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   Chapter 21 THE STRANGE CONJUNCTURE OF TWO GENTLEMEN

Simon Dale By Anthony Hope Characters: 22743

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


I have heard it said that King Charles laughed most heartily when he learnt how a certain gentleman had tricked M. de Perrencourt and carried off from his clutches the lady who should have gone to prepare for the Duchess of York's visit to the Court of France. "This Uriah will not be set in the forefront of the battle," said he, "and therefore David can't have his way." He would have laughed, I think, even although my action had thwarted his own schemes, but the truth is that he had so wrought on that same devotion to her religion which, according to Mistress Nell, inspired Mlle. de Quérouaille that by the time the news came from Calais he had little doubt of success for himself although his friend M. de Perrencourt had been baffled. He had made his treaty, he had got his money, and the lady, if she would not stay, yet promised to return. The King then was well content, and found perhaps some sly satisfaction in the defeat of the great Prince whose majesty and dignity made any reverse which befell him an amusement to less potent persons. In any case the King laughed, then grew grave for a moment while he declared that his best efforts should not be wanting to reclaim Mistress Quinton to a sense of her duty, and then laughed again. Yet he set about reclaiming her, although with no great energy or fierceness; and when he heard that Monmouth had other views of the lady's duty, he shrugged his shoulders, saying, "Nay, if there be two Davids, I'll wager a crown on Uriah."

It is easy to follow a man to the door of a house, but if the door be shut after him and the pursuer not invited to enter, he can but stay outside. So it fell out with me, and being outside I did not know what passed within nor how my Lord Carford fared with Mistress Barbara. I flung myself in deep chagrin on the grass of the Manor Park, cursing my fate, myself, and if not Barbara, yet that perversity which was in all women and, by logic, even in Mistress Barbara. But although I had no part in it, the play went on and how it proceeded I learnt afterwards; let me now leave the stage that I have held too long and pass out of sight till my cue calls me again.

This evening then, my lady, who was very sick, being in her bed, and Mistress Barbara, although not sick, very weary of her solitude and longing for the time when she could betake herself to the same refuge (for there is a pride that forbids us to seek bed too early, however strongly we desire it) there came a great knocking at the door of the house. A gentleman on horseback and accompanied by two servants was without and craved immediate audience of her ladyship. Hearing that she was abed, he asked for Mistress Barbara and obtained entrance; yet he would not give his name, but declared that he came on urgent business from Lord Quinton. The excuse served, and Barbara received him. With surprise she found Carford bowing low before her. I had told her enough concerning him to prevent her welcome being warm. I would have told her more, had she afforded me the opportunity. The imperfect knowledge that she had caused her to accuse him rather of a timidity in face of powerful rivals than of any deliberate design to set his love below his ambition and to use her as his tool. Had she known all I knew she would not have listened to him. Even now she made some pretext for declining conversation that night and would have withdrawn at once; but he stayed her retreat, earnestly praying her for her father's sake and her own to hear his message, and asserting that she was in more danger than she was aware of. Thus he persuaded her to be seated.

"What is your message from my father, my lord?" she asked coldly, but not uncivilly.

"Madame, I have none," he answered with a bluntness not ill calculated. "I used the excuse to gain admission, fearing that my own devotion to you would not suffice, well as you know it. But although I have no message, I think that you will have one soon. Nay, you must listen." For she had risen.

"I listen, my lord, but I will listen standing."

"You're hard to me, Mistress Barbara," he said. "But take the tidings how you will; only pay heed to them." He drew nearer to her and continued, "To-morrow a message will come from your father. You have had none for many days?"

"Alas, no," said she. "We were both on the road and could send no letter to one another."

"To-morrow one comes. May I tell you what it will say?"

"How can you know what it will say, my lord?"

"I will stand by the event," said he sturdily. "The coming of the letter will prove me right or wrong. It will bid your mother and you accompany the messenger--"

"My mother cannot--"

"Or, if your mother cannot, you alone, with some waiting-woman, to Dover."

"To Dover?" cried Barbara. "For what purpose?" She shrank away from him, as though alarmed by the very name of the place whence she had escaped.

He looked full in her face and answered slowly and significantly:

"Madame goes back to France, and you are to go with her."

Barbara caught at a chair near her and sank into it. He stood over her now, speaking quickly and urgently.

"You must listen," he said, "and lose no time in acting. A French gentleman, by name M. de Fontelles, will be here to-morrow; he carries your father's letter and is sent to bring you to Dover."

"My father bids me come?" she cried.

"His letter will convey the request," answered Carford.

"Then I will go," said she. "I can't come to harm with him, and when I have told him all, he won't allow me to go to France." For as yet my lord did not know of what had befallen his daughter, nor did my lady, whose sickness made her unfit to be burdened with such troublesome matters.

