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TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE: Every effort has been made to replicate this text as faithfully as possible; please see detailed list of printing issues at the end of the text.
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COMPLETE IN ONE VOLUME.
RICHARD BENTLEY, NEW BURLINGTON STREET:
BELL AND BRADFUTE, EDINBURGH; J. CUMMING, DUBLIN.
London: Printed by A. SPOTTISWOODE. New-Street-Square.
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"No kind of literature is so generally attractive as Fiction. Pictures of life and manners, and Stories of adventure, are more eagerly received by the many than graver productions, however important these latter may be. Apuleius is better remembered by his fable of Cupid and Psyche than by his abstruser Platonic writings; and the Decameron of BOCCACCIO has outlived the Latin Treatises, and other learned works of that author."
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BY Mrs S. C. Hall.
LONDON, RICHARD BENTLEY, NEW BURLINGTON STREET, CUMMING, DUBLIN, BELL & BRADFUTE, EDINBURGH, 1840.
MRS. S. C. HALL.
Stay! methinks I see A person in yond cave. Who should that bee? I know her ensignes now—'tis Chivalrie Possess'd with sleepe, dead as a lethargie; If any charme will wake her, 'tis the name Of our Meliadus! I'll use his Fame.
REVISED BY THE AUTHOR.
LONDON: RICHARD BENTLEY, NEW BURLINGTON STREET: BELL AND BRADFUTE, EDINBURGH; J. CUMMING, DUBLIN. 1840.
With roomy decks, her guns of mighty strength, Whose low-laid mouths each mounting billow laves, Deep in her draught, and warlike in her length, She seems a sea wasp flying on the waves.
It was between the hours of ten and twelve on a fine night of February, in the year sixteen hundred and fifty-six, that three men moored a light skiff in a small bay, overshadowed by the heavy and sombre rocks that distinguish the Isle of Shepey from other parts along the coast of Kent, the white cliffs of which present an aspect at once so cheerful and so peculiar to the shores of Britain. The quiet sea seemed, in the murky light, like a dense and motionless mass, save when the gathering clouds passed from the brow of the waning moon, and permitted its beams to repose in silver lines on its undulating bosom.
It was difficult to account for the motive that could have induced any mariner to land upon so unpropitious a spot, hemmed in as it was on every side, and apparently affording no outlet but that by which they had entered—the trackless and illimitable ocean. Without a moment's deliberation, however, the steersman, who had guided his boat into the creek, sprang lightly to the shore: another followed; while the third, folding himself in the capacious cloak his leader had thrown off, resumed his place, as if resolved to take his rest, at least for a time.
"Little doubt of our having foul weather, master," observed the younger of the two, in a half querulous, half positive tone, as standing on a huge bank of sea-weed, he regarded first the heavens, and then the earth, with the scrutinising gaze of one accustomed to pry into their mysteries. His companion made no answer, but commenced unrolling a rich silk scarf, that had enveloped his throat, and twisting it into loose folds, passed it several times around his waist—having previously withdrawn from a wide leathern belt that intervened between his jacket and trousers a brace of curiously-fashioned pistols, which he now handed to the young sailor, while he elevated the hilt of his dagger, so that, without removing or disturbing the silken sash, he could use it in an instant. Having fully ascertained this point, by drawing the weapon more than once from its sheath, he again deposited the pistols in his belt, and buttoned his vest nearly to the throat; then drew the ends of his sash still more tightly, and placing a hand on either side, turned towards the cliffs, measuring their altitude with an eye, which, though deficient in dignity, was acute, and peculiarly fierce in expression.
The seaman, for such was his calling, was about five feet eight or nine inches in height. His hair, as it appeared from beneath a cap singularly at variance with the fashion of the time, curled darkly round a face, the marked features of which were sufficiently prominent, even in that uncertain light, to denote a person of no ordinary mind or character. His figure was firm and well-proportioned, and, though he might have numbered fifty years, it had lost neither strength nor elasticity. His whole bearing was that of a man whom nothing could have turned from a cherished purpose, were it for good or evil: though his eye was, as we have described it, fierce and acute, it was also restless and impatient as the waves upon which he had toiled from his earliest years.
Again he surveyed the cliff, and, stepping close to its base, applied the point of a boat-spear to remove the sea-weed that spring and high tides had heaped against it; he then summoned the youth to his assistance: after a few moments' search, the lad exclaimed,—
"Here it is, master—here is one—here another—but, my eyes! are we to trust our necks to such footing as this? I'd rather mount the top-gallant of the good ship Providence in the fiercest Nor-wester that ever blow'd, than follow such a lubberly tack."
"Then go back to the boat, sir," replied the elder, as he began, with cautious yet steady daring, to ascend—a course attended with evident danger, "Go back to the boat, sir—and, here, Jeromio! you have not been taught your duty on board the Providence, and, I presume, have no scruples, like our friend Oba Springall. Jeromio! I say, hither and up with me!"
"I am ready, sir," replied the youth, whose momentary dread had been dispelled by this attempt to promote a rival to the post of honour; "I am ready, sir:" muttering, however, soon afterwards to himself, as the difficulties of the way increased, "He thinks no more of his life than if he were a sprat or a spawn." No other word was breathed by either of the adventurers, as they threaded the giddy path, until about midway, when the elder paused and exclaimed, "A-hoy there, boy! there are two steps wanting; you had better indeed go back. To me, the track has been long familiar; not so to you."
The youth thought of his master's taunt, and Jeromio, and resolved to take his chance. "Ay, ay, sir, no danger when I follow you." But the peril was, in truth, appalling, though its duration was brief. Below, the sea that was now rapidly covering the small creek, rudely agitated and opposed by a rising breeze, dashed and foamed against the rocks. To fall from such a height was inevitable destruction. There was scarcely sufficient light to mark the inequality of the ascending cliffs; and a spectator, gazing on the scene, must have imagined that those who clung to such a spot were supported by supernatural agency. The Skipper, nothing daunted, struck the spear, that had served as a climbing-stick, firmly into the surface of mingled clay and stone, and then, by a violent effort, flung himself upwards, catching with his left hand at a slight projection that was hardly visible; thus, hanging between earth and heaven, he coolly disengaged the staff, and placed it under the extended arm, so as to form another prop; and feeling, as it were, his way, he burrowed with his foot a resting in the cliff, from which he sprang on a narrow ledge, and was in safety. He then turned to look for his young companion, to whom he extended the boat-spear that had been of such service. Animated by his master's success and example, Springall's self-possession was confirmed; and both soon stood on the brow of the precipice.
"Sharp sailing that, boy," observed the elder, as the youth panted at his side.
"Ay, ay, sir," replied Springall, wiping his face with the sleeve of his jacket. "Take a drop, master," he continued, drawing a tin bottle from his bosom, "'twill warm ye after such a cursed cruise."
The Skipper nodded as he accepted the flask, "I hope you are as well armed on all points as on this; but don't take in too great a reef, or it will make you a heavy sailor before your time: drop anchor now, and keep watch here till further orders."
"Keep watch here, sir!" said Springall, in a mournful tone. "And did ye bring me ashore, and up that devil's rope-ladder, to leave me to watch here?"
The Captain looked upon him angrily for a moment. "I am rightly served for taking man or boy out of the canting hulks that lag on the water. Did ye ever chance to hear such a sound on board the ship Providence as 'Silence, and obey orders?' Let not your walk, youngster, extend beyond that point, from which, at daybreak, you can catch a view of the court tree, where, if ancient habits are not all put off, there will be revelries ere long: the old church at Minster will be also within your sight, while the sea between us and the Essex coast, and for miles along the Northern ocean, can scarcely bear a sail that your young eyes will not distinguish. Watch as if your life—as if a thousand lives hung upon the caution of a moment; and remember, while the blue light revolves, which you now see in the vessel's bow, all things abroad go on well. You also know the pass-word for our friends, and the reception for our enemies. If you should be at all afraid, three loud notes on your whistle will summon Jeromio, and a single flash of your pistol will bring the long-boat off, and into the creek in five minutes. You can then tumble down the devil's rope-ladder, as you call it, and send the less timid Italian to keep watch till my return—you understand me." So saying he strode onwards, leaving the youth, who had not yet passed eighteen summers, to his discontented solitude and ill-temper.
"Understand you! I wonder who does, ever did, or ever will; perched up here like a sea-mew, and not having touched land for five weeks! 'Beyond that point!' I'll be even with him, for I wo'n't walk to that point: I'll just stay in the one spot." With this resolution, he flung himself upon a bank of early wild thyme, that filled the air with its refreshing odour. Long after his master was out of sight, he continued pulling up tufts of the perfumed herb, and flinging them over the cliff.
