The Highwayman (Bailey)/Chapter XXIV
The Pretender looked over his shoulder as Harry came up. "Where is he hit?"
"He has it in the body and he suffers."
The Pretender muttered something. "I bring ill-luck to my friends, you see. Best ride off, Mr. Boyce."
"You can do me no harm, sir. God knows if I can do you any good."
The Pretender looked at him curiously. "I think you are something of my own temper. In effect, there is little to hope with me."
"Who knows?" Harry shrugged. "Par exemple, sir, do you know where we are going now?"
"This is a parable, mordieu! I leave my friends to be shot for me and die, perhaps, while I ride off and know not the least of my way."
"Egad, sir, you were in enough of a hurry to go somewhere." Harry reined up. "Am I to be trusted in the affair?"
The Pretender amazed Harry by laughing—a laugh so hearty and boyish that he seemed another man from the creature of stiff, pedantic melancholy.
"Oh Lud, Mr. Boyce, don't scold. You might be a politician. Tell me, where is this damned palace?"
"Kensington, sir? Bear to the left, if you please."
So they swung round, and soon hitting upon a lane saw the village and the trees about the palace. In a little while, "Mr. Boyce: how much do you know?" the Pretender said; and still he was more the boy than the disinherited king.
"Egad, sir, no more than I told you: that my father had bullies watching for you."
"And I believe I have not thanked you."
It was Harry's turn to laugh. "Faith, sir, you ought to be grateful to the family of Boyce."
"I shall not forget."
"He takes care that you shall remember him, my honourable father."
"I do not desire repartees, Mr. Boyce. Come, sir, you carry yourself too proudly. You are not to disdain what you have done, or yourself."
Harry bowed,—permitted himself, I suppose, some inward ironic smile,—he was not born with reverence, and the royal airs of this haughty, gloomy lad had no authority over him. Then and always the pretensions of the Pretender appeared to him pathetically ridiculous. But for the man he would sometimes profess a greater liking than he had learnt to feel for any other in the world.
Harry was careful to avoid most of the village. As they came into it on the eastward side a horseman galloped up to them. "From my Lord Masham, sir. Pray you follow me at speed." He led them on to the palace, but not by the straight approach, and brought them to a little door in the garden wall upon the London side.
There a handsome fellow stood waiting for them, and bowed them in with a "Sir, sir, we have been much anxious for you. I trust to God nothing has fallen out amiss?"
"There was a watch set for me, my lord, and I fear some of our friends are down. But for this gentleman I had hardly been here."
Masham swore and cried out, "They have news of the design! I profess I feared it. Pray, sir, come on quickly. The Queen is weaker, and my lady much troubled for her. By God, we have left it late. And the ministers must still be wrangling, and my Lord Bolingbroke like a man mazed. We must be swift and downright with the Council."
Then at last Harry understood. The Pretender was to be brought face to face with his sister, the weakening weak Queen, and a Privy Council was to be in waiting. Suppose she declared him her heir; suppose she presented him to a Council all high Tories and good Jacobites! A good plot, a very excellent plot, if there were a man with the courage and the will to make it work.
Within the palace it was now twilight. They were hurried up privy stairways and along corridors, and Harry fancied behind the gloom a hundred watching eyes, and could not be sure they were only fancy. As they crossed the head of the grand staircase Masham made an exclamation and checked and peered down. The Pretender turned and Harry, but Masham plunged after them and wildly waved them on.
"What is it, my lord? Have you seen a ghost?" The Pretender smiled.
"Oh God, sir, go on!" Masham gasped. "We can but challenge the hazard now," and he muttered to himself.
"You are inconvenient, my lord," says the Pretender with a shrug. "Go before. Conduct me, if you please," Masham brushed by him and hurried on.
Harry understood my lord's alarm. He, too, had seen a little company below by the grand entry, and among them one of singular grace, a rare nobility of form and feature, a strange placidity. There was no forgetting, no mistaking him. It was the gentleman of the bogged coach, the Old Corporal, the Duke of Marlborough.. Marlborough, who was in disgrace, who should be in exile, back at the palace when the Tories were staking their all on a desperate, splendid throw: Marlborough, who had betrayed and ruined James II, come back to baffle his son! No wonder Lord Masham was uneasy for his head.
They were brought to a small room, blatantly an antechamber, and Masham, brusquely bidding them wait, broke through the inner door. He was back in a moment as pale as he had been red. "Come in, sir," he muttered. "I believe we had best be short." And through the open door Harry heard another voice. It was thin and strained, and seemed to make no words, like a baby's cry or an animal's.
Across another antechamber, they came into a big room of some prim splendour, and as they passed the door Harry made out what that feeble voice was saying: "The Council, Abbie: we must go to the Council: we keep the Council waiting, Abbie:" that came over and over again, and he knew why he had not understood. The words were run together and slurred as if they were shaped by a mind drowsy or fuddled.
A great fire was burning though the day was warm enough, and by the fire sat a mound of a woman. She could be of no great height, perhaps she was not very stout, but she sat heaped together and shapeless, a flaccid mass. She had a table by her, and on it some warm drink that steamed. Through the drifting vapour Harry saw her face, and seemed to see it change and vanish like the vapour. For it was all bloated and loose, and it trembled, and it had no colour in it but a pallid grey. And as he looked there came to him a sense of death.
Yet she was pompously dressed, in a dress cut very low, a dress of rich stuff and colour, and there was an array of jewels sparkling about her neck and at her bosom, and her hands lay heavy with rings.
There hung about her a woman buxom and pleasant enough, yet with something sly in her plump face. "Fie, ma'am, fie," she was saying, "the Council is here but for your pleasure:" she looked up and nodded imperiously at Masham.
"The Prince James, ma'am," Masham cried.
The Queen, who had seemed to see nothing of their coming, started and shook and blinked towards him. "He is loud, Abbie. Tell him not to be loud," she complained.
"Look, ma'am, look," Lady Masham patted at her. "It is your brother, it is Prince James."
The Pretender came forward, holding out his hand. "Am I welcome, Anne?" he said heavily.
The Queen stared at him with dull eyes. "It is King Charles," she said, and stirred in her chair and gave a foolish laugh. "No, but he is like King Charles. But King Charles had so many sons. Who is he, Abbie? Why does he come? The Council is waiting."
"I am your brother, Anne," the Pretender said.
"What does he say, Abbie?" the Queen turned to Lady Masham and took her hand and fondled it feebly. "I am alone. There is none left to me. My boy is dead. My babies—I am alone. I am alone."
"I am your brother and your King," the Pretender cried.
She fell back in her chair staring at him. Her mouth opened and a mumble came from it. Then there was silence a moment, and then she began to shake, and one hand beat upon the table with its rings. So they waited a while, watching the tremulous, shapeless mass of her, and the tap, tap, tap of her hand beat through the room.
Lady Masham took command. "Nay, sir, leave her. You can do no more now. Let her be. I will handle her if I can." She rustled across the room and struck a bell. "Masham, bring Dr. Arbuthnot. He irks her less than the rest."
Harry followed the Pretender into the outer room, shambling awkwardly. The progress from failure to failure dazed him. He recalled afterwards, as many petty matters of this time stayed vivid in his memory, a preposterous blunder into a chair. The Pretender sat down and stretched at his ease. "We are too late, I think," he said coldly. "It is the genius of my family." He took snuff. "You may go, if you will, Mr. Boyce."
Harry looked up and struggled to collect himself. "Not till you are in safety," he said, and was dully aware of some discomfort. The dying woman, the sheer ugliness of death, the sordid emotions about her numbed the life in him. He felt himself in a world inhuman. Yet, even afterwards, he seems not to have discovered anything ignoble in his admired Pretender. The blame was fate's that mocked coldly at the hopes and affections of men.
"I am obliged, sir," said the Pretender, and so they waited together….
After a little while of gloomy silence in that bare room, Masham broke in, beckoning and muttering: "Sir, sir, the Queen is dead."
The Pretender stood up. "Enfin," said he, with a shrug.