"But what be us to do with the balloon, sir?" the coxswain demanded.
Had it been my affair, I believe I should have obeyed a ridiculous impulse and begged them to keep it for their trouble; so weary was I of the machine. Byfield, however, directed them to slit a seam of the oiled silk and cut away the car, which was by this time wholly submerged and not to be lifted. At once the Lunardi collapsed and became manageable; and having roped it to a ring-bolt astern, the crew fell to their oars.
My teeth were chattering. These operations of salvage had taken time, and it took us a further unconscionable time to cover the distance between us and the brig as she lay hove-to, her maintopsail aback and her headsails drawing.
"Feels like towing a whale, sir," the oarsman behind me panted.
I whipped round. The voice—yes, and the face—were the voice and face of the seaman who sat and steered us: the voice English, of a sort; the face of no pattern that I recognised for English. The fellows were as like as two peas: as like as the two drovers Sim and Candlish had been: you might put them both at forty; grizzled men, pursed about the eyes with seafaring. And now that I came to look, the three rowers forward, though mere lads, repeated their elders' features and build; the gaunt frame, the long, serious face, the swarthy complexion and meditative eye—in short, Don Quixote of la Mancha at various stages of growth. Men and lads, I remarked, wore silver earrings.
I was speculating on this likeness when we shipped oars and fell alongside the brig's ladder. At the head of it my hand was taken, and I was helped on deck with ceremony by a tall man in loose blue jacket and duck trousers: an old man, bent and frail; by his air of dignity, the master of the vessel, and by his features as clearly the patriarch of the family. He lifted his cap and addressed us with a fine but (as I now recall it) somewhat tired courtesy.
"An awkward adventure, gentlemen."
We thanked him in proper form.
"I am pleased to have been of service. The pilot-cutter yonder could hardly have fetched you in less than twenty minutes. I have signalled her alongside, and she will convey you back to Falmouth; none the worse, I hope, for your wetting."
"A convenience," said I, "of which my friends will gladly avail themselves. For my part, I do not propose to return."
He paused, weighing my words; obviously puzzled, but politely anxious to understand. His eyes were grey and honest, even childishly honest, but dulled about the rim of the iris and a trifle vacant, as though the world with its train of affairs had passed beyond his active concern. I keep my own eyes about me when I travel, and have surprised just such a look, before now, behind the spectacles of very old men who sit by the roadside and break stones for a living.
"I fear, sir, that I do not take you precisely."
"Why," said I, "if I may guess, this is one of the famous Falmouth packets?"
"As to that, sir, you are right, and yet wrong. She was a packet, and (if I may say it) a famous one." His gaze travelled aloft, and descending rested on mine with a sort of gentle resignation. "But the old pennon is down, as you see. At present she sails on a private adventure, and under private commission."
"You may call it that."
"The adventure hits my humour even more nicely. Accept me, Captain——"
"Accept me, Captain Colenso, for your passenger: I will not say comrade-in-arms—naval warfare being so far beyond my knowledge, which it would perhaps be more descriptive to call ignorance. But I can pay—" I thrust a hand nervously into my breast-pocket, and blessed Flora for her waterproof bag. "Excuse me, Captain, if I speak with my friend here in private for a moment."
I drew Byfield aside. "Your notes? The salt water——"
"You see," said he, "I am a martyr to acidity of the stomach."
"Man! do I invite the confidence of your stomach?"
"Consequently I never make an ascension unaccompanied by a small bottle of Epsom salts, tightly corked."
"And you threw away the salts and substituted the notes?—that was clever of you, Byfield."
I lifted my voice. "And Mr. Dalmahoy, I presume, returns to his sorrowing folk?"
The extravagant cheerfully corrected me. "They will not sorrow: but I shall return to them. Of their grudged pension I have eighteenpence in my pocket. But I propose to travel with Sheepshanks, and raise the wind by showing his tricks. He shall toss the caber from Land's End to Forthside, cheered by the plaudits of the intervening taverns and furthered by their bounty."
"A progress which we must try to expedite, if only out of regard for Mrs. Sheepshanks." I turned to Captain Colenso again. "Well, sir, will you accept me for your passenger?"
"I doubt that you are joking, sir."
"And I swear to you that I am not."
He hesitated; tottered to the companion, and called down, "Susannah! Susannah! A moment on deck, if you please. One of these gentlemen wishes to ship as passenger."
A dark-browed woman of middle age thrust her head above the ladder and eyed me. Even so might a ruminating cow gaze over her hedge upon some posting wayfarer.
"What's he dressed in?" she demanded abruptly.
"Madam, it was intended for a ball-suit."
"You will do no dancing here, young man."
"My dear lady, I accept that and every condition you may impose. Whatever the discipline of the ship——"
She cut me short. "Have you told him, father?"
"Why, no. You see, sir, I ought to tell you that this is not an ordinary voyage."
"Nor, for that matter, is mine."
"You will be exposed to risks."
"In a privateer that goes without saying."
"The risk of capture."
"Naturally: though a brave captain will not dwell on it." And I bowed.
"But I do dwell on it," he answered earnestly, a red spot showing on either cheek. "I must tell you, sir, that we are very likely indeed to fall into an enemy's hands."
"Say certain," chimed in Susannah.
"Yes, I will say we are certain. I cannot in conscience do less." He sought his daughter's eyes. She nodded.
"O, damn your conscience!" thought I, my stomach rising in contempt for this noble-looking but extremely faint-hearted privateersman. "Come," I said, rallying him, "we fall in with a Frenchman, or—let us suppose—an American: that is our object, eh?"
"Yes, with an American. That is our object, to be sure."
"Then I warrant we give a good account of ourselves. Tut, tut, man—an ex-packet captain!"
I pulled up in sheer wonder at the lunacy of our dispute and the side he was forcing me to take. Here was I haranguing a grey-headed veteran on his own quarter-deck and exhorting him to valour! In a flash I saw myself befooled, tricked into playing the patronising amateur, complacently posturing for the derision of gods and men. And Captain Colenso, who aimed but to be rid of me, was laughing in his sleeve, no doubt. In a minute even Sheepshanks would catch the jest. Now, I do mortally hate to be laughed at: it may be disciplinary for most men, but it turns me obstinate.
Captain Colenso, at any rate, dissembled his mirth to perfection. The look which he shifted from me to Susannah and back was eloquent of senile indecision.
"I cannot explain to you, sir. The consequences—I might mitigate them for you—still you must risk them." He broke off and appealed to me. "I would rather you did not insist: I would indeed! I must beg of you, sir, not to press it."
"But I do press it," I answered, stubborn as a mule. "I tell you that I am ready to accept all risks. But if you want me to return with my friends in the cutter, you must summon your crew to pitch me down the ladder. And there's the end on't."
"Dear, dear! Tell me at least, sir, that you are an unmarried man."
"Up to now I have that misfortune." I aimed a bow at Mistress Susannah; but that lady had turned her broad shoulders, and it missed fire. "Which reminds me," I continued, "to ask for the favour of pen, ink, and paper. I wish to send a letter ashore, to the mail."
She invited me to follow her; and I descended to the main cabin, a spick-and-span apartment, where we surprised two passably good-looking damsels at their housework, the one polishing a mahogany swing-table, the other a brass door-handle. They picked up their cloths, dropped me a curtsy apiece, and disappeared at a word from Susannah, who bade me be seated at the swing-table and set writing materials before me. The room was lit by a broad stern-window, and lined along two of its sides with mahogany doors leading, as I supposed, to sleeping cabins: the panels—not to speak of the brass handles and finger-plates—shining so that a man might have seen his face in them, to shave by. "But why all these women on board a privateer?" thought I, as I tried a quill on my thumb-nail, and embarked upon my first love-letter.
"DEAREST,—This line with my devotion to tell you that the balloon has descended safely, and your Anne finds himself on board...."
"By the way, Miss Susannah, what is the name of this ship?"
"She is called the Lady Nepean; and I am a married woman and the mother of six."
"I felicitate you, madam." I bowed, and resumed my writing:
"... the Lady Nepean packet, outward bound from Falmouth to...."
—"Excuse me, but where the dickens are we bound for?"
"For the coast of Massachusetts, I believe."
She nodded. "Young man, if you'll take my advice, you'll go back."
"Madam," I answered, on the sudden impulse, "I am an escaped French prisoner." And with that, having tossed my cap over the mills (as they say), I leaned back in the settee, and we regarded each other.
"——escaped," I continued, still my eyes on hers, "with a trifle of money, but minus my heart. I write this to the fair daughter of Britain who has it in her keeping. And now what have you to say?"
"Ah, well," she mused, "the Lord's ways be past finding out. It may be the easier for you."
