon a stool. He had calculated as he went thither how he might best soften the tidings he had to bring; but the Duke began the conversation himself, and in a manner which instantly put all other thoughts to flight, and, to say the truth, banished Sir John Fenwick and his whole concerns from his young companion's mind in a moment.
"So, sir, so," he began, using none of the friendly and familiar terms that he generally applied to Wilton, "so you have really had the goodness to come down here again."
"My lord duke," replied Wilton, "your invitation to me was not only so general but so pressing, that always having found you a man of sincerity and truth, I took it for granted that you wished to see me, or you would not have asked me."
"So I am, sir, so I am," replied the Duke; "I am a man of sincerity and truth, and you shall find I am one, too. But from your manner, I suppose my Lord of Byerdale has not told you the contents of my letter to him this morning."
"He never told me," replied Wilton, "that your grace had written to him at all; but so far from even hinting that my visit could be disagreeable to you, he told me that as he did not require my assistance I had better come down here."
"He did, he did?" said the Duke. "He is marvellous kind to send guests to my house, whom he knows that I do not wish to see."
Wilton now began to divine the cause of the Duke's present behaviour. It was evident that Lord Byerdale, without letting him know anything about it, had interfered to demand for him the hand of Lady Laura. How or in what terms he had done so, Wilton was somewhat anxious to ascertain, but he was so completely thunderstruck and surprised by his pre sent reception, that he could scarcely play the difficult game in which he was engaged with anything like calmness or forethought.
"My lord," he replied, "it is probable that the Earl of Byerdale was more moved by kindness towards me than consideration for your grace. As you do not tell me what was the nature of your correspondence, I can but guess at Lord Byerdale's motives—"
"Which were, sir," interrupted the Duke, "to give you a farther opportunity of engaging my daughter's affections against her father's wishes and consent. I suppose this was his object, at least."
"I should think not, my lord," replied Wilton, resolved not to yield his point so easily. "I should rather imagine that Lord Byerdale's view was to give me an opportunity, on the contrary, of pleading my own cause with the Duke of Gaveston—to give me an opportunity of recalling all those feelings of kindness, friendship, and generosity which the Duke has constantly displayed towards me, and of urging him by all those high feelings, which I know he possesses, not to crush an attachment which has grown up under his eyes, and been fostered by his kindness."
The Duke was a little moved by Wilton's words and his manner; but he had taken his resolution to make the present discussion between himself and Wilton final, and he seized instantly upon the latter words of his reply.
"Grown up under my eye, and fostered by my kindness!" he exclaimed. "You do not mean to say, sir, I trust, that I gave you any encouragement in this mad pursuit. You do not mean to say that I saw and connived at your attachment to my daughter?"
Wilton might very well have said that he certainly did give such encouragement and opportunity that the result could scarcely have been by any possibility otherwise than that which it actually was. But he knew that to show him in fault would only irritate the Duke more, and he was silent.
"Good God!" continued the peer, "such a thing never entered into my head. It was so preposterous, so insane, so out of all reasonable calculation, that I might just as well have been afraid of building my house under a hill for fear the hill should walk out of its place and crush it. I could never have dreamed of or fancied such a thing, sir, as that you should forget the difference between my daughter, Lady Laura Gaveston, and yourself, and presume to seek the hand of one so much above you. It shows how kindness and con descension may be mistaken. Lord Byerdale, indeed, talks some vague nonsense about your having good blood in your veins; but what are your titles, sir? what is your rank? where are your estates? Show me your rent-rolls. I have never known anything of Mr. Wilton Brown but as the private secretary of the Earl of Byerdale—HIS CLERK he called him to me one day—who has nothing but a good person, a good coat, and two or three hundred a year. Mr. Wilton Brown to be the suitor for the only child of one of the first peers in the land, the heiress of a hundred thousand per annum! My dear sir, the thing was too ridiculous to be thought of. If people had told me I should have my eyes picked out by a sparrow I should have believed them as much;" and he laughed aloud at his own joke, not with the laugh of merriment, but of anger and scorn.
Wilton felt cut to the heart, but still he recollected that it was Laura's father who spoke; and he was resolved that no pro vocation whatsoever should induce him to say one word which he himself might repent at an after period, or with which she might justly reproach him. He felt that from the Duke he must bear what he would have borne from no other man on earth; that to the Duke he must use a tone different from that which he would have employed to any other man. He paused a moment, both to let the Duke's laugh subside, and the first angry feelings of his own heart wear off: but he then answered,—
"Perhaps, my lord, you attribute to me other feelings and greater presumption than I have in reality been actuated by. Will you allow me, before you utterly condemn me—will you allow me, I say, not to point out any cause why you should have seen, or known, or countenanced my attachment to your daughter, but merely to recall to your remembrance the circumstances in which I have been placed, and in which it was scarcely possible for me to resist those feelings of love and attachment which I will not attempt to disown, which I never will cast off, and which I will retain and cherish to the last hour of my life, whatever may be your grace's ultimate decision, whatever may be my fate, fortune, happiness, or misery, in other respects?"
