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   Chapter 19 A NIGHT ON THE ROAD

Simon Dale By Anthony Hope Characters: 21836

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


In a man of green age and inexperience a hasty judgment may gain pardon and none need wonder that his hopes carry him on straightway to conclusions born of desire rather than of reason. The meeting I feared had passed off so softly that I forgot how strange and delicate it was, and what were the barriers which a gust of sympathy had for the moment levelled. It did not enter my mind that they must raise their heads again, and that friendship, or even companionship, must be impossible between the two whom I, desperately seeking some refuge, had thrown together. Yet an endeavour was made, and that on both sides; obligation blunted the edge of Mistress Barbara's scorn, freedom's respect for virtue's chain schooled Nell to an unwonted staidness of demeanour. The fires of war but smouldered, the faintest puff of smoke showing only here and there. I was on the alert to avoid an outbreak; for awhile no outbreak came and my hopes grew to confidence. But then-I can write the thing no other way-that ancient devil of hers made re-entry into the heart of Mistress Gwyn. I was a man, and a man who had loved her; it was then twice intolerable that I should disclaim her dominion, that I should be free, nay, that I should serve another with a sedulous care which might well seem devotion; for the offence touching the guinea was forgotten, my mock drowning well-nigh forgiven, and although Barbara had few words for me, they were such that gratitude and friendship shone in them through the veil of embarrassment. Mistress Nell's shrewd eyes were on us, and she watched while she aided. It was in truth her interest, as she conceived, to carry Barbara safe out of Dover; but there was kindness also in her ample succour; although (ever slave to the sparkle of a gem) she seized with eager gratitude on Louis' jewelled dagger when I offered it as my share of our journey's charges, she gave full return; Barbara was seated in her coach, a good horse was provided for me, her servant found me a sober suit of clothes and a sword. Thus our strange party stole from Dover before the town was awake, Nell obeying the King's command which sent her back to London, and delighting that she could punish him for it by going in our company. I rode behind the coach, bearing myself like a serving-man until we reached open country, when I quickened pace and stationed myself by the window. Up to this time matters had gone well; if they spoke, it was of service given and kindness shown. But as the day wore on and we came near Canterbury the devil began to busy himself. Perhaps I showed some discouragement at the growing coldness of Barbara's manner, and my anxiety to warm her to greater cordiality acted as a spur on our companion. First Nell laughed that my sallies gained small attention and my compliments no return, that Barbara would not talk of our adventures of the day before, but harped always on coming speedily where her father was and so discharging me from my forced service. A merry look declared that if Mistress Quinton would not play the game another would; a fusillade of glances opened, Barbara seeing and feigning not to see, I embarrassed, yet chagrined into some return; there followed words, half-whispered, half-aloud, not sparing in reminiscence of other days and mischievously pointed with tender sentiment. The challenge to my manhood was too tempting, the joy of encounter too sweet. Barbara grew utterly silent, sitting with eyes downcast and lips set in a disapproval that needed no speech for its expression. Bolder and bolder came Nell's advances; when I sought to drop behind she called me up; if I rode ahead she swore she would bid the driver gallop his horses till she came to me again. "I can't be without you, Simon. Ah, 'tis so long since we were together," she whispered, and turned naughty eyes on Barbara.

Yet we might have come through without declared conflict, had not a thing befallen us at Canterbury that brought Nell into fresh temptation, and thereby broke the strained cords of amity. The doings of the King at Dover had set the country in some stir; there was no love of the French, and less of the Pope; men were asking, and pretty loudly, why Madame came; she had been seen in Canterbury, the Duke of York had given a great entertainment there for her. They did not know what I knew, but they were uneasy concerning the King's religion and their own. Yet Nell must needs put her head well out of window as we drove in. I know not whether the sequel were what she desired, it was at least what she seemed not to fear; a fellow caught sight of her and raised a cheer. The news spread quick among the idle folk in the street, and the busy, hearing it, came out of their houses. A few looked askance at our protector, but the larger part, setting their Protestantism above their scruples, greeted her gladly, and made a procession for her, cheering and encouraging her with cries which had more friendliness than delicacy in them. Now indeed I dropped behind and rode beside the mounted servant. The fellow was all agrin, triumphing in his mistress's popularity. Even so she herself exulted in it, and threw all around nods and smiles, ay, and, alas, repartees conceived much in the same spirit as the jests that called them forth. I could have cried on the earth to swallow me, not for my own sake (in itself the scene was entertaining enough, however little it might tend to edification), but on account of Mistress Barbara. Fairly I was afraid to ride forward and see her face, and dreaded to remember that I had brought her to this situation. But Nell laughed and jested, flinging back at me now and again a look that mocked my glum face and declared her keen pleasure in my perplexity and her scorn of Barbara's shame. Where now were the tenderness and sympathy which had made their meeting beautiful? The truce was ended and war raged relentless.

