Read CHAPTER V - MINE ENEMY’S ROOF-TREE of Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, free online book, by Charles Major, on ReadCentral.com.

I rode down the Wye to Rowsley, and by the will of my horse rather than by any intention of my own took the road up through Lathkil Dale. I had determined if possible to reach the city of Chester, and thence to ride down into Wales, hoping to find on the rough Welsh coast a fishing boat or a smuggler’s craft that would carry me to France. In truth, I cared little whether I went to the Tower or to France, since in either case I felt that I had looked my last upon Haddon Hall, and had spoken farewell to the only person in all the world for whom I really cared. My ride from Haddon gave me time for deliberate thought, and I fully agreed with myself upon two propositions. First, I became thoroughly conscious of my real feeling toward Madge, and secondly, I was convinced that her kindness and her peculiar attitude toward me when I parted from her were but the promptings of a tender heart stirred by pity for my unfortunate situation, rather than what I thought when I said farewell to her. The sweet Wye and the beautiful Lathkil whispered to me as I rode beside their banks, but in their murmurings I heard only the music of her voice. The sun shone brightly, but its blessed light only served to remind me of the beautiful girl whom I had left in darkness. The light were worthless to me if I could not share it with her. What a mooning lout was I!

All my life I had been a philosopher, and as I rode from Haddon, beneath all my gloominess there ran a current of amusement which brought to my lips an ill-formed, half-born laugh when I thought of the plight and condition in which I, by candid self-communion, found myself. Five years before that time I had left France, and had cast behind me all the fair possibilities for noble achievement which were offered to me in that land, that I might follow the fortunes of a woman whom I thought I loved. Before my exile from her side I had begun to fear that my idol was but a thing of stone; and now that I had learned to know myself, and to see her as she really was, I realized that I had been worshipping naught but clay for lo, these many years. There was only this consolation in the thought for me: every man at some time in his life is a fool made such by a woman. It is given to but few men to have for their fool-maker the rightful queen of three kingdoms. All that was left to me of my life of devotion was a shame-faced pride in the quality of my fool-maker. “Then,” thought I, “I have at last turned to be my own fool-maker.” But I suppose it had been written in the book of fate that I should ride from Haddon a lovelorn youth of thirty-five, and I certainly was fulfilling my destiny to the letter.

I continued to ride up the Lathkil until I came to a fork in the road. One branch led to the northwest, the other toward the southwest. I was at a loss which direction to take, and I left the choice to my horse, in whose wisdom and judgement I had more confidence than in my own. My horse, refusing the responsibility, stopped. So there we stood like an equestrian statue arguing with itself until I saw a horseman riding toward me from the direction of Overhaddon. When he approached I recognized Sir John Manners. He looked as woebegone as I felt, and I could not help laughing at the pair of us, for I knew that his trouble was akin to mine. The pain of love is ludicrous to all save those who feel it. Even to them it is laughable in others. A love-full heart has no room for that sort of charity which pities for kinship’s sake.

“What is the trouble with you, Sir John, that you look so downcast?” said I, offering my hand.

“Ah,” he answered, forcing a poor look of cheerfulness into his face, “Sir Malcolm, I am glad to see you. Do I look downcast?”

“As forlorn as a lover who has missed seeing his sweetheart,” I responded, guessing the cause of Sir John’s despondency.

“I have no sweetheart, therefore missing her could not have made me downcast,” he replied.

“So you really did miss her?” I queried. “She was detained at Haddon Hall, Sir John, to bid me farewell.”

“I do not understand ” began Sir John, growing cold in his bearing.

“I understand quite well,” I answered. “Dorothy told me all to-day. You need keep nothing from me. The golden heart brought her into trouble, and made mischief for me of which I cannot see the end. I will tell you the story while we ride. I am seeking my way to Chester, that I may, if possible, sail for France. This fork in the road has brought me to a standstill, and my horse refuses to decide which route we shall take. Perhaps you will direct us.”

“Gladly. The road to the southwest the one I shall take is the most direct route to Chester. But tell me, how comes it that you are leaving Haddon Hall? I thought you had gone there to marry-” He stopped speaking, and a smile stole into his eyes.