The Duke was better pleased with Wilton's tone, and, to say the truth, though his resolution was in no degree shaken, yet the anger which he had called up, in order to drown every word of opposition, had by this time nearly exhausted itself.
"My ultimate decision!" said the Duke; "sir, there is no decision to be made: the matter is decided.—But go on, sir, go on—I am perfectly willing to hear. I am not so unreasonable as not to hear anything that you may wish to say, without giving you the slightest hope that I may be shaken by words: which cannot be. What is it you wish to say?"
"Merely this, your grace," replied Wilton. "The first time I had the honour of meeting your grace, I rendered yourself, and more particularly the Lady Laura, a slight service, a very slight one, it is true, but yet sufficient to make you think, yourself, that I was entitled to claim your after-acquaintance, and to justify your reproach for not coming to your box at the theatre. You must admit then, certainly, that I did not press myself into the society of the Lady Laura."
"Oh, certainly not, certainly not," replied the Duke—"I never accused you of that, sir. Your conduct, your external demeanour, has always been most correct. It is not of any presumption of manners that I accuse you."
"Well, my lord," continued Wilton, "it so happened that an accidental circumstance, not worth noticing now, induced your lordship to place much confidence in me, and to render me a familiar visitor at your house. You on one occasion called me to your daughter your best friend, and I was more than once left in Lady Laura's society for a considerable period alone. Now, my lord, none can know better than yourself the charms of that society, or how much it is calculated to win and engage the heart of any one whose bosom was totally free, and had never beheld before a woman equal in the slightest degree to his ideas of perfection. I will confess, my lord, that I struggled very hard against the feelings which I found growing up in my own bosom. At that time I struggled the more and with the firmer determination, because I had always entertained an erroneous impression with regard to my own birth, an impression which, had it continued, would have prevented my dreaming it possible that Lady Laura could ever be mine—"
"It is a pity that it did not continue," said the Duke, dryly; but Wilton took no notice, and went on.
"At that time, however," he said, "I learned, through the Earl of Byerdale, that I had been in error in regard to my own situation—though the distance between your grace and myself might still be great, it was diminished; and you may easily imagine that such joyful tidings naturally carried hope and expectation to a higher pitch than perhaps was reasonable."
"To a very unreasonable pitch, it would seem, indeed, sir," answered the Duke.
"It may be so, my lord," replied Wilton, "but the punishment upon myself is very severe. However, not even then—although I had the fairest prospects from the interest and promises of the Earl of Byerdale, and from the whole interest of the Earl of Sunbury, who has ever treated me as a son—although I might believe that a bright political career was open before me, and that I might perhaps raise myself to the highest stations in the state—not even then did I presume to think of Lady Laura with anything like immediate hopes. Just at this same period, however, the daring attempt to mix your grace with the plans of the conspirators by carrying off your daughter took place, and you were pleased to intrust to me the delicate and somewhat dangerous task of discovering the place to which she had been carried, and setting her free from the hands of the bold and in famous men who had obtained possession of her person. Now, my lord—feeling every inclination to love her, I may indeed say loving her before—you can easily feel how much such an attachment must have been increased; how much every feeling of tenderness and affection must have been augmented by the interest, the powerful interest of that pursuit; how everything must have combined to confirm my love for her for ever, while all my thoughts were bent upon saving her and restoring her to your arms; while the whole feelings of my heart and energies of my mind were busy with her, and her fate alone. Then, my lord, when I came to defend her, at the hazard of my life; when I came to contend for her with those who withheld her from you; when we had to pass together several hours of danger and apprehension, with her clinging to my arm, and with my arm only for her support and protection, and when, at length, all my efforts proved successful, and she was set free, was it wonderful, was it at all extraordinary, that I loved her, or that she felt some slight interest and regard for me? Since then, my lord, reflect on all that has taken place; how constantly we have been together; how she has been accustomed to treat me as the most intimate and dearest of her friends; how you your self have said you looked upon me as your son—"
"But never in that sense, sir, never in that sense!" ex claimed the Duke, glad to catch at any word to cut short a detail which was telling somewhat strongly against him. "A son, sir, I said, a son, not a son-in-law. But, however, to end the whole matter at once, Mr. Wilton Brown, I am very willing to acknowledge the various services you have rendered me, and which you have recapitulated somewhat at length, and to acknowledge that there might be a great many motives for falling in love with my daughter, without my attributing to you any mercenary or ambitious motives. It is not that I blame you at all for falling in love with her; that was but a folly for which you must suffer your own punishment: but I do blame you very much, sir, for trying to make her fall in love with you, when you must have known perfectly well that her so doing would meet with the most decided disapprobation from her father, and that your marriage was altogether out of the question. I think that this very grave error might well cancel all obligations between us; but, nevertheless, I am very willing to recompense those services—" Wilton waved his hand indignantly—"to recompense those services," continued the Duke; "to testify my sense of them, in short, in any way that you will point out."
