The Master of Stair/Book 1/Chapter 24


As Jerome Caryl reached the street, softly closing the door behind him, a woman's voice fell on his ears out of the darkness.

"Mr. Caryl! Mr. Caryl!"

He looked about him and discerned a shadow among shadows, a huge coach, a few paces from the house.

In the open door stood the Countess Peggy, the coach light showing her in a misty radiance.

She beckoned to him and he crossed the cobbles to her side.

"Mr. Caryl—I have been waiting for ye. I slipped awa' when they grew noisy—I was wondering if they would let ye go."

She fixed her eyes on his face.

"Maybe they will be pursuing ye?"

"I do not think so," Jerome Caryl answered evenly, "their wits are confused—they hardly know that I have gone."

"Ah—then—come with me—in the coach, it gangs faster—"

"I think, my lady, there is no need," he smiled in some surprise.

But she laid her hand vehemently on his arm. "I want to speak to you—an' ye will be safer in the coach—"

She made a gesture toward the house.

"They may follow ye—come—I will take it across the river—"

There was so much anxiety, and intensity in her face and words that Jerome Caryl was impressed; he might as well cross the river in her coach as not, he quietly assented.

A look of great relief came over her face; she hurried round to the box where two servants sat, calling to them some instructions in Gaelic, then returning to Caryl sprang lightly past him into the coach.

He mounted after her and the horses started at a brisk pace.

It was a cold, raw night, and the blinds were drawn tight over the windows; the interior of the coach was upholstered in a somber red leather and the one lamp filled it with a gloomy light. The Countess Peggy had at once drawn herself away into the corner furthest from Jerome. She was hatless and her red hair in a confusion of curls, lay spread over her black velvet coat; a gray fur mantle wrapped her about and fell in heavy folds on the floor; round her throat hung a long lace scarf reaching to her waist; her gloves and muff lay on the seat beside her. Something in the situation, the confined strange atmosphere of the coach, the swift motion and the beautiful, curious face of the woman opposite, appealed to Jerome Caryl; he was interested, affected by what he could not tell; he looked at her with no desire to speak and a heavy silence fell. Gradually the frosty mist penetrated and a hazy ring grew round the lamp; the coach swung monotonously from side to side. The Countess Peggy looked up; her green eyes were wild.

"Ye are ganging to Kensington," she said in a voice muffled but steady.

He turned so that he could see her with the greater ease.

"Yes, madam."

The words came clearly above the rumbling of the wheels.

"You are going to inform," she said, with the same steadiness.

He leaned forward a little.

"The Prince will not go hunting in Hampton Court on Saturday, madam."

"Ye are ganging to betray us," said the Countess. "I knew it."

"It is not the right word," he answered. "I shall warn the Prince—no more."

She looked at him quickly and quietly then burst out contemptuously:

"Ye lie! lie! lie! Ye will gie every name ye know to the Prince!"

Jerome Caryl smiled; she sat upright with clasped hands.

"I knew it. When across the room I saw your face as the fule Berwick spoke of his plans. I saw that ye meant to betray us, Ah, they talk of their man's sagacity but a woman can see clearer—Berwick did not see—I did."

"Berwick knows me better, madam."

She took no heed of the quiet words.

"Ye will tell the Prince every name ye know," she said hoarsely. "And if ye dinna—they will discover once ye have lodged the information."

She shuddered further into her corner; her whole face and figure seemed misty to Jerome in the wavering light; only her eyes, fixed on him, were clear and brilliant.

"Will ye do it—will ye no reflect?"

There was no doubting her controlled agitation, the distress in her accents; Jerome, who had been studying her curiously, spoke now with a deepening of curiosity; he spoke under his breath softly.

"You are not involved—" he said. "For whom are you afraid?"

Her eyes traveled slowly over him.

"My husband," she said intensely.

He gave a little laugh and lifted his shoulders; Breadalbane was a byword for cunning hypocrisy; her devotion jarred as strangely out of place.

"Others beside your husband would fall if I—or any informed," he answered quietly.

She sat up, shaking her furs to the floor. "I care only for my husband."

The coach rattled and shook and the lamp-wick leaped and flickered.

"Only for my husband—and if his share in this is discovered it means ruin—if not death—to him."

The very words seemed to come with an effort from her tongue; she blenched at the bare thought of the possibility she spoke of.

"I shall not mention your husband's name," said Jerome Caryl.

"If ye put them on the track they will discover for themselves."

"Lord Breadalbane has weathered rougher storms."

