“Is he up there?” asked a voice in the darkness.
“Not likely. A cat couldn’t scramble up that woodwork,” answered a second.
“Send a shot, and try,” suggested a third.
There he lay, stretched motionless on the flat roof of the veranda. He heard the words as the thronging mob surged, and trampled, and swore, and quarreled, beneath him, in the blackness of the gloom; balked of their prey, and savage for some amends. There was a moment’s pause — a hurried, eager consultation; then he heard the well-known sound of a charge being rammed down, and the sharp drawing out of a ramrod; there was a flash, a report, a line of light flamed a second in his sight; a ball hissed past him with a loud, singing rush, and bedded itself in the timber, a few inches above his uncovered hair. A dead silence followed; then the muttering of many voices broke out afresh.
“He’s not there, at any rate,” said one, who seemed the chief; “he couldn’t have kept as still as that with a shot so near him. He’s made for the open country and the forest, I’ll take my oath.”
Then the trending of many feet trampled their way out from beneath the loggia; their voices and their rapid steps grew fainter and fainter as they hurried away through the night. For a while, at least, he was safe.
For some moments he lay prostrated there; the rushing of the blood on his brain, the beating of his heart, the panting of his breath, the quivering of his limbs after the intense muscular effort he had gone through, mastered him and flung him down there, beaten and powerless. He felt the foam on his lips and he thought with every instant that the surcharged veins would burst; hands of steel seemed to crush in upon his chest, knotted cords to tighten in excruciating pain about his loins; he breathed in short, convulsive gasps; his eyes were blind, and his head swam. A dreaming fancy that this was death vaguely came on him, and he was glad it should be so.
His eyelids closed unconsciously, weighed down as by the weight of lead; he saw the starry skies above him no more, and the distant noise of the pursuit waxed duller and duller on his ear; then he lost all sense and memory — he ceased even to feel the night air on his face. How long he lay there he never knew; when consciousness returned to him all was still; the moon was shining down clear as the day, the west wind was blowing softly among his hair. He staggered to his feet and leaned against the timber of the upper wall; the shelving, impenetrable darkness sloped below; above were the glories of a summer sky at midnight, around him the hills and woods were bathed in the silver light; he looked, and he remembered all.
He had escaped his captors; but for how long? While yet there were some hours of the night left, he must find some surer refuge, or fall into their hands again. Yet it was strange that in this moment his own misery and his own peril were less upon him than a longing to see once more — and for the last time — the woman for whose sake he suffered this. Their love had had the lightness and the languor of their world, and had had but little depth in it; yet, in that hour of his supreme sacrifice to her, he loved her as he had not loved in his life.
Recklessness had always been latent in him, with all his serenity and impassiveness; a reckless resolve entered him now — reckless to madness. Lightly and cautiously, though his sinews still ached, and his nerves still throbbed with the past strain, he let himself fall, hand over hand, as men go down a rope, along the woodwork to the ground. Once touching earth, off he glided, swiftly and noiselessly, keeping in the shadow of the walls all the length of the streets he took, and shunning every place where any sort of tumult could suggest the neighborhood of those who were out and hunting him down. As it chanced, they had taken to the open country; he passed on unquestioned, and wound his way to the Kursaal. He remembered that to-night there was a masked ball, at which all the princely and titled world of Baden were present; to which he would himself have gone after the Russian dinner; by the look of the stars he saw that it must be midnight or past; the ball would be now at its height.
The dare-devil wildness and the cool quietude that were so intimately and intricately mingled in his natare could alone have prompted and projected such a thought and such an action as suggested themselves to him now; in the moment of his direst extremity, of his utter hopelessness, of his most imminent peril, he went — to take a last look at his mistress! Baden, for aught he knew, might be but one vast network to mesh in and to capture him; yet he ran the risk with the dauntless temerity that had ever lain underneath the indifferentism and the indolence of his habits.
Keeping always in the shadow, and moving slowly, so as to attract no notice from those he passed, he made his way deliberately, straight toward the blaze of light where all the gayety of the town was centered; he reckoned, and rightly, as it proved, that the rumor of his story, the noise of his pursuit, would not have penetrated here as yet; his own world would be still in ignorance. A moment, that was all he wanted, just to look upon a woman’s beauty; he went forward daringly and tranquilly to the venture. If any had told him that a vein of romance was in him, he would have stared and thought them madmen; yet something almost as wild was in his instinct now. He had lost so much to keep her honor from attainder; he wished to meet the gaze of her fair eyes once more before he went out to exile.
In one of the string of waiting carriages he saw a loose domino lying on the seat; he knew the liveries and the footmen, and he signed them to open the door. “Tell Count Carl I have borrowed these,” he said to the servant, as he sprang into the vehicle, slipped the scarlet-and-black domino on, took the mask, and left the carriage. The man touched his hat and said nothing; he knew Cecil well, as an intimate friend of his young Austrian master. In that masquerade guise he was safe; for the few minutes, at least, which were all he dared take.
