By Rafael Sabatini
II. SIR ROWLAND TO THE RESCUE
III. DIANA SCHEMES
IV. TERMS OF SURRENDER
V. THE ENCOUNTER
VI. THE CHAMPION
VII. THE NUPTIALS of RUTH WESTMACOTT
VIII. BRIDE AND GROOM
IX. MR. TRENCHARD'S COUNTERSTROKE
X. THEIR OWN PETARD
XI. THE MARPLOT
XII. AT THE FORD
XIII "PRO RELIGIONE ET LIBERTATE"
XIV. HIS GRACE IN COUNSEL
XV. LYME OF THE KING
XVI. PLOTS AND PLOTTERS
XVII. MR. WILDING'S RETURN
XIX. THE BANQUET
XX. THE RECKONING
XXI. THE SENTENCE
XXII. THE EXECUTION
XXIII. MR. WILDING'S BOOTS
CHAPTER I. POT-VALIANCE
Then drink it thus, cried the rash young fool, and splashed the contents of his cup full into the face of Mr. Wilding even as that gentleman, on his feet, was proposing to drink to the eyes of the young fool's sister.
The moments that followed were full of interest. A stillness, a brooding, expectant stillness, fell upon the company—and it numbered a round dozen—about Lord Gervase's richly appointed board. In the soft candlelight the oval table shone like a deep brown pool, in which were reflected the gleaming silver and sparkling crystal that seemed to float upon it.
Blake sucked in his nether-lip, his florid face a thought less florid than its wont, his prominent blue eyes a thought more prominent. Under its golden periwig old Nick Trenchard's wizened countenance was darkened by a scowl, and his fingers, long, swarthy, and gnarled, drummed fretfully upon the table. Portly Lord Gervase Scoresby—their host, a benign and placid man of peace, detesting turbulence—turned crimson now in wordless rage. The others gaped and stared—some at young Westmacott, some at the man he had so grossly affronted—whilst in the shadows of the hall a couple of lacqueys looked on amazed, all teeth and eyes.
Mr. Wilding stood, very still and outwardly impassive, the wine trickling from his long face, which, if pale, was no paler than its habit, a vestige of the smile with which he had proposed the toast still lingering on his thin lips, though departed from his eyes. An elegant gentleman was Mr. Wilding, tall, and seeming even taller by virtue of his exceeding slenderness. He had the courage to wear his own hair, which was of a dark brown and very luxuriant; dark brown too were his sombre eyes, low-lidded and set at a downward slant. From those odd eyes of his, his countenance gathered an air of superciliousness tempered by a gentle melancholy. For the rest, it was scored by lines that stamped it with the appearance of an age in excess of his thirty years.
Thirty guineas' worth of Mechlin at his throat was drenched, empurpled and ruined beyond redemption, and on the breast of his blue satin coat a dark patch was spreading like a stain of blood.
Richard Westmacott, short, sturdy, and fair-complexioned to the point of insipidity, watched him sullenly out of pale eyes, and waited. It was Lord Gervase who broke at last the silence—broke it with an oath, a thing unusual in one whose nature was almost woman-mild.
"As God's my life!" he spluttered wrathfully, glowering at Richard. "To have this happen in my house! The young fool shall make apology!"
"With his dying breath," sneered Trenchard, and the old rake's words, his tone, and the malevolent look he bent upon the boy increased the company's malaise.
"I think," said Mr. Wilding, with a most singular and excessive sweetness, "that what Mr. Westmacott has done he has done because he apprehended me amiss."
"No doubt he'll say so," opined Trenchard with a shrug, and had caution dug into his ribs by Blake's elbow, whilst Richard made haste to prove him wrong by saying the contrary.
"I apprehended you exactly, sir," he answered, defiance in his voice and wine-flushed face.
"Ha!" clucked Trenchard, irrepressible. "He's bent on self-destruction. Let him have his way, in God's name."
But Wilding seemed intent upon showing how long-suffering he could be. He gently shook his head. "Nay, now," said he. "You thought, Mr. Westmacott, that in mentioning your sister, I did so lightly. Is it not so?"
"You mentioned her, and that is all that matters," cried Westmacott. "I'll not have her name on your lips at any time or in any place—no, nor in any manner." His speech was thick from too much wine.
"You are drunk," cried indignant Lord Gervase with finality.
"Pot-valiant," Trenchard elaborated.
Mr. Wilding set down at last the glass which he had continued to hold until that moment. He rested his hands upon the table, knuckles downward, and leaning forward he spoke impressively, his face very grave; and those present—knowing him as they did—were one and all lost in wonder at his unusual patience.
"Mr. Westmacott," said he, "I do think you are wrong to persist in affronting me. You have done a thing that is beyond forgiveness, and yet, when I offer you this opportunity of honourably retrieving..." He shrugged his shoulders, leaving the sentence incomplete.
The company might have spared its deep surprise at so much mildness. There was but the semblance of it. Wilding proceeded thus of purpose set, and under the calm mask of his long white face his mind worked wickedly and deliberately. The temerity of Westmacott, whose nature was notoriously timid, had surprised him for a moment. But anon, reading the boy's mind as readily as though it had been a scroll unfolded for his instruction, he saw that Westmacott, on the strength of his position as his sister's brother, conceived himself immune. Mr. Wilding's avowed courtship of the lady, the hopes he still entertained of winning her, despite the aversion she was at pains to show him, gave Westmacott assurance that Mr. Wilding would never elect to shatter his all too slender chances by embroiling himself in a quarrel with her brother. And—reading him, thus, aright—Mr. Wilding put on that mask of patience, luring the boy into greater conviction of the security of his position. And Richard, conceiving himself safe in his entrenchment behind the bulwarks of his brothership to Ruth Westmacott, and heartened further by the excess of wine he had consumed, persisted in insults he would never otherwise have dared to offer.
"Who seeks to retrieve?" he crowed offensively, boldly looking up into the other's face. "It seems you are yourself reluctant." And he laughed a trifle stridently, and looked about him for applause, but found none.
"You are overrash," Lord Gervase disapproved him harshly.
"Not the first coward I've seen grow valiant at a table," put in Trenchard by way of explanation, and might have come to words with Blake on that same score, but that in that moment Wilding spoke again.
"Reluctant to do what?" he questioned amiably, looking Westmacott so straightly between the eyes that the boy shifted uneasily on his high-backed chair.
Nevertheless, still full of confidence in the unassailability of his position, the mad youth answered, "To cleanse yourself of what I threw at you."
"Fan me, ye winds!" gasped Nick Trenchard, and looked with expectancy at his friend Wilding.
Now there was one factor with which, in basing with such craven shrewdness his calculations upon Mr. Wilding's feelings for his sister, young Richard had not reckoned. He was not to know that Wilding, bruised and wounded by Miss Westmacott's scorn of him, had reached that borderland where love and hate are so merged that they are scarce to be distinguished. Embittered by the slights she had put upon him—slights which his sensitive, lover's fancy had magnified a hundredfold—Anthony Wilding's frame of mind was grown peculiar. Of his love she would have none; his kindness she seemingly despised. So be it; she should taste his cruelty. If she scorned his wooing and forbade him to pursue it, at least it was not hers to deny him the power to hurt; and in hurting her that would not be loved by him some measure of fierce and bitter consolation seemed to await him.
He realized, perhaps, not quite all this—and to the unworthiness of it all he gave no thought. But he realized enough as he toyed, as cat with mouse, with Richard Westmacott, to know that in striking at her through the worthless person of this brother whom she cherished—and who persisted in affording him this opportunity—a wicked vengeance would be his.
Peace-loving Lord Gervase had heaved himself suddenly to his feet at Westmacott's last words, still intent upon saving the situation.
"In Heaven's name..." he began, when Mr. Wilding, ever calm and smiling, though now a trifle sinister, waved him gently into silence. But that persisting calm of Mr. Wilding's was too much for old Nick Trenchard. He rose abruptly, drawing all eyes upon himself. It was time, he thought, he took a hand in this.
In addition to his affection for Wilding and his contempt for Westmacott, he was filled with a fear that the latter might become dangerous if not crushed at once. Gifted with a shrewd knowledge of men, acquired during a chequered life of much sour experience, old Nick instinctively mistrusted Richard. He had known him for a fool, a weakling, a babbler, and a bibber of wine. Out of such elements a villain is soon compounded, and Trenchard had cause to fear the form of villainy that lay ready to Richard's hand. For it chanced that Mr. Trenchard was second cousin to that famous John Trenchard, so lately tried for treason and acquitted to the great joy of the sectaries of the West, and still more lately—but yesterday, in fact—fled the country to escape the rearrest ordered in consequence of that excessive joy. Like his more famous cousin, Nick Trenchard was one of the Duke of Monmouth's most active agents; and Westmacott, like Wilding, Vallancey, and one or two others at that board, stood, too, committed to the cause of the Protestant Champion.
Out of his knowledge of the boy Trenchard was led to fear that if he were leniently dealt with now, tomorrow, when, sober, he came to realize the grossness of the thing he had done and the unlikelihood of its being forgiven him, there was no saying but that to protect himself he might betray Wilding's share in the plot that was being hatched. That in itself would be bad enough; but there might be worse, for he could scarcely betray Wilding without betraying others and—what mattered most—the Cause itself. He must be dealt with out of hand, Trenchard opined, and dealt with ruthlessly.
