THE BORDER EAGLE.
It was a summer day late in the year in the wild moorland of the old Border.
An amber light was on the lochs, a soft mist on field and fell; the salmon-waters were leaping down from rock to rock, or boiling in the deep black pools beneath the birches; the deer were herding in the glens and wooded dips that sheltered under the Cheviot range, here, in the debatable land between the northern country and the Southrons, where Bothwell had swept with his mad Moss troopers, ere the Warden of the Marches let passion run riot for his fair White Queen, and where Belted Will's Tower still rose above its oaks, as when the bugle blast of the Howard sounded from its turrets, and the archers were marshalled against a night-raid of the Scots. On the distant seas, which once had been dark with the galleys of Norse pirates, nothing now was in sight but a fisher-boat in the offing; on the heather-moors, which had once echoed with the beat of horses' hoofs, as Douglas or Percy had scoured through the gorse for a dashing Border fray, or a Hotspur piece of derring-do, there was only now to be heard the flap of a wild-duck's wing as the flocks rose among the sedges; and the sole monarch of earth or sky was a solitary golden eagle soaring upward to the sun.
With a single swoop the bird had come down from his eyrie among the rocks, as though he were about to drop earthward; then, lifting his head, he spread his pinions in the wind that was blowing strong and fresh from Scotland through the heat of the August day, and sailed upward gloriously with slow majestic motion through the light. Far below him lay the white-crested waves gleaming far off, the purple stretch of the dark moors and marshes, the black still tarns, the rounded masses of the woods; higher and higher, leaving earth beneath him, he rose in his royal grandeur, fronting the sun, and soaring onward, and upward, against the blue skies and the snowy piles of clouds, rejoicing in his solitude, and kingly in his strength.
With his broad wings spread in the sun-gleam, he swept through the silent air, his eyes looking at the luminance which blinds the eyes of men, his empire taken in the vastness of the space that monarchs cannot gauge, and his plumes stretched in all the glory of his god-like freedom, his unchained liberty of life. Far beneath him, deep down among the tangled mass of heather and brown moor grasses, glistened the lean cruel steel of a barrel, like the shine of a snake's back, pointing upward, while the eagle winged his way aloft; there, in his proud kingship with the sun, how could he note or know the steel tube, scarce larger, from his altitude, than a needle's length, of his foe, hidden deep among the gorse and reeds? The sovereign bird rose higher and higher still, in stately flight. One sharp sullen report rang through the silence; a single grey puff of smoke curled up from the heather; a death-cry echoed on the air, quivering with a human agony; the eagle wheeled once round, a dizzy circle in the summer light, then dropped down through the sunny air—stricken and dead.
Was it more murder when Cæsar fell?
The assassin rose from where he had knelt on one knee among the gorse, while his retriever started the wild-fowl up from the sedges of a pool, and strode through bracken and heath to the spot where his science had brought down the eagle, at a distance, and with an aim, which marked him as one of the first shots in Europe. A hundred yards brought him to the place where his quarry had fallen, and he thrust the heather aside with impatient movement; he was keen in sport as a Shikari, and he had looked for no rarer game to-day than the blackcocks or the snipes, or at very best a heron from the marshes.
On the moor the King-bird lay, the pinions broken and powerless, the breast-feathers wet and bathed in blood, the piercing eyes, which loved the sun, blind and glazed with him; the life, a moment before strong, fearless, and rejoicing in the light, was gone. A feeling, new and strange, came on his slayer, as he stood there in the stillness of the solitary moor, alone with the dead eagle lying at his feet. He paused, and leaned on his rifle, looking downward:
"God forgive me. I have taken a life better than my own!"
The words were involuntary, and unlike enough to one whose superb shot had become noted from the jungles of Northern India to the ice-plains of Norway; from the bear-haunts of the Danube to the tropic forests of the Amazons. But he stood looking down on the mighty bird, while the red blood welled through the blossoming furze, with something that was almost remorse. It looked strangely like slaughter, in the still golden gleam of the summer day.
If you wonder at it, wait until you see an eagle die on a solitary moorland that was his kingdom by right divine, with all the glorious liberty of life.
The skill which you would have challenged the first marksmen in Europe to have beaten, will look, for a second at least, oddly base, and treacherous, and cowardly, when the Lord of the Air lies, like carrion, at your feet.
