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   Chapter 16 THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW

A Daughter of Raasay By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 23258

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


There came to me one day a surprise, a marked hour among my weeks struck calm. Charles, Cloe, and Aileen had been wont to visit me regularly; once Selwyn had dropped in on me; but I had not before been honoured by a visit from Sir Robert Volney. He sauntered into my cell swinging a clouded cane, dressed to kill and point device in every ruffle, all dabbed with scented powder, pomatum, and jessamine water. To him, coming direct from the strong light of the sun, my cell was dark as the inside of Jonah's whale. He stood hesitating in the doorway, groping with his cane for some guide to his footsteps.

For an instant I drew back, thinking he had come to mock me; then I put the idea from me. However much of evil there was in him, Volney was not a small man. I stepped forward to greet him.

"Welcome to my poor best, Sir Robert! If I do not offer you a chair it is because I have none. My regret is that my circumstances hamper my hospitality."

"Not at all. You offer me your best, and in that lies the essence of hospitality. Better a dinner of herbs where love is than a stalled ox and hatred, Egad," returned my guest with easy irony.

All the resources of the courtier and the beau were his. One could but admire the sparkle and the versatility of the man. His wit was brilliant as the play of a rapier's point. Set down in cold blood, remembered scantily and clumsily as I recall it, without the gay easy polish of his manner, the fineness is all out of his talk. After all 'tis a characteristic of much wit that it is apposite to the occasion only and loses point in the retelling.

He seated himself on the table with a leg dangling in air and looked curiously around on the massive masonry, the damp floor, the walls oozing slime. I followed his eye and in some measure his thoughts.

"Stone walls do not a prison make," I quoted gaily.

"Ecod, they make a pretty fair imitation of one!" he chuckled.

I was prodigious glad to see him.

His presence stirred my sluggish blood. The sound of his voice was to me like the crack of a whip to a jaded horse. Graceful, careless, debonair, a man of evil from sheer reckless wilfulness, he was the one person in the world I found it in my heart to both hate and admire at the same time.

He gazed long at me. "You're looking devilish ill, Montagu," he said.

I smiled. "Are you afraid I'll cheat the hangman after all?"

His eyes wandered over the cell again. "By Heaven, this death's cage is enough to send any man off the hooks," he shivered.

"One gets used to it," I answered, shrugging.

He looked at me with a kind of admiration. "They may break you, Montagu, but I vow they will never bend you. Here are you torn with illness, the shadow of the gallows falling across your track, and never a whimper out of you."

"Would that avail to better my condition?"

"I suppose not. Still, self-pity is the very ecstasy of grief, they tell me."

"For girls and halfling boys, I dare say."

There he sat cocked on the table, a picture of smiling ease, raffish and fascinating, as full of sentimental sympathy as a lass in her teens. His commiseration was no less plain to me because it was hidden under a debonair manner. He looked at me in a sidelong fashion with a question in his eyes.

"Speak out!" I told him. "Your interest in me as evidenced by this visit has earned the right to satisfy your curiosity."

"I dare swear you have had your chance to save yourself?" he asked.

"Oh, the usual offer! A life for a life, the opportunity to save myself by betraying others."

"Do you never dally with the thought of it?" he questioned.

I looked up quickly at him. A hundred times I had nursed the temptation and put it from me.

"Are you never afraid, Montagu, when the night falls black and slumber is not to be wooed?"

"Many a time," I told him, smiling.

"You say it as easily as if I had asked whether you ever took the air in the park. 'Slife, I have never known you flinch. There was always a certain d--d rough plainness about you, but you play the game."

"'Tis a poor hound falls whining at the whip when there is no avoiding it."

"You will never accept their offer of a pardon on those terms. I know you, man. Y'are one of those fools hold by honour rather than life, and damme! I like you for it. Now I in your place--"

"--Would do as I do."

"Would I? I'm not so sure. If I did it would be no virtue, but an obstinacy not to be browbeat." Then he added, "You would give anything else on earth for your life, I suppose?"

