The Brown Mask
by Percy J. Brebner
1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse



Percy J. Brebner

Author of "Princess Maritza," "Vayenne," "A Royal Ward"







Dismal in appearance, the painted sign over the mean doorway almost obliterated by time and weather, there was nothing attractive about the "Punch-Bowl" tavern in Clerkenwell. It was hidden away at the end of a narrow alley, making no effort to vaunt its existence to the world at large, and to many persons, even in the near neighbourhood, it was entirely unknown. Like a gentleman to whom debauchery has brought shame and the desire to conceal himself from his fellows, so the "Punch-Bowl" seemed an outcast amongst taverns. Chance visitors were few, were neither expected nor welcomed, and ran the risk of being told by the landlady, in terms which there was no possibility of misunderstanding, that the place was not for them. It was natural, therefore, that a certain air of mystery should surround the house, for, although the alley was a cul-de-sac, there were stories of marvellous escapes from this trap even when the entrance was closed by a troop of soldiers, and it was whispered that there was a secret way out from the "Punch-Bowl" known only to the favoured few. Nor was an element of romance wanting. The dwellers in this alley were of the poorest sort, dirty and unkempt, picking up a precarious livelihood, pickpockets and cutpurses—"foysters" and "nyppers" as their thieves' slang named them; yet, through all this wretched shabbiness there would flash at intervals some fine gentleman, richly dressed, and with the swagger of St. James's in his gait. Conscious of the sensation he occasioned, he passed through the alley looking strangely out of place, yet with no uncertain step. He was a hero, not only to these ragged worshippers, but in a far wider circle where wit and beauty moved; he knew it, gloried in it, and recked little of the price which must some day be paid for such popularity. The destination of these gentlemen was always the "Punch-Bowl" tavern.

Neither of a man, nor of a tavern, is it safe to judge only by the exterior. A grim and forbidding countenance may conceal a warm heart, even as the unprepossessing "Punch-Bowl" contained a cosy and comfortable parlour. To-night, half a dozen fine gentlemen were enjoying their wine, and it was evident that the landlady was rather proud of her guests. Buxom, and not too old to forget that she had once been accounted pretty, she still loved smartness and bright colours, was not averse to a kiss upon occasion, and had a jest—coarse, perhaps, but with some wit in it—for each of her customers. She knew them well—their secrets, their love episodes, their dangers; sometimes she gave advice, had often rendered them valuable help, but she had also a keen eye for business. Her favours had to be paid for, and even from the handsomest of her customers a kiss had never been known to settle a score. The "Punch-Bowl" was no place for empty pockets, and bad luck was rather a crime than an excuse. When it pleased her the landlady could tell many tales of other fine gentlemen she had known and would never see again, and she always gave the impression that she considered her former customers far superior to her present ones. Perhaps she found the comparison good for her business since she spoke to vain men. She had become reminiscent this evening.

"The very night before he was taken he sat where you're sitting," she said, pointing to one of her customers who was seated by the hearth. "Ah! He made a good end of it did Jim o' the Green Coat; kicked off his boots as if they were an old pair he had done with, and threw the ordinary out of the cart, saying he had no time to waste on him just then. I was there and saw it all."

There was silence as she concluded her glowing tale. Depression may take hold of the most careless and light-hearted for a moment, and even the attraction of making a good end, with an opportunity of spurning a worthless ordinary, cannot always appeal. The landlady had contrived to make her story vivid, and furtive glances were cast at the individual who occupied the seat she had indicated. There suddenly appeared to be something fatal in it and ample reason why a man might congratulate himself on being seated elsewhere. The occupant was the least concerned. He had taken the most comfortable place in the room; it seemed to be rightly his by virtue of his dress and bearing. He had the grand air as having mixed in high society, his superiority was tacitly admitted by his companions, and the landlady had addressed herself especially to him, as though she knew him for a man of consequence.

"When the time comes you shall see me die game, too, I warrant," he laughed, draining his glass and passing it to be refilled. "One death is as good as another, and at Tyburn it comes quicker than to those who lie awaiting it in bed."

"That's true," said the landlady.

"I should hate to die in a bed," the man went on. "The open road for me and a quick finish. It's the best life if it isn't always as long as it might be. I wouldn't forsake it for anything the King could offer me. It's a merry time, with romance, love and adventure in it, with plenty to get and plenty to spend, with a seasoning of danger to give it piquancy—a gentleman's life from cock-crow to cock-crow, and not worthy of a passing thought is he who cannot make a good end of it. I'd sooner have the hangman for a bosom friend than a man who is likely to whimper on the day of reckoning. Did I tell you that a reverend bishop offered me fifty guineas for my mare the other day?"

"You sold her?" came the question in chorus.

"Sold her! No! I told him that she would be of little use to him, since no one but myself could get her up to a coach."

"Your impudence will be the death of you, John," laughed the landlady.

"That seems a fairly safe prophecy," answered Gentleman Jack—for so his companions named him—"still, I've heard of one bishop who took to the road in his leisure hours. He died of a sudden fever, it was said; but, for all that, he returned one night from a lonely ride across Hounslow Heath, and was most anxious to conceal the fact that somebody had put a bullet into him. My bishop may have become ambitious—indeed, I think he had, for he had intellect enough to understand my meaning and was not in the least scandalised."

"Then we may yet welcome him at the 'Punch-Bowl,'" said one man. "So far, this house has entertained no one higher in the church than a Fleet parson. I see no sin in drinking the bishop's good health and wishing him the speedy possession of a horse to match his ambition."

"Anyone may serve as a toast," said another; "but could a bishop be good company under any circumstances, think you?"

"Gad! why not?" asked Gentleman Jack. "He'd Spend his time trying to square his profession with his conscience maybe, and when a man is reduced to that, bishop or no bishop, there's humour enough, I warrant."

The health was drunk with laughter, and the air of depression which had followed the landlady's recital disappeared like clouds from an April sky. Each one had some story to tell, some item to add to the accumulated glory of the road.

"Ay, it's a merry life," said the man who had had doubts about the bishop's company, "and the only drawback is that it comes to an end when you're at the top of your success. The dealers in blood-money never hunt a man down until he's worth his full price."

"And isn't that the best time to take the last ride?" exclaimed Gentleman Jack. "Who would choose to grow old and be forgotten? What should we do sitting stiffly in an armchair, wearing slippers because boots hurt our poor swollen feet? What should we be without a pair of legs strong enough to grip the saddle or with eyes too dim to recognise a pretty woman, lacking fire to fall in love, and with lips which had lost their zest for kissing?"

"But we come to that last ride before we lack anything—that's the trouble," was the answer.

"Not always," said another man. "Galloping Hermit was feared on all the roads before I had stopped my first coach, and he is still feared to-day." The speaker was young, and he mentioned the name of the notorious highwayman with a kind of reverence.

"They say he's the devil himself, and that's why he's never been taken," said another. "Did any of you ever see him?"

"Once." And they all turned quickly towards the man who spoke. "My mare had gone lame, and I had dismounted in a copse to examine her, when there was the quick, regular beat of hoofs at a gallop across the turf. I was alert on my own account in a moment, crouching down amongst the undergrowth, for with a lame animal I could have made but a poor show. There flashed past me a splendid horseman, man and beast one perfect piece of harmony. The moon was near the full. I saw the neat, strong lines of the horse, the easy movement of the rider, and I could see that the mask which the man wore was brown. This happened two years ago, out beyond Barnet."

"And without that brown mask no one knows him." said the man who had first spoken of him. "He has been met on all the roads, north, south, east and west—never in company, always alone. He never fails, yet the blood-feasters have watched for him in vain. Truly, he disappears as mysteriously as the devil might. He may go to Court. He may be a well-known figure there, gaming with the best, a favoured suitor where beauty smiles. He may even have been here amongst us at the 'Punch-Bowl' without our knowing it."

"It is not impossible," Gentleman Jack admitted, smiling a little at the others' enthusiasm.

"I envy him," was the answer. "We seem mean beside such a man as Galloping Hermit."

"I do not cry 'Yes' to that," said Gentleman Jack, just in time to prevent an outburst from the landlady, who appeared to fancy that the quality of her entertainment was being called in question. "The brown mask conceals a personality, no doubt, but before we can judge between man and man we must know something of their various opportunities. Were he careful and lucky, such a man as my bishop would be hard to run to earth. Galloping Hermit is careful, for only at considerable intervals do we hear of him. The road would seem to be a pastime with him, rather than a life he loved. For me, the night never comes that I do not long to be in the saddle, that I do not crave for the excitement, even if there be no spoil worth the trouble of taking. This man is different. He is only abroad when the quarry is certain. True, success has been his, but for all that the fear of Tyburn may spoil his rest at night, and when he gets there we may find that the brown mask conceals a coward after all."

"Had you seen him that night as I did you would not say so," was the answer.

"I like speech with a man before I judge his merits," said Gentleman Jack, rising from his chair and flicking some dust from his sleeve. He appeared to resent such slavish admiration of Galloping Hermit—perhaps because he felt that his own pre-eminence was challenged. It pleased him to think that his name must be in everyone's mouth, that his price in the crime-market must for months past have been higher than any other man's, and he was suddenly out of humour with the frequenters of the "Punch-Bowl." He threw a guinea to the landlady, told her to buy a keepsake with the change, and passed out with a careless nod, much as though he intended never to come back into such low company.

The landlady stood fingering the guinea, turning it between her finger and thumb, rather helping her reflections by the action than satisfying herself that the coin was a good one.