Knee-deep in the purple heather, the destroyer leant on his gun, alone on the Scotch side of the Border, with the sea flashing like a line of silver light on his left, and the bold sweep of the Cheviot Hills fronting him. The golden eagle had fallen by no unworthy foe; he was a man of very lofty stature, and of powerful build and sinew, his muscles close knit, and his frame like steel, as became one who was in hard condition from year's end to year's end. His complexion was a clear bronze, almost as dark as an Arab’s, though originally it had been fair enough; his black sweeping moustaches and beard were long, thick, and silken; his eyes, large, and very thoughtful, the hue of the eagle's he had shot. His features were bold, proud, and frank, while his bearing had the distinction of blood, with the dash of a soldier, the reposeful stateliness of the old régime, with the alert keenness of a man used to rapid action, clear decision, coolness under danger, and the wiles of the world in all its ways. Standing solitary there on the brown heath, his form rose tall and martial enough for one of the night riders of Liddesdale, or the Knight of Snowdon himself, against the purple haze and amber light.
In the days of Chevy Chase and Flodden Fieid his race had been the proudest of the nobles on the Border-side, their massive keep reared in face of the Cheviots, the lands their own, over miles of rock, and gorse, and forest, lords of all the Marches stretching to the sea. Now all that belonged to him was that wild barren moorland, which gave nothing but the blackcock and the ptarmigan which bred in their wastes; and a hunting-lodge, half in ruins, to the westward, buried under hawthorn, birch, and ivy, a roost for owls and a paradise for painters.
"A splendid shot, Erceldoune; I congratulate you!" said a voice behind him.
The slayer of the golden eagle turned in surprise; the moors, all barren and profitless though they were, were his, and were rarely trodden by any step except his own.
"Ah! your Grace? Good day. How does the Border come to be honoured by a visit from you?"
"Lost my way!" responded his Grace of Glencairne, an inveterate sportsman and a hearty, florid, stalwart man of sixty, clad in a Scotch plaid suit, and looking like a well-to-do North-country farmer. "We're staying with Fitzallayne, and came out after the black game; lost all the rest somehow, and know no more where we are than if we were at the North Pole. You're a godsend. Let me introduce my friends to you; Sir Fulke Erceldoune—Lord Polemore—Mr. Victor Vane."
The beggared gentleman raised his bonnet to the Duke's friends with much such frank soldier-like courtesy as that with which the Border lords, whose blood was in his veins, received Chatelherault and Hamilton in the wild free days of old.
"Shot an eagle, Erceldoune? By George! what a bird," cried the Duke, gazing down amazed and admiring on the murdered monarch.
"I envy you, indeed!" said his companion whom he had named as Victor Vane. "I have shot most things—men, and other birds of prey—but I never killed an eagle, not even in the Hartz or the Engadine."
Erceldoune glanced at him.
"They are rare, and when they do appear we shoot them to ensure their scarcity! Perhaps the eagle you would wish to kill is the eagle with two heads? What sport have yon had, Duke?"
Very bad! Birds wild as the —— But, God bless my soul, your bag's full! I say, we're nearly famished; can't you let us have something to eat at your place yonder?"
"With pleasure, sir, if your Grace can honour an owls' roost, and put up with a plain meal of cold game," said Erceldoune, as he thrust the dead king, with all his pomp of plumage torn and blood-stained, into his bag with the blackcocks, ptarmigan, wild-duck, and snipes.
"My dear fellow! I'll thank you for a crust; I'm literally starving," cried the nobleman, who was pining so wearily for his luncheon that the words "cold game" sounded to him like paradise. "And, by-the-way, if you've any of your father's Madeira left, you might feast an emperor; there wasn't such a wine connoisseur in Europe as Regency Erceldoune."
A shadow swept over the face of the golden eagle's foe as he whistled his dogs, and led the way for his guests over the moor, talking with the Duke. Vane caught the look, and smiled to himself; he thought it was because the ruined gentleman shrank from taking them to his beggered home and his unluxurious table; he erred for once. Such a petty pride was wholly impossible to the bold Border blood of Erceldoune; he would have taken them to a garret quite as cordially as to a mansion; he would have given them, Arab-like, the half of all he had with frank hospitality if that all had been only an oaten cake, and would never have done himself such mean dishonour as to measure his worth by the weight of his plate, the number of his wines, or the costliness of his soups.
True, the world, he knew well enough, only appraised men by the wealth that was in their pockets; but the world's dictum was not his deity, and with its social heart-burnings his own wandering, athletic, adventurous, and hardy life had never had much to do. He loved the saddle better than the drawing rooms, and mountain and moorland better than the lust of fame or gold.
