Helena's Path/Chapter 12
The Marchesa's last words to Lady Norah betrayed the state of her mind. While the question of the path was pending, she had been unable to think of anything else; until it was settled she could think of nobody except of the man in whose hands the settlement lay. Whether Lynborough attracted or repelled, he at least occupied and filled her thoughts. She had come to recognize where she stood and to face the position. Stillford's steady pessimism left her no hope from an invocation of the law; Lynborough's dexterity and resource promised her no abiding victory—at best only precarious temporary successes—in a private continuance of the struggle. Worst of all—whilst she chafed or wept, he laughed! Certainly not to her critical friends, hardly even to her proud self, would she confess that she lay in her antagonist's mercy; but the feeling of that was in her heart. If so, he could humiliate her sorely.
Could he spare her? Or would he? Try how she might, it was hard to perceive how he could spare her without abandoning his right. That she was sure he would not do; all she heard of him, every sharp intuition of him which she had, the mere glimpse of his face as he passed by on Sandy Nab, told her that.
But if he consented to pay a small—a nominal—rent, would not her pride be spared? No. That would be victory for him; she would be compelled to surrender what she had haughtily refused, in return for something which she did not want and which was of no value. If that were a cloak for her pride, the fabric of it was terribly threadbare. Even such concession as lay in such an offer she had wrung from him by setting his friends against him; would that incline him to tenderness? The offer might leave his friends still unreconciled; what comfort was that to her when once the fight and the excitement of countering blow with blow were done—when all was over? And it was more likely that what seemed to her cruel would seem to Stabb and Roger reasonable—men had a terribly rigid sense of reason in business matters. They would return to their allegiance; her friends would be ranged on the same side; she would be alone—alone in humiliation and defeat. From that fate in the end only Lynborough himself could rescue her; only the man who threatened her with it could avert it. And how could even he, save by a surrender which he would not make? Yet if he found out a way?
Roger Wilbraham escorts Lady Norah back to Nab Grange.
The thought of that possibility—though she could devise or imagine no means by which it might find accomplishment—carried her toward Lynborough in a rush of feeling. The idea—never wholly lost even in her moments of anger and dejection—came back—the idea that all the time he had been playing a game, that he did not want the wounds to be mortal, that in the end he did not hate. If he did not hate, he would not desire to hurt. But he desired to win. Could he win without hurting? Then there was a reward for him—applause for his cleverness, and gratitude for his chivalry.
Stretching out her arms toward Scarsmoor Castle, she vowed that according to his deed she could hate or love Lord Lynborough. The next day was to decide that weighty question.
The fateful morning arrived—the last day of the armistice—the twenty-third. The ladies were sitting on the lawn after breakfast when Stillford came out of the house with a quick step and an excited air.
"Marchesa," he said, "the Embassy has arrived! Stabb and Wilbraham are at the front door, asking an audience of you. They bring the proposal!"
The Marchesa laid down her book; Miss Gilletson made no effort to conceal her agitation.
"Why didn't they come by the path?" cried Norah.
"They couldn't very well; Lynborough's sent them in a carriage—with postilions and four horses," Stillford answered gravely. "The postilions appear to be amused, but the Ambassadors are exceedingly solemn."
The Marchesa's spirits rose. If the piece were to be a comedy, she could play her part! The same idea was in Stillford's mind. "He can't mean to be very unpleasant if he plays the fool like this," he said, looking round on the company with a smile.
"Admit the Ambassadors!" cried the Marchesa gaily.
The Ambassadors were ushered on to the lawn. They advanced with a gravity befitting the occasion, and bowed low to the Marchesa. Roger carried a roll of paper of impressive dimensions. Stillford placed chairs for the Ambassadors and, at a sign from the Marchesa, they seated themselves.
"What is your message?" asked the Marchesa. Suddenly nervousness and fear laid hold of her again; her voice shook a little.
"We don't know," answered Stabb. "Give me the document, Roger."
Roger Wilbraham handed him the scroll.
"We are charged to deliver this to your Excellency's adviser, and to beg him to read it to you in our presence." He rose, delivered the scroll into Stillford's hands, and returned, majestic in his bulk, to his seat.
"You neither of you know what's in it?" the Marchesa asked.
They shook their heads.
The Marchesa took hold of Norah's hand and said quietly, "Please read it to us, Mr. Stillford. I should like you all to hear."
"That was also Lord Lynborough's desire," said Roger Wilbraham.
Stillford unrolled the paper. It was all in Lynborough's own hand—written large and with fair flourishes. In mockery of the institution he hated, he had cast it in a form which at all events aimed at being legal; too close scrutiny on that score perhaps it would not abide successfully.
"Silence while the document is read!" said Stillford; and he proceeded to read it in a clear and deliberate voice:—
"‘Sir Ambrose Athelstan Caverly, Baronet, Baron Lynborough of Lynborough in the County of Dorset and of Scarsmoor in the County of Yorkshire, unto her Excellency Helena Vittoria Maria Antonia, Marchesa di San Servolo, and unto All to whom these Presents Come, Greeting. Whereas the said Lord Lynborough and his predecessors in title have been ever entitled as of right to pass and repass along the path called Beach Path leading across the lands of Nab Grange from the road bounding the same on the west to the seashore on the east thereof, and to use the said path by themselves, their agents and servants, at their pleasure, without let or interference from any person or persons whatsoever——’"
Stillford paused and looked at the Marchesa. The document did not begin in a conciliatory manner. It asserted the right to use Beach Path in the most uncompromising way.
