Angela had eaten her lonely supper, and was sitting at her embroidery frame between nine and ten, while the sounds of bolts and bars in the hall and corridors, and old Reuben’s voice hectoring the maids, told her that the servants were closing the house before going to bed. Reuben would be coming to her presently, no doubt, to remind her of the lateness of the hour, wanting to carry her candle to her chamber, and as it were to see her safely disposed of before he went to his garret. She meant, on this occasion, to resist his friendly tyranny, having so little inclination for sleep, and hoping to find peace of mind and distraction in this elaborate embroidery of gold thread and many-coloured silks, which was destined to adorn her father’s person, on the facings of a new-fashioned doublet.
Suddenly, as she bent over the candle to scrutinize the shading of her silks, the hollow sound of hoofs broke upon the silence, and in a minute afterwards a bell rang loudly.
Who could it be at such an hour? Her father, no doubt; no one else. He had hurried his business through, and returned a day earlier than he had hoped. Or could it be that he had fallen sick in London, and Denzil had come to tell her ill news? Or was it a messenger from her sister? She had time to contemplate several evil contingencies while she stood in the hall watching Reuben withdraw various bolts and bars.
The door swung back at last, and she saw a man in high-riding boots and slouched hat standing on the threshold, while in the moonlight behind him she could distinguish a mounted groom holding the bridle of a led horse, as well as the horse from which the visitor had just dismounted.
The face that looked at her from the doorway was the face which had haunted her with cruel persistency through that long day, chaining her thoughts to earth.
Fareham stood looking at her for a few moments, deadly pale, while she was collecting her senses, trying to understand this most unlooked-for presence. Why was he here? Ah, no doubt, a messenger of evil.
“Oh, sir, my sister is ill!” she cried; “I read sorrow in your face — seriously ill — dangerously? Speak, my lord, for pity’s sake!”
“Yes, she is ill.”
“But very ill? Oh, I feared, I feared when I saw her that there was something amiss. Has she sent you to fetch me?”
“Yes; you are wanted.”
“Reuben, I must set out this instant. Order the coach to be got ready. And Betty must go with me.”
“You will need no coach, Angela. Nor is there time to spare for any such creeping conveyance. I have brought Zephyr. You remember how you loved him. He is swift, and gentle as the wind after which we named him; sure of foot, easy to ride. The roads are good after yesterday’s rain, and the moon will last us most of our way. We shall be at Chilton in two hours. Put on your coat and hat. Indeed, there is no time to be lost.”
“Do you mean that she may die before I can reach her?”
“I know not,” stamping his foot impatiently. “Fate holds the keys. But you had best waste no time on questions.”
His manner was one of command, and he seemed to apprehend no possibility of hesitation on her part. Reuben ran to his pantry, and came back with a tankard of wine, which he offered to the visitor with tremulous respect, almost ready to kneel.
“Our best Burgundy, my lord. Your lordship must be dry after your long ride; and if your lordship would care to sup, there is good picking on last Monday’s chine, and a capon from madam’s supper scarce touched with the carving-knife.”
“Nothing, I thank you, friend. There is no time for gluttony.”
Reuben, pressing the tankard upon him, he drank some wine with an automatic air, and still stood with his eyes fixed on Angela’s pallid countenance, waiting her decision.
“Are you coming?” he asked.
“Does she want me? Has she asked for me? Oh, for God’s sake, my lord, tell me more! Is she dangerously ill? Have the doctors given her over?”
“No. But she is in a bad way. And you — you — you — are wanted. Will you come? Ay or no?”
“Yes. It is my duty to go to her. But when my father and Denzil come back to-morrow, Reuben must be able to tell them why I went; and the nature of my sister’s illness. Were it not so serious that there is no time for hesitation, it would ill become me to leave this house in my father’s absence.”
He gave his head a curious jerk at Denzil’s name, as if he had been stung.
“Yes, I will explain; I can make all clear to this gentleman here while you put on your cloak. Bring the black to the door,” he called to his man.
“Will not your lordship bait your horses before you start?” Reuben asked deferentially.
