The O'Ruddy/Chapter 32
I FOUND Rye a snug little town, and so entirely peaceable-looking that when I went out in the morning I was afraid there would be nobody there who would join me in the hazardous task of taking possession of the place of so well-known a man as the Earl of Westport. But I did not know Rye then as well as I do now: it proved to be a great resort for smugglers when they were off duty and wished to enjoy the innocent relaxation of a town after the comparative loneliness of the seacoast, although, if all the tales they tell me are true, the authorities sometimes made the seashore a little too lively for their comfort. Then there were a number of seafaring men looking for a job, and some of them had the appearance of being pirates in more prosperous days.
As I wandered about I saw a most gigantic ruffian, taking his ease with his back against the wall, looking down on the shipping.
"If that man 's as bold as he 's strong," said I to myself, "and I had half a dozen more like him, we 'd hold Brede House till the day there 's liberty in Ireland;" so I accosted him.
"The top o' the morning to you," said I genially.
He eyed me up and down, especially glancing at the sword by my side, and then said civilly:
"The same to you, sir. You seem to be looking for some one?"
"I am," said I, "I 'm looking for nine men."
"If you 'll tell me their names I 'll tell you where to find them, for I know everybody in Rye."
"If that 's the case you 'll know their names, which is more than I do myself."
"Then you 're not acquainted with them?"
"I am not; but if you 'll tell me your name I think then I 'll know one of them."
There was a twinkle in his eye as he said:
"They call me Tom Peel."
"Then Tom," said I, "are there eight like you in the town of Rye?"
"Not quite as big perhaps," said Tom, "but there 's plenty of good men here, as the French have found out before now,—yes, and the constables as well. What do you want nine men for?"
"Because I have nine swords and nine pistols that will fit that number of courageous subjects."
"Then it 's not for the occupation of agriculture you require them?" said Peel with the hint of a laugh. "There 's a chance of a cut in the ribs, I suppose, for swords generally meet other swords."
"You 're right in that; but I don't think the chance is very strong."
"And perhaps a term in prison when the scrimmage is ended?"
"No fear of that at all at all; for if any one was to go to prison it would be me, who will be your leader, and not you, who will be my dupes, do you see?"
Peel shrugged his shoulders.
"My experience of the world is that the man with gold lace on his coat goes free, while they punish the poor devil in the leather jacket. But, turn the scheme out bad or ill, how much money is at the end of it?"
"There 'll be ten guineas at the end of it for each man, win or lose."
"And when will the money be paid?"
"Half before you leave Rye, the other half in a week's time, and perhaps before,—a week's time at the latest; but I want men who will not turn white if a blunderbuss happens to go off."
The rascallion smiled and spat contemptuously in the dust before him.
"If you show me the guineas," said he, "I 'll show you the men."
"Here 's five of them, to begin with, that won't be counted against you. There 'll be five more in your pocket when we leave Rye, and a third five when the job 's ended."
His big hand closed over the coins.
"I like your way of speaking," he said. "Now where are we to go?"
"To the strong house of Brede, some seven or eight miles from here. I do not know how far exactly, nor in what direction."
"I am well acquainted with it," said Peel. "It was a famous smuggler's place in its time."
"I don't mean a smuggler's place," said I. "I am talking of the country house of the Earl of Westport."
"Yes, curse him, that 's the spot I mean. Many a nobleman's house is put to purposes he learns little of, although the Earl is such a scoundrel he may well have been in with the smugglers and sold them to the government."
"Did he sell them?"
"Somebody sold them."
There was a scowl on Peel's face that somehow encouraged me, although I liked the look of the ruffian from the first.
"You 're an old friend of his lordship's, then?" said I.
"He has few friends in Rye or about Rye. If you 're going to do anything against Westport, I 'll get you a hundred men for nothing if there 's a chance of escape after the fight."
"Nine men will do me, if they 're the right stuff. You will have good cover to sleep under, plenty to eat and drink, and then I expect you to hold Brede House against all the men the Earl of Westport can bring forward."
"That 's an easy thing," said Peel, his eye lighting up. "And if worse comes to the worst I know a way out of the house that 's neither through door or window nor up a chimney. Where will I collect your men?"
"Assemble them on the road to Brede, quietly, about half a mile from Rye. Which direction is Brede from here?"
"It lies to the west, between six and seven miles away as the crow flies."
"Very well, collect your men as quickly as you can, and send word to me at the 'Anchor.' Tell your messenger to ask for The O'Ruddy."