"I believe we've had Galloping Hermit here to-night," she said suddenly. "It was unlike Gentleman Jack to talk as he did just now. Mark my words, he wears a brown mask on special occasions, and thought by sneering to throw dust in our eyes. It's not the first time I have considered the possibility, and I'm not sure that I won't buy a brown silk mask for keepsake and slip it on when next I see him coming in at the door. That would settle the question."

She had many arguments to support her opinion, reminded her customers of many little incidents which had occurred in the past, recalling Gentleman Jack's peculiar behaviour on various occasions. Her arguments sounded convincing, and for an hour or more they discussed the question.

The opportunity to test her belief by wearing a brown silk mask never came, however, for that same night Gentleman Jack was taken on Hounslow Heath. A stumbling horse put him at the mercy of the man he sought to rob, who struck him on the head with a heavy riding-whip, and when the highwayman recovered consciousness he found himself a prisoner, bound hand and foot. He endeavoured to bargain with his captor, and made an attempt to outwit him, but, failing in both efforts, he accepted his position with a good grace, determined to make the best of it. Newgate should be proud of its latest resident. For a little space, at any rate, he would be the hero of fashionable circles, and go to his death with all the glamour of romance. He would leave a memory behind him that the turnkeys might presently make stirring tales of, as they drank their purl at night round the fire in the prison lobby.

The highwayman's story concerning the bishop quickly went the round of the town, and a wit declared that at least half the reverend gentlemen went trembling in their shoes for fear of their names being mentioned. The story, and the wit's comment, served to raise the curiosity of the fashionable world, and more than one coach stopped by Newgate to set down beauty and its escort on a visit to the highwayman. But a greater sensation was pending. Who first spread the report no one knew, but it was suddenly whispered that this man was in reality no other than the notorious wearer of the brown mask. When questioned he did not deny it, and his evident pleasure at the mystery which surrounded him went far to establish the story. For every person interested in Gentleman Jack, a dozen were anxious to see and speak to Galloping Hermit. Every tale concerning him was recalled and re-told, losing nothing in the re-telling. Men had rather envied his adventurous career, many women's hearts had beat faster at the mention of his name, and now the most absurd theories regarding his real personality were seriously discussed in coffee-houses, in boudoirs, and even at Court. It was whispered that the King himself would intervene to save him from the gallows.

For a long time no trial had caused such a sensation, and Judge Marriott, whose ambition it was to be likened to his learned and famous brother, Judge Jeffreys, rose to the occasion and succeeded in giving an excellent imitation of the bullying methods of his idol. This was an opportunity to win fame, he argued, and he gave full play to the little wit he possessed and ample licence to his undeniable powers of vituperation and blasphemy.

Newgate was thronged, and the prisoner bore himself gallantly as a man might in his hour of triumph. It was a great thing to be an object of interest to statesmen, scholars, and wits, and to win smiles and tears from beauty. His eyes travelled slowly over the sea of faces, and rested for a little while upon a young girl. Her eyes were downcast, but he thought there must be tears in them, and for a moment he was more interested in her than in anyone else. Why had she come? She was different from all the other women about her. Beside her sat an elderly woman who seemed to be enjoying herself exceedingly, and appeared to find especial relish in Judge Marriott's remarks. The more brutal they were the more witty she seemed to think them.

As sentence was pronounced the girl rose to her feet and turned to go. In truth, it had been no wish of hers to come. The judge, the people, and the whole atmosphere sickened her. She longed to get away, to feel the fresh air upon her cheek; and in her anxiety to depart she took no particular trouble to make sure that her companion was following her. There was a hasty crushing on all sides of her, and as she was carried forward she became conscious that she was alone, that she was being stared at and commented upon by some of those who were about her. She ought not to be there, she felt it rather than knew it, and was painfully aware that people were judging her accordingly. One man spoke to her, and in her effort to escape his attentions she contrived to thrust herself into a corner of an outer lobby, and waited.

"Can I be of service?"

For a moment she thought that the man she had escaped from had found her, and she turned indignantly. The steady grey eyes that met hers were eyes to trust—she felt that at once. This was quite a different person. He was young, with a face grave beyond his years, and a sense of strength about him likely to appeal to a woman.

"I am waiting for my aunt, Lady Bolsover," she said, the colour mounting to her cheeks under his steady gaze, and then, suddenly anxious that he should not think evil of her, she added: "I did not want to come. It was horrible."

"Your aunt must have missed you," he said, glancing round the almost empty lobby, for the crowd had poured out into the street by this time. "If you have a coach waiting, may I take you to it?"

"Oh, please—do."

The crowd was dense in the street, and their progress was slow, but the man forced a way for her. His face gave evidence that it would be dangerous for anyone to throw a jest at his companion. There was a general inclination to give him the wall as he went.

"I am glad you did not come here willingly," he said suddenly, as though no other thought had been in his mind all this time. "This is no place for a woman."

"Indeed, no. I am wondering why a man should be here either."

"Galloping Hermit once did me a kindness. I would like to repay the debt."

"But how? What could you do?"

"I could not tell. Something might have happened to give me an opportunity. It did not; still, I shall see him presently. Perhaps I may yet be able to do him some small service."

"Oh, I hope so, poor man," she answered. "There is the coach, and my aunt. She will thank you."

Lady Bolsover, who was talking to Lord Rosmore, did not appear agitated, but she hurried forward when she caught sight of her niece.

"My child, I have been consumed with anxiety, and—"

"This gentleman—" the girl began, and then stopped. The man had not followed her as she went to meet her aunt. He had disappeared.

There came no intervention on the prisoner's behalf in the days that followed, nor did he set up any plea for his life on the ground of knowing of plots against the King's Majesty. This would be to shirk the day of reckoning, and he had boasted to his companions at the "Punch-Bowl" that they should see him play the game to the end. He would fulfil this promise to the letter. He had ridden up Holborn Hill scores of times, seeking spoil and adventure on Hounslow Heath or elsewhere; he would journey up it once more, and pay the price like a gentleman. It would be no lonely journey; there would be excitement and triumph in it. He had lived his life and enjoyed it; he had allowed nothing to stand in the way of his desires; he had pressed into a few short years far more satisfaction than any other career could have given him. Why should he whimper because the end came early? It would be a good end to make, full of movement and colour. He knew, for he had been a spectator when others had taken that journey, and he was of more importance than they were. The whole town was ringing with his fame. Why should he have regrets? Beauty and fashion came to visit him, and one man came to thank him for some former kindness, a trivial matter that the highwayman had thought nothing of and had forgotten.

It came, that last morning, a fine morning flushed with the new life of the world that trembles hesitatingly in the spring of the year, and steeps the hearts of men and women with stronger hope and wider ambition; such a morning as draws a veil over past failures and disappointments, and floods the future with success and achievement. It seemed a pity to have to die on such a morning, and for one moment there was regret in the highwayman's soul as he took his place in the cart. The next he braced himself to play his part, for there were great crowds in the streets, waiting and making holiday. All eyes were turned, watching for the procession, for was it not Galloping Hermit who came, the notorious wearer of the brown mask, the hero of wealth and squalor alike, the man whose deeds had already passed into legend? No one thought of him as Gentleman Jack, not even his companions of the "Punch-Bowl" who were in the crowd to see him pass; not the landlady, who had come to see the last of him, and stood at the end of the journey, waiting and watching.

By the steps of St. Sepulchre's Church there was a pause. A woman, one of a frail sisterhood, yet strangely pretty and innocent to look upon, held up a great nosegay to the hero of the hour, and as he took it he bent down and kissed her.

"Don't let another's kiss make you forget this one too soon," he said gaily, and her lips smiled while there was a sob in her throat.

The cart jogged on again, and at intervals the man buried his face in the flowers. This was his hour, and if he had any fear or regret, there were no eyes keen enough to note the fact.

Tyburn and its fatal tree were in sight across a surging crowd. Even at the last moment the King might intervene, it was whispered, and there were some who looked for signs of a swift-coming messenger. But the cart came nearer, slowly and surely; the space round the gallows was kept clear with difficulty, and there was no sign of hurrying reprieve.

This was the end of the game. Now was the great test of courage. He was too great a man to indulge in small things to prove it.

"I've been used to riding in the night; a morning ride tires one," he said carelessly. "Let's get it over, or I shall be getting hungry, as all these folks must be. There's a good pair of boots for anyone who has the courage to wear them. I'm ready. Make an end of it."

And the landlady at the "Punch-Bowl" that night drank to his memory, declaring that he had died game, as was fitting for a gentleman of the road.



As the coach rolled heavily homewards towards St. James's Square, Lady Bolsover speedily recovered from her anxiety concerning her niece; she did not even reprimand her for getting lost in the crowd, and seemed to take no interest whatever in the gentleman who had come to the rescue and had not waited to be thanked. He could have been no person of consequence, or he would not have neglected the opportunity of bowing over her hand. She talked of nothing but the trial and the excellent manner in which her friend Judge Marriott had conducted it. Some of his witticisms she remembered and repeated with such excellent point that her niece shuddered again as she had done when they fell from the judge's lips.

"It was altogether horrible," said the girl. "I wonder why you made me go."

"Judge Marriott's wit horrible!" exclaimed Lady Bolsover. "Pray do not say so in company, or you will be taken for a fool."

"I meant the trial—the whole thing. Why did we go?"

"Would you be altogether out of the fashion, Barbara?"

"Such fashion, yes, I think so."