"Now, by my faith," he mentally exclaimed, "I have a mind to pelt that Jeromio with some of these clay lumps: he is enjoying a sound nap down there, like an overgrown seal, as he is; and I am everlastingly taunted with Jeromio! Jeromio! Jeromio! at every hand's turn. Here goes, to rouse his slumbers." He drew himself gradually forward, and raised his hand to fling a fragment of stone at his fellow-seaman: the arm was seized in its uplifted position, by a figure enveloped in a dark cloak, that, muffled closely round the face, and surmounted by a slouched hat, worn at the time by both Cavalier and Roundhead, effectually concealed the person from recognition. He held the youth in so iron a grasp, that motion was almost impossible; and while the moon came forth and shone upon them in all her majesty, the two who contended beneath her light might have been aptly compared, in their strength and weakness, to the mighty eagle overcoming the feeble leveret.
The stranger was the first to speak, as motioning with his disengaged hand towards the revolving light that hung in the vessel's bow, he inquired,—
"What colours does that ship carry?"
"Her master's, I suppose."
"And who is her master?"
"The man she belongs to."
"She's a free-trader then?"
"The sea is as free to a free ship, as the land to a free man, I take it."
"Reptile! dare you barter words with me?—Your commander's name?"
The boy made no answer.
"Dost hear me? Your commander's name?" and as the question was repeated, the mailed glove of the interrogator pressed painfully into Springall's flesh, without, however, eliciting a reply.
"He has a name, I suppose?"
"That you, or any cowardly night-walker, would as soon not hear; for it is the name of a brave man," replied the youth at last, struggling violently, but ineffectually, to reach the whistle that was suspended round his neck.
"Fool!" exclaimed the stranger, "dost bandy strength as well as words? Learn that in an instant I could drop thee into the rolling ocean, like the egg of the unwise bird." He raised the youth from the earth, and held him over the precipice, whose base was now buried in the wild waste of waters, that foamed and howled, as if demanding from the unyielding rock a tribute or a sacrifice.
"Tell me thy master's name."
The heroic boy, though with certain death before him, made no reply. The man held him for about the space of a minute and a half in the same position: at first he struggled fiercely and silently, as a young wolf caught in the hunter's toils; yet fear gradually palsied the body of the unconquered mind, and his efforts became so feeble, that the stranger placed him on his feet, saying,—
"I wish not to hurt thee, child!" adding, in a low and broken voice, "Would that the Lord had given unto me sons endowed with the same spirit! Wilt tell me thy own name?"
"No! If you are a friend, you know our pass-word; if a foe, you shall not know it from me. You can go down the cliff, and ask our commander's name from yon sleepy Orson; his tongue goes fast enough at all seasons."
The stranger entirely withdrew his hold from Springall, while he moved towards the summit of the rock. Quick as lightning, the whistle was applied to the youth's mouth, and three rapid, distinct notes cut through the night air, and were echoed by the surrounding caverns.
"I thank thee, boy," said the mysterious being, calmly; "that tells of Hugh Dalton and the Fire-fly."
And he disappeared so instantaneously from the spot, that Springall rubbed first his eyes, and then his arm, to be assured whether the events of the last few minutes were not the effects of a distempered imagination. He had, however, more certain proof of its reality: for, upon peering closely through the darkness into the thick wood that skirted the east, he distinctly noted the glitter of steel in two or three points at the same moment; and apprehensive that their landing must have been witnessed by more than one person—the hostile intentions of whom he could scarcely doubt—he examined the priming of his pistols, called to Jeromio to look out, for that danger was at hand, and resumed his watch, fearful, not for his own safety, but for that of his absent commander.
In the mean time, the Skipper, who was known in the Isle of Shepey, and upon other parts of the coast, by the name of Hugh Dalton, proceeded uninterruptedly on his way, up and down the small luxuriant hills, and along the fair valleys of as fertile and beautiful a district as any of which our England can boast, until a sudden turn brought him close upon a dwelling of large proportions and disjointed architecture, that evidently belonged to two distinct eras. The portion of the house fronting the place on which he stood was built of red brick, and regularly elevated to three stories in height; the windows were long and narrow; and the entire of that division was in strict accordance with the taste of the times, as patronised and adopted by the rulers of the Commonwealth. Behind, rose several square turrets, and straggling buildings, the carved and many-paned windows of which were of very remote date, and evidently formed from the relics of some monastery or religious house. Here and there, the fancy or interest of the owner had induced him to remodel the structure; and an ill-designed and ungraceful mixture of the modern with the ancient gave to the whole somewhat of a grotesque appearance, that was heightened by the noble trees, which had once towered in majesty and beauty, being in many places lopped and docked, as if even the exuberance of nature was a crime in the eyes of the present lord of the mansion.
"Sir Robert," muttered Dalton, "may well change the name of his dwelling from Cecil Abbey to Cecil Place. Why, the very trees are manufactured into Roundheads. But there is something more than ordinary a-foot, for the lights are floating through the house as if it were haunted. The sooner I make harbour, the better."
He paced rapidly forward, and stood before a small building that was then called a porter's lodge, but which had formerly been designated the Abbey Gate, and which, perhaps in consideration of its simple, but singular, beauty, had been spared all modern alteration. The ivy that clustered and climbed to its loftiest pinnacles added a wild and peculiar interest to this remnant of ancient architecture. It contained a high carriage archway, and a lateral passage beneath it, both decorated with numerous ornamental mouldings and columns, flanked at the angles by octagonal turrets of surpassing elegance. An apartment over the arch, which, during the reign of monastic power, had been used as a small oratory, for the celebration of early mass to the servants and labourers of the convent, was now appropriated to the accommodation of the porter and his family.
The Skipper applied his hand to the bell, and rang long and loudly. For some time no answer was returned. Again he rang, and after much delay, an old man was seen approaching from the house, bearing a torch, which he carefully shaded from the night wind.
"My good friend," inquired the sailor in no gentle tone, "is it Sir Robert's wish that those who come on business should be thus kept waiting?"
"You know little of the affliction with which it has pleased the Lord to visit Sir Robert, or you would not have rung so loudly: our good lady is dying!" and the old man's voice faltered as he spoke the tidings.
"Indeed!" was the only reply of Dalton, as he passed under the archway; but the word was spoken in a tone that evinced strong feeling. The porter requested him to walk into the lodge.
"The place is in confusion; and as to seeing my master, it is a clear impossibility; he has not left our lady's bedside these three days, and the doctor says she will be gathered to her kindred before morning."
"He will leave even her to attend to me; and therefore, my friend, on your own head be the responsibility if you fail to deliver to him this token. I tell you," added Dalton, "death could hardly keep him from me!"
The porter took the offered signet in silence, and only shook his head in reply, as they passed together towards the house.
"You can tell me, I suppose, if Master Roland is still with his Highness's army?"
"Alack and well-a-day! God is just and merciful; but, I take it, the death of that noble boy has gone nigher to break my lady's heart than any other sorrow: the flesh will war against the spirit. Had he died in honourable combat at Marston or at Naseby, when first it was given him to raise his arm in the Lord's cause!—but to fall in a drunken frolic, not befitting a holy Christian to engage in—it was far more than my poor lady could bear."
"Oliver promised to be a fine fellow."
"Do not talk of him, do not talk of him, I entreat you," replied the domestic, placing his hand on his face to conceal his emotion; "he was, indeed, my heart's darling. Long before Sir Robert succeeded to his brother's property, and when we lived with my lady's father, I was the old gentleman's huntsman, and that dear child was ever at my heels. The Lord be praised! the Lord be praised! but I little thought the blue waves would be his bier before he had seen his twentieth year. They are all gone, sir: five such boys!—the girl, the lamb of the flock, only left. You do not know her, do ye?" inquired the old man, peering with much curiosity into the Skipper's face, as if recognising it as one he had seen in former days.
The sailor made no answer.
They had now entered a small postern-door, which led to the hall by a narrow passage; and the porter proceeded until they stood in one of those vaulted entrances that usually convey an idea of the wealth and power of the possessor.
"You can sit here till I return," observed the guide, again casting an inquiring look upon the form and features of the guest.
"I sit in no man's hall," was the stern reply.
The porter withdrew, and the seaman, folding his arms, paced up and down the paved vestibule, which showed evident tokens of the confusion that sickness and death never fail to create. He paused occasionally before the huge and gaping chimney, and extended his sinewy hands over the flickering embers of the expiring fire: the lurid glare of the departing flames only rendered the darkness of the farthermost portion of the hail more deep and fearful. The clock chimed eleven: it was, as ever, the voice of Time giving warning of eternity!
A light gleamed at the most distant end of the apartment, and a slight but graceful girl approached the stranger. She was habited in a close vest of grey cloth: her head covered with a linen cap, devoid of any ornament; from under the plain border of which, a stream of hair appeared, tightly drawn across a forehead of beautiful colour and proportions.
"Will you please to follow, sir, to my master's study?"
Dalton turned suddenly round; the entire expression of his countenance softened, and his firm-set lips opened, as if a word laboured to come forth, and was retained only by an effort.
"Will you not follow, good sir?" repeated the girl, anxiously but mildly. "My master is ill at ease, and wishes to return to my lady's room: it may be——"
The sentence remained unfinished, and tears streamed afresh down cheeks already swollen with weeping.
