Midwinter/Chapter 16

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XVI

BIDS FAREWELL TO AN ENGLISH LADY

Duchess Kitty descended from her chair of justice and came to the fireside, where she let her furs slip from her and stood, a figure of white porcelain, warming her feet at the blaze.

"There was some word of a lady," she said.

Johnson, too, had risen, and though the man's cheeks were gaunt with hunger he had no eye for the food on the table. His mind seemed to be in travail with difficult thoughts.

"The lady, madam," he groaned. "She is in her chamber, unsuspecting. Her husband should be here also. He may enter at any moment."

"He has fled," said Alastair. "Fled, as I take it, to the Whig Dukes for his reward. The man is revealed at last, and his wife must disown him or be tainted by his guilt."

The news seemed to affect Johnson painfully. He cast himself into a chair, which creaked under his weight, and covered his eyes with his hands.

"Why in God's name did you suffer it?" he asked fiercely of Alastair. "I had another plan. … I would have brought the dog to repentance."

"I will yet bring him to justice," said Alastair grimly. "I have a forewarning of it, and to-morrow or next week or next year he will stand up before my sword."

The words gave no comfort to Johnson. He rolled his melancholy eyes and groaned again. "’Twill break her heart," he lamented. "She will know of his infamy—it cannot be hid from her. … Oh, why, why!"

Alastair spoke to the Duchess. "You will tell Lady Norreys that her husband has gone to the Prince. No more. I will make certain that he does not return to Weston, though I have to drag him with my own hands out of Cumberland's closet. … Forgive me, madam, if I appear to command, but this is a tangled matter. Pray take her with you to Amesbury, and keep her out of Oxfordshire, till I send word that it is safe. She must not go to Weston or Chastlecote till she has the news of his death. I will contrive that he die, and 'tis for you to contrive that she thinks his death a hero's."

The Duchess mused. "You are a singular pair of gentlemen, and wondrous tender to the child's feelings. I can see you are both in love with her. Prithee lead me at once to this enchainer of hearts."

The Spainneach's face appeared in the doorway, and his hand beckoned to Alastair.

"My lady's woman has descended and is distracted by the sight of strange servants. It seems her mistress desires Sir John's company, which was promised for this hour, and the maid will not return without a clear answer."

"Say that he is detained," said Alastair, "and add that the Duchess of Queensberry begs the lady's permission to wait upon her."

He turned to the two at the fireplace. "Madam, 'tis time for your mission of charity."

"Repeat me my lesson," she said, standing before him as demure as a schoolgirl.

"You will inform the lady that Sir John Norreys has been summoned in great haste to join his Prince, and has left incontinent, trusting to her loyal heart to condone his seeming heartlessness. Say that he will find means to keep her informed of his welfare. Then press her to travel southward with you, pointing out to her that the war moves southward and she will be travelling the same way as Sir John."

"’Tis a parcel of lies," said the Duchess, "and I am a poor dissembler."

Alastair shrugged his shoulders. "The cause is good and your Grace is a finished actress, when you please."

"But is it not cruel kindness?" she asked. "Were it not better that she should know the truth of her husband, that she might grieve the less when she has news of his end, which I see writ plain in your eyes, sir?"

Johnson broke in. "A thousand times no, madam. If she learns that her trust has been ill placed, her heart will break. She can bear sorrow but not shame. Believe me, I have studied that noble lady."

"So be it. Have the goodness, Captain Maclean, to escort me to this paragon."

Alastair gave her his arm, and, instructed by Johnson—who followed in the wake—conducted the Duchess up the first flight of the staircase to a broad gallery from which the main bedrooms opened. At the end, where were Claudia's rooms, the maid, Mrs. Peckover, stood with a lighted candle to receive them.

But suddenly they halted and stood motionless, listening. A voice was singing, the voice which had sung "Diana" at the Sleeping Deer. The door must have been ajar, for the song rose clear in the corridor, sung low but with such a tension of feeling that every word and bar seemed to vibrate in the air. The Duchess, clinging to Alastair's arm, stood rigid as a statue. "O Love," the voice sang—

 

"O Love, they wrong thee much
That say thy sweet is bitter.
When thy rich fruit is such
As nothing can be sweeter.
Fair house of joy and bliss,
Where truest treasure is,
I do adore thee."

 

The voice hung on the lines for an instant in a tremor of passion. Then it continued to a falling close—

 

"I know thee what thou art,
I serve thee with my heart,
And fall before thee."

 

"I think you do well to be tender of her," the Duchess whispered. "Adieu! I will descend presently and report."

The heavy hand of Johnson clutched his arm before he had reached the foot of the staircase.

"Did you hear that?" the tutor questioned savagely. "She sings of love like an angel of God, and her love is betrayed." He forced Alastair before him, and shut the door of the dining-room behind them. The candles still burned brightly amid the remains of supper, but the logs on the hearth had smouldered low.

