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A SHABBY carriage of unobtrusive appearance drove up to the lonely house on the outskirts of the desolate and avoided heath by Hounslow.
It was a bitter November night of black fog; the carriage-lamp and the lantern hanging above the door of the gloomy house cast circles of dirty light into the harsh darkness of the cold mist.
As the vehicle turned in through the neglected gate, across the desolate winter-bitten square of garden, these lights were sufficient to reveal two muffled men on the box. The horses, curiously fine animals for such a wretched equipage, were dark and steaming with sweat as if they had been driven fast and long, as they were drawn up sharply before the dingy portico and cracked steps of the house.
The silence of the dismal winter night in this abandoned, ill- famed spot would have been complete had it not been for the sound of a desperate beating on the leathern blind of the coach window, accompanied by furious half-stifled cries.
"She is making a sharp resistance!" grumbled one of the men, as he flung himself off the box-seat and cast an apprehensive glance round.
"For God's sake let's get the business done!" his companion sourly called out to him, shaking the reins over the tired beasts.
A knock on the door soon brought the instant appearance of an ill-favoured individual holding a candle, the light from which showed an empty hall and unfurnished stairs behind him, as he peered furtively into the cold and murk.
"Well, Jenkins, we've got the prize."
Despite his greasy greatcoat and worn, plain hat pulled on to his ears, the speaker had the voice and gestures of a gentleman.
"You're late," whispered the other anxiously, shading his feeble light with a trembling dirty hand and peering out with reddened eyes into the swirling fog. "You are not followed, no one got wind of it, it's all right?"
"It will be, if you know how to play your part—take no notice of anything she says or does, and remember, whatever happens to her, she deserves it."
"That don't matter to me, it's my money I'm thinking of." The harsh voice sank to a whining whisper.
"Your money's safe enough!" the muffled gentleman disdainfully touched his pocket. "Go and hold the horses. It'll take the three of us to get her in."
Thrusting his candle into a socket on the dirty wall, Jenkins tremblingly obeyed; shivering and coughing, with the fog in his eyes and throat, he crept out into the night and up to the horses.
The man who had been driving flung him the ribbons and jumped off the box; the carriage door was opened from within and a third man stepped out, dragging with him a woman whose rich dress was in disorder, whose ornaments gleamed for a moment in the murky light, whose jaw was lightly bound with an embroidered handkerchief.
Her companion was also splendidly attired; he was handsome, of no more than five-and-twenty years, but his long, dark, flushed face was vicious in expression, his handling of the struggling woman somewhat brutal.
"Nay, now, madam, you have given me an unpleasant enough journey; no need to show off any more of your tricks—I tell you all is useless!" But the woman, who was young and vigorous, continued to struggle violently.
The broken sentences that came from behind the bitten handkerchief were exceedingly bitter; it took the three of them to get her into the house.
As they closed the door on her struggles, on her muffled cries for help, one of them shouted out to Jenkins to stable the horses and follow in at once.
"Now, madam, will you come quietly? Now, madam, do you not perceive that it is useless?—you termagant, you vixen, you spitfire! You will pay for this and in no pleasant fashion, I warrant you!"
The three men got their victim into a back room of the cold, desolate house, placed her on a tattered couch and then locked the door; all disordered and breathing heavily, they proceeded to help themselves to brandy from the large rat-ridden cupboard which stood open in the corner.
The woman was suddenly quiet, partly from exhaustion. While she had been in the coach there had seemed some chance of help, of rescue, of attracting the attention of a passer-by, of a possible accident which would have given her a chance to disclose her plight, but now, locked into this dismal room of a lonely house (she knew well enough that these three villains would have been careful in choosing a desolate place), she felt hopeless; she sat crouching in the corner on the broken couch with its torn leather, clutching her outer mantle across her bosom, full of hatred, fury, and despair.
She was not a girl nor in the least inexperienced; she had been twice married and each of her husbands had been, in her opinion, rogues.
She knew the ways of libertines and men of fashion, spendthrift officers ruined by gambling and costly mistresses; she knew exactly the reason of this abduction.
She was extremely wealthy, of a bold and independent spirit, and it galled her to the quick to think that she should have been overcome, conquered, ruined by mere brutal violence.
If she had had a weapon with her, she would gladly have used it on the rascal captain who had sat beside her in the filthy coach, who had held her hands, stuck the small gag into her mouth, and alternately mocked, jeered at her, and made insolent love to her; then, losing his temper, cursed and sworn at her obstinate resistance... Her fierce glance sought him out where he stood with his two fellow-villains drinking heavily—eh, no doubt they needed all the courage they could get from the drink...
She unknotted the handkerchief from her face, and wiped her strained and bruised mouth.
She was a very handsome woman even in her rage and distress; quantities of rich, black hair fell on to her white neck and the shoulders bared in her ineffectual struggles; her eyes were grey- brown, clear as tarn water; her shape was comely, and she had a wild, gay, provoking air which had allured many men. Half Irish, half Italian, her life had been adventurous, but she had kept as a useful asset, till now, a spotless reputation.
Captain Battel approached her:
"Well, madam, as I suppose, you see the end of all this? If you had come quietly it would have been better for all of us, but none of your rages has helped you; the conclusion is to be the same. You can guess it, too, I suppose?"
Sally Ayloffe crouched farther away from him into the corner of the hideous couch, and stared round the room with the inevitable furtive glance of the trapped. It was a dirty, dreary apartment, ill-lit by a smoking oil-lamp; a small wood fire burnt on the wide hearth, cobwebs, dirt, and damp disfigured the broken plaster walls, the scanty furniture was old and worn. The one window, from which hung a tatter of calico, was barred down and across, and in Captain Battel's hand she saw the key of the door.
He swung this in her face as he mocked, "Well, what have you to say, my dear Sally?"
The wilful woman had often humiliated him, played him many a trick, lured him on and cast him down; he now disliked her very much.
She replied frantically, "The penalty for abduction is death! I could have you all three at Tyburn!"
"No doubt, but will that be any consolation to you, my pretty dear, when you've spent the night here with us? You who have always been so careful of your reputation. Besides, my sweet Sally, you are too delicate a prude to figure in so foul a scandal. Besides, also," he added, smiling brutally over his shoulder at his two accomplices, "I and my friends are prepared to swear that you came willingly. Dorcas, your woman, whom you have always furiously ill-treated, is sworn to support that tale. Come, madam, there are a good many who wish to get level with you for old scores. You had best not kick against pricks."
She glared at him in helpless fury as he added: "All is arranged. The good Jenkins will marry us; here are my two witnesses; you shall return to town to-morrow as Mrs. Battel, my dear creature, and it will all pass for a pretty, sweet, romantical elopement."
Sally Ayloffe rose, her bitter dismay was increased by finding how weak her limbs were; she faced the three men, however, with courage: "And if I refuse?"
"You can't refuse," Captain Battel replied viciously. "Jenkins will take no notice, whatever you say."
"I can declare I was forced," she cried desperately, supporting herself against the dirty wall.
"I have told you," he replied, impatient at this delay, "no one will believe you, and if they did, you'd ruin yourself—lose your reputation." He swore horribly, his violent temper rising, "For whatever you say or do, there's nothing can help you from spending the night here with me!"
Sally Ayloffe knew that she was cornered; she was well aware of what these men were capable. Had she not even laughed with them about some such exploit of theirs in the past, when some other poor wretch had been fooled and ruined? But they had not been women of her quality and station, but miserable actresses or rustics... it was incredible that she should find herself in such a plight. Her mind, like a trapped rat, ran round and round the circumstances which had led her to this desperate situation.
She knew that she had largely to thank her own foolish imprudence; she had played with this handsome rogue, Francis Battel, amused herself with him, even given him that rendezvous in the dark alleys of the public gardens at Vauxhall... Dorcas, the treacherous maid, would no doubt, indeed, swear that she had come willingly.
She backed into a corner of the hateful room, and swept them all with her fierce gaze.
"Who are your accomplice villains?" She perceived at once, even in that uncertain light, that one was Major Gates, a ruined gambler of the worst reputation; the other, he who had acted as coachman, a Captain George Dryden, a mere youth, but well on the road to ruin in the company of men like Gates and Battel.
"Well, baby face!" she mocked, furiously pointing at this youth, "these are the games you amuse yourself with, are they?"
The young man was raw enough to blush; he did not like his task; his two elders, who had forced him into this as into many other unpleasant pieces of business against his will, looked at him with sharp suspicion, not liking his mounting colour, his hesitation. He turned his eyes aside.
"What are you each going to be paid?" sneered Sally Ayloffe, beside herself with fury, striking one hand against the other.
Horatio Gates, throwing off his muffler, laughed in her face. "Perhaps we shall receive no money, though that never comes amiss to a man of quality. Maybe we are merely pleased to be able to see you set down a trifle, madam spitfire."
The unhappy woman was astounded and horrified at this sudden ending of all the soft, silken courtesy to which she had been accustomed... these very same men had fawned on her only a few hours before... Now she could read, not only in their actions but in their looks and gestures, what they really thought of her, how low they had always held her... She had played with all, not meaning to lose a penny or have the least smirch on her reputation because of any of them, and this was their foul revenge and their filthy means of making a fortune...
The desperate woman beat her hands against the wall in a transport, which only caused her gloating tormentors to laugh. The prospect before her was indeed desperate—to be humiliated, to become a mock and a jeer before her own malicious, gossiping, gay world. She had few friends, she knew there would be many glad to learn of her downfall... to become the wife of this man, to make the ruined rake, Francis Battel, the master of her person, to give him the freedom of her fortune!
"Indeed, you must marry me!" said he, straddling before her with folded arms, surveying her contemptuously. "And I shall have to teach you many a pretty lesson after that, my dear!"
"If you dare!" she retorted. She was in a mood to ruin them all if it meant ruining herself... to see them in jail if it meant making herself a laughing-stock.
There was a tap on the locked door. Major Gates opened it cautiously; Jenkins, the disreputable parson, entered with a furtive sliding movement, a large book under his arm.
Francis Battel took another drink of brandy from the round, coarse pony glass, then suddenly seizing Sally Ayloffe by the wrist, dragged her to the table in the centre of the room, on which stood the murky lamp.
"Ready for the ceremony, my dear?" he demanded, while Major Gates closed in on her from the other side. George Dryden averted his face and unclasped the cloak at his neck with what seemed a nervous gesture.
Without loosening his grim hold on the struggling woman, Francis Battel said to the clergyman, "This is my bride, fair Mrs. Sally Ayloffe, the toast of St. James's, a sweet, fine widow with a fortune that will come in very useful to line the pockets of a man of quality."
"Take heed," she gasped with pallid lips, "that I do not have the law on all of you!"
But even as she spoke she believed that she must marry him, eh, and let him tell his tale afterwards, the cursed rogue!
He seemed to read her wild thoughts as he looked at her keenly.
"There'll be worse in store for you if you don't give in, my beauty," he menaced. "You have had your fling keeping us dangling after you, and now 'tis our turn."
His free hand struck the Book which the parson had laid on the dirty table. She was silenced, overawed by his strength, his power, his threats, but still she uselessly struggled in his cruel grip.
A loud impatient knock suddenly echoed through the house, all the other rooms of which were empty.
The three men turned, startled; Captain Dryden's hand went to his sword with an ejaculation which seemed to the others more of relief than fear; Captain Francis Battel did not release his grip of Mrs. Ayloffe.
"If we've been tracked we've been betrayed," he remarked shortly, glancing from one to the other of his companions. "No one in the world could come upon us here by chance."
The knocking was repeated.
"Had I better not go to the door?" asked young Dryden earnestly, "and whoever it is, tell some tale to put 'em off?"
The wretched parson stroked his thin lips with trembling fingers.
"Better get out at the back way," he urged nervously; "if we've been betrayed and it is the Law—or the lady's guardian?"
"Silence, you fool," stormed Captain Battel. "If you move, I'll run you through."
Mrs. Ayloffe put in sharply, "Remember you're committing and compounding a felony!"
"Why not let 'em knock?" added Captain Battel, swearing freely. "Get on with the marriage, you filthy rogue!"
Major Gates, a far older man, who remained calm, suggested that it were wiser to see what the disturbance was. "It sounds as if there are a great many of 'em, and as if they were in the mood to break in by force."
He snatched the key from Battel and opened the door of the room. Dryden, without waiting for a command from the other two, darted out into the dark passage.
"I should not be surprised if 'baby face' has betrayed us," said Captain Battel under his breath. "It was damned silly to have him in this... I knew he'd show lily-livered before the end."
He turned fiercely to the woman standing taut and grim by the table. "Anyhow, madam, it seems to me you'll be found in a pretty pickle! I know of no tale you could tell 'em to save your face!"
"Nor I," she retorted, "what lie you can put up to save your neck."
Jenkins, listening at the door, shouted suddenly: "He's letting some one in; there's a lot of 'em! Get out by the back!" as he dived like a rat into its hole through the darkness of the passage.
Gates and Battel, dragging the woman between them, would have followed, but their way was blocked. Dryden had returned, pale and muttering incoherently, half in defiance, half, it seemed, in self-defence, and with him was a tall, elegant young man well known to both of them, and the very last person they would wish to see in this place, and on this occasion.
This was Sir Philip Ayres, colonel of the regiment to which all three men belonged—a man of fashion, a man of wealth, and, though but a few years older, uncle of Captain Francis Battel.
"Sir Philip!" screamed Sally Ayloffe, wrenching away at last from her tormentor, "I am here unwillingly; I have been forced away, abducted! Heaven hear me, I speak the truth!"
"Ay, madam," he replied sternly, "and those who have done this shall pay for it."
To the three men he added briefly and with great authority, "Do not add to your stupid crime by any futile resistance. I have this house surrounded."
With cool insolence Captain Battel faced his uncle. "Did Dryden betray us?" he asked, darting an icy glance at that youth, who stood sullenly leaning against the wall of the passage.
"That can be no concern of yours," replied Sir Philip Ayres. He passed into the squalid room; the others followed him, sullen, hesitant.
Sir Philip turned to Sally Ayloffe, and with an air of great concern offered her his arm, inquiring if she were injured, overcome, in any way hurt?
She gratefully accepted his solicitude. This, to her, was a miraculous rescue. The man to whose arm she clung was the one man in London to whom she would willingly have surrendered all the advantages of person and fortune which these three rogues had planned to steal, but the fashionable, flattered young baronet had always shown himself indifferent to her arts and airs, nor could her wealth bribe him, for he was himself possessed of far greater riches.
Sir Philip Ayres, with the cold rage of a man forced to handle an odious situation, dominated the detestable scene; Major Gates and Captain Battel endeavoured to carry off their furious discomfiture with a careless air of men of the world. Captain Dryden stood apart, shamefaced; Mrs. Sally Ayloffe, then triumphant, vehemently recapitulated her outrageous wrong.
"Madam," interrupted Sir Philip Ayres quickly, "I understand the whole matter pretty well."
"I hope you do, sir," cried Captain Battel with fiery insolence. "The lady was willing. I am prepared to swear that in a court of law. Her maid and some others will support me."
Colonel Sir Philip Ayres interrupted with disgust, "Oh, I've no doubt you have your tale well planned, your villainy well laid, but not from you either do I need any words. It is sufficient for you all to know that I have the house surrounded and that escape is impossible, but, at the same time, those I have here know nothing of my errand and I wish to hush up a scandal."
As he spoke he looked at Sally Ayloffe, who sat down by the table and nervously fingered the greasy pages of the Bible and Prayer Book which the parson had left in his ignominious flight. Francis Battel, who had preserved his equanimity, almost his swagger, demanded, "Who put you on our track? Was it young Dryden here? I dare swear it was. He was at first scared and we were fools to have him in it."
"Never mind for that," replied Colonel Sir Philip Ayres. "I say I am here to try and avoid a scandal that will blast you all, including you, madam," he added, turning to the woman.
"Do you think," she retorted with rising wrath, "that I am to take this quietly?"
"I think you would be wise to do so, madam. I will conduct you back to your London residence. You will have had no harm but an alarm of fright. Nay, I dare swear you were not so frightened either; you have spirit enough. To be plain with you," he added sharply as she rose, "it is well known that you have played fast and loose with these gentlemen, rogues though they be, dangling your fortune before them. Amusing yourself at their several distresses. I advise you, madam, not to make this affair public."
She hesitated, well knowing the good sense of what he said.
"To please you," she replied, "I might be silent."
She spoke with a meaning that he instantly understood; he had always admired her more than she knew—the audacious, beautiful creature with her romantic, mysterious history, and the thousands of Ayloffe, her last banker husband, to set her off!—she was desirable now in her roused passion, her voluptuous disorder. He admired, too, the fashion in which she had taken this outrage.
Not without tenderness he said:
"For your own sake, leave this in my hands."
She looked at him with gratitude, with love; he made the other three men appear mean, ordinary, though all were accounted comely; but Philip Ayres was of a noble presence and notable good looks that would have dominated any company; his brilliant youth (he was not above eight-and-twenty) was finely set off by his splendid regimentals.
As Sally Ayloffe looked at him, he turned to the three men. Battel, still inflamed by the brandy and suppressed fury, demanded again if the young villain, Dryden, had split on them?
"And if he has," said the young colonel sternly, "he has saved you all from the ignominy of a public trial, perhaps from hanging."
Without waiting for a reply he turned on Major Gates, who had stood with an air of indifference leaning against the dirty wall, surveying the scene with an ironic smile.
"You, Major Gates, I cannot, I will not forgive. I have already overlooked enough; you are older than these two by many years. In your case I must not exercise compassion."
"I thought, sir, you did not want a scandal," smiled Horatio Gates.
"There shall be none; you must sell your commission, get out of the country. You, Dryden"—he swung round on the young man, who was still fidgeting nervously with his muffler—"you, I believe, are a Virginian, are you not?"
"I was born and bred for a while in Virginia, sir."
"Well, you had best return there; you've marred your fortune in England. Virginia or Georgia or the Carolinas, any of the colonies or plantations were a better place also for Major Gates than London. I shall expose you, sir, if you remain."
Horatio Gates received this coolly, still he smiled. "I am tired of place-hunting and waiting for promotion. This affair to- night was a mere piece of sport, to teach a provoking vixen a lesson."
"I'll hear no more of it; excuses nor explanation," broke in Sir Philip Ayres. "There are two good horses in the stable—get back to town quickly before you are missed."
"And what about me?" demanded Francis Battel insolently.
"Never heed for that," replied the young colonel coldly, "you will return to town with me."
Major Gates, still with a smile, serenely left the dingy room. He knew the implacable character of the man with whom he dealt.
"I'll go to Virginia," he simpered, turning at the door, "and be damned to you, Colonel Sir Philip Ayres. You may be sorry for the day you sent me there."
Young Captain Dryden lingered; his looks, his attitude seemed to solicit trust... he begged leave to speak a word in his own defence. Above all things he did not want to be sent back to Virginia...
Sir Philip Ayres silenced him. This young man was of small importance... he did not like the youth's complicity in this unpleasant affair, nor the way in which he had betrayed his accomplices, more out of fear for his own neck, Sir Philip Ayres was sure, than from any sense of honour... so the colonel turned his back on the agitated youth and looked at his nephew who faced him boldly, hand on hip, eyes steady, lips mocking.
Francis Battel was the son of his favourite sister, who had made a wild marriage and died of a broken heart. She had been like a mother to Philip Ayres in his own orphanage, and on her death-bed, ten years before, he had sworn, a boy himself, to look after her only son.
He had kept this vow in extravagant, almost foolish, generosity. Battel lived on an allowance from his uncle, and Ayres, worldly and libertine by nature, early disappointed in a romantic love-affair, had promised never to marry but to make his nephew heir to his considerable wealth, his estate, power, and position.
He was more concerned, therefore, with Frank than with any one else in the affair.
The two young men, for there was not five years between uncle and nephew, looked at each other sternly.
Mrs. Ayloffe saw that Sir Philip was profoundly moved and she wished to make her count out of that; perhaps through his affection for Francis Battel she might gain some of his difficult favours... She knew he was in a quandary between his affections, his family pride, and his sense of duty.
"Well, sir," challenged Francis Battel, looking at Sir Philip with his evil, inflamed dark eyes, "do you intend to break me?"
"I ought to, Frank, I ought to. I have overlooked so much."
Sally Ayloffe rose. "You can overlook this, Sir Philip; I'll say nothing. I have already promised that. I'll tell you if you like, for your own satisfaction, I have been something to blame; I'm no schoolroom miss, and I ought to have known what I was provoking, and perhaps I did know. Let it be, Sir Philip."
The young colonel's handsome face softened with gratitude; he grasped her hand warmly. A slight sneer curled Francis Battel's fine lip; he guessed the sly woman's selfish motive, but he was not a man to refuse an advantage from any one.
"Get back to town, Frank, somehow," said Sir Philip curtly. "I will see you to-morrow."
Francis Battel realised that he was lucky to get away on these terms, for he knew that no further punishment or disgrace would follow, but he also knew that he had missed by a hairbreadth one of the finest fortunes in England. If he could have married Sally Ayloffe, he would have been independent of his uncle, of every one... a stroke of devilish luck!
As he passed to the door he cast a vicious look of sheer hatred at young Captain Dryden. Mrs. Ayloffe noticed this, and when Battel had flung out, she said, "Am I to thank you for my deliverance, Captain Dryden?"
The blond youth remained silent, half sullen, half abashed; Sir Philip answered for him.
"Ay, madam, he gave me information at the last moment that enabled me to come here. Treachery is not a pretty thing even in the best of causes; these men will hate and despise him; best get to Virginia as quickly as possible, Dryden."
George Dryden came impulsively to the table. The murky light of the greasy lamp shone on his fair features, then pale and trembling with agitation. "Don't cashier me, sir; don't make me sell my commission. I'll never mix in these vile tricks again. I'll do exactly as you please, sir."
"I can't overlook it, Dryden; indeed I can't. I warned you before and often. It's a pity, too; you might have had a brilliant career."
"Sir, I entreat you, there are others in this besides myself!"
"It is useless, Dryden. A man who by weakness will be drawn into a villainy and then split on his friends—"
"My God, sir, you ought to be grateful to me." The young man flushed. "After all, maybe I've saved your nephew from a hanging, and you've let him go safely."
Sir Philip turned his face away in a vexed silence. Sally Ayloffe said softly, "It is true enough, you can hardly let your own nephew go and punish this poor fool."
The young colonel justified his conduct. "Frank has got expectations, prospect over here, connections—Dryden is a young Colonial—let him go back where he came from—these men know you split on them. They'll not make your life very easy or pleasant if you should stay."
George Dryden replied doggedly, "I know, but I don't care; I'll live that down, anything rather than go back to Virginia disgraced, ruined. I've no property there either; my father sold out."
Sir Philip Ayres said, "No, I have sent away Gates and I shall send you away."
With a movement of uncontrolled agitation the young man, with the intention of wiping his face, damp with sweat, jerked his handkerchief from his big flap-pocket. A hard object fell on the table, exactly in front of the young colonel—a snuff-box in shagreen. The force of the fall caused it to open; a large painting on ivory set in the lid showed in the dismal light—a girl's face of peculiar and entrancing charm encircled with long ringlets of auburn hair, a soft, full mouth, steady brows, sensitive, dauntless, innocent—little more than a child.
Sir Philip Ayres picked up the miniature, hardly knowing what he was doing; he had been struck to the heart by a likeness to the fair woman to whom he had been betrothed, who had died ten years ago. Underneath the picture was written in a clear, feminine writing: "Remember me."
Dryden hung his head and answered sullenly, evasively, the handkerchief at his lips: "For her sake I can't endure to be ruined. If you disgrace me I'll blow my brains out. You see what's written there, sir, 'Remember me.' She gave me the picture in the hope that I might take it out by chance and, well—remember her—"
Philip Ayres closed and returned the snuff-box in silence; Mrs. Sally Ayloffe was observing him with passionate curiosity.
"You may stay in the regiment, but you had better, by God, be careful in the future."
The young man was quick enough to see that thanks and protestations would be unacceptable. He bowed and hastily left the room, a miserable, humiliated figure for all his youth and grace.
Sir Philip Ayres stood by the table as if he had forgotten his vile surroundings and the woman whom he had rescued.
"A lovely face, was it not?" challenged Mrs. Ayloffe.
"Lovely; I suppose so. It reminded me of some one. Poor creature; to be dependent on that young rake."
"He was secretive about her. I never knew he was married," insinuated Sally Ayloffe.
"He was wise," replied the young colonel on a sigh. "That shows some good in him."
He roused himself into a sense of the emergency of the present moment. "Come, madam, you must be fatigued. I will take you back to town. Pray cover up your face as we pass out, in case my men should recognise you."
He looked at her with a different glance from that he had given her only a short time before; it was as if he had already lost interest in her. Perceiving this, the wilful, excited woman cast herself into his arms, crying she was utterly overcome, and knew not how to stir.
"Indeed, you bore yourself with spirit—"
"You think I did not mind, perhaps?" She lay against his scarlet coat, her black hair all fallen on his bosom, her face shadowed by fatigue, her lovely pale mouth bruised, but her eyes a dark liquid sparkle. "But I swear to you it was damnable—to be in the power of those rogues!"
"Yet, on my faith," he smiled, "you provoke these sallies and torment these fortune-hunters to the top of their bent—"
"I do not love an inactive life," she sighed. "I have been through many adventures—in Germany and Russia, before my last marriage, but I have always been careful of my reputation."
"Why?" he laughed, and put his arm round her, for she seemed about to sink to the ground.
In a flash she was ready with an answer. "In case I might one day meet a man like you!"
Her hand was round his neck, among the powdered curls that hung beneath the black ribbon. He took her on a tone of mockery.
"Well parried! Now come, my charmer—the scarf round your face—"
Sally Ayloffe stiffened with instant anger; she cursed, with instinctive enmity, the miniature in the snuff-box.
"Young Dryden won't thank you for allowing him to remain in the regiment if his wife was the reason for your clemency."
Philip Ayres was not in the least discomposed by this; he smiled it aside as mere petulance, but the jealous woman had spoken truer than she knew. During the tedious journey back to town, when she used on him all her arts and airs, he was thinking of the pictured face so strangely like another face long since dust—how tall was she—how did she speak? A slender shape, he'd warrant—an exquisite, swift movement...
All was dismal silence in the gloomy mansion on Hounslow Heath; the dirty lamp flickered out by the greasy books that were to have been witnesses of the rake's wedding.
A brilliant April morning, sunlight dancing in the waters of the Thames and sparkling through the long tresses of a weeping willow on a smooth lawn; the sunshine gleaming on the costly breakfast service of Sir Philip Ayres as he sat in a brocaded chamber-gown at the long open window, and ran over with an impatient gesture a wallet of bills and accounts which Francis Battel had just placed before him.
This morning-room in the riverside villa at Petersham was richly elegant and furnished with fastidious taste. The young captain's eyes glanced enviously from sparkling crystal lustres to eggshell porcelain, from satin-covered furniture to Eastern cabinets of coral lacquer.
"You don't stint yourself, sir," he remarked insolently. "Extravagance runs in the family."
"I haven't stinted you," replied Sir Philip. "I don't expect you to live like a merchant, neither," he added with a smile, "am I expected to have to economise to pay your debts, my dear Frank, and at this rate it looks to me as if one of us will soon have to curtail his pleasures."
Francis Battel, lounging in the window-place with the delicious sunshine full on his fine person and brilliant regimentals, replied, "You should have allowed me to marry the widow Ayloffe—that would have settled all my troubles."
Sir Philip frowned; he did not care to be reminded of that affair which had entangled him in a dangerous and tiresome intimacy with the perilous Sally.
"She was willing enough," pursued Captain Battel, "but it pleased her to display and put up a fight."
"That must be forgotten," interposed the other dryly. "She seems to have forgotten it; I see she has admitted you again to her circle."
"Oh yes, I am firm favourite once more; maybe I'll have her yet."
"A worthless woman," commented Sir Philip Ayres, frothing his chocolate, "and one best left to go her ways."
"But with a big fortune. Those bills, sir, you'll pay them? I'm afraid I must anticipate my allowance."
Sir Philip Ayres sensed a note of bitterness in the younger man's voice.
These two had much in common; both were passionate, proud, wilful natures of extravagant tastes. Ayres knew how distasteful to any, except the most generous nature, was the burden of obligation; fond as he was of him, he knew that Frank had no such generosity or nobility, but was always deeply and secretly galled by the mere accident of birth which had given this uncle, only a few years his senior, everything—title, influence, power, money, while he was a mere dependant.
Sir Philip had done all he could to soften this unpleasant situation, even buying his nephew a commission in his own regiment that he might have him in close companionship, but Francis Battel was not the man to take his benefits gratefully, or even gracefully.
"I'll pay," said Sir Philip quietly. He reflected that since he had averted the horrible scandal of the abduction of Sally Ayloffe, Frank had, as far as he knew, run straight in harness; these were only tradesmen's bills and gamblers' debts...
"I hope we'll be ordered to the Colonies soon," he added, rising.
Frank Battel sneered. "That barbarous country! No fit place to send a gentleman—the tales one hears!"
Sir Philip laughed and shrugged. "Well, they have given Gage enough to do. There's talk of sending a proper expeditionary force. I should myself prefer real service on the Continent, but it would be a diversion over there."
"Not one that I want. London suits me very well." With a great laugh, he added, "Have you heard that Gates has joined the rebels?"
"It is what might have been expected," replied Ayres indifferently. "What of young Dryden? Has he not property in the Colonies, the Carolinas, or Georgia?"
Battel asked curiously, "You haven't seen anything of him, have you, sir, since you let him off that night?"
"No; why should I see anything of him? He has behaved himself, I suppose. I have noticed nothing, heard of nothing. He is rather a good soldier, you know." Ayres spoke in guarded tones.
With affected indifference, Battel replied, "I thought you might have been interested to discover something about the original of that miniature."
"That which Dryden pulled out of his pocket the night in the house in Hounslow."
"Who told you of that?"
"Why, Sally Ayloffe; she was there, you recall? The girl with auburn hair—'Remember me' written round the brim."
"Queer what trifles women will gossip about," replied Ayres coldly. "It's a pity, too. I thought Dryden didn't want any one to know about his wife."
Captain Battel smiled.
"She's not his wife. I've found out all about her; 'tis the little piece he keeps hidden away in his rooms at Highgate. The tale goes he bought her for five pounds from a troop of acrobats. She used to walk the tightrope."
The young colonel exclaimed so sharply, "That girl, is that possible; the original of that miniature?" that Francis Battel knew he was luckier than he dared had hoped. He had been rather afraid that Sir Philip Ayres would have forgotten all about the miniature in the snuff-box which had fallen out of Dryden's pocket.
"Yes; would you like to see her? Dryden is tired of her. He says she is expensive and wilful. She will be wanting another protector."
Philip Ayres thought, "What I might have expected. Why am I so incurably romantic? Thinking of her, that face, the likeness familiar, all these months—"
The disillusion had an extraordinary bitterness. He said coldly, "I'll see her."
Francis Battel turned his eyes towards the smooth lawn and the shining river in order to conceal his triumph; lounging in the window-place he enjoyed his reflections.
Sir Philip Ayres looked at his nephew with regret, almost with distaste... a fine enough young man, but hard living was already beginning to blur his comeliness, and he had a sly knowing expression about the nostrils and lips that Sir Philip resented. He reflected.
"Molly's son, and I must do the best for him, but I fear he's a rogue."
His mind turned to Dryden, the boyish-looking captain... He had already warned him against the company of men like Francis Battel, but it seemed they were intimate again... Ayres, in a curious way inexplicable even to himself, resented Frank's allusion to the girl of the miniature... He himself had scrupulously avoided mentioning her to any one, delicately refrained from the least inquiry... for her sake he had spared young Dryden; he had thought of her as a rustic, innocent young wife... he had thought, too, that it showed some scruple and fine feeling in young Dryden to keep her secluded from his own vicious circle... two stupid errors!
He was angry with himself for his own ingenuous conclusions. "Why the devil did I think that was the face of cherished innocence and delicate breeding? A tightrope dancer, bought for five pounds, and I suppose, as Frank sneered, for sale again."
It was ironical and rather horrible that she should be of the type long held sacred by him... the same kind of woman, in appearance at least, as Lilian Charteris, and here the smile on his fine lips became cynic... almost he had fallen in love with that miniature which had flown open under his eyes, in such a strange fashion, at such an ugly moment. For her sake he had been foolishly indulgent and protective towards the man he had believed her husband.
He was disgusted, too, with young Dryden; he had hardly thought him the kind of young man to keep a tawdry mistress hidden away... how cunning he had been in allowing Battel to believe that she was his wife. "For her sake," he had said, "he did not wish to be disgraced."
Bah! a tightrope dancer. Ayres could hardly think of that face stared at by villagers at a fair. "I ought to know better; I ought to know that life is like that."
He looked out on to the elaborate pleasure-garden, past the weeping willow to the shine of the river—an agreeable and charming scene, a delicious frame but an empty one...
The young man faced his destiny; there was something dull about his existence—rich, admired, courted, successful as he was, he was not of the character to lounge and idle through the futilities of the fashionable world in which he moved; but never before had he felt quite so wearied of his extravagant town life; he wondered if it was something to do with his disappointment—a foolish word, but he feared the right one!—about the auburn-headed girl of the miniature.
He resolved that he would ask General Howe, whom he believed was to be sent to America, if he could contrive that his regiment be sent to the war. His sympathies, like those of so many Englishmen, were wholly with the revolting Colonies, but he wanted the action, the excitement, the adventure; he wanted to see that large, strange, savage country... He thought of Gates, lucky after all... the sly rogue...
With an insistent energy which was an integral part of his character, but which had not for long been brought into play, Philip Ayres spent the rest of that day moving here and there, using all his influence, power, and prestige to the end that he might be sent to the Colonies.
His fellow-officers and his friends laughed at him. "War; don't call it that! A little rebellion and, my God, why do you want to go? Conditions are terrible, neither money nor fame can be got there. Every one who can, is praying to be left out of it."
Sir Philip Ayres answered, "I'm sick of town, of England. A carpet soldier, one wearies—"
His mind and his body were both restless; seldom had he felt so at a loss. He found himself looking forward with a curious, poignant expectation and yet disdain, to speaking with the girl (Harriet, she was named) of the miniature.
Francis Battel had arranged this interview eagerly. "Dryden," he declared, "has been only too eager to get rid of the little creature, whose desires far exceeded his purse."
Ayres thought the whole affair exceedingly distasteful, but he could not resist that intense desire to see the fair, unhappy creature, who reminded him of dead Lilian Charteris.
The meeting was arranged at the theatre; the girl would be in a loge with Dryden; Battel would bring in Ayres casually. He might study her at his full leisure and decide whether she pleased him or not...
However, at the last minute Ayres delayed; he had endeavoured, with some success, to immerse himself in large affairs; he had discussed the affairs in America with General Howe and some associates; he had listened with a good deal of eagerness to the accounts which had lately come to hand, of the stand the Colonies were making... affairs looked dubious for the Loyalists. Gage would have to be superseded; an imprudent man. It was he who had provoked the first shot... Howe spoke seriously; he had been out in America as a mediator and failed.
Later, Sir Philip Ayres definitely decided to meet the strange young woman. With a chivalry that he did not admit to himself, he had thought reluctantly, "Perhaps she's unhappy with that cowardly young fool—"
His first dislike of young Dryden had returned with force. He was sorry he had spared him; he was stung that the boy had been able to deceive him. "The cunning way he caught up that miniature, as if it was something sacred—perhaps he'd even dropped it on purpose as a bait to move me, for the face was damned lovely."
The young colonel met Battel in the dim-lit, tawdry corridor of the second-rate theatre appointed for this meeting, and remarked curiously, "Strange that you're so familiar with Dryden. I should have thought you would have resented his behaviour when he split on you."
Francis Battel replied with a side look:
"Well, perhaps I do, sir; perhaps I'm just waiting my chance to play him something of the same trick as he played me. Strange, too," he added slyly, "that Dryden didn't get his punishment from you, sir. I thought you'd have packed him back where he belonged, to the Colonies; no doubt he'd have been fighting with the rebels by now. Why did you let him off so lightly?" he insisted, as he opened the door of the box.
Ayres did not reply. The truth, "because of the face in the miniature," seemed too trivial and foolish, and he disdained to make up a tale.
They were late; the first act of the play was over; fresh candles had just been lit in the auditorium. People were moving about, talking, laughing, eating, and drinking; a few violins on the stage were playing a dance tune. The air was heavy with tobacco, with scent, with the odour of the dying flowers worn by the women—the whole scene was stale and hateful to Ayres. He rather resented his own weakness at coming to this sordid rendezvous.
With hardly a glance at Dryden, who rose nervously at his entrance, he looked at the girl who was sitting near the edge of the loge and was gazing eagerly round the busy, moving crowd beneath. A group of candles was just beneath her and threw her face, her hair, her muff, into vivid relief against the dingy red curtains of the box.
With rage and a hideous sense of loss, Philip Ayres saw that she was indeed another Lilian Charteris—a beauty... She seemed like the realisation of an exquisite personality of which the dead girl had perhaps only been a shadow.
Battel drew aside Dryden to the far end of the box; Sir Philip Ayres sat down beside the girl, who, looking round suddenly, noticed him, and said, with what seemed candid pleasure, "You are Colonel Sir Philip Ayres? George has often spoken of you."
He smiled without speaking; she was so young, had such an air of pure candour, of delicate virginity, seemed so sensitive, so joyous.
He winced to think of the deceptiveness of these frail pieces of womanhood. He could have sworn her a parson's daughter who had never left sheltered fields and leafy lanes. She seemed, too, so proud and frank, and on her perfect face was not the least touch of paint or powder—"a beauty, a toast, one who might have been the rage of St. James's."
Sir Philip Ayres, who had had many dealings with charming women, knew how rare was the creature who even the most blasé men of the world might call a beauty, and here was one, and George Dryden, a penniless captain, had found her walking the tightrope and got her for a few pounds...
The young man turned his fine head away and put his hand to his eyes.
Soon the tinselled curtains swung apart and the noisy play began. Colonel Ayres, leaning back in his place, had leisure to observe her; he could find no fault—none; he could easily make her the fashion; he could purchase not only her person but her gratitude, possibly her devotion and loyalty, possibly even her love; but George Dryden's mistress—mistress of how many others? A creature, no doubt, corrupt from childhood... the pity of it...
When the curtain came down again, he rose. There was something about the situation that he felt he could not well endure.
The girl also got to her feet; she seemed surprised to see that he was about to depart. He looked at her lovely shape which she was showing, no doubt, intentionally, leaning against the edge of the box with her pretty, eager air, in her new plain silk; not a jewel, not a flower; her modesty no doubt bespoke her lover's penury and not her own taste.
In his imagination Sir Philip Ayres was hanging her with pearls, with costly gifts... She was, he thought, a most beautiful creature; such pride and spirit too; no mere baby prettiness...
She implored him to stay, and her eagerness, which would have been charming in a woman of his own birth, sickened him. "She is anxious to seal the bargain," he thought; "she has been told I'm rich."
And then in young Dryden's eyes she saw sharp anxiety, and a keen watching malice in the glance of Francis Battel... they, too, were eager for him to buy and pay...
Disgust of all of them made him address the woman with more brisk familiarity than he had intended. "May I offer you some entertainment? I have a house on the Thames, a pleasure-place; it might amuse you. I believe my regiment will be ordered abroad soon, but while I remain in London—"
She accepted with quick pleasure. Sir Philip Ayres turned brusquely to young Dryden. "Take her away from here," he said under his breath; "why did you bring her without a mask or a cloak? You know what you've got? Bring her to my house whenever you like." Reluctantly, haughtily, he added, "Your own terms."
"What for? My own terms—what for, sir?" asked Dryden, who seemed flushed and pleased but stupid.
With cold contempt Ayres replied as if he spoke to a booby, "For that horse you offered to sell me, what else?" as he went out of the box. Dryden laughed foolishly.
"A horse? I've no horse fit to sell to him."
Turning to the girl he cried, "Come along, Harriet; it's quite right you've neither mask nor cloak. We're too exposed here; I don't want to make you cheapened by the stares of the vulgar."
"I was sitting at the back of the box," pleaded the girl. "Oh! I don't want to leave before the play is over. A pity, George, your friend could not stay."
"You like him?"
"Oh yes, I like him very well."
Both the men laughed.
Exactly as he had wished, arranged, commanded, she came to his luxurious place at Petersham. He took more trouble over her than he had ever taken over a woman before, but he knew that it was quite unnecessary; she was his without any effort on his part.
The gorgeous blue day was fading into the purple of evening when George Dryden brought her along in a pretty little private carriage. The young captain's face was drawn and fretful; he had been drinking. An experienced eye would have judged him drunk, but his companion seemed to accept his condition without question.
With her eager, queenly step, just as Sir Philip Ayres (he told himself) expected her to have, she crossed the smooth, lovely lawn. She paused with evident delight underneath the long willow tree and looked about her, admiring everything with frank pleasure; her wide straw hat, knotted under her chin, threw her sweet face into shade. Again he noticed the neat poverty of her dress; an overpowering melancholy swept over him. At that moment he hated the man who was selling her, and hated himself for the man who was buying her; an uneasy pain spoilt the moment. Contemptuous with himself, he thought, "I am behaving like a penniless lieutenant with his first love affair."
Supper had been set out on the lawn. Among the sedges and budding grasses a boat was moored to a painted landing-stage; the scene was charming. Sir Philip Ayres wondered if he could so sufficiently delude himself into taking a dream for a reality as to enjoy it...
He was vexed to see that Francis Battel had also alighted from the carriage and was swaggering along the river path, as he linked his arm in that of young Dryden, drawing him away, yet with a backward look at Colonel Ayres, suggesting, "Make sure you want to purchase before you put the money down."
Ayres glanced at the girl; little more than a child, he thought, but a good actress...
She was expressing the most ingenuous pleasure at the entertainment he had provided for her. She flung off her wide hat joyously, making a sudden splendour of those auburn ringlets through which was threaded an azure ribbon that gleamed in the warm sunset.
Ayres, an elegant gentleman, sated by every luxury, smiled with compassion to see her amazed delight at the luxurious fruit, the costly cakes, the choice wine he had provided—things that were a general matter to him, but uncommon to her, it seemed.
But how damping were his delicacies, his hesitancies! He asked quietly but coolly, "Do you think you could like me, Miss Harriet?"
"Why, I do like you, sir," she replied, "and you have been so good to George."
"Has George," he asked, "been good to you?"
"Oh yes," but a pondering doubt seems to be in her voice and upon her brow.
"But you think, Miss Harriet, you might find those who would understand your value better?"
"I fear, Sir Philip, my value is not high."
Strange how she had caught all the tricks of gentility. Dryden must have spent some pains in polishing her...
The young soldier made careless advances as they sat over their picnic on the grass, cloaking his own feelings, denying his own heart with the careless insolence of the man of fashion that he was...
Though he had not thought her worth much pains, she seemed curiously difficult. To his most daring advances she turned weapons of an assumed innocence, feigned childishness. He believed that the other two men had walked away along the river and would not return, "no doubt," he thought with poignant disgust, "for some time."
The July sun was setting; a beautiful afterglow lay over the pastoral English landscape; the river below the lawn and sedges was of a dusky violet. The girl's beauty bloomed and glowed; she seemed to take unto herself all the perfume and colour, all the light and richness of the delightful evening. The man looking at her, thought: "It is true I've been in love with her since I saw her picture—'Remember me.'"
He rose suddenly, impatient of this prelude to love, he had allowed her enough scope for her coquetry. "Come into the house," he commanded, taking her arm and helping her to her feet.
She looked at him, a little startled.
"If you need an excuse, my dear, I have a fine collection of porcelain," he added.
She came then willingly, her light robes flowing about her limbs in the evening breeze.
As she stepped across the threshold she cried out with pleasure at the rich, charming room. There was something touching in her admiration, but he hardened his heart; this play irritated him. Let her admit to him the pitiful creature she was, the errand on which she had come... he had a desire to deal with her somewhat brutally.
She had paused by the coral lacquer cabinet; behind this was a mirror framed in deep azure-coloured glass... as the infatuate young man looked at her reflection in this he seemed to see his memory of Lilian Charteris and the girl in the miniature blended—that rich, radiant fall of auburn hair, that pure outline, those gentle brooding eyes, the full underlip.
He was about to catch hold of her, to pull her brutally to his heart, to kiss her till he had forgotten the shame of this misplaced passion... but she turned and looked at him, gravely questioning. Something intangible in her expression held him off.
He had a powerful will, and with an effort controlled himself.
"Who are you?" he asked suddenly.
"Why, you know, Sir Philip!"
"Tell me, however, tell me yourself."
"I am Harriet, George Dryden's sister."
SIR PHILIP AYRES showed no sign of his complete astonishment and bewilderment as he replied:
"Eh, yes, Dryden's sister, but I meant your family; I know so little of your brother—after all. You are from Virginia, are you not?"
While he spoke he was thinking, "Consummate hypocrisy and why?—or complete candid innocence?—and that's impossible! They would never dare."
With his alert and adroit mind turning round every possible explanation of this situation, he put a chair for her in the full light of the lamp which had just been lit, so that he could observe her every gesture, her every shade of expression.
"There are no ladies here?" she smiled. "I was told to expect other ladies. Are you not married, sir?"
"Did your brother say I was?" he replied. "No, Miss Dryden, I am not married." Indeed he was completely puzzled.
She seemed quite at her ease. "Would it be possible she could be so rustical as not to know she must not stay here alone with me?" His mother had died before he could remember her; he had had no sisters; he had had little experience of untouched girlhood. "No," his mind veered round to the conviction that she was an impudent piece, playing a game with him...
He called his servant and ordered the man to go up the river path and bring back Captain Dryden and Captain Battel; to find them at any cost, if it meant searching the neighbourhood.
The girl heard this without concern. "Yes, we must be returning to town soon," she said. "The carriage was to have been here at seven. It has been a very agreeable entertainment, Sir Philip."
He asked, "Where do you live?"
"Oh, I have lodgings at Highgate—kept by an old servant of Lady Marling. To-morrow I must go back to the Hall."
"And where is the Hall, Miss Dryden?"
"Oh, it is near Portsmouth, in a pleasant park, but very dull. I live there a great deal alone; there's only Lady Marling, my great-aunt, and her old companion."