Apparently it was the habit of this ship's company to speak in enigmas. I caught up my pen again:
"... the coast of Massachusetts, in the United States of America, whence I hope to make my way in good time to France. Though you have news, dearest, I fear none can reach me for a while. Yet, and though you have no more to write than 'I love you, Anne,' write it, and commit it to Mr. Robbie, who will forward it to Mr. Romaine, who in turn may find a means to get it smuggled through to Paris, Rue du Fouarre, 16. It should be consigned to the widow Jupille, 'to be called for by the corporal who praised her vin blanc.' She will remember; and in truth a man who had the courage to praise it deserves remembrance as singular among the levies of France. Should a youth of the name of Rowley present himself before you, you may trust his fidelity absolutely, his sagacity not at all. And so (since the boat waits to take this) I kiss the name of Flora, and subscribe myself—until I come to claim her, and afterwards to eternity—her prisoner.
I had, in fact, a second reason for abbreviating this letter and sealing it in a hurry. The movements of the brig, though slight, were perceptible, and in the close air of the main cabin my head already began to swim. I hastened on deck in time to shake hands with my companions and confide the letter to Byfield with instructions for posting it. "And if your share in our adventure should come into public question," said I, "you must apply to a Major Chevenix, now quartered in Edinburgh Castle, who has a fair inkling of the facts, and as a man of honour will not decline to assist you. You have Dalmahoy, too, to back your assertion that you knew me only as Mr. Ducie." Upon Dalmahoy I pressed a note for his and Mr. Sheepshanks's travelling expenses. "My dear fellow," he protested, "I couldn't dream ... if you are sure it won't inconvenience ... merely as a loan ... and deuced handsome of you, I will say." He kept the cutter waiting while he drew an I.O.U., in which I figured as Bursar and Almoner (honoris causa) to the Senatus Academicus of Cramond-on-Almond. Mr. Sheepshanks meanwhile shook hands with me impressively. "It has been a memorable experience, sir. I shall have much to tell my wife on my return."
It occurred to me as probable that the lady would have even more to say to him. He stepped into the cutter, and, as they pushed off, was hilariously bonneted by Mr. Dalmahoy, by way of parting salute. "Starboard after-braces!" Captain Colenso called to his crew. The yards were trimmed and the Lady Nepean slowly gathered way, while I stood by the bulwarks gazing after my friends and attempting to persuade myself that the fresh air was doing me good.
Captain Colenso perceived my queasiness, and advised me to seek my berth and lie down; and on my replying with haggard defiance, took my arm gently, as if I had been a wilful child, and led me below. I passed beyond one of the mahogany doors leading from the main cabin; and in that seclusion I ask you to leave me face to face with the next forty-eight hours. It was a dreadful time.
Nor at the end of it did gaiety wait on a partially recovered appetite. The ladies of the ship nursed me, and tickled my palate with the lightest of sea diet. The men strowed seats for me on deck, and touched their caps with respectful sympathy. One and all were indefatigably kind, but taciturn to a degree beyond belief. A fog of mystery hung and deepened about them and the Lady Nepean, and I crept about the deck in a continuous evil dream, entangling myself in impossible theories. To begin with, there were eight women on board: a number not to be reconciled with serious privateering; all daughters or sons' wives or granddaughters of Captain Colenso. Of the men—twenty-three in all—those who were not called Colenso were called Pengelly; and most of them convicted landsmen by their bilious countenances and unhandy movements; men fresh from the plough-tail by their gait, yet with no ruddy impress of field-work and the open air.
Twice every day, and thrice on Sundays, this extraordinary company gathered bare-headed to the poop for a religious service which it would be colourless to call frantic. It began decorously enough with a quavering exposition of some portion of Holy Writ by Captain Colenso. But by and by (and especially at the evening office) his listeners kindled and opened on him with a skirmishing fire of "Amens." Then, worked by degrees to an ecstasy, they broke into cries of thanksgiving and mutual encouragement; they jostled for the rostrum (a long nine-pounder swivel); and then speaker after speaker declaimed his soul's experiences until his voice cracked, while the others sobbed, exhorted, even leapt in the air. "Stronger, brother!" "'Tis working, 'tis working!" "O deliverance!" "O streams of redemption!" For ten minutes, or a quarter of an hour maybe, the ship was a Babel, a Bedlam. And then the tumult would die down as suddenly as it had arisen, and dismissed by the old man, the crew, with faces once more inscrutable, but twitching with spent emotion, scattered to their usual tasks.
Five minutes after these singular outbreaks it was difficult to believe in them. Captain Colenso paced the quarter-deck once more with his customary shuffle, his hands beneath his coat-tails, his eyes conning the ship with their usual air of mild abstraction. Now and again he paused to instruct one of his incapables in the trimming of a brace, or to correct the tie of a knot. He never scolded; seldom lifted his voice. By his manner of speech, and the ease of his authority, he and his family might have belonged to separate ranks of life. Yet I seemed to detect method in their obedience. The veriest fumbler went about his work with a concentrated gravity of bearing, as if he fulfilled a remoter purpose, and understood it while he tied his knots into "grannies," and generally mismanaged the job in hand.
Towards the middle of our second week out, we fell in with a storm—a rotatory affair, and soon over by reason that we struck the outer fringe of it; but to a landsman sufficiently daunting while it lasted. Late in the afternoon I thrust my head up for a look around. We were weltering along in horrible forty-foot seas, over which our bulwarks tilted at times until from the companion hatchway I stared plumb into the grey sliding chasms, and felt like a fly on the wall. The Lady Nepean hurled her old timbers along under close-reefed maintopsail, and a rag of a foresail only. The captain had housed topgallant masts and lashed his guns inboard; yet she rolled so that you would not have trusted a cat on her storm-washed decks. They were desolate but for the captain and helmsman on the poop; the helmsman, a mere lad—the one, in fact, who had pulled the bow-oar to our rescue—lashed and gripping the spokes pluckily, but with a white face which told that, though his eyes were strained on the binnacle, his mind ran on the infernal seas astern. Over him, in sea-boots and oilskins, towered Captain Colenso—rejuvenated, transfigured; his body swaying easily to every lurch and plunge of the brig, his face entirely composed and cheerful, his salt-rimmed eyes contracted a little, but alert and even boyishly bright. An heroical figure of a man!
My heart warmed to Captain Colenso; and next morning, as we bowled forward with a temperate breeze on our quarter, I took occasion to compliment him on the Lady Nepean's behaviour.
"Ay," said he abstractedly; "the old girl made pretty good weather of it."
"I suppose we were never in what you would call real danger?"
He faced me with sudden earnestness. "Mr. Ducie, I have served the Lord all my days, and He will not sink the ship that carries my honour." Giving me no time to puzzle over this, he changed his tone. "You'll scarce believe it, but in her young days she had a very fair turn of speed."
"Her business surely demands it still," said I. Only an arrant landsman could have reconciled the lumbering old craft with any idea of privateering; but this was only my theory, and I clung to it.
"We shall not need to test her."
"You rely on your guns, then?" I had observed the care lavished on these. They were of brass, and shone like the door-plates in the main cabin.
"Why, as to that," he answered evasively, "I've had to before now. The last voyage I commanded her—it was just after the war broke out with America—we fell in with a schooner off the Banks; we were outward bound for Halifax. She carried twelve nine-pounder carronades and two long nines, beside a big fellow on a traverse; and we had the guns you see—eight nine-pounders and one chaser of the same calibre—post-office guns, we call them. But we beat her off after two hours of it."
"And saved the mails?"
He rose abruptly (we had seated ourselves on a couple of hen-coops under the break of the poop). "You will excuse me. I have an order to give"; and he hurried up the steps to the quarter-deck.
It must have been ten days after this that he stopped me in one of my eternal listless promenades and invited me to sit beside him again.
"I wish to take your opinion, Mr. Ducie. You have not, I believe, found salvation? You are not one of us, as I may say?"
"Meaning by 'us'?"
"I and mine, sir, are unworthy followers of the Word, as preached by John Wesley."
"Why, no; that is not my religion."
"But you are a gentleman." I bowed. "And on a point of honour—do you think, sir, that as a servant of the King one should obey his earthly master even to doing what conscience forbids?"
"That might depend—"
"But on a point of honour, sir? Suppose that you had pledged your private word, in a just, nay, a generous bargain, and were commanded to break it. Is there anything could override that?"
I thought of my poor old French colonel and his broken parole; and was silent. "Can you not tell me the circumstances?" I suggested at length.
He had been watching me eagerly. But he shook his head now, sighed, and drew a small Bible from his pocket. "I am not a gentleman, sir. I laid it before the Lord: but," he continued naively, "I wanted to learn how a gentleman would look at it." He searched for a text, turning the pages with long, nervous fingers; but desisted with another sigh, and, a moment later, was summoned away to solve some difficulty with the ship's reckoning.
My respect for the captain had been steadily growing. He was so amiable, too, so untiringly courteous; he bore his sorrow—whatever the cause might be—with so gentle a resignation; that I caught myself pitying even while I cursed him and his crew for their inhuman reticence.