“Let us ride forward together, and I will tell you about it,” said I.

While we travelled I told Sir John the circumstances of my departure from Haddon Hall, concealing nothing save that which touched Madge Stanley. I then spoke of my dangerous position in England, and told him of my great desire to reach my mother’s people in France.

“You will find difficulty and danger in escaping to France at this time,” said Sir John, “the guard at the ports is very strong and strict, and your greatest risk will be at the moment when you try to embark without a passport.”

“That is true,” I responded; “but I know of nothing else that I can do.”

“Come with me to Rutland Castle,” said Sir John. “You may there find refuge until such time as you can go to France. I will gladly furnish you money which you may repay at your pleasure, and I may soon be able to procure a passport for you.”

I thanked him, but said I did not see my way clear to accept his kind offer.

“You are unknown in the neighborhood of Rutland,” he continued, “and you may easily remain incognito.” Although his offer was greatly to my liking, I suggested several objections, chief among which was the distaste Lord Rutland might feel toward one of my name. I would not, of course, consent that my identity should be concealed from him. But to be brief an almost impossible achievement for me, it seems Sir John assured me of his father’s welcome, and it was arranged between us that I should take my baptismal name, Francois de Lorraine, and passing for a French gentleman on a visit to England, should go to Rutland with my friend. So it happened through the strange workings of fate that I found help and refuge under my enemy’s roof-tree.

Kind old Lord Rutland welcomed me, as his son had foretold, and I was convinced ere I had passed an hour under his roof that the feud between him and Sir George was of the latter’s brewing.

The happenings in Haddon Hall while I lived at Rutland I knew, of course, only by the mouth of others; but for convenience in telling I shall speak of them as if I had seen and heard all that took place. I may now say once for all that I shall take that liberty throughout this entire history.

On the morning of the day after my departure from Haddon, Jennie Faxton went to visit Dorothy and gave her a piece of information, small in itself, but large in its effect upon that ardent young lady. Will Fletcher, the arrow-maker at Overhaddon, had observed Dorothy’s movements in connection with Manners; and although Fletcher did not know who Sir John was, that fact added to his curiosity and righteous indignation.

“It do be right that some one should tell the King of the Peak as how his daughter is carrying on with a young man who does come here every day or two to meet her, and I do intend to tell Sir George if she put not a stop to it,” said Fletcher to some of his gossips in Yulegrave churchyard one Sunday afternoon.

Dorothy notified John, Jennie being the messenger, of Will’s observations, visual and verbal, and designated another place for meeting, the gate east of Bowling Green Hill. This gate was part of a wall on the east side of the Haddon estates adjoining the lands of the house of Devonshire which lay to the eastward. It was a secluded spot in the heart of the forest half a mile distant from Haddon Hall.

Sir George, for a fortnight or more after my disappearance, enforced his decree of imprisonment against Dorothy, and she, being unable to leave the Hall, could not go to Bowling Green Gate to meet Sir John. Before I had learned of the new trysting-place John had ridden thither several evenings to meet Dorothy, but had found only Jennie bearing her mistress’s excuses. I supposed his journeyings had been to Overhaddon; but I did not press his confidence, nor did he give it.

Sir George’s treatment of Dorothy had taught her that the citadel of her father’s wrath could be stormed only by gentleness, and an opportunity was soon presented in which she used that effective engine of feminine warfare to her great advantage.

As I have told you, Sir George was very rich. No man, either noble or gentle, in Derbyshire or in any of the adjoining counties, possessed so great an estate or so beautiful a hall as did he. In France we would have called Haddon Hall a grand chateau.

Sir George’s deceased wife had been a sister to the Earl of Derby, who lived at the time of which I am now writing. The earl had a son, James, who was heir to the title and to the estates of his father. The son was a dissipated, rustic clown almost a simpleton. He had the vulgarity of a stable boy and the vices of a courtier. His associates were chosen from the ranks of gamesters, ruffians, and tavern maids. Still, he was a scion of one of the greatest families of England’s nobility.

