A Proposal of Marriage
A PROPOSAL OF MARRIAGE
By MARJORIE BOWEN
CAPTAIN ALLAN WEDDERBURN, of His Highness the Duke of Cumberland's Regiment, sat in his private room in the dismantled Highland castle that had become the temporary headquarters of himself and his men.
He looked from the narrow lancet window at the wild Highland scenery, and his handsome face wore an expression of discontent. He was a loyal Government man, a keen soldier, and he longed to be distinguishing himself in some active service, instead of lounging here in charge of an unimportant position and an even more unimportant prisoner, a son of one of the chiefs concerned in the late Rising, who had been captured straggling from the Culloden rout, and now awaited execution in Edinburgh or London.
Captain Wedderburn was disgusted with such small prey; he, in common with all the Government officers, longed to make the notable capture of that illustrious rebel, the Young Pretender, as the English called him, the Chevalier St. George, the son of him whom the Jacks styled James III.
It vexed Allan Wedderburn to the heart that he was tied to this irksome and trifling duty when he might have been engaged in the pursuit for the great prize which would bring honour and renown and substantial reward. His grey eyes gazed at the distant strip of sea, veiled by the afternoon mist of a dull day, and he speculated bitterly as to the likelihood of Charles Stuart slipping down to the coast, under cover of some such mist, and escaping in the French barque that was sure to be lying in wait in the offing.
"Not if I had a free hand," he thought; "not if I was able to scour the country!"
And he reflected bitterly on the authorities who kept him thus idle when he felt within him the capacity for greater service.
True, he had been told to keep a sharp look-out and to guard the coast, but that, he told himself, was foolishness the fugitive would never choose as his point of escape this spot, so well guarded by the redcoats, when miles of the sea were unwatched.
Captain Wedderburn yawned with boredom and vexation, and turned over for the hundredth time the letter sent him by one of his lieutenants, describing the disguise in which the unfortunate aspirant to the throne of England was known to be travelling: "He goes as a man-servant to Mrs. Grace Hume, a lady of a most precise, puritanical demeanour, who is travelling with her brother. They were lost sight of a week ago, but there is little chance of the Prince having changed his guise. Keep, therefore, a steady look-out for any such."
Allan Wedderburn folded up the letter with a gesture of annoyance.
He felt a great vexation against Mrs. Grace Hume, the lady of the precise, puritanical demeanour, who was so successfully outwitting His Majesty's officers. Neither she nor her party had been traced; Captain Wedderburn felt sourly certain that they never would be. He yawned again and rose; it was the hour when he had to pay his formal and useless visit to his prisoner and see the guards changed about his prison.
As he sauntered across the fine but rather bare and dreary room, which was hung with antique tapestry and furnished with handsome but worn pieces, his soldier-servant entered.
"A lady wishes to see you, sir, with most urgent and important news."
Allan Wedderburn disguised his curiosity.
"Let her send her message up."
"She has already, sir, declined to do that."
"It is impossible for me to see anyone now," said the officer curtly. Then he wavered. "Of what deportment is she?"
"Of the quality, sir, and handsome."
Allan Wedderburn raised his eyebrows.
"Is it possible, in this wilderness? I will see her, Saunders, for a few minutes, and no more."
When he was alone, the Captain glanced carelessly at himself in the tortoiseshell-framed mirror that hung over the low fireplace. In London he had been considered a personable man, and no ill favourite with the ladies. For a moment he forgot his dulness and his vexation, and pulled out his neat cravat with an air of some complacency.
When the lady entered he was standing at attention, very courteous, smart, and elegant, from his powdered military side-curls to his polished boots.
She came in swiftly, closed the door, hesitated a moment, then advanced, removing, as she did so, the riding-mask she wore, and looking round it with a rather breathless eagerness.
She was indeed handsome and of the quality. In one glance the Captain saw that. She wore a square riding-jacket of a dark emerald green colour, a full skirt of a deep violet-coloured silk, and a long scarf of a rich tartan in which was much orange and violet-purple.
A wide hat of black felt, with a black feather, shaded a charming brunette face and loose curls of a deep and glowing brown.
Allan Wedderburn bowed very low.
The lady's full lips parted, and her eyes, that were the brown of a dead leaf, yet bright, fluttered a glance over the person of the Captain.
"You will be wondering who I am," she said.
"Something more than mortal, madam," responded the Captain gallantly, putting forward the tapestry-covered chair he had been using himself.
