Dorothy Forster, by Walter Besant

Chapter xxii.

The Fugitive.

After he had taken some supper and was refreshed, Tom began to tell us more.

‘Everything,’ he said, ‘was discovered —— I know not by what treachery. The King, who seems anxious not to offend the House, asked permission to arrest six of the members, of whom I was one, so that there was time for warning; and for my own part, whatever the others did, I saddled my horse and rode away, and, I dare say, the messenger after me. But I think he hath not travelled quite so fast, and I may be safe here for one night at least.’

He laughed, but uneasily. In his eyes there was the look of a hunted creature, and he started at the least sound. Presently, however, he became so heavy with sleep and weariness that he must needs go to bed, and so, messenger or no messenger, threw himself upon his bed and fell asleep.

We sat up late, thinking how best to hide him; yet not so late but that before five in the morning I was up, expecting no less than to find the messenger at the door. But there was no one. Presently, Tom came, awakened by Mr. Hilyard, and grumbling that he could not have his sleep out. But there was no time to lose, for the village was already stirring.

The garden of the Manor House is separated from the sands only by a field of coarse grass. By crossing this field, which can generally be done without being seen by any of the villagers, one can gain access to the castle by the old postern. It was thus that we hurried Tom to his first place of concealment —— a chamber known to no one but Mr. Hilyard and myself. It is below the level of the inner bailly, but yet not underground, because its window is above the rock, and looks out across the sand and the sea. The chamber was perhaps once used for a place of confinement, though the window is larger than one commonly finds in such gloomy places. It is approached by certain vaults now ruinous and partly fallen in, the entrance to which is itself half hidden by broken stones and briars, so that it looks like a broken hole in the wall. Here we thought he might lie hidden as long as he pleased.

At first Tom was as pleased as a child with a new toy. As soon, however, as he felt himself safe from pursuit, he began to reflect that a cell might be secure but yet uncomfortable. So anxious were we about the main point that we gave no thought to anything else, and considered not the wretchedness of waiting all day long in a stone chamber whose window has no glass, and where there is neither chair, bed, nor table, nor any convenience at all for comfort. The conveyance of these things to the chamber without observation or suspicion gave me the first of many lessons in the difficulty of being secret; anybody may easily keep a secret, but no one knows, except those who have unhappily been forced to try, how hard it is to do a thing secretly, so as neither to be seen nor suspected. In a few days, the history of the warrant and Tom’s flight might be known even in this remote village: the messengers would certainly come here in search of him; it was, therefore, of vital importance that his presence should be suspected by no one. How, therefore, all that day I conveyed small pieces of furniture to the end of the garden and dropped them over the wall for Mr. Hilyard to pick up and carry them across to the castle; how, with his own hands, that ingenious man, as ready with a carpenter’s tools as with a Latin poem, constructed and fitted first a window-shutter and afterwards a rude kind of window-sash; how he carried blankets, candles, wine, tobacco, and provisions, to the cell, need not be related. No one, from the mere fact of seeing us go up to the castle, would have suspected anything, because it was my daily resort.

At nightfall we carried a goodly supply of supper and whisky to the cell, and there I left Mr. Hilyard, who came not away until Tom was so much fortified by strong drink that he was in a condition not to fear the ghosts of the castle, and was, in fact, already asleep upon the hard bed we had made up for him with blankets and pillows strewn on the stones.

Thus our charge began. As early in the morning as was possible without causing any who saw to ask why, I went to the castle, carrying breakfast under my cloak. All the morning I sat with Tom. At one o’clock I took him dinner; in the evening Mr. Hilyard brought supper and sat with him.

After a time our prisoner grew peevish, and hard to please. He was anxious to change his quarters, and had it not been for a scare that we had would perhaps have gone off to seek shelter elsewhere. Of this I will speak presently.

He laughed scornfully at Lady Crewe’s counsel. It would be safe, he said, for him to surrender when the Prince himself could safely surrender, and not before. There was enough against him to hang a dozen men, if hanging was to begin; and he had left all his papers behind to be seized by the officers.

‘When the ship is sinking,’ he said, ‘a man cares first to get off alive. I knew not when the warrant would arrive, so mounted and rode away without waiting for anyone. Why, what matters? If they had not taken my papers, they would have taken some other’s.’