After Sir George’s trouble with Dorothy, growing out of his desire that I should wed her, the King of the Peak had begun to feel that in his beautiful daughter he had upon his hands a commodity that might at any time cause him trouble. He therefore determined to marry her to some eligible gentleman as quickly as possible, and to place the heavy responsibility of managing her in the hands of a husband. The stubborn violence of Sir George’s nature, the rough side of which had never before been shown to Dorothy, in her became adroit wilfulness of a quality that no masculine mind may compass. But her life had been so entirely undisturbed by opposing influences that her father, firm in the belief that no one in his household would dare to thwart his will, had remained in dangerous ignorance of the latent trouble which pervaded his daughter from the soles of her shapely feet to the top of her glory-crowned head.

Sir George, in casting about for a son-in-law, had hit upon the heir to the house of Derby as a suitable match for his child, and had entered into an alliance offensive and defensive with the earl against the common enemy, Dorothy. The two fathers had partly agreed that the heir to Derby should wed the heiress of Haddon. The heir, although he had never seen his cousin except when she was a plain, unattractive girl, was entirely willing for the match, but the heiress well, she had not been consulted, and everybody connected with the affair instinctively knew there would be trouble in that quarter. Sir George, however, had determined that Dorothy should do her part in case the contract of marriage should be agreed upon between the heads of the houses. He had fully resolved to assert the majesty of the law vested in him as a father and to compel Dorothy to do his bidding, if there were efficacy in force and chastisement. At the time when Sir George spoke to Dorothy about the Derby marriage, she had been a prisoner for a fortnight or more, and had learned that her only hope against her father lay in cunning. So she wept, and begged for time in which to consider the answer she would give to Lord Derby’s request. She begged for two months, or even one month, in which to bring herself to accede to her father’s commands.

“You have always been so kind and good to me, father, that I shall try to obey if you and the earl eventually agree upon terms,” she said tearfully, having no intention whatever of trying to do anything but disobey.

“Try!” stormed Sir George. “Try to obey me! By God, girl, I say you shall obey!”

“Oh, father, I am so young. I have not seen my cousin for years. I do not want to leave you, and I have never thought twice of any man. Do not drive me from you.”

Sir George, eager to crush in the outset any disposition to oppose his will, grew violent and threatened his daughter with dire punishment if she were not docile and obedient.

Then said rare Dorothy:

“It would indeed be a great match.” Greater than ever will happen, she thought. “I should be a countess.” She strutted across the room with head up and with dilating nostrils. The truth was, she desired to gain her liberty once more that she might go to John, and was ready to promise anything to achieve that end. “What sort of a countess would I make, father?”

“A glorious countess, Doll, a glorious countess,” said her father, laughing. “You are a good girl to obey me so readily.”

“Oh, but I have not obeyed you yet,” returned Dorothy, fearing that her father might be suspicious of a too ready acquiescence.

“But you will obey me,” answered Sir George, half in command and half in entreaty.

“There are not many girls who would refuse the coronet of a countess.” She then seated herself upon her father’s knee and kissed him, while Sir George laughed softly over his easy victory.

Blessed is the man who does not know when he is beaten.

Seeing her father’s kindly humor, Dorothy said:

“Father, do you still wish me to remain a prisoner in my rooms?”

“If you promise to be a good, obedient daughter,” returned Sir George, “you shall have your liberty.”

“I have always been that, father, and I am too old to learn otherwise,” answered this girl, whose father had taught her deception by his violence. You may drive men, but you cannot drive any woman who is worth possessing. You may for a time think you drive her, but in the end she will have her way.

Dorothy’s first act of obedience after regaining liberty was to send a letter to Manners by the hand of Jennie Faxton.

John received the letter in the evening, and all next day he passed the time whistling, singing, and looking now and again at his horologue. He walked about the castle like a happy wolf in a pen. He did not tell me there was a project on foot, with Dorothy as the objective, but I knew it, and waited with some impatience for the outcome.

Long before the appointed time, which was sunset, John galloped forth for Bowling Green Gate with joy and anticipation in his heart and pain in his conscience. As he rode, he resolved again and again that the interview toward which he was hastening should be the last he would have with Dorothy. But when he pictured the girl to himself, and thought upon her marvellous beauty and infinite winsomeness, his conscience was drowned in his longing, and he resolved that he would postpone resolving until the morrow.