"Ah, that's the drawback of living in the country," was the answer. "All one's morals and manners smell of the soil, and a woman's attainments are limited to the making of gooseberry wine and piecrusts. I was of that pattern myself once, but, thank heaven! I married wisely and escaped from it. You must do the same, Barbara."

"Indeed, I am not sure that I want to, and yet—"

"I am grateful for the reservation," said Lady Bolsover, "or I should be compelled to think that all my care of you during these last few months had been wasted."

"Oh, no; I have learnt many things—many things that it is good for me to know. I have seen men and women who seem to live in another world to the one I have knowledge of, a large and most interesting world, truly, yet not altogether to my taste. Is it not a strange world that can enjoy what we have witnessed to-day?"

"I must confess I enjoyed Judge Marriott hugely," was the answer, "and the prisoner was a man, I'll say that for him. I almost regret not having had the honour of being stopped by him. I grant you he was interesting, and played his part gallantly."

"Doomed to die on the gallows! Do you call that playing a part?"

"My dear," and Lady Bolsover touched the girl's arm, "did I not know your ancestry I should imagine your father a scurvy Puritan and your mother a kitchen wench given to long hymns and cant of a Sunday. Are you sure this cavalier of yours was not some miserable sniveller who found time to favour you with a sermon? He disappeared so hastily that it would seem he was ashamed of himself."

The girl did not answer, and if the colour came into her cheeks at the memory of what the man had said to her, Lady Bolsover was too amused at her own conjecture to notice it.

There are those who are so intent upon living that they have little time to think. Lady Bolsover was of these. The hour that did not hold some excitement in it wearied her and made her petulant. Her husband, dead these ten years, had been amongst the enthusiastic welcomers of Charles at his Restoration, and his wife had from first to last been a well-known figure in the Court of the Merry Monarch. That she was no beauty, rather than because she possessed any great strength of character, probably accounted for the fact that she enjoyed no peculiar fame in that dissolute company. As she could not be the heroine of an intrigue, it pleased her to consider herself too great a dame for such affairs, and she was fully persuaded that she might count her lovers by the score, even now, had she so desired. As she had no very definite character, so she had no real convictions. Charles was dead, and James was King. Many changes were imminent, and Lady Bolsover was waiting to see in which direction the wind blew. Her nature, perhaps, was to hate Puritans and all their ways, but, if necessary to her own well-being, she would easily be able to love them and curse all Catholics. She was not really bad at heart, but she was a strange companion for Barbara Lanison.

Some few months ago Sir John Lanison, of Aylingford Abbey in Hampshire, Lady Bolsover's brother and Barbara's uncle and sole guardian since the death of her parents, had suggested that his sister should take charge of his ward for a little while. Practically she knew nothing of London, he said, and it was time she did. Sir John declared that he did not want it to be said that he had hidden his niece away at the Abbey so that no man should have a chance of seeing her. He had known prettier women, but she was well enough, and where her face failed to attract her ample fortune would.

"She's got more learning than is needful for a girl, to my mind," he told his sister; "but that kind of nonsense will be knocked out of her as soon as she understands her value as a woman. Send her back with all the corners rounded, my dear Peggy—that is what I want."

Lady Bolsover had done her best, but the result was not very satisfactory. Barbara had convictions which her aunt was powerless to undermine, and seemed to set such a value upon herself that no man was able to make the slightest impression on her. She had barely refrained from laughing outright at the compliments of recognised wits, and half a dozen gallants with amorous intentions had been baffled and put to shame. Lord Rosmore, whose way with a woman was pronounced irresistible, had declared her adorable, but impossible, and Judge Marriott had promised Lady Bolsover a very handsome gratuity if she could persuade her niece to favour him and become his wife.

Barbara Lanison could not be unconscious of the sensation she caused—a woman never is—but she sometimes studied the reflection in her mirror, and tried to discover the reason. Quite honestly she failed. She was not dissatisfied with the reflection, in its way it was pleasing, she admitted, but she had not supposed that it was of the kind that would appeal to men, and to such a variety of men. The women who usually pleased them were so different. It even occurred to her that there might be something in herself, in her behaviour, which was not quite nice, and that her real attraction lay in this, an idea which proved that her estimate of the men who came to her aunt's house was not a very high one.

Born and bred in the country, and with an amount of learning which her uncle considered unnecessary, she had prejudices, no doubt, and possibly had a standard of female beauty in her mind which her own reflection did not satisfy. That she was mistaken in her own estimate of herself was certain, or the men would not have been so assiduous in their attentions. Perhaps she admired dark women, and the reflection which smiled at her out of the depths of the mirror was fair. The eyes were blue—that blue which the sky shows in the early morning of a cloudless day, and there was a suggestion of tears in them—the tears which may come from much laughter rather than those which speak of sorrow. There was a touch of gold in the fair hair, which was inclined to be rebellious and curl into little lovelocks about her neck and forehead. The skin was fair, with the bloom of perfect health upon it, and the little mouth was firm, the lips fresh as from the kiss of a rose. There was grace in all her movements, that unstudied grace which tells of life in the open air and freedom from restraint; and in thought and word and deed conventionality had small interest for her. It was hardly wonderful that Lord Rosmore should pronounce her adorable, or that Judge Marriott should forget that his youth was a thing of the past. Indeed, she had come as a revelation to the men whose lives were made up of Court intrigue and artificiality.

Perhaps another reason why Barbara Lanison found it difficult to understand the sensation she created lay in the fact that her heart and affections remained entirely untouched. Those blue eyes, underneath their long lashes, saw very keenly, and gave her a quick insight into character. She was not to be easily led, and if she did a good many things in her aunt's house, where she was a guest, which did not come naturally to her and which did not please her, there was a point beyond which no persuasion on Lady Bolsover's part could make her go. Much against her will she had been taken to the trial of the highwayman, and that she was ashamed of being there was shown by her eager desire to explain her presence to the man who had come to her rescue in the crowd. It would probably have annoyed Lady Bolsover considerably had she known that her niece thought more of this man during the next few days than of all the eligible gallants who had been brought to her notice.

If in one sense Lady Bolsover had to admit failure with regard to her plans concerning her niece, in another direction she had achieved considerable success, for since the advent of Barbara Lanison her own favour had been courted on all sides, and her house in St. James's Square had become a little Court in itself. To half a dozen men who had flattered her sufficiently as a first step towards her good graces, she had promised to do her best with her niece on their behalf, and at intervals she dispensed encouragements for which no action or private word of Barbara's gave any foundation. Lady Bolsover found her present entourage very pleasant, and was not inclined to spoil it by being too definitely honest. It was therefore with considerable chagrin that, a few days after the trial, she received a message from her brother that Barbara was to return to Aylingford Abbey without delay; and since Judge Marriott was about to pay him a visit, nothing could be better than that Barbara should travel in his company.

Barbara was quite ready to return to the Abbey, but she did not relish Judge Marriott as a travelling companion. He was old enough to be her father, and foolish enough to attempt to make love to her. She had disliked him from the first; she had come near to hating him since she had seen and heard him at that dreadful trial. The self-satisfied judge, on the other hand, hoped to make capital out of the trial. He had been instrumental in ridding the world of a notorious highwayman, one who had made himself unpleasantly known to not a few of those who were Sir John's guests from time to time. The trial would be much talked of at Aylingford, and Marriott could not fail to be a centre of attraction. His acumen must also have appealed to the woman whose escort he was to be. His conduct of the case must have impressed her with his importance. She was the most beautiful woman with whom he had ever been brought into contact, and his ambition took to itself wings. Why should not this woman belong to him? True, he had no family behind him to boast of, but he had made a position, and the way to greater things lay open before him. Jeffreys was his friend, and Jeffreys was a power with the new King. High honours might be in the near future for Judge Marriott. He was an ugly man—with all his willingness to do so, he could not gainsay that; but he consoled himself with the reflection that many beautiful women had married men whose looks certainly did not recommend them. It was only the commonplace that women turned from, and he was sufficiently ugly not to be commonplace.

So Judge Marriott exerted himself to amuse and interest his fair young charge as they journeyed together into Hampshire, and not altogether without success. He soon discovered that all discussion concerning the trial was unwelcome, that the girl's foolish sympathies had been with the prisoner rather than the judge, and he quickly talked of other things. He almost made Barbara believe that he regretted Nature had not made him a highwayman instead of a judge, and he certainly succeeded in making the girl confess to herself that he was not such an unpleasant travelling companion as she had expected.

The day had been cloudy, threatening rain, and twilight came early. When the coach began to cross Burford Heath it was dusk. Barbara was tired, and leaned back in her corner, while the judge lapsed into silence, not altogether oblivious to the fact that there might be dangers upon the heath. The road was heavy, and in places deep-rutted; the grinding and crunching of the wheels, the only sound breaking the stillness of the evening, grew monotonous; and the constant heavy jolting was trying. Suddenly there was a cry from the post-boys, and the coach came to a standstill with a jerk.

"Curse them! They've managed to break down!" exclaimed Marriott. His hand trembled a little as he let down the window, and it seemed to Barbara that he was more afraid than angry. He thrust his head out of the window with an oath, then drew it in sharply. A horseman stood at the door with a pistol in his hand.

"There is payment to make for crossing the heath."

The judge broke out into a torrent of abuse, but whether at the man who barred his way or at himself for being unprepared, it was difficult to say.

"And the payment is extra for cursing your luck, especially in the presence of a lady," said the man sharply, in a tone which admitted no argument and proved him master of the situation.