"How come you to live so strangely, so hidden?" said Sir Philip Ayres. Man of the world and cynic as he was, he could not wholly keep the interest, the agitation, out of his voice. It began to mean a great deal to him whether this girl was a rogue and a rogue's accomplice, or what she said she was.
With complete ease and confidence, yet by no means childishly, she told him her story: "My grandfather settled in Virginia—that's a long time ago! He always rather had his heart at home, and so had my father too. The head of our house in England died, and my father brought us home—you see there was a good deal of property and he wished us to have a place in the old country. Yet he found there was nothing left to him at all; he died soon after—why, I can scarcely remember him. But Lady Marling who holds all the Dryden property and a great deal, I believe, it is, adopted us in a way, and half promised to make us her heirs. She bought George his colours, and gave me a home, and keeps us very close, sir."
The girl laughed. "I would rather have stayed in Virginia. I was happy there. We had a charming house on the Pocohowtan—the James River. My father's sister has it now—she married John Grove—I often write to my two cousins, Eva and Luke.
"Oh, sir, I hope it will not be really deadly war with the Colonies, for I fear my heart would be with my own people."
Still the man, so keenly watching her, could not make up his mind whether this was truth or no; he sat with his hands shading his face, thinking deeply, painfully; eh, it was so much more likely that it was all part of an elaborate trick played on him by that scoundrel Frank and that weak fool Dryden...
Her manner, her look, her gesture, all were perfect; "a great actress surely," he thought bitterly, and remembered that she was supposed to have been trained on the boards.
"Why did you come to London, Miss Dryden?" he asked in an expressionless voice.
"I have long been asking Lady Marling to give me this pleasure. She has always refused, but at last when George came to visit us last week, she consented—she let me come. Oh, sir, I have found it very enjoyable. That day at the play when you came to see us! It is all so fine and new to me."
"Has your brother taken you to see any other spectacles, any other friends?"
"Oh yes, he took me to wait on a Mrs. Ayloffe, a most obliging lady in a charming house, who was very kind and agreeable. She said she was to be here to-night, but I suppose she was detained."
"He told you I was married, Miss Dryden?"
"He did not say so, but I assumed it—I don't know why."
"You are in these rooms at Highgate quite alone?"
"Oh no, I have Martha Champion, one of Lady Marling's old maids with me. I think the carriage must be here and George returned from his stroll by the river." She rose, smiling, and the lamplight was full on her delicious auburn hair, her soft pink-and-white carnation, her grey-golden eyes and straight brows, and on her lovely shape, showing so charmingly through the billows of faded lavender taffeta silk.
Sir Philip Ayres rose also; her beauty put all other thoughts out of his mind. He reflected swiftly, "Of course this is all a trick—it is quite impossible she could be so innocent as not to know how strange this is, not to realise that she could not be here with me like this. No brother would have brought her and left her thus—"
He closed the window on the river twilight, on the weeping willows, on the lawn and the stars. A romantic and passionate moment, one he must not be so foolish as to lose. He took her hand and still she looked at him without fear. He was about to say, "Have done with this nonsense, my charmer. I know who you are, and now you belong to me—come, let us understand each other," but she thanked him so frankly for his entertainment and said, "If you are ever near Portsmouth—I suppose you often come there—I hope you will wait on Lady Marling. She does not get much company; she is very patriotic and has a fondness for a uniform."
Sir Philip's servant, who understood him very well, entered and informed him that he could by no means discover the two gentlemen; aside to his master he whispered that he had heard that the two officers had just returned to London; there was no doubt as to the intentions of these two—the woman then had been left completely in his power.
Sir Philip Ayres laughed at his own quandary. "Either I risk missing a beautiful creature who attracts me very much, or I risk insulting in the most deadly manner a virtuous young gentlewoman." He thought that perhaps the two young officers had told the girl to beguile him with this tale in order that he might feel himself in just such a dilemma.
He decided immediately to put her to the test. Turning to her he made some casual excuse about her brother and Captain Battel having been called away to their duty, and having left him to escort her home.
"My carriage is ready—it will soon take you to Highgate."
She accepted this proposal without difficulty—she seemed under no consternation.
In the carriage, driving between the sweet hedgerows, through the lovely summer night, her charming proximity tempted him to again make love to her, and again her air of candid heartless innocence made him hold himself in restraint.
He remembered the night when he had rescued, much against his will, Mrs. Ayloffe from the three officers in the lonely house at Hounslow. This adventure seemed like a caricature of that—surely Mrs. Ayloffe's hand was in it! He knew that he had offended her and (very willingly) by resisting her bold advances.
"That's a charming picture your brother has of you, Miss Dryden," he remarked.
She blushed and seemed under more embarrassment than she had yet been.
"When did you see it, sir? He was to keep it private."
"Why, it's in the lid of a snuff-box, I think. I saw him bring it out once. 'Remember me' is written beneath. Unnecessary, I think."
She looked at him earnestly. "George gambles, you see, sir. He loses money at cards. Lady Marling is very angry about that, and has threatened to stop his allowance again and again. It makes me unhappy too. When he comes to the Hall to ask for money it is dreadful; besides, all say that is the way to ruin. You see, we have no means at all but what Lady Marling allows us."
"And the miniature, Miss Dryden? Your manner of reminding him to be prudent?"
"George is very fond of me—he is a good boy at heart. Lady Marling's steward, who is a kind old man, paints pictures, and I made him do that for me. They say it is a likeness, and I hoped, when he was playing high, if he chanced to take out his snuff-box, he might see it. I think," she added hopefully, "he has been more cautious of late."
"He is a good soldier," said the young colonel. "I believe he may be sent to the Colonies."
"Oh, I hope not, sir; not to fight against..."
"Your sympathy is with the rebels then, Miss Dryden?"
"Indeed, yes; not rebels to me, but my own people. I do not know much about it—we live so remote at the Hall, and Lady Marling is very violent on the matter, and would have all who take arms against the King shot out of hand, but I, sir, I count myself an American, and I feel differently." She added with a pretty passion and contagious enthusiasm, "You English have no idea what it is like out there—what we have gone through. George told me you were employing an army of Indians against us."
"Why must you say us, Miss Dryden? I, at least, can only think of you as English."
"But I am an American," she insisted earnestly. "Often I am so home-sick that I wish my father had never brought me to England. I was so happy there, and Luke and Eva are happy there now. Luke will fight under General Washington, and it's horrid to think that George might be on the other side and they might meet."
"Such things always happen when there is a rebellion, Miss Dryden. Personally, I have some sympathy with the Colonists, and so has General Howe, who is to lead the new expeditionary force."
She interrupted eagerly, "There is to be a force sent? I did not know; there was such contradictory stories in the Mercury."
"Why, yes, and I believe I and your brother will go with it—one likes a little action. All wars are wrong, no doubt, but if there is one provoked, no man of spirit may be left out of it."
She averted her head, but he had seen the tears that lay in her eyes. "But you do not know," she said; "you do not understand—to employ the Indians too! Why, when the Indians attack it is hopeless—men kill the women rather than let them fall into the Redskins' hands. An aunt of mine was killed like that. She was one of the first people to go to Kentucky..."
The girl twisted her hands in her lap, flung back her head, and bit her lips. "No use talking to you," she added with a brave smile. "I know—but if the war is going to be serious, I should like to go back—I should like to be with my cousins, helping the other side."
"A pretty rebel," he said indifferently. Still, in his heart he wondered, "Can this be acting—is it possible?" Her beauty seemed to take on fresh aspects whenever he saw it; by the purple twilight of the river—in the clear glow of the crystal lamp, in his parlour opening on to the garden—now in the feeble rays of the carriage-lamp.
"She was not," he thought with a dreadful pang, "a creature whom one could bear to see once and then lose."
Ever since her picture had fallen in front of him, in that dismal room, in the sordid Hounslow house, he had known how it must be with him...
She said no more; she seemed sunk in a muse. With serene dignity she sat in her corner of the carriage, her hands folded in her lap, as if her thoughts were far away.
"If this was all a prudish game, she was playing it very well."
By the time they had reached the house she had indicated at Highgate, he was still in a torture of indecision. She was welcomed at the door by an old woman, who suited very well her tale of Martha, the faithful old servant.
The neat lodgings, the quiet grove, seemed of an extreme respectability.
She gave him farewell and thanks, with a gentlewoman's ease and grace, but on the threshold she hesitated, leaving her hand in his and looking at him earnestly.
"Now," he thought, half in triumph, half in disappointment, "now the mask will be off; she will reveal the jest and invite him in!"
But what the girl said was, "Sir, you are George's colonel; you must have much influence and authority over him; he has spoken of you so often with the greatest admiration. I know I have presumed too much, but if it should ever be in your opportunity or your power to prevent his recklessness"—she paused, confused—"I know I have no right—but if you could do anything for him—you see he has nobody but I—I have nobody but him—and we are, in a manner, strangers here."
"How little she knows," he thought queerly, "that I have spared the young scapegrace once for her sake—just for the sake of her pictured face."
He replied, "I promise you I'll do what I can, Miss Dryden. I hope to see you soon—perhaps I may wait on you at the Hall."
With a curt abruptness which she did not seem to notice, he left her. The door closed; he looked up and saw a light flare out in an upper window. He returned to his carriage where his servant sat on the box next to the coachman. "There is a little inn at the corner here—step down, Humphrey—inquire there, discreetly, you understand, as to who lives in this house—what they are—all you can discover—sharp."
He ordered the coachman to drive on and halt round the bend of the road under a grove of young trees that bordered the playing- fields. There he sat in a curious anguish of expectation until his man returned.
"It is all quite simple, Sir Philip; there's no mystery. An old woman, who was a servant of a certain Lady Marling at the Hall, near Portsmouth, owns the house. She lets lodgings to the most respectable people. She has at present Miss Harriet Dryden—Lady Marling's ward and great-niece, I think—staying there with an ancient servant. Captain Dryden comes to visit them and takes her about."
"That is all, Humphrey," said Colonel Sir Philip Ayres. "Drive now to Captain Dryden's lodgings—you know them—"
He was almost, but not quite, convinced there was still just a chance that it was all an elaborate, a very skilfully laid plot. If it was true, as he was almost forced to believe, what horror had she (and he) not narrowly escaped. He turned his mind from what he had nearly accomplished at the villa at Petersham.
Captain Dryden had just returned to the chambers he could so ill afford in Jermyn Street. His man grinned. "Captain Battel has brought his honour home dead drunk and left him not long since."
Sir Philip, with a stern purpose and a rising passion behind his usual air of authority, went into the young man's room. George Dryden was sprawling on a couch, his disordered regimentals unbuttoned, his cravat torn open.
Snatching one of the guttering candles from the desk where it stood, Sir Philip Ayres looked eagerly at the sleeping youth, searching for a likeness to the woman he had just left at the Highgate lodgings.
He had never scrutinised his features before, nor taken much notice of him in any way, had never seen him without his head barbered and groomed. Now the fallen hair had been shaken free of this disguise. Sir Philip Ayres saw that they were auburn, the same colour as her charming ringlets—there was a likeness too—the golden brows and something in the full mouth.
He seized the sleeping youth by the shoulder, after he had set down the candle, and rudely roused him.
George Dryden sat up, bewildered, alarmed, still intoxicated.
"Throw off this drunken stupor. I want to talk to you," cried Sir Philip Ayres. "Are you sober enough to understand what I say?"
The young captain staggered to his feet and muttered incoherently that he "felt ill and must sleep."
"Not till you've answered a few questions. Pull yourself together—this is damned serious. I stayed my hands with you once, I shall not do so a second time."
The presence of his colonel at this hour so unexpectedly in his rooms, the tone in which he spoke, did slightly sober George Dryden. He made an effort over his confused faculties, and asked what the other's business was?
"I want to know who that woman was you brought to my summer house this evening."
"My sister," said George Dryden stupidly. Then, as if suddenly realising part of the evening's events, he asked, "Where is she?—what happened to her?—I must go back and fetch her."
"Sit down, you fool!"
The young man was reeling where he stood.
"It was your sister. You and Frank Battel brought her to Petersham and left her there?"
"Left her there, did I? I didn't mean to leave her."
"Didn't you? I wish I knew. She's come up from Lady Marling's place, near Portsmouth?"
"Yes, that's true—"
"She lodges at Highgate?"
"Yes, that's true too. I'd better go and take her back there."
"I've already done that. What did you bring her for—why did you leave her?"
George Dryden made a painful effort to collect his thoughts. He stammered and faltered under the dark stare of the other man.
"Do you know what Battel told me?" demanded Sir Philip. "Have you got any hand in this at all? Was Sally Ayloffe in it?—tell me the truth! My God! I hardly know what I do or say for rage. If you fool with me now I shall not be able to control myself."
With a desperate attempt at coherency, George Dryden muttered, "Battel said Mrs. Ayloffe declared: It was a damned pity keeping a girl like that in the country—they knew my difficulty—that old harridan who's got her there—nothing to be done—nobody seeing her—why not bring her up to town?"
"Yes, bring her up to town and for what purpose?"
"To make a good match," said George stupidly.
"To make a good match? He suggested that to you? Was any one named—was it suggested who was to be this good match?"
Flinching under the other's passionate insistency George stammered, "Mrs. Ayloffe said you'd admired her picture that night at Hounslow. Battel thought you might be taken by her—that's why you were brought to the box of the theatre—just to look at her. He said that if I took her to Petersham it might help things. I didn't mean to leave her there," groaned the young man, bewildered. 'Did I leave her there?" His wits began to return to him. "Battel took me along the tow-path—we went into an inn, the Fox and Ducks—I don't remember any more."
"You left her there with me," cried Sir Philip Ayres; "you've been wax in the hands of a damned villain. I cannot bring myself to repeat to you the tale he told me of your sister."
"I don't understand," said George, not without dignity. "I don't know what you mean, sir—it's all a confusion to me."
"Eh, a drunkard's confusion! Battel and Sally Ayloffe meant to ruin your sister," he cried, taking a turn up and down the room, not able to control his restless movements. "They nearly did so. I nearly fell into the infernal trap."
"Who did they say she was?" demanded George Dryden quickly.
"A piece you'd bought at the Montague Fair and whom I might buy for a few guineas. Don't you see?" he added, turning sternly on the horrified youth, now nearly sobered by shock which went like a dash of cold water down his spine, "this was to revenge your informing about the Hounslow business. It's the dirtiest affair I've ever heard of!"
"You didn't harm her—you didn't touch her? Harriet, my God!"
"What thanks is it to you that she's safe? She's back in her lodgings."
"My God! my God!" the young man sat down and sunk his face in his hands, sighing with shame and relief. "It's the drink, Sir Philip—I can't resist, and when they have me drunk they can do anything with me. Mrs. Ayloffe flattered me—and I'm in desperate money conditions as usual, but this—how could Battel—blast him, the cur! My God!"
"Mrs. Ayloffe told you she thought I might marry your sister?"
"Yes! yes! of course, and when I'm sober I know it's a crazy impossibility. But poor Harriet's a beauty and Lady Marling, the old hag, keeps her so close. Oh, I never thought of this—I never guessed!"
Sir Philip cut short the youth's piteous self-reproaches, half-incoherent imprecations. "Take your sister back to Marling Hall to-morrow," he said, "and leave this affair in my hands."
"She doesn't know—she never guessed—poor Harriet? She knows nothing?" asked George, burying his face.
"Eh, indeed, she knew nothing and that saved her," said Sir Philip grimly.
Not being able to endure any more of this scene he left the room abruptly. On the narrow staircase he came face to face with Francis Battel, who was going up to the youth's room to see that he was really safe for the night.
All Captain Battel's effrontery could hardly serve him to face Sir Philip Ayres in this unexpected place. He surmised at once that his victim must have escaped the elaborate trap.
"Frank," whispered Sir Philip deadly cold, pausing on the stairs and taking the other man, who tried to pass him, by the shoulder; "you know that I should like to strike you—to meet you behind Montague House—but I can't; we are officers, and there's our relationship."
"Yes, I thought of all that," smiled Battel, insolent but rather pale.
"I dare say, but you've gone too far this time—you've ruined yourself by to-night's work."
Alarmed by Sir Philip's tone, the young man with a shrug (he was completely sober) endeavoured to justify himself. "Why should young Dryden be such a fool as to bring that rustic chit up here and think he was going to make a fine match—to think he was going to marry her to a man like you—a creature without a penny? I suppose he's been whining to you; but after all, believe me, he'd be glad enough to sell her—to any man who'd pay for her. His difficulties are such that you might have her for your mistress if you were to go about it in the right way."
Sir Philip smiled in a fashion that made the other wince. "What did Mrs. Ayloffe do in this, eh?"
"I suppose she thought it a good joke—she didn't think the girl mattered—it's got to be her end sooner or later, I suppose—a creature without money or chances—with a brother like George Dryden. Sally had a spite against you, too, and you know why. You know the rule of the old storybook—knights who rescue fair ladies from dragons are supposed to marry 'em!"
Sir Philip Ayres did not reply to this; he said quietly, "If you go upstairs now, George Dryden, who is not quite sober yet, will probably murder you."
Captain Battel shrugged; his lips curled into a sneer, but he hesitated. Sir Philip knew he would not go up.
"You have ruined yourself, and I've done with you," said the young colonel for a third time. He descended rapidly into the dark street.
When he reached his own mansion in Queen Street he sat down at once and wrote a letter. It was a formal demand addressed to Captain George Dryden for the hand of his sister, Miss Harriet Dryden. It was lavish in promise and of settlement.
THE formal announcement in the Court Gazette of the betrothal of Colonel Sir Philip Ayres of Ayre Castle, Wiltshire, to Miss Harriet Dryden of Marling Hall came as a death-blow to Francis Battel; he saw his fortune collapse, which he had believed so secure.
The whole matter was contrived at the shortest notice and with good reason, for the 29th Regiment which Sir Philip commanded had been ordered to proceed with General Howe to America at the end of the month of July.
Even when the announcement was in all the news-sheets and had been tattled on every tongue, Francis Battel could scarcely believe his ill-luck—he had been so sure of Sir Philip's character—so positive that he would never marry any one after the death of Lilian Charteris... not only was Battel his heir-at-law; he had been the object, too, of his generosity and sentimentality; but now, not only had he killed these two last emotions in the heart of the young colonel, he would also lose all legal right—he was, as Sir Philip had three times warned him on the stairs of George Dryden's lodgings—ruined.
In his rage, when he was forced to realise this hideous fact, he sought out the woman who was his accomplice, who had nearly been his victim—Mrs. Sally Ayloffe.
With scant respect and no ceremony he upbraided her bitterly and passionately for the plot which she had first conceived. It had been her idea to play on the stupid vanity of young Dryden and procure for his sister a bitter insult, perhaps a complete disaster.
If the reckless, unscrupulous woman had played the game of Francis Battel, it was because her instinct told her that it was the miniature of the auburn-haired girl that stood between her and Sir Philip Ayres. Without that she had had some hope of marrying him or of retaining some place in his regards.
"You see I was right!" was all she answered to her companion's vivid reproaches. "It was an infatuation—the man is not a libertine at heart—he is a romantical sentimentalist—he loves her, you see!"
"Love!" sneered Francis Battel; "it is no such thing but a wanton fancy for her person."
"In that case," sneered the lady, "he might easily have tried to get her some other way with a brother like George Dryden—but no—he must make amends for his mistake! I wonder how far he went that evening at Petersham? It was strange he so conducted himself that she suspected nothing of his error!"
"She's an ignorant little fool," stormed Francis Battel. "He'll tire of her in a month. He does it also to get heirs and ruin me—damn him. I would not have believed him capable of such malice—with his smooth, hypocritical airs."
Mrs. Sally Ayloffe knew better than this the character of the man who was the secret object of her deep regard.
"It is not malice," she said coolly. "I tell you he loves the girl. He will behave, I expect, generously to you. Well, one cannot always win the game. The gods were looking after George Dryden this time—he certainly don't deserve such luck, neither did she, the sly hussy!" added the passionate woman on a burst of rage.
"You think her that?" mocked Francis Battel. "Just now she was a little rustical know-nothing."
"Eh, well, she knows enough to accept a good match when it comes along! Her brother went away for a couple of days and returned with her full consent."
"As for that," replied the young man sullenly, "I don't suppose she had much choice. It was probably given her as a command. After all, she has been kept very close and he's attracted more experienced women than poor Harriet Dryden."
Sally Ayloffe leant back in her brocaded cushions, very pale, and her hands restless in her lap. The thought of this marriage was like poison to her... she had dared so much in her life—been so successful... she could not willingly accept defeat.
"It's a pretty moment for him to be marrying an American—when he has been ordered out to fight the rebels! I would trust neither she nor her brother—they may be spies for all I know. The few moments she was here, she vaunted her sympathy for the Colonies, and spoke of Virginia as her home. When is the marriage to be?" she added sharply. "Eh, but she's lovely—hard to struggle against that. Have you seen Sir Philip lately?"
"Nay, he will not admit me into his presence. George Dryden and I avoid each other too, as you may well believe. The marriage is to take place at Marling, I hear, a few days before we embark. He has leave, of course, being the friend of General Howe! He is to go down there to further the acquaintance of his bride."
"Will he take her with him?" asked Sally Ayloffe intensely curiously, "to that wild, savage country?"
"I can believe nothing else," replied Captain Battel sullenly. "He will not part from his dear so lightly, after a day or two of matrimony!"
Mrs. Ayloffe closed her dark, flashing, handsome eyes; her thoughts turned far away from this gay room in St. James's, far from the soured young man who was pacing slowly up and down the room.
She was thinking what she would have given to be the companion of Sir Philip amid all the excitements and triumphs of war, in a new and magnificent country, away from all the old wearinesses and intrigues of the town; if only he had married her—or even taken her without marrying her! She believed that she could have become a different woman; she recalled with poignant bitterness that night when he had rescued her from the house at Hounslow, and asked nothing of her gratitude... the bold, splendid, difficult man!
"I'll see him," stormed Captain Battel, his hoarse voice bringing her back to the ugly, actual moment. "I'll face him with the monstrous thing he's doing..."
Mrs. Ayloffe roused herself; she was not easily beaten; she had emerged triumphantly from stranger places than any of her present acquaintances knew; her adventures abroad had been piquant and perilous.
"I think," she mused, "Sir Philip is doing a foolish thing in a moment of passion. Maybe his folly will cool; if not, it might also be that I can think of a way to revenge you—eh, myself! For I've been slighted, too. To at least use all my influence, if I have any, to postpone this marriage until after his return from the campaign."
But if Sally Ayloffe was willing to conceal her anguish and her rage and wait for an opportunity to assuage both emotions, Captain Battel was not minded to undertake any such subtleties; he wished from the first to use violent methods.
He endeavoured to force a private interview with Sir Philip Ayres; but the young colonel was deeply engaged. The date of the sailing of the escorted transport, with which his regiment would sail from Portsmouth, had been altered; they were to leave two weeks sooner than their first orders had stated; and even the amusement, the scandal of an amazing marriage like that of the brilliant, the fashionable young Sir Philip Ayres with an almost unknown girl from the country (a Virginian at that), was lost in the hubbub arising from the news from America. The Colonists were putting up an incredible resistance; it was even said that if they were a little more successful, the French, longing to get a blow in at England, might fight with them; and the ladies languished enthusiastically over the adventure of the young Marquis de Lafayette who had fitted out a cruiser at his own expense and in defiance of his own government (who, however, secretly applauded his action), and sailed for America and put his sword at the disposal of General Washington—as George Washington, formerly a major in the Virginian Militia, was now called by the confederate rebels.
Sir Philip Ayres then, now on the staff of General Howe, an active soldier, who well liked his employment and was scrupulously conscientious in attending to it, had many valid excuses for avoiding the presence of his nephew.
However, he did consent to see him. It was to be in the evening at his house in Queen Street; he kept Francis Battel waiting, and the interview was almost instantly violent, as Battel began at once to reproach his uncle on many points concerning his marriage.
"I know you did it to humiliate me, sir. Perhaps I deserved a punishment, but not this. You have made me a laughing- stock—you have done more. My God! it has damaged my credit—I have demands on me day and night—there's talk of sending me to Newgate."
"It is not long since I paid your bills, Frank," interrupted Sir Philip, who made no attempt to conceal his deadly hostility. "Are you already so heavy in debt that any one may talk of sending you to prison?"
"I am, and you know it," replied the fierce young man sullenly. "Is it not time, sir, to call this jest off—let the world know that you don't intend to marry George Dryden's country sister?"
"You must not mention her," replied the young colonel. He went to the window and pulled aside the curtain and looked down on the lamp-lit streets, as if he wished to get rid of the sense and presence of the other man. He had a fatigued air. "This cannot be discussed between us. You may believe I am implacable on this point. I do intend to marry her. Remembering that, surely, even you will be careful what you say."
But the other, still furious, galled almost beyond control, had much ado to preserve any discretion at all. There was a great deal he could have said of George Dryden and his sister. Many smooth vicious phrases leapt to his tongue, but even in his frantic rage he had enough sense to know that he might only further damage what seemed now a lost cause. So, after a second or two in which he regained his control, he said in a half- stifled voice, "You do indeed, sir, then intend to put through your threat and ruin me?—you know you said you would never marry. And have I, in all probability, to lose all?—not only the title and the estate, but that private fortune which was to have come to me?"
"I have tried to remember that you are my nearest in blood," replied the young colonel, looking at him over his shoulder, "and there's not so much difference in our age but that I can sympathise with your extravagances, with your folly. I never made a stand for virtue myself—I even overlooked your outrage on Sally Ayloffe, thinking perhaps that she was a vixen who deserved as much. There have been other things I have overlooked too, Frank. As I say, I remembered you are my sister Molly's son—nor was it in my disposition, nor in my age, to play the monitor. But this—eh—I do not care to talk about it. All is ended."
"My God! for this poor trick I played you and George Dryden—what was there in it, after all, that you should take such a revenge as this?"
"It is not a revenge," the other young man spoke over his shoulder coldly. "Certainly I feel no longer bound to consider you, as I did feel only a few weeks ago. I shall continue your present allowance—you must live within it. I will pay your present debts if they have been not too grossly extravagant, and they must all date from before to-day, and I will give you two thousand pounds on my marriage."
"What do you think life on those terms mean to a man like me?" exclaimed Francis Battel violently. "You know how I've been brought up—you know that I have been living on my expectations!"
"If you had been a little cleverer you would have married a rich woman while you had expectations," replied Sir Philip Ayres, still looking at him narrowly. "I say there can be no good done by discussion! I cannot indeed well bear to endure your company, Frank. It makes me recall what you might have tricked me into doing. I know what you would argue in the ordinary way of a man of fashion. I am no pragmatical preaching fellow—but you have done what I cannot—I will not overlook."
At the finality of his tone, Francis Battel broke into frank and open rage.
"You are making a fool of yourself, Sir Philip—all the town is laughing—you admit yourself you have not so lived that this parade of virtue will be credited. You, the reformed rake—the model husband—why, every one knows it's a sudden infatuation and heat of the blood, because you could not get her from that fool Dryden any other way."
"I did wrong to see you," cried Sir Philip Ayres in a low voice, "for I see you intend to provoke me in such a way that I shall not be able to command myself. Will you be gone?—every word you say endangers the little charity that I may yet show you."
He turned, his temper rising at the insolence on the other's face. He added, "If you mention her again or inflame me further, you may sink and strangle in your difficulties without a penny from me. I make you out a rogue, Frank—you go beyond the liberties allowed a man of quality. It is well for you that you sail with the next transport. Your best luck would be to stop a rebel's bullet."
Francis Battel moved towards the door; his lowering face was distorted, his lips set. "Sally Ayloffe said you were bewitched by this girl!" he cried out.
"Mrs. Ayloffe knows I shall not willingly speak to her again," replied Sir Philip Ayres. "I say you are lucky to be of my blood—any other man who played such a trick on me—"
Captain Battel shrugged his gilt epaulettes up to his ears. He, laughing and in a stinging tone of rebuke, flung out, "I should be careful; it's a bit dangerous being married to an American—on Howe's staff."
The other man reached out for the bell-pull. Fearing he would be flung from the house if he did not go, Captain Battel violently took his leave.
"An enemy," thought Sir Philip, not without pain. With relief he went down to the library, where the candles in silver sconces had just been lit; two lawyers and Captain Dryden were awaiting him with respectful patience. There were several documents and materials for writing and sealing on the wide table.
George Dryden was sober, but appeared pale and shamefaced; his uneasiness increased at the entry of his colonel. He was still, after some years of wild town life in a company of men like Francis Battel, sensitive enough to feel disgusted at his tremendous good fortune, at the hideous disgrace into which he had nearly stepped like a fool, but which had changed into this piece of glittering luck. He had felt a little shamed when he read through the lavish settlement made on his penniless sister. He could not yet quite understand this man's behaviour—Ayres had only seen Harriet twice. She did not seem to her brother nearly as beautiful and attractive as many of the ladies at St. James's... he knew the wealthy, brilliant Sir Philip might have had any for the asking.
So, when the papers had been read, signed, and sealed, and the lawyers had gone, George Dryden said with an abrupt awkwardness, "I wish you had thought a little, sir. I wish you had seen her again—got to know her better."
"There is not time," smiled the colonel; "we sail for America in a very short time. Dryden, there will be some who will not return."
"But it is so unexpected—so unexplained," protested George Dryden uneasily. "I feel as if it was the outcome of that damned and ugly business which Frank Battel got me into. But you are not marrying her out of pity or compassion, or some manner of outmodish chivalry, Sir Philip?"
"I do not think I need explain to you all the feelings that enter into this marriage I will make. It has perhaps a little weight with me that your sister has no other protector than yourself and an old woman—selfish, tyrannical, almost senile. But never mind that, you are content with me, and your sister has consented. You, Dryden, brought no pressure to bear on her?"
George Dryden flushed in the youthful way he had. "I and Lady Marling," he muttered, "both persuaded her—she knows so little—"
"Ah," smiled Sir Philip, "so little, that perhaps she doesn't even know what it is to marry without love. I hope you've shown her that this is a fairly good match as the world judges, and it will be a little to your advantage?" He laughed.
"She did not find you disagreeable to her," muttered the young captain uneasily, "but there seems something about the whole affair I do not like."
"It would speak ill for you if you did like it, for you come out of it with little credit, as for anything extravagant and unusual in my action," he added haughtily, "I am not used to having what I do, questioned. I have been from my earliest years independent and able to answer for all I undertake. If your sister is heart-free I do not think she does so ill to marry me. In two days' time I shall be at Marling Hall and will try to make her like me a little. And now I have two things to ask of you, Dryden—maybe we shall have no chance to talk again before we sail. I shall not ask anything too hard, but I do ask this—first and most important—you must never, by a hint, let your sister know the horrible error under which I entertained her at Petersham."
"Sir, should I be likely to?" exclaimed Dryden.
"I do not know; you are imprudent sometimes in your cups. That brings me to my second request. I want you to promise not to drink so heavily; you've not the head to stand it—don't let men like Frank Battel get hold of you again—you see what it led to once."
"I'm not likely to again—after that. My God! Can't you trust me?"
"I want your promise."
"I promise—on my honour."
"It is for your sister's sake. She has no one but you in the world—she wants to be proud of you—proud of your career. You will not shame her, I think." He spoke negligently—the haughty man disliked an emotional conversation. He felt even as his words left his lips more contempt than compassion for the soft and foolish youth before him; strange that she should have had that air of courage, of gallantry, of a brilliant audacity, her brother being in all so undecided, so hesitant, so weak...
As the young captain rose to leave, still with that uneasy air of the man who knows he is completely in the wrong, the other asked briefly, "Have you still that snuff-box with your sister's portrait?"
"Will you give it to me? I have a fancy for it."
George Dryden drew out the box from an inner pocket and gave it to his colonel, who took it without glancing down. "You should not need that now," he murmured.
When Dryden left, Sir Philip Ayres opened the lid of the snuff-box and gazed at the face the memory of which had haunted him since that ugly evening at the lonely Hounslow house.
Though he had much dignity and a certain good sense, he had always done what he wished, and used lavishly a fine fortune to secure his desires; he did not therefore care in the least what any said about his impetuous marriage.
It might be an amaze, a wonder, a scandal. All that he was concerned in, was offering this brilliant reparation for an insult which she would never guess. It pleased some grandeur in his character; besides, he was in love with her; it gave him great delight to know this. It was the first time he had wanted to marry a woman since the death of Lilian Charteris—the first time that he had said to himself, "My own issue shall inherit the estate—"
Sitting there in the candlelight, at the table on which he had signed the marriage settlement which made her wealthy, protected, honoured, he stared at the miniature and mused. "She hardly can love me—that's impossible. I omitted to ask how old she was, but she can't be more than eighteen. She has consented because she knows nothing; her complete ignorance saved her that night at Petersham. More than once I nearly betrayed myself. I did not believe, he thought, greatly moved at the remembrance, that there could be an innocence so perfect as not to fear ill. She trusted me completely. Why is she marrying me? No doubt that brother of hers has urged and entreated, and told her it means everything to him—promotion. No doubt the old woman has thrust in her word, and I dare say she won't care very much one way or another."
His hand shook as he returned the miniature to his pocket. He wondered if he should take her to America with him—most of the officers took their wives, some their sisters or their mistresses. He thought to himself, "No, if she shows the least hesitance or repugnance, if she doesn't seem to care for me at all, I will leave it, and see her established in England. I have several pleasant houses—she need be immured no more in the old Hall of which she is already weary, but if she seems"—his face brightened with tender hope—"as if she might endure my company, I'll persuade her to come with me."
He mocked at himself with his acquired cynicism of a libertine. "It seems impossible I love this creature whom I have only seen twice. Is it possible that I look forward with this rapturous impatience to seeing her again?"
He tried to put her out of his mind for a while, for he had much business to transact—it was but two weeks before the transport sailed from Portsmouth... but his thoughts would not concentrate. He noticed that he had raised his head and was looking across the room at the reflection of his own face in the long slip of mirror clamped between two tall book cabinets, and this made him think of the mirror above the coral lacquer cabinet in his villa at Petersham, where he had seen the copy of her face—like Lilian Charteris, his boyhood's love—like the miniature, his manhood's fancy—his manhood's passion.
He exulted to think that he was in love—it was a heightening of all the pleasures of life, but he was a little afraid, because everything had been so easy—too easy. The proud man in him was not satisfied; the dark face at which he stared (almost, it seemed, with antagonism) in the mirror, became overcast into a look of sombre violence, not unlike that of his sister's son who had left him with gestures, with words, with glances of hate.
For the first time in his life he, the professional soldier, thought of the perils of war in a savage country the other side of the world—if she would not go with him? If he never returned? He might, after all, miss her.
He mocked at the reflection opposite—that of a man with set lips, but with eyes radiant with uncontrollable excitement.
MISS DRYDEN viewed her approaching marriage with startled amazement, but neither with disgust nor fear; it was an event which had come to her with a sense of inevitability as something she could not resist, like the leaving of Virginia for England and taking up her residence with Lady Marling.
The young American had never been a free agent; she knew very little of the world and nothing of England and English society; only the dreary mansion where she had lived, almost imprisoned, with her old and disagreeable relative. Therefore, high spirited and even, on occasion, audacious as she was, it came naturally to her to accept the fact that her destiny had been decided for her by others. Besides, her brother's passionate insistence on the acceptance of Ayres's offer had swept away her first startled resistance.
"You must do it, Harriet, for my sake. I shall go to the devil if you don't. My whole future's on it. He's a man in a hundred—it will mean everything to me."
She loved George; she had nothing else in the world to love. His really desperate entreaties moved her greatly; then, too, there was the formidable Lady Marling who overbore her first protest with a force of reproaches at her gross ingratitude against such luck. "Luck, my girl, that you ought to go on your knees and thank God for! A few days in town and you secure a match like that!"
Harriet, who believed that Lady Marling was as wise as she was unpleasant, supposed that this marriage must be a very fine thing; it had certainly something romantic about it, not displeasing to a lonely day-dreaming girl. He had only seen her twice. She liked him. She had been told that the settlement was very handsome. She would be independent too—that meant something; to be able to get away from the Hall with the round of tedious duties, the long endurance of Lady Marling's tempers and caprices and old-age fickleness which only her good-humoured youth enabled her to endure with any patience.
But above all, Harriet Dryden agreed lightly because she was heart-free; she had seen no one who fitted better into her dreams than her brother's young colonel. So she acquiesced in the project, which was not so extraordinary to her as it might have been to a more sophisticated young woman. With the ingenuous in mind, and the simple in heart, all things seem possible.
Nor did she accept the offer of Sir Philip Ayres in any spirit of self-sacrifice; if she was influenced by her brother's arguments she took no credit to herself for that kindness; indeed, as the time for Sir Philip's visit to Marling Hall approached, she began, through the influence of those about her—her aunt, her aunt's women, and the maids, a few neighbours, who all showered her with choruses of congratulation—to think that she was indeed a very fortunate young woman. She had enjoyed her glimpse of town life. "In the spring I shall have a house in London, friends of my own age, be able to go to the play or the opera. That kind, agreeable man will look after me, take me about with him." It was by no means a displeasing prospect for sensitive youth eager for life.
"Perhaps he will want to take you to America," suggested old Lady Marling, who thought that a husband should be obeyed in all.
But from that Harriet shrank. "I want to go home, above everything—but—not in that fashion."
"You must not call it home, child."
"Well, Aunt Marling, it's home to me and I want to return, oh, very much indeed—to see Luke and Eva again—but I'd hardly like to go married to one of the officers who—" She paused, her feeling was awkward to put into words. Her brother, George, served the King and she felt loyal enough; yet, all her instincts and all her affections were with the Colonists.
"I would not like to go back in the guise of an enemy," she finished boldly. "But perhaps the war will be over quite soon, and then I can go in friendly fashion." Her lovely eyes were radiant at the thought of that. "Oh, indeed, Aunt Marling, you would like the old house, Dryden Grange, and the plantation; and Luke and Eva too, I am sure."
"D'ye think I am going to take such a journey at my time of life?" replied the old lady grimly; "nor is it likely that you'll be able to. The war won't be over soon. If you go there you'll go out as Lady Ayres, the wife of one of the officers on General Howe's staff. You'll have to be careful how you say things which might cause a mistake."
"What mistake, Aunt Marling?"
"Why, that you're sympathetic with the rebels."
"But I am."
"Nonsense, chit! that's all very well here, thousands of miles away, but when you get there, out in America, you won't be listened to so kindly. Remember that your brother is one of His Majesty's officers."
"Well, I won't go then," decided Harriet gravely. "I'll stay behind."
"Here with me?" asked the old lady sarcastically. "I dare swear you're fretting to get away."
"I might go to town for a little," smiled Harriet. "Sir Philip will have female relations."
"Maybe he has, maybe also he won't care to marry you and leave you behind at once. We'll see! we'll see! Only I warn you don't talk of yourself as an American and flaunt your sympathies with the Colonists."
Harriet Dryden was silent, frowning, slightly distressed and bewildered. She knew so little of anything—she had a dim sense that she was looking at life from behind bars, that the huge world of movement and tumult, excitement, pain, and tragedy was moving somewhere beyond the compass of her narrow vision.
Her childhood had been free and happy, gloriously radiant, but since she had come to England, she might have been in a convent, for the narrowness of the daily round, the sour atmosphere, engendered by an embittered, ailing old woman and her spoilt, disagreeable dependents.
The Hall was very large, too large for a few women and servants; it had been built in a grandiose, boasting spirit by one of the Marlings after the Revolution of 1688, on which he had thrown all his fortune. A great deal of the Dryden money had been spent on the place too, but the Dryden estates themselves, which Lady Marling never visited and had indeed suffered to fall into considerable disrepair, lay distant in Shropshire on the Welsh border. The old lady, who had far more money and land than she knew what to do with, might easily and with advantage to herself have handed over these estates to her younger brother when he had returned from Virginia or, after his death, to his children. But she had always refused, saying sourly, "Everything was left to me because I stayed in the old country; you chose to make your fortune out in the Colonies—no good coming back now and trying to re-establish yourself!"
Her brother, William Dryden, had had no redress against this attitude. The implacability of his sister, and the irritation of seeing the family estates wasted, neglected, and yet completely withheld from him, had hastened his death.
Nor had this caused any remorse to Lady Marling; she had merely offered the barest charity to the two last of her blood, George and Harriet Dryden, buying the boy a commission, keeping him on a short allowance, and giving the girl a meagre and unpleasant home in the dreary apartments of Marling Hall.
She had allowed it to be understood that they would, when she died (and always ailing as she was, she seemed destined to reach a hundred), be her heirs, to divide between them not only the Dryden estates, which they may consider theirs by some manner of right, but the Marling estates which had come to her from her husband, for this old woman had in her hand the wealth of two noble families, her husband having been the last of his house.
Harriet Dryden had grown sick with tedium during the long days in the dusty, tapestried rooms of Marling Hall. A small set of apartments was kept comfortable and cosy for her aunt; but room after room, picture gallery, ballroom, library, were locked up; a part of the stables was always empty; the home farms were closed, and as there was no hunting or shooting, there were no keepers; two of the four lodges were shut up and the other two inhabited only by ancient servants. The vast park was allowed to grow wild, and Lady Marling hoarded her huge income—no one, save her lawyer, knew what it amounted to, or where she had it invested, or hidden.
It was, therefore, in an atmosphere of gloom and neglect, of seclusion, surrounded by the jealousies, the bitternesses of dependents, the gossip and malice of servants, the whims and moods of her old aunt and her aunt's old servant, Martha Campion, that Harriet Dryden had lived for the last ten years. It was small wonder, then, that her few days in London and the astonishing sequel—an offer of marriage from the most attractive man she had yet met—should not have filled her with more than a momentary dismay.
She was childishly pleased by the delight of her brother, George. She could see that such a marriage would mean a great deal to him. She knew in a vague way that he drank and gambled, that there were angry scenes during his brief visits to Marling Hall with the old woman on the score of money. She thought that now all would be different; that she or her new husband would supply George with sufficient money to keep him from the gaming- table, and happier, freer in his mind, he would not fall into vicious habits.
In her upright candour she could see no reason why the three of them would not be entirely happy.
Every one was kinder to her than they had ever been before; she who had been neglected, often snubbed, told to mind her place, to be seen and not heard, now found herself the object of much admiring attention; even Lady Marling was mollified by this most brilliant, most unexpected marriage.
She ordered such clothes and finery from London as the girl had never seen before; she allowed her more liberty, even petted and praised her a little. Harriet felt grateful towards the man who had worked this miracle, and when Sir Philip Ayres arrived at Marling Hall, she gave him a shy but honest welcome.
Lady Marling, whose notions of propriety were of the grimmest, had installed the young colonel, who was lavishly attended, in the ancient Jointure House, though two wings of the Hall were empty. Nothing would induce her to sanction the bridegroom staying under the same roof as the bride. With the same insistence on the customs of her youth, she arranged a wedding on a scale too elaborate for the circumstances. In vain Sir Philip protested "the state of the nation, his own almost immediate departure to the seat of war—it is not like going to the Continent, madam, it is the other side of the world, and only the inscrutable decrees of providence can decide whether or no I may return. I protest, madam, it is no moment for needless ceremony."
But Lady Marling would have her way. Penuriously as she lived she had the money and therefore the power to do as she wished; she planned a feast to which all the neighbouring gentry, or those she deigned to consider as such, were to be invited. The wedding, of course, was to take place in the Manor chapel or church, for it served that purpose for the village of Marling also. Afterwards, there was to be a dance in the old ballroom that had known no light nor music for nearly a couple of generations now, and after that the newly married couple would take up their residence in the west wing of the Hall, which was being hastily refurnished with all the splendour that Lady Marling could devise. She personally superintended the taking out of tapestries and hangings from presses and closets, the polishing of silver and mirrors, the setting out of carpets and furniture.
In her odd pride in the girl she hitherto had neglected and despised, she exclaimed, when any ventured to suggest it was too much for Harriet's rank and the hurried occasion, "Ayres need not think he is marrying a pauper, and that because Harriet chooses to call herself an American, that she does not come of blood as good as any in the land; and, orphan as she may be, she has a relative who knows how to behave on ceremonial occasions!"
The young colonel endured all; he was sensitive enough to realise that all this bustle and movement, excitement, these various preparations, distracted the girl and occupied her time, and took away the awkwardness there might otherwise have been between them—gilded, as it were, the strangeness of their position and concealed the fact that they did not know each other at all.
It was a cold, wet summer that year, and in what should have been the crown of the season there was already autumn in the air; the great oaks and elms in the vast park were already yellowing, and their damp, loosened leaves drifted like faded garlands through the open windows of the Hall where all was preparing for the great ceremony, and lay on the shaded paths and the avenues which led from the Hall to the Jointure House, where sometimes Sir Philip Ayres took an opportunity to walk with Harriet Dryden, keeping all ceremonious and grave between them, yet pleasant and friendly too.
The young man, very much in love, who had thought it never would be possible that he could court in vain, held himself well in hand. He was charmed to see that she was not afraid of him; she received him with that same candour which had saved her that evening at Petersham... He tried not to remember that when in her presence.
It was not very often that he saw her alone, but two days before their wedding he contrived, despite the opposition of Lady Marling, to walk undisturbed with Harriet underneath the wind- blown elm avenue, which led towards the old decoy pond which had for some while not been used. A spot full of a pleasing, a poignant melancholy.
The scene affected the young man and brought him, as it were, to a pause in his emotions, which for the last few weeks had been so violent and rapid. He looked ahead from the present moment to the future; he thought of all the vicissitudes of war; the casualties in the Colonies were already high. "It's the other side of the world," as he had told Lady Marling. When he had been heart-free, careless and idle, he had been eager to go, but now he thought how delightful life in England might have been with Harriet. He was conscious of a strong drawing towards his own country and his own people. America, that far-distant, strange continent, in every way so different from England...
His spirit inwardly winced at the thought of his approaching departure; he had not yet decided whether Harriet was to go with him or not. It would be the usual thing to take her—most of the officers had their wives. Lady Marling had been violently in favour of that course, but Harriet herself had always laughed and put the subject by. He spoke to her now, turned to her with sudden seriousness, and felt his throat close and his blood heat in an old wound he had, as he asked, "Do you want to come with me, sweet Harriet? Do you detest war and a strange country?"
"Sir, not to me," she reminded him; "to me it would be going home."
"Perhaps that makes it more difficult?"
"I think it would," she said. She told him as she had told Lady Marling, that she did not wish to return to America as an enemy.
"Do you wish to be left behind here? Your brother will be gone too; you will have no one but your aunt."
