The Master of Stair/Book 1/Chapter 10

CHAPTER X
THE KING'S MESSENGER

It was snowing fast over Romney Marsh; the whole wide, desolate fenland sweeping to the sea lay gray under the storm; it was near nightfall and almost dark; in the landscape one light burning brightly through the snowflakes; to judge by its steadiness it came from a window, by its size it was far-off.

There was the steady sound of the thud of the distant waves, now and then broken by the thin cry of the curlew or the hungry shriek of the sea-gull.

In the broken marsh-ground grew a group of withered trees; the foremost bent and blasted by lightning and against this one leaned a man wrapped in a long cloak.

He was looking toward the sea in an attitude, alert but easy; he appeared to be affected neither by his isolated position, the gloomy scene or the bitter storm; now and then he turned toward the distant light as if to assure himself it was still there, or moved to shake the snow off his shoulders and hat.

As it grew darker the snow began to cease over the sea, and the heavy sky broke into a patch of gloomy red and crimson; it was possible now to discern the dreary line of shore and sand and the dim form of the dark waves.

The man gazed round him, then made slowly toward the sea. The sodden earth and wide logs impeded him; he trod cautiously, but for all his ease sank now and then to his ankles in mud or half-fell over the broke stones and boulders.

Slowly he made painful progress to the edge of the fen where it dipped in a sudden slope of clay straight onto the beach.

There halting he stared out to sea; the snow and the rising mist of the winter night hid all from him save the line of waves breaking on the wet sand; melancholy and terrible was the perfect loneliness; the watcher drew himself up and looked back at the light, then round again at the ghastly yellow sunset that seemed to be far distant; a mere slash of gloomy color in the mist and gray. Then suddenly he drew back; a little boat was pushing through the waves; he could hear the grind of the keel on the pebbles as is struck on the beach and a man leaped from it into the surf.

The man upon the shore watched him struggling up the beach, saw him turn and wave to his companion as the boat disappeared again into the mist, then advance as rapidly as he was able toward the ridge of the fen.

The sun faded to a mere stain; the mist drifted off the sea mingled with sleet and snow; the man on the beach drew nearer the other, all unconscious that any soul was watching him.

With labor and difficulty he threaded his way onward and up the shelving ledge, the other watching him the while as he drew nearer, nearer. Suddenly they met—face to face—a few yards apart; the new-comer stood motionless with surprise and his hand flew to his sword.

"For which King?" cried the man in waiting. His voice sounded strange and hollow through the damp silence; the new arrival drew a step nearer, searching the strange figure; he was a slight, fair young man and showed a face white and strained.

"Which King?" he repeated, moistening his lips.

"Are there two?" came the answer from the folds of the heavy cloak. "I stand for King James."

"Ah!" with a sigh of relief the young man relaxed the tension of his attitude. "You were sent to meet me then?"

"Yes," said the other quietly, "to take your papers."

"My papers?" the new arrival again showed alarm. "I am to take them to London."

"I will take them to London."

"Sir, your authority?"

"The King's."

The messenger smiled, regaining his presence of mind.

"Sir, I pray you show it me—this is a strange request—I go to Hunt's hut; will you accompany me?"

"Yes—but first your papers."

The Jacobite laughed. "You grow peremptory—let me pass."

"I desire your papers."

"I will not part with them."

"It were wiser."

"Do you threaten me?"

"By God, yes!"

The King's messenger laughed again; his eyes blazed in a white face.

"William of Orange is ill-served in such clumsy knaves as you!" he cried.

"Give me the papers, damn you!"

"Do you think me a traitor?"

"By God—I know you a fool!"

"Stand out of my way!" and the messenger made a step forward, but the other seized him by the arm.

"Do you think," he cried fiercely, "that I am going to let you go? By Heaven—I have not waited here for nothing."

The King's messenger wrenched himself free: "Spy—who betrayed us?" he burst forth, and he gave a wild glance round the desolate fen; the other seemed to read his thoughts.

"There is no ambush," he said scornfully, "’tis you and I alone. Who think you is the better man? Will you try issues with me?"

The King's messenger an instant studied his opponent; he saw a man of regal height and make, whose face was hidden by his drooping beaver and whose figure was shrouded in a heavy traveling cloak; a hopeless look crossed his face; he stepped back desperately.

"You or I," he said through his teeth—"Well—" he put his hand to his bosom and there was the dull gleam of metal. But the other had marked his action and instantly his hand flew from his cloak; there was the flash and report of a pistol-shot and the King's messenger fell backwards silently into the mist.

"How is William of Orange served now?" cried the man peering forward; his smoking pistol in his hand, "where are you, you popish dog?"

He sprang forward through the pools and morasses, and confused by the gathering gloom, stumbled over the body. The King's messenger had fallen prone, his head down among the mud and stones; his slayer lifted him up, and taking his face in his hands peered down into it.

The Jacobite was quite dead; from a little hole in his temple the thin black blood trickled; it had been a true shot; the man who held him smiled.

"I was afraid—in this cursed light," he muttered, "that I might have bungled." Opening the dead man's coat, he went swiftly through the pockets. He found papers, sealed and loose; a purse and a few trinkets.

The money he flung out into the marsh; the other matters he thrust carefully into the breast of his coat; it was not light enough to distinguish the papers; he took every scrap the dead man carried, without pausing to select.

Then he rose beside the body and looked round. It would soon be utterly dark; the snow was recommencing to fall heavily; it was now nearly completely dark; he had to feel his way cautiously over the marsh as he turned in the direction of the light that glanced through the snow-storm.

He made steadily toward it; the snow stinging in his face, and saw it grow larger till he could discern the snowflakes drifting swiftly through the faint halo it cast upon the dark.

The ground grew firmer under foot; he had gained a tongue of dry land, and in front of him, barely visible, was the black outline of the smuggler's hut with the lamp flaring yellow in the square window; with this aid he found his way to the door and, using the hilt of his sword, knocked heavily.

There was a little silence, then the sound of cautious footsteps.

The door was slowly unbolted, opened an inch or so.

"Who is it?" said a woman's voice in a quick whisper.

"Mr. Wedderburn—the King's messenger," he answered.

"The password?"

"The white rose and the golden lily—England and France."

She opened the door at that and motioned him to enter.

As he obeyed he found himself face to face with a young girl; she held a candle in her hand that guttered in the draught and sent a trail of smoke and flame over her shoulder; round her brown bodice was a kerchief of vivid scarlet and in her ears hoops of red-gold glittered and swung.

"My father is out looking for you, Mr. Wedderburn," she said with the calm of one grown easy at a perilous trade, careless and used to danger.

"I am late," he answered. With a heavy step he advanced into the room. She bolted the door.

"Yes—the boat was expected two hours ago—we were there to meet you—you missed my father, sir?—he went to the coast; he will be returning soon."

In silence he flung off his dripping cloak and hat and half-turning, glanced at Celia Hunt. She looked back at him with a sudden arrested interest.

It was the most remarkable, the handsomest face that she had ever seen; both his expression and the carriage of his splendid person indicated an arrogance that neither speech nor action might express; it seemed as if he forever contained a surging, passionate haughtiness; it was in the lines of his clear-cut mouth and in the expression of his dark blue eyes; eyes whose beauty was marred by a look, strained, slightly distraught. He wore no peruke and his short hair was black as his heavy brows; he was of a pale complexion naturally, and now his eyes showed dark in a face markedly pale.

"Ye are the messenger from St. Germains?" asked Celia Hunt.

"Have I not said so?" demanded Mr. Wedderburn with a curl of his short upper lip. "Why do you stare so, wench? I am not used to wait for my welcome."

"Ye are not he who came here last under the name of Andrew Wedderburn," said the girl.

"You must be used to feigned names here," was the answer. "Do you doubt me?—be satisfied." With the slightly grandiloquent magnificence that was his unconscious manner, he drew forth the papers from his breast and held them out.

She saw the seal of King James on the topmost. "You will stay the night here?" she said.

He gave a reckless little laugh and seated himself at the table.

"When did the King's son leave here?"

"This morning."

"I am to meet him in London. And Mr. Caryl; you have heard from him?"

"He told of your coming."

"Ah—he also, I am to meet in London." He leaned back in his chair as if he was weary and stared into the fire with moody eyes.

The girl, Celia Hunt, set about getting food with an air half-awed, half-doubting.

Of all the Jacobites, nobles, captains and gentlemen, spies and common rufflers who had used her father's hut in their passage to and from France, this man was the most at ease, the most arrogant of manner, as if his life was in no danger, nor his cause in any fear of failure; yet at the same time she had seen none with eyes that held such excited wildness or who kept his hand so continually on his sword. She puzzled over him; he was no daredevil of a cavalier or knight-errant, eager for adventure like some of these plotters; there was nothing roistering or gay about him; he had an air of passionate coldness; like a Puritan who disdains the worldly things about him and puts a full-blooded strength into grave desires; he looked past the girl as if she had been an old woman, a treatment she was not used to; she was handsome enough in her lean, vivid way to win courtesy at least; and often more from men older and graver than this one.

The Duke of Berwick had kissed her when he left that morning and given her the diamond brooch that glittered on her breast; it was the Stuart way of winning and keeping loyalty; she was shrewd enough to know it was only a manner of paying a debt, but she liked the implied compliment that it was not money could buy her services; this man, she thought scornfully, might likely enough reward her at parting with a handful of silver. Having spread the remains of the Duke of Berwick's breakfast on a cloth of smuggled lace and having set beside them some bottles of the wine brought secretly from France, the girl turned to Mr. Wedderburn.

"Your supper," she said curtly.

He rose, flung himself before the table and began to eat absently.

"You had a rough passage," remarked Celia, eying him. "Yes," he barely looked at her as he spoke.

"You are often employed by His Majesty?"

"Yes," was his answer, given even more coldly than before.

Celia came closer, resting her firm brown hands on the edge of the table and, leaning forward, she peered into his face.

The ragged yellow lamplight flickered over her, lighting her eyes and her dusky hair; she spoke, very low.

"You are a Williamite spy," she said steadily.

Mr. Wedderburn pushed his chair back and his mouth took on the scornful curve that came there very easily.

"Prove it," he answered quietly.

"I cannot prove it—but I know," said Celia Hunt. "You are that damned thing—a spy. You dare not lie deep enough to deny it."

He rose up softly; he was outside the circle of the lamplight, but her straining eyes saw his face was drawn.

"I dare do anything," he said, "but I do not choose to answer."

"There is no need," she said, very erect and taut, "I know."

They faced each other, the table and half the room between them; he touched his breast lightly; a square-cut diamond ring glistened through the lace that fell over his hand.

"I carry a something here," he said with a light haughtiness, "that will serve my turn against anything you may say."

"How did you get them?" she asked. "The papers—how much do you know?"

His lids dropped over his flashing eyes; he lifted his head still higher.

"Enough," he said.

"To hang us all," said Celia Hunt hoarsely. "My God!"

"Perhaps," he assented. "Now will you try to send a warning to Jerome Caryl?"

She had fallen back a step.

"No," she said. "I shall prevent you leaving this place—"

He laughed. "Who will stop me?" he asked.

She swayed a little, staring at him.

"You know too much," she panted. "Oh, my God, I would give something to know what to do." He laughed at her; with a lithe movement he came close, his right hand was loosely over his sword, the other, shapely and white, rested on his hip, thrust into the folds of his purple sash; the carelessness of his attitude stung her like a taunt.

"I am a fool!" she cried passionately. "I should have waited till ye slept then bid my father settle you—you hireling spy!"

"Slept here!" he answered with curling lip, "and keep a civil tongue, baggage, or I shall strike you down. I have no ceremony with your kind."

"Ah," she whispered, "you would dare to murder me."

"I have dared God, Himself," he answered wildly, "I know nothing you can name I would not dare—but I should disdain to murder you—"

Her horror-stricken eyes dwelt on his magnificent face; her angry courage ebbed before his strangeness.

"Who are you?" she asked.

But he laughed, not heeding her; his eyes showed hazed and vacant.

"Accursed," he muttered—"God knows—accursed—at least one of the masters of the earth—mad perhaps—you have heard of me, belike—" He turned a distracted gaze on her; she thought suddenly that he was mad—or drunk, and cowered against the wall in personal fear.

Again he laughed loudly, and moved unsteadily, lurching toward her, it was as if some passion of his soul had been suddenly loosed and blinded him.

"Black magic—and blood—" he said wildly.

"Cursed—always blood—and witchery—you cannot get rid of it—the thought of Hell—and the faces of your dead who died foully—your disfigured dead—and your child slaying your child—both damned—and singeing in Hell!"

He stared at her with his blue eyes vague and fixed; she shrieked out thinly:

"God's name—who are you?"

"We conjure in the devil's name!" he answered madly. "I am of the cursed Dalrymples—and I am damned in the name of John, Master of Stair!"