Barbara, sitting upright, looked steadily into the masked face of the highwayman, deeply interested, but without fear. Was it fancy, or was there a familiar note in the man's voice? Marriott had shrunk back in the coach as he fumbled for his purse. He tried to conceal his face from the man, for, should the highwayman discover his identity, he might consider the moment opportune to avenge his brother of the road who had so recently died at Tyburn.

"A meagre purse for so famous a judge," the man said, weighing it in his hand; "but your money is a small matter. I have a bigger score to settle than that. Out with you!" and the man flung open the coach door.

Marriott shrank farther back until he appeared a very small and mean man in the corner of the coach. He tried to speak, but his words were inarticulate, and Barbara could feel him trembling violently.

"Get out, or—"

"Surely, sir, you would not kill him?" and Barbara stretched out an arm to protect him.

"Do you plead for him, mistress? He is lucky to have such an advocate. Get out, judge. For the sake of those bright eyes beside you, you may keep your life, but you shall do penance for your sins. Get out, I say."

Very reluctantly Marriott crept from the carriage.

"You have all my money," he whimpered.

"Down on your knees, then, and ask pardon for passing judgment on a better man than yourself. Down! Quickly, or this pistol of mine may forget that I have made a promise."

Marriott sank upon his knees in a place where the road was very muddy.

"The man I sent to Tyburn—say it after me."

"The man I sent to Tyburn," repeated Marriott.

"—was a gentleman compared to me."

"—was a gentleman compared to me."

"I am an unjust judge, a scoundrel at heart, a mean, contemptible coward, unfit to consort with honest men, and every pure, good woman should spurn me like dirt. Say it! Louder! The lady should be interested in your confession."

Marriott said the words, raising his voice as he was ordered.

"And I pray to Heaven to have pity on the soul of the man I sent to his death at Tyburn. Say it aloud, with uplifted hands. It is a prayer you may well make, for, God knows, you'll have need of all His mercy some day."

The prayer was repeated, and so like a real prayer was it that, in the darkness of the coach, Barbara smiled. Prayer and Judge Marriott seemed so wide asunder.

"Now get back into the coach, and take care your muddy clothes do not soil the lady's gown, as your presence could hardly fail to be pestilential to her, did she but know you as you really are. Good-night, fair mistress; some day I hope to see you under better escort."

For a moment he bowed low over his horse's neck, then he turned and galloped straight across the heath.

Judge Marriott had entered the coach hurriedly, so glad to escape from the highwayman that he did not consider how poor a figure he had cut in the sight of the girl. Fearful that his tormentor might not yet have done with him, he sank back in his corner again. Barbara was sitting forward looking from the window.

"He has gone," she said.

"Curse him!" said Marriott in a whisper. He was still afraid, and his voice trembled. "Surely his mask was—"

"It was brown," said Barbara. "I thought the man who wore the brown mask was dead."

"I thought so too," he muttered as he leaned forward to the window and watched the highwayman disappear into the shadows of the night.



Where a stream, running through a wide track of woodland, turned to flow round three sides of a plateau of rising ground, a community of Cistercian monks had long ago founded their home. Possibly the original building was of small dimensions, but as the wealth of the community increased it had been enlarged from time to time, and, it would appear, with an ever-increasing idea of comfort. Of this completed building as the monks knew it, a large part remained, some of it in a more or less ruinous state it is true, but much of it incorporated in the work of those subsequent builders who had succeeded in converting Aylingford Abbey into one of the most picturesque residences in Hampshire. It faced away from the stream, and the long, massive front, besides being the most modern part of the building, was the least interesting aspect; indeed, it was difficult to get a comprehensive view of it, because the woods approached so closely that the traveller came upon it almost unawares. From every other side the outlines of the Abbey were singularly beautiful. Here a small spire sharply cut the sky, or a graceful point of roof told of a chapel or high-pitched hall; there, half frowning, half friendly, a mass of creeper-clad, grey wall looked capable of withstanding a siege. In some places solid pieces of masonry spoke of comparatively recent improvement, while towards one end of the building walls had crumbled, leaving ruined chambers open to wind and weather. There were open casements, through which one might catch a glimpse of comfort within, and again there were narrow slits, deeply sunk into thick walls, through which fancy might expect to hear the moan of some prisoner in a dungeon.

As it swept round the Abbey the stream broadened out, and its current became almost imperceptible. On one side the bank was comparatively low, but on the Abbey side a stone wall had been built up from the water. Above this was a broad terrace, flanked by the top of the wall, which rose some three or four feet above it, and into which seats had been cut at intervals. This terrace ran round three sides of the Abbey, and was mostly of stone flags, worn and green with age, but in some places there were stretches of trimly-kept grass. Two stone bridges arched and dipped from the terrace to the opposite bank of the stream. Wonderful vistas of the surrounding country were to be seen from the vantage ground of the terrace; here a peep through a sylvan glade to the blue haze of the hills beyond; there a glimpse of the roofs of the village of Aylingford, a mile away; and again a deep, downward view into dark woods, where mystery seemed to dwell, and perhaps fear, and out of which came the sound of running and of falling water.

It was not difficult to believe in the legends which the simple country folk told of Aylingford, and they were many. Had some old monk come suddenly out of the wood, over the bridge, and walked in meditation along the terrace, he would hardly have looked strange or out of place so long as a bevy of Sir John's visitors had not chanced to meet him. It seemed almost natural that when the night was still the echoes of old prayer and chant should still be heard, as folk said they were. Sir John himself had heard such sounds, so he affirmed, and would not have his belief explained away by the fact that the wind found much to make music with in the ruins. Then there were rooms which never seemed to be unoccupied; corridors where you felt that someone was always walking a little way in front of you or had turned the corner at the end the moment before; stairs upon which could be heard descending footsteps; doors which you did not remember to have noticed before. But while of legend there was plenty, of history there was little. It would appear that the monks had forsaken their home even before the Reformation, for the first Lanison had acquired in the Eighth Henry's reign a property "long fallen into ruinous decay," according to an old parchment. Possibly the writer of this description had not seen the Abbey, trusting, perchance, to the testimony of a man who had not seen it either, for certainly much of the present building was in existence then, and could hardly have been as ruinous as the parchment would lead one to suppose. It may be that Aylingford, lying in the depth of the country, away from the main road, escaped particular notice, and this might also account for the fact that it had never attracted the attention of Cromwell's men, which it reasonably might have done, seeing that the Lanisons were staunch for the King.

Since old Sir Rupert Lanison had first come to Aylingford, Lanisons had always been masters there—indifferent ones at times, as at intervals they had proved indifferent subjects, yet reverenced by the country folk.

Sir John, in the course of time, had become the head of the house of his ancestors, proud of his position, punctilious as to his rights, superstitious, and a believer in the legends of his home. He had married twice, losing each wife within a year of his wedding day, and had no child to succeed him. His brother, who had gone abroad ready to serve where-ever there was fighting to be done, had also married. His wife died young, too, and her daughter Barbara had come as a child to Aylingford. She did not remember her father, who subsequently died in the East Indies, leaving his child and a great fortune to the care of Sir John.

So the Abbey and the woods which surrounded it had been Barbara's world for eighteen years, for only once had she been to London before her visit to Lady Bolsover. In a measure this second visit was unhappily timed, for the death of King Charles had cast a gloom over the capital, and the accession of his brother James caused considerable apprehension in the country. Still, Barbara had created a certain sensation, and, according to Lady Bolsover, would have made a great match had not Sir John foolishly recalled her to the Abbey.

"She was just getting free from pastry and home-made wine, and my brother must needs plunge her back into them," Lady Bolsover declared to her friends, who were neither so numerous nor so distinguished now that Barbara had left St. James's Square.

Sir John had welcomed his niece, but had given no reason for bringing her home. She did not expect one. She had been away a long while; it was natural she should be home again, and she was glad. There was no real regret in her mind that she had left London; yet, somehow, life was different, and although she had been home nearly a week there was something which kept her from settling down into the old routine.

"Why is it? What is it? I wonder."

She was sitting on one of the stone seats cut in the wall of the terrace, leaning back to look across the woods. The morning sun flooded this part of the terrace with golden light, the perfume of flowers was heavy in the air. From the woods came a great song of birds; in the water below her a fish jumped at intervals—a cool sound on a hot day. She had this part of the terrace to herself for a little while, but from another part, round an angle of the house, came the murmur of voices and sometimes laughter, now a man's, now a woman's. It had all been just the same before, many, many times, yet now the girl was conscious of a sound of discord in it. Nothing had really changed. The Abbey was full of guests, as her uncle loved to have it, many of the same guests who came so constantly, many of those who had been her companions at Lady Bolsover's, and yet the world seemed changed somehow. The reason must lie in herself. Her visit to London had brought enlightenment to her, although she had only a vague idea of its meaning. She found it difficult not to shrink from some of her uncle's guests, a feeling she had not experienced until now. True, she had been brought more in contact with them during this last week than she had previously been. They treated her differently, no longer as a child, but as one of themselves. They spoke more freely, both the men and women, and it seemed to Barbara that only now was she beginning to understand them, and that it was this wider knowledge which made her shrink from them.

"I have become a woman; before I was only a girl—that must be the reason," she said, resting her chin on her clasped hands and looking down into the depths of the wood on the opposite side of the stream. "I have been very happy as a child, I do not believe I am going to be happy as a woman," and then she glanced towards the distant blue hills. The world was full of sunlight, even though the woods below her were dark and gloomy.