He went on, mingled among the glittering throng, and pierced his way to the ballroom, the Venetian mask covering his features; many spoke to him, by the scarlet-and-black colors they took him for the Austrian; he answered none, and treaded his way among the blaze of hues, the joyous echoes of the music, the flutter of the silk and satin dominoes, the mischievous challenge of whispers. His eyes sought only one; he soon saw her, in the white and silver mask-dress, with the spray of carmine-hued eastern flowers, by which he had been told, days ago, to recognize her. A crowd of dominoes were about her, some masked, some not. Her eyes glanced through the envious disguise, and her lips were laughing. He approached her with all his old tact in the art d’arborer le cotillon; not hurriedly, so as to attract notice, but carefully, so as to glide into a place near her.
“You promised me this waltz,” he said very gently in her ear. “I have come in time for it.”
She recognized him by his voice, and turned from a French prince to rebuke him for his truancy, with gay raillery and much anger.
“Forgive me, and let me have this one waltz — please do!” She glanced at him a moment, and let him lead her out.
“No one has my step as you have it, Bertie,” she murmured, as they glided into the measure of the dance.
She thought his glance fell sadly on her as he smiled.
“No? — but others will soon learn it.”
Yet he had never treaded more deftly the maze of the waltzers, never trodden more softly, more swiftly, or with more science, the polished floor. The waltz was perfect; she did not know it was also a farewell. The delicate perfume of her floating dress, the gleam of the scarlet flower-spray, the flash of the diamonds studding her domino, the fragrance of her lips as they breathed so near his own; they haunted him many a long year afterward.
His voice was very calm, his smile was very gentle, his step, as he swung easily through the intricacies of the circle, was none the less smooth and sure for the race that had so late strained his sinews to bursting; the woman he loved saw no change in him; but as the waltz drew to its end, she felt his heart beat louder and quicker on her own; she felt his hand hold her own more closely, she felt his head drooped over her till his lips almost touched her brow; — it was his last embrace; no other could be given here, in the multitude of these courtly crowds. Then, with a few low-murmured words that thrilled her in their utterance, and echoed in her memory for years to come, he resigned her to the Austrian Grand Duke who was her next claimant, and left her silently — forever.
Less heroism has often proclaimed itself, with blatant trumpet to the world — a martyrdom.
He looked back once as he passed from the ballroom — back to the sea of colors, to the glitter of light, to the moving hues, amid which the sound of the laughing, intoxicating music seemed to float; to the glisten of the jewels and the gold and the silver — to the scene, in a word, of the life that would be his no more. He looked back in a long, lingering look, such as a man may give the gladness of the earth before the gates of a prison close on him; then he went out once more into the night, threw the domino and the mask back again into the carriage, and took his way, alone.
He passed along till he had gained the shadow of a by-street, by a sheer unconscious instinct; then he paused, and looked round him — what could he do? He wondered vaguely if he were not dreaming; the air seemed to reel about him, and the earth to rock; the very force of control he had sustained made the reaction stronger; he began to feel blind and stupefied. How could he escape? The railway station would be guarded by those on the watch for him; he had but a few pounds in his pocket, hastily slipped in as he had won them, “money-down,” at ecarte that day; all avenues of escape were closed to him, and he knew that his limbs would refuse to carry him with any kind of speed farther. He had only the short, precious hours remaining of the night in which to make good his flight — and flight he must take to save those for whom he had elected to sacrifice his life. Yet how? and where?
A hurried, noiseless footfall came after him; Rake’s voice came breathless on his ear, while the man’s hand went up in the unforgotten soldier’s salute —
“Sir! no words. Follow me, and I’ll save you.”
The one well-known voice was to him like water in a desert land; he would have trusted the speaker’s fidelity with his life. He asked nothing, said nothing, but followed rapidly and in silence; turning and doubling down a score of crooked passages, and burrowing at the last like a mole in a still, deserted place on the outskirts of the town, where some close-set trees grew at the back of stables and out-buildings.
In a streak of the white moonlight stood two hunters, saddled; one was Forest King. With a cry, Cecil threw his arms round the animal’s neck; he had no thought then except that he and the horse must part.
“Into saddle, sir! quick as your life!” whispered Rake. “We’ll be far away from this d —— d den by morning.”
Cecil looked at him like a man in stupor — his arm still over the gray’s neck.
“He can have no stay in him! He was dead-beat on the course.”
“I know he was, sir; but he ain’t now; he was pisined; but I’ve a trick with a ‘oss that’ll set that sort o’ thing — if it ain’t gone too far, that is to say — right in a brace of shakes. I doctored him; he’s hisself agen; he’ll take you till he drops.”
The King thrust his noble head closer in his master’s bosom, and made a little murmuring noise, as though he said, “Try me!”
“God bless you, Rake!” Cecil said huskily. “But I cannot take him, he will starve with me. And — how did you know of this?”