“No time, fellow. There is no time. How often must I tell you so?” retorted Fareham.
Reuben’s village breeding had given him an exaggerated respect for aristocracy. He had grown up in the midst of small country gentlemen, rural squires, among whom the man with three thousand a year in land was a magnate, and there had never been more than one nobleman resident within a day’s ride of the Manor Moat. To Reuben, therefore, a peer was like a god; and he would have no more questioned Lord Fareham’s will than a disciple of Hobbes would have imputed injustice to Kings.
Angela returned in a few minutes, having changed her silken gown for a neat cloth riding-skirt and close-fitting hood. She carried nothing with her, being assured that her sister’s wardrobe would be at her disposal, and having no mind to spend a minute more in preparation than was absolutely necessary. Brief as her toilet was, she had time to consider Lord Fareham’s countenance and manner, the cold distance of his address, and to scorn herself for having thought of him in her reveries that day as loving her always and till death. It was far better so. The abyss that parted them could not yawn too wide. She put a stern restraint upon herself, so that there should be nothing hysterical in her manner, lest her fears about her sister’s health should be mistaken for agitation at his presence. She stood beside the horse, straight and firm, with her hand on the pommel, and sprang lightly into the saddle as Fareham’s strong arm lifted her. Yet she could but notice that his hand shook as he gave her the bridle, and arranged the cloth petticoat over her foot.
Not a word was spoken on either side as they rode out at the gate and through the village of St. Nicholas, beautiful in the moonlight. Such low crumbling walls and deeply sloping roofs of cottages squatting in a tangle of garden and orchard; such curious outlines of old brick gables in the better class houses of miller, butcher, and general dealer; orchards and gardens and farm buildings, with every variety of thatch and eaves, huddled together in picturesque confusion; large spaces everywhere — pond, and village green, and common, and copse beyond; a peaceful, prosperous settlement, which had passed unharmed through the ordeal of the civil war, safe in its rural seclusion. Not a word was spoken even when the village was left behind, and they were riding on a lonely road, in so brilliant a moonlight that Angela could see every line in her companion’s brooding face.
Why was he so gloomy and so unkind, in an hour when his sympathy should naturally have been given to her? Was he consumed with sorrow for his wife’s indisposition, and did anxiety make him silent; or was he angry with himself for not being as deeply distressed as a husband ought to be at a wife’s peril? She knew too well how he and Hyacinth had been growing further apart day by day, till the only link between husband and wife seemed to be a decent courtesy and subservience to the world’s opinion.
She recalled that other occasion when they two had made a solitary journey together, and in as gloomy a silence — that night of the great fire, when he had flung off his doublet and taken the sculls out of her hands, and rowed steadily and fast, with his eyes downcast, leaving her to steer the boat as she would, or trusting to the lateness of the hour for a clear course. He had seemed to hate her that night just as he seemed to hate her now, as they rode mile after mile side by side, the groom following near, now at a fast trot, now galloping along a stretch of waste grass that bordered the highway, now breathing their horses in a walk.
In one of those intervals he asked her if she were tired.
“No, no. I have no power to feel anything but anxiety. If you would only be kinder and tell me more about my sister! I fear you consider her in danger.”
“Yes, she is in danger. There is no doubt of that.”
“O God! she looked so ill when I saw her last, and she talked so wildly. I feared she was in a bad way. How soon shall we be at Chilton, my lord?”
“My lord! Why do you ‘my lord’ me?”
“I can find no other name. We seem to be strangers to-night; but, indeed, names and ceremonies matter nothing when the mind is in trouble. How soon shall we reach the Abbey, Fareham?”
“In an hour, at latest, Angela.”
His voice trembled as he spoke her name, and all of force and passion that could be breathed into a single word was in his utterance. She flushed at the sound, and looked at him with a sudden fear; but his countenance might have been wrought-iron, so cold and passionless and cruelly resolute looked that rough-hewn face in the moonlight.
“I have a fresh horse waiting for you at Thame,” he said. “I will not have you wearied by riding a tired horse. We are within five minutes of the inn. Will you rest there for half an hour, and take some refreshment?”
