The Master of Stair/Book 2/Chapter 6


In the back parlor of Lumley's shop in the Cannon Gate, Lord Stair sat with his elbows on the table, smoking a long clay-pipe.

Along the oak settle which was drawn up close to the fire lay Delia with her head motionless on a pile of brilliant cushions and her hands slackly clasped on her bosom.

For her pallor and her stillness she might have been of marble, but now and then she moaned a little and her breast rose with her troubled breath.

Sweeping the great bruise on her temple the long hazel curls fell straightly to the floor and glimmered in the firelight.

It was a little room hung with thick and very rich stamped leather and containing the choicest of Lumley's stock as silversmith and jeweler; on the wide mantelshelf stood a full-rigged ship in beaten gold, a great crystal glowing at the poop; either side of this were two bloodstone candlesticks finely set in silver.

A handsome walnut sideboard held goblets and vessels of all sizes and shapes, glasses cut and painted and a huge china punch-bowl decorated with flowers.

On the table at which Lord Stair sat were curios of beautiful workmanship: a salt-cellar in the form of a silver whale with a mother-of-pearl body; a warrior in rock crystal with an agate helmet; a dish of Limoges enamel, purple and green; a gold embossed vase with a ruby-eyed nymph curling round it; a Venice glass, milk-white and blue; a bronze clock with an enamel face; an Eastern dagger and women's ornaments.

Lord Stair gazed at these things with vacant eyes; in and out of the gold and silver ran the little black cat, lightly in a ghostly silence.

There were arms and swords against the wall, flashings of steel, bronze and gold came from them as the candles flickered in their massive stand; the room was strange, gloomy, full, it seemed, of memories and ghosts of the past.

The Earl, in his frilled shirt, his long black embroidered waistcoat, his riding-boots, spurs and glittering rings; swordless, with his lace cravat undone and hanging to his knees, with his unnatural pallor and his close hair, looked in keeping with his curious background, as if he too had been called up from some earlier day; to do penance for a crime or brood over a tragedy among these tokens of wealth and splendor.

Now and then he glanced toward the woman on the settle, but with neither pity nor tenderness, coldly, indifferently, as if he cared nothing whether she lived or died.

And up through the somber air rose the thin wreaths of smoke, thin blue from his pipe and the little cat played in and out of the silverware and the drooping lace and cambric of Lord Stair's sleeve, trailing his scarlet ribbon.

Opposite the table were the two windows, close shuttered, and between them stood a black bureau that bore a casket in bright enamel; above this hung a mirror and Lord Stair could see his own ghastly face reflected there, the dim room behind it like a mockery of himself and his thoughts.

Occasionally Delia's little moan would break the heavy stillness and then he would look toward her with pitiless blue eyes.

She might be dying; they could do nothing for her; there was not even a better place in which to put her; Lumley did not live over his shop, the rest of the house was empty; Lord Stair's servant had gone in search of a doctor; it was not likely, with the city in an uproar, that he would find one to come on a dangerous errand; and with every breath she drew her life was ebbing, or so, gazing on her unmoved, he thought.

As the firelight rose and fell over the crystal warrior, the ruby-eyed nymph and the still face of the dying woman, as the candles flickered and burnt nearer to their silver sticks, as the shadows advanced and receded from all dim corners, the Earl of Stair sat motionless with a hard face, and the smoke curled upwards and away round the ceiling.

Time did not exist here, it had died with the stopping of the enamel clock; everything was very old and dead, yet immortal, this room had known many yesterdays; it held no promise of a to-morrow; it owned the peace of dust and ashes, the silence of things ended, done with. Here was a place to meet fate, not to avert it; as the fire dropped to ashes, as the woman swooned into eternity, the placid warrior and the red-eyed nymph smiled up at Lord Stair with the smiles of a hundred years ago, and the emptiness of the hollow armor grinned into the likeness of a skull.

Shadows advancing, receding, and her slow breath as her soul drifted away.

If by putting out his hand he could have stopped her flight, he would not have done it; if by raising a finger he could have recalled her fainting life, he would not have done it.

It was the inevitable; let her die as the fire sank to ashes, as the ashes dropped dismally into the hearth; it was the inevitable.