"My lord, my lord," replied Wilton, "you surely must wish to give me more pain than that which I feel already. The services which I have rendered were freely rendered. They have been repaid already, not by your grace, but by my own heart and feelings. The only recompence I ever proposed to myself was to know that they were really serviceable and beneficial to those for whom they were done. I ask nothing of your grace but that which you will not grant. But the time will come, my lord,—"
"Do not flatter yourself, to your own disappointment!" interrupted the Duke: "the time will never come when I shall change in this respect. I grant my daughter a veto, as I promised her dear mother I would, and she shall never marry a man she does not love; but I claim a veto, too, Mr. Wilton Brown, and will not see her cast herself away, even though she should wish it. The matter, sir, is altogether at an end: it is out of the question, impossible, and it shall never be."
The Duke rose from his chair as he spoke; and then went on, in a cold tone:—"I certainly expected that you might come to-morrow, sir, but not to-night, and I should have made in the morning such preparations as would have prevented any unpleasant meeting between my daughter and yourself in these circumstances. I must now give orders for her to keep her room, as I cannot consent to your meeting, and of course must not treat you inhospitably; but you will understand that the circumstances prevent me from requesting you to protract your visit beyond an early hour to-morrow morning."
"Your grace, I believe, mistakes my character a good deal," replied Wilton: "I remain not an hour in a house where I am not welcome, and I shall beg instantly to take my leave, as Somersbury must not be my abode to-night."
His utterance was difficult, for his heart was too full to admit of his speaking freely, and it required a great effort to prevent his own feelings from bursting forth.
"But your horse must be tired," said the Duke, feeling somewhat ashamed of the part he was acting.
"Not too tired, my lord," replied Wilton, "to bear his master from a house where he is unwillingly received. Were it necessary, my lord, I would walk, rather than force your grace to make any change in your domestic arrangements. You will permit me to tell the porter to call round my groom;" and going out for a moment, he bade the porter in a loud clear voice order his horses to be saddled again, and his groom to come round. He then returned to the chamber where the Duke remained, and both continued silent and embarrassed. It was some time, indeed, before Wilton's orders could be obeyed, for his valise had been carried up to his usual apartments. At length, however, the horse was announced, and Wilton went towards the door,—
"I now take my leave of you, my lord," he said, "and in doing so, shall endeavour to bear with me all the bright memories of much kindness experienced at your hands, and forgetfulness of one night's unkindness, which I trust and believe I have deserved even less than I did your former goodness towards me. For yourself I shall ever retain feelings of the deepest regard and esteem; for your daughter, undying love and attachment."
The Duke was somewhat moved, and very much embarrassed; and whether from habit, embarrassment, or real feelings of regard, he held out his hand to Wilton as they parted. Wilton took it, and pressed it in his own. A single bright drop rose in his eye, and feeling that if he remained another moment his self-command would give way, he left the Duke, and sprang upon his horse's back.
Two or three of the old servants were in the hall as he passed, witnessing, with evident marks of consternation and grief, his sudden departure from Somersbury. The Duke's head groom kept his stirrup, and to his surprise he saw the old butler himself holding the rein.
As Wilton thanked him and took it, however, the man slipped a note into his hand, saying in a low voice, "From my young lady." Wilton clasped his fingers tight upon it, and with one consolation, at least, rode away from the house where he had known so much happiness.
The light was fading away as Wilton took his path through the thick trees of the park up towards the lodge at the gates; but at the first opening where the last rays of the evening streamed through, he opened Laura's note, and found light enough to read it, though perhaps no other eyes than those of love could have accomplished half so much; and oh, what a joy and what a satisfaction it was to him when he did read it! though he found afterwards, that note had been written while the eyes were dropping fast with tears.
"Fear not, dear Wilton," it said: "I have only time to bid you not to fear. I am yours, ever yours; and whatever you may be told, never believe that I give even one thought to any other man. "LAURA GAVESTON."
She signed her name at full, as if she felt that it was a solemn act—not exactly a pledge, that would bind her in the least, more than her own resolutions had already bound her—but a pledge to Wilton's heart—a pledge to which in after years she could always refer, if at any time the hand of another man should be proposed to her.