We came to our inn; I leapt from my horse and forestalled the bustling host in opening the coach door. The loons of townsmen and their gossiping wives lined the approach on either side; Nell sprang out, merry, radiant, unashamed; she laughed in my face as she ran past me amid the plaudits; slowly Barbara followed; with a low bow I offered my arm. Alas, there rose a murmur of questions concerning her; who was the lady that rode with Nell Gwyn, who was he that, although plainly attired, bore himself so proudly? Was he some great lord, travelling unknown, and was the lady--? Well, the conjectures may be guessed, and Mistress Quinton heard them. Her pride broke for a moment and I feared she would weep; then she drew herself up and walked slowly by with a haughty air and a calm face, so that the murmured questions fell to silence. Perhaps I also had my share in the change, for I walked after her, wearing a fierce scowl, threatening with my eyes, and having my hand on the hilt of my sword.

The host, elate with the honour of Nell's coming, was eager to offer us accommodation. Barbara addressed not a word either to Nell or to me, but followed a maid to the chamber allotted to her. Nell was in no such haste to hide herself from view. She cried for supper, and was led to a room on the first floor which overlooked the street. She threw the window open, and exchanged more greetings and banter with her admirers below. I flung my hat on the table and sat moodily in a chair. Food was brought, and Nell, turning at last from her entertainment, flew to partake of it with merry eagerness.

"But doesn't Mistress Quinton sup with us?" she said.

Mistress Quinton, it seemed, had no appetite for a meal, was shut close in her own chamber, and refused all service. Nell laughed and bade me fall to. I obeyed, being hungry in spite of my discomfort.

I was resolute not to quarrel with her. She had shewn me great friendliness; nay, and I had a fondness for her, such as I defy any man (man I say, not woman) to have escaped. But she tried me sorely, and while we ate she plied me with new challenges and fresh incitements to anger. I held my temper well in bounds, and, when I was satisfied, rose with a bow, saying that I would go and enquire if I could be of any aid to Mistress Quinton.

"She won't shew herself to you," cried Nell mockingly.

"She will, if you're not with me," I retorted.

"Make the trial! Behold, I'm firmly seated here!"

A maid carried my message while I paced the corridor; the lady's compliments returned to me, but, thanks to the attention of the host, she had need of nothing. I sent again, saying that I desired to speak with her concerning our journey. The lady's excuses returned to me; she had a headache and had sought her bed; she must pray me to defer my business till the morrow, and wished Mistress Gwyn and me good-night. The maid tripped off smiling.

"Plague on her!" I cried angrily and loudly. A laugh greeted the exclamation, and I turned to see Nell standing in the doorway of the room where we had supped.

"I knew, I knew!" she cried, revelling in her triumph, her eyes dancing in delight. "Poor Simon! Alas, poor Simon, you know little of women! But come, you're a brave lad, and I'll comfort you. Besides you have given me a jewelled dagger. Shall I lend it to you again, to plunge in your heart, poor Simon?"

"I don't understand you. I have no need of a dagger," I answered stiffly; yet, feeling a fool there in the passage, I followed her into the room.

"Your heart is pierced already?" she asked. "Ah, but your heart heals well! I'll spend no pity on you."

There was now a new tone in her voice. Her eyes still sparkled in mischievous exultation that she had proved right and I come away sore and baffled. But when she spoke of the healing of my heart, there was an echo of sadness; the hinting of some smothered sorrow seemed to be struggling with her mirth. She was a creature all compounded of sudden changing moods; I did not know when they were true, when feigned in sport or to further some device. She came near now and bent over my chair, saying gently,

"Alas, I'm very wicked! I couldn't help the folk cheering me, Simon. Surely it was no fault of mine?"

"You had no need to look out of the window of the coach," said I sternly.

"But I did that with never a thought. I wanted the air. I--"

"Nor to jest and banter. It was mighty unseemly, I swear."

"In truth I was wrong to jest with them," said Nell remorsefully. "And within, Simon, my heart was aching with shame, even while I jested. Ah, you don't know the shame I feel!"

"In good truth," I returned, "I believe you feel no shame at all."

"You're very cruel to me, Simon. Yet it's no more than my desert. Ah, if--"; she sighed heavily. "If only, Simon--," she said, and her hand was very near my hair by the back of the chair. "But that's past praying," she ended, sighing again most woefully. "Yet I have been of some service to you."

