"Merrily danced the Quaker's wife, And merrily danced the Quaker."
I broke into that animated and appropriate air, clapped my arm about Dudgeon's waist, and away down the hill at a dancing step! He hung back a little at the start, but the impulse of the tune, the night, and my example, were not to be resisted. A man made of putty must have danced, and even Dudgeon showed himself to be a human being. Higher and higher were the capers that we cut; the moon repeated in shadow our antic footsteps and gestures; and it came over my mind of a sudden—really like balm—what appearance of man I was dancing with, what a long bilious countenance he had shown under his shaven pate, and what a world of trouble the rascal had given me in the immediate past.
Presently we began to see the lights of Bedford. My puritanic companion stopped and disengaged himself.
"This is a trifle infra dig., sir, is it not?" said he. "A party might suppose we had been drinking."
"And so you shall be, Dudgeon," said I. "You shall not only be drinking, you old hypocrite, but you shall be drunk—dead drunk, sir—and the boots shall put you to bed! We'll warn him when we go in. Never neglect a precaution; never put off till to-morrow what you can do to-day!"
But he had no more frivolity to complain of. We finished our stage and came to the inn-door with decorum, to find the house still alight and in a bustle with many late arrivals; to give our orders with a prompt severity which ensured obedience, and to be served soon after at a side-table, close to the fire and in a blaze of candle-light, with such a meal as I had been dreaming of for days past. For days, you are to remember, I had been skulking in the covered cart, a prey to cold, hunger, and an accumulation of discomforts that might have daunted the most brave; and the white table napery, the bright crystal, the reverberation of the fire, the red curtains, the Turkey carpet, the portraits on the coffee-room wall, the placid faces of the two or three late guests who were silently prolonging the pleasures of digestion, and (last, but not by any means least) a glass of an excellent light dry port, put me in a humour only to be described as heavenly. The thought of the Colonel, of how he would have enjoyed this snug room and roaring fire, and of his cold grave in the wood by Market Bosworth, lingered on my palate, amari aliquid, like an after-taste, but was not able—I say it with shame—entirely to dispel my self-complacency. After all, in this world every dog hangs by its own tail. I was a free adventurer, who had just brought to a successful end—or, at least, within view of it—an adventure very difficult and alarming; and I looked across at Mr. Dudgeon, as the port rose to his cheeks, and a smile, that was semi-confidential and a trifle foolish, began to play upon his leathery features, not only with composure, but with a suspicion of kindness. The rascal had been brave, a quality for which I would value the devil; and if he had been pertinacious in the beginning, he had more than made up for it before the end.
"And now, Dudgeon, to explain," I began. "I know your master, he knows me, and he knows and approves of my errand. So much I may tell you, that I am on my way to Amersham Place."
"Oho!" quoth Dudgeon, "I begin to see."
"I am heartily glad of it," said I, passing the bottle, "because that is about all I can tell you. You must take my word for the remainder. Either believe me or don't. If you don't, let's take a chaise; you can carry me to-morrow to High Holborn, and confront me with Mr. Romaine; the result of which will be to set your mind at rest—and to make the holiest disorder in your master's plans. If I judge you aright (for I find you a shrewd fellow), this will not be at all to your mind. You know what a subordinate gets by officiousness; if I can trust my memory, old Romaine has not at all the face that I should care to see in anger; and I venture to predict surprising results upon your weekly salary—if you are paid by the week, that is. In short, let me go free, and 'tis an end of the matter; take me to London, and 'tis only a beginning—and, by my opinion, a beginning of troubles. You can take your choice."
"And that is soon taken," said he. "Go to Amersham to-morrow, or go to the devil if you prefer—I wash my hands of you and the whole transaction. No, you don't find me putting my head in between Romaine and a client! A good man of business, sir, but hard as millstone grit. I might get the sack, and I shouldn't wonder! But, it's a pity, too," he added, and sighed, shook his head, and took his glass off sadly.
"That reminds me," said I. "I have a great curiosity, and you can satisfy it. Why were you so forward to meddle with poor Mr. Dubois? Why did you transfer your attentions to me? And generally, what induced you to make yourself such a nuisance?"
He blushed deeply.
"Why, sir," says he, "there is such a thing as patriotism, I hope."
THE HOME-COMING OF MR. ROWLEY'S VISCOUNT
By eight the next morning Dudgeon and I had made our parting. By that time we had grown to be extremely familiar; and I would very willingly have kept him by me, and even carried him to Amersham Place. But it appeared he was due at the public-house where we had met, on some affairs of my great-uncle the Count, who had an outlying estate in that part of the shire. If Dudgeon had had his way the night before, I should have been arrested on my uncle's land and by my uncle's agent, a culmination of ill-luck.
A little after noon I started, in a hired chaise, by way of Dunstable. The mere mention of the name Amersham Place made every one supple and smiling. It was plainly a great house, and my uncle lived there in style. The fame of it rose as we approached, like a chain of mountains; at Bedford they touched their caps, but in Dunstable they crawled upon their bellies. I thought the landlady would have kissed me; such a flutter of cordiality, such smiles, such affectionate attentions were called forth, and the good lady bustled on my service in such a pother of ringlets and with such a jingling of keys. "You're probably expected, sir, at the Place? I do trust you may 'ave better accounts of his lordship's 'elth, sir. We understood that his lordship, Mosha de Carwell, was main bad. Ha, sir, we shall all feel his loss, poor, dear, noble gentleman; and I'm sure nobody more polite! They do say, sir, his wealth is enormous, and before the Revolution, quite a prince in his own country! But I beg your pardon, sir; 'ow I do run on, to be sure; and doubtless all beknown to you already! For you do resemble the family, sir. I should have known you anywheres by the likeness to the dear viscount. Ha, poor gentleman, he must 'ave a 'eavy 'eart these days!"
In the same place I saw out of the inn-windows a man-servant passing in the livery of my house, which you are to think I had never before seen worn, or not that I could remember. I had often enough, indeed, pictured myself advanced to be a Marshal, a Duke of the Empire, a Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, and some other kickshaws of the kind, with a perfect rout of flunkeys correctly dressed in my own colours. But it is one thing to imagine, and another to see; it would be one thing to have these liveries in a house of my own in Paris—it was quite another to find them flaunting in the heart of hostile England; and I fear I should have made a fool of myself, if the man had not been on the other side of the street, and I at a one-pane window. There was something illusory in this transplantation of the wealth and honours of a family, a thing by its nature so deeply rooted in the soil; something ghostly in this sense of home-coming so far from home.
From Dunstable I rolled away into a crescendo of similar impressions. There are certainly few things to be compared with these castles, or rather country seats, of the English nobility and gentry; nor anything at all to equal the servility of the population that dwells in their neighbourhood. Though I was but driving in a hired chaise, word of my destination seemed to have gone abroad, and the women curtsied and the men louted to me by the wayside. As I came near I began to appreciate the roots of this widespread respect. The look of my uncle's park wall, even from the outside, had something of a princely character; and when I came in view of the house itself, a sort of madness of vicarious vainglory struck me dumb and kept me staring. It was about the size of the Tuileries. It faced due north; and the last rays of the sun, that was setting like a red-hot shot amidst a tumultuous gathering of snow-clouds, were reflected on the endless rows of windows. A portico of Doric columns adorned the front, and would have done honour to a temple. The servant who received me at the door was civil to a fault—I had almost said, to offence; and the hall to which he admitted me through a pair of glass doors was warmed and already partly lighted by a liberal chimney heaped with the roots of beeches.
"Vicomte Anne de Saint-Yves," said I, in answer to the man's question; whereupon he bowed before me lower still, and stepping upon one side introduced me to the truly awful presence of the major-domo. I have seen many dignitaries in my time, but none who quite equalled this eminent being; who was good enough to answer to the unassuming name of Dawson. From him I learned that my uncle was extremely low, a doctor in close attendance, Mr. Romaine expected at any moment, and that my cousin, the Vicomte de Saint-Yves, had been sent for the same morning.
"It was a sudden seizure, then?" I asked.
Well, he would scarcely go as far as that. It was a decline, a fading away, sir; but he was certainly took bad the day before, had sent for Mr. Romaine, and the major-domo had taken it on himself a little later to send word to the Viscount. "It seemed to me, my lord," said he, "as if this was a time when all the fambly should be called together."
I approved him with my lips, but not in my heart. Dawson was plainly in the interests of my cousin.
"And when can I expect to see my great-uncle, the Count?" said I.
In the evening, I was told; in the meantime he would show me to my room, which had been long prepared for me, and I should be expected to dine in about an hour with the doctor, if my lordship had no objections.
My lordship had not the faintest.
"At the same time," I said, "I have had an accident: I have unhappily lost my baggage, and am here in what I stand in. I don't know if the doctor be a formalist, but it is quite impossible I should appear at table as I ought."
He begged me to be under no anxiety. "We have been long expecting you," said he. "All is ready."
Such I found to be the truth. A great room had been prepared for me; through the mullioned windows the last flicker of the winter sunset interchanged with the reverberation of a royal fire; the bed was open, a suit of evening clothes was airing before the blaze, and from the far corner a boy came forward with deprecatory smiles. The dream in which I had been moving seemed to have reached its pitch. I might have quitted this house and room only the night before; it was my own place that I had come to; and for the first time in my life I understood the force of the words home and welcome.
"This will be all as you would want, sir?" said Mr. Dawson. "This 'ere boy, Rowley, we place entirely at your disposition. E's not exactly a trained vallet, but Mosha Powl, the Viscount's gentleman, 'ave give him the benefick of a few lessons, and it is 'oped that he may give sitisfection. Hanythink that you may require, if you will be so good as to mention the same to Rowley, I will make it my business myself, sir, to see you sitisfied."