"I think, Anthony," said he, "that we have had words enough. Shall you be disposing of Mr. Westmacott to-morrow, or must I be doing it for you?"
With a gasp of dismay young Richard twisted in his chair to confront this fresh and unsuspected antagonist. What danger was this that he had overlooked? Then, even as he turned, Wilding's voice fell on his ear, and each word of the few he spoke was like a drop of icy water on Westmacott's overheated brain.
"I protest you are vastly kind, Nick. But I intend, myself, to have the pleasure of killing Mr. Westmacott." And his smile fell now in mockery upon the disillusioned lad.
Crushed by that bolt from the blue, Richard sat as if stunned, the flush receding from his face until his very lips were livid. The shock had sobered him, and, sobered, he realized in terror what he had done. And yet even sober he was amazed to find that the staff upon which with such security he had leaned should have proved rotten. True he had put much strain upon it; but then he had counted that it would stand much strain.
He would have spoken, but he lacked words, so stricken was he. And even had he done so it is odds none would have heard him, for the late calm was of a sudden turned to garboil. Every man of that company—with the sole exception of Richard himself—was on his feet, and all were speaking at once, in clamouring, excited chorus.
Wilding alone—the butt of their expostulations—stood quietly smiling, and wiped his face at last with a kerchief of finest lawn. Dominating the others in the Babel rose the voice of Sir Rowland Blake—impecunious Blake; Blake lately of the Guards, who had sold his commission as the only thing remaining him upon which he could raise money; Blake, that other suitor for Miss Westmacott's hand, the suitor favoured by her brother.
"You shall not do it, Mr. Wilding," he shouted, his face crimson. "No, by God! You were shamed forever. He is but a lad, and drunk."
Trenchard eyed the short, powerfully built man beside him, and laughed unpleasantly. "You should get yourself bled one of these days, Sir Rowland," he advised. "There may be no great danger yet; but a man can't be too careful when he wears a narrow neckcloth."
Blake—a short, powerfully built man—took no heed of him, but looked straight at Mr. Wilding, who, smiling ever, calmly returned the gaze of those prominent blue eyes.
"You will suffer me, Sir Rowland," said he sweetly, "to be the judge of whom I will and whom I will not meet."
Sir Rowland flushed under that mocking glance and caustic tone. "But he is drunk," he repeated feebly.
"I think," said Trenchard, "that he is hearing something that will make him sober."
Lord Gervase took the lad by the shoulder, and shook him impatiently. "Well?" quoth he. "Have you nothing to say? You did a deal of prating just now. I make no doubt but that even at this late hour if you were to make apology..."
"It would be idle," came Wilding's icy voice to quench the gleam of hope kindling anew in Richard's breast. The lad saw that he was lost, and he is a poor thing, indeed, who cannot face the worst once that worst is shown to be irrevocable. He rose with some semblance of dignity.
"It is as I would wish," said he, but his livid face and staring eyes belied the valour of his words. He cleared his huskiness from his throat. "Sir Rowland," said he, "will you act for me?"
"Not I!" cried Blake with an oath. "I'll be no party to the butchery of a boy unfledged."
"Unfledged?" echoed Trenchard. "Body o' me! 'Tis a matter Wilding will amend to-morrow. He'll fledge him, never fear. He'll wing him on his flight to heaven."
Of set purpose did Trenchard add this fuel to the blazing fire. It was no part of his views that this encounter should be avoided. If Richard Westmacott were allowed to live after what had passed, there were too many tall fellows might go in peril of their lives.
Richard, meanwhile, had turned to the man on his left—young Vallancey, a notorious partisan of the Duke of Monmouth's, a hair-brained gentleman who was his own worst enemy.
"May I count on you, Ned?" he asked.
"Aye—to the death," said Vallancey magniloquently.
"Mr. Vallancey," said Trenchard with a wry twist of his sharp features, "you grow prophetic."
CHAPTER II. SIR ROWLAND TO THE RESCUE
From Scoresby Hall, near Weston Zoyland, young Westmacott rode home that Saturday night to his sister's house in Bridgwater, a sobered man and an anguished. He had committed a folly which was like to cost him his life to-morrow. Other follies had he committed in his twenty-five years—for he was not quite the babe that Blake had represented him, although he certainly looked nothing like his age. But to-night he had contrived to set the crown to all. He had good cause to blame himself and to curse the miscalculation that had emboldened him to launch himself upon a course of insult against this Wilding, whom he hated with all the currish and resentful hatred of the worthless for the man of parts.
But there was more than hate in the affront that he had offered; there was calculation—to an even greater extent than we have seen. It happened that through his own fault young Richard was all but penniless. The pious, nonconformist soul of Sir Geoffrey Lupton—the wealthy uncle from whom he had had great expectations—had been so stirred to anger by Richard's vicious and besotted ways that he had left every guinea that was his, every perch of land, and every brick of edifice to Richard's half-sister Ruth. At present things were not so bad for the worthless boy. Ruth worshipped him. He was a sacred charge to her from their dead father, who, knowing the stoutness of her soul and the feebleness of Richard's, had in dying imposed on her the care and guidance of her graceless brother. But Ruth, in all things strong, was weak with Richard out of her very fondness for him. To what she had he might help himself, and thus it was that things were not so bad with him at present. But when Richard's calculating mind came to give thought to the future he found that this occasioned him some care. Rich ladies, even when they do not happen to be equipped in addition with Ruth's winsome beauty and endearing nature, are not wont to go unmarried. It would have pleased Richard best to have had her remain a spinster. But he well knew that this was a matter in which she might have a voice of her own, and it behoved him betimes to take wise measures where possible husbands were concerned.
The first that came in a suitor's obvious panoply was Anthony Wilding, of Zoyland Chase, and Richard watched his advent with foreboding. Wilding's was a personality to dazzle any woman, despite—perhaps even because of—the reputation for wildness that clung to him. That he was known as Wild Wilding to the countryside is true; but it were unfair—as Richard knew—to attach to this too much importance; for the adoption of so obvious an alliteration the rude country minds needed but a slight encouragement.
From the first it looked as if Ruth might favour him, and Richard's fears assumed more definite shape. If Wilding married her—and he was a bold, masterful fellow who usually accomplished what he aimed at—her fortune and estate must cease to be a pleasant pasture land for bovine Richard. The boy thought at first of making terms with Wilding; the idea was old; it had come to him when first he had counted the chances of his sister's marrying. But he found himself hesitating to lay his proposal before Mr. Wilding. And whilst he hesitated Mr. Wilding made obvious headway. Still Richard dared not do it. There was a something in Wilding's eye that cried him danger. Thus, in the end, since he could not attempt a compromise with this fine fellow, the only course remaining was that of direct antagonism—that is to say, direct as Richard understood directness. Slander was the weapon he used in that secret duel; the countryside was well stocked with stories of Mr. Wilding's many indiscretions. I do not wish to suggest that these were unfounded. Still, the countryside, cajoled by its primitive sense of humour into that alliteration I have mentioned, found that having given this dog its bad name, it was under the obligation of keeping up his reputation. So it exaggerated. Richard, exaggerating those exaggerations in his turn, had some details, as interesting and unsavoury as they were in the main untrue, to lay before his sister.
Now established love, it is well known, thrives wondrously on slander. The robust growth of a maid's feelings for her accepted suitor is but further strengthened by malign representations of his character. She seizes with joy the chance of affording proof of her great loyalty, and defies the world and its evil to convince her that the man to whom she has given her trust is not most worthy of it. Not so, however, with the first timid bud of incipient interest. Slander nips it like a frost; in deadliness it is second only to ridicule.
Ruth Westmacott lent an ear to her brother's stories, incredulous only until she remembered vague hints she had caught from this person and from that, whose meaning was now made clear by what Richard told her, which, incidentally, they served to corroborate. Corroboration, too, did the tale of infamy receive from the friendship that prevailed between Mr. Wilding and Nick Trenchard, the old ne'er-dowell, who in his time—as everybody knew—had come so low, despite his gentle birth, as to have been one of a company of strolling players. Had Mr. Wilding been other than she now learnt he was, he would surely not cherish an attachment for a person so utterly unworthy. Clearly, they were birds of a plumage.
And so, her maiden purity outraged at the thought that she had been in danger of lending a willing ear to the wooing of such a man, she had crushed this love which she blushed to think was on the point of throwing out roots to fasten on her soul, and was sedulous thereafter in manifesting the aversion which she accounted it her duty to foster for Mr. Wilding.
Richard had watched and smiled in secret, taking pride in the cunning way he had wrought this change—that cunning which so often is given to the stupid by way of compensation for the intelligence that has been withheld them.
And now what time discountenanced, Wilding fumed and fretted all in vain, Sir Rowland Blake, fresh from London and in full flight from his creditors, flashed like a comet into the Bridgwater heavens. He dazzled the eyes and might have had for the asking the heart and hand of Diana Horton—Ruth's cousin. Her heart, indeed, he had without the asking, for Diana fell straightway in love with him and showed it, just as he showed that he was not without response to her affection. There were some tender passages between them; but Blake, for all his fine exterior, was a beggar, and Diana far from rich, and so he rode his feelings with a hard grip upon the reins. And then, in an evil hour for poor Diana, young Westmacott had taken him to Lupton House, and Sir Rowland had his first glimpse of Ruth, his first knowledge of her fortune. He went down before Ruth's eyes like a man of heart; he went down more lowly still before her possessions like a man of greed; and poor Diana might console herself with whom she could.
