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Title: The Buff Gauntlet Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1201231h.html Language: English Date first posted: February 2012 Date most recently updated: February 2012 This eBook was produced by: Roy Glashan Project Gutenberg 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 Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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IT was a bitter pill to swallow; still, there was grim satisfaction in the fact that the garrison had been a thorn in the side of Cromwell for three years past. But Basing House had fallen at last, and the great general had engineered the attack in person. The noise and roar of the fight had not yet died away, the chill October air rang to the clash of steel and the bursting of petronels, here and there the conflict spurted up again like a fire that is unquenched.
The rooms of the big house reeked with the smell of powder, on the walls the tread of heavy feet thundered, beyond in the darkness of the courtyard lay a huddled heap of the garrison. Cromwell had been in the thick of the fight a while ago, and now he was no more to be seen. Not that it mattered much, seeing that the house was won and the long siege ended. There was a high wind outside, and the hangings of the walls bellied fiercely to the draught. A woman came scudding across the great hall and ran into the refectory to the right. Colonel Barker's brows knitted as he noticed her beauty and the richness of her dress.
"This is no place for you," he said sourly. "You should have gotten away with the rest. Unless it may happen that you are a spy." "I am no spy," the woman said. "I am looking for my husband. If he is here--"
The girl—for she was little more—came to an abrupt pause, as if fearful that she was saying too much. She seemed to be timid and in great distress, though there was a suggestion of firmness in the little mouth, and the big, blue eyes did not lack courage.
"Who are you that comes here in a case like this?" Harker demanded.
"I am Sybil Harcombe, at your service, sir," the girl replied—"wife of Sir Walter Harcombe, who lies either dead or seriously wounded here. I came--"
"You came over here from Harcombe in the thick of the fight!" Harker exclaimed with uplifted eyebrows. "True 'tis that these children of evil do not lack courage. I must tell my Lord General of this. It may be no secret to you, madam, that Cromwell is anxious to meet your husband—a traitor like that."
"My husband is no traitor," Lady Harcombe replied hotly. "He came amongst you with his life in his hands to learn your plans. That he tricked and fooled your master I hold to be greatly to his credit. Do you call your creature Claypole a traitor? And yet he came into the garrison with the foul intent of betraying the house, as he has done."
"Claypole's service was rendered to the Lord," Harker said with a certain sour enthusiasm. "Your man serves the Host of Darkness. If he is here--"
Harker tapped the hilt of his sword significantly. Sybil Harcombe did not need to be told what would be the fate of her husband if he fell alive into the hands of the Roundheads. It was sufficient that he had weaned himself into the confidence of the Protector and gained more than one valuable secret. It was the kind of thing that Cromwell did not forget nor forgive.
And there was a new savour in the successful siege in the fact that Walter Harcombe was behind the walls of Basing House. A fresh blast of wind shook the arras again, a sound of strife burst forth, a man cut and bleeding staggered into the room. There was a sally of the garrison, a last despairing effort in the courtyard, he said. With something on his lips that would have passed for an oath from a Cavalier, Harker hurried away. The heavy door banged sullenly behind him, but still the arras stirred. Then a slim hand with rings upon it pushed the heavy stuff aside, and a voice whispered the name of Sybil. She crossed the floor as quickly as a fawn.
"Walter!" she whispered. "Walter! Surely God is very good to me to-night."
"My faith! but that is open to doubt, dearest," the man huddled on the floor behind the arras groaned. "Here am I with my sword-arm broken and a hole in my leg as big as a Roundhead's hypocrisy. I managed to crawl here with all the fight gone out of me, and old Noll standing there not ten yards away, looking as if he's lost his self-respect and found his true value. If he had only known!"
Sybil Harcombe shivered as she bent down and kissed the speaker. The spirit and flush of conflict had not yet quite died away, the clash of steel could be heard, and the sounds of musketry-firing. The sounds moved as the fugitives were chased from one part of the house to another. When order was restored, doubtless a careful search would be made, and the fate of Walter Harcombe was as good as sealed.
And yet there was a smile on his face, and naught of fear in those dark, insolent eyes of his.
"Cromwell will be back again," Sybil whispered. "'Tis said that he had raised the siege two days ago and pressed north, where he and his Ironsides are badly wanted, but for it that you were within the walls. Though why he has so fierce a hatred of you—"
"Because I know too much, sweetheart," Harcombe smiled. "There were private papers I became possessed of—the story of an early youth, none too well spent. Ecod, mistress, that man is at heart still one of us! Is he not the grandson of old Sir Harry Cromwell, of Hinchinbrook, who was the very pink of what a good Cavalier should be? Did not my father hide Noll himself at Harcombe Place what time--"
"Hush!" Sybil whispered. "We are burning the golden moments. They know not how I came here, they know nothing of the passage from here to Harcombe Place. Lie there till I see that the coast is clear. There is no time to be lost."
