Mr. Granby came away from the Manor and his interview with his old friend, Squire Clifford, in anything but the most satisfied frame of mind. He was face to face with a very knotty problem--for a lover. However much the squire might favour his suit, the fact remained that sweet Jenny Egerton--the squire's ward--whilst very friendly disposed towards Granby, was obviously careful to be nothing more.
Mr. Granby strode through the dusk kicking the snow before him and making for the lights of the town at the foot of Manor Hill, and as he went his thoughts were very busy with what Squire Clifford had said. Jenny's nature was romantic, and if Mr. Granby would win her heart as well as her hand the squire opined that he might be well-advised to present himself romantically to her consideration. But Granby, for all that he was a stolid, unimaginative man, realised that, rising forty as he was and being a shade wider at the waist than at the shoulders, in aiming at the romantic he might achieve no more than the ridiculous.
Still brooding, with hands deep in the pockets of his riding-coat, whip under his arm, and three-cornered hat pulled down over his brows, he strode on through the town, where the snow was becoming slush under the traffic that was toward. He made his way up the High Street with ears deaf to the shouts of the busy shopkeepers and busier vendors at the booths of the Christmas fair, and, still deep at his thoughts, he turned into the King's Arms. He nodded carelessly to the drawer in the tap-room, and his ill-fortune guided his steps to the bar parlour and into the company of three graceless young neighbours of his, who sat with wigs awry and coats unlaced in a cloud of smoke over a bowl of punch.
He stood in the blaze of candle-light, the fine powder of snow that had gathered on the shoulders of his scarlet coat being rapidly transmuted by the warmth of the room into glittering diamonds of water, whilst those merry bloods hailed him noisily. Mr. Granby had long been a choice butt for the practical jokers of the country-side, though he had never yet perceived it.
They hailed him to the fire; they gave him punch to drink--a hot, delicious beverage of brandy, muscadine, lemon, and spices--which so warmed his heart and choked discretion that, when presently they toasted Jenny Egerton, and drank to her speedy union with Mr. Granby, he must needs pour out the whole story of his unprospering love affair and the quandary in which he now found himself, winding up with an appeal to those merry jesters for advice and guidance in the pursuit of the romantic.
Their response was prompt and hilarious. As with one breath, they urged him to carry his tale to Ned Pepper, who, they swore, was the very man to help him.
"You couldn't find a better man for your business in the whole country," one of them assured him. "Ned Pepper's the most romantic young dog in England."
"And he's upstairs now," added another, "drinking himself out of his senses in solitude." And so they urged him noisily to go up at once.
"But if I should intrude," he faltered. "Mr. Pepper and I are but slightly acquainted."
"Ned Pepper will give you a warm welcome," they assured him amid fresh laughter; and so, persuading and pushing, they got him above-stairs to the room where Ned Pepper sat wondering what might be the source of the bursts of merriment that floated up to him through the floor.
Granby found Mr. Pepper--a comely young gentleman, with a good chin and a roguish eye--very much at his ease before a blazing fire. He was comfortably ensconced in a spacious oak chair, and rested the shapeliest silk-cased legs in Surrey upon a second one. There was a bowl of steaming punch at Mr. Pepper's elbow, a pipe between his fingers. His head was rested against one of the wings of his chair, his peruke--which he had doffed for greater comfort--was perched upon the other, his broidered vest was open, and he had undone the silver buckles of his lacquered shoes. As I have said, Mr. Pepper was very much at his ease.
At the foot of the stairs the young bloods stood grouped expectantly, with smirks and nudges and smothered guffaws. They knew Ned Pepper to be as peppery as his name implied, and they had reason to believe that he would presently be kicking Mr. Granby downstairs. Therefore they waited.
But they were disappointed. At sight of Mr. Granby hesitating in the doorway a flicker of interest had for a moment lighted Mr. Pepper's dark eyes; then he smiled lazily, and as lazily invited him to come inside.
"A cold night, Mr. Pepper," said Granby civilly.
"Ring for another glass," said Mr. Pepper, like a man taking a hint, and with the stem of his long pipe he pointed to the brew, thus clearing up any obscurity in his meaning.
The glass was brought, and, having helped himself, Granby drew up to the fire and took a pipe.