So saying, the eminent and already detested Mr. Dawson took his departure, and I was left alone with Rowley. A man who may be said to have wakened to consciousness in the prison of the Abbaye, among those ever graceful and ever tragic figures of the brave and fair, awaiting the hour of the guillotine and denuded of every comfort, I had never known the luxuries or the amenities of my rank in life. To be attended on by servants I had only been accustomed to in inns. My toilet had long been military, to a moment, at the note of a bugle, too often at a ditch-side. And it need not be wondered at if I looked on my new valet with a certain diffidence. But I remembered that if he was my first experience of a valet, I was his first trial as a master. Cheered by which consideration, I demanded my bath in a style of good assurance. There was a bath-room contiguous; in an incredibly short space of time the hot water was ready; and soon after, arrayed in a shawl dressing-gown and in a luxury of contentment and comfort, I was reclined in an easy-chair before the mirror, while Rowley, with a mixture of pride and anxiety which I could well understand, laid out his razors.
"Hey, Rowley?" I asked, not quite resigned to go under fire with such an inexperienced commander. "It's all right, is it? You feel pretty sure of your weapons?"
"Yes, my lord," he replied. "It's all right, I assure your lordship."
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Rowley, but for the sake of shortness, would you mind not belording me in private?" said I. "It will do very well if you call me Mr. Anne. It is the way of my country, as I dare say you know."
Mr. Rowley looked blank.
"But you're just as much a Viscount as Mr. Powl's, are you not?" he said.
"As Mr. Powl's Viscount?" said I, laughing. "O, keep your mind easy, Mr. Rowley's is every bit as good. Only, you see, as I am of the younger line, I bear my Christian name along with the title. Alain is the Viscount; I am the Viscount Anne. And in giving me the name of Mr. Anne, I assure you you will be quite regular."
"Yes, Mr. Anne," said the docile youth. "But about the shaving, sir, you need be under no alarm. Mr. Powl says I 'ave excellent dispositions."
"Mr. Powl?" said I. "That doesn't seem to me very like a French name."
"No, sir, indeed, my lord," said he, with a burst of confidence. "No, indeed, Mr. Anne, and it do not surely. I should say now, it was more like Mr. Pole."
"And Mr. Powl is the Viscount's man?"
"Yes, Mr. Anne," said he. "He 'ave a hard billet, he do. The Viscount is a very particular gentleman. I don't think as you'll be, Mr. Anne?" he added, with a confidential smile in the mirror.
He was about sixteen, well set up, with a pleasant, merry, freckled face, and a pair of dancing eyes. There was an air at once deprecatory and insinuating about the rascal that I thought I recognised. There came to me from my own boyhood memories of certain passionate admirations long passed away, and the objects of them long ago discredited or dead. I remembered how anxious I had been to serve those fleeting heroes, how readily I told myself I would have died for them, how much greater and handsomer than life they had appeared. And, looking in the mirror, it seemed to me that I read the face of Rowley, like an echo or a ghost, by the light of my own youth. I have always contended (somewhat against the opinion of my friends) that I am first of all an economist; and the last thing that I would care to throw away is that very valuable piece of property—a boy's hero-worship.
"Why," said I, "you shave like an angel, Mr. Rowley!"
"Thank you, my lord," says he. "Mr. Powl had no fear of me. You may be sure, sir, I should never 'ave had this berth if I 'adn't 'ave been up to Dick. We been expecting of you this month back. My eye! I never see such preparations. Every day the fires has been kep' up, the bed made, and all! As soon as it was known you were coming, sir, I got the appointment; and I've been up and down since then like a Jack-in-the-box. A wheel couldn't sound in the avenue but what I was at the window! I've had a many disappointments; but to-night, as soon as you stepped out of the shay, I knew it was my—it was you. O, you had been expected! Why, when I go down to supper, I'll be the 'ero of the servants' 'all: the 'ole of the staff is that curious!"
"Well," said I, "I hope you may be able to give a fair account of me—sober, steady, industrious, good-tempered, and with a first-rate character from my last place?"
He laughed an embarrassed laugh. "Your hair curls beautiful," he said, by way of changing the subject. "The Viscount's the boy for curls, though; and the richness of it is, Mr. Powl tells me his don't curl no more than that much twine—by nature. Gettin' old, the Viscount is. He 'ave gone the pace, 'aven't 'e, sir?"
"The fact is," said I, "that I know very little about him. Our family has been much divided, and I have been a soldier from a child."
"A soldier, Mr. Anne, sir?" cried Rowley, with a sudden feverish animation. "Was you ever wounded?"
It is contrary to my principles to discourage admiration for myself; and, slipping back the shoulder of the dressing-gown, I silently exhibited the scar which I had received in Edinburgh Castle. He looked at it with awe.
"Ah, well!" he continued, "there's where the difference comes in! It's in the training. The other Viscount have been horse-racing, and dicing, and carrying on all his life. All right enough, no doubt; but what I do say is that it don't lead to nothink. Whereas——"
"Whereas Mr. Rowley's?" I put in.
"My Viscount?" said he. "Well, sir, I did say it; and now that I've seen you, I say it again!"
I could not refrain from smiling at this outburst, and the rascal caught me in the mirror and smiled to me again.
"I'd say it again, Mr. Hanne," he said. "I know which side my bread's buttered. I know when a gen'leman's a gen'leman. Mr. Powl can go to Putney with his one! Beg your pardon, Mr. Anne, for being so familiar," said he, blushing suddenly scarlet. "I was especially warned against it by Mr. Powl."
"Discipline before all," said I. "Follow your front-rank man."
With that we began to turn our attention to the clothes. I was amazed to find them fit so well: not a la diable, in the haphazard manner of a soldier's uniform or a ready-made suit; but with nicety, as a trained artist might rejoice to make them for a favourite subject.
"'Tis extraordinary," cried I: "these things fit me perfectly."
"Indeed, Mr. Anne, you two be very much of a shape," said Rowley.
"Who? What two?" said I.
"The Viscount," he said.
"Damnation! Have I the man's clothes on me, too?" cried I.
But Rowley hastened to reassure me. On the first word of my coming the Count had put the matter of my wardrobe in the hands of his own and my cousin's tailors; and on the rumour of our resemblance, my clothes had been made to Alain's measure.
"But they were all made for you express, Mr. Anne. You may be certain the Count would never do nothing by 'alf: fires kep' burning; the finest of clothes ordered, I'm sure, and a body-servant being trained a-purpose."
"Well," said I, "it's a good fire, and a good set-out of clothes; and what a valet, Mr. Rowley! And there's one thing to be said for my cousin—I mean for Mr. Powl's Viscount—he has a very fair figure."
"O, don't you be took in, Mr. Anne," quoth the faithless Rowley: "he has to be hyked into a pair of stays to get them things on!"
"Come, come, Mr. Rowley," said I, "this is telling tales out of school! Do not you be deceived. The greatest men of antiquity, including Caesar and Hannibal and Pope Joan, may have been very glad, at my time of life or Alain's, to follow his example. 'Tis a misfortune common to all; and really," said I, bowing to myself before the mirror like one who should dance the minuet, "when the result is so successful as this, who would do anything but applaud?"
My toilet concluded, I marched on to fresh surprises. My chamber, my new valet, and my new clothes had been beyond hope: the dinner, the soup, the whole bill of fare was a revelation of the powers there are in man. I had not supposed it lay in the genius of any cook to create, out of common beef and mutton, things so different and dainty. The wine was of a piece, the doctor a most agreeable companion; nor could I help reflecting on the prospect that all this wealth, comfort, and handsome profusion might still very possibly become mine. Here were a change, indeed, from the common soldier and the camp kettle, the prisoner and his prison rations, the fugitive and the horrors of the covered cart!
The doctor had scarce finished his meal before he hastened with an apology to attend upon his patient; and almost immediately after I was myself summoned and ushered up the great staircase and along interminable corridors to the bedside of my great-uncle the Count. You are to think that up to the present moment I had not set eyes on this formidable personage, only on the evidences of his wealth and kindness. You are to think besides that I had heard him miscalled and abused from my earliest childhood up. The first of the emigres could never expect a good word in the society in which my father moved. Even yet the reports I received were of a doubtful nature; even Romaine had drawn of him no very amiable portrait; and as I was ushered into the room, it was a critical eye that I cast on my great-uncle. He lay propped on pillows in a little cot no greater than a camp-bed, not visibly breathing. He was about eighty years of age, and looked it; not that his face was much lined, but all the blood and colour seemed to have faded from his body, and even his eyes, which last he kept usually closed, as though the light distressed him. There was an unspeakable degree of slyness in his expression, which kept me ill at ease; he seemed to lie there with his arms folded, like a spider waiting for prey. His speech was very deliberate and courteous, but scarce louder than a sigh.
"I bid you welcome, Monsieur le Vicomte Anne," said he, looking at me hard with his pale eyes, but not moving on his pillows. "I have sent for you, and I thank you for the obliging expedition you have shown. It is my misfortune that I cannot rise to receive you. I trust you have been reasonably well entertained?"
"Monsieur mon oncle," I said, bowing very low, "I am come at the summons of the head of my family."
"It is well," he said. "Be seated. I should be glad to hear some news—if that can be called news that is already twenty years old—of how I have the pleasure to see you here."
By the coldness of his address, not more than by the nature of the times that he bade me recall, I was plunged in melancholy. I felt myself surrounded as with deserts of friendlessness, and the delight of my welcome was turned to ashes in my mouth.
"That is soon told, monseigneur," said I. "I understand that I need tell you nothing of the end of my unhappy parents? It is only the story of the lost dog."
"You are right. I am sufficiently informed of that deplorable affair; it is painful to me. My nephew, your father, was a man who would not be advised," said he. "Tell me, if you please, simply of yourself."
