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Title: Boundless Water Author: Marjorie Bowen * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402421h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2014 Most recent update: Aug 2014 This eBook was produced by Colin Choat. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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Francis Ribblestone rode slowly over Eashing bridge; the placid waters of the Wey, edged with heavy sedges, tangled grass and willow stumps, reflected the peaceful blue and faint white clouds of a mild October day, and swirled in little eddies round the thick ancient brick supports of the bridge arches; to the right towards the mill and the village, a boy stood low in the reeds, fishing; to the left, the trees of Ockfordwood closed over the river and shut out the rich low-lying landscape.
He gazed at the prospect, which he had known all his life, with an expression of deep satisfaction in the opulent beauty of it, of pride in his country, of pride in his own youth and strength that had directed this lavish ordering of nature's riches, pride in the long descent of gentle blood that had made him master of all this land he looked upon.
Half unconscious, these thoughts were so much a portion of his being that his whole bearing and the cast of his features revealed the radiant joy in life. The intense vitality, the vast belief in himself and all his rank and name stood for, found expression in a glowing pride of thought and action, in no way lessened by being united with a very winning personal modesty. This expression, which gave the character to his face and carriage, was often obscured in common intercourse and the interests of every day, but now, as he rode slowly with slackened rein along the silent highway, his thought flew free; his eyes widened, his firm set lips quivered, and the bared look of dreaming passionate pride and love of life in his lifted countenance would, in its unconscious intensity, have startled any who had chanced to meet the solitary rider.
He came through the changing beauties of rich landscape to Milford, asleep in the now strengthening afternoon sun, rode up Mousehill and Rodborough Hill, the ample spaces of Mousehill Down and Bagmoor Common to his right, Witley Common and Mare Hill with its grove of dark pines to his left. The road became rough and broken; glimpses of distant farm-houses ceased. Pasture land, meadow, hayfield, and cornfield merged in stretches of curling heather, in low-lying purple heath. As he passed Hammer Pond he saw the glossy cows knee-deep in the water, with a silent man to attend their drinking, and behind them an open space of clear sky flushed with the hazy gold of half-formed clouds.
A sigh that curved his lips to a smile in passing broke from him; he touched his horse up lightly and the beautiful beast broke into a canter.
At Thursley he saw the labourers coming home across the fields, straggling brown figures with their shadows lengthening before them; outside the inn was a group of sailors, brown and ragged, who touched their hats to his fine horse and his broadcloth before the lounging native gave them his quality.
The smile was still on the lips of Francis Ribblestone as he came through Cosford Ho, and so out into the narrow road that led straight through the heart of the wild and dangerous heath now bloom in dusty gold and purple heather bells.
The road twisted and wound abruptly; the London coach had left deep ruts now full of white dust: rough stones and dried cracks showed it was a dangerous highway in rough weather, difficult for vehicles and impossible for foot-passengers, apart from the terrors of its loneliness and ill-repute.
To the left it sloped raggedly, yet steeply, into "The Devil's Punch Bowl," a great hollow of gorse and furze, beyond which the heath swept away in inaccessible wildness until it reached the enclosing hills; to the right, a high chalky bank rose abruptly from the road and shut out all prospect with a crown of bent bushes and scanty trees.
Even in the soft light of an October sun the view was sad, unfriendly and awesome; there was no human habitation in sight, no animal nor person; but the dense heather seemed to conceal a lurking and evil life, and the chalky bluff to rise with a menace, like the frontier of some unexplored and dreary land.
But Francis Ribblestone gave the cold moorland the same straight look of pride he had turned on the opulent countryside. No images of loneliness, violent deeds, or horror darkened his clear vision of a heath beautiful to him in its free sweep beneath the open sky.
The bank to his left continued to rise until it sprang up into a sudden commanding peak; to this Francis Ribblestone lifted his eyes as his horse took the corner.
A rough path led from the road to the summit, on which rose the stiff outlines of a gallows and gibbet—the remains of a nameless murderer, who had suffered for vile and sordid crimes when Francis Ribblestone was a child.
There was an old woman not far away, gathering the last of the whortleberries that grew beneath the heather; she stood erect as he passed and looked after him without any greeting.
Francis Ribblestone was vaguely surprised to see her so far from a village, for the gibbet stood on the edge of what was called, from its great extent and loneliness, Boundless Copse.
The sandy, ill-kept road wandered across the heath to the Hindhead, where a few poor huts clustered round a small inn; here Francis Ribblestone left the high road, and turned down the wild lane that led to Haslemere.
Blackberries hung among fading leaves in the hedgerows, the red flags of the sorrel and the last flowers of the wild geranium showed through the border of tangled foliage either side the road; the moorland swept in to little groves of oak and fir, pleasant valleys replaced the empty heath; by Critchmere were the hayfields and cornfields again, the farm-houses and cottages.
Francis Ribblestone turned by the church and took the Chichester road into the market square of Haslemere.
His way lay past it towards Valewood Ho, but he checked his horse from the homeward way and crossed the wide square that was the heart of the town.
The red-brick Town Hall, prim and small, shut off the road, so completing the square; on either side were straight-fronted houses set back on a high pavement, their long windows gleaming in the sun and the white paint of their wooden porticoes; to the right was The Swan, to the left The White Horse, both more pretentious buildings than the others, with mounting-blocks in front, open gates leading into quiet courtyards at the side, and late roses climbing over the old brick.
Beyond the houses, of different shapes, sizes and make, but all of this one soft colour of red, climbed up the slightly hilly street; here and there a fine chestnut broke the space of sunshine, and where the road turned a giant yew shaded the whole space.
A languid peace, a low breathing serenity rested over the little town; there was no one abroad; the shops had the shutters up to protect them from the sun, and the beadle was asleep in the shadowed doorway of the Town Hall; yet many curious eyes peeped from behind the long panes of thick glass as Francis Ribblestone rode, all unconscious of them, towards the great yew.
There he took a turning between two quiet houses, rode across a field, and came out on the road again just below the chapel of Saint Bartholomew.
Francis Ribblestone dismounted and flung the reins round the staple of the gate, and stepped softly into the churchyard.
Yew, cypress and pine filled the air with sad dark foliage; a few late flowers cast bright petals on the brick graves and the thick grass between.
Francis Ribblestone took off his black beaver and passed into the interior.
A thick lustrous light poured through the painted glass on the oak-lined walls, the high curtained pews, the hooded pulpit, the shaded altar, the tombs and monuments of Ribblestones with their arms carved and painted in the marble and the wood.
At all times magnificent (since this great family of the neighbourhood made it their care and monument), to-day the chapel had an added air of lavish richness; next Sunday was the harvest festival, and the decorations of fruit, flowers and vegetables were already arranged in the niches of the windows, on the pulpit steps, round the pillars, and beneath the pedestals of the tombs.
Before the altar lay wheaten bread, a shock of corn, a basket of grapes, and apples like pale gold, all flushed to the tint and glow of jewels by the warm stained light.
Francis Ribblestone stood within the door looking down the short aisle; he also was touched into harmony by the beams of crimson light from the window behind him, beams that, resting in his dusky hair a quivering space, passed him and fell aslant on his father's name and his:
The young man did not look at this; anything that spoke of death was to him but a painted fancy; he was gazing at a slight and noiseless figure in black that moved by the pulpit, fixing up trails of fiery coloured creeper to the dark polished wood.
He had not heard the door open and close, but after a while looking round he saw, with pleased surprise, a tall figure, waiting silently, come forward with a gesture of welcome.
He had a stately manner, heightened by his Clerical dress and white hair; he dropped his hand lightly on Francis Ribblestone's arm and drew him outside into the fading sunlight.
"Well! Sir Francis!"
The sun was blushing to its setting; through the dark boughs of the funereal trees the sky showed in vivid gold; a little below them the road lay confused in shadow; beyond that the gorgeous prospect of forest, field and hill.
The two men walked slowly down the paved path and seated themselves on a square brick grave that stood free of the shade of yew or cypress.
"Thank you, Sir Francis," said the clergyman, "for the fruit and flowers you sent; it is more than we can use."
Francis Ribblestone gave him a brilliant smile and sat silent, bending his riding-stock across his knee and gazing across the fair landscape. The elder man gazed on him with eyes of affection, with pleasure and admiration.
The person of Francis Ribblestone was worthy of his high birth and fine soul; he was rich in personal graces.
Strength and dignity were in the tall shapeliness of his figure, in his careless bearing, and the delicate contour of his head. Breed showed in his slender feet, his long hands, and his face; now, in his May of life, he was the epitome of noble pride and youthful fire.
His features were thin and hawk-like, the brow low, the nose high-arched and haughty, his eyes, hazel under thin sweeping brows, large and of an extraordinary expression of intense brilliancy, his lips curved lightly together, yet seeming as if his teeth were locked behind them, his jaw was slightly underset and of a clean line of power.
His complexion was dark, his hair heavy, of a dull brown and rolled into correct curls and tied severely in the nape of his neck; he wore a plain coat of a russet colour and a cravat of rich embroidery; his gauntlets and boots were stained with wear, but his spurs were silver and the butt of his whip was carved gold.
"Mr. Bargrave," he said suddenly, "you must think me very dull to-night."
And as he spoke he turned with that smiling look of exalted pride. The smile of youth, the pride of life, that always half-abashed the clergyman.
"What did you come to see me for, Sir Francis?" he asked. "Have you any news?"
"Two kinds of news, sir: firstly, Mrs. Muschamp hath refused me."
"My fortune—my name, my heart!" Francis Ribblestone smiled. "Well, she would not have been the wife for me, I doubt—an ambitious lady, an independent, a spirited. By God's grave, sir, a charming creature, but one that hath been her own mistress too long to take kindly to a master—I think her brief marriage—not too happy—and he was easy."
"Yet I am sorry," said Mr. Bargrave.
"You think of the lands?" asked Sir Francis. "I confess that hath hit me; you know how glad I should have been to see her estates wedded to mine, half Surrey then, sir, no less, and the border of Sussex; well, it is not to be."
"I did not only consider the lands; Mrs. Mus-champ is an admirable woman—I do not think she married her cousin for the lands."
Francis Ribblestone looked at him gravely.
"I do not think so either—if she had said 'yes' today I would never have thought of another woman. I could be patient to her temper for the sake of the spirit in her—but—I was not made for regrets."
Mr. Bargrave sighed.
"So now it will be Margaret Cowley," he said quietly.
"You make me heartless—it hath a sound of calculation put in that fashion. Must a man's marriage be such a cold affair? You are displeased with me and I make words! Well, then, say it will be Margaret Cowley."
He switched at the lush grass growing by his feet, and smiled at Mr. Bargrave, who was strangely disappointed that, of the two ladies whom Francis Ribblestone had been delicately dallying between since he touched manhood, the richer rather and more exquisite should have refused him. Margaret Cowley had youth, grace and breed, a large dowry and a proud name; but Bernardine Muschamp was a widow heiress, sole mistress of lands nearly as wide as the estates of Ribblestone, and was besides a lady of character, wit and tenderness, a fit mate for Francis Ribblestone, and as a flashing diamond to clear, colourless glass compared with Margaret Cowley.
"Have you been to Muschamp Hall to-day?"
"Just ridden from there, sir—she dismissed me smiling!—a woman like that must have a Court, not a husband—it did not hurt me to say good-bye—I am her servant always, but Margaret Cowley will make the sweeter wife—unless she, too, giveth no."
There was no fear of a second refusal from the Cowleys, and both he and Mr. Bargrave knew it; he might have had the gentle Margaret a year ago if he had not been a willing follower of the fascination of Mrs. Muschamp, and now he was free of those lures Mr. Bargrave had no doubt the little chapel would see bridal in the spring.
He glanced affectionately at the superb face that had taken on the look of musing, and asked gently: "What is your other news, Sir Francis?"
The young man flashed into his glorious animation.
"I have had a letter from London—from Wyndham;" he lightly touched his breast. "He hath been so encouraged by the defeat of the excise Bill that he is to attempt the repeal of the Septennial Act; he saith there must be an election in the spring and he wisheth me to stand, he would find a place for me—all my ambition is that way, and I shall, as he saith."
He spoke rapidly, with fire and feeling, as he brushed with his speech the great passion and object of his life, ambition and politics, and desire for the wide scope, the place of power.
To Stephen Bargrave, who had known and watched every one of his twenty-eight years of life, he seemed of irresistible charm and power, force and magnetism, the very incarnation in pleasant flesh and blood of the spirit of dauntless manhood on the threshold of achievement.
"You have been straining to be at politics all your life, Sir Francis."
Francis Ribblestone rose and held out his hand.
"What else is there that meaneth power? But I disturb you, and I must ride back and write to Wyndham; perhaps I shall go to London. When are you coming to the Manor?"
Mr. Bargrave smiled.
"When you command me."
Sir Francis pressed his hand affectionately.
"To-morrow then; I have no other confidant, you know, and I am writing a pamphlet on the Septennial Act; will you hear it? You are too indulgent, sir—good-bye."
He passed through the wooden gate, mounted, and galloped away across the misty evening fields.
Mr. Bargrave stood in the darkening churchyard looking after him and picturing that parting between Mrs. Muschamp and her suitor.
He could well imagine the clash of proud natures meeting, the challenge in her refusal, the answer in his haughty acceptance of that refusal, the interchange of stately courtesies, the stimulant of the rebuff to the quick spirit of Francis Ribblestone; his swift rebound to the quiet image of Margaret Cowley, his half-relief in certainty after years of dallying with indecision, his sense of pleasure in being set free from the insistent bonds of wilful charm; all of which had roused his mood to this exaltation in himself and in the sudden vent to his ambition offered by Sir William Wyndham, chief of the Opposition.
Mr. Bargrave gave a little sigh to a vanished hope—that of seeing united Francis Ribblestone and Bernardine Muschamp—and turned again into the church.
Meanwhile the object of his tender thoughts was passing between the two houses into the High Street of Haslemere.
The one to his left was two-storied, of red brick, completely shaded by the yew whose flat boughs touched the window-panes, and giving it a sombre, secretive look.
The first keen dusk had fallen, and there was a glowing little wind; an upper casement opened in the house behind the yew, a twist of white paper fluttered through the twilight and drifted across Francis Ribblestone's saddle. He caught it and glanced up, but the window had sharply closed and he did not check his horse.
As he crossed the market-place he smoothed out the paper on his palm; it was still light enough for him to read the large writing.
"When are you coming to see us again? I am very dull.
He smiled, thrust the paper into his pocket, and in five minutes had forgotten it, and the writer, though she was what were neither of the two ladies who had occupied his lighter thoughts of late, a beauty beyond dispute or disdain.
The home of Francis Ribblestone lay in park and garden between Valewood and Valewood Ho, a mile or so beyond the town of Haslemere.
The present Manor House had been built in the time of the first Charles; but there remained some portions of the older building, a Tudor keep and chapel, for the Ribblestones had been Romanists even after the Reformation.
This chapel, a circular building at the back of the square house, with an outside staircase and independent entry, was now used as a picture gallery, and the old keep contained a collection of famous arms and armour.
The Manor House stood flat on a great lawn, broken by cypress trees and foreign shrubs and bounded by a stream that wandered away into the park land. In front was a low terrace flagged with marble, to the back a sunk Dutch garden; the lawn was cut by the drive and the terrace broken by a shallow flight of steps. Formerly the entrance had been upon the other side, as a fine avenue of trees there still remained to prove; but in rebuilding, the plan of the grounds had been altered.
The house itself was of finely moulded brick, with beautiful chimney stacks and lead gutters and pipes richly decorated. It was very large; it had been, indeed, too large for the Ribblestones, who had lived in it since its rebuilding, but they had always filled it with servants after a lavish manner; even during the Rebellion the then Sir Francis had kept thirty men and women in the Manor House; and the present Sir Francis, who neither entertained nor lived in any way extravagantly, maintained fifty indoor and fifty outdoor servants. This had always been the way of the Ribblestones, a prudent, almost austere race, to live on their own land in quiet magnificence; their wealth had never been squandered, and now was considerable, being spent, as always, on the land from which it came, and on this domestic state.
Francis Ribblestone had been in possession twenty years and had altered nothing; all was as in his father's day, and as long as he could himself remember.
In this house he had been born and educated, first under his father's eye, then under that of his guardian; from here he had left for his three years' travel of Europe, and to this house returned his own master; he had never known another life than that continued within the scope of his own lands, and never wished for another.
His mother he could not remember, his father scarcely recall; a year after the death of his first wife the late Sir Francis had married again, a French lady of rank who had never been beloved by her husband's people.
Her reign as mistress of the Manor was short; she and her lord died of smallpox within the same week, leaving a delicate child, five years younger than Francis, to be taken care of by his French relatives, since he was totally unprovided for out of the estates.
His half-brother, who had received from his mother the fantastic name of Phoebus, was the sole relative Francis possessed and the sole cloud in the serene contentment of his life.
Phoebus Ribblestone had remained in France; his relatives there had bought him a commission in the Black Musketeers and he had taken up his residence in Paris; he never ceased to remember that his father had been a rich man and that he had not benefited by the fact to the extent of a penny.
Francis, to whom the memory of his father's second marriage was painful (in common with the men on his estate he fiercely resented the union of a Ribblestone and a foreigner), had twice paid the debts of his half-brother, whom he disliked and despised and yet whom, for his own pride's sake, he Must help for the common name they bore.
Beyond the fact of his existence and these two haughty demands for help out of difficulties into which his own recklessness had led him, Phoebus Ribblestone had not troubled his brother; since they were both children he had not seen him; years had passed before he first heard from him, and Some time had elapsed since his last letter.
As Francis Ribblestone rode home this evening after his talk with Mr. Bargrave, his half-brother was utterly out of his thoughts, and it was with unpleasant surprise that he saw a packet from France lying with some others on the mantelpiece of the dining-room.
He put them all aside with a little gesture of impatience, and sat down to his dinner in a silent mood.
He dined with his steward, his chaplain, his secretary, and his doctor, all middle-aged men who had held these positions in his father's time, the first able in the dispatch of his duties, the other three clever in concealing their lack of any duties. Francis Ribblestone accepted them as he accepted the room itself, with the moulded ceiling and Mortlake tapestries, the Spanish leather chairs and the windows of painted glass; he did not find them dull or tiresome because, when he wished, he ignored them, and they were trained to perfect discretion, being in spirit, if not in name, his servants.
To-night they followed his humour and were silent also; each one inwardly attributed the reserve of Sir Francis to that unwelcome letter from France.
Presently the young man spoke, and on a subject that came as a surprise to his attuned audience.
"Pray, Dr. Burton," he said, with the ceremonious mode of address he always used to his dependents, "do you know anything of Fowkes—Samuel Fowkes and his daughter who have the house by the yew tree?"
"His granddaughter, Sir Francis," returned the doctor. "I have heard of them, yes."
"Ah, his granddaughter. A doctor, is he not?"
"He was, I believe, Sir Francis, but hath retired now."
"They come from London?"
"Yes, I think so, Sir Francis."
Francis Ribblestone, leaning back in his stiff chair at the head of the great table half in shadow, was observed to smile.
"You are very discreet, sir," he said. "These people have been in Haslemere six months and you know no more about them! Fie, I took you for a better gossip. I am interested in the girl," he added frankly; "she is a beauty. Why did she come here? It must be dull in Haslemere for a creature like that."
The steward answered.
"I think she came, Sir Francis, because her poverty knew no choice; the old man sold his poor practice and retired to finish some book on medicine it hath been the hope of his life to complete, and she, I take it, had to accompany him or go homeless."
"A strange couple," remarked Sir Francis. "I often meet her in the woods or on the heath. She hath a wild look at times; the old man must be sour company. They have no money, you say, sir?"
"Very little, Sir Francis; they have already made a difficulty about the rent."
"Leave the rent. I think I know a good man who would marry Serena Fowkes—Holt, of Langley's farm. Cannot we play Providence, Dr. Burton? If money is in the way, we could find him something to do on the estate."
A faint veiled glance passed between the four men that Francis Ribblestone was too utterly unconscious to notice.
The doctor spoke in a voice almost unnaturally expressionless.
"What maketh you think she favoureth young Holt, Sir Francis?"
Francis Ribblestone gave him an absent look, as if his thoughts had already flown wide, then answered:
"Ah—I have seen them together."
The subject dropped; later, when he sat alone in the library, Francis Ribblestone, again reading the note that had been tossed him from the house behind the yew, recurred to it in his thoughts.
He was too much in love with the world to pity anyone who was alive and young, yet he felt vaguely sorry for Serena Fowkes and vaguely desirous of abetting her condition.
He reflected now that, when he was married, Margaret could do something for her; he wished she would marry Holt of Langley, and would like to pay her dowry.
He had been first moved to think of her at all by her difference from anyone who had before crossed his path; she came from mystery; he did not know what her parents had been, hardly her estate; he accepted her as a gentlewoman, yet could contemplate her as the wife of a yeoman farmer.
His first meeting with her had been among the heather of Boundless Copse; she had spoken first and he had been glad to respond. Since then he had been to her home and met her several times in the woods and lanes, when she had walked by his bridle a little way, or talked to him while he paused his horse to listen.
The restrained passion of discontent in her manner had moved him to ask her and Dr. Fowkes once to the Manor House, with the sole idea of giving her pleasure. The old man did not go, but Serena brought with her her cousin, then staying with them, a pale girl, called Patience Coventry, whom Francis Ribblestone viewed with a faint dislike.
He recalled with some tenderness the startled joy of the London girl over the rich beauties of the Manor, her breathless exclaim, her obvious delight, and his heart softened towards the artless note he held in his hand; a note which at first had roused the quick pride of the great gentleman accustomed to no touch of familiarity from his inferiors.
Now he cast it, not unkindly, on to the smouldering logs and took his letters from his pocket.
All save one were put aside; that from Paris he opened slowly and read with frowning eyes.
Phoebus Ribblestone wrote in his usual lofty strain, but with a more open statement of his case than he had so far used.
He repeated the grievance of the difference between his fortunes and those of his half-brother, and added that had his father not died so suddenly he would have been liberally provided for out of the estates Francis was now enjoying (a contention the justice of which the baronet's good sense admitted), and that in consideration of this he expected Sir Francis to make him an allowance, and he named a handsome sum, adding that he was again considerably in debt (Mon Dieu! what can a gentleman do on the pay of a lieutenant?), and wished for money to buy a captain's commission.
The heart of Francis Ribblestone hardened. The letter seemed mere studied insolence; Phoebus was intolerable, he thought, and a sense of hate ran through his veins. The letter was dashed down, and Sir Francis rose to pace the long shining floor, on which the candles in the sconces made long reflections of light.
For his own unmixed blood, the son of his own mother, he would have done anything, but towards this child of a woman never loved in Haslemere, a foreigner, a stranger, he felt no obligation. The fellow was clearly worthless, his French relations were tired of helping him, neither shame nor pride appeared in his letters. Sir Francis grudged him the name it seemed he was doing his utmost to disgrace with wanton follies, the name that was the one tie between them, and that he, the elder, of the finer breed, meant to make famous, a power at the councils of the kingdom.
He reflected, angrily, that he was not so rich as Phoebus appeared to believe; wealthy he certainly was, but in the public life he was about to undertake he would need every penny of his fortune. It never occurred to him to cease expenditure on the land, and his wife would cost him more than she brought him; to help Phoebus, therefore, would mean to stint himself in his personal splendours, and he dismissed the idea as humiliating.
On the impulse of anger he returned to the desk, his young brow clouded, and wrote such an answer to Phoebus Ribblestone as he hoped would prevent his half-brother from ever seeking to communicate with him again.
When he had finished the letter he rose, yawning; he was suddenly tired, vexed with himself, his brilliant humour spoilt.
The dark room, lit by the fire and candle-light, but still full of shadows, richly half revealed his slightly drooping figure as he leant against the mantelpiece.
His hair had become loosened, his cheek was flushed; he had the half-wild look of youth dreaming unespied,—youth, slipped free of trammels and communing with itself for a space. Before he was aware his thoughts had turned back to his childhood: suddenly he saw his father's face, so like his own, looking down upon this same hearth, and remembered the awe which he had looked up into the dark countenance.
"If my father had lived—" so Phoebus wrote, and the powerlessness of the dead gave Francis a swift pang—to take advantage of that awful powerlessness—was it any better than cowardice?...
With something of a shudder, he turned, caught up his letter to his half-brother, and cast it on top of the shrivelled scroll of Serena Fowkes' poor words.
"How dare I hate my father's son?" he whispered; his wrath was dead and seemed now like blasphemy to his heritage.
He wrote a draft to his bankers, sealed it up with a few words studiously courteous, and leant back with a little sleepy smile of satisfaction that he had risen equal to the obligations imposed on him, who bore the name of Francis Ribblestone.
The rain fell heavily and steadily. The rooms in the house behind the yew were dark, sombre, and filled with the trickling sound of the water dripping from the roof and the wet branches without.
At an upper window Serena Fowkes sat, with her hair unbound, looking through the diamond panes into the depths of the yew that completely shut out the High Street.
The room was small and bare, all one colour of dark worn wood; the floor sloped towards the deep window-seat and the plaster ceiling bulged between the great beams.
On a rush-bottomed chair by the low bed with its patched coverlet sat Patience Coventry, straining her eyes over the embroidery of a sheet.
Serena sat with her chin propped on her hand and her elbow on the window-ledge; she wore a gown of rough blue linen, thick white stockings, and heavy leathern shoes; round her waist was a girdle from which hung a bunch of keys; a grey shawl was folded over her shoulders, for the room felt damp and chilly. The most noticeable thing about her appearance was her beautiful and undressed hair, a rare hue of pale auburn brown, that fell over her poor attire like lavish silk embroidery on a frieze cloth.
Now and again Patience Coventry lifted her head and looked at her sharply; she was herself pale and small, not uncomely, but expressing in her glance and movement a quick secretive curiosity, as if ever furtively on the watch, that sat unpleasantly on her youth.
She appeared to be waiting for Serena to speak, but at length broke the silence herself.
"Serena, why do not you sell your hair?"
"Sell my hair?"
The other girl moved slowly, in a half-terrified manner, to face her cousin.
"You know," said Patience calmly, "that hair is worth a vast deal of money now it is the fashion for ladies to wear so many curls."
Serena rose and shook back the locks that flowed in waves of changing hue to her knees.
"Sell my hair!" she repeated again. "What made you think of that, Patience?"
"There was a gipsy in Haslemere yesterday; she came to the door while you were out and wanted to tell my fortune."
"Oh, what did she say, what did she say?" cried Serena.
"As if I had any money to give her!" retorted Patience.
"She said nothing at all, of course, because she got no silver; but she said that she had seen you in Boundless Copse, and that she knew a man in London would give fifty pounds for your hair."
Serena laughed in a pleased fashion.
"I remember her now—she was gathering berries nearer the gallows than I have ever seen any go. How did she know me, Patience?"
"She described you—I suppose really she had seen you leave the house—she did not speak to you?"
"No; why, I only gave her a glance. I was lying in the furze waiting for Francis Ribblestone to ride by; I could see him for miles along the white road as I watched from Gibbet Hill. Sell my hair, the old witch suggested! It is worth more than fifty pounds on my head, Patience."
The other girl laid her sewing on the bed.
"Oh, I do not know. What is the use of fine hair if you have no combs to put in it and not even a genteel bonnet for the church-going?"
Serena smiled with the indulgence of a beautiful woman towards a commonplace one; she did not expect Patience to understand the feeling that would prevent her from selling one lock of hair for twice fifty pounds: her beauty was as precious to her as the honour of Francis Ribblestone to him, a thing to be held as inviolate.
She looked up at the only picture in the room, a time-stained engraving after an Italian picture, showing Saint Catherine leaning on a wheel and holding a palm-branch. Serena kept the picture because she had been told that the fair upturned face of the Saint was like her own, and even to impartial eyes the resemblance was obvious.
There were the same low brow, the same wide eyes, the same pure delicacy of nostril and lip and chin, the same coils and braids of soft hair; but in Serena Fowkes rich colouring was added to lovely outline, her eyes were blue, inclining to purple, her cheeks flushed with a tender rose, her mouth was a pale scarlet above her white chin.
She was not tall and her figure was one of rounded curves; her hands were spoilt with work, her feet disfigured with heavy shoes, and her movements were either too impatient or too languid for entire grace; she had not the art of exquisite posture and delicate gesture; her pretty voice was untaught in cadence and marred by the common London accent.
Yet she was undeniably a beauty, nor did she lack that glow and fire of the inner spirit without which beauty is a mere mask.
Sometimes, as now, when she stood with her head lifted, her bosom palpitating, and her hair scattered over her shoulders, a smile on her lips and in her eyes, she triumphed over her poor clothes and faults of breed, and seemed pure abashing loveliness, spiritual and free from strain.
Patience Coventry looked at her without sympathy or envy; she neither liked nor admired her, but she found a strange emotion by proxy in being the confidante of what was, to her, a strange romantic creature.
"Doth Mr. Septvan ever write to you?" she asked.
"Mr. Septvan?" Serena withdrew her eyes from the engraving. "No; he doth not even know where I am."
"Why did you not tell him?"
"What was the use! He in London, and I here!"
"He would have married you, I thought," remarked Patience calmly.
"Do you think so? But I had no money, and he very little. I should not have bettered myself."
"But you would have married a gentleman," answered Patience, who had herself no thought above her neighbor's journeyman printer.
Serena returned to the window and clasped her hands tightly on her knee.
"I think I shall marry Francis Ribblestone," she said thickly, gazing out at the dripping yew.
The name on Serena's lips was not new to Patience, but this statement shook her.
"Marry him!" she said, reaching mechanically for her sewing.
Serena kept her face averted.
"Something happened to me this morning, Patience. I must tell you. I met Sir Francis by the Town Hall, he was talking to two ladies in a little chariot; he presented me, Mrs. Cowley and her daughter. I was all fear at first; the younger lady—I hardly dare look at her! But a glance was enough; she is not at all pretty, not at all, Patience!"
Serena paused, moistening her lips, unlocked her hands, and began to twist the curling ends of her hair round her fingers.
"They were mighty pleasant, and they asked us, me and you, Patience, to the ball they are giving next week."
"Why?" asked the other girl grimly.
Serena glowed resplendently, her heart-beats lifted her bosom under the rough shawl.
"Because he told them to, of course. They will expect me to remember it when I am Lady Ribblestone, and, Gracious God, I shall not be ungrateful!"
"What are you going to wear?" asked Patience calmly. "I have my blue silk; I am glad I brought it," she added complacently. She had a way of speaking of her best clothes as if they were an infallible sign of gentility.
"What doth it matter what I wear?" cried Serena. "He hath never noticed my clothes...I shall go fine enough for the rest of my days..."
She rose and, crossing to the bed, crushed Patience to her bosom with an impulsive, almost rough gesture.
"Are you not going to say you are glad that I am so happy?" she muttered, pressing her face on the other's shoulder.
"Hath he asked you?" demanded Patience.
Serena freed her with the same violence.
"Not yet...he will, at the ball; you do not think I cannot tell...all the town hath remarked it...I get curtsies now...for what reason were these ladies so kind to me? 'Madam,' I said, 'I have no carriage.' 'Never heed that, child,' she answered; 'I will send one, and I trust you will have some pleasure, for a gentleman who admireth you is like to be there.' With that she smiled at Sir Francis, and half the town staring!"
Serena spoke so rapidly and brokenly as to be almost incoherent.
"It is a rare spot for gossip," said Patience, folding up her sewing.
Her cousin paid no attention.
"When we took our flowers to the church yesterday, I was thinking what a great name it was...there on all the tombs, and how he could give it to me with a few words...and how one day I could lie there too among gentlefolk, with the record of a good life above me—for I will be good, Patience." She closed her eyes for a moment and added hoarsely: "I should be happy if he was not even a gentleman, for I love him unto agony."
She leant her face against the leaded panes and the breeze from the crevices lifted the lighter tendrils of her hair: her shawl had fallen apart and showed the firm lines of her throat above the common gown.
Patience narrowed her eyes to look at her, for dusk was filling the low, narrow chamber.
"Is Mr. Holt going to the ball?" she asked.
Serena laughed excitedly.
"A fellow like that! Why should they ask him?"
"I was thinking," said Patience, rising, "that he is the only other person we know in Haslemere"—she pursed her lips—"and if he goeth not, who is to look after me?"
"Mrs. Cowley will arrange our entertainment," replied Serena. "How can you be so cold, Patience, when it is all so wonderful as to be—almost terrible?"
Patience was peering at her own small features and close brown ringlets in the blur of a white mirror facing the window on the low-fronted bureau.
"It is all very romantic and wonderful," she said, "and of course I am very glad that you are to be a great lady—only—"
"Only—what?" cried Serena from the window, like a challenge.
"Well, I hope Sir Francis is as serious as you think. I have heard that he was going into Parliament and had to make a big match—"
"Oh, tush!" cried Serena. "You don't understand any of it—" and she gave a rapturous sigh.
"When is the ball?" asked Patience.
"I ought to go home on Monday; Mother needeth me."
"You can write to-night."
"Very well." Patience had the air of making a concession, but in truth she was very well content to remain and watch the development of a romance in which she only half believed.
"Are you not coming down?" she asked, crossing to the door.
"Not yet—you get the supper to-night, dear; I want to think."
Patience opened the door, and then put another question.
"What are you going to wear, Serena?"
There was silence for the space of half a minute, then Serena answered very quietly:
"My mother's wedding dress."
"Lord!—but the fashion!"
"I can alter it, and it is the only fine gown I have."
Patience went out and closed the door.
The yew boughs rendered the chamber dark even while the street was still full of a mournful autumn light, and Serena rose slowly to strike the tinder and put the frail flame to the two yellow candles of coarse tallow standing either side the mirror.
Her shawl had slipped from her as she moved, the blue gown fitted tightly, and the reflection her victorious eyes leapt to in the glass showed the clear lines of her shoulders, throat and bust like ripe painting on the pulsing background of shadow.
With trembling fingers she lifted the long auburn braids from her forehead and, holding them either side like a parted veil, stared into her own half-frightened face.
No lovelier countenance had ever gleamed from behind the casements of Ribblestone Manor House; no brighter eyes had ever glanced down the long table where now Sir Francis sat alone; no sweeter lips had ever kissed an heir of Ribblestone; no softer hair had ever brushed the silk pillows of the state bed a queen had slept in...she dropped her face into her palms and tremor on tremor shook her young limbs.
Long ago, when she was still a child, her grandfather had told her that great beauty was a power to change the life of its possessor, like great intellect, great enthusiasm, or great faith.
In discontent, in impatience, in complaining she had waited, and the miracle had been wrought; love was to transmute her fortunes, her life, her soul, into pure gold.
Yesterday her grandfather had looked up from his books and said:
"All the town is talking of you and Francis Ribblestone—it will be your fault if he doth not marry you." And he added dryly that he had always bid her be patient and trust to her looks.
She had shrunk from the words then, but now she thought of them with triumph and with an intense loathing for the past her grandfather represented.
There was no mystery to her life, though to the people of Haslemere a certain obscurity seemed to rest on her antecedents. Her father was a bookseller in St. Paul's Churchyard, who had been ruined by printing Jacobite pamphlets, and died of his bitterness and poverty; her mother, the daughter of a Catholic linen-draper, had died the year after her husband, worn out with care and grief. Serena, left penniless, had passed her childhood with her Aunt Coventry, the widow of a Nonconformist minister, who eked out a small income by keeping a little dame school in Bunhill Row.
When she was fifteen she went to keep house for her grandfather, an old apothecary chirurgeon who called himself "doctor" and kept a small druggist's shop in Covent Garden.
Serena did the work, made her own clothes, weighed out the medicines, served in the shop, rent her heart with dreams and longings until she was one-and-twenty, when a young gentleman had staggered into the dark little shop with a head broken at the neighbouring tavern, and she had bound it up, and he had kissed her fingers and come again and praised her, and sighed for riches that he might do more than praise.
His flattery was like fruit and wine to her soul, but he left her cold. He was a younger son, studying law in the Temple, one of the Septvans of Kent, and her grandfather had warned her that she must look higher; he ever preached to her to put that fatal value on her beauty, and at his advice, although reluctantly, she had let her half-declared lover go, when her grandfather sold the shop and moved into the country with his savings to finish his great Latin book.
Mr. Septvan had given her the little picture of St. Catherine, and now it was only when she looked at it that she ever remembered him, so utterly was his image lost in that of Francis Ribblestone.
Recalling these years with swift dislike, she raised her head quickly and gave a little laugh.
"It was actually all over!—all over!" cried her thick heart-beats.
She rose and stretched out her arms, and shook back her hair, and walked round and round the four confining walls, seeing, not the poor bed, the darned curtains, the clumsy bureau and rush chairs, the blackness of the yew blocking the window and the common candles in the pewter stands, but visions of half-formed ecstasy dominated by the dark hawk face of Francis Ribblestone; hearing, not the sound of the rain and her own creaking footsteps, but the bewitching accent of a thousand silver-tongued fancies.
Suddenly a rush of passion came over her mood; she felt the blood in her face and bounding in a hot tide at her heart.
She stopped before the window, unlatched it and pushed it open; the cool, damp air rushed in, and she closed her eyes, clutching and unloosening her hand over her throat while she swayed against the window-frame.
"Oh Gracious God!" she muttered painfully. "It terrifies me that I love him so!"
Bleachley Hall, the seat of the Cowleys, lay a full two miles beyond Haslemere, and was situate almost in the centre of the wild heath land, miles from the high road; a fine but gloomy house, empty half the year when the family were in town, and not maintained at any period with the opulence that distinguished Ribblestone Manor. The Cowleys had not been on the land for generations, as had the Ribblestones; their wealth lay in the north, and Bleachley Hall had been bought only by the present owner's grandfather.
They were fashionable, gay people, and could on occasion be magnificent; their balls were the diversions of the neighbourhood, the more so that they did not distinguish the gentility with so fine an eye as Mrs. Muschamp or Sir Francis, and so permitted people across their threshold that the Manor House and Muschamp ignored.
At this ball that Serena Fowkes came to in her mother's wedding dress, half the country-side were gathered. It was a clear, frosty night, the terraces were illuminated, the house was vivid with a thousand candles; a number of quality from London were staying at Bleachley Hall, and Bernardine Muschamp was there, with the little following of witty ladies and ambitious gentlemen with whose company she surrounded and softened her wealthy independence.
Within an alcove for cards that opened from the great hall where the dancing took place, Margaret Cowley stood beside her mother, who sat at a little buhl table slowly fanning herself and watching her guests. Mother and daughter had the same frank, fair face, the same straight figure, the same modest air of the great lady, the same candid smile; the likeness showed charmingly in them as the younger bent her face to the elder and touched her tenderly on the shoulder. Margaret wore a pink satin sacque, a blue hoop embroidered with wreaths of silk flowers, a white petticoat shot with silver, and a long lace scarf; round her loosely arranged brown curls lay a coronal of white and green velvet roses; the elder lady wore pale violet silks and fine diamonds.
"Are you tired, madam?" asked Margaret.
"No, dear, but I am glad to sit still."
As she spoke the music ended, and the two looked across the ball-room.
The object their eyes fell on was that which every one else was looking at: Serena Fowkes in her old-fashioned white dress resting on the arm of Francis Ribblestone.
Mrs. Cowley put up her glass.
"Margaret, why did he bid us invite that girl?"
"Because he was sorry for her, Mother."
"My dear! The creature is a beauty."
"Yes," said Margaret.
"He said he thought she would marry young Holt of Langley's, and I asked him a-purpose. Why don't he come?"
"How can I tell, ma'am? Maybe he was shy."
"Francis hath danced with her twice."
A faint flush stained the girl's cheeks.
"I asked him to," she answered softly. "She knoweth no one here, we invited her, she is a stranger, and we must show her some courtesy."
Mrs. Cowley picked up her fan.
"Of course—if only she were not a beauty—and she is a great beauty, and with her strange dress attracteth vast notice—" She paused, and Margaret challenged her:
"I think it rather dangerous. I did notice her so distinctly in Haslemere—but a girl like that, and from town too—I wonder if she knoweth—"
"What?" Margaret kept her eyes on the emptying ball-room; the couple they discussed had disappeared through the farther door.
Mrs. Cowley continued firmly.
"I mean, can she realize what position Francis holdeth in Haslemere, what standard he acteth from? In a word, doth she understand that to her he is not a young gallant—but Francis Ribblestone?"
Margaret lifted her head.
"In what other way could this girl think of him?" she asked rather coldly.
"Oh, my dear, beautiful women put a high value on themselves—she is new to the country—she—as I say, she may not understand."
Margaret glanced down at her mother.
"I will tell you now, madam, what I meant to tell you afterwards when we were quite alone."
She paused and pressed her handkerchief to pallid lips.
"I have promised to marry Francis," she said huskily.
Her mother rose with a flush of genuine pleasure and triumph.
"Margaret! My Margaret!"
The girl kept her face averted.
"Please do not talk of it now, madam; he is to tell you to-morrow—only, you see"—she flashed round darkened eyes—"that it would be impossible for—him—to do anything this girl could possibly mistake—"
"Forgive me," said Mrs. Cowley gently, "you must not misunderstand."
Margaret interrupted hastily.
"Oh, no, I see what you mean—but it is quite foolish, indeed, madam."
Mrs. Cowley dismissed the matter of Serena from her thoughts; she was too exultant in the accomplishment of one of the wishes of her life—to see her only daughter secure the finest match in the county and become the wife of a man whom she had loved and admired. For a year past she had lived in constant fear of the brilliant graces and great wealth of Bernardine Muschamp, and now these had been (as she thought) defeated, her triumph was doubly dear. But Margaret took her good fortune very quietly; she would not talk of it though her mother's eyes were eloquent for confidences.
"We must not stay here, madame," she said. "People are looking for us—"
The violins in the gallery were beginning the measure of a "contre-dance" and the ladies rose up from the walls to meet their partners.
Serena Fowkes was dancing with Mr. Cowley, Francis Ribblestone with a friend of Margaret. "Are you not dancing, dear?"
"No more to-night, Mother; I want to speak to Bernardine, and she is at last alone."
Mrs. Cowley gave a wistful glance that followed the pale-coloured figure across the gleaming floor to where Bernardine Muschamp sat, on a gilt settee with a mirror behind it.
Margaret sank beside her, the two ruffled spreading hoops touching.
"Well, sweetheart," said Bernardine, "art thou tired of dancing already?"
And she smiled half sadly.
Margaret raised intense eyes and said in a soft voice under cover of the music:
"You will think me shameless. I want to ask you something."
Bernardine Muschamp did not reply; she put out her little hand and caressed Margaret's clasped fingers; her smile deepened.
She was of a very delicate appearance, not tall, extremely graceful, and dressed in the very height of rich fashion.
Her grey eyes and her sensitive mouth were beautiful, her aquiline nose aristocratic and authoritative, her chin rather heavy, but drawn in an exquisite line; she wore red and white and her hair was dressed over a pillow, and so powdered and pomaded as completely to disguise its original colour; this and her air of reserve and gentle knowledge made her appear more than her real age, which was a few years more than that of Margaret Cowley.
She wore a dress of dusky gold-coloured satin and a purple petticoat that made Margaret's gown appear faint and childish: her bodice was cut very low away from shoulders that had the line and hue of a figure in frail porcelain, and in her tiny ears gleamed immense pearls.
Margaret, looking at her, frowned, as if she was in difficulty with her thoughts; the music and the gentle steps of the dancers enveloped them with a dreamy sense of pleasure; the candle-light, flashing back from the water-green mirrors, shed scattered beams like stars reflected in the sea; a sad perfume of dead roses stirred from Bernardine's garments; at her breast hung a live flower, a scarlet bloom; like an inverted flame, with the stalk against her bare bosom.
"Bernardine," said Margaret, pressing the hand that had rested on hers, "Francis Ribblestone hath asked me to be his wife."
Mrs. Muschamp's eyes and smile expressed a tender response more sweetly than any words could have done.
"And I want to ask you," continued the younger girl, very low indeed, "if he ever—if he—if he is your rejected suitor?"
"Why, child," answered Mrs. Muschamp calmly and gently, "thou art too modest and these doubts are pretty, yet foolish. Dost thou think thy lover one to hold a divided allegiance?"
Margaret bit her lip.
"Every one," she said humbly, "knew how he admired you—"
"My dear, I believe he will admire many ladies yet...but thou art the woman he hath asked to be his wife."
"Forgive me." Margaret lifted a trembling face. "I thought—I have been so sure—that he...that it was you."
The regal grey eyes looked at her steadily.
"He was always the other side of friendship to me, Margaret."
"Thank you. Perhaps you will despise me for this...I have been very blunt."
Mrs. Muschamp hushed her.
"I hope we shall always be friends," she said simply.
"Oh, always, always!" responded Margaret eagerly; then they were both thoughtfully silent.
Almost imperceptibly Bernardine's glance shot under her long lashes in the direction of Francis Ribblestone, who moved slowly through the courtly figures of the dance. His powdered hair and the brilliancy of his light grey satin coat that sparkled with paste buttons threw into relief his dark face, flushed with that look of proud, contained joy she knew so well, and which she once had, though but for a moment's space, changed into a startled wrath by that one word "no."
His movements, in perfect unison with the lifting changes of the melody, were full of that silken grace which is the mask of strength self-contained and master of itself: there was no gentleman in the room who was not different from him and who did not lose by the difference, though there were handsomer faces and more gorgeous clothes.
Both the women seated in front of the mirror were, in their hearts, trying to define that almost extraordinary quality that set Francis Ribblestone apart.
To Margaret he seemed the flower of a fine race, a great gentleman—and—she could put not word to what other virtue in him held her eyes and her heart.
Bernardine saw him possessed of a rare spiritual gift of unconscious ardour, of pure nobility of thought and mood that gave him his exalted air of ardent pride; she fancied that he saw the world immaculate, and she held a curious belief that one day he would find it was not, and that the knowledge would bring tragedy to the dash of his lofty lightheartedness.
Her face saddened and she glanced covertly at Margaret's musing profile.
"You should be very happy," she said soberly.
"I am," whispered Margaret, pressing closer. "I am happier than I ever thought to be."
The low music ceased, and the two ladies roused themselves with a little quiver of silks.
"I must go now," said Margaret. She kissed Mrs. Muschamp's pure brow and left her; her pale swaying hoop seemed to gather all the light as she crossed the floor and passed out through the door with the wreathed cornice and fluted pillars.
Bernardine sat alone on the striped settee; although she was a figure in a scene of festival, one of an adorned and laughing company, she felt a sense of remoteness that placed her, to her own perceptions at least, apart; she had all her life this inner loneliness that haunted her, like a shadow flung from some unseen image of disaster, even in her moments of gaiety.
Companionship was not a solace, but a jar, to this mood; her lids dropped to shut out the moving crowd, then flashed up when she was aware of Francis Ribblestone coming towards her; she gave him that indulgently wise smile that was so incongruous with her youth, and emphasized, after her manner, with silence.
He slowly but unmistakably flushed, not being able so completely to ignore their last meeting as she was, though he had, within the week, put upon himself obligations to forget which she had not; he was bound to Margaret Cowley, and wished by that action to prove to Bernardine and to all his world that former chains had been lightly worn and lightly broken; she was still free and had never published her victory nor her rejection of it; in her complete assumption of forgetfulness lay her second triumph that robbed his pose of half its ease.
He took the settee beside her and swung his glass with the diamond handle.
"Are you soon for London?" he asked.
"Not this year," she answered. "I think to go to my uncle in Scotland, but I shall return for Margaret's wedding."
A deepening of the colour in his cheeks told his surprise that she should know so soon.
"I shall be grateful to you," he said, "and so will Margaret."
"Why?" smiled Bernardine. "I shall return to please myself—Margaret is my oldest friend, you know."
She languidly waved the glittering arc of her gold fan between herself and him, and looked away down the room towards the musicians' gallery.
"You will be glad perhaps to hear, ma'am, that Wyndham is more certain than ever before of an election in the spring."
She dropped the fan and turned sharply to gaze at him with liquid, deep eyes.
"Glad from my heart," she answered sincerely. "You will always believe, will you not, Francis? that I shall ever be pleasured by your good fortune."
He laughed excitedly.
"Not good fortune yet, but thank you, ma'am, a thousand times...I think," and that intense look of mastery and pride transfigured his face from charm to passion, "I could do something in Parliament."
Mrs. Muschamp was silent, checking the enthusiastic rejoinder his force of speech called to her lips; she disdained to play at a position she had refused, she had a scorn of sympathetic friendship based on rejected love.
"Who is the girl to whom you have played Providence this evening?" she asked, and then gave him his title. "Eh, Sir Francis?"
He slightly started.
Mrs. Muschamp's fan pointed to a lady in white seated alone under the musicians' gallery.
"There is no need to describe her," she said rather coldly; "she is the most beautiful woman in the room."
Sir Francis smiled indifferently.
"That, of course, is debatable; but indeed I had not noticed until this evening what a lovely face she hath, like a Holy Madonna by Raffaello—she is a Miss Fowkes—"
"Not a gentlewoman," said Bernardine, interrupting in her low decided voice, "and from town—shy is she here?"
Francis Ribblestone raised his sweeping brows.
"I asked Mrs. Cowley to do her a kindness. I am sorry for her, I want to arrange a match for her with young Holt, and he was bid here to-night, but would not come, which is impudent in the fellow."
