"A fig for your boasting!" he cried contemptuously. "You had best get out of my sight, lest I run you through for your impudence!"
Slippery Seal, seeing how matters were going, now raised a cry for help.
"Help! help! Watchmen, to the rescue! Here is a desperate young ruffian seeking to murder the Queen's subjects in broad daylight! Help, I say, and take the young braggart before the magistrates! Cannot peaceable citizens walk the streets without being set upon by such bullies as that yonder?"
Two watchmen at that moment came hastening up, and looked at the combatants with questioning eyes. Tom was flushed, and his sword was still in his hand; but Rosamund had been admitted to the house, and was going hot-foot in search of her father, to come and put a stop to the fight; for she bad perfect faith in his power to do anything he had a mind to.
"We four can testify," said Slippery Seal, with a voice of great unction, "that as we were peaceably passing down the street, this young fellow, of whom we know no good, made a sudden and unprovoked attack upon honest Master Thring there, whose mouth is still bleeding from the blow. Thereupon Master Bullen drew his sword to protect him; but he was set upon so furiously, that had he not been a notable swordsman he must needs have been killed. As it was, his sword was dashed from his band, and there it lies in the roadway before your eyes. I say, how long are pious and peaceable citizens to be treated thus? Do your duty, my good fellows, and take this young man into custody. A taste of the stocks will do him a vast deal of good, and we will bear testimony against him with right good will. 'In the mouth of two or three witnesses—' you know what says the Scripture."
"Ay, you blasphemer and liar, we know well what says the Scripture: 'Thou shalt not bear false witness;' and again, 'The mouth that speaketh lies shall be stopped.'"
Looking round quickly, Tom saw Master Cale, with his daughter clinging to his arm, standing in the doorway of the house, and sternly regarding the scene.
"Watchmen," he said, "if you make any prisoners today, take you those four bullies, who are but too well known in these streets already. It is they who delight to set upon strangers, and insult and frighten innocent maidens. Take you them, and I will bear witness against them; for I saw the scene with my own eyes. Would to heaven that honest citizens could rid their streets of such spawn!
"But I tell you, you mischievous scum, the day will come when we will no longer stand this swaggering and bullying. We are a patient people; but you can provoke us too far. I know you four right well. I would sit you in the stocks in a row, or have you whipped at the cart's tail from Newgate to Tyburn; and perchance the day may come when—"
But the miscreants did not wait to hear the end of this harangue. They well knew that no tale of theirs could stand for a moment before the witness of a man respected as Master Cale the perruquier. Fearful lest the watch, who had let go their hold of Tom, should in turn lay hands on them, they fled helter-skelter, but as they went they breathed out threats of being even with Tom another time, and he knew well that this encounter had changed them from the merely jeering enemies they had shown themselves at first into real antagonists full of bitter animosity and hatred.
The watch were never too eager to take up evildoers who were possessed of swords and were strong of body. They were glad enough that Master Cale had vouched for Tom's honesty, and that the other four had betaken themselves away. Hard knocks and sometimes fatal injury were often the portion of these old men, so incapable of keeping order in the streets; and thankful were they when any fray ended in the manner of this one.
But Cale's face was rather grave as he turned homewards, his daughter clinging to his arm, and Tom marching upon her other side with his head high in the air.
"I thank you, my good lad, for being so stout a champion to my little girl," he said; "and yet I would it had not happened; for it is ill work making enemies in these days of lawlessness and duelling."
But Tom gave a little laugh. He had no desire to make boast of his prowess; yet he felt that he could settle a score of quarrels with such besotted creatures as the four he had put to rout so lately, and be no manner the worse for it himself. He was not at all sorry for the adventure. He felt a flutter of pride and pleasure in the shy glances shot at him from the dark eyes beneath the crimson hood. He had made of himself a hero in the eyes of pretty Rosamund, and he liked that experience well enough.
"Fear not for me, my good friend," he answered, in a tone that had caught a little of the lofty ring of Lord Claud's.
"A man cannot go through life without making enemies as well as friends. But as for such creatures as we have just quitted, why, they are not worth a thought! I heed them no more than the wasp that buzzes round my head. They are the scum and off scouring of the earth—all brag and boast, but ready to run at the first hint of danger!"
Rosamund's eyes shot forth another look of admiration; but Cale said quietly:
"Yet it is this very scum and off scouring of the earth who have before now kidnapped and shipped off to the plantations of Virginia honest men of stout heart and stalwart frame; for there is great demand for able-bodied men there, and good prices are paid for bone and muscle. So again I say, have a care, Tom, have a care. I would not have you entertain one coward fear, yet I would have you careful not to provoke needless animosity; for we live in perilous and evil days."
The colour had faded from Rosamund's cheeks at these words, and she timidly laid a hand upon Tom's arm as he marched beside her.
"Fair sir, you will be careful," she said, in a soft and pleading voice. "If hurt were to come to you for having so gallantly befriended me, I should know no peace or happiness again!"
Tom looked with a smile into the face of the speaker; and Cale heard the words, and saw the look. He gave a little sigh, and walked on in deep thought.
It was Tom and Rosamund who did the greater part of the talking, even after they got home and partook of the dish of tea. This then costly beverage was reckoned by Rosamund as a Sunday treat, and sipped with great relish; and Tom took it for the first time, saying he would e'en make shift to like it, since Mistress Rose vouched that it was good, although he had hitherto refused it when offered at the houses of the fine folks he had visited.
So in talk and tea drinking an hour slipped away; and then the perruquier rose and bid Rosamund get her hood and come; for it was high time to fetch her aunt, and go back to Highgate.
Tom would have liked to accompany them once more, but some instinct restrained him from making the offer. He bade adieu to Rosamund at her own door, and went back to sit by the fire and muse of all the things that had happened to him during this momentous week.
CHAPTER VIII. THE GREAT DUKE.
"Now, Tom, keep your eyes well open. He is about to appear!"
Tom was standing, tall and silent, feeling singularly out of place in that gorgeous company, in a magnificent reception room, brilliantly lighted, and crowded from one end to the other with a throng of highly-born and fashionable persons.
He had been introduced by Lord Claud into this gay assembly, and was already half disposed to wish himself away.
Tom had been several weeks in town now; and after his first encounter with Lord Claud, which had led to such close intimacy for a few days, he had seen nothing of that remarkable personage for the space of two or three weeks.
Although perhaps a little piqued that his patron had not sent him so much as a line of invitation, or seemed to remember his existence, Tom was not sure that he regretted his lack of memory. Lord Claud had certainly fascinated his imagination, and won his affections; but he seemed to be a mysterious character, whose friendship might not prove too desirable a possession. It was not his place, he thought, with the simple pride of the countryman, to seek to thrust himself upon a man so much greater than himself. So he had gone about seeing the sights of the town with Harry Gay, spending his money with some freedom, and indulging in a little play and dicing at various houses of entertainment. But he kept within moderate bounds in his pleasures, both because he desired to eke out his funds as far as possible, and because he did not wish to fall under the displeasure of his kind host, Master Cale, the father of pretty Rosamund.
Tom thought a good deal about Rosamund during the week, and regarded Sunday as the red-letter day of his calendar. Master Cale did not forbid him to be of their company upon the afternoons when they walked abroad, and he and the maid were excellent friends by this time, and exchanged many gay quips and sallies together. Rosamund always made him tell the story of his past week in some detail; and Tom had therefore another motive for keeping free from scenes and company which would have made his story unfit hearing for her pretty ears.
Already he had begun to think that when he had travelled and seen the world, and was ready to go home and take up the duties which at five and twenty would devolve upon him, he would return with far greater contentment and pleasure if he could take back Rosamund as his wife. He could not fancy that any life would be dull and monotonous shared with her, nor any home dreary that was lightened by the sunshine of her presence.
The image of Rosamund had begun almost to obliterate that of Lord Claud in his imagination, when suddenly one day he found himself again in company of that gentleman at the coffee house he generally frequented.
Lord Claud laid a friendly hand upon his shoulder, saying, with a light laugh:
"O Tom, Tom, whom I called so trusty, I fear me you are as fickle as any maid! But what does the prophet when the mountain will not come to him? He even puts his pride in his pocket and goes to the mountain. You are a solid mountain in your way, good Tom; and here is the prophet come after you!"
Tom looked up, half ashamed, half flattered, the charm of Lord Claud's presence beginning at once to make itself felt.
"My lord, I could not think you wanted such a humble person as myself! And you had but to send me a line to Master Cale's if you did," he stammered.
Lord Claud dropped into the seat next him, laughing a light, low-toned laugh.
"I like your simplicity, my honest Tom. Keep it as long as you can; for it is a quality rarely met with in these days, and smells as sweet as lavender in country gardens. I have not been wont to need to ask my friends to visit me. They swarm about my rooms like bees round honey, so long as there be honey to gather from my hive. How do you think you are going to live, my young friend, when your store of guineas is melted, if you have not learned that noble art of picking and stealing, which our young blades of fashion practise with such success and grace?"
So the acquaintance was renewed, Tom quickly falling again beneath the spell of the strong personality of Lord Claud. He had not entirely ceased his sword practice with Captain Raikes during the past weeks, and now was to be found at his hall almost every day. Lord Claud himself would sometimes come and watch and applaud; and more than once, as the two had walked away together, linked arm in arm, his patron had said:
"Good swordsmanship is an art to be greatly prized. It makes a man respected and feared. It gives him distinction with his fellows. Besides, one never knows when it may be useful for the saving of one's skin. A man who can wield the rapier with skill, master his horse as you can, honest Tom, and shoot fair and true with pistol and musket, may go through life to a merry tune, and even die at last in his bed, if he has a mind for so respectable an end!"
The days were shortening to their darkest by now. Snow fell in the streets, and made walking disagreeable. Tom found it pleasant to ride along beside Lord Claud, mounted upon the mettlesome mare, Nell Gwynne, who appeared kept just now for his especial use and behoof. He still spent his Sundays at his lodgings; but pretty Rosamund was not always able to come across when the snow lay deep along the country roads. Tom began to think less of her again, and more of his patron and friend; being, as may have already been gleaned, a youth of impressionable nature, easily moulded by the character of his associates, although not without a latent firmness of will which might develop into sterling metal in time, though, perhaps, not until the admixture of dross had been purged away by the action of the furnace of trial.
All London was now agog over the return of the victor of Blenheim. The great Duke of Marlborough had been upon his way home for some time. In the middle of December he reached London, and took his seat in the House of Lords; and it was said that early in the next year there would be a monstrous fine procession from the Tower to Westminster, in which all the trophies of war would be solemnly paraded.
Tom was as excited as anybody over all this, and as eager to obtain sight of the great Duke. Lord Claud had promised that he should not only see him, but be one of the same company at some fine house where he would show himself. Tom had often been to grand enough houses already with his friend; but it seemed to him overmuch to suppose that he could be introduced into any company of which the Duke of Marlborough was to be a member.
Lord Claud, however, was not given to vain boasting. The open-house festivities of Christmas were approaching. He himself had won the entree to an extraordinary number of fashionable houses; and this evening here was Tom, come with his patron to a nobleman's dwelling, standing in the crowd of fashionable grandees, all in a flutter of excitement to see the hero of the hour at close quarters.
"Keep your eyes open, Tom; you cannot fail to see him as he passes through the room. You are lucky in being able to look over the heads of all the crowd. No tiptoeing lady can intercept your view even with her towering headdress!"
This was hardly true; for there were ladies whose headdresses were of such monstrous proportions that the dame of five feet stood seven feet high, taking the heels of her shoes and the tower on her head into consideration! But luckily these extravagant follies were confined only to the few, the majority of the ladies being content with a headdress of more moderate dimensions.
There was a great buzz of talk going on as it became known that the Duke was approaching—some eager to know if the Duchess would be with him; others laughing at the name, and vowing that Mrs. Morley could never bear to part with her dear Mrs. Freeman even for an hour!
The doors at the end of the room were thrown suddenly open. The master of the house appeared, leading with great distinction of manner a little knot of guests, who passed through the crowded outer reception room at a slow pace, returning the many salutations of the company with great show of goodwill, disappearing presently behind the curtains which shut off the innermost room where the lady of the house was awaiting them, with some of the more select and high-born guests.
"That is the Duke," said Lord Claud to Tom, indicating a tall and elegant man, who looked to him hardly old enough for the general of so many victorious battles. He was singularly handsome, with a languid grace of bearing that seemed strange in a soldier. He spoke in a peculiarly modulated and refined voice, and plainly possessed the art of saying the right thing to the right person, and that at the right moment. His silver tongue had done as much good service in keeping the Allies in harmony, as his military genius in forming combinations and defeating the ends of the enemy.
At his side was the Duchess, a fine-looking woman of commanding presence, not beautiful, but with a very elegant figure and remarkably abundant hair, which she wore in a more tasteful way than most of the company. A few paces behind came another notable figure, that of Marshal Tallard, the French general whom Marlborough had taken prisoner at Blenheim, and whom he had brought with him to England; but whom he treated with every courtesy, and with whom he bad formed something very like a real friendship.
Lord Claud whispered to Tom that Marshal Tallard had been the one French general whose genius was in the least able to cope with that of Marlborough; and to have him in safe keeping in this country was a most excellent thing for the Grand Alliance.
As soon as the distinguished guests had disappeared, the buzz of talk rose louder than before. Tom asked, in puzzled tones, what all this chatter about Mrs. Morley and Mrs. Freeman meant; and Lord Claud laughed, as he replied:
"Have you never heard of the whim of the Queen to call herself Mrs. Morley in her letters to the Duchess, who in her turn is Mrs. Freeman? And very well is she so named, for never was subject more free with sovereign than is Duchess Sarah with good Queen Anne. Indeed, there be not those lacking who say that such freedom cannot go on for ever. However fondly the Queen may love the Duchess now, she cannot for ever submit to be the subject of her subject. Some day there will be a storm, and then it will behove Mrs. Freeman to sing to a different tune! For the Queen has a will of her own when once it is roused, and can show a stubborn front when she chooses—as some of her ministers have already found to their discomfiture!"
Lord Claud strolled away presently, leaving Tom to look about him and listen to the idle chatter of the shifting throng. He made out that though the Duke of Marlborough was in great popular esteem, his Duchess was little liked; and spiteful things were circulated to her disfavour all round the room. It was plain that she had a very overbearing temper, and made many enemies; but her affection for her husband and children was never disputed, nor his for her, though there were many who marvelled what a man of his parts could see in such a shrew to be so devoted to her as had always been the case.
"For she belabours him sorely with her tongue times and again, and ofttimes writes him fiery letters, which discompose him more than a reverse in arms. When she smiles, he is filled with an extraordinary joy; and when she frowns, he knows no peace till he has conciliated her. 'Tis the strangest thing in a man such as he; and the Queen is just as bad. In old days the woman would have been burned as a witch, for she has certainly bewitched that pair, though no one else can see wherein her wondrous charm lies."
Later on in the evening, when the company had somewhat thinned, and when the card rooms had drawn off a number of those who yet remained, the Duke was seen strolling by himself through the suite of rooms, exchanging friendly nods and words with the many eager acquaintances he met there.
Marlborough had that recollection of faces which is so often the prerogative of royalty; and he had none of the pride which hinders a man from greeting an old friend, even though his station in life was humble. The Duke had been but the son of a country gentleman, when he came to court as plain John Churchill. He had climbed the ladder of fame and fortune fast; but he remembered his former friends, and never forgot to salute them in company. His charm of manner was felt by all who came in contact with him. However worried or hard pressed, he never let his irritation be seen, and he never appeared in haste. He was as suave and gentle in manner amongst the humbler sort of company as in the presence of royalty itself; and his clear glance passed quickly from face to face as he talked, as though he were secretly taking the measure of men, although his languor of manner never varied.
More than once, as he walked hither and thither through the rooms, had Tom's glance crossed his. Possibly it was the young man's great height which took the eye of the soldier in the midst of this crowd, where smirking fops and bending courtiers predominated. Tom could not be accused of bowing or smirking. He remained the whole time leaning back against the wall in the same place; his face grave; his eyes following the movements of this or that person; his lips silent, because he could not frame them to the jargon of tongues and the stilted phrases of the day, and besides he had no acquaintances in this gay throng, save only Lord Claud himself.
Tom was looking in some curiosity to see if Lord Claud was acquainted with the Duke. He had never said so; but then Lord Claud was not given to boasting, and had already surprised Tom by the number of his notable acquaintances. The Duke was walking along, skirting the wall of the room. Everybody gave way for him to pass. He was now very near to Lord Claud, and not far from Tom himself, for his patron had been strolling idly in his direction.
Tom saw the eyes of the two men cross, and Lord Claud make his courtly bow, to which the Duke responded gracefully. Lord Claud took one step forward, and said in a low tone, every syllable of which, however, was audible to Tom:
"I have never before had the honour of speaking with your Grace; but there is one word that I crave to speak in your ear. If there be some secret mission of danger which the Duke of Marlborough desires to intrust to two men, stout of heart, cool of head, and skilled in the use of the sword, then I can promise that the services of myself and my trusty comrade here are at your Grace's disposal; and I think I can promise that, whether we succeed or not, we can be true to the death."
And Lord Claud, as he spoke, laid a hand upon the arm of the astonished Tom, who had certainly not understood his words of former days to mean anything quite so definite as this.
At the same time the heart of the youth leaped within him as he heard, and he felt a thrill run through his veins. As the soft yet searching gaze of the Duke fell upon him, he felt himself flush to the temples like a girl; and yet at that moment he felt that he could willingly lay down his life to serve so great a man as this.
"And who may have told you, sir, that I have need of trusty men for the secret service?" asked Marlborough, in his even tone.
"My knowledge of men and of warfare have told me," answered Lord Claud, with his accustomed serenity of manner. "True men are not to be plucked from every tree, as I have found to mine own cost. A man may prove but a treacherous reed, upon whom if one leans it goes into his hand. Therefore, your Grace, have I made bold to tell you of two trusty servants, something wearied with the hollow life of this great city, who are willing and ready to travel farther afield, and to whom peril or danger adds but zest to any quest."
Marlborough stood thoughtfully regarding the two men before him. Lord Claud returned his gaze by one full and calm; Tom's eyes glowed and kindled by reason of the keenness of the surging thoughts within.
"You are he whom men call Lord Claud," said the Duke thoughtfully. "You know that there are strange whispers afloat about you, my lord?"
"I know it well."
"And you have never denied those whispers?"
Lord Claud smiled slightly.
"My sword has answered a few taunts. For the rest, I heed them not overmuch. If we began to take cognizance of the chatterings of this world of magpies, we might have a duel to fight every day of our lives."
Marlborough smiled slightly at the nonchalance of the reply.
"That is all you have to say to me, Lord Claud?"
"That is all, your Grace."
For a moment there was silence, whilst the Duke bent his eyes upon the ground; then he looked straight at Tom.
"And who are you, young sir?"
Tom glanced at Lord Claud, but seeing that he was to answer for himself, he did so frankly and candidly. He was not ashamed of his humble birth, and made no secret of it; nor did he deny that he should never have found himself in such fine company save for the introduction and good offices of Lord Claud.
"And you desire to see foreign parts?"
"I was sent from home that I might do so. My father thought I might find room in your Grace's army to fight for my country. I was smitten so with the wonders of London that I have lingered here long. But I begin to weary of the life. I would gladly go forth and see new lands, the more so if I could travel with a comrade who knew to frame his tongue to foreign speech;" and here he glanced at Lord Claud, who seemed to him a notable linguist.
"You know no tongue but your own, Mr. Tufton?"
"Never a word; and even that I cannot speak as men speak it in London town, so that I am fain to keep silence in a crowd like this, lest men laugh me to scorn, and anger me till I say or do something unseemly;" and the lad's face flushed, for he had been sorely provoked before this, and had need of all his patience to quell the tempest of his soul.
The Duke smiled at this boyish frankness of speech; but then his face grew grave again, and he stood a while in thought. Then he looked at Lord Claud, and said with some significance:
"I will think more of this matter, sir. I have used strange tools before this, and ofttimes with success. The secret service has its secrets and its surprises; and I have my own methods of winning the fidelity of the messengers I employ."
"So I have heard, your Grace."
The two men looked full at each other, and the glance was neither unfriendly nor suspicious. It appeared to Tom as though there were mutual liking, and a disposition to confidence; but this was neither the time nor the place to indulge it.
"Till all this feasting and pageantry be over, I am not mine own master, and I can scarce find time for the needful business of the hour," said Marlborough; "but later on I hope to be free to spend a short spell of well-earned rest in mine own house of Holywell, hard by St. Albans. If you should receive a summons to visit me there, come privately, and bring your friend with you. It may be I shall make use of your services ere long."
With a slight bow, which was respectfully returned by Tom, and more gracefully by Lord Claud, the Duke moved away; and Tom's eyes were alight with excitement as he asked eagerly:
"What does it mean? What have you offered? What will he use us for?"
Lord Claud led his pupil away through the crowded rooms, out into the cold night air; but neither of them felt the cold. A keen excitement filled their veins as with molten fire.
"He rose to it!" quoth Lord Claud exultantly; "I saw it ever growing in favour as he turned it over. I have heard of his methods in the secret service. He spends more money, and gets greater results than any general has ever yet done. He says truth when he speaks of employing strange tools. Well, let him employ this strange tool—and it shall not play him false!
"My coffers are almost bare, Tom. And I am sick of crowds and foppery and the follies of the city. I would fain away on the back of my good steed, and feel what freedom is like once more. Gold I must have; and the King's gold is my fancy. Let me win it this time by my services, which shall be true and faithful; but if not—well, let them not say the fault is mine!"
"The Queen's, you mean," said Tom. "We serve our Queen now."
Lord Claud gave a short laugh.
"You speak sooth, honest Tom; we have a Queen now, and I would not do despite to our good Queen Anne! I was thinking of the last time I had won royal gold—then it was the King's money that replenished my empty exchequer!"
He laughed again, and Tom looked at him half uneasily; which perceiving, he changed his tone, and in a short time the youth had forgotten everything save the glorious prospect of adventure and peril, and the handling thereafter of golden treasure; for if the Duke was accounted a lover of money, no man ever accused him of showing meanness in rewarding the services of others.
The next weeks flew by almost like a dream for Tom; and truly he felt he must surely be dreaming when he watched the gorgeous pageant of the third of January, and witnessed from a commanding situation the grand procession of the trophies of war as it wound its way from the Tower to Westminster Hall.
Companies of horse and foot made a brave and gallant show; row after row of pikemen with the captured standards; a goodly number of the nobles of the land; and the great Duke himself, at whose' appearance the populace shouted till they were hoarse, ladies waved handkerchiefs, and the city seemed to go mad with joy and applause.
Almost grander still was the pageant three days later, when the victor of Blenheim went in state to the Goldsmiths' Hall, to a banquet given in his honour by the Lord Mayor and Town Council. He was conveyed there in one of the royal carriages; the greatest men in the kingdom, and some princely guests, accompanied him; and again the whole city turned out to give him welcome. At Temple Bar the city marshals received him in state, garlands were flung, and trumpets proclaimed the idol of the hour. The Commons were petitioning the Queen to suggest some fitting tribute for the services of so great a man; and the gift of the royal manor of Woodstock, and the erection by royal bounty of the palace of Blenheim (although after his fall and disgrace Marlborough had to finish the palace at his own cost) were the results of this appeal.
Tom witnessed all these brave sights, and had his head well-nigh turned by all the rejoicings in which the city took part. Even Master Cale scarcely chid him for the way in which his guineas were flying; although he warned Tom that they would not last long at such a pace. But Tom laughed now, and said he had the prospect of earning more when these were gone; and Lord Claud laughed lightly when the subject came up, and told Tom that the pleasantest way with money was to spend it freely whilst it lasted, and then turn to and get more. There were a hundred ways of doing this, he assured him; and Torn half believed him, and found it mighty pleasant to throw about his gold as the young bloods of fashion did, and have a pretty costly trinket to offer to Rosamund whenever they chanced to meet.
Master Cale would rather the child had not had these gay gewgaws forced upon her; but he could not chide overmuch when he saw the brightness of her eyes and the eagerness upon her face. Besides, Tom had already spoken of his speedy departure for foreign lands; and although Rosamund pouted, and professed that it was very unkind of him to go just when they had grown to be friends, her father saw no indications of deeper feeling. And, indeed, the maid had as yet no real love for any but her father. Tom had taken her fancy, as being the finest and handsomest youth she had ever come across, but she regarded him as a being quite out of her sphere; and though her heart fluttered a little at first sight of him, she could look forward to the thought of his absence with great equanimity.
"You will come back and tell us all your adventures," she said, as though that would make up for much; and Tom faithfully promised, although he fancied there might be many reservations in the tale he would tell.
One day before the month of January had fled Tom received a summons to Lord Claud's lodging. There he found everything in confusion, servants hurrying hither and thither, and the valet packing up some sober clothing in a small valise that could be strapped across a saddle.
When Tom came face to face with Lord Claud he saw a new expression in the eyes of his patron. All the languor and indifference had fled. His whole aspect was of a man bound upon some stern errand.
"Tom," he said briefly, "the time has come. Go home and don your stoutest riding dress. Take a second with you in saddlebag or valise; and hide such money as you have left somewhere upon your person. Then come back hither, and we will dine together. We are to start upon our journey this very day; and our first stage is Holywell House, near St. Albans."
CHAPTER IX. FARE WELL TO HOME.
"My lord," said Tom, "I am but a country squire's son. I am no fit guest for the house of a duke. I pray you let me turn aside, and go visit mine own home, and say farewell to mine own people. If, as you say, we shall speedily be sent forth upon some errand of peril, I would fain kiss my mother once again before parting. I have not been to her as good a son as I should wish. Let me ask her pardon, and show her that I have not forgotten her, ere we fare forth on our mission."
Tom and his companion were drawing near to the Duke's property of Holywell, when Tom suddenly burst out with these words. He had begun to feel a sort of proud, shy shrinking from thrusting himself, even as invited guest, into the house of the great Marlborough. Moreover, the sight of the familiar country—for he had been wont to pay visits afore times to St. Albans—had awakened in him memories of the life which now seemed so very far distant, together with more tender thoughts of mother and sister than he had ever felt towards them in the days of old.
"I would meet you in three days' time wherever you would appoint me," he added, as Lord Claud remained silent and thoughtful; and there was a note of pleading in his voice which showed how much bent he was upon this visit of farewell. "You have said you do not look to be less than three days at Holywell. I pray you spare me for this last farewell."
Lord Claud's face softened, as though he felt sympathy for Tom's eager desire. He spoke kindly and thoughtfully.
"In sooth, I see no objection," he replied. "It is to me that the Duke must impart his wishes, as you know nought of foreign lands or tongues. A stout and trusty comrade I need to take with me; but it is not necessary, so far as I see, for us both to wait upon the Duke. Belike, too, he may be busy, and it may be I shall have to wait his leisure; or he may himself have to wait for despatches from abroad ere he can give me mine. So do you take your ease at your home of Gablehurst; and when I have received instruction, I will, by your leave, join you there. We shall certainly cross the sea to Holland; for we must not adventure ourselves in the hostile ports of France. So 'twill all be in my way for the coast; and perchance your good mother will afford me the shelter of her friendly roof for one night."
Tom's face lighted up as though a sunbeam had touched it.
"For a dozen, my lord, if you will thus far favour us! In sooth, I thank you heartily for this grace. The village of Gablethorpe is well known to some persons even in these parts; and Gablehurst is the largest house in the place. A hearty welcome will be yours, my lord, whenever you arrive there."
"Thanks, good Tom. I doubt it not if thy folks are of thine own trusting kidney. And hark ye, look well to the mare Nell Gwynne; let her be well fed and well tended, for it may well be that she has hard times before her. If we have to cross the sea on urgent business, I shall do my best to take our good steeds with us. Dutch nags may be strong, but I would sooner feel the English blood stirring beneath me. Besides, in matters where despatch and caution are needed, it is half the battle to have a horse who has been trained under one's own eye. They have ways with them that can be of vast use in moments of peril, and will brook no strange riders on their backs. See to the mare, Tom, and do well by her; for it may be that thy very life may hang one day upon her speed and strength!"
Tom felt the blood tingling in his veins.
"I will not forget your charge, my lord."
"And now, what will you do, Tom? Will you sleep one night at Holywell? For I would not have you adventure yourself alone in the forest at dark; and you must needs pass through a part of it to reach your destination."
"No, my lord, nor I either, after what I experienced there before. But hard by here is the house of a friend. I would gladly turn in thither; and tomorrow he will certainly ride with me through the forest and homewards. Doubtless, too, when you have to pass that way, the Duke will give you escort till you near our friendly village."
So the matter was thus arranged to the satisfaction of Tom; and almost immediately the two companions parted company, the country here being safe and fairly populated. Before long Tom found himself knocking at the gate of an old friend of his, who gave him hearty and boisterous welcome.
It was with strange feelings next day that he found himself riding along the familiar track which led straight to the village of Gablethorpe! It was only three months since he had left the place, but he felt as though full as many years had passed over his head.
He was not very finely dressed; but there was a style about his London-made riding suit which his country clothes had lacked, and the peruke upon his head gave him the air of a fine gentleman. He noted with amusement that some of the rustics who gaped at him as he passed did not recognize him, although he knew them well. If he had been riding Wildfire they would have known the horse; but now both steed and rider seemed strange to them.
Then as he rode at a foot pace through the village, smiling at sight of the familiar places and faces (his friend had turned back when they had passed the limits of the forest, and had ridden home with his servant, not to be belated), one of the women at the cottage doors smote her hands together and cried:
"Bless us all! if it bean't Master Tom hisself!"
"Golly! and so it be!" cried her husband, who was just coming in from the fields; and the next minute Tom was surrounded by a gaping, admiring crowd, all eager to give him welcome, and wonder at the fine figure he cut amongst them.
The restiveness of the mare shortened the greetings of the rustics; for Nell Gwynne was not accustomed to being so surrounded, and showed a disposition to lay about her with her heels, or to rear and strike out with her forefeet. These manoeuvres soon scattered the crowd, and Tom rode on, laughing and waving his hand; whilst the fleet-footed of the village urchins started in a beeline across the meadows for Gablehurst, knowing that the lady there would certainly bestow a silver groat upon him who first brought the news that Master Tom was at hand!
So when Tom rode up the avenue towards the fine old gabled house, which had never looked so pleasant to him as in the evening glow of this January afternoon, mother and sister were out upon the steps waiting for him; and the servants were assembling from within and without to give him a hearty cheer, and receive his kindly smile and greeting in reply.
His mother folded him in her arms, with the tears running down her cheeks. She had only heard once from him all these months; for the letter he had sent at Christmas time had never found its way through the snow drifts of the forest. Tom kissed mother and sister with real feeling, and then turned aside to give minute instructions and warnings with regard to the mare, who was put into the care of the old servant who had most experience in the matter of horse flesh, and felt no uneasiness at the vagaries and tantrums of her ladyship.
Then Tom turned to enter the familiar hall, his hand upon his mother's shoulder, Rachel clinging to his other arm.
"O Tom!" she cried, "have you come back to us for good? Have you had enough of gay London town?"
There was already a traveller's meal set out in the warm south parlour, and the servants were hurrying to and fro with eager zeal and excitement. Tom was pushed into a seat by his sister, and helped with no unsparing hand; whilst the mother hung over him, eager not to lose a single word.
"Yes, truly, for the time being I have had enough of London town," answered Tom; "although it is a monstrous fine city, and I should well like to see it again, as indeed I may. But for the moment I am on my way to foreign lands, as my father wished. I am like to have work to do there for my lord of Marlborough, whose coming to this country has set all the town in a commotion, as perchance you have heard."
They had heard something of it even at Gablehurst; and Rachel eagerly asked Tom if he had seen the great Duke.
"Oh, many times," answered Tom, with the complacency of one who feels himself a great man in his present surroundings. "I witnessed many pageants in which he took part; and I was of the same company at the house of my Lord Craven, and was presented to him, and had speech with him!"
Mother and sister were impressed and surprised; but yet Tom was so great a personage in their estimation that perhaps they took this piece of news more quietly than more enlightened dames would have done. They made him tell his story from end to end, sitting with his feet towards the hearth, the cheery glow of the fire warming his limbs and imparting a sense of well-being and homelike comfort.
"And who is this Lord Claud, who has shown you so much kindness?" asked the mother, when the outlines of the story at least had become known to them.
"That I cannot rightly tell you," answered Tom; "there is some mystery about his birth and name. He goes everywhere, and is received by the best and finest people of the town, short of the court circle. And even my lord of Marlborough exchanged civilities with him, and let him present me as his friend. But more than that I cannot tell you, nor can any man in town. If it be a secret, it is mightily well kept. All have heard of Lord Claud; but none know more of him than his name."
"That seems a strange thing," said Rachel.
"Not more strange than half the things one sees and hears in the world," answered Tom, with the air of a man of vast experiences, as indeed he felt himself to be in this company.
Nor did the pleasant feeling wear off with the rapid flight of days. He was courted, and feted, and made much of by rich and poor alike. All the gentry of the neighbourhood came flocking to see him; and his old companions, hanging about the stable yard, not daring to present themselves at the house, would beg for a word with Master Tom, and feel themselves quite uplifted and glorified when he came out to them, and stood in their midst, smiling and jovial, but with a something now in his appearance and bearing which seemed to put a great gulf betwixt him and them.
All this was mighty pleasant for Master Tom, though perhaps not the most salutary experience for him. He had felt qualms of penitence and remorse as he rode homewards, thinking of his follies and weaknesses in the past, ashamed of the class of comrades he had affected then, ashamed of the fashion in which he had spent his days, and of the indifference he had shown to his parents.
But the reception accorded him had dimmed these healthy sentiments, and given him the idea that he was a mighty fine fellow and a great man in his way. He no longer craved the rule at Gablehurst; he had ambitions of another sort. He must see the world first, and drink the cup of pleasure to the dregs. Gablehurst was all very well as a resting place for him when he had had enough of travel, of adventure, of the gay and rollicking life of the town; but for the present let his mother reign there undisturbed. He had no wish to do so.
Therefore he found it easy to be loving and gentle and kindly towards her and Rachel. Indeed, Rachel seemed to him a more attractive maiden than she had ever been before. She had smiles for him, where once she had only grave looks of disapproval; and she delighted in his stories almost as much as Rosamund Cale had done. Altogether, this visit was a mighty pleasant one for Tom; and it lasted for ten whole days before the news was brought to him that a strange gentleman had ridden up and was asking for him, and he knew that Lord Claud had come to fetch him.
Tom had had the prudence to say very little about their purpose in going abroad. His mother and sister knew that it had some connection with the war, and that the Duke of Marlborough was going to send some despatches by them; but he told them not to name even this fact to the neighbours, and he had not mentioned to them the mysterious words "secret service."
When he reached the hall door, there was Lord Claud mounted upon the black horse Lucifer, who looked in tip-top condition. Mrs. Tufton and Rachel had come out to welcome Tom's friend, and the rider was sitting bare headed in the afternoon sunlight, looking mightily handsome and gallant.
"Ah, good Tom, so you are e'en at hand when wanted. I have been detained somewhat longer than I thought; but all is in readiness now for a start for the port of Harwich. Have you got yourself and Nell into first-class condition? for we have work before us, my lad."
"But, sir, you will not surely start today, with the shades of evening drawing on so fast?" pleaded Mrs. Tufton, who felt a sinking at heart in the thought of parting from her son again. "You will lie here for one night at least, and start forth with the day before instead of behind you?"
"If you will favour me with so much hospitality, gracious madam, I should be glad to do so," answered Lord Claud with a courtly bow; and in another minute his horse was being led away to the stables, and he was following the ladies into the house, speaking so many words of well-chosen admiration for the quaint old manor and the fine meadowland and timber trees about it, that Tom was prouder of his home than he had ever been before, and even of the mother and sister who dwelt there. For Lord Claud paid them as much attention, and gave them as courtly treatment, as though they had been the highest ladies in the land; and it seemed as though their native refinement and tact enabled them to make fitting reply to him, and to show a certain simple dignity of mien which Tom had never troubled himself to observe in them before.
He observed now that Rachel was a very handsome girl, rather like himself in feature, but with more refinement of aspect and more thoughtfulness of disposition. This thoughtfulness gave a depth to her eyes and a piquancy to her talk which Tom noted with surprise and admiration; and he was well pleased that both his home and his womenfolk pleased his friend so well.
Mrs. Tufton would fain have learned something of the nature of the errand upon which her son was to start upon the morrow; but Lord Claud fenced cleverly with her questions, and, whilst seeming to reply to them, left her little the wiser. They were going to take ship for Holland, and thence make their way with despatches to one of the allies of the Duke; so much he let them freely know. And when she asked if there were peril to face, he laughed lightly as he replied:
"Madam, there is always peril to be faced whether we bide at home or travel beyond seas. Your son Tom met more peril in the forest only a few short miles from home, than he has encountered in that great Babylon of London. It is so with us all. Ofttimes those that stay snug and safe at home meet with some mishap, whilst the rovers come back safe and sound. No life can be without its perils; but I have come through so many unscathed, that I have learned not to fear them beforehand."
"And Tom at least will be serving his country," said Rachel; "and that is a thousand times better than receiving hurt when in search after idle pleasures."
Lord Claud bowed to her across the table as he replied:
"You speak a great truth, fair lady. We do indeed go forth upon the service of our country, and of the great Duke, who is a master to be trusted and obeyed. He is never reckless. He never throws away lives needlessly. Never was general in battle so tender for the wounded as he. His first thought after a fight is for his injured soldiers; and he looks personally after the arrangements for their comfort. This fact should be enough to show you that he is careful of human life, and would not intrust men with missions that are too perilous to be successfully carried out."
Mother and sister took heart at this, and trusted to see Tom return safe and sound from his present journey.
This farewell was more easily gone through than the last, although Tom felt a keener sense of affection for his relatives than he had done on the first occasion, and a greater affection for his home. But he had made trial of a new life now, and was full of hopeful confidence; and both mother and sister had begun to believe in him, and had shown pride and satisfaction in his career.
So they rode forth in the first sunshine of a bright February morning, with three stout serving men from Gablehurst to attend them as far as Harwich. Lord Claude was willing to accept the escort, as the road was unfamiliar to him, and he wanted no needless delays along the route.
Rachel brought the stirrup cup, and the household assembled to cheer the travellers as they rode away. There were tears in the mother's eyes, but she smiled and waved her hand bravely. The horses were in first-rate condition, and full of life and spirit. They were delighted to find themselves travelling side by side again; and the riders were pretty well occupied for the first few miles of the road in curbing their gay spirits.
They had plenty of time to get to Harwich before the light failed them, and the servants knew the road and the best inns to bait at. The journey was performed without misadventure; and Tom dismissed his retainers when he and his companion were safely installed in a good inn upon the quay, as the servants intended making one or two stages on the homeward road before stopping for the night.
Lord Claud had gone straight down to the harbour so soon as they arrived, leaving Tom to make arrangements for the night. So far he had said almost nothing as to the errand upon which they were bent, and Tom had asked no questions, knowing he should be told what was needful in due time. So when he had ordered a plentiful supper, he strolled out upon the quay, and presently saw his comrade returning with a satisfied look upon his face.
"Well, Tom, we are in luck's way. There is a skipper in harbour who has unshipped his cargo, and is going back almost empty by the morning's tide. He is glad enough to take us and our good horses safely across to Rotterdam; and, with the light, favouring breeze that has been blowing steadily these last three days, he declares we ought to make the anchorage there before nightfall. With the sea as smooth as this, too, I am not afraid to adventure the horses; which I should be were a gale to blow."
"Do they suffer from seasickness?" asked Tom.
"Ay, from the nausea of it," answered Lord Claud; "but the relief that we can gain by sickness is impossible to them, and therefore they must needs die if things be too bad with them. But if the weather change not—and there looks no fear of that—we shall have a swift and prosperous voyage; so now let us to supper, and I will tell you more of what lies before us."
But as it turned out, there were too many other guests at the table for private talk to be possible; and only when on board the good sloop Marlborough did Tom hear anything of the details of the projected expedition.
It was a clear, promising morning, a light breeze blowing from the west, but the sea still and smooth, only dimpling with the puffs of wind. Tom stood on board beside the horses, soothing their fears at the strange sights and sounds about them, his own heart beating somewhat high with excitement at the thought of putting to sea for the first time.
The sailors were busy hauling in ropes, singing and shouting. The vessel gave a little start and shiver, there was a rattle of canvas overhead, and a gentle lurching movement. Then the shore seemed suddenly to be slipping away; and Tom knew, with a start of surprise and exhilaration, that they were off upon their voyage to unknown lands.
Presently the horses grew calm and quiet, used to their strange surroundings, and willing to nibble at the heap of fragrant hay put down at their feet. Tom was able to leave them with a clear conscience, and came over to where Lord Claud was standing in the fore part of the vessel, watching the sheets of green water that fell away from the prow as the sloop cut her way through the waves.
"Well, friend Tom, so we are off at last."
"Yes, my lord; but I have not heard yet whither."
"No; and, like a wise and prudent fellow, have not desired to know too much. You are a model of patience, Tom—an excellent companion to have. But the time has come when I can safely enlighten you as far as you need be enlightened. I shall not tell you all I know; for, in truth, you would not understand it."
"That may very well be," answered Tom humbly.
"But I will tell you this much, Tom; we are bound upon an errand of peril. We have some difficult journeyings to make, and there will be certain persons lying in wait for messengers from Marlborough; and we may be sore beset to avoid them. Tom, do you remember the tall dark man with whom my duel was fought?"
"That is the name by which he goes in England. He passes there as one Sir James Montacute, a man of bravery and wealth. But there is another side to the picture. That man, Tom, is a spy, and in the pay of the King of France. If I had known as much that day as I have since learned from his Grace the Duke, methinks I should not have left him alive upon the field. Tom, we shall probably have to measure our wits against his in a duel of another sort ere long."
Tom threw back his head with a defiant gesture.
"Well, my lord; and I am ready!" he said.
"Very good, Tom; I thought as much. You did not love our dark-skinned friend much better than I did. I think we shall find him lurking in wait for us somewhere amid the snows of the St. Bernard Pass. Hast ever heard of the St. Bernard, Tom, and the good monks there?"
"I think I have," answered Tom, who had heard so many new things of late that he could not be expected to keep them all in mind together.
"Well, it may be we shall have to seek their hospitality yet; although our way lies across the Little St. Bernard, as it is called, that ancient pass which Hannibal and his host crossed when they marched through the snows of Switzerland to pour themselves upon the fertile plains of Italy. It is to this very day the only route by which those snowy Alps may be crossed; and we must find our way thither, Tom, and go down to the fair city of Turin."
"Is that where we are going?"
"Ay; hast heard of Victor Amadeus, Duke of Savoy?"
"Is he not one of the Allies?"
"Yes; albeit for a while he sided with the French King, who did much to hold his fidelity. But now he is one of the Allies, and he is sore beset by the armies of Louis. The King of Prussia is about to send relief; but His Majesty is tardy, and the snows of winter lie thick in his land, hindering rapid action. It is our part to take the Duke news of the welcome aid, and of other matters I need not be particular to name; and we shall need all our wits about us to carry this matter to a successful issue."
"You mean that the pass will be watched?"
"Yes; we shall be certain to fall in with spies of the French King, perhaps with Sir James himself. He has left England, so much is known; and though he may be at the court of France, yet it may be our hap to light upon him at any time. He is a man of cunning and resource and ferocity. We shall want our best wits and our best swordsmanship if we are to cope with him."
Tom's eyes sparkled with excitement and joy.
"And is the mountain pass the only way of getting into Italy, for I have heard that Savoy lies in that land?" said Tom.
"Ay; Italy has had its strange vicissitudes of fortune, and has been divided and redivided into duchies and kingdoms, till it needs a clever scholar to tell her history aright. But it is enough for our purpose that Savoy lies just beneath those grim mountains which we must scale; and that for the present no other entrance is possible."
"But there are other ways then?"
"Why, yes, we could at other times go by sea; but now that the Spaniards are seeking to win back the rock of Gibraltar, which we have lately reft from them, and which Marlborough says must never be yielded up again, we cannot safely try that way; for we might well fall into the hands of some Spanish vessel, and languish, unknown and uncared for, in Spanish dungeons. We cannot travel through France, and reach it from the shores of Genoa; because it were too great peril for Englishmen to ride through the dominions of the French monarch. So we must needs land at some friendly Dutch port, and ride through their country, and so into Westphalia, and thence to these mountain regions which cut us off from our destination.
"Have you ever seen snow mountains, Tom, towering to the very skies in virgin whiteness, with the rivers of ice, miles in width, flowing silently down their rocky sides? It is a strange and marvellous sight when viewed for the first time. I could find it in my heart to wish I stood in your shoes, that all these new things might be seen and heard for the first time!"
"And I would that I knew more of these strange lands, and the ways of the people there," answered Tom; "for I fear me lest mine ignorance may lead us into peril. But if such a thing as that were to befall, I would lay down my life to save yours, my lord."
"I believe you, Tom," answered the other very gravely. He was silent a while, and then he said slowly, "Tom, I am going to say a strange thing to yon—at least it would sound strange to some; and, indeed, I should not dare to say it to every companion in peril. But I believe you to be stanch and true."
"I trust you will ever find me so, my lord."
"Well, Tom, this is the word that I would say to you. It may chance that things come to this pass with us, that one of us twain must needs fall into the hands of the enemy, and die; for there is little hope of any other end when that befalls. And if we know and can so arrange matters, it must be you and not I who will fall into that peril."
Tom looked back without flinching.
"You speak well, my lord," he said. "It must be my lot to die. You will not find me hold back when the moment comes."
Lord Claud took his hand and held it in both of his.
"It must be you, Tom; and yet I would rather it were myself. But I have that intrusted to me which I must speak in the Duke's ear. The despatches are as little compared with what I have had from Marlborough's own lips—what may not be trusted upon paper. Moreover, I could find my way through the countries, where you would be lost for lack of words to ask your way. If one of us has to be delivered over to death, it must be you."
"It must. I see it well."
"Yet we may both succeed in getting through, or we may both leave our bones lying amid the eternal snows. Perhaps in years to come it will matter little enough. Just now it seems a matter of more importance. But I have told you this to show my trust in you, Tom. There are not many comrades to whom I could have thus unburdened myself. I should have had to use subtlety where now I use truth and openness."
"You shall not find me fail you, my lord," answered Tom.
CHAPTER X. IN PERIL.
"Halt! and declare yourselves!" cried a hoarse voice speaking in the French tongue.
"Now for it, Tom," said Lord Claud quietly, speaking between his shut teeth. "Remember what I have told you. Be wary, be ready. We shall get through all right. There are but two or three score, and none of them mounted."
The travellers were passing now through the narrow territory of the Margrave of Baden, with the Rhine upon their right, the only protection from the frontier of France with all its hostile hosts.
The slow and inactive policy of the Margrave of Baden naturally encouraged the enemy to send small parties of soldiers across to harry his country; and already Tom and his master had had to dodge and hide, or go out of their way, to avoid meeting with these bands of inimical marauders. They were not the class of opponents whom Lord Claud most dreaded, still they might well fall upon and make prisoner the two English travellers; and if despatches were found upon the person of either, they would almost certainly be shot as spies. Indeed, so bitter was the feeling on the part of the French after their defeat at Blenheim, that any travellers belonging to the hated English nation went in danger of their lives.
For some time now Tom had been wearing the garb of a serving man. His peruke had disappeared, and he wore a little dark wig that looked like his natural hair. It excited less comment for master and servant to travel from town to town together than for two English gentlemen to be riding unattended through such a disturbed country; and as they pursued their way, Lord Claud would give minute and precise directions to Tom how to act in the event of their falling in with one of these scouting or marauding parties, showing such a wonderful knowledge of the tactics of forest warfare that Tom was often astonished at him, and would have liked to ask where he had obtained his experience.
And now, for the first time, Tom was face to face with a real foe—no mere antagonist of the hour, with whom he had exchanged some angry word, and was ready to follow it up with blows, but with armed foes of a hostile race, whose blood was stirred by the hatred bred of long-continued warfare, and who would think as little of taking the lives of two Englishmen as Tom would of shooting a fat buck in his native woodlands.
Again came the word of command in the hoarse voice.
"Halt! and declare yourselves, or—"
But the threat remained unspoken, for Lord Claud had drawn rein, and was looking at the speaker with eyes of mild inquiry.
"What is your will, monsieur?" he asked, in his easy and excellent French.
At this seeming show of submission the face of the officer relaxed, and the men in his company lowered their carbines and stood more at ease pending the result of the dialogue.
"Monsieur is not a Frenchman?" questioned the officer, with a look from one face to the other.
Tom sat gazing before him with a stolid expression of countenance, which greatly belied the tingling which he felt through every vein in his body. It seemed as though this tingling sensation was in some way communicated to the mare he rode, for she began fidgeting in a fashion which plainly told Tom that she was ready to do her part when the tussle should come.
"How know you that, sir?" asked Lord Claud with a smile. "If you can tell me my nationality I shall be grateful, for I am ignorant upon the point myself."
The man's face clouded a little; he felt a certain suspicion of the handsome stranger, and yet he must not do despite to one of His Majesty's subjects, and Lord Claud had the air of a man of no mean status.
"Your servant is English," he said with a touch of sullenness, "and I take it your horses are, too. The army of His Majesty of France is badly in need of strong horses. If you are good subjects of his you will be willing to part with them. My horse was killed but a little way back; that one of yours would suit me right well," and he made a step forward as though to lay a hand on Lucifer's rein.
"Now, Tom, my boy!" said Lord Claud in a clear, low tone.
In a moment he had whipped out his pistols and fired straight at the officer, who fell face downwards almost without a groan. Tom had meanwhile marked his man—the foremost in the rank behind; and he rolled over like a log.
With a yell of rage and amaze the men were upon them; but Lucifer and Nell Gwynne had already reared almost upright, and now were fighting so wildly with their iron-shod hoofs that in fear and dismay the assailants fell back, whilst a second report from each pistol dropped another man dead upon the field.
"Forward! before they can take aim!" cried Lord Claud in a voice of thunder; and the horses obeyed the word without any touch of spur from their riders.
They bounded forward with an impetus which must have unseated any but an experienced horseman, and then laying themselves along the ground, they fled onwards at a gallop which astonished even Tom by its wild velocity.
A shower of bullets fell round them, but none touched either steeds or riders; the yells of the infuriated soldiers died away on their ears; the horses sped on and on as though they had wings to their feet, and only after some few miles had been traversed did the riders draw rein.
"That is always the best plan of action," said Lord Claud, as though such an occurrence as this was a matter of everyday experience with him. "Always appear ready to pause and parley. It invariably disarms suspicion. At the first every pistol or musket is levelled at your head; but if you stop to talk, these are lowered. Then, when you have put the enemy a little off guard, make a dash for it; take them by surprise, drop a few, and confuse the rest, and you almost invariably escape with a sound skin."
Then Lord Claud coolly proceeded to wipe and recharge his pistols, as though the escape of half an hour back had been a mere detail hardly worth discussion.
But Tom knew well that both his master and the horses they rode must have been through many such perils before this, or they could never (at any rate the horses) have shown such aptitude in playing their parts. He had felt that the mare he rode was prepared to fight furiously with hoofs and teeth; and, as it was, she had struck down two men who had been preparing to spring at her.
"Ah, my lady had always a temper of her own," replied Lord Claud with a smile, as Tom said something of this. "Yes; I have taken some pains with my horses to teach them to help in a fight. Travelling even in one's own land is none too safe, as you found to your cost, honest Tom. Nell Gwynne comes of a fighting stock, and showed an early aptitude for the fray. Trust to her, Tom, if ever you are hard pressed; she will bring you safely through, if it can be achieved at any price."
And, indeed, as the travellers pursued their long ride through a disturbed and often half-hostile country, they had frequently to depend as much upon the fleetness, fidelity, and strength of their horses as upon the strength of their own right arms.
Well did Tom now understand why Lord Claud had made such a point of having their own horses with them. Had they been jogging along upon some beast hired or purchased in the country, they would never have got through the divers perils of the way.
Once Tom was aroused from slumber in a little, ill-smelling inn by the sound of kicking and stamping proceeding from the stable; and when he had aroused his companion, and they had hastily dressed themselves and descended, it was to find that a desperate fight was going on between the two horses and a handful of French soldiers, who had followed after the fine animals, and were seeking to steal them whilst the travellers slept.
They had paid dearly for their temerity, however, for Nell Gwynne was stamping the life out of one wretched fellow; whilst Lucifer had broken the leg of a second, and had pinned his companion by the arm, so that he was yelling aloud in his agony.
Lord Claud sprang in, and at the sound of his voice the horse loosened his grip, and the man reeled hack against the wall, white and bleeding, and cursing beneath his breath. Tom was too late to save the life of the victim of the mare's anger, but he was in time to strike up the pistol which another of the soldiers had pointed at her, in the trembling hope of saving his comrade.
"If you fire you will drive her to madness, and she will kill every man of you," said Lord Claud coolly. "She has a devil in her, and is bullet proof; you had better leave meddling with both the beasts."
The men crossed themselves in pious horror, and were glad enough to back out of the place, carrying their dead and maimed companions with them. Tom and Lord Claud did not linger longer than the time needful for saddling the horses. They knew that the people of the inn must be in collusion with the soldiers, and the sooner they quitted the place the better.
They had long since left behind them the level plains, and were now in a country that became increasingly mountainous and difficult. After the long, flat plains of Holland, Tom had thought the Baden territory sufficiently mountainous; but now he was to make acquaintance with the snow-topped peaks and ranges of Switzerland, and his eyes dilated with awe and wonder when first he beheld the dazzling white peaks standing out clear against a sunny sky.
He was not a youth of much imagination or poetry, but he did feel a strange thrilling of the pulses as he looked upon this wonderful sight.
But Lord Claud's face was cool and impassive as usual, and his remark was:
"Very fine to look at, good Tom, but ugly customers to tackle. A snowstorm up amongst those mountain peaks may well be the death of either or both of us, and the snow will be our winding sheet."
"Have we to cross those snows, my lord? to scale those lofty peaks?"
"We shall have plenty of snow, Tom, without scaling the peaks. At this season the passes will be deep in snow. We shall have to trust to a guide to take us safely over; and the very guide may be a spy and a traitor himself."
"But, my lord, I thought you knew the way? I thought you had crossed the pass once?"
"So I have, Tom; but these snow fields are treacherous places, and the track shifts and changes with every winter's snow. You will see, when you get amongst them, what a savage scene they present. In summer it is none so bad; but we are yet in the grip of winter, and though the foothold is harder and better on the ice slopes, the cold is keen and cruel, and the snowfalls frequent and dangerous."
"And the horses, my lord?"
"Those we must needs leave behind us for a while, Tom. I do not say that we could not get them over, for, methinks, Hannibal must needs have brought his horsemen across in days of yore, and where any other horse has been, there could Lucifer and Nell Gwynne travel. But I fear the poor beasts would suffer sorely; and I misdoubt me if they would not be more care than use to us. They have done their work gallantly, so far; and they will take us back as gallantly, I doubt not, when our task is done. Meantime, I know a pleasant and sheltered valley, where dwell some honest folk with whom I tarried in bygone days, to heal me of a fever I had caught in the hot Italian plains. There we will leave them; and there, Tom, if we lose sight of each other, will we meet when our appointed tasks be done.
"There are two places where we may find a safe asylum in this wild land. One is the valley to which we are now bending our steps, which nestles not far from the foot of the great mountain men call the St. Bernard; the other is at the hospice upon the Great St. Bernard itself, where is a colony of devout and kindly monks, who give their succour to travellers of every nationality and creed, and where a safe shelter may always be found. Moreover, the monks have a certain intercourse with the inhabitants of the valleys round and about, and we could thus have news of each other were one of us there and the other here below.
"But we will not part company save for urgent need; yet 'tis well always to be prepared."
Travelling was becoming increasingly difficult and trying as they mounted into higher regions, and the roads became mere bridle paths, often encumbered with snow drifts, and difficult to traverse.
Fortunately it was fine overhead, and the season was a favourable one. The sun had already attained some height in the sky, and could shine with power at midday, for February was well advanced by this time. But the cold at nights was intense, and the state of the roads often made travelling difficult for the horses. The mountain torrents were swelled to brawling rivers, and the ordinary bridges broken down, so that the travellers had much ado to get across them.
It seemed a savage country to Tom, although the excitement and peril made travelling a delight. Moreover, the people were kind and friendly, although they spoke such a barbarous patois that it was difficult to hold communication with them.
At last they reached the sheltered little valley of which Tom had heard, and here they found friends of a kind; for at the little inn Lord Claud was remembered and hailed with joy. He had plainly won the affections of the simple folks whilst lying there sick, and they were ready and willing to give the travellers of their best, and furnish them with guides for the passage of the mountain range, which seemed now to tower above their heads into the clouds.
Travellers and horses were alike pretty well worn out by this time, and the thought of spending a few days in this hospitable valley was grateful even to Tom's stalwart frame. As for the horses, they testified their satisfaction in many ways. They even made friends with the goatherd who was told off to attend to them, and attempted none of their tricks upon him; which was a source of considerable satisfaction to Tom, who had been afraid the people might decline to be left alone with such charges.
After seeing them safely stabled, bedded, and fed, Tom was glad enough of a good meal himself; after which he retired to bed, and slept for hard upon thirty-six hours, as he found to his amaze upon awakening. And, indeed, it was small wonder that he did so; for he had not been used to such strenuous exercise so constantly continued, nor to the clear, bracing air of the mountains.
He woke as hungry as a hunter; and it was only after he had satisfied the cravings of nature that he had time to observe the thoughtful shadow which had gathered upon the face of his comrade.
"Is aught amiss?" he asked presently, leaning his elbows on the table, and heaving a sigh of satisfaction.
"Well, Tom, that is as you like to think it; but what I feared might be the case has come to pass. We shall not reach the plains of Italy without being sore beset by danger."
Tom's eyes flashed keenly under their dark brows.
"What have you learned, my lord?"
"That the pass is being closely watched, Tom, by spies, or whatever you choose to call them, from the French army. The Duke of Savoy is, as I have told you before, completely hemmed in by the armies of the great Vendome, one of the ablest generals France possesses. His capital is in danger, and it is of the first importance that he should receive the despatches and messages with which I am charged by Marlborough, and which will give him heart and courage to prolong the contest till the promised help, which is now on its way, shall reach him. Doubtless it is equally the policy of the enemy to keep him in ignorance of what they themselves now know or fear, so that he may surrender to the French arms before he hears what is being done for his succour.
"That, in brief, is the situation we have to grapple with. I suspect that Sir James is one of those who are watching for messengers from England, and that we shall have to measure our wits against his. Tom, I must get through the pass. I must carry my despatches into Turin. I am not one whit afraid of the French lines. I can disguise myself, and pass through them if needs be without a qualm of fear. I can speak French against any Frenchman living, for I was cradled in that land. But the first problem we have to face is this—how can we cross the pass unseen? How can we put the spies on a false scent?"
Tom drew his brows together and scratched his head in the effort to think matters out.
"Do they know that strangers are here in this valley? Are we watched?"
"I suspect so," answered Lord Claud. "It is not easy to be certain, because the people here are friendly to us, and distrust the French, who have given them small cause to love them. But I am convinced that so astute a man as Sir James Montacute would cause a close watch to be kept upon this valley. Most likely our presence here is known, and we are being watched for."
"And is there no other way of crossing the mountains into Italy?"
"Yes, there is one other route; for historians disagree as to the one taken by Hannibal, albeit most believe that it was this of the Little St. Bernard. There is another way, which doubtless could be found; but if we were to strike aside after it, the spies would be upon our heels at once."
"I was thinking," said Tom slowly, "that we might perchance part company, one take one route and the other the other, and so arrange matters that the spies should follow hot-foot upon the scent of the wrong man."
A gleam came into Lord Claud's eyes. He spoke very quietly.
"In truth, Tom, some such thought has come into mine own head; but it is not easy to make up one's mind to act upon it, for I fear it means certain death to the wrong man who must be followed."
Tom's face set itself in grim lines. There was a vein of reckless bravery and hardihood about him which imparted to the situation a species of stern delight, and sent the blood tingling once more through his veins.
"I will take the risk of that," he said; "I shall take some killing, I think. And killing is a game that more than one can play at! If I have to sell my life, I will make it cost the French King dear."
"Right, Tom; but that will not give back a gallant servant to Her Majesty of England!"
"I am not dead yet," answered Tom, with a grim laugh. "Tell me the plan which you have worked out in your head, my lord; for your wits are seven-fold keener than mine."
Then Lord Claud unfolded the plan which had been working in his busy brain during the day that Tom had been sleeping, after he had heard news which made him sure that his mission was suspected, and that he would be stopped and robbed if possible.
Higher up the mountain side, just where the snow line lay, above which there was everlasting ice and snow, was a little rough hostel, where travellers rested and slept before they tried the pass itself. An old half-witted man and his goitred wife kept the place, and provided rough food and bedding for travellers, though interesting themselves in no wise with their concerns. In that rude place several men were now stopping, and had been stopping for some days.
That fact in itself was almost sufficient for Lord Claud; but somebody had found a scrap of torn paper with some French words upon it, and this had made assurance doubly sure. Moreover, Lord Claud believed it to be the writing of the man he had duelled with beneath Barns Elms.
To this inn (if such it could be called) he and Tom must journey, with a peasant for a guide to take them across the pass. Upon reaching the place, his idea now was that he should appear sorely smitten by the cold, as some travellers were; so ill and unfit for further journeying, that he should have perforce to send Tom on alone with the guide, whilst he returned to the valley. All this they should discuss in their room at night, assured that they would be overlooked and overheard; and when quite certain that eyes were watching them, Lord Claud was to unrip his doublet and take thence a packet of papers, sealed with the signet of the Duke of Marlborough, and sew this same packet firmly into Tom's coat.
In reality this tempting-looking packet with the Duke's seal contained nothing but a sheet of blank parchment. The real missive for the Duke Victor Amadeus was written on a thin paper, and was concealed between the soles of Lord Claud's boots—though even Tom did not know that. The packet was arranged as a blind, if need should be; and now it seemed as though the need had come.
Then on the following morning Tom and the guide would start forth across the pass; whilst Lord Claud should creep feebly down to the valley, watched, perhaps, but probably unmolested. The majority of the men, at any rate, would most certainly follow Tom.
"There are but four," said Lord Claud; "and if one be Montacute himself, I doubt if he will stir from the inn. He will try to keep an eye upon both, being a man full of cunning himself. I reckon that he will send two men after you, Tom, and one after me. I shall, after a while, pause, lie in wait, and kill that man. Then I shall flee to the valley, get a guide who can show me the other pass, and make such way from the seat of peril that I shall be well-nigh across the frontier before Sir James knows that one of his quarry has escaped him.
"As for you, my boy, you may like enough escape with a sound skin, unless Montacute himself pursues, making three to one—for one cannot trust these peasants to show fight. But be the issue what it may, that is the plan I have thought out which gives the best chance of winning through. If you escape, flee either back here, or perhaps, better still, to the protection of the monks. For here these unwarlike peasants could perhaps give you little aid if hard pressed; but the Church will afford you sanctuary, and not even the wrath of Sir James himself will avail to wrest you from the hands of the monks, if you claim their protection."
"It seems to me," said Tom, throwing back his head, "that the peril is, after all, not so great—not so great, indeed, as what we have faced many times before. Let us carry out the plan, and whether good or evil follow, we shall have done our best—and no man can do more!"
The two men gripped hands upon it, and the compact was sealed. Tom rather exulted in the post of peril that was accorded to himself. Perhaps in days to come the Duke would hear of it, and might reward him by some words of praise or thanks.
That same afternoon Tom felt his veins tingling again as they neared the lone little hut amid the whiteness of the low-lying winter snow. He was about to launch forth upon the first solitary adventure of his life, and one which might be fraught with dire perils; but his heart quailed not.
Almost at once he was lost in admiration and amaze at the power displayed by Lord Claud in acting a part. He began to draw his breath with apparent difficulty; his face looked drawn and ghastly; he clung to Tom's arm as if for support; and it was difficult indeed to believe that he was not feeling really terribly ill.
They reached the hut and knocked. The door was instantly opened, and Tom was certain he saw a gleam of malicious satisfaction upon the faces of the men, who welcomed them in with a show of rude cordiality.
There were but two rooms that could be called sleeping apartments, they said, and one was already occupied; but they would give up the other to the use of the sick traveller. Lord Claud was speedily assisted thither, and the fire in the stove replenished. He lay down upon the bed with a groan, and looked as if nigh to death. The peasant chattered with the old couple, and it was plain that this sort of seizure was not very uncommon in those altitudes.
The men tried to make Tom understand that his companion should go back to the valley; but that could not be done till the morrow, and presently the pair were left alone in their room.
This room was only separated from the next by some rude split pine trunks. Tom had seen upon entering that a light had been quickly extinguished, otherwise he would have seen clearly through the chinks who the occupant was. He knew perfectly that every word they spoke could be overheard, and every action they performed duly watched; and he entered into the game of play acting with a zeal that gave him greater aptitude than he had thought to possess.
He strove to get his master to take the broth that one of the men brought up; he entreated him not to give way; and finally he agreed that it would be impossible for the sick man to attempt further travel, and offered himself to bear the packet of letters into Italy.