"I am afraid I must run the risk of harrowing your sensibility in the beginning," said I, with a bitter smile, "because my story begins at the foot of the guillotine. When the list came out that night, and her name was there, I was already old enough, not in years but in sad experience, to understand the extent of my misfortune. She——" I paused. "Enough that she arranged with a friend, Madame de Chasserades, that she should take charge of me, and by the favour of our gaolers I was suffered to remain in the shelter of the Abbaye. That was my only refuge; there was no corner of France that I could rest the sole of my foot upon except the prison. Monsieur le Comte, you are as well aware as I can be what kind of a life that was, and how swiftly death smote in that society. I did not wait long before the name of Madame de Chasserades succeeded to that of my mother on the list. She passed me on to Madame de Noytot; she, in her turn, to Mademoiselle de Braye; and there were others. I was the one thing permanent; they were all transient as clouds; a day or two of their care, and then came the last farewell and—somewhere far off in that roaring Paris that surrounded us—the bloody scene. I was the cherished one, the last comfort, of these dying women. I have been in pitched fights, my lord, and I never knew such courage. It was all done smiling, in the tone of good society; belle maman was the name I was taught to give to each; and for a day or two the new 'pretty mamma' would make much of me, show me off, teach me the minuet, and to say my prayers; and then, with a tender embrace, would go the way of her predecessors, smiling. There were some that wept too. There was a childhood! All the time Monsieur de Culemberg kept his eye on me, and would have had me out of the Abbaye and in his own protection, but my 'pretty mammas' one after another resisted the idea. Where could I be safer? they argued; and what was to become of them without the darling of the prison? Well, it was soon shown how safe I was! The dreadful day of the massacre came; the prison was overrun; none paid attention to me, not even the last of my 'pretty mammas,' for she had met another fate. I was wandering distracted, when I was found by some one in the interests of Monsieur de Culemberg. I understand he was sent on purpose; I believe, in order to reach the interior of the prison, he had set his hand to nameless barbarities; such was the price paid for my worthless, whimpering little life! He gave me his hand; it was wet, and mine was reddened; he led me unresisting. I remember but the one circumstance of my flight—it was my last view of my last 'pretty mamma.' Shall I describe it to you?" I asked the Count, with a sudden fierceness.
"Avoid unpleasant details," observed my great-uncle gently.
At these words a sudden peace fell upon me. I had been angry with the man before; I had not sought to spare him; and now, in a moment, I saw that there was nothing to spare. Whether from natural heartlessness or extreme old age, the soul was not at home; and my benefactor, who had kept the fire lit in my room for a month past—my only relative except Alain, whom I knew already to be a hired spy—had trodden out the last sparks of hope and interest.
"Certainly," said I; "and, indeed, the day for them is nearly over. I was taken to Monsieur de Culemberg's,—I presume, sir, that you know the Abbe de Culemberg?"
He indicated assent without opening his eyes.
"He was a very brave and a very learned man——"
"And a very holy one," said my uncle civilly.
"And a very holy one, as you observe," I continued. "He did an infinity of good, and through all the Terror kept himself from the guillotine. He brought me up and gave me such education as I have. It was in his house in the country at Dammarie, near Melun, that I made the acquaintance of your agent, Mr. Vicary, who lay there in hiding, only to fall a victim at the last to a gang of chauffeurs."
"That poor Mr. Vicary!" observed my uncle. "He had been many times in my interests to France, and this was his first failure. Quel charmant homme, n'est-ce pas?"
"Infinitely so," said I. "But I would not willingly detain you any further with a story, the details of which it must naturally be more or less unpleasant for you to hear. Suffice it that, by M. de Culemberg's own advice, I said farewell at eighteen to that kind preceptor and his books, and entered the service of France; and have since then carried arms in such a manner as not to disgrace my family."
"You narrate well; vous avez la voix chaude," said my uncle, turning on his pillows as if to study me. "I have a very good account of you by Monsieur de Mauseant, whom you helped in Spain. And you had some education, from the Abbe de Culemberg, a man of good house? Yes, you will do very well. You have a good manner and a handsome person, which hurts nothing. We are all handsome in the family; even I myself, I have had my successes, the memories of which still charm me. It is my intention, my nephew, to make of you my heir. I am not very well content with my other nephew, Monsieur le Vicomte: he has not been respectful, which is the flattery due to age. And there are other matters."
I was half tempted to throw back in his face that inheritance so coldly offered. At the same time I had to consider that he was an old man, and, after all, my relation; and that I was a poor one, in considerable straits, with a hope at heart which that inheritance might yet enable me to realise. Nor could I forget that, however icy his manners, he had behaved to me from the first with the extreme of liberality and—I was about to write, kindness, but the word, in that connection, would not come. I really owed the man some measure of gratitude, which it would be an ill manner to repay if I were to insult him on his deathbed.
"Your will, monsieur, must ever be my rule," said I, bowing.
"You have wit, monsieur mon neveu," said he, "the best wit—the wit of silence. Many might have deafened me with their gratitude. Gratitude!" he repeated, with a peculiar intonation, and lay and smiled to himself. "But to approach what is more important. As a prisoner of war, will it be possible for you to be served heir to English estates? I have no idea: long as I have dwelt in England, I have never studied what they call their laws. On the other hand, how if Romaine should come too late? I have two pieces of business to be transacted—to die, and to make my will; and, however desirous I may be to serve you, I cannot postpone the first in favour of the second beyond a very few hours."
"Well, sir, I must then contrive to be doing as I did before," said I.
"Not so," said the Count. "I have an alternative. I have just drawn my balance at my banker's, a considerable sum, and I am now to place it in your hands. It will be so much for you and so much less——" he paused, and smiled with an air of malignity that surprised me. "But it is necessary it should be done before witnesses. Monsieur le Vicomte is of a particular disposition, and an unwitnessed donation may very easily be twisted into a theft."
He touched a bell, which was answered by a man having the appearance of a confidential valet. To him he gave a key.
"Bring me the despatch-box that came yesterday, La Ferriere," said he. "You will at the same time present my compliments to Dr. Hunter and M. l'Abbe, and request them to step for a few moments to my room."
The despatch-box proved to be rather a bulky piece of baggage, covered with Russia leather. Before the doctor and an excellent old smiling priest it was passed over into my hands with a very clear statement of the disposer's wishes; immediately after which, though the witnesses remained behind to draw up and sign a joint note of the transaction, Monsieur de Keroual dismissed me to my own room, La Ferriere following with the invaluable box.
At my chamber door I took it from him with thanks, and entered alone. Everything had been already disposed for the night, the curtains drawn and the fire trimmed; and Rowley was still busy with my bed-clothes. He turned round as I entered with a look of welcome that did my heart good. Indeed, I had never a much greater need of human sympathy, however trivial, than at that moment when I held a fortune in my arms. In my uncle's room I had breathed the very atmosphere of disenchantment. He had gorged my pockets; he had starved every dignified or affectionate sentiment of a man. I had received so chilling an impression of age and experience that the mere look of youth drew me to confide in Rowley: he was only a boy, his heart must beat yet, he must still retain some innocence and natural feelings, he could blurt out follies with his mouth, he was not a machine to utter perfect speech! At the same time I was beginning to outgrow the painful impressions of my interview; my spirits were beginning to revive; and at the jolly, empty looks of Mr. Rowley, as he ran forward to relieve me of the box, St. Ives became himself again.
"Now, Rowley, don't be in a hurry," said I. "This is a momentous juncture. Man and boy, you have been in my service about three hours. You must already have observed that I am a gentleman of a somewhat morose disposition, and there is nothing that I more dislike than the smallest appearance of familiarity. Mr. Pole or Mr. Powl, probably in the spirit of prophecy, warned you against this danger."
"Yes, Mr. Anne," said Rowley blankly.
"Now there has just arisen one of those rare cases in which I am willing to depart from my principles. My uncle has given me a box—what you would call a Christmas box. I don't know what's in it, and no more do you: perhaps I'm an April fool, or perhaps I am already enormously wealthy; there might be five hundred pounds in this apparently harmless receptacle!"
"Lord, Mr. Anne!" cried Rowley.
"Now, Rowley, hold up your right hand and repeat the words of the oath after me," said I, laying the despatch-box on the table. "Strike me blue if I ever disclose to Mr. Powl, or Mr. Powl's Viscount, or anything that is Mr. Powl's, not to mention Mr. Dawson and the doctor, the treasures of the following despatch-box; and strike me sky-blue scarlet if I do not continually maintain, uphold, love, honour, and obey, serve, and follow to the four corners of the earth and the waters that are under the earth, the hereinafter before-mentioned (only that I find I have neglected to mention him) Viscount Anne de Keroual de Saint-Yves, commonly known as Mr. Rowley's Viscount. So be it. Amen."
He took the oath with the same exaggerated seriousness as I gave it to him.
"Now," said I. "Here is the key for you; I will hold the lid with both hands in the meanwhile." He turned the key. "Bring up all the candles in the room, and range them alongside. What is it to be? A live gorgon, a Jack-in-the-box, or a spring that fires a pistol? On your knees, sir, before the prodigy!"
So saying, I turned the despatch-box upside down upon the table. At sight of the heap of bank paper and gold that lay in front of us between the candles, or rolled upon the floor alongside, I stood astonished.
"O Lord!" cried Mr. Rowley; "O Lordy, Lordy, Lord!" and he scrambled after the fallen guineas. "O my, Mr. Anne! what a sight o' money! Why, it's like a blessed story-book. It's like the Forty Thieves."
"Now, Rowley, let's be cool, let's be business-like," said I. "Riches are deceitful, particularly when you haven't counted them; and the first thing we have to do is to arrive at the amount of my—let me say modest competency. If I'm not mistaken, I have enough here to keep you in gold buttons all the rest of your life. You collect the gold, and I'll take the paper."
Accordingly, down we sat together on the hearthrug, and for some time there was no sound but the creasing of bills and the jingling of guineas, broken occasionally by the exulting exclamations of Rowley. The arithmetical operation on which we were embarked took long, and it might have been tedious to others; not to me nor to my helper.
"Ten thousand pounds!" I announced at last.
"Ten thousand!" echoed Mr. Rowley.
And we gazed upon each other.
