The Master of Stair/Book 2/Chapter 2

CHAPTER II
FOREBODINGS

The musicians were playing the delicate melody of a pavan in Lady Breadalbane's ball-room, the air was heavy with the scent of the white and pink roses that decorated the walls and the rhythmical movements of the dancers were reflected in smooth pale floors.

In a little card-room opening on the ball-room sat Breadalbane and the Earl of Stair, in converse.

Breadalbane appeared ill and anxious; his delicate face was pale and drawn, his manner strained to composure and quiet. Their discourse lay round the word now in the mouth of all Scotland, Glencoe.

"Ye hae heard?" said Breadalbane, "that the King's commission appointed to make the inquiry canna be kept off it ony longer. The feeling is ower strang."

The Earl of Stair's foot beat time softly to the pavan; he gazed with an inscrutable face toward, the distant dancers.

"Tweeddale and the other privy councilors will hold this investigation in a day or so—even ye, my lord, canna stop them."

Still the other made no answer.

"Ye hav'na'," continued Breadalbane, "the power ye had, my lord, tho' to the world ye seem at the pinnacle o' fame—but the Presbyterians and the Jacks together will be too strang for ye noo."

The Earl's blue eyes flashed.

"I do not dread the inquiry," he said. "Albeit it is conducted by my enemies—my bitter enemies, Johnstone and Tweeddale."

"Ay," answered Breadalbane, "ye hae mony enemies, and they'll ruin ye if they can, but 'tis ane bitter enemy has wrought this."

"Who mean ye?" frowned Lord Stair.

Breadalbane lifted his shoulders.

"I dinna ken—ye should ken best—some one has been at work—persistently, during these three years this tale has been abroad, through the non-jurors, the Jacks—to your enemies in Parliament—till all Scotland is roused. Who is at the bottom of it?"

Lord Stair turned slowly to the speaker.

"A tale springing from the Jacks," he said scornfully. "Will any believe it? It does not trouble me. I have not even heard their version."

"Ye are ower sure, Lord Stair—the work has been slow but certain—the tale is in every mouth."

"What tale, my lord?"

"The tale o' what they call the massacre o' Glencoe."

"What do they say?" asked Lord Stair with a disdainful smile.

"They say that the Macdonalds were murdered by your orders—they say that the soldiers entered the Glen by black treachery, feigning friendship, that they lived there ower a fortnicht, feasting and drinking, that they rose one nicht and murdered the clan in their beds, butchered them, men, women and children, with every cruelty—that is the tale they tell, Lord Stair."

"It is a lie."

"Yea—it is a lee—but ye canna, I ken, prove it a lee. The inquiry will be behind closed doors—it will be conducted by your enemies; ye hae all Scotland believing this lee—and against ye."

Lord Stair spoke impatiently.

"Every soldier under Glenlyon knows that this was a military execution—every man among them can disprove this wild tale of the Jacobites—"

"The Argyllshire regiment is in America," said Breadalbane, "and I hav'na' seen Glenlyon since he left my service suddenly—disappeared—"

Lord Stair seemed struck into a frowning silence for a moment. At length he asked:

"Whom will they examine—these commissioners?"

Breadalbane lifted his light eyes.

"Sandy and Ian Macdonald who escaped—Keppoch and Glengarry—I dinna ken—what others—I am nae in their secrets."

Again in silence Lord Stair looked out across the ballroom; the delicate melody of the pavan came exquisitely through the roses.

Lord Stair's mouth curved into a little smile; he did not fear; he despised his enemies; that they had discovered such a weapon as this against him roused his bitter amusement more than his wrath. He disdained to be moved by insults raked from the very mud of the gutter; he cared nothing for tales started in Jacobite pamphlets. No remorse troubled him with regard to Glencoe; he was too sure of himself, his great position, the King's friendship, to tremble before the Scottish Parliament.

"Let them open the commission," he said loftily, "let them listen to the lies of Highland savages. I shall not lift a finger to prevent them. They must have a party cry—as well Glencoe as any other."

He took one of the roses from the bowl on the card table and pulled idly at the curling leaves; his eyes were carelessly following the figure of his wife as her gold embroideries flashed among the dancers.

Breadalbane watched him curiously.

"Ye are ower easy, Lord Stair. Ye ken the ugly things the inquiry will reveal? How they took the oath and it was suppressed—for your ain purpose."

Lord Stair flicked a torn petal from his white sleeve.

"I had authority to suppress what I choose, my lord," he answered indifferently. "The oath was invalid—as it came in too late, and so I treated it. Besides, have you forgotten that I had the King's warrant?"

