The Highwayman (Bailey)/Chapter XXIII
Late in that evening one of Alison's servants rode up to the "Hand of Pork" and inquired for Mr. Boyce. After some parley, he was told that Mr. Boyce had not been in the tavern that day. So he left a letter in the tap and rode back to Highgate.
That letter, which was not heard of till long afterwards, ran thus:
"Mr. Boyce,—I desire that you would come to me at Highgate. I have to-day heard from Geoffrey Waverton what you must instantly know. And the truth is, I cannot be content till I speak with you. But I would not have you come for this my asking. Pray believe it is urgent for us both that we meet, and I do require it of you, not desiring of you what you may have no mind to, but to be honest with you, and lest that should befall which I hope you would not have me bear.—A."
An ungainly, confused composition, as you see, but it set forth very clearly the state of Alison's unhappy mind. She was revolted, of course, by Geoffrey's scheme of spying and trapping, loathed him for propounding it to her, and was eager to warn Harry against it and clear herself of any part in the vile business. But she would not have Harry suppose that she was praying him to come back to her. This time, at least, there should be no wooing on her side. If she wanted him hungrily, shamefully, he should not know till he chose to take her. But he must come to her and be told all the tale, and hold her free of any part in Geoffrey's baseness.
So she fought with herself and wrote of her strife, and, as things went, it mattered nothing to Harry, for he never knew of it till much else had happened.
When he woke on the morning after his affairs with Captain McBean and the Mohocks and his father—woke with a sore head and a very stiff shoulder, he was a prey to puzzled excitement. There is no doubt that McBean had engaged his affections. He was not, indeed, very grateful for the fantastic duel. Of all men, Harry Boyce was the least likely to be pleased by oddity or an extravagance of chivalry. He always thought, I believe, that Captain McBean was a little mad, and liked him none the better for it. But he confessed that with the madness there was allied a most persuasive mind, a very reasonable reason. The combination may not be so surprising to you as to Harry Boyce. He thought that McBean's exposition of the affair of his father, and his consequent duty, was exactly and delicately true—which means, of course, that it agreed with his own temper. He had no more doubt than McBean that his father had planned, was planning, treachery which, win or lose, would disgrace him. He admitted that it was his own wretched duty to do what he might to make an end of these plans.
You smile, perhaps, at Harry Boyce claiming for himself the commands of duty. He was eminently not a saint. He was not delicate. And yet, thrust upon an awkward choice, it is certain that he chose what must be difficult, hazardous, and distressing, rather than stand aloof and let his father's villainy go its way.
I make no pretence of exalting him into a tragic fellow. He had no affection for his father, no respect. Merely to work against his father's will, to smash his father's schemes, would certainly not have cost him one twinge. He had no hate for his father either, not the least ambition to ruin him or make him suffer. But he would heartily have liked to bring these murderous plots to nothing and yet save his father from vengeance. Harry had his share of the common human instinct to keep one's family out of mischief—or at least out of the newspapers.
And it is not to be denied that there was also active in him a simple human animosity. He bore his father a grudge for being publicly a knave: a man who had received nothing from his parents but the gift of birth might fairly demand that they should not bother him with their rogueries. He did not extenuate his father's share in the catastrophe of the marriage. Perhaps it was in itself fated to miscarry, but if Colonel Boyce had not mixed up his affairs with it, the end need not have been ignominious. Harry vigorously condemned the old gentleman's meddling. It was an impertinence at the best to manipulate other folks, and a father who did it so stupidly as Colonel Boyce was a pestilent nuisance. But all this, I believe, rankled less than the behaviour of Colonel Boyce on the night before. If the old gentleman had acknowledged his offences, if he had even been content to talk of them frankly, man to man, he might have been forgiven. But his affectation of profound wisdom, his patronage, and above all, his parade of mystery infuriated Harry's lucid mind.
It sought further causes of offence and had no difficulty in finding them. Everything about that conversation was suspicious. For how did it begin? With a broken head, with every button of his clothes torn open as though he had just been searched to the skin, he woke up in his father's presence. The father might pose as a good Samaritan who had come upon a sufferer by the wayside, but he should not have shown so nervous an anxiety to know what the sufferer had been about. The father talked of Mohocks; but what Mohocks were these who knocked a man down before making sport of him and, not content with taking his money, went through all his clothes? Why was a Mohock's club lying there beneath the father's swords? Harry made a ready guess at the riddle. His father must have fellows watching McBean's house. They had knocked him down to search him for papers. Then the father must have known that he had been with McBean, and those anxious questions were to discover how much he was McBean's friend. Colonel Boyce must have a lively interest in the affairs of McBean—and yet he professed that he had now nothing in hand. What if he knew of the secret of the Pretender's coming to London? What if he was still seeking a chance to accomplish his plot of murder?
Well, Captain McBean expected no less of him. Captain McBean was in the right of it. It became a good son's duty to confound his father's politics. There's no denying that Harry went into the business with zest.
