Then came the projected piece of play acting—the ripping up of the doublet, the sewing of the sealed packet into Tom's clothes, promises, directions, warnings, all given with apparent feeble energy, and received with faithful eagerness.
And all the while Tom was aware that close to them, just behind the thin partition, other eyes were watching, other ears listening to all that passed. He could even hear the short breathings of repressed excitement, and almost feel the keen gaze which he knew was constantly bent upon him.
When all was done to the satisfaction of the sick man, Tom extinguished the light, and lay down beside him on the rude bed. After his long sleep of the previous day, he cared little whether he slumbered or not—indeed, it seemed better that he should keep awake. His head was full of the adventure which lay before him, and he was almost certain that he heard whispering voices either in the next room or below; by which he guessed that their enemies, having discovered all they wanted to know, were now laying their plans how best they might carry out their own designs.
CHAPTER XI. THE PIOUS MONKS OF ST. BERNARD.
Tom knew quite well that he was being followed. He had been aware of it almost from the first. He felt an exultant triumph in the thought that they had outwitted the astute Sir James, and that his emissaries were following the wrong man, falling into the trap which had been laid for them.
Tom's business was to lead them as long a dance as possible. He had no other object in view. He had no intention of pushing onwards into Italy. In a strange country, surrounded by people of a strange tongue, he would be perfectly helpless. He had picked up just a few words of French, and of the patois of these mountain regions, enough to enable him to obtain the necessaries of life on this side the Alps. And on this side he meant to remain, doubling back, if possible, and eluding his pursuers; hoping to find shelter at the monastery of the Great St. Bernard, and await there the return of Lord Claud.
He had watched, before starting himself, the start made by Lord Claud upon the arm of the landlord. He had again admired the marvellous powers of his master in simulating sickness. It was difficult even for him to believe that he was not the victim of some grave malady; and he had noted with satisfaction the covert eagerness with which the other travellers in the hut urged upon him the descent into the valley as the only chance of recovery.
Plainly they desired that the two should part company; nor could Tom trace that any of their number went after Lord Claud. But on that point he could not be certain, as he himself had to take his departure almost immediately.
The other travellers professed to be waiting for the recovery of one of their number from a strain to the ankle before proceeding in an opposite direction. This they explained to Lord Claud, regretting they could not accompany him to the valley, as they had to wait for their own master. They professed to have crossed recently from the Italian side, and gave Tom some hints and instructions as to his route; which he heeded no whit, being in fact only able to understand a word here and there.
He trusted to his guide to take him safely through the pass, though he reckoned upon having to give him the slip, too, if he could not explain to him that he was going to make his way to the monastery. For it was not safe for Lord Claud to explain this to the guide beforehand. Although to all appearances an honest and simple fellow, there was never any knowing how the enemy might seek to tamper with him; and a bribe might be sufficient to open the fellow's lips if he had anything to tell.
Now Tom was on his way upwards amid the snow, stepping out boldly, and rather urging on his guide than detaining him by lagging; and all the while he was conscious that he was being followed and watched, although it was only from time to time that he was successful in catching sight of the forms of his pursuers, who at present kept a good way behind.
Tom guessed for one thing that his own rapid pace gave him the advantage, and he also suspected that they would prefer to wait until his first energy had abated before trying conclusions with him. He was in splendid condition from his long journey, which had braced all his muscles, and had given him back all that vigour which his London life had slightly impaired.
So he stepped along gaily in the clear morning air, calculating as well as he could what Lord Claud's movements would be, and how far he would have progressed upon his way with the real despatches.
Lord Claud never let grass grow under his feet. If he once obtained a fair start, he would not easily lose it. The route by which he was going was a little longer and more circuitous; but let him have a day's clear start, and it would be odd if any pursuer caught him after that.
So Tom walked on in high spirits, feeling well equipped for the coming struggle, and fearing little the peril which might lie before him. In the pride of his manhood's strength, he laughed at the thought of danger. He had faced too many perils of late to begin to turn coward now. So long as he felt that he was leading these followers away from the other pass to be taken by his comrade, he cared for nothing else—not even for the discovery he once made that they were three in number, though Lord Claud had calculated that they would only be two.
Sometimes Tom noted that his guide would look back, and more than once he fancied that he detected him signalling to those below. This aroused in his mind a doubt of the fellow's fidelity; but there was nothing to be done now. They were in the midst of trackless snow plains, ice slopes, and precipices. He must perforce trust to the leading of the guide, albeit, if he had been tampered with by those in pursuit, things might look ugly when it came to the moment of attack.
As the hours wore away, Tom began to wish that the situation might declare itself. The drear wildness of the mountain height oppressed him with a sense of personal insignificance which was rather overwhelming. The great white mountains seemed to stare down upon him as though pitilessly indifferent to his fate. How could they care what became of one solitary son of earth? Did they not stand fast for ever more, from century to century? It was a thought that he found oppressive and rather terrible.
At one point the guide insisted upon leaving what looked like the better track, and led him round a sort of shoulder of piled up snow and rock, where walking was very laborious. Tom began to feel the need of food, and would have stopped and opened his wallet; but the man shook his head and gesticulated, and seemed to urge him onwards at some speed. Tom supposed he must obey, as the man pointed warningly to the rocks above, as though to hint that danger might be expected from them.
So on they trudged, Tom feeling a slight unaccustomed giddiness in the head, as many persons do who first try walking for some hours in the glare of sun and snow and at a high altitude. Then the path suddenly turned again under the frowning wall of rock, which rose black and stern through the covering of snow. The guide disappeared round the angle of the path; Tom followed with quick steps, and the next moment was almost felled to the earth by the terrific blow of a cudgel upon his head.
Almost, but not quite. He had been on his guard. He felt that the crisis was coming, and he was certain that the guide had betrayed him at this pre-arranged spot into the hands of his enemies. In one second Tom's rapier was out (he had carried that in spite of the hindrance it had sometimes been to him), and although he was half-blinded and half-stunned by the force of the blow received, he lunged fiercely forward, and heard a yell of pain which told him that his blade had found its billet.
But the blade could not at once be disentangled. For two seconds, perhaps, was Tom struggling with it; and in those two seconds one of his adversaries sprang behind him, and seized him round the waist with the hug of a bear.
In a second Tom had whipped out his pistols, and fired full at a dark figure in front of him; but his eyes were full of blood, and a taunting laugh told him that his shot had missed its mark. With a quick movement of his strong arm backwards he dealt the man who was holding him a terrific blow with the butt of the pistol, and discharged the other full at another dark figure looming in front.
This time there was an answering yell; but the odds were still tremendous, and Tom felt himself growing faint and giddy, and though he hit out lustily on all sides, he had no confidence that his blows told.
Every moment he expected to hear the sound of a report, and to know that his quietus had come; but at last he was aware that it was his captors' wish to take him prisoner, and not to kill him. They had closed in upon him now that he was disarmed, and were using every artifice to overpower him without further injury.
Tom felt his own struggles becoming weaker each moment, and at last he was conscious that somebody had crawled towards his feet and was passing a cord about them. In vain he sought to kick out and release himself; the next minute the cord was pulled tight. His feet were jerked from beneath him, he fell backwards heavily, and for some time he knew no more.
When he opened his eyes once again, he found himself sitting propped up against the rocks, his arms tightly pinioned to his sides, and his feet still encumbered by cords; whilst at a little distance sat his assailants in a ring, eating and drinking, and making merry together.
One had a bandaged head, and another had his arm in a rude sling. But the guide had come in for the worst of Tom's blows, and lay all his length along the ground, stiff and dead.
Tom smiled a grim sort of smile. He suspected that the same fate would shortly be his, but nevertheless he did not pity the unfaithful peasant. If he had acted loyally by the man he professed to serve, this ill would scarcely have befallen him. He had met his punishment somewhat more swiftly than is usual.
The men talked in French, and too fast for Tom to catch a word of their meaning; but when they saw that his eyes were open, and that he was watching them, they laughed and nodded at him, and by-and-by one brought him food and a cup of wine, and Tom felt mightily refreshed thereby.
Then they looked up at the sky, and at the sun which had some time since passed its meridian, and began to make ready to depart. Tom was half afraid at first that they, having robbed him of his despatches, were going to leave him helplessly bound here amongst the snow, to perish of cold and starvation. But when they were all in readiness they unbound his feet, and bid him rise and come with them. Indeed, he had no option in this matter, for one of them held the end of the cord which bound his arms, and drove him on in front as men drive unruly cattle.
Tom felt giddy and stiff, but he scorned to show weakness; and it was less trying to descend the pass than to ascend it, although the rough walking with tightly-bound arms was more difficult than he had fancied, and several times he tripped and fell heavily, unable to save himself.
He was, therefore, very bruised and sore and weary when at last he found that they were approaching the little hut he had left early that same morning. But amid all his weariness and pain, and the peril of his position, he felt, with a thrill of proud satisfaction, that he had at least played the part which had been allotted to him, and had drawn off the forces of the enemy whilst Lord Claud made good his escape with the real despatches. Whatever vials of fury might quickly be poured upon his head, he would always know that he had done his duty—and who can do more than that?
A light was twinkling in the hut. Tom was pushed and hustled within. A voice, that he remembered as having heard once before, called out from above:
"Bring the prisoner up here to me."
The next minute Tom entered the very room where he and Lord Claud had slept the previous night; but it was now tenanted by a new occupant—a dark-skinned man of huge frame and malignant aspect—who regarded Tom from beneath the penthouse of his frowning brows, and plainly remembered him as well as he was himself remembered.