"Your name, girl?" inquired the stranger, eagerly.
"Barbara Iverk," she replied, evidently astonished at the question. He seized her arm, and, while gazing earnestly in her face, murmured in a tone of positive tenderness,—
"Are you happy?"
"I praise the Lord for his goodness! ever since I have been here, I have been most happy; but my dear lady, who was so kind to me——" Again her tears returned.
"You do not know me?—But you could not." Hugh Dalton gradually relaxed his hold, and pulled from his bosom a purse heavy with Spanish pieces—he presented it to the girl, but she drew back her hand and shook her head.
"Take it, child, and buy thee a riding-hood, or a farthingale, or some such trumpery, which thy vain sex delight in."
"I lack nothing, good sir, I thank ye; and, as to the coined silver, it is only a tempter to the destruction of body and soul."
"As it may be used—as it may be used," repeated the sailor quickly; "one so young would not abuse it."
"Wisdom might be needed in the expenditure; and I have heard that want of knowledge is the forerunner of sin. Besides, I ask your pardon, good sir, but strangers do not give to strangers, unless for charity; and I lack nothing."
She dropped so modest a courtesy, and looked so perfectly and purely innocent, that moisture, as unusual as it might be unwelcome, dimmed the eyes of the stern man of ocean; and as he replaced the dollars, he muttered something that sounded like, "I thank God she is uncontaminated!" He then followed the gentle girl through many passages, and up and down more than one flight of stairs: they both at length stopped before a door that was thickly plated with iron.
"You need not wait," said Dalton, laying his hand on the latch. Barbara paused a moment, to look on the wild being, so different from the staid persons she was in the daily habit of seeing at the hall; and then her light, even step, faded on the sailor's ear.
Sir Robert Cecil was standing, or rather leaning, with folded arms, against a column of the dark marble chimney-piece, which, enriched by various carvings and mouldings, rose nearly to the ceiling. The Baronet's hair, of mingled grey and black, had been cropped according to the approved fashion of the time; so that his features had not the advantage of either shadow or relief from the most beautiful of nature's ornaments. He might have been a few years older or younger than the sailor who had just entered; but his figure seemed weak and bending as a willow-wand, as he moved slowly round to receive his visiter. The usually polite expression of his countenance deepened into the insidious, and a faint smile rested for a moment on his lip. This outward show of welcome contrasted strangely with the visible tremor that agitated his frame: he did not speak; either from inability to coin an appropriate sentence, or the more subtle motive of waiting until the communication of the stranger was first made.
After a lengthened pause, during which Dalton slowly advanced, so as to stand opposite Sir Robert Cecil, he commenced the conversation, without any of that show of courtesy, which the consciousness of their relative situations might have called for: even his cap was unremoved.
"I am sorry, Sir Robert, to have come at such a time; nor would I now remain, were it not that my business——"
"I am not aware," interrupted the Baronet, "of any matters of 'business' pending between us. I imagine, on reflection, you will find that all such have been long since concluded. If there is any way, indeed, in which I can oblige you, for the sake of an old servant——"
"Servant!" in his turn interrupted Dalton, with emphasis, "we have been companions, Sir Robert—companions in more than one act; and, by the dark heavens above us, will be so in another—if necessary."
The haughty Baronet writhed under this familiarity; yet was there an expression of triumphant quietude in his eye, as if he despised the insinuation of the seaman. "I think, considering all things, you have been pretty well paid for such acts, Master Dalton; I have never taken any man's labour for nothing."
"Labour!" again echoed the sailor, "labour may be paid for; but what can stand in lieu of innocence, purity of heart, and rectitude of conduct?"
"Gold—which you have had, in all its gorgeous and glowing abundance."
"'Two'n't do," retorted the other, in a painfully subdued tone; "there is much it cannot purchase. Am I not at this moment a banned and a blighted man—scouted alike from the board of the profligate Cavalier, and the psalm-singing Puritan of this most change-loving country? And one day or another I may be hung up at the yard-arm of a Commonwealth—Heaven bless the mark!—a Commonwealth cruiser!—or scare crows from a gibbet off Sheerness or Queenborough, or be made an example of for some act of piracy committed on the high seas!"
"But why commit such acts? You have wherewithal to live respectably—quietly."
"Quietly!" repeated the Skipper; "look ye, Master—I crave your pardon—Sir Robert Cecil; as soon could one of Mother Carey's chickens mount a hen-roost, or bring up a brood of lubberly turkies, as I, Hugh Dalton, master and owner of the good brigantine, that sits the waters like a swan, and cuts them like an arrow—live quietly, quietly, on shore! Santa Maria! have I not panted under the hot sun off the Caribbees? Have I not closed my ears to the cry of mercy? Have I not sacked, and sunk, and burnt without acknowledging claim or country? Has not the mother clasped her child more closely to her bosom at the mention of my name? In one word, for years have I not been a BUCCANEER? And yet you talk to me of quietness!—Sir, sir, the soul so steeped in sin has but two resources—madness, or the grave; the last even I shrink from; so give me war, war, and its insanity."
"Cannot you learn to fear the Lord, and trade as an honest man?"
Dalton cast a look of such mingled scorn and contempt on his companion, that a deep red colour mounted to his cheek as he repeated, "Yes! I ask, cannot you trade as an honest man?"
"No! a curse on trade: and I'm not honest," he replied fiercely.
"May I beg you briefly to explain the object of your visit?" said the Baronet at last, after a perplexing pause, during which the arms of the Buccaneer were folded on his breast, and his restless and vigilant eyes wandered round the apartment, flashing with an indefinable expression, when they encountered the blue retreating orbs of Sir Robert.
"This, then: I require a free pardon from Old Noll, not not only for myself, but for my crew. The brave men, who would have died, shall live, with me. As a return for his Highness's civility, I will give up all free trade, and take the command of a frigate, if it so please him."
"Or a revenue cutter, I presume," observed the Baronet, sarcastically.
"Curse me if I do!" replied Dalton, contemptuously—"the sharks! No, no, I'm not come to that yet; nor would I ever think of hoisting any flag but mine own, were it not for the sake of a small craft, as belonging to—no matter what."
"You have seen but little of the girl."
"Too little: and why? Because I was ashamed to see her—but now—not ten minutes ago—I was glad she did not know me. Sir Robert, when your own daughter hangs upon your arm, or looks with her innocent eyes into your face, how do you feel?"
Sir Robert Cecil had been too well schooled in Puritanism to suffer the emotions of his mind to affect his features. He did not reply to the question, but skilfully turning the conversation, brought the intruder back to his old subject.
"How do you purpose procuring this free pardon?"
"I! I know not how to procure it; I only wish it procured: the means are in your power, not mine."
"In mine!" ejaculated the Baronet with well-feigned astonishment; "you mistake, good Dalton, I have no interest at Whitehall; I would not ask a favour for myself."
"That is likely; but you must ask one for me."
"Must!" repeated Sir Robert, "is a strange word to use to me, Dalton."
"I'm not scholar enough to find a better," replied the other insolently.
"I cannot if I would," persisted the Baronet.
"One word more, then. The Protector's plans render it impracticable for me to continue, as I have done, on the seas: I know that I am a marked man, and unless something be determined on, and speedily, I shall be exposed to that ignominy which, for my child's sake, I would avoid. Don't talk to me of impossibilities; you can obtain the pardon I desire, and, in one word, Sir Robert Cecil, you must!"
Sir Robert shook his head.
"At your pleasure, then, at your pleasure; but at your peril also. Mark me! I am not one to be thrown overboard, and make no struggle—I am not a baby to be strangled without crying! If I perish, facts shall arise from my grave—ay, if I were sunk a thousand fathoms in my own blue sea—facts that would—— You may well tremble and turn pale! The secret is still in our keeping; only remember, I fall not singly!"
"Insulting villain!" said Sir Robert, regaining his self-command; "you have now no facts, no proofs; the evidence is destroyed."
"It is not destroyed, Robert Cecil," observed Dalton, calmly pulling a bundle of papers from his vest: "look here—and here—and here—do you not know your own hand-writing? you practised me first in deception: I had not forgotten your kind lessons, when in your presence I committed forged letters to the flames!"
The man laughed the laugh of contempt and bitter scorn as he held forward the documents. For a few moments Sir Robert seemed petrified; his eyes glared on the papers, as if their frozen lids had not the power of shutting out the horrid proofs of his iniquity. Suddenly he made a desperate effort to secure them; but the steady eye and muscular arm of the smuggler prevented it.
"Hands off!" he exclaimed, whirling the Baronet from him, as if he had been a thing of straw; "you know my power, and you know my terms: there needs no more palaver about it."
"Will not gold serve your purpose?"
"No, I have enough of that: I want distinction and fame, a free pardon, and the command of one of your registered and acknowledged plunderers; or, mayhap, baptism for my own bright little Fire-fly, as the 'Babe of Grace;' or—But, hang it, no—I'd sink the vessel first, and let her die, as she has lived, free, free, free! I belong to a civilised set of beings, and must therefore be a slave, a slave to something or some one. Noll knows my talents well, knows that I am as good a commander, ay, and for the matter of that, would be as honest a one as the best."