"Indeed you would come to no harm with your father, if you found your father," said Carford. "Come, I will tell you. Before you reach Dover my lord will have gone from there. As soon as his letter to you was sent the King made a pretext to despatch him into Cornwall; he wrote again to tell you of his journey and bid you not come to Dover till he sends for you. This letter he entrusted to a messenger of my Lord Arlington's who was taking the road for London. But the Secretary's messengers know when to hasten and when to loiter on the way. You are to have set out before the letter arrives."

Barbara looked at him in bewilderment and terror; he was to all seeming composed and spoke with an air of honest sincerity.

"To speak plainly, it is a trick," he said, "to induce you to return to Dover. This M. de Fontelles has orders to bring you at all hazards, and is armed with the King's authority in case my lord's bidding should not be enough."

She sat for a while in helpless dismay. Carford had the wisdom not to interrupt her thoughts; he knew that she was seeking for a plan of escape and was willing to let her find that there was none.

"When do you say that M. de Fontelles will be here?" she asked at last.

"Late to-night or early to-morrow. He rested a few hours in London, while I rode through, else I shouldn't have been here before him."

"And why are you come, my lord?" she asked.

"To serve you, madame," he answered simply.

She drew herself up, saying haughtily,

"You were not so ready to serve me at Dover."

Carford was not disconcerted by an attack that he must have foreseen; he had the parry ready for the thrust.

"From the danger that I knew I guarded you, the other I did not know." Then with a burst of well-feigned indignation he cried, "By Heaven, but for me the French King would have been no peril to you; he would have come too late."

She understood him and flushed painfully.

"When the enemy is mighty," he pursued, "we must fight by guile, not force; when we can't oppose we must delay; we must check where we can't stop. You know my meaning: to you I couldn't put it more plainly. But now I have spoken plainly to the Duke of Monmouth, praying something from him in my own name as well as yours. He is a noble Prince, madame, and his offence should be pardoned by you who caused it. Had I thwarted him openly, he would have been my enemy and yours. Now he is your friend and mine."

The defence was clever enough to bridle her indignation. He followed up his advantage swiftly, leaving her no time to pry for a weak spot in his pleading.

"By Heaven," he cried, "let us lose no time on past troubles. I was to blame, if you will, in execution, though not, I swear, in intention. But here and now is the danger, and I am come to guard you from it."

"Then I am much in your debt, my lord," said she, still doubtful, yet in her trouble eager to believe him honest.

"Nay," said he, "all that I have, madame, is yours, and you can't be in debt to your slave."

I do not doubt that in this speech his passion seemed real enough, and was the more effective from having been suppressed till now, so that it appeared to break forth against his will. Indeed although he was a man in whom ambition held place of love, yet he loved her and would have made her his for passion's sake as well as for the power that he hoped to wield through her means. I hesitate how to judge him; there are many men who take their colour from the times, as some insects from the plants they feed on; in honest times they would be honest, in debauched they follow the evil fashion, having no force to stand by themselves. Perhaps this lord was one of this kidney.

"It's an old story, this love of mine," said he in gentler tones. "Twice you have heard it, and a lover who speaks twice must mourn once at least; yet the second time I think you came nearer to heeding it. May I tell it once again?"

"Indeed it is not the time--" she began in an agitated voice.

"Be your answer what it may, I am your servant," he protested. "My hand and heart are yours, although yours be another's."

"There is none-I am free-" she murmured. His eyes were on her and she nerved herself to calm, saying, "There is nothing of what you suppose. But my disposition towards you, my lord, has not changed."

He let a moment go by before he answered her; he made it seem as though emotion forbade earlier speech. Then he said gravely,

"I am grieved from my heart to hear it, and I pray Heaven that an early day may bring me another answer. God forbid that I should press your inclination now. You may accept my service freely, although you do not accept my love. Mistress Barbara, you'll come with me?"

"Come with you?" she cried.

"My lady will come also, and we three together will seek your father in Cornwall. On my faith, madame, there is no safety but in flight."

"My mother lies too sick for travelling. Didn't you hear it from my father?"

"I haven't seen my lord. My knowledge of his letter came through the Duke of Monmouth, and although he spoke there of my lady's sickness, I trusted that she had recovered."

"My mother cannot travel. It is impossible."

He came a step nearer her.

"Fontelles will be here to-morrow," he said. "If you are here then--! Yet if there be any other whose aid you could seek--?" Again he paused, regarding her intently.

She sat in sore distress, twisting her hands in her lap. One there was, and not far away. Yet to send for him crossed her resolution and stung her pride most sorely. We had parted in anger, she and I; I had blamed my

share in the quarrel bitterly enough, it is likely she had spared herself no more; yet the more fault is felt the harder comes its acknowledgment.