It was not more than half a mile to the King's Rest, as the sole relic of the feudal glories of the Border lords was named, from an old tradition dating back to one of Malcolm of Scotland's hunting raids; the place would have maddened an architect or a lover of new stucco, but it would have enraptured an archæologist or an artist. One half of it was in ruins-a mass of ivy and grey crumbling stone; the other half was of all styles of architecture, from the round quaint tower of earliest date, to the fantastic, peaked, and oriel window'd Elizabethan. Birds made their nests in most of the chimneys, holly and hawthorn grew out of the clefts in the walls, the terraces were moss-grown, and the escutcheon above the gateway was lost in a profusion of scarlet-leaved creepers. But there were a picturesqueness, a charm, a lingering grandeur it had still; it spoke of a dead race, and it had poems in every ruin, with the sun on its blazoned casements, and the herons keeping guard by its deserted weed-grown moat.
"God bless my soul! How the place has gone to rack and ruin since I was here twenty years ago!" cried the Duke, heedlessly and honestly, in blank amazement, as he stared about him.
Erceldoone smiled slightly:
"Our fortunes have gone to 'rack and ruin,' Duke."
"Ah, to be sure—yes, to be sure! Sad thing!—sad thing! No fault of yours, though, Erceldoune. Your father shouldn't have been able to touch the entail. He was a —— Well, well! he's gone to his account now," said his Grace, pulling himself up short, with a perception that he was on dangerous ground, but continuing to gaze about him with a blank naïveté of astonishment. Men used to call him a "sexagenarian schoolboy;" it was too harsh, for the Duke was a thoroughly good man of business, and a manly and honest friend, but it was true that the simplicity and candour of boyhood clung very oddly to him, and a courtier or a fine gentleman his Grace of Glencarne had never become, though he was not without a frank dignity of his own when roused to it.
By an arched side-door, through a long corridor, they passed into a room in the southern and still habitable portion of the house; a long lofty room, lighted at the end with two magnificent painted windows, panelled with cedar picked out with gold, hung with some half-dozen rare pictures, a Titian, two Watteaux, a Teniers, a Van Tol, and a Memling, covered with a once rich crimson carpeting, now much worn, and with some gold and silver racing and hunting cups on the buffet. The chamber was the relic of the lavish and princely splendour which scarce thirty years ago had been at its height in the King's Rest.
"Ah! dear me—dear me!" murmured the Duke, throwing himself into a fauteuil. "This is the old supper-room! To be sure—how well I remember George IV. sitting just there where yon stand. Lord! how fond he was of your father—birds of a feather! Well, well! we might be wild, wicked dogs—we were, sir ; but we had witty times of it. Regency Erceldoune was a very brilliant man, though he might be a ——"
Erceldoune, with brief courtesy to the Duke, rang the bell impatiently to order luncheon, and turned to the other men:
"I hope your sport and our moorland air may have given yon an appetite, for Border larders were never very well stocked, you know, except when the laird made a raid; and, unhappily, there is no 'lifting,' now-a-days, to add to our stock!"
"My dear sir!" laughed Vane, dropping his glass, through which he had been glancing at the Van Tol, "half a cold grouse when one is starving is worth all the delicacies of a Carême when one is not in extremis. I am delighted to make acquaintance with your highly picturesque and mediæval abode; a landscape-painter would be in raptures over it, if you might wish it a trifle more waterproof!"
There was a certain dash of condescension and the suspicion of a sneer in the light careless words; if they were intended to wound, however, they missed their mark.
"'Starving on the moors' would not be so very terrific to you if you had been six days in the saddle on a handful of maize, as has chanced to me in the Pampas and the Cordilleras," said Erceldoune, curtly:——there is nothing your "mighty hunter before the Lord," who is known from the Libyan desert to La Plata, holds in more profound contempt than "small miseries."
"Eh! What? Were you talking about your father's dinners?" broke in his Grace, who, lost in his reveries as his eyes travelled over the familiar chamber, was not very clear what was said. "They were the best in Europe! I have seen Yarmouth, and Alvanley, and Talleyrand, and Charles Dix, and the best epicures we ever had, round that table; I was a very young fellow then, and the dinners were splendid, Erceldoune! He liked to outdo the king, you know, and the king liked to be outdone by him. I don't believe he'd have gone quite the pace he did if it hadn't been for George."
Erceldoune moved impatiently; these latter royal memories connected with the King's Best were no honour to him; they were so many brands of an extravagant vice, and a madman's ostentation, that had made him penniless, and bought a sovereign's smile with disgrace.
"I dare say, sir. I never knew any use that monarchs were yet, save in some form or another to tax their subjects."