"Anything else," I told him frankly.

"Anything else?" he repeated, his eyes narrowing. "No reservations, Montagu?"

Our eyes crossed like rapiers, each searching into the other's very soul.

"Am I to understand that you are making me an offer, Sir Robert?"

"I am making you an offer of your life."

"Respectfully declined."

"Think again, man! Once you are dead you will be a long time dead. Refuse to give her up, and you die; she is not for you in any case. Give way, and I will move heaven and earth for a pardon. Believe me, never was such perfect weather before. The birds sing divinely, and Charles tells me Montagu Grange is sorely needing a master."

"Charles will look the part to admiration."

"And doubtless will console himself in true brotherly fashion for the loss of his brother by reciting his merits on a granite shaft and straightway forgetting them in the enjoyment of the estate."

"I think it likely."

He looked at me gloomily. "There is a way to save you, despite your obstinacy."

I shuffled across to him in a tumult of emotion. "You would never do it, would never be so vile as to trade on her fears for me to win her."

"I would do anything to win her, and I would do a great deal to save your life. The two things jump together. In a way I like you, man."

But I would have none of his liking. "Oh, spare me that! You are the most sentimental villain unhung, and I can get along without your liking."

"That's as may be," said he laughing, "but I cannot well get along without you. On my honour, you have become one of my greatest sources of interest."

"Do you mean that you would stake my life against her hand?" I demanded whitely.

He gave me look for look. "I mean just that. By Heaven, I shall win her fair or foul."

I could only keep saying over and over again, "You would never do it. Even you would never do that."

"Wouldn't I? You'll see," he answered laughing hardily. "Well, I must be going. Oh, I had forgot. Balmerino sent you this note. I called on him yesterday at the Tower. The old Scotchman is still as full of smiles as a bride."

Balmerino's letter was the friendliest imaginable. He stated that for him a pardon was of course out of the question, but that Sir Robert Volney had assured him that there was a chance for me on certain conditions; he understood that the conditions had to do with the hand of a young woman, and he advised me, if the thing were consistent with honour, to make submission, and let no foolish pride stand in the way of saving my life. The letter ended with a touching reference to the cause for which he was about to die.

I was shaken, I confess it. Not that I thought for a moment of giving up my love, but my heart ached to think of the cruel position into which she would be cast. To save her lover's life, she must forsake her love, or if she elected the other alternative must send him to his death. That Volney would let this burden of choice fall on her I would scarce let myself believe; and yet-there was never a man more madly, hopelessly in love than he. His passion for her was like a whirlwind tossing him hither and thither like a chip on the boiling waters, but I thought it very characteristic of the man that he used his influence to have me moved to a more comfortable cell and supplied with delicacies, even while he plotted against me with my love.

After that first visit he used to come often and entertain me with the news and gossip of the town. I have never met a more interesting man. He was an onlooker of life rather than an actor, an ironical cynic, chuckling with sardonic humour. The secret of his charm lay perhaps in a certain whimsical outlook and in an original turn of mind.

Once I asked him why he found it worth while to spend so many hours with me when his society was so much sought after by the gayest circle in the town.

"I acquit you of any suspicion of philanthropy, Sir Robert. I give you credit for pursuing a policy of intelligent selfishness. You must know by this time that I will not purchase my life, nor let it be purchased, on the terms which you propose. Well then, I confess it puzzles me to guess what amusement you find in such a hole as this."

"Variety spices life. What's a man to do to keep himself from ennui? For instance, I got up this morning at ten, with Selwyn visited Lady Dapperwit while she was drinking coffee in her nightrail, talked a vast deal of scandal with her, strolled in the park with Fritz, from there to White's in a sedan, two hours at lunch, and an hour with you for the good of my soul."

"The good of your soul?" I quizzed.

"Yes, I visit you here and then go away deuced thankful for my mercies. I'm not to be hanged next week, you know. I live to marry the girl."

"Still, I should think you might find more interesting spots than this."