It was a grave business, indeed; and graver than we looked for at first, when we thought he was to be arrested only on account of his opinions.

‘So it is, however, Dorothy,’ he said, ‘and nothing is left but to push on the Prince’s interest. Fear not, child! Why, all is ready; the country is with us; the train is laid. Yet a week or two and thou shalt see an explosion will startle all England. Fortune and rank are before us when we have succeeded.’

‘And if we fail?’ Mr. Hilyard muttered with serious face.

‘Tony,’ said Tom, ‘I take that for a most peevish, ill-natured speech. “If we fail,” he says! Why, do you ask a sailor when he embarks what he will do if the ship be wrecked? or a soldier before a battle, how if he be shot? Hark ye, brother —— there is one comfort for me if we fail. I risk my neck, but not my estates, for I have none. So talk no more of failure, Tony, if you love me.’

Whenever I think of this time, and consider that we were engaged upon so dangerous a piece of work, much I wonder that we carried it through with success. Yet we did, thanks to the extraordinary precautions taken by Mr. Hilyard. For, first, he would have none in the secret at all —— no, not even Tom’s old companions, Ned Swinburne and Perry Widdrington, though they rode over a dozen times for news of their friend.

To them Mr. Hilyard replied that he had good assurance of his honour’s safety, but that until Mr. Forster chose to reveal his whereabouts it would be better for his friends not to inquire. Nor would he suffer any of the people in the village to be informed, nor the maids in the house, saying that these would be the first to be suspected, and, if they were arrested, would certainly, from sheer terror and dread of the whipping-post, tell all they knew. ‘Pinch a rat,’ he said, ‘and he will squeak.’ As for the additional food required, we both pretended great and uncommon appetite. Mr. Hilyard, for his part generally a small eater, though valiant with a bottle, assumed the guise of a desperate trencherman, comparing himself with the Grand Monarque himself, who is said to devour daily enough to maintain ten ordinary people (I mean not in the rhetorical sense, in which he hath devoured —— that is, impoverished —— his whole country, but in the literal sense). Then, after nightfall, he would steal out, carrying a great basket laden with next day’s provisions, to the chamber in the castle, where Tom would take his supper, and they would talk, drink, and smoke tobacco till the prisoner was sleepy. This we did during the whole of the month of August and half-way through September, Tom all the time expecting every day to hear of a rising over the whole country. No news coming to us, he chafed and wondered by what mischance the project was hindered. I cannot doubt that what Tom told me was true, and that so many noblemen and gentlemen all over the country should be in the plot, should have given solemn promises, and should be looking for the business to begin, fills me now with amazement that the result was so meagre. Alas! it costs more than promises to make a Rebellion become a Revolution.

As for the scare of which I have spoken, it was caused by the visit of Mr. Ridley, Justice of the Peace, with three or four messengers, armed with a warrant to search for Tom. With him was my father, grave and anxious, my brother Jack, and my half-brother Ralph, now a lad of thirteen or fourteen.

‘Dorothy,’ whispered my father, ‘surely thou hast not been so foolish as to hide Tom in the Manor House?’

‘Nay, sir,’ I replied truthfully, and aloud. ‘Tom is not here. Mr. Ridley might like, perhaps, to content himself.’

Mr. Ridley told us that he was charged to look for and to arrest Mr. Thomas Forster the younger; that he had been traced north as far as Newcastle; and that it was believed he had taken refuge in this, his own house. I assured him that he was not there. At first he was for taking my word, but his officers murmured. Therefore he said that he must, with my permission, visit the house. This he did in a civil and discreet manner, being a gentleman of as old a family as our own, and by no means desirous of finding Tom. They went into all the rooms, one after the other; first my own, with the maids’ room beside it; Tom’s room next, with his bed ready made, but no sign of its having been used, and Mr. Hilyard’s last.

Then the officers whispered together again, and, with Mr. Ridley, rode up to the castle-wall, where all dismounted, and went into the ruins, my father and I following.

‘I ask not where he is, Dorothy,’ said my father. ‘Sure I am that he would tell thee. But is he safe? Mr. Ridley tells me that there is as much against him as against the Duke of Ormond.’

‘I believe, sir,’ I replied, ‘that he is perfectly safe.’