“Rest, when my sister may be dying! Not a moment more than is needed to change horses.”
“I have brought Queen Bess, another of your favourites. ’Twas she who taught you to ride. She will know your voice, and your light hand upon her bridle.”
They found the Inn wrapped in slumber, like every house or cottage they had passed; but a lantern shone within an open door in the quadrangle round which house and stables were built. One of the Fareham grooms was there, with an ostler to wait upon him, and three horses were brought out of their stable, ready saddled, as the travellers rode under the archway into the yard.
The mare was excited at finding herself on the road in the clear cool night, with the moonlight in her eyes, and was gayer than Fareham liked to see her under so precious a load; but Angela was no longer the novice by whose side he had ridden nearly two years before. She handled Queen Bess firmly, and soon settled her into a sharp trot, and kept her at it for nearly three miles. The hour Fareham had spoken of was not exceeded by many minutes when Chilton Abbey came in sight, the grey stone walls pale in the moonlight. All things — the long park wall, the pillared gates, the open spaces of the park, the depth of shadow where the old oaks and beeches spread wide and dark, had a look of unreality which contrasted curiously with the scene as she had last beheld it in all its daylight verdure and homeliness.
She dropped lightly from her horse, so soon as they drew rein at an angle of the long irregular house, where there was a door, half hidden under ivy, by which Lord Fareham went in and out much oftener than by the principal entrance. It opened into a passage that led straight to the library, where there was a lamp burning to-night. Angela saw the light in the window as they rode past.
He opened the door, which had been left on the latch, and nodded a dismissal to the groom, who went off to the stables, leading their horses. All was dark in the passage — dark and strangely silent; but this wing was remote from the chief apartments and from the servants’ offices.
“Will you take me to my sister at once?” Angela asked, stopping on the threshold of the library, when Fareham had opened the door.
A lamp upon the tall mantelpiece feebly lighted the long low room, gloomy with the darkness of old oak wainscot and a heavily timbered ceiling. There were two flasks of wine upon a silver salver, and provisions for a supper, and a fire was burning on the hearth.
“You had better warm yourself after your night ride, and eat and drink something before you see her.”
“No, no. What, after riding as fast as our horses could carry us! I must go to her this moment. Can you find me a candle?”— looking about her hurriedly as she spoke. “But, indeed, it is no matter; I know my way to her room in the dark, and there will be light enough from the great window.”
“Stop!” he cried, seizing her arm as she was leaving the room; “stop!” dragging her back and shutting the door violently. “Your sister is not there.”
“Great God! what do you mean? You told me your wife was here — ill — dying perhaps.”
“I told you a lie, sweetheart; but desperate men will do desperate things.”
“Where is my sister? Is she dead?”
“Not unless the Nemesis that waits on woman’s folly has been swifter of foot than common. I have no wife, Angela; and you have no sister that you will ever care to own. My Lady Fareham has crossed the narrow sea with her lover, Henri de Malfort — her paramour always — though I once thought him yours, and tried to kill him for your sake.”
“A runaway wife! Hyacinth! Great God!” She clasped her hands before her face in an agony of shame and despair, falling upon her knees in sudden self-abasement, her head drooping until her brow almost touched the ground. And then, after but a few minutes of this deep humiliation, she started to her feet with a cry of anger. “Liar! villain! despicable, devilish villain! This is a lie, like the other — a wicked lie! Your wife — your wife a wanton? My sister? My life upon it, she is in London — in your house, busy preparing for my marriage. Unlock that door, my lord; let me go this instant — back to my father. Oh, that I could be so mad as to leave his protection at your bidding! Open the door, sir, I command you!”
She seemed to gain in height, and to be taller than he had thought her — he who had so watched her, and whose memory held every line of that slender, graceful figure. She stood straight as an arrow, looking at him with set lips and flaming eyes, too angry to be afraid, trembling, but with indignation, not fear of him.
“Nay, child,” he said gravely, “I have got you, and I mean to keep you. But you have trusted yourself to my hospitality, and you are safe in my house as in a sanctuary. I may be a villain, but I am not a ruffian. If I have brought you here by a trick, you are as much mistress of your life and fate under this roof as you ever were in your father’s house.”