Johnson was become the strangest of figures, his sallow face flushed, his eyes rolling like a man in a fit, and a nervousness like palsy affecting his hands and shoulders. But Alastair saw none of these things, for his attention was held by something masterful and noble in the man's face.

"Sit down, Alastair Maclean," he said, "and listen to one who loves you as a brother. Sir, we are both servants of one lady and that is a bond stricter than consanguinity. I am poor and diseased and disconsidered, but I have a duty laid upon me which comes direct from Omnipotence. Sir, I command you to examine into your heart."

He laid a hand on the young man's arm, a hand that trembled violently.

"What are your intentions toward Sir John Norreys?"

"I mean to find him, and, when found, to fight with him and kill him."

"For what reason?"

"Because he is a traitor to my Prince."

"And yet you did not press for the death of the man Kyd, who was the principal whereas Sir John was but the tool. Come, sir, be honest with me; why is the extreme penalty decreed to the less guilty?"

Alastair did not answer at first. Then he said—

"Because Sir John Norreys is the husband of a lady to whom the knowledge of his true nature would be death."

"That reply is nearer the truth, but still far from complete honesty."

Alastair had a sudden flame of wrath. "Do you accuse me of lying?" he asked angrily.

Johnson's face did not change. "Sir, all men are liars," he said. "I strive to make you speak truth to your own soul. The death of Sir John is intended merely to save the lady from the pain of disgrace? On your honour, for no other purpose?"

Alastair did not reply. The other sank his harsh voice to a gentler and kindlier pitch, and the hand on the young man's arm from a menace became a caress.

"I will answer for you. You love the lady. Nay, I do not blame you, for all the world must love her. I love her most deeply, but not as you, for you love with hope, and look some day to make her yours. Therefore you would slay Sir John, and to yourself you say that 'tis to save her from shame, but before God, you know that 'tis to rid yourself of a rival."

The man's eyes were compelling, and his utter honesty was like a fire that burned all shamefastness from the air. Alastair's silence was assent.

"Sir, a lover seeks above all things the good of his mistress. If indeed you love her—and it is honourable that you should—I implore you to consider further in the matter. We are agreed that it is necessary to save her from the shame of the knowledge of her husband's treason, for it is a proud lady who would feel disgrace sharper than death. If that were all, I would bid you god-speed, for Sir John's death would serve that purpose, and you and she are fit mates, being alike young and highly born. After the natural period of mourning was over, you might fairly look to espouse her. But ah, sir, that is not all."

He got to his feet in his eagerness and stood above the young man, one hand splayed on the table, as he had stood that afternoon at the Sleeping Deer.

"Listen, sir. I have watched that child in her going out and coming in, in her joys and melancholies, in her every mood of caprice and earnestness—watched with the quick eye of one who is half lover, half parent. And I have formed most certain conclusions about that high nature. She trusts but once and that wholly; she will love but once, and that with a passion like a consuming fire. If she knew the truth about Sir John, she would never trust mankind again. On that we are agreed. But I go further, sir. If she lost him, she would never love another, but go inconsolable to her grave. It is the way of certain choice spirits."

Alastair made a gesture of dissent.

"Sir, did you not hear her singing?" Johnson asked. "Answer me, heard you ever such a joy of surrender in a mortal voice?"

Alastair could not deny it, for the passionate trilling was still in his ear.

"But your reasoning is flawed," he said. "Granted that my Lady Norreys has given her love once and for all; yet if Sir John remain alive she will presently discover his shame, and for the rest of her days be tormented with honour wounded through affection."

"It need not be," said Johnson, and his voice had sunk to the level of argument from the heights of appeal. "I have studied both of them during the past weeks, and this is my conclusion. She has made a false image of him which she adores, but unless the falsity be proved to the world by some violent revelation she will not discover it. She is a happy self-deceiver, and to the end—unless forcibly enlightened—will take his common clay for gold. As for him—well, he is clay and not gunpowder. He has been moulded into infamy by a stronger man and by his ancestral greed—for, judging by the family here, his race is one of misers. But let him be sufficiently alarmed and shown where his interest lies, and he will relapse to the paths of decorum. Good he will never be, little he must always be, but he may also be respectable. He will not lose his halo in his lady's eyes and they may live out their time happily, and if God wills some portion of the mother's quality may descend to the children."

The thought to Alastair was hideously repellent. To whitewash such a rogue and delude such a lady! Better surely a painful enlightenment than this deceit. He comforted himself with the reflection that it was impossible.

"But by this time Sir John Norreys is with his paymaster, and the mischief is done."

"Not so," said Johnson. "Sir John does not ride to Kingston or to Richmond but to Cumberland himself, and he lies far in the south. He may yet be overtaken and dissuaded."

"By whom?"

"By you, sir."