Sybil sped away, as if eagerly and piteously looking for some dead friend. The last embers of the fight had been stamped out under the heels of the Ironsides, the guard had been set in the big courtyard. Colonel Harker and the rest were making a hasty meal in the hall. Sybil came back presently with her finger to his lips.
"Come on," she said. "With the blessing of Providence, we shall reach the staircase. Lean on me, dear husband. Courage! You are worse hit than I thought for. But once at Harcombe Place, and you shall have all the attention possible—"
They crawled painfully across the hall and up the flagged staircase. Sybil had snatched off her husband's wig and wrapped him in a cloak that she had taken from a Parliamentary soldier, who had no need of such things in future. These were stern, hard times, and the girl's fingers did not so much as tremble. A big Puritan stood at the top of the stairs, with his petronel in the hollow of his arm. He would have challenged the couple as they came near, only Sybil signed for him to let them pass. Before the fellow could make parley. Sir Walter had tripped him neatly, so that he came clattering headlong down the stairs, and lay yelling and moaning there as if the Father of Lies were after him.
"Now quick!" Sybil cried. "You must make an effort, dear heart. Lean on me; let me bear the whole weight of your body. God be praised, we are here at last!"
With a desperate strength Sybil dragged Sir Walter into a little closet and closed the door behind. She was trembling and wet with her exertions. She fumbled along the wall till her hand touched an iron knob, and on this she pressed, with the result that the stone wall swung round, and a long, dark tunnel stood like the throat of a wolf. As the wall fell back again, there came yells and cries from the staircase. But the danger was past, and Sybil stood trembling in the velvet folds of the darkness, crying now like a very woman. Harcombe's uninjured arm was about her, and she was weeping on his shoulder.
"Come, mistress," he said, "do not give way yet. You are as brave as you are beautiful, and no man can say more than that. The danger is done."
"I am not so sure of that," Sybil said as she pressed forward. "Cromwell used to come here in the brave days—aye, and to Harcombe Place in your grandfather's time, too. Maybe he, too, had heard of the secret passage."
"Maybe," Harcombe said grimly. "But there is another secret at Harcombe Place that is known only to you and I and one other. If Noll comes there, you will know how to act."
"Aye, I shall know how to act," Sybil said with a certain fierce indrawing of her breath. "Whatever happens to me, you shall be saved, because the King has need of you. The knowledge that you possess may crown the King's troops with victory yet. It was a cruel, hard fate that shut you up in Basing House so long. If you had thought of the--"
"Dear heart of mine, I did think of it. But there were traitors in the house. I was watched night and day. And if those traitors had known, they had killed me treacherously and filled the house with Ironsides from Harcombe Place by means of the passage. I tried it once, but the danger was too great."
In the darkness the passage seemed to be interminably long, but the end came at length. Sybil had studied the place till she was as much at home in the pitchy darkness as she had been in broad daylight. Her slim fingers found the spring, a panel slid away, and a dazzling shaft of light came pouring into the tunnel from the hall at Harcombe Place. The old house, with its deep moat—the old house, part of which was below the bottom of the moat—seemed strangely, painfully silent after the turmoil of Basing. Harcombe could still hear the hum of conflict, like a revolving wheel in his brain.
"Get me a cordial, sweetheart," he said— "strong waters of some kind; and then old Andrew shall carry me to bed, for my arm hurts me grievously. It is good to get away from there—in the name of our Lord the King! what is that?"
Harcombe pointed with his long, buff gauntlet to a conical object lying on the oak, gate-legged table in the centre of the hall. It was nothing more nor less than a soft felt hat with a buckle at the side, a strange object to be seen in Harcombe Place, where everything that had the slightest savour of Puritanism was rigorously excluded.
"I am not suffering from any noisome vapours," Harcombe went on. "My mind is quite clear. So, therefore, that is the hat of an Ironside soldier, who is evidently making himself quite at home here in the house of my forefathers—some low scullion who should find a proper place in the kitchen. What has become of Andrew, that he--"
Sybil suddenly laid a finger on her husband's lips. For from the dimness of thestairway an aged servant was signalling violently. The house was strangely quiet. Harcombe caught the suggestion that there was danger of some kind in the air. Sybil crept up the stairs to the old servant, whose face was white and agitated. He looked like a dim vision of fear in the light of the torches in the corridor.
