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Something more than two centuries ago--and just two years after Queen Mary's death--when William the Third had been eight years on the throne, and the pendulum of public sentiment, accelerated by the brusqueness of his manners and no longer retarded by his consort's good nature, was swinging surely and steadily to the Stuart side, the discovery of a Jacobite plot to assassinate the King on his return from hunting set back the balance with a shock which endured to the end of his reign.
It was the King's habit to go on Saturdays in his coach to Richmond Park, returning to Kensington in the evening; and the scheme, laid bare, was to fall upon him in a narrow lane leading from the river to Turnham Green, where the miry nature of the ground rendered his progress slow. For complicity in this plot nine persons, differing much in rank, from Sir John Fenwick, who had been Colonel of King Charles's Life Guards, to Keyes, a private in the Blues, suffered on the scaffold; and for a time all England rang with it. The informers, Porter and Goodman, were viewed with an abhorrence hardly less than that which the plot itself excited in honest circles; and in this odium a man shared in some small degree, who, though he had not been a party to the plot, had stooped, under the stress of confinement and the fear of death, to give some evidence.
This was James Hunt, the Owler, or smuggler, a name forgotten now, famous then. For years his house, in a lonely situation in the dreariest part of Romney Marsh, had been the favourite house of call for Jacobites bound for St. Germains or returning thence. At regular intervals, if wind and tide served, a packet-boat ran between it and the French coast, and between whiles the hiding-places in his rambling old house, which had been originally contrived to hold runlets of Nantz and bales of Lyons, lodged men whose faces were known in the Mall and St. James's, and whose titles were not less real because for the nonce they wore them, with their stars, in their pockets. Naturally, in the general break-up consequent on the discovery of the Turnham Green plot, these practices came to light, the lonely house in the marshes was entered, and Hunt was himself seized and conveyed to London under a strong guard. There he lay in the Marshalsea until, by discovering the names of certain persons who had used his hiding-places, he was permitted to ransom his life.
When all was told he was of no further use to the Government. He was released, and one fine morning in September, '96, he walked out of his prison a morose and lonely man. Resolute and daring by nature, but accustomed to live in the open, with the sound of the lark in his ears, it was only in the solitude of his cell that he had fallen below himself. Now, under the open sky, he paid the penalty in a load of shame and remorse. His feet carried him to the Jacobite house of call in Maiden Lane, whither he had directed his nag to be sent; but on his arrival at the inn his eye told him that the place was changed. The ostler, who had been his slave, looked askance at him, the landlord, once his obedient servant, turned his back. He was no longer Mr. Hunt, of Romney, but Hunt the Approver, Hunt the Evidence. Flinging down a crown and a curse he rode desperately out of the yard, and made haste to leave London behind him.
But in the country it was little better. At inns on the Dover road, where he had swaggered in old days the hero of a transparent mystery, and only less admired than the famous Mr. Birkenhead, the Jacobite post, whom even the Tower failed to confine--at these his reception was now cold and formal; and presently the man's heart and hopes went forward and settled hungrily on the two things left to him in this changed world, his home in the marshes and his girl. His heart cried home! The slighting looks of men who would have succumbed to a tithe of his temptations, would not reach him there; there--he had a reason for believing it--he would still read love and welcome in his child's eyes.
He was so far from having a turn for sentiment that the gibbet at Dartford, though he had lain down and risen up for weeks under the shadow of the gallows, caused him no qualms as he passed under it; nor the man who hung in chains upon it. But when he rode up to the tavern at the last stage short of Romney and saw Trot Eubank, the Romney apothecary, loitering before the house, he drove an oath through his closed teeth.
The man of drugs was too distant to hear it; nevertheless he smiled, and not pleasantly. The apothecary had red cheeks and a black wig, and a splayed face that promised heartiness. His small fishy eyes, however, with a cast in them that was next door to a squint, belied the promise. He came up to Hunt's stirrup and gave him joy of his freedom very loudly. "And you will find all well at home," he continued. "All well and hearty."
Hunt thanked him coldly, watered his horse, and drank a cup of ale with the landlord; who looked at him pitifully, as at a man once admirable and now fallen. Then he climbed into his saddle again and started briskly. But he had not ridden a hundred paces before Eubank, on his old white mare, was at his side. "My way is your way," said he.
Hunt grunted, and wondered how long that had been so; for New Romney, where the apothecary lived, lay to the right. But he said nothing.
"They have quartered three soldiers on you," Eubank continued, squinting out of the corner of one eye to mark the effect of his words, "and an officer."
The smuggler checked his horse. "As if I had not done enough for them!" he cried bitterly.