"So we meet again, my young buck of the forest! You seem to serve a master who takes pleasure in bringing you into peril and doubtful adventure! So you are the bearer of despatches to the Duke of Savoy? I fear, my good friend, Victor Amadeus will be disappointed of his news for once. And I say in good sooth, that if his grace of Marlborough chooses to intrust the matters of the secret service to unfledged lads, he deserves to find himself outwitted."
Tom compressed his lips to hide the smile that might have told too much. He preserved a stolid appearance, and remained mute.
Sir James gave a quick order in French, and at once some of the cords about Tom's person were cut, and the packet sewed up in his coat was duly brought forth. As it was handed to Sir James and he saw the signet of the Duke, a sardonic smile played over his features, and Tom's eyes gleamed in their sockets.
The dark-browed man eagerly undid the packet, and drew forth the parchment sheet. He scanned it over and over; he turned it this way and that. His face betrayed nothing, but Tom saw that his fingers trembled slightly as with ill-veiled excitement or anger.
He gave one fierce, searching look at Tom, who preserved an air of indifference, and then he took the paper across to the stove, and held it in the heat of the glow which stole thence.
Back he came with it to the table; but there was nothing revealed by the application of heat. He called sharply for something to one of his men, and a small phial was brought to him. He applied a drop of the liquid it contained to the parchment; and eagerly awaited the result; but no lettering was revealed upon it, and his face grew dark and stern.
How many tests he applied Tom scarcely knew; but he saw that this man was master of all the arts of secret penmanship, and that no matter would have been kept from him had it been intrusted to the paper.
At last Sir James became satisfied of this himself. The veins on his forehead swelled with anger. He saw that he had been tricked, and his fury was hotly aroused.
Smiting his great hand upon the table, he cried in a voice of thunder:
"This despatch is a trick and a fraud. There is nothing but a sheet of blank paper. Men do not risk their lives in carrying dummy packets.
"Where is the true despatch, knave? Out with it, or 'twill he the worse for you!"
"That is all I have," answered Tom quietly; "I know nothing of any other. Search me if you will. You will find naught else."
"Search him! search him well!" said Sir James to his servants, almost panting in his ire. "The knave was never sent to the Duke with nothing hut this in his keeping. Find it instantly! I love not these delays!"
Instantly Tom was laid on his back upon the floor, and such a search was made of his dress and person as was a matter of curiosity and amaze to himself. Even his nose and ears and mouth were explored by rough fingers, in a fashion none too gentle; whilst his clothing was well-nigh ripped to pieces, and he wondered how he should ever make it fit for wear again. Certainly if he had had any missive to carry it would not have escaped the scrutiny of his captors, and their oaths and kicks bespoke their baffled disappointment.
"Then he has messages intrusted to him," said Montacute, first in French, and then in English. "Set the fellow upon his feet, and bind fast his hands to yon rafter. If he will not speak the truth, it shall he flogged out of him!"
The swarthy man was growing very angry at his failure. He may have begun to suspect that he had been duped by a wit keener than his own, and the thought raised within him the demon of cruelty and lust of blood. He hated Lord Claud with a deadly hatred, having been worsted by him in encounters of many kinds. If unable to wreak his vengeance upon the man himself, to do so upon his follower was the next best thing.
"Tell me with what messages to the Duke of Savoy you are charged!" he cried, standing before Tom with flaming eyes. "You are not sent upon this quest with neither letter nor word. Speak, or you shall be made to find your tongue!"
"I will speak as much as you like," answered Tom, with haughty disdain in his tone, though his flesh crept at the sight of the men knotting the ends of rope in their hands; "but I am charged with no message. I know nothing of what you would wish to know. You can flog till you are weary, but you can't get out of me what I do not know. That at least is one satisfaction."
Montacute waved his hand. The next moment the ropes descended upon Tom's bare back. He set his teeth, and made no cry, though the blood came surging to his head, and the room seemed to swim in blood. Again and again they descended; but the keen pain awoke within Tom that ferocity of strength which comes to men in their extremity, so that, like Samson, they can turn the tables upon their foes.
The hut was but a rude affair, somewhat loosely put together. The beam to which Tom's arms had been bound was not too strongly jointed to its fellow.
A sudden madness seemed to come upon this man of thews and sinews. He gave a sudden bound and wrench; he felt the beam give, and redoubled his efforts; the next moment the whole rafter came bodily down upon their heads. Tom ducked, and escaped its fall; but it pinned one of his foes to the ground, and his own hands were immediately free.
With a bound like that of a tiger, and a roar like that of a wounded lion, he sprang, or rather flew, at Montacute, flung him over backwards upon the floor, and pinned him by the throat, uttering all the while a savage sort of growling sound, like a wild beast in its fury.
The light was thrown over in this strange melee; the room was plunged in darkness. The two men upon the floor lay struggling together in a terrible silence, only broken by Tom's fierce snarlings, that seemed scarce human. So terrified were the remaining two men, that they could do nothing for the assistance of their master; indeed, they hardly knew what was happening to him. They set up a shouting for aid, half afraid to stir lest the whole house should come falling about their ears.
There were steps in the room below. Footsteps mounted the stairs. The door was thrown open, a shaft of light streamed in, and a calm, full voice demanded in the French tongue:
"What, in the name of all the saints, is this?"
"Holy father, he is murdering our master!" suddenly cried one of the men, recovering from his stupor of terror, and seeing now how Tom's great hands were gripping the throat of Sir James.
Montacute's face was purple. His eyes seemed to be starting from their sockets. It was hard to say which was the more terrible face, his or that of Tom, which was perfectly white, and set in lines of ferocity and hatred as though petrified into stone.
In the doorway stood the figure of a tall monk, clad in the long white robe and black cloak of his order. Behind him was another, similarly attired, holding the light above his head.
The first stepped quietly forward, and laid a hand upon Tom's shoulder; and something in the touch made the young man turn his head to meet the calm, authoritative glance bent upon him.
"Enough, my son, enough," he said, in quiet tones, that brooked, however, no contradiction. "Let the man go."
Had the followers of Montacute sought to loose his clasp by force, Tom would have crushed the life from his victim without a qualm; but at this gentle word of command he instantly loosed his hold, and stood upright before the monk.
"He drove me to it—his blood be upon his own head! He would have scourged me to death, I verily believe, had it not been that the rafter gave way."
Tom spoke English, for he had been addressed in that language, and so knew that he should be understood. The monk bent his head, as though he grasped the entire situation.
"I would we had come in time to spare you what you have already suffered, my son. But we did only enter the doors as the fall of the rafter announced that some catastrophe had happened. I feared to find you already a corpse."
"You came after me, good father?" asked Tom in amaze.
"Yes, truly. Your companion, who is safe over the other pass by this time, caused the message to reach us that you were like to fall into the hands of Montacute, and be hanged or shot. He begged that if we could we would save you; and as our work lies in succouring those who are in peril upon these heights, be that peril what it may, we have been seeking you ever since. I would we had arrived a few minutes earlier."
Tom's eyes gleamed; it seemed to him as though the madness was not yet out of his blood.
"I can scarce echo that wish, reverend father," he said; "for I have had my taste of joy! If my back be torn and scored, I have had my fingers on yon miscreant's throat. I think he will carry the marks of them as long as I shall carry my scars. I have had my recompense!"
"Peace, my son," said the monk, lifting his hand. "The heart of the natural man lusts after vengeance; but these passions are terrible, and contrary to the will of God. Especially in these savage solitudes, with the strange and awful handiwork of the Almighty Creator about us, should we bow in humblest adoration of His infinite power, and draw near and close, in bonds of brotherhood, to our fellow men. But I know that the sin was not yours. You were sinned against sorely first. Nevertheless, we must needs learn to forgive our enemies, and do good to those that persecute us. So alone can we follow in the steps of Him who is set as the light of the world."
Tom hung his head. He was a little abashed at the fury he had shown, and yet the savage joy of it was still tingling in his veins. He looked at the other monk, who was kneeling upon the floor beside Montacute, and he perceived that the latter was slowly recovering, and was able to sit up, propped against the wall.
As soon as he was able to understand what was said to him, the elder monk addressed him in stern tones.
"Montacute—thou man of blood—be warned by the fate which thy cruelty well-nigh drew down upon thy head this day! If God in His mercy had not sent us, in the very nick of time, to save this youth out of thy murderous hands, thou wouldst have passed ere now to the scathing fires of purgatory, whence there be few to offer prayers for thy release. Be warned by this escape. Repent of thy bloodthirstiness and cruelty. Seek to make atonement. Go and sin no more, lest a worse thing happen unto thee."
Then turning from him with a slight gesture of repulsion, he said to Tom:
"My son, we would take you to the safe shelter of our monastery home, till your comrade comes for you. The way is something hard and long, but the moon and frost will help us. Have you the strength to walk with us?—for we would not leave you here, and it would be safer for all to travel without delay; albeit there be few so vile as to seek to do hurt to those who wear the habit of the servants of the Lord."
The fire yet burned in Tom's veins. He felt no abatement of his powers. He declared himself well able for the march, and was soon helped into his torn garments, with wet rags to protect his bleeding back from rough contact. The monks gave him to drink from a flask that contained some cordial, which was marvellous in subduing his natural fatigue; and there was a mess of broth awaiting him below, of which both he and the monks partook, ere setting forth upon their moonlight march.
As for Montacute and his followers, they remained in the room above, and made no effort to delay the travellers. They had been worsted at every point, and seemed to be aware of it.