Her brother watched him, appraised him, and thought that in this broken gamester he had a man after his own heart; a man who would be ready enough for such a bargain as Richard had in mind; ready enough to sell what rags might be left him of his honour so that he came by the wherewithal to mend his broken fortunes.
The twain made terms. They haggled like any pair of traders out of Jewry, but in the end it was settled—by a bond duly engrossed and sealed—that on the day that Sir Rowland married Ruth he should make over to her brother certain values that amounted to perhaps a quarter of her possessions. There was no cause to think that Ruth would be greatly opposed to this—not that that consideration would have weighed with Richard.
But now that all essentials were so satisfactorily determined a vexation was offered Westmacott by the circumstance that his sister seemed nowise taken with Sir Rowland. She suffered him because he was her brother's friend; on that account she even honoured him with some measure of her own friendship; but to no greater intimacy did her manner promise to admit him. And meanwhile, Mr. Wilding persisted in the face of all rebuffs. Under his smiling mask he hid the smart of the wounds she dealt him, until it almost seemed to him that from loving her he had come to hate her.
It had been well for Richard had he left things as they were and waited. Whether Blake prospered or not, leastways it was clear that Wilding would not prosper, and that, for the season, was all that need have mattered to young Richard.
But in his cups that night he had thought in some dim way to precipitate matters by affronting Mr. Wilding, secure, as I have shown, in his belief that Wilding would perish sooner than raise a finger against Ruth's brother. And his drunken astuteness, it seemed, had been to his mind as a piece of bottle glass to the sight, distorting the image viewed through it.
With some such bitter reflection rode he home to his sleepless couch. Some part of those dark hours he spent in bitter reviling of Wilding, of himself, and even of his sister, whom he blamed for this awful situation into which he had tumbled; at other times he wept from self-pity and sheer fright.
Once, indeed, he imagined that he saw light, that he saw a way out of the peril that hemmed him in. His mind turned for a moment in the direction that Trenchard had feared it might. He bethought him of his association with the Monmouth Cause—into which he had been beguiled by the sordid hope of gain—and of Wilding's important share in that same business. He was even moved to rise and ride that very night for Exeter to betray to Albemarle the Cause itself, so that he might have Wilding laid by the heels. But if Trenchard had been right in having little faith in Richard's loyalty, he had, it seems, in fearing treachery made the mistake of giving Richard credit for more courage than was his endowment. For when, sitting up in bed, fired by his inspiration, young Westmacott came to consider the questions the Lord-Lieutenant of Devon would be likely to ask him, he reflected that the answers he must return would so incriminate himself that he would be risking his own neck in the betrayal. He flung himself down again with a curse and a groan, and thought no more of the salvation that might lie for him that way.
The morning of that last day of May found him pale and limp and all a-tremble. He rose betimes and dressed, but stirred not from his chamber till in the garden under his window he heard his sister's voice, and that of Diana Horton, joined anon by a man's deeper tones, which he recognized with a start as Blake's. What did the baronet here so early? Assuredly it must concern the impending duel. Richard knew no mawkishness on the score of eavesdropping. He stole to his window and lent an ear, but the voices were receding, and to his vexation he caught nothing of what was said. He wondered how soon Vallancey would come, and for what hour the encounter had been appointed. Vallancey had remained behind at Scoresby Hall last night to make the necessary arrangements with Trenchard, who was to act for Mr. Wilding.
Now it chanced that Trenchard and Wilding had business—business of Monmouth's—to transact in Taunton that morning; business which might not be delayed. There were odd rumours afloat in the West; persistent rumours which had come fast upon the heels of the news of Argyle's landing in Scotland; rumours which maintained that Monmouth himself was coming over from Holland. These tales Wilding and his associates had ignored. The Duke, they knew, was to spend the summer in retreat in Sweden, with (it was alleged) the Lady Henrietta Wentworth to bear him company, and in the mean time his trusted agents were to pave the way for his coming in the following spring. Of late the lack of direct news from the Duke had been a source of mystification to his friends in the West, and now, suddenly, the information went abroad—it was something more than rumour this time—that a letter of the greatest importance had been intercepted. From whom that letter proceeded or to whom it was addressed, could not yet be discovered. But it seemed clear that it was connected with the Monmouth Cause, and it behoved Mr. Wilding to discover what he could. With this intent he rode with Trenchard that Sunday morning to Taunton, hoping that at the Red Lion Inn—that meeting-place of dissenters—he might cull reliable information.
It was in consequence of this that the meeting with Richard Westmacott was not to take place until the evening, and therefore Vallancey came not to Lupton House as early as Richard thought he should expect him. Blake, however—more no doubt out of a selfish fear of losing a valued ally in the winning of Ruth's hand than out of any excessive concern for Richard himself—had risen early and hastened to Lupton House, in the hope, which he recognized as all but forlorn, of yet being able to avert the disaster he foresaw for Richard.
Peering over the orchard wall as he rode by, he caught a glimpse, through an opening between the trees, of Ruth herself and Diana on the lawn beyond. There was a wicket gate that stood unlatched, and availing himself of this Sir Rowland tethered his horse in the lane and threading his way briskly through the orchard came suddenly upon the girls. Their laughter reached him as he advanced, and told him they could know nothing yet of Richard's danger.
On his abrupt and unexpected apparition, Diana paled and Ruth flushed slightly, whereupon Sir Rowland might have bethought him, had he been book-learned, of the axiom, "Amour qui rougit, fleurette; amour qui plit, drame du coeur."
He doffed his hat and bowed, his fair ringlets tumbling forward till they hid his face, which was exceeding grave.
Ruth gave him good morning pleasantly. "You London folk are earlier risers than we are led to think," she added.
"'Twill be the change of air makes Sir Rowland matutinal," said Diana, making a gallant recovery from her agitation.
"I vow," said he, "that I had grown matutinal earlier had I known what here awaited me."
"Awaited you?" quoth Diana, and tossed her head archly disdainful. "La! Sir Rowland, your modesty will be the death of you." Archness became this lady of the sunny hair, tip-tilted nose, and complexion that outvied the apple-blossoms. She was shorter by a half-head than her darker cousin, and made up in sprightliness what she lacked of Ruth's gentle dignity. The pair were foils, each setting off the graces of the other.
"I protest I am foolish," answered Blake, a shade discomfited. "But I want not for excuse. I have it in the matter that brings me here." So solemn was his air, so sober his voice, that both girls felt a premonition of the untoward message that he bore. It was Ruth who asked him to explain himself.
"Will you walk, ladies?" said Blake, and waved the hand that still held his hat riverwards, adown the sloping lawn. They moved away together, Sir Rowland pacing between his love of yesterday and his love of to-day, pressed with questions from both. He shaded his eyes to look at the river, dazzling in the morning sunlight that came over Polden Hill, and, standing thus, he unburdened himself at last.
"My news concerns Richard and—Mr. Wilding." They looked at him. Miss Westmacott's fine level brows were knit. He paused to ask, as if suddenly observing his absence, "Is Richard not yet risen?"
"Not yet," said Ruth, and waited for him to proceed.
"It does credit to his courage that he should sleep late on such a day," said Blake, and was pleased with the adroitness wherewith he broke the news. "He quarrelled last night with Anthony Wilding."
Ruth's hand went to her bosom; fear stared at Blake from out her eyes, blue as the heavens overhead; a grey shade overcast the usual warm pallor of her face.
"With Mr. Wilding?" she cried. "That man!" And though she said no more her eyes implored him to go on, and tell her what more there might be. He did so, and he spared not Wilding. The task, indeed, was one to which he applied himself with a certain zest; whatever might be the outcome of the affair, there was no denying that he was by way of reaping profit from it by the final overthrow of an acknowledged rival. And when he told her how Richard had flung his wine in Wilding's face when Wilding stood to toast her, a faint flush crept to her cheeks.
"Richard did well," said she. "I am proud of him."
The words pleased Sir Rowland vastly; but he reckoned without Diana. Miss Horton's mind was illumined by her knowledge of herself. In the light of that she saw precisely what capital this tale-bearer sought to make. The occasion might not be without its opportunities for her; and to begin with, it was no part of her intention that Wilding should be thus maligned and finally driven from the lists of rivalry with Blake. Upon Wilding, indeed, and his notorious masterfulness did she found what hopes she still entertained of winning back Sir Rowland.
"Surely," said she, "you are a little hard on Mr. Wilding. You speak as if he were the first gallant that ever toasted lady's eyes."
"I am no lady of his, Diana," Ruth reminded her, with a faint show of heat.
Diana shrugged her shoulders. "You may not love him, but you can't ordain that he shall not love you. You are very harsh, I think. To me it rather seems that Richard acted like a boor."
"But, mistress," cried Sir Rowland, half out of countenance, and stifling his vexation, "in these matters it all depends upon the manner."
"Why, yes," she agreed; "and whatever Mr. Wilding's manner, if I know him at all, it would be nothing but respectful to the last degree."
"My own conception of respect," said he, "is not to bandy a lady's name about a company of revellers."
"Bethink you, though, you said just now, it all depended on the manner," she rejoined. Sir Rowland shrugged and turned half from her to her listening cousin. When all is said, poor Diana appears—despite her cunning—to have been short-sighted. Aiming at a defined advantage in the game she played, she either ignored or held too lightly the concomitant disadvantage of vexing Blake.
