MISTRESS MARJORY FOTHERGAY rode astride like a man, for the chase was a stern one, and she was measuring a human life against the pace of her nag. She hugged the precious pardon to her breast as she swept along through the night in the direction of Mapleham. It was there that Guy Foster lay a prisoner in the hands of Colonel Clifford, and there he was to be shot at eight of the clock in the morning. The mere fact that Colonel Clifford hated him and would have watched his end with equanimity, not to say satisfaction, was the spur that pushed Marjory on.
Oh, she had had her luck—there was no doubt about that. It was sheer luck that flung her in the path of the King on his way to York. Perhaps if Nell Gwynn had not been there—What a pretty woman she was and how her eyes had sparkled as she handed the swan-quill pen to Charles. People might say what they liked about Nell, but Marjory had loved her at that moment. Guy Poster had been a fool—it was so like him to fling himself in the teeth of authority over so simple a matter as the rights of forestry over Cadham Forest, but really he had gone too far. They had caught him with arms in his hand and, well, he was going to be shot in the morning at Mapleham.
Now hanging or shooting is the poorest use you can put a man to, especially if he be a man like Guy Foster. For he was tall and strong and clear of eye, so that the women in these parts looked on him sweetly, and Mistress Marjory accounted herself the most fortunate of girls when he came wooing her and dropped his glove at her feet. And Colonel Clifford hated him from the bottom of his heart. There never had been any chance for the colonel, had he only known it, but then he was a bit of an egoist in his way and did not know it—a black man with a brooding eye and a furtive glance with venom in it. And he would have cheerfully committed murder for sweet Mistress Marjory's sake.
He was going to commit murder now with all the precedent and authorities on his side.
Guy Foster had been taken under arms and the penalty was short and to the point. He would be shot at daybreak and all Marjory's tears and pleas had moved him not at all. She was indiscreet, perhaps, in adding certain accusations of a more or less personal nature, but they left him cold.
Marjory had flung out of the presence of Clifford hot, flaming and tearful. She rode wildly out of Mapleham at odds with all the world and burning for a rescue. A couple of score of stalwarts well armed and the thing was done. It was to the full measure of her wrath and, in the full swing of her gallop that she came plump upon the cavalcade of the king on the way to York. And Charles, always with a keen and discriminating eye for a pretty girl, demanded speech with her. He got it.
"I am Mistress Marjory Fothergay of that house, sir," she said. "There is not a man left in the place for they have all died for you and yours. And the man I love is to be shot in the morning."
"That is a sorry use of good material, child," the King said. "Give him a name."
Marjory poured out her trouble. There was no more loyal lot than the Fosters. But they hated tyranny, and that edict as to the right of forestry over Cadham Forest was sheer tyranny and his majesty should know it. Then there came up something dazzlingly fair with blue eyes full of demure mischief, with a gleam in them that touched Marjory on the spot. Here was Mistress Nell Gwynn, of course, and Marjory felt the blood flaming into her face. Still, she was a woman and she was beginning to feel the sore need of one. And here was a woman, good luck, with pity and sympathy in her face.
"Now, what's to be done with this pretty thing?" the King laughed.
"What does one do with all pretty things, Charlie," Nelly said. "Give 'em a sugarplum. You're not going to let Clifford waste a good man like that."
"Do you know aught of Colonel Clifford, child?" the King asked.
The blood flamed into Marjory's face again and her eyes flushed. Nell of Old Drury watched her critically. She had a fine scent for a dramatic situation and here was one ready to her hand. She bent over and whispered a few words in the King's ear. He threw back his head and laughed.
"Say you so, Nell?" he asked. "Lord, how you women smell out a romance! Trust you for seeing the beauties of a situation! So it is like that. Mistress Marjory, you can dry your pretty eyes. Bring me a pen and ink so that you can set your heart at rest. Quick there with you."
And there under the amazed eyes of Mistress Marjory the pardon was signed and handed over to her by the King himself. Nell looked on with a smile.
"I have you to thank for this, Mistress Gwynn," Marjory said.
"Oh, la, la," Nell cried. "What a patter about a little thing like a lover. Maybe the time will come when you will hold this thing a grudge against me. But, thank me if you like."
"I—I should like to kiss you," Marjory flamed out.
"Odds bodkins, dearie, but you shall," Nell said. Her face had flamed scarlet, too, and her eyes were wet. "This Guy Foster of yours is a lucky man. And I am the happier for assisting you. You can tell your children when the time comes that Nell of Old Drury was not all bad."
"I shall tell them that she was one of the best and kindest of women," Marjory cried. There was a crimson stain on her checks; her voice shook strangely. "Farewell and God keep you, sire, I have no time to lose."
Marjory turned in her saddle and plunged into the forest. There was no time to be lost if she were to reach Mapleham by daylight. That would not give her more than an hour at the outside.
She came to Mapleham in the grey dawn dazed with the need for sleep and giddy with fatigue. The sentinel of the gate challenged her sulkily.
"You know who I am well enough, fellow," she said haughtily. "This is not the first time, you have been face to face with Mistress Marjory Fothergay. Look here."
She drew out the pardon and thrust the King's signature under the varlet's nose.
"Go and call your master," she said. "Drag him out of bed if you will. Tell him I am here and that I have a message for him from the King. And see to it that this is done at once. Conduct me to a place where I can remove the traces of my journey."
Another man at once came out and presently Marjory found herself in a private chamber more or less ready for the use of travellers. There was clean linen and fair water and a comfortable armchair, into which latter she dropped presently and closed her eyes. She must not sleep, she told herself, she would just rest there for a little while and recover a little from the deadly tiredness that numbed her brain. Her long lashes swept her cheek and she slept, slept in utter exhaustion.
Colonel Clifford stood biting his thumbs at his retainer. There was something in the back of his mind that prevented him from looking the man-at-arms in the face.
"What do you say the lady wants?" he asked.
"She came here demanding speech with your honour," the soldier said. "She has a message from the King."
"So. What have you done with her?"
"She is at present in one of the retiring rooms. She was there till your honour is ready. At present, so a kitchen wench tells me, she is asleep."
Clifford motioned the fellow away. He had learnt all he needed. Mistress Marjory was here with a pardon from the King. It would be a fare triumph for her lover and herself. She would ride out with him presently and they would laugh at him as they went. And she was asleep.
Colonel John Clifford had never loved before—he had no time for that sort of thing he told himself impetuously. And being a dark man with a sombre spleen, when the fever came it filled his blood with madness and blinded his eyes to aught but the demon of desire. And when fate had delivered Guy Foster into his hands it seemed to him that the path was smooth at last.
Mistress Marjory had come with a pardon from the King and she slept. She had travelled through the night, and was utterly worn out. And Clifford had no official knowledge of anything. Nobody would blame him if Foster was taken out and shot in an hour's time. And Mistress Marjory slept.
Marjory came to herself in an hour's time with a start. The dawn was breaking now and a golden light filled the east. She could not have slept long, but was it too long. She could hear the clash of arms and the tramp of feet outside, a hoarse command and the rattle of weapons. With a great fear in her heart, she crossed the flag-red floor and tried the door. It was locked.
Somebody had fastened the door on the outside, or perhaps there was some trick with the bolt. Mistress Marjory tugged at it desperately. She raised her voice in a cry and smote passionately on the oak panels.
The full glare of the truth was dawning upon her. Clifford had been told why she was here, he had grasped what her errand meant to him. And he would be able to say that he had no official cognisance of it. A message brought to him through one of his men-at-arms that Mistress Marjory Fothergay had a letter from the King meant nothing. She had not spoken of a pardon.
Clifford had locked her in. He would keep her a prisoner till the execution was over. She looked round for some means of escape. The windows were high and narrow, but there was chairs that she could pile one on top of another. The hazard of it troubled her nothing. A moment or two later she was on the broad stone ledge looking into the courtyard below. There was a lead roof opposite from which she could easily reach the ground. And on the far side of the courtyard half a dozen men lounged with petronels in their hands. A door opened somewhere in the distance, there was a harsh sound of command and the men with the firearms drew up to attention.
Marjory measured the distance with her eye. It would be a desperate effort, but she would manage it. She drew a long breath and launched herself from the window ledge. She jumped just a little short, falling heavily on her hands and knees, shaken and breathless, but with a savage exultation at her heart. As she dropped, still panting and shaken, into the courtyard, Guy Foster came along blindfolded and led by two men-at-arms. As they placed him with his back to the wall, Marjory took the King's letter and fastened it to his heart.
"Send Colonel Clifford to me," she cried. "Where is the black-minded traitor?"
The words echoed across the courtyard. Clifford came forward.
"You have a message from the King for me," he said.
"I have his royal Majesty's pardon," Marjory cried. "See it is on the breast of your prisoner. Take the bandage from his eyes, and let him go, murderer."
Clifford started as if he had been stung. But his eyes dropped before the gleaming orbs of Marjory. He saw in that instant that the girl had guessed everything. It was only for a moment that he hesitated, and then he was himself again. With his own hand he slipped the bandage from Foster's eyes, and released him.
"You are free," he said curtly. "You can go. You are a fortunate man, my friend. And if you will permit me to offer you my hospitality—"
"My horse," Marjory commanded. "My horse. This place is offensive to me, I would stifle here."
Without another word Clifford turned on his heel. Foster caught Marjory in his arms.
"Sweetheart," he whispered. "How did you manage it? Tell me, dearest heart."
"Catch me," Marjory whispered, "for I am going to swoon. No, it is the joy that never kills."