The Highwayman (Bailey)/Chapter XXVIII
When Harry came back to his tavern, he was, you'll believe, not anxious to be seen. He made one step from the coach to the door, scurried through the tap and upstairs. But the coming of a coach, and a coach of some splendour, to the humble "Hand of Pork" had brought folks to the windows, and at the staircase window Harry bumped into his landlady, who gasped at him and began a "Save your lordship—" which ended in "God help us, it's Mr. Boyce."
"Cook me a steak, Meg," Harry said, and went up the stairs three at a time.
She screamed after him "Ha' you seen your letter? There's a letter for you in the tap."
When Harry came down in his natural clothes, his best and one remaining suit, and shouted for his supper she was quarrelling with the potman and searching the shelves: "Meg, you villain—Meg, where's my steak?"
"Lord love you, it's to the fire. I be looking for your letter. Ain't you had it now? Days it's been here, I swear, and I saw it again only this morning. By the black jar of usquebaugh it was, George, Od rot you."
"Burn the letter," says Harry. "Go, bring me that steak, you slut."
"Oh, God save you," Mrs. Meg cried in a pet, and so for Alison's letter there was no more search. But indeed they would not have found it.
Harry, if he ever thought about it, supposed it one of the grumbling screeds of the bookseller for whom he scribbled and was glad to be rid of it so easily. But he was in no case to think usefully of anything. The amazement of his deliverance left him in a queer state of excited lassitude. His nerves were all tremulous, he must needs do everything vehemently, and felt the while as if he were being whirled along, passive, in the grip of some force outside himself One moment he was dreaming himself capable of miracles, the next he was limp with weariness and utterly impotent. And naturally, as soon as he had food inside him, weariness won and he was overwhelmed with great waves of languor. He hardly dragged himself up to his attic before he was asleep.
When he woke, the world was grey. He could survey himself cynically and wonder why he had been such a fool as to be in a fluster overnight. Faith, it was a grand exploit to dabble in conspiracies and come out with your head still (for a while) on your shoulders. And that only by a turn of the luck, not any wit of his. Well! Neither winners nor losers would want more of the blundering offices of Mr. Harry Boyce. He was back again after his conversation with royalty—and royal breeches—a hack writer in his garret. And Alison as far away as ever. The wonderful Alison! The beauty of her flashed into his squalor. He felt her passionate life. Be hanged to Alison! Let the hack writer get to his writing.
All that day he strove with the fluency of Ovid, and to this hour his labours, much flaccid verse, survive in a decent obscurity. It was late in the afternoon before he yielded to his growing disgust with the whinings of the Tristia and sought relief in the open air.
There was not much movement in the air of Long Acre. The day had been warm and languorous, with heavy showers steaming up again in the sun. Clouds were darkening across the twilight for more rain. Harry turned off to stretch his legs and find some freer air across the fields by the Oxford road. But he was soon tired of them. The moist heat oppressed him still and lowering darkness across the sky threatened a storm. He had no desire for a wetting and an evening spent in the Pretender's clothes. He made for his tavern again by St. Martin's Lane and there came full upon his father.
Colonel Boyce touched his hat. Harry touched his, gave him the wall and was going by. Then the Colonel laughed and caught his son's arm. "Well met, Harry. I was coming to seek you." (It's not known whether that was true.)
"And I, sir—I had no notion of seeking you."
"Fie, don't be haughty. I bear no malice."
"Egad, sir, that's kind in you," Harry sneered and pushed on.
Colonel Boyce linked arms with him. "Why, what's the matter? You went off with the honours. Od's heart, you left us like a pair of whipped dogs."
"You've to thank yourself for that, sir. Not me."
"No, zounds, you did very well. I profess I was proud of you, Harry."
"Then I have to envy you."
Colonel Boyce laughed. "You play that game well, you know. But sure, you need not play it all the time. No, but I never knew you could put on such an air, Harry. You carried it off à merveille. My lord was a whipper-snapper to you. I allow you were a thought too free of your wit. It's a young man's fault. But in the main you were admirable."
"You make me uneasy," Harry said. "I hoped that I had quarrelled with you."
"Oh Lud, Harry, why be so bitter? You have won, and sure you can afford to be civil. You have beat me and broken as pretty a plot as ever I knew. Why the devil should you snarl at me?"
They were now turning into Long Acre and the coming storm had already brought darkness. Harry stopped and freed himself from his father's arm. "If you please, we'll have no more of this. I've no will to make an enemy of you. But if you seek to be friends, enemies we must be."
"Why then? Harry, you are not so mad as to declare Jacobite now? It's a lost cause, boy. There's not a thing in it but noble hole-and-corner work and not a guinea for your pains. You—"
"Aye, now we have it!" Harry laughed. "You want to be in my secrets. Sir, I'm obliged to you, and by your leave I'll discontinue your company."
"I swear I wish you nothing but well," his father cried.
"Dear sir, it's your good wishes that I dread. Pray cut me off without a blessing." He waved his hand to his father and strode off.
For a moment Colonel Boyce looked after him—shrugged—went his way.
So Harry walked alone upon his danger. He was near the tavern, he was passing the end of a court. From the blackness there men rushed upon him. They managed it well. He was almost borne down by the first onset, but hearing something in time, seeing a glimmer of steel, he swung aside and staggered back into the kennel slashing at them with his stick. They were borne past him by their vehemence, but he carried no sword and their swords were all about him. There was no hope. Two blades seared through his body and he fell.
Colonel Boyce heard the clatter of ash and steel and turned at his leisure to look. It was a moment before he made out Harry in the midst of the mêlée. Then he shouted of help and threats and ran on with ready sword.
He came too late. Harry was down and the dripping blades again at his body. Colonel Boyce had one fellow pinked before they were aware. The others bore upon him furiously and he was hard beset. He made a good fight—it's the best thing in his life—he understood the sword, and they were but hackers and hewers, they were in a mad hurry to finish him and he had a perfect calm. But he was hampered and overborne. He would not give ground for fear of more thrusts into the body at his feet, and they closed upon him and he could not break them.
But now doors were opening and heads out of windows. From Harry's tavern a man came at a run. As Colonel Boyce reeled back with a point caught in his shoulder, gripping at the blade and thrusting at empty air, another sword shot into the fight. One man went down upon Harry's body. The other three broke off and bolted down the court by which they had come.
"Canaille," says the deliverer mildly, and plucked at the cloak of the man he had overthrown to wipe his sword. "Is that a friend of yours underneath, sir?"
"Egad, they have tickled me," quoth Colonel Boyce, feeling at his shoulder. "Pray, lend me your hand, sir."
The deliverer looked him over without much sympathy: "And, egad, it's the ancient Boyce," he said. "Oh, you'll survive, mon vieux. Who is this in the mud?" He rolled his own victim, who groaned effusively, off Harry's body. "It's the boy, mordieu!" he cried.
"In effect, Captain McBean, it's the boy," says Colonel Boyce, who was trying to fix a pad of handkerchief on his own wound.
McBean was down on his knees beside Harry, handling him gently. "Twice through the body, by God," says he. "What does this mean, Boyce? Damme, did you set your fellows on him?"
"I am not an imbecile," Colonel Boyce said fiercely, stared at McBean and laughed his contempt. Then with another manner, he turned to the little crowd which was mustered: "Bring me a shutter, good lads. We've a gentleman here much hurt. And some of you call the watch."
McBean rose with bloody hands. "He has it I believe," he muttered. "Hark in your ear, Boyce. If this is your work, I'll see you dead, by God, I will."
"Oh, damn your folly," says Colonel Boyce. "I struck in to help him. I know nothing who the knaves were. Your own tail, maybe."
"Aye, aye," McBean looked at him queerly. "You would say that. Well, maybe this rogue can speak. He groans loud enough." Down he dropped again by his victim to cry out "Ben! You filthy rogue! Ben! Who a plague set you to this business?"
"Oh, you've found a friend, then?" Colonel Boyce sneered.
The man who groaned was Harry's old friend, Ben the fat highwayman of the North Road. He rolled his eyes and made hoarse, grievous noises.
"Captain! Lord love you, captain, I didn't know you was in it. Oh, gad, and you ha' been the death o' me."
"I shall be if you lie," quoth McBean. "You rogue, who set you on Mr. Boyce?"
"How would I know he was a friend of yours? 'Twas a squire out of Hornsey. Squire Waverton of Tetherdown. Paying handsome to have him downed. Oh, gad, captain, don't be hard. I ha' had no luck since you turned me off."
Now the constables came running up and Colonel Boyce turned to them:
"Secure that fellow. He and some others which have escaped stabbed my son who lies there. I am Colonel Boyce at the Blue House in St. Martin's Lane."
The wretched Ben was haled off, groaning.
Harry, lifeless still and bleeding, for all McBean's work, they lifted and carried away to his father's lodging.
"What's your Waverton in this, sir?" says McBean.
"The silly gentleman wanted Harry's wife. Egad, I never thought he had so much gall in him."
"I believe I'll be letting some of it out," says McBean.
"You'll be pleased to leave that to me," quoth Colonel Boyce.
McBean looked up at him oddly. "Ventrebleu, I wonder if I'll make you my apologies. Have you bowels after all, sir?"
"If you like." McBean cocked a wicked eye at him.
"You concern yourself with the affairs of my family. I resent it, Captain McBean."
"I believe you, mon vieux."
"You have done me a notable service to-night and I am ready to forget the older injuries, your ill offices with my son. Let us call quits and part, sir."
"It won't do," said McBean with a grin.
"What now, sir?"
"I must know how Harry does and make sure that he has the best there is for him. Surgery and friends—he will need both, sound and sure."
"Be satisfied. I shall well provide him."
Captain McBean shook his head.
"Damn your infernal impudence." Colonel Boyce's temper gave way. "Od's life, sir, this is infamous. You put upon me that I would mishandle my own son as he lies wounded and near death! I shall murder him, I suppose. You had that against me before. Shall I rob him too, or torture him maybe? This is raving. Carry it where you will, I'll none of it. You may go."
"Fie, what a heat!" says McBean placidly.
They were now come to Colonel Boyce's lodging and he bade the bearers take Harry up to his own room.
"I sent a brisk lad for Rolfe," says McBean. "I could but stop the blood. He'll be here soon enough. It's but a step to Chancery Lane. He knows more of wounds than any man in the town."
Colonel Boyce was for a moment speechless. "I shall send for Dr. Radcliffe and Sir Samuel Garth," says he majestically. "I wish you good night, sir."
"I believe they have sense enough to do no harm," said McBean. "And now, Boyce, a word with you. Not in the street."
"I don't desire it, sir," which McBean answered by passing in front of him into the house. Colonel Boyce came after, fuming. "Egad, sir, you presume upon my wound," he cried. "You—"
"Not I. Patch yourself up and I'll meet you at your convenience. There's more urgent matter. When the boy comes to himself—if ever he comes to himself—I must have speech of him."
Colonel Boyce, who now completely commanded himself, had grown very pale. "You have gone too far, Captain McBean. I desired to forget that I have you in my power. You force me to use it. If you thrust yourself upon me I shall have you arrested as a traitor."
McBean flushed. "Odso, then there is some villainy of yours in the affair! Devil take you, I have a mind to finish you now, a wounded man as you are." He had his hand on his sword.
"Will you go, sir?"
"Not I. If you ha' murdered him, you"—he slapped his sword home again—"no, mordieu, I can't touch you so. And you may meddle with me if you dare."
"Oh, you have a great devotion to the boy," Colonel Boyce sneered with pallid lips. "You would have him deeper dipped in your mad treasons? I think you have done him harm enough." He struck his bell.
"Harm?" McBean cried. "Is it harm? You that begat him for the heir to your damned infamy? You that soured him with your husk of a soul and your cold cunning? You that made a dirt-heap of his life to suit your muddling need? You—"
But Colonel Boyce swayed in his seat and fell sideways fainting.
A moment McBean surveyed him as if he thought this too a trick. Then, "Ventrebleu" says he, "here's Providence takes a hand," and he whistled, and it is not to be denied that he looked covetously at the cabinet which held Colonel Boyce's papers. "The poor old devil," he said with a shrug. "He grows old, in fact. I suppose there's more blood in his shirt now than his damned body," and he knelt down and began to feel about the wound.
He was at that when a woman announced the surgeon. "Mr. Rolfe? Never more welcome. Here's old Colonel Boyce with a hole in his shoulder, and young Mr. Boyce with two holes through and through. A street brawl. Pray go up, sir, the lad's in bad case."
"Faith, it's Captain McBean," says Rolfe, a brisk, big man, as they shook hands. "What have you to do with Noll Boyce?"
"A friend of the family," says McBean. "Away with you to the lad;" and he knelt again and ministered to the unconscious Colonel. "A friend of the family, old gentleman," says he with a grin.