The lady sank into it, billowing her skirts.
"I'm the sister of Hector Clanronald," she stated. "You will have been hearing of Hector Clanronald?"
He had indeed, and his manner became even more respectful and deferential.
"The gentleman is the most powerful of the loyal chieftains. As such, all His Majesty's soldiers have heard of him," he replied. "I am honoured by the acquaintance of Miss Clanronald."
He ventured a smile, and she responded with a delicious look, shy and yet provoking.
"Ah, Captain," she said, "it is a dull life you are leading here, isn't it, now?"
"It was till you entered, madam."
"Ah, be done with your compliments; it is not them I'm after."
She gave a little sigh and pressed a scrap of a handkerchief like a silk cobweb to her full and rosy lips.
"You will be marvelling at Nancy Clanronald coming to you like this, Captain Wedderburn?" she added.
"I marvel at nothing, madam, save my good fortune."
"You've the London manner, sir. Pray consider I am a Highland maiden, and spare me your flattery." And she smiled again in a way that belied her words.
"You have not spent your life among these barbarous hills," he declared.
"No," she admitted, playing with her mask. "I've been as far as Edinburgh."
The clock struck the half-hour.
"Heaven help me!" exclaimed the Captain, thinking of his visit of inspection. "I'm late for a duty of—— If you will spare my company for half an hour——"
"I have not told you my errand yet," she remarked calmly.
He stood divided between his duty and desire to prolong the interview.
"If you could await my return——"
"What I have to say is a matter of moments," said Miss Clanronald.
"I am the most unfortunate of men, but my affair is urgent."
"I have a prisoner."
"Yes. I am due to visit him."
"Is he so important?" she smiled.
He blushed at her slight air of mockery.
"No, but my duty——"
She rose with a little air of laughter.
"Oh, your duty, Captain Wedderburn! What is your duty?"
"At present to look after this silly young man, and to search for the Pretender."
He turned resolutely towards the door.
"The Pretender!" cried Miss Clanronald. "Why, that is a romantic story, is it not? They say he travels disguised as a woman."
"No, as groom to a Mrs. Grace Hume, madam."
"Ah, you have heard that? We were told that story, too."
"I have reason to believe it is true."
She fixed her fine eyes on him.
"Would you like to capture Charles Stuart, Captain Wedderburn?"
"I would give half my income to do so!" he declared, with energy.
"Do you think he will be caught?"
"Certainly. He is a young hot-head, a fool, and his partisans are now only a few silly women as this Mrs. Hume."
"I hope you will capture the Prince," she said.
He had his hand out to the door.
"You have any news, madam?" he asked, pausing.
"Then, if you will forgive me——"
She was suddenly imperative, commanding, in earnest; she stretched out her hand to stay his going.
He came back into the room.
"Have you ever seen me before, Allan Wedderburn?" she asked.
He was amazed to see that she was pale, and that tears were in her beautiful eyes.
"Why, never, madam!"
"Look at me earnestly, sir."
She came nearer to him and held up her face. He gazed at her a little bewildered, a little enamoured by her charm and her nearness. He marked the strands of hair across her brow, the faint blue veins showing at her temples, the moisture on her parted lips, his own reflection in her eyes.
"Have you ever seen me before?" she repeated gravely.
"Why, never!" he stammered.
Her manner suddenly changed; she moved away with a gay smile.
"Why, I was sure you had seen me, Captain Wedderburn. When you have been out for your lonely rides, I have been near you more than once."
"On my soul, madam——"
"Have you never seen a horsewoman coming through the mist in the afternoon, when you have been abroad, sir?"
"Why, you must be in love to notice so little as that! Why, it is a bad look-out for the Prince you'll be!"
He blushed with vexation, but, beat his brains as he would, he could not recall having seen any horsewomen when he had been abroad.
"If you will come to your errand, madam," he said a little stiffly, pulling out his watch.
"You are thinking of your prisoner, poor wretch?"
"Of my duty, madam."
"Oh, la, you are so stern, and what I have to say is so difficult!"
He saw tears again in her eyes, and noticed that she was trembling.
"Are you married, sir?" she asked.
He stared, confounded for a moment.
"That was what I asked you."
"I am neither married nor betrothed, Miss Clanronald."
"In love, perhaps?" she asked softly.
"Why, madam, I hardly understand. I must leave you."
"Ah, don't go. Captain Wedderburn!" she cried coaxingly. "Listen to me, won't you? Sure, I shall be thinking your prisoner is but an excuse to be rid of me. Ah, can't you be staying?"
He stopped; once more his hand dropped from the door.
"Miss Clanronald," he said, in some agitation, "if you would tell me your errand——"
"Take my hand," she answered.
She held it out to him, a slim hand in a glove of white doeskin, then withdrew it and gave it to him bare, slipping off the gauntlet with nervous fingers. He took it, felt it quiver in his grasp, and was strangely abashed.
She looked at him very gravely, then suddenly gave a heartless laugh.
"Are you not curious?" she demanded.
"You fool me, madam!" he answered haughtily, and withdrew his hand.
Resolutely he turned towards the door.
"Oh, listen to me, sir!" she cried, and there was a note like desperation in her voice.
"Madam, I believe that I have listened long enough. You must excuse me."
He had the door open.
"Captain Wedderburn," said the lady, very pale, "I bring you a proposal of marriage!"
The door-handle slipped through his fingers.
"A proposal of marriage?"
He came back towards her chair.
"Ah, there, now," she laughed, "if you are not frightened, sir!"
"You are a very charming woman, Miss Clanronald, but mighty provoking!"
She rose, hands clasped on her bosom.
"Listen. The lady is young, passable, very wealthy, very well born, free, and very enamoured of you."
"Of me?" He coloured, despite bis composure. "But this is impossible!"
"Fie! Are you so modest as that? Yet she is not the first, I'll swear. Come, sir, don't stand so dumb. Don't you take me?"
"By Heaven, I do not!" he cried, bewildered. "And I have my duty——"
"Oh, sir, 'tis myself who admire you! And if you will ask Clanronald for my hand—— Why, you are amazed! Am I so hideous? The best match in the Highlands, sir!" He stood dumfounded, unable to speak. "I've been in love with you so long," she smiled, holding out her hands to him "ever since you came here!"
"But three weeks!" he gasped.
"Long enough. What have you to say to me, Captain Wedderburn?"
He sank into a chair and stared at her. Very lovely she was, without a doubt, and the sister of Clanronald, wealthy, noble.
"You abash me," he stammered, "you overwhelm me. I—forgive me——"
A distant boom of a gun broke the pause. The lady raised her downcast head, and a flash came into her eyes.
"What is that?" asked the Captain, rising to his feet. She rose, too, and seemed about to answer, when the door was hastily opened and another officer entered. The lady raised her mask before her face and stepped into the window embrasure.
"Wedderburn," cried the new-comer, "we have the Prince!"
"Safe—here in this house! I have just galloped with the news. Wyndham Brew told me to ride for my life and tell you. Man, 'tis your prisoner!"
"My prisoner?" shrieked the Captain.
"The very same. The youth he changed with has been captured—the truth is out. You are to take him to London."
"Parted from him when they heard the disguise was known. Ah, a lady!"
"The sister of Hector Clanronald," said the Captain, still giddy and bewildered.
"The sister of Hector Clanronald?" repeated the other. "Why, he has no sister! I know the family well."
"Has no sister?"
"My life on it!"
The lady came forward, dropping the mask.
"Mrs. Grace Hume, at your service," she said. "You will remember me, Major Murray?"
"Mrs. Hume it is," said that officer. "What is the meaning of this, Wedderburn?"
"I'll tell you," said she, very soft. "It means we snap our fingers at you once more. The Prince has escaped you!"
"Escaped?" cried both men at once.
"I heard just now the gun, the signal that he was safe on board the French boat," she replied, "and my part is at an end—an end!"
"You came to fool me!" exclaimed Allan Wedderburn fiercely.
"We tampered with the Highland guard you set on His Highness. The two of them escaped hours ago. I came to distract you and give them more time, that is all."
He eyed her. Pale he was and frowning.
"Arrest her!" said the other man, in a fury.
She shivered! She looked very tired and grave.
"And you such a puritanical, precise lady!" murmured Allan Wedderburn.
"Think the more of what I did, then," she answered him. "Think the more of these silly women who are loyal to Charles Stuart." She looked from one to another. "I am under arrest?" she added.
"Take your liberty," said the Captain.
She moved towards the door. The boom of another gun gave the last defiance of the French frigate that took Charles Stuart from England for ever, and the woman who had saved him, and who would never see him again, listened, then left the castle and rode into the mists of the Scottish afternoon.