The Highwayman (Bailey)/Chapter XV
It was a time of wild plots. The long war of Marlborough had left England impregnably triumphant, and France ambitious of nothing but peace. No fear remained that foreign arms would carry James, the Pretender by right divine, to his sister's throne. Who should reign when Anne's growing weakness ended in death was for England alone to decide, and English law gave the succession to Prince George of Hanover. But there was a party, or at least the leaders of a party, who saw more profit to themselves in importing the Pretender.
Harley and Bolingbroke, they had thrust out of the Queen's confidence and the government the friends of Hanover. They had undermined the authority of Marlborough at home and abroad, and were now ready, honourably or dishonourably, to put an end to the war which made him necessary. If he were dispatched into ignominy or exile, there could be no one strong enough, they believed, to prevent them driving England the way they chose. What that way would be no one clearly knew, themselves, perhaps, least of all. But together and singly they set going many strange secret schemes which were to make a new king, a new England, and new magnificence for themselves, singly or together. All which the mass of England watched with shrewd, incurious eyes. It could not long be a secret that plots were afoot. To shoulder out of power all who were committed friends of the lawful order was a confession of designs against it. As if that were not enough, Bolingbroke and Harley so managed their business that everything they did was wrapped in a mist of trickery and intrigue. And yet, though they were vastly mysterious over what could have borne the light without much shame, they contrived to let the agents of their deeper treachery blunder into notice and fill the air with rumours of untimely truth. Still England gave no sign.
"Under which King"—Hanoverian or Pretender—perhaps there were few in England who cared. If the Pretender was bred French and a Papist, Prince George was a German born. Some of those who had joined heartily in driving out his father began to put it about that the son would be a better king for that lesson. George of Hanover had the right of law, but the Parliament of to-morrow might undo what the Parliament of yesterday had done. Who could be ardent for the right of an unknown foreigner over England? And few were ardent, but there were many who, caring nothing for Pretender or Hanoverian, had a solid resolution that England should not be torn in the cause of either. Whatever was done, must be done quietly and in good order. Since it seemed that the Hanoverian had no need to change anything in law or State or Church, best that he should be king. As for the devious politics, the tricks, and the mystery of Harley and Bolingbroke, they were of no account to plain men.
There was yet another party not content to watch and wait till the plotters lost themselves in their own mysteries. The men whom Harley and Bolingbroke had driven from power had no mind to submit to impotence. They well knew what they wanted: the Hanoverian, the lawful, limited king upon the throne and themselves as his ministers. They were not delicate about the means they used. Since there were treason and plots, they too turned their hands to plotting and with a vigour and ruthless resolution of which the other camp was innocent.
So the wise and eminent were busy while Harry Boyce and his Alison made trial of their marriage. Harry lived in a dream of bewildered happiness. He had counted on nothing but the need of his passion, hoped for nothing but its ecstasy in her beauty, and at its wildest the strain of gloom in him had bade him dread what lay beyond. She gave him a miracle of mad delight. A new force of life was born in him while he enjoyed her joy. It was a discovery of intoxicating power that he could wake that rare, consummate creature to such eager exultation as his own. In those wonderful hours it seemed that they passed out of themselves into a world where every part of their being was one and in the happiness of unbounded strength. So passion and she kept faith with him and something more. But the miracle of passion in her arms had less enchantment than the joy of the quiet hours. It was with this that she bewildered him. Before she yielded to him, he would have jeered at the hope that she might bring the gift of peace in her bosom. As the first days of marriage passed he learnt that all his placid loneliness had been the mere endurance of hunger. He had stayed himself with the husk of life. She satisfied him with the fruit. For she too could be calm, delighting in the little daily things, utterly happy with nonsense. To share all that with her was to find in it a strange, lulling enchantment of content.
His fortune seemed too good to be real. For he possessed all that ever fancy had pretended was worth coveting: his life was a perfect happiness. No doubts from within, no troubles from without, had power to assail him. All the old, reasonable, practical fears were become ludicrous cowardice, only remembered for Alison to tease with. As for other people, and what they said and thought and did, some folks were kind and were welcome, no folks were of account. He and she deliciously sufficed themselves. And there was no dread of change, save in age and death, infinitely distant and insignificant—no matter but to glorify the power of life. Sometimes he was aware that the wonder of passion must grow faint and fail, but he saw nothing which could take from him the quiet, exquisite, daily joys. Was it real, or a charmed dream, this perfect fortune of content? Indeed, nothing was real in those days but the delight in being with her.