Now I turned back to the tavern sorely troubled what I would do with Father Donovan. He was such a kindly man that he would be loath to shake hands with me at the door of the inn, as he had still two or three days to stop, so I felt sure he would insist on accompanying me part of the way. I wished I could stop and see him off on his ship; but if we were to get inside of Brede's House unopposed, we had to act at once. I found Paddy almost recovered from the assault of the day before. He had a bandage around his forehead, which, with his red hair, gave him a hideous appearance, as if the whole top of his head had been smashed. Poor Paddy was getting so used to a beating each day that I wondered would n't he be lonesome when the beatings ceased and there was no enemy to follow him.
Father Donovan had not yet appeared, and the fire was just lit in the kitchen to prepare breakfast, so I took Jem and Paddy with me to the eating shop of the town, and there a sleepy-looking shopkeeper let us in, mightily resenting this early intrusion, but changed his demeanour when he understood the size of the order I was giving him, and the fact that I was going to pay good gold; for it would be a fine joke on The O'Ruddy if the Earl surrounded the house with his men and starved him out. So it was no less than three cartloads of provisions I ordered, though one of them was a cartload of drink, for I thought the company I had hired would have a continuous thirst on them, being seafaring men and smugglers, and I knew that strong, sound ale was brewed in Rye.
The business being finished, we three went back to the "Anchor," and found an excellent breakfast and an excellent man waiting for me, the latter being Father Donovan, although slightly impatient for closer acquaintance with the former.
When breakfast was done with, I ordered the three horses saddled, and presently out in the courtyard Paddy was seated on his nag with the two sacks of pistols before him, and Jem in like manner with his two bundles of swords. The stableman held my horse, so I turned to Father Donovan and grasped him warmly by the hand.
"A safe journey across the Channel to you, Father Donovan, and a peaceful voyage from there to Rome, whichever road you take. If you write to me in the care of the landlord of this inn I 'll be sending and sending till I get your letter, and when you return I 'll be standing and watching the sea, at whatever point you land in England, if you 'll but let me know in time. And so good-bye to you. Father Donovan, and God bless you, and I humbly beseech your own blessing in return."
The old man's eyes grew wider and wider as I went on talking and talking and shaking him by the hand.
"What 's come over you, O'Ruddy?" he said, "and where are you going?"
"I am taking a long journey to the west and must have an early start."
"Nonsense," cried Father Donovan, "it 's two or three days before I can leave this shore, so I 'll accompany you a bit of the way."
"You must n't think of it, Father, because you had a long day's ride yesterday, and I want you to take care of yourself and take thought on your health."
"Tush, I 'm as fresh as a boy this morning. Landlord, see that the saddle is put on that horse I came into Rye with."
The landlord at once rushed off and gave the order, while I stood there at my wit's end.
"Father Donovan," said I, "I 'm in great need of haste at this moment, and we must ride fast, so I 'll just bid good-bye to you here at this comfortable spot, and you 'll sit down at your ease in that big arm-chair."
"I 'll do nothing of the kind, O'Ruddy. What 's troubling you, man? and why are you in such a hurry this morning, when you said nothing of it yesterday?"
"Father, I said nothing of it yesterday, but sure I acted it. See how we rode on and on in spite of everything, and did the whole journey from London to Rye between breakfast and supper. Did n't that give you a hint that I was in a hurry?"
"Well, it should have done, it should have done, O'Ruddy; still, I 'll go a bit of the way with you and not delay you."
"But we intend to ride very fast, Father."
"Ah, it 's an old man you 're thinking I 'm getting to be. Troth, I can ride as fast as any one of the three of you, and a good deal faster than Paddy."
At this moment the landlord came bustling in.
"Your Reverence's horse is ready," he said.
And so there was nothing for it but to knock the old man down, which I had n't the heart to do. It is curious how stubborn some people are; but Father Donovan was always set in his ways, and so, as we rode out of Rye to the west, with Paddy and Jem following us, I had simply to tell his Reverence all about it, and you should have seen the consternation on his countenance.
"Do you mean to tell me you propose to take possession of another man's house and fight him if he comes to claim his own?"
"I intend that same thing, your Reverence;" for now I was as stubborn as the old gentleman himself, and it was not likely I was going to be put off my course when I remembered the happiness that was ahead of me; but there's little use in trying to explain to an aged priest what a young man is willing to do for the love of the sweetest girl in all the land.
"O'Ruddy," he said, "you'll be put in prison. It's the inside of a gaol, and not the inside of a castle, you'll see. It's not down the aisle of a church you'll march with your bride on your arm, but its hobbling over the cobbles of a Newgate passage you'll go with manacles on your legs. Take warning from me, my poor boy, who would be heart-broken to see harm come to you, and don't run your neck into the hangman's noose, thinking it the matrimonial halter. Turn back while there's yet time, O'Ruddy."
"Believe me, Father Donovan, it grieves me to refuse you anything, but I cannot turn back."
"You'll be breaking the law of the land."