“Begging your pardon, your honor, he’ll eat chopped furze with you better than he’ll eat oats and hay along of a new master,” retorted Rake rapidly, tightening the girths. “I don’t know nothing, sir, save that I heard you was in a strait; I don’t want to know nothing; but I sees them cursed cads a-runnin’ of you to earth, and thinks I to myself, ‘Come what will, the King will be the ticket for him.’ So I ran to your room unbeknown, packed a little valise, and got out the passports; then back again to the stables, and saddled him like lightning, and got ’em off — nobody knowing but Bill there. I seed you go by into the Kursaal, and laid in wait for you, sir. I made bold to bring Mother o’ Pearl for myself.”
And Rake stopped, breathless and hoarse with passion and grief that he would not utter. He had heard more than he said.
“For yourself?” echoed Cecil. “What do you mean? My good fellow, I am ruined. I shall be beggared from to-night — utterly. I cannot even help you or keep you; but Lord Rockingham will do both for my sake.”
The ci-devant soldier struck his heel into the earth with a fiery oath.
“Sir, there ain’t time for no words. Where you goes I go. I’ll follow you while there’s a drop o’ blood in me. You was good to me when I was a poor devil that everyone scouted; you shall have me with you to the last, if I die for it. There!”
Cecil’s voice shook as he answered. The fidelity touched him as adversity could not do.
“Rake, you are a noble fellow. I would take you, were it possible; but — in an hour I may be in a felon’s prison. If I escape that, I shall lead a life of such wretchedness as —”
“That’s not nothing to me, sir.”
“But it is much to me,” answered Cecil. “As things have turned — life is over with me, Rake. What my own fate may be I have not the faintest notion — but let it be what it will, it must be a bitter one. I will not drag another into it.”
“If you send me away, I’ll shoot myself through the head, sir; that’s all.”
“You will do nothing of the kind. Go to Lord Rockingham, and ask him from me to take you into his service. You cannot have a kinder master.”
“I don’t say nothing agen the Marquis, sir,” said Rake doggedly; “he’s a right-on generous gentleman, but he aren’t you. Let me go with you, if it’s just to rub the King down. Lord, sir! you don’t know what straits I’ve lived in-what a lot of things I can turn my hand to — what a one I am to fit myself into any rat-hole, and make it spicy. Why, sir, I’m that born scamp, I am-I’m a deal happier on the cross and getting my bread just anyhow, than I am when I’m in clover like you’ve kept me.”
Rake’s eyes looked up wistfully and eager as a dog’s when he prays to be let out of kennel to follow the gun; his voice was husky and agitated with a strong excitement. Cecil stood a moment, irresolute, touched and pained at the man’s spaniel-like affection — yet not yielding to it.
“I thank you from my heart, Rake,” he said at length, “but it must not be. I tell you my future life will be beggary —”
“You’ll want me anyways, sir,” retorted Rake, ashamed of the choking in his throat. “I ask your pardon for interrupting, but every second’s that precious like. Besides, sir, I’ve got to cut and run for my own sake. I’ve laid Willon’s head open, down there in the loose box; and when he’s come to himself a pretty hue and cry he’ll raise after me. He painted the King, that’s what he did; and I told him so, and I give it to him — one — two — amazing! Get into saddle, sir, for the Lord’s sake! And here, Bill — you run back, shut the door, and don’t let nobody know the ‘osses are out till the morning. Then look like a muff as you are, and say nothing!”
The stable-boy stared, nodded assent, and sloped off. Rake threw himself across the brown mare.
“Now, sir! a steeple-chase for our lives! We’ll be leagues away by the day-dawn, and I’ve got their feed in the saddle-bags, so that they’ll bait in the forests. Off, sir, for God’s sake, or the blackguards will be down on you again!”
As he spoke the clamor and tread of men of the town racing to the chase were wafted to them on the night wind, drawing nearer and nearer; Rake drew the reins tight in his hand in fury.
“There they come — the d —— d beaks! For the love of mercy, sir, don’t check now. Ten seconds more and they’ll be on you; off, off! — or by the Lord Harry, sir, you’ll make a murderer of me, and I’ll kill the first man that lays his hand on you!”
The blaze of bitter blood was in the exDragoon’s fiery face as the moon shone on it, and he drew out one of his holster pistols, and swung round in his saddle, facing the narrow entrance of the lane; ready to shoot down the first of the pursuit whose shadow should darken the broad stream of white light that fell through the archway.
Cecil looked at him, and paused no more; but vaulted into the old familiar seat, and Forest King bore him away through the starry night, with the brown mare racing her best by his side. Away — through the sleeping shadows, through the broad beams of the moon, through the odorous scent of the crowded pines, through the soft breaking gray of the dawn; away — to mountain solitudes and forest silence, and the shelter of lonely untracked ravines, and the woodland lairs they must share with wolf and boar; away — to flee with the flight of the hunted fox, to race with the wakeful dread of the deer; away — to what fate, who could tell?