"Need I stay at Marling Hall," she asked ingenuously. "You have a town house and friends in London—surely I could wait there for you?" She shook back her radiant hair and turned her eyes on him with a candour he could scarce endure.
He could not tell her that he knew no one to whom he could trust her inexperience, her ignorance. He could not reveal to her his own passionate jealousy. She, heart-free, caring for him only a little and as a friend, to be left unprotected in London where her beauty would soon make a sensation... she was so precious... he alone must awaken her—to everything.
"I fear that could not be," he answered rather sternly. "The position would be difficult; I have no near female relatives with whom I could leave you."
"But I do not want to stay here," said Harriet. Then she laughed at herself because, in her dismay, she had almost said, "One of the reasons of my marrying you was to get away from Marling Hall." And this brought another reflection to her mind, and with candid good nature she cried, "I never knew why you wanted to marry me, sir. Still, on the very eve of it, it seems strange."
"Oh, Harriet, you know so little," he smiled. The palm of her cool hand was in his as they paused beneath a great elm which cast soft shade over them. Little flakes of gold from a veiled sun played on her auburn hair. She looked at him, laughing. "Well, you know I like you very well."
"You say that too easily, Harriet. I hope one day it will be more than 'I like you very well!'" He did not dare make love to her, because he could do that so easily.
She became shy, however, even at his tone, and turned her bright head away.
"I wish the war was over," she sighed irrelevantly.
"Let us hope it soon will be. The Colonists must give way before long."
"Why, that, I think never; you do not know us, sir."
"I wish you would not identify yourself with them, Harriet."
"How little you understand me!"
"I am afraid we understand each other very little, my dear; we are strangers, really—it is no use pretending, and I intend..." He paused, he was too well used to glib, fashionable courtship, but none of that experience helped him here; his sincerity held him silent.
They strolled on again down the avenue, she swinging her straw hat with the blue ribbon, he, puzzled, bewildered, wondering what to say, how to win her, fearful what he said, lest he should frighten her...
And Harriet was suddenly serious, and wondered why she should be; she found some curious difference in the familiar, stale scene, the sombre avenue, the melancholy prospect, the low clouds over the tossing boughs; the dead leaves whirred down about them—that year there had been scarcely any summer. The first menace of a storm came on with the dusk; the neglected decoy pond was purple dark beneath the shade of grey alders; swallows flew low, and a wind coming swiftly across the park blew Harriet's cambric gown sharply round her body.
She looked timidly at her companion; she wondered at his reserve—almost as if he was displeased with her. For the first time she really noticed his face; till then she had had a mere impression of dark, imposing good looks. "He has a fine mouth," she thought. She noted his eyes, set rather far apart, the sombre dark brows, very straight, contrasting with eyes flecked with gold. He carried his hat under his arm and his loosely curled harsh hair was blown back from his face, leaving every feature clearly defined.
Harriet turned her eyes away; she shivered; how cold it was—this impossible summer! She felt moved, disturbed, almost unhappy. She thought, "Marriage with this man? What have I entered into—so recklessly?"
Though he did not look at her, but idly stirred the weeds with his cane, her companion was so absorbed in her presence that he only noticed a newcomer when he was within a few yards of him; then, glancing sharply up, he saw Frank Battel coming towards them, and it was as much as he could do to conceal his surprised rage; but he swiftly remembered that before Harriet he must not betray that he was not on good terms with his nephew...
Battel greeted them both with admirable ease; he also was embarking on the transport leaving for America at the end of the month... He had come to pay his duty to his uncle's bride...
Sir Philip Ayres had to receive him with outward complaisance, and even in front of his betrothed to affect friendship for him. They returned to the Hall as if they were on the most affectionate terms; but Sir Philip did not fail to disclose his true mind when they were alone in the Jointure House, where Lady Marling had at once lodged the bridegroom's nephew.
"Do you think you have put yourself any better with me by this, which I take to be but an insolence?"
Battel retorted with a coolness which had not, however, quite the usual insolent flavour. "I hope you recall, sir, that we happen to be in the same regiment? We shall be proceeding to America in the same transport; in brief, sir, our relationship being well known, and you not wishing it to come to the ears of Miss Dryden how that has been marred, I thought it would be but policy if I was to pay my duty to her at Marling Hall; otherwise, those whose ears are always pricked, would be ready enough to think that there was some dissension between us."
Sir Philip Ayres thought to himself, though reluctantly, there was reason in this argument.
Not without pride Francis Battel continued, "I do not wish it thought and talked of, sir, that I am disgruntled because I am no longer your heir. I would rather, if you could so force your humour, pass this over in an agreeable fashion."
"I don't object," replied Sir Philip reluctantly, "but your own good sense, if you have any left, must tell you that your presence cannot be acceptable to me here."
"I'll not stay then," replied Battel quietly; "only for a day or so. I shall find an excuse to leave before the wedding. But I have just one other thing to ask you, sir. You promised me some money—two thousand pounds—I am in need of it."
"I paid your debts before you left town."
"And I am duly thankful. As I am going abroad, I intend to take a lady with me."
"Do you mean to marry—but certainly it's little to me now—"
"I did not say that, sir. All the women who travel with the officers are not their wives or their sisters."
"That is true enough. But if I take my future wife with me, it will not be agreeable if you are taking some town woman."
"Leave that to me, sir; the woman will be one who will be in no way offensive. All I need from you is this money. I would not press you, but I wish this lady to travel with some comfort; she is of quality and breeding."
Sir Philip resolved to take no further interest in his nephew's affairs, which he feared were heading for damnation. He wrote out the draft on his bankers for the sum he had promised, and gave it to the young captain, who received it gravely; nor could Sir Philip, who had always striven hard after his fashion and according to his breeding for the other's welfare, resist a certain affectionate sentiment rising in his breast. He said, "Remember, Frank, you may not return from the Colonies, nor may I. I don't desire, pray believe I don't, the deep clouds of black ill-will between us. You did what I can scarcely forgive—"
"I'm sorry," said Battel unexpectedly. "I'm deeply sorry—I can't say more than that. I've been wild and extravagant and headlong, but I, too, have been thinking lately, sir, that when it's war one goes to—there's many Englishmen been killed already—and I don't say that my way of life hasn't seemed to me, of late, wild enough."
"Oh, I don't talk of reformation and I don't preach it," said Sir Philip shortly.
"Your favour would not be worth very much to me now, sir. Therefore you will not think I court it for any advantage when I say that I, too, wish we might be friends."
"Indeed we'll put a face on it," admitted Sir Philip, "though I wish you would stay at Marling as short a time as possible."
The next day Captain Battel took his leave of Lady Marling and went into Portsmouth. He had returned again by the evening. His manner was quiet and sedate and agreeable to all. He won the favour even of Lady Marling, who was induced to exclaim, "that he was a very pretty fellow and put a good face on the marriage that had cost him a fortune and a fine estate."
Harriet, who had never had any ill-will against him and knew no evil of him, had received him joyfully as a friend of her brother. George Dryden felt some of the sting taken out of what he still felt to be an unpleasant position, by this reformation in manner, at least, on the part of Francis Battel, who, despite his promise to Sir Philip, prolonged his stay till the eve of the wedding. As he was in every way inoffensive, the young colonel did not object. He would have felt it as a certain ill omen if Frank Battel had been present at the wedding ceremony, but as he had promised to leave the night before, Sir Philip Ayres left it at that... He had the preoccupation of a man suddenly and deeply in love.
Harriet Dryden was standing at her dressing-table the evening before her wedding. It had been a stormy, cold day and a wood fire had been lit on the wide hearth. Her wedding-gown, which, with imperious generosity Lady Marling had ordered from Paris, lay spread on the glittering silver-threaded brocade of the bed; her jewels, Sir Philip's gifts, in their cases, were set out; large candles cast a tender glow over the old panelled room with the sloping floors and wide windows, against which the rain beat softly.
The young girl was happy; if no great joy opened before her, neither did any great sorrow. If she was about to marry a man she did not know, whom she no more than liked, she was in love with no other, and to her sweet and cheerful disposition the future seemed to lie in pleasant places. She was laughing and jesting in high spirits when one of her women—a country girl—brought a little three-cornered note, "Given her," she said, "by Captain Battel's batman." Harriet opened it with eager curiosity. It read:
All your future welfare depends on something I must tell you. Come to the library when all are abed.
FRANK BATTEL, who was a shrewd observer of character and had, during the last few days, taken a particular note of Harriet Dryden, had not reckoned in vain on her frank simplicity, her girlish love of the romantic, and her feminine curiosity, when he had calculated that, in answer to his simple and mysterious note, she would keep the appointment in the old library.
She would, he knew, have no difficulty in doing this, for she had been allowed considerable freedom, very different from the close confinement she had formerly endured, since she had been betrothed to Sir Philip Ayres.
When she had first received the message, her thoughts had immediately been of her brother; she believed that he might be involved in some misfortune. She took Frank Battel to be his friend—perhaps his greatest friend—after his colonel, Philip! but she stayed her thoughts on that name...
With ingenuous honesty she took this message to require the utmost secrecy, therefore she made no mention of it to any one, nor indeed was she under any embarrassment nor need of advice. It did not even occur to her, so heart-whole was she, that if she had really felt any love or even any great affection for her future husband, she would at once have taken his nephew's note to him.
Indeed, so young was Harriet Dryden and of so lively a disposition that it was with a certain pleasure that she delayed going to bed—waited till all the house was still, then, taking a small lamp, left her room for the wing where was situated the disused library, in which Frank Battel had appointed this strange rendezvous.
This part of the Hall, pretentiously built in state and grandeur, and long since unused, was little known to Harriet, and as she came to one empty chamber after another, her feeble light scarcely dispelling the thick shadows, she felt a pleasant trepidation and recalled all the childish tales of ghosts and marvels, of eloping maidens and concealed cavaliers of which she had heard or read.
She had to pass through the great ballroom she had never entered until the last few days, when, through Lady Marling's orders, it had been made ready for her wedding festivities. She had viewed it with much curiosity when first the covers had been taken off the furniture, the chandeliers rehung, the shutters reopened on to the fleeting sunlight. She paused now, her lantern in her hand, and looked at it again; she wondered, with a touching simplicity, what sort of scene it would show to-morrow, after her wedding, when the neighbours crowded there to hold a parade and dance in her honour...
Harriet Dryden had never seen any kind of festivity except that one night at the theatre in London and the entertainment given by Sally Ayloffe.
Despite all the efforts of the hastily employed furnishers and upholsterers, the ballroom still retained its antique, dingy air. The festoons of flowers twining up a frame of trellis work, roses and convolvulus painted on the wall were faded; the glasses in the panels were antique and greenish-hued with age; the deep violet-blue glass bands which surrounded them, clamped by bronze lion heads, were of a fashion of a hundred years ago. Some of the shutters stood open to allow the fresh air to travel through the huge ballroom, which had been shut up so long... Harriet could see the delicate green of china roses, virginia creeper, and clematis, twining round the outer pillars of the window and falling in sweet trails into the room...
The girl stood musing for awhile and her thoughts were happy—she dwelt on the morrow. It seemed to her that it would mean the beginning of a new era, full of (as yet) unthought-of opportunities—of that action and movement which her disposition had always craved...
She hurried on. Two small ante-chambers, already refurnished with elegantly painted furniture, then she was in the library, which had been left untouched during the hasty preparation for her marriage.
The shutters were still closed across the window, the dust lay heavy on the laurelled brows of the purple marble Caesars which stood between the high gilded cases of heavy books. Two desks, stripped of all appointments, were covered with holland cloths, the chandelier hung in a bag of brown dusty muslin; there was no carpet on the floor, and the few chairs were covered with hollands.
For a moment Harriet Dryden almost recoiled; there was something more than dismal, something slightly sinister, in the great room.
Seated between two of the shuttered windows, at a small green- marbled table, on which stood a single taper, was Frank Battel, wearing a dark slouch hat and a cloak. He was in civilian clothes; she had not seen him before without his uniform. This changed his person, and not agreeably.
He rose, saluted her gravely, and offered her a chair from which he had stripped the cover. He took again his former seat by the taper on the table; his manner was preoccupied and sombre. Harriet felt her spirits sink; it was clear that whatever he had to impart it was not good news.
"Oh, sir," she exclaimed impetuously. "Oh, Captain Battel, has something happened to my brother?"
"Why should you think so?" he asked quietly, regarding her. "Indeed this meeting has nothing to do with Captain Dryden. It concerns directly yourself." He lowered his eyes and added, "Pray be prudent, Miss Dryden; hush your voice, make no sound, and I would not for anything that we were discovered or observed."
"There is no harm in our meeting thus, as I suppose," replied the girl indifferently, "though it is a strange place to appoint for an interview, but I take it that what you have to say is secret and mysterious?"
"Why, so it is."
"And yet you say it concerns myself and not my brother. What can there be secret and mysterious concerning me? Nothing has ever happened to me, Captain Battel, and my future seems assured."
He sighed, turning away his dark face. "Poor child!" he said, "how little you know!"
"What is there I should need to know?" she asked with dignity. She realised that her action in coming thus impetuously to his bidding had been imprudent, perhaps undignified. She added, "Pray tell me quickly, whatever it is, for I must return at once to my room."
He began a long and involved preamble to his business, of which she understood very little; she waited with a growing anxiety, frowning a little over the strange words he used in his broken phrases and interjected expressions.
She was sorry for him, for he seemed to be struggling under some deep emotion—she did not know that he had any call for distress; it had been concealed from her that through her marriage with Sir Philip Ayres, this man was disinherited...
At last, with some apprehension, she asked gently, "Pray, sir, be plainer, for I understand none of this."
"It is your innocence," he said hastily, "that has so wrought on me these last few days, that I felt you should know..."
He seemed to have difficulties with his words, and despite his warning to her, walked up and down the large room, sometimes lost in the shadows, sometimes appearing in the light of the taper on the table between the windows. In front of the bewildered young woman he paused at length. "Do you not think it's strange, Miss Dryden, that a man like my uncle—a known libertine—should marry suddenly a young creature who has no money—nay, forgive me, no position—who is indeed an American, and that is much looked down upon now in London. Does it not seem to you strange, or are you indeed too simple?"
Harriet coloured highly and replied, "My brother and my aunt assured me that it is not so strange; they say marriages are made like that, and I have found Sir Philip's person and address quite agreeable."
"He has deceived you! He has no love for you nor any respect; he is the most licentious man in town—he has a woman now in his house in Queen Street—God forgive me that I must say this thing to you."
"Why do you, sir?" asked she, frowning and bewildered. "And what do you mean?"
She started from her chair, hardly knowing that she did so.
"You have been kept close," said he, "and I am shocked that I must be the first to dispel your innocence. But I tell you this man does not love you; do you understand that?"
"Why, then, should he marry me?" asked Harriet impetuously.
"Because he cannot get you any other way! A few weeks ago he made a bargain, to which I would be no party, with your brother. He was to buy you, do you understand? without marriage. He came to the box at the theatre that night to see if you were worth the price asked—forgive me, but I must save you from these two villains, your brother and Colonel Sir Philip Ayres. And that night at Petersham—did you not think it strange that you should have been taken there and left alone? I came back to save you, but you had already gone. I had just learnt from George of this hideous design afoot; I threatened to expose him; I threatened to expose Sir Philip, with the result that he, not daring to face the scandal and not able to forgo you, patched up this hasty marriage—a marriage it may be in the eyes of the world, but you will be nothing but his kept woman, and in a year or so he will tire—as he has tired before—"
Harriet Dryden understood very little of this; it was to her a hideous glimpse into a terrible world of which she knew nothing; she had heard of rakes and libertines and read of betrayed maidens, but always in a vague, romantic fashion, without thinking that such things were real and might possible touch her...
There was something in her heart and soul that up to this dreadful moment had been gay and heedless, that was suddenly blasted and withered. His earnest, broken words, his pale face, his fixed look forbade her to doubt his sincerity... Her alarmed and shocked mind went back over her two London meetings with Sir Philip Ayres; she, too, paled and stammered, and panic showed in her wide eyes...
Following up his advantage, Captain Battel added, turning away his face as if ashamed of what he spoke, "That woman, Mrs. Ayloffe, she has been one of his fancies, and is now, for all I know. She was in this, too."
"Say no more," muttered Harriet; "all is said."
"You've understood what I've meant? You have given me credit for honourable motives?" he asked as if in deep distress.
Harriet Dryden did not answer. A sudden revelation of the ugliness of the world is not an easy thing for innocence to support; nor, indeed, had she understood. "Bought!" That word rang in her ears—like a slave...
Battel continued to speak; he told the trembling girl, with every sordid detail calculated to shock and impress her, how Sir Philip Ayres had first seen her portrait in the miniature on the snuff-box she had given her brother; the jests that there had been over that picture, the coarse fooling and ribald commentary, his own indignation and endeavour to stop it, to her brother's desperate condition as regards money, his falling from one dishonour to another, till he had been prepared to sell his own sister to his colonel.
"I believe none of it," whispered Harriet with dry lips, at which her fingers fumbled. "I believe nothing evil of George. Oh, sir, why must you tell me... how horrible the world is, how hateful, and I was so happy."
"Why were you so happy?" asked Frank Battel sharply; "you are not in love with Sir Philip Ayres, are you, Miss Dryden?"
"No, no," she protested, putting her hands before her face, "but I thought he was kind and honest."
"He is neither one nor the other; there are many women in London who would tell you what he is—more than one, Miss Dryden, who should take your place to-morrow, by rights."
Harriet Dryden sunk in her chair as if crushed; her inexperience accepted, but could not understand what Frank Battel said; yet she realised shame and dishonour with horror... She had been foolish, childish to the last extreme ingenuous... in proportion her awakening was terrible, of a searing humiliation.
Leaning towards her, but with a great air of respect, the accomplished rake, with his polished and elegant manners, told her other things, while her cheeks burned and tears trembled on her lashes. He revealed to her what "men of the world," as he called them, "men of quality and fashion" felt for pretty women like herself... No doubt she was very lucky in so far that a brilliant marriage had come out of what had been a most sordid intrigue, but did she care to marry a man who tried to buy her from her brother for his mistress?
To Frank Battel's curious probing gaze it seemed that Harriet Dryden changed under his eyes from a girl into a woman. He did not know how much she had understood, but he knew from her look of white, supplicating horror that he had gone far enough. He changed his tone and became the respectful, the tender protector again.
"If you would put your future into my hands, Miss Dryden—you see that it is useless to appeal to your brother or Lady Marling, who is dazzled by the position Sir Philip holds—I would rescue you from what must now seem to you the most odious of marriages..."
With a long suppressed home-sickness, arising in this moment of her utter wretchedness, she cried, "Oh, I wish that I were home again! I would that we had never left Virginia! Oh, sir," said the poor girl, wringing her hands, "could you not contrive that I could escape, that I might somehow return to my cousins in America?"
Frank Battel had not intended his interference to go so far as this; he had merely meant to so frighten and shock her that there would be no chance for his uncle to find any happiness in his marriage, or possibly, if luck was his, to persuade her to refuse Sir Philip even at this last minute. He had not expected so much success, and he quickly turned over in his mind how he might get some advantage out of her chance and desperate suggestion.
She had turned to him, in the bewilderment of her anguish, with complete trust, and he was clever enough to be able to take his profit of this and to act the delicate, the respectful friend, to perfection.
"How much would you venture, Miss Dryden?" he asked, with what seemed an honest plainness, "to get out of this detestable situation? You are, or seem, friendly with your brother?"
"Alas, do not speak of him," she cried. "Of all men I trusted George! but indeed I know not well what has happened!"
She felt an intense, a poignant distaste for every one, for everything. Everything was blighted with the miasma of disgust, and the figure of the man whom she had been an hour before willing and even pleased to marry appeared before her fevered imagination in the most repulsive colours.
Her one desire was the pitiful desire of the very young who are deeply hurt—to get away, to hide. She thought with an almost intolerable longing of the old mansion on the Pocohowtan, of her cousins who were her dearest childhood's recollections, of the large and beautiful American landscape; and hardly knowing what she said nor to whom she spoke, she cried in a low, intense tone of entreaty, "Take me away; let me escape somehow—oh, I implore you—take me back home."
Captain Battel had rapidly made his plans; it was not his intention to give the girl time for reflection. "Your wedding is to-morrow," he said in an authoritative tone; "do I understand that you have the courage to escape from here to-night?"
"I do not lack courage," she replied vaguely. "I will do what you say. You seem kind, and you must have risked something to save me from an odious fate."
He thought that she did not boast when she said she did not lack courage, for a sad serenity had succeeded her frantic agitation; her large eyes were resolute; though all the radiant colour was struck from her face, her lips were set firmly. The man, hardened as he was in villainy, felt a dart of remorse as he looked at her and thought, "What have I done? What have I slain?"
Francis Battel could not guess what tumult he had roused in this newly awakened soul, nor guess the train of thought he had fired, nor the picture he had roused in her startled ingenuous mind.
In his endeavour to make her realise the outrage to which she had been subject, he had talked of her being "bought and sold," and this had brought into Harriet Dryden's mind fearful memories from her childhood. In America women were bought and sold; not only black female slaves, not only the convicts who were so easily purchased in Maryland, but those who had been stolen from England—miserable creatures from houses of correction, sometimes women of good birth. Yes, she knew these were sold and what their fate was, and she saw herself put on that level—a slave or no better! She had never thought such things were possible in England. This man, who seemed to her so wise in experience, had shown her her mistake...
A miasma of sorrow clouded all her senses; she realised, as she had never realised before, that she was in exile, that she had never been happy, that she hated the Hall and Lady Marling, and the melancholy, grey English country, and all her soul went out to her childhood home...
While he keenly watched her, her face flushed from red to pale, from pale to red, and the tears lay in her eyes. In her lonely misery she had turned to things she thought she had forgotten... She could see her mother, grave and beautiful, standing by the great spinning-wheel with a hank of new-washed white yarn on the bobbin, her delicate fingers turning the wheel and holding the roll of wool as she stepped backwards and forwards till the yarn was spun...
Harriet could see herself a little child sitting on a low stool, working a sampler in the firelight, and with almost unbearable nostalgia there came back to her nostrils the scent of the pale green brittle wax of the bayberry candles and the perfume of them... the pleasant fragrancy in the large, wide colonial house, a great fire burning, the largest house kettle filled with water for the soap making...
Why did these trivialities come back in her distress? She tried to shake them from her mind as she looked round the large, gaunt, dusty library as if she was in a prison. She loathed these people; she could not, she would not stay among them, and her outraged mind was further inflamed at the thought of the war, Sir Philip Ayres and her brother and all their friends going out to fight the Colonials—her friends—her own people...
"If I could get back," she whispered; "if I could only get back..."
"If you would trust yourself to me." And with cool effrontery Captain Frank Battel began to try to persuade the girl that it would be quite easy for her to return to her people in Virginia. He made light of the difficulties of what he had himself sneeringly called "going across an ocean to a wilderness." He told her that the fighting, of which she knew little or nothing, was not very considerable; that he would undertake to set her in the hands of friends...
The tragic girl said that she had some in New York... in Richmond, in Charlestown—her people to whom she still wrote—the Groves—on the James River.
Still curious, still a little incredulous, he asked, "Would you dare so much to get away from this?" Then he added cunningly, "You should be married, Miss Dryden—some honest fellow who would protect you." His eyes dared to seek hers, but her blank look showed him that he could venture to go no farther on this theme.
Harriet Dryden had hardly heard his last words. She was telling herself she must be cool and brave. She came of a race of women in whom these qualities were not lacking—pioneer women who had led lives of almost incredible hardness and peril, who had had to be ready for almost any emergency.
"I need no man," she said as if to herself, rising and putting her hands on her bosom, looking so much like a child that even Frank Battel felt a little softened...
"I will make my way myself to America. As you say, it is not so difficult."
"I was thinking of a man; for a woman it is almost impossible."
"I do not know," she mused naïvely, "if I have any money."
"You have none, I dare swear, or but a few guineas; whereas, I have a large sum to hand and that shall be at your disposal." He smiled maliciously, for the money he referred to was the two thousand pounds given him recently... a pretty stroke of spite!
"We must not stay longer here," he added in a cool, business- like fashion; "some one will soon be astir in readiness for your festivities. If you cannot soon tell me how I can be of service to you, Miss Dryden, I must, for your own sake, leave you."
Harriet Dryden took up her light. "If you will come to the little pavilion," she whispered rapidly, "in about an hour's time—nay, perhaps a little more—I will tell you how you can help me."
With that he had to be content, and with no more words, but with the air of one who has taken a strong resolution, she had gone.
He knew the pavilion she had mentioned, which was beyond the evergreen plantation... it was built of rust-coloured marble; it had been adorned with Chinese figures and rich fretwork, but now, like most of Lady Marling's possessions, was in a sad state of decay and overgrown with sorrel, laurels, juniper, and other exotics; while behind, it was shadowed by the spreading boughs, the dark and drooping plumes of the cypress—a lonely and neglected place, a spot he did not think Miss Dryden would have appointed for a further meeting with him had she not formed a desperate and fantastic resolution...
Hardly daring to credit his own extraordinary success, Captain Battel turned swiftly and secretly to his own apartment in the Jointure House, finding his way cautiously across the deserted park which was already faintly lit by the dawn.
In the seclusion of his own room he rapidly made a few preparations, then left the house as secretly as he had entered it and made his way down a fine avenue of elms, along the brow of the hill towards the dark grove where, in a romantic situation, stood the pavilion indicated by Harriet Dryden.
ON the morning of the day appointed for his sister's wedding, George Dryden was roused early by a servant of the Hall, who brought a peremptory summons from Lady Marling, bidding him "come at once and without letting Sir Philip Ayres know anything of the matter."
Dryden did not find this injunction difficult to carry out, for Sir Philip was immersed in affairs and orders relative to the embarkation of the troops. News from the Colonies had continued to be bad, and the minds of all honest, reasonable Englishmen were bitterly disturbed by the headlong policy of the Government, which persisted in pursuing this protracted war; but Ayres, in common with other soldiers, had no choice but to obey, though he began to look forward with gloomy foreboding to an expedition which had seemed at first to promise the highest and most varied adventure.
Nor was young Dryden, thoughtless as was his nature, altogether free from such thoughts as he crossed the great park, already autumnal in aspect.
Hitherto absorbed in his own pressing necessities, he had given little attention to the war in which he was to be himself immediately engaged. Now, it did occur to him that he was to be sent against his own kin, as it were; that he might even meet in some battle or skirmish Luke Grove, of whom he still entertained some tender childish memories.
Dryden wondered a little uneasily what might be the fate of his cousin, Eva, whom he remembered as a merry little child, when her brother, as far as he knew her sole protector, was called away to the war. Would she be left alone on the great plantation with its slaves and bondspeople?
Dryden knew, though it had not for long been in his mind, something of what life meant there, even to the longest established and most prosperous of the Colonists.
There were still raids from Indians of the terrible Five Nations, who had for so long defied the powers of France, and George's blood heated a little as he thought that these formidable savages were now being armed and encouraged by the English to fall upon the Colonists.
This, to any one who knew anything of America, was worse even than the sending of hired German troops, which had so insulted even the loyalists; or the promising of liberty to slaves who should take arms against their masters.
But George Dryden endeavoured to sweep these reflections from his mind; he held a commission in His Majesty's army; the Virginians were famous for their loyalty—he was himself descended from an old cavalier family; that was and must be enough, and not for him were the intricacies of politics. He would go out and do his best to win distinction and promotion under the patronage of Sir Philip Ayres... It now seemed odd to think that the man of whom he had always stood in considerable awe would be his brother-in-law! Then his mood clouded again with uneasiness when he thought of Harriet. "Was she—could she really be happy in this most amazing and hasty marriage?"
He passed through busy preparations for the approaching wedding. The forecourt of the Hall was filled with carriages, and carts and wagons were proceeding to the kitchen premises... Early as it was, all was astir. Yet, young Dryden sensed a certain blight over the scene, apart from the skies being overcast with heavy rain-clouds. It seemed already late autumn—nay, the approach of winter. The young man felt a chill wind, and drops of rain soon fell on the grey stones of the courtyard and against the many windows of the Hall.
Mrs. Abigail, Lady Marling's confidant, received him; young Dryden believed her to be his enemy, for she hoped herself to inherit a portion of the fortune of the old woman she waited on with such ceaseless industry. She appeared in great trepidation; he thought he caught a flash of malicious triumph in her eyes and her crooked lips, and she seemed to labour under some great excitement which she dare not disclose.
The young officer followed her up the wide stairs and through the rooms where chairs were being placed and sideboards set for the wedding festival, to the private apartments of Lady Marling.
This formidable old woman crouched over a hearty fire in a hooded chair; she held a cup of cordial in her shaking hand. Dryden thought he had never seen her look so old and hideous, though he had had many an unpleasant interview with her, in which she had showed herself grim and unfriendly enough; but now she appeared broken—ill—and he thought that perhaps she had been taken by some sudden sickness.
With her skinny forefingers she beckoned him to stand in front of her, which he did, the firelight full on his splendid regimentals and on his flushed, questioning, slightly sullen, fair face.
Lady Marling took a sip of her cordial, then in a croaking voice announced, "Your sister's gone—Harriet has fled."
The young man was struck by so sick a dismay that he could only make an articulate sound.
Lady Marling appeared fiercely irritated by his emotion. She cried, "It is a great misfortune—maybe a great disgrace, too. Come, don't stand stammering and gammering there! Do you know anything about it?"
"I know nothing of it, Aunt Marling. I can scarcely believe it! Gone! Has she been searched for?"
"You may suppose so, before I sent for you. It was discovered nearly an hour ago. Naturally, she was to be roused early. Have you forgotten that this was to be her wedding day? I say she was to be roused early, but when one of her women, whom I had to put about her for all the extra preparation there's been, went in to call her, the room was empty, the bed untouched. Mrs. Abigail here was fetched and a quick and quiet search made in all the rooms and closets. Not a trace, not a sign—she has taken nothing with her! The jewels Sir Philip gave her, a few presents from me, her clothes, her toilet appointments—everything untouched, and she has vanished."
"It is incredible! There's no reason or motive in it!"
"It's not that," replied Lady Marling spitefully, "that makes it incredible. Who looks for reason or motive in the behaviour of a silly little chit like Harriet; ay, nor in that of a young tomfool like yourself? It will be better for you if straightly and without more ado you tell me what you know of this."
The unhappy young man protested hotly. "What should I know of it? Don't you understand, madam, that this ruins me too? Whatever it is, she was wrong enough to keep it from me!"
"You don't know of another lover?" interrupted Lady Marling, giving him a shrewd look out of her faded eyes. "I have kept her carefully enough since she has been here. I and Mrs. Abigail have watched her every movement. There were those two days in town—I was wrong to let her go, although when she snatched this good match out of it, I congratulated myself."
"She met no man but Sir Philip that I know of." Young Dryden was confused, bewildered by the extent of his own personal misfortune. "You don't know what it means to me," he raged, in a tone of which even the suspicious old lady could not doubt the sincerity. "This will put Sir Philip against me, and it means everything to me he should be my friend!'
"I don't believe you do know anything about it," conceded Lady Marling, then she asked abruptly, "Did you see that Captain Battel this morning?"
"No, madam; I believe he is closeted with Sir Philip; there were dispatches come from Portsmouth."
"Bah, I don't want to hear of those affairs; I say, have you seen him?'
"You don't think it's possible," exclaimed George, "that he and Harriet..."
"I want none of your suppositions, but I know," she added, as if reluctantly, "that Agatha, that rustic, took a note from Captain Battel to Harriet last night—she's confessed as much. What business had he sending her a note on the day before her wedding?"
"He would not be such a villain!" exclaimed George, aghast.
"How do I know whether he would be such a villain or not?" said the old woman angrily. "Isn't he the nephew of Sir Philip, and as his heir-at-law don't he stand to lose everything by this marriage? Don't I know something of what you young men about town are capable of? No doubt he is encumbered with debt..."
"But I am sure Sir Philip has dealt with him," interrupted George, quite distraught with bewildered horror.
"Bah! what would be the same as inheriting all? I think that it's quite possible this young spark has beguiled away Harriet to spite his uncle."
"But Harriet would not go. Why should she—how could he possibly induce her? When I saw her yesterday she was happy and content, pleased with everything—"
Lady Marling was forced to admit that this had been so; the girl had seemed perfectly satisfied with everything, but the old woman had a profound distrust of humanity—she did not find it difficult to believe the worst of anybody.
"Go to the Jointure House and see if Captain Battel is there—let me know at once—if they have gone together they might be pursued." This she added with an anguish that was not wholly selfish, "It will be a disgrace to me and my house! As for Harriet—the girl may be ruined! I've sent out one or two servants whom I thought I could trust to look for her. They can't have got much farther than the neighbouring village."
"Perhaps some harm has come to her—some accident in the park."
"What should she be doing in the park at night? She was left in her room as usual, I tell you! Make haste, you young fool—don't stand there exasperating me."
Young Dryden hastened back through the park which now looked gloomy indeed, for it was coloured by his mood. All his proposed good fortune crumbled in his grasp. His sister disgraced, the brilliant alliance with Sir Philip Ayres lost... He was hardly able to control himself when he reached the Jointure House, and his agitation was apparent as he asked the servants if Captain Battel had been seen that morning?
"No, sir; nor did he sleep here last night. His body servant has just been to his room. Sir Philip Ayres wished to consult him on some point. He is not there, nor his bed touched."
The fellow glanced with shrewd inquisitiveness at Dryden's haggard face, and the young officer, after putting his hand in a bewildered fashion to his brow, turned and walked off down the yellowing avenue towards the Hall.
Sir Philip Ayres made very little of the nonappearance of his nephew. Battel had indeed proposed to leave for Portsmouth the night before, and only at the last hour had he changed his mind and said he would go early in the morning instead. The bridegroom cared little either way, but allowed himself the indulgence which he knew he might not have again for some time, of thinking of no one but Harriet.
He dwelt on Harriet, not only with an extravagant passion, but with a higher, an affectionate tenderness which put her interests before his own. She had provoked in this haughty and impetuous young man, fond of power and pleasure, and hitherto jaded by easy fortune, a lofty and a chivalrous love of which he had not known himself capable.
But while he had been attending to dispatches to his other officers, he had secretly decided not to take her with him to America. He heard too much of what even the most comfortable voyage to New York entailed, to subject Harriet to it, and he was sensitive to what her feelings must be, brought as an enemy to the country of her birth.
He was himself convinced of the justice of the cause of the Colonists; he blamed the King, the King's friends who packed Parliament; the King's ministers who tried to curry favour with him for what was, in the thinking of all generous men, a civil war.
And he had been running anxiously through the list of his female acquaintances, wondering if there was any to whom he could trust Harriet. He knew that Marling Hall, in the company of its grim old mistress, was distasteful to the high-spirited girl. Plan after plan came into his mind to rescue her from this, and at the same time to spare her a painful, perhaps dreadful voyage to America.
He decided he would tell his resolutions to Lady Marling, and then Harriet herself even before the wedding; and he was leaving the Jointure House on this errand when he was met on the threshold by George Dryden—pale, disordered, like a man who had received a mortal stroke or is in the sudden grip of an unexpected malady.
The young colonel exclaimed, pausing, "What has occurred; some misfortune?"
"Ay, a misfortune indeed." George Dryden leant against the porch of the Dower House. "I have to give you the most displeasing message that ever passed my lips. My sister has gone, sir—eloped as they think, with Frank Battel."
Sir Philip Ayres, well trained to meet emergencies, and of a nature naturally staunch and steadfast, replied, "Incredible! Tell me your reason for thinking anything so monstrous."
Sullenly, reluctantly, not daring to look at the other man, George Dryden related what Lady Marling had told him. While he spoke, through the alert brain of Philip Ayres darted the thought, "She may not care for me at all, but it's quite impossible that she's gone with Frank Battel."
He studied the young man very sharply, knowing George Dryden's weakness; he could not trust him at all, yet he realised that this elopement would not be at all to his advantage, which must lie entirely with the marriage taking place.
"Lady Marling doesn't want a hue and cry," finished Dryden desperately, "but it won't be able to be kept back much longer; the women are beginning to gossip..."
"It must not be kept back at all," replied Sir Philip sternly; "there must be a hue and cry, there may have been some accident. The Hall is very large, and, I understand, neglected. She may have come upon some misfortune in one of the old shut-up rooms and then the park—there are ponds..." With an anguish he could not wholly subdue, the proud man said abruptly as he turned away, "My God, if anything has happened to her..."
George was startled at this revelation of a depth of passion he had scarcely suspected existed.
"A pretty extensive search has been made already, sir," he stammered. "Wilkins, the old coachman, and the steward went off to search the nearest villages and inns, but there was no trace of any one. The park, too, has been combed; the fields and the woods—besides, she was seen going into her room last night. She must have gone willingly, sir. There's no good blinking the fact..."
Sir Philip Ayres did not listen to him; he went directly to interview Lady Marling, who had indeed no more to tell him.
He then published the news of the disappearance of the bride, which he proudly refused to believe was due to her own free will, and organised the strictest search for her in the house and in the grounds. He also sent an express to Portsmouth to discover, if possible, if a Captain Battel had arrived at the port.
These vigorous measures proved, however, without any effect. Not the slightest clue of the whereabouts of Harriet Dryden could be discovered.
At midday one of the gamekeepers delivered a sealed letter to Sir Philip Ayres; the fellow explained shamefacedly, that the night before Captain Francis Battel had given him five guineas to keep this till the following evening, when he was to deliver it to Sir Philip, but that he, the gamekeeper, dreading the consequences of any further delay, in view of the disappearance of the young lady, had thought better to give it to Sir Philip at once.
This letter which Sir Philip tore impetuously from the envelope, contained but a few words:
As the fair Harriet Dryden shows a preference to my person, I can do no less than take her under my protection. Thanks to your generosity I am well supplied with the means. The tender creature does not scruple to say in true romantic style that she prefers love to riches; true, as she is under age we cannot be married without her guardian's consent in England—therefore I am taking her to Jersey. We may meet on the transport sailing from Portsmouth, for I by no means intend to neglect my duty, but then the sweet Harriet Dryden will be the wife of your dutiful nephew,
"This is a mere rigmarole," decided Sir Philip Ayres at once. "I do not believe he intends to marry her. I do not believe they've gone to Jersey. I think he has decoyed her away to ruin her, but, my God, what decoy did he use?"
There was little time for anything; no time at all for speculation. Sir Philip Ayres showed the letter to Lady Marling whom it seemed to wither, as if it had been a poisonous blast. She gave instructions for the immediate cancellation of everything appertaining to the marriage, and ordered, with a passion scarcely to be controlled, that every trace of festivities should be removed from the Hall.
While with passionate reiteration the anguished old woman exclaimed, "It is a mystery—how could she have known the fellow, how could he have induced her? She was a modest, well- behaved girl—I'll go guarantee for that..."
"Doubtless," replied Sir Philip Ayres bitterly. "She knew Frank Battel as little as she knew me, madam. I have been to blame. I should not have forced this marriage on a young woman who knew nothing of me."
"It is not possible for her to take such a distaste for your person as to throw herself at Captain Battel."
"It is possible, Lady Marling. What do we know of Miss Dryden's mind? He is a lively young fellow; she would know nothing of his character," and leaving the old woman, sitting among her useless splendours, Sir Philip Ayres took with him George Dryden and rode at once to Portsmouth, which town they reached at dusk; a distasteful journey, without speech, in frantic haste.
Their first inquiry was for the Jersey boat; they learnt that the sea was so rough none had put out that morning, nor had any private vessel been hired.
"Then, wherever he has taken her," said Sir Philip, "he has not taken her to Jersey," and he proceeded to search the town, which was in a rare confusion owing to the presence of soldiers and sailors about to embark, army contractors, Government agents, and the several wives and families of these, who had come either to accompany them or bid them farewell.
Although Colonel Sir Philip Ayres easily secured the help of General Howe himself, it was impossible to immediately discover whether or no Captain Battel was at the port, and the soldier found his own military concerns so pressing upon him he had scarce any time to give to his own tragedy.
He employed George Dryden to search for his sister, but at the end of that tumultuous day the young captain returned bitter and exhausted; he vowed he could not discover the least trace of the missing couple; no description of any who bore their likeness had been seen.
"No doubt but he has chosen a good place in which to hide," flung out Sir Philip bitterly. "Among the thousands crowding into the town, how is it possible to trace these two?"
"But," exclaimed George Dryden furiously, "he must arrive in time to embark or he may be cashiered!"
"I believe he'd care little for that. He has two thousand pounds in gold on him; that will make everything easy. He may get to France."
"I hope he may get his throat cut for his moneybags."
George Dryden had lost all control of himself; his unsuspected fondness for, and pride in, Harriet gave a poignant edge to his sharp disappointment; he fixed his distraught mind on the bright image of Harriet and all that he had ever known of her as he added impulsively, "You don't blame her, do you, sir? I suppose that's a stupid, an impertinent thing to say, but I can't believe there's any evil in Harriet."
"Nor do I," replied the young colonel quietly; "it is inexplicable why she has gone, but as I have poignant cause to know, her innocence is such that any scoundrel might work upon it."
He put his hands before his eyes, his elbows on the table, for the moment overwhelmed by the depth of his wrath and pain. When he looked up, struggling for composure and strength, he saw far beyond the dreary grey water beyond the town where the mighty transports lay at anchor; above, sombre clouds were darkening down, driven by a fierce wind.
With furled canvas the great ships rocked on the surging waves; the flags were blown out, and the massive forms of the brightly coloured figure-heads seemed to strain against the hostile elements.
Suddenly Colonel Ayres realised that Harriet was snatched from him into complete oblivion; he could now scarcely believe in his own pain.
ON the day that the army transports and frigates were to sail, Sir Philip Ayres discovered that his nephew, like so many young men of quality and fashion, had made use of his particular influence and some private interest he possessed, to obtain leave to embark on whatever vessel he chose, instead of going with his company—a privilege open to most officers, and one which Sir Philip disdained to take, having resolved from the first to sail with his regiment.
The captain of one of the frigates admitted being a peculiar friend to Francis Battel and said he believed that young gentleman would procure a berth with him instead of going on the troops' transport. He also disclosed that Frank Battel had said he would require accommodation for a lady, for a black servant, and possibly for a waiting-woman.
This was the only information that Sir Philip Ayres could obtain of his nephew, though he had had all the post-houses in Portsmouth town and adjacent villages watched, all the baggage that arrived from London put under a keen scrutiny, and the embarkation of all ranks under the constant eye of his servants and agents.
The storm passing off and the wind setting fair, some of the regiments embarked and sailed, and orders arrived from London to hurry the departure of the others. These orders were so peremptory, following as they did on receipt of the news of the embarrassment of General Gage, commanding in the Colonies, that General Howe, in charge of the Expedition, in his haste threw all into hurry and confusion. Sir Philip Ayres found the care of his troops evolve almost entirely upon himself; the captains were men of fashion of the type of Dryden or Battel, and had made arrangements for their own comfort in the frigates—one of them was not yet come to Portsmouth. The soldiers were largely raw recruits, who at short notice were leaving their native country for, as they thought, possibly for ever, and certainly undertaking at least, a voyage of several weeks to a country which was nothing but savage in their estimation.
Amidst scenes of distracted haste, men and baggage were embarked at the Point from the first flush of day. All was involved in a confusion in which even those of greatest authority found it difficult to keep order. Curses and rages, partings and barterings, last-minute purchases being made for the voyage, the shouts of the officers and the murmurs almost of rebellion from the soldiers, many of whom were pressed men, and nearly all were young, formed a scene of bewildering chaos, in which Sir Philip Ayres, even amidst the pressure of his numerous duties, still endeavoured to get news of Frank Battel and Harriet Dryden.
The wind had lulled, and he passionately hoped that there might be a delay, but at the end of the second day he spent in Portsmouth, it rose again, and, though gusty, blew down the Channel; then he heard that the order for putting to sea was to be given at nightfall.
Despite the offers of General Howe, the officer commanding, and other highly placed officers of his acquaintance, Sir Philip Ayres sternly refused to be separated from his men. He resolved to embark on the transport with the greater part of his regiment, and an equal number of dragoons and their horses. This vessel was small, and there could be no doubt that it would be uncomfortably, and indeed dangerously, overcrowded, but Sir Philip Ayres protests fell on heedless ears; it was too late to make any alterations, and his indignant complaint that negroes on board, Guineamen in their passage to slavery, were allowed almost as much room as a soldier in a transport, was dismissed with a shrug.
As the moment for embarkation arrived, and still there was no trace of Harriet Dryden nor of the man with whom she had eloped, the annoyance and despair of Sir Philip Ayres reached an almost breaking-point.
It took all the courage that was his by nature and training to support him at this juncture. He hardly heard the complaint of some officers, who, seeing the inconvenience of their quarters on the transport, were intriguing and bribing for permission to pass on to a frigate which might afford accommodation more suitable for officers. Under ordinary circumstances, George Dryden would have been among these, but shame and grief made him more indifferent than he had ever been before to his personal comfort, and kept him, with a kind of silent loyalty, close to the person of his colonel.
An hour before the transport sailed, while Sir Philip Ayres was endeavouring to produce order into the confusion of men and baggage, some of which still remained on the foreshore, his orderly came up to him with a report that a young woman, who answered the description of Harriet Dryden, accompanied by an officer, a black servant, and a waiting-woman, had been seen to go on board the frigate Perseus.
This report, arriving so late, only added to the many distractions of Philip Ayres. He had himself to go on board immediately, leaving any possibility of boarding the Perseus until they reached New York.
When the final signal for getting to sea was given, the canvas spread, and the vessels turned down towards the Channel, misery and despair forced the proud man to meditation and self- reproaches.
The voyage was good and without incident as far as Madeira, which port they did not touch; but it was a period of deep agony for Philip Ayres, who, amid all the tedious duties and hideous discomforts that the voyage entailed, could not find means to distract himself enough from his private anguish.
After Madeira was passed, adverse winds delayed the fleet, and the great sultry heat caused a feverish plague to break out on the transports; numbers of men and horses died; the fresh food came to an end; doctors were overworked amid foul accommodation, which caused disease to spread with fearful swiftness.
The men became depressed and sullen; there was no assistance to be obtained from the other transports who were either themselves afflicted or held off for fear of infection.
Not only from an alert sense of duty, but to escape his private reflections, did Sir Philip Ayres throw himself into the painful duties of attending the sick and heartening those not yet struck down.