Glencarne laughed: he had not seen much of the man who was now his host, but what he had seen he liked; the Duke abhorred the atmosphere of adulation in which, being a Duke, he was compelled to dwell, and Erceldoune's utter incapability of subservience or flattery refreshed him.
At that moment luncheon was served: the promised cold game in abondance, with some prime venison, some potted char, and a pile of superb strawberries; plain enough, and all the produce of the moorlands round, but accompanied by pure claret, and served on antique and massive plate which had been in the King's Best for centuries, and was saved out of the total wreck of its fortunes, and at which Lord Polemore looked envyingly; he was of the new creation and would have given half his broad lauds and vast income to have bought that "high and honourable ancientness" which was the only thing gold could not purchase for him.
"You have a feast for the gods, Erceldoune. If this be Border penury, commend me to it!" cried Glencairne, as he attacked the haunch with a hearty and absorbed attention; like Louis Seize, be would have eaten in the reporter's box at the Assembly while Suleau was falling under twenty sword-thrusts for his sake, and the Swiss Guard were perishing in the Cour Royale.
"I am sure we are infinitely indebted!" murmured Polemore, languidly, gazing at a Venetian goblet given to an Erceldoune by the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise.
"Nay, it is I who am the debtor to a most happy hazard. Try this wine,' said Erceldoune, with that stately courtesy which was blent with his frank, bref, soldier-like manners;—sociality was not his nature, but cordial hospitality was.
The Duke looked up.
"Eh! Tokay? What, the very wine Leopold gave your father? Tiny bottles? all cobwebbed? That's it! The real imperial growth; can't get it for money. Ah! how much have you got of it left?"
"But little—only a dozen or so, I believe; but of what there is I would ask the pleasure of your Grace's acceptance, if the wine find favour with you."
"Favour with me? Hear the man. Why, it's Leopold's own growth, I tell you," cried his Grace. "As for giving it away, thank you a thousand times, but I couldn't—I wouldn't rob you of it for anything."
"Indeed I beg you will, my dear Duke," said Erceldoune, with a slight smile. "To a rich man you may refuse what you like, but to a poor man you mast leave the pleasure of giving when he can."
"Really, on my soul, you're very good," said the Duke, whose heart was longing after the imperial vintage. "I thank you heartily, my dear fellow; but you're too generous, Erceldoune; give your head away, like all your race!—like all your race! If your ancestors had had their hands a little less free at giving, and their heads a little longer at their expenditure, you wouldn't have this place all tumbledown as it is about you now!"
"Generosity, if I can ever make claim to it, will not imperil me. Who has nothing can lose nothing," said Erceldoune, briefly. He did not feel particularly grateful for this discussion of his own fortunes and his fathers follies before two strangers, and Vane, noticing this by tact or by chance, glided in with a question admiringly relative to a small gold salver singularly carved and filagreed.
"No, you are quite right, it is not European," answered his host, glad to turn the Duke's remarks off himself, the person he liked least to hear talked of, of any in the world. "It is Mexican. An Erceldoune. who was in Cuba at the time Cortes sailed, and who went with him through all the Aztec conquest, brought it home from the famous treasures of Ayazacotl. He bored a hole in it and slung it round his neck in the passage of the Noche Triste; there is the mark now."
"Very curious!" murmured Polemore, with a sharp twinge of jealousy; he felt it hard that this man, living in an owl's roost on a barren moor, should have had ancestors who were nobles and soldiers in the great Castilian conquest, while he, a viscount and a millionnaire, could not even tell who his fathers were at that era, but knew they had been wool-carders, drawers, butterers, cordwainers, or something horrible and unmentionable!
"Out with Cortes!" echoed Vane. "Then we have a link in common, Sir Fulke. I have some Mexican trifles that one of our family, who was a friend of Velasquez de Leon, brought from the conquest. So a Vane and an Erceldoune fought side by side at Otumba and in the temple of Huitzitopotchli? We most be friends after such an augury?"
Erceldoune bowed in silence, neither accepting nor declining the proffered alliance.