He paused: the Baronet groaned audibly.
"We have one or two little jobs upon the coasts here of Kent and Essex, trifles that must, nevertheless, be attended to; but this day month, Sir Robert Cecil, we meet again. I will not longer keep you from your wife. Gracious Heaven! where was I when mine expired! But farewell! I would not detain you for her sweet and gentle sake: she will be rewarded for her goodness to my child! Remember," he added, closing the door, "remember—one month, and Hugh Dalton!"
Death! be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow, Die not, poor Death—— * * * * * ——Why swell'st thou, then? One short sleep past, we wake eternally'; And Death shall be no more:—Death! thou shalt die.
When Sir Robert Cecil returned to his wife's chamber, all within was silent as the grave. He approached the bed; his daughter rose from the seat she had occupied by its side, and motioned him to be still, pointing at the same time to her mother, and intimating that she slept. "Thank God for that!" he murmured, and drew his hand across his brow, while his chest heaved as if a heavy weight had been removed from it. The attendants had left the room to obtain some necessary refreshment and repose, and father and daughter were alone with the sleeper in the chamber of death. The brow of Lady Cecil was calm, smooth, and unclouded, white as alabaster, and rendered still more beautiful by the few tresses of pale auburn hair that escaped from under the head-tire. The features were of a noble yet softened character, although painfully emaciated; and not a shadow of colour tinged her upturned lip. Her sleep, though occasionally sound, was restless, and the long shadowy fingers, that lay on the embroidered coverlet, were now and then stirred, as if by bodily or mental suffering. There was an atmosphere of silence, not of repose, within the apartment, at once awful and oppressive; and Sir Robert breathed as if his breathings were but a continuation of suppressed sobs.
Constance Cecil, never in earlier life, never in after years, gracious and beautiful as she ever was, appeared half so interesting to her unhappy father as at that moment. There was at all times about her a majesty of mind and feeling that lent to her simplest word and action a dignity and power, which, though universally felt, it would have been impossible to define. If one could have procured for her a kingdom to reign over, or have chosen from the galaxy of heaven a region worthy her command, it must have been that pale and holy star, which, splendid and alone in the firmament, heralds the approach of day; so unfitted might she have been deemed to mingle with a world less pure, so completely placed by nature above all the littleness of ordinary life. Her noble and majestic form was the casket of a rich and holy treasure, and her father's conscience had often quailed, when contemplating the severity of her youthful virtue. Dearly as he loved his wife, he respected his daughter more, and the bare idea that certain occurrences of former years might be known to her was as a poisoned dagger in his heart. He had been a daring, and was still an ambitious man—successful in all that men aim to succeed in; wealthy, honoured, and powerful, and—what is frequently more ardently sought for than all—feared; yet would he rather have sacrificed every advantage he had gained—every desire for which he had unhesitatingly bartered his own self-esteem—every distinction he had considered cheaply purchased at the price of conscience, than have lost the good opinion, the confiding love of his only child. Even now he looked upon her with mingled feelings of dread and affection, though her bearing was subdued and her lofty spirit bowed by sorrow, as she stood before him, the thick folds of her dressing-gown falling with classic elegance to her feet, her fine hair pushed back from her forehead and carelessly twisted round her head, and her countenance deepened into an expression of the most intense anxiety: while, assured that the invalid slept on, she whispered into his ear words of consolation, if not of hope.
Lady Cecil had existed for some days in a state of frightful delirium, and, during that time, her ravings had been so loud and continued, that her present repose was elysium to those who loved her. Constance bent her knees, and prayed in silence, long and fervently, for support. Sir Robert, leaning back in the richly-cushioned chair, covered his face with his hands, withdrawing them only when the sleeper groaned or breathed more heavily. At length both felt as if death had indeed entered the chamber, so motionless lay the object of their love: they continued gazing from each other to the couch, until the misty light of morning streamed coldly through the open shutters. Another hour of sad watching passed, and, with a long and deeply drawn sigh, the sufferer opened her eyes: they were no longer wild and wandering, but rested with calm intelligence on her husband and her child.
"It is long since I have seen you, except in strange dreams," she said, or rather murmured; "and now I shall be with you but for a very little time!"
Constance put to her lips a silver cup containing some refreshment, while Sir Robert supported her head on his arm.
"Call no one in. Constance—Cecil—my moments now are numbered:—draw back the curtains, that I may once more look upon the light of morning!" Constance obeyed; and the full beams of day entered the room. "How beautiful! how glorious!" repeated the dying woman, as her sight drank in the reviving light; "it heralds me to immortality—where there is no darkness—no disappointment—no evil! How pale are the rays of that lamp, Cecil! How feeble man's inventions, contrasted with the works of the Almighty!" Constance rose to extinguish it. "Let it be," she continued, feebly; "let it be, dearest; it has illumined my last night, and we will expire together." The affectionate daughter turned away to hide her tears; but when did the emotion of a beloved child escape a mother's notice?—"Alas! my noble Constance weeping! I thought she, at all events, could have spared me this trial:—leave us for a few moments; let me not see you weep, Constance—let me not see it—tears enough have fallen in these halls;—do not mourn, my child, that your mother will find rest at last."
How often did Constantia remember these words! How often, when the heart that dictated such gentle chiding, had ceased to beat, did Constantia Cecil, gazing into the depths of the blue and mysterious sky, think upon her mother in heaven!
Lady Cecil had much to say to her husband during the remaining moments of her existence; but her breathing became so feeble, that he was obliged to lean over the couch to catch her words.
"We part, my own, and only beloved husband, for ever in this world;—fain would I linger yet a little, to recount how much I have loved you—in our more humble state—in this—oh! how falsely termed our prosperity. My heart has shared your feelings. In our late bitter trials, more than half my grief was, that you should suffer. Oh, Robert! Robert! now, when I am about to leave you and all, for ever—how my heart clings—I fear, sinfully clings—to the remembrance of our earlier and purer happiness! My father's house! The noble oak, where the ring-doves built, and under whose shadow we first met! The stream—where you and Herbert—wild, but affectionate brother!—Oh! Robert, do not blame me, nor start so at his name;—his only fault was his devotion to a most kind master!—but who, that lived under the gentle influence of Charles Stuart's virtues, could have been aught but devoted?—And yet what deadly feuds came forth from this affection! Alas! his rich heritage has brought no blessing with it. I never could look upon these broad lands as ours—Would that his child had lived—and then—But they are all gone now—all gone!—Alas! what had we to do with courts, or courts with us?—Our domestic comforts have been blighted—our hearth left desolate—the children for whom you toiled, and hoped, and planned, have been removed from us—nipped in the bud, or the first blossoming!—And oh, Cecil! take the words of a dying woman to heart, when she tells you, that you will go down childless to your grave, if you do not absolve our beloved Constance from her promise to him whom she can neither respect nor love. She will complete the contract, though it should be her death-warrant, rather than let it be said a daughter of the house of Cecil acted dishonourably—she will complete it, Robert—she will complete it—and then die!"
Lady Cecil, overcome by emotion and exertion, fell back fainting and exhausted on her pillow. Recovering herself, however, after a brief pause she added, in a broken whispering voice, "Forgive me, my dear, dear husband;—my mind is wandering—my thoughts are unconnected—but my affection for you—for Constance—is strong in death. I mean not to pain you, but to warn—for the sake of our only child—of the only thing that remains to tell you of your wife. My breath trembles on my lips—there is a mist before mine eyes—call her in, that my spirit may depart—may ascend heavenward on the wings of prayer!—"
Sir Robert was moving towards the door, when her hand motioned him back.
"Promise—promise that you will never force her to wed that man!—more—that you yourself will break the contract!"
"Truly, and solemnly do I swear, that I will never force her to fulfil—nay, that I will never even urge her to its fulfilment."
The dying lady looked unsatisfied, and some unpronounced words agitated her lips, as Constance entered unbidden, but most welcome. She knelt by her mother's side, and took the hand so feebly but affectionately extended towards her. The fearful change that had occurred during her short absence was but too visible. The breath that touched her cheek was cold as the morning mist. The sufferer would have folded her hands in prayer, but the strength had departed before the spirit was gone. Constance, seeing that the fine expression of life with which her upturned eyes had glittered was gradually passing away, clasped her mother's hands within her own: suddenly they struggled for freedom, and as her eye followed the pointing of her parent's finger, she saw the lamp's last beam flicker for a moment, and then expire!—Her mother, too, was dead!