Alison had her share. He did not deceive himself. She had her ecstasies and her exultations, she thought herself even madder than he was. And in these days, perhaps, her passion was deeper and stronger than his. She was satisfied, she felt herself accomplished, and gloried in her new power with a more profound, a more secret delight than his. She had given him eagerly all that she had, and in the giving found herself more than ever her own. For all the union, the deepest, truest self in her stood aloof in a mystery. It was not of her will, for she desired to deny him nothing. She did not reckon him weak in failing to take all of her. This must needs be the way of life. No man's passion could be stronger than his. Doubtless he too had his secret soul apart. And indeed it was glorious not to lose self in love, to stay always, through the ecstasies, aloof, to give always anew of will and choice—never to merge helpless in some unknown double being and become only half a body, half a soul, capitulating always to the rest, to the other.
This self-glorious pride of hers gave her for a while that zest in all the trivial common things which made her a companion so delightful to Harry's temper. But she enjoyed them in a spirit different from his. All the bread-and-butter business of living was to him delightful in itself and for itself. He was born to want no better bread than is made of wheat. She played with it, made a dainty mock of it, amused herself with it, and at the back of her mind despised it.
So they lived, and you imagine Mrs. Weston's dim, wistful eyes watching them with a great tenderness. For she understood them no better than they themselves.
It was Alison who first grew tired. Not of love or passion, but of the trivialities and the quiet life at Highgate. She had ambitions, or thought she had. It had been just rediscovered that women could be leaders in the world—at least in politics and the tricks of statecraft. Women were the fiercest partisans and their voices powerful in the warring parties. It was a woman, his termagant duchess, who had given Marlborough his ascendancy in England, made him dominate all Europe. It was a clever woman who had contrived Marlborough's downfall and given his enemies the government of England. It was a woman—another duchess—who beat Swift. You need not suspect Alison, who had some humour, of imagining Harry Boyce a Marlborough. But he did believe him able to make a noise in the world, and coveted much the sensation of owning him while the world listened. She did not see herself controlling queens and kings and parties, but she was well aware of her beauty and its power, and had a mind to use it widely. She was hungry for excitement.
So Mrs. Alison determined to set her man upon a larger, busier stage. The decree went forth that old Tom Lambourne's house in the Lincoln's Inn Fields was again to be inhabited. Harry was asked for his advice afterwards. Perhaps he would have been wiser if he had begun their first quarrel then. But he was enjoying her too much to deny her her ways or her whims, and he only laughed at her. He was not pleased, to be sure. He had a taste, which cannot have come from his father, for copse and field. He never found anything in the town which was worth the living in other folk's smoke. He disliked crowds and in particular crowds of fine ladies and gentlemen. So with some horror he saw before him a vista of polite splendours, and said so.
"Oh Lud, sir," says she, "if I had wanted to sleep my life away I should not have married you. And if you wanted to sleep out yours you should not have married me."
"I was born for innocence and green fields. You'll make me a bull in a china shop."
"I'll love you the better, child. Faith, Harry, I would be very glad to have you break something."
"Madame's heart, par exemple?"
"That would be an adventure."
So you find them arrived in the Lincoln's Inn Fields as the first step to the conquest of the world. The world was not as excited as Alison thought fit. Her father, old Tom Lambourne, had commanded reverence in the City and some respect even as far west as St. James's by sheer weight of wealth. A rare capacity for living hard had won him an army of diverse friends. But neither his business nor his pleasures provided him with many who could be bequeathed to his daughter. Her mother, born a baker's daughter in Shoe Lane, having died in giving Alison birth, had left her nothing besides her admirable body but some grumbling objects of charity. It remained for Alison to make her own way in the world of fine ladies and gentlemen. Since she was by certain fame an heiress of great possessions, her way might have been easy if she had not found herself a husband. The taint of the city, if she had borne herself humbly, need not have made her quite intolerable to people of birth. But since her money was already married she could only be reckoned as a city goodwife; pretty enough, indeed, to be game for fine gentlemen, but to fine ladies a nobody.
Folks were slow in coming to the grand house in Lincoln's Inn Fields; slower still, if they had houses of elegance, to ask Mrs. Alison back. It suited Harry very well. He would, as his wife complained, go mooning across the fields to Islington almost as happily as through the woods at Highgate. His books had almost as good a savour in town as in the country. When she dragged him to hear Nicolini or Wilks or the Bracegirdle, he could console himself by gentle jeering over the fact that in a playhouse where everybody knew everybody not a creature had a bow for him or her. Of course she smarted. Day by day he chose to affect astonishment over her failures, believing with infatuated content that he was slowly driving her back to the country and sanity, though he was but driving her away from him. And she, choosing to feel humiliated, blamed him for the shame of it.
"Why, child," says he in his supercilious way, "'tis not failing to be in the beau monde that's ridiculous, but wanting to be."
To such monitions she began not to answer back—a symptom very dangerous.