A faint smile touched Breadalbane's thin lips.

"Will the King stand by ye?" he asked. "Will he no' say that he didna' ken what he signed?"

Lord Stair sat silent. Breadalbane's keen insight had brought him to the truth. Stair thought of that day at Kensington when William had signed the order without reading it, and for the first time a vague uneasiness touched him; he turned at last, half-angrily.

"Why this anxiety on my behalf, my lord?" he demanded. "You had a share in this business, yet you are safe—thanks to your prudence."

The pavan was over. Lord Stair watched his wife till she had gone out of sight with her partner; he had pulled the rose away to the heart and absently he played with the pile of petals on the table beside him.

"Mae mon's prudence," remarked Breadalbane a little bitterly, "can take account of such a mischance as this—some one hae been working in the dark—some black steady malice hae been accomplishing this."

"The malice of the Jacks," suggested Lord Stair with a smile.

"It's mair than that, my lord—is this story that makes England and France shout shame on us and the mob pelt us as we pass, a mere invention of the Jacks? Ye hae a bitter secret enemy—my lord—canna ye guess at one wha might do this thing?"

Lord Stair dragged the pilfered rose across the table, leaving the gold pollen dust staining the inlaid wood; he still smiled.

"I know of none—my enemies are numerous—but not—my lord, secret."

The violins commenced a gavotte. Lady Stair crossed the floor, Mr. Wharton was her partner; her husband looked at them and reflected that Mr. Wharton was too often in Edinburgh; these three years had not softened his dislike of the good-humored beau.

Breadalbane spoke again.

"Ye are mistaken—the maist deadly of your enemies is the hidden one wha hae trumped up this tale."

"Maybe it is an enemy of your own," answered Lord Stair. "Maybe you, my lord, are the object of this spite."

"It is na directed against me—if I fall it will be only in complication wi' ye—they hav'na' mentioned me—it is always ye, Lord Stair."

A little silence fell; no voices broke the spirited measure of the gavotte; Lord Stair trifled lazily with the ruined rose; Breadalbane watched him covertly.

The candle-light gleamed softly on the round arms and bare shoulders of the women as they passed between their partners and courtesied, each reflected in the long mirrors lining the room, so that three Lady Stairs appeared to be dancing, one in profile, one full face, one with her back, all clad in satin that caught rippling lights and gleaming shadows, all smiling, faintly.

Lord Stair spoke at length.

"My letters—that I wrote at the time of this affair—you kept them?"

"They were vera imprudent—yes, I kept them."

Lord Stair lifted his blue eyes; they were dark, a little troubled.

"You can give them back to me, my lord, there is no need for them to serve Tweeddale's turn."

The music crashed to its climax; the three Lady Stair's advanced, receded, bowed with the glittering shaking of a cloud of gold embroideries.

"Send me those letters," repeated Lord Stair. "I shall be obliged, my lord."

A curious look passed over Breadalbane's face.

"They are nae langer in my possession."

"What do you mean?"

"Tweeddale sent for them—to be examined—wi' your letters to the Commander of the Forces."

Lord Stair flushed and turned quickly in his chair. "And you sent them?"

Breadalbane smiled.

"Yes."

"Now—by heaven, my lord, that was ill done!"

Unmoved, Breadalbane lifted his shoulders.

"I must show my authority—I canna tak' the blame—ye wrote them, ye must even tak' the—credit, Lord Stair."

"You have treated me unworthily."

The Earl of Stair was breathing fast, he clenched his hand on the rose petals and his angry eyes glanced disdainfully over his companion; but Breadalbane kept his composure.

"As ye mak' naething o' the affair," he remarked dryly, "ye dinna need to care that the Marquis o' Tweeddale will be reading your letters."

"Care?" echoed Lord Stair. "I care for none of it—you, my lord, behave according to your nature. I am your guest. We will let the matter of the papers pass. After all I should not have expected otherwise, and I am not ashamed of what I have written."

Breadalbane was quiet, slightly discomfited by the magnificent manner and person of the man whose reckless imprudence his cunning despised.

Lord Stair rose, sweeping the petals in a cloud onto the floor; bowed, and passed into the ball-room.

The gavotte was over, the company stood about in little knots; as Lord Stair passed he heard fragments of their converse; it seemed that they talked of nothing save Glencoe, Glencoe and the impending commission.

Johnstone was there, his fellow-minister and rival; he crossed the room to make some smiling remarks to him upon the current topic.

"Ye have some enemy at work, my lord," said Johnstone with a pleasant spite.

