The Highwayman (Bailey)/Chapter XX
Harry was not gone far. In Long Acre stood a tavern calling itself 'The Hand of Pork.' This had always tempted Harry, whose tastes were of the people. While still a domesticated husband, he had tried its ale with satisfaction. When he left Alison it was to 'The Hand of Pork' that he brought his small, battered box.
He had a few guineas in his pocket, and made a wry face over them. "Ill-gotten gains," says he, for some were the scraped savings of Geoffrey Waverton's tutor and some the pocket money of Alison's husband. But he was in no case to be delicate. Beef and bread had to be paid for, and, in fact, his scruples were little more than a joke. It is not to be concealed that in minor things Harry Boyce was not nicely honest. If you can imagine him seriously arguing over that money—a thing impossible—he would have said that the guineas were of consequence to him and none to Geoffrey and Alison, that whether he had dealt honestly by them or not, it would not better his case to pay them back a few shillings. You have seen that he had qualms of conscience over the rights of Geoffrey's service and Alison's arms. But the ugly, awkward details gave him no trouble. He may, if you please, have swallowed a camel or so, but he never strained at a gnat.
Now that he was done with Geoffrey and Alison, both, his first feeling was comfort. It was a huge relief to be his own man again. He told himself indeed that he was mighty grateful to Geoffrey for bringing on the final explosion. For one thing, it wiped off all Geoffrey's score. If Master Geoffrey had been treated shabbily, Master Geoffrey had played a shabby trick. They could call quits—a pleasant sensation. It would have been awkward if Geoffrey had chosen to be magnanimous nobility. But he was never intelligent, the poor Geoffrey.
He had done his best to be damaging, bless him, and in all ways had been a benefactor. For, in fact, it was a great relief to be done with Alison. What with her fretful discontent, her rages, her industrious hate, she had made herself intolerable. I do not suppose that he forgot, even in the heat of the divorce, the exquisite pleasure which for a while she had given him. I think he was always ready to acknowledge that to himself, for it is certain that he bore her no malice, and if he blamed her for their catastrophe, blamed himself as much. He might make the most or more of all the taunts, of her zeal to find occasions for despising him. He forgot nothing and forgave her nothing; he wrote her down a cruel enemy. But he did not pay her back with equal hate; he dismissed all the warfare and the wounds with a shrug of sagacious cynicism.
She hated him? She had the right, she was his wife. And perhaps she was in the right too. He must fairly be reckoned a very poor match for her beauty and her wealth and her not insignificant brains. After all, he was essentially a nobody—a nobody in every department, body, mind, and soul. She might even claim that she had been cheated, for if she ought to have known that she was marrying a nobody, she could not guess that he had a bar-sinister or a disreputable father. Certainly Madame Alison could plead something of a case.
You are not to suppose Harry in an ecstasy of meek devotion. He was quite sure that she had behaved to him very badly. He admitted no excuse for her eagerness to hurt him as soon as she was tired of him. She might hate him; but after all there were obligations of courtesy, of decency, of womanhood, and her venomous temper had broken them all. He was well rid of her. In fine, she and he could call quits as well as he and Geoffrey. There was no occasion to rage against her. She had treated him badly, but, first, he had brought her into an awkward mess. Faith, she ought not to have hurried into a marriage for passion if passion was so soon to sate her. But then, what man would blame a woman for marrying for passion? Not the man she married, who might rather humble himself because he had not been able to keep her passion alive. Well, it was over, and since it was over, nothing for it but to part. God be with her! She had given him his hour. And he—why, at least she had lived with him moments she would not forget. A glorious woman. It is probable that in these first hours of their parting he began to love her.
So much for his emotions. But you will not suppose that Harry Boyce was wholly occupied with emotions. He could not indeed afford it. He had to make some provision for keeping alive. Perhaps you will be surprised to hear that he had a friend or two. There was an usher at Westminster, and a hack writer of Lintot's in Little Britain. He did not propose to live on them, who had hardly enough to feed themselves. But he looked for them to put him in the way of some pittance, and they did. The usher had news that, after Ascension-Day, Westminster would be wanting a writing master, for the man in possession hoped by then to marry the dean's cook and set up an ale-house. The author procured a commission to write two lampoons and a pamphlet against French wines. In the intervals of this occupation, Harry looked for his father.
It would be hard to guess—Harry himself could not have told—what he hoped to gain by that. He wanted, of course, to find out the truth of the mission to France. Whether his father was likely to tell it, he could not make up his mind. What he would do with the truth if ever he learnt it, he did not know in the least. Suppose the best event: suppose his father could declare excellent intentions and Geoffrey a liar. Harry imagined himself going to Alison with the news and demanding to be taken on again. A nightmare joke.
Yet to come at the truth seemed the most important task in life. The first step, though you think it impossibly difficult, did not dismay him. He had no doubt of discovering his father. That Colonel Boyce should have been killed or even caught was incredible. He was not the man so to oblige his enemies. It was incredible, too, that he would go long into hiding. Away from the importance of bustle and intrigue he could not exist. Therefore he would certainly come back to London: therefore sooner or later he would be found at one of the coffee-houses favoured by the brisk fellows in the underworld of politics—at Tom's, or the British, or Diggory's by the Seven Dials. He might be heard of among the fire-eating Jacobites of Sam's. There were not so many likely places, but Harry laid down more pennies than he could spare at the bars, and all in vain.
He sat in Sam's on an afternoon chopping Greek tags with a jolly, fanatical old parson. The days were fast lengthening, and for one reason or another—the company at Sam's were not too fond of light—only a candle here and there was burning. A little man came in with a party very obsequious to him. As he walked up to the bar Harry had a glimpse of a lean, brown face. He remembered it and yet no more than faintly, and could not tell where he had seen it. It did not much engage him, and he went on with his Greek and his parson. The little man made some noise with the pretty girl behind the bar, claiming the privileges of an old friend and a good deal of liquor, and it was a little while before he was established at a table with his party. Harry chose to mouth out something Homeric and sounding. The little man stopped in the middle of lighting his pipe. "I know that roll, pardieu!" he muttered, and in a florid fashion declaimed, "Fol de rol de row," and laughed alcoholically. "Who's talking Hebrew here?"
One of his party pointed out Harry and the parson. The little man blinked through the smoky twilight. He stood up, took his candle and lurched across the room to Harry. Down under Harry's nose he put the candle with a bang. Harry jerked back and glared at him, and he, rocking a little and blinking, said thickly, "It's a filthy likeness, after all, it is."
"No, sir, there's only one of me," said Harry. "If you see two, give God the glory and go to bed."
"I'm saying, bully, I'm saying," the little man's accent became more Caledonian and he clutched at Harry's shoulder. "I'm saying, my laddie—"
"Damme, that's what I complain of."
"I'm saying I do not like your complexion. It's yellow, my jo, it's a wee rotten orange, it is so." His company, a faithful tail, shook with laughter.
"Sleep it off, sir," says Harry, with a shrug.
"What's your will? Clip it off, do ye say so? Losh, you would have a face or two to spare. Eh, but I'm doubting you know too much o' clipping. There's clippit ears, and maybe you have a pair." He twitched Harry's bob wig awry; and with singular luck reeled out of the reach of Harry's answering blow. "Ay, and there's clippit shillings and maybe ye make your filthy living by their parings and shavings. Well a well, and there's clippit wings; and I'll clip yours, my bonny goose, the night." He clutched at the wig again and tossed it into the fire.
Harry sprang up and struck at him. He flung himself backwards into the arms of his friends and with a surprising adroitness plucked out his sword. "Have at ye, my man;" he giggled and made a pass.
"Easy, Captain," says one of his company. "The boy hath no sword."
"Oh ay, 'tis the Lord that's a man of war. The devil was aye for peace. Well, what ails ye not to lend the imp a bodkin?"
The fat old keeper of the coffee-house waddled into the midst. "Sure, Captain, you don't mean it. I would need to set my lads upon you. 'Tis disorderly homicide, indeed. Ye can't mean it. Not downstairs. I'll not deny there's the elegant parlour on the first floor."
"Ye're a canting old devil, Sam," says the little man. "But I'll oblige you. Come up, my bully, and I'll show you a thing."
"Here's for you, cully." One of the company thrust upon Harry a sword.
"Oh, by your leave,"—Harry waved it oft—"I don't fight a drunken man."
"Drunk!" the little man screamed. "Ods blades, there's a naughty way to mock a gentleman. I'll school you, bully; fou or fasting, I'll school you. What, you'll not lug out, like a bonny lad should? I jaloused it. I'm thinking you would take a beating like a lamb, laddie. Well a well. I'll be blithe to rub you down with an oaken towel. Here, Patrick, give us your staff."
"Oh, I see you must be let blood." Harry shrugged. "Well, sir, do I fight the whole platoon?"
"You're peevish, do you know, you're peevish. Here, Fraser, give him your hanger. Do you second the bairn, Donald? Come, Patrick, I'll have you. There's one for you and one for me, my man, and damn all favours."
It seemed to Harry that the little man's company were something surprised at this turn, but they took it in a disciplined silence. So the party of four marched up the stairs. You will believe that Harry liked the business ill enough. He shot glances at the two chosen for seconds. There was nothing sottish about them. They were very soberly alert, they had the tan and the vigour of open-air life. They looked anything but the fit comrades for a swashbuckling tavern hero. They were as stiff as pokers, they said not a word, they showed not a sign of interest in the affair—rather like two soldiers on guard than ready seconds in a drunken brawl. Once in the upper room they made their arrangements with solemn care, locking the door, clearing a sufficient space, and setting the candles so that the light fell fairly. Harry was taken aside, helped out of his coat, asked if he needed anything, gravely advised to risk nothing and play close.
"We are at your service, Mr. O'Connor," says Donald.
"At your pleasure, Mr. Mackenzie," says the other.
Harry was set against the little man and the swords crossed. It then occurred to him that the little man was very suddenly recovered from his liquor. The blustering chatter had been cut off as soon as they started up the stairs. Since then the little man had spoken not one word. Of the unsteadiness, the blinking, the rocking to and fro, nothing remained. He had marched to his place with a formal precision. There was the same manner, a correctness exact and staccato, about this sword play.
The knave can never have been drunk, Harry said to himself as he sweated and was the more embarrassed by bewilderment. But he dared not let himself think. The little man was urgently dangerous, and Harry knew enough to know it. Harry had no pretensions to science. All he could use was the rudiments. He had kept his head at singlestick, held his own with the foil against other lads, and never before faced a point. The little man had the speed and certainty of a maître d'armes. So Harry fought, breathing hard, every muscle aching, mind numb and dazed under the strain, expecting—hoping—every moment the thrust that would make an end.
It did not come. The ache and fever of the fight went on and on. Still the little man was masterful and precise. Still he demanded all Harry's vigour and more than all, kept him struggling desperately, beset by fear on the edge of death. Harry felt himself weakening, faltering, and still the opposing blade searched his defence sharply, still the little man was an exemplar of easy precision. And yet Harry's maladroitness always sufficed to save his skin. He was puzzled, and blundered and fumbled the more. The play grew slower and slower, and he was the more tortured, enduring many times the shame and the pain of defeat.
At last he had hit upon the truth. He was wondering in a dazed fashion why that other sword seemed always to wait on him when he made a gross mistake. Visibly, palpably, the little man's blade halted to give him time for a parry. Harry dropped his point and gasped out, "Damme, sir, you are playing with me."
"What's your will? I fight my own way. At your convenience, sir."
"The Captain's within his right, sir," says Harry's solemn second.
"Damn you, for a pack of mountebanks!" Harry cried.
"On guard, sir," says the little man.
Harry gave him an oath and dashed at him. There was a moment's wild fighting and then the little man forced it back to order. They were at the old game again, precise scientific thrust, pause, and blundering parry, when to Harry's amazement the little man's sword wavered and flew from his hand.
Through a long minute Harry stood staring at him, and he waiting unarmed for Harry's thrust. Again Harry lowered his sword. At once the little man stooped and picked up his. "Do you demand to continue, Captain?" says his second.
"You're a fool, Patrick," quoth the little man.
The impenetrable second saluted and turned to his fellow. "Another bout, if you please, Mr. Mackenzie."
"Would you grant it, sir?" says Harry's solemn Scot.
"Egad, we are all mad here," Harry wiped his brow. "Oh, play it out to hell."
The little man saluted formally and again they engaged. And now Harry was enveloped in another kind of fighting. Scientific it might be, but science far beyond his understanding. The little man's point was everywhere upon him and he thrusting blindly at the air. He might have been pinked a score times over, he was for all he knew. And then on a sudden his own point touched something. Next moment it was struck up to the ceiling. Some one called out "A hit." He saw the two seconds standing between the swords and a red scratch on the little man's cheek.
"Touché," says he with a bow. "My compliments, if you please. It's some while since a man marked me. I am glad to know you, sir. Pray, what's your name?"
"Harry Boyce, sir."
"Egad, it's wonderful!" says the little man, with a laugh which appealed to Harry. "Hector McBean, at your service." Harry stared. "Aye, aye, I'm thinking we'll explain ourselves. Will you walk, sir?"
"If you please."
Captain McBean took his arm, said over his shoulder to the two seconds "To-morrow," and marched off with him. Once they were out in the street, "So you are Colonel Noll Boyce's son," says Captain McBean with an odd look.
"He has often told me so."
"If you had not such a look of him I wouldn't believe it. Oh, pardon, monsieur, mille pardons, ma foi. I have been insolent to you in all this affair. You'll please to observe that the whole of it, and the issue, is to your honour. Will I have to say more?"
"Oh Lud, no. Pray, let's talk sense."
"I take to you marvellously, mon enfant. Well now, have you heard of me?"
"Enough to want much more."
"What, has father been talking?"
"D'ye know where he is, Captain McBean?"
"I wish I did."
"So do I. It was Mr. Waverton who told the tale. Now you know why I am eager to hear what you can say of my father or my father of you."
"Are you a good son, Mr. Boyce?"
"I pay my debts."
"There's a crooked answer. Are you in the Colonel's secrets?"
"I have no reason to think so."
"I guess he did not trust you. I guess he was right. Do you remember where you met me first?"
"I remember that I can't remember."
"And me that thought I was a beauty! Well, but you were busy. You were making mud pies with Ben."
"I have it. You were his captain on the horse. Pray, sir, what was my Benjamin's mystery?"
"I am going to trust you, Mr. Boyce. I shall not require you to trust me unless you choose. I tell you frankly I hope for it. And so—come in with you."
They turned out of the Strand into Bow Street. Captain McBean let himself into a house, and took Harry up to a room very neat and cosy. "D'ye drink usquebaugh? A pity. It's the cleanest liquor. Well, draw up." He pushed a tobacco-box across the table. "That's right Spanish. Now, mon cher, are you Jacobite or Hanoverian?"
"I never could tell."
"Oh, look you, I ask no confidences. And I make no doubt of your honour. If you had a mind to play tricks you would have tried one on me to-night. Well, I have proved you. Your pardon again. But when I saw Noll Boyce's son lurking in Sam's, how could I know he was without guile? Now there is something I must say to you. But how much I say is a question. I have no desire to embarrass you with awkward knowledge. So which is your king, mon enfant, James or George?"
"I care not a puff of smoke for either."
"So. I suppose there is something you care for. Well—you asked about Ben's mystery. It's a good beginning. The rascal should have stopped the Duke of Marlborough's coach and held it till I came up with my fellows. Instead of which he went about some private thieving. I am your debtor for giving the knave his gruel. What's Marlborough to me? It's not his dirty guineas I was after, but his papers. He was then pretending to negotiate with St. Germain. There were those of us who doubted the old villain had some black design in his head again, and it was thought that if we could turn over his private papers, we should know where to have him. It was certified that he had with him something from his agents abroad. Well, we missed him, and how deep he is dipped in this business, I know no more than you.
"Now I come to your father, mon enfant, and I promise you I will be as delicate as I may. Do you know, par exemple, how Colonel Boyce is in the mouths of gentlemen?"
"Oh, sir, that's another of the matters for which I care nothing."
"Tenez donc. You were born old, I think. Well, Colonel Boyce has been in some few plots, devices, and manoeuvres. No man ever denied him wit, nor will I, mordieu. But it's his virtue that neither his friends nor his enemies were ever sure of him. I believe, Mr. Boyce, that if he heard me he would thank me for a compliment. Bien—I come back to my tale.
"It was known to us poor Jacobites in England that Colonel Boyce was making salutes to St. Germain. Which much intrigued us, for we would not, by your leave, have him of our side. They don't know him there as we do, and King James, God save him! is young and honourable and sanguine."
"Poor lad," says Harry with a shrug.
"You may keep your pity, Mr. Boyce," McBean said stiffly. "I would have him so, by your leave. Now we heard that letters went to St. Germain from Colonel Boyce full of windy promises—verbosa et grandis epistola. D'ye keep up your humanities?—in the name of my Lord Sunderland and my Lord Stair. Black names both. But they were vastly intrigued at St. Germain. If Sunderland and Stair were ready to turn honest, then pardieu, there was hope of the devil himself. Oh, I don't blame the King nor even Charles Middleton, though he is old enough to be slow. The times are changing, and maybe Stair and Sunderland they see it as well as we, and mean to find salvation. I can't tell. But the thing looked ill. Stair and Sunderland—there is no treachery too foul for those names. And if they meant honestly, why—saving your presence, mon enfant—why did they choose Colonel Boyce for their agent? It was no good warranty. So we adventured a counter. We have friends enough now in the Government, mon cher, and it was arranged that the Colonel should be arrested as a Jacobite. A good stroke, I think. It was mine. Only the old gentleman dodged it."
"Pray, what did you know of Mr. Waverton?"
"That sheep's-head!" McBean laughed. "Why, a letter came to hand in which the Colonel talked of taking the pretty gentleman to France. So he was joined in the warrant. D'ailleurs—it made a good appearance. However, we missed him; but we found something in his papers which made me queasy. So I e'en was off to France after him.
"The Colonel stayed at Pontoise and sent your Waverton off to St. Germain with a mighty plausible letter about secret proposals from the chiefs of the Whigs, which brought the King out to hear them secretly. Ma foi! I think Charles Middleton should have smelt a rat. But it was a clever trick, and to choose your Waverton to play it was masterly. For who could think that peacock would be in anything crafty? At Pontoise I tumbled in upon them, and your father, mon cher, he ran off on sight of me. Observe, I press nothing against him. I allow that the best evidence I have against him is just that—he ran away when he saw me. Secondly, he had with him some three-four rascals whose faces would hang them. And thirdly and lastly, beloved brethren, these fellows, when put to it and charged with a plot to murder King James, were frightened for their lives and babbled wildly, of which the sum was that they had been brought but to kidnap him. I grant ye, they may have lied, and I would not hang a dog (who was not a Whig) upon their word. But confess, mon cher, the thing is black enough. What did the Colonel want with King James alone? Why did he need his bullies? Why did he run away? I leave it with you."
Harry knocked out his pipe. "I am obliged for the story, sir. Why did you tell it?"
"You have a cold blood in you, mon enfant," says Captain MacBean. "Observe, I look for nothing wonderful from you. I allow your position is very difficult to a man of honour. And with all my heart—"
"Oh Lud, sir, let's have nothing pathetic."
"Aye, aye," McBean bowed. "Mr. Boyce! I do profess I feel the delicacy of the affair, and I detest it, pardieu. But I dare not absolve ye from your duty."
"Oh, sir, you are very sublime."
"Hear me out, Mr. Boyce. I have shown you cause to fear that your father has it in mind to compass a vile treachery, perhaps a murder. Would you deny it?"
"Damme, sir, I am not the day of judgment."
"Bien. I believe that is an answer. I declare to you there is yet a chance that he may succeed, aye, here in London."
Harry swore. "If your friends must go walking into traps what is it to me?"
"Well, sir, though you will own no loyalty to king or queen or country, I'll not be deceived. I call on you for your aid. It's believed your father is in London. It is likely he will seek you out, as he did before. Maybe at this hour you know where he is."
"If I did, should I betray him to you, sir?"
"I ask no treachery. But I do call on you, discover his purpose if you can, and if he intends violence to the King, prevent it. Lord, sir, it's to save your father from infamy, and your own name."
"The King? The Pretender is in London?" Harry cried.
"I told you that I should trust you far, Mr. Boyce."
Harry stared at him, and after a moment stood up. "I can do nothing," he said. "It is of all things most unlikely that I should do anything. For what I know, my father is dead. He has been nothing else to me all my life. But I believe I should thank you."
"Well!" quoth McBean. "God help you. I ha' drawn a bow at a venture. I think I have hit something, Mr. Boyce."