Viscount Stair listened with an amused smile to the heavy footsteps pacing about overhead; he drew himself closer over the fire and surveyed his lean fingers with eyes twinkling unpleasantly. His son was evidently in an ill-humor; his restlessness had followed on a message from my Lord Breadalbane; something was amiss in Scotland.
So the Viscount concluded; he made no attempt to discover what had occurred, but waited patiently, hugging his amusement, confident that his son would not leave him long out of his councils. And even sooner than he had expected the door was flung open and Sir John entered, stormy and frowning.
"Ill news from Scotland?" asked the Viscount indifferently.
His son gave him a look.
"The Macdonalds have taken the oaths," he answered briefly.
"Ah—more prudence among these savages than one might have expected," remarked the Viscount.
"Their prudence will not avail!" cried Sir John. "They did not come in till the sixth of January."
"How ill-considered!" said the Viscount.
Sir John sat down heavily.
"Breadalbane has sent me the whole tale," he said. "It seems Makian took fright when he saw the others going in and set out for Fort William to take the oaths—of course (as the old fool fortunately did not know) the oaths must be administered to a magistrate, Hill, I said Hill was untrustworthy—Hill gave him a letter to the sheriff of Argyllshire. Makian started for Inverary, but did not reach it till the sixth—God knows why."
"Probably through making himself drunk at every hut he passed," remarked the Viscount.
"He pleaded the excuse of heavy snow-storms," said Sir John, "and the sheriff was actually moved by his whinings to administer the oath."
"It will make the Macdonalds feel secure," remarked his father. "I think that is fortunate."
"But the sheriff has sent a letter to the council at Edinburgh with an account of the whole transaction."
"Need it ever reach them?" asked the Viscount. "I think if it is privately submitted to me I can cancel it—what is an oath of surrender taken on the sixth? Nothing."
Sir John rose.
"It shall make no difference," he said gloomily. "I will make an example of them, whether they took the oath or no—but this must be kept from the King."
"Which reminds me," interrupted the Viscount easily, "what of those Jacobite papers you were to put before His Majesty? It is a good many days since you announced them as in your hands."
Sir John's blue eyes lifted steadily. "I am waiting for the conspirators so embroil themselves further," he said thoughtfully.
The Viscount shrugged his shoulders.
"You are giving them a chance to leave the kingdom."
"You mistake, my lord—I am having them watched and Hunt's cottage no longer stands their refuge." He rose and abruptly left the room.
Hardly had he gone before an inner door was opened and Lady Dalrymple entered.
The Viscount gave her a sharp look.
"One might be tempted to think that you played the spy, madam," he said dryly.
"I?" she went white, but glanced at him scornfully. "Can I spy in my husband's house?"
"I grant, madam, that your means may not equal your will," he answered, "yet John is reckless—careless—"
Lady Dalrymple's great soft eyes widened. "Wherefore should I spy upon my husband's affairs?" she said coldly. "I am no politician."
"You are a woman," smiled the Viscount. "I think you have some curiosity."
"Believe me—none in these affairs of blood—"
He turned on her with a soft quickness. "How do you know that they are 'affairs of blood'?" he asked.
She stood silent with a frightened face.
"Take care," said the Viscount, rising. "If John is imprudent, he is also violent—the matters that he deals in will bear no meddling of yours."
She shrank away from him.
"Why do you so goad me, my lord?" she said in a trembling defiance. "I came here to avoid my husband, since he declared the sight of me irks him—and then you turn on me—what are you trying to drive me to between you?"
"Merely prudence," answered the Viscount. "A little prudence and discretion." And he left the room with an indescribable air of cold avoidance.
Lady Dalrymple looked after him with fear and loathing, then sank down into the chair by the fire and gazed listlessly before her, her hands clasped on her knees; her full pink gown, her undressed pale hair under the white lace knotted at her chin, the muslin fichu across her bosom and the glittering gold and purple flowers on her white satin overskirt, made her a figure of brilliant fairness in the somber gorgeous room.
The diamonds in her ears winked in the firelight and the paste buckles of her red silk shoes shone beneath her skirt; round her neck hung a broad mauve ribbon, the end of which was tucked into the gold lace of her bodice.
She sat so, very still, with the firelight glowing on her soft face, till she was disturbed by the great doors being opened; she turned in her seat with a little shrinking movement.
The servant was ushering in a lady, who hesitated on the threshold and said something in a low voice to the man who answered with a bow and a stately request for her to be seated.
Upon that the lady entered, and the servant left, closing the door.
Lady Dalrymple looked at the unexpected visitor timidly and rose with an instinctive courtliness. The lady had paused in the center of the room; the snow lay over her dark habit and in the full curls of her hair.