"Is Mr Dale in Hatchstead?" asked Carford boldly and bluntly.

"I don't know where he is. He brought me here, but I have heard nothing from him since we parted."

"Then surely he is gone again?"

"I don't know," said Barbara.

Carford must have been a dull man indeed not to discern how the matter lay. There is no better time to press a lady than when she is chagrined with a rival and all her pride is under arms to fight her inclination.

"Surely, or he could not have shewn you such indifference-nay, I must call it discourtesy."

"He did me service."

"A gentleman, madame, should grow more, not less, assiduous when he is so happy as to have put a lady under obligation."

He had said enough, and restrained himself from a further attack.

"What will you do?" he went on.

"Alas, what can I do?" Then she cried, "This M. de Fontelles can't carry me off against my will."

"He has the King's commands," said Carford. "Who will resist him?"

She sprang to her feet and turned on him quickly.

"Why you," she said. "Alone with you I cannot and will not go. But you are my-you are ready to serve me. You will resist M. de Fontelles for my sake, ay, and for my sake the King's commands."

Carford stood still, amazed at the sudden change in her manner. He had not conceived this demand and it suited him very ill. The stroke was too bold for his temper; the King was interested in this affair, and it might go hard with the man who upset his plan and openly resisted his messenger. Carford had calculated on being able to carry her off, and thus defeat the scheme under show of ignorance. The thing done, and done unwittingly, might gain pardon; to meet and defy the enemy face to face was to stake all his fortune on a desperate chance. He was dumb. Barbara's lips curved into a smile that expressed wonder and dawning contempt.

"You hesitate, sir?" she asked.

"The danger is great," he muttered.

"You spoke of discourtesy just now, my lord--"

"You do not lay it to my charge?"

"Nay, to refuse to face danger for a lady, and a lady whom a man loves-you meant that, my lord?-goes by another name. I forgive discourtesy sooner than that other thing, my lord."

His face grew white with passion. She accused him of cowardice and plainly hinted to him that, if he failed her, she would turn to one who was no coward, let him be as discourteous and indifferent as his sullen disposition made him. I am sorry I was not there to see Carford's face. But he was in the net of her challenge now, and a bold front alone would serve.

"By God, madame," he cried, "you shall know by to-morrow how deeply you wrong me. If my head must answer for it, you shall have the proof."

"I thank you, my lord," said she with a little bow, as though she asked no more than her due in demanding that he should risk his head for her. "I did not doubt your answer."

"You shall have no cause, madame," said he very boldly, although he could not control the signs of his uneasiness.

"Again I thank you," said she. "It grows late, my lord. By your kindness, I shall sleep peacefully and without fear. Good-night." She moved towards the door, but turned to him again, saying, "I pray your pardon, but even hospitality must give way to sickness. I cannot entertain you suitably while my mother lies abed. If you lodge at the inn, they will treat you well for my father's sake, and a message from me can reach you easily."

Carford had strung himself to give the promise; whether he would fulfil it or not lay uncertain in the future. But for so much as he had done he had a mind to be paid. He came to her, and, kneeling, took her hand; she suffered him to kiss it.

"There is nothing I wouldn't do to win my prize," he said, fixing his eyes ardently on her face.

"I have asked nothing but what you seemed to offer," she answered coldly. "If it be a matter of bargain, my lord--"

"No, no," he cried, seeking to catch again at her hand as she drew it away and with a curtsey passed out.

Thus she left him without so much as a backward glance to presage future favour. So may a lady, if she plays her game well, take all and promise nothing.

Carford, refused even a lodging in the house, crossed in the plan by which he had reckoned on getting Barbara into his power, driven to an enterprise for which he had small liking, and left in utter doubt whether the success for which he ran so great a risk would profit him, may well have sought the inn to which Barbara commended him in no cheerful mood. I wager he swore a round oath or two as he and his servants made their way thither through the dark and knocked up the host, who, keeping country hours, was already in his bed. It cost them some minutes to rouse him, and Carford beat most angrily on the door. At last they were admitted. And I turned away.

For I must confess it; I had dogged their steps, not able to rest till I saw what would become of Carford. Yet we must give love his due; if he takes a man into strange places, sometimes he shows him things worth his knowing. If I, a lovesick fool, had watched a rival into my mistress's house and watched him out of it with devouring jealousy, ay, if I had chosen to spend my time beneath the Manor windows rather than in my own comfortable chair, why, I had done only what many who are now wise and sober gentleman have done in their time. And if once in that same park I had declared my heart broken for the sake of another lady, there are revolutions in hearts as in states, and, after the rebels have had their day, the King comes to his own again. Nay, I have known some who were very loyal to King Charles, and yet said nothing hard of Oliver, whose yoke they once had worn. I will say nought against my usurper, although the Queen may have come to her own again.