John hitched his horse near the gate and stood looking between the massive iron bars toward Haddon Hall, whose turrets could be seen through the leafless boughs of the trees. The sun was sinking perilously low, thought John, and with each moment his heart also sank, while his good resolutions showed the flimsy fibre of their fabric and were rent asunder by the fear that she might not come. As the moments dragged on and she did not come, a hundred alarms tormented him. First among these was a dread that she might have made resolves such as had sprung up so plenteously in him, and that she might have been strong enough to act upon them and to remain at home. But he was mistaken in the girl. Such resolutions as he had been making and breaking had never come to her at all. The difference between the man and the woman was this: he resolved in his mind not to see her and failed in keeping to his resolution; while she resolved in her heart to see him resolved that nothing in heaven or earth or the other place could keep her from seeing him, and succeeded in carrying out her resolution. The intuitive resolve, the one that does not know it is a resolution, is the sort before which obstacles fall like corn before the sickle.

After John had waited a weary time, the form of the girl appeared above the crest of the hill. She was holding up the skirt of her gown, and glided over the earth so rapidly that she appeared to be running. Beat! beat! oh, heart of John, if there is aught in womanhood to make you throb; if there is aught in infinite grace and winsomeness; if there is aught in perfect harmony of color and form and movement; if there is aught of beauty, in God’s power to create that can set you pulsing, beat! for the fairest creature of His hand is hastening to greet you. The wind had dishevelled her hair and it was blowing in fluffy curls of golden red about her face. Her cheeks were slightly flushed with joy and exercise, her red lips were parted, and her eyes but I am wasting words. As for John’s heart it almost smothered him with its beating. He had never before supposed that he could experience such violent throbbing within his breast and live. But at last she was at the gate, in all her exquisite beauty and winsomeness, and something must be done to make the heart conform to the usages of good society. She, too, was in trouble with her breathing, but John thought that her trouble was owing to exertion. However that may have been, nothing in heaven or earth was ever so beautiful, so radiant, so graceful, or so fair as this girl who had come to give herself to John. It seems that I cannot take myself away from the attractive theme.

“Ah, Sir John, you did come,” said the girl, joyously.

“Yes,” John succeeded in replying, after an effort, “and you I thank you, gracious lady, for coming. I do not deserve ” the heart again asserted itself, and Dorothy stood by the gate with downcast eyes, waiting to learn what it was that John did not deserve. She thought he deserved everything good.

“I fear I have caused you fatigue,” said John, again thinking, and with good reason, that he was a fool.

The English language, which he had always supposed to be his mother tongue, had deserted him as if it were his step-mother. After all, the difficulty, as John subsequently said, was that Dorothy’s beauty had deprived him of the power to think. He could only see. He was entirely disorganized by a girl whom he could have carried away in his arms.

“I feel no fatigue,” replied Dorothy.

“I feared that in climbing the hill you had lost your breath,” answered disorganized John.

“So I did,” she returned. Then she gave a great sigh and said, “Now I am all right again.”

All right? So is the morning sun, so is the arching rainbow, and so are the flitting lights of the north in midwinter. All are “all right” because God made them, as He made Dorothy, perfect, each after its kind.

A long, uneasy pause ensued. Dorothy felt the embarrassing silence less than John, and could have helped him greatly had she wished to do so. But she had made the advances at their former meetings, and as she had told me, she “had done a great deal more than her part in going to meet him.” Therefore she determined that he should do his own wooing thenceforward. She had graciously given him all the opportunity he had any right to ask.

While journeying to Bowling Green Gate, John had formulated many true and beautiful sentiments of a personal nature which he intended expressing to Dorothy; but when the opportunity came for him to speak, the weather, his horse, Dorothy’s mare Dolcy, the queens of England and Scotland were the only subjects on which he could induce his tongue to perform, even moderately well.

Dorothy listened attentively while John on the opposite side of the gate discoursed limpingly on the above-named themes; and although in former interviews she had found those topics quite interesting, upon that occasion she had come to Bowling Green Gate to listen to something else and was piqued not to hear it. After ten or fifteen minutes she said demurely:

“I may not remain here longer. I shall be missed at the Hall. I regained my liberty but yesterday, and father will be suspicious of me during the next few days. I must be watchful and must have a care of my behavior.”