The greatness of this fortune took my breath away. With that sum in my hands I need fear no enemies. People are arrested in nine cases out of ten, not because the police are astute, but because they themselves run short of money; and I had here before me in the despatch-box a succession of devices and disguises that ensured my liberty. Not only so; but, as I felt with a sudden and overpowering thrill, with ten thousand pounds in my hand, I was become an eligible suitor. What advances I had made in the past, as a private soldier in a military prison, or a fugitive by the wayside, could only be qualified or, indeed, excused as acts of desperation. And now, I might come in by the front door; I might approach the dragon with a lawyer at my elbow, and rich settlements to offer. The poor French prisoner, Champdivers, might be in a perpetual danger of arrest; but the rich travelling Englishman, St. Ives, in his post-chaise, with his despatch-box by his side, could smile at fate and laugh at locksmiths. I repeated the proverb, exulting, Love laughs at locksmiths! In a moment, by the mere coming of this money, my love had become possible—it had come near, it was under my hand—and it may be by one of the curiosities of human nature, but it burned that instant brighter.
"Rowley," said I, "your Viscount is a made man."
"Why, we both are, sir," said Rowley.
"Yes, both," said I; "and you shall dance at the wedding"; and I flung at his head a bundle of bank notes, and had just followed it up with a handful of guineas, when the door opened, and Mr. Romaine appeared upon the threshold.
MR. ROMAINE CALLS ME NAMES
Feeling very much of a fool to be thus taken by surprise, I scrambled to my feet and hastened to make my visitor welcome. He did not refuse me his hand; but he gave it with a coldness and distance for which I was quite unprepared, and his countenance, as he looked on me, was marked in a strong degree with concern and severity.
"So, sir, I find you here?" said he, in tones of little encouragement. "Is that you, George? You can run away; I have business with your master."
He showed Rowley out, and locked the door behind him. Then he sat down in an armchair on one side of the fire, and looked at me with uncompromising sternness.
"I am hesitating how to begin," said he. "In this singular labyrinth of blunders and difficulties that you have prepared for us, I am positively hesitating where to begin. It will perhaps be best that you should read, first of all, this paragraph." And he handed over to me a newspaper.
The paragraph in question was brief. It announced the recapture of one of the prisoners recently escaped from Edinburgh Castle; gave his name Clausel, and added that he had entered into the particulars of the recent revolting murder in the Castle, and denounced the murderer:
"It is a common soldier called Champdivers, who had himself escaped, and is in all probability involved in the common fate of his comrades. In spite of the activity along all the Forth and the East Coast, nothing has yet been seen of the sloop which these desperadoes seized at Grangemouth, and it is now almost certain that they have found a watery grave."
At the reading of this paragraph my heart turned over. In a moment I saw my castle in the air ruined; myself changed from a mere military fugitive into a hunted murderer, fleeing from the gallows; my love, which had a moment since appeared so near to me, blotted from the field of possibility. Despair, which was my first sentiment, did not, however, endure for more than a moment. I saw that my companions had indeed succeeded in their unlikely design; and that I was supposed to have accompanied and perished along with them by shipwreck—a most probable ending to their enterprise. If they thought me at the bottom of the North Sea, I need not fear much vigilance on the streets of Edinburgh. Champdivers was wanted: what was to connect him with St. Ives? Major Chevenix would recognise me if he met me; that was beyond bargaining: he had seen me so often, his interest had been kindled to so high a point, that I could hope to deceive him by no stratagem of disguise. Well, even so; he would have a competition of testimony before him: he knew Clausel, he knew me, and I was sure he would decide for honour. At the same time, the image of Flora shot up in my mind's-eye with such a radiancy as fairly overwhelmed all other considerations; the blood sprang to every corner of my body, and I vowed I would see and win her, if it cost my neck.
"Very annoying, no doubt," said I, as I returned the paper to Mr. Romaine.
"Is annoying your word for it?" said he.
"Exasperating, if you like," I admitted.
"And true?" he inquired.
"Well, true in a sense," said I. "But perhaps I had better answer that question by putting you in possession of the facts?"
"I think so, indeed," said he.
I narrated to him as much as seemed necessary of the quarrel, the duel, the death of Goguelat, and the character of Clausel. He heard me through in a forbidding silence, nor did he at all betray the nature of his sentiments, except that, at the episode of the scissors, I could observe his mulberry face to turn three shades paler.
"I suppose I may believe you?" said he, when I had done.
"Or else conclude this interview," said I.
"Can you not understand that we are here discussing matters of the gravest import? Can you not understand that I feel myself weighted with a load of responsibility on your account—that you should take this occasion to air your fire-eating manners against your own attorney? There are serious hours in life, Mr. Anne," he said severely. "A capital charge, and that of a very brutal character and with singularly unpleasant details; the presence of the man Clausel, who (according to your account of it) is actuated by sentiments of real malignity, and prepared to swear black white; all the other witnesses scattered and perhaps drowned at sea; the natural prejudice against a Frenchman and a runaway prisoner: this makes a serious total for your lawyer to consider, and is by no means lessened by the incurable folly and levity of your own disposition."
"I beg your pardon!" said I.
"O, my expressions have been selected with scrupulous accuracy," he replied. "How did I find you, sir, when I came to announce this catastrophe? You were sitting on the hearthrug playing, like a silly baby, with a servant, were you not, and the floor all scattered with gold and bank paper? There was a tableau for you! It was I who came, and you were lucky in that. It might have been any one—your cousin as well as another."
"You have me there, sir," I admitted. "I had neglected all precautions, and you do right to be angry. A propos, Mr. Romaine, how did you come yourself, and how long have you been in the house?" I added, surprised, on the retrospect, not to have heard him arrive.
"I drove up in a chaise and pair," he returned. "Any one might have heard me. But you were not listening, I suppose? being so extremely at your ease in the very house of your enemy, and under a capital charge! And I have been long enough here to do your business for you. Ah, yes, I did it, God forgive me!—did it before I so much as asked you the explanation of the paragraph. For some time back the will has been prepared; now it is signed; and your uncle has heard nothing of your recent piece of activity. Why? Well, I had no fancy to bother him on his deathbed: you might be innocent; and at bottom I preferred the murderer to the spy."
No doubt of it but the man played a friendly part: no doubt also that, in his ill-temper and anxiety, he expressed himself unpalatably.
"You will perhaps find me over-delicate," said I. "There is a word you employed——"
"I employ the words of my brief, sir," he cried, striking with his hand on the newspaper. "It is there in six letters. And do not be so certain—you have not stood your trial yet. It is an ugly affair, a fishy business. It is highly disagreeable. I would give my hand off—I mean I would give a hundred pound down—to have nothing to do with it. And, situated as we are, we must at once take action. There is here no choice. You must at once quit this country, and get to France, or Holland, or, indeed, to Madagascar."
"There may be two words to that," said I.
"Not so much as one syllable!" he retorted. "Here is no room for argument. The case is nakedly plain. In the disgusting position in which you have found means to place yourself, all that is to be hoped for is delay. A time may come when we shall be able to do better. It cannot be now: now it would be the gibbet."
"You labour under a false impression, Mr. Romaine," said I. "I have no impatience to figure in the dock. I am even as anxious as yourself to postpone my first appearance there. On the other hand, I have not the slightest intention of leaving this country, where I please myself extremely. I have a good address, a ready tongue, an English accent that passes, and, thanks to the generosity of my uncle, as much money as I want. It would be hard indeed if, with all these advantages, Mr. St. Ives should not be able to live quietly in a private lodging, while the authorities amuse themselves by looking for Champdivers. You forget, there is no connection between these two personages."
"And you forget your cousin," retorted Romaine. "There is the link. There is the tongue of the buckle. He knows you are Champdivers." He put up his hand as if to listen. "And, for a wager, here he is himself!" he exclaimed.
As when a tailor takes a piece of goods upon his counter and rends it across, there came to our ears from the avenue the long tearing sound of a chaise and four approaching at the top speed of the horses. And, looking out between the curtains, we beheld the lamps skimming on the smooth ascent.
"Ay," said Romaine, wiping the window-pane that he might see more clearly. "Ay, that he is by the driving! So he squanders money along the king's highway, the triple idiot! gorging every man he meets with gold for the pleasure of arriving—where? Ah, yes, where but a debtor's gaol, if not a criminal prison!"
"Is he that kind of a man?" I said, staring on these lamps as though I could decipher in them the secret of my cousin's character.
"You will find him a dangerous kind," answered the lawyer. "For you, these are the lights on a lee shore! I find I fall in a muse when I consider of him; what a formidable being he once was, and what a personable! and how near he draws to the moment that must break him utterly! We none of us like him here; we hate him, rather; and yet I have a sense—I don't think at my time of life it can be pity—but a reluctance rather, to break anything so big and figurative, as though he were a big porcelain pot or a big picture of high price. Ay, there is what I was waiting for!" he cried, as the lights of a second chaise swam in sight. "It is he beyond a doubt. The first was the signature and the next the flourish. The two chaises, the second following with the baggage, which is always copious and ponderous, and one of his valets: he cannot go a step without a valet."
"I hear you repeat the word big," said I. "But it cannot be that he is anything out of the way in stature."
"No," said the attorney. "About your height, as I guessed for the tailors, and I see nothing wrong with the result. But, somehow, he commands an atmosphere; he has a spacious manner; and he has kept up, all through life, such a volume of racket about his personality, with his chaises and his racers and his dicings, and I know not what—that somehow he imposes! It seems, when the farce is done, and he locked in Fleet prison—and nobody left but Buonaparte and Lord Wellington and the Hetman Platoff to make a work about—the world will be in a comparison quite tranquil. But this is beside the mark," he added, with an effort, turning again from the window. "We are now under fire, Mr. Anne, as you soldiers would say, and it is high time we should prepare to go into action. He must not see you; that would be fatal. All that he knows at present is that you resemble him, and that is much more than enough. If it were possible, it would be well he should not know you were in the house."
"Quite impossible, depend upon it," said I. "Some of the servants are directly in his interests, perhaps in his pay: Dawson, for an example."