Far and fast they rode through the night, never drawing rein. The horses laid well to their work; their youth and their mettle were roused, and they needed no touch of spur, but neck-and-neck dashed down through the sullen gray of the dawn and the breaking flush of the first sunrise. On the hard, parched earth, on the dew-laden moss, on the stretches of wayside sward, on the dry white dust of the ducal roads, their hoofs thundered, unfollowed, unechoed; the challenge of no pursuit stayed them, and they obeyed the call that was made on their strength with good and gallant willingness. Far and fast they rode, happily knowing the country well; now through the darkness of night, now through the glimmering daybreak. Tall walls of fir-crowned rocks passed by their eyes, all fused and dim; gray piles of monastic buildings, with the dull chimes tolling the hour, flashed on their sight to be lost in a moment; corn-lands yellowing for the sickle, fields with the sheaves set-up, orchards ruddy with fruit, and black barn-roofs lost in leafy nests; villages lying among their hills like German toys caught in the hollow of a guarding hand; masses of forests stretching wide, somber and silent and dark as a tomb; the shine of water’s silvery line where it flowed in a rocky channel — they passed them all in the soft gray of the waning night, in the white veil of the fragrant mists, in the stillness of sleep and of peace. Passed them, racing for more than life, flying with the speed of the wind.
“I failed him today through my foes and his,” Forest King thought, as he laid his length out in his mighty stride. “But I love him well; I will save him to-night.” And save him the brave brute did. The grass was so sweet and so short, he longed to stop for a mouthful; the brooks looked so clear, he longed to pause for a drink; renewed force and reviving youth filled his loyal veins with their fire; he could have thrown himself down on that mossy turf, and had a roll in its thyme and its lichens for sheer joy that his strength had come back. But he would yield to none of these longings; he held on for his master’s sake, and tried to think, as he ran, that this was only a piece of play — only a steeple-chase, for a silver vase and a lady’s smile, such as he and his rider had so often run for, and so often won, in those glad hours of the crisp winter noons of English Shires far away. He turned his eyes on the brown mare’s, and she turned hers on his; they were good friends in the stables at home, and they understood one another now. “If I were what I was yesterday, she wouldn’t run even with me,” thought the King; but they were doing good work together, and he was too true a knight and too true a gentleman to be jealous of Mother o’ Pearl, so they raced neck-and-neck through the dawn; with the noisy clatter of water-mill wheels, or the distant sound of a woodman’s ax, or the tolling bell of a convent clock, the only sound on the air save the beat of the flying hoofs.
Away they went, mile on mile, league on league, till the stars faded out in the blaze of the sun, and the tall pines rose out of the gloom. Either his pursuers were baffled and distanced, or no hue and cry was yet after him; nothing arrested them as they swept on, and the silent land lay in the stillness of morning ere toil and activity awakened. It was strangely still, strangely lonely, and the echo of the gallop seemed to beat on the stirless, breathless solitude. As the light broke and grew clearer and clearer, Cecil’s face in it was white as death as he galloped through the mists, a hunted man, on whose head a price was set; but it was quite calm still, and very resolute — there was no “harking back” in it.
They had raced nigh twenty English miles by the time the chimes of a village were striking six o’clock; it was the only group of dwellings they had ventured near in their flight; the leaded lattices were thrust open with a hasty clang, and women’s heads looked out as the iron tramp of the hunters’ feet struck fire from the stones. A few cries were raised; one burgher called them to know their errand; they answered nothing, but traversed the street with lightning speed, gone from sight almost ere they were seen. A league farther on was a wooded bottom, all dark and silent, with a brook murmuring through it under the leafy shade of lilies and the tangle of water-plants; there Cecil checked the King and threw himself out of saddle.
“He is not quite himself yet,” he murmured, as he loosened the girths and held back the delicate head from the perilous cold of the water to which the horse stretched so eagerly; he thought more of Forest King than he thought, even in that hour, of himself. He did all that was needed with his own hands; fed him with the corn from the saddle-bags, cooled him gently, led him to drink a cautious draught from the bubbling little stream, then let him graze and rest under the shade of the aromatic pines and the deep bronze leaves of the copper beeches; it was almost dark, so heavy and thickly laced were the branches, and exquisitely tranquil in the heart of the hilly country, in the peace of the early day, with the rushing of the forest brook the sole sound that was heard, and the everlasting sighing of the pine-boughs overhead.
Cecil leaned a while silently against one of the great gnarled trunks, and Rake affected to busy himself with the mare; in his heart was a tumult of rage, a volcano of curiosity, a pent-up storm of anxious amaze, but he would have let Mother o’ Pearl brain him with a kick of her iron plates rather than press a single look that should seem like doubt, or seem like insult in adversity to his fallen master.
Cecil’s eyes, drooped and brooding, gazed a long half-hour down in silence into the brook bubbling at his feet; then he lifted his head and spoke — with a certain formality and command in his voice, as though he gave an order on parade.
“Rake, listen, and do precisely what I bid you; neither more nor less. The horses cannot accompany me, nor you either; I must go henceforth where they would starve, and you would do worse. I do not take the King into suffering, nor you into temptation.”
Rake, who at the tone had fallen unconsciously in to the attitude of “attention,” giving the salute with his old military instinct, opened his lips to speak in eager protestation; Cecil put up his hand.
