The Master of Stair/Book 2/Chapter 5

CHAPTER V
A WOMAN'S VICTORY

Twilight was gathering as Lord Stair rode back into Edinburgh; the city lights glimmered through purple haze as the June evening deepened and above the castle that stood black against the sky hung the first star.

Lord Stair was riding slowly from the gate when he had to draw aside to admit the passage of a coach and four; as it swept rattling along the narrow street he recognized the silver and murrey of Lord Wharton's liveries.

Evidently my lord was returning to London; the Earl glanced after the coach with a strange satisfaction and smiled to himself as he noted that the blinds were drawn. Lord Wharton was likely to be afraid of the night air; he pictured him with his hands in a muff seated on cushions as the coach swung through the open gates onto the country road.

Lord Stair went on his way; there were many people about, some excitement or uneasiness appeared to be abroad; he wondered grimly if the messenger from the King had arrived and if these churls mouthed his news already.

No one recognized him in his plain riding-gear; he pulled his beaver further over his eyes and turned into the main street; here the crowd was denser; many were armed; he touched up his tired horse and was breaking into a trot when a girl stepped out from the passers-by and put her hand forcibly on his rein.

"Lord Stair!" she said in a quick whisper.

He stopped, looked down.

"Lord Stair—dinna gang hame!" she said earnestly.

He leaned from the saddle to catch her whisper. "You know me?" he asked easily.

She nodded.

"I hae seen ye ride frae the Parliament, Lord Stair,—dinna gang hame to-nicht!"

"Why, mistress?"

Her eyes glowed in the shadow of her hood.

"They're ganging to burn yer house, Lord Stair—to-nicht—I ken it a' for ma ain Sandy is in it—sae—dinna gang hame!"

She dropped her hand, trembling with excitement.

"Ye canna save yer house, yet ye can save yer life."

He drew himself erect in his saddle and looked in the direction of his home.

"This is Tweeddale's and Johnstone's setting on."

"Ay, Lord Stair—and the mob will make for yer life."

"I will go and demand soldiers."

"It willna' serve, Lord Stair—they are a' in league wi' the mob."

He knew very well that her words were true. "Thank you, mistress," he said with a sudden smile. "But I must go home—and quickly. I should never have left the house—I did not guess at this."

"Why, Lord Stair? Why must ye gang hame?"

"Because of the Countess: she is alone. Thank you again, mistress."

He lifted his hat for a second and then turned rapidly down the street.

So it had come to this: often had he been face to face with popular wrath; often had he dared and flouted the whole of Scotland and now the crash had come. He glanced down at the people he rode through and his soul shook to think that he should have come to be at their mercy. His mansion was in complete darkness as he rode into the courtyard; it was with a sense of relief that he noticed the empty streets before it, the mob had not gathered yet.

No servant came forward to take his horse; he left the tired animal and entered the house.

One of the footmen stood in the hall, looking pale and frightened.

"Are you the only one?" said Lord Stair.

The man assented in a cowed manner.

"Melville—has Melville gone?"

"Yes, my lord—we heard there was a design to burn the house. Mr. Melville went and the others, my lord."

"I think the information was correct," said Lord Stair quietly. "You had better follow. Only first there are the horses. My own is outside—take him and the others to the old stables at the end of the garden. I think they will be safe there. Let me know that it is done and you shall be rewarded."

"Yes, my lord."

Lord Stair was moving down the shadows of the hall when the man called after him:

"There is a lady waiting for you in the drawing-room, my lord. She would not be denied."

"Waiting for me?"

The Earl paused on the first stair and looked back through the darkness at the speaker.

"Yes, my lord."

"Her name?"

"My lord, she gave none."

Lord Stair was silent a moment. "Where is the Countess?" he asked. The man did not answer.

"Where is she?"

"My lord, my lord."

At the tone, the exclamation, the Earl gave a little start.

"She is in the house," he said sharply.

Slowly, reluctantly, came the reply.

"No, my lord."

And as the man spoke he saw the Earl put his hand out swiftly and catch hold of the banisters.

"When did she go?" came through the shadows and Lord Stair's voice shook a little.

"Soon after Mr. Melville, my lord; when she heard they meant to burn the house, my lady put on her hat and had her mare saddled and rode away."

"Leaving no message?"

"None, my lord."

A pause while the shadows seemed to thicken, blotting out all traces of light; then Lord Stair spoke, quietly:

"That will do. Go and look to the horses."

The man obeyed, disappearing quickly, and Lord Stair ascended the gloomy stairs of his deserted house.

Groping aimlessly through the darkness he pushed open the first door he came to and flung himself into a chair.