And he frowned at the recollection of a scheme ending in a failure, that had meant his devoting a great deal of attention to Miss Fowkes, since she was in a manner on his conscience.
"Holt, of Langley's Farm?"
Mrs. Muschamp looked at him curiously.
"What maketh you think that she brought that face to Haslemere merely to dazzle a farmer?"
His dark eyes were uncomprehending.
"What do you mean, ma'am?" he asked; he was not very interested in the subject.
She gave a rather weary sigh.
"Oh, have you not yet realized what a dangerous thing it is to play Providence?"
He smiled gaily at her.
"I will bring the girl to you—she might amuse you, and she would be grateful for any kindness; think how dull the poor creature is—"
"Take her to Margaret—"
"I have—Margaret called her modest and gentle—" Mrs. Muschamp's eyes half closed.
"You might have her to the Manor House after the wedding," she said, "to mend linen and flower silks and preserve gooseberries."
He looked at her straightly, thinking there was mockery in her tone; but she opened her eyes innocently on him.
"Why not?" she said. "The poor moped wench would be glad of the prospect—go and tell her of it—"
Francis Ribblestone surveyed her with a bewildered frown.
"You seem to mean more than you say, madam."
"Do I?" She sat up. "Well, I suppose I am old enough to give you advice, like the grand-dames in story books—"
"Give me advice?"
She fingered the brilliant flower at her bosom. "You are doing a dangerous thing, Sir Francis."
Again he repeated her words.
"A dangerous thing?"
She kept her eyes on him as she answered.
"Gossip is winged and swift; even I," this proudly, "have not been able to avoid it—is the girl discreet, is she sensible—doth she not perhaps make a mistake?"
At that he saw it, and the shock brought the hot blood to his face.
"Gracious God, Bernardine, this from you!" Then he laughed. "It is absolutely and vastly absurd."
"Of course," she said gravely. "On your side—but on hers?"
Francis was angry and contemptuous.
"The creature is not a fool—" he was dismissing the subject grandly, but she laid her little fingers on his satin cuff.
"Very well—then go and tell her now—that you hope to see her at the Manor House after your wedding."
"That is very simple," he answered proudly. "And I will do it, madam, just to prove to you how wrong you are."
As Francis Ribblestone crossed to the musicians' gallery, it occurred to him that he had never realized either of two facts Mrs. Muschamp had mentioned in connection with Serena Fowkes: "she is not a gentlewoman, and she is from London—"
He had not thought of the girl enough to have seriously considered her birth, nor had ever reflected on her being a stranger to Haslemere; he was vaguely conscious of having treated her as he would have treated one of his own tenants who had grown up on his own land, and to whom he was as great as the King, and far more loved and feared; he was forced to admit to himself that he had dealt with an unknown type with unwarrantable self-assurance. Mrs. Muschamp had mentioned gossip and the word stung—was it possible that this wench from London did not understand the position of Francis Ribblestone?
He went to her side and looked down at her critically with his chin a little raised and his eyes dark.
"Where is your cousin, Miss Fowkes?" he asked. "In the grounds," she answered.
Behind her was the panelled wall divided by slender pilasters between lined pattern carving, and over her hovered the luminous shadow cast by the gallery.
Francis Ribblestone, gazing at her with awakened eyes, noticed how utterly different she was from the woman who had sent him here, how utterly free from adornment of dress, gesture, speech, pose; she sat simply, her hands folded in her lap, her eyes upturned to his; her dress, of too simple a make to be ever strange, yet, even to his eyes, of the fashion of a generation ago, was of stiff white silk, with a tight bodice laced across the bosom with pink, and a close-falling skirt; she wore no gloves nor any jewels; on her feet were square-toed watered-silk shoes tied with little tarnished gold cords; her garments had the faint faded fragrance of clothes long preserved with careful' perfumes; in contrast to the whaleboned and hooped gowns of the other ladies, hers showed her fresh young shape and the lines of her rounded limbs; there was no powder on her opulent hair nor on her radiant face; her beauty was as natural and as obvious as that of the ripe peach on the bough, or the rich gilly-flower clove on the stem.
Francis Ribblestone saw all this, saw too her coarsened, hands looking red on her white skirt, and the way her hair was slipping from the simple dressing on to her shoulders.
"You have had some pleasure to-night?" he asked.
"Yes." Her glowing lips were parted, her eyes glittering even in the shadow; to Sir Francis this was joy in an entertainment that must, to her, be very splendid.
"You like Bleachley Hall?"
"Not so well as the Manor," she answered breathlessly.
He felt this his chance, but would not take it and so become a schoolboy repeating Barnardine's lesson. He was aware that the room, more or less, covertly observed them and that she waited on his words like a slave at her master's feet; he set his lips haughtily and leant against the wall, slowly turning round the square emerald on his thumb.
Even out of the light, his jewels and his satins gleamed; he wore above his black velvet cravat a necklet of rubies that glowed like contained fire, and his paste buttons winked with his movements.
"Have you seen the gardens?" he asked idly.
"Yes. They are very beautiful."
Mrs. Muschamp was wrong, he told himself, and he began to hate the situation—himself for acceding, and Bernardine for suggesting it.
Serena Fowkes drew a broken sigh. "I must thank you vastly, Sir Francis."
"O faith, what have I done?" He smiled, and looking at her saw too much of her soul in her eyes for his own comfort.
She was leaning slightly towards him and her expression was, to him, unfathomable.
"I trust," he said slowly, "that you will come, madam, to a ball at the Manor."
"You—you have balls there?"
"I shall," he assured her easily, "when I am married."
One of her hands stole to the crumpled ribbons at her breast, her whole body seemed to throb. "When you are married?" she repeated.
He explained himself something stiffly.
"I am betrothed this night to Mistress Margaret Cowley."
He was looking at her as he spoke, and he had the instant and horrible impression that he was staring at a dead woman. Lovely youth disappeared; he saw, fronting him, colourless death, arrayed in withered garments. So intense was the impression that he started forward, thinking he beheld a vision, so instantaneous, that he believed his senses deceived him, for the next second she was on her feet, a live, breathing woman.
"It is very civil in Miss Cowley," she said in an ordinary tone. "Why did you cry out, Sir Francis?"
"Did I cry out?" he answered, bewildered.
"Yes," she said. "Yes."
He did not dare mention his dreadful delusion of a cold, dead creature; he smiled, but he was pallid; the violins began above their heads; he was satisfied that he had been right and Bernardine wrong, for there was no emotion in the features of Serena Fowkes.
"I am sorry," he said courteously, "that Holt of Langley's came not."
"Yes," she answered. "Yes."
"You will give me leave now? I am engaged for this dance—later may I present you to Mistress Muschamp?"
She answered the same.
He bowed to her and moved away; she never lifted her eyes to follow him, but turned sharply to the nearest door and left the room.
She found herself on the great staircase with the heavy paintings reaching to the corniced ceiling, the gilt and iron railing, the marble stairs, all cold and splendid; she descended steadily and came to the entrance-hall, deserted now, with a fine fire burning and thrice a dozen candles lighting it. Without hesitation she caught up her plain blue cloak, that which she always wore to church, from a chair where it lay with some others and flung it over her shoulders, then pulled open the heavy front door and ran down the broad steps that gleamed pale in the moonlight.
Here to the front of the house was no one, the terraces and lights were at the back; a number of coaches stood unattended, the horses being stabled and the servants within.
Serena Fowkes passed through them and straight along the drive that led to the gates of Bleachley Park.
The moon filled a cold remote sky with argent fire, and the air felt keen and pure as snow-water; the breath of it struck all warmth out of the body of Serena Fowkes as she came out through the wide-open gilt and iron gates; she passed on to the vast heath, which was broken only by a rough sandy road.
This she followed, without hesitation, the mansion among its trees behind, and before her the expanse of heather and furze rolling into obscurity beneath the awful canopy of the midnight sky.
Her shoes, preserved unchanged during her lifetime, were now in a few moments mere shreds of silk and kid on bruised feet; her long dress caught and tore on the furze spikes; her hair was shaken in disordered tresses down over the blue cloak; she paused for none of this but hurried on, like one on a desperate and perilous errand.
Only when she reached a fork in the path did she pause bewildered and look wildly about her for some indication of her way.
To her right was a group of tall pines, their boughs a bluish colour in the universal silver light, their shadows long and black across the heather.
In the aching stillness, the dreadful solitude, Serena Fowkes stood still and wrung her hands together with a wordless gesture of agony.
A little wind seemed to rise out of the ground, and the heather bells shook with a dry sound.
From behind the sombre trunks of the trees appeared the figure of an old woman in hood and shawl.
Serena stared at her.
"Which is the way to Haslemere?" she asked, drawing her cloak together.
The stranger returned her look and laughed feebly. "This is different from your coming to Bleachley!" she cried. "You went to the great ball in madam's carriage, with servants before you and behind, and you return barefoot across the heath and ask your 'way of the poor gipsy!"
Serena knew her for the old woman who had been gathering whortleberries on the edge of Boundless Copse the day she had watched Francis Ribblestone ride back from Muschamp Hall. "What dost thou know of me, thou old witch?" she demanded wildly.
The other's face was obscure in the shadow of the pines.
"You are not the same as she who rode up to Bleachley Hall a few hours ago."
"No," said Serena. "I need no gipsy to tell me that—I know my own fortunes now..."
"Yet I could tell you something—you stand in the only wedding dress you will ever wear—and you have left behind you all the music and dancing you will ever know—"
Serena smiled terribly.
"I am not afraid of you nor your prophecies," she answered. "Let me on my way to Haslemere."
The woman pointed down the path beyond the pines.
"I will say this, mistress," she said; "you are to have a fairer fortune than will befall Francis Ribblestone!"
Serena snatched at her arm.
"What do you know of him?"
With a knotted hand the old woman pointed up to the heavens and marked out with a smile a brilliant star, full of yellow light, a twisted train of vapour behind it, that hung over Haslemere.
"That is no fixed planet," she muttered excitedly; "it is the evil star of the Ribblestones, and to-night, to-night it is at its zenith."
The young face, ghastly fair, the old face, dark and expressionless, were upturned in the moonlight, gazing at the pulsing orb that, for all the moonlight, was distinct in the heavens. The girl's mantle fell apart over her dead white gown and her hair hung down over her throat and bosom.
"Such as I have no star," she said. "We go unheralded to our own bitter hell—"
She moved away, and turned her set countenance towards Haslemere.
The woman pulled out from her mantle a packet of papers and a long scroll on which black figures showed fantastically.
"Wait," she cried shrilly, "wait while I show you how I have cast the stars for Francis Ribblestone—here is his horoscope—"
But Serena Fowkes did not turn her head. It seemed as if she did not even hear; with hasty step and painful breath she hastened over sand, stones, through the hard, bent bushes and across spaces of stiff, dry grass, until she reached the high road, which lay desolate and bare as the heath beneath the chilly heavens.
For one second she paused to take her bearings, then discerned the blunt tower of Haslemere Chapel to her right, and turned towards it, regardless of fear, of cold, of her bleeding feet. She took a devious way and came out on the road below the churchyard as the clock struck two: from here every step of the way was familiar; a few moments across the lonely fields brought her to the back of Haslemere High Street and her own house.
She came round the corner of it, crept into the shadow of the yew, and lifted the latch of the door that had been left open for her, and closed it; her cloak fell from her in the narrow hall and she did not pause to pick it up; under the crack of the back-room door fell a long line of light; she seized the button, opened the door, and stepped across the threshold of the lit chamber.
Two great candles stood on the centre table and there was another on the mantelpiece; they threw a ragged light on an old man writing with a long quill, and a multitude of books.
Volumes covered the table, the floor, the window-seat, the shelves on the walls, and the room was full of the smell of parchment and leather; from the warped beams hung little bunches of dried herbs, a poor fire burnt in the hearth and a square of dull cloth was fastened over the window.
The owner of the room was a pallid, long-jawed, white-haired man of over seventy, wrapped in a soiled red dressing gown; he looked up from his writing with startled terror in his face as he saw Serena.
The girl closed the door and flung herself against it, her eyes, wide and malevolent, on her grandfather.
"So you have come home?" he stammered. "Where is Patience?"
"I know not."
He rubbed his hands together, trembling.
"What doth this mean? Why are you in this rig?"
"Oh, you!" choked Serena. "You!"
She tossed her hands out as if to curse him, and he stared foolishly at her torn dress and fallen hair.
"Why do you disturb me?" he asked peevishly. "I was writing my refutation of Galen—"
Serena sprang to the table and pointed with a passionate sweep of her arm to the piled-up tomes.
"There is a vast deal of knowledge here, is there not?" she cried fiercely. "But you never got enough wisdom from them to save me!"
His face flushed, and he rose from his chair. "Wench, what is the matter with you?" he asked harshly. "Where is Patience, I say?"
He looked at the torn hem of her dress and her tattered shoes.
"You are tired like a gipsy; have you walked?"
"Stay your questioning," said Serena. "God and Francis Ribblestone have made a fool of me!"
In a second the old man was taut with interest. "Francis Ribblestone?"
"He told me to-night that he was to marry Margaret Cowley...a stiff, colourless girl...and he never even noticed that I was pretty...my eyes are opened...your schooling bath led me to this...answer me to my face how you justify yourself of all the lies you have taught me!"
Her violent passion left her grandfather helpless; he hardly understood her complaint.
"Serena, Serena," he answered weakly. "Do not talk like that. See, here is my dedication to Sir Francis—"
He foolishly held out a sheet of paper, and she dashed it out of his hand.
"Leave off babbling of your writings!" she cried. "Do you not understand that I am talking of my life?"
"Your life?" he stammered.
She crossed to the fire and fell, suddenly slack with weariness, across the rude chair there.
"Oh, Gracious God!" she cried. "I have had my death-wound to-night!"
Old Fowkes began to realize what her wild talk meant.
"So Francis Ribblestone is not going to marry you?"
Serena clenched her hands in her lap.
"You," she said in a hoarse, cruel voice, "deceived me—you taught me I could have what I chose—you never told me that gentlemen do not marry such as I. I believed you...and you let me talk, and Patience and you yourself talked...and let me boast. What am I now? A laughing-stock. You let me love him. What am I now? A broken-hearted woman."
So far he allowed her accusation to run on, then roused himself to interrupt.
"It is not I who am a fool, but Francis Ribblestone who is a villain!" he cried. "Child, you have been wronged—"
"By you, by you!" cried Serena. "You who should have known—"
The old man turned at that.
"Was this my business or yours? Maybe you made mistakes. You had your chance; blame not me that you lost it. I, too, have my complaint: you are on my hands still, a useless wench who cannot use her advantages—"
"Yes, cast that up at me," she responded bitterly. "I must become used to scorn."
Samuel Fowkes looked at her with watery eyes; his lip trembled.
"Nay, I did not mean to be harsh—poor wench, and your feet are bleeding."
"You are too old to understand," she muttered. "Let me be."
He stooped to pick up the crumpled sheets of his dedication. A steady, deep wrath entered his veins; he began to grasp the significance for himself of this news, to realize how many fond hopes for his book he had based on the delusion that Francis Ribblestone would eventually marry his grandchild; but still he did not see himself as a fool; the girl was beautiful enough to wed with a lord, and the behaviour of Sir Francis had been an outrage.
"How dare he?" he cried, the idea working in his brain. "To follow you about like a coward, to set people talking, and then flout you—could he have done it if you had been on his estate?—would he have done it had you any but an old man to protect you?"
She swung round in her chair.
"He knew," she said with feverish lips, "he knew that I cared—he must have known, that is why he told me—what would a great lady have done? Every one in the room was looking at us—he had danced with me twice—grandfather, I shall not take this so tamely; promise me you will never speak to him again, nor to this woman he is to marry—I suppose they are laughing at me. Ah, curse her silly face—laughing!" With a clumsy gesture she cast her hands before her eyes, then dashed them down. "I do not know what I am saying—I think I shall never be at peace again—I wish that I was lying dead at the feet of Francis Ribblestone—that he might notice me!"
Helpless and wrathful, the old man stared at her grief, occasionally glancing round at his disordered books as if he hoped to gain some support from these musty companions of his cramped life; he took off his horn spectacles, replaced them, and again removed them; if he cared for anything in the world beyond his ancient books and his medley of confused writings, it was his son's child.
Consolation never occurred to him; he saw simply, and saw now utter tragedy, beyond help, but perhaps not beyond vengeance.
"Damn Francis Ribblestone," he said unsteadily. "Why did he not keep away?"
He sat down heavily in his worn chair.
"And my book," he muttered; "he and his friends might have taken a hundred copies...a hundred copies...I worked on that dedication a fortnight too, Serena; it should have been worth fifty guineas."
"My loss is more than that," she answered with grim quiet.
"But a fortnight's work!" he complained foolishly, "and his patronage!"
Serena made her way between the piles of chafed calf volumes on which the white dust lay, and took the flaring, long-wicked candle in its pewter stick from the untidy mantel-shelf.
In the red light of it her face showed distorted and robbed of all its youth and softness; her lips were strained and her eyes bloodshot; she looked at the old man as if she did not see him.
"Serena!" he stammered. "Serena! Speak to me, my wench!"
The slow, painful tears ran down his dry cheeks; but she passed him unheeding.
"Serena! I will publish him in Haslemere for a villain...I...do not look at me like that...I always tried to do the best by you...but perhaps I have thought too much of the books..."
For a moment she gazed at him over her shoulder, then went out silently and let the door fall-to behind her.
Fresh tears stung the old man's cheeks; he stared at the half-written page of crabbed Latin.
"It might have been—two—hundred—copies—" he muttered.
The silence was broken by the sound of Serena's bolt shooting harshly into the staples.
Francis Ribblestone rode home from Bleachley Hall in his usual proud light spirits; unattended as usual despite the evil repute of the heaths about Haslemere.
To-night his thoughts were full of tenderness for Margaret and busy with his future life when she would always shine, serene and gentle, through his labours, his successes, his triumphs; those triumphs whose glow warmed him even in prospect.
As his horse clattered into the wide street of Haslemere he glanced up at the moonlit roof showing the yew tree.
Both Miss Fowkes and Miss Coventry had disappeared early from the ball and he was surprised to see a light still burning in that 'upper window from which the letter had once been tossed on to his saddle; two women were simultaneously in his mind, Bernardine associated with a sense of vexation, Serena with a purely friendly feeling; he was grateful to Margaret for not even suggesting what Bernardine had made so plain, and compunctious toward Serena for the mere thought he had harboured for an instant; he recalled the poor old man she lived with and resolved to subscribe generously towards the volume he was ever poring over; dog-Latin he doubted not, but he was pitiful to any laborious endeavour.
The moon was sinking but the light held, though fainter as he turned by the little Town Hall in the direction of Valewood Ho; he had met no one nor passed any lit window save that of Serena Fowkes' behind the yew.
His equable spirit was at ease in the solitude as it had been in the ball-room; his reflections too were pleasant company, and he began to hum a little song as, having again left the high road for the heath, he approached Boundless Water, a small sombre-looking lake, lying flat with only the worn heather and trailing brambles about its bank and two thin firs rising stark above it. On a dark night its unguarded danger caused the traveller to keep to the high road, but Francis Ribblestone had passed it many times when there had been no moon to guide him, so instinctively did he know his way; now high above the first and high among the stars glowed a trailing mass of yellow fire, and Francis Ribblestone suddenly noticed it, and checked his horse, almost unconsciously, to gaze. In the absolutely still surface of Boundless Water this fiery orb was reflected far brighter than any ordinary star.
"A comet," murmured Francis; "a portent" he would have said, but that it hung just above his own home; and latent superstition sprang to life and silenced him.
The stillness of rolling heath, of dark water, of immense sky, suddenly forced itself on his senses; he touched his horse's neck and was glad to feel the warm live flesh, even though he smiled at himself for a sensation of loneliness on the moor he knew and loved so well.
As he continued his way he could not take his eyes from this great star, or comet; he marvelled that he had not seen it before, but reflected that the last nights had been cloudy.
Avoiding the lodge and the main gates, he put his horse to the low wall surrounding his park, cleared it easily, struck into the avenue, and rode briskly up to the terrace and entrance of the Manor House.
The door was opened instantly and a man came out; Sir Francis gave him the reins; the servant hesitated, stared into his face and seemed to wish to speak, but his master did not notice him and passed up the few steps into the wide hall.
One only of his household had been bidden wait up for him; the place was silent; a solitary hanging lamp depended from the ceiling showed the plain but beautiful stairway, the rich newel-post, the polished panels of the hall and the architraves above the door.
Francis Ribblestone stopped to loosen his mantle and, as he did so, his eyes fell on an object that caused him to pause astonished.
An enormous negro was seated on the lowest step of the stairs surveying him with intelligent but immovable eyes, and Francis marked, with an extraordinary surprise, that this stranger wore his own liveries, the deep crimson frogged with black, with a silver shoulder-knot: there was no coloured man in his employ and the livery was too new and magnificent to be cast-off clothing.
"What are you, fellow?" he asked sharply.
The negro shook his head and pointed to his mouth, then rose and bowed.
The light was so dim and flickering that Francis half believed fancy deceived him and stepped up to the man thinking he might vanish at his approach.
But the negro was solid and real; Francis marked on his arm the baronially gorged and chained black dragon that was his own crest.
"Can you not speak?" he demanded. The negro bowed again and pointed up the stairs.
Sir Francis did not move; he saw a gentleman's costly valise and vails standing in the hall and a dressing-case that wore his own arms emblazoned with the crescent of the second son.
At that instant the servant returned from the stables.
Sir Francis turned breathlessly.
"What is this? Who is here?"
The man looked pale and distressed.
"Sir Francis, I did not know what to do—"
He was an old and familiar servant, but his master spoke harshly.
"Who is here?" he interrupted.
The servant hesitated a second, then said:
"Mr. Phoebus, sir."
"Well?" said Sir Francis sternly. "Need you speak as if that were a disaster?" but he was colourless himself. "Is this his servant?"
"I showed him into the library, Sir Francis."
"And his chamber?"
"I was waiting for your orders to tell me where to put him, Sir Francis."
The baronet frowned.
"My father's room," he said after a moment. "Sir William Wyndham slept there not so long ago; you must rouse some of the others and prepare it—in the library, you said?"
"Yes, Sir Francis."
With his gloved hand on the newel-post Francis Ribblestone hesitated.
"Is the black dumb?" he asked.
The servant eyed the negro with the dislike it seemed he would have expressed towards his master.
"It appears so, Sir Francis."
Without an answer Francis Ribblestone ascended the fine shallow stairs; he felt a dull anger against his brother for this unannounced and wholly unexpected appearance, an uneasiness as to what manner of person he would see in this near relation, who was yet an alien.
Outside the heavy door of the library he paused, half fearing what to open it might disclose; he remembered vaguely a sickly child...Phoebus could be now only twenty-three, he reflected, a boy it seemed to him, from the added weight of five years; yet a boy or man potent to disturb his peace.
Reluctantly, he opened the door and entered looking across the firelit room with narrowed eyes.
The first thing he noticed was that the branched red copper candlestick that had stood on the mantelpiece since his father's time had been moved and placed on the centre of the table; this detail angered him; he looked swiftly at the person who sat in the light of these wax candles, reading a book.
He saw a gentleman wearing a vivid turquoise-blue velvet riding cloak, leaning forward in one of the old deep-seated chairs; his beautiful hand, showing a confusion of lace and a black satin cuff at the wrist, rested on the table; beside it lay a gold-mounted whip and a pair of white gloves.
His black hair flowed over the blue cloak in very long curls, fastened in his neck with a clasp of diamonds; as he looked over his shoulder he showed a langorous face with large shadowed eyes, a huge patch on his cheek, and a mouth composed to lines of weariness; his expression held no emotion whatever: such was the first instant impression Francis formed of his brother, who seemed much older than his years and utterly different from the youth he had expected.
This put him at a loss. Phoebus Ribblestone, rising gracefully, was the first to speak.
"You have been a very long while, Francis," he said. "And your servants seemed to dare dispense hospitality before your arrival."
But Francis Ribblestone was above the subterfuge of courtliness; he drew off his right glove and held out his hand.
"Phoebus," he said simply, "take with this all Ribblestone can give—"
The younger brother laid cold, smooth fingers in his grasp.
"Yet you must be more surprised than rejoiced to see me," he answered.
Something in the low voice, in the unfamiliar figure against the familiar background brought Francis a memory of his dead father as poignant as that which had stayed his hand in sending that harsh letter, written in this very room but a few days ago; he moved aside to the fire, his mantle falling back from the clasps, showing his light satins and the jewels he wore.
"You at Ribblestone!" he smiled. "Yet I know not why I did not think of it before—"
"It was only natural," returned Phoebus, "that I should wish to see the place again, was it not?"
Something in his tone sharply reminded Francis that his brother was his heir-at-law; so slight was the difference between their ages, so certain had he always been of his own ultimate marriage, that he had never given a thought to Phoebus as master of Ribblestone. The idea now was instantly dismissed.
"Have you dined?" he asked.
"Marston is preparing a chamber for you—our father's—"
Phoebus smiled; he stood leaning against the table, the candles in the branched red copper stick behind him; his vivid mantle was lined with rich fox's fur, otherwise he was dressed entirely in black satin.
Francis noted with a half-pride, half-reluctance, that this foreign Ribblestone was perfect in demeanour, in appearance, in clothes, even in his pure correct English.
He spoke on the impulse of this thought.
"You have not forgotten your native tongue, Phoebus."
"English is very fashionable in Paris just now," was the reply. "Are you not going to ask me why I am here?"
Francis looked at him with a gentle steadiness. "Why should I? You can come to Ribblestone unquestioned—as if our father was alive."
Phoebus put his hand to his breast.
"You do a good deal for the sake of that memory, do you not, Sir Francis?" He drew from his waistcoat pocket a white leather pocket-book on which his initials flashed in diamonds, opened and took from it a folded bill. "This reached me the day I took the packet. You did your duty very decently, Sir Francis—I can relieve you of this obligation; I do not need the money."
Francis inwardly winced to see his own draft held out to him.
"Was it ungraciously given?" he asked.
"Dieu de Dieu!" returned Phoebus, placing it on the mantelpiece, "I should not have concerned myself about that if I had needed the money—but a relation of my mother, a fermier général, died and left me his little fortune—"
"Yet you will please me by keeping this."
"And myself by returning it." The black brows rose with meaning. "After all, you landed gentry must have expenses we acreless beggars cannot understand."
This had been so much his own thought when he had sent the money that Francis was silent.
Phoebus continued in the same quiet, expressionless voice.
"I have thrown up my commission—you see, that little fortune was my ruin—half Versailles was filled with my creditors—"
Francis interrupted briefly.
"I suppose you paid them?"
Phoebus laughed, and it transformed his handsome face to charm.
"It is quite plain that you have been living on the land all your life. I am here because I did not pay them."
"You left the army and the country because of that?"
"Certainly. The money would have been nothing divided among them—it was everything to me; besides, I was tired of Versailles. And having to leave France, naturally I thought of England, and having resolved on England, naturally I thought of you and Ribblestone."
Francis took off his cloak and rang the bell on the table.
"Your affairs," he said gravely, "are beyond my control or knowledge. Of course, I repeat, you are at liberty to make Ribblestone your home."
"For a little while, if you will be so generous," answered Phoebus, in those graceful tones that were slightly unpleasant.
Francis looked at him sharply, as if he had detected him in laughing at the situation; but Phoebus was not even smiling, and the old servant entered upon them.
Sir Francis asked for wine.
"And what of your negro, Phoebus?"
"I always have him to lie in my chamber."
Sir Francis spoke again.
"Let Mr. Ribblestone's servant and vails be taken to his chamber, Marston."
The door closed again on the servant and Francis made a slight movement, as if he shook off oppression.
"What do you mean to do in England?"
"Mon Dieu, I can do nothing at all. I am a Romanist."
"A pity. That meaneth all employment closed to you."
Phoebus crossed to the window.
"I am not thirsting for employment, mon cher. I wish merely to know England and my native Surrey a little better."
Sir Francis watched him unlatch the latticed window of painted glass.
"Do you find it warm, Phoebus?"
"No—but I wished to see if I recalled the view aright—"
He set the casement wide and leant out, the line of his shoulders and head showing against the fading moonlight; beyond him blazed the yellow star Sir Francis had marked over Boundless Water.
Francis stood erect, observing him; he was profoundly moved by this appearance that he had never even contemplated, bewildered, startled that Phoebus should suddenly abandon France, which was his home, the army, which was his life, and come to Ribblestone, where he was not even assured of a welcome. Francis accepted the explanation given him, not as wholly truthful nor convincing, but as the only one Phoebus would offer; and having on his own lofty impulse assured his half-brother that an unquestioning reception was his right at Ribblestone, he could neither probe into motive nor question action.
Yet he was the master and Phoebus could be no more than his guest, and that only till his marriage; it was impossible he could wish to stay here—yet what was open to him, a French Catholic, in England?
Sir Francis was not pleased; the hawk face flushed and the prideful lips became touched with hardness; his impetuous haughtiness of honour, his austere passion for the brilliantly, perhaps coldly, lofty code of morality he followed himself, left him no sympathy for the usual follies of pleasure-seeking youth; he despised any man who had not ambition. Phoebus had broken his career at the outset and could give no better reason than fear of his creditors; Francis could not help it that he scorned him.
The wine was brought in, and the heavy cut glasses with a jewel of red concealed in the base of the bowl; Phoebus came negligently from the window, which he left open behind him so that a stream of weak moonlight fell across the dark floor.
Francis gave him wine in silence and looked at him with eyes of judgment.
He admitted that he might scorn Phoebus, but that never again would he be able to ignore him; the personality of the younger man was finished, complete, subtly potent, wholly charming, and unmistakably strong, though his mobile features, with their sunny colour, had a feminine grace and his liquid eyes an expression of disinterest.
This expression, which was apparent also in his speech, further irritated Sir Francis; his keen pulses were fiercely angered by indifferency, or the pose of it.
"You must have left Paris quickly," he said. "You have some one to look after your affairs?"
"I have friends," said Phoebus—"one, a lawyer," he smiled. "These glasses are curious, Francis, like your house, decently old-fashioned."
"Yes," answered Francis with a curling lip. "You will find us old-fashioned here."
Phoebus drank his wine slowly.
"I suppose," he remarked, "nothing hath been altered here since our father's time."
"Nothing at all."
"Ah!" Phoebus set his glass down and Francis regarded him with that intense look of proud vitality revealed in his dark face.
"What of these debts?" he asked bluntly. "Do you wish me to pay them?"
"Not at all," answered Phoebus calmly. "They are not debts of honour, you understand, only bills among the canaille."
"Nevertheless," said Francis sternly, "if they should be taken up—"
"They are my affair," said Phoebus with unmistakable unfriendliness.
"Your name is my affair, I think," flashed Sir Francis. "Understand me—I have neither the time nor the desire to play Providence to your fancies and follies—we are not likely, I think, to have very much in common, and I have told you that you are free of Ribblestone as if our father lived; yet I must tell you this, I must have you regulate your actions here also as if—our father lived."
He spoke soberly and with force, though, if the words were harsh, the voice was not unkind. Phoebus looked at him with inscrutable eyes.
"I think," continued Sir Francis, "that you have done an ill-considered thing in leaving France—tangled your life already, but you will remind me that it is no matter of mine—well, perhaps—but you understand me."
Phoebus laughed, then yawned.
"I am on my good behaviour here, eh? Dieu de Dieu, do you think I came to Surrey to riot with the Devil?" He yawned again. "It is nearly morning, is it not, and I am confoundedly tired."
Sir Francis rang the bell.
"Marston will show you your room; ask him for anything you want...good night, Phoebus."
"Good night, Sir Francis." He picked up his book, gloves, and whip.
Marston entered; there was the sound of other servants moving without.
Phoebus crossed to the door; he gave the servant a quick glance.
"Were you here in my father's time?"
"Yes, Mr. Phoebus."
"Mon Dieu!" remarked Mr. Ribblestone, "we are back in the reign of Queen Anne."
He passed out on to the stairs where his candles waited, and Sir Francis heard him laughing up the stairs.
A cloudless dawn was gathering in the sky; the pallid glow that fell through the open window made the candles look red in their quivering flames; Francis Ribblestone looked round the room as if it had changed in the last few hours; he was conscious of an elusive sense of discomfort, of trouble, rare indeed to his serene gaiety of spirits; in the fading heavens the baleful star still showed, and he looked at it with defiant eyes, while the rubies round his cravat heaved with the contraction of his throat.
His lids widened over the large clear eyes and, for the first time in his life, the look that crossed them was that of confusion and sadness.
Patience Coventry expressed herself sharply in rapid, blunt sentences.
"What good do you by putting such a face on it? If you have no shame you might have genteel control. It is a week now that you have scarcely stirred from the house. I, for one, am tired of it—I'll go back to London, where I am needed, and not stay to countenance you any more, miss; my character is not bettered by being in your company when you behave so."
"Go," said Serena heavily. "Go."
"Lord!" retorted Patience angrily, "is this my thanks for staying? Where would the house have been without me? You have to live, I suppose, even if you are crossed in love."
Serena did not speak; she sat on the end of her bed with her arms outstretched across her knees and her hands tightly clasped; her head was a little bent and she looked at the floor.
"I wonder that you can stay here in Haslemere," continued Patience, who had never forgiven Serena her wild flight from Bleachley Hall, "after the things people say."
"What do they say?" asked Serena, without looking up.
"You might have more decency than to ask," answered Patience, tossing her head. "They say, of course, that you set your cap at Sir Francis, and that you were a fool, which is true enough, and that you take it hardly...the town talketh of nothing else."
"How can we leave?" said Serena in a low voice. "We have no money?"
"Well, if you don't mind..."
Serena glanced up; there were faint purple shadows under her eyes.
"Have you seen him, Patience?"
"Seen him? No, I haven't," returned her cousin crossly, "and don't want to after the way he hath behaved—"
"It was not his fault," said Serena. "I—I never understood—and yet it was his fault," she added vacantly.
"I have seen his brother," remarked Patience, "Mr. Phoebus Ribblestone, who hath come from France and hath a great dumb black for his servant—and he is more handsome a gentleman than your Sir Francis—"
"When is he—to be married?" asked Serena. "Lord! I don't know—in the spring most like—" Serena slowly unlocked her hands and slowly rose.
"Where is grandfather?"
"Writing again; his books are the only things will keep him quiet—why don't you stop him running about the town telling every one your grievances? He'll not work anything against Sir Francis, who owns every barn in three parishes."
"I cannot stop him," said Serena. "And I care nothing what anyone thinks or says"—which was a palpable lie, the cry of goaded desperation.
Patience left the room in offended silence and Serena crept to the window; she could see very little for the flat, dark yew boughs, and she was grateful to them for screening her from the curiosity, pity, and ridicule of the town. As she pressed her brow against the cold panes she recalled idly how she had watched her note slipping through the branches on to his saddle, and how he had smiled and looked up...smiled!...at her alone, at least then.
She felt sure that she was ill; this unnatural apathy, she thought, could be nothing else, and she wished that she might die, quickly and secretly.
As she peered through the thick glass she saw young Holt from the farm behind the church cross close under the yew. She had always considered him dull and graceless, but now she understood him; he had admired her and he, too, had been deceived (her heart stirred at that); he had thought Sir Francis was paying her oblique attentions and had resented the part of cat's paw, hence his refusal to attend the ball and his avoidance of her since.
"Even he," she pondered, "despiseth me."
With that thought came a great yearning for the open places, the empty heaths that despised her not and were still open to her, unchanged; she felt a desire to mount Gibbet Hill and clasp the foot of the gallows, and, with death near her, watch the low landscape which had been the last view of many wretched sinners.
She changed her shoes and put on her blue cloak, gathered her neglected hair under a white cap, and crept stealthily out of the house, fearful of disturbing Patience, who was making a tansy pudding at the back, the peculiar odour of which filled the house. She passed into the street unobserved; it was a sunny afternoon, early still and drowsy; she cowered for a moment in the shade of the great yew, then turned round the house and struck across the fields to the church.
She was fortunate enough to meet no one; she walked rapidly past the yellowing chestnuts that edged the churchyard and took the road to Yedown Common, where all roads ended in sheep tracks across the heath.
The open sky, the boundless space, the sweet-smelling broom beneath her feet, the wind in her face a little, raised Serena's sick spirits; she pressed on, bearing towards the left, where she could see the black outline of the gallows against the cold autumn blue.
Most people were afraid of the heath with its lurking terrors of gipsies, robbers and dangerous uncharted spaces and hollows, where a man might be lost for days and never come upon aid, and all were, as a matter of decent superstition, afraid of the gallows and of passing too near those who hung there.
For Serena, used to the sights of London, since her childhood inured to Tyburn, no gibbet had any terror; she had been taken to see the Scots lords beheaded after the rising of '15, and had almost daily passed their black heads on Temple Bar and London Bridge; nor did the reputed dangers of the heath alarm her; she was used to the rough life of Covent Garden, and knew, she thought, how to deal with any manner of interference.
Rapidly, and as if she had one distinct purpose in view, she tramped towards Gibbet Hill and struck at last the path that led to the base of the gibbet, and from thence twisted down again to join the Portsmouth road.
The light of the sun was full on her raised face as she climbed steadily up to this strange goal—youth and loveliness mounting up to those poor symbols of shameful death.
When she reached within a few yards of the gallows, she flung herself down on one of the patches of short harsh grass and stared out across the landscape that spread far below her for miles to right and left, ringed with the silver-blue haze of distance.
From this height forests looked little things, heath and field and meadows were dwarfed to mere patches, and the uttermost hills looked no more than a hand-breadth.
Over everything was the veil of the autumn sun, unflecked by cloud, not strong nor brilliant, but richly gold and heavily soft.
Serena, the untaught, untried creature of a poor stock and meagre circumstance, did not know the art of contemplation, nor how to soothe the agonies of the soul with reason or philosophy; the crude passion that had possession of her burnt unchecked, feeding on itself with no balm of reflection or comfort of meditation to soothe it; yet the unconscious peace of indifferent nature, in itself the symbol of philosophy, wrought some calm in her. She was incapable of putting into thoughts the manner of her consolation, but she knew that here, at least, she was not despised, here, at least, not condemned, nor pitied, nor smiled at; the simple right of humanity to walk unabashed under the heavens, denied her now among the world, was here restored; even to her poor perception laws faded into insignificance before this open prospect of lowly hills and down. Here it seemed no sin to have loved with all her soul the finest creature she had ever met; here it seemed no folly to have put her frank youth and fairness against his worldly honours, and to have believed that he might have loved her by the same magic that she loved him; here the failure of the miracle of love in which she had so ardently trusted, was not the vulgar disappointment of a vain girl that Patience had made it, nor the common deception of foolish woman her poor grandfather, mixing truth with falsehood, proclaimed it, but tragedy, elemental tragedy, her tragedy, that did not degrade, but exalt.
Dimly this thought had been in her mind all the while, had animated her when she had left Bleachley Hall, careless of scandal, had animated her when she refused her cousin's advice to play a part before the curious town; she was outside subterfuge; as her joy had been, so was her sorrow, outside all arts.
So, out of the confusion of her imperfect logic and painful consideration of her own case, she struggled to this half-fierce conclusion, that she had not cause for shame; the thing had happened, a stroke from a sword swayed by some hand beyond her limited vision, and she was to bear it—but not as a sin nor a disgrace, nor even as something to be hidden.
She lifted her blue eyes, dark with thought, and saw the gallows close beside her; she had felt free from the laws here, but what was this but the symbol of their power; she had broken no command or any written code, but in the eyes of her own kind she had transgressed, not, she felt dimly, in loving where she should not have loved, not in giving her heart before it was asked, but in refusing to conceal her hurt; that had been her fault, that her broken law, and she must pay for it in bitterness as that poor wretch had paid in his degree.
She rose and went right up to the gallows, clasped her arms about the great worn staple of wood as her Catholic mother might have clasped the feet of a crucifix, and pressed her fresh young mouth to the tar-stained darkened surface of it; so intensely did this poor hideous image of guilt, darkness and expiation suit her mood that she felt a slow relief to her passions in the ghastly embrace; she cast her eyes up to the rusty iron gibbet, in which hung the bones in their blackened sacking, which, rent and tattered, fluttered about them with the least stir of wind.
The skull, barred across with iron, seemed to be looking through a mask; the hollow sockets and the gaping mouth gave the thing a protesting, pitiful expression, as if it mournfully implored charity to forget its sins and end its torture; a few locks of colourless hair added to the crazy look of still conscious humanity the thing possessed.
Serena stared up without fear or horror; as the massive post of the gallows tree supported her body, so the gloomy significance of the rotting bones supported her soul; she was turning for kinship to the only tragedy she knew.
A sound, distant but distinct in the pervading stillness, caught her ear; the sound of approaching horses—not along the lonely high road that ran below Gibbet Hill, but across the moorland that edged Boundless Copse three riders were approaching.
Serena stood with her back to the gallows, watching them come nearer; of two she had no doubt, the third was unknown to her.
She saw them draw their horses together and point out her figure under the gallows; then the two men turned out of their way and came towards her, the third, a lady, a little behind, as if she shrank back.
Serena came a step or two away from the gibbet. She had not seen him since the ball, but at that moment she was not afraid of him, speech or look.
The beautiful grey horse stopped and Francis Ribblestone leant a little from the saddle.
"Why, Mistress Fowkes, what are you doing here, alone, under the gallows?"
He held his hat in his hand and spoke in that tone of sweet respect that had first deceived her; in truth he was a little concerned to recall that he had not thought of her at all since he had seen her last.
Serena looked full into his face, then at Margaret Cowley behind him in a scarlet riding dress, with her hair in a club, a black tricorne and a high stock; a pleasing figure with a pale face of well-bred repose.
"Good evening, Miss Fowkes," she said quietly.
Serena gazed from one to the other; she considered that he must know now if he never had before, that he could not be ignorant of what was shouted in Haslemere, and her bosom heaved. She slowly raised her head, and turned away without a word towards the gallows.
"Why, madam, what is this?" asked Sir Francis a little haughtily.
She turned round again at that, as if goaded; under the rough white cap with the green ribbon her wonderful locks had slipped on to her blue cloak; her hands hung by her sides; in the unconscious expression of her anguish she was, at that moment, supremely beautiful; Miss Cowley bit her lip, and made as if to ride on.
But Sir Francis waited, bewildered, and held by her tragic demeanour.
"Are you in trouble, mistress?" he asked.
She cast her eyes wildly round.
"Thou hast no need to insult me, Francis Ribblestone," she said in a tone of tenderness, reproach and pain; and she bent her head with an air of humiliation.
Miss Cowley gave a queer little laugh.
"What does she say, Francis?"
"I do not understand," he said slowly, looking at Serena.
The third rider spoke.
"Hadst thou not better leave the explanation to another time?" he said. "Mistress Margaret is waiting—"
Sir Francis glanced at him.
"Come away," urged Miss Cowley; "the gallows maketh me shudder—"
Francis Ribblestone turned his horse's head, and he and his betrothed rode slowly off. For a moment the second gentleman lingered, which caused Serena for the first time to notice him. He was dressed very fashionably, after the style familiar to her from the beaux she had seen at St. James's; but even these lacked his charming air of Versailles; he wore a turquoise-blue cloak lined with fox fur, a large black tricorne very much on one side of his elaborately curled and dressed hair, and in his neck a huge bow of watered silk; his face was of a languorously handsome cast of refinement; he held under his arm a riding-stock, in the handle of which gleamed an emerald; he seemed older than Sir Francis.
"Where do you live?" he asked; he had not raised his hat when Sir Francis spoke to her, and did not now; she could never have thought from his manner that he did not recognize a distance between them; she gave no answer, she was watching Francis Ribblestone ride away.
"Come," he insisted. "I think you are foolish; perhaps I can teach you to be wiser. Where do you live?"
"Behind the yew tree in Haslemere," she answered slowly.
"Thank you. Good evening. I am Phoebus Ribblestone."
He put his horse to the trot and turned after his companions.
He was instantly out of Serena's thoughts; she stood alone below the gallows in the wide sweeping landscape and cried out in her heart to some vague God to help and pity; all her gathered strength had been shattered again at sight of him and Margaret Cowley; she felt as if she were being drawn on to some almost unthinkably disastrous fate; absorbed and woven into the pattern of some unendurable tragedy.
Her soul cast frantically round for a means of escape; one only presented itself. The rider in the turquoise cloak had vaguely recalled to her mind, in his dress and manner, the young town gallant, Mr. Septvan, though the two men were, in truth, utterly different, and she thought that here perhaps was a counter on which to stake a last hope of tranquil dignity; fallen as she was in her own esteem, she could not believe that he would refuse an appeal from one whom he had once been glad to flatter; she clutched desperately at this chance of retrieving an intolerable position; life, she vowed, could never be pleasant to her again, but she might palliate its present sharp torture.
Flushed and trembling she made her way home, and reached it as the dusk began to fall and the shadows were black in the yew.
Patience was spreading the cloth for supper; the smell of tansy pudding still filled the little house; the old man was still shut into his chamber.
"Patience," said Serena, "I am going to write to Mr. Septvan."
Her cousin sneered.
"Lord! I should have thought you were tired of throwing yourself at gentlemen's heads—"
Serena scarcely heard.
"It is my last chance."
"Of what?" asked Patience, jerking the cloth into place.
"Of anything," said Serena, so quietly that the other girl was impressed.
"You are sure crazed," she answered, "to make so much of all of it—"
"I am going to write now."
Patience began to be curious.
"To what end?"
"To the end of saving myself. I am going to ask him to take me away, to give me the money to leave here...he used to write plays, you know...he might put me on the stage."
"The stage ain't respectable."
Serena laughed miserably.
"I'd thank him for it though...anything...it isn't life and solace and comfort to be respectable." Her eyes flashed with some of the spirit that had come to her in the solitude under the gallows. "Some ways I can't live—not this way here—I'd go down...to hell, I suppose, for I've no hope nor faith nor anything to keep me up...you may quote God, He don't help people like me. I say I'm desperate...I want some one human to save me. I might live in London, doing something, being of some use to somebody. It is a chance, my only chance."
Patience stood rigid behind the table.
"You talk wild. If you want to go to London, come back to us."
"No. I want him to come here openly and take me away. He had spirit and courtesy. I would trust him...he might make it possible for me."
Patience only half understood; what she grasped she unhesitatingly condemned; her Nonconformist blood had never approved Serena.
"He will think you a forward hussy, and rightly too," she said with tight lips.
"Perhaps," answered Serena, and left the room to write her letter.
December had stripped the last leaves from the trees; day after day the sky was filled with loose cold clouds and the houses in Haslemere began to hang out lanterns as dusk fell; it was the beginning of a sombre winter, sunless and stormy.
Serena Fowkes was returning from her weekly visit to the Posting Office, where the mail coach left the letters, and returning, as usual, empty-handed.
Six weeks had passed and Mr. Septvan had not written; to-day she faced the fact that he was not going to write; no possible excuse of absence or illness could avail now: he had not answered; he had rejected her appeal; it was over, and she would never go to look for a letter again, since the vain expectation was but an added bitterness to her days.
Slowly, with heavy feet, she crept home; Patience was drawn close to the meagre fire; she had long outstayed her time in Haslemere, but she had resolved to leave now in a day or two before the roads became impossible.
Serena sank into the wicker chair opposite and held out her hands to the blaze of the thin flame. "Nothing to-day?" asked Patience.
Serena gave a little cough.
Patience looked at her kindly; Serena had so obviously made a failure of everything that she could afford to be tolerant.
"I wish you would come back with me," she said. "Surely grandfather would give you the forty shillings for your coach fare?"
Serena shook her head.
"No, he wouldn't...we haven't got it...and who is to look after him?"
"Well," answered her cousin, "he ought to go back to London too; this place is sad comfort in the winter."
"I asked him yesterday, but he will not; he thinketh of naught but his books again, and what should we do in London now we have given up the shop?" Serena added. "We couldn't afford it."
"I must go back," said Patience, "and this week, too; if the snow begins we may stop three or four times between here and Charing, and I shall be ruined with paying for beds at inns."
"Yes," answered Serena dully, "you are quite right."
Patience rose and vigorously rolled up the stocking she had been darning.
"I suppose you never thought of calling for the flour'?"
"And you passed the mill!"
"I forgot," murmured Serena humbly.
"So I must go," retorted Patience. "Lord knoweth what you will do without me," she added, with a comfortable air of being indispensable.
Serena waited until she was alone and had heard the front door close, then she ran up to her room and returned, shivering, from the unwarmed chamber with a small calf-skin volume in her hand.
Placing this on the scarred oak table where they had their meals, she raked together the fire and crouched over it for a moment in an attempt to get warmth into her stiff limbs.
The room was small, with plaster walls and a boarded floor, the window low and covered by blue print curtains; the deep fireplace was tiled with a coarse green colour, and on the mantelshelf were some earthenware ornaments and a couple of pewter candlesticks.
The chairs were rush-bottomed or wicker with worn seats; in one corner stood an oak press, in another a tall clock, and this was all the furniture.
Presently Serena rose and took from the book a number of loose sheets of paper she had purloined from her grandfather, some written on, some bare.
Next she went to the press and brought out a horn of ink and a quill, and wrote on a clear leaf:
"December 14th, 1733. Haslemere."
At this she paused and, folding her arms on the table, stared before her.
The great resolve to which she had brought herself had wrought in her a kind of apathetic peace which startled her herself; so completely did she feel that everything was over, that even the writing of these words seemed unnecessary.