“I have decided; nothing you can say will alter me. We are near a by-station now; if I find none there to prevent me, I shall get away by the first train; to hide in these woods is out of the question. You will return by easy stages to Baden, and take the horses at once to Lord Rockingham. They are his now. Tell him my last wish was that he should take you into his service; and he will be a better master to you than I have ever been. As for the King”— his lips quivered, and his voice shook a little, despite himself —“he will be safe with him. I shall go into some foreign service — Austrian, Russian, Mexican, whichever be open to me. I would not risk such a horse as mine to be sold, ill-treated, tossed from owner to owner, sent in his old age to a knacker’s yard, or killed in a skirmish by a cannon-shot. Take both him and the mare back, and go back yourself. Believe me, I thank you from my heart for your noble offer of fidelity, but accept it I never shall.”
A dead pause came after his words; Rake stood mute; a curious look — half-dogged, half-wounded, but very resolute — had come on his face. Cecil thought him pained, and spoke with an infinite gentleness:
“My good fellow, do not regret it, or fancy I have no gratitude to you. I feel your loyalty deeply, and I know all you would willingly suffer for me; but it must not be. The mere offer of what you would do had been quite testimony enough of your truth and your worth. It is impossible for me to tell you what has so suddenly changed my fortunes; it is sufficient that for the future I shall be, if I live, what you were — a private soldier in an army that needs a sword. But let my fate be what it will, I go to it alone. Spare me more speech, and simply obey my last command.”
Quiet as the words were, there was a resolve in them not to be disputed; an authority not to be rebelled against. Rake stared, and looked at him blankly; in this man who spoke to him with so subdued but so irresistible a power of command, he could scarcely recognize the gay, indolent, indulgent, pococurante Guardsman, whose most serious anxiety had been the set of a lace tie, the fashion of his hunting dress, or the choice of the gold arabesques for his smoking-slippers.
Rake was silent a moment; then his hand touched his cap again.
“Very well, sir,” and without opposition or entreaty, he turned to resaddle the mare.
Our natures are oddly inconsistent. Cecil would not have taken the man in to exile, and danger, and temptation, and away from comfort and an honest life, for any consideration; yet it gave him something of a pang that Rake was so soon dissuaded from following him, and so easily convinced of the folly of his fidelity. But he had dealt himself a far deadlier one when he had resolved to part forever from the King. He loved the horse better than he loved anything — fed from his hand in foalhood, reared, broken, and trained under his own eye and his own care, he had had a truer welcome from those loving, lustrous eyes than all his mistresses ever gave him. He had had so many victories, so many hunting-runs, so many pleasant days of winter and of autumn, with Forest King for his comrade and companion! He could better bear to sever from all other things than from the stable-monarch, whose brave heart never failed him, and whose honest love was always his.
He stretched his hand out with his accustomed signal; the King lifted his head where he grazed, and came to him with the murmuring noise of pleasure he always gave at his master’s caress, and pressed his forehead against Cecil’s breast, and took such tender heed, such earnest solicitude, not to harm him with a touch of the mighty fore hoofs, as those only who care for and know horses well will understand in its relation.
Cecil threw his arm over his neck, and leaned his own head down on it, so that his face was hidden. He stood motionless so many moments, and the King never stirred, but only pressed closer and closer against his bosom as though he knew that this was his eternal farewell to his master. But little light came there, the boughs grew so thickly; and it was still and solitary as a desert in the gloom of the meeting trees.
There have been many idols — idols of gold, idols of clay — less pure, less true than the brave and loyal-hearted beast from whom he parted now.
He stood motionless a while longer, and where his face was hidden, the gray silken mane of the horse was wet with great, slow tears that forced themselves through his closed eyes; then he laid his lips on the King’s forehead, as he might have touched the brow of the woman he loved; and with a backward gesture of his hand to his servant, plunged down into the deep slope of netted boughs and scarce penetrable leafage, that swung back into their places, and shrouded him from sight with their thick, unbroken screen.
“He’s forgot me right and away in the King,” murmured Rake, as he led Forest King away slowly and sorrowfully, while the hunter pulled and fretted to force his way to his master. “Well, it’s only natural like. I’ve cause to care for him, and plenty on it; but he ain’t no sort of reason to think about me.”
That was the way the philosopher took his wound.
Alone, Cecil flung himself full-length down on the turf beneath the beech woods; his arms thrown forward, his face buried in the grass, all gay with late summer forest blossoms; for the first time the whole might of the rain that had fallen on his was understood by him; for the first time it beat him down beneath it, as the overstrained tension of nerve and of self-restraint had their inevitable reaction. He knew what this thing was which he had done — he had given up his whole future.
Though he had spoken lightly to his servant of his intention to enter a foreign army, he knew himself how few the chances were that he could ever do so. It was possible that Rockingham might so exert his influence that he would be left unpursued, but unless this chanced so (and Baroni had seemed resolute to forego no part of his demands), the search for him would be in the hands of the law, and the wiles of secret police and of detectives’ resources spread too far and finely over the world for him to have a hope of ultimate escape.