"I

thank you for it most heartily," said I, still stiff and cold.

"And I was very wrong to-day. Simon, it was on her account."

"What?" I cried. "Did Mistress Quinton bid you put your head out and jest with the fellows on the pavement?"

"She did not bid me; but I did it because she was there."

I looked up at her; it was a rare thing with her, but she would not meet my glance. I looked down again.

"It was always the same between her and me," murmured Nell. "Ay, so long ago-even at Hatchstead."

"We're not in Hatchstead now," said I roughly.

"No, nor even in Chelsea. For even in Chelsea you had a kindness for me."

"I have much kindness for you now."

"Well, then you had more."

"It is in your knowledge why now I have no more."

"Yes, it's in my knowledge!" she cried. "Yet I carried Mistress Quinton from Dover."

I made no answer to that. She sighed "Heigho," and for a moment there was silence. But messages pass without words, and there are speechless Mercuries who carry tidings from heart to heart. Then the air is full of whisperings, and silence is but foil to a thousand sounds which the soul hears though the dull corporeal ear be deaf. Did she still amuse herself, or was there more? Sometimes a part, assumed in play or malice, so grows on the actor that he cannot, even when he would, throw aside his trappings and wash from his face the paint which was to show the passion that he played. The thing takes hold and will not be thrown aside; it seems to seek revenge for the light assumption and punishes the bravado that feigned without feeling by a feeling which is not feint. She was now, for the moment if you will, but yet now, in earnest. Some wave of recollection or of fancy had come over her and transformed her jest. She stole round till her face peeped into mine in piteous bewitching entreaty, asking a sign of fondness, bringing back the past, raising the dead from my heart's sepulchre. There was a throbbing in my brain; yet I had need of a cool head. With a spring I was on my feet.

"I'll go and ask if Mistress Barbara sleeps," I stammered. "I fear she may not be well attended."

"You'll go again? Once scorned, you'll go again, Simon? Well, the maid will smile; they'll make a story of it among themselves at their supper in the kitchen."

The laugh of a parcel of knaves and wenches! Surely it is a small thing! But men will face death smiling who run wry-faced from such ridicule. I sank in my chair again. But in truth did I desire to go? The dead rise, or at least there is a voice that speaks from the tomb. A man tarries to listen. Well if he be not lost in listening!

With a sigh Nell moved across the room and flung the window open. The loiterers were gone, all was still, only the stars looked in, only the sweet scent of the night made a new companion.

"It's like a night at Hatchstead," she whispered. "Do you remember how we walked there together? It smelt as it smells to-night. It's so long ago!" She came quickly towards me and asked "Do you hate me now?" but did not wait for the answer. She threw herself in a chair near me and fixed her eyes on me. It was strange to see her face grave and wrung with agitation; yet she was better thus, the new timidity became her marvellously.

There was a great clock in the corner of the old panelled room; it ticked solemnly, seeming to keep time with the beating of my heart. I had no desire to move, but sat there waiting; yet every nerve of my body was astir. Now I watched her every movement, took reckoning of every feature, seemed to read more than her outward visage showed and to gain knowledge of her heart. I knew that she tempted me, and why. I was not a fool, to think that she loved me; but she was set to conquer me, and with her there was no price that seemed high when the prize was victory or a whim's fulfilment.

I would have written none of this, but that it is so part and marrow of my history that without it the record of my life would go limping on one leg.

She rose and came near me again. Now she laughed, yet still not lightly, but as though she hid a graver mood.

"Come," said she, "you needn't fear to be civil to me. Mistress Barbara is not here."

The taunt was well conceived; for the most part there is no incitement that more whips a man to any madness than to lay self-control to the score of cowardice, and tell him that his scruples are not his own, but worn by command of another and on pain of her displeasure. But sometimes woman's cunning goes astray, and a name, used in mockery, speaks for itself with strong attraction, as though it held the charm of her it stands for. The name, falling from Nell's pouting lips, had power to raise in me a picture, and the picture spread, like a very painting done on canvas, a screen between me and the alluring eyes that sought mine in provoking witchery. She did not know her word's work, and laughed again to see me grow yet more grave at Barbara's name.

"The stern mistress is away," she whispered. "May we not sport? The door is shut! Why, Simon, you're dull. In truth you're as dull as the King when his purse is empty."

I raised my eyes to hers, she read the thought. She tossed her head, flinging the brown curls back; her eyes twinkled merrily, and she said in a soft whisper half-smothered in a rising laugh,

"But, Simon, the King also is away."