"But the law of the land is broken every day in our district of Ireland, and not too many words said about it."
"Oh, O'Ruddy, that's a different thing. The law of the land in Ireland is the law of the alien."
"Father, you're not logical. It's the alien I'm going to fight here,"—but before the father could reply we saw ahead of us the bulky form of Tom Peel, and ranged alongside of the road, trying to look very stiff and military-like, was the most awkward squad of men I had ever clapped eyes on; but determined fellows they were, as I could see at a glance when I came fornenst them, and each man pulled a lock of his hair by way of a salute.
"Do you men understand the use of a sword and a pistol?" said I.
The men smiled at each other as though I was trying some kind of a joke on them.
"They do, your honour," answered Tom Peel on their behalf. "Each one of them can sling a cutlass to the king's taste, and fire a pistol without winking, and there are now concealed in the hedge half a dozen blunderbusses in case they should be needed. They make a loud report and have a good effect on the enemy, even when they do no harm."
"Yes, we'll have the blunderbusses," said I, and with that the men broke rank, burst through the hedge, and came back with those formidable weapons. "I have ammunition in the carts," I said, "did you see anything of them?"
"The carts have gone on to the west, your honour; but we'll soon overtake them," and the men smacked their lips when they thought of the one that had the barrels in it. Now Paddy came forward with the pistols, and Bottles followed and gave each man a blade, while I gave each his money.
"O dear! O dear!" groaned Father Donovan.
"There's just a chance we may be attacked before we get to Brede, and, Father, though I am loath to say good-bye, still it must be said. It's rare glad I'll be when I grip your hand again."
"All in good time; all in good time," said Father Donovan; "I'll go a bit farther along the road with you and see how your men march. They would fight better and better behind a hedge than in the open, I'm thinking."
"They'll not have to fight in the open, Father," said I, "but they'll be comfortably housed if we get there in time. Now, Peel, I make you captain of the men, as you've got them together, and so, Forward, my lads."
They struck out along the road, walking a dozen different kinds of steps, although there were only nine of them; some with the swords over their shoulders, some using them like walking-sticks, till I told them to be more careful of the points; but they walked rapidly and got over the ground, for the clank of the five guineas that was in each man's pocket played the right kind of march for them.
"Listen to reason, O'Ruddy, and even now turn back," said Father Donovan.
"I'll not turn back now," said I, "and, sure, you can't expect it of me. You're an obstinate man yourself, if I must say so, Father."
"It's a foolhardy exploit," he continued, frowning. "There's prison at the end of it for some one," he murmured.
"No, it's the House of Brede, Father, that's at the end of it."
"Supposing the Earl of Westport brings a thousand men against you,—what are you going to do?"
"Give them the finest fight they have ever seen in this part of England."
In spite of himself I saw a sparkle in Father Donovan's eye. The nationality of him was getting the better of his profession.
"If it were legitimate and lawful," at last he said, "it would be a fine sight to see."
"It will be legitimate and lawful enough when the Earl and myself come to terms. You need have no fear that we 're going to get into the courts, Father."
"Do you think he'll fight?" demanded the father suddenly, with a glint in his eyes that I have seen in my own father's when he was telling us of his battles in France.
"Fight? Why of course he'll fight, for he's as full of malice as an egg's full of meat; but nevertheless he's a sensible old curmudgeon, when the last word's said, and before he'll have it noised over England that his title to the land is disputed he'll give me what I want, although at first he'll try to master me."
"Can you depend on these men?"
"I think I can. They're old smugglers and pirates, most of them."
"I wonder who the Earl will bring against you?" said Father Donovan, speaking more to himself than to me. "Will it be farmers or regular soldiers?"
"I expect they will be from among his own tenantry; there's plenty of them, and they'll all have to do his bidding."
"But that does n't give a man courage in battle?"
"No, but he'll have good men to lead them, even if he brings them from London."
"I would n't like to see you attacked by real soldiers; but I think these men of yours will give a good account of themselves if there's only peasantry brought up against them. Sure, the peasantry in this country is not so warlike as in our own,"—and there was a touch of pride in the father's remark that went to my very heart.
After riding in silence for a while, meditating with head bowed, he looked suddenly across at me, his whole face lighted up with delicious remembrance.
"Would n't you like to have Mike Sullivan with you this day," he cried, naming the most famous fighter in all the land, noted from Belfast to our own Old Head of Kinsale.
"I'd give many a guinea," I said, "to have Mike by my side when the Earl comes on."
The old father suddenly brought down his open hand with a slap on his thigh.
"I'm going to stand by you, O'Ruddy," he said.
"I'm glad to have your blessing on the job at last, Father," said I; "for it was sore against me to go into this business when you were in a contrary frame of mind."