The sunlight poured throng the scarlet creepers round the oriel windows into the chamber, on to the red pile of the fruit in its glossy leaves, the rich-hued plumage of the dead birds where they were hastily flung down, the gold and antique plate that was in strange contrast with the simplicity of the fare served on it; and on the dark martial head of the border-laird, where he sat with his great hounds couched about him in attitudes for Landseer. He looked, on the whole, more to belong to those daring, dauntless, fiery, steel-clad Cavaliers of the Cross, who passed with Cortes through the dark belt of porphyry into the sunlit valley of the Venice of the West, than to the present unheroic, unadventurous, unmoved, unadmiring age. Near him sat Victor Vane, a man of not more than thirty years, rather under the middle size and slightly built; in his bearing easy and aristocratic, in feature although not by any means handsome, very attractive, with blue eyes that were always smiling with pleasant sunshine, hair of the lightest hoe that glanced like silk, and a mouth as delicate as a woman's, that would have made him almost effeminate but for the long amber moustaches that shaded it, while his face, though very fair, was perfectly colourless, which lent to it the delicacy, but also the coldness, of marble.
As the two men sat together—host and guest—antagonism seemed more likely between them than alliance; and in such antagonism, if it arose, it would have been hard to say which would be the victor. In a fair and open fight, hand to hand, the blood of the Northern Countrie would be sure of conquest, and Erceldoune would gain with the same ease and the same strength as that with which those in whose veins it had run before him had charged "through and through a stand of pikes," and stood the shock of the English lances; but in a combat of finesse, in a duel of intrigue, where the hands were tied from a bold stroke, and all the intricate moves were made in the dark, it would be a thousand to one that the bright and delicate Southron stiletto would be too subtle for the straight stroke and dauntless chivalry of the stalwart Border steel.
At that moment a despatch was handed to Erceldoune by the single servant who lived in the King's Rest, and served him when he was there. The letter was sealed with the royal arms, and marked "On her Majesty's Service." Its contents were but two lines:
Sir Fulke Erceldoune on service immediately. Report to-morrow by 11 a.m. at F. O."
"From the office?" asked the Duke, as his host tossed the despatch aside.
"Yes. On service immediately. East Europe, I dare say."
"Ah! the Cabinet brewing more mischief with their confounded pedagogue's pettifogging, I will bet!" cried his Grace. (The existing Government was his pet foe.) "When are you ordered?"
To-morrow. I shall take the night express, so I shall not need to leave here till midnight," answered Erceldoune, to set at rest any fears his guests might feel that they detained him. "I wish they had sent Buller or Phil Vaughan; I wanted a month more of the deer and the blackcock; but I must console myself with the big game in Wallachia, if I can find time."
"You serve her Majesty?" inquired Vane, who knew it well enough, as he knew all the state messengers in Europe.
"The F. O., rather," laughed Erceldoune.
"Salaried to keep in saddle! Paid to post up and down the world with a state bag honoured with Havannahs, and a despatch-box marked 'Immediate,' and filled with char, chocolate, or caviare!"
"Come, come, Erceldoune, that's too bad!" laughed the Duke.
"Not a whit, sir! I went out to New York last year with royal bags imposing enough to contain the freedom of Canada, or instructions to open an American war, but which had nothing in the world in them save a dinner-service for his Excellency, and some French novels and Paris perfumes for the First Secretary."
The Duke laughed:
"Well, that will hardly be the case now. Matters are getting very serious eastward; everywhere over there the people are ripe for revolt; I expect Venetia, and Galicia, and Croatia, and all the rest of them, are meditating a rising together. I happen to know those bags you take out will contain very important declarations from us; the Cabinet intend to send instructions to invite Turkey, command her rather, to ——"
"My dear Duke, it is not for me to know what I take out; it is sufficient that I deliver it safely," laughed Erceldoune, to check the outpourings of his Grace's garrulous tongue. I am no politician and diplomatist, as you know well. I prefer hard riding to soft lying in either sense of the word."
"Wish everybody else did!" said the Duke. If men would keep to their own concerns and live as they ought, with plenty of sport and fresh air, everything would go smoothly enough. There'd be no marring or meddling then; as for this Cabinet, it's just what Clarendon said of Bristol: 'For puzzling and spoiling a thing, there was never his equal.' If the despatches you will carry to Moldavia don't embroil Europe, it won't be his fault, but there'll be sure to be a postscript to 'em all, meaning, 'N.B. In no case will we fight!'"
"Who is severe now, Duke? On my honour, you will make me feel as if I were Discord incarnate flying over Europe with her firebrand. I never took so poetic a side of the service before."
He strove to arrest the reckless course of incautious revelations of the intentions in high places, but it was useless. The Scotch Duke was off on the Foreign Office ill-deeds, and no power could have stopped him; no power did until he had fairly talked himself hoarse, when he drank a deep glass of claret, and rose, with reiterated thanks for his impromptu entertainment as sincere as they were voluble, and with cordial invitation to his castle of Benithmar, a stately pile upon the Clyde.