She set up a basset table. That, if anything could, must proclaim her a woman of fashion—a woman, indeed, who had a fancy to be a trifle daring. There's no doubt that Alison about this time and afterwards did want to dabble in danger. She was not her father's daughter for nothing. She encouraged high play. For herself, she enjoyed the excitement of it, having no need to care if she lost. She wanted to have about her people who affected heavy stakes, believing in the innocence of her heart that they were exhilarating company. So she made for herself a queer society, which Harry to her angry disgust defined as a mixture of sheep and wolves. There were good wives and lads from the city anxious to make a jingling show with the funds of the family counting-house, there were hungry beaux and madames from the other end of the town seeking their fortune impudently wherever it might be found.
To one of these happy parties there was introduced a Mrs. Boyce. She was a faded, handsome creature much jewelled about lean shoulders. Alison, who hardly heard her name in the rout, took no account of it and little of her. But on the next day this Mrs. Boyce came early and caught Alison alone.
She began with such a fuss about apologizing for her earliness that Alison set her down for an ill-bred, tiresome creature. She had a high voice which, like the rest of her, was a trifle faded. "I protest, ma'am, I have long desired to know you better." Alison languidly muttered something civil. "Let me make myself known first, I beg. I am the niece of Sir Gilbert Heathcote."
Alison, of course, had heard of Sir Gilly—one of the chiefs of high finance—but cared nothing about him. "I am vastly honoured, ma'am. I was only born Thomas Lambourne's daughter."
"There is no need; ma'am." A long, lean hand was waved. "I wonder if we are in some fashion connected. We are both called Mrs. Boyce. The Boyces of Oxfordshire, ma'am?"
Alison's laugh had something of a sneer in it, "Of nowhere that I know, ma'am. My husband is Mr. Harry Boyce, son of Colonel Oliver Boyce."
The lady fluttered her fan, settled herself afresh in her chair, rearranged her close-fitting lips. Alison was reminded of a hen preening itself. "I had heard so, ma'am. And my husband is Colonel Oliver Boyce."
"La, ma'am, do you mean the same?" Alison cried.
Mrs. Oliver Boyce gave a lifeless smile. "That is why I did myself the honour of giving you my confidence, ma'am. I think there are not two Colonel Oliver Boyces. The younger son of one of the Oxfordshire family."
"Oh Lud, how should I know? I never looked into the grandfathers."
"No, ma'am?" The tone was patronizing contempt. "You might have been the wiser of it. Colonel Oliver Boyce—he has taken the title lately—when I knew him he was something in the service of the Duke of Marlborough. Oh, a fine man to the eye, ma'am, and very splendid in his talk."
"Why, that's his likeness," Alison laughed. "And what then, ma'am? Have you come seeking the Colonel? He is the Lord knows where. Or is it—faith, you don't tell me Harry is your son?"
"No, ma'am. At least I was spared bearing children."
"Oh—why, give you joy if you would have it so. But how can I serve you? Maybe your Colonel is not my Colonel after all. At least he and Harry are father and son heartily enough."
"It may be so, ma'am," said the lady heavily, and here Harry came in.
Alison looked up laughing and then frowned. Harry would not ever dress fine. His wig was still unfashionably small, he wore some sombre stuff, and to her eye (as she said) looked like a mole. "Here's Mr. Boyce, ma'am. Harry, Mrs. Oliver Boyce, who is come to say that you never had father nor mother."
"Your obliged servant, ma'am." Harry opened his eyes. "Pray, has my father married again?"
"You'll find, sir, that Colonel Boyce has only been married once."
"If you please, ma'am," said Harry blandly. "Pray, are you blaming him? Or—" a gesture expressed his complete ignorance of what she was doing.
The lady seemed to force herself to laugh. "Oh, fie, sir. Sure it is not for me to blame him."
"No, ma'am?" Harry was first interrogative then acquiescent. "No, ma'am. I wonder if you could give me the Colonel's direction."
"I, sir? You are pleased to amuse yourself."
"I vow, ma'am, I was never less amused."
"Colonel Boyce was pleased to leave me five years ago. I have not forgotten it, if you have."
"Faith, this is very distressing," Harry protested in bewilderment. "But you do me injustice, ma'am. I have forgotten nothing about my father. For I never knew anything."
"As you please, sir," the lady drawled. "I was talking, by your leave, to Mrs. Boyce."
"Oh, ma'am, a hundred pardons," Harry took himself off in a hurry. His chief emotion over the lady seems to have been satisfaction that she wanted nothing to do with him. As for her story of being his father's deserted wife, he had long supposed his father capable of anything. As for the lady herself, he wrote her down a tiresome busybody and perhaps he was not far wrong.
Alison too was much of the same opinion, but it was unfortunately hampered by a natural curiosity to hear what the lady could tell about the mystery of Harry and his father. "You had something to say to me, ma'am?"
"I count it my duty, ma'am, to give you warning of Colonel Boyce."
Alison stood up. "Duty? I know nothing of your duty, ma'am. But I think it is mine not to listen to you."