Yet she set herself to the task, took up the quill and wrote rapidly in her large ill-taught hand.
When she had covered two sheets, the latch clicked; she looked up, expecting to see her grandfather.
But it was a young man who stood inside the door: Phoebus Ribblestone.
Serena cast her papers together and rose; she had not seen him since that day beneath the gallows when he had asked her dwelling, and she had never thought of him in the interim.
He latched the door slowly and smiled at her.
"I came in," he said, "because I looked in through the window and saw you alone."
"My grandfather is in the house," she answered stupidly. "What could you want with me, sir?"
His full black eyes glanced over her faded red woollen dress, her darned kerchief, her negligent hair; he sauntered slowly to the table and took up the calf-bound book.
"Ah, Grotius!" he said. "De Art is Belli et Pacis—Elzevir—do you read Latin?"
Serena turned her papers face downwards on the table.
"No," she answered. "I use it to keep some writings in."
"A remarkable creature you seem to be," he answered. "Poor Grotius!—to be used as a blotter for love-letters!"
"Not love-letters," said Serena.
"Ah." Phoebus seated himself on a corner of the low table; he was very magnificent in deep olive-coloured satin, with a black velvet circular mantle lined with watered white silk, and buckskin gloves with huge gauntlets edged with fur; he retained his black beaver and kept in his hand a long violet lacquer cane with an amethyst handle.
In a curious goaded fashion Serena stared at the rich details of his appearance; at his waistcoat, flowered in seed-pearls and silk, at his huge cuffs embroidered in gold thread, the Bruges lace at his neck, his soft high boots, his gold glass and watch-chain, his brooches and the delicate handle of his sword; his hair fancifully curled and his powdered face, with a black patch near the mouth; she could trace no likeness in him to Sir Francis.
While she looked at him he surveyed her with equal curiosity.
Suddenly he smiled.
"What is this between you and my brother?" he asked.
"Mr. Ribblestone!" gasped Serena.
"There seemeth to be a great deal of talk about it in Haslemere," he continued imperturbably. "And I am interested."
"How should you hear anything?" she demanded. He shrugged his shoulders.
"Mon Dieu! these are the things one doth hear."
"It can have no interest to you," she said.
"A great deal. I am vastly sorry for you."
Serena sank down into her seat and hid her face in her hands.
"Francis," continued Mr. Ribblestone with an air of amusement, "is, for such a sober gentleman, sometimes marvelously indiscreet...in this case it would seem. I have, as I say, been interested in the whole affair."
"Why?" asked Serena, without looking up.
"For one thing, I dislike the Cowley miss." Serena raised a flushed face.
"Yes. A colourless little creature"—he looked at her keenly. "You, my dear, are a great beauty, and must be a great fool, or he would not have jilted you for that straw doll."
"You speak like that to mock me," answered Serena. "I am not a lady...please let me be."
She spoke hoarsely and with difficulty, and the blood ebbed painfully from her worn face.
"You are too modest," said Phoebus. "You might have told him in an entanglement from which no miss of eighteen could have rescued him—"
"Why do you speak to me like that?" she cried, baffled and desperate.
"Why, I would rather see you in Ribblestone than the fair Margaret."
Her love sharpened her perceptions; she came straight to what seemed to her the truth and proclaimed it, her eyes flashing darkly.
"You wish to do him an evil turn...you want me to come between him and Miss Cowley; you know he would never have married me."
Phoebus pressed his handkerchief to his lips.
"Nevertheless he might have installed you in Ribblestone," he said insolently.
Serena paled to a dead hue, stood silent, then spoke quietly.
"I see what you mean...I suppose you are your brother's heir...it does not suit you that he should marry...and that is why you favour me, because he would never wed me...as for anything else, you do not understand your brother, Mr. Ribblestone."
At these direct thrusts it was his turn to pale, but he answered easily.
"My good wench, you go too far. Do you imagine that I could, even if I would, keep my brother single all his life? You are very foolish and have turned your head reading novels, I'll go surety. Mon Dieu! Is Sir Francis a Bayard never to fall in love but with his wife, or the soldan to marry every woman he admireth? Neither one nor the other, my dear."
"I wish you would not speak so of him," she said in a kind of horror.
Phoebus laughed charmingly.
"Do you know that you are often in his thoughts? I think he is rather enamoured of you."
Serena rose wildly.
"You don't know what you are saying," she muttered.
"I think," continued Phoebus, swinging the violet cane, "that he was angered by the way you took his betrothal (marriage is a necessary evil, my dear); but if you were not such a little Puritan you might yet—"
"Stop! stop!" cried Serena. "I cannot hear you. You frighten me...if this were true, what might I not do? But it is not true...you are laughing at me."
Phoebus narrowed his eyes.
"Ask him and see. I wish to be the peacemaker."
"Not directly, child; have you no arts at all? Put yourself in his way, he is often through Haslemere to see Mr. Bargrave...well, you can find out what his thoughts of you are. You are a woman and a plaguy pretty one, don't forget that."
Serena stared at him blankly; he rose from the table with a little yawn.
"Well," he said, "I am tired of giving you good advice—the English are astonishingly heavy—and ungrateful. I suppose you would not even give me a kiss for all my trouble?"
Serena pushed back her chair and stepped back.
"I hate you," she said simply.
"You are very crude," he remarked. "I doubt if you'll ever do anything; one needeth some finesse even in a clumsy world—au revoir."
He left her with the same negligent air with which he had entered, and Serena saw him pass between the yew trunk and the window, with the violet cane under his arm.
She stood still with her hands to her brow; his words stuck in her heart; she tried fiercely to put a true meaning to them. Why had he come? Had his speech held a light to guide her out of the slough into which she was sinking, or was it but a "will o' the wisp" to delude her further across those darknesses from which she had resolved to make a terrible escape?
Had she been mistaken in Francis Ribblestone, had she misconceived the whole situation from beginning to end, and so been a double fool, or had this man, for his own secret purposes, instilled falsehood into her simplicity? Was it possible that she, in making too little of herself, had made too much of her tragedy and resigned, as beyond her, that which she might have gained by her own gifts?
And if this was so, did it not miserably lower and degrade what had been at least pure from sordid motive and place her even lower in her own eyes than she had held herself hitherto; yet, in bringing him on to a lower plane, did it not give her a chance of meeting him there and in some way justifying love rejected by love, by any means, returned?
These questions roused and spurred her soul from the tranquility of desperate resolve into which it had fallen; all her passions were up again and armed.
She read over hastily what she had written and closed the sheets among the pages of the "Grotius," which she put into the press, then fell to walking up and down, no longer conscious of the cold.
She asked herself now what she had ever done to secure her happiness; "arts," Mr. Ribblestone had spoken of, and she had never employed any; she recalled her "yes" and "no," her straight answers and guileless questions; certainly she had been a fool.
Even this afternoon when Mr. Ribblestone had, as she considered, insulted her, she had not, she felt, spoken as she would have done; she knew nothing, she spoilt what she touched. Was it possible that by this stupidity she had missed the heart of life?
She had said, after her direct fashion, that she hated Phoebus, and spoken the truth, but his words were potent to sting and goad. Was it possible he spoke the truth—was it possible she had not made that tragic error in regard to Francis Ribblestone that he really cared, and only circumstance came between?
Passionately she declared to herself that only a coward would, after having once admitted the possibility, refuse to put it to the test.
Surely she could dare that much—she who, a few moments ago, had been ready to dare darkness and damnation only for the ease of oblivion; she could speak to him, could end at least the doubt that way; even if his worse cruelty was turned on her she had still the solution which she had arrived at before Phoebus tempted her.
And at the best he might convey—"I cared, I care, but I am Francis Ribblestone, and the name hath obligations! You are the true love, not she who must be my wife"—and then, she would rise or fall by love and love alone, do as he said and be content, even if he gave the command never to see his face again.
The early December dusk closed round her unheeded, the fire sank into white embers; she still walked up and down the narrow room, a wild soul in a restless body wrought up heart and mind to the verge of the gloriously terrible, able to contemplate death and an afterwards sharp with punishment for sin, ready to take anything at the hands of love.
And so the darkness blotted out the pitiful fairness of Serena Fowkes.
Mr. Bargrave, having taken leave of Sir Francis in Haslemere High Street, was turning back to his own house by the church, when his attention was arrested, and his feet stayed, by a sight that surprised and vexed him.
It was a stormy day, the light already fading, a high wind rushing over the houses and in the branches of the stripped trees. Outside The Swan lingered a group of young farmers, but for the rest the doors were shut and the street empty.
Sir Francis was rapidly crossing the square towards the Town Hall; he wore a dark cloak of simple make and high leather boots—a noticeable figure in the bare market-place. As he passed the great yew that still retained its deep sombre foliage, the incident occurred that made Mr. Bargrave pause.
A girl in a red dress and blue mantle came round the yew, crossed directly to Sir Francis, and spoke to him; he stopped, raised his hat and stood bareheaded, listening, the wind fluttering their garments together and blowing his hair over his shoulder.
Mr. Bargrave saw the young men outside the inn turn to stare; he knew the dress and figure for that of Serena Fowkes, and he resolved to end at once an interview that seemed to him foolish and dangerous; however unconscious Sir Francis might be, he must wish to be delivered from this situation.
The clergyman crossed the square and had almost reached the couple when, to his intense annoyance, they turned as with one will and walked rapidly towards the Town Hall. Mr. Bargrave followed; he had been near enough to see that the girl was talking with great intensity, with her hands clasped on her breast, and that Francis Ribblestone looked pale and frowning.
A sudden gust of wind impeded Mr. Bargrave, he had to pause a moment; when he again made progress, the couple he followed were considerably ahead and passing the Town Hall to the left.
He quickened his pace, and was again interrupted; this time by a young man who stepped forward from the little group outside The Swan.
"Sir," said he, touching his hat and speaking with some violence, "will you tell me now that there is nothing between Sir Francis and that young woman?"
The clergyman looked at the fellow, Holt of Langley, then, like him, stared at the disappearing figures of the man and woman rounding the Town Hall.
"You forget yourself to question what Sir Francis doth," he returned.
Mr. Holt laughed.
"Oh, ay, you have always told us so, Mr. Bargrave. But people will talk, and people will see things. And there might have been a man of her own station fond of that girl, who would have married her without a groat to her name—and what is he to say, or think, Mr. Bargrave?"
"You must not listen to scandal," returned the clergyman, feebly, as he felt.
"What are they leaving the town for, with the dusk falling and a storm coming up? What are they talking together for so earnestly, if she is nothing to him, and he nothing to her?"
Mr. Bargrave answered quickly.
"I said nothing as to that last statement; she is a foolish young woman and I am going to fetch her back—"
Several other young men had joined Holt; they whispered together; some laughed and some seemed angry. Mr. Bargrave felt that this affair had reached depths of discussion in Haslemere that had never reached his ears; he resolved to force himself to give Sir Francis definite warning and to endeavour to move the girl from Haslemere.
With a rapid pace he hastened after the couple, now out of sight; when he came behind the Town Hall he looked to the right towards Shephards Hill, another street of small cottages that ran to Critchmere, then toward the left, where the open road ran straight to Valewood and Ribblestone Manor.
Down the grey sweep of this he saw Francis Ribblestone and the girl, walking now with slackened step and conversing intently, he listening rather, it seemed to Mr. Bargrave, and she speaking, passionately, it appeared by her gestures.
The clergyman gained on them a little, but the distance between was still considerable when they reached the open heath that led by Boundless Water to Valewood Ho; here out of the encroaching winter mist a horseman suddenly galloped, riding towards Mr. Bargrave.
He did not seem to notice Sir Francis and Serena, nor they him, but Mr. Bargrave knew him for Phoebus Ribblestone, though he dashed past without salutation and soon disappeared in the direction of Haslemere.
The clergyman's surprise at his appearance was soon lost in amaze at the behaviour of the couple he followed; for they, instead of keeping to the road, struck across the wild, bare and rapidly darkening heath, the short cut to Ribblestone Manor that few but Sir Francis cared to use.
Mr. Bargrave was truly astounded; he had never believed Sir Francis capable of any intrigue, romantical, foolish or passionate; he had been convinced that since he grew to manhood his lighter thoughts had been occupied by his long courtship of Mrs. Muschamp; village beauties had been no more to him than flowers in cottage gardens, and he had always appeared to consider Serena Fowkes as a village beauty. He, Mr. Bargrave, knew that there had been gossip in Haslemere, the reason of which, he thought, was that the girl had lost her heart to Sir Francis and had been at no pains to conceal the fact. A shrewish cousin, a foolish old grandfather, and Holt of Langley, who had admired the girl himself, had done their best to make mischief; but as far as Mr. Bargrave knew, this talk had never reached the ear of Sir Francis, who remained, as he had ever been, supremely unconscious and half forgetful of the existence of Serena Fowkes.
Yet here he was walking away from Haslemere with this girl, regardless of the eyes upon them, speaking to her with obvious intimacy, and now crossing with her, as dusk fell, one of the loneliest heaths about the town.
Mr. Bargrave began to doubt the accuracy of his own perceptions: was there something between them, if only gallantries, unredeemed pledges of affection? Had the girl's stricken face more meaning than mere fanciful love-sickness?
The roughness of the heath increased at every step; it dipped into gullies and rose into hillocks; the mist and the rapidly increasing dusk began to shut in the horizon more and more; the outlines of the two figures became blurred to Mr. Bargrave; they disappeared into a hollow of dead broom at last, and when he reached the edge of it they had vanished.
Mr. Bargrave resigned himself to failure; Francis Ribblestone must save himself from the consequences of his own folly; there was utterly no chance of finding them again in this dreadful spot of gloom and obscurity; in another hour it would be completely dark, and Mr. Bargrave had no fancy to be benighted on the heath.
A sullen rain began to fall and the scattered pines tossed their heads drearily against the dark, heavy sky.
Mr. Bargrave began to think of himself; he was unarmed save for a light cane, and he believed the moor to be the hiding-place of gipsies and ruffians any one of whom would murder him for his gold watch.
He discovered a sheep track that had not yet been obliterated by the storms of winter and which, by good fortune, brought him out on the road again, half-way to Valewood and Ribblestone Manor and considerably beyond Haslemere.
The rain increased dismally; Mr. Bargrave thought with vexation of the long walk before him and with regret of his warm study and waiting dinner; no doubt, he told himself, he was a fool, and Sir Francis was perfectly able to manage his affairs without interference.
Resolutely he set his face homewards, turning up his collar and bending before the rain, and was settling into a brisk pace when he saw a figure seated by the roadside that caused his heart to give an odd jerk: this could be none other than one of the evil characters that gave the moor such a repute after nightfall.
He grasped his cane tighter and advanced; the figure a bowed attitude of gloomy reflection, regardless of the rain beating on his bent head. Mr. Bargrave was reassured by seeing that he was dressed like a gentleman; the next instant he gave a start of curious horror; the man lifted the pale face of Francis Ribblestone.
"Francis!" he exclaimed, and stood still.
The young man stared at him.
"Gracious god, what are you doing here, sir?" he asked. "I left you in Haslemere."
Mr. Bargrave recovered himself.
"Had you not been too absorbed to look back," he said dryly, "you would have noticed that I followed you."
"Yes. Where is the girl?"
Francis coloured deeply and rose; his manner was very agitated.
"She went home," he said quickly. "I parted from her some time since."
"Why did you come here?" demanded Mr. Bargrave, "to such a spot?...and was she able to find her way back alone?"
Sir Francis answered hastily.
"She knoweth the heaths as well as I...this was her choice."
"She wished to speak with me."
"You should not have permitted it," returned Mr. Bargrave angrily.
Francis Ribblestone was dead pale again.
"I entreat do not speak of it...now," he said in a tone of command.
His manner was so distinctly strange and disordered that Mr. Bargrave was inwardly troubled; he was loath to leave him in this temper, and he preferred to face the rain and dark.
"I saw Mr. Ribblestone ride by," he remarked.
"Yes, he went to Chiddingfold for the night...the rector there was his mothers' friend," answered Francis briefly.
Mr. Bargrave, peering through the wet dusk, noticed what gave the young man his half-wild appearance: his thick hair was unfastened and hung in loose locks about his face and shoulders.
"Why, Francis," he said, "you have lost your ribbon."
Francis gave a hasty, nervous answer.
"Yes...yes...somewhere on the moor...it would he useless to go hack for it now, would it not?" and he laughed curiously. "You had best be on your way, sir," he added with an effort at containment, "or the darkness will close in and confound you."
"You also, Francis."
"I could find my way home on any night."
High and dismal the wind blew off the moor; the darkness was indeed fast settling down.
Reluctantly Mr. Bargrave bade the baronet goodbye and took his own road; his last backwards glance showed him Francis Ribblestone walking slowly homewards.
Now he was once more alone the clergymen wondered at himself for not saying more than he had, for not making more question, more comment; especially since the manner of the young man, usually so serene and calm, gave cause for it. What had happened? he asked himself. He could only surmise that the girl had made a scene of some kind that had angered Sir Francis, and that they had parted in wrath, and he deeply deplored the mingled ill-fortune and folly that had made Sir Francis the target for comment in his own town.
Too absorbed in these reflections to notice the dangers of the way, Mr. Bargrave reached Haslemere, wet through and shivering.
As he passed the faint beams cast by the yet unshuttered windows a girl stepped across the wet street and spoke to him.
"Sir, Mr. Bargrave—have you seen my cousin?" The clergyman started; the speaker was Patience Coventry.
"She hath been gone," continued the girl, "above two hours, and it is so wet and nearly dark."
Mr. Bargrave hesitated, but knew that she would soon hear the truth from others however he evaded it, so answered with what indifference he could:
"I saw her going across the heath; she had met Sir Francis, and they were speaking together."
"Speaking together!" exclaimed Patience in a low voice. "Why, do you know, sir, it is many weeks since they passed a word with each other."
"I met Sir Francis afterwards and he told me Mistress Fowkes had turned home," replied Mr. Bargrave—in his heart he was a little surprised that the girl had not yet appeared.
"Perhaps she hath lost her way," he suggested. Patience shook her head.
"She knoweth the heath so well."
"Still, it is so dark to-night—I should, mistress, send one with a lantern if the maid cometh not soon."
"Thank you sir; which direction did she go?"
"Towards Boundless Water."
"Good night, sir."
"Good night, mistress."
Mr. Bargrave turned on his way through the dripping, chilling rain; he wished now, more than ever, that fortune had enabled him to overtake and bring home Serena Fowkes.
In the library at Ribblestone sat Sir Francis before his desk, on which stood candles that had burnt till the dawn; he had been writing all night, and on the table and on the floor lay papers and pamphlets, copies of The Gazette and ancient books of law.
All his life Francis Ribblestone had been fond of literature; he had translated Virgil and Demosthenes, written poems on classical subjects and an essay on Greek coins; lately his talents had been directed to the service of his political ambition; already several of his vigorous sheets had been of use to the Opposition. Now he was writing an indictment of the whole policy of Sir Robert Walpole, which he intended to hurl at the Whig ministry in the spring, when he was to stand for Guildford at the general election.
Haslemere returned to members; it was a mere pocket borough, practically the gift of Sir Francis, whose candidates were always elected by his tenantry. Two gentlemen of his own political opinions now held the seats, and he scorned the easy victory of forcing one to resign his in favour. Guildford was held by a supporter of Sir Robert, and Francis Ribblestone considered it a seat worth fighting; his immense popularity, his wealth, his name and prestige gave him a weight in the county town that would go far to defeat the government man, who had been sent down from London at the last election and not seen in Guildford since.
As Sir Francis wrote he flushed and fired with the fervour of his thoughts; he was ardent on the subject of the proposed war with Spain; the rights of the English in the new world, at Campeachy, at Portobello; the folly of taking insults from a decaying power.
When he had at last finished he leant back and drew a deep breath of fatigue; he had sat up all night, not from any necessity of haste, but to banish and annihilate painful and distressing thoughts that had kept him from sleep.
Now he yawned, rose, opened the window, then rang for his secretary.
It was a wet, cloudy morning; the earth soaked with moisture, snapped boughs scattered over the lawn, and the parkland beyond the cedars concealed in a thick vapour; but the prospect was fresh and pure and held a fascination, at least for Francis Ribblestone, to whom every aspect of nature was an inspiration.
He was still leaning in the open casement when the secretary entered and began putting up the papers.
"Hath Mr. Ribblestone returned?" he asked.
"Yes, Sir Francis."
"Ah, so soon." He would have been pleased could Phoebus have remained at Chiddingfold, but checked the sense of vexation that his stay had been so short.
"Will you have breakfast with Mr. Ribblestone, sir?"
"Not this morning—will you ask them to bring me something here? I wish to finish that speech."
The secretary withdrew and Sir Francis yawned, sighed, shook off weariness, and comforted himself with the aspect of the bare trees.
The breakfast was brought in, accompanied by two favourite dogs who greeted their master with frantic joy; Francis Ribblestone laughed at their clumsy leapings, dismissed the servants and, in something of his usual gay humour, sat down to his food, thankful to have escaped that formal meal with his brother.
He was able to do as he liked for the first time since the return of Phoebus; to drink cock ale and eat his cold meat without comment, to feed his dogs, to speak to them when he would, to sit silent when he would, without regard to his brother, who drank only chocolate and must have the hideous black at table to make it for him, and hated dogs and complained about the food, until Sir Francis, in his courtesy, had been forced to alter his table.
The spaniels, too, noticed the lack of restraint and barked and jumped up at their master's chair; he looked up quite joyously when the door opened, but his eyes clouded when he saw that it was Phoebus.
"So you returned from Chiddingfold early?" he remarked.
Phoebus flung himself into a chair the other side of the table.
"I found it dull," he answered.
"I suppose," returned Sir Francis dryly, "that you find this dull."
And he wondered in his heart, as he had often wondered before, what the motive could be that induced Phoebus to endure, even for a few weeks, a life that must be almost insupportable to him.
"It is not so dull as a parsonage in Chiddingfold," said Phoebus.
Sir Francis smiled good-humouredly and gave the spaniels another piece of meat.
"But gloomy enough, you think, Phoebus?"
"Not completely to my taste, perhaps," yawned Mr. Ribblestone.
Sir Francis was silent; in many little things he had given way, but on larger matters always been adamant. Phoebus wished the steward and chaplain banished from the dinner-table, and there, as in other complaints of a like nature, the master of Ribblestone had been angrily immovable.
"You could," said Phoebus presently, "so easily improve the place."
Sir Francis answered firmly:
"Let us waive the subject. It suits me, and Margaret hath found no fault."
Phoebus was passive.
"A guest hath no right to complain," he remarked.
Francis Ribblestone eyed him narrowly; disguise and deny it as he would, he disliked him with every instinct he possessed; he even disliked his very clothes, the tricks of dress, the jewels, probably not paid for; Sir Francis knew that there was many a poor gentleman hopeless in the Marshalsea for less than Phoebus owed.
Never did the younger brother express any interest in his past life nor any wish to return to it; Sir Francis believed that this was because it had been composed of those common littlenesses and follies that do not live in the remembrance; but always, at the back of his mind when he thought of Phoebus, was the wonder that this man, with whom he had nothing in common, should have sought him out, come to Ribblestone and stayed there, with a resignation to a mode of living wholly distasteful that could only be explained by saying that he served a purpose—and what purpose could that possibly be?
Francis thought with eagerness of his marriage and his removal to London, when Phoebus would have to stay in Ribblestone alone, or find some occupation, even, as Francis thought contemptuously, if it were only heiress hunting.
He looked now, with a scorn he could scarcely keep from his eyes, at the slack figure of the young man in the blue embroidered coat, with yesterday's powder still in his hair, his languid expression and weary mouth; he considered such a vain, extravagant, purposeless personality an affront to the annals of Ribblestone, and thought, with the sense of a secret spur, of how different were his own strenuous ambitions, his own ardours, his own endeavours, of how full, complete and useful he would make his life.
As he leant slightly forward, the clear, intense hazel eyes bent on his brother, a fine colour in his keen, sensitive face, the compression of resolution in his mobile mouth, his alert figure in the plain dark clothes, he was in absolute contrast in every detail of his appearance to Phoebus, who looked tired, effeminate, jaded and spiritless, his very graces having a weary air that took from them half their charm.
While Francis was gazing at him he kept his eyes lowered and continually yawned, but when his brother removed his gaze to speak to the importunate spaniels an extraordinary expression of vitality flashed in the languid face, the black eyes hardened, the whole slim figure tightened, and an instant's malicious smile widened the mouth and curved the nostrils.
Could Francis Ribblestone have seen that look he would not have continued to read his brother as a drifting fop; but when he again raised his glance Phoebus was languid and yawning as before.
"Have you heard," he asked lazily, "of the last village commotion?"
"You mean Haslemere?" returned Sir Francis, who considered that place a town.
"Yes—Haslemere—as I rode home this morning the good people seemed full of it. I imagine you will be called in—I think it is too for the parish officer."
-Sir Francis set down his tankard.
"What is it?" he asked gravely.
"I scarcely know. A pother about a girl who drowned herself, or was drowned."
"Here?" Sir Francis leant forward.
"Yes, I believe so."
"I think you know her. One Serena Fowkes."
"Gracious God!" Francis rose in great disorder.
"What are you saying? She is not—dead?"
Phoebus was still smiling.
"I am sorry if you affect the lady, Francis, but she is dead as Diana."
"How dead?" exclaimed Sir Francis. "Why, only last night—"
"Yes," said Phoebus, looking at his brother steadily, "I passed you with her yesterday. You must have been the last person to see her alive."
"Dead!" repeated Francis in a bewildered way. "It does not seem possible!"
"Well," said the younger brother, without moving from his lazy attitude, "I gathered from the very incoherent crowd of gossips that she did not come home last night, that a search was made over the heath, and that she was found—in Boundless Water."
Francis shuddered from head to foot.
"God! My God! Phoebus, you know not what you say...you know not what this meaneth to me...Serena Fowkes drowned in Boundless Water...last night when I was sitting here—"
Phoebus rose with a soft alert movement.
"Why, Francis, what is this village tragedy to you?"
His brother stared at him speechlessly.
"I know you admired the creature, of course," continued Phoebus. "But she was rather emotional, was she not? Perhaps it is just as well, mon cher, that she is out of your way."
"Silence," said Francis sternly. "You speak of what you do not understand. Of what stuff are you that you can talk so carelessly of a horrible thing'? I have never been so moved as by this poor girl's death...last night, in the dark and the cold...why did I leave her?—I was a possessed fool."
Phoebus looked at him sharply.
"How do you think she died?"
"Heaven help her!" answered Francis heavily. "She slew herself."
"You think so?"
"Alas! Would to God I could think it an accident!" Phoebus laughed.
"An accident! They do not use that word in the village."
"I did not pay much heed, but they, the common people spoke of—murder."
"Murder!" Francis Ribblestone repeated slowly. "Murder—but no, it is not possible. Who should murder a poor defenceless creature'? And I saw no one on the heath last night. Phoebus, this is a dreadful thing. I had best go down to Haslemere."
"Since you were the last with her, yes."
"And will that have to be gossiped over and probed into'? I would give a great deal this had not happened—there will be an inquiry."
Phoebus coldly eyed his agitation.
"It is certainly very unpleasant for you," he remarked, "if you are to be hauled before the coroner."
"Poor child! Poor child!" muttered Francis in great distress. "I will go to Haslemere."
He went towards the bell, but Phoebus checked him.
"You, I take it, are the nearest Justice of the Peace—they will then, when one considereth, come to you."
"Why? No—this is the business of the coroner."
"If it is...or they think it...a question of murder—might they not consult you?"
Francis answered impetuously.
"I know otherwise. She drowned herself. I was blind not to see it—before God, if Mrs. Muschamp had not gone yesterday to Scotland I would have taken her there—to Muschamp Hall."
"What causeth you to think she committed suicide?" asked Phoebus.
"She was wrought to wildness," answered Francis confusedly; he coloured and paled and turned away to the window. "She was in melancholy."
The door opened and he turned with a great start.
It was the steward who entered; some people from the town wished to see Sir Francis; he had told them it was impossible at this hour, but they were so importunate he had been obliged to seek a direct refusal to give them.
"Do they state their business?" asked Francis with an effort.
"I will see them."
"Here, Sir Francis?"
"No; in the hall."
The steward withdrew.
"I would to heaven!" cried Francis Ribblestone as the door closed, "that you had told me this affair sooner, Phoebus."
"I did not know that you would consider it of such importance," was the slow answer.
"It is," returned Francis, "bitterly painful to me." He stooped and patted the two dogs, who, subdued by his absorption, crouched at his feet. "Will you accompany me?" he asked Phoebus half-wistfully.
"Of course," Phoebus answered with some animation, brushing the powder off his shoulder.
The two left the room in silence together, the spaniels at their heels, and together entered the hall, built for banquets and balls, on the ground floor.
It was a large but low chamber, with a painted ceiling and walls lined with oak, carved into squares containing the gorged and chained dragon of Ribblestone. In the centre was a long polished table over which hung a gilt and crystal chandelier, and round which were placed carved walnut chairs with cane seats.
Over the mantelpiece was a painting by Kneller of the late sir Francis, and along either wall hung rich pictures of warmly coloured fruit.
The square-paned windows looked on to the terrace, the lawn, the cedars and distant parkland, and in the middle of each was the Ribblestone arms, gyong of eight, azure and sable, with the motto, "What any can, I can," painted on the thick glass with all the panoply of helm, mantling, supporters and crest.
Into this room, dark, stately and silent, came the young master of Ribblestone, simple in dress and bearing, troubled and pale, followed by his slim gorgeous brother and a couple of mute dogs.
There were three men waiting for him: John Holt of Langley's farm, the grandfather of Serena Fowkes, and a lorimer of Haslemere named Breni.
The old man was seated with his hands clasped on a stick, shaking his head and whispering to himself; the others stood awkwardly, yet resolutely, holding their hats and keeping their eyes fixed in front of them as if they avoided the sight of splendours that might confuse them.
As the two young men entered the yeoman made a humble salutation.
Sir Francis cast his bright eyes on them and on the old man; he came to the table.
"I believe," he said, addressing Holt, "I know what you come about. My brother hath informed me of the death of that unfortunate girl...but what would you have me do in the matter?"
Holt straightened himself.
"Did Mr. Ribblestone tell you sir, what was thought of this business in Haslemere?"
Francis glanced at the old man, who was staring at him with dim, malevolent eyes.
"You thought," he said painfully, "that there had been foul play."
"Maybe, sir, there is," answered the young yeoman grimly.
"Who?" asked Sir Francis sharply. "And why come to me?"
Holt glanced at the other men; they were both silent, but Samuel Fowkes broke into speech.
"My wench was no suicide! I'll not have a stake through her body and have her buried by the crossroad, but I'll have her murderer—"
"Silence!" cried Holt, and the old man ended in mutterings.
The lorimer took up the subject, pulling his forelock.
"Maybe you are wondering, Sir Francis, what the matter has to do with us—but it was I and Master Holt here who found the poor maid in Boundless Water, and, as we're Christian men, she'd not slain herself—ask the constable who helped us if she drowned."
Sir Francis seated himself in one of the heavy walnut chairs.
"Your reasons?" he asked faintly.
"First," answered Brent, warming with the conviction he felt, "she was—floating with her eyes open, and it's only those who go dead into the water who float—saving your honour's presence—and there was a stone tied to her feet—but it couldn't keep her down, sir—she was floating." Francis Ribblestone shuddered.
"Dead, you say! My God!" He pressed his handkerchief to his lips. "But why to me—you say this before the jury."
"Dead," repeated Holt. "I'll say it again before the jury, sir, but now I speak to you."
For the first time Phoebus spoke: from behind his brother's chair he cast his dark gaze over the two men.
"My good fellow," he said easily, "how can Sir Francis help you if you do not mention whom you suspect?"
Holt answered slowly.
"It is not so easy for a simple man to speak out his mind before great folk. I am here to stand for the old man who was all the dead wench had to defend her. There are strange things said in Haslemere, your honour, and dangerous things for such as me to repeat. Yet I'm here to get the truth."
Sir Francis answered with dignity.
"I do not understand you. If you have the slightest suspicion of anyone who committed this horrid murder, you need not hesitate to name him, though you should rather go to the coroner than to me."
"Not even"—Holt paused breathlessly—"if he were a gentleman?"
"A gentleman!" repeated Sir Francis. "We speak I think, of a murderer—a rascal beyond hope or charity."
"It maketh, for aught I can see, an absolute mystery," he added. "What object could any gentleman have in performing this dreadful deed? What gentleman was there, at that hour? But these are matters for the law."
Again Holt and Brent looked at each other. "Maybe this girl had a lover," said Holt of Langley.
"No—ye make an error," answered Sir Francis hastily.
"Do you know so much, your honour? But I said maybe—maybe also he was tired of her, and she importuned him for his kindness—and he, being about to be married—"
Phoebus drew a little breath and moved away to the hearth.
"The girl had no such lover," said Francis decidedly.
"But will your honour let me finish? I say—maybe. She might have followed him across the moor last night, and reproached him; your honour knoweth better than I how this would anger a great gentleman about to be married, and he, in his wrath and cowardice and pride, struck at her—and cast her into Boundless Water with a stone at her feet—"
Sir Francis made a movement of distaste.
"Your story is wrong," he said coldly. "She was with no such man on the heath yesterday—it chanced that I myself—" He suddenly stopped, like a man struck dumb, and rose up violently.
"Well," breathed young Holt. "Well, Sir Francis?" The old man rose also and came towards the table.
"You see now what we mean?" he cried, and his voice was shrill with fury.
Francis Ribblestone stood erect, staring at the three of them; his eyes were rounded with horror and his lips parted; haltingly the words came.
"Take care what you say—beware how you launch that which defileth with the mere utterance—you know me—what I am, what I stand for—take care what you say."
He paused, panting, and eyed them with a look that held them cowed.
"Show him the ribbon," whispered Brent uneasily.
Holt jerked from the pocket of his frieze coat a long blue ribbon of stiff watered satin, damp and crumpled and twisted into a knot; he laid it on the table.
"Do you know that, sir?"
Francis was so sickly pale the young yeoman thought he was going to faint.
"I know it," he answered, in a scarcely articulate voice.
"Yesterday it fastened your hair?"
"This morning we found it binding the dead creature's feet—with a stone knotted to one end."
Patience Coventry sat over the fire and cried from excitement, fatigue, and terror.
Out on the moor Serena Fowkes lay dripping and ghastly; the old man, in his half-crazy wrath, and the two who had found Serena, were at the Manor House, and Patience sat alone. She had heard dreadful whisperings as to the possible murderer which added to her fear; she sat shivering, regardless of the winter sunshine which filtered through the yew tree and entered the room in pale beams, longing, yet dreading, to creep out of doors and look at that which yesterday she had pitied and tossed her head at, but which now was beyond and above her, something to shiver from and bow before.
As the old gaunt clock struck eleven, she heard the jingle of harness without, and starting up hastily, saw Mr. Phoebus Ribblestone alighting under the yew tree and giving the reins to his huge black servant who was mounted on a white horse, a gaudy figure in the crimson and black liveries.
Patience dabbed her eyes feverishly, for Mr. Ribblestone was entering the cottage; she came out trembling into the narrow passage and dropped a great curtsy as he lifted the latch.
He wore a blue fur-lined mantle and a blue embroidered suit; his magnificence utterly overwhelmed her.
"Girl," he said gravely, "I do desire to speak to you."
He followed her into that parlour where he had spoken with Serena; but Patience did not know that he had ever entered it before; she stood mute, dabbing her eyes with the corner of her apron.
Phoebus gave the room one quick glance; there was nothing languid nor indifferent in his manner now; he was alert, masterful, and swift in speech and movement.
"Stop crying," he said. "This is a serious matter. You know what those rascals have the impertinence to say?"
Patience stared at him stupidly.
"They pretend," continued Phoebus, "that my brother is the murderer of this wretched girl. They came up to Ribblestone to say so—to his face—they were outside the law in that."
"Grandfather thought so," she muttered with a shudder, "though the constable bid him peace."
He looked at her keenly.
"But you would be prepared to swear otherwise?"
"I'd not swear," answered Patience sullenly. "Wasn't she with him late yesterday, didn't they find his hair-ribbon about her feet, and wasn't she floating? And who else had cause to hate her?"
"So you think he hated her?"
"How do I know? He made her love him, some say, so that she would speak of nothing else and think of nothing else, and he must have been galled by all the talk in Haslemere—"
"A moment, wench; you think my brother guilty and dare to say so?"
"Well, sir," flashed Patience, "for the matter of that, I come from London where we are not so afraid of great folk, and as to what I think, I'll stand to it—I am not going to admit my cousin a suicide to save your brother, sir, and if I held my tongue there are a good many others would speak."
"I am not," answered Phoebus calmly, "here to hush you. Sir Francis hath sent these fellows about their business. He hath no power and no wish to silence people in any way but by the truth. As for the blue ribbon, you must know that he lost it on the moor last night—some one may easily have found it, but justice will be done at the inquiry."
Patience moved nearer the fire.
"You are fine gentlemen and we humble folk; it isn't likely we should get justice."
"Nay," said Phoebus gently, "you shall certainly have justice. We shall not stop until we find the murderer."
He seated himself in the cane-bottomed chair where Serena had so often wept, and slowly pulled off his gloves.
"Mistress," he asked pleasantly, "I feel a little giddy—could you fetch me a cup of water?"
Patience, instantly subdued by his gentleness, curtsied and left the room; the moment he was alone Phoebus sprang lightly up and went to the oak press in the corner, the only article in the room capable of concealing anything, and opened it noiselessly.
Lying on the top of clean folded tablecloths was what he sought, a worn calf volume. He took it up and glanced at the title, De Artis Belli et Paci, then opened the pages and glanced over the loose leaves within; these he shook out, hastily looked over the book from cover to cover to see that there was nothing else concealed in it, replaced it, closed carefully the door of the press, and put the loose papers in his pocket.
When Patience returned he was again seated in the wicker chair.
He took the water she gave him and drank slowly; a shaft of the meagre sunshine rested on his handsome colourless face and black curling hair streaked with powder; the girl began to feel sorry for him and flattered by his confidence.
"I wouldn't do anything to hurt your brother, sir," she said. "It is the others!"
"What others, my dear?"
"Young Holt, who was always jealous of Sir Francis, and grandfather, and one or two who were sorry for Serena."
"I perceive," said Mr. Ribblestone, "that there hath been more talk over this affair than I ever heard. My brother hath been foolish—nothing more. Remember that."
There was a pause, then he asked, sipping the water:
"Where is she?"
"In a barn on the moor," shivered Patience. "The parish officers are bringing her home presently."
He looked at her over the coarse rim of the glass. "Ah—my brother, of course, would wish to do what he can—"
Patience began to cry.
"I wish I had gone back to London. They wanted me to go and see her, but I could not. I don't want to touch her. And who else is there?"
Phoebus set down his glass.
"Money will find them," he remarked, and drew out a silk knitted purse; "get her decently buried, at least," and he laid some gold on the table.
"I don't want your money. And if she is a suicide, who will put her in sacred ground?"
"I fear," said Phoebus softly, "no one will take her to be a suicide."
"Ah, you think so?"
Phoebus rose without answering.
"Who was that?"
Patience, listening, heard a step without, and the next instant the latch was lifted and a young gentleman in a violet riding-coat stepped into the chamber and stood staring with a wild expression.
"Mr. Septvan!" exclaimed Patience. "Ah, sir, but you are too late!"
The new-comer advanced to the table; he had an attractive, impetuous face, tumbled chestnut hair, an elegant but robust person; he held his beaver in his hand.
'"Too late," he repeated. "So they told me at the inn—Mistress Coventry, is it true?"
He was in a pitiful state of anguish and distress. Phoebus eyed him with covert keenness.
"Oh, sir," cried Patience, on the verge of tears again, "she lieth yonder, dead...if only you had come yesterday!"
"Heaven hear me!" answered the young man passionately, "but I only received her letter a week ago, and I have made all the haste the roads would permit! Dead, you say, murdered! And must I never see her warm and quick again! Where is the villain who abused her—show me this cursed Francis Ribblestone!"
Patience cowered before him.
"Have you heard that name already!" she gasped.
"I heard that name given to her murderer!" Phoebus stepped forward.
"Take care, sir. I am also a Ribblestone."
Mr. Septvan reddened with fury.
"Then you bear a damned name!" he cried. "What are you doing in this house?"
"Softly," answered Phoebus, quite unmoved. "Nothing is proved against my brother yet. If you were a lover of this girl, 'tis a sad pity you came not sooner. As to how she died, be careful of listening to rumour. Come to me if you want more money, mistress."
Thomas Septvan glanced at the gold on the table.
"Take back your money, sir," he said, but more moderately. "This shall be at my charges."
Phoebus pulled on his gloves.
"I never take up what I have once put down," he said. "Your servant, sir, I am Phoebus Ribblestone."
Mr. Septvan gave him a bewildered, piteous glance.
"For God's sake, sir," he cried, "tell me what you know of this! My name is Septvan, Thomas Septvan, of Kent, and this business hath struck me to the heart."
Phoebus eyed him calmly.
"What I know I shall say before the coroner's court, Mr. Septvan. You can scarcely expect me to be loquacious on the subject, seeing I am the brother of the suspected man."
He touched his hat abruptly and left the room; they heard him and his servant ride away from the yew tree.
"What am I to do, what is to be done?" raved Mr. Septvan. "Murdered! And I never answered her letter! Who is this Ribblestone—a damned Tory? I'll unseat him; I'll set Sir Robert on him; mark me, mistress, if he did this he shall hang for it as certainly as if he were some poor tarpaulin who robbed a watch on Portsmouth road!"
"Ah, hush, sir," answered Patience. "'Tis an awful thing to accuse the poor gentlemen of. God, He knoweth that I'll not say one thing or another, but certainly she was in melancholy and might have destroyed herself—"
"I'll not believe it," he cried firmly. "She was a good, gentle girl and would never do such a wicked thing as lay hands on herself; I'll never credit it, mistress. And did they not tell me at the inn she was found swimming with open eyes?"
Patience was silent.
"And did she not write to me to come and save her from this man—saying he would be the death of her if I came not quick?"
"She was sick for love of him," answered Patience. "But why were you so long coming, sir? She thought it a studied slight."
"Alas! I no longer lie at the temple and letters be there a month before the laundress bringeth them over to me."
He pushed back his hair and gave a great sigh. "Might I see her?" he asked hoarsely.
"The constable saith she lieth in a barn on the edge of the moor, and there must be a surgeon from Guildford to go look at her, to see, if they way, if she were drowned or no; and they bid me come if I would, but I had not the courage!"
"Come now with me," said Mr. Septvan heavily. "It is well we should see her before she be touched, for look you, mistress, I will make a noise out of this that shall stir England, be he thrice a baronet and a wealthy man."
Patience put on her hood with shaking fingers and followed the gentleman from London out onto the wintry sunlight.
"Which way?" he asked in a dazed fashion, and the girl pointed beyond the Town Hall.
"There were a great number of people abroad, all talking together and exchanging opinions on the tragedy; there was a great crowd round The Swan, where Mr. Poynter, the coroner, was arranging the inquest, and where the arrival of Mr. Septvan that morning asking for the residence of the dead girl had caused a fresh edge of excitement to be given to an already amazing affair.
"I rode forty miles yesterday," groaned Mr. Septvan as they passed the Town Hall, "and was in such a reek I put up at Godalming and got a fresh horse this morning, and so here—had I but pressed on yesterday!"
"It was yesterday, just as it became dark, four by our clock and half-past by the town time, that she ran out, saying 'twas for a minute, and I never saw her since!"
Mr. Septvan groaned again and clenched his sword-hilt fiercely.
They came out on the crest of Shephard's Hill and there met one of the parish officers, flushed with importance.
Septvan accosted him.
"Where is my cousin put, sir?"
"In Farmer Williams' barn, in the great field to your left, mistress. I'm sadly sorry. This is like to be a matter for the law."
Mr. Septvan gave him a wild look.
"A matter of hanging, I take it—"
They passed along the flat muddy road and in a few minutes reached the field, where a large barn or outhouse stood at the end of a group of farm buildings.
The constable, armed with a broadsword, was on guard without, little groups of idlers hung round, waiting for the doctor, whom young Holt and Brent the lorimer had gone to Guildford to fetch; on the stump of a tree sat old Fowkes, staring patiently at the ground.
"Let him be," whispered Patience, as Mr. Septvan made a movement forward. "He'll be quiet, sure, if you do not notice him."
The constable knew Patience and asked her if she desired to enter the barn, and what the title of her companion was.
"I am the one who am like to prove the guardian of this poor dead gentlewoman," said Mr. Septvan. "If she was feloniously dealt with, I will see she was avenged...I pray you, let me look at her before she be touched."
The constable, impressed with the air of the London quality, unlocked the barn door and took off his hat.
Patience hung back.
"Will she look awful?" she whispered; but Mr. Septvan crossed the threshold and the girl and the officer followed, he closing the door after them.
The barn was large, lit by the upper portion of one end being open to the pale winter morning, and crossed by the rafters of a loft from which hung wisps and ends of straw; the floor was boarded, uneven, and covered with wet and muddy footprints and long stains of water, like the mark of dragged, dripping garments.
In the far corner stood a ploughshare and some rat-skins drying on a string; against the wall opposite lay Serena Fowkes, with her head a little raised on a bundle of hay.
Mr. Septvan went over to her and Patience crept softly after him; the constable spoke in a low tone:
"There she is, your honour, as we found her, save that we have put up her jaws and closed her eyes, which were as blue as summer when she was taken out, staring broad...and some of the slime and trumbery has been wiped away."
Serena Fowkes lay out straight, turned slightly towards the wall; her red coat and her white ruffles clung wet and close to her limbs; her hair, darkened with water, was entangled with dead leave, twigs and weeds, and lay in a heavy mass across the hay. Her expression was troubled and infinitely sad; her cloak had been taken from her and her neck and bosom showed clearly; round the frail white neck were dark marks of dull purple.
Mr. Septvan went on one knee and stared into her face; she looked very young, almost childish, the pure beauty of line remained though all colour had gone, even from the hair, and in the expression of pain and resignation was a dignity that had never been there in life; the hands no longer looked coarse and common, but lay, pale and small, on the wet skirts; the low heave of her bosom under her still uncut laces, the slim sweep of her limbs under the soaked chintz skirt looked pitifully slight and delicate; the whole creature, stripped of life, motion, passion, colour, was such a little sad shape for an unhappy soul to have been beaten in, such a small insignificant body for a high heart to have once fluttered.
The ruggles at elbow and bosom, the little ivory brooch, the handkerchief showing from the pocket, the adornments of ribbons and frills, held an unutterable pathos for Mr. Septvan; two tears forced themselves to his eyes, and as he knelt there he felt his nature change and harden into a gravity from which he would never be entirely free.
"Did you find anything on her?" he asked huskily. "Letters—or—?"
The constable shook his head.
"And she was floating?"
"About three inches below the water, your honour, with her coat above it and her arm against the stump of a tree, and her face looking up through the weeds and trumpery. She was not drowned, sir. Her feet were tied to a stone, sir."
"Yet it sank her not?"
"It was clumsily done, just a ribbon, and as we lifted her the stone fell from the loop, and left the ribbon on her feet. The hair-tie of Sir Francis Ribblestone, it was, sir."
"Oh, heart, heart!" muttered Mr. Septvan, staring into the dead features.
"And you see she is not swelled, sir," continued the constable, intent on his own theory. "There was a child drowned last year in the Millrace who was so swelled it burst its laces—with the water it had swallowed, and this maid is lean, as you see, and no water came from her nose or mouth. So she was dead ere ever she touched Boundless Water."
Mr. Septvan held out his hand and passed it tenderly over, without touching, the small head and wet hair, with the gesture of a trembling caress.
"Murdered," he said softly. "Murdered."
Patience was crying by the door.
"Oh, come away, sir, come away," she sobbed.
"Well," said the constable, shaking his head, "the poor lady's troubles are ended—but there is an evil day ahead for the man who did it—'twas a bloody and felonious deed, your honour."
"And one for which Francis Ribblestone shall make account," answered Mr. Septvan, rising.
"Sir," put in the man, with some agitation, "you must not say that. There may be some hotheads dare it, but there are very few of us would say a word against Sir Francis."
Mr. Septvan gave him a swift look.
"I suppose he could turn you all out of your homes at a day's notice?"
The constable answered uneasily.
"It isn't that, sir—Sir Francis is Sir Francis."
"And a very great man in Haslemere," said Mr. Septvan dryly, "I doubt not—and there is not one of you would swear against him in his own town—for the sake of that"—he pointed to the dead girl. "I can see that the whole matter would be hushed up very prettily. But I, fellow, am from. London. I know Sir Robert Walpole, and I will see that justice is done this poor creature, so be careful what you swear to please your landlord."
The man shuffled uneasily; great as Sir Francis was, the name of the Prime Minister held even more awful weight, and the gentleman from London was impressive in his very quiet.
"I said she was not drowned," he murmured. "And I'll not check the truth even for Sir Francis." Mr. Septvan turned to Patience.
He gave one more look at the dripping, still, frail head resting on the hay, then unlatched the door and stepped out into the cold sunshine.
As they crossed the field, stared after by the increasing crowd, Patience Coventry plucked at his sleeve.
"Sir, you would not endeavour to stir up murder—against Sir Francis?"