She looked along the terrace to make certain that no one was coming to disturb her—and she smiled to think how often she was disturbed in these days. Judge Marriott had only to catch sight of her, and he would leave any companion—man or woman—to hurry after her. At first he seemed only intent on proving to her that he had not really been afraid of the highwayman on Burford Heath, not on his own account at least, only on hers; but presently he began to praise her, stammering over high-flown compliments concerning her eyes or her hair, and looking ridiculously distressed as he uttered them. He made her laugh until she understood that he was making love to her, then she was angry. All yesterday he was sighing to be forgiven.

Then there was Sir Philip Branksome, who twice within the last three days had endeavoured to impress upon her the fact that his attentions were a very great honour. He was so sure of himself in this particular that it was almost impossible to despise him. There was Sydney Fellowes, too, near kinsman to my Lord Halifax, full of boyish enthusiasm, now for some warrior, now for some poet, chiefly for Mr. Herrick, whose poems he knew by heart and repeated sympathetically. In Barbara Lanison he professed to find the ideal woman, the inspiration which, he declared, warrior and poet alike must have; and for hours together he would explain how debased he was, how exalted was she. He wrote verses to her, breathing these sentiments, and appeared to touch the height of his ambition for a moment when she deigned to listen to them. Barbara felt herself so much older than he was that she only stopped him when he grew too persistent, neither laughing at him nor despising him. She praised his verses which really had merit, but she would not understand that she had inspired them. And last evening Lord Rosmore had arrived, had bowed low over her hand and whispered a compliment. His looks, his attitude, had occasioned comment, for my Lord Rosmore seldom sought, he was so consistently sought after. Had not King Charles once called him the handsomest attraction of his acquaintance, and laughingly turned to warn a bevy of beauties of the danger of running after so well favoured a cavalier?

"It is all because I am a woman," said Barbara, with a little sigh. "I suppose I ought to be happy, proud, pleased; and yet—"

She looked across the woods, far away into the blue distance where fancy well might have its kingdom, and her thoughts became a day-dream. That she was a woman, that the horizon of her mind had widened, that in touching the great world she had understood things which before were a sealed book to her, did not altogether account for the change. In her day-dream she was conscious of a pair of grey eyes which seemed to look into her soul; conscious of a voice—kindly, yet with something stern in it—saying in her ear: "Can I be of service?" and again, "This is no place for a woman."

It was strange that she should remember so vividly; strange, too, that he had gone from her so quickly. Why had he done so? Who was he? Such questions brought another in their train. Why had the voice of the highwayman with the brown mask seemed familiar? She tried to remember the exact figure of the man who had come to her rescue at Newgate, her fair brow frowning a little with the endeavour, but only the look in his eyes and the sound of his voice remained. Somehow the highwayman's voice had seemed unnatural.

The opening and closing of a door startled her, and she turned quickly to see her uncle crossing the terrace.

"It is surprising to find you alone in these days, Barbara. London has worked marvels, and it would seem that you have become a reigning toast, Such is the news that has filtered down to Aylingford."

"That may be my misfortune; it is certainly none of my choice," was her answer.

"And she has grown as quick at repartee as the best of them," laughed Sir John, touching her shoulder lightly with approval. His laugh was a pleasant one, his face kindly, his pose rather graceful, in spite of the fact that his increasing bulk gave him anxiety. Report declared that his youth had had wild passages, that one episode in his career had led to a duel in which Sir John had killed his man, and it was whispered at the time that justice and honour had gone down before the better swordsmanship of a libertine. But this was years ago, before he was master of Aylingford Abbey, and was forgotten now. Sir John Lanison of Aylingford seemed to have nothing in common with that young roysterer of long ago, and to-day there was no more popular man in this corner of Hampshire.

"Indeed, I had to run away to be alone this morning," Barbara went on. "I saw Judge Marriott go into the woods yonder not long since, and I warrant he is looking for me."

"And Branksome, and Fellowes, and half a dozen more—they are always seeking you," said Sir John, with mock consternation. "I am to have my hands full, it seems, looking after my niece. It might have been better if I had kept her at the Abbey."

"In my absence I have seen enough of men to make me careful about falling in love with one."

"Still, it must needs be with a man if you fall in love at all," said her uncle, seating himself on the stone seat beside her, "and there is something I want to say on this matter, Barbara. It is well that you should have seen something of the town, but it is not a good place in which to judge men."

"And around Aylingford I know of no men worth troubling about," said Barbara, "so it would seem that I am on the high road to dying a spinster."

"Never was woman more unlikely to do that than you," answered Sir John. "When a young girl talks like that, an old campaigner like myself begins to wonder in which direction her heart has fluttered. No woman ever yet regarded being a spinster with complacency, and few women jest about it unless they are satisfied there is no danger. Is there a confession to be made, Barbara?"

"None. Except for you and Martin Fairley, all men are—well, just men, and of little interest to me. It is certain I cannot marry my uncle, and I am not likely to fall in love with Martin, am I? By the way, where is Martin? I have not seen him since I returned to the Abbey."

"I met him just a week ago, here on the terrace, with his fiddle under his arm. He was starting to tramp to the other end of the county, he told me, to play at a village wedding."

"Poor Martin!" said the girl.

"Mad Martin, rather," said Sir John; "and yet not so mad that he has not had a certain effect upon us all, and upon you most of all. Ever since you were a child he has been your willing slave, and he has taught you many things out of that strange brain of his. I sometimes fancy that he has made you look upon life differently from the way in which most women look upon it, has filled it with more romance than it can hold, and taken out of it much that is real."

"In fact, made me as mad as he is," laughed Barbara.

"I am not jesting," Sir John said gravely. "You have come back to the Abbey a woman. You are more beautiful than I thought you were. You have made something of a sensation. You say you have no confession to make."

"That I have no confession to make is true, and for the other items I am glad I please you."

"But you do not please me," returned Sir John. "I should have been more gratified had you made a confession. I have no son, Barbara."

She put her hand upon his arm in a quick caress, full of sympathy, knowing how sore a trouble this was to him.

"So you see my interests are centred in you," he went on after a moment's pause which served to intensify the meaning in his words. "One of those interests—indeed, the chiefest of them—is your marriage. It must be a wise marriage, Barbara, one worthy of a Lanison. Have you never thought of it at all?"

"Never, definitely."

"And yet it is time."

"Yesterday I was a child," she answered, her eyes looking towards the distant hills. A pair of grey eyes seemed to be watching her.

"You were born before your mother was your age," Sir John answered. "I was prepared to look with favour upon any man on whom your choice had fallen. It has fallen on no one, you say."

"I have said so. We must wait a little while. I am very happy as I am."

"I have been thinking for you," said her uncle.

"You mean—Surely you don't want me to marry Judge Marriott?"

"No, Barbara," and he smiled. "I am too young myself yet to care for the judge as a nephew."

"Ah! We are talking absurdly, aren't we?" she said, and although she laughed she still looked towards the distant hills. "Of course, I could never marry a man I didn't love, and to have a man chosen for you would naturally prevent your loving him, wouldn't it?"

"To advise is not to force, Barbara."

"Who is the man you have thought of?" she asked.

"You cannot guess?"

"Has he grey eyes and a low, strong voice and—"

"Grey eyes!" said Sir John, glancing at her sharply.

"Grey eyes—yes." She had spoken dreamily, only half conscious that she had put thoughts into words. Now she laughed and went on gaily, "I have always thought I should like to marry a man with grey eyes. Girls get fancies like that sometimes. Foolish, isn't it?"

Sir John lifted his shoulders a little as though the point were too trivial to discuss, and he tried to remember what coloured eyes young Sydney Fellowes had.

"I am not sure whether Lord Rosmore's eyes are grey or not; I rather think they are," he said slowly.

"Lord Rosmore!"

Laughter sounded along the terrace, and several people came towards them, Lord Rosmore and Sydney Fellowes amongst them.

"If his eyes are grey, they are not the shade I like," said Barbara decidedly, and as Sir John rose she turned and walked along the terrace in the opposite direction. If her uncle were annoyed at her action he did not show it as he went to meet his guests.

"I was taking a quiet half-hour to discuss matters with the chatelaine of the Abbey," he said. "She will worry over small details more than is needful."

"Perhaps if I go and read her some new verses it will soothe her," said Fellowes.

"Better wait a more convenient season, unless you would have some of the servants for your audience," laughed Sir John, as he turned to walk with Rosmore. "You would find her engaged with them, and domesticities go ill with poetry."

"Plagued ill with the poetry Fellowes writes," said Branksome; "is that not true, Mistress Dearmer?"

"I am no judge, since Mr. Fellowes has never made verses for me," answered the lady.

"So facile a poet may remedy that on the instant," said Branksome. "Come, Master Rhymster, there's a kiss from the reddest lips I know waiting as payment for a stanza."

"They are kisses which are not at your disposal," answered the lady, but she looked at Fellowes.

"Gad! I believe you may have the kiss without the trouble of earning it, Fellowes," laughed Branksome. "I can go bail for the goods."

Mistress Dearmer pouted, but the laugh was against her until Fellowes came to the rescue.

"You shall have a sonnet," he said. "You may pay if you think it worthy."

Another woman caught Sir Philip's hand and whispered, "The poetry could hardly be so bad as the kisses are cheap, could it?"

Lord Rosmore and his host had walked to the end of the terrace talking confidentially.

"I should have said more, but you came to interrupt us," Sir John replied in answer to a question from his companion.

"You can force her to do as you wish," said Rosmore. "Indeed, if necessary, you must."


"You are her guardian. If your powers are limited, that is no reason you should tell her so."