“I have but one thing to say, sir. Let me out of this hateful house.”
“What then? Would you walk back to the Manor Moat, through the night — alone?”
“I would crawl there on my hands and knees if I could not walk; anything to get away from you. Oh, the baseness of it! To vilify my sister — for your own base purposes. Intolerable villain!”
“Mistress, we will soon put an end to that charge. Lies there have been, but that is none. ’Tis you are the slanderer there.”
He took a letter from the pocket of his doublet, and handed it to her. Then he took the lamp from the mantelshelf and held it while she read.
Alas, it was her sister’s hand. She knew those hurried characters too well. The letter was blotted with ink and smeared as with tears. Angela’s tears began to rain upon the page as she read:—
“I have tried to be a good woman and a true wife to you, tried hard for these many years, knowing all the time that you had left off loving me, and but for the shame of it would have cared little, though I had as many lovers as a maid of honour. You made life harder for me in this year last past by your passion for my sister, which mystery of yours, silent and secret as you were, these eyes must have been blind not to discover.
“And while you were cold in manner and cruel of speech — slighting me ever — there was one who loved and praised me, one whose value I knew not till he left this country, and I found myself desolate without him.
“He has come back. He, too, has found that I was the other half of his mind; and that he could taste no pleasure in life unshared by me. He has come to claim one who ever loved him, and denied him only for virtue’s sake. Virtue! Poor fool that I was to count that a woman’s noblest quality! Why, of all attributes, it is that the world least values. Virtue! when the starched Due de Montausier fawns upon Louise de la Vallière, when Barbara Palmer is de facto Queen of England. Virtue!
“Farewell! Forget me, Fareham, as I shall try to forget you. I shall be in Paris perhaps before you receive this letter. My house in the Rue de Touraine is ready for me. I shall dishonour you by no open scandal. The man I love will but rank as the friend I most value, and my other friends will ask no questions so long as you are silent, and do not seek to disgrace me. Indeed, it were an ill thing to pursue me with your anger; the more so as I am weak and ailing, and may not live long to enjoy my happiness. You have given me so little that you should in common justice spare me your hate.
“I leave you your children, whom you have affected to love better than I; and who have shown so little consideration for me that I shall not miss them.”
“What think you of that, Angela, for the letter of a she-cynic?”
“It is blotted with her tears. She wrote in sorrow, despairing of your love.”
“She managed to exist for a round dozen years without my love — or doubting it — so long as she had her cavalière servante. It was only when he deserted her that she found life a burden. And now she has crossed the Rubicon. She belongs to her age — the age of Kings’ mistresses and light women. And she will be happy, I dare swear, as they are. It is not an age of tears. And when the fair Louise ran away to her Convent the other day, in a passion of penitence, be sure she only went on purpose to be brought back again. But now, sweet, say have I lied to you about the lady who was once my wife?” he asked, pointing to the letter in her hand.
“And who is my sister to the end of time; my sister in Eternity: in Purgatory or in Paradise. I cannot cast her off, though you may. I will set out for Paris to-morrow, and bring her home, if I can, to the Manor. She need trouble you no more. My husband and I can shelter and pity her.”
“He will be my husband a fortnight hence.”
“Never! Never, while I live to fling my body between you at the altar. His blood or mine should choke your marriage vows. Angela, Angela, be reasonable. I have brought you out of that trap. I have cut the net in which they had caught you. My love, you are free, and I am free, and you belong to me. You never loved Denzil Warner, never would love him, were you to live with him a quarter of a century. He is ice, and you are fire. Dearest, you belong to me. He who made us both created us to be happy together. There are strings in our hearts that harmonize as concords in music do. We are miserable apart, both of us. We waste, and fade, and torture ourselves in absence; but only to breathe the same air, to sit, silent, in the same room, is to be happy.”
“Let me go!” she cried, looking at him with wild eyes, leaning against the locked door, her hands clutching at the latch, seeming neither to hear nor heed his impassioned address, though every word had sunk deep enough to remain in her memory for ever. “Let me go! You are a dishonourable villain! I came to London alone to your deserted house. I was not afraid of death or the plague then. I am not afraid of you now. Open this door, and let me go, never to see your wicked face again!”