"You'll not only have my blessing, O'Ruddy, but myself as well. How could I sail across the ocean and never know which way the fight came out? and then, if it is to happen in spite of me, the Lord pity the frailness of mankind, but I'd like to see it. I've not seen a debate since the Black Fair of Bandon."
By this time we had overtaken the hirelings with their carts, and the men were swinging past them at a good pace.
"Whip up your horses," said I to the drivers, "and get over the ground a little faster. It's not gunpowder that's in those barrels, and when we reach the house there will be a drink for every one of you."
There was a cheer at this, and we all pushed on with good hearts. At last we came to a lane turning out from the main road, and then to the private way through fields that led to Brede House. So far there had been no one to oppose us, and now, setting spurs to our horses, we galloped over the private way, which ran along the side of a gentle hill until one end of the mansion came into view. It seemed likely there was no suspicion who we were, for a man digging in the garden stood up and took off his cap to us. The front door looked like the Gothic entrance of a church, and I sprang from my horse and knocked loudly against the studded oak. An old man opened the door without any measure of caution, and I stepped inside. I asked him who he was, and he said he was the caretaker.
"How many beside yourself are in this house?"
He said there was only himself, his wife, and a kitchen wench, and two of the gardeners, while the family was in London.
"Well," said I, "I'd have you know that I'm the family now, and that I'm at home. I am the owner of Brede estate."
"You're not the Earl of Westport!" said the old man, his eyes opening wide.
"No, thank God, I'm not!"
He now got frightened and would have shut the door, but I gently pushed him aside. I heard the tramp of the men, and, what was more, the singing of a sea song, for they were nearing the end of their walk and thinking that something else would soon pass their lips besides the tune. The old man was somewhat reassured when he saw the priest come in; but dismay and terror took hold of him when the nine men with their blunderbusses and their swords came singing around a corner of the house and drew up in front of it. By and by the carts came creaking along, and then every man turned to and brought the provisions inside of the house and piled them up in the kitchen in an orderly way, while the old man, his wife, the wench, and the two gardeners stood looking on with growing signs of panic upon them.
"Now, "my ancient caretaker," said I to the old man, in the kindest tones I could bring to my lips, so as not to frighten him more than was already the case, "what is the name of that little village over yonder?" and I pointed toward the west, where, on the top of a hill, appeared a church and a few houses.
"That, sir," he said, with his lips trembling, "is the village of Brede."
"Is there any decent place there where you five people can get lodging; for you see that this house is now filled with men of war, and so men of peace should be elsewhere? Would they take you in over at the village?"
"Yes, sir, it is like they would."
"Very well. Here is three guineas to divide among you, and in a week or thereabouts you will be back in your own place, so don't think disaster has fallen on you."
The old man took the money, but seemed in a strange state of hesitancy about leaving.
"You will be unhappy here," I said, "for there will be gun-firing and sword-playing. Although I may not look it, I am the most bloodthirsty swordsman in England, with a mighty uncertain temper on me at times. So be off, the five of you!"
"But who is to be here to receive the family?" he asked.
"Sir, we had word last night that the Earl of Westport and his following would come to this house to-day at two of the clock, and we have much ado preparing for them; for the messenger said that he was bringing many men with him. I thought at first that you were the men, or I would not have let you in."
"Now the Saints preserve us," cried I, "they'll be on us before we get the windows barricaded. Tom Peel," I shouted, "set your men to prepare the defence at once, and you'll have only a few hours to do it in. Come, old man, take your wife and your gardeners, and get away."
"But the family, sir, the family," cried the old man, unable to understand that they should not be treated with the utmost respect.
"I will receive the family. What is that big house over there in the village?"
"The Manor House, sir."
"Very well, get you gone, and tell them to prepare the Manor House for the Earl of Westport and his following; for he cannot lodge here to-night,"—and with that I was compelled to drag them forth, the old woman crying and the wench snivelling in company. I patted the ancient wife on the shoulder and told her there was nothing to be feared of; but I saw my attempt at consolation had little effect.
Tom Peel understood his business; he had every door barred and stanchioned, and the windows protected, as well as the means to his hand would allow. Up stairs he knocked out some of the diamond panes so that the muzzle of a blunderbuss would go through. He seemed to know the house as if it was his own; and in truth the timbers and materials for defence which he conjured up from the ample cellars or pulled down from the garret seemed to show that he had prepared the place for defence long since.
"Your honour," he said, two dangers threaten this house which you may not be aware of."
"And what are those, Tom?" I asked.
"Well, the least serious one is the tunnel. There is a secret passage from this house down under the valley and out and up near the church. If it was not guarded they could fill this house unknown to you. I will stop this end of it with timber if your honour gives the word. There's not many knows of it, but the Earl of Westport is certain to have the knowledge, and some of his servants as well."