"Mistress," he answered resolutely, "if he be guilty he shall hang."
A week after the inquest on Serena Fowkes and the verdict of "Murder against some person or persons unknown," Mr. Septvan obtained an interview with Sir Robert Walpole, First Lord of the Treasury and ruler of England, at Houghton, where he lived with extravagant splendour and pomp.
Defeated on his favourite scheme of the Excise Bill, and having narrowly escaped another defeat on the repeal of the Septennial Act, threatened by the shadow of a war which was repugnant to the whole of his policy, on the eve of a General Election which might throw his party out of power altogether, robbed of the support of such brilliant men and one-time followers as Carteret, Townshend and Chesterfield, this statesman was in a situation that required all his rather coarse courage to face with equanimity; he had, however, been a master of English politics for thirteen years and did not intend to submit easily to his enemies.
Mr. Septvan, for whom Sir Robert had often offered to find some place (he had been his father's friend and was good humouredly loyal to early likings), found the great man well disposed as ever towards him, and even more markedly friendly.
They met in one of the white and gilt rooms at Houghton, the French elegance of which was an incongruous setting to the sturdy figure, bluff red countenance and noisy manners of the gentleman in brown broadcloth and huge old-fashioned white peruke who was Prime Minister of England.
Mr. Septvan, rather pale in the light from the tall windows, dressed in black that was almost mourning, with his hair correctly rolled and powdered, listened respectfully while Sir Robert spoke.
"It is damned convenient," said that gentleman, "and I'm obliged to you, Septvan. You might have made a good politician after all, instead of squandering yourself in idleness, you rake-belly, young dog." He smiled good-humouredly. "I have been looking at the papers and reports you sent. This Francis Ribblestone is not utterly unknown to me."
"No, sir?" asked Mr. Septvan eagerly.
"No, by God, sir, he is not," answered Sir Robert. "I have had my eye on him. It is one of Wyndham's young men, a creature who is to come to London and set us all at naught by his brilliant qualities. One of the hothead fools who are desperate to run into a war with Spain, one of your firebrands that Wyndham is to cast at me, sir. A wealthy fellow, with two seats in Haslemere, and who meaneth to stand himself for Guildford."
Sir Robert paced heavily up and down the room as he spoke, and his powerful face was grimly set.
"I was bold enough to suggest to you, Sir Robert," answered Mr. Septvan, "that this affair, properly managed, might secure to you those three seats."
"A good suggestion, too," returned the minister. "This election is like to cost me fifty thousand pounds, and some of it would be well spent on Guildford. Besides," he added shrewdly, "an affair like this, well advertised, would cast great discredit on the whole of Wyndham's party."
"Just so, sir—and an act of justice be done."
"Umph!" said Sir Robert, seating himself by the window. "A minor consideration."
Mr. Septvan answered with dignity.
"Sir, it is my motive for interference. Politics, you know, never interested me."
"And you would as soon as not that I was jockeyed?" smiled Sir Robert.
"No, sir," responded the young man warmly. "I would give a great deal that you were not, sir."
"Well, well, you were always a worthless fellow," said the minister good-naturedly, "but you have turned up a trump card now, confound me if you haven't."
He reached out a huge hand and took some papers from a marble-topped table near.
"Now we must have this case clear," he said, glancing over them. "Let me see if I recall it. Correct me if I go wrong. This Francis Ribblestone is a clever, attractive young fellow with more money and power than is good for him with his strong political ambitions. (He has written, by the way, some damned stinging things against this government, sir.) He is under the influence of Wyndham and means to stand for Guildford next election. Thanks to his position, he has every chance of defeating the government man. I take it, too, he is rather a vain young fool, fond of dreaming and such stuff, eh?"
"I know not," said Mr. Septvan. "I only, sir, saw him at the inquest."
Sir Robert laid the papers across his knee.
"Well, then, there is a girl in Haslemere—from London—a superior, pretty wench, and she and this Ribblestone are talked about. It is even believed (which showeth how simple people can be) that he will marry her. Instead, he announceth his betrothal to a wealthy miss of the neighborhood, and the jade from London and her old grandfather maketh the place ring with her disappointment. The young man, arranging his future career and preparing for his marriage, is much discomfited by this talk and scandal, some giving the love-affair one complexion, some another (how far he went in his gallantries is no matter now), and he writeth to the girl begging her to see him again. Am I right?"
"Yes, Sir Robert, the letter was found in her chamber."
"Then he is seen by half the village, it seemeth, leaving the place with the girl, speaking earnestly with her. The clergyman followeth them, but loseth them in the dark—later meeteth Ribblestone alone in a state of agitation. The girl never returneth, a search is made, and she is found in a sheet of water on the moor, her feet tied with this young man's hair-ribbon. It is proved that she was flung in dead because she was floating with her eyes open, and almost every one in Haslemere secretly suspects Sir Francis. The old grandfather, and a yeoman who was in love with the girl, face Ribblestone with the facts, but at the coroner's inquest no one dareth to mention the great man of the place and the verdict doth not involve him. At the same time the village seetheth with suppressed suspicion. Is not this the case?"
"Yes, sir, expressed succinctly, it is."
Robert Walpole was silent a moment, then he remarked dryly:
"I should think that the position of Francis Ribblestone is fairly intolerable already."
"He is still determined, sir, to stand for Guildford '-he hath put the coldest, haughtiest face on it, and while the thing is never whispered above a breath and there is no legal warranty for suspicion, his position is firm enough."
"A warrant for his arrest would soon make him put another face on it, as you suggest," returned the minister with a touch of a smile. "And the arraignment of Francis Ribblestone for murder would work very usefully against the brilliant Wyndham. Not, look you, sir, that I would use this if I did not think the man guilty; on a plain showing, damned guilty he is."
"It is my opinion, sir," asnwered Mr. Septvan. "If I had thought him innocent I should not be here."
"Yet I'll go surety," said Sir Robert shrewdly, "that abstract love of justice is not your only motive in this affair."
The young man lifted his eyes frankly.
"I told you, Sir Robert, that I was fond of this poor, unhappy girl, and that she appealed to me, with her dying breath as it were, and that I was too late—too late, sir! But I swore to heaven to ruin the man who had murdered her."
Sir Robert twirled the papers in stout, capable fingers.
"It will be a hanging matter," he said. "Who is the next heir?"
"The half-brother of Sir Francis, a French lord in look and breeding."
"There is no great affection between them? This fellow would take his estates and be quiet without stirring up the country to avenge his brother?"
"I think so—he seemed very shallow, and they scarcely know each other."
"Because," remarked the minister, "the Opposition might put an ill-complexion on it if any were to press the point that I had forced the accusation for my own ends. Frankly, it is a case I should have allowed to take its own course if there had not been a question of three seats involved—it is only possible to govern England by corruption."
"'Tis no corruption," urged Mr. Septvan, "to bring a man of wealth and position to a justice no poor villain would escape."
"A fellow of parts too," reflected Sir Robert. "There were some cutting lines in that last pamphlet of his. I would not expose a gentleman of his quality to such a fate if I did not think him guilty—no, not for thrice three seats; but guilty he must be, and a bloody, unnatural crime it was."
Mr. Septvan kept eager eyes on his face.
"You must send your agents down to Haslemere, sir, to encourage the people to speak out—you must prepare Guildford, and you must find two gentlemen to stand for Haslemere, for no one will dare vote for Sir Francis's men after this, and if they do, why, you can expose the bribery of it."
"Crofton can stand again for Guildford," answered Sir Robert, "and I will find two clever rascals for Haslemere—'twill be a strange jest to capture a tory pocket borough!"
He considered a moment, then added:
"Will this Ribblestone attempt to fly the country?"
"I do not think so, sir."
"Nor rouse his tenantry to make a fight of it?"
"I do not think so, sir," replied Mr. Septvan again.
"Because I could send the military to Guildford if there is a chance of riots."
"As far as my observation went, he was not overmuch loved—being always too taken up with himself to trouble about the tenantry on his estate."
Sir Robert put another question.
"And this gentlewoman he is betrothed to—what is her family?"
"It is the daughter of Mr. Henry Cowley, whose lands are in the north; they spend but little time in Surrey and have no influence in the place."
"Tories, of course?"
"Well, this will keep 'em quiet this election," smiled Sir Robert. "Properly managed, the trial of this young man should go far to cripple Wyndham."
He stroked his chin thoughtfully.
Mr. Septvan rose.
"I am deeply grateful, Sir Robert. I need trouble you no further."
"You are engaging yourself with the gathering of material for the prosecution, I suppose?"
"Yes, sir," said Mr. Septvan quietly.
Sir Robert looked at him keenly.
"It is strange," he remarked, "that the death of a foolish young woman should have stirred you to a resolution all my wise advice could never beget in you."
Mr. Septvan smiled sadly.
"Ah, sir, you appealed to my mind, and that is a difficult machine to start working. She appealed to my heart, and a touch will set that going—even against our will."
Francis Ribblestone entered the library of the Manor House to find Mr. Bargrave waiting for him, and stood staring a moment as if trying to collect his wits.
The clergyman held out his hand.
With an effort that ended in a shudder the young man roused himself and grasped the proffered hand.
"Ah, you," he said vaguely, and threw himself into the chair nearest; he still wore his riding-cloak, boots and gauntlets; in his left hand he held a letter with a heavy hanging seal.
"From Wyndham," he said, gazing at it, "sent by special post from London—what hath he to tell me! What?"
He tossed the letter on to the table with another shudder and fixed his eyes blankly on the older man's face.
Mr. Bargrave trembled.
"What is troubling you, Francis? Have you heard—" His voice died away.
Francis lifted his head.
"I have just ridden back from Bleachley Hall. Mr. Cowley would not permit me to see Margaret. His manner was more than cold—he said she was ill, but I think he lied."
"You did not see her?"
"Hath she written to you?"
"God help us!" ejaculated Mr. Bargrave.
The young man sat silent wrapped in a bitter reverie, his eyes downcast and is hands clenched on the arms of the deep chair; his hair was disordered by the winter winds, his boots muddy, his cravat loosened; to Mr. Bargrave he had seemed another creature from his former self since the death of Serena Fowkes; gone was the gaiety, the joy in life, the self-centred, generous satisfaction with the world; gone the high animal spirits, the easy gracious pride—these qualities had made Francis Ribblestone—take them away, and what remained? Mr. Bargrave reflected with amaze and fear that he had never known the young man after all, that his real character was for the first time, showing—and what was it?
His whole life had been joyous, luxurious, honoured, full of good impulses, of noble feelings of honest work, the life of thousands of finely bred, wealthy young men of distinctive character; he had never had a chance to do anything; what would he do now?
As these thoughts clutched painfully at the Clergyman's heart Francis Ribblestone spoke.
"Gracious God!" he cried hoarsely, "if it were not so ludicrous, so horrible, I should think that Mr. Cowley suspected me."
"No—no," protested Mr. Bargrave.
"Why doth he deny my Margaret?" asked Francis wildly.
"She might in truth be not well," said the clergyman gently; his thought was, that Bernardine Muschamp would have stood by her lover through anything, shame or death, and he gave a sigh to the loss of her, for the sake of Francis.
"I will write to Margaret," said Francis. "She must answer me, sick or no. This is not a trivial matter."
"I would Mistress Muschamp were back from Scotland."
Francis answered fiercely.
"What is Bernardine Muschamp to me? Margaret is to be my wife."
"Judge not too hastily. This must have wrought on her spirits."
"Doth she not think that it may have wrought on mine?" he demanded in the same tone, "that it is now when I need her?"
Mr. Bargrave sighed, rose, and came nearer to the proud, desolate young figure.
"Francis," he said, with gentle resolution, "now is the moment when you must rely on none but God and your own strength."
The hazel eyes flashed up with something of the Old tender gaiety.
"I know—I know—but Heaven help me, it is hard. Walpole's creatures are busy in Guildford. I had some words flung at me yesterday..." He set his teeth. "Even in Haslemere they..."
He paused and caught up Wyndham's letter and tore it open to conceal his emotion.
Mr. Bargrave watched the dark, fine face flush and then change to an unnatural pallor as the letter sank from stiff fingers.
"Francis!" he cried, in a quick horror that figured the worst. "Francis, what doth Wyndham say?"
Francis stared at him, and then began to laugh—an uncheckered laugh that changed quickly into gasping sobs; he put his hand over his face, leaning sideways on his chair, and his breast heaved painfully.
"There is a warrant out for my arrest," he said in a stifled voice.
With that he dashed his hand down and rose up; his face was terrible in its horror and fear.
"Don't go, sir," he said huskily. "Stay a little—I must talk about this. It is folly, of course, but at first it—it striketh me to the heart; but of course it is folly, only Walpole's malice...but..."
He sat down. And rose again.
Mr. Bargrave was wrought up to meet the moment now.
"This is a terrible thing you are asked to endure, Francis," he said. "But remember it is all with you—how you endure it—it all resteth with your own strength and innocency."
Francis dragged at his cravat and laughed again, wretchedly and faintly.
"I never thought they would dare so far," he said, "not—to arrest me—for murder—and such a murder!"
"Yet, after all," cried Mr. Bargrave, "may not their malice be your chance? This unexpressed suspicion was fast becoming intolerable—now you can drag it all into the light, disprove it, clear yourself of even a shadow, and silence even the Vilest of your accusers."
Francis crossed to the hearth and rested heavily against the mantel-board.
"Yes," he answered slowly and painfully, "but to stand at the bar, sir, on such a charge! 'Tis monstrous. Wyndham, saith Walpole, desperate for seats, is behind it, and this Septvan, who was a friend of this—of the poor creature—he hath her grandfather and her cousin in lodgings at Guildford and is engaged in collecting evidence—against me. And Walpole, would you think party heat could go so far? Before God, I should have defeated him in Guildford, but now—what now?"
"You also have your friends, Francis. You must not let yourself be cast down. You have nothing to fear."
"They mean to ruin me," answered Francis. "And I confess I am overwhelmed by what hath overtaken me."
Mr. Bargrave flushed with the energy of his speech.
"What of Sir William Wyndham? Will he not speak fox you? What of your father's friends? Have you not a great name—can such a charge be lightly preferred against you? Every Tory in the kingdom will be your defender—you will be as triumphantly cleared as you were foully accused. Meet it, Sir Francis, as one certain of victory."
The young man raised his colourless, haggard face.
"I confess I am overwhelmed," he repeated with a wild mournfulness, "to stand at the bar at the Guildford Assizes to answer for the death of that woman—to be stared at, questioned—to be made a show, a target for comment."
He paused, and his eyes roved restlessly round the chamber.
"And how can I clear myself? The thing is a mystery to me. I have thought of nothing else day or night. Who could have slain her? And if she slew herself, how came my ribbon round her feet?"
He walked up and down the hearth with his right hand pressed to his breast.
"I was to have spoken in Guildford to-morrow. Wyndham saith this may cost him the elections. I never dreamt that I could be so unfortunate."
"Sir William Wyndham will stand by you," said Mr. Bargrave. "Walpole's cause, not his, will lose by this affair."
Francis seated himself at the table and for a moment was silent, then spoke, slowly and awkwardly, as one who forces a new thought into words.
"I do not know what to do," he muttered; "that is the very worst of it." He clenched his hand on the shining dark table and stared straight at the older man. "Sir, I am face to face with something I do not know how to deal with, and that is the most terrible thing. God! and I had such trust in myself."
That last cry made Mr. Bargrave wince; he also had possessed boundless trust in Francis Ribblestone.
"You are not going to be found lacking, Francis; you are going to make your triumph out of this as surely as you could have done any other way. You, who could have faced your opponents over the question of peace or war, can face your enemies over this personal matter of your honour."
"I know, I know," answered Francis, "but these vast affairs never touched me personally, as now I see—I could be wise there, but this, a small matter, but to me vital, findeth me helpless. Sir, always I held myself inviolate; never did I believe that I could be disturbed with the things that disturb the baser sort. Our annals show we have been above the crowd in honour as in name, and this was what I lived by—the fact that I was Francis Ribblestone; and now 'tis gone; my name, that I did think a buckler and a defence, availeth nothing, and I must stand up like a common felon in a common court and prove my innocence where I have given my word—and where even that should be unnecessary."
He dropped his face into his hands and sat motionless, his elbows on the table.
Mr. Bargrave lightly touched his shoulder.
"In these moments men find themselves. You may be a finer owner of your name than any that held it yet if you take this right."
"But, murder!" cried Francis, looking up into the sad, kindly countenance. "Murder of a woman! Am I not stained with the mere accusation? How can I extract nobility from such horror?"
"By being Francis Ribblestone," returned Mr. Bargrave firmly.
The young man shook his head.
"But the name hath lost its power," he said wildly. "Sir, I am ruined, my career, my hopes, my ambitions—even—ah, if Margaret turneth from me!"
"She will not," said the clergyman in the same tone, his fingers tightening on the shoulder of Sir Francis. "She will smile at all of it; she will stand by you to become the honoured wife of an honoured man."
"God grant it, for I think I could not endure it if she should cast me off." He rose and clutched Mr. Bargrave's arm. "Ah, sir, I think you cannot conceive what anguish I endure. I cannot sleep at night nor rest in the day for the terror of it." He turned away frantically. "At worst it meaneth the gallows! the gallows—did you ever think, sir, that I might hang, tarred and rotting, on Gibbet Hill?"
"For God's sake, Francis, call up your courage. This desperate mien will not help you; what you speak of is madness; you must not glance that way, must do as your friends do and scorn this disaster, confident in yourself."
"Heaven bless you," returned Francis hoarsely, "but I had better fall on my sword, for I cannot face it—"
With the strength of a great affection Mr. Bargrave seized the young man's arm, restraining him from his desperate pacing to and fro.
"For your father's sake," he said sternly, "you shall compose yourself and go through with this." Francis stared at him a moment, then answered faintly:
"Forgive me. I am beside myself."
Mr. Bargrave loosened his arm and he sank into the chair nearest the hearth, and leant forward over the fire, trembling violently and convulsively pressing his handkerchief to his lips.
"Will you not write to Sir William Wyndham, to your lawyer, to your friends?" asked Mr. Bargrave, purposely keeping his voice and words even and commonplace.
"Presently," muttered Francis. "Presently."
He was silent a moment, struggling for control, then he lifted his dark eyes and said, with that sweetness in his tone that had been one of his charms in his days of prideful gaiety:
"Pray for the Lord to have mercy on me, sir, for my courage is not great enough."
The heavy oak door opened and Phoebus Ribblestone entered, closing it softly behind him. He was, as usual, gorgeous in dress, indifferent in manner, inscrutable in expression. Mr. Bargrave gave him one glance; at that moment he hated the younger brother.
Francis rose, a disordered figure with the dusky hair hanging tumbled on of his cravat, and a face controlled, but controlled into a slight look of distortion.
Phoebus came into the firelight, the wine-red colour of his coat catching the warm reflections; he was a little pale, even for him, and his eyes fixed straightly on Francis with no heed of Mr. Bargrave.
"You must forgive me," he said quietly, "the news I bring—"
Francis made a little motion with his hand.
"Go on," he murmured.
"I could not let a servant come to tell you, Francis."
"A warrant is out," said the elder brother faintly. Phoebus glanced at the open letter on the floor as he spoke.
"Yes," he answered.
There was a little pause. Phoebus gave one glance at Mr. Bargrave, then again fixed his eyes on his brother.
"Are they here?" asked Francis at length.
"Yes," said Phoebus, "a posse of ruffians from Guildford."
Francis caught hold of the chair back; he seemed to have turned utterly faint and sick and only with difficulty to hold himself upright.
Phoebus stood alert, motionless, yet his slim figure and immovable face suggested a delicate and intense watchfulness and a passionate interest in his brother, even though his long lashes did not stir nor the heavy lace at his wrists tremble.
"I can't face it—" muttered Francis. "I can't face it—"
He dragged at his sword-hilt.
"We cannot send them away save by force," said Phoebus gently. "And though the household would help you in that, it would be folly. And escape would be useless."
"Mr. Ribblestone is right," Mr. Bargrave was forced to admit.
Francis lifted his head.
"Where will they take me?"
"To Guildford Castle," answered Phoebus. "And you may have your own coach."
Francis clenched and unclenched his hands on the carved scrolls at the top of the chair.
"I cannot leave Ribblestone like this—"
Phoebus glanced at the scattered pamphlets, papers, letters and books on the desk, table and floor.
"You may leave your orders with me, Francis. I will do whatever you wish."
A languid colour stole into his brother's cheek.
"Thank you, Phoebus," he answered. "If you will lock away these papers and keep the keys—" He paused a moment, then added painfully: "In the top drawer of the inner cabinet there is...the last...and only letter I received from Mistress Fowkes...preserve it, Phoebus."
"I shall not forget."
Francis mechanically picked up his gloves from the table.
"Do they allow me a servant?"
"They must—two if you wish. I shall follow you to Guildford, of course, and be at your command there."
Mr. Bargrave was surprised at the feeling and fine, if undemonstrative, behaviour of Mr. Ribblestone, whom he had always regarded as a mere idle man of fashion; it seemed as if the real character was also showing for the first time at this crisis.
Through his own agony Sir Francis noticed his brother's quiet friendliness.
"Thank you, Phoebus," he said, pausing before him.
"Why, what else?" returned Mr. Ribblestone evenly.
Sir Francis glanced from him to Mr. Bargrave, then stared at the door.
"Where are the officers?" he asked.
"They will do as you command them, Francis."
The elder brother strode up to Mr. Bargrave and seized him violently by the arm.
"I cannot open that door, I cannot go down—there was never such an indignity yet put on one of my name."
With a stifled gasp Francis flung himself on the door, wrenched it open and passed out.
"I should be sorry," cried Mr. Bargrave in his anguish, "if Francis Ribblestone were to prove a coward!"
Phoebus paused in the act of following his brother and smiled coldly.
"Do you not perceive he is so brave a man that he doth not need to disguise his fears?" he asked proudly.
Samuel Fowkes and his grandchild were lodged in Guildford High Street; they had rooms above a saddler's shop on the same side as the Town Hall: an old place with huge, bulging bow window leaning over the street, dark, crazy, twisting stairs, and low doors with jambs and lintels awry.
They lived more easily than they had ever done before, for Mr. Septvan paid their bills and gave them money, and behind him was Sir Robert Walpole, who was spending a fortune on a case that was likely, as he expressed it, "to tip the Tories too low in the scale for them ever to recover."
A murder trial, in which the accused was a young man of wealth, rank and political ambition, of a well-known Tory family, prospective member for Guildford, betrothed to a lady of position, and a friend of the leader of the Opposition, and the victim a beautiful girl, whose name had long been coupled in village gossip with that of her supposed murderer in connection with love stories more or less romantic, was likely to stir all England, the more so as the excitement was judiciously fanned by Sir Robert.
A week before the trial, which had been hurried on at the instance of the government, the whole kingdom was divided into factions who maintained the innocence of Francis Ribblestone, and those who hotly declared he was the murderer of Serena Fowkes.
The government agents were active in Guildford, and even in Haslemere; two Whigs were sent down to contest Sir Francis' pocket seats, and the prosecution spared no labour nor money in collecting evidence.
The Tories on their side were not backward. Wyndham himself came to Guildford; the inns were filled with gentlemen who were friends of Sir Francis and enemies of Sir Robert; lawyers and doctors to be called on both sides swarmed in the streets of the county town.
So, on the surface, opinion appeared to be equally divided; but the government was a great deal more powerful than the Tories, and it was observed by one news-letter, which made the betting the test, that the matter looked hopeless for Francis Ribblestone since very few cared to put their money on his acquittal.
Thomas Septvan, eager, flushed, and stern, called at the lodgings of Patience Coventry the day before the trial.
He found her in the upper room with the huge bow window, low-beamed ceiling and slanting floor, which overlooked the High Street.
A fine fire burnt in the wide open hearth and the shining dark furniture reflected the red light of the flames; the bright-patterned chintz curtains shutting out the winter night, the candles in brass sticks polished to the paleness of gold, gave the room a homely and cheerful aspect.
Patience appeared downcast and agitated. Mr. Septvan, who had come mainly to see and strengthen the old man, one of his principal witnesses, was for leaving again when he heard he was abroad with John Holt, at the lawyer's house.
"And surely," said Patience with a flash of spirit, "we have been plagued enough with lawyers and questions and probings—I shall be glad when the trial is over and settled one way or another."
She hesitated a moment, looking shrewdly at Mr. Septvan, who had his hand on the button of the door, then broke out awkwardly:
"Sir, there hath been something on my mind—if you could stay a little—"
He turned back into the room and stood by the table, his pleasant, ingenuous face alert and grave.
"Surely," he said.
Patience bit her lip.
"It isn't easy," she murmured.
He was surprised to notice that she seemed in real distress and excitement, and that she was reddening painfully under his gaze and shifting her eyes furtively.
"It is something of a confession," she said half defiantly, "and I think I should tell it you, because you are the most active against Francis Ribblestone."
"Is it something in his favour?"
"Oh, I don't know," answered Patience with a shiver.
She was standing, out of respect to the quality of her visitor, but he noticed how she quivered, and bade her be seated.
She took, at that, the high-backed chair in the great bow window and leant heavily back in it.
"Oh, sir," she burst out, "I think that I have seen the Devil!"
"Child," he answered sternly, "I have no time to listen to such sick fancies."
Patience looked at him earnestly.
"I speak the truth," she said, "and it is worth your while to hear."
"What hath it," asked Mr. Septvan, "to do with Francis Ribblestone?"
The girl moved uneasily.
"If one doth put a violent end to one's own natural life, it is hell for the soul, is it not?"
"So the pastors say."
"My father was one," she replied. "I was taught it—that, I mean, that hell is sure for a suicide."
She answered rather wildly.
"I think that I saw the Devil in Serena's chamber."
Mr. Septvan flushed angrily.
"Why do you come to me with such tales of folly?"
"Because, if it was the Devil come for her soul—she was not murdered."
Mr. Septvan smiled grimly.
"This is pretty evidence!"
"I tell you," said Patience strongly, "it hath been on my mind and conscience ever since I saw it—"
"Saw what, girl?"
"I think that I beheld the Father of Mischief himself," she repeated.
He made an impatient gesture.
"Come to the meaning of this story. When saw you this apparition?"
Patience hung her head.
"The—the day before she was buried."
"I told you, sir, in the chamber."
"Where she then lay?"
"In her grave-clothes, sir, on her bed." Patience shuddered violently. "Oh, the Lord forgive me."
"Why were you there?" asked Mr. Septvan very quietly.
"I went to look at her."
Patience rose and clasped her hands.
"Don't be hard on me, for I must tell you...I went to take her hair."
Mr. Septvan recoiled.
"'Twas said to be worth fifty pounds," continued Patience desperately, "and I could not bear to think of it wasted in her coffin—"
"You would rather rob—her!"
"Don't be hard on me," repeated Patience miserably. "It was fifty pounds, and we have always wanted money so I thought and thought about it, and when she was dressed for her coffin with her hair combed smooth..."
"Enough, enough," said Mr. Septvan hastily; he moved towards the door and leant heavily against it with his eyes directed towards the floor. Patience continued her hurrying words.
"I went up to her chamber, and it was between the lights. I was frightened when I saw her, for she looked so tall and had a napkin over her face, but I encouraged myself and thought she would not care now, nay, perhaps would rather that her hair was saved from corruption.
"It lay just under her head, and I went up to the pillow with the scissors in my hand and cut the braids, and drew them away without uncovering her face.
"When I was leaving with the locks in my apron, I looked round the room with a sudden great horror, and I saw under the window a black man crouching, and, as I stood there speechless, he leapt behind the bed-curtains and disappeared...
"Then I thought, she was a suicide and that is the Devil come for her!"
"You tell me a child's nightmare," said Mr. Septvan sternly, "and a tale to your discredit. What have you done with her hair?"
"Nothing," she answered eagerly. "I have it still. It hath been with me like a curse. I have had no moment's peace since. And as for the black man, it was no fancy—for I saw him as plain as I see you now."
Something impressed by her obvious sincerity, Mr. Septvan gave her a lingering glance of judgment.
"Dismiss this from your mind," he said at length. "The Devil walketh not the earth in such obvious guise."
"I only spoke," she answered half sullenly, "thinking it might alter your mind with regard to Sir Francis."
"Nothing could do that," said Mr. Septvan resolutely. "The deeper I go into the case, the deeper do I see his guilt and barbarous wickedness—nay, when I say nothing, I go too far, but it would have to be powerful evidence to shake my conviction."
"You make nothing of this, then?"
He gave a grim little smile.
"No, and I charge you keep it out of your evidence, lest you bring yourself to confusion and throw discredit on what else you may say."
"I shall not speak of it again," answered Patience; "'twas only with the thought of doing justice to a hard-pressed gentleman that I spoke. But you know best, sir, and if you say he is guilty, I'll believe it."
There was a little pause, then she asked in hushed tones:
"Will they hang him?"
"Ay, that they will."
"On Gibbet Hill, sir?"
"If he be proved guilty, and there is little doubt of it, he will be hanged on Gibbet Hill, my dear, and left to rot there like any common murderer who cuts a throat for a shilling."
"I wish it were well over," sighed Patience drearily.
Mr. Septvan came to the table.
"Will you give me Serena's hair?" he asked quietly. "I will make the value good to you."
"I will take no money for it now. It hath been a weight on my heart. I shall be happy if you will receive it."
She went to a little arch-fronted cupboard painted white and took from it a bandbox, which she set on the table.
There was a rustling of fine white paper and a faint odour of vervain and lavender as she opened the lid and lifted out a packet pinned round with faded white silk.
She laid this on the dark table, unpinned and unfolded it, and so displayed to the gentle candlelight the shining tresses of Serena Fowkes tied at one end with black ribbon.
Mr. Septvan shuddered and closed his eyes for a second.
"Oh, sir," broke out Patience, "what a poor unhappy wretch she was! If only you could have done her the honour to marry her, she need never have gone to Haslemere!"
"She never cared for me," answered Mr. Septvan. "At the last she must have hated me, because I never came. She was a beautiful creature, was she not? How long and soft her hair is!"
He gently raised the lovely tresses and passed his hand delicately down the smooth length of them.
"And she is dead, with dust on her eyes and mouth! I remember how she would put a flower in these locks and smile so gaily when I praised it—she was ever simple. She was made for happiness, and I might have given it her could she have loved me. But this is weakness and I must not dally with memories. Put up the tresses, mistress; thou hast but rescued them from the grave for a while, for they shall lie beneath the sods that will one day wrap my bosom."
A languid paleness overspread his cheek and he sighed in a melancholy fashion, yet in a little regained his composure and took the parcel of the dead girl's hair and placed it in the pocket nearest his breast.
With that he left and went out into the dark crowded streets of Guildford town, down the High Street towards Star Corner, turned there and took his way down Quarry Street, past the back of St. Mary's Church, and so came to one of the entrance gates to the ancient and long dismantled castle.
This archway, which was closed by a heavy iron railing, was the remains of an old portcullis curtain with a buttress supporting it to the right where a low wall, above which trees appeared, formed the castle enceinte. To the left the archway was joined to a two-storied house, the pointed roof of which rose just above the top of the arch, on which waved coarse dried grass and lichen.
This was the gatehouse, the entrance being through the iron railings, and in the side of the building two square bow windows, the lowest ten feet or so from the ground, and a third flat window in the gable, looked on to Quarry Street.
A sloping buttress and a length of low wall separated the gate-house from the other dwellings in the street, and a couple of the militiamen were walking up and down outside, for this building had long been used for prisoners of distinction, and now was the place of confinement of Francis Ribblestone.
A considerable crowd was gathered in the narrow street, staring up at the modest red-brick building in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the prisoner or his famous friends; this despite the steady winter winds and penetrating damp cold.
The lamp in front of the castle arch cast pale and fluttering beams into the roadway, and in the higher of the two bow windows gleamed another light.
Francis Ribblestone was believed to be in that chamber, and Mr. Septvan, following the direction of the general gaze, fixed his eyes in malevolent satisfaction on the curtained square of paned glass.
The clatter of a coach and six coming from the High Street made the crowd hastily draw back against the opposite houses.
Striking sparks from the cobbles, the horses drew a ponderous coach to a stand outside the castle arch; the lantern light showed the running footmen, the violet hammercloth, the coat of arms painted on the door, and the rich liveries of the men.
Curiosity urged every one forward; despite the curses and efforts of the militia and servants to keep them back, they forced round the door as the occupants of the coach descended.
The first to alight was a gentleman in black satin, wearing a heavy mantle lined with fur.
He showed a pass to the soldier and the footmen clanged the iron bell hanging outside the gate.
As this swung back on the creaking hinges a lady wearing a dark mantle and vizard stepped from the coach.
The crowd pressed forward to observe her closer; she shrank against her companion, who turned with a French oath and struck the nearest offender with his cane.
An instant angry cry arose, but the two passed into the castle precincts and the gate closed behind them.
Several Whigs were in the crowd, and they noisily resented the behaviour of the gentleman in the furs.
"Who are they?" asked Mr. Septvan of the fellow next to him, who had had a better view.
"'Tis the Cowley coach, and that would be Mistress Margaret—he is Mr. Phoebus Ribblestone."
As the gate closed behind them, Miss Cowley gave a shuddering backward look at the crowd pressing about her coach.
"'Tis terrible, Mr. Ribblestone. I could wish I had not faced it."
"Mademoiselle, the English canaille are not kept in hand. There I am powerless to protect you from annoyance—forgive me."
"Ah, sir, 'tis not your fault—but that I should be in this situation!"
The captain of the castle guard, the constable on duty, and the keeper of the gate-house having all inspected Mr. Ribblestone's pass, he and his companion were permitted to enter the building that served Sir Francis as prison.
A heavy and beautiful wooden door at the top of a few steps led into a narrow hall lit by a feeble lamp, and this into the ground-floor room, the window of which looked on to the street.
Here the secretary of Francis Ribblestone was working at a corner table; on the entry of the visitors he bowed, and hastened with the keeper of the gate-house to inform his master.
Miss Cowley seated herself and took off her vizard.
"I don't know how I can face it. I do not know what to do," she murmured, looking up into the handsome countenance of Mr. Ribblestone.
"It was a vast deal," he responded carelessly, "for Francis to have asked of you—selfishness, it seemeth; but let me forbear to criticize one so unfortunate in everything save in being the betrothed of Miss Cowley."
He had a pretty, ardent way with women and his dark eyes were adept at glances of respectful admiration.
Margaret looked down and blushed; she was not quick enough to notice the perfunctory manner of his speech.
"And what am Ito say to him, Mr. Ribblestone! I have not seen him since his arrest. Is he changed?"
"Yes, he is changed," answered Phoebus.
"Oh, Lord!" sighed Miss Cowley. "I swear I am utterly distracted! How am Ito endure the disgrace!"
Phoebus, standing on the hearth, gave her a strange covert look that she did not detect.
"Miss Cowley," he answered gracefully, "is as courageous as she is fair."
Margaret rose; she was charmingly dressed in thick lavender-coloured silk with fine lace over her shoulders, showing where her mantle fell apart; her agitation was becoming to her characterless style of womanhood; she looked very young, timid, and pretty.
"I don't know," she said, clutching at her fan, "what I should have done without you, sir. You have been a great support."
She curtsied in the midst of swelling hoops and gave him her hand, which he kissed in a manner learnt from the King of France.
Then Margaret Cowley, with a rising colour, nerved herself for the effort, and sailed from the room to meet her betrothed, and Mr. Phoebus watched her up the stairs with an inscrutable expression.
On the first landing she was met by the secretary and a servant; a door was opened instantly and she found herself in the presence of Francis Ribblestone.
His face, worn of late into new lines, was radiant as he advanced impulsively towards her; the instant, though slight, movement backwards she made checked him from doing more than take her hand.
"Margaret, at last!" he said very tenderly.
She looked anywhere but at him as he kissed the fingers that the lips of Phoebus had so recently touched, and sank shrinking into the seat he offered her beside the fire.
"Oh, Francis," she broke out, "this is dreadful! What am I to do? We have been mobbed all through Guildford, with such awful words—and it all seemeth so hopeless, and I feel so ill, and father hath been so angry—"
All the joy was gone instantly out of his face; he went on one knee beside her chair.
"Margaret," he said softly, "won't you trust that everything will be all well yet? Believing in me, dear, won't you be so strong that these things won't trouble you?"
"Yes, yes," she answered hastily. "Of course I do believe in you—but—"
"Margaret!" He rose. "Is there any need to say you believe in me?"
Miss Cowley had her handkerchief to her eyes.
"There, now you are angry with me—and I wish I had not come. I can do no good."
At once he was melting tenderness again, bending over her in an agony of reproach.
"My darling! And you have borne so much for my sake. Forgive me, it hath been very hard for me to think what I have brought on you, and I am much troubled in my spirit."
She dabbed at her cheeks, sobbed a little, but would not look up.
"Did Phoebus come with you?"
"Yes. He hath been most kind and active on your behalf, Francis."
"I am indeed indebted to him," responded Francis warmly. "Doubly so if he hath pleased you; he hath shown a noble loyalty."
"I am sure that he hath put himself to no end of trouble," said Margaret. "I should not be here now but for him."
"You must thank him, Margaret; he would value that."
He looked down at her with a wholly unconscious wistfulness; he longed for her to turn to him with comfort, with affection, with some expression of that intimate trust and loyalty that are dearer than either. She was more to him than a lover; his sensitive soul, tenacious of all the delicate unwritten laws of honour, had shrined her as his one lady; even Bernardine Muschamp had faded from his mind; she who was to be his wife was for him already adorned with the virtues of the position she would hold—the charm of home, the graciousness of his name clung to her; she was to him not merely Margaret Cowley, but the symbol of the most sacred and beautiful portion of his life; his very pride, that vital part of him, was already wrapped up in her. She, who could read none of this, sat silent, sunk in her private troubles.
The room was handsome and well furnished, with no air of a prison. Francis was composed and tender, and her fears being soothed by these things, she came to what she really had meant to be the point of her visit.
"Francis," she said timidly.
His hazel eyes flashed with pleasure at the thought that now she would unfold her hopes and fears for him; he cast himself on the settee beside her chair and seized her hand.
Slowly she looked at him, full in the face for the first time since her entrance.
He was thin and haggard, his hair unpowdered and his eyes heavy-lidded; mentally she compared him to the flashing handsomeness of Phoebus, then checked herself; she was above all a good young woman.
"Francis," she repeated, then added rather quickly, "I want you to tell me the meaning of this horrible mystery."
He blenched at once.
"What mystery, Margaret?"
"About—the murder," she answered.
"Alas!" said Francis. "Would to God I knew!"
Her eyes fixed him steadily.
"There is one thing you must know; they say you will not tell anyone, but sure, you cannot refuse me."
His fingers tightened on her limp hand.
"What do you want to ask me, Margaret?"
"Oh," she broke out, half angrily, "cannot you guess what I should want to know? 'Tis the meaning of that action which was the cause of the whole affair...Francis, why did you leave Haslemere that evening with Mistress Fowkes?"
Francis looked at her wildly and mournfully.
"She wished to speak to me."
"On what matter?" asked Margaret.
"That question I cannot answer even to you," he said, tenderly, sorrowfully, yet finally.
Margaret snatched her hand away and rose.
"So you refuse me!" she cried with quivering lips.
"Margaret, Margaret, why do you ask me?"
"Because people, even father, say such things...and I have no answer...and there was that letter found..."
"I never wrote it."
"You—you might trust me."
"My dear, I am going to trust you with all my life."
"Why not, then, with this?"
He was painfully colourless, distressed, and moved, yet resolute.
"'Tis the poor trivial secret of a weak woman," he answered, "on a matter you could not even understand; so far 'tis beneath you—and since she is dead, poor soul, I cannot betray her confidence—even to you."
"You are very chivalrous," she murmured.
"How otherwise would you have me?" he asked simply.
"Mistress Fowkes was very beautiful," said Margaret. "What did she say when we met her on Gibbet Hill?"
"She was distracted then," replied Francis. "Margaret, do not force me to talk of this. I stand on my trial to-morrow; let me forget it for these few moments...let me think of you, dear."
Silenced, not satisfied, Margaret dropped her eyes uneasily and half turned away from him.
"It is very difficult for me," she whispered.
He became passionate in self-reproach, in endearment, in proffered consolation. Margaret was silent; she could not help it that she saw, more clearly than the harassed, goaded man before her, the gorgeous, calm figure of Mr. Ribblestone.
"Oh, that this should have happened!" she cried, and she thought as much of the obtrusion on her mind of Phoebus as of the strait in which Francis stood; she was immensely sorry for herself; the tears quivered on her lashes and he, poor wretch, thought she had wept for him and could have kissed her feet.
"Margaret! Margaret!" he cried frantically, "this may be our farewell...say that you forgive me that I ever brought you to this sorrow."
She was genuinely startled by his accents and swung round to face him; he caught her by the shoulders and stared into her wet eyes, so strangely, as she thought, that she was frightened.
"Don't, Francis," she murmured, "let me go—"
For answer he bent his face and kissed her forehead.
In that moment she realized that she had never known him; that the smooth, gay, pleasant Francis with whom she had been willing and glad to spend her life was an utterly different being from this grave yet distracted, passionate yet stern man who held her now; she recoiled from him; their common meeting-ground had gone; she was sorry for him, afraid of him, ashamed of herself, confused and most unhappy.
For this now she knew: she had never cared for anything but the surface Sir Francis; as he was now, she could not and would not meet him; in this mood he had slipped beyond and outside her comprehension. She would willingly have fled; it was her instinct, and her desire was never to see him again; but the strength of a promise, now a chain, held her mute and dutiful.
She bent her head that he might not kiss her again and he touched her hair with his lips, blessing her in his heart.
"Margaret, you will be there to-morrow? It will make such a difference to me!"
"Yes, yes," she said, without looking up.
"But it is asking too much—why should I put you to such pain—"
But she was violently anxious to please her commonplace gods by doing her duty, since outward observances might atone for inner disloyalty.
"I want to come, Francis," she answered hoarsely. "Don't misunderstand me—" She withdrew herself by a gentle effort from his reluctantly loosening clasp. "I—can't say much...I feel ill; forgive me..."
Her face was turned away again and she would not look at him; her pitiful agitation tore his heart.
"I had not any right to ask you to come," he exclaimed, "but it has meant everything to me...Won't you kiss me again, Margaret? It may be for the last time."
"I must go," she muttered, "I cannot bear it—"
"Kiss me, Margaret!" He wooed her with more fervour than when he had won her, for now she represented all that he possessed of pity and loveliness in the whole changed world. "Think, I speak as a man on the edge of death...dear, you would not turn from me? You are not afraid of me—Margaret?"
She dumbly lifted her face to him, and it was as white as her powdered hair, nor could his kisses bring any colour to it.
"Think of me with kindness," he said hoarsely, as she again drew away.
She did not answer that, but cried, with terror in her eyes:
"How differently I dreamed it!"
He winced away from her with his hand to his lip as if he repressed a cry, and she sped to the door, opened it, and fled in a gust of sobs.
Her light step hastened desperately down the dark stair, she fled into the parlour where Phoebus waited, and stood before him, wringing her hands.
"Take me away," she said. "Take me away...he frighteneth me."
Without a word he put her mantle about her and led her from the room, she sobbing violently the while.
She had a confused and dreadful vision of the scattered lights about the castle archway, of the eager, curious faces of the crowd peering out of the darkness; she felt the winter wind on her cheeks and the rough cobbles under her feet, then she found herself in the warm, lit coach with Phoebus beside her.
"You must not grieve so," he was saying gently as the coach swung through Guildford. "Mademoiselle, there is always a chance—"
She raised reddened eyes with a piteous appeal in them.
"He is so changed!" she whispered brokenly.
"Ah!" said Phoebus softly. "Alas, what else could you expect, Mademoiselle? But love," he added in a very low tone, "taketh no account of change."
"Why are you silent?" he urged in his caressing accents.
She did not speak, but drooped away from him.
"Is it possible," he whispered, "that you do not love him, Marguerite?"
For answer she looked up desperately; she was shaken out of herself; the truth came from her lips.
"I do not, I cannot!"
As the coach rattled over the bridge the shout of the Whig faction, naming Francis Ribblestone murderer, came ominously after them. Margaret gave a cry of terror and cowered against the cushions.
"I will not let you fear—anything," said Mr. Ribblestone, not lover-like, save in the words, but carelessly.
Her trembling silence was an acceptance of this protection; she turned and wept on his shoulder.
When Margaret Cowley left him after an interview so brief and, on her side, so distracted and cold, when she fled from him so abruptly and cruelly, Francis Ribblestone at first sprang to the door and, checked by the sound of the shooting bolts, felt in all its horror what it was to be a prisoner.
He went slowly back into the centre of the room and stared at the chair in which she had sat.
She had come and gone, and left nothing but pain behind her; he heard her coach rattling down Quarry Street and listened to the sound until distance absorbed it, and, thinking in terrible reproach and remorse of what he had brought her to, he thought with warm gratitude of his half-brother, whose kind protection Margaret had acknowledged so feelingly.
It distressed him that he had ever disliked, nay, hated and despised Phoebus, who had now become his main comfort in his misfortunes; then with an agonized effort he dismissed Margaret and all friends of the old life from his mind and tried to concentrate all his faculties on the morrow—a day of life or death to him, for he had long resolved that he would not survive to be led from Guildford court a condemned man.
He had now passed that first mood in which he had cried to Mr. Bargrave: "I cannot face it!" He was strung up to endure the worst; he had been calm, collected, energetic since his removal to Guildford; his courage and his composure had been beyond question; but none of those who loved him most for a moment guessed what this front cost him, by what heroic effort of will he subdued a thousand stinging agonies, by what desperate endeavour he controlled the almost unendurable anguish of a sensitive soul suddenly confronted with the most horrible of torture, the most bitter of fates.
Now, when Margaret had left him, adding the reproach of her distress to his misery, he flung himself on the settee and shudder after shudder shook him as he struggled to clear his mind of everything but his defence to-morrow. The moisture gathered on his forehead, his flesh went cold, he felt the blood thrumming in his ears and his limbs shaking beneath him; with a groan at his own weakness, he staggered to his feet and snatched up a book from the table, opened it, and made a wild attempt to read.
It was Virgil, and the familiar Latin stared up at him a dead and blank language—printed signs on paper, no more.
It fell from his fingers and he began pacing up and down the room, striving to calm himself by prayer; the ineffaceable words of his childhood rose to his lips; he stammered his appeal like an infant at its mother's knee as he walked violently up and down clasping his forehead.
The old simple balm soothed his exhausted spirit, the first fierceness of his paroxysm of agony wore off; he sank into the chair in front of the table by the window and took up his pen.
He wrote letters to Margaret, to Phoebus, to Sir William Wyndham; sealed them with his signet-ring and locked them into the table drawer.
A whimsical thought crossed his restless mind: if he was condemned to-morrow, and all England thought he must be, Phoebus, but a few moments home, would be master of Ribblestone and all those miles of beautiful land he, Francis, so loved before this hour of the day had struck.
From that point his mind travelled to the future; he saw his name forgotten, heard his story told in whispers, beheld Phoebus in his place, rich, courted, in the midst of his family, his possessions, his power, while Francis Ribblestone would become a mere tale, horrible in the telling.
He saw Margaret...she would marry some other man, she would never mention his name to her children; she was very young, in time she would forget...
He leant back in his chair, facing these things, facing the fact that of all he had set store by in the world nothing helped him now save that little spark of inner faith and courage that was the best in himself.
No friend, nor wealth, nor pride, nor ambition could aid him to-morrow when he stood face to face with death, nor did he know love strong enough to meet him on his own ground now...Margaret had fallen away from him like a jewel from his neck with a snapped chain; Phoebus, for all his fine behaviour, was indifferent to the inner loneliness and despair; Mr. Bargrave, Sir William Wyndham, faithful as they were, what would they mean to him to-morrow?
Here, then, was the truth that he might have gone a long life without discovering: "All I ever had, all I ever was, or thought I was, are as nothing; all that matters is how I can face that moment tomorrow."
His pride, rising from its overthrow in another form, took some hard comfort from this—"I alone now matter to myself—it rests alone with me."
The unbolting and opening of his door brought him sharply from his reflections; he sprang to his feet.
It was Mr. Bargrave who entered.
"Ah, sir," said Francis gently. "You are rather late."
"I heard," answered the clergyman, "that Mistress Cowley had permission to see you to-day...I should have been loath to break in on that."
Francis crossed to the white carved chalk mantelpiece and rested his elbow against it, supporting his cheek in his palm.
"She hath been," he said. "Poor child!...Phoebus hath been good there. I have much to be grateful to Phoebus for. Her father is not over warm in my behalf."
"I also," returned Mr. Bargrave, "must bear witness to the worth of Mr. Ribblestone. At first I misjudged him."
"It seemed we misliked each other, but I was mistaken," answered Sir Francis simply. "Now as to that other matter, sir; you have bought it for me?"
Mr. Bargrave, looking ashy colourless and old, took from his pocket a little white packet and laid it on the table.
"God forgive me if I am wrong," he said heavily, "but I could not withstand your commands and importunities."
"Heaven bless you," answered Francis. "I trusted you—I knew that you would not forsake me."
He went to the table and took up the packet.
"Is it strong and sure?" he asked quietly. "Sudden?"
Mr. Bargrave could not speak; he nodded his head.
"This is my best friend now," said Francis, putting the poison into his waistcoat pocket. "If they...condemn me...follow me from the bar a little space and be near me...I would not die utterly alone."