“Angela, canst thou so play fast and loose with happiness? Look at me,” kneeling at her feet, trying to take her hands from their hold on the latch. “Our fate is in our power to-night. The day is near dawning, and at the stroke of five my coach will be at the door to take us to Bristol, where the ship lies that shall carry us to New England — to a new world, and liberty; and to the sweet simple life that will please my dear love better than all the garish pleasures of a licentious court. Ah, dearest, I know thy mind and heart as well as I know my own. I know I can make thee happy in that fair new world, where we shall begin life again, free from all old burdens; and where, if thou wilt, my motherless children can join us, and make one loving household. My Henriette adores you; and it were Christian charity to rescue her and her brother from Charles Stuart’s England, and to bring them up to an honest life in a country where men are free to worship God as He moves them. Love, you cannot deny me. So sweet a life waits for us; and you have but to lay that dear hand in mine and give consent.”
“Oh, God!” she murmured. “I thought this man held me in honour and esteem.”
“Do I not honour you? Ah, love, what can a man do more than offer his life to her he loves ——”
“And if he is another woman’s husband?”
“That tie is broken.”
“I deny it. But if it were, you have been my sister’s husband, and you could be nothing to me but my brother. You have made sisterly affection impossible, and so, my lord, we must be strangers; and, as you are a gentleman, I bid you open this door, and let me make my way to some more peaceful shelter than your house.”
He tried to draw her to his breast; but she held him off with outstretched arm, and even in the tumult of his passion the knowledge of her helplessness and his natural shame at his own treachery kept him in check.
“Angela, call me villain if you will, but give me a fair hearing. Dearest, the joy or sorrow of two lives lies in your choice to-night. If you will trust me, and go with me, I swear I will make you happy. If you are stubborn to refuse — well, sweetheart, you will but send a man to the devil who is not wholly bad, and who, with you for his guardian angel, might find the way to heaven.”
“And begin the journey by a sin these lips dare not name. Oh, Fareham,” she said, growing suddenly calm and grave, and with something of that tender maternal manner with which she had soothed and controlled him while he had but half his wits, and when she feared he might be lying on his death-bed, “I would rather believe you a madman than a villain; and, indeed, all that you have done to-night is the work of a madman, who follows his own wild fancy without power to reason on what he does. Surely, sir, you know me too well to believe that I would let love — were it the blindest, most absorbing passion woman ever felt — lead me into sin so base as that you would urge. The vilest wanton at Whitehall would shrink from stealing a sister’s husband.”
“There would be no theft. Your sister flings me to you as a dog drops the bone he has picked dry. She had me when I was young, and a soldier — with some reflected glory about me from the hero I followed — and rich and happy. She leaves me old and haggard, without aim or hope, save to win her I worship. Shall I tell you when I began to love you, my angel?”
“No, no; I will listen to no more raving. Thank God, there is the daylight!” as the cold wan dawn flickered across the room. “Will you let me beat my hands against this door till they bleed?”
“Thou shalt not harm the loveliest hands on earth,” seizing them both in his own. “Ah, sweet, I began to love thee before ever I rose from that bed of horror where I had been left to perish. I loved thee in my unreason, and my love strengthened with each hour of returning sense. Our journey, I so weak, and sick, and helpless — was a ride through Paradise. I would have had it last a year; would have suffered sickness and pain, aching limbs and parched lips, only to feel the light touch of this dear hand upon my brow ‘twixt sleep and waking; only to look up as I awoke, and see those sweet eyes looking down at me. Ah, dearest, my heart arose from among the dead, and came out of the tomb of all human affections to greet thee. Till I knew you I knew not the meaning of love. And if you are stubborn, and will not come with me to that new world, where we may be so happy, why, then I must go down to my grave a despairing wretch that never knew a woman’s love.”
“My sister — your wife?”