"I pray you do not let me trouble you," she said in a manner, unnaturally quiet and composed. "My business, madam, is with Sir John Dalrymple—I have been asked to await him here."
"Will you not sit down," said Lady Dalrymple gently. "I do not know your name, but you are very welcome."
She moved her seat from the fire and in a winning way indicated a chair opposite; but the coldness of the other's face and voice did not relax.
"My name is Delia Featherstonehaugh," she said. "And I am neither cold nor tired—only impatient, madam, to get my errand done."
Lady Dalrymple shrank under the rebuff; her soft eyes took in the stranger; she noted the set face, the proud, contained mouth, the defiantly upheld head, the girl's whole carriage as if disdaining everything about her.
"Are you in trouble?" she asked timidly.
Delia's brown eyes swept over her.
"No," she answered coldly, then with sudden force. "Yes—in terrible trouble—but in want, madam, of neither pity nor comfort."
"Alas!" said Lady Dalrymple. "I would not so repulse either were they offered me—and do not you be hard to me—for I would help you an' I could."
"Madam, you cannot—in myself alone lies help—and you—do you lack pity or sympathy?" The tone was coldly contemptuous, but Lady Dalrymple answered gently.
"I did not say so, madam—I say I would not refuse them."
"Madam—" said Delia. "Who are you?"
"I am Lady Dalrymple," was the quiet answer, "and at your service."
Delia drew herself together and held her head still higher.
"I want not your help," she said coldly. "Why was I brought here—I did not come to see you."
"My husband," said Lady Dalrymple gently, "is full of affairs—you must pardon him if he keeps you waiting."
Delia caught at the chair by which she stood.
"Your husband," she repeated under her breath; and at sight of her wild white face the other advanced a step.
"Madam—did you speak?"
Delia clenched her hands and turned her head with a quick look of loathing.
"I said naught," she answered.
Lady Dalrymple considered her; she was interested, sure that beneath her proud containment this girl was in deep distress, and she pitied her.
"Come you on matters of politics?" she asked.
Standing very erect and cold, Delia answered:
"For Scottish affairs?" said Lady Dalrymple.
"Yes," said Delia with wild eyes. "Yes."
Lady Dalrymple again studied her a moment.
"Alas! A matter of life—or death?" she said.
"Yes," answered Delia hoarsely.
"Poor soul!" cried Lady Dalrymple. "Indeed, you must tell it me—"
At the sympathy in her voice and face Delia turned in an agony that almost broke beyond control.
"You must not ask me," she panted. "I pray you that you do not question me."
"But I might serve you," said Lady Dalrymple. The fair face framed in the lace scarce was grieved, tender, a little wondering.
"Doubtless," answered Delia, forcing back her unnatural calm, "Sir John's wife would have great influence with her lord—yet will I even do without her favor."
And she smiled very bitterly.
A fine flush crept over Lady Dalrymple's face: "You are hard," she said.
"Maybe," replied Delia. "I am different of late—perhaps I am hard, I do not know."
She caught the other woman's eyes on her and flushed, then broke desperately and swiftly into speech.
"I have come to discover if the Macdonalds of Glencoe have taken the oaths to the government."
"Ah," said Lady Dalrymple. "You have friends among them? These Macdonalds—who are they?"
Delia bent her head.
"I wish to know if they are safe or no from the vengeance of—the government."
Lady Dalrymple sank into her chair again, a flutter of ribbons and lace, her blue eyes held a curious look. "If they have testified allegiance, they are beyond the law," she said. "So I have heard; I know little of it."
"’Tis, madam, what I which to discover: the Secretary for Scotland must know."
Lady Dalrymple lifted her lovely hand and dropped it again.
"He knows," she said.
"Well," cried Delia, "I want to save those people. If they, despite all warnings, have remained obdurate, there will be a horned vengeance taken, you know, belike?"
"I know," said Lady Dalrymple.
"But if they have taken the oaths—and it is blown abroad enough—no one, for shame, could touch them."
"Do you think Sir John will answer you?"
"I will essay it," answered Delia.
A little silence fell; an unusual look of resolution came into Lady Dalrymple's gentle face as she gazed into the fire; Delia, standing with her hands clasped on the chair-back gazed upon her fairness with sick aversion that mounted to her brain and set her mouth into lines of cruelty. At last, with a shiver of satin, Lady Dalrymple moved and looked at the other.
"The Macdonalds have taken the oaths," she said quietly, "but it will be suppressed. That is Viscount Stair's work—and the Earl of Breadalbane's."
"I thought so!" cried Delia fiercely. "The Viscount's work, you say! I think Sir John has had a hand in it."
"I will not discuss my husband's politics," interrupted Lady Dalrymple. "I tell you this because I would prevent an injustice and a crime. It is true, and the Macdonalds are doomed, if you can save them—do so—"
"If I can save them!" flashed Delia, "I tell you this shall be over all England to-morrow!"
Lady Dalrymple rose and came toward her.
"So you can save your friends," she said gently. "Will you not thank me a little?"
Delia stared at her.
"Why should I thank you?" she demanded.
"For what Sir John would not have told you," was the answer. "This news should mean much to you."
"I do thank you, madam," said Delia coldly, drawing back.
Lady Dalrymple came nearer, leaned forward over the table.
"Ah, sit down," she said, sweetly and sadly. "I have few to talk to—"
"Wherefore, madam?" demanded Delia.
"Because—because it is my will, I mean, they are all employed here—"
She put her hands in a troubled manner to her heart and her restless fingers pulled the mauve ribbon; a closed gold miniature case fell lightly onto the table.
Lady Dalrymple took it up in silence and looked at it with the air of some one who holds something very precious, and who, wishful to display it, yet dreads a scornful reception. She fingered the case a moment in silence and took a timid glance at Delia, who gazed blankly with a troubled face.
Lady Dalrymple encouraged by her look, snapped open the case and held it out hesitating, pleading, making a great effort to be calm:
"My children," she said.
Delia gave one glance, then motioned it away with a gesture of horror.
"How like," she said fearfully.
"How like whom?" asked Lady Dalrymple startled. "They are beautiful faces—are they not? Why do you turn away? I crave people to gaze on them—"
"They are like—Sir John," faltered Delia with quivering lips. "It startled me—"
"Why—you have seen him?"
Lady Dalrymple frowned. "I do not think they are so like," she said, and shutting the case, put it back into her bosom.
Delia uttered a hard laugh.
"’Tis the same face," she said cruelly.
The other laughed at her.
"We are well hated," she said in a changed tone. "I think he has a name well loathed—but remember, whatever he had planned against the Macdonalds, statecraft well requires it—and I have given you the power to save them."
Delia made no answer; Lady Dalrymple stood by the table, making no further attempt to speak; the silence was broken by the quiet entry of a servant.
"Sir John will see you now, madam," he said, and to Lady Dalrymple he gave a letter.
"Sent by Mr. Wharton's lackey, my lady."
She took it absently; her eyes turned wistfully to Delia, but she, with the slightest cold inclination of her head, left the room without a word.
Lady Dalrymple, chilled and repulsed, even more lonely than before this stranger's coming, sat down again by the fire and the tears welled up into her large eyes.
Yet she was glad that she had spoken about the Macdonalds; something she knew and something she guessed of the plans being laid for their destruction, and it had troubled her; now this girl could see to it that they were saved.
But she might have to pay the price; she remembered the Viscount's last words, "John is reckless and violent," still she was glad of what she had done.
Her glance fell to Mr. Wharton's letter; she broke the seal and opened it; spread it out in the fading light of the winter afternoon and read:
January 10, 1692.
I have been away, or I had sooner answered your letter, which giveth me surprise as well as pain. You ask me to no longer attend you at your house, as Sir John speaketh of me with increased dislike and cannot bear even the mention of my name. I cannot understand that you should pay any attention to a silly prejudice unworthy of a man of sense. Sir John is at full liberty to tell me himself what he mislikes in my conduct, which never (as you can bear me witness) has been in any way offensive to him or wanting in the respect that I, in common with every Whig, have for his abilities. If any fancied affront irks him, he knows how to obtain satisfaction, and I trust that he will either take this course or meet me with the courtesy that I shall always be ready to offer him and that you will not suffer his whim to interrupt a friendship that I have the vanity to believe is not displeasing to you, and is the greatest of honors to your ladyship's humble servant,
Lady Dalrymple folded the letter away slowly; she was not clever at reading between the lines, and fine phrasing a little confused her; but she caught the spirit of the writer; she saw that it only needed a word from her for Tom Wharton to challenge her husband on the first excuse that came. It was a curious thought; Tom Wharton had fought no duel in which he had not killed or (through good nature) disarmed his man; his perfect swordsmanship was a charm that kept men civil to him through all the offenses of his lax and lazy life, since a duel with him was death or the disgrace of mercy given; she knew her husband's temper too well to think he would accept the last.
She sat thinking quietly; she liked Tom Wharton; he was good-natured, pleasant-mannered, open-hearted, open-handed, he treated her with a flattering deference; though they had never exchanged confidences, she felt he understood a little of her position; Harry had liked him.
She read his letter through again; her heart swelled at the thought that he was forbidden the only pleasant company of which she knew; she struggled for a moment with rebellion and wild thoughts of swords behind Montague House, of freedom and release—then she sat down to the Viscount's desk and wrote to Tom Wharton a gentle letter in which she desired to be left to obey Sir John's wishes, however unreasonable they might seem.
She sealed it slowly and with a sigh.