"You seem strangely doubtful about your own powers, Rosmore, yet rumour has it that few women are proof against you."

"She may be one of the few, that is why you have spoken to her. I want her more than I have ever wanted anything on earth. You—well, if all else fails, you must force her to marry me."

"There is another alternative," and Sir John stopped and drew himself up stiffly.

"I don't think you would take it," Rosmore answered carelessly. "I should not advise you to take it."

"She spoke of grey eyes," said Sir John, as though he were disinclined to argue the point. "She has thought of some man with grey eyes."

"Tell me all she said—it may be useful," and for some minutes Rosmore listened attentively while Sir John talked.

"I have more than one way of wooing," Rosmore said presently, "and my love must condone them all. The siege shall begin forthwith. A man may win any woman if he is subtle enough; in that conviction lies the secret of the success with which rumour credits me. I may persuade your niece to believe my eyes are grey, or perchance charm her into hating grey eyes henceforth. Where shall I find her, Sir John?"

"Probably in the Nun's Room."

"No place for so desirable a lady, and surely a strange room to have in Aylingford Abbey," laughed Rosmore. "There are many strange things about Aylingford which Mistress Barbara must never discover."

Sir John laughed, a forced laugh with a curse underneath it, and his hands tightened a little as he watched his guest go quickly along the terrace.



Before she had taken many steps Barbara regretted that she had not remained with her uncle. Lord Rosmore must have said something to Sir John, and would guess that they had been talking about him; it would have been better to have stayed and shown him by her manner how distasteful the subject was to her. But she did not turn back. If she had missed an opportunity, it was certain that many more would be given her. She even began to wonder whether she really disliked Lord Rosmore; he had certainly given her no definite cause. In London he had not attempted to pay her any marked attention, and last night, when he had bent low over her hand, was the first time there had been anything noticeable in his behaviour. She liked him better—far better—than Judge Marriott; Sydney Fellowes hardly counted, and there was no other man whose coming had pleased her or whose departure had caused her a single regret. The man who had come to her help at Newgate was a shadow, a dream. Only curiosity could account for her remembering him. Indeed, it was doubtful if she did really remember him; were she to meet him she would probably not know him again. No, she had no ground for disliking Lord Rosmore. She did not dislike him, but, since he had been chosen for her, there was ample reason why she could never love him. Any woman would naturally hate the man she was commanded to love.

She turned from the terrace and, passing through a low doorway from which the door had gone long ago, entered a wide space enclosed by ruinous and moss-grown walls. It was open to the sky and littered with debris. At one end the blocked-up entrance from the present house was distinctly visible; at the other a small door, deeply sunk into the massive masonry, gave entrance to a small round tower or bastion, which rose some feet above the walls and overhung the terrace. The tower had escaped ruin, almost accidentally it would seem, for there were no signs of any particular care having been expended upon it. This open space had evidently been chiefly occupied by a large hall, its floor a little lower than the terrace level, but adjoining the tower end of it there had been other rooms, for traces of stone steps could be seen in the wall. In one corner, too, there had been a room below the level of the floor—indeed, some of the stone flags still projected over it. Its walls, strong and dungeon-like, were built down some fifteen feet; two or three narrow slits piercing the outer wall in a sharp upward angle had evidently given this buried chamber a dim light, and the entrance to it could only have been from the top, probably by a trap door. Some debris had fallen into it, but not very much, and creepers had sown themselves and, climbing over part of the walls to the top, had spread themselves over a portion of the floor of the hall.

Barbara picked her way across the fallen debris and stood looking down into this hole for a few minutes. It seemed to possess a certain fascination for her, as though it were in some way connected with her history. Then she went to the small door in the tower. It was locked, and although she knocked several times, and stood back to look up at the narrow windows above her, there was no sound, and no one answered her summons. She sat down upon a fallen piece of stonework, and her thoughts troubled her. Truly, she had come back to a new life. Even that locked door seemed to have its significance. She did not remember ever to have found it fastened before when she really wanted to enter.

She turned at the sound of approaching footsteps, and then rose quickly to her feet.

"What a place to hide in!" exclaimed Lord Rosmore as he came towards her. "I have never had the curiosity to penetrate into this rubbish heap before, and behold I am rewarded by finding a jewel."

"I came here to be alone for a little while," she said.

"I came for the same reason."

"You did not follow me?" she asked, evident disbelief in her tone.

"I wish I could say that I had, if it would please you; but, alas! truth will out. I came to think and to get through a troubled hour where my fellows could not see me. In this, at least, we can sympathise with each other it would seem."

"We can talk plainly, perhaps; it will be best," she answered.

"At least, I can explain," said Rosmore; "but won't you be seated again? That is better," he went on as she sat down, "it seems to make confession of my fault easier. A little while since I spoke to your uncle about you. It was unwise, I know that now, but I did not think so then. Your position and your wealth seemed to make it the honourable thing to do. Sir John was kind enough to wish me good fortune, and I was content to wait. It was not my intention that Sir John should say anything to you, I did not imagine he would do so. Now, I learn that you have been pestered with my sentiments by proxy, that I have been forced to your notice. It is enough surely to make me seek solitude, where I may curse the hard fate that ruins me."

"I thought—"

"I dare not try and understand all you thought," Rosmore interrupted. "I can only suppose that Sir John meant to be kind, that in some sense he did not consider me an altogether unworthy alliance; but that I should ever have my wooing done for me—the idea is maddening! A man could not take a surer road to a woman's contempt."

"My uncle has made a mistake," said Barbara. "I understand, and you have my thanks for the explanation."

"And your forgiveness?"

"I hardly think I had become angry."

"You lift my trouble from me with generous hands," said Rosmore. "Truly, Sir John has made a mistake, his desire perhaps marring his judgment; but, as truly, I am your humble worshipper. No! please hear me out. In London I did not thrust myself upon you because I had wit enough to understand that professions with even a suspicion of lightness in them were distasteful to you; now, after what has occurred, I am at a disadvantage, and I have no intention of putting my happiness to the test at such an inopportune time. For the present look upon me as a friend who hopes presently to win a greater regard, and who is, meanwhile, always at your service."

"I thank you," Barbara said, and the man's nerves tingled as she rose and swept him a graceful curtsy. She had never looked more beautiful, never so desirable as at that moment. He had conquered so often and so carelessly that he could not think of failure now.

"So we are friends and our troubles gone," he said gaily. "They are lost in the debris of this ruinous place. It is strange this part should have been left in ruins, while the rest of the Abbey has been so carefully rebuilt and preserved."

"It is because of the Nun of Aylingford."

"A nun! In an Abbey for monks?"

"Strange, but true. I thought everyone knew the story."

"No. Won't you tell it to me?"

"You must look into the Nun's Room first, Lord Rosmore," said Barbara, and she was so interested in the legend that she forgot to ask herself whether she liked or disliked her companion as she led the way to the sunken stone chamber. "Be careful you do not stumble and fall into it, for it is said that death comes to such a stumbler within the year."

"A fable, of course?" he laughed.

"I have only known one man who fell in. He was helped out unhurt, but he died within the week. I should not like to fall."

"Give me your hand," he said.

"For your safety or for mine?" she returned. "I am used to this place, have loved it since I was a child; besides, it is said that the curse applies only to men. You see, the Nun had pity on her own sex."

Lord Rosmore's hand was still extended, but she did not take it.

"For thirteen years a woman lived in this dungeon. Under the creeper on yonder wall you can see the stone slab which was her bed. The floor of the hall shut her up almost in darkness, and from the hour she stepped down into this room she saw no human face, heard no human voice."

"You stand too close to the opening, Mistress Lanison. I pray you come back or take my hand."

Barbara stepped back and stood by the wall, facing him.

"Her story is a sad one, sad and cruel," she went on. "She had a lover, and an enemy who said he loved her. The lover—a knight of prowess—went to the wars, and on his return was told that the woman he worshipped was false. He sought for her from one end of the land to the other, still believing in her, until by some artifice he was brought to believe in her unfaithfulness. Life had lost all zest for him, and he came here at last, to Aylingford Abbey, to seek consolation in a life of religion. It was the enemy who had contrived to keep the lovers apart, telling the girl also that the knight in whom she trusted was untrue. How she discovered the lie I do not know, nor does it matter, but when she did she sought for him as he had sought for her. She heard at last that he had become a monk, and she presently came to seek him at Aylingford. Dressed in a monk's gown, she asked for him. They met, and were discovered by the Abbot just at the moment when she had almost persuaded him to forsake his vows for love of her. Religion had claimed him because a lie had deceived him, she argued; therefore no vow could really bind him. She argued in this way with the Abbot, too, who was a shrewd man and as cruel as death. The monk, he knew, was no longer a monk at heart; the woman had penetrated into the Abbey under a false guise—as a man. No punishment was too severe for such a sin, he said, and he used religious arguments which could certainly never find an echo in a merciful heaven. The woman was condemned and lowered into that room—a nun by force—and there for thirteen years she existed. Once a day sufficient food to keep her alive was given her through the trap, in such a manner that she should see no one, and never a word was spoken. The monk fought for her release in vain, and soon died, raving mad, it is said. When the nun died, she was carried to the woods beyond the stream and buried. Village legend has marked a tree, which they call 'Nun's Oak,' as her burying-place, but probably this is fancy. Ever since that time there has been a curse on this part of the Abbey, and that is why it has been allowed to go to ruin."

"A sad tale most sweetly told," said Lord Rosmore; "a tale to appeal to a lover."

"Or it may be to warn a woman how cruel men can be," Barbara answered.