John summoned his wits and might have spoken his mind freely had he not feared to say too much. Despite Dorothy’s witchery, honor, conscience, and prudence still bore weight with him, and they all dictated that he should cling to the shreds of his resolution and not allow matters to go too far between him and this fascinating girl. He was much in love with her; but Dorothy had reached at a bound a height to which he was still climbing. Soon John, also, was to reach the pinnacle whence honor, conscience, and prudence were to be banished.

“I fear I must now leave you,” said Dorothy, as darkness began to gather.

“I hope I may soon see you again,” said John.

“Sometime I will see you if if I can,” she answered with downcast eyes. “It is seldom I can leave the Hall alone, but I shall try to come here at sunset some future day.” John’s silence upon a certain theme had given offence.

“I cannot tell you how greatly I thank you,” cried John.

“I will say adieu,” said Dorothy, as she offered him her hand through the bars of the gate. John raised the hand gallantly to his lips, and when she had withdrawn it there seemed no reason for her to remain. But she stood for a moment hesitatingly. Then she stooped to reach into her pocket while she daintily lifted the skirt of her gown with the other hand and from the pocket drew forth a great iron key.

“I brought this key, thinking that you might wish to unlock the gate and come to to this side. I had great difficulty in taking it from the forester’s closet, where it has been hanging for a hundred years or more.”

She showed John the key, returned it to her pocket, made a courtesy, and moved slowly away, walking backward.

“Mistress Vernon,” cried John, “I beg you to let me have the key.”

“It is too late, now,” said the girl, with downcast eyes. “Darkness is rapidly falling, and I must return to the Hall.”

John began to climb the gate, but she stopped him. He had thrown away his opportunity.

“Please do not follow me, Sir John,” said she, still moving backward. “I must not remain longer.”

“Only for one moment,” pleaded John.

“No,” the girl responded, “I I may, perhaps, bring the key when I come again. I am glad, Sir John, that you came to meet me this evening.” She courtesied, and then hurried away toward Haddon Hall. Twice she looked backward and waved her hand, and John stood watching her through the bars till her form was lost to view beneath the crest of Bowling Green Hill.

“’I brought this key, thinking that you might wish to unlock the gate and come to this side,’” muttered John, quoting the girl’s words. “Compared with you, John Manners, there is no other fool in this world.” Then meditatively: “I wonder if she feels toward me as I feel toward her? Surely she does. What other reason could bring her here to meet me unless she is a brazen, wanton creature who is for every man.” Then came a jealous thought that hurt him like the piercing of a knife. It lasted but a moment, however, and he continued muttering to himself: “If she loves me and will be my wife, I will I will ... In God’s name what will I do? If I were to marry her, old Vernon would kill her, and I I should kill my father.”

Then John mounted his horse and rode homeward the unhappiest happy man in England. He had made perilous strides toward that pinnacle sans honor, sans caution, sans conscience, sans everything but love.

That evening while we were walking on the battlements, smoking, John told me of his interview with Dorothy and extolled her beauty, grace, and winsomeness which, in truth, as you know, were matchless. But when he spoke of “her sweet, shy modesty,” I came near to laughing in his face.

“Did she not write a letter asking you to meet her?” I asked.

“Why y-e-s,” returned John.

“And,” I continued, “has she not from the first sought you?”

“It almost seems to be so,” answered John, “but notwithstanding the fact that one might say might call that one might feel that her conduct is that it might be you know, well it might be called by some persons not knowing all the facts in the case, immodest I hate to use the word with reference to her yet it does not appear to me to have been at all immodest in Mistress Vernon, and, Sir Malcolm, I should be deeply offended were any of my friends to intimate ”

“Now, John,” I returned, laughing at him, “you could not, if you wished, make me quarrel with you; and if you desire it, I will freely avow my firm belief in the fact that my cousin Dorothy is the flower of modesty. Does that better suit you?”

I could easily see that my bantering words did not suit him at all; but I laughed at him, and he could not find it in his heart to show his ill-feeling.