He passed his nights on deck, often taking the watch to get what air he could; and in the light of southern stars or brazen moon, he struggled as best he might, with the half-fevered passion through which gleamed a dim figure of Harriet Dryden.
A deep disgust for the conduct of the war filled him with a deeper loathing every day as he saw that through the corruption of contractors, there were as many men likely to perish through disease as by sword or fire.
The musty oatmeal, the half-dried peas, and decayed meat that formed the rations were in themselves sufficient to start a plague. Sir Philip Ayres knew that most of these army contractors were Members of Parliament, who voted for the pursuing of the war, of which they enjoyed the proceeds... During his long night- watches on deck he recalled what Harriet had said to him at Petersham, how boldly and warmly she had spoken of the cause of the Colonists; and, had it not been that he was bound by the instinct of his class to a severe military obedience, he would have been half-minded to throw in his cause with the Americans who were not, it seemed to him, really defending themselves against the English, but against all the forces which make for bad tyrannical government.
He had hoped, during the voyage, to be able to send a signalled message to some of the other frigates and transports, and so pursue his inquiries for Harriet and Francis Battel, but though the dropping of the wind had allowed the fleet to come very near one another, the seriousness of the diseases which had broken out prevented any communication.
By the time they had reached within ten days' sail of New York, not twenty-four hours passed without the dead being cast into the sea; half of the horses had already perished, and the state of the ship become such that all who were well enough slept on deck to escape the intolerable stench below.
Sir Philip Ayres, wrapped in his greatcoat, was on deck in a heavy slumber of exhaustion, when he was awakened by cries and hurrying footsteps of sailors and men, who were of a sudden employed in combating the unexpected violence of a hurricane.
The vessel strained against the wind so violently that the seamen declared the timber would part; guns of distress were heard from the rest of the fleet, but the furious storm was such that it was impossible for one ship to assist her consort, and it was even feared they would be the means of each other's destruction, for the high seas tossed them dangerously together.
The darkness was complete, save when the flashes of lightning rent the murky heavens too briefly to show more than a general scene of horror; though no dreadful details could be descried, Philip Ayres had no doubt, from the guns which he continually heard firing, that there was some ship in greater distress than his own.
He thought, with a peculiar horror, of the Perseus, on which he believed might be Harriet...
In the pauses of his arduous attempts to help the sailors, he offered up a passionate prayer for her safety... Prayer was the only means of help, for it was impossible to put out a boat in a sea in which a man-of-war could hardly hope to live.
There came no cessation of the peril with the dawn, but to the horror of their own situation was added dread for the safety of the other ships, whose dangers they could now clearly perceive.
Wet to the skin, dishevelled, his once brilliant uniform torn and defaced, cheek and hands bleeding, brows damp with sweat, Sir Philip Ayres stood on the upper deck and swiftly scanned the nearest ship which tossed in the rays of the first pale light between the tumult of sea and sky in which it was almost impossible to distinguish, between the fury of sea and cloud, the full desolation of the scene.
Two of the men-of-war were no longer visible; one frigate showed in the far distance on the pallid horizon. Three transports were close; one was dismasted, another rudderless, flung about on the waves under bare masts. From this vessel came the repeated signals of distress which Philip Ayres had heard and seen with such a desperate sense of impotence—the sullen boom of gun, the fitful flare of rocket. With dreadful solicitude he watched the fated vessel; it was frequently hidden from sight by the tossing waves, which sent sea-foam mast high. So filled was he with this torturing, haunting conviction that Harriet was aboard, so overborne by the fatigues and anxieties of the night, that he fancied among a little group of people whom he could see on the upper deck of the tossing vessel he could discern the figure of Harriet Dryden, her hair blowing in the storm, her hands clasped upon her breast, as she turned towards him a face of piteous entreaty.
Leaving his post of observation, he went to the commander of the ship and asked if he knew the name of the vessel.
"I don't, Sir Philip, but it looks like the Perseus."
"Then," cried the young colonel wildly, "let me have a boat and a few men, to see what help we may give."
"She's doomed," replied the captain shortly; "she will go down."
"I hear them firing their guns!"
"I know, sir, but we can do nothing."
"Let us try—at my own risk, for God's sake!"
This the captain refused; he was surprised that Sir Philip should make such an offer. He said briefly that any effort at rescue must mean death to those who undertook it, without affording the least hope to those whose case admitted of none.
Thus baffled and half frantic, Sir Philip returned to the upper deck; taking his spy-glass he again directed his gaze on the sinking vessel, for sinking it now was.
He could distinctly see in the lurid glow of the strong dawn a group of women pressed together on the upper deck; then, before his wild and eager gaze the ship swung round, plunging suddenly into the vortex of the seething waves...
Only two sailors were rescued of all on board, who, lusty men and strong swimmers, made for the other ship and were dragged on board by ropes cast over the side.
Sir Philip was for at once questioning these, but they were so badly bruised as to be for awhile unconscious, and the young colonel was forced to attend to his own duties, for the commander of the ship relied on him as the only person of quality and authority beside himself on board.
By the sunless noon the tearing wind had somewhat abated, and the master was able to take an observation. They were several leagues out of their course. Of all the fleet only one ship remained in sight, and that was at a great distance, but for themselves all immediate danger was passed, and every man who could hold himself erect was ordered to repair the rigging and the damaged hull.
Many of the sick were found to be dead; all the horses had been thrown overboard during the worst peril to lighten the load, and the scene on board the transport under the grey skies, still sullen with the retreating storm, was one of desolation and terror; large numbers of exhausted, bruised seabirds huddled on the rigging.
After visiting his men and giving what encouragement and consolation he could, Sir Philip Ayres proceeded to question the two rescued sailors. He asked them as to the identity of the women he had seen (through the perspective glass) standing on the deck of the doomed ship, and asked if Captain Francis Battel of the 29th Foot was on board the Perseus and if he had been—if he had with him a woman?
The sailors knew very little; they said there had been several women whose husbands were officers, but they did not know their names and to what regiments their husbands belonged. One of the women had a servant with her, who, from inquiries, turned out to be the wife of a sergeant in Sir Philip Ayres's regiment... this increased his anxiety.
With desperate insistence he extorted from the sailors further particulars of the woman, whom, indeed, the two had seen very little of during that awful voyage, but they could both recall she was young, beautiful, and gay; she had kept up the spirits of the other females by her courage and her cheerfulness. They had last seen her on deck, her hair falling about her shoulders and her hands clasped on her breast... but there was no doubt that she had gone to the bottom with the others...
The sailor's simple tale was so like his own vision, that Sir Philip Ayres could almost persuade himself he had seen Harriet perish in the tempest...
After sailing for nearly another fortnight the damaged ship at length made for New York; it had been a disastrous voyage of over eleven weeks, in which all the horses and half the men had perished, and the survivors been left with half their strength—in some cases with half their senses—through fatigue, uneasiness, and malignant infection.
Many were taken on shore insensible; the main body of the reinforcements under General Howe had escaped the tempest, and reached the harbour of New York one week before. Sir Philip Ayres received orders for him to immediately proceed to join the troops in Massachusetts, the colony which was the first to commence the war and was still causing the greatest trouble. But the extreme sickness of a great number of his men gave him a valid excuse to linger for a few days in New York and to make eager inquiries as to the whereabouts of Battel and Harriet Dryden.
He made some unexpected progress in this, for young Dryden came and told him eagerly that he had met Francis Battel's body servant, also inquiring for him.
This was Hercules, a negro slave of much intelligence, and from him Colonel Sir Philip Ayres' eager questions extracted this:
Captain Battel had arrived at the port the evening the first transport had sailed. By his interest and bribes the captain of the frigate, the Warspite, had delayed the sailing of that ship for some days, using, the negro supposed, the influence of some people in high places; Battel had promised to return at the end of the specified time and embark. But he did not, and the captain, though no doubt heavily fee'd, dare wait no longer but got underway with a strong wind, and overtook the rest of the fleet two days before they made the Peak of Teneriffe. Hercules added that he believed his master, who had thus missed the passage, would hire a vessel to follow the convoy and might therefore escape the storm.
He knew that Captain Battel had ordered him to put the greater part of his baggage on board whether he came or not, so it was, that he had sailed without him. He knew his master expected a lady to come with him—he knew not who.
Sir Philip Ayres told the negro to take lodgings in New York, put Frank Battel's baggage there, and wait his possible arrival, either on another transport or frigate, or in a private vessel. He now had some hope that the woman who had perished on the Perseus was not Harriet Dryden, but still that figure haunted his imagination.
Ships were now frequently sailing to England, and he wrote immediately to his lawyers, to his stewards, and to various trusted acquaintances, begging them make all possible inquiries in England. He had no sooner dispatched these when he received orders that he was not to wait for the recovery of the sick but to muster all that remained of his regiment, and with a party of dismounted dragoons, find his way to the main army which was on its march from Canada to Albany.
Sir Philip Ayres smiled at these orders, which seemed to hint at desperation. He had been at once impressed by the complete confusion of the British forces under Sir Harry Clinton in New York, and he remarked with a bitter smile to George Dryden, "We do not consist of more than five hundred even with the American volunteers who have joined us since, and are we to force a way through an unknown and hostile country, of which we have not as much as a map?—a country which, I suppose, is already ruined by the war? We have no artillery, and many of our men are still disabled by illness, or are raw recruits. Good God, what is this damned folly? and what are we who take part in it?"
George Dryden was also sullen and dispirited. Not only was he still labouring under the stress of his sister's disappearance, but as soon as he set foot in America a thousand memories of his childhood assailed him with that bitter nostalgia for the past which is so hard to endure.
Sir Philip Ayres watched the departure of the remnants of his regiment out of New York with an odd sensation of unreality. This did not seem the same world as that which contained London and Marling Hall, nor did he feel himself to be the same man as the careless libertine who had entertained Harriet Dryden at Petersham, and the same man as the ardent suitor who had pressed for her hand, who had prepared for his marriage at Marling Hall. All that seemed to belong to another life.
He was, too, curiously impressed by the strangeness of the country in which he found himself; by the majestic sweep and size of the landscape, by the fantasy of the adventure imposed on him, a man used to the rules of continental warfare, the enterprise in which he was engaged seemed at once savage and perilous to a grotesque degree; he was sorry he was ordered northwards; he would like to have been going towards Virginia, to Harriet Dryden's old home.
But, thankful to distract himself by any manner of action, he made haste to join the northern army under Burgoyne, which was proceeding through all manner of difficulties from Canada.
As soon as New York was left behind them, the English began to perceive the hideous devastation caused by a protracted war in a country which had lately been, through the industry of the Colonists, so prosperous. The miserable huts near the ruins of what had been flourishing farms afforded shelter for such inhabitants as had not been either driven away or murdered.
After a march of about fifty miles, Sir Philip Ayres decided to pitch camp for a sufficient time to enable parties to go out and secure new provisions.
It was now full autumn; the wild beauty of the strange scene, glowing with rich colour, had the power to exalt his mood.
He could think now of Harriet without such devastating pain; nay, with a sparkle of hope.
WHILE Sir Philip Ayres was fortifying his small camp, after the manner in which he was advised to do by the American volunteers who accompanied his expedition, against any possible attack by a body of rebels or Indians, he was joined by some troops under General Tryron, sent by Sir Harry Clinton from New York, with orders that he was to push on to the reinforcement of General Burgoyne, then at Albany and, it was believed, in some extremity.
"It is my former major, Horatio Gates, who opposes him," smiled Sir Philip. "I should scarcely have thought he would have been a match for a man like Burgoyne."
"General Gates the rebels call him now," said Tryron; "he is indeed but a figurehead, put in the position he holds on account of his one-time connection with the British Army. There are men under him—Benedict Arnold, in particular—who are worth much."
General Tryron confessed to but gloomy thoughts of the future; the rebels had the vast advantage of knowledge of the country, they were possessed, too, of an extraordinary obstinate tenacity and seemed prepared to sacrifice all, as Tryron said bitterly, "to their idol independence." Congress, though penniless and without resources and unrecognised by all save their own followers, yet seemed by some kind of miracle to be able to arm and put into the field considerable bodies of men, whose ages ranged from sixteen to sixty years, who were clothed for the most part in motley rags, yet who were able to hold at bay veteran troops.
General Tryron had brought with him a rough map, and on it pointed out to Ayres the route they were supposed to take to Albany, which was as far as Burgoyne had got on his difficult, straggling progress from Canada
"It seems," remarked Sir Philip Ayres dryly, "a hopeless expedition."
"We are promised the support of the Indians," said General Tryron, "and they, I must confess, are not civilised, and though Burgoyne has spoken to the chief of those with him, sharply forbidding them any kind of outrage on the white people, yet they are by no means obeying him—they have been responsible for horrible massacres, but he doesn't dare to reprimand them. Nor should I," he added, "for on several occasions they have fallen on the English troops."
This little English camp was formed on what the natives called a savanna, a low-lying swamp surrounded by great woods of magnificent trees, which made the most boasted forests of England poor and insignificant in comparison.
The beauty of the place in a way pacified Sir Philip's secret anguish and animated his spirit; it seemed impossible they were in a country stormed by war. They saw neither rebel enemies nor Indian allies; the woods abounded in game, the streams in fish, the trees in fruit; fresh water was abundant.
"It does not seem," exclaimed Sir Philip, "as if we were in a wilderness or a savage country, and I can well understand how those who have colonised so beautiful a portion of the earth might wish to retain it."
General Tryron shrugged his shoulders and declared "that it was not for a soldier to be examining into such affairs as belong to politicians. Officers and men alike, once they had taken the King's money they were bound to fight for him and make no more ado about it."
Ayres smiled to himself; he could not look at the matter in so simple a light.
He made an early opportunity of inquiring from General Tryron, who was a good-natured if lethargic soldier, if he had seen or heard anything of Francis Battel in New York.
The inquiry was natural, since this officer was of his regiment and of his blood. Tryron had heard nothing, but he said that he had heard the name mentioned by one of the ladies who accompanied his wife.
General Tryron, like so many of the officers, had brought out a parcel of womenkind to keep him company during the campaign. Upon Sir Philip Ayres inquiring the name of this lady, he heard it was no other than Mrs. Sally Ayloffe.
This news gave him considerable displeasure which was increased when, two days later, she rode into the camp, accompanying Mrs. Tryron and her daughter, who travelled in a wagon with some black servants, a batman, and an escort of dragoons.
Sir Philip would very willingly have avoided this dangerous lady, but she soon sought him out, and that with little ceremony.
"Come, sir," cried she, greeting him with a manner of wild gaiety difficult to resist, "we may leave behind here the affectations of town and discourse, I hope, freely."
The young man looked at her with bitter reluctance; he could not but admire her person, which was set off in a green velvet, masculine riding-dress; she was mounted on a beautiful white steed she called Young Fire, which she had purchased in New York. He replied curtly, "You have, I think, Mrs. Ayloffe, little call to come here, since none of your kin are amongst the combatants."
"I came for my pleasure," cried she. "I made the most of a chance acquaintance with poor Mrs. Tryron, who was willing enough—timid wretch!—to have a bold, flaunting creature like myself to support her."
Ayres answered gravely, with a touch of malice: "Women have many terrors to support here, and I wonder often how the men can endure to bring them. If you are abducted in America, Mrs. Ayloffe, it will not be as easy to rescue you as it was from the house at Hounslow."
"Nor would you again be at that trouble, I dare swear."
He did not contradict her; he was determined to show the most complete indifference to this woman, and yet he had a secret suspicion that she knew something of the mystery of Harriet Dryden.
Looking at her with a steadiness that made even her effrontery flinch, he said, "General Tryron told me you mentioned the name of Captain Battel, madam. You know, perhaps, that he is missing—it amounts to a desertion—he did not join the transport at Portsmouth. Hercules, his black servant, waits for him with his baggage at New York. There was talk of his hiring a private vessel and coming after. Do you know anything of this matter?"
"Why should I?"
"Nay," he replied impatiently, "if you are to waste time in parrying, I will have nothing to say about it. But you and he seemed close friends in town."
"What is your complaint against him?"
Sally Ayloffe pursed up her red lips, swung the switch in her hand. They were walking on the edge of the camp, and behind them all was the glory of the mighty trees, swaying their rich boughs against the azure of the gorgeous sunset.
Sir Philip Ayres felt his mood change and lifted at the mere contemplation of the superb scenery—so grand, so untouched.
"Do you still remember her?" asked Mrs. Ayloffe directly. "Is it worth while to do so? Of course I heard the tale of how she ran away on her wedding eve; it was all very sensational and romantical, and made a fine stir in London. Yet it was soon forgotten in the hurry of the leave-taking."
"If she be alive," he replied quietly, "I am determined to find her. And if I find her, I am resolved to marry her—whatever her condition."
"You have not much chance, I think," said Mrs. Ayloffe hurriedly. She paused in her walk and stood in front of him, pulling her gloves and her switch from one hand to another. "There's a war on and this wild country—"
"She may not be here," he replied. "She may be in England; I have no clue at all."
"She went with Francis Battel?"
He turned on her quickly, "How do you know that? No one could know that."
"Oh, has he not disappeared at the same time?"
"You provoking woman! I see you would try to vex me with futile gossip."
He turned away with such a wearied impatience of her company that she made a desperate shift to detain him. "Indeed I do know something, but I'll not say if you're so uncivil."
Sir Philip Ayres was not to be caught so easily. "I'll swear that what you know is not of the least importance. Why should it be?"
"Well, I can tell you this: he sailed for America on the Perseus, I believe."
"You say that to try me, madam; you've heard that the Perseus went down before my eyes."
Mrs. Ayloffe appeared to enjoy the anguish that all his pride could scarcely conceal.
"Well, I know she did not sail on the vessel on which Frank Battel had arranged accommodation for her, and on which his servant Hercules and his baggage went. I spoke to the negro myself in New York."
"So did I," said Ayres, "and could get nothing out of him. He knows little; he was told that his master and a woman were coming on board the frigate, but neither appeared. Do you know how it was that Frank missed the frigate? Did he—is it possible—that after all he took her to Jersey?"
"Nay, he had no intention of marrying her," sneered Mrs. Ayloffe. "You think a spark like Frank wishes to encumber himself with a wife? It was done to ruin her and spite you."
"And you, God help you, had a hand in it." He moved away from her quickly, and she was shrewd enough to know that he feared he might be moved to some violence; she was touched by his fierce pain.
"I swear I did not," she cried solemnly. "Frank told me afterwards. I was in that first jest, which seemed to me to have little harm in it, but not in this. Frank came to me in London, told me how he had gotten her away from Marling Hall..."
"How? how?" interrupted Sir Philip Ayres, swing round on her.
"Oh, I do not know; he told her some tale about you, no doubt. She was a fool, was she not? He got her as far as Portsmouth, and left her there in some decent lodgings, made the arrangements with the captain of the frigate, and came to London on some business; I don't know what it was. He was there, because he waited on me and told me with much satisfaction the story, then in an hour or so he was gone back to Portsmouth, and I heard no more till I reached Portsmouth myself. We were about to embark at the Point when he came up to me in a frantic state and said that he had missed Harriet Dryden; he had been forced to allow the ship in which he had engaged his berth to sail with his servant and baggage, without disclosing himself, for he did not wish the identity of the girl to get noised abroad. She had disappeared from the lodgings in which he had placed her; on his return from London he found her flown, and the landlady knowing nothing. All she could say was the young woman had packed up a small amount of luggage and left the house, saying she was going on board one of the frigates. He believed that she mentioned the Perseus. I could not delay to hear more of this narration, which was hurried and incoherent. I left Frank Battel behind at Portsmouth; I do not know what has become of him. That is my tale," she added after a second. "I give it to you honestly for what it may be worth."
Sir Philip believed the woman, although he had profoundly distrusted her. The story, he thought, had the ring of truth; it seemed to him that no matter under what excuse Harriet Dryden had been beguiled from Marling Hall, the high-spirited girl was likely to escape Frank Battel as she had escaped himself, to find some independent means of returning to her own home in Virginia, and it gave the man who loved her almost as much pleasure as if he had heard news of her safety, to hear that she had escaped from Francis Battel and that, whatever danger she had in store, at least she was not in the power of that scoundrel; he had had no opportunity to either marry or ruin her...
Sir Philip looked at Mrs. Ayloffe with something like gratitude... He could not believe that the brilliant, audacious woman was wholly evil, though he knew that she was reckless and unscrupulous.
There was something about the large landscape that suited her dark, rich, foreign beauty better than the charming rooms of St. James's.
"I wonder who you really are?" he challenged her. "And why you are here—"
"I am Sally Ayloffe, the rich banker's widow—"
"And something more than that, I'll warrant."
"Oh, I like an active life." She held high her beautiful head with the bright cluster of blue-black ringlets glistening in the sunset glow; the fires of the sunset seemed in her brilliant eyes, too. "War excites me. D'ye think I could sit by a fireside with this going on?"
"Many women are content to."
"Pray don't class me with as meek wretches; now pray don't! Besides"—her low Irish voice was suddenly soft—"you know that I came for your sake, too."
"If you please to keep that as your jest—"
"You know that it is as true as anything you'll ever hear."
The wide sky, fading to a sombre purple, was fading behind her as she stood in a space between some broad-leaved bushes, her switch bending in her gloved hands. The young man looked at her keenly; in many ways she appealed to his senses and to his mind—if it had not been for that other—
She was quick to seize on his half-formed thought.
"Come—forget that wilful child—let her go!" she cried, stepping towards him. "Do not you feel here in this strange place, with this wild waste of war around us, that it is I, not she, who matters to you?"
Sir Philip smiled.
"I am rooted, my poor Sally, in an unconquerable affection."
"Then, if you won't have me for a lover," she cried in an odd, wild fashion, "I shall be your enemy! You'll laugh at that, no doubt, but you don't know how dangerous I can be."
She turned away, laughing in a fashion that made him almost believe that all she did and said was a play; yet he knew her perilous southern blood, her bold, passionate disposition...
That evening important news came into the English camp.
Howe had succeeded in drawing Washington southwards, and had inflicted a defeat on him at Brandywine, where the romantic young Lafayette had been wounded; the rebels had withdrawn to Barren Hill; Howe had returned in triumph to his headquarters at Philadelphia, where he was much feted by the loyalists. On the other hand, a hired transport, richly laden with powder, guns, small arms, and money (the captain being in the pay of the rebels), had escaped from the convoy escorting her, run under the cover of the American guns in Chesapeake Bay, and delivered to the Colonists a vast quantity of the precious materials of which they were so sorely in need.
The dispatch added that there must be spies, and clever spies, at work, and warned Tryron to be most cautious and to hang, without mercy, any traitor he discovered; then concluded with a recommendation to Tryron to hasten to the assistance of Burgoyne, whose situation was daily becoming more distressing.
And in a few hours, therefore, the English broke camp. Encumbered by women, baggage, and servants, guided by the few American volunteers who were with them, the broken, straggling columns made slow progress across the wild and beautiful country.
Ayres found occasion to ride beside Dryden and to ask him if it were possible to find some means of sending a message to his home in Virginia—to discover if his relations, the Groves, had any news of Harriet.
Young Dryden seemed startled by this suggestion. "You don't know how large the country is, sir. The South's pretty far away, but it's possible to get there," he said impatiently, "if my hands were not tied! I would soon satisfy your curiosity—"
"Do you know what side your relatives have taken?"
"Nay, I've not heard from them since the outbreak of the war. Many in Virginia are loyalists, yet I think they would not be. Luke was at Yale when I last heard of him, but most of the students have left college and are fighting with Washington. I suppose," he added, "if we had a brush with the rebels we might meet him."
"Would you know him if you did? or his sister?"
"Nay; how should I; it's ten, twelve, or more years ago—we were children when we parted."
"He must be found," flashed Sir Philip Ayres firmly, "even through this confusion of war, and through this devastated country it is still possible, with perseverance and energy, to achieve one's object."
He told Dryden what he had heard from Mrs. Ayloffe. "That much heartens me, Dryden—to think that she may have escaped from that villain—"
"But not me, sir; she had better be under the protection of Battel, who is at least an Englishman, than be exposed alone to the horrors of that voyage or perchance to fall into the hands of savages," and with sullen disgust young Dryden recounted some of the tales he had heard of the atrocities performed by the terrible Indians of the Five Nations, then armed and encouraged with generous presents by the English to harass the Colonists.
Sir Philip Ayres whitened beneath his weather-stain as he said hoarsely, "I don't, I can't, believe she's come to harm, Dryden."
Thus to reassure himself, he made an occasion to touch his breast where lay the snuff-box with the miniature: "'Remember me'; ay, I'll remember thee; no need of these words—"
The little army, which then amounted to fifteen hundred men, advanced along the noble bank of the Hudson, which so astonished them by its size and majesty that they seemed to be beholding the eighth wonder of the world; they reached Peekshill, and there they were met by news which seemed to make not only their personal efforts vain, but to shatter all hope of the war coming to any immediate conclusion.
This was no less than an account of the surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga to Horatio Gates. Reduced to the last extremity and dogged by every misfortune, Burgoyne had made the best terms he could get with the insurgents, only barely receiving the honours of war; and he and all his force, which amounted to nearly six thousand men, were prisoners of the Americans.
Even Sir Philip Ayres, sympathetic as he had been with the Colonists, winced under this blow to British prestige.
"After this we cannot call them rebels," he exclaimed. "They will claim to be treated as equals and have their Congress received as a Government—their Mr. Washington as a general." And he added, stung: "To think a man like Horatio Gates should add such an achievement to his rascally name!"
After receiving this news, the English officers held a hurried council; full of shamed rage and consternation, they discussed the situation; there seemed nothing to do but return ignominiously to New York, and accordingly they sullenly retraced their tedious and difficult march.
Keenly as he felt the blow to his country's pride, bitter as it was to him to learn of such a sharp reverse to British arms, Sir Philip Ayres could not but find pleasure in turning his face southwards.
If, as he hoped, he was ordered to join Howe and Cornwallis at Philadelphia, he would have ample opportunity of visiting the homestead of the Groves; his heart gave a swerve at the thought that perhaps she might even be there. "I might find her untouched, and surely once I find her, I shall be able to make her understand what she is to me."
As they neared White Plains the discomforted and sullen body of troops was joined by a party of Indians under the leadership of a young chief whom they termed Blackfoot.
These men, who were most handsomely mounted and armed, claimed to be received as allies, nor did General Tryron dare refuse their company, much as he shrank from them.
The American loyalists murmured bitterly at this episode; some even deserted sooner than be thus in alliance with their natural and bitter enemies, and the English, particularly the raw recruits, were horrified at the appearance of these magnificent savages, who exceeded in ferocity of looks and demeanour their worst imagining.
It caused even Sir Philip Ayres, a professional soldier, a pang to see the scalps with long, fine hair attached, strained on light frames painted red at the edge, which these formidable warriors carried at their saddle bows.
George Dryden, all the terrors of his childhood roused by this sight, broke into imprecations against the English Government who could have employed such allies.
They had with them an interpreter, a young man who spoke English very well; he said that they belonged to the tribe of Iroquois, that they had been to New York to demand of Sir Harry Clinton rewards for the raids they had lately undertaken on behalf of the English.
"You mean," said Tryron with disgust, "that while the men are away fighting, you've broken into lonely farms, murdered the women and the children and the old folk. The English will not pay for such services."
The Indian, with a sly smile, replied: "They had already done so, and that it was their policy to break down the resistance of the Colonists by every species of terror," and he added, with shrewd malice, "that remarks like these might easily make enemies of the Red men, and that if he was to interpret what General Tryron had said to his Chief, the English might all very well be massacred before they reached New York."
At this threat the General, much to his distaste, was forced to hold his tongue
Ayres, who had been riding beside Tryron, commented, as the Red man galloped back to his own party, "That savage speaks English very well. Did you not remark it?"
"They do, do they not?" replied Tryron vaguely; he knew nothing whatever of the country, nor the people, nor the customs he was among. "Some of them have been converted and taught by the Jesuits, I believe."
Ayres laughed. 'They speak a little English, some of them—sufficient to transact their business—but there was an ease and a flow in that Redskin's speech—I advise you to keep him under observation, sir," he added.
"Why, what do you think?" asked the General, turning in his saddle sharply.
"I think he may be a white man; it was a common trick in the last war with the French; they officered these savages almost entirely with their own men. You know when General Braddock was defeated at Great Meadows, the French led the Redskins to oppose him—all wore paint and feathers."
"But these are not our enemies," remarked the General, who was obtuse and narrow in his understanding. "He said we are friends and allies. What would be the object of the disguise? If disguise it be, there's no matter in it."
Sir Philip Ayres said no more to him, but he found an opportunity to ask young Dryden if he had observed the savage who acted as interpreter. He, as a Virginian, must know something of the appearance and customs of these people.
Dryden, who was sunk in gloomy, low spirits, protested he had not noticed the fellow at all.
Sir Philip Ayres then made an occasion to ride up beside the interpreter and question him in a suave and friendly fashion as to his people and their late successes against the Colonists; Dryden accompanied them, and the two officers subjected the Indian to a close scrutiny.
He was a magnificent young man whose body, nude to the waist, was of the utmost grace and strength. If his hair was shaved, save for one lock, it was concealed in a circle of red leather, a high crown of beads and eagles' feathers, which came low over his brow and from which sprung a tall scarlet plume. It was almost impossible to distinguish any detail of his features, save the flash of his dark eyes and the gleam of his white teeth, for his face was disfigured by smears of green, red, and blue paint.
He bore himself guardedly, answering briefly the questions the two English officers put to him. Sir Philip Ayres carefully compared him with his companions. As they rode a little apart through the forest, suddenly he said, "Yours is a good disguise, but I know you for a white man."
THE young Indian guard remained impassive, as if he had not understood, but Sir Philip Ayres thought that he could see a steady defiance in his dark brown eyes; it was clear that he was possessed of extreme self-control. "A dangerous man," thought the English officer; he found an early opportunity of reporting his suspicions to Tryron.
"These people are not to be trusted—you recall, sir, it was largely their desertion which brought about the disaster at Saratoga... They betrayed Burgoyne and would betray us; it was not only inhumane but impolitic to employ these savages."
General Tryron, though agreeing with Ayres, could do nothing; he, as all the other British officers, was under command to issue to the Indians not only pay equal to that of the English and Germans, but plentiful supplies of the two commodities which they valued most—drink and firearms.
"And for the very reason you give, Ayres, 'that they are not to be trusted,' I must treat 'em fair; these painted devils know the accursed country far better than we do; they have finer mounts, and in many cases finer arms, and they are up to a thousand sly tricks that one cannot expect a Christian to contend with."
"Well, sir, I hope you will have 'em watched," replied Ayres uneasily; "that young warrior whom they call, I think, Red Plume, who acts as interpreter, is, in my belief, a white man, and so considers young Dryden, who was born in Virginia."
"If so, he may well be a spy," agreed the harassed General, "but if he were, I should scarcely dare to denounce him and bring his murdering horde on us with their scalping-knives and tomahawks. This war," he added wearily, "is not only to a degree futile and senseless, it is confusing—how may one tell friends from foe when all speak the same language and are from the same race? When one fights in a vast unmapped wilderness—when one is burdened with a parcel of savages whom one is supposed to take as allies and whom no one understands?"
Even while Sir Philip Ayres thus talked with General Tryron in the half-dismantled blockhouse which they had chosen for their brief halting-place, the young Indian whom they discussed, Red Plume, entered boldly with a princely air. He had brought a demand from his Chief, he said, for the presence of that potentate and himself as interpreter at the next war council of the English.
"That, now!" exclaimed Ayres, as the General glanced at him. "Is it not an extraordinary insolence?"
General Tryron, looking suspiciously at the splendid savage who stood with folded arms, replied, "As neither your master nor any of you take any interest in the politics of this war, which indeed are almost past any man's understanding, as you fight only for plunder, maybe for the love of bloodshed, what is it to you whether you attend councils or no?"
"It is the custom of our tribe," replied the Indian calmly, "not to be shut out of any official dignities. My Chief belongs to the Iroquois of the Five Nations who consider that they have done more than the British to drive the French out of Canada. The Chieftains of the Five Nations hold themselves equal with the King of England, and demand all privileges which are granted to his generals."
The Indian looked implacable and formidable in his handsome war appointments; his fringed and beaded trousers, the huge crown of feathers with the immense central red plume made him appear of monstrous height.
"Very well," replied General Tryron dryly; "when next we hold a council of war your master and yourself may be present."
When the Indian had left the room the General turned to Ayres. "Any deliberations of moment we will hold private, and we will keep from the knowledge of these savages any dispatches of importance."
These prudent measures were, however, defeated by the energy and vigilance of the Indians, especially by that of Red Plume, who attached himself so closely to the British staff that they could do nothing without his knowledge.
When, the next day, a messenger arrived from Sir Harry Clinton with further instructions for their march, Red Plume was present and insisted upon the dispatches being read to him that he might report them to his Chief.
The orders were that, as another transport had arrived in New York and there was scarce accommodation or food for the number of men now in camp round that town, as the winter would soon be settling in, which would make any but the most desultory operations impossible, Tryron was to lead his men south and join Howe at Philadelphia.
General Tryron read the dispatch to Red Plume, and even allowed him, on his making some difficulty about understanding a certain phrase, to himself read it. Sir Philip Ayres fretted bitterly at the General's weakness. The intense interest with which the young Indian took in this news convinced him, almost beyond a doubt, that he was an American spy, and no sooner had he galloped back on his glistening black horse to his savage companions, than Ayres turned impulsively to the General and the other officers present.
"Surely, sir, that dispatch was confidential? Allow me, at least, to put on record my opinion that it is most dangerous to disclose all our plans to these savages—my conviction that this Red Plume is a spy—a white man."
General Tryron shrugged: "It is still more dangerous, I take it, Sir Philip, to thwart 'em. I don't want to be scalped in my bed."
Dejected and discontented, the British proceeded towards Morristown; many of the American volunteers or Tories, learning of the ill success of the expedition, had returned to their homes; some of the British pressed men had also deserted in the hope of finding better accommodation with the rebels or preferring to adventure on their own in the wild forests.
Their maps proving to be incorrect, the officers were forced to rely upon the Indians as guides; much of the land through which they traversed was desolated, and much was virgin forest and plains, without roads or even paths. Their march, therefore, was tedious and laborious, and the winter, though that year very mild, was already closing in. They received no further communication from either Clinton or Howe, and it was generally understood that there would be no definite action until the spring. The troops of Congress, after being again defeated by Howe, had retreated to Monmouth in New Jersey.
By the time the British had reached the banks of the Delaware, they were far outnumbered by their Indian allies; fresh groups of savages joined them at every halt; and Sir Philip Ayres, closely and suspiciously observing this unwanted escort, discerned that Red Plume, the interpreter, appeared to have more influence and authority among his companions than his Chief himself.
On his remarking this to General Tryron, that officer replied grimly, "That dangerous and unreliable as the Indians might be, without their help the troops would scarcely have been able to find their way through the dense woods and treacherous morasses, a march of many hundreds of miles across a savage country with every one in arms against them." Ayres, perceiving nothing was to be done with the General, confided his increasing suspicions to Dryden who shared them.
"It is like enough," said he, "that Red Plume is an American. I remember in Virginia there were many white men well accustomed to the habits and ways of Indians, as hardy and as bold, as well used to living a wild life in the woods. No doubt this fellow has been sent by Congress, Washington, or Gates to hang upon our heels and report all our doings, and no doubt also," added the young captain, "he has his allies amongst us. For myself I suspect the women."
"Sally Ayloffe?" questioned Sir Philip dryly.
Young Dryden nodded. "The young vixen is not happy unless she's meddling in mischief"; and he admitted that he had heard suspicions expressed even when he was in London, "That the bold and adventurous widow had been venturing in that perilous but most profitable enterprise—the selling of British stores and arms and even of bullion to the rebels, who had the most bold and cunning agents in England, who were able to corrupt army contractors and captains of transports."
"No difficult feat," interrupted Ayres bitterly. He remembered that even since his own arrival in America, gold, powder, and guns had been landed under the very nose of the English fleet in Chesapeake Bay.
"I have no proof of what I say," concluded young Dryden sullenly, "but I should be vastly surprised if Sally Ayloffe is not one of these creatures, is making a fair profit out of the war, and gratifying her love of action well. Who is she, anyhow? Not English, and I'd swear that she has spied before."
"It would be interesting to know," returned Ayres, "and as the time is heavy as lead on my hands and this march tedious beyond conception, I will make it my business to find out."
The British troops halted on the banks of the Delaware in something of a dilemma; it seemed by the maps and, as they now feared, by the false directions of the Indians that they should have, at this point, reached a ford, but though they marched and countermarched some miles along the bank of the great river, they discovered no such thing, and the few light canoes or scows that the Indians produced were quite inadequate for transporting such a large number of men, horses, and stores. Tryron, in the worst of tempers, then decided to follow the course of the Delaware directly to Germantown and Philadelphia, although the Indians assured him that they had been informed by their spies and scouts that a large body of Colonists lay across the way.
Bewildered by a country so strange and vast, cut off from all communication with headquarters and beginning to be short of food, the exasperated British sullenly made their camp on the river bank; the days were beginning to be cold, frosts were heavy at night. Vexed by all these vacillations and uncertainties on the part of the Commanding Officer, by the danger and obscurity of the position, Ayres spoke to Dryden and told him that he had resolved to discover by himself something of the truth of the matter, and he invited him to go with him that evening to the camp of the Indians, which lay somewhere outside their own, and discover what they could.
It was a beautiful, vivid, chilly night, the moon like a globe of blue ice high over head, the sombre groves black against the pallid sky when the two young men set out on this adventure. Ayres had already carefully marked the position of the Indian wigwams in front of a great screen of dark wood, and noted that occupied by Red Plume.
With cloaks over their regimentals, pistols already in their belts, the two English officers left their own rude quarters and entered that of the Indians, which stretched almost to the banks of the great river which could be heard flowing past in the obscurity.
They were immediately challenged by a tall feathered sentry; the moonlight gleamed on his musket. Ayres, who had had no particular plan in his head, but had acted out of the reckless bravado bred by tedium, said that he had a private message from his General to the Indian Chief and demanded to be taken at once to the tent of the interpreter, and opening his cloak he showed his gold, scarlet, and white regimentals.
The Indian, who understood very little English, hesitated and consulted some of his companions who came up swiftly and silently out of the encampment, a group of dark shapes.
"What," asked young Dryden in a sudden tremor of fear, for he had an inborn dread of the Indians, "is to prevent them disposing of us without so much as a word?"
"They would never dare," replied Ayres contemptuously. A woman's voice, coming out of the obscurity close to his ears, startled him.
"I believe they would dare anything, Sir Philip."
He turned quickly, a smaller figure detached from the group of red-skin warriors, who were only partially to be seen in the shadows of the close-set tents. It was Mrs. Sally Ayloffe, holding a small horn lantern in her hand, who came forward and stood before the two officers.
"I wondered how long it would be before you came spying; you've had your suspicions for a long time, have you not? Well, I agree it is all very tedious, and one must get what adventure one can."
With the bold, gay manner which had made her a favourite in the society of St. James's, she glanced from one young man to another and laughed in their faces.
Sir Philip Ayres returned her smile. "So, madam, you do think it a pretty thing to play the spy and lead your countrymen into an ambush, for I suppose that is your business?"
"We do what we can," she replied negligently. "I came to America for action and for adventure." She held her lantern a little higher and looked straight into the dark face of Sir Philip Ayres. "And perhaps to be near you, as I said," she added. "Other women follow their fancy, so why should not I, even if he does not happen to be my husband or my lover yet!"
Her accent was wild, and there was something sinister and awful in the scene; large, dark clouds were beginning to overwhelm the pallid moon; the noise of the river and of wind rising through the gigantic trees was insistently in their ears. Here and there in the distance a little sombre light reddened the Indian encampment, and near to them they could dimly see the huge shapes of the Indian warriors, crowned with feathers and armed with bows and arrows and muskets, in which the lamplight now and then gleamed along the steel.
Sir Philip Ayres looked shrewdly at the English woman. He found her more interesting than she had even been hitherto to him. She was clothed in a curious half-Indian costume—a fringed leather coat buckled round the waist, full trousers fastened under the ankles, leather shoes, and a hood of wool such as the squaws wore. Through this savage attire her bold and opulent beauty gleamed with a sort of violent splendour; she was certainly more suitable to these surroundings than to the painted drawing-rooms in which she had hitherto shone.
She seemed to have something of the heroic courage, the sordid rapacity, the bold pride, the contempt of hardship and danger that distinguished the Indians with whom she had allied herself.
"You play a strange part for a woman, madam," remarked Philip Ayres. His face, sweeping brows, full, firm mouth, clear-cut chin, straight nose, and flaring nostrils was picked out by the ruddy lantern light from the surrounding darkness.
"One that suits me," she replied indifferently. She lowered the lantern; her figure was blotted into the encroaching shadows.
"Have you come here to seek Harriet Dryden?" she asked, out of the dark.
"I am never ceasing to seek her, madam, but it did not enter my head that she might be here."
"What, then, have you really come for? Of course you'll pretend that you have a message for Red Plume. It's a mere trick and a stupid one." She laughed and added: "I fear we must take you prisoners."
George Dryden began to exclaim and protest. At this the Indians drew closer round the two white men. Ayres said quietly, "That's a foolish boast, Mrs. Ayloffe. Our loss will be instantly discovered; we shall be rescued, and you will be punished."
She replied calmly, "You know too much now to be allowed to return. Follow me, if you please, and comport yourself with discretion."
The Indians closed even nearer round them, evidently obeying some sign she made, a few words she uttered in the Indian language. Dryden was for resisting, but Sir Philip Ayres instantly restrained him.
"She is quite right, our only chance is prudence. I'm sorry I led you into this, Dryden; it was a fool's business from the first."
Submitting quietly and retaining their arms, the two officers were led through the Indian encampment between the river and the woods; monstrous, ragged, purple clouds passed over the livid gleam of the moon; the rising wind strengthened; never, since his landing at New York, had Ayres felt so desolately that he was in a strange and savage land, many miles from his own home.
They were taken to the very place which had been the objective of their expedition, the tent occupied by Red Plume. Mrs. Ayloffe led them in, leaving the Indian guard outside. Ayres was astonished at the influence and authority she seemed to have with the savages. He could not help recalling, with a smile, how he had rescued her from a troop of ruffians in the house on Hounslow Heath. She had seemed then a piteous and lamentable creature, who had turned to him with trembling gratitude as her protector. Now she was comporting herself with bold ease among a parcel of savages, and she appeared in every way able to look after her own person.
The large wigwam was handsomely furnished with English and Indian articles. Ayres noticed among the beads and leather appointments several pieces of heavy silver, a gentleman's coat of plum-coloured cloth, a case of handsome pistols, some napkins of fine linen and ruffles of lace flung down on a folding table, which bore the remains of a coarse meal of rye bread and cider. The Indian must have been considerably startled by the sudden appearance of the two English officers, but he retained his stern composure.
"They came spying," said Mrs. Ayloffe carelessly, with a dangerous fire in her vivid eyes, "and so I brought them here. They have long suspected us."
"Of what?" asked Red Plume. He dropped all pretence of a broken or a difficult English. There was now no paint on his face, and without this disfigurement, his features showed as undoubtedly European, stained and weather-scarred as they were.
"Well, there is no need to keep pretence up any longer!" exclaimed Mrs. Ayloffe, flinging herself on the fringed leather- covered couch. "They know, and the question is, What are we to do with them that they do not impart their knowledge to others?"
Sir Philip Ayres addressed the Indian, who had risen at his entry. "Pray, sir, drop the masquerade and let me know with whom I have the honour to deal."
Red Plume replied indifferently, though his eyes were keen and brilliant enough, "My name is Ethan Allen; I am a graduate of Yale. I take this method of serving my country."
"The Indians, then, betray us?"
"The Indians," replied Mr. Allen, "have had no loyalty either to us or to you. They care only for plunder and maybe a little for bloodshed. I know something of them and of their customs, and am able to get on with them very well; at least, as long as I pay them and treat them as they think they deserve."
"I suppose," said Philip Ayres grimly, "your intention was that these savages should massacre us all in our sleep one night, and so perform a service to your General Washington, as you call him."
"It was not my intention," replied the young American calmly. "I have already obtained all I wish from you, and I meant to leave you perhaps to-morrow. Gentlemen, you have forced your company on us; I fear our departure will have to be to- night."
"You intend to make us prisoners?"
"I told you," put in Mrs. Ayloffe from the leather couch, "you already know too much."
Young Dryden, who had not yet spoken, now demanded, "Are you a Virginian?"
"An American," replied the other, "who drops that distinction, but I do come from Virginia."
"I thought so from your accent. I myself was born there."
"Then you should not be proud of the uniform you wear," replied Ethan Allen. Addressing both the men, he added, "I hope, sirs, that since your landing in New York you've seen sufficient of the conduct of the war to realise on what side right and justice lies."
"We are soldiers," smiled Sir Philip, "and must not make any such inquiries. May I put a counter-question to you, sir. What is your intention with us?"
"Save that you are wearing your regimentals," replied Ethan Allen sternly, "I might have you shot as spies."
"Nay, sir; that you could not, because your Indians are passing as our allies."
Ethan Allen smiled, shrugged his bare, bronzed shoulders, and glanced at Mrs. Ayloffe. He seemed to be extremely young, and had a refined and cultured air; there was also something fierce and cold about him. Sir Philip Ayres believed that he had much of the temper of the savages with whom he was in league.
"I suppose I must take you to Washington," he said; "that is where I make my own way. I do not wish for the encumbrance of your company, gentlemen, and there is nothing to stay me from ordering your dispatch..."
"Nothing but humanity," replied Sir Philip Ayres.
Ethan Allen smiled very bitterly. "Humanity! That's a strange word to hear on the lips of a British officer. Have you not observed, sir, in your march across this country, some specimens of the humanity which your countrymen and the Indians under their command have dealt out to the Americans?" Neither of the English officers answered save by a shrug, and after a pause the young American added thoughtfully, "You are Sir Philip Ayres, are you not?"
As the other still continued to look at him very curiously with a glance of a piercing brightness, the Englishman asked, "Does that name mean anything to you?"
"Perhaps." It seemed that the American was about to say more, but Mrs. Ayloffe rose, hastened over to him, and whispered in his ear. Although he put her impatiently aside, he seemed to take her advice, for he added in a peremptory tone, "No matter for that; please concern yourself with nothing, gentlemen, save the fact that you are my prisoners. We break camp immediately, and it is useless for you to think of sending to your friends for help. You will be instantly and closely guarded—more than our lives are at stake—the existence of a nation is in our charge."