She had wept while she had written it, but it had given her deep satisfaction to do that act; for she figured to her self the balm, the consolation, the support which it would be to him that she loved best on earth—yes, best on earth; for though she loved her father deeply, she loved Wilton more.
When the high command went forth, "Thou shalt leave all on earth and cleave unto thy husband or thy wife," the God that made the ordinance fashioned the human heart for its accomplishment. It would seem treating a high subject somewhat lightly, perhaps, to say that it may even be by the will of God that parents so very frequently behave ill or unkindly to their children in the matter of their marriage, in order to lessen the breaking of that great tie—in order that the scion may be stripped from the stem more easily. But it were well if parents thought of the effect that they produce in their children's affection towards them by such conduct; for youth is tenacious of the memories of unkindness, and often retains the unpleasant impression that it makes, when the prejudices that produced it have passed away.
However that might be, Laura loved Wilton, as we have said, best on earth; she had a duty to perform to him, and she had a duty to perform to her father, and she determined to perform them both; for she believed—and she was right—that no two duties are ever incompatible: the greater must swallow up the less; and to let it do so, is a duty in itself; but in the present instance there were two duties which were perfectly compatible. She would never marry Wilton while her father opposed; but she would never marry any one else; for she felt that in heart she was already wedded unto him.
The words that she wrote gave Wilton that assurance, and it was a bright and happy assurance to him: for so long as there is nothing irrevocable in the future, the space which it affords gives room for Hope to spread her wings; and though he might feel bitterly and deeply depressed by the conduct of the Duke, and the stern determination which he had displayed, yet with love—with mutual love, and firmness of heart on both sides, he thought that happiness might be in deed delayed, but was not permanently lost.
Meditating on these things, he rode on for about a couple of miles; but then suddenly recollected that in all the agitation of the moment, and the painful discussion he had under gone, he had totally forgotten to tell the Duke either the arrest of Sir John Fenwick, or the tidings which he had heard more immediately affecting himself. He again checked his weary horse, and asked himself, "Shall I ride back?" But then he thought, "No, I will not. I will stop at the first farm-house or inn that I may find, where I can get shelter for myself and food for my horses during the night, and thence I will write him the intelligence, take it how he will. I will not expose myself to fresh contumely by going back this night."
He accordingly rode on upon his way, full of sad and melancholy thoughts, and with the bright but unsubstantial hopes which Laura's letter had given him fading away again rapidly under causes of despondency that were but too real. It was an hour in which gloom was triumphant over all other feelings; one of those hours when even the heart of youth seems to lose its elastic bound; when hope itself, like some faint light upon a dark night, makes the sombre colours of our fate look even blacker than before, and when we feel like mariners who see the day close upon them in the midst of a storm, as if the sun of happiness had sunk from view for ever. Such feelings and such thoughts absorbed him entirely as he rode along, and he marked not at all how far he went, though, from the natural impulse of humanity, he spared the tired horse which carried him, and proceeded at a slow pace.
About three miles from the Duke's gates, his servant rode up, saying, "I see a light there, sir. I should not wonder if that were the little inn of the village which one passes on the right."
"We had better keep our straight-forward way," replied Wilton. "We cannot be very far from the Three Cups, which, though a poor place enough, may serve me for a night's lodging."
The man fell back again, and Wilton was proceeding slowly when he perceived three men riding towards him at an easy pace. The night was clear and fine, and the hour was so early, that he anticipated no evil, though he had come unarmed, expecting to reach Somersbury, as he did, before dark.
He rode on quietly, then, till he met them, when he was forced suddenly to stop, one of the three presenting a pistol at his breast, and exclaiming, "Stand! Who are you?"
"Is it my money you want, gentlemen?" demanded Wil ton; "for if it be, there is but little of it: but as much as I have is at your service."
"I ask, who are you?" replied the other. "I did not ask you for your money. Are you a King's officer? And which King's?"
"I am no King's officer," replied Wilton, "but a true subject of King William."
"Pass on," replied the other man, dropping his pistol "you are not the person we want."
Wilton rode forward, very well contented to have escaped so easily; but he remarked that his servant was likewise stopped, and that the same questions were put to him also. He, too, was allowed to pass, however, without any molestation, and for the next half mile they went on without any further interruption. Then, however, they were met by a single horseman, riding at the same leisurely pace as the others; but he suffered Wilton to pass without speaking, and merely stopped the servant to ask, "Who is that gentleman?"
No sooner had the man given his name than the horseman turned round and rode after him, exclaiming, "Mr. Brown! Mr. Brown!"
Wilton checked his horse, and in a moment after, to his surprise, he found no other but the worthy Captain Byerly by his side.