“I will not quarrel with you,” he returned; “but in plain words, I do not like the tone in which you speak of her. It hurts me, and I do not believe you would wilfully give me pain.”

“Indeed, I would not,” I answered seriously.

“Mistress Vernon’s conduct toward me,” John continued, “has been gracious. There has been no immodesty nor boldness in it.”

I laughed again and said: “I make my humble apologies to her Majesty, Queen Dorothy. But in all earnestness, Sir John, you are right: Dorothy is modest and pure. As for her conduct toward you, there is a royal quality about beauty such as my cousin possesses which gives an air of graciousness to acts that in a plainer girl would seem bold. Beauty, like royalty, has its own prerogatives.”

For a fortnight after the adventures just related, John, in pursuance of his oft-repeated resolution not to see Dorothy, rode every evening to Bowling Green Gate; but during that time he failed to see her, and the resolutions, with each failure, became weaker and fewer.

One evening, after many disappointments, John came to my room bearing in his hands a letter which he said Jennie Faxton had delivered to him at Bowling Green Gate.

“Mistress Vernon,” said John, “and Lady Madge Stanley will ride to Derby-town to-morrow. They will go in the Haddon Hall coach, and Dawson will drive. Mistress Vernon writes to me thus:

“’To sir John Manners:

“’My good wishes and my kind greeting. Lady Madge Stanley, my good aunt, Lady Crawford, and myself do intend journeying to Derby-town to-morrow. My aunt, Lady Crawford, is slightly ill, and although I should much regret to see her sickness grow greater, yet if ill she must be, I do hope that her worst day will be upon the morrow, in which case she could not accompany Lady Madge and me. I shall nurse my good aunt carefully this day, and shall importune her to take plentifully of physic that she may quickly recover her health after to-morrow. Should a gentleman ask of Will Dawson, who will be in the tap-room of the Royal Arms at eleven o’clock of the morning, Dawson will be glad to inform the gentleman concerning Lady Crawford’s health. Let us hope that the physic will cure Lady Crawford by the day after to-morrow at furthest. The said Will Dawson may be trusted. With great respect,

Dorothy Vernon.’”

“I suppose the gentleman will be solicitous concerning Lady Crawford’s health to-morrow morning at eleven o’clock,” said I.

“The gentleman is now solicitous concerning Lady Crawford’s health,” answered John, laughingly. “Was there ever a lady more fair and gracious than Mistress Vernon?”

I smiled with a superior air at John’s weakness, being, as you know, entirely free from his complaint myself, and John continued:

“Perhaps you would call Mistress Dorothy bold for sending me this letter?”

“It is redolent with shyness,” I answered. “But would you really wish poor Lady Crawford to be ill that you might witness Mistress Dorothy’s modesty?”

“Please don’t jest on that subject,” said John, seriously. “I would wish anything, I fear, that would bring me an opportunity to see her, to look upon her face, and to hear her voice. For her I believe I would sacrifice every one who is dear to me. One day she shall be mine mine at whatever cost if she will be. If she will be. Ah, there is the rub! If she will be. I dare not hope for that.”

“I think,” said I, “that you really have some little cause to hope.”

“You speak in the same tone again. Malcolm, you do not understand her. She might love me to the extent that I sometimes hope; but her father and mine would never consent to our union, and she, I fear, could not be induced to marry me under those conditions. Do not put the hope into my heart.”

“You only now said she should be yours some day,” I answered.

“So she shall,” returned John, “so she shall.”

“But Lady Madge is to be with her to-morrow,” said I, my own heart beating with an ardent wish and a new-born hope, “and you may be unable, after all, to see Mistress Dorothy.”

“That is true,” replied John. “I do not know how she will arrange matters, but I have faith in her ingenuity.”

Well might he have faith, for Dorothy was possessed of that sort of a will which usually finds a way.

“If you wish me to go with you to Derby-town, I will do so. Perhaps I may be able to entertain Lady Madge while you have a word with Dorothy. What think you of the plan?” I asked.

“If you will go with me, Malcolm, I shall thank you with all my heart.”

And so it was agreed between us that we should both go to Derby-town for the purpose of inquiring about Lady Crawford’s health, though for me the expedition was full of hazard.