"It were perhaps best to tell us the exact words he used, Sir Rowland," she suggested, "that for ourselves we may judge how far he lacked respect."
"What signify the words!" cried Blake, now almost out of temper. "I don't recall them. It is the air with which he pledged Mistress Westmacott."
"Ah yes—the manner," quoth Diana irritatingly. "We'll let that be. Richard threw his wine in Mr. Wilding's face? What followed then? What said Mr. Wilding?"
Sir Rowland remembered what Mr. Wilding had said, and bethought him that it were impolitic in him to repeat it. At the same time, not having looked for this cross-questioning, he was all unprepared with any likely answer. He hesitated, until Ruth echoed Diana's question.
"Tell us, Sir Rowland," she begged him, "what Mr. Wilding said."
Being forced to say something, and being by nature slow-witted and sluggish of invention, Sir Rowland was compelled, to his unspeakable chagrin, to fall back upon the truth.
"Is not that proof?" cried Diana in triumph. "Mr. Wilding was reluctant to quarrel with Richard. He was even ready to swallow such an affront as that, thinking it might be offered him under a misconception of his meaning. He plainly professed the respect that filled him for Mistress Westmacott, and yet, and yet, Sir Rowland, you tell us that he lacked respect!"
"Madam," cried Blake, turning crimson, "that matters nothing. It was not the place or time to introduce your cousin s name.
"You think, Sir Rowland," put in Ruth, her air grave, judicial almost, "that Richard behaved well?"
"As I would like to behave myself, as I would have a son of mine behave on the like occasion," Blake protested. "But we waste words," he cried. "I did not come to defend Richard, nor just to bear you this untoward news. I came to consult with you, in the hope that we might find some way to avert this peril from your brother."
"What way is possible?" asked Ruth, and sighed. "I would not... I would not have Richard a coward."
"Would you prefer him dead?" asked Blake, sadly grave.
"Sooner than craven—yes," Ruth answered him, very white.
"There is no question of that," was Blake's rejoinder. "The question is that Wilding said last night that he would kill the boy, and what Wilding says he does. Out of the affection that I bear Richard is born my anxiety to save him despite himself. It is in this that I come to seek your aid or offer mine. Allied we might accomplish what singly neither of us could."
He had at once the reward of his cunning speech. Ruth held out her hands. "You are a good friend, Sir Rowland," she said, with a pale smile; and pale too was the smile with which Diana watched them. No more than Ruth did she suspect the sincerity of Blake's protestations.
"I am proud you should account me that," said the baronet, taking Ruth's hands and holding them a moment; "and I would that I could prove myself your friend in this to some good purpose. Believe me, if Wilding would consent that I might take your brother's place, I would gladly do so."
It was a safe boast, knowing as he did that Wilding would consent to no such thing; but it earned him a glance of greater kindliness from Ruth—who began to think that hitherto perhaps she had done him some injustice—and a look of greater admiration from Diana, who saw in him her beau-ideal of the gallant lover.
"I would not have you endanger yourself so," said Ruth.
"It might," said Blake, his blue eyes very fierce, "be no great danger, after all." And then dismissing that part of the subject as if, like a brave man, the notion of being thought boastful were unpleasant, he passed on to the discussion of ways and means by which the coming duel might be averted. But when they came to grips with facts, it seemed that Sir Rowland had as little idea of what might be done as had the ladies. True, he began by making the obvious suggestion that Richard should tender Wilding a full apology. That, indeed, was the only door of escape, and Blake shrewdly suspected that what the boy had been unwilling to do last night—partly through wine, and partly through the fear of looking fearful in the eyes of Lord Gervase Scoresby's guests—he might be willing enough to do to-day, sober and upon reflection. For the rest Blake was as far from suspecting Mr. Wilding's peculiar frame of mind as had Richard been last night. This his words showed.
"I am satisfied," said he, "that if Richard were to go to-day to Wilding and express his regret for a thing done in the heat of wine, Wilding would be forced to accept it as satisfaction, and none would think that it did other than reflect credit upon Richard."
"Are you very sure of that?" asked Ruth, her tone dubious, her glance hopefully anxious.
"What else is to be thought?"
"But," put in Diana shrewdly, "it were an admission of Richard's that he had done wrong."
"No less," he agreed, and Ruth caught her breath in fresh dismay.
"And yet you have said that he did as you would have a son of yours do," Diana reminded him.
"And I maintain it," answered Blake; his wits worked slowly ever. It was for Ruth to reveal the flaw to him.
"Do you not understand, then," she asked him sadly, "that such an admission on Richard's part would amount to a lie—a lie uttered to save himself from an encounter, the worst form of lie, a lie of cowardice? Surely, Sir Rowland, your kindly anxiety for his life outruns your anxiety for his honour."
Diana, having accomplished her task, hung her head in silence, pondering.
Sir Rowland was routed utterly. He glanced from one to the other of his companions, and grew afraid that he—the town gallant—might come to look foolish in the eyes of these country ladies. He protested again his love for Richard, and increased Ruth's terror by his mention of Wilding's swordsmanship; but when all was said, he saw that he had best retreat ere he spoiled the good effect which he hoped his solicitude had created. And so he spoke of seeking counsel with Lord Gervase Scoresby, and took his leave, promising to return by noon.
CHAPTER III. DIANA SCHEMES
Notwithstanding the brave face Ruth Westmacott had kept during his presence, when he departed Sir Rowland left behind him a distress amounting almost to anguish in her mind. Yet though she might suffer, there was no weakness in Ruth's nature. She knew how to endure. Diana, bearing Richard not a tenth of the affection his sister consecrated to him, was alarmed for him. Besides, her own interests urged the averting of this encounter. And so she held in accents almost tearful that something must be done to save him.
This, too, appeared to be Richard's own view, when presently—within a few minutes of Blake's departure—he came to join them. They watched his approach in silence, and both noted—though with different eyes and different feelings—the pallor of his fair face, the dark lines under his colourless eyes. His condition was abject, and his manners, never of the best—for there was much of the spoiled child about Richard—were clearly suffering from it.
He stood before his sister and his cousin, moving his eyes shiftily from one to the other, rubbing his hands nervously together.
"Your precious friend Sir Rowland has been here," said he, and it was not clear from his manner which of them he addressed. "Not a doubt but he will have brought you the news." He seemed to sneer.
Ruth advanced towards him, her face grave, her sweet eyes full of pitying concern. She placed a hand upon his sleeve. "My poor Richard..." she began, but he shook off her kindly touch, laughing angrily—a mere cackle of irritability.
"Odso!" he interrupted her. "It is a thought late for this mock kindliness!"
Diana, in the background, arched her brows, then with a shrug turned aside and seated herself on the stone seat by which they had been standing. Ruth shrank back as if her brother had struck her.
"Richard!" she cried, and searched his livid face with her eyes. "Richard!"
He read a question in the interjection, and he answered it. "Had you known any real care, any true concern for me, you had not given cause for this affair," he chid her peevishly.
"What are you saying?" she cried, and it occurred to her at last that Richard was afraid. He was a coward! She felt as she would faint.
"I am saying," said he, hunching his shoulders, and shivering as he spoke, yet, his glance unable to meet hers, "that it is your fault that I am like to get my throat cut before sunset."
"My fault?" she murmured. The slope of lawn seemed to wave and swim about her. "My fault?"
"The fault of your wanton ways," he accused her harshly. "You have so played fast and loose with this fellow Wilding that he makes free of your name in my very presence, and puts upon me the need to get myself killed by him to save the family honour."
He would have said more in this strain, but something in her glance gave him pause. There fell a silence. From the distance came the melodious pealing of church bells. High overhead a lark was pouring out its song; in the lane at the orchard end rang the beat of trotting hoofs. It was Diana who spoke presently. Just indignation stirred her, and, when stirred, she knew no pity, set no limits to her speech.
"I think, indeed," said she, her voice crisp and merciless, "that the family honour will best be saved if Mr. Wilding kills you. It is in danger while you live. You are a coward, Richard."
"Diana!" he thundered—he could be mighty brave with women—whilst Ruth clutched her arm to restrain her.
But she continued, undeterred: "You are a coward—a pitiful coward," she told him. "Consult your mirror. It will tell you what a palsied thing you are. That you should dare so speak to Ruth..."
"Don't!" Ruth begged her, turning.
"Aye," growled Richard, "she had best be silent."
Diana rose, to battle, her cheeks crimson. "It asks a braver man than you to compel my obedience," she told him. "La!" she fumed, "I'll swear that had Mr. Wilding overheard what you have said to your sister, you would have little to fear from his sword. A cane would be the weapon he'd use on you."
Richard's pale eyes flamed malevolently; a violent rage possessed him and flooded out his fear, for nothing can so goad a man as an offensive truth. Ruth approached him again; again she took him by the arm, seeking to soothe his over-troubled spirit; but again he shook her off. And then to save the situation came a servant from the house. So lost in anger was all Richard's sense of decency that the mere supervention of the man would not have been enough to have silenced him could he have found adequate words in which to answer Mistress Horton. But even as he racked his mind, the footman's voice broke the silence, and the words the fellow uttered did what his presence alone might not have sufficed to do.
"Mr. Vallancey is asking for you, sir," he announced.
Richard started. Vallancey! He had come at last, and his coming was connected with the impending duel. The thought was paralyzing to young Westmacott. The flush of anger faded from his face; its leaden hue returned and he shivered as with cold. At last he mastered himself sufficiently to ask:
"Where is he, Jasper?"