It was a strange experience for Tom, this trudge over the hard, frozen snow, with his two cowled and gowned companions. It seemed to him afterwards like a vision of the night, full of a strange oppression and pain. He started forth with undiminished strength, as he thought; but ere long he felt as though leaden weights were fastened to his feet, as though some strange, uncanny beast were seated upon his chest, impeding his breathing, and paralyzing his heart. The smart of his raw back became more and more intolerable with every mile, and the awful whiteness of the moon upon the limitless plains of snow seemed to make the whole expanse reel and dance before his giddy eyes.
How the last part of the journey was performed, and what befell him when he reached the monastery, he never afterwards remembered. As a matter of fact, he was already in the grip of a burning fever; and for weeks he lay sick upon his pallet bed, tended by the kindly monks. Indeed, the spring had penetrated even to those rugged heights ere he had recovered strength enough to think of travelling once more; and Lord Claud had come to seek him, and bring him word of his own successful journey with the despatches of the Duke.
When Lord Claud had gone stumbling down the hillside, in affected illness, he soon found, rather to his dismay, that Montacute himself was following him. He therefore abandoned his intention of seeking battle with his foe, knowing that in brute strength and weight and muscle his adversary was his superior; and he had gone to the inn and put himself to bed, letting all around him believe thoroughly in his illness. Montacute had remained on the watch for a time; but finding, as he supposed, that there was no feigning in the matter, he had gone back to his appointed meeting place with the men sent after Tom. He had paid a fellow to keep watch upon Lord Claud, and send immediate word if he recovered and left his bed; but this man was one of those whose hearts had been won by Lord Claud's pleasant manners, and he at once reported the matter to him, and asked what he should do.
Between them it was arranged that they should change clothing, and, with the connivance of the landlord, should exchange identities. The young peasant should lie in bed, and be tended as the sick stranger; and Claud, in peasant's dress, should flee over the other pass, leave word with the monks as to the peril of his friend, and make his way to Savoy with all the speed he could.
This had been done with wonderful ease and celerity. And now, having accomplished all with unlooked-for success, he had returned to find Tom not only alive, but in good condition; for the latter, having once got rid of the persistent fever which had brought him so low, was getting back his strength and vigour every day. The mountain air was now acting like a tonic upon him, and the kindly ministrations of the brothers of the monastery gave him every help his condition needed. Even the scars upon his back had ceased to smart, and he was all but fit for the road and the saddle ere Lord Claud joined him again.
His lordship had heard good tidings of the horses in the valley below. And when rested from his rapid journey in search of Tom, he went to visit them, and reported them abundantly fit for the road.
But the war had now been resumed, and the countries were all in commotion. Travelling was a risky thing, save in numbers; and the good monks warned them that they might easily lose their lives by falling in with some bands of hostile soldiers, who were sure to fall upon travellers in ferocious fashion, and rob them of arms and horses, if not of life itself.
Soon, however, some of the monks themselves were to take a journey into France, and if the travellers would habit themselves in the cowl and gown, and travel with them, they could do so in almost certain safety. Tom's shaven head lent itself excellently to the tonsure; and though Lord Claud objected to part with his golden tresses, he quickly manufactured himself a tonsured wig which almost defied detection. As the monks, too, were to travel on horseback for greater speed, they had but to teach their steeds to amble along at a gentle pace, and none would be likely to suspect them.
So the day came when the parting was made, the travellers leaving behind their earnest thanks for kindness received, and taking with them the blessings of their hosts, who had come to love the two gallant young men right well.
They turned their backs upon the monastery, and wound their way down into the green valley, where horses were awaiting all the party; and then they turned their backs upon the ice and snow, and set their faces towards sunny England and home.
CHAPTER XII. BACK IN LONDON.
"Why, Tom, my lad! Now this is a welcome sight in sooth! Verily it is you yourself, else should I think I must sure be dreaming! Come in, come in, lad, and a hearty welcome to you! Faith, we had almost begun to give you up for lost! There be so many who go to foreign parts, but return thence no more, and of whom nothing more is ever heard. The Lord be praised that that has not been your fate!"
Cale had taken Tom by both hands, and was drawing him eagerly into the house. The young man had entered the doorway just as the shutters were being put up at dusk. The light lasted long now that May had come, and Cale was about to step forth to take the air for a while himself, when he beheld the tall figure darkening the doorway, and saw that it was indeed Tom who was entering.
"Why, methinks you are taller than ever! and have gotten the air of a man of travel! This will be news for my little Rosy tomorrow. Why, it was but last Sunday, as we sat and talked of you, that the tears came into her eyes, and she said she feared we should never see you more! How she will laugh and skip tomorrow when she sees you in your accustomed place!"
"It was kind of Mistress Rosamund to spare a thought for me," said Tom, feeling that it was good to be welcomed home again so warmly.
Other home welcome had he not yet received, for they had not returned by Holland and the port of Harwich. The good monks had taken them the shorter way through France, and had seen them safe upon a vessel bound for Southampton, where they had safely disembarked a few days ago. They had spent their last money in getting themselves clothing other than a monkish habit, and had then ridden merrily to London in quick time. Tom had left his good mare in Lord Claud's stable, and had marched off forthwith to Master Cale's shop; whilst his companion had declared his intention of making speedy application for the payment due to them for their recent enterprise, which had now been successfully carried through.
"I would I could have seen the Duke himself," said Lord Claud; "but he is gone back to the Hague, men say, and may be anywhere now. But I shall lay my case before some of the ministers of the realm, and claim our reward. The Duke of Savoy knows the value of the news I brought him, and the labourer is worthy of his hire. You shall have your share, Tom, when I get the gold; for you took your share of peril boldly, and were a stanch comrade in all moments of danger. You suffered more than I, and that shall not be forgotten."
So Tom felt light and happy of heart. He was back again in the old country, hearing his native tongue once more around him, the satisfaction of success in his heart, the experiences of a man of travel giving him added dignity in his own eyes. If his purse was light, he would soon replenish it; and in the welcome accorded to him by the honest perruquier he felt the earnest of other welcomes in store for him.
As they sat at table together the traveller told his adventures to his host, Cale listening with eager attention, and rubbing his hands softly together as he heard how Montacute had been outwitted, and how he had been well-nigh throttled by Tom, as well as rebuked by the pious monks.
"I have seen the fellow," he said thoughtfully—"he came here once for a peruke—and a more evil countenance I have seldom seen. They say he is half an Italian, though he passes here for an Englishman; and that he is in the pay of the King of France is a thing commonly reported. He has an evil face, and I hope we shall see it no more in this land. You must have a care, Tom, if ever he crosses your path again. He will not forget that grip on his throat in a hurry!"
"Nor I those lashes upon my back!" answered Tom between his shut teeth. "He will find me ready for him whenever he wants! I am sometimes fain to regret that I did not squeeze the life out of him as he lay in my grasp, even as—well, others I know have regretted that they did not run him through the heart in a duelling bout."
"It is not many who get that chance, if report speaks truth," said Cale; "Sir James Montacute is reckoned a notable swordsman."
"He is no mean antagonist, truly," answered Tom, with a slight smile; "yet I have seen a better."
The day following was Sunday, and eagerly did Tom await the arrival of Rosamund, whom her father had set out betimes to fetch. But he had promised to keep the secret of Tom's return for a surprise to meet her on her arrival; and so, when she turned the corner of the street upon her father's arm, laughing and chattering to him in her brightest fashion, there was Tom standing in the doorway, clad in one of his finest suits (left behind in the care of Cale), smiling bravely, hat in hand, and looking altogether so grand and finished a gentleman that at the first moment Rosamund could scarce make sure if it was he himself.
But when convinced of this, her pleasure was pretty to see. She made him stand by the window where she could see him; she looked him all over, clapping her hands, and declaring that he had grown so grand and handsome that she was quite afraid of him. But her dancing eyes and laughing lips belied her words, and soon she was chattering away in the old free style; and Tom sat looking at her, thinking how pretty she was, and what a pleasant thing it was to be home again after such a period of peril and adventure.
Of course he had to tell his story over again, whilst Rosamund's face turned red and pale by turns, and her breath came fitfully between her lips. She clung to her father's hand in a tremor of sympathetic fear as she heard of the doings of that memorable night in the rude hut amid the snows of the Little St. Bernard; but that Tom was a greater hero than ever in her eyes, after she had heard all, could not for a moment be doubted, and perhaps that was why she felt that in him she could safely confide a secret fear which was troubling her own mind.
She waited till her father had gone down to set the dinner upon the table; but when once she and Tom were alone together she was not long in opening her trouble.
"Do you remember those four ill men who set upon you in the street that day when first you walked abroad with us?"
"Yes, I know them well—a set of cowardly braggarts and bullies! Sure, Mistress Rose, they are not troubling you yet?"
"I fear me they are," she answered, with a shadow of fear in her eyes. "I saw nought of them through the dark winter months. Indeed, I had well-nigh forgotten that any such creatures lived. Then when the spring days began to come, and the streets of the city became gayer, I thought once or twice that I saw them in the throngs as we walked hither and thither; but they never accosted us, and I gave the matter little heed."
"Until one evening in March, towards the end of the month, when the daylight lasts till seven of the clock, and my father let me remain later than usual with him, and then took me back as was his custom. The roads were quiet, and there were few abroad as we neared Highgate; yet I could not help thinking that I always heard steps behind us, and ever and anon I looked over my shoulder. I did not always see men following, but sometimes I did, and it seemed always as though there were four of them together. Once I heard a laugh that I seemed to remember, and I felt a qualm of fear, I scarce knew why."
"You spoke no word to your father?"
"No; I thought myself the victim of some foolish fear, and I wanted not to trouble him. He bade me goodbye at the gate, and saw me run up to the house and let myself in. I went up straight to my window to wave my hand to him as was my wont, and just at that moment four men lounged by arm-in-arm with swaggering mien."
"And you think it was those same men?"