"How do you do, Mr. Brown?" said the Captain, as he came up. "I have but a moment to speak to you, for I have business on before; but I wanted to tell you, that if you keep straight on for half a mile farther, and taking the road to the right, where you will see a finger-post, go into a cottage—that cottage there, where you can just see a light twinkling in the window over the moor—you will find some old friends of yours, whom you and I saw together the last time we met, and another one, too, who will be glad enough to see you."
"Who do you mean?" demanded Wilton, somewhat anxiously.
"I mean the Colonel," replied Captain Byerly.
"Indeed!" said Wilton. "I wish to see him very much."
"You will find him there, then," replied the other. "But he is sadly changed, poor fellow, sadly changed, indeed!"
"How so?" said Wilton. "Do you mean that he has been ill?"
"No, not exactly ill," answered Byerly, "and I don't well know what it is makes him so.—At all events, I can't stop to talk about it at present; but if you go on you will see him, and hear more about it from himself. Good night, Mr. Brown, good night: those fellows will get too far ahead of me, if I don't mind." And thus saying, he rode on.
Wilton, for his part, proceeded on his way, musing over what had occurred. It seemed to him, indeed, not a little strange, that a party of men, whose general business was hardly doubtful, should suffer him, without any knowledge of his person or any private motives for so doing, to pass them thus quietly on his way, and he was led to imagine that they must have in view some very peculiar object to account for such conduct. That object, however, was evidently considered by themselves of very great importance, and to require extraordinary precautions; for before Wilton reached the direction-post to which Byerly had referred, he passed two more horsemen, one of whom was singing as he came up, but stopped immediately on perceiving the wayfarer, and demanded in a civil tone—
"Pray, sir, did you meet some gentlemen on before?"
"Yes," replied Wilton, "I did: three, and then one."
"Did they speak to you?" demanded the other.
"Yes," replied Wilton, "they asked me some questions."
"Oh, was that all?" said the man. "Good night, sir;" and on the two rode.
At the finger-post, Wilton turned from the highway; but for some time he was inclined to fancy, either that he had mistaken the direction, or that the light had been put out in the cottage window, for not the least glimmering ray could he now see. At length, on suddenly turning a belt of young planting, he found himself in front of a low but extensive and very pretty cottage, or rather perhaps it might be called two cottages joined together by a centre somewhat lower than themselves. It was more like a building of the present day than one of that epoch; and though the beautiful China rose, the sweetest ornament of our cottage doors at present, was not then known in this country, a rich spreading vine covered every part of the front with its luxuriant foliage. The light was still in the window, having only been hidden by the trees; and throwing his rein to the groom, Wilton said,—
"Perhaps we may find shelter here for the night; but I must first go in, and see."
Thus saying, he advanced and rang a bell, the handle of which he found hanging down by the door-post, and after having waited a minute or two, he heard the sound of steps coming along the passage. The door was opened by a pretty, neat, servant girl, with a candle in her hand; but behind her stood a woman considerably advanced in life, bowed in the back, and with a stick in her hand, presenting so much altogether the same appearance which the Lady Helen Oswald had thought fit to assume in her first interview with him, that for an instant Wilton doubted whether it was or was not herself. A second glance, however, at the old woman's face, showed the withering hand of time too strongly for him to doubt any farther.
The momentary suspense had made him gaze at the old woman intently, and she had certainly done the same with regard to him. There was an expression of wonder, of doubt, and yet of joy, in her countenance, which he did not at all understand; and his surprise was still more increased, when, upon his asking whether he could there obtain shelter during the night, the woman exclaimed with a strong Irish accent, "Oh, that you shall, and welcome a thousand times!"
"But I have two horses and my groom here," replied Wilton.
"Oh, for the horses and the groom," replied the woman, "I fear me, boy, we can't take them in for ye; but he can go away up to the high road, and in half a mile he'll come to the Three Cups, where he will find good warm stabling enough."
"That will be the best way, I believe," replied Wilton; and turning back to speak with the man for a moment, he gave him directions to go to the little public house, to put up the horses, to get some repose, and to be ready to return to London at four o'clock on the following morning.
As soon as he had so done, he turned back again, and found the old lady with her head thrust into the doorway of a room on the right-hand side, saying in a loud tone—"It's himself, sure enough, though!"
The moment she had spoken, he heard an exclamation, apparently in the voice of Lord Sherbrooke; and, following a sign from the girl who had opened the door, he went in, and found the room tenanted by four persons, who had been brought together in intimate association, by one of the strangest of those strange combinations in which fate some times indulges.
Seated in a large arm-chair, with her cheek much paler than it had been before, but still extremely beautiful, was the lady whom we must now call Lady Sherbrooke. Her large dark eyes, full of light and lustre, though somewhat shaded by a languid fall of the upper eyelid, were turned towards the door as Wilton entered, and her fair beautiful hand lay in that of her husband as he sat beside her.