So—his wife had gone—he had never expected it, like this, so brutally.

He remembered Lord Wharton's coach and the closed blinds and cursed himself for a fool that he had smiled—why had not some devil's whisper prompted him to send a bullet through those deceitful windows and kill the two that rode within?

And she had talked of her honorable house! It was part of her woman's cunning—that he might leave her—safely trusting her cold dignity!

He started up with some wild idea of following them, but by now they would be miles on the road; he did not doubt that one day he would kill Tom Wharton; but to-night it was madness; he was deserted and alone, still he had himself at least in hand to face whatever came.

Yet the next instant his impulse was to ride after them at any cost, at any price. She might have waited! A dull agony came over him, he dropped his head on his outspread arms and the dark glimmered with horror.

The curse! To the last shame and misery it was being meted out—an accursed race—accursed.

The word beat in his brain like a drum to execution.

Accursed, abhorred; great and famous as he had been but yesterday, there was not one who would stay to help him meet this moment now.

He was used to standing alone; he had an immeasurable courage, yet his wife's defection had robbed him of half his strength.

Let her only have waited a little longer—possibly a few poor hours longer and she might have been free indeed.

He rose up blindly and felt for his sword. It was completely dark, only the long window glimmered ghostly at the other end of the room. As he moved he knocked a table over and there was a crash of china as the vases struck the floor, he paused, leaning against the wall with his hand to his sick head.

The room opened into the drawing-room by folding-doors; it seemed, as if, in that other chamber, some one was moving, some one roused by the falling table.

Suddenly a candle appeared like a star in the distance, coming nearer through the dark. His blood leaped for a moment; it might be that she had not gone—it might be that she had returned.

"Ulrica!" he cried hoarsely, "Ulrica!"

But now the candle cast a glow on the person carrying it; a woman, but too tall and stately for Lady Stair.

She came to the open doors and stopped; her light gray dress appeared luminous against the darkness, and a black hood was pushed back from her pale, set face.

She held the candle in a hand so trembling that the flame wavered and the wax dripped over her dress.

"Is it you, Lord Stair?" she said faintly. "Is it you?"

In an instant he knew her; in an instant it was all plain to him, as the key to the cipher she explained everything; his secret enemy, the one who had worked his ruin in the dark—he heard her words of three years ago is if she spoke them now.

"If you push me too far I may pull your fortunes about your feet."

He moved into the center of the room.

"Delia," he said, "Delia."

She shrank back.

"Do you know me, Lord Stair?"

"I know you—and—now, what you have done."

The candle only faintly dispelled the thunderous summer dark; crossing the threshold she stood it on the chimneypiece, where its double shone from the mirror, a dim ghost. Lord Stair's figure showed obscurely with a trailing black shadow behind it.

"Why have you come?" he said in a low voice.

With one hand on the chimneypiece and her face showing in the flickering candle-light, Delia spoke in a quiet shuddering manner.

"As your downfall has been coming—slowly, Lord Stair, have you never thought of me? As Glencoe has been dragged to light—slowly—have you never thought of me? As your enemies have risen around you with this forged tale to dishonor you—have you not thought of me? As you have heard of witnesses suborned, of cunning lies to displace you, have you never thought of me?"

He stood immovable.

"I have thought of you. Yet I did not think this was your work."

"No—you would not, Lord Stair—yet from the first whisper to the consummation it is my work—day and night for three weary years I have given body and soul to this end and now I think I can say—I have avenged my dead."

Her voice had no ring of triumph in it; on her last word it fell to a sob; she leaned back against the wall and her head fell forward on her bosom.

Lord Stair came a step nearer.

"So—you set yourself to ruin me?"

"Yes, I."

"From you sprang the tale of Glencoe?"

"Yes, from me."

"You caused the Macdonalds to bear false witness?"

"I have been at the bottom of it all, Lord Stair."

She raised her head.

"I have put that upon you, you will never be free of," she said wildly. "Throughout the world your name is stained with the blood of Glencoe. Nothing can efface what I have done."

He moved still closer.

"Women are marvelous," he said curiously. "I did not think that you so hated me."

He took her by the shoulder and looked into her shrinking face.

"I did not think that you so hated me," he repeated.

"Have I not cause to hate you, Lord Stair?" she demanded hoarsely. "I swore that as you had been false, cruel and merciless, that even as that dear blood cried out to me—you should pay to the last bitterness."

His hand fell from her shoulder.

"Why have you come here now?"

She moved away blindly through the shadows, her hands clenched tight on her bosom.

"Have they all gone, Lord Stair—all?"