* * * * *
It is ill to break upon the solitude of the dying, though it is good to enter into the solemn temple of death; it is a sad but a useful lesson to lift the pall; to raise the coffin-lid; to gaze upon all we loved, upon all that was bright, and pure, and beautiful, changing with a slow but certain change to decay and corruption. The most careless cannot move along the chamber of death without being affected by the awful presence of the King of Terrors. The holy quiet that ought to characterise a funeral procession is too frequently destroyed by the empty pomp and heartlessness which attend it; but in the death-chamber there is nothing of this; the very atmosphere seems impregnated with the stillness of the time when there was no life in the broad earth, and when only "God moved on the face of the waters." Our breath comes slowly and heavily to our lips, and we murmur forth our words as if the spirit watched to record them in the unchanging book of immortality.
In due time, the funeral train of Lady Cecil prepared to escort the corpse to its final home. Sir Robert was too ill, and too deeply afflicted to be present at the ceremony; and as he had no near relative, Sir Willmott Burrell of Burrell, the knight to whom his daughter's hand was plighted, was expected to take his station as chief mourner. The people waited for some hours with untiring patience; the old steward paced backwards and forwards from the great gate, and at last took his stand there, looking out from between its bars, hoping that, wild and reckless as Burrell really was, he would not put so great an affront upon the Cecil family, as to suffer its late mistress to go thus unhonoured to the grave.
The day advanced, and as neither the gentleman, nor any one to show cause for his absence, appeared, strange whisperings and surmises arose amongst the crowd, which had assembled from all the villages on the island, as to the probable motive of this most ill-advised delay. More than one messenger was despatched to the top of Minster Church to look out and see if any person like Sir Willmott was crossing the King's Ferry, the only outlet in general use from the island to the main land: but though the passage-boat, conducted (as it was termed) by Jabez Tippet, was evidently employed as much as usual, there was no token to justify farther waiting. The Rev. Jonas Fleetword, one of the soundest of Puritan divines, stood like a statue of cast iron in the doorway, his arms folded on his breast, and his brow contracting into a narrow and fretted arch, as the minute-hand moved round and round the dial of the old clock. At length assuming to himself the command, which in those times was as willingly ceded to the Reformed minister as it had formerly been to the not more arbitrary Catholic priest, he ordered the procession "to tarry no longer the coming of him whose feet were shod with heaviness, but to depart forthwith in the name of the Lord."
The place of interment was at East Church, a distance of about four miles from Cecil Place; and as they paced it but slowly, the increasing chill of the gathering clouds gave intimation that the prime of day was sinking into the eventide before the spire was in sight. As they at length ascended the hill, upon the summit of which was the vault of the Cecils, a young gentleman, mounted on a grey and noble charger, met the funeral train so suddenly, that those who preceded halted, and for a moment it was rumoured, that Sir Willmott Burrell, though late and last, had taken the lower road from King's Ferry, and so arrived in time to behold the remains of her who was to have been his mother, deposited in the tomb.
When the people observed, however, that the salutation of respect made by the youth to the Rev. Jonas Fleetword was followed by no sign of recognition, they moved silently onward, marvelling amongst themselves at the young gentleman's keeping a little in advance of the clergyman, so as to take the exact station which belonged to the chief mourner. He was habited in a suit of the deepest black; and though the cloak which fell in ample folds from his throat concealed his figure, yet his movements indicated that it was slight and graceful. His broad hat completely shaded his face, but the luxuriant curls of light air, which, moistened by the misty atmosphere, fell negligently beneath its brim, intimated that he was more akin to the Cavalier than the Roundhead.
By the time the ceremony was concluded, and the divine had finished one of those energetic and powerful appeals to the feelings which so effectually roused or subdued, as it pleased him to desire, darkness had nearly shrouded the surrounding landscape; and the multitude, whom respect or curiosity had assembled, retired from the churchyard, and wended to their homes. The year was in its third month, and the weather, which, when Hugh Dalton landed, had been clear and fine, was now foggy and cold:—
"The dewy night had with her frosty shade Immantled all the world, and the stiff ground Sparkled in ice——"
Yet the steed of the youth, who had so unceremoniously joined Lady Cecil's funeral, was cropping the withered grass from the churchyard graves, while his master, apparently unconscious of the deepening night, leaned against one of the richly ornamented stone slabs that marked the entrance to the vault.
Suddenly the clatter of horses' hoofs sounded on the crisp road, the cavalier involuntarily placed his hand on his sword, and his horse lifted his head from the earth, bent back his ears, and whinnied in the low and peculiar tone that serves to intimate the approach of strangers. The travellers (for there were two) halted at the churchyard gate.
"What ho there!" exclaimed the foremost—"you, sir, who are pondering in graveyards at this hour, canst tell me if Lady Cecil's funeral took place this morning?"
"Her ladyship was buried this evening," replied the other, at the same time fairly drawing his sword out of its scabbard, though the movement was concealed by his cloak.
"They waited then?"
"They did, for one whose presence was not needed."
"And pray, how know you that? or knowing, think you it wisdom, Sir Dolorous, to give forth such knowledge, when it might be him they tarried for who questioneth?"
"It is because I know you, Sir Willmott Burrell, that I am so free of speech," replied the youth, vaulting into his saddle; "and I repeat it, your presence was not needed. The lady, as you truly know, loved you not while living; it was well, therefore, that you profaned not her burial by a show of false grief."
"Here's a ruffler!" exclaimed the other, turning to his follower. "And pray who are you?"
"You shall know that, good sir, when you least desire it," answered he of the black cloak, reining up his horse, that pawed and pranced impatiently: he then loosened the bridle, and would have crossed Burrell to pass into the highway; but the other shouted to his associate, "Hold, stop him, Robin! stop him in the name of the Lord! 'tis doubtless one of the fellows who have assailed his Highness's life—a leveller—a leveller! a friend of Miles Syndercomb, or some such ruffian, who is tarrying in this remote part of the island for some opportunity of escape. If you are an innocent man, you will remain; if guilty, this shall be my warrant."
He attempted to pull forth a pistol from his belt, but, before his purpose could be accomplished, the point of his adversary's rapier rested on his throat, which, at the same instant, was grasped with more strength than so slight a person could be supposed to possess. Burrell cried to his comrade for help, but he was already out of hearing, having set spurs to his horse the moment he had seen the assault; he then entreated for quarter in an altered and humbled tone.
"I am neither a robber nor a murderer," replied the youth; "but, not having pistols, I hold my own safety of too much value to relax my grasp, till you pledge your honour not to attack me but with the same weapon I can use in my defence."
Burrell pledged his word "as a Christian and a soldier:" the stranger withdrew his sword.
"And now," said he, fixing himself firmly in his seat, and rolling his cloak around his left arm, "if you wish for honourable combat, I am at your service; if not, sir, I take my way, and you can proceed on yours." He drew up to his full height, and awaited Burrell's answer, who sat as if undetermined what course to pursue. He did not long hesitate; the villain's ready friend—treachery—was at his elbow; in an instant the pistol was presented to the head of his confiding antagonist, who, though unprepared for such an act, bent forward previous to the effort of raising himself in the saddle to give more strength to his good steel. At the very instant that he bowed himself the ruffian fired! The ball passed over him—he swayed in his saddle; the next moment, reining up his horse, he prepared to punish such dastardly conduct as it deserved; but, as worthless purposes are sometimes accomplished by worthy instruments, the fleet steed that Burrell rode was far on its way towards Minster, its track marked by fire-sparks, which glittered in the thickening darkness.
The youth remained on the same spot until the sound of the horse's hoofs were lost in the distance, and then, setting spurs to his own gallant grey, proceeded on his course.
"Now is the time when rakes their revels keep; Kindlers of riot, enemies of sleep."
"A brewer may be like a fox or a cub, And teach a lecture out of a tub, And give the wicked world a rub, Which nobody can deny.
A brewer may be as bold as Hector, When he had drunk his cup of nectar; And a brewer may be a Lord Protector, Which nobody can deny.
But here remains the strangest thing, How this brewer about his liquor did bring To be an Emperor or King, Which nobody can deny.
Then push the brewer's liquor about, And loudly let each true man shout— Shout—"
"Shout not, I pray you, but rather keep silence," exclaimed an old woman, cautiously opening the door of a room in which the revellers were assembled, and thus interrupting their rude, but animated harmony; "shout not: you may hear a horse's tramp without; and Crisp grumbles so hard, that sure I am 'tis no friend's footstep."
"Why, mother," cried one of the company, winking on the rest, "you say it was a horse you heard?"
"Well! and I say so still, good Master Roupall."
"Sure you do not make friends of horses?"
"Better make them of horses than of asses," replied the crone, bitterly; and the laugh was raised against Roupall, who, as with all jesters, could ill brook the jest that was at his own expense.
"I hear no tramp, and see no reason why you should interrupt us thus with your hooting, you ill-favoured owl," he exclaimed fiercely.
"Hush!" she replied, placing her finger on her lip, while the little terrier that stood at her feet, as if comprehending the signal, crept stealthily to the door, and laying his nose on the floor, drew in his breath; and then erecting his ears, and stiffening his short tail, uttered a low determined growl.
"There are strangers, and near us too," observed an older man, who had hitherto remained silent; "there is little doubt of their being unfriendly: we had therefore better, seeing it would be imprudent to fight, retreat."