“Never loved me. Her heart — that which she calls heart — was ever Malfort’s and not mine. She gave me to know as much by a hundred signs and tokens which read plain enough now, looking back, but which I scarce heeded at the time. I believed her chaste, and she was civil, and I was satisfied. I tell you, Angela, this heart never beat for woman till I knew you. Ah, love, be not stone! Make not our affinity an obstacle. The Roman Church will ever grant dispensation for a union of affinities where there is cause for indulgence. The Church would have had Philip married to his wife’s sister Elizabeth.”
“The Church holds the bond of marriage indissoluble,” Angela answered. “You are married to my sister; and while she lives you can have no other wife.”
Her brow was stern, her courage unfaltering; but physical force was failing her. She leant against the door for support, and she no longer struggled to withdraw her hands from that strong grasp which held them. She fought against the faintness that was stealing over her senses; but her heavy eyelids were beginning to droop, and there was a sound like rushing water in her ears.
“Angela — Angela,” pleaded the tender voice, “do you forget that afternoon at the play, and how you wept over Bellario’s fidelity — the fond girl-page who followed him she loved; risked name and virtue; counted not the cost, in that large simplicity of love which gives all it has to give, unquestioning? Remember Bellario.”
“Bellario had no thought that was not virtue’s,” she answered faintly; and he took that fainter tone for a yielding will.
“She would not have left Philaster if he had been alone in the wilderness, miserable for want of her love.”
Her white lips moved dumbly, her eyelids sank, and her head fell back upon his shoulder, as he started up from his knees to support her sinking figure. She was in his arms, unconscious — the image of death.
He kissed her on the brow.
“My soul, I will owe nothing to thy helplessness,” he whispered. “Thy free will shall decide whether I live or die.”
Another sound had mingled with the rushing waters as her senses left her — the sound of knocking at a distant door. It grew louder and louder momently, indicating a passionate impatience in those who knocked. The sound came from the principal door, and there was a long corridor between that door and Fareham’s room.
He stood listening, undecided; and then he laid the unconscious form gently on the thick Persian carpet — knowing that for recovery the fainting girl could not lie too low. He cast one agitated glance at the white face looking up at the ceiling, and then went quickly to the hall.
As he came near, the knocking began again, with greater vehemence, and a voice, which he knew for Sir John’s, called —
“Open the door, in the King’s name, or we will break it open!”
There was a pause; those without evidently waiting for the result of that last and loudest summons.
Fareham heard the hoofs of restless horses trampling the gravel drive, the jingle of bit and chain, and the click of steel scabbards.
Sir John had not come alone.
“So soon; so devilish soon!” muttered Fareham. And then, as the knocking was renewed, he turned and left the hall without a word of answer to those outside, and hastened back to the room where he had left Angela. His brow was fixed in a resolute frown, every nerve was braced. He had made up his mind what to do. He had the house to himself, and was thus master of the situation, so long as he could keep his pursuers on the outside. The upper servants — half a dozen coach-loads — had been packed off to London, under convoy of Manningtree and Mrs. Hubbock. The under servants — rank and file — from housemaids to turnspits, slept in a huge barrack adjoining the stables, built in Elizabeth’s reign to accommodate the lower grade of a nobleman’s household. These would not come into the house to light fires and sweep rooms till six o’clock at the earliest; and it was not yet four. Lord Fareham, therefore, had to fear no interruption from his own people.
There was broad daylight in the house now; yet he looked about for a candle; found one on a side-table, in a tall silver candlestick, and stopped to light it, before he raised the lifeless figure from the floor and lifted it into the easiest position for carrying, the head lying on his shoulder. Then, holding the slender waist firmly, circled by his left arm, he took the candlestick in his right hand, and went out of the room with his burden, along a passage leading to a seldom-used staircase, which he ascended, carrying that tall, slim form as if it had been a feather-weight, up flight after flight, to the muniment room in the roof. From that point his journey, and the management of that unconscious form, and to dispose safely of the lighted candle, became more difficult, and occupied a considerable time; during which interval the impatience of an enraged father and a betrothed husband, outside the hall door, increased with every minute of delay, and one of their mounted followers, of whom they had several, was despatched to ride at a hand-gallop to the village of Chilton, and rouse the Constable, while another was sent to Oxford for a Magistrate’s warrant to arrest Lord Fareham on the charge of abduction. And meanwhile the battering upon thick oaken panels with stout riding-whips, and heavy sword-hilts, and the calling upon those within, were repeated with unabated vehemence, while a couple of horsemen rode round the house to examine other inlets, and do picket duty.