"Umph!" said the apothecary, drily, and with meaning. "The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth! Eh, Mr. Hunt?"
He spoke below his breath, but Hunt caught the words and turned on him, his face blazing with rage. "You dirty tar-mixer!" he cried, flinging caution to the winds. "What do you mean? And how dare you ride out to meet me? If you have anything to say, say it, and begone."
"Softly, softly, Mr. Hunt," Eubank answered, his face a shade paler. "You know what I mean. There was a name wanting in your evidence--in your deposition. A name lacking, d'ye take me?"
"Ay, Mr. Fayle's. And Mr. Fayle is missing, too. But I don't think," the apothecary continued cunningly, his eyes gazing far apart, "that he is in France. I think that he is nearer Romney. And that is why they have quartered three soldiers on you."
"You villain!" Hunt cried, his voice shaking with passion. "This is your work." And he raised his heavy riding-whip, and made as if he would ride the other down. The two were alone on the marsh.
But quick as thought Eubank lugged a pistol from his holster and levelled it.
"Softly, Mr. Hunt," he said. "Softly! I warn you, if anything happens to me, it is known who is with me. Besides, I mean you no harm."
"And no good," said the smuggler, between his teeth. "What do you want?"
"What I have always wanted," the other answered. "Is there any harm in wanting a wife?" he added, a whine in his voice.
"Yes, when she does not want you," Hunt retorted.
"She will want me--when the other is out of the way," the apothecary answered sullenly.
"Out of the way?"
"Ay; in France, or--there!"--and the apothecary nodded towards the gibbet on Dymchurch Flat, which they were just approaching. "It is for her to choose," he added softly. "This side or that!"
"If she takes me, Fayle may go hang, or cross the water, or as you please, so that he go far enough. But if she will have him----"
"Well?" Hunt said; for Eubank paused, squinting horribly.
"She will marry him there!" the apothecary answered, pointing to the gibbet.
"I know that he is here," Eubank continued, his voice low, "and he cannot escape me. She has bubbled the soldiers; they do not know him. And for aught I know he goes out and in, and no one is the wiser. And the game may be played as long as you please. But from to-day I am there."
"You!" Hunt cried.
"To be sure," Eubank answered, letting his ill-concealed triumph appear. "At the farm. I am the officer. Ah, would you? Mr. Hunt, back! Back, or I fire."
The smuggler, on the impulse of the moment, had gone near to striking him down; in face of the pistol and common-sense he lowered his hand, cursed him, and bade him keep his distance for the cur he was; and so with the width of the track between them the two rode on, like dogs ill-coupled, Eubank keeping a squinting watch on Hunt's movements, Hunt with his face hard set, and a gleam of fear in his eyes.
A little later he spied his daughter waiting and watching for him, on the dyke near the farm--a lissom, graceful figure, with wind-blown hair and skirts, visible half a mile away. Possibly he wished then that he had struck hard and once while the man and he were alone on the Marsh. But it was too late. She was there, and in a moment the meeting so long and tenderly anticipated was over, and the girl, gently disengaging herself with wet cheeks from his arms, turned to his companion.
"You may go, Mr. Eubank," she said austerely. "We do not need you. My father is at home now."
But the apothecary, cringing and smiling, faltered that he was--that he was coming to the house.
The words were barely audible, for his courage, not his malice, failed him under her eyes. At any rate she did not understand. "To our house?" she said.
"Yes," he answered, mouthing nervously, and looking his meanest, in his vain endeavour to appear at ease.
Still she did not comprehend, and she looked to her father for light. "Mr. Eubank is quartered on us," he said grimly.
And then for certain he wished that he had closed with the man while they were alone; and had taken the chance of what might follow, pistol or no pistol. For he saw the healthy brown of sun and wind fade from her cheeks, and her grey eyes dilate with sudden terror; and he read in these signs the perfect confirmation of the misgiving he had begun to entertain. He knew as certainly as if she had told him that Mr. Fayle, of Fawlcourt, was hidden at the farm. And what was worse, that Eubank, if he had eyes, could not fail to know it also.
It was a relief to all three when a soldier sauntered into sight, mooning up the path from the farm, and civilly greeting the owner, said something about drinking his health. No further words passed then between them, but all moved together towards the house, each avoiding the other's eyes. The threshold reached, there was a momentary pause, the girl looking full at the intruder with a flame of passion in her face, as if she defied him to enter. But Eubank's eyes were lowered, he saw nothing, and with a smirk, and a poor show of making apology, he went in.
Hunt thought of force, and weighed the odds in his mind. But fresh from prison, under the ban of Government, and with a wholesome dread of the Marshalsea, he shrank from the attempt. And matters, once they were in the house, went so quietly, that he began to fancy that he had been mistaken. For one thing, the girl sought no private word with him, was obtrusively public, and once gripped the nettle danger in a way that startled him. It was at the evening meal. Eubank, ill at ease and suspicious, was stealing glances this way and that, his one eye on the settle that screened the entrance, the other on the staircase door that led to the upper floor. On a sudden she rose as if she must speak or choke. "Mr. Eubank," she cried, "you are here to hunt down Mr. Fayle! You think that he is in my room! My room! I read it in your eyes, you cur! You traitor!"
"Hush!" Hunt said in warning. This was no open fight such as he had dared a score of times; and the malice in the man's face frightened him.
"But, I will speak!" she cried, fighting with her passion. "He thinks it, and he shall search! Go--go now I Leave your men here, sir, to watch, and do you see for yourself that he is not there! And then leave the house!"
He was not at all for going to search, and cringed and muttered an apology; but she would have him, and as good as forced him. Then, when he had searched as much as he pleased--and it was little, with her burning eyes watching him from the doorway--she brought him down again and bade him go. "Go!" she cried.
"I never thought that he was there," he said slyly, smiling at the floor. And of course he did not go, and she could not make him; and the desperate attempt failed as hopelessly as her father could have told her it would.
The whole position was strange. The tall clock ticked in the corner of the great warm panelled kitchen; where the fire shone cosily on delft and pewter, and on the china dogs and Nankin idols that skippers, bringing cargoes of Hollands and Mechlin, had given to the Owler's daughter. Through the open window the belated bees could be heard among the hollyhocks, and a frugal swallow hawked to and fro for flies. The quiet that falls on a farm in the evening lay on everything.
But within was a difference. There, to say nothing of the soldiers, who, irritated by Eubank's supervision, hung about the open windows listening sullenly, the three never ceased to watch and observe one another, ready to spring, ready to fall back at a sign. Of all, perhaps, Hunt was most mystified. He knew that in the search which had attended his arrest the premises had been ransacked from roof to cellar; that every locker and hiding-place had been laid open and discovered; and that apart from this Eubank, who had played jackal in many of his adventures, was familiar with all, even the most secret. Where, then, was Fayle?
He learned only too soon. When it came to closing time, "Your woman is not in," said one of the soldiers; and he looked at the girl.
"Woman?" said Eubank, with meaning; "I have seen no woman."
"She was here at midday," the man answered, without suspicion.
Perhaps the girl had been expecting it, for she did not blench, though Eubank's eyes were on her face. "Then leave the door on the latch," she said; and she added, with fine contempt, "If a wench has a lover you need not tell the town!"
She went upstairs with that, and Hunt, who was tired and mystified and in a poor humour--things at home promising to turn out as ill as matters abroad, went to his den off the kitchen and shut himself in to sulk. For the use of Eubank and the soldiers two pallets had been laid in a room on the farther side of the kitchen if they chose to use them; but with the door on the latch Hunt had a shrewd suspicion that they would sit up and watch. They soon fell silent, however, and though the remembrance of the events which had happened since he last lay there kept him long waking, and in miserable mood, he heard neither voices nor movements. For himself he was sick at heart thinking of the girl and her lover, and furious at the treachery of the hound who pursued her. Nevertheless, Nature would have its way, and he was in the act of sinking into slumber when a cry which pierced the night and was followed by a discord of voices, raised in sharp contention, brought him startled to his feet.
He had little doubt that Eubank and his men had seized Fayle in the act of entering the house; and enraged, yet bitterly aware of his impotence, he huddled on some clothes, and in a twinkling was out of his room. But in the kitchen, of which the outer door stood wide open to the night, was only Eubank; who, without his wig, and with a pistol poised in his uncertain hand, had entrenched himself in the angle between the settle and the hearth. The smuggler, seeing no one else, vented his wrath on him.
"You dog!" he cried. "Are honest men to be kept awake by such as you? What does this mean?"
"It means that we have got your fine son-in-law!" the other retorted with venom. "And we are going to keep him. So your distance, if you please. I know you of old, and if you come within a yard of me I will put a ball into you. Now mark that!"
"You have got him?" said Hunt, restraining himself with difficulty. "Where?"
"They are bringing him," Eubank answered. "You will see him soon enough." And then, as one of the soldiers appeared in the doorway, "Have you got him?" the apothecary cried eagerly.
"Ay, ay," the man said.
"But where is he?"
"Hughes and Lort are bringing him."
"Are they enough?" Eubank cried anxiously.
"Plenty," the soldier answered with some scorn. "He made no fight."
"I'll lay you caught him under her window?" Eubank returned, licking his lips.
The man nodded; then stood twiddling his cap, and looking ashamed of himself. For Kate Hunt had just appeared at the open staircase door, and thence, raised a step above the floor, with a hand on each post, was taking in the scene.
Eubank--who did not see her--chuckled. "I thought so," he said, with an evil grin; and between his bald head and his vile triumph he looked as ugly as sin itself. "I knew he would be there. She did not deceive me, with her door on the latch!"
Pistol, or no pistol, Hunt nearly fell upon him. The owler only refrained because he became aware of his daughter's presence, and to his great bewilderment read in her face not horror or misery, but a strange passionate relief. He turned from her--they were bringing in the prisoner. It was no surprise to him when Eubank, with a howl of consternation, stepped back almost into the fire. "You fools!" the apothecary cried, all his malignity appearing in his face, "that is not the man! That is not----"
"Mr. Fayle?" said the prisoner coolly. "No, it is not. And yet, Mr. Eubank, I think you know me. Or, you should know me. You have seen me often enough."
The apothecary stared, started, drew a deep breath of relief, and was himself again. "Yes, I know you--Mr. Birkenhead," he said. "I have lost Fayle, but I have won a thousand guineas. Lads!" he continued, raising his voice almost to a scream, "we have shot at the pigeon and killed the crow! We have killed the crow! It is Birkenhead, the Post--the Jacobite Post! And there is a thousand guineas on his head!"
Hunt gathered himself together. "Mr. Birkenhead," he said, "we are two to four, but say the word, and----"
"I'll say a word for you presently," the Jacobite answered with a quick look of acknowledgment, "where we are going. But first, to show Mr. Eubank that he is more lucky than he thinks, and has caught his pigeon as well as his crow. Fayle," he continued, raising his voice, "come in!"
A gawky, long-limbed woman stalked in, smiling grimly at Eubank, but with the tail of his eye on the girl in the doorway. Eubank drew back, and the colour faded from his cheeks. He breathed hard, and the pistol in his hand wavered. "Look here," he began. "Let us talk about this."
But the Jacobite raised his hand for silence. "Dewhurst!" he cried.
A tall, swarthy seaman, with a scarred cheek and a knitted nightcap, stepped briskly in, a cutlass in his hand.
Another entered, who but for the scar might have been his twin.
"Bonaventure! And Mr. Eubank," Birkenhead continued, lowering his voice and speaking with treacherous civility, "let me warn you not to be too free with that pistol, for these good fellows will assuredly put you on the fire if any one is hurt. Is Bonaventure there? Yes. Moyreau? Yes. Valentin? I am sure that you understand me, Mr. Eubank. You will be careful."
But the warning was needless. As man after man filed in and formed up before him--all armed to the teeth, and all wild, reckless fellows in sea-boots, nightcaps, and tarry jerkins--Eubank's craven heart melted within him. Setting his pistol down on the settle, he stood speechless, sallow, shaking with fear, such fear as almost stays the heart, yet leaves the brain working--leaves the man created in God's image to be dragged out to his death, writhing and shrieking--a sight to haunt brave men's memories.
He was spared that, yet came near to it. "Mr. Eubank," said Birkenhead sternly, "you will come with me. I have a sloop at the old landing-place, and before daylight we shall be in Calais roads. There is a cell in the Bastille waiting for you, and I shall see you in it. I'll hold you a hostage for Bernardi."
The wretch shrieked and fell on his knees and grovelled, crying for mercy; but Birkenhead only answered, "Get up, man, get up; or must my men prick you?" And then to the others, "Mr. Hunt," he continued, "you too must come with us. But have no fear. Believe me you will be better there than here, and shall be well reported. Mr. Fayle and your daughter will come, of course. Tie the others and leave them. And hurry, men, hurry. Bring your money, Mr. Hunt; King James has none too much of that. I can give you ten minutes to pack, and then we must be moving lest they take the alarm in Romney."
As a fact they took no alarm in Romney. But a shepherd, belated that night with a sick ewe, saw a long line of lanthorns go bobbing across the marsh to the sea, and went home and told his neighbours that Hunt was at his old tricks again. One of them, knowing that the soldiers were there, laughed in his face and went to see, and learning the truth carried the story into Romney, whence it spread to London and brought down a mob of horse and foot and messengers, and from one end of England to the other the descent and the audacity of it were a nine days' wonder. However, by that time the nest was cold and the birds long flown, and Birkenhead, with one more plume in his crest, was preening his feathers at St. Germains.
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