"Retreat! and why, I wonder?" inquired Roupall, the most reckless and daring of the set; and whose efforts were invariably directed towards meriting the soubriquet of "Jack the Rover," by which he was usually designated among his associates; "what care we, whether they be friends or foes! let them enter. Old Noll has too much to do abroad, to heed a few noisy troopers in an obscure hostelry in the Isle of Shepey."
"You are always heedless," observed the other; "and would sell your soul for an hour's mirth."
"My soul thanks you for the compliment, truly, Master Grimstone, and my body would repay you for it, if there was time, which, I take it, there lacks just now, for it is past eleven. Observe, gentlemen, Jack Roupall retreats not—he only retires." As he spoke, he pushed from a corner of the apartment, a huge settle of black oak, that apparently required the strength of six men to displace, but which the trooper handled as easily as if it had been a child's cradle. He then slid aside a panel, that fitted most accurately into the wall, of which it appeared a part; and in a few moments the party, consisting of some five or six, had entered the aperture, carrying with them the remnants of their feast, at the particular request of the old woman, who exhibited great alarm lest any symptom of revelling should remain. The last had hardly made good his retreat, when a loud knock at the door confirmed the dame in her apprehensions.
"In the devil's name!" she growled, "how am I to shove this mountain into its place? One of you must remain here; I might as well attempt to throw Blackburn cliff into the sea."
"I'll stay then, if you'll wait a minute," replied Roupall; "I defy the devil and all his works; and old Noll himself, the worst of them:—so here goes."
Another and a louder noise testified the traveller's impatience; but the summons was repeated a third time before the settle was replaced, and the room restored to its usually desolate and inhospitable appearance. Roupall ascended a narrow ladder, that led to the loft of the cottage-like dwelling, carrying with him a pack resembling those used by itinerant venders of goods; and Mother Hays (for such was her cognomen) holding the flickering candle in one hand, unfastened the door with the other, while Crisp crouched and snarled at her feet.
"You could not have been all asleep, dame," said the stranger, as he threw off his horseman's cloak, and hung his rapier on the back of the nearest seat, "for I distinctly saw lights. Is your son within?"
"No, marry, good sir; he is far away, in London, with his master, Sir Willmott Burrell, who was looked for home to-day, but came not, as I hear from some neighbours, belonging to East Church and Warden, who were at Lady Cecil's funeral."
"Do you expect me to believe there is no one in the house but yourself?"
"One other kind gentleman, a pedlar-man, a simple body, who lies above; he's weary travelling, and sleeps soundly."
The stranger took off his hat; and as he shook his head, throwing completely back the hair that had in some degree overshadowed his face, the old woman started, and an undefined expression of astonishment and doubt burst from her lips. The gentleman either did not, or appeared not to notice the effect he produced; but carefully drew from his bosom a small book or tablet, and read in it for some minutes with much attention, turning over and over the one or two leaves upon which his eyes were fixed.
"And are you sure, good woman, that no other persons are in your house save this same pedlar?" he inquired, now fixing his gaze steadily on the withered countenance of Mother Hays.
"Alack! yes, sir, few travellers come to the lone widow's door, and it's an out o' the way place: wouldn't your honour like some supper, or a stoop of wine, or, mayhap, a glass of brandy?—it is useful these raw nights; or a rasher and eggs?"
"Are you quite certain there is no other in the house, and that your son is really not returned?" he again inquired, heedless of her invitation.
"Why should I deceive your honour?—am I not old, and would you that I should so sin against the Lord?"
"You were not always thus piously given," replied the youth, smiling. "Know you aught of this token?" and he united his hands after a particular fashion: "heard you never the words——" and he whispered a short sentence into her ear: upon which she dropped a reverential courtesy, and, without reply, ascended, as quickly as her age and infirmities permitted, the ladder that led to Roupall's place of retreat. Ere she returned, however, accompanied by the trooper, another person had entered the dwelling. It was no other than her son Robin, for whom the gentleman had first inquired, and they were both engaged in such deep and earnest conversation, that neither noticed the addition to the party, until the old woman had thrown her arms around her son's neck, so as almost to stifle him with her caresses, seeming to lose all sense of the stranger's presence in the fulness of joy at the youth's return.
"There, mother, that will do; why, you forget I have been in London lately, and 'tis not the court fashion to rejoice and be glad. Besides, I have seen his Highness, and his Highness's daughters, and his Highness's sons, and drank, in moderation, with his Highness's servants: so, stand off, good mother, stand off!——'honour to whom honour.'" And Robin laid his finger on his nose, while a remarkable expression of cunning and shrewdness passed along his sharp and peculiar features.
As he busied himself with preparations for the guest's supper, it was impossible to avoid observing his quick and energetic movements, spare body, dwarfish stature, and long apish arms, that appeared in greater disproportion when viewed beside the now sedate and elevated carriage, the muscular and finely-developed form of the bulky trooper. And, in good sooth, it seemed that Roupall little relished the extraordinary civility shown to the new comer, both by mother and son. Had the stranger been disposed to hold any converse with him, matters might have been different; but he neither asked nor required information—sitting, after his return from the shed in which he had seen his horse sheltered, with his legs stretched out in front of the warm fire, his arms folded on his bosom, and his eyes fixed on the blazing wood that lent a brilliant light to the surrounding objects—giving a simple, though not uncourteous reply of "Yea," or "Nay," to the leading questions occasionally put to him by his rough, yet inquisitive companion. At length, when the rashers were dressed and deposited on the table, flanked on either side with a flagon of Canary and of Gascoigne, and the traveller had done ample justice to his cheer, he, with a conciliating smile and bow, wished the widow and Roupall "Good night," and followed Robin up the ladder, observing that his rest must be very brief, as he had occasion to start early next morning, and begging the good widow and her friend to finish the draught of her own excellent wine, to which he feared to render farther justice. Some time elapsed ere Robin returned; and when he did, he perceived that Roupall was in no gentle humour.
"Have you warmed the chicken's nest, and taken good and tender care of the gentle bird, according to orders, Robin? Gadzooks! I see so many cocks with hens' feathers now-a-days—sweet-scented Cavaliers, who could no more draw a trigger than they could mount the moon, that I think Hugh Dalton must line the Fire-fly with miniver to bring them safely over. A murrain take such fellows! say I—close-mouthed, long-eared scoundrels. D—n it! I love a frank heart——"
"And a bloody hand, Master Roupall."
"Stuff! stuff! Robin; few of either party can show clean hands these times; but does yon gallant come from over sea?"
"It might be that he dropped from the sky, for that is over the sea, you know."
"Faugh! you are as snappish as a cur whelp. I mean, what is he about?"
"Sleeping. Zooks! I'm sure he sleeps."
"Is he of good credit?"
"Faith, Roupall, I know not his banker."
"Good again, Master Robin; upon what grinding-stone were your wits sharpened?"
"Right loyally, good trooper; even upon King Log," replied Robin, grinning maliciously; and then, as if fearful that the gathering storm would forthwith burst, he continued: "Come, let's have a carouse, and wake the sleepers in that snug nest between walls; let's welcome in the morning, like gay gallants, while I tell you the court news, and exhibit the last court fashion, as it graces my own beautiful form!"
The man looked at him and smiled, soothed into something resembling good-nature by the odd humour and appearance of his old companion, who was tricked out, with much precision, in a blue doublet and yellow hose, while a large bow of sad-coloured riband, with fringed ends, dangled from either knee. He then glanced a look of complacency on his own proper person, and replied,—
"No, let them sleep, Robin; they are better off than I. That maidenlike friend of yours has taken possession of my bed, after your mother's routing me up as if I had been a stoat or a dormouse. Of course he is a Cavalier: I suppose he has a name; but is that, too, a secret?"
"Master Roupall," replied the other, with a look of great sagacity, "as to the person, it's hard to say who's who, these times; and as to the name, why, as you say, I suppose he has a name, and doubtless a good one, though I cannot exactly now call to mind what it is; for at court——"
"D—n court!" interrupted the other—"you're all court-smitten, I'm thinking. In plain English, I want to know who this youngster is? When Hugh is in one of his romances, he cares not who or what he sends us, either here, or, what is of more consequence, on the main-land—and we are to receive them and 'tend them, and all the time, mayhap, are hazarding our own heads; for I'd bet an even wager that one of the ferrymen is a spy in the pay of old red-nose; and it's little we get for such hazards—it's many a day since even a keg of brandy has been run ashore."
"You have sworn an oath, for which I should exact, I think, the sum of three shillings and four-pence, Jack the Rover; but, I fear me, thou hast not wherewithal to satisfy the law, even in a small thing, until thou offerest thy neck unto the halter as a sacrifice. But did Hugh Dalton ever bring you, or any man, into trouble yet?" continued Robin, composing his comic features into a grave and quiet character.
"I can't say that he did."
"I am sure he has had opportunities enough."