They searched the great keep from top to bottom; they peered down the well; they climbed the broken stairs; they looked into the open and roofless rooms, along the broken walls; and they found nobody. But they did not know of the ruined vaults, where the ground slopes northwards to the postern-gate, nor did they know that in a chamber beneath their feet, looking across the sands, sat at that moment Mr. Forster himself, with Mr. Hilyard, a tankard of ale between them, and each with a pipe of tobacco in his mouth, as if they had been at White’s in St. James’s Street.

Then they went away, and so we were quiet, except for our scare. For my own part, I confess that I was pale with terror, and my heart beat, but chiefly on account of the boy Ralph, who still kept running here and there, as if, like the foolish and ignorant lad that he was, he wished to discover his brother’s hiding-place; and I was ashamed of myself for being so bad an actor, because my cheeks and eyes made it manifest to some that I was in fear, which made the men continue the search more narrowly.

‘Humph!’ said my father at length, when the officers desisted from the search, and left the castle. ‘Send me Mr. Hilyard tomorrow morning.’

But Mr. Hilyard told him nothing, and so discreetly conducted himself that he left my father in ignorance whether or no he knew where Tom was hidden.

One officer remained in the village. He knew nothing concerning Mr. Hilyard, but thought that if he followed me about he should certainly learn something. Wherefore, I made feigned expeditions, and led him many a pretty dance to Belford, Lucker, Beal, and North Sunderland, and would have taken him farther afield (because he had tender feet), but that my own legs would carry me no farther. While I was thus tramping across the fields, Mr. Hilyard was sitting with the fugitive in his retreat, keeping him cheerful.

And presently the officer went away too, and we heard that they were looking for Tom in the houses of his friends.

‘Let them search everywhere,’ said Mr. Hilyard. ‘I fear nothing but his own impatience.’

Tom could not, in fact, endure the confinement of his cell; once or twice he broke loose, and I surprised him walking about in the inner court of the castle by day, as if secure that no one would enter: it is irksome for an active man to be kept all day long in a little chamber half underground. Then he railed at poor Mr. Hilyard for not taking his friends into confidence; for not bringing him more beer; because his food must needs be cold; because he would not sit with him all day long; and was as unreasonable as a child, taking the service and patience of this faithful creature as if it were a thing to which he was entitled. At night, with his punch and his tobacco, he was easier, and told, over and over again, how he became a conspirator: chiefly because he hoped for wealth, and could not bear to think that he was, save for the small inheritance of Etherston, a dependent on the bounty of his aunt. I think that if Lady Crewe had given him some part of the estate which she designed for him it might have been better. Yet who would assure her that this part, too, would not go the same way as it had gone before? After all, it is the way of the county; Tom was not the only Northumberland gentleman who loved a lavish way of life; he was not the only man who cast in his fortunes (after they were ruined) with those of the Prince (which, I now perceive, were desperate), in the hope of winning back all, and more. But if he had owned something he might have been content to wait.

Other news Mr. Hilyard got together; as that Lord Derwentwater remained perfectly quiet: Tom declared that he was never in any conspiracy or plot whatever; his house at Dilston harboured none of the secret messengers; to all appearance he was entirely occupied in the management of his estates, and in the new house which he proposed to build, and, indeed, had already begun, but had no time to finish. I have seen a letter written by him in this very month of August, in which he expressed his earnest prayer for peace and quiet, ‘of which,’ he added, ‘we have had so little as yet.’ Ah! had this most amiable of men been born in a lowlier station! Could he, without reproach, have spent his life careless of princes and politics, how happy would he have been! Some of us seem especially born for happiness; they evidently desire it both for themselves and for those they love; they are by nature benevolent, generous, active in relieving those who suffer: such an one was my lord, born to be himself happy and to make others happy.

It was, I remember, on September the 15th, being Friday (a most ominous and unlucky day of the week), that Mr. Hilyard came running home with a face greatly agitated.

‘They have begun!’ he cried. Then he sat down and looked round him as one who is trying to understand the meaning of things. ‘They have begun! Alas! It needed not a prophet to foretell, when the Queen died, the blood which should flow.’

‘Who have begun, Mr. Hilyard? Tell me —— quick!’

‘Let us go tell his honour. He was right; they have begun, and no man can tell the end. It is easy to talk of rebellion; but to play at it —— there, indeed! But let us to the castle and tell his honour.’

He rose, and shook his head dolefully.

‘What hath been begun?’ I repeated.