The Constable and his underling were on the ground before that stubborn citadel answered the reiterated summons; but at last there came the sound of bolts withdrawn. An iron bar dropped from its socket with a clang that echoed long and loud in the empty hall, the door opened, and Fareham appeared on the threshold, corpse-like in the cold raw daylight, facing his besiegers with a determined insolence.
“Thou most infernal villain!” cried Sir John, rushing into the hall, followed closely by Denzil and one of the men, “what have you done with my daughter?”
“Which daughter does your honour seek? If it be she whom you gave me for a wife, she has broken the bond, and is across the sea with her paramour?”
“You lie — reprobate! Your wife had doubtless business relating to her French estate, which called her to Paris. My daughters are honest women, unless by your villainy, one, who should have been sacred, as your sister by affinity, should bear a blighted name. Give me back my daughter, villain — the girl you lured from her home by the foulest deceit!”
“You cannot see the lady to-day, gentlemen; even though you threaten me with your weapons,” pointing with a sardonic smile to their drawn swords, “and out-number me with your followers. The lady is gone. I am alone in the house to submit to any affront your superior force may put upon me.”
“Our superiority can at least search your house,” said Denzil. “Sir John, you had best take one way and I another. I doubt I know every room and passage in the Abbey.”
“And your yeoman’s manners offer a handsome return for the hospitality which made you acquainted with my house,” said Fareham, with a contemptuous laugh.
He followed Denzil, leaving Sir John to grope alone. The house had been deserted but for a few days, yet the corridors and rooms had the heavy atmosphere of places long shut from sunshine and summer breezes; while the chilling hour, the grey ghostly light, added something phantasmal and unnatural to the scene.
Denzil entered room after room — below stairs and above — explored the picture-gallery, the bed-chambers, the long low ball-room in the roof, built in Elizabeth’s reign, when a wing had been added to the Abbey, and of late used only for lumber. Fareham followed him close, stalking behind him in sullen silence, with an unalterable gloom upon his face which betrayed no sudden apprehensions, no triumph or defeat. He followed like doom, stood quietly on one side as Denzil opened a door; waited on the threshold while the searcher made his inspection, always with the same iron visage, offering no opposition to the entrance of this or that chamber; only following and watching, silent, intent, sphinx-like; till at last, fairly worn out by blank disappointment, Denzil turned upon him in a sudden fury.
“What have you done with her?” he cried, desperately. “I will stake my life she has not left this house, and by Him who made us you shall not leave it living unless I find her.”
He glanced downward at the naked sword he had carried throughout his search. Fareham’s was in the scabbard, and he answered that glance with an insulting smile.
“You think I have murdered her, perhaps,” he said. “Well, I would rather see her dead than yours. So far I am in capacity a murderer.”
They met Sir John in Lady Fareham’s drawing-room, when Denzil had gone over the whole house, trusting nothing to the father’s scrutiny.
“He has stabbed her and dropped her murdered body down a well,” cried the Knight, half distraught. “He cannot have spirited her away otherwise. Look at him, Denzil; look at that haggard wretch I have called my son. He has the assassin’s aspect.”
Something — it might be the room in which they were standing — brought back to Angela’s betrothed the memory of that Christmas night when aunt and niece had been missing, and when he, Denzil, had burst into this room, where Fareham was seated at chess; who, at the first mention of Angela’s name, started up, white with horror, to join in the search. It was he who found her then; it was he who had hidden her now; and in the same remote and secret spot.
“Fool that I was not to remember sooner!” cried Denzil. “I know where to find her. Follow me, Sir John. Andrew”— calling to the servant who waited in the hall —“follow us close.”