I owed nothing to the King and thought nothing of the King. It was not there I stuck. Nay, and I did not stick on any score of conscience. Yet stick I did, and gazed at her with a dumb stare. She seemed to fall into a sudden rage, crying,

"Go to her then if you will, but she won't have you. Would you like to know what she called you to-day in the coach?"

"I would hear nothing that was not for my ears."

"A very pretty excuse; but in truth you fear to hear it."

Alas, the truth was even as she said. I feared to hear it.

"But you shall hear it. 'A good honest fellow,' she said, 'but somewhat forward for his station.' So she said, and leant back with half-closed lids. You know the trick these great ladies have? By Heaven, though, I think she wronged you! For I'll swear on my Bible that you're not forward, Simon. Well, I'm not Mistress Quinton."

"You are not," said I, sore and angry, and wishing to wound her in revenge for the blow she had dealt me.

"Now you're gruff with me for what she said. It's a man's way. I care not. Go and sigh outside her door; she won't open it to you."

She drew near to me again, coaxing and seeking to soften me.

"I took your part," she whispered, "and declared that you were a fine gentleman. Nay, I told her how once I had come near to-Well, I told her many things that it should please you to hear. But she grew mighty short with me, and on the top came the folk with their cheers. Hence my lady's in a rage."

She shrugged her shoulders; I sat there sullen. The scornful words were whirling through my brain. "Somewhat forward for his station!" It was a hard judgment on one who had striven to serve her. In what had I shewn presumption? Had she not professed to forgive all offence? She kept the truth for others, and it came out when my back was turned.

"Poor Simon!" said Nell softly. "Indeed I wonder any lady should speak so of you. It's an evil return for your kindness to her."

Silence fell on us for awhile. Nell was by me now, her hand rested lightly on my shoulder, and, looking up, I saw her eyes on my face in mingled pensiveness and challenge.

"Indeed you are not forward," she murmured with a little laugh, and set one hand over her eyes.

I sat and looked at her; yet, though I seemed to look at her only, the whole of the room with its furnishings is stamped clear and clean on my memory. Nell moved a little away and stood facing me.

"It grows late," she said softly, "and we must be early on the road. I'll bid you good-night, and go to my bed."

She came to me, holding out her hand; I did not take it, but she laid it for a moment on mine. Then she drew it away and moved towards the door. I rose and followed her.

"I'll see you safe on your way," said I in a low voice. She met my gaze for a moment, but made no answer in words. We were in the corridor now, and she led the way. Once she turned her head and again looked at me. It was a sullen face she saw, but still I followed.

"Tread lightly!" she whispered. "There's her door; we pass it, and she would not love to know that you escorted me. She scorns you herself, and yet when another--" The sentence went unended.

In a tumult of feeling still I followed. I was half-mad with resentment against Barbara; swearing to myself that her scorn was nothing to me, I shrank from nothing to prove to my own mind the lie that my heart would not receive.

"The door!" whispered Nell, going delicately on her toes with uplifted forefinger.

I cannot tell why, but at the word I came to a stand. Nell, looking over her shoulder and seeing me stand, turned to front me. She smiled merrily, then frowned, then smiled again with raised eye-brows. I stood there, as though pinned to the spot. For now I had heard a sound from within. It came very softly. There was a stir as of someone moving, then a line of some soft sad song, falling in careless half-consciousness from saddened lips. The sound fell clear and plain on my ears, though I paid no heed to the words and have them not in my memory; I think that in them a maid spoke to her lover who left her, but I am not sure. I listened. The snatch died away, and the movement in the room ceased. All was still again, and Nell's eyes were fixed on mine. I met them squarely, and thus for awhile we stood. Then came the unspoken question, cried from the eyes that were on mine in a thousand tones. I could trace the play of her face but dimly by the light of the smoky lantern, but her eyes I seemed to see bright and near. I had looked for scorn there, and, it might be, amusement. I seemed to see (perhaps the imperfect light played tricks), besides lure and raillery, reproach, sorrow, and, most strange of all, a sort of envy. Then came a smile, and ever so lightly her finger moved in beckoning. The song came no more through the closed door: my ears were empty of it, but not my heart; there it sounded still in its soft pleading cadence. Poor maid, whose lover left her! Poor maid, poor maid! I looked full at Nell, but did not move. The lids dropped over her eyes, and their lights went out. She turned and walked slowly and alone along the corridor. I watched her going, yes, wistfully I watched. But I did not follow, for the snatch of song rose in my heart. There was a door at the end of the passage; she opened it and passed through. For a moment it stood open, then a hand stole back and slowly drew it close. It was shut. The click of the lock rang loud and sharp through the silent house.

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