"My own idea!" cried Romaine. "And at least," he added, as the first of the chaises drew up with a dash in front of the portico, "it is now too late. Here he is."
We stood listening, with a strange anxiety, to the various noises that awoke in the silent house: the sound of doors opening and closing, the sound of feet near at hand and farther off. It was plain the arrival of my cousin was a matter of moment, almost of parade, to the household. And suddenly, out of this confused and distant bustle, a rapid and light tread became distinguishable. We heard it come upstairs, draw near along the corridor, pause at the door, and a stealthy and hasty rapping succeeded.
"Mr. Anne—Mr. Anne, sir! Let me in!" said the voice of Rowley.
We admitted the lad, and locked the door again behind him.
"It's him, sir," he panted. "He've come."
"You mean the Viscount?" said I. "So we supposed. But come, Rowley—out with the rest of it! You have more to tell us, or your face belies you!"
"Mr. Anne, I do," he said. "Mr. Romaine, sir, you're a friend of his, ain't you?"
"Yes, George, I am a friend of his," said Romaine, and, to my great surprise, laid his hand upon my shoulder.
"Well, it's this way," said Rowley; "Mr. Powl have been at me! It's to play the spy! I thought he was at it from the first! From the first I see what he was after—coming round and round, and hinting things! But to-night he outs with it plump! I'm to let him hear all what you're to do beforehand, he says; and he gave me this for an arnest"—holding up half a guinea; "and I took it, so I did! Strike me sky-blue scarlet!" says he, adducing the words of the mock oath; and he looked askance at me as he did so.
I saw that he had forgotten himself, and that he knew it. The expression of his eye changed almost in the passing of the glance from the significant to the appealing—from the look of an accomplice to that of a culprit; and from that moment he became the model of a well-drilled valet.
"Sky-blue scarlet?" repeated the lawyer. "Is the fool delirious?"
"No," said I; "he is only reminding me of something."
"Well—and I believe the fellow will be faithful," said Romaine. "So you are a friend of Mr. Anne's too?" he added to Rowley.
"If you please, sir," said Rowley.
"'Tis something sudden," observed Romaine, "but it may be genuine enough. I believe him to be honest. He comes of honest people. Well, George Rowley, you might embrace some early opportunity to earn that half-guinea by telling Mr. Powl that your master will not leave here till noon to-morrow, if he go even then. Tell him there are a hundred things to be done here, and a hundred more that can only be done properly at my office in Holborn. Come to think of it—we had better see to that first of all," he went on, unlocking the door. "Get hold of Powl, and see. And be quick back, and clear me up this mess."
Mr. Rowley was no sooner gone than the lawyer took a pinch of snuff, and regarded me with somewhat of a more genial expression.
"Sir," said he, "it is very fortunate for you that your face is so strong a letter of recommendation. Here am I, a tough old practitioner, mixing myself up with your very distressing business; and here is this farmer's lad, who has the wit to take a bribe and the loyalty to come and tell you of it—all, I take it, on the strength of your appearance. I wish I could imagine how it would impress a jury!" says he.
"And how it would affect the hangman, sir?" I asked.
"Absit omen!" said Mr. Romaine devoutly.
We were just so far in our talk, when I heard a sound that brought my heart into my mouth: the sound of some one slily trying the handle of the door. It had been preceded by no audible footstep. Since the departure of Rowley our wing of the house had been entirely silent. And we had every right to suppose ourselves alone, and to conclude that the new-comer, whoever he might be, was come on a clandestine, if not a hostile, errand.
"Who is there?" asked Romaine.
"It's only me, sir," said the soft voice of Dawson. "It's the Viscount, sir. He is very desirous to speak with you on business."
"Tell him I shall come shortly, Dawson," said the lawyer. "I am at present engaged."
"Thank you, sir!" said Dawson.
And we heard his feet draw off slowly along the corridor.
"Yes," said Mr. Romaine, speaking low, and maintaining the attitude of one intently listening, "there is another foot. I cannot be deceived!"
"I think there was indeed!" said I. "And what troubles me—I am not sure that the other has gone entirely away. By the time it got the length of the head of the stair the tread was plainly single."
"Ahem—blockaded?" asked the lawyer.
"A siege en regle!" I exclaimed.
"Let us come farther from the door," said Romaine, "and reconsider this damnable position. Without doubt, Alain was this moment at the door. He hoped to enter and get a view of you, as if by accident. Baffled in this, has he stayed himself, or has he planted Dawson here by way of sentinel?"
"Himself, beyond a doubt," said I. "And yet to what end? He cannot think to pass the night there!"
"If it were only possible to pay no heed!" said Mr. Romaine. "But this is the accursed drawback of your position. We can do nothing openly. I must smuggle you out of this room and out of this house like seizable goods; and how am I to set about it with a sentinel planted at your very door?"
"There is no good in being agitated," said I.
"None at all," he acquiesced. "And, come to think of it, it is droll enough that I should have been that very moment commenting on your personal appearance, when your cousin came upon this mission. I was saying, if you remember, that your face was as good or better than a letter of recommendation. I wonder if M. Alain would be like the rest of us—I wonder what he would think of it?"
Mr. Romaine was sitting in a chair by the fire with his back to the windows, and I was myself kneeling on the hearthrug and beginning mechanically to pick up the scattered bills, when a honeyed voice joined suddenly in our conversation.
"He thinks well of it, Mr. Romaine. He begs to join himself to that circle of admirers which you indicate to exist already."
THE DEVIL AND ALL AT AMERSHAM PLACE
Never did two human creatures get to their feet with more alacrity than the lawyer and myself. We had locked and barred the main gates of the citadel; but unhappily we had left open the bath-room sally-port; and here we found the voice of the hostile trumpets sounding from within, and all our defences taken in reverse. I took but the time to whisper Mr. Romaine in the ear: "Here is another tableau for you!" at which he looked at me a moment with a kind of pathos, as who should say, "Don't hit a man when he's down." Then I transferred my eyes to my enemy.
He had his hat on, a little on one side: it was a very tall hat, raked extremely, and had a narrow curling brim. His hair was all curled out in masses like an Italian mountebank—a most unpardonable fashion. He sported a huge tippeted overcoat of frieze, such as watchmen wear, only the inside was lined with costly furs, and he kept it half open to display the exquisite linen, the many-coloured waistcoat, and the profuse jewellery of watch-chains and brooches underneath. The leg and the ankle were turned to a miracle. It is out of the question that I should deny the resemblance altogether, since it has been remarked by so many different persons whom I cannot reasonably accuse of a conspiracy. As a matter of fact, I saw little of it and confessed to nothing. Certainly he was what some might call handsome, of a pictorial, exuberant style of beauty, all attitude, profile, and impudence: a man whom I could see in fancy parade on the grand stand at a race-meeting, or swagger in Piccadilly, staring down the women, and stared at himself with admiration by the coal porters. Of his frame of mind at that moment his face offered a lively if an unconscious picture. He was lividly pale, and his lip was caught up in a smile that could almost be called a snarl, of a sheer, arid malignity that appalled me and yet put me on my mettle for the encounter. He looked me up and down, then bowed and took off his hat to me.
"My cousin, I presume?" he said.
"I understand I have that honour," I replied.
"The honour is mine," said he, and his voice shook as he said it.
"I should make you welcome, I believe," said I.
"Why?" he inquired. "This poor house has been my home for longer than I care to claim. That you should already take upon yourself the duties of host here is to be at unnecessary pains. Believe me, that part would be more becomingly mine. And, by the way, I must not fail to offer you my little compliment. It is a gratifying surprise to meet you in the dress of a gentleman, and to see"—with a circular look upon the scattered bills—"that your necessities have already been so liberally relieved."
I bowed with a smile that was perhaps no less hateful than his own.
"There are so many necessities in this world," said I. "Charity has to choose. One gets relieved, and some other, no less indigent, perhaps indebted, must go wanting."
"Malice is an engaging trait," said he.
"And envy, I think?" was my reply.
He must have felt that he was not getting wholly the better of this passage at arms; perhaps even feared that he should lose command of his temper, which he reined in throughout the interview as with a red-hot curb, for he flung away from me at the word, and addressed the lawyer with insulting arrogance.
"Mr. Romaine," he said, "since when have you presumed to give orders in this house?"
"I am not prepared to admit that I have given any," replied Romaine; "certainly none that did not fall in the sphere of my responsibilities."
"By whose orders, then, am I denied entrance to my uncle's room?" said my cousin.
"By the doctor's, sir," replied Romaine; "and I think even you will admit his faculty to give them."
"Have a care, sir," cried Alain. "Do not be puffed up with your position. It is none so secure, Master Attorney. I should not wonder in the least if you were struck off the rolls for this night's work, and the next I should see of you were when I flung you alms at a pothouse door to mend your ragged elbows. The doctor's orders? But I believe I am not mistaken! You have to-night transacted business with the Count; and this needy young gentleman has enjoyed the privilege of still another interview, in which (as I am pleased to see) his dignity has not prevented his doing very well for himself. I wonder that you should care to prevaricate with me so idly."
"I will confess so much," said Mr. Romaine, "if you call it prevarication. The order in question emanated from the Count himself. He does not wish to see you."
"For which I must take the word of Mr. Daniel Romaine?" asked Alain.
"In default of any better," said Romaine.
There was an instantaneous convulsion in my cousin's face, and I distinctly heard him gnash his teeth at this reply; but, to my surprise, he resumed in tones of almost good-humour:
"Come, Mr. Romaine, do not let us be petty!" He drew in a chair and sat down. "Understand you have stolen a march upon me. You have introduced your soldier of Napoleon, and (how, I cannot conceive) he has been apparently accepted with favour. I ask no better proof than the funds with which I find him literally surrounded—I presume in consequence of some extravagance of joy at the first sight of so much money. The odds are so far in your favour, but the match is not yet won. Questions will arise of undue influence, of sequestration, and the like: I have my witnesses ready. I tell it you cynically, for you cannot profit by the knowledge; and, if the worst come to the worst, I have good hopes of recovering my own and of ruining you."