"I am a student of human nature, Montagu."

"A condemned prisoner, never a wit at the best of times, full of fears and agues and fevers! One would scarce think the subject an inviting one for study."

"There you do yourself injustice. Y'are the most interesting man I know. A dozen characters are wrapped up in you. You have the appearance of being as great a rip as the rest of us, and I vow your looks do not belie you, yet at times you have the conscience of a ranting dissenter. I find in you a touch both of Selwyn's dry wit and of Balmerino's frostly bluntness; the cool daring of James Wolfe combined with as great a love of life as Murray has shown; the chivalry of Don Quixote and the hard-headedness of Cumberland; sometimes an awkward boy, again the grand manner Chesterfield himself might envy you; the obstinacy of the devil and--"

"Oh, come!" I broke in laughing. "I don't mind being made a composite epitome of all the vices of the race, but I object to your crossing the Styx on my behalf."

"And that reminds me of the time we came so near crossing together," he broke out, diverting the subject in his inconsequent fashion. "D'ye remember that Dr. Mead who dressed our wounds for us after our little argument? It appears that he and a Dr. Woodward fell into some professional dispute as to how a case should be treated, and Lud! nothing would satisfy them but they must get their toasting forks into action. The story goes that they fought at the gate of Gresham College. Mead pinked his man. 'Take your life,' quoth he. 'Anything but your medicine,' returns Woodward just before he faints. Horry Walpole told me the story. I suppose you have heard Selwyn's story of Lord Wharton. You know what a spendthrift Wharton is. Well the Duke of Graftsbury offered him one of his daughters in marriage, a lady of uncertain age and certain temper. But the lady has one virtue; she's a devilish fine fortune. A plum, they say! Wharton wrote Graftsbury a note of three lines declining the alliance because, as he put it, the fortune was tied up and the lady wasn't."

"Not bad. Talking of Selwyn, I suppose he gets his fill of horrors these days."

"One would think he might. I met him at

the Prince's dinner yesterday, and between us we two emptied nine bottles of maraschino. Conceive the splitting headache I'm wearing to-day."

"You should take a course in Jacobitism," I told him gravely. "'Tis warranted to cure gout, liver trouble, indigestion, drunkenness, and sundry other complaints. I can warrant that one lives simply while he takes the treatment; sometimes on a crust of bread and a bowl of brose, sometimes on water from the burn, never does one dine over-richly."

"Yet this course is not conducive to long life. I've known a hundred followers of it fall victim to an epidemic throat disease," he retorted. Then he added more gravely, "By the way, you need have no fears for your friend Miss Flora Macdonald. I learn on the best of authority that she is in no danger whatever."

"And Malcolm?" I asked.

"His name has been put near the foot of the list for trial. Long before that time the lust for blood will be glutted. I shall make it a point to see that his case never comes to trial. One cannot afford to have his brother-in-law hanged like a common cutpurse."

Day by day the time drew nearer on which my reprieve expired. I saw nothing of Aileen now, for she had followed the King and his court to Bath, intent on losing no opportunity that might present itself in my favour. For one reason I was glad to have her gone; so long as she was out of town Sir Robert could not urge on her the sacrifice which he intended.

The time of my execution had been set for Friday, and on the preceding Monday Volney, just arrived from the executions of Balmerino and Kilmarnock, drove out to New Prison to see me. He was full of admiration for Balmerino's bold exit from the stage of life and retailed to me with great gusto every incident of the last scene on Tower Hill.

"I like your bluff Balmerino's philosophy of life," he told me. "When I called on him and apologized for intruding on the short time he had left the old Lord said, 'O sir, no intrusion at all. I am in no ways concerned to spend more time than usual at my devotions. I think no man fit to live who is not fit to die, and to die well is much the easier of the two.' On the scaffold no bridegroom could have been more cheerful. He was dressed in his old blue campaign uniform and was as bold and manly as ever. He expressed joy that Cromartie had been pardoned, inspected with interest the inscription on his coffin, and smilingly called the block his pillow of rest. 'Pon honour, the intrepid man then rehearsed the execution with his headsman, kneeling down at the block to show how he would give the signal for the blow. He then got up again, made a tender smiling farewell with his friends, and said to me, 'I fear some will think my behaviour bold, Volney, but remember what I say, that it arises from confidence in God and a clear conscience.' He reaffirmed his unshaken adherence to the house of Stuart, crying aloud, 'God save King James!' and bowed to the multitude. Presently, still cheerfully, he knelt at the block and said in a clear voice, 'O Lord, reward my friends, forgive my enemies, bless Prince Charles and his brother, the Duke, and receive my soul.' His arms dropped for the signal, and Arthur Elphinstone of Balmerino passed to the Valhalla where brave men dwell as gods."

"God bring peace to his valiant restless soul," I said, much moved.

"'Tis a thing to admire, the sturdy loyalty of you Jacobites," he said after a pause. "You carry it off like gentlemen. Every poor Highlander who has yet suffered has flung out his 'God save King James' on the scaffold. Now I'll wager you too go to death with the grand air-no canting prayers for King George, eh?"

"I must e'en do as the rest," I smiled.

"Yet I'd bet a pony you don't care a pinch of snuff for James Stuart. 'Tis loyalty to yourselves that animates you."

Presently he harked back to the topic that was never closed between us.

"By this time next week you will have touched the heart of our eternal problem. The mystery of it will perhaps be all clear to you then. 'Tis most strange how at one sweep all a man's turbulent questing life passes into the quiet of-of what? That is the question: of unending death or of achieved knowledge?" Then he added, coming abruptly to the issue: "The day draws near. Do you think better of my offer now?"

"Sir Robert, I have lived a tempestuous life these past months. I have known hunger and cold and weariness; I have been at the top of fortune's wave and at the bottom; but I have never found it worth my while to become divorced from honour. You find me near dead from privations and disease. Do you think I would pay so much for such an existence? Believe me, when a man has passed through what I have he is empty of fears."

"I could better spare a better man," he said.

"Sorry to inconvenience you," I told him grimly.

"I' faith, I think you're destined to do that dead or alive."

"I think I am. You will find me more in your way dead than alive."

"I'll outlive your memory, never fear." Then quietly, after a moment's hesitation: "There's one thing it may be a comfort for you to know. I've given up any thought of putting her on the rack. I'll win fairly or not at all."

I drew a deep free breath. "Thank you for telling me."

"I mean to marry her though. I swear to you, Montagu, that my heart is wrapped up in her. I thought all women alike until I met this one. Now I know better. She could have made a different man of me; sometimes I think she could even yet. I vow to you I would not now injure a hair of her head, but willy-nilly, in the end I shall marry the girl."

"To ruin her life?"

"To save mine rather."

"Do you think yourself able to change the whole course of your life for her?"

He mused. "Ah, Montagu! There your finger falls pat on the pulse of my doubt. My heart cries aye, my reason gives a negative."

"Don't worry overmuch about it," I answered, railing at him. "She'll never look at you, man. My grave will be an insurmountable barrier. She will idealize my memory, think me a martyr and herself a widowed maid."

The shot scored. 'Twas plain he must have often thought of that himself.

"It may interest you to know that we are engaged to be married," I added.

"Indeed! Let me congratulate you. When does the happy event occur, may I ask? Or is the day set?"

He had no need to put into words more clearly the irony of the fate that encompassed us.

"Dead or alive, as you say, I bar your way," I said tartly.

"Pooh, man! I give you six weeks of violent grief, six months of tender melancholy."

"You do not know the Scotch. She will die a maid," I answered.

"Not she! A live lover is more present than a dead one. Has she sworn pretty vows to you, Montagu? 'At lovers' perjuries, they say, love laughs.' Is there nothing to be said for me? Will her heart not always whisper that I deserve gratitude and love, that I perilled my life for her, saved the lives of her brother and her lover, neither of them friends of mine, again reprieved her lover's life, stood friend to her through all her trouble? You know a woman's way-to make much of nothing."

"Forgive, if I prod a lagging memory, Miss Westerleigh?"

Long he laughed and merrily.

"Eloped for Gretna Green with Tony Creagh last night, and I, poor forsaken swain, faith! I do not pursue."

You may be sure that dashed me. I felt as a trapped fox with the dogs closing in. The future loomed up clear before me, Aileen hand in hand with Volney scattering flowers on my grave in sentimental mood. The futility of my obstinacy made me bitter.

"Come, Montagu! Listen to reason," urged the tempter. "You get in my way, but I don't want to let you be sponged out. The devil of it is that if I get you a pardon-and I'm not sure that I can get it-you'll marry the girl. I might have you shipped to the Barbadoes as a slave with some of the others, but to be frank I had rather see you hanged than give you so scurvy an end. Forswear what is already lost and make an end of it."

I turned away blackly. "You have my answer. Sir Robert, you have played your last card. Now let me die in peace."

He shrugged impatiently and left me. "A fool's answer, yet a brave man's too," he muttered.

Aileen, heart-broken with the failure of her mission, reached town on Thursday and came at once to the prison. Her face was as the face of troubled waters. I had no need to ask the question on my lips. With a sobbing cry she threw herself on my breast. My heart was woe for her. Utter weariness was in her manner. All through the long days and nights she had agonized, and now at last despaired. There seemed no tears left to shed.

Long I held her tight, teeth set, as one who would keep his own perforce from that grim fate which would snatch his love from him. She shivered to me half-swooning, pale and of wondrous beauty, nesting in my arms as a weary homing-bird. A poignant grief o'erflowed in me.

"Oh, Aileen! At least we have love left," I cried, breaking the long silence.

"Always! Always!" her white lips answered.

"Then let us regret nothing. They can do with me what they will. What are life and death when in the balance dwells love?" I cried, rapt in unearthly worship of her.

Her eyes found mine. "Oh, Kenneth, I cannot-I cannot-let you go."

Sweet and lovely she was beyond the dream of poet. I trembled in an ecstasy of pain. From the next cell there came to us softly the voice of a poor condemned Appin Stewart. He was crooning that most tender and heart-breaking of all strains. Like the pibroch's mournful sough he wailed it out, the song that cuts deep to a Scotchman's heart in time of exile.

"Lochabar no more, Lochabar no more.

We'll maybe return to Lochabar no more."

I looked at Aileen, my face working. A long breath came whistling through her lips. Her dear face was all broken with emotion. I turned my eyes aside, not daring to trust myself. Through misty lashes again I looked. Her breast lifted and fell in shaking sobs, the fount of tears touched at last. Together we wept, without shame I admit it, while the Stewart's harrowing strain ebbed to a close. To us it seemed almost as the keening of the coronach.

So in the quiet that comes after storm, her dear supple figure still in my arms, Sir Robert Volney came in unexpectedly and found us. He stopped at the door, startled at her presence, and methought a shadow fell on his face. Near to death as I was, the quality of his courage was so fine and the strength of the passion in him so great that he would have changed places with me even then.

Aileen went up to him at once and gave him her hand. She was very simple, her appeal like a child's for directness.

"Sir Robert, you have already done much for me. I will be so bold as to ask you to do more. Here iss my lover's life in danger. I ask you to save it."

"That he may marry you?"

"If God wills."

Volney looked at her out of a haggard face, all broken by the emotions which stirred him.

A minute passed, two minutes. He fought out his fight and won.

"Aileen," he said at last, "before heaven I fear it is too late, but what man can do, that will I do."

He came in and shook hands with me. "I'll say good-bye, Montagu. 'Tis possible I'll see you but once more in this world. Yet I will do my best. Don't hope too much, but don't despair."

There was unconscious prophecy in his words. I was to see him but the once more, and then the proud, gallant gentleman, now so full of energy, was lying on his deathbed struck out of life by a foul blow.

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