"In the library, sir," replied the servant. "Shall I bring him hither?"
"Yes—no," he answered. "I will come to him." He turned his back upon the ladies, paused a moment, still irresolute. Then, as by an effort, he followed the servant across the lawn and vanished through the ivied porch.
As he went Diana flew to her cousin. Her shallow nature was touched with transient pity. "My poor Ruth..." she murmured soothingly, and set her arm about the other's waist. There was a gleam of tears in the eyes Ruth turned upon her. Together they came to the granite seat and sank to it side by side, fronting the placid river. There Ruth, her elbows on her knees, cradled her chin in her hands, and with a sigh of misery stared straight before her.
"It was untrue!" she said at last. "What Richard said of me was untrue."
"Why, yes," Diana snapped, contemptuous. "The only truth is that Richard is afraid."
Ruth shivered. "Ah, no," she pleaded—she knew how true was the impeachment. "Don't say it, Diana."
"It matters little that I say it," snorted Diana impatiently. "It is a truth proclaimed by the first glance at him."
"He is in poor health, perhaps," said Ruth, seeking miserably to excuse him.
"Aye," said Diana. "He's suffering from an ague—the result of a lack of courage. That he should so have spoken to you! Give me patience, Heaven!"
Ruth crimsoned again at the memory of his words; a wave of indignation swept through her gentle soul, but was gone at once, leaving an ineffable sadness in its room. What was to be done? She turned to Diana for counsel. But Diana was still whipping up her scorn.
"If he goes out to meet Mr. Wilding, he'll shame himself and every man and woman that bears the name of Westmacott," said she, and struck a new fear with that into the heart of Ruth.
"He must not go!" she answered passionately. "He must not meet him!"
Diana flashed her a sidelong glance. "And if he doesn't, will things be mended?" she inquired. "Will it save his honour to have Mr. Wilding come and cane him?"
"He'd not do that?" said Ruth.
"Not if you asked him—no," was Diana's sharp retort, and she caught her breath on the last word of it, for just then the Devil dropped the seed of a suggestion into the fertile soil of her lovesick soul.
"Diana!" Ruth exclaimed in reproof, turning to confront her cousin. But Diana's mind started upon its scheming journey was now travelling fast. Out of that devil's seed there sprang with amazing rapidity a tree-like growth, throwing out branches, putting forth leaves, bearing already—in her fancy—bloom and fruit.
"Why not?" quoth she after a breathing space, and her voice was gentle, her tone innocent beyond compare. "Why should you not ask him?" Ruth frowned, perplexed and thoughtful, and now Diana turned to her with the lively eye of one into whose mind has leapt a sudden inspiration. "Ruth!" she exclaimed. "Why, indeed, should you not ask him to forgo this duel?"
"How, how could I?" faltered Ruth.
"He'd not deny you; you know he'd not."
"I do not know it," answered Ruth. "But if I did, how could I ask it?"
"Were I Richard's sister, and had I his life and honour at heart as you have, I'd not ask how. If Richard goes to that encounter he loses both, remember—unless between this and then he undergoes some change. Were I in your place, I'd straight to Wilding."
"To him?" mused Ruth, sitting up. "How could I go to him?"
"Go to him, yes," Diana insisted. "Go to him at once—while there is yet time."
Ruth rose and moved away a step or two towards the water, deep in thought. Diana watched her furtively and slyly, the rapid rise and fall of her maiden breast betraying the agitation that filled her as she waited—like a gamester—for the turn of the card that would show her whether she had won or lost. For she saw clearly how Ruth might be so compromised that there was something more than a chance that Diana would no longer have cause to account her cousin a barrier between herself and Blake.
"I could not go alone," said Ruth, and her tone was that of one still battling with a notion that is repugnant.
"Why, if that is all," said Diana, "then I'll go with you."
"I can't! I can't! Consider the humiliation."
"Consider Richard rather," the fair temptress made answer eagerly. "Be sure that Mr. Wilding will save you all humiliation. He'll not deny you. At a word from you, I know what answer he will make. He will refuse to push the matter forward—acknowledge himself in the wrong, do whatever you may ask him. He can do it. None will question his courage. It has been proved too often." She rose and came to Ruth. She set her arm about her waist again, and poured shrewd persuasion over her cousin s indecision. "To-night you'll thank me for this thought," she assured her. "Why do you pause? Are you so selfish as to think more of the little humiliation that may await you than of Richard's life and honour?"
"No, no," Ruth protested feebly.
"What, then? Is Richard to go out and slay his honour by a show of fear before he is slain, himself, by the man he has insulted?"
"I'll go," said Ruth. Now that the resolve was taken, she was brisk, impatient. "Come, Diana. Let Jerry saddle for us. We'll ride to Zoyland Chase at once."
They went without a word to Richard who was still closeted with Vallancey, and riding forth they crossed the river and took the road that, skirting Sedgemoor, runs south to Weston Zoyland. They rode with little said until they came to the point where the road branches on the left, throwing out an arm across the moor towards Chedzoy, a mile or so short of Zoyland Chase. Here Diana reined in with a sharp gasp of pain. Ruth checked, and cried to know what ailed her.
"It is the sun, I think," muttered Diana, her hand to her brow. "I am sick and giddy." And she slipped a thought heavily to the ground. In an instant Ruth had dismounted and was beside her. Diana was pale, which lent colour to her complaint, for Ruth was not to know that the pallor sprang from her agitation in wondering whether the ruse she attempted would succeed or not.
A short stone's-throw from where they had halted stood a cottage back from the road in a little plot of ground, the property of a kindly old woman known to both. There Diana expressed the wish to rest awhile, and thither they took their way, Ruth leading both horses and supporting her faltering cousin. The dame was all solicitude. Diana was led into her parlour, and what could be done was done. Her corsage was loosened, water drawn from the well and brought her to drink and bathe her brow.
She sat back languidly, her head lolling sideways against one of the wings of the great chair, and languidly assured them she would be better soon if she were but allowed to rest awhile. Ruth drew up a stool to sit beside her, for all that her soul fretted at this delay. What if in consequence she should reach Zoyland Chase too late—to find that Mr. Wilding had gone forth already? But even as she was about to sit, it seemed that the same thought had of a sudden come to Diana. The girl leaned forward, thrusting—as if by an effort—some of her faintness from her.
"Do not wait for me, Ruth," she begged.
"I must, child."
"You must not;" the other insisted. "Think what it may mean—Richard's life, perhaps. No, no, Ruth, dear. Go on; go on to Zoyland. I'll follow you in a few minutes."
"I'll wait for you," said Ruth with firmness.
At that Diana rose, and in rising staggered. "Then we'll push on at once," she gasped, as if speech itself were an excruciating effort.
"But you are in no case to stand!" said Ruth. "Sit, Diana, sit."
"Either you go on alone or I go with you, but go at once you must. At any moment Mr. Wilding may go forth, and your chance is lost. I'll not have Richard's blood upon my head."
Ruth wrung her hands in her dismay, confronted by a parlous choice. Consent to Diana's accompanying her in this condition she could not; ride on alone to Mr. Wilding's house was hardly to be thought of, and yet if she delayed she was endangering Richard's life. By the very strength of her nature she was caught in the mesh of Diana's scheme. She saw that her hesitation was unworthy. This was no ordinary cause, no ordinary occasion. It was a time for heroic measures. She must ride on, nor could she consent to take Diana.
And so in the end she went, having seen her cousin settled again in the high chair, and took with her Diana's feeble assurances that she would follow her in a few moments, as soon as her faintness passed.
CHAPTER IV. TERMS OF SURRENDER
"MR. WILDING rode at dawn with Mr. Trenchard, madam," announced old Walters, the butler at Zoyland Chase. Old and familiar servant though he was, he kept from his countenance all manifestation of the deep surprise occasioned him by the advent of Mistress Westmacott, unescorted.
"He rode... at dawn?" faltered Ruth, and for a moment she stood irresolute, afraid and pondering in the shade of the great pillared porch. Then she took heart again. If he rode at dawn, it was not in quest of Richard that he went, since it had been near eleven o'clock when she had left Bridgwater. He must have gone on other business first, and, doubtless, before he went to the encounter he would be returning home. "Said he at what hour he would return?" she asked.
"He bade us expect him by noon, madam."
This gave confirmation to her thoughts. It wanted more than half an hour to noon already. "Then he may return at any moment?" said she.
"At any moment, madam," was the grave reply.
She took her resolve. "I will wait," she announced, to the man's increasing if undisplayed astonishment. "Let my horse be seen to."
He bowed his obedience, and she followed him—a slender, graceful figure in her dove-coloured riding-habit laced with silver—across the stone-flagged vestibule, through the cool gloom of the great hall, into the spacious library of which he held the door.
"Mistress Horton is following me," she informed the butler. "Will you bring her to me when she comes?"
Bowing again in silent acquiescence, the white-haired servant closed the door and left her. She stood in the centre of the great room, drawing off her riding-gloves, perturbed and frightened beyond all reason at finding herself for the first time under Mr. Wilding's roof. He was most handsomely housed. His grandfather, who had travelled in Italy, had built the Chase upon the severe and noble lines which there he had learnt to admire, and he had embellished its interior, too, with many treasures of art which with that intent he had there collected.
