The Highwayman (Bailey)/Chapter VIII
Thus Colonel Boyce blandly arranged the lives of his young friends. It is believed that he had a peculiar pleasure in manoeuvring his fellow-creatures from behind a veil of secrecy. For in this he sought not merely his private profit (though it was never out of his calculations); he enjoyed his operations for their own sake; he liked his trickery as trickery; to push and pull people to the place in which he wanted them without their knowing how or why or to what end they were impelled was to him a pleasure second to none in life. And on a survey of his whole career he is to be accounted successful. Though I cannot find that he ever achieved anything of signal importance even for himself, at one time or another he brought a great number of people, some of them powerful, and some of them honourable, under his direction, he had his complete will of many of them, and was rewarded by the bitter hostility of the majority. He contrived, in fact, to live just such a life as he liked best. What more can any man have?
So he told Harry nothing of his engagement of Mr. Waverton, and Harry, you have seen, was not likely to guess that anyone would enlist his Geoffrey for a serious enterprise. On the next morning, indeed, Harry did remark that Geoffrey was more portentous than usual, but thought nothing of it. He was embarrassed by thinking about himself.
There was, as Colonel Boyce predicted, no difficulty about a horse for Harry. When the Colonel suggested it, Geoffrey showed some satirical surprise at Harry's daring, but (advising one of the older carriage horses) bade him take what he would. Colonel Boyce spoke only of riding with his son. He said nothing of where they were going. Harry wondered whether Geoffrey would have been so gracious if he had known that Alison was their destination, and, a new experience for him, felt some qualms of conscience. It was uncomfortable to use a favour from Geoffrey, even a trifling favour granted with a sneer, for meeting his lady; still more uncomfortable to go seek the lady out secretly. But if he announced what he was doing, there would be instantly something ridiculous about it, and he would have to swallow much of Geoffrey's humour. Geoffrey might even come with them, and Alison and he be humorous together—a fate intolerable. There was indeed an easy way of escape. He had but to stay away from the lady. But, though he despised himself for it, he desired infinitely to see her again. She compelled him, as he had never believed anything outside his own will could compel. After all, it was no such matter, for he would soon be gone with his father to France. He might well hope never to see her again.
So on that ride through the steep wooded lanes to Highgate, his father found him morose, and complained of it. "Damme, for a young fellow that's off to his lady-love you are a mighty poor thing, Harry."
"My lady-love! I have no taste for rich food. I thought it was your lady we were going to see."
"What the devil do you mean by that?" Colonel Boyce stared.
"Oh, fie, sir! Why be ashamed of her?"
"God knows what you are talking about." Colonel Boyce was extraordinarily irritated. "Ashamed of whom?"
"Of the peerless Miss Lambourne, to be sure. Oh, sir, why be so innocent? How could she resist your charms? And indeed—"
"Miss Lambourne! What damned nonsense you talk, Harry."
"I followed your lead, sir," said Harry meekly. "But if we are to talk sense—when shall we start for France?"
"You shall know when I know."
And on that they came to the top of the hill and the gates of the Hall. The wet weather had yielded to St. Martin's summer. It was a day of gentle silver-gold sunlight and benign air. With her companion, Mrs. Weston, Miss Lambourne was walking in the garden. She met the gentlemen at a turn of the drive by rampant sweetbriers. "Here's our knight of the rueful countenance, and faith, on Rosinante, poor jade," she patted Harry's aged carriage horse. "Oh, and he has brought with him Solomon in all his glory," she made a wonderful curtsy to the splendours of Colonel Boyce. "Now, who would have dreamt Don Quixote's father was Solomon?"
"I suppose I take after my mother, ma'am," Harry said meekly. "It's a hope which often consoles me."
"Why, they say Solomon had something of a variety in wives, and among them—"
Colonel Boyce dismounted with so much noise that the jest was hardly heard and the end of it altogether lost.
"You did not tell me"—Mrs. Weston was speaking and seemed to find it difficult—"Alison, you did not tell me the gentlemen were coming." It occurred to Harry that she looked very pale and ill.
"Why, Weston; dear, I could not tell if they would keep troth." She began to hum:
"Men were deceivers ever,
One foot on sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never."
"Nay, ma'am, sigh no more for here are we," Colonel Boyce said brusquely.
"Oh Lud, he overwhelms us with the honour." She laughed. "How can we entertain him worthily? Sir, will you walk? My poor house and I await your pleasure."
"I am vastly honoured, ma'am. I have never had a lady-in-waiting."
"Oh, celibate virtue!" quoth Miss Lambourne. And so to the house Colonel Boyce led her and his horse, and a little way behind Harry followed with his and Mrs. Weston.