"Lead me to this tunnel, Tom," said I, astonished at his information.
We came to a door in one of the lower rooms that opened on a little circular stone stairway, something like a well, and, going down to the bottom, we found a tunnel in which a short man could stand upright.
"Thunder and turf, Tom!" said I, "what did they want this for?"
"Well, some thought it was to reach the church, but no one ever lived in this house that was so anxious to get to church that he would go underground to it. Faith, they 've been a godless lot in Brede Place until your honour came, and we were glad to see you bring a priest with you. It put new heart in the men; they think he'll keep off Sir Goddard Oxenbridge."
"Does he live near here? What has he to do with the place?"
"He is dead long since, sir, and was owner of this house. Bullet would n't harm him, nor steel cut him, so they sawed him in two with a wooden saw down by the bridge in front. He was a witch of the very worst kind, your honour. You hear him groaning at the bridge every night, and sometimes he walks through the house himself in two halves, and then every body leaves the place. And that is our most serious danger, your honour. When Sir Goddard takes to groaning through these rooms at night, you'll not get a man to stay with you, sir; but as he comes up from the pit by the will of the Devil we expect his Reverence to ward him off."
Now this was most momentous news, for I would not stop in the place myself if a ghost was in the habit of walking through it; but I cheered up Tom Peel by telling him that no imp of Satan could appear in the same county as Father Donovan, and he passed on the word to the men, to their mighty easement.
We had a splendid dinner in the grand hall, and each of us was well prepared for it; Father Donovan himself, standing up at the head of the table, said the holy words in good Latin, and I was so hungry that I was glad the Latins were in the habit of making short prayers.
Father Donovan and I sat at table with a bottle for company, and now that he knew all about the situation, I was overjoyed to find him an inhabitant of the same house; for there was no gentleman in all the company, except himself, for me to talk with.
Suddenly there was a blast of a bugle, and a great fluttering outside. The lower windows being barricaded, it was not possible to see out of them, and I was up the stair as quick as legs could carry me; and there in front were four horses harnessed to a great carriage, and in it sat the old Earl and the Countess, and opposite them who but Lady Mary herself, and her brother, Lord Strepp. Postilions rode two of the horses, and the carriage was surrounded by a dozen mounted men.
Everybody was looking at the house and wondering why nobody was there to welcome them, and very forbidding this stronghold must have seemed to those who expected to find the doors wide open when they drove up. I undid the bolts of one of the diamond-paned windows, and, throwing it open, leaned with my arms on the sill, my head and shoulders outside.
"Good day to your ladyship and your lordship," I cried,—and then all eyes were turned on me,—"I have just this day come into my inheritance, and I fear the house is not in a state to receive visitors. The rooms are all occupied by desperate men and armed; but I have given orders to your servants to prepare the Manor House in the village for your accommodation; so, if you will be so good as to drive across the valley, you will doubtless meet with a better reception than I can give you at this moment. When you come again, if there are no ladies of the party, I can guarantee you will have no complaint to make of the warmth of your reception."
His lordship sat dumb in his carriage, and for once her ladyship appeared to find difficulty in choosing words that would do justice to her anger. I could not catch a glimpse of Lady Mary's face at all at all, for she kept it turned toward the village; but young Lord Strepp rose in the carriage, and, shaking his fist at me, said:
"By God, O'Ruddy, you shall pay for this;" but the effect of the words was somewhat weakened by reason that his sister, Lady Mary, reached out and pulled him by the coat-tails, which caused him to be seated more suddenly than he expected; then she gave me one rapid glance of her eye and turned away her face again.
Now his lordship, the great Earl of Westport, spoke, but not to me.
"Drive to the village," he said to the postilions; then horsemen and carriage clattered down the hill.
We kept watch all that night, but were not molested. In the southern part of the house Father Donovan found a well-furnished chapel, and next morning held mass there, which had a very quieting effect on the men, especially as Oxenbridge had not walked during the night. The only one of them who did not attend mass was Jem Bottles, who said he was not well enough and therefore would remain on watch. Just as mass was finished Jem appeared in the gallery of the chapel and shouted excitedly:
"They 're coming, sir; they 're coming!"
I never before saw a congregation dismiss themselves so speedily. They were at their posts even before Tom Peel could give the order. The opposing party was leaving the village and coming down the hill when I first caught sight of them from an upper window. There seemed somewhere between half a dozen and a dozen horsemen, and behind them a great mob of people on foot that fairly covered the hillside. As they crossed the brook and began to come up, I saw that their leader was young Lord Strepp himself, and Jem whispered that the horsemen behind him were the very men he had encountered on the road between London and Maidstone. The cavalry were well in advance, and it seemed that the amateur infantry took less and less pleasure in their excursion the nearer they drew to the gloomy old house, so much so that Lord Strepp turned back among them and appeared to be urging them to make haste. However, their slow progress may be explained by the fact that a certain number of them were carrying a huge piece of timber, so heavy that they had to stagger along cautiously.