"And I hope you will allow me also to return your hospitalities in kind," said Vane, with his brightest smile. Since yon have the mania of pérégrinamanie, as Guy Patin calls it, and are always going up and down Europe, yon must pass continually through Paris. I can only hope, both there and in Naples, you will very soon allow me the pleasure of showing you how much I hold myself the debtor both for the hospitality of to-day, and the acquaintance to which it has been so fortunate for me as to lead."
Erceldoune bent his head, and thanked him courteoosly but briefly—he had no love for honeyed speeches—and offered them, as a modern substitute for the stirrup-cup, some cigars of purest flavour, brought over by himself from the West Indies.
"How does Mr. Vane come in your Grace's society?" he asked the Duke, as he accompanied them across his own moor to put them en route for Lord Fitzallayne's, the two others having fallen slightly behind them.
"How? Eh? Why—I don't know—because he's staying at Fitz's, to be sure."
"Yes. Fitz swears by him, and all the women are in love with him, though he's a pale insignificant face, to my thinking. What do yon know of him? Anything against him—eh?"
"Sufficiently about him to advise you, if you will allow me, not to let him glean from you the private intentions and correspondence of the ministry, or any instructions they may have given their representatives abroad. Only talk to him on such matters generally; say no more to him than what the public knows."
"What? Ah! indeed. I apprehend you. I thank you, sir—I thank you," said his Grace, hurriedly, conscious that he had been somewhat indiscreet, but curious as any old gossip in a Breton knitting and spinning gossipry. "But he stands very well; he comes of good blood, I think. He is a gentleman; you meet him at the best Courts abroad."
"Then what the deuce is there against him?"
"I am not aware that I said there was anything. Simply, I know his character; I know he is an adventurer-a political adventurer—associated with the ultra parties in Italy and Hungary. I do not think his social status is anything very remarkable, and I repeat my advice: do not take him into political confidence."
"If the man can't be trusted, the man's a blackguard!"
"My dear Duke! la haute politique will not admit of such simplifications A man may be a great man, a great minister, a great patriot, but all the same he may be—politically speaking—a great cheat! Indeed, is there a statesman who is not one?"
"True, true—uncomfortably true," growled his Grace; "but of Victor Vane—what's there against him? What do you know—what would you imply?"
"I 'imply' nothing; it is the most cowardly word in the language. I know very little, and that little I have said to place your Grace on your guard; and it is no secret; Mr. Vane is well known abroad to be the determinate foe of Austria, and to be widely involved in political intrigues. Of his career I know no further; and of what I have said he is welcome to hear every word, said Erceldoune, with a dash of decision and impatience, while he paused and pointed to a road running round a bend of grey covered sock beside a brown and rapid moor stream, which would lead them by a short cut across the fells homewards.
There they parted in the bright warm August afternoon, as the sun began to sink towards the westward; his guests soon lost to sight behind the wild woodland growth of the half savage glen, while the last of the Border lords turned backward to his solitary and ruined homestead, sweeping over the heather with the easy swinging step of the bred mountaineer, followed by his brace of staghounds and two black and tan setters.
"Salaried to keep in saddle! Paid to post up and down Europe!" he had said, with a certain disdain, for Erceldoune was nothing more or less than a Queen's messenger; a State courier, bound to serve at a State summons; holding himself in readiness for Russia or Teheran, for ice-fields or sun-scorched tropics, for the swamps of Mexico or the rose plains of Persia, at a second's notice. But he suited the life, and the life suited him; for he was a keen sportsman, and the first rider in Europe; was equally at his ease in an Arab camp and a Paris café, in a Polish snow-storm, with the wolves baying in wrath and famine about the sleigh, and in the chancellérie of a British plenipotentiary over the dainty dishes of a First Secretary's dinner; and had an iron constitution, a frame steeled to all changes of climate or inroads of fatigue, and that coolness under close peril, and utter indifference to personal indulgence, which made him renowned in the messenger service, and as much at home in the Desert as a Sheikh. Indeed, the Desert life could not have been bolder, and freer, and simpler than that which Erceldoune had led from his boyhood, partly from nature, partly from habit; he had as much of the barbaric chief in him as he had of the man of the world.
