Read CHAPTER X of Nancy Stair A Novel , free online book, by Elinor Macartney Lane, on ReadCentral.com.

NANCY VISITS HIS GRACE OF BORTHWICKE

At the time of which I write John Montrose, Duke of Borthwicke, Ardvilarchan, and Drumblaine, was the most noticed man in the Three Kingdoms, and held by many to be the greatest scoundrel in the politics of Europe. He was a picturesque and stately devil, tall, clean shaven, with fine features and damnable light blue eyes with a baffling gleam in them. He had a singular grace in the use of his body, especially in the movement of his hands, which were markedly expressive and attractive; and whether drawn to him or not, one could deny neither his potency nor his distinction of bearing, which was one of race as well as breeding. The first view I ever had of him was in Parliament House, where I noted on the instant the magnificent carriage of his head and chest, his extraordinary pallor, and the strange eyes, reflecting the light from without rather than revealing anything within.

In London, Edinburgh, and Dublin, the tide of gossip overflowed with his name and carried in its current tales of his greatness, his cruelty, his lawless loves and his quick forgettings. It was libeled against him that he had magnetic power over all with whom he came in contact, bending them to his will by the sheer dominance of his presence. There was, I recall, a story rife that upon my Lord Thurlow’s opposition to the bill for the restoration of the forfeited estates becoming known, it was the Duke of Borthwicke who was sent to treat with him concerning it, and immediately after this visit the bill passed the House of Lords with small opposition.

It was whispered as well that Pitt himself was afraid of his Grace of Borthwicke, and was no match for the man, who had a peculiar power by reason of being unhampered either by truth or precedent. Blake, who was the duke’s secretary in ’84, told me at the club one night, that on one occasion his grace had needed some statistics to clinch an argument. After investigation the statistics were found to disprove his point. Upon this being presented to him, he remarked dryly, “Alter the statistics.”

Ugly tales were abroad in all classes of society concerning his life in India, his conduct in the Highlands, and his moral idiocy, but he held them under with a strong hand, and more than one hinted that he had eyes for the premiership.

Dressed for the evening, the duke was alone in his sitting-room, attending to his private correspondence, when he heard a rap at the door.

“Enter,” he called, in a careless voice, thinking it one of his men.

Nancy lifted the latch and came forward into the room.

“The Duke of Borthwicke will pardon my intrusion, will he not?” she asked, “as well as my lack of courtesy? I was afraid his grace might refuse to see me if I were announced to him in the ordinary manner.”

Montrose had been writing at an oaken table, on either side of which was a bracket of lights. At the sound of the voice he turned, and, at the sight of Nancy, he rose and stood looking at her as though she were an apparition.

Many times since, in her description of this interview, she told me that she received from him an impression as though he stretched forth his hand and touched her. She said, as well, that the erectness of his body and the fulness of his chest gave him the air of a conqueror who was invincible, while the pallor of his face and the glitter of his eye set him still further apart from anything usual.

It seemed a full minute that they stood thus taking notes openly of each other before she spoke again.

“I am Nancy Stair,” she said quietly.

“Ah,” the duke returned, coming forward with a smile, “the verse-maker?”

“I make verses,” Nancy answered.

“Which have given me more pleasure than I have the power to tell,” the duke responded with a bow.

“It is praise indeed, coming from John Montrose, who is no mean poet himself,” Nancy said with a smile.

“I,” the duke returned, “am no poet, Mistress Stair; but I have a ‘spunk enough of glee’ to enjoy the gift of others.”

“One might think who overheard us, my lord duke,” Nancy broke in with a laugh and the light of humor in her eyes by which she could make another smile at any time, “that we were collegians having a critical discussion. It was not concerning poetry that I came to you to-night, your grace. It was to ask a favor.”

“Pitcairn said you would come,” the duke answered her blandly, taking out his watch and looking at it with a smile. “He said you would come before you went to the Duchess of Gordon’s rout. He even named the exact time within a quarter of an hour.”

“Mr. Pitcairn is a very wonderful man,” Nancy returned.

“He’s a poor hand at description,” responded the duke, with a heat of admiration for her in his tone.

“It depends somewhat,” said Nancy, “upon what he has the describing of.” And in this speech the way women know how to belittle an enemy is clearly to be seen. “He can describe a barn to a farmer, a road to a surveyor, or a church to an architect, so that they fall into an ecstasy of admiration of his parts. When it comes to a woman it’s a different matter. Mr. Pitcairn doesn’t know a woman. He’s not, rightly speaking, a man. As Mr. Carmichael says, ‘He’s just a head.’”

“It’s a curious head,” the duke answers, “a curious head and a very clear one.”

“A clear head to prosecute; never to defend,” Nancy responded; “which leads me to the cause of my visit. I have come to ask for the pardon of Timothy Lapraik.”

The duke dropped his eyelids, and a strange light shone from under them.

“You compliment me, Mistress Stair, in thinking I have the power to undo that which was settled by the law of your country and a jury tried and true. I took no part in the affair; the prosecution was not mine; in a word, the thing is perhaps beyond my power, had I the desire to get him a pardon, which, however, I have not.”

All this time neither had made any motion toward sitting down, but stood regarding each other, alert and watchful. It was Nancy Stair who took the first move. Coming over to the duke she put one of her hands on his breast and stood looking up at him out of those gray eyes of whose power she was not unconscious.

“My lord,” she said, “I, who have had the handling of people much of my life, have learned to recognize power when I see it, and I see it in you. There’s just naught you can’t do that you set your mind to.”

None ever claimed that in his relation with women the duke was afflicted with Pitcairn’s trouble, and a blue heat came in his eye at her touch of him.

“You’re not afraid of me, Nancy Stair?”

She looked up at him from under her eyelids and laughed.

“Not the least bit in the world, your grace.”

“And ye think, mayhap, that just because ye’re a beautiful woman aye, the most beautiful woman I have ever seen that ye can come to me and ask favors, thinking that I shall expect nothing in return?”

“What I have heard of you would lead me far from such conclusion,” Nancy answered, with a smile.

He looked at her in silence, with an amused expression in his face.

“I like you,” he said at length, and a dare-devil look came into his eyes, a look which showed at once his strength and his weakness. “I like your fearlessness as well as your honesty. I can mate your frankness by my own. I have long desired to know what is said of me, and have a mind to make a compact with you, if you will. I hear lies on every side. They are the stuff of which my daily bread is baked. Come,” he cried, “a bargain between us. The naked truth which ye have heard concerning me in return for the pardon of Timothy Lapraik.”

“It’s a bargain between us, your grace.”

“There will be no slurring over, no soft adjustments?”

“You need have no fear. If you knew me better you would not ask that,” Nancy answered with a smile. “You shall have the unsoftened truth, so far as it is mine to speak.”

The duke motioned her to a seat by the fire and stood opposite to her, changing the candles on the shelf above to throw the light full upon her face as she sat before the fire.

“’Tis an awkward position you put me in,” Nancy laughed.

“’Tis grace itself compared to the awkwardness of mine,” the duke returned with a dry smile.

“The first thing I ever heard of you,” she began, “was that you were known by common repute as the ‘Lying Duke of the Highlands.’”

The duke bowed.

“I have heard from high and low that you have neither the code of a gentleman nor the common honesty of business affairs. It is even argued that you have not the moral perception to see your own lack in such matters.”

The duke looked at her steadily for a moment again and his lips curled back into a smile.

“You are openly accused of thefts in India of defrauding the ignorant natives of their lands.”

The duke made a little outward motion with his hand, as though to intimate that these charges were already known to him.

“It is said and this seems to me one of the worst charges that you assail the names of those whose places you desire for yourself or your friends, under cover, and in ways impossible for them to circumvent.”

The duke shrugged his shoulders as if this charge were one of small moment.

“But ’tis of your treatment of women that the worst stories of you are abroad, and ’tis said that your conduct toward them is that of a brute rather than of a man. There is a tale of one woman, the wife of a baronet, who left her husband for you, and whom ye after deserted to poverty and disgrace.”

She paused a moment and turned to recapitulate.

“Liar,” she said.

The duke bowed slightly.

“Thief.”

The duke bent his head a bit lower.

“Defrauder, blackmailer, and betrayer of women.”

The duke rose and made a profound salutation, and Nancy regarded him with a smile.

“I do not think of any other thing,” she concluded; and then, as though there was still hope for him, “I have never heard your grace accused of open murder.”

“’Tis strange,” the duke answered her with a queer look. “I have enough of the artist in me to see that the open murder would have been finely climactic. There is but one of these charges that I desire to deny to you,” looking at the fire through his eyeglass as he spoke; “I don’t lie,” he said, adding, with the shadow of a smile, “I don’t have to. And may I ask, Mistress Stair, do you believe these things of me?”

Nancy rose and looked into the fire.

“I like you,” she answered.

“In spite of my crimes?”

“Because of your power,” she responded.

They stood for a moment regarding each other steadily before another word was spoken.

“Ah, my lord,” she said, “I must be going,” and there was a shade of regret in her voice, which Borthwicke was not the man to let pass unnoticed, “I have kept my word.”

“True,” the duke answered, “you have kept your word.”

“You will keep yours to me?” she asked, extending her hand.

“By this time to-morrow Lapraik shall be a free man,” the duke answered, holding the extended hand in his.

“Thank you,” she said, and another silence fell between them as they stood thus, nearer together, dominated by magnetic attraction so strong that a full minute passed unnoted by either.

“It is my turn to ask favors,” the duke said headily. “The rose in your breast.”

“Shall I fasten it on your coat?” she asked.

So for a moment more they stood almost touching each other, his breath moving the curls of her hair as she reached toward him.

“Good night,” he said, extending his hand again.

“Good night,” she said, putting hers into it.

“You have your people with you?”

“Yes.”

“It is better then I should not come down?”

“Much better,” she answered, after a second; and then, turning to him: “You are coming to the Duchess of Gordon’s?”

“I had intended to remain away till I saw you. What do you think I shall do now?” his grace asked.

“How should I know, my lord duke?” Nancy inquired, with a smile.

“What do you think I am going to do now?” he repeated with insistence.

“I think you will come to the Gordons’,” Nancy answered in a low voice.

“I may kiss your hand?” the duke asked; and, as he did so, the act having in it more of a caress than a salutation, “Believe me,” he said, “I could not stay away.”

After Nancy and Dandy had left us, Carmichael and I sat smoking, and by reason of the talk falling along some interesting lines we arrived at the Gordons’ long past the time set for our party to meet. Nearing the house we heard the music of the fiddles filling the air with glee and sadness, and saw the caddies darting hither and thither, the link-boys with their torches, and the flare of lights on the dazzling toilets of the ladies descending from their chairs and coaches. My own position in Edinburgh society was stated to me quite by accident, as I entered, by a group of young dandies at the ballroom door, who made way for me with a pronounced salute and whispered:

“’Tis her father.”

Jane Gordon welcomed me with a gay and genuine friendship, and as Sandy and I made our salutations to her I saw Nancy at some little distance from us, literally surrounded by fatuous cipher-faced youths, who stood in some awe before her misty beauty and reputed power. There was pride in me that the girl was mine, a pride which Sandy Carmichael shared with me, and as Hugh Pitcairn crossed the long room to salute her gravely but with marked respect, I saw that there was at least one emotion which they held in common.

Standing by the great window soon after my arrival, a bit removed from a group of talking persons to whom I was giving but scant attention, I became conscious that some one was addressing me, and turned to find the Duke of Borthwicke, his hand laid lightly on my shoulder, his countenance of baffling serenity, and his voice mellow and of a conciliating quality. He wore gray satin of an elegant finish, but neither embroidery nor jewels, and, notwithstanding his position and power, conveyed the impression in some adroit way, subtler than I can set forth, that he deprecated his temerity in addressing so austere a person as myself. I had seen women use this essence of flattery, but it was the first time I ever found it employed by a man.

“Will my Lord Stair allow me to introduce myself to him?” he inquired, with a smile, extending his hand. “I am John Montrose, and there are many reasons why we should determine to be good friends.”

“We are both Highland folk,” I answered.

“Which is one excellent reason,” he interrupted; “yet there are several more moving than that. Your father, Lord Stair, and mine were out together in the forty-fives, on which side I need scarcely mention; and again, your grandfather and mine both loved and fought for the beautiful Nancy Hamilton, and, but for the preference of the lady herself, she might have been my own grandmother. These things call for a friendly feeling between us, Lord Stair, but that which drives me forward most to your acquaintancy is the admiration I have for the writings of your daughter, Mistress Nancy, whose lines ring through my head more often than I care to tell, and whose poems have been upon my writing-table ever since they were published.”

In this pleasant way we fell to talk of Nancy, of her gifts, her beauty, her loving tenderness for all things, her strange up-bringing, her people on the Burnside; and to a doting father such as I was the time flew quickly by.

I noted at length that there was some stir in the circle around her, and watched her cross the room with her Grace of Gordon and Danvers Carmichael in attendance, to the musicians’ place in the great window.

I have wondered at times if folk who dwell on the temptations male creatures have think ever of those which come to women of great attractiveness to men. The thought came to me as Nancy took her place beside the harp and violins, which were to accompany her singing, and I sent a prayer to Heaven to keep my child unspotted from the world, uttering it none the less fervently because his Grace of Borthwicke, with lids veiling the fire of his eyes, was looking at her.

Twice she sang, her songs being of her own land, one of the highlands, with the perfume of the gorse and the heather in the lilt of it, and the second, by demand of Sandy, the gipsy song which had been handed down from woodland mother to woodland child for hundreds of years; a song which sent Nancy’s lawless blood to her cheeks and set her heart beating with an inherited remembrance of raids and sea-fights, and lawless loves; which made her eyes misty with tears and unawakened passion; the song which I had learned to dread, Marian’s song:

“Love that is Life,
Love that is Death,
Love that is mine

And as she finished, carried off her feet by her own feelings, she looked toward us for a moment; but it was neither upon me nor Danvers Carmichael that the look fell; for, as one who knows she will be understood, her glance turned to his Grace of Borthwicke, whose eyes told a tale so openly that he who ran might read. I was more disturbed by this occurrence than I cared to admit, and after the supper, when Nancy, attended still by Danvers Carmichael, came back to us, I was glad to hear her say that she wished to go home. His Grace of Borthwicke being still near us, it fell upon me to present Danvers Carmichael to him, an introduction which Dandy acknowledged by a perfunctory bow and scant courtesy, and the duke by turning his eyes for one second in Dandy’s direction and repeating his name as “McMichael” in the exasperating manner of one who neither knows nor cares who the person is who has been presented to him; and although at the time of the murder the lawyers tried to have it that the acquaintance between these two men was of London breeding, I can vouch for it, from my own knowledge and the testimony of Danvers Carmichael to me on our way home, that this was the first time he and the duke ever set eyes on each other.

In just the manner in which I have set it forth, in the compass of a few days, the three most important factors in Nancy’s life came to the working out of it, Robert Burns, though but by book; Danvers Carmichael, a gentleman; and that splendid devil, John Montrose, Duke of Borthwicke, Ardvilarchan and Drumblaine in the Muirs.