The Master of Stair/Book 1/Chapter 12

CHAPTER XII
THE LOVE OF DELIA

Delia Featherstonehaugh sat alone in the back parlor of "The Sleeping Queen"; it was New Year's Eve, about six o'clock and the quiet little inn was deserted.

It stood in a dreary back street close to Westminster Abbey and was a resort well-known to Jacobites and almost unheard of by others; in the upper rooms was a printing-press that turned out hundreds of the lampoons and pamphlets that daily strewed the city and in this dull chamber more than one famous gentleman had drunk to the health of King James.

Delia had been alone all day, her brother and Jerome Caryl had been summoned to a meeting with Berwick, who was in hiding in Southwark; she knew they would return to meet the messenger from France, Mr. Wedderburn, who was due this evening, but the hour she could not tell.

The room was large and low with plain plaster walls and uncarpeted floor; on the high chimneypiece two huge white' china dogs grinned at each other either side a wooden clock; the fireplace was laid with rough brown Dutch tiles that bore the history of the fall of man in rude bold figures; Delia sat in one of the well-worn chairs, and stared absently at the round fat face of Eve who looked up distressfully from the hearth, glowing red from the fire.

The room was full of the sound of bells, the bells of St. Margaret's and the Abbey chiming together steadily. The girl listened to them dreamily, and her thoughts were in Scotland, the desolate Glencoe—the Glen o' Weeping—were they safe, those Macdonalds?—very far-away they seemed, helpless, too, and pitiful for all their fierceness; she prayed they might have taken the oaths; she did not care to think of Ronald Macdonald as among the dead.

With a little sigh she leaned forward; she wore a long dress of dark gray silk and in the heavy curls of her hazel hair was a band of velvet of a bright pure blue; in the plain collar of her gown shone a little turquoise brooch.

Her eyes, dark brown and brooding, looked soft as pansies under her smooth white brow, and her mouth strong and gentle was very sweetly set; it was a fair musing face she rested on her hand; a face calmly troubled.

Through the bells came the sound of footsteps; she thought it might be her brother or Caryl, but the step was too light for either.

She rose slowly, her eyes on the door.

It opened and a man stepped in.

"Miss Delia?" he asked softly, "the sister of Sir Perseus?"

"Yes."

He closed the door.

"They sent me here to wait the coming of Mr. Caryl," he said. "I am Andrew Wedderburn—from France." He came into the room, his hat in his hand; Delia looked at him in silence, she stood with her hand on the arm of her chair, the firelight full on her face.

"May I wait here?" asked Mr. Wedderburn. "I have satisfied the host of my identity—but you—will you see my papers?"

"Sir—we do not question friends," she said. "How should you be here if you were not the King's messenger?"

His blue eyes dwelt on her a second with a curious look; he laid his hat on a chair. "Help me with my coat," he said quietly. "Will you not—the room is warm?"

She came slowly toward him with a half-hesitation.

He wore a light-colored roquelaure that he had unbuttoned and great riding-gloves that he pulled off to fling beside his hat; as Delia approached him she was aware of a heavy perfume mingled with the atmosphere of cold outer air without, that he carried. Timidly she took his coat by the collar and helped him with it; as she did so his hand, ice-cold, touched hers and she colored foolishly.

"Thank you," he said and crossed to the fire.

Delia stood still, holding his coat; the strong perfume it was redolent of seemed to make her giddy; the close contact with his personality had been as strong, as real a thing as if some one had struck her; she turned to look at the man with a feeling that her head was spinning.

He had taken some papers from his breast and was looking at them; he wore a suit of geranium-colored velvet, a waistcoat branched with silver and buttoned with brilliants; his face and the front curls of his black peruke were powered; over his lace tie a bow of wide black velvet was tied under his chin; the scabbard of his sword was gold and he wore a number of ornaments that glittered as he moved, yet his appearance was one of gloom not gaiety, and the splendor of his superb face was marred by a look of wildness, contained and held in.

Delia gave a little half-cry of surprise:

"Sir," she said faintly, "came you in this guise from France?"

He looked up as if he did not understand.

"I came by Romney Marsh," he said. "Hunt's cottage—you know it?"

"I mean," explained Delia with a great flush, "that our messengers are usually more plainly habited."

He glanced over his clothes.

"Ah!" he gave a sudden smile, "merely the fashion of Paris, Miss Delia—I have escaped detection—so what matters it?"

"Nothing," she assented. "Only you look more like one of the Prince's courtiers, Mr. Wedderburn, than the King's friends, who usually go roughly clad."

He gave her another quick look.

"See my commission, madam—"

"Oh, no—" she protested. "Show it to Mr. Caryl—"

"Is he coming here—soon?"

"Yes—to meet you, Mr. Wedderburn."

She dropped into silence after that; he put his papers back and stared at the brown tiles, suddenly he looked at her:

"How loud the bells sound," he said, "it is Westminster is it not?"

"Yes," said Delia.

He turned and stood with his back to the fire.

"Why do you remain there?" he asked. "Do I frighten you that you will not come and sit down?"

"You—a little confuse me," she answered, then feeling the folly of it was silent again.

Mr. Wedderburn laughed.

"A plotter, Miss Delia, should not so easily be put out—you are an ardent plotter, are you not?"

With a semblance of ease she crossed over to him. "I know not," she said. "I have done nothing for my cause—as you have, sir."

"I have served my King well," he answered gloomily. There fell a little silence; they were only a foot apart and the sense of his presence over her was as strong as if he touched her with both hands; instinctively she made a sharp movement backwards and something fell with a rattle to the ground.

"Your brooch," said Mr. Wedderburn and picked it up.

She put her hand to her open collar.

"Ah—it is hard to fasten."

"Let me try," said he gravely.

She looked at him in a confused manner.

"Yes; the fastening is difficult," said Mr. Wedderburn with the sapphire in his hand—"hold up your head."

Obviously nerving herself, Delia obeyed; he bent over her and his tie brushed her bosom; his hand touched her bare throat as he adjusted the brooch; at the sensation she gave an uncontrollable start that made the pin again fly and prick her flesh; with a little cry she stepped back.

"I have hurt you!" cried Mr. Wedderburn; and his white face slightly flushed—"Forgive me—"

"Ah, no, 'twas mine own fault," said Delia, but if the scratch had been poisoned she could not have spoken more faintly or with paler lips.

Mr. Wedderburn looked at her keenly and she seemed to know it though her eyes were downcast, for her face was flushed as suddenly as his and she set her teeth in her under lip.

"What is your part in these plots?" he asked abruptly.

Still looking down she answered.

"Sir, I do what I am bid—at present little enough—if a chance came I should pray to be worthy of it—I would give my life for the cause."

"What cause?" demanded Mr. Wedderburn. "The invasion of England and the assassination of the King?"

"The King?" she echoed, amazed.

"King William—"

"Ah—the Prince!" cried Delia. "Do they, sir, call him King at St. Germains?"

Mr. Wedderburn looked vexed: "King de facto he is, Miss Delia—even when you acknowledge James King de jure!" Delia smiled.

"We make no count of these lawyer's terms, sir—"

"Nor of the law, I think," he answered. "’Tis my profession."

"You are a lawyer, sir?"

He smiled gloomily.

"Yes—a rare thing, you will say to find a lawyer and a conspirator in one—"

"Oh, no," said Delia, "but I had rather, sir, you had been a soldier."

"I have been that, too," he answered. "I've trailed a pike in France and Holland with fine scum for company—" he turned round on her suddenly—"that must have been before you were born, Miss Delia."

She gave a start of surprise; he seemed a young man; he read her thought and smiled:

"I am six and thirty; you, I think, not above eighteen; my soldiering was more than twenty years ago—a dead thing!—but you have not answered me—are you deeply in this plot—to assassinate the Prince?"

"I have not heard of it," she answered. "They do not tell me everything—yet I can answer for Mr. Caryl at least that he would not stain his cause with murder."

He frowned.

"Is he your lover?"

"No," her brown eyes lifted steadily. "I have no lover."

Mr. Wedderburn considered her curiously.

"Well, you are young enough," he said.

"Older than you think," she smiled; her eyelids fell again.

They both became aware of a difference in the room; Mr. Wedderburn went to the window.

"The bells have stopped," he said; he opened the casement with a reckless impatient gesture, and a cloud of snow was blown in on him. "Come here," he said in a lowered voice. "See—'tis so dark 'tis like looking over the edge of the world—and the flakes go by like souls—millions of them—and all—I think lost—"

Delia crept up beside him, trembling and silent; he leaned his stately head against the mullions and stared out on to the utter dark; the drifting snow clung to the vivid velvet of his coat; Delia saw his diamonds rise and fall with the quickness of his breathing and felt her own heart beating thickly; a vague sense of unreality touched her like the chill of the outer air and made her shiver.

"Hark!" said Mr. Wedderburn.

The bells burst out again and the sharpness of their music was a pain; the snow went past in a slow rhythm of descent; Mr. Wedderburn turned and looked at Delia.

"Ah—it is cold—shut the window," she said, and she closed her eyes and swayed as if she fainted inwardly.

But he stood motionless, the snow drifting over him, his hand on the open window; the mad, reckless blood of his doomed race rose in him; he spent his life in trying wild means of forgetting his great unhappiness and here, in the pale, pure face shrinking away from him, was one way of distraction; he was as picturesque in his thoughts as in his person and he imagined her soul, simple, white as the snow without, standing before him, waiting for a sign to flutter into his hand; he smiled gloomily; she was not the first to respond to the obvious attraction of his flaunting personality, but she had the novelty of a singular, gracious freshness, an almost childlike simplicity of demeanor; it was exquisite to think she knew nothing of him.

It was as if there lay a way through her soft brown eyes of momentarily escaping from himself.

She leaned against the wall, he watching her; one little hand rested on the paneling beside her, her white throat showed through the open collar; her thick, dull hair cast trembling shadows on her cheeks, he thought it a pretty color and was gloomily pleased that he could still admire the tint of a woman's hair.

"Delia," he said quietly.

She looked up, to hear this man speak her name was like seeing it flash written in stars across the sky; she shrank under it abashed and lifted timid eyes that to his bitter wretchedness seemed soft as a caress.

He smiled.

"How little you know of me!" he said.

She found slow words to answer him.

"We have one creed, one King, one aim," she said. "I desire to know no more of you, sir."

"Delia," his voice fell very musically low. "If you knew more of me—say, if we had known each other years—would you find it possible to care for me?"

She stared, dumb and scarlet, the terror in her questioning eyes was the finest compliment ever paid him: he smiled again with his curious Puritanical haughtiness as if even while he led her on, he despised himself and her.

"Would you find me a, man easy to care for?" he said again. "I wonder—for I—"

She interrupted: "Sir—I do not think you have failed to find those who would answer that question."

"Ah, let me speak," he said gently, "let me say that I do find you made to be loved—"

"Sir! do you usually so play with words with every stranger?" she cried.

"Why, never before," he smiled, "and are we strangers—did you not say we had one creed—one King—one aim?"

"Ah, I do think you palter with me!" cried Delia with the distress of one drawn and netted against her will. "Mr. Caryl is late—"

"I would he were later," said Mr. Wedderburn.

"There is no need for me to keep you company," she answered faintly.

"No need?" His manner flashed into the overbearing. "Not if I ask you to stay?"

"I will go."

"Why?" His blue eyes lifted imperiously. "Miss Delia—do you dislike me?"

"I do not know you," she faltered.

His face darkened.

"Ah, yes, you know me as much in these moments as you ever will—I know you—to the bottom of your white heart."

"Know me?" she winced and blushed.

"I know you do not dislike me," he said, studying her curiously. "Though your lips may say so."

She answered bravely.

"Sir—I have not taught them to lie."

He came a little nearer to her and again she was aware of the strong perfume he carried, overcoming, stupefying her.

"So," he said, "you cannot lie, and if I said—ah—if I said—" He broke off with a little reckless laugh; his shadow was upon her; his presence seemed to fill the world; she could no more escape it than she could the air about her; she could only shrink away, trembling against the wall.

"If I said—I love you," he asked softly, "you who cannot lie—would say—some day I might love you—would you not?"

"When you tell me that in seriousness," she answered panting, "in seriousness I will reply."

His beautiful eyes laughed.

"Sophistry," he said. "Come, is life so long that we may wait years to say what in one moment we know is true—we have not met for nothing—by Heaven, no!

"Then leave it at that," faltered Delia. "Say no more—ah, for pity!"

With that gentle little cry it seemed to him that his hand closed over her and that he held her soul, simple and white, as he pictured it to do with as he would.

Thinking so he gave her his strange, vacant look, while she crept away and he fell back into the gloom, surveying her sideways coldly.

The pause, terrible to Delia, was broken by the abrupt entrance of Jerome Caryl.

"Ah," he said; "I was told you were here." He glanced at Mr. Wedderburn and his brows went up ever so slightly.

"The password, sir?" he asked, his hand on the door.

Mr. Wedderburn turned and looked at him: "The white rose and the golden lily—England and France," he said slowly, "and here is my commission." He took from his pocket a parchment with swinging seals and laid it sweepingly upon the table.

Jerome Caryl picked it up, looked at it, then turned to Sir Perseus, who had followed him.

"This is Mr. Wedderburn, the King's messenger," he said gravely, then to the other: "I am glad, sir, of your safe arrival."

"Good-even," said Sir Perseus, then glancing the stranger over: "they keep you fine in France, sir," he commented.

Mr. Wedderburn smiled disdainfully.

"My habit is not the matter under discussion," he returned. "I dress as fits my station—as one of His Majesty's friends."

Sir Perseus shrugged his shoulders; Jerome Caryl seated himself rather wearily, at the table, with a gentle smile of greeting to Delia and spoke to the King's messenger:

"The papers you had to deliver?" he said. "I am anxious, sir, for His Majesty's letter."

Mr. Wedderburn, taking the seat opposite, began the undoing of a packet he took from his breast, the two men meanwhile observed each other; Jerome Caryl openly with a calm frankness, the King's messenger covertly, sideways and very keenly.

Delia, mechanically closing the window at her brother's bidding, noticed how great a difference between the two at the table and thought that Jerome Caryl had faded utterly beside the vivid presence of the other.

Quiet, contained, grave and modest in manner, his calm melancholy face and person were a fine contrast to Mr. Wedderburn with his over-bold handsomeness, his over-rich dress, his passionate air of impatient lordship, his too emphasized manner of haughtiness and power; the bearing of a tragedy emperor, gloomy magnificence. He was not the type of man to appeal to Jerome Caryl, who set his soft mouth sternly and drooped his hazel eyes disdainfully to his own delicate hand resting on the table.

Mr. Wedderburn swung a letter across the table; in silence Jerome Caryl opened it, and the King's messenger gave a sudden smile at Delia across the length of the room.

Sir Perseus glanced from one to another, conscious that the silence was awkward and unaccountable. "We saw my Lord Berwick to-day," he remarked. "He has had a messenger from Crauford in Scotland."

Delia gave a little start as of one suddenly touched in his sleep.

"Scotland?" she echoed.

Mr. Wedderburn was looking at her.

"Heard ye anything of the submission of the clans?" he asked.

"We heard," said Sir Perseus, "that every clan had come in save the Macdonalds of Glencoe."

"Ah!" said Delia, and she flushed and paled.

"They bear such a hatred to the Campbells, nothing will induce them to follow the others," continued her brother, "and—poor fools—there is no one to trouble to warn them—doubtless you have heard, Mr. Wedderburn, how we have preserved the Highlands to His Majesty by causing them to take the oaths?"

"I have heard," was the answer, "you think the government will be vexed—disturbed at it?"

Jerome Caryl looked up from his letter.

"They were counting on settling the Highlands forever," he smiled. "With fire and sword—they did not reckon on more than half taking the oaths—the Master of Stair and Breadalbane intended to massacre them wholesale."

"You have clever spies, to have discovered that much," said Mr. Wedderburn, and under the table his hand was clutched tightly on his sword-hilt.

"I am in England for that," was the answer. "To serve His Majesty. I have defeated the usurper on that well-planned cruelty."

"There remain the Macdonalds," said Mr. Wedderburn slowly.

Suddenly, up to the table, came Delia.

"They must be saved," she said.

Her words rang in a little pause; she was clasping and unclasping her hands nervously, she turned her pure eager face to Mr. Wedderburn.

"Sir, you will help us save them?"

He looked at her and laughed.

"I?" he said—"I?—'tis amusing—what power have I to save these Highland savages?"

She winced and turned to Jerome Caryl.

"You promised me, Mr. Caryl—"

Sir Perseus interrupted:

"Why, Delia, what are these Macdonalds to you?"

Jerome Caryl spared her an answer: "We will do what we can—" he said. "And they know the risk they run—even yet they may take the oaths."

Delia glanced at him gratefully; she was pale and her brown eyes gleamed unnaturally bright.

"Good-night, sirs:" she said faintly.

The three men rose; her brother kissed her cheek; Jerome Caryl came to the door with her, but she looked past him to Mr. Wedderburn, who stared at her with a curious little smile; her face went even whiter; the door fell to behind her and they heard her light footsteps hurrying up the stairs. Jerome Caryl returned to the table.

"Mr. Wedderburn," he said formally, "this is a letter from my Lord Middleton—signed by the King, charging me to collect such names of importance as I can and send the signature back by you as a means of encouraging the French to make a descent on England—"

"His Majesty expects me in a day or so at St. Germains with the signatures," was the answer. "I assure you 'tis a matter for despatch, for King Louis will not act without these names as a guarantee of a rising in England to support him should his men land."

"Lord Middleton also says that you will be the bearer of his grace of Berwick's despatches and a full account of the plot for His Majesty's perusal."

Mr. Wedderburn inclined his head.

"Those were my orders."

"A dangerous mission," put in Sir Perseus. "You will carry a vast responsibility with those papers."

"I have done as dangerous in the service of the King," said Mr. Wedderburn. He turned to Jerome Caryl. "Sir—what names have you to send His Majesty?"

"News from all sides is vastly satisfactory," was the answer. "His grace of Berwick is very confident, the discontent is huge in England; we have the assurances and the signatures of Marlborough, Godolphin, Rochester, Clarendon, Lord Russell, Leeds, Cornbury, Dartmouth, Sidney and many bishops and lords—"

"The whole of the Court ye might say," cried Mr. Wedderburn, with a curious little laugh. "Tell me, are there any who have not signed?"

"Nottingham," said Jerome Caryl with a smile. "Carstairs, Sunderland, Shrewsbury, Devonshire, Dorset and the Master of Stair—these have never to my knowledge meddled with us—Nottingham, because he is a narrow pedant; Devonshire and Dorset for sheer laziness; Sunderland because we would not have him in our ranks—Carstairs and the Master of Stair..."

"For honest motives, perchance," said Mr. Wedderburn.

"I do not say so—God knows. Carstairs I believe is honest—the Master of Stair is not full of scruples. I think he is faithful because he hates us bitterly and because he is a man of one view—he is sworn to the Whigs and would, I think, sell his soul for them—if it is still on the market."

"You hate him," remarked Mr. Wedderburn.

"I do—he constantly thwarts me, he is a man to be feared—but to business, Mr. Wedderburn: these papers you are to carry to France are with his grace of Berwick—give me two days and I shall have them."

Mr. Wedderburn rose:

"I will call again the day after to-morrow, then," he said, "and start immediately afterwards for France."

He put his commission back into his pocket.

"You will not disappoint me?" he asked. "In two days—"

"I will answer for it, you have them then," said Jerome Caryl, "where are you staying?"

"I am undecided, but any message addressed to 'The Blue Posts,' Covent Garden, will find me."

"I will remember it."

The King's messenger put on his hat and coat in silence; he was not a man for commonplaces, and his haughty manners prevented them in others. He saluted the two men very abruptly and turned from the room.

Jerome Caryl made no attempt to accompany him: there was a quiet dislike in his stiff bow. As the door closed, he remarked to Sir Perseus:

"Middleton is crazed, I think, to trust that man with such a mission."

"I do not like him," was the answer, "but he may be very staunch."

"He knows everything," said Jerome Caryl, frowning. "And his credentials are such that I must trust him—but I doubt his discretion, and I wish Middleton could have sent me a man of whom I knew something."

As Mr. Wedderburn was crossing the dark, outer room he felt a timid touch on his arm; some one fleet and noiseless of foot had overtaken him. It was Delia Featherstonehaugh,—for the moment he had utterly forgotten her.

"Would you do me a favor?" she said panting.

He turned, but it was too dark to see her face.

"Why, tell it me," he answered.

"I want you to help me save the Macdonalds of Glencoe—I have—a reason."

There was a long pause; she grew frightened.

"Won't you answer?" she said piteously.

"I have no power," he replied sternly.

"Ah, yes, as much as any of them—and I am afraid the Macdonalds—afraid of—" she paused.

"Of whom?"

"The Master of Stair," she whispered.

He uttered his slight reckless laugh.

"Content ye—I will defend ye from the Master of Stair—on my soul, ye are a sweet thing—I will see ye next time."

She fell back, panting into the dark and he passed on into the outer room where a man was busy sorting and arranging Jacobite pamphlets. He rose to open the door.

"Those are lampoons ye write?" demanded Mr. Wedderburn.

The Jacobite smiled:

"Yes, sir," he said in a low voice, "I do not write them, but they are lampoons."

"Against whom?"

"All the Whigs, sir—one in particular."

Mr. Wedderburn held the open door in his hand; he spoke over his shoulder:

"The Master of Stair?" he asked.

The Jacobite answered under his breath.

"Truly that devil—the Master of Stair."

Mr. Wedderburn's eyes flashed dark and fierce.

"Be careful, sir, how ye offend the devil," he said, and, banging the door furiously in the face of the Jacobite, strode off down the street.