"He has gone farther than ye ken—and this assassination—"

Her voice trailed off into silence; she sat upright, gazing in front of her; her hands clasped in her lap; as the coach shook on its way, her hair was flung back from her face and Jerome Caryl's sword-hilt rattled against the door; this was the only sound, this and the rattle of the wheels; he thought she was going to say no more and was marveling at her containment, when she broke the stillness by leaning over toward him.

"Dinna gang to Kensington."

Her voice, suppressed, with a note of agony in it, made Jerome Caryl start.

"I can make you rich," she continued quickly. "We can do anything for you—ask it—anything. Jock can twirl Scotland round his finger. He will give ye any place ye like if ye will he silent."

A slow flush overspread Caryl's smooth face. "Why—you can hardly know what you ask," he said. "It is that I should sanction murder and the murder of a man who spared my life and the lives of all my friends—do you—a woman—wish to see that done?"

She answered desperately:

"I dinna care—if Jock is engaged in the matter—I am Jock's wife."

She sat silent a moment, then broke forth again:

"We would pay ye vera weel—consider," Jerome Caryl laughed.

"You have utterly mistaken me. I am not a spy to be bought by the highest bidder. Nothing shall prevent me from warning the Prince."

She flared into a kind of contemptuous despair. "The Prince! What is he to ye?"

"A man—a gentleman—you cannot say so much for Berwick—or any of his crew."

"In your eyes a usurper," she cried, striving to goad him, "a foreign usurper—"

"Madam—he said to me—'there are some things I will not do'—and I say the same to you now—I will not let that man be murdered."

She was silent again as if she had nothing to oppose against his resolution; she gazed in a strange terrified manner at his calm, soft face, his melancholy hazel eyes and the color of excitement leaped into her cheeks to pale and leaped thither again.

"We must be near the river," he said, and put out his hand to lift the blind.

But she flung out her arm and intercepted him.

"Nay—not yet—not yet—and keep the night shut out. Oh, God, the night!" The next second she was on her knees on the floor of the coach.

"For pity—for God's sake—" she cried passionately. "Ye dinna ken what it means to me—"

He sprang up in his amazement and the shock of seeing her crouching before him with upturned white face, brought the color to his cheek.

"Lady Breadalbane!"

She clung to him in an eager agony of entreaty.

"Show this mercy now—by all ye ever held dear. I canna find words to entreat ye deep enough."

"Lady Breadalbane, I must warn the Prince."

"Ye know not what ye are doing!"

Down at his very feet now she pleaded; her white arms and her fallen hair hid her face as she knelt there, her voice faint with the intensity of her entreaties, as if she strove for her life—her soul.

He lifted her up, trembling a little, and put her on the seat; her hands touched his and he found them cold, her head brushed his shoulder for a moment and her face was close to his.

"Will ye—will ye?" she panted.

"No! no!"

The coach swung on its way groaning. "Where do we ride?" he demanded. "We go over smooth ground now—a country road—"

"No," she breathed, and clung to him when he would have risen and looked from the window. "No! we ride aright!"

It was not London's cobbled streets that they sped over now; smoothly and swiftly they rode along.

"Where do ye take me?" he cried again.

She leaned heavily against his shoulder so that he could not rise.

"Be merciful," she cried. "Dinna gang to Kensington!"

But her emotion, her passionate entreaties, the strange hint of warning in her voice were powerless to touch his set purpose.

"Neither God nor man," he said, "can move me—I have sworn to myself to warn the Prince."

The coach suddenly stopped.

"I also have sworn," answered Lady Breadalbane.

They both rose; something fell with a clatter on the floor. It was his sword.

She put her foot on it; he looked in her eyes and saw that she had unbuckled it while she had lain against him.

"By God—trapped!" he said softly.

The coach door was opened from without and the bitter night mists floated in. The moon was shining dimly; Jerome Caryl strode to the door; he saw a vast spread of fields before him; Hounslow Heath.

A frosty vapor lay over everything; now and then the moon was hidden; a cruel iciness was in the air.

Guarding the door stood the two Highland servants, immovable, waiting orders.

Jerome Caryl looked from them to the woman behind him.

"Is it to be murder?" he asked with a faint smile.

She shuddered violently.

"Swear on the most sacred thing ye know that ye willna' gang to Kensington."

"The alternative, madam."

She was silent; she trembled so that his sword jangled under her foot, yet she held herself straight and there was no flinching in her eyes.

He answered himself: "It is obvious."

He glanced at the three silent faces.

"No one save a woman would have tricked my sword away—give it back to me."

She caught her breath sharply.

"No—there must be no fighting."

Jerome Caryl's eyes narrowed: "So you are going to have me butchered—like a dog."

