The Highwayman (Bailey)/Chapter IX
It seems certain that on this day Alison wore a dress of a blue like peacock's feathers. That colour—as you may see, she wears it in both the Kneller and the Thornhill portraits—was much a favourite of hers, and indeed it set off well the rare beauty of her own hues. The clarity, the delicacy, of her cheeks were such as you may see on one of those roses which, white in full flower, have a rosy flush on the outer petals of the bud, and the same rose open may serve for the likeness of a neck and bosom which she guarded no more prudishly than her day's fashion demanded. For all the daintiness, her lips, a proud pair, were richly red (stained of raspberries, in Charles Hadley's sneer), and with the black masses of her hair and grey eyes almost as dark, gave her an aspect of, what neither man nor woman ever denied her, eager and passionate life. All this was flowering out of her peacock blue velvet, and Harry, I infer, went mad.
She never expanded into the larger extravagances of the hoop, preferring to trust to her own shape. Her waist made no pretence of fine-ladyship, but the bodice was close laced à la mode to parade the riches of her bosom. Strong and gloriously alive, and abundantly a woman—so she smiled at the world.
It was a delirious hour for Harry, that dinner. He knew that Alison was pleased to be in the gayest spirits, and his father, in his father's own flamboyant style, seconded her heartily. He joined in, too, and seemed to himself loud and vapid, yet had no power of restraint. It was as though his usual placid, critical mind were detached and watched himself in the happy exuberance of drunkenness—which was a state unknown to him, for excess of liquor could only move him with drowsy gloom. And in the midst of the noise Mrs. Weston sat, pale and silent, a ghost at the feast.
He was glad when his father spoke of going, though he found himself talking some folly against it, on Alison's side, who jovially mocked the Colonel for shyness. But Colonel Boyce, it appeared, had made up his mind, and Harry was surprised at the masterful ease with which, keeping the empty fun still loud, he extricated himself and his unwilling son.
They were all at the door, a noisy, laughing company, and the horses waited.
"It's no use, ma'am," Harry cried, "he knows how to get his way, monsieur mon père."
"Pray heaven he hath not taught his son the art!"
"Oh Lud, no, I am the very humble servant of any petticoat."
"Fie, that's far worse, sir. I see you would still be forgetting which covered your wife."
"Never believe him, Madame Alison." quoth the Colonel. "It's a strong rogue and a masterless man,"
"Why, that's better again. And yet it's not so well if he'll be mistressless too."
"Fight it out, child," the Colonel cried. "'Lay on, Macduff, and curst be she that first cries hold, enough!' Come, Harry, to horse."
"See, Weston, he deserts me, and merrily!"
There came upon the scene two other horsemen—Mr. Hadley's gaunt, one-armed frame and a big, lumbering elder with a rosy face.
Harry bowed over Alison's hand. It was she who put it to his lips, and nodding a roguish smile at the other gentlemen, "So you run away, sir?" she said.
Harry looked at her and "Give me back my head," he said in a low voice. "I have lost it somewhere here."
"Oh, your head!" She laughed. "Well, maybe it's the best part of you."
He mounted, and Colonel Boyce, already in the saddle, kissed his hand to her. They rode off, compelled to single file by the plump old gentleman who held the middle of the road and glowered at them. Mr. Hadley made an elaborate bow.
The old gentleman watched them out of sight round the curve of the drive, then sent his horse on with an oath and, dismounting heavily at Alison's toes, roared out: "What the devil's this folly, miss?" He made angry puffing noises. "I vow I heard you laughing at Finchley. Might have heard him kissing too."
"Kissing? Oh la, sir, my hand, and so may you." She held it out and made an impudent little curtsy. "I protest the gentleman is all maidenly. That is why he and I make so good a match."
The old gentleman spluttered and was still redder. "Match, miss? What, the devil!"
"Oh no, sir. Pray come in, sir. I see you are in a heat, and I fear for a chill on your gout."
"You are mighty civil, miss. You are too civil by half," the old gentleman puffed, and stalked past her.
Alison stood in the way of Charles Hadley as he made to follow. There was some pugnacity on her fair face. "It's mighty kind of Mr. Hadley to concern himself with me."
"Egad, ma'am, if I come untimely it's pure happy chance."
She whirled round on that and they went in. "Will you please to drink a dish of tea, Sir John?"
"You know I won't, miss." The old gentleman let himself down with a grunt into the largest chair in her drawing-room. "Now who the plague is this kissing fellow?"
"Sure, sir, it's the gentleman Mr. Hadley told you of," said Alison meekly. She hit both her birds. Mr. Hadley and his uncle looked at each other. Sir John snorted. Mr. Hadley shrugged and gave an acid laugh.
"What, what, that fellow of Waverton's? Od burn it, miss, he's a starveling usher."
"Oh, sir, don't be hasty. I dare say he'll be fat when he's old."
"Don't be pert, miss. D'ye know all the county's talking of you and this fellow?"
Alison paled a little. She spoke in a still small voice. "I did not know how much I was in Mr. Hadley's debt. I advise you, Sir John, don't be one of those who talk."
"You advise me, miss! Damme, ain't I your guardian?"
"I am trying to remember that you once were, sir. But you make it very hard."
"What the devil do you mean?"
"I vow neither of you knows what you mean," Mr. Hadley drowned her in a drawl. "I never saw such fire-eaters. Look 'e, Alison, we come riding over in a civil way and—"
"Tell me you have been planning a scandal about me. Oh, I vow I am obliged to you."
Mr. Hadley laughed. "Lud, child, you ha' known me long enough. Do I deal in tattle? And if we have seen what we should not ha' seen, if you're hot at being caught, prithee, whose fault is it? Egad, you know well enough there's things beneath Miss Lambourne's dignity."
"Yes, indeed, and I see Mr. Hadley is one of them."
"You're a fool for your pains, Charles," John shouted. "What's sense to a wench? Now, miss, I'll have an end of this. You're old Tom Lambourne's daughter for all your folly, and I'll not have his flesh and blood the sport of any greedy rogue from the kennel."
There was a moment of silence. Then Alison, whose colour was grown high, said quietly, "Pray, Sir John, will you go or shall I? I do not desire to see you again in my house."
"Go?" The old gentleman struggled to his feet. "Damme, Charles, the girl's mad. Yes, miss, I'll go—and go straight to my Lady Waverton. Od burn it, we'll have your fellow out of the county in an hour. Egad, miss, you're besotted. Why, what is he?—a trickster, a knight of the road. 'Stand and deliver,' that's my gentleman's trade. He's for your father's money, you fool."
"Good-bye, Sir John," Alison said, and turned away.
With unwonted agility, Mr. Hadley came between her and the door. "You are not fair to us, Alison," he said. "Prithee, be fair to yourself." She passed him without a word. Mr. Hadley turned and showed Sir John a rueful face. "We have made a bad business of it, sir."
Sir John swore. "Brazen impudence, damme, brazen, I say."
"Oh Lord! Don't make bad worse."
Sir John swore again. Upon his rage came Alison's voice singing:
"When daffodils begin to peer
With heigh! the doxy, over the dale,
Why, then comes in the sweet o' the year,
For the red blood reigns in the winter's pale."
Sir John spluttered, and went out roaring for his horse.