"I was almost sure of it, and hastily withdrew, glad that they did not follow my father down the hill, but walked slowly on in the opposite direction, and then turned and paced slowly back two or three times. For though I did not show myself, I peeped out and watched to see what they did."
Tom's face was very black. He had a keen personal hatred for the four bullies, and a very strong interest and affection for Rosamund herself. He saw she had still something more to say, and she drew a little nearer as she added:
"And since then I have caught sight of them several times in our lanes, walking up and down rather near the house, or hanging about round the tavern at the crossroads where our lane branches from the wider road. Once I am sure I heard their steps coming after me; but I fled so fast they could not overtake me, and I dared not look behind lest I should trip over a stone. I am almost afraid now to leave the house alone, save in the early morning hours; and until this happened I came and went freely, and my aunt is used to sending me visiting to the neighbours. I like not to alarm her by talking of these men, nor do I wish to cause anxiety to my father. I have often wished I could tell you the tale, that I might ask you what I should do."
The childlike appeal in the maiden's face stirred Tom to a chivalrous desire to help her at all costs.
"Zounds!" he exclaimed, "but we will teach those curs a lesson they richly need. As it is, they are becoming a byword even in London streets. Hark you, pretty Rosamund, have no fears. I will get Harry Gay to join with me, and together we will come to Highgate, and hang about your house in concealment until these bold swaggerers show themselves; and then we will set upon them, and give them such a trouncing as they shall not quickly forget. And we will make them understand that if ever they are seen there again they will receive a like chastisement. After that I think you need feel no fear. They are as cowardly as they are blustering, and love not the feel of hard blows upon their backs, as we have good reason to know. Two of us would be equal to vanquishing the four."
"And there is a strapping young farmer, William Long by name, who would gladly lend you the strength of his right arm," cried Rosamund, kindling into excitement. "He was lately wedded to my best friend, Mary Baker, and they live not far from our cottage. I had thought to speak to him if things went on so; but four to one is long odds, and moreover he is something stolid in the head, and might mistake his men, and so get himself into trouble."
The thought of a battle on behalf of his good friend's daughter was congenial enough to Tom, who had always felt a strong personal antagonism to these bullies; an antagonism warmly shared by Harry Gay, who eagerly entered into the plan for freeing Rose of their unwelcome presence in her neighbourhood. He was also an admirer of pretty Rosamund, whom he had known from childhood, although they did not meet very regularly, as Harry did not often intrude upon Cale on the Sunday, when he knew he liked to have Rosamund to himself. However, he knew very well the haunts most frequented by the four bullies who had taken it into their heads to persecute the perruquier's daughter. They probably bore Cale a grudge for his action towards them upon the Sunday when there had been the fight in the street; and certainly if he had had any idea that they were seeking to touch him through his child, he would have been exceedingly uneasy, and his business must have suffered.
"I will keep a watch upon them," said Harry Gay, who was quite pleased to join with so great a man as Tom Tufton had become in some affair of this sort; "I will have an eye to them, and if I think they are starting off for the north of the town, I will run at once and fetch you; and we will follow and outstrip them, for they must needs stop at every tavern as they go, and we can slip by and be ready for them at Highgate."
So Tom remained for the most part in and about his lodging for the next day or two, pleased enough to watch the busy life of the streets, and hear the gossip of the young dandies in Cale's shop. No word of any kind came to him from Lord Claud during this time of waiting; but Tom had no anxieties as to the money he was to receive for his services, and Master Cale had still a few guineas in hand from the sum left to pay for his lodging chamber in his absence, which Tom had desired to continue to rent, that he might leave there his worldly possessions.
It was on the forenoon of Wednesday that Harry came to seek him, all eagerness and speed.
"They have started forth towards the north," he said, "and I heard a few scraps of talk, and am certain that they are bound for Highgate. We shall quickly overtake and pass them; and, with the help of honest William, we will give them such a lesson as shall make them avoid the locality for the rest of their lives, I hope. So, if you are ready, let us be off."
Tom was ready in a trice, and very soon they found themselves following in the track of the four young rakes, who were swaggering along the sunny streets in their usual rolling way, accosting and insulting the passers by, knocking citizens' hats into the gutter, singing scraps of ribald songs, and ready to come to blows with any other bullies who might run up against them.
But it was not long before they swaggered into an alehouse; and then Tom and Harry went swiftly by, and, taking the straight route up to Highgate, arrived there long before the others could be expected.
Rosamund was tending her flowers in the garden when they came up to the gate, and looked up with a smile and a blush. She was alone in the house that day, she said, save for the servant woman, who was very deaf. This suited very well for the present purpose, as they did not desire that the aunt should be alarmed.
They bade Rose remain in the garden for the next few hours, and they would hide in a clump of bushes at the corner and watch what betided. Harry strode off to fetch William Long, who had promised the help of his sturdy staff right willingly. In a short time the three men were in their hiding place, whilst Rose went on with her tasks amid the flowers, her heart beating a little with excitement, although she felt no fear.
Presently the sound of lurching steps and foolish laughter approached along the lane. Rose never looked round, but the colour in her cheeks went and came. The steps presently stopped at the gate, and those in hiding could see the four bullies, who were already somewhat the worse for drink, leaning upon it and eyeing the maiden at work with silly leers and nudgings.
"Pretty Mistress Rosamund," said Slippery Seal, in his most wheedling voice, "will you favour a thirsty traveller with a cup of water from your well?"
Rose faced round at that, her face flushed, but her manner quite calm.
"If you are thirsty, sir, there is water to be had in the brook yonder. My father would not have me speak with strangers on the road."
"But, fair maid," said another, "we cannot sure be called strangers. We have seen your rosy cheeks and bright eyes many times before, we—"
But before he had finished speaking, Rose had turned her back and was walking up the path towards the house.
"No, no, no!" cried Dicing Dick; "you do not run away like that, pretty Rosamund!"
The next moment he had flung the gate wide, and the whole four were making a dash up the path in pursuit of the girl. They had probably learned from the servant at the inn that her aunt was out, and had thought they could terrify her into doing their pleasure, and setting food and drink before them.
But they did not get far. With a sound like a growl and a yell—such as he had given when he sprang at Montacute's throat—Tom dashed out from the thicket, and seized Bully Bullen in a bear-like clasp. The other two were not many yards behind, and immediately there was a wholesale scrimmage in the little garden; the sound of blows and oaths resounded, and many a yell of pain and rage told that one or another of the bullies had got a well-merited chastisement.
It was not Tom's wish to use his sword, but he applied his good cudgel freely to the back of the bully, who was more his own height and make than any of the others. Bully Bullen swore, and raved, and threatened, and made ineffectual efforts to draw his rapier and run his antagonist through the body. But he had been drinking, and neither hand nor eye were steady; whilst Tom's clutch upon his coat collar, as he kept swinging him half off his feet, and laying his stout staff to his back, almost throttled him, and rendered his efforts abortive.
Once Slippery Seal showed himself worthy of his name, by slipping through the clutches of Harry, and dashing to get a good blow at Tom, for whom these four worthies had conceived a powerful hatred; but Tom saw the advance, and cleverly swerved round, so that the blow descended upon the luckless Bullen, who roared anew with rage and pain.
"Let them go now! let them go!" cried Rosamund at last, half frightened at the scrimmage, and almost ready to pity the ruffians, who were getting so much the worst of it.
Lusty William had quickly laid Dicing Dick prostrate on mother earth, and was giving a drubbing to Thirsty Thring, who was helpless in his stout grasp. This attack, so unexpected and so resolute, had quite taken the wind out of the sails of the blustering four; and when, at Rosamund's cry, their antagonists paused and gave to each a parting kick, they had no desire to do anything but slink away with bruised shoulders—black rage in their hearts.
"If ever you come prowling here again, I'll have my men and my dogs out at you!" bawled William, whose blood was well up. "I live handily, just behind yon clump of trees. Rosamund has but to lift up her voice in a good screech, and I'll loose every dog in the place upon you! You'll not forget the feel of their fangs so soon as you'll forget the feel of my cudgel!"
That threat was quite enough for the bullies, they almost began to run; but so soon as they had put the fence between themselves and their antagonists, they paused and looked back, shaking their fists in vindictive fury.
They seemed to divine that Tom was in some sort the originator of this plan, and towards him was their chief malevolence directed.
"We will have our revenge for this, Tom Tufton!" they cried. "It's your turn today, but it will be ours another. You shall rue the day you made enemies of us!"
"Do your worst!" cried Tom scornfully. "Do you think I fear any such ruffians as you?"
"Strike me purple!" raged Bully Bullen, using an oath which had come into vogue since the terrible days of the Plague, "if I do not make you bitterly repent this day's work, you insolent young coxcomb!"
"Get off with you, or I call my dogs!" cried William, who saw that Rosamund's cheeks were growing pale; and at this hint the bullies made the best of their way out of sight, never to be seen again in the neighbourhood where so many perils awaited them.
Rose was rid of her tormentors, but she cast apprehensive glances in the direction of Tom.
"Can they hurt him?" she asked of Harry.
And he replied, with a light laugh:
"He looks a child that can stand up for himself!"
Nevertheless, after William had taken Rose to his house to pass the rest of the time of her aunt's absence, and Tom and Harry were walking southwards again, the latter said to his friend:
"All the same, Tom, I would have you take care of yon braggarts. They are as evil a set of fellows as walk the streets of this city, and if they could chance to do you an ill turn, be sure they would not let it pass."
But Tom only laughed. He had passed through many perils of late, and he felt that in the heart of this great city he could take care of himself. A sort of careless self confidence had been his chief peril through life, and his association with Lord Claud had not tended to diminish it. In the presence of his patron, indeed, he often felt of little account; but elsewhere he fancied himself something of a hero, and was by no means disposed to tremble before the malevolence of a set of swaggering bullies.
The town was very gay this bright springtide, and Tom was more than ready to plunge into the vortex of such amusements as were open to him. His lack of funds did not embarrass him, as Harry was ready to lend him money, and he had some success at the dicing tables in those coffee houses which he frequented. Gambling had not any great attractions for him, but a little excitement did not come amiss, and the fascination of winning was powerful.
Sometimes he was persuaded to try his luck at basset or ombre, and here his lack of knowledge of the games often caused him to lose. But he cared little, telling himself that he should soon have his share of the reward offered by the Duke to his secret messengers; and he plunged more and more deeply into debt, rather by way of passing the time than for any particular delight in play. He had not yet acquired strength enough to decline to share the amusements of those about him. He kept up his sword practice in the mornings, and took long walks with Harry Gay to visit different places of interest in and about the city; but the afternoon and evening were usually spent in some place of amusement, and little by little Tom became impatient for his money. He had borrowed several times from Harry; but he thought he ought to be hearing something from Lord Claud.
At last he called at his rooms, and asked for him. He was asked to wait, as Lord Claud was expected home shortly, and Tom's face was well known to the valet. He went up to the familiar room, but noted with surprise how many pictures and curios were missing from their places. The rooms were comfortable, even luxurious, but they lacked the costly elegance which had characterized them before. It seemed to Tom as though Lord Claud must have been in need of money, too, and have been selling his valuables to keep himself in funds. That seemed a strange shift for one to whom the state owed so heavy a debt.
Tom had perhaps sat still waiting for half an hour before the door opened to admit Lord Claud, who came in with a dark look upon his face, and threw down his hat and gloves upon the table with a smothered oath.
Then he saw Tom, and the cloud lightened, although it did not disappear. He shook the young man warmly by the hand.
"Tom, you are come in a good hour, and an evil one! I was just wishing I had you to stand by me. What think you is the reply of those to whom I have proffered my claim on our behalf? They will have nothing of it. They will scarce give me a hearing. I may go to the Duke of Marlborough with my tale, they tell me in some scorn, as though incredulous of my words, but they will have nought to do with it. And will not even make an advance, whilst they know that to reach the Duke one must run many a peril and risk much money. It is a shameful trick! I know they would not have dared treat all men so, but they think they may put their despite upon me!"
He ground his teeth, and then broke out into strange wild talk which Tom did not understand, though it inspired him with a sense of great anger against those in high places.
Moreover, he was not a little disturbed on his own account by the failure of Lord Claud. How should he pay his debts? How should he live himself? Had he not risked his life for the sake of his country? Had he not suffered scourging and sickness on her behalf? It took very little of Lord Claud's fire to kindle an answering flame in his own heart. His anger was always readily stirred, and his appreciation of his own merit caused him to feel the more hot and aggrieved.
"Tom," said Lord Claud suddenly, "there is one other way. If you have a clear head, a strong arm, and a stout heart, there is yet a hope that we may gain our ends."
Tom looked up eagerly. He saw something in Lord Claud's face which seemed to him strange, and which inspired him with a sense of keen, quick curiosity and excitement. He felt as though he were on the verge of some new discovery. His breath came thick and fast, but it was with eagerness, not fear. He had been so worked upon and played upon by a master hand, that the thought of fear found no place within his breast. What was this other way of which his master spoke?
"The gold is ours, Tom. We have won it with the best that is in us—with our heart's blood, as men say. It is ours. We have the right to it. If they withhold it in injustice, have we not the right to lay hands on it ourselves?"
"Ay, verily!" answered Tom in a whisper, his eyes fixed upon the burning eyes of Lord Claud, which seemed to fascinate and hold him as the snake does the bird.
Then Lord Claud approached and laid a hand upon Tom's shoulder, and standing over him, talked long and earnestly in a low, quiet voice, which nevertheless sounded trumpet-like in his ears.
Tom sat perfectly still, gazing at him and uttering no word, but within his heart the fire seemed to glow and kindle; and when Lord Claud paused and searched his face with his keen glance, he saw no faltering there.
"Then we are brothers once again, Tom! Brothers now and always!"
"Now and always!" echoed Tom, in a voice almost the echo of Lord Claud's. "Now and always!"
CHAPTER XIII. ON THE KING'S HIGHWAY.
A handsome and remarkably elegant vehicle stood at the door of Lord Claud's lodgings, with two fine horses harnessed to it.
Tom had never seen any conveyance at once so light and handsome, the cumbrous coaches of the times being little to his liking. He had always travelled afoot or on horseback hitherto, and he had expected to do the same now, when he received his summons from Lord Claud.
That gentleman stood at the door, leisurely drawing on a pair of strong gloves. He nodded to Tom as he came up.
"It begins to get hot for saddle work," he remarked in his negligent tones; "besides, I want to make trial of this new-fashioned carriage. I won it from my lord of Gratton three days since; and he boasts that it has been copied from one in the possession of the King of France, who is said to be a monarch of a very excellent taste. At least it will carry us to St. Albans, and bring us safely back three days hence;" and turning to the valet who was holding his snuff box and cane, he added:
"If any call and ask for me, tell them I have driven into the country, but look to be home in three days' time.
"Now, Tom, get up, and we will see if we can reach St. Albans ere the dusk fall upon us."
Lord Claud was dressed in one of his finest suits; all white and silver, with here and there a dash of azure blue. His hat was set jauntily upon his golden curls, innocent today of any touch of powder. His blue eyes were dreamy and soft in expression. He looked like one who goes forth a-wooing, in all the gay frippery supposed to be pleasing in a maiden's eyes. He had even discarded his sword, and only wore a short jewelled rapier, such as he sometimes put on rather for ornament than use.
He saluted passers by with an air of negligent grace, replying with a smile to those friends who paused and bandied jests with him, asking him where the fair lady was with whom he was going to visit.
Tom was also dressed in his best, and looked a fitting comrade for the young exquisite now leisurely mounting to the seat beside him. There was no place for a servant upon the carriage, and Tom had learned by this time that Lord Claud was no more really dependent than he was himself upon the attentions of a valet. He was rather in a fog as to what all this was about, whither they were bound, and what they were to accomplish; but he was willing to be led by the strong will of his companion, and to follow him wherever he went.
Tom's irritation and perplexity had not decreased during the past days. He was at his wits' end for money; and it seemed to him that if he could not obtain the payment due, he must either trust to his luck at gambling for funds, or else go home and settle down at Gablehurst once again.
For the latter course he was not yet ready. His soul revolted from the thought of the life of the country squire. He had tasted of the cup of excitement and pleasure, and was not in the least prepared to relinquish it. He would rather face almost any alternative than go back to the life of the Essex village, and sink down into the old routine.
So he had been gaming somewhat recklessly these past days, and with varying success. There had been moments when he was plunged into despair; and then again the luck would shift, and he would feel that fortune was almost at his feet.
Yet at the end of the time matters were with him very much as they had been at the beginning; save that Tom himself had grown more reckless an defiant, most lustful of gold, and less scrupulous how he obtained it, as is always the way with the true gambler, whether he is aware of it at the outset or not.
Now they were rolling along together through the gay streets of London, the hot summer sunshine making everything bright and joyous, filling Tom with a great longing after the good things of this life, and a sense of bitter indignation at being defrauded of his due.
Lord Claud handled the reins and drove his pair of fine horses with a skill which awoke the youth's admiration, and which attracted the notice also of the passers by. Lord Claud appeared rather to court observation than to shun it, and often paused to exchange a word with friends upon the footpath; always telling the same story of being on his way to St. Albans; always smiling and evading a reply when asked to what particular house he was bound.
Nobody who saw the light and remarkable-looking carriage speeding on its way would be likely to forget it, and Tom could not help rather wondering at the public fashion in which they took their journey forth.
He had one encounter which he thought little of at the time, and certainly made no effort to evade. Lord Claud had pulled up the carriage to exchange a few words with a knot of dandies who had hailed him from the footway, and Tom was sitting and looking about him at the passing throng. Presently he was aware of the fixed stare of several pairs of eyes at an adjacent tavern window; and looking fixedly through the rather dull glass, he made out for certain that his friends, the four swaggering bullies, were the owners of these eyes. A minute or two later Bully Bullen stepped forth from the door, and accosted him with swaggering insolence of demeanour.
"So, Master Tom, you make fine friends! And whither away so fast in that fine carriage? Egad, there be truth in the old adage, 'Set a beggar on horseback, and he will ride to the devil.' Fine company, fine company for a country bumpkin to keep! But you'll find it finer than you think for one of these days! Ho! ho! ho!"
Lord Claud did not appear to hear or heed this newcomer's talk; but he showed that he had taken all in by just quietly shifting the long whip into Tom's hands, whilst himself drawing tighter the reins.
Tom understood him in a moment. He took the whip, and the next moment it had whistled through the air, and caught the bully a stinging lash right across the face. At the sound of the crack of the lash the horses started forward, and in a moment the carriage was spinning away over the dusty road, followed by roars of laughter from Lord Claud's friends, and by roars of a different character from the indignant and outraged bully.
"You will have to shoot those fellows one of these days," remarked Lord Claud coolly. "They are becoming a nuisance. Men who are a nuisance ought to be put out of the way. London would be well rid of them."
"They have been mine enemies from the very outset," said Tom, "from the day when first we met, and you came to my rescue when they were baiting me. They have owed me a grudge ever since; but hitherto I have had the best of our encounters."
"Drunken sots have no chance against sober fellows with thews and sinews like yours, good Tom; yet they can give trouble in other ways, and are better under ground than above it. I marvel they have all escaped so long; for they are well known for a set of ruffianly vagabonds, and well deserve the hangman's noose."
The carriage spun fast over the ground, and the westering sun threw long shadows over their path as they rolled farther and farther through the country lanes, leaving the racket of the streets far behind. The country was familiar to Tom, who had ridden over the same ground early in the year; but how different it all looked in the vivid green of early summer, instead of draped in a mantle of frost and snow!
He felt a little elation of spirit as they drove through the old town, the observed of all observers. Some friends of his own hailed him with eager nods of recognition, looking with a great admiration and respect at himself and his companion. Tom felt his heart swell with pride, knowing that in time it would reach Gablethorpe how he had been seen sitting in such state. He returned the salutations of old friends with easy good nature, but felt as though he belonged now to a quite different world; and his heart swelled with that sort of pride which is apt to be the forerunner of a disastrous fall.
They did not stop at St. Albans itself, but at a hostelry a little to the north of it, standing by itself in a pleasant leafy lane. Lord Claud appeared known to mine host, who made them welcome to the best his house had at disposal; and promised all care for the horses, which, as Lord Claud explained, had to make the return journey upon the third day.
It was now somewhat late, so the travellers took their supper, and then went to bed; Tom still in a state of subdued excitement and expectation, scenting coming adventure, but as yet only very imperfectly acquainted with the nature of it. He had suspicions of his own, which caused him alternations of dread and excitement; but he knew he should be told all in Lord Claud's time, and in the meanwhile silence was the best policy.
The following day they spent in amusement in the town of St. Albans. Never were two men more active in the pursuit of pleasure than they. Lord Claud presented himself at the door of many a fine house, never failing to obtain an eager welcome both for himself and his friend. They spent the whole day in a round of amusement, making themselves mightily popular with their companions. They remained until hard upon ten o'clock in one house, and from thence returned straight to their inn, which was already shut up and dark, although the door had been left open for their return.
Up to their room they went, and there Lord Claud's manner suddenly changed. He seemed to throw off his careless gaiety as if it had been a garment, and at once the lines of his face began to change and harden. His eyes gleamed with a steady fire, and his voice lost all its soft indolence of tone.
He went to a cupboard, which he unlocked, and there Tom saw two bundles which appeared to contain clothes, and two saddles and bridles, which he knew had come from Lord Claud's stables.
He looked from them to Lord Claud in questioning wonder.
"How got they there?"
"We brought them with us—secreted in the carriage. Now, Tom, we must no longer delay. We have stern and quick work to do this night; and then back to London with the reward that is ours by right, though they force us to take it by violence. The people here will swear that we slept this night within doors. You saw the landlord look out of his window as we entered to make sure who we were. He will be in bed now, sleeping the sleep of the just. You may be sure he will wake no more till five of the clock; and long ere that we shall be back—our work accomplished.
"Off with those fine trappings, and put on these clothes. Then to saddle the nags, and so steal forth. I know all the tricks of the locks; we shall have nought to stay us."
Whilst he was speaking Lord Claud was unrolling one of the bundles, and quickly transforming himself into such a creature as Tom had never seen before, though he had heard such described many times. His fine clothes were exchanged for a strong shabby riding suit of common cut and texture, that presented no distinct features, and would be most difficult either to describe or identify. He had a great pair of horse pistols stuck in his belt, and also wore a dangerous-looking weapon—something between a sword and a cutlass. His golden hair was tucked away beneath the collar of his coat, and his head was covered by a frowzy dark wig, that looked like untrimmed natural hair. He quickly blackened his face with soot from the chimney, and put on a black crape mask.
A more villainous-looking creature, and one more utterly unlike Lord Claud, the exquisite, it would be hard to imagine. It appeared to Tom as though even his figure had shrunk and become smaller. If he had not seen the metamorphosis with his own eyes, he would not have believed that it was his comrade who now stood before him.
But the voice was the same, as Lord Claud quickly assisted him to change his garments, to assume wig and mask, and soot his forehead over.
Tom had not been unprepared for this denouement, and yet when he saw himself in the habiliments of a highway robber, his heart throbbed with a painful sense of wonderment at how it had all come about. Yet the fascination exercised over him by his companion, and his own love of adventure and excitement, were so strong, that he did not know whether he dreaded or desired the coming struggle.
"What are we going to do?" he asked in a low voice.
"To take our due that they will not give us," was the stern reply. "They had their choice, and must abide by their blindness and obstinacy. I am not going to be treated with contempt; no one who has ever tried to do so has done it with impunity. Every man has a right to his own—is it not so, honest Tom?"
"Yes, truly," answered Tom, with a note of indignation in his voice. "Those who withhold our due must suffer for it."
"They shall suffer in pocket; and if what we shall obtain this night be more than our due, the fault is theirs, not ours. Tom, you are to taste a new experience this night—one which is full of joy to those who have drunk often of the cup. There be times when I say that I am happiest dressed as tonight, a good horse beneath me, a bright moon above, and a booty worth having well in view. It is so full of rare surprises and delight; and, if a man but have his wits about him, it is so monstrous easy, too!"
Tom seemed to catch the spirit of his comrade. Those were days when crime was lightly thought of, though so heavily punished. A strain of recklessness in Tom's blood made the notion of even robbery on the king's highway fascinating rather than terrible—at least when he could say to himself that he was but "taking his own."
It was plain enough now that this was the secret of Lord Claud's life—hinted at more or less plainly by many before, but never altogether understood by Tom. Yet Lord Claud was received, feted, made much of in the society of the gay city, even by those who more than suspected where his influx of wealth came from. He had even received instructions, and been intrusted with an important commission, by one so high in office as the great Duke of Marlborough. Surely there could be no great stigma resting upon one who was thus employed in the service of his country. It seemed to Tom (as it has seemed to others before and since) that if only success crowned these efforts, there was no disgrace attached to them.
But it was a significant if—and he knew it!
"And suppose we are taken?" he said tentatively.
"We should be hanged," answered Lord Claud coolly. "But we shall not be taken. Make your mind quite clear on that point. Do just as I tell you, and have no fears. The rest will follow of itself."
Tom had come to have that sort of implicit trust in his companion which some men have the power to inspire. It makes them dangerous to foes, because they appear to bear charmed lives; and their companions trust implicitly in their luck, and know no fear. Tom felt that if Lord Claud told him to ride through fire or water, he would do it without hesitation, knowing that the thing was possible, and believing he would accomplish it.
"Come," said Lord Claud, "take your saddle and bridle and walk softly. It is time we were off now."
They stole through the silent house, and round to the stable, where the horses were lying on beds of clean straw. They got up at the sound of their master's voice, but were so quiet in all their movements that it seemed as though they knew what was in the air. In five minutes they were free from the buildings, and the travellers mounted. The road lay before them in dappled lights and shadows from the brilliant moon overhead. It was as easy to see the way as though the sun had been up.
Once clear of the inn, and Lord Claud sprang forward at a steady, swinging hand gallop, a pace to which the horses settled down as though well habituated to it.
Then he began to speak to Tom of the project on which they were bent.
"There is gold on its way from the bank to the coast. It is guarded by four soldiers. They have been instructed to travel fast to catch a certain sloop. Today they will have met with many hindrances upon the way. All that has been arranged for. So they will profit by this clear moonlight night to prosecute their journey, which will not lie through what is thought to be dangerous country. Forest land and wild heath make men very careful, but quiet country roads where villages are frequent give them confidence. And yet it is just as easy to fall upon the prey in the latter as in the former locality. In sooth, I think it is easier. The men in charge rush back for help, thinking the more easily to track and follow us;" and then Lord Claud broke into a soft laugh, and began to whistle cheerily as they galloped forward.
These horses were wonderfully strong and fleet. Tom could not but remark it as they galloped mile after mile with unwearied energy. Lord Claud smiled in the moonlight as he replied:
"Oh yes, that is necessary. It is well to prove an alibi, if you know what that is, good Tom. The honest folks where we come from will swear that we and our steeds were abed all night over yonder; but even if that should not be enough, there will be many who will declare that if we did not leave St. Albans till past ten, we could never be at the spot I am aiming for and back again before break of day; and I shall take care to call mine host up betimes, so that there will be plenty of evidence that I have not been abroad this night."
Tom had heard often enough of the good understanding existing between innkeepers and the highway robbers who infested the roads, and now he began to see the workings of it, and to understand how easy it made some of these excursions, and how difficult it must afterwards be to obtain evidence against the freebooters. Lord Claud's handsome person, his freedom of speech, and his lavishly-spent gold, made him a favourite everywhere; and now he seemed about to employ his fascinations of mind and body for other purposes. Tom was to see how they served him in a different sort of life.
The rapid pace at which they were travelling hindered conversation. Tom would not easily have believed it possible to travel so fast by night, but he trusted himself implicitly to the guidance of his comrade; and the strong, mettlesome, sure-footed horse he rode seemed to make nothing either of his solid weight, or of the distance they had to go.
Presently Lord Claud drew rein. They were passing through a little copse, where the light was but misty and indistinct, and where the road made a sudden sharp turn almost at right angles, affording complete shelter to any person or persons lying in ambush.
"Now, Tom," said Lord Claud, "this is the spot I have chosen. There is a village not half a mile distant. The road is not a dangerous or lonely one—this is the only little bit of wood for some distance, and it is very small. No special precautions will probably be observed. There are two horses laden with gold, under the escort of two soldiers each. They had a larger guard to pass through the wilder forest country, but some of the men were to turn back when the perilous transit was made. Most likely one horse and the two troopers will be a little in advance of the other. The moment the leading horse rounds this corner we shoot down the men. You need not kill your trooper, Tom—indeed, I never kill unless there is need—it is enough to disable him. In a moment I shall have possession of the horse and shall gallop off. But I shall only possess myself of the treasure, and let the beast go. I have no wish to be tracked by him. Now, if I am right in what I expect, the second troopers, hearing the shots and their comrades' cries, will believe themselves in peril of attack from a much larger gang, and will instantly fly to save their skins. This is what happens in five cases out of seven. It is seldom that a couple of men will stay to face what they believe to be a desperate gang of highwaymen. If this is so, dash you out upon the second horse. Seize him, and follow me. I know every inch of the country, and those fellows know nothing but the roads. They will never catch us, even if they pursue. If, however, the second pair should prove fellows of a stouter kidney, and instead of fleeing should show fight, then leave the second prize and follow hard after me. We will not risk too much, and one load will suffice for present necessities, albeit I should like well enough to obtain the two. I would make our ministers smart for their scurvy treatment of me!"
Tom grasped the situation in a moment, and set his teeth hard, whilst the light of battle leaped into his eyes. The adventure suited the reckless self-confidence which his recent life had quickened. Why should he not in time become a second Lord Claud, a man half feared, half admired by all London town, petted, made much of, observed and copied wherever he went? That his calling was suspected, if not actually known, Tom had abundant reason to know. But it seemed rather to give a lustre to his reputation than to cover him with shame. Why should he not attain in time to a like pinnacle of fame and fortune?
Thus he mused, standing there in the softened moonlight, the fierce and lawless strain in his nature for the moment in the ascendant, the influence of his strange comrade dominant in his heart.
There was a sound at last. The horses heard it first and pricked their ears. Next minute the riders heard it, too. It was the tramp, tramp of horses' feet upon the road, coming on at a leisurely pace, together with the jingling of arms and the sound of voices.
Tom's heart beat thick and fast, but his hand did not tremble as he followed Lord Claud's example and got ready his pistol. Like two figures carved in stone sat the two liers-in-wait, their well-trained horses as motionless as themselves.
The silence of the night was broken by the ominous sound. A yell of pain and fury arose. Two horses turned back rearing, and dashed away, but the third was gripped by a strong hand; and before the party behind could see a vestige of what was happening, two riderless horses had galloped past them, throwing them into a panic of confusion and terror.
Lord Claud had judged right in part. Thrown into confusion, the men turned as if to flee, thinking themselves fallen amongst a large band of robbers. Tom made a quick rush round the corner, seized the second pack horse by the bridle, and dashed off in pursuit of Lord Claud; but even as he did so he became aware that there were more than the two troopers in the party, and in a moment the sound of yells and cries behind him told him that he was pursued.
But he had proved the pace of the horse beneath him, and if he could but possess himself of the bags upon the pack horse, and let the slower-paced beast go free, he knew he could distance pursuit. With a mighty effort he lifted the heavy bags and swung them over his shoulders; but even at that moment he heard the crack of firearms in the rear, and his good horse reared up perfectly erect, and Tom had but time to slip off his back before the creature fell over backwards, and lay still and dead.
Tom had another pistol, and even as he reached the ground he turned round and fired full at the foremost pursuer. A cry of pain told him his shot had found a billet in horse or man. But he could stay for no more. Already his mask and wig had fallen off. The moonlight struck full upon his face and the fine proportions of his figure. He saw that there were half a dozen men spurring onwards in pursuit; but he was full of that fury which gives to men an almost superhuman strength.
Leaping upon the back of the pack horse, he spurred the maddened and terrified animal to the wildest gallop, a gallop which he could never keep up, but which for the time being distanced all pursuit. Then when he had winded his own beast, and knew that the pursuing horses must themselves be pretty well blown, he slipped from its back and began running like a hare across country in the direction taken by Lord Claud, knowing that however cleverly he might conceal himself, he would not be far away, and that he would keep an eye upon Tom's line of flight, and come up with him as soon as it was safe to do so.
The sounds of pursuit died away. Tom looked back, and found himself alone in the fields and copses. His quick turnings and doublings, and the choice of ground difficult for horses, had served his purpose well. He was safe, and he had his prize with him. His heart swelled with pride at the success of his achievement.
In a short while up rode Lord Claud, cool and smiling.
"Well done, Tom; that was gallantly done. But we have lost one of our good steeds, and you have lost your mask. I trust that none saw your face?"
"It came off when the horse plunged and reared, and I was cumbered with the moneybags," answered Tom. "Yet I doubt if any who saw me would know my face again; the soot upon my forehead at least would make it hard to be sure of the face. And none were very nigh at hand."
"Give me the bags, and take you my stirrup, and we will wend our way back as fast as may be. You can run like a hare, Tom, as I have seen well. Can you run step for step with a trotting horse for some few miles?"
"Try me and see," answered Tom, who was not a little proud of his powers in this respect; and side by side through the misty summer's night stepped man and horse, both unwearied and full of courage. Once Lord Claud insisted upon dismounting and letting Tom ride for a few miles; but for the most part it was Tom who trotted along step for step with the horse, thinking over the events of the night, and exulting in the triumph they had achieved.
They reached the inn outside St. Albans just as the dawn was breaking in the east. Not a creature was stirring as they stabled the horse and made their way into the house. Nor did they do this until saddle and bridle and moneybags had been safely locked away in the body of the carriage, which contained a cavity with a secret door, the trick of which seemed known only to Lord Claud. Then they went to their room, removed all traces of travel from their faces—as Tom had removed them from the horse in the stable just before—tied up their clothes in small compass, and got into bed just as the first sound of life began to be heard in the house.
Almost immediately then Lord Claud called loudly for the host, and bade him bring him instantly a hot posset, as he had had a touch of ague in the night. There was a good deal of bustling to and fro then, and servants passed in and out of the room, seeing both travellers lying peacefully in their beds, as though they had slept there all night.
Lord Claud wrote a short note at once, and handed it to the host with a few whispered directions, to which the man replied with a nod and a wink; and then he took his posset, turned round and slept a while, and rose at the usual hour as though he had no reason for desiring longer rest.
This day was spent as the previous one had been, in paying visits and joining in fashionable amusements. The news that there had been a robbery on the highway of some gold about to be shipped to Holland for the troops excited a little commotion in the place, and once or twice Tom fancied that he saw curious glances levelled at himself and his companion. Lord Claud talked upon the subject with his usual airy negligence, but without the faintest hint of personal interest in the matter. Nor did he even "turn a hair" when rumour reported that there was a very decided clue as to the identity of one of the band, who had been recognized by some travellers on the road, who were going in the same direction as the troopers, and had assisted them in pursuing one of the robbers. The man had escaped; but it was asserted that he was known and could be sworn to at any time.
This was not pleasant hearing for Tom, but he showed a cool enough front at the time. It was only when alone with Lord Claud that he asked rather anxiously if he thought it could be true.
"I doubt it," was the reply; "it is a common thing for men to make the boast, but it seldom proves correct. Was it true that there were others besides the troopers on the road? I thought I saw more figures than I looked for, but knew not whether all were soldiers or not."
"There were others," answered Tom; "but I had no time to see what manner of men they were. There was much shouting and cursing, and I heard one man give an exultant laugh when I turned and fired; but more than that I know not."
Lord Claud looked thoughtful.
"Well, Tom, it boots little to meet danger half way. 'Tis always best to put on a bold front and set it at defiance. But this remember, that Nell Gwynne shall be kept in readiness for you by night and day. And if ever you have reason to seek to save yourself by flight, the horse is yours; there will be money and a few necessaries strapped to the saddle. Make your way incontinently to Captain Jack, who may always be heard of at The Three Ravens; and I will visit you there, and we will talk over the state of affairs."
Tom nodded, and looked a little relieved in mind; but he felt as though a cloud hung over his spirit despite his attempts at defying fate.
Next morning they started off in the carriage once more, and, to Tom's astonishment, with (apparently) the same two horses. He looked at his comrade for a moment in mingled surprise and admiration. Lord Claud gave an odd little smile as he replied:
"It is always well to be provided against accident, good Tom. Half the clever deeds of this world are rendered null and void because men forget to look ahead. We shall see the same persons driving back as we saw driving out. We must have the same steeds too, else would that dead horse lying in the fields tell a tale we would rather keep to ourselves."
CHAPTER XIV. THE SWORD OF DAMOCLES.
Back in London, his pockets full of money, fine clothes upon his back, and fine houses open to him when he went there in company with Lord Claud, it was small wonder if Tom forgot his fears after a few days of such a life, and was only rendered uneasy when whispers reached him from time to time to the effect that the authorities were hot upon the track of the daring highway robber who had succeeded in making away with the Queen's gold.
A reward had been offered for the discovery and apprehension of the miscreants concerned in the affair, and at first Tom had felt half afraid to show his face in the streets by daylight. But after a few days had passed by, and nothing had happened to arouse his anxieties, he had taken heart of grace. Lord Claud's example of nonchalance gave him coolness and courage; whilst the language and behaviour of the fine folks with whom he came in contact helped to dull and deaden any pangs of conscience which the wickedness of the midnight raid might otherwise have occasioned him.
He saw perfectly well, from the glances of admiration and arch reproof levelled at Lord Claud by the ladies in the gay company which he kept, that his patron was suspected in many quarters of being concerned in this recent robbery. Fine dames would tap him with their fans, and ask him what he had been doing at St. Albans on such and such days; and when he replied as to his whereabouts with that easy grace of bearing which always characterized his dealings with men and women alike, they would shake their heads, flirt their fans, and call him by whimsical names incomprehensible to Tom, but which he knew implied that he was suspected of being concerned in very wild and lawless deeds.
Yet these suspicions on the part of the ladies raised this handsome golden-haired Adonis to a higher pinnacle of favour than ever. It seemed to Tom that so long as a crime was carried out with dash, and verve, and success, it only brought a man fame and honour. He shivered sometimes when he thought of his mother and sister, and what they would think if they suspected that he had been led into an open act of law breaking and robbery. But he felt a little flattered in the society of these fine dames, when he saw that they looked at him with interest and curiosity, and wondered if he had played the part of lieutenant to their hero in the recent exploit.
He had been growing used to the strange ways of that portion of the London world in which Lord Claud had his sphere, but even yet it did seem strange, when he began to think about it, that a man believed to be a notorious but exceedingly clever criminal, should be received, courted, flattered, and made much of, as was Lord Claud, just because of his handsome presence and dashing grace of bearing, and because he had never been caught.
Tom wondered sometimes how these same faces would look at them, were they to be carried in irons to Newgate; and he fancied that under such circumstances they would wear a totally different aspect.
But for the most part he sought to drown thought and reflection by plunging into a vortex of gaiety. He was no longer laughed at as a country bumpkin. He had been quick to pick up the airs of a man about town. He dressed excellently, having toned down his first fopperies; and finding that a rich and sober style best suited his fine proportions, he adopted that, made his mark, and was treated with respect and courtesy.
He had not learned the jargon of the day, and was a silent man in company; but that was considered rather a distinguishing trait in one who could handle the sword and lose his money at the gaming tables with the aplomb that Tom had acquired. And a fine sum did he lose, too, during the days that followed upon the escapade; for he felt a sort of recklessness upon him, and as he had a sense of being hunted down and tracked, he thought he might make the most of freedom and wealth so long as they were his.
He was Lord Claud's guest for those days, feeling safer in his company than elsewhere; and that worthy appeared not to know fear. Indeed, he had succeeded in covering his tracks so well, that Tom did not see how anything could be brought home to his door. It made him think of words he had heard dropped before, to the effect that to be Lord Claud's confederate was to be also his victim. He wondered if there had been any truth in these insinuations, and whether he was trusting in a man who was ready to save himself at the risk of his friend.
It was difficult to believe this when in the company of his patron. It was when alone that the doubts would at times assail him, and therefore he was happier in the company of Lord Claud than in any other.
He had not been to his old lodgings since his escapade. He felt an odd sort of reluctance to facing honest Master Cale, and parrying the questions which might be addressed to him. But he resolved not to let a second Sunday pass without a visit; and upon the Saturday he returned thither, dressed in his sober riding suit, and striving to meet the welcome of his host with an air of unconcerned and natural gaiety.
"Good Tom, you are welcome indeed!" exclaimed the perruquier eagerly, taking him by the hand and drawing him within. "I have been suffering no small anxiety upon your account, my lad. I trust and hope without any cause."
Tom forced a smile, and hoped it was a natural one, as he asked gaily:
"And wherefore this fear for me, good mine host?"
"There have been ugly whispers in the air ever since the robbery of the gold on its way to Holland. Men will talk and wonder, and it was known to all that Lord Claud had driven forth the day previous northward from London, and that you were his companion. Men's tongues have wagged for less than that, Tom, and for less weighty matters."
The little man was scanning his guest's face somewhat earnestly. Tom felt a most unwelcome qualm of shame and pain, such as he had only experienced before when thinking of his mother and sister.
"Why, Master Cale, Lord Claud was but visiting his friends at St. Albans, far enough away from where they say the robbery took place. He will have no trouble in proving that he was never two miles from St. Albans upon that night; and I was with him the whole time, sharing his room and his company."
"Well, well, well," answered Cale, with a look of some relief, "I would never willingly believe harm of any man. But there are more strange tales flying about with regard to yon Lord Claud than about almost any other man in town; and folks say that many a likely lad, dashing and brave, has become confederate for a time with him, and has then vanished no man knows whither. I would not that such a fate should befall you, Tom."
A slight shiver ran through Tom's frame. He felt that there was an ugly suggestion in these words. How easily might some disastrous turn of fortune's wheel that other night have left him a victim upon those fields instead of the gallant horse who carried him! How skilfully and easily had Lord Claud played upon him, prompting him to an act which a few months ago he would have shrunk from in the greatest horror! There was something almost diabolic in the beauty, the fascination, the cleverness, of the man. Tom made a resolution, as these things flashed through his mind, that he would have no more dealings with him, if this was what they led to. He even began to doubt now whether it was true that he had applied in vain for the reward promised them for their secret service expedition. It might all be a part of a preconcerted plan, in order to cajole Tom into thinking he had some sort of right to act as they had done with regard to this money.
He began to feel doubts of everything now, and above all of himself. Had he been made a tool of and a dupe? And was he walking blindfold into a net ready for his feet?
He slept but restlessly upon his bed that night, revolving many things in his mind, and almost resolving to see Lord Claud no more, but to adopt a new method of life in this wonderful city, albeit he scarcely knew what that life should be.
Tom's hot blood had been fired by the adventures of the past months; his vanity had been flattered by the success which he had met with; his self confidence (always rather too strong) had grown and increased with great rapidity. He felt that without adventure and peril of some sort life would be tame and flat. To live as Master Cale lived, a quiet uneventful life of honest toil, seemed repugnant to him. Even to do as Harry Gay did, and pass the time in wandering between coffee houses and the play, or taking a wherry and rowing hither and thither on the great river, or walking or riding into the country—all this now seemed to him tame and tiresome.
He turned and tossed upon his bed, wondering what had come to him, and what life held in store for him. He thirsted for adventure, for the excitements and perils which he had experienced of late. His blood tingled at the memories he conjured up of those things he had passed through—the strife of arms, the fierce joy of battle, the breathless gallops from pursuing foes, and the hairbreadth perils they had come through.
That was life! That was what he longed after! He cared little for the gay resorts of town, save as an interlude. The life of the streets soon palled upon him. But there was no attraction in the thought of home and the peaceful existence there. He must see more of the world, he must enjoy more of life, before he could ever dream of going back to Gablehurst to live.
But what could he do? He fell asleep pondering upon this problem, and when he awoke it was the first thought in his head.
But, as is so often the case when one has gone to sleep pondering upon a problem, the solution had come to him during the hours of unconsciousness, and he awoke with a new inspiration.
"Why not offer for the secret service?"
Tom pondered this question all the while that he was dressing. There were difficulties in the way, of course. The Duke of Marlborough—the only man to whom he could apply with any hope of success—was out of the country; Tom knew not where he would be found just now, though that could easily be ascertained. He himself was ignorant of foreign tongues, although he had picked up a little understanding of French, and could speak a few simple phrases. But he had plenty of confidence in his strength and courage. He felt that his energies demanded now a wider field of exercise; and if he could but get his chance, he had full assurance that he would make a brilliant name for himself in some way or another.
This idea brought back all his high spirits. He saw that it would be necessary once more to consult Lord Claud, who would probably be able to give him excellent advice. But after that, Tom told himself, he would have no more dealings with that mysterious personage, but would throw himself into the service of the great Duke with such zealous goodwill as should lead him to fame and fortune at last.
He had a feeling, also, that he should be happier out of London and out of the country just at this juncture. Lord Claud's careless indifference to consequences had had its effect upon him; but he was not quite comfortable yet, and the feeling of being watched and hunted for was an exceedingly unpleasant one.
He felt a distinct qualm of uneasiness that very morning as he and his host sat at breakfast together.
"I am going to fetch Rosamund," said the perruquier, as the meal drew to its close; "but if you will take my advice, good Tom, you will not sally forth into the streets today."
"And wherefore not?" asked Tom.
"I misdoubt me that you are watched for here, Tom. It may be my fancy, but several times during these past days I have seen ill-looking fellows prowling nigh at hand—one or another of those four bullies, of whose discomfiture Rosy has told me, and young Harry also. Once the fellow they call Slippery Seal came boldly to the shop asking news of you from the apprentice; but the lad had the wit to reply that he thought you had ceased to lodge here. Nevertheless I have seen one or another of them skulking about since then, and it may be they will suspect that you may choose today for a visit to us."
"And what do they watch me for?" asked Tom, with heightened colour, but looking at Cale with an air of something almost like defiance, though his heart misgave him the while.
"Nay, Tom, that is a question you should be able to answer better than I. If there be no cause of offence against you, why, then, do as you will, and go where you will. Yet men have ere now been haled to prison and to the gallows for sins that have been less theirs than those who set them on."
Tom's face was very grave. He was not afraid of adventure and peril; but the thought of prison and disgrace—to say nothing of a felon's death—seemed to paralyze the beating of his heart with a numb sense of horror. Truly, if this sort of danger dogged his steps, the sooner he was out of the country the better for himself!
But he would see Rosamund once more, and spend one happy day in her company. If he went out into the streets, it had better be after the summer dusk had fallen, when Cale took his daughter home. He agreed, therefore, to remain within doors all that day; and he was not sorry he had done so when presently he observed two of his enemies slowly prowling past the house, scanning the windows furtively, and talking together in very earnest tones.
Could it be possible that these men had been of the company travelling with the troopers that night? Could they have got wind in some mysterious way of what was afoot, and have followed to seek his ruin? Tom had reason to know that these men bore him a grudge, and had threatened revenge, and that they hated Lord Claud equally with himself. Harry Gay had warned him that they were dangerous fellows; and Tom had not lived all this while in London without being well aware that there were ways and means of obtaining information, and that every man had his price. If they suspected him to be concerned in the robbery, they would take every possible means to hunt him down.