SIR PHILIP AYRES, to whom capture in a continental war would have been no great matter, found his present situation of a nature so extraordinary as to give him to reflect very keenly on the curious vicissitudes of human fortune.
He realised that he was in the midst of a vast continent entirely strange to him, in the hands of savages, of whose customs he had no knowledge beyond that they were extremely ferocious and bloodthirsty, and in the power of a man who certainly claimed the same blood as himself, but who appeared so exalted by a furious patriotism as to despise all the codes and conventions by which Sir Philip had hitherto regulated his life.
During the march of the Indians through the dense woods and sombre groves (for they kept their word and broke camp swiftly and silently the same night), the two English officers were so closely guarded that all thought of escape was impossible; nor did they wish to try this desperate expedient, for they were well aware that in their complete ignorance of the country and with the near approach of winter they would perish for want in the forest.
They were not aware of what direction they were travelling in, though they believed it was southwards towards Washington's headquarters.
No doubt the line of march would be determined entirely by the news Ethan Allen might receive as to the dangers that lay in the way, or the failures or successes of the army of Congress.
George Dryden soon fell into a state of gloomy dejection; he felt no security from the presence of the two white people among their captors. Ethan Allen, he was sure, was as cruel as the Indians he commanded, and he expected no pity from that half- lunatic vixen, Sally Ayloffe (who, besides, hated him very heartily), and from his early knowledge of the savages, who held them prisoners, he chilled Sir Philip Ayres' blood with an account of the miserable tortures they might be expected to undergo before they were put out of their misery. Every night that the camp was pitched he expected, as he said, to be led to the stake, and with a piteous effort for courage he continually went on his knees and prayed God to grant him the firmness becoming a Christian if he should have to undergo such a terrible ordeal.
Sir Philip Ayres, a man naturally fearless, did not greatly dread any such fate, and did his best to keep up the spirits of his fellow-prisoner; but he was forced to admit to himself that their situation was a fearful one, and to reflect with some philosophic irony how useless to him then was his title, his rank, his estates, his money—all that had made him splendid and respected in England.
And there were many times when even he, a professional soldier, winced at the thought of a lonely death by torture in these gigantic alien woods, surrounded by the mocks and jeers of painted savages.
The two prisoners had been instantly disarmed, and not all their contrivance could procure for them what they most dearly desired, which was some means of putting an end to their lives should the most dreadful necessity arrive.
They saw no more of Ethan Allen after that first night, but Sally Ayloffe sometimes kept them company. This strange, wild woman would brush past their guard, enter the tent where they were confined, and casting herself down on the ground beside them, either mock or condone with them as her mood was, often provoking young Dryden into unmanly imprecations and violence, and trying the patience of Sir Philip Ayres almost beyond endurance.
On one of these visits on a cold evening of the early winter, she surprised the young Englishman with his one treasure.
As she brusquely entered the tent, a little horn-lantern in her hand, he was lying wrapped in the Indian blanket that was allowed him and his own greatcoat, with the snuff-box miniature of Harriet Dryden in his fine hand. She was on him and flashing her light over his graceful person before he could close the box.
"Ah, that still!" she exclaimed in a voice of real pain, and went on her knees on the cold earth beside him before he could rise. "Give it to me."
For reply he thrust the precious object into his bosom, and his dark eyes gave her a look of contempt, before which she winced. She set down her lantern on the frost-bitten grass that formed the floor of the wigwam, and clasping her restless hands round her knees she said, "Why must you still play the fool, Philip? You and I are of the same spirit, of the same mood; did not you used also to fret against the dullness of the days in London? Are you a man to waste your youth and the flower of your years without action and adventure? Come, join me; we have a whole continent at our disposal. And two nations at war for our entertainment!"
"You were always lunatic, Sally Ayloffe," he replied, "and I am glad that you have found an amusement that at last diverts you."
"Yes. I do it for diversion!" She smiled wildly. "You must not think I care if the Colonists, or English, or Indians gain the advantage. It is the life—one that I have always longed for—that suits me, and," she added, turning to him her audacious eyes, "to be near you a little, as I told you often before. We have thrown off all simpering conventions now. Tell me why you did not marry me, Philip? You might so easily have done so and I was a good match!"
"The answer is such that it is not very courteous for me to give, but if you will have it, it was because I never cared to do so—one may not command one's taste."
"Too nice and fastidious, I suppose," she mocked; "you did not like the way I behaved or the parcel of gallants I had! Surely now your temper has changed. I sincerely believe," she added violently, "that before we have done with each other you will love me a little."
She smiled to herself as if at some pleasant thought, and Ayres, looking at her curiously, thought that she looked beautiful enough, in her own wild, almost savage, fashion, with her smooth, rich ringlets hanging down either side of her handsome face, her gay leather dress setting off the curved shapeliness of her figure.
And she looked at him with the full intensity of her uneasy passion. His person was not neglected, though his brilliant uniform was tarnished and soiled, his hair without powder, and his striking good looks had not suffered from the lack of his usual refinements.
Slanting her lantern a little she glanced at Dryden who lay in an uneasy sleep, moving now and then aside and groaning.
"He looks ill."
"Ay, he's sickened with confinement and apprehension, maybe."
"Of what?" She looked up sharply.
"He is a Virginian, you know; he is aware of the Indian methods."
"He fears torture?"
"I believe so."
"Has he, then, no trust in Ethan Allen, who is also a Virginian?"
"Very little, I believe; nor have I, Mrs. Ayloffe. The man is a fanatic, crazed with his idols, 'Patriotism' and 'Independence'!"
"He is that," she admitted; "but not a man to allow cruelty—you may take heart."
"I have never lost mine, madam, but I would some means could be taken to reassure this youth."
"You are fond of him? Ah, he is the brother of your Harriet." Provokingly bringing her smooth glowing face near his, which was so overcast and haggard, she whispered, "I believe I could tell you something about her. You know we are not now very far from her home. What would you give me if I were to bring you some news of your stolen bride?"
Ayres, exquisitely tortured by this, tried to keep his voice steady as he answered, "I have, alas, Sally Ayloffe, nothing to give any one, but as you are English—a woman—a Christian—you must have some humanity..."
She interrupted, rising and withdrawing herself quickly to the other side of the tent as she exclaimed, "I will tell you nothing; your arguments are stale!"
"I believe you know nothing, Mrs. Ayloffe."
"Let the matter be; you must be a philosopher and think that if the fates have intended you to meet your Harriet, why, you will do so."
Controlling himself, the young colonel asked, "What is your friend's intention with us, Mrs. Ayloffe? Where are we proceeding?"
"Why, do you think I am going to give this information to prisoners?" she replied. "I will tell you nothing, I say; nothing." She stamped the ground impetuously. "You will find out soon enough what is intended for you." Then, with a sudden change in her demeanour, the woman added passionately, "Would you come away now with me if I could contrive it? Would you trust yourself in the desert—wilderness—the forest—with one who loves you truly?"
Ayres did not reply to this. Looking at her steadily, he said, "Madam, young Dryden truly sickens. Cannot you procure some medicine for him? Will Mr. Allen have the humanity to order a little Jesuit's bark, for I think every night he has a touch of fever."
And he turned to lean over his fellow-prisoner and moved out of the sleeping youth's eyes those heavy, auburn locks, now wet with sweat, which he could never see without a pang.
At this rebuff Mrs. Ayloffe turned about and seemed as if she was going to cry out violently; then, putting her hand to her mouth as if to stay herself, she left the tent.
Ayres believed he had finally outraged her, and he thought, in an extreme of bitterness, "This is the last ignominy, to be in the power of a jealous jade!"
He almost wished that he had not been so hasty in rescuing her from the power of Francis Battel...
Young Dryden moaned and stirred in his sleep. Ayres found his forehead burning, and his pulse certainly showed some degree of fever. His face was flushed, his lips scarlet, and the jerkiness of his movements, the occasional groan he gave, testified to the uneasiness of his sleep.
Ayres looked at him with real distress. Without admitting it to himself he had loved the weak, wayward youth because he was the brother of Harriet... Now that sickness threatened him, the young colonel knew the extent of his own feelings... If young Dryden died, then his own captivity would be indeed intolerable.
Not relying in the least on the humanity of Mrs. Ayloffe, he endeavoured to make the sentinels at the door understand his friend needed help, but they turned on him blank glances, and sternly, with fierce gestures, motioned him back into the wigwam.
But Ayres had a little misjudged the Englishwoman. With the dawn he was visited by Ethan Allen himself, who brought with him an Indian squaw who carried a European case of medicines.
"I heard," said the American, "that your friend sickens; has a touch of fever perhaps."
Dryden was still sleeping heavily under the rugs in a corner of the tent, and Ethan Allen bent over him and examined him quickly in the light of the lantern he carried, while Ayres in his turn scrutinised the American he now saw for the first time in European dress. Ethan Allen wore what appeared to be some kind of uniform, unknown to Ayres, but perhaps affected by some of the Congress troops; it was Lincoln green and laced a little with silver braid; he wore a sword and high riding-boots, fine clean linen, and had every appearance of a gentleman. His hair, washed clear of dye, freed from the barbarous ornaments and feathered crown, proved to be a light, bright brown, and his complexion, though tanned, was in its proper hue, fair; but his eyes were vivid, agate brown.
The sight of this man in civilised garments was an indescribable comfort to Philip Ayres. Turning abruptly as he suddenly rose, the American met the cool glance of his prisoner fixed on him.
"Your friend is well enough," he said curtly. "He has a little fever, which is common here."
"His illness is brought on by his situation," remarked Sir Philip Ayres.
"By stress of mind, maybe, but not by hardship," replied Ethan Allen. "He is better looked after than if he had been with the British, who begin to endure acute distress and bitter discomfort."
"Will you give me news of them, Mr. Allen, or how the war goes? I have lived in a complete isolation ever since I was unfortunate enough to fall into your hands, having received neither letters or as much as glanced at a paper or news- sheet."
Ethan Allen appeared to hesitate a moment. Ayres suspected that he was not himself in possession of much news, and that part of the country through which they now travelled was most lonely and desolate.
"What I have to tell you," he said at length, "would scarcely be of a nature to sweeten your captivity. Things go well for Congress. Sir William Howe, I believe, has asked for his recall in the spring. Burgoyne's officers and men are still prisoners on parole, and after Saratoga the French were minded to give open help," and with the enthusiasm of the fanatic, Ethan Allen added, "What General Thomas Gage thought was a small rebellion in Massachusetts, Sir Philip, has changed into the birth of a new nation! No doubt you considered our declaration of independence very ridiculous, but we shall be able to justify that boast."
"I can understand your warmth for your own cause, Mr. Allen," replied the English officer, "but, as you say, your news is scarcely such as to hearten me. However, seeing you are not in your barbarous disguise but in the clothes of a gentleman, I feel no longer unable to appeal to you..."
"In what way to appeal to me?"
Ethan Allen paused between the two of them, a lantern in his hand, looking from the sick, sleeping man beside whom the squaw was sitting impassive with the medicine-chest, evidently waiting for him to wake, to Philip Ayres who, with his greatcoat drawn closely round him because of the biting air, his bronze hair loosely tied, shading his dark, handsome face, was standing near the entrance to the tent. "I appeal to you to cease dragging us over this barbarous country in the company of these savages. Take us to your headquarters—you know that I am of some rank and quality."
Unheeding the first part of this speech, the young American replied, "I know more about you than you think, Sir Philip, and I have another piece of news to give you that may interest you more keenly than what I have already told you. Captain Francis Battel has joined Major Gates who, I believe, was a companion of his in London."
"You are sure of that?"
"Quite sure. Captain Battel is not the only Englishman to desert."
"The only man of his rank," replied Ayres sternly, flushing to the brow. "He is of my own blood, but I must own him—scoundrel!"
Ethan Allen shrugged. "Maybe he will be useful to us, though we would rather rely on native patriotism..."
He was turning with no more than that to leave the tent, when Philip Ayres, making a great effort over his pride and reserve, detained him. "One word, Mr. Allen."
"Give me my rank, if you please. I am Captain Allen."
"Captain Allen, then. Tell me, has it come to your knowledge if Captain Battel is accompanied?"
"By whom should he be accompanied?"
"A lady—his wife perhaps—I don't know."
"I have not heard of it." The young American looked at his prisoner curiously. Sir Philip thought that he saw a shade of compassion pass over those stern features which he had not seen yet display anything but impassive resolve.
"Are you thinking, Sir Philip," he asked, "of Miss Harriet Dryden?"
For once taken completely off his guard, the Englishman exclaimed, "How could you know that?—how could you possibly know that?" Then in an access of disgust, "Mrs. Ayloffe told you."
"No; it is not from Mrs. Ayloffe that I had my information. Do not be so surprised and confounded, Sir Philip; I believe there are many who must know that your bride was stolen on the eve of your wedding at Marling Hall, that you lost her in the confusion at Portsmouth, that you feared she had gone down with the transport."
"I had not believed that the story would have reached your ears!"
"We are not so barbarous or out of touch with the gossip of Europe as you might suppose, Sir Philip." He added with a smile, the first the Englishman had seen on his hard mouth, "Can you show me your snuff-box?" Sir Philip stood rigid a second; he knew that Mrs. Ayloffe must have betrayed him in this instance; no doubt she had made with this grim-visaged young rebel scandalous jests over his love affair.
He was about to haughtily decline the request when, glancing behind the American, he saw the figures of the Indians in the doorway... the sentries and his guards...
Not in the least trusting the man who spoke to him, he feared that a denial would subject him to the ignominy of a search, so without a word he took the snuff-box from his pocket and handed it to Allen, who received it with respect in silence, opened it, and looked keenly at the miniature of Harriet Dryden which was encircled by the words, "Remember me."
"It is very like," he said at length, and closing the box he handed it back.
"Very like! You know her?—you have seen her?"
"When she was a child—yes. You forget we are both from Virginia. We did not live so distant one from the other—it is good blood that of the Drydens—it is one of the finest fortunes in the State, too. It was a pity when old William Dryden got it into his head to return to England and chase that phantom estate." He turned and stared curiously at the restless, sleeping man. "And that's young George Dryden! It looks as if you've ruined him with your London life—"
"Leave that," interrupted the young colonel, with that air of authority which came to him, by long usage, so naturally. "Tell me what you know of Miss Harriet Dryden."
The manner in which these words were spoken caused the young American's stern face to overcast with rage, though he answered without losing his iron composure. "You forget yourself, sir; who you are and where you are and, a little perhaps, who I am. I have heard nothing good of you, Sir Philip Ayres, and there is no reason why I should show you the least compassion, but I have a little pity for young Dryden. If he pines for his sister you may tell him, and it will be the truth, that she is safe and I know it."
He left the tent hurriedly, as if anxious to escape a reply.
Sir Philip was left in an agony of indecision, not knowing whether to take those three words "she is safe" as a most consoling truth or a most hideous mockery.
As the march proceeded and the wintry weather increased, George Dryden fell into a lamentable sickness. He was suffered to travel in one of the round covered wagons which followed the march.
They left the wild, uncut forests, the vast unploughed lands, and came upon signs of habitation, marred, however, by the traces of the passing of an army—blockhouses, farms, brick buildings were alike dismantled, burnt, partially destroyed; barns and stablings had been levelled to the ground, and strewn on the rough road and hanging from the gaunt, leafless trees were the tattered clothes and bleaching bones of what had once been men.
Allen, who retained his European clothes, rode at the head of his troop of Indians, and as they came out of the woods into the open, Philip Ayres was able to observe that they were not nearly so numerous as they had been when they had left General Tryron's detachment.
Not many more, he calculated, now than a hundred of them, including the Indian women who seemed to form an escort for Sally Ayloffe and the wounded who had been brought in wagons.
The Englishman concluded, therefore, that either the young American had been deserted by many of his savage allies, or that they were now in a friendly country where a large display of force was unnecessary.
In the evening, flakes of snow beginning to fall, they marched into a small town which Philip Ayres observed curiously. A number of armed men (troops, a professional soldier could not call them) were riding and sauntering about; the houses were well built, set in handsome gardens; there were shops, churches, wide and well- laid-out streets; evidences that, before the war, this might have been a prosperous place.
Sir Philip Ayres was taken from his savage guards, delivered over to some American soldiers, and finally lodged in a neat residence near the centre of the town, where he found himself again in the company of George Dryden. This young man, who had recovered from his illness but was still pale and languid, said he believed they were in Monmouth, in New Jersey.
"The headquarters of Mr. Washington," said Sir Philip. "Ay, that would be likely enough."
"And, I suppose now," groaned Dryden sullenly, "we are to be tried and shot as spies."
"How that does ever run in your head! Washington is here and so is the Marquis de Lafayette; a foolish and extravagant youth, if you like, but one fastidiously honourable. We are in the hands of civilised people again, my dear Dryden; even, you might say, in the hands of our own countrymen."
"They have changed," said George uneasily, drawing himself with a shudder in front of the large clear fire, which burned from the pine-knots on the hearth. "Did you not remark Ethan Allen—a stern fanatic!"
"Yes; but after all, we were treated with a great deal of consideration, considering our own reckless folly in spying on them. What do you know of him, Dryden?" he asked curiously; "this man Allen? He says he remembers you."
The young captain appeared startled. "He remembers me?"
"Ay, in Virginia, when you were children. From the way he spoke, I think he should be a neighbour, and he told me to assure you that your sister—that Harriet—is safe."
"Did you believe him?"
"It has been my great torment, but I know not what to believe; that's why I ask you if you remember him so that I may know if he is to be credited or not."
Dryden shook his fair head. "I do not recall him at all. I know of no family of that name in Virginia. I know of no young men of my then acquaintance who would be the age of this fellow now."
"Then it is an assumed name," cried Sir Philip in a tone of acute disappointment, "and the fellow has but tricked me, after all; yet he seemed to know very well my unfortunate story."
"He would get that from Mrs. Ayloffe," said George. "I should believe nothing he says, and trust him not at all. As for Harriet," added the poor young fellow with a sigh, for he was indeed broken in health and spirit, "she is safe, if prayers could make her so!"
The young colonel could not suppress a groan. "There are many women who have been the object of agonised prayer that have met atrocious fates since the first shot was fired at Lexington," he exclaimed.
The two prisoners were closely guarded by taciturn New Englanders who refused to exchange a word with them.
A fair meal, considering the season and the war, was given them; a generous portion of rum and clean beds, and sufficient respect was shown their gentility as to send them a black servant, who assisted them in making good the ravages of the long march on their persons. The young men laughed at this attention when they discovered the reason of it; they were informed that they were to be brought before General Washington and Monsieur Lafayette.
ON hearing this news, Sir Philip exclaimed with animation, "Now that we are to be brought before men of our own rank, and of some humanity, as I suppose, we may with some hope of success ask them the whereabouts of your sister."
Dryden, still despondent and sullen, replied, "Do you expect that Washington and Lafayette will know of the fate of every girl in Virginia, or be prepared to tell us if they did? Likely as not we shall be taken as spies."
Sir Philip took no heed of this, but asked the young man what had been the name of his residence in Virginia, and the young captain replied that it had been named "Dryden Grange," in memory of the place the family held in England, and was on the River James. They owned a considerable tobacco plantation and a large number of slaves, and had the right to send droves of cattle and herds of horses into the nearby woods. It had been a fine and wealthy estate, bringing in a great deal of money, and at the thought of it young Dryden again lamented the whim (as he termed it) which had sent his father back to England, and which had made him give this fine estate to his sister when she had married young Grove, a second son, well born but with no wealth to be compared with her own...
"No doubt as things have turned out," replied Ayres coolly, adjusting his tarnished regimentals before the small painted mirror, the only luxury that the room afforded, "it would have been luckier for you had you remained in Virginia, casting your lot in with the Colonists, who, as I begin very well to perceive, may be completely victorious; but being what you are—an officer in His Majesty's service, it would become you best and more likely win the respect, even of the rebels, if you conducted yourself as a loyalist," and again with considerable authority and vigour he urged the despondent young man to seize his opportunity and make inquiries of Harriet, even from Mr. Washington himself.
George replied, "I am told that she is alive, and I think, sir, it were almost better if she were dead than exposed without a protector to the horrors of this war."
It was Ethan Allen, still in his plain green uniform, who came to conduct them to the presence of the General. He was stern and taciturn as usual, but looked at them continually with what Ayres at least thought considerable curiosity. He returned them their swords and warned them that any attempt at escape would be ridiculous; they would be shot if they made any effort at evasion, and they were besides, he reminded them grimly, a great many miles from the English lines.
He conducted them on foot through the streets. The day was bright and fine, a powder of snow lay underfoot. Ayres looked with the curiosity of the complete stranger, and Dryden with the nostalgia of the exile at the scene which was full of evidences of war, of penury, of disease and alarm, but also of a gallant gaiety and a cheerful courage. Sledging parties were returning from expeditions into the woods; there were many young women among them, well grown and fair, and with a look, Ayres thought with a pang, of Harriet. They cast inquisitive and candid glances from out their hood at the strange uniform of the two English officers, and laughed among themselves, moving briskly in their furs.
General Washington's headquarters—a handsome brick house with a garden and a veranda—was a little way out of the town. There were American sentinels and a party of French soldiers in a barn nearby, but all was without any pretension. A weather-faded Union Jack hung over the house, Congress having as yet no flag. Ethan Allen at once brought the two officers to a large, pleasant, panelled chamber, which had been faithfully copied to the least detail from the parlour of a manor house in England.
It was curious to Philip Ayres to come out of a landscape that was so alien, from among a people who were so strange, into a room which was like home. A fire of pine knots burnt brightly; by the hearth knelt a small negro slave, who continually and silently replenished the blaze. The two men, one in middle life and one extremely young, sat at a central table on which was a litter of papers, a handsome silver standish, and a girandole of candles. "These are the two English prisoners, sir," said Ethan Allen. He moved to the back of the room and leant against the wall as if on guard, his arms folded across his heart.
"You are Colonel Sir Philip Ayres?" said the person addressed. The young officer bowed in silence. The American's eyes, which were sea-cold and vivid, flashed to his companion. "And you are Captain George Dryden? Both of the same regiment, the 29th Foot? I have heard the circumstances of your capture, which seems to be owing entirely," he added with an added dryness in his authoritative voice, "to your own foolhardiness."
"No doubt, sir," replied Philip Ayres bitterly; "it was extremely rash of us to trust in the honour of the Indians who were posing as our allies."
"That can be of no matter of pride to you," said General Washington, regarding him shrewdly. "The English have done much that has brought disrepute on their cause that is one of the most disgraceful and most imprudent."
"I am no politician," replied Ayres haughtily; "I am merely a soldier."
"You are lucky," remarked General Washington shortly. "I have to be both, and other things besides."
He sat silent a moment as if sunk in a muse, and Ayres had leisure to observe him. His face, which in outline was of a classic beauty, only slightly marred by the hard line of the over-emphatic jaw, slightly resembled that of Ethan Allen; both were fearless, uncompromising, implacable. His eyes and mouth bespoke great energy—a noble type, one to be admired and dreaded. Not perhaps a lovable man, or one who would easily turn to the lighter elegancies of life, but a man, Philip Ayres thought, capable of forming and leading a nation. He had already performed feats which would have been considered incredible had he not proved them possible.
Sir Philip Ayres thought: "If King George and his ministers could see this George Washington, I think perhaps they would come to terms with Congress."
The American's young companion came forward, and with great courtesy offered them chairs. He addressed them in French, and they had seen his face often enough in the public prints to know that this was the Marquis Lafayette.
"We are at your disposal, sir," remarked Philip Ayres, who, if he was impressed, was not disposed to be overawed by the American's formidable presence.
"You wish to jog my silence, eh? I am considering a few matters; I have much on my mind." He glanced from one to the other, "And I think your affair is not of much importance. It is useless to ask you for information about the British."
"Quite," bowed Sir Philip, smiling.
"I do not mean that I assume you would not give us any, but that we have it already," replied Washington with dry humour. "My friend, Red Plume, was able to discover all that I wished to know."
"So I can believe, sir. I guessed his activities from the first. Had I been in General Tryron's place, he would have been shot as a spy."
"That is a risk men who undertake this task always run," replied Washington indifferently, "but he has been successful." And with an abrupt change of tone he added, "You, I believe, are a friend of Horatio Gates and of Captain Francis Battel who has lately joined his staff."
If Sir Philip Ayres had known of the severe antagonism between Washington and Gates (the latter, especially, after his victory at Saratoga, having refused even nominal respect for the commander-in-chief of the army of Congress), he might have hesitated to reply as he did for fear that he would have been thought to be cringing for favour. As it was, and even thinking that perhaps Gates was Washington's friend, he replied haughtily, "Horatio Gates has never been a friend of mine, and it was at my advice that he left my regiment some while ago. Whatever acquaintance we had was severed then. Frank Battel is my own nephew and my heir-at-law. There is no other tie between us, and I hold him no better than a deserter and traitor."
"You speak very boldly, Sir Philip," said Washington, who was, however, not at all displeased. "For my own part I think Congress could do very well without the services of renegade Englishmen—either those who desert out of discontent, or those who join us in hopes of profit."
"Still, sir," smiled Sir Philip, "you are glad to take advantage of what use they may be to you, now and then. An English gentleman's widow accompanied us, one who was very well known in London—at St. James's—I was surprised to see that she was one of your spies."
"I marvel you should be surprised at anything you see in America," replied Washington with the slightest of smiles, which showed his implacable sternness to be a mask of a much sly, shrewd humour. "We are men—a nation—fighting for our existence—with our backs to the wall—enough, we justify ourselves to no one. I am glad you are not of the intimate acquaintance of General Gates and Captain Battel. I see you are a man of quality and position. I will treat you as we treated Burgoyne and his officers—send you to Virginia or one of the Carolinas if you will give me your parole not to try to escape, and also, should the occasion offer, to forbear giving by any means whatever, an inkling of anything you may have discovered, of our activities, of the disposition of our troops, any knowledge or information whatsoever acquired, Sir Philip, during the term you spend in our camp."
"And the alternative?"
"The only alternative, to my regret, is that you must be confined in one of the compounds where we have some British prisoners who have refused their paroles or broken them, to be detained a prisoner till there is a cessation of hostilities."
He repeated this offer to young Dryden, who hitherto had sat sullen and despondent. "Ethan Allen tells me," he added, "that you come of a good Virginian family. I am sorry to see you in those regimentals."
"I would willingly exchange them, sir," said young Dryden boldly, "but you said just now that you did not like what you termed deserters or traitors, but I think I should be neither if I left the service of King George and entered that of Congress."
"I regret I cannot entertain your offer," replied the American General with a brevity which made the rebuked youth blush. He glanced at a brass-bracketed clock which stood on a shelf in the corner of the pleasant room. "You've heard my proposal, gentlemen; I can give you five minutes in which to consider it. I am sorry I have no further time."
"Nor do I need any," smiled Sir Philip; "not as much as five seconds. I do not accept, General Washington."
The gleam in the American's eyes showed that he had noted the use of this title, generally denied him by the English.
"I have always thought," continued the young colonel, "the life of a prisoner on parole on all counts, the most wretched. I have had sufficient miserable inactivities since I landed at New York, and I would rather refuse my word and take my chances of escape."
"If you please," returned Washington, adding, "your choice is one I should have made myself." Turning to Dryden he asked, "You, sir?"
The young man replied, "I'll give my parole, General Washington, if I may be sent to Virginia—somewhere near my old home, Dryden Grange."
"And your reason? Is it one of mere sentiment?"
"Colonel Sir Philip Ayres will tell you the reason better than I can myself, sir; it concerns my sister; the story is something fantastic."
"Then I shall have no time to listen to it," said the American, rising. He glanced to Ethan Allen who continued to lean silently, with folded arms, against the wall, and added, "I cannot promise to send you to one particular place, Captain Dryden. Some of Burgoyne's officers are quartered in Virginia and in private houses, but this is not a matter for me to arrange."
Sir Philip Ayres stepped in front of his young companion. "Please hear me, General Washington. I speak not now as a prisoner, but merely as one gentleman to another. My story goes into a very few words. Captain Dryden's sister, Miss Harriet Dryden, who was betrothed to me, disappeared on the eve of her wedding and was lost in the confusion of the embarkation at Portsmouth, and I and her brother are in the dark as to whether she went down with any of the transports that were wrecked, whether indeed she landed in New York at all, or, in brief, whether she be alive or dead. This gentleman"—he turned courteously to Ethan Allen who eyed him darkly—"assured me—but whether in goodwill I know not—that he had some acquaintance with the lady in her childhood, and can vouch for her safety."
"Do you know anything of this, Mr. Allen?" demanded Washington.
That young man replied dryly, and Ayres thought with a certain reluctance, "Yes, I know that Miss Dryden did return to America and is safe. I believe, though this I cannot vouch, that she is even now at Dryden Grange with Miss Eva Grove."
He looked as he spoke with an extraordinary, piercing curiosity at the Englishman.
"Does that satisfy you?" asked General Washington. "I am afraid I can go no farther in the matter. These private concerns, which seem so important in times of peace, play but a small part in one's consideration now."
"Can I believe this Mr. Ethan Allen?" asked Ayres, deeply moved. "It seems almost impossible to think that this young girl could have travelled so far without some fearful accident befalling her—"
Washington replied, "You can believe Mr. Allen," and he turned again with a slight impatience to Captain Dryden and asked if he would give him his parole, but the young soldier decided, though not with a very good grace, to share his colonel's fate, and declared that he would take his chance of escape.
General Washington made no further comment, and ordered the two Englishmen to be sent, at the first convenient opportunity, to the nearest compound where the British prisoners were kept. But the apparent harshness of this was softened by the eager courtesy of the young French Marquis, who, with much winning gentleness and consideration in his manner, begged permission of the American to have the two English officers at his quarters that evening for supper.
"If you invite Mr. Ethan Allen also," said the general; "he is my watchdog, you know, and a trusted one."
Sir Philip Ayres, in some high spirits at this news of Harriet Dryden, willingly accepted the Frenchman's courtesy, but he regretted having done so when, his escort bringing him back in the evening to the house where the Marquis de Lafayette lodged, he found that Mrs. Sally Ayloffe was to be of the company.
This strange woman greeted him in the wild, free manner which she had contrived to make the fashion at St. James's.
"Ah! how worn and woebegone you look!" she cried, "yet you had good news! Mr. Allen tells me he has assured you of the safety of your beloved Harriet. You refused to give your parole—why, I swear you are lost in love and mean to try and effect your escape, that you may play the ardent lover at Dryden Grange."
Much as he disliked and resented her presence, Philip Ayres was forced to admit, as the evening went on, that her wit, her daring sallies, her mirth, and her boldness and her beauty, which bloomed vivid yet frail like a winter rose in the candlelight, added much to the strange gaiety of the evening. She seemed like the spirit of the times, full of unrest and change, of eager desire to experiment, to hasten from one sensation to another, like a bright, eager moth, longing for the fierce embrace of the flame. She exchanged with the fiery and ardent young Frenchman those liberal opinions, which put the liberty of mankind above mere patriotism, that Benjamin Franklin had made popular among the more advanced aristocrats of France; the doctrines which fitted so exactly into that bold atheism of Voltaire, which had pleased so many lively minds.
She gaily rallied Ayres on his provincialism, on his folly in his loyalty to an outworn sense of discipline. She pointed out to him the stupidity of keeping his word to a foreign king... King George, she vowed, was no more than a German, say what he would. She declared that the struggle in America was not between English and Colonists, but between those who fought for the rights of man and those who thwarted a tyrant.
"That is all very fine and flourishing, madam," smiled Ayres, "but how do you reconcile it to making money out of gun-running and underground transactions with corrupt army contractors?"
"It is all means to an end," she protested; "every penny I make goes to the help of Congress."
Young Lafayette hung on her words as she went from English to French with equal volubility, and applauded her sentiments which seemed to him to have something noble in them.
Sir Philip Ayres smiled to himself to see the romantic youth so caught by the false glitter of the woman whom he knew Sally Ayloffe to be.
Yet to the Englishman, after the long hardships he had endured since he had landed in New York, there was something pleasing and stimulating about the supper-party, the fine wax lights, the good wine, the elegant food, the pleasant room so like so many rooms he had known at home, the courteous, cultured company, the feeling of being again part of a civilisation which he knew and understood, which fitted him as hand to glove. All this erased his past sufferings and brought a flush to his cheek, a sparkle to his eye, which had not been there for some months.
George Dryden, too, lost his look of despondence and sickness, and animated by the talk of "the rights of man" and the good cause of the Colonists, he swore that at the first occasion he would leave the English army and serve in that of Congress.
It was Ethan Allen who broke up the supper-party which the young Marquis would very willingly have prolonged. He had to see the prisoners back to their lodgings, he said. He of all the company had remained a little aloof, a little harsh and dry in manner.
Ayres thought he distrusted Sally Ayloffe as any man of his stern penetration and shrewd reserve must distrust a woman of her type. Yet he acceded at once to her request to be allowed a few words alone with Sir Philip Ayres.
"It will be the last chance," she said with sudden gravity, "that I shall have of speaking to this gentleman who is one of my good friends and rescued me from the most perilous situation I have ever been in. Think, Mr. Allen, I was likely to have been married to a rogue—ay, and you'd be startled were I to give you his name—by force, for the sake of my money, and this gallant cavalier rescued me. Let me then have a few words in private—we may never meet again."
Mr. Allen was not, as Sir Philip was amused to observe, so trusting as he sounded; the interview that he permitted had to take place in a closet adjoining the room where they had had supper, the door must be left open, and Mr. Allen stand himself so that he could observe them.
"What can you and I have to say to one another?" laughed the Englishman rather wearily. He feared a repetition of the scene she had made in the tent when he was a prisoner. "It seems to me, my fierce Sally, we are now to be strangers indeed."
"That is so," she answered, looking at him searchingly, "but I admire a faithful lover," and with what he thought was a sneer in her words she turned away. Moving back with his impeccable courtesy but impatiently, he looked out on the darkness which contained he knew not what, save that it was all alien and hostile.
She came beside him, spread her fan so as to conceal their faces for a second, and whispered, "He is watching us; he does not trust me. It will not surprise you that no one really trusts me, but I wish you well; I would like you to find your Harriet, after all. Call it a whim or what you will," for he had turned a startled face towards her, "take what I have in my hand; it will show you how you may escape, and how you may reach Dryden Grange. After that, Venus give you luck!"
She drew sharply apart from him dropping her fan, but not before she had thrust into his hand a roll which he was quick to conceal in his flap-pocket. He saw the reason of her quick withdrawal and the laughing words of bravado which rose to her lips, for Ethan Allen had entered the room.
"Suspicious!" she sneered. "Sir Philip and I had a fondness for each other once, and as this is farewell is it not natural that we should snatch a kiss?"
At that moment Philip Ayres could have kissed her and with a goodwill. He did not believe that she had deceived him; a piercing sincerity had been in her voice and he was intoxicated with hope as he returned to his lodgings.
SIR PHILIP AYRES was not of the temperament to trust easily to feminine shifts and romantic intrigues, nor was he disposed to rely on the goodwill of Sally Ayloffe, yet he found himself obliged to give less heed to such subtleties than hitherto; his peculiar, perhaps desperate situation, his isolation from all friends, the effect on him of the savage presence of the warriors who had captured him and conducted him on the long march through primeval forests and strange and majestic landscape, something as it were, of the excitement of this nation in the very throes of birth, had changed the cool sedateness of the Englishman, and shaken his disbelief in the grotesque and strange, his contempt of the fantastic and the unconventional.
On his return walk with an armed escort and in the company of Ethan Allen, who had drunk little at the dinner and seemed in the sternest of moods, the young Englishman tried to recall every word that Sally Ayloffe had spoken... all the inflections of her voice, all her gestures. As the glowing image rose again before his tired and excited mind, he thought, "Surely there was sincerity—surely she did not mean to trick me."
He noticed, as they entered their lodging, that it was well guarded. He tried to get some idea of the situation of the house, but the night was too dark, and the scanty rays of the lantern could give him no clue as to where they might be.
He was immediately separated from George Dryden; he had no opportunity of passing a single word with him, and this decided the problem which had begun to rise in his mind, which was: supposing there was a genuine chance of escape, should he divide it with his companion?
His simple room was pleasantly perfumed by the pale green wax candles made from the barbury bush (tallow having become scarce among the Americans), and the resinous odour from the pine burning on the hearth.
As soon as he was alone he tore open the roll that Sally Ayloffe had given him. He found that it contained a compass, a map carefully drawn, and the names of places elaborately inked in.
From this he found that he was now in the town of Monmouth, in New Jersey; the route indicated on the map led directly to a house on the Pocohowtan on the James River, named Dryden Grange. Accompanying it was a note in the writer's own style—extravagant to violence, yet with a certain wild sincerity.
I give you a chance that, if you are a true lover, you will take. You know that you are my choice, yet I have many and my heart is wayward enough. It is certain you saved me from Frank Battel, and that is something I must be thankful for. It is quieter here than in London, and one forgets petty spites. If you accept this chance of escape I give you, you will risk your life, no doubt; yet I suppose you will not care for that Well, to the point. Pull the bell immediately you have read this—that is, if you trust me sufficiently, and do exactly as the negro, who will answer, tells you. He will have to give you some rouleaux of gold and in exchange, if you please, you are to give him your bill of hand, as I suppose you are too proud to accept money from a woman. I can easily discount that, but paper money would be useless, as it daily depreciates and is received with suspicion from any stranger.
If you discover your fair Harriet, I have no doubt she will receive you very badly; it is likely enough, after all her adventures, that she has found another lover, but I give you just this chance, for I would not, above all things, see you moulder in captivity and perchance lose all those spirits and graces that I prize in you. Adieu, if we never meet again—and if we do, perhaps you will look with more favour on poor
Sir Philip Ayres put the map and compass carefully away in the inside pocket of his coat, and jerked the embroidered bell-pull that hung by the fireplace. He thought that it was just possible that this was a trap to lead him into further humiliation and ignominy, yet he did not believe that any man in his plight would have hesitated to take the risk.
A tall negro immediately entered the room. The Englishman looked at him without speaking. The slave then beckoned him to the door. He obeyed the gesture, half smiling at his own credulity in supposing that his good fortune really lay in the hands of the negro.
He stepped out on to the landing, which was dimly lit by a high wall-lamp; the slave followed him and at once threw over his head and shoulders a heavy winter, fur-lined wrap which he took from a peg behind the door. Whispering in his ear in hurried accents of the slave dialect which Ayres found difficult to follow, he told him to follow him and keep his mouth shut.
They descended into the hall where, owing to the coldness of the night, the two American sentinels, leaving their post without, had gathered round the fire. These two men—tired, half asleep, chewing tobacco—glanced indifferently at the slave and his companion.
"The doctor finds English soldier very ill," said the slave to these as he opened the front door. "He go to fetch more medicine."
The two Americans cursed as the icy wind swept in, and bid the slave close the door instantly.
Ayres had already slipped through and the negro followed. A sledge was waiting.
"That was easily done," said the Englishman, as they drove off through the dark streets. "Mrs. Ayloffe must have a good deal of influence and a good deal of money. Won't you get punished for this?" he asked the black. The slave replied in voluble dialect, from which Ayres contrived to elicit the following: A doctor, through Mrs. Ayloffe's contrivance, had really been called to the prisoner's lodgings—he was then still in Captain Dryden's room. They ought to be free of the town and lost in the darkness before the deceit was discovered. As for himself, Mrs. Ayloffe had given him money to make his way into Virginia where his home was... enough money to buy his freedom...
They drove rapidly through dark streets. When they came to the outpost, the negro leant out and gave the password, saying that he was driving a surgeon to attend to some wounded men who had been brought up to an outlying farm.
They passed on into a night of extreme cold. It began to snow. The slave soon directed the horse to a patch of light which came through the blackness of the highway.
It was a small ordinary they entered. Ayres guessed the people must be accomplices in his escape; they paid him no attention at all, and seemed to purposely avert their eyes from his person. He, however, betrayed himself by nothing, but ordered rum which he drank, and gave the negro a glass of peach brandy which he demanded. The slave then whispered to him to ask for a private room and he did so.
As if he was his servant, the negro followed him and deposited on the floor a large bundle, which, he said, grinning, was a change of clothes.
The British regimentals must be hidden or destroyed. There was also some money, and in a methodical manner that contrasted, Ayres thought, grotesquely with the phantasy of the adventure, the slave said that Mrs. Ayloffe wished a bill of hand in return for the gold, and he produced an ink-horn and a scrap of paper.
Laughing, for his spirits were mounting (ridiculous as the adventure might seem, he felt the thrill of freedom), Ayres wrote on the paper a call for one hundred pounds on his bankers in Lombard Street, London, payable to Mrs. Sally Ayloffe...
He put the rouleaux of gold in the bundle, and was offering two of them to the negro, but the slave refused with a certain appearance of fright. He dared not disobey, he said, Mrs. Ayloffe, who had told him he was to take nothing; he was already well supplied.
"You have acquitted yourself very faithfully, my poor fellow," smiled Philip Ayres.
The slave grinned with pleasure. He repeated that Mrs. Ayloffe had promised to purchase his freedom if he performed these duties to her satisfaction.
He seemed intelligent as well as quick and clever, and urged Colonel Ayres to at once change out of his regimentals, as any moment he might be pursued and overtaken
"I cannot," smiled Sir Philip Ayres, hastily undoing the bundle and surveying the garments provided for his disguise, "trust myself to this dark night in an unknown country without a guide. I shall inevitably lose my direction, and perhaps find myself again being challenged by the sentry at Monmouth."
But the negro urged him to hasten, and the Englishman, not without a pang, took off his soiled and faded regimentals. He realised that in doing so he was losing all the protection that his rank as a British officer afforded, and risked being shot as a spy; but it was a manifest absurdity to travel through a hostile country undisguised.
The garments in the bundle proved to be a shabby suit of clothes and some rough, clean linen. The rouleaux of gold were packed in a small linen bag; a pistol and some powder was folded in with them.
Assisted by the negro, who appeared to be a well-trained servant, Sir Philip Ayres put on these clothes and again wrapped himself in the opossum-skin cloak in which he had escaped from Monmouth. He put the pistol in his belt, and in his bosom the gold. When he had done so, he glanced again at the map in the light of the lamp which stood on the rough table. The journey before him seemed long and full of difficulties. Mrs. Ayloffe had scrolled on the margin, "Twelve miles to the Delaware—twelve miles to Chesapeake Bay—twelve more to Dryden Grange," and underlined, as if in malice, he thought: "If you choose to go no farther than Philadelphia, you will find English troops there."
He put the map back into his pocket. "That is worth a lot; no man should ask more—a map, a compass, money—"
He followed the negro down the rude stairs into the dirty parlour, which was now empty. He was sure that the owners of the house were purposely keeping out of his way.
They entered the dark night, closing the inn door quietly behind them, and the Englishman for a moment winced at the biting cold that seemed to leap at him. The negro told him that the road straight ahead would lead him to Philadelphia, where there was an English garrison. Ayres thought of the sarcastic note on the edge of his map: "If you are minded to go no farther than Philadelphia—"
The negro then gave him one of the lanterns from the sledge, but refused him the horse for which he asked. Ayres thanked the fellow, laughed, and guided only by his poor light he set out along the high road. A dismantled barn afforded him a sleeping- place till the dawn, and with that grey light, which was blotted by a slight fall of snow, he again took his way across an unknown, a hostile country, on a fantastic errand.
It was more than a week later that two young women, practising a duet on an elaborate spinet (which had been sent from London in the days before the war) in a fine H-shaped house on the River James, were surprised by their steward, an old man who had served their father, coming to them in a troubled way and saying that there was a stranger who desired to speak with the mistress of the house.
"A stranger, Withers? Be very careful—who is he?—what is his business?"
"He will tell none of it, Miss Eva, but he seems courteous, well spoken at least; he has an air of authority."
"A soldier?" asked the younger girl, turning to Eva Grove. Without waiting for a reply she turned away suddenly, as one who always lived in an apprehension of danger, and ran upstairs.
Eva Grove, since her brother's departure to join the army of General Washington, had lived alone at Dryden Grange—the fine mansion with the handsome plantation—directing, with the aid of the steward, as best she could, the activities of the slaves and the old men left behind to carry on the business of peace, when all the able-bodied were employed in the business of war. It was a high responsibility and a lonely life for a young girl, but Eva was descended from pioneer women and already inured to several years of desperate warfare.
For a long while now she had lived in daily apprehension of attacks by the English soldiers or by their allies, the Indians. She had heard fearful tales of atrocities committed in the trail of the armies, and despite the great victory at Saratoga she knew that matters did not go too well with her countrymen in the south.
Yet this fair, slight-looking creature, fond of her music and her needle, gay and laughing whenever she had the opportunity, had never shown any discouragement or fear.
She said now, thoughtfully, "Well, Withers, as he seems a gentleman and says his business is urgent, I will see him. That's what my brother would have done had he been here."
So it came that Sir Philip Ayres was received in the great parlour of Dryden Grange, the Virginian residence of the Groves, which he had once heard Harriet Dryden mention and had taken no heed of at all—as a place he would be most unlikely even to have any interest in, much less to visit.
The strangeness of it made him sigh and smile together. The room, which was the great formal parlour which joined the two wings, was very pleasant and simply furnished with carpets and silver, with pictures brought with great expense and loving care from England by the earlier Colonists. The pale green barberry candles, so fragrant and now so familiar to Ayres, the blocks of hickory and fir wood on the hearth filled the air, pure and clear as it already was, with a faintly delicious fragrance.
A mirror behind two girandoles showed the Englishman his appearance, which, greatly to his regret, he had not been able to make more than passably decent. Never before had he been so roughly clad, and as he was a man of quality, used to all the aids of wealth and fashion, he felt at a disadvantage.
Eva Grove entered this guest-room with a light, eager step, and he looked at her with keen curiosity. She gave him her name. "I am Eva Grove, mistress of Dryden Grange. You have some business with me?" and on her side her pretty glance was inquisitive.
For a while Sir Philip did not speak, but gazed at the girl with an odd tenderness. She had a look of Harriet; her hair was auburn, only paler in hue than that of his beloved; her figure was slighter, her features, he sombrely swore to himself, not so lovely; yet she was a fair creature in her gown of flowered sarcenet and jacket of fine white wool with a braid of pearls amid her smoothly dressed hair; she appeared modest, self- reliant, and serene; she had the look of the daughter of people who lived on the frontiers of civilisation.