But my respect vanished pretty quickly next day. We were seated at dinner in the main cabin—the captain at the head of the table, and, as usual, crumbling his biscuit in a sort of waking trance—when Mr. Reuben Colenso, his eldest son and acting mate, put his solemn face in at the door with news of a sail about four miles distant on the lee bow. I followed the captain on deck. The stranger, a schooner, had been lying-to when first descried in the hazy weather; but was standing now to intercept us. At two miles' distance—it being then about two o'clock—I saw that she hoisted British colours.
"But that flag was never sewn in England," Captain Colenso observed, studying her through his glass. His cheeks, usually of that pallid ivory colour proper to old age, were flushed with a faint carmine, and I observed a suppressed excitement in all his crew. For my part, I expected no better than to play target in the coming engagement: but it surprised me that he served out no cutlasses, ordered up no powder from the hold, and, in short, took no single step to clear the Lady Nepean for action or put his men in fighting trim. The most of them were gathered about the fore-hatch, to the total neglect of their guns, which they had been cleaning assiduously all the morning. On we stood without shifting our course by a point, and were almost within range when the schooner ran up the stars-and-stripes and plumped a round shot ahead of us by way of hint.
I stared at Captain Colenso. Could he mean to surrender without one blow? He had exchanged his glass for a speaking trumpet, and waited, fumbling with it, his face twitching painfully. A cold, dishonouring suspicion gripped me. The man was here to betray his flag. I glanced aloft: the British ensign flew at the peak. And as I turned my head, I felt rather than saw the flash, heard the shattering din as the puzzled American luffed up and let fly across our bows with a raking broadside. Doubtless she, too, took note of our defiant ensign, and leaped at the nearest guess that we meant to run her aboard.
Now, whether my glance awoke Captain Colenso, or this was left to the all but simultaneous voice of the guns, I know not. But as their smoke rolled between us I saw him drop his trumpet and run with a crazed face to the taffrail, where the halliards led. The traitor had forgotten to haul down his flag!
It was too late. While he fumbled with the halliards, a storm of musketry burst and swept the quarter-deck. He flung up both hands, spun round upon his heel, and pitched backwards at the helmsman's feet, and the loosened ensign dropped slowly and fell across him, as if to cover his shame.
Instantly the firing ceased. I stood there between compassion and disgust, willing yet loathing to touch the pitiful corpse, when a woman—Susannah—ran screaming by me and fell on her knees beside it. I saw a trickle of blood ooze beneath the scarlet folds of the flag. It crawled along the plank, hesitated at a seam, and grew there to an oddly shaped pool. I watched it. In shape I thought it remarkably like the map of Ireland. And I became aware that some one was speaking to me, and looked up to find a lean and lantern-jawed American come aboard and standing at my shoulder.
"Are you anywise hard of hearing, stranger? Or must I repeat to you that this licks cockfighting?"
"I, at any rate, am not disputing it, sir."
"The Lady Nepean, too! Is that the Cap'n yonder? I thought as much. Dead, hey? Well, he'd better stay dead; though I'd have enjoyed the inside o' five minutes' talk, just to find out what he did it for."
"Why, brought the Lady Nepean into these waters, and Commodore Rodgers no further away than Rhode Island, by all accounts. He must have had a nerve. And what post might you be holding on this all-fired packet? Darn me, but you have females enough on board!" For indeed there were three poor creatures kneeling now and crooning over the dead captain. The men had surrendered—they had no arms to fling down—and were collected in the waist, under guard of a cordon of Yankees. One lay senseless on deck, and two or three were bleeding from splinter wounds; for the enemy, her freeboard being lower by a foot or two than the wall sides of the Lady Nepean, had done little execution on deck, whatever the wounds in our hull might be.
"I beg your pardon, Captain—"
"Seccombe, sir, is my name. Alpheus Q. Seccombe, of the Manhattan schooner."
"Well, then, Captain Seccombe, I am a passenger on board this ship, and know neither her business here nor why she has behaved in a fashion that makes me blush for her flag—which, by the way, I have every reason to abominate."
"O, come now! You're trying it on. It's a yard-arm matter, and I don't blame you, to be sure. Cap'n sank the mails?"
"There were none to sink, I believe."
He conned me curiously.
"You don't look like a Britisher, either."
"I trust not. I am the Viscount Anne de Keroual de Saint-Yves, escaped from a British war-prison."
"Lucky for you if you prove it. We'll get to the bottom of this." He faced about and called, "Who's the first officer of this brig?"
Reuben Colenso was allowed to step forward. Blood from a scalp-wound had run and caked on his right cheek, but he stepped squarely enough.
"Bring him below," Captain Seccombe commanded. "And you, Mr. What's-your-name, lead the way. It's one or the other of us will get the hang of this affair."
He seated himself at the head of the table in the main cabin, and spat ceremoniously on the floor.
"Now, sir: you are, or were, first officer of this brig?"
The prisoner, standing between his two guards, gripped his stocking cap nervously. "Will you please to tell me, sir, if my father is killed?"
"Seth, my lad, I want room." One of the guards, a strapping youngster, stepped and flung open a pane of the stern window. Captain Seccombe spat out of it with nonchalant dexterity before answering—
"I guess he is. Brig's name?"
"The Lady Nepean."
"Yes, sir; leastways—"
"Now, see here, Mister First Officer Colenso junior; it's a shortish trip between this and the yard-arm, and it may save you some su-perfluous lying if I tell you that in August, last year, the Lady Nepean packet, Captain Colenso, outward bound for Halifax, met the Hitchcock privateer off the Great Bank of Newfoundland, and beat her off after two hours' fighting. You were on board of her?"
"I tended the stern gun."
"Very good. The next day, being still off the Banks, she fell in with Commodore Rodgers, of the United States frigate President, and surrendered to him right away."
"We sank the mails."
"You did, my man. Notwithstanding which, that lion-hearted hero treated you with the forbearance of a true-born son of freedom." Captain Seccombe's voice took an oratorical roll. "He saw that you were bleeding from your fray. He fed you at his hospitable board; he would not suffer you to be de-nuded of the least trifle. Nay, what did he promise?—but to send your father and his crew and passengers back to England in their own ship, on their swearing, upon their sacred honour, that she should return to Boston harbour with an equal number of American prisoners from England. Your father swore to that upon the Old and New Testaments, severally and conjointly; and the Lady Nepean sailed home for all the world like a lamb from the wolf's jaws, with a single American officer inside of her. And how did your dog-damned Government respect this noble confidence? In a way, sir, that would have brought a blush to the cheek of a low-down attorney's clerk. They re-pudiated. Under shelter of a notification that no exchange of prisoners on the high seas would count as valid, this perjured tyrant and his myrmidons went back on their captain's oath, and kept the brig; and the American officer came home empty-handed. Your father was told to resume his duties, immortal souls being cheap in a country where they press seamen's bodies. And now, Mister First Officer Colenso, perhaps you'll explain how he had the impudence to come within two hundred miles of a coast where his name smelt worse than vermin."
"He was coming back, sir."
"Back to Boston, sir. You see, Cap'n, father wasn't a rich man, but he had saved a trifle. He didn't go back to the service, though told that he might. It preyed on his mind. We was all very fond of father; being all one family, as you might say, though some of us had wives and families, and some were over to Redruth, to the mines."
"Stick to the point."
"But this is the point, Cap'n. He was coming back, you see. The Lady Nepean wasn't fit for much after the handling she'd had. She was going for twelve hundred pounds: the Post Office didn't look for more. We got her for eleven hundred, with the guns, and the repairs may have cost a hundred and fifty; but you'll find the account-books in the cupboard there. Father had a matter of five hundred laid by, and a little over."
Captain Seccombe removed his legs from the cabin-table, tilted his chair forward and half rose in his seat.
"You bought her?"
"That's what I'm telling you, sir; though father'd have put it much clearer. You see, he laid it before the Lord; and then he laid it before all of us. It preyed on his mind. My sister Susannah stood up and she said, 'I reckon I'm the most respectably married of all of you, having a farm of my own; but we can sell up, and all the world's a home to them that fears the Lord. We can't stock up with American prisoners, but we can go ourselves instead; and judging by the prisoners I've a-seen brought in, Commodore Rodgers'll be glad to take us. What he does to us is the Lord's affair.' That's what she said, sir. Of course, we kept it quiet: we put it about that the Lady Nepean was for Canada, and the whole family going out for emigrants. This here gentleman we picked up outside Falmouth; perhaps he've told you."
Captain Seccombe stared at me, and I at Captain Seccombe. Reuben Colenso stood wringing his cap.
At length the American found breath enough to whistle. "I'll have to put back to Boston about this, though it's money out of pocket. This here's a matter for Commodore Bainbridge. Take a seat, Mr. Colenso."
"I was going to ask," said the prisoner simply, "if, before you put me in irons, I might go on deck and look at father. It'll be only a moment, sir."
"Yes, sir, you may. And if you can get the ladies to excuse me, I will follow in a few minutes. I wish to pay him my respects. It's my opinion," he added pensively, as the prisoner left the cabin—"it's my opinion that the man's story is genu-wine."
He repeated the word, five minutes later, as we stood on the quarter-deck beside the body. "A genu-wine man, sir, unless I am mistaken."
Well, the question is one for casuists. In my travels I have learnt this, that men are greater than governments; wiser sometimes, honester always. Heaven deliver me from any such problem as killed this old packet-captain! Between loyalty to his king and loyalty to his conscience he had to choose, and it is likely enough that he erred. But I believe that he fought it out, and found on his country's side a limit of shame to which he could not stoop. A man so placed, perhaps, may even betray his country to her honour. In this hope at least the flag which he had hauled down covered his body still as we committed it to the sea, its service or disservice done.
Two days later we anchored in the great harbour at Boston, where Captain Seccombe went with his story and his prisoners to Commodore Bainbridge, who kept them pending news of Commodore Rodgers. They were sent, a few weeks later, to Newport, Rhode Island, to be interrogated by that commander; and, to the honour of the Republic, were released on a liberal parole; but whether, when the war ended, they returned to England or took oath as American citizens, I have not learned. I was luckier. The Commodore allowed Captain Seccombe to detain me while the French consul made inquiry into my story; and during the two months which the consul thought fit to take over it, I was a guest in the captain's house. And here I made my bow to Miss Amelia Seccombe, an accomplished young lady, "who," said her doating father, "has acquired a considerable proficiency in French, and will be glad to swap ideas with you in that language." Miss Seccombe and I did not hold our communications in French; and, observing her disposition to substitute the warmer language of the glances, I took the bull by the horns, told her my secret, and rhapsodised on Flora. Consequently no Nausicaa figures in this Odyssey of mine. Nay, the excellent girl flung herself into my cause, and bombarded her father and the consular office with such effect that on 2nd February 1814, I waved farewell to her from the deck of the barque Shawmut, bound from Boston to Bordeaux.
IN PARIS.—ALAIN PLAYS HIS LAST CARD
On the 10th of March at sunset the Shawmut passed the Pointe de Grave fort and entered the mouth of the Gironde, and at eleven o'clock next morning dropped anchor a little below Blaye, under the guns of the Regulus, 74. We were just in time, a British fleet being daily expected there to co-operate with the Duc d'Angouleme and Count Lynch, who was then preparing to pull the tricolour from his shoulder and betray Bordeaux to Beresford, or, if you prefer it, to the Bourbon. News of his purpose had already travelled down to Blaye, and therefore no sooner were my feet once more on the soil of my beloved France, than I turned them towards Libourne, or rather Fronsac, and the morning after my arrival there, started for the capital.
But so desperately were the joints of travel dislocated (the war having deplenished the country alike of cattle and able-bodied drivers), and so frequent were the breakdowns by the way, that I might as expeditiously have trudged it. It cost me fifteen good days to reach Orleans, and at Etampes (which I reached on the morning of the 30th) the driver of the tottering diligence flatly declined to proceed. The Cossacks and Prussians were at the gates of Paris. "Last night we could see the fires of their bivouacs. If Monsieur listens he can hear the firing." The Empress had fled from the Tuileries. "Whither?" The driver, the aubergiste, the disinterested crowd, shrugged their shoulders. "To Rambouillet, probably. God knew what was happening or what would happen." The Emperor was at Troyes, or at Sens, or else as near as Fontainebleau; nobody knew for certain which. But the fugitives from Paris had been pouring in for days, and not a cart or four-footed beast was to be hired for love or money, though I hunted Etampes for hours.
At length, and at nightfall, I ran against a bow-kneed grey mare, and a cabriolet de place, which, by its label, belonged to Paris; the pair wandering the street under what it would be flattery to call the guidance of an eminently drunken driver. I boarded him; he dissolved at once into maudlin tears and prolixity. It appeared that on the 29th he had brought over a bourgeois family from the capital, and had spent the last three days in perambulating Etampes, and the past three nights in crapulous slumber within his vehicle. Here was my chance, and I demanded to know if for a price he would drive me back with him to Paris. He declared, still weeping, that he was fit for anything. "For my part, I am ready to die, and Monsieur knows that we shall never reach."
"Still, anything is better than Etampes."
For some inscrutable reason this struck him as excessively comic. He assured me that I was a brave fellow, and bade me jump up at once. Within five minutes we were jolting towards Paris. Our progress was all but inappreciable, for the grey mare had come to the end of her powers, and her master's monologue kept pace with her. His anecdotes were all of the past three days. The iron of Etampes apparently had entered his soul and effaced all memory of his antecedent career. Of the war, of any recent public events, he could tell me nothing.
I had half expected—supposing the Emperor to be near Fontainebleau—to happen on his vedettes, but we had the road to ourselves, and reached Longjumeau a little before daybreak without having encountered a living creature. Here we knocked up the proprietor of a cabaret, who assured us between yawns that we were going to our doom, and after baiting the grey and dosing ourselves with execrable brandy, pushed forward again. As the sky grew pale about us, I had my ears alert for the sound of artillery. But Paris kept silence. We passed Sceaux, and arrived at length at Montrouge and the barrier. It was open—abandoned—not a sentry, not a douanier visible.
"Where will Monsieur be pleased to descend?" my driver inquired, and added, with an effort of memory, that he had a wife and two adorable children on a top floor in the Rue du Mont Parnasse, and stabled his mare handy by. I paid and watched him from the deserted pavement as he drove away. A small child came running from a doorway behind me, and blundered against my legs. I caught him by the collar and demanded what had happened to Paris. "That I do not know," said the child, "but mamma is dressing herself to take me to the review. Tenez!" he pointed, and at the head of the long street I saw advancing the front rank of a blue-coated regiment of Prussians, marching across Paris to take up position on the Orleans road.
That was my answer. Paris had surrendered! And I had entered it from the south just in time, if I wished, to witness the entry of His Majesty the Emperor Alexander from the north. Soon I found myself one of a crowd converging towards the bridges, to scatter northward along the line of His Majesty's progress, from the Barriere de Pantin to the Champs Elysees, where the grand review was to be held. I chose this for my objective, and, making my way along the Quays, found myself shortly before ten o'clock in the Place de la Concorde, where a singular little scene brought me to a halt.
About a score of young men—aristocrats by their dress and carriage—were gathered about the centre of the square. Each wore a white scarf and the Bourbon cockade in his hat; and their leader, a weedy youth with hay-coloured hair, had drawn a paper from his pocket and was declaiming its contents at the top of a voice by several sizes too big for him:—
"For Paris is reserved the privilege, under circumstances now existing, to accelerate the dawn of Universal Peace. Her suffrage is awaited with the interest which so immense a result naturally inspires,"
et cetera. Later on, I possessed myself of a copy of the Prince of Schwartzenberg's proclamation, and identified the wooden rhetoric at once.
"Parisians! you have the example of Bordeaux before you".... Ay, by the Lord, they had—right under their eyes! The hay-coloured youth wound up his reading with a "Vive le Roi!" and his band of walking gentlemen took up the shout. The crowd looked on impassive; one or two edged away; and a grey-haired, soldierly horseman (whom I recognised for the Duc de Choiseul-Praslin) passing in full tenue of Colonel of the National Guard, reined up, and addressed the young men in a few words of grave rebuke. Two or three answered by snapping their fingers, and repeating their "Vive le Roi" with a kind of embarrassed defiance. But their performance, before so chilling an audience, was falling sadly flat when a dozen or more of young royalist bloods came riding up to reanimate it—among them, M. Louis de Chateaubriand, M. Talleyrand's brother, Archambaut de Perigord, the scoundrelly Marquis de Maubreuil—yes, and my cousin, the Vicomte de Saint-Yves!
The indecency, the cynical and naked impudence of it, took me like a buffet. There, in a group of strangers, my cheek reddened under it, and for the moment I had a mind to run. I had done better to run. By a chance his eye missed mine as he swaggered past at a canter, for all the world like a tenore robusto on horseback, with the rouge on his face, and his air of expansive Olympian black-guardism. He carried a lace white handkerchief at the end of his riding switch, and this was bad enough. But as he wheeled his bay thoroughbred, I saw that he had followed the declasse Maubreuil's example and decorated the brute's tail with a Cross of the Legion of Honour. That brought my teeth together, and I stood my ground.
"Vive le Roi!" "Vivent les Bourbons!" "A bas le sabot corse!" Maubreuil had brought a basketful of white brassards and cockades, and the gallant horsemen began to ride about and press them upon the unresponsive crowd. Alain held one of the badges at arm's length as he pushed into the little group about me, and our eyes met.
"Merci," said I, "retenez-le jusqu'a ce que nous nous rencontrions—Rue Gregoire de Tours!"
His arm with the riding switch and laced handkerchief went up as though he had been stung. Before it could descend, I darted aside deep into the crowd which hustled around him, understanding nothing, but none the less sullenly hostile. "A bas les cocardes blanches!" cried one or two. "Who was the cur?" I heard Maubreuil's question as he pressed in to the rescue, and Alain's reply, "Peste! A young relative of mine who is in a hurry to lose his head; whereas I prefer to choose the time for that."
I took this for a splutter of hatred, and even found it laughable as I made my escape good. At the same time, our encounter had put me out of humour for gaping at the review, and I turned back and recrossed the river, to seek the Rue du Fouarre and the Widow Jupille.
Now the Rue du Fouarre, though once a very famous thoroughfare, is to-day perhaps as squalid as any that drains its refuse by a single gutter into the Seine, and the widow had been no beauty even in the days when she followed the 106th of the Line as vivandiere and before she wedded Sergeant Jupille of that regiment. But she and I had struck up a friendship over a flesh-wound which I received in an affair of outposts on the Algueda, and thenceforward I taught myself to soften the edge of her white wine by the remembered virtues of her ointment, so that when Sergeant Jupille was cut off by a grapeshot in front of Salamanca, and his Philomene retired to take charge of his mother's wine shop in the Rue du Fouarre, she had enrolled my name high on the list of her prospective patrons. I felt myself, so to speak, a part of the goodwill of her house, and "Heaven knows," thought I, as I threaded the insalubrious street, "it is something for a soldier of the Empire to count even on this much in Paris to-day. Est aliquid, quocunque loco, quocunque sacello...."
Madame Jupille knew me at once, and we fell (figuratively speaking) upon each other's neck. Her shop was empty, the whole quarter had trooped off to the review. After mingling our tears (again figuratively) over the fickleness of the capital, I inquired if she had any letters for me.
"Why, no, comrade."
"None?" I exclaimed with a very blank face.
"Not one"; Madame Jupille eyed me archly, and relented. "The reason being that Mademoiselle is too discreet."
"Ah!" I heaved a big sigh of relief. "You provoking woman, tell me what you mean by that?"
"Well, now, it may have been ten days ago that a stranger called in and asked if I had any news of the corporal who praised my white wine. 'Have I any news,' said I, 'of a needle in a bundle of hay? They all praise it.'" (O, Madame Jupille!)
"'The corporal I'm speaking of,' said he, 'is or was called Champdivers.' 'Was!' I cried, 'you are not going to tell me he is dead?' and I declare to you, comrade, the tears came into my eyes. 'No, he is not,' said the stranger, 'and the best proof is that he will be here inquiring for letters before long. You are to tell him that if he expects one from'—see, I took the name down on a scrap of paper, and stuck it in a wine-glass here—'from Miss Flora Gilchrist, he will do well to wait in Paris until a friend finds means to deliver it by hand. And if he asks more about me, say that I am from'—tenez, I wrote the second name underneath—yes, that is it—'Mr. Romaine.'"
"Confound his caution!" said I. "What sort of man was this messenger?"
"O, a staid-looking man, dark and civil-spoken. You might call him an upper servant, or perhaps a notary's clerk; very plainly dressed, in black."
"He spoke French?"
"Parfaitement. What else?"
"And he has not called again?"
"To be sure, yes, and the day before yesterday, and seemed quite disappointed. 'Is there anything Monsieur would like to add to his message?' I asked. 'No,' said he, 'or stay, tell him that all goes well in the north, but he must not leave Paris until I see him.'"
You may guess how I cursed Mr. Romaine for this beating about the bush. If all went well in the north, what possible excuse of caution could the man have for holding back Flora's letter? And how, in any case, could it compromise me here in Paris? I had half a mind to take the bit in my teeth and post off at once for Calais. Still, there was the plain injunction, and the lawyer doubtless had a reason for it hidden somewhere behind his tiresome circumambulatory approaches. And his messenger might be back at any hour.
Therefore, though it went against the grain, I thought it prudent to take lodgings with Madame Jupille and possess my soul in patience. You will say that it should not have been difficult to kill time in Paris between the 31st of March and the 5th of April 1814. The entry of the Allies, Marmont's supreme betrayal, the Emperor's abdication, the Cossacks in the streets, the newspaper offices at work like hives under their new editors, and buzzing contradictory news from morning to night; a new rumour at every cafe, a scuffle, or the makings of one, at every street corner, and hour by hour a steady stream of manifestoes, placards, handbills, caricatures, and broadsheets of opprobrious verse—the din of it all went by me like the vain noises of a dream as I trod the pavements, intent upon my own hopes and perplexities. I cannot think that this was mere selfishness; rather, a deep disgust was weaning me from my country. If this Paris indeed were the reality, then was I the phantasm, the revenant; then was France—the France for which I had fought and my parents gone to the scaffold—a land that had never been, and our patriotism the shadow of a shade. Judge me not too hardly if in the restless, aimless perambulations of those five days I crossed the bridge between the country that held neither kin nor friends for me, but only my ineffectual past, and the country wherein one human creature, if only one, had use for my devotion.
On the sixth day—that is, April 5th—my patience broke down. I took my resolution over lunch and a bottle of Beaujolais, and walked straight back from the restaurant to my lodgings, where I asked Madame Jupille for pen, ink, and paper, and sat down to advertise Mr. Romaine that, for good or ill, he might expect me in London within twenty-four hours of the receipt of this letter.
I had scarce composed the first sentence, when there came a knock at the door and Madame Jupille announced that two gentlemen desired to see me. "Show them up," said I, laying down my pen with a leaping heart; and in the doorway a moment later stood—my cousin Alain!
He was alone. He glanced with a grin of comprehension from me to the letter, advanced, set his hat on the table beside it, and his gloves (after blowing into them) beside his hat.
"My cousin," said he, "you show astonishing agility from time to time; but on the whole you are damned easy to hunt."
I had risen. "I take it you have pressing business to speak of, since amid your latest political occupations you have been at pains to seek me out. If so, I will ask you to be brief."
"No pains at all," he corrected affably. "I have known all the time that you were here. In fact, I expected you some while before you arrived, and sent my man, Paul, with a message."
"Certainly—touching a letter from la belle Flora. You received it? The message, I mean."
"Then it was not——"
"No, decidedly it was not Mr. Romaine, to whom"—with another glance at the letter—"I perceive that you are writing for explanations. And since you are preparing to ask how on earth I traced you to this rather unsavoury den, permit me to inform you that a—b spells 'ab,' and that Bow Street, when on the track of a criminal, does not neglect to open his correspondence."
I felt my hand tremble as it gripped the top rail of my chair, but I managed to command the voice to answer, coldly enough:
"One moment, Monsieur le Vicomte, before I do myself the pleasure of pitching you out of window. You have detained me these five days in Paris, and have done so, you give me to understand, by the simple expedient of a lie. So far, so good; will you do me the favour to complete the interesting self-exposure, and inform me of your reasons?"
"With all the pleasure in life. My plans were not ready, a little detail wanting, that is all. It is now supplied." He took a chair, seated himself at the table, and drew a folded paper from his breast-pocket. "It will be news to you perhaps, that our uncle—our lamented uncle, if you choose—is dead these three weeks."
"Rest his soul!"
"Forgive me if I stop short of that pious hope." Alain hesitated, let his venom get the better of him, and spat out on his uncle's memory an obscene curse which only betrayed the essential weakness of the man. Recovering himself, he went on: "I need not recall to you a certain scene (I confess too theatrical for my taste), arranged by the lawyer at his bedside; nor need I help you to an inkling of the contents of his last will. But possibly it may have slipped your memory that I gave Romaine fair warning. I promised him that I would raise the question of undue influence, and that I had my witnesses ready. I have added to them since; but I own to you that my case will be the stronger when you have obligingly signed the paper which I have the honour to submit to you." And he tossed it, unopened, across the table.
I picked it up and unfolded it:—"I, the Viscount Anne de Keroual de Saint-Yves, formerly serving under the name of Champdivers in the Buonapartist army, and later under that name a prisoner of war in the Castle of Edinburgh, hereby state that I had neither knowledge of my uncle the Count de Keroual de Saint-Yves, nor expectations from him, nor was owned by him, until sought out by Mr. Daniel Romaine, in the Castle of Edinburgh, by him supplied with money to expedite my escape, and by him clandestinely smuggled at nightfall into Amersham Place; Further, that until that evening I had never set eyes on my uncle, nor have set eyes on him since; that he was bedridden when I saw him, and apparently in the last stage of senile decay. And I have reason to believe that Mr. Romaine did not fully inform him of the circumstances of my escape, and particularly of my concern in the death of a fellow-prisoner named Goguelat, formerly a marechal des logis in the 22nd Regiment of the Line...."
Of the contents of this precious document let a sample suffice. From end to end it was a tissue of distorted statements implicated with dishonouring suggestions. I read it through, and let it drop on the table.
"I beg your pardon," said I, "but what do you wish me to do with it?"
"Sign it," said he.
I laughed. "Once more I beg your pardon, but though you have apparently dressed for it, this is not comic opera."
"Nevertheless you will sign."
"O, you weary me." I seated myself, and flung a leg over the arm of my chair. "Shall we come to the alternative For I assume you have one."
"The alternative, to be sure," he answered cheerfully. "I have a companion below, one Clausel, and at the 'Tete d'Or,' a little way up the street, an escort of police."
Here was a pleasing predicament. But if Alain had started with a chance of daunting me (which I do not admit), he had spoilt it long since by working on the raw of my temper. I kept a steady eye on him, and considered: and the longer I considered the better assured was I that his game must have a disastrously weak point somewhere, which it was my business to find.
"You have reminded me of your warning to Mr. Romaine. The subject is an ugly one for two of our family to touch upon; but do you happen to recall Mr. Romaine's counter-threat?"
"Bluff! my young sir. It served his purpose for the moment, I grant you. I was unhinged. The indignity, the very monstrosity of it, the baselessness, staggered reason."
"It was baseless, then?"
"The best proof is that in spite of his threat, and my open contempt and disregard of it, Mr. Romaine has not stirred a hand."
"You mean that my uncle destroyed the evidence?"
"I mean nothing of the kind," he retorted hotly, "for I deny that any such evidence at any time existed."
I kept my eye on him. "Alain," I said quietly, "you are a liar."
A flush darkened his face beneath its cosmetics, and with an oath he dipped finger and thumb into his waistcoat pocket and pulled out a dog whistle. "No more of that," said he, "or I whistle up the police this minute."
"Well, well, let us resume the discussion. You say this man Clausel has denounced me?"
"Soldiers of the Empire are cheap in Paris just now."
"So cheap that public opinion would be content if all the messieurs Champdivers were to kill all the messieurs Goguelat and be shot or guillotined for it. I forget which your case demands, and doubt if public opinion would inquire."
"And yet," I mused, "there must be preliminaries; some form of trial, for instance, with witnesses. It is even possible that I might be found innocent."
"I have allowed for that unlikely chance, and I look beyond it. To be frank, it does not strike me as probable that a British jury will hand over the estates of the Comte de Keroual de Saint-Yves to an escaped Buonapartist prisoner who has stood his trial for the murder of a comrade, and received the benefit of the doubt."
"Allow me," said I, "to open the window an inch or two. No; put back your whistle. I do not propose to fling you out, at least not just yet; nor will I try to escape. To tell you the truth, you suggest the need of a little fresh air. And now, Monsieur, you assure me you hold the knave in your hand. Well then, play him. Before I tear your foolish paper up, let me have a look at your confederate." I stepped to the door and called down the stairs, "Madame Jupille, be so good as to ask my other visitor to ascend."
With that I turned to the window again and stood there looking out upon the foul gutter along which the refuse of some dye-works at the head of the street found its way down to the Seine. And standing so, I heard the expected footsteps mounting the stairs.
"I must ask your pardon, Monsieur, for this intrusion——"
"Hey!" If the words had been a charge of shot fired into my back, I could not have spun round on them more suddenly. "Mr. Romaine!"
For indeed it was he, and not Clausel, who stood in the doorway. And to this day I do not know if Alain or I stared at him with the blanker bewilderment; though I believe there was a significant difference in our complexions.
"M. le Vicomte," said Romaine advancing, "recently effected an exchange. I have taken the liberty to effect another, and have left Mr. Clausel below listening to some arguments which are being addressed to him by Mr. Dudgeon, my confidential clerk. I think I may promise"—with a chuckle—"they will prove effectual. By your faces, gentlemen, I see that you regard my appearance as something in the nature of a miracle. Yet, M. le Vicomte at least should be guessing by this time that it is the simplest, most natural affair in the world. I engaged my word, sir, to have you watched. Will it be set down to more than ordinary astuteness that, finding you in negotiations for the exchange of the prisoner Clausel, we kept an eye upon him also?—that we followed him to Dover, and though unfortunate in missing the boat, reached Paris in time to watch the pair of you leave your lodgings this morning—nay, that knowing whither you were bound, we reached the Rue du Fouarre in time to watch you making your dispositions? But I run on too fast. Mr. Anne, I am entrusted with a letter for you. When, with Mr. Alain's permission, you have read it, we will resume our little conversation."
He handed me the letter and walked to the fireplace, where he took snuff copiously, while Alain eyed him like a mastiff about to spring. I broke open my letter and stooped to pick up a small enclosure which fell from it.
"MY DEAREST ANNE,—When your letter came and put life into me again, I sat down in my happiness and wrote you one that I shall never allow you to see; for it makes me wonder at myself. But when I took it to Mr. Robbie, he asked to see your letter, and when I showed him the wrapper, declared that it had been tampered with, and if I wrote and told you what we were doing for you, it might only make your enemies the wiser. For we have done something, and this (which is purely a business letter) is to tell you that the credit does not all belong to Mr. Robbie, or to your Mr. Romaine (who by Mr. Robbie's account must be quite a tiresome old gentleman, though well-meaning, no doubt). But on the Tuesday after you left us I had a talk with Major Chevenix, and when I really felt quite sorry for him (though it was no use and I told him so), he turned round in a way I could not but admire and said he wished me well and would prove it. He said the charge against you was really one for the military authorities alone; that he had reasons for feeling sure that you had been drawn into this affair on a point of honour, which was quite a different thing from what they said; and that he could not only make an affidavit or something of the kind on his own account, but knew enough of that man Clausel to make him confess the truth. Which he did the very next day, and made Clausel sign it, and Mr. Robbie has a copy of the man's statement which he is sending with this to Mr. Romaine in London; and that is the reason why Rowley (who is a dear) has come over and is waiting in the kitchen while I write these hurried lines. He says, too, that Major Chevenix was only just in time, since Clausel's friends are managing an exchange for him, and he is going back to France. And so in haste I write myself,—Your sincere friend,
"P.S.—My aunt is well; Ronald is expecting his commission.
"P.P.S.—You told me to write it, and so I must: 'I love you, Anne.'"
The enclosure was a note in a large and unformed hand, and ran—
"DEAR MR. ANNE, RESPECTED SIR,—This comes hopeing to find you well as it leaves me at present, all is well as Miss Flora will tell you that double-died Clausel has contest. This is to tell you Mrs. Mac R. is going on nicely, bar the religion which is only put on to anoy people and being a widow who blames her, not me. Miss Flora says she will put this in with hers, and there is something else but it is a dead secret, so no more at present from, sir,—Yours Respectfully,
Having read these letters through, I placed them in my breast-pocket, stepped to the table and handed Alain's document gravely back to him; then turned to Mr. Romaine, who shut his snuff-box with a snap.
"It only remains, I think," said the lawyer, "to discuss the terms which (merely as a matter of generosity, or say, for the credit of your house) can be granted to your—to Mr. Alain."
"You forget Clausel, I think," snarled my cousin.
"True, I had forgotten Clausel." Mr. Romaine stepped to the head of the stairs and called down, "Dudgeon!"
Mr. Dudgeon appeared, and endeavoured to throw into the stiffness of his salutation a denial that he had ever waltzed with me in the moonlight.
"Where is the man Clausel?"
"I hardly know, sir, if you would place the wine-shop of the 'Tete d'Or' at the top or at the bottom of this street; I presume the top, since the sewer runs in the opposite direction. At all events Mr. Clausel disappeared about two minutes ago in the same direction as the sewer."
Alain sprang up, whistle in hand.
"Put it down," said Mr. Romaine. "The man was cheating you. I can only hope," he added with a sour smile, "that you paid him on account with an I.O.U."
But Alain turned at bay. "One trivial point seems to have escaped you, Master Attorney, or your courage is more than I gave you credit for. The English are none too popular in Paris as yet, and this is not the most scrupulous quarter. One blast of this whistle, a cry of 'Espion Anglais!' and two Englishmen——"
"Say three," Mr. Romaine interrupted, and strode to the door. "Will Mr. Burchell Fenn be good enough to step upstairs?"
And here let me cry "Halt." There are things in this world—or that is my belief—too pitiful to be set down in writing, and of these, Alain's collapse was one. It may be, too, that Mr. Romaine's British righteousness accorded rather ill with the weapon he used so unsparingly. Of Fenn I need only say, that the luscious rogue shouldered through the doorway as though he had a public duty to discharge, and only the contrariness of circumstances had prevented his discharging it before. He cringed to Mr. Romaine, who held him and the whole nexus of his villainies in the hollow of his hand. He was even obsequiously eager to denounce his fellow-traitor. Under a like compulsion, he would (I feel sure) have denounced his own mother. I saw the sturdy Dudgeon's mouth working like a bull-terrier's over a shrewmouse. And between them, Alain had never a chance. Not for the first time in this history, I found myself all but taking sides with him in sheer repulsion from the barbarity of the attack. It seemed that it was through Fenn that Mr. Romaine had first happened on the scent; and the greater rogue had held back a part of the evidence, and would trade it now—"having been led astray—to any gentleman that would let bygones be bygones." And it was I, at length, who interposed when my cousin was beaten to his knees, and, having dismissed Mr. Burchell Fenn, restored the discussion to a businesslike footing. The end of it was, that Alain renounced all his claims, and accepted a yearly pension of six thousand francs. Mr. Romaine made it a condition that he should never set foot again in England; but seeing that he would certainly be arrested for debt within twenty-four hours of his landing at Dover, I thought this unnecessary.
"A good day's work," said the lawyer, as we stood together in the street outside.
But I was silent.
"And now, Mr. Anne, if I may have the honour of your company at dinner—shall we say Tortoni's?—we will on our way step round to my hotel, the Quatre Saisons, behind the Hotel de Ville, and order a caleche and four to be in readiness."
I GO TO CLAIM FLORA
Behold me now speeding northwards on the wings of love, ballasted by Mr. Romaine. But, indeed, that worthy man climbed into the caleche with something less than his habitual gravity. He was obviously and pardonably flushed with triumph. I observed that now and again he smiled to himself in the twilight, or drew in his breath and emitted it with a martial pouf! And when he began to talk—which he did as soon as we were clear of the Saint-Denis barrier—the points of the family lawyer were untrussed. He leaned back in the caleche with the air of a man who had subscribed to the Peace of Europe, and dined well on top of it. He criticised the fortifications with a wave of his toothpick, and discoursed derisively and at large on the Emperor's abdication, on the treachery of the Duke of Ragusa, on the prospects of the Bourbons, and on the character of M. Talleyrand, with anecdotes which made up in raciness for what they lacked in authenticity.
We were bowling through La Chapelle, when he pulled out his snuff-box and proffered it.
"You are silent, Mr. Anne."
"I was waiting for the chorus," said I. "'Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves: and Britons never, never, never——' Come, out with it!"
"Well," he retorted: "and I hope the tune will come natural to you before long."
"O, give me time, my dear sir! I have seen the Cossacks enter Paris, and the Parisians decorate their poodles with the Cross of the Legion of Honour. I have seen them hoist a wretch on the Vendome column, to smite the bronze face of the man of Austerlitz. I have seen the salle of the Opera rise to applaud a blatant fat fellow singing the praises of the Prussian—and to that tune of Vive Henri Quatre! I have seen, in my cousin Alain, of what the best blood in France is capable. Also, I have seen peasant boys—unripe crops of the later levies—mown down by grapeshot—raise themselves on their elbows to cheer for France and the little man in grey. In time, Mr. Romaine, no doubt my memory will confuse these lads with their betters, and their mothers with the ladies of the salle de l'Opera: just as in time, no doubt, I shall find myself Justice of the Peace, and Deputy-Lieutenant of the shire of Buckingham. I am changing my country, as you remind me: and, on my faith, she has no place for me. But, for the sake of her, I have explored and found the best of her—in my new country's prisons. And I repeat, you must give me time."
"Tut, tut!" was his comment, as I searched for tinder box and sulphur match to relight my segar. "We must get you into Parliament, Mr. Anne. You have the gift."
As we approached Saint-Denis, the flow of his discourse sensibly slackened: and, a little beyond, he pulled his travelling cap over his ears, and settled down to slumber. I sat wide awake beside him. The spring night had a touch of chill in it, and the breath of our horses, streaming back upon the lamps of the caleche, kept a constant nimbus between me and the postillions. Above it, and over the black spires of the poplar avenues, the regiments of stars moved in parade. My gaze went up to the ensign of their noiseless evolutions, to the pole-star, and to Cassiopeia swinging beneath it, low in the north, over my Flora's pillow—my pole-star and journey's end.
Under this soothing reflection I composed myself to slumber; and awoke, to my surprise and annoyance, in a miserable flutter of the nerves. And this fretfulness increased with the hours, so that from Amiens to the coast Mr. Romaine must have had the devil of a time with me. I bolted my meals at the way-houses, chafing all the while at the business of the relays. I popped up and down in the caleche like a shot on a hot shovel. I cursed our pace. I girded at the lawyer's snuff-box, and could have called him out upon Calais sands, when we reached them, to justify his vile methodical use of it. By good fortune we arrived to find the packet ready with her warps, and bundled ourselves on board in a hurry. We sought separate cabins for the night, and in mine, as in a sort of moral bath, the drastic cross seas of the Channel cleansed me of my irritable humour, and left me like a rag, beaten and hung on a clothes-line to the winds of heaven.
In the grey of the morning we disembarked at Dover; and here Mr. Romaine had prepared a surprise for me. For, as we drew to the shore, and the throng of porters and waterside loafers, on what should my gaze alight but the beaming countenance of Mr. Rowley! I declare it communicated a roseate flush to the pallid cliffs of Albion. I could have fallen on his neck. On his side the honest lad kept touching his hat and grinning in a speechless ecstasy. As he confessed to me later, "It was either hold my tongue, sir, or call for three cheers." He snatched my valise and ushered us through the crowd, to our hotel-breakfast. And, it seemed, he must have filled up his time at Dover with trumpetings of our importance: for the landlord welcomed us on the perron, obsequiously cringing; we entered in a respectful hush that might have flattered his Grace of Wellington himself; and the waiters, I believe, would have gone on all-fours, but for the difficulty of reconciling that posture with efficient service. I knew myself at last for a Personage: a great English land-owner: and did my best to command the mien proper to that tremendous class when, the meal despatched, we passed out between the bowing ranks to the door where our chaise stood ready.
"But hullo!" said I at sight of it; and my eye sought Rowley's.
"Begging your pardon, sir, but I took it on myself to order the colour, and hoping it wasn't a liberty."
"Claret and invisible green—a duplicate, but for a bullet-hole wanting."
"Which I didn't like to go so far on my own hook, Mr. Anne."
"We fight under the old colours, my lad."
"And walk in and win this time, sir, strike me lucky!"
While we bowled along the first stage towards London—Mr. Romaine and I within the chaise and Rowley perched upon the dickey—I told the lawyer of our progress from Aylesbury to Kirkby-Lonsdale. He took snuff.
"Forsitan et haec olim—that Rowley of yours seems a good-hearted lad, and less of a fool than he looks. The next time I have to travel post with an impatient lover, I'll take a leaf out of his book and buy me a flageolet."
"Sir, it was ungrateful of me——"
"Tut, tut, Mr. Anne. I was fresh from my little triumph, that is all; and perhaps would have felt the better for a word of approbation—a little pat on the back, as I may say. It is not often that I have felt the need of it—twice or thrice in my life, perhaps: not often enough to justify my anticipating your example and seeking a wife betimes; for that is a man's one chance if he wants another to taste his success."
"And yet I dare swear you rejoice in mine unselfishly enough."
"Why, no, sir: your cousin would have sent me to the right-about within a week of his succession. Still, I own to you that he offended something at least as deep as self-interest: the sight and scent of him habitually turned my gorge: whereas"—and he inclined to me with a dry smile—"your unwisdom at least was amiable, and—in short, sir, though you can be infernally provoking, it has been a pleasure to serve you."
You may be sure that this did not lessen my contrition. We reached London late that night; and here Mr. Romaine took leave of us. Business waited for him at Amersham Place. After a few hours' sleep, Rowley woke me to choose between two post-boys in blue jackets and white hats, and two in buff jackets and black hats, who were competing for the honour of conveying us as far as Barnet: and having decided in favour of the blue and white, and solaced the buff and black with a pourboire, we pushed forward once more.
We were now upon the Great North Road, along which the York mail rolled its steady ten miles an hour to the wafted music of the guard's bugle; a rate of speed which to the more Dorian mood of Mr. Rowley's flageolet, I proposed to better by one-fifth. But first, having restored the lad to his old seat beside me, I must cross-question him upon his adventures in Edinburgh, and the latest news of Flora and her aunt, Mr. Robbie, Mrs. McRankine, and the rest of my friends. It came out that Mr. Rowley's surrender to my dear girl had been both instantaneous and complete. "She is a floorer, Mr. Anne. I suppose now, sir, you'll be standing up for that knock-me-down kind of thing?"
"Explain yourself, my lad."
"Beg your pardon, sir, what they call love at first sight." He wore an ingenuous blush and an expression at once shy and insinuating.
"The poets, Rowley, are on my side."
"Mrs. McRankine, sir——"
"The Queen of Navarre, Mr. Rowley——"
But he so far forgot himself as to interrupt. "It took Mrs. McRankine years, sir, to get used to her first husband. She told me so."
"It took us some days, if I remember, to get used to Mrs. McRankine. To be sure, her cooking——"
"That's what I say, Mr. Anne: it's more than skin-deep: and you'll hardly believe me, sir—that is, if you didn't take note of it—but she hev got an ankle."
He had produced the pieces of his flageolet, and was adjusting them nervously, with a face red as a turkey-cock's wattles. I regarded him with a new and incredulous amusement. That I served Mr. Rowley for a glass of fashion and a mould of form was of course no new discovery: and the traditions of body-service allow—nay, enjoin—that when the gentleman goes a-wooing, the valet shall take a sympathetic wound. What could be more natural than that a gentleman of sixteen should select a lady of fifty for his first essay in the tender passion? Still—Bethiah McRankine!
I kept my countenance with an effort. "Mr. Rowley," said I, "if music be the food of love, play on." And Mr. Rowley gave "The Girl I left behind me," shyly at first, but anon with terrific expression. He broke off with a sigh. "Heigho!" in fact, said Rowley: and started off again while I tapped out the time, and hummed—
"But now I'm bound for Brighton camp, Kind Heaven then pray guide me, And send me safely back again To the girl I left behind me!"
Thenceforward that not uninspiriting air became the motif of our progress. We never tired of it. Whenever our conversation flagged, by tacit consent Mr. Rowley pieced his flageolet together and started it. The horses lilted it out in their gallop: the harness jingled, the postillions tittuped to it. And the presto with which it wound up as we came to a post-house and a fresh relay of horses had to be heard to be believed.
So with the chaise windows open to the vigorous airs of spring, and my own breast like a window flung wide to youth and health and happy expectations, I rattled homewards; impatient as a lover should be, yet not too impatient to taste the humour of spinning like a lord, with a pocketful of money, along the road which the ci-devant M. Champdivers had so fearfully dodged and skirted in Burchell Fenn's covered cart.
And yet so impatient that when we galloped over the Calton Hill and down into Edinburgh by the new London road, with the wind in our faces, and a sense of April in it, brisk and jolly, I must pack off Rowley to our lodgings with the valises, and stay only for a wash and breakfast at Dumbreck's before posting on to Swanston alone.
"Whene'er my steps return that way, Still faithful shall she find me, And never more again I'll stray From the girl I left behind me."
When the gables of the cottage rose into view over the hill's shoulder I dismissed my driver and walked forward, whistling the tune; but fell silent as I came under the lee of the garden wall, and sought for the exact spot of my old escalade. I found it by the wide beechen branches over the road, and hoisted myself noiselessly up to the coping where, as before, they screened me—or would have screened me had I cared to wait.
But I did not care to wait; and why? Because, not fifteen yards from me, she stood!—she, my Flora, my goddess, bareheaded, swept by chequers of morning sunshine and green shadows, with the dew on her sandal shoes and the lap of her morning gown appropriately heaped with flowers—with tulips, scarlet, yellow, and striped. And confronting her, with his back towards me and a remembered patch between the armholes of his stable-waistcoat, Robie the gardener rested both hands on his spade and expostulated.
"But I like to pick my tulips, leaves and all, Robie!"
"Aweel, miss; it's clean ruinin' the bulbs, that's all I say to you."
And that was all I waited to hear. As he bent over and resumed his digging I shook a branch of the beech with both hands and set it swaying. She heard the rustle and glanced up, and, spying me, uttered a gasping little cry.
"What ails ye, miss?" Robie straightened himself instanter; but she had whipped right-about face and was gazing towards the kitchen garden—
"Isn't that a child among the arti—the strawberry beds, I mean?"
He cast down his spade and ran. She turned, let the tulips fall at her feet, and, ah! her second cry of gladness, and her heavenly blush as she stretched out both arms to me! It was all happening over again—with the difference that now my arms too were stretched out.
"Journeys end in lovers meeting, Every wise man's son doth know...."
Robie had run a dozen yards perhaps, when either the noise I made in scrambling off the wall, or some recollection of having been served in this way before, brought him to a halt. At any rate, he turned round, and just in time to witness our embrace.
"The good Lord behear!" he exclaimed, stood stock-still for a moment, and waddled off at top speed towards the back door.
"We must tell Aunt at once! She will—why, Anne, where are you going?" She caught my sleeve.
"To the hen-house, to be sure," said I.
A moment later, with peals of happy laughter, we had taken hands and were running along the garden alleys towards the house. And I remember, as we ran, finding it somewhat singular that this should be the first time I had ever invaded Swanston Cottage by way of the front door.
We came upon Miss Gilchrist in the breakfast room. A pile of linen lay on the horse-hair sofa; and the good lady, with a measuring tape in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other, was walking around Ronald, who stood on the hearthrug in a very manly attitude. She regarded me over her gold-rimmed spectacles, and, shifting the scissors into her left hand, held out her right.
"H'm," said she; "I give ye good morning, Mosha. And what might you be wanting of us this time?"
"Madam," I answered, "that, I hope, is fairly evident."
Ronald came forward. "I congratulate you, St. Ives, with all my heart. And you may congratulate me: I have my commission."
"Nay, then," said I, "let me rather congratulate France that the war is over. Seriously, my dear fellow, I wish you joy. What's the regiment?"
"Chevenix is a decent fellow. He has behaved very well, indeed he has."
"Very well indeed," said Flora, nodding her head.
"He has the knack. But if you expect me to like him any the better for it——"
"Major Chevenix," put in Miss Gilchrist in her most Rhadamanthine voice, "always sets me in mind of a pair of scissors." She opened and shut the pair in her hand, and I had to confess that the stiff and sawing action was admirably illustrative. "But I wish to heaven, madam," thought I, "you could have chosen another simile!"
In the evening of that beatific day I walked back to Edinburgh by some aerial and rose-clouded path not indicated on the maps. It led somehow to my lodgings, and my feet touched earth when the door was opened to me by Bethiah McRankine.
"But where is Rowley?" I asked a moment later, looking round my sitting-room.
Mrs. McRankine smiled sardonically. "Him? He came back rolling his eyes so that I guessed him to be troubled in the wind. And he's in bed this hour past with a spoonful of peppermint in his little wame."
* * * * *
And here I may ring down the curtain upon the adventures of Anne de Saint-Yves.
Flora and I were married early in June, and had been settled for little over six months, amid the splendours of Amersham Place, when news came of the Emperor's escape from Elba. Throughout the consequent alarums and excursions of the Hundred Days (as M. de Chambord named them for us), I have to confess that the Vicomte Anne sat still and warmed his hands at the domestic hearth. To be sure, Napoleon had been my master, and I had no love for the cocarde blanche. But here was I, an Englishman, already, in legal but inaccurate phrase, a "naturalised" one, having, as Mr. Romaine put it, a stake in the country, not to speak of a nascent interest in its game-laws and the local administration of justice. In short, here was a situation to tickle a casuist. It did not, I may say, tickle me in the least, but played the mischief with my peace. If you, my friends, having weighed the pro and contra, would have counselled inaction, possibly, allowing for the hebetude de foyer and the fact that Flora was soon to become a mother, you might have predicted it. At any rate I sat still and read the newspapers: and on the top of them came a letter from Ronald, announcing that the 4-th had their marching, or rather their sailing, orders, and that within a week his boat would rock by the pier of Leith to convey him and his comrades to join the Duke of Wellington's forces in the Low Countries. Forthwith nothing would suit my dear girl but we must post to Edinburgh to bid him farewell—in a chariot, this time, with a box seat for her maid and Mr. Rowley. We reached Swanston in time for Ronald to spend the eve of his departure with us at the Cottage; and very gallant the boy looked in his scarlet uniform, which he wore for the ladies' benefit, and which (God forgive us men!) they properly bedewed with their tears.
Early next morning we drove over to the city and drew up in the thick of the crowd gathered at the foot of the Castle Hill to see the 4-th march out. We had waited half an hour, perhaps, when we heard two thumps of a drum and the first notes of the regimental quick-step sounded within the walls; the sentry at the outer gate stepped back and presented arms, and the ponderous archway grew bright with the red coats and brazen instruments of the band. The farewells on their side had been said; and the inexorable tramp—tramp upon the drawbridge was the burthen of their answer to the waving handkerchiefs, the huzzas of the citizens, the cries of the women. On they came, and in the first rank, behind the band, rose Major Chevenix. He saw us, flushed a little, and gravely saluted. I never liked the man; but will admit he made a fine figure there. And I pitied him a little; for while his eyes rested on Flora, hers wandered to the rear of the third company, where Ensign Ronald Gilchrist marched beside the tattered colours with chin held up and a high colour on his young cheeks and a lip that quivered as he passed us.
"God bless you, Ronald!"
"Left wheel!" The band and the Major riding behind it swung round the corner into North Bridge Street; the rear-rank and the adjutant behind it passed down the Lawnmarket. Our driver was touching up his horses to follow, when Flora's hand stole into mine. And I turned from my own conflicting thoughts to comfort her.
END OF VOL. XX
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