Alastair laughed loud and bitterly.

"Are you mad, sir? I journey at once to the Prince's camp, for I have news for him that may determine his future conduct. Already I am late in starting. I must order my horse, and bid farewell to the ladies." He moved to the door, and cried instructions to the Spainneach, who smoked a cigarro by the hall fire.

Johnson seized him by the lapels of his coat. "I implore you, sir, by the mercy of God. Follow Sir John and persuade him, compel him, at the sword's point, if need be. The happiness of my darling child depends on it. If you do not go, I must go myself. The Prince's news can wait, for it will be only a few hours' delay at the most. What does it matter whether or not he be in London a day earlier, compared to the well-being of an immortal soul? I beseech you, sir, for the love of Christ Who redeemed us——"

"Tush, man, you are raving," Alastair broke in, and moved to the half-open door. At that moment the Duchess's voice sounded on the stairs.

"Come up, sir," she said. "My lady will receive you before you go, and she bids you bring the other, the clumsy fellow whose name I know not."

Duchess Kitty met him at the door of Claudia's chamber.

"Oh, my dear, she is the very archangel of angels, and of an innocence to make one weep. She will come with me to Amesbury. She dotes on her Sir John and will weary me, I fear, with her rhapsodies, but I am nobly complaisant and flatter her passion. I fear you stand no chance, sir. Her heart is wholly in the rogue's keeping. Enter, for she awaits you."

In the dim panelled room lit by many candles and a leaping fire the figure of the girl sitting up in the great four-poster bed stood out with a startling brilliance. Madam Claudia was dressed to receive him, as she had been in the midnight colloquy at Flambury, in a furred bed-gown and a nightcap of lace and pink satin. But her brown eyes were no longer pools of dancing light. She held out a hand to Alastair with a little sigh.

"I rejoice that you are free from your t-troubles, sir," she said. "’Twas a shameful charge, and I did not credit it, nor truly did Sir John. And justice, they tell me, has been done to the traitor! Sir John was deceived like the rest of you, and 'tis a cunning rogue that can hoodwink Sir John. You are at the end of your mission, sir, and can now engage in the honest business of war."

"And for yourself, my lady?"

"I, too, take the road," she said. "You have heard of her G-grace's kindness. I am fortunate to travel in such g-gentle company. So it is farewell, sir. You ride this night to the Prince, who is at Derby? My dear Sir John has preceded you there. Oh, would that I could be with him!" And with a morsel of cambric she dried a rising tear.

"And you, Puffin," she asked, catching sight of Johnson. "Do you travel south with us?"

"Nay, madam, I go with Captain Maclean to the Prince's camp."

"Bravo!" she cried. "You have declared yourself at last. God prosper you, my gallant gentlemen. I will be there to cheer when you ride behind the Prince into London."

Alastair was scarcely conscious of her words. He saw only her wild wet eyes, compared to which those of the pretty Duchess were like pebbles to stars. It was the child in her that overwhelmed him, the appealing child, trusting utterly with no thought but that all the world was well-disposed to her and her love. He had known many women in his time, though none had touched his cold fancy, but he had never before seen woman's face transfigured with so innocent an exaltation. The sadness in it was only the anxiety of a soul that trembled for the perpetuation of an unbelievable joy. He was nothing to her, nor was any man except the one; the virgin garden of her heart was enclosed with impenetrable defences. The truth moved him not to irritation, but to pity and a protecting care. He could not mar a thing so rare, and if its foundations were rotten he would be in league to strengthen them. For the moment he was not the lover, but the guardian, who would perjure his soul to keep alive a childish paradise.

He raised her hand and kissed it. "I am your very humble and devoted servant," he said. And then she did a thing for which he was not prepared, for with a little cry she put her hands over her eyes and wept.

He hurried from the room without looking back. He had made a decision which he found was like a dry patch of ground in the midst of rising floods, for gathering from every corner of his soul were dark and unplumbed tides.

As he mounted, the Spainneach spoke: "He has gone by Milford and the Ernshawbank. Likely he will sleep an hour or two at the Pegtop. You might find him there if you haste."

Johnson's horse had also been brought, and its rider had some trouble in mounting.

"You will delay me, sir, if you insist on keeping me company," said Alastair.

"I am a strong rider when I am once in the saddle," said the other humbly. "But why this hurry? You will be in Derby long ere daybreak."

"I do not ride to Derby, but down the vale to overtake a certain gentleman."

He heard Johnson mutter a fervent "God be thanked" as he turned for a last look at the house. In an upper floor there was a glow of firelight and candlelight through the curtains of unshuttered windows. There lay Claudia, stammering her gentle confidences to Duchess Kitty, but with her thoughts ranging the hill-roads in the wake of her worthless lover. And from one of those dark windows two grey beldams were peering into the night and trembling for the riches that were the price of their souls.