On the opposite side of the room, with her fine face bearing but very few traces of time's withering power, and her beautiful figure falling into a line of exquisitely easy grace, sat the Lady Helen, gazing on the other two, with her arm resting on a small work-table, and her cheek supported by her hand.
Cast with apparent listlessness into a chair, somewhat behind the Lady Helen Oswald, and shaded by her figure from the light upon the table, was the powerful form of our old acquaintance Green. But there was in the whole attitude which he had assumed an apathy, a weary sort of thought fulness, which struck Wilton very much the moment he beheld him. Green's eyes, indeed, were raised to mark the opening door, but still there was a gloomy want of interest in their glance which was utterly unlike the quick and sparkling vivacity which had characterized them in former times.
The first who spoke was Lord Sherbrooke, who, still holding Caroline's hand in his, held out the other to his friend, saying, in a tone of some feeling, but at the same time of feeling decidedly melancholy, "This is a sight that will give you pleasure, Wilton."
"It is, indeed, my dear Sherbrooke," replied Wilton; "only I do wish that it had been rendered more pleasant still, by seeing no remaining trace of illness in this lady's face."
"I am better, sir, much better," she said; "for my recovery has been certain and uninterrupted, though somewhat long. If I could but teach your friend to bear a little adversity as unrepining as I have borne sickness, we might be very happy. I am very glad, indeed, to see you, sir," she continued; "for you must know, that this is my house that you are in," and she smiled gaily as she spoke: "but though I should always have been happy to welcome you as Sherbrooke's friend, yet I do so more gladly now, as it gives me the opportunity of thanking you for all the care and kindness that you showed me upon a late occasion."
Though Wilton had his heart too full of painful memories to speak cheerfully upon any subject, yet he said all that was courteous, and all that was kind; and, as it were to force himself to show an interest, which he would more really have experienced at another moment, he added, "I often wished to know how the sad adventures of that night ended."
The lady coloured; but he instantly continued, "I mean what was the result, when the constables, and other people, visited the house. I knew that Sherbrooke's very name was sufficient to protect him, and all in whom he had an interest, and therefore I took no steps in the matter; but I much wished to hear what followed after I had left the place, though, as Sherbrooke said nothing, I did not like to question him."
"You have questioned me on deeper subjects than that, Wilton," replied Lord Sherbrooke.—"But the matter that you speak of was easily settled. The constables found no one in the house but Plessis, myself, these two ladies, and some humbler women. It so happened, however, that I was known to one of the men, who had been a coachman in my father's service, and had thriven, till he had grown—into a baker, of all earthly things. As to Plessis, no inquiries were made, as there was not a constable amongst them who had not an occasional advantage, by his I 'little commerce,' as he calls it; and the ladies of course passed unscathed, though the searching of the house, which at the time we could not rightly account for, till Plessis afterwards explained the whole, alarmed my poor Caroline, and, I think, did her no small harm. But look you, Wilton, there is your good friend, and mine, on the other side of the room, rousing himself from his reverie, to speak with you. Ay! and one who must have a share in your greetings, also, though, with the unrivalled patience which has marked her life, she waits till all have done."
Wilton crossed over the room, and spoke a few words to the Lady Helen Oswald; and then turning to Green, he held out his hand to him; but the greeting of the latter was still somewhat abstracted and gloomy.
"Ha! Wilton," he said. "What brought you hither this night, my good boy? You are on your way to Somersbury, I suppose,"
"No," replied Wilton; "I have just come thence."
"Indeed!" said Green. "Indeed! How happens that, I wonder? Did you meet any of my men? Indeed you must have met them, if you come from Somersbury."
"I met several men on horseback," replied Wilton; "one party of whom, three in number, stopped me, and asked me several questions."
"They offered no violence? They offered no violence?" repeated Green, eagerly.
"None," answered Wilton; "though I suppose, if I had not answered their questions satisfactorily, they would have done so, as they seemed very fit persons for such proceedings. But I was in hopes," he continued, "that all this had gone by with you, and that such dangerous adventures were no more thought of."
"I wish I had never thought of any still more dangerous," replied Green; "I should not have the faces looking at me that now disturb my sleep. But this is not my adventure," he continued, "but his—his sitting opposite there. I have nothing to do with it, but assisting him."
"Yes, indeed, my dear Wilton," replied Lord Sherbrooke, "the adventure is mine. All other trades failing, and having exhausted every other mad prank but that, I am taking a turn upon the King's Highway, which has become far more fashionable now-a-days than the Park, the puppet-show, or even Constitution Hill."