"You do what you please," answered Romaine; "but I give it you for a piece of good advice, you had best do nothing in the matter. You will only make yourself ridiculous; you will only squander money, of which you have none too much, and reap public mortification."
"Ah, but there you make the common mistake, Mr. Romaine!" returned Alain. "You despise your adversary. Consider, if you please, how very disagreeable I could make myself if I chose. Consider the position of your protege—an escaped prisoner! But I play a great game. I condemn such petty opportunities."
At this Romaine and I exchanged a glance of triumph. It seemed manifest that Alain had as yet received no word of Clausel's recapture and denunciation. At the same moment the lawyer, thus relieved of the instancy of his fear, changed his tactics. With a great air of unconcern, he secured the newspaper, which still lay open before him on the table.
"I think, Monsieur Alain, that you labour under some illusion," said he. "Believe me, this is all beside the mark. You seem to be pointing to some compromise. Nothing is further from my views. You suspect me of an inclination to trifle with you, to conceal how things are going. I cannot, on the other hand, be too early or too explicit in giving you information which concerns you (I must say) capitally. Your great-uncle has to-night cancelled his will, and made a new one in favour of your cousin Anne. Nay, and you shall hear it from his own lips, if you choose! I will take so much upon me," said the lawyer, rising. "Follow me, if you please, gentlemen."
Mr. Romaine led the way out of the room so briskly, and was so briskly followed by Alain, that I had hard ado to get the remainder of the money replaced and the despatch-box locked, and to overtake them, even by running, ere they should be lost in that maze of corridors, my uncle's house. As it was, I went with a heart divided; and the thought of my treasure thus left unprotected, save by a paltry lid and lock that any one might break or pick open, put me in a perspiration whenever I had the time to remember it. The lawyer brought us to a room, begged us to be seated while he should hold a consultation with the doctor, and, slipping out of another door, left Alain and myself closeted together.
Truly he had done nothing to ingratiate himself; his every word had been steeped in unfriendliness, envy, and that contempt which (as it is born of anger) it is possible to support without humiliation. On my part, I had been little more conciliating; and yet I began to be sorry for this man, hired spy as I knew him to be. It seemed to me less than decent that he should have been brought up in the expectation of this great inheritance, and now, at the eleventh hour, be tumbled forth out of the house door and left to himself, his poverty, and his debts—those debts of which I had so ungallantly reminded him so short a time before. And we were scarce left alone ere I made haste to hang out a flag of truce.
"My cousin," said I, "trust me, you will not find me inclined to be your enemy."
He paused in front of me—for he had not accepted the lawyer's invitation to be seated, but walked to and fro in the apartment—took a pinch of snuff, and looked at me while he was taking it with an air of much curiosity.
"Is it even so?" said he. "Am I so far favoured by fortune as to have your pity? Infinitely obliged, my cousin Anne! But these sentiments are not always reciprocal, and I warn you that the day when I set my foot on your neck, the spine shall break. Are you acquainted with the properties of the spine?" he asked, with an insolence beyond qualification.
It was too much. "I am acquainted also with the properties of a pair of pistols," said I, toising him.
"No, no, no!" says he, holding up his finger. "I will take my revenge how and when I please. We are enough of the same family to understand each other, perhaps; and the reason why I have not had you arrested on your arrival, why I had not a picket of soldiers in the first clump of evergreens, to await and prevent your coming—I, who knew all, before whom that pettifogger, Romaine, has been conspiring in broad daylight to supplant me—is simply this: that I had not made up my mind how I was to take my revenge."
At that moment he was interrupted by the tolling of a bell. As we stood surprised and listening, it was succeeded by the sound of many feet trooping up the stairs and shuffling by the door of our room. Both, I believe, had a great curiosity to set it open, which each, owing to the presence of the other, resisted; and we waited instead in silence, and without moving, until Romaine returned and bade us to my uncle's presence.
He led the way by a little crooked passage, which brought us out in the sick-room, and behind the bed. I believe I have forgotten to remark that the Count's chamber was of considerable dimensions. We beheld it now crowded with the servants and dependants of the house, from the doctor and the priest to Mr. Dawson and the housekeeper, from Dawson down to Rowley and the last footman in white calves, the last plump chambermaid in her clean gown and cap, and the last ostler in a stable waistcoat. This large congregation of persons (and I was surprised to see how large it was) had the appearance, for the most part, of being ill at ease and heartily bewildered, standing on one foot, gaping like zanies, and those who were in the corners nudging each other and grinning aside. My uncle, on the other hand, who was raised higher than I had yet seen him on his pillows, wore an air of really imposing gravity. No sooner had we appeared behind him than he lifted his voice to a good loudness, and addressed the assemblage.
"I take you all to witness—can you hear me?—I take you all to witness that I recognise as my heir and representative this gentleman, whom most of you see for the first time, the Viscount Anne de Saint-Yves, my nephew of the younger line. And I take you to witness at the same time that, for very good reasons known to myself, I have discarded and disinherited this other gentleman whom you all know, the Viscount de Saint-Yves. I have also to explain the unusual trouble to which I have put you all—and, since your supper was not over, I fear I may even say annoyance. It has pleased M. Alain to make some threats of disputing my will, and to pretend that there are among your number certain estimable persons who may be trusted to swear as he shall direct them. It pleases me thus to put it out of his power and to stop the mouths of his false witnesses. I am infinitely obliged by your politeness, and I have the honour to wish you all a very good evening."
As the servants, still greatly mystified, crowded out of the sick-room door, curtsying, pulling the forelock, scraping with the foot, and so on, according to their degree, I turned and stole a look at my cousin. He had borne this crushing public rebuke without change of countenance. He stood now, very upright, with folded arms, and looking inscrutably at the roof of the apartment. I could not refuse him at that moment the tribute of my admiration. Still more so when, the last of the domestics having filed through the doorway and left us alone with my great-uncle and the lawyer, he took one step forward towards the bed, made a dignified reverence, and addressed the man who had just condemned him to ruin.
"My lord," said he, "you are pleased to treat me in a manner which my gratitude, and your state, equally forbid me to call in question. It will be only necessary for me to call your attention to the length of time in which I have been taught to regard myself as your heir. In that position I judged it only loyal to permit myself a certain scale of expenditure. If I am now to be cut off with a shilling as the reward of twenty years of service, I shall be left not only a beggar, but a bankrupt."
Whether from the fatigue of his recent exertion, or by a well-inspired ingenuity of hate, my uncle had once more closed his eyes; nor did he open them now. "Not with a shilling," he contented himself with replying; and there stole, as he said it, a sort of smile over his face, that flickered there conspicuously for the least moment of time, and then faded and left behind the old impenetrable mask of years, cunning, and fatigue. There could be no mistake: my uncle enjoyed the situation as he had enjoyed few things in the last quarter of a century. The fires of life scarce survived in that frail body; but hatred, like some immortal quality, was still erect and unabated.
Nevertheless my cousin persevered.
"I speak at a disadvantage," he resumed. "My supplanter, with perhaps more wisdom than delicacy, remains in the room," and he cast a glance at me that might have withered an oak tree.
I was only too willing to withdraw, and Romaine showed as much alacrity to make way for my departure. But my uncle was not to be moved. In the same breath of a voice, and still without opening his eyes, he bade me remain.
"It is well," said Alain. "I cannot then go on to remind you of the twenty years that have passed over our heads in England, and the services I may have rendered you in that time. It would be a position too odious. Your lordship knows me too well to suppose I could stoop to such ignominy. I must leave out all my defence—your lordship wills it so! I do not know what are my faults; I know only my punishment, and it is greater than I have the courage to face. My uncle, I implore your pity: pardon me so far; do not send me for life into a debtors' gaol—a pauper debtor."
"Chat et vieux, pardonnez?" said my uncle, quoting from La Fontaine; and then, opening a pale-blue eye full on Alain, he delivered with some emphasis:
"La jeunesse se flatte et croit tout obtenir; La vieillesse est impitoyable."
The blood leaped darkly into Alain's face. He turned to Romaine and me, and his eyes flashed.
"It is your turn now," he said. "At least it shall be prison for prison with the two viscounts."
"Not so, Mr. Alain, by your leave," said Romaine. "There are a few formalities to be considered first."
But Alain was already striding towards the door.
"Stop a moment, stop a moment!" cried Romaine. "Remember your own counsel not to despise an adversary."
"If I do not despise I hate you!" he cried, giving a loose to his passion. "Be warned of that, both of you."
"I understand you to threaten Monsieur le Vicomte Anne," said the lawyer. "Do you know, I would not do that. I am afraid, I am very much afraid, if you were to do as you propose, you might drive me into extremes."
"You have made me a beggar and a bankrupt," said Alain. "What extreme is left?"
"I scarce like to put a name upon it in this company," replied Romaine. "But there are worse things than even bankruptcy, and worse places than a debtors' gaol."
The words were so significantly said that there went a visible thrill through Alain; sudden as a sword-stroke, he fell pale again.
"I do not understand you," said he.
"O yes, you do," returned Romaine. "I believe you understand me very well. You must not suppose that all this time, while you were so very busy, others were entirely idle. You must not fancy, because I am an Englishman, that I have not the intelligence to pursue an inquiry. Great as is my regard for the honour of your house, M. Alain de Saint-Yves, if I hear of you moving directly or indirectly in this matter, I shall do my duty, let it cost what it will: that is, I shall communicate the real name of the Buonapartist spy who signs his letters Rue Gregoire de Tours."
I confess my heart was already almost altogether on the side of my insulted and unhappy cousin; and if it had not been before, it must have been so now, so horrid was the shock with which he heard his infamy exposed. Speech was denied him; he carried his hand to his neckcloth; he staggered; I thought he must have fallen. I ran to help him, and at that he revived, recoiled before me, and stood there with arms stretched forth as if to preserve himself from the outrage of my touch.
"Hands off!" he somehow managed to articulate.