The old man stood silent.
"And as to Margaret," continued Francis gently, "she must not be there...I have conquered that selfishnes; you must see to it that she is not there, or that she leaveth before the...end. Speak to Phoebus about this. And there are three letters here in this drawer, one to her, one to Phoebus, and one to Sir William Wyndham, who hath done all that a friend could. Take the key of the drawer, and afterwards deliver them. There is also my will. Recommend the old servants to Phoebus; he was impatient with them, but perhaps now he would keep them. So, that is all—with my deep thanks to you."
"Francis!" cried Mr. Bargrave. "Do not speak as if all hope were abandoned."
"Sir," answered the young man steadily, "there is no hope, save in a miracle. My own lawyer telleth me so much."
Mr. Bargrave was again silent; it was difficult to offer encouragement or consolation to one in the position of Francis Ribblestone; it was difficult to speak hopefully when his own heart was weighed with distress.
"What a proud, wilful fool I was!" exclaimed Francis suddenly. "Sir, is it never given to us to know ourselves until some tragedy forceth our bare soul before our eyes?"
"You were neither fool nor wilful," answered Mr. Bargrave. "What you were then, and are now—all true-seeing men must admire."
Francis smiled sadly.
"Who would take my word that I am not a vile murderer? Only my friends. My name is tarnished before all the world."
"I would," exclaimed the clergyman, "that Mrs. Muschamp had tarried in Surrey."
"Bernardine Muschamp!" repeated Francis. "Ah, yes, she is in Scotland with her husband's people, is she not? She will scarcely have heard of this business."
"I would to God she were here!"
"Why? She is not concerned."
"Mistress Muschamp is a woman among a thousand. I have great confidence in her wit, in her spirit, in her friendship for you. Sir William said the same."
He did not add that Sir William had also remarked that it was damned unfortunate for Francis Ribblestone that the young widow, instead of Miss Cowley, was not his promised wife. He remembered both ladies, and held the same opinion of them as Mr. Bargrave.
No such reflections occurred to Francis.
"You have an extraordinary faith in Mistress Muschamp," he said gently; "but she, dear sir, could not save me. I think she will be sorry," he added, "and startled. Commend me to her when she returneth."
"I do trust that when she returneth you will be there to meet her; gloomy forebodings now will not help you to strengthen yourself for to-morrow."
"Nor will false hopes," said Francis. "Nor would I be distracted with them. My only claim is that of...hopelessness."
Mr. Bargrave looked at him with bitter terror in his eyes.
"I will not leave you on such words," he answered. "Think of God and His justice."
"God!" he repeated vaguely. "Ah, yes, there is always...God."
As soon as the doors of the Town Hall were opened to the dull light of the March morning the court was filled.
The court-room was on the ground floor, fairly spacious, panelled in well-waxed wood for two-thirds of its height, with a fine open-timber roof and side windows sunk in wooden mullions, which admitted a cold greyish light through the square glazed and leaded panes.
The end of the room was occupied by the seats for judge and jury, rising one above the other, to the left the bar for the prisoner, to the right that for the witnesses.
Behind the handsomely carved and cushioned seat of the judge was a gilt figure of Justice in a niche, above which was the inscription "Car., Dei Gracia, 1683," the date of the rebuilding of the Town Hall.
The rest of the court, right to the heavy doors, was occupied by-rows of benches.
On the walls hung two splendid and rich portraits of King Charles II and King James II, each arrayed in full royal robes, and looking with handsome and undisturbed eyes across and above the people below.
Over half the hall, darkening the last rows of benches, projected a black oak gallery, the seats of which rose to the ceiling at the extreme back; on the front of this was a clock with a painted face and either side a portrait, dark and smoked, one of William III in the white satin and blue velvet of the garter, and the other of his wife, brown-eyed and deprecating, in pearls and ermine.
Just behind and above this portrait, in the front row of the gallery, sat Miss Cowley, wrapped in a grey mantle and wearing a black mask under her wide-brimmed hat; beside her were her father, her uncle, and her brother, a young ensign in the vivid uniform of the Tangiers Horse.
Both the gallery and the body of the court were completely filled, the press being enormous.
In the whole assembly of distinguished, fashionable and famous people two gentlemen, who sat as near as possible to where the prisoner must stand, attracted the most attention.
The elder, a figure of virile grace and charm, with purposeful eyes and strong features, very lavishly dressed and bejewelled, was Sir William Wyndham, the leader of the Opposition; the younger, who had an air of foreign composure and completion, a superb carriage, and a face of remarkable attraction, was Mr. Phoebus Ribblestone.
Silence being called, the jury entered.
The Clerk of Arraignment stood up in his place.
"You good men who are empanelled to inquire into this case, answer to your names and save your fines."
They were called over; the judge, a noted Whig and in high favour with the government, gave a half-glance down to Sir William Wyndham, then leant back as if the court were empty and he stared into blankness.
The prisoner was brought in by the under-sheriff from the little room at the back; as he took his place an excited movement went through the spectators.
He wore black velvet flourished in gold; his hair was fastened by a paste buckle, and round his neck was one of the new-fasioned black ribbons tied in a great bow under the chin and above the ruffles of his cambric shirt; he wore neither patches nor powder and was as white as a woman; in his left hand he held a little pomander ornamented with diamonds and a handkerchief of Mechlin lace; he kept his eyes fixed on the bunches of herbs spread on the top of the bar, and never looked round the hundreds staring at him, even for a glance.
The Clerk of Arraignment rose again.
"Francis Ribblestone, hold up thy hand!"
The prisoner silently obeyed, and the Clerk of Arraignment proceeded to read the indictment in and even and formal voice.
"You stand indicted, Francis Ribblestone, baronet, of Ribblestone Manor in the parish of Chiddingfold, Surrey, for that you, not having God before your eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, on the 13th day of December, in the seventh year of his present Majesty, by force of arms, at the parish aforesaid, in and upon one Serena Fowkes, spinster, against the peace of God, and the honour of Our Sovereign Lord the King, did then and there being, violently, feloniously, and voluntarily strangle and do to death the said Serena Fowkes, spinster, afterwards, for concealment and confusion of the laws, casting the body of the said gentlewoman into the water, against the peace of Our Sovereign Lord the King, his Crown and dignity.
"How sayest thou, Francis Ribblestone, art thou guilty of the felony and murder whereof thou standest indicted, or not guilty?"
The prisoner lowered his hand and answered: "Not guilty."
"How wilt thou be tried?"
"By God and my country," said Francis Ribblestone in a low voice.
"God send you a good deliverance," answered the Clerk of Arraignment.
Proclamation was made for witnesses and information, then the clerk spoke again.
"You, the prisoner at the bar, these men that you shall hear called and see personally appear are to pass between Our Sovereign Lord the King and you upon trial of your life and death. Therefore if you will challenge 'em, or any of 'em, your time to speak is when they come to the book to be sworn, and before they be sworn."
The jury were then sworn without being challenged by the prisoner; there was a pause and a stir as they got to their seats; then two asked for pen, ink and paper.
"Let any have it that will," answered the judge. Sir William Wyndham asked the prisoner if he desired writing material?
Sir Francis shook his head and for the first time looked around the court; his gaze rested for a second on Margaret Cowley, then returned to the herbs scattered before him.
After whispering with his clerks and sorting his papers, the lawyer for the Crown, Mr. Pomroy, a notable Whig, clever, young, alert, a ready speaker, rose and addressed the court.
"My lord, it is my duty to bring before you to-day a crime of a most horrible and barbarous nature, committed under circumstances dark and mysterious, that we have however succeeded in bringing to the light of justice.
"My lord, I shall call a great number of witnesses and do desire to take up as little of your time as possible; the people I shall produce will tell their own story, and I have no doubt that they will convince your lordship of the guilt of the prisoner; therefore I shall only touch on the heads of the case.
"Firstly, I would desire your lordship to notice that the prisoner is a young man of title, wealth, and prospects, who however fell enamoured of, and promised marriage to, the murdered young woman, though she was not of his rank and was penniless. This in itself was a far from honourable action, for, my lord, Francis Ribblestone, at the time he was making these promises, never meant to redeem them."
The prisoner drew a deep breath, crushed his handkerchief up in his hand and pressed it to his lips.
"This girl, Serena Fowkes," continued Mr. Pomroy, "was a stranger in Haslemere and unprotected, save by her grandfather, an old man absorbed in his books. It appears that she was an easy victim to the arts of the prisoner and became violently jealous of him, so much so that her conduct was a matter of comment in Haslemere. How far the prisoner pursued his gallantries is not a matter, my lord, for the prosecution, and 'tis better, in respect to the memory of the dead girl, not to press that point; I only leave it to your lordship to imagine what was likely to be the behaviour of a young gallant making secret love to a woman far beneath him, powerless, and trusting him, a woman with whom he had been sufficiently in love to promise marriage.
"Leaving that, we come to the fact that the announcement of the approaching marriage of Sir Francis cast Miss Fowkes into a state of anger, and anguish.
"She refused to see him, avoided him, and gave him every sign of scorn and dislike, but she behaved with spirit; she wrote a letter to a friend, asking him to come to Haslemere and take away the same of her discomfiture by his support.
"Unfortunately he did not receive the letter at once, and she seemeth to have met and upbraided Sir Francis, who, about to enter on political life, became evidently afraid of the scandal that was in her power to cause, and wrote to her, asking her to see him once more.
"The next fact is, my lord, that they were seen on the afternoon of December 13th to leave the village of Haslemere together, he angry and agitated, she imploring and tearful. It was then about four o'clock.
"Mr. Bargrave, the clergyman in charge of the chapel of St. Christopher, followed them with the object of bringing the girl back, but lost sight of them in the gathering darkness.
"On his way home, however, he (it being then about five o'clock) met Sir Francis alone, in a very disordered state, on the moor.
"His answers to Mr. Bargrave were distracted and it was noticed that he had lost his hair-tie; he said that he had dropped it on the heath.
"That night Mistress Fowkes did not return home, but early the next morning she was found by those searching for her in a piece of water, known as Boundless Water, close to where Mr. Bargrave had lost sight of her and Sir Francis.
"It was instantly perceived, my lord, even by the ignorant, that she had not been drowned, for she was found floating with her eyes open.
"Round her feet was a blue ribbon which had been fastened to a stone, with the intention of weighing her down.
"My lord, Sir Francis confessed to the blue ribbon as his hair-tie, displaying the greatest agitation when confronted with it.
"There were also marks round the dead girl's neck as if she had been strangled.
"Now the conclusion, which I can prove by my witnesses, my lord, is this: the poor forsaken creature bitterly reproached Sir Francis with his desertion and threatened in her despair to make a scandal that would prevent his marriage and his election, and he, goaded and frightened, encouraged and emboldened by the loneliness of the spot and his own evil passions, did murder her with his hands about her throat, and then cast her into Boundless Water to disguise the deed. In his alarm he used his hair-tie to fasten a stone to her feet, never thinking but that she would sink, and never believing that any in Haslemere would dare accuse him of murder, the truth of which surmise is proved by the verdict of the coroner's court, where the jury were his own tenantry.
"I will now call my witnesses."
In the little pause that followed the prisoner looked up at Margaret Cowley; she was leaning forward on the rail of the gallery, with her muff up on it and hiding her face; he shivered, pulled out his handkerchief from the knot he had crushed it into and pressed it again to his mouth; during the whole of Mr. Pomroy's speech he had not once lifted his eyes.
"Call Henry Truman, parish officer for the parish of Chiddingfold."
This witness was sworn and entered the box. Mr. Pomroy began to examine him.
"You are parish officer for the village of Haslemere?"
"Will you tell us what you know as to the finding of the body of Serena Fowkes on the 13th of December last?"
"A boy came running to my house and told me there was a dead woman found in Boundless Water. It was then about seven in the morning. I sent the boy on to the coroner and went to Boundless Water. On the way I met the constable and we went together. When we got to the water there was a crowd of people that didn't like to handle her till we came. The constable and I and Mr. Holt kneeled down and pulled her out, and laid her on the bank."
"How was she in the water?"
"She was lying on her side, with her head turned so that she looked up."
"Her eyes were open?"
"Yes, broad open."
"She was floating?"
"Yes, swimming as it were."
"Was her head above water?"
"No, but her coats and ruffles were above the surface."
"How were her arms?"
"One was against a stake that stuck in the water. Mr. Holt said to me when we pulled her out, 'Take care, you hurt her arm,' and I took it away from the stake."
A juryman here interrupted.
"Which arm was it, the left or the right?"
"You must not put questions save through me," reproved the judge.
"I wished to know if it was her right arm, my lord."
"Which arm was it?" asked the judge.
"My lord," replied the witness, "it would be the right arm, that which was on top, the other hung down beneath her."
"How deep is the water where she was found?" asked Mr. Pomroy, taking up the examination again.
"Seven or eight feet."
"And how far was she beneath the surface?"
"About three inches her face was, the rest of her was on the level, and her coats were above it."
"Was she disfigured?"
"We did not know her but by her gown; her jaw was fallen and her face covered with weeds and trumpery; I washed these away and we saw dark marks behind her ears, and some one said she had been strangled."
"Was she swelled with water?"
"Not at all."
"Did any water come from her nose and mouth when you laid her on the bank?"
"Not a drop."
"In your opinion, a drowned person would not float?"
"And would be swelled?"
"And would purge water from nose and mouth when taken out?"
The lawyer glanced down at his notes.
"A child was drowned in the millrace at Haslemere last year. Did you take it out?"
"Was it swelled?"
"Yes, so that its laces were burst."
"Where did you find this child?"
"At the bottom of the millrace."
"How deep is that?"
"About eight feet."
"Was Mistress Fowkes laced?"
"Yes, before and behind."
"And they were not burst?"
"How were her feet?"
"A fine piece of blue ribbon."
"Is this it?" There was a movement in the court as Mr. Pomroy produced and held up a knot of blue silk.
"Yes; but it was darker then, being wet."
"Never mind that. Is it the same ribbon?"
"Was it tightly tied?"
"No, loosely—she had no garters and her stockings were rolled down, but white and unstained by the slime; her skirts came up as we pulled her out, and we saw the ribbon; a stone fell from the loop and sank to the bottom."
"What did you do with the body?"
"We took it to Farmer Williams' barn; the coroner sent to Guildford for a doctor, and the barn was locked till he came."
"That is all."
The witness stepped down.
"Call Christopher Rose, chief constable for the village of Haslemere."
He came, and was sworn.
"Speak what you know of the finding of the body of Serena Fowkes," said Mr. Pomroy.
"Mr. Fairley, my neighbour, called me up when I was abed and told me there was one murdered on the heath; I went at once, and on the way met the parish officer.
"There was a crowd about Boundless Water and, kneeling on the bank, I looked in and saw a woman's face staring up at me. Her right arm was cast about a stake. We took her out and her skirts came up and showed that her feet were tied."
"Was she floating?"
"Yes, just under the water, with her skirts above it.
"Had she the appearance of one drowned?"
"Have you taken many drowned bodies from the water?"
"Did they look like her?"
"She was not swelled?"
"No, very thin."
"And no water ran from her mouth?"
"No. I put up her jaws and her mouth was empty."
"Her eyes were open?"
"You helped put the body in the barn?"
"You saw that there was no letter or paper about her?"
"Yes. I looked in her pockets and found two shillings; this I showed to the others and put by. Afterwards I gave them to old Master Fowkes."
"Did you allow anybody into the barn before the doctor came?"
"Only Mistress Coventry, who was the dead woman's cousin and a gentleman from London."
"You were there with them?"
"All the time?"
"Did they, either of them, touch the body?"
"Were there any marks on her neck?"
"Yes, dark marks behind the ears."
"Do you think she had been drowned?"
"No, I am sure she had not."
"I have finished."
The judge spoke to the prisoner.
"Sir Francis, do you not wish to question either of these witnesses?"
"No, my lord," said the prisoner, without looking up.
"Call John Holt, yeoman."
A little stir greeted this witness, who spoke with more passion and force than either of the others.
"You were the first person to discover the body of Serena Fowkes?"
"You had been searching for her?"
"Mistress Coventry came to our house about six of the clock of the night before and told us that her cousin was missing. It was a stormy night and you could not see an inch without lanterns. We made up a party to go look for her and searched over the heath all night. When it began to grow light I saw her in Boundless Water. Brent, the lorimer, was just behind me."
"What did you do?"
"I shouted to the others, and sent one off to the coroner and another to the parish officer."
"Because," answered John Holt in a strong voice, "I knew that she had been murdered."
Mr. Pomroy paused to give full effect to the sensation this caused in the court, then he asked: "What made you think so?"
"I know a drownded body when I see it. She was not drownded."
"You have heard the last two witnesses; do you agree as to her appearance when taken out of the water?"
"All they said was true."
"How do you think she died?"
"Did you take the ribbon off her feet?"
"Was there any opinion expressed as to this ribbon?"
"Yes; we said it was like the ribbon Sir Francis had worn in his hair the night before."
"Was he then in company with Mistress Fowkes?"
"Where did you see them?"
"Leaving Haslemere, passing the Town Hall."
"What time was it then?"
"About half-past four."
"Did you notice anything strange in the manner of either?"
"Both seemed distracted; he was endeavouring to hush her, and seemed to be leaving the town for fear their talk should be heard."
"Did you think this an unusual thing for Sir Francis to do?"
"Yes, I thought it an unusual thing."
"When the body was taken to the barn, what did you do?"
"I took the ribbon up to the Manor House."
"Because I suspected Sir Francis of the murder."
"What did he do?"
"He was very troubled, he said he had lost the ribbon on the heath the night before and referred us to the coroner."
"You went to the coroner?"
"Yes, and he sent me to Guildford for a doctor."
"That is all now. My lord, I shall call this witness later on another count."
The prisoner stood silent, and young Holt stepped down.
"Call James Brent, lorimer, of Haslemere."
"You were with John Holt when he found the body of Serena Fowkes?"
"Do you think she was drowned?"
"No. She was strangled."
"Was she floating?"
"Her face was under the water?"
"I did not take notice."
"You went with Mr. Holt to Ribblestone Manor House with the ribbon found on the girl's feet—why?"
"Because I thought that it looked ugly for Sir Francis."
"What was his behaviour?"
"You went afterwards to Guildford to fetch a doctor?"
"You may go."
There was a second's pause; every one was staring at the prisoner, who leant against the front of the dock and made a great effort to steady his breathing. Mr. Ribblestone whispered to Sir William Wyndham and the judge glanced at both of them.
"Call Elizabeth Bell, widow, of Haslemere."
An elderly woman stepped into the witness box.
"You laid out the body of Serena Fowkes?"
"Had she, in your opinion, been drowned?"
"No; she had been strangled."
"There were blue marks under her ears and she was not disfigured by the water, but her body was as well as a woman's can be. Three drowned corpses have I dressed for their coffins; all were swelled, and water ran from their nostrils and lips."
"In this case this was not so?"
"No; when I helped her into her coffin her head came forward, but no moisture ran from her face, though I, expecting it, had laid a napkin ready."
This witness was dismissed, and Dr. Hutton of Guildford called.
"On the morning of December 14th last year, you were summoned by John Holt and James Brent to Haslemere to view the body of Serena Fowkes?"
"Yes. At first I would not go, since they said that the gentlewoman was already dead; but afterwards I went and saw her in the barn."
"Of what had she died?"
"How long had she been dead?"
"It is impossible to say."
"Can one thrown alive into the water float?"
"No. It is against all medical knowledge."
"Will you explain why?"
"'Tis because a person thrown or falling alive into the water swalloweth a great quantity, which filleth the lungs and internal parts and causeth great swelling, and so the body, weighed with water, sinketh, whereas one dead cast in, the throat is already contracted, the muscles stiff, no water passeth down and the body, being lighter than water, floateth—this is a well-known law of science."
"You would swear that this gentlewoman had not been drowned?"
"I would swear it."
Several more doctors were then called, who gave evidence to the same effect; the prisoner did not challenge any of them nor even raise his eyes to their faces; an usher sprinkled the court with vinegar, for the air was becoming heavy and close.
There was a pause of whispered conversation, of shifting and shuffling in seats, of sighs and comments, and even stretchings and yawnings.
Only the prisoner was motionless, looking down, looking inward: looking into what dreadful visions those there who loved him shuddered to think of.
The usher rose again.
"Call Phoebus Ribblestone, gentleman, of Haslemere, Surrey."
Mr. Ribblestone rose from beside Sir William Wyndham and stepped up to the book; when he was sworn in and in the box he addressed the judge.
"My lord, I protest most warmly at being called for the prosecution. I consider it infamous. Sir Francis is my half-brother."
His resplendent appearance, his quality, his relation to the prisoner, his calm demeanour, perfectly courteous, but as if he scorned the whole proceeding, caused all eyes to turn from Sir Francis to him; the hush in the court was almost painful.
"I am sorry for your position, Mr. Ribblestone," answered the judge, "but if the Crown cannot dispense with your evidence you have no choice."
Phoebus Ribblestone turned so as to half face the court.
"I speak most reluctantly. I am here under protest."
"I regret that I am forced to question you, Mr. Ribblestone," said the lawyer for the Crown. "The prisoner will, of course, understand your situation."
He turned over some notes.
"What did you do on the night of December 13th last?"
"I rode to Chiddingfold."
"For what reason?"
"Because my mother was married and buried at the church there and the pastor had known her, I went to see him."
"What time was it when you crossed the heath outside Haslemere?"
"Between half-past four and five, as I suppose, but I cannot be sure."
"Did you pass anyone?"
"Sir Francis and Mistress Fowkes."
"What were they doing?"
"They were walking across the heath, talking together."
"Towards Boundless Water?"
"Yes," said the witness reluctantly.
"You did not stop?"
"No. I was riding rapidly to get to Chiddingfold before the dusk fell."
"You did not think it remarkable that your brother and this girl should be alone together in such a situation?"
"You knew then that there was something between them?"
"I knew that they had been talked about."
"You knew that there was reason for this talk?"
"I decline to answer that question."
"Mr. Ribblestone, I must insist—you knew that there was reason for the scandal concerning your brother and this girl?"
Phoebus appealed to the Judge.
"My lord, is this question necessary?"
"No," said his lordship. "Pray pass that, Mr. Pomroy."
"Well," continued the lawyer, "you were not surprised to see your brother and Mistress Fowkes alone on the heath as night was falling?"
"No. I thought it no affair of mine."
"You were not moved to interfere?"
"I was not my brother's confidant, but his guest. I saw no occasion to inquire into his business. In France, where I have lived all my life, gentlemen do not intrude on each other in these matters."
"Sir Francis and Mistress Fowkes were talking together very intimately?"
"They were talking together."
"With emotion and passion?"
"I did not notice."
"Did you pass anyone else?"
"Did you accost him?"
"What did you imagine he did there at such an hour?"
"I thought he was following to bring the girl home."
"For her sake or that of Sir Francis?"
"I did not consider. I thought the whole affair very trivial."
"But you knew that your brother was betrothed to another?"
"Yes, I knew."
"And still you thought nothing of his intrigue with Mistress Fowkes?"
"I decline to discuss that aspect. I must beg you, sir, in common decency, to leave out even the slightest reference to the lady to whom my brother is betrothed."
A hum of sympathy went through the court; Mr. Pomroy altered his ground.
"Perhaps you thought so little of this because you were new to England? In France you would not have noticed such things?"
"Discretion, sir," smiled Phoebus, "is not a matter of nationality. In no country should I much concern myself into inquiring into how a gentleman conducted his—friendships—with pretty young women. I do absolutely refuse to discuss my brother's conduct in this matter."
"When did you return from Chiddingfold?"
"The next morning."
"Passing through Haslemere, you heard of the discovery of the body of Serena Fowkes?"
"Were you concerned?"
"I was concerned for my brother."
"Did you go and see her?"
"Mon Dieu, no."
"Were you the first to give the news to your brother?"
"How did you find him?"
"He had been sitting up all night writing; in consequence he was rather weary and disordered."
"Do you not consider it an unusual thing for your brother to sit up all night?"
"I had not been long enough at Ribblestone to know his habits."
"Did he seem distracted?"
"I did not notice."
"How did he receive the news?"
"I do not remember."
"This is very strange, Mr. Ribblestone, that you should not recall something of his behaviour. Was he calm?"
"I cannot recall."
"Were you with him when he was confronted with the blue ribbon?"
"How did he behave?"
"As you might expect anyone to behave."
"Come, Mr. Ribblestone, that is no answer—was your brother agitated?"
"Did he rouse your suspicions as to his guilt?"
"My lord," said Phoebus, "I protest against that question."
"I am afraid, Mr. Pomroy," answered the judge,
"I must ask you to withdraw that question."
The lawyer bowed.
"Did you know anything of Mistress Fowkes?"
"Did you see her after she was dead?"
"At the inquest, yes."
"Had she the appearance of some one who hath been drowned?"
"I know nothing whatever about that."
"Thank you, Mr. Ribblestone, that is all."
Phoebus came down into the court and took his seat beside Sir William Wyndham; the prisoner drew a heavy breath and asked the warder in the back of the dock for a glass of water; it was brought and he drank it slowly, then raised his eyes above the press of faces to where Margaret Cowley sat behind the portrait of Mary of Orange.
He could not see her countenance for the black vizard she wore, and she made no sign nor movement that she noticed the silent appeal of his agonized glance; after a second his eyes dropped again to the bunches of marjoram, vervain, lavender, and rue before him.
Mr. Pomroy now put into the box five young farmers, who one after the other swore to seeing Serena Fowkes leave Haslemere in company with Francis Ribblestone on the night of December 13th.
Mr. Bargrave was then called.
The age, pallor, obvious distress and reluctance of this witness roused great sympathy in the court; the prisoner for the first time appeared to take some interest in the cross-examination; he fixed his eyes on Mr. Bargrave intently.
"You saw the prisoner and Mistress Fowkes leave Haslemere on the evening of December 13th?"
"You followed them, I think; for what reason?"
The witness answered in a low and failing voice.
"I wished to save Sir Francis from an unpleasant situation. I knew that the girl's behaviour had caused gossip in Haslemere of which he was quite unconscious—"
"Never mind your surmises, Mr. Bargrave. You were startled to see them leave Haslemere together, and you followed. It was then getting dark?"
"Yes, because of the weather; it was not really late."
"It was half-past four, Mr. Bargrave, on a December afternoon. How far did you follow?"
"I do not know, not very far; the evening was so misty I soon lost sight of them."
"They were going in the direction of Boundless Water?"
"They went across the heath in no particular direction."
"But Boundless Water lay before them?"
"Maybe. I took no notice."
"When you lost sight of them, did you turn home?"
"Leaving these two alone on the moor?"
The old man answered in a firmer voice.
"I trusted Sir Francis. I was not afraid for the girl, from the first, but only for him, lest evil tongues should wound him."
"Did you see Sir Francis again?"
"Yes, about an hour later I met him returning alone; he said Mistress Fowkes had left him to go home."
"Did he seem agitated?"
"No—but a little sad."
"You noticed that he had lost his hair-ribbon?"
"Yes, and remarked upon it; he said that he had dropped it on the moor and that it was now too late to go back for it."
"Did that not strike you as extraordinary?"
"Not at all."
"Do you know that it is very difficult for a gentleman to lose his hair-knot?"
"I do not suppose it impossible."
"Do you not think that a man would have to be in a state of great agitation not to notice that his hair had come untied?"
"Not necessarily on a wet, windy night."
"How long did you speak with Sir Francis?"
"Only a moment or two; it was raining fast and we each went our ways home."
"That will do, Mr. Bargrave."
The prisoner now raised his head and spoke.
"My lord, I should like to question this witness." He leant forward on the rail of the dock and said in a low, quiet voice:
"Sir, when you met me on the heath was there anything in my manner, appearance or words to make you think that I had just committed a horrid crime?"
"No, nothing whatever," answered Mr. Bargrave firmly.
"Do you think it likely that I could have come but a few moments before from a foul deed of violence and act as I acted then?"
"No, I do not."
"There was nothing about my person to indicate a struggle or fight?"
The prisoner drew himself erect and asked very gently:
"One thing more, Mr. Bargrave—do you, who have known me since my birth, think me capable of the crime with which I am charged?"
"I am absolutely convinced that you ever have been, and are, absolutely incapable of a dishonourable or violent action."
"Thank you, Mr. Bargrave. I have finished."
Mr. Bargrave stepped down, and Mr. Pomroy rose.
"Call Edward Langton, servant."
This witness being sworn, took his place; the prisoner glanced at him, and a faint blush stained his cheek to see his own body-servant brought against him.
"You are valet to Sir Francis Ribblestone?"
"Do you usually dress your master's hair?"
"When he weareth it plain; when 'tis powdered and pomaded 'tis a matter for the barber."
"Do you know this'?" Mr. Pomroy held up the blue ribbon.
"Yes. It is one of my master's hair-ties."
"Did he wear it on the 13th December last?"
"Yes, sir. I recall he selected it from some others."
"Did you fasten it on?"
"Yes. I curled his hair and tied it with that ribbon."
"Do you think that you fastened it loosely—so that it could easily come off?"
"It was put round twice, and tied in the ordinary way, no looser nor firmer."
"Did you ever know your master lose his hair-ribbon before?"
"Not that I recall."
"Or return home with his hair disordered?"
"No—but maybe when he hath come home from hunting—"
"Never mind about that, confine yourself to yes or no. At what time did your master return on the evening of December 13th?"
"About seven o'clock."
"In what condition?"
"Why, he was wet and tired."
"Did you change his clothes for him?"
"Yes, sir; he was soaked to the shirt, and said the rain had caught him unawares."
"Was there anything unusual on his clothes—mud or clay or slime?"
"Did he remain in his chamber?"
"No. He dined as usual, then went into the library to write."
"Was his manner strange?"
"No; he was rather silent."
"Did he remark on his loss of the ribbon?"
"Yes, and I marvelling that it should have come untied, he said it was simple enough with such a wind blowing and his hair getting caught in his cloak."
"Did you think this a good excuse?"
"Yes sir. I have often served gentlemen who have come home without their hair-ties."
"Not if they were sober, I think," remarked Mr. Pomroy. "Did your master sit up in the library?"
"Did not you think this strange?"
"No, sir. You see, Sir Francis, being entered for the Guildford elections, often used to sit up all night writing speeches and reading broadsides."
"Did you go down to him in the morning?"
"Yes; and very well and cheerful he was, sir."
"Did you know of any intrigue between your master and Mistress Fowkes?"
The prisoner spoke impulsively.
"My lord, I protest against the indignity of such a question being put to my body-servant."
"It must be answered, Sir Francis," said the judge dryly.
It was repeated.
"No sir, nor of any other either," replied the valet quietly. "I have been with Sir Francis five years and never saw or heard of anything of the kind. All his movements were open, and I don't think that he as much as noticed the village wenches."
"Sir Francis was a good master to you, and you wish, naturally, to do him a service?"
"I speak the truth, sir," answered the man simply. "You may ask anyone if my master was not known for a grave, sober gentleman with his mind on politics."
This witness being dismissed, the lawyer made his second point with the judge.
"I have not proved, my lord, that the prisoner was the last person to be seen with the murdered woman; that he was seen proceeding with her towards Boundless Water on the evening of December 13th; that he was met alone soon afterwards in a disordered state, and that he spent the night in an unusual manner, shut up in his library. I will now show that the feeling between the prisoner and Mistress Fowkes was such as would be likely to end in a tragedy.
"Call Patience Coventry, spinster, of Bunhill Row, London."
The girl being sworn and standing up before the interested gaze of the court went very pale, and gazed imploringly round to catch a glance of encouragement from Mr. Septvan's brown eyes.
"You are cousin to Serena Fowkes?"
"You came to stay with her and your grandfather in Haslemere, the September of last year?"
"Did she speak to you of Sir Francis?"
"Well, yes, sir, she did, but I cannot remember all; she always had a way of saying wild things—"
"Keep to the point, please—what did she say of Sir Francis?"
"I don't remember," said Patience, half sullen, half frightened; "she thought he was going to marry her."
"Ah, she thought that—did she give you her reasons?"
"No; she just said so."
"How often did they see each other?"
"I don't know."
"Did he ever come to your house?"
"Did your cousin ever go to the Manor House?"
"Yes, he asked us and we went. I didn't see any harm in it—he showed us the pictures and was very kind."
"What was his behaviour to your cousin?"
"Oh, just genteel."
"Did you not think it a strange thing for a great gentleman to ask you to his house?"
"No. I thought he might be going to marry Serena. She was very pretty."
"Did they often meet?"
"I don't know. She was often out on the heath, and I think she saw him sometimes."
"Did she speak of his attentions in Haslemere?"
"Yes. It caused a lot of gossip."
"She went so far as to hint she might be Lady Ribblestone?"
"You went, I think, to a dance at Bleachley Hall?"
"Yes. Mistress Cowley asked us and sent her carriage. Serena was very pleased, she thought that Sir Francis had persuaded them."
"What happened at this ball?"
"Sir Francis danced twice with Serena, and I saw them speaking together under the music gallery; after that I lost sight of her and found she had gone home; when I got back I found grandfather raving and Serena locked into her room, and then I heard that Sir Francis was to marry Miss Cowley."
"How did your cousin behave?"
"She was half crazy, so strange indeed that I stayed on in Haslemere; there was a lot of talk about it; she made me and grandfather promise never to speak again to Sir Francis or Miss Cowley. Then she wrote a letter to a friend in London that was never answered, and that made her worse—"
"A moment," interrupted the lawyer; "did she never tell you what reasons she had for hating Sir Francis?"
"Why, that he hadn't married her; but I don't think she hated him."
"Your cousin was a modest girl, was she not?—she would not have fixed her affections so strongly on Sir Francis without encouragement on his part?"
"I don't know, sir."
"But you supposed that she had had encouragement?"
"Yes, I did."
"Your cousin received a letter from Sir Francis?"
"Yes; it was talked of afterwards. I did not know of it at the time."
"You saw a change in her behaviour?"
"Yes; she became very excited; she said that she would see Sir Francis again, and soon; she watched all day at the window and saw him go past, but with Mr. Bargrave. Then she put on her hood and waited for his return; he came with Mr. Bargrave, but parted from him close to our house, and she ran out, saying she would be but a minute. From the window I saw her speak to him, then they moved away together."
Mr. Pomroy gave a letter to the clerk, which was handed up to the witness.
"Was this letter found in your cousin's bedchamber, after her death?"
"Yes, in her trinket-box."
"There were no other papers of any kind?"
"No. Usually she kept writings in an old Latin book, but 'twas empty."
"My lord," said Mr. Pomroy, "I will read the letter—it is in one hand throughout, and undated:
"'I am sorry for your reproaches; if you would permit me to see you, some might be removed. Circumstances, not I, have changed; I could prove to you that I am not so guilty as you think.'"
"Is the letter signed?" asked the judge.
"No, my lord."
The letter was handed to the judge, and then the prisoner demanded to see it.
"My lord, this is not my hand. I never wrote these lines."
"'Tis your paper, I think, Sir Francis," said Mr. Pomroy dryly.
"'Tis not my hand. I finished this matter at the inquest; it should not be brought up against me now."
"Don't flourish too much, Sir Francis," said his lordship. "You cannot disprove the letter."
A deep colour stained the prisoner's pallor; he bowed to the judge and addressed Mr. Pomroy.
"Sir, have you done with this witness?"
"Yes, sir," answered Mr. Pomroy, with a calm that seemed to convey that the prisoner might do his utmost since he was already, in the mind of judge, jury and spectators, condemned.
And in his own mind, too. As he stood there, with a dreadful stillness of pose and an awful lowness of voice, fighting for life and honour, his thoughts were busy with the details of his end that he would presently hear from the judge who eyed him so coldly, and his right hand went to the inner pocket where Mr. Bargrave's gift of the night before lay concealed.
Raising his head a little, he proceeded to cross-examine Patience Coventry in gentle tones, such as were seldom heard from the place where he stood.
"Mistress," he said, "bethink you a little and answer carefully. Did you ever behold for yourself, or did Mistress Fowkes ever tell you any single instance of my behaviour to her which could have led her to suppose, or you to imagine, that I wished to make her my wife?"
"It was all surmise and conjecture?"
"And there was nothing in my manner when you came to Ribblestone to make you think I was your cousin's lover, in any sense her lover?"
"No," answered Patience, "there was nothing, sir."
"Do you know that Hold of Langley, one of my tenants, was also asked to the ball at Bleachley Hall?"
"I heard so afterwards."
"He was asked at my suggestion, because I thought Mistress Fowkes favoured him. Did you know that I danced twice with her merely because he was not there?"
"Did your cousin show this letter that hath just been read to you?"
"You knew nothing of it till after her death?"
"Do you not think that if she had received that letter from me she would have shown it?"
"I don't know; she did not tell me everything."
"Did she say that she was going to meet me by appointment?"
The judge interrupted.
"Come, Sir Francis, this is very trivial; you take up the time of the court."
"My lord," replied the prisoner with dignity, "I am on trial of my life and honours. Nothing is trivial that may help to clear me."
"I have no wish to constrain you, Sir Francis," said his lordship, "but pray be as brief as possible."
"I shall obey your lordship."
Sir Francis turned again to the witness.
"Did not your cousin appear to be in melancholy, in such a condition that she might have been brought to destroy herself?"
"She was wild and sad."
"Did she sometimes talk of suicide?"
"Yes, sometimes; but I never believed her."
"But she spoke of it?"
"Yes, she spoke of it."
"That is all, thank you, mistress."
Then Samuel Fowkes and John Holt were put into the box. Both gave vindictive evidence against the prisoner with regard to his behaviour to Serena Fowkes, and neither of them was his cross-examination able to shake.
Mr. Pomroy, more and more triumphant, and thinking of the favours likely to come his way from Sir Robert Walpole, called his last witness.
"Call Thomas Septvan, gentleman, of the county of Kent."
The prisoner turned of the judge with great energy.
"My lord, I protest against this witness. 'Tis a friend of Sir Robert Walpole—"
"Sir Francis, I cannot sit on the bench and hear these remarks. Leave Sir Robert out of it."
"I would to Heaven, my lord," answered the prisoner bitterly, "that Sir Robert were out of it. But I protest against this witness; he is full of malice against me, he doth not know me, and he hath done much to influence opinion against me."
"You cannot challenge one of the Crown's witnesses, Sir Francis. It is not done."
"I submit under protest, my lord. I exclaim against the action of the prosecution in putting this gentleman into the box."
He was more roused than he had been since the trial began. With nostrils distended, lips compressed, and a patch of colour on either cheek, he leant against the rail of the dock gazing at Thomas Septvan while he gave his evidence, which was in truth very little and consisted principally in the letter sent by Serena, which was read aloud in court.
"I am so bold as to write to you, knowing that you once held me in some account.
I am now fallen into the most terrible misery and forlornness, through my own blindness and the cruelty of another. Oh, sir, I cannot write it all, but if I ever see you again you shall have the truth from my lips. Will you come to Haslemere and take me hence? I am poor and heart-broken and forsaken. If you do not answer this I shall know that you do not care, but I think you will come when I say that if you do not it will end in my death—for he is without pity; save me from him.
Your poor unhappy servant,
A murmur, by no means in favour of the prisoner, followed this; it was not difficult to see that the sympathy was entirely against Sir Francis, and when Mr. Septvan, moderately but effectively, proceeded to paint the gentle modest nature of the dead girl, a demonstration rose at the back of the court that the usher had to call to order.
The prosecution concluded and, it being now two o'clock, the court adjourned for an hour.
The court half emptied; Miss Cowley went out, supported by her brother and father. The judge retired to the little room behind the court.
About the prisoner gathered his friends, Phoebus and Sir William Wyndham among them.
Mr. Bargrave, with his mind not so horribly on that little packet in the pocket of Sir Francis' waistcoat, remained in his seat with his head bent on his hands; he, like every one else, had no doubt as to the verdict—however sentiment might go, there was no proof.
Sir Francis refused, with something of a shudder, the food and wine offered him; he sat down at the back of the dock and listened with an abstracted air while Sir William Wyndham swore gently and bitterly against the government.
When the prisoner did speak, it was to his brother.
"Phoebus, will you take Margaret away? She must leave the court before the end. She will not be able to endure it."
"She beareth up tolerably well," answered Mr. Ribblestone, who had been up to the Council Room and seen Miss Cowley, surrounded by a crowd of sympathizers, eating cake and drinking Frontignan wine between gusty tears, that were not wholly for the prisoner, but something for herself and the unprecedented situation that she was so heroically, as she considered, enduring.
Sir Francis, whose own imagination had been a lively torture to him throughout the day, could not realize that the lady had none, and that no visions of what the verdict would really mean had disturbed a mind full of its own personal aspects of the case.
"Get her away," he repeated; "get her away."
"I believe she will not go. She thinketh it her duty to remain."
"God bless her for her sweet loyalty!" said the prisoner; "but get her to leave if you can, Phoebus."
The younger brother departed on this errand and Sir William Wyndham clasped Sir Francis by his inert right hand.
"Don't be downcast," he said. "We will jockey these damned Whigs yet."
Francis raised his wide, open hazel eyes.
"I am sorry for what I have brought on you," he answered simply, "very sorry that you should, through me, lose three seats."
"Sink the politics," cried Wyndham. "I don't think of them, Sir Francis—as long as the rascals acquit you—"
The prisoner shook his dark head.
"You must not try to deceive me. It is going dead against me."
At this moment the judge returned to his seat, and Sir William Wyndham, with another warm pressure of the prisoner's hand, stepped down from the dock. As he took his seat again Phoebus returned.
"Will she go?" whispered Wyndham.
"No—'tis her duty, she saith, to see it through."
"Bah—and I'll wager there is not a woman in court less concerned."
"Oh, 'tis a silly little dollie with the heart of a rabbit," returned Phoebus. "I am all abroad to think what Francis saw in her; as to him, he has a good chance?"
The usher crying silence stopped their whispered converse; the court was now completely filled again; Margaret Cowley was in her former place, with her vizard laid aside and a lace-edged handkerchief at her eyes.
The prisoner rose with an engrossed air, and came slowly to the front of the dock.
His figure, the only one standing among so many seated, was the centre of an eager curiosity that seemed to render the glances flung at him sharp as arrows. Wholly sensible of this, of the gathered unfriendliness of the prejudice of the judge, of the coldness of the jury, well aware of the warrant for all, in the evil seeming of the case against him, feeling in his agony that there was hardly even a desperate hope left him, and that he would not, if "Guilty" came, leave the court alive, Francis Ribblestone prepared to make his defence.
The raw light filtering through the square panes of murky glass showed his face distorted to look of suspended horror, not at all in accordance with his calm pose and even words, but unmistakable, as if he saw close before him some terrible sight that reflected dread on to his features, and which he could not escape, though he must ignore.
"My lord," he began, "I am in a hard case, for I stand to fight that hardest thing of all to fight—a lie disguised as the truth. I am most reluctant to take up your lordship's time, but since I stand here upon a charge so monstrous that my private honour is wholly concerned, I must ask you to listen to me a little space."
At first he had had difficulty with his breathing, but now he spoke naturally and in a voice which, though low, filled the farthest corners of the court.
"My lord, I never thought that I should ever stand to answer the worst charge that can be brought against the worst of men; anyone here present who hath heard my name knoweth that it hath been kept untarnished since our family was founded; 'tis the more difficult for me to plead that I am innocent of murder.
"I neither know how to begin nor how to continue my plea, which is to answer an accusation so horrible, for to your pity I will not appeal, since innocency needeth not compassion, and to your justice I cannot, since all appearance is against me; I have no proof to bring, and full well do I already hear the answer of Justice.
"Therefore I appeal above these courts, and do declare to God that I am guiltless of this crime, and of any wrong towards Serena Fowkes, ay, or to any woman, even of the meanest, with less than reverence, nor been so ignoble that I could think to harm their weakness.
"Nor hath it been my nature to seek the conquest of village wenches or to flatter humble beauties, either to please my passions or my vanity; there was not as much as a warm word, a light glance, a close pressure of the hands between Mistress Fowkes and me. I looked upon her with the respect that I would use to any maiden; my thoughts were fixed higher.
"If I had desired her, I would not have been ashamed to make her my wife; but she was to me no more than any girl in Haslemere who went her way among my people.
"It chanced that she, a stranger and without occupation, was often walking in the pasture lands and on the moors, and there I did meet and speak with her; once she bid me to her house to see her grandfather, and I went; they seemed to have few friends, being of a different quality from the villagers, and I, to give them a little pleasure, bid them to the Manor House; this was the sole courtesy I ever showed Mistress Fowkes, save that I asked a lady very dear in my regard to invite her and her cousin to a certain festival.
"This hath been used against me; but I have been a man utterly without honour to ask her whom I did hope to make my wife to befriend her whom I dishonourably loved. My thought was then that Mistress Fowkes would make a match with one of my tenants, and he, too, was bidden, but came not. How she left this ball is beyond my knowledge. I paid her some courtesy, because she was not of the quality of the others; her behaviour was, as ever, simple and simple.
"From that day she passed from my mind; that comment or censure had ever touched her name or mine, I never dreamt; I was not used, my lord, to have my conduct questioned by my people.
"Once again I saw her, thought her behaviour strange, but heeded it not, since we passed each other quickly on the heath.
"And then I heard no more of her until I received a letter she sent me; this I cannot produce, for it is gone from my desk, where my brother hath searched for it—'twas but a few words asking me to make occasion to see her, and writ very wildly.
"I made no answer to this, but the next day, after I had parted from Mr. Bargrave in Haslemere High Street, Mistress Fowkes ran out from her house and implored to speak with me.
"Her words were so incoherent and meaningless that I thought her crazed and would have led her back, but she violently entreated me to walk on with her across the heath, which I did.
"I then perceived that she was in truth lunatic, and knew not what she said nor to whom she spoke, so wild and frantic did she speak; and I was greatly distressed and troubled, and tried to soothe her and discover the cause of her discomfort; and so we walked further than I knew, for I did not mark the way.
"At last, perceiving the dark increasing and her violence in no way abating, I did beseech her to let me take her home; but she rejected me and ran from me towards Haslemere, and said she would go alone.
"And so I lost sight of her in the dusk. My lord, it was unfortunate for me that I was the last to be seen in company with a woman in melancholy, for I make no doubt that she went straight from me and slew herself, though such a horrid thought never at the time occurred to me, and the news of her death was to me an unexpected and bitter stroke.
"This is the truth of all there ever was between Serena Fowkes and me, and I here relate it, not hoping credence where there is so much blackly against me, but to give the truth.
"And now I must exclaim against the malice and violence with which this case hath been wrought up against me. I do think that, had I been a Whig, I should not be standing here now; public passion hath been inflamed against me, party politics roused in all virulence; I have been shouted a murderer in Whig broadsides up and down the country, and the prosecution hath dealt with me roughly and without mercy.
"My lord, I have made a halting speech, but I was never trained to defend myself against a common felon's fate, and my poor wits are something overwhelmed by the situation in which I stand.
"To you, gentlemen of the jury, with whom resteth my fate, and who maybe think this a poor defence, I give this charge, to look on me and consider if I am a man who could murder a woman, then take his God to witness his innocency.
"My lord, I have finished."
A little stir broke the hushed attention of the court; the voice, dignity, appearance, and composure of the prisoner could not fail of a profound effect; but the shrewder noted that his appeal had been wholly to sentiment; he had not a shred of proof on his side, he had never mentioned the blue ribbon nor the subject with which Serena Fowkes, crazed or sane, had engrossed his attention that last walk; also, on a plain showing, the girl had not been lunatic enough to attract attention before; was it likely that she should suddenly become violent?
The prisoner, who from his very quiet appeared to have little or no hope, then called his first witness.
"This is Doctor Charles Compton, of London, my lord. Sir," he continued, addressing the witness, "did I not send for you to come and see the body of Serena Fowkes'?"
"Do you think she died by drowning?"
"I think it very likely; the dark marks behind her ears may have been caused by the stopped and congealed blood."
"It is a common thing to see these marks on the body of a drowned person?"
"Is it your opinion that a person falling into the water alive would sink?"
"Not always; in this case the floating may have been explained by the full skirts of the girl, her light weight, and the fact that her arm was against a stake, which may in itself have kept her up."
"Must a drowned body swell with water?"
"No. I have seen many that have not."
"Thank you, Doctor Compton, that is all."
Mr. Pomroy rose and questioned the witness.
"Are you aware that your statements are against all medical science?"
"They are according to my own observation."
"Have you heard what these sailors have said about the sinking of live bodies?"
"Sir, I make no account of that. I do not take my learning from the for'castle. I have heard these men say that whistling will raise the wind."
The judge interposed.
"And pray, sir, what authority have you for saying that it doesn't?"
"The authority of knowledge and common sense, my lord. These fellows will swear anything. I am of opinion that this girl was drowned."
Three other well-known doctors were then called, who gave the same evidence; then Sir Francis put into the box a dry unmoved man, who caused a buzz of curiosity to go round the court.
"My lord, this is Sir Humphrey Ansom, the most celebrated anatomist in the kingdom, whom I had to view the body of Serena Fowkes."
Even the stupid and prejudiced judge was moved to respect by the famous name of this witness, who was obviously beyond corruption: no one had been too sure of the doctors called on either side.
"Sir Humphrey," said the prisoner, "will you give your opinion as to the cause of death of Serena Fowkes?"
The surgeon adjusted his horn spectacles.