If he sought France, the Extradition Treaty would deliver him up; Russia — Austria — Prussia were of equal danger; he would be identified, and given up to trial. Into the Italian service he knew many a scoundrel was received unquestioned; and he might try the Western world; though he had no means to pay the passage, he might work it; he was a good sailor. Yachts had been twice sunk under him, by steamers, in the Solent and the Spezzia, and his own schooner had once been fired at by mistake for a blockade runner, when he had brought to, and given them a broadside from his two shotted guns before he would signal them their error.
As these things swept, disordered and aimless, through his mind, he wondered if a nightmare were upon him; he, the darling of Belgravia, the Guards’ champion, the lover of Lady Guenevere, to be here outlawed and friendless; wearily racking his brains to solve whether he had seamanship enough to be taken before the mast, or could stand before the tambour-major of a French regiment, with a chance to serve the same flag!
For a while he lay like a drunken man, heavy and motionless, his brow resting on his arm, his face buried in the grass; he had parted more easily with the woman he loved than he had parted with Forest King. The chimes of some far-off monastery, or castle-campanile, swung lazily in the morning stillness; the sound revived him, and recalled to him how little time there was if he would seek the flight that had begun on impulse and was continued in a firm, unshrinking resolve; he must go on, and on, and on; he must burrow like a fox, hide like a beaten cur; he must put leagues between him and all who had ever known him; he must sink his very name, and identity, and existence, under some impenetrable obscurity, or the burden he had taken up for others’ sake would be uselessly borne. There must be action of some sort or other, instant and unerring.
“It don’t matter,” he thought, with the old idle indifference, oddly becoming in that extreme moment the very height of stoic philosophy, without any thought or effort to be such; “I was going to the bad of my own accord; I must have cut and run for the debts, if not for this; it would have been the same thing, anyway, so it’s just as well to do it for them. Life’s over, and I’m a fool that I don’t shoot myself.”
But there was too imperious a spirit in the Royallieu blood to let him give in to disaster and do this. He rose slowly, staggering a little, and feeling blinded and dazzled with the blaze of the morning sun as he went out of the beech wood. There were the marks of the hoofs on the damp, dewy turf; his lips trembled a little as he saw them — he would never rid the horse again!
Some two miles, more or less, lay between him and the railway. He was not certain of his way, and he felt a sickening exhaustion on him; he had been without food since his breakfast before the race. A gamekeeper’s hut stood near the entrance of the wood; he had much recklessness in him, and no caution. He entered through the half-open door, and asked the keeper, who was eating his sausage and drinking his lager, for a meal.
“I’ll give you one if you’ll bring me down that hen-harrier,” growled the man in south German; pointing to the bird that was sailing far off, a mere speck in the sunny sky.
Cecil took the rifle held out to him, and without seeming even to pause to take aim, fired. The bird dropped like a stone through the air into the distant woods. There was no tremor in his wrist, no uncertainty in his measure. The keeper stared; the shot was one he had thought beyond any man’s range, and he set food and drink before his guest with a crestfallen surprise, oddly mingled with veneration.
“You might have let me buy my breakfast, without making me do murder,” said Bertie quietly, as he tried to eat. The meal was coarse — he could scarcely touch it; but he drank the beer down thirstily, and took a crust of bread. He slipped his ring, a great sapphire graven with his crest, off his finger, and held it out to the man.
“That is worth fifty double-Fredericks. Will you take it in exchange for your rifle and some powder and ball?”
The German stared again, open-mouthed, and clinched the bargain eagerly. He did not know anything about gems, but the splendor of this dazzled his eye, while he had guns more than enough, and could get many others at his lord’s cost. Cecil fastened a shot-belt round him, took a powder-flask and cartridge-case, and with a few words of thanks, went on his way.
Now that he held the rifle in his hand, he felt ready for the work that was before him; if hunted to bay, at any rate he could now have a struggle for his liberty. The keeper stood bewildered, gazing blankly after him down the vista of pines.
“Hein! Hein!” he growled, as he looked at the sapphire sparkling in his broad, brown palm; “I never saw such a with-lavishness-wasteful-and-with-courteous-speech-laconic gentleman! I wish I had not let him have the gun; he will take his own life, belikes; ach, Gott! He will take his own life!”
But Cecil had not bought it for that end — though he had called himself a fool for not sending a bullet through his brain, to quench in eternal darkness this ruined and wretched life that alone remained to him. He walked on through the still summer dawn, with the width of the country stretching sun-steeped around him. The sleeplessness, the excitement, the misery, the wild running of the past night had left him strengthless and racked with pain, but he knew that he must press onward or be caught, sooner or later, like netted game in the poacher’s silken mesh. Where to go, what to do, he knew no more than if he were a child; everything had always been ready to his hand; the only thought required of him had been how to amuse himself and avoid being bored; now thrown alone on a mighty calamity, and brought face to face with the severity and emergency of exertion, he was like a pleasure-boat beaten under high billows, and driven far out to sea by the madness of a raging nor’wester. He had no conception what to do; he had but one resolve — to keep his secret; if, to do it, he killed himself with the rifle his sapphire ring had bought.