"You will now, I hope," pursued the lawyer, without any change of voice, "understand the position in which you are placed, and how delicately it behoves you to conduct yourself. Your arrest hangs, if I may so express myself, by a hair; and as you will be under the perpetual vigilance of myself and my agents, you must look to it narrowly that you walk straight. Upon the least dubiety, I will take action." He snuffed, looking critically at the tortured man. "And now let me remind you that your chaise is at the door. This interview is agitating to his lordship—it cannot be agreeable for you—and I suggest that it need not be further drawn out. It does not enter into the views of your uncle, the Count, that you should again sleep under this roof."
As Alain turned and passed without a word or a sign from the apartment, I instantly followed. I suppose I must be at bottom possessed of some humanity; at least, this accumulated torture, this slow butchery of a man as by quarters of rock, had wholly changed my sympathies. At that moment I loathed both my uncle and the lawyer for their cold-blooded cruelty.
Leaning over the banisters, I was but in time to hear his hasty footsteps in that hall that had been crowded with servants to honour his coming, and was now left empty against his friendless departure. A moment later, and the echoes rang, and the air whistled in my ears, as he slammed the door on his departing footsteps. The fury of the concussion gave me (had one been still wanted) a measure of the turmoil of his passions. In a sense I felt with him; I felt how he would have gloried to slam that door on my uncle, the lawyer, myself, and the whole crowd of those who had been witnesses to his humiliation.
AFTER THE STORM
No sooner was the house clear of my cousin than I began to reckon up, ruefully enough, the probable results of what had passed. Here were a number of pots broken, and it looked to me as if I should have to pay for all! Here had been this proud, mad beast goaded and baited both publicly and privately, till he could neither hear nor see nor reason; whereupon the gate had been set open, and he had been left free to go and contrive whatever vengeance he might find possible. I could not help thinking it was a pity that, whenever I myself was inclined to be upon my good behaviour, some friends of mine should always determine to play a piece of heroics and cast me for the hero—or the victim—which is very much the same. The first duty of heroics is to be of your own choosing. When they are not that, they are nothing. And I assure you, as I walked back to my own room, I was in no very complaisant humour: thought my uncle and Mr. Romaine to have played knuckle-bones with my life and prospects; cursed them for it roundly; had no wish more urgent than to avoid the pair of them; and was quite knocked out of time, as they say in the ring, to find myself confronted with the lawyer.
He stood on my hearthrug, leaning on the chimney-piece, with a gloomy, thoughtful brow, as I was pleased to see, and not in the least as though he were vain of the late proceedings.
"Well?" said I. "You have done it now!"
"Is he gone?" he asked.
"He is gone," said I. "We shall have the devil to pay with him when he comes back."
"You are right," said the lawyer, "and very little to pay him with but flams and fabrications, like to-night's."
"To-night's?" I repeated.
"Ay, to-night's!" said he.
"To-night's what?" I cried.
"To-night's flams and fabrications."
"God be good to me, sir," said I, "have I something more to admire in your conduct than ever I had suspected? You cannot think how you interest me! That it was severe, I knew; I had already chuckled over that. But that it should be false also! In what sense, dear sir?"
I believe I was extremely offensive as I put the question, but the lawyer paid no heed.
"False in all senses of the word," he replied seriously. "False in the sense that they were not true, and false in the sense that they were not real; false in the sense that I boasted, and in the sense that I lied. How can I arrest him? Your uncle burned the papers! I told you so—but doubtless you have forgotten—the day I first saw you in Edinburgh Castle. It was an act of generosity; I have seen many of these acts, and always regretted—always regretted! 'That shall be his inheritance,' he said, as the papers burned; he did not mean that it should have proved so rich a one. How rich, time will tell."
"I beg your pardon a hundred thousand times, my dear sir, but it strikes me you have the impudence—in the circumstances I may call it the indecency—to appear cast down?"
"It is true," said he: "I am. I am cast down. I am literally cast down. I feel myself quite helpless against your cousin."
"Now, really!" I asked. "Is this serious? And is it perhaps the reason why you have gorged the poor devil with every species of insult? and why you took such surprising pains to supply me with what I had so little need of—another enemy? That you were helpless against him? 'Here is my last missile,' say you; 'my ammunition is quite exhausted: just wait till I get the last in—it will irritate, it cannot hurt him. There—you see!—he is furious now, and I am quite helpless. One more prod, another kick: now he is a mere lunatic! Stand behind me; I am quite helpless!' Mr. Romaine, I am asking myself as to the background or motive of this singular jest, and whether the name of it should not be called treachery?"
"I can scarce wonder," said he. "In truth it has been a singular business, and we are very fortunate to be out of it so well. Yet it was not treachery: no, no, Mr. Anne, it was not treachery; and if you will do me the favour to listen to me for the inside of a minute, I shall demonstrate the same to you beyond cavil." He seemed to wake up to his ordinary briskness. "You see the point?" he began. "He had not yet read the newspaper, but who could tell when he might? He might have had that damned journal in his pocket, and how should we know? We were—I may say, we are—at the mercy of the merest twopenny accident."
"Why, true," said I: "I had not thought of that."
"I warrant you," cried Romaine, "you had supposed it was nothing to be the hero of an interesting notice in the journals! You had supposed, as like as not, it was a form of secrecy! But not so in the least. A part of England is already buzzing with the name of Champdivers; a day or two more and the mail will have carried it everywhere: so wonderful a machine is this of ours for disseminating intelligence! Think of it! When my father was born——but that is another story. To return: we had here the elements of such a combustion as I dread to think of—your cousin and the journal. Let him but glance an eye upon that column of print, and where were we? It is easy to ask; not so easy to answer, my young friend. And let me tell you, this sheet is the Viscount's usual reading. It is my conviction he had it in his pocket."
"I beg your pardon, sir," said I. "I have been unjust. I did not appreciate my danger."
"I think you never do," said he.
"But yet surely that public scene——" I began.
"It was madness. I quite agree with you," Mr. Romaine interrupted. "But it was your uncle's orders, Mr. Anne, and what could I do? Tell him you were the murderer of Goguelat? I think not."
"No, sure!" said I. "That would but have been to make the trouble thicker. We were certainly in a very ill posture."
"You do not yet appreciate how grave it was," he replied. "It was necessary for you that your cousin should go, and go at once. You yourself had to leave to-night under cover of darkness, and how could you have done that with the Viscount in the next room? He must go, then; he must leave without delay. And that was the difficulty."
"Pardon me, Mr. Romaine, but could not my uncle have bidden him to go?" I asked.
"Why, I see I must tell you that this is not so simple as it sounds," he replied. "You say this is your uncle's house, and so it is. But to all effects and purposes it is your cousin's also. He has rooms here; has had them coming on for thirty years now, and they are filled with a prodigious accumulation of trash—stays, I dare say, and powder-puffs, and such effeminate idiocy—to which none could dispute his title, even suppose any one wanted to. We had a perfect right to bid him go, and he had a perfect right to reply, 'Yes, I will go, but not without my stays and cravats. I must first get together the nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine chestsful of insufferable rubbish, that I have spent the last thirty years collecting—and may very well spend the next thirty hours a-packing of.' And what should we have said to that?"
"By way of repartee?" I asked. "Two tall footmen and a pair of crabtree cudgels, I suggest."
"The Lord deliver me from the wisdom of laymen!" cried Romaine. "Put myself in the wrong at the beginning of a lawsuit? No, indeed! There was but one thing to do, and I did it, and burned my last cartridge in the doing of it. I stunned him. And it gave us three hours, by which we should make haste to profit; for if there is one thing sure, it is that he will be up to time again to-morrow in the morning."
"Well," said I, "I own myself an idiot. Well do they say, An old soldier, an old innocent! For I guessed nothing of all this."
"And, guessing it, have you the same objections to leave England?" he inquired.
"The same," said I.
"It is indispensable," he objected.
"And it cannot be," I replied. "Reason has nothing to say in the matter; and I must not let you squander any of yours. It will be enough to tell you this is an affair of the heart."
"Is it even so?" quoth Romaine, nodding his head. "And I might have been sure of it. Place them in a hospital, put them in a gaol in yellow overalls, do what you will, young Jessamy finds young Jenny. O, have it your own way; I am too old a hand to argue with young gentlemen who choose to fancy themselves in love; I have too much experience, thank you. Only, be sure that you appreciate what you risk: the prison, the dock, the gallows, and the halter—terribly vulgar circumstances, my young friend; grim, sordid, earnest; no poetry in that!"
"And there I am warned," I returned gaily. "No man could be warned more finely or with a greater eloquence. And I am of the same opinion still. Until I have again seen that lady, nothing shall induce me to quit Great Britain. I have besides——"
And here I came to a full stop. It was upon my tongue to have told him the story of the drovers, but at the first word of it my voice died in my throat. There might be a limit to the lawyer's toleration, I reflected. I had not been so long in Britain altogether; for the most part of that time I had been by the heels in limbo in Edinburgh Castle; and already I had confessed to killing one man with a pair of scissors; and now I was to go on and plead guilty to having settled another with a holly stick! A wave of discretion went over me as cold and as deep as the sea.
"In short, sir, this is a matter of feeling," I concluded, "and nothing will prevent my going to Edinburgh."
If I had fired a pistol in his ear he could not have been more startled.
"To Edinburgh?" he repeated. "Edinburgh? where the very paving-stones know you!"
"Then is the murder out!" said I. "But, Mr. Romaine, is there not sometimes safety in boldness? Is it not a common-place of strategy to get where the enemy least expects you? And where would he expect me less?"
"Faith, there is something in that, too!" cried the lawyer. "Ay, certainly, a great deal in that. All the witnesses drowned but one, and he safe in prison; you yourself changed beyond recognition—let us hope—and walking the streets of the very town you have illustrated by your—well, your eccentricity! It is not badly combined, indeed!"
"You approve it, then?" said I.
