The Highwayman (Bailey)/Chapter X
There is reason to believe that from the first Mr. Hadley suspected he was making a fool of himself. This sensation, the common accompaniment of an attempt to do your duty, was just of the right strength to ensure that all his actions should be disastrous. It was, as you see, not strong enough to restrain him from exciting the dull and choleric mind of Sir John Burford; it did not avail to direct the ensuing storm. And then, having first failed to be sufficient check, it developed into a very paralysis.
Startled by the furies he had roused in Alison, Mr. Hadley found that suspicion of his own folly develop into a gruesome conviction. It compelled him to labour with Sir John vehemently until that blundering knight consented to wait before exploding his alarms upon Lady Waverton. Even as the first blundering remonstrances had irritated Alison's wanton will into passionate resolution, so this ensuing vacillation and delay gave it opportunity.
If the tale had been told to Lady Waverton, no doubt but Harry would have been banished from Tetherdown that night. It is likely, indeed, that the ultimate fates of Alison and Harry would have been the same. But many antecedent adventures must have been different or superfluous.
Mr. Hadley was now full of common sense. Mr. Hadley sagely argued with his uncle that they would do more harm than good by carrying their tale to Lady Waverton. The woman was a fool in grain, and whatever she did would surely do it in the silliest way. Tell her a word, and she would swiftly give birth to a scandal which the world would not willingly let die, in which Mr. Harry Boyce, if he were indeed the knave of their hypothesis, might easily find a means to strengthen his grip of Alison. It was better to wait and (so Mr. Hadley with a sour smile) "see which way the cat jumped."
Perhaps Madame Alison, who was no kitten, might not be altogether infatuated. The shock of the afternoon, for all her heroics, might have waked in her some doubt of the charms of Mr. Boyce. The girl was shrewd enough. She had dealt with fortune-hunters before—remember the Scottish lord's son—and shown a humorous appreciation of the tribe. She was not a chit with the green sickness; she was neither so young nor so old that she must needs fall into the arms of any man who made eyes at her. After all, likely enough she was but amusing herself with Mr. Boyce. Not a very delicate business, but they were full-blooded folk, the Lambournes. Remember old Tom, her father: there was a jolly bluff rogue. Well, if miss was but having her fling, it would do no good to tease her.
Thus Mr. Hadley, cautiously recoiling, doubting or hoping he was making the best of things, brought Sir John, in spite of some boilings over, safe back to his home and his jovial daughter.
When Harry and his father rode away from Alison, for once in a while Harry found his father's mood in tune with his own. Colonel Boyce suddenly relapsed from hilarity into a perfect silence. He soon reined his horse to a walk, and his wonted alert, soldierly bearing suffered eclipse. He gave at the back, he was thoughtful, he was melancholy—a very comfortable companion.
"Pray, sir, when do we start for France?" said Harry at length.
"What's that? Egad, you're in a hurry, ain't you? Not to-night nor yet to-morrow. Time enough, time enough. Make the best of it, Harry." It occurred to Harry that his father was preoccupied.
But with that he did not concern himself. He was in too much tumult. It appeared that he would be able to meet Alison in the morning. He did not know whether he was glad. He had been telling himself that he would have snatched at the excuse to fail her, and yet was not sure that if his father had announced instant departure he would not have bidden his father to the devil. But still in a fashion he was angry, in a degree he was frightened. He knew that he would go meet the girl now; he could not help himself—an exasperating state. And when he was with her—her presence now set all his nature rioting—with other folk by, it was hard enough to be sane; when he was alone with her in the wood, what would the wild wench be to him before they parted? There was no love in him. He had no tenderness for her, he did not want to cherish her, serve her, glorify her. Only she made him mad with passion. But, according to his private lights, he was honest, and wished to be, and was therefore commanded to try to save the girl from his wicked will and hers. He despised himself for the gleam of cautious duty. What in the world was worth so much as the rose petals of her face, the round swell of her breast?
"Damme, Harry, a man's a fool to be ambitious," so his father broke in upon this tumult. "Why do we fret and trick after a place, or a purse, or a trifle of power?"
Harry stared at him. "Lord, sir, why are you so moral?"
And then Colonel Boyce began to laugh. "I grow old, I think. Oh, the devil, I never had regrets worse than the morning's headache for last night's wine. I suppose if you live long enough, life's a procession of morning headaches. Well, I vow I've not lived long enough yet, Harry."
"I dare say you are the best judge," Harry admitted.
"There's a higher court, eh? Who knows? Maybe we are all the toys of chance." He shrugged. "Why then, damme, I have never been afraid to take what I chose and wait for the bill. Dodge it, or pay it. Odso, there is no other way for a hungry man."