"Some men, not all," he said gently. "The monk in the story went mad for love. Still, there is a warning, too, not to trust men over easily. The greatest villains have often good looks to recommend them and can deceive most easily."

"I think I could tell," said Barbara.

"I wonder," Rosmore answered slowly. "There is often a vein of romance in a woman which makes her blind. I have thought of this more than once when thinking of you."

"It would seem I have troubled you a great deal in one way or another, Lord Rosmore."

"Some day, when you have forgotten that you were inclined to hate me, I may tell you how much. Yet there is one thing I might tell you now, as a friend, in case there should be much of this vein of romance in you."

"Yes, as a friend."

"Newgate—the trial day of the highwayman, Galloping Hermit."

He spoke abruptly, after a moment's pause, and had his intention been to startle her he could hardly have employed a better method.

"I see you remember it," he said. "Lady Bolsover should not have taken you, it was no place for a woman—indeed, she and I almost quarrelled about it afterwards. You may remember I was with Lady Bolsover when that—that gentleman brought you out of the crowd, the mysterious person who did not want to be seen."

"Yes, I remember," she said quietly.

"A good-looking man, yet—"

"You knew him, Lord Rosmore?"

"Well enough to follow him; but I failed to find him."

"Why should you follow him?"

"You would hardly understand," he returned. "It is a matter concerned with politics. This you know, however, that the King has enemies. Monmouth plots in Holland, the Duke of Argyll is being defeated in Scotland. Well, Mistress Lanison, there are traitors and traitors—those that one may at least recognise as brave men, and others who are cowardly curs. Of the first is Argyll and, perhaps, Monmouth; of the second are those who promote rebellion from safe hiding-holes, and never show themselves to take a hand in the fighting. There is a rascal hiding from the officers of justice now—one Danvers—who is of this second kind, a scurrilous fellow who is willing to barter the lives of better men, but dares nothing himself. He is one of a gang. The man who came to your rescue at Newgate is a companion of his. I have wondered whether you have seen him since."

"At least it was courteous of him to come to my rescue," Barbara said.

"Never was there a man yet who had not a good instinct on occasion. Besides, the basest of men would not fail to grasp the opportunity of doing a service to a beautiful woman."

"I was almost crying, and in that condition I am positively repulsive," she answered, almost as if she were angry at being spoken of as a beautiful woman. "What is the name of this man?"

"He calls himself Crosby—Gilbert Crosby. Probably he has no right to the name. He is a dangerous and a clever man—dangerous because he plots and schemes while other men act, clever because he skilfully manages to evade the law. Many people find it difficult to believe ill of him, for he has all the appearance of a courageous gentleman."

"I am among those people difficult to convince," said Barbara.

"Exactly, hence my warning," said Rosmore. "You noted how quickly he disappeared. He saw me, and had no desire to face a man who knows him for what he is. Those grey eyes of his were sharper than mine or he would not have escaped so easily."

Barbara glanced at him quickly, wondering how much of their conversation her uncle had repeated, but Lord Rosmore did not appear to notice her look.

"And if you had found him?" she asked.

"I should have forced a quarrel on some pretext or other, and so contrived that he could not have run away without giving me satisfaction. By killing him I should have done a public service, and, for my own honour, I should have snapped the sword I had been compelled to stain with the blood of so contemptible a person. You smile, Mistress Lanison. Why?"

"At your vindictiveness, and at a thought which came into my mind."

"May I know it?"

"I was wondering what this Mr.—did you say the name was Crosby?—would have done with his sword had he proved equal to reversing the issue of the quarrel."

"Ah! I wonder," and Lord Rosmore laughed, but not good-naturedly. "I have faith enough in my skill to believe that it can successfully defend you whenever you may have need of it."

She turned towards the doorway opening on to the terrace, but having taken two or three hasty steps, as if desirous of bringing the interview to a speedy end, she stopped and faced him:

"Lord Rosmore, this highwayman, this Galloping Hermit; he is not dead, you know that?"

"Judge Marriott will not allow us to forget it," he laughed. "Give him the slightest opportunity, and he will tell of his adventure on Burford Heath half a dozen times in the day."

"Who is this Galloping Hermit?" Barbara asked, almost as though she expected a definite answer to the question.

"Could I satisfy that curiosity I should be quite a famous person," he said. "Scores of men envy him his reputation and half the women of fashion are in love with him."

"Is he this Gilbert Crosby, think you?"

"Why should you suggest such a thing?" Rosmore asked sharply. "Were they grey eyes which peeped through the brown mask that night?"

"I could not see; and, besides, I do not belong to that half of the women of fashion."

"Truly, if you did you would be in no bad company. I have a sneaking fondness for the fellow myself, and it has been my ill-fortune never to meet him. By all accounts he is a gallant scoundrel, with a nerve of iron, whereas Crosby—Oh, no, whoever Galloping Hermit may be, he is not Gilbert Crosby."

Lord Rosmore did not follow Barbara on to the terrace. He had made his peace with her, and had succeeded in establishing a definite understanding between them. She accepted his friendship—that counted for a great deal with such a woman. It would be strange if he could not turn it into love. Yet he was conscious that this was to be no easy triumph, no opportunity must be neglected, and his busy brain was full of schemes for bending circumstances to further his desires.

A little later, as he slowly crossed one of the stone bridges towards the woods, he saw Barbara sitting on the terrace, and Sydney Fellowes standing before her reading from sheets of paper in his hand.

"I cannot write verses to please her, that is certain," he mused. "She cannot care for Fellowes, his eyes are not grey. It is this fellow Crosby she thinks of, and of a highwayman, perhaps. A strange pair of rivals, truly! Sydney Fellowes might be useful, besides—" Some brilliant idea seemed to take sudden possession of him, for there was excitement in his step as he crossed the bridge quickly and disappeared into the woods beyond.

Neither Barbara nor Fellowes noticed Lord Rosmore, nor were either of them thinking of him. Fellowes was absorbed in reading his verses to the best advantage. Barbara, while apparently listening intently to her companion, was wondering if the man who had come more often into her thoughts than perhaps she had realised could possibly be a scoundrel and a coward.



Although Barbara Lanison had found that life at the Abbey was different since her return from London, and had concluded that the true reason lay in the fact that she was now considered a woman, whereas before she had been looked upon as a child only, she did not at once appreciate how great the difference really was. Her uncle seemed a little doubtful how to treat her. He talked a great deal about her taking her place as mistress of the house, yet he made little attempt to have this position recognised. The guests, especially the women, while quite willing to admit her as one of themselves, did not even pretend to consider her their hostess, and, on the whole, Sir John seemed quite contented that they should not do so. He seemed rather relieved whenever Barbara withdrew herself from the general company, as she constantly did, and those who knew Sir John best found him more natural when his niece was not present.

Since she only saw him when, as his intimates declared, he was under a certain restraint, Barbara had not much opportunity of forming a clear judgment of her uncle. He had been very kind to her ever since she had come to Aylingford as a little child, and if his manner towards her had changed recently she hardly noticed it. Under the circumstances she would not easily be ready to criticise. But in the case of the guests the change was not only very marked, but increasingly so, particularly with the women. Whereas the men, chivalrous in spite of themselves, perhaps, showed her a certain amount of deference, the women seemed to resent her. It was so soon apparent that she had nothing in common with them that they appeared to combine to shock her. Mistress Dearmer led the laughter at what she termed Barbara's country manners and prudery. There were few things in heaven or earth exempt from the ridicule of Mrs. Dearmer's tongue, and it was a loose tongue, full of coarse tales and licentious wit. She was a pretty woman, which, from the men's point of view, seemed to add piquancy to her scandalous conversation, but the fact only made Barbara's ears tingle the more. Mrs. Dearmer was in the fashion; Barbara knew that, for even at Lady Bolsover's she had often been made to blush, but she had never heard in St. James's Square a tithe of the ribaldry which assailed her at the Abbey.

It was natural, perhaps, that Barbara Lanison should propound a problem to herself. Was she foolish to resent what was little more than the fashion of the day? These people were her uncle's guests, honoured guests surely, since they had come to Aylingford so often. Would he countenance anything to which there was any real objection? She would have asked him, but found no opportunity. For two or three days after his talk with her about Lord Rosmore she hardly saw him, and never for a moment alone. More guests arrived, and it was during these days that Mrs. Dearmer's conversation became more daring. On two occasions Barbara had got up and walked away, followed by a burst of laughter—she thought at her modesty, but it might have been at Mrs. Dearmer's tale.

On the second occasion Sydney Fellowes followed her as soon as he could do so without undue comment.

"Why did you go?" he asked.

"That woman maddens me."

"Yes, she is—the fact is, you ought not to be here."

"Not be here!" she exclaimed. "This is my home. It is she who ought not to be here. I shall speak to my uncle."

"Wait! Have a little patience," said Fellowes. "After all, she is Mrs. Dearmer, a lady of fashion, a lady who has been to Court. You would be astonished at the power she wields in certain directions. In these days the world is not censorious, and is apt to laugh at those who are."

"If you merely came to defend that woman, I am in the mood to like your absence better than your company."

"I hate her," Fellowes answered. "I think I hate all women now that I have known one beautiful, pure ideal. Oh, do not misunderstand me. I look up at a star to worship its dazzling brightness, and I would not have it come to earth for any purpose. You are too far removed from Mrs. Dearmer to understand her, nor can she possibly appreciate you. To fight her would be to fail, just now at any rate—even Sir John would laugh at you."