"I could very much wish I had seen the body directly it was taken out of the water," he answered in a dry, remote voice; "but I have no hesitation in saying that the young woman was drowned."
At this point Phoebus Ribblestone moved so as to get a full view of the witness; he was smiling, and clasped his violet cane lightly across his knee.
"Dost thou not think," he whispered to Wyndham, "this seemeth more promising?"
The prisoner having signified that he had no more to say to the witness, Mr. Pomroy rose amid considerable excitement.
"I had not a notion Ansom was going to say this," whispered Wyndham.
"Nor I," replied Phoebus. "He is a deep fellow."
"Sir Humphrey," began Mr. Pomroy, "you pretend to a great deal."
"I speak to my conviction, sir."
"Do you realize that what you say amounts to an accusation against some one of turning a suicide into a murder, that Sir Francis might be accused?"
"I cannot help that."
"Do you know that it is fairly proved that the woman was strangled?"
"That Sir Francis had no enemies to set lies on foot?"
"Very like, sir, very like. I spoke what I believe, and maintain it—the girl found the ribbon, twisted it round her own feet—and was drowned, sir."
"How is it possible for you to tell whether a body be put in the water before or after death?"
"It is possible, sir," answered Sir Humphrey grimly.
"What is impossible, sir, is to reason with the ignorant."
Mr. Pomroy gave up this witness, whose fame had made a profound effect.
A number of well-known titled and wealthy gentlemen were now called, who spoke to the honourable character and antecedents of Sir Francis; but they had little effect, for the life and behaviour of the prisoner were already well known and counted for very little in his favour with those who believed, as most did, that passion had hurried him into one monstrous crime.
Several villagers of Haslemere were now put into the box, who swore to the strange manner of Serena, which they declared to be that of a woman in melancholy; but their evidence was largely shaken by Mr. Pomroy, who forced them to admit that it was very generally considered in Haslemere that an unhappy love-affair with Sir Francis had driven the girl into her unbalanced state.
It was now about four o'clock, and the last daylight was excluded by the lighting of the thick yellow candles and horn-faced lamps about the court.
People began to whisper to each other, to move restlessly, to hand slips of paper to each other, which were passed out to the boys who waited in the streets to take the news to the men who waited in the taverns to receive the bets for or against.
Two women fainted; Miss Cowley had her salts continually to her nostrils; vinegar was again sprinkled by the tired usher, and the judge sniffed at a pomander filled with herbs potent against the smallpox and plague that so often lurked in the infected air of courts.
Mr. Ribblestone and Sir William Wyndham (who had spoken very vigorously and freely for the prisoner in the witness-box) whispered together; both were rather colourless, the elder man frankly agitated. Mr. Bargrave hid his face in his hands.
The prisoner in a fainting voice announced his defence concluded.
The judge proceeded to sum up, unfavourably for the prisoner, but not so unfavourably as had been expected. Francis Ribblestone did not seem to hear him; he was standing turned away from the court, with his head bent—his only means of concealing his face, since a lamp hung directly over his head and he could not escape the light of it; he appeared to be striving with some deep emotion, for his shoulders heaved and his limbs trembled.
"Walpole jockeyed after all!" whispered Wyndham to Phoebus excitedly, "for I'm damned if he isn't acquitted—"
Phoebus gave him a flashing look.
"Ah," he said.
The jury retired. Sir William Wyndham rose and spoke to the prisoner, who was too distracted to answer—appeared, indeed, more moved than he had done since the trial opened, more unstrung and faint.
Outside, in the narrow passage that divided the court-room from the street, a lady drew herself away from the waiting press, and seated herself on the steps leading to the council chamber above.
There was no light near her, and she was unobserved by those about her, as she crouched against the waxed-wood panelling and listened to the muffled murmurs, shouts and sounds from the street and from the court-house.
She set her elbows on her knee, clasped her chin in her palms and closed her eyes, while the distant noises gathered, died away, gathered again, and broke in an overwhelming shout at last.
Then she was instantly on her feet; below, in the crowded, lit passage, she saw a woman in a grey mantle hurrying to the stairs.
Mrs. Muschamp came half down to meet her, and the two met on the shadowed stairway.
"Margaret—the verdict?" whispered the elder woman.
Miss Cowley sped past her to the door above them.
"Acquitted," she said hoarsely. "And who are you that you care so much?"
Bernardine Muschamp followed the younger woman into the council chamber, a beautiful room with a fair, wide oriel window that now showed a dark sky and the lights of Guildford town.
On the large formal table stood a lamp and a couple of lit candles; a fire dashed with crimson the handsome carved chalk mantelpiece.
"Margaret," said Mrs. Muschamp, "you are hysteric, you do not know what you said just now. Tell me, dear, that you do not know."
She closed the heavy double brass latch carefully and crossed to where Margaret was seated on one of the stiff clerks' benches.
"I know very well. I know you care."
Miss Cowley spoke in a dry passion; her nostrils were distended and her lips strained and colourless.
"He is saved," answered Bernardine. "Can you think of anything else?"
"Yes, he is saved," murmured Margaret.
"My God, Margaret," cried Mrs. Muschamp, "would you rather he had been condemned?"
"We—my father, would never have let him be hanged." She twisted her handkerchief fiercely in her lap and looked up at the white oval of Bernardine's face. "There would have been a pardon."
"You are ill," answered Bernardine faintly. "You cannot mean this. You are his promised wife."
"Do not treat me as if I was a child," said Margaret, "for I understand it very well. It was always you—even in the old days when we here children, and you and he would fall out from very pride, and he could caress me to pique you, even when you were married—you cared. It is the same now: I am just a puppet in the game you are playing. You refused him, I know you did—would to God I had not been that fool who took your rejected lover. Why are you here? Why did you come—if you don't care?"
Bernardine broke in on her rapid, hot speech. "Margaret, I will not hear you speak so—and at this moment when he is cleared—"
Margaret rose violently.
"He is not cleared. Half did not believe the verdict—they explained nothing. Nor did he—he was that wretched girl's lover, and I have been insulted beyond endurance—"
"By God, you shall not say that; if you are that paltry thing that can think evil of Francis Ribblestone, you shall not say it to my face."
So imperious, passionate and roused a mood did she suddenly flash into that Margaret stepped instinctively back before her, but answered, being herself strung up to passion:
"Am I simpleton to believe a man's mere 'no,' when he hath no proof to give? But you are blinded; you love him, and have loved him all your life.
"What are you," cried Bernardine, "who could watch him through a whole day's agony, watch him on the edge of death, and yet be able to think of anything save that he is safe?"
"I do not care as you do. I cannot."
"Dare not to say so," flashed Bernardine. "God in heaven! I would rather be an outcast in the gutters of Covent Garden than a woman such as you!"
Margaret clutched hold of the table edge and eyed her with hatred.
"You are a wicked creature," she said in a thin voice, "and he no better, and between you, you deceive and blind me—"
"I know he is innocent," answered Bernardine.
With a shudder Margaret moistened her lips and backed against the wall; as her personal prettiness shrunk into insignificance before the flame-like strength and pride of Bernardine's exquisite person, so her feeble anger fell before the wrath she had aroused; she looked with unfeigned horror at Bernardine and her passion dropped to malice.
"Very well," she said on a half-sob, "I will have no more of either of you. I want to never see him again."
Bernardine, arrested in the full rush of generous wrath, pulled herself up with a sense of shock.
"What do you mean?"
"He is free for me," sobbed Margaret, with secret pleasure in her enemy's changed face.
"You would never jilt him now?" cried Bernardine, leaning towards her.
"I'll never marry him," answered Margaret, sinking on of the stiff bench and fumbling for a handkerchief, "after—this—"
"Oh, heavens, what have I done!" exclaimed Bernardine desperately. "Margaret, we are mad to be talking of this now when we are both so excited; you don't mean what you say; he loves you, he must love you She was humbled directly; she spoke with a warmth and tenderness as impulsive and passionate as her late anger. Margaret, who was calmed by the knowledge that she held the situation, dried her eyes and composed herself decently.
"You are not thinking," she retorted, "whether he loves me or no, but just how he will suffer if I do not countenance him—"
Bernardine clasped her hands.
"I'll go away, Margaret, back to Scotland tomorrow if you wish—"
Margaret tossed her head.
"Lord, I don't want a husband who only looketh at me when another lady isn't there; go or stay, ma'am. I've done with both of you—"
"You cannot be so cruel!" Bernardine cast herself on her knees and caught the girl's limp hand. "You cannot hate him—think what this would mean to him. Why, the worst is before him yet—there is 'the election—and all the talk he will have to live down. If you forsake him 'twill be a triumph for his enemies and a blow to him—"
"Ay, to his pride," interrupted Margaret. "But this talk is all for him—what of me?"
"Oh, Margaret dear, be not so hard!"
"Have you been so gentle?" retorted Margaret, freeing her hand from the warm fingers that clasped it and rising, leaving Bernardine kneeling in her purple and crimson.
"No, no, forgive me; I had no right—forget it; we have been friends all our lives—"
"Never friends—really," answered Margaret feverishly. "You always despised me, and I never liked you. Why did you marry some one else?"
Bernardine rose and turned imploringly towards her.
"You do not understand, I am speaking for your own sake; you will ruin your life if you do this hateful thing—"
"You do not care about that," said the other woman; "you only think of him—of his good fame!" Bernardine flashed round on her.
"The good fame of Francis Ribblestone is not in your hands, Margaret—"
The door opened, and Sir William Wyndham, Mr. Ribblestone, and the young ensign of the Tangiers Horse entered.
Margaret broke suddenly into bitter sobs and tears.
"Mistress Cowley," said Bernardine, standing erect, very weary, "is hysteric; take her to her people, Mr. Ribblestone."
Phoebus gave one glance to the weeping girl, over whom the young soldier, red with embarrassment and importance, was bending, then looked at Mrs. Muschamp.
"I have heard your name—that you were here," he said in a low tone, "from my brother, madame—he saw you in the press."
She noticed that he seemed agitated (a proof of it was his marked French accent), and her warm heart softened towards a man she had never liked.
"Ah, sir, it hath been an ordeal for you!—for all of you!" Her glance included Sir William. She took a hand of each. "It was easy for me at the end of the day, but to sit through it!"
"Will you not see Francis?" asked Phoebus.
"No, no," she answered hastily. "He must be killed with congratulations already, and I am overwrought. Not to-night, indeed—to-morrow. I am staying at The Angel to-night."
She looked at the boy and his sister.
"Ensign Cowley, will you not take Margaret away?—and you, Mr. Ribblestone, I must not detain you—Sir William Wyndham will see me to my lodging. My service to Sir Francis."
Margaret sprang up and Phoebus offered her his arm; her brother saluted, and the three left.
Bernardine sank down on the great chair at the head of the official table.
"Oh, Lord," she said, laughing, but with tears in her great eyes, "here is a pother I have put myself to for a gentleman who is no affair of mine!—killing a hundred horses to be here in time—never stopping since I got your letter—"
"Is the chit jealous?" asked Wyndham, raising his brows.
"Of everything! Even of this poor, poor dead creature—much harm! And I took her insults—went on my knees, and she pursed her lips at me and doubted but that I was a wicked woman!"
Mrs. Muschamp's laughter was akin to sobs now, but she faced Sir William gaily through the veil of her unshed tears.
He stooped and kissed her hand.
"He is saved, madame."
"Saved!" she smiled. "Oh, thank God, thank God! But you, sir, how must I thank you who, of all his friends, thought to write to me?"
"I thought he would want you."
"What do you think I can do?" cried Mrs. Muschamp.
"I do not presume to forestall a lady's wit, madame."
"Ah, sir, I'll warrant that you had no trust in me at all! And I never answered your precious letter—but it had followed me to the Highlands, then again to Edinburgh—oh, that journey!"
She laughed hysterically, but happily too; always in the back of her mind was the triumphant thought that he was safe.
There was wine left on the table, and she poured out some and drank a little.
"The first food or drink I have had to-day," she remarked gaily. "I could not take anything whilst I was waiting. Will you sup with me at The Angel, sir—I hear the cooking is good."
"The company would be sufficient attraction," he smiled. "You are a marvellous lady—permit an old friend to be bold, my dear, and say that Francis Ribblestone missed the best thing life is likely to offer him when you refused him."
"How do you know I did?" she cried, startled and crimson in the face.
"There was no other reason for his engaging himself to Margaret Cowley; besides, I have lived long enough to know which of two ladies a hesitating gentleman is really enamoured of."
She averted her face toward the window and said quietly:
"Do you hear the crowd below? We will wait a little until they have gone—and do not speak of that again. I married once—not again—it is over."
"Yes, we will wait," said Wyndham quietly.
She sipped the wine, looking half defiantly at Sir William with a little smile.
"Mr. Ribblestone seemed concerned," she remarked. "I used to think he was not very fond of Francis."
"Nor is he, I believe," answered Wyndham, "but there is no word to be said against his behaviour; a quite remarkable man, Mr. Ribblestone; it is wonderful what France will do. He hath the manner of courts, he would set the fashion in London; it is astonishing that he is content to remain at Ribblestone. And difficult to credit that he is younger than Sir Francis."
"He is so different," smiled Mrs. Muschamp. "Tell me—how did you leave—Francis?"
"Dazed and but half aware of his good luck. He asked continually for you, but we could not find you, so they took him out a back way to avoid the crowd."
She slowly raised her large blue eyes.
"They—are still hostile—the people, I mean?"
"I fear so," said Wyndham briefly, thinking with a pang of three seats lost and the whole of his cause prejudiced in the minds of the vulgar; "there are still mysteries."
"Well, yes—the ribbon—what actually did happen on the heath."
Bernardine pulled at the violets on her breast, then rose and crossed to the large fine window with the painted glass and dark leadings that looked on to the night, the street lamps, the grumbling, hurrying crowd below.
"He will still stand at the elections?" she asked on a quick breath.
"And he cannot win?"
"I fear he cannot," sighed Wyndham.
"Ah, unfortunate! Unfortunate!" breathed Mrs. Muschamp, and clenched her hands. "The worst is still to come."
Sir William followed her to the oriel window.
"Will you speak freely to me—forgiving what I said just now that offended you?" he said. "The worst is still to come, that is why I asked you to come back."
She looked up at him frankly.
"I was not offended. You were right, would have been more so if you had called me a fool. We were both so proud. And I have been willful in my life, and happy in my marriage—it seemed to soon—I was not sure—and a woman who standeth unprotected is so tenacious of her dignity. Ah, me! but I am very tired now, sir!"
She smiled to check tears and laid her hand on his cuff, and, with a sudden change of tone, spoke again.
"I know what you wish to ask me," she said. "Let me put it my way. How many believed the verdict?"
He shook his head.
"I cannot tell. There was not much enthusiasm."
"Margaret Cowley doth not believe, but she will scarcely dare say so." Bernardine gazed down at the lights of Guildford High Street.
She felt so tired and relaxed after her long journey, the strain of long-continued, violent emotion.
Francis Ribblestone had seemed to matter so much to her when he was in desperate danger—now?
She had refused him—perhaps Margaret was justified in what she had said, and she, Bernardine, had no right to meddle—not even by coming back—so obviously—to stand by the man in his misfortune.
A week after the trial was polling day in Guildford, and Francis Ribblestone was to make his last address to his supporters from the hustings in front of The Angel.
Inside that inn he waited now, smoking a long pipe of strong sweet Virginia, and listening to the tumult and medley of sounds without; by the fire sat Phoebus, his small feet in the tight buckskin boots stretched out to the blaze of the huge pine-logs. He held a copy of that week's Gazette in his hand and continually glanced at his brother.
Francis was moody and silent, had been so indeed since his return to Ribblestone after the trial. His friends did not wonder; they could well imagine that the elections in these circumstances were as great an ordeal as standing in the dock itself.
Since his acquittal his mind, never relaxing from the unnatural strain put on it, had been wholly occupied with the desperate fight in Guildford; his friends were returned to their homes, Sir William Wyndham to London, and his sole company was Phoebus; the half-brothers had scarcely been separated since the trial.
Numbers of the Tory committee, wearing the Ribblestone colours, came continually into the inn parlour to fetch or bring papers, to ask questions or instructions.
It was always Phoebus who answered them, in a low voice, Francis sitting silent the while at the centre table, his face dark, his pipe between his lips, and his eyes fixed on the white-curtained window darkened by the supports of the scaffolding without.
When one of these men had left to return to the Committee Rooms the other side of the passage, Phoebus laid down The Gazette and turned to Francis.
"Had you not better go among these people at the last?" he asked.
"God in heaven!" returned Francis sharply. "What is the use?"
"They notice it if you do not."
"Do you think," cried Francis violently, "I am in the mood to flatter a lot of drunken yokels?"
He rang the hand-bell beside him, and called, not over gently, for ale.
"No message from the Cowleys," he said, as the drawer brought the ale and left, "no word, letter, or sign from Margaret."
"No," he answered gently; "did you expect it?"
Francis gave him a quick glance.
"Ah, it doth not surprise you?"
"Mon Dieu, I know not—but loyalty is such a rare virtue."
Francis drank his ale and rose; he was dressed in his own colours, a crimson coat and a black travelling mantle still clasped over his chest with a silver buckle, his hair was plainly clubbed, his face frowning, uneasy, and stern; he came over to his half-brother, showing, for all the fineness of his make, much bulkier and taller beside the slenderness of Phoebus, who wore a dark steel-blue satin of an extravagant fashion, that glimmered with paste buttons winking rose red in the fire-glow.
Phoebus wore his hair in long hanging curls on to his breast, powdered as completely as possible (for it was of that density of black that no pomade would completely disguise it), and tied behind with a broad violet ribbon, that was brought round and fastened on the front with a star of diamonds.
He looked very foreign, very unlike any gentleman who had ever before stood in the parlour of The Angel, though Sir William Wyndham had been there and other great men, friends of Sir Francis, but none were of that potent and illusive quality of Phoebus.
As Francis stood beside him he was, even through his own preoccupation, struck with this something in the other man.
"It is difficult to realize that you are my brother," he said—"the same father! I do not see him in you, nor yet myself," he remarked; "how came you so different?"
"I thought," answered Phoebus calmly, "that there was a marked resemblance—"
"No matter," remarked Francis abruptly. "You have taken a kinsman's part. I hope that you will stay at Ribblestone, Phoebus."
Mr. Ribblestone smiled and made no answer. One of the committee came in and urged Sir Francis to go out and speak to the people, who were gathering without to hear him; through the man's words came the noise and clamour of them outside and Sir Francis set his lips bitterly.
"Very well," he answered, in the harsh way new to him but common enough in his manner of late; he put his pipe on the mantelshelf and went abruptly from the room.
"Are the people violent?" asked Phoebus, picking up his purple silk mantle lined with the soft dark fur that he always wore.
"Like to be, sir," answered the man anxiously; "the Whigs have got the town."
Phoebus put on his black beaver.
"See that the coach is brought out and ready in the yard," he said; "we may be glad of it."
With that he followed his brother. In the passage waited the negro valet, and Phoebus told him, by the quick signs that were the code between them (for the black was deaf and dumb), to go and wait with the coach in the court of the inn.
In the room that opened on to the hustings, Phoebus found his brother standing in the centre of the floor, and listening to the hostile cries and shouts for his appearance.
"All damned Whigs," he muttered as Phoebus entered. "Why should I go out to be insulted?"
"Why," exclaimed Phoebus, "you would never hesitate—you do not," he spoke with infinite, almost unconscious disdain, "do this thing—the mobile you call it—the honour to be afraid of it?"
"Afraid, no," answered Francis with something of his old gentleness; "but, God of me, what is the use?"
"You know it is hopeless," said Francis gloomily. "Walpole wins."
"I know—this is no question of use—one does these things—if the first word were death one would go out." As he spoke he unlatched the tall window. "You understand me, of course?"—this imperiously, looking over his shoulder at Francis,—"you must go out."
"Of course." Francis smiled. "But it is all so damned useless."
"So are many things that are very necessary." He spoke with that pronounced French accent that showed he was moved or excited. "C'est bien necessaire, voyez vous, monsieur, cette chose-là—"
He held open the window for Francis, who thought how different he was when he spoke his own language (as it appeared to be), though his tongue had first found speech in English; but Phoebus talking French was French, in gesture, look and spirit; the sense of kinship became ever fainter and more strained to Francis.
He was caught from this swift and unsought reflection by the sight of the upturned faces filling Guildford High Street as he stepped on to the hustings.
They had been shouting, muttering, pushing and seething, but as the tall figure in red and black appeared in the window-frame they fell still and silent.
Phoebus remained at the back, against the front of the house; he held a long-handled postillion's whip which he had picked up from the table at the inn passage; his black eyes ran quickly over the crowed in its ugly mood of silence, then fixed on his brother who, face to face with actual enmity and opposition, showed no signs of trepidation.
As he advanced to the front the stillness held, but as he opened his lips and the first word came from them, a yell and shout that seemed to issue from one throat, so were the crowd in accord, broke upon and silenced his speech.
Instantly Phoebus stepped to his brother's side; at the sight of him, the shouts took the form of articulate cries and insults which yelled derision on the foreigner and Frenchman who presumed to meddle in the glorious affairs of England.
"No Frenchman, but my brother," cried Sir Francis, red with fury. "Will you not hear me speak?"
Jeers answered him.
"Us 'ull hear ye speak, Master Ribblestone!"
"Peace, then!" thundered Francis. "You know who I am—"
A shrill voice rose above the clamour, interrupting.
"Yes, there were a good few of us in court last week!"
Francis clapped his hand to his sword-hilt.
"Villain, do you throw that in my face?"
"You ain't heard the last of it, though a pretty lady did save your neck!"
"Let the frog-eating Frenchman go—we won't be spoken to by any white-livered Frenchman!"
Phoebus stood his ground without a change of colour or the movement of a muscle, and at this insult of his calm demeanour, that passionate scorn of the foreigner, that was almost a religion with the English, broke in a storm of foul and furious words.
"No Pope! No priests!" pierced through the din. "No damned Tory!"
An old soldier who had been with Marlborough in the Spanish war took up the yells.
"We showed the French what we thought of them at Ramillies, Malplaquet, Oudenarde—Blenheim!"
Then Phoebus did colour, and his eyes lit with a deep fury; the long-seated racial hatred sprang to his face unmistakably, well controlled as his fine features were.
Francis saw it and caught his arm.
"Don't be a fool, Phoebus—you are English." But he remembered that his brother had held a commission in the French army. "Don't be a fool," he repeated, for Phoebus was straining forward to the edge of the platform.
The crowd, seeing Francis whisper to his brother, and the members of the Tory committee at the back of the hustings withdraw, raised fresh discords of triumph; their anger was now turned almost exclusively on Phoebus, whose very appearance seemed to infuriate them: some of them remembered how he had used his whip outside the gatehouse, and they shouted to him to put down that which he now held.
"Dieu de Dieu," muttered Phoebus. "Where are the military? You let your canaille get out of hand like this?"
"I have not the right to turn the soldiers on the people," answered Francis. "They will not let me speak—we had best go in."
"And turn our backs on these dogs!" cried Phoebus. "Non! Non jemais, monsieur, jamais, estil possible que la haute noblesse—"
"We are country gentlemen, no more," he said impatiently. It seemed to him strange that Phoebus should speak of themselves as la haute noblesse and expect they could take such a high hand with the citizens of Guildford.
A member of the committee came forward and suggested that the two young men should withdraw, as to obtain a hearing was manifestly impossible.
Phoebus stamped his foot imperiously.
"Ah, leave us," he said, and eyed the hostile people darkly.
Francis, spurred by his brother's obvious disdain of retreat, tried to speak again.
It was impossible.
"Down with the French!" they yelled; "down with the Tories!—to hell with the Pope!"
At this Phoebus instinctively crossed himself: the gesture raised a fury.
"This is Mr. Ribblestone, my brother!" shouted Francis; but they would not have it. Phoebus was Catholic, and that was enough; he was and must be French, from that cursed and hated country he was well known to have come; the old solider, having forced now to the front half, mounted on the scaffold and hurled vile abuse at both of them.
"The fellow is drunk and paid by Walpole," said Francis, restraining his brother. "For God's sake—"
A fresh cry shook the crowd.
"Who murdered Serena Fowkes?"
Francis blenched before that.
"This is intolerable—let us go in—"
But Phoebus would not come.
The rage of the mob now returning to the affront put upon them by a candidate for their favours appearing with a Frenchman beside him, Francis was constrained to cry again:
"This is my brother, an Englishman!"
Walpole's agents, he saw, had been working up these two bugbears of the vulgar, the Pope and the French.
"An Englishman!" repeated the soldier clinging to the hustings, quite close to Phoebus, and staring up at him. "My lads, that's a lie; 'twas one like him I slit the throat of at Ramillies, a foreign devil just like him—like as two peas—who was leading those papist Irish dogs—Clare's Dragoons!"
The killing of this noble French officer had been one of the great achievements of the man's life, and as he repeated it now, something of his old fire and savagery awoke in him.
"Cut his throat I did—I had nothing but a broken sword—"
Phoebus strode towards him.
"What Dragoons?" he cried.
"Clare's!" shouted the old soldier insolently.
"Saint Louis!" burst from Phoebus; he slipped the whip the length of his hand, turned it, and brought the heavy butt-end down on the old man's skull.
"At him, boys!" gasped the soldier incoherently, and dropped, bloody, from the hustings into the crowd.
"You've done it, now," said Francis; and as he spoke a shower of stones and offal fell on the platform, which the crowd, finally roused by the shedding of blood, made a rush forward to wreck.
Phoebus too was roused; he smiled and his bosom heaved.
"I hope the misérable is dead," he said quietly. "I wish I had a horse—this would scatter them,"' and he unfurled the thong of the blood-stained whip.
"Why did you touch the man?" cried Francis, tugging at his sword in distraction; "they mean our lives."
"The coach," answered Phoebus. "If we go through the house they will follow—but if we get down the side—voila, ici—here, I mean, we can get into the coach and ride through them." He spoke as if it had not been such an uncommon thing for him to drive a coach and six through a press of howling people.
"Then, for God's sake, let us be quick—"
The people were already climbing on to the platform, the doubled-up and heavy body of he soldier, with a handkerchief cast hastily over the hideous wound on his bald head from which the threadbare wig had dropped, was passed along from one man to another amid curses and shouts of rage; he had been one of Marlborough's guard.
Francis caught a glimpse of him.
"You have killed the fellow," he said in horror.
"God of my life, I hope so," answered Phoebus; he did not draw his sword as Francis had done, but kept the whip as weapon.
A stone hit Francis on the arm and he gave an exclamation of pain; the platform was beginning to sway under the efforts of the crowd to wreck it; Phoebus laughed and dropped lightly from the hustings to the cobbles in front of the yard doors, which had been hastily shut. Francis followed, but was neither so quick nor so skilful in shielding his face, for when he joined his brother he was bleeding profusely from a cut on the lip where a stone had struck him. The moment they were on the level the crowd closed round them; cries of "Gallas bird!" "Murderer!" "Damned Frenchman!" and other names of fierce abuse filled their ears, and it seemed that they must inevitably be killed, or at least felled, even in those few steps from the scaffolding to the yard doors.
But Phoebus knew how to manage a whip, a weapon new to an English crowd and as effectual as it was maddening; two or three cuts made the foremost draw back and allowed the brothers some little passage in which to force to the doors. Phoebus, always keeping his face to his enemies, drew himself up against the house and said to Francis:
"Frappez! trois fois! vite!"
As the other turned to obey, a man darted forward with a blunderbuss and placed the muzzle of it between the baronet's shoulder-blades; instantly Phoebus knocked it up and stepped before Sir Francis, as a little door cautiously opened in the larger one.
"Au voiture!" he shouted. "Vite! Vite!"
Then he snatched from his breast an ivory pistol like a lady's toy and stood presenting it, so covering his brother's retreat.
"Chiens!" he said, showing his teeth. "Misérables! English swine!"
They would, it they could, have killed him; they would have trampled him underfoot, struck him down even as he had struck the old guardsman, and in the pitch of their fury limbed him; but he held them off a second with his pistol, then sprang after Francis, closing the door and shooting the bolts.
An alarmed and excited group was gathered about the huge coach and six black horses that occupied the greater part of the fine old yard. One man informed Phoebus that a messenger had been sent by a back way to the sheriff to ask him to call out the military, but admitted that this was likely to be a matter of some time.
"It may be a couple of hours or more, your honour," said the frightened landlord, raising his voice above the din and clamour of shouts and blows on the doors, that were not built to resist any such violence.
"Meanwhile," answered Phoebus, "you run a risk of having your house pulled down about you if we remain here—" Then he cried quickly, "Look to Sir Francis!"
As he spoke he caught his brother by the arm and drew him towards the coach door. Francis had been struck on the head as he entered, the slow blood was trickling down his face and his lip and chin were scarlet from his other wound; he staggered and pressed his red soaked handkerchief to his mouth with a shaking hand.
"How are we going to get out of this?" he asked dazedly.
Phoebus helped him into the coach.
"Drive through them," he answered. "If we stay here they will have that door down in five minutes—"
"There must be some back way—" muttered Francis, struggling with his clouding senses.
"Dieu de Dieu!" cried Phoebus, "do you think that I am going to climb over a wall out of the way of a handful of English?"
"Good God, sir!" exclaimed one of the Tories. "What maketh the people so violent? They will splinter the door!"
"We will open it first," said Mr. Ribblestone.
"I cannot understand what hath infuriated them!" another put in.
"I killed a man," answered Phoebus, "and they seemed to take it amiss."
"Killed a man!" The little company recoiled from him.
"Yes." Mr. Ribblestone smiled, not pleasantly. "And it will not be the last blood shed, monsieur, if we dally here." He looked into the coach, then glanced round for the coachman. "Sir Francis is insensible." He gave his commands briefly. "Mount—drive us home—"
But the man refused; his master had been badly hurt, he might be killed; the temper of the crowd was not improving.
"You disobey?" cried Phoebus in astonishment.
"I won't drive out through them, sir; it would be folly."
The postillions said the same; none of them would take the coach out.
"Dogs!" cried Mr. Ribblestone. "I'll have you thrashed for this—"
He looked round the Tory gentlemen, who had a good excuse for not offering help insasmuch as not one of them could manage a coach and six; neither had they much desire to oblige the imperious Mr. Ribblestone, however loyal they might feel towards his brother; they stood silent, offering no suggestion.
And the door was beginning to yield.
Phoebus flashed them all a smile that dismissed them as utterly lumpish, boorish and bloodless, and beckoned to his great black servant, who had stood unmoved at the back of the yard, and flung to him the long whip with the stained handle; with a gesture he indicated the front horses; the negro ran ahead and sprang on to the right-hand leader.
Phoebus pulled down the coach blinds and closed the door, then, to the staring amazement to those watching, he gathered up the reins and mounted to the coachman's seat.
One man ran forward.
"Can you drive it, Mr. Ribblestone?"
"It was one of my amusements in Paris, monsieur," answered Phoebus. "Will you have the goodness to open the gates?"
"Mr. Ribblestone! the people have fire-arms!"
Phoebus took the whip from its socket, and took the reins into his left hand.
"Open the gates, monsieur!"
The negro was urging forward the leaders; and, since there seemed no help for it, fired too by the excitement of a daring action, servants, landlord and squires, all wearing the black and crimson rosettes, ran forward and opened the doors, pushing them outward through the surprised mob. In that moment, when they instinctively fell to right and left, the negro, touching up the horses, drove them ahead, and the coach was clear of the yard and across the street before the crowd could gather themselves.
Now it was a matter of turning, and in the inevitable pause that followed the first rush the people rallied and hurled themselves on the coach with the fury they had used towards the door; they also had to turn, and the result was a hideous medley of struggling, shouting bodies, some fallen and trampled on, some forced up above the others, some crushed and shrieking, all making for the coach with curses, howls and the brandishing of any weapon, from pistols and cutlasses to planks and joists, from the now demolished hustings.
Phoebus stood up on the crimson hammer-cloth, a slender, silken figure above the turmoil, his feet far apart, hatless, loosening the reins and urging the frightened horses as, with admirable skill and coolness, he succeeded in turning them toward Star Corner.
The people clung to the wheels, got to the horses' heads, clutched at the harness, and hurled all they could lay hands on at the windows, but the strength of the powerful animals and the whips of positillion and driver were too much for them. The coach plunged its way through, swung on the leathers, and was almost clear of the worst press when a redoubled yell told that the hated Frenchman had been recognized on the box.
A pistol was instantly levelled at him and fired; the ball passed through his cloak; he lifted his black eyes and glanced over the distorted howling faces; then lashed at his horses and drove them at a gallop down the hill of the High Street.
Several people were knocked down; screams and cries rose dismally, menacing threats and oaths; the horses laid their ears flat and went their utmost speed; in a few seconds they had outdistanced all obstacles, taken the bridge across the Wey and dashed past St. Martin's Church.
There they met the under-sheriff on horseback with a little company of mounted constables.
Phoebus drew up the panting black horses.
"You are wanted outside The Angel I think," he remarked.
The under-sheriff stared at coach and driver.
"Good God, Mr. Ribblestone, why are you doing this?"
"Pour m'amuser," answered Phoebus with calm insolence. "How go the polls?"
The other replied, amazed and gaping:
"Crofton is ahead by a thousand. Sir Francis hasn't a chance."
"No," smiled Phoebus, "he never had from the first. Au revoir, monsieur."
The eager animals were given their head again and the coach took the corner and swung along the road to Haslemere, leaving the under-sheriff and his officers staring after it, bewildered.
Francis Ribblestone lay on his low square bed and stared up at the patterning of the red Genoa velvet canopy; it was midday and the room filled with fitful April sunlight; he was not ill, neither of his hurts had proved serious though he was still slightly disfigured by a swollen lip, and the rich dusky hair Mrs. Muschamp used so to admire had been cropped on account of the wound on his head.
Not ill, but prostrated by an apathetic sickness of the soul more potent than any bodily disease to keep him listless on his bed; he was half dressed and wrapped in a blue silk dressing-gown; pillows were piled on the bolster so that his head was raised, the crimson curtains were drawn each to one of the four supports of the canopy and tied there, and when the sun entered the window that he faced, the light, showing by its pale unsteadiness how early it was in the year, fell over his slack figure.
Two of his dogs were asleep on the floor by the bed-step and an unopened copy of the London newsletter lay on the coverlet where he had tossed it wearily.
The tall brass-faced clock in the corner struck one; Francis yawned and continued to stare at the stiff velvet flowers and leaves on the canopy.
A year ago, six months ago, it would have been considered a strange thing for the master of Ribblestone to spend half the day on his bed, but lately, with the disgust and apathy that had come over Francis, the changes effected by Phoebus in the household, the violent altering of habits that had endured a lifetime, and that, once broken, could never be resumed, the brutal shattering of all the ideals, hopes, ambitions and prides by which Francis had lived, the intrusion of the powerful and foreign influence of Phoebus (fast proving himself the stronger character), had made life a different thing at Ribblestone Manor House.
On Francis Ribblestone's return from Guildford after the trial he had found his home much altered. Phoebus had reduced the indoor servants by one-half, moved the pictures from the chapel to the great dining-hall (where they were arranged with taste and judgement), refitted the chapel as a place of worship, and introduced into the household a priest and a novice to help him, both French. The steward had retired to a house on the estate; the doctor thrown up his post in dudgeon, departing with a pension; the chaplain, too, had left, of his own choice, Phoebus said; and the two brothers now sat to their meals alone.
Francis accepted it all; he left the old order to broken to be resumed; he had become indifferent to many things that he had once been keenly tenacious of, and his natural tolerance changed, with the misfortune of idleness, to apathy; he had begun to value Phoebus beyond anything, and felt even grateful to him for the changes he had wrought.
For Phoebus did it all very gracefully, with an air of good sense and consideration for his brother; the trial, he pointed out, had cost much, the elections more, a little economy was desirable, if not necessary; the servants had been too many, thriftless, spoilt, as fine a state was easily maintained with fewer provided that they were properly supervised. He had kept the accounts and overlooked the steward during his brother's absence with a care and exactitude that were remarkable in one unused to managing a large estate. Francis felt that his interests had been looked after better than they had been by himself; he had ever kept a loose hand on his affairs.
As to the chapel and the priests, the Ribblestones had only so lately turned to Protestantism that Francis felt no shock at the introduction of a religion his grandfather had practised and one of his ancestors died for, in the reign of the last Henry, and Phoebus was delicate about his faith, never intruded it, and kept his confessor to himself; the pictures were just as well in the dining-hall; only tradition had kept them in the chapel.
Francis considered that he had conceded too much to tradition, his whole life had been regulated by it—and to what end?
What use had been his crowd of servants, his prearranged life, old-fashioned and ceremonious? he asked himself ironically—let Phoebus manage matters better if he could; the days at Ribblestone would, Francis knew, be intolerable without him. The younger brother had been a spendthrift, a rake, doubtless (he had never asked Francis for a penny and he was spending money lavishly now), had made his income at the gaming-tables, and thrown up his career rather than pay his debts. But Francis took this more lightly now, and he was won and held in his despair and loneliness by the great grace and charm of the younger man.
Phoebus had saved his life; Phoebus was the only one left of all those who had rallied to him during his trial; they were all scattered. Sir William Wyndham was absorbed in politics. But Phoebus was always there, a perfect companion, a clever adviser, a character that attracted by reason of daring and calm strength.
How he could endure the life Francis still often wondered; but he no longer looked forward to his marriage as an escape from his brother, rather he thrust off that event in his thoughts, for Margaret Cowley had given no sign that she would be a trusting and soothing believer in his wrongs, a help and solace to his ruined career, a lover that would beguile his misfortunes.
Twice since Phoebus had driven him home bloody and insensible from Guildford had she sent messages asking after his state, twice had he ridden over to Bleachley Hall to find her out; that was all, he had not had speech with her since she broke from him the day before the trial, nor seen her since she had sat in court staring at him through her vizard.
And the Cowleys, dependants, friends and all their following, had voted Whig at Guildford, where Crofton had been returned with a greatly increased majority.
Francis believed, too, that they had helped Walpole capture Haslemere for his creatures, by promising to protect any of the tenantry on whom the wrath of Sir Francis might fall.
Sir Robert, himself the most corrupt of ministers, threatened to make a test case if corruption came his way now; he vowed that if Ribblestone bribed or intimidated the voters on his estate he would have him on his knees at the bar of the House; England laughed and the Whigs won Haslemere.
It was Phoebus who suggested that all who proved thus disloyal should be evicted, and Francis in his fury consented; the high-handed action was carried through and half the houses on the Ribblestone estates stood empty until Phoebus drove to all the neighbouring towns and whipped up the land agents with such purpose that the rent-roll of Ribblestone Manor stood as high as ever.
Francis, as he lay lazy, but with a busy mind, was thinking of these things and with great gratitude of Phoebus, wondering a little why he had not at first liked him.
On the heels of that reflection came another and curious one; he was not sure that he liked him now; he was fascinated, a little overwhelmed, a little crushed in spirit and grateful, but he did not know that he felt the warm affection of kinship that he should have towards a brother who had done him a service.
Absurd as it was, the memory of the very cynical evidence of Phoebus at the trial rankled, and Francis could never condone the blow that had killed the drunken soldier on the day of the elections; all his own training, his own standards and ideas struggled, although feebly, against such a code as had prompted it.
The affair of the soldier had made some noise; but Phoebus faced it through with a high-handed calm; the fatal blow appeared the just punishment of insolent violence, and Crofton, the Whig candidate, anxious not to seem to owe his election to the mob, had deserted his own supporters, with the result that half the rioters outside The Angel had been sent to the whipping-post; but for all that the incident, ugly at best, had put the finishing stroke to the popularity of Sir Francis in the county town.
It was another of his misfortunes; those misfortunes that overwhelmed him and put him out of tune with life; he dated them all, fancifully, perhaps foolishly, from that day Bernardine Muschamp had refused him; he felt, fiercely, that if she had joined her fortunes to his, none of these outrageous disasters would have befallen.
She was now in London; he had not seen her since the trial nor had she written; in his new sensitiveness he believed she avoided him—despised, perhaps, the creature he had become.
The thought was unendurable; he banished her from his mind, but he could not ignore the hideous fact that half England believed him guilty, that even his friends were doubtful, that there was some horrible mystery in Serena Fowkes' death beyond his own explaining.
The blue ribbon, the letter found in her chamber—how account for these things save by ascribing them to some malign influence secretly working his destruction?
This wild thought had come to Francis again and again, he could not dismiss it—who, who? he would ask himself in passionate wrath and bewilderment, nor ever answer his own question, for he had no enemies, save those that this misfortune had created.
As the question again beat at his goaded brain he sprang up on his bed, maddened by the intolerable sting of it, and snatching at the first distraction, caught up the newsletter not yet unfolded and tore it open.
The account of Sir Robert's last speech, of Mr. Brooke's censored play, of the insolence of the Spanish to the merchants in Coromandel, of riots in the city and the last duel on Blackheath, had no longer any interest; they belonged to a world he was shut out of. London was closed to him. Sir William Wyndham had said so, kindly but unmistakably—he must wait before he could hope to do anything at court or in politics, for Sir Robert had the ear of His Majesty, and His Majesty had followed the trial with great interest and been very angry at the verdict; this plebeian-hearted Prince had always hated the Tories.
Sir Francis dashed the paper down and sprang from his bed.
Ruined! Everything closed to him, his career blocked, his ambitions, his talents useless—at twenty-eight.
He opened the window and looked out on the park-land where a fragile green was beginning to overspread the trees; when last they had budded he had considered himself the happiest man in the world.
He moved from the window and again caught up the paper; his eye travelled mechanically over letters from would-be politicians, advertisements of lost property, of mantua-makers, complexion washes, fencing masters, perruquiers, and the insipid rhymes of some versifier, then was caught by an article that suddenly interested.
He seated himself by the open window in the tall walnut and cane-bottomed chair, resting his arm on the sill, carefully read the paragraphs that had arrested his attention.
The article was in the form of a letter from Paris, and after touching on the news of the court, proceeded to the affairs of a Prince of the house of De Bethune Rohan; this was the famous name that had attracted his notice, for he remembered hearing it in England, and in Paris when he had passed through with his tutor and gone to Versailles to pay a formal visit to Phoebus, whom they did not see there however, his relations having already taken him south.
Francis remembered this Prince's name in curious association with his relief at not being brought face to face with his unknown brother. M. de Marsac had, he recalled, been giving a fête to the young King and the whole of Versailles was decorated, the great avenue to Paris being hung with coloured lamps from one end to the other, for then M. de Marsac was more powerful in France than Cardinal Fleury himself.
And now Francis was reading the cold summary of a life finished-finished about his own age; Prince Bethune Rohan was still under thirty.
The tale held a feverish interest for Sir Francis because of his own misfortunes; before, it would scarcely have touched him, but now it made poignant reading, interpreted by the glow of those lamps wreathing the elms for miles that had been one of the memories and wonders of his youth; the story became lurid and strange to fascination.
The hero of it, given his full titles (all duly set out here), Anne—Guillaume—Louis—Charles de Bethune Rohan et Saint Saire et de Villeneuve, pair de France, duc de Marsac, Prince de Boulainvilliers, Prince de Mauje, Marquis de Silaire, Marquis de Desfourniel, Comte Bovier de la Mosson, Count Marsalier, et Vicomte de Chaulnes, grand-master of the Knights of Jerusalem and of the Knights of St. John, Chevalier of the Order of St. Louis and of the Saint-Esprit, Chevalier of the Toison d'or and Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, Master of the Horse to His Christian Majesty King Louis XV, governor of Compiègne, of Artois and Provence, Maréchal de France, descended through his father from the great Duc de Sully and through his mother from Saint Louis, a close friend and companion of the King, one of the wealthiest and most brilliant men in France, a Prince out of a fairy tale to an English reader whose more sober country did not permit of such extremes of riches and extravagance.
Francis knew no more of this Prince than his name and the glamour that carried with it, and for all he knew, M. de Marsac might still have been ruling the King of France, but here was the story of another set of things writ plain enough for the amusement of English card-tables.
M. de Marsac, it appeared, had been, according to Sir Francis, a wicked man; there was no good action to his credit and many bad ones, though all gilded with the charm of beautiful youth, affable manners, great daring, vast abilities and the glitter of a proud name.
His wife, a Princess of the house of Condé, had died pitifully early, and her death was, then covertly and now openly, laid to his account; he had been a cruel and rapacious governor, a corrupt statesman, a false friend, a tyrannical master, a dishonest servant, extravagant, dissolute, reckless; he had been twice in the Bastille for incurring the King's wrath, he had tried to prevent the Polish marriage and in consequence intrigued with the Austrian Court, he had quarrelled with M. de Bourbon and M. de Fleury and made himself so powerful in France that the King became afraid of him; his hotel had rivalled Versailles and his personal splendour had outshone Louis, for he was of great talents, wit, courage, and, above all, of that unfaltering daring that takes the breath of men.
Then, at the very height and glory of his career, the blow had fallen; the King favoured M. de Fleury, who pushed on the cause of His Majesty's father-in-law and forced the war with Austria, and the policy of M. de Marsac was defeated; his outspoken boldness of reproach roused the King and he was forbidden Versailles.
Here the newsletter dropped known fact and fell on whispered rumour.
There was, this breath said, a certain lady at court, of the blood royal and designed for a Queen, who had attracted the ever-changing devotions of M. de Marsac; her name, the letter said, might be guessed but must not be written. She was not averse, it seemed, to his homage, and continued to favour him after his disgrace. One evening he, by the aid of a young lieutenant of the Black Musketeers whom he had completely in his pay and power, got through the guard at Versailles and was subsequently discovered at supper with the lady—discovered by His Majesty in person and banished from France on the instant, stripped of all dignities, his estates confiscated and his offices seized.
M. de Marsac retired to Spain, the unhappy lieutenant disappeared, France was thrown into the convulsions of the war with Austria, and the brilliant name blotted out; revived now again only in the news from a Spanish convent of the death of the young Prince from weariness and despair, and now, on this news, the creatures of M. de Fleury might cease a pursuit they had meant should have the same end, the death of their victim—for the Cardinal still feared M. de Marsac, and Mademoiselle of the blood royal still lamented him.
Francis laid down the paper; despite the vast difference of fortune and character, this story was something like his own; youth, happiness, gaiety, fame, cast down suddenly to obscurity, a great career swiftly marred and spoilt—a young man finding everything blocked to him—losing everything that had made life.
The French Prince's fall had been as much more tremendous as his elevation—but the situation was the same.
Both had come early to their honours (the father of M. de Marsac had been slain at Ramillies), both had come early to their downfall.
"And what for the rest of life?" thought Francis. "His solution was death—what of mine?"
True, the Frenchman had deserved no better than his fate, and Francis could not think so of himself, but what did that matter now?—the sum of it was the same.
So absorbed was he in these thoughts that the paper fell from his hand and he did not notice it, so absorbed that the door opened and he did not hear it, nor the light step entering.
He turned with a start that was almost a shudder; Phoebus, in silvered silks and ruffled linen, stood between the door and the bed.
"How long do you mean to keep your room?" he asked with a little smile.
Francis roused himself, stretched and yawned.
"I am weary with idleness," he answered. "I have been befogging myself with this"—his slippered foot touched the newsletter—"the marvellous adventures of this Rohan Prince with a dozen titles and a wicked record, who is lately dead—"
"Ah, M. de Marsac," said Phoebus, "dead is he?"
"In Spain they say."
"He had an estate there, I believe."
"He died in a convent."
"That would be on the estate—convenient for repentance—mon Dieu—to die in a Spanish cloister."
"Did you ever see him?" asked Francis.
"Yes—are you interested?" smiled Phoebus.
"A little—I thought his case similar to mine own—what was he to look at?"
"Dieu! How can I describe M. de Marsac?—he was 'born,' no Frenchman would have mistaken him. You most likely would not know him from anyone else."
"How you despise anyone not brought up in France!"
"I state a fact. In England there are not these distinctions. In France a Prince like M. de Marsac is a very great personage indeed and—unmistakable. But I could have told you his story myself if I had thought that you were interested."
"What happened to the young officer?—he was in your regiment—the Black Musketeers, I think—"
"Ah, yes—but this was very soon before I left. He, poor devil, vanished, to the Bastille I suppose." Phoebus yawned.
"This duke," mused Francis, "seemeth to have been a monster of wickedness—they hint that his wife died by his means—his wife?"
"They will say anything in the newsletter," returned Phoebus with scorn. "I never heard that M. de Marsac was worse than any of his companions—but you in England are still Calvinistic."
"I am Church of England," said Francis. "I dislike the Calvinists," he added literally, "but why do you always say—'you in England'—as if you were not English also?"
"I feel French."
"So it seemeth."
"And I dislike the English," added Phoebus dryly.
"Our father would not be pleased to hear you."
"Nevertheless, if you had ever lived in Paris you would echo what I say," answered Phoebus pleasantly. "But—your own affairs, Francis?"
The elder brother rose; already the story in the newsletter was becoming vague and unreal; he stared out at the fair April day.
"I hear that fellow Septvan is still in Guildford," he remarked.
"I wish to God," cried Sir Francis passionately, "that he may come at the truth of it!"
He looked at his brother.
"To-morrow I will see Margaret Cowley—ay, if I have to wait before the door. I have had enough of this—there must be an end, one way or another."
The day after, Miss Cowley primly received Francis Ribblestone.