Carelessly daring always, he sauntered now into the station for which he had made, without a sign on him that could attract observation; he wore still the violet velvet Spanish-like dress, the hessians, and the broad-leafed felt hat with an eagle’s feather fastened in it, that he had worn at the races; and with the gun in his hand there was nothing to distinguish him from any tourist “milor,” except that in one hand he carried his own valise. He cast a rapid glance around; no warrant for his apprehension, no announcement of his personal appearance had preceded him here; he was safe — safe in that; safer still in the fact that the train rushed in so immediately on his arrival there, that the few people about had no time to notice or speculate upon him. The coupe was empty, by a happy chance; he took it, throwing his money down with no heed that when the little he had left was once expended he would be penniless, and the train whirled on with him, plunging into the heart of forest and mountain, and the black gloom of tunnels, and the golden seas of corn-harvest. He was alone; and he leaned his head on his hands, and thought, and thought, and thought, till the rocking, and the rushing, and the whirl, and the noise of the steam on his ear and the giddy gyrations of his brain in the exhaustion of overstrung exertion, conquered thought. With the beating of the engine seeming to throb like the great swinging of a pendulum through his mind, and the whirling of the country passing by him like a confused phantasmagoria, his eyes closed, his aching limbs stretched themselves out to rest, a heavy dreamless sleep fell on him, the sleep of intense bodily fatigue, and he knew no more.
Gendarmes awoke him to see his visa. He showed it them by sheer mechanical instinct, and slept again in that dead weight of slumber the moment he was alone. When he had taken his ticket, and they had asked him to where it should be, he had answered to their amaze, “to the farthest place it goes,” and he was borne on now unwitting where it went; through the rich champaign and the barren plains; through the reddening vintage and over the dreary plateaux; through antique cities, and across broad, flowing rivers; through the cave of riven rocks, and above nestling, leafy valleys; on and on, on and on, while he knew nothing, as the opium-like sleep of intense weariness held him in it stupor.
He awoke at last with a start; it was evening; the stilly twilight was settling over all the land, and the train was still rushing onward, fleet as the wind. His eyes, as they opened dreamily, fell on a face half obscured in the gleaming; he leaned forward, bewildered and doubting his senses.
Rake gave the salute hurriedly and in embarrassment.
“It’s I, sir! — yes, sir.”
Cecil thought himself dreaming still.
“You! You had my orders?”
“Yes, sir, I had your orders,” murmured the exsoldier, more confused than he had ever been in the whole course of his audacious life, “and they was the first I ever disobeyed — they was. You see, sir, they was just what I couldn’t swallow nohow — that’s the real, right-down fact! Send me to the devil, Mr. Cecil, for you, and I’ll go at the first bidding, but leave you just when things are on the cross for you, damn me if I will! — beggin’ your pardon, sir!”
And Rake, growing fiery and eloquent, dashed his cap down on the floor of the coupe with an emphatic declaration of resistance. Cecil looked at him in silence; he was not certain still whether this were not a fantastic folly he was dreaming.
“Damn me if I will, Mr. Cecil! You won’t keep me — very well; but you can’t prevent me follerin’ of you, and foller you I will; and so there’s no more to be said about it, sir; but just to let me have my own lark, as one may say. You said you’d go to the station, I went there; you took your ticket, I took my ticket. I’ve been travelling behind you till about two hours ago, then I looked at you; you was asleep sir. ‘I don’t think my master’s quite well,’ says I to Guard; ‘I’d like to get in there along of him.’ ‘Get in with you, then,’ says he (only we was jabbering that willainous tongue o’ theirs), for he sees the name on my traps is the same as that on your traps — and in I get. Now, Mr. Cecil, let me say one word for all, and don’t think I’m a insolent, ne’er-do-well for having been and gone and disobeyed you; but you was good to me when I was sore in want of it; you was even good to my dog — rest his soul, the poor beast! There never were a braver! — and stick to you I will till you kick me away like a cur. The truth is, it’s only being near of you, sir, that keeps me straight; if I was to leave you I should become a bad ’un again, right and away. Don’t send me from you, sir, as you took mercy on me once!”
Rake’s voice shook a little toward the close of his harangue, and in the shadows of evening light, as the train plunged through the gathering gloom, his ruddy, bright, bronzed face looked very pale and wistful.
Cecil stretched out his hand to him in silence that spoke better than words.
Rank hung his head.
“No, sir; you’re a gentleman, and I’ve been an awful scamp! It’s enough honor for me that you would do it. When I’m more worth it, perhaps — but that won’t never be.”
“You are worth it now, my gallant fellow.” His voice was very low; the man’s loyalty touched him keenly. “It was only for yourself, Rake, that I ever wished you to leave me.”
“God bless you, sir!” said Rake passionately; “them words are better nor ten tosses of brandy! You see, sir, I’m so spry and happy in a wild life, I am, and if so be as you go to them American parts as you spoke on, why I know ’em just as well as I know Newmarket Heath, every bit! They’re terrible rips in them parts; kill you as soon as look at you; it makes things uncommon larky out there, uncommon spicy. You aren’t never sure but what there’s a bowie knife a-waiting for you.”