"Nay, nay, Henry!" exclaimed his wife, interrupting him, "I will not hear you malign yourself in that way. He is not taking a turn upon the King's Highway, sir, for here he sits, bodily, I trust, beside his wife; and if the spirit have anything to do with the adventure that he talks of, the motive is a noble one—the object is not what he says."
"Hush, hush, Caroline," replied Lord Sherbrooke; "you will make Wilton believe, first, that I am sane; next, that I am virtuous; and, lastly, that I love any woman sufficiently to submit to her contradicting me; things which I have been labouring hard for months to make him think impossible."
"He knows, sir," said Green, interrupting him, "that you are generous, and that you are kind, though he does not yet know to what extent."
"I believe he knows me better than any man now living," replied Lord Sherbrooke; "but it happens somewhat inopportunely that he should be here to-night.—Hark, Colonel! There is even now the galloping of a horse round to the back of the house. Let you and I go into the other room, and see what booty our comrade has brought back."
He spoke with one of his gay but uncertain smiles, while Green's eyes sparkled with some of the brightness of former times, as he listened eagerly, to make sure that Lord Sherbrooke's ear had not deceived him.
"You are right, you are right, sir," he said; "and then, I hear Byerly's voice speaking to the old woman."
But before he could proceed to put Lord Sherbrooke's suggestion in execution, Byerly was in the room, holding up a large leathern bag, and exclaiming, "Here it is! here it is!"
"Alas!" said Caroline—"I fear dangerously obtained."
"Not in the least, madam," replied Byerly: "if the man dies, let it be remarked, he dies of fright, and nothing else; not a finger has been laid, in the way of violence, upon his person; but he would have given up anything to any one who asked him. We made him promise and vow that he would ride back to the town he came from; and tying his feet under his horse's belly, we sent him off as hard as he could go. I, indeed, kept at a distance watching all, but the others gave me the bag as soon as it was obtained, and then scattered over the moor, every man his own way. I am back to London with all speed, and not a point of this will be ever known."
"Come hither, then, come hither, Byerly," said Green, leading him away; "we must see the contents of the bag, take what we want, and dispose of the rest. You had better come with me too, sir," he added, addressing Lord Sherbrooke; "for as good Don Quixote would have said, 'The adventure is yours, and it is now happily achieved.'"
Thus saying, the three left the room together, and were absent for nearly half an hour.
It was evident to Wilton, that whatever was the enterprise in which Lord Sherbrooke and Green were engaged, it was one which, without absolutely wanting confidence in him, they were anxious to conceal from his knowledge; and, to say truth, he was by no means sorry that such should be the case.
He knew Lord Sherbrooke too well to hope that any remonstrance would affect him, and he was therefore glad not to be made a partaker of any secret regarding transactions which he believed to be dangerous, and yet could not prevent. In regard to Green too, there were particular feelings in his bosom which made him anxious to avoid any further knowledge of that most hazardous course of life in which he was evidently engaged; for he could not shut his eyes to what that course of life really was. Although, as we have already said, at that period the resource of the King's Highway had been adopted by very different people from those who even ten or twenty years afterwards trafficked thereon: though many a man of high education, gallant courage, and polished manners, ay, even of high birth, cast from his station by the changes and misfortunes of the day—like parts of a fine building thrown down by an earthquake, and turned to viler purposes—sought the midnight road as their only means of support: nay, though there were even some names afterwards restored to the peerage, which are supposed to have been well known amongst the august body of traffickers in powder and lead: yet Wilton could not but feel grieved that any one in whom he felt an interest should be tempted or driven to such an expedient, and at all events, he thought that the less he knew upon the subject the better.
That, however, which struck him as the most strange, was to find two beings such as those who were now left alone with him, graceful, beautiful, gentle, high-toned in manners, distinguished in appearance, fitted to mingle with the highest society, and adorn the highest rank, cognizant of, if not taking part in, things so dangerous and reprehensible.
A momentary silence ensued when he was left alone with the two ladies, and the first words that he spoke evidently showed to the Lady Helen what was passing in Wilton's mind. She looked at him for a moment with a grave smile, and after she had herself alluded more directly to the subject, he expressed plainly the regret that he felt at what he witnessed.
"I regret likewise, my dear boy," she said, "much that has gone before, nay, almost everything that has taken place in the conduct of him you speak of for many years past. I regret it all deeply, and regret it far more than I do the present transaction. You will think it strange, but I see not well how this was to be avoided. Not that I believe," she added, thoughtfully, "that we ought to frustrate bad men by bad means; but nevertheless, Wilton, here was a very great and high object to be attained: utter destruction to all our hopes would have been the consequence of missing that object; and there was but one way of securing it. This is to be the last enterprise of the kind ever undertaken; and it was that very fact which made me so fearful, for I know how treacherously fate deals with us in regard to any rash or evil acts. How very often do we see that the last time—the very last time—men who have long gone on with impunity, are to commit anything that is wrong, punishment and discovery overtake them, and vengeance steps in before reformation."