She dropped her whip and gloves on to a table, and sank into a chair to wait, her heart fluttering in her throat. Time passed, and in the silence of the great house her anxiety was gradually quieted, until at last through the long window that stood open came faintly wafted to her on the soft breeze of that June morning the sound of a church clock at Weston Zoyland chiming twelve. She rose with a start, bethinking her suddenly of Diana, and wondering why she had not yet arrived. Was the child's indisposition graver than she had led Ruth to suppose? She crossed to the windows and stood there drumming impatiently upon the pane, her eyes straying idly over the sweep of elm-fringed lawns towards the river gleaming silvery here and there between the trees in the distance.
Suddenly she caught a sound of hoofs. Was this Diana? She sped to the other window, the one that stood open, and now she heard the crunch of gravel and the champ of bits and the sound of more than two pairs of hoofs. She caught a glimpse of Mr. Wilding and Mr. Trenchard.
She felt the colour flying from her cheeks; again her heart fluttered in her throat, and it was in vain that with her hand she sought to repress the heaving of her breast. She was afraid; her every instinct bade her slip through the window at which she stood and run from Zoyland Chase. And then she thought of Richard and his danger, and she seemed to gather courage from the reflection of her purpose in this house.
Men's voices reached her—a laugh, the harsh cawing of Nick Trenchard.
"A lady!" she heard him cry. "'Od's heart, Tony! Is this a time for trafficking with doxies?" She crimsoned an instant at the coarse word and set her teeth, only to pale again the next. The voices were lowered so that she heard not what was said; one sharp exclamation she recognized to be in Wilding's voice, but caught not the word he uttered. There followed a pause, and she stirred uneasily, waiting. Then came swift steps and jangling spurs across the hall, the door opened suddenly, and Mr. Wilding, in a scarlet riding-coat, his boots white with dust, stood bowing to her from the threshold.
"Your servant, Mistress Westmacott," she heard him murmur. "My house is deeply honoured."
She dropped him a half-curtsy, pale and tongue-tied. He turned to deliver hat and whip and gloves to Walters, who had followed him, then closed the door and came forward into the room.
"You will forgive that I present myself thus before you," he said, in apology for his dusty raiment. "But I bethought me you might be in haste, and Walters tells me that already have you waited nigh upon an hour. Will you not sit, madam?" And he advanced a chair. His long white face was set like a mask; but his dark, slanting eyes devoured her. He guessed the reason of her visit. She who had humbled him, who had driven him to the very borders of despair, was now to be humbled and to despair before him. Under the impassive face his soul exulted fiercely.
She disregarded the chair he proffered. "My visit... has no doubt surprised you," she began, tremulous and hesitating.
"I' faith, no," he answered quietly. "The cause, after all, is not very far to seek. You are come on Richard's behalf."
"Not on Richard's," she answered. "On my own." And now that the ice was broken, the suspense of waiting over, she found the tide of her courage flowing fast. "This encounter must not take place, Mr. Wilding," she informed him.
He raised his eyebrows—fine and level as her own—his thin lips smiled never so faintly. "It is, I think," said he, "for Richard to prevent it The chance was his last night. It shall be his again when we meet. If he will express regret..." He left his sentence there. In truth he mocked her, though she guessed it not.
"You mean," said she, "that if he makes apology...?"
"What else? What other way remains?"
She shook her head, and, if pale, her face was resolute, her glance steady.
"That is impossible," she told him. "Last night—as I have the story—he might have done it without shame. To-day it is too late. To tender his apology on the ground would be to proclaim himself a coward."
Mr. Wilding pursed his lips and shifted his position. "It is difficult, perhaps," said he, "but not impossible."
"It is impossible," she insisted firmly.
"I'll not quarrel with you for a word," he answered, mighty agreeable. "Call it impossible, if you will. Admit, however, that it is all I can suggest. You will do me the justice, I am sure, to see that in expressing my willingness to accept your brother's expressions of regret I am proving myself once more your very obedient servant. But that it is you who ask it—and whose desires are my commands—I should let no man go unpunished for an insult such as your brother put upon me."
She winced at his words, at the bow with which he had professed himself once more her servant.
"It is no clemency that you offer him," she said. "You leave him a choice between death and dishonour."
"He has," Wilding reminded her, "the chance of combat."
She flung back her head impatiently. "I think you mock me," said she.
He looked at her keenly. "Will you tell me plainly, madam," he begged, "what you would have me do?"
She flushed under his gaze, and the flush told him what he sought to learn. There was, of course, another way, and she had thought of it; but she lacked—as well she might, all things considered—the courage to propose it. She had come to Mr. Wilding in the vague hope that he himself would choose the heroic part. And he, to punish for her scorn of him this woman whom he loved to hating-point, was resolved that she herself must beg it of him. Whether, having so far compelled her, he would grant her prayer or not was something he could not just then himself have told you. She bowed her head in silence, and Wilding, that faint smile, half friendliness, half mockery, hovering ever on his lips, turned aside and moved softly towards the window. Her eyes, veiled behind the long lashes of their drooping lids, followed him furtively. She felt that she hated him in very truth. She marked the upright elegance of his figure, the easy grace of his movements, the fine aristocratic mould of the aquiline face, which she beheld in profile; and she hated him the more for these outward favours that must commend him to no lack of women. He was too masterful. He made her realize too keenly her own weakness and that of Richard. She felt that just now he controlled the vice that held her fast—her affection for her brother. And because of that she hated him the more. "You see, Mistress Westmacott," said he, his shoulder to her, his tone sweet to the point of sadness, "that there is nothing else." She stood, her eyes following the pattern of the parquetry, her foot unconsciously tracing it; her courage ebbed, and she had no answer for him. After a pause he spoke again, still without turning. "If that was not enough to suit your ends"—and though he spoke in a tone of ever-increasing sadness, there glinted through it the faintest ray of mockery—"I marvel you should have come to Zoyland—to compromise yourself to so little purpose."
She raised a startled face. "Com... compromise myself?" she echoed. "Oh!" It was a cry of indignation.
"What else?" quoth he, and turned abruptly to confront her.
"Mistress Horton was.., was with me," she panted, her voice quivering as on the brink of tears.
"'Tis unfortunate you should have separated," he condoled.
"But.., but, Mr. Wilding, I... I trusted to your honour. I accounted you a gentleman. Surely... surely, sir, you will not let it be known that... I came to you? You will keep my secret?"
"Secret!" said he, his eyebrows raised. "'Tis already the talk of the servants' hall. By to-morrow 'twill be the gossip of Bridgwater."
Air failed her Her blue eyes fixed him in horror out of her stricken face. Not a word had she wherewith to answer him.
The sight of her, thus, affected him oddly. His passion for her surged up, aroused by pity for her plight, and awakened in him a sense of his brutality. A faint flush stirred in his cheeks. He stepped quickly to her, and caught her hand. She let it lie, cold and inert, within his nervous grasp.
"Ruth, Ruth!" he cried, and his voice was for once unsteady. "Give it no thought! I love you, Ruth. If you'll but heed that, no breath of scandal can hurt you."
She swallowed hard. "As how?" she asked mechanically.
He bowed low over her hand—so low that his face was hidden from her.
"If you will do me the honour to become my wife..." he began, but got no further, for she snatched away her hand, her cheeks crimsoning, her eyes aflame with indignation. He stepped back, crimsoning too. She had dashed the gentleness from his mood. He was angered now and tigerish.
"Oh!" she panted. "It is to affront me! Is this the time or place..."
He cropped her flow of indignant speech ere it was well begun. He caught her in his arms, and held her tight, and so sudden was the act, so firm his grip that she had not the thought or force to struggle.
"All time is love's time, all places are love's place," he told her, his face close to her own. "And of all time and places the present ever preferable to the wise—for life is uncertain and short at best. I bring you worship, and you answer me with scorn. But I shall prevail, and you shall come to love me in very spite of your own self."
She threw back her head, away from his as far as the bonds he had cast about her would allow. "Air! Air!" she panted feebly.
"Oh, you shall have air enough anon," he answered with a half-strangled laugh, his passion mounting ever. "Hark you, now—hark you, for Richard's sake, since you'll not listen for my own nor yours. There is another course by which I can save both Richard's life and honour. You know it, and you counted upon my generosity to suggest it. But you overlooked the thing on which you should have counted. You overlooked my love. Count upon that, my Ruth, and Richard shall have naught to fear. Count upon that, and when we meet this evening, Richard and I, it is I who will tender the apology, I who will admit that I was wrong to introduce your name into that company last night, and that what Richard did was a just and well-deserved punishment upon me. This will I do if you'll but count upon my love."
She looked up at him fearfully, yet with flutterings of hope. "What is't you mean?" she asked him faintly.
"That if you'll promise to be my wife..."
"Your wife!" she interrupted him. She struggled to free herself, released one arm and struck him in the face. "Let me go, you coward!"
He was answered. His arms melted from her. He fell back a pace, very white and even trembling, the fire all gone from his eye, which was now turned dull and deadly.
"So be it," he said, and strode to the bell-rope. "I'll not offend again. I had not offended now"—he continued, in the voice of one offering an explanation cold and formal—"but that when first I came into your life you seemed to bid me welcome." His fingers closed upon the crimson bell-cord. She guessed his purpose.
"Wait!" she gasped, and put forth her hand. He paused, the rope in his, his eye kindling anew. "You... you mean to kill Richard now?" she asked him.
A swift lifting of his brows was his only answer. He tugged the cord. From the distance the peal of the bell reached them faintly.