Still the little cat played lightly to and fro, leaped over the hand dropped by his side and pulled at the lace on his sleeve.

The mother-of-pearl whale glittered with many colors, the candle-light circled the milk-white glass like bright wine, the immortal warrior gazed up under his agate helmet, and the siren's eyes gave forth red sparks of light.

In a little while she would be as they; as silent as cold in death as they; as utterly beyond all speech, all question or demand, inscrutable. He looked at the clear-cut features, the sweep of the lashes, the parted lips, the locked hands and the long still figure.

She had said she loved him.

She held him guilty of things he had not done; of her friend's betrayal, which was his father's work; of Jerome Caryl's mysterious death, perhaps if she had known—But none of it mattered; the tragedy was played to its close and death would draw the curtain over all explanations.

She had loved him.

He knew of no other who had; in his whole life no other.

Let her go—unquestioned.

In apathy of soul, he gazed on her and as he gazed she opened her dark eyes.

Opened wide her eyes and sat up, leaning on her elbow.

"Lord Stair."

He could not tell if she could see him, her glance was dim and vague as if she addressed some fancied image of him.

"The blood of Glencoe," she said slowly. "They shall never speak of you without they curse you—for Glencoe—"

She stared at the candle-light, leaning forward.

"Have I damned myself, my love—to fix this stain on you?—I feel the flames—and I have lied—you also, Lord Stair—you lied to me."

A look of horror settled on her face.

"Don't go—stay with me—don't you see them—the flames? so they rose in Glencoe—you are paid—"

Her voice sank to a whisper; the last log on the hearth fell into ashes.

"Kiss me—why have you never kissed me?—you asked me when they were singing—'for the ways of the Lord are wonderful—' Kiss me—"

His pipe fell from his inert hand and broke into fragments on the floor.

"Lord Stair."

He did not move from his seat.

She had fallen back on her pillow; one hand trailed along the floor.

"You asked me—Andrew—"

He remembered when he had asked her; the Abbey, her words and his.

"When you ask me—"

And now—A great silence settled on the room; shadows advancing, receding, and her breath stilled forever. The nymph's ruby eyes flashed brilliantly; the crystal warrior smiled the same; she had gone, forever. Beyond question or explanation, inscrutable, silent. After a while he rose and went to look at her; she had died as if she had fallen asleep, he lifted her cold hand from the floor and laid it on her breast.

Then he went to the window and undid the shutters.

The slipping back of the bolts made a dismal creaking; the hinges groaned; he opened the shutters and gazed through the glimmering window-pane. A wine-colored dawn was breaking over the housetops like a stain over the sky.

From the corners of the room the shadows lifted; on all the old gold and gems a faint white light; on all the wonders of precious workmanship and on that most wonderful thing of all, the woman lying along the settle with the veil of her hair falling to the floor and her head thrown back on the bronze and purple Persian cushion which bore a sprawling dragon with emerald eyes.

Her curved mouth was parted as if that last breathing of his name had drawn her soul with it and left her lips cleft; there was no line in her smooth face, beneath the soft lashes were delicate shadows and across the sweep of her throat lay a strand of hair and its double in shade.

She was the hue of a white rose against the vivid tints of her cushions; her face was as unfathomable as her silence.

The fire had dropped into ashes; the dawn strengthening showed dust on everything; dust on the tarnished silver, on the sails of the gold ship, on the empty armor.

There were cobwebs, high up among the shelves that showed now; cobwebs clinging to and obscuring the splendor of the gold and silver.

The black cat leaped from the table, ran round the room, then began playing amid the ashes and the ends of Delia's hair.

Lord Stair crossed to the head of the settle and stood looking at the dawn behind the diamond panes.

The curse of the Dalrymples was fulfilled now; surely, to the last bitterness, completed.

He glanced down at Delia—what had she said?—"for the ways of the Lord are wonderful"—Wonderful! he laughed to himself—she had loved him, had ruined him, and had died because she could not face what she had done. Was she a fool or a heroine?—he could look at her coldly now and wonder, though she had moved him once.

The sun rose slowly, majestic into the clear sky; red-gold rays struck into the room and caused the candle-light to look faint and sickly; the armor, swords and pistols, shone as if on fire; Lord Stair put his hand before his eyes and leaned heavily against the carved post of the settle.

The deathly stillness was broken by the soft opening of the door, the soft closing of it, and a gentle step into the room.

Lord Stair looked round.

Standing against the armor, in the strange faint lights and shades was a woman in a light dress with the red glow of the dawn in her blonde hair and over her pale face; Lady Stair, looking at him intently, eagerly, with questioning blue eyes.

"Ulrica!" he could utter no word but her name; the blood rushed into his face as he stared at her, incredulous, amazed.

"I was too late," she said faintly; she sat down at his seat at the table; there were lines of weariness under her eyes, and her dress was tumbled. "My woman told you?" her hands holding a riding-whip, fell between the crystal warrior and the nymph on her gold vase. Lord Stair came in front of Delia, hiding her from sight.

"I have heard nothing," he said hoarsely. "When I returned the house was empty save for one man—"

"Oh!" she glanced up, bewildered by his manner. "I heard that they were going to burn the house—I did not trust the servants—I went myself to ask the Marquis for a guard—he sent me on to the castle—and there they put such difficulties in the way—and—I was too late."

She leaned back wearily.

"They sent some men—they are putting the fire out now—the city was in such an uproar that I could not return sooner—I thought that you might be here so I came. You never got my message?"


She leaned forward.

"What is the matter, my lord? I did all I could."

"Yes—ah, yes."

He was looking at her very strangely. "Did you not guess where I had gone?"

She pressed her handkerchief to her lips and her lids fluttered in a weary manner.

Lord Stair came to the other side of the table.

"So, Ulrica, you stay to share my fallen fortunes?" he asked in a low voice.

She looked at him calmly.

"Did you think anything else of me?"

"My thoughts!" he said wildly. "Let my thoughts go—I know not what I thought—"

Their eyes met across the table of gold and silver—"Ulrica—what made you stay?"

Her eyes widened.

"It never crossed my mind to go. Whatever they say—my place is not among your enemies."

A little pause, then he said in a labored way: "Ulrica—I am innocent of what they impute to me—there was no massacre in Glencoe."

"I thought so," she answered quietly. "My lord, I thought so."

Her hood had slipped back from her smooth hair and her sweet face was pure and pale in the rich light.

"Have you saved anything?" she asked.

Lord Stair pointed to the kitten at his feet with a half-smile.

"That," he said, "and this—"

He drew Cooper's drawing from his pocket and laid it by the crystal warrior.

Lady Stair's eyes fell to it, then lifted to his face; a color came into her cheeks and she rose trembling.

As she turned she caught sight of Delia and cried out in a frightened way with blanched cheeks.

"Hush!" said Lord Stair; he was beside her looking at the dead woman. "She has fixed on me the blood of Glencoe—and she has paid—hush!"

Lady Stair shrank away, still with terror in her eyes. "Who was she?" came her whisper.

"Do you want to know? Does it matter now?"

"No! no!"

She shuddered against the table, gazing at Delia's terrible calm against the background of the strange room.

Lord Stair looked at the burning sunrise and held out his right hand; the glowing light fell on it, a crimson stain.

"You see—the blood of Glencoe!"

He laughed magnificently and turned to his wife; his face was wild in expression, his eyes wide open. "And you, of all of them, have been faithful!"

She took her gaze from the dead woman, put out her hand and clasped his, so that the red was over her wrist, too.

"You of all!" he repeated, and his voice was unsteady. He drew her up to the table edge, close to him, her grasp of his hand tightened; her breath came fast.

"John! John!"

He looked at her in a curious manner. "You of all!" he repeated, and his eyes wandered to Delia; he turned from the living to the dead whose lie was his judgment and his punishment and he smiled bitterly.

"John!" said Lady Stair again, faintly, softly.

With a little start he turned and looked at her.

"Ah—do you understand?" she said. "At last?" In the wild light of the red morn her blonde hair glimmered against his shoulder.

"At last—Ulrica—" his voice broke, but his eyes shone as his fingers closed over hers. "My dear! my dear!" And the day dawned upon their kiss.