"Lord, sir, now you are philosophical! What's the matter?"
"Humph, I suppose my stomach is weakening," said Colonel Boyce. "I don't digest things as I did."
In this pensive temper they came back to Tetherdown. The Colonel's servant was waiting for him with letters, and he was seen no more that night. Harry did not know till afterwards that Mr. Waverton, as well as letters, was taken to the Colonel's room.
Madame Alison was left by the exhortations of her anxious friends feeling defiant of all the world. It is a comfortable condition, but, for a passionate girl of twenty-two, fruitful of delusions.
Alison was so far happier than Harry in that she knew what she wanted. You may wonder if you will how Harry Boyce, with nothing handsome about him but his legs, could rouse in the girl just such a wild longing as her beauty set ablaze in him. These problems, comforting to the conceit of man, are numerous. And, as usual, madame had dreamed her gentleman into a wonderful fellow. The overthrow of the highwayman became from the first a splendid achievement. Sure, Mr. Boyce must be of rare courage and strength, even as he was deliciously adroit, and that insolent air with which he did his devoir gave one a sweet thrill.
Afterwards, he progressed in her imagination from victory to victory. What served him best was his capacity for puzzling her. That its hero should want to keep such a gallant affair secret proved him of amazing modesty or amazing pride—perhaps both—a titillating combination. It surprised her more that he should dare rebuff the advances of Miss Lambourne. Madame knew very well the power of her beauty over men. If she gave one half an inch she expected that he should be instantly mad to get an ell of her. But here was Mr. Boyce, though she gave him a good many inches, as supercilious about her as if he were a woman. It was incredible that the creature had no warm blood in him. Indeed, she had proof—she could still make herself feel the ache of his grasp in the wood—that he was on occasion as fierce as any woman need want a man. Why, then, monsieur must be defying her out of wanton pride. A marvellous fellow, who dared think himself too good for her.
She made no account of all his wise, honest talk about being poor while she was rich. To her temper it was impossible that a man who wanted her in his arms should stop to weigh his purse and hers, or to consider what the world would say of him for wooing her. All that must be mere fencing, mere mockery.
To be sure, he fenced mighty cleverly. The smug meekness which he put on when she attacked him before others was bewildering. If she had never seen him in action she must have been deceived. And, faith, it seemed certain that he wanted to deceive her, to put her off, to put her aside. The haughty gentleman dared believe that he could be very comfortable without Miss Lambourne. It must not be allowed. He was by far too fine a fellow to be let go his way. Faith, it was mighty noble, this self-sufficient power of his, capable of anything, caring for nothing, hiding itself behind an impenetrable mask, and living a secret life of its own. She was on fire to enter into him and take possession, and use him for herself.
So she was driven by a double need, knew it, and was not the least ashamed. She longed to have Harry Boyce in her arms and his grip cruel upon her. But also she wanted to conquer him and hold his mind at her order. She imagined him under her direction winning all manner of fame. And she believed herself mightily in love….
There is a moss on the birch trunks which makes a colour of singular charm, a soft, delicate, grey green. A hood of that colour embraced Alison's black hair and the glow of the dark eyes and her raspberry lips. The cloak of the same colour she drew close about her with one gauntleted hand, so that it confessed her shape.
The birches could still show a few golden leaves, though each moment another went whirling away as the crests bowed and tossed before the wind. In the brown bracken beneath Harry Boyce stood waiting. His graces were set off with his customary rusty black. His hat was well down upon his bobwig, and he hunched his shoulders against the wind, making a picture of melancholy discomfort. He rocked to and fro a little, according to a habit of his when he was excited.
Alison was very close to him before she stopped.
"What have you come for?" he growled.
She drew a breath, and then, very quietly, "For you," she said.
"You have had enough fun with me, ma'am."
Her breast was touching him, and he did not draw back.
"Then why did you come?" She laughed.
"Because I'm a fool."
"A fool to want me?"
"By God, yes. You know that, you slut."
"No. You would be a fool if you didn't, you—man."
"Be careful." Harry flushed.
"Oh Lud, was I made to be careful?"
He gripped her hand, and, after a moment, "Take off your hood," he muttered.
"Is that all?" She laughed, and let it fall from hair and neck, and looked as though sunlight had flashed out at her. "Honest gentleman, you are lightly satisfied."
"So are not you, I vow."
She was pleased to answer that with a scrap of a song:
"Jog on, jog on the footpath way,
And merrily hent the stile-a!
A merry heart goes all the way,
A sad one tires in a mile-a."