"Perhaps," said he very kindly, "it would embarrass you if I were to tell you my name. May I, then, withhold it for, at least, a little while?"
"That depends on your business, sir," replied she, very grave. "You are not a Virginian?"
"An American?" she asked doubtfully. She did not know the appearance and accent of the people from all the thirteen states.
"Will you please not to ask me that just yet?"
She offered him a brocade chair and sat opposite him, her hands folded in her lap, alert but at ease. He pleased her; he was a proper man of a stately and attractive appearance, even in his rough, travel-stained clothes, with his dark hair plainly dressed, fastened merely by a horn buckle. His manners, his address, were those she was used to in the gentlemen of Virginia. She smiled courteously, waiting.
He looked aside into the clear blaze of the fire, then he said with a palpable effort, "Is Miss Harriet Dryden in your company, or do you know her whereabouts?"
He sensed the hardening in her tone as she replied, "You make a mystery of your name, sir, and have disclosed nothing of your errand. I must make some mystery in my reply. I cannot tell you anything of the matter you ask."
He looked at her, smiling sadly. "No doubt I look a very suspicious fellow; you must wonder what concern I should have with your cousin. Believe me, I mean no wrong, no shade of offence."
Eva Grove rose. "I can tell you nothing," she repeated.
He also got to his feet, standing near a head above her. "I see you can be implacable, madam. Well, then, I must tell you my story. If you believe it, will you judge me kindly and show me a little mercy? I am entirely in your hands, madam."
She coloured slightly at what she believed was a gently irony in his tone, but she stood her ground with considerable dignity.
Walking up and down the room, Philip Ayres frankly and with some difficulty, for it was not an easy tale to tell to a stranger and a girl, gave an account of his connection with Harriet Dryden, saying no more than that he had met her as the sister of one of his officers in London, had proposed marriage to her, and that she had disappeared on the eve of that ceremony from Lady Marling's care...
He spoke of the agonised search in Portsmouth, of the terrors of the voyage, of the lost transport; added what he had heard since his landing as to the safety of Harriet Dryden, the possibility of her being at Dryden Grange, but he added nothing to connect her name with that of Francis Battel.
When he had concluded, Eva, who had been watching him intently, said softly, "So you are he! I had hardly thought it possible!"
"You have heard of me then?"
"Yes, I have heard of you, sir The country is not so barbarous; we get letters, read newspapers. Harriet wrote to me about you. How did you get here?" She added curiously, "And in disguise!"
"I was captured and taken to Monmouth and helped by a friend to escape; given money and these clothes. My journey has been arduous, and I several times lost my way, but there was nothing in my adventure sufficiently interesting to plague you with, madam. Now, I beseech you, as I have made all clear to you, will you put me out of my distress and tell me if, and what, you know of your cousin?"
For answer Eva Grove replied, "Should not you, a British officer, have reported yourself to Sir William Howe or Lord Cornwallis instead of coming here still disguised?"
"I put myself into your hands, utterly," he replied. "I know not if there are American troops here, nor if you are minded to deliver me to them. I have but this one desire, to know of the safety of Harriet Dryden."
The girl sighed and seemed at a loss, and yet touched by the Englishman's appeal. His manner and his person were both passports to her favour; it was one honourable nature speaking to another in a language that could not be misunderstood. She believed every word he said, and since he had begun his speech she had altered her opinion of many matters on which she had hitherto been tolerably fixed.
"It would be impossible," she said, "for me to betray any one who trusted me. I, in my turn, trust you, sir. There are no troops about here, nothing but slaves and a few old men. We live defenceless and as best we may. The English are at Yorktown and Philadelphia, as no doubt you are aware. As for Harriet, God help me if I do wrong, but I think that you should speak to her yourself."
"She is then, here!" he exclaimed violently.
"Ay, sir, she is here, and has been for some weeks. She is unharmed. I fear she has not a very kindly remembrance of you, Sir Philip, yet she has said very little of the matter between you. You must plead your own cause, sir," added the young girl in a kindly tone, "and that, I believe, you are well able to do."
"Indeed, madam, believe me, never man felt more tongue- tied."
He leant against the mantelshelf, overwhelmed by this unexpected issue to his long search, his faithful and tedious expectation. It was not easy for him immediately to control himself. At length he said, and the girl, watching him with sympathy, admired his fortitude, "Perhaps now that I am assured she is safe—safe as any woman can be in such times—it would be well that I went my way without seeing her. It is my duty to report myself to Sir William Howe. I have no longer an excuse for holding back."
But Eva said, "At least you will spend the night here. You are fatigued. We have every accommodation; you will be perfectly safe. I can tell Withers, who is our steward, and the servants that you are a friend of my brother, Luke, escaped from captivity and resting here awhile before you rejoin the army. It is not altogether the truth but not, I think, a wicked lie."
As he stood silent and she marked the pride and pain on his face, she added, "At least, I will ask Harriet if she will see you."
He eagerly accepted this concession. "Yes, if you will do that—madam, you are like a guardian angel!" He tried to cover his agitation and distress with a gloss of his usual town manner, and she liked him for that gallantry.
"I know not if I act as a guardian angel or not," she smiled, "but I will see Harriet. Be under no misconception; she has told me next to nothing of you, but, well..."
"I know what you would say," he finished her speech. "She ran away on the eve of our wedding; that must look very strange in your eyes. It must paint me as a very ill fellow."
Eva shook her head, still smiling. "No, indeed, it is Harriet's affair, not mine; it is for her to judge. Will you rest here and refresh yourself? Be entirely at your ease, and in a little while I will let you know my cousin's mind."
Leaving him with his head resting in his hand, his elbow on the shelf above the bright fire, and sending in a negro with refreshments, Eva ran upstairs to Harriet Dryden's bedroom.
"You ran away, dear; what made you hide yourself up here?"
Harriet sat at her dressing-table, looking at herself in an oval mirror, her loosened auburn hair hung in a great heap on her shoulders. She seemed alarmed.
"Why, foolish!" said Eva, going up behind her and kissing her on the warm nape of her white neck. "It is he! and I swear he is the finest gallant! How could you leave him, my Harriet, and face such perils to escape so fond a lover?"
Harriet drew her cousin close. "It is he? Who do you mean? Do not keep me in suspense!"
"Why, Sir Philip Ayres, and now that I have seen him I cannot believe that he did you any great harm. He was captured and has escaped, and came here to discover if you were safe before rejoining the British Army."
Harriet shuddered and hid her face on her cousin's shoulder. "He is a villain and I will not see him. This is what I always dreaded; this is why I have been so fearful ever since I have been with you, Eva—that he would follow me! Oh, send him away with any tale, with any excuse, for surely I will not see him."
HARRIET DRYDEN was so vehement in her startled dismay that Eva, whose lively sympathy had been roused by the romantic arrival of the Englishman, said half mockingly, "How can you be so fearful, Harriet? If you had the courage to escape from him, surely you may find sufficient to see him now! He has come far and has affronted much danger, merely to hear of your safety. I do not know what the grievance is between you, but I could vow he loves you."
Glancing at the other's downcast face, she added, "If you make more ado about seeing him, I shall vow that you love him too."
These methods were of no avail. Harriet replied firmly, "I am very sorry he has come, Eva—very sorry that you have seen him. I cannot."
"Will you tell me?" asked the other girl more gravely, "what there is wrong between you? The pretty fellow looks likely enough! He is a gentleman of breeding, and I heard from Lady Marling he was a noble match with a brilliant estate. Oh, Harriet! the times are difficult, and it is foolish for a woman to reject a good settlement."
"Have you forgotten, Eva, that he belongs to the enemy? I thought you so passionate a patriot!"
"Why, so I am. He's an enemy—that's difficult—but he's English, and the Groves and the Drydens too were always proud of being English. That's odd to think of now, is it not? How eager we were to keep up our connection with the old country and make it home always, and visit it when we could and name everything after the old places! Eh, war or no, I should not refuse him because he is an Englishman."
"It is not for that," said Harriet, rising and walking up and down the pleasant room, furnished with hangings adorned by the patient and ingenious embroidery of her forbears. "Indeed, he used me vilely and you must ask no more. I'll not see him ever again if I can help it—certainly never as a friend. You must send him away, Eva, as soon as you civilly can."
"I will do so for his own sake, but he must stay the night." The generous Virginian hospitality was strong in Eva Grove, and even Harriet, distressed as she was, admitted the man could not be turned away to the miseries of a rough ordinary.
"Tell him I am safe—tell him I bear him no ill-will, but that everything is at an end. Why, there was nothing to end; I am ashamed to think how trivial it all was—ashamed!"
Eva took this message down to the Englishman waiting in the handsome guest-parlour. She a little softened it, yet in her honesty she could not hold out much hope. She longed to ask what had been the cause of the deep resentment Harriet felt towards the man whom she had once been willing to accept for her bridegroom, but she could not force her delicacy to this point.
At the report of Harriet's refusal, Sir Philip Ayres fell into a deep reserve; he seemed very little inclined to disclose any of his affairs. He said he would be gone early on the morrow, and that he could very well make his way to the English lines, and he concluded by begging that such hospitality as they were courteous enough to offer him might be given him apart, in some room he would undertake not to leave, as he did not wish to force Miss Dryden to stay in her chamber.
Eva Grove replied it was her house, and for her part she would be glad of his company and would invite Sir Philip to take supper with her, and as for Harriet, she certainly would not leave her room whether or no he confined himself to his.
So Sir Philip Ayres found himself sharing a meal with the fair rebel in her elegant guest-parlour, and learning something more of the American view of the war, the wrongs and opinions of the Colonists than he could possibly have learnt in London or even during his captivity with the Indians.
Eva Grove told him much of the families of the Drydens and the Groves, and he was moved to hear with what tender staunchness links with the old country had been preserved from one generation to another. The war seemed to him more than ever terrible, murderous, and unjust...
"And you live here alone, Miss Grove, on this large plantation? No one but slaves and old men in the very midst of war?"
She replied simply, "What else? There was only myself and Luke, and he is with the Virginian militia; he went at once with General Washington." She repeated, "What else? We are not, perhaps, like the women you are best accustomed to. We have had to learn to be lonely and self-reliant."
"But if the house should be attacked by the Indians, or even, as I fear, by some of our own soldiery, or the slaves arise in revolt..."
"I do not think of these things at all," replied Eva, "but if they should occur..." She broke off the sentence to say thoughtfully, "The Indians would not molest us; both my father and my brother always treated them fairly, and bloodthirsty as they are, they are always susceptible to what they term 'honourable dealing.' We are not all of us at perpetual warfare with the Indians. My brother even has good friends among them, and has learnt something of their customs and their speech; he has been on hunting expeditions with them, and I think we have nothing to fear from them. Hostile tribes might come, but even that..."
She laughed valiantly, and resting her round white elbows on the shining old table, she told him in a brief, cheerful fashion how her grandmother, in the old days, left alone on a farm with but one servant, while the men were all abroad hunting, had kept at bay a party of Indians by putting on masculine attire and running from one window to another and firing at the savages until they retreated.
"She was a very fair and proper woman, sir. Her life was full of beautiful and tender actions; there was nothing harsh nor masculine about her."
"Like you and Harriet," smiled Sir Philip.
"We neither of us have been put to the test, sir."
"Yet I think Harriet's flight from London here must have called for some fortitude."
"No, that was nothing."
Harriet had told her the story; at least from the moment when she found herself in Portsmouth... Ayres listened eagerly for the sound of Francis Battel's name, though on his serene face showed no sign of his apprehension, but either Eva was too loyal or Harriet had not mentioned the young officer; for Eva put it, that the girl, finding herself in an inn in the great confusion of embarkation at Portsmouth, had made friends with a sergeant's wife who secured her a passage as maid to one of the officer's ladies, whose own woman had fallen sick with terror at the prospect of the voyage, and refused to go at the last minute; so Harriet, being neat and handy, had obtained the post.
She had sailed on a frigate with a parcel of other women as far as New York, and there, through introductions from the officer's lady, had found shelter until she was able to put herself in the hands of friends of the Groves, who had connections in New York; and they were able, without so much trouble and delay, to send Harriet to Virginia.
"So you see, sir, she did not require so much courage, nor was the voyage so adventurous," concluded the lively girl. "Why, sir, there was a forbear of mine who, when she was but nineteen years old—in the year seventeen hundred and one—came out to New Jersey and settled on a tract of land her father had bought there. She planned a city, though she did not live to see it built, and I myself have seen her grave in Hatfield and the inscription, 'She sleeps in the Lord.' Do you not think, sir, that these women who came to these lone, sad, strange shores (as they termed them), and were between the savages and the pirates, with all manner of difficulties to contend with, with a home and a livelihood to get, did not need to be something heroical? Ay, and good business women too."
She told him, being willing to distract him from the heavy thoughts she saw he was endeavouring to conceal, amusing tales of the merchant dames of the South—how a mother of a friend of hers from South Carolina had made a large fortune by planting the indigo imported from Antigua, although she had had to experiment many times and to face countless failures; yet, in the end, she had made a great fortune out of the wayward plant, and been able to marry on it and send four children to England to be educated.
When the supper was over, Sir Philip Ayres told the vivacious lady that he would not disturb her in the morning, but take his departure early; he had a map and compass, he added.
"But I do not like you to depart so easily, sir; it seems a lack of hospitality."
"But you have no hopes that Miss Dryden would consent to see me?"
"I must confess—no."
"Well, then, it is but trespassing on your kindness and maybe putting you in some danger. I am sure you are an ardent rebel, Miss Eva, and would not wish to be found harbouring an English officer."
"I would not wish them to find you here, and that is certain," she admitted with a little frown of distress, for she knew that these were not gentle times, that men's angry passions were flaming high, and that the knife, the bullet, and the rope had put an end to many a traveller who could not explain his circumstances or his errand. "Perhaps," she added, "it is better for you to leave, but you must write to us sometimes. We still have our post."
As he was taking leave of her with a warm and genuine gratitude for her gallant kindness and pretty hospitality, Sir Philip Ayres asked, "Do you know one Ethan Allen?"
She shook her fair, delicate head.
"Well, he seems to know you; he is some manner of neighbour of yours. He is, like your brother, friendly with the Indians, uses their dress on occasion, and speaks their language. I was his prisoner for many weeks. A remarkable man, I thought him."
"I do not know him, and I know all the names of the families round here. Ethan Allen! No; surely it is assumed."
No more passed between them on this matter, and the young Englishman was conducted to an agreeable chamber which he saw from the handsomeness of its appointments must be the principal guest-room. The bed hangings and the furniture cover were of rich silk of native manufacture; the walls were panelled with fine maple, and there were a thousand conveniences and elegancies which might well have caused Sir Philip to forget that he was in, what he had considered until recently, a barbarous country.
But he made no attempt to sleep, knowing that he could not do so for thinking he was under the same roof as Harriet, for wondering why she was so unkind. "How she must hate me—and why? There's something that villain has said of me; what could it be? Why should she have been so influenced by him rather than by me?"
But he endeavoured to put aside these torturing thoughts; he was a man of a bold and commanding spirit, and while the woman lived, did not give up hope of winning her...
It was, however, impossible for him to lurk under this hospitable roof, abusing the generosity of a girl; he must return to His Majesty's army and take up whatever duty was appointed him; but he knew that Harriet was safe—he had seen the home that sheltered her, and he felt that he might somehow, at length, obtain her affection and regard.
Nor did the weary man, proud and self-reliant as he was, forget to go on his knees and thank God for preserving, among all the unhappy women of the war, this one woman, for he was, beneath all his veneer of worldliness, a man of piety.
He kept the generous fire allowed him replenished from the large basket of pine knots on the hearth, but put out the fragrant green candles. He sat so, musing on his situation and his affairs, until it was dawn and then fell asleep in his hooded chair from sheer weariness of body and vexation of mind.
He was roused by hearing his voice called in tones that were sweetly familiar and deeply agitated. He withdrew swiftly from the depths of slumber and nameless dreams; standing up and snatching his pistol he had put near to his hand, for he had not been able to secure a sword since he had left Monmouth.
"Do not make a sound, I beg of you!"
He had thought at first it was Eva Grove who spoke. The room was only lit by the light of the dying embers, and he could not well discern the figure and shape of the young woman who stood on the other side of the hearth.
"You must be cautious and keep very close," she whispered in increasing distress; "there is a parcel of soldiers come to the house. Eva must entertain them—of course."
"Ay; they are searching for spies. Eva thinks they would shoot you at sight."
"And you would not have that, much as you hate me?" he breathed. He had seen that it was Harriet who spoke. In the warm shadows he could see the faint outline of her features, the long soft folds of the rich auburn hair which, in her hasty snatching up of attire, she had allowed to remain hanging down her shoulders.
"No, I would not have that," she replied. "As you know, it was not my intention even to see you, but Eva must entertain these men who are cold and hungry. There was no one else to send." Thus defending herself by a screen of words, she moved farther away from him and added hastily, "We have told Withers, the steward, that you were a friend of Luke, and went away last night, after all. He may think it strange, but he will make no mischief."
"I am glad of my danger," said Sir Philip Ayres, "since it has procured for me this pleasure."
"Please do not make a mock of me, sir, with your town phrases—much has happened since we met last. I may not be so foolish as then. I cannot like you—would not willingly endure your presence; neither can I see you meet a violent death under my roof, nor would Eva forgive me if you did."
"That is enough for me," replied the young Englishman. "I have been greatly rewarded after a long and painful expectation, and I will do as you bid me. I will remain quiet here till these men have gone, not leaving the room."
"But you cannot remain here," said Harriet in a deeper distress; "it is the guest-chamber, and any moment might be entered. The captain of these men might demand to rest in it, a servant might come in. Follow me, if you please."
She opened a small door beside the fireplace. He followed her into the powdering closet, lined with cedar—very elegant. There she quickly lit a green candle and took him out into a little corridor papered with Chinese figures and to the back of the west wing of the house, where a few steps up a ladder brought him to the lento, where apples, raisins, pears, and sweet nuts were stored.
"You had nothing with you—you've left nothing behind in the bedchamber?" she asked breathlessly, her light wavering in her unsteady hand.
"Nay, all I possess I have kept about my person, and you perceive I did not go to bed to-night, but slept in the chair."
The tall man could scarcely stand upright in any part of the lento. She pulled out some hay and a bearskin from the corner, and told him to sleep on that and presently she or Eva, when the opportunity might offer, would bring him some food... she earnestly bade him lie concealed until the Americans had gone—making no sound whatever.
Sir Philip Ayres hardly heard what the agitated girl said; he was too absorbed in looking at her, too struck and amazed by the strangeness of the situation in which they found themselves, alone in the darkness and solitude of the old attic, she hating him, as he could not doubt, yet anxious for his safety; but no matter for any of that, the strangeness of it, the two of them together after so long!
He thought of when he had seen her last—gay and brilliant at Marling Hall, willing to be his wife, childishly pleased with the pomp and ceremonies in preparation, full of gratitude for his extravagant presents.
She had set the candle on the floor and was busily opening the shutters; then she had extinguished the candle and was saying: "No light must be seen here, and by now the day is strong enough."
A pale bluish glow reflected from the dawn on the snow without, entered the attic, and showed him her fair colour, her look of distress.
He took her hand, whether she would or no; she drew away from him, but without a struggle. "Darling Harriet, will you not tell me what caused you to do so fearful a thing as to fly from me like that—into all that peril? Why, you will never believe what I have endured."
She answered with stiff lips, looking away. "No doubt you suffered a little—I daresay what I did was mad enough, but is this the time to be talking of it?"
"I cannot see you, Harriet, and not ask you for the reason for behaviour so extraordinary."
Seeing her still obstinate, and that she was drawing farther and farther away from him, he added with some sternness, "Do you know that Frank Battel left a note saying that he had gone with you to be married in Jersey?"
She turned swiftly at that, flushed and trembling, and exclaimed under her breath, "Oh, I knew he was a villain; I was apprised of that," but recollecting her resolve to be drawn into no discussion of the past, she added, "I must go—I shall be missed—there is no time for us to be talking of what happened then, Sir Philip. Indeed, I was a lively young fool, no doubt, but I learnt something which made it impossible for me to marry you, for all of a sudden I so hated it all and was so wild to escape that I cared not what I did."
"Did you go with Frank Battel? I must know that."
"I went with him as far as Portsmouth," said she hurriedly, "and he was very courteous—I had nothing to complain of. He took me to an inn, and then he was called of a sudden to London—an express came for him. He seemed troubled and angry. I think it was a matter of some creditors—perhaps to take money to some one—I don't know. He left me. He told me that I and a woman he had found for me and Hercules his servant were to go on board a frigate which he gave me the name of. He had arranged all with the captain—you see, here I am telling you the tale and I should be gone."
He stood in front of the small door and faced her. "You must tell me this tale, Harriet. You owe it to me—remember, even if we never see each other again, once you were my promised wife. There is some obligation in that."
She continued even more hurriedly, yet proudly too, standing as she had stood in the library at Marling Hall when she had said, "I need no man." "When I found myself alone at Portsmouth in that terrible crowd, amid all the sordid things I had never known of before, then what I had done seemed crazy to me. I was so alone, so amazed, yet I would not for anything have returned either to you or Lady Marling—my homesickness for Virginia grew on me. There was a woman staying there who seemed to have pity on me; she thought I was a wife of some officer waiting his arrival. She brought up a wife of a sergeant; by then I was minded to escape from Frank Battel as I had escaped from you. I would not be under the obligation to him for the expenses and trouble of my voyage, and when I thought over his behaviour I liked it not, yet I was forced to use the money he left with me; that I shall send him as soon as maybe..."
"What happened then? How did you get from Portsmouth, my dear?"
"Oh, I told some tale to the sergeant's wife. I said my husband had sailed, that I was to join him but I had no money, and she took me to an officer's lady whose maid would not sail for fear; so I came across in a frigate and landed in New York."
This was the truth, simple enough, although it had seemed so mysterious at the time, which Sir Philip had already heard from Eva Grove.
"I am very satisfied that you escaped Frank Battel. Though the man is of my own blood, I consider him a scoundrel."
Harriet moved to the attic door and stood there, silent a moment. While she spoke she had scarcely looked at Sir Philip, indeed she had seemed to shrink from him with so keen an apprehension that he might touch her, but he had kept as far from her as the narrow attic allowed.
"You do not think," he asked, with all the pain he could not keep from his voice rendering it unsteady, "that it is of some importance that we should have this clear between us? You were—again I say it—promised to me for my wife—with your free will, as I thought."
"But on a very short acquaintance," she said. She hesitated, then in a tone of agony that he found infinitely moving, she added, "You are a man of honour, I suppose? I know so little, and you have said Captain Battel is a scoundrel. Tell me this, if he lied when he told me..." She could not complete her sentence and Ayres had to help her gently with, "What was it he told you, my dear?"
Harriet leant heavily against the rude door, her fair arm, from which the woollen sleeve fell back, along the heavy staple.
"He said that you had offered to buy me—as out here they buy slaves or poor, transported, convict wretches—that you thought no more of me than that; he said my brother was in that villainy, too, and I was just a fool; I had thought that you had cared for me—"
Sir Philip Ayres did not speak for a moment or two; it was not easy for him to keep control of his emotions. A convulsion passed over his splendid features. At length he replied, "Your brother, Harriet, I must assure you, was free of any offence. It is an invention on the part of Frank. As for myself, I cannot deny some dreadful misapprehension, which was the villain's own work. It is impossible to explain to you."
"Ah, impossible indeed!" she interrupted suddenly, putting her hands before her face, then dropping them. Her attitude was one of complete humiliation.
"Yet you must not too much misjudge me, Harriet. Before God, you are the only woman whom I have ever wanted to marry."
"I am sorry, but no doubt I was a flighty young fool—I was not used to the ways of a fine young gentleman. That's what stings—to have been so deceived."
"Harriet, I can prove to you that I, too, was greatly deceived."
"Why should you?" she answered in a proud tone, "prove anything to me? Indeed, sir, I never had more than a faint liking for you, and it was my fault to offer to marry with no more. Do you think I remember my actions with pride? I wanted to get away from Lady Marling, to have liberty, a few fine things, some gaiety; but I've had keen hardships since then, and learnt the value of toys—"
"Harriet, don't speak like that—"
"I must; you ought to despise me. As I despise you. See, I don't spare myself. I knew nothing, 'tis true; yet I did know one should not marry—without love."
"There was love, Harriet; there was—"
"No!" She face him steadily. "I was only going to marry you for my own advantage—and you—why were you going to marry me?"
"You'll not believe me when I tell you, Harriet, but do not put all these cruel words between us."
The increasing light showed him her earnest, pale face, the musing eyes, the broad brows, the full under-lip of the miniature. He could, seeing the proud enmity of her glance, scarce refrain from groaning aloud, and he had completely forgotten the peril of ignominious death in which he stood.
"I want to put everything between us. You must never think of me again. Indeed, indeed, I am not for sale, Sir Philip Ayres, even if marriage be the price offered. Oh, indeed, I don't excuse myself—I loathe myself—to think that I should have been willing to take you—for a mere worldly advantage."
She spoke so poignantly that the man, who truly loved her, was moved almost beyond speech; yet, loving her, rejoiced at the generous nobility she showed in blaming herself more than she blamed him. He had expected her scorn, not her self-reproach.
It was as if something lovely and precious lay shattered between them. A bitter regret for what might have been, held him silent.
He was no boy to play the glib, the ardent lover; he raised his hand and let it fall again.
"That I should have caused you any pain!" he murmured, and added in his thought, "That I should have bruised your wings and dimmed your gaiety!"
"I blame only my own folly," repeated Harriet, and left him abruptly.
It seemed, then, as if nothing could ever bring them together again—nothing.
SIR PHILIP AYRES lay among the hay in the lean- to, the bearskin over him, for it was dead cold, and looked out of the small window; around him was the perfume of the apples and nuts—the winter store of fruit then low.
Eva Grove, entering swiftly, lightly, and in silence, had brought him food in a basket. She had put her finger on her lips and departed quickly.
She had seemed in some fear, and he, for the first time, regretted the headlong rashness which had made him seek out Harriet and gratify his desire at the expense, perhaps, of this gallant young woman who had received him with such generous kindness.
Peering cautiously from the window, he saw a troop of Americans without, well mounted on the beautiful Virginian horses, but roughly attired; their fur caps were pulled down over their eyes, their cloaks muffled about their throats and shoulders; he thought that he could detect among them the fine outline and commanding pose of Ethan Allen.
It was brilliant weather. He could catch a glimpse of the river on which the thick ice was beginning to break, the grey waters struggling with the dark floes. The trees were lined with rime, and the snow, beginning to melt, lay wet and heavy by the side of the roadway and along the garden walls. The sky was of a purple blue, flecked with golden amber clouds.
He saw the two young gentlewomen, Harriet and Eva, come out of the house. It was evident that the men were leaving immediately. After all, they had stayed but a few hours. A party of young black slave children with books under their arms came up and stared at the horsemen. Ayres saw Eva laugh at the children and direct them into the house for their morning lessons; Harriet, in a soft red fur cloak with a silver clasp, stood long talking with the horseman whom Ayres had thought had a likeness to Ethan Allen.
The hidden man could see the long stray curls of auburn hair falling inside her thick hood, the ebbing colour of her cold, flushed face as she spoke earnestly, now putting her hand on the cavalier's arm, then nervously touching her own heart, and Ayres thought, "Has she found another lover?—it would be like enough!"
It seemed to him that he could not be mistaken in this thought that the young girl was speaking with passionate pain to the man who bent from his saddle to listen; and, not well able to endure the sight, he turned away and lay down on the hay bed, his face in his hands, his elbows among the grey broken grass and flowers.
Though he had set himself so sternly and with such ardour on this quest for Harriet, this was the first time he had admitted to himself, "I am in love—deeply in love," and with this acknowledgment came the reflection that he had made light of much, and too carelessly accepted the custom of his caste, so that, perhaps, it was too late for him, but not for her. There was consolation in that—she might find with another what, largely through his own careless folly, she had lost with him.
Bitter thoughts pressed and tossed within his tired mind. Harriet's young face, so much the face of a child, the red flush of shame on it as she had told him the measure of his offence, came before his inner vision with a scorching pain as he laughed miserably at the thought of the wicked ingenuity with which Frank Battel had fastened on him his own bold villainy. What, even now, did Harriet understand? She had accused him of trying to buy her "like a slave girl or some wretched convict," and he could not see how he could ever put himself right in her eyes without an ugly revelation, which by no means he could make.
Weak with pity for her, he looked again from the attic window; the sun had now risen clear of the winter woods, there was a great sparkle in the air, and despite his sorrows he felt his spirits rise at the grand prospect before him. The cavalcade had gone, silence had fallen upon the old homestead. Though all was dead under the weight of snow, yet there seemed a ring of vibrant life in the golden atmosphere.
He looked at the food Eva Grove had brought him, and drank the coffee in the silver pot which had kept hot by a thick linen napkin wrapped round it. Curiously lustrous and fine in texture was this napkin, like all the Virginian linen woven with long, patient toil by the strong, fair hands of gentlewomen. The food he could not touch, and he looked to his pistol, his money, and his compass, all of which precious possessions he had kept on his person. Everywhere he had travelled, from Monmouth to the James River, he had found a very high exchange for his gold, for the dollar of Congress had a small and fluctuating value, and he still had, as he reckoned, sufficient money to take him to the English headquarters.
It was Eva Grove who came to the attic and told him the Americans had now gone; he stood waiting for this signal, ready for an immediate departure. Eva was pale and her eyes shone; the Englishman was sensitive enough to guess that she was distressed by her fond hospitality which left the imputation of treachery to her own folk.
"You saw nothing—you heard nothing?" she asked; "but I think I can trust you."
"I saw a parcel of horsemen through the window and I suppose they were Americans, but I know not whence they have come or where they be going, nor any matter of their business, and if I did," he added "yes, you could trust me to make no use of that knowledge."
"You see," she said, pressing her hands together till the joints cracked, "we are in a desperate plight—I mean Congress is—the Americans. Call us what you will, but not rebels! There is talk of French help, but it has not come yet. We are determined to fight till we are all slain, rather than surrender."
"I had guessed that before," replied Sir Philip, smiling.
"And so I..." She paused, left her broken sentence, and took another. "My brother has put his all into this, and I would not by any womanish nonsense injure his cause."
"I was too imprudent, perhaps a little cruel, in asking for hospitality, and you were too imprudent, perhaps a little too kind, in giving it me, but I will be gone immediately and none shall know that I have been here."
In pain at her pain he added, "I am sorry. I fear I have done you some evil through thoughtlessness." But Eva said with impetuous frankness:
"No, all will be as it was. I like you, and I am sorry that we must fight men like you. I am sorry, too, that Harriet..."
"Ah, that now!" he replied. "There I have much to thank you. You have made an end of a bitter expectancy. It has been to me, Miss Grove, endless months of waiting and longing and dread. Now I know she is safe—" He finished abruptly, as if already regretting that he had said so much.
Eva Grove corrected him gently. "She is safe as any woman in America can be."
He followed her down the stairs; in the golden light of the rising sun which glowed in through the open doors and windows the house showed empty. He doubted not she had made some clever shift to get every one out of the way.
She asked him, with a blush, if he had money, powder.
He smiled. "Yes, and map and compass and pistol."
She said that she hoped that they might meet again with the war behind them, but this seemed a wild wish.
He took her hand and laid it on his, and raised it to his lips and kissed it, and she added with a pretty smile she was sorry she could not give him a horse, but it would be missed from the stable, and he replied that he was used to going a long, unknown way on foot.
Eva was unbarring a little door at the back of the house when a curtain was pulled aside at the end of the corridor and Harriet Dryden was there. She considered him gravely and said, "I do not want you to think me a foolish, petulant child. I am sorry for the manner of my departure from Marling Hall, but it was the only way to prevent our marriage, and that's a thing I could never have endured." And on an intake of breath, she added, "Since I have been home I have been happy."
"That is enough for me," replied Sir Philip.
It seemed to him that she shook a little, as in a low voice she thanked him for his kindness, and he thought, "I suppose now there's no bond at all between us, yet I feel bound to keep faith with her all the days of my life."
She did not then look much like the miniature which he always carried about with him, together with those treasures on which depended his very life, for her features were overcast by heavy thoughtfulness, her eyes red from lack of sleep and tears; perhaps, to any one seeing her thus for the first time, as she stood hesitant in the corridor, she had not seemed so very fair, but the Englishman's love and desire and fancy had been caught once and for all.
She seemed so dear to him then as she stood but a few feet away, and quite without his reach, that he could say no more, but turned aside sharply and left the house, hardly heeding the direction that Eva Grove hurriedly gave him.
But when he had left them (and for their sake he forced himself to walk quickly, so that the house was soon out of sight, hidden in a bend of the great river and the forest of noble, bare trees), it came suddenly before him, cold and clear as ice, that he might never see her again; nay, indeed, that it was not likely that he would ever see her again. What chance would there be of another meeting in all the dull waste, the dreary confusion of the war? All his duty, all his honour, all his interests lay on the side which she and her kin were pledged against...
His journey was easy enough; he told now this tale, now that, according to the understanding of the people to whom he had to speak, but for the most part he avoided all encounters and kept to the woods, save only when he had to have food and shelter at night, which he found rough indeed at the scattered ordinaries.
As he proceeded he felt more strongly that break of spring in the air, as if the whole earth gave a great stir beneath the ice and snow; the silvery outline of the branches of the mighty trees seemed already flushed with life as they cast the frost from them in their swaying.
He picked up some news as he went; at one inn he saw a newspaper; at a wayside house he found himself among loyalists, still ardent for the cause of King George; Sir William Howe had been recalled at his own wish and Lord Cornwallis was in command; he had made but little progress, of course, during the winter; the British had suffered heavily, unaccustomed to such a severe climate and mostly totally misinformed of the extent of the country; the Americans had held their own though Congress was severely hampered by lack of money; the Thirteen States talked of calling themselves The United States, and of having their own flag, on which the arms of General Washington should be displayed—a star and a stripe for each state...
When Sir Philip at length reached the English lines, it was on a day when spring seemed suddenly at hand. With amazing rapidity the snow was melting, disclosing stretches of yet green sward, and the snow, being shaken from the trees, showed them bright and heavy with buds.
Sir Philip Ayres had personal acquaintance with Lord Cornwallis, thus the demand to the first English sentry he met, "to be brought before the Commander-in-Chief," was sufficient to end his travels and his disguise.
Within a few days of his arrival at Yorktown, he was again Colonel Sir Philip Ayres in British regimentals and in command of a large portion of his own men, for the 29th Foot, under the charge of the captains, had made their way southwards until a considerable number of them had reached British headquarters.
His regiment and a party of dragoons was, Sir Philip discovered, to be immediately sent back to New York, as there were already more British troops in the south than it could support, and it was believed that as soon as the weather made military operations possible, either Washington or Gates, or perhaps both, would endeavour to make further progress in the north where they had been so successful.
Sir Philip was glad to know his regiment was to go as soon as possible into action; he felt a certain personal satisfaction at the thought that he would be opposing Gates and Francis Battel. If, for the first, he felt a mere contemptuous indifference, for the second he knew a vigorous hatred, and next to his passionate wish that Harriet Dryden and he might one day come together in love, was the hot desire that he and Francis Battel might in some way face to face settle the great wrong that was between them, for Sir Philip Ayres no longer thought of the blood-tie which bound him to his nephew and his heir-at-law.
Of George Dryden he could learn nothing; it was rather in his mind that the young man would, sooner or later, join the rebels, and he could not feel this to be a very deep dishonour. Young Dryden belonged to that Virginia of which Ayres had had a glimpse; to that old, friendly, beautiful home in which he, himself, had had shelter for those few hours.
He had been in Yorktown for a few days, engaging himself as much as possible that his thoughts might not have too great a power over his spirits with his preparation for the march to New York (some of the troops were to go by sea, but the ships being insufficient, some must travel over land), when he heard that a certain famous American spy had been captured by the English and was about to be summarily hanged.
The memory of Red Plume caused him to take the trouble to inquire the name of this man, and he was smitten, indeed, when told that it was Ethan Allen, a fellow who was most active and dangerous, and had wrought a good deal of mischief to the English.
With his stern features and fine figure concealed in the rough furs of a farmer selling forage to the batmen he had been for some time moving freely within the English lines, had finally been suspected and searched, and found to have concealed on him papers with exact accounts of the positions, etc., of the British troops.
He had boldly exclaimed that he was an American soldier, but this, of course, had not been listened to. He was to be hanged immediately, and Lord Cornwallis, humane and generous as he was, congratulated himself on having captured so dangerous a man.
Sir Philip Ayres was extraordinarily moved by this news. The young American had not treated him ungenerously, and the Englishman could not fail to admire his bold hardihood and the tenacity with which he had served his idol of "Independence," as it was called.
Sir Philip remembered the cool courage with which the American had directed his savage allies—remembered something likeable about the man, in spite of his stern, unyielding presence—and made it his peculiar business to wait on Lord Cornwallis the day of the execution (he had only heard of it a few hours before), and ask if there were not circumstances in Ethan Allen's case which might admit of a respite.
The Commander-in-Chief appeared surprised at this request; it was one of the oldest, most unalterable of military rules, that spies should be put to death immediately; nor had there, during this war, been any relaxation of so necessary a precaution.
"What interest have you in this Ethan Allen?" asked Lord Cornwallis with indulgent kindness.
"It was he who captured me with his band of Indians," replied Sir Philip. "He treated me well, and I came to respect, even like the fellow. I believe he is a Virginian of gentle birth—an educated man..."
"More the pity," interrupted the Commander-in-Chief. "We, sir, cannot draw these distinctions. The fellow has been very audacious and very successful, and now he has gone a little too far and lost all. No doubt he will die as he has lived—a brave man."
"Do you know who he really is?"
"I do not. He was recognised by some one who, like you, had been his prisoner for a while and then escaped. He insists he is a man who used to go in the disguise of a savage, and called himself Red Plume. He says his name is Ethan Allen—well, let us leave it at that."
He looked curiously at Sir Philip Ayres, and added, "I am sorry, my dear Colonel, that this should affect you—a little surprised, too."
"Perhaps," replied the other with something of an effort, "after one spends some months with people and learnt something of their side of the question, one feels for them a certain sympathy—"
"No doubt," agreed Lord Cornwallis, "the war is wrong from the beginning, but that is no business of ours. The fellow is a spy—has been caught red-handed, and must hang."
Sir Philip Ayres rose; he knew the point beyond which it was useless to argue with his Commander-in-Chief, and as a professional soldier he had known from the first that the plea, which he had felt somehow bound to make for Ethan Allen, would be useless. He asked, however, a further favour: "May I see this man before he dies?"
"You want to do him some friendly office?"
"I should like to, though I do not know in what way I may be of service to him; but perhaps there is some message he would like to send, some matter of which I might ease his mind."
"That is as you will, Sir Philip. I have no objection, but do not amuse the man with any hope of a respite, for indeed there is none."
When Sir Philip Ayres entered the military prison where Ethan Allen was confined, the American had only two hours to live. He had asked for a Protestant clergyman, who had been closeted with him for half an hour or so.
He appeared to have made his peace with Heaven and settled his worldly affairs, for his manner was perfectly serene; his dark grey eyes were not clouded by fear, and his lips, though pale, were as firmly and as ironically set as they had been when he rode at the head of his troop of Indians, or sat listening with his indifferent irony to the wild talk that circled round the table of Monsieur de Lafayette.
He still wore the rough farmer's dress in which he had been arrested, coarse leggings, cotton shirt, his hair rudely clipped into his neck; but his air was that of a gentleman, and Sir Philip, looking at him, was more than ever convinced that he was a person of some distinction and education.
He sat at the plain table allowed him, and wrote with a stump of pencil on a small tablet. On looking up and seeing Ayres, he showed no surprise.
"You have not been long in regaining your own people, Sir Philip Ayres," he remarked dryly. "I did not think we should meet again so soon. You had skillful help," he added with a scornful inflection in his voice. "Money, a map, a compass, firearms. Your journey was not so difficult or so adventurous."
"I hope no one suffered for assisting me," said the Englishman.
Ethan Allen replied, "I was a fool to trust a woman. I had my doubts of that lunatic creature."
"Where is she now?" asked Ayres. "I, at least, owe her some gratitude."
"She has gone to join Gates, an ancient acquaintance of hers, and your nephew, Frank Battel. You may meet them again yet; as for me, I must keep my mind off such matters."
"I am sorry to see you in this state, Mr. Allen."
"'Tis but one in which I expected to be. I am sorry I have only one life to give to my country."
"Is there anything I can do for you—any message to take—any wish to be fulfilled?"
"Those are the first friendly words I have heard since I was captured," smiled Ethan Allen. "Why do you offer them to me? I did not handle you so gently when you were in my power."
"I had nothing to complain of. I was captured through my own inquisitive folly. You did what any man would have done in your place. Is there anything I can do for you?"
"I am cut off from all," replied Ethan Allen, a quiver of emotion seemed to pass over his hard features. "A spy takes his life in his own hands; he must not appeal to his friends, to his government; he is disowned. Well, I undertook this work and I have carried it through with some success. The only service you could do me," he added with a grim smile, "would be to take my notes through to General Washington, but I cannot ask that of you."
"No, not that, but anything else; for instance, who are you?"
"You don't believe my name to be Ethan Allen?"
"You are right, it is not. I thought well to assume it when I began this work." The young man fixed his keen and piercing glance on the Englishman. "Are you really friendly? Do you, indeed, wish to do me a good turn?"
"I do indeed, most sincerely. I will not deny that your case is hopeless. I have already been to Lord Cornwallis."
"I do not care to see a man of your character and quality hanged."
"Stay away from the ceremony then," replied Ethan Allen. "Yet I should be grateful. Well, I can only give you this message," he added. "I do believe I may trust you. I have only one creature in the world who loves me, that is my sister. I dare say you will be surprised when you hear who she is—Eva Grove."
With an accent of the greatest pain, Sir Philip Ayres exclaimed, "You are not Luke Grove!"
"Ay, indeed I am, and so I came to know something of your Harriet. Well, why should that grieve you?"
"I have been to Dryden Grange—your house," exclaimed Philip Ayres, deeply moved. "Your sister treated me with generous kindness. Why, I believe it was you I saw—I was in the attic—you were there with a parcel of friends."
"I went not so long ago to Dryden Grange," said Ethan Allen; "and you were there, were you? Hiding in the attic!"
"I was there but a few hours, and learnt nothing. You must not blame your sister."
Luke Grove replied, "I do not blame her. You forget you speak to a man already dead to worldly interests. I ask nothing of you but this—should you ever see my sister again, tell her I died content, very willing to be sacrificed for America."
LUKE GROVE folded up the small package with which he had been occupied when Sir Philip Ayres entered his prison. "You could do me this service," he said; "send this to my sister, but keep it till the times are safer."
He added, in a businesslike manner, that he had made his will and disposed of the plantation and all his worldly goods in his sister's favour before he had entered on the war. "She was his elder," he added.
This was curious and most poignant to Ayres; it made Luke so young; for all his stern air and premature gravity, he had been only a graduate at Yale when the war broke out. As he gave the packet to Ayres, he seemed to reflect a little himself on this (although he had said he had done with worldly matters), and the Englishman feared he was regretting his life, so rich in all that makes existence delightful—snapped off so soon, like a young sapling that has not begun to blossom.
Ayres exclaimed passionately, "I would have given a good deal for this not to happen!"
"Why?" smiled the young American. "I am no concern of yours. Men are dying like this, hundreds of them, every day."
"I know, but this comes home to me—and your sister, I have told you how she entertained me."
"And Harriet?" asked Grove curiously. "Did you see her?"
"Ay, I saw her, and what of it? I have no hope of ever possessing her," cried the Englishman. "Yet, even as I speak, I feel some day..." He broke off. "Tell me of yourself; surely there is something I can do for you?"
Luke Grove's dark grey eyes turned on him with a strange smiling look.
"I think perhaps there is something I can do for you, Sir Philip Ayres," he replied. "Do not startle; you see me, a man about to be hanged—helpless, useless, you may consider—but think a little how my fate affects yours. My sister loves me, Sir Philip, and my cousin, Harriet, loves her, and it would not help you much if either of these poor women thought that you had had a hand in my death."
"Why should they think so?" asked the Englishman in dismay—real horror was in his tone, for he saw himself tarnished in the eyes of the two girls and all possible roads to Harriet's favour for ever closed.
"They very well might," replied Luke Grove coolly. "They would hear, I suppose, that you were present at my execution; but, if you please, I will tell them you acted the part of a friend. That is but just."
The young man spoke with considerable gravity, and drew again under his hand the tablet on which he had been writing. He inscribed a few words with steady fingers, folded up and handed the paper to the Englishman, who took it with relief, yet with a certain horror, almost ashamed and disgusted with himself to know that he was so helpless to save this man for whose life he would have given several years of his own.
Luke Grove had written on the paper:
"I meet my end as I expected to, and entirely without blame to any one. I endure the fortune of war, no more, no less. If there should come a peaceful time, and such things are possible, I would like my body, if it may be found, to be taken up and put in the great maple grove near the tobacco fields in my estate at Dryden Grange, where some of my forbears are buried; and, if there is room in the black marble-and-brass tomb of my grandfather, Jonathan Grove, where I played as a child, I would like to be placed in that.
I have entrusted this paper, with others for my sister, in the hands of Colonel Sir Philip Ayres, 29th Regiment of Foot, in the British Army, who was once my prisoner and has now stood my friend. He has done all the services that any one could do for a man in my situation. He would, if he could, have saved my life or softened my sentence. I recommend him to my sister, Eva Grove, to my cousin, Harriet Dryden, and to all my acquaintances. Signed on the last day of my life, April the eleventh, seventeen seventy-seven.
Luke Ethan Grove.
Sir Philip Ayres put the paper into his breast-pocket above the miniature of Harriet Dryden. "This is intolerable," he said, turning away his face. "I cannot stand by and see it done. 'Tis as if you were a friend of my childhood."
"Yet we are strangers indeed," smiled the young American, rising.
"I must not disturb you," said Sir Philip Ayres, controlling his emotion. "You are wonderfully calm."
"I have already fixed my thoughts on another world," replied the young American, but in so simple a fashion that there was no boast in the words. "I have done my duty, and as I said before, I am sorry I have only one life to give my country, for it is a country," he added, with the light of fanaticism gleaming in his dark eyes. "Ay, sir, you are a young man; you will live to see us recognised all over Europe—a new, a mighty, growing country. Not a handful of rebels, not a few revolting states, but a new nation."
