Story type: Literature
As Played at Stornoway Crag, March 25, 1750
“You’re a woman–one to whom Heaven gave beauty, when it grafted roses on a briar. You are the reflection of Heaven in a pond, and he that leaps at you is sunk. You were all white, a sheet of lovely spotless paper, when you first were born; but you are to be scrawled and blotted by every goose’s quill.”
LORD ROKESLE, a loose-living, Impoverished nobleman, and loves Lady Allonby.
SIMON ORTS, Vicar of Heriz Magna, a debauched fellow, and Rokesle’s creature.
PUNSHON, servant to Rokesle.
LADY ALLONBY, a pleasure-loving, luxurious woman, a widow, and rich.
The Mancini Chamber at Stornoway Crag, on Usk.
PROEM:–The Age and a Product of It
We begin at a time when George the Second was permitting Ormskirk and the Pelhams to govern England, and the Jacobites had not yet ceased to hope for another Stuart Restoration, and Mr. Washington was a promising young surveyor in the most loyal colony of Virginia; when abroad the Marquise de Pompadour ruled France and all its appurtenances, and the King of Prussia and the Empress Maria Theresa had, between them, set entire Europe by the ears; when at home the ladies, if rumor may be credited, were less unapproachable than their hoop-petticoats caused them to appear, [Footnote: “Oft have we known that sevenfold fence to fail, Though stiff with hoops, and armed with ribs of whale.”] and gentlemen wore swords, and some of the more reckless bloods were daringly beginning to discard the Ramillie-tie and the pigtail for their own hair; when politeness was obligatory, and morality a matter of taste, and when well-bred people went about the day’s work with an ample leisure and very few scruples. In fine, we begin toward the end of March, in the year 1750, when Lady Allonby and her brother, Mr. Henry Heleigh, of Trevor’s Folly, were the guests of Lord Rokesle, at Stornoway Crag, on Usk.
As any person of ton could have informed you, Anastasia Allonby was the widow (by his second marriage) of Lord Stephen Allonby, the Marquis of Falmouth’s younger brother; and it was conceded by the most sedate that Lord Stephen’s widow, in consideration of her liberal jointure, possessed inordinate comeliness.
She was tall for a woman. Her hair, to-night unpowdered, had the color of amber and something, too, of its glow; her eyes, though not profound, were large and in hue varied, as the light fell or her emotions shifted, through a wide gamut of blue shades. But it was her mouth you remembered: the fulness and brevity of it, the deep indentation of its upper lip, the curves of it and its vivid crimson–these roused you to wildish speculation as to its probable softness when Lady Allonby and Fate were beyond ordinary lenient. Pink was the color most favorable to her complexion, and this she wore to-night; the gown was voluminous, with a profusion of lace, and afforded everybody an ample opportunity to appraise her neck and bosom. Lady Allonby had no reason to be ashamed of either, and the last mode in these matters was not prudish.
To such a person, enters Simon Orts, chaplain in ordinary to Lord Rokesle, and Vicar of Heriz Magna, one of Lord Rokesle’s livings.
“Now of a truth,” said Simon Orts, “that is curious–undeniably that is curious.”
He stayed at the door for a moment staring back into the ill-lit corridor. Presently he shut the door, and came forward toward the fireplace.
Lady Allonby, half-hidden in the depths of the big chair beside the chimney-piece, a book in her lap, looked up inquiringly. “What is curious, Mr. Orts?”
The clergyman stood upon the hearth, warming his hands, and diffusing an odor of tobacco and stale alcohol. “Faith, that damned rascal–I beg your pardon, Anastasia; our life upon Usk is not conducive to a mincing nicety of speech. That rascal Punshon made some difficulty over admitting me; you might have taken him for a sentinel, with Stornoway in a state of siege. He ruffled me,–and I don’t like it,” Simon Orts said, reflectively, looking down upon her. “No, I don’t like it. Where’s your brother?” he demanded on a sudden.
“Harry and Lord Rokesle are at cards, I believe. And Mrs. Morfit has retired to her apartments with one of her usual headaches, so that I have been alone these two hours. You visit Stornoway somewhat late, Mr. Orts,” Anastasia Allonby added, without any particular concealment of the fact that she considered his doing so a nuisance.
He jerked his thumb ceilingward. “The cloth is at any rascal’s beck and call. Old Holles, my Lord’s man, is dying up yonder, and the whim seized him to have a clergyman in. God knows why, for it appears to me that one knave might very easily make his way to hell without having another knave to help him. And Holles?–eh, well, from what I myself know of him, the rogue is triply damned.” His mouth puckered as he set about unbuttoning his long, rain-spattered cloak, which, with his big hat, he flung aside upon a table. “Gad!” said Simon Orts, “we are most of us damned on Usk; and that is why I don’t like it–” He struck his hand against his thigh. “I don’t like it, Anastasia.”
“You must pardon me,” she languidly retorted, “but I was never good at riddles.”
He turned and glanced about the hall, debating. Lady Allonby meanwhile regarded him, as she might have looked at a frog or a hurtless snake. A small, slim, anxious man, she found him; always fidgeting, always placating some one, but never without a covert sneer. The fellow was venomous; his eyes only were honest, for even while his lips were about their wheedling, these eyes flashed malice at you; and their shifting was so unremittent that afterward you recalled them as an absolute shining which had not any color. On Usk and thereabouts they said it was the glare from within of his damned soul, already at white heat; but they were a plain-spoken lot on Usk. To-night Simon Orts was all in black; and his hair, too, and his gross eyebrows were black, and well-nigh to the cheek-bones of his clean-shaven countenance the thick beard, showed black through the skin.
Now he kept silence for a lengthy interval, his arms crossed on his breast, gnawing meanwhile at the fingernails of his left hand in an unattractive fashion he had of meditating. When words came it was in a torrent.
“I will read you my riddle, then. You are a widow, rich; as women go, you are not so unpleasant to look at as most of ’em. If it became a clergyman to dwell upon such matters, I would say that your fleshly habitation is too fine for its tenant, since I know you to be a good-for-nothing jilt. However, you are God’s handiwork, and doubtless He had His reasons for constructing you. My Lord is poor; last summer at Tunbridge you declined to marry him. I am in his confidence, you observe. He took your decision in silence–‘ware Rokesle when he is quiet! Eh, I know the man,–’tisn’t for nothing that these ten years past I have studied his whims, pampered his vanity, lied to him, toadied him! You admire my candor?–faith, yes, I am very candid. I am Rokesle’s hanger-on; he took me out of the gutter, and in my fashion I am grateful. And you?–Anastasia, had you treated me more equitably fifteen years ago, I would have gone to the stake for you, singing; now I don’t value you the flip of a farthing. But, for old time’s sake, I warn you. You and your brother are Rokesle’s guests–on Usk! Harry Heleigh [Footnote: Henry Heleigh, thirteenth Earl of Brudenel, who succeeded his cousin the twelfth Earl in 1759, and lived to a great age. Bavois, writing in 1797, calls him “a very fine, strong old gentleman.”] can handle a sword, I grant you,–but you are on Usk! And Mrs. Morfit is here to play propriety–propriety on Usk, God save the mark! And besides, Rokesle can twist his sister about his little finger, as the phrase runs. And I find sentinels at the door! I don’t like it, Anastasia. In his way Rokesle loves you; more than that, you are an ideal match to retrieve his battered fortunes; and the name of my worthy patron, I regret to say, is not likely ever to embellish the Calendar of Saints.”
Simon Orts paused with a short laugh. The woman had risen to her feet, her eyes widening and a thought troubled, though her lips smiled contemptuously.
“La, I should have comprehended that this late in the evening you would be in no condition to converse with ladies. Believe me, though, Mr. Orts, I would be glad to credit your warning to officious friendliness, were it not that the odor about your person compels me to attribute it to gin.”
“Oh, I have been drinking,” he conceded; “I have been drinking with a most commendable perseverance for these fifteen years. But at present I am far from drunk.” Simon Orts took a turn about the hall; in an instant he faced her with an odd, almost tender smile, “You adorable, empty-headed, pink-and-white fool,” said Simon Orts, “what madness induced you to come to Usk? You know that Rokesle wants you; you know that you don’t mean to marry him. Then why come to Usk? Do you know who is king in this sea-washed scrap of earth?–Rokesle. German George reigns yonder in England, but here, in the Isle of Usk, Vincent Floyer is king. And it is not precisely a convent that he directs. The men of Usk, I gather, after ten years’ experience in the administering of spiritual consolation hereabouts”–and his teeth made their appearance in honor of the jest,–“are part fisherman, part smuggler, part pirate, and part devil. Since the last ingredient predominates, they have no very unreasonable apprehension of hell, and would cheerfully invade it if Rokesle bade ’em do so. As I have pointed out, my worthy patron is subject to the frailties of the flesh. Oh, I am candid, for if you report me to his Lordship I shall lie out of it. I have had practice enough to do it handsomely. But Rokesle–do you not know what Rokesle is–?”
The Vicar of Heriz Magna would have gone on, but Lady Allonby had interrupted, her cheeks flaming. “Yes, yes,” she cried;’ “I know him to be a worthy gentleman. ‘Tis true I could not find it in my heart to marry him, yet I am proud to rank Lord Rokesle among my friends.” She waved her hand toward the chimney-piece, where hung–and hangs to-day,–the sword of Aluric Floyer, the founder of the house of Rokesle. “Do you see that old sword, Mr. Orts? The man who wielded it long ago was a gallant gentleman and a stalwart captain. And my Lord, as he told me but on Thursday afternoon, hung it there that he might always have in mind the fact that he bore the name of this man, and must bear it meritoriously. My Lord is a gentleman. La, believe me, if you, too, were a gentleman, Mr. Orts, you would understand! But a gentleman is not a talebearer; a gentleman does not defame any person behind his back, far less the person to whom he owes his daily bread.”
“So he has been gulling you?” said Simon Orts; then he added quite inconsequently: “I had not thought anything you could say would hurt me. I discover I was wrong. Perhaps I am not a gentleman. Faith, no; I am only a shabby drunkard, a disgrace to my cloth, am I not, Anastasia? Accordingly, I fail to perceive what old Aluric Floyer has to do with the matter in hand. He was reasonably virtuous, I suppose; putting aside a disastrous appetite for fruit, so was Adam: but, viewing their descendants, I ruefully admit that in each case the strain has deteriorated.”
There was a brief silence; then Lady Allonby observed: “Perhaps I was discourteous. I ask your forgiveness, Mr. Orts. And now, if you will pardon the suggestion, I think you had better go to your dying parishioner.”
But she had touched the man to the quick. “I am a drunkard; who made me so? Who was it used to cuddle me with so many soft words and kisses–yes, kisses, my Lady!–till a wealthier man came a-wooing, and then flung me aside like an old shoe?”
This drenched her cheeks with crimson, “I think we had better not refer to that boy-and-girl affair. You cannot blame me for your debauched manner of living. I found before it was too late that I did not love you. I was only a girl, and ’twas natural that at first I should be mistaken in my fancies.”
The Vicar had caught her by each wrist. “You don’t understand, of course. You never understood, for you have no more heart than one of those pink-and-white bisque figures that you resemble. You don’t love me, and therefore I will go to the devil’ may not be an all-rational deduction, but ’tis very human logic. You don’t understand that, do you, Anastasia? You don’t understand how when one is acutely miserable one remembers that at the bottom of a wineglass–or even at the bottom of a tumbler of gin,–one may come upon happiness, or at least upon acquiescence to whatever the niggling gods may send. You don’t understand how one remembers, when the desired woman is lost, that there are other women whose lips are equally red and whose hearts are tenderer and–yes, whose virtue is less exigent. No; women never understand these things: and in any event, you would not understand, because you are only an adorable pink-and-white fool.”
“Oh, oh!” she cried, struggling, “How dare you? You insult me, you coward!”
“Well, you can always comfort yourself with the reflection that it scarcely matters what a sot like me may elect to say. And, since you understand me now no more than formerly, Anastasia, I tell you that the lover turned adrift may well profit by the example of his predecessors. Other lovers have been left forsaken, both in trousers and in ripped petticoats; and I have heard that when Chryseis was reft away from Agamemnon, the cnax andrôn made himself tolerably comfortable with Briseis; and that, when Theseus sneaked off in the night, Ariadne, after having wept for a decent period, managed in the ultimate to console herself with Theban Bacchus,–which I suppose to be a courteous method of stating that the daughter of Minos took to drink. So the forsaken lover has his choice of consolation–in wine or in that dearer danger, woman. I have tried both, Anastasia. And I tell you–“
He dropped her hands as though they had been embers. Lord Rokesle had come quietly into the hall.
“Why, what’s this?” Lord Rokesle demanded. “Simon, you aren’t making love to Lady Allonby, I hope? Fie, man! remember your cloth.”
Simon Orts wheeled–a different being, servile and cringing. “Your Lordship is pleased to be pleasant. Indeed, though, I fear that your ears must burn, sir, for I was but now expatiating upon the manifold kindnesses your Lordship has been so generous as to confer upon your unworthy friend. I was admiring Lady Allonby’s ruffle, sir,–Valenciennes, I take it, and very choice.”
Lord Rokesle laughed. “So I am to thank you for blowing my trumpet, am I?” said Lord Rokesle. “Well, you are not a bad fellow, Simon, so long as you are sober. And now be off with you to Holles–the rascal is dying, they tell me. My luck, Simon! He made up a cravat better than any one in the kingdom.”
“The ways of Providence are inscrutable,” Simon Orts considered; “and if Providence has in verity elected to chasten your Lordship, doubtless it shall be, as anciently in the case of Job the Patriarch, repaid by a recompense, by a thousandfold recompense.” And after a meaning glance toward Lady Allonby,–a glance that said: “I, too, have a tongue,”–he was mounting the stairway to the upper corridor when Lord Rokesle called to him.
“By my conscience! I forgot,” said Lord Rokesle; “don’t leave Stornoway without seeing me again, I shall want you by and by.”
Lord Rokesle sat down upon the long, high-backed bench, beside the fire, and facing Lady Allonby’s arm-chair.
Neither he nor Lady Allonby spoke for a while.
In a sombre way Lord Rokesle was a handsome man, and to-night, in brown and gold, very stately. His bearing savored faintly of the hidalgo; indeed, his mother was a foreign woman, cast ashore on Usk, from a wrecked Spanish vessel, and incontinently married by the despot of the island. For her, Death had delayed his advent unmercifully; but her reason survived the marriage by two years only, and there were those familiar with the late Lord Rokesle’s [Footnote: Born 1685, and accidentally killed by Sir Piers Sabiston in 1738; an accurate account of this notorious duellist, profligate, charlatan, and playwright is given in Ireson’s Letters.] peculiarities who considered that in this, at least, the crazed lady was fortunate. Among these gossips it was also esteemed a matter deserving comment that in the shipwrecks not infrequent about Usk the women sometimes survived, but the men never.
Now Lord Rokesle regarded Lady Allonby, the while that she displayed conspicuous interest in the play of the flames. But by and by, “O vulgarity!” said Lady Allonby. “Pray endeavor to look a little more cheerful. Positively, you are glaring at me like one of those disagreeable beggars one so often sees staring at bakery windows.”
He smiled. “Do you remember what the Frenchman wrote–et pain ne voyent qu’aux fenêtres? There is not an enormous difference between me and the tattered rascal of Chepe, for we both stare longingly at what we most desire. And were I minded to hunt the simile to the foot of the letter, I would liken your coquetry to the intervening window-pane,–not easily broken through, but very, very transparent, Anastasia.”
“You are not overwhelmingly polite,” she said, reflectively; “but, then, I suppose, living in the country is sure to damage a man’s manners. Still, my dear Orson, you smack too much of the forest.”
“Anastasia,” said Lord Rokesle, bending toward her, “will you always be thus cruel? Do you not understand that in this world you are the only thing I care for? You think me a boor; perhaps I am,–and yet it rests with you, my Lady, to make me what you will. For I love you, Anastasia–“
“Why, how delightful of you!” said she, languidly.
“It is not a matter for jesting. I tell you that I love you.” My Lord’s color was rising.
But Lady Allonby yawned. “Your honor’s most devoted,” she declared herself; “still, you need not boast of your affection as if falling in love with me were an uncommonly difficult achievement. That, too, is scarcely polite.”
“For the tenth time I ask you will you marry me?” said Lord Rokesle.
“Is’t only the tenth time? Dear me, it seems like the thousandth. Of course, I couldn’t think of it. Heavens, my Lord, how can you expect me to marry a man who glares at me like that? Positively you look as ferocious as the blackamoor in the tragedy,–the fellow who smothered his wife because she misplaced a handkerchief, you remember.”
Lord Rokesle had risen, and he paced the hall, as if fighting down resentment. “I am no Othello,” he said at last; “though, indeed, I think that the love I bear you is of a sort which rarely stirs our English blood. ‘Tis not for nothing I am half-Spaniard, I warn you, Anastasia, my love is a consuming blaze that will not pause for considerations of policy nor even of honor. And you madden me, Anastasia! To-day you hear my protestations with sighs and glances and faint denials; to-morrow you have only taunts for me. Sometimes, I think, ’tis hatred rather than love I bear you. Sometimes–” He clutched at his breast with a wild gesture. “I burn!” he said. “Woman, give me back a human heart in place of this flame you have kindled here, or I shall go mad! Last night I dreamed of hell, and of souls toasted on burning forks and fed with sops of bale-fire,–and you were there, Anastasia, where the flames leaped and curled like red-blazoned snakes about the poor damned. And I, too, was there. And through eternity I heard you cry to God in vain, O dear, wonderful, golden-haired woman! and we could see Him, somehow,–see Him, a great way off, with straight, white brows that frowned upon you pitilessly. And I was glad. For I knew then that I hated you. And even now, when I think I must go mad for love of you, I yet hate you with a fervor that shakes and thrills in every fibre of me. Oh, I burn, I burn!” he cried, with the same frantic clutching at his breast.
Lady Allonby had risen.
“Positively, I must ask you to open a window if you intend to continue in this strain. D’ye mean to suffocate me, my Lord, with your flames and your blazes and your brimstone and so on? You breathe conflagrations, like a devil in a pantomime. I had as soon converse with a piece of fireworks. So, if you’ll pardon me, I will go to my brother.”
At the sound of her high, crisp speech his frenzy fell from him like a mantle. “And you let me kiss you yesterday! Oh, I know you struggled, but you did not struggle very hard, did you, Anastasia?”
“Why, what a notion!” cried Lady Allonby; “as if a person should bother seriously one way or the other about the antics of an amorous clodhopper! Meanwhile, I repeat, my Lord, I wish to go to my brother.”
“Egad!” Lord Rokesle retorted, “that reminds me I have been notably remiss. I bear you a message from Harry. He had to-night a letter from Job Nangle, who, it seems, has a purchaser for Trevor’s Folly at last. The fellow is with our excellent Nangle at Peniston Friars, and offers liberal terms if the sale be instant. The chance was too promising to let slip, so Harry left the island an hour ago. It happened by a rare chance that some of my fellows were on the point of setting out for the mainland,–and he knew that he could safely entrust you to Mrs. Morfit’s duennaship, he said.”
“He should not have done so,” Lady Allonby observed, as if in a contention of mind. “He–I will go to Mrs. Morfit, then, to confess to her in frankness that, after all these rockets and bonfires–“
“Why, that’s the unfortunate part of the whole affair,” said Lord Rokesle. “The same boat brought Sabina a letter which summoned her to the bedside of her husband, [Footnote: Archibald Morfit, M.P. for Salop, and in 1753 elected Speaker, which office he declined on account of ill-health. He was created a baronet in 1758 through the Duke of Ormskirk’s influence.] who, it appears, lies desperately ill at Kuyper Manor. It happened by a rare chance that some of my fellows were on the point of setting out for the mainland–from Heriz pier yonder, not from the end of the island whence Harry sailed,–so she and her maid embarked instanter. Of course, there was your brother here to play propriety, she said. And by the oddest misfortune in the world,” Lord Rokesle sighed, “I forgot to tell her that Harry Heleigh had left Usk a half-hour earlier. My memory is lamentably treacherous.”
But Lady Allonby had dropped all affectation. “You coward! You planned this!”
“Candidly, yes. Nangle is my agent as well as Harry’s, you may remember. I have any quantity of his letters, and of course an equal number of Archibald’s. So I spent the morning in my own apartments, Anastasia,–tracing letters against the window-pane, which was, I suppose, a childish recreation, but then what would you have? As you very justly observe, country life invariably coarsens a man’s tastes; and accordingly, as you may now recall, I actually declined a game of écarté with you in order to indulge in these little forgeries. Decidedly, my dear, you must train your husband’s imagination for superior flights–when you are Lady Rokesle.”
She was staring at him as though he had been a portent. “I am alone,” she said. “Alone–in this place–with you! Alone! you devil!”
“Your epithets increase in vigor. Just now I was only a clodhopper. Well, I can but repeat that it rests with you to make me what you will. Though, indeed, you are to all intent alone upon Usk, and upon Usk there are many devils. There are ten of them on guard yonder, by the way, in case your brother should return inopportunely, though that’s scarcely probable. Obedient devils, you observe, Anastasia,–devils who exert and check their deviltry as I bid ’em, for they esteem me Lucifer’s lieutenant. And I grant the present situation is an outrage to propriety, yet the evil is not incurable. Lady Allonby may not, if she value her reputation, pass to-night at Stornoway; but here am I, all willingness, and upstairs is the parson. Believe me, Anastasia, the most vinegarish prude could never object to Lady Rokesle’s spending to-night at Stornoway.”
“Let me think, let me think!” Lady Allonby said, and her hands plucked now at her hair, now at her dress. She appeared dazed. “I can’t think!” she wailed on a sudden. “I am afraid. I–O Vincent, Vincent, you cannot do this thing! I trusted you, Vincent. I know I let you make love to me, and I relished having you make love to me. Women are like that. But I cannot marry you, Vincent. There is a man, yonder in England, whom I love. He does not care for me any more,–he is in love with my step-daughter. That is very amusing, is it not, Vincent? Some day I may be his mother-in-law. Why don’t you laugh, Vincent? Come, let us both laugh–first at this and then at the jest you have just played on me. Do you know, for an instant, I believed you were in earnest? But Harry went to sleep over the cards, didn’t he? And Mrs. Morfit has gone to bed with one of her usual headaches? Of course; and you thought you would retaliate upon me for teasing you. You were quite right, ‘Twas an excellent jest. Now let us laugh at it. Laugh, Vincent! Oh!” she said now, more shrilly, “for the love of God, laugh, laugh!–or I shall go mad!”
But Lord Rokesle was a man of ice, “Matrimony is a serious matter, Anastasia; ’tis not becoming in those who are about to enter it to exhibit undue levity. I wonder what’s keeping Simon?”
“Simon Orts!” she said, in a half-whisper. Then she came toward Lord Rokesle, smiling. “Why, of course, I teased you, Vincent, but there was never any hard feeling, was there? And you really wish me to marry you? Well, we must see, Vincent. But, as you say, matrimony is a serious matter. D’ye know you say very sensible things, Vincent?–not at all like those silly fops yonder in London. I dare say you and I would be very happy together. But you wouldn’t have any respect for me if I married you on a sudden like this, would you? Of course not. So you will let me consider it. Come to me a month from now, say,–is that too long to wait? Well, I think ’tis too long myself. Say a week, then. I must have my wedding-finery, you comprehend. We women are such vain creatures–not big and brave and sensible like you men. See, for example, how much bigger your hand is than mine–mine’s quite lost in it, isn’t it? So–since I am only a vain, chattering, helpless female thing,–you are going to indulge me and let me go up to London for some new clothes, aren’t you, Vincent? Of course you will; and we will be married in a week. But you will let me go to London first, won’t you?–away from this dreadful place, away–I didn’t mean that. I suppose it is a very agreeable place when you get accustomed to it. And ’tis only for clothes–Oh, I swear it is only for clothes, Vincent! And you said you would–yes, only a moment ago you distinctly said you would let me go. ‘Tis not as if I were not coming back–who said I would not come back? Of course I will. But you must give me time, Vincent dear,–you must, you must, I tell you! O God!” she sobbed, and flung from her the loathed hand she was fondling, “it’s no use!”
“No,” said Lord Rokesle, rather sadly. “I am not Samson, nor are you Delilah to cajole me. It’s of no use, Anastasia. I would have preferred that you came to me voluntarily, but since you cannot, I mean to take you unwilling. Simon,” he called, loudly, “does that rascal intend to spin out his dying interminably? Charon’s waiting, man.”
From above, “Coming, my Lord,” said Simon Orts.
The Vicar of Heriz Magna descended the stairway with deliberation. His eyes twitched from the sobbing woman to Lord Rokesle, and then back again, in that furtive way Orts had of glancing about a room, without moving his head; he seemed to lie in ambush under his gross brows; and whatever his thoughts may have been, he gave them no utterance.
“Simon,” said Lord Rokesle, “Lady Allonby is about to make me the happiest of men. Have you a prayer-book about you, Master Parson?–for here’s a loving couple desirous of entering the blessed state of matrimony.”
“The match is somewhat of the suddenest,” said Simon Orts. “But I have known these impromptu marriages to turn out very happily–very happily, indeed.” he repeated, rubbing his hands together, and smiling horribly. “I gather that Mr. Heleigh will not grace the ceremony with his presence?”
They understood each other, these two. Lord Rokesle grinned, and in a few words told the ecclesiastic of the trick which had insured the absence of the other guests; and Simon Orts also grinned, but respectfully,–the grin, of the true lackey wearing his master’s emotions like his master’s clothes, at second-hand.
“A very pretty stratagem,” said Simon Orts; “unconventional, I must confess, but it is proverbially known that all’s fair in love.”
At this Lady Allonby came to him, catching his hand. “There is only you, Simon. Oh, there is no hope in that lustful devil yonder. But you are not all base, Simon. You are a man,–ah, God! if I were a man I would rip out that devil’s heart–his defiled and infamous heart! I would trample upon it, I would feed it to dogs–!” She paused. Her impotent fury was jerking at every muscle, was choking her. “But I am only a woman. Simon, you used to love me. You cannot have forgotten, Simon. Oh, haven’t you any pity on a woman? Remember, Simon–remember how happy we were! Don’t you remember how the night-jars used to call to one another when we sat on moonlit evenings under the elm-tree? And d’ye remember the cottage we planned, Simon?–where we were going to live on bread and cheese and kisses? And how we quarrelled because I wanted to train vines over it? You said the rooms would be too dark. You said–oh, Simon, Simon! if only I had gone to live with you in that little cottage we planned and never builded!” Lady Allonby was at his feet now. She fawned upon him in somewhat the manner of a spaniel expectant of a thrashing.
The Vicar of Heriz Magna dispassionately ran over the leaves of his prayer-book, till he had found the marriage service, and then closed the book, his forefinger marking the place. Lord Rokesle stood apart, and with a sly and meditative smile observed them.
“Your plea is a remarkable one,” said Simon Orts. “As I understand it, you appeal to me to meddle in your affairs on the ground that you once made a fool of me. I think the obligation is largely optional. I remember quite clearly the incidents to which you refer; and it shames even an old sot like me to think that I was ever so utterly at the mercy of a good-for-nothing jilt. I remember every vow you ever made to me, Anastasia, and I know they were all lies. I remember every kiss, every glance, every caress–all lies, Anastasia! And gad! the only emotion it rouses in me is wonder as to why my worthy patron here should want to marry you. Of course you are wealthy, but, personally, I would not have you for double the money. I must ask you to rise, Lady Rokesle.–Pardon me if I somewhat anticipate your title.”
Lady Allonby stumbled to her feet. “Is there no manhood in the world?” she asked, with a puzzled voice. “Has neither of you ever heard of manhood, though but as distantly as men hear summer thunder? Had neither of you a woman for a mother–a woman, as I am–or a father who was not–O God!–not as you are?”
“These rhetorical passages,” said Lord Rokesle, “while very elegantly expressed, are scarcely to the point. So you and Simon went a-philandering once? Egad, that lends quite a touch of romance to the affair. But despatch, Parson Simon,–your lady’s for your betters now.”
“Dearly beloved,–” said Simon Orts.
“Simon, you are not all base. I am helpless, Simon, utterly helpless. There was a Simon once would not have seen me weep. There was a Simon–“
“–we are gathered together here in the sight of God–“
“You cannot do it, Simon,–do I not know you to the marrow? Remember–not me–not the vain folly of my girlhood!–but do you remember the man you have been, Simon Orts!” Fiercely Lady Allonby caught him by the shoulder. “For you do remember! You do remember, don’t you, Simon?”
The Vicar stared at her. “The man I have been,” said Simon Orts, “yes!–the man I have been!” Something clicked in his throat with sharp distinctness.
“Upon my word,” said Lord Rokesle, yawning, “this getting married appears to be an uncommonly tedious business.”
Then Simon Orts laid aside his prayer-book and said: “I cannot do it, my Lord. The woman’s right.”
She clapped her hands to her breast, and stood thus, reeling upon her feet. You would have thought her in the crisis of some physical agony; immediately she breathed again, deeply but with a flinching inhalation, as though the contact of the air scorched her lungs, and, swaying, fell. It was the Vicar who caught her as she fell.
“I entreat your pardon?” said Lord Rokesle, and without study of Lady Allonby’s condition. This was men’s business now, and over it Rokesle’s brow began to pucker.
Simon Orts bore Lady Allonby to the settie. He passed behind it to arrange a cushion under her head, with an awkward, grudging tenderness; and then rose to face Lord Rokesle across the disordered pink fripperies.
“The woman’s right, my Lord. There is such a thing as manhood. Manhood!” Simon Orts repeated, with a sort of wonder; “why, I might have boasted it once. Then came this cuddling bitch to trick me into a fool’s paradise–to trick me into utter happiness, till Stephen Allonby, a marquis’ son, clapped eyes on her and whistled,–and within the moment she had flung me aside. May God forgive me, I forgot I was His servant then! I set out to go to the devil, but I went farther; for I went to you, Vincent Floyer. You gave me bread when I was starving,–but ’twas at a price. Ay, the price was that I dance attendance on you, to aid and applaud your knaveries, to be your pander, your lackey, your confederate,–that I puff out, in effect, the last spark of manhood in my sot’s body. Oh, I am indeed beholden to you two! to her for making me a sot, and to you for making me a lackey. But I will save her from you, Vincent Floyer. Not for her sake”–Orts looked down upon the prostrate woman and snarled. “Christ, no! But I’ll do it for the sake of the boy I have been, since I owe that boy some reparation. I have ruined his nimble body, I have dulled the wits he gloried in, I have made his name a foul thing that honesty spits out of her mouth; but, if God yet reigns in heaven, I cleanse that name to-night!”
“Oh, bless me,” Lord Rokesle observed; “I begin to fear these heroics are contagious. Possibly I, too, shall begin to rant in a moment. Meanwhile, as I understand it, you decline to perform the ceremony. I have had to warn you before this, Simon, that you mustn’t take too much gin when I am apt to need you. You are very pitifully drunk, man. So you defy me and my evil courses! You defy me!” Rokesle laughed, genially, for the notion amused him. “Wine is a mocker, Simon. But come, despatch, Parson Tosspot, and let’s have no more of these lofty sentiments.”
“I cannot do it. I–O my Lord, my Lord! You wouldn’t kill an unarmed man!” Simon Orts whined, with a sudden alteration of tone; for Lord Rokesle had composedly drawn his sword, and its point was now not far from the Vicar’s breast.
“I trust that I shall not be compelled to. Egad, it is a very ludicrous business when the bridegroom is forced to hold a sword to the parson’s bosom all during the ceremony; but a ceremony we must have, Simon, for Lady Allonby’s jointure is considerable. Otherwise–Harkee, my man, don’t play the fool! there are my fellows yonder, any one of whom would twist your neck at a word from me. And do you think I would boggle at a word? Gad, Simon, I believed you knew me better!”
The Vicar of Heriz Magna kept silence for an instant; his eyes were twitching about the hall, in that stealthy way of his. Finally, “It is no use,” said he. “A poor knave cannot afford the luxury of honesty. My life is not a valuable one, perhaps, but even vermin have an aversion to death. I resume my lackeyship, Lord Rokesle. Perhaps ’twas only the gin. Perhaps–In any event, I am once more at your service. And as guaranty of this I warn you that you are exhibiting in the affair scant forethought. Mr. Heleigh is but three miles distant. If he, by any chance, get wind of this business, Denstroude will find a boat for him readily enough–ay, and men, too, now that the Colonel is at feud with you. Many of your people visit the mainland every night, and in their cups the inhabitants of Usk are not taciturn. An idle word spoken over an inn-table may bring an armed company thundering about your gates. You should have set sentinels, my Lord.”
“I have already done so,” Rokesle said; “there are ten of ’em yonder. Still there is something in what you say. We will make this affair certain.”
Lord Rokesle crossed the hall to the foot of the stairway and struck thrice upon the gong hanging there. Presently the door leading to the corridor was opened, and a man came into the hall.
“Punshon,” said Lord Rokesle, “have any boats left the island to-night?”
“No, my Lord.”
“You will see that none do. Also, no man is to leave Stornoway to-night, either for Heriz Magna or the mainland; and nobody is to enter Stornoway. Do you understand, Punshon?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“If you will pardon me,” said Simon Orts, with a grin, “I have an appointment to-night. You’d not have me break faith with a lady?”
“You are a lecherous rascal, Simon. But do as you are bid and I indulge you. I am not afraid of your going to Harry Heleigh–after performing the ceremony. Nay, my lad, for you are thereby particeps criminis. You will pass Mr. Orts, Punshon, to the embraces of his whore. Nobody else.”
Simon Orts waved his hand toward Lady Allonby. “‘Twere only kindness to warn Mr. Punshon there may be some disturbance shortly. A lamentation or so.”
At this Lord Rokesle clapped him upon the shoulder and heartily laughed. “That’s the old Simon–always on the alert. Punshon, no one is to enter this wing of the castle, on any pretext–no one, you understand. Whatever noises you may hear, you will pay no attention. Now go.”
He went toward Lady Allonby and took her hand. “Come, Anastasia!” said he. “Hold, she has really swooned! Why, what the devil, Simon–!”
Simon Orts had flung the gong into the fire. “She will be sounding that when she comes to,” said Simon Orts. “You don’t want a rumpus fit to vex the dead yonder in the Chapel.” Simon Orts stood before the fire, turning the leaves of his prayer-book. He seemed to have difficulty in finding again the marriage service. You heard the outer door of the corridor closing, heard chains dragged ponderously, the heavy falling of a bolt. Orts dropped the book and, springing into the arm-chair, wrested Aluric Floyer’s sword from its fastening. “Tricked, tricked!” said Simon Orts. “You were always a fool, Vincent Floyer.”
Lord Rokesle blinked at him, as if dazzled by unexpected light. “What d’ye mean?”
“I have the honor to repeat–you are a fool, I did not know the place was guarded–you told me. I needed privacy; by your orders no one is to enter here to-night. I needed a sword–you had it hanging here, ready for the first comer. Oh, beyond doubt, you are a fool, Vincent Floyer!” Standing in the arm-chair, Simon Orts bowed fantastically, and then leaped to the ground with the agility of an imp.
“You have tricked me neatly,” Lord Rokesle conceded, and his tone did not lack honest admiration. “By gad, I have even given them orders to pass you–after you have murdered me! Exceedingly clever, Simon,–but one thing you overlooked. You are very far from my match at fencing. So I shall presently kill you. And afterward, ceremony or no ceremony, the woman’s mine.”
“I am not convinced of that,” the Vicar observed. “‘Tis true I am no swordsman; but there are behind my sword forces superior to any which skill might muster. The sword of your fathers fights against you, my Lord–against you that are their disgrace. They loved honor and truth; you betrayed honor, you knew not truth. They revered womanhood; you reverence nothing, and your life smirches your mother’s memory. Ah, believe me, they all fight against you! Can you not see them, my Lord?–yonder at my back?–old Aluric Floyer and all those honest gentlemen, whose blood now blushes in your body–ay, blushes to be confined in a vessel so ignoble! Their armament fights against you, a host of gallant phantoms. And my hatred, too, fights against you–the cur’s bitter hatred for the mastering hand it dares not bite. I dare now. You made me your pander, you slew my manhood; in return, body and soul, I demolish you. Even my hatred for that woman fights against you; she robbed me of my honor–is it not a tragical revenge to save her honor, to hold it in my hand, mine, to dispose of as I elect,–and then fling it to her as a thing contemptible? Between you, you have ruined me; but it is Simon’s hour to-night. I shame you both, and past the reach of thought, for presently I shall take your life–in the high-tide of your iniquity, praise God!–and presently I shall give my life for hers. Ah, I a fey, my Lord! You are a dead man, Vincent Floyer, for the powers of good and the powers of evil alike contend against you.”
He spoke rather sadly than otherwise; and there was a vague trouble in Lord Rokesle’s face, though he shook his head impatiently. “These are fine words to come from the dirtiest knave unhanged in England.”
“Great ends may be attained by petty instruments, my Lord; a filthy turtle quenched the genius of Æschylus, and they were only common soldiers who shed the blood that redeemed the world.”
Lord Rokesle pished at this. Yet he was strangely unruffled. He saluted with quietude, as equal to equal, and the two crossed blades.
Simon Orts fought clumsily, but his encroachment was unwavering. From the first he pressed his opponent with a contained resolution. The Vicar was as a man fighting in a dream–with a drugged obstinacy, unswerving. Lord Rokesle had wounded him in the arm, but Orts did not seem aware of this. He crowded upon his master. Now there were little beads of sweat on Lord Rokesle’s brow, and his tongue protruded from his mouth, licking at it ravenously. Step by step Lord Rokesle drew back; there was no withstanding this dumb fanatic, who did not know when he was wounded, who scarcely parried attack.
“Even on earth you shall have a taste of hell,” said Simon Orts. “There is terror in your eyes, my worthy patron.”
Lord Rokesle flung up his arms as the sword dug into his breast. “I am afraid! I am afraid!” he wailed. Then he coughed, and seemed with his straining hands to push a great weight from him as the blood frothed about his lips and nostrils. “O Simon, I am afraid! Help me, Simon!”
Old custom spoke there. Followed silence, and presently the empty body sprawled upon the floor. Vincent Floyer had done with it.
Simon Orts knelt, abstractedly wiping Aluric Floyer’s sword upon the corner of a rug. It may be that he derived comfort from this manual employment which necessitated attention without demanding that it concentrate his mind; it may have enabled him to forget how solitary the place was, how viciously his garments rustled when he moved: the fact is certain that he cleaned the sword, over and over again.
Then a scraping of silks made him wince. Turning, he found Lady Allonby half-erect upon the settle. She stared about her with a kind of Infantile wonder; her glance swept, over Lord Rokesle’s body, without to all appearance finding it an object of remarkable interest. “Is he dead?”
“Yes,” said Simon Orts; “get up!” His voice had a rasp; she might from his tone have been a refractory dog. But Lady Allonby obeyed him.
“We are in a devil of a mess,” said Simon Orts; “yet I see a way out of it–if you can keep your head. Can you?”
“I am past fear,” she said, dully. “I drown, Simon, in a sea of feathers. I can get no foothold, I clutch nothing that is steadfast, and I smother. I have been like this in dreams. I am very tired, Simon.”
He took her hand, collectedly appraising her pulse. He put his own hand upon her bared bosom, and felt the beat of her heart. “No,” said Simon Orts, “you are not afraid. Now, listen: You lack time to drown in a sea of feathers. You are upon Usk, among men who differ from beasts by being a thought more devilish, and from devils by being a little more bestial; it is my opinion that the earlier you get away the better. Punshon has orders to pass Simon Orts. Very well; put on this.”
He caught up his long cloak and wrapped it about her. Lady Allonby stood rigid. But immediately he frowned and removed the garment from her shoulders.
“That won’t do. Your skirts are too big. Take ’em off.”
Submissively she did so, and presently stood before him in her under-petticoat.
“You cut just now a very ludicrous figure, Anastasia. I dare assert that the nobleman who formerly inhabited yonder carcass would still be its tenant if he had known how greatly the beauty he went mad for was beholden to the haberdasher and the mantua-maker, and quite possibly the chemist. Persicos odi, Anastasia; ’tis a humiliating reflection that the hair of a dead woman artfully disposed about a living head should have the power to set men squabbling, and murder be at times engendered in a paint-pot. However, wrap yourself in the cloak. Now turn up the collar,–so. Now pull down the hatbrim. Um–a–pretty well. Chance favors us unblushingly. You may thank your stars it is a rainy night and that I am a little man. You detest little men, don’t you? Yes, I remember.” Simon Orts now gave his orders, emphasizing each with a not over-clean forefinger. “When I open this door you will go out into the corridor. Punshon or one of the others will be on guard at the farther end. Pay no attention to him. There is only one light–on the left. Keep to the right, in the shadow. Stagger as you go; if you can manage a hiccough, the imitation will be all the more lifelike. Punshon will expect something of the sort, and he will not trouble you, for he knows that when I am fuddled I am quarrelsome. ‘Tis a diverting world, Anastasia, wherein, you now perceive, habitual drunkenness and an unbridled temper may sometimes prove commendable,–as they do to-night, when they aid persecuted innocence!” Here Simon Orts gave an unpleasant laugh.
“But I do not understand–“
“You understand very little except coquetry and the proper disposition of a ruffle. Yet this is simple. My horse is tied at the postern. Mount–astride, mind. You know the way to the Vicarage, so does the horse; you will find that posturing half-brother of mine at the Vicarage. Tell Frank what has happened. Tell him to row you to the mainland; tell him to conduct you to Colonel Denstroude’s. Then you must shift for yourself; but Denstroude is a gentleman, and Denstroude would protect Beelzebub if he came to him a fugitive from Vincent Floyer. Now do you understand?”
“Yes,” said Lady Allonby, and seated herself before the fire,–“yes, I understand. I am to slip away in the darkness and leave you here to answer for Lord Rokesle’s death–to those devils. La, do you really think me as base as that?”
Now Simon Orts was kneeling at her side. The black cloak enveloped her from head to foot, and the turned-up collar screened her sunny hair; in the shadow of the broad hatbrim you could see only her eyes, resplendent and defiant, and in them the reflection of the vaulting flames. “You would stay, Anastasia?”
“I will not purchase my life at the cost of yours. I will be indebted to you for nothing, Simon Orts.”
The Vicar chuckled. “Nor appeared Less than archangel ruined,” he said. “No, faith, not a whit less! We are much of a piece, Anastasia. Do you know–if affairs had fallen out differently–I think I might have been a man and you a woman? As it is–” Kneeling still, his glance devoured her. “Yes, you would stay. And you comprehend what staying signifies. ‘Tis pride, your damnable pride, that moves you,–but I rejoice, for it proves you a brave woman. Courage, at least, you possess, and this is the first virtue I have discovered in you for a long while. However, there is no necessity for your staying. The men of Usk will not hurt Simon Orts.”
She was very eager to believe this. Lady Allonby had found the world a pleasant place since her widowhood. “They will not kill you? You swear it, Simon?”
“Why, the man was their tyrant. They obeyed him–yes, through fear. I am their deliverer, Anastasia. But if they found a woman here–a woman not ill-looking–” Simon Orts snapped his fingers. “Faith, I leave you to conjecture,” said he.
They had both risen, he smiling, the woman in a turbulence of hope and terror. “Swear to it, Simon!”
“Anastasia, were affairs as you suppose them, I would have a curt while to live. Were affairs as you suppose them, I would stand now at the threshold of eternity. And I swear to you, upon my soul’s salvation, that I have nothing to fear. Nothing will ever hurt me any more.”
“No, you would not dare to lie in the moment of death,” she said, after a considerable pause. “I believe you. I will go. Good-bye, Simon.” Lady Allonby went toward the door opening into the corridor, but turned there and came back to him. “I shall never see you again. And, la, I think that I rather hate you than otherwise, for you remind me of things I would willingly forget. But, Simon, I wish we had gone to live in that little cottage we planned, and quarrelled over, and never built! I think we would have been happy.”
Simon Orts raised her hand to his lips. “Yes,” said he, “we would have been happy. I would have been by this a man doing a man’s work in the world, and you a matron, grizzling, perhaps, but rich in content, and in love opulent. As it is, you have your flatterers, your gossip, and your cards; I have my gin. Good-bye, Anastasia.”
“Simon, why have you done–this?”
The Vicar of Heriz Magna flung out his hands in a gesture of impotence. “I dare confess now that which even to myself I have never dared confess. I suppose the truth of it is that I have loved you all my life.”
“I am sorry. I am not worth it, Simon.”
“No; you are immeasurably far from being worth it. But one does not justify these fancies by mathematics. Good-bye, Anastasia.”
Holding the door ajar, the Vicar of Heriz Magna heard a horse’s hoofs slap their leisurely way down the hillside. Presently the sound died and he turned back into the hall.
“A brave woman, that! Oh, a trifling, shallow-hearted jilt, but a brave creature!
“I had to lie to her. She would have stayed else. And perhaps it is true that, in reality, I have loved her all my life,–or in any event, have hankered after the pink-and-white flesh of her as any gentleman might. Pschutt! a pox on all lechery says the dying man,–since it is now necessary to put that strapping yellow-haired trollop out of your mind, Simon Orts–yes, after all these years, to put her quite out of your mind. Faith, she might wheedle me now to her heart’s content, and my pulse would never budge; for I must devote what trivial time there is to hoping they will kill me quickly. He was their god, that man!”
Simon Orts went toward the dead body, looking down into the distorted face. “And I, too, loved him. Yes, such as he was, he was the only friend I had. And I think he liked me,” Simon Orts said aloud, with a touch of shy pride. “Yes, and you trusted me, didn’t you, Vincent? Wait for me, then, my Lord,–I shall not be long. And now I’ll serve you faithfully. I had to play the man’s part, you know,–you mustn’t grudge old Simon his one hour of manhood. You wouldn’t, I think. And in any event, I shall be with you presently, and you can cuff me for it if you like–just as you used to do.”
He covered the dead face with his handkerchief, but in the instant he drew it away. “No, not this coarse cambric. You were too much of a fop, Vincent. I will use yours–the finest linen, my Lord. You see old Simon knows your tastes.”
He drew himself erect exultantly.
“They will come at dawn to kill me; but I have had my hour. God, the man I might have been! And now–well, perhaps He would not be offended if I said a bit of a prayer for Vincent.”
So the Vicar of Heriz Magna knelt beside the flesh that had been Lord Rokesle, and there they found him in the morning.