The Master of Stair/Book 1/Chapter 20

CHAPTER XX
ON THE VERGE OF MADNESS

" You have sent it to the King—the packet?" ejaculated the Master of Stair.

"I have. It was time," answered the Viscount.

"My lord—why was I not consulted?" flashed his son.

Viscount Stair looked up sideways with a sudden complete drop of his indifferent manner.

"You fool," he said, "you are not in a position you can play with—you have three countries full of enemies and not one friend that I know of—except the King, and what could he do for you if all Scotland started to pull you down? Ye have discovered this plot (more by good fortune than by your own wits), and you would fling away the credit of it for—what? Some rag of sentiment."

"I have not said so," retorted Sir John sullenly.

"Bah!" The Viscount made a grimace. "Why did you delay so long in sending them to Kensington? Believe me, you cannot afford to lose these chances of serving the country: if your enemies find one handle against you—you fall far more quickly than you climbed, my dear son."

"My lord, my lord!" cried the Master of Stair, "the tenure of my office is not so slight."

"You think not?" smiled his father. "I do not now know you could have justified yourself if you had kept those papers back and it had been discovered. It would have looked like complicity with the Jacobites."

Sir John lifted his head impatiently.

"Am I not the only man about the Court whose hands are clean from that charge?" he cried. "Complicity with the Jacobites! I know no man could dare accuse me."

"And I know a hundred," returned his father. "Arrogance is strangely blind—it stands on a hill and heeds not how the foundations are being sapped till it falls on its face in the mire. And nothing is more pitiable than fallen arrogance."

"Sir—you speak as if I was a boy to be taught by your parables," cried Sir John wrathfully. "I say that by this act of yours you have made me dishonor my word—" Then his angry thoughts flashed to what Delia knew and he turned to his father. "It may ruin my plans with the Macdonalds."

"Better lose the Macdonalds than the Jacobites," answered the Viscount calmly. "And who knows of your Highland schemes?"

Maddened and fuming, Sir John's fury fixed itself on the unknown person who had betrayed him; had Delia known nothing of his scheme he would not have had to degrade himself by a bargain he was powerless to carry out.

"Yea, who knows?" he demanded. "I only knew myself this morning that the Macdonalds had taken the oath, and already I am betrayed—now, in the name of God, who is it?"

The Viscount was cool and sneering again.

"You are absolutely incoherent," he remarked. "But if any one has betrayed your schemes it is, of course, your dutiful wife."

The Master looked round sharply.

"I do not think," he said bitterly, "that she has either the wit or the spirit; and she does not know."

"It is you who do not know," smiled the Viscount. "She spies on you, listens at doors."

Sir John flared into violence.

"She would not dare—I cannot believe, and if I did—"

"Ask her," interrupted his father. "She has a silly habit of speaking the truth—the result I believe of her bad education. She is a marvelously ignorant woman."

"I can note her ill qualities plainly enough, my lord," cried Sir John, goaded now into open fury. "Where is she?"

The Viscount picked up a pen and began cutting it; he eyed the inflamed countenance of his son with a cold amusement.

"I observed her in here a little while ago," he answered quietly. "She was engaged in sealing a letter—to Mr. Wharton."

"Tom Wharton!" cried Sir John.

"Maybe she did not mention to you she had received a message from him—why should she? She knows you have not the friendship for Tom Wharton that she has—"

"My lord," said the Master of Stair, "forebear." He was trembling in an agony of rage. He turned away.

"Where are you going?" inquired his father.

"To find her," said Sir John.

"You will, I think—in the drawing-room," remarked the Viscount smiling.

Without another word Sir John left the room. It was almost dark and the house held the dreariness of winter twilight; as the Master of Stair entered the drawing-room he was greeted with the faint soft light of candles, burning high up in their silver sconces against the white walls.

It was a vast room furnished in pale tints, cold, with a look of desertion, opal-colored curtains shut out the evening, and the slender furniture cast faint reflections on the polished floor.

On a little gold and cream-tinted couch by the fire sat Lady Dalrymple; in the dim light, with her delicate hued dress and her pale coloring, she looked like some dainty figure of wax, some doll set there to complete the picture, so quiet she was in her desolate splendor.

On a small table beside her stood a bird-cage; she was bending toward it and in the hollow of her hand lay a little bullfinch; her full blue eyes gazed at it anxiously; it was sick and lay quite passively in her hand, its feathers forlornly rough.

"Ah, don't you die, too," she whispered in a kind of horror. "Don't you die, too."