She was composed, rather frightened, wholly self-satisfied, her grey gown was decorously chosen; she held a little leather and silver box in her left hand.
Francis showed stern, gloomy, agitated and moody, was dressed carelessly and slightly disfigured by the scar on his lip; his own hair being cropped he wore a heavy grey peruke that added to his age; he was pale and weary eyed, in no way conciliatory or ardent in his manner.
"I am glad that you have decided to see me at last, Margaret," were his first words, gravely spoken.
She rose to answer him.
"My father wished to receive you. But I thought it would be kinder for me to do so myself."
"How do you mean—kinder?" he asked.
Margaret glanced towards the open window and the terrace where Mr. Ribblestone was walking up and down, waiting for his brother; her fair face was anxious.
"Please sit down," she said faintly.
"No," he answered sternly. "I will first hear you further."
"It is very painful for me," she murmured.
"And for me, also, madame, I dare assure you."
She looked covertly at the fine hawk-like features framed in the powdered curls, and saw them set in a cold haughtiness that further repelled her. She shivered, feeling injured and very much in the right.
"I am vastly sorry for you, Francis," she began, "you know that—"
"How should I know it?" he demanded.
"Please do not be harsh," she pleaded. "It has all been very dreadful for me. I have been ill—I—oh, you must understand what this has meant to me."
"Is this a reproach or a justification?" he asked.
Margaret was a little alarmed; she found her task difficult; her one support was the thought of Mr. Ribblestone waiting without.
"You must be fair, Francis—"
"I have tried to be—fair."
"Your father," he caught her up, "voted against me in Guildford—why?"
"I know nothing of any politics," she stammered.
"This is not a question of politics. Your people are against me—is that so?"
"I have tried to withstand them—but it was all terrible and you made it difficult—you would not explain—"
"And should you want explanations?" he demanded.
"Oh, I do not know—I—"
"Margaret, Margaret, speak plainly—you have not been loyal—you cannot stand by me—"
But it was not in her to respond by coming frankly to the sheer fact; she must needs cloak and cover it with all the little wrappings of sentiment, excuse and subterfuge that put her in the right.
She began by the first and most real grievance.
"You never really cared for me."
"Leave that. I cared for you enough to ask you to be my wife. I did you the honour to suppose that you could be faithful to a man wronged and unfortunate."
"It is not that," she protested. "Certainly I do not believe you guilty—I do not think—"
"Guilty of what?"
"Oh, la, the—trial—"
He answered with a sad sternness.
"You do not believe that I am guilty (you use the word very glibly), you do not think I am a common, cowardly deceiver of village wenches and a hideous murderer. That is cold consolation for me, Margaret."
"Oh, you never cared!" she cried, retreating to what she felt to be her strongest ground. "You did not think of me at all—or you would have explained; with you it was always Bernardine Muschamp."
He faintly flushed, and she was quick to notice it and mark it as further justification.
"Yes," answered Margaret; she looked at him straightly for the first time since their meeting. "Always Mrs. Muschamp—before she married—afterwards—now."
"What do you mean by that?"
"You know as well as I."
"Leave her out of it," he said passionately; "this is our affair—yours and mine—do you want to go back on your word?"
"I wish to do what is right," said Miss Cowley.
Francis laughed, and, rising quickly, took a hasty turn about the room.
"The right! That is a thing beyond either of us to discover!"
"I would not hurt you in any way," she said primly.
"But you think that I ask too much in asking you to share a tarnished and broken life? God of me, perhaps I do. I have been so wildered of late."
"It is not that," amended Margaret hastily. "I would not mind what they said." She paused a moment, then added with an air of detached common sense, "I do not suppose that we should be happy together. I believe it would be a mistake."
He stopped short before her.
"You are going to jilt me, then?"
"I want you to set me free," she murmured.
Francis Ribblestone stood silent; she did not care to look at him.
"It will be better for both us," she said gently.
"If you wish it," he answered hoarsely, "it is of course done."
He turned away to the window and stood with his back to her.
"Oh, Francis!" she entreated, "don't be hard on me—I'm vastly sorry."
He answered without looking round.
"I am not blaming you. I suppose most women would do the same; it was you, my dear, who never cared."
"Don't be so hard, Francis!"
"Hard? Do yo not understand what this must mean to any man? Do you not perceive that it will confirm all surmises—all suspicions—all whispers—ah, God in heaven," he swung round swiftly, "you must know that you have given me the last push over—"
Margaret was frightened.
"I am sorry for that," she whispered, and began to cry.
"Dry your tears, girl," he said fiercely. "My misfortunes will not concern you after to-day. We each made a mistake—had everything gone smoothly I suppose we might never have known it; as it is—well, my troubles will press on no shoulders but my own. There is no need to cry. I shall bear the blame of this."
She repeated her meaningless words.
"I'm vastly sorry."
"Sorry!" he smiled bitterly. "Yes, I am sorry too."
She laid the leathern and silver box upon the table.
"Those are your presents," she sobbed. "I couldn't wear your diamonds now."
"No," he answered grimly. "My mother's diamonds. It would be foolish, would it not?"
He put the casket into the pocket of his mantle and picked up his hat.
"You are not angry with me, are you?" she pleaded with a weak desire of vanity to stand well still in his eyes.
He looked at her steadily.
"No," he said. "No."
"You—don't wish me ill?"
"God forbid," he answered gravely. "Farewell, Margaret."
She sobbed and lamented a little, then murmured "Farewell."
He left her, closing the door sharply after him; she stood a moment collecting herself, then ran out on to the terrace.
Mr. Ribblestone was sauntering near the window; she beckoned to him, excited, trembling.
"I have dismissed Francis—I have set myself free."
Phoebus raised his arched brows; he held a white rose to his lips.
"I am sorry—for my brother!"
"You—you must not let him think too hardly of me."
She paused, waiting for his response, then, as he was still silent, she murmured, her hand to her bosom:
"You know why I did it!"
"I suppose," he said with a malicious quiet, "because you are in love with someone else, mademoiselle."
He took a step towards the window as if he would have followed his brother, but she placed herself before him.
"Mr. Ribblestone," she panted in great agitation, "are you going to leave me in such fashion?"
"I am at your service," he answered with a little courteous wonder.
Margaret was thinking of the days in Guildford, of his behaviour then—and now she was free.
His handsome eyes dwelt on her with a boldness that even her self-sufficiency could not find flattering.
"You are very pretty—the English style, gentle and true. What a pity you are not true, mademoiselle!" He altered his soft tone, his face expressed the utmost contempt. "Sir Francis is a thousand times too good for such dollie;" with a foreign gesture he delicately snapped his fingers in her utterly astonished face. "I have always detested unfaithful women. Mademoiselle, au revoir."
He bowed and passed her, crossed the withdrawing-room and left it; she heard the door close; for several moments she stood dumb, incapable of motion, speech or thought; she looked out on sheer blankness.
Then slowly something of what had happened forced itself upon her brain; she stumbled into the room and flung herself on to a chair, this time not crying, for she was filled with the strongest emotion of her life, face to face with something of the incredulous horror, wrath and pain Francis had undergone.
"What brutes men are!" she muttered with dry lips. "What brutes men are!"
Mrs. Muschamp returned to Surrey in August; her wit, her grace and her wealth made London very pleasant; she lacked nothing of homage, friends, gaieties, but none of it was enough; she was not happy, she was not even easeful; her thoughts were ever with Francis Ribblestone in his isolation; she was ever pondering over the mystery that had ruined him; from Sir William Wyndham she heard that his chances of political advancement had vanished, and from a thousand sources she discovered that he was still very generally suspected of the crime he had been formally acquitted of; the desertion of Margaret Cowley and that young lady's flight north with her family had also reached her ears.
After that she had hoped Francis would write to her, but there had been never a word; all her news of him came from Mr. Bargrave, and it was scanty, for the clergyman was now not so often at the Manor House. Sir Francis lived more and more retired.
So in the summer; hating London, the Wells, Bath, Epsom, bidding her friends good-bye without regret, Bernardine Muschamp returned home, bringing with her some restless unformed idea of discovering beyond dispute what had happened by Boundless Water the night of December 13th of last year.
She arrived at Guildford early one cloudless morning after travelling in her anxious impatience all night, then rapidly changing her whim resolved to stay till nightfall in the town, for she loved the place.
She travelled of necessity with a great number of dependants, but she was entirely free, being very much mistress of them all, and soon after her breakfast she left The Angel alone, and, breathing gratefully at being once more in a solitude, took her way down the sunny length of Quarry Street.
Very few were abroad; but some practised music in St. Mary's Church, and she paused under the moving green shade of the churchyard trees to listen to it; gentle singing, detached and remote, it opened her heart to sadness.
Long she did not dare to stay, so poignantly was brought before her mind those Sundays in the Chapel of St. Christopher at Haslemere when she had looked across and seen Francis Ribblestone stately in the high pew, with the ruddy light across his face, or in winter the flutter of the candle-glow.
She turned down Rosemary Alley, a headlong flight of shallow steps between houses that almost met overhead, and came out on to a paved space with a great red-brick mill beyond and a splashing wheel dipping in and out of the bright river that here sprang into two arms clasped about an island grown with tufts of meadow-sweet and sorrel.
Bernardine followed the river away from Guildford and out into the open country; to her left rose the houses of Quarry Street, above them the ruined castle; to her right the fields lay open to the sky.
A little wooden bridge crossed a twisting of the river and brought her to the tow-path along the right bank; irises, king-cups, daisies, poppies and wild geranium grew thickly by the water edge, and willow trees, grey in the foliage, bent low over the narrow continually winding river.
Still, sunny, peaceful and lovely was the scene, yet, for the richly dressed lady walking through it, unfathomably sad; why she knew not, only that her heart leapt ahead and seemed dimly to prefigure unutterable sorrow and tragedy befalling on some such day as this.
Mrs. Muschamp was, however, of a most gallant spirit, and fought with her gloom and disdained it and walked with her head erect.
She had reached one of the sudden turns in the Wey that brought her in view of a group of beeches shading a rising bank and shutting out the landscape when she heard footsteps close behind her, and, in the instinctive surprise that some one should be so near and she not aware of it, looked over her shoulder.
A yard away stood Mr. Phoebus Ribblestone in a white coat, holding his hat against his bosom.
She gave an uncontrollable start.
He took no heed of her astonishment; he bowed low.
"I have been spending the night in Guildford, Mrs. Muschamp. I am glad to see you back in Surrey."
Bernardine had read Mr. Phoebus Ribblestone's evidence at the trial; her first instinctive dislike of him had wholly revived; she had absolutely no wish for his company.
"You are abroad early, Mr. Ribblestone." Her courtesy was as negligent as possible, but he ignored her coldness, and came naturally to her side.
"You also find it beautiful so early, madame," he said winningly.
Bernardine reflected that she did not know this gentleman, that she had scarcely spoken with him, and that all her estimation of an obviously unusual character was founded on surmise; this might be a chance for closer judgment; she suddenly changed her tone.
"I am on my way to Saint Catherine's Chapel," she smiled. "Do you know St. Catherine's Chapel? Will you come? I am moped for company."
"A new experience for Mrs. Muschamp," Phoebus answered. "And I am very honoured."
They glanced at each other; he noticed that she looked tired, slightly worn, that her fine features bore something of the sad weariness of Francis Ribblestone's expression, that her lovely mouth drooped when she was not smiling, and that her great blue eyes were a little misted, with weeping perhaps; she observed that Phoebus Ribblestone was a much handsomer man than she had thought, and most magnificently dressed, though plainly, as suited the time of day; she had a sympathy with that, her own garments were always lavish. "Thank God," she would say, "that I have never made the mistake of dressing like a beautiful woman—in a simple gown and string of pearls I should be hideous, but I am quite tolerable in a hoop and diamonds."
Her eyes rested now with approval on the appearance of Mr. Ribblestone; she knew no town gallant who carried it with his air, and she thought that curious, too—a lieutenant in the French army, penniless save for his pay!
"His debts!" she thought in a kind of admiration. "His debts!"
"You are returning to Muschamp Hall?" he asked.
"Yes—I feel a stranger here." She laughed prettily.
"And I have heard such tales since I left—the elections must have been vastly exciting."
"We did tout possible," he answered, "but Francis was doomed from the first."
"I heard that he was hurt," she said, looking at the river; "moreover, that you killed a man."
"Did that shock you?"
"No—not if he was insulting a Ribblestone," she answered quickly. "Who was he?"
"A soldier of M. de Marlbrook."
Bernardine looked up at him.
"Marlborough," she smiled.
Somewhat to her surprise, he flushed.
"A difficult name," he said.
"You can say it, Mr. Ribblestone—why, you were born English; you learned to speak in English—"
"I have been all my life in France," he answered. "I fear I shall never say anything but Marlbrook."
"Try," she urged, laughing.
He shook his head.
"But you must have heard it in the nursery—"
"I certainly did," he said. "I can remember that:
"Marlbrook s'va t'en guerre,
"You didn't hear that in the nursery, my friend," cried Bernardine, "that is a French song. You know 'tis strange for me to think of you as English at all—you have a strong accent—and to conceive that you cannot say Marlborough!" She laughed in genuine amusement.
Phoebus laughed also, and flicked with his violet cane at the meadow-sweet they passed.
"France, madame, is the country of my choice."
"It is curious, sir," she replied quietly, "that you cared to leave it."
"That was necessity."
"Is it necessity that you stay away?"
"For the present—yes."
"Ah, then you hope to return?"
"Grâce de Dieu, yes!" he smiled.
"But the army is closed to you?"
"I have friends," he answered evasively.
"How will he ever face or pay his debts?" mused Bernardine.
Aloud she said:
"I wonder that you do not persuade Francis to visit Paris with you. It must be very dull in Ribblestone."
"Not so dull," he said.
"But since the Cowleys left, you have no neighbours."
"Francis is the better pleased, it is his strong wish to see no one."
"With an exception in your favour?"
"Naturally. I am his brother."
"His half-brother," she amended. "And one he did not know until a few months ago. It is not so 'naturally.'"
Phoebus gave her a glance askance.
"Francis hath taken a liking to me," he said pleasantly.
"And you sacrifice yourself to a dreary life in respect of that?" asked Bernardine with an obvious touch of sarcasm.
Phoebus laughed outright.
"You are charming! And how you dislike me!" he murmured.
"Not at all, sir," she answered. "You puzzle me a trifle, that is all."
"Yes—this is the way to the chapel. Only a ruin, but I am fond of the view."
She turned up a steep path leading through the beech trees growing on the bank and he followed her; in silence they ascended through the trees and came out on to a green planted with alders and a row of cottages leaning one against the other; before them rose a knoll of emerald verdure crowned by a Gothic church, small and roofless; Bernardine climbed to it and stood in the empty doorway, her blue silk cardinal brushing the old stones; Mr. Ribblestone joined her and they were silent, looking together at the view; below them the Wey laden with yellow water-lilies and obscured by the graceful foliage of willow trees, before them Guildford town rising on the chalk cliff and embowered in a rich profusion of trees, the castle keep, the ancient turrets of Abbot's Hospice and the scaffolding of the new church of Holy Trinity rising noticeably above the roof-lines, and then to right and left woodland, pasture, hill and coppice in the full splendour of summer bloom.
The sheer English beauty of it brought a sparkle to Bernardine's eyes, but Phoebus eyed it coldly.
"Tell me," he said with that imperious air that did not cease to be charming (as indeed were all his manners), "what there is about me that you cannot understand."
Bernardine noted him anew; all his attire was of a fineness that went beyond fashion; Francis never dressed so, no, nor any man she knew; then his face—a remarkable face for a young man of twenty-three.
"Shall we talk of the scenery?" she retorted, "or be frank?"
"Be frank," he answered quickly.
"Well," began Bernardine slowly, "you are an enigma, sir, and that is honest; you don't dress, speak nor look like what you are, you don't behave like a Ribblestone, you are not like the brother of Francis, nor an Englishman at all. I—I simply don't understand you."
To her further bewilderment he appeared pleased.
"These are the first flatteries bestowed on me since I landed," he declared.
"Oh, they are not meant as flatteries," she returned. "I would like you better were you more plain-seeming."
He leant against the broken arch of the door and smiled at her.
"Being unlike Phoebus Ribblestone, what then am I like?"
"Why," she answered, "you are Phoebus Ribblestone, and there is an end of it. But you are different from what might have been expected. I repeat, sir, I do not understand, no, nor trust you."
"In what way—not trust me?"
She turned in the crumbling archway and faced him.
"I do not trust your friendliness to Francis."
With some agitation noticeable in her bearing she moved through the ruined door and passed into the broken interior of the little church; the floor of it was long rich grass; about the altar-space grew a cluster of overblown poppies, and in the pointed window sockets tufts of dry reeds and splashes of lichen. Bernardine crossed to the farther doorway, which framed a perfect vision of distant woodland leafage, field and copse.
Phoebus followed her.
"I am sorry that you do not trust me." His accent was very marked.
She looked up at him.
"Perhaps I should not have said so much," she answered, "but there is so much pretence! pretence! and I have so suffered by it—"
"No, no," he said. "I am very glad that you are frank with me," his voice was somewhat eager, "but tell me why you do not trust me."
"Mr. Ribblestone, you may suppose that I have looked into this case—the case of Sir Francis, that I have discussed it with Sir William Wyndham, with lawyers, with Sir Humphrey Ansom—that I have indeed thought of little else since. How can one forget a mystery that hath had such hideous consequences? And in all my reflections I have been baffled by your behaviour."
"My behaviour!" he said softly.
Bernardine's eyes darkened.
"I have read your evidence at the trial. By God, sir, it was not that of a man who believed in the innocence of the accused nor of one who wished to serve him. But you set yourself to please Francis, you won his regard, you elect to live with him, you saved his life, it seems, you outwardly champion him, but I have not heard that you have taken one step to prove him guiltless."
"There you do me wrong," he answered, looking at her with intense eyes. "I have been staying the night in Guildford now to see this fellow Septvan, who is also investigating the case. We hope to bring some of this—mystery—to light—he returns with me now to Ribblestone."
"You are bringing him face to face with Francis?" she cried—"him, the man who hounded on the trial, Sir Robert's tool—"
"An honest gentleman," said Phoebus quickly. "And in truth engaged to come sincerely at the bottom of this business—"
"But to take him to Ribblestone," she returned hotly. "His very presence is an affront to your brother."
"You will put me in the wrong, madame; it was my brother's wish to see him."
Bernardine caught hold on the rough stone archway; her gaze fixed itself on the landscape before her.
"You have great influence over Sir Francis," she said in a low voice.
"What meaning am I to put on that?" he demanded swiftly.
"This, that you do not satisfy me."
"Mon Dieu! Are you my judge, madame?"
Her flashing eyes lifted to his face.
"No. I might be your enemy."
"I should regret it—I would give a vast deal to have you for my friend."
His voice was sincere and animated, his attractive countenance flushed and ardent. Bernardine made no reply; she looked at him steadily.
"Women like you are rare," he continued rapidly. "You are faithful; I adore that quality in women. You have courage too, I think—nay, I know, you would do anything for one you cared for. Mrs. Muschamp, I would have stood in my brother's peril to have met the devotion he inspired in your breast!"
"Why are you flattering me?" asked Bernardine wearily. "It is merely foolish. I am aware that you dislike me—you would hate me if I put myself in your way."
"You are wrong," he declared vehemently. "I am more desirous of standing well before you than I have ever been to please anyone—"
"Mr. Ribblestone," she interrupted firmly, "these are mere words," and as she stepped a little aside from him he coloured.
"It is you, madame, who dislike me!" he said with some passion.
Bernardine smiled coldly.
"Leave it at that then, Mr. Ribblestone."
"But now you denied it."
"Since then I have looked at you," she answered.
He was so astonished, bewildered and angry that her cold smile deepened.
"I suppose no woman ever said that to you before, Mr. Ribblestone," and her voice was scornful, for she imagined he must set a value on his mere beauty, and that to her was an odious thing in a man; this hurt vanity made her reflect on poor Francis, who hardly knew what colour were his eyes.
Phoebus quickly controlled himself.
"What is there about me that filleth you with aversion?" he demanded.
Her glance did not waver.
"Your eyes. You have wicked eyes, Mr. Ribblestone."
He laughed, but it was to cover the fact that he was roused almost beyond concealment.
"You are a clever woman," he said.
"Is that a confession?" she asked swiftly.
"That I am justified?"
"You go far," he said hotly. "What have you against me?"
"I have told you. I neither believe you nor trust you. You are about some devilry, I do think, and though at present I know not what, I shall discover it. Before this encounter I was not so sure, I did not know you—but now I am—quite—sure."
Phoebus bit his full lower lip.
"If you will be unjust, madame, I am defenceless—but at least tell me what I can do to regain your good opinion—"
"Leave Ribblestone to-morrow—return to France."
"That is impossible."
"Very well. Only be careful."
"I am an idle woman, Mr. Ribblestone, not a poor or foolish one. I intend to discover what you are about."
"You have some fairy-tale in your head, madame. What could I be about?"
"As yet I do not know. But you are the next heir to Ribblestone."
"This is some of the romance in which you live," he said suavely, "the romance you have always woven round Francis Ribblestone."
Her turn to flush now, and violently; her hand went out and grasped the moulding edge of the window behind her; he followed up his advantage, with a considering smile.
"I think we can have no more to say," remarked the lady, and gathered up her crimson skirts from the bright grass.
"One moment, madame." He stayed her with an imperious little gesture. "One good reason for taking me to be a villain?"
"I do not like you, Mr. Ribblestone," she answered promptly.
He laughed charmingly.
"So you are a woman after all, my fair Amazon—and a rare creature. Héllas! why do ladies such as you always fall in love with poor, weak, honest folk of straw such as—my brother Francis, while the strong spirits win the tearful devotions of little dolls? Had I won a wife like you I might have been—well, not here now. I recommend that to your philosophy."
That Phoebus was in some way concerned in this horrid business Bernardine did not doubt, but she had no suspicions of the manner of it; her feeling toward him was mainly bewilderment; but two days after her return to Muschamp Hall she received a piece of news that threw some light on Mr. Ribblestone.
It came in a letter from a friend of hers to whom she often sent for Lyons silks; a lady living in Paris, English, but married to a Frenchman, who good-naturedly sent Bernardine the Parisian novelties before they reached London. In her letter containing the usual gossip occurred this paragraph:
"You have heard of the sudden downfall of M. de Marsac? Well, credit it if you will; I was told today that the young lieutenant who disappeared with him was an Englishman—Phoebus Ribblestone. That would be the brother of your Sir Francis—is this true? Is he in the Bastille or fled to England? At least he hath vanished and all news of him hushed Up, but I had this from an officer in the same company. I hear, too, that M. de Marsac is not dead at all, but merely gave it out to put the Cardinal's creatures off the scent. What can one believe? They say the King is wearying for him again and that M. de Fleury's power declineth."
Bernardine was not interested in the Rohan Prince, but very much so in Lieutenant Ribblestone. Here was a reason for his staying in Surrey; the man was partly in hiding; he did not even dare go to London for fear of recognition—disdaining actual concealment, but well out of the way.
So was one mystery explained, so was made plain and clear the object of Phoebus Ribblestone's hasty departure from Paris, his contentment at exile in the country—thus was the fear of the Bastille behind him; France was closed to him; wary and cautious, he had not trusted even Francis, whose unconscious protection he was using—
"Poor Francis—he must have accepted him blindly—a few inquiries would have exposed the whole thing."
The fact she had thus by chance discovered did not help her to elucidate the affair of Serena Fowkes or to understand the part Phoebus was playing, but it gave her, she thought, some insight into the character of the man, and to his former life.
He had been an associate of M. de Marsac, the most famous man of fashion in France; he had been in the power of that attractive personality, probably in the first instance fled with him; this accounted for his bel air, his grand manner, his composure—he had learnt them from M. de Marsac.
And probably some other things, reflected Bernardine; a man at all scrupulous, frank or honest would not long be in the confidence of Anne de Bethune Rohan, let only half the stories she had heard of that notable Prince be true. He must have learnt in that company a thousand tricks, wiles and subterfuges the very least of which would be sufficient to confound the upright Francis.
She was angry with herself that this information had not come to her before, for she had never trusted the man; then glad that she knew it now; yet no great secret, after all, no wonderful mystery; she could have found it out for herself had she troubled to inquire.
At first she thought of writing to Sir William Wyndham and telling Mr. Bargrave, but on reflection decided it was not of sufficient importance—and how could it possibly help Francis?—how could anything help Francis?
She resolved to see Francis, to observe his state of mind, and how much he was under the influence of his brother, and how the establishment was run at the Manor House. She was sorry—so sorry.
When she had brought peace to her disturbed and agitated heart by this determination and was composing herself to the first move in the game that was to end in the defeat and overthrow of Phoebus Ribblestone, an event occurred that utterly overthrew her plans, forced her hand and hastened her interference.
On the third day of her return, about six o'clock of the evening, she was told that Marston, the steward or butler from Ribblestone Manor House, wished urgently to speak with her; her heart leapt to the joy of a message from Francis. But the man had no message; he asked her indulgence to speak with her himself for a few moments, her own servant said.
Bernardine had known Marston from her childhood; he was associated with early visits to Ribblestone, on the occasion of the visits to the mother of her future husband, when he had been told to preserve the box hedges from her attacks and so prevent her climbing the fruit garden wall and plucking the green peaches; she had always liked him.
When her woman brought her the message she was in her powdering closet, but with her impetuousness of decision, she waved aside the barber, tied back her locks with a black ribbon, and ran down to the extravagant little white room where he had been brought to await her coming.
"Marston!" she cried, even before she had shut the door, "is anything wrong at the Manor House?"
He was a tall, middle-aged man, the usual orderly self-effacing servant, but to-night he seemed unusually moved as he stammered his apologies for the presumption of his intrusion.
Bernardine, a small figure in white lace and primrose-coloured silk, came into the chamber, full into the sunlight.
"Please, Marston," she said, interrupting him, "tell me what has happened. It is good of you to come. I am very obliged."
He looked at her depreciatingly.
"You are not afraid of me, are you?" she smiled. "I used to be afraid of you once. Are you in trouble'?"
"Great trouble, my lady," he said huskily. "Is it—is it Sir Francis'?"
He bent his head.
"It is Sir Francis."
"Is he ill?"
"No, my lady."
Bernardine seated herself on a sofa by the rose-framed window.
"Please tell me all about it," she said quietly.
"It makes a long story, my lady, taken from the beginning, and how else you are to understand—"
"Tell it me all—all!"
The man looked at her, and, seeing her pale with sympathy and attention, broke out:
"It begins with the coming of Mr. Phoebus."
The servant paused, then, encouraged by her silence, proceeded with his tale that did not lose in vigour from being so long locked into his own breast.
"When Master Francis was in Guildford, it began, my lady—he made away with half the household, he had the Chapel fitted up with Popish mummery, the two priests brought and a whole train of baggage mules laden with clothes, coming up from the coast; the doctor was dismissed and the chaplain, and there is no other, my lady, and Master Francis never goeth to church now."
"I had no idea of this!" exclaimed Mrs. Muschamp. "No idea! Continue, good Marston, continue."
"I knew you would be patient with me, Mistress Bernardine," said the man gratefully. "You were always a good friend to the master, you stood by him at the time of the trial, and I said to myself this morning, I will do the best I can, I will be bold enough to go and tell Mistress Bernardine how things are at the Manor House if only for the sake of those days when she used to play with the master in the old garden; she will forgive me."
He was much moved and had some ado to maintain a decent composure; the tears sprang to Bernardine's great eyes; she rose and went to his side and patted his hand as she had done when as a child he indulged her whims.
"Dear Marston!" she said tenderly. "You always loved him—you were always faithful I know. Sometimes in London I would think—I must go back to Haslemere and see what bath become of Francis (for he never wrote to me); but I thought after, Marston is there!"
"God bless you for your kindness, my lady, but it was very little I could do; most of the servants are new (the steward is changed now), and everything is in the hands of Mr. Phoebus, and those who disobey him are thrashed, and the place is isolated, no one cometh near us, not even Mr. Bargrave since Mr. Phoebus so insulted him—"
"But, Sir Francis! I cannot understand, he did not use to be weak—"
Marston shook his head sadly.
"The master is a broken man, my lady: first the trial, then the elections, then Mistress Margaret—he hath never been himself since."
"Is he under the mastery of Mr. Ribblestone?" Bernardine asked, incredulous.
"No, my lady, but he is indifferent to everything; I have often heard him quietly wish he were dead. He will ride for hours aimless across the heath and always round by the gallows on Gibbet Hill, then past the empty cottage beyond the yew tree where Mistress Fowkes lived—or—by Boundless Water; sometimes he goeth into the library and sitteth before his papers that he did use to write so eagerly, but he will never take the pen up now—and his face when he readeth the parliament news in The Gazette would break your heart, my lady. I try and put it out of his way, but he will get it and read the speeches..."
"Oh, Marston!" cried Mrs. Muschamp, pale with pity. "And we all thought that he would be a great man!"
"It is Mr. Phoebus, my lady. The master might have gone abroad, but Mr. Phoebus said it would be cowardly; he might have faced it out in London, but Mr. Phoebus said 'wait'—and meanwhile he hath set himself to ruin him—I do not say this lightly, my lady."
"God help him, what is to be done?" said Bernardine, putting her hands to her brow; she looked a little creature with tragic eyes.
"I have not come to the worst, my lady, to what brought me here. There is gaming every night with the master, Mr. Phoebus and the two Popish priests, and for the last three months Sir Francis hath not gone to bed sober, and that is strange in him."
"Marston!" cried Bernardine. "Are they setting him to gamble away the estates?"
"I thought of that, my lady, but it is not so, for they play for trifling stakes; some foreign game it is, and they drink the whole while. I've had more wine up from the cellars since Mr. Phoebus came than during the whole of Master Francis's life."
"He did not use to care for it," cried Mrs. Muschamp, "he held it a vice. I remember he was oft laughed at for that—"
"Yes, my lady. And he hath no head for it. Mr. Phoebus drinketh like an Irish, but he very seldom loseth his wits, but Master Francis soon becometh violent, then stupid, and is half the day dazed in his senses. It is good, strong wine in Ribblestone cellars, my lady, not to be drunk like water."
"Alas! Alas!" murmured Bernardine, pushing back the loose hair from her haggard face.
"I sometimes think, my lady, that the master wisheth to drink himself to death—the wine is a kind of balm in bringing forgetfulness; again and again Langton and I have crept into the dining-room when the others have gone and found him along the floor in a stupor, and when we have roused him, taking him upstairs, he hath cursed us for it—"
"This Francis Ribblestone!" she cried. "Oh, Marston, I could weep my eyes away!"
"Ah, my lady, if our hopes had been realized, and you had been mistress of Ribblestone—we always thought that it was to be so—"
"Blame me, Marston," she said humbly. "I was too proud—and now I am punished. Oh, Marston, I am most unhappy!"
He answered eagerly.
"You are the only person the master cares for—he would read the news of you in The Gazette and treasure the paper on which it was writ—"
"He never wrote to me," she declared.
"My lady, he thought that you despised him—he is quite alone but for you; there is no one who cares enough—"
"What can I do?" she interrupted.
"Listen, my lady. Yesterday Mr. Phoebus returned from Guildford. Soon after came Mr. Septvan, who was so urgent against Sir Francis at he trial; he hath been staying above The Fan and Ruffle, trying to probe the mystery, to discover the truth of the ribbon, the letter and the other wilderments.
"With this purpose he came to Ribblestone at noon yesterday; the master is still abed and doth not come down till evening, when he is sullen and out of humour; with the coming of Mr. Septvan, there is some show of courtesy between them. Mr. Phoebus's blackamoor is there, and no other but I as they sit at dinner. Master Francis drinks, drinks...they begin to talk of Mistress Fowkes. Mr. Septvan saith he will have the truth of it. Sir Francis being innocent, who is guilty? He boggles over the letter—who wrote it?
"'Some enemy of mine,'" saith Sir Francis, and looketh at him straightly.
"Mr. Septvan fireth up and asketh: 'Do you suspect me?'
"Sir Francis, fuddled with the wine, damns him and will not say no, and presently, after more words have passed, the master throweth his glass of Frontignan into Mr. Septvan's face and curses him for the forger of that letter.
"There and then a meeting is arranged. Mr. Septvan will not sleep under the same roof and rideth off to find a second in Guildford—"
Marston broke off abruptly.
"Go on," said Mrs. Muschamp.
"My lady," he answered, "the duel is to be tomorrow morning. Mr. Phoebus is to be the second—"
"Oh!" cried Bernardine.
"—And Master Francis hath not been sober since."
"You mean," she whispered, "that to-morrow he will be drunk?"
"Yes, my lady."
"This must be stopped. Is there no one who can keep him sober—no one?"
Marston shook his head.
"There is only Langton and I who care, my lady, and he will not listen to either of us."
"But Mr. Septvan will not fight with a drunken man."
"He will, my lady, if the second sweareth he is in his senses and the master will be sobered enough to hold himself upright—but his sword arm shaking like a leaf—his head bemused—he hath no chance."
"I went to him-he came to the Manor House, but Sir Francis would not let him in."
"But he will tell some one, he will bring help?"
"I do not think so, my lady. He is inclined to a poor opinion of Sir Francis for so falling into melancholy; besides, if he was to inform the constables, neither he nor I could tell them where the duel is to be held."
Bernardine walked to and fro.
The man waited, in a pathetic confidence that her wit and devotion would save the master he was powerless to save; he had no suggestion to make, but he was ready to be the willing ally of any idea she might conceive.
"Will they make him drink to-night?" she asked.
"I am sure of it, my lady."
"And if he is kept sober to-night he may be recovered in the morning?"
"Only it is not possible, my lady."
Bernardine glanced at the gilt and china clock on the white mantelshelf; it was nearly seven.
"Oh, could you only have told me sooner!" she exclaimed.
"There was, my lady, so little time."
"Yes, yes," she answered hurriedly. "I am greatly obliged to you for coming—dear, good Marston—I will go back with you."
"You, my lady?"
She smiled faintly at his amazement.
"It is a question of his life. He will listen to me—oh, I think he will listen to me!"
"But," objected Marston, "your ladyship cannot reach Ribblestone before nightfall—"
"What matter. Nothing matters, so long as I am in time." Her voice fell mournfully. "You say I am the only one to care, you come to me; do you not wish me to save your master?"
"I was thinking of you, my lady," murmured the man, overwhelmed.
"Am I not free?" said Bernardine, with a sad firmness. "I have no one to consult or defer to; let my liberty be some small use to me."
"Sir Francis would not like it," he protested, but faintly.
"Sir Francis will have no choice," smiled Bernardine.
Dismissing Marston, whom she warned not to appear too obviously in league with her, Bernardine, after bidding him send his master to her, ascended the stairs into the room she was most familiar with, the drawing-room at the back of the house that opened on to the same landing as the library.
She, and the guests with which she used to fill Muschamp Hall, relatives and friends who had insisted on lending the decorum of their company to her widowed state, had often been entertained there; further back than that she remembered it, before she came of age when she was still under the guardianship of her uncle, who would bring her to Ribblestone with her cousin; and longer ago still she could recall the room in the days of the French Lady Ribblestone, the mother of Phoebus, who had ruled here such a brief while. Bernardine could recall her too, as different from her son as he was from his half-brother; a blonde Frenchwoman, languid and pale.
With these mingled and happy memories, emphasizing the desperate and miserable nature of her present errand, Bernardine looked jealously round the room for signs of change, but there were none. The old-fashioned walnut and crimson furniture, the heavy brocade curtains, the portraits of the stiff school of Godfrey Kneller, all was untouched.
The candles were unlit, thought it was past nine of the clock and nearly dark. Bernardine paced to and fro to keep up her courage, for the silence of the house, the length of time she was kept waiting, together with a sudden doubt of the use of her presence or her ability, were shaking it. She had done a rash, perhaps a useless thing in coming to the Manor House. Her first ardour of wrath and pity having subsided, feminine reluctance to interfere, and dread of what she might be called upon to see and do, nearly over-mastered her; she stepped to the bell-pull to summon a servant and end the tension when the door was softly pushed wide and Mr. Ribblestone's negro appeared.
"Bring lights, fellow," said Bernardine instantly, then remembered the man was a mute.
He stared at her and withdrew as silently as he had entered; Bernardine shivered in the warm August twilight. Why did not Francis come?
After a few moments the door again opened; this time it was on Mr. Ribblestone.
Bernardine nerved herself; it was difficult to address him civilly after what Marston had said; difficult, too, not to be a little afraid of him.
"Ah, madame," he said easily, and called over his shoulder for candles.
"I am here to see your brother, sir."
"An unusual hour," remarked Mr. Ribblestone suavely.
"Unusual circumstances, sir," said Bernardine.
"Ah," he replied. "Who informed you of these unusual circumstances, madame?"
She made no doubt, though his face was not clear to her in the dusk, that he was in so deep a fury at her appearance, that he scarcely troubled to conceal it from her; controlled as he was, the feminine graces and softnesses had completely left his voice and manner.
"Who told you?" he repeated.
"Sir Francis hath those who are faithful to him."
"It was that dog Marston."
"Why dog, sir—is it because he serveth his master?"
"No—because a whip shall teach him better manners."
"Sir!" cried Bernardine, "where is Sir Francis?"
"You cannot see him, madame."
The negro entered with a taper and lit the candles on mantelboard and table; as the light of them sprang up her opinion of the mood of the man she had to deal with was confirmed; Mr. Ribblestone was colourless, his face unnaturally smooth, his nostrils compressed; he was plainly dressed in violet, and his hair, a dense lifeless black, hung disordered on to his shoulders; his charm and his attraction had completely disappeared with his rich appointments and artificial graces; stripped of all adornments and taken by surprise, he was merely a sallow young man whose countenance was index to no pleasant character; his grand manner remained but rather emphasized than concealed his obvious evil anger.
She was silent until the negro had gone, then said quietly:
"I demand to see Sir Francis."
"It is impossible," he answered.
"Whose orders are those?"
"Then they are nothing to me," replied Bernardine. "Francis is the master of this house, Mr. Ribblestone."
"Why do you want to see him at this hour?" he asked.
She faced him boldly, though she, too, was pale.
"I told you I did not trust you, Mr. Ribblestone. I told you, that you had an enemy in me—we have come to a trial sooner than I thought, that is all."
"What do you suspect me of?" he demanded.
"Of trying to ruin your brother," she answered, breathless, "of forcing this Mr. Septvan on him to bring about a duel, of keeping him under the influence of wine so that he will have no chance in that duel—
"A pretty tale!" he cried.
"Yes, by God, a pretty tale, Mr. Ribblestone," she flashed. "And that is why I am here, and why I shall stay until I see and speak with Sir Francis."
"You are bold," he said on a quick breath.
"And so are you—you play a dangerous game—"
"You play for the Ribblestone estates—and you use marked cards, Mr. Ribblestone."
"These are love-sick follies—you cannot prove anything of what you say," he said gently, moving to the hearth.
"Meanwhile I advise you to return home—it is already late."
She answered, undaunted:
"I will see Sir Francis first."
"He would be honoured," sneered Phoebus, "but it is impossible. Return before your presence is matter of comment to the servants."
"Do you think that I care for the servants?" she cried, desperate.
"I made the suggestion for your own sake. I thought that you would scarcely care to spend the night here."
Bernardine moved resolutely towards the door.
"Where is your brother? I will rouse the house till I find him—"
Their eyes met and measured each other; his were cloudy with a little fleck of wicked humour in them.
"Very well," he said suddenly, with a rapid change of mood that terrified her, "you shall see your adored Francis."
Though his words were nothing as rude or violent as from his look she had schooled herself to bear, his tone, his expression, his very carriage, held an indescribable quality of insolence, new to Bernardine and almost unendurable.
In instinctive expression of her anger and loathing she recoiled against the smooth waxed wall where the candlelight reflected dully, and he laughed as he noticed that movement of hers, and rang the bell.
"I do trust," said Bernardine, quivering, "that Sir Francis is sufficiently master still in his own house to resent this outrageous behaviour of yours—"
He eyed the graceful picture she made, shrinking back in aversion and fright, her lace cravat no whiter than her proud face, her long riding-habit and embroidered coat catching the light in the gold braidings, her hair loosened under the broad black beaver.
"You shall see Sir Francis," he remarked.
A servant answered the bell.
"Take this lady," said Phoebus, still staring carelessly and boldly at Bernardine, "to see Sir Francis."
"He is in the library, sir—"
Phoebus lifted his eyes and Bernardine saw the man wince obviously.
"Do as you are told," said Mr. Ribblestone quietly.
Then he turned his back on both of them and moved to the open window, a square of opal colour in the candle-lit room.
"I know the way," said Bernardine; she preceded the servant on to the landing-place. "I will go alone."
The fellow seemed confused, he made no protest, and Bernardine descended a short flight of stairs and turned the handle of the library door.
A jest of yellow light fell across the still unlit stairway; after a second's sick hesitation Bernardine entered.
The room was long and high, filled with dark furniture, dark pictures, dark bookshelves; the stained-glass window was open on the hot evening and the whole chamber illuminated by a handsome chandelier in silver that hung from the centre of the painted ceiling and by a red copper branched stick holding twelve lit candles that stood on a small table by the window close to the lac cabinet and Chinese desk belonging to Sir Francis.
Three people sat round this table, and the chair of a fourth was pushed back as if one had suddenly left; the three had not delayed for his absence, however, but were silently and intently playing cards.
One was Francis Ribblestone; he sat with his back to the door; Bernardine could see only the outline of his shoulders and close-cropped head, for he had removed his wig that hung on the corner of his chair; but the man facing him and the man to his left Bernardine could see very plainly.
Both were strangers to her; the older of the two was of a frail appearance, past middle life, dressed fashionably in black cloth, wearing a curled white peruke; the other, though so much younger as to be scarcely more than a boy, was dressed almost exactly the same, save that he was more dishevelled in appearance.
Both wore close black-silk caps over the crown of the powdered ringlets, and with a sense of shock Bernardine realized that these were the priests spoken of by Marston; in her ignorance of the papists and of France, she had vaguely pictured two barefoot friars with beards and girdles.
An added incongruity in a scene strange and horrid to her eyes was the figure of the negro who stood half concealed behind a tall screen of stamped leather.
All these details were impressed on Bernardine the instant she entered the library, the more so as the three remained unmoved, having evidently neither heard nor seen her; she made a quick sign to the older of the two Frenchmen, who instantly rose.
At that Sir Francis looked over his shoulder and at the unusual sight of a lady in the Manor House got to his feet, still holding the cards in his right hand.
"Do not you know me, Francis?" said Bernardine unsteadily, for he was staring stupidly, and she noticed the glimmer of glass and silver, the wine-cooler and the empty decanters.
"Bernardine Muschamp," he stammered. "Bernardine—"
The two priests exchanged a rapid whisper in French and the elder pulled Sir Francis back into his chair with a hand of authority.
"Madame," he said, addressing Bernardine gracefully in halting English, "must excuse us—we were not expecting madame—"
"No," answered Bernardine, "but I need not trouble you, sir—I am here to see Sir Francis—" The Frenchman eyed her curiously.
"The chevalier is scarcely prepared to receive madame—and Monsieur Ribblestone—"
She advanced to the card-table.
"I have seen Mr. Ribblestone. Neither he nor you rule here. Francis, won't you see me—alone?"
The priest still kept his hand on the shoulder of Sir Francis, who was staring in a kind of confused vacancy at the lady; she turned to the younger Frenchman, hoping more pity from his age.
"What is your title to interfere?" she demanded.
He was a youth, sickly and dissipated in appearance, yet with a look of breed and handsomeness, defaced and almost lost in an expression of weakness and folly; his eyes gave Bernardine a curious little start; they were hazel, the colour she had learnt to know so well in Francis, and they gave his face an odd and grotesque resemblance to the total different countenance of Francis Ribblestone.
"I do not know your name, madame," he answered; he seemed frightened and confused, his English was better than that of his companion and more accurate in accent than in the elegant speech of Phoebus.
"I am Bernardine Muschamp—a friend," she said quietly. "And who, sirs, are you?"
"Will madame permit that I make the presentation?" The elder priest bowed. "I am the Abbé D'Auvergne, and this is the Abbé Levasseur—"
"And what is your business here?"
"We are in attendance on Monsieur Ribblestone."
"Then attend him now, sir," flashed Bernardine, all her worst suspicions confirmed by the fact that both the Frenchmen were sober while Francis was like a man drugged.
"It is an extraordinary suggestion," answered M. D'Auvergne.
"It is a request," said Bernardine.
Something in her tone seemed suddenly to rouse Francis: he thrust off the Abbe's hand and violently rose, overtopping all of them; he made a gesture as if he commanded silence and stared down at Bernardine with perplexed eyes.
She, firmly returning his gaze, thought that as she had seen Phoebus stripped of all adornments bare to the real, so she also now beheld the elder brother, and that, degraded as he was from his old proud serenity and austere command of himself, he yet showed a thousand times more comely, body and soul, than Phoebus.
His coat and waistcoast were unbuttoned over his frilled shirt, his ruffles untied, his eyes bloodshot and his lips parted; the fine keen features were lined, marred in expression, the scars on lip and temple showed faintly white, the thick close hair grew in little locks over his forehead.
"Mrs. Muschamp!" he cried suddenly, catching hold of the chair-back. "Why are you here?—what are you doing here?"
"Send them away," she entreated.
He looked at them vaguely.
"Why don't you go?" he asked.
"You see," she said eagerly, "it is his wish—"
M. D'Auvergne broke into French.
"Speak English—can't you speak English?" asked Francis in a dangerous sullen tone; then, "Where is Phoebus?"
"He sent me here," said Bernardine.
The two Frenchmen hesitated; Francis sank into his chair again and caught up his glass with a shaking hand, emptied it and stared moodily at the table; the Frenchmen whispered together.
"Will you leave us?" persisted Bernardine, shivering, but resolute.
To the surprise of all, Francis sprang up to second her request.
"Leave us," he commanded fiercely, "and damn you for Popish traitors—begone! The lady is for me—
"Monsieur Ribblestone—" began the elder abbé.
"Curse him!" interrupted Francis. "Curse him! Am I not master in Ribblestone? I used to be—leave us—"
He had roused so suddenly from apathy and sullenness to violent fury, that they backed from the table against which he leant.
"If madame wishes to be left, at this hour, with this gentleman—" sneered M. D'Auvergne.
Bernardine turned her colourless face towards the speaker.
The two priests exchanged a few words, then the elder left the room, followed by the negro.
M. Levasseur sauntered from the window and slunk in a shamefaced manner into the shadows about the screen.
Francis stretched out his hand to the wine-cooler where the slim dark bottle lay amid the broken ice. "Francis!" said Bernardine intensely.
He paused, his hand fell to his side.
"Oh, my dear," he muttered, with something of his old sweetness in his tone, "you are good to trouble about a ruined man—" He looked at her vaguely. "Where is Phoebus?"
Looking fearfully round at the half-open door, at the great shadowed room and the figure of the pale young abbé watching her from the ambush of the screen, Bernardine answered, quick and low:
"Command yourself, Francis. Rouse yourself, I implore you! You are to fight to-morrow, remember that—"
"Thomas Septvan," he said dazedly, "he dogged me down—he was behind the trial. Was Serena Fowkes his charge that he must avenge her? Why did Phoebus bring him here? And the letter, who wrote that letter—"
"Hush," she interrupted, "recall yourself—"
He gave a wild, stupid laugh.
"What hour is it? You should not be here—where is M. D'Auvergne?"
"You sent them away," she whispered. "They are your enemies, Francis. Oh, listen to me, you cannot be changed—changed so utterly that you do not know or understand me."
Francis pressed his hand to his brow.
"They've done for me," he said huskily. "You must go home—who came to stand by me—once—Bernardine Muschamp!"
"She'll stand by you now," answered Bernardine with a sob.
M. Levasseur crept a little into the room; he seemed wishful yet afraid to interrupt; with an air of timid vexation he looked at Bernardine and bit his forefinger; his fashionable clerical dress contrasted pitifully with his weak youth and worn, profligate face. Mrs. Muschamp glanced at him with goaded and desperate contempt.
"Are you not ashamed to wear that habit and do what you do?" she asked. "What work are you lending yourself to here? Be assured that I shall discover it, poor tool, and you and your master will pay for it The abbé shook and pressed a laced handkerchief to his lips.
"I beseech you go, madame," he said nervously. "You are entirely mistaken; Sir Francis is in the best hands here—"
Bernardine interrupted scornfully;
"I give you warning, I suspect you of evil dealing. There is foul play here. Mr. Ribblestone urged on this duel, and now would secure a victory for Mr. Septvan—"
"No, no, madame, I assure you—you are mistaken."
Sir Francis interrupted.
"Begone—Levasseur! I will see this lady home—" He rose and sank down again with a groan. "I'm drunk," he said, and dropped his aching head in his trembling hands.
The abbé approached him.
"Sir Francis, come to supper—I will escort the lady home—"
Bernardine was about to speak when Mr. Ribblestone and M. D'Auvergne entered softly.
Phoebus, who was obviously and openly the leader of the other two, advanced with a half-smile; his bright appearance a brilliant foil to the black garments of the priests, who seemed to be waiting for him to speak or act.
He wore a very fine sword on a broad pearl-sewn baldric, and had his left hand on the hilt as he stood surveying Francis, who sat still with his face hidden, and Bernardine, who held herself erect and gave him glance for glance.