"You speak seriously?"

"Intentionally. I am a very debased fellow. A dozen men will tell you so, and women too for that matter, but I can appreciate the good, although I am incapable of rising to its level. I recognise it from the gutter, but I go on lying in the gutter. There is only one person on the earth who can pick me out and keep me out."

"I should not suppose there was a person in the world who would consider such a man worth such a labour," said Barbara.

"No doubt you are right, and that is why I must remain in the gutter."

He looked, in every way, so exactly the opposite of anyone doomed to such a resting-place that Barbara laughed.

"I suppose you know who that person is?" he said.

"At least I know that any woman would be a fool to attempt such an unprofitable task," she answered. "If I thought you were really speaking the truth, I should hate you. You would not be worthy the name of a man, and even a Mrs. Dearmer, in her more reasonable moments, would despise you."

Fellowes looked at her for a moment.

"I wish my mother had lived to make a better man of me," he said abruptly, and turned and left her.

Barbara had become so accustomed to Sydney Fellowes' sudden and changeable moods that she thought little of his words, or his manner of leaving her. Yet, to the man had come a sudden flash of repentance, not lasting but real enough for the moment, holding him until the next temptation came in his path. He did not seek his companions, but crossed one of the bridges, and plunged into the woods, cursing himself and feeling out of tune with the rest of the world. Two hours later he and Lord Rosmore came back together, slowly, and talking eagerly. Fellowes, like many other quite young men, had a profound admiration for Lord Rosmore, and his opinion upon any matter carried weight.

"You have not sufficient faith in yourself, Fellowes," Rosmore said as they crossed the bridge. "That is the trouble."

"It is easily remedied," was the answer.

"That is the spirit which brings victory," said Rosmore, patting his companion on the shoulder.

The guests who had arrived during the last two or three days had introduced a noisier and wilder element into the Abbey. Barbara was puzzled at her uncle's attitude, and retired from the company as much as possible. This evening she left early, pretending no excuse as hitherto she had done. She wanted her uncle to understand, and question her. Surely he must do so if she were rude to his guests. A burst of laughter followed her withdrawal.

"You must be a Puritan in disguise, Abbot John, to have such a niece," said Mrs. Dearmer; and then she turned and whispered something into the ear of Sir Philip Branksome that might have made him blush had he been capable of such a thing. Sir John seemed mightily entertained at the lady's suggestion. He laughed aloud, cursed Puritans generously, and drank deeply to their ultimate perdition.

There is ever some restraint in vice when virtue is present, but with Barbara's departure all restraint seemed to vanish. There were probably degrees in the viciousness of these men and women, but, as a whole, it would have been difficult to bring together a more abandoned company. High play was here, and the ruin of many a man's fortune. Honour, save of the spurious sort, held no man in check, and virtue was as dross. Debauchery of every kind was practised openly and unashamedly. Vice was enthroned in this temple, and her ribald followers bowed the head. This was Aylingford Abbey, built for worship long ago, therefore worship should be in it now. "We will be monks and nuns of the devil," some genius in wickedness had cried one evening, and the suggestion had been hailed with delight. This was their foundation, so they had called themselves ever since, and Sir John Lanison delighted to be the "Abbot" of such a community. They chose a sign whereby they might be known to one another in the world—the slow tracing of a circle on the forehead with the forefinger—and they bound themselves by an oath to their master to love him and all his works, and to eschew all that was called good. It had often been noticed how many persons of condition, who seemed to be at one with Sir John in politics, had never been offered the hospitality of Aylingford. The true reason had never been divulged. If, as had chanced on one or two occasions, guests had been there who knew nothing of these debaucheries, the devil's children present dissembled, and affected to yawn over the dull entertainment provided by Sir John. The secret of the Abbey had never leaked out, nor did it appear that any man or woman, desirous of betraying it, had ever found an entrance into the community. Once, a year ago, a woman had whispered her suspicion of a man, and he was found dead in his lodging in Pall Mall before he had time to speak of what he knew, even if he intended to do so.

As he was popular in the county, passing for a God-fearing gentleman, so Sir John Lanison was popular as the devil's "Abbot." There were few who could surpass him in wickedness, but he was a man of moods, and there were times when fear peered out of his eyes. He was superstitious, finding omens when he gambled at basset, and premonitions in all manner of foolish signs. He had played this evening with ill success, he had drunk deeply, and was inclined to be quarrelsome.

"The Abbot is wanting to make us all do penance," laughed Fellowes, who some time since had parted with sobriety. "I'll read him these verses to pacify him; they would make an angry devil collapse into a chuckle. Mrs. Dearmer inspired them, so you may guess how wicked they are."

"Always verses—nothing but verses," said Rosmore, who had drunk little and seemed to watch his companions with amusement.

"No woman was ever won by poetry," said a girl in Fellowes' ear. "Try some other way."

"What way?"

The girl whispered to him, laughing the while. She was very pretty, very innocent to look upon.

"Women must be carried by assault, gloriously, as a besieged city is," roared Branksome from the other end of the room. "The lover who attempts to starve them into surrender is a fool, and gets ridiculed for his pains. What do you say, Rosmore?"

"Nothing. There are many ladies who can explain my methods better than I can."

Mrs. Dearmer laughed, and desired a lesson forthwith.

"My dear lady, there would be too many lovers to call me to account for my presumption," Rosmore answered.

"Branksome is right," said Mrs. Dearmer. "Take a woman by force or not at all. She loves a desperate man. His desperation and overriding of all convention do homage to her. I never yet met the virtue that could stand against such an assault."

"She is right, Sydney," whispered the girl to Fellowes, her hands suddenly clasped round his arm.

Fellowes looked down into her face, and a strange expression came into his own.

"I believe she is," he said almost passionately. "I believe she is. There's no woman so virtuous that—"

"None," whispered the girl.

Fellowes laughed, and shook himself free from her.

"I'll drink to success, and then—" He stumbled as he rose to his feet, and, recovering himself, laughed at Sir John. "You shall have the verses another time, Abbot; I have other things to do just now."

He called a servant, and talked to him in a low voice.

"Yes, blockhead, I said the hall," he exclaimed in a louder voice. "The hall in ten minutes, and if she isn't there I'll come and let the life out of you for a lazy scoundrel who cannot carry a message. A drink with you, reverend Abbot—a liquid benediction on me."

Lord Rosmore watched him, but Sir John took no notice of him. Sir John's thoughts were wandering, and had anyone been watching him closely they might have seen fear looking out of his eyes. A candle on a table near him spluttered and burnt crookedly.

"That means disaster," he muttered, and then he turned to Lord Rosmore fiercely, though he spoke in an undertone. "You were a fool to let me bring her back."

It was evident that he had made a similar statement to his companion before, for Rosmore showed no surprise or ignorance of his meaning.

"I shall take her away presently, her lover and deliverer. In this case it is the best method."

"And let her curse me?"

"No. I shall promise to deliver you and bring about your redemption."

"A devilish method," said Sir John.

"One must work with the tools that are to hand," said Rosmore with a shrug of his shoulders.

"But when? When?"

"Perhaps in a few short hours. Wait! Wait, Sir John. It seems to me that opportunity is in the air to-night."

"And disaster," said Sir John, glancing at the spluttering candle. Lord Rosmore made no comment—perhaps did not hear the words, for he was intent upon watching Sydney Fellowes, who was standing near a door which opened into the hall. No one else appeared to notice him, not even the pretty girl he had spurned. She was too much engaged in consoling a youth who had lost heavily at basset.

Barbara was dull in her room. The silence was oppressive, for no sounds of the riotous company reached her there, and the pale moonlight on the terrace below, and over the sleeping woods, seemed to throw a mist of sadness over the world. She had opened the casement, and for a time had puzzled over her uncle and his strange guests. Something must be going forward at the Abbey of which she was ignorant. Sydney Fellowes must know this, and there had been more meaning in his words than she had imagined. Why ought she not to be at the Abbey? And then her thoughts wandered to another man who had found her in a place where no woman ought to be, and she remembered all Lord Rosmore had said about him. Looking out on the quiet, sleeping world, so full of mystery and the unknown, it was easy to fall into a reverie, to indulge in speculations which, waking again, she would hardly remember; easy to lose all count of time. Once, at some distance along the terrace towards the servants' quarters, there was the sound of slow footsteps and a low laugh. There were two shadows in the moonlight—a man's and a woman's. Some serving maid had found love, for the low laugh was a happy one, and some man, perchance no more than a groom, had suddenly become a hero in a girl's eyes. Unconsciously perhaps, Barbara sighed. That girl was happier than she was.

A gentle knock came at her door, and a man stood there.

"Mr. Fellowes sent me. Will you see him in the hall in ten minutes. It is important; he must see you. 'It is for your own sake.' Those were his own words, madam."

Barbara received the message, but gave no answer, and the man departed. Had the message come from anyone but Sydney Fellowes she would have taken no notice of it, but, remembering what he had said to her, this request assumed importance. She was more likely to discover the truth about the Abbey from Sydney Fellowes than from anyone else.

There was only a dim light in the great hall—candles upon a table at the far end. The moonlight came through the painted windows, staining the stone floor here and there with misty colours. There was no movement near her, but the sound of voices and laughter came from the chamber beyond—the one from which she had angrily departed some time ago. Now the voices were hushed to a murmur, now they were loud, and the laughter was irresponsible. How she hated the sound of it, and that shriller note, peculiarly persistent for a moment, was Mrs. Dearmer's. No Christian feeling could prevent her from hating that woman.

1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse