More than once Adrian from his distant end of the table, met her eyes, fixed on him for a moment, and the look, so full of mysterious meanings made his heart beat in anguish, expecting he knew not what.
Among the rest of the assembly, part deference to a calamity so stoutly borne, part amazement at such strange ways, part discomfort at their positions as feasters in the midst of mourning, had reduced conversation to the merest pretence. The ladies were glad enough when the time came for them to withdraw; nor did most of the men view with reluctance a moment which would send the decanters gliding freely over the mahogany, and relieve them from this unwonted restraint.
Madame de Savenaye had, however, other interests in store for these latter.
She rose with the rest of the ladies, but halted at the door, and laying her hand upon her uncle's arm, said an earnest word in his ear, in obedience to which he bundled out his daughters, as they hung back politely, closed the door upon the last skirt, and reconducted the Countess to the head of the table, scratching his chin in some perplexity, but ready to humour her slightest whim.
She stood at her former place and looked for a moment in silence from one to another of the faces turned with different expressions of astonishment and anticipation towards her—ruddy faces most of them, young, or old, handsome or homely, the honest English stamp upon each; and distinct from them all, Adrian's pallid, thoughtful features and his ardent eyes.
Upon him her gaze rested the longest. Then with a little wave of her hand she prayed them to be seated, and waited to begin her say until the wine had passed round.
"Gentlemen," then quoth she, "with my good uncle's permission I shall read you the letter which I have this night received, so that English gentlemen may learn how those who are faithful to their God and their King are being dealt with in my country. This letter is from Monsieur de Puisaye, one of the most active partisans of the Royal cause, a connection of the ancient house of Savenaye. And he begins by telling me of the unexpected reverses sustained by our men so close upon their successes at Chateau-Gonthier, successes that had raised our loyal hopes so high. 'The most crushing defeat,' he writes, 'has taken place near the town of Savenaye itself, on your own estate, and your historic house is now, alas! in ruins.... During the last obstinate fight your husband had been wounded, but after performing prodigies of valour—such as, it was hoped or trusted, the king should in time hear of—he escaped from the hands of his enemies. For many weeks with a few hundred followers he held the fields in the Marais, but he was at last hemmed in and captured by one of the monster Thureau's Colonnes Infernales, those hellish legions with an account of whose deeds,' so says this gallant gentleman our friend, 'I will not defile my pen, but whose boasts are like those of Attila the Hun, and who in their malice have invented obscene tortures worthy of Iroquois savages for all who fall into their clutches, be they men, women, or children.... But, by Heaven's mercy, dear Madame,' says M. de Puisaye to me, 'your noble husband was too weak to afford sport to those demons, and so he has escaped torment. He was hanged with all speed indeed, for fear he might die first of his toils and his wounds, and so defeat them at the last.'"
A rustling murmur of horror and indignation went round the table; but the little woman faced the audience proudly.
"He died," she said, "as beseems a brave man. But this is not all. I had a sister, she was very fair—like me some people said, in looks—she used to be the merry one at home in the days of peace," she gave a little smile, far more piteous than tears would be—"She chose to remain among her people when they were fighting, to help the wounded, the sick." Here Madame de Savenaye paused a moment and put down the letter from which she had been reading; for the first time since she had begun to speak she grew pale; knitting her black brows and with downcast eyes she went on: "Monsieur de Puisaye says he asks my pardon humbly on his knees for writing such tidings to me, bereaved as I am of all I hold dear, but 'it is meet,' he says, 'that the civilised world should know the deeds these followers of liberty and enlightenment have wrought upon gallant men and highborn ladies,' and I hold that he says well."
She flashed once more her black gaze round upon the men, who with heads all turned towards her and forgetting their wine, hung upon her words. "It is right that I should know, and you too! It is meet that such deeds should be made known to the world: my sister was taken by these men, but less fortunate than my husband she had life enough left for torture—she too is dead now; M. de Puisaye adds: Thank God! And that is all that I can say too—Thank God!"
There was a dead silence in the room as she ceased speaking, broken at last, here and there, along the table by exclamations and groans and a deep execration from Sir Thomas, which was echoed deep-mouthed by his guests.
Adrian himself, the pacific, the philosopher, with both arms, stretched out on the table, clenched his hands, and set his teeth and gazed into space with murderous looks.
Then the clear young voice went on again:
"You, who have honoured mothers and wives of your own, and have young sweethearts, or sisters or daughters—you English gentlemen who love to see justice, how long will you allow such things to be done while you have arms to strike? We are not beaten yet; there are French hearts still left that will be up and doing so long as they have a drop of blood to shed. Our gallant Bretons and Vendeens are uniting once more, our emigres are collecting, but we want aid, brave English friends, we want arms, money, soldiers. My task lies to my hand; the sacred legacy of my dead I have accepted; is there any of you here who will help the widow to maintain the fight?"
She had risen to her feet; the blood glowed on her cheek as she concluded her appeal; a thousand stars danced in her eyes.
Old men and young they leapt up, with a roar; pressing round her, pouring forth acclamations, asseverations and oaths—Would they help her? By God—they would die for her—Never had the old rafters of Pulwick rung to such enthusiasm.
And when with proud smiles and crimsoned face she withdraws at last from so much ardour, the door has scarcely fallen behind her before Sir Thomas proposes her health in a bellow, that trembles upon tears:
"Gentlemen, this lady's courage is such as might put most men's strength to shame. Here is, gentlemen, to Madame de Savenaye!"
And she, halting on the stairs for a moment, to still her high-beating heart, before she lay her babe against it, hears the toast honoured with three times three.
* * * * *
When the Lancastrian ladies had succeeded at length in collecting and carrying off such among the hiccupping husbands, and maudlin sons, who were able to move, Sir Thomas re-entering the hall, after speeding the last departing chariot, and prudently leaning upon his tall son—for though he had a seasoned head the night's potations had been deep and fiery—was startled well-nigh into soberness, at the sight of his niece waiting for him at the foot of the stairs.
"Why, Cis, my love, we thought you had been in bed this long while! why—where have you been then since you ran away from the dining-room? By George!" chuckling, "the fellows were mad to get another glimpse of you!"
His bloodshot eye hung over her fondly. There was not a trace of fatigue upon that delicate, pretty face.
"I wanted to think—I have much to think on now. I have had to read and ponder upon my instructions here,"—tapping her teeth with the letter, she still carried, "Good uncle, I would speak with you—yes, even now," quick to notice Adrian's slight frown of disapproval (poor fellow, he was sober enough at any rate!), "there is no time like the present. I have my work to do, and I shall not rest to-night, till I have planned it in my head."
Surely the brilliancy of those eyes was feverish; the little hands she laid upon them to draw them into the dim-lit library were hot as fire.
"Why, yes, my pretty," quoth the good uncle, stifling a portentous yawn, and striving to look wondrous wise, "Adrian, she wants to consult me, sir, hic!"
He fell into an arm-chair as he spoke, and she sank on her knees beside him, the firelight playing upon her eager face, while Adrian, in the shadow, watched.
"Do you think," she asked of the old man, eagerly, "that these gentlemen, who spoke so kindly to me a few hours ago, will be as much in earnest in the morning?"
"Why d—n them! if they go back on their word, I'll call them out!" thundered Sir Thomas, in a great rage all of a sudden. She surveyed him inquiringly, and shot a swift keen glance from the placid, bulky figure in the chair, to Adrian pale and erect, behind it, then rose to her feet and stood a few paces off, as it were pondering.
"What is now required of me—I have been thinking it well over," she said at last, "can hardly be achieved by a woman alone. And yet, with proper help and support, I think I could do more than any man by himself. There is that in a woman's entreaties which will win, when a man may fail. But I must have a knight at my side; a protector, at the same time as a faithful servant. These are not the times to stand on conventional scruples. Do you think, among these gentlemen, any could be found with sufficient enthusiasm, for the Royal cause, here represented by me, to attend, and support me through all the fatigues, the endless errands, the interviews—ay, also the rebuffs, the ridicule at times, perhaps the danger of the conjuration, which must be set on foot in this country—to do all that, without hope of other reward than the consciousness of helping a good cause, and—and the gratitude of one, who may have nothing else to give?"
She stopped with a little nervous laugh: "No, it is absurd! no man, on reflection would enter into such a service unless it were for his own country."
As the last words fell from her lips, she suddenly turned to Adrian and met his earnest gaze.
"Or for his kindred," said the young man, coming up to her with grave simplicity, "if his kindred required it."
A gleam of satisfaction passed across her face. The father, who had caught her meaning—sharp enough, as some men can be in their cups—nodded his head with great vigour.
"Yes, why should you think first of strangers," he grumbled, "when you have your own blood, to stand by you—blood is thicker than water, ain't it? Am I too old, or is he too young, to wait on you—hey, madam?"
She extended her hand, allowing it to linger in Adrian's grasp, whilst she laid the other tenderly on the old man's shoulder.
"My good uncle! my kind cousin! Have I the choice already between two such cavaliers? I am fortunate indeed in my misfortune. In other circumstances to decide would be difficult between two men, each so good; but," she added, after a moment's hesitation, and looking at Adrian in a manner that made the young man's heart beat thickly, "in this case it is obvious I must have some one whom I need not fear to direct."
"Ay, ay," muttered the baronet, "I'd go with you, my darling, to the world's end; but there's that young philosopher of mine breaking his heart for you. And when all's said and done, it's the young fellow that'll be the most use to you, I reckon. Ay, you've chosen already, I'll be bound. The gouty old man had best stop at home. Ho, ho, ho! You've the luck, Adrian; more luck than you deserve."
"It is I who have more luck than I deserve," answered Madame de Savenaye, smiling upon her young knight as, taking heart of grace, he stooped to seal the treaty upon her hand. "To say the truth, I had hoped for this, yet hardly dared to allow myself to count upon it. And really, uncle, you give your own son to my cause?—and you, cousin, you are willing to work for me? I am indeed strengthened at the outset of my undertaking. I shall pray that you may never have cause to regret your chivalrous goodness."
She dropped Adrian's hand with a faint pressure, and moved sighing towards the door.
"Do you wonder that I have no tears, cousin?" she said, a little wistfully; "they must gather in my heart till I have time to sit down and shed them."
Thus it was that a letter penned by this unknown M. de Puisaye from some hidden fastness in the Bocage of Brittany came to divert the course of Adrian Landale's existence into a channel where neither he, nor any of those who knew him, would ever have dreamed to see it drift.
Oh, what hadst thou to do with cruel Death, Who wast so full of life, or Death with thee?
Sir Adrian Landale, in his sea-girt fastness, still absorbed in dreams of bygone days, loosed his grasp of faithful Rene's shoulder and fell to pacing the chamber with sombre mien; while Rene, to whom these fits of abstraction in his master were not unfamiliar, but yet to his superstitious peasant soul, eerie and awe-inspiring visitations, slipped unnoticed from his presence.
The light-keeper sate down by his lonely hearth and buried his gaze in the glowing wood-embers, over which, with each fitful thundering rush of wind round the chimney, fluttered little eddies of silvery ash.
So, that long strife was over, which had wrought such havoc to the world, had shaped so dismally the course of his own life! The monster of selfish ambition, the tyrannic, insatiable conqueror whose very existence had so long made peaceable pursuits unprofitable to mankind, the final outcome of that Revolution that, at the starting point, had boded so nobly for human welfare—he was at last laid low, and all the misery of the protracted struggle now belonged to the annals of the past.
It was all over—but the waste! The waste of life and happiness, far and wide away among innocent and uninterested beings, the waste remained.
And, looking back on it, the most bitter portion of his own wrecked life was the short time he had yet thought happy; three months, spent as knight-errant.
How far they seemed, far as irrevocable youth, those days when, in the wake of that love-compelling emissary, he moved from intrigue to intrigue among the emigres in London, and their English sympathisers, to bustling yet secret activity in seafaring parts!
The mechanical instrument directed by the ingenious mind of Cecile de Savenaye; the discreet minister who, for all his young years, secured the help of some important political sympathiser one day, scoured the country for arms and clothing, powder and assignats another; who treated with smuggling captains and chartered vessels that were to run the gauntlet on the Norman and Breton coast, and supply the means of war to struggling and undaunted loyalists. All this relentless work, little suited, on the whole, to an Englishman, and in a cause the rights of which he himself had, up to then, refused to admit, was then repaid a hundredfold by a look of gratitude, of pleasure even, a few sweet moments of his lady's company, before being sent hence again upon some fresh enterprise.
Ah, how he loved her! He, the youth on the threshold of manhood, who had never known passion before, how he loved this young widowed mother who used him as a man to deal for her with men, yet so loftily treated him as a boy when she dealt with him herself. And if he loved her in the earlier period of his thraldom, when scarce would he see her one hour in the twenty-four, to what all-encompassing fervour did the bootless passion rise when, the day of departure having dawned and sunk, he found himself on board the privateer, sailing away with her towards unknown warlike ventures, her knight to protect her, her servant to obey!
On all these things mused the recluse of Scarthey, sinking deeper and deeper into the past: the spell of haunting recollection closing on him as he sat by his hearthside, whilst the increasing fury of the gale toiled and troubled outside fighting the impassable walls of his tower.
Could it have been possible that she—the only woman that had ever existed for him, the love for whom had so distorted his mind from its natural sympathies, had killed in him the spring of youth and the savour of life—never really learnt to love him in return till the last?
And yet there was a woman's soul in that delicious woman's body—it showed itself at least once, though until that supreme moment of union and parting, it seemed as if a man's mind alone governed it, becoming sterner, more unbendable, as hardships and difficulties multiplied.
In the melancholy phantasm passing before his mind's eye, of a period of unprecedented bloodshed and savagery, when on the one side Chouans, Vendeens, and such guerillas of which Madame de Savenaye was the moving spirit, and on the other the colonnes infernales of the revolutionary leaders, vied with each other in ferocity and cunning, she stood ever foremost, ever the central point of thought, with a vividness that almost a score of years had failed to dim.
When the mood was upon him, he could unfold the roll of that story buried now in the lonely graves of the many, or in the fickle memories of the few, but upon his soul printed in letters of fire and blood—to endure for ever.
Round this goddess of his young and only love clustered the sole impressions of the outer world that had ever stirred his heart: the grandeur of the ocean, of the storm, the glory of sunrise over a dishevelled sea, the ineffable melancholy of twilight rising from an unknown strand; then the solemn coldness of moonlight watches, the scent of the burnt land under the fierce sun, when all nature was hushed save the dreamy buzz of insect-life: the green coolness of underwood or forest, the unutterable harmony of the sighing breeze, and the song of wild birds during the long patient ambushes of partisan war; the taste of bread in hunger, of the stream in the fever of thirst, of approaching sleep in exhaustion—and, mixed with these, the acrid emotions of fight and carnage, anguish of suspense, savage exultation of victory—all the doings of a life which he, bred to intellectual pleasures and high moral ideas, would have deemed a nightmare, but which, lived as it was in the atmosphere of his longing and devotion, yet held for him a strange and pungent joy: a cup of cruel memories, yet one to be lingered over luxuriously till the savour of each cherished drop of bitterness be gathered to the uttermost.
Now, in the brightness of the embers, between the fitful flames of crumbling wood, spreads before his eyes the dreary strand near Quiberon, immense in the gathering darkness of a boisterous evening. Well hidden under the stone table of a Druidical men-hir glows a small camp-fire sedulously kept alive by Rene for the service of The Lady. She, wrapped up in a coarse peasant-cloak, pensively gazes into the cheerless smoke and holds her worn and muddy boots to the smouldering wood in the vain hope of warmth.
And Adrian stands silently behind her, brooding on many things—on the vicissitudes of that desultory war which has left them not a roof whereunder they can lay their heads, during which the little English contingent has melted from them one by one; on the critical action of the morrow when the republican columns, now hastening to oppose the landing of the great royalist expedition to Quiberon (that supreme effort upon which all their hopes centre) must be surprised and cut off at whatever cost; on the mighty doings to follow, which are to complete the result of the recent sea fight off Ushant and crown their devoted toil with victory at last....
And through his thoughts he watches the pretty foot, in its hideous disguise of patched, worn, ill-fitting leather, and he sees it as on the first day of their meeting, in its gleaming slipper and dainty silken stocking.
Now and then an owl-cry, repeated from point to point, tells of unremitting guard, but for which, in the vast silence, none could suspect that a thousand men and more are lying stretched upon the plain all around them, fireless, well-nigh without food, yet patiently waiting for the morrow when their chiefs shall lead them to death; nor that, in a closer circle, within call, are some fifty gars, remnant of the indomitable "Savenaye band," and tacitly sworn bodyguard to The Lady who came back from ease and safety over seas to share their peril.
No sound besides, but the wind as it whistles and moans over the heath—and the two are together in the mist which comes closing in upon them as if to shroud them from all the rest, for even Rene has crept away, to sleep perhaps.
She turns at last towards him, her small face in the dying light of this sullen evening, how wan and weather-beaten!
"Pensive, as usual, cousin?" she says in English, and extends her hand, browned and scratched, that was once so exquisite, and she smiles, the smile of a dauntless soul from a weary body.
Poor little hands, poor little feet, so cold, so battered, so ill-used! He, who would have warmed them in his bosom, given his heart for them to tread upon, breaks down now, for the first time; and falling on his knees covers the cold fingers with kisses, and then lays his lips against those pitiful torn boots.
But she spurns him from her—even from her feet:
"Shame on you!" she says angrily; and adds, more gently, yet with some contempt: "Enfant, va!—is this the time for such follies?"
And, suddenly recalled to honour and grim actuality, he realises with dismay his breach of trust—he, who in their earlier days in London had called out that sprightly little emigre merely for the vulgar flippancy (aimed in compliment, too, at the grave aide-de-camp), "that the fate of the late Count weighed somewhat lightly upon Madame de Savenaye;" he, who had struck that too literary countryman of his own across the face—ay, and shot him in the shoulder, all in the secret early dawn of the day they left England—for daring to remark within his hearing: "By George, the handsome Frenchwoman and her cousin may be a little less than kin, but they are a little more than kind."
But yet, as the rage of love contending in his heart with self-reproach, he rises to his feet in shame, she gives him her hand once more, and in a different voice:
"Courage, cousin," says she, "perhaps some day we may both have our reward. But will not my knight continue to fight for my bidding, even without hope of such?"
Pondering on this enigmatic sentence he leaves her to her rest.
* * * * *
When next he finds himself by her side the anticipated action has begun; and it is to be the last day that those beautiful burning eyes shall see the glory of the rising sun.
The Chouans are fighting like demons, extended in long skirmishing lines, picking out the cluster of gunners, making right deadly use of their English powder; imperceptibly but unflinchingly closing their scattered groups until the signal comes and with ringing cries: "Notre Dame d'Auray!" and "Vive le roi!" they charge, undismayed by odds, the serried ranks of the Republicans.
She, from the top of the druidical stone, watches the progress of the day. Her red, parted mouth twitches as she follows the efforts of the men. Behind her, the gars of Savenaye, grasping with angry clutch, some a new musket, others an ancient straightened scythe, gaze fiercely on the scene from under their broad felts. Now and then a flight of republican bullets hum about their ears, and they look anxiously to Their Lady, but that fearless head never bends.
Then the moment arrives, and with a fervent, "God be with you, brave people," she hurls, by a stirring gesture, the last reserve on to the fight.
And now he finds himself in the midst of the furious medley, striking mechanically, his soul away behind on that stone, with her. Presently, as the frenzy waxes wilder, he is conscious that victory is not with them, but that they are pressed back and encompassed, and that for each blue coat cast down amidst the yells and oaths, two more seem to come out of the rain and smoke; whilst the bare feet and wooden shoes and the long hair of his peasants are seen in ever-lessening ranks. And, in time, they find themselves thrown back to the men-hir; she is there, still calm but ghastly white, a pistol in each hand. Around her, through the wet smoke, rise and fall with sickening thuds the clubbed muskets of three or four men, and then one by one these sink to the ground too. With a wailing groan like a man in a nightmare, he sees the inevitable end and rushes to place his body before hers. A bullet shatters his sword-blade; now none are left around them but the begrimed and sinister faces of their enemies.
As they stand prisoners, and unheeding the hideous clamour, he, with despair thinking of her inevitable fate at the hands of such victors, and scarcely daring to look at her, suddenly sees that in her eyes which fills his soul to overflowing.
"All is lost," she whispers, "and I shall never repay you for all you have done, cousin!"
The words are uttered falteringly, almost plaintively.
"We are not long now for this world, friend," she adds more firmly. "Give me your forgiveness."
How often has Adrian heard this dead voice during the strange vicissitudes of these long, long years! And, hearing it whisper in the vivid world of his brain, how often has he not passionately longed that he also had been able to yield his poor spark of life on the last day of her existence.
For the usual fate of Chouan prisoners swiftly overtakes the surviving leaders of the Savenaye "band of brigands," as that doughty knot of loyalists was termed by their arch-enemy, Thureau.
A long journey towards the nearest town, in an open cart, under the pitiless rain, amidst a crowd of evil-smelling, blaspheming, wounded republicans, who, when a more cruel jolt than usual awakens their wounds, curse the woman in words that should have drawn avenging bolts from heaven. She sits silent, lofty, tearless; but her eyes, when they are not lost in the grey distance, ever wistfully seek his face.
The day is drawing to a close; they reach their goal, a miserable, grey, draggled town at the mouth of the Vilaine, and are roughly brought before the arbiter of their lives—Thureau himself, the monstrous excrescence of the times, who, like Marat and Carrier, sees nothing in the new freedom but a free opening for the lowest instincts of ferocity.
And before this monstrous beast, bedizened in his general's frippery, in a reeking tavern-room, stand the noble lady of Savenaye and the young heir of Pulwick.
The ruffian's voice rings with laughter as he gazes on the silent youthful pair.
"Aha, what have we here; a couple of drowned rats? or have we trapped you at last, the ci-devant Savenaye and her godam from England? I ought really to send you as a present to the Convention, but I am too soft-hearted, you see, my pigeons; and so, to save time and make sure, we will marry you to-day."
One of the officers whispers some words in his ear, which Thureau, suddenly growing purple with rage, denies with a foul oath and an emphatic thump of his huge fist on the table.
"Hoche has forbidden it, has he? Hoche does not command here. Hoche has not had to hunt down the brigands these last two years. Dead the beast, dead the venom, I say. And here is the order," scribbling hurriedly on a page torn from a pocket-book. "It shall not be said that I have had the bitch of Savenaye in my hands and trusted her on the road again. Hoche has forbidden it! Call the cantineer and hop: the marriage and quick—the soup waits."
Unable to understand the hidden meaning of the order, Adrian looks at his lady askance, to find that, with eyes closed upon the sight of the grinning faces, she is whispering prayers and fervently crossing herself. When she turns to him again her face is almost serene.
"They are going to drown us together; that is their republican marriage of aristocrats," she says in soft English. "I had feared worse. Thank heaven there is no time now for worse. We shall be firm to the last, shall we not, cousin?"
There is a pathetic smile on her worn weather-stained face, as the cantineer and a corporal enter with ropes and proceed to pinion the prisoners.
But, as they are marched away once more under the slanting rain, are forced into a worn-out boat and lashed face to face, her fortitude melts apace.
"There, my turtle-doves," sneers the truculent corporal, "another kindness of the general. The Nantes way is back to back, but he thought it would amuse you to see each other's grimaces."
On the strand resounds the muffled roll of wet drums, announcing the execution of national justice; with one blow of an axe the craft is scuttled; a push from a gaff sends it spinning on the swift swollen waters into the estuary. Adrian's lips are on her forehead, but she lifts her face; her eyes now are haggard.
"Adrian," she sobs, "you have forgiven me? I have your death on my soul! Oh, Adrian, ... I could have loved you!"
Helpless and palsied by the merciless ropes, she tries passionately to reach her little mouth to his. A stream of fire rushes through his brain—maddening frenzy of regret, furious clinging to escaping life!—Their lips have met, but the sinking craft is full, and, with a sudden lurch, falls beneath the eddies.... A last roll of the drums, and the pinioned bodies of these lovers of a few seconds are silently swirling under the waters of the Vilaine.
And now the end of this poor life has come—with heart-breaking sorrow of mind and struggle of body, overpowering horror at the writhings of torture in the limbs lashed against his—and vainly he strives to force his last breath into her hard-clenched mouth.
Such was the end of Adrian Landale, aged twenty—the end that should have been—The pity that it was not permitted!
After the pangs of unwelcome death, the misery of unwelcome return to life. Oh, Rene, Rene, too faithful follower; thou and the other true men who, heedless of danger, hanging on the flanks of the victorious enemy, never ceased to watch your lady from afar. You would have saved her, could courage and faithfulness and cunning have availed! But, since she was dead, Rene, would thou hadst left us to drift on to the endless sea! How often have I cursed thee, good friend, who staked thy life in the angry bore to snatch two spent bodies from its merciless tossing. It was not to be endured, said you, that the remains of the Lady of Savenaye should drift away unheeded, to be devoured by the beasts of the sea! They now repose in sacred ground, and I live on! Oh, hadst thou but reached us a minute later!—ah, God, or a minute earlier!
Rarely had Sir Adrian's haunting visions of the past assumed such lurid reality. Rising in torment from the hearth to pace unceasingly the length and breadth of the restful, studious room, so closely secure from the outer turmoil of heaven and earth, he is once more back in the unknown sea-cave, in front of the angry breakers. Slowly, agonisingly, he is recalled to life through wheeling spaces of pain and confusion, only that his bruised and smarting eyes may see the actual proof of his own desolateness—a small, stark figure wrapped in coarse sailcloth, which now two or three ragged, long-haired men are silently lifting between them.
He wonders, at first, vaguely, why the tears course down those wild, dark faces; and then, as vainly he struggles to speak, and is gently held down by some unknown hand, the little white bundle is gone, and he knows that there was the pitiful relict of his love—that he will never see her again!
* * * * *
Sir Adrian halted in front of his seaward window, staring at the driven rain, which bounded and plashed and spread in minute torrents down the glass, obscuring the already darkening vision of furious sea and sky.
The dog, that for some moments had shown an anxious restlessness in singular concert with his master's, now rose at last to sniff beneath the door. No sound penetrated the roar of the blast; but the old retriever's uneasiness, his sharp, warning bark at length recalled Sir Adrian's wandering thoughts to the present. And, walking up to the door, he opened it.
Oh, God! Had the sea given up its dead?
Sir Adrian staggered back, fell on his knees and clapped his hands together with an agonised cry:
THE WHEEL OF TIME
And to his eye There was but one beloved face on earth, And that was shining on him.
Upon the threshold she stood, looking in upon him with dark, luminous eyes; round the small wet face tangles of raven hair fell limp and streaming; dark raiments clung to her form, diapered with sand and sea-foam, sodden with the moisture that dripped from them to the floor; under the hem of her skirt one foot peered forth, shoeless in its mud-stained stocking.
Sir Adrian stared up at her, his brain whirling with a frenzy of joy, gripped in its soaring ecstasy by terror of the incomprehensible.
On the wings of the storm and the wind had she come to him, his love—across the awful barriers that divide life and death? Had his longings and the clamour of his desolate soul reached her, after all these years, in the far-beyond, and was her sweet ghost here to bid him cease from them and let her lie at rest? Or, yet, had she come to call him from the weary world that their souls might meet and be one at last?... Then let her but lay her lips against his, as once in the bitterness of death, that his sorely-tried heart may break with the exquisite pang and he, too, may die upon their kiss.
Swift such thoughts were tossing in the turmoil of his mind when the vision smiled ... a young, rosy, living smile; and then reason, memory, the wonder of her coming, the haunting of her grave went from him; possessed by one single rapturous certainty he started up and gathered the wet form into his strong arms—yet gently as if he feared to crush the vision into void—and showered kisses on the wet face.
Not death—but life! A beating heart beneath his; a lithe young form under his hand, warm lips to his kisses, ... Merciful Heaven! Were, then, these twenty years all an evil, fevered dream, and was he awake at length?
She turned her face from him after a moment and put her hand against his breast to push him from her; and as she did so the wonder in the lovely, familiar eyes turned to merriment, and the lips parted into laughter.
The sound of the girlish laughter broke the spell. Sir Adrian stepped back, and passed his hand across his forehead with a dazed look.
And still she laughed on.
"Why, cousin Landale," she said, at length between the peals; "I came to throw myself upon your kindness for shelter from the storm, but—I had not anticipated such a reception."
The voice, clear and sweet, with just a tinge of outlandish intonation, struck Adrian to the heart.
"I have not heard," he faltered, "that voice for twenty years...!"
Then, coming up to her, he took her hands; and, drawing her towards the firelight, scanned her features with eager, hungering eyes.
"Do not think me mad, child," he said at last; "tell me who you are—what has brought you here? Ah, God, at such a moment! Who is it," he pursued, as if to himself, whilst still she smiled mockingly and answered not; "who is it, then, since Cecile de Savenaye is dead—and I am not dreaming—nor in fever? No vision either—this is flesh and blood."
"Yes, indeed," mocked the girl with another burst of merriment; "flesh and blood, please, and very living! Why, cousin Landale, you that knew Cecile de Savenaye so well have you forgotten two babes that were born at your own house of Pulwick? I believe, 'tis true, I have somewhat altered since you saw me last."
And again the old room echoed to the unwonted sound of a girl's laughter.
Now was the hallucination clearing; but the reality evoked a new and almost as poignant tenderness. Cecile—phantom of a life-time's love, reborn in the flesh, young as on the last day of her earthly existence, coming back into his life again, even the same as she had left it! A second wonder, almost as sweet as the first! He clung to it as one clings to the presence of a dream, and, joy unspeakable, the dream did not melt away, but remained, smiling, beautiful, unchanged.
"Cecile's daughter ..." he murmured: "Cecile's self again; but she was not so tall, I think," and drew trembling, reverent hands from her head to her straight young shoulders. And then he started, crying in a changed voice:
"How wet and cold you are! Come closer to the fire—sit you into this chair, here, in the warmth."
He piled up the hearth with faggots till the flames roared again. She dropped into the proffered chair with a little shiver; now that he recalled her to it, she was wet and cold too.
He surveyed her with gathering concern.
"My child," he began, and hesitated, continuing, after a short pause of musing—for the thought struck him as strange—"I may call you so, I suppose; I that am nearly old enough to be your father; my mind was so unhinged by your sudden appearance, by the wonderful resemblance, that I have neglected all my duties as host. You will suffer from this—what shall we do to comfort you? Here, Jem, good dog! Call Rene!"
The old retriever who, concluding that the visitor was welcome, had returned to his doze, here gathered his stiff limbs together, hobbled out through the doorway to give two or three yelping barks at some point on the stairs, and then crawl back to his cosy corner by the hearth.
The girl laughed again. It was all odd, new, exciting. Adrian looked down at her. Cecile, too, had had a merry heart, even through peril and misfortune.
And now there were hasty steps upon the stairs, creaking above the outer tumult of sea and wind; and, in accordance with the long-established custom of summoning him, Rene appeared upon the threshold, holding a pair of candles.
At the sight of the figure sitting by the fire he halted, as if rooted to the ground, and threw up his hands, each still clutching its candle.
"Mademoiselle...!" he ejaculated. "Mademoiselle here!" Then, rapidly recovering his quick wits, he deposited his burden of light upon the table, advanced towards the lady, made an uncouth but profound bow, and turned to his master.
"And this, your honour," he remarked, oracularly, and in his usual manner of literal adaptation, "was also part of the news I had for your honour from my last journey; but, my faith, I did not know how to take myself to it, as your honour was so much occupied with old times this evening. But I had seen Mademoiselle at the castle, as Mademoiselle can tell you herself. And if your honour," he added, with a look of astonishment, "will have the goodness to say how it is possible that Mademoiselle managed to arrive here on our isle, in this weather of all the devils—reverence speaking, and I humbly beg the pardon of Mademoiselle for using such words—when it was with pain I could land myself, and that before the storm—I should be grateful to your honour. For I avow I cannot comprehend it at all. Ah, your honour!" continued Rene, with an altered tone, "'tis a strange thing, this!"
The looks of master and man crossed suddenly, and in the frank blue eyes of the Breton peasant, Sir Adrian read a reflex of his own thoughts.
"Yes," he said, more in answer to the look than to the exclamation, "yes, it is a strange thing, friend."
"And his Honour cannot read the riddle any more than you yourself, Rene," quoth Mademoiselle de Savenaye, composedly from her corner; "and, as for me, I can give no explanations until I am a little warmer."
"Why, truly," exclaimed Sir Adrian, striking his forehead, "we are a very pair of dolts! Hurry, Renny, hurry, call up Margery, and bid her bring some hot drink—tea, broth, or what she has—and blankets. Stay! first fetch my furred cloak; quick, Rene, every moment is precious!"
With all the agitation of a rarely excited man Sir Adrian threw more wood on the fire, hunted for a cushion to place beneath her feet, and then, seizing the cloak from Rene's hands, he helped her to rise, and wrapped its ample folds round her as carefully as if she were too precious almost to be touched.
Thus enveloped she sank back in the great arm-chair with a cosy, deliberate, kitten-like movement, and stretched out her feet to the blaze, laying the little shoeless one upon Jem's grey muzzle.
Adrian knelt beside her, and began gently to chafe it with both hands. And, as he knelt, silence fell between them, and the storm howled out yonder; he heard her give a little sigh—that sigh which would escape from Cecile's weariness in moments of rest, which had once been so familiar and so pathetic a sound in his ear. And once more the power of the past came over him; again he was upon the heath near Quiberon, and Cecile was sitting by him and seeking warmth by the secret fire.
"Oh, my darling," he murmured, "your poor little feet were so cold; and yet you would not let me gather them to my breast." And, stooping slowly, he kissed the pretty foot in its torn, stained stocking with a passion he had not yet shown.
The girl looked on with an odd little smile. It was a novel experience, to inspire—even vicariously—such feelings as these; and there was something not unpleasant in the sense of the power which had brought this strange handsome man prostrate before her—a maidenly tremor, too, in the sensation of those burning lips upon her feet.
He raised his eyes suddenly, with the old expectation of a rebuff; and then, at the sight of the youthful, curious face above him, betook himself to sighing too; and, laying the little foot back tenderly upon the cushion, he rose.
From between the huge fur collar which all but covered her head, the black eyes followed him as alertly as a bird's; intercepting the soft melancholy of his gaze, she smiled at him, mischievous, confident, and uncommunicative, and snuggled deeper into the fur.
Leaning against the high mantel-board, he remained silent, brooding over her; the clock ticked off solemnly the fleeting moments of the wonderful hour; and ever and anon the dog drew a long breath of comfort and stretched out his gaunt limbs more luxuriously to the heat. After a while Sir Adrian spoke.
"He who has hospitality to dispense," said he, smiling down at her mutinous grace, "should never ask whence or how the guest came to his hearth ... and yet—"
She made a slight movement of laziness, but volunteered nothing; and he continued, his look becoming more wistful as he spoke:
"Your having reached this rock, during such weather, is startling enough; it is God's providence that there should live those in these ruins who are able to give you succour. But that you should come in to me at the moment you did—" He halted before the bold inquisitive brightness of her eyes. "Some day perhaps you will let me explain," he went on, embarrassed. "Indeed I must have seemed the most absolute madman, to you. But he who thinks he sees one returned from death in angry waters, may be pardoned some display of emotion."
The girl sat up briskly and shook herself as if in protest against the sadness of his smile and look.
"I rise indeed from a watery grave," she said lightly, "or at least from what should have been my grave, had I had my deserts for my foolishness; as it has turned out I do not regret it now; though I did, about midway."
The red lips parted and the little teeth gleamed. "I have found such kindness and welcome." She caressed the dog who, lazily, tried to lick her hand. "It is all such an adventure; so much more amusing than Pulwick; so much more interesting than ever I fancied it might be!"
"Pulwick; you come from Pulwick?" said Sir Adrian musing; "true, Rene has said it but just now. Yet, it is of a piece with the strangeness of it all."
"Yes," said Mademoiselle de Savenaye, once more collecting her cloak, which her hurried movement had thrown off her shoulder. "Madelon and I are now at Pulwick—I am Molly, cousin, please to remember—or rather I am here, very warm now, and comfortable, and she is somewhere along the shore—perhaps—she and John, as wet as drowned rats. Well, well, I had best tell you the tale from the beginning, or else we never shall be out of the labyrinth.—We started from Pulwick, for a ride by the shore, Madelon and I. When we were on the strand it came on to rain. There was smoke out of your chimney. I proposed a canter as far as the ruins, for shelter. I knew very well Madelon would not follow; but I threw poor Lucifer—you know Lucifer, Mr. Landale has reserved him for me; of course you know Lucifer, I believe he belongs to you! Well, I threw him along the causeway. John, he's the groom you know, and Madelon, shrieked after me. But it was beautiful—this magnificent tearing gallop in the rain—I was not going to stop.—But when we were half way, Lucifer and I, I saw suddenly that the foam seemed to cover the sand in front of me. Then I pulled up quick and turned round to look behind me. There was already a frightful wind, and the sand and the rain blinded me almost, but there was no mistake—the sea was running between the shore and me. Oh! my God! but I was frightened then; I beat poor Lucifer until my whip broke, and he started away with a will. But when his feet began to splash the water he too became frightened and stopped. I did not know what to do; I pulled out my broach to spur him with the pin, but, at the first prick I gave him, he reared, and swerved and I fell right on my face in the froth. I got up and began to run through the water; then I came to some stones and I knew I was saved, though the water was up to my knees and rushing by like a torrent. When I had clambered up the beach I thought again of poor Lucifer. I looked about and saw him a little way off. He was shaking and tossing his dear black head, and neighing, though I really did not hear him, for the wind was in my ears; his body was stock still, I could not see his legs.... And gradually he sank lower, and lower, and lower, and at last the water passed over his head. Oh! it was horrible, horrible!"
The girl shuddered and her bright face clouded. After a moment she resumed:
"It was only then I thought of the moving sands they spoke of the other day at Pulwick—and that was why Madelon and that poltroon groom would not follow me! Yet perhaps they were wise, after all, for the thought of being buried alive made me turn weak all of a sudden. My knees shook and I had to sit down, although I knew I had passed through the danger. But I was so sorry for poor Lucifer! I thought if I had come down and led him, poor fellow, he might have come with me. Death is so awful, so hideous; he was so full of life and carried me so bravely, only a few minutes before! Is it not a shame that there should be such a thing as death?" she cried, rebelliously, and looked up at the man above her, whose face had grown white at the thought of the danger she had barely escaped.
"I waited," she resumed at length, "till I thought he must be quite dead, there below, and came up to the ruins, and looked for an entrance. I knocked at some doors and called, but the wind was so loud, no one heard. And then, at last, there was one door I could open, so I entered and came up the stairs and startled you, as you know. And that is how I came here and how Lucifer is drowned."
As she finished her tale at last, she looked up at her companion. But Sir Adrian, who had followed her with ever-deepening earnestness of mien, remained silent; noticing which she added quickly and with a certain tinge of defiance:
"And now, no doubt, you are not quite so pleased as you seemed at first with the apparition which has caused you the loss of one of your best horses!"
"Why child," cried Sir Adrian, "so that you be safe you might have left all Pulwick at the bottom of the sands for me!" And Rene who entered the room at that moment, heading the advance of Dame Margery with the posset, here caught the extraordinary sound of a laugh on his master's lips, and stepped back to chuckle to himself and rub his hands.
"Who would have believed that!" he muttered, "and I who was afraid to tell his honour! Oh, yes, there are better times coming. Now in with you, Mother Margery, see for yourself who is there."
Holding in both hands a fragrant, steaming bowl, the old crone made her slow entrance upon the scene, peering with dim eyes, and dropping tremulous curtseys every two or three steps.
"Renny towd me as you wanted summat hot for a lady," she began cautiously; and then having approached near for recognition at last, burst forth into a long-drawn cry!
"Eh, you never says! Eh, dear o' me," and was fain to relinquish the bowl to her fellow-servant who narrowly watching, dived forward just in time to catch it from her, that she might clasp her aged hands together once and again with ever-renewed gestures of astonishment. "An' it were truth then, an' I that towd Renny to give over his nonsense—I didn't believe it, I welly couldn't. Eh, Mester Adrian, but she's like the poor lady that's dead and gone, the spit an' image she is—e-eh, she is!"
Molly de Savenaye laughed aloud, stretched out her hand for the bowl, and began with dainty caution to sip its scalding contents.
"Ah, my dear Margery," said the master, "we little thought what a guest the sea would cast up at our doors to-night! and now we must do our best for her; when she's finished your comforting mixture I shall give her into your charge. You ought to put her to bed—it will not be the first time."
"Ah! it will not, and a troublesome child she was," replied Margery, after the usual pause for the assimilation of his remark, turning to the speaker from her palsied yet critical survey of her whilom nursling.
"And I'll see to her, never fear, I'll fettle up a room for her at once—blankets is airing already, an' sheets, an' Renny he's seen to the fire, so that as soon as Miss, here, is ready, I am."
Upon which, dropping a last curtsey with an assumed dignity which would have befitted a mistress of the robes, she took her departure, leaving Adrian smiling with amusement at her specious manner of announcing that his own bedroom—the only one available for the purpose in the ruins—was being duly converted into a lady's bower.
"It grieves me to think," mused he after a pause, while Rene still bursting with ungratified curiosity, hung about the further end of the room, "of the terrible anxiety they must be in about you at Pulwick, and of our absolute inability to convey to them the good news of your safety."
The girl gave a little laugh, with her lips over the cup, and shrugged her shoulders but said nothing.
"My God, yes," quoth Rene cheerfully from his corner. "Notre Dame d'Auray has watched over Mademoiselle to-day. She would not permit the daughter to die like the mother. And now we have got her ladyship we shall keep her too. This, if your honour remembers his sailor's knowledge, looks like a three-days' gale."
"You are right, I fancy," said Sir Adrian, going over to him and looking out of the window. "Mademoiselle de Savenaye will have to take up her abode in our lighthouse for a longer time than she bargained. I do not remember hearing the breakers thunder in our cave so loud for many years. I trust," continued the light-keeper, coming down to his fair guest again, "that you may be able to endure such rough hospitality as ours must needs be!"
"It has been much more pleasant and I feel far more welcome already than at Pulwick," remarked Mademoiselle, between two deliberate sips, and in no way discomposed, it seemed, at the prospect held out to her.
"How?" cried Sir Adrian with a start, while the unwonted flush mounted to his forehead, "you, not welcome at Pulwick! Have they not welcomed a child of Cecile de Savenaye at Pulwick?... Thank God, then, for the accident that has sent you to me!"
The girl looked at him with an inquisitive smile in her eyes; there was something on her lips which she restrained. Surrendering her cup, she remarked demurely:
"Yes, it was a lucky accident, was it not, that there was some one to offer shelter to the outcast from the sea? It is like a tale of old. It is delightful. Delightful, too, not to be drowned, safe and sound ... and welcome in this curious old place."
She had risen and, as the cloak fell from her steaming garments, again she shivered.
"But you are right," she said, "I must go to bed, and get these damp garments off. And so, my Lord of Scarthey, I will retire to my apartments; my Lady in Waiting I see yonder is ready for me."
With a quaint mixture of playfulness and gravity, she extended her hand, and Adrian stooped and kissed it—as he had kissed fair Cecile de Savenaye's rosy finger-tip upon the porch of Pulwick, twenty years before.
FOREBODINGS OF GLADNESS
Molly de Savenaye in her improvised bedroom, wet as she was, could hardly betake herself to disrobing, so amused was she in surveying the fresh and romantic oddity of her surroundings, with their mixture of barbarous rudeness and almost womanish refinement.
Old Margery's fumbling hands were not nimble either, and it was long since she had acted as attendant upon one of her own sex. And so the matter progressed but slowly; but the speed of Margery's tongue was apparently not affected by its length of service. It wagged ceaselessly; the girl between her own moods of curious speculation vouchsafing an amused, half-contemptuous ear.
Presently, however, as the nurse's reminiscences wandered from the less interesting topic of her own vicissitudes, the children she had reared or buried, and the marvellous ailments she had endured, to an account of those days when she had served the French Madam and her babes, Molly, slowly peeling a clinging sleeve from her arm, turned a more eager and attentive face to her.
"Ah," quoth Margery, appraising her with blear eyes, "it's a queer thing how ye favour your mother, miss. She had just they beautiful shoulders and arms, as firm an' as white; but you're taller, I think, and may be so, to speak, a stouter make altogether. Eh, dear, you were always a fine child and the poor lady set a deal of store on you, she did. She took you with her and left your sister with my Sally, when she was trapesing up to London and back with Mester Adrian, ay, and me with ye. And many the day that I wished myself safe at Pulwick! And I mind the day she took leave of you, I do that, well."
Here Dame Margery paused and shook her head solemnly, then pursued in another key:
"See now, miss, dear, just step out of they wet things, will ye now, and let me put this hot sheet round ye?"
"But I want to hear about myself," said Molly, gratefully wrapping the hot linen round her young beauty, and beginning to rub her black locks energetically. "Where was it my mother parted from me?"
"Why, I'll tell you, miss. When Madam—we allus used to call her Madam, ye know—was goin' her ways to the ship as was to take her to France, I took you after her mysel' down to the shore that she might have the very last of ye. Eh, I mind it as if it were yesterday. Mester Adrian was to go with her—Sir Adrian, I should say, but he was but Mester Adrian then—an' a two three more o' th' gentry as was all fur havin' a share o' th' fightin'. Sir Thomas himsel' was theer—I like as if I could see him now, poor owd gentleman, talkin' an' laughin' very hard an' jov'al, an' wipin' 's e'en when he thought nobody noticed. Eh, dear, yes! I could ha' cried mysel' to see th' bonny young lady goin' off fro' her bairns. An' to think she niver came back to them no more. Well, well! An' Mester Adrian too—such a fine well-set-up young gentleman as he were—and he niver comed back for ten year an' when he did, he was that warsened—" she stopped, shook her head and groaned.
"Well, but how about me, nurse," observed Molly, "what about me?"
"Miss, please it was this way. Madam was wantin' a last look at her bairn—eh, she did, poor thing! You was allus her favoryite, ye know, miss—our Sally was wet-nurse to Miss Maddyline, but Madam had you hersel'. Well, miss, I'd brought you well lapped up i' my shawl an' William Shearman—that was Thomas Shearman's son, feyther to William an' Tom as lives over yonder at Pulwick village—well, William was standin' in 's great sea-boots ready to carry her through th' surf into the boat; an' Mester Adrian—Sir Adrian, I mean—stood it might be here, miss, an' there was Renny, an' yon were th' t'other gentry. Well, Madam stopped an' took you out o' my arms, an' hugged you to her breast—an' then she geet agate o' kissin' you—your head an' your little 'ands. An' you was jumpin' an' crowin' in her arms—the wind had blown your cap off, an' your little downy black hair was standing back. (Just let me get at your hair now, miss, please—Eh! it's cruel full of sand, my word, it is.)"
"It's 'ard, when all's said an' done, to part wi' th' babe ye've suckled, an' Madam, though there was niver nought nesh about 'er same as there is about most women, an' specially ladies—she 'ad th' mother's 'eart, she 'ad, miss, an when th' time coom for her to leave th' little un, I could see, as it were, welly burstin'. There we stood wi' th' wind blowin' our clothes an' our 'air, an' the waves roarin', an' one bigger nor th' t'others ran up till th' foam reached Madam's little feet, but she niver took no notice. Then all of a sudden she gets th' notion that she'd like to take you with 'er, an' she turns an' tells Mester Adrian so. 'She shall come with me,' she says, quite sharp an' determined, an' makes a sign to William Shearman to carry 'em both over. 'No, no,' says Mester Adrian, 'quite impossible,' says he, as wise as if he'd been an owd man i' stead o' nobbut a lad, ye might say. 'It would be madness both for you an' th' child. Now,' he says, very quiet an' gentle, 'if I might advise, I should say stay here with the child.' Eh, I couldn't tell ye all he said, an' then Sir Tummas coom bustlin' up, 'Do, now, my dear; think of it,' he says, pattin' her o' th' hand. 'Stay with us,' he says, 'ye'll be welcome as th' flowers in May!' An' there was Renny wi' 's 'at off, an' th' tears pourin' down his face, beggin' an' prayin' Madam to stop—at least, I reckoned that was what he were sayin' for it was all in 's own outlandish gibberish. The poor lady! she'd look from one to th' t'other an' a body a' must think she'd give in—an' then she'd unbethink hersel' again. An' Sir Thomas, he'd say, 'Do now, my dear,' an' then when she'd look at him that pitiful, he'd out wi' 's red 'andkercher an' frown over at Mester Adrian, an', says he, 'I wonder ye can ax her!' Well, all of a sudden off went th' big gun in th' ship—that was to let 'em know, miss, do ye see—an' up went Madam's head, an' then th' wind fetched th' salt spray to her face, an' a kind o' change came over her. She looked at the child, then across at the ship—an' then she fair tossed ye back to me. Big William catched her up in his arms just same as another bairn, an' carried her to the boat."
"Yes," said Molly, gazing into the burning logs with brilliant eyes, but speaking low, as if to herself, so that her attendant's deaf ears failed to catch the meaning of the words. "Ah, that was life indeed! Happy mother to have seen such life—though she did die young."
"As ye say, miss," answered Margery, making a guess at the most likely comment from a daughter's lips, "it was cruel hard—it was that. 'Come, make haste!' cries the other young gentlemen: my word, they were in a hurry lest Madam happen to change her mind. I could welly have laughed to see their faces when Mester Adrian were trying to persuade her to stop at Pulwick, and let the men go alone. 'T wern't for that they reckoned to go all that road to France, ye may think, miss. Well, miss, in a few minutes they was all out i' the boat wi' th' waves tossin' 'em—an' I stood watchin' with you i' my arms, cryin' and kickin' out wi' your little legs, an' hittin' of me wi' your little 'ands, same as if ye knowed summat o' what was agate, poor lamb, an' was angry wi' me for keepin' ye. Then in a little while the big, white sails o' th' ship went swellin' out an' soon it was gone. An' that was th' last we saw o' Madam. A two-three year arter you an' Miss Maddyline was fetched away, to France, as I've been towd. I doubt you didn't so much as think there was such a place as Pulwick, though many a one there minds how they dandled and played wi' you when you was a wee bairn, miss."
"Well, I am very glad to be back in England, anyhow," said Molly, nimbly slipping into bed. "Oh, Margery, what delicious warm sheets, and how good it is to be in bed alive, dry, and warm, after all!"
A new atmosphere pervaded Scarthey that night. The peaceful monotony of years, since the master of Pulwick had migrated to his "ruins," was broken at last, and happily. A warm colour seemed to have crept upon the hitherto dun and dull surroundings and brightened all the prospects.
At any rate Rene, over his busy work in the lantern, whistled and hummed snatches of song with unwonted blithesomeness, and, after lighting the steady watch-light and securing all his paraphernalia with extra care, dallied some time longer than usual on the outer platform, striving to snatch through the driven wraith a glance of the distant lights of Pulwick. For there, in the long distance, ensconced among the woods, stood a certain gate-lodge of greystone, much covered with ivy, which sheltered, among other inmates, the gatekeeper's blue-eyed, ripe and ruddy daughter—Dame Margery's pet grandchild.
The idea of ever leaving the master—even for the sake of the happiness to be found over yonder—was not one to be entertained by Rene. But what if dreams of a return to the life of the world should arise after to-day in the recluse's mind? Ah, the master's eyes had been filled with light!... and had he not actually laughed?
Rene peered again through the wind, but nothing could be seen of the world abroad, save grey, tumbling waters foaming at the foot of the islet; fretful waters coalescing all around with the driven, misty air. A desolate view enough, had there been room for melancholy thoughts in his heart.
Blithely did he descend the steep wooden stairs from the roaring, weather-beaten platform, to the more secure inhabited keep; and, humming a satisfied tune, he entered upon Margery in her flaming kitchen, to find the old lady intent on sorting out a heap of feminine garments and spreading them before the fire.
Rene took up a little shoe, sand-soiled and limp, and reverentially rubbed it on his sleeve.
"Well, mother," he said, cheerfully, "it is a long while since you had to do with such pretty things. My faith, these are droll doings, ah—and good, too! You will see, Mother Margery, there will be good out of all this."
But Margery invariably saw fit, on principle, to doubt all the opinions of her rival.
Eh, she didn't hold so much wi' wenches hersel', an' Mester Adrian, she reckoned, hadn't come to live here all by himsel' to have visitors breaking in on him that gate!
"There be visitors and visitors, mother—I tell you, I who speak to you, that his honour is happy."
Margery, with a mysterious air, smoothed out a long silk stocking and gave an additional impetus to the tremor Nature had already bestowed upon her aged head.
Well, it wasn't for her to say. She hoped and prayed there was nowt bad a coomin' on the family again; but sich likenesses as that of Miss to her mother was not lucky, to her minding; it was not. Nowt good had come to Mester Adrian from the French Madam. Ah, Mester Adrian had been happy like with her too, and she had taken him away from his home, an' his people, an' sent him back wi'out 's soul in the end.
"And now her daughter has come to give it him back," retorted Rene, as he fell to, with a zest, on the savoury mess he had concocted for his own supper.
"Eh, well, I hope nowt bad's i' the road," said Margery with senile iteration. "They do say no good ever comes o' saving bodies from drowning; not that one 'ud wish the poor Miss to have gone into the sands—an' she the babby I weaned too!"
Rene interrupted her with a hearty laugh. "Yes, every one knows it carries misfortune to save people from the drowning, but there, you see, her ladyship, she saved herself—so that ought to bring good fortune. Good-night, Mother Margery, take good care of the lady.... Ah, how I wish I had the care of her!" he added simply, and, seizing his lantern, proceeded to ascend once more to his post aloft.
He paused once on his way, in the loud sighing stairs, struck with a fresh aspect of the day's singular events—a quaint thought, born of his native religious faith: The Lady, the dear Mistress had just reached Heaven, no doubt, and had straightway sent them the young one to console and comfort them. Eh bien! they had had their time of Purgatory too, and now they might be happy.
Pleasant therefore were Rene's musings, up in the light watcher's bunk, underneath the lantern, as, smoking a pipe of rest, he listened complacently to the hissing storm around him.
And in the master's sleeping chamber beneath him, now so curiously turned into a feminine sanctum, pleasant thoughts too, if less formed, and less concerned with the future, lulled its dainty occupant to rest.
Luxuriously stretched between the warm lavender-scented sheets, watching from her pillow the leaping fire on the hearth, Miss Molly wondered lazily at her own luck; at the many possible results of the day's escapade; wondered amusedly whether any poignant sorrow—except, indeed poor Madeleine's tears—for her supposed demise, really darkened the supper party at Pulwick this evening; wondered agreeably how the Lord of the Ruined Castle would meet her on the morrow, after his singular reception of her this day; how long she would remain in these romantic surroundings and whether she would like them as well at the end of the visitation.
And as the blast howled with increasing rage, and the cold night drew closer on, and the great guns in the sea-cave boomed more angrily with the risen tide, she dimly began to dwell upon the thought of poor Lucifer being sucked deeper into his cold rapacious grave, whilst she was held in the warm embrace of a man whose eyes were masterful and yet gentle, whose arm was strong, whose kisses were tender.
And in the delight of the contrast, Mademoiselle de Savenaye fell into the profound slumber of the young and vigorous.
THE PATH OF WASTED YEARS
And I only think of the woman that weeps; But I forget, always forget, the smiling child. Luteplayer's Song.
That night, even when sheer fatigue had subdued the currents of blood and thought that surged in his head, Sir Adrian was too restless to avail himself of the emergency couch providently prepared by Rene in a corner. But, ceasing his fretful pacing to and fro, he sat down in the arm-chair by the hearth where she had sat—the waif of the sea—wrapped round him the cloak that had enfolded the young body, hugging himself in the salt moisture the fur still retained, to spend the long hours in half-waking, firelight dreams.
And every burst of tempest rage, every lash of rain at the window, every thud of hurricane breaking itself on impassable ramparts, and shriek of baffled winds searching the roofless halls around, found a strangely glad echo in his brain—made a sort of burden to his thoughts:
Heap up the waters round this happy island, most welcome winds—heap them up high and boiling, and retain her long captive in these lonely ruins!
And ever the image in his mind's eye was, as before, Cecile—Cecile who had come back to him, for all sober reason knew it was but the child.
The child——! Why had he never thought of the children these weary years? They, all that remained of Cecile, were living and might have been sought. Strange that he had not remembered him of the children!
Twenty years since he had last set eyes upon the little living creature in her mother's arms. And the picture that the memory evoked was, after all, Cecile again, only Cecile—not the queer little black-eyed puppet, even then associated with sea-foam and salty breeze. Twenty years during which she was growing and waxing in beauty, and unawares, maturing towards this wonderful meeting—and he had never given a thought to her existence.
In what sheltered ways had this fair duplicate of his love been growing from a child to womanhood during that space of life, so long to look back upon—or so short and transient, according to the mood of the thinker?
And, lazily, in his happier and tender present mood he tried to measure once again the cycles of past discontent, this time in terms of the girl's own lifetime.
It is bitter in misery to recall past misery—almost as bitter, for all Dante's cry, as to dwell on past happiness. But, be the past really dead, and a new and better life begun, the scanning back of a sombre existence done with for ever, may bring with it a kind of secret complacency.
Truly, mused Sir Adrian, for one who ever cherished ideal aspirations, for the student, the "man of books" (as his father had been banteringly wont to term him), worshipper of the muses, intellectual Epicurean, and would-be optimist philosopher, it must be admitted he had strangely dealt, and been dealt with, since he first beheld that face, now returned to light his solitude! Ah, God bless the child! Pulwick at least nursed it warmly, whilst unhappy Adrian, ragged and degraded into a mere fighting beast, roamed through the Marais with Chouan bands, hunted down by the merciless revolutionists, like vermin; falling, as months of that existence passed over him, from his high estate to the level of vermin indeed; outlawed, predatory, cunning, slinking, filthy—trapped at last, the fit end of vermin!
Scarcely better the long months of confinement in the hulks of Rochelle. How often he had regretted it, then, not to have been one of the chosen few who, the day after capture, stood in front of six levelled muskets, and were sped to rest in some unknown charnel! Then!—not now. No, it was worth having lived to this hour, to know of that fair face, in living sleep upon his pillow, under the safeguard of his roof.
Good it was, that he had escaped at last, though with the blood of one of his jailors red upon his hands; the blood of a perhaps innocent man, upon his soul. It was the only time he had taken a life other than in fair fight, and the thought of it had been wont to fill him with a sort of nausea; but to-night, he found he could face it, not only without remorse, but without regret. He was glad he had listened to Rene's insidious whispers—Rene, who could not endure the captivity to which his master might, in time, have fallen a passive, hopeless slave, and yet who would have faced a thousand years of it rather than escape alone—the faithful heart!
Yes, it was good, and he was glad of it, or time would not have come when she (stay, how old was the child then?—almost three years, and still sheltered and cherished by the house of Landale)—when she would return, and gladden his eyes with a living sight of Cecile, while Rene watched in his tower above; ay, and old Margery herself lay once more near the child she had nursed.
Marvellous turn of the wheel of fate!
But, who had come for the children, and where had they been taken? To their motherland, perhaps; even it might have been before he himself had left it; or yet to Ireland, where still dwelt kinsfolk of their blood? Probably it was at the breaking up of the family, caused by the death of Sir Thomas, that these poor little birds had been removed from the nest, that had held them so safe and close.
That was in '97, in the yellow autumn of which year Adrian Landale, then French fisherman, parted from his brother Rene L'Apotre upon the sea off Belle Isle; parted one grizzly dawn after embracing, as brothers should. Oh, the stealthy cold of that blank, cheerless daybreak, how it crept into the marrow of his bones, and chilled the little energy and spirits he had left! For a whole year they had fruitlessly sought some English vessel, to convey this English gentleman back to his native land. He could remember how, at the moment of separation, from the one friend who had loved both him and her, his heart sank within him—remember how he clambered from aboard the poor little smack, up the forbidding sides of the English brig; how Rene's broken words had bidden God bless him, and restore him safely home (home!); remember how swiftly the crafts had moved apart, the mist, the greyness and desolateness; the lapping of the waters, the hoarse cries of the seamen, all so full of heart-piercing associations to him, and the last vision of Rene's simple face, with tears pouring down it, and his open mouth spasmodically trying to give out a hearty cheer, despite the sobs that came heaving up to it. How little the simple fellow dreamed of what bitterness the future was yet holding for his brother and master, to end in these reunions at last!
The vessel which had taken Adrian Landale on board, in answer to the frantic signals of the fishing-smack, that had sailed from Belle Isle obviously to meet her, proved to be a privateer, bound for the West Indies, but cruising somewhat out of her way, in the hope of outgoing prizes from Nantes.
The captain, who had been led to expect something of importance from the smack's behaviour, in high dudgeon at finding that so much bustle and waste of time was only to burden him with a mere castaway seeking a passage home—one who, albeit a countryman, was too ragged and disreputable in looks to be trusted in his assurances of reward—granted him indeed the hospitality of his ship, but on the condition of his becoming a hand in the company during the forthcoming expedition.
There was a rough measure of equity in the arrangement, and Adrian accepted it. The only alternative, moreover, would have been a jump overboard. And so began a hard spell of life, but a few shades removed from his existence among the Chouan guerillas; a predatory cruise lasting over a year, during which the only changes rung in the gamut of its purpose were the swooping down, as a vulture might, upon unprotected ships; flying with superior speed from obviously stronger crafts; engaging, with hawk-like bravery, everything afloat that displayed inimical colours, if it offered an equal chance of fight.
And this for more than a year, until the privateer, much battered, but safe, despite her vicissitudes made Halifax for refitting. Here, at the first suitable port she had touched, Adrian claimed and obtained his release from obligations which made his life almost unendurable.
Then ensued a period of the most absolute penury; unpopular with most of his messmates for his melancholy taciturnity, despised by the more brutal as one who had as little stomach for a carouse as for a bloody fight, he left the ship without receiving, or even thinking of his share of prize-money. And he had to support existence with such mean mechanical employment as came in his way, till an opportunity was offered of engaging himself as seaman, again from sheer necessity, on a homeward-bound merchantman—an opportunity which he seized, if not eagerly, for there was no eagerness left in him, yet under the pressure of purpose.
Next the long, slowly plodding, toilsome, seemingly eternal course across the ocean.
But even a convoy, restricted to the speed of its slowest member, if it escape capture or natural destruction, must meet the opposite shore at length, and the last year of the century had lapsed in the even race of time when, after many dreary weeks, on the first of January 1801, the long low lines of sandhills on the Lancastrian coast loomed in sight. The escort drew away, swiftly southwards, as if in joyful relief from the tedious task, leaving the convoy to enter the Mersey, safe and sound.
That evening Adrian, the rough-looking and taciturn sailor, set foot, for a short while, on his native land, after six years of an exile which had made of him at five and twenty a prematurely aged and hopelessly disillusioned man.
And Sir Adrian, as he mused, wrapped in the honoured fur cloak, with eyes half closed, by his sympathetic fire, recalled how little of joy this return had had for him. It was the goal he had striven to reach, and he had reached it, that was all; nay, he recalled how, when at hand, he had almost dreaded the actual arrival home, dreaded, with the infinite heart-sickness of sorrow, the emotions of the family welcome to one restored from such perils by flood and field—if not indeed already mourned for and forgotten—little wotting how far that return to Pulwick, that seemed near and certain, was still away in the dim future of life.
Yet, but for the fit of hypochondriacal humour which had fallen black upon him that day of deliverance and made him yearn, with an intensity increasing every moment, to separate himself from his repugnant associates and haste the moment of solitude and silence, he might have been rescued, then and for ever, from the quagmire in which perverse circumstances had enslaved him.
"Look'ee here, matey," said one of his fellow-workers to him, in a transient fit of good-fellowship which the prospect of approaching sprees had engendered in him even towards one whom all on board had felt vaguely to be of a different order, and disliked accordingly, "you don't seem to like a jolly merchantman—but, maybe, you wouldn't take more kindly to a man-o'-war. Do you see that there ship?—a frigate she is; and, whenever there's a King's ship in the Mersey that means that it's more wholesome for the likes of us to lie low. You take a hint, matey, and don't be about Liverpool to-night, or until she's gone. Now, I know a crib that's pretty safe, Birkenhead way; Mother Redcap's, we call it—no one's ever been nabbed at Mother Redcap's, and if you'll come along o' me—why then if you won't, go your way and be damned to you for a——"
This was the parting of Adrian Landale from his fellow-workers. The idea of spending even one night more in that atmosphere of rum and filth, in the intimate hearing of blasphemous and obscene language, was too repulsive to be entertained, and he had turned away from the offer with a gesture of horror.
With half a dozen others, in whose souls the attractions of the town at night proved stronger than the fear of the press party, he disembarked on the Lancashire side, and separating from his companions, for ever, as he thought, ascended the miserable lanes leading from the river to the upper town.
His purpose was to sleep in one of the more decent hotels, to call the next day for help at the banking-house with which the Landales had dealt for ages past, and thence to take coach for Pulwick. But he had planned without taking reck of his circumstances. No hotel of repute would entertain this weather-beaten common sailor in the meanest of work-stained clothes. After failing at various places even to obtain a hearing, being threatened with forcible ejectment, derisively referred to suitable cribs in Love Lane or Tower Street, he gave up the attempt; and, in his usual dejection of spirit, intensified by unavowed and unreasonable anger, wandered through the dark streets, brooding. Thus aimlessly wandering, the remembrance of his young Utopian imaginings came back to him to mock him. Dreams of universal brotherhood, of equality, of harmony. He had already seen the apostles of equality and brotherhood at work—on the banks of the Vilaine. And realising how he himself, now reduced to the lowest level in the social scale, hunted with insult from every haunt above that level, yet loathed and abhorred the very thought of associating again with his recent brothers in degradation, he laughed a laugh of bitter self-contempt.
But the night was piercing cold; and, in time, the question arose whether the stench and closeness of a riverside eating-house would not be more endurable than the cutting wind, the sleet, and the sharper pangs of hunger.
His roaming had brought him once more to that quarter of the town "best suited to the likes of him," according to the innkeeper's opinion, and he found himself actually seeking a house of entertainment in the slimy, ill-lighted narrow street, when, from out the dimness, running towards him, with bare feet paddling in the sludge, came a slatternly girl, with unkempt wisps of red hair hanging over her face under the tartan shawl.
"Run, run, Jack," she cried, hoarsely, as she passed by breathless, "t' gang's comin' up...."
A sudden loathly fear seized Adrian by the heart. He too, took to his heels by the side of the slut with all the swiftness his tired frame could muster.
"I'm going to warn my Jo," she gasped, as, jostling each other, they darted through a maze of nameless alleys.
And then as, spent with running, they emerged at last into a broader street, it was to find themselves in the very midst of another party of man-of-war's men, whose brass belt-buckles glinted under the flickering light of the oil-lamp swinging across the way.
Adrian stopped dead short and looked at the girl in mute reproach.
"May God strike me dead," she screamed, clapping her hands together, "if I knew the bloody thieves were there! Oh, my bonny lad, I meant to save ye!" And as her words rang in the air two sailors had Adrian by the collar and a facetious bluejacket seized her round the waist with hideous bantering.
A very young officer, wrapped up in a cloak, stood a few paces apart calmly looking on. To him Adrian called out in fierce, yet anguished, expostulation:
"I am a free and independent subject, sir, an English gentleman. I demand that you order your men to release me. For heaven's sake," he added, pleadingly, "give me but a moment's private hearing!"
A loud guffaw rang through the group. In truth, if appearances make the gentleman, Adrian was then but a sorry specimen.
The officer smiled—the insufferable smile of a conceited boy raised to authority.
"I can have no possible doubt of your gentility, sir," he said, with mocking politeness, and measuring, under the glimmering light, first the prisoner, from head to foot, and then the girl who, scratching and blaspheming, vainly tried to make her escape; "but, sir, as a free-born English gentleman, it will be your duty to help his Majesty to fight his French enemies. Take the English gentleman along, my lads!"
A roar of approbation at the officer's facetiousness ran through the party.
"An' his mother's milk not dry upon his lips," cried the girl, with a crow of derisive fury, planting as she spoke a sounding smack on a broad tanned face bent towards her. The little officer grew pink. "Come, my men, do your duty," he thundered, in his deepest bass.
A rage such as he never had felt in his life suddenly filled Adrian's whole being. He was a bigger man than any of the party, and the rough life that fate had imposed on him, had fostered a strength of limb beyond the common. A thrust of his knee prostrated one of his captors, a blow in the eye from his elbow staggered the other; the next instant he had snatched away the cutlass which a third was drawing, and with it he cleared, for a moment, a space around him.
But as he would have bounded into freedom, a felling blow descended on his head from behind, a sheet of flame spread before his eyes, and behind this blaze disappeared the last that Adrian Landale was to see of England for another spell of years.
When he came back to his senses he was once more on board ship—a slave, legally kidnapped; degraded by full and proper warrant from his legitimate status for no crime that could even be invented against him; a slave to be retained for work or war at his master's pleasure, liable like a slave to be flogged to death for daring to assert his light of independence.
* * * * *
The memory of that night's doing and of the odious bondage to which it was a prelude, rarely failed to stir the gall of resentment in Sir Adrian; men of peaceable instincts are perhaps the most prone to the feeling of indignation.
But, to-night, a change had come over the spirit of his dreams; he could think of that past simply as the past—the period of time which would have had to be spent until the advent of the wonder-working present: these decrees of Fate had had a purpose. Had the past, by one jot, been different, the events of this admirable day might never have been.
The glowing edifice on the hearth collapsed with a darting of sudden flame and a rolling of red cinders. Sir Adrian rose to rebuild his fire for the night; and, being once roused, was tempted by the ruddiness of the wine, glinting under the quiet rays of the lamp, to advance to the table and partake of his forgotten supper.
The calm atmosphere, the warmth and quiet of the room, in which he broke his bread and sipped his wine, whilst old Jem stretched by the hearth gazed at him with yellow up-turned eyes full of lazy inquiry concerning this departure from the usual nightly regularity; the serene placidity of the scene indoors as contrasting with the angry voices of elements without, answered to the peace—the strange peace—that filled the man's soul, even in the midst of such uncongenial memories as now rose up before him in vivid concatenation.
She was then five years old. Where was she, when he began that seemingly endless cruise with the frigate Porcupine? He tried to fancy a Cecile five years old—a chubby, curly-headed mite, nursing dolls and teasing kittens, whilst he was bullied and browbeaten by coarse petty officers, shunned and hated by his messmates, and flogged at length by a tyrannizing captain for obduracy—but he could only see a Cecile in the spring of womanhood, nestling in the arm-chair yonder by the fire and looking up at him from the folds of a fur cloak.
She was seven years old when he was flogged. Ah, God! those had been days! And yet, in the lofty soul of him he had counted it no disgrace; and he had been flogged again, ay, and a third time for that obstinate head that would not bend, that obstinate tongue that would persist in demanding restitution of liberty. The life on board the privateer had been a matter of bargain; he had bartered also labour and obedience with the merchantman for the passage home, but the king had no right to compel the service of a free man!
She was but twelve years old when he was finally released from thraldom—it had only lasted four years after all; yet what a cycle for one of his temper! Four years with scarce a moment of solitude—for no shore-leave was ever allowed to one who openly repudiated any service contract: four years of a life, where the sole prospect of change was in these engagements, orgies of carnage, so eagerly anticipated by officers and men alike, including himself, though for a reason little suspected by his companions. But even the historic sea-fights of the Porcupine, so far as they affected Adrian Landale, formed in themselves a chain of monotony. It was ever the same hurling of shot from ship to ship, the same fierce exchange of cutlass-throws and pike-pushes between men who had never seen each other before; the same yelling and execrations, sights, sounds, and smells ever the same in horror; the same cheers when the enemy's colours were lowered, followed by the same transient depression; the cleansing of decks from stains of powder and mire of human blood, the casting overboard of human bodies that had done their life's work, broken waste and other rubbish. For weeks Adrian after would taste blood, smell blood, dream blood, till it seemed in his nausea that all the waters of the wide clean seas could never wash the taint from him again. And before the first horrid impressions had time to fade, the next occasion would have come round again: it was not the fate of Adrian Landale that either steel or shot, or splintered timber or falling tackles should put an end to his dreary life, welcome as such an end would have been to him then.
Then ... but not now. Remembering now his unaccountable escape from the destruction which had swept from his side many another whose eagerness for the fray had certes not sprung, like his own, from a desire to court destruction, he shuddered. And there arose in his mind the trite old adage: