The Master of Stair/Book 1/Chapter 17

CHAPTER XVII

Delia Featherstonehaugh came home through the quiet dark streets by the river with a heart so elate that she heeded nothing of the lateness of the hour, the bitter little wind that whistled through the houses or the slow falling snow.

A clock striking nine told her that she had lingered in the Abbey longer than she thought, but what did that matter to-night? Perseus would forgive her when she told him.

She smiled up at the bleak sky and quickened her pace.

At the corner of a street she noticed an old beggar huddled against a house; she stopped under the lamp and took out her purse, emptying all its little silver into the astonished beggar's palm; she felt that she had come into great riches; she was so happy, the joy within was inexhaustible; she felt she could have played the prodigal with it and still have the lightest heart in the world.

The old man called a garrulous blessing after her and she turned lightly with a dazzling smile, then hurried on down the street.

There was no one abroad; the stillness of the snow lay over everything; every tenth house alone showed a lamp and between the way was in perfect darkness; yet Delia found in this dreariness only a strangeness that heightened the ecstasy of her divine elation. As she turned into the courtyard of "The Sleeping Queen" she saw Jerome Caryl dismounting by the light of the ostler's lanthorn.

"Mr. Caryl!" she cried with an impulsive desire to speak to some one.

He turned. "Why, you are out late," he said abstractedly; he looked pale and anxious had Delia had eyes for that, but she followed him into the house and into the front parlor in a smiling silence. A serving man set a lamp upon the table and Jerome Caryl flung him his hat and whip; then glanced at Delia.

"Why, what has happened?" he asked, struck through his absorption with her transfigured face. She stood behind the lamp, her hands resting on the edge of the table and her head a little thrown back; her hazel curls lay over the open collar of her red coat and her eyes shone softly brilliant as misted fires.

"Ah, Jerome," she said, trembling passionately. "Ah, I feel above humanity to-night!"

He looked at her, his melancholy eyes a little wide with wonder.

"Tell me—" he asked.

Blushing, breathing fast, she drew back with low laughter. "Ah—not yet—I must tell Perseus first."

"I, too, have somewhat to tell Perseus," said Jerome Caryl; he went to the door and called to the servant. "Is Mr. Wedderburn here?"

"Yes," came the answer. "He is, sir, in the back parlor with Sir Perseus—"

Jerome Caryl returned to the table.

"I have been detained," he said. "Berwick had heard from Argyll—a letter in bad cipher—it hinted that the government knew something."

Delia would not be disturbed by this to-night—not tonight. Misfortune or the hint of misfortune was unbelievable to-night.

"My Lord Argyll is over fearful," she said, with smiling eyes.

Jerome Caryl looked at her curiously; he had never seen her thus: gloriously smiling, triumphantly glowing with joyous high spirits; she was beautiful to-night with the beauty of great happiness; she caught his glance and laughed and blushed; her hand upon the door.

"Perseus will be a-rating us both for this lateness," she said, her bosom heaving as if she had been swiftly running.

She opened the door and stepped lightly over the threshold, then paused, still smiling, but a little wondering. The window opposite was set wide open; of the two candles on the table one had been blown out by the rising wind, the other had guttered and the wax dripped forlornly down the stick onto the table; the fire had fallen to a few smoldering embers.

"There is no one here," said Delia marveling.

Yet the room did not seem empty; she felt that there was some one there, and peered forward into the shadows. "Perseus!" she cried.

As she advanced she noticed the ashes and charred scraps of paper lying about the hearth: she stopped abruptly.

"Perseus!" she said again, but her voice was less confident and her smile had faded; she looked at the table where she had left her brother writing; there were his inkstand, his pens, wine and glasses on a tray; his chair pushed back and another one knocked over; over this hung a man's riding-cloak—and not her brother's—

Whose—then—whose?

She picked up the flaring candle and held it over the fallen chair.

Mr. Wedderburn's cloak—she had seen him in it an hour ago.

She turned across the room, the candle shook and dripped in her hand.

"Jerome!" she said faintly, "Jerome!"

He was in the doorway.

"Where are they?" he asked swiftly.

She was nearing the window; the candle cast a ragged light through the shadows.

"Jerome—" she whispered fast and fearfully. "Come here—there is something here—"

Backing against the wall she stared down at the window-seat.

"God!" she shrieked suddenly. "It is a man!" The candle clattered from her slack fingers to the floor; the room was in complete darkness. Delia turned wildly through the blackness and caught Jerome Caryl's arm.

"Who is it?" she cried. "Whom do you think it can be? Nay, answer me—could it be—he? Ah, no, my God—it is not possible—"

"Hush! hush!" said Jerome gently. "I must get a light."

"No, no, I could not bear to look," she shuddered wildly. "I will not bear it—why should you ask me to? It was his cloak—"

Jerome tenderly disengaged her hand.

"Take courage," he said. "If it should be Perseus he may not be—he may be—living."

She let him go; her hands fell to her sides.

"Perseus," she echoed vaguely. "Do you think it might be Perseus?"

She turned and crept along the wall; falling to her knees, she put her hands out through the dark, feeling blindly for what she knew was there.

"Andrew, Andrew," she said crazily—"Ah!" She drew back, for she had touched something—something soft—velvet—a velvet sleeve—she pressed her face against the wall, her hands over it, and her fallen hair, and when Jerome re-entered with a lantern she did not look up.

He crossed at once to the window, holding the light; it revealed her crouching away with hidden face and close beside her Sir Perseus, full on his back, his hands clutched in his disordered clothes, as if his last act had been the defense of something he had hidden in his breast. "Now here is an end of thy work," said Jerome quietly.

He set the lantern on the window-seat and sinking on his knees, lifted Sir Perseus someway from the floor. "Delia—bring me the wine," he said. "I think he still breathes—"

She slowly turned a wild face.

"So—it is Perseus—" she said, staring.

"Bring the wine—" said Jerome Caryl.

Mechanically and heavily, she obeyed him; poured it out and handed it. "So it is Perseus," she repeated.

"I think we are betrayed," said Jerome Caryl evenly. "Now, who was it?" He laid his hand over the heart of the wounded man; then forced some wine between his lips.

"Dead?" asked Delia. "Is he dead—dead?"

"Hush!" whispered Jerome Caryl; for the man in his arms had stirred; he bent his head to catch some whisper.

Sir Perseus moved.

"Who was it?" asked Jerome Caryl. "And the papers?"

Bending close he caught a few struggling breaths. "I did my—best—I did—" Then with the effort of speaking, the blood rushed to the man's mouth, choking him, his staring eyes fixed in an agony on the calm face bending over him.

"The Master of Stair," he gasped, with a ghastly effort and, rolling over, sank out of Jerome Caryl's arms.

"What does he mean?" sobbed Delia. "Has he been murdered? What has happened—is he dead?"

Jerome Caryl looked up at her.

"Yes," he said briefly, "and the man who slew him has those papers."

Delia reeled forward into the room and sat down heavily at the table, her face blank, her fingers at her mouth; there was everything on the table as it had been; the familiar things of common use about the room—what had happened that it was all so strange? Nothing—what could happen? It seemed as if her heart had stopped; all she felt was a little tired wonder. She was roused by a light touch on her arm, and looked up dully into Jerome Caryl's face.

He lifted her hand from the table.

"For his sake," he said very softly, "Call up your courage now—"

She stared with an unchanged look.

"Is he dead?" she said. "Perseus?"

"God help thee," he answered, and his voice broke a little. "We are all undone—"

"But—Perseus?" she repeated. "Is he dead? Can't he see me? Won't he hear me when I tell him—why—what was I going to tell him? When I came home I sang for joy, oh, my love, my love!" She dropped her head, sobbing heavily. "Come and comfort me," she cried between her bitter tears. "I only want you—ah, I would have told him—dead—what is it to be dead?"

She looked up.

Jerome Caryl had left her; she rose and crept slowly to where her brother lay with Jerome's handkerchief across his face.

"Perseus—" she sobbed, "I was so happy—dear—I wanted to make you happy, too—he loves me! Perseus—do you hear?"

She bent lower.

"Will you never know now?" she asked fearfully. "But he shall avenge you—he loves me! Oh, Perseus, cannot the wonder of it make you rise and speak to me?"

A moment she listened with stilled breath, then slowly she shrank back from the still and stiffened figure on the floor.

"Andrew—" she whispered pitifully, then her gaze fell on his cloak and she caught it up to her breast for comfort. Suddenly Jerome Caryl entered; a little paper showed in his hand; his face was strongly moved.

"It is explained!" he cried passionately, "that damned devil has undone us utterly—see what has come from the man Hunt—in prison in Romney—he contrived to send this. Look at it—fated fools we are!" He held out to her a soiled scrap of crumpled paper; her wild eyes fell to it and she read in scrawling characters:

"Mr. Andrew Wedderburn is the Master of Stair."

She made no movement, spoke no word; Jerome Caryl thought that, in her grief, she was careless as to what this could mean.

"He has those papers," he said fiercely. "He must have those papers—Perseus died defending them—"

"Perseus—died?" she said. "He—killed—Perseus?"

"What else?" cried Jerome Caryl. "For what was he here? It all proves it—Argyll's warning—Hunt's message—and that—"

He pointed to Perseus and her eyes followed his gesture; she was standing very stiffly, her hand resting on the table edge.

"It is a lie," she said, "a monstrous lie."

"It is the bitter truth and we are ruined."

"No, it is a fearful lie," said Delia slowly. "I know it is a lie."

Jerome Caryl made no answer; he was bending over the charred papers on the hearth.

"These might be they;" he said, looking up and across at the dead man. "Now what would I not give for one word from you—one word, yes—or no—"

Delia gave no hint; she stepped forward suddenly and faced Jerome.

"Tell me," she asked. "What did you say just now? What was that paper—show it to me." Her voice sank to an intense appeal.

"Ah—show it to me," she cried hoarsely.

He looked at her in a quick pity.

"Forgive me—I have been blunt—poor soul, 'tis terrible for you," he said gently.

She took no notice of his words; with the same set face she came closer and caught hold of his sleeve.

"What was it?" she said in a frozen voice. "Some lie rang in my head—something too horrible—Jerome—what have I ever done that you should so torture me—will you not tell me?"

So strange was her voice, so disconnected and yet intensely earnest were her words, that Caryl feared for her reason.

"Delia," he said pityingly. "I would do anything to comfort thee—yet I can give thee no hope—he is dead."

"Yes!" she cried frantically. "But who killed him?"

"This man—this devilish villain—the Master of Stair—"

"The Master of Stair!" she echoed, clinging to him desperately. "What has he to do with us; we do not know him—I have never seen him—"

"Nay—he called himself Andrew Wedderburn—"

"No—no," she whispered thickly, "that is not true, and you shall say so. My God! It is not true. I am mad and all the world is chaos if that is true—"

"I know it as if I had seen him do it," he answered. "What did your brother say—the Master of Stair!"

"No! no! he did not!" shrieked Delia.

"Did they not tell us he was in this room with Perseus—did he not quit by the window in such haste that he left his cloak—there at your feet?"

His cloak! His cloak that she had clutched to her heart for comfort—this to be cited at evidence against him—"

"I say it could not be!" she cried; she put her hands before her face as if fire had suddenly struck her blind and cowered and shrank together.

Gently Jerome Caryl put her into the chair by the desolate hearth.

"We must leave here at once," he said. "I must send a warning to Berwick and destroy the printing-press and all papers—there is a kingdom hanging on our prudence now."

She looked at him blankly.

"The Master of Stair," she muttered. "The Master of Stair."

She drew herself together in the chair and, half-swooning, dreams mounted to her brain; reality ebbed away; she was conscious of feeling cold and yet when she put her hand to her forehead she seemed to touch fire; she thought the Abbey was about her, the sunlight at her feet, and—he—stood on the bishop's grave—"call me John," he said—Sir John Dalrymple, Master of Stair—she repeated the names to herself—it was written in large characters: "Mr. Wedderburn is the Master of Stair"—how they lied! Where was Jerome Caryl?

There were people passing, carrying something—it was the Abbey and a funeral—she was so happy that she could weep for them—death was curious—irrevocable—irrevocable.

It was Perseus they carried past. They came so heavily—so slowly; one of his hands hung out and touched the floor.

Perseus—dead.

She rose up and looked at him.

"Dead! Who slew him?"

From infinite distance seemed to come the answer "The Master of Stair."

"Dead! my brother—who killed him?"

"The Master of Stair."

She fell face downwards across the chair and still through her unconsciousness came:

"Who killed him?"

"The Master of Stair."