An officer now entered and told the prisoner that it was time for him to make ready for his execution. Greatly agitated, Sir Philip Ayres turned to this man, who was his acquaintance, and asked if it was not possible to have the sentence commuted from hanging to shooting.
"Captain Grove is a gentleman, a personal friend of Mr. Washington—this concession might be displayed without too great a stretch."
"I ask no favour," put in the young American, "but since you have thought of it, Sir Philip, I should feel under an obligation to those who changed the manner of my death."
The officer hesitated, and Sir Philip Ayres, going up to him rapidly, added, "I'll go at once to Lord Cornwallis; he will be at dinner. I will have a word with him—make some delay, find some excuse for half an hour's respite."
The other Englishman nodded; he, too, had been moved by the youth's stalwart bearing, and the fame of Luke Grove who, young as he was, had already made himself renowned by his daring exploits.
The British Commander-in-Chief was considerably amazed that Sir Philip Ayres should again speak to him on the subject of the American prisoner.
"I know it is useless to ask for his life; he does not himself expect it, but he is very intimately connected with my affairs, apart from my having been his prisoner, and I would give a great deal if I might procure him some favour. He has just done me one."
"Done you a favour?" said Lord Cornwallis. "How is it possible?"
"He has given me a paper acquitting me of any hand in his end. That will mean a great deal to me, sir, in the days to come. Can his sentence not be changed from hanging to shooting?"
Lord Cornwallis hesitated. "I have orders from the Government to be most severe; we cannot afford clemency. They have hanged our men, you know, and not infrequently. This man Allen, or Red Plume, or whatever his name is, has been concerned in some most audacious enterprises. I connect him with the deflection of Francis Battel. Forgive me, Sir Philip, for mentioning this. I know it must cause you pain."
"Frank Battel is my nephew, but I may call him my enemy; it can no longer pain me to hear him spoken ill of, and I believe this Ethan Allen had little to do with him, or his desertion."
'I know not how that may be," replied Lord Cornwallis with some impatience, "but he is mixed up, too, with the insolent Mrs. Ayloffe, that Irish-Italian spy who has now joined Horatio Gates, another villain. We are bound to make an example of him; we cannot show a touch of weakness."
"But a touch of generosity! He is a friend of their General Washington, and I believe greatly admired and loved. If we dispatch him ignominiously, believe me, they will exact some revenge."
"We must risk that," replied Lord Cornwallis shortly. "I am sorry, my dear Colonel, to have to remind you that after all, your private concern cannot touch this affair."
Sir Philip Ayres coloured, then whitened under the rebuke. Refusing his General's courteous invitation to dinner, he returned to the prison. Luke Grove was already in the courtyard with a file of soldiers, standing near the whipping-posts and blocks used for the correction of slaves and convicts.
Sir Philip Ayres noticed the odd details of the scene, the firm impression of his own feet on the dry crunching, snowy ground; the great sweep of the dry branches of a huge tree above the prison walls; the blue and gold of the air which seemed all aflush with spring. "It must be hard to die on a day like this!" he thought, but he could observe no flinching in the young American's face.
He held out his hand. "I'm sorry," was all he could say.
Luke Grove took the offered handclasp.
"I am sorry, too, that you have been in any pain for me," he replied, and sparing the Englishman the distress of telling him of his failure, he himself made a signal to the officer in charge of the soldiers and moved towards the prison gates.
Ayres did not follow him. This, perhaps, was the most bitter moment of his life, which for so long had been easy and gilded.
He realised now, as he had never realised before, how great was that power of war that men spoke of so lightly and gaily; how it took men up and forced them into atrocities against their will, making all their noblest endeavours and their highest honours useless. He, Sir Philip Ayres, had been used to thinking of himself as possessing considerable influence and power, position and wealth, but did any of this avail him to save this man or even to change the miserable manner of his death?
The soldier leant against the prison wall in a weakness that a short while ago he would have considered unmanly. Tears lay in his eyes. The generosity of the young American stung the most... the giving of that paper. Why should he, so near to death, have thought of the Englishman's concern in his fate—an aspect of the affair which had not occurred to Ayres himself.
Almost he was minded to reject the burden of this generosity, to snatch the paper from his bosom, and trample it into the snow under his feet; but he restrained himself as he thought that he might, one day, meet those two poor young women, and he could not endure that they should regard him concerned in what they would consider the "murder" of Luke Grove.
He returned to his lodgings, avoiding that part of the town where the gallows were erected and where already hung many poor, rotting bones and tattering rags of cloth that had once been deserters or spies.
But when he proceeded on his way north, two days later, he was forced to pass with his company beneath the spot where Luke Grove hung in his rough farmer's attire, his noble head bent on his breast, his ragged hair fallen forward on his forehead, his hands tied behind him, swinging slightly in a glorious wind, which seemed to bring and scatter gold on the rich bosom of the earth.
The young cornet who rode with Philip Ayres glanced up also at this ghastly spectacle, and muttered, "I suppose he might have been any one of us."
The soldiers found their march so toilsome and were so soon subjected to the difficulties of finding food, were so continually attacked and harrassed by parties of Colonists and hostile Indians, that they regretted they had not been of the party sent to the relief of Clinton, which had sailed down Chesapeake Bay from Philadelphia to New York. The overland march was indeed so arduous that Sir Philip Ayres began to question its expediency. He believed that he would have but a few wasted scarecrows to offer to the Governor of New York, if indeed any of them reached that place.
Having with considerable difficulty crossed two rivers by the aid of the pontoons they brought with them, and some canoes or scows which they had made after the Indian fashion, they found themselves well out of their way (through the ignorance and treachery of guides), at Wilkesbarre in Wyoming Valley. Ayres was consulting his officers as to what would now be their best direction towards the outlying English posts around New York, when they were suddenly attacked by a large party of Indians and Americans, who issued from the rising woods on their flank.
The English, though surprised, made a stubborn resistance, but, trapped on the low-lying ground, with the enemy in possession of the woods and the heights a prolonged resistance meant little more than massacre.
Sir Philip Ayres soon gave the order to retreat, bidding his men to scatter into small parties and make what way they could to the Delaware, and by following that gain the English lines.
He himself, two other officers, and a company of about two hundred men covered this retreat, which was conducted in an orderly fashion, the British disappearing into the woods they defended, under cover of continuous musketry fire and the thick smoke from swathes of damp grass which they set alight. The wind was in their favour, the smouldering reek blown into the eyes of the Americans.
Colonel Sir Philip Ayres, when he had done all he could for the safety of his men, hoped to be able to make his own retreat, but as he was galloping through the only path he could find in the thick undergrowth (the trees were so massive that it was difficult, even though they were almost leafless, to tell whether it was night or day in the forest), he was surrounded and with his companions captured, thus being again in the enemy hands after only a few weeks of liberty.
He resigned himself to his fate with a calm belonging to his quality, but he could scarce suppress an expression of exasperation when the officer who had captured him informed him that he would be conducted to West Point, where General Benedict Arnold was in command, for he knew that there also was General Horatio Gates and Francis Battel, a man whom he would find it difficult to look upon with equanimity.
His fellow-prisoners were William Graham, a young cornet of dragoons; Arthur Stevens, the colonel's own batman, and three privates of the line whose names Ayres did not know. He hoped that some rescue might be attempted by his own men who, on reaching New York, might be able to induce Clinton to send out a party to attack the Americans before they reached West Point; but this was not so.
Using their expert knowledge of the country, the Americans turned inland and avoided all contact with English outposts or loyalists' holdings; and so, after a few days and nights of stiff riding, brought their prisoners to the fort of West Point, which was one of the heavily armed defences on the Hudson.
After he had entered this formidable fort, Sir Philip Ayres was brought almost immediately into the presence of General Benedict Arnold. The prejudices of his aristocratic and military caste caused the prisoner to look with a contempt he scarcely troubled to disguise at this famous general, for Benedict Arnold had served as a private in the British Army and had twice deserted. He was a man of considerable ability and conspicuous military talent; he was also reckless, unstable, jealous, and fond of glory, consumed by a stinging uneasiness at the thought of his own ignoble origin, and in a fuming discontent at the treatment which Congress had meted out to him. He believed, and justly, that the success at Saratoga had been due to him and not to Horatio Gates, who, however, as the nominal commander-in-chief and as a gentleman and a professional soldier, had received all the credit. Arnold also, like Gates, was jealous of General Washington, who was disposed to treat the pretensions of all these gentry for what they were worth, and to openly show his preference for the native Americans.
"You will find some friends here, Sir Philip Ayres," he began, with an air at once overbearing and awkward. "General Gates, who was once in your regiment, and your own nephew, Major Battel."
Sir Philip Ayres bowed without replying. With a scowl Arnold added impatiently: "There is a lady here too, Mrs. Ayloffe, and I believe you know her."
Again the Englishman bowed in silence. Arnold shrugged, rang the hand-bell, and directed the negro who appeared, to show Sir Philip Ayres to his quarters. These proved to be no better than a large room (which seemed one of the prisons of the fort), which looked out on the river from one high-barred window.
Ayres found that he was to share this room, which was furnished only with the roughest accommodation—pallet beds and wooden stools—with his fellow-prisoners. A coarse supper was served them, and he observed that this might very well be excused, since, no doubt, the garrison themselves were but scantily supplied.
Overcome by weariness and depression of spirit, the prisoners were all asleep, save Sir Philip Ayres, whose mood had passed the possibility of repose, when Horatio Gates entered, accompanied by a soldier carrying a lamp. The room was lit only by the sashed pale lavender evening light, which glowed in through the high window.
Ayres looked at Gates a little without speaking; the memory of their last meeting in the house at Hounslow was vivid in the minds of both. Suddenly they laughed, and their laughter was like a bond between them.
Horatio Gates had changed; angry passions and dissipation had still further marred his handsome but heavy countenance, but he was very elegantly dressed and appointed. His manners were still suave and pleasant, and it was easy to see that he cut a figure that much impressed men like Benedict Arnold and some of the rough New Englanders who served under him.
"Well, Sir Philip, this is a rare chance, and would make a good crack of tongues in London!"
"I doubt they have more to think of in London," replied Ayres, "than the concerns of people like you and I."
"Still, it will make a pretty story," said General Gates. "Do you know what we intend to do with you?"
"Leave one to rot here, I suppose, or is there some thought of exchange?"
Gates laughed again. "You're hopeful, Sir Philip. Upon my soul, I'm sorry for you, though I have little reason to be that—you treated me like a cur once, didn't you?"
He caught himself up as if he did not wish anything coarse to mar the serenity of the conversation. "Let that go; it seems a lifetime past. You were one of those who hanged Luke Grove, were you not?" he added suddenly.
Startled, Ayres replied, "No, I had nothing whatever to do with that. You've heard of it, then?"
"Ay, they have all heard of it. It made a rare to-do. They are furiously angry and vow revenge. They think now they've got it. You must not expect the same treatment as if you had been captured on the Continent, my dear Sir Philip. Arnold has his own ideas of how a war should be conducted."
"Was General Arnold concerned with the hanging of Luke Grove?"
"Why, not he particularly, nor I; it is to please the men. There are many fanatics here, and they have vowed that if they take any English prisoners, one, at least, shall pay."
"How are you to decide between us?" asked Sir Philip Ayres with narrowed eyes. He looked round on the sleeping men behind him. "These are as innocent as I."
"Bah! do you think they'll take any heed of that? No, I've come to prepare you. There are lots to be drawn, so many white beans and a black. He who draws the black is to be hanged on the ramparts of West Point, as a return for the death of our famous and youthful spy. Sally Ayloffe is here, you know," added Horatio Gates irrelevantly; "she has made great headway with Benedict Arnold, who is susceptible to such blowzy charms. Bah! she has chosen a life fatal to beauty; you would scarcely know her. She looked forty-five by candlelight."
While General Gates was thus rattling on, Sir Philip Ayres had thought swiftly of the paper in his bosom which exonerated him from all part in the death of Luke Grove, but he looked at his companions again, all strangers to him, but innocent, as he had just said, as himself of any hand in the death of the American spy. It would be quite impossible for him to show that paper and leave on them the onus of this punishment. He must take his chance with his fellow-prisoners.
He said coolly, "This is a barbarous device on the part of General Arnold."
"Have you found anything here so nice and civilised?" sneered Gates. "You are among practical Christians now, my dear Colonel; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth—oh, be satisfied you will not argue him out of it."
"No doubt," smiled Ayres, "should the choice fall on me, you would be satisfied."
"Frank Battel would be more so—he is still your heir."
"But, as a rebel, he could not claim my estate."
"Could he not? I think there will be free pardons going for all who render some service to His Majesty's cause, which does not shine very brightly just now."
"Do you mean that Frank is again a traitor?"
"Who knows if he was ever a traitor, my dear Colonel? He may have been playing the game that Luke Grove was—joining the Americans to find out their secrets. I am not in his confidence; still, it is idle to contend," he added with a mock courtesy, "that either Frank or I would grieve very much should the black bean be your share."
SIR PHILIP AYRES began to be aware of the pattern of life, which at first he had taken indifferently—of the casual and confused design which he now found to be working out smoothly, exactly, to the end... the end it might very well soon be, and he thought, with a half- tender irony, of his first meeting with Harriet Dryden; nay, his thoughts went farther back than that; he recalled the time when her miniature had dropped from her brother's pocket on to the table in the sordid house at Hounslow—that miniature he still carried next his heart, the "Remember me" inscribed round the fair, appealing face.
How trivial it had seemed—a mere detail in his fashionable life which was at once easy and stately, and yet all the while Frank Battel, George Dryden, Sally Ayloffe, and Harriet Dryden, the two Groves (who had then been to him but indifferent names) had been woven together, and now this climax.
A day or so ago he had said farewell to Luke Grove as a healthy man to a dying one and taken in charge the last wishes he still had upon him, and now he, himself, had come to a crisis when he must turn round and find another to do the like good office for him; he thought how he should write on the margin of Luke Grove's bequest: "I could not deliver this, as I must die myself, but I pray you to believe what it contains."
To whom should he address such a letter—to Eva or to Harriet?
But, after all, the lot might not fall on him.
He raised himself on his elbow from his rude bed, and looked at his sleeping companions—the young cornet who was no more than sixteen years of age, his faithful batman, and the three strange soldiers, whose very names were unknown to him—who all moved restlessly in their sleep. They looked simple and almost childish, and when they moved, gave short groans which were almost like cries of terror coming from some troubled dream.
He wished so much to live, that it was almost impossible for him to contemplate the thought of death, and yet, when he reflected that he might not be the one on whom the lot would fall, he was troubled by uneasiness, for he thought that impossible as it seemed to die, it would be easier to do that than to watch one of these companions of his led away, bewildered, unprotesting, brave.
He had the discharge (Luke Grove's own discharge) of any complicity in the young American's death in his own bosom, yet he thought it was more fitted that he should pay for this—he who was so intimately woven in the affairs of the Groves and the Drydens, than any of these strangers to whom they were nothing but names.
In the morning they were brought food and a scanty allowance of rum mixed with dirty water, which Ayres and the cornet could not touch, but that the rough soldiers drank willingly enough.
Young Graham was already sick and leant heavily on the older man's shoulder, yet did not complain, and Ayres thought the unendurable thing would be if the lot should fall on this boy...
To give them time to prepare themselves for the ordeal which was before them, he told his fellow-prisoners the intention of the Americans. He looked away as he spoke, but he felt the tension emanating from the men behind him. The privates were silent out of respect for the presence of the officers, but the cornet broke out in wild reproach. "What have we to do with the hanging of a spy? This is not civilised warfare—into whose hands have we fallen?"
"Into those of Gates and Arnold, I fear," replied Ayres dryly; "it might be different if we were in the power of Washington or Lafayette, but these two Englishmen are wild, adventuring fellows. Gates has no reputation to lose, and Benedict Arnold is not a gentleman."
"Well," replied the boy, gathering together his forced courage, "if I am to be the one to die, I would they would get it over quickly, for I have a queasy stomach and such a distaste of this infernal country that I would be glad to quit it, even for the grave."
Ayres moved underneath the window, hoping he might catch some of the pure, fresh, morning air, and indeed there was a little stir of fragrancy falling through the iron bars, with a flood of pale, golden light. Speaking delicately, as if he did not wish to disturb the distressed and important thoughts of his companions, he said, "You may all take heart; I believe that Frank Battel and Horatio Gates, both having a private spite against me, will so contrive that the black bean falls to my share."
The cornet cried out at this. He said, "If it was so that the matter should be exposed..."
"We shall not know it," smiled Ayres, as the privates also made an embarrassed protest; "we are entirely in their hands, but I warn you that I believe it is my life they intend."
"You," cried the cornet, "had nothing to do with the death of Luke Grove who was hanged, naturally enough, as the spy he was!"
"Frank Battel is my heir-at-law," smiled Ayres, "and I believe, though he is now with the Americans, it is only as a spy. He will on the first occasion return to England and claim the estate—and Horatio Gates I once disobliged."
Soon the two officers and the four privates were taken to a large room in which sat General Gates, General Benedict Arnold, and Captain Battel.
This was a curious meeting between uncle and nephew. Frank Battel carried it off with a flaunting bravado; he had much changed, even more rapidly than had Horatio Gates. His florid face had deteriorated, he was blowzed and stout; the hard, vicious look in his narrow eyes was intensified.
The prisoner, looking at him keenly but without any sign of recognition, thought: "Here is a man who would stop at nothing." It was not his own peril he was considering in this connection, but, oddly, the almost miraculous escape of Harriet, through the sheer impetuosity of innocence, from the power of this man. "I suppose," thought Sir Philip, "he has never forgiven or forgotten that. He stole her from me, but he could not ruin her."
General Arnold addressed the prisoners briefly, but with some authority; he was of fine presence, not wanting in a rather wild dignity. It seemed to Sir Philip that he was restless, dissatisfied, uneasy; he appeared to be a man who had some dangerous secret; he looked continually at his two companions, both of whom seemed as far as they dared to subtly mock at him and to grimace and shrug at each other across his fine person.
All three had been drinking heavily. Glasses of arrack rum punch and peach brandy still stood on the table among the sheaves of official papers, but the two men of quality bore their liquor better than Arnold, who seemed half fuddled; his ill temper was crossed by a certain bewilderment, as if his senses were clouded.
Ayres glanced at the faces of his companions, and saw that beneath their solid composure they were anxious—desperately anxious. The young cornet had his handkerchief to his lips; his complexion was ghastly, but he endeavoured to hold himself with a jaunty smile.
Benedict Arnold fumbling with the papers in front of him, ran over what General Gates had said last night: "The American Army were expecting some revenge for the death of their hero, Luke Grove, who had been, on the slightest evidence, most unjustly hanged by the British. He was a Virginian officer in Colonel Morgan's Rifles, and he had been hanged like a common criminal."
Sir Philip Ayres answered this charge. "I may point out to you, General Arnold, that Luke Grove's death was most distasteful to me. He was, in a fashion, my friend; I had been his prisoner and he had treated me generously, but his death was according to the rules of war. He was discovered in disguise in our lines, and the information was hidden on his person. Lord Cornwallis sentenced him justly—"
"And we shall sentence you justly," interrupted Benedict Arnold; "quick, no more talk; we have plenty of work on hand."
He pushed a cup across the table. "There are five white beans and one black. He who draws the black bean will be hanged, and those who draw the white will be sent blindfolded out of our lines and allowed to make their way back to the English camp. Come, we have already wasted too much time over this unimportant affair."
Frank Battel leant forward and spoke for the first time; his bloated face was further distorted by malice.
"Sir Philip Ayres," he said, "you, as the senior officer, will draw first," and Ayres, resolutely returning his gaze, wondered where the trick could lie.
General Gates commanded an orderly sergeant, who stood near him, to bandage the eyes of the prisoners in such a fashion that they could not possibly see. This was done.
Ayres heard his companions muttering prayers—poor fellows, they had their homes, their interests, their love of life as acute as his own... He drew; he felt the small, round, smooth bean in his hand. After the pause of a second or so, the bandage was taken off his eyes and the suave voice of Horatio Gates said, "Look what you have in your hand, Colonel, before we trouble to examine what the others have drawn."
Ayres looked down. A black bean lay on his palm.
"I regret your misfortune, Sir Philip," said Frank Battel grossly. He leant back, smiling with an air of relief. He and Gates exchanged a glance. "No need to examine what the others have drawn," and he ordered the other blindfold men to return the beans to the cup, which the orderly still held.
Gazing at the small black object in the palm of his hand, Ayres now saw the trick—all the beans had been black. It was not worth while making any protest; if he had had any wish to save himself, he could have shown the paper Luke Grove had signed. He smiled and bowed to his three judges; he believed that Benedict Arnold was not in this trick, but had been confused by the other two.
The young cornet began to protest. "The drawing of lots had not been fair, that it should have been open and before all; neither he nor the four privates had had an opportunity of seeing what they had drawn." To this Horatio Gates replied haughtily, "Has your good luck turned your head, young man? Five of the beans were white, one was black, and that is in possession of Sir Philip Ayres—it is sufficient," and he rose from his stately chair. He added, sharp and low, to Benedict Arnold, "It is over, sir, and we have a mighty press of other business to attend to... Sir Philip Ayres, I give you two hours, then you will be hanged from the ramparts of West Point, publicly, as Captain Luke Grove was hanged. Your companions will, as I said, return to their lines."
Sir Philip Ayres hardly listened to these words. He was looking at his nephew, who stood silent and smiling, but from whose presence emanated vengeance and hatred. Both now satisfied, glutted...
Ayres paled a little and stepped back. It was hard to think these men, Gates and Battel, should see him struggling out his life on the gallows, and he wished he might have died earlier in the war, in a more honourable fashion.
Laconically he asked, "Is there any one who will do me the service of taking my last messages. I have the wishes of another, one who is no longer living, entrusted to me."
He wondered for a moment if he should disclose to these men that he carried Luke Grove's last letter, but he thought, "First, I do not trust them, and second, I will not have it appear as if I put in a plea for mercy by revealing that the fellow trusted me."
Ayres was then separated from the other prisoners—who parted from him with inarticulate expressions of regret, the young ensign almost weeping with helpless rage—and was lodged in a long, bare room in one of the inner portions of the fort; it was flooded from a high-set window by all the quick glory of sudden spring.
There was nothing for him to do; all was done. There was not even much for him to think about; all had been thought. With his rare fortitude, which had been accentuated by his professional training, he had been able to put valiantly from his mind all love of life.
Eva Grove and Harriet Dryden, in that fair Virginian home, seemed now as far away from him as did his own home in England, or gloomy Marling Hall and the hastily furnished Jointure House, where he had stayed on the eve of what should have been his wedding, or that wild crossing of the Atlantic in the storm, when he had believed he had seen the form of Harriet outlined in the terrific lightning, disappearing with the plunging frigate into the mountainous waves.
Soon he would not have the ability to indulge in these dreams. Though he had thought himself a religious man, his future now seemed to him a mere darkness, no future beyond the grave...
Yet his philosophic serenity was troubled by a faint hope that somewhere, somehow, he might come upon light at last and mount from the gallows into some upper air from which he could look down on all the tumultuous confusion that was the world, and pity it. Perhaps, he thought, it was not even worth while concerning himself about any last messages, or even with the delivery of the paper to Eva Grove; they would find that when they stripped him when he was dead... as they would find her miniature. He was sorry for that; he would have destroyed it if he could, but there was no means. He could not bring himself to leave it flung down in the bare prison room. Still, they would find these things and guess how he had come by them, and they could not but help give them to those two young women in Virginia.
So he endeavoured to put even that out of his mind, and to forget the face of Frank Battel, with eyes suffused and inflamed with hatred; to forget that his name, his estate, his beloved acres, his all (since he was not able to make another will, and that he had signed on the eve of his proposed marriage would now be invalid, since the marriage had not taken place), would be in possession of his worthless nephew. He was sure that Battel intended to betray the Americans as he had betrayed the English, and when he thought of Washington and Lafayette, he felt that he would have liked to have warned those two men against the officer they had at West Point. Ay, even to have warned them against Benedict Arnold.
If any privilege was offered him, he would ask to make another will, and leave all his property that was not entailed to Harriet Dryden, but he feared that even if he did so, Battel would find a chance of destroying it... His door was hastily opened and shut.
He hoped that it might be some such messenger coming to ask if he had anything to do for his worldly affairs, or some clergyman whom he might trust, but it was neither—it was the last person whom he wished to see—Sally Ayloffe.
She looked at him curiously, as if searching for the least sign of weakness and despondency. Finding none, she leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes.
"Well, madam, this is surely unnecessary," said Sir Philip Ayres. "We have met in many strange places, but this is surely grotesque."
He felt angry, for her flamboyant presence disturbed him. He had suffered much mental torture during the last few months, and much acute torment during the last few days; he did not wish now, in the scant time left to him, to let emotion disturb his will power or to destroy his courage.
"You will think me lunatic, no doubt," said Sally Ayloffe violently, "but I feel like a leaf from the wind, here and there doing I know not what! I wanted adventure and excitement, and I have found both—too much! Yet I am not a woman who could have sat on a perch; I have flown wild into the forest, and if I have bruised my wings and even broken 'em at the end, it is no one's fault but my own!"
She threw out this torrent of words of suppressed passion, which moved him against his will. "Poor creature," he said, as if she and not he was the prisoner in danger of death.
"Do not," she said, with a swift and wild change of subject, characteristic of her volatile moods, "think me worse than I am! I soon wearied of these rough provincials, these coarse Colonials with their undisciplined soldiers. I intend to serve my own country now, and when I have redeemed the harm I did it, to return to London and be done with this lunatic life."
"Twice a traitor," he said, turning on her narrowed eyes. "I thought as much, and Gates and Battel are in this too."
"Ay, they are," she said listlessly, "and Benedict Arnold."
He was startled at that. "Benedict Arnold, the Commander of West Point, a traitor?"
"If you like to call it that; he's an Englishman, is he not?"
"And served twice in the English army and twice deserted," Ayres reminded her.
"Washington is imprudent enough to trust him, and Arnold is in negotiations with the British to deliver up West Point, and I'm employed in that business. So is Battel and Gates—but he not so much. No one can trust that strange man."
"I am sorry," said Ayres with disgust, "that you have told me this. It is not a pleasant thought to leave the world on."
"You think it strange that I should have told you?"
"Why should it be strange, Mrs. Ayloffe? since I am to die in two—nay, half an hour has passed—in an hour and a half or so I am to die—therefore it is not imprudent to tell me anything. Even if I were to shout your news out to the guards who took me to the gallows I should be scarcely listened to."
In a calm and friendly tone, and with a courteous gesture towards the one chair the room afforded, he added, "Besides, how do I know I may believe you? I think it is probably you amuse me with lies. Take a seat, Mrs. Ayloffe; indeed, you look as if you were about to fall."
She obeyed, and turned on him as she had turned on him before in the house at Monmouth, a look so desperate, so appealing, and so sincere, that he was tempted to believe her wild words, even the wilder passion behind them.
With a pang he remembered that he did owe her his escape. "I ought to thank you," he said. "It went off very well; your negro was faithful, your supplies useful. I reached that house on the James River."
"Ah, you remember that," she said wistfully. "I thought you had forgotten."
"Indeed," he admitted, "I had, but I remember now and am ashamed that it should have passed my mind. I thank you—alas, I have no more than thanks."
"Did you see your silly, simple Harriet?"
"Yes, madam, I saw her; she is safe, and what's odd enough, safe with the sister of this Captain Grove who was hanged a few days ago."
"She is not for you," interrupted Mrs. Ayloffe passionately.
"Nay, indeed, she is not for me. What do I say?—do not talk to a man already dead!"
He remembered as he spoke this expression had been used by Luke Grove, "And if I had lived, she had not been for me." He added, "But I pray you, madam, do not disturb me with these matters which are certainly over for me now." He wondered a little if he should trust her with any last message to Harriet and Eva, or with Luke Grove's packet, but decided not. Although she had served him well once, she was wild and unstable.
She was staring at him anxiously, as if bewildered; her fur cloak had fallen open at her bosom, showing her very white, full neck. She wore some valuable rings, he noticed, and a fine necklace. With her double treacheries and her wealthy lovers she must be a rich woman now, he thought without interest. Her beauty had largely faded; she looked wearied. There remained only the brightness of her large eyes, the lustre of her brilliant hair, a sweeping elegance about her shape.
"I am confused," she exclaimed. "I am at a loss—I did not reckon on this trick."
"It was a trick?" Ayres questioned curiously.
"What?" she questioned swiftly.
"The bean? Frank intended—Gates, too, perhaps—"
"I don't know," she seemed to shudder. "I am in the power of these two men, though I can do much with them. I don't know. It is very like. Battel hates you and so does Gates, and there are the estates. I have to be careful myself," and a note of terror dulled her voice. "I do not know what they may do from day to day; they drink heavily, all of them. Frank Battel can be very violent, as you know." She began to laugh shrilly, rocking to and fro on the armed chair, her hands clasped on her heart. "I may, after all, be forced to marry him. You may have rescued me for nothing from that house in Hounslow, my knight-errant. Do you remember—do you remember?"
He reminded her that if Frank Battel was heir to his estate, he would not need to marry a wealthy widow.
"I had forgotten that," she said. "I had forgotten. Why, I expect there's worse in store for me than being Frank Battel's wife."
She rose and approached him, appealing to him even more intensely than on the night she had given him the means of liberty in Monmouth. She said, "Are you not purged of all of it, and could you not go away with me? I believe I could contrive it. Those two hate you, but Arnold is indifferent; he only gives in because he feels that his wild soldiery needs blood to compensate for the loss of Grove. I believe I could contrive it," she added, with an extravagant incoherence, and yet, he felt, with a deep sincerity. "I could get a respite and we might go off together. Arnold is afraid of me, and I might evade the other two. You'd be surprised what a woman can do, even a woman like myself."
He looked at her, unable to find an answer to this passion. He was moved, for he believed that she did, in her way, love him, in a different fashion to the way she had loved these other men, to please her fancy or her pride or her pocket. He wished that she would leave him and not to endeavour thus to disturb his hard-won serenity. He turned away and leant against the wall.
"Well," she said impatiently, tapping the ground with a nervous foot, "do not say that you would rather hang than go away with me!"
"It is not worth while," he replied "for me to accept life on any ignoble terms. Indeed, madam, it is not worth while."
She clasped her long fur-lined cloak and set it about her shoulders with a fumbling gesture. Her voice was uncertain. "You will believe I have no hand in this," she whispered.
"Why should I suppose it?" He was weary of the talk, of her presence. He believed he heard a clock strike; there would be no more than another hour now. How many would there be to gaze at him? With what ferocity would these undisciplined, untrained soldiers conduct his execution? Should he give her the miniature and the papers or hand them to some common fellow in the crowd and appeal for pity, or let them be discovered on his person, dishonoured by the most humiliating of deaths?
"I pray you leave me," he added, with a break of distress in his voice.
"Do you love me a little?" she urged.
"If I had loved you," he replied, "I would have told you so before. Consider, madam, in a little all will be over with me, and you will have much with which to occupy yourself."
She repeated with a dull insistence: "But you said the girl was not for you. I gave you the chance. That was generous of me, was it not? Without me you would never have escaped from Monmouth, never perhaps have seen her."
"I know. I have thanked you; I have regretted I could do no more than thank you."
"This is all very heroical," she said with a faint laugh. "and I suppose a fine swaggering death is best fitted for a knight- errant."
And mocking at herself, she added:
"I am not what I was; the whirl and clamour of war has changed me. I hoped it had changed you, too, and somehow brought us together."
"Nothing could do that," he said.
She smiled as if with regret "No, so I see. You are rooted in constancy and I in inconstancy."
She stared at him with passionate wistfulness as he stood in profile towards her. She thought there was something god-like in his pose, in the line of his noble face—pale, distressed, but serene. She put a finger to her lips and made a faint gesture as if she wafted him a kiss, then she said good-bye, and with a little laugh and shrug she turned and left him.
He was glad she was gone. Closing his eyes, he tried to regain the peace she had disturbed. He bore her no ill-will; his good wishes went after her. He thought there was something at once heroic and ludicrous about the poor creature, who had undertaken much beyond her powers. He pressed his forehead against the stone wall, glad of the damp coolness. This pause before the crowd and the tumult was very precious.
The time seemed long; surely the two hours had passed... It was General Benedict Arnold's own sergeant orderly who came at length to tell him that the sentence had been postponed for several days.
WITH a swift sharpness summer was over the old house on the Virginian river; like the waves of the sea the brilliant green was surging in the woods, on the plantations, in the field, and, where the last snow had melted, the sun had almost immediately produced fresh turf and budding plants.
The tobacco-tending went on with dignified laboriousness, but there was a gloom even over the slaves. The young master whom they had seen ride out so gallantly impetuous at the beginning of the war would return no more. The worst had happened: Captain Grove had met a more terrible end than any one could have anticipated—been hanged ignominiously like a spy. His name, his person, his exploits were quickly becoming legendary and mingled with all the wild, extravagant tales of the war that went up and down the land; none had been so daring, so heroical as he; none had met more finely an atrocious fate...
Pride softened some of the anguish of Eva Grove, whose valiancy of spirit forced her to continue her life as if she was still waiting for her brother to return. In the depth of her heart she was very desolate, for she had no other kin, save Harriet, who was, after all, almost a stranger to her, and George Dryden, whom she had not seen since she was a child.
It was as a child Harriet remembered Luke Grove—as a bold, impetuous boy—even then roaming free in the woods with his bow and arrow or his musket. His death, the sight of Eva's proud grief, had struck her severely, the more so, as she in an odd way, associated herself with this disaster; she felt some blame for it, as if she had been among the enemies who had caught and slain her cousin.
Though they filled their days with all manner of activities, the two girls drooped; laughter there was none in the large, pleasant house; their eyes were lustreless and darkened by tears, and their movements were tired and listless.
It was impossible for them altogether to stifle their feelings of pain, and often when there came a pause in their task, they would turn into each other's arms and weep.
With a trembling hand, but with her head held high, Eva had locked the door of her brother's room, which, with such loving and patient care, she had always kept ready for his hoped-for return... There were his books, many little treasures inherited from his English ancestors, the bed with the hangings she had woven and embroidered herself, the heavy candlesticks with the Grove's arms, in which were the candles she had helped make—all... all... useless now.
With the coming of the sudden summer, the situation came more easy; the roads and the rivers were unlocked and life in Dryden Grange was not so isolated. Soon after the messenger who brought the news of the death of Luke Grove, there came others with tales of a French expedition landing under the Comte de Rochambeau; speedy help coming from that great country, now definitely the ally of the Colonists; news of the exhaustion of England, her discontent at this long, useless war, the impossibilities of further supplies being sent to the Colonists; all this would have been, a few months ago, good news for the two young women to exult in, but now it seemed to make very little difference, though Eva tried to stir a flagging patriotism.
They had other anxieties added to the tragedy of Luke Grove. Harriet could learn nothing of her own brother. It was difficult to trace the prisoners; she did not know to what compound he had been sent; he never wrote. She thought of him with compassion and affection. Sir Philip Ayres had exonerated him in her eyes; she still could understand very little of that strange and hideous affair in London, but surely George had not been the villain that Battel had endeavoured to paint him.
The two girls were seated at the spinet, and Eva was trying to divert her own and the other's low spirits by teaching her cousin the American tune called Arcadian Nuptials, when an old neighbour from a near plantation, stopping on his way for refreshment, brought them the news that Sir Philip Ayres and a party of men had been captured and taken to West Point, and that, after the drawing of lots, it was Colonel Sir Philip Ayres who had been condemned to be hanged in return for Luke Grove... Unaccountably, there had been a respite in his sentence, and Lord Cornwallis was making every effort to save so distinguished an officer, but it was not likely that Benedict Arnold would forego his revenge...
"It is a matter of war!" said the old man, shaking his head. "Yet one would not greatly like to make an innocent man suffer. But they should not have hanged Luke, my dear. I thought this might have gratified you," added the old Virginian, a little taken aback at the silence, at the stricken faces of the young women.
The brutal breaking of the news seemed to have turned Harriet into an immobile creature. She stood erect in the hall, holding her red silk taffeta cloak at the neck, her face quite pale, her body rigid, her features stiff. The sight of this motionless figure gave the gossiping neighbour pain; he felt he had done wrong... awkwardly he took his leave...
Harriet turned to Eva. She was still holding herself as if her body was not under her own control. In a hoarse, unnatural voice she asked, "Does this please you, Eva?"
"Why should it please me?" asked the other girl, much shocked.
"I don't know; I thought perhaps that—in revenge for Luke."
"How could you think it?" Eva dropped her fair head, her expression was one of unalterable woe, but she finished her words bravely: "Luke would not have wished it."
Harriet sank down upon the hard settle beside the door; her eyes looked unseeingly out at the brilliant green and blue of the summer day.
"Do you care very much?" asked Eva. "It's a horrible thing, I know. I liked him—a gallant man, a good soldier, but there are so many, dear, and they die every day. Must one think more of one than of another?"
Harriet did not answer. Her head drooped against the wall behind her; she put up her hand to shield her face. She did not wish the agony in her eyes to be seen.
"My dear—my dear!" cried Eva, sinking on the bench beside her. "How is it with you? I had never thought, yet I might have known—you were too harsh, I should have guessed!"
"Guessed what?" murmured Harriet, still endeavouring to defend her piteous secret. Then, speaking very softly as if from afar off and moving her head to and fro with a pathetic gesture of helplessness, Harriet confessed: "Oh, my Eva, it is the man—the man for me!"
"Then he must be saved!"
"Do you think that an easy thing to do, my Eva?"
"We must find out more about it. Did not Mr. Clifford say there was a respite? We know too little, shut away here. We will go to General Washington and Monsieur de Lafayette; we will tell all the story. Come, Harriet"—she endeavoured to rouse the broken girl beside her—"you did not lack courage once; you were able to run away from Marling Hall to find your way across the Atlantic here."
"I don't know, that was an instinct like a homing bird, but this—shall I undertake it for very shame? I have rejected him."
"But what are all your prides and shames compared to the man's danger?" said Eva. "If you love him!"
"And then you; can you, should you, do it? This is in revenge for your brother; they will think you are unnatural!"
"More unnatural I should wish blood for Luke's blood," said Eva in a quivering voice. "What have other men's ideas to do with us? Sir Philip Ayres had no concern in Luke's death. It's a mere chance—and what a hideous one! that he is taken in exchange for him. Come, Harriet, we have had to face worse dismays than this. Surely we are not grown soft and spoilt?"
"I am a coward," said Harriet, rising. "I seem to have no strength at all. What you say is very just, Eva, and if you will help me, I will go—I will do what I can," but fear and weakness overcame her again. Like all women, she found it torture to come forward openly with her secret of suppressed love; she made excuses to evade this...
"Will General Washington—will Monsieur de Lafayette or any of the great officers receive two stupid women like ourselves? They must be tormented to death with appeals for pardons, for mercy."
"Never matter for that," said Eva. Her tired face was haggard but resolute. "Withers will look after the plantation; we have more important matters in hand. Think of nothing, my dear, but rest here awhile, while I put together our luggage; we will start at once."
With a soft accent of reproach she added, clasping the other girl in her arms, "You might have told me before that you loved him, Harriet."
"I didn't know it myself," sighed Harriet Dryden, "till I heard he was in that danger."
"Well, you should be very happy," said the other girl soberly, "for he loves you and very deeply."
"I suppose I always cared for him, from the first, but how was I to know—I knew nothing! How was I to realise what those feelings were—if I had not cared for him. I suppose I should have married him, but hearing how he had treated me, how he thought of me—that was why I fled, Eva—because I offered love and he so little."
"I guessed something of that," replied the other girl tenderly. "You were kept too close, my Harriet. Old Lady Marling did you an ill turn shutting you away from the world so that you were like a child, or a creature out of a convent. But now hold up your head and never doubt but that we shall save him."
She ran upstairs, at once an alert business woman, and put together a few light necessities which they must have for their journey. She took some money and papers proving their identity, looked out warm cloaks and gowns, gloves, and shoes, settled her affairs with Withers, silenced his protest about "this sudden, impossible journey," ordered out horses, and within two hours of receiving the news of Sir Philip Ayres's imprisonment, she and Harriet Dryden were on their way to General Washington's headquarters.
Their agitation was somewhat assuaged and their hopes lightened by the supreme and gorgeous beauty of the scenery through which they passed, which was like a return to childhood to Harriet, for she had long held memories of such scenes in her heart, and dreamt of them at nights and in the drab English winters as she was sitting before the fire, drawing pictures among the coals... such trees, such rivers, such skies—it was a new world, bright with every manner of promise...
Bodies of Indians, with loyalists (or Tories), were that spring making raids into Virginia as far as the James River, and the Indian frontier warfare was breaking out fiercely along the Tennessee and Kentucky border, harassing the dauntless pioneers who, despite the fearful conditions of the times, were endeavouring to push farther into the wild Indian country the banner of white civilisation.
English generals tended to make more and more use of such Indians as they could bribe. These had not only the supreme advantage of knowing the country, but were quick and light on the march, whereas the English and German soldiers, encumbered often with sixty pounds of luggage, heavy skirted clothes, brass- fronted caps, mighty swords, and many rounds of ammunition, moved with great difficulty through the trackless forest and over the pathless fields.
Therefore the two Virginian ladies, travelling towards the American headquarters, were in constant danger from these parties of Tories and savage warriors, and escaped neither fright nor toil in their journey, for they were soon obliged to leave the easy post-roads, which were full of soldiery. The two young women, at the first ordinary at which they stopped, learnt with terror of the massacre which had taken place when the loyalist Johnsons and Butlers with their Mohawk allies had sallied forth from the headquarters they had made at Fort Niagra, and devastated the exposed settlements on the border, ruining the gorgeous valley of Wyoming. They learnt, too, that General Washington had been so oppressed by the terror of this atrocity, that he had organised an expedition of five thousand men, under Sullivan, to lay low Fort Niagra and alarm the Iroquois by invading their own country...
The two young women stayed at farms, ordinaries, and sawmills, and even, on two occasions, slept beneath the budding trees wrapped in their rugs and heavy cloaks. They slept, as they had never slept before, in little lento chambers, miserably furnished; in kitchens or barns. Sometimes they rode as much as thirty miles a day; again they were delayed to a slow progress, having to go along rivers in search of fords, and even to lurk in woods till parties of loyalists and Indians went by...
Through all this Harriet Dryden's anxieties mounted till she could scarce control her fears, and well Eva knew what these were.
All this pain and toil might be in vain, and the man hanged before ever they could reach Washington's headquarters... They had been told, indeed, that he had had a respite, but they knew not for how long... Eva had heard from her brother on his last visit that the brilliant Benedict Arnold was wayward and unstable, and often in the evening or the dawn she would rise up on her elbow and look at the tired face of the girl sleeping beside her and wonder if, after all, they had better have waited in resigned peace and dignity in the old house in Virginia, rather than have undertaken this mad journey which must add to the ignominy and humiliation of a pain that was inevitable.
Before they reached White Plains, Harriet's spirits began to flag and her body droop under fatigue and misfortune; she could not stomach the coarse food that was offered them—pumpkin pie and pumpkin sauce and bread made with Indian mixed flour—but she made no complaint. She covered her face with her travelling-riding-hood and tried to disguise her tears from her companion.
When they at length reached the American camp, they found their embarrassment redoubled, for they knew no one and found it impossible to get beyond the first lines of outposts. No women were to be allowed through who were not the wives of soldiers.
Eva refused to be discouraged. She took from her bosom two of her few remaining pieces of gold and pressed them into the fellow's hand.
"That is not a bribe," she said with her frank smile, "but a present to you for your courtesy, which I know you will exercise to the sister of Luke Grove."
"Luke Grove!" exclaimed the fellow, pleased with hearing this name and the lady's face and the lady's presence, all of which were golden and cheerful, for Eva was gay and gallant despite her fatigue and distress.
"I am the sister of Captain Luke Grove of Colonel Morgan's Virginian Rifles. I come here on an important errand of life and death. I suppose you are used enough to hear that, but indeed I pray you to listen."
The man gave her another look of shrewd appraisal; she was clearly a gentlewoman of some estate; despite the trials and toils of her journey she was elegantly appointed; the saddle was still rich and fringed; clusters of ribbons and lace ruffles met the long gloves which protected her hands; her pretty hair was caught by a buckle, her head protected by a beaver hat, fastened under the chin.
Her companion also rode another stately trotter (throughout the journey they had retained their own horses, delaying to rest their own good animals rather than accept the sorry beasts that were offered in exchange at such posts as they ventured to stay at), but this second lady would say nothing. She wore a mask of black velvet with a silver mouthpiece, fastened with two little strings of silver beads.
The gold and the demeanour of the gentlewomen and Luke Grove's name did presently get them into the presence of an officer of General Morgan's force who remembered Eva's brother. He was surprised at seeing them so far from Dryden Grange, which he had once visited in what seemed now the far-off days of peace and chided them for coming unprotected through a country torn by all the upheavals of war.
"But our business is important," said Eva, "and none but General Washington can attend to it for us."
"It is not very easy, Miss Grove, for you to see General Washington."
The man looked at her doubtfully even as he spoke, for she had that kind of valiancy that overcomes all obstacles.
"He will see the sister of Luke Grove," she urged, "especially if you tell him that we come on a desperate errand."
The young American now glanced at the other lady, who had sunk on a settle in the corner and removed her mask.
"This is my cousin, Miss Harriet Dryden. She is more concerned in this affair than I, therefore I have become the spokeswoman."
"I see you are a woman of great energy and talent," smiled the officer, "and I swear I cannot resist you, but it is impossible for me to get an order to see General Washington."
She interrupted, "Monsieur de Lafayette, then. He is young, romantic, and merciful."
"Nay, nor he either. I should look a fool for my pains, but I can tell you this, they will be riding past here perhaps in two hours' time, and if you are rested by then and have sufficient wits and courage, you may step out of my lodging and confront them. They will have the courtesy to stop perhaps for a moment, and in that moment you should be able to do your errand."
"I shall be ready," said Eva, who had that quickness of wit which knows when it is useless to press for further favours, and wise to be content with those one has. "Come, Harriet, look up; let us rest ourselves, bathe our face and hands and be out to intercept these gentlemen."