"Whatm is it, old friend?" Sybil asked. "Where does the danger lie?"
"There in the dining-parlour," the old man muttered. "Fierce men searching the house: a party there outside, so that retreat is cut off; and the devil himself in the parlour."
"The devil himself! Andrew, do you mean to say "
"Aye, indeed, my dear mistress. He came just in and took possession, for all the world as if he had been born to it. Nobody else but Oliver Cromwell."
Sybil could scarcely refrain a cry. Cromwell there in the house! How could he have guessed—how could he possibly have found out? Sybil was too astonished to do anything for the moment. Then the vividness of the danger came back to her with startling force. Cromwell was there; he had his bodyguard with him; and only the thickness of an oak door stood between him and the man he needed.
"Where are the servants?" Sybil asked. "Where are--"
"All taken away but me," Andrew said sadly. "I was too old and feeble, mayhap. But the others were swept off as if they had been chaff. Dear mistress, what is there for us to do? If my lord and master tries to escape by way of the open moor--"
"Your master is sorely wounded," Sybil interrupted. "It is only that great heart of his that keeps him going in the face of danger. Did he go far, he would die. And Cromwell may come out of that room at any moment. Get your master away, Andrew get him safe to the hiding-place, whilst I go and parley to gain time."
Sir Walter came very slowly up the stairs. His face was set and stern as he listened, yet his eyes were full of passionate affection as he talked to his wife. He would have said something, but she waved the speech aside.
"It is to be one or the other of you," she said. "I will go and reason with him. If he refuses to listen, which I expect, there must be no hesitation. There is the bare chance that you may get away yet. And if so, send me your gauntlet; let it be the message on the floor. If that comes down, I shall know that you are free. Praise be to God that there are none of our people in the house! It may be 'Good-bye'"
The door of the parlour creaked, and Andrew drew his master back. He snatched the hand of his wife and kissed it passionately. The next moment he had vanished in the darkness of the corridor. With a firm step, and a heart beating none the faster, Sybil slowly descended the stairs. She had her part to play now, and she was not going to flinch. There was desperate danger here, but at any cost the precious life of Sir Walter Harcombe must be saved. It mattered little how Cromwell had come to know that Harcombe had found his way back home, seeing that his danger was going to be as great, if not greater, than that of the master of Harcombe Place. If Walter succeeded in getting away, well and good; if not, the price would be a heavy one.
Quite ready for all that was going to happen, Sybil pushed her way into the parlour. The Protector stood there, moodily poking the wood fire with the toe of his riding-boot. The expression of his strong, heavy face did not change in the least.
"I sent for you," he said. "Why did you not come before?"
There was a harsh command in the question that brought the blood flaming to Sybil's face. Had this rude boor once been the close companion of gentlemen? she wondered. She had heard tales of Cromwell's early youth that did not tally with his middle age.
"I was abroad," she said. "I did not know of the honour before me, or I had been back sooner. Your courtesy and your kindness, sir, touch me to the heart. It is a sweet and blessed privilege that Harcombe Place boasts to-night."
The expression on Cromwell's face seemed unchanged. Sybil caught herself wondering whether or not there was a heart somewhere under that rugged breast.
"Shut the door," he said, unmoved. "Shut the door and let us talk."
"Talk by all means, because we must; but as to the door, shut it yourself, if such is your good pleasure. Have you consorted with kitchen-wenches so long that you have caught the manner of their lives? But I am wasting my time. What do you do here?"
"I came here on an errand that you can guess," Cromwell said. "I came here to seek your husband. How he escaped my men to-night passes my understanding. He was not with the dead nor with the wounded; he was nowhere to be found. That he had been sorely mauled, I had from one who was part of the undoing; and yet he has escaped me. The wounded fox creeps back to his earth. That is why I am here to-night."
"You expected to find my husband waiting for you with open arms?"
"Well, perhaps not that, mistress," Cromwell said, with a near approach to a smile. "If he is not here, then he is not far away. If he comes not here, then he goes to his friend Lord Mornington, at Carew Grange, where there are those who are ready to say 'Nay' to that."
"And if my husband does fall into your hands?"
"Then he will be shot," Cromwell said hoarsely. "An example to traitors, be it understood. We have been too easy with them in the past."