Lord Stair gazed at him in a disdainful silence, but the words pierced the armor of his splendid scorn.

Had not Breadalbane said the same? Some secret enemy working his ruin.

He thought it over gloomily; it was part of the curse over the Dalrymples, perchance, part of the bitter curse that at last, after he had stifled the miseries of his personal tragedies with brilliant, mighty success, he should be pulled to ruin by some unknown enemy.

He had seated himself in front of one of the great mirrors and gazed frowningly at the company; his wife passed with Tom Wharton; he took no heed of her save to wonder bitterly what she would do were he ruined, if such a wild thing happened and he was brought low. What would she do? He thought grimly that her company would not trouble him in that case; doubtless she would be glad of the scandal of his disgrace to cover the scandal of her desertion; the thin chain that held her would be snapped, when the world turned on him so would she; he was sure of it, and he reflected how easily his fortunes, his name, his honor could be pulled to the dust if Tweeddale and his faction triumphed.

But his arrogance dismissed even the shadow of humiliation; he had been howled at, reviled, threatened before; this storm would pass as others had clone; he had weathered too much for a paltry matter such as this Glencoe affair to overthrow him.

With the calm of his conscious pride he looked round on the brilliant crowd. He was well aware that most of them were his ill-wishers. He would not have been to the trouble of turning his head to conciliate one of them; they might say what they would of him, he would stoop to neither justification nor defense.

As the music recommenced, his wife advanced into the recess. She seemed agitated and to hesitate, and paused looking at him strangely.

"The things they say!" she breathed quickly. "Have you heard?"

His face hardened, disdaining to answer. He glanced away, but she, ignoring the repulse, crossed the polished floor with a sweep of satin and put her hand on the back of his chair.

"It is not true, my lord," she asked, "this tale—it is some slander of the Jacobites?"

He looked at her sideways in a manner that made her blench.

"Has my Lord Wharton been giving you his version of this tale?" he asked.

She answered, very quietly.

"He—and others—it is in the air—and because I know—something of what happened three years ago when this affair of the Macdonalds was first broached—"

"So—you care to remind me of that?" he interrupted hotly.

Her wide eyes held a mournful steadiness.

"Why not my lord? You need not fear any knowledge of mine! That the Macdonalds actually took the oath is now common talk—tell me—is this story of the massacre the truth?"

Very intently and earnestly she looked at him.

"It is horrible," she said, "the cruelty—the treachery—babies slain and little children dying of cold—my lord, my lord, you did not sanction it?"

He turned his head slowly toward her.

"You may think so if you will," he answered coldly.

Her hand fell from his chair, she drew back a step. "'Then—it is true?"

"I shall not deny it—if you care to think so you may."

The look of aversion that was so at variance with her soft face sprang into her eyes.

"Is that your answer? You will not deny it?"

"No," he said indifferently, "neither to you nor to any other."

"They will ruin you for it," she cried breathing quickly.

His eyes flashed; he thought she would had she dared have finished her sentence, "and I shall be free."

"They may try," he said. "It will interest you, will it not, madam?"

She flung up her head in a desperate manner.

"It interests me more to know whether you are or are not the infamous wretch these people paint you."

Lord Stair's usual pallor deepened. He tightened his lips and would not speak; his wife considered him with baffled eyes, hesitated, then broke into open appeal.

"I would take your word," she cried.

With a little kindness of voice or tone or look, with a gentle gesture, a denial of the guilt that was at least not his, he could have won her now, won her to believe in him, to stand by him; he knew it but he would not soften, retract or explain, not by so much as a little word would his pride deign to bridge the gulf between them.

He stared at her coldly with a bitter smile.

"Madam, I shall not offer you my word," he answered. "It is of little matter what you think of me."

She moved away from him quivering, with outraged eyes.

"Very well," she said below her breath, "I shall know what to think of you. If you did this thing—if the blood of those babes is on your head."

He rose suddenly; the George hanging to the collar of knots and roses heaved and glittered with his angry breathing.

"Keep this talk for those who are your usual company, madam," he said fiercely. "What do you think the brats of savages are to me?"

And he swung out of the recess into the ball-room.

Lady Stair looked after him, and her gentle face grew hard; her delicate hand waved her fan to and fro, slowly under her chin; she stood erect, silent.

The music crept to her ears in a slow melody; the gently moving fan kept time with it; with narrowed eyes she turned and looked at herself in the mirror.

It was a tragic face she saw there, a hopeless face.

With a curious impulse, she leaned forward and kissed the lips of her reflection, kissed the cold glass and smiled into her own eyes, with an utter sadness.