"Yes—they are lackeys."

"And your wife?" said Delia suddenly.

His utter silence answered her; she turned about in a strange and desperate manner.

"Is not your wife here?"

"Do not push me, mistress," he answered thickly. "My affairs will bear no meddling."

Delia cried out passionately:

"Poor coward—so she could not be loyal to the last—she knew perhaps what I am come to tell you—that to-night the mob are coming here."

"What you came to tell me?" he exclaimed.

She crushed her hands together in a helpless manner. "They mean to kill you I think—Johnstone is setting them on—O God in Heaven!"

She turned to the mantelpiece and pressed her forehead against the marble slab; her hood had fallen back, and the candle-light flickered over the soft hazel curls.

Lord Stair was watching her.

"Your three years' work is accomplished," he said. "You came to tell me so?"

She was silent; her head drooped lower on the mantelshelf.

"You came to tell me so," he demanded. "You came to triumph, Mistress Featherstonehaugh?"

He smiled faintly as he looked at her; she started at the name he used.

"I am Captain Campbell's wife," she said. "Glenlyon's wife these two years."

There was an almost imperceptible pause before he answered.

"That accounts for another false witness, Mistress Campbell."

"Yes," she whispered, "yes."

"He has lied to please you?"

"What else?"

"You married Glenlyon that you might bend him to serve you now?"

This time she lifted her head and looked at him with wild eyes.

"Yes."

"You have not stopped at anything to attain this end," said Lord Stair. "Madam, you should be more triumphant now that it is gained."

She advanced a step toward him.

"Yea, I am clear of my vow," she said in a distracted manner. "I think they lie quiet in their graves—I have done it—the blood of Glencoe—it is on you—always."

She sank into a chair, leaning forward over the arm staring across the dusk as if she saw something menacing her. Lord Stair picked up the candle and flashed it before her face.

"Why have you come here?"

She looked at him behind the candle flame, and for the first time saw his face clearly; their glance met.

"Oh, you are changed!" she said in a terrified tone.

"And you also," he answered somberly.

With a wild little laugh she bent nearer into the circle of light.

"I have dreamt we might meet like this—through the dark—both so different."

Her words trailed off, she put out her hands.

"Take away the light—I cannot look at you."

She slipped from the chair to her knees.

"What have I done—what have I done!"

"Why, you should know—you have done what you set out to do."

In a tone of numb despair she repeated: "What have I dope—what have I done?"

Lord Stair set the candle on the table.

"You had better go, Mistress Campbell—and join your allies who come to burn my house."

"I came because of that," she answered wildly. "I came to warn you—my courage failed—I could not let it happen."

On her knees, with her hands clasped on her bosom and her head bent, she leaned against the chair, heavily.

Lord Stair turned to her with a swift fierceness.

"This is a woman's paltriness," he cried. "To do the thing and lament it—I had liked you better if you had led the mob you have incited instead of this—"

"I would not have them kill you," she murmured.

"Oh, get up from your knees," he said, scornful. "You are true neither to your love nor to your hate! Get back to your kind and carry through what you have begun."

There was a confused distant sound without.

"They are coming!" shrieked Delia.

"Well, you knew it," he smiled: "Go you and join them."

She rose to her feet; the noises, the shouts and the steady tramping were coming nearer.

"And I have done this," whispered Delia. "What did you mean—true to neither love nor hate?"

"Look into your heart," he answered. "Was it love that made you pull me down—was it hate that sent you here to-night?"

She caught at the chair with cold fingers.

"I have made my affections stronger than my love—I have put honor and loyalty above my heart—and I came tonight because my soul turned weak as water to think of your death."

She paused; her breathing came with difficulty.

"Will you not go, Lord Stair?"

He had gone toward the window; a vast crowd were gathering without, the red light of torches flickered across the courtyard, and threw into view faces here and there in the sea of people.

The door was suddenly burst open and the solitary servant rushed in.

"My lord, my lord! they arc certainly going to destroy us! They have gunpowder with them."

"Save yourself," interrupted Lord Stair,—he took a purse from his pocket and tossed it across the room.

The man groped for it in the shadows.

"There is Lumley's, the jewelers in the Cannon Gate my lord—he is under great obligations to your lordship—if you would take shelter there."

"You are a good fellow," said the Earl. "Go to Lumley—I may follow—the horses are in safety?"

"My lord, yes."

The man hesitated at the door.

"Your lordship will not try to save some of the things—papers—or plate—?"

Lord Stair laughed, a fierce sound through the darkness:

"No—nothing. What value is any of this to me compared to what I have already lost? Get you gone."