"Oh, wait, wait!" she begged, her hands pressed against her cheeks. He stood impassible—hatefully impassible. "....... if I were to consent to... this... how... how soon...?" He understood the unfinished question. Interest warmed his face again. He took a step towards her, but by a gesture she seemed to beg him come no nearer.
"If you will promise to marry me within the week, Richard shall have no cause to fear either for his life or his honour at my hands."
She seemed now to be recovering her calm. "Very well," she said, her voice singularly steady. "Let that be a bargain between us. Spare Richard's life and honour—both, remember!—and on Sunday next..." For all her courage her voice quavered and faltered. She dared add no more, lest it should break altogether.
Mr. Wilding drew a deep breath. Again he would have advanced. "Ruth!" he cried, and some repentance smote him, some shame shook him in his purpose. At that moment it was in his mind to capitulate unconditionally; to tell her that Richard should have naught to fear from him, and yet that she should go free as the winds. Her gesture checked him. It was so eloquent of aversion. He paused in his advance, stifled his better feelings, and turned once more, relentless. The door opened and old Walters stood awaiting his commands.
"Mistress Westmacott is leaving," he informed his servant, and bowed low and formally in farewell before her. She passed out without another word, the old butler following, and presently through the door that remained open came Trenchard, in quest of Mr. Wilding who stood bemused.
Nick sauntered in, his left eye almost hidden by the rakish cock of his hat, one hand tucked away under the skirts of his plum-coloured coat, the other supporting the stem of a long clay pipe, at which he was pulling thoughtfully. The pipe and he were all but inseparable; indeed, the year before in London he had given appalling scandal by appearing with it in the Mall, and had there remained him any character to lose, he must assuredly have lost it then.
He observed his friend through narrowing eyes—he had small eyes, very blue and very bright, in which there usually abode a roguish gleam.
"My sight, Anthony," said he, "reminds me that I am growing old. I wonder did it mislead me on the score of your visitor?"
"The lady who left," said Wilding with a touch of severity, "will be Mistress Wilding by this day se'night."
Trenchard took the pipe from his lips, audibly blew out a cloud of smoke and stared at his friend. "Body o' me!" quoth he. "Is this a time for marrying?—with these rumours of Monmouth's coming over."
Wilding made an impatient gesture. "I thought to have convinced you they are idle," said he, and flung himself into a chair at his writing-table.
Nick came over and perched himself upon the table's edge, one leg swinging in the air. "And what of this matter of the intercepted letter from London to our Taunton friends?"
"I can't tell you. But of this I am sure, His Grace is incapable of anything so rash. Certain is it that he'll not stir until Battiscomb returns to Holland, and Battiscomb is still in Cheshire sounding the Duke's friends."
"Yet were I you, I should not marry just at present."
Wilding smiled. "If you were me, you'd never marry at all."
"Faith, no!" said Trenchard. "I'd as soon play at 'hot-cockles,' or 'Parson-has-lost-his-cloak.' 'Tis a mort more amusing and the sooner done with."
CHAPTER V. THE ENCOUNTER
Ruth Wesmacott rode back like one in a dream, with vague and hazy notions of what she saw or did. So overwrought was she by the interview from which she came, her mind so obsessed by it, that never a thought had she for Diana and her indisposition until she arrived home to find her cousin there before her. Diana was in tears, called up by the reproaches of her mother, Lady Horton—the relict of that fine soldier Sir Cholmondeley Horton, of Taunton.
The girl had arrived at Lupton House a half-hour ahead of Miss Westmacott, and upon her arrival she had expressed surprise, either feigned or real, at finding Ruth still absent. Detecting the alarm that Diana was careful to throw into her voice and manner, her mother questioned her, and elicited the story of her faintness and of Ruth's having ridden on alone to Mr. Wilding's. So outraged was Lady Horton that for once in a way this woman, usually so meek and ease-loving, was roused to an energy and anger with her daughter and her niece that threatened to remove Diana at once from the pernicious atmosphere of Lupton House and carry her home to Taunton. Ruth found her still at her remonstrances, arrived, indeed, in time for her share of them.
"I have been sore mistaken in you, Ruth!" the dame reproached her. "I can scarce believe it of you. I have held you up as an example to Diana, for the discretion and wisdom of your conduct, and you do this! You go alone to Mr. Wilding's house—to Mr. Wilding's, of all men!"
"It was no time for ordinary measures," said Ruth, but she spoke without any of the heat of one who defends her conduct. She was, the slyly watchful Diana observed, very white and tired. "It was no time to think of nice conduct. There was Richard to be saved."
"And was it worth ruining yourself to do that?" quoth Lady Horton, her colour high.
"Ruining myself?" echoed Ruth, and she smiled never so weary a smile. "I have, indeed, done that, though not in the way you mean."
Mother and daughter eyed her, mystified. "Your good name is blasted," said her aunt, "unless so be that Mr. Wilding is proposing to make you his wife." It was a sneer the good woman could not, in her indignation, repress.
"That is what Mr. Wilding has done me the honour to propose," Ruth answered bitterly, and left them gaping. "We are to be married this day se'night."
A dead silence followed the calm announcement. Then Diana rose. At the misery, the anguish that could impress so strange and white a look on Ruth's winsome face, she was smitten with remorse, her incipient satisfaction dashed. This was her work; the fruit of her scheming. But it had gone further than she had foreseen; and for all that no result could better harmonize with her own ambitions and desires, for the moment—under the first shock of that announcement—she felt guilty and grew afraid.
"Ruth!" she cried, her voice a whisper of stupefaction. "Oh, I wish I had come with you!"
"But you couldn't; you were faint." And then—recalling what had passed—her mind was filled with sudden concern for Diana, even amid her own sore troubles. "Are you quite yourself again, Diana?" she inquired.
Diana answered almost fiercely, "I am quite well." And then, with a change to wistfulness, she added, "Oh, I would I had come with you!"
"Matters had been no different," Ruth assured her. "It was a bargain Mr. Wilding drove. It was the price I had to pay for Richard's life and honour." She swallowed hard, and let her hands fall limply to her sides. "Where is Richard?" she inquired.
It was her aunt who answered her. "He went forth half an hour agone with Mr. Vallancey and Sir Rowland."
"Sir Rowland had returned, then?" She looked up quickly.
"Yes," answered Diana. "But he had achieved nothing by his visit to Lord Gervase. His lordship would not intervene; he swore he hoped the cub would be flayed alive by Wilding. Those were his lordship's words, as Sir Rowland repeated them. Sir Rowland is in sore distress for Richard. He has gone with them to the meeting."
"At least, he has no longer cause for his distress," said Miss Westmacott with her bitter smile, and sank as one exhausted to a chair. Lady Horton moved to comfort her, her motherliness all aroused for this motherless girl, usually so wise and strong, and seemingly wiser and stronger than ever in this thing that Lady Horton had deemed a weakness and a folly.
Meanwhile, Richard and his two friends were on their way to the moors across the river to the encounter with Mr. Wilding. But before they had got him to ride forth, Vallancey had had occasion to regret that he stood committed to a share in this quarrel, for he came to know Richard as he really was. He had found him in an abject state, white and trembling, his coward's fancy anticipating a hundred times a minute the death he was anon to die.
Vallancey had hailed him cheerily.
"The day is yours, Dick," he had cried, when Richard entered the library where he awaited him. "Wild Wilding has ridden to Taunton this morning and is to be back by noon. Odsbud, Dick!—twenty miles and more in the saddle before coming on the ground. Heard you ever of the like madness? He'll be stiff as a broom-handle—an easy victim."
Richard listened, stared, and, finding Vallancey's eyes fixed steadily upon him, attempted a smile and achieved a horrible grimace.
"What ails you, man?" cried his second, and caught him by the wrist. He felt the quiver of the other's limb. "Stab me!" quoth he, "you are in no case to fight. What the plague ails you?"
"I am none so well this morning," answered Richard feebly. "Lord Gervase's claret," he added, passing a hand across his brow.
"Lord Gervase's claret?" echoed Vallancey in horror, as at some outrageous blasphemy. "Frontignac at ten shillings the bottle!" he exclaimed.
"Still, claret never does lie easy on my stomach," Richard explained, intent upon blaming Lord Gervase s wine—since he could think of nothing else—for his condition.
Vallancey looked at him shrewdly. "My cock," said he, "if you're to fight we'll have to mend your temper." He took it upon himself to ring the bell, and to order up two bottles of Canary and one of brandy. If he was to get his man to the ground at all—and young Vallancey had a due sense of his responsibilities in that connection—it would be well to supply Richard with something to replace the courage that had oozed out overnight. Young Richard, never loath to fortify himself, proved amenable enough to the stiffly laced Canary that his friend set before him. Then, to divert his mind, Vallancey, with that rash freedom that had made the whole of Somerset know him for a rebel, set himself to talk of the Protestant Duke and his right to the crown of England.
He was still at his talk, Richard listening moodily what time he was slowly but surely befuddling himself, when Sir Rowland—returning from Scoresby Hall—came to bring the news of his lack of success. Richard hailed him noisily, and bade him ring for another glass, adding, with a burst of oaths, some appalling threats of how anon he should serve Anthony Wilding. His wits drowned in the stiff liquor Vallancey had pressed upon him, he seemed of a sudden to have grown as fierce and bloodthirsty as any scourer that ever terrorized the watch.