Then she heard the door close and looking round across the pale room, saw her husband.

Instantly she put the bird back in its cage, shut the door on it, and rose.

"Ulrica," said the Master of Stair, "I have something to ask of you."

He came across the room, and at sight of his face the color left her own; she slipped back onto the gold sofa and clasped her hands tightly.

"What do you know of my affairs?" demanded Sir John. "I tell you nothing, but do you spy on me?"

He clenched his hand over the gilding behind her, and she shrank together.

"What do you mean?" she asked. "Why do you speak so to me?"

"Because I desire an answer," he said breathing hard.

"I will give you none," she replied in a trembling indignation. "This is my lord's work—he has set you on me."

"You had better tell me before I discover for myself," said her husband, his voice unsteady with suppressed passion.

"Did you see that girl who came asking for me this afternoon?"

She looked away, turning white, but there was that in her could disdain the lie fear prompted.

"Yes," she answered.

"By Heaven!" cried Sir John softly; he came a little nearer. "Did you inform her of anything?"

Her eyes met his with a full look of aversion.

"What is the object of this?" she asked. "Why do you take this manner to me?"

His eye caught a letter lying by the bird-cage, and the sight of it reminded him of the Viscount's second accusation. "To whom do you write?" he demanded.

She caught the letter up and rose.

"To Mr. Wharton," she answered.

"Give it to me," flashed Sir John with a step forward. Lady Dalrymple drew back, the letter held to her bosom. "I give up my friends at your desire," she said. "This is an insult."

Their eyes exchanged hatred, furious on his side, fear mingled with hers.

"Give it to me," he repeated hoarsely.

"No," she answered, "you have no right."

"No right!" He half-laughed. "Do you defy me?"

Her spirit rose at his tone.

"You go too far, Sir John," she shuddered. "Stand further away from me," and at the same instant she flung the letter into the fire, her eyes flashing with anger.

"You may think what you will of the contents," she said. "And I did—"

"You did what, madam?"

Her glance winced under his, but she answered disdainfully:

"I told the girl that these people—whoever they are—these Macdonalds—had taken the oath."

The Master of Stair's face was distorted with a savagery unpleasant to look upon; he stood motionless with his hand on his hip, gazing at her.

"I would do it again," she said. "Why should I be loyal to your blood-stained schemes?"

Her husband threw up his hand as if to shut out the sight of her.

"Keep away from me," he cried. "For I know not what I may do."

"Ah, you can do no more to me than you have done," she answered. "You have—"

He suddenly caught her by the arm, checking what she would have said.

"If you spy on me," he said breathing fast, "if you blow my affairs abroad—oh, by God, madam, you will try me beyond endurance."

She went white and shivered, straining away.

"Let go of me," she whispered in a terrified voice.

But his grip tightened, and as she looked up into his mad eyes, a horror seized her.

"You want another murder on your name!" she cried.

He loosened his hold and staggered back against the wall.

"Oh, dear Heaven!" he said under his breath. "Dear Heaven—"

He put his hand to his forehead, staring at her in a wild manner.

"Ye are mad!" whispered Lady Dalrymple in awestruck tones.

"Maybe," he answered hoarsely. "Maybe—keep away from me—take care."

He strode away across the room and she heard the door bang heavily behind him. She stood still a moment, then, trembling, crossed to the desk. She thought of the contents of Tom Wharton's letter, and smiled in mockery at herself. There was one could do what she could not for herself; she would write another letter in another spirit.

Scandal! What did she care for scandal now!

In a rare mood of recklessness she seated herself at the white and silver bureau and drew out a sheet of paper. But ere her hand could trace any of her confused thoughts the sound of the opening door alarmed her.

In the doorway stood the Countess Peggy, surveying her with sharp green eyes under the shade of her feathered hat.

"Weel," she said with her usual self-possession, "I will have been saying for some time now that I would come and see ye, and to-day I came. But your servant will not be knowing where ye are, and they put me in a vast room ower dark and I grew weary of waiting, so started to find ye."

Lady Dalrymple could do nothing but look at her in a dazed manner and falter something below her breath. The Countess crossed over to her, looking vivid, brilliant and splendid in the pale room; the winter air had touched her cheeks with an apple-blossom red; her lithe figure carried regally her green velvet gown and her trailing furs.

She sank onto the little settee and looked across at the white silent woman at the bureau.

"Why, ye are ill!" she exclaimed.

"Oh, no!" said Lady Dalrymple faintly. "You must, madam, excuse me—you startled me."

But the sharp eyes of the Countess Peggy were not to be deceived. "What has happened?" she demanded.

Lady Dalrymple writhed under this intrusion. She fixed her eyes on the blank sheet of paper as if to encourage herself in an ebbing resolution.

"Madam—I assure you," she began.

Lady Breadalbane rose and came up behind her.

"Ulrica Dalrymple, ye no' tell the truth when ye say ye ar'na' ill—"

The other rose desperately.

"It is naught," she said, and drew her fichu closer round her shoulders. "I—I—"

"I will be calling your woman or Sir John."

"Oh, no," was the vehement answer, "I beseech you, madam, that you will not."

So wild and white she looked, so desperately she trembled and clasped her shaking hands on her bosom, that the other woman stood arrested, staring at her. The Countess shared the common knowledge of Sir John's domestic affairs, and as she looked at his wife her thoughts leaped to a swift conclusion.

"Ulrica—has he been laying hands on ye?" she asked. "Sir John, I mean."

"No, no," answered Lady Dalrymple desperately. "My God, no, how dare you ask me?"

Lady Breadalbane looked at her unmoved.

"Finish your letter," she said calmly. "I would no' be disturbing ye."

But the anger of Sir John's wife had flamed up only to die out and leave the ashes of utter misery behind.

"I will not write it," she replied. "God forgive that I ever thought I would."

She sank down on the other end of the settee, too overwrought to conceal her distress, and Lady Breadalbane's clear eyes measured her curiously.

There was a silence of seconds, then the Countess spoke.

"Ye are very unhappy, Ulrica Dalrymple—ye seem to have made a fine confusion of your life—and I would tell ye that ye will no' be bettering it by puling and whimpering." Lady Dalrymple turned wild eyes to her.

"What do you know of any of it?" she asked.

"Weel, I ken somewhat," was the composed answer. "And I'm sorry for ye—but I dinna think that ye will improve your lord's temper with a gloomy face and a moping manner"

"What do you mean?" asked Lady Dalrymple faintly.

The Countess turned to her sharply.

"Woman, woman," she cried. "Dinna ye ken that a man likes a cheerfu' face aboot him, and a house that is warm and well-lighted, not a great auld barn like this, which would disconcert ony but ghosts?"

A faint flush crept into Lady Dalrymple's face.

"And am I to give all the service? I am to supply all the gaiety, the life, the care against his mere tolerance?"

"Yes," was the calm answer. "It comes to about that if ye want a life that is worth living—ye must give somewhat your side; remember he has more on his mind than ye will ever ken."

As she spoke the Countess lifted her eyes to a portrait over the bureau, it was of Sir John and taken in his May of life; he wore a cuirass and plumed hat and smiled out of the canvas, as handsome a face as a man may have.

His wife followed the Countess's glance.

"He is not like that now," she said bitterly. She rose. "Did you ever hate any one, madam?" she asked. Then, without waiting, she answered herself. "It is terrible to hate," she said hoarsely. "And terrible to be hated."

She turned wildly about and caught up the cage of bullfinches. She held them close to her bosom.

"They eat from my hand," she said wistfully. "I think they like me."

Then she burst into hysterical laughter and hurried from the room, swiftly, through the folding-doors.

The Countess Peggy looked again at the portrait over the bureau, and slowly rose and crossed over to it. She studied it for some time in silence, holding the candle that stood underneath up above her head that she might see the better. She heard the door open and turned to see the original of the portrait within a few feet of her.

He paused, arrested by seeing her.

"I did not know that you were here," he said quickly.

The Countess Peggy set the candle down, a little discomposed by his sudden appearance.

"I came to see your lady, Sir John."

It seemed that his pallor deepened.

"She was here—you saw her?"

"Yes, Sir John."

His blue eyes swept over her; she winced under it, a rare thing for her; she could not look at his proud, gloomy face; her own flushed a little; she shifted onto common ground.

"Ye hae heard, Sir John, that the Jacobite, Jerome Caryl, is to be examined privately at Kensington to-morrow?"

He put his hand to his black velvet cravat as if to loosen it.

"Yes, I have heard."

She rose, still not looking at him, and crossed to the door.

"Good-even, Sir John."

Under the influence of his splendid presence her voice was almost timid.

"Good-even, madam."

He opened the door for her in an indifferent manner, and when she had gone he crossed to the bureau and snatched up the candle she had held, and gazed at his portrait as she had gazed, with a strange curiosity.