With which view of the delights of Western life, Rake, “feeling like a fool,” as he thought himself, for which reason he had diverged into Argentine memories, applied himself to the touching and examining of the rifle with that tenderness which only gunnery love and lore produce.
Cecil sat silent a while, his head drooped down on his hands, while the evening deepened to night. At last he looked up.
“The King? Where is he?”
Rake flushed shamefacedly under his tanned skin.
“Beggin’ your pardon, sir; behind you.”
“Yes, sir; him and the brown mare. I couldn’t do nothing else with ’em you see, sir, so I shipped him along with us; they don’t care for the train a bit, bless their hearts! And I’ve got a sharp boy a-minding of ’em. You can easily send ’em on to England from Paris if you’re determined to part with ’em; but you know the King always was fond of drums and trumpets and that like. You remember, sir, when he as a colt we broke him into it and taught him a bit of maneuvering; ‘cause, till you find what pace he had in him, you’d thought of making a charger of him. He loves the noise of soldiering — he do; and if he thought you was going away without him, he’d break his heart, Mr. Cecil, sir. It was all I could do to keep him from follerin’ of you this morning; he sawed my arms off almost.”
With which, Rake, conscious that he had been guilty of unpardonable disobedience and outrageous interference, hung his head over the gun; a little anxious and a good deal ashamed.
Cecil smiled a little, despite himself.
“Rake, you will do for no service, I am afraid; you are terribly insubordinate!”
He had not the heart to say more; the man’s fidelity was too true to be returned with rebuke; and stronger than all surprise and annoyance was a strange mingling of pain and pleasure in him to think that the horse he loved so well was still so near him, the comrade of his adversity as he had been the companion of his happiest hours.
“These things will keep him a few days,” he thought, as he looked at his hunting-watch, and the priceless pearl in each of his wristband-studs. HE would have pawned every atom he had about him to have had the King with him a week longer.
The night fell, the stars came out, the storm-rack of a coming tempest drifted over the sky, the train rushed onward through the thickening darkness, through the spectral country — it was like his life, rushing headlong down into impenetrable gloom. The best, the uttermost, that he could look for was a soldier’s grave, far away under some foreign soil.
A few evenings later the Countess Guenevere stood alone in her own boudoir in her Baden suite; she was going to dine with an Archduchess of Russia, and the splendid jewels of her House glittered through the black shower of her laces, and crowned her beautiful glossy hair, her delicate imperial head. In her hands was a letter — oddly written in pencil on a leaf torn out of a betting book, but without a tremor or a change in the writing itself. And as she stood a shiver shook her frame; in the solitude of her lighted and luxurious chamber her cheek grew pale, her eyes grew dim.
“To refute the charge,” ran the last words of what was at best but a fragment, “I must have broken my promise to you, and have compromised your name. Keeping silence myself, but letting the trial take place, law-inquiries so execrable and so minute, would soon have traced through others that I was with you that evening. To clear myself I must have attainted your name with public slander, and drawn the horrible ordeal on you before the world. Let me be thought guilty. It matters little. Henceforth I shall be dead to all who know me, and my ruin would have exiled me without this. Do not let an hour of grief for me mar your peace, my dearest; think of me with no pain, Beatrice; only with some memory of our past love. I have not strength yet to say — forget me; and yet — if it be for your happiness — blot out from your remembrance all thought of what we have been to one another; all thought of me and of my life, save to remember now and then that I was dear to you.”
The words grew indistinct before her sight, they touched the heart of the world-worn coquette, of the victorious sovereign, to the core; she trembled greatly as she read them. For — in her hands was his fate. Though no hint of this was breathed in his farewell letter, she knew that with a word she could clear him, free him, and call him back from exile and shame, give him once more honor and guiltlessness in the sight of the world. With a word she could do this; his life was in the balance that she held as utterly as though it were now hers to sign, or to destroy, his death-warrant. It rested with her to speak and to say he had no guilt.
But to do this she must sacrifice herself. She stood mute, irresolute, a shudder running through her till her diamonds shook in the light; the heavy tears stole slowly down, one by one, and fell upon the blurred and blackened paper; her heart ached with an exceeding bitterness. Then shudderingly still, and as though there were a coward crime in the action, her hand unclosed and let the letter fall into the spirit flame of a silver lamp, burning by; the words that were upon it merited a better fate, a fonder cherishing, but — they would have compromised her. She let them fall, and burn, and wither. With them she gave up his life to its burden of shame, to its fate of exile.
She would hear his crime condemned, and her lips would not open; she would hear his name aspersed, and her voice would not be raised; she would know that he dwelt in misery, or died under foreign suns unhonored and unmourned, while tongues around her would babble of his disgrace — and she would keep her peace.
She loved him — yes; but she loved better the dignity in which the world held her, and the diamonds from which the law would divorce her if their love were known.
She sacrificed him for her reputation and her jewels; the choice was thoroughly a woman’s.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12