"Oh, yes, kindness of heart is ever your stumbling-block," Sybil said bitterly. "Man, have you no mercy, no feeling, no bowels of compassion? Here in this very house your own grandfather, then old Sir Harry Cromwell, of Hinchinbrook--"
"My ancestors are no part of me," Cromwell interrupted. "It was men like my grandfather, pandering to a profligate and wasteful What was that?"
IT was only a grating sound, like the turning of a key in a lock, but it brought the gleam of suspicion in the eyes of Cromwell. Sybil smiled as she saw his hand go to his side. It was good to know that this hard man had nerves and feelings.
"There is no cause for alarm," she said. "I am merely a woman, whose servants have been sent away, and your menials are close at hand. Do not be afraid."
"It sounded like something down below," Cromwell said. "My men are searching there in the vaults and passages in the basement of this old place. Mayhap they are on the right scent; but certain places here have been cunningly contrived. There is the iron cell, for instance."
"So you know of the iron cell!" Sybil cried. "But I had forgotten that you once enjoyed the full hospitality of this house. In return for all that kindness--"
"It is no time to speak of kindness," Cromwell burst out harshly. "When a kingdom as fair as ours is at stake, why-- But how should a woman know anything of such matters? I heard a sound like the turning of a key in a lock—it seemed to come from below. I have a curiosity to see that iron cellar of yours."
Sybil smiled to herself. Her face was deadly white now, her eyes gleamed with some strong tenacity of purpose. There was a suggestion of the martyr about her.
"And also the contents of the chamber," she said sneeringly. "You hope to find my husband in hiding there. Well, I have nothing to conceal. Follow me, and you shall know all there is to know about the iron cell. This way, sir."
Cromwell followed, his iron heels clanging on the pavement. Presently Sybil led the way down a long flight of stone steps which gave upon a slimy passage, the walls of which were green with some kind of growth; great drops fell from the arched roof. They were below the level of the moat now, in the oldest part of the house. In times gone by, prisoners had been kept in those damp vaults, unseen and unrecorded crimes had taken place there; for there had been Harcombes in those days whose names were as a white terror to the whole countryside. There were tales and legends still half-believed; but they were being forgotten now, seeing that the head of the family was a popular hero with his people.
Most of the cell doors stood open, but one was tightly closed. The door was of iron, with great brass studs on it, the handle was stiff, and taxed Sybil's strength to the uttermost. Cromwell stood by, impotent to help, for the secret of the door lay in the turning of the handle. The big, iron sheet rolled sullenly back at last, disclosing a black interior. A clanking footstep came down the corridor, and a sour-looking trooper, with a lantern in his hand, strode along.
"Give me your light, fellow," Cromwell said. "There are plenty of lanterns among you, and we need one. Have you found anything yet?"
"It has not yet been vouchsafed to us, my lord," the man said with a snivelling drawl; "but our feet are on the right path, peradventure."
Sybil smiled with some contempt. She took the lantern from the hand of the trooper and, passing up the steps that led to the door, held it high over her head. There was no moisture in the iron cell save for the beads on the walls, and the place was empty.
"There is nothing here," Sybil said. "Had I told you my husband was not concealed here, you would not have believed me. So your memory is a good one, and you have not forgotten some of the secrets of the house. Do you know all about this iron cell?"
The question was put with such significance that Cromwell stared at the speaker. He replied sullenly that he supposed that nothing had been concealed from him.
"Then you are quite wrong," the girl replied. "This cell is sheathed with iron. Do you know why it is so sheathed, whilst the other cells are of plain granite? Do you know why you have to come up a flight of stairs to reach it from the corridor?"
Sybil pointed to the short flight of steps that she and her companion had ascended to reach the iron room. Cromwell nodded, with the air of a man who takes little interest in the proceedings. All he knew or cared to know was that an enemy was concealed here, and that enemy must be driven from his hiding-place and destroyed. The man was doubtless down here in this curious underground world, and the troopers would move him presently.
"I see you don't know everything," Sybil said, "so I will proceed to explain. First, I will shut the door, so that we need not be disturbed... There! Now you are a prisoner; and unless I chose to show you the way, you could never open that iron sheet. I could keep you a prisoner here as long as I liked. Do you understand that?"
"I understand that I have company; and that so long as one is a prisoner, he is not without a companion. Come, mistress, you are concealing something from me."
"Not for long," Sybil said in a hard, even voice; " am going to explain everything. Did you ever hear how the old house was raided by the Hoptons, and their terrible fate?"