‘The Scots have begun. Four days ago they proclaimed the Prince at Kirk Michael. I have it from the gipsies, some of whom were there and saw it done. They are reported to be already 5,000 strong.’

This was news indeed. Should we be kept back when the Scots had led the way? Why, in a moment, all the things I had heard since I was a child rushed to my brain. The rising was always to begin in Scotland; it was to be supported by the Highlanders; it was to be followed by risings in Ireland, the West, the North, and the Midland Counties. The project was always the same. And now, after many years, we were to see the great design carried out. The thing was so great, that to think of it actually as begun made one’s head to reel.

‘Yes,’ said Mr. Hilyard gravely, ‘his honour will have his chance at last. It is an Earl’s coronet —— promised by the Chief of a House which is famous, as everybody knows, for keeping promises —— the gratitude of the Prince on the one side; on the other —— what? At the best, flight in France; at the worst —— nay, Miss Dorothy, look not so pale. In war, even in civil war, which is fiercer and more sanguinary, there are a thousand chances. What! The Prince may be successful; the army, as they hope, may join him; the sailors, as they desire, may mutiny; the people, as they trust, may love Divine Right more than they fear the fires of Smithfield; they may love the comely face of a young Prince more than they dread the Inquisition. What do I know? Even London —— all is possible; all —— believe me. Wherefore, courage! we are embarked upon an enterprise full of uncertainty. But courage! all may yet go well, though one may still fear the worst.’

With such despondency did Mr. Hilyard receive the news which filled my foolish heart with joy. But he was never a Tory at heart, being so jealous for the Protestant religion, that he could never believe the Church safe under a Catholic King. He went off, therefore, hanging his head, to carry the news to the castle.

Tom received the news with so much joy, that at first he was for throwing off all concealment, and at once proclaiming the Prince on the steps of Bamborough Castle. Then he would ride about openly and resist the authority of the warrant; or he would take up his residence at the Manor House; or he would enlist as many men as possible, and go across the Border to join the Scots. All these steps Mr. Hilyard combated, pointing out that the pursuit and search after him would be the hotter for the Scotch news; that to resist the warrant would be madness, unless he were assured of his friends’ backing; and that no Northumberland men would cross the Border to fight beside the Scots.

‘However,’ said Tom, ‘one thing I am resolved —— I will leave this cursed doghole, and that at once. Where else canst thou stow a man, Tony?’

‘Why, indeed,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘there is no place so snug as this. But, if proper precautions are used, I see not why Farne Island —— but that when all else fails —— or Blanchland, or there are dry holes up Devilstone Water, or there are the miners’ huts at Allendale, or, if the worst comes to the worst, there are the gipsies, who would take your honour across the Cheviots by a safe path, and so to Lord Mar himself, if you are assured ——’

‘Assured, man! I am assured of nothing, save that it is my only chance. But first let me talk with some of my friends.’

He was so restless that, to keep him quiet, we agreed to ride with him to Blanchland, where he might confer with Lord Derwentwater. We rode by night for greater safety, resting at the house of a friend who shall be nameless —— of friends there were plenty —— in the day. There was to be one more night journey for me with Tom, but of that I knew not then, and rode beside him proud and joyful that the long suspense was to be ended and the battle fought. The God of War is worshipped, I am sure, with as much faith by women as by men. To me, thinking while we rode silently in the light of the moon upon the open moor or in the black shade of the woods, my heart glowed within me, and it seemed as if we were only doing at last what ought to have been done long ago: since the right was with us, the Lord was with us.

‘Yes,’ said Mr. Hilyard, when I told him this. ‘But still I say, happy the man who joins the last, when he is quite sure the Lord is with the cause, and hath proved His favour by manifesting His might. How know we that, if Heaven intends to interfere, the time for interference hath yet arrived?’

Thus it is with men who exhort each other to be strong, to have faith, to rejoice in right and justice, and to make poor women feel certain. Yet, when the time comes, there are so many doubts and hesitations that one looks on in amaze, and asks where faith hath gone.

No messengers had come to Blanchland, nor, we found, had any knowledge of the business reached to that place at all. We rested there one night, and the next morning I rose early, and, leaving Tom in this lonely retreat, rode across the moor with Mr. Hilyard, to Dilston, not without some misgivings of my meeting with the Earl (which were unworthy of him as well as of myself).

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32