The servant withdrew and the Earl turned swiftly to Delia.

"And you mistress, go and join your people without—do you not hear them shouting? Go and add your voice to those cursing the Dalrymples—and be content—for to-night all curses are fulfilled."

She moved slowly nearer to him.

"And what is your thought of me, Lord Stair?"

He made an imperious gesture as if he would have swept her intruding presence aside.

"I have no thought at all for you."

He stopped, listening; from the confusion of sounds without arose the crackling of flames; he went to the window; fagots and gunpowder had been piled in the court and flaming tarred torches flung into the midst; red lights began to dance in reflections over the floor; and smoke swept in faint clouds past the windows. Lord Stair felt a cold hand touch his and turned to look into the face of Delia.

"For God's sake," she whispered, "for pity's sake."

He made an impatient attempt to shake her off, but she clung to his hand desperately in a frenzy of entreaty.

"It is burning—don't you see that it is burning—make haste—at the back through the garden."

The triumphant shout of the crowd as they saw the flames rise almost drowned her voice; an unnatural red glare blinding, horrible, filled the room from end to end.

Lord Stair glanced round.

"Your work, mistress, your work," he wrenched himself free of her. "Go without there yonder and laugh at it."

She was crying and sobbing like a mad woman.

"What have I done—I have been crazy—crazy—"

With fallen hair and the red light over her from head to foot, she ran to the door; he followed. The door was burning, the oak stair threatened; flames were already showing in the hall.

Delia wrung her hands, shrieking and moaning to herself, calling on the living and the dead in her distraction; she ran a little way down the wide stairs, then at sight of the flaming door fell back with a scream.

"Ye should not have come," said Lord Stair.

"Your place is with those who lit the fire."

Her wild eyes lifted to his figure.

"Do you think I am afraid for myself?" she cried. She came back to him with outstretched hands and thrown back head; as she stood there, poised above the smoking hallway with the flickering light and shade across her distorted face, she seemed as unearthly, as terribly strange as her surroundings.

Lord Stair, gazing at her, saw the look in her eyes he had seen in his sister's and in his own; it was as if there fronted him the evil genius of his house; once this woman had looked at him differently; as he stared at her he recalled that other expression, the other look her brown eyes had once held in place of the madness that flashed in them now.

Certainly, she was mad; he saw her against the background of the polished stairway where the flames were reflected; he saw her lean back against the balustrade with those wild eyes upon him in her uplifted face; he noticed the crimson light on the long line of her throat and in the curve of her white lips.

"Lord Stair."

She bent forward, touched him, the hideous noise of flames gaining power, the shouting and cracking of timbers filled the air with a terrible menace.

"Lord Stair."

Her fingers touched his arm, closed round; and he could not escape from her face, turn his eyes away.

"Speak to me," she said; she was as calm as she had been frantic; her long hair, loosened, glowed a dusky red behind her marble white face. But he thought of his wife and would not.

"I have nothing to say to you."

He caught hold of her, not tenderly nor roughly, indifferent, merely.

"Make haste—down the stairs," he said. "On the first landing you may cross the library and gain the garden."

The grasp tightened on her arm.

"Come," he commanded, and drew her after him, leading the way.

She did not speak until he paused to open the library door, then she looked back into the flame-lit hall and cried out she would die.

Paying no heed he was dragging her into the dark room when something rushed out of the door, between them and up the stair.

"What was that?" cried Lord Stair; he let go his hold upon the woman and stepped back.

Half-way up the stairs a little black cat peered through the oaken rails with ears cocked and its green eyes glittering with excitement; round its neck was a tumbled bow of scarlet.

For a moment the man and the animal gazed at each other, then the Earl began reascending the stairs.

"What are you going to do?" cried Delia, barring his way. "You are not going back? My God! Look how the flames are mounting—they will cut off your escape."

Lord Stair looked up at the kitten.

"It is alive," he said, "and I cannot let it burn."

"You are mad!" shrieked Delia, clinging to him. "The house has only a few minutes to stand—they have gunpowder."

He pushed her aside.

"Then get you into the garden," he answered, pointing to the library door. "There is time for that."

"Will you leave me? Will you go to your death?"

"My life is of no moment," he said grimly, "I shall not leave mourners—"

She caught hold of him anew.

"I love you, I love you, and you shall not leave me. I love you—I love you."

He gave a little laugh.

"’Tis a strange affection, mistress—it has done the work of hate—let go of me."

He twisted his arm free of her, his eyes shone curiously.