Cromwell waved his hand impatiently. He had heard some century-old story of the feud between the Hoptons and Harcombes, and how the castle of the former had been destroyed.
"Ah! it is by no means a dull story," Sybil said in the same hard, even tones. "They came here treacherously in the dead of the night—one hundred and nine of them—and our people fled to the vaults, where they were followed. The foe fell into the trap. And what happened? Next day, one hundred and nine corpses, fair and dark, rich and poor, lay out in the courtyard, and our people buried them. The Hoptons were wiped clean out, and we pulled their castle down stone by stone. Have you heard of that?"
"In my youth," Cromwell said impatiently. "The silly lie of some kitchen-wench."
"It was not a lie; it is absolutely true. And the only loss our people sustained was a young girl who had a hopeless passion for the then ruling head of the family. Somebody had to perish to save the house, and that girl chose to do so. The fact that she was dying at the time made the story the more touching—to people possessed of feeling at all."
"Meaning that I have none," Cromwell said sourly. "What really happened, mistress?"
"Oh. I see that I interest you at last!
The moat was tapped. The moat can be tapped from here, and these vaults and passages flooded with a great rush of water. In time the water would rise until this iron room were filled to the roof; there would be no end to it, because the moat is fed from the lake on the high ground over against Basing village. It was the rush of
those cruel waters that wiped the Hoptons out of existence."
"But the girl need not have died," Cromwell protested. "If she had cut off the flow of water--"
"She could not," Sybil went on. "The pressure from without is too great. Our machinery is too imperfect for that. The raised gates have to be forced down from without. They refused to work on that fatal night because the lake was in flood—a fact that had been overlooked. And so the heroine died, and the Hoptons raided the land no longer. It was a brave thing to do."
"It was a brave thing to do," Cromwell echoed. "For a woman it was a noble act."
"It was. We all think so. She did it to save the house she loved, as I might do it to save the man I loved. What one woman can do, another need not shrink from."
Cromwell started. Moody and preoccupied as he was, the full significance of the speech was not lost on him. The sombre eyes sought Sybil's face keenly. He saw a deadly white face, with a pair of eyes gleaming dangerously; he saw resolution— almost inspiration—and the fact was borne in upon him that his life was in peril.
"Do you mean to threaten me?" he
"No," Sybil said gently. "I mean nothing of the kind. My husband's life is in danger; he is, as you say, sorely wanted. And he is not very far off. Your ferret instinct has not played you false. If my man is taken now, the King's cause would suffer. The King has need of him. His life or death may change the whole fortunes of the day."
"We will not argue that," Cromwell muttered. "Those despatches--"
"And your private papers. It is your pleasure to call Walter Harcombe a spy and a traitor, and proclaim the fact that you are going to shoot him. Now, if you will write a message to your men outside calling them off, and send these roundheaded, prowling rats of yours from the house, I may--"
"These be brave words," Cromwell cried. "Woman, are you talking to me?"
"Aye, I am," Sybil said between her teeth. "And I am going to play the woman to-night. My husband must escape, or I pay the penalty with my life. I did not bring you here to threaten or to abuse. If my husband does not go free under an order from your own hand, you and I die. I will play Jeanne d'Arc to you; I will rid England of a cold-hearted tyrant, who plays the tune of his ambition to the melody of religion. Aye, I am not boasting."
There was danger here, and the great Parliamentarian gripped it. They were locked there together, and the secret of the way out of it was known only to a woman who had lost her senses for love of her husband. Cromwell crossed the cell and gripped Sybil by the wrist.
"There is not likely to be any danger now," he said.
"You think not?" The girl made an effort to free herself. "You may go if you can find the way out. Presently, when the moat is at flood, a great log of wood will glide down past the spies as if the stream had carried it down, and on that log will be my husband. He will get away right under the eyes of your vigilants. If they shoot him down, should he attempt to lower the flood-gates, then your fate and mine is sealed. And I shall be a saint in the memory of my husband. I shall go down to posterity as the woman who rid free England of a tyrant. Let me go!"
Sybil wrenched herself away suddenly and jumped heavily on a square plate let in the floor. She laughed as a hollow clang rang out, and almost instantly the silence of the place was broken with a shock and a roar, as if the whole house were in the throes of an earthquake. Every stone and every stick of timber creaked and groaned; the roaring came nearer and nearer, till the rush of it drowned every other sound. Sybil had been as good as her word; she had tapped the lake, and the flood was streaming through the house already.