"Faith, yours is a mighty sad one, Harry. Pray, what are you the better for stripping me of this?" She flirted the hood.
"I can see those wicked colours of yours. Lord, what a fool is a man to go mad for a show of pink and white!"
"And is that all I am?"
Harry shrugged. "Item—a pair of eyes that look sideways; item—a woman's body with arms and sufficient legs."
"Lud, it's an inventory! I'm for sale, then. Well, what's your bid?"
"I've a shilling in my pocket ma'am and want it to buy tobacco."
"Oh, silly, what does a man pay for a woman?"
Harry laughed. "Why, nothing, if she's worth buying."
Then Alison said softly, "Going—going—gone," and clapped her hands and laughed.
"You go beyond me at least," Harry said in a moment.
She put her hands behind her and leaned forward till her bosom pressed upon him lightly, and then, with her head tilted back so that he saw the white curve from under her chin, and the line of the blue vein in it, "You want me, Harry," she said.
"You know that too well, by God."
"Too well for what, sir?"
"Too well for my peace, ma'am." He flushed.
"His peace!" She laughed. "Oh Lud, the dear man wants peace!"
He flung himself upon her, holding her to him as she staggered back, and kissed her till she was gasping for breath, gripped her head to hold it against his kisses, buried his face in the fragrance of her neck. She gave herself, her arms still behind her, offering the swell of her breasts to him, her eyes gay….
"You are mine, now. You're mine, do you hear?" he said unsteadily.
"I want you," she smiled, and was crushed again.
When he let her go, it was to step back and look at her, wondering and intent. She stood something less than her full height, her bosom beating fast. She was all flushed and smiling, but now her eyes were dim and they met his shyly.
"Egad, you're exalting," he said with a wry smile.
"I feel all power when you grasp at me so—power—just power."
"No, faith, you are not. When I hold you to me, when you yield for me, I am all the power there is. Damme, the very life of the world."
"So then," she looked at him through her eyelashes, "and have it so. For it's I who give you all."
"In effect," Harry said: and then, "go to, you make us both mad."
"I am content."
"Yes, and for how long?"
She made an exclamation. "Have I worn out the poor gentleman already?"
"Would you keep yourself for me? Will you wait?"
"Why, what have we to wait for now?"
"Till I am something more than this shabby usher."
"I despise you when you talk so." Her face flamed. "Fie, what's a word and a coat? You have lived with me in your arms. You are what I make of you then. Is it enough, Harry, is it not enough?"
"I'll come to your arms something better before I come again. I am off to France."
"Ah!" Then she studied him for a little while. "You meant to run away, then. Oh, brave Harry! Oh, wise! Pray, are you not ashamed?"
"Yes, shame's the only wear."
"I'll not spare you, I vow."
"Egad, ma'am, mercy never was a virtue of yours."
"Is it mercy you want in a woman?"
"I'll take what I want, not ask for it."
"Why, now you brag! And if there is not in me what monsieur wants?"
"So much the worse for us both. But you should have thought of that before."
"Faith, Harry, you take it sombrely." She made a wry mouth at him. "Pluck up heart. I vow I'll satisfy you."
"You'll not deny me anything you have."
She paused a moment. "Amen, so be it. And must we never smile again?"
"I wonder"—he took her hands; "I wonder, will you be smiling to-morrow when I am away to France."
"Oh, are you still set on that fancy?" She gave a contemptuous laugh. "Prithee, Harry, shall I like you the better for waiting till you have French lace at your neck and a frenchified air?"
"You'll please to wait till I bring Miss Lambourne a fellow who has done something more than snuffle over a servitor's books. I want to prove myself, Alison."
"You have proved yourself on me, sir. What, am I a lean wench in despair to hunger for a snuffling servitor? If you were that, I were not for you. But I know you better, God help me, my Lord Lucifer. Why then, take the goods the gods provide you and say grace over me." Harry shook his head, smiling. "Lord, it's a mule! Pray what do you look to do in France?"
"I am pledged to my father and his policies—to go poking behind the curtains of the war and deal with the go-betweens of princes."
"So. You talk big. Well, I like to hear it. What is the business?"
"My father, if you believe him, has Marlborough's secrets in his pocket and is sent to chaffer for him. You may guess where and why. Queen Anne hath a brother."
Her eyes sparkled. "You like the adventure, Harry?"
"Egad, I begin to think so."
"I love you for that!" she cried, and it was the first time she spoke the word. "Why then, first go with me to church and call me wife!"
He drew in his breath. "By God, do you mean that?"
"Why, don't you mean me honourably?" She gave an unsteady laugh, her eyes mistily kind.
He sprang at her.