"I love you," she whispered in bitter agony and fell back against the wall. With no look at her he mounted the stairs; she shrieked after him, called and cried. He stopped and looked down, she was standing as he had left her, half within the library door, her way of escape was clear behind her.

The little cat fled at his approach and galloped ahead of him.

He followed it almost to the top of the house across a landing and through an open door. By the red light from without he could distinctly see this room and all that it contained.

It was his wife's bed-chamber, it looked as if she had that moment left it; by a chair stood her high-heeled house shoes, and the garden hat she had worn that morning; her dressing-table was covered with trinkets, evidently she had taken nothing with her.

He gazed strangely about the room; a little drawing caught his eye; he knew it well, Samuel Cooper's portrait of his dead son; he went up to it and took it from the wall.

She had left it behind, she was Harry's mother and she had done this hideous thing.

As he stood in her deserted room among the details redolent of her, he could think of nothing but this, the bitterness of the thing she had done; he forgot why he had come here, he forgot the burning house and Delia, heavily he sat down with the picture in his hand and gazed round the emptiness.

Irremediable as death and more terrible was this action of hers; he tried to adjust his mind to the difference it must make to his life. Then he considered that it was not life but death ahead of them. Confusion was over him, he could not think clearly; he rested his head against his arm and groaned aloud, then the image of Tom Wharton flashed through his agony and he rose with a bitter curse.

He slipped the picture into his pocket; where were they now? On the road to London—London. Something soft brushed against him, and he mechanically glanced down.

It was the black cat.

He remembered now why he had come and laughed weakly at his own folly as he caught up the kitten and thrust it inside his waistcoat.

Somehow, hardly knowing what he did, he stumbled to the door.

Smoke was now rising up the stairs; he felt the air heavy and stifling. In a confused way he thought of Delia, of how he had last seen her standing by the library door and what she had said.

As he descended into the smoke and glare he thought that he heard her again, calling after him, shrieking:

"Lord Stair! I love you!"

He imagined that he saw her running up the stairs toward him with her hair flaming behind her and her hands outthrown; he felt again her fingers on his wrist and gazed into her haunting face, and then it seemed that it was not Delia, but Janet in her night-dress with a ghastly smile on her face and a ghastly smear on her arm; then again it was his wife with a face full of loathing, spurning him bitterly.

With one hand over the black cat, he made his way down to the library door.

The flames had reached it; he looked on an utter ruin; part of the outer wall had fallen and the fire roared and hissed through the black gaps of the masonary louder than the yells of the triumphant mob.

And there between the door and the foot of the stairs lay Delia, face downwards.

He cried out to her hoarsely; the flames were curling round the edge of her dress; he beat them out and dragged her up; there was a mark like a purple stain on her forehead; she had been struck down by some falling wood.

He pulled her to her feet; she hung unconscious over his arm; the house was crashing about them and the strengthening flames rippled and sang as they leaped upwards. With the strength of desperation he dragged her to the library window and there laid her down while he flung aside the encumbrances of his coat, sword and peruke.

The terrace was still clear though it glowed brightly in the light of the flames, and the garden was illumined from end to end.

Delia moaned and sat up; he helped her to her feet; she leaned heavily against him while he unfastened the long windows. With difficulty he got her across the terrace and down the gardens, and heard the mob as if it saw them; she was slipping into insensibility again; feebly she clung to him, impeding his progress, and when they reached the fountain of Hylas she fell forward heavily in his arms.

He looked down at her in a kind of cold fury. Behind him was his burning home; he saw before him a ruined life; he thought of Lady Stair—her work—all of it her work.

By the dead weight of her body he knew her unconscious; he let her slip to the grass and turned to face the burning mansion behind him.

The flames rose through the summer night magnificently terrible; the whole sky was alight with them; they blotted out the stars. And she, lying quiet enough at his feet now,—she had done it.

"My lord," came a timid voice. "My lord."

The servant who had remained came forward from the shadows of the trees.

"My lord," he cried again, startled at his master's appearance and the woman huddled on the grass.

The Earl stared at him vacantly.

"Why did you stay?"

"I did not think that they could enter the garden, my lord, and I waited for your lordship—escape is easy, my lord, by the lane beyond the stables."

Lord Stair put his hand to his head.

"Can you get this woman to Lumley's?"

"There are the horses, my lord—if we could carry her."

Lord Stair was gazing at his house, flaring, flaming into the sky. He turned and helped the man to carry Delia down the garden.

"Put her on one horse, mount behind. Take with you a couple of the others."

"Ah, my lord, quick. I see figures entering the garden."

Lord Stair motioned to the man to begone.

"Go ahead and acquaint Lumley of my approach."