Then she crossed over and pulled back the iron door. Already the passage outside, at the foot of the flight of stairs, was a white, foaming torrent. As Cromwell looked, he could see that the seething stream was rising higher and higher.
"Can you swim?" Sybil asked, pointing to the shimmering force below. "You cannot? Well, it would make no difference. Nobody could live in that dreadful whirlpool—the fall is too great. It joins;the river in the water-meadows below the house. See how it is creeping up—up, still higher, till it reaches the floor where we are standing. Oliver Cromwell, if there is any sincerity in your prayers, you will need them now. Look!"
The girl pointed with a steady hand to an object that came turning and twisting with the flood. It was the dead body of a man in full uniform—the trooper who had provided Cromwell with the lantern.
"Aye, well, you have reason to be proud of your work," Cromwell said bitterly.
"I am not proud of the thing which is no better than murder. Yet there is no shame to me when I think of the murder that you have planned. Come, if I can yet save vour life, will you take terms from me?"
It was a long time before Cromwell replied. He did not do so until the shining flood had risen above his ankles.
"You are the stuff that heroes are born from," he said with a certain grudging admiration. "It is because England has need of me, because God has called me to right a great wrong, that I yield. I dare not go and stand in the presence of my Maker feeling that I have betrayed His trust to save my stiff-necked pride. Your husband is free of me if you can stay the crime that you have done."
"I may fail," she said; "but presently the flood will bring me a message. If my husband's buff gauntlet comes down, I shall know that he has got beyond the confines of the house. That was the signal that he promised me. If he has been taken, then you and I die together. Have you ink and powder and a pen in your doublet?"
Cromwell signified that he had writing materials about him. He watched the waters rising almost up to his knees, the fear of death danced before his eyes. Presently along the shining bosom of the floor came the signal in the form of a buff gauntlet. Sybil snatched it np and took a tiny scrap of paper from the bosom of her dress.
"Now write a message on that, and write quickly," she said. "There is no time to be lost. The glove will float down the stream and out on the margin of the water-meadows. Old Andrew will be waiting for it; for Andrew and myself have tried the scheme more than once before, little dreaming how soon we should make use of it... Is that writing done?.... There!"
Sybil flung the glove afar out into the stream, and it slid away beyond the circle of light made by the lantern. Still the water crept up, until it reached the deep chest of the soldier, and nearly to the shoulders of the woman. The flood was very cold; but Sybil made no sign, for within she glowed with the consciousness of a great victory.
The water was not moving now, it came no higher. Had the signal reached its destination? Cromwell asked himself. It was characteristic of the man that be displayed no kind of feeling, and yet his face lightened invisibly as he saw the horn buttons of his coat emerging one by one as the stream began to subside. There was a steady, sucking noise in the corridor, the steps crept in sight one by one, until the floor appeared once more.
"Now, sir," Sybil said. She spoke bravely enough, though a deadly fear was gripping her. "Now we can get to the level of the house again, where no damage will have been done, and you and I can exchange pretty courtesies by the side of a roaring fire. I take it that you feel a certain inconvenience from your adventure?"
"Some dry clothing?" Cromwell said.
"It shall be forthcoming. I pray of you to go upstairs and take the first room to the right. I go to change my own attire. Then perhaps you will permit me to extend my hospitality, seeing that the house is not strange to you. As a mark of my distinguished favour, I have shown you a secret of the house which is not revealed to every stranger. Ah! I hear Andrew."
Old Andrew had come back to the house, his withered face broken with many emotions. When the great Parliamentarian came down to the parlour, clad in dry clothing, he found Sybil awaiting him. Her face was flushed now and her eyes unduly bright. In a deep chair on the other side of the fire sat Sir Walter Harcombe. One of Sybil's hands was on his shoulder, the other he held proudly and lovingly.
"'Sdeath, sir!" he said; "but these be brave times. And so you have measured your wit against that of a woman, and gotten a fall, as many a better man has done before you. Presently, when you are gone, I shall try and tell this dear wife of mine what I think of her. Come, sir, you will drink a cup of the best to the sweetest heroine who ever risked her life for the sake of the unworthy fellow who was privileged to call himself a husband. As a courtesy, as a medicine, as a toast—call it what you will. And shake hands upon it."
"As a toast, then," Cromwell said in a deep voice, as he raised the needed cordial to his lips. "Madam, my profoundest respects to you. But the draught is a bitter one, and my stomach likes it not at all. So if you will suffer me to depart--"
He raised his fingers to his cap and saluted gravely. Then he turned on his heels and quitted the room, clanging the door sullenly behind.
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