Blake listened to him and grunted. "Body o' me!" swore the town gallant. "If that's the humour you're going out to fight in, I'll trouble you for the eight guineas I won from you at Primero yesterday before you start."
Richard reared himself, by the help of the table, and stood a thought unsteadily, his glance laboriously striving to engage Blake's.
"Damn me!" quoth he. "Your want of faith dishgraces me—and 't 'shgraces you. Shalt ha' the guineas when we're back—and not before."
"Hum!" quoth Blake, to whom eight guineas were a consideration in these bankrupt days. "And if you don't come back at all upon whom am I to draw?"
The suggestion sank through Dick's half-fuddled senses, and the scare it gave him was reflected on his face.
"Damn you, Blake!" swore Vallancey between his teeth. "Is that a decent way to talk to a man who is going out? Never heed him, Dick! Let him wait for his dirty guineas till we return."
"Thirty guineas?" hiccoughed Richard. "It was only eight. Anyhow—wait'll I've sli' the gullet of's Mr. Wilding." He checked on a thought that suddenly occurred to him. He turned to Vallancey with a ludicrous solemnity. "'Sbud!" he swore. "'S a scurvy trick I'm playing the Duke. 'S treason to him—treason no less." And he smote the table with his open hand.
"What's that?" quoth Blake so sharply, his eyes so suddenly alert that Vallancey made haste to cover up his fellow rebel's indiscretion.
"It's the brandy-and-Canary makes him dream," said he with a laugh, and rising as he spoke he announced that it was high time they should set out. Thus he brought about a bustle that drove the Duke's business from Richard's mind, and left Blake without a pretext to pursue his quest for information. But the mischief was done, and Blake's suspicions were awake. He bethought him now of dark hints that Richard had let fall to Vallancey in the past few days, and of hints less dark with which Vallancey—who was a careless fellow at ordinary times—had answered. And now this mention of the Duke and of treason to him—to what Duke could it refer but Monmouth?
Blake was well aware of the wild tales that were going round, and he began to wonder now was aught really afoot, and was his good friend Westmacott in it?
If there was, he bethought him that the knowledge might be of value, and it might help to float once more his shipwrecked fortunes. The haste with which Vallancey had proffered a frivolous explanation of Richard's words, the bustle with which upon the instant he swept Richard and Sir Rowland from the house to get to horse and ride out to Bridgwater were in themselves circumstances that went to heighten those suspicions of Sir Rowland's. But lacking all opportunity for investigation at the moment, he deemed it wisest to say no more just then lest he should betray his watchfulness.
They were the first to arrive upon the ground—an open space on the borders of Sedgemoor, in the shelter of Polden Hill. But they had not long to wait before Wilding and Trenchard rode up, attended by a groom. Their arrival had an oddly sobering effect upon young Westmacott, for which Mr. Vallancey was thankful. For during their ride he had begun to fear that he had carried too far the business of equipping his principal with artificial valour.
Trenchard came forward to offer Vallancey the courteous suggestion that Mr. Wilding's servant should charge himself with the care of the horses of Mr. Westmacott's party, if this would be a convenience to them. Vallancey thanked him and accepted the offer, and thus the groom—instructed by Trenchard—led the five horses some distance from the spot.
It now became a matter of making preparation, and leaving Richard to divest himself of such garments as he might deem cumbrous, Vallancey went forward to consult with Trenchard upon the choice of ground. At that same moment Mr. Wilding lounged forward, flicking the grass with his whip in an absent manner.
"Mr. Vallancey," he began, when Trenchard turned to interrupt him.
"You can leave it safely to me, Tony," he growled. "But there is something I wish to say, Nick," answered Mr. Wilding, his manner mild. "By your leave, then." And he turned again to Valiancey. "Will you be so good as to call Mr. Westmacott hither?"
Vallancey stared. "For what purpose, sir?" he asked.
"For my purpose," answered Mr. Wilding sweetly. "It is no longer my wish to engage with Mr. Westmacott.
"Anthony!" cried Trenchard, and in his amazement forgot to swear.
"I propose," added Mr. Wilding, "to relieve Mr. Westmacott of the necessity of fighting."
Vallancey in his heart thought this might be pleasant news for his principal. Still, he did not quite see how the end was to be attained, and said so.
"You shall be enlightened if you will do as I request," Wilding insisted, and Vallancey, with a lift of the brows, a snort, and a shrug, turned away to comply.
"Do you mean," quoth Trenchard, bursting with indignation, "that you will let live a man who has struck you?"
Wilding took his friend affectionately by the arm. "It is a whim of mine," said he. "Do you think, Nick, that it is more than I can afford to indulge?"
"I say not so," was the ready answer; "but..."
"I thought you'd not," said Mr. Wilding, interrupting. "And if any does—why, I shall be glad to prove it upon him that he lies." He laughed, and Trenchard, vexed though he was, was forced to laugh with him. Then Nick set himself to urge the thing that last night had plagued his mind: that this Richard might prove a danger to the Cause; that in the Duke's interest, if not to safeguard his own person from some vindictive betrayal, Wilding would be better advised in imposing a reliable silence upon him.
"But why vindictive?" Mr. Wilding remonstrated. "Rather must he have cause for gratitude."
Mr. Trenchard laughed short and contemptuously. "There is," said he, "no rancour more bitter than that of the mean man who has offended you and whom you have spared. I beg you'll ponder it." He lowered his voice as he ended his admonition, for Vallancey and Westmacott were coming up, followed by Sir Rowland Blake.
Richard, although his courage had been sinking lower and lower in a measure as he had grown more and more sober with the approach of the moment for engaging, came forward now with a firm step and an arrogant mien; for Vallancey had given him more than a hint of what was toward. His heart had leapt, not only at the deliverance that was promised him, but out of satisfaction at the reflection of how accurately last night he had gauged what Mr. Wilding would endure. It had dismayed him then, as we have seen, that this man who, he thought, must stomach any affront from him out of consideration for his sister, should have ended by calling him to account. He concluded now that upon reflection Wilding had seen his error, and was prepared to make amends that he might extricate himself from an impossible situation, and Richard blamed himself for having overlooked this inevitable solution and given way to idle panic.
Vallancey and Blake watching him, and the sudden metamorphosis that was wrought in him, despised him heartily, and yet were glad—for the sake of their association with him—that things were as they were.
"Mr. Westmacott," said Wilding quietly, his eyes steadily set upon Richard's own arrogant gaze, his lips smiling a little, "I am here not to fight, but to apologize."
Richard's sneer was audible to all. Oh, he was gathering courage fast now that there no longer was the need for it. It urged him to lengths of daring possible only to a fool.
"If you can take a blow, Mr. Wilding," said he offensively, "that is your own affair."
And his friends gasped at his temerity and trembled for him, not knowing what grounds he had for counting himself unassailable.
"Just so," said Mr. Wilding, as meek and humble as a nun, and Trenchard, who had expected something very different from him, swore aloud and with some circumstance of oaths. "The fact is," continued Mr. Wilding, "that what I did last night, I did in the heat of wine, and I am sorry for it. I recognize that this quarrel is of my provoking; that it was unwarrantable in me to introduce the name of Mistress Westmacott, no matter how respectfully; and that in doing so I gave Mr. Westmacott ample grounds for offence. For that I beg his pardon, and I venture to hope that this matter need go no further."
Vallancey and Blake were speechless in astonishment; Trenchard livid with fury. Westmacott moved a step or two forward, a swagger unmistakable in his gait, his nether-lip thrust out in a sneer.
"Why," said he, his voice mighty disdainful, "if Mr. Wilding apologizes, the matter hardly can go further." He conveyed such a suggestion of regret at this that Trenchard bounded forward, stung to speech.
"But if Mr. Westmacott's disappointment threatens to overwhelm him," he snapped, very tartly, "I am his humble servant, and he may call upon me to see that he's not robbed of the exercise he came to take."
Mr. Wilding set a restraining hand upon Trenchard's arm.
Westmacott turned to him, the sneer, however, gone from his face.
"I have no quarrel with you, sir," said he, with an uneasy assumption of dignity.
"It's a want that may be soon supplied," answered Trenchard briskly, and, as he afterwards confessed, had not Wilding checked him at that moment, he had thrown his hat in Richard's face.
It was Vallancey who saved the situation, cursing in his heart the bearing of his principal.
"Mr. Wilding," said he, "this is very handsome in you. You are of the happy few who may tender such an apology without reflection upon your courage."
Mr. Wilding made him a leg very elegantly. "You are vastly kind, sir," said he.
"You have given Mr. Westmacott the fullest satisfaction, and it is with an increased respect for you—if that were possible—that I acknowledge it on my friend's behalf."
"You are, sir, a very mirror of the elegancies," said Mr. Wilding, and Vallancey wondered was he being laughed at. Whether he was or not, he conceived that he had done the only seemly thing. He had made handsome acknowledgment of a handsome apology, stung to it by the currishness of Richard.
And there the matter ended, despite Trenchard's burning eagerness to carry it himself to a different consummation. Wilding prevailed upon him, and withdrew him from the field. But as they rode back to Zoyland Chase the old rake was bitter in his inveighings against Wilding's folly and weakness.
"I pray Heaven," he kept repeating, "that it may not come to cost you dear."
"Have done," said Mr. Wilding, a trifle out of patience. "Could I wed the sister having slain the brother?"
And Trenchard, understanding at last, accounted himself a numskull that he had not understood before. But he none the less deemed it a pity Richard had been spared.