"Will you join our simple supper, madame?" he asked. "Ladies have not yet adorned our board—"
At the sound of his voice Francis raised his face.
Phoebus glanced from one to the other.
"You are coming, Francis?"
"No," said Bernardine quickly, "not even if I have to stay here all night to prevent him—"
The smile on Mr. Ribblestone's handsome mouth deepened; his eyes sparkled.
"Would you go as far as that?"
"I would," she answered instantly, "and will—if it is the only way to ensure he goeth to this meeting sober."
"There is devotion, my D'Auvergne! Listen to the lady! Ma foi, madame, it shall never be said that I interfered with a lady's whim—it is my brother's misfortune that he is stupid with his wine; a gentleman should be able to handle a sword, drunk or sober—and if you care to take these means to keep him level-headed I shall not interfere—not even to tell you how wrong you are."
He turned on his heel and left the library, followed by the two priests. He had spoken with a curious emphasis and both his words and his expression remained impressed on Bernardine's mind.
Francis followed the departing figure of the three with a confused glance, then turned his head slowly and looked at Bernardine.
"Francis," she asked swiftly, "where is this duel?"
"No matter," he murmured, "no matter—I'll kill the fellow if I can—he's a liar."
Bernardine sank on to the chair beside him and tried to collect her thoughts as to what she must do; the generosity of Phoebus half relieved, half troubled her; she was now so convinced that his object was to ensure the death of his brother by the sword of Mr. Septvan that she could not trust he would so quietly relinquish that scheme; since she had entered Ribblestone Manor House, beheld Phoebus and his two allies and seen the state to which they had between them reduced Francis, she was absolutely persuaded that there was a conspiracy afoot to rob the elder brother of honour, estates and life.
How to defeat this she could not remotely imagine; the very calm with which Phoebus had indulged her wish to see Francis, the very carelessness with which he left her alone with him, showed, she thought, that he was perfectly sure of his victim, that he knew nothing she could do would restore Francis to clear-headedness by the morning.
She formed a quick resolve to speak to Mr. Septvan and his second, yet loathed to have to expose the weakness of her friend and doubted if they would take her word.
She leant forward and gazed frantically into the face of Francis Ribblestone.
He was almost as still as the dead, leaning back stiffly and staring before him.
"Francis," she said in as steady a voice as her fear and pity could command, "look at me—tell me what time this duel is to-morrow—what hour?"
He uttered a sound like a sob in the throat.
"My head," he muttered—"my head hath gone—"
Bernardine set down the lights and rose; passing behind his chair she stood rigid, looking down on the crown of his bent head and thinking, thinking.
The door opened cautiously and she started, fearing to see Phoebus returning, but Marston entered, light-footed.
"Oh, my lady," he whispered, "are you staying?"
Bernardine gave a sigh to see him; she came straight to the question that was uppermost in her anxieties.
"What hour is the duel, Marston?"
"Mr. Ribblestone said to Langton just now, he was to get the master ready for a meeting at eight."
"Eight! Then there is still time!"
Francis had fallen forward across the table; his eyes closed and his head resting on one arm. Bernardine crossed to the servant.
"Oh, Marston," she breathed fearfully, "I cannot rouse him!"
"They drug his wine, my lady, 'tis my belief—he will pass from these stupors to delirium and then lie faint for hours—that is not wine—"
"Oh, there is horrid villainy here!" shuddered Bernardine. "You should have done something sooner, Marston, for now it is desperate late—"
"Who would have listened to me, my lady—who cared?"
Bernardine kept her eyes fixed on the slack form of Sir Francis.
"Where is Mr. Ribblestone?"
"At supper, my lady, with the two priests."
"He allows me to remain, at least."
But Marston, with the low view of motive belonging to his class, held this mere cunning.
"That is pure devilment, my lady. He thinketh you will not stay, and if you do, 'twill be you, not he, who will pay; and to raise a scene would not be to his advantage."
Bernardine's desperate thoughts had flown back to Marston's first remark.
"Drugged—is he drugged? What would be the object of that? Do you think they wish him to oversleep the hour and dishonour himself? Or is it—pure murder?"
Bernardine wrung her hands.
"I don't know—some drugs are poisons. I think they mean murder one way or another—those foreign devils!"
The door, left ajar, was gently pushed wider and the negro's black face appeared, then vanished.
"Spying on us," whispered Bernardine. "Are you allowed to come?"
"Mr. Phoebus gave no commands one way or another. I'll tell you this of that blackamoor, my lady, he is neither deaf nor dumb; often I've crept past the chamber door of Mr. Phoebus and heard talking when both the priests were abed, and if it wasn't the blackamoor with him it was the Fiend."
Bernardine's glance returned to Francis motionless in the light of the candles; the light August wind fluttered in their sockets.
"Could you get him to the couch?" she asked.
"I'll call Langton, my lady."
The servant left her, and Bernardine went back to the side of Francis and blew out the guttering candles with a trembling breath.
As she waited, looking down on him, she recalled his former image with such a pang of bitterness, anger and desperate regret, that the blood pulsed back on her heart with a throb of sheer agony; all she had admired him for, his pride, his gaiety, his self-control, his ambitions, his joyous look and courteous ways, his laborious austerity—all gone!
Yet she yearned over him now as she had never yearned over him before, and her hand crept to his shoulder with a gesture of unutterable tenderness.
"Francis! Francis!" she whispered.
Marston returned with the valet. Mr. Ribblestone was quietly at supper and made no attempt to interfere with what was taking place in the library, but the valet seemed fearful of his anger, and after helping lift Sir Francis on to the stiff brocade-covered settee by the fireplace, quickly retreated.
Bernardine placed one of the fringed cushions under his head; he was in a deep, sound sleep or stupor, breathing heavily.
"Drugged, surely," she murmured; but she knew nothing of medicine nor remedies, and her ignorance humiliated her in her own eyes.
"Oh, what a rare fool I am!" she cried bitterly as she remembered how she had impatiently refused to learn the homely arts of simples and herb teas, lotions and restoratives.
Marston was in the same case; he neither knew what was the matter with his master nor how to recover him; he believed that Phoebus used drugs, but he was prepared to believe anything of Mr. Phoebus, and he knew that Francis had not been perfectly sober for three days or more.
Bernardine paced about in her helplessness; she began to imagine the delicate meshes that had gone to weave the whole plot. There was no doctor, no chaplain, the steward did not sleep in the house, the servants were new or terrorized. If Francis had not withstood the dismissal of Marston, there would have been no one to notice or betray what went on in Ribblestone.
"This hath been a conspiracy from the beginning," she broke out. "Don't you see it, Marston? We were all possessed not to notice—"
She was interrupted by Langton creeping back half shame-faced with a cordial that he said was powerful in dispelling the effects of drugs and wine; he admitted it to be half raw usquebaugh.
"Well, give it to your master," said Bernardine desperately. "Anything to restore his senses—"
Then she added sharply:
"This is nothing Mr. Ribblestone hath sent?"
"Oh, no, my lady."
Francis stirred and half sat up; Marston pressed the glass upon him and he drank mechanically, then sank back on the cushion; the valet crept away.
"Mr. Phoebus thrashed him once," explained Marston.
"Thrashed Sir Francis's body-servant?"
"Yes, my lady."
The heat seemed to be increasing; Bernardine flung off her hat and the heavy coat; in the long white silk-flowered waistcoat and finely worked linen shirt she looked slight as a child; her hair, dressed like a gentleman's, strayed in little locks over her anxious brow and clung damp to her temples. She took a low cane chair and stared at the man on the couch.
"Marston," she whispered, "what is at the bottom of this?"
He answered hoarsely:
"Mr. Phoebus is a devil. He is brewing evil. I distrusted him from the first."
"Why?" she asked eagerly.
The servant, thus encouraged, broke out with all the mingled reasons he had for his suspicions.
"He kept himself in till the master was in Guildford, and then he let himself go, my lady; the servants were changed, the priests brought—and the clothes—has your ladyship marked his clothes? I have seen them in his room over the chairs, and he carrieth a watch that must be worth a couple of hundred guineas—"
Bernardine checked him gently.
"This is no more than extravagance," she said. "What hath Mr. Ribblestone done?"
Staring down at his unconscious master, Marston answered:
"He is too cunning for me to ever catch him doing anything, my lady—but why did he go to see Mistress Fowkes the day before she was drowned?"
"Did he?" exclaimed Bernardine softly.
"Yes, my lady—he doth not know that I observed him, but I was in Haslemere and saw the black waiting without her cottage."
"He made no disguise of it, then?"
"No," Marston admitted, "but Sir Francis never knew—and why did he go?"
Bernardine sat silent, her eyes fixed on the dark face of Francis Ribblestone pressing the brocade cushion; Marston glanced round cautiously, then still further lowered his voice.
"I do not know if I dare tell you, my lady—"
"Speak all you know," she answered gravely; "this is a mater of great moment and desperation; tell me all that you know."
Marston leant nearer to her across the head of the couch, about to speak, in a low voice, with great agitation.
Francis rose suddenly to a sitting posture, checking the servant.
"Not guilty, my lord," he said, then gave a low laugh. "Cannot you take a gentleman's word? On my soul, all snivelling Whigs!"
Bernardine rose. Francis was flushed, the veins on his temple swollen, his eyes vacant, plainly delirious; he pulled at his disordered neckband.
"Better," he said in a low, even mutter, "better rot on Gibbet Hill than live under this stigma—do you not see how they all avoid me? I will not face them; you have no right to put this on an innocent man—"
The candles in the candelabra were guttering out, the room was in partial darkness and full of great uncertain shadows; a warm west wind stirred through the open casement heavy with an odour of mignonette and lime tree; the difficult breathing of the delirious man heaved his whole body, so that the wavering light caught and glimmered in the grey satins he wore.
"Marston!" breathed Bernardine, "what can we do?"
"He is often so, my lady—presently he will sleep—"
Francis put out his right hand vaguely and unsteadily.
"You cannot understand what it meaneth. A murderer! A woman too! What was I that I should not love her? That had been the easier way. I say you forged that letter to throw suspicion on me—a clumsy fool! That is not my hand, my lord. Curse you, Mr. Septvan, you have hounded me—let Margaret go, what was she ever to me? Yet had she been faithful—"
Bernardine slipped to her knees and took his burning hands in hers.
"Do you not know me, Francis?" she said.
He slowly turned his head and the hazel eyes gazed down at her.
"Nay, do not kneel to me, mistress!" he cried. "This is but the passing weakness of a woman! I would not wrong you by listening—"
The little figure in white and red, with the fallen hair, drew closer to his knees.
"Hush," she implored. "I am Bernardine—"
A look of horror came into his wide-open eyes.
"You would have cause to curse me if I took advantage of your tenderness—you will be the loving wife of some good man—off your knees! How far is this? And such a night! Why did I leave her? Who are you, mistress?"
Bernardine rose, seated herself on the sofa and put her arm round his shoulder.
"Do not think of it, Francis," she breathed. "It is over now—"
"Did you drown yourself?" he asked. "Oh, God, on such a night!"
Bernardine drew back.
"He thinketh I am Serena Fowkes!" She shuddered.
"It is the fever," whispered Marston. "Shall I fetch the barber to blood him?"
"Wait a little-here, my handkerchief in the ice water—"
Francis turned from her with a groan and fell along the couch.
"What is the use?" he repeated thickly. "What is the use?"
Marston returned with cold dripping handkerchief and she laid it over the throbbing brows of the delirious man with gentle and delicate fingers. Sir Francis shuddered again and again, moaned and fell silent.
Bernardine cautiously felt his pulse.
"Less fast," she murmured.
"He will sleep now, my lady."
The candelabra having completely fluttered out, Marston lit other candles and placed them on the mantelshelf. Bernardine flung her rich coat over Sir Francis, who shook now with sudden shivering.
There followed a pause of silence; it was now about two o'clock and the dawn strengthened without the long windows.
Bernardine said at length, quietly:
"You spoke of a desk, Marston—do you think it might contain—proofs?"
"It is where he keeps his letters, my lady—"
Bernardine glanced at him steadily.
"We must not think of it—we have no right. Go now, for a little. When does Mr. Ribblestone go to his bedchamber?"
"He mostly remaineth up all night when he beginneth with the cards, my lady; but I will go at once and discover."
He left the room and complete silence fell round Bernardine; by the great stillness it seemed to her that she was the only waking person in the great house, so completely did heavy doors and thick walls disguise all sound.
She bent over Sir Francis, smoothed the cushion under his head and lifted the damp hair from his eyes; his temperature had gone down and he slept peacefully. With a sigh of relief, she took her handkerchief from his forehead and crossed to the window to wet it afresh.
The table with the scattered cards, the pushed-back chairs, the red candlestick and the tall glasses, the open wine-cooler filled with melted ice, showed, she thought, strangely against that background of the coloured glass casement thrown open on the ineffable hush of dawn.
There were roses round the window frame, full blown among the leaves, and cloudy jasmine; beyond Bernardine could see the park land under the paling stars, the fair lawn and the dark cedar trees all still and motionless in the stillness of the warm air, under the growing flush and glow of violet and opal in the Eastern sky; she smiled sadly to think that she should thus watch the dawn from Francis's home, he a few yards away and unaware of her presence.
She dipped the little handkerchief again in the wine-cooler and returned to the couch; when she had laid it about his brow she sat in the low chair by his side, keeping a silent vigil while the daylight brightened about her.
She felt as changed, as stripped of all pretence, as humbled as could ever the man feel she watched, were he awake and aware of everything.
The day strengthened; a shaft of sunshine fell through the roses on to the floor. Bernardine rose and put out the candles; she was in the mood for superstition and shivered to see them burning in the daylight.
As she extinguished them she caught sight of her face in the mirror on the mantelshelf.
"How old I look," she thought; it seemed that her beauty was a sham, like everything else she had been known by. Who would think her a toast now?—all pretence, and nothing real but her affection and pity for the poor, heart-broken creature who had so failed, lying helpless on the sofa.
She returned to her seat and waited she knew not how long, watching his slightest movement, the flutter of his breath, the occasional stir of his hand.
At length Marston returned; Bernardine shook herself free from dreams; the room was full of sunshine; the little bracket clock with the long brass pendulum pointed to past five; the duel was at seven; she felt her vigil over.
"I will go now. He will soon wake and will not wish a woman here, to make him ridiculous."
She lifted her coat from the sleeping man.
"Do not tell him I was here, Marston; you must yourself presently—wake him, and dress him for the duel. God preserve him!" she added sadly.
The man helped her on with her coat.
"Will your ladyship take anything—some wine?"
"Nothing, I thank you. Marston, you must bring me the news. I shall go home. Will you come there and tell me?"
"I will, my lady," he answered, much moved by her great, though controlled, emotion. "Sir Francis shall thank you all the days of his life."
The man stood dumb, with bent head; he was thinking that if his master fell he would never have the courage to meet her with the news.
Sir Francis moved like a man about to wake from a healthy sleep.
"Hush!" whispered Bernardine; she caught up her hat and crept to the door. "Will you get my horse?"
He told her that it was ready; he had thought she would wish to leave now there was no chance of Phoebus interfering with Francis before the duel.
She impulsively pressed his hand and the two went out on to the landing-place. Mr. Ribblestone and the two priests were still playing bezique in the dining-room.
Light as was her step upon the stairs, Bernardine knew that she had been heard, for the dining-room door was flung open as she passed.
Marston, who was ahead of her, disappeared round the curve of the stairs.
Mr. Ribblestone stood in the doorway of the dining-room; behind him Bernardine could see the figures of the two priests seated together at one end of the great table.
She paused on the stairs and grasped the handrail tightly.
Phoebus looked at her slowly; he held a glass half full of wine in his right hand.
"Sir Francis will fight his duel, Mr. Ribblestone," she said.
"'Tis almost time to be starting for the rendezvous," he answered carelessly, laughing with his eyes.
The two Frenchmen came up behind him; they bowed when they saw her, and Bernardine felt a great dread of what they might say; their sneering jests, she thought, would be unendurable.
But she held herself very gallantly, blanched and haggard as she was, and her proud eyes did not flinch from Mr. Ribblestone's gaze; she slowly took another step down.
The older abbé made some remark in French she did not catch but at which the other smiled. Mr. Ribblestone suddenly turned on both of them.
"You become insufferable," he said quietly. "Bring your glasses—"
They turned away from him. Bernardine took another step down.
"Your glasses," he repeated with his hand to his sword, and they came with their wine on to the landing and stood as he contemptuously bid them, with their heads bowed.
With a wholly charming air of respectful courtesy and natural grandeur (despite his disordered appearance) Mr. Ribblestone stepped before the two black-clad figures.
"With all admiration, with all honour," he said, "the health of madame!"
The others raised their glasses, drank; then all three tossed them over their shoulders against the panelling.
Bernardine looked over her shoulder at the pale face of Phoebus, and with this strange toast in her ears would have passed out of the Manor House.
But Mr. Ribblestone stopped her.
"I must speak to you, madame," he said, and laughed, half sadly.
Mr. Ribblestone returned to the dining-room opened the window and yawned and stretched in the dazzle of the early sunshine.
"Look to your manners, my D'Auvergne," he said in French. "Do not act so much on your own ideas—when I desire you to insult some one I can always tell you."
The abbé was absolutely silent and humble under the rebuke. M. Levasseur, who had removed his powdered peruke and showed a fair head of hair, which added to his youthfulness, looked wretched and uneasy.
"I wish I were out of it," he groaned.
Mr. Ribblestone glanced over his shoulder.
"I think this comedy," he answered, "will end very soon;" his dark eyes were impatiently disdainful. "I am sorry of the whole intrigue."
"That is because you know you are now free to return to France," said M. Levasseur, "and meaneth you will desert us just when the estates are ready to fall into our laps."
"Ah, bah—the estates!" cried Phoebus. "What do I want with the Ribblestone estates when I can have France?"
"Nevertheless, they would be very useful to me," remarked the other peevishly.
"Well, you shall have them, my child," smiled Phoebus. "This Francis will soon trip on tragedy." He gave a sudden breathless laugh. "What a zest there is in hunting down a man—I can understand that M. Fleury found it interesting when he was tracking me."
He drew out the beautiful crystal and enamel watch that had roused Marston's comment, and crossed to the door.
"Nearly seven," he said, still smiling.
With a light step he went upstairs to the library; it was empty; he glanced round quickly at the furniture; card-table and chairs, candles and wine bottles, exactly as he had left them the night before; then his keen eyes noticed a lady's wet handkerchief on the seat of a cane chair near the couch.
He picked it up, and as he looked at it pictured the owner sitting by that sofa all night; he stood still a moment, thinking.
A step sounded without and Phoebus cast the handkerchief behind the couch; the step hesitated, paused, and Sir Francis appeared in the doorway. He wore a riding-coat of dark cloth and a black cravat, a powdered peruke and high boots; he looked expectantly about the room, then his glance rested on Phoebus.
"You!" he said, half confusedly, half resentfully.
"Why to God did you tell Langton my meeting was at seven?"
"Because," answered Phoebus, "you were so hopelessly insensible at four—the correct time, I believe."
"You are my second," returned Francis fiercely; "it was your duty to get me on to my feet. What did you give me last night? I feel as if my mind has gone."
He continued to gaze intently and painfully round the chamber, as if he wished to place some half-remembered scene in these surroundings.
"How did your lie help me?" he asked. "If you had told Marston and Langton it was four, they would have roused me some way."
Phoebus took no notice of this charge.
"What are you searching for?" he asked calmly. "The room is empty save for us."
Francis gave a slight start.
"Was I searching?"
"Your eyes rove round the chamber as if you thought to find someone."
"My mind hath played me false of late," he said slowly. "I thought—last night there was a woman here. Langton and Marston say no—but I could have sworn a woman sat here—" He pointed to the cane chair from which his brother had taken the handkerchief. "Am I wandering, Phoebus?" he added wistfully.
Mr. Ribblestone lifted his shoulders.
"One of the servants, perhaps."
"No—this was a gentlewoman," he pressed his hand to his head in the effort of recollection, "in white—and red—with long auburn curls—like—like—"
He paused, staring at the couch.
"Methought that she knelt to me as that day on the heath. The day before she was drowned—"
"What are you talking of?" asked Phoebus sharply.
"Serena Fowkes," he answered. "No suicide lieth quiet in the grave, and last night she was—hereupon my soul, Phoebus—"
"You lay here all night and there was no one in the room but Marston."
Francis shuddered, then recovered himself.
"I would rather have my sober fancies," he said, "if the wine bringeth such visions."
"Why should you trouble yourself? It is not on your conscience."
"Methinks I am responsible—yet—yet"—he fixed his hazel eyes that had an unsettled light in them on Phoebus—"my life hath become too wretched to live. Some way there must be an end. This Septvan must be brought to confession." He paused, then added feverishly: "Do you think that he forged that letter?"
"It is possible."
"Then he is a rare villain! To set lies in train to so blast me! But I never did him any harm." The changed voice fell to something of the old sweet tenderness. "I never wronged any man that I recall—but what is the use?"
Phoebus eyed him keenly.
"What shall you do?"
"Ride to Guildford and settle this account with Septvan—at The Fan and Ruffle you said—"
He broke off abruptly and the colour receded from his cheek.
So awful and hopeless, horrified and desperate a look came over his face that Phoebus instinctively stepped back; he had never before seen such despair.
"About the couch—see—" whispered Francis huskily.
"Water—stains and drippings of water—and she was drowned."
Phoebus crossed himself.
"She was here last night," said Francis wildly.
He strode up to the couch and felt the cushion and brocade; as his fingers touched a damp surface he recoiled as if he had laid them on flame.
Then his eyes fell to the wet handkerchief behind the sofa; he caught it up.
"She was here," he cried, frantic. "Even as they took her from Boundless Water—"
Phoebus seized the scrap of linen from him.
"You lose your wits," he said. "They used water to bathe your head—"
"Yes, I lose my wits," answered Francis dully. "I can picture her now as she knelt with that auburn hair—" He suddenly raised his eyes and caught his brother's wrist. "You do not play with me?" he implored eagerly. "You do not put a jest on me? Have pity on me if you do, for I have been sick of late and these hideous fancies confuse me—"
"What play should I put upon you?" said Phoebus calmly. "Why do you think so much of this foolish dream? You missed your meeting at the duel—"
Francis let go his arm and turned towards the door; his mood changed to smouldering wrath.
"That villain, that villain Septvan! He shall confess how he hath abused me. I will ride to Guildford—no seconds, no seconds!"
He left the library hastily and Phoebus heard him going heavily downstairs, then presently his voice, shouting to the servants.
Slowly Mr. Ribblestone traversed the long shining floor.
"Poor wretch!" he said to himself. "His brain hath gone—have I not done enough? Dieu de Dieu—I will return to France to-day and let her mend his broken spirit. I do not now need Ribblestone."
As he so reflected, with perhaps the most impatience of himself that he had ever felt, the most disdain of his own methods and aims (rouse in his heart by the memory of the fearless face of Bernardine Muschamp as she left the Manor House), he was interrupted by the entry of the fair little abbé, anxious-eyes and half whimpering.
"You are going to forsake me, monseigneur," he complained. "If you return to France, where am I?"
Phoebus looked at him darkly.
"I am indeed minded to let Sir Francis go," he answered, "not for any love to the fellow himself, but because he hath the good fortune to be loved by the bravest woman I have ever met—"
"If you turn sentimentalist!" exclaimed the young priest.
"Why not?" said Phoebus. "I think it is the fashion."
He laughed to see the cloud of discomfiture on the other's face.
"Console yourself, my child—I will toss for it—"
From the pocket of his blue coat he produced a gold louis.
"The King's head, you," he said—"the lilies, madame."
He flung the glittering gold coin into the air and it fell beyond the sofa, some yards from either.
Mr. Ribblestone was arrested in the act of going after it by the appearance of a servant.
"Sir, there is Mr. Septvan below, asking for Sir Francis, and he will not be put off—"
"Ah!" Phoebus paused by the couch. "And where is your master?"
"In the harness-room, sir," answered the man in a troubled manner.
"In the harness-room?"
"Yes, sir—the handle of his whip was broken yesterday and he would not be content with another, but must go to the harness-room to see if his own was mended."
The servant's manner seemed to imply that something was wrong with Sir Francis.
The abbé, who had been listening anxiously, broke in with hurried French:
"Let him go after Francis—this Septvan—"
Mr. Ribblestone surveyed him with narrowed eyes.
"I suppose you know," he answered in the same language, "what that will mean—for one of them?"
The priest nodded.
"Let them meet," he said with quivering lips.
Mr. Ribblestone went leisurely over to where the louis lay.
"The toss was to decide."
M. Leveur, white with impatience, and the servant awaiting his orders, watched him stoop over the coin.
He called the abbé.
"Look for yourself, my friend. The lilies—Mrs. Muschamp wins."
The priest, it seemed, would have liked to curse the other's fooling, but did not dare; and Mr. Ribblestone was well aware of this and completely master, and therefore amused at the boy's ill-suppressed rage.
"Tell Mr. Septvan," he said in English to the servant, "that your master hath ridden into Guildford and that he will find him at his lodgings awaiting him. And see," he added, "that my valises are made ready and send my black to me—I leave Ribblestone to-day."
As the astonished servant withdrew he heard the abbé break into passionate French and Mr. Ribblestone laughing gaily.
Mr. Thomas Septvan, fresh, neat, furious and contained, waited on his spruce brown horse on the gravel sweep before the entrance courtyard of the Manor House; he received the message sternly and silently turned away.
He was there, against the wishes of his second, in response to the overmastering impulse of fury inspired in him by the non-appearance of Sir Francis at the appointed hour, which he took (since it was unthinkable that a gentleman could be a coward) as a confession of guilt on the part of his opponent, who, knowing himself a murderer, had not dared face the champion of his victim.
Rage at the insolence of the insult that had charged him with the forgery of a letter that he now believed to be the murderer's own work, a passionate desire to avenge the dead woman on a cold-blooded villain who had escaped justice flushed his cheek and darkened his eye; he was resolved not to await the formalities of his second, but to follow Sir Francis to Guildford and settle the matter they had paltered with too long, at once.
As he was turning into the long avenue of fragrant chestnuts he saw a young groom carrying pails of water to the stables and he checked his horse.
"Fellow, how long is it since your master rode to Guildford?"
The boy set down the pails to touch his forehead.
"He has not gone sir," he answered cheerfully. "He is in the harness-room."
Mr. Septvan sat mute; it was sufficiently astonishing that a man should fail to appear to his appointment at a duel, almost incredible that he should actually hide from his adversary—send a false message to delude him and lurk in the stables till he was gone. Mr. Septvan's brain whirled at this monstrous behaviour, but he controlled himself to say quietly:
"I had an appointment with your master, but feared I had missed him, as he was to ride to Guildford this morning—will you show me to the harness-room?"
The groom, who knew nothing of the duel, and only recognized Mr. Septvan as the gentleman Mr. Ribblestone had brought home to dinner a few days before, complied instantly.
"Shall I take your horse, sir?"
Mr. Septvan dismounted and preceded his led animal to the stables, which were to the left of the house, built round a square.
At the gates another man took the horse and he crossed a quadrangle, passed down the carriage house, whitewashed, sunny, filled with coaches, sedan-chairs, chariots and curricles, and so came to a closed door at the extreme end of the stables which the groom told him was that of the harness-room.
He dismissed the fellow with a shilling, who went whistling back to his work, leaving Mr. Septvan alone in that part of the building save for his unconscious enemy the other side of this wooden door.
He turned the button and entered. It was a round room, not large, and with no egress save the door by which he had entered; it rose to a high pointed roof and was lit by a window opposite the entrance and high from the ground. There was no chair or seat of any kind; the whitewashed walls were covered with all manner of harness, plumed headdresses for horses, gold bits and bridles, long and short whips with handsome handles and the thongs coiled round buttons fastened to the wall, leather harness silver-plated, spurs, stirrup saddles for riding, for postillions, for ladies, short switches with carved ivory butts, collars and frontlets with bells for the coach horses, crimson velvet harness for state occasions, and conspicuous on the white background, the floating black funeral feathers worn in time of mourning.
Strong brilliant sunshine fell from the high window and gleamed in all the gold and silver, steel and shining leather.
In one corner was a small iron shelf on which were some bottles of polish and rags; before this stood Francis Ribblestone with a large, heavy, gold-handled whip in his hand which he was mechanically polishing. As Mr. Septvan entered and closed the door he looked up with dazed eyes.
"Good morning, Sir Francis," said Mr. Septvan softly.
The other did not answer; he had not been thinking of the duel nor of Mr. Septvan, but of the vision of the night before that clung unbearably round his brain, which was slowly clearing to a fierce sense of having been deceived, fooled, betrayed and wronged by someone—all the world, he thought.
"You did not come this morning," continued Mr. Septvan, with himself well in hand.
Francis sighed as a man taxed with something he cannot quite understand.
"No," he frowned.
Mr. Septvan came a step nearer; his fresh face under the neatly arranged dark red hair was clearly defined in the bar of sunlight.
"Why?" he asked.
Sir Francis turned again to his polishing.
"I was drunk," he said.
"Why would you not see me now?"
Francis lifted his clouded hazel eyes again and stared stupidly.
"I did not know you were coming. I was about to ride to Guildford."
"Ah," returned Mr. Septvan between short breaths, "I have spared you that trouble."
"You might have been sure that I should seek you out."
Mr. Septvan's patience broke under what he considered babbling excuses.
"I think you are not sober now, Sir Francis," he cried. "You take it strangely easily that you shirked your meeting!"
Francis turned slowly to face him.
"What is that in the sum of what I have on my mind?" he answered. "But why do you use the word 'shirk'?" he added gravely. "I would have come had not the hour slipped me."
Mr. Septvan coloured with scorn.
"Words are easy, Sir Francis—there must be something else between you and me."
With a quiet unclosing of his hand Francis dropped the rag he held.
"I do beseech you leave me," he said under his breath, with lowered eyes; "we will meet hereafter."
"Why?" demanded Mr. Septvan, something bewildered by this calm, almost lethargy. "Why not now?"
"Because I think I hate you," answered Francis, the same. "And I am not in the mood when I would meet any man I hate—"
"I do not understand—"
"Pray you hold me excused. I have had much to trouble me of late." He spoke with an effort of courtesy. "Sir, to-morrow—to-morrow."
"No," said Mr. Septvan. "Now."
Francis Ribblestone looked down at the whip he held with an air of vague wildness.
"Did you hear tell, sir, how my brother Phoebus killed a man at Guildford? Struck him down and slew him with a weapon like this in my hand; only that was long, an outrider's whip."
"What's this to us?"
"It came to my mind. Now things often come unbidden before my inner vision; last night I thought that I saw—but that is not for your ears."
He fingered the long lash of the whip moodily.
"You cannot imagine what it is to have the brain clouded with fancies," he said.
"What fancies?" demanded Mr. Septvan, still a step nearer the inert figure leaning against the wall. "What fancies?"
Sir Francis did not reply; he could not grasp the meaning of the other man's presence, scarcely his reality; resentment he felt and hatred, a desire to settle, some time, with this goading enemy, but his present thoughts were obscured and overlaid with bewildering phantoms, the clearest of which was that of a woman in white and red with loose auburn hair, clinging to his knees while he sat, stupid, on a brocade sofa; yet it was not a room round them but the open heath, and the woman was Serena Fowkes, speaking with him, yet dead, moving yet wet and drowned. And behind these haunting visions was a vague yet terrible idea that some one had brought him to ruin and that on that person he must be avenged.
"When and where will you meet me?" asked Mr. Septvan sternly.
Sir Francis kept his eyes on the whip.
"How persistent you have been," he said, "in this hunting of me. Why did you come to Ribblestone to force a quarrel on me?"
"I did not. I came believing you innocent and you grossly insulted me by accusing me of forging that letter to your discredit."
"Well," breathed Sir Francis, "who did?"
Mr. Septvan laughed angrily.
"You know best."
Sir Francis straightened himself against the wall.
"Why are you the champion of Serena Fowkes?" he asked.
Mr. Septvan put his hand, with an unconscious gesture, to his bosom.
"You would not understand," he answered, hesitating between the almost certainty that he spoke to a murderer and the gentle personal impression Sir Francis made on him.
"She wrote to you, did she not? You should have come sooner."
"Meanwhile," responded Mr. Septvan impatiently, "we dally with the time; you seek, it seemeth, by any means to put me off—"
Sir Francis interrupted.
"What have you there?" he asked, for Mr. Septvan's hand was very obviously over something in the breast pocket of his waistcoat.
Mr. Septvan paled and eyed him curiously.
"Would you like to see?" he returned, and drew out a little packet of white silk.
Francis Ribblestone untied the ribbon and disclosed two long auburn curls held together by a black thread; but when he saw them fully displayed, clinging round the shaking fingers of Mr. Septvan, he gave a shriek and flung up his arm before his face to shut out the sight.
"Am I never to be free of them!" he cried. "On the heath and last night—down to my feet!"
Mr. Septvan thrust the curls back into his bosom with a fierce exclamation; the last shadow of doubt was dispelled.
"You did murder her!" he shouted.
Francis Ribblestone dropped his arm; the sick delusions cleared from his brain; he saw clearly, straightly, and beheld the man who had ruined him by devilish devices, insulting him beyond the power of any forgiveness; he drew up to the full of his great height, his eyes widened and his lips strained tight over his teeth.
"You have done this," he said. "You have ruined—and now I take payment—"
So sudden and terrific was the change from his half-slumbrous confusion to this look of bared fury, that Mr. Septvan, roused as he was himself, shrank back as before something unearthly.
"Murderer you say, murderer!" yelled Francis hoarsely. He caught Mr. Septvan by the cravat and collar and thrust him against the wall, among the jingling harness. "Take back that lie—"
"No!" cried Mr. Septvan, trying to free himself, but in vain. For the first time in his life Francis had exerted his full strength and the power he had scarcely known of till that moment filled him with exultation; he laughed pantingly and shook the other man to and fro, up and down the narrow room; his fingers seized his throat; in his right hand he still held the whip. Mr. Septvan might have been in the grip of the Gods themselves for all the chance he had.
Francis flung away the whip and hurled his enemy from him, then, with both hands free, sprang on him again, caught him half fainting and cast him across the room.
Mr. Septvan did not move save for an awful quiver.
"He is dead," said Francis Ribblestone aloud, and he repeated the word, "dead."
He moistened his lips and crossed to the recumbent figure, knelt beside it and turned it over; he lifted the head up; the smooth, heavy hair felt strange to his fingers.
"Dead," he said again; he did not think of it a Thomas Septvan now, but as a dead man; he stared at the torn linen, the disordered cravat, the face with the little stain of blood at mouth and nostrils with a suspended sensation of wonder; he crossed himself as he had seen Phoebus do and got to his feet again.
A small brown bird was singing vigorously in the high window, blue sky behind it. Francis Ribblestone backed slowly to the door, opened it softly, passed out of the harness room and locked the door behind him, putting the key into his pocket.
Without looking aside from his path he went through the sunshine to the house; he saw neither Phoebus nor any of the servants as he passed to his room, but through the silent house came the sound of the mass bell from the chapel.
Francis Ribblestone paused and listened to it with a startled air, then entered his chamber and slipped the bolt.
Bernardine had hardly reached her own house that seemed so large and silent in the clear morning light, than Mr. Phoebus Ribblestone was at her door; she saw him at once, not pausing to change her disarrayed habit.
The young man told her that he was on his way to the coast, meaning to return with his train to France.
"Your going will lighten the countryside, sir," said Mrs. Muschamp bitterly. "I do not know why you come here; my head is aching wretchedly and my heart is strained for bad news."
"News of the duel?" asked Phoebus. "I think perhaps there will be no duel. The appointment was at four o'clock."
"Then you lied to me?" she asked in despair.
"Precisely. Mr. Septvan came over to the Manor House to know why Sir Francis had not come. I told him that my brother had ridden into Guildford to find him."
"Was that true?"
"No. Francis was somewhere in the stables meaning to go to Guildford, too confused in his head, I think, for any concerted action; they have not met."
Mrs. Muschamp felt a relief of the dreadful tension that had cramped her breathing.
"Of course they will meet on the first excuse or chance," she said, without much thought for the villain who spoke to her, whose sudden generosity seemed at variance with all his former behaviour.
"No," said he, "there is no need for them to ever meet—as enemies—if you showed Mr. Septvan this paper."
And he drew from his bosom a folded sheet of poor paper.
"This," he continued, "came lately into my possession; you will see that it entirely clears Francis of the murder of Serena Fowkes."
Bernardine gazed at the letter and at the man, not seeing either clearly, not understanding the purpose of his speech nor the significance of what he said.
"Of course," she whispered, "I have long known you to be a great villain."
He made the slightest movement of anger, but turned it with a smile and looked at her with great steadiness and interest.
"I have known for some time that you are a friend and accomplice of the infamous de Marsac, and that you were in hiding," continued Bernardine faintly. "I was going to tell Francis."
"You deserve that satisfaction," answered the wretch negligently. "You have been very courageous. Look at the paper" (he had thrust it into her nerveless hand). "You will see it is the missing confession of Serena Fowkes, telling of her intention to commit suicide—the paper she put in the Elzevir she used as a blotter."
"Who stole it? Who concealed it?" faltered Bernardine, and she thought with horror of the tale of the Fiend in the dead girl's room and of Antoine, the black servant.
"Let that go," said Phoebus. "I am free of France. M. de Marsac, who is, as you appear to know, my friend, waits for me in Paris. I am tired of England and all these stupid Puritans."
Of all this the lady took no heed.
"Who forged the letter found in the wench's room?" she asked.
"I wonder?" replied Phoebus, with that grand insolence he never wholly repressed in his manner.
"You, of course," said Bernardine, beside herself. "Is it possible a man could be so deep in dishonour?"
"I have a spirit like yours," he replied, in no way discomposed. "I would do anything for my end. I hated Francis where you chanced to love him. I wanted the Ribblestone estates. I had a right to them. I had been treated like a dog, and it pleased me and amused me to see this priggish, pragmatical fellow brought down. It was easy, too," added the scoundrel, "and something to do in my exile."
"You would have let Francis hang?" asked Bernardine, bewildered by his great wickedness.
"It would never have come to hanging, there were those who would have seen to that. I thought to get his estates confiscated and diverted to me, or to do what I did do, break him so that I was master in Ribblestone. Why not?—it is done every day in politics."
"Stand away from me," whispered Bernardine fearfully.
He smiled wickedly, admiring her spirit and her haggard beauty.
"Well, I know how to be generous to a woman anyhow, madame. There's your paper; show that to Mr. Septvan, clear your lover and live in peace on your fat acres. Mind you," he added with insufferable effrontery, "I do not do this for Francis, whom I heartily dislike, but for you."
"You saved his life at the election," said Bernardine; "he might have been murdered then but for you."
"I never designed his death," replied Phoebus coolly, "and it did not please me to have the mob interfere; and now I've done with Ribblestone and England—goodbye, Mrs. Muschamp."
With that he put on his hat and was gone, to what career of villainy and shame Bernardine at least never knew.
Now she was free of his presence, she could read the poor paper that Serena Fowkes had written and put in the Grotius.
It was addressed to her grandfather, and began with the date and the name of the town clearly writ:
"Do not think too Badly of me, for indeed, I cannot Live any longer. I have been, in a Manner, dying, since I fond that Sir Francis did not really love me as I had thought. It was a Mistake, as you know, and neither He nor I to blame, only his kindness in being Civil to one beneath his Rank. I Mean to Drown myself in the Pond where he First saw me—Boundless Water. And First I will Make an opportunity to see Him and tell him that I Love him, which Passion he is yet ignorant of, and Maybe I will Move him. If not, then look for Me in Boundless Water and pray for me tho' a suicide. God Bless you.
Attached to the letter was the note Francis had sworn to having received from Serena but which he had been unable to produce at the trial. It had been said that Mr. Phoebus Ribblestone had looked for it, but been unable to find it; this scrap of writing was in itself sufficient to clear Francis.
"Will You see me on a Matter of Great Urgency? One that concerns a Life. You have had Little to do with Me, that I should Write thus. Perhaps you Hardly recall my Person, yet in Charity permit that I speak to You. Tomorrow afternoon I shall Look for you from my Window, hoping that you will have the Goodness to Pass.
"Your obedient servant,
Bernardine folded these letters carefully, almost mechanically together, and placed them in her bosom.
She felt a strange weary relaxation of mind and body; there no longer seemed any urge, any hurry.
Francis was saved, cleared, redeemed from the Pit, the Outer Darkness.
And she, quietly and in her own time, could take him the news.
For the moment she could hardly move, weariness was over her like a mantle; she dallied, she played with her happiness, this new delicious sense of repose.
Yet, this same happiness, this same repose was somehow blurred and blotted by an inner murmer of "Too late, too late," that would not be hushed or quieted.
The ruin that had been wrought by this cold and bitter villainy could hardly be repaired this side of heaven, nor any power on earth make Francis Ribblestone the man he once had been; her highest hope (as far as she could formulate hopes) lay only in flight; she must take him away somewhere to far and strange lands, where, perhaps, a lifetime of love might make him forget.
She thought to rest, to change her disarrayed habit, to drive over to Ribblestone Manor House in the cool of the day with her great news, but remembering Mr. Septvan and that he and Francis might somehow meet, and that no reliance was to be placed on the word of that desperate villain, Phoebus Ribblestone, she thought it wiser to urge her languor and return at once to Francis; and so this poor lady, very soberly, took such meager refreshment as she could, in her fatigued and giddy state, swallow, and mounting a fresh horse, returned alone to Ribblestone Manor House to the great wonder, dismay and gossip of her servants.
For her that ride through the unclouded day so soft and fair was full of a certain phantasmagoria, like the vanishing end of a dream that flicks out of sight when we wake.
The house was silent without and there was no one abroad but Langton, setting his watch by the sundial in front of the terrace, and when he saw her, he told her, with a look of cowed terror, she thought, that Mr. Phoebus Ribblestone and his servants and priests had departed that morning with a train of baggage.
"And being persuaded," added the man, "by what God has pleased to put into my mind, that there is great mischief abroad, I was like to beg Marston to send for your ladyship again."
Bernardine asked him why, if that was his thought, he lingered by the sundial, idling time away?
The man replied sullenly that he did not care to go into the house, which was over quiet for his liking, and added that a gipsy woman had been past just now with a square of polished jet in her hand in which she bade them look, and when they did (such of them as had the courage), what should they see but a man on the gallows!
Bernardine flung him her reins and went into the house, for the door was open on the summer air; and the thought came to her that she had been lazy and remiss in not coming sooner, and that Francis might, after all, have gone to Guildford, so she turned back to ask Langton where his master was; but the fellow had gone, leading her horse away, and the sound of that was the only noise that hung in the still air.
With a gesture of almost terror she ran up to the next landing-place and paused, panting, before the closed doors of the library.
"Where is Francis, where is he?" she murmured half aloud. His absence began to cloud her triumph with horror.
At that moment Marston came from the upper floor.
"The master hath locked himself in, my lady," he said in a troubled fashion, "and I can get no answer from him."
"Oh, God of me, what hath happened?" cried Bernardine.
"I know not, my lady—the master was very strange this morning—not recovering as usual from his wine."
"Show me his door; he will answer me—"
She followed the servant and beat on the door he pointed out.
"Francis! Are you well? I have news of such importance." She waited, then cried in increasing desperation: "I implore you to answer! I am not concerned for trifles but for a great matter."
There was no reply.
"Marston"—she turned to the servant—"go fetch tools and break the lock, as quick as may be on a desperate affair."
He obeyed, and she was left alone on the landing-place, which seemed so gaunt, dark and large.
"Francis—are you there? Will you not answer? It is I, Bernardine Muschamp. You are cleared! Cleared!"
To her unutterable relief, the key turned in the lock and the door slowly opened.
"Frank!" she said, having no word but that at last.
He stood before her in his riding-clothes and looked at her in silence; she felt something awful between them, a shadow that pushed them apart.
"What is the matter?" she whispered, holding on to the lintel.
Without a word he crossed to the tall rose damask bed and seated himself at the foot on the bed-step that was pulled awry.
"Condemned to death," he said, smiling; "condemned to death."
Bernardine followed him across the dark room, for the curtains were drawn.
"You are disordered in your mind," she answered, "but I can cure you." She drew the letters from her bosom. "Francis, you are cleared—listen—cleared! I have proof here—proof of your innocence! Ah, Francis, all the world shall know you guiltless. Look at me, my dear—for you are cleared!"
He raised his hazel eyes with a furtive glance.
"Guilty," he repeated hoarsely. "Guilty of murder, my lord!"
"Oh, no!" cried Bernardine, casting herself down beside him. "Do not speak such words; dispel these fancies; read this."
She tried to put the letters into his hand, but he would not take them, indeed, discovered no interest in what she said or did.
"Guilty," he said once again. "A murderer, before God and man. Nothing can clear me but the fires of hell. Nothing."
She clung to his arm, to his coat; she implored him with stammering lips and passionate words; she tried to tell him of the plot that had ruined him, of the discovery of the vast wickedness of Phoebus; but he seemed not to hear—more, perhaps, not to care.
"Do you know me?" she cried at last, desperate, doubtful of his reason being yet clear.
He looked at her, and said in an agonized voice: "Too late. Too late! Take this key." He unclosed his left hand and showed it her. "Unlock the harness-room, and see if I am not a murderer! This is the end for me. Guilty! Guilty! I'll not stand in Guildford Court again. Thank Mr. Bargrave for that—"
Cold and still, she stared up at him, crouching on the bed-step beside him.
He put out his right hand and timidly touched her loose hair.
"How unfortunate I have been—two women with these soft locks. Bernardine, is it not? But it is too late—"
"Tell me," she whispered, rigid with dread, "what have you done?"
"I do not understand any of it," he answered. "Were you here last night?"
"Yes, yes, I was here—"
"Serena Fowkes had hair like yours—and bracken on her dress when she lay in the barn—as you have."
He was leaning against the bed-post where the rich curtain hung; she thought he was going to faint, and sprang up to call help; but he made a passionate gesture to detain her, and she turned back at once.
"God help me, I never meant evil," he said. "And you—why do you come to me?—now, when all is over."
But Bernardine was looking beyond him; her eyes were fixed on a little bottle which lay on the bed beside him. In all the extremity of fear she caught up this bottle; it was labelled "citrate of mercury."
"Why—" she said, and her voice was scarcely strong enough even for a whisper.
"There is that way out," murmured Sir Francis. "I was innocent when they accused me before—but now they have made me a murderer! Mr. Bargrave gave me that, instead of the gallows."
Bernardine did not hear him; she had seen that the bottle was full; she flung her weight across his bosom and lifted her desperate face close to his dark countenance.
"Frank, you must speak to me—you must listen to me; be yourself, clear your brain—" Her voice was rough with the passion of extreme love and extreme fear. "What have you done and what are you going to do?"
A slow, difficult flush came into his cheek, the cloud cleared from his eyes, and he answered with a certain broken dignity:
"There is an end of me. Let me go—forget me."
"I can never do that," she said, "never—never...Look at me. Do you not see? I love you."
A gleam of tenderness crossed his despairing face, and he took her gently by the shoulders and held her away from him.
"Too late," he answered. "I have killed a man and I must die—" He put his hands over hers that held the little bottle. "Give me that—there is no other way to wash out the stain on my name."
She felt her fingers being wrenched from the bottle; she made no resistance.
"I love you," she said.
He hesitated. Her head was flung back against his right arm and the auburn locks were scattered over his dark sleeve.
"I am Bernardine," she said; her eyes looked steadily up into his. "I always loved you. Whatever you have done, I love you just the same. Wherever you go, I am going too."
He stared down into her face, never moving; his hand slackened its violent grip on the phial she held.
"You!" he whispered. "After all this you!"
"You used to want me," she answered. "I am yours now."
He looked at her sullenly, intent on the phial she held.
"Kiss me," she said.
He bent his head, and turned it away from her entreaty.
"We have waited long for this," whispered Bernardine.
Francis did not speak. When he lifted his head she dropped hers on to his shoulder, and still there was silence. At last she drew away from him and stood up.
"What have you done? We must face it—"
She thrust the bottle into her waistcoat pocket. Francis Ribblestone sighed.
"It is Thomas Septvan," he answered. "I killed him. He is in the harness-room. My Lord, I plead guilty, guilty of murder."
He smiled dreadfully, in a cunning fashion, and rose to stand as he had stood in the dock, erect and at attention; he appeared to take the lady for his judge, and, turning to her, earnestly confessed himself guilty of murder.
The rest of the story is but the relation of a long patience and a long suffering, without great events or untoward incident.
A lady in a distant country attended a gentleman of a noble presence and disordered intellect, who seemed conscious of nothing but her presence (even of that he had long been unaware), and with them was a third, even he who had hounded Francis Ribblestone to insanity. Thomas Septvan, who was not killed save in the imagination of Francis, but lived to read the letters of Serena Fowkes and taste a great remorse.
Yet Sir Francis never knew him, but suffered his presence as that of a
So we lose sight of them, the strange trio, wandering in their pain and
expiation, and if they came on some happiness at the end we do not
The grass grew on the paths of Manor House, the dust lay on the shuttered windows, and the closed gates rusted, for Phoebus died shamefully in France, and Mr. Bargrave wrote no more the name of Ribblestone in the Parish Register, for here was an end of this house.
And whatever happened to Francis and Bernardine, his wife, you do not find their graves in England.
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