"I hope," said he, "I'm not intruding, though I must confess that I am taking a great liberty. I have come to you for advice. I have been advised to do so."
Mr. Pepper took the pipe from between his teeth, and gave his guest every encouragement to proceed. They were alone in that cosy parlour. The punch warmed and expanded Granby's simple nature, and he remembered the assurances he had received that Mr. Pepper was the very man to help him in his quandary. So out came the whole story, all but the names, which, with a remnant of discretion, Granby thought better to omit.
"And do you tell me you were sent to me for advice in this matter?" quoth Mr. Pepper, whose eyes had now lost all sign of drowsiness. "By whom?"
Granby told him, and Pepper nodded with a slow smile.
"I am sore perplexed," added the luckless lover earnestly. "I don't know whether you have ever been in the like position."
"I have, indeed," answered Mr. Pepper, "with this difference that with me the maid was willing, but the father, who accounted me a hairbrain, wouldn't hear of it. I carried her off; we were overtaken, and I was laid by the heels for a time. Her father was too friendly with the sheriff."
"You carried her off," mused Granby. "Now that was a romantic enough thing to do!"
Mr. Pepper stared at him. "If it's romance you want, you may do the same. As for me, I prefer to wait until the lady is of age. The county gaol cured me of any leanings towards romance."
"But our cases are hardly parallel," Mr. Granby reminded him. "I have no pursuit to fear since her guardian is my friend."
"True," said Pepper with a roguish smile, "but, then, you say the lady isn't, and you'll hardly make her so by a display of violence."
"Ah!" sighed the unimaginative Granby, and his honest, rugged face grew clouded. Pepper puffed in silence for a moment or two; then spoke.
"To abduct her forcibly, and against her will, were to do a monstrous ill thing. Your suit thereafter must be hopeless and deservedly. But--" And be paused solemnly, raising a delicate white hand that sprouted from a cloud of lace, and poising it in line with Granby's suddenly uplifted eyes--"but if someone else were to do the thing, and you were to prove the heroic rescuer--"
"Gad!" cried Granby, and the pipe slipped from his fingers, and was shivered on the floor.
"You would reap the heroic rescuer's reward," concluded Pepper. "By your promptness of action you would inspire gratitude; by your ready courage--there might be a little sword-play in the comedy--admiration; and by your restraint and courtesy to the lady in her plight, you should awaken confidence and trust. These, my friend, are the compounds that go to make up that poison men call love."
"Yes, yes," gasped Granby, in some amazement at the other's fertility of imagination. "But how would you go about it, Mr. Pepper?"
Mr. Pepper pondered awhile, puffing vigorously. Then, setting down his pipe, he leaned forward, and propounded the result of his cogitations. On the morrow there was a Christmas dance to be held at Sir John Tyler's, two miles away, to which, no doubt, Squire Clifford and his ward would be going.
"Clifford?" gasped the startled Granby, leaping to his feet. "How guessed you I spoke of them? I never mentioned--"
"The whole country-side knows all about it," said Pepper shortly, and Granby sat down again. Pepper proceeded with his expounding. At Kerry's Corner Mr. Granby was to post some obliging rogue who would play the highwayman for him; he would hold up Mr. Clifford's coach, but at sight of the lady be so taken with the jewels that were her eyes, as to have no thought for other riches. The highwayman should request her to alight, and then make off with her on his crupper, the Squire being forewarned to offer no resistance.
"Away goes the amorous highwayman," Pepper proceeded, "whereupon the lady lets out a cry or two, which attracts the attention of a very staid and sober gentleman riding in the opposite direction. That gentleman is yourself. You call upon the ruffian to stand; he rides on, and you give pursuit. A pistol shot or two--in the air, of course--will add effect, and show the general earnestness of the affair. And now you are racing through the night, and the highwayman is racing ahead of you; the race must be protracted. To overtake him too soon would be injudicious. You must wait until the lady's feelings of terror have been wrought to their highest pitch. She knows a rescuer is behind, and when, towards dawn, that rescuer comes up, and compels the highwayman to mend his manners and deliver up the lady, lo! she discovers that it is the man to whose gallantry, courage, and resource she has so long and so foolishly been blind. If she does not promise to marry you there and then, you are the most hopeless bungler that ever tired of being a bachelor."
In a burst of enthusiasm Granby tore at the bell-rope; then he crossed the room, and grasped one of Mr. Pepper's slender hands in his own massive fist.
"You're a man of heart and brain, Mr. Pepper," said he; "a man I'm proud to call my friend." Then, to the drawer who entered, "Another bowl of punch," he ordered. And with that the enthusiasm went out of him as suddenly as it had flared up.
"But, rat me!" he cried, "where am I to find a man who will play the highwayman for me?"
"Surely," said Pepper, "that should not be difficult. You'll have some friend--"
"But the task asks more than friendship. It asks tact, it asks resource, it asks--I scarce know what." And then he grew inspired. "Now, if you, Mr. Pepper--"
"Alas!" sighed Pepper. "It is just such a frolic as would sort well with my rascally instincts, such a night ride as I should relish. But, unfortunately, I am bidden, myself, to Lady Tyler's ball."
"If that be all, surely the difficulty might be overcome. But perhaps I make too bold, sir. I presume, maybe, when I consider that you might stand my friend. Our acquaintance is, after all, but slight."
"A misfortune which the years may mend," said Pepper pleasantly.
"You mean that?" quoth the simple Granby.
"If you need proof of it--why, I am your man in this affair."
Thus was it planned, and on the following night--or, rather, towards two o'clock of a sharp and frosty Christmas morning--was the plan put into execution.
Half a mile from Kerry's corner--which was a mile, or so, from Tyler Park--Mr. Granby walked his horse up and down in the moonlight, waiting.
A coach rolled past him, followed soon after by another, whereat, realizing that these were homeward bound guests from Lady Tyler's, Mr. Granby waxed impatient for the arrival of Mr. Pepper. Presently hoofs rattled in the distance, growing rapidly louder and nearer, and ringing sharp and clear on the still, frosty air. A horseman riding madly down the road loomed black in the moonlight, and Mr. Granby rode to meet him.
Affairs had sped well with Mr. Pepper. He had held up Squire Clifford's coach, and carried off Squire Clifford's ward, what time the Squire instructed in his role, bellowed and trumpeted, but took care to do nothing that might hinder the make belive highwayman in his task. The girl had not gone without a struggle, it is true. But in the end, masterful Mr. Pepper had swung her to the withers of his horse, and dashed off, his left arm embracing and supporting her, and her head--for she seemed to have lapsed into a half-stupor--fallen back against his breast. Thus they rode until they came upon Mr. Granby ambling in the opposite direction. The girl struggled, and let out a cry or two for help as she was swept past that bulky figure, and Mr. Granby, taking his cue from that, wheeled about, and called upon the abductor to stand. Mr. Pepper laughed for answer, and rattled on. Shots went off in the night, with no hurt to anyone, and Mr. Granby flung himself into hot and gallant pursuit.
He gained on them too quickly at first, so he slackened his pace, mindful of Pepper's instructions that the chase should be a long one. Suddenly something stirred by the roadside; a third horseman loomed on that lonely road, barring Mr. Granby's path; a pistol barrel gleamed before him, and--
"Stand!" thundered a gruff voice.
Mr. Granby stood. He was not by nature foolhardy, and his common sense told him that a man with a levelled pistol was a man to be obeyed. He slipped a hand towards one of his holsters, furtively, to withdraw it again as he remembered that he had discharged both pistols at the commencement of his chase of Mr. Pepper.
"If it's my purse you want--" he began, in haste to push on.
"I want more than that," came the answer, interrupting him. And then, in the politer manner affected by gentlemen of the road, "Sir, it grieves me vastly to put you to discomfort. But the messengers are after me, and my horse is spent. I'll trouble you to dismount."
"But--" began Granby in dismay.
"Dismount!" bellowed the highway man, dropping all courteous affectations. "Dismount this instant, or I'll blow your brains out."
Mr. Granby came quickly to the ground. In an instant the tobyman was beside him. Another moment, and he had swung himself into Granby's empty saddle, and was off at a gallop into the night.
There stood Granby--Granby, the heroic rescuer of distressed dames--on the white, sparkling snow, in sore perplexity, anger, and chagrin. Then, in a spirit of philosophy determining to make the best of matters, he mounted the spent horse that had been left him, the sorriest nag that ever wore a saddle, and gave it a touch of the spur. After all, his loss amounted to no more than a horse, and Mr. Granby was wealthy enough to envisage that loss without great concern. But what of Pepper and the lady he was to rescue? Surely Pepper would lag behind, and wait for him. But soon--being unable to get more than a walk out of the animal he bestrode--he realized that unless Pepper came to a standstill, there was no chance of his being overtaken; and if he were so foolish as to come to a standstill to wait for Granby to come up with him, then the whole scheme would be betrayed, and must miscarry. The horse staggered a quarter of a mile or so under the stimulus of Granby's frantic spurring; then it foundered altogether, and Granby was forced to dismount.
He pondered the matter as best his rage would let him. To take the horse farther was out of the question. There was no choice but to leave the beast and push on afoot, trusting to Mr. Pepper's ingenuity to afford him an early opportunity of coming to that pretty sword-play they had agreed upon. Mr. Granby set off at a run, taking the road that led to Guildford, for Guildford was the goal arranged. But Guildford was twenty miles away, and it was not until after eight o'clock of that Christmas morning that Mr. Granby dragged his weary body over the bridge that spans the Wey, and up the precipitous High Street of that ancient town.
He was a man utterly disillusioned, a man in whom the thought of his own physical discomforts had quenched all amorous aspirations, a man whose only remaining ambition was to dry his sodden boots in some comfortable inn parlour and mend his physical discomforts with an ample breakfast. If a thought he gave to any other matter, it was to curse the idiotic Pepper for having ridden on, as he appeared to have done, heedless of whether Mr. Granby was in pursuit or not.
He stamped wearily into the yard of the "Black Bull," swung into the inn, and making his way down a passage, opened the first door he came upon. A lady and a gentleman were at table there, and Mr. Granby, realizing that he intruded, was for withdrawing hastily, when a cheery voice hailed him.
"Mr. Granby! Gad! You're come at last!" Mr. Pepper had risen from the table, and was advancing towards him with a smile upon his pleasant young face. Granby gasped, and looked at the lady. It was Jenny.
"At least," cried slow-witted Granby, thinking that matters were to be righted after all, "it seems I am not come too late." And he put his hand to the hilt of his small-sword. But Pepper only laughed.
"If it's the pretty show of sword-play you're thinking of, you're too late altogether. Come in, man, and break your fast with us. I make no doubt you'll be nigh dead of hunger." And he drew Granby, despite himself almost, into the room.
"What--what do you mean?" he demanded, scowling, for he noticed now that Jenny's air was not such as her position should inspire; her cheeks were red, and she seemed a prey to laughter.
"Why," said Mr. Pepper airily, advancing a chair for his guest, "when you never came, what was I to do with this lady on my hands? I ask you, what would you have done in my place?"
The question quenched all Mr. Granby's vexation. Engrossed as he had been in his own calamities, he had given no thought to Mr. Pepper's quandary.
"You'll agree," continued Mr. Pepper, "that I could scarce ride on with her after daylight. We should have been stopped. Besides, there are limits to a horse's endurance, and to a man's. We must stop somewhere. At the first inn would be Miss Egerton's opportunity. She has but to call for help, and in what case should I find myself? I have been in gaol once, as I have already had occasion to inform you, and I have little fancy for repeating the experience. I hope, sir, that you realize my delicate position."
"Indeed, sir," murmured the confused and bewildered Granby, "I own it must have been trying!"
"You see, then," Mr. Pepper cut in, "that it was necessary to do something that should put me in shelter from the law."
"And he did," Jenny explained, laughter sparkling in her eyes and dimpling her smooth, fresh cheek, "what you will agree was the only thing to do. He told me the truth. Oh, shame, Mr. Granby! Shame on you for setting such a scheme on foot and subjecting a poor girl to so much misery and discomfort."
"But, madam--," groaned Mr. Granby unable to say more.
"Mr. Pepper was wise to tell me the truth, and cast himself, as he did, upon my mercy," she concluded.
Mr. Granby said nothing. He sat nursing his hat, his gaze averted, abashed like a child caught in a naughty act. How different was all this from the brave plan they had made!
"Miss Egerton very charitably forgave us," said Pepper, "and we determined to break our fast here whilst awaiting you."
Granby screwed up his courage to ask: "And now?" in a very sheepish voice.
"You see," Pepper explained confidentially, "even having made my peace with Miss Egerton, I felt myself far from secure. You'll remember why I was in gaol two years ago. I told you the reason." Granby nodded.
"Therefore," put in Jenny, "it became necessary for Mr. Pepper further to protect himself."
"In her mercy," Pepper resumed, "she realized how unpleasant it might be for me if I were discovered here--by her guardian, say--alone with a child upon whom I had no claim of kinship. Besides, the lady has a reputation, and I could not in honesty have called myself your friend if I had allowed the reputation of a lady whom you had thought of making your wife to be placed in jeopardy. So while breakfast was cooking we stepped across the street, and were quietly married by the most civil parson in the world."
"Odso!" roared Granby. "You are fooling me, then?" And he got heavily to his feet, his face purple with indignation.
"Fooling you?" cried Pepper. "Not I. I am telling you the truth. I ask you what else was I to do? You yourself forced the situation upon me. What other way out of it had I? And, rat me, sir, where have you tarried all night that you never overtook me as we had arranged?"
"Bah!" said Granby, who was now beginning to understand things. "I have been walking a matter of twenty miles since the knave you hired deprived me of my horse."
He paused, summoning invective to his aid, his wits now penetrating to the very heart of this situation. It flickered in that moment through his mind that Squire Clifford had made some allusion to a spark for whom his ward was suspected of a fancy. This, then, was the sparking question, and Granby had been fooled by him. And it was into the keeping of this hair-brained young scapegrace--who had been gaoled already for running off with some girl or other--that Jenny had given her sweet young life! Granby felt naturally vindictive. He planted himself squarely on his feet, and dully eyed the couple at the table.
"Will you tell me," he asked with grim unction, "the name of the lady for whose abduction you were gaoled two years ago, Mr. Pepper?"
Mr. Pepper looked disconcerted, Granby thought with relish.
"It's something of an ordeal, sir, to be forced to confess to such follies in the presence of my wife, and--and on my bridal morning. Still, if you insist--"
"I do," said Granby firmly. "She shall know what manner of man she had wed."
"It's two years ago, and that's a long time in a young man's life," said Pepper. "My memory may be at fault, but I believe it was a Miss Egerton, of whom you may have heard, sir." And from the ripple of laughter that broke from Jenny's lips, Granby knew that he was being mocked with the truth.
It was more than he could bear. He swung out of the room, and out of the inn, and tired, damp and hungry though he was, he determined to get a horse and ride back to Clifford Manor to tell the squire what had befallen. He realized with angry shame how those merry young gentlemen at the "King's Arms" had fooled him the night before when they sent him to Pepper for guidance in this delicate matter.
While he waited in the yard for a horse, he could not resist a peep through the window of the room where the bridal couple were at table. A bright firelight played upon walls and ceiling, and relieved the lingering gloom of that Christmas morning. Jenny, he noticed, sat with a kerchief to her eyes, and Mr. Pepper with an arm round her neck strove to console her. The sight affected Granby oddly. Maybe she was weeping out of pity for the treatment he had received; maybe she was thinking of her guardian and the trouble he would make for them. Mr. Granby was honestly fond of the child, and he felt a lump in his throat as he pondered the matter of her tears. Tears on her wedding-day!
He noticed now how well-matched they were in youth and looks, and he realized how ill-matched would she have been had she wedded him as was intended. He remembered, too, now that his mood was softening, that, after all, Pepper was little to blame for what had happened. It was those rascally wags at the "King's Arms" who had fooled him rather than Pepper. In Pepper's place he might himself have done just what Pepper had done.
And then a peal of joybells crashed suddenly upon the morning air to remind Granby of what day it was, and what the message of that day was.
He straightened himself. He may have been dull, podgy and unimaginative, but he was a good fellow at heart. Back into the inn and into their parlour he strode, and so full of purpose was his step that Jenny looked up in alarm as he thrust wide the door. He advanced, his face rather red, his eyes more sheepish than ever.
"I forgot," said he, "to wish you a merry Christmas, and I've come back to do it. If you'll ride to Clifford Manor with me, I think I can persuade the squire to let us all spend this bridal Christmas happily together." And he held out a hand to each of them.