Wilton did not, of course, press the subject, as it was one, in regard to which he would have been forced to converse on abstract principles, while the others spoke from particular knowledge. Nor was his mind attuned at that moment to much conversation of any kind, nor to any thoughts but those of his own grief.
The conversation lingered then till Green and Lord Sherbrooke returned. Captain Byerly was now no longer with them, and not another word was said of the transactions of that night. Green relapsed into gloomy silence, and very shortly after, the two ladies retired to rest.
The moment they were gone, Lord Sherbrooke grasped Wilton's hand, saying, "What is the matter, Wilton? You are evidently ill at ease."
"You give me none of your confidence, Sherbrooke," he said, "and yet you demand mine. However, I will tell you in one word what I might well have expected has occurred. An explanation has taken place between the Duke and myself, and that bright vision has faded away."
"Indeed!" said Lord Sherbrooke, thoughtfully. "Have you, too, met with a reverse, Wilton? I thought that you were one of the exempt, that everything was to smile upon you, that prosperity was to attend your footsteps even to the close of life. But fear not, fear not, Wilton—this is only a momentary frown of the capricious goddess. She will smile again, and all be bright. It is not in your fate to be un fortunate!"
"Nay, nay, Sherbrooke, this is cruel jesting," said Wilton. "Surely my lot is no very enviable one."
"It is one of those that mend, Wilton," replied Sherbrooke, sadly. "I live but to lose."
He spoke with a tone of deep and bitter melancholy; and Green, who had hitherto scarcely uttered a word, chimed in with feelings of as sad a kind; adding, as an observation upon what Lord Sherbrooke had said, "Who is there that lives past twenty that may not say the same? Who is there that does not live to lose?—First goes by youth, down into that deep, deep sea, which gives us back none of all the treasures that it swallows up. Youth goes down and innocence goes with it, and peace is then drowned too. Some sweet and happy feelings that belonged to youth, like the strong swimmers from some shipwrecked bark, struggle a while upon the surface, but are engulfed at last. Strength, vigour, power of enjoyment, disappear one by one. Hope, buoyant hope, snatching at straws to keep herself afloat, sinks also in the end. Then life itself goes down, and the broad sea of events, which has just swallowed up another argosy, flows on, as if no such thing had been; and myriads cross and re-cross on the same voyage the spot where others perished scarce a day before. It is all loss, nothing but loss," and he again fell into a fit of bitter musing.
"Come, Wilton," said Lord Sherbrooke, after a moment's thought, "I will show you a room where you can sleep. These are but melancholy subjects, and your fancies are grave enough already. They will be brighter soon—fear not, Wilton, they will be brighter soon."
"I know not what should brighten them," replied Wilton. "But I will willingly go and seek sleep for an hour or two, as I must depart by daylight to-morrow. In the meanwhile, Sherbrooke, I will ask you to let me write a brief note to the Duke, and trust to you to send it as early as may be; for to say the truth, in the bitter disappointment I have met with, and the harsh language which he used towards me, I forgot altogether to mention what you told me this morning."
The materials for writing were soon furnished, although Lord Sherbrooke declared, that were he in Wilton's situation, he would let the proud peer take his own course, as he had shown himself so ungrateful for previous services.
Wilton, however, only replied, "He is Laura's father, Sherbrooke," and the note was accordingly written.
"It shall be delivered early," said Lord Sherbrooke, as soon as it was ready. "Give it to me, Wilton; and now let us go."
Ere he quitted the room, however, Wilton turned to Green, and held out his hand, saying, "I am grieved to see you so sad. Can I by no means aid you or give you comfort?"
Green grasped his hand eagerly and tightly in his own, and replied, "No, my boy, no; nothing can give me comfort. I have done that which calmly and deliberately I would do again to-morrow, were I so called upon, and which yet, in the doing it, has deprived my mind of peace. There may be yet one ray of comfort reach me, and it will reach me from you, Wilton; but it may be that you may wish to speak with me from time to time; if so, you will hear of me here, for I go no more to London. I have seen bloody heads and human quarters enow. Seek me here; and if you want anything, ask me: for though powerless to cure the bitterness of my own heart, I have more power to serve others than ever I had."
"I have tried more than once in vain to see you," replied Wilton; "not that I wanted anything, but that I was anxious to hear tidings of you, and to thank you for what you had already done. I will now, however, bid you good night, and trust that time, at least, may prove an alleviation of your burdens as well as those of others."
Green shook his head with a look of utter despondency, and Wilton quitted him, seeing that further words were vain. Lord Sherbrooke then conducted him to a small neat room, and left him to lie down to rest, saying—