"I'm not going to deny that Hugh's a fine fellow, Robin; but I remember, long ago, ay, thirteen or fourteen years past, before he entered on the regular buccaneering trade, there wasn't a firmer Cavalier amongst the whole of us Kentish men. Blazes! how he fought at Marston! But a few years' sunning off the hot Havannah either scorches the spirit out of a man, or burns it in."
"And what reason have you to think that Hugh is not now a good Cavalier?"
"Pshaw! he grows old, and it's no good trying to pull Oliver down. He's charmed. Ay, you may laugh; but no one of us could have escaped the bullet of Miles Syndercomb, to say nothing of dark John Talbot:—I tell ye, he is spell-guarded. Hugh is a knowing one, and has some plan a-foot, or he wouldn't keep beating about this coast as he does, after being so long from it, and using every county but Sussex and Kent. I wonder, too, what placed you, Master Robin, in Burrell of Burrell's service: I thought you were a man of taste till then."
Robin again grinned; and, as his wide mouth literally extended from ear to ear, his face looked, as it were, divided by some accident; so separate did the chin appear from the upper portion of the countenance.
"If you wo'n't talk," growled out the trooper, "I hope you will pay those who do so for your amusement."
"Thou wouldst have me believe, then, thou art no genuine disinterested talker. Ah! Roupall, Roupall! acquaintance with courts has taught me, that nature in the first place, and society in the second, have imposed upon us mortals two most disagreeable necessities: the one is that of eating; the other, that of talking. Now nature is a tyrant, and society is a tyrant; and I, being a tyrant-hater——"
"'Slife, man—or mongrel—or whatever you choose to call your twisted carcass," interrupted Roupall, angrily, "hold your jibber. I wonder Joan Cromwell did not seize upon you, and keep you as her chief ape, while you were making your courtly acquaintance. A pretty figure for courts, truly!—ah! ah! ah!" As he laughed, he pointed his finger scornfully towards Robin Hays, who, however little he might care to jest upon his own deformity, was but ill inclined to tolerate those who even hinted at his defects. As the trooper persevered, his victim grew pale and trembled with suppressed rage. The man perceived the effect his cruel mockery produced, and continued to revile and take to pieces the mis-shapen portions of his body with most merciless anatomy. Robin offered, in return, neither observation nor reproach;—at first trembling and change of colour were the only indications of his feelings—then he moved restlessly on his seat, and his bright and deeply sunken eyes gleamed with untamable malignity; but, as Roupall followed one jeer more brutal than the rest, with a still more boisterous laugh, and, in the very rapture of his success, threw himself back in his chair, the tiger spirit of Robin burst forth to its full extent: he sprang upon the trooper so suddenly, that the Goliath was perfectly conquered, and lay upon the floor helpless as an overgrown and overfed Newfoundland dog, upon whose throat a sharp and bitter terrier has fastened. At length, after much exertion, he succeeded in standing erect against the wall of the apartment, though still unable to disengage Robin's long arms and bony fingers from his throat, where he hung like a mill-stone: it was some minutes ere the gigantic man had power to throw from him the attenuated being whom, on ordinary occasions, he could have lifted between his finger and thumb.
Robin gathered himself up on the spot to which Roupall had flung him; his chin resting on his knees, round which his arms were clasped; his narrow chest and shoulders heaving with the exertion of the conflict; his eyes wild and glittering, yet fixed upon his adversary, like those of some fierce animal eager to dart upon its prey. The trooper shook himself, and passed his hand once or twice over his throat, as if to ascertain whether or not he were really strangled; then returning Robin's gaze as steadily, though with a far different expression, he said,—
"Upon my soul, you are as strong a hand at a grapple as I would care to meet; nor would I believe, did I not know it, that Roupall the Rover, who has borne more blows upon his thick head than there are days in February, and rises six feet two without boots, could be half choked by little Robin the Ranger, who stands forty inches in his shoes;—but I beg pardon for offending a man of your mettle. I warrant you safe from any future jests of mine; I like not quarrelling with old friends—when there is nothing to be got by it. Tut, man! leave off your moping, and shake hands, like a Christian. You wo'n't! why you are not going to convert your body into a nursery for bad blood, are you? What would pretty Barbara Iverk say to that?"
Robin laughed a laugh so loud, so shrill, so unearthly, that it echoed like a death-howl along the walls; then stretched out and looked on his ill-formed limbs, extended his long and grappling fingers, and muttered bitterly, "Curse!—curse!—curses on myself! I am a dainty morsel for a fair girl's love! Ah! ah! ah! a dainty morsel!" he repeated, and covered his face with his broad palms. Thus, shutting out the sight of his own deformities, and rocking himself backwards and forwards, moaning and jibbering like one distraught, he remained for several minutes. At length poor Crisp, who had been a most anxious spectator of the scene, ran timidly to his master, and, standing on his hind legs, began licking his fingers with an affectionate earnestness, more soothing to his agitated feelings than all the sincere apologies of the trooper, whose rough good-nature was really moved at what had taken place. Slowly uncovering his face, Robin pressed the little animal to his bosom, bending his head over it, and muttering in a tone the dog seemed fully to understand, by the low whine with which he returned the caress. After a time his eyes met those of Roupall's, but their meaning was totally changed: they no longer sparkled with fury, but were as quiet and subdued as if nothing had occurred.
"You'll shake hands now," exclaimed the trooper, "and make the child's bargain."
Robin, rising, extended his hand; and it was cordially taken by his adversary, who soon after removed the settle, and entered the concealed room to join his slumbering companions.
Whatever were Robin's plans, reflections, or feelings, time alone can develope; for, laying himself before the yet burning embers of the fire, he appropriated the stranger's cloak as a coverlet, in which to enshroud himself and Crisp; and, if oral demonstrations are to be credited, was soon in a profound sleep.
Yet not the more Cease I to wander, where the Muses haunt Clear spring, or shady grove, or sunny hill, Smit with the love of sacred song. * * * * * Great things, and full of wonder, in our ears, Far differing from the world, thou hast revealed, Divine Interpreter.
The morning that followed was rife with the sweet and balmy air and the gay sunshine, so duly prized in our variable climate, because of the rarity of their occurrence; more especially when the year is yet too young to assist with vigour the energies of all-industrious nature. The trees, in their faint greenery, looked cheerful as the face of childhood: the merry birds were busied after their own gentle fashion forming their dwellings in the covert and solitude of the wooded slopes which effectually sheltered Cecil Place from the chill blast of the neighbouring sea. The freshened breeze came so kindly through the thick underwood, as to be scarcely felt by the early wanderers of the upland hill or valley green. Even the rough trooper, Roupall, yielded to the salutary influence of the morn; and as he toiled in his pedlar's guise across the downs, which were mottled with many hundred sheep, and pointed the pathway to King's Ferry, his heart softened within him. Visions of his once happy home in Cumberland—of the aged parents who fostered his infancy—of the companions of his youth, before he had lived in sin, or dwelt with sorrow—of the innocent girl, who had loved, though she had forsaken him—all passed before him; the retrospect became the present; and his heart swelled painfully within him; for he thought on what he had been, and on what he was, until, drawing his coarse hand across his brows, he gave forth a dissolute song, seeking, like many who ought to be wiser, to stifle conscience by tumultuous noise.
About the same hour, our friend Robin Hays was more than usually active in his mother's house, which we have already described, and which was known by the name of the "Gull's Nest." The old woman had experienced continued kindness from the few families of rank and wealth who at that time resided in Shepey. With a good deal of tact, she managed outwardly to steer clear of all party feuds; though people said she was by no means so simple as she pretended; but the universal sympathy of her neighbours was excited by her widowed and almost childless state—three fine sons having been slain during the civil wars—and the fourth, our acquaintance Robin, being singularly undervalued, on the ordinary principle, we may presume, that "a prophet hath no honour in his own country." This feeling of depreciation Robin certainly returned with interest, indulging a most bitter, and, occasionally, biting contempt for all the high and low in his vicinity, the family at Cecil Place forming the only exception. Despite his defects natural and acquired, he had, however, managed to gain the good opinion of Burrell of Burrell, who, though, frequently on the island, possessed only a small portion of land within its boundary. Into his service he entered for the purpose of accompanying the knight to London as travelling-groom; and he had rendered himself so useful while sojourning in the metropolis, that Burrell would fain have retained him in his employ—a project, however, to which Robin strenuously objected, the moment it was communicated to him. "Nature," he said, "had doubtless made him a bond-slave; but he liked her fetters so little, that he never would be slave to any one or any thing beside." He therefore returned to the "Gull's Nest" on the night his late master arrived at Cecil Place, from which his mother's home was distant about three miles.