He rushed along a passage, ran upstairs faster than old age, were it ever so eager, could follow. But Fareham was nearly as fast — nearly, but not quite, able to overtake him; for he was older, heavier, and more broken by the fever of that night’s work than his colder-tempered rival.
Denzil was some paces in advance when he reached the muniment room. He found the opening in the wainscot, and the steep stair built into the chimney. Half way to the bottom there was a gap — an integral part of the plan — and a drop of six feet; so that a stranger in hurried pursuit would be likely to come to grief at this point, and make time for his quarry to escape by the door that opened on the garden. Memory, or wits sharpened by anxiety, enabled Denzil to avoid this trap; and he was at the door of the Priest’s Hole before Fareham began the descent.
Yes, she was there, kneeling in a corner, a candle burning dimly on a stone shelf above her head. She was in the attitude of prayer, her head bent, her face hidden, when the door opened, and she looked up and saw her betrothed husband.
“Denzil! How did you find me here?”
“I should be a poor slave if I had not found you, remembering the past. Great God, how pale you are! Come, love, you are safe. Your father is here. Angela, thou that art so soon to be my wife — face to face — here — before we leave this accursed pit — tell me that you did not go with that villain, except for the sake of your sick sister — that you were the victim of a heartless lie — not a party to a trick invented to blind your father and me!”
“I doubt I have not all my senses yet,” she said, putting her hand to her head. “I was told my sister wanted me, and I came. Where is Lord Fareham?”
The terror in her countenance as she asked that question froze Denzil. Ah, he had known it all along! That was the man she loved. Was she his victim — and a willing victim? He felt as if a great gulf had opened between him and his betrothed, and that all his hopes had withered.
Fareham was at his elbow in the next moment. “Well, you have found her,” he said; “but you shall not have her, save by force of arms. She is in my custody, and I will keep her; or die for her if I am outnumbered!”
“Execrable wretch! would you attempt to detain her by violence? Come, madam,” said Denzil, turning coldly to Angela, “there is a door on those stairs which will let you out into the air.
“The door will not open at your bidding!” Fareham said fiercely.
He snatched Angela up in his arms before the other could prevent him, and carried her triumphantly to the first landing-place, which was considerably below that treacherous gap between stair and stair. He had the key of the garden door in his pocket, unlocked it, and was in the open air with his burden before Denzil could overtake him.
He found himself caught in a trap. He had his coach-and-six and armed postillions waiting close by, and thought he had but to leap into it with his prey and spirit her off towards Bristol; but between the coach and the door one of Sir John’s pickets was standing, who the moment the door opened whistled his loudest, and brought Constable and man and another armed servant running helter-skelter round an angle of the house, and so crossing the very path to the coach.
“Fire upon him if he tries to pass you!” cried Denzil.
“What! And shoot the lady you have professed to love!” exclaimed Fareham, drawing himself up, and standing firm as a rock, with Angela motionless in his arms.
He dropped her to her feet, but held her against his left shoulder with an iron hold, while he drew his sword and made a rush for the coach. Denzil sprang into his path, sword in hand, and their blades crossed with a shrill clash and rattle of steel. They fought like demons, Fareham holding Angela behind him, sheltering her with his body, and swaying from side to side in his sword-play with a demoniac swiftness and suppleness, his thick dark brows knitted over eyes that flamed with a fiercer fire than flashed from steel meeting steel. A shriek of horror from Angela marked the climax, as Denzil fell with Fareham’s sword between his ribs. There had been little of dilettante science, or graceful play of wrist in this encounter. The men had rushed at each other savagely, like beasts in a circus, and whatever of science had guided Fareham’s more practised hand had been employed automatically. The spirit of the combatants was wild and fierce as the rage that moves rival stags fighting for a mate, with bent heads and tramping hoofs, and clash of locked antlers reverberating through the forest stillness.
Fareham had no time to exult over his prostrate foe; Sir John and his servants, Constable and underlings, surrounded him, and he was handcuffed and hauled off to the coach that was to have carried him to a sinner’s paradise, before any one had looked to Denzil’s wound, or discovered whether that violent thrust below the right lung had been fatal. Angela sank swooning in her father’s arms.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05