His father—Regency Erceldoune, as he was called, from his alliance with "the mad Prince and Poynings"—had been a gambler, a debauchee, and a drunkard, though a gentleman with it all. Such orgies as George Rex had at the Cross Deep, his friend and favourite had at King's Rest, mad, witty, riotous, and shameless as the worst days of lascivious Rome. Lands and money went in them till there were neither left; and his son, brought to them and taught them, while he was nothing but a child, had sickened of the vice in which he was steeped as thoroughly as, had he been brought up by precisians, he would have craved and loved it. He saw men levelled with brutes, and made far more bestial than the beasts; and his nature reared itself out of the slough, and refused the slavery of sensuality. If he were too early contaminated, he was all the earlier revolted.
When he was twenty-two his father died; and he was left the last Master of King's Best (by the old title long dropped in desuetude), with some miles of moorland and a beggared fortune, not a single relative, and not a chance of a career. A certain wild and witty peer, who had been prominent in the orgies of the Roissy of the Border—saying nothing to him, for the Erceldoune stock was famous for a pride, which perished rather than bend—got him offered a messengership; and his first meeting with officials at the Foreign Office was characteristic, and had not a little influence on his career. In the Board-room, at the hour when he was being received by those sleepy and solenm personages the Heads of a Department, there lounged in a minister, as celebrated for his cheery and facetious humour as for his successful and indomitable statesmanship; for his off-hand good nature as for his foreign policies. The Heads bowed submissive before my lord; my lord gave his rapid, lucid orders, and, as he was lounging out again, put up his eye-glass at Erceldoune.
"Messengership? We've too many messengers already," he said, cutting in two the reply of the Board to his interrogation. "Only ride over one another's way, and lose half the bags among them. Who are you, sir?"
"Fulke Erceldoune," said the Border lord, with no birthright but some barren acres of heather, returning the great Minister's stare as calmly and as haughtily; insolence he would not have brooked from an emperor.
"Erceldoune! God bless my soul, your father and I were like brothers once," said his lordship, breaking off his sharp autocratic cross-examination for the sanz façon good-hearted familiarity of tone, most usual and congenial to him. Not a very holy fraternity either! Monks of Medmenham! Who sent you up for a messengership? Lord Longbourn? Ah! very happy to appoint you. Go in for your examination as soon as you like."
I thank you, my lord, no. You hare said, 'You have too many messengers already.'
The minister stared a minute, and then laughed,
"Pooh, pooh! Never mind what I said! If you're like what your father was, you won't complain of a sinecure."
The boy-master of King's Beat bowed to the cabinet councillor.
"I am not what he was; and I do not take money from the State, if the State do not need my services. I did not come here to seek a pension!"
The great statesman stared at him a second with a blank amazement; his condescension had never met with such a rebuff and such a scruple in all his length of years and of office. The grave and reverend Heads that bent to the earth in docility and servility before the Foreign Secretary, gazed at the offender with such horror of reprobation as the members of the Inquisition might have bestowed on a blasphemer who had reviled the Host and rebelled against the Holy See. Erceldoune stood his ground calmly and indifferently; he had said simply what he meant, and, in the pride of his youth and his ruin, he was grandly careless whether he had closed the door of every career upon himself, and condemned himself to starve for life on his profitless acres of tame and gorse.
The Minister looked at him, with his keen blue eyes reading the boy through and through; then a rich humour lighted up their glittering azure light, and he laughed aloud—a mellow, ringing, Irish mirtb, that startled all the drowsy echoes and pompous stillness of Downing-street.
"You hit hard and straight, my young Sir Fulke? Very dangerous habit, sir, and very expensive: get rid of it! Go before the commissioners to-morrow, and pass your examination. I'll give you an attacheship, if yon like it better, bat I don't think you'll do for diplomacy! I shall see you again. Good day to you."
The minister nodded, and left the Board-room with as much dash and lightness in his step when he ran down-stairs, as if he were still a Harrow boy; and, in that two minutes' interview in the Foreign Office, Erceldoune had made a friend for life in one who—if he had a short political memory, and took up policies, or treaties, and dropped them again with a charming facility and inconstancy, as occasion needed—was adored by every man he employed, and was as loyal to his personal friendship's as he was staunch to his personal promises.
True to his word, he gave Erceldoune his choice of an attachéship, a messengership, a commission, or one of those fashionable and easy appointments in Downing-street where younger sons and patrician protégés yawn, make their race books, discuss the points of demi-reps and rosières, circulate the last epigram round the town, manufacture new and sublimated liqueur recipes, and play at baccarat or chicken hazard in the public service. Erceldoune took the messengership; from a motive which strongly coloured his character and career even then—honour.
His father, deep in a morass of embarrassments, had lived like a prince of the blood; his son had taken, in sheer revulsion, an utter abhorrence of all debt. He had been steeped in dissolute vices and lawless principles from his earliest years; and the mere wildness of men of his own years looked childish, and was without charm, beside the orgies through which he had passed his noviciate while yet in his youngest boyhood. He had seen men of richest wit, highest powers, brightest talents, noblest blood, suddenly disappear into darkness and oblivion, to drag on an outlawed life in some wretched continental town, through that deadly curse of usury, which had given their heritage to the Hebrews, and let them glitter leaders of fashion for a decade, only to seize their lives more surely at the last; and he had sworn never to give his own life over to the keeping of that vampire which lulls us into an opium-like dream for one short hour, to drain our best blood drop by drop with its brute fangs and its insatiate thirst. Had he gone into the army, where his own wishes would have led him, or had he taken one of the diplomatic or civil fashionable appointments offered him, the circles into which he would have been thrown must have flung him into debt, and into every temptation to it, however he might have resisted: he must have lived as those about him lived; the mere bare necessities of his position would have entailed embarrassments from which the liberty of his nature revolted as from a galley-slave's fetters. In Erceldoune's creed a landless gentleman was worthy of his blood so long as he was free—no longer.
Therefore he entered the messenger service; and, on the whole, the life, which he had now led for about a score of years, suited him as well as any, save a soldier's, could have done; the constant travel, the hard riding, the frequent peril, the life of cities alternating with the life of adventure—these were to ins taste. And while in the capitals of Europe there was not a woman who could beguile, or a man who could fool him, the Mexican guachos found in him a rider fleet and fearless as themselves; the French Zéphyrs knew in him a volunteer, fiery and elastic as any their bat talions held; the fishers of Scandinavia had lived with him through many a blinding icy midnight sea-storm; the Circassians had feasted and loved him in their mighty mountain strongholds; and the Bedaweens welcomed as one of themselves the Frank, who rode as they rode, without heeding the scorch of the brazen skies and sands; who could bring down a vulture on the wing whirling right betwixt his sight and the burning sun, a black speck on the yellow glare; who could live like themselves, if needs be, on a draught of water and a handful of maize or of dates, and who cared for no better bed than their desert solitudes, with his saddle beneath his head, and the desert stars shining above.
Love he had known little of; no human life had ever become necessary to his, or ever obtained the slightest sway over, or hold upon, his own; in this he was exceptionally fortunate. What were dear to him were those profitless, useless moorland wastes of heath and heron-creeks, of yellow gorse, and brown still pools, the sole relics of his barren Border heritage, and which self-denial and renunciation had kept free from claim or burden.
The sun was shining full on the King's Rest as he returned, and he leaned over the low gate of the stable entrance, looking at the ivy-hidden ruins, which were all which remained to him of the possessions of a race that had once been as great as the Hamilton, the Douglas, or the Græme, and of which an empty title alone was left him, as though to make his poverty and its decay more marked. These did not often weigh on him; he cared little for riches, or for what they brought; and in the adventure and the vigour of a stirring wandering life there were a richness of colouring and a fullness of sensation which, together with a certain simplicity of taste and habit that was natural to himself, prevented the pale hues and narrow lines of impoverished fortunes from having place or note. But now the Duke's words had recalled them; and he looked at the King's Rest with more of melancholy, than his dauntless and virile nature often knew. There, over the lofty gateway, where the banner of a great feudal line had floated, the scarlet leaves of the Virginian parasite alone were given to the wind. In the moat, where on many a summer night the night-riders had thundered over the bridge to scour, hill and dale with the Warden of the Marches, there were now but the hoot of the heron, the nests of the water-rat, and the thick growth of sedges and water-lilies. In the chambers where James IV. had feasted, and Mary Stuart rested, and Charles Edward found his loyalest friends and saftest refuge, the blue sky shone through the open rafters, and the tattered tapestry trembled on the walk, and the fox and the bat made their coverts; the grand entrance, the massive bastions, the stately towers which had been there when the bold Border chieftains rode out to join the marching of the clans, had vanished like the glories of Alnaschar's dream, all that remained to tell their place a mound of lichen-covered ruin, with the feathery grasses waving in the breeze;—it was the funeral pile of a dead race.
And the last of their blood, the last of their title, stood looking at it in the light of the setting sun with a pang at his heart.
"Well! better so than built up with dishonoured gold! The power and the pomp are gone, but the name at least is stainless," thought Erceldoune, as be looked away from the dark and shattered ruins of his heritage, across the moorland, golden with its gorse, and towards the free and sunlit distance of the seas, stretching far and wide.