Never was there a dwelling more appropriately named than the cottage of Mother Hays. It stood on either a real or artificial eminence between Sheerness and Warden, facing what is called "The Cant," and very near the small village of East Church. The clay and shingle of which it was composed would have ill encountered the whirlwind that in tempestuous weather fiercely yelled around the cliffs, had it not been for the firm support afforded to it by the remains of an ancient watchtower, against which the "Gull's Nest" leaned. Perched on this remarkable spot, and nestling close to the mouldering but still sturdy walls, the very stones of which disputed with the blast, the hut formed no inappropriate dwelling for withered age, and, if we may be allowed the term, picturesque deformity. Robin could run up and down every cliff in the neighbourhood like a monkey—could lie on the waters, and sport amid the breakers, with the activity of a cub-seal—dive like an otter; and, as nature generally makes up in some way or other for defects similar to those so conspicuous in the widow's son, she had gifted him with so sweet a voice, that the fishermen frequently rested on their oars beneath "Gull's Nest" crag, to listen to Robin's wild and mournful ballads, which full often mingled with the murmur of the small waves as they rippled on the strand. But the manikin, Robin, had higher and better qualities than those we have endeavoured to describe—qualities which Hugh Dalton, with the ready wisdom that discovers at once what is excellent, and then moulds that excellence to its own purpose, had assiduously cultivated. Many years before the period of which we treat, Robin had accompanied the Buccaneer on one or two piratical cruises; and though it cannot be denied that Hugh was a better sailor than scholar, yet he generously sought to secure for little Robin the advantages he did not himself possess; Robin, accordingly, received daily instruction in penmanship from a run-away merchant's clerk, the clerk and bookkeeper, the lubber and idler of the crew.
Robin laboured to reward this kindness by unshaken fidelity, unceasing watchfulness, and a wild enthusiasm which endeared him to the rude captain, as if he were something that belonged exclusively to himself. The Buccaneer knew that secrets, where life and property were at stake, were safe in his keeping; and as the renowned Dalton had often worked in the service of both Cavaliers and Roundheads, a person of ready wit and true heart was most invaluable as an auxiliary on the coast.
If the Buccaneer entertained any political creed, it was certainly in favour of the exiled Charles: a bold and intrepid spirit like his felt something most galling and repulsive in the stern and unyielding government of the Protector. A ruler who not only framed acts, but saw those acts enforced, whether they regarded a "Declaration for a day of Publique Thanksgiving," or "A Licence for transporting Fish in Foreign Bottoms," was not likely to be much after the taste of one who had the essence of lawgiving only within himself, and who perceived clearly enough that the royal but thoughtless Stuarts would be more easily managed—more prone, if not from feeling, at all events from indolence, to overlook the peccadilloes of such as Dalton, than the unflinching Oliver, who felt that every evil he redressed was a fresh jewel in his sceptre. Nevertheless, as we have seen, the Buccaneer had decided on offering his services to the Commonwealth: he believed that Cromwell knew his talents and valued his courage; but he also knew that the Protector piqued himself upon consistency, and that, consequently, there would be vast difficulties to overcome, as a price had more than once been set upon his head.
We must, however, conduct our readers back into the fresh morning we have instanced as one of the favourites of spring. Leaving Robin to his preparations for the stranger's breakfast, and premising that he had previously dismissed the midnight revellers on their respective errands, we will roam for a while amid the sheltered walks of Cecil Place.
It was situated on the slope of the hill, leading to the old monastery of Minster. Although nothing now exists except the church, a few broken walls, and a modernised house, formed out of one of the principal entrances to what was once an extensive range of monastic buildings; yet at the time of which we treat, the ruins of the nunnery, founded by Sexburga, the widow of Ercombert, King of Kent, extended down the rising ground, presenting many picturesque points of view from the small but highly-cultivated pleasure grounds of Cecil Place. Nothing could be more beautiful than the prospect from a rude terrace which had been the favourite walk of Lady Cecil. The small luxuriant hills, folding one over the other, and terminating in the most exquisite valleys and bosky glades the imagination can conceive—the rich mixture of pasture and meadow land—the Downs, stretching to King's Ferry, whitened by thousands of sheep, whose bleatings and whose bells made the isle musical—while, beyond, the narrow Swale, widening into the open sea, shone like a silver girdle in the rays of the glorious sun—were objects, indeed, delicious to gaze upon.
Although, during the Protectorate, some pains had been taken to render Sheerness, then a very inconsiderable village, a place of strength and safety, and the ancient castle of Queenborough had been pulled down by the Parliamentarians, as deficient in strength and utility, no one visiting only the southern and western parts of the island could for a moment imagine that the interior contained spots of such positive and cultivated beauty.
It was yet early, when Constantia Cecil, accompanied by a female friend, entered her favourite flower-garden by a private door, and strolled towards a small Gothic temple overshadowed by wide-spreading oaks, which, sheltered by the surrounding hills, had numbered more than a century of unscathed and undiminished beauty, and had as yet escaped the rude pruning of the woodman's axe. The morning habit of the noble Constance fitted tightly to the throat, where it was terminated by a full ruff of starched muslin, and the waist was encircled by a wide band of black crape, from which the drapery descended in massive folds to her feet. She pressed the soft green turf with a more measured step than was her wont, as if the body shared the mind's sad heaviness. Her head was uncovered, save that, as she passed into the garden, she had carelessly thrown on a veil of black muslin, through which her bright hair shone with the lustre and richness of the finest satin: her throat and forehead appeared most dazzlingly white in contrast with her sable dress.
The lady by whom she was accompanied was not so tall, and of a much slighter form; her limbs delicately moulded, and her features more attractive than beautiful. There was that about her whole demeanour which is expressively termed coquetry, not the coquetry of action, but of feeling: her eyes were dark and brilliant, her mouth full and pouting; and the nose was only saved from vulgarity by that turn, to describe which we are compelled to use a foreign term—it was un peu retrousse: her complexion was of a clear olive, through which the blood glowed warmly whenever called to her cheek by any particular emotion. The dress she wore, without being gay, was costly: the full skirt of crimson grogram descended not so low as to prevent her small and beautifully-turned ankle from being distinctly seen, and the cardinal of wrought purple velvet, which had been hastily flung over her shoulders, was lined and bordered with the finest ermine. Nor did the contrast between the ladies end here: the full and rich-toned voice of Constance Cecil was the perfection of harmony, while the light and gay speech of her companion might be called melody—the sweet playful melody of an untaught bird.
"You must not mourn so unceasingly, my dear Constance," she said, looking kindly into the sorrowing face of her friend: "I could give you counsel—but counsel to the distressed is like chains thrown upon troubled waters."
"Say not so, Frances; rather like oil upon a stormy sea is the sweet counsel of a friend; and truly none but a friend would have turned from the crowded and joyous court to sojourn in this lonely isle; and, above all, in the house of mourning."
"I do not deny to you, Constance, that I love the gaiety, the pomp, and the homage of our courts; that both Hampton and Whitehall have many charms for me; but there are some things—some things I love far more. I loved your mother," she continued, in a tone of deeper feeling than was usual with so gay a spirit; "and I love the friend who, while she reproves my follies, can estimate my virtues: for even my sombre sister Elizabeth, your grave god-mother, admits that I have virtues, though she denies them to be of an exalted nature."
"Were the Lady Claypole to judge of others according to the standard of her own exceeding excellence, Frances, we should, indeed, fall far below what we are disposed to believe is our real value; but, like the rose, instead of robbing less worthy flowers of their fragrance, she imparts to them a portion of her own."
"Now should I like to call that a most courtly compliment, but for my life I cannot—it is so true."
"You pronounce a severe satire on your father's court, my friend; and one that I hope it merits not."
"Merits! Perhaps not—for, though the youngest and least rational of my father's children, I can perceive there are some about him who hit upon truth occasionally, either by chance or intention. There's that rugged bear, Sir Thomas Pride, whom, I have heard say, my father knighted with a mopstick—he, I do believe, speaks truth, and of a truth follows one scriptural virtue, being no respecter of persons. As to General George Monk, my father trusts him—and so—yet have I observed, at any mention of Charles Stuart's name, a cunning twinkling of the eye that may yet kindle into loyalty.—I would as soon believe in his honesty as in his lady's gentleness. Did you hear, by the way, what Jerry, my poor disgraced beau, Jerry White, said of her? Why, that if her husband could raise and command a regiment endowed with his wife's spirit, he might storm the stronghold of sin, and make Satan a state prisoner. Then our Irish Lord Chancellor—we call him the true Steele; and, indeed, any one who ventures to tell my father he errs, deserves credit. Yes, Sir William Steele may certainly be called a truth-teller. Not so our last court novelty, Griffeth Williams of Carnarvon, Esq., who though he affects to despise all modern titles, and boasts of his blood-ties with the Princes of Wales, Kings of France, Arragon, Castile, and Man, with the sovereigns of Englefield and Provence to boot, yet moves every secret engine he can find to gain a paltry baronetcy! Even you, dear Constance, would have smiled to see the grave and courtly salutations that passed between him and the Earl of Warwick—the haughty Earl, who refused to sit in the same house with Pride and Hewson—a circumstance, by the way, that caused Jerry White to say, 'he had too much Pride to attend to the mending of his soul.' The jest is lost unless you remember that Hewson had been a cobbler. As to John Milton——"