"O, approve!" said he; "there is no question of approval. There is only one course which I could approve, and that were to escape to France instanter."
"You do not wholly disapprove, at least?" I substituted.
"Not wholly; and it would not matter if I did," he replied. "Go your own way; you are beyond argument. And I am not sure that you will run more danger by that course than by any other. Give the servants time to get to bed and fall asleep, then take a country cross-road and walk, as the rhyme has it, like blazes all night. In the morning take a chaise or take the mail at pleasure, and continue your journey with all the decorum and reserve of which you shall be found capable."
"I am taking the picture in," I said. "Give me time. 'Tis the tout ensemble I must see: the whole as opposed to the details."
"Mountebank!" he murmured.
"Yes, I have it now; and I see myself with a servant, and that servant is Rowley," said I.
"So as to have one more link with your uncle?" suggested the lawyer. "Very judicious!"
"And, pardon me, but that is what it is," I exclaimed. "Judicious is the word. I am not making a deception fit to last for thirty years; I do not found a palace in the living granite for the night. This is a shelter tent—a flying picture—seen, admired, and gone again in the wink of an eye. What is wanted, in short, is a trompe-l'oeil that shall be good enough for twelve hours at an inn: is it not so?"
"It is, and the objection holds. Rowley is but another danger," said Romaine.
"Rowley," said I, "will pass as a servant from a distance—as a creature seen poised on the dicky of a bowling chaise. He will pass at hand as a smart, civil fellow one meets in the inn corridor, and looks back at, and asks, and is told, 'Gentleman's servant in Number 4.' He will pass, in fact, all round, except with his personal friends! My dear sir, pray what do you expect? Of course, if we meet my cousin, or if we meet anybody who took part in the judicious exhibition of this evening, we are lost; and who's denying it? To every disguise, however good and safe, there is always the weak point; you must always take (let us say—and to take a simile from your own waistcoat pocket) a snuffboxful of risk. You'll get it just as small with Rowley as with anybody else. And the long and short of it is, the lad's honest, he likes me, I trust him; he is my servant, or nobody."
"He might not accept," said Romaine.
"I bet you a thousand pounds he does!" cried I. "But no matter; all you have to do is to send him out to-night on this cross-country business, and leave the thing to me. I tell you, he will be my servant, and I tell you, he will do well."
I had crossed the room, and was already overhauling my wardrobe as I spoke.
"Well," concluded the lawyer, with a shrug, "one risk with another: a la guerre comme a la guerre, as you would say. Let the brat come and be useful, at least." And he was about to ring the bell when his eye was caught by my researches in the wardrobe. "Do not fall in love with these coats, waistcoats, cravats, and other panoply and accoutrements by which you are now surrounded. You must not run the post as a dandy. It is not the fashion, even."
"You are pleased to be facetious, sir," said I, "and not according to knowledge. These clothes are my life, they are my disguise; and since I can take but few of them, I were a fool indeed if I selected hastily! Will you understand, once and for all, what I am seeking? To be invisible is the first point; the second, to be invisible in a post-chaise and with a servant. Can you not perceive the delicacy of the quest? Nothing must be too coarse, nothing too fine; rien de voyant, rien qui detonne; so that I may leave everywhere the inconspicuous image of a handsome young man of a good fortune travelling in proper style, whom the landlord will forget in twelve hours—and the chambermaid perhaps remember, God bless her! with a sigh. This is the very fine art of dress."
"I have practised it with success for fifty years," said Romaine, with a chuckle. "A black suit and a clean shirt is my infallible recipe."
"You surprise me; I did not think you would be shallow!" said I, lingering between two coats. "Pray, Mr. Romaine, have I your head? or did you travel post and with a smartish servant?"
"Neither, I admit," said he.
"Which change the whole problem," I continued. "I have to dress for a smartish servant and a Russia leather despatch-box." That brought me to a stand. I came over and looked at the box with a moment's hesitation. "Yes," I resumed. "Yes, and for the despatch-box! It looks moneyed and landed; it means I have a lawyer. It is an invaluable property. But I could have wished it to hold less money. The responsibility is crushing. Should I not do more wisely to take five hundred pounds, and intrust the remainder with you, Mr. Romaine?"
"If you are sure you will not want it," answered Romaine.
"I am far from sure of that," cried I. "In the first place, as a philosopher. This is the first time that I have been at the head of a large sum, and it is conceivable—who knows himself?—that I may make it fly. In the second place, as a fugitive. Who knows what I may need? The whole of it may be inadequate. But I can always write for more."
"You do not understand," he replied. "I break off all communication with you here and now. You must give me a power of attorney ere you start to-night, and then be done with me trenchantly until better days."
I believe I offered some objection.
"Think a little for once of me!" said Romaine. "I must not have seen you before to-night. To-night we are to have had our only interview, and you are to have given me the power; and to-night I am to have lost sight of you again—I know not whither, you were upon business, it was none of my affairs to question you! And this, you are to remark, in the interests of your own safety much more than mine."
"I am not even to write to you?" I said, a little bewildered.
"I believe I am cutting the last strand that connects you with common-sense," he replied. "But that is the plain English of it. You are not even to write; and if you did, I would not answer."
"A letter, however——" I began.
"Listen to me," interrupted Romaine. "So soon as your cousin reads the paragraph, what will he do? Put the police upon looking into my correspondence! So soon as you write to me, in short, you write to Bow Street; and if you will take my advice, you will date that letter from France."
"The devil!" said I, for I began suddenly to see that this might put me out of the way of my business.
"What is it now?" says he.
"There will be more to be done, then, before we can part," I answered.
"I give you the whole night," said he. "So long as you are off ere daybreak, I am content."
"In short, Mr. Romaine," said I, "I have had so much benefit of your advice and services that I am loth to sever the connection, and would even ask a substitute. I would be obliged for a letter of introduction to one of your own cloth in Edinburgh—an old man for choice, very experienced, very respectable, and very secret. Could you favour me with such a letter?"
"Why, no," said he. "Certainly not. I will do no such thing, indeed."
"It would be a great favour, sir," I pleaded.
"It would be an unpardonable blunder," he replied. "What? Give you a letter of introduction? and when the police come, I suppose, I must forget the circumstance? No, indeed. Talk of it no more."
"You seem to be always in the right," said I. "The letter would be out of the question, I quite see that. But the lawyer's name might very well have dropped from you in the way of conversation; having heard him mentioned, I might profit by the circumstance to introduce myself; and in this way my business would be the better done, and you not in the least compromised."
"What is this business?" said Romaine.
"I have not said that I had any," I replied. "It might arise. This is only a possibility that I must keep in view."
"Well," said he, with a gesture of the hands, "I mention Mr. Robbie; and let that be an end of it!—Or wait!" he added, "I have it. Here is something that will serve you for an introduction, and cannot compromise me." And he wrote his name and the Edinburgh lawyer's address on a piece of card and tossed it to me.
I BECOME THE OWNER OF A CLARET-COLOURED CHAISE
What with packing, signing papers, and partaking of an excellent cold supper in the lawyer's room, it was past two in the morning before we were ready for the road. Romaine himself let us out of a window in a part of the house known to Rowley: it appears it served as a kind of postern to the servants' hall, by which (when they were in the mind for a clandestine evening) they would come regularly in and out; and I remember very well the vinegar aspect of the lawyer on the receipt of this piece of information—how he pursed his lips, jutted his eyebrows, and kept repeating, "This must be seen to, indeed! this shall be barred to-morrow in the morning!" In this preoccupation I believe he took leave of me without observing it; our things were handed out; we heard the window shut behind us; and became instantly lost in a horrid intricacy of blackness and the shadow of woods.
A little wet snow kept sleepily falling, pausing, and falling again; it seemed perpetually beginning to snow and perpetually leaving off; and the darkness was intense. Time and again we walked into trees; time and again found ourselves adrift among garden borders or stuck like a ram in the thicket. Rowley had possessed himself of the matches, and he was neither to be terrified nor softened. "No, I will not, Mr. Anne, sir," he would reply. "You know he tell me to wait till we were over the 'ill. It's only a little way now. Why, and I thought you was a soldier, too!" I was at least a very glad soldier when my valet consented at last to kindle a thieves' match. From this we easily lit the lantern: and thenceforward, through a labyrinth of woodland paths, were conducted by its uneasy glimmer. Both booted and great-coated, with tall hats much of a shape, and laden with booty in the form of a despatch-box, a case of pistols, and two plump valises, I thought we had very much the look of a pair of brothers returning from the sack of Amersham Place.
We issued at last upon a country by-road where we might walk abreast and without precaution. It was nine miles to Aylesbury, our immediate destination; by a watch, which formed part of my new outfit, it should be about half-past three in the morning; and as we did not choose to arrive before daylight, time could not be said to press. I gave the order to march at ease.
"Now, Rowley," said I, "so far so good. You have come, in the most obliging manner in the world, to carry these valises. The question is, what next? What are we to do at Aylesbury? or, more particularly, what are you? Thence, I go on a journey. Are you to accompany me?"
He gave a little chuckle. "That's all settled already, Mr. Anne, sir," he replied. "Why, I've got my things here in the valise—a half a dozen shirts and what not; I'm all ready, sir: just you lead on: you'll see."
"The devil you have!" said I. "You made pretty sure of your welcome."
"If you please, sir," said Rowley.
He looked up at me, in the light of the lantern, with a boyish shyness and triumph that awoke my conscience. I could never let this innocent involve himself in the perils and difficulties that beset my course, without some hint of warning, which it was a matter of extreme delicacy to make plain enough and not too plain.
"No, no," said I; "you may think you have made a choice, but it was blindfold, and you must make it over again. The Count's service is a good one; what are you leaving it for? Are you not throwing away the substance for the shadow? No, do not answer me yet. You imagine that I am a prosperous nobleman, just declared my uncle's heir, on the threshold of the best of good fortune, and, from the point of view of a judicious servant, a jewel of a master to serve and stick to? Well, my boy, I am nothing of the kind, nothing of the kind."