"Go on," commanded the Marchesa, a little flushed, still holding Norah's hand.
"‘And Whereas the said Lord Lynborough is desirous that his rights as above defined shall receive the recognition of the said Marchesa, which recognition has hitherto been withheld and refused by the said Marchesa: And Whereas great and manifold troubles have arisen from such refusal: And Whereas the said Lord Lynborough is desirous of dwelling in peace and amity with the said Marchesa——’"
"There, Helena, you see he is!" cried Norah triumphantly.
"I really must not be interrupted," Stillford protested. "‘Now Therefore the said Lord Lynborough, moved thereunto by divers considerations and in chief by his said desire to dwell in amity and goodwill, doth engage and undertake that, in consideration of his receiving a full, gracious, and amicable recognition of his right from the said Marchesa, he shall and will, year by year and once a year, to wit on the Feast of St. John Baptist, also known as Midsummer Day——’"
"Why, that's to-morrow!" exclaimed Violet Dufaure.
Once more Stillford commanded silence. The Terms of Peace were not to be rudely interrupted just as they were reaching the most interesting point. For up to now nothing had come except a renewed assertion of Lynborough's right!
"‘That is to say the twenty-fourth day of June—repair in his own proper person, with or without attendants as shall seem to him good, to Nab Grange or such other place as may then and on each occasion be the abode and residence of the said Marchesa, and shall and will present himself in the presence of the said Marchesa at noon. And that he then shall and will do homage to the said Marchesa for such full, gracious, and amicable recognition as above mentioned by falling on his knee and kissing the hand of the said Marchesa. And if the said Lord Lynborough shall wilfully or by neglect omit so to present himself and so to pay his homage on any such Feast of St. John Baptist, then his said right shall be of no effect and shall be suspended (And he hereby engages not to exercise the same) until he shall have purged his contempt or neglect by performing his homage on the next succeeding Feast. Provided Always that the said Marchesa shall and will, a sufficient time before the said Feast in each year, apprise and inform the said Lord Lynborough of her intended place of residence, in default whereof the said Lord Lynborough shall not be bound to pay his homage and shall suffer no diminution of his right by reason of the omission thereof. Provided Further and Finally that whensoever the said Lord Lynborough shall duly and on the due date as in these Presents stipulated present himself at Nab Grange or elsewhere the residence for the time being of the said Marchesa, and claim to be admitted to the presence of the said Marchesa and to perform his homage as herein prescribed and ordered, the said Marchesa shall not and will not, on any pretext or for any cause whatsoever, deny or refuse to accept the said homage so duly proffered, but shall and will in all gracious condescension and neighbourly friendship extend and give her hand to the said Lord Lynborough, to the end and purpose that, he rendering and she accepting his homage in all mutual trust and honourable confidence, Peace may reign between Nab Grange and Scarsmoor Castle so long as they both do stand. In Witness whereof the said Lord Lynborough has affixed his name on the Eve of the said Feast of St. John Baptist.—Lynborough.’"
Stillford ended his reading, and handed the scroll to the Marchesa with a bow. She took it and looked at Lynborough's signature. Her cheeks were flushed, and her lips struggled not to smile. The rest were silent. She looked at Stillford, who smiled back at her and drew from his pocket—a stylographic pen.
"Yes," she said, and took it.
She wrote below Lynborough's name: "In Witness whereof, in a desire for peace and amity, in all mutual trust and honorable confidence, the said Marchesa has affixed her name on this same Eve of the said Feast of St. John Baptist.—Helena di San Servolo."
She handed it back to Stillford. "Let it dry in the beautiful sunlight," she said.
The Ambassadors rose to their feet. She rose too and went over to Stabb with outstretched hands. A broad smile spread over Stabb's spacious face. "It's just like Ambrose," he said to her as he took her hands. "He gets what he wants—but in the prettiest way!"
"They advanced with a gravity befitting the occasion, and bowed low to the Marchesa."
She answered him in a low voice: "A very knightly way of saving a foolish woman's pride." She raised her voice. "Bid Lord Lynborough—ay, Sir Ambrose Athelstan Caverly, Baron Lynborough, attend here at Nab Grange to pay his homage to-morrow at noon." She looked round on them all, smiling now openly, the red in her cheeks all triumphant over her olive hue. "Say I will give him private audience to receive his homage and to ask his friendship." With that the Marchesa departed, somewhat suddenly, into the house.
Amid much merriment and reciprocal congratulations the Ambassadors were honourably escorted back to their coach and four.
"Keep your eye on the Castle to-night," Roger Wilbraham whispered to Norah as he pressed her hand.
They drove off, Stillford leading a gay "Hurrah!"
At night indeed Scarsmoor Castle was a sight to see. Every window of its front blazed with light; rockets and all manner of amazing bright devices rose to heaven. All Fillby turned out to see the show; all Nab Grange was in the garden looking on.
All save Helena herself. She had retreated to her own room; there she sat and watched alone. She was in a fever of feeling and could not rest. She twisted one hand round the other, she held up before her eyes the hand which was destined to receive homage on the morrow. Her eyes were bright, her cheeks flushed, her red lips trembled.
"Alas, how this man knows his way to my heart!" she sighed.
The blaze at Scarsmoor Castle died down. A kindly darkness fell. Under its friendly cover she kissed her hand to the Castle, murmuring "To-morrow!"