"That," said Tom Peel, who stood at my elbow, "is to batter in the front door and take us by storm. If you give the word, your honour, we can massacre the lot them before they get three blows struck."
"Give command to the men, Peel," said I, "not to shoot any one if they can help it. Let them hold their fire till they are within fifty yards or so of the front, then pass the word to fire into the gravel of the terrace; and when you shoot let every man yell as if he were a dozen, and keep dead silence till that moment. I 'll hold up my hand when I want you to fire."
There was a deep stillness over all the beautiful landscape. The bushes and the wood, however, were an exception to this, although the songs of the birds among the trees and singing of the larks high in the air seemed not to disturb the silence; but the whole air of the countryside was a suggestion of restful peace, at great variance with the designs of the inhabitants, who were preparing to attack each other.
Father Donovan stood beside me, and I saw his lips moving in prayer; but his eyes were dancing with irredeemable delight, while his breath came quick and expectant.
"I 'm afraid those chaps will run at the first volley," he said, smiling at me. "They come on very slowly and must be a great trial to the young lord that 's leading them."
It was indeed a trial to the patience of all of us, for the time seemed incredibly long till they arrived at the spot where I had determined they should at least hear the report of the blunderbusses, although I hoped none of them would feel the effects of the firing. Indeed, the horsemen themselves, with the exception of Lord Strepp, appeared to take little comfort in their position, and were now more anxious to fall behind and urge on the others on foot than to lead the band with his lordship.
I let them all get very close, then held up my hand, and you would think pandemonium was let loose. I doubt if all the cannon in Cork would have made such a noise, and the heathen Indians we read of in America could not have given so terrifying a yell as came from my nine men. The blunderbusses were more dangerous than I supposed, and they tore up the gravel into a shower of small stones that scattered far and wide, and made many a man fall down, thinking he was shot. Then the mob ran away with a speed which made up for all lost time coming the other direction. Cries of anguish were heard on every side, which made us all laugh, for we knew none of them were hurted. The horses themselves seemed seized with panic; they plunged and kicked like mad, two riders being thrown on the ground, while others galloped across the valley as if they were running away; but I suspect that their owners were slyly spurring them on while pretending they had lost control of them. Lord Strepp and one or two others, however, stood their ground, and indeed his lordship spurred his horse up opposite the front door. One of my men drew a pistol, but I shouted at him:
"Don't shoot at that man, whatever he does," and the weapon was lowered.
I opened the window and leaned out.
"Well, Lord Strepp," cried I, "'t is a valiant crowd you have behind you."
"You cursed highwayman," he cried, "what do you expect to make by this?"
"I expect to see some good foot-racing; but you are under an error in your appellation. I am not a highwayman; it is Jem Bottles here who stopped nine of your men on the Maidstone road and piled their saddles by the side of it. Is it new saddlery you have, or did you make a roadside collection?"
"I 'll have you out of that, if I have to burn the house over your head."
"I 'll wager you'll not get any man, unless it 's yourself, to come near enough to carry a torch to it. You can easily have me out of this without burning the house. Tell your father I am ready to compromise with him."
"Sir, you have no right in my father's house; and, to tell you the truth, I did not expect such outlawry from a man who had shown himself to be a gentleman."
"Thank you for that, Lord Strepp; but, nevertheless, tell your father to try to cultivate a conciliatory frame of mind, and let us talk the matter over as sensible men should."
"We cannot compromise with you, O'Ruddy," said Lord Strepp in a very determined tone, which for the first time made me doubt the wisdom of my proceedings; for of course it was a compromise I had in mind all the time, for I knew as well as Father Donovan that if he refused to settle with me my position was entirely untenable.
"We cannot compromise with you," went on the young man. "You have no right, legal or moral, to this place, and you know it. I have advised my father to make no terms with you. Good day to you, sir."
And with that he galloped off, while I drew a very long face as I turned away.
"Father Donovan," I said, when I had closed the window, "I am not sure but your advice to me on the way here was nearer right than I thought at the time."
"Oh, not a bit of it," cried Father Donovan cheerfully. "You heard what the young man said, that he had advised his father not to make any terms with you. Very well, that means terms have been proposed already; and this youth rejects the wisdom of age, which I have known to be done before."
"You think, then, they will accept a conference?"
"I am sure of it. These men will not stand fire, and small blame to them. What chance have they? As your captain says, he could annihilate the lot of them before they crushed in the front door. The men who ran away have far more sense than that brainless spalpeen who led them on, although I can see he is brave enough. One or two more useless attacks will lead him to a more conciliatory frame of mind, unless he appeals to the law, which is what I thought he would do; for I felt sure a sheriff would be in the van of attack. Just now you are opposed only to the Earl of Westport; but, when the sheriff comes on, you're fornenst the might of England."
This cheered me greatly, and after a while we had our dinner in peace. The long afternoon passed slowly away, and there was no rally in the village, and no sign of a further advance; so night came on and nothing had been done. After supper I said good-night to Father Donovan, threw myself, dressed as I was, on the bed, and fell into a doze. It was toward midnight when Tom Peel woke me up; that man seemed to sleep neither night nor day; and there he stood by my bed, looking like a giant in the flicker of the candle-light.
"Your honour," he said, "I think there 's something going on at the mouth of the tunnel. Twice I 've caught the glimpse of a light there, although they 're evidently trying to conceal it."
I sat up in bed and said:
"What do you propose to do?"
"Well, there 's a man inside here that knows the tunnel just as well as I do,—every inch of it,—and he 's up near the other end now. If a company begins coming in, my man will run back without being seen and let us know. Now, sir, shall I timber this end, or shall we deal with them at the top of the stair one by one as they come up. One good swordsman at the top of the stair will prevent a thousand getting into the house."
"Peel," said I, "are there any stones outside, at the other end of the tunnel?"
"Plenty. There 's a dyke of loose stones fronting it."
"Very well; if your man reports that any have entered the tunnel, they 'll have left one or two at the other end on guard; take you five of your most trusted men, and go you cautiously a roundabout way until you are within striking distance of the men on guard. Watch the front upper windows of this house; and if you see two lights displayed, you will know they are in the tunnel. If you waited here till your man comes back, you would be too late; so go now, and, if you see the two lights, overpower the men at the mouth of the tunnel unless they are too many for you. If they are, then there 's nothing to do but retreat. When you have captured the guard, make them go down into the tunnel; then you and your men tear down the dyke and fill the hole full of stones; I will guard this end of the passage."
Tom Peel pulled his forelock and was gone at once, delighted with his task. I knew that if I got them once in the tunnel there would no longer be any question of a compromise, even if Lord Strepp himself was leading them. I took two lighted candles with me and sat patiently at the head of the stone stairway that led, in circular fashion, down into the depths. Half an hour passed, but nothing happened, and I began to wonder whether or not they had captured our man, when suddenly his face appeared.
"They are coming, sir," he cried, "by the dozen. Lord Strepp is leading them."
"Will they be here soon, do you think?"
"I cannot tell. First I saw torches appear, then Lord Strepp came down and began giving instructions, and, after counting nearly a score of his followers, I came back as quick as I could."
"You 've done nobly," said I. "Now stand here with this sword and prevent any man from coming up."
I took one of the candles, leaving him another, and lighted a third. I went up the stair and set them in the front window; then I opened another window and listened. The night was exceedingly still,—not even the sound of a cricket to be heard. After a few minutes, however, there came a cry, instantly smothered, from the other side of the valley; another moment and I heard the stones a rolling, as if the side of a wall had tumbled over, which indeed was the case; then two lights were shown on the hill and were waved up and down; and although Peel and I had arranged no signal, yet this being the counterpart of my own, I took to signify that they had been successful, so, leaving the candles burning there, in case there might have been some mistake, I started down the stair to the man who was guarding the secret passage.
"Has anything happened?"
I think the best part of an hour must have passed before there was sign or sound. Of course I knew if the guards were flung down the hole, they would at once run after their comrades and warn them that both ends of the tunnel were in our possession. I was well aware that the imprisoned men might drag away the stones and ultimately win a passage out or themselves; but I trusted that they would be panic-stricken when they found themselves caught like rats in a trap. In any case it would be very difficult to remove stones from below in the tunnel, because the space was narrow and few could labour at a time; then there was every chance that the stones might jam, when nothing could be done. However, I told the man beside me to go across the valley and ask Peel and his men to pile on rocks till he had a great heap above the entrance, and, if not disturbed, to work till nearly daylight, so I sat on the top of the circular stair step with my rapier across my knees, waiting so long that I began to fear they all might be smothered, for I did n't know whether the stopping of air at one end would prevent it coming in at the other, for I never heard my father say what took place in a case like that. Father Donovan was in bed and asleep, and I was afraid to leave the guarding of the stair to any one else. It seemed that hours and hours passed, and I began to wonder was daylight never going to come, when the most welcome sound I ever heard was the well-known tones of a voice which came up from the bottom of the well.
"Are you there, Mr. O'Ruddy?"
There was a subdued and chastened cadence in the inquiry that pleased me,
"I am, and waiting for you."