She called out in Gaelic to the Highlanders. They advanced to the coach door; a wild scorn sprang into Jerome Caryl's soft face. "Give me my sword," he said fiercely. "I am a gentleman."

Lady Breadalbane made no answer; she never lowered her eyes from his gaze; nor bent her head nor moved, but she could not speak.

He turned to the coach door and leaped to the ground.

A fine drizzle of rain was falling and the grass was sodden beneath his feet; the coach lamps shone on the two steaming white horses and showed a bare branched tree that grew nearby; the place was solitary, silent, ghostly. Jerome Caryl looked round him and his blood rose strangely.

He turned to the great Highlander who blocked his path.

"Let me pass."

For answer they seized him, each by one shoulder; at the feel of their hands on him, the blood rushed to his face, but he held himself still.

Lady Breadalbane came to the door of the coach and looked down on him.

"Will ye swear not to warn the Prince?" she shivered. "Then ye may gang awa' a free man."

His beautiful face turned to her unmoved. "I have answered you."

"Then I hav'na' a choice," she moaned.

Her black figure was outlined against the light interior of the coach as she stood with a hand on either side to support herself, her eyes were very resolute, though her voice fell and broke.

"I met you in the inn," said Jerome looking up. "And I had seen you before—in a dream—I might have known."

She stared at him dumbly; the rain on the roof of the coach made a light sound.

"Some one will warn the Prince," continued Jerome. "I am content that this is in vain."

She lifted her hand to her breast.

"Take him away," she said in Gaelic.

She saw the look on his face; she saw his hands clench, look and movement passed and he walked off quietly between the two huge figures into the darkness.

With a stifled cry she sank back onto the seat and wrung her hands.

The bitter air streamed in through the open door and she saw the black heath and the lighter sky in which the moon seemed to swing and dance behind the clouds like a lantern held unsteadily.

She dragged at her hair with a curious aimless gesture and crouched far into the corner, hiding her face in the cushions. From the darkness no sound save the gentle one of the rain and the jingle of harness as one of the horses moved.

Then suddenly footsteps, and in the open door one of her Highlanders with blood on his face.

"Ah—so soon! So soon!"

"He has a knife in his pocket—he is fighting for his life like a devil." The man put his hand to his bleeding forehead.

"What do you want?" she asked in a quick horror, yet resolute still.

"Something to tie his hands—"

Her fingers go to her cravat; she loosens it and flings it through the door; it is all she has—why does he fight—she thought he was unarmed, she wanted this to be swift and sudden.

The Highlander catches the twist of lace and is gone.

She stands there staring across the heath, upright in the coach door.

All her senses are quickened; she fancies that she can see even through the darkness, one man struggling with two, defending himself with a clasp-knife—she sees them slip a lace scarf over his head, tighten it round his throat—she sees blood—scarlet as flame, before her eyes and shakes her hands as if she felt it running from them; then she looks at the peaceful, tired, white horses standing with drooping heads in the circle of misty lantern-light; she sees the patches of wet lying on the clay under their hoofs; the bare thorn-tree behind them, the dim hurrying clouds above and the whole scene is impressed on her as something strange and terrible, every little detail to the slender line of the whip on the empty coachman's seat stands out clearly, never to be forgotten while she shall live.

Up out of the black mystery of the heath come her two Highlanders.

"Is it done—is—sh!—done?"

They answer her that it is done; they are in no way moved; they have been sent on fiercer deeds even than this in the Highlands; one is twisting a rag round his hand.

She takes up the sword from the floor; it feels strange and heavy in her hands.

"Put that beside him—drawn—as if he died fighting—highwaymen are common here."

She gives it to them; then picks up her gray fur and puts it about her shoulders.

"Empty his pockets," she calls after them, and even as she speaks she looks into the corner of the coach as if she saw him there, staring at her.

The rain ceases, and the chill, creeping wind blows stronger, ruffles her hair and the manes of the white horses.

They come back, her silent Highlanders; they lay on the floor of the coach the contents of his pockets; some money, not much; a handkerchief, a watch with the face shivered; a little book with a worn blue velvet cover, some papers tied with a ribbon.

The Highlanders, having done their duty, mount the box.

She stares at these things on the floor, picks up the packet of papers and opens it; a long lock of pale hair falls out and some dust that might have been a pressed flower.

"Where shall I drive, Lady Breadalbane?"

"To Scotland—to the Highlands—to Glencoe! Glencoe!"

She flings herself back on the seat and the door is closed; over her hand hangs the yellow curl and the winter night has fallen in chaos about her.

"To Glencoe! Glencoe!"