Well, Carford should not have her. I, Simon Dale, might be the greatest fool in the King's dominions, and lie sulking while another stormed the citadel on which I longed to plant my flag. But the victor should not be Carford. Among gentlemen a quarrel is easily come by; yokels may mouth their blowsy sweetheart's name and fight openly for her favour over their mugs of ale; we quarrel on the state of the Kingdom, the fall of the cards, the cut of our coats, what you will. Carford and I would find a cause without much searching. I was so hot that I was within an ace of summoning him then and there to show by what right he rode so boldly through my native village; that offence would serve as well as any other. Yet prudence prevailed. The closed doors of the inn hid the party from my sight, and I went on my way, determined to be about by cockcrow, lest Carford should steal a march.

But as I went I passed the Vicar's door. He stood on the threshold, smoking his long pipe (the good man loved Virginia and gave his love free rein in the evening) and gazing at the sky. I tried to slink by him, fearing to be questioned; he caught sight of my figure and called me to him; but he made no reference to the manner of our last parting.

"Whither away, Simon?" he asked.

"To bed, sir," said I.

"It is well," said he. "And whence?"

"From a walk, sir."

His eyes met mine, and I saw them twinkle. He waved the stem of his pipe in the air, and said,

"Love, Simon, is a divine distemper of the mind, wherein it paints bliss with woe's palate and sees heaven from hell."

"You borrow from the poets, sir," said I surlily.

"Nay," he rejoined, "the poets from me, or from any man who has or has had a heart in him. What, Simon, you leave me?" For I had turned away.

"It's late, sir," said I, "for the making of rhapsodies."

"You've made yours," he smiled. "Hark, what's that?"

As he spoke there came the sound of horse's hoofs. A moment later the figures of two mounted men emerged from the darkness. By some impulse, I know not what, I ran behind the Vicar and sheltered myself in the porch at his back. Carford's arrival had set my mind astir again, and new events found ready welcome. The Vicar stepped out a pace into the road with his hand over his eyes, and peered at the strangers.

"What do you call this place, sir?" came in a loud voice from the nearer of the riders. I started at the voice; it had struck on my ears before, and no Englishman owned it.

"It is the village of Hatchstead, at your service," answered the Vicar.

"Is there an inn in it?"

"Ride for half a mile and you'll find a good one."

"I thank you, sir."

I could hold myself in no longer, but pushed the Vicar aside and ran out into the road. The horsemen had already turned their faces towards the inn, and walked along slowly, as though they were weary. "Good-night," cried the Vicar-whether to them or to me or to all creation I know not. The door closed on him. I stood for an instant, watching the retreating form of the man who had enquired the way. A spirit of high excitement came on me; it might be that all was not finished, and that Betty Nasroth's prophecy should not bind the future in fetters. For there at the inn was Carford, and here, if I did not err, was the man whom my knowledge of French had so perplexed in the inn at Canterbury.

And Carford knew Fontelles. On what errand did they come? Were they friends to one another or foes? If friends, they should find an enemy; if foes, there was another to share their battle. I could not tell the meaning of this strange conjuncture whereby the two came to Hatchstead; yet my guess was not far out, and I hailed the prospect that it gave with a fierce exultation. Nay I laughed aloud, but first knew that I laughed when suddenly M. de Fontelles turned in his saddle, crying in French to his servant:

"What was that?"

"Something laughed," answered the fellow in an alarmed voice.

"Something? You mean somebody."

"I know not, it sounded strange."

I had stepped in under the hedge when Fontelles turned, but his puzzle and the servant's superstitious fear wrought on my excitement. Nothing would serve me but to play a jest on the Frenchman. I laughed again loudly.

"God save us!" cried the servant, and I make no doubt he crossed himself most piously.

"It's some madman got loose," said M. de Fontelles scornfully. "Come, let's get on."

It was a boy's trick-a very boy's trick. Save that I set down everything I would not tell it. I put my hands to my mouth and bellowed:

"Il vient!"

An oath broke from Fontelles. I darted into the middle of the road and for a moment stood there laughing again. He had wheeled his horse round, but did not advance towards me. I take it that he was amazed, or, it may be, searching a bewildered memory.

"Il vient!" I cried again in my folly, and, turning, ran down the road at my best speed, laughing still. Fontelles made no effort to follow me, yet on I ran, till I came to my mother's house. Stopping there, panting and breathless, I cried in the exuberance of triumph:

"Now she'll have need of me!"

Certainly the thing the Vicar spoke of is a distemper. Whether divine or of what origin I will not have judged by that night's prank of mine.

"They'll do very well together at the inn," I laughed, as I flung myself on my bed.

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