She had nothing to say for herself. She looked so wan, she walked so slowly, and with such an air of pain that Harry had to say something about fearing she was not well. Then he felt a fool for his pains; as she turned in answer and shook her head he saw such a sad, wistful dignity in her eyes that the small coin of courtesy seemed an absurd offering. A fancy, to be sure, in itself absurd. Yet he could not make the woman out. There was something odd and baffling in the way she looked at him.
She led off with an odd question, "Pray, have you lived much with Colonel Boyce?"
"Not I, ma'am." Harry laughed. "If I were not a very wise child I should hardly know my own father. Lived with him? Not much more than with my mother, whom I never saw."
"Oh, did you not?" Her eyes dwelt upon him. After a little while, "Who brought you up then?"
"Schools. Half a dozen schools between Taunton and London, and Westminster at last."
"Were you happy?"
"When I had sixpence."
"But Colonel Boyce is rich!" she cried.
"I have no evidence of it, ma'am."
"I cannot understand. You hardly know him. But he comes to you at Lady Waverton's; he stays with you; he brings you here. I believe you are closer with him than you say."
"Why, ma'am, it's mighty kind in you to concern yourself so with my affairs. And if you can't understand them, faith, no more can I."
She showed no shame at this rebuke of impertinence. In a minute Harry was sorry he had amused himself by giving it. There was something strangely affecting in the woman. Middle-aged, stout, faded, bound in manner and speech by a shy clumsiness, she refused to be insignificant, she made an appeal to him which he puzzled over in vain. Her simplicity was with power, as of a nature which had cared only for the greater things. He felt himself meeting one who had more than he of human quality, richer in suffering, richer in all emotion, and (what was vastly surprising) under her dullness, her feebleness, of fuller and deeper life.
From vague, intriguing, bewildering fancies, her voice brought him back with a start. "He brought you here?" she was asking.
To be sure, she was wonderfully maladroit. This buzzing, futile curiosity irritated him again into a sneer. "He is no doubt captivated by the beautiful eyes of Miss Lambourne."
"He! Mr. Boyce?"—she corrected herself with a stammer and a blush—"Colonel Boyce? Oh no. Indeed, he is old enough to be her father."
"I think we ought to tell him so." Harry chuckled. "It would do him good."
"I think this is not very delicate, sir." Mrs. Weston was still blushing.
"Egad, ma'am, if you ask questions, you must expect answers," Harry snapped at her.
"Why do you sneer at her? Why should you speak coarsely of her? I suppose you come to the house of your own choice? Or does he make you come?"
Harry saw no occasion for such excitement. "Why, you take away my breath with your pronouns. He and she—she and he—pray, let's leave him and her out of the question. Here's a very pretty garden."
"Indeed, we need not quarrel, I think." She laughed nervously, and gave him an odd, shy look. "Pray, do you stay with the Wavertons?"
"Alas, ma'am, I make your acquaintance and bid you farewell all in one day."
"Make my acquaintance!" Again came a nervous laugh, and it was a moment before she went on. "We have met before to-day."
"Oh Lud, ma'am, I would desire you forget it."
"I am to forget it!" she echoed. "Oh … Oh, you are very proud."
"Not I, indeed. The truth is, ma'am, that silly affair with our highwayman, it embarrasses me mightily. I want to live it down. Pray, help me, and think no more about it."
"I suppose that is what you say to Alison?" For the first time there was a touch of fun in her eyes.
"Word for word, ma'am."
"Why do you come here then?"
"As I have the honour to tell you—to say good-bye."
She checked and stared at him. She was very pale. But now they were at the steps of the house, and Colonel Boyce, who had resigned his horse to a groom, turned with Alison to meet them.
"I am hot with the Colonel's compliments, Weston, dear," she announced. "I must take a turn with Mr. Boyce to cool me. 'Tis his role. A convenient family, faith. One makes you uncomfortably hot and t'other freezes you. You go get warm, my Weston. Though I vow 'tis dangerous to trust you to the Colonel. He has made very shameless love to me, and you have a tender heart."
It occurred to Harry that Mrs. Weston and his father, thus forced to look at each other, wore each an air of defiance. They amused him.
"I am not afraid," Mrs. Weston said.
"I profess I am abashed," said Colonel Boyce. "Pray, ma'am, be gentle to my disgrace," and he offered his arm. She bowed and moved away, and he followed her.
Harry and Alison, face to face, and sufficiently close, eyed each other with some amusement.
"Oh, Mr. Boyce," said she, and shook her head.
"Oh, Miss Lambourne," Harry exhorted in his turn.
"You have fallen. You have walked into my parlour."
"I am the best of sons, ma'am. I endure all things at my father's orders—even spiders."
She still eyed him steadily, searching him, and was still amused. She moved a little so that the admirable flowing lines of her shape were more marked. Then she said, "Why are you afraid of me?"
Harry shook his head, smiling. "Vainly is the net spread in the sight of the bird, ma'am. But, faith, it was a pretty question, and I make you my compliments."
"So. Will you walk, sir?" She turned into a narrow path in the shadow of arches, clothed by a great Austrian brier, on which here and there a yellow flame still glowed. "Mr. Boyce—when I meet you in company you shrink and cower detestably; when I meet you alone, you fence with me impudently enough and shrewdly; and always you avoid me while you can. I suppose there's in all this something more than the freaks of a fool. Then it's fear. Prithee, sir, why in God's name are you afraid of me?"
"Miss Lambourne got out of bed very earnest this morning," Harry grinned. "But oh, let's be grave and honest with all my heart. Why, then, ma'am, I've to say that a penniless fellow has the right to be afraid of Miss Lambourne's money bags."
"Fie, you are no such fool. If one is good company to t'other, which is rich and which is poor is no more matter than which fair and which dark."
"In a better world, ma'am, I would believe you."
"And here you believe kind folks would sneer at Harry Boyce for scenting an heiress. So you tuck your tail between your legs and go to ground. I suppose that is called honour, sir."
"Oh no, ma'am. Taste."
"La, I offend monsieur's fine taste, do I?"
"Not often, ma'am. But by all means let us be earnest. I believe I mind being sneered at no more than my betters. Par exemple, ma'am, when you laugh at me for being shabby, I am not much disturbed."
She blushed furiously. "I never did."
"Oh, I must have read your thoughts then," Harry laughed. "Well, what matters to me is not that folks laugh at me but why they laugh. That they mock me for being out at elbows I swallow well enough. That they should sneer at me for making love to a woman's purse would give me a nausea."
Miss Lambourne was pleased to look modest. "Indeed, sir, I did not know that you had made love to me."
"I am obliged by your honesty, ma'am."
Miss Lambourne looked up and spoke with some vehemence. "It comes to this, then, you would be beaten by what folks may say about you. Oh, brave!"
"Lud, we are all beaten by what folks might say. Would you ride into London in your shift?"
"I don't want to ride in my shift," she cried fiercely.
"Perhaps not, ma'am. But perhaps I don't want to make love to your purse."
"burn it, sir, am I nothing but a purse?"
"I leave it to your husband to find out, ma'am, and beg leave to take my leave. My kind father offers me occupation at a distance, and I embrace it ardently. Who knows? It may provide me with a coat."
"You are going away?"
"I have had the honour to say so."
"And why, if you please?"
Harry shrugged. "Because, ma'am, without my assistance, Mr. Waverton can very well translate Horace into his own sublime verse and Miss Lambourne into his own proud wife."
He intended her to rage. What she did was to say softly: "You do not want to see me that?"
"I have no ambition to amuse you, ma'am."
Miss Lambourne looked sideways. "What if I don't want you to go away?"
"Egad, ma'am, I know you don't." Harry laughed. "You amuse yourself vastly (God knows why) with baiting me."
"Why, it amuses me." Alison still looked at him sideways. "Don't you know why?"
He did not choose to answer.
"Indeed, then, if I am nought to you why do you care what folks say of you and me?"
Harry made a step towards her. "You mean to have it again, do you?" he muttered.
"Pray, sir, what?" and still she looked sideways.
"What you dragged out of me in the wood."
"Dragged out of—oh!" She blushed, she drew back, and so had occasion to do something with her cloak which let a glimpse of white neck and bosom come into the light. "You flatter us both indeed."
"I'll tell you the truth of us both"—he, too, was flushed: "you are a curst coquette and I am a curst fool."
Now she met his eyes fairly, and in hers there was no more laughter, but she smiled with her lips: "I think you know yourself better than you know me."
Harry gripped her hands. "You go about to make me mad with desire for you, you—"
"I want you so," she breathed, and leaned back, away from him, her eyes half veiled.
He had his arms about her body, held her close. The red lips curved in a riddle of a smile. He saw dark depths in the shadowed eyes.
"Malbrouck s'en va t'en guerre," she murmured.
Harry exclaimed something, felt her against him, was aware of all her form—and heard footsteps.
Alison was out of his grasp, her back to him, plucking a rose. "You will see me again—you shall see me again. I ride in the wood to-morrow morning," she muttered.
"You'll pay for it," Harry growled.
His father arrived, Mrs. Weston, a servant at their heels.
Alison came round with a swirl of skirts. "Dear sir, I doubt you have burnt up dinner by your long passages with my Weston. Come in, come in," and she led the way.
For once Colonel Boyce was without an answer. Harry, who was dreading witticisms, looked at him in surprise, and with more surprise saw that he looked angry. Mrs. Weston hurried on before them all. Her eyes were red.