"May I come up?"
"Yes, and very welcome; but you 'll remember. Lord Strepp, that you come up as a prisoner."
"I quite understand that, Mr. O'Ruddy."
So, as I held the candle, I saw the top of his head coming round and round and round, and finally he stood before me stretching out his sword, hilt forward.
"Stick it in its scabbard," said I, "and I 'll do the same with mine." Then I put out my hand, "Good morning to your lordship," I said. "It seems to me I 've been waiting here forty days and forty nights. Will you have a sup of wine?"
"I would be very much obliged to you for it, Mr. O'Ruddy."
With that I called the nearest guard and bade him let nobody up the stair without my knowing it.
"I suppose, my lord, you are better acquainted with this house than I am; but I know a spot where there 's a drop of good drink."
"You have discovered the old gentleman's cellar, then?"
"Indeed, Lord Strepp, I have not. I possess a cellar of my own. It 's you that 's my guest, and not me that 's yours on this occasion."
I poured him out a flagon, and then one for myself, and as we stood by the table I lifted it high and said:
"Here 's to our better acquaintance."
His lordship drank, and said with a wry face, as he put down the mug:
"Our acquaintance seems to be a somewhat tempestuous one; but I confess, Mr. O'Ruddy, that I have as great a respect for your generalship as I have for your swordsmanship. The wine is good and revivifying. I 've been in that accursed pit all night, and I came to this end of it with greater reluctance than I expected to when I entered the other. We tried to clear away the stones; but they must have piled all the rocks in Sussex on top of us. Are your men toiling there yet?"
"Yes, they 're there, and I gave them instructions to work till daylight."
"Well, Mr. O'Ruddy, my poor fellows are all half dead with fright, and they fancy themselves choking; but although the place was foul enough when we entered it, I did n't see much difference at the end. However, I did see one thing, and that was that I had to come and make terms. I want you to let the poor devils go, Mr. O'Ruddy, and I 'll be parole that they won't attack you again."
"And who will give his parole that Lord Strepp will not attack me again?"
"Well, O'Ruddy,"—I took great comfort from the fact that he dropped the Mr.,—"Well, O'Ruddy, you see we cannot possibly give up this estate. You are not legally entitled to it. It is ours and always has been."
"I 'm not fighting for any estate, Lord Strepp."
"Then, in Heaven's name, what are you fighting for?"
"For the consent of the Earl and Countess of Westport to my marriage with Lady Mary, your sister."
Lord Strepp gave a long whistle; then he laughed and sat down in the nearest chair.
"But what does Mary say about it?" he asked at last.
"The conceit of an Irishman, my lord, leads me to suspect that I can ultimately overcome any objections she may put forward."
"Oho! that is how the land lies, is it? I'm a thick-headed clod, or I would have suspected something of that sort when Mary pulled me down so sharply as I was cursing you at the front door." Then, with a slight touch of patronage in his tone, he said:
"There is some difference in the relative positions of our families, Mr. O'Ruddy."
"Oh, I 'm quite willing to waive that," said I. "Of course it isn't usual for the descendant of kings, like myself, to marry a daughter of the mere nobility; but Lady Mary is so very charming that she more than makes up for any discrepancy, whatever may be said for the rest of the family."
At this Lord Strepp threw back his head and laughed again joyously, crying,—
"King O'Ruddy, fill me another cup of your wine, and I 'll drink to your marriage."
We drank, and then he said:
"I 'm a selfish beast, guzzling here when those poor devils think they 're smothering down below. Well, O'Ruddy, will you let my unlucky fellows go?"
"I 'll do that instantly," said I, and so we went to the head of the circular stair and sent the guard down to shout to them to come on, and by this time the daylight was beginning to turn the upper windows grey. A very bedraggled stream of badly frightened men began crawling up and up and up the stairway, and as Tom Peel had now returned I asked him to open the front door and let the yeomen out. Once on the terrace in front, the men seemed not to be able to move away, but stood there drawing in deep breaths of air as if they had never tasted it before. Lord Strepp, in the daylight, counted the mob, asking them if they were sure every one had come up, but they all seemed to be there, though I sent Tom Peel down along the tunnel to find if any had been left behind.
Lord Strepp shook hands most cordially with me at the front door.
"Thank you for your hospitality, O'Ruddy," he said, "although I came in by the lower entrance. I will send over a flag of truce when I 've seen my father; then I hope you will trust yourself to come to the Manor House and have a talk with him."
"I 'll do it with pleasure," said I.
"Good morning to you," said Lord Strepp.
"And the top o' the morning to you, which is exactly what we are getting at this moment, though in ten minutes I hope to be asleep."
"So do I," said Lord Strepp, setting off at a run down the slope.