The officer commended her spirit, wished them luck, and provided them with all in the way of comfort that his poor lodging, which was a small, disused farmhouse, provided. There was a mill at the side that had been burnt, the water flashed over the broken wheel, and bent, gracious trees grew on the banks. The scene was sunny and beautiful, plentiful with the glories of summer; thereby were other out-buildings and barns. In a disused dairy, with piled-up cedar urns to hold milk, flat wood dishes for cream dippers and hand mills for grinding meal, Indian bowls of maple wood, and such disused implements of homely toil, the two girls waited; Eva, trying to distract herself and Harriet, turned over these articles... The dairy was open on the road along which the soldiers must pass...
"I marvel at such energy and spirit! I can see nothing. It is as if all was a mist around us. Oh, my Eva, I feel as if I was walking in a dream and could not wake myself."
"It is sad reality enough," said Eva, looking out on the ruins, at the brilliant water of the mill stream. "All a confusion—could women have made a worse muddle of it, do you think? I doubt it, my dear. They are all very gallant, these heroes, but have they any sense at all, I wonder?"
She leant against the broken door of the dairy, which had been wrenched aside, and her gaze travelled thoughtfully down the road. "I see a party of horsemen. Do you be ready, Harriet, to second me, for I can quite see that you will not have the courage to stop General Washington."
Blushing with shame, Harriet cried: "Do you think me such a cowardly fool? I did a daring thing for my own sake in my great selfishness, surely I can do something now for him."
As the horsemen approached, the two gentlewomen stepped out of the ruined dairy up to their ankles in wayside flowers, a pretty enough picture in the evening air which blew gently in their curls, fluttered their laces, and stirred their light gowns round their riding boots.
General Washington and Monsieur de Lafayette rode ahead. They were talking together anxiously; the young Frenchman's face was pale and overclouded. The American as usual composed, yet not without anxiety in the deep-set eyes.
The two women stood so directly in their way that they were forced to rein up their horses. Eva spoke at once as the two saluted her—Washington gravely, and Lafayette with an almost exaggerated courtesy.
"I am Luke Grove's sister," she said, raising her composed, flushed face, and she saw Washington startle for a moment. "I do not wish to take your time, General Washington, but please do not think me a foolish woman come here to encumber you with trivialities. You have heard of the capture of Sir Philip Ayres—he is to be hanged in revenge for my brother's death."
"Yes; this is in Benedict Arnold's province, Miss Grove." Washington frowned. "I have heard a good deal of that affair; there has been correspondence with Lord Cornwallis on the matter. I see no reason to interfere."
"I have come to beg you for mercy for Colonel Sir Philip Ayres," she said firmly, not dropping her eyes from under the General's firm gaze.
"And why, madam?"
"I and this lady, Harriet Dryden, have ridden—with some peril and a good deal of discomfort, sir—from our home on the James River to entreat you to have this mercy."
"Who is the other lady?" asked Washington, patting his horse which, restive, chaffed at the pause.
Harriet came forward; there was no faltering then as she looked at General Washington and said, "I am the betrothed wife of Sir Philip Ayres, sir. I am a loyal American, but I love him very dearly."
Washington gazed at her steadily for a moment, then smiled and said, "You shall have your pardon."
GENERAL WASHINGTON granted the pardon to Sir Philip Ayres on the same conditions as those given to the British officers taken with General Burgoyne; he was to give his parole not to go within a hundred miles of the place of his release, and not to engage in any activities against the Americans for the duration of the war; on these terms he might enjoy complete liberty. He could quarter himself in Richmond or any town in Virginia, or, indeed, in any place whatsoever where he could afford to pay for lodgings.
Washington also promised to send an adjutant at once to Benedict Arnold with this pardon, but he added gravely, checking the thanks of the two young women:
"I hope it will be in time; communications are slow. The country, owing to the perpetual raids of the loyalists and Indians, is in the utmost disorder. Benedict Arnold, a man of a restless temper and disposition, is not one to wait over long in any state of suspense; indeed," added Washington, "I am surprised that he has made such a delay in the execution of this Englishman, which I know is greatly demanded by the troops."
He pondered a little, looking sideways at Lafayette, and turned over in his mind the many things there were against Benedict Arnold, but on which it was difficult for him to act, for the man was his personal enemy and endeavoured to thwart him at very turn—had, indeed, made a party for himself with Gates and Battel, who sought to undermine in every way the authority of the Commander-in-Chief... yet once General Washington had liked Arnold and had held him as one of his peculiar friends.
His stern face relaxed a little as he looked at the two poor, pale, anxious women, standing patiently among the wayside flowers, before the dismantled dairy.
He said that if they would, they might accompany his adjutant to West Point, and they, themselves, bear the good news to the prisoner; or if it came to that hear the worst, and he asked them, with grave kindness, if they were provided with means for their comfort. When they said, "Yes," he added, with a flush in his eyes, "I think this a noble mission for a sister of Luke Grove to undertake. I remember Sir Philip Ayres at Monmouth; he seemed to be an honest man. I trust all may end happily."
Comforted by this generosity, the two young women set out again on their journey. This time they rode boldly, under the protection of the adjutant, Major Grant, keeping to the high- roads, and when they approached the British lines and told their errand, they had no difficulty in obtaining a safe conduct.
The 29th Foot were still quartered round about New York, and while the two women made a delay to obtain the safe conduct, Captain George Dryden heard of them, and in a great amaze and agitation came to greet them.
"I have been exchanged," he told them, "and returned to my regiment for some while; I marvel that you have not received the letters I sent, yet one marvels at nothing in a country so disordered."
"I am sorry to see you in that uniform," said Eva sadly. She looked at him keenly with a certain compassion. The boy was haggard, pale, his eyes sunk. He admitted that he had been wounded in a skirmish, been dosed copiously with opium to dull the pain; he had, in a manner, lost his senses.
"I would rather," he conceded sullenly, "be fighting on the other side, Eva; yet 'deserter' has an ugly sound, and it is better for me to be faithful to the cause I am sworn to."
"When will the war be over?" sighed Eva. Harriet could not speak for fretting. These were all precious minutes lost while they were forced to await for the signing of the safe conduct.
Young Dryden shrugged. "How do I know? They say that even General Washington has lost hope."
"He does not look in any mood of despair," replied Eva proudly. "Have not the French landed?"
"Ay, but done but precious little good. Don't talk to me of these affairs," cried young Dryden with impatience; "the war has become a misery to me—discomfort and sickness, a dreary adventure. I once thought it a fine thing to embark upon, but I would I had been among those who remained in London!"
"Nay, what you mean," cried Eva with passion, "is that you would you had been among those who never left Virginia. That is your proper place."
"And well I know it," and with a fervour not untouched by anguish, the young man added, "Should I live to escape this horrid mêlée, I hope to return to Virginia."
Eva Grove regarded him gravely. "I hope you will," she said. "I hope I may be there to welcome you," and he blushed, bent and kissed her hand and turned away abruptly, giving a muttered blessing to his sister and a wish of success for their journey.
The two young women watched his red plume disappear among the tents. The safe conduct was brought them. After stopping for the briefest refreshment, they proceeded on their way. As they neared the Hudson, Harriet made an effort to disembosom herself to her companion:
"Eva, you have been so good, I cannot thank you."
"Don't try, my dear. Why thanks between you and me? Have we not been like one?"
"Ay, like one," replied Harriet with great tenderness. "I have drawn you into my tragedy—you who have enough of your own!" Her eyes overbrimmed, her voice broke with emotion. She made an effort, and added: "I have one more favour to ask, my Eva. If we are in time, if we save this man, will you never by as much as a glance reveal to him what I told you?"
Eva Grove turned in her saddle; she had never worn a riding mask and Harriet had removed hers. She was gazing at her companion with deepest entreaty. "You don't," asked Eva briefly, "want me to tell him that you love him? But will he not guess it, seeing you hastening with his pardon?"
"I can always deny it—I can say—'tis mere kindliness—a woman's compassion."
But Eva answered wearily: "Why should you try to put him off? Why not accept the mercies of Heaven, my Harriet, which seem to bring you and this man together!"
"When I promised to marry him, Eva, I understood nothing. Now I know I am an American—a Virginian. My marriage with one of the enemy would be impossible—I, the cousin of Luke Grove, you, his sister."
"That is not your real reason," replied Eva, "but, believe me, you can trust my discretion."
"But you," urged Harriet, "you would not take a lover from among the English."
The American girl smiled sadly. "The case has not arisen, but indeed such a question is an absurdity. Can love be controlled? The English are not foreigners or savages."
When they reached the American lines, the presence of General Washington's adjutant secured them immediate attention. They were lodged with some of the ladies of the officers who had quarters in the citadel; but to their anxious questioning as to whether the English prisoner still lived or no, they could obtain no satisfaction.
It was to General Horatio Gates that they were finally brought.
He greeted them suavely enough, complimenting them on their gallantry and courage in undertaking this journey; on their friendship for his old acquaintance, Sir Philip Ayres, and on the marvellous, heroical constancy shown by the sister of Luke Grove, who had undertaken so much peril for the sake of the man who was to be hanged in revenge for her brother's death...
Eva tried to break in on this elaborate speech, which rang artificially in her ears: "Will you tell us, sir, if the pardon we have brought comes too late?" she asked boldly.
But General Gates would not be done with his compliments, which were, in this case, a kind of torture, but must say "how fresh and charming" the two poor, disarranged gentlewomen looked after their long journey, and offer them seats and refreshment, and ask how Virginia bore the war, and if there was still a trade in tobacco, or if planters found themselves ruined, and such-like foolish gossip.
"Oh, sir!" exclaimed Harriet at last, "will you not tell us frankly what is the chance of Sir Philip Ayres?"
General Horatio Gates looked at her keenly out of his light eyes, now pouched and wrinkled beneath.
"Yours is a strange story, is it not, Miss Dryden? Your running away from this man made a fine stir. Your running after him will make another, I have no doubt."
He spoke in a silky tone, which went far to rob his words of offence, but Harriet sensed the insult in them.
"It is hardly generous," she replied, "to make a mock of me now in my extremity. Whatever my private feelings in this affair," she added with a rising pride, "is it not enough that Sir Philip is a friend of my young brother? that he was of my acquaintance in happier times? that—In brief, sir, it is unendurable for both of us to have Luke Grove's name associated with this murder."
General Gates tapped his long fingers on the table in front of him; he seemed to feel that his cat-and-mouse game had gone far enough, and that he could no longer torment these two poor women and keep them in an agonising state of suspense, but he renounced his play (the cruelty of a weak, vain man) with a sigh.
Impatient, Eva Grove, before he could speak, exclaimed: "I would warn you, General Gates, that we bring a free pardon from General Washington."
This was not a name to increase the good humour of Horatio Gates; he thought himself entitled to the high post General Washington occupied, and that his services, particularly the brilliant victory at Saratoga, were very ill rewarded by Congress.
Petulantly he said, "General Washington's pardon will avail very little, for the prisoner was moved from West Point this morning. Where he has been taken I do not know."
"Removed!" exclaimed Eva Grove eagerly; "and where and why?"
"The soldiery clamoured for his execution; they thought him a victim destined to the manes of your dear brother, Miss Grove—your heroical brother whom the Americans think so much of—and General Arnold, for some reason being inclined to clemency, could not bring himself to this execution, and so to make a compromise the prisoner was sent away."
"We must find out where," said Harriet impetuously. "Major Grant, General Washington's adjutant, who is with us, will discover this for us."
"He is a clever man if he does," said Gates, rising, with a sudden access of temper. "I know nothing. Arnold keeps all from me. You had better go to Mrs. Ayloffe; she has the strings of all those affairs in her hands. Ay, and General Arnold's conscience in her pocket too."
Startled by this outburst the two women shrank away, but Harriet demanded staunchly, "Who is this Mrs. Ayloffe?"
"It is not for me to tell you, my dear madam. You will get the information easily enough from another. Ask for an audience with her, that will help you more than setting Major Grant on investigations. She has been a good friend to Sir Philip," he added with a sneer. "It is through her intervention that a respite was obtained."
"But she is English, is she not?" asked Harriet faintly, with sudden memories of what Frank Battel had told her in Marling Hall.
"Ay," replied General Gates, "she goes from one side to another, like a cat twisting through a paling. She lodges in the fort, and you may very easily see her if you will."
At that, the interview was at an end. The General dismissed them abruptly, and when they were rejoined by Washington's adjutant, Major Grant, he could add little to what Gates had told them. He said the affair smelt odd, and he had not liked Benedict Arnold's manner nor his evasive answers.
With impatient truculence General Arnold had refused to account for his prisoner to General Washington. He declared that he was answerable alone to Congress, but admitted that the Englishman was no longer at West Point, but had been sent westward under escort.
"He seems," said Major Grant grimly, "inclined to defy the authority of the Commander-in-Chief. I do not know, Miss Grove, what more we can do in the affair." He hardly controlled his muttered opinion that there was something very suspicious in the conduct of Benedict Arnold and in that of General Gates.
They were inclined to rebel against the authority of both General Washington and of Congress, and, for himself, he, Major Grant, scarcely doubted that they might be in treaty with the English. "No doubt it is to please Cornwallis that he has spared this prisoner."
"What are we to do?" asked Eva, holding Harriet's hand tightly in hers.
Major Grant shrugged. For his part, he thought they might return, having done all they could. It was scarcely likely that even Benedict Arnold would dare to hang the prisoner after it had been broadcast that General Washington had sent him a pardon.
"But the sending of him away, refusing to say where he has gone—what is afoot there? Some mischief, I dare swear," protested Eva Grove.
Harriet then told Major Grant that they had been advised to seek out Mrs. Ayloffe, who had quarters in the fort...
The adjutant sternly advised them to keep away from this woman who was no better than a spy and played fast and loose with either side.
"This must be the Mrs. Sally Ayloffe I remember in London," added Harriet. "I did not like her, nor she me, yet I would rather see her. It can do no harm. Pray, Major Grant, discover for us where this lady lodges."
The adjutant was inclined to wash his hands of the whole affair. He had done his duty, and as a military man did not wish to mingle with any further intrigue, for, profoundly distrusting General Arnold and General Gates, he wished as soon as possible to return to General Washington and put him on his guard against these two men who treated his authority so lightly, and almost openly flouted his orders.
But the two young women not being concerned with the military aspect of the matter, but only with pure sentiment, refused to accompany him, and remained at their own risk in the fort, where they were somewhat looked askance at, their presence by no means invited.
One of the officer's wives gave them lodging and refreshment and a change of linen, and saw that their horses were looked to, but as for Mrs. Sally Ayloffe, the two young Virginian women found that she was not as much as mentioned among the officer's wives, but lived apart from all in a strange, scandalous seclusion. But for all this, they used every effort to come into her presence, and on the afternoon of the day they had arrived at the fort, Harriet Dryden (for Mrs. Ayloffe had said she would not see two) was admitted into the presence of this dangerous woman in a tolerable suite of rooms in one of the stout towers of the fort.
Harriet Dryden, through fatigue and grief and a certain shamefacedness, could scarce support herself on her feet, and sank down on the great, yellow brocaded chair with arms inside the door as soon as the other bid her briefly, "Be seated."
The woman, standing by the empty hearth, looked at her swiftly and curiously with her large too-bright eyes; her lids were slightly reddened, as if she had been weeping. She had much changed, Harriet thought, since the London days; her lips were thin and there were lines beneath her eyes. She seemed in a state of nervous tension; her nostrils and her lids faintly twitched; she carried a long pair of beaded gloves in her hand, which she continually struck from one palm to another with a maddening monotony of movement; her dress was extremely rich, crimson, covered with golden braid; she wore a slouch hat like a man's, adorned with scarlet feathers, as if she was about to ride out.
"I do not know what in the world you can want with me," she said harshly.
"Yet I think you know very well, Mrs. Ayloffe. I have come with a pardon from General Washington for Sir Philip Ayres."
"I would you had come three or four days ago," cried Mrs. Ayloffe impatiently, with a flash of despair in her eyes which made it impossible for Harriet Dryden to believe that she was the Englishman's enemy.
"Indeed, I came as soon as I could. We have made a most painful journey from Virginia—my cousin and I."
"Your cousin—that's Eva Grove, is it not?"
"Ay, sister of Captain Luke Grove, who was so cruelly hanged. She is of a noble disposition; she did not wish to revenge him."
"That was only an excuse," interrupted Mrs. Ayloffe violently. "What do you suppose? They played on the feelings of the soldiers, but they wished an execution for their own ends. Gates is his enemy."
"I did not know that," faltered poor Harriet, seeing an ugly gulf of lies and intrigues opening before her and shrinking instinctively away.
"Ay, his enemy for my sake. They quarrelled over me once," she added, staring at the girl to see what effect this also would have on her. "And Captain Battel, too, Captain Francis Battel—you know something of him belike, miss? Why, I think it was he you chose for your partner in the elopement you made from Marling Hall," and putting her hands on her hips, Mrs. Ayloffe laughed long and unpleasantly without a trace of mirth.
"I was a vain little fool, so ignorant. He told me what to me was horrible, and I used him to get as far as Portsmouth. I never liked him, and after that I didn't see him again."
"No need to justify yourself to me," replied Mrs. Ayloffe indifferently. "What care I whether he was your lover or no! You seem anyhow to have lost interest in him—the fox and the grapes, eh? You want a man who is out of reach!"
"This is all very cruel, madam; you keep me in a bitter suspense. I do not disguise to you," and the blood burnt hotly in her face, "that I am interested in Sir Philip Ayres, and like a piteous fool I have made a mistake, but am I the only woman to make such a confession? Consider that I was very young, very closely kept, and very foolishly trained, and knew so little."
"Do you know so very much now?" sneered Mrs. Ayloffe.
Harriet Dryden held her head high. "I know I want to save Sir Philip Ayres, but we can get no satisfaction from General Arnold nor from General Gates. General Washington's adjutant has returned in disgust; we have merely been told that the prisoner has been removed, and no one will say where, or why, or how."
"You must thank me," cried Mrs. Ayloffe bitterly, "that you did not arrive here to find him in his grave. It was only my influence with General Arnold..." She looked with hot contempt at the girl's rigid attitude and averted face. "Ay, be nice and squeamish, but you are willing to use me when it comes to the pinch! I say you owe to General Arnold's admiration for me the life of this man whom you hope to make your lover. Let's put it plainly while we are about it. I had to fight the influence of Gates and of Frank Battel, both of them wished his immediate death but I saved him," she added, with an increasing wildness in her tone. "I saved him and persuaded Arnold to send him with a strong escort to one of the compounds where they have British prisoners—towards Morristown."
"He is then safe!" Harriet's taut attitude relaxed. "I ask no more; I am willing to return to Virginia, never to see him again—to leave these matters, whatever there may be between you and him, to work themselves out. I say, Madam," Harriet rose, "I ask nothing more. I have your word that he is safe."
"Would you believe my word?" asked Mrs. Ayloffe keenly and with a searching glance.
"Indeed," said Harriet, clasping her hands with all the force of her candid innocence, "I cannot think that you would now lie to me."
"I do not," returned Mrs. Ayloffe harshly. She added, "Cannot you see that I also am concerned in the safety of this man, that it means something to me whether he is alive or dead!"
"I have perceived that," said Harriet, looking on the ground.
"Well, you rejected him, did you not? You ran away from him on the eve of your wedding—you may call yourself a fool now, but you did it! And when I, yes I, sent him to you in Virginia, you rejected him again—"
"I know—I know."
"Therefore you have no claim on him, and if he has taken another lover and even means to take a wife, you have no right to complain nor whine."
"I should not," said Harriet, very pale. "I tell you I am willing to return."
"You must rest awhile here," said Mrs. Ayloffe, without kindness. "You look sick and tired, and your cheeks are the colour of wax."
"I have been through some hardship," murmured Harriet. She believed that Mrs. Ayloffe had been telling her that she and Sir Philip Ayres loved each other, might even possibly marry. Harriet knew the woman to be false and wild—a spy and worse—but she was in her eyes a bright and splendid creature, who might prove a gorgeous lure to any man, and what, after all, did she know of Sir Philip Ayres and his taste? She knew this woman had been his friend, perhaps his mistress, in London; she belonged to the world to which Harriet had never belonged; Sir Philip Ayres and Sally Ayloffe had moved in that circle from which she had been excluded—she, the poor rustic, closed away in Marling Hall with an old woman and servants.
Yes, she was quite willing to believe there was understanding and perhaps love between these two. Mrs. Sally Ayloffe had saved his life, no matter by what means she had saved it. She, Harriet Dryden, with all her eager devotion and her pathetic efforts, had not been able to do that. Useless would have been the pardon from General Washington if Mrs. Ayloffe had not been there to whisper counsels of mercy in the ear of Benedict Arnold...
She rose and turned away, feeling completely defeated in this hour of triumph, for it was a triumph to know that the man still lived... She was quite prepared then never to see him again; it seemed so unlikely that they would ever meet again.
"I am sorry for you," said Mrs. Ayloffe cruelly, observing her narrowly. "It is a sad thing to see a woman make such a confusion of her life through lack of a little good advice." And with a kind of angry impatience, she added, "Did you not see the man was one in a thousand? I know not yet what Frank Battel told you, but why did you give any heed to it? Did you not know that the town was full of women—prettier, better bred, wealthier than you—who would have married him had there been a thousand obstacles in the way? Did you not know your own heart, you foolish, rustical chit?"
Harriet made no effort to defend herself against these reproaches. She turned towards the door and fumbled with the handle. Sally Ayloffe, going too far in her exultations over her fallen rival, exclaimed: "It must be clear to you he never cared for you, and now you are parted completely!"
At this Harriet turned. Her face, from being so colourless, flamed with the bright blood behind the clear skin as she said, "He cared enough for me to follow me. He came to Virginia at some risk—ay, at a great risk—to discover if I was alive or dead, and when he saw I was safe, he was willing to go again, pressing nothing."
This, which bore the unmistakable impress of truth, was a shaft in the wild heart of Sally Ayloffe. She tried to turn it off with some of her forced laughter. "Well, good-bye," she said in a tone no longer so bright with malice, "we shall never meet again. I hope you will have a pleasant voyage."
Harriet Dryden left her; she felt there was nothing more she could do. She felt satisfied in her own heart that Ayres was, at least for a time, safe. News of General Washington's pardon could be made public. The English were already aware of it, for they had been told when they granted the safe conduct of the two women. It would surely be impossible for any one now to put Sir Philip Ayres to death, yet she wished she knew where he was. There was heavy mystery and a sombre ill-will about the whole affair that irked her...
Sally Ayloffe, always clever to push her own advantage, at once sought out Benedict Arnold and reminded him that she had saved him from a great mistake by her insistence on mercy. "Had you listened to Gates and Battel you would have been in a pretty pickle now, my poor friend. Washington would never have forgiven you for hanging a man he had pardoned."
Benedict Arnold lavishly cursed Washington and all his advisers and all his staff, but Mrs. Ayloffe laughed. "You know you have to be cautious for all that: If you should be suspected now!" she added impatiently, "the affair bears an ill face as it is; both the women will return to Washington and let him know that your prisoner has been spirited away. He will send again for an explanation."
"Perhaps by then," said Benedict Arnold sullenly, "I shall have made up my mind and no longer be responsible to George Washington for any explanation. As for this damned Englishman," he added, "do not plume yourself too soon, my dear! It is true he has left West Point, but"—he pulled himself up, was silent, a slow smile spread over his coarse face—"you can't make a fool of me for ever, Sally."
"What do you mean?"
"Why, you think that your Englishman is safe, I suppose? Who do you think commanded the escort?" he added with sudden ferocity. "Why, Frank Battel."
"Frank Battel!" she repeated in an utter amazement.
"Surely some accident will happen on the trip and Battel return without him. He has every interest in the world, has he not, to be rid of Philip Ayres? Now, I want to be plagued no more with this infernal affair."
In a flash Mrs. Ayloffe saw that what had seemed the deliverance of the prisoner had merely been a placing of him in the power of his worst and most unscrupulous enemy.
She made a gesture towards Benedict Arnold, as if she would strike him; then, in a second, completely forgot this intention, for the man in front of her became completely unimportant, forgotten.
She ran from him, imperiously asking the first she met, "Where was Harriet Dryden, the girl from Virginia?"
She was soon brought into the presence of that young woman, who stood hesitant, forlorn, outside the quarters of the officers' wives.
Sally Ayloffe drew her into the corridor of the wooden annex, catching her by the shoulders and bringing her worn, vivid face close to the radiance of the girl's pure features.
"Listen! He is in danger—but I think I can save him. If I do, shall I send him back to you? And if he comes, how will you receive him?"
"Do you want to wrench my heart out?" exclaimed Harriet, unflinching before this direct challenge. "To what humiliation do you wish to force me? Let me go—"
Sally Ayloffe released her, so that she fell back against the wall, but stood in her way, so that she could not escape through the narrow door. "I love him," proclaimed the wild woman triumphantly. "With him all my life had gone differently, ay, and I believe that he came near to loving me once, but your picture must drop on the table"—she laughed—"so much thrown away for baby face and bright hair—I love him, d'ye hear? And I believe I may save him—"
"Maybe he returns your love," replied Harriet. "Why do you torment me so?"
"He loves you! D'ye think I had sent him to you in Virginia if I had not been sure of that? But you must reject him!"
Harriet turned her head aside and did not speak. Again Mrs. Ayloffe took her by the shrinking shoulders. "Come, have you no courage? I risk something to save him—"
"What? Take me too." Harriet faced her. "I'll come."
"You would only hinder. But—if I send him to you again—will you drop your silly pride and take him? Oh, answer, girl!" There was agony in her desperate voice and something grand and noble in her gesture, her look... Harriet responded, sincerity to sincerity.
"You do love him?"
"And you'll wait here for me to send him back to you?"
They looked steadily into each other's eyes; then Sally Ayloffe dropped her hand from the other's shoulder and suddenly kissed her on the candid forehead.
And she was gone, at a run, from the fort.
AS Frank Battel rode with his prisoner and a small escort in the early dawn towards the wild frontier, he felt he had accomplished a very neat piece of work.
He had the same sensation that Sir Philip had had shortly before in the prison of the fort, that he saw the pattern of life very clearly.
And it was working out exactly as he would have wished, he thought with satisfaction; he would soon be able to dispose of the only man who stood between him and considerable worldly prosperity such as he had always longed to enjoy.
He would get rid of his monitor, the man whose scorn he had winced under, one who had stung him with stately reproof and biting reproaches; he would remove, too, a man whom he had greatly injured, and there is no villain who cares for such to be alive... He could return to England wealthy, powerful...
He would be able to also accomplish this most desirable end without any scandal or disgrace falling on himself. With the country in the state it was, the perpetual Indian raids, the continual state of warfare on the frontier, his tale that he had been unable to defend his prisoner from an unprovoked attack would go down very well.
He had carefully picked the escort of desperate men, most of them English deserters; he did not altogether intend to take them into his confidence, but he dare swear that if he did so, he would have little to fear; he was well provided with money and with authority; if his actions were questioned, he could quote the commands of General Arnold. He could not see a single loophole that might allow failure to creep in...
The little troop rode thirty miles the first day without a halt; Frank Battel was anxious to get beyond all civilisation. They then made an encampment at the edge of a magnificent wood of elm, oak, and maple, and for the first time Frank Battel addressed his prisoner, who, completely unarmed and still wearing his British regimentals, had ridden in silence, amid an escort of men armed with bayonets, pistol, and swords, who were, moreover, truculent from the frequent potations of the vile peach brandy their captain allowed them.
The horses were picketed. The men set about preparing a meal from the stores they had brought with them, while Frank Battel and Sir Philip Ayres faced each other on a sweep of pure green sward, which gently inclined to a brightly running stream, which dipped under broad-leaved flowers. The scene was one of majestic beauty and blue calm; it seemed a day and a spot totally unfitted for a deed of violence; birds called from the forest, and huge amber clouds mounted slowly across the purple azure heavens.
Sir Philip Ayres folded his arms on his breast in grim resignation; from the moment that he had seen his escort was commanded by his nephew he had known that his death was decided upon. He was condemned; all those days of torture spent in the fort when his courage had been troubled by hope and his resignation by fear, had now come to an end.
His shrewd intelligence was quick to understand that Benedict Arnold would not wish to hang him openly at the fort for fear of displeasing the English (his secret paymasters, no doubt), but was by no means averse to his being put quietly out of the way... He wondered why this decision had been so prolonged... when his nephew, with everything to gain by his death, was at Arnold's ear.
Frank Battel, with no softening of his habitual insolence, said, "I hope you have no thought of life, sir."
"Why, none at all," replied Sir Philip. He was sallow and haggard from his imprisonment, his hair roughly dressed, his linen soiled, his attire disarranged, but Frank Battel winced from his steady half-ironic glance as he had winced when Sir Philip had reprimanded him in his chambers in the Queen Street house in London... as a man always will wince before one who is his superior and whom he has wronged.
"You were fairly condemned to death," said Battel, as if defending his actions which had not been criticised by the other, "but it was not very politic for Benedict Arnold to execute you in the fort although the soldiers clamoured for it. I suppose you can guess the reason."
"Benedict Arnold is in negotiation with Cornwallis or Clinton, I suppose," replied Sir Philip, with the indifference of a man to whom worldly affairs seem already far away, "and must by no means offend the English by hanging an officer of my rank. That one understands exactly."
"The fair Sally Ayloffe flatters herself that it was her entreaties that procured you an extension of life, but it was policy, and, as you say, we do not intend to offend the British."
"I am sorry," replied Sir Philip, looking round on the fair scene with grateful eyes, for he was glad he was to die in the open, "that I should have fallen into the hands of a parcel of traitors." He added, "There was some justice and nobility in the American cause, and it is a pity it should be smirched by such base fellows as you and Gates and Arnold."
"Though we are patriots, all of us," replied Battel, shrugging his wide shoulders, "we labour for King and Country, my dear sir. We shall be very finely rewarded."
"You will have the estates," smiled Sir Philip. "I suppose you are thinking of that."
"I certainly am not indifferent to these small, worldly advantages. I am sick of the war, and I loathe America. I shall be very glad to return to England, and, I suppose, for my fine services I shall get a long leave. You may be sure, sir, that the estates will be in very good hands."
"I have no doubt," replied Sir Philip grimly, "that you will make every coin spin before the end of a couple of years or so. You'll end in Newgate or the Bridewell yet, Frank, and none of this villainy will avail you very much."
"Why should you term it villainy?" replied Battel, and with firm insolence, shrugged. "I but do my duty. You drew the black bean, did you not?"
"Certainly I did, for all the beans were black; but, pray cease, Frank, all this foolishness. I am not, after that wearisome imprisonment, in a fair mood for bantering discourse. Come, how do you intend to make an end of me? Am I to eat and rest first, or is it to be at once, and am I to be hanged or shot?"
"Upon my word," replied Frank Battel, with a look of ferocious hatred at the other man, "I don't know which would be the more convenient."
He ceased as if he had disclosed too much in his malice, queasy, despite himself, under the steady gaze of the man he was about to murder. He turned aside, and swaggering across the grass, consulted in a low voice several of his company.
Ayres could not hear what they said, but he believed these villainous-looking fellows to be in his nephew's confidence, and that they were all making a consultation as to how best to dispose of him, so that it might look like an accident, for whatever Battel might say about the orders of Benedict Arnold, he was sure that they would not dare openly to murder a man of his rank; it would make too much of a stir, alienate too many people whose sympathies wavered between the Americans and the English, be an act of ferocity altogether unpardonable in civilised officers. No, he was sure the thing was to be done secretly, and that would be easy enough.
He wished he could put these tormenting thoughts out of his mind, regain some of the serenity which had been his when he had first been condemned to death at West Point; but it was difficult here, under the wide arch of blue sky, among the magnificent trees with the pure water racing joyfully nearby, the soft grass under his feet, the sound of the birds in his ears, to resign himself willingly to the black oblivion of death. It was hard to a strong, proud man to think willingly of his honours and estates going to his murderer, willingly to resign all hopes of happiness.
He tried fiercely to put such worldly matters far from him, but like a stinging whip-lash they returned again and again... Harriet, too; it was intolerable to think that that picture would be taken from his dead bosom by Frank Battel, and made a mock of among his ferocious accomplices... Luke Grove's papers as well; no doubt they would be destroyed. He had no way of disposing of them.
If his companions had been released from West Point, as he believed that they had, he might very easily have shown these papers and so procured his own release, but he had been too proud to do so, for it seemed like stooping to beg the mercy of men like Gates and Battel; besides, he did not believe they would have done him much good, his death being already determined upon.
Philip Ayres put his noble face in his fine hands, and gazing at the grass, fresh and strong beneath his feet (he was seated on a knoll), odd thoughts floated into his mind. Would they bury him beneath this unstained turf, or leave him hanging on the tree to become a tattered, withered object? He thought of Luke Grove hanging on the gallows outside Yorktown—so many lives had come to dark, rank tragedy, through the inconstancies of war...
One of the men brought him some food—ham, hominy, bread, and rum and water—but, exhausted as he was, he could not eat.
He rejected the food courteously, and continued to sit apart while the others made a meal, all now and then turning a watchful eye on him, their pieces loaded ready to their hand; but Sir Philip Ayres had no thought of escape. Well he knew that even should he, by some miraculous chance, succeed in getting into the woods, he must perish miserably of starvation, for he knew not where he was, save that he was approaching the hostile country of the Indians along the frontier, and he thought it more befitting a man of his rank and quality to meet his fate with ease and resignation than be shot as he endeavoured to escape, or to crawl away wounded in the wilderness, to die like a wild beast mangled in the hunt.
He looked down at his own long, fine hand, now passing to and fro across the rich grass. Strange that in a little while that hand would be hideous stiff and still for ever... Curious to think that he had always—how foolishly—believed that one day those fingers of his would rest among Harriet Dryden's auburn curls, on her smooth shoulders as he clasped her to his breast... Would she ever hear of his fate? He hoped not. Surely if she did she would be distressed, and that other brave creature too, Eva, who would not have wished for this futile and bloody vengeance for her brother...
His mind took him back with the poignancy of a vivid dream to that winter day when he had reached the house on the James River and hid in the lento among the hickory nuts and the apples; the sudden coming of Harriet to warn him, her pale face in the fur- lined hood—was it pure pity, such as she might have offered to any man, or something else, a little more? Surely he might fool himself now with the thought that it had been a little more
So strong was the power of this reverie that it was with a start that he heard Frank Battel call his name...
When Sally Ayloffe met Benedict Arnold on the ramparts of West Point, and he stopped her to ask if she had heard that Philip Ayres had been taken away under the escort of Frank Battel—for she had flung from the room very abruptly—she knew well enough the meaning behind this taunt, but she did not betray herself save by a tautening of her body, by the flash in the depths of her eyes, a sudden rising of a dark flame which he did not perceive, for, although a brilliantly gifted man, he was neither fine nor quick.
"I do not regret this decision," she said negligently, "for a little piece from Virginia has come to hang round the prisoner's neck."
"The creature for whose sake you were put aside, I suppose?" asked Benedict Arnold coarsely.
"That is so."
He was surprised at the good humour with which she took his taunt. He was a little afraid of this strange, unaccountable woman, and turned aside uneasily.
Mrs. Ayloffe left him casually, even yawning behind her hand as if she found the day heavy; but as soon as he was out of sight, her whole bearing changed; her whole figure was swept, as it were, by a flame of energy and decision.
She hastened to her chamber, pulled on a riding-gown, snatching at any article of apparel which happened to be near, took a whip, gloves, a pistol, and, avoiding all, ran down to the stables. There, with her own hand, she saddled her horse.
Only when she was riding out of the fort did she reflect a little. Arnold had told her where the prisoner was going. Could she rely on this? It was best to be quite sure...
Sally Ayloffe possessed that rare kind of courage which consists of audacity in planning a scheme, and prudence in putting it into execution.
She therefore reined in her fierce impatience, and sought out a man on whom she could rely—a fellow whom she often employed in her secret and most dangerous missions with Sir Harry Clinton. She found out from him that Arnold, too careless or indifferent to lie, had told her the truth. Major Battel, with his prisoner and a small escort, had gone towards the wild frontiers. "That was a strange place to go," her informer added, with a queer, sly look, "for everybody knows there is no compound with English prisoners up there, and if the man was to have been hanged, why was he not hanged here to gratify the soldiery; and if spared, why not set free openly?"
"You know," replied Mrs. Ayloffe, "that we dare not offend the English, or General Arnold dare not."
She rode away and left the encampment. The sentries watched her go with a frown, many of them wished they had the power to stop her, even put a bullet through her; she was mistrusted and disliked by all. There were hot murmurs against Benedict Arnold keeping her, under one excuse and another, so much in his company.
But Sally Ayloffe had never heeded looks or even words of hate. She glanced back once at the dark and sinister outline of the fort against the burning blue of the sky... it had no especial meaning to her; it was just one scene in her life, of which there had been so many, succeeding each other with such rapidity.
"Well, I've enjoyed it all," she thought, riding with loose rein and one gloved hand upon her hip; "but maybe this is the end, and a good end too, Sally Ayloffe, is it not?"
As soon as she was clear of the sentries she put her horse to a good pace. It was a costly animal with handsome saddle furniture. She turned it in the direction of the river bank, where there was an encampment of Mohawk Indians, who had been engaged in helping the loyalists ravage the lonely, scattered settlements on the frontiers, but who had of late, and most suspiciously in the eyes of many Americans, gone over to Benedict Arnold; they waited in their encampment on the banks of the river for his orders. Their loyalty was suspect, their cruelty known; many of them had been concerned in the dreadful massacres in the Wyoming valley, but Mrs. Sally Ayloffe rode into their midst with an air of unconcern; there seemed some charm about the woman—perhaps her indifferent courage—which caused all to respect her.
She whistled, and one of the sombre savage warriors who was keeping guard at the entrance to the tent came forward. He spoke a few words of English, and she told him in a peremptory manner that she wished to see the Chief and the interpreter at once. The Indians were under a dark grievance, because Benedict Arnold had lately refused them a large present of rum that they had demanded, and they believed, perhaps, that this woman, whom they credited with a knowledge of the black arts and considered as the conscience and even the damned soul of the American general, had perhaps come to make some concession, so it was not long before the Chief and the interpreter rode up to Mrs. Sally Ayloffe.
That wild woman, sitting taut and slender on her great horse, spoke to them rapidly. There was a force and fury in her brief words which appealed to the grim Redskins; she was, after all, much of their temperament.
"There is a man to be killed—a man to be saved—a scamp that you may scalp if you will," she said, "and I will pay you—rum, money—what you wish. May we start immediately?"
The huge, painted warrior looked at her grimly, keenly.
She took from one of her saddle-bags a small linen packet, and through the meshes the good gold gleamed. The Indian glanced at it sideways.
"No miserable paper dollars," she cried, "which may be worth nothing by the time you try to trade with them, but good gold! And I will tell you where Benedict Arnold keeps his rum. You may get it very easily, after dark."
The Indians, who loathed inactivity, and had been lately discontented with both the English and the Americans, were not long in accepting Sally Ayloffe's wild offer.
She told them the direction in which had gone the party she wished to overtake... they must have had an hour or so start, but, nevertheless, they would halt in the heat of the day for rest, and the Indians on their fleet horses could surely ride faster.
"It may be too late," added Mrs. Ayloffe, "but I will pay you the same," and with no blenching even as she spoke these words, she turned and, riding beside the Indian Chief, led the way across the beautiful green fields to the ford on the creek known only to few (to indeed hardly any besides the Indians themselves) where a careful and cunning adjustment of stones made it possible for the well-trained horses to cross; this was far quicker than the passage which Frank Battel had made with his prisoner, for they had gone in scows or Indian canoes, which, manoeuvring against the tide, took a long while. Sally Ayloffe thought of this as her fine horse scrambled up the bank, and smiled; it might account for that hour's start.
With unfaltering and deadly precision, making short cuts through the woods they knew so well, working through secret paths, among thickets which even to the Colonists would seem impassable, the Indians bore down on the tracks of the white men. By midday the Indians had picked up the trail, which Battel, never considering for a moment the possibility of pursuit, had made no attempt to disguise; they came upon the traces of his halt of a few hours before—the broken boughs, the trampled sward... Sally Ayloffe looked fearfully round the lower branches of the trees, half dreading to see the noble form of Philip Ayres hanging there.
But she relied on the character of the man with whom she dealt. Battel would have to be very careful that no gleam of the truth about his hideous deed ever escaped from the obscurity in which he would shroud it; he would see to it that he was far from any of the interruptions of civilisation before he ventured on murder.
Sally Ayloffe rode beside the tireless Indians with no sign of fatigue, her figure erect, her eyes narrowed on the way before her... She, who had never concerned herself about God, thought of Him, curiously now, as she peered ahead at the blue horizons of the open prairies or into the smoky purple depths of the virgin woods.
"Is He on my side? Against this villain? Will He let me get there in time? Or has He too much to forgive me to grant me this favour?"
She pondered deeply, searching her own heart as she had never searched it before.
"Do I want to save him—for that other woman? Do I really wish his life at the cost of seeing her in his arms?"
She could answer herself, sincerely, on a soul-felt sigh. "I do."
Whatever had been her manifold, her passionate faults, her wilful sins, there at least she knew herself at ease; without hope of any favour from the one man who had power to please her, with the sole object of sending him back to the rival she had bid wait for him, she could cheerfully risk her life to save him. She glanced past her grim, dark escort of savages at the wild and beautiful scene, untouched by humanity, and found peace in the mighty serenity of the fair scene. "Why do I feel so calm? So many adventures as I have had—and is this to be the last?"
Rich foliage brushed her face; she raised her gloved hand to put the low branches by. The wood was thinning about them, a stream that had long been beside them, like a guide, began to catch the sunlight on the quick ripples that flowed beneath the moist ferns.
The Indian leader gave the command to halt. The open ground sloped away suddenly in front of the sudden ending of the wood; the stream, in a flashing water break, leapt to the level ground, then flowed beneath the flowers of the plain. It passed a little knoll, near a tall maple tree, and there was a group of men, and, nearby, a group of horses...
Frank Battel had had a good start, nor had he halted overmuch, and the Indians, with Sally Ayloffe at their heads—all light, graceful, and swift like hawks or eagles on the wing—had not come upon the prisoner and his escort until his hands were being actually bound behind him and Frank Battel had contemptuously thrown a lace handkerchief to be tied about his eyes.
Throwing his head back, Philip Ayres had rejected this. "I'll see the light as long as I may," he smiled. "I'd rather die with the sun in my eyes!" and as if to himself he added, "It will be dark soon enough and for long enough."
Then suddenly when he knew the moment had come, it seemed to him intolerable that the picture of Harriet Dryden and the letters of Luke Grove should fall into the hands of the mocking and the contemptuous, and he made a swift appeal to the man who was about to murder him:
"If I was to give you a packet, a dying man's last wish, Frank, would you not respect it and see it to its destination?"
"Not I," replied the other harshly; "I know the trick you'd play. It is your will—cutting me out of half the estate—but I'll have none of it. Whatever's on you must fall into my hands and be treated for my interests."
He motioned to his men to lead the prisoner towards the large maple tree, from the spreading lower bough of which a rope was already attached.
This was the scene on which Sally Ayloffe gazed, as with her troop of Indians she swept from the wood into the open green.
The white men were unprepared, and the terror of the dreaded Mohawks added to their horrified amazement. The Indians fired their light carbines with deadly skill as they rode, and the soldiers made little resistance; some fired, some ran to unfasten the horses; some fled across the plains, the Indians pursuing them.
Mrs. Ayloffe was lost a moment in the mêlée, then sprang down beside Philip Ayres, cut the rope that bound him with a knife she drew from her girdle and thrust a pistol into his hand. At this moment she saw that Frank Battel, having already despatched an Indian who was advancing upon him, was turning with his piece levelled at his prisoner.
With a wild cry Sally Ayloffe shouted: "You and I have a score or two to settle, Captain Battel!" and raising her own pistol she fired. Frank Battel dropped beneath the tree from which dangled the rope he had destined for Sir Philip Ayres.
"I'm sorry you've shot him," cried Sir Philip, and he made an impulsive movement towards the writhing figure that was clutching at the grass, but Mrs. Ayloffe caught his arm.
"Look to me a little; I also am dying." She pointed to her shirt on which a dark stain was rapidly spreading. "One of your men got me almost at once. I was hoping for it; I wished it."
He caught her in his arms with tenderness, with gratitude, with alarm. She gasped, "I saved you—I only—remember that. Go back to your Harriet; she's waiting for you with a pardon. The Indians will see you there."
Hanging on his shoulder, her small head with the tangle of black curls drooping lower, she stammered, "Don't forget to reward them; there's gold in my saddle-bag, directions where they can find the rum... Lay me on the grass."
He placed her on the flowery knoll where so recently he had sat in sombre despair, struggling for resignation. The brief resistance of the ambushed soldiers was already over; the Indians were scalping the dead, making prizes of the horses, the baggage, the arms, the flasks of rum and peach brandy. A few distant figures ran like hares into the great shadows of the vast quiet woods on the slope. The scene was shot with the violent gleams of the setting sun. Beneath the wide boughs of the maple, which showed dark against the flaming heavens, lay the body of Frank Battel in his blood-stained uniform, flat on his back, his arms outflung, his chin uptilted as if he had fallen from the rope that dangled above. But Philip Ayres saw none of this; his attention was entirely absorbed by the woman stretched beside him. With a gleam of malicious humour Sally Ayloffe saw herself at last the sole object of this man's concern.
He saw the smile and cried eagerly:
"You're not so hurt? Let me raise you up!"
"Not hurt at all," she whispered. "I smiled to think—I had to—die—to make you look at me—"
"Nay, not to die!"
"Raise me up—forgive me, Philip, I have done you many an ill turn."
"Don't speak so," he cried, greatly moved. "It seems you die for me—"
"No. Because my time has come." She smiled again, put her hand to her cravat and shirt and let it fall, covered with blood. Her features looked small and death-like; a heavy damp was on her forehead; but she was conscious only of his heart labouring so near her own as he held her, and of all the vivid azure of the heavens and all the glimmering gold of the sunset, coming nearer, enclosing her in a warm and glorious peace.
"Harriet loves you," she gasped. "I made her confess. I made her promise to wait for you—"
Frightened at the change in her face, he cried:
"Sally, I'll be grateful to you all my life—"
She seemed no longer to hear him; her head had fallen over the miniature of Harriet hidden in his breast. He kissed her chilled cheek. The glory of the sunset had drawn more closely about her. Again she smiled.
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