"I protest, I should have said the same," the lady drawled. "I too had spirit once, child. That was before I suffered. I would I had known you earlier. And yet perhaps I may do something to save you even now."
"I cannot tell how, ma'am."
"Listen, if you please!" the lady said dramatically. "I was something of an heiress as you are and maybe something of a toast too. The worse for me. I choose to believe it was not only my money which brought Oliver Boyce upon me. He took all I could give him and very soon gave me nothing, not even common courtesy. When I began to be careful he began to be brutal. But for my family—I told you that Sir Gilbert Heathcote was my uncle—he would have stripped me of every penny. When they stepped in to save me some rag of my fortune, my good Mr. Boyce left me. I have never had a word from him since. Pray, child, take warning."
"If it is so, I am sorry for it," said Alison coldly, "I believe I hear company." She began to walk to the outer room.
Behind her, "As for your Harry Boyce," said the lady, "oh, I make no doubt he's Oliver's son, though certainly he is none of mine."
Alison made as if she did not hear, and she was spared more by the coming of some of her guests. The card tables filled. There was no more danger of being private with Mrs. Oliver Boyce. Indeed, the lady, as if she had done all she wanted, took her leave early. She was affectionate about it, for which Alison liked her none the better. Through most of that evening, amid the flutter of cards and the clatter—"Spadillio, on my life! What, it's Basto, is it? Did you hear of Mrs. Prue? She'll not show for a month. We win the Codille, ma'am. They say the Duchess and she pulled caps"—Alison was telling herself over and over that the creature was a detestable low thing who only wanted to make mischief. It should, you think, have needed no effort to believe that. But the obvious malice had power to annoy a mind already discontented. Alison could not stop wondering what the mystery was about Harry's birth and his father. Perhaps Harry knew more than the little he professed. Perhaps he was not the careless, indolent fellow he chose to seem, but something more cunning and less lofty. What if he were just such another as the woman painted his father—a fellow on the hunt for an heiress, who, once he had her and her money, cared no more about her? To be sure there was some evidence for that. Since they had come to town, he was always off by himself. If she wanted him with her, she had to plead and plague him. A proud office! Why, that very night monsieur did not please to appear at the card tables. He was too fine for her and her company. So she fretted and rubbed the poison in. And naturally, she fared ill at the card table. Her cards were bad and she made the worst of them. She was not a good loser and it was a wife much inflamed who, when her guests were gone, sought out her husband.
Harry sat with Mrs. Weston, who was at needlework and, if Alison had been able to see, looked very benign. But it was he who demanded all the wife's angry eyes. His wig was on the table beside him. He had a pipe in his mouth. He was lolling in the deeps of a chair and smiling to himself over a book. "You might be in an ale-house, you look so slovenly."
Harry grinned up at her. "Oh, madame wife hasn't been winning to-night. Tell me all about it."
"Faugh! Your pipe," Alison coughed. "For God's sake keep it to the tavern. It's enough that you reek of it without making my house reek too."
Harry gave a great sigh and put the pipe down. "We were so comfortable till you came. I am glad to see you, dear."
"I was comfortable till you came." Alison snapped.
"Pray, mother Weston," says Harry, "forgive our public caresses. We have not long been married."
Alison looked ice at him. "Weston dear, would you leave us? I have something to say to Harry." Harry opened his eyes. Mrs. Weston looked at her anxiously, bade them a nervous good-night, and hurried out.
"Harry—who was your mother?" Alison stood stern over the lolling husband.
"Egad, what's this? Have you been brooding over your bony friend? Who is she?"
"She says she is your father's wife; and says he left her."
"Well, if she is his wife, I wager he did leave her. Faith, she was made to be deserted."
"What do you know of her?"
"Nothing, by the grace of God. Why should I? If my father got drunk and married her, he would not want to talk about it when he was sober."
"I despise you when you talk so," Alison cried.
"And yet you listened to her, child."
"She says that he took all her money before he left her."
"Oh! Pray, why has she so much to say, and to you?"
"She wanted to warn me against Colonel Boyce."
"And against his son, I think. And you were so kind as to listen. Egad, ma'am, I am obliged to you. Well, now you know what to do. You have the money and I have none. Pray, lock up your purse to-night."
"You are childish," said Alison with lofty scorn. "Harry—who was your mother?"
"Oh, I thought your kind friend told you I had none. I dare say it's as true as the rest."
"You don't know?"
"I never saw her."
"She said—" Alison hesitated.
"Oh Lud, don't be squeamish now."
"She said your father had never been married except to her."
"Odso! That is what you had to tell me. I am a bastard, am I?" He laughed and turned in his chair. "Give you good-night, madame wife."
"Oh, God save you!" He took up his pipe. "I am no company for you. And, by God, you are no company for me."
She looked at him a moment, hesitated, went slowly out.