While he ate his breakfast in the taproom, he caught sight of a fellow lurking about outside. Whose spy this was is, in fact, not certain. Afterwards Colonel Boyce vehemently denied that he had commissioned any man against Harry. Though you may not believe him, it is possible that the fellow was one of those in Waverton's pay. Harry made no doubt that his father was the offender.
He went upstairs again and put a book in his pocket. (He had been commissioned for a translation of Ovid, which, let us be thankful, never came into print.) Thus characteristically provided, he went out to baffle the spy and the father. In the courts between Drury Lane and Bow Street he did some ingenious marching and counter-marching whereby—he was always confident and we cannot be quite sure—the spy was shaken off. He then came into St. Martin's Lane by the north end, and dodging in and out of it more than once, made for a tavern close to his father's lodging. He planted himself inside by a window, called for a tankard and a pipe, and divided his attention between the Tristia and his father's door across the lane.
It soon appeared that Colonel Boyce was to have a busy morning. By ones and twos a dozen men went into his house. They were not, even to Harry's hostile eye, brazenly ruffians. Something of the bully they might have about them, for they ran to brawn and swagger, but they were trim enough and brisk, and had no smack of debauch—a company of old soldiers, by the look of them, and still not past their prime. They were with Colonel Boyce a long time, and Harry grew very sick of the Tristia, and had to drink more beer over it than was his habit of a morning.
They came out at last singly, and yet with very short intervals between them. They all turned the same way—across Leicester Fields. There seemed to Harry something so uncommon in this that he was moved to follow. He made his way out by the back door and the tavern yard. As he came into Leicester Fields, he saw that the units had already amalgamated into three companies. They were all steadily marching westward. Keeping behind a cart he followed them, and after a while bought for twopence a lift in an empty hay wagon. I record all this because he seems to have been very proud of it, which is characteristic of his simple nature. The hay wagon rumbled him past two companies of them halted and coalescing at an inn. The first still headed him at a good round pace all the way to Kensington.
The wagon was going through Kensington village when he saw that this vanguard too had found an inn. A little farther on he abandoned his wagon and, buying bread and cheese at a farm, made his dinner under the hedge. It was a long while before he saw anything more of the gentlemen of the inn, and lying among primroses and cowslips he nearly forgot all about them and his excitement and his wonderful tactics. He was, in fact, becoming sentimental, and had made three neat hendecasyllabics to the cowslips when the gentlemen came out again. They split into pairs and marched on briskly. Harry went through the hedge, and from behind it he watched them pass. Then, as now, the road ran straight, and it was not safe to come out and follow them till they were far ahead. While he waited he heard more tramping, and in a little while the rest of the company went by. He peeped out after them and saw an odd thing: though the road ran straight for a mile or more, the first party had vanished already.
Harry climbed a tree. It was some little time before he discovered the lost party. They had scattered, they had taken to the fields and, under hedges, they were making southward. The rest of the company did likewise. Soon he saw what they were after. There was a lane running from the high road towards Fulham. A little way back from it, in a good garden, stood a house of modest comfort, doubtless the place to which some gentleman about town came for his pleasures or a breath of fresh air. About its grounds the company went into hiding.
Harry came down from his tree in a hurry and, like an honest man, took to the high road. It was, you know, his one uncommon capacity to go easily at a round pace. He did his best along the road and down the lane and, though he caught a glimpse of a coat here and there, unchallenged he came up the drive and across the garden to the door of the house. He had hardly knocked before he was being inspected through a peep-hole. The door was opened and instantly shut behind him. He was in darkness dimly lit by one candle. The windows had their shutters closed and barred.
"What's your will, sir?" says the man who let him in.
"The master of the house, if you please," Two other men lounged into the hall.
"And your name, sir?"
"You may say that I came from Captain McBean."
The man appeared to think it over. "That's true enough, faith," says another, advancing out of the shadow. Harry recognised one of the solemn seconds of the duel, Patrick O'Connor. "Will I serve your turn, sir?"
"If you're master here."
"I am not. Come on now." He led the way to a room where a cadaverous man, richly dressed, sat huddled over a fire. "'Tis a gentleman from the captain, my lord. Mr. Boyce, my Lord Sale."
Harry bowed. My lord yawned. "You've a devil of a name, Mr. Boyce," says he.
"I deplore it, and hope to disgrace it."
"Is it possible?" said my lord, and yawned again.
"I had the honour to tell you, my lord, that I answer for the gentleman," says Mr. O'Connor.
"You may endorse the devil, if you please," my lord sneered.
Harry struck in, "I came to tell you, my lord, that your house is watched, and by now surrounded."
"Damn them, they have found it out, have they?" says my lord, and spread out his lean hands to the fire.
"How many, if you please?" says O'Connor.
"A dozen or so. They marched out this morning, scattered, and met again in the village and came here across country. They are well-armed, I believe, and look men who would fight."
"Ods fish, that nets this hole," says my lord. "Pray, Mr. Boyce, when will they put the ferret in?" Harry shrugged. "Oh, there's a limit to your kindness, is there? Do you choose to tell us who sent them?"
Harry was silent a moment and then blurted out: "They came from Colonel Boyce's lodging."
My lord laughed.
"Sure, 'tis an honour to know you, sir," says O'Connor, and bowed to Harry.
"Damned filial, indeed," my lord chuckled.
O'Connor turned upon him. "They have you beat easily, my lord," he said fiercely. "Damned courageous indeed." But my lord only nodded at him. "What, we be six—to count Mr. Boyce. Sure, we could hold the house against the devil's christening."
There came in briskly a tall fellow crying: "Come, Sale, it's full time, I believe."
My Lord Sale got on his feet, "Stap me, sir, I believe not," he drawled. "We must stay at home. They have smoked us. Here's a gracious youth come to tell us that his Whiggish friends beset the house."
The Pretender frowned and seemed slow to understand. Harry looked him over. He was certainly a fine figure of a man, and bore himself gallantly enough. His face was darkly handsome in a melancholy fashion, not unlike the youth of his uncle, Charles II. He turned upon Harry. "What is all this, sir?"
"Oh, sir, it's that old rogue Noll Boyce," my lord put in. "And here's his son betraying the father."
"Faith, my lord, I'll remind you of that," O'Connor said. "Sir, the gentleman is an honest gentleman."
"Colonel Boyce—he is your father, sir?" the Pretender bent his black brows over Harry.
"He begot me, he says." Harry shrugged. "I desire to defend you from him. He has surrounded your house here with a dozen sturdy knaves who intend you, I believe, the worst."
"I am obliged by your service, sir," says the Pretender coldly. "Pray, my lord, is the coach ready?"
My lord shook his head. "I don't advise it, sir. The good Mr. Boyce cannot be lying. Or allow the knaves mean but to frighten you. I dare not risk your person."
"Dare? You dare too much, my lord, who command neither my person nor my honour. I do not thank you for your advice. You will have the coach brought instantly."
"I ask your pardon, sir, and beg you to consider. What will the world say of me if I let you run into a gang of murderers? We can maintain the house against them till our friends come seeking us. In the open we are outnumbered desperately. Nay, sir, be advised; what is to lose by waiting? If you go, you grasp at a shadow and may throw away your life for it."
"I say, my lord, I do not thank you for your care of me, which is careless of my honour and your own. I am promised to our friends. Do you desire me to go afoot, my lord?"
"I have done, sir." My lord bowed and went out.
"Sir, I believe they will not spare you," says Harry.
"I have heard you," the Pretender said haughtily, and waved him away.
"I'll not be put off so." The Pretender turned upon him. "Sir, I have done what I could to save your life from a base plot. If it succeeds, the shame of it must fall upon me and my name, for it's my cursed father that planned it. And you choose to run upon the danger. I entreat you, do me right. Your blood should not be upon my head."
"You have done your duty, Mr. Boyce," the Pretender bowed. "I thank you. But I must do mine."
"Why, faith, sir, 'tis the right principle of war to wait the rogues here," says O'Connor. "You will not?"
"Go to, man, I say it again and again."
For the first time in their acquaintance, Harry saw Mr. O'Connor smile. "I have the honour to take your orders, sir. But sure, we are not at the end of our tactics. I'll presume to advise you. Let the coach come to the door, and me and the other gentlemen will make some display of mounting her and guarding her; she moves off slowly; it's any odds the rogues will believe we have you with us and deliver their main attack, while you'll be mounting quietly in the yard with my lord and ride off with him to Kensington."
"The plan is well enough. Have it so," said the Pretender carelessly.
O'Connor went out in a hurry and Harry followed him. "I'll join you, if you please, Mr. O'Connor."
O'Connor laughed. "Oh, your servant, your servant. No offence, Mr. Boyce. I profess I have an admiration for you. But, faith, you are not a man of war. Do you go round to the stable-yard, now, and watch there to see they prepare nothing against us from the back." He bustled off, calling up his fellows.
So Harry, with a long face, I suppose, drifted away to the back of the house. The coach was already moving out of the yard, and he saw no sign of his father's legion. In a moment the groom, with one of O'Connor's men to help him, was busy again in the stable. Still the legion did not reveal themselves. O'Connor's man ran back into the house, leaving two horses saddled in the stable. Then the Pretender and my lord hurried out, and the horses were brought to meet them. As they mounted, Harry heard the clatter of the coach and then pistols and shouts, and the clash of fighting.
The Pretender spurred off, my lord taking the lead of him through the gate. As they passed, a shot was fired out of the hedge. My lord swayed, fumbling at his holsters, and crying out: "Ride on, sir, ride," fell from the saddle. His foot was caught in the stirrup, and the frightened horse dragged him along the ground.
Harry ran up and snatched the bridle. "How is it with you, my lord?"
"I have enough, I believe," my lord gasped. "Damme, sir